Every Sunday at 3 pm, Horst took the ferry from the Wannsee quay to the last stop on its route deep in the forest. Today, as he found a seat on the top deck, he barely felt the chill coming off the dark, silent water or the tipsy sway of the vessel against the dock that usually made his stomach lurch. For this was his final meeting with Kinski. From tonight, Horst would be a free man.
Old Gunther, up on the bridge, started the engine and gave it some throttle, releasing the familiar blast of diesel fug into the air. They slunk off, the moment captured by a gaggle of phone-wielding day-trippers, who pressed themselves against the boat’s handrails. Children scampered along the deck, waving goodbye to a few onlookers on the quayside. Only Horst remained seated, his battered old Samsonite bag close by his side. Next weekend was going to be different, he told himself. He might take a stroll along the Ku’damm, the leaves on the plane trees were already turning a rich golden yellow, before stopping for an espresso and apple strudel at Reinhard’s, where he used to go with his wife on special occasions.
The boat slid through the water and Horst allowed his mind to drift. But the green-grey water, the odd indefinable colour of SS uniforms, along with the vast Hansel and Gretel villas, once lived in by senior Nazis – and now by thugs like Kinski – kept forcing him back into the present.
All too soon, Gunther cut the engine, signifying that they’d arrived at Horst’s destination. The captain gave Horst a jaunty sailor’s salute as he clambered off the vessel and trudged down the forest path towards Kinski’s private jetty. He dragged his bag behind him and sure enough, the roll of its wheels on damp earth alerted Kinski to his approach. The gangster stepped out of the shadows, a smart Cossack hat on his head and his hands stuffed into the pockets of an expensive leather trench coat.
‘You’re late. I thought you weren’t coming,’ Kinski said, as Horst drew nearer.
‘Why would I do that now, when I’m so close?’
‘Because all those hours spent poring over books in a dusty, old library have left you with zero street smarts,’ Kinski replied.
‘I keep my word.’
‘Get on with it then. I can’t stand here freezing my balls off all day.’
Horst unzipped his bag and handed over wads of notes to Kinski who stashed them away in his coat pockets. As he did so, their fingers touched and Horst recoiled; his own hands cool and dry, while Kinski’s were large and blood warm, resembling meat-coloured clubs.
The transaction over, Kinski reached for a pack of Marlboro Red and flicked the lid of his silver lighter. He stuck the tip of his cigarette into its flame, inhaled, and then scrutinized Horst for several moments. His pupils were tiny, the size of bullets, and Horst, uncomfortable under his gaze, tugged down the sleeves of his worn, tweed jacket in an attempt to conceal its frayed hems.
‘I’d best be off while there’s still light,’ Horst said. ‘I’ve a long trek back.’
He crouched down to zip up his bag but Kinski loomed over him.
‘Change of plan,’ Kinski said. ‘I want to see you again next Sunday.’
Horst felt himself reel as if he was still at sea.
‘The ferry’s stopped now for the winter,’ Horst said, scrambling to his feet. ‘I can’t come, even if I wanted to.’
Kinski tossed back his head and laughed, revealing a gold tooth.
‘Looks like I taught you a few tricks, after all. Come by the road, I’ll pick you up in the Merc. Let’s hope I can remove the smell of old tramp from its seats afterward.’
Horst grabbed Kinski by the lapels.
‘I’ve nothing left, you’ve taken everything.’
Kinski shook him off and surveyed Horst with his shark grey eyes, which Horst imagined could see everything – the shaving nicks on his gaunt face, the moth holes in his ancient jacket.
‘You’ll find more money. You always do.’
‘This time you’re wrong,’ Horst shouted. ‘It’s over.’
‘Fine… what a shame your little brats will soon discover that their kind old schoolmaster had a papa who murdered little children just like them.’
‘My father was a good man,’ Horst said. ‘He gave me toys – anything I wanted. I’ve nothing to hide.’
‘So why are you still here, Professor Horst?’
Horst didn’t reply.
‘Spring ’44. The children in the refectory, sipping their hot chocolate. A truck pulls up outside and your father throws them onboard, like sacks of potatoes. From there, they’re taken to Auschwitz. Not a single one survives.’
The cold suddenly cut into the bare patches on Horst’s neck where his straggly hair didn’t quite meet his collar. He yanked it up.
‘Now stop your whingeing and bring me my money,’ Kinski said, blowing blue smoke into the air. ‘Do you think I want to come out and meet a shabby, old git like you when I could be in bed with Mrs Kinski?’
‘Sons don’t bear the sins of the fathers,’ Horst replied, with little conviction. He was tired of feeling weak.
He’d seen Kinski’s wife here once before on the jetty. A small blonde, wearing oversized sunglasses. When she spoke to Kinski, she had hung her head like a whipped dog.
Kinski flicked his cigarette stub to the ground. He pulled out an elegant hip flask and took a swig, before passing it to Horst, who caught a whiff of slivovitz. Clean and pungent like something out of the chemistry lab.
‘Here’s to seeing you Grim Reaper-ing around next weekend,’ Kinski said. ‘Prost!’ Cheers.
Horst took it from him and went to raise it to his lips.
But then, with more force than he thought he had in him, he hurled it into the water. It plopped like a stone. Little ripples appeared on the surface.
‘Damn you, you idiot! That’s antique.’
Kinski strode over to the water’s edge; his boots sank into the soft ooze. He waded in, water lapping around his ankles.
Horst could only stand and watch as Kinski dipped his sausage-like fingers into the weed-strewn depths. He groped, blindly.
‘You’ll pay for this, you moron!’ he yelled.
Two more steps and he was up to his thighs.
‘There’s something here. I think I’ve found it.’
He plunged his hand into the slime but lost his footing and tumbled in, making a whooshing sound as his bulk hit the water. His head ducked under, before resurfacing.
‘Horst, I can’t swim! For God’s sake, help me!’
He thrashed about wildly, gasping for air.
Horst watched from the shore. His pulse raced; his back felt wet with sweat.
Now, Kinski’s hat floated away, leaving his bald pate vulnerable as it bobbed up and down. Here was Horst’s victory, his moment of triumph, when he could walk away and never look back. Yet why did it feel as if he had been denied the one thing he thought would bring him release? Two wrongs didn’t make a right.
Kinski’s heavy trench coat dragged him down. His bulging eyes seemed to pop out of his head. His cries had lost some strength.
Horst could delay no longer.
He slung off his jacket and then paddled in, the shock of the cold water momentarily taking his breath away.
‘Kinski, take my hand!’
Kinski’s head emerged and Horst lunged forwards in an attempt to grab hold of him.
‘You’re not your old man,’ Kinski panted. ‘I was wrong about you.’
Now, Horst was close enough to smell the gangster’s breath – the acid smell of slivovitz, mixed with nicotine and garlic. And there was something else. Fear. The one emotion he’d thought was alien to Kinski.
‘I’ve got you!’ Horst shouted as he seized Kinski’s clawed hand. His knuckles were white, the colour of wax.
Just a few strides and they would be back on dry land.
The shot rang out like a thunderclap, followed by the screech of gulls and clatter of crows’ wings. Then there was nothing; just the rustle of bulrushes and the swish of weeping willows.
Horst felt Kinski’s tentacle-like grip slacken until finally his fingers relaxed and hung loose. Blood stained the water red.
On the jetty, he saw Kinski’s wife toss the gun into the water. But it was only as she turned to go, that he caught sight of the purple bruise above her right eye. As intricate and multi-coloured as a sinister exotic flower.
Horst strode back in and put on his jacket. Somewhere downstream would Kinski’s bloated body resurface? Ghostly reflections shimmered on the water.
The route back along the road took him past the huge, turreted houses that reeked of Nazi. But now Horst was determined not to dwell upon the past.
For he wasn’t responsible for his father’s wrongdoing; he was a different man. And this afternoon he had proved it.