Over the months they came up with other stunts. A couple of times, Hawkins had Rotheram translate so sloppily that the infuriated prisoners lost patience and broke into English themselves. Later, he began leaving Rotheram alone with a prisoner, stepping out to the WC while Rotheram offered the man a cigarette, warned him what Hawkins was capable of, advised him to talk: Its nothing to be ashamed of; anyone would. He posed as a British student of German literature, professed an affinity for things German. Youve a talent for sympathy, Hawkins told him.
In truth Rotheram despised the prisoners, loved to see Hawkins break them. Once, theyd reversed the roles boredom, as much as anything, dictating their tactics and Hawkins had played the sympathetic one, hamming it up so much Rotheram thought he was being mocked. He listened from behind the door as Hawkins offered the prisoner a smoke, warned him that Rotheram was a German Jew, implacable in his desire for revenge. The man had talked even before Rotheram returned to the room. Hed felt a stark thrill, but afterwards, in Hawkinss office, he told him, again, that he wasnt a Jew, and Hawkins eyed him carefully and said, I know, old boy, I know. It was just a ruse. No offense intended.
None taken, Rotheram told him. Why do you think he believed it though?
And Hawkins said, The reason most men believe anything. He was scared it was true.
Rotheram had laughed. He couldnt say if loyalty to one man could grow into patriotism, but the harder he worked for Hawkins, the more suspects he questioned, the more British he felt.
Still, by the late summer of 1944, there were fewer and fewer prisoners at the London Cage, and Rotheram was missing the interrogations, missing the war, really. Hed been agitating for a transfer for a month. Quayle and his gang had moved across the Channel in late July; most of the questioning was being done in Cherbourg or by roving teams at the front. According to Hawkins, it was a miserable detail, France or no. So many men surrendering, hundreds a day it was nothing but paperwork. Besides, I need you here, dear boy, to help put the jigsaw together. They were beginning to identify defendants and witnesses for the prospective war crimes trials. The pieces of the puzzle. Rotheram had nodded and gone back to the dry work of processing the boxloads of interrogation reports coming in from Normandy.
There wasnt even much doing at Dover by then. In June and July, in the wake of D-day, he d been used to heading down there two or three times a week, to the old racetrack where the POWs were processed, for a chat, as they called it, with the more interesting and recalcitrant cases. Once or twice he persuaded the local MPs to give him a captured uniform and put him in with the unprocessed men to eavesdrop. Hed been shocked by the thrill of it playing with fire, he d thought delighted in calling himself Steiner. Hed gotten results, too, bagged a handful of officers posing as noncoms. By mid- August, the Allies closing in on Paris, he d begged permission to make another visit to Dover, and tried the stunt again, but he must have seemed overeager. Hed been rumbled, had a rib broken before the guards could get to him.
Hawkins was furious when he heard about it. Why would you take such an idiotic risk? Seriously, what do you think you were playing at?
Rotheram shrugged. I was going round the bend, sir. And now with Paris liberated . . . The news had broken two days earlier. Sometimes it feels like Im the bloody prisoner here.
Hawkins smiled thinly.
Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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