It’s written in the lines of her face. The mottled flesh scrawled across her cheeks, the tangle of scar tissue weighing on her eyelid. Battle scars? A robbery gone wrong? In any case, she’s seen some shit. And the story’s not finished.
It’s written in the lines of her face. The mottled flesh scrawled across her cheeks, the tangle of scar tissue weighing on her eyelid. Battle scars? A robbery gone wrong? In any case, she’s seen some shit. And the story’s not finished.
Alexia hiked ahead of Cian. Frozen pine needles crunched under her boots and frosted ferns brushed past her jeans. The denim shimmered silver for a moment then grew dark as the ice melted into the fabric.
Clad only in oil-stained mechanic’s trousers and work boots, Dobrosky attacked the ground outside his single-story apartment. Two, three, four scoops before metal squealed on something hard. This was not in his plan. He dropped the shovel and let it clatter on the sidewalk.
Spiel: This ends up as a fictional account of a real-life murder in my younger days that never quite let go of my imagination, until it came out this way in this murderous presentation.
Closing on forty-five years on the Saugus Police Department, all of it on the street it seemed except for the last few years of count-down to his retirement, Silas Tully owned up to a few things. If he were asked to give a thumbnail sketch of himself, he would have replied simply, but very graphically, as follows: God-fearing, American to the absolute and final core, stiff believer in the Marine Corps and its heady history, a cop every day until his last day, and a detailer. That he loved, and lived by, details, was a paramount importance in all he did. So it was not odd that in 1990, late in the year, the leaves crisp and yellow as butter or red as lava flow, the stadium a full bandbox of sounds on Saturdays, that dates and anniversaries and common events came piling across the back of his mind like some inner movie was being run for the hundredth time.
Silas Tully always paid heed to such home movies. Now the old headlines grabbed at him, tossed their thick and tall blackness and page-wide shrieks into his mind, their gripping attention reaching out to him. MURDER they had screamed, VIOLENT MURDER, a girl, a nice neighborhood girl, some fifty years ago, garroted and strangled and fiercely and barbarously treated and then dumped off the side of a lonely road.
He’d been just a spanking brand new fifteen year older when the murder had taken place, and even now, after all the years on the force, after all he had seen and wished he hadn’t seen at times, the newer murders, the later crimes, the heinous parts he had been in on, it still came at him as if it had happened only yesterday.
It had happened almost fifty years ago, and Silas Tully found an old reproduction of a LYNN DAILY EVENING ITEM, one he had finally Xeroxed before it gave up the ghost, the cream of wheat texture of it, the aging yellowness falling away to near dust. He read again the lead paragraph, a paragraph some reporter had written when Silas was a mere fifteen years old, a paragraph hard enough to make any man sit up, even today: Twenty-four hours after the mutilated body of attractive Frances Cochran, nineteen year old bookkeeper, of 54 Water Street, was found in a thicket near the Salem-Lynn-Swampscott line police were seeking the driver of a ‘34 or ‘35 Chevie with yellow trimmings. The Chief of Police had reported that a mysterious caller to a local radio station had advised that a body could be found off Danvers Road. Frances Cochran had disappeared on July 17 and was the object of an intense search for three days before her body was discovered. After the tip to the radio station, two Swampscott patrolmen had found her body.
Silas Tully could still feel the taste in his mouth, all these years later, that the story had induced. He found nothing so despicable as hurting the fair sex, and knew that much of his character and all of his police life had been painted by that distaste. Now and then he shook in anger at such doings. It made him work much harder than the guy next to him.
The girl’s body was found with her face and head bludgeoned into a pulp, her skull crushed and parts of her shoulders and torso burned in a crude attempt to burn the body. Her teeth were broken and her entire body maltreated. Her clothing was torn to shreds. “Absolute barbarism and the work of a crazed fiend or a maniac,” said the chief. A tree twig, about an inch in thickness, was found lodged deeply in Miss Cochran’s throat. The body was sprawled in a tangle of brush about thirty-five feet from the road.
The beastliness of it all still came full charge at him, a horrible sense of the deed working on him as strong as it had when he was that mere boy. Over and over again he read the story, assimilating every detail, categorizing and filing each little item, each entity or bit of information, and slowly and surely, the way a glacier makes its way out of the mountains, a matter of resolve began to fill him. From every known source he gathered additional details, taking Xeroxes of everything in the files of THE LYNN DAILY EVENING ITEM and THE SALEM EVENING NEWS. In turn he was led on to clippings from a number of Boston papers, the GLOBE and the HERALD and TRAVELER and the RECORD and AMERICAN and the old POST, and subsequently to an innumerable number of magazine articles and specialty features on one of the most brutal of crimes.
Certainly, for those along the North Shore, from tightly-packed Winthrop under the sound of aircraft popping in and out of Boston’s Logan Airport to the water-world that was Gloucester and Rockport and Manchester-by-the-Sea, the crime was one for the century.
And for the fact that half of that century was about to pass, Officer Silas Tully, God-fearing, American, Corps’ man, cop forever, detailer (Ars Punctilio, as Chief Noel Rebenkern had so often referred to him), sitting daily now in the soft chair easing him down the road to retirement, decided to have a go at it himself!
The chief wondered what the hell was keeping Silas so busy, reading and poring over notes and literature, making copies of clippings and magazine, burning both ends of the candle while retirement was just over the hill. But he knew his man as well as any man did, and if this bulldog of a cop had got his bite onto something, then someone someplace or somewhere should be wary. In his own way he pictured Si a long time in the past working behind the Japanese lines a mere two hundred yards off the beach of some now-quieted but memorable Pacific island. It could make the most alert man nervous.
“Si,’ he said, one day late in October, coming into work and the crisp air of the outside a cool and vivid memory on his face as he passed by Silas in a corner office, “What the hell has got you so perked up? You’ve been poring over that material for near a week now.” He hitched his belt up and pulled at it, as if to redistribute his bodily matter and to make himself taller, the way the textbooks say subordinates should be addressed. Halfheartedly he coughed and muffled it with an open hand, but felt clumsy and so readable. It was obvious to both of them he was about to make a dictate.
With a shrug of the shoulder that said Hell, you know what I’m up to, Si, he offered the dictate and said, “Take it easy. You’ve earned your time. I don’t know of anything that’s so goddamn important that you’ve got to get all involved in it now. You must be driving Phyllis absolutely nuts. And she thought it was going to be easy!” An image of Si’s wife floated to him from a distant corner of the station. He could see her pale blue eyes looking inquisitively at both of them, her head shaking in either frustration or impatience, and finally, as it always had come about, the relenting smile which had become part of her make-up, had become part of her life as the wife of Ars Punctilio. It had to go with the territory.
“She still doesn’t like my truck, Noel. Thinks I think I’m still a kid.” The big red F350, a massive ball of power that Phyllis at times thought was right at the cutting edge of senility and a thought which she invariably let go from whence it came, was parked right outside the window of the office where Silas was working his way through the Cochran case for the umpteenth time. He held up the old ITEM headline and the chief had instant memory of the case, the classic and perfect crime of the century, still unsolved after fifty years. A flicker of passionate disgust passed through him as a few of the old details came into his mind. Most of all, as a man first, and then as a cop, it was the garroting which had inflamed him long ago and which came back on him so quickly and just as strong as it had previously been.
