A song of shadows, p.8
A Song of Shadows, p.8John Connolly
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘This your place?’
‘I got a share in it. Skettle owns the rest.’
‘I don’t know any Skettle. You’re a bitch to find. You ought to put up a sign.’
‘There is a sign.’
‘I didn’t see none.’
‘Which way did you come?’
The man waved a hand vaguely over his shoulder – north, south, east, west: what did any of it matter? The only issue of consequence was that he was here at last.
‘Tedesco,’ he said. ‘That’s a Sephardic name. Some might mistake it for Italian, but it’s not. It means “German”, but you most likely had Ashkenazi forbears. Am I right?’
Lenny wished that the bar had remained empty. He didn’t want to engage in this discussion. He wanted this vile man with his pungent stink to be gone.
‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Sure you do. I read once that the word “Nazi” comes from “Ashkenazi.” What do you think of that?’
Lenny worked on polishing a glass that didn’t need a cloth taken to it. He rubbed so hard that the glass cracked under the pressure. He tossed it in the trash and moved on to another.
‘I’ve never heard that before,’ he replied, and hated himself for engaging the man. ‘My understanding is that it refers to National Socialism.’
‘Ah, you’re probably right. Anything else is just the frothing of ignorant men. Holocaust deniers. Fools. I don’t give no credit to it. As though so much slaughter could be ascribed to Jew-on-Jew violence.’
Lenny felt the muscles in his neck cramp. He clenched his teeth so hard that he felt something come loose at the back of his mouth. It was the way the man spoke the word ‘Jew.’
On the television screen, the news report had moved on to a panel discussion about Engel and Fuhrmann, and the background to their cases. The volume was just low enough for the content to remain intelligible. Lenny moved to change the channel, but that same voice told him to leave it be. Lenny glanced at the glass of brandy and milk. A curl of red lay upon the surface of the remaining liquid. The man saw it at the same time as Lenny did. He dipped a finger and swirled the blood away, then drained the glass dry.
‘Like I said, I got a problem with my guts. Got problems all over. I shit nails and piss broken glass.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘Hasn’t killed me yet. I just don’t care to think about what my insides might look like.’
Couldn’t be any worse than what’s outside, Lenny thought, and those dark eyes flicked toward him, as though that unspoken wisecrack had been written in the air above Lenny’s head.
‘You got another of these?’
‘I’m closing up.’
‘Won’t take you much longer to make than it’ll take me to drink.’
‘Nah, we’re done.’
The glass slid across the bar.
‘Just the milk then. You wouldn’t deny a man a glass of milk, would you?’
Oh, but Lenny wanted to. He wanted to so badly, yet still he poured three fingers of milk into the glass. He was grateful that there was no more left in the carton.
Lenny said nothing, just tossed the empty container.
‘I don’t want you to get me wrong,’ said the man. ‘I got no problem with Jews. When I was a boy, I had a friend who was a Jew. Jesus, it’s been a long time since I thought about him. I can hardly remember his name now.’
He put the thumb and forefinger of his right hand to the bridge of his nose and squeezed hard, his eyes closed as he tried to pull the name from the pit of his memory.
‘Asher,’ he said at last. ‘Asher Cherney. That was his name. Damn, that was hard. I called him Ash. I don’t know what anyone else called him, because no one else palled around with him much. Anyway, I’d hang out with Ash when none of the other boys were there to see. You had to be careful. The people I grew up with, they didn’t care much for Jews. Niggers neither. Fuck, we didn’t even like Catholics. We stuck with our own, and it wasn’t good to be seen making friends outside your own circle. And Ash, you see, he had a deformity, which made it worse for him. You listen to Kiss?’
Lenny, who had somehow been drawn into the tale despite himself, was puzzled. Following the man’s thought processes was like trying to keep track of a ricochet in a steel room.
‘What, the band?’
‘Yeah, the band. They’re shit, but you got to have heard of them.’
‘I know them,’ said Lenny.
‘Right. Well, their singer has the same thing that Ash had. They call it microtia. It’s a deformity of the ear. The cartilage doesn’t grow right, so you have a kind of stump. Makes you deaf too. They say it usually occurs in the right ear, but Ash, he had it in his left, so he was strange even among other people like him. Now they can do all kinds of grafts or implants, but back then you just had to live with it. Ash would grow his hair long to try to hide it, but everybody knew. If his life didn’t suck already, being a Jew in a town that didn’t care much for anyone who wasn’t in some whitebread church, he had to deal with the ignorance and bile of kids who spent their lives just looking for some physical defect to hone in on.
‘So I felt sorry for Ash, though I couldn’t show it, not in public. But if I was alone, and I saw Ash, and he was alone, then I’d talk to him, or walk with him, maybe skim stones by the river if the mood took us. He was okay, Ash. You never would have known he was a Jew, unless he told you his name. That microtia, you think it’s a Jew thing?’
Lenny said that he didn’t know. He felt as though he were watching some terrible accident unfold, a catastrophic collision of bodies that could only result in injury and death, yet was unable to tear his eyes away from it. He was hypnotized by this man’s awfulness, the depth of his corruption only slowly revealing itself by word and intonation.
