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Islander: Book Two of
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is a continuation of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. The previous chapters can be accessed here. More will follow in coming weeks. This book is a sequel to Island Nights, which was a sort of childhood memoir wrapped in a mystery -- and which left unanswered a key plot thread. Hence the sequel, which takes the reader back and forth in time -- with a focus on World War Two, the fate of Mussolini, and questions of religious faith. It's pretty wild ride -- and really stands alone without need of reading the first book (although we'll probably get around to presenting that one, too. Meanwhile an excerpt from that first book is here).
Sleep came fitfully, in part because of the nature of the bedding Jacques was providing me – a living room couch with vinyl covering that squeaked at every move – and in part, I suppose, because of a combination of fatigue from the long trip and anticipation of what I might learn from my old friend.
I think it took the better part of a half-hour for me to secure a stable sleeping pattern, to fall into a slumber that would guarantee me some vitality the next day. And somewhere along the line between dark of night and light of day, I slipped into the world of dreams. I suspect it was nearer dawn than not, for that is when most of my dreams occur, at least the ones I recall. And even those are usually vague.
This one was different, though, in that I remembered it vividly upon waking.
I suspect it was about five or six a.m. when the dream came, when – within the confines of its spectral framework – I felt the presence of someone besides myself.
“Jacques?” I mumbled as I struggled to wakefulness in the dream. “That you?”
I figured, from the sound of his footsteps, that he was passing from either the bathroom or his bedroom to the kitchen, maybe for an early-morning snack. The thought triggered an appetite of my own.
“If you’re making a sandwich, how about one for me?” I said, my voice steadier now. “Or cookies or crackers. Whatever. Anything would be good.”
The room was nearly pitch dark, so my visual senses weren’t at their best. I was working with my hearing and with a sixth sense that told me almost immediately after uttering those words that this was not, in fact, my old friend at all.
I narrowed my eyes to try and see better, focusing in the direction of the last sound I had heard. Gradually, I discerned what I thought was a human figure, but it wasn’t moving now, so I wasn’t sure...
“Who are you?” I said; I had to know. I was becoming nervous ... and maybe scared, though it’s sometimes hard to tell in a dream.
The voice that responded was a gruff whisper.
“He’s a little crazy, your old friend,” it said.
I squinted harder, but it did no good. The features were obscured by the dark.
“So?” I answered. “I think everybody’s a little squirrelly.”
The gruff whisperer chuckled.
“Perhaps. But he seems a little more ... unusual ... than most.”
I didn’t know how to react; was a little afraid to say much at all, for fear of setting off an attack. An intruder visiting in the dark – even in a dream – is not something I accept very well. The voice sensed this, I guess.
“Don’t be frightened,” it said. “There is no harm here. I’m merely delivering a cautionary note. This man has done some very strange things in his life. Are you aware of them?”
“I hope to learn of them soon,” I answered. My voice came out little more than a croak.
“He is ... or was ... a killer, you know,” said the voice.
“So I gathered from something a minister once told me,” I said. “But the minister said it was in wartime.”
“Ah, yes, the Reverend J.J. Stellingworth.”
“You knew him?” I asked.
“Knew him? I know him,” said the voice. “But that is immaterial. Your friend talks to dead people, you know ... up in that cemetery on Mackinac Island.”
“Well, yes, I suppose,” I said. “That’s what people do when they go to the graves of loved ones and ancestors.”
“No ... he actually talks to them, or thinks he does. He thinks they are there, and holds counsel with them.”
I was shaking my head.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If you know the Reverend, and he’s dead, that would presumably make you dead, too. If you’re not dead and are communing with the Reverend, then you’re just as crazy as you say Jacques is. And if you’re dead and I’m talking to you, that makes me just as crazy.”
The voice chuckled again.
“You call him Jacques?” it asked. “Everybody calls him Lightfoot.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said curtly, gaining courage by the moment. “Who cares? Or more to the point, what do I call you?”
“Hmmm,” said the voice. “An interesting question. Why not call me ... the owner of this cabin?”
My eyes were adjusting – barely, but enough to make out the shape of the figure. It was a man, no doubt, but a very large man. With a very round head, as though ... bald. Cue-ball bald. The image of Eliot’s nemesis flashed clearly in my mind.
“Turk?” I gasped. “Turk McGurk?”
“Do not be so surprised, Mr. Mann. This was my home for years, and so it shall always be. It suits me.”
The ludicrous nature of this encounter – for I could identify it in the dream as a dream – set me on the edge of laughter. A titter escaped my lips.
Turk did not respond for a few seconds, until he was sure I had regained control.
“You do not believe in me,” he said. “I understand. But to show my validity, let me provide a piece of information you are currently without.”
There was a silence that I took to be a dramatic pause. Old Turk had become quite the thespian.
“Okay,” I said, finally biting. “I’m listening.”
“The package arriving on the boat tomorrow afternoon...”
“Yes. Go on. Jacques mentioned it.”
“But he did not say what it was, did he?”
“No,” I answered. “And you are going to tell me?”
“I shall. But to call it a package is inaccurate. It is, in fact, a person.”
“A person? Who?”
“Someone from your past, of course, summoned here by your crazy friend.”
“Who?” I asked again, growing impatient. “I’m not in the mood for twenty questions.”
“I think you know who,” Turk said.
The revelation hit me hard. After all these years...
“Not Addie,” I said.
“Who else?” said the Turk.
“You’ll have to figure that one out yourself,” Turk said. “I’m just giving you fair warning. Your friend is crazy.”
“So you said,” I mumbled...
“So you said,” I mumbled again. And again: “So you said.”
I shook myself to wakefulness, and sat upright on the couch. A slight hint of dawn was playing through the windows, barely illuminating the room. I looked around, but found myself alone.
There was no Turk McGurk. There was only me and the furniture. I slapped myself lightly on both cheeks, driving out the cobwebs, and swung my feet around to the floor.
“What a dream!” I said softly. “The Turk, indeed.”
Standing slowly, working out the creaks and kinks that seemed to be accumulating with the years, I stretched, wandered over to the kitchen, turned on a light over the sink, fetched a glass from a cupboard and filled it from a half-gallon container of orange juice I found in the refrigerator.
As I sipped, I swung the refrigerator door shut and smiled at the metallic
yellow glint of the appliance.
Electricity had, in fact, created a number of changes in basic Island living habits. With it, furnaces instead of fireplaces were the norm; light bulbs had replaced kerosene lanterns; and electric pumps had replaced hand pumps, permitting indoor plumbing. Accordingly, chemical toilets and, where practical, toilets connected to septic fields had replaced outhouses.