The evilness of it was liquid on him, crawling on his skin, his mouth foul and dry. Desperately he wished he could see into Silas’ head, to see how things stacked up in that fertile mind, to mark what he had marked, even so early in the game. They’d been through so much crap together, but the garroting was something by itself. He thought, as he had before, it was a maniac leaving some kind of clue to his identity, an aberrant signature of an aberrant mind. Silas nodded when the chief made that thought verbal; it registered with a big check mark because he too had had that same intuition. The cut of the cloth was evident in each.
“So,” continued the chief, “what are you up to?”
Silas looked up at his old partner. The square jaw of Noel Rebenkern was still square, but the neck was thicker and somewhat softer, the hair thinner on top, and the steel blue of his eyes had with the years watered a bit. Their thoughts could have been in unison: he’d been through a number of hells with this man, starting way out in the islands of the Pacific almost half a century ago when each was a mere boy, through the silent agonies and noisy carnage that had spawned themselves off Route One and its fast world, the speed lane that halved Saugus. Silas thought, My old pal won’t be long behind me when I leave this post.
“I’m going to give it a whirl, Noel,” he said, “one last swing through the hinterlands as they might say. There’s got to be something they didn’t pay attention to, some little idiosyncrasy left untouched, smoldering all these years, perhaps a piece of matter so small or so insignificant it didn’t appear to matter at all.”
His forehead V’d itself as if pointing right down his distinguished Roman nose, the flesh of his inquisitiveness furrowed deeply. It was evident to the chief that his old comrade was poring over every detail with the same old determination his whole career had been marked with, for he was a computer in himself, a forty-five year old filing system, and was possessed of a filter that caught at the most minute bit of slag and slush one could imagine. Whoever you are, my weird soul of souls, beware if you’re not dead, if
you didn’t die out on the islands when we were there, if you didn’t join up after killing that poor girl and get wasted in the hell of Europe, if you’re still kicking around Lynn all these years later, I don’t give a shit how old you are now, you better beware!
Silas’ eyes had darkened, the skin on the lower part of his face tighter than it had been minutes ago, still wearing the russet cordage of the weather and the years, almost a sandpaper quality to that organ. There was a lock about him, a fusion of all his parts coming into one feeling, one sense, one duty. He’d been that way ever since the chief had known him, a determination that seemed to take over every facet of his being, the bulldog cop taking a grip and never letting go until some kind of accomplishment had been made.
“Do you want some time away from here, Si?
“Don’t treat me special, Noel. I didn’t ask for that.” They were eye to eye, superior to subordinate, friend to friend.
The chief reddened a bit. “For Christ’s sake, Si, you are special! You’ve done your damn job better than any man could’ve, better than I could’ve. We both know that. I just got through the paper work a little easier, so don’t give me any of this happy horseshit you appear to be swinging around here. Take all the time you want. Take off the blue if you want. Go plain. Go where you want. Dig in where you want. We both know the cut-off date. So does Phyllis. If you got to do this, do it.” He let his stomach sag back against his belt and let out a mouthful of breath, unmistakably a period at the end of a sentence.
It was settled then, cut and pasted; Silas Tully set about to solve a nearly fifty-year-old murder. The distaste was still in his mouth as he thought about the golden anniversary coming up in 1991. Frances Cochran, nineteen, pretty dark-haired bookkeeper from Lynn, bludgeoned, burned, beat to absolute hell by a fiendish madman, garroted finally in some grotesque measure he could not fathom in all of human kind, lay dead almost fifty years, and his own marker, his forty-fifth and final year on the Saugus Police Department, was also coming to its own celebration.
Time and duty of the most inordinate order came at him and took hold of him. Into overdrive he went, calling on adrenaline when he needed it, rarely resting, and testing Phyllis to the limit. Through every resource available, he went back through the case. Police files, through a compassionate network of the brotherhood, found their way to him from Lynn and Swampscott and Salem, and from departments as far west as Idaho where one suspect had been apprehended, and Ohio where another man was once questioned, and also there came files from the district attorney’s office, and musty documentation from the coroners’ offices, for poor Frances had been exhumed and a second autopsy performed on August 8 of that eventful year of 1941.
All the suspects, and there were a lot who had been questioned, were re-studied. He pored over those who had been recently released from prisons and were known to have been around the area at the time of Frances’ death. And there were musicians and cooks and students and street people and acquaintances and neighbors and cabbies that had been queried. There was the car, a square backed car spotted by at least two witnesses who had seen Frances get into it on a side street off Eastern Avenue….square-backed Chevie, ‘31-’35, with yellow wooden spokes on its wheels, perhaps with yellow trimming, and driven by a male whom she had obviously known.
In the first twenty-five years after the murder there had been more than twenty confessions, all fizzling out, falling off into the dream world that some people have to inhabit, or have to cook up for themselves. Rewards had been offered over the years, lots of them, from a variety of sources and for a variety of reasons. Silas was quite sure some of them had been offered because there really appeared to be no chance to solve the case. That disturbed him also. He could not stomach anybody making points on somebody else’s pain, let alone most atrocious murder. When the image of the garrote came on him again, he determined to find out what kind of a man would do that kind of act. Whenever he went away from the act, something brought him back to it. He paid attention to that fact, much as he did everything else. Nothing was going to escape him. Nothing at all!
An inch wide the stick had been. And lethal in its own right! It made him shiver. He remembered Joe Dixon and Joe Ditson long ago after the war and after they had come out of a Japanese POW camp. Their stories had made him shiver, too. Every now and then he’d catch himself in a weird and frightful reverie of their plight and of Frances’ plight. His skin would crawl with the known terrors. His resolve grew in proportion.
Phyllis began to relent. Her smile came up more readily.
December eventually came howling down out of the Maritimes, the snow drifting at times nearly five feet high across schoolyards and playgrounds and at other times shutting Route One down to a minor crawl. Silas Tully was like a ship on the lone sea of a month of storms, moving anywhere and everywhere in that redoubtable red truck of his, high slung, ground-clearing, ominous in its power, red as a fire bomb, taking
winter head on, as it had not been taken on before by a proximal retiree. On his way at times he remembered the awesome and orange Walter Snowfighters of the Eastern Mass. Bus Company and how they had kept much of the North Shore roads clear of snow back there in the days when Frances could have seen them. He passed by places where clear-cut and exact pictures came back to him, full of details and all the background in place, places he had known, obviously places that Frances had known too. He felt driven. His recall was working in top order and damned if he wouldn’t show retirement itself a thing or two, if he had to die trying.
Before long every cop in Lynn and Salem intimately knew of him and his mission, and when he passed by their beats or their stations or dropped in again to get the name of a still-living retired cop who might have heard a word or two, they smiled and muttered small asides about senility and Alzheimer’s disease, but still held out one last long and thin line of hope for him. They shared the blue charge, and though he may have been against the windmills, they quietly acknowledged his mission and his drive.
One of them was a bright young cop from Lynn who had graduated from Salem State. His name was Rick Sanborn and he had read about the case and let much of it filter through his mind. Nothing showed itself to him, nothing that held any light, but after much thought, he came to a conclusion and called Silas Tully about it. What he offered was nothing more than what Noel Rebenkern had offered…the fact of the garroting.
“I know it might sound odd to you, Mr. Tully, but that thing with the stick really bothers me. I think it’s the most interesting thing there is to discuss. Not that I can add anything to it, or discuss it any more than this, but I swear it almost talks to me when I think about it. There’s something so apparent about it that we can’t see it. I feel it right in my bones. It’s so dark and so unnatural, as if the devil himself was in on it. You might think I’m like crazy or something, but it really hangs on me. I know I’ve only been around a short time and you’re an old hand at all of this, but I just had to tell you how it bugs me all the time. Even when I was in school at Salem State, and I’d be thinking of old cases or tough cases you kind of hear about, this one kept coming at me.”
They had had a number of discussions about the case. The youngster was adamant, though quite unsure why he was so homed in on the awful stick. Silas Tully kept a track record of the garrote image. The way it continually reared its ugly head did not go unnoticed.
When the preponderance of his gathered facts began to tip itself sideways, threatened to spill itself all over itself, he plotted and laid out a graph. Everything he knew he put onto that graph, and after a hundred attempts of making verticals and horizontals show some attachment or connection, revising the very structure with each attempt, every revision becoming a little clearer, he began to see all the tangibles and intangibles in a different light. No one, he knew, had ever seen what he had seen; at least, not from this perspective.
That it was merely a different view, a different focus, was not lost on him at first, because somewhere under his eyes, somewhere on the spread of the page, a single clue might leap out of darkness, one lone bulb or candle glow in the utter darkness of the mystery, one fallible and untested little item would come forward that would unscrew a murder now fifty years unsolved and still counting.
In January of that extra tough winter both Phyllis and the chief were on him to slow down, not to quit outright, but to slow down. “Fat chance I’ll have at Florida!” Phyllis said when he came late for supper for the third day in a row. “It’ll close on empty before we know it. You’ll fall over at that damn desk of yours or behind the wheel of that truck and it’ll be all over.” But even as she said it, she tempered it and laid a soft hand across his shoulder, tapping home her love.
One thing Silas Tully always noticed were the small signals left out in the air or in the corner of a room for the taking, a sigh, a tap, a look another soul might never catch a glimpse of, the huge and ponderous world and all of life beating its way at the smallest edge. He heard the microwave’s new-tech signal, electronic, radar-related, almost mystic in its new-age music, sounding as if something had been decoded, broken down, realized; she’d been watching for him all the while, as she always did. The warmth of the house slid around him like a favorite jacket taken down from an old nail in the back hallway.
Neil Rebenkern, always from some distance watching his old comrade and compatriot, at least understood the drive and the compulsion that had targeted Silas Tully. He’d spoken once to Reed Clanberry, as Reed rolled himself out from under a cruiser whose transmission had pissed the bed, hydraulic fluid a red stain over a good portion of his shirt and his hands as black as if he had been baking potatoes in them over a camp fire. “What the hell I’m afraid of is that he won’t get to his friggin’ retirement at all. He’ll just close shop one day and check his badge. It’ll be all done, and Phyllis will come down here and we’ll have a nice chat and she’ll go away from here red-eyed and he’ll be gone off with all the others.” Talking to Reed always helped him, for Reed was always on his back or on his butt while working on one of the cruisers in the police garage, down and dirty in his support of brother officers, though his bent was machines, how they ran, what the theories said they should do.
“He’s a big boy, chief,” said the elongated and prone Reed, still laid back on the roller, the near seven feet of him hanging over the small roller like one of the Three Stooges on a child’s bed. “So, let him have his way at this latest escapade. He ain’t been wrong but once that I know of, and we didn’t want to celebrate that one too much. Just let old Jarhead go his way. If it’s there, if anything’s there, he’ll bring it home.”
Noel Rebenkern nodded his head and walked off. It was cut and pasted. Even the damn mechanic had the good-to-the-bone feeling about Silas. He walked off, pulling at his belt line for the second serious time in one day. The skinny, overly long mechanic had unsettled him. Damn, I ought to know better that that! In the corridor between the garage and his office his words had no hollowness to them. From then on, he would keep his mouth shut. What the hell! His own retirement was not that far off either. Either one of them, Silas or him, could slide into oblivion on the greased skids, as long as nothing came out of the woodwork to scald the town manager or the board of selectmen, as long as nothing could screw up the works. Saugus was, normally, a quiet town split by the pike, having its own brand of politics, its own nirvana this side of Boston and that side of Manchester-by-the-sea and Prides Crossing and the dollar signs sitting behind stone walled estates.
The reveries were coming on him again. They were rather serious now, full-blown pictures of those other times, and the feelings that went with them. Such moments might have frightened him if the anchor of Silas was not always a part of those reveries; good old Silas, jawed-down Silas, bulldog Silas, comrade. The old sentiments piled on top of one another and he realized that Silas had made life most interesting, had colored it for him, and had drawn from him the highest comparisons every step of the way. Even as he walked away from the long mechanic those thoughts came on him again; he pictured Silas, for the umpteenth thousandth
time, poring over details, his mind locked down to one microbial trail, pulling straight with him an array of genes and DNA’s, and the chief thought of being in the fourth row of Dodger Stadium the year before and Pavarotti, alone even with the other two tenors, locking on, getting ready to sing Nessum Dorma. In a quick moment of change he then compared his old friend to Denver’s John Elway stepping up to the line, down six points, thirty-eight seconds to go, the ball on his own 38-yard line. Piece of cake!
Clarity and reality hit him as he thought of Frances Cochran, and her crushed head and battered face and immolated body. An utter helplessness came over him. He thought all there was left for her was Silas Tully, like Pavarotti getting ready, Elway about to make something happen. A jolt of unnerving energy flushed through his body, carrying him away from comparisons. All there was left for her was Silas Tully!
Silas Tully, for all the thoughts and considerations and condemnations of his task, for all the small asides that were strewn in his path or beside it, for all the occasional almost-suppressed laughter which trickled in his passing wake like weak-kneed commentaries, kept at it. Again, and again and again, for long days on end and weeks on end, he kept at it. And that terribly long winter passed and spring seeped onto the land. A freshness, and a new eagerness he had not thought possible, came on him just as the land swelled with newness of its own.
On him had also come a few clarifications trying to express themselves with all their own vigor: (1) whoever that foul murderer was, he must have at one time been in the wide and circuitous net which the police had cast out after the discovery of poor Frances’ body, a net which swung as wide as Idaho and Ohio, a net which had caught up fellow students and neighbors and itinerants and those usual suspects who had records or who had been recently released from prison and he had been let out of that net because of a perfected alibi or other reason; and (2) the act of the garroting itself which he could not shake. No matter how hard he tried, he could not dissuade himself that there was nothing insignificant about the employment of the horrible stick. If the stick had been used before, she had been bludgeoned, he surmised, she would have been dead anyway, or close to it, and there would have been no reason for smashing her head open. If her head had been smashed first, there would have been no reason to garrote her. He made it that simple to himself. That the killer was maniacal did not say he was stupid, for he had eluded the police for half a century…if he was not dead…if he had not died out there on a Pacific beach…if he had not died in Marine garb in a Marine firefight. No way! Never a Marine!
