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Islander: Book Two of
(continued -- 3rd excerpt)
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is the continuation of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. The previous chapters can be accessed here and 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).
“So, Avery, you want a bite to eat?”
I looked across the card table at my host with some disbelief. Now it was him interrupting the narrative – and at a crucial juncture.
“What? Jacques! You can’t stop there. You’re right
at the good part! What happened?”
“All in good time, my boy,” he said, and moved past me into the kitchen. “Let’s see what we might scrounge up for lunch. You hungry or not?”
I couldn’t believe this. How could he think of food at a time like this? Time ... what time was it, anyway? I checked my watch and was surprised to see it was late morning. We had been at the table longer than I had thought.
But not long enough...
“No,” I said. “I’m not hungry. Come on, Jacques. I’d like to hear what happened.”
“After a little food,” he said. “I’ve found
that the older I get, the better I perform on a full stomach.”
“It’s no big mystery, Avery,” he said. “In the end, I survived. Just give me a few minutes, and I’ll explain.”
I reached out and, as he had, touched the binocular case.
“Jacques,” I said.
“In a minute,” he said again. “Be patient.”
“It was my father out there, wasn’t it? That’s how you survived.”
I turned toward Jacques and watched as he buttered a piece of bread. He reached for a head of lettuce he’d pulled from the refrigerator and was tearing a piece off when he answered.
“Patience,” he said again. “I told you I would get to him in due time. It will be soon.”
“Kind of a roundabout soon,” I said.
“It needs preamble,” Jacques said. “Besides, I’ve always thought the Mussolini matter of some interest. Top secret, of course...”
“Then why are you telling me?”
Jacques reopened the refrigerator, replaced the lettuce, pulled out a packet with some meat and extracted a slab of turkey and another of ham. After adding the two slabs to the lettuce, he closed his sandwich and sliced it in two, corner to corner, with one smooth move of a large knife. It looked more like a Bowie knife than a kitchen blade. He held it up and wiped it with a towel.
“Hunting knife,” he said. “Had it for years. I use it for everything.”
“Jacques...” I said.
“Right, right,” he said impatiently. “Why am I telling you? Because I don’t think it’s top secret any more, or at least shouldn’t be. I mean, it was but a small part of the war and impacted on almost nobody. So what’s the difference? Besides, I get a little tired of these history books that don’t tell the truth. Mussolini dead at the hands of partisans ... please!”
“Then he was okay ... after you hit him, I mean.”
“What? Oh, sure. I just gave him a love tap. Knocked him out for a few minutes. Why? Did you think I killed him?”
“I didn’t know. You didn’t say.”
Jacques’ mouth was full with his first bite of sandwich, and it took him nearly fifteen seconds to chew and swallow.
“Sorry. But like I said, a full stomach...”
He poured a glass of milk, strolled back to the table and set down the glass and a plate holding the rest of the sandwich; I hadn’t noticed where he got the plate. Then he reseated himself.
“Plenty of food,” he said, nodding in the direction of the kitchen. He took another bite, and a sip of milk, and I debated whether to go get some, too. But then, evidently sated despite the uneaten presence of most of the sandwich, he suddenly pushed the plate away, lifted the glass and took two big gulps that drained half of it. He set the container down on the table and issued a light burp.
“Sorry,” he said again, covering his mouth too late. “Now ... where were we?”
“Somebody – my father, I hope – had just saved your ass.”
It came out slightly petulant, and a little on the raw side, but Jacques seemed not to notice. Instead, he pursed his lips, thinking, and gave one short nod of his head.
“Right,” he said. “I think this is the part you will like.”
And he resumed.
“So I was keeping quiet, not to mention low, and listening for some sign that might tell me who or what I was dealing with. It was so still, the only sound I could hear for several moments was the raspy breathing of Mussolini at my feet.
“But then the darndest thing ... I heard laughter. Very soft at first, then a bit stronger, and finally a heartfelt belly buster. And it was so bizarre, out on that killing field, to hear this sound, this perception of humor, that I felt it wash over me as well ... and I soon joined in, and the quiet of the forest was supplanted by two fools guffawing.
“It was when we were winding down that he managed to formulate any words, throwing them to me from the other side of the clearing.
“‘Oh, lord,’ his voice said, ‘I haven’t had such a time since ... well, I don’t know when. How about you?’
“The language was English, and the voice apparently American. I brought my laughter under control before answering.
“‘No, me neither,’ I yelled out. ‘I take it you are perhaps a friend?’
“‘If not,’ the voice called back, the mirth leaving it, ‘you would be quite as dead now as the others. All I need to know is this: Are you the Mussolini courier?’
“‘The fat one is with me,’ I answered, ‘although not speaking at the moment. Who are you?’
“‘I’m your contact. Look ... why don’t we stop yelling? I have some news that’s of particular interest to you. I’ll meet you in the clearing.’
“I thought on this a moment, debating whether I was walking into an ambush, but decided I wasn’t. This guy was right, whoever he was; I’d have been as dead as my attackers if he had desired it. And so I rose, leaving Mussolini to his nap, and strode from behind the boulders, through some bushes, around a couple of trees and into the clearing. He was already there waiting for me.
“We stood several paces apart, studying each other despite the dark – not for physical characteristics so much as a sense of each other’s mettle. I could tell he was not tall – but neither am I – nor particularly memorable in structure. But he had a sense about him of utmost calm and confidence. Whoever he was, he was in total control of himself and, I suspected, of any situation he might encounter. He’d certainly just demonstrated as much.
“‘You’re with Specter,’ he said. It wasn’t a question.
“I nodded, but realized he might not see the motion. ‘Yes,’ I answered. ‘OSS?’
“‘Right,’ he said. ‘Colonel Henshaw sent me. I understand you’re familiar with him.’
“‘I am,’ I said.
“‘So where’s the gentleman you’ve been escorting?’ the man asked.
“I motioned behind me.
“‘Back there. He was a little too mouthy for the situation, so I helped him shut it.’
“‘How long you figure before he comes to?’ the man asked.
“‘Not long,’ I said. ‘Anybody else in the immediate area?’
“He shook his head.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘But if you don’t mind my asking, how did you let those four get so close? I’d been told to expect someone a little more efficient than that. Someone ... pardon me if I’m a little skeptical ... someone empathic.’
“‘Good question,’ I said. ‘I do in fact depend on my senses, and they’re usually reliable, but this time they failed me. It was almost like my normal input channels were jammed.’
“The man chuckled.
“‘You sound a bit like a radio.’
“‘Well, I am, after a fashion,’ I told him. ‘But like I said, the frequencies were jammed up. Some sort of interference. What I’m really concerned about, though, is the possibility that they might have been following for some time – maybe since I snatched Il Duce. If that’s so, I’ve really lost my edge.’
“The man gave a quick shake of his head.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘No worry there. These were locals. I’ve seen them in the area before, but had no call to confront them till now.’
“‘Good,’ I said, nodding. ‘That makes it a little less of a burden. And means, I hope, that nobody has tumbled to our whereabouts. I imagine the partisans are in a tizzy, along with everybody else, wondering what happened to Il Duce.’
“‘I don’t think you have a worry there,’ the man said.
“‘How’s that?’ I said. ‘I didn’t exactly snatch a low-level flunky. There must have been waves.’
“The man stared at me a few moments, mouth open.
“‘You don’t know,’ he said. ‘I gather you don’t carry any communications equipment.’
“‘None,’ I said. ‘No need. Why?’
“‘If you did, you might have heard.’
“‘Heard what? What don’t I know?’
“‘There was a switch,’ he said.
“‘Switch?’ I said. ‘What are you talking about?’
“‘Well,’ the man said, ‘after you absconded with the goods, they put on a sham show. Strung up some poor guy who looked like Mussolini; hung him with the mistress in a public square in Milan.’
“I nodded. ‘I think I know who,’ I said. ‘Any idea how many partisans delivered the body to Milan?’
“He shrugged. ‘No. Just that after they tried to kill Mussolini – killed his mistress – they continued up the road a few miles, executed some more fascists, and then went back to pick up the bodies at the orchard en route to Milan. They had decided to put on a show for the populace by hanging all of the corpses upside down. They obviously came up one short at the orchard, though, and found a substitute. I don’t have any specifics beyond that. Why?’
“‘I think,’ I said, ‘that the four partisans I saw at the farmhouse might be down to three; they may have elected one of their own to play Mussolini’s corpse. There was one who resembled him.’
“‘Oh, brother,’ the man said. ‘They kill their own guy, mutilate him beyond recognition, and pass him off as the real deal. And then they choose silence rather than incur the wrath of the other partisans – not to mention a populace that smells fascist blood. Of course ... they couldn’t very well say, oh yeah, Mussolini really got away. Hell, they’d hardly dare think it, I imagine. No ... they’re not a problem.’
“Something nagging at the back of my mind suddenly sprang forward.
“‘Weapons,’ I said. ‘Maybe we better round up the bandits’ weapons. Don’t want Il Duce to get any ideas when he comes to.’
“‘Good idea. You get those two guys,’ the man said, pointing to the shadowed figures of two corpses off to our left, ‘and I’ll get the one on the right and the one from the tree.’
“It took us but a minute to finish and return to the center of the clearing, where we both placed the newly acquired weapons – rifles and handguns and hand grenades – and our backpacks, and sat down. We were only a yard apart now, and I could see that the man was not particularly young, probably ten years older than me, with dark hair worn fairly long – at least long for those days. It was hanging down his forehead nearly to his eyes, and had curled over his ears. He had narrow lips and a slightly aquiline nose. The eyes, though I couldn’t tell for sure, struck me as dark – brown or black.
“‘The plan has changed a little,’ he said. ‘I was going to come out here and simply take this guy off your hands, but now that he’s supposed to be dead – now that everybody believes he is – my superiors don’t want him delivered.’
“‘They don’t want him. At least not right now. Not here, anyway.’
“‘They’re a little concerned about backlash. The guy’s supposed to be dead, and from the reception his substitute corpse got in Milan, the Italians are celebrating that fact. If he turns up alive right away, they’re afraid the passions might be a little on the, say, vengeful side. They’re thinking retaliation against our forces might not be out of the question.’
“‘Christ,’ I said, ‘why didn’t they think of this before? For that matter, why’d they want him in the first place?’
“‘Well, they wanted him so they could control the situation, I guess. Who can say for sure? Maybe even they don’t know. But they didn’t plan on everybody thinking he was dead and getting all frenzied about it. They figured there’d just be a few pissed-off partisans, and that would be that. But now...’
“‘Just what are we supposed to do with him?’
“‘Ah, there’s the tricky part. We’re supposed to spirit him out of the country without anyone seeing him.’
“‘Oh? And how do we manage that?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘it shouldn’t be too hard.’
“‘Yeah? Maybe you better spell it out,’ I said.
“The man hesitated while reaching down and retying a boot.
“‘Came loose in the excitement,’ he said, knotting it. ‘There! Okay, here’s what was suggested: We head south, toward the coast near Genoa, steal a small boat and cross the Ligurian Sea to France. Then go overland to the channel and across to England. Someone from OSS will meet us there – and then take our cargo off our hands.’
“‘England,’ I said.
“‘England,’ he repeated.
“‘Why not just head northwest or west into France? No, don’t tell me. The partisans are watching the border.’
“‘That’s right. Besides, I’m not too keen on tackling the Alps this time of year. Are you?’
“‘I could manage,’ I said, ‘but I doubt Il Duce could.’
“‘No, I don’t suppose,’ the man said.
“‘England,’ I said again. ‘Might be nice to take a vacation from the Continent.’
“‘We haven’t much choice,’ the man said.
“A moan came from over in the bushes. Mussolini was regaining consciousness.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘if we’re going to be traveling together, perhaps we should introduce ourselves. Did your superiors happen to mention my name?’
“‘No,’ the man said. ‘I asked, and they declined to inform me. Said it was because you are a Specter.’
“‘Yeah. I’m not supposed to even exist.’
“‘So I gather. Well ... we can keep going without names. By the rules of security, that would be the proper course.’
“‘No,’ I said. ‘That would be a bit silly if we’re going all the way to England. I suspect we’ll need to trust each other completely before this is over. I think names are an excellent step in that direction.’
“I thrust my right hand out toward him, and he momentarily flinched. But then seeing it empty, he leaned in with his hand and, after a momentary hesitation, grasped mine and shook it.
“‘My name,’ I told him, ‘is Lafitte. Jacques Lafitte.’
“‘Pleased to meet you, Jacques. My name is Mann. Amory Mann. My friends call me Amo.’”
Jacques stopped and looked at me. He was smiling.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“So it was my father,” I said. “And he really did save you.”
“Oh, yes,” said Jacques. “That time, and again later. But we must dispense with that for now, for it is time to go meet the boat on its afternoon run.”
“What? Now? Your story was just getting interesting.”
“Really?” he said. “I thought it interesting from the start. But come ... we must depart. I must pick up that package I mentioned.”
He stood, and headed toward the front door, grabbing his coat from a hook on the way out. He had moved so suddenly, I was still seated when the door was swinging shut behind him.
“Wait!” I said, pushing myself up. My bones were creaking from the effort, and I swore at the aging process. But then I recalled how quickly Jacques had just moved, and wondered at it. Staggering after him, I took my coat down from the hook next to his and hurried out the door. I caught up to him only after he had started the engine and was turning his pickup south, in the direction of the forest track. I jumped in, and was no sooner seated than he accelerated rapidly, throwing me back against the seat.
“What’s the hurry?” I said.
“I want to be there on time,” he said. “Sometimes Johnny gets in a little early.”
“Oh,” I said, and then thought of the strange dream I’d had, the one with the visit from Turk McGurk. I wasn’t about to mention the dream itself, but it had prompted a curiosity about the mysterious package we were going to get.
“Jacques,” I said, “if you don’t mind my being a little nosy, just what is it we’re in such a hurry to pick up? What’s this package all about? Does it have anything to do with me?”
Jacques glanced over at me.
“Does everything have to do with you?” he asked. “Maybe this has only to do with me. Maybe it’s none of your business.”
“Oh. Sorry,” I said, chastised. Well, I thought, that clears up the matter of the dream. It was no prophecy. But then I realized Jacques hadn’t given me a definitive answer; had, in fact, sidestepped my questions with a question and a couple of maybes.
I ventured a look over in his direction, and thought I detected a small smile playing at his lips. Then I caught the glint in his eye, and was sure. He was toying with me.
“Jacques,” I said again. “It does have to do with me, doesn’t it?”
He didn’t answer for a while, and I thought perhaps he wouldn’t. But after the truck went through a couple of deep and chassis-rattling potholes, the words seemed to shake right out of him.
“The package,” he said, “is an old friend of yours.”
“Addie,” I said.
“Addie,” he echoed.
I let that sink in while we traveled the narrow track, and pondered it some more as we reached the wider road, passed the airfield and – at a speed I considered injudicious – made our way toward Pointe aux Pins.
I hadn’t seen her since ... well, since she had paid an awkward visit to my college one day years after our adventurous summer of 1956. The meeting, having gone badly, seemed a perfect harbinger of a lifetime apart. We’d had our time, and that was that.
But now, more than thirty years out of college and forty years removed from our Island adventure, I was in a pickup truck racing along a twisting forest road on the way to see her once again. And I was suddenly very nervous at the prospect.
Don’t be silly, I told myself. You’re not a kid any more; you’re happily married, a family man. And she, remember, is no spring chicken either. Funny, I thought. She had always remained young in my mind – as though it wasn’t possible for her to age despite the fact that I, and everyone else, had. But she had gone on to her own adult life, and was probably not anywhere near the person I remembered – neither the bubbly, engaging, totally mesmerizing youngster I had first known, nor the sullen, secretive, gum-chewing teen I had last seen.
And then it struck me.
“What in heaven’s name is she doing here, Jacques?” I asked.
“I wondered when you’d get around to that question,” he said.
“She is coming at my request,” he said. “In light of your visit, I wanted her present.”
“What, you called her after I got here?” I said. “No ... that can’t be. We’ve been together since I arrived yesterday. You must have called her after my phone call to you from New York...”
Jacques was shaking his head.
“No, Avery, I didn’t call her. She called me. The same day you did.”
“The same day?”
I had called Jacques out of the blue – what was it, just the previous
week? – upon the urging of my wife, after I’d written Island
Nights. I had called because, after writing the book, I – along
with my wife – had been bothered by those unanswered questions surrounding
Addie’s Gull Island experience.
How could Addie have called on the same day?
“That’s too much to buy,” I said to Jacques. “Come on, you can’t expect me to believe a coincidence like that.”
“Oh,” he said, “it was no coincidence.”
“No coincidence. What was it, then?”
“Addie and I ... have been in touch from time to time,” he said. “She feels she owes me a favor, and so prompting her to come here was a simple matter of ... suggestion. She understood, and called to confirm her arrival. Not that she needed to; I would have met her at the dock regardless.”
“Suggestion,” I said. “No need to call. What the hell are you talking about, Jacques?”
And then I understood, to a point.
“You mean that you ... I thought you could only pick up signals, not send them,” I said.
Jacques shrugged in response.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, “that you sent a mental suggestion to Addie?”
“Well ... yes,” he said.
“Right after I called.”
“Well ... no.”
“I don’t follow,” I said.
“Actually, it was before you called.”
“Before?” I said. “But how...”
And then I understood completely. Jacques, when I had first called him, had said he’d been expecting me; and that he had long been tuned in to me empathically, able to pick up stress and distress signals from me for years. But now I realized it went beyond that.
“Jacques,” I said. “Have you been messing with my mind?”
We were coming out of the shade of the forested road, onto the stretch that had once run past the hotel and mansion and down to the old main dock – ghosts of summers past. In the sudden light, I could see a touch of embarrassment on Jacques’ face.
“The truth, Jacques,” I urged.
“The truth,” he said. “The truth is, I beckoned you here, too, in a fashion. Although it took quite a different form from my contact with Addie. You, after all, had divorced yourself years ago from the Island and all that it meant to you. Drawing you here required something ... a little more time-consuming, a little more persuasive.”
“How’s that?” I said. “Give.”
“Well ... I sent you some images of that summer, of when you knew Addie, in the hopes that it might rekindle your interest in the Island. It actually worked better than I thought. The images prompted a headlong rush of memories that you turned into that book of yours. Of course, it took a while. What was your writing time? Twelve weeks? No, thirteen.”
“What?” I said, incredulous. “You mean to tell me that you were responsible for my writing the book? Don’t tell me you made the minister’s wife wax poetic about her childhood summers.”
“No, no,” he said. “I had nothing to do with any minister’s wife. If you were prompted to write by anything anybody said, it was only because the images were there, waiting for your conscious mind to settle on them. That’s all. And so you wrote, and when you were done with your book, I could sense your consternation, your need for answers, and your intent to come here ... knew you would come here.”
“You read my mind?” The words came out raspy, barely audible over the engine.
“No,” said Jacques. “That I cannot do. But I know you well enough to know your inclinations under duress. This was a logical progression.”
“Good God,” I said. “Why me?”
“You are your father’s son,” he said. “I needed somebody I could trust, and you are the person most approximating him now that he is gone. And ... I needed your ability to observe objectively; your journalistic training.”
It was quite a stunning pronouncement, and one I would have to think about. At the least, the matter of my professional standing – I’d had a long career as a newspaperman – struck a sympathetic chord ...
“Okay,” I said. “Well, not okay ... but I’ll live with your answer for now. But what about Addie? Why beckon her? And don’t tell me she wrote a book, too.”
“A book? No. I ... signaled her only after I was certain you were coming.”
“Before I called you,” I said, double-checking that fact.
“Yes,” he said. “Before. Your path was clear before you consciously settled on the date of this journey. It was of small consequence to have her arrival occur near yours.”
“And on the basis of a signal from you, she decided to up and come,” I said. “Just like that.”
“Like I said, she feels she owes me something.”
I gave him a questioning look.
“It has to do with ... religion,” he said obliquely. “I guess you could say she has been spending a great deal of time lately in prayer, conversing with her God.”
“Her God?” I said.
“Yes, it’s her way of dealing with things, just as yours is in writing. You write, she prays.”
“Funny,” I said. “I never envisioned her as religious – especially after our last visit. Of course, it was a long time ago, back when we were teens. But she seemed very dour about ... well ... about almost everything.”
“She was going through a difficult time back then,” said Jacques. “It was a difficult age for her, those teen years, compounded by the conflicting feelings she had regarding Gull Island. It affected her deeply, and still does.”
“Wow,” I said. “So she turned to religion. Well, it
serves as solace for a lot of people. Why not her?”
“Addie is a woman of the cloth, Avery.”
“She is an Episcopalian minister, my friend. A woman of God.”
We reached the shoreline parking area just as the Sylmar III was pulling into the dock, swinging its tail end around to offload its cargo. Jacques certainly knew his son’s proclivities, for Johnny was early by a full ten minutes.
As Jacques and I strode across the concrete surface of the dock toward the boat, I turned my coat collar up against the breeze coming in from the west and thought how cold even a moderate day seemed to me lately. Jacques, however, had his coat open and seemed impervious to the chill; he was more intent, I noticed, on watching the passengers disembark. Following his gaze, I saw an elderly man get off first, then a young man, and then two middle-aged women. They were both stout, and gray-haired, and I looked closely to see if there was any resemblance at all to the Addie I remembered. But there wasn’t, and we passed by them; and as we neared to within a dozen paces of the craft, there appeared to be no more passengers.
I felt a twinge of disappointment, but with it some relief. I wasn’t really sure about this meeting. It seemed like it might be equally as awkward as our last one.
As Jacques halted and I followed suit beside him, Johnny appeared from the area of the boat’s portside passenger cabin, and strode across the deck toward the dock. He waved to Jacques and me as he stepped off the boat, but didn’t wait for return acknowledgement. Instead, he veered off to the side, toward a group of men who had watched the Sylmar III come in, and engaged them in conversation.
Watching this, I missed seeing the woman in the navy blue pea jacket come out of the passenger area, missed seeing her approach across the deck until she was almost to the stern. But Jacques saw her, and sprang to her side, and offered his arm as she stepped from the sway of the boat to the firmness of the dock.
I stood still, quite stunned, as she gained her footing, and watched her as she thanked Jacques, gave him a hug and looked around at the Island before her. She was nothing like I imagined she would be – which is to say aged. Not at all. She was instead almost as slight as she had been that summer long ago, and her hair was only marginally longer than the short cut she had once worn. Her face was practically the same – a touch of crow’s feet around the eyes and a slight etching at the edge of the mouth the only signs of forty years’ passage – and her carriage was as straight as ever, almost military-stiff with chin held high, as if daring the world to take its best shot. This was not at all the image she had portrayed in her visit to my college; it was instead a throwback to the girl I had known in 1956 and to whom I had grown enticingly close.
Now, here, four decades later, she was back. Back on the Island.
Addie Winger had arrived at Bois Blanc.
After surveying the shoreline, she turned back to Jacques and smiled
broadly; she had not noticed me. She and Jacques exchanged a few words
I couldn’t hear, and he hurried on board, returning moments later
with a suitcase. Then he nodded in my general direction, and the two of
them approached me.
“She didn’t even see me,” I said when he reached me; and then it occurred to me: “She doesn’t even know I’m here, does she?”
“No,” Jacques said. “I didn’t wish to complicate matters. I needed you both.”
I shook my head.
“Well, you succeeded,” I said, feeling a bit used and more than mildly perturbed by it. “I’d like to discuss this later...”
“It’s done, Avery,” he responded, and fixed me with
an earnest gaze. “Now let’s make the most of it.”
“Jacques,” she said, “the place still looks wonderful.”
She reached out, touched his shoulder, examined his face and added: “And so do you.”
Despite my discomfort at what might soon transpire, I found myself smiling.
Addie let go of Jacques and backed away from him, studying him from top to bottom.
“Yes, you look well, Jacques,” she said. “I see the Island still agrees with you.”
“Always has, Addie,” he said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got somebody here I want you to say hello to. He’s staying with me out at the cabin.”
Addie swiveled slowly toward me, her eyes still on Jacques, as if awaiting further introduction. But he didn’t provide it, and she was soon looking directly at me for the first time in more than thirty years.
“How do you do?” she said at last. There was no recognition.
“How do you do?” I said back. “It’s been a very long time, Addie.”
Her face registered surprise, and a touch of confusion. She glanced back toward Jacques, saw his smile, and returned her gaze to mine. She studied my features, and locked finally on my eyes, peering inside, seeking something to grab onto.
And slowly, ever so slowly, her eyes widened in disbelief.
“My God,” she said. “Avery ... Avery Mann.”
I laughed, pleased at the effect of my presence.
“I didn’t think I’d changed so much,” I said. “You certainly haven’t.”
“Avery,” she said again, and her smile was back. “Oh my, but this is grand.”
She moved in toward me, reached up, grabbed my neck and pulled me down toward her for a hug. This was quite a bit different from our last hug – the one she gave me on the day she had departed the Island, the day that had left me licking the wounds of first lost love.
Now ... now, in addition to being forty years older and much less emotional than I had been back then, there was a physical difference: I was nine inches taller, while she had gained but two or three inches, barely topping five feet. The disparity made the hug a bit awkward.
But awkward or not, we stayed like that for fully ten seconds, stopping only when I noticed her body vibrating, a motion that I took to be sobbing. I gently disengaged, pushing her back so I could dry her tears. But she wasn’t crying; she was laughing.
“Oh, my lord,” she said, the laughter still coming, “I cannot believe this.” She reached toward Jacques and stroked his cheek gently, and then turned and did the same to mine. Then she stepped back and looked at the two of us, and brought her laughter under control.
“Imagine,” she said. “Two of my favorite men in the whole world, and we’re all here together. This is a good day.”
The journey back to Jacques’ cabin was anything but direct.
First came a detour – at my request – to the southwest shore, beyond the turnoff Jacques would normally have taken north.
“Why?” said Jacques. “Not much there.”
“Humor me,” I said. “I just want to see it.”
What I hoped – rather expected – to see was the auto graveyard that had played a role in my summer with Addie so many years before.
The graveyard – a junkyard of the Island residents’ old, dead vehicles – had been perched alongside a privately owned pump house those many years ago, reaching down almost to the lapping waves. It was a most unlikely setting for rusting hulks, chosen for a reason I never knew, though I suspected it had to do with erosion prevention.
But that was years before environmentalists and state mandates dealing with such things. Now – in an age of excessive state and federal regulations – what greeted us should not have surprised me. Instead of finding the auto graveyard intact, we encountered the old pump house, a stony beach ... and little else.
The cars that I remembered from childhood, canted at crazy angles – ’30s and ’40s roadsters, ’50s sedans – were no longer there. The multi-colored gathering had been dismantled and moved – probably inland somewhere.
“Where’d they go?” I asked Jacques.
“What? You mean the cars? I’m not sure,” he said. “I seem to remember a row about them some years ago. But I didn’t pay much attention.”
I got out of the pickup and walked along the shore, looking for some telltale sign of what had been. Addie was not far behind me. Jacques stayed in the truck.
“We last talked to Eliot Ness here,” I said after a minute. We had stopped moving and were standing, facing west, hair tousled by the incoming wind. “You remember that?”
“Sure,” she said. “He was scavenging for parts for his car. Left the next day, as I recall. Kind of a sad old guy.”
“Not so old,” I said. “He was only 54 when he died. I’m 52 now, and you’re ... what ... 50?”
“Yes,” she said, “and feeling all of it. But in truth he was old when we knew him, at least in terms of how old he would live to be. He was in the last small percentage of a rather fruitful life.”
“Hmmmm,” I said. “Interesting perspective. But fruitful? I don’t think he thought so.”
“Sometimes,” Addie said, “the individual is the last person to know his own true worth.”
“Shall we go?” Jacques called.
“Yeah, sure,” I answered, and Addie and I moved toward the pickup. But within a couple of steps, something in a bush to my left caught my eye, and I bent down for a closer look. There, left over from the environmental cleanup, was a piece of metal perhaps eighteen inches long. It was concealed from sight, but obviously not from the elements: it was rusted red.
“What is it?” asked Addie.
“Part of an old bumper, looks like,” I said. “I guess they didn’t get everything.”
I reached out, touched it lightly, and decided to leave it there. It belonged.
Jacques doubled back toward the north turnoff, but stopped again at Addie’s urging.
“Oooh, pull over there,” she said, pointing to a small structure off to the right, almost directly across from the north road –the boathouse that had once been a candy shop and a social center for kids, the place where Addie and I had first met. As soon as the vehicle stopped, she climbed out to look closer.
I followed her as she circled the building, studying it from different angles, and then as she approached it and peered in through one of its windows; I chose one in the same west wall. But the effort to see inside was a failure: the windows were grime-covered and the interior was dark. Any thought that we might glimpse a fragment of our past was blocked by the present.
Addie and I stepped back from the windows and turned to each other and shrugged. We returned to the pickup without a word, and rode northward in relative quiet.
We’d gone maybe two miles inland when Jacques slowed the pickup and pulled to the side of the road.
“What are we stopping for?” I asked.
Jacques failed to speak for several seconds, peering into his steering
wheel as if for an answer.
“Why? Where does it go?” asked Addie, clearly as mystified
as I was at Jacques’ tenuous approach.
“The Twin Lakes!” I exclaimed. “I remember those. I went there once when I was a kid, with my brother Ben and a friend of his. We went boating.”
Addie silenced me with a glance that signaled annoyance.
“Jacques,” she said, “what’s back there that you want us to see?”
“Not what ... who,” he said. “I want you to join me in a visit to my father’s cabin.”
“Your father!” I said. “Good lord, Jacques. I had no idea he was still alive. You didn’t say.” And then, trying to figure his approximate age based on how old I thought Jacques was, I asked: “How old is he, anyway? Ninety-five?”
“Ninety-seven in a couple of days,” he said.
“Well, of course, Jacques,” said Addie, placing a hand on his forearm. “But why would you be so hesitant to ask? We’d love to see him. In fact, I don’t recall ever meeting him before. Did you, Avery?”
“Not that I remember,” I said.
Jacques was shaking his head.
“Not likely,” he said. “Papa was always a private person. More so after Mama died. He’s lived out in the woods ever since. Moved to a spot on the Twin Lakes about twenty years ago, and says that’s where he’ll stay. Hardly ever gets out any more, so Johnny and I take out supplies, and visit and such...”
“Well, by all means, let’s go,” said Addie.
Jacques hesitated again, this time staring through the windshield. Then he nodded, restarted the engine and moved forward toward the turnoff.
It was a road easily missed – both narrow and heavily shaded. I would not have been able to find it myself, in fact, so protected was the entrance and so foggy my memory of the last time I had traveled out there – if in fact it was this track I had taken.
Jacques slowed the truck considerably after turning onto the road, a one-lane path that passed perilously close to a good many of the trees lining it. Speed here would very likely translate into dented fenders and smashed quarter-panels. This section of Island was nearly as it had been centuries before; it had, in the interim, yielded only grudgingly to the advance of modern technology. It would let a vehicle pass, but only barely.
About a mile down the track, I picked up an unsavory scent. It was kind of a cross between week-old garbage and a bed of festering maggots. Considering the cool weather – it was only about forty-five degrees and hadn’t cleared fifty-five for days – the presence of a rancid smell normally reserved for heat waves struck me as odd.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“Oh ... yes,” said Addie, her nose twitching. “I just picked it up.”
“Yes,” said Jacques, “it’s become rather strong of late. Unpleasant ... but on the plus side, any strangers who wander in tend not to stay too long. Last deer season, the woods around here were crawling with hunters. I doubt very much whether there will be more than a handful of the hardiest souls with the strongest stomachs this time around.”
“But what is it?” I said again.
Jacques gave a little headshake.
“Maybe you can tell me before you leave the Island,” he said.
“Well, it just smells like rot,” I said.
“It is,” said Jacques. “The flora and fauna in a line around the cabin, but well out from it, are dying. But more than that: they are putrefying. That’s the smell.”
“Then I don’t need to tell you,” I said. “You already know.”
“I know the basic what,” said Jacques. “I want you to figure out the why.”
He stopped the truck another couple hundred yards up the track, in a small clearing at the side of the road.
“Why here?” I asked. “I don’t see the lakes.”
“We haven’t reached them,” said Jacques. “They’re just ahead and to the right. But this track goes no closer, and the only one in to the lakes is too rutted and potholed for any machine that wishes to keep running for long. I’ve long intended to fix it, but my father prefers that I don’t; says it keeps his visitors at a minimum this way. He prizes his privacy. So ... this is the last best place to park in case any other vehicle comes along.”
“Vehicles? I thought you said the smell kept people away.”
“Well, like I said, Johnny comes out sometimes. And there are a few other cabins farther up the track, toward the Island’s center, beyond the stench. So ... we walk from here. Ready?”
“Let’s go,” said Addie.
And we did.
For the first two hundred yards, there was ample evidence of the spoilage that was creating the smell. Carcasses of small animals and birds littered the forest floor, and hardy perennial plants were drooping as if stricken ill. The bases of many of the birch and pine trees were black and pus-laden.
But as we neared the first lake, a circular body of several acres, the smell abated, to the point that I almost thought I’d imagined it. Along the shore of the lake the plant life was burgeoning, and several squirrels and birds were scampering about.
The water itself, once we cleared the trees, was a brighter blue than I would have expected under the grayish skies, with lily pads in heavy residence near the shoreline. Frogs, unseen, were croaking to each other, probably about our approach.
“I didn’t think they’d be out in such force this late in the year,” I said, pointing to the pads.
“Yes. Odd,” Jacques said. “But notice it’s warmer here? That helps preserve the summer foliage.”
I hadn’t noticed, the change had been so gradual. But now I did. The temperature here, as compared to that back at Pointe aux Pins or, for that matter, at the turnoff to the lakes, was significantly higher – perhaps fifteen degrees. It felt like about sixty degrees now.
“Why is that?” said Addie. “Is there some sort of geothermal pool or pocket around here?”
Jacques shook his head.
“No,” he said. “And it’s not because it’s protected from the wind. It comes howling through here pretty good sometimes. The change in temperature has only been recent, in fact; noticeable in just the past few weeks, with the demise of summer.
I unzipped the jacket I was wearing. It was almost warm enough to remove it.
“Weird,” I said. “But there must be some simple scientific explanation.”
“Perhaps,” said Jacques. “Come, we’ll stay near the shoreline. His cabin is not far. It’s on the north shore of the second lake.”
The home of Jacques’ father was a rust-stained cabin made of logs hewn from the nearby forest. It sat, as advertised, on the northern shore of the eastern of the Twin Lakes – two inland bodies of water connected by a wide channel. The cabin was surrounded on three sides by woods and on the fourth by water. A small rowboat and canoe were pulled up on shore and tethered to nearby trees that had either fallen or been cut and dragged from the woods for that very purpose.
Our approach – at first along the northern shore of the first
lake, and then through a forest copse – ended with passage across
a clearing separating the surrounding woods from the cabin. When we cleared
the woods, we were but twenty yards from the side of the structure. A
couple of dozen paces later, Jacques was rapping lightly on the front
door and then opening it without awaiting a response.
Addie and I entered the cabin’s living room behind Jacques. A floor lamp was on over in the far left corner, next to a cushioned rocking chair. A book was open, face down, on a small table adjacent to the chair’s left arm.
The room probably accounted for half of the cabin space. An open doorway to the rear led to the kitchen, and one to our right led into a bedroom; I could see a bed and dresser in there. One other door, closed, was to the right of the kitchen. It was from there that we heard the first sign of Jacques’ father’s presence: the flush of a chemical toilet. I found the sound jarring on an Island that for me had always meant sand, surf, kerosene lamps, hand pumps … and outhouses.
A moment later, the bathroom door opened, and out shuffled a man who
clearly wore a great many years; they had bent him over at the waist,
slowing his step and reducing his muscle and fat to mere memories. But
when he spotted us, I could see in his eyes a defiance that had not been
“Friends,” said Jacques. “Sorry to startle you. I’d expected to find you reading.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not dead yet,” said the old man. “So I gotta use the crapper just like everybody else.”
He resumed his shuffle, returning to his chair and his lamp. He lowered himself carefully into the rocker, and then looked up at us again.
“Well?” he said. “What do you want?”
Jacques looked at us as if to say, “Sorry,” but there was no need. My arrival at middle age had brought with it enough creaking pains to alert me to the struggles ahead as time and gravity had their way. What I saw now, in this cabin in the woods, was simply an elderly gentleman who was trying to get through another day with all the physical and mental aches that life leaves as its calling cards.
“Like I said, Papa,” said Jacques, “these are friends. This is Avery Mann and Addie Winger. They used to come to the Island years ago, when they were children.”
“Don’t remember them,” the old man said.
“No, I don’t expect so,” said Jacques. “I don’t think they ever met you. That’s why I wanted to introduce you now: to correct that oversight.”
The old man’s eyes locked on to his son’s.
“I don’t consider not wanting to see people to be an oversight,” he said. Then he addressed Addie. “Young woman, my apologies, but I’m not quite up to company today. I hope you’ll forgive my son’s rashness in bringing you here, but I must ask you all to please go back to wherever it is you came from.”
Addie didn’t hesitate. She walked right up to the old man and held out her right hand. He considered it, but made no move to accept it. She didn’t withdraw it, though, as she spoke.
“I understand, Mr. Lafitte. Avery and I just wish to let you know that we think the world of your son, and that he is a credit to you. I know such a fine man must come from a fine father.”
The old man did not take his eyes from Addie during – or for the several seconds of silence after – that little speech. Finally, a smile curled his lips, revealing two strong lines of white teeth. I idly wondered if they were his own.
Slowly, as if pulled by an unseen force, his hand rose toward Addie’s; finally, they met and clasped. An odd silence dominated the scene, one that I was not about to break, not after Addie’s little show. Anything I said would sound trite or, worse, flippant. Jacques too remained silent, observing this ceremony with what looked like intense interest.
At last, the two unclasped the hands and Addie, still peering into the old man’s eyes, backed away until she was standing next to me. I thought about offering my hand, but the old man froze me with a look.
“Well,” said Jacques.
“Well,” said his father.
“We’ll be going now,” said Jacques. “Perhaps
we can call again, before Avery and Addie leave.”
“She can,” he said. “Nobody else.”
Addie nodded at him, and he back at her. Then, without further words, we three turned and exited, leaving the old man to his rocker and his lamp and – I could see him reaching for it before I had cleared the doorway – his book.
We returned almost without conversation to the pickup truck. The lone exception came just as the truck came into sight.
“So what did you make of that?” I asked Addie. “He took a shine to you, huh?”
Addie looked at me as though I were daft, and shook her head without answering.
We had reached and reentered the pickup, retraced the forest path to the northern road, passed the airport and entered the narrow track to Jacques’ cabin before I spoke again.
“You visit him often?” I asked over the engine noise.
Jacques glanced over at me, across Addie.
“Used to,” he said. “Less now.”
“Is he always...” I hesitated, trying to find a diplomatic way to finish the question.
“Ornery?” said Jacques.
“Well,” I said, “that’s not the word I would have used. But ... yes.”
“Didn’t used to be,” said Jacques tightly. He turned his attention back to the narrow roadway, downshifting suddenly, frowning at the effort.
I took the hint, and embraced silence.
Back in Jacques’ home, the other two seemed preoccupied, walking from point to point in the living room, touching things without really looking at them, leaving a verbal void that finally drove me to speak.
“Well, Addie,” I said, “you look very well.”
She was behind the couch, still wandering aimlessly, and it took a moment for my words to sink in. Then, gradually, she brought her attention back to the room, and to me.
“Oh,” she said, advancing toward the card table, where I was seated. “Thank you, Avery. I take it you mean considering my advanced years and all...”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m older than you, remember.”
“Yes, so you are,” she said, and lowered herself to the chair on my right. In front of us lay the binocular case. “I’d forgotten. I seem to have trouble imagining you beyond your teen-aged years.”
“It’s my youthful good looks,” I said.
“Well, no,” she said, “though you don’t look more than 40 or so. No, I was thinking that you still have a rather youthful ... attitude, I guess...”
“She means,” said Jacques from a spot behind me, in the kitchen, “that you seem to have never quite grown up.”
I twisted around, expecting to see a good-natured grin on Jacques’ face, but his look was instead impassive. I turned back to Addie, hoping she was wearing a smile, but instead saw a touch of red spreading across her cheeks.
“Geez,” I said, a bit stunned. It struck me as a quick judgment – and not altogether fair.
Addie reached out and lightly touched my hand.
“It’s okay, Avery,” she said. “It’s not a big deal ... just a first impression, really. It’s just that you don’t seem very ... grounded.”
I thought about that as she slowly retracted her hand.
“Okay,” I said. “You want grounded?”
She acknowledged as much with a barely perceptible shrug.
“Okay,” I said, adopting my best interview voice. “So, Addie. It’s been awhile. I take it you’ve learned volumes in the past forty years. What exactly is your philosophy of life, and for that matter, what are your thoughts on the disintegration of the family unit in the face of modern society’s workplace demands?”
A laugh escaped her, a sudden throaty reaction that came from down deep. It was a genuine release, reminiscent of her childhood laugh but a couple of decibels lower.
“Wow!” she said when she’d regained her composure. “You don’t really want to know all that, do you?”
I smiled, but still felt at a disadvantage; still felt defensive. I looked to Jacques for help, but he was on the move, digging out some cold cuts with which to fortify us. I caught his eye, but only got an amused smile in return.
“Well, uh, no,” I said, flustered. “It’s just ... you know ... fill me in on yourself. Jacques says you’re a minister now. How’d that happen?”
She laughed again, but softer now, and her expression was kindly. She reached out and this time patted my hand.
“Ah, Avery,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you ill at ease. I’m just a person like you, making her way through life, trying to understand its whys and wherefores.”
She pulled her hand back again, and set it on the table near the binocular case. For the first time, it caught her attention, and she lightly touched its leather surface with her fingers. Then she placed her palm, fingers splayed, upon the smooth case siding. A look of curiosity swept across her face. She inquired silently of me and – seeing no answer there – called to Jacques over my shoulder.
“What is this?” she asked.
I knew by the sound of scraping that Jacques was at the sink, facing away from us, peeling carrots. He had been at it for the past few seconds, and answered so quickly that he couldn’t possibly have had time to turn and see what she was referring to. And his voice, slightly muffled, indicated he wasn’t looking our way when he answered.
“Binoculars,” he said almost instantly. “They belonged
to Avery’s father. Avery brought them along.”
“Whose were they before?” she asked. “Where did his father get them?”
Jacques kept working at the sink.
“The Nazis,” he said. “World War Two.”
Addie nodded, as if satisfied the answer was correct.
“Does this have to do with why you summoned me here?” she asked.
Jacques cut the carrot into sticks, placed them on a plate with some celery sticks neatly arranged in a circle along the plate’s perimeter, and moved in from the kitchen.
“Why, Addie,” he said, “you’re the one who called me, remember?”
She narrowed her eyes, measuring him.
“Right,” she said. “Like I’d call you out of the blue and just happen to arrive at the same time that Avery decides to visit for the first time in God-knows-how-many years.”
“Well, forty, actually,” I said.
They both looked at me with a modicum of disapproval.
“Sorry,” I said. “Shutting up.”
Addie resumed her conversation with Jacques.
“Why summon me?” she said.
“Because of who you are and what you are,” said Jacques, seating himself to my left, across from Addie. “You are the one person I know who is truly committed to God. You are a good woman, Addie, and I say ‘good’ in the purest sense of the word. And in that goodness, I think you sensed something of my concern today. I’m fairly certain in my diagnosis, but require you – and Avery, too – to confirm it and hopefully help me reach a solution.”
I didn’t have a clue what Jacques was talking about, but Addie did.
“Yes,” she said. “Apart from the smell near the lakes, I sensed something in the atmosphere, and thought it emanated from within him. I felt a ... dichotomy ... when I touched his hand. Care to explain?”
Jacques chewed on a carrot stick, thinking.
“I’ll have to do so in greater detail than you’re looking for,” he said.
“That’s okay,” said Addie. “I’d like to know what’s bothering you ... what you think is happening out there. Has it been going on long?”
“For a while,” said Jacques. “I might have let it run its course, but ... there is my age. I didn’t want to leave a problem like this untended. I felt I could wait no longer; the number of my days is diminishing. If the remaining number is low, then my action in beckoning you – you and Avery – is not precipitate. Had I not done so, I didn’t know what consequences might result.”
“Excuse me,” I said, “but you’ve thoroughly lost me.”
“What do you need to know?” asked Jacques.
“Well, for starters,” I said, “what are you two talking about? What dichotomy?”
“In my father,” said Jacques. “But it is rather involved. It will take a continuation of the tale I was telling you earlier.”
“Why?” I said. “You mean World War Two has something to do with this dichotomy?”
“Oh, assuredly,” he said.
“Then I take it ... my father’s involved in all of this,” I said.
“In an indirect way, yes,” said Jacques. “What has transpired clearly could not have done so without his contributions.”
“You mean saving your life.”
“That, yes ... and Mussolini’s.”
“Mussolini has something to do with this?”
Jacques took his time formulating an answer.
“Let’s just say ... it would be best if you allowed me to continue.”
I looked at Addie, who was passively waiting.
“What about her?” I said. “She hasn’t heard the first part of your story.”
“Correct,” said Jacques. “So I trust you will bear with me if I recap briefly what I have told you. Then we can proceed.”
I looked at Addie again, and she nodded approval.
“Okay, sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“Good,” said Jacques. “Avery, turn on the recorder.”
I did as he asked, and he began.
“All right, Addie. As I was telling Avery earlier, I was a special assignment soldier working as part of a unit called the Specter Squad...”
Jacques spoke for about 10 minutes, filling in the story as quickly and as sparingly as he thought he could before reaching the point where we had left off: the introductions between my father and Jacques after Dad had rescued him in the woods between Milan and Genoa, northern Italy. In the bushes nearby, Benito Mussolini was stirring, recovering from a knock to the head Jacques had given him to shut him up.
“We were still sitting there, Avery’s Dad and I,” said Jacques, “when Mussolini decided to join the party...”
“We were still sitting there, Avery’s Dad and I, when Mussolini decided to join the party. He came staggering out of the bushes like a bull elephant, bellowing.
“‘What did you do that for?’ he was yelling in that brusque Italian of his. ‘Why did you hit me, you son of a bitch?’
“When he spotted Avery’s dad – well, we’ll simply call him Amo – Mussolini stopped suddenly, shoulders bunched up, head retracted.
“‘Who are you?’ he demanded.
“Amo simply looked at him, seemingly disinterested, although I suspect he was examining him rather closely.
“‘I asked a question,’ Mussolini said. He was clearly accustomed to getting answers when he asked.
“‘Cool off, Duce,’ I said to him. ‘He’s a friend. Saved our behinds after I cold-cocked you.’
“Mussolini spent but two more seconds gauging Amo, and then turned on me again.
“‘Why did you do that?’ he said again. ‘I could have you shot for such behavior.’
“Amo snorted, and I smiled.
“‘You better get used to a new order of things, my large companion,’ I said, ‘for you no longer have the clout. In fact, I think you should start thinking of us as the guys who are keeping you alive. Without us, you are literally nothing.’”
“I motioned to our surroundings.
“‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘If we choose to leave you here, I dare say you won’t survive long. The best you might hope for is a quick death at the hands of some hungry predator. You sure don’t want the partisans getting hold of you again.’
“I said this in a friendly enough fashion, but the words seemed to chill Mussolini. His eyes flickered around, checking the dark for possible attack.
“‘Predators?’ he asked. ‘What predators?’
“‘Well, wolves, bears, maybe big cats,’ I said, getting up from my seat next to Amo. ‘Or maybe the human variety. You might be interested in these fellows.’
“I took him by the elbow and led him to the areas where our attackers had been killed by Amo’s grenades and my bullet. Seeing the corpses was easier now, for dawn was at hand and the first strands of daylight were filtering down through the trees. Next to each body was a pool of blood, easily identified by a reflective glint.
“‘I think,’ I said, ‘that we might be able to use some of these clothes.’
“I eyeballed Mussolini and then the corpse of the largest of the bandits.
“‘What are you suggesting?’ Mussolini said. ‘That I wear the clothing of a dead man? I shall never.’
“‘Haven’t you been a little cold?’ I asked. ‘These things look warmer than what you’ve got on.’ He was still wearing the basics with which he had left the farmhouse – shirt, pants, suit jacket – and the poncho and cap I had provided him. His shoes were out somewhere in the clearing, where he had left them when we’d been attacked. The corpses had cold-weather gear, a must for a chilly April like that one.
“‘I shall not wear the clothing of the dead,’ he insisted, and turned back toward the clearing. ‘And where are my shoes? You made me leave my shoes.’ He added something else, but I couldn’t make it out; he might have just been mumbling.
“‘Suit yourself, you fat bastard,’ I said softly, and rose to follow him. Then, thinking he might change his mind, I removed the boots and jacket from the largest corpse.
“When I got back to the clearing, Mussolini – his volume turned down – was addressing Amo while scanning the area around them, presumably still looking for his footwear.
“‘I thank you,’ he was saying. ‘You did well.’
“Amo looked up and raised his left eyebrow.
“‘Yeah, I did,’ he said, in Italian that was superior to mine. ‘But it wasn’t for you. I did it for my compadre here. I’d just as soon it was you they strung up in Milan.’
“Mussolini looked to me for an explanation.
“‘What is he talking about?’
“‘Everybody thinks you’re dead, Duce,’ I said. ‘Somebody else—somebody who resembled you – took the fall for you and got stoned by your adoring masses. You are, for now, in the clear.’
“Mussolini waved toward the bodies in the bushes.
“‘But if they knew...’
“‘They didn’t,’ said Amo. ‘Local bandits, is all. So stop flattering yourself. The universe no longer revolves around you.’ Amo pushed himself up from the ground, grabbed his knapsack and shouldered his rifle and the weaponry he’d claimed from the bandits. ‘What say we start moving?’ he asked me. ‘I didn’t see any other roving gangs, but that doesn’t mean we won’t run into one.’
“‘Where are we going?’ Mussolini asked.
“‘Well,’ Amo said, ‘right now, we’re gonna head south. Eventually, we’re gonna take a little pleasure cruise away from these friendly shores.’
“‘Pleasure cruise?’ Mussolini said.
“‘Boat ... water ... away,’ Amo answered.
“‘Do not treat me like an imbecile,’ Mussolini
retorted. ‘I meant, where are we going? I thought we were heading
to Allied lines here in Italy.’ He turned toward me. ‘Isn’t
that what you told me?’
“‘Yeah, well, seems like you’re persona non grata all over the place, Duce,’ said Amo. ‘So we’re taking a little side trip ... to England.’
“‘All the way by boat? It is a long trip.’
“‘No. Part water, part land. Let’s move out.’
“‘Let’s,’ I said, and reached down to gather my equipment. After tightening my knapsack and securing my rifle – as well as the two I’d taken from the bandits along with their handguns and grenades – I motioned to Mussolini to follow us.
“‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘I’ve lost my shoes.’
“I turned to Amo, a smile playing on my face; Duce’s discomfort pleased me. ‘He had his shoes off when the attack came,’ I said. ‘Dumped them around here somewhere.’
“I reached back down to the ground and picked up the boots I’d taken from the corpse.
“‘Here,’ I said. I tossed them to Mussolini, and then turned to follow Amo, who had already started walking.
“‘Where did you get these?’ Mussolini called after me.
“‘Wear ’em or don’t wear ’em,’ I called back. ‘I don’t care.’
“Mussolini decided quickly. He tried to simultaneously walk and put on the boots, but fell with the effort, hitting the ground hard.
“‘Wait, damn it,’ he said. ‘I am not ready.’
“We continued walking.
“‘Wait!’ he called again. ‘Please.’
“It was the first polite word I’d heard from the man, and it had its desired effect. We stopped at the edge of the clearing, waited until he had donned and laced his new boots, and then – Mussolini bringing up the rear – started moving south, toward Genoa.
“Having Amo along was good in more ways than one. It not only gave me some companionship for once – I hardly considered Il Duce to be in that category – but also reduced the chance I’d be caught off guard again by any bandits or other roving units.
“I still couldn’t understand how that had happened – how four guys could have approached without my knowing. They might have been exceedingly quiet – professional stealths, as it were – but I still should have detected them empathically. The power had never failed me so completely before.
“As we headed in the direction of Genoa, I had ample time to consider the matter, but could gain no insight whatsoever.
“‘Ah, well,’ I muttered to myself, deciding that perhaps I’d do best to stop worrying about what might have been a simple anomaly, and pay closer attention to my current surroundings. This was likely to be a perilous journey, and no time to be caught napping mentally again.”
“Since full daylight was soon upon us, we stayed deep in the woods, which reduced our pace. But the speed of our journey didn’t really matter, since we were under no deadline. My impression was that the American officials who had conceived the plan to grab Mussolini now rather regretted it, and were in no hurry to have to deal with him.
“Anyway, they’d given Amo no particular target date to reach England, which was a good thing considering the absence of any scheduled transportation on our itinerary. This would be an improvisational trip, and as such could take more than a little while.
“Well into that first day, about fifteen or sixteen hard miles after we’d left the clearing, we heard some metallic banging off to our left, beyond the tree line.
“‘What’s that?’ Amo asked.
“‘Beats me,’ I said. ‘You want to go look?’
“Amo thought a moment, then nodded.
“‘Yeah, we better,’ he said. ‘It won’t hurt to know what’s going on around us.’
“‘Okay,’ I said, and turned and spoke to Mussolini. ‘We’re gonna go check out that noise. Just stay close, and don’t let anyone see you. Remember ... we’re trying to help. You expose us and get caught by somebody else, then you’ll likely get yourself strung up for real. Understand?’
“‘Of course, I do,’ he said. ‘I am no fool.’
“‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen,’ I said in English.
“We moved east then, to the edge of the tree line, and from there discovered brush cover running most of the way across a field to a rise beyond. Again, we heard the metallic clanging; it was apparently coming from over that rise.
“‘Maybe I better go check this out alone,’ I said, thinking that if it was a trap set by more bandits or by partisans, we’d do well to split up. ‘You see any trouble from here, whistle.’
“‘Gotcha,’ said Amo. ‘Go to it.’
“Without further preamble, I entered the nearby brush – low-lying scrub – and, staying low, used it as much as possible to cover my approach up the hill. When I reached the rise, I lay flat and peered over it, down a gentle slope that flattened out about a hundred yards from me and stretched another hundred yards to a small building in the distance: a hangar. I was looking at a rural airfield.
“There were no aircraft in sight, but another metallic clang from the direction of the hangar suggested, at least, that there might be one inside being worked on. It didn’t take a large leap of imagination to entertain the possibility of procuring the craft and using that to get us out of Italy and pointed toward England. My own flying skills were negligible, but I thought maybe Amo or Mussolini might manage. Anyway, it was worth a closer look; then I could report back with something substantive.
“Off to my left, just over the rise, was the beginning of a stand of trees that could take me around the northern end of the field, to within reconnoitering range of the building. The only open spaces were the thirty yards before the stand, and a gap of what looked like ten yards midway along it. If I was quick and stayed low, I figured no one would see me.
“Rising and sprinting to the tree stand, I paused to check on any possible trouble, saw none, and moved forward in the cover of the trees. At the next gap I waited a minute, decided it was safe, sprinted across to the trees on the far side, and resumed my approach.
“In that fashion, I reached a spot a mere twenty yards from the rear of the hangar. It was mostly open ground from there to the building; three large trees set in a line at five-yard intervals were the only offer of cover.
“I was debating whether to step out into that area of vulnerability, to get a closer look at the hangar, when my internal sensors suddenly snapped on. It was almost an overload, I was picking up so many signals.
“‘What the hell?’ I said. The signals were coming from inside the hangar. It was almost as if a platoon-sized contingent was sitting in there, and more than a little edgy. I knew it as surely as if it were being announced over a loudspeaker. With my survival instincts suddenly taking over – I was obviously not equipped to engage a sizable force of the enemy – I backed into the woods and turned to retrace my steps.
“But I hadn’t gone a half-dozen paces when I heard the metallic clang again, and stopped. The internal signals were still strong, but something else was coming through now that I hadn’t picked up at first: fear. And a sense of helplessness. Not exactly qualities to expect from a military unit. No ... something was wrong in there. I had to check it out.
“Taking a deep breath, I raced out of the woods and up behind the first of the three trees in the clearing, and then around that one to the second tree. A moment later I reached the third, and all that stood between me and the building was ten feet.
“Straight ahead was nothing but wall, but down to the right about fifteen feet was a small window. I would have to chance a peek through that if I wanted an answer. Another clang convinced me. I covered the final distance and, without hesitation, leaned forward so that my right eye could see through the bottom left corner of the pane and into the building. It was dark in there compared to the daylight, though, and it took a few moments for my vision to adjust to the difference. It occurred to me rather vividly in those seconds that I couldn’t stay in the window like that for long without inviting disaster.
“Finally, though, my eyesight adjusted, and I could see inside. And I knew instantly why the people inside were exuding fear.
“Instead of a plane in there, it was a group of gypsies, securely bound by ropes, lying on their sides on the ground. Several were tied together, back to back. All of them were gagged. I could see at least two looking at me, and could feel their pain. But even without my suddenly operational power of empathy, the desperation these people were experiencing would have been unmistakable. These folks were not just being held prisoner, they were clearly fearful of a more frightening and final treatment.
“Considering the state of affairs in Italy – the roving partisans and bandits, the summary executions, the spasms of a country in upheaval – it was easy to conclude that these people were very possibly awaiting termination.
“I glanced about me to make sure of my safety, and then ventured a better view of the interior by placing my head squarely against the pane and peering through with both eyes. There were probably two dozen gypsies tied up in there, but no sign of anybody else. Whoever had trussed them was clearly gone for the moment, but expected back.
“And then another clang – nearly deafening from my spot at the window – startled me so much that I dove to the dirt. Fully expecting enemy footsteps to follow, I shouldered my rifle and swung it into position before realizing there was no sound now except for those I was making. I waited a few seconds, stood up again, and peeked back through the window, trying to locate the source of the sound; it was clear to me now that it was being generated by one of the prisoners within.
“I didn’t see its source at first, but when I leaned far to the right and turned so my right cheek was against the glass, I secured a visual angle to the left that gave me my answer: one of the gypsies, tied up but not roped to anyone else, had gripped a metal pipe between his feet and was, with considerable difficulty, swinging it to his left and into the metallic wall. As I watched, he dropped the pipe, struggled to retrieve it, gripped it again between his boots, and swung.
“This time I was prepared. As the sound reverberated along the hangar’s siding, it seemed to me more pathetic than alarming: the last gasp of a doomed man.
“But I quickly amended my judgment to acknowledge the courage in such an act – for certainly if the sound had attracted me, it might bring his captors back early to complete their grisly task
“I thought the problem out quickly – there was possibly no time to lose – and opted to take immediate action. Going back to get Amo would take too long, and expose me again without good reason. No, I would have to help these people now.
“The large hangar doors were on the opposite side of the building, so I headed to my left, intending to open them. But as I rounded the first corner, I found a standard-sized hinged door and, trying it, found it unlocked. I entered the building and without pausing extracted my knife and started slicing at the ropes binding the gypsies – stopping first at the man with the pipe. As they were freed, the gypsies untied their own gags, nodded their appreciation and hurried out the door.
“Within a couple of minutes, almost all of them had exited the building. Three remained, an old man whose mobility was limited by a painful limp, and two men who were helping him walk. They stopped next to me near the door, and the old man spoke in an Italian dialect.
“‘You have saved us,’ he said.
“‘Who was it?’ I asked.
“‘The Nazis,’ he said. ‘They promised to come back and kill us. But first they wished to gather a few more of their own – the rest of their unit, I suppose. One of them said he would not want to deprive them of their sport.’
“‘Nazis still wandering around here?’ I said. ‘I thought they were making a beeline for the border.’
“‘I know,’ said the old man. ‘But this is a renegade unit, and a very brutal one. If you see them, try to avoid them. They are easy to spot; they wear red armbands.’
“I had not heard of such an accouterment on any German uniform.
“‘What does that signify?’ I asked.
“‘The blood of innocents, I should think,’ said the old man. ‘Now we must go. We are indebted. If ever we can repay the debt, we shall not hesitate to do so.’
“He started to move off, slowly, his weight supported by the men on either side of him. But then he held his right hand up, motioning another stop, and turned back toward me.
“‘Here,’ he said, and reached for a jeweled object at the end of a chain around his neck. He moved the object up past his face and then lifted the chain over his head, until it was free of him. Then he held the chain out in his right hand, exhibiting the jewel. It was a clear pyramid-shaped crystal; even in the dim light of the building’s interior, it was emanating a soft multi-colored hue.
“‘What is this?’ I asked.
“‘I sense,’ said the old man, ‘that you are a person of unusual sensibilities. This will enhance those qualities, make you stronger in those areas of good that dominate your existence. It is called Il Cristallo di Morte.’
“Now, I had heard of such a crystal in my European travels – heard the myths – but I had never had occasion to see one.
“‘The Crystal of Death,’ I said in my own tongue, and then I added in Italian: ‘I know of the myth. It is supposed to connect its wearer in a visual sense with the spirit world.’
“The old man was nodding.
“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘This has that power for those who are worthy – and provides swift passage to the other side upon the advent of the wearer’s death. For you, for your kindness, you deserve both considerations.’
“He then reached up and slid the crystal’s chain over my head, and patted the jewel lightly as it came to rest on my breastbone.
“‘Thank you,’ I said, feeling a sudden earnestness. ‘I shall treat it with the reverence it deserves.’
“The old man touched my cheek gently.
“‘Be cautious, though,’ he said. ‘Guard it well. Do not let the unworthy touch it, especially at their death.’
I was not sure what he meant – was not familiar enough with the myth at that point – and so merely nodded my agreement. The old man then motioned to his two companions, and they led him through the door and across a clearing to the relative safety of the woods.
“I didn’t want to wait for the red-banded Nazis myself, so I followed the gypsies out the door, rounded the corner of the hangar, hurried into the forest from which I’d emerged minutes earlier, and started retracing my steps.
“I could no longer hear the sounds of the gypsies making their getaway, for they were doing so in near-silence. But I could still sense their alarm, though muted from what it had been. As quickly as a single step, though, I lost that connection, as though a wall had been thrown between us. I stopped, momentarily confused, and thought of the bandits who had descended upon me, and of my inability – even during their attack – to sense them empathically. A theory formed rapidly, and I acted upon it, stepping backward one pace, and then a second.
“As suddenly as I had lost the connection with the gypsies, it was there again. Another step forward, and I’d lost it again. A step backward once more, and it was reconnected.
“I shook my head in disbelief. This wasn’t right. The signals were never governed by distance – not short distances, anyway. They could be good for miles, and never faulty within a few hundred yards. Here, there was a distance of perhaps two hundred feet separating me and the last of the gypsies.
“And then it struck me. How could I have not picked up on this before? If I was within a certain range of Mussolini, then my abilities were impaired. That had to be it.
“‘Damn,’ I muttered. ‘I’m getting jammed by that bastard.’
“It was the best explanation I had, the one thing that made sense to me, for he was the only unsettling addition to my world that was present both while the bandits closed upon me and now, when the gypsies’ signals were abruptly fading in and out. I guess I could have suspected Amo, as well; he had, after all, been in the general area before the bandits attacked, and was with Mussolini now. But I never even considered that a possibility; the moment I pinpointed the problem, I knew in my heart that the jamming had been taking place ever since Il Duce had regained his senses back at the orchard.
“I gauged the distance from the hangar to my companions. It must be an eighth of a mile. Well, there was one surefire solution to the problem, short of killing Mussolini. If I wanted to be at maximum defensive effectiveness, I was going to have to keep my distance from him.
“I hurried back to Amo, taking care to keep cover at all possible moments, and reported the news – the good about the gypsies, the bad about the Nazi redbands and about Mussolini’s effect on my powers.
“‘Jamming you?’ said Amo. ‘Wait a minute. The empathy thing, right?’
“‘Okay ... let’s assume for a minute that you really do have this ... ability. How can it be jammed?’
“‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s gotta be like he gives off a frequency that interferes with my reception.’
“‘Well, yeah, in layman’s terms. I don’t know what it is, really, because there’s no scientific explanation for what it is I can do. I mean, empathy is a gift, you know? A God-given gift.’
“‘God-given,’ Amo repeated, and chuckled. ‘Maybe that’s the problem. Our friend here’ – Mussolini was seated nearby, eyes closed and apparently napping – ‘is anything but God’s product. Maybe his gift for mayhem is a gift from the devil.’
“I was stunned at the revelation. Amo meant it half in jest, of course, but it made perfect sense to me. I had, despite the violent nature of my war duties, become something of a believer in God. And as such, I had come to believe in the equal possibility of the devil. Clearly, people like Hitler and Mussolini were in league with the latter and not the former. So why shouldn’t my incoming signals – a God-given gift – be working at cross-purposes with any that Mussolini might give out?
“‘By golly,’ I said, ‘I think you’re right.’
“‘Oh, come on,’ said Amo. ‘I was just joking.’
“‘No, I don’t think you were,’ I said. ‘I mean, it’s no joke to me. I happen to think you’re onto something.’
“‘So let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘As long as Mussolini is anywhere nearby, you’re in more danger than normal?’
“‘Oh, yeah, a lot more. If I don’t get away from this bastard soon, he might quite literally be the death of me ... of us.’
“Amo took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“‘I don’t normally subscribe to this kind of theory,’ he said. ‘Religious, I mean. But if you believe it, then ... well … maybe we should split up, keep a distance. It probably can’t hurt. How far away were you when you cleared the interference?’
“‘An eighth of a mile.’
“‘Okay,’ said Amo, ‘then I suggest we stay at least that far apart. Take parallel routes, and in that way watch each other’s tail. What do you think?’
“‘Yeah, I’d feel better doing that.’
“‘Right. But let’s leave now,’ said Amo. ‘I’d prefer a little distance between us and those Nazis. You go west of us. Okay?’
“‘Yeah, okay. Give me about fifteen minutes to get set up on a parallel course. Then let’s travel until dusk. I’ll whistle once when I want to stop. You return it.’
“‘Right,’ said Amo. ‘Just be careful.’
“‘You too,’ I said. ‘Ciao.’”
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