The odd thing was, little else had changed in the Island’s physical appearance. The roads were still dirt, the cottages still rustic, the population still limited, the bulk of the land still occupied by birch and pines and assorted other trees. What was lacking, Jacques had said, was a sustained sense of social interaction, a recreational mentality among the Bois Blanc residents beyond that exhibited by evening cocktail get-togethers, memorial services or wakes for the recently deceased, an annual one-day festival at the airport, and an annual “primitive” weekend featuring Native American crafts and artifacts at a remote – and difficult to reach – point on the western shore.
“Part of the problem,” Jacques had told me during dinner the night before, “was the loss of the hotel and the mansion. They were our real centers of activity. With them gone, there were no more big parties such as the Vanderpools offered, and no dances such as provided by the hotel.”
“Then why doesn’t somebody rebuild?” I asked. “If not a hotel, then a recreation center?”
“There is one now, near the church. But it is not large, and not the same as its predecessors. It offers an occasional square dance, but has barely enough room for that. The population is spread out across the Island now, too, and with the main dock farther east, the community of Pointe aux Pins is no longer the center – as it were – of the Island universe. People no longer congregate there. But there is more to it than that, of course. There is TV.”
“Television?” I said. “What has that got to do with it?”
“We had none here until electricity. Now sets are commonplace ... they’re in every Island home.”
I looked about me. There was no sign of a TV in the cabin. Jacques noticed the look.
“Almost every home,” he amended. “Not in mine. I want nothing to do with it. It is a contaminant; kills initiative and imagination; keeps too many people from doing other, more worthwhile things.”
Now, standing in the kitchen sipping my orange juice, I nodded a delayed agreement; knew it would do me good to be away from that infernal machine for a while – knew it was one modern convenience I could do without during this trip.
I looked through the window and out across the Straits to the northwest. Round Island, a private preserve, sat a few hundred yards away. Past that and to the right was Mackinac, visible again in the morning light, its old British fort standing sentry atop a high bluff. And to the left, connecting the Lower and Upper Peninsulas, was the Mackinac Bridge. I had noticed it upon my arrival; before that, I had last seen it when it was still under construction, in 1956. Fresh then, old and a little decrepit now.
Which only reminded me of me.
Well, I thought, Jacques might be crazy, but if he was – if staying by himself was, as Willi Smythe had thought, grounds for a judgment of insanity – then the case could be made that almost everybody else, by choosing to stay inside and stare at a picture screen instead of socializing or pursuing a more productive course, had gone slightly daft, too.
There had been no startling geographical or visual change to the Island over the years. In that sense, Johnny Lafitte had been right. But the advent of electricity – while enhancing the quality of Island life in many ways – had undermined it in the same way that it had undermined the civilized world at large: by providing hypnotic visual and intellectual mush for humankind through the device known as TV.
From my perspective – as someone who had experienced the Island decades before – I could understand that in a spiritual sense, in the matter of its heart, Bois Blanc might indeed have been tarnished by civilization without civilization even going to the trouble of physically crossing the Straits.
I tapped the microphone and held it to my mouth.
“Testing, one two three four. Testing, one two. Testing, testing.”
I hit the stop, rewind and play buttons, and my words came back at me clearly. Satisfied, I set the microphone on the card table between us. The black-vinyl-topped table was much like one I remembered Turk owning, but instead of occupying a spot in the southwest corner as Turk’s had, Jacques’ table had just now been pulled from a closet and set up in the center of the room, near the couch.
“Okay, Jacques,” I said. He was seated directly across from me, his back to the kitchen, and looking uncomfortable. “How do you want to do this?”
“I’m not sure where you want me to begin,” he said.
“Well, I’m not, either. So let’s go back a minute to the Reverend, and what he told me.”
“Okay,” he said. “Tell me what he told you, and I’ll try to respond.”
“Right. Okay. What he said. Right.” For some reason, I was nervous, too. “Let me think ... okay. He said that you knew – knew – that Addie had died because you knew death, because you had had – let me see if I can remember exactly – ‘extensive experience in situations involving lifeless bodies.’ He said you had seen much of the world, and that you were a great warrior. But he would go no further, other than to say that we should trust him on this, and believe what you said.”
“Is there a question in there, then?” asked Jacques.
I looked at him across the table. He looked well-rested, clear-headed, anything but crazy. I didn’t really think he was, anyway. What did Willi Smythe and a ghost in a dream know, anyway?
“Yes. The question is simple: How did you know – ironclad know – that she was dead? And I don’t mean the sixteen minutes in the water and the seven minutes on board. I mean ... what was the Reverend talking about?”
Jacques studied his fingernails, cut short and scrubbed clean and really nothing remarkable to look at. They were, I reasoned, a point at which he could stare without really seeing while he formulated an answer. Although ... it seemed he must have been formulating it since our phone call, before my visit; he must have known this was where I was heading with my questions.
“Well, he was talking about a great many things, I suppose,” said Jacques in his gravelly voice, but softly, with his volume turned down. I pointed at the microphone and raised my hand slowly, signaling louder on his part. He nodded.
“I said he was talking about a lot of things.”
He stopped, looking past me to the couch.
“Yes, but what kinds of things?” I prompted.
Jacques suddenly rose from his seat and strode past me.
“Jacques?” I said, suddenly alarmed. Was this going to end before it even began? I swiveled as he passed by, and watched in confusion as he stopped at the couch, looked down at it for several seconds, and then reached to pick something up. His body was blocking my view, so I couldn’t immediately see what had drawn him there.
“Jacques?” I asked again. “What is it?”
He turned around slowly, and in his hands was the case that holds my binoculars. He was opening it, and sliding the glasses out. After examining them silently, he slid them back in and carried the case with him to the table, setting it next to the recorder.
“I didn’t notice these yesterday,” he said. “Did you have them out?”
I couldn’t imagine why he would want to know, but went along with him.
“I had them out on the boat,” I said, “but stored them in my bag just before we reached the Island. But you could have noticed them last night. I had them around my neck out on your dock.”
He shook his head.
“It was too dark. Like I told you, my night vision is not good.”
“Right,” I said, remembering; they were his first words upon my arrival. But I still couldn’t fathom where he was going with this.
“These were your father’s,” he said. It came out a statement, not a question.
I looked at him, then the case, and back again.
“Yes,” I said, amazed. There was no marking on the case or on the glasses to identify their owner. “How could you know that? Don’t tell me you remember them from forty years ago. Even I don’t remember that.”
But even as I said it, I concluded that that had to be it. My parents had taken those binoculars everywhere, so they had no doubt brought them to the Island those many years ago, when we visited annually, though I couldn’t specifically recall them in conjunction with Bois Blanc. So how did Jacques remember what I couldn’t?
“No,” he said. “I don’t remember them here, though they might have been; I never noticed. But I think I would have, for they were significant in the matter you are pursuing.”
I was completely lost.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Significant in what matter? The death thing?”
Jacques nodded, still looking at the case.
“How?” I asked. “How could my father’s binoculars be significant?”
Jacques raised his eyes to mine.
“Because I saw these long before your parents ever set foot on this Island.”
I shook my head, trying to make sense of this. My parents had gone to the Island first in 1952 at the urging of some old friends who had summered there for several years and had passed along the news of its charm. Or so I had been told.
“I don’t follow,” I said. “My Dad said he got these in World War Two. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Jacques was nodding his head slowly.
“Yes,” he said. “They were your father’s ever since he ... took possession of them in the war. Do you know how he came by them?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “They were Nazi glasses, left behind by a German officer after the surrender. In Bremerhaven.”
Jacques was smiling.
“In a manner of speaking, that is true. But only after a fashion.”
He reached out and caressed the case.
“You are sure you want to hear this?” he said. “It could be more than you are prepared to know.”
I returned his look.
“This story is going to involve my father, I take it.”
Jacques stroked the case a couple more times.
“Indeed,” he said. “He plays a pivotal role.”
I rubbed my chin whiskers, unshaven since the previous morning and fast attaining the consistency of sandpaper. I couldn’t imagine what my father’s role could have been. A peaceful man who downplayed any personal importance in his wartime experience – who, in fact, had said the highlight of his war was winning the Navy tennis doubles crown during a furlough at Wimbledon – and who quietly raised a family and carved out a successful career as a traveling shoe salesman, he hardly seemed the type to have been significant in anything related to Jacques’ acquired knowledge of death.
But now, the binoculars – longer a part of my family history than I was; an item so familiar to me that I had seldom given them more thought than breathing; an item that my father had passed to me upon his death; an item that had, with the brief exception of a strap-replacement interlude, sat on a shelf since then until I had snatched them on my way out the door as I departed on this Island journey – were suddenly a key to what gave hint of being an unsettling account.
Or ... perhaps I was reading more into Jacques’ mysterious approach to the story than was really there...
“Avery,” Jacques was saying. “Do you want me to tell you, or not?”
I held up my hand, searching for the right words. Before Jacques was to proceed, I needed an answer to something that, from what had been said, already seemed evident.
“First tell me this,” I said. “Did you know my father in the war?”
Jacques let out a harsh snort.
“Know him? Well, I’m not sure anybody can ever truly know another person. But were we acquainted? Yes. You wish to know how?”
I was wary now. It seemed that the underpinning of my immediate ancestry – my family’s history – was about to undergo a radical revision. Family being of utmost importance to me, I naturally feared unwanted blemishes. But I had come here to learn, and learn I must. And so I nodded, a motion that Jacques returned in kind.
“Just so,” he said. “Well, to put it bluntly, your father saved my life. That’s how we met...”
My jaw quite literally dropped at the mention of this heretofore-unknown deed, but I said nothing, at least for a while. I let Jacques go on, spinning out a tale that stands by itself as an intriguing story. My feelings were mixed as he rambled on, for I was discovering a side of my father I never suspected – a history hidden for unknown reasons. But I saw no reason to abort Jacques’ effort.
What follows I later transcribed from the recorder as closely to verbatim as I could. Occasionally I smoothed a grammatical point or two, or broke a run-on sentence into two or three, or filled in a word or two that Jacques mumbled. But whatever the editing, it was judicious and designed solely to help the reader.
This is how his account went:
“I grew up here, you know, on this Island. Wasn’t born here, though; that took place on the mainland, over in Mackinaw City.
“My mother was a full-blooded Cherokee; my father’s ancestry traces back to the French and English and probably a pinch of a few others.
“I went to school here in the two-room schoolhouse we still use for the handful of full-timers that are left. Like you, Avery, I found magic in the summers of childhood, especially at night. The rest of the year wasn’t as good, of course, although spring and autumn were bearable. But winter...
“There was little to do in the winter. We didn’t have snowmobiles to travel across the ice to Cheboygan back then; we used sleds, with dogs. We had no TV, of course, and very little radio, there being no electricity and no transistors. A few short-wave radios ran off generators, but none in my immediate circle. So we had knowledge of the outside only through occasional visitors and newspapers, and even that limited knowledge was often days or weeks old.
“There was only sporadic ferry service back then. Someone always held the mail contract, and so that crossing – with letters and packages – was regular in all but winter. But generally, someone else would do the honors for other necessities – go over to Cheboygan in a private boat and bring back food and papers and such every few days. But with cold weather’s uncertainties – storms, thin ice, whatever – winter trips and deliveries were infrequent.
“My early years were in what was known as the Roaring Twenties, but there was no roaring around here; that was reserved for the metropolitan areas. Then I hit my primary maturation years in the 1930s, in the Great Depression. But again, there was no depression to speak of here, since that was pretty much how we already lived.
“This Island looks primitive now, perhaps, and in its way it is, but nothing like it was then. Without any of the conveniences we know today, there was one overbearing feature: the winter cold. We had wood-burning stoves, and homes that served well as shelters despite their thin walls, but the lifestyle dictated that we – well, my father and I – spend a great deal of time out in the frigid weather, out in the woods and on the ice. The cold was a great teacher, in its way. I actually learned to ignore it, I was subjected to it so often. I guess I didn’t really think of it in a particularly negative light. I merely figured that this was how people lived in the winter: cold.
“There are always ways to keep from freezing when exposed to the elements, of course. There are windbreaks, multiple layers of clothing, newspapers stuffed in boots or moccasins ... we never discarded the papers, you know. They were too useful in the winter as footwear or wall insulation.
“And really, the act of hunting itself kept me warm, or within range of it. Sometimes a hunt kept me moving, but even those times when I’d be lying motionless, in wait, I was so focused and my blood coursed so quickly that I thought little of the temperature.
“And that is where I first took a life, an animal life – came face-to-face with violent death, with a ravaged body and a spent will, and came to recognize when the spirit had indeed departed the body; not witness it leave, but recognize its leaving. I see your look; yes, animals have souls, too, despite what some religions think. And why not? What makes us think we would be the only ones with such a blessing? For we are animals, too – even more so, sometimes, than the beasts of the forests.
“I had but two siblings, both sisters, and they were not hunters, so it was up to my father and me to gather the meat for the table. Meat and fish. We spent many hours every week hunting – in warm weather, cold weather, dry weather, wet weather, year-round. The vegetables were left to the sisters and my mother. They had a large garden and did well supplementing what the men – well, what the father and the boy – would bring home. And we brought it home with regularity. We were quite good at it; and on those occasions when fortune might be working against us, we would just persevere. Skill, when mixed with patience, can sway luck from bad to good.
“We hunted with rifles, but ammunition was scarce and quite expensive, so we used bows and arrows, too, just like my forebears. Perhaps I had a genetic propensity for the bow; I don’t know. My father, a trapper by trade since a young man, taught me the particulars; but it was my own abilities that made me as good as he was early on. Beyond that, my empathic powers had begun to develop, enabling me to locate prey simply by tuning into their fear or alarm and tracking that signal. Consequently, I could match my father’s skills and kills by the time I was 15.
“When I reached 21, the war broke out, and the federal government – rarely felt in our little niche of the world – imposed itself upon us with conscription. I was drafted out of my wilderness and sent to a basic training facility where I was taught how to kill – but men this time. There were drills, and competency tests, and an effort early on to cull from the ranks of recruits those few of us with an unusual inclination toward firearms or other means of destruction, as well as a capacity for acquiring foreign tongues – for learning the basics of other languages. In my case, as far as weapons went, I was exceptional primarily with the gun and the bow, although I was handy with knives as well, and for that matter with spears. My father and I had pierced the scales of many a fish with homemade spears in the waters of the Straits or on our inland lakes.
“We select few – with a need for haste in the face of the conflict thrust upon us – were moved away from the main units of trainees and given intensified, specialized training in the many ways of killing: garroting, disembowelment, vertebrae snaps, shooting, stabbing, hanging, dismemberment, whatever. And we learned how to handle explosives, although back then they were rather primitive compared to what’s on the market today. And each day there was an intense session in foreign languages – German, Italian, Polish, French, Spanish and Scandinavian tongues for some of us; Japanese, Chinese and the like for others. Some struggled with that aspect of the work, but I was pleased that I picked up what I needed rather easily.
“In the other areas I excelled, quite frankly, because of my upbringing: I had little experience with social intercourse, and therefore had learned to depend upon myself, which would prove useful in the assignments planned for me; I had experience with weapons, although rudimentary ones; I knew how to kill living things, which was important in the development of a man-killer; and I had an uncommon stamina for uncomfortable weather or environmental conditions. On top of that, I had great patience and the ability to move quickly and quietly – some of that inbred, I suppose, and some acquired.
“When training was completed, my unit was shipped overseas. Well, we weren’t really a unit in the sense of physical unity after our training, because we operated individually and far apart from one another geographically. But we were a unit in the sense of mission and purpose. Anyway, some of my “classmates” were sent to the Pacific Theater, while I – along with a few others – was placed in Europe. The brass figured I would excel in the weather conditions in France, Belgium, Poland and so on; they would be similar to conditions we experience here. It was a good call on their part.
“What I did was top secret, of course. Very few people knew of the existence of our unit, because what we were doing was contrary to the articles of war: we were assassins – weapons, really, in the Allied arsenal, designed to take out strategically offensive people of both military and quasi-military standing. This practice, if discovered by the international community, would have unleashed an unpleasant set of circumstances: accusations, recriminations, possibly retributions in-kind. But aside from that, it was just good business not to let on we existed, for in that way our targets would be totally unsuspecting and thereby much easier to terminate.
“Of course, the down side from the standpoint of personal safety was that if captured, I would be disavowed by my superiors. I didn’t exist, in effect. I was a bit of a ghost, floating from assignment to assignment throughout Europe without a permanent identity, living mostly in the wild, occasionally changing name and appearance.
“That’s how the unit got its name – because we were like ghosts. The name was a little dramatic maybe, but its alliteration gave it a kind of appealing lilt. I liked it, anyway.
“We were known as The Specter Squad.”
“Excuse me,” I said, breaking into Jacques’ account.
He nodded, and held up his hand, stopping me.
“Yes, Avery, I understand,” he said. “You wish to know if your father was part of the unit. Would the fact of his membership greatly disturb you?”
Good question, I thought. We were, after all, talking about my kindly,
paternal, very-family-oriented Dad. Amory Mann, son of Augustus Mann,
father of Avery. Devoted father, successful shoe salesman, good neighbor
to his neighbors, good friend to his friends. A pacifist, on the face
of it: he banned guns in the home, never introduced his sons to weapons,
and thus never took his boys hunting.
I always thought, watching that film, that Dad looked uneasy with the weapon – that it was probably a gun borrowed from Otie, and that Dad would have been lucky to know which end to point where, let alone hit anything with it. But now, sitting there with Jacques, my mind flashed back to the start of that footage, before Dad noticed the camera and started carrying the shotgun awkwardly. Now, my memory was telling me, he was carrying it at the outset of the film with an unmistakable familiarity, an ease born of experience. In my mind’s eye, he was, in that unguarded moment, a person very sure of himself and of what he was about to do with the armament cradled in his arms.
I looked at Jacques, who was waiting placidly for my answer. Would I be upset if Dad had been part of the Specter Squad?
“You bet,” I said. “I don’t think I’d be pleased at all.”
“Oh? And why not?” said Jacques. “The men in the squad performed a valuable and, I think, necessary service.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but ... it would be difficult to accept him in that role. It took me a great many years to come to a meeting of the minds with my father, Jacques, but in his last decade or so I felt like we built a bridge based on trust. And him being a ... anything other than a peace-loving man would seem to me a violation of that trust.”
“I see. Well, first, Avery, let me say that what a person does in wartime is quite often not what that person is truly about. Circumstance can impose deviation from his normal tendencies. Duty can demand it. If your father was a man of violence during the war, he was only doing what he was supposed to do. I don’t see how you could blame him for that. And second ... your father was not part of my unit.”
He delivered the news just that quickly, at the end of his sermonette, as though it were a minor addendum.
I’d really expected the opposite answer, and found my reaction to be one of gratitude.
“Thank God!” I sputtered. “Thank God.”
But the relief was fleeting.
“What your father was,” Jacques went on, “was part of a war machine that was trying to prevent the takeover of the world by a very nasty Axis made up of Germany, Italy and Japan.”
“I’m aware of the history,” I answered, wary again.
“Good. Then you should understand my point. While your father was not part of my unit, not a Specter, that did not leave him free of the war’s underbelly. He was, in fact, very much a part of that, and very important in the effort to turn back the Axis.”
“What are you saying?” I whispered.
“I am saying that your father was an Allied spy, Avery ... and a damn good one.”
“I can feel your shock, Avery, but it does not show on your face. That is good. It is a trait that served your father well. A poker face, I believe they call it. He was a man who, even in a life-and-death struggle, hardly broke a sweat – certainly gave no hint of fear.
“Hmmmm ... Now your face is showing a touch of surprise. Well ... not to get too specific yet ... your father was very good at what he did in the war, although he would have disclaimed any credit for his exploits. He was never comfortable with the violence of that period; but, as I said, in wartime, violence was often the only way.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself ... ahead of the story. Let me try to stay chronological. We were where? The start of the war? Well, the start of my European service. Let’s back it up to there, and I’ll get back around to your father. Okay? Okay.
“I was dropped in to occupied Poland first, after dark, on a particularly stormy night in which visual sighting of anything – even a chute – was virtually impossible. This was not by chance, for my superiors took great care in protecting the secret of my existence and that of the Specter Squad from the outset. But out of necessity, once inside I was on my own; I was not even to count on the help of locals – or help them if it meant endangering the mission – for fear of compromising that secret. Only twice did I break the rule, but I’ll get back to that shortly.
“Let me just say that my assignments were plentiful and, for the most part, quite risky. My targets were rarely of the sort I could eliminate in, say, an isolated farmhouse. No, more often than not they were political figures or particularly noxious military officers who lived in either cities or fortified villages. I had to use creativity and the elements.
“For instance, for one officer – a Nazi who had ordered the execution of dozens of Polish villagers on a whim – I had to venture through two lines of defense: a perimeter of explosives strung around his village compound, and a cadre of marksmen on the compound walls. Since it was early winter and Poland is notorious for its storms, I simply waited for a good snowfall. It didn’t take long, either; the snow started coming down late one afternoon at the rate of about three or four inches an hour. As soon as it was dark, I simply strolled up to the village; nobody could see me through the snow and the gloom. You are no doubt wondering how I approached so blithely if I knew the area was rigged with land mines. Well, my reconnaissance told me, for one thing, but common sense would have led me to the same conclusion.
“The Nazis, you see, made a big show of having villagers set the mines out in the fields and minor roads daily to discourage partisan attacks. While the villagers were going about this chore, the Nazi marksmen in the compound would shoot near them to keep them moving ... and of course, petrified. And on occasion, such as on the morning of the day the storm hit, they went too far, in this case setting off a mine while an old man was near it. He was ripped to shreds. I watched this from my perch in the nearby forest with great dismay.
“But I knew I would avenge that old man and all the other villagers who had been massacred if I were patient, for I knew the main road to the village was mine-free. That was where supplies came in, and where the military entered and exited the immediate vicinity. Even if I hadn’t seen that activity, though, I would have known. While the Nazis routinely mapped out the locations of all of their mines, and thus could negotiate any booby-trapped road – albeit slowly and carefully – no commander in his right mind would leave himself and his men without rapid transit in and out.
“That night it was snowing so hard that visibility wasn’t more than a dozen feet, and I was able to pad right up to the compound – a high-walled affair in the heart of the village that was built centuries before, I suspect, as defense in another warring time. Scaling the wall and taking out the marksmen was a small matter, and after that I exacted a measure of justice on the Nazi officer. He was sleeping, so I woke him up before I disemboweled him. That seemed to be a favorite of that particular regime, that and hanging people with piano wire, so I deliberately chose a like retribution. It sent a message of sorts, but without a signature. Again, what I did had to remain covert at all costs.
“Anyway ... I mentioned the two instances when I circumvented my own rules. The first was when I encountered a small German unit marching some townfolk – this was in Belgium – into the woods toward a freshly dug gravesite. It was obvious what was about to happen, and I instinctively reacted. Unloaded my semi-automatic into the Germans, killing all five rather quickly. I nicked one of the locals, but that certainly was a far cry better than the alternative. Anyway, the group couldn’t just be left there for the next Nazi unit that came along, so I stepped forward and hustled them away a safe distance – into the foothills a couple of miles off – before leaving them.
“That was, in the strictest sense of my mission, unprofessional, for I was supposed to remain invisible. But it did not, to my knowledge, end up working against me, and I have never regretted it.
“The second instance came in 1945 in northern Italy, near the war’s end. The Allies were all over the countryside, along with pockets of Italian partisans – some of them true patriots, others Communist dupes – and more than a few retreating German units. The north was where the Nazis had set up a puppet government headed by Benito Mussolini, the former fascist dictator of Italy, after he’d been toppled from power in the Allied invasion a couple of years earlier. But now the Germans, along with their puppets, were beating a hasty retreat, trying to cross into Germany before the border was slammed shut by the Allies or, worse, by the vengeful partisans.
“I had been sent into Italy a couple of months earlier for some other jobs, but now this one took precedence: my new target was Mussolini himself, just recently put under house arrest and the subject of intense debate among the various factions. It was a real mess up there in the north; nobody was in power, and everybody had conflicting orders. Some of the partisans wanted a public trial of all the fascists, and some wanted immediate executions. However it was sliced, Mussolini was looking at a short life span.
"In my particular line of work, I knew the identity of only one of my superiors – a gentleman I hesitate even now to identify, and so will simply call by the fictitious name of Colonel Henshaw. He was the only officer with whom I had any official contact, and that was done at a distance. My orders were received from him by coded message – never in person. I never saw him; he never saw me. And that was how it was when word came that I should impose myself into the middle of the Mussolini situation.
"My directive from Colonel Henshaw was simple: get Mussolini."
“Whoa,” I interjected, cutting him off. “You’re not gonna tell me you killed Mussolini, are you? As I recall, the history books don’t have it anywhere near that way.”
“Just what do you recall?” asked Jacques.
“Well, let’s see ... I think he was hanged, and left dangling in a town square so a bloodthirsty crowd could stone his body.”
Jacques was nodding.
“I can understand your confusion. There was a hanging, in Milan. But the historical reports clearly state he was hung upside down after his death, and then stoned, as you say, by his fellow countrymen. Those same reports will tell you that before the hanging, he was shot at a roadside orchard by a partisan faction that had spirited him out of a farmhouse in which he’d been imprisoned.”
“Oh. Then you didn’t kill him,” I said. “One of the factions did.”
Jacques was shaking his head slowly.
“That’s not what I said. I said that’s what was reported. Although, in truth, he was shot after the faction got him free of the farmhouse.”
“I don’t follow,” I said. “Just who did kill him?”
“Well,” said Jacques, “I don’t think a simple answer will suffice. This whole matter was ... a little complex.”
I was shaking my head, completely befuddled now.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. How was it complex?”
“Well,” said Jacques, “there’s the obvious magnitude of the subject. I mean ... Mussolini was important, even then, after he’d been ousted from power. He’d been a major influence in the area for a good many years. There were a lot of people who wanted a piece of him. And remember that I was officially a nonentity, and supposed to stay that way. This assignment, considering the person involved, could have blown up in my face and made the maintenance of my secrecy a bit difficult.”
“But not,” he added, “as difficult as these interruptions are making the telling of this story.”
I was taken aback by the words, but then saw the smile. He wasn’t really upset ... at least not yet. But if I wanted all the facts, maybe I’d do well to shut up. I held up my hand in a sign of surrender.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be quiet. Go ahead. Tell me what happened.”
“Honest,” I said.
Jacques studied his fingernails for a few moments, gathering himself.
“All right,” he said. “The assignment was succinct, which belied its difficulty. I received the directive from Colonel Henshaw: Get Mussolini...”
“I received the directive from Colonel Henshaw: Get Mussolini.
“I moved as quickly as I could, but like I said, the countryside was in chaos, and I had to be careful. There was no telling for sure who was on whose side at that point; while the Germans were easy enough to identify, there were rogue bands by the score – many of them marauders out only for themselves. Most of the units were Italian – and some of them probably friendly to our cause -- but there were also Russians and Czechs and other nationalities who had descended on Italy’s carcass to tear off a piece of meat while it was vulnerable. It was prudent to avoid all of them.
“Il Duce. That’s what they called Mussolini, you know: The Leader. The guy who had run that country for a lot of years, but then screwed it up when he teamed up with Hitler. That put him in over his head. Mussolini was a bully, and like most bullies didn’t have a clue on how to follow through on boasts that were beyond him. When he put his country into war, he had to produce military victory or be held accountable. And of course he failed. That’s why he was in this pickle. He’d already been captured two years before, but had been rescued by the Nazis and set up again in the north. But now it was every man for himself, and the Nazis had left Mussolini and his henchmen to scramble for safety. There was no such thing for him in Italy, though, so he tried crossing at the Swiss border. Unfortunately for him, he was recognized by partisans on guard there and put under arrest.
“So there he was, confined to this farmhouse outside Milan by various quarreling partisan factions. Some wanted a show trial; some wanted a summary execution. It was up to me to get there fast. I started about a hundred kilometers away, but managed to commandeer a jeep that took me most of the way through terrain that was uninhabitable and mostly ignored by the military. Then I went my preferred route – by foot and under cover of the woods that heavily dotted the Milan area. It was the element in which I was most at ease.
“Of course, being at ease didn’t mean it was easy. The closer I got to Milan, the more soldiers and pseudo soldiers I had to avoid. The hills and valleys were dotted with them – armed zealots all following their own particular agendas. The end of a war is a dangerous time.
“So with the dual obstacles of difficult terrain – including snow in the higher elevations, it being April – and a military in flux, I didn’t move as quickly as I would have liked. Consequently, I lost valuable time.
“And so I arrived at the farmhouse too late to do this thing cleanly. It was maddening timing, for I saw Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, hustled out to a van-like vehicle as I crested the nearest hill and paused to gain my bearings. It was that close. Despite the recent nightfall, the moon shone brightly, and I could tell even from that distance – by the body language of the men taking them away – that the prisoners were being led to their slaughter. Mussolini and the woman didn’t seem to know that; appeared eager to go, as though they thought they were being rescued by friendly elements, just like two years before. But this time they were being deceived. I can only assume that fatigue and fear clouded their instincts.
“I did the only thing I reasonably could, which was watch the van to see which direction, which turn it took in the distance, and then to angle across the hills as quickly as I could in that direction. I didn’t know if I could find them again – in fact thought probably not – but had to try something. There were my orders, you see...
“Well, I traveled an hour, staying under wooded cover, alternating between high and low ground, when I came over a rise that looked down on a roadside orchard. It was a peaceful spot, a pull-off at the side of a dirt track, with a stone wall and – I could see it in the moonlight – a view of the valley and hills beyond. And there, lying near the wall, were two dark bundles.
“I knew instantly what they were – bodies – and went down for a closer look. There was no sign of the van, no indication of anyone else present. As I neared the bodies, staying in the shadows as much as possible, I could see it was Mussolini and his mistress. She was lying on top of him, on her back and across his torso, her arms splayed outward, her chest a dark cavity: blood was everywhere. It looked like a pose of protection, as though she had tried to take the bullets for him. But he was there too, supine, motionless, covered in blood.
“It was at that moment that I detected a fear – a palpable human reaction that told me somebody was nearby. I retreated a few yards to the safety of some thick brush, and then slowly maneuvered around the wall, checking its far side and the orchard itself. But there was no one there.
“‘What the hell?’ I said to myself, and then suddenly realized where the fear was coming from. It was near the wall, underneath the corpse of the woman.
“Mussolini was still alive.
“I approached the two of them. The mistress, Claretta, was an awful mess, her intestines hanging out and the sharp ends of a couple of ribs pointing skyward through her tattered dress. But I heard it almost immediately upon entering the garden: a grunting sound. It was Mussolini, I think only recently returned to consciousness, struggling to move under the dead weight of the woman who had shielded him.
“I moved quickly then, grabbing the woman’s corpse and twisting it off of Mussolini and reaching down for his left arm and hoisting him off the ground – not an easy feat. He was a thick, rather heavy man – better looking than his pictures, I decided in the moonlight, but mean-looking – who had a bald dome that made him look taller, I think, than he was. In any event, he was taller than me. When I lifted him, he winced and moaned, for he had been shot in the arm I grabbed. But it was only a flesh wound, hardly more than an inconvenience.
“He staggered up, still dazed, caught his balance, and peered around. When he realized where he was, he looked for Claretta, saw the corpse and turned pale. Then, finally realizing that I was standing practically next to him, he straightened up, pulled his suit jacket down tight – a little incongruous, considering it was dripping blood – and looked me in the eye without apparent fear; although I could sense clearly that he was petrified.
“‘I am ready,’ he said, his voice shakier than he wanted, I’m sure. ‘Go ahead and shoot. You do not frighten me. I will not be frightened any more.’”
“Okay,” I said, interrupting again. I couldn’t help it. History has always been sacred script to me, and here it was being rewritten. “So you did kill him. How come the history books have it all wrong?”
Jacques rolled his eyes and held up his hand.
“Please,” he said. “Who’s telling this?”
“You are,” I said. “But this could be pretty big news, you know, if you actually pulled the trigger. I mean, it’s historic.”
He was shaking his head.
“Avery, Avery,” he said. “You get ahead of things so easily, are so emotional. You didn’t get that from your father, that’s for sure.”
“Well ... no, I suppose not,” I said. “He was always pretty low-keyed.”
Jacques was laughing gently.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
“Low-keyed,” he said. “That is so true, and yet so untrue. He was far beyond that, my boy. Your father, when faced with danger, was the calmest person – and yet the most focused, the most intense – that I ever met.”
I was shaking my head.
“I still can’t see it,” I said. “Not Dad. Besides, who could be calmer than you? You went around Europe on dangerous assignment after dangerous assignment, infiltrating and taking out presumably lethal people. And yet you didn’t panic.”
“I was in my element, Avery,” he said. “I lived outdoors, in the woods, almost exclusively. It was what I was raised to do. And I was not being hunted, for I did not exist. I was the hunter. There is a world of difference. But your father ... the spy game is an open book between intelligence agencies. Always was, always will be. He was definitely on the list of existing agents, and constantly sought by military, political and police arms of the enemy. That, compared to my work, was true stress. But I doubt that he ever showed it, and in my experience performed with precision. Definitely the man to have in your corner in a pinch.”
I shook my head again, trying to mesh the image of the father I had known with the image of the spy that Jacques had known.
“Well,” I said, giving up the effort, “you still haven’t said how you and Dad hooked up, or what you did together, or how he saved your bacon.”
Jacques was nodding.
“I was going to get to that,” he said. “But you saw fit to interject again.”
“Sorry,” I said, properly chastised. “Oh ... that’s right! You were about to kill Mussolini. Oh, man. I don’t think I want to know the details ... No, I take that back. How did you do it? What did you use? A pistol?”
“Like I said,” Jacques answered, “you are always getting ahead of things. No, I did not use a pistol. Nor a knife, nor a club, nor a garrote wire, nor a rope, nor anything.”
“I don’t follow,” I said.
“I did not kill him,” said Jacques.
“Say what? You didn’t kill him?”
“No. I didn’t kill him.”
“Orders?” I said. “I thought your orders said to ‘get Mussolini.’”
“Right, they did,” he said. “But they didn’t say to kill him. Just to get him. Get him and take him out of immediate harm’s way. Out of the partisans’ grasp. So that’s what I did.”
I was surprised, and suppose I looked it.
“But, Jacques, you yourself said it. History shows that Mussolini and his mistress were hung upside down in a Milan plaza after their death and stoned by an angry, vengeful crowd of former subjects.”
“Wasn’t him in the square, obviously,” said Jacques. “I’m betting it was one of those hooligans who tried to kill him, who killed Claretta. I got a pretty good look – a general look in the moonlight – at two of them when they were taking Mussolini from the farmhouse. One, the most nervous of the pair, was similar in appearance to Mussolini, at least from a distance. Bald, stocky, a square jaw. In death, bullet-riddled and upside down, with the crowd in a frenzy and punishing the body even more with their rocks, who could or would tell the difference?”
“My God,” I said, softly now. “This is even bigger than you killing him would’ve been. You saved him.”
“I did not save him,” said Jacques. “It was our government, the men I worked for. I was merely an extension of their will. Besides, they were not saving him to live a long life.”
“They weren’t? For what, then?”
“I don’t know precisely what the thinking was. I thought at the time that my superiors had feared the partisan factions might debate his fate just long enough to allow him to wriggle free of the guard at the farmhouse. As I said, that had happened once before, in 1943, when German paratroopers grabbed him from a partisan mountaintop retreat. I figured my superiors didn’t want anything of the kind to happen again.
“In retrospect, though, I believe that was not their line of thinking at all. I think they simply wanted to get their hands on him for a war crimes trial run by an independent commission, a show trial that would dispense a justice satisfactory to all the Allies. A cathartic exercise, as it were. But whatever the thinking, I was sent in to get him.”
“Get him out, you mean,” I said. “Okay, so you arrive and rescue him. Then what? How does my father fit in?”
“I’m getting to that,” said Jacques. “Now ... may I?”
I held my right hand out, palm up, signaling a resumption.
“You’re sure?” he said.
“Right. No problem. Go on,” I said. “Please...”
“Okay,” he said, and took a moment to gather his thoughts. “So ... we were by the orchard...”
“So we were by the orchard, and Mussolini was mildly wounded and in a daze but acting rather boldly – especially considering the fear I sensed within him. Perhaps it was because of that daze. Anyway, he told me to go ahead and shoot, which I wasn’t about to do; my pistol was holstered and my rifle was slung across my shoulder, so I wasn’t even in a threatening position.
“He was, naturally, speaking Italian. He knew a smattering of German, too, but no English. No matter. Since I had training in the European tongues, conversation was easy on a basic level.
“I assured him I posed no threat, as long as he did what I said. He wanted to know who I was, whom I represented; he could tell right away I was not European, but had no clue beyond that as to my background. The man had apparently had little or no direct contact with Americans, and so wouldn’t readily identify one on sight. Besides, I resembled something closer to a creature of the forest than a particular nationality: camouflage clothing and mud covering was my normal apparel. I could disappear into the overgrowth in moments, a human chameleon.
“And that’s what we would do this time. I motioned to the woods, up the hill from the garden, in the direction from which I had just come. I wanted high ground, and quickly. There was no telling when Mussolini’s would-be killers might return.
“But he was stubborn; wanted to know our destination.
“‘I must know where you are taking me,’ he said.
“I didn’t want to stand and debate, and so told him the general truth.
“‘Some Allied folks would like to speak to you,’ I said. ‘Now ... let’s move out.’
“He considered but a moment, and nodded twice in affirmation. But as I turned to go, he moved in the opposite direction, kneeling over the body of his mistress one last time. I was surprised, because everything I’d heard had told me he was a cold-hearted bastard with feelings for nobody but himself.
“He knelt with some difficulty – encroaching age and the vicissitudes of the day having taken their toll, I reasoned – but said nothing. No prayer, no words of farewell. Instead, he lifted the dead woman’s left hand and removed two rings from her fingers, and then plucked a silver pendant from around her neck.
“Struggling to his feet, he looked me squarely in the eye and said, ‘They are mine.’
“I was speechless at first, for I had misread his intention completely. But then I understood in a flash his essence, and knew he would be no great difficulty as long as power was withheld from his grasp. He was indeed the bully of the playground, a forlorn and slightly ridiculous figure with his artificial trappings stripped away. But always, in such people, I’ve found a core of evil. Do not stoke the core, do not feed its flame, and it will languish. But always be mindful of its presence.
“‘You’re a true slice of worm pie,’ I said to him in English. He did not understand, and simply smiled. I suspect, had he understood, the reaction would have been the same.
“‘Come on,’ I said in Italian. ‘Up the hill.’
“Away we went, and none too soon, I think, for I heard the sound of an engine approaching. Not wishing to risk losing my gains – I did not trust Mussolini to do the right thing, to be silent if I were to watch the scene below – I instead prodded him over the hill and out of sight, on toward the next rise, and the next, always under the cover of the forest.
“Eventually, as we walked, Mussolini told me what had happened – the ‘outrage,’ as he called it, perpetrated by his would-be killers.
“The partisans – four men – had talked Mussolini out of the farmhouse with promises of protection from execution, and he’d gone for it. And why not? He was a man born to luck. He was Il Duce, one-time ruler of Italy, a world force in his own mind. He had escaped two years before in the face of almost certain death, and had ruled again – at least after a fashion, as figurehead of a puppet regime of the Nazis. So he went along with these men, wishfully thinking – no, convinced – that everything would work out one more time. The mistress was not so trusting – I had misread that part of it – and had tried to convey her concern to Mussolini. But he wouldn’t listen.
“And so they had gone with the men, traveling out into the country, to the north, toward presumed safety. And then there was an excuse – there was supposed to be somebody else to meet – and the van had stopped at the orchard. One of the partisans said he heard something, went to look, came back and urged Mussolini and Claretta to be quiet and go over to the wall. When they reached it, they heard the click of the machine gun lever being pulled; turning in sudden terror, they saw the same man pointing his weapon at them and squeezing the trigger. Claretta moved fast, stepping in front of her lover and taking the brunt of the blast. Mussolini was nicked, and fell with her, and passed out.
“And the next thing he knew, I had shown up.”
“We kept moving, stopped to eat some dried food and berries and a raw rabbit I snared, and continued on in the darkness, heading toward a pre-arranged rendezvous set up by Colonel Henshaw. It was several hours away by foot.
“I could have traveled the distance quickly alone, but with Mussolini along, the pace dragged considerably. He suffered mightily in my company, though it was nothing I did that created the suffering. For a military man, he was soft, and being soft he had little stamina. We would go a mile, rest, go another mile, rest, and so on. And he was not equipped for the journey, wearing only the clothes he had worn to the garden, plus whatever extras I provided – a poncho and a cap. Fortunately, the cold – once we had reached the mountains and neared the snow line, it was bitter – did not seem to affect him greatly, for he was a thick man, laden with layers of fatty insulation. The only problems were his feet, for he was wearing shoes instead of boots; his hands, for he had no gloves; and his head, which was a source of great heat loss before I provided the cap. We tended to the hands and feet by wrapping them in strips of canvas torn from a flap on my knapsack.
“It took most of the night to make our way to the transfer point – a clearing in a woods west of Milan. There, I was to turn Mussolini over to a special agent of the OSS – the Office of Strategic Services, our spy operation. The agent would in turn transfer Il Duce to his OSS superiors for disposition.
“When we reached the spot, just before sunup, we sat along the edge of the clearing, in the dark, waiting. Little was said.
“Mussolini had just taken his shoes off and was massaging his toes – trying to warm them – when a series of shots rang out and bullets started dancing all around us. Several sent sparks flying from some rocks behind and beside us, but the majority just lodged quietly in the soft earth.
“‘What the hell?’ Mussolini shouted.
“I reached over and grabbed him and pulled him up and started yanking him away from the clearing, away from the assault, toward some sort of cover. But he started swearing, and then tried pulling away from me, back toward the clearing.
“‘Damn it, my shoes! I need my shoes, you crazy bastard!’ he was yelling. But I wasn’t too concerned with the loss of footwear, and managed to reverse his motion and drag him, literally, toward a sheltering clump of boulders some twenty yards distant.
“I couldn’t understand how our attackers – whoever they were – had managed to sneak up on us. I thought at the time that it was an inattention to detail on my part, an unforgivable abrogation of my responsibilities. I mean, I should have heard or smelled them coming, or at the very least picked up on their feelings, for that ability was a long-standing part of my arsenal. But I hadn’t felt anyone, and figured it was because of the distasteful distraction of sharing time and space with an evil slug like Mussolini.
“That, as it turned out, was not quite the problem, although I was on something of the right track. The actual problem ... but no, I’m getting ahead of myself again. The explanation will have to wait for its proper introduction.
“Anyway, we were headed for cover, somehow avoiding a collision with any flying lead, and dove – well, I dove, and he followed me, because by that time I had an arm around the bastard’s neck – behind the boulders, which were backed by thickets. We were protected well by the rocks, somewhat by the thickets, but not at all if the attackers went up high enough into the trees and fired down on us. I had not set down either my weapons or my knapsack at the clearing, so I was as prepared for battle as I had a right to expect. Mussolini was wearing just stockings on his feet and had no weapon, and so was basically dead weight. I could have passed my pistol to him, but considered him as trustworthy as one of those massasauga rattlers we have on Bois Blanc. He would just have to fend without.
“It occurred to me that I could make my escape alone, and that I probably wouldn’t escape if I dragged him along. But orders were orders, and mine said I had to stay with him until the transfer. So I stayed to fight. It was not a situation I savored, but sometimes life-and-death situations offer no options.
“I could hear the enemy now, but still couldn’t feel them. So I would have to depend on traditional human reflexes. Reaction is always a poor cousin to action, but the former was all I had left for strategy. I listened closely for any sounds that might help pinpoint the opposition.
“‘Do something!’ Mussolini hissed at me, and I ignored him. I had to home in on the movements around me. Where were they setting up?
“‘Give me a gun, you prick!’ he blustered, and
I ignored him again. I heard one attacker shinnying up a tree somewhere
ahead, low still but gaining height and therefore advantage.
“I slid my pistol out of its holster and swung it fast in Mussolini’s direction, barrel up, so the butt met his cranium before he even knew it was en route. Mussolini crumpled, silent now, no longer a voluble distraction.
“I could listen completely now, focus on the scene unfolding before and above us. I couldn’t see anything because of the dense foliage and boulders and pre-dawn darkness, but I could tell there were four men, and that one was still climbing the tree. I now figured the tree was a little right of center from the direction I faced, perhaps forty yards out, maybe less; it was hard to gauge exactly, but I was trying mightily. I needed to zero in on it. If the climber got up high, and his friends then instituted a crossfire, it would be all over for us. I felt my ammunition pouch: full. And my weapons: fully loaded. I had two grenades on my belt, but they would do little good here: there was not enough clearance to throw them; they’d likely hit a branch or a tree and bounce right back in my lap. So it would have to be bullets. But I had serious doubts whether I’d get the chance to use all of those I was carrying before one of the attackers got me. It was, all in all, a tight spot.
“But just when I thought our time was down to seconds, three explosions sounded – grenades, to my right, left, and left of center, well away from me and Mussolini, out where the enemy lay poised, apparently hurled in their direction from the far edge of the clearing. Two of the blasts were followed by screams, and one by no sound at all … by a deathly void.
“‘Alfonso! Vito! Tomasso! What’s happening?’” The voice – full of the chill of fear that recognizes death at the door – came in Italian from above, in the tree ahead; the question drew no response, at least from Alfonso, Vito and Tomasso. But it was like a signpost to me, a specific mapping where before I had lacked proper coordinates. In the moment that followed, I took quick aim at the spot where the voice had emanated, and squeezed off a couple of rounds. I heard them hit, heard a branch crack and some leaves sing as the body hurtled through space and met the ground with finality.
“And then there was silence. The assault was over; only the forest remained – that and an unknown entity.
“I peered through the foliage and the dark, but could see nothing. Something – someone – was out there, though. It could be a friend, of course, and in a sense already was. But in a country torn apart by factionalism and an invading army, it could also be someone who was out to kill everybody just for the sake of clearing out the neighborhood.
“And so I waited … and listened. And tried to feel something,
gain some telltale hint about my benefactor.”
P.O. Box 365
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