Late April had come and the new smells were everywhere, and the chief’s boat, Just Too Blue, was in the water of the Saugus River, right near the penciled memorial stone erected for another police officer downed in his tracks. Silas had spent a lot of time over the years fishing on the craft with Noel or just beering-out out there on the Atlantic, away from phones and the traffic and the mayhem, aging themselves on the ageless sea. Now retirement was rearing its head for good and the dreadful punches of time came at him, coming brutal and bony and downhill all the way, punching their way into his abrupt consciousness at times, walking him to the edge. Retirement might be like a death sign.
Frances, gasping for air, choking, pain riding her body like a malevolent lover, was with him every second of his wakeful hours and had obviously been with him as he slept. Her grip was frightful and grew more
ominous. Phyllis felt it, he felt it. Unknown sources in his body made demands on him, sometimes twisted him and he fought to maintain his equilibrium, his sense of purpose, his life-long effort of trying to be personally uninvolved with crime and its victims. In this case it did not work. There was something else…. he did not feel blameless and that bothered him.
Wanting a new perspective, a new lift to go along with new raw feelings, he borrowed Just Too Blue for a day and sat, anchor down, out near Egg Rock, the mound of granite rising from the bay off King’s Beach where he could look back at Lynn. The tide rolled under him. Time rolled under him. The agony was no less and no clearer out on the cool surface. He wished he could look back omnisciently at one piece of a clue, a small piece of any clue…the single strand of red hair found on her body, the car with the yellow wheel spokes, a tire track left undetected, a footprint, a thumb print. If only he could look into the minds of the suspects, still believing that he had once been in the net.
And the garrote came back to him there on the wide sea.
Visibly, willfully, he turned from it, shunting it aside. His graph lay spread out on the deck, the awfully intricate grid of lines seeming to go unconnected and crazily in every direction. But somehow the lines came plotted to him and a number of variables of their connections appeared readable. He wanted to tighten some screws, but futility came at him. On the high sea, the endless water spreading behind him as if going on to infinity, chances were slim to none at catching that blackguard murderer. They were like the chances of finding one wave in the unending series of waves rolling under him to be a special wave. Here Silas knew himself to be a very minor drop of matter in this vastness, as well as in the matter of this business of solution. For a moment he felt overwhelmed by his own tininess, one small wave among the thousands and thousands of waves, until the thought came to him that for Frances Cochran, fifty years dead, forgotten by so many, so many of her peers gone, her parents long gone, he was the only hope, the last hope of resolve.
From there on the face of the Atlantic, the continuity of life itself rising and falling underneath him, underneath the keel, he looked back over Lynn and the death of the girl and all the information which he had come across and which now lay in turmoil in his mind, though sketched and gridded on his pad of paper. He saw himself back at the station going over the matter, and at home probably driving poor Phyllis nuts, and plying his way through snow and rain and hail to get more information and wearing his welcome thin no matter where he went. He saw his tracks crossing and crisscrossing all the North Shore and points beyond. He saw the exodus of thousands of young men for the war of wars, and, unknown to him at the moment, with that exodus he would come to see one strange-eyed young man in the act of escape.
He saw the enormity of the sea and the task.
And he came back to the garrote again! Or it came to him! It would not go away.
The grid lines of his graph fell under his eyes. All the names of all the suspects fell under his eyes. Poring over each one, each one became a personality, and he sought a chink in the armor. Then, on that wide and limitless sea, on that great expanse, like he was a thimble afloat on eternity, he had a new idea. It burst upon him!
The engine cranked into life and the sound immediately seemed to be swallowed up by the enormity about him. But he headed for the Saugus River and Noel’s slip at the yacht club.
Mere hours later he was poring over old issues of the LYNN ITEM looking for photos. A few came to light of the type he was searching for. Here and there, at that time with war starting shortly after Frances’ death, lots of young men enlisted and photos were shown of neighborhood friends and teammates and other groups going off to war together. In one small photo of a dozen men, all of them exuberant and smiling in ignorance at the adventure waiting on them, one face was downcast, averting that intimate exchange of gazes that’s called for by the photographer. The young man could not have made himself any smaller, any darker, any more secretive…. and any more obvious! His name was not given, but that would pose no great problem, thought Silas. Most of them were French Basque. The Raiders from Boston Street where it abruptly found Flax Pond.
Whatever took him to the Boston Public Library to search for information on Basque witchcraft, until this day he cannot fully explain, except that the boy with the averted look, and the very act of garroting itself, had somehow been grounded in the reach of the Basque as it touched on him.
In his studied research he read about the bruxos and the xorguinos, Basque men and women who practiced witchcraft and black magic in the Province of Gupuzcoa along the Bay of Biscay, and in the mountain range of Amboto where they still talk about the Lady of the Caves, and her ointments of pulverized toads and a Basque herb called usainbelar. All about the witches he read, immersed for hours and hours in the spread of Iberia, the bays, the mountains, and he almost leapt up from his seat at a description of a Basque witch being killed. It was a vivid description of how she was first strangled with a stick thrust down her throat and then she was burned at the stake or thrust into a barrel of tar or pitch and if she got loose from the stake or got out the barrel, she was thrust back into the fire.
And he found an old passage, so shockingly similar, about witches’ executions in the highlands of Scotland which made him leap once again in his seat…and thay was sticket in the throte with a garruote and thay wer brunt quick eftir sic ane crewell maner, than sum of thame deit in desspair, renunce and blaspheme and; and utheris half brunt brake out of the fyre and wes cast quick in it agane, quhill thay wer brunt all thay daith.
Silas could picture all of it, and its horror charged over him. So many innocents had been executed this way in countless villages and towns of the Old World. And it had come to America, it had come to Salem right down the street, and, he was further convinced, it had come just down the road in Lynn to poor Frances Cochran.
The Red Raider with the averted eyes was not difficult to identify, nor was his military history, and three weeks later, after Silas’ request for information about the young man‘s basic outfit was printed in the LEGIONNAIRE’S MAGAZINE, he had a damn good picture of what Lamon L’Supprenant was all about. And he was still living. In Salem. A Basque. Into, well into, the occult, into sorcery, into black magic, and the bruxos, and the xorguinos. He wondered about the garrote. But, furthermore, L’Supprenant had been a redhead in his early days, and one of three redheads who were questioned.
His uncle, he also found out, had been a cop.
In the service, in a Division Headquarters Company of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, a vital force in the Pacific war, a long time in the islands, brought out of there to Korea later on, L’Supprenant’d been a strange chicken, full of wild and woolly things, and he was remembered for his strangeness by some old comrades. Of the three who wrote back to Silas, not one questioned why information was being sought, and Silas interpreted that to mean each one of them might have thought, even after all these years, that Lamon L’Supprenant needed explaining.
