Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Gun Called Justice
It was a terrible disappointment to find that the old railroad depot-- and the town itself-- was still beautiful.
The orderly brick houses and buildings-- with the exception of the ruined castle high above the town-- were as I remembered them, quaint as ever. The rough landscape was lush and green and the people moved about in an attitude of utter normality.
I had not returned to the country of my birth in the thirteen years since the end of the war, since a joint Canadian and American force liberated our camp, and I expected to see... I am not sure what I expected to see. A wasteland, perhaps. Destruction. Scars, at the very least, some kind of imprint on the land and its inhabitants marking the war they'd lost and the crimes they'd committed. One ruined castle up on the hill was not enough.
Little wonder that SS-Standartenfuher Karl Reinhardt felt safe in returning to his ancestral home.
I spent four days watching him from afar, monitoring his activities as he prepared for a voyage by train south to Switzerland, and two more in town in the guise of a Polish national on travel.
Reinhardt lived under his own name, neither reviled nor exalted by the townspeople for crimes committed during the war.
He appeared little changed from the wartime photographs in his dossier. His face was a little more drawn and his frame a little more gaunt. The hairline had receded and he no longer wore a mustache of any kind but his features were unmistakable. Stone grey eyes, flattened nose, the thin lips, the bottom of which was bisected by an old knife wound.
On the morning of the voyage I followed him from his home to the railroad station. He was easy to shadow with his fine cream-colored suit and unconcerned gait.
He was booked on the first departure of the morning. The train, an old warrior that chugged and smoked even when sitting still, was not as full as it would be later in the day.
Travelers, mostly men in waistcoats, boarded the train in a leisurely fashion while the conductors bellowed at the shoeshine boys to stay out of the way.
Reinhardt entered the third car from the rear end of the train.
The conductor eyed me with suspicion but allowed me to board right behind the Standartenfuher after inspecting my ticket.
I approached Reinhardt before he could take his seat.
He looked at me out of the corners of his eyes and said nothing.
“You are Karl Reinhardt, yes?”
“That depends on who is asking,” he replied.
I nodded and allowed him to see the revolver in my hand.
“The next car is a sleeping car,” I said. “Let's go. We can talk there.”
Reinhardt did not resist. He moved with the air of a man who knew this day would come as I marched him to the sleeper car and backed him into an unoccupied berth.
The train lurched, the whistle blew, and we started to move.
“You know why I am here,” I said.
“Probably. The ghost of deeds past come to visit me.”
I holstered my revolver and stared him down. The dying screams of thousands echoed in the silence.
His insouciance cracked.
“What gives you the authority to be here?” he demanded. “What gives you the right to... accost me?”
It was an ugly sound, a broken sound, emitted by a creature in whom mirth had long ago been suppressed and killed.
I hit him in the gut, just below the solar-plexus.
Spittle flew from his mouth, followed by all the air from his lungs.
He bent over and dry-heaved and would have dropped to his knees if I'd let him.
I grabbed the front of his shirt and held him up against the wall.
I showed him the arrest warrant.
He looked at it and the little bit of air he'd managed to suck in left in a strangled gasp.
The text of the warrant was translated into five languages. I made sure to hold the paper so the Hebrew text could not be missed.
His bugged out and he started to hyper-ventilate.
“Juden,” he stammered.
“Israeli,” I growled. “Mossad.”
I pushed the warrant right into his face.
“This gives me the authority, Herr Reinhardt,” I snarled.
I balled the warrant up in my fist and punched him in the mouth.
This time I let him fall.
I knelt down beside him, bared my left forearm, and showed him the tattoo they gave me in the concentration camp.
“This gives me the right.”
I tossed him my handkerchief.
“Clean yourself up,” I said. “Then we'll go outside.”
Reinhardt's legs wobbled as I walked him through the cars to the observation deck on the rear of the caboose.
“My companion seems to be having trouble with motion sickness,” I explained to no one in particular.
The handful of passengers seated in the car craned their necks to gape at the ailing Reinhardt.
“I thought it wise to bring him out back, get him some fresh air.”
I caught the eye of a small boy on our way out. He was sitting in his mother's lap. The woman was making an obvious show of not seeing me but the boy's eyes locked onto mine. I nodded at him and bodied Reinhardt through the door and onto the deck.
We stood together and watched the countryside roll by. The cool rush of air revived him some.
“I have studied your people,” he said. “I know something of your beliefs.”
“Your Jewish law has a rather remarkable statute regarding forgiveness. If I'm not mistaken you are required by law to grant forgiveness to a man if he asks you for it.”
He offered me a cigarette. I declined.
“You are not mistaken,” I said. “If a man asks a Jew for forgiveness for wrongs done to him, and the asker is a penitent man, he must grant it. Are you truly penitent, Standartenfuhrer?”
“Would you believe me if I told you that I was?”
“You've given me no reason to believe you. I have six million reasons not to.”
He smiled and focused his eyes someplace far back in time.
“Surely you are not placing the blame for all six million on me.”
“No. One is enough for me to carry out what I've come here to do. Are you asking me for forgiveness, Herr Reinhardt?”
“I cannot grant your request.”
“Cannot or will not?”
“You disregard your own religion? Your own laws?”
“Laws change. It changed because of you.”
He thought this over and nodded his head.
“Then you are here to kill me.”
“I have not decided what I'm going to do with you yet.”
“You are a terrible liar, my boy.”
We stood quietly and watched as the scenery changed from bucolic vistas to scorched earth. Here were the scars of war I was so anxious to see. Burnt out houses and blackened land, abandoned and left to rot after whatever calamity befell the region.
“Your metamorphosis is beautiful. If you kill me now, while I am in your control, if you murder me, then you have become me. You are me.”
I drew my revolver.
He continued to smile, smug and at ease as he looked into the barrel of my gun.
“Yes,” he said. “I can see in your eyes how it is going to be. I will not leave this train alive. And I go with a smile in my heart because I know what it means.”
“What does it mean, Herr Reinhardt?”
“My boy, it means I've won.”
The man was not wrong. It was something I'd have to think about.
“Let me be the first to congratulate you on your victory, Herr Reinhardt.”
I emptied my revolver into his midsection.
Dark red blood spread over the front of his fine cream-colored suit as he fell back against the railing and slumped down to the floor.
I walked to the railing and stood over him as he died.
“And the last.”
When it was over I knelt and relieved him of his papers, his signet ring, and an engraved silver cigarette case.
I photographed the corpse with a miniature camera I carried for such occasions and then threw him over the railing.
Reinhardt's body hit the ground and rolled down the embankment as I reloaded my revolver. I smoked two of the Standartenfuher's silk-cut cigarettes and then re-entered the car.
More passengers were in there than before, drawn, no doubt, by the gunshots. Middle-aged men in their traveling clothes crowded around the door. They parted to let me through. Nobody in the car looked me in the face. Nobody but that young boy, still in his mother's lap, who looked at me with pity in his child's eyes.
Those eyes stayed with me through the train, until I stopped walking and rode between cars.
The rhythmic clack and rush of the train speeding along the tracks lulled me into a meditative state and chased the sting of that little boy's stare. Justice had been done.
I did not want to think about what Reinhardt said to me before I killed him but, of course, it was all I thought about until I jumped off when the train slowed at a bend in the track.
The country around me was majestic. Rocky hills and gigantic boulders bordered deep green valleys carved out by waterways a million years dead and dry.
A trickling river ran along the lip of the railroad cut.
I knelt and filled my hands with clear, cold water. The taste of it should have been sweet and clean. I scooped up some more water and stared at it in my hands. It was perfect, simple joy I could not appreciate. Not unlike laughter.
The sound of the train grew further and further away as it moved over the hills.
I checked my compass and started out on the long walk to France.
The day was unseasonably warm. A gentle breeze blew in off the Seine, rustling the newspapers of patrons at the tables outside the cafe.
A bustling crowd passed by the cafe in the bright sunlight. Boys chased girls. People talked business and gossip as they walked. Everything appeared normal but beneath it all lay remnants of fear and uncertainty. The war had not yet left the City of Lights.
My contact and I sat in a dark corner of the patio, under the shade of a recently installed red awning.
She nursed her mineral water while I told her the circumstances of SS- Standartenfuher Karl Reinhardt's demise at my hands.
“You don't give any credence to what he said, do you? You are not him. You will never be him.”
I swirled the dregs of my gin in the bottom of my glass and signaled our server.
“How many is it for you now? How many targets?” she asked.
“Six,” I answered. “I've tracked down six of them. Four on my own, two as part of a team. This was the first in Europe. The rest have been in South America.”
I watched the play of her manicured fingernails against the green glass of the tumbler. I looked into her eyes and saw my own reflected back at me. She and I met well after the war but I knew that she had seen all I had seen, endured all I had endured. We shared the bond of survival. And the guilt as well.
I passed her a valise containing Reinhardt's papers and effects and the miniature camera.
She put it down on the ground next to her own bag and when she leaned down I saw the scars on her neck and shoulder.
“I'm not going back, Sara,” I said. “Not yet.”
There was no surprise in her stare.
I stood up and placed enough francs to cover our drinks on the table.
She remained seated and looked past me at the people walking the street.
“Sometimes one must be a monster to fight monsters.”
“Is that justice, Sara? Or is it vengeance?”
“Is there a difference?”
“There is. You know there is.”
She nodded but did not reply. She did not need to. Sara understood. Perhaps there was hope for the likes of us after all.
I draped my jacket over my arm and put my hat on.
“Shalom, Sara,” I said.
Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.
This is a powerhouse of a story, Jeff!! All the details and characters are so well drawn I felt as if I were right there in the middle of it!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Ruth. As always...Delete
Love this. So spare and controlled, yet with a blazing emotion below the surface. And the moral question of justice versus vengeance hangs like a ghost over the main character. Excellent work, Jeff!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Tim. I'm glad you stopped by to check it out.Delete
Powerful, powerful story, yet told with the detachment of a dead soul. Your imagery echoed your tale: "It was a terrible disappointment to find that the old railroad depot-- and the town itself-- was still beautiful." To find disappointment in beauty is quite a juxtaposition, and reflects the depth of hurt and despair the assassin possesses. Beautifully done!ReplyDelete
Thank you for your kind words and for reading my story...Delete
Excellent and powerful...ReplyDelete
I didn't know what to expect from you after Jake's story. This, however, has gone beyond anything I could have expected. It's such a gut-punch. Or like a round house kick from a brick foot. The details, the atmosphere, the history that you packed into such a short piece--I mean. Whoa. The the language and imagery: perfect and sparse. And this line knocked me out: "It was an ugly sound, a broken sound, emitted by a creature in whom mirth had long ago been suppressed and killed." Fantastic. You're just good at what you do, Jeff.ReplyDelete
Well done, Jeff. What a roller-coaster ride of action and emotion. Vengeance and Justice are often times so close, it's difficult to define the line between them, and you've illustrated that so well here.ReplyDelete
As always, you blew me away. Great story, my friend!ReplyDelete