Perhaps, thought Dietrich, the worst thing about having been ill was the mountain of paperwork that had accumulated since he had been gone.
By order of the physician who had released him to light duty, under bitter protest from Dietrich, he was bound to his desk for at least a few more days. The only comfort that Dietrich found in that was that Troy had likely received the same order from his own medical personnel.
With gratitude, Dietrich looked up at the entrance of his tent. Any visitor who could save him from being engulfed in a mass of forms was welcome. Dietrich, seeing who the visitor was, rose and saluted.
"Herr Oberstartz Rasmussen! Good afternoon, sir.''
"Good afternoon, Dietrich.'' Rasmussen frowned. "Should you not be resting?''
Dietrich shrugged. "I am likely to bore myself to sleep with these.'' He gestured the pile of papers on his desk.
Rasmussen laughed. "Understood. Do you have a moment for me?''
"Certainly, Herr Oberstartz,'' Dietrich gestured to the other chair in the tent, "please have a seat, sir.''
Rasmussen nodded and gently lowered himself in the chair. His tapped his cane thoughtfully a few times before letting it rest against his knee. "You look well enough, Dietrich.''
"I feel well enough. I apparently had a much milder case of the illness than the others did.'' Dietrich looked longingly at the packet of cigarettes that sat on the corner of his desk. "Though I am not quite able to do everything yet that I was able to do before. At least not without some difficulty.''
Rasmussen followed Dietrich's eye. "Yes, well, perhaps that's for the best. The Fuhrer would definitely agree with that, at any rate.'' He laughed again. "You know how he feels about Germans smoking.''
Dietrich shrugged. "Africa is a long way from Germany.''
''Indeed. I will be going back to Germany later today. But before I left, I wanted to stop by to thank you, Dietrich.''
"For what, sir?''
"For your assistance.''
Dietrich thought of exactly what his role in the mission had been.
His men had picked up Dr. Knight and the Rat Patrol on the way to their target all under the guise of allowing Dr. Knight and the others to take him prisoner, guaranteeing her credibility to Troy. That part of it had worked exceedingly well. As had Dr. Knight's enlistment of the Rat Patrol's ingenuity to blow up the Free French research facility and to capture Dr. LeFeurve.
What had not worked so well was Dietrich's plan to intercept them in the desert as they were leaving the town with LeFeurve. Dietrich knew that he could hardly blame himself for the actions of the crazy Frenchman. However, he did, whenever he went to visit Bader who was still in the infirmary.
Dietrich sighed. "I am not sure that you should be thanking me for anything, Herr Oberstartz. It hardly went as planned. However, when involving the Rat Patrol, very few things go as one would wish.''
"From the accounts that we hear, that is becoming the story of your career, Dietrich. Nevertheless, they've been the end of the career of several others, and their lives. Perhaps you should count yourself lucky.'' Rasmussen leveled a gaze at Dietrich. "Or, perhaps not. That is what led to your involvement in this to begin with.''
Dietrich found that he could not meet Rasmussen's eyes. Instead, he cleared his throat. "I suppose that we should all be thankful that all has ended as well as could be hoped.''
"Yes, it could have ended far worse. I do have you to thank for that.''
"I must say, I find it very impressive, Dietrich, that at the height of your illness that you were able to contact someone to get the message to me that the vaccine was dangerous. It could not have been easy.'' Rasmussen continued to look at Dietrich.
Debating for a moment whether he should tell the truth or whether he should keep his mouth shut, Dietrich finally sighed. "That was not me, Herr Oberstartz.''
"No? But the man who relayed the news to me said that person that notified him was German. While he did not know who it was, it could have only have been you, surely?''
Despite himself, Dietrich smiled. Perhaps Sergeant Moffitt's German was not as horrible as Dietrich believed it to be.
"I suppose that we will just have to consider that an unsolved mystery, then." There was a smile tugging at the corners of Rasmussen's lips.
"If you would, sir, that would be most appreciated.''
"It is indeed amazing how many of those crop up when your friends the Rat Patrol are involved.'' Rasmussen cocked an eyebrow at Dietrich.
Dietrich made a face in answer to the doctor identifying Troy and the others as his ''friends.'' But then, keeping him and Bader alive was hardly what one would expect from one's enemies.
"Yes, very well. However, whomever the source of it, the information received was completely correct.'' Rasmussen settled back into the chair. "And how that source knew to get it back to me, I also shall not question.''
"Yes, sir. That too would be appreciated.''
"Only one question remains for me. It is a shame that Dr. Knight is dead, because likely she may be the only one that would have shared the answer with me.''
"And that is?''
"I am uncertain that if her planting the tainted vaccine was an accident."
Dietrich recalled clearly the conversation between Moffitt and Dr. Somme. "From what I overheard, it was accidental. She did not know the effects that it could cause until the Frenchman Somme told her.''
"Knowing her as I do, I find that hard to believe, Dietrich.''
"Perhaps. But after all, it was through her admission that allowed for the information to be relayed to you.''
"Perhaps her guilt got the best of her on her deathbed.'' Rasmussen rubbed his forehead. "It is always hard to predict or fully understand the actions of those whose motivations are only for their own personal gains.''
Dietrich did not bother to hide his surprise. "You were aware of that?''
"Of course, it is not uncommon behavior for Dr. Knight. The only allegiance that she typically recognizes is to herself. However, many are more than willing to give her their support. On both sides.''
"I see.'' Dietrich knew that he had fallen into Dr. Knight's trap. The only consolation was that Troy and his men had also willingly followed the woman down the same path to hell.
"The Allies had requested that she bring them a sample of the virus, so that they may analyze it to find a vaccine. We had requested that she create a vaccine and deliver it to us so that our leaders and our soldiers could receive it. Both sides had requested that LeFeurve and his work be neutralized. Using one tool to accomplish all jobs made sense.''
As always, it amazed Dietrich that despite the foundation of the war, both sides really nearly always wanted the same thing. "There was an alliance?'' Dietrich asked in disbelief. It was information that no one had seen fit to share with him.
Rasmussen laughed. "While the alliance was not recognized by the Allies, it was effectively created in utilizing Dr. Knight. As I said, her interests lie in adventure and personal gain, while them with the least possible of effort.'' Rasmussen suddenly frowned. "Or at least, those were her interests.''
"Her death was unfortunate. Dr. Knight was an interesting and capable young woman. Attractive, as well.''
Dietrich's response was truthful and quick. "There is indeed no arguing that.''
Rasmussen looked thoughtful. "I had known her when she was a University student, actually. I taught many of her classes when I lived in the United States. We had a good relationship. I taught her how to speak German, actually, while working together in the lab. She has an excellent ear for languages."
"Yes, her German was very good.'' Still not as good as his, Dietrich thought, but still better than that of Troy's pet English rat.
"I'll take that as a compliment. Though, Dr. Knight was not then who she is now."
"I am sorry, sir, I am not sure that I am following what you are saying?''
"Dr. MJ Knight actually did not exist then, Herr Hauptmann. Nor, technically, did she exist when you met her.''
Dietrich frowned. The woman had looked real enough to him.
Rasmussen noticed Dietrich's confusion. He waved his hand. "Oh, that's not what I mean, Dietrich. My apologies for being so enigmatic. MJ Knight is not actually the woman's name. And she is not really a doctor.''
Even after it sank in, Dietrich found that the explanation had not helped him much. "I am afraid that I still do not understand, Herr Oberstartz?"
"MJ Knight, when I met her, was known as Mary Sue Jones. She was a bright student with so much potential! Outstanding really, the one in a thousand for which every professor hopes. Except for one flaw.''
Despite himself, Dietrich was very interested in the story of Dr. Knight. "And what was that, Herr Oberstartz?''
"Mary Sue was lazy. She had had never had to work hard at anything in her short life and she had been handed all of her wants and needs. You know how the Americans coddle their children and she was no exception.''
"That could indeed be a flaw.''
"It led to the fact that she never quite completed the training necessary to be a doctor. However, it seems that her practical knowledge and her successes in her own research, not to mention a talent for taking the work of others, made that little more than a formality.''
"I see.'' Dietrich remembered a day that seemed long ago when Dr. LeFeurve had accused Dr. Knight of being a fraud and stealing the work of others routinely, including LeFeurve's. "And the name change? A creation of her own?''
"Ah, well, not quite. The surname was her married name. I imagine that her initials were representing her given first name and her maiden name.''
"It is indeed a more romantic choice."
"And she was indeed a romantic, or at least she was. The woman abandoned her studies to marry a man. A European, I believe.'' Rasmussen nodded as his memory produced the information. "Yes, that's right, an Englander blessed with a title, a soft upbringing, and an even softer head.''
"He was not the only man that she charmed to get what she wanted," Dietrich said, finally. Dietrich remembered thinking that Moffitt had had some sort of connection to Dr. Knight that was not born out of their official partnership. In Dietrich's opinion, it had made the man blind to things he would have expected him to see. He had put it down to Dr. Knight being a woman, but perhaps, Dr. Knight's former husband was not the only Englander whom had fallen victim to her.
"No, certainly not the first or last man, regardless of nationality. This man offered her an easier path in life, one which her charm and her pretty face allowed her to take. A fairy tale ending. I believe that all young American girls expect those for themselves."
"I think that all little girls expect those for themselves." Dietrich remembered his little sister dreaming with her friends about finding their prince. Instead of making him happy, the memory made him sad. "The war may have changed that considerably, though.''
"Exactly. Finding herself in Europe, with all of the opportunities that a war creates, Dr. Knight decided to take a different path than one of hausfrau. Though, apparently not before robbing her husband blind.'' Rasmussen chuckled. "She was a clever girl, Dietrich, who grew up to be a dangerous woman.''
It was difficult for Dietrich to imagine the woman that he had known as Dr. Knight sitting at home, cooking dinner for a husband while she held a child on her hip. It was not hard for him to imagine that she had run away from such a situation, while at the same time relieving her prior husband of his fortune.
"When I first ran across her at the start of the war, I found it hard to believe that it was little Mary Sue Johnson for all of those years ago. Dr. Knight had built almost a legendary following among some, Dietrich.''
"A legend that was based on a series of lies, apparently.'' Most legends, in Dietrich's experience, were born of the same.
"It was not lost on Dr. Knight that I had the knowledge to share with the world that she was not quite what she seemed. As a result, she supported the Reich as requested.''
"You were black mailing her?'' Dietrich asked. He was not sure if he was surprised or not. Dietrich decided that he was not.
Rasmussen shrugged. "Call it what you will. I would say that it was a certain leverage that was available to us when we were in need of her services. It was an opportunity of her own making of which I was all too glad to take advantage.''
"It sounds as though it was indeed a tangled web that Dr. Knight had woven.''
"It is the risk that one runs when one creates a characterization of oneself that is over-idealized. I think that Freud may have had a name for it, if one believes the man's dreck.''
"I see.'' Dietrich considered what Rasmussen had shared. It was a lesson that needed to be learned by many, he could agree.
Thoughtfully, Rasmussen tapped his cane on the edge of Dietrich's desk. "You know, while you have confirmed that Dr. Knight did know that the vaccine was dangerous, by her own admission, I still wonder if I was truly an accident.''
"I know that I heard, Herr Oberstartz. And after all, that vaccine killed Dr. Knight. That certainly was not intentional. Besides, one of the objectives of her mission with the Rat Patrol was destroy LeFeurve before he could set the virus loose against us. In the end, her actions would have amounted to the same.'' Though the memory was hazy, Dietrich had no problem remembering how LeFeurve had died and by whose hand. "What would she have had to gain?''
Rasmussen gave Dietrich a thin smile. "The safety of her identity. Her freedom. Her particular brand of medical ethics, which is subjective at best. Ridding the world of me would have achieved for her all of those things.''
It took a moment, but Dietrich got it. "You think that she was hoping that you would test the vaccine on yourself or on some of your men? And that as result, you would have contracted the virus?''
"We would have tested it, yes, but we have other means than testing it on ourselves. So, if that is what she was hoping, she would have been disappointed in the end. And likely, dead, even if the virus had not killed her.'' Rasmussen's eyes narrowed.
The implied threat of retribution was not lost on Dietrich.
"But, I suppose we shall never know where here intentions were. It is, as I said, my one unanswered question,'' said Rasmussen.
"It seems harsh that she would want you dead, for whatever the reason. Especially when it could endanger the lives of others,'' Dietrich mused.
"I'm not sure that others mattered to her. She detested the fact that I held her reputation in my hands and professionally, she considered my research methods to be those of a monster. By her thinking, she likely thought that she was ridding the world with one evil in exchange for another."
Dietrich could understand why MJ Knight would have wanted to rid herself of Rasmussen if he was blackmailing her. It did leave him wondering what she did not like about the way that the man conducted his research.
"Well, my boy, I must be going. My thanks to you. Again, my apologies that both you and your leutnant. I am glad that you both are not going to suffer any lasting ill effects from it. All is truly well that ends well.''
Dietrich thought about it. "Yes, that is true. However, is it really ending well?''
Rasmussen pulled himself upright. He stood leaning on his cane and looking at Dietrich. "Is something troubling you, Dietrich?''
"Yes,'' Dietrich said honestly, as he also rose. "With everything that happened, and while Dr. LeFeurve and his work were destroyed, we still do not have an effective vaccine for a virus, which I will assure you, is quite deadly.''
His mind went back to what Dr. Knight had looked like when they had removed her body from the infirmary. Dietrich could barely repress a shudder. It was little wonder that Sergeant Moffitt had gone momentarily mad after faced with watching Dr. Knight's death. The corpse had been as gruesome as anything that he had seen on the battlefield.
"Oh, do not concern yourself with that. We have the vaccine that Dr. Knight did create,'' Rasmussen said.
"You did not destroy it?'' Dietrich could not hide his surprise.
Rasmussen smiled. "Why would we do that, Dietrich? It will allow us the opportunity to study the virus and to learn Dr. Knight's mistakes. We also have your information on a treatment for the disease. All is certainly not lost.''
Dietrich could see the logic. Reverse engineering a flawed vaccine may allow in the creation of a new one that worked.
Rasmussen continued. "You see, we can now infect a whole controlled population and monitor the effects of the disease, find a working vaccine, and experiment with potential cures like the one that you and your man received. The virus is very similar to its parent and many others of its type. The research performed will be very beneficial to the Reich.''
"Herr Oberstartz?'' Dietrich was uncertain that he had heard the man correctly. "How will you do that?''
Rasmussen laughed. "There is another world outside of the desert which you do not see, Dietrich. Your world is relatively sheltered. Let's just say that there is a whole captive group that can help us to determine these things. It is the first useful thing that they have done for the Fatherland in their miserable existence."
Dietrich hardly felt as though his life was anything close to sheltered as he sweated and bled under the hot desert sun.
Perhaps, though, it had been. "But . . . Surely you are not serious, Herr Oberstartz?''
"Of course I am. It is how I conduct my research. It is very effective, actually. Even a sub-human population offers better results in testing than rats or dogs.'' With that, Rasmussen saluted. "Heil Hitler!''
Dietrich met the party salute with the standard Wehrmacht salute. Slowly, his arm dropped as he watched as the man limp out of the tent. Dietrich sank back down into his chair, feeling suddenly unwell again.
However, Dietrich's current discomfort was not related to his own recent illness. Instead, it had been caused by his exposure to the sickness that seemed to be spreading though his country, first among the leaders, and then to the common people.
And if a cure or prevention were to be found for any disease, Dietrich prayed that it would be for that.