A song of shadows, p.30
A Song of Shadows, p.30John Connolly
Once settled in Salta, Riese had brought his young wife over, then entered the United States with her as German Argentines of long descent. Both subsequently became naturalized US citizens, and raised their family in Maine. Baulman and Hummel had followed shortly after, their admission into the US delayed when the INS wanted to know why they had not applied to enter the country directly as displaced persons, instead of first traveling to Argentina and making their application from there. It was Hummel who had come up with the perfect answer: they had, he told the Americans, not realized how many ex-Nazis would be with them in Argentina.
Engel arrived a year later: his refusal to countenance a new name troubled the others – Riese most of all – but it quickly became apparent that nobody was interested in them. They were not being hunted, not then. Only later did the pursuit begin.
Baulman still did not know Riese’s true identity, and none of the others had been made aware of it either, as far as he could tell. Riese might have told Hummel, he supposed. Their friendship had always struck Baulman as curious, and even inadvisable. Baulman had kept his distance from all of them, meeting with the others only once or twice a year – less, if he could manage it, especially in the case of Engel. Baulman was solitary by nature, and had no need of their company. Also, if one of them came under suspicion from the Americans, the rest would be at less risk of exposure if few ties of intimate friendship could be established between them. He still regretted allying himself with Hummel during that US immigration business, but he had been far from home, and Argentina had proved an unpleasantly alien environment.
Sheila, Riese’s daughter-in-law, offered to make coffee, and Baulman and her father-in-law exchanged small talk until she returned with a pot and cookies, before announcing that she would leave them alone to talk. She smiled at them as she left, like a mother approving of children on a play date. Baulman poured the coffee, the hiss of Riese’s oxygen like an aural manifestation of his host’s disapproval. Nevertheless, Riese muted the sound on the television so they could speak. He kept his voice low, though, as did Baulman. Old habits.
‘Why are you here, Baulman?’
‘Some problems have arisen. Die Kacke ist am dampfen.’ The shit is steaming: the old expression came to his lips before he ever realized what he was saying. It often happened when his brain knew before he did that the English language would not suffice. ‘I need your advice.’
Riese’s icy demeanor to Baulman didn’t quite melt, but there was the hint of a thaw.
Baulman quickly explained everything that he could about Perlman, the Tedescos, and Ruth Winter. He chose not to mention the Wilde family. They were connected, but not entirely relevant to the present situation. Finally, he confessed that he was being investigated by the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Justice Department.
‘The OSI?’ said Riese. To their generation, it would always be the OSI that hunted them. ‘And you come here, to me?’
‘I had no choice. We are so few now. But I’ve been careful, and they’ve been thrown off the scent.’
Those bright eyes fixed themselves on Baulman, like an owl preparing to snatch a mouse and eat it.
‘How did they find you?’
‘We believe that Engel has been talking in an effort to save himself.’
‘Fucking Engel. I never trusted him. I would not allow him into my house.’
Baulman had never cared much for Engel either. Unfortunately, they were bound together by shared history.
Baulman sipped his coffee. It was strong, but tasted cheap. He set it down again. Drinking it wasn’t worth the trouble to his bladder.
‘I went to see Hummel yesterday,’ he said.
‘And how is Bernhard?’
‘He has lost his mind.’
‘It’s a shame. When last I saw him, he was just forgetful. His Fotze daughter barely gave him time to pack his bags before she had him locked up.’
‘Hummel,’ said Baulman carefully, ‘has not forgotten everything.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘When I visited him, he insisted on calling me Kraus, and talked only of the war.’
‘If his mind has gone to such a degree, I may not be the only one whom he—’
‘I’m not a fool, Baulman. I understand.’
Riese nibbled on a cookie. His jaws were more gum than teeth, and he scattered crumbs on his lap as he ate.
‘About his daughter,’ said Baulman.
‘Does she know?’
Riese stared down at his hands. Baulman noticed that the right had a slight but persistent tremor.
‘I think so,’ he said. ‘Before she put Bernhard away, she said something odd. She told me that it would be the best thing “for all of us,” then added “for all of you.” So, yes, I believe that she knows.’
‘If Engel is talking to the Justice Department, it can only be a matter of time before he gives them Hummel. And even if Engel were not to feed you to them, Hummel might do so accidentally if the Americans approached him. My relations with his daughter have never been good, but it would be best if someone could talk with her, and find out if she or her father has been contacted. If they have not, she can be forewarned.’
‘She may have to fight them in court,’ said Riese. ‘I am no lawyer, but I’m sure they have the power to interview a suspect, even if he is old and demented.’
‘And if he starts naming names …’
‘Yes. That would be regrettable.’ He pointed to the tray. ‘You’re not drinking your coffee.’
‘I don’t blame you. She buys cheap garbage. She has a good heart, but no taste.’
Riese began fiddling with his cannula. The tube had slipped out from behind his left ear. Baulman asked permission to help. He tightened it in place, and saw that the area behind Riese’s ears had been rubbed almost raw. His nostrils, too, were dry and irritated. God, thought, Baulman, I’ve been lucky.
‘Hummel talked with me about you,’ said Riese, as Baulman returned to his seat.
‘Really? He was always discreet about you.’
‘Huh. Good. He told me that you killed a man before the war.’
It had been so long since Baulman had thought of it. He had not spoken of his youth in many years, and there had been so many other killings after that. But it was the first that had set him on his path, he supposed. The first is always the hardest.
‘That’s right,’ said Baulman.
‘Who was he?’
‘A criminal. A burglar. My father ran a clothing store. Sometimes he kept money in the house. He did not have a safe. He said that if he had one, people would start asking why he needed it, so better to do without.
‘It was close to Christmas. He was busy, and there was more money than usual in the drawer in his office. He and my mother were at a party. I was alone in the house – well, I had Britta for company. She was a little mongrel, but a good dog. She heard a noise in the kitchen, and went to investigate. Seconds later, I heard her yelp, and when I went to see what was happening there was a man holding her up by the collar. He had a scarf around his mouth, and a hat over his eyes. He put a knife to Britta’s throat, and he killed her, right in front of me, and told me that I’d be next if I didn’t show him where the money was.
‘So I led him to my father’s office. I remember crying because of what he’d done to Britta, but I was also so angry. It was a cold rage. I recall it clearly.
‘The man began searching the desk, but my father kept his money in a concealed drawer. There was a lever under the desk, and you had to know where it was to open the drawer. I told the man that I could do it for him, and he stepped back. He was not frightened of me. I was only fifteen, and still small for my age.
‘I found the lever with my left hand, and released the drawer. I knew that my father kept a little Mauser pistol there, a 6.35mm auto. He’d had it since the war. It w
Baulman swallowed. His mouth was dry. It was like telling a story about a stranger. This was not Baulman’s history; this was Reynard Kraus’s. Only the memory of Britta’s death made it real to him.
‘I said to him. “Is it harder than killing a dog?” and I pulled the trigger. The bullet hit him in the chest, and he fell back against the wall. There was a chair, and somehow he managed to sit down. He put his hand to the wound, and it came away red. He asked me to call a doctor, and I shot him again, and I kept shooting until the pistol was empty. Then I called my father at the party and told him what I had done.
‘The police came. I explained everything. I didn’t lie. There was talk about charging me with murder because I’d shot the man so many times, but it never came to anything. Eventually I joined the SS, and, because I was considered bright, and was good with numbers, I was recruited for the Economic-Administration Main Office, when the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps was incorporated into it in 1942. That was how I eventually came to Lubsko.’
Riese nodded, as though somehow Baulman made a kind of sense to him now.
‘I was at Mittelbau-Dora,’ he said. ‘First under Förschner, then Baer.’
Mittelbau-Dora, sometimes referred to simply as Nordhausen, was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where prisoners worked on tunnel excavations for the production of V-1 and V-2 rockets. It was slave labor of the worst kind: twenty thousand died of exhaustion, disease, starvation, in accidents, or at the end of a noose. In 1947, the Americans tried nineteen former Nordhausen guards and kapos at Dachau, of whom fifteen were convicted and one executed. In an act of gross hypocrisy, the Americans also recruited Arthur Rudolph, one of the Nordhausen rocket scientists, under Operation Paperclip, and he went on to enjoy a distinguished career at NASA before being thrown out of the country in the 1980s.
Riese said no more, and Baulman did not pursue the matter. He wondered who Riese really was. He had worked as an engineer in the United States, so perhaps he had been a scientist. No matter. Like Baulman, he had lived under his false identity for longer than his true one. He was more Ambros Riese than anyone else. Pressure had been placed upon them to provide funds for his escape. Hudal and Dragonovic together had asked, and Baulman and the others could not refuse, because the clerics were supplying the paperwork. Money was no good without papers.
‘Do you regret anything that you did, Baulman?’
The question took Baulman by surprise. It was not that he had never considered it, merely that he had never heard it asked aloud.
‘I cannot connect it to myself,’ he replied. ‘When I recall everything that occurred, it seems to be the work of another man.’
‘It’s so long ago now,’ said Riese. ‘It is to me like a bad dream.’
On the television, the news shifted to some godforsaken part of the Middle East, where bodies lay in the dust – civilians, Baulman thought, although it was hard to tell in these conflicts.
‘Why do they continue to pursue us?’ asked Riese. ‘Why all this effort for old men and women who can no longer hurt anyone, when all they have to do is turn on their televisions and see more worthwhile outlets for their self-righteousness? The world has no shortage of war criminals, no end of mass slaughter, yet still they focus their attentions on us.’
‘They perceive no moral complexity in us,’ said Baulman, ‘no shades of right and wrong. They can show pictures of us to schoolchildren, and they can say, “See? This is what evil looks like.” But show them men and women with machetes in Africa, show them Syrians fighting a dictatorship and then flying the flag of Al-Qaeda, show them Israeli tanks and Hamas gunmen, and all they see is confusion. It is easier to torment us than to try to unravel the knots of outrageous human behavior that they witness every day. That is what I believe.’
Yet Baulman had never thought of himself as evil. He had done what he had to do. If he had not, others would have taken his place. He had tried to make sure that the children did not suffer. He put them to sleep the way his vets had put a succession of Weimaraners to sleep. He had not wanted the children to feel pain and fear at the last any more than he would have wanted his dogs to die in distress.
‘What will you do about Hummel?’ asked Riese.
‘Our friend will take care of him. It will be a mercy.’
‘He will be discreet?’
‘If Engel has named Hummel, they will investigate his death.’
‘Let them. Old men die. It’s what they do.’
‘What we do,’ Riese corrected.
‘No, not us. Not yet.’
Riese reached out and placed his left hand on Baulman’s leg.
‘Do you know how Harry Houdini died?’ he asked.
‘What?’ said Baulman.
‘The escape artist, Houdini. Do you know how he died?’
‘No.’ Baulman was confused.
‘He would boast that punches could never hurt him,’ said Riese. ‘A university student – Whitehead, I believe was his name – came to Houdini in his dressing room at a theater in Montreal and asked if this was true, that he could not be hurt by a fist. Houdini said that it was. This Whitehead asked permission to strike Houdini in the stomach, and when the great escapologist assented, Whitehead hit him hard repeatedly, just below the belt. The blows ruptured Houdini’s appendix. You see, he had been reclining on a couch at the time due to a broken ankle, and so could not brace himself properly to receive the blows. He died of peritonitis as a result of the injuries he had received. What is the lesson of that story, Baulman?’
‘That one should always be on one’s guard?’
Riese’s fingers dug painfully into Baulman’s thigh.
‘No,’ said Riese. ‘The lesson is that, in the end, nobody escapes.’
He picked up the clicker, and raised the volume on the television.
‘Go now,’ he told Baulman, ‘and don’t come here again.’
Amanda Winter was playing with a small white mongrel dog in the yard of her grandmother’s house when Parker arrived. Like his temporary home in Boreas, Isha Winter’s house overlooked the sea, but it was separated from the beach by a road. A gap in a fence opposite gave access to a wooden path that led through the dunes to the strand. The Winter house was painted white with blue trim. The paintwork was fresh and the garden was neatly tended.
Amanda seemed not to recognize him at first, and he thought that she looked thinner than when he’d last seen her, even though only a short time had passed. The dog barked at him, but not in a threatening way. As far as the dog was concerned, he was simply another potential playmate. The gate was closed, and it pressed its muzzle between the bars, its tail wagging.
Amanda squinted at him. The sun was behind him, and shone in her eyes.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Hi. Do you remember me?’
She nodded. ‘You’re Sam’s dad.’
He leaned against the gatepost, but did not enter.
‘How are you doing, Amanda?’
‘I’m okay,’ she said. She couldn’t hold his gaze, so she knelt down and patted the dog instead.
He didn’t want to offer her platitudes. They wouldn’t have meant anything to her anyway. Instead he asked,
‘Who’s the dog?’
‘Is he yours?’
She shrugged. ‘Not really. He belongs to the Frobergs. They just got him yesterday.’
‘Who named him?’
‘I thought of it, but everyone had to agree.’
‘It’s a good name. He looks like a Milo.’
‘Can I help you?’ he asked.
‘I’m here to see Mrs Winter. My name is Charlie Parker.’
Recognition dawned in the man’s face.
‘Please,’ he said, opening the gate, ‘come in. My name is Christian Froberg. Amanda is living with my family now.’
They shook hands. Amanda held on to Milo to prevent him from jumping up, or making a break for freedom through the open gate. Froberg made the introductions to his wife, Dora, and to Isha Winter. It appeared that the Frobergs were about to leave – each day they brought Amanda to sit shiva for a time with her grandmother – but they felt obliged to exchange some stilted small talk with Parker, made more awkward by the fact that Mrs Winter appeared unable to speak to him. She just stared, and wrung her hands as though trying to clean them of a stain.
‘Whose idea was it to get a dog?’ asked Parker.
Christian Froberg smiled at his wife. ‘Our kids have been nagging us to get one for the last year, but we’d resisted. Then, when we took in Amanda, we thought it might be good for her.’
‘I heard that she was staying with foster parents.’
‘We’re in touch with Child and Family Services,’ said Dora. ‘We’re hoping to start the adoption procedure next month.’
‘We don’t want to rush anything,’ said Christian. ‘For Amanda’s sake.’
Again, Parker avoided platitudes. They didn’t seem like stupid people. They’d know how hard it was going to be for Amanda – and for them. What had befallen her mother would never leave her, and there would be difficult times ahead.
‘I wish you luck,’ was all he said.
The Frobergs made their farewells, gathered up Amanda and Milo, and headed for their station wagon, which was parked in the drive. Amanda put Milo on a leash, and he trotted along at her heels. Something in Parker broke away at the sight of her, a fragment of his heart that went out to the girl. It was in the way that she walked, the way she held her head, like a boxer who has taken a ferocious blow and is trying only not to fall. Now he wished that he could have found the right words, some consolation to offer. The certainties that he had felt at Green Heron Bay slipped away. If only he had been able to run faster, if only he had not been injured …
A Song of Shadows by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes