Most of his life had been an illusion.
October 27, 2013
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Ambrose Lincoln brushed the snow off his jacket as he climbed the stairs to the second floor of an old walkup hotel on the wrong side of Pulawy. He paused and listened to an uneasy silence, waiting to determine if there was any tell tale signs that someone might have trailed him across the town. All he heard was the quiet of the night.
The corner clock in the lobby said it was twelve minutes past two o’clock. The streets outside were as empty as his past and almost as cold. Lincoln had hidden in the frayed shadows behind an apothecary shop until the German patrol had goose-stepped it way back toward the railroad tracks. In the distance, military ambulances were still hauling the living and the dead, the dead and dying, back to village. The morgue would have more to handle on this night than the hospital.
Janika Eigner had handed him a metal key to room two-eighteen, and sketched a map to the hotel in the dirt. An old wooden sign out front had once signaled the name of the hotel. War had taken the sign. War had taken most of the hotel. It was a home for the weary and the wayward. Ambrose Lincoln would feel right at home.
Eigner’s instructions were simple and direct.
He was not a complicated man.
Wait until dark.
Don’t show your face until the last soul has disappeared from the street.
Don’t worry about the appearance of the hotel.
It looks abandoned.
No one will ask him for your name.
No one will ask to see your papers.
The room rent has already been paid.
If anyone is in the lobby, there has been a breach in secrecy.
Someone will die.
Ambrose Lincoln had the option of shooting first.
God, as always, was on the side of the man who did not hesitate.
And a woman could be just as deadly.
“Do you have any concerns about shooting a woman? Eigner had asked while they watched the sun drop down the far side of the earth.
“I’d rather not.”
Lincoln shrugged. “I have,” he said.
“You may have to again.”
Lincoln nodded. He was in a business where lives were traded and often pawned for a handful of coins, sometimes for a chance to breathe another day, and, on occasion, because he had been given a name to erase. He hardly ever knew why before he pulled the trigger. He always learned why before he took the next train out of town. Lincoln did not always like what he did. He no longer had any options. Perhaps long ago he had owned his own soul. Those days were lost in a fog, and the road back had been washed away.
Pulawy had been shuttered down and locked. No light slipped from any of the homes or small apartments tucked away above the stores. The windows were dark, the windowsills packed with snow and ice. None had been opened for a long time.
It was a night of prayer. Those who had watched the train leave town knew there would be retribution.
Death would come first.
That’s what the little man had told him.
“Who will redeem the lost souls?” Lincoln asked.
Eigner shrugged, and the flicker of a faint smile creased a face that was growing darker with unshorn whiskers. “My job is to condemn them,” he said. “I don’t deal in redemption.”
“We fight the little wars,” the little man said. “What we do, no one knows. When we die, no one will remember.”
“The Germans must be suspicious of you by now,” Lincoln said.
Eigner’s laugh was full of irony.
“When there is no one left standing in the town,” Eigner said, “then they will blame me. But not now. Not tonight. I am too small for them to worry about. I shine their shoes. I wash their socks and underwear. I sweep the suet from their chimneys and mop their floors. I am inconsequential.”
The little man laughed again.
But it was softer this time.
“And you hear things,” Lincoln said. “You know what will happen long before it happens.”
The little man shrugged. “After a while, they forget I am in the room,” he said.
Lincoln turned at the edge of the forest and gazed toward town. It was little more than a faint and broken outline in a ragged shaft of moonlight leaking from a crack in the clouds.
The moon was doing its best to break free.
The moon was still trapped.
Lincoln looked up. He and the moon were a lot alike.
A cloud turned the night dark again.
Even the outline of Pulawy faded to black.
Lincoln looked down at Eigner. “Will I see you again?” he asked.
“If so, I have no idea where I’m going.”
“You will by the time you get there,” Eigner said.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
Eigner shook his head. “I was only paid to keep you alive,” he said. “The less I know, the longer I remain among the living.”
It made sense. It was the logic of war.
His eyes found Celia standing back in the woodlands, barely visible beyond a curtain of wild grape vines cascading over the tree limbs. She was already in the midst of leaving, her head down, a woven basket of wet clothes under her arm.
“What about the girl?” Lincoln asked.
“She is with me.”
“Will she be all right?”
“She is strong,” Eigner said. “She understands how fragile life can be. She has been touched by death before. She survived when the Gestapo executed her mother and father, then put a torch to her home. She survived when the Gestapo robbed her of her innocence and her childhood. She will survive again.”
“Someone so young should not have known so much pain.”
“She hasn’t suffered any more than anyone else,” Eigner said. He picked up a small stone and threw it underhand toward Pulawy. “You must be leaving now.”
“Thank you,” Lincoln said.
“You saved my life.”
The little man laughed again.
I did not want to give the money back,” he said.
Lincoln had walked eleven steps through the snow and across the clearing before looking back over his shoulder.
It was as though the little man had never been standing there at all.
And the blonde?
She could have been an illusion.
Most of his life was.
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.