The stakes of the game had just been raised.

More chapters from Night Side of Dark

A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark

Episode 61

The SS officer, with his pinched, grizzled face and washed-out gray mustache, shoved Caples Gusarov into a small, bare office that was possibly three stories and sixty-six stair steps from the street below. A blast of hot air struck them in the face. It could have come from a furnace that used the wind for bellows. The Russian felt his eyes begin to burn. The room was suffocating from cigarette smoke that had been trapped inside with no place to go. Not even the stale smoke rising toward a black-streaked ceiling wanted to go out into the snows of Dalldorf.

Gusarov coughed.

His knees weakened.

His shoulders sagged.

He was cursing softly beneath his breath.

He was cursing himself.

In the backside of his mind, Caples Gusarov could make out the grim face of mortality staring at him. Only a thin of veil of darkness separated them. Mortality smiled. It was a ruthless smile.

The game was no longer a game.

The game no longer had anything to do about life.

Man made his own rules.

The rules kept changing.

The game might well be over.

Gusarov had never feared dying. He wasn’t afraid now. He was just tired of it all – the days on the road, the nights in the cold, standing in bombed out buildings and waiting, always waiting, finding those who did not want to be found, ending the lives of those who were not yet weary of life, wondering which bullet had been built for him and curious about the day that he and the bullet would finally cross paths, and was the bullet already on the way?

Maybe it was time he quit this damnable job and go home.

Maybe he should just turn around and walk out the door.

He wondered what sound a bullet made when a man’s skull was shattered. He had heard it on the other side of a gun but figured the sound would be much louder if the bullet was rattling around inside the skull, and the skull was his own.

The blindfold was ripped away from his eyes, and, in the dim light of a kerosene lantern glowing in the corner of the room, he was staring into the solemn but boyish face of a man who looked as if he had removed himself from war and put the conflict somewhere in a nefarious past. The sounds of battle no longer reached nor annoyed him. He seemed at peace with himself, but his darting eyes told Caples Gusarov that he had not yet run far enough.

He might well be in his late thirties, perhaps a little older. It was difficult to tell. His brown hair was neatly groomed, and his eyes were as cold as the snow that lay on the roof of the building. They were narrow, little more than slits, and looked as though they might be hiding something, as if they had already hidden more than a normal man in a normal world should see.

The eyes reminded Gusarov of those found on the Siberian pit viper.

Same slant.

Same color.

Perhaps not as deadly as they appeared.

But deadly enough.

The man was dressed in a Navy blue suit, wrinkled white shirt, and a narrow tie, loosely fastened around his neck, roughly the same color as his suit.

He leaned forward.

“I understand you are a businessman, Mister Gusarov,” he said.

The Russian shrugged.

“I am a seller of things,” the Russian said.

“What do you sell?”

Gusarov smiled.

“What are you buying?” he asked.

He waited for the German to smile.

It would be a long wait.

“I am in the market for a painting,” the German said.

“Any particular painting?”

“An old painting,” the German said.

“Old paintings are expensive.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“What kind of painting do you want to buy?” Gusarov asked.

“It is one that has a connection to a certain religious event.”

“Are you a religious man?”

“No.”

“Then why do you want to buy it?”

“I am no longer a man with a country.”

“And you think the painting is your passage to another world,” Gusarov said.

“You know the painting well.”

“Night Side of Dark.”

“That is the name I’ve been told.”

Gusarov thought he saw a faint smile flicker on the German’s face.

He may have been wrong.

“I don’t have the painting,” Gusarov said.

“But you will get it.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“The Fuhrer believes you will get it.”

“What if he is wrong?”

The German opened his briefcase and removed a handful of documents. He methodically placed them one by one on top of the desk. The last was a photograph of Caples Gusarov. He was much younger in the black and white image.

“Your reputation says otherwise,” the German said.

“I did not know I had a reputation in Germany.”

“We have known about you for a long time.” The words were not meant to flatter the Russian, only condemn him.

He was not a stranger in their midst.

If the German did not need him, the German would eliminate him.

It was the way wars were fought.

An eye for an eye.

A tooth for a tooth.

Nothing personal.

“The Fuhrer has agreed to pay me well,” Gusarov said.

“A million dollars, I am told.”

Gusarov shrugged. “More or less.”

“I will pay you two million,” the German said.

“The Fuhrer would have me killed.”

“The Fuhrer doesn’t know where you are,” the German said. “I do.”

Gusarov nodded.

He was in position to negotiate.

Why try?

“How will the two million be paid?” he asked.

“In Russian currency.”

“When?”

“When I have my hands on the painting.”

“Where will I deliver it?” Gusarov asked.

The German shoved a note card across the desk. “You will find me at this address,” he said. “It’s a warehouse. It’s abandoned. No one will be there but us.”

Gusarov grinned a crooked grin.

“What if I decide to escape through the painting myself?” he asked.

The German finally smiled. “We know you well,” he said. “You would not leave without the two million dollars.”

“Even to save my life?”

“What’s life without the two million dollars?”

Gusarov had no answer.

“I don’t even know your name,” he said.

“It’s not important.”

“It is to me.”

The German paused, and a dark shadow crossed his face.  “Aribert Heim,” he said.

Gusarov turned and walked out the door.

No one fired.

There was no sound.

His skull did not crack.

Nor explode.

But there was still a chance it might.

He had not recognized the German’s face. He had never seen it before.

Gusarov knew the name well.

Within the intelligence circles of Russia and behind the tortured walls of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, the German was known as Doctor Death. He could not afford to die.  Too many tortured souls were waiting for him.

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.

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