Only one person could be approached with all this information, flimsy and outrageous as it was, and that was Noel Rebenkern, chief, comrade, friend, though the last qualifier could certainly be strained by something as touchy as this case and the parameters it was at, fifty years of grayness and obliquiness. But chinks appearing!
He told Noel all he knew, all of the Basque’s history, as it had come revealed to him, and brought it right down to the single strand of red hair, and the picture of the Red Raiders going off to war.
Noel might have leaped on him. “You got to be crazy, Si! You can’t go anyplace with all that crap. Jesus, man, if Danvers State Hospital was still open, you’d be there on the hill before you could blow your nose. They’d put you in a white jacket and take you down a long corridor. And they’d throw the friggin’ key away!” He kept shaking his head as if disbelief was all around him, and his eyes went opaque and then a queasy gray. More of his age showed, more than he wanted to show.
Gathering himself, he added, “There’s no legitimate way to present any of it. All the work you’ve done could go right down the tube. No!” he added vociferously, slamming his fist on the desk, “you haven’t got a
chance in hell!” He looked at Silas’ face. It was not unnerved, not upset, not in any sort of quandary. His lifetime fiend, Silas Tully, was a kid again. “What the hell are you going to do with all of this?”
The soon-to-be-gone policeman looked him in the eye. “I’m going to smoke him out!” There was something beyond affirmation in his voice, something beyond definition. By God, he had become younger! A sparkle was in his eyes. His skin had a tingle and a shine to it. His mouth was as firm as he could ever remember it.
“Si, he’s got to be about seventy years old now. He’ll probably have a heart attack if you go right at him. If he’s the right guy, that is. That’s like fish in the barrel.”
“You mean you don’t think we should go after him, that we shouldn’t have gone after the German war criminals no matter how old they were, time served being enough for killing six million Jews. You got to be kidding me, Noel!”
“What I mean, Si, is you can’t go lambasting after him and there’s no hard proof. You’d get killed in court. He’s got rights and the burden is on us.” He said us the only way he could, being a party to the whole thing. “One thing else I have to say. There’s a lot of guys our age who have been obsessed with this murder, who have been obsessed since the day it happened. It grates on them as much as anything else, and I’ll tell you why I think that’s so.” Pausing, knowing the value of the caesura, trying to provide room for everything to sink into his determined, and obviously obsessed, comrade, he continued, his hair a bit grayer, his neck a bit thicker, his belt line, too:
“You’ve got to look at the time period, Si. It was just before Pearl Harbor, and things were calm somewhat, even though Europe was in turmoil. It was a special time, especially for women, with things on the upswing all around; Prohibition gone, the New Deal at work, things getting better for the house. It was a special time indeed. Why, I’ve known a bunch of guys, a lot of them from the Brickyard in Lynn, who said their doors were never locked at night before the war. You just didn’t worry. All the big brothers were around and girls didn’t worry so much. When the war started, they tell me, especially the guys from the Brickyard, with all the big brothers off to war and a bunch of creeps around, they began to lock their doors. They had to.
Times began to change. Right then, after Pearl Harbor, times began to change. But all those guys from around here thought about Frances Cochran for a long time, out on the islands, in Europe, under the frigging waters of both oceans, like somebody had cut into their space and violated one of their own. It really pissed them off, like their kid sister had been grabbed. A lot of them told me, with all the advanced training they got, bayonet drills and all that stuff, they’d’ve killed the son of a bitch in a second if they’d’ve caught him. Even old Teddie BB in Cliftondale told me once he couldn’t remember how many times he thought about Frances when he was alone on guard duty way the hell up there in the goddamn Aleutians. He used to talk about it with Dashiel Hammet who was in his outfit, on Sitka, I think. Said they used to come up with some great stories about it and how the son of a bitch could be caught and strung up by his you-know-whats. You know what, every now and then when we take a ride after church on Sunday or on the way to a ball game down that way, he’ll drive by the place. He still gets pissed, I tell you!”
Eventually, near talked out, both sides presented, they could have drawn a line in the sand, if there had been any sand in the chief’s office. Peace was made and Si was going to do it his way. He had bit it off and chewed it up.
Smoking him out, to Silas Tully, was not a strange and roundabout approach. First, for a few months, he got to know Lamon L’Supprenant from behind the windshield of the big red truck and now and then the little car he had got for Phyllis. Everywhere L’Supprenant went, Silas was right behind him; and sometimes, knowing the routine so well, he was in front of him. A smoky and dark side of L’Supprenant became
obvious. Not much of what he did was done openly, much of it behind locked doors in the company of likewise dark and furtive friends.
That they practiced some kind of witchcraft or sorcery or black magic was evident, and that they took great profits in it showed as well, too. To Silas’ trained eye the access to any of the half dozen places where things happened, were strictly controlled and under guard. He could only hazard guesses as to what might take place behind such cover.
But that guesswork did not have to wait too long. On July 18, 1991, fifty years almost to the day that Frances Cochran was killed, the body of a girl was found in the tall grass alongside the Happy Valley Golf Course in Lynn. Her head had been crushed, her jaw smashed, her clothing torn from her mutilated body. Also, a small wooden stick similar to a tent peg had been stuck down her throat. She too had been garroted! And a single strand of red hair was found on her body. Laboratory DNA tests showed that it matched the strand of red hair found on Frances Cochran’s body fifty years earlier.
The city of Lynn went berserk. Police said there was not a single clue besides the strand of red hair; no witnesses to the deed, no sounds in the night, no suspicious activities along Lynnfield Street, and, this time, no car with yellow wheels.
The connections were obvious and a sweeping terror started throughout the city.
Noel Rebenkern, in his office, faced Silas Tully. “If you get him on this one, Si, you’ve got him on the other one. There’ll be no question. I just wished we’d’ve done something sooner. Now, don’t you feel bad. I’m the one who put the reins on you.”
“I’m willing to bet that that poor kid knew this son of a bitch from some place. Maybe from one of those damn places I couldn’t get into. Or if she didn’t know him, she knew one of his young friends.”
“You mean like an acolyte or an apprentice getting some OJT! Jayzuz, what the hell have they got going?”
His head shook back and forth in disbelief. He felt a lot older than he had earlier in the day. “Well, Si, I guess it has to be your shot. How you want to call it. You know those guys from Lynn will be calling you, not a bit of doubt about that. They won’t have those silly little grins on their kissers now.” His face lit up a bit as he added, “Unless they think you’ve got something to do with it.” His guffaw filled the room.
“Thanks for the memories,” answered Si. Then he nodded, and looked a poser for a short time, then looked at the chief and said, “Some more smoking out, but this time with contact.“ And he explained what he was going to do to loosen Lamon L’Supprenant from his hold on life.
For four days in a row after the discovery of Angel Corkery’s body at the Happy Valley Golf Course, and after the Lynn chief asked him to come down to see him sometime, the following typewritten notes, each one on successive days, were mailed by Silas Tully to Lamon L’Supprenant at his Salem address:
When Lamon L’Supprenant tried to bolt, in the middle of the night, a young man with him, and bags of mysterious goods piled onto the back seat and into the trunk, Silas Tully and Lynn police officer Rick Sanborn and two Salem cops were there to grab them. In one of the parcels confiscated from the L’Supprenant car, police found a decorative box with two X’s cut into the cover and eight more strands of red hair gathered inside, all the same source, all from Lamon L’Supprenant. They also found a ritual of avenge which detailed the garroting and murder of a L’Supprenant relative which had happened a hundred and fifty years earlier in France. Lila of the Caves had gotten the promise of revenge from her sons, from her descendants.
It was only a Saugus cop who had stood in the way of another four hundred years of sacrifices, one every fifty years.
Spiel: One major hero of mine in WW II days was Frank “Parkie” Parkinson who wrote a letter to me from the desert in North Africa saying he was dreaming of coming home and seeing me play high school football after he had watched my older brother play. He promised he’d do his best. Boy, did he ever get that done, For a few years after he got home, and I’d be in a game, I’d see Parkie on the sideline chains in games at Saugus High School, Marianapolis Prep in CT, RI, NH, Long Island (NY), Manning Bowl in Lynn, MA,: and some later college games, Parkie ever on the sideline chains, the yard markers. And he did not own a car, thumbing his way everyplace he went. He had come home from the war with a bottle in his back pocket, hardly without liquor on his breath from then on, but never drunk at a game. He hung on for 20 more years.
Hardly with a hop, skip and jump did Frank Parkinson come home from Tobruk, Egypt, North Africa, madness, and World War II in general. A lot of pit stops were made along the way where delicate-handed surgeons and associates did their very best to get him back into working order. From practically every vantage point thereafter we never saw, facially or bodily, any scar, bunching of flesh or major or minor skin disturbance. There was no permanent redness, no welts as part of his features, no thin and faintly visible testaments to a doctor’s faulty hand or to the enemy’s angry fragmentation. It was as if he were the ultimate and perfect patient, the great recovery, the risen Lazarus.
But he was different, it was easy to see, by a long shot.
Parkie. Tanker. Tiger of Tobruk.
And it was at the end of some trying times for him when I realized, one afternoon as we sat looking over the sun looking over sun-lit Lily Pond, a redness on the pond’s face as bright as my pal’s smile, the pond face we had skated on for almost twenty years, where we had whipped the long hand-held whip line of us and our friends screaming and wind-blown toward the frosted shore on countless coffee and cider evenings, that he had come home to die.
The September sun was on for a short stay, and we had bagged a dozen bottles of beer and laid them easily down in the pond, watching the flotilla of pickerel poking slowly about when the sediment settled, their shadowy thinness pointing, like inert submarines or torpedoes, at the bags.
Our differences were obvious, though we did not speak of them. The sands of North Africa had clutched at him and almost taken him. Off a mountain in Italy I had come with my feet nearly frozen, graceless pieces of marble under skin, thinking they might have been blown off the same quarry in which Michelangelo had once farmed torsos. Searching for the grace that might have been in them, I found none. I kept no souvenirs, especially none of Italy and its craggy mountains, and had seen nothing of his memento scenery. But once I saw a pair of tanker goggles hanging like an outsize Rosary on the post of Parkie’s bed at Dutch Siciliano’s garage where he roomed on the second floor. In each of his three small rooms, like the residue of a convoy’s passing still hanging in the air, telling of itself at the nostrils with sharp reminders, you could smell the oil and grease and, sometimes you’d swear, perhaps the acid-like cosmoline and spent gunpowder, rising right through the floorboards.
We left the war behind us, as much as we could. But with Parkie it was different … pieces of it hung on as if they were on for the long ride. I don’t mean that he was a flag waver or mufti hero, now that he was out of uniform, but the whole war kept coming back to him in ways in which he had no control. There are people to whom such things befall. They don’t choose them, but it’s as if they somehow get appointed for all the attendant crap that comes with life.
Furthermore, Parkie had no control over the visitations.
I don’t know how many times we have been sitting in the Angels’ Club, hanging out, the big booms long gone, when someone from Parkie’s old outfit would show up out of the blue. It was like Lamont Cranston appearing from the shadows; there’d be a guy standing at the door looking in and we’d all notice him, and then his eyes and Parkie’s eyes would lock. Recognition was instant; reaction was slower, as if neither believed what he was seeing. There would be a quiet acceptance of the other’s presence; they’d draw their heads together and have a beer in a corner. Parkie, as sort of an announcement, would speak to no one in particular and the whole room in general, “This guy was with me in North Africa.”
He never gave a name. All of them were odd lots, all of them; thin like Parkie, drawn in the face, little shoulders and long arms, nervous, itchy, wearing that same darkness in the eyes, a sum of darkness you’d think was too much for one man to carry. They’d hang on for days at a time, holing up some place, sometimes at Parkie’s and sometimes elsewhere, drinking up a storm, carousing, and one morning would be gone and never seen again, as if a ritual had taken place, a solemn ritual. Apparitions almost from slippery darkness! Dark-eyed. The nameless out of North Africa and whatever other place they had been to and come from. Noble wanderers, it seemed, but nameless, placeless, itinerants from who knows what!
Parkie never got a card or a letter from any one of them, never a phone call. Nothing. He never mentioned them after they were gone. That, to me, was notice he knew they would never be back. It was like a date had been kept, a vow paid off. It wasn’t at all like “We’ll meet at Trafalgar Square after the war, or Times Square, or under the clock at The Ritz.” Not at all. The sadness of it hit me solidly, frontally. I’d had some good buddies, guy’s I’d be tickled to death to see again if they walked in just like his pals did, and I knew that I’d never see them again.
Things were like that, cut and dried like adobe, a place and a job in the world and you couldn’t cry about it. Part of the fine-tuned fatalism that grows in your bones, becomes part of you, core deep, gut deep.
The sun’s redness shivered under breeze. Pickerel nosed at the bags. The beer cooled. Parkie sipped at a bottle, his eyes dark and locked on the pond, seeing something I hadn’t seen, I suppose. The long hatchet-like face, the full-blown Indian complexion he owned great allegiance to, made his dark visage darker than it might have been. With parted lips his teeth showed long and off-white or slightly yellowed, real incisors in a deep-red gum line. On a smooth, gray rock he sat with his heels jammed up under his butt, the redness still locked in his eyes, and, like some long-gone Chief, locked in meditation of the spirits.
For a long while he was distant, who knows where, in what guise and in what act, out of touch, which really wasn’t that unusual with him before, and surely wasn’t now, since his return. Actually, it appeared a little eerie, this sudden transport, but a lot of things had become eerie with Parkie around. He didn’t like being indoors for too long a stretch; he craved fresh air and walked a lot, and must have worn his own path around the pond. It went through the alders, then through the clump of birch that some nights looked like ghosts at attention, then down along the edge where all the kids went for kibby and sunfish, then over the knoll at the end of the pond where you’d go out of sight for maybe five minutes of a walk, and then down along the near shore and coming up to the Angels’ where we hung out.
Most of the guys said when you couldn’t find Parkie, you knew where to find him.
He looked up at me from his crouch, the bottle in his hand catching the sun, his eyes as dark as ever in their deep contrast. “Remember that Kirby kid, Ellen Kirby, when we pulled her out of the channel on Christmas vacation in her snowsuit and she kept skating around the pond for a couple of hours, afraid to go home. We saved her for nothing, it seems, but for another try at it. I heard she drowned in a lake in Maine January of the year we went away. Like she never learned anything at all.”
Parkie hadn’t taken his eyes off the pond, stillness still trying to take hold of him, and he sipped and sipped and finally drank off the bottle and reached into the water for another. The pickerel force moved away as quickly as minnows.
Their quickness seemed to make fun of our inertia. If there was a clock handy, I knew its hands would be moving, the ticking going on, but I seriously wouldn’t bet on it. We seemed to be holding our collected breath; the sun froze itself on the water’s face, the
slightest breath of wind held it off. There was no ticking, no bells, no alarms, and no sudden disturbances in the air, no more war, and no passage of time. For a moment at least we hung at breathlessness and eternity. We were, as Parkie had said on more than one occasion, “Down-in deep counting the bones in ourselves, trying to get literate.”
“We just got her ready to die another time.” The church key opener in his hand pried at the bottle cap as slow as a crowbar and permitted a slight “pop,” and he palmed the cap in his hand and shook it like half a dice set and skipped it across the redness. The deliberate things he did came off as code transmissions, and I had spent hours trying to read what kind of messages were being carried along by them. They did not clamor for attention, but if you were only barely alert you knew something was cooking in him.
“You might not believe it,” I said, “but I thought of her when I was in the base hospital in Italy and swore my ass was ice. I remember how she skated around after we pulled her out with that gray-green snowsuit on and the old pilot’s cap on her head and the flaps down over her ears and the goggles against her eyes and the ice like a clear, fine lacquer all over her clothes. I thought she was going to freeze standing upright on the pond.”
Parkie said, “I used to think about the pond a lot when I was in the desert, at Tobruk, at Al Shar-Efan, at The Sod Oasis, at all the dry holes along the way, but it was always summer and fishing and swimming and going ballicky off the rock at midnight or two or three in the morning on some hot-ass August night when we couldn’t sleep and sneaked out of the house. Remember how Gracie slipped into the pond that night and slipped out of her bathing suit and hung it up on a spike on the raft and told us she was going to teach us everything we’d ever need to know.”
His head nodded two or three times, accenting its own movement, making a grand pronouncement, as if the recall was just as tender and just as complete as that long-ago compelling night. He sipped at the bottle again and tried to look through its amber passage, dark eyes meeting dark obstacles of more than one sort. As much a fortuneteller he looked, peeking into life.
All across the pond stillness made itself known, stillness as pure as any I’ve known. I don’t know what he saw in the amber fluid, but it couldn’t have been anything he hadn’t seen before.
I just had the feeling it was nothing different.
When I called him Frank he looked at me squarely, thick black brows lifted like chunks of punctuation, his mouth an Oh of more punctuation, both of us suddenly serious. It had always been that way with us, the reliance on the more proper name to pull a halt to what was about us, or explain what was about us. He drank off a heavy draught of beer, his Adam’s apple flopping on his thin neck. The picture of a turkey wattle came uneasily to mind, making me feel slightly ridiculous, and slightly embarrassed. Frank was an announcement of sorts, a declaration that a change, no matter subtle or not, was being introduced into our conversation. It was not as serious as Francis but it was serious enough.
His comrades from North Africa, as always, had intrigued me, and on a number of instances I had searched in imagination’s land for stories that might lie there waiting to get plowed up. Nothing I had turned over came anywhere close to reality, or the terrors I had known in my own stead. No rubble. No chaff. No field residue.
Perhaps Parkie had seen something in that last bottle, something swimming about in the amber liquid, or something just on the other side of it, for he turned to me and said, “I think you want to know about my friends who visit, my friends from North Africa, from my tank outfit. I never told you their names because their names are not important. Where they come from or where they are going is not important either. That information would mean nothing to you.”
For the moment silence was accepted by both of us.
Across the stretch of water, the sun was making its last retreat of the day. A quick grasp of reflection hung for a bare second on the face of the pond and then leaped off somewhere as if shot, past the worm-curled roots, a minute but energized flash darting into the trees, then it was gone, absolutely gone, none of it yet curling round a branch or root, and no evidence of it lying about…except for the life it had given sustenance to, had maintained at all levels. It was like the shutter of a camera had opened and closed at its own speed.
Parkie acknowledged that disappearance with a slight nod of his head. An additional twist was there: it was obvious he saw the darkness coming on even before it gathered itself to call on us, as though another kind of clock ticked for him, a clock of a far different dimension. He was still chipping away at what had been his old self. That came home clean as a desert bone; but where he was taking it all was as much mystery as ever.
The beer, though, was making sly headway, beer and stillness, and the companionship we had shared over the years, the mystery of the sun’s quick disappearance on what we knew of the horizon, the thin edge of warmth it left behind, and all those strange comrades of his who had stood in the doorway of the Angel’s Club, framed as they were by the nowhere they had come from, almost purposeless in their missions. They, too, had been of dark visage. They too were lank and thin and narrow in the shoulder. They, too, were scored by that same pit of infinity locked deeply in their eyes. They were not haggard, but they were deep. I knew twin brothers who were not as close to their own core the same way these men were, men who had obviously leaned their souls entirely on some common element in their lives. I did not find it as intense even with battle brothers who had lain in the same hole with me while German 76’ers slammed overhead and all around us, chunks of grand Italian marble in the awful trajectories.
The flotilla of pickerel nosed against the bags of beer. Parkie’s Adam’s apple bobbed on his thin neck. He began slowly, all that long reserve suddenly beginning to fall away: “We were behind German lines, but had no idea how we got there. We ran out of gas in a low crater and threw some canvas against the sides of the three tanks that had been left after our last battle. If we could keep out of sight, sort of camouflaged, we might have a chance. It got cold that night. We had little food, little water, little ammo, and no gas. It was best, we thought, to wait out our chances. If we didn’t know where we were, perhaps the Jerries wouldn’t know, either. Sixteen of us were there. We had lost a lot of tanks, had our butts kicked.”
He wasn’t dramatizing anything. You could tell. It was coming as straight as he could make it. Whatever was coming, though, had to be wild, or exorbitant, or eerie or, indeed, inhuman. The last option rode through me like cold fact. The hair on the back of my neck told me so.
“We woke up in the false dawn and they were all around us. Fish in the bottom of the tank is what we were. No two ways about it. Plain, all-out fish lying there, as flat as those pickerel. They took us without a shot being fired. Took us like babes in the pram. All day they questioned us. One guy was an SS guy. A real mean son of a bitch if you ever met one. Once I spit at him and he jammed me with a rifle barrel I swear six inches deep. Ten times he must have kicked me in the guts. Ten times! I couldn’t get to his throat, I’d’ve taken him with me. They stripped our tanks, what was left in them. That night they pushed us into our tanks. I saw the flash of a torch through one of the gun holes. You could hear a generator working nearby. Something was crackling and blistering on the hull or the turret top. Blue light jumped every which way through the gun holes. It was getting hot. Then I realized the sounds and the smells and the weird lights were welding rods being burned.”
“The sons of bitches were welding us inside our own tanks. A hell of a lot of arguing and screaming was going on outside. The light went flashing on and off, like a strobe light, if you know what I mean. Blue and white. Blue and white. Off and on. Off and on. But no real terror yet. Not until we heard the roar of a huge diesel engine. And the sound of it getting louder. And then came scraping and brushing against the sides of our tanks. Sand began to seep through the gun holes and peep sights.”
“The sons of bitches were burying us in our own tanks! All I could see was that rotten SS bastard smiling down at us. I saw his little mustache and his pale green eyes and his red nose and a smile the devil must have created. And his shining crow-black boots.”
I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t ask him a question. A stunned sensation swept clean through me. First, disbelief, a surging block of disbelief, as if my veins had frozen in place. The dark pit in his eyes could be read; the darkness inside the tank, the utter, inhuman darkness that had become part of Parkie and part of his comrades, the imagined sense of it hitting me slowly. It crept inside me. I knew a sudden likeness to that feeling; it was peering over the edge of a high place, the ground rushing up to meet me and then falling away and the long descent, the torturous fall becoming part of me…in the veins, in the mind. A shiver ran through every part of my body. And then hate welled up in me, stark, naked, unadorned hate, hate of the vilest kind, the kind you can’t wear, can’t carry.
Parkie put his hand on my knee. His grip was hard. “I never wanted to tell you, none of you. We all had our thing. You had yours. I had mine. I’m so sorry your feet are so screwed up. I wish nothing had happened to you. But a lot of guys’ve had worse.”
“What happened?” I said, letting his hand carry most of his message, letting my own small miseries fall away as if they did not exist. Not by comparison anyway. My feet had iced up practically in my sleep. I knew the ignoble difference.
“The sand was almost over the entire tank, and the noise inside the tank started. Screaming and cursing and crying. Cries like you never heard in your life. God-awful cries. I know I never heard anything like them. And coming out of guys I’d known a long time, tough guys, valiant guys, guys with balls who had gone on the line for me. I heard some of them call for their mothers. There was screaming, and then whimpering and then screaming again. And curses! My God, curses to raise the friggin’ dead. The most unholy of curses. Everything dead and unholy and illegitimate, raised from wherever, were brought against the Germans and that little SS bastard. He was castrated and ripped and damned and denounced to the fires of hell. You haven’t heard profanity and terror and utter and absolute hatred all in one voice at the same time. The volume was turned way up. It filled the tank. It filled that makeshift and permanent vault. And our useless and agonized banging barehanded against the hull of the tank. Knuckles and fists and back-handers against the steel. And the outside noise drowning it all out.”
I was still reeling, shaking my head, feeling the same glacier-like ice in my veins. And the heat of hatred coexisted with that ice. I was a mass of contradictions. Parkie kept squeezing my knee. The pickerel kept nosing the bags, hung up in their own world of silence. Silence extended itself to the whole of Earth. The quiet out there, the final and eventual quiet out there, after the war, was all around us.
“Suddenly,” he continued, “there was nothing. The sand stopped its brushing and grating against the steel of the tank, then the diesel noise grew louder, as if it was coming right through us. And powerful thrusts came banging at the tank. I didn’t know what it was. And then we were being shoved and shaken, the whole structure. And I heard curses from outside and a lot of German on the air, and we seemed to be moving away from our hole in the ground. Whatever it was was pushing at us. And then it went away and we heard the same banging and grinding and grunting of the engine nearby. Then the blue and white light again as a torch burned around us and the tank heated up, and lots of screaming, but all of it German. And there were more engine noises and more banging and smashing of big bodies of steel. Finally, the turret was opened and we were hauled out and canteens shoved in our faces and the other tanks were being opened up and guys scrambling out, some of them still crying and screaming and cursing everything around them.”
He reached for the last bottle in one of the bags. The bag began to drift slowly away in wavy pieces. The pickerel had gone. The bottle cap snapped off in his hand. I thought of the tank’s turret top being snapped open, the rush of clean air filling his lungs, a new light in his eyes.
“Then I saw him,” Parkie said. “The minute I saw him I knew who he was. General Rommel. He was looking at us. He looked me right in the eye, straight and true and bone-steady and no shit at all in it. I didn’t think he was breathing; he was so still. But I read him right off the bat. The whole being of that man was right in his eyes. He shook his head and uttered a cry I can’t repeat. Then he took a pistol from another guy, maybe his driver, a skinny, itchy little guy, and just shot that miserable SS son of a bitch right between the eyes as he stood in front of him. Shot him like he was the high executioner himself; no deliberation, no second thought, no pause in his movement. Bang! One shot heard round the world if you really think about it. He screamed something in German as if tossed at the whole German army itself, each and every man of it, perhaps rising to whatever god he might have believed in because it was so loud, so unearthly, and then he just walked off toward a personnel carrier, not looking at us anymore or the SS guy on the ground, a nice-sized hole in his forehead.”
He drained off the last bottle, mouthing the taste of it for a while, wetting his lips a few times, remembering, I thought, the dry sands, the heat, the embarrassed German general walking away on the desert, the ultimate graveyard for so many men, for so many dreams.
“They gave us water and food, the Germans did. One of them brought up one of our own jeeps. It was beat to hell, but it was working. One German major, keeping his head down, his eyes on the sand, not looking at us, pointed off across the sand. We started out, the sixteen of us, some walking, some riding, some still crying or whimpering. Some still cursing. The next day we met some Brits. They brought us to their headquarters company. We were returned to our outfit. Some guys, of course, didn’t get to go back on line, but were sent home as head cases. Can’t blame them for that. I kept thinking about General Rommel, kept seeing his eyes in my mind. I can see them now, how they looked on his face, the shame that was in them. It was absolute, that shame, and he knew we knew. It was something he couldn’t talk about, I bet. If he could have talked to us, we might have been taken to one of their prison camps. But he knew he couldn’t do that to us. Make amends is what he had to do. He had to give us another chance. Just like we gave Ellen Kirby another chance at drowning.”
In his short flight he had circled all the way back to the Kirby circumstance and all that played with it.
Francis Dever Parkinson, tanker sergeant, survivor of Tobruk and other places in the northern horrors of Africa, who walked away from death in the sand on more than one occasion, who might be called Rommel’s last known foe, who rolled over three cars on U.S. Route 1 and waged six major and distinct bouts with John Barleycorn thereafter in his time, who got to know the insidious trek of cancer in his slight frame, whom I loved more than any comrade that had shared a hole with me, who hurt practically every day of his life after his return from Africa, hung on for twenty-five more torturous and tumultuous and mind-driven years, knowing ever Egypt’s two dark eyes.
I have no friends but the words talk to me. They don’t say what I read, they say something else.
When I was young I read what I heard. I was diagnosed as being dyslexic but I ignored everyone and concentrated on listening to the words. I hid in that diagnosis for many years.
Sometimes the words make me smile, sometimes they make me cry but most of all they make me curious.
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