A song of shadows, p.37
A Song of Shadows, p.37John Connolly
None had survived the war.
Marie Demers called on Charlie Parker as she was heading to Portland Jetport to catch her flight back to DC. Ambros Riese had been questioned at his home, and denied all knowledge of Anselm Trommler. But Demers had unearthed a labor requisition form from Mittelbau-Dora with Trommler’s name signed on the bottom, along with photographs and documents that traced his journey from Germany to Argentina, and on to the United States, during which time Trommler became Riese. Trommler’s photograph on his Nazi party membership documents was almost identical, a little less weight on the face aside, to the picture on his INS paperwork. There was enough evidence, Demers believed, to begin denaturalization and extradition proceedings against him, assuming he lived long enough. All this was explained to Riese as he sat in his chair, the oxygen hissing into him, while his son advised him to say nothing until they hired a lawyer, and his daughter-in-law looked on in silent shock.
And then, just as Demers and Toller were leaving, Riese confessed. He didn’t do so out of shame, or guilt, or even some strange relief.
He did it, Demers thought, out of pride.
The detective interested Demers. She was content to discuss the details of the case with him, and what had been discovered in Perlman’s rented mailbox. It was all about to become a matter of public record anyway.
‘But you found nothing about Baulman?’ asked Parker.
‘No, just Riese, and Hummel, and the photographs. We’re still working on identifying the second woman, but we think it’s almost certainly Magda Probst, wife of Obersturmbannfuhrer Lothar Probst, commandant of Lubsko Experimental Camp.’
She pulled a file from her bag and showed him the photographs.
‘That’s him on the right,’ said Demers.
But Parker was not looking at the picture of the woman with the gun. He was looking at the photograph of Isha Górski.
And he knew.
[We] will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusers in order that justice may be done.
From ‘Concerning Responsibility of Hitlerites for Committed Atrocities,’ October 30th, 1943, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin
He had not expected to be heading north again so soon. He did so with a certain peace, and a kind of assurance. He had no proof – or none that would stand up in court – but he had certainty. Perhaps he should have told Demers immediately, but it was one thing to have faith in one’s own convictions, and another to encourage others to share it. And he held fast to another truth: that there was not one form of justice, but many.
It took Isha Winter a while to answer her doorbell. He thought that she might have been watching his arrival from an upstairs window, for he saw a shadow move against the glass. She appeared reluctant to admit him, as though she already knew why he had come. As they sat across from each other in the living room, the sun spearing light through a gap in the drapes, he felt like one who had come to bring news of a death.
‘You were there,’ she said, ‘when the pastor was killed.’
‘The police came. They told me about him, about Marcus Baulman, about the buried boy …’
Parker said nothing. He sat back and let her speak while he watched, barely listening to the words that came from her lips, seeing them only as black seeds that dropped to the floor, slipping between the boards to germinate poisonously in the darkness that lay beneath, until at last sound became silence. He took in once again the dark wood, the stained boards, the low ceilings. It reminded him of an animal’s lair, a place to hide from hunters.
‘Why have you come here?’ she asked.
‘Because you are not who you claim to be.’
‘Then who am I?’
‘I don’t know, not for sure, but you are not Isha Górski. I think you probably looked a little like her in your youth, or enough to pass for her among those who knew her only from photographs. Like you, she was fair-haired. Surgery may have helped, but mostly the deception succeeded because everyone who had once been close to Isha was dead. If I had to guess, I’d say that you were once Magda Probst, who calmed children as they were led in to die at the end of one of Reynard Kraus’s needles. Like you, she was left-handed. I’ve seen a photograph of her firing a gun. Isha Gorskí wrote with her right hand. I’ve seen a photograph of her too, but she was holding only a piece of chalk, surrounded by children who didn’t know they were already dead.
‘I think you colluded with Kraus and Udo Hoch and Thomas Engel to escape justice, although I’ve been trying to figure out what part your husband Lothar played in what happened. Maybe he was noble enough to sacrifice himself so you could get away, but I think that you and your accomplices killed him. I’ve read up on him. He was older than you, and walked with a limp. He’d only have been a burden, even if he’d agreed to become involved. His body wasn’t as badly burned as Isha’s – because that was who ended up in his bed at the end, I think, although I imagine she was charred flesh before she was even put there – and confirmation of his identity would have led to an assumption about the remains found in the house with him: a murder-suicide involving husband and wife, with the Russians at the gates. Anyway, nobody was going to look very closely at a pair of blackened bodies in a gutted house, not with Germany on the verge of collapse and plenty of the dead and dying to occupy the Allies, and not with one courageous survivor left alive to tell a tale of how she hid in a grave while SS guards disposed of the evidence of murder, and the commandant and his wife ended their lives together. I still don’t know why you didn’t flee with the others. Maybe you were ill, or injured, or perhaps you just knew that a whole lot of problems could be avoided if Magda Probst was believed dead, and Isha Górski alive. The Allies didn’t put dead people on wanted lists.
‘Of course, for that story to work you had to pretend to be a Jew. Not that it bothered you. You weren’t an anti-Semite, and neither was your husband. That’s why you were chosen for Lubsko. You were just mercenaries at heart. Still, I suspect you hoped it would only be a temporary arrangement until you could get to the money and disappear – because that’s what it was all about, right: money? Those poor souls, who thought they could buy their lives from you, gave up the hiding places for whatever wealth they had stashed away, but I’ll bet that, toward the end, not all of that information was making its way to Berlin.
But because of the story you had created for yourself – the Sole Survivor, the Last Witness to Lubsko – you were stuck with Isha’s identity for the long term. It worked out well, though: what better place to hide than among those you’d tried so hard to wipe out, with a husband who was Jewish by birth but not by observance? I hear that Werner had a quotation from Goebbels tattooed on the small of his back. Werner had lots of tattoos, but I think this one had a particular meaning for him: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” You were the big lie. Your life was the lie.’
The woman who called herself Isha Winter remained very still. Her eyes were bright, and he remembered reading that the eyes did not age. They did not grow, nor did they change. He wondered if this was true. In appearance Isha Winter was an old woman, a Jew who had suffered and survived, but the truth of her, the essence, lay in those eyes. Her mouth was fixed in the faintest of smiles, as though she were listening to a tale being told by a child.
‘I wondered about the other guards as well,’ said Parker. ‘Some of them must have been good, loyal Germans, and couldn’t be trusted with what you were planning to do, so that was where Engel and Hoch came in: a pair of killers who were prepared to murder their own in return for money and protection when the war was over. Kraus was different: he was good with figures, and Demers believes that he looked after a lot of the paperwork for the camp. I wondered at first if you might even have been sleeping with him, but now I don’t think so: you didn’t hook up after the war, and you both married other people.
But the woman before him gave no reply.
‘Anyway, they fled, and you remained in Europe and the assets you stole paid for everyone’s paperwork, and ultimately bought passage to the United States, helped by Werner’s father. When he died, his son took on the duty of watching over you all. I’m sure that you paid good money to the Werners in the beginning, although I doubt there’s much left now. Baulman, or Kraus, or whatever you called him in private, might even have used the last of it to cover the cost of hiring Steiger – because twenty thousand isn’t much for three killings, not for a man of Steiger’s quality, although he was probably past his prime when he died – but you were also fortunate that Pastor Werner turned out to be a fanatic. Fanatics work cheap.
‘Which brings us to why Steiger was hired to begin with, and why Werner had to get his own hands bloody: Bruno Perlman. He found out that members of his family had died at Lubsko, and he became a man with a mission. He wanted to discover all that he could about the camp, which ultimately meant talking to the only eyewitness left alive: Isha Górski, now Isha Winter. I don’t think he suspected anything then. I think he just wanted to know more. But he was perceptive, and somehow he spotted what I did, because he mailed those two pictures to himself, one of Isha Górski, and the other of Magda Probst. The more he looked, the more convinced he became that the woman who claimed to have survived Lubsko was not who she said she was.
‘But Perlman was also a fanatic in his way, and an egotist. He didn’t trust the authorities, and I think he wanted to claim the credit for exposing the truth. He only had one close friend, Lenny Tedesco, and he confided in him.
‘And then he made the first of his mistakes: he called your daughter. I don’t know why – he strikes me as having been a lonely man, and maybe he felt they had made some connection after his visit to you – but whatever the reason, he contacted her, and shared with her something of what he suspected. What he told her took root, because there was a tiny part of your daughter that knew it to be true. She confronted you, and saw in your eyes what I’m seeing now. There might have been threats made, words spoken in anger, but what it came down to was that Ruth left, took your granddaughter with her, and told you that they wanted nothing more to do with you. Then she had to decide what to do with the information Perlman had given her. Did she give him away then? Did she tell you that he was coming, that he thought he had proof against you? And did you, in turn, contact Werner, who somehow managed to convince Perlman to meet him while Steiger stayed in Florida and took care of the Tedescos?’
The smile never wavered. The stillness remained. He felt as though he were conversing with a simulacrum of a human being, an imperfect imitation. He supposed that was exactly what she was.
‘Whatever the chain of events, you made the decision to sacrifice your daughter. You might have been under pressure from Werner or Kraus to acquiesce, but ultimately the choice was yours, because you always had the final word. You assented to her murder, but on one condition: your granddaughter was not to be harmed. Your daughter had disappointed you, but you weren’t about to lose your grandchild because of her. You know, now that I consider it, you might even have had her father killed years before. Werner would have arranged to have it done for you, if you’d asked, or even taken care of it personally. Alex Goyer wouldn’t have been much of a father to Amanda anyway: a petty criminal, a beater of women. He’d almost made Ruth lose her child. You told me so yourself. You gave your own daughter to the knife, so I don’t think you’d have blinked at the thought of having her boyfriend murdered.’
His mouth was growing dry. The sunlight departed from the window as if in shame. He wanted to be gone from this house, and from this woman’s presence. Just a little longer, he thought. Just a few more minutes.
At last she spoke.
‘All this, from a photograph?’ she said. ‘Even if it were true, which it is not – I watch TV, Mr Parker: I know of wires, of recordings, of trickery – who would believe it?’
‘I’m not recording you.’ He lifted his shirt, and showed her his phone. It was powered off, and the battery had been removed.
‘I don’t care,’ she said. ‘These are all lies, fabrications. And even if they were to be believed, how could they be proved? Not with a picture of a woman in a schoolroom. Not with invented stories.’
‘Perhaps. I can’t stop you. Let them look. Let them begin a search that will take years to complete. I will be long dead. I am past the evening of my life, and the dark closes in on me.’
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ he asked.
‘Of what waits in that night?’
She laughed at him, and then covered her mouth to hide it. It was a curiously girlish gesture, and he found it repellent.
‘Do you know how many people cried out to God at the end in Lubsko, in Birkenau, in Dachau?’ she said. ‘Can you imagine all those voices screaming together, begging for rescue, for mercy, for an end to pain, for the annihilation of their tormentors? And do you know how many of them were answered? Tell me. Speak the number. No? Then let me say it for you: none. There was no answer. There was no mercy. From that, what can we say of God? Either that He does not exist, or He turned away from His own creation, and would not listen to their cries. What have we to fear from a being like that, even if He is real? How could He even look us in the eye and pass sentence upon us?
‘But I do not believe in that God, or any god. I do not believe in a world beyond this one. I will close my eyes, and I will cease to exist, and laws and justice will have no further meaning for me. Leave now, Mr Parker. Whatever satisfaction you seek, whatever answers you desire, won’t be found here.’
He got to his feet. He had what he wanted: not a confession, but confirmation. She had given him enough. He had looked in her face as he told his story, and had seen the truth of it reflected there. He said nothing more before he left, and did not look back at her. He called Demers from his car, and told her of the woman who had addressed her cards with her left hand, but years earlier had apparently written her name in chalk with her right. Let Demers do what she wished with the information, for he had other work to do, and the old horror in there was right: she was beyond the reach of Demers, and beyond any written law, any human justice.
But that was not the only justice.
Parker returned to the Scarborough house. As night fell, he poured a glass of red wine and went outside to sit on the porch and wait.
At some point he must have fallen asleep, for when he woke the glass was lying on the ground, and his dead daughter was watching him from behind an old oak. Her singing had roused him. He could not see her ruined face: as always, she tried to keep it hidden by turning away and allowing her long hair to conceal the damage.
He no longer feared her. He understood something of what she was, and knew that she loved him enough to move between worlds in order to be closer to him. He thought of what Werner had said to him: that he did not wish to know the truth about life after death, that he did not want proof of another existence. He recalled the conviction of the woman who wore the mask of Isha Winter: that law and justice could not get to her in time in this world, and the rest was sleep.
But Parker knew the truth, and it was not so terrible, not for him. The difficulty for some might lie in remaining engaged with this world after such a revelation, but it presented no obstacle to Parker. There was work to be done here.
‘Hello, Jennifer,’ he said.
The voice less like a whisper than the memory of one, the sound of it coming from so close by that he could almost feel the words as a coldness against his skin, even though the dead daughter remained behind the tree.
a little while
‘Are you alone?’
The other was not with her now, the entity composed of residues of hurt and anger that took the shape of his dead wife.
will you be staying here?
‘For a while.’
‘Do you like it here?’
you like it here
‘Yes.’ He smiled at her, and tried to hold it for as long as he could before he let it fade. ‘Jennifer, what can you tell me about Sam?’
‘She’s special. I know that now.’
i can’t say
i’m not supposed to
‘Who told you not to?’
‘Do you have to do what Sam tells you?’
‘Are you frightened of Sam?’
‘Jennifer, is Sam—?’
A Song of Shadows by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes