They could not extract a secret no one knew he had.
January 12, 2014
A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark
Ambrose Lincoln never had to leave his chair. Through the window and past the glaze of frost, he could see the ragged array of German patrols, their heads bowed against the winter wind, trudging without purpose down the little street, gray uniforms outlined against the gray walls of decrepit buildings huddled beneath the gray, bulbous clouds of a gray sky.
An enemy without a face.
A foe without a name.
Stumbling through the snow, leaving footprints that would be erased before the day became night, and the night became another day, no different from the last.
Lincoln could tell by their weary and sagging shoulders that the troops were simply doing as they had been ordered and no doubt tired of following orders given by those who remained warm in the shelter of their offices while the foot soldiers had been cast to the mercy of the season.
The were tired of fighting.
Tired of killing.
Tired of dying.
Tired of the cold.
And the war and the cold were as one and without end.
So this, Lincoln thought, was what the existence of mankind was all about.
It was a game of life.
And if the game was played fairly, and surely it was, and why should he think otherwise, why did death always win?
Kreisler stirred the embers in the fireplace and broke the silence. “Did Ascher tell you the history of the painting?” he asked.
“He told us what he thought we needed to know,” Lincoln said. “He made sure we had an understanding of the painting’s value, if it really exists, and why Hitler would want it, provided, of course, the Fuhrer does have a secret plan to leave Germany undetected.”
“It’s common knowledge that he has one,” Kreisler said. “But no one knows what it is. If Berlin falls, Hitler will not be among the bombed out buildings when the Americans or the Russians march into its streets. He will escape one way or the other, and it is his intention to escape for good.”
“Through the door in the painting.”
“If he can find the painting.” Kreisler laughed softly. “And only one person still knows where it is.”
“Who would that be?” Lincoln asked.
“I won’t tell the Germans,” Kreisler said, “and they will never ask me because I am an old man and not long for this world. But I may tell you if, of course, I am fully convinced that you will keep the painting safe and away from the Fuhrer.”
“I will destroy it first.”
“It’s priceless.” Kreisler squinted and studied Lincoln’s face, searching for the truth. “The painting could make you a very wealthy man,” he said. He shrugged. “For that matter, the Fuhrer could make you a very wealthy man.”
“What would a man with no past and very little future spend it on?”
“You are a strange man, Ambrose Lincoln,” the old man said.
“I am a simple man with a job to do, that’s all, ” Lincoln told him. “I have no map to follow and can only take one step at a time. My last step has led me to you. You can show me the next one, and I’ll be gone.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“It hardly ever is.”
Shiman Kreisler leaned back and watched the fire dying again among the logs. “First, let me fill in any details that Ascher might have overlooked,” Kreisler said. “He and I both knew Orren Gertner well. I knew him as one of Europe’s most astute and influential art dealers. Ascher met him under the most unfortunate of circumstances in Prison. Orren swore to us both, on different occasions, of course, that he had possession of the most valuable relic in the history of Christianity. The location where he kept it remained a mystery. Most believe that when Orren died, the secret died with him.”
“What do you believe?” Lincoln asked.
“I believe that Orren was convinced of the painting’s validity,” Kreisler said. “He spoke of it in the most reverent of tones. It offered a way, he said, and perhaps the only way to follow the footsteps of Jesus. He told us he would walk through the gate some day when he was ready. I doubt if he was ready when the Germans executed him.”
“Did they know he had the Night Side of Dark?” Lincoln asked.
“No. If they did, he would not have been killed until he told them where it was hidden.”
“He might have never told them.”
“He would have told.” Kreisler was adamant. “The Germans have a way of extracting both secrets and the truth.”
Kreisler shrugged. “Ascher was a defiant man. He was a stubborn man. But he was not a strong man. If Ascher had known where the painting might be located, he would have told them so they would not hurt him anymore. He was not a keeper of secrets. He simply did not know. The Germans kept hurting him anyway. They were not trying to extract a secret they did not know he had. The doctors were studying man and his reaction to pain. No man should ever be asked to endure the pain that Ascher suffered. But Ascher had the last laugh on them all. He simply refused to die.”
The fire was quickly losing its heat. The flames sputtered.
Shiman Kreisler, with great effort, stood and limped across the room to pick up another log. The pile of kindling was almost gone.
He turned to the window and waited for a moment in silence.
“They’re out there,” he said at last.
“Who?” asked Celia.
“The Germans,” Kreisler said. “They prowl the streets like a pack of wolves. You can hear them howling when the night grows late.”
“You’re Jewish, are you not?” Lincoln asked.
Kreisler nodded. “I am Jewish,” he said.
“Why have they allowed you to live here?” Lincoln rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. “Why have they allowed you to live at all?”
“They know I am dying,” Kreisler said, his voice a whisper. “And they know I have a box of dynamite hidden in the house. If the soldiers come in to get me, they will all die with me.”
Kreisler laughed. It was a sardonic laugh.
“I am ready to go,” he said. “They want to stay for a while longer. So we have our little truce. I am left alone. They prowl the streets and howl like wolves.”
All Lincoln heard outside was the wind.
He knew it was a lie.
The sound of the wind could hide a lot of sins.
But not all of his.
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.