He had the puzzle but not all of the pieces.
December 1, 2013
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Ambrose Lincoln and Ascher Bitterman left together in the early morning hours while a white dusting of fresh snow lay on the streets of Krakau. Dunaway Walker was dead to the world. A hard day of driving through the winds and ice of Poland had drained him. Celia was torn between the emotions of love, hate, and revenge, and she had tossed and turned for most of the night, no doubt fighting the ravaged dreams of a restless sleep. Death was never far from her mind.
She knew whom she wanted to kill.
She knew who wanted to kill her.
For someone, the end time was coming.
There were days, she had told Lincoln, when she no longer cared.
Face to face at last.
No time to think.
Get it over.
Celia no longer dreaded the day.
None of them would live forever anyway.
“Where are you going now?” Lincoln asked the art professor as they slipped out the back door and into streets that had not yet been disturbed by anyone’s footprints.
“There are places in this city where you can turn a corner and be lost for a long time,” Bitterman said. “I’m going to one of them.”
“What if the Germans find you?”
“They aren’t looking anymore.” Bitterman smiled as best he could and shrugged as though the sins of yesterday were no longer important to him. “Hitler is no longer looking to build a super race of people,” he said. “His army is in shambles. His hated Gestapo is paranoid. They are running from ghosts, and the ghosts have the faces of the Jews. And Hitler only wants to get out of this war alive.”
“What are his chances?”
Bitterman’s laugh was filled with melancholy. “As I told you, he only has one chance,” he said. “He must find the painting. He must make it through the door where your Christ walked.”
“You said the painting is a myth.”
“That’s what I believe,” Bitterman said. “That’s not what I want to believe. I hope I am wrong.”
“For Hitler’s sake?”
“For my sake.”
“Are you trying to escape, too?” Lincoln asked.
“Look at me.”
“I may be human. I no longer look human. Those who see me coming their way cross over to the other side of the street.” Bitterman sighed with resignation. “A prostitute won’t even take my money,” he said. W”ouldn’t you want to leave this behind?”
“You still have a brilliant mind,” Lincoln said.
“Perhaps,” Bitterman said, “but it really does not make much difference in this fragile little world of ours. No one listens to ideas from a man who looks as I do.” His shrug was one of apology. “To me, as I said, the distortions of my appearance are more like a personal badge of honor. I survived forays into the pits of a mad man’s hell to earn them. But I’m not a fool. I also know that those who are condemned by the mirror are also condemned by mankind.”
Lincoln stood for a moment watching as the wind-blown snow collected on the street and against the curb. He frowned and jammed both fists into the pockets of his jacket.
“There’s something you’re not yet telling me,” Lincoln said. There was no accusation in his voice, merely a simple statement.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Bitterman said.
“That you would know.”
Lincoln shrugged slightly and turned his back to the wind. Snowflakes were melting on his collar.
“You have a puzzle, and I’m not sure all of the pieces fit,” Lincoln said. “Maybe they are not supposed to fit. I just want to make sure that I’m not missing any of them before I venture into places where I’m not wanted.”
“There may be many more pieces missing,” Bitterman said. “But I have only one. A name. Oren Gertner.”
“Remember the name.”
“He is the last man said to have access to the Night Side of Dark,” Bitterman said. “He claimed to have it in his possession, but none of the scholars were ever allowed to see the painting. He was fearful that someone would steal it from him. Kill him if necessary. But no one would kill him if he and he alone knew where he had hidden the painting away.”
“Does he still have it?”
“Did he sell it?”
“Oren Gertner died at Sachsenhausen.”
“Maybe it’s just a rumor.”
“I saw him marched toward the ditches where prisoners were lined up on the final days of their lives and shot.”
“Maybe he escaped.”
“No one escaped the ditches,” Bitterman said. “I was with those who covered up the dead in the ditches. If anyone had run away, we would have heard the dogs and the guns in the woods. We buried them all in silence.”
“Did Gertner mention the painting to you?”
“He didn’t talk about it.”
“Did you ask him?”
“He only smiled when I did.” Bitterman sighed. “My interest was strictly academic. I studied art. I worship art. It is obvious that a man who possesses the most valuable painting in the world has a reason to smile.”
“Where was Gertner’s home?”
Lincoln rubbed his hands together to warm them. “Why didn’t you tell me about Gertner earlier?” he asked.
“I was afraid.”
“That you would find the painting, and the Americans would destroy it.” Ascher Bitterman paused on the street corner and looked up into the night sky, waiting while snowflakes fell gently on a face tortured and burned with tattoos and scalpels. “You asked me where I’m going?” he said. “I am going to Berlin. Wherever Hitler is, I will be there also. Wherever he goes, I will go. And if he walks from this world to another through that door, I will be right behind him. I will return. He will not.”
“Bitterman,” Lincoln said.
“You’re as mad as he is,” Lincoln said.
“I have a right to be,” he said. The professor removed a folded piece of paper from his leather satchel, placed it in Lincoln’s coat pocket, then turned the corner and faded into the darkness.
Lincoln watched after him until he could no longer hear the professor’s footsteps.
The night was quiet.
So was the eye of a storm.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.