Читать онлайн "Last Man To Die" автора Dobbs Michael - RuLit - Страница 3

 
...
 
     


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 « »

Выбрать главу
Загрузка...

The shopkeeper had come over to inspect what he was doing. ‘Careful!’ he growled.

‘This is not the original photograph,’ Cazolet snapped. ‘This is a wartime piece, without doubt, but the frame was made for something else …’

The shopkeeper began to take a keen interest; perhaps he could do business over this piece of junk after all.

‘You see the hole?’ continued Cazolet as the back came off and his frail fingers searched for the edge of the photograph. ‘I think there used to be a little gold swastika, just here. You know, these frames were specially produced and given away …’ He sucked in his breath as the old photograph came away to reveal the original still lurking behind.

‘Bollocks,’ muttered the German.

‘… by Adolf Hitler himself.’

They could both see the face, magisterially staring left to right into a distance he imagined to be filled with endless victories.

‘This is quite rare. It’s even signed!’ Cazolet was rubbing furiously at the grime on the glass with a spotless white handkerchief.

‘Five hundred marks,’ the shopkeeper barked, rapidly recovering his composure.

‘Oh, I don’t want to buy it. I have no need …’ But Cazolet could go no further. His words died as his vigorous cleaning of the glass revealed not just Hitler’s spidery signature but also a dedication. His breathing was laboured as the excitement and the exertions began taking their toll. The frame trembled in his hands as he held it up to his frail eyes. He blinked rapidly, giving the glass another polish with the now-stained handkerchief and holding it up once more for inspection. The metal seemed to be burning into his hands, as if grown white hot with a mystical energy all its own. The Englishman was one of life’s professional sceptics and even as he had contemplated his own death he had found it hard to believe in Fate or any form of divine intervention, but every day for the few months that remained to him thereafter Cazolet would look at his hands expecting to find stigmata burned deep into his palms.

‘Oh, sweet Jesus,’ he gasped as at last he deciphered the scrawled dedication. ‘Can it be? After all these years ….’

‘What? What is it?’ the shopkeeper cried in exasperation.

The old man seemed not to notice. He was back in another time, face consumed by anguish, his eyes tightly closed, shaking his head as though trying to fend off the understanding which confronted him. Then, very softly, almost exhaustedly, the words came. ‘He made it. He actually bloody made it!’

The old man’s hands gave another savage shake and the silver frame slipped from his fingers, glancing off his knee before falling to the floor. There was a loud crack as the glass shattered.

‘That’s it,’ snapped the German. ‘You’ll have to buy it now.’

Part One

ONE

March 1945

It wasn’t much of a prison camp, just a double row of barbed wire fencing strung around a football pitch with guards occasionally patrolling along the slough-like path that ran between the rows. In the middle were twenty or so dark green army bell tents serving as the sole source of shelter for the 247 German prisoners. There were no watch towers; there hadn’t been time to build any as the Allied armies swept up after the Battle of the Bulge and pressed onward through Europe. It was one of scores of transit camps thrown up, with little thought of security, anywhere with space enough to provide primitive shelter for prisoners on their way from the war zone to more permanent accommodation. No one appeared keen to escape. They had survived; for most that was enough, and more than they had expected.

The great tide of captured Germans washing up against British shores had all but overwhelmed the authorities’ ability to cope. After all, with the Allies racing for the Rhine, there were other priorities. So guarding the camps was a job not for crack troops but for new recruits, with little experience and often less discipline. That was the trouble with Transit Camp 174B, that and the complete absence of plumbing.

The camp, on the edge of the windswept Yorkshire moors, was run by young Canadians, freshly recruited, ill-trained and with a youthful intolerance which divided the world into black and white, friend and foe. They weren’t going to win any campaign medals on this rain-sodden battleground, and perhaps it was frustration and a feeling of inadequacy that tempted them to take out their aggression on the prisoners. In most camps the commanding officer would douse any unruly fires amongst the hotheads, but in Camp 174B the CO’s name was Pilsudski, who came of Polish parents out of Winnipeg, and after reports began filtering through of what the Russians had found as they raced through the ruins of Poland, he didn’t give a damn.

The trouble had begun two days previously when the camp’s leading black marketeer had come to grief. He had never been popular, but had his uses. ‘I’ll do a deal on anything,’ he used to brag. He could obtain a surprising variety of necessities from the guards and would get a reasonable price for anything that the prisoners had to sell – watches, wedding rings, wallets, even their medals. It made the difference between surviving and simply sinking in despair into the mud. He was also a bum-boy and sold himself, and the rest of the inmates were willing to put up even with that – until one of them discovered he was also the camp ‘stooly’ and was selling information to the Canadians about his fellow prisoners. The guards found him late one night, crawling through the mud and screaming in agony, with every last penny of the substantial sum of money he had scraped together shoved up his ass.

Perhaps the incident would have passed without further consequences, for the stool pigeon was no more popular amongst the guards, most of whom thought he had it coming. But it was not to be. Pilsudski received a report of the previous night’s incident moments after hearing on the radio of what the Germans had done before their retreat from Warsaw, and how little they had left standing or alive. Before the war he’d had an aunt and aged grandmother who lived in an apartment on the leafy intersection of Aleja Jerozolimska and Bracka streets; now, apparently, there was nothing left, no apartment, no intersection, no street, no trace of the women. It was the excuse he had been looking for, the opportunity to revenge in some small way the horrors and frustrations that preyed on his mind.

There were nine tables set up in line on the small parade ground. Before eight of them the camp’s entire complement of prisoners was standing to attention in the incessant drizzle; behind the ninth, raised on a dais, sat the stocky form of Pilsudski as he surveyed the scene. The senior prisoner, a tall, scrawny man who was a commander in the German Navy, leaned heavily on a stick and had just finished remonstrating with him.

‘So, Commander, you want to know what this is all about, do you?’ Pilsudski was saying, staring down at the German officer, his thick Slavic features making the other man seem frail and vulnerable. ‘Well, I’m going to tell you. Last night someone broke into the office here.’ He waved towards the primitive wooden construction which, before the sports area was commandeered, had served as changing rooms and a small grandstand. ‘And I want to know which of your men did it. Damn me but you Germans don’t seem to be able to control yourselves,’ he added, the morning’s news still much on his mind. ‘Some property’s missing, so we’re going to look for it.’

     

 

2011 - 2018