A song of shadows, p.29
A Song of Shadows, p.29John Connolly
He hadn’t seen Hummel in two years, not since he’d been admitted to Golden Hills at the instigation of his daughter, Theodora. Baulman had never liked her. He hadn’t liked Hummel’s wife much either, but at least she had the decency to stop bothering people by dying. Theodora had always struck Baulman as too selfish even for mortality. She would outlive them all, like a cockroach. At the first sign of her father’s deterioration she had packed him off to Golden Hills without a second thought, or so it appeared to Baulman. It made him glad that he would die without issue.
The receptionist gave him a four-digit code to get past the first door, but he had to press a button and wait to be admitted through the second. He smelled cooked food, and human waste, and disinfectant. No matter how well-managed they were, all these places smelled the same. He tried to shut his ears to the wailing of an old woman somewhere to his left – ‘No!’ she cried. ‘I don’t want to! No, no, no, no, no …’ – and barely glanced into the lounge where an assortment of residents younger than he sat slumped like zombies in chairs. He felt uncomfortable even being within these walls, as though one of the staff – a passing doctor, an orderly – might mistake him for a patient and refuse to let him leave. He had always hated confinement. It was why he would fight Demers and her kind until the end.
He found Hummel’s room and paused on the threshold. He hadn’t been sure what to bring. He had decided against hard candy or saltwater taffy – even he didn’t care much for gnawing on such delicacies at his age – and opted instead for marshmallows and seedless grapes. He took a deep breath and entered the room.
His friend was seated in a comfortable chair by the window, smiling beatifically. Outside was a line of trees, masking the wall of the property. Either he liked trees a lot, though Baulman, or Hummel was communing with the birds. He had aged terribly since Baulman had last seen him. His clothes no longer fitted him properly, and his tiny bald head on its wrinkled neck poked from the collar of his shirt like the skull of some ancient tortoise.
Baulman coughed, but Hummel didn’t react.
‘Hello?’ said Baulman. ‘Bernhard?’
Hummel’s head turned slowly. The smile faded. He grew confused. Baulman wondered if he even knew who he was any more. As far as Hummel was concerned, Baulman might as easily have called him by his wife’s name and received something of the same response.
He moved into the room, but did not approach Hummel too closely, for fear that he might frighten or distress him. It pained him to see his former colleague and friend this way. Hummel had always been so strong, so vital. At Lubsko, Baulman had watched him fight to the death with a Jew named Oppert, a former wrestler, just to prove that he could beat him. By then, Oppert had seen the bodies of his wife and children, and even though they promised to let him live if he won, Oppert knew better. He accepted the challenge because to do otherwise would be to accept a bullet in the back of the head, and he entertained the hope that he might go to his grave after breaking Hummel’s neck. He was mistaken. Weeks at Lubsko had given Oppert back some of his strength, but he was still no match for Hummel, who had later been severely reprimanded for such a breach of regulations. Now look at him, thought Baulman: it’s hard to believe that this is the same man.
A flicker of recognition ignited in Hummel’s face, but still he did not speak.
‘Bernhard, it’s me. Marcus. Marcus Baulman.’
The smile returned to Hummel’s face.
‘Kraus!’ he said. ‘My friend, how good to see you!’
You have condemned yourself, thought Baulman. You are a dead man.
It did not take them long to pack up most of Parker’s possessions. He kept with him only toiletries, one canvas bag of clothes, some food and books, and his gun. Angel and Louis returned to Portland with the rest, leaving him alone. It was as he wished it to be. They would come back if – or when – he needed them.
Night had already fallen by the time they were gone. He took the flashlight from under the sink in the kitchen, and slipped the gun into the pocket of his jacket. He walked north until he came to the house in which Ruth Winter had died. Crime scene tape sealed off the doors and the steps up to the porch. A printed notice advised anyone even thinking of trespassing that they would be subject to arrest.
He did not enter, but merely stood for a time beneath the window of Ruth’s room. He had visited too many houses like this one, had stood at too many such scenes, not to feel that the building itself had suffered a form of psychic shock, that the crime committed under its roof had affected the physical space it occupied. Wood and brick had a kind of memory: blood seeped into their grain, their dust, and transformed them. Perhaps some people were just more sensitive than others, but he was willing to bet good money that it would be a long time before anyone settled easily into this place.
If he ever had any doubts about the sanity of such observations, he had only to remember the house in which his wife and their child died, and what he had witnessed there when he returned after many years. Some might have called them ghosts, or specters, but he didn’t hold with such labels. They suggested incorporeality, and what he had seen in those rooms – and elsewhere too – had a substance to them, a lethality. Ethereal wisps couldn’t write warnings to the living or draw blood from hunters and killers.
He pictured again Ruth Winter’s body on the bed, and the great arterial spray on the wall above. He felt no guilt for what had befallen her. He had tried his utmost to save her. He could have done no more. The stain of her death lay on the souls of others. One of them was already dead. He would find the rest.
He moved on until he came to the dunes. The place at which that great weight of sand had sheared off to bury Earl Steiger was still distinct from the rest, although the mound beneath which he died had been destroyed and scattered during the retrieval of his body. Parker realized that he was standing in almost the same spot his daughter had occupied that night. He thought again about their conversation in Vermont. There, with the backdrop of the Wolfes’ beautiful old home, in warm light hazy with the advent of summer, he could convince himself that the culmination of the events at Green Heron Bay was a freak act of nature, one that had saved his life by snuffing out another’s. But here, on this dark strand, the memory of those moments came back to him with a palpable force, and he knew that his suspicions about his daughter were not without foundation. He had glimpsed something in her face that night which was not entirely human, something he had never witnessed before—
No, that was not true. He had caught hints of it in others, in men and women who were – and this, too, was easier to deny in daylight than darkness – infested by entities, by supernatural agencies. They had an otherness to them, and he had caught a hint of that same essence in his own daughter as she caused the death of Earl Steiger. There: it was said. It was what he believed. His daughter was not what she appeared to be. She was carrying something inside her of which she might not even be aware.
The realization numbed him, but he could already sense his emotions straining to break through. What was it? Was it evil? Was it some ancient, rotten spirit cast down to earth, burning as it fell, that had curled up amid rock and lava to wait until men arrived, and it found a host among them? Or had it come from him? Had he infected his own child with a pollutant in his own nature, one that he himself had not yet been able to identify? So lost was he in his own fear and pain that it was some moment before he could bring himself even to consider the possibility of a more benign context for what he had witnessed.
A figure moved amid the dunes, dancing just beyond the reach of his flashlight, and he felt the presence of the dead daughter, and thought that he could hear her singing to him from the shadows. The numbness receded, and in its place came not anger and grief, but a kind of solace that brought him back to the bench by a lake, where she had held his hand and promised him that all was not in vain, and if he returned to this life she would find a way to remain with him.
The singing stopped, but no reply came. He passed the flashlight’s beam around, trying to catch sight of her again, but what he could see of the dunes remained empty, and the only sound left was the breaking of waves.
The flashlight flared, the bulb glowing gradually brighter and brighter until he could feel the heat of it, and it did not so much illuminate the night as burn a column of light through it; and just as the bulb exploded he caught a glimpse of the dead daughter at the very edge of the beam’s reach, and all dread and doubt were banished as she was absorbed into the dark.
He turned away, walked back to his house, and did not fear the shadows.
Had I turned into a soulless person, a wicked man, a murderer? I went on plying my conscience with questions. Had I done anything in the war but my duty and my obligations? Had I done anything but remain loyal to my oath and obedient to my orders? And my conscience answered me reassuringly. No, nothing else. Had I killed defenseless people, or ordered them to be killed. No, no, no. What in the devil’s name did they want of me?
Extract from the memoirs of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Final Solution, published in The People newspaper, 1961
Even by his poor standards, Baulman was enduring a difficult night. He replayed his conversation with Hummel over and over, the horror of it repeatedly unfolding before him. Baulman had been able to endure Hummel’s company for only fifteen minutes, but throughout their entire conversation Hummel was unable to refer to him as anything other than ‘Reynard’ or, occasionally, ‘my dear Kraus.’ It was a nightmare, and when at last Baulman had made his escape, he felt physically weakened by the encounter. He sat in his car and wondered how quickly Hummel could be put out of both of their miseries. While in the room he made a quick search of Hummel’s belongings, just in case any mail might have arrived from the Justice Department, but there was nothing. Baulman thought Hummel’s damned daughter had probably requested that all of her father’s mail be redirected to her. What if the Justice people got in touch with her, and that bitch Demers came calling? Baulman could only hope that Theodora would be smart enough not to let Demers within fifty feet of her father.
He calmed himself, and tried to consider the problem logically. Theodora Hummel might have been as unpleasant as shingles, but she wasn’t stupid. Who knew what Hummel, in his dotage, had let slip to her about his past? Even after only a quarter of an hour with him, Baulman was convinced that he had regressed to his wartime service. Every word from Hummel’s lips had concerned his time in uniform and, stirred by the presence of his old comrade, their time together at Lubsko, although Hummel spoke only of the flowerbeds, and the good food, and the relaxed regime, excluding from his memory entirely the walking corpses that justified the camp’s existence. Sometimes he even forgot that he was now Bernhard Hummel and corrected Baulman when he called him by that name …
Slowly, Baulman became convinced that Theodora must have some awareness of what her father had really done during the war. Hummel’s cover story was that he had been persecuted for trade union activism, and forced to wear the red inverted triangle of a political prisoner. He had been imprisoned, first in Kuhberg and Flossenbürg, and then in Dachau. This story had initially caused him some difficulties with the Americans, due to the inevitable communist connotations of trade union activism, but the supporting documentation from various sympathetic members of the clergy, as well as his American sponsors, had made it clear that Bernhard Hummel was as anticommunist as it was possible to be, and had, in fact, become involved in workers’ rights as much to fight against unwelcome Marxist influences as fascism. By now Theodora Hummel certainly knew this to be a lie, but she had remained silent, as any good daughter would.
And what if Demers did manage to interview Hummel? The ravings of a demented man would not stand up in court. But did they have to stand up? Again, it came down to the burden of proof required for deportation. Maybe even Hummel’s ramblings would be enough to damn Baulman. If, as he believed, Engel had betrayed him, then Hummel would give them the confirmation Demers needed to continue her investigation. Once they began pulling threads, some unraveling was inevitable.
He went over all this again as he lay sleepless in his bed, Lotte snoring peacefully on her cushion under the window. He concluded that Theodora Hummel’s instinct for self-preservation, and her desire to maintain her status in the community – she was an assistant principal at an elementary-middle school – meant that she had decided to conceal whatever she might have learned about her father’s true identity. He could approach her, of course, and sound her out to confirm this, but it seemed inadvisable, just in case she actually did not know the truth about her father, or had decided to leave it unacknowledged even to herself, and because she had no more love for Baulman than he had for her.
There was another way, though, another person to whom he could speak about Hummel, one who was closer to him than Baulman had been: Riese. Yes, just as he had been instructed to do, Baulman would consult with Riese, and on the basis of what he learned he would be able to gauge the best way of dealing with Theodora.
With that, Baulman’s body and mind began to relax at last, and he fell asleep.
He woke shortly before seven. He fed Lotte, made some poached eggs on toast, and took the dog for a short walk before driving to Harrington to see Ambros Riese. He introduced himself to Riese’s daughter-in-law as an old acquaintance, and asked if he might be permitted to visit with him for a time. She seemed pleased, and Baulman guessed that Riese didn’t receive many visitors. None of them did. Most of those who might have visited them were dead.
Riese’s son and daughter-in-law had converted their two-car garage into living accommodations for the old man. He had a separate bedroom, his own bathroom, and a kitchen-cum-living room. He was sitting in an armchair watching CNN when Baulman was admitted. Unlike Hummel, Riese had not shrunk. He was still a big man, and his blue eyes gleamed with the clarity of prime gemstones. An oxygen tank was positioned behind the chair, a plastic cannula feeding the gas into his nostrils. A walker stood at the ready to his right, and a mobility scooter was charging in a corner by the door.
Riese didn’t appear particularly surprised to see Baulman, although he was less pleased than his daughter-in-law had been. Baulman immediately felt a combination of deference and resentment in Riese’s presence. Riese was not like him, although both had entered the United States from Argentina within weeks of each other, and the same source of funds had helped them to escape and settle in this new land. Although Baulman knew relatively little about Riese’s past, the contrast between their respective methods of flight from Europe indicated that he had once been a figure of some importance.
Baulman had escaped Germany via the ‘Iberian Way’. Through the offices of the Nazi sympathizer Bishop Alois Hudal, the rector of an Austro-German church in Rome, Baulman had traveled by boat from Genoa to Barcelona, his left arm still aching from the procedure to remove his blood-group tattoo and sew up the wound. From there he traveled on to Madrid, where he had waited two months before securing passage to Argentina. He recalled Madrid fondly, even though he had lived in one room of a dark, cluttered apartment owned by a half-blind Falangist who slept in his clothes and stank of piss and wine. He remembered the voyage west with less happiness, having spent most of it lying seasick in a shared cabin.
It was on the ship that he first saw Riese, who occupied his own cabin in first-class and liked to smoke cigars from his vantage point on the upper deck. Through gossip, Baulman learned that Riese had been spirited out through the ‘Roman Way’, the escape route of choice for senior Nazis, and Monsignor Draganovic himself had personally seen him off from San Girolamo, the Croatian monastery in Rome that functioned as de facto headquarters for the operation to smuggle Nazis out of Italy.
Baulman had only seen Krunoslav Dragonovic once, and then from a distance, but he had conceived an immediate dislike for th
Yet Baulman’s fate had become intertwined with that of Riese and Hummel, who was also on that same ship. Each had been supplied with an identity card signed by Alois Hudal, which allowed him to apply for a Red Cross passport. That organization was too overburdened even to check the identities of applicants, and a Red Cross passport was the first important step in establishing a new identity. Once obtained, the escape route typically sent fugitives to Genoa, and from there to greener pastures. Baulman and Hummel had boarded the ship together at Barcelona. Hudal had secured Hummel’s release from the internment camp at Miranda de Ebro south of Bilbao, but only after Hummel had promised to convert to Catholicism, a promise he never bothered to keep. Riese had already been on board when the ship left Italy for Argentina.
A Song of Shadows by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes