Settings
Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 58


  My father had not taken Jacob Steiner and Lee Hannaford directly to the Union Pines Motel. On the way, jammed in the pickup truck with the wipers knocking away sleet, he’d asked them if they wanted some lunch. Both men had said yes, and that was how they’d wound up walking into the Bright Star Cafe.

  “How about a booth in the back?” Dad asked Carrie French, and she guided them to one and left them with luncheon menu cards.

  Mr. Steiner took off his gloves and overcoat. He was wearing a tweed suit and a pale gray vest. He hung his overcoat and his hat on a rack. His hair was as white and thick as a bristle brush. As Mr. Steiner slid into the booth and Dad sat down, too, the younger man peeled off his jacket. He was wearing a blue-checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his muscular biceps. And on the right bicep…there it was.

  Dad said, “Oh my God.”

  “What is it?” Mr. Hannaford asked. “I’m not supposed to take my jacket off in here?”

  “No, it’s all right.” A sheen of sweat had broken out on my father’s forehead. Mr. Hannaford sat down beside Mr. Steiner. “I mean…that tattoo…”

  “You got a problem with it, friend?” The younger man’s slate-colored eyes had narrowed into dangerous slits.

  “Lee?” Mr. Steiner cautioned. “No, no.” It was like telling a bad dog to sit.

  “No problem,” Dad said. “It’s just that…” He was having trouble breathing, and the room wanted to spin. “I’ve seen your tattoo before.”

  The two men were silent. Mr. Steiner spoke first. “May I ask where, Mr. Mackenson?”

  “Before I tell you, I want to know where you’ve come from and why you’re here.” Dad pulled his gaze away from the faint outline of a skull with wings swept back from its temples.

  “I wouldn’t,” Mr. Hannaford warned Mr. Steiner. “We don’t know this guy.”

  “True. We don’t know anyone here, do we?” Mr. Steiner glanced around, and Dad saw his hawklike eyes take in the scene. A dozen or so people were having lunch and shooting the breeze. Carrie French was fending off the good-natured flirting of a couple of farmers. The television was tuned to a basketball game. “How can we trust you, Mr. Mackenson?”

  “What’s not to trust?” Something about this man—the way he carried himself, the way his eyes were darting this way and that, sizing things up—made Dad ask the next question. “Are you a policeman?”

  “By profession, no. But in a sense, yes.”

  “What profession are you in, then?”

  “I am…in the field of historical research,” Mr. Steiner answered.

  Carrie French came over on her long, pretty legs, her order pad ready. “Help you today?”

  “Got any griddle cakes?” Mr. Hannaford plucked a pack of Luckies out of his breast pocket.

  “Beg pardon?”

  “Griddle cakes! Do you have ’em here or not?”

  “I think,” Mr. Steiner said patiently as the younger man lit a cigarette, “that they’re called pancakes in this part of the country.”

  “We’re not servin’ breakfast now.” Carrie offered an uncertain smile. “Sorry.”

  “Just gimme a burger, then.” He spouted smoke through his pinched nostrils. “Jesus!”

  “Is the chicken noodle soup fresh?” Mr. Steiner asked, examining the menu card.

  “Canned, but it’s still good.”

  “I will not eat canned chicken noodle soup, my dear.” He gazed at her sternly over the rims of his glasses. “I, too, will have a hamburger. Very well done, if you please.” Pliss, he pronounced it.

  Dad ordered the beef stew and a cup of coffee. Carrie paused. “Ya’ll aren’t from around here, are you?” she asked the two strangers.

  “I’m from Indiana,” Mr. Hannaford said. “He’s from—”

  “Warsaw, Poland, originally. And I can speak for myself, thank you.”

  “Both of you sure are a long way from home,” Dad said when Carrie had gone.

  “I live in Chicago now,” Mr. Steiner explained.

  “Still a long way from Zephyr.” Dad’s eyes kept ticking back to the tattoo. It looked as if the younger man had tried to bleach it out of his skin. “Does that tattoo mean somethin’?”

  Lee Hannaford let smoke dribble from the corner of his mouth. “It means,” he said, “that I don’t like people askin’ me my business.”

  Dad nodded. The first smolderings of anger were reddening his cheeks. “Is that so?”

  “Yeah, it’s so.”

  “Gentlemen, please,” Mr. Steiner said.

  “What would you say to this, hotshot?” Dad propped his elbows on the table and leaned his face closer to the younger man’s. “What would you say if I told you that ten months ago I saw a tattoo just like yours on the arm of a dead man?”

  Mr. Hannaford didn’t respond. His face was emotionless’, his eyes cold. He drew cigarette smoke in and blew it out. “Did he have blond hair?” he asked. “Kinda the same color as mine?”

  “Yes.”

  “About the same build, too?”

  “I think so, yes.”

  “Uh-huh.” Mr. Hannaford leaned his chiseled face toward my father’s. When he spoke, the words left smoke trails. “I’d say you saw my brother.”

  “…and these cages must be kept scrupulously clean,” Dr. Lezander was saying as he pointed them out. They were empty right now. “As well as the floor. If you come in three times a week, I expect the floor to be scrubbed three times a week. You’ll be expected to water and feed all the animals in the kennel, as well as exercise them.” I followed along behind him as he showed me from room to room in the basement. Every once in a while I would glance up and see an air vent overhead. “I order my hay in bales. You’d be expected to help unload the truck, cut the baling wire, and spread out hay for the horse stalls. I can attest that cutting baling wire is not an easy endeavor. It’s tough enough to string a piano with. Plus your job will include whatever errands I need you to run.” He turned to face me. “Twenty dollars a week for three afternoons, say from four until six. Does that sound fair?”

  “Gosh.” I couldn’t believe this. Dr. Lezander was offering me a fortune.

  “If you come in on Saturdays, I’ll pay you an extra five dollars for…say, two until four.” He smiled, again with just his mouth. He drank his coffee and set the collie cup down atop an empty wire-mesh cage. “Cory?” he said softly. “I do have two requests before I give you this job.”

  I waited to hear them.

  “One: that your parents don’t know how much I’m paying you. I think they should believe I’m paying you perhaps ten dollars a week. The reason I say this is that…well, I know your father’s working at the gas station now. I saw him the last time I pulled in. I know your mother’s struggling in her baking business. Wouldn’t it be better for you if they didn’t know how much money you were coming home with?”

  “You think I ought to keep such a thing from them?” I asked, bewildered.

  “It would be your decision, of course. But I believe both your mother and father might be…anxious to share your good fortune, if they were to know. And there are so many things a boy could buy with twenty-five dollars a week. The only problem is, you’d have to be discreet about those purchases. You couldn’t spend it all in one place. I might even have to drive you to Union Town or Birmingham to spend some of that money. But couldn’t you think of a few things you might like to have that your parents can’t buy you?”

  I thought. And then I answered: “No sir, I can’t.”

  He laughed, as if this tickled him. “You will, though. With all that money in your pocket, you will.”

  I didn’t answer. I didn’t like what Dr. Lezander thought I would keep from my mother and father.

  “Secondly.” He folded his arms across his chest, and I saw his tongue probe the inside of his cheek. “There is the matter of Miss Sonia Glass.”

  “Sir?” My heart, which had settled down some, now speeded up again.

  “Miss Sonia Glass,” h
e repeated. “She brought her parrot to me. It died of a brain fever. Right here.” He touched the wire-mesh cage. “Poor, poor creature. Now, it happens that Veronica and Miss Glass are in the same Sunday school class. Miss Glass, it seems, was terribly upset and puzzled by questions you asked her, Cory. She said you were very curious about a particular song, and why her parrot had…reacted strangely to that song.” He smiled thinly. “Miss Glass told Veronica she thought you knew a secret, and might either Veronica or I know what it was? And there was some odd little thing as well, about you being in the possession of a green feather from Miss Katharina Glass’s dead parrot. Miss Sonia said she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw it.” He began working the knuckles of his right hand as he stared at the floor. “Are these things true, Cory?”

  I swallowed hard. If I said they weren’t, he’d know I was lying anyway. “Yes sir.”

  He closed his eyes. A pained expression stole over his face, there and then gone. “And where did you find that green feather, Cory?”

  “I…found it…” Here was the moment of truth. I sensed something in that room coiled up like a snake and ready to strike. Though the overhead light was bright and harsh, the tile-floored room seemed to seethe with shadows. Dr. Lezander, I suddenly realized, had positioned himself between me and the stairs. He waited, his eyes closed. If I made a run for it, Mrs. Lezander would snare me even if I got past the doctor. Again, the choice was stolen from me. “I found it at Saxon’s Lake,” I said, braving the fates. “At the edge of the woods. Before the sun, when that car went down with a dead man handcuffed to the wheel.”

  With his eyes closed, Dr. Lezander smiled. It was a terrible sight. The flesh on his face looked tight and damp, his bald head shining under the light. Then he began to laugh: a slow leak of a laugh, bubbling from his silver-toothed mouth. His eyes opened, and they speared me. For a few seconds he had two faces: the lower one wore a silver-glinting smile; the upper one was pure fury. “Well, well,” he said, and he shook his head as if he’d just heard the most amazing joke. “What are we going to do about this?”

  “Have you ever seen this man before, Mr. Mackenson?”

  Mr. Steiner had removed his wallet. He had taken a laminated card from it, and now he slid the card before my father as they sat at the back booth in the Bright Star Cafe.

  It was a grainy black and white photograph. It showed a man wearing a white knee-length coat, waving and smiling to someone off the frame. He had dark hair that swept back like a skullcap, and he had a square jaw and a cleft in his chin. Behind him was the hood of a gleaming car that looked like an antique, like from the thirties or forties. Dad studied the face for a moment; he paid close attention to the eyes and the white scar of a smile. For all his studying, however, it remained the face of a stranger.

  “No,” he said as he slid the picture back across the wood. “Never.”

  “He’ll probably look different now.” Mr. Steiner studied the picture, too, as if looking into the face of an old enemy. “He might have had some plastic surgery. The easiest way to change appearance is to grow a beard and shave your head. That way even your own mother wouldn’t recognize you.” Mudder, he’d said.

  “I don’t know that face. Sorry. Who is he?”

  “His name is Gunther Down in the Dark.”

  “What?” Dad almost chewed on his heart.

  “Gunther Down in the Dark,” Mr. Steiner repeated. He spelled the last name, and then he pronounced it again: “Dahninaderke.”

  Dad sat back in the booth, his mouth open. He gripped the table’s edge to keep from being spun off the entire world. “My God,” he whispered. “My God. ‘Come with me… Dahninaderke.’”

  “Excuse me?” Mr. Steiner asked.

  “Who is he?” Dad’s voice was thick.

  Lee Hannaford answered. “He’s the man who killed Jeff, if my brother’s body is lyin’ at the bottom of that damned lake.” Dad had told them the story of that morning last March. Mr. Hannaford looked mean enough to snap the head off a cobra. He hadn’t eaten much of his hamburger, but he’d almost swallowed three Luckies. “My brother—my stupid-assed brother—must’ve been blackmailin’ him, by what we can figure out. Jeff left a diary hidden in his apartment, back in Fort Wayne. It was in code, written in German. I found the diary in May, when I quit my job in California and came lookin’ for him. It took us until a couple of weeks ago to figure the code out.”

  “It was based on Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung,” Mr. Steiner said. “Very, very intricate.”

  “Yeah, he always was nuts about that code shit.” Mr. Hannaford stabbed out another cigarette butt in his ketchupy plate. “Even as a kid. He was always doin’ secret writin’ and shit. So we pieced it together from the diary. He was blackmailin’ Gunther Dahninaderke, first five hundred dollars a month, then eight hundred, then a thousand. It was down in the book that Dahninaderke lived in Zephyr, Alabama. Under a false name, I mean. Jeff and those scumbags helped him come up with a new identity, after he got in touch with ’em. But Jeff must’ve decided he wanted a payoff for his trouble. In the diary, he said he was gonna make a big score, get his stuff out of the apartment and move to Florida. He said he was drivin’ down to Zephyr from Fort Wayne on the thirteenth of March. And that was the last entry.” He shook his head. “My brother was fuckin’ crazy to get involved in this. Well, I was crazy for gettin’ involved in it, too.”

  “Involved in what?” Dad asked. “I don’t understand.”

  “Do you know the term ‘neo-Nazi’?” Mr. Steiner asked.

  “I know what a Nazi is, if that’s what you’re askin’?”

  “Neo-Nazi. A new Nazi. Lee and his brother were members of an American Nazi organization that operated in Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. The symbol of that organization is the tattoo on Lee’s arm. Lee and Jeff were initiated at the same time, but Lee left the group after a year and went to California.”

  “Damn straight.” A match flared, and a Lucky burned. “I wanted to get as far away from those bastards as I could. They kill people who decide Hitler didn’t shit roses.”

  “But your brother stayed with ’em?”

  “Hell, yes. He even got to be some kind of storm-trooper leader or somethin’. Jesus, can you believe it? We were all-Americans on our high school football team!”

  “I still don’t know who this Gunther Dahninaderke fella is,” Dad said.

  Mr. Steiner laced his fingers together atop the table. “This is where I come in. Lee took the diary to be deciphered by the Department of Languages at Indiana University. A friend of mine there teaches German. When he got as far as deciphering Dahninaderke’s name from that code, he sent the diary directly to me at Northwestern in Chicago. I took over the project from there in September. Perhaps I should explain that I am the director of the languages department. I am also a professor of history. And last but not least, I am a hunter of Nazi war criminals.”

  “Say again?” Dad asked.

  “Nazi war criminals,” Mr. Steiner repeated. “I have helped track down three of them in the last seven years.

  Bittrich in Madrid, Savelshagen in Albany, New York, and Geist in Allentown, Pennsylvania. When I saw the name Dahninaderke, I knew I was getting closer to the fourth.”

  “A war criminal? What did he do?”

  “Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke was the directing physician at Esterwegen concentration camp in Holland. He and his wife Kara determined who was fit to work and who was ready to be gassed.” Mr. Steiner flashed a quick and chilling smile. “It was they, you see, who decided on a sunny morning that I was still fit to live but my wife was not.”

  “I’m sorry,” Dad said.

  “That’s all right. I knocked his front tooth out and spent a year at hard labor. But it made me hard, and it kept me alive.”

  “You…knocked his front tooth…”

  “Right out of his head. Oh, those two were quite a pair.” Mr. Steiner’s face crinkled with the memory of pain. “We called his wife the Birdlady, b
ecause she had a set of twelve birds made from clay mixed with the ash of human bones. And Dr. Dahninaderke, who was originally a veterinarian from Rotterdam, had a very intriguing habit.”

  Dad couldn’t speak. He forced it out with an effort. “What was it?”

  “As the prisoners passed him on their way to the gas chamber, he made up names for them.” Mr. Steiner’s eyes were hooded, lost in visions of a horrible past. “Comical names, they were. I’ll always remember what he called my Veronica, my beautiful Veronica with the long golden hair. He called her ‘Sunbeam.’ He said, ‘Crawl right in, Sunbeam! Crawl right in!’ And she was so sick she had to crawl through her own…” Tears welled up behind his glasses. He took them quickly off with the manner of a man who rigidly controlled his emotions. “Forgive me,” he said. “Sometimes I forget myself.”

  “You okay?” Lee Hannaford asked my father. “You look awful white.”

  “Let me…let me see that picture again.”

  Mr. Steiner slid it in front of him.

  Dad took a long breath. “Oh no,” he said. “Oh please, no.”

  Mr. Steiner had heard it in Dad’s voice: “You know him now.”

  “I do. I know where he lives. It’s not far from here. Not very far at all. But…he’s so nice.”

  “I know Dr. Dahninaderke’s true nature,” Mr. Steiner said. “And the true nature of his wife. You saw it when you looked at the face of Jeff Hannaford. Dr. Dahninaderke and Kara probably tortured him to find out who else knew where he was, or maybe they got the information about the diary out of him, and they beat him to death when he wouldn’t tell them where it was or who else knew about it. When you looked at the face of Jeff Hannaford, you saw the twisted soul of Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke. I pray to God you don’t have to look upon such a sight again.”

  Dad stood up and fumbled for his wallet, but Mr. Steiner put money on the table. “I’ll take you to him,” Dad said, and he started for the door.