XXX-The Stranger among Us
JaNUaRY aDVaNCED, COLD aS THE TOMB.
at eleven o'clock on the morning of Saturday, the sixteenth, I said good-bye to Mom and left home on Rocket to meet Ben and Johnny at the Lyric. The sky was plated with clouds, the threat of freezing rain in the air. I was bundled up like an Eskimo, but I'd soon be shedding my coat and gloves. The movie for today was called Hell Is for Heroes, the poster of which showed the sweating faces of american soldiers crouched down behind machine gun and bazooka, awaiting the enemy attack. To accompany this carnage, there would be a program of Daffy Duck cartoons and the next chapter of Fighting Men of Mars. The last chapter had ended with the Fighting Men about to be crushed by a falling boulder at the bottom of a Martian mine shaft. I'd already plotted out their escape; they would scramble into a previously hidden tunnel at the very last second, thus escaping a flattening fate.
On my way to the theater, I myself took a fateful turn.
I pedaled to Dr. Lezander's house.
I hadn't seen him at church since Christmas Eve. Since I'd called him "Birdman," and looked him in his eyes of stone. I was beginning to wonder if he and Mrs. Lezander hadn't flown the coop. Several times I'd started to tell Dad my suspicions, but he had thirty-three on his mind and I had nothing but a green feather and two dead parrots. I stopped Rocket at the bottom of the driveway and sat there watching the house. It was dark. Emptyi I wondered. Had the doctor and his wife cleared out in the dead of night, alerted by whatever it was I might knowi I kept watch; there was no sign of light or life. The heroes and the fighting men could wait. I had to find out, and I began to pedal Rocket up the driveway to the house. I went around back. The PLEaSE LEaSH YOUR PETS sign was still up. I eased Rocket down on the kickstand and peered into the nearest window.
Dark upon dark. at first I saw only shapes of furniture, but as my eyes grew used to the gloom I was able to make out the twelve ceramic birds perched atop the piano. It was the den where the bird cages were. Dr. Lezander's office was below, closer to hell. I couldn't help but see Mrs. Lezander sitting at that piano, playing "Beautiful Dreamer" over and over again as the green and the blue parrots flapped wildly in their cages and shouted curses came up through the air vent. But why were the curses in Germani
Lights hit me. My heart hammered; I felt like a prisoner in a jailbreak movie, caught by the roaming circle. I twisted around, and there were a car's headlights as the car pulled up to the back porch. It was a late-model steel-gray Buick with a chrome radiator that resembled a grinning mouthful of silver teeth; the doctor's work was well paid. I made a move toward Rocket, but it was too late to get the kickstand up before I heard a voice say "Who is thati" Mrs. Lezander got out, her bulk made bearish in a brown overcoat. She must've recognized my bike, because my collar was turned up. "Coryi"
I was caught. Easy, I thought. Just take it easy. "Yes ma'am," I answered. "It's me."
"This is providential," she said. "Will you help me, pleasei" She went around to the passenger side and opened the door. "I've got some groceries."
Rocket might have whispered to me in that second. Rocket might have said in a silken, urgent voice Get away, Cory. Get away while you still can. I'll take you, if you'll just hang on.
"Help me, pleasei" Mrs. Lezander hefted the first of a half-dozen burdened paper bags. On all of them, printed in red letters, was Big Paul's Pantry.
"I'm goin' to the movies," I said.
"It'll just take a minute."
What could be done to me in broad daylighti I took the bag. Mrs. Lezander, a second bag under one arm, slid her key into the back door's lock. a gust of wind blew around us, and I saw the folds of her overcoat move and I knew she had been the figure I saw standing at the edge of the woods.
"Go on," she said, "the door's open."
With Mrs. Lezander hulking at my back and a boulder of fear in my throat, I walked across the threshold as if into a mine shaft.
"Ten points," Mr. White said as he plunked down another domino.
"and ten," Dad said, his own domino going down at the end of the L-shaped pattern.
"I swear I didn't think you had that one!" Mr. White shook his head. "Tricky fella, ain't youi"
"I try my best."
There was a tapping sound. Mr. White peered out the window. The clouds had darkened, the gas station's light splashed across the concrete. Little flecks of sleet were striking the glass. Dad took the opportunity for a glance at the clock on the wall, which showed twelve minutes before noon. "all right, where was Ii" Mr. White rubbed his chin and pondered his dominoes like a hunchbacked sphinx. "Here we go!" he said, and reached for one. "Just mark down fifteen points in my fa-"
Dad turned his head to the left.
The Trailways bus was pulling in.
"-vor," Mr. White finished. "How do, how do! Look who's early this fine day!"
Dad was already on his feet. He walked past the cash register and the shelves of oil and gasoline additives toward the door. "Must've caught a tailwind!" Mr. White said. "Probably caught sight of that monster out on Route Ten, and Corny gave it the lead foot!"
Dad walked out into the cold. The bus pulled to a halt beneath the yellow TRaILWaYS BUS sign. The doors folded outward with a breath of hydraulics. "Watch your step, gents!" Dad heard the driver say.
Two men were getting off. Sleet hit Dad in the face and the wind whirled around him, but he stood his ground. One of the men looked to be in his sixties, the other half those years. The older man, who wore a tweed overcoat and a brown hat, carried a suitcase. The younger, dressed in blue jeans and a beige jacket, carried a duffel bag. "Enjoy your stay, Mr. Steiner!" Corny McGraw said, and the older man lifted a gloved hand and waggled the fingers. Hiram White, who'd come out of the office behind Dad, said, "Howdy" to the two men, and then he looked up the steps at Mr. McGraw. "Hey, Corny! You want some hot coffeei"
"No, I'm gettin' on down the road, Hiram. My sister Jenny had her baby this mornin', and as soon as I finish my route I can go see her. Third young'un, but first boy. Bring you a cigar next time 'round."
"I'll get a match ready. You be careful, Uncle Corny!"
"Ta-ta, ya'll," he said. The doors closed, the bus pulled away, and the two strangers stood facing my father.
The older one, Mr. Steiner, had a wrinkled face but a chin like a slab of granite. He was wearing glasses, flecks of sleet on the lenses. "Siri Pardon me," he said with a foreign accent. "Is there a hoteli"
"Boardin'house will do," the younger one said; he had thinning blond hair and a flat midwestern brogue.
"No hotel in town," Dad said. "No boardin'house, either. We don't get a lot of visitors here."
"Oh my." Mr. Steiner frowned. "Where's the nearest hotel, theni"
"There's a motel in Union Town. The Union Pines. It's-" He stopped, his arm rising to point the way. "You fellas need a ridei"
"That would be very nice, thank you. Mr...i"
"Tom Mackenson." He shook the gloved hand. The man's grip jammed his knuckles.
"Jacob Steiner," the older man said. "This is my friend, Lee Hannaford."
"Pleased to meet the both of you," Dad said.
The sixth bag was the heaviest. It was full of dog-food cans. "That goes downstairs," Mrs. Lezander said as she put other canned goods into the cupboard. "Just set it on the counter, I'll take it myself."
The lights were on in the kitchen. Mrs. Lezander had shed her overcoat, and beneath it she wore a somber gray dress. She took a jar of Folger's instant coffee out of the fourth sack and opened it with a slight wrist-twist. "May I ask," she said, her broad back to me, "why you were looking in the windowi"
"I... uh..." Think fast! I told myself. "I thought I'd drop by because... uh..."
Mrs. Lezander turned around and watched me, her eyes flat and impassive.
"Because... I wanted to ask Dr. Lezander if he... like... needed some help in the afternoons. I thought maybe I could clean up downstairs, or sweep, or-" I shrugged. "Whatever."
a hand grasped my shoulder from behind.
I almost cried out. I came very close to it. as it was, I felt my face freeze as the blood left it.
Dr. Lezander said, "an ambitious young man. Isn't that right, Veronicai"
"Yes, Frans." She turned away from me and continued putting the groceries up.
He released me. I looked at him. He obviously had just awakened; his eyes were sleep-swollen, the hairs had come out in a grizzle around his neatly trimmed chin beard, and he was wearing a red silk robe over pajamas. He yawned and stifled it with the same hand that had just been on my shoulder. "Coffee, please, dearest," he said. "The blacker the better."
She began to spoon coffee into a cup that had the picture of a collie on it. Then, that task done, she turned on the hot water faucet.
"I heard East Berlin this morning around four," he told her. "a wonderful orchestra was playing Wagner."
Mrs. Lezander filled the collie cup full of steaming water and stirred it. She handed the ebony coffee to her husband, who first inhaled its aroma. "ahhhhhh, yes!" he said. "This should do the trick!" He took a little slurpy sip. "Good and strong!" he said, satisfied.
"I'd better be goin' now." I edged toward the back door. "Ben Sears and Johnny Wilson are waitin' for me at the Lyric."
"I thought you wanted to ask me about an afternoon job."
"Well... I'd better go."
"Oh, nonsense." He reached out again, and his hand found my shoulder. He had iron in his fingers. "I'd be pleased and happy to have you come by and help in the afternoons, Cory. as a matter of truth, I've been looking for a young apprentice."
"Reallyi" I didn't know what else to say.
"Really." He smiled with his mouth. His eyes were careful. "You're a smart young man, aren't youi"
"a smart young man. Oh, don't be so modest! You pursue things, don't youi You grip a fact and shake it like a... like a terrier." His mouth smiled again, and the silver tooth sparkled. He took a longer sip of coffee.
"I don't know what you mean." I heard my voice tremble, the slightest bit.
"I admire that quality in you, Cory. The terrier determination to get to the root of things. That's a fine quality for a boy to have."
"His bicycle's outside, Frans," Mrs. Lezander said as she put away packs of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.
"Bring it in, will youi"
"I've gotta go," I said, and now the fear had started choking me.
"Non"-he answered, smiling-"sense. If we have a freezing rain-and it certainly looks grim out there today-you don't want that fine bicycle of yours to be covered with ice, do youi"
"I... really have to-"
"I'll bring it in," Mrs. Lezander said, and she went outside. I watched, Dr. Lezander's hand on my shoulder, as the woman pushed Rocket across the threshold and into the den.
"Very good," Dr. Lezander said. He drank some more coffee. "Better safe than sorry, yesi"
Mrs. Lezander returned, sucking her left thumb. She brought it from her mouth to show blood on it. "Look at this, Frans. I cut myself on his bicycle." She said it with an almost clinical detachment. The thumb returned to her mouth. There was blood on her lower lip.
"While you're here, Cory, it seems to me you should see what your job would entail. Don't you agreei"
"Ben and Johnny... they're gonna miss me," I said.
"Yes, they will, I'm sure. But they'll go in and sit down and watch the film, won't theyi They'll probably think"-he shrugged-"that something happened. Like things do to boys." His fingers began to knead my shoulder. "What film is iti"
"Hell Is for Heroes. It's an army picture."
"Oh, an army picture. I expect it's the conquering american heroes destroying the wretched German dogs, isn't iti"
"Frans," Mrs. Lezander said quietly.
a look passed between them, as hard and sharp as a dagger.
Dr. Lezander's attention returned to me. "Let's go downstairs, Cory. all righti"
"My mom's gonna be worried," I tried, but I knew it was no good.
"But she believes you're at the film, doesn't shei" His eyebrows lifted. "Now, let's go downstairs and see what I'm prepared to pay you twenty dollars a week to do."
My breath was stolen. "Twenty dollarsi"
"Yes. Twenty dollars a week for an able and understanding apprentice seems like a bargain to me. Shall we goi" His hand guided me toward the steps that led down. It was a powerful hand, and it would not be denied. I had to go. Dr. Lezander flicked a switch that turned on the light over the stairs and flooded light below me. as I descended, I heard the rustle of his red silk robe and the shuffle of his slippers on the stairs.
I heard him slurp his coffee. It was a greedy sound, and I was afraid.
My father had not taken Jacob Steiner and Lee Hannaford directly to the Union Pines Motel. On the way, jammed in the pickup truck with the wipers knocking away sleet, he'd asked them if they wanted some lunch. Both men had said yes, and that was how they'd wound up walking into the Bright Star Cafe.
"How about a booth in the backi" Dad asked Carrie French, and she guided them to one and left them with luncheon menu cards.
Mr. Steiner took off his gloves and overcoat. He was wearing a tweed suit and a pale gray vest. He hung his overcoat and his hat on a rack. His hair was as white and thick as a bristle brush. as Mr. Steiner slid into the booth and Dad sat down, too, the younger man peeled off his jacket. He was wearing a blue-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his muscular biceps. and on the right bicep... there it was.
Dad said, "Oh my God."
"What is iti" Mr. Hannaford asked. "I'm not supposed to take my jacket off in herei"
"No, it's all right." a sheen of sweat had broken out on my father's forehead. Mr. Hannaford sat down beside Mr. Steiner. "I mean... that tattoo..."
"You got a problem with it, friendi" The younger man's slate-colored eyes had narrowed into dangerous slits.
"Leei" Mr. Steiner cautioned. "No, no." It was like telling a bad dog to sit.
"No problem," Dad said. "It's just that..." He was having trouble breathing, and the room wanted to spin. "I've seen your tattoo before."
The two men were silent. Mr. Steiner spoke first. "May I ask where, Mr. Mackensoni"
"Before I tell you, I want to know where you've come from and why you're here." Dad pulled his gaze away from the faint outline of a skull with wings swept back from its temples.
"I wouldn't," Mr. Hannaford warned Mr. Steiner. "We don't know this guy."
"True. We don't know anyone here, do wei" Mr. Steiner glanced around, and Dad saw his hawklike eyes take in the scene. a dozen or so people were having lunch and shooting the breeze. Carrie French was fending off the good-natured flirting of a couple of farmers. The television was tuned to a basketball game. "How can we trust you, Mr. Mackensoni"
"What's not to trusti" Something about this man-the way he carried himself, the way his eyes were darting this way and that, sizing things up-made Dad ask the next question. "are you a policemani"
"By profession, no. But in a sense, yes."
"What profession are you in, theni"
"I am... in the field of historical research," Mr. Steiner answered.
Carrie French came over on her long, pretty legs, her order pad ready. "Help you todayi"
"Got any griddle cakesi" Mr. Hannaford plucked a pack of Luckies out of his breast pocket.
"Griddle cakes! Do you have 'em here or noti"
"I think," Mr. Steiner said patiently as the younger man lit a cigarette, "that they're called pancakes in this part of the country."
"We're not servin' breakfast now." Carrie offered an uncertain smile. "Sorry."
"Just gimme a burger, then." He spouted smoke through his pinched nostrils. "Jesus!"
"Is the chicken noodle soup freshi" Mr. Steiner asked, examining the menu card.
"Canned, but it's still good."
"I will not eat canned chicken noodle soup, my dear." He gazed at her sternly over the rims of his glasses. "I, too, will have a hamburger. Very well done, if you please." Pliss, he pronounced it.
Dad ordered the beef stew and a cup of coffee. Carrie paused. "Ya'll aren't from around here, are youi" she asked the two strangers.
"I'm from Indiana," Mr. Hannaford said. "He's from-"
"Warsaw, Poland, originally. and I can speak for myself, thank you."
"Both of you sure are a long way from home," Dad said when Carrie had gone.
"I live in Chicago now," Mr. Steiner explained.
"Still a long way from Zephyr." Dad's eyes kept ticking back to the tattoo. It looked as if the younger man had tried to bleach it out of his skin. "Does that tattoo mean somethin'i"
Lee Hannaford let smoke dribble from the corner of his mouth. "It means," he said, "that I don't like people askin' me my business."
Dad nodded. The first smolderings of anger were reddening his cheeks. "Is that soi"
"Yeah, it's so."
"Gentlemen, please," Mr. Steiner said.
"What would you say to this, hotshoti" Dad propped his elbows on the table and leaned his face closer to the younger man's. "What would you say if I told you that ten months ago I saw a tattoo just like yours on the arm of a dead mani"
Mr. Hannaford didn't respond. His face was emotionless, his eyes cold. He drew cigarette smoke in and blew it out. "Did he have blond hairi" he asked. "Kinda the same color as minei"
"about the same build, tooi"
"I think so, yes."
"Uh-huh." Mr. Hannaford leaned his chiseled face toward my father's. When he spoke, the words left smoke trails. "I'd say you saw my brother."
"...and these cages must be kept scrupulously clean," Dr. Lezander was saying as he pointed them out. They were empty right now. "as well as the floor. If you come in three times a week, I expect the floor to be scrubbed three times a week. You'll be expected to water and feed all the animals in the kennel, as well as exercise them." I followed along behind him as he showed me from room to room in the basement. Every once in a while I would glance up and see an air vent overhead. "I order my hay in bales. You'd be expected to help unload the truck, cut the baling wire, and spread out hay for the horse stalls. I can attest that cutting baling wire is not an easy endeavor. It's tough enough to string a piano with. Plus your job will include whatever errands I need you to run." He turned to face me. "Twenty dollars a week for three afternoons, say from four until six. Does that sound fairi"
"Gosh." I couldn't believe this. Dr. Lezander was offering me a fortune.
"If you come in on Saturdays, I'll pay you an extra five dollars for... say, two until four." He smiled, again with just his mouth. He drank his coffee and set the collie cup down atop an empty wire-mesh cage. "Coryi" he said softly. "I do have two requests before I give you this job."
I waited to hear them.
"One: that your parents don't know how much I'm paying you. I think they should believe I'm paying you perhaps ten dollars a week. The reason I say this is that... well, I know your father's working at the gas station now. I saw him the last time I pulled in. I know your mother's struggling in her baking business. Wouldn't it be better for you if they didn't know how much money you were coming home withi"
"You think I ought to keep such a thing from themi" I asked, bewildered.
"It would be your decision, of course. But I believe both your mother and father might be... anxious to share your good fortune, if they were to know. and there are so many things a boy could buy with twenty-five dollars a week. The only problem is, you'd have to be discreet about those purchases. You couldn't spend it all in one place. I might even have to drive you to Union Town or Birmingham to spend some of that money. But couldn't you think of a few things you might like to have that your parents can't buy youi"
I thought. and then I answered: "No sir, I can't."
He laughed, as if this tickled him. "You will, though. With all that money in your pocket, you will."
I didn't answer. I didn't like what Dr. Lezander thought I would keep from my mother and father.
"Secondly." He folded his arms across his chest, and I saw his tongue probe the inside of his cheek. "There is the matter of Miss Sonia Glass."
"Siri" My heart, which had settled down some, now speeded up again.
"Miss Sonia Glass," he repeated. "She brought her parrot to me. It died of a brain fever. Right here." He touched the wire-mesh cage. "Poor, poor creature. Now, it happens that Veronica and Miss Glass are in the same Sunday school class. Miss Glass, it seems, was terribly upset and puzzled by questions you asked her, Cory. She said you were very curious about a particular song, and why her parrot had... reacted strangely to that song." He smiled thinly. "Miss Glass told Veronica she thought you knew a secret, and might either Veronica or I know what it wasi and there was some odd little thing as well, about you being in the possession of a green feather from Miss Katharina Glass's dead parrot. Miss Sonia said she couldn't believe her eyes when she saw it." He began working the knuckles of his right hand as he stared at the floor. "are these things true, Coryi"
I swallowed hard. If I said they weren't, he'd know I was lying anyway. "Yes sir."
He closed his eyes. a pained expression stole over his face, there and then gone. "and where did you find that green feather, Coryi"
"I... found it..." Here was the moment of truth. I sensed something in that room coiled up like a snake and ready to strike. Though the overhead light was bright and harsh, the tile-floored room seemed to seethe with shadows. Dr. Lezander, I suddenly realized, had positioned himself between me and the stairs. He waited, his eyes closed. If I made a run for it, Mrs. Lezander would snare me even if I got past the doctor. again, the choice was stolen from me. "I found it at Saxon's Lake," I said, braving the fates. "at the edge of the woods. Before the sun, when that car went down with a dead man handcuffed to the wheel."
With his eyes closed, Dr. Lezander smiled. It was a terrible sight. The flesh on his face looked tight and damp, his bald head shining under the light. Then he began to laugh: a slow leak of a laugh, bubbling from his silver-toothed mouth. His eyes opened, and they speared me. For a few seconds he had two faces: the lower one wore a silver-glinting smile; the upper one was pure fury. "Well, well," he said, and he shook his head as if he'd just heard the most amazing joke. "What are we going to do about thisi"
"Have you ever seen this man before, Mr. Mackensoni"
Mr. Steiner had removed his wallet. He had taken a laminated card from it, and now he slid the card before my father as they sat at the back booth in the Bright Star Cafe.
It was a grainy black and white photograph. It showed a man wearing a white knee-length coat, waving and smiling to someone off the frame. He had dark hair that swept back like a skullcap, and he had a square jaw and a cleft in his chin. Behind him was the hood of a gleaming car that looked like an antique, like from the thirties or forties. Dad studied the face for a moment; he paid close attention to the eyes and the white scar of a smile. For all his studying, however, it remained the face of a stranger.
"No," he said as he slid the picture back across the wood. "Never."
"He'll probably look different now." Mr. Steiner studied the picture, too, as if looking into the face of an old enemy. "He might have had some plastic surgery. The easiest way to change appearance is to grow a beard and shave your head. That way even your own mother wouldn't recognize you." Mudder, he'd said.
"I don't know that face. Sorry. Who is hei"
"His name is Gunther Down in the Dark."
"Whati" Dad almost chewed on his heart.
"Gunther Down in the Dark," Mr. Steiner repeated. He spelled the last name, and then he pronounced it again: "Dahninaderke."
Dad sat back in the booth, his mouth open. He gripped the table's edge to keep from being spun off the entire world. "My God," he whispered. "My God. 'Come with me... Dahninaderke.'"
"Excuse mei" Mr. Steiner asked.
"Who is hei" Dad's voice was thick.
Lee Hannaford answered. "He's the man who killed Jeff, if my brother's body is lyin' at the bottom of that damned lake." Dad had told them the story of that morning last March. Mr. Hannaford looked mean enough to snap the head off a cobra. He hadn't eaten much of his hamburger, but he'd almost swallowed three Luckies. "My brother-my stupid-assed brother-must've been blackmailin' him, by what we can figure out. Jeff left a diary hidden in his apartment, back in Fort Wayne. It was in code, written in German. I found the diary in May, when I quit my job in California and came lookin' for him. It took us until a couple of weeks ago to figure the code out."
"It was based on Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung," Mr. Steiner said. "Very, very intricate."
"Yeah, he always was nuts about that code shit." Mr. Hannaford stabbed out another cigarette butt in his ketchupy plate. "Even as a kid. He was always doin' secret writin' and shit. So we pieced it together from the diary. He was blackmailin' Gunther Dahninaderke, first five hundred dollars a month, then eight hundred, then a thousand. It was down in the book that Dahninaderke lived in Zephyr, alabama. Under a false name, I mean. Jeff and those scumbags helped him come up with a new identity, after he got in touch with 'em.
But Jeff must've decided he wanted a payoff for his trouble. In the diary, he said he was gonna make a big score, get his stuff out of the apartment and move to Florida. He said he was drivin' down to Zephyr from Fort Wayne on the thirteenth of March. and that was the last entry." He shook his head. "My brother was fuckin' crazy to get involved in this. Well, I was crazy for gettin' involved in it, too."
"Involved in whati" Dad asked. "I don't understand."
"Do you know the term 'neo-Nazi'i" Mr. Steiner asked.
"I know what a Nazi is, if that's what you're askin'i"
"Neo-Nazi. a new Nazi. Lee and his brother were members of an american Nazi organization that operated in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. The symbol of that organization is the tattoo on Lee's arm. Lee and Jeff were initiated at the same time, but Lee left the group after a year and went to California."
"Damn straight." a match flared, and a Lucky burned. "I wanted to get as far away from those bastards as I could. They kill people who decide Hitler didn't shit roses."
"But your brother stayed with 'emi"
"Hell, yes. He even got to be some kind of storm-trooper leader or somethin'. Jesus, can you believe iti We were all-americans on our high school football team!"
"I still don't know who this Gunther Dahninaderke fella is," Dad said.
Mr. Steiner laced his fingers together atop the table. "This is where I come in. Lee took the diary to be deciphered by the Department of Languages at Indiana University. a friend of mine there teaches German. When he got as far as deciphering Dahninaderke's name from that code, he sent the diary directly to me at Northwestern in Chicago. I took over the project from there in September. Perhaps I should explain that I am the director of the languages department. I am also a professor of history. and last but not least, I am a hunter of Nazi war criminals."
"Say againi" Dad asked.
"Nazi war criminals," Mr. Steiner repeated. "I have helped track down three of them in the last seven years. Bittrich in Madrid, Savelshagen in albany, New York, and Geist in allentown, Pennsylvania. When I saw the name Dahninaderke, I knew I was getting closer to the fourth."
"a war criminali What did he doi"
"Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke was the directing physician at Esterwegen concentration camp in Holland. He and his wife Kara determined who was fit to work and who was ready to be gassed." Mr. Steiner flashed a quick and chilling smile. "It was they, you see, who decided on a sunny morning that I was still fit to live but my wife was not."
"I'm sorry," Dad said.
"That's all right. I knocked his front tooth out and spent a year at hard labor. But it made me hard, and it kept me alive."
"You... knocked his front tooth..."
"Right out of his head. Oh, those two were quite a pair." Mr. Steiner's face crinkled with the memory of pain. "We called his wife the Birdlady, because she had a set of twelve birds made from clay mixed with the ash of human bones. and Dr. Dahninaderke, who was originally a veterinarian from Rotterdam, had a very intriguing habit."
Dad couldn't speak. He forced it out with an effort. "What was iti"
"as the prisoners passed him on their way to the gas chamber, he made up names for them." Mr. Steiner's eyes were hooded, lost in visions of a horrible past. "Comical names, they were. I'll always remember what he called my Veronica, my beautiful Veronica with the long golden hair. He called her 'Sunbeam.' He said, 'Crawl right in, Sunbeam! Crawl right in!' and she was so sick she had to crawl through her own..." Tears welled up behind his glasses. He took them quickly off with the manner of a man who rigidly controlled his emotions. "Forgive me," he said. "Sometimes I forget myself."
"You okayi" Lee Hannaford asked my father. "You look awful white."
"Let me... let me see that picture again."
Mr. Steiner slid it in front of him.
Dad took a long breath. "Oh no," he said. "Oh please, no."
Mr. Steiner had heard it in Dad's voice: "You know him now."
"I do. I know where he lives. It's not far from here. Not very far at all. But... he's so nice."
"I know Dr. Dahninaderke's true nature," Mr. Steiner said. "and the true nature of his wife. You saw it when you looked at the face of Jeff Hannaford. Dr. Dahninaderke and Kara probably tortured him to find out who else knew where he was, or maybe they got the information about the diary out of him, and they beat him to death when he wouldn't tell them where it was or who else knew about it. When you looked at the face of Jeff Hannaford, you saw the twisted soul of Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke. I pray to God you don't have to look upon such a sight again."
Dad stood up and fumbled for his wallet, but Mr. Steiner put money on the table. "I'll take you to him," Dad said, and he started for the door.
"Such a bright young man," Dr. Lezander said, standing between me and the way out. "There's that terrier determination, isn't iti Finding that green feather and then pursuing it to the endi I admire that, Cory, I truly do."
"Dr. Lezanderi" I felt as if my chest were constricted by iron bands. "I sure would like to go home."
He took two steps toward me. I retreated as many.
He stopped, aware of his power over me. "I want that green feather. Do you know whyi"
I shook my head.
"Because your having it upsets Miss Sonia. It's a reminder of the past, and she doesn't like that. The past should be put behind us, Cory. The world should go on, and leave the things of the past alone, don't you agreei"
"But no, just like that green feather, the past has to turn up again and again and again. It has to be plowed up and spread out for everyone to see. The past has to be put on exhibit, and everyone who struggled to keep from drowning in that sludge has to pay the price over and over. It's not fair, Cory, it's not right. Do you seei"
I didn't. Somewhere along the line, his train had derailed.
"We were honorable," Dr. Lezander said, his eyes feverish. "We had honor. We had pride. and look at the world now, Cory! Look what it's become! We knew the destination, but they wouldn't let us take the world there. and now you see what you see. Chaos and vulgarity on all sides. Gross interbreedings and couplings that even animals wouldn't abide. You know, I had my chance to be a physician to human beings. I did. Many times. and do you know that I would rather kneel in the mud and attend to a swine than save a human lifei Because that's what I think of the human race! That's what I think of the liars who turned their backs on us and sullied our honor! That's what I... that's what I... what I think!" He picked up the collie cup and flung it to the floor, and it hit the tiles near my right foot and shattered to pieces with a noise like a gunshot.
In another moment, Mrs. Lezander called from upstairs: "Fransi What broke, Fransi"
His brain, I thought.
"We're talking," Dr. Lezander said to her. "Just talking, only that."
I heard her footsteps, heavy on the floor, as she moved away.
Then a scraping sound above us.
and a few seconds later, the piano being played.
The tune was "Beautiful Dreamer." Mrs. Lezander was actually a very talented pianist. She had the hands for it, I recalled Miss Blue Glass saying. I wondered if she also had the hands that were strong enough to wrap hay-baling wire around a man's throat and strangle him to death. Or had Dr. Lezander done that as Mrs. Lezander had played that same tune in the den above and the parrots had squawked and screamed with the memory of brutal violencei
"Twenty-five dollars a week," Dr. Lezander said. "But you must bring me the green feather, and you must never, never talk to Miss Sonia Glass about this again. The past is dead. It should stay buried, where it belongs. Do you agree, Coryi"
I nodded. anything to get out of there.
"Good boy. When can you bring me the featheri Tomorrow afternooni"
"That's very, very good. When you bring it, I'll destroy it so Miss Sonia Glass won't think of the past anymore, and it won't hurt her. When you bring it, I'll give you your first week's money. Is that agreeablei"
"Yes sir." anything, anything.
"all right, then." He moved aside from the stairs. "after you, mein herr."
I started up.
The front doorbell rang. "Beautiful Dreamer" abruptly stopped. I heard the scrape again: the piano bench being pushed back. at the top of the stairs, Dr. Lezander put his hand on my shoulder again and held me.
"Wait," he whispered.
We heard the front door opening.
"Tom!" Mrs. Lezander said. "What may I do for-"
"Dad!" I shouted. " Help-" Dr. Lezander's hand clamped over my mouth, and I heard him give a muffled cry of anguish that it had all come to this end.
"Cory! Get outta my way, you-!" Dad started into the house, with Mr. Steiner and Lee Hannaford behind him. He shoved the big woman aside, but in the next instant Mrs. Lezander bellowed, "Nein!" and slammed a forearm across the side of his face. He fell backward into Mr. Steiner, blood trickling from a gashed eyebrow. Only Mr. Steiner could understand the things Mrs. Lezander shouted to her husband: "Gunther, run! Take the boy and run!" as she was shouting, Mr. Hannaford grabbed her around her throat from behind and with all his weight and strength he wrestled her to the floor. She got up on one knee and fought back, but suddenly Mr. Steiner was on her, too, trying to pin her flailing arms. a coffee table and lamp crashed over. Mr. Steiner, his hat flown off and his lower lip burst open by one of her fists, yelled, "It's over, Kara! It's over, it's over!"
But it was not over for her husband.
at her warning cry, he had picked me up with one arm and scooped the car keys off the kitchen counter where his wife had left them. as I thrashed to get free, he dragged me out the back door into the falling sleet, the wind whipping his red silk robe. He lost a slipper, but he didn't slow down. He flung me into the Buick, slammed the door almost on my leg, and came close to sitting on my head when he leaped behind the wheel. He jammed the key into the ignition, turned it, and the engine roared to life. as he put the gears into reverse and the Buick's tires laid rubber on the driveway, I sat up in time to see Dad run out the back door into the glare of the headlights.
"Dad!" I reached for the door handle on my side. an elbow crashed into my shoulder and paralyzed me with pain, and when the hand gripped the back of my head and flung me down onto the floorboard like an old sack I lay there dazed and hurting. Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke, the murderer-whom I still knew as Dr. Frans Lezander, the murderer-crunched the gearshift into first and the Buick's engine screamed as the car tore away.
Behind us, my father was already running back through the house to get to the pickup. He jumped over the struggling bodies of Mr. Steiner, Mr. Hannaford, and Kara Dahninaderke. The woman was still fighting, but Mr. Hannaford was using his fists on her horsey face and the results were not on the side of beauty.
Dr. Lezander was racing through the streets of Zephyr, the Buick's tires shrieking at every turn. I started to crawl up from the floorboard, but Dr. Lezander shouted, "Stay there! Don't you move, you little bastard!" and he slapped me in the face and I slid back down again. We must've passed the Lyric; I wondered how much hell a hero could stand. We roared onto the gargoyle bridge, and when the steering wheel slipped out of Dr. Lezander's frantic hands for an instant, the Buick sideswiped the left side of the bridge and sent sparks and pieces of chrome flying into the air, the car's frame moaning with the impact. Then he seized control again and, his teeth gritted, he aimed us onto Route Ten.
I saw light leap from the rearview mirror and stab Dr. Lezander in the eyes. He shouted a curse in German that was louder than the Buick's wail, and I could just imagine what the parrots had had to endure that night. But I knew whose lights those were, ricocheting off the mirror. I knew who was behind us, right on the Buick's tail, pushing that old pickup truck to its point of explosion. I knew.
I reached up and grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel, jerking the car to the right. It went off the road onto loose gravel, the tires slipping. Dr. Lezander gave me another Germanic oath, hollered at the velocity and volume of a howitzer shell to the skull, and pounded my fingers loose with his fist. With that same fist, he knocked me in the forehead so hard I saw purple stars and that was the end of my heroics.
"Leave me alone!" Dr. Lezander screamed to the pickup truck whose headlights filled the rearview mirror. " Can't you leave me alonei" He fought the wheel around Route Ten's snaky curves, the force of gravity trying its best to rip the tires off. I pulled myself up on the seat again, my head still ringing, and Dr. Lezander yelled, "You little shit!" and grabbed the back of my coat, but he had to use two hands on the wheel so he released me.
I looked back at my father's pickup, twenty feet of sleet and air between Dad's front bumper and Dr. Lezander's rear bumper. We hurtled out of the series of tight curves, and I held on to the seat as Dr. Lezander accelerated, widening the distance between vehicles. I heard a pop and twisted my head in time to see Dr. Lezander reaching into the glove compartment, which he'd knocked open with a blow of his fist. His hand emerged gripping a snub-nosed.38 pistol. He threw that arm back, almost cuffing me in the head with the gun's barrel before I ducked, and he fired twice without aiming. The rear windshield exploded, the glass fragments flying toward Dad's pickup like pieces of jagged ice. I saw the pickup swerve and almost go off the road, its rear end wildly fishtailing, but then Dad got it righted. as Dr. Lezander's gun hand passed over my head again, I reached up and grabbed his wrist, pinning that gun against the seat with all my strength. The Buick began to slew from side to side as he grappled with the wheel and with me at the same time, but I hung on.
The gun went off in front of my face, the bullet passing through the seat and out the door with a metallic clang. The sound and heat of it going off so close to me sent a shock and shiver through my bones, and I guess I let go but I don't remember and then Dr. Lezander hit me a glancing blow on the right shoulder with that gun barrel. It was perhaps the worst pain I'd ever felt in my life; it filled me up and overspilled from my mouth in a cry. Without the padding of my coat in the way, my shoulder would've surely been broken. as it was, I grabbed at it and fell back against the passenger-side door, my face contorted with pain and my right arm all but dead. I saw, as if locked in a cyclic dream akin to that in Invaders from Mars, that we were about to pass the dark plain of Saxon's Lake. and then Dr. Lezander jammed on the brake with his bare foot, and as the Buick slowed and Dad's pickup gained ground, the doctor threw his arm back again and this time he looked over his shoulder to aim. His face was slickly wet in the wash of the lights, his teeth clenched, his eyes those of the savage, hunted animal. He fired, and the windshield of Dad's truck suddenly had a fist-sized hole in it. I saw his finger tighten on the trigger, and I wanted to fight him with all the want in my body, but that pain in my shoulder had me whipped.
Something huge and dark and fast burst out of the woods on the other side of the road, near where I'd seen Mrs. Lezander standing that morning in March.
It was on us before Dr. Lezander even saw it, and it was headed straight for his door.
at the same instant, the gun went off and the beast from the lost world collided with us.
This, truly, was a noise like the end of the world.
Over gunshot and Lezanderscream and crash of glass and folding metal, the Buick was knocked up onto the two tires on my side and they shrieked like constipated banshees as the entire car was shoved off the pavement. Dr. Lezander, his door buckled in as if kicked by God, came tumbling into me across the seat and my breath burst out, my ribs in danger of snapping. I heard a snort and grunt: the triceratops, protecting his territory, was pushing the rival dinosaur off Route Ten. Dr. Lezander's face was pressed up against mine, his weight crushing me, and I smelled his fear like green onions. Then he screamed again and I think I screamed, too, because suddenly the car was falling.
We hit with a bone-jarring jolt and splash.
Dark water seethed up into the floorboard. We had just been received by Saxon's Lake.
The Buick's steaming hood was rising. as it did, water began to surge over the slope of the trunk and pour through the shattered glass. The window on Dr. Lezander's side was broken as well, but the water hadn't yet reached it. He was lying on top of me, the gun lost. His eyes were glassy, blood oozing from his mouth where he must've bitten his lip or tongue. His left arm, the arm which had taken the brunt of the beast's power, was lying at a weird crooked angle. I saw the wet glistening of white bone protruding from the wrist in the red silk sleeve.
The lake was coming in faster now, air bubbles exploding around the trunk. The rear windshield was a waterfall. I couldn't get Dr. Lezander off me, and now the car was turning slowly against me as the Buick rolled over like a happy hog and my side started to submerge. Dr. Lezander was drooling bloody foam, and I realized his ribs must've taken a wallop, too.
I looked up, past Dr. Lezander to the broken window rising above me.
My father was there, his hair plastered flat, his face dripping. Blood was creeping down from his cut eyebrow. He started wrenching out bits of glass from the window frame with his fingers. The Buick shuddered and moaned. Water edged up over the seat and its cold touch shocked me and made Dr. Lezander start thrashing.
"Can you grab my handi" Dad wedged his body in through the crumpled window and strained to reach me.
I couldn't, not with that weight on me. "Help me, Dad," I croaked.
He fought to winnow in farther. His sides must've been raked and clawed by glass, but his face showed no pain. His lips were tight and grim, his eyes fixed on me like red-rimmed lamps. His hand tried to part the distance between us, but still the distance was too great.
Dr. Lezander's body lurched. He said something, but it must've been a snarl of German. He blinked, his eyes coming into painful focus. Water sloshed over us, a touch of the grave. He looked at his broken wrist, and he made a deep moaning noise.
"Get off him!" Dad shouted. "For God's sake, get off my son!"
Dr. Lezander shuddered and coughed. On the third cough, bright red blood sprayed from his nose and mouth. He grasped at his side, and suddenly there was blood on his hand. The beast from the lost world had staved his ribs right through his innards.
The water was roaring now. The Buick was sinking at the trunk.
"Please!" Dad begged, still straining to reach me. "Please give me my son!"
Dr. Lezander looked around as if trying to figure out exactly where he was. He lifted himself off me a few inches, which made me able to breathe without feeling like I was jammed in a sardine can. Dr. Lezander looked back at the sinking trunk and the water surging dark and foamy where the rear windshield had been and I heard him whisper "Oh."
It was the whisper of surrender.
Dr. Lezander's face turned. He stared at me. Blood dripped from his nose and ran down my cheek. "Cory," he said, and his voice gurgled. His good hand closed on my wrist.
"Up you go," he whispered. "Bronco."
He lifted himself up with an effort that must've racked him, and he guided my hand into my father's.
Dad pulled me out, and I flung my arms around his neck. He held me, his legs treading water and tears streaming down his heroic face.
With a great buckling and moaning noise, the Buick was going down. The water rushed around us, drawing us in. Dad started kicking us away from it, but the pull was too strong. Then, with a hissing noise of heat and liquid at war, the Buick was drawn down into the depths. I felt my father fighting the suction, and then he gasped a breath and I knew he had lost.
We went under.
The car was sinking below us, into a huge gloomy vault where the sun was a stranger. air bubbles rose from it like silver jellyfish. Dad was kicking frantically, trying to break the pull, but we were going down with Dr. Lezander. In the underwater blur I saw the doctor's white face pressed up against the windshield. Bubbles were streaming from his open mouth.
and suddenly something had drifted up from below and was clinging to the trunk. Something that might have been a big clump of moss or rags somebody had dumped into Saxon's Lake with their garbage. Whatever this thing was, it moved slowly and inexorably into the Buick through the broken rear windshield. The car was turning, turning over like a bizarre ride at the Brandywine Carnival, suspended against darkness. as my lungs burned for breath I saw the blur of Dr. Lezander's white face again, only this time the ragged mossy thing had wrapped itself around him like a putrid robe. Whatever this thing was, it had hold of his jaw. I saw a faint glint of a silver tooth, like a receding star. Then the Buick turned over on its back like a huge turtle and as air bubbles rushed up again I felt them hit us and break us loose from the suction. We were rising toward the realm of light.
Dad lifted me up, so my head broke the surface first.
There wasn't much light up there today, but there was a whole lot of air. Dad and I clung together in the choppy murk, breathing.
at last we swam to where we could pull ourselves out, through mud and reeds to solid earth. Dad sat down on the ground next to the pickup truck, his hands scraped raw with glass cuts, and I huddled on the red rock cliff and looked out over Saxon's Lake.
"Hey, partner!" Dad said. "You okayi"
"Yes sir." My teeth were chattering, but being cold was a passing thing.
"Better get in the truck," he said.
"I will," I answered, but I wasn't ready yet. My shoulder, which would become one swollen lump of bruise in the next couple of days, was mercifully numb.
Dad pulled his knees up to his chest. The sleet was falling, but we were already cold and wet, so what of iti "I've got a story to tell you about Dr. Lezander," he said.
"I want to tell you one, too," I answered. I listened; the wind swept over the lake's surface and made it whisper.
He was down in the dark now. He had come from darkness and to darkness he had returned.
"He called me Bronco," I said.
"Yeah. How about thati"
We couldn't stay here very much longer. The wind was really getting cold. It was the kind of weather that made you catch your death.
Dad looked up at the low gray clouds and the January gloom. He smiled, with the face of a boy unburdened.
"Gosh," he said, "it's a beautiful day."
Hell might have been for heroes, but life was for the living.
These things happened, in the aftermath.
When Mom got up off the floor from her faint, she was all right. She hugged both Dad and me, but she didn't cling on to us. We had come back to her a little worse for wear, but we were back. Dad in particular; his dreams of the man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake were ended, good and truly.
Mr. Steiner and Mr. Hannaford, though dismayed that they had never even gotten a finger on Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke, were at least satisfied with the outcome of rough justice. They had Mrs. Kara Dahninaderke and her birds of human bone in their custody, however, and that was a great consolation. The last I heard of her, she was going to a prison where even the light lay chained.
Ben and Johnny were beside themselves. Ben jumped up and down in a fit and Johnny scowled and stomped when they realized they had been sitting in front of a movie while I'd been battling for my life against a Nazi war criminal. To say this made me a celebrity at school was like saying the moon is the size of a river pebble. Even the teachers wanted to hear my tale. Pretty Miss Fontaine was enthralled by it, and Mr. Cardinale asked to hear it twice. "You ought to be a writer, Cory!" Miss Fontaine said. "You surely do know your words!" Mr. Cardinale said, "You'd make a fine author, in my opinion."
Storyteller, that's what I decided to be.
On a cold but sunny Saturday morning toward the end of January, I left Rocket on the front porch and got into the pickup truck with Mom and Dad. He drove us across the gargoyle bridge and along Route Ten-slowly, all the time watching for the beast from the lost world. Though the beast remained loose in the woods, I never saw him again. I believe he was a gift to me from Davy Ray.
We reached Saxon's Lake. The water was smooth. There was no trace of what lay at its bottom, but we all knew.
I stood on the red rock cliff, and I reached into my pocket and pulled out the green feather. Dad had tied twine around it, with a little lead-ball weight on its end. I threw it into the lake, and it went down faster than you can say Dahninaderke. Much faster, I'm sure.
I wanted no souvenirs of tragedy.
Dad stood on one side of me, and Mom on the other. We were a mighty good team.
"I'm ready now," I told them.
and I went home, where my monsters and my magic box were waiting.