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Islander: Book Two of
(continued -- 4th excerpt)
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is the continuation of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. The previous chapters can be accessed here and here and here. More will follow in coming weeks. This book is a sequel to Island Nights, which was a sort of childhood memoir wrapped in a mystery -- and which left unanswered a key plot thread. Hence the sequel, which takes the reader back and forth in time -- with a focus on World War Two, the fate of Mussolini, and questions of religious faith. It's pretty wild ride -- and really stands alone without need of reading the first book (although we'll probably get around to presenting that one, too. Meanwhile an excerpt from that first book is here).
Jacques paused. He was looking at Addie.
“I still have it, you know,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “May I see it again?”
Jacques gently touched a chain around his neck; I hadn’t noticed it before. Then, dipping the fingers of his right hand inside his open collar, he pulled on the chain until a jewel appeared at the end of it from beneath his shirt. He lifted chain and jewel – pendant – over his head and handed it across the table to Addie.
“It’s just as beautiful as I remembered,” she said, dangling it in front of her.
We all were staring at it: a clear pyramid-shaped crystal hanging from a golden chain. The crystal seemed to issue a soft light, pastel blue, then red, then green – but so subtle that I decided my eyes were playing tricks. It had to be the room light dancing through it.
“Yes,” said Jacques. “But I wish now you hadn’t returned it.”
“Oh? Why?” said Addie.
“I am getting to that,” said Jacques. “In due time.”
“Okay,” I said, “what’s going on? You’re saying this is the Crystal of Death, right?”
“Quite so,” said Jacques.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Okay, fine. But what do you mean it’s as beautiful as ever, Addie? And what do you mean she returned it, Jacques? When did she have it?”
Addie answered without taking her eyes from the crystal.
“I had it for a long time,” she said, “starting shortly after Gull Island.”
“Gull?” I said. “In ’56?”
Jacques cleared his throat.
“I gave it to her the day she left the Island that summer,” he said.
“I don’t recall that,” I said.
“You wouldn’t,” said Jacques. “It was over in Cheboygan, after Addie and her family had left Bois Blanc. We had just docked, everybody was offloading, and I took her aside and gave her the necklace.”
“It was sweet,” Addie said, smiling at Jacques. Then she turned her eyes toward me.
“We had just docked,” she said, “and I was about to step off with my parents and sister, when Jacques reached out and stopped me with a touch to my shoulder. I remember it so clearly...”
She paused, thinking.
“Addie,” I prodded.
“Oh. Sorry,” she said. “Well, he motioned me back into the passenger area, under the Sylmar’s canopy – out of sight of the rest of my family – and took my hand and placed the necklace in it. And he said: ‘The truth is within this.’ And I said, ‘Truth about what?’ And he said, ‘About life ... and death ... and what is between. Wear it always, and you shall come to learn what has happened to you.’”
She paused, seemingly mesmerized by the jewel’s refracted, dancing colors.
“And?” I asked.
“And,” she said, and looked at me, “he was right. I put it on then and there, and for the next twenty years took it off only for sleep – its points are sharp, and hell to roll onto. But even then, while sleeping, I kept it within reach, under my pillow.”
“Then you were wearing it ... when you visited me at college,” I said.
“Yes,” she answered.
“But it didn’t seem to be bringing you any peace. You seemed ... unhappy,” I said.
“I didn’t say it made me happy,” Addie said. “I said it taught me. And the learning process took time ... years.”
“Years,” I echoed.
“Years,” she repeated.
“And what did it teach?”
“Everything,” she said. “It showed me ... things ... and in the showing pointed me on my life’s path.”
“Things,” I said. “What kinds of things?”
Addie exchanged a look with Jacques, and he shrugged.
‘“It showed me … spirits,” she said.
I studied her, trying to understand, and then looked to Jacques for
assistance. None was forthcoming.
“Well,” she said. “I wouldn’t say ghosts. But ... the afterlife.”
“Uh huh,” I said, trying not to judge, but finding myself fighting back a smile at the absurdity of it. I had been introduced to the basic concept in the letter Jacques had sent me about the bear and the gypsy. But that was, after all, just a myth – and a pretty far-fetched one, at that.
“And then what?” I asked. “You gave it back?”
“How? You mailed it?”
“No,” Jacques interjected. “I’m afraid I appeared at her doorstep and requested its return.”
“I guess I should’ve returned it sooner,” she said, “but...”
“No, no,” said Jacques. “It was a gift without strings. It’s just that ... well, Avery, my wife was dying and I required the crystal for personal reasons. I’m afraid I imposed my friendship upon Addie. But she relinquished the pendant without complaint.”
“Complaint?” she said. “How could I complain, considering your need? And after all it taught me?”
“But do you remember what I told you, Addie?” said Jacques. “That if ever we met again, I would return it to you?”
“Well, yes,” said Addie, “but I didn’t really expect...”
Jacques raised himself from his chair and rounded the table to Addie, took the necklace carefully from her grasp and placed it over her head.
“Are you sure, Jacques?” she said.
“I am,” he said. “It belongs to no one, but should be worn by the worthy. You have always been that, Addie Winger.”
“God bless,” she said softly.
“I hope so,” answered Jacques, returning to his chair.
I watched this exchange with some confusion, my predominant state during much of the Island visit. Jacques noticed my look.
“You seem perplexed,” he said. “What don’t you understand?”
“Well,” I said, trying to distill my jumbled thoughts down to a few words, “if Addie has seen spirits, and you believe her, then I’ve got to assume that you’ve seen them, too.”
“Yes,” he answered. “I was going to get to that.”
“And the logical extension,” I added, “is that you’re saying you know she died the night of Gull because you saw her spirit.”
“Always trying to leap ahead,” he said. “So impatient. I could give you the fast answer, Avery, but I prefer to stay on course here.”
“On course,” I said. “Meaning?”
“Meaning it all goes back to what I was saying about Italy,” he answered. “About your father, and Mussolini, and especially about the red-banded Nazis.”
“More story,” I said. “I should have guessed. Will we soon be getting to the point of all of this?”
“Absolutely. It shall not take much longer.”
“Fine,” I said. “Be my guest.”
And he resumed his tale.
“As I said earlier, there were two instances in which I broke my own rule by helping locals. One was at the mass grave, when I gunned down the German executioners. And the second was, of course, when I freed the gypsies. Neither instance I regret; in fact, by saving the gypsies I may well have saved both Amo and myself. Let me explain by picking up the account at the point where I had split away from Amo and Mussolini ... where I was out in the woods alone.
“Being on my own like that, separated from the two of them, brought me great relief. I felt I was once more in control of my destiny. I started picking up little woodland signals that I’d known for years but had, I now realized, been missing of late – first because of assignments that had put me in inhabited territories with woods nowhere in sight, and now, on this assignment, because of the effect Mussolini had been having on my sensory system.
“But now I could detect the fear of animals who either ran or, in some cases, dug in for a fight upon my approach; the serenity of birds high enough and camouflaged enough to know I could do them no harm; the soft hum of plants awakening to the spring.
“All of these signals, all of these living things, were like salve to my psyche. They relaxed me, put me in a comfort zone.
“And so I moved south, away from Milan, toward the coast, staying well into the woods, in the shadows. I was once again non-existent, or as close to it as possible. Of course, Mussolini knew of me, and so did Amo and his superiors. But that all seemed of little importance out in the wild.
“We were perhaps two days of leisurely travel away from the coast, so the journey promised to be of great therapeutic benefit. By the time we reached water and located a boat, I would be well-primed for the next phase of my altered assignment: the sea and then land travel north across France to the English Channel. It would actually be good to get up there to England, cold and dreary as it might be compared to Italy, for the compensation would be in the form of little danger and no violence. Italy’s social structure was like a great spinning top, careening about and crashing into all sorts of objects, be they human or otherwise. It was an unstable and unsafe environment. England would be a welcome contrast.
“Alas, the spinning top touched us once again before we had finished out that day. It was late afternoon, with the sun setting and the chill of evening already starting to descend. I had stayed within a reasonable distance of Amo and Mussolini, sometimes barely within sight but more often merely detecting them empathically, that ability having been restored with the distance between us.
“We had just traversed a sparse stand of firs and entered a thick and heavily shaded section of maples, oaks and pines when I picked up more than just the life forms of those two men. Someone – some group – was out there too. It was a blip on my internal radar at first, but then it was on my screen like a gang of angry insects – a gang that was buzzing in from the north and east on an unsuspecting Amo and Mussolini. I couldn’t be sure of the identity of this group, but I was of the definite opinion that it might be the redbands.
“I immediately let out a whistle, but my mouth was dry and it came out feebly. Wetting my lips with my tongue, I tried again and failed again, but on a third effort cut loose with an ear-splitting alarm. An answering whistle came back a few moments later, and then nothing. I waited, trying to feel what was going on, and detected nothing different. Amo and Mussolini were still unperturbed, and the angry swarm of trouble had nearly reached them.
“‘Damn!’ I said, realizing the mistake. The whistle had been our signal for stopping. If either Amo or I whistled, both of us would stop for the night; that way, we’d stay within range of one another. We hadn’t made provision for a trouble signal.
“This time, I cut loose with two whistles, and followed that with an owl cry. I didn’t know what else to do, short of firing off my weapon, which I was afraid might stir up trouble more quickly and, worse, bring it toward me. I couldn’t send any sort of telepathic suggestion, either, since I hadn’t developed that particular ability yet.
“I received an identical whistle/cry combination in return, and then a sense of determination – no doubt Amo – and fear (Mussolini), and was satisfied that the alert had worked. Now it was up to me to help them. I could not very well do it from an eighth of a mile away, so I headed in their direction – sensory jamming or not. I moved cautiously at first, keeping under cover as much as possible and gliding as silently as my hunting skills allowed.
“I was about halfway there when I heard the first gunshots, and then some louder sounds that I took to be grenades, though there was no way to tell who was heaving them at whom. I picked up the pace a little, daring to expose myself in small clearings, deciding that the attackers were focused now on the quarry at hand and paying scant or no attention to the area outside their attack perimeter.
“With the element of surprise adding weight to my resume, I decided I had the advantage going in, or as much of an edge as one man can have against what could be a small platoon.
“I was carrying a few grenades hung from my belt, and had two of them in my hands as I swept in on the enemy. I could see, as I came charging up behind a couple of them, that they were wearing red armbands, and decided that they had probably picked up our trail back near the hangar. No doubt they were agitated by the loss of their gypsy playthings, and were taking it out on us.
“I was on the first two before they knew it, pulling the pin from one grenade and dropping it at their feet as I raced by on my way to the next target – a trio some twenty-five yards beyond, concealed by foliage but whose firearm sparks were clearly visible. I dodged behind some trees just as the grenade went off and the two Nazis let out short-lived screams. I didn’t hesitate to check their condition, battlefield concerns taking precedence, and pulled the pin on the second grenade just after the first exploded. The trio ahead of me was pivoting in my direction – drawn there by the blast – as I burst through the foliage and repeated the procedure I had used on the first two men. Before they could react, I was gone and the grenade shards were ripping into their flesh. This time I paused, leaning against a shielding tree, getting my bearings, trying to hear where the remaining Nazis were. I couldn’t sense them – the Mussolini jamming had taken effect long since – but could hear their weapons; or more precisely all of the remaining weapons concentrated in a small area. Judging from the reports – and assuming Amo had not given Mussolini a weapon – there were perhaps five rifles firing: four against one. No … I adjusted that to three against one when I heard a scream and sensed a slight reduction in the shooting. Amo had gotten one of them, I was sure. It wasn’t his scream, because the fight was still going on.
"Before moving ahead, I peered back around the tree at the carnage I had just created on its other side. Three bodies were there, all right, but something else I hadn’t counted on; something I’d sensed in animals I had killed but now, for the first time, could see as clearly as if the bodies themselves were rising.
"Misty renditions of the newly departed – whole versions of the decimated meat at their feet – were rising from the bodies, horizontal at first, but then straightening as they would if climbing to their feet. Only they had no feet; instead, a vague shapelessness formed their base, a mist-like V-shape that was nearly transparent.
"Mesmerized at first, I forced myself to turn my attention back to the living; if I didn’t, my body might end up like those on the ground. I ventured one last look – the mists were moving away, into the gathering darkness of the forest – and then shifted my focus to the three remaining problems, the three remaining redbanded Nazis. They were up ahead still; I could tell from the gunfire that they hadn’t moved.
"I couldn’t tell what condition my comrades might be in, but knew they were both alive: Amo was still firing a weapon, and I now heard a steady stream of Italian swear words. It had to be Mussolini, since he was the only Italian present; and it sounded like he was both angry and in pain. He had evidently sustained a wound, but whether by bullet or from one of the grenades I had heard at the outset, I couldn’t determine.
"I considered employing grenades in my assault, for I had two remaining, but could see that the dense nature of the brush and trees ahead precluded their effective use. And I considered using my gun. But I opted to tackle the first of the three Nazis silently. I had the feeling that the other two might, if given a sound bearing caused by gunshots, turn their weapons in my direction with some effect.
"Crouching low, I slid through an opening in some nearby bushes and came upon my prey almost instantly; he was but a few feet away and didn’t see me, my entrance coming from behind his left shoulder. Pulling a garroting cord from a pouch at my belt, I pounced on him, bringing the cord over his head and around his neck before he knew I was there. A sudden yank back took him off his feet, and his rifle, aimed a moment before at my allies, was hurtling several feet away, a useless piece of metal now. Holding him down from behind with a scissors leg-lock, I increased pressure with the cord until he stopped squirming, and then grabbing hold of his neck, snapped it to the left, making sure of the kill.
“And that was my first experience at close range with that strange mist rising from the dead. I was still holding the corpse, unclenching my legs and rolling it off of me, when the fog-like shape rose from the body and passed right around my head on the way up to a vertical position. I didn’t feel anything, or smell anything, but had a sense of being enveloped very briefly as if by a cloud. And then the figure, like the others, wafted off into the woods, into the darkness.
“I watched it go while still sitting on the ground, and thus lost my edge. Before I could regain my bearings, one of the last two redbands had found me and was leaping through the air, knife unsheathed and extended. I caught the movement just as I turned away from the disappearing spirit, and managed to barely twist out of range of the blade, which struck the dirt next to my ribcage.
“We were both on the ground, him on top and still in control of the knife, and me grabbing his knife arm and trying to hold it at bay until I could regain the advantage. But he was strong, and the blade was inexorably moving downward, on a track toward my upper stomach. And it was a big blade, akin in size to the famed Bowie knife, but with serrations along its top edge. If it went in, I would be incapacitated; if it came back out at an angle, I would be gutted.
“There was little going through my mind – certainly no life-meaning revelations – as the knife descended, except for a frantic assessment of a way out. I tried a knee to the man’s groin, but was positioned wrong and struck his thigh; I tried rolling, but was too tightly pinned; I considered biting, but couldn’t reach any portion of his body with my mouth. It was, I decided, going to be a very bad day.
“But no sooner had I thought it then the tide turned, the knife moving slowly away from my belly and the weight of the man’s body gradually diminishing. I couldn’t tell at first – his body obscured what was beyond him – but we had been joined by a third party who had grabbed the man’s hair and knife arm and was pulling backward, twisting the attacker away from me. Amo had arrived again in the nick of time.
“As the Nazi was lifted away, I rolled free and – trying to regain my breath – watched as Amo shifted weight and applied a wrestling hold, curling his arms beneath the man’s armpits and upward until his hands locked behind the man’s head. The right arm of my former attacker was now immobilized, the knife extending aimlessly outward.
“‘Christ, Amo,’ I said, ‘why didn’t you just stab him?’
“‘Couldn’t,’ he answered, struggling. ‘Dropped my knife in the bushes.’
“‘Well, you could have shot him, then,’ I said, climbing to my feet.
“‘Out of bullets,’ he answered.
“‘Well, I’m not,’ I said, pulling my weapon and putting the barrel to the man’s temple.
“‘No!’ hissed Amo. ‘It might hit bone and ricochet into me. Besides, the other guy...’
“‘Right,’ I said. The remaining Nazi was still out there, in what I now realized was a silent forest. A single gunshot would certainly attract him; he might even be on his way toward us, looking for a sound to guide him.
“Re-holstering the weapon, I grabbed the man’s extended arm, and dug my fingernails into his wrist until the pain forced him to drop the knife into my hand. I caught it by the blade and was about to flip it over with the intention of thrusting it forward into his neck, when I spotted a dark figure with a red band pushing aside the branches of brush straight ahead, maybe twenty feet away. Drawing the knife back quickly, I unleashed it with an abrupt wrist flip, and sent it hurtling across the distance between us. It was not a well-aimed throw, but the man was just shifting his weight to draw a bead on us with his rifle, and twisted his head slightly left and into the knife’s path.
“His death was nearly instantaneous. The blade buried itself halfway to its hilt in his left eye socket; a deeper penetration was prevented only by the thickness of his socket bone as the blade bit into it. With the handle end of the knife protruding from his eye, the man’s body did a slow upward dance and poised, half-standing and half-crouched, and slowly fell forward.
“Without waiting any longer, I brought my knee up into the groin of the Nazi immobilized by the wrestling hold, and he sagged with the pain, dropping free of Amo’s grip and sliding toward the ground. He had no sooner collapsed than I launched myself upward and came down on his neck with my knee, bent at the joint, the full force of my weight behind it. It crushed his larynx and probably a few bones, and left him writhing. Drawing my pistol again, I leaned over and pressed the barrel into his mouth and fired.
“Amo and I looked at each other in the silence that followed. We were both spent, and simply shook our heads at the lunacy of what had just happened.
“As my breath gradually returned to me, my attention was diverted by the mists rising from the two new corpses, and I watched them as they gained a vertical attitude and, like their predecessors, drifted off into the darkness.
“Amo was watching me watch them, but he couldn’t see what I saw.
“‘What is it?’ he said softly. ‘More Nazis?’
“‘No,’ I answered. ‘They’re all gone.’
“Mussolini, as it turned out, had caught a piece of shrapnel in the same arm that had been winged by the partisans in the execution attempt at the roadside orchard. The piece was easily removed, though, and we disinfected the wound and wrapped it tight to keep the dirt out.
“Then we settled in for a rest.
“‘Sure you don’t want to keep a distance?’ Amo asked. ‘Or isn’t he jamming you any more?’
“‘Oh, he’s jamming me,’ I said. ‘But look what trouble you found when he wasn’t. Just do me a favor; keep your own senses on the alert, and let me get a little shuteye. We can split up again tomorrow.’
“I sat there a moment, thinking of sleep and of the day and of the misty remains of the Nazis – wondering if my mind or the light had been playing tricks – and absentmindedly toyed with the pendant given me by the old gypsy. Mussolini, seated nearby, saw my motion and moved in for a closer look.
“‘That looks like Il Cristallo di Morte,’ he said. ‘Where did you get this?’
“‘An old gypsy, back at that hangar. And yes, that’s what it’s supposed to be.’
“In truth, I hadn’t connected the pendant with what I had seen on the battlefield until that moment; the heat of battle obscured the obvious, I guess. But if those mists were spirits and not just my imagination, then the old gypsy had been right: The crystal had given me the ability to see an aspect of the spirit world, the departure of souls from bodies. And its power outweighed any negative influence Mussolini had; he might jam my senses, but not the images generated by the crystal.
“Mussolini reached out and touched the crystal, and it started shining and vibrating – was hot, in fact, and thus uncomfortable on my breastbone. So I swatted his hand aside.
“‘Mitts off, Duce,’ I said.
“‘It is the first one I have seen, except in pictures,’ he said. ‘You are aware of the stories surrounding it? Of its origin? The myths of the aliens and the bear?’
“‘Yeah,’ I said, holding it out in front of me to study it closer. Its light had disappeared, but it was still warm to the touch. ‘I’ve heard of them.’
“‘You realize,’ said Mussolini, ‘the myth says if a person who possesses the crystal is in tune with the natural order of things, he can see what others may not. Into the spirit world.’
“Well, I thought, he had that much right.
“‘So you believe that stuff?’ I asked.
“‘Not really,’ he said. ‘But there are many who do, who would probably give their firstborn for the right to own it. You are very fortunate. Very few exist.’
“‘Just how many are there?’ I asked.
“‘They are nearly as rare as the hair on my head,’ he answered. ‘It is said the elders of the camps give them only as measures of extreme gratitude. I tell you what. I will give you great fortune for that crystal, my friend. Great power.’
“‘Right, Duce, like I’d entrust this to the hands of a dog like you, even if you could afford it.’
“I glanced over at Amo, who had been watching with an amused expression. He rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled.
“‘Well, you think about it,’ Mussolini was saying. ‘I have hidden riches. I can truly pay you well for it.’
“‘Forget it, Duce,’ I said. I turned away and lay down, leaving Mussolini no doubt miffed, and me wondering if I’d have to watch my backside. If he really wanted the crystal badly enough, he might try something – even though Amo and I were his only protection against dangers natural and man-made out there. But sometimes greed outweighs common sense...
“Well, I told myself, I would be careful. At the very least – especially in light of the cautionary note from the old gypsy – I would make sure Mussolini didn’t so much as touch the stone again.
“Or so I thought.
“In that heightened state of alert, I couldn’t sleep. The adrenalin was pumping entirely too quickly.
“Images of departing spirits danced in my mind, visions that offered an altered perspective of the meaning of my life and life in general.
“‘What are you thinking?’ Amo asked. ‘You’re not sleeping.’
“‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m too revved up.’
“‘Yeah, a lot of excitement,’ he said.
“‘You could say that,’ I answered. I sat up and looked over toward Mussolini. He was dozing.
“‘Kind of hard to defend a prick like that,’ Amo said.
“‘Yes, it is,’ I agreed. ‘But it wasn’t too tough against those redbands. Nasty people...’
“In the quiet that followed, we listened to the chirping of some crickets that had regained ownership of the battleground.
“‘Where you from, anyway?’ Amo asked. ‘What state?’
“We had exchanged names, but no background ... no history ... no geography. I pondered this new question, weighing the wisdom of an answer versus the need for secrecy, and reached the same conclusion I had reached in telling him my name.
“‘I’m from Michigan,’ I said. ‘You?’
“‘New York State. A little town called Auburn. My father was born there, and so was I. Before that, the family came from Germany, of all places.’ He looked out to the woods behind me, to the killing field laden with bodies of dead Germans. ‘What’s your hometown?’
“‘Not a town,’ I said. ‘It’s an Island up in the northern part of the state. Kind of primitive. No electricity, no running water, no indoor bathrooms. It’s called Bois Blanc.’
“‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘A lot of birch trees. Some pine, too. They call the main community Pointe aux Pins. Point of Pines.’
“‘Sounds like a nice place to get away from things,’ Amo said. ‘A lot of people?’
“‘No, not at all, most seasons,’ I said. ‘More in the summer. There are quite a few cottages now – some built by rich folks. But they all have a rustic charm.’
“‘Sounds nice,’ said Amo. ‘Maybe I’ll get there some day. Hard to reach?’
“‘Nah,’ I said. ‘It’s in the Straits of Mackinac, across from a port called Cheboygan. There’s no major road to Cheboygan, but it’s on the map and easy to find. Then just catch a boat across. There’s been sporadic ferry service, but before I left I heard talk of more daily runs. So that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Really, after the war, you oughta come out. I’ll be there, show you around. It’s great hunting and fishing.’
“‘Well, tell you the truth,’ Amo said, ‘if I get out of this war, I don’t think I’m ever gonna want to look at another gun again, let alone fire one. You know? But I must say, the fishing sounds nice.’
“‘Consider it an invitation,’ I said.”
“That doesn’t mesh at all with what I was told,” I said to Jacques. He was still seated on my left at the card table. Addie was to my right. The tape recorder, still running, was nearer Jacques than me.
“Mesh?” he said. “I don’t understand. I thought this was all new to you.”
“It is. It’s just ... my folks said they first came here in 1952 at the urging of some friends from back East – the Ballards. We had just moved to Michigan – a new job for Dad – and the Ballards stopped by on their drive out here from New York. Talked my folks into visiting the Island, and then ... well, we started coming each year, for several years. But my folks didn’t say anything about an invitation from you.”
Jacques shook his head.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “I have told you a great many unsettling things about your father that you did not know, and you are concerned about the genesis of your summers here?”
I smiled, amused at the truth of the insight.
“Yeah. Sounds stupid, huh?”
“No,” Addie interjected softly. “It’s not stupid.
You’re probably a bit overwhelmed with what you’ve learned,
and are just grasping for something familiar. Family history can be like
a life preserver.”
“Well,” said Jacques, “in point of fact, your memory – or the information that provided that memory – is not truly flawed, Avery. Your family’s first vacation here was indeed in 1952. It’s just that your father was here long before that. He encountered the Ballards while on one such visit; they had not, to my knowledge, known each other before that. I suspect that the Ballards – in stopping by, as you say, at your home – were merely responding to an invitation from your Dad, and in the process touting the benefits of an Island summer to your mother. Amo, after all, really liked it up here.”
“Whoa, back up. You mean my father was here before ’52? When?”
“Oh, several times.”
“Now, see, I didn’t know that. Why wouldn’t I know that?”
“Avery,” Jacques said kindly. “I don’t think this particular matter should be of great concern – I mean, it could just be that you misunderstood as a child, and have carried that misconception since. His coming here was not exactly a secret.”
I nodded. He was right. Maybe it was my own mistake. But it bothered me, nonetheless. There seemed to be so much of my father that I had not known. And now he was gone.
“What did he do up here?” I asked. “Did you guys do that fishing you were talking about?”
“No,” said Jacques. “It turns out he didn’t like that any more than hunting. Anything that smacked of outdoor living was anathema. He’d had too much of that in Europe.”
“He didn’t like doing things that reminded him of the war, then,” I ventured.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Jacques answered. “Actually, every time he came up here, he was reminded of the war.”
“Because of you,” I offered.
“That, yes, but more,” Jacques said.
“Well, I’m getting to that with my account of Italy. If you’ll be patient...”
I held my hands up in surrender.
“Of course,” I said. “More Italy. Why not? Go on.”
“Thank you. Where was I?”
“You’d just invited Amo to the Island,” said Addie.
“Right. We were resting after dispatching the redbands, and the matter of hometowns had come up. Okay, then. I got a little sleep after that...”
“I got a little sleep after that, and was awakened at first light when Amo nudged me.
“‘We should go,’ he said. ‘We still have more than a day to the coast, and then must try to find transport.’
“‘Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t your superiors line up some passage for us? Fly us out or have a boat waiting?’
“‘Secrecy,’ he said. ‘They decided they wanted literally no one to see this guy alive. If we took him in to catch a flight, someone would see him – pilot, airmen, somebody. And if they lined up a boat, there would still be that problem, plus it might be too open – too easily compromised by other craft in the area, or by some possible witness on shore. Either way, too risky. No ... they want us to try and do it without garnering any attention – on our own schedule, in our own good time. Secrecy is, after all, what we’re good at – that and thinking on our feet. Anyway, we just have to keep things quiet until we get him to England.’
“‘Then it’s none of our concern. But I’m guessing that now, with him supposedly dead, they might keep him on ice for a while, hidden away until things settle a little. Well ... shall we move out?’
“‘Might as well,’ I said, rising. I looked over toward Mussolini. He was still sleeping. ‘Hey, Duce,’ I said, striding over to his bedding and giving him a kick in the rear. ‘Time to go.’
“Mussolini tried to raise himself, but put his weight on his bandaged arm and winced.
“‘Son of a bitch,’ he muttered in Italian. ‘Son of a bitch.’
“‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said, sliding into his language. ‘Suck it up, tough guy, and let’s get moving.’
“He gave me what I took to be a threatening look, but without the weight of office or an army behind him, it came out merely petulant.
“‘Kind of pathetic,’ I said in English to Amo.
“‘This guy was supposed to be one mean mother. Now...’
“‘Doesn’t seem like much, does he?’ Amo asked.
“‘No, he doesn’t,’ I said.
“‘Yeah, well, don’t let looks fool you, my friend. This is not a nice person. I have a feeling that were circumstances as they used to be for him, he’d have your gonads for supper.’
“‘Bully of the playground,’ I said.
“‘Yes,’ said Amo. ‘But not all bullies confine themselves to the playground. Some are just pure mean wherever they go.’
“We traveled nearly all day and well into the night, staying as usual in the woods wherever possible, sliding quickly across a couple of open meadows when we had to, resting for scant minutes at two-hour intervals. We were making good time – and were within hours of our destination when we stopped to camp for the night.
“But no sooner had we spread our bedding and settled in than Amo decided it would be better to push on.
“‘Let’s not sleep,’ he said. ‘We leave now, we can actually get to the coast before daylight. It would be easier and safer to commandeer a craft under moonlight than sunlight.’
“‘Why not stay the night, finish the trek tomorrow and then wait for nightfall?’ I asked. ‘That way, we’ll be rested. Keep pushing, and we’ll be exhausted before we even hit open water, and that’s not likely to be any picnic.’
“Amo was shaking his head vigorously.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘I’d feel better if we got this done sooner.’
“‘Why?’ I asked. ‘What’s the rush? We’re not operating on any timetable.’
“Amo was looking around nervously. Mussolini, though not understanding the words, had been put on edge by Amo’s attitude, and was sitting upright, head pivoting, taking in the surroundings. For my part, I heard and saw nothing, but then ... I didn’t expect to with Mussolini so close.
“‘I don’t know what it is,’ Amo said. ‘It’s a feeling. Like ... if we don’t get through this next part quickly, it could go sour.’
“‘Sour,’ I repeated. ‘Sour, how? Like another renegade Nazi unit? I doubt we’ll find one this far down-country. And the Italian partisans are concentrating on the border region.’
“‘I don’t know how,’ he said. ‘But there’s something...’
“Mussolini and I exchanged a look, and I motioned toward the south. Without prodding, he bounced to his feet and gathered what little he was carrying and was ready to move.
“‘I don’t think he likes Italy much anymore,’ I said. ‘Seems awful anxious to leave it.’
“‘Yeah, well, he’s not alone,’ said Amo. ‘Now would be none too soon, and I don’t have the world hating me like he does.’
“‘The world doesn’t hate him,’ I said. ‘He’s dead, remember?’
“‘Dead or not,’ said Amo, ‘the world’s gonna hate this guy forever. Poison, unlike wine, does not improve with age.’
“I looked over toward Mussolini, who was waiting at the edge of the clearing. He was shifting from left foot to right and back again, impatient to start.
“‘Okay,’ I said to Amo. ‘Let’s go. Old hemlock over there is getting antsy.’
“And with that, we were on our way in the dark without another word.
“We reached the coast of the Ligurian Sea – or more specifically the tree line a hundred rocky feet above it – about an hour before daybreak. To the south a mile or so lay the outskirts of Genoa, placid in the moonlight; between Genoa and our position stood the docks. We could get to the shore directly by descending the steep rocky face before us, or stick to the high ground – and the woods – and approach it in a roundabout, gently sloped fashion that would take us along the town’s northern border.
“‘Let’s keep cover,’ I said. ‘It’s a much easier route.’
“‘It’ll take longer that way,’ said Amo. ‘Besides, we lose cover near the city’s edge, and could be spotted before we reach the docks.’
“‘This place was falling to the Allies two weeks ago,’ I said. ‘I’m sure our people control it.’
“‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Amo. ‘We can’t let our cargo be seen by anyone. He’s dead. Remember our orders? If we climb down here and make our approach along the beach, we can steer clear of town and grab a boat before sunup.’
“‘How about we keep cover for half the distance, and then descend?’ I suggested.
“Amo shook his head.
“‘Good idea, except the cliff looks even steeper – and I think higher – for the next half-mile. Besides, the closer we get to town, the more chance of discovery. Let’s just go here.’
“Amo was right; the daunting descent had momentarily wrested common sense from me. I didn’t relish the thought of what amounted in some spots – sixty-degree and greater angles – to mountain climbing. But if we could avoid discovery, we could avoid unnecessary trouble. So I didn’t argue further.
“Before starting, I scanned the scene below us. In the moonlight, I could see several small craft moored out in the Ligurian waters. Those we would bypass, since we’d first need to grab a dinghy to reach them, leaving ourselves vulnerable should anybody be sleeping aboard one and, waking, see our approach.
“Down the coast, nearer Genoa but a fairly safe distance from any dwellings, lay the first of the docks, with dozens of fishing boats moored at them. Grabbing one of those boats would be infinitely easier. And so, with that basic plan in mind, we set foot out onto the hardscrabble path that led to the first sharp decline.
“The descent went off without a hitch or a scratch, much to my relief. When we reached the beach, everything looked good. There was no evidence of any activity anywhere ahead, though I rather expected that some of the local fishermen would be arising soon to start their workday. Of course, war being war, there would likely be no young men in their ranks; the youngest adults had long since been conscripted and were either dead or still out in the hills. No, this group would be women and old men, which was not exactly a serious impediment.
“The walk to the docks went quickly – we double-paced, although Mussolini had some trouble keeping up – and we slowed only when we reached the first of them, one that served as mooring for three boats. Two of the boats were similar in size and shape – about twenty-five feet long with nets and poles and other equipment hanging from hooks alongside their raised pilot housings. Both boats were powered by inboard engines. The third was a sailboat, exactly what we needed in the still of the wee hours: something as quiet as the morning.
“‘Think there’s anyone on board?’ Amo asked in a whisper.
“‘Doubt it,’ I said. ‘If they bothered to dock, they’ve probably got a warm home to go to up in the hills or in the city. But one way to find out.’
“The three of us strode out onto the wooden planking casually, as though belonging – though in retrospect I don’t think any resident of the area who might’ve stumbled upon us would have accepted us as such.
“Somehow, despite my words to Amo, I expected trouble of one sort or another in this part of the operation. At the top of my list of possibilities was the obvious: a disagreeable boat owner who might, in fact, have stayed aboard or who might show up momentarily ... although renegade soldiers or local gendarmes also came to mind. But none of that happened. We simply boarded the boat, made sure nobody was aboard, hoisted the jib and floated away from the dock, lifting the mainsail out on the dark waters.
“As we sailed away, there was no interference, no difficulty, nothing. We soon traveled far enough to be out of sight of anybody on land, and the first rays of the new day peeked above the shoreline we were leaving behind. It looked like the journey to the south of France would be a simpler matter than we had a right to hope for.
“That – as seems to be the way when things are going too smoothly – was when all hell broke loose.
“The clear azure sky of morning lent no hint of atmospheric difficulties, and so the storm – a vicious little localized maelstrom – hit us almost before we saw it.
“‘Hold on!’ Amo yelled from the helm, the first hint I had that anything was wrong. I was below deck with Mussolini, dressing his wound. Forgoing that task, I quickly climbed topside, and was met with a nasty blast of wind and spray, the precursor to a dark cloud that enveloped us and started heaving the boat about, pitching it sideways one way and then another. Then the waves seemed to grow in an instant, from peaceful swells to raging walls, and the boat’s sideway lurches began alternating with deep forward dives and equally frightening ascensions. It was like a carnival ride gone amok.
“‘It came out of nowhere!’ Amo shouted, as I sprang to lower the mainsail. The jib, being smaller, would be no trouble, I reasoned, and might help Amo turn the boat into the wind, if the wind would only stop its violent shifts and give him a point to aim for. But the mainsail, if filled with the power of these winds, could push us right over. It had to be lowered quickly. I freed the line securing it and let the canvas drop, and almost instantly regretted it. It slid down the mast quickly, whipping in the wind, and a portion of it smacked me in the head, momentarily stunning me. In the few moments it took me to regain my senses, the sound of the wind and the sea reached a deafening level, and the amount of water we were taking on from sky and sea made footing treacherously slick. Conversation was useless, but Amo was shouting, anyway, venting his frustration as he worked the rudder, as he tried to maneuver the boat into the wind. ‘I can’t control the damn boat! It’s like it came right for us! Out of goddamn nowhere! It’s coming from every direction!’ he yelled.
“I felt something bump my elbow, and turned to see Mussolini there. He had just staggered up from below, was instantly drenched, and looked ghost-white as the rain cascaded down his bald pate.
“‘Turn it into the wind!’ he yelled into my ear in Italian. ‘Tell him to turn it into the wind. That will help stabilize it.’
“‘Can’t!’ I shouted back. ‘The wind is swirling. It has no single direction!’
“‘Do something, damn it!’ he yelled in return.
“But there was nothing to do except hold on tight to the nearest railing or permanent fixture. And even that was of little use in another minute, for a huge swell lifted us high and leaning to starboard, and a hurricane-like blast sent us the rest of the way over. Lowering the sail had not prevented what I feared most: capsizing.
“I can attest that there is no time for introspection or conscious analysis when your body is hurtling through space and then being consumed by massive amounts of churning water. For that is what happened to all three of us; we all let go of our tenuous holds rather than be trapped underneath a boat that was being rolled and tossed about like so much tumbleweed.
“Once in the water, that is when you start to think – start trying to figure out which way is up, and how to get there before your air supply is depleted. It really is, in those circumstances, a matter of scant seconds before a wrong decision becomes a fatal one. Or, in the case of Mussolini, scant seconds before he tried to take me down with him.
“He was a very poor swimmer – not to mention overweight and out of shape and probably older than his years. The last couple of weeks alone had probably taken a toll, what with his being run out of his puppet throne, arrested, shot and generally maligned – all the while knowing he’d picked the wrong ally for the wrong war at the wrong time. He was, in the modern vernacular, going down one way or another.
“He had landed in the water near me, and we had both managed to thrash our way to the surface within a dozen feet of each other. I couldn’t see where Amo was, but was more concerned with keeping myself afloat at that point than with the welfare of anyone else. Accordingly, I had stripped off my jacket and was trying to remove my boots; those items of clothing made it very difficult to float and impossible to tread water.
“Amid that struggle, with one boot jettisoned and the other unlaced, I suddenly had an extra burden climb aboard: Mussolini, panicking, had managed to reach me and throw his arms around my neck, trying to get a piggy-back ride. That was the last thing I needed, for it instantly put me back underwater. Twisting to my right, I thrust an elbow into his midsection, which loosened his grip. Then – facing him now – I placed both hands on his chest and pushed his body away.
“But as I did that, he grabbed out in desperation, grabbed for something to hold fast to, and got his fingers twined in the necklace the gypsy had given me, twined in that portion of the chain that ended with the pyramid-shaped crystal. He held fast, fighting my efforts to extricate myself – something I had to do, since he was sinking and taking me down with him. I tried to move back up with him in tow, but the combination of his weight, his gyrations and the swirling currents were too much. We were both about to drown.
“I don’t know where I got the breath, but I think it came from acquiescence. Unable to escape Mussolini, I simply relaxed, sinking downward with him, and thus retained oxygen at the same time that he was expending his. And so it was that he gasped for breath and took in water instead, the salt water of the Ligurian Sea, and went into a seizure, and stopped moving, and ever-so-slowly loosed his grip on the necklace and the crystal, and sank slowly into the dark regions below. Free of his weight, I removed my one remaining boot, and kicking with all of my strength, knifed upward.
“I broke the surface scant yards from the upturned boat, which had settled into a gentle rotating motion as the seas, whipped into such a sudden frenzy, were just as suddenly calming. Taking in massive gulps of air, I wheeled around looking for Amo, turning away from the boat and out toward the open sea. But then I heard his voice behind me.
“‘Over here!’ he was yelling, and I directed my gaze back to the boat, only this time to its rear, where I spotted him holding fast to the exposed rudder. He was waving me over, and so I dog-paddled – had no energy left for full strokes – until I too could get a handhold.
“‘Mussolini?’ he said as I reached him. He did not have to yell now, for the howling of the wind had subsided to a whisper.
“I shook my head. ‘Gone,’ I said.
“‘Damn,’ Amo answered softly. ‘I guess it was his time, after all.’
“‘I guess so,’ I said.
Jacques paused in his narrative. He reached out to the tape recorder to shut it off, paused, then changed his mind.
“Ah, well,” he said. “I guess it doesn’t matter if it’s on tape. Look, Avery, this may sound a little crazy, but ... recent events have led me to believe that I may have been quite wrong.”
I had trouble digesting what he was saying ... did not, in fact, understand this pronouncement at all.
“Say what?” I answered.
“I think I was wrong,” he repeated.
“What do you mean, you were wrong?” I said. “About what?”
“About Mussolini’s death.”
“You said he drowned. How can you be wrong about that?”
Jacques studied me, then glanced nervously at Addie.
“About that, no,” Jacques said. “He did.”
“Christ,” I said. “You’re not making any sense. If he drowned, then what are you talking about?”
“Well,” said Jacques, “you remember how I said that your father had been really anxious to move on to the coast – to Genoa – rather than camp for the night? That he kept looking behind us?”
“Yes,” I said. “He spooked both you and Mussolini, and so you hustled out of there. Why? Were there more Nazis?”
“Okay. You’re not going to say that Colonel Henshaw sent some of our own boys to terminate Mussolini, are you?”
“No,” said Jacques, “although the thought did cross my mind a couple of times. I bet the possibility was discussed, at any rate. Mussolini’s permanent disappearance would not have been met – was not met, as it turned out – with any great sorrow on the part of the officials involved in his rescue. But no, that didn’t happen.”
I shook my head, wide-eyed by the riddle.
“I give up,” I said. “What – or who – was behind you?”
Jacques hesitated, stood, started pacing and then answered.
“The devil,” he said.
The room was silent while the answer reverberated.
“The devil,” I echoed.
“Yes,” said Jacques.
“Uh huh,” I said noncommittally. This sounded as misguided to me as the previous pronouncements of spirit sightings. “And how did you arrive at that?”
“I think,” said Jacques, standing behind his seat, “that we were – at least from that point at which Amo was first unnerved – being driven toward a demonic rendezvous. That was no ordinary storm we encountered. I have found no earthly reason for it to this day. It was, in my opinion, of supernatural origin.”
I shook my head. Discussion of anything beyond the known physical world had not, until this meeting, been part of my experience. And now, having been introduced to it, I found myself balancing on that fine line where incredulity gives way to scorn. But I steered clear of any disrespect. This was, after all, a man I not only revered – but also one who had, after all, certain powers that went beyond conventional explanation. And so I answered in kind.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s assume it was supernatural. Why couldn’t it have been God-created? Mussolini died, after all. Maybe that was God’s punishment.”
“No,” he said. “You have not been listening. I was wrong about Mussolini’s death. His life – or more accurately, his time on Earth – did not end in the Ligurian Sea.”
“We’re back to that,” I said.
“We’re back to that,” said Jacques. “I believe Mussolini found a way to cheat death ... although I confess I didn’t realize it until recently.”
“Cheat death,” I said. I turned to Addie. “Is any of this making sense to you?”
She considered me, then Jacques, then me again.
“I think so,” she said.
“You do,” I said.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe somebody would like to explain it to me.”
“It has to do with this,” Addie said, holding the crystal pendant out from her neck. “Right?” That last was directed to Jacques.
“Yes,” he said. “It has everything to do with that.”
“With the necklace...” I said.
“The crystal,” said Addie, sounding impatient. “Don’t you listen? The old gypsy who gave Jacques the crystal said it would enhance his sensibilities; but he also warned about letting a dying person touch it.”
“One portion of the legend,” Jacques reminded me, “says the crystal can imprison the unworthy in such a circumstance – prevent him or her from passing through to an afterlife.”
“And it was exactly that situation,” Addie said. “It was in Mussolini’s hands when he drowned. Jacques is saying that the soul of Mussolini passed into the crystal. Right, Jacques?”
Jacques eased himself back around his chair and sat down again. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly – a sign of relief, I thought, at finding an ally.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Very astute, Addie.”
“I’ve had some experience with this,” she said, giving the crystal a little shake in her hand. “It has ... unusual qualities.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Are you telling me Mussolini’s in there?”
“Good,” I said.
“He used to be in here,” she added.
I looked at Jacques, and he was nodding. He looked tired, but pleased.
“I believe it’s true,” he said. “That his soul was in there.”
I was silent, thinking. I had two people in front of me – two friends – who ascribed to this theory, so I was outvoted. I wasn’t in the least swayed by their conviction, but neither was I about to start calling them lunatics. Good form dictated it.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is true. How is it, Jacques, that you didn’t see a misty substance leave Mussolini’s body when it entered the crystal?”
“Easy,” he said. “We were underwater, and it was dark, and the light was already refracted, doing all sorts of visual calisthenics. Besides, I was concentrating on surviving, not on observing any unusual phenomena. Plus, it’s possible that it takes a different, and perhaps invisible, shape when it enters the crystal.”
“Avery,” said Addie. “Why don’t we let him finish his story? Then you can ask more questions. There is more to the story, isn’t there, Jacques?’
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Assuredly.”
“Avery?” said Addie.
“Fine,” I said. “No problem.” I suddenly felt fatigued, and in that moment discussion seemed pointless. At least with Jacques continuing his account, I could add to my growing store of information on my father, tinged however the tale might be by supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
“Go ahead, Jacques,” said Addie.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s see ... Amo and I were in the Ligurian Sea, holding onto the exposed rudder…
“The boat, though turned upside down, managed to stay afloat, which certainly made our survival easier. We hung on like that for a while, and then managed to get up on the boat’s hull, and were resting there when another fishing boat – a motorized one – came by from a village south of Genoa and took us aboard.
“To say the fishermen were curious at our plight would perhaps be an understatement, but war being war, they weren’t really surprised. They took us to their village, dragging the capsized craft in behind us. Amo and I then caught a ride north into Genoa, which was, like most of northern Italy, in turmoil. American troops had swept into the city, as I’d heard, chasing out the Germans who had taken control two years earlier. But there was very little discernible organization in the city. I mean, the whole country was a mess; so why not Genoa, too? But food and lodging – and new boots – were easy to find, so we ate a hot meal, bathed, shaved, and contacted Henshaw by wireless code – told him in effect that we’d lost our cargo at the bottom of the sea and needed payment for damages to the boat. I imagine he might have danced a jig over Mussolini, and then cursed us in the next breath for the expense.
“In any event, my orders were almost instantaneous: I was to proceed to the northern part of Germany, to a port city that had a potential for trouble. As it turned out – though we didn’t know it until we met there later – Amo was given the same destination.
“I don’t think Henshaw actually gave any thought to the parallel nature of our orders; he was just filling in the blanks at that point, keeping everybody busy. There was no thought to teaming us up again; it was just easier to sign off on nearly identical paperwork. And so Amo and I headed in the same direction, but by different routes, following procedure for our respective units. Amo first went back to OSS headquarters; I linked up with an airborne unit leaving Genoa.
“I don’t know what course Amo followed after that; but I landed in Kassel, Germany, and then traveled solo, wreaking what havoc I could on pockets of resistance being thrown up by the German troops and high command. Everybody was targeting Berlin by then, and the race was on to see who might swing into it first.
“It was quite a time in Germany in those final days of the war. Exciting, life-affirming – and very deadly.
“I would have liked to go into Berlin and seek out Hitler and do that madman myself, but I missed my chance. He’d already put a bullet in his brain on April 30, just a couple of days after the partisans had tried to kill Mussolini – and the day before Mussolini went down in the Ligurian Sea. We didn’t get word of Hitler’s death right away, so I was well into Germany before I heard about it. Of course, there were rumors for years afterward that he had escaped Berlin and taken up residence with some other Nazis in Argentina after the war, but I think they were just that – rumors.
“Anyway, I spent a few days hop-scotching my way through Germany, avoiding most of the major conflicts, concentrating on taking out particular German officers who were considered difficult enough to prolong matters and increase the Allied body count. Eventually, on May 8, I reached my destination: Bremerhaven, a port city on the North Sea.
“By that point, the conflict had, with the exception of small and inconsequential firefights, come to a halt. An unconditional surrender was imminent; Germany was supposed to be giving up at midnight that night, although the final paperwork wouldn’t be in place until the next day.
“The U.S. Navy had landed in the port at Bremerhaven, and its sailors were all over the streets, securing the place preparatory to implementation of the official Allied terms. The town being German, these sailors were not exactly welcomed, but the populace tolerated them well enough. Of more concern was a unit of German soldiers – a platoon that had been trapped in the city and told by our people to stay in place right where they had taken up temporary residence – at the local Bremerhaven Industrial School, a place that had housed transient military personnel and little else since the Normandy invasion. It was a case of admirable restraint on the part of our Navy, considering the bloodshed running rampant across much of the rest of the country.
“This particular German unit had been surrounded overnight, and had nowhere to go, so it was either fight or sit. With the coming armistice, their commander decided to sit. He was probably a family man who just wanted to get home. If he and his men did as they were told – didn’t cause any undue trouble – then safe passage from the school and Bremerhaven was but a day away.
“Not that the situation didn’t have its moments. The most perilous came after the Navy found out the Germans were housed in just one half of the school – a large, ramshackle brick building just a block off the main street. The order came down for our boys to move into that portion still open – for the convenience of the lodging, of course; but also, I think, to emphasize our authority by getting in the Germans’ collective face. It was, from all reports, a tense few minutes as the sailors approached the building and entered. They made a point to go slowly, so as not to trigger a conflict. But even so, there was significant concern that the Germans, still armed, might open fire.
“When I arrived it was dusk, and the school situation was the talk of the town. Germans occupied the north wing; the Americans were in the south wing. Townspeople kept an eye on the complex from street corners, sidewalks, windows, nearby cafes. Others did the prudent thing and sought cover. Conventional wisdom said it wouldn’t take much to set off a bloodbath.
“I didn’t dare approach the school myself, because I wasn’t exactly dressed for the part, which would be militarily; I was instead in my woodland garb, and looked and smelled like I’d been without a bath for many days, which was in fact the case. But there were enough strangely dressed civilians by this point to make my presence on the street acceptable, and observation of the school a simple matter.
“It was there, at my stakeout on a side street overlooking the school, where he found me. I didn’t see him approach since he came from the rear, and I had no reason to sense him since he gave off no fear and was, in any event, one of many people whose signals were mixing on the street. He was at my elbow before I noticed him.
“‘I’m betting some fool German fires off a round and gets the whole damn mess of krauts killed,’ he said, and I turned at the voice and smiled.
“‘My God,’ I said, ‘there’s no getting away from you for long, is there, Amo?’
“My erstwhile Italy companion was dressed in the uniform of a sailor, which I guess spies did with some regularity: took on different identities, different roles.
“‘Join the Navy, did we?’ I asked puckishly.
“‘For the next day or so,’ he said. ‘I would have preferred Berlin, myself, though I hear it’s been pretty well blasted by the bombers. Why are you here?’
“‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘I don’t think anybody’s got a grip on what’s been going on the past few weeks. Germany’s crumbling, and all that our generals can seem to do is keep everybody moving. I can’t see a specific pattern to it.’
“‘Well, that about sums it up,’ said Amo. ‘But hey ... this is the first chance I’ve had to wear Navy. Nifty outfit, huh?’
“I examined his starchy whites with some distaste.
“‘Looks uncomfortable,’ I said. ‘I never could stand uniforms. Say, you have access to the school in that outfit?’
“‘Of course,’ he said. ‘It’s my ticket in. Why?’
“‘I’d like to go in, get the feel of things ... to see if there are any Germans in there giving off specific signals that might indicate trouble. See if I should perhaps be expecting to do anything extracurricular, so to speak.’
“‘Well, you’re welcome to accompany me. I’ve got orders that give me pretty much carte blanche. But Jacques, don’t go starting anything unless it’s really necessary, okay?’
“‘No problem,’ I said. ‘Lead on.’
“And we headed toward the school.
“It started out as one of my more relaxing nights of the war: a warm interior instead of the cold woods; and a friend to watch my back, and vice versa. The place was tense, of course, but that was old hat to me. It didn’t disturb my slumber at all.
“The Navy boys didn’t sleep, I guess, they were so worked up about the Germans in the same complex. The tension was heightened, I suspect, when the naval officer in charge, a commander by the name of Jensen, made it clear to the German in charge that if any harm came to even one American in that building, he – Jensen – would personally see that the entire German platoon was annihilated … armistice or not.
“Of course, issuing such a threat and getting satisfactory, unilateral results from it can often be two completely different things. So Amo and I decided to set up our own little camp in a supply room away from the main contingent of sailors, off an unoccupied hallway that would give us easy access to either wing should we need to move quickly.
“The warmth of the place made me drowsy, and Amo told me to catch some shuteye; we would alternate sleeping. I took him up on it. I’m not sure how long I was napping, but I snapped awake at a gurgling sound coming from the hallway just outside our door. I was on my feet and moving in a crouch toward the sound before I was fully awake, and was upon it about the time my conscious senses were kicking in.
“There, in the hallway, a German soldier had Amo from behind, with something around Amo’s neck. It looked like a strap of some kind. Alarmed, I started to move in to break the Nazi’s grip when Amo suddenly elbowed him sharply, whipped the strap free, reversed position so that he was behind the German, flipped the strap over the soldier’s head, pressed a raised knee into the soldier’s back, and tightened the strap around the neck – all within about a second. He then held on tightly as the soldier went through the violent vibrations of his death throes. It was all done almost silently, and was over before Amo eased the forward pressure he was exerting on the man’s back and the tension of the strap. I know, because I saw a fine mist flow outward from the soldier’s body and waft away down the hall while Amo still had the man upright.
“‘He’s dead,’ I hissed to Amo.
“‘How can you tell?’ he said.
“‘Trust me on this,’ I whispered. ‘He’s long gone.’
“Amo let the soldier’s body down gently to the floor, and disengaged the strap from the neck. Then, holding the strap aloft, I could see what was connected to its end: a binocular case.
“Amo stared at the case for a few moments before opening it and extracting its contents. Sure enough, a large pair of binoculars was inside. He examined the item briefly and then slid it back into the case and hung the case by its strap from his shoulder. Then he motioned me over, and together we hauled the body into the supply room and over to a closet at the rear. We stuffed the body in there, and shut the door on it. Then we sat down.
“‘I think he was looking for a place to take a leak,’ Amo said softly. ‘Might have gotten turned around. No weapons, so I’m guessing they all are under orders not to carry them around in here. Don’t know why he’d be carrying binoculars at night, though. Well, maybe I do; they’re officer’s glasses. He probably lifted them from someone and didn’t want anyone else taking them from him. It would’ve been something concrete for after the war; a memento, or maybe to pawn. Well, he won’t pawn them now. Crazy.’
“‘Yeah,’ I agreed.
“‘I was just coming out of the can, into the hallway, and thought at first it was one of our guys. I couldn’t believe any of theirs would wander out here – and when I realized it was one of them I told him to get his ass back to his own side.’
“‘Which he obviously didn’t,’ I said.
“‘Jumped me,’ said Amo. ‘I still can’t believe it. I turned and he jumped me. The end of the war, and it’s all lost for him, and the fool jumps me. With binoculars, no less. Young guy, too; pretty strong ... Weird, though.’
“‘What is?’ I asked.
“‘I didn’t try to kill him, but it was like the binoculars took over. Of course, that’s not possible. Must be the adrenalin flow. I didn’t know my own strength, or something.’
“I looked at my watch. It said ten minutes past midnight.
“‘The surrender went into effect ten minutes ago,’ I said.
“‘Well, then that’s that,’ said Amo.
“The German unit moved out at daybreak, and without further incident. I’m not even sure they missed the dead soldier; probably not. In those last few weeks alone, there were an unbelievable number of casualties on both sides: tens of thousands dead, wounded, missing. Another one wouldn’t matter.
“My war was effectively over. There was still a need for spies, I guess, but someone decided, in the aftermath of the armistice, that my peculiar talents were no longer required on the Continent. I was airlifted over to England within days, cooled my heels for a few weeks waiting for further orders – so I spent some time there, after all – and then much to my surprise was shipped home. It was like someone decided it would be best, in the new developing order of things, not to let on that such a cold-blooded operation as the Specter Squad had ever existed – and that the best way to do that was to disband the unit and hide its elements in the huge population of the United States; to send its members home. Before I knew it, I was back here on the Island, back here where the only killing was in the hunt for food, where the only secrecy was in matters of personal privacy.
“Amo stayed on in Europe for some more assignments, but they were brief ones and of little significance. It wasn’t too long – a couple of months, perhaps – before he was stateside and selling shoes – his pre-war profession.
“And life went on. The war seemed like just a bad dream, and faded into history ... succeeded by Korea, and later Vietnam, and eventually those little firefights like Grenada and Iraq that our leaders like to adopt to keep the troops sharp.
“And in that time the crystal passed to Addie, and ultimately back to me at a time of great personal stress. And it wasn’t until recently that the first signs of trouble began, so subtly that I did not recognize them for what I now believe them to be.
“And then they worsened, these signs…
“But let me go back a bit.
“After Mussolini drowned, I regained the ability to empathize without interruption – without being jammed. It wasn’t a sensation constantly inundating me, though; I could tune it in and out at will, as the need arose.
“I really didn’t give a thought at first to the possibility that I was carrying around my neck an object that would do anything except provide me with a glimpse of the hereafter – if in fact it really did that; if in fact I had really seen souls leaving the bodies of those Nazis; if in fact I hadn’t been hallucinating under the stress of battle. Being a man who had always relied on sight as well as sound and feelings, I was, nonetheless, still in considerable doubt about just what I’d seen in the woods and in that hallway after the Nazis had died. Had it all been real, or illusion?
“Of course, once I resumed my Island hunting and notched my first kills, I started seeing something I never had before on hunting trips. A very light mist issued from each animal corpse, although neither as definitive nor as large as those of the Nazis. Even then, though, I told myself it might just be a phenomenon that had always been present ... that I just hadn’t noticed.
“Beyond that, I had no evidence, no inkling, of anything else untoward involving the crystal – no inkling, to be specific, that Mussolini’s desperate grab had been anything more than that: a desperate grab.
“And so I resumed my life, making plans to improve the Lafitte family’s lot with a new business. I had saved much of my military pay, and decided to purchase a boat with which I could ferry Island residents and visitors back and forth between Bois Blanc and the mainland. There had been such a service periodically and sporadically, and talk of it being instituted with some regularity and permanence. But nobody before me had seriously committed to it – even though improved transportation like that could not but help improve life for all the Islanders. Extra visitors, attracted by the ease of ferry travel, would add cash flow and tax dollars to the Island coffers.
“With the start of that service, I felt secure enough to start my own family as well, and accordingly married a young woman of the Island whom I had known since childhood. It is not my purpose here to relate my romantic or private family matters, so let me just say that with marriage came a sense of purpose unlike any I had felt before. I was focused on the task at hand – the building of the business – and as such put completely from my mind the events of the war, and the myth of the crystal.
“A year went by, and then two, and we had our first child, Sylvia, and a year later our second, Mary, and re-christened the boat – which until then had been the Gypsy (okay, maybe I did not forget everything about the war). We now called it the Sylmar after the two girls.
“And in the midst of that period, your father came to visit, Avery, and we did as we had intended: went fishing and swapped war stories, though he demurred from the fishing after our first couple of outings. He preferred, in warm weather, to spend time on the beach or playing tennis; in cold weather, he limited his outdoors experience to brisk walks. He had to keep moving, he said, or his blood would coagulate. And he liked to spend time with my father, who – despite a disdain for outsiders in general – grew to appreciate Amo. There was, of course, a bit of gratitude there, for Amo had saved me from those Italian bandits and, later, from that redbanded Nazi with the big knife.
“They talked, the two of them, though it was predominantly Amo. My father always seemed to want to hear about the war – about Italy, and Bremerhaven, and some of Amo’s other exploits. And yes, your father and I related our experience with Mussolini, too, and told about the legend of the crystal, and my father was much entertained.
“He was, in fact, the only person I ever confided in regarding that chapter for years ... for as I’ve said before, the Mussolini rescue was a matter deemed top secret and would have only roiled waters best left calm. My father has always been, among other admirable qualities, extremely close-mouthed. And so it was after I told him of Il Duce, and so it has been for the decades since.
“Your father visited here each year by himself until the early ’50s, when he started bringing the entire family. I’ve explained how that came to be. And so your mother and you boys sampled the Island’s charms until about five years passed, and then you came no more. Other pursuits beckoned in Bois Blanc’s stead.
“During the years of your visits, I finally came to know – to truly comprehend – some of the power of the crystal, for it was in this period that a couple of longtime Island residents died in my presence. One was old Ferris Tompkins, who lived in a shack on the eastern end. My mother, who served locally as a nurse though never trained as one, asked my assistance in his care, and I complied. Old Tompkins had gone sour, and lost all control of his bodily functions, and mother needed someone to help clean while she tended. It was on one of those visits that the old man died, and I saw his misty form, as surely as I see you two, rise from his deathbed and look us over, and then move on through the cracks in the shack’s walls.
“I was a bit stunned at first, but then not. I had, after all, seen much the same thing – a mist of human form – in the heat of battle. This was simply confirmation of a possibility I had tended to repress.
“And then it happened again under similar circumstances a couple of months later, only this time at an elderly woman’s house – an old friend of my mother. This time my mother, being close to the deceased, was crestfallen at the death. But witnessing the departing soul as I did, I tried comforting mother, and finally told her what I had seen – both this time and the others – through the power of the crystal. I told her in general terms how I had come to possess it, and of the myth. She naturally thought me a little crazy, and suggested I visit Reverend Stellingworth for counseling.
“I didn’t particularly see the need, but agreed nonetheless in order to make her happy.
“The odd thing was, of course, that he believed my story – was in fact excited by it, and asked if he might not try the crystal at his next deathwatch or, failing that, funeral. I agreed with some reluctance, but with the knowledge that if he saw what I had seen, then he could allay my mother’s fears over my sanity. I did not, in truth, even think to lend the crystal to my mother; and even if I had, I doubt there was much chance that she would have seen what I had seen, as skeptical as she was at my words. I doubted that the Reverend might see a spirit, for that matter – but I thought that being religious, and thus closer to God than most, he stood at least a chance.
“It was mere weeks later that another Islander passed on, and while the Reverend was not present at the passing, he did officiate at the funeral. I made a point to attend, too – the first religious service I had been at since the war – and lent him the crystal before the service. I was curious whether anything could be seen beyond the period immediately following death – if the soul of the deceased might show up later for its own funeral.
“It didn’t take me long to find out. The service, at the Island’s Church of the Transfiguration, was attended by only a handful of people, the deceased having been something of a hermit. It was barely under way when the Reverend, normally flawless in his delivery, started hesitating, going over the same phrases twice, stuttering a little as he looked over from the pulpit toward the casket set in front of the sanctuary. And I knew – by the mix of confusion, fear and excitement in his eyes – that he could see the old hermit there in spirit, hovering about his burial box.
“The Reverend and I gathered in a study at the side of the church entrance afterward.
“‘My God,’ he said, handing the crystal back to me, ‘it really does work. He was there, my son – as bold as can be, smiling, enjoying the eulogy. I imagine it was the most attention he had had in many a year, and he was savoring it. Incredible. Well ... if you wish, I will speak to your mother.’
“And he did, and she accepted what he said, and was at ease over my mental health. With her belief in me reinstated, I thought finally to offer her a chance to try the crystal, thinking it might give her comfort. But she declined, saying it was not her desire to mingle with the departed until it became necessary to do so.
“Eventually, your final summer came along, Avery, and with it came Addie ... and the storm ... and Gull. You remember the particulars – how you two got caught out there in that little boat of yours, how you made for Gull because it was the only land within reach, how the lightning shattered your boat, how you tied yourselves to the Island’s lone tree and sat through the storm until I arrived with Eliot and your Grandpa, how you and Addie fell in and went under when you tried to grab the line we tossed you, how you were saved by Eliot and how he found Addie and handed her up to us on the Sylmar ... and how we couldn’t revive her.
“It was then that I saw her essence rise from her body – come right out of her and around my hands as they worked to restore her breathing, and hover, and then disappear over the side. She had died as surely as those Nazis and old man Tompkins and the hermit. And so it was that I stood with you and your Grandpa and told you, ‘God’s will.’
“I was as shocked as you to find that she was breathing and talking and laughing a short time later. Having turned away – having quieted your Grandpa from his keening, from his selfless offer to God to take him instead of the girl – I did not see the mist return, did not see it re-enter the body, as it must have. And so I was surprised with you.
“But after the fact, after consideration, I concluded that your Grandpa’s offer had indeed been accepted, and that it was but a matter of time before he would be called in her place. And so it came to pass.
“The years rolled by, and now Addie had the crystal, and I no longer had the ability to see the spirits of the departed, though my empathic abilities, not dependent upon that particular item, grew keener with age.
“Along in the mid-’60s, my wife became ill with cancer and started fading away. It was at this time that I ventured away from the Island, to Ohio, to find Addie and ask for the crystal back. She complied willingly, without question – I think understanding without the need of explanation. And so I was able, in my wife’s final days, to know that I would be able to see her off after she had risen from her body.
“And when it happened, when she passed on, it was a great relief to me to know that she still existed, that I could see her both in the room after death and at her funeral. I think anyone who has lost a loved one has looked around, wondering if the loved one is still present, but has been frustrated by the limitations of our earthly vision. I tell you, the grief is greatly minimized with the knowledge of an afterlife.
“In the years after your summer visits stopped, Avery, your father continued to make annual visits here in the late fall – in the midst of business trips to shoe stores not far off on the mainland. And he and my father continued their camaraderie, sharing anecdotes about their lives, and observations about the crooks running Washington, and whatever else entertained them. And each year my father wanted to hear again about the Crystal of Death and about Mussolini, though he had heard it time and again; it was as if a touch of senility had crept in, and he was reverting to a childhood need to hear a favorite story over and over. Your father thought it amusing for several seasons, but eventually grew a little irritated at the request. Nonetheless, he never upbraided my father about it, though he called on me more and more to provide the bulk of the narrative.
“Eventually, within this past decade, after he had passed his 90th year, my father became ill and started to worsen, to lose his will to live. The entire family – a sister, my daughters, and Johnny; my mother had long since died – pitched in to help him in his time of need, taking regular turns at his bedside. I probably spent more hours with him in those weeks than at any other time since my childhood, and we talked more than we ever had, period.
“And this is when things started to go strange. I noticed an increasing warmth and, on occasion, a brighter-than-normal glow in the crystal, which – yes – