Category Archives: Short Story

A Professor’s Challenge

PROFESSOR COLGATE SAT as the campus bell at Texas Christian tolled. In his chair beside the podium, he crossed his right leg over his left, conveying a typically bored gesture while his class of three hundred filed into the auditorium.

He often decided to arrive early and watch the procession as classes moved in and out of his day, unlike many professors who waited until their class finished seating before making a grand entrance. The beginnings of pompous, he thought.

For Colgate, his time both to teach and to learn. Colgate learned as much from his students as they learned from him.

The last student gathered a seat. The soft rumble of conversation subsided as he stood and went to the podium. Matter-of factly, he reached and flipped the microphone switch, opened a notebook and summarily began.

“Feeling is to perceive through the sense of touch. If you can’t believe the authority of Webster’s or Random House or the American Heritage Dictionary, whom can you believe?”

Here he paused to let a low murmur in one of the upper tiers become the only sound in the quiet hall, muffled coughs and the normal rustling of papers or closing of a book excepted. He stared at the approximate location of the noise and soon two heads came up. Shocked looks identified the culprits and embarrassed, they leaned back in their chairs amidst smirks from a half dozen students surrounding them.

They’d all been in Colgate’s advanced English class for two months and they knew their instructor’s brilliance included two important features. First, he had an amazing ability to recognize every face assigned to his class and put a name to it, and second, he brooked nothing but total attention to the subject at hand. Failure to deal seriously with the edict Colgate pronounced on the first day of class and never again, brought a personal visit to his office and no student left it feeling good.

All learning began with listening. He imparted that thought to the recalcitrant or unconvinced in no uncertain terms and tied his or her final grade to deportment in class as surely as to providing correct answers in tests.

The professor jotted something on a small pad and then cupped a hand around his left ear, moving his head in a sweep that encompassed the entire hall. Should a pin drop in the upper left tier, the student body divined the professor would hear it.

“We take our words from such authoritative works and we rely heavily on them for correct spelling and for precise meanings of the words of our language. English is tough enough to learn, even if you haven’t come from another country and learned its language first.

“Why am I repeating something you learned in high school? The reason may surprise you, but it is, in fact, simple. I am going to move away from the program today,” an involuntary groan escaped some lips, “and I am going to give all of you an opportunity to be truly creative. I am going to satisfy myself that all three hundred of you deserve to be here, that you are intelligent enough to think on your own and that you can formulate an answer to my suggested direction in a work of fiction.

“It does not concern me that this is not a creative writing class. You all have the tools and now I’m going to ask you to use them. Here is your assignment. Write a story that involves never having had a sense of touch. Keep in mind that you have had one for all of your lives and now you are being asked to pretend that no such sense has ever existed. You may find this a difficult concept to get your mind around, but it is what you must do.

“You will use your wire binders, neatly tear out your pages of effort and hand them to the monitor at the back of the hall as you leave today. Your name must be legible and your class and time listed in the upper right corner of each page. Everyone is required to write on this subject. This will count twenty-five percent of your final grades.”

A gasp and shudder went through the professor’s audience even while pages were frantically being located and prepared for the writing assignment.

“You have an hour and fifteen minutes, from…now!”

Surveying the assembly, Professor Colgate saw blond and brunette heads bend over their retractable DeskWriter tables. A smattering of redheads in varying shades punctuated the sea of blond and brown and a small group with black hair sporting tight curls or dreadlocks or ironed hair bent over their work on the right.

Satisfied that his message had gotten through the eyes and to the brains of this group, Colgate sat down in his chair and pulled out a text on contemporary English. His presence and his all seeing eye would be with the student body, even during moments he didn’t survey his scene. Many could not get from their minds the hideous vision of Orwell’s “Big Brother” watching them.

About twenty percent went at it with a will, he noted. The rest joined them reticently or thoughtfully, grimaces to outright fear showing on faces briefly lifted from the desk to see if “the eye” might be watching them.

Professor George Colgate, of average height and build, had a studious appearance. He did not wear glasses, but if contacts were his method of avoiding something hanging from the bridge of his nose, no one knew it for sure. He had a narrow face, a little pinched, and his expression many students interpreted as cross, although most did not know this of him directly. Many teachers ran on reputation, deserved or not. He did not actually warrant being placed into this mold, but to him, it seemed to leaven the conduct of the unruly few and he believed that the student body helped to police this potential through rumor. In any event, he did nothing to dispel it, given the size of his classes.

Today he wore black knife-edge slacks and a white shirt, with tie, covered with a brilliant red cable-knit pullover designed to combat the chill in the large hall. His choice of bright red paid obeisance to Christmas, only days hence, although he had no religious predilections of his own.

He did think the assignment an especially good one so close to Christmas, and perhaps more importantly to the days that followed, a school break that would provide renewal from the frenetic pace he kept during class season. Rather than go somewhere-being single he didn’t need it-he would relax with three hundred pieces of fiction and try to ferret out real gold from fools’ gold.

The Professor hadn’t tried this experiment before and genuinely wondered what would come of it. He glanced up periodically. Yes, Colgate the shepherd, Big Brother indeed, watched his flock today. The knowledge that he had nearly ultimate power over these young people didn’t cause him to smile, because he knew that the grades he gave them could make a difference in their young lives and could send them on their way in directions they wanted or did not want.

An hour passed. Little movement came from the assembled except the furious application of pen to paper. Every now and then someone would shift his weight to get off some part that had gone to sleep. A few began to look up frequently. They were running out of ideas. He casually noted who they were. He’d be seeing them again on paper, but he wanted to see if physical appearance and expression on a student also carried to his or her work.

Ten more minutes passed. He stood and turned the mike on again. “Five minutes to finish up.”

The professor didn’t add anything, but left implicit in his statement the very important element of closure. How many would round out their stories and make them circular? He had an idea who would excel and who would not. His class contained a microcosm of American man and womanhood, but more than that, many of these people would become the leaders of future generations.

Today’s assignment tested them now. In it he offered them a key to the creation of a better world, to an understanding that automatically accepting current thinking was wrongheaded, that humanity’s direction had to diverge, to think beyond present truths and to find new ones. He hoped that a few would grasp the key. Right now he held it in his hands. Soon enough his class would pass from his influence and move into the real world, there to create their own happiness or sadness, to make their mistakes and enjoy their occasional successes.

Professor Colgate wondered how many would be touched by the assignment.

“Time’s up. You are free to leave. The monitor will collect your work as I have said. Enjoy your holidays and we’ll see you back on January 2nd.”

Colgate smiled at them. A few called out, “Merry Christmas,” to which the professor nodded. He had an idea how he would approach the students’ return, what he would tell them. Perhaps he would pose it as a question. “Who among you can tell me the reason for this assignment?”

Regardless, they must be told whether they had succeeded or failed. Three hundred students struggled to their feet, began the climb to the top of the amphitheater and out into lightly falling snow. Jonathan Brown, his grad student monitor would see him within the half hour carrying a large flat bundle of student work. He wouldn’t ask John to read half of them this time. He wanted gold. He’d have to find it himself.

Silhouette

THE SILHOUETTE ON the shade startled me. The shadow hulked, giving the appearance of wide, powerful shoulders, brutish, muscular. No one should be standing at my window. For a couple of seconds, it didn’t move. Then the shadow slid silently to the right toward my back door. I reached down and hefted the kid size baseball bat I keep by my chair.

Living alone on the first floor of the old house I inherited from my grandmother gave me a place to stay, but the neighborhood had become disreputable and a bit dangerous since my happy childhood years when I visited here. The once beautiful and elegant three-story Victorian house came with all this junk scroll-work that rots away and looks lousy when an owner won’t or can’t keep up on painting and general maintenance.

Somebody took Gram for a ride with the last paint job. Imagine purple with magenta trim above the broad, white painted wraparound porch. All of it started peeling after three years and the paint, now fourteen years old and exposed to a merciless sun had colored dominant gray. It gave the house a tired appearance, so it fit the neighborhood well.

Economics made my move to take the property after Gram’s death necessary. My recent divorce divested me of our common property and dictated that I recoup as well as I could. Gram didn’t die until after the divorce decree finalized. I got it as last heir.

At least my gold-digger ex-wife didn’t get a piece of this property. Shallow bitch! Sorry. Her real depth of character apparently stopped at the “ca-jing” of my personal cash register. No kids. At least she did me right there.

If I wanted any kind of life I needed a place to stay at minimal cost while I recovered my fortunes, or at least stopped drowning in the financial flood. I’m a fighter. I’m okay with that. These were my thoughts when I moved in. Recovering personal stability did not include any more wives; one promise I’d made.

Loss of my place in the country rankled me. The sprawling ranch style house I sold to pay off my ex suited me and I loved the rolling acres. At the time I saw no options, and as low as my heart sank contemplating living here, it beat the hell out of the motel I’d been living in thirty miles away in Harriet.

First thing after I eyeballed the neighborhood I hadn’t seen in thirty years I decided to upgrade my security. Now I had double locks on the doors and my windows had the latest security devices. I didn’t have money to put bars on the windows, so anyone with sufficient motivation could crack out a window and ravage the place if they wanted to. I seriously doubted the next-door neighbors would either hear or care about a locally breaking window. Or gun shots, for that matter. After I acquired a few more shekels I’d get bars.

Sitting quite still in my overstuffed, somewhat tattered easy chair, I’d just glanced up from my newspaper. That silhouette threw danger signals that shivered up my spine. Meter reader? I didn’t think so.

A long, low white picket fence surrounded the property. Tall scrub leaned up against the fence and it shielded people on the narrow slate walkway alongside the house from view. Though only one acre of the original three hundred acre estate remained, the demarcation of the property line made its own statement. Once I’d moved in, most people respected my rights.

I eased out of my chair holding the twenty-five inch long bat. Moving carefully through the dim interior, I tried to match the phantom silhouette’s position along the west side of the house while stepping gingerly to avoid known spots on my thoroughly squeaking floors. Seeing out from inside was easy, since I had shades on all the first floor windows and for my privacy, I kept them down.

Ah, there he goes. The sun in the west showed him up just fine. I moved into the old kitchen, looking and not looking at the familiar place. Servants used to spend hours preparing succulent meals for the master and mistress of this house and their many genteel guests.

A hundred years is a long time. The house outlived four generations of Ripleys but like any nation, state or neighborhood, the life cycle of this old place had run its course and I got the impression it wanted to die. Creaks at night, thumps now and then that didn’t appear to be plumbing issues, and no, I don’t believe in ghosts but it would be a perfect place for them.

Not yet, my fine old house. Maybe when I’m through with you, you won’t want to die, after all, I mused as I walked.

Thoughts raced through my mind, even as I sidled up to the rear door. Yup, there he came. I glanced at the door. Uh-oh, I forgot to lock it after I took the garbage out. If the guy’s legit, he wouldn’t try and open it, right? I moved quietly to the side, standing back of the door on the hinge side. I raised the bat over my head.

Why, that son of a gun! I watched the knob turn. The door opened slowly and a head peered in, blinking away the dim light. Nobody I knew. He opened it more as his bulk moved into the kitchen.

Okay, I’d met the legal requirements. Now I could protect my property and me. I hit the guy on the top of the head with a crack that jolted my arms and he went down like a rock. What a stupid! I made sure he was out cold before I went to a nearby drawer and pulled out a roll of green sisal twine. The Navy taught me to tie knots and I learned how to immobilize anyone from TV, one of those crime shows; very educational.

I quickly bound his feet and then pulled his hands behind him and looped several strands between them. Then I tied them to his feet, drawing the tension up to where any movement he made would cause pain. It didn’t look comfortable. I hoped I got him thinking he’d run into a lost cause.

It came to me that had I not seen the guy’s silhouette in the living room window, he might have surprised me, maybe done some bad things to me. Another little shudder went through my frame. I’ll call 911 this time.

Ever happens again, I won’t call 911. Think I’ll lay in a supply of large garbage bags. Happens again, might get some use out of that big freezer downstairs, too.

Enforcement gets one chance for justice. Then it’s my turn.

Cobwebbed Memories

SHE DIED ON July 14th. Gram lived ninety-nine years, Adele Phylura Rampitz in life, most of her years were good ones; I mean robust and healthy ones, not good in the sense most people think about it.

Toward the end, the last five years, she suffered from old-timers disease and a couple of things changed. The razor sharp mind, having sawed away at life and all she came in contact with for nearly a century dulled. As her surviving heir, I found that reasonable, as I knew from my reading that not many old brains remain unclouded past seventy.

During that time Gram mellowed. She began to see life through “rose-colored glasses,” as the expression goes. I did a double-take a number of times when she stared at things I couldn’t see and affected the tone of a blushing nineteen-year-old.

Before the change, her razor-sharp mind attached directly to a razor-sharp tongue. She made the Wicked Witch of the West seem friendly and caring to those who knew her, and she got away with it by dominating everyone.

I’m Harry, grandson, single and last of the line, may it stop here!

At the end I couldn’t tell her what a bitch she had been to her late husband. I’m convinced she drove him to his death. When Mom died in the car crash with Gramps driving and him coming away from it without a scratch, the tongue lashings rose to a higher level.

He cashed out weeks after the tragedy, a broken man, a bullet to the temple. Dad, ill in the hospital and the reason for the trip Mom and Gramps took that day took the news unsmiling. Once home he became distant and uncommunicative. I could see his pain, but I had pain to deal with. I’d loved Gramps, too. As a twelve year old boy, what could I do?

We lived close by, but with Gramps gone, Dad sold his house and he and I moved back in with Gram out of duty. He fell under Gram’s inflexible eye and gradually her presence beat him down. I’m convinced almost anyone living within a two-mile radius of her felt her uncompromising personality to some degree.

Three years later Dad finally quit trying and hanged himself in the garage. I still try to force out the memory of it. I know he’d cared for Gram and me as best he could, but Dad could never free himself from Gram’s inquisitor’s aura. It finally broke him as it had his father.

Right after my father died, I knew I couldn’t stay. I feared being alone in the big house under Gram’s glistening dark and all seeing eyes. At night, lying in my third floor bed, I thought about Dad and I thought about Gramp. Perhaps too young to know all the facts, I believed Gram was purely evil.

One day, a week after Dad’s funeral when my body hummed with nervous dread, I packed what I could in an old suitcase and emptied my savings from the hidden coffee can in my room into my pockets. Very quietly that night I slipped out of the house while she slept and ran away to Minneapolis.

I guess associating with Gram aged me somehow, that and desperation, because I got a job almost immediately at an Exxon gas station pumping gas, cleaning toilets and general stuff. I slept in an abandoned car for the first two weeks and I think the boss got suspicious seeing me wear the same clothes every day, but he just rolled that big cigar around in his mouth and didn’t say anything.

After I had some real money in my pocket, I found a rooming house in the low rent district. A good-looking lad, hat in hand, I told the landlady my story and she took pity on me. I got room and board for fifteen dollars a week. I had to clean up the place and keep things neat. I told her the truth; all except for my age¾I said eighteen.

I struggled to make good in Minneapolis and I did hang tough, learned the gas trade and eventually bought the station from Lou Green, who’d taken sick and couldn’t run it anymore. In the meantime, my section of town deteriorated and prices went up and I never really liked the work.

I returned five years before Gram died. Adele¾she wouldn’t like it but I’ll call her that¾lived in Pipestone, Minnesota, a little town of three thousand, southwest of Minneapolis near the corner of the state where it meets South Dakota. She lived in a big old Victorian house on a low hill up on Spenser Street, pretty near town center that dated back to the early nineteen hundreds.

I’d been away for twenty-five years and memories of the iron will and acid tongue I’d learned to hate in Adele had dimmed, so when the call came to go back and take care of the old place and the old woman, with my fortunes at low ebb in the big city, I agreed. I sold the station off at a loss and good riddance and left town.

The neighbor who tracked me down about Adele’s mental state lived in Pipestone a few houses down in a small but neat white clapboarded Cape, and had for thirty years worked for Adele doing laundry and general housekeeping, most likely as much a friend as Gram would ever accept into her inner circle. Hilda I sort of remembered when I got the letter that came to the gas station.

Once back in Pipestone I saw the house needed more than paint so I did the repairs and spent all next year sprucing it up. A place grows on you when you put work into it and I became comfortable there.

Adele’s condition worsened so gradually I hardly noticed, but early on she made the transition from foggy evil Gram to good Gram and I could handle her just fine. The trust fund that supported her took care of the property, the taxes and also paid for round the clock nursing help, but not much remained of it. She’d made me promise I’d keep her in the old house until she died. I honored that even though I’d begun to worry how I would keep the old place going.

One warm evening in mid-July, Nurse Nancy tiptoed down the long, carpeted staircase and knocked gently on the doorframe to the living room where I sat reading the weekly Pipestone Chronicle.

“I believe she’s going, sir.”

“I’d better go up.”

Nancy followed me back upstairs. Gram looked small and gray against the white sheets. A huge feather pillow billowed around her. Her breath labored and I’d swear she’d finally decided to give up, because no way would death claim that woman unless she agreed to it. She saw me and gestured me to come near. With a weak flutter of her hand, she waved the nurse away. Nancy left the room.

“Harry,” she said in a voice near a whisper, “I’m going to die now. In the wall safe is a locked box with a letter in it. The key is taped under the nightstand here in my bedroom.”

I had access to the safe for years, but not to that box and I’d asked her about it. She’d say, “When I die.”

Now she said, “Read the letter. It has instructions in it for you to follow.”

I remained silent.

In a diminishing voice, she said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The saying seemed hauntingly familiar.

She let out a final, long breath and no more followed. Like that she died.

⇔⇔⇔

Some endings are also beginnings. The letter instructed me to find a small black box with a gold leaf emblem on its top. I’m in the attic now. Cobwebs attach to everything and dust outlines them. The spiders have long since left. My five cell flashlight searches here and there in the overfilled, cramped surroundings. It’s a wonder the floors can hold this weight.

I search through cobwebbed memories that go back more than a hundred years. The letter says I must find it and that when I do, I will understand. Mysteries irritate me, but they also beckon.

Adele didn’t hint where I might find this box, except that it is somewhere in the house. It’s not downstairs. I’ve been in the attic two days now and I’m tired. One more aisle to go and it’s back downstairs for me until tomorrow.

I crawl to the east wall. Light enough from the small, dirty, four-light end window shows a narrow passage. Before I look into it I peek out. Pipestone has beauty and it spreads before me. It’s a view I’ve never seen before. I like it, but in a moment I turn and shine my light into the passage, and there, near the angle of the roof, sitting on top of a pile of cardboard boxes is a small, dust-covered box.

Trying not to hope, I move carefully into the space and pick it up. After rubbing the top with a hand, I blow away the dust. It makes me sneeze, which is somehow funny and I laugh and that causes more sneezes.

Yes, gold leaf, a beautiful box with Chinese pictographs on its top. It’s locked. The key is in the study on the big mahogany desk, where I’d retrieved it from Gram’s nightstand. With the box under my arm I close up the attic and make my way to the study.

The key opens it readily. Inside are some papers and a ring. The ring has a diamond in an ancient setting that must be fifteen carats if it’s a single one. It sparkles in the light over the desk. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I’m blown away. After a few minutes I put the ring down and look through the papers.

They’re dated twenty-five years ago, title and deed to the house in my name. I open the letter at the bottom. It says:

Dear Harry,

I hired a detective to locate you and left a letter with Hilda on where to find you at the right time. If you are reading this, I have been successful. I am who I am, but I am not evil, only driven. I hope by now you have forgiven me, but if not, I understand. Sell the ring. It will set you up for life. I miss my husband and my son, but that you read this now proves you had the enduring strength of the Rampitz clan. Besides this house and property, you are the only thing in this world that truly mattered to me.

Love,  Gram Adele

That memorable phrase comes back to me. She’d said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I’ll be damned! All manner of things are well indeed. And as important, clear to me. Finally!

The End

I PUSHED THROUGH the thinnest part of the brush, unaware of what loomed ahead. I couldn’t see more than a few feet, but right after I parted the last of it I saw the house. It blended into the background. It surprised me. I’d found an intact structure, a two story affair with a peak roof. Covered with green painted clapboards the identical shade of the greenery surrounding it made the owners’ intention clear.

I eyeballed the place for several minutes before moving. It appeared no one had been in the house for a long time. It stood alone in overgrown forest miles from anywhere. The narrow strip of waist high lawn surrounding the place lent credence to its sense of privacy. From where I stood, no paths led to it.

I muttered under my breath, “But what about the other side?”

I’d taken to quiet conversation in the past two years, ever since I realized how few peopled the Earth after the war. How did I know? Hundreds of miles of walking with few encounters, that’s how.

Occasionally I saw a person at great distance bumbling crazily, mindlessly, through overgrown vegetation, sick with radiation plague, on the verge of death. Other encounters had come out well for me, so far.

I discovered I needed to hear my voice. I needed humanity, in other words,  me.

So I talked to myself. Sure I got depressed. Who wouldn’t? Survival instinct be damned, accepting the challenge of staying alive kept me going on. Whenever I closed my eyes to get needed sleep and opened them at some later time, I counted it as success.

Hope? I had little. I thought maybe someday I would have a reason to and I couldn’t have any—dead.

Right after the hostilities stopped, the bombs having wiped away the seats of government, leaving a decimated and rudderless remnant of the population to survive or die; no one to care, the rule of law became survival of the fittest. It required cunning, the ability to hide and the ability to act fast. To overcome without the niceties of a rule book kept the remainder alive…maybe.

The other thing, those who initially saw only horror and deprivation ahead chose suicide. The coward’s way out? I don’t think so. They made a choice. What they knew, the comfort of their lives disastrously yanked from them left them facing a hard, maybe impossible life and the promise of death from any corner, radiation, wild gangs of men and women trying to create individual power bases, the lone wolf like me; not a pretty picture.

With wide swaths of America and its enemies destroyed directly by titanic blasts, clouds of radiation moved across populated areas west to east, jumping continents, poisoning everything, what reason would many have to continue. Millions must have made that choice in the weeks after the bombs stopped raining from the sky.

“I don’t blame them,” I said in sound that didn’t carry much beyond my lips.

I approached the house with caution. One never knew in the latter day devastation what anyone would find and often things were not as they seemed. A few sane ones lived. They’d become predators and killers. The law of the land? Kill or be killed. Most were soldiers like me, probably a few hunters or other clever people who had picked up on the coming war and prepared to live off the land. No compunction about murder, any of them. Them or me, like I said.

The two story structure appeared much older close up than from a distance. With the sagging porch and ornate filigreed lattice work also painted the same flat green, clear evidence of post-war painting with purpose, I put it in the 1920’s construction era. It had age, but did not appear damaged beyond its chronology. Unusual, the first one I had come across unburned or otherwise destroyed.

Not being familiar with this part of what used to be Connecticut made it dangerous. I knew a few people still lived and I knew that whoever I came in contact with would try to kill me. I considered me sane, but automatically accepted that anyone I would come across would be insane, either from the sickness I had avoided so far, or from loneliness.

Trained to it, being alone didn’t bother me. I reached inside my worn fatigues and scratched an itch on my chest I didn’t feel good about. The war got rid of all but a few people, but the insect population proliferated. They carried many diseases and didn’t seem bothered by radiation. My med kit almost depleted, I needed to find an antibiotic salve to treat it. Maybe here?

I emoted in a whisper at my thought, “That’s a laugh.”

I approached the green porch and mounted decaying steps. I noticed the front door ajar. I stood to the side and pulled out my cell phone. I held it low so I could see inside by the reflection on its face. No cell service anymore, no infrastructure, no people to talk to, I grimaced at the thought of the use I put it to now.

I could see hardly unexpected shambles. I sniffed the air. No telltale odor that shouldn’t be there. I took a step in and pasted my body against the inside of the outer wall. Think defense, always defense. I’d stayed alive that way.

Acclimating my eyes to the darkness, I inspected the interior. I could see that someone had lived in it recently. It put me further on guard. I reached down to grab my five cell flashlight. The batteries had died months ago, but it made a great bludgeon.

Almost too late I caught a flicker of movement to my right. Clever, the man, holding his breath, now came at me. I didn’t have time to raise the flashlight, so I brought it up from my belt position hard and caught the man under his chin.

Not good enough! His desperate roundhouse caught the side of my head and we both went down. My eyes tunneled and blackness appeared around the edges. The man had powerful arms and snatched for my flashlight. If he could wrest it from me, it might be all over. I kept the heavy thing for a brain buster. I twisted and he missed his grab.

We rolled over and he got on top of me. His hands reached for my throat. One chance! I brought up the flashlight again, but the savvy man released a hand and knocked it away. Up for grabs, he went after it. That gave me a second chance. I shook the cobwebs out of my head, lunged over the top of him and pummeled his back, neck and head as my closing argument.

He stopped moving, momentarily stunned. I retrieved my flashlight and bashed in his brains. When I got my thought processes back to normal I knew he would be alone. The kill or be killed world demanded it.

I wiped the blood and brain matter on my flashlight off on his clothing. Now to check out the house. I went through it systematically. I found nothing of value until I descended the rickety stairs to the cellar.

Rummaging through piles of discard, I found a book. Wrapped in plastic and preserved from whoever else had gone through here and buried deep, the family Bible contained a sheet of paper with the names of the owner, his wife and the names of his children. At the bottom of the page I read its one cryptic handwritten note, dated January 26, 2031, eighteen months after the war ended.

It said, “We are leaving this Earth. You will find the cemetery plot in the woods behind the house. My final duty to my family is to send them to God. You will find me on the ground above. We have witnessed the end of civilization and expect the end of all human life. It goes back to the bugs. They will survive. Maybe in ten million years, another intelligent race will appear. It will know nothing of us and the mess we made of the world through greed, corruption and self-interest. Although we believed deeply, this book did not help. The lessons it taught were not learned.”

At the bottom of the page in flowing cursive…it seemed an afterthought, i read, “The height of my folly is a belief that someone would find these words and read them and be moved by them.”

“I read them,” I told the book. I pocketed it. I found the cemetery and the bones of the owner. I gazed at the scene for a time…and then I moved on.

Where? Didn’t matter.

Requiem for America

I REMOVE MY glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash outlines my little cellar window. I’m on the edge of my seat watching TV in my basement. My wife is upstairs, probably sleeping. Did I care?

The dazzling light comes through the sunken window-well from outside through bars I welded onto the metal frame to discourage burglars. They outline the other side of the room with surreal, distorted shadows. What the hell?

As I begin to panic my mind reviews why I put the bars in. My area of town hasn’t had a problem in years, but an ounce of prevention never hurts.

This picture of Marge blows into my face and I hear her say, “Cover it with a privacy curtain. I don’t want to look at bars.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it,” I grumble, but I only finished the room two weeks before and I by God want a break. So I don’t get around to it. She goes away fuming.

By reflex, I dive for the floor while my brain is still in its blame scenario. You want it done quicker; I think at her maliciously, I’ll show you where I keep the screwdriver and the screws. Put it up yourself.

She’s been pissing me off lately. I know I have an old rod that’d work in that spot in the workroom someplace. Damned if I want to spend any more money on this project and I don’t feel appreciated, so she wants me to do it, she can wait!

The incredibly brilliant flash twists my reason around. I wish I’d done what she asked.

Lately I go down cellar to watch TV at the end of my shift.  Better than sitting upstairs to stony silence. Tonight I sit in my recliner all antsy watching bad news on TV get worse, my third vodka martini all but forgotten.

Bad news, lousy political climate, fear abounding, but no warning? Could our government be that lax? I listen to TV politicians, our “intelligent” representatives on their soapboxes scream at each other, half for war, half for appeasement. Overload lights and doubts crash through my brain.

Then this brilliant flash and I know in my soul this is it. It’s here. My God, Armageddon!

What should I expect, maybe a high-pitched whistle like the one the phones made when a B-52 bomber penetrated the Soviet air defenses and annihilated Moscow in the movie “Fail Safe?” Maybe a low, ground-shaking wave like an earthquake? Will the house above me disappear in a tornado of manmade destruction seconds from now? Will I look up and see a starry sky above me, a huge gaping hole with me at the bottom, hands over my head, my house, my wife, my children atomized above me? Will I start to glow?

It didn’t happen.

I struggle to get to my feet and then I guess I woke up, because my eyes open and I am sitting where I’d been since I got home, slouched on my easy chair. Must have dosed off. Only a dream? Liquor befuddled my brain again. I do a self-assessment.

Gotta drink less in the evening after work. Yeah, my stinking job, hated it. The thought comes with that acid, pit of the stomach feeling. My corporate job evaporated. Downsized; nice word. I’d like to upsize them! Good money gone, no prospects, played the job market for months; nothing. Finally I took this job I got.

Nobody in his right mind would deliver pizza for a living; maybe a high school kid who needed some jingle to impress the chicks, maybe that, but not me, forty-eight years old with one foot on a financial banana peel.

“So you could stop buying the booze, right, Frank?” she said during one of our recent heated arguments.

Uh-uh, not that. Gotta have something. Oh, jeez, twelve-thirty. In that moment the local TV station, WGJD went off the air. The color bar came up and audio went to hiss. Marge didn’t wake me up for bed again.

Tonight I can relate. I lost a really good job and if people don’t think losing your level of living based on a big paycheck doesn’t cause strain in the family, I can tell you, it does.

Feeling contrite after my dream I move slowly to the stairs. We have an extended ranch style house. I like living all on one floor except for the room downstairs I just cobbled together, but there’s a cellar stair that creaks pretty good. With the bedroom close to the cellar stairs the sound could wake Marge. Have to fix that, one day. Anyway, I avoid the squeak by stepping on the outside edge of the stair and climb carefully the rest of the way and tiptoe into the bedroom.

The state of our relationship is evident. Marge left me plenty of room in our king-sized bed. She’s asleep over near the edge, like she could fall off if she moved wrong. I get the message and it brings me back totally sober.

I have to do something soon or this marriage will dissolve like my job and deep down I don’t want that. I love her. The strain worked its nasty magic on us. I knew it in my more lucid moments, but delivering pizza? My God, how far down I’d come!

I look at her sleeping form, the mound of her hip and the gentle slope of her legs under the covers, the slight bulge made by her small feet. Our sex life went down the toilet a couple of months ago after I announced that I had to take something, anything, that we couldn’t survive on nothing and my unemployment checks were about to stop. I tried to make working for Pizza Hut sound like an opportunity, but she saw through it as quick as I did.

I crawl in, trying not to shake the bed and resolving that I would somehow get better work. I need it for me, too. I’d married late. We still had two at home, Justin, the fifteen year old and Mark, our late love child, only nine. I owe it to them, and yeah, I owe it to Marge, too. She stuck by me through thick and thin. We had some rough shoals to cross, but we crossed them together. I warm the hollow I made under the covers and go to sleep.

We live in the nice suburb of Alington outside of Cliffside Park in New Jersey, a river and a stone’s throw across from that fat target, Manhattan Island.

I don’t live far from work and in the morning I have nothing to do. Marge makes breakfast quietly and avoids any more blowups. I sit at the table and just as quietly thank her for it. Work doesn’t start until eleven.

I turn on the TV in the living room and the events that caused my dream the night before come crowding back. I hear Senator Pacifier and Congressman Inflamer’s words being rehashed over the news. The professional newscaster reporting the news doesn’t look nervous. I have to admire that, but I’d bet the two nickels in my pocket that behind his eyes he fears like I do, like most of us.

From the news and the stuff coming out of Nigeragua-the corrupt African country that announced a year ago it had the bomb and a nice delivery system, thanks to some fifty surplus ICBM’s the Russians willingly sold them thinking they’d never be able to use them and no skin off their nose, anyway-it sounded like the hawk had the upper hand.

The Africans had a lot of support in America for obvious reasons. Thinking about it, I also detected a bit of black pride on the streets lately, too, more than usual. Most African Americans didn’t get that if push came to shove and Nigeragua shoved first, they’d suffer right along with the rest of us.

The world seemed to be heading into another mess, with the U. S. bullying and threatening and posturing. This time the Nigeraguans wouldn’t back down. Matter of fact, the announcer just said something new. I concentrated on his words; Washington had received an ultimatum and the Executive and Pentagon were studying it in closed session. He said an announcement from Fred Dingle; the President’s press secretary would be forthcoming.

A chill crawls down my back.  A dream’s a dream, but this sounds too real. I’ll fight if I have to. I’ll fight to the last for my kids and for Marge, but the TV brought possibilities into my home I never thought I’d have to face, right here, right now.

How do you fight an atomic bomb? How do you do that? I wouldn’t think for a minute that if a hydrogen bomb exploded over the Empire State Building we wouldn’t be seriously affected across the Hudson. Are you kidding? We’d be devastated. I mean, for years I enjoyed looking across the river at the bustle of humanity, usually being glad I didn’t have to live so tightly packed, that I had space. Suddenly Manhattan’s way too close.

I go into work and work the day, even get fifty in tips-it helps-and when I get home at eleven, I go right downstairs to watch the night news staff rehash the day’s events. The news, if anything had gotten worse and America’s military had gone on Def-Con 1, which frightened me. The fear I’d held earlier came back. We’re all in a big pickle!

A thought comes to me and I slam my forehead with my palm. I didn’t kiss Marge when I came in. Funny, as I thought about it, I hadn’t done that in a long time. With the internal upset in our lives, I’d stopped. I couldn’t remember when it happened. It comes to me as a revelation. I realize I need her desperately.

I run back upstairs and into the bedroom where she sits up reading, her pillow behind her supported by the headboard.

“Marge?”

She looks up. I feel anguish come into my voice and I have trouble starting. She gazes at me curiously.

“I love you, Marge.”

She stares at me and in a little hurt voice, she says, “What brought that on?”

“America’s going to hell, Marge. I just realized I’ve been responsible for all the crap we’ve been going through I the past few months. I’m so sorry.” Tears leak from the corners of my eyes. I remove my glasses and as my vision blurs, a bright flash…

Soldier’s Return

I STOOD OFF to the side out of the jumble of people. Dangling from my hand on the Government Issue breakaway chains they gave us, my dog tags jingled flatly. Cheap metal, I thought. I stared at the train.

It stopped to let me off with a few other people and now began to move again, its job done. Now I had to do mine. I had to get a place and find a job. How would I do that? I knew how to kill, but that’s not very useful in civilian life, on the right side of the law, anyway.

Though the only soldier who got off, my GI drabs failed to call me to the attention of others on the platform. People, probably family, greeted those others, threw their arms about them and lead them happily away.

I’d taken my long coat off in the train for comfort and didn’t need it now. It draped from the crook of my left arm. Pretty warm day for two days before Christmas. My duffle bag sat by my feet. I looked down at the hand that held a nine by twelve manila envelope. In it fourteen pages of material, my DD Form 214, discharge papers, voucher stubs for transportation and the familiar “Misc.” reflected the sum total of the past eight years of my life, courtesy of the U. S. Government. The few other papers in the miscellaneous category, all military, all-important to them but not to me had mustered me out of the Army. The doctor told me to forget about “Nam.” Oh, sure.

Eight years getting shot at, saving lives, saving my own on numerous “fronts” distilled down to fourteen pages. Didn’t seem like much. A few hours ago some freshly shaved company clerk who still had a job said “Good luck,” but it sounded like “Sayonara, baby!” Twenty-six years old, back in the city of my birth, and for what?

A feeling of dread, the sense of choking on something I couldn’t dislodge lived in me for most of the day. They’d made me into a killing machine. They’d made me very efficient. I had physical scars and more in my head. Four months ago I caught a little shrapnel from a land mine my best buddy took. Superficial for me, killed him.

Charlie, a good man, sharp-eyed and careful…except this time. All it took. Now he’s in Heaven or wherever, in the ground anyway. They pieced him back together and shipped him home so his relatives could cry over him. I cried when it happened, but not for long. Not in a fire fight. No time.

I remember the lieutenant yelling, “Medic!”

After that, a blur. Suddenly someone hit me hard on the shoulder and pushed me to the ground, “Matt, what the hell…?”

I came to my senses and the blur cleared. “I just saw Charlie go up.”

“Yeah,” he said, “We all did. Pull it together!”

I made a conscious effort. After a few moments of lying in the dirt, it came back. Charlie’s gone, gotta go on. Made killing those bastards out ahead of the platoon personal.

I refocused back to the train station, but I couldn’t get the vivid images out of my mind. My release said “CCD. Chronic Clinical Depression.” I knew every word. Medical discharge. What the hell! No use to the government and no use to myself, no use to anybody. I tried to smile but it failed before it reached my lips.

What would I do, now that Uncle Sammy didn’t want his trained killer anymore? I’d gone in right out of high school to avoid the Draft. Thought it would make a difference. It didn’t. I’d make some rank…whoopee! Didn’t help.

If I’d learned anything in high school I’d forgotten it. What would I do? Security guard? Work in a bowling alley? Bet I could wash cars. Only not many places around used people to wash cars anymore. Spray tires, maybe. The thought made me want to retch. I’d tried that a couple of weeks during the summer before I enlisted. The mindless work matched the people around me. No thanks.

Getting a job with the problems I’d brought home would be hard. Mom used to say, “It’ll all work out, Matt. Just put your best face forward.”

Mom died three years ago in the car accident with Dad. No sisters or brothers. Yeah, right, things’ll work out. Sorry, Mom…can’t see it. I hadn’t seen any evidence since I got back in the States that anybody cared about anybody. Couldn’t even figure why I’d come back to my hometown. Any city would do. Got no relatives, no in-laws, no friends, got nothing.

The train station cleared out. A porter loaded his cart with the last of the bags left on the platform, chatting amiably with a young woman dressed in business attire. I saw her glance in my direction. I could have thought her beautiful; certain I would except for my black mood. That took the color out of everything.

I couldn’t seem to move from my spot. I didn’t feel comfortable standing there, but moving seemed a less comfortable alternative. What would I do? I couldn’t stay on the platform. Pretty soon someone would come out of the terminal and ask me to move along or ask me why I stood alone, unmoving. How would I answer?

Finally I dragged my duffle bag to one of those wrought iron and plank chairs that seem to be a permanent fixture in train stations. I sat down, not exhausted, but dejected, done, the end of my road and no clue what next. My brain turned off.

Lost in blackness, I started when a voice spoke softly near my ear.

“Soldier?”

I looked up. The woman who’d glanced at me peered as if trying to read me. I didn’t smile. I couldn’t, but I said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m sorry to bother you. Are you waiting for someone?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Just arrive?”

“Yes.”

She looked at me astutely. “You have no place to go.”

“No.”

After a few moments of deliberation, she said, “It’s going to get cold again tonight. You could use a good meal and some pleasant conversation.”

I left the ball in her court.

Undeterred, she said, “Do you have a place to stay?”

“I’ll find a rooming house somewhere in town.”

“And you have no job waiting, either.” The woman read my thoughts.

“Just discharged.”

“My name is Pat Birch. I am part-time pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in town. What’s yours?”

Some of the past began to return. “I remember it. Matt Billingsly.”

“Hello, Matt. This evening the congregation is having a potluck sit-down dinner at the church. Would you like to come as my guest? I can’t think of a better way to reintroduce one of America’s soldiers back into society. You might be able to network a little while you’re there, too.”

Who said hope springs eternal. My black mood melted and I began to hope for the first time in so long I couldn’t remember.

“I’d be honored, ma’am. I’d love to,” I said.

Pat hesitated, looked me over again as if seeing me for the first time, and maybe it was like that. Evidently she decided that she liked what she saw, because she said, “There is a rooming house not far from the church. I know that it has at least one room available. Can I offer you a ride there?”

Finally I could smile. Weight came off my shoulders. “Yes, you can. And thank you, more than you can imagine.”

“Follow me, Matt. Merry Christmas, soldier.”

Last Day

THEY’D EVACUATED THE office building in Kabul and called Al and me in to disarm the IED. Business as usual, except for the sixty second timer Al accidentally started when he jostled the bomb. Taliban sense of humor. I had to go to work fast at that point.

I’d grabbed my bomb kit and headed out with Al. He’s my second. He drove and could hold a flashlight, but I got the fun job. I assumed my kit had all the issue I’d need. Never assume anything.  I discovered on the scene that I had no tongue depressors left, not the kind of mistake a bomb man’s supposed to make. Sure they told us to hot-foot it out here, but…

Sixty seconds! Sweat ran into my eyes. I had no time to blink. Removing the first three screws took too much time, so I put my screwdriver under the lid and pried up the access door and bent the thin metal up and out of the way.

With seconds left, I grabbed my alternate non-conductor, a ceramic tea cup I’d found nearby. Using pure adrenaline, I jammed it into the cramped space with hysterical force. The bomb’s clock read two seconds.

Zero!

The trigger mechanism clicked. The spring-loaded firing pin snapped toward the bomb’s hot contact. The cup shattered in its own small explosion. For a second I waited for oblivion, but debris from the broken cup stopped the onrushing pin. Now that pieces of my ceramic cup jammed the firing device, I began to hope.

The Taliban had started to distribute these deadly mechanical bombs in the last few months. They looked primitive and we guessed they needed electronics and couldn’t get them from their sources. Earlier the bomb boys captured a similar one that didn’t go off and I’d had a chance to study it or I wouldn’t have gotten close to the one in front of me.

Already my hands sought the inside of the IED to make sure the non-conducting cup’s substance stayed in place to prevent contact. The situation remained deadly dangerous, but maybe we had a chance.

“Quick, Al!” I called to my partner, “Can’t see. Wipe my eyes.”

Al reached up with a cloth and took a nervous but adequate swipe. His flashlight wavered. I didn’t look at him but I visualized his face a ghostly white. I didn’t need a mirror to know about mine. His life and mine were up for grabs and I didn’t figure with my history that we’d be meeting in the same place if we ended up dead.

I gave up on pearly gates long ago, but Al had a good-looking wife and two small tow-headed twin boys and went to church and he didn’t fool around. Couldn’t say the same for me, but we both wanted to live.

Peering into the mickey-mouse ramble of wires and C-4 explosive, I could see how precariously we all hung onto life. The cup had mostly crushed into small, razor sharp shards. Less than a quarter inch thick, the earthenware cup had a glass-like interior and exterior glaze, impervious to wear and dishwasher safe, as the ads say.

I couldn’t work with gloves, too sensitive. Now I needed them. This stuff could cut me and blood conducted electricity. It’s the salt. Bleeding all over the contact could make the bomb go off. Al and I’d be leaving the area in different directions on this side, and we’d never stop on the other.

I could see a flaw in the debris pattern and already the mess had started to compress under the pressure of the firing spring. Our nightmare wasn’t over. I had no time to do anything else, so I reached for a large, sharp piece that ended up in a corner of the box and gingerly felt for its flat surfaces. Got ‘em. Now to force it into the flaw before the firing devise powdered more of the shard that held the two contacts apart. Jabbing downward with force, the piece in my hand slipped and sliced my thumb.

“Oww!”

More frightened than me, Al yelled “What?”

I yanked my hand out. Blood poured freely from the gash. “Give me that rag.”

Al handed it to me. I had to use the bloody hand because of the awkward position. I wrapped the rag around my thumb and two fingers with my left, and then stuck my hand back into the opening to finish the job. There! Better. Life is choices and my brain told me I’d made a good one. Our training included getting the job done the best way possible. Let pain slow me? No option.

The ridiculous thing appeared stable. Now to work out the wiring and make sure the Taliban hadn’t left any more surprises. I knew we couldn’t pull out the detonators in the blocks of C-4. We’d discovered the month before that those clever bearded men would put a contact switch into the plastic mass of the explosive. It would go off if I removed the detonator, no matter how carefully.

We learn the hard way, as we Americans seem to for everything, and learning that particular lesson cost us a couple of good men, friends of mine. We do learn, though and I wouldn’t pull the plug on those babies. There had to be a way. Bomb makers always had a fail-safe, some way they could arm their bombs, but transport them without worry before they laid them out for our soldiers to find.

The wires were multi-colored, just like you see in the movies. However, our Army bomb squad had already discovered that their bomb makers would switch the wire colors to fool us. I played chess. I studied it for a moment and grabbed my wire cutters. I laid out a diagram in my mind, traced it and when the pattern completed itself, reached past two tempting wires and snipped the one below it.

“Okay, Al, let’s get this thing out of here.”

“Good going, Mack,” he said, “I thought…” He stopped.

No point. I knew. “Yeah.”

We hefted the forty-pound object and carried it to our military truck. My mind went to the ravaged land, the fear surrounding every dark place, and how these people who couldn’t go anywhere else could live like they had to.

I sensed darkness in the minds of these war torn peoples. We didn’t belong here. We came at the invitation of the Afghan government, however legitimate that makes it, but we’re invaders just the same. It made sense we’d be hated by most of the population, despite the spin the U. S. Government put on it.

Al got behind the wheel. He started the engine, switched the lights on and headed back toward camp, twenty dangerous miles to go.

“Nicely done, Mack.”

“Keep a sharp eye, Al. War has a way of reaching out, you know?”

“You worry too much.”

“Taliban don’t stay in those little lines we draw.”

“True, but…”

⇔⇔⇔

In a ball of light and fire the IED some nameless insurgent buried in the dark, desolate sandy road exploded. Their truck lifted five feet off the road. Mack and Al were dead before it came down.

War is hell!

The Decision

SHOULD I HELP her or should I move on?

On the spur of the moment, I make the decision. As a human being she doesn’t impress me. Disheveled and dirty, her clothes torn and her face haunted, she lies in the middle of the street, kind of bunched up and folded, like a dirty rag negligently thrown on the ground. She’s moaning and seems in pain.

I look down the dusty city street, if you can call this crummy mud-hut-cement-block-sun-baked place a city. Nothing moves. I can’t rely on that. Snipers live in rubble and I won’t live if I don’t stay sharp-eyed and alert. I squint against the brightness of the noonday sun. Dirt, trash, broken things, bad smells all over, not a nice place to be. I keep my M-16 at ready.

My immediate guess puts her on the short side of the angry mob we’ve been chasing. I’ve seen it before. War is lousy business! Maybe the ghosts of this ancient place are invisibly tugging at her, tugging at us all, playing their serious and silly games. I wonder briefly if she has family, how hurt she is. I wonder how much time I dare take away from the cover of the buildings.

I don’t think much of myself, either, just at this moment, but that’s another story. I might tell it if I come out of this with all parts attached. Being in the Middle East with a company of Army buddies has its comforts. We have each other’s backs. Even though we’re not Marines, it’s Semper Fi all the way.

Yeah, we act and react the same way. It’s something that happens when men are thrown together and have to face an enemy. They get close or they get dead. Some of us get dead anyway and that’s the luck of the draw. God’s will, if you’re a believer. Plain bad luck if you’re not. Doesn’t change a thing. You still get mashed, smashed, hashed, mutilated and rendered like so much meat, or like I say, plain dead! I think death’s a relief, after some of the partial people I’ve seen leave here on the light side of a body bag.

I, like, go away for a moment. I picture me arriving home minus a limb. Suddenly I’m home.

Little Bobby, my kid brother is looking me over and I hear him saying, “What happened, Mike?” and I reply, “Land mine.” And my lip begins to quiver and I feel like I’m going to lose it again, and I turn my head, and I know everyone is watching and I can’t help it and oh damn, why didn’t I die? How can I live, a piece of a person?

 And I lose it and everybody is embarrassed and Dad says, not unkindly, “Son, get through it. Life is worth it, all the same. We’ve got you back and you’ve got your family and you always will…” and he stops because he can see it’s not helping and everyone is wishing they were someplace else, especially me.

 And all the family who were just congratulating me for returning home from Walter-Reed, they start to leave the room because they can’t take it either. My sister Jenn’s got a big heart, but she goes away cursing the government and the enemy and my bad luck and I don’t want to be here. Why can’t I go away? This is so hard!

 I snap back. I’m in Tikrit and I’m in the middle of a dirty street, grid point alpha, and I’ve got to help this woman, this poor casualty of a lousy, stinking war! My company has been ordered to retake it from the insurgents.

Where the hell did these people come from? Don’t they understand? We liberated them from a bad man, a bad ruler, a dictator who built palaces on the backs of its citizens. Yeah, you people out there who are giving us all the trouble, I’m talking to you! Don’t you understand? All we want to do is to go home! Why don’t you be nice and let us go home?

I call back to my corporal, “Get a couple of men and give me a hand with this one. Let’s get her off the street.”

“Okay Sarge. Murphy, Smitty, give us a hand. The rest of you men, stay down!”

We gather around the woman and bend down to help. She looks up at us with hate-filled eyes. Her hand moves under the dirty rag she’s wearing and she does something…

ÛÛÛ

April 24, 2009. An impeccably dressed Major, stiff and erect, rings the doorbell at 560 Whilley Street, New Preston, New York. In a few moments, through the lace-covered oval glass of the door, he sees a curtain draw briefly and fall back. The door unlatches and opens, ever so slowly. Without preamble, the Major says in a modulated but businesslike voice, “Mrs. Emily Granger?”

The Assassin

THE MAN IN the dark coat stood in silence. In the darkness his black brimmed hat pulled low and collar arranged high around his neck, they shrouded angular features and ice-cold eyes. Those eyes glinted in a nearby hooded streetlight as they turned to check out a faint sound close by.

Tense but immobile he waited. The sound did not repeat. In the distance, he heard a truck approach. He waited. A searchlight flashed against the close-set buildings and into the narrow alley in which he waited and passed without stopping. The sound faded.

He relaxed and resumed his vigil with a surface thought of disdain for an enemy clearly going through the motions.

Intelligence identified Professor Bergdorf’s location. The man must die tonight. His orders: Kill Burgdorf. Get the plans. Get out of hostile territory. He could do it. He’d already bet his life on it.

He entertained a momentary thought about the link in the chain he represented. A simple act of wartime murder involved countless faceless men and women, each of whose actions within the Allied High Command had brought him to the little town where he must play his part, a part he would play gladly.

Black-gloved hands cupped carefully above his mouth shrouded his watcher’s breath and plumed it safely downward into the neck of his coat to dissipate. It would not produce a telltale cloud in the night chill; Clandestine Operations Manual, Chapter Four.

He stepped from one foot to the other. The motion kept him ready to move in an instant, but to be one with his surroundings he contained all motion within the looseness of his clothing. No local citizen, scurrying home to beat the curfew who might peer into his dark corner would see movement.

The few elite members of his cell knew him only as Red 24. He knew them also by names not their own. In the nature of what they did, they seldom spoke, but when they did, others might hear a comment on his ability to disappear without a sound from within their midst.

They would see him. There would be a distraction. He would be gone. If any humor existed within this macabre group, it would rest on his remarkable talent.

The gabled house across from him held his attention, its roofs and extensions heavy with slate and gray with age. Its diamond shaped leaded glass panes eerily reflected the streetlight. The fitted stone of its walls appeared held together with vines that snaked across its surfaces. No window, save one, gave off a soft light, and he focused on the curtained rectangle.

Quickness, cunning, and an expert twist of the knife would be important later, but patience he needed now. He stood, a waiting statute.

The light in the window went out. Senses heightened, the assassin adjusted his mindset in the blackness.

A door at the end of the building opened slowly. The assassin stopped breathing. The white hair of an elderly man and then his face appeared in the darkness for a long moment. It looked left and right. It searched dark areas. Evidently, the man saw nothing. He came out, locked the door behind him and proceeded onto the narrow laid stone sidewalk. He put his right hand in his coat pocket. In his left hand he held a thin, black leather attaché case. A chain looped loosely from the case and disappeared into the coat’s long sleeve.

Manacled! And the man held a gun. The assassin altered his attack plan.

Burgdorf looked up and down the street and then at his feet for a second as he stepped off the high curb to cross the rough cobblestone.

The assassin used this distraction to pull from his hiding place. He raced forward, soundless, a six-inch blade of razor sharp steel now in his hand. Only feet away, intent on his victim, he didn’t see a spot of oil on the road. His right foot slipped and threw him off balance. A raised cobblestone caught his foot hard, and pain lanced up his leg. His unintended grunt warned the Professor.

Suddenly frightened, Burgdorf spun toward the sound. From his right hand pocket, he yanked out a Luger, swung the gun toward his attacker and fired blindly.

As pain from his ankle exploded into his brain, the assassin desperately twisted to the side. The thunderous report from Burgdorf’s gun reverberated on the walls amidst the tightly packed houses. The bullet whined past his ear.

The assassin regained his balance on his good leg and drove forward, now desperate to prevent a second shot.

As his momentum carried him past, he grabbed the man’s coat collar, and with a violent twist, landed a fist into Bergdorf’s temple. The older man crumpled to the ground. His gun skittered many feet away.

Efficiently, the assassin slit the man’s throat, and then, with no time to search for a key, stomped hard on Bergdorf’s left wrist to break the bones. It took precious seconds to cut through muscle and tendons and to work the sharp American steel past the radius and ulna bones. The man’s hand parted his body and the assassin slipped the metal band from the mangled stump.

Ignoring his shooting pain and with the attaché case in hand, he retrieved the dead man’s gun from the middle of the street and sped away. Landmarks were difficult in the darkness, but the map he’d memorized brought him to the correct alley.

With no time to spare, his eyes still seeing spots from the gun’s flash, he bolted down the narrow cleft between two buildings, trusting that no one had moved a thing since he planned his escape two days before.

Now, with the plans for the new Nazi swept wing bomber in his hands, he became the hunted.

How quickly our positions change, he thought.

The noise of the gunshot brought many awake. The assassin pictured people coming to their darkened windows to look out. The gunshot would soon bring the police and no doubt, the SS. If he could not disappear and return to his side, it would be for nothing.

Recall said he’d reached the fence. He stopped and felt for it. His injured ankle throbbed. There! He touched it. Up and over. Again, he put down pain that arched redly into his brain.

He searched his memory map. Now to go through a park-like area and from there, woods and to the river. A fading quarter moon gave weak light to his surroundings. He did not want light and took advantage of every pool of darkness.

Limping as he ran, but with his imperative clear and his need great, he recalled his first day of training. He’d learned that day that assassins forfeited their lives the day they joined Covert Operations.

“Consider you are dead now,” his trainer said.

The assassin knew. He loved the rush. Them or him. What could be better? A natural killer, he’d found his place in life. Using his consuming hatred for the enemy as his banner, he would hurt the Nazi war machine and keep on hurting it until he met someone faster or smarter.

God, how he loved to gamble!

Dangerous Passage – Chapter II

IN THE DAYS following the Germans annexation of Austria, many landed families found their distaste of the National Socialists turn to fear, as the laws of the land were warped to fit the new Fuhrer’s preconceived notion of his thousand year Reich. Many Germans were willing to march to Hitler’s goose step, seeing in it a way to improve their lot, many times at the expense of fellow Germans and Austrians. A dark pall descended over Europe as Der Fuhrer consolidated his political position.

The Gerber family had been broken up, the father impressed into the Luftwaffe and the children about to be ripped out of their happy life and thrust into a regimented camp where they would be trained as Nazi’s. Long before the father left in a black car with the SS, he decided they must flee over the German Alps into neutral Switzerland. He prepared. He contacted the Mother Superior at the nearby abbey and arranged for his family to make the attempt.

To throw off the SS, Karl Gerber thus sacrificed himself for the good of his family.

Having left St. Stanislaus Abbey as darkness descended, the six Gerber children, under the care of Sister Anastasia, managed to get deep into the foothills. The Sister, relying on years old memory found a hunter’s cabin whose location she knew. She’d been there once as a girl of twelve before she got the Call. Bone tired, they settled down for the night. The October night chill had a winter feel to it.

They could not build a fire. Smoke would advertise their presence. They ate cold food. They stoically bore conditions they had never experienced before. The youngest, Hans, had much trouble getting to sleep. Exhaustion hit them all, but at six, Hans hadn’t developed the stamina of his elder siblings and didn’t truly understand why they had to flee. He dreaded being forced into unnatural surroundings.

Sister Anastasia gave the boy to Greta and admonished her to keep him quiet; that there could be listening ears nearby, that they couldn’t count on only distance from the abbey to feel safe. She told them of dangers they would face on the morrow and said they only differed in character from what they had gone through the previous day.

They found blankets in a chest near the door. Greta took the boy lovingly under her wing and curled up with him under two old blankets. She and Hans got the lower bunk bed. The code of the hills required hunters make certain their cabin remained livable after they vacated it. Honor required it. The nun knew the cabin would be a temporary haven.

The blankets were musty and dusty and they made the twins, Helmut and Karl, sneeze. Sister Anastasia, after peering outside the cabin for a long moment, took the blankets outside and shook them violently. Dust wafted away on a small breeze. She returned the blankets to the twins.

“They won’t smell any better, children, but they shouldn’t make you sneeze again.”

“Danke, Sister Anastasia,” they said.

The two found a corner and huddled close, only their noses showing as they lay down together on a lumpy mattress, there to share the warmth of their bodies. Rikard took nine year old Marta under his wing and snuggled her in the upper bunk of the bed. Sister Anastasia got to sleep in the large rocker someone had left in the cabin years before. With her feet on a broad stool and her blanket wrapped all around, she managed to be comfortable enough.

Before she let them sleep, she made sure they took care of their bodily needs. Finally, she told them what to expect in the morning.

“We must leave before the day becomes light. We must be well up the side of the mountain behind this cabin before I can be certain we aren’t being tracked. Now sleep well, children. We have a long and difficult journey ahead. We can make it. Guten nacht, kindern. Schlaf gut.”

Sister awoke to a scratching sound outside the cabin. Carefully she brought her feet to the floor and went as quietly as possible to the cabin’s one window. The window had an interior wooden security door that covered it in the event of sudden violent storm, typical this close to mountain updrafts. She had latched it before they went to bed so no one could peer in. She wondered if she had become overcautious, but decided that extreme hazards required extreme measures.

The Sister unlatched the door very slowly and peered through the crack. Nothing. She opened it wider. Black as pitch! Suddenly she heard a low growl that became a scream. A cat. Mountain lion. Big one from the sound. She smiled through her fear. It couldn’t get in, but she saw it as a good omen. Mountain lions were leery of Man. It smelled them and it wouldn’t hang around long. It also meant no two-legged predators would be near. She closed the window’s storm door and latched it again.

The noise had waked all five of her charges. Their fear filled voices overflowed the cabin. In a firm voice she told them all was well and they should go back to sleep. To illustrate, she returned to her chair and covered up again. Hans whimpered, but Greta soothed him and the furor died quickly.

Sister Anastasia slept lightly but restfully for two more hours. Perceiving that dawn wasn’t far ahead, she got the children up. She directed the morning meal, praying over it and doling out a large portion.

“For strength,” she said. “Now, take care of your needs. We must leave in zwanzig minuten. We are leaving fall and entering winter. Dress warmly.”

The older children assisted the younger ones in practiced fashion. Sister Anastasia looked them over from head to mountain boots and pronounced them ready. She made certain their snowshoes were lashed tightly to their backpacks. They left the cabin in the first lightening of the day and trudged away. Green fields now faded in behind them in the October morning and dense forested slopes faced them.

Marta and the twins looked back longingly at the hills and again at the cabin as it diminished in the distance and then, resigned, followed along. Greta took the rear of the troupe and Hans stayed back with her. Capable girl, Sister Anastasia thought. Resilience; much needed now.

They passed a high point and descended into a little valley beside a rill. Now bright enough to see their footing without misstep, they moved confidently ahead. Forest enclosed them. They descended another two hundred meters, looking for a place to cross the small stream that had been their company. There they found a wide place where smooth, flat rocks provided stepping-stones and they leapt across it, Marta, Helmut and Karl laughing gaily.

“Children,” Sister Anastasia called sharply, “it is a beautiful day and you feel like romping, but you must save your energy for what is to come. I am sorry to say that, but you must.”

Now they began their long upward climb in earnest, leaving the pure mountain water tumbling in small falls as it disappeared behind them. The Sister called then into a group and told them to search for a sturdy stick they could use as a staff to help their walking.

“I do not wish to cause you fear, kindern,” she said, “but there are wild animals that live in these mountains. We will stay closely together and we shall use these staffs to protect ourselves, too, so choose your stick wisely.”

Hans’ eyes grew large and he pressed against Greta. He looked at his sister for comfort, but Greta chose this moment to be stern.

“Hans, we must protect each other. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Greta.”

“Now find a strong stick and show it to me.”

Hans searched nearby and found one. Greta took it and bent it on her knee. It snapped in half.

“You see, Hans. That stick would not help you. Let me see if we can find one for you.”

Much of the forest was of pine, but a few hardy hardwoods stood nearby and Greta picked up two pieces from the ground that appeared recently blown off by wind. She tested them and gave the short one to Hans. She hefted the longer one and pronounced it good enough. The older children, with Rikard’s help, also found good staffs and soon the six continued on their way.

“Give them to me, children,” Sister Anastasia called. She removed her pack. She took her hunting knife and carefully sharpened each stake.

“Now, use them gently,” she said, “but remember, they can be a weapon if you should need.”

Moving through the trees, sometimes unable to see more than a few feet ahead, now and then sounds startled them. Once they spied a wolf and where they saw one, there would be others. Although it frightened them, no others came near. Sister Anastasia took Rikard’s staff and beat it with hers. The racket she made did not make the wolf go away, rather it seemed curious, but it kept its distance.

As the group climbed deeper it became markedly steeper…and colder. As the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too Hans slowed them down and complained most. Greta did much to cheer him and to get his mind away from the ordeal. Only once did Sister Anastasia intervene with Hans, and that occurred at the crest of a false summit when Hans looked at an even mightier mountain than the one that had just tired him to a point of exhaustion.

“I’m tired. I want to go home,” he said, stubbornly, and he refused to go further.

“Hans,” Sister Anastasia said, “there is no going back.” She shook him gently to gain his full attention, “If you want to live, take another step…and another…and another…and don’t stop.”

Hans started to cry. The Sister enfolded him and held him and soon he quieted. When she held him out in front of her again, he wiped his tears and said, “I’m tired. I want to go home.”

“Home is the way we are going, Hans,” the Sister said. “We are going to a new place and it will be home, you will see. Now, can you be brave like your brothers and sisters?”

Hans pouted, but finally said, “Yes, Sister.”

They encountered snow at the six thousand foot level. Once on an icy slope one of the twins slipped and only quick thinking on Greta’s part stopped him from going over a precipice.

“Jam your staff through the snow pack, Helmut,” she screamed. The boy heard her and turned as he slid. He poked his sharpened stick into the icy snow and it stopped him. They waited in fright while the young boy carefully regained the path they were on. Safe again, they hugged each other and the Sister’s thanked God for sparing Helmut.

As they continued on, the mountain rounded off and with their staffs and snowshoes, they trudged slowly to its crest. Other mountains showed in the distance, and in between two of approximately the same height they saw a narrow pass. This time Sister Anastasia laughed gleefully.

She pointed. “Look, children, the pass!”

They saw a place, a thing they could grasp with their minds, a destination. A weight lifted from the little group. “Beyond that pass is Switzerland?” Rikard asked.

“Yes, Rikard. Another day and we will cross the border. We will walk another hour and in the day’s last light we will build a snow fort to sleep in. We will snuggle together and we will be warm. We have food. We have our health, and we have God. God is good and He will see us through.”

Courage to go on flooded in. They began again, lightly, this time. They made the ordeal an adventure. Hans became quiet. He kept looking ahead as if by doing so he might make the pass come closer through sheer will. Greta’s heart swelled with pride, not only for the strength she saw in the frailty of Hans, but for them all, for a leader who clearly walked a path ordained by God, to the brothers and sisters who helped one another at every turn, to sibling rivalry that had completely disappeared, and to the promise of hope and the promise of a future, a real future in which they could begin to grow again.

And in Greta’s mind she quietly held a thought she had harbored since that moment in the cabin – it seemed so long ago – when she’d held Hans and told him that Papa would find them and they would be a family again. As it was Sister Anastasia’s mission to get them to Switzerland, she made it her charge to reunite the children with their father. She saw God’s plan for her, and she gratefully accepted it.