‘Because,’ the man went on, ‘there are diseases that Jews are more likely to carry than other races. You, being Ashkenazi from way back, are more likely to get cystic fibrosis. I mean, there are others, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind. Cystic fibrosis is a bitch. You don’t want to get that. Anyhow, I don’t know if this microtia thing is like it. Could be. Doesn’t matter, I suppose. Unless you have it, and don’t want to pass it on to your kids. You got kids?’
‘Well, if you’re thinking about having them, you ought to get checked out. You don’t want to be transmitting shit to your kids. Where was I? Oh yeah: Ash. Ash and his fucked-up ear. So, me and Ash would do stuff together, and we’d talk, and I got to like him. Then, one day, this kid, a degenerate named Eddie Tyson, he saw us together, and next thing you know they were saying I was queer for Ash, and me and Ash were doing things under bridges and in his mom’s car, and Eddie Tyson and a bunch of his buddies caught me alone on my way home and beat the living shit out of me, all on account of how Ash Cherney was my friend.
‘So you know what I did?’
Lenny could barely speak, but he found the strength to say the word ‘No.’
‘I went around to Ash’s house, and I asked if he wanted to go down to the river with me. I told him what had happened, because I looked like hell after what they’d done to me. So me and Ash went down to the river, and I got a stone, and I hit Ash with it. I hit him so hard in the face that I was sure I’d knocked his nose into his brain. I thought I’d killed him, but somehow he stayed conscious. Then I threw the stone away and used my fists and feet on him, and I left him by the river in a pool of his own blood, spitting teeth, and I never heard from him again, because he never came back to school, and his parents moved away not long after.’
He sipped his milk.
‘I guess me and Ash weren’t such good friends after all, huh?’
The television was showing black-and-white footage of emaciated men and women standing behind wire fences,
‘You ever wonder what would make men do such things?’
He wasn’t looking at the screen, so Lenny didn’t know if he was still speaking of what he had done to Ash Cherney, or about the evidence of atrocities committed decades before. Lenny was cold. His fingertips and toes hurt. He figured that it didn’t matter what the man was referring to. It was all part of one great mass of viciousness, a cesspit of black, human evil.
‘No,’ said Lenny.
‘Course you do. We all do. Wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. There are those who say that all crimes can be ascribed to one of two motives – love or money – but I don’t believe that. In my experience, everything we do is predicated on one of two other things: greed or fear. Oh, sometimes they get mixed up, just like my brandy and milk, but mostly you can keep them separated. We feel greed for what we don’t have, and fear because of what we might lose. A man desires a woman who isn’t his wife, and takes her – that’s greed. But, deep down, he doesn’t want his own wife to find out because he wants to keep what he has with her, because it’s different, and safe. That’s fear. You play the markets?’
‘You’re wise. It’s a racket. Buying and selling, they’re just other names for greed and fear. I tell you, you understand that, and you understand all there is to know about human beings and the way the world works.’
He sipped his milk.
‘Except, of course, that isn’t all. Look at those pictures from the camps. You can see fear, and not just in the faces of the dying and the dead. Take a look at the men in uniform, the ones they say were responsible for what happened, and you’ll see fear there too. Not so much fear of what might happen if they didn’t follow orders. I don’t hold with that as an excuse, and from what I’ve read the Germans understood that killing naked Jews and queers and gypsies wasn’t for every man, and if you couldn’t do it then they’d find someone who would, and send you off to shoot at someone who could shoot back.
‘But there’s still fear in those faces, no matter how well they try to hide it: fear of what will happen to them when the Russians or the Americans arrive and find out what they’ve done; fear of looking inside themselves to see what they’ve become; maybe even fear for their immortal souls. There will also be those who feel no fear of that at all, of course, because sometimes men and women do terrible things just because they gain pleasure from the act, but those ones are the exceptions, and exceptions make bad law. The rest, they just did what they did because they were told to do it and they couldn’t see much reason not to, or because there was money in gold teeth and rendered human fat. I guess some of them did it out of ideology, but I don’t have much time for ideologies either. They’re just flags of convenience.’
The man’s voice was very soft, and slightly, sibilant, and held a note of regret that most of the world could not see itself as clearly as he did, and this was his cross to bear.
‘You hear that woman on the TV?’ he continued. ‘She’s talking about evil, but throwing around the word “evil” like it means something don’t help anyone. Evil is the avoidance of responsibility. It doesn’t explain. You might even say that it excuses. To see the real terror, the real darkness, you have to look at the actions of men, however awful they may appear, and call them human. When you can do that, then you’ll understand.’
He coughed hard, spattering the milk with droplets of blood.
‘You didn’t answer my question from earlier,’ he said.
‘What question was that?’ said Lenny.
‘I just can’t figure out how they know that those two old men are the ones they were looking for. I seen the pictures of the ones they say did all those things, the photographs from way back, and then I see those two old farts and I couldn’t swear that it’s the same men sixty, seventy years later. Jesus, you could show me a picture of my own father as a young man, and I wouldn’t know him from the scarecrow he was when he died.’
‘I think there was a paper trail of some kind,’ said Lenny. To be honest, he didn’t know how Engel and Fuhrmann had been traced. He didn’t much care either. They had been found at last, and that was all that mattered. He just wanted this conversation to reach its end, but that was in the hands of the man at the bar. There was a purpose to his presence here, and all Lenny could do was wait for it to be revealed to him, and hope that he survived the adumbration.
‘I can’t even say that I’ve heard of the camps that they’re supposed to have done all that killing in,’ said the man. ‘I mean, I heard of Auschwitz, and Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. I suppose I could name some others, if I put my mind to it, but what’s the place that Fuhrmann was at, or the one they claim is Fuhrmann? Ball Sack? Is that even a place?’
‘Belsec,’ said Lenny softly. ‘It’s called Belsec.’
‘And the other?’
‘Well, you have been paying attention, I’ll give you that. You had people there?’
‘No, not there.’
‘So it’s not personal, then.’
Lenny had had enough. He killed the TV.
‘I don’t want you to mistake me,’ said the man, not even commenting upon the sudden absence of light and sound from the screen. ‘I got no problem with any race or creed: Jews, niggers, spics, white folk, they’re all the same to me. I do believe, though, that each race and creed ought to keep to itself. I don’t think any one is better than the other, but trouble only comes when they mix. The South Africans, they had it right with apartheid, except they didn’t have the common sense, the basic human fucking decency, to give every man the same privileges, the same rights. They thought white was superior to black, and that’s not the case. God made all of us, and he didn’t put one above another, no matter what some might say. Even your own folk, you’re no more chosen than anyone else.’
Lenny made one final effort to save himself, to force this thing away. It was futile, but he had to try.
‘I’d like you to leave now,’ he said. ‘I’m all done for the night. Have the drinks on me.’
But the man did not move. All this was only the prelude. The worst was yet to come. Lenny felt it. This creature had brought with him a miasma of darkness, of horror. Maybe a small chance still remained, a chink in the wall that was closing in around him, through which he might escape. He could not show weakness, though. The drama would play out, and each would accept the role that had been given to him.
‘I haven’t finished my milk yet.’
‘You can take it with you.’
‘Nah, I think I’ll drink it here. Wouldn’t want it to spill.’
‘I’m going to be closing up around you,’ said Lenny. ‘You’ll have to excuse me.’
He moved to take the drawer from the register. Usually he counted the takings before he left, but on this occasion he’d leave that until the morning. He didn’t want to give this man any cause to linger.
‘I’m no charity case,’ said the visitor. ‘I’ll pay my own way, just as I always have.’
He reached into his jacket pocket.
‘Well, what do you think this is?’
Despite himself, Lenny found himself looking to see what had drawn the man’s attention. He glimpsed something small and white, apparently drawn from the man’s own pocket.
‘Jesus, it’s a tooth.’ He pronounced it ‘toot’. He held the item in question up to the light, like a jeweler appraising a gemstone. ‘Now where do you suppose that came from? It sure ain’t one of mine.’
As if to put the issue beyond doubt, he manipulated his upper row of teeth with his tongue, and his dentures popped out into his left palm. The action caused his mouth to collapse in upon itself, rendering his appearance stranger still. He smiled, nodded at Lenny, and replaced his appliance. He then laid the single tooth on the surface of the bar. A length of reddish flesh adhered to the root.
‘That’s certainly something, isn’t it?’ he said.
Lenny backed off. He wonder
Except, except …
Like a conjuror, the customer reached into his pocket again and produced a second tooth, then a third. Finally, he seemed to tire of the whole business, rummaged for a final time, and scattered a full mouth’s worth of teeth on the bar. Some were without roots. At least one appeared to have broken during extraction. A lot of them were still stained with blood, or trailed tails of tissue.
‘Who are you?’ asked Lenny. ‘What do you want from me?’
The gun appeared in the man’s hand. Lenny didn’t know from guns, but this one looked big and kind of old.
‘You stay where you are now,’ said the man. ‘You hear me?’
Lenny nodded. He found his voice.
‘We got next to nothing in the register,’ he said. ‘It’s been quiet all day.’
‘I look like a thief to you?’
He sounded genuinely offended.
‘I don’t know what you look like,’ said Lenny, and he regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
‘You got no manners,’ said the man. ‘You know that, you fucking kike?’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Lenny. He had no pride now, only fear.
‘I accept your apology. You know what this is?’
He gave the weapon a little jerk.
‘No. I don’t know much about guns.’
‘There’s your first error. It’s not a gun, it’s a pistol: a Mauser C96 military pistol, made in long nine millimeter, which is rare. Some people call it a Broomhandle Mauser on account of the shape of the grip, or a Red 9 after the number carved into the grip. Consider that an education. Now move away from the door. You pay attention to me and what I say, and maybe this won’t go as bad for you as it might.’
A Song of Shadows by John Connolly / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes