Captain Olshevsky's Aura
by Frank Thomas Smith
The room is a cube with no windows and no pictures on its stark white walls. A triple-tubed neon light on the ceiling makes the white even whiter. We are seated on three sides of a square table. Leroy Little and I have two stripes on our sleeves, we are corporals; the third, George Abrahamian, a private-first-class, has one stripe. George and I are studying pieces of paper held in our rubber-gloved hands through magnifying glasses. Leroy is dozing with a another piece of odorous paper in his hand. We are, or are supposed to be, Intelligence Analysts.
“Listen to this shit, Frank” George says.
“Don't have to,” I say. “I can smell it.”
That was the scene from Mondays to Fridays during the year 1954. Our three heroes are members of the 7982nd European Liaison Group during the Korean War, but far from Korea, because it was also during the Cold War, fought (sort of) in Germany – East and West. The 7982nd was an Army Intelligence Unit, thus its exotically meaningless name, based in Frankfurt on the Main, in the West, as opposed to Frankfurt on the Oder, in the East. The Shithouse was part of the 7982's floor in the I.G.Farben Building, which the World War II bombers had left intact so we could use it as occupiers. Army, Air Force and Naval intelligence were based there, as well as the CIA and other elements of the "intelligence community" - all killing time and spending their budgets independently of each other. Theoretically all the intelligence we collected was re-analyzed and condensed in Washington in preparation for the President's fifteen minute daily intelligence briefing.
The pieces of smelly paper we are examining have come from East Germany, specifically from the Soviet army's trash. Spies paid by us pick up the garbage from Soviet military units in East Germany and turn it over to American Military Intelligence in Berlin, from whence it is sent to the Shithouse in Frankfurt for analysis, that is, to see if the papers reveal anything of intelligence value. The room is called the Shithouse because the Soviet Army has precious little toilette paper, if any, so the soldiers are wont to use any paper that comes to hand. By the time it gets into our hands it is, thankfully, at least dry.
Very seldom do we find anything of value. Mostly we read letters from mothers and sweethearts giving arcane news from home: Uncle Vanya died, Cousin Irina is pregnant from when her hubby was home on leave – despite rumors that link her to the local commissar. Sometimes a complaint about the lack of eggs, bread or cabbage will appear in a personal letter, so it will be included in the daily report and sent on to headquarters in Heidelberg, then to Washington, as an indication that the Russian people are suffering under Communism – as if it wasn't well known already.
Cpl. Leroy and I, both homegrown Americans, sift shit because we attended the Russian course at the Army Language School in Monterey, California. Pfc. George Abrahamian is an Armenian who emigrated to the United States and joined the army in order to accelerate his U.S. Citizenship, he says. He had been assured that he would not go to Korea because he speaks fluent Russian, not to mention several other less interesting languages: Turkish, French, English and, less fluently, German, which he had begun learning recently. Those languages are part of his displaced person biography rather than the result of studies. In linguistics fluency is not necessarily synonymous with errorlessness. In other words, George mangles all his languages fluently.
Leroy is tall, blonde, husky, easily embarrassed, especially by sex talk, shy and serious, scholarly. I am neither tall nor short, I am darkly handsome, lady-loving, tending toward skepticism, especially regarding patriotism, the Army and religion. George is short, lightly pock-marked with hair that looks like the kid's in the cartoon who stuck his finger in an electrical socket. Besides all those languages, he knows a lot of things that we never even heard of before we knew him. For example, he says he can see people's auras. Leroy asked hm if he could see ours, and he said of course he could but they were uninteresting. He said it matter-of-factly, not as an insult. But we looked a bit insulted, I mean who wants an uninteresting aura? So he explained that we were too young and innocent to have interesting auras. That's when he first mentioned Capt. Olshevsky's aura. He explained that it was dark red with black stripes, meaning that he was a "very serious lying motherfucker" -- George's exact words.
If you're wondering why such talented individuals were content with spending their short lives on earth deciphering Russian folderal, and, if not singing at least humming the Shithouse Blues to ourselves, you must understand that it was better than the infantry and very much better than Korea. Leroy was silent on the subject, but I thought then, and still do now, that the only people who volunteer for combat are to some extent mentally retarded, or crazy. In my basic training company the only one who volunteered for the newly founded elite Special Forces was a country boy nicknamed Dumbo, and not only for his flapping ears.
On a certain Monday afternoon in September Pfc George Abrahamian hadn't appeared for duty and the other two musketeers were puzzled.
“Did you see him in the apartment this morning?” Leroy asked me once it became apparent, close to noon, that George hadn't simply overslept. The enlisted men of the 7982nd lived in a civilian apartment house near the IG Farben Hochhaus.
I shook my head. “No, but I wasn't looking for him either.”
“I wonder where he is,” Leroy said.
“Maybe some German whore rolled him. He's a horny toad, George is.” But I was more interested in an American coin, a quarter which had been inserted in a piece of gum within a Spearmint chewing gum wrapper. Because of its weight it had rolled away from the other papers on the table. I examined the quarter after scraping the gum off it, noting that it was new. Then I looked at the inside of the gum wrapper: OLY SHPION was printed in Russian cyrillic letters.
Suddenly the Shithouse door opened and Capt. Olshevsky stuck his head in. He was wearing red suspenders; he had a different pair for each day of the week. "Where's Abrahamian?”
“Don't know,” I said, leaving out the sir, which infuriated Olshevsky, but he'd learned not to chew me out because I merely nodded when he did but never said sir anyway. “Haven't seen him today.”
“Haven't seen him?” he shouted. “Why didn't you report him absent, Cpl. Small?” addressing Leroy, who was easier to intimidate than me.
I answered for him. “We thought he was probably doing something for you.”
“Let me know if he shows up.” The captain left, slamming the door.
“What could George have been doing for Olshevsky?” Leroy asked.
“How should I know? Look at this.” I showed him the coin and the note.
“Olshevsky of course, schmuck”
“Capt. Olshevsky is a spy?” Leroy said, grimacing.
The Russian language has no articles and, although the verb “to be” exists, it is only used for emphasis, so the message Oly shpion was perfectly correct and meant Oly is a spy.
“Of course he is,” I said, taking back the coin and the paper. “We know that. The question is – for who?”
“Yeah, for us or the Russkies.”
Leroy shook his head as though he didn't want to think about it. “So where did the quarter and the message come from?”
I held the quarter up between my index finger and thumb. “Whose picture is on the quarter, Leroy?”
“George Washington's of cour...” His eyes widened. “George?”
“Could be … a message.”
“That Oly, Olshevsky, is a spy, a shpion,” I said. “Come on, Leroy, do I really have to spell everything out for you?”
“How do we know that?” Leroy asked, starting to sweat.
“All we know is that George says so.”
“So where's George?”
The previous night Pfc George Abrahamian, in civilian clothes, had walked with the crowd down Kaiserstrasse, Frankfurt's main drag, in the direction of the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station. Two Turkish officers passed close to him coming from the station. “Fuck your mothers,” George muttered in Turkish and kept walking. The officers, surprised, looked around, but couldn't determine who had delivered the insult.
George took an S-Bahn the short distance to Höchst, where he was to attend a meeting of the ALA – the Armenian Liberation Army, of which he was the leader in Germany. The Turks he insulted were, after all, the descendants of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, authors of the Armenian Genocide. George Abrahamian was a member of the Armenian diaspora striving to liberate his nation from the Soviets and the Turks and everyone else who felt like screwing them, and they were legion. His role of intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army was a cover for his real interests and activities.
Shortly before he arrived at the meeting place in an area of industrial warehouses, a muscular young man wearing an ill-fitting suit and gloves, although it was quite warm, walked up behind him and stuck a dagger into his back at the exact point and angle where it would puncture the heart. He left the dagger in the body as it sank to the ground and walked quickly back to the train station where he boarded a train that was just about to leave.
After lunch Capt. Olshevsky stuck his head into the Shithouse again. “Pvt. Abrahamian has been killed, apparently,” he said as though announcing a fire drill. “I want you two guys to go to the city morgue and identify a body which could be his. Sgt Callahan has the address. He slammed the door, then opened it again. “Don't make a mistake.”
We were understandably speechless at first. Then Leroy said, “George...dead?”
“No, killed! And we gotta go to the morgue,” I said. “Poor George.”
Sgt Callahan, an old-timer, came in and threw a paper on the table. “Here's the address of the city morgue. The number 16 Strassenbahn goes right near there. They expectin' you guys.”
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Beats me, gotta make sure it really is the little fucker though.”
German streetcars operate on the honor system, so we “forgot” to buy tickets. At the morgue – not at all as dismal as we expected, it could just as well have been a post office or some other German official building – a German detective and an American CID sergeant were waiting for us. The morgue official lifted the sheet from a body's head.
“It's George, all right,” I said.
“Are you thereby identifying this body as that Pfc. George W. Abrahamian of your unit?” The CID guy said.
“I don't know about the W, but it's George Abrahamian.”
“And you agree,” the CID guy asked Leroy, who looked a little green, but nodded in agreement.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Knifed up in Höchst, with this,” CID said, holding up the knife inside a transparent plastic bag. “They left it in his back. They also left his wallet with some money and his ID.”
Leroy and I sat in a booth in a Gasthaus in Sachsenhausen, on the other side of the Main River, where we wouldn't run into Americans. We had just been served large glasses of potent German beer and Wiener Schnitzel sandwiches.
“I don't see how George could have sent the quarter if he was dead,” Leroy said.
“Yeah, well, maybe he wasn't dead yet,” I replied.
Leroy swirled his beer around. He had already wolfed down his sandwich. “You know, Frank,” he said, “at the end of the nineteenth century, a group of scientists seriously investigated psychic phenomena.”
“You mean ghosts and stuff like that?”
“Uh huh, and what did they decide?”
“Hard to say exactly,” Leroy said. “They dismissed almost all mediums, you know, the ones who move things around and cause scary noises during seances and bring back dead relatives and lovers from the hereafter. But they insisted that one or two of the mediums, or psychics, were legitimate – the non-professionals. And these were people like William James, who practically founded psychology in America, and other scientists, who said so.”
I emptied my glass and signaled to the buxom waitress. “Noch ein Bier, bitte.” She was back in a few moments with a foaming brew.
“Are you implying that George the all-Armenian Ghost sent us that coin?” I asked Leroy with a crooked grin.
“I'm not implying anything, just saying that some people would say it's not out of the question.”
“But not you?”
“Not sure,” Leroy said. “I think that either he didn't send it or he sent it before he died, if he sent it at all.”
“If he didn't then who the fuck did,” I rejoined – “and how?”
Leroy had no answer for that, but I knew he was thinking, as I was, about George's ability to see auras.
Three days later Sgt Callahan entered the Shithouse: “A CID guy wants to talk to youse guys. He's waitin' in the CO's conference room.”
It was the same CID guy we'd seen in the morgue. This time he stood up when we entered the room and introduced himself: Sgt First Class Roger Schutz. He even shook hands. It made us wary. More so when he placed a tape recorder on the table.
“You guys ever hear of the Armenian Liberation Army?” Schuz asked once we were sitting at the conference table and he had lit a cigarette. We shook our heads.
“Please answer yes or no so the recorder will understand too,” Schutz said. “But you know that Abrahamian was Armenian, right?”
“Yes,” we said in unison.
“And he never mentioned this so-called army?”
“No,” we said in unison.
“Did he ever mention the Turks?”
“He didn't like them,” Leroy replied. “He said they killed a lot of Armenians.”
“He recommended a book.” I looked at Leroy. “What was it called?”
“The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel,” Leroy said. “It's about the genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks.”
Sgt. Schutz wrote it down despite the tape recorder. “Did you read it?”
“No,” Leroy said, “but I will now.”
“Any idea who killed him?”
“We don't know,” I said. “How about you?”
Schutz looked at me wondering if I was being a wise-guy, decided it didn't matter. “Abrahamian was an active member of this ALA, might even have been the boss here in Germany.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“The German police know all about the ALA, but they didn't know Abrahamian was also in the U.S. Army, until now. He used a cover name in the group...or maybe it was his real name and the cover name was for us.”
“We don't know anything about that,” Leroy said nervously.
“Ok, just asking. The German cops think the Turks killed him.” He paused. “Any ideas?”
We were both thinking about George calling Capt. Olshevsky a shpion, at least I was. But we shook our heads in unison.
“OK, if anything comes up here's my card.” It identified him as an investigator for USACID – United States Army Criminal Investigation Division.
The next morning the mail delivery included another 25 cent coin in a chewing gum wrapper. The cramped writing on the inside was in a language neither of us understood.
“I bet it's Armenian,” I said.
“I wouldn't be surprised,” Leroy agreed. “But how did it get into the Shithouse mailbag?”
“We could ask Corporal Watshizname in the mailroom.”
“No, he'd run to Olshevsky.”
“Yeah. Because he doesn't know.”
We sat thinking about the situation for a good minute, before I put the wrapper and the coin in my pocket and said, “I think we should go to that Armenian Liberation Army and see what they know. At least they could translate this message”
“If it is Armenian,” Leroy said.
“What else could it be?”
“I don't know, but I'm not going to any Armenian Army. We're already in the American army and we're gonna be in a pot of trouble if we don't report all this to...”
“Yeah, to who?”
“Whom. The CID...I guess.”
I reached for the Lucky Strike pack on the table and lit up. “Look, Leroy, I just wanna check it out and get this message translated.”
Leroy didn't look convinced.
“I mean what if Olshevsky really is a spy ... for the Russkies.”
“And George wants us to take care of it.”
“I thought you didn't believe in ghosts.”
“I don't, but George is different.”
At the Höchst industrial area, just outside town, I went at first to the spot where George Abrahamian's body was found and asked around for the Armenian Liberation Army. The first people I asked looked at me suspiciously and hurried away. So I asked for an Armenian club and was soon directed to the second floor of a nearby warehouse where the ALA office was called, with more political correctness, ASK, or Armenisches Sozial Klub.
A very pretty, very young lady received me graciously when I said that I was a friend of George's.
“I have been expecting you,” she told me in careful school English.
“Really? Why? I mean how? I didn't know myself...”
“George told me.”
My mouth opened, then closed. What could I say to that?
“He gave me a message for you.”
“I hope it was in English or German,” I said with an ironic smile. “Could you tell me what this says first?” I showed her the chewing gum wrapper.
“It says, in Armenian, Trust Gunver. O is a spy. Do you know who O is?”
“Yes. Do you know who Gunver is?”
“I am Gunver,” she said, smiling.
“Isn't that a German name?”
“Yes. I am German, like my mother. My father is Armenian.”
“OK, Gunver, I trust you. How old are you, by the way?”
“Eighteen. And please don't say I look fifteen; everyone says that.”
“I won't say it. But please tell me when George gave you the message for me.”
“He gave it to me this morning, I slept late.”
“But George is dead, definitely. You must know that.”
“It was in a dream.” She looked offended. “It must have been his aura.” I didn't react to that, so she said: “Do you want to know the message or not?”
“He said you should follow O. Then he said 30.”
“30? Do you know what he meant?”
“No. He also said I should go with you.”
“I don't know.”
We stood silently for a few moments regarding each other. I thought I knew what “O” meant, but “30” stymied me.
She said: “Tomorrow is the thirtieth of September.”
“Wow, yes,” I exclaimed, “so I'm going to follow Captain Olshevsky tomorrow.”
“We are going to follow Captain O tomorrow, you mean,” Gunver said, frowning.
I nodded, knowing that arguing would be useless. “Sure thing,” I said. She smiled.
The next afternoon Gunver sat on a bench at a trolley stop across the street from the I.G. Farben Building on Eschenheimer Landstrasse with her long bare legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. A Leica camera was on her lap secured by a strap around her neck. If someone had wished to observe her they would have noticed that she let several trolleys go by without boarding. A Vespa motor scooter leaned against a bust of Goethe behind her. Behind the Vespa and Goethe was a small park where I stood behind a bush ready to tell Gunver when Capt. Olshevky leaves the building. He's usually the last one out, I'd told her, like the captain of a sinking ship, so we might have to wait. No one seemed to know what he did after hours. George once opined that he hung himself up in a closet and waited for the next day.
But this evening, Lo – there he is, and heading this way. I sink back into the afternoon shadows and Gunver stomps on her cigarette and looks up at the sky. Olshevsky is coming to the trolley stop, a surprise because I expected him to take a taxi. Captains don't take trolleys for god's sake, I thought. But Gunver insisted that we wait at the trolley stop just in case. The tram trundles down the street and stops, the back door opens and Olshevsky enters stepping up – followed by Gunver. Inside he buys a ticket to the Stadtwald, the city-forest, the last stop, from the conductor, so Gunver does the same. I run to the Vespa, kick-start it and follow the trolley, an easy task as it never exceeds twenty kms. an hour and stops every two blocks to accept and disgorge passengers.
At the entrance to the Stadtwald the tram makes a circle and halts before heading back the other way. Olshevsky and Gunver are the only passengers left and Olshevsky eyes her suspiciously as she heads for the zoo before he walks quickly into the well manicured city forest, where every tree is numbered with German efficiency. I halt at the entrance to the zoo and Gunver comes out to meet me.
“Damn,” she says. “I had to pay the entrance fee.”
“Give me the camera,” I tell her.
“You're burned. He saw you.”
“So what? You're burned too, he sees you every day.”
I sighed. “Ok, let's go before we lose him.”
“I don't think so; he's on the footpath.”
We cut through the woods, avoiding the footpath but keeping Olshevsky in sight. He stops at a bike crossing and looks around. Then he goes into the woods toward us. We drop to the ground because there is no time to do anything else. Olshevsky stops, looks around again, then stands on a rock and reaches up to a tree branch. Gunver is ready, she snaps three quick photos . Olshevsky steps down and turns back the way he'd come.
“You follow him,” I tell Gunver. “I want to see what he did to that tree.”
From inside the entrance to the Stadtwald, Gunver watches Olshevsky approach the Grünewald Café und Restaurant, take something from his pocket and seem to touch a side of the restaurant sign which carries the menu with the day's special. When a trolley arrives and turns around he boards it for the return trip.
“I thought it would be better if I didn't get on that tram,” she says when I come to her.
“You were right, look.” I unscrew the top of a small cylinder disguised as a woman's lipstick and a roll of microfilm falls into my palm. “Intelligence reports from our unit, I bet.” I kiss Gunver on the cheek. “Bingo! George was right. Capt. Olshevsky is a fucking shpion, but not for us. And his ass is now in a sling. Or it will be tomorrow.” Gunver stands on tiptoe and kisses me on the lips. Then: "a what?"
At the restaurant we check the menu board and see that Olshevsky had drawn a small X in red chalk on its side. “Take a picture, Gunver. It's probably a sign to whoever picks the stuff up that something new is in the tree.” I pause to think. “I wonder if I should erase it so they don't know.” Then: “No, better not.”
I was right because when we told Sgt Schutz of the CID about Olshevsky and the tree and gave him the film, he put the fake lipstick holder back in the tree, but empty and had a couple of guys stake out the café sign and the tree. The next day a chunky woman came, wiped the chalked X from the sign and proceeded to the tree. She placed a stone against it, stepped up and took down the lipstick. She stepped down into the arms of a German policeman who had accompanied the CID guys. She turned out to be the cultural attaché at the Soviet embassy – but was definitely a shpion – as was Captain Olshevsky, who later spent two years in prison before being exchanged for an American spy the Soviets had captured.
At that point Gunver and I should have sped into the sunset on the Vespa and lived happily ever after. However – Gunver, you'll remember, said that George had told her about me and Capt. Olshevsky in a dream after he died. No matter how much I loved her, I found it hard to believe that George had given her such exact information and instructions in a dream, especially being dead at the time. I waffled to myself that if Gunver knew most of the story beforehand she could have created her own dream from the elements she already knew and thought it was George in her dream. When I pressed her on the subject, she just shrugged and would say no more. And when I asked her to go to dinner with me she took both my hands in hers and kissed me, lightly, on the lips. Then she ran for an approaching trolley. It tasted like a goodbye kiss. But I wasn't about to be put off so easily. I didn't want to give up Gunver and I knew that her reluctance to be more intimate with me was my desire to get to the bottom of the George mystery.
A week later Leroy was alone in the Shithouse. I had been promoted to sergeant and was waiting for my transfer to the CID to come through. Staff Sgt Schutz assured me that it was a done deal. What's the opposite of intelligence? Ignorance, right? If M.I. stood for Military Ignorance, at least it would be an honest label. I was fed up with living a hypocrisy every day and the Criminal Investigation Division didn't claim to be intelligent, and they really did investigate stuff. So as the only hero the unit ever had and with Olshevsky gone, I more or less did what I wanted until the transfer came through
So I was shooting the shit (the verbal kind) with some of the boys in the Order of Battle room when Leroy came rushing in and dragged me out and into the Shithouse. He pointed at a small lump of paper on the table with a trembling forefinger as though it were a scorpion. “It was in today's batch,” he said. I somehow already knew what it was. I opened the paper and a coin fell out: a shiny new quarter with George Washington looking like he just left the massage salon. The paper read, in Russian: Meet me at the Café Grünewald today at 6.
I arrived five minutes early wearing civilian clothes. Nevertheless, the waitress greeted me with, “Sgt Smith?” I nodded and she asked me to please follow her. The place was almost full, German tea time, mostly middle aged women and a few young lovers. The waitress led me along a corridor and opened a door to a meeting room. She stood aside for me to enter.
George was sitting with his back to me. When the waitress closed the door he swiveled around dramatically and smiled: sunglasses, a week-old beard, expensive suit with tie, walking stick – the picture of a middle-eastern businessman – or spy.
“Have a seat Yankee-mutterfucker, you try to steal my girlfriend?” he said with a German accent.
“But I saw you in the morgue, George, you were dead, unless.....”
“Unless it was your twin brother.”
“It was me. Don't break your head – I wasn't dead. Hey man, that's sounds like a poem: Don't break your head/I wasn't dead.” He cackled. Then, suddenly, he was serious. “The attendant, a friend of mine, held the sheet from my head for 2, 3 seconds only,” he explained, “so all I had to do was hold my breath and look dead, which wasn't hard because he put some kind of gray makeup on my skin and you dumb Americans will believe anything. So when you so kindly identified me and you all left – no one likes to hang around in morgues – I rose from the dead and went about my business.”
“But they must have buried a body,” I insisted.
“The guy who tried to kill me,” George said, smiling again. “Poetic justice, don't you tink?” reverting to his German accent.
“Okay, Frankie boy, here's the deal. You can have Gunver, she isn't my girlfriend. [accent on] Vat you tink, I rob da cradle? [off] But there's a very important condition.” He paused.
“Yes?” I would have agreed to anything, except maybe going to Armenia to fight the Turks.
“You know now that I am alive.” He stared at me for some twenty seconds. “You must never tell anyone, not even Leroy – unless of course I tell you to. Do you agree?”
“Sure, George, no problem.”
“Good, I trust you, and I am the boss. But I must tell you that some of my colleagues are not so happy about my telling you this. They prefer to keep Gunver away from you, and if you insisted on seeing her, they would...well...kill you.”
I didn't say anything. What could I say?
“So now Gunver will leave the group – she's only half Armenian anyway – but neither of you know anything at all about us.”
He stood up, seeming taller than I remembered, but on reflection later I realized that it was the subliminal difference between being a private-first-class in the army and the leader of freedom fighters. He embraced me, kissed me on both cheeks and started for the door.
“George,” I called, and he stopped. “How did you know that Capt. Olshevsky is a spy?”
“His aura,” George said, and left.
That's when Gunver and I finally rode into the sunset on the Vespa and lived happily until we didn't anymore.You can't really go very far on a Vespa. When I went back to the States a couple of years later she stayed in Germany. I promised I'd return and she promised she'd wait for me and would stay away from the Armenian Liberation Army. Such promises are seldom kept and those weren't either. We lost contact when I was sent by my airline employer to Argentina and got married here. I never heard from George again and if he was in the news I wouldn't know because I never even learned his real name. That was a long time ago and as I sit here in Córdoba reminiscing I know that Armenia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in 2011 applied for membership in the European Union. I don't know how much George contributed to those events, but if he is still alive he has more to reminisce about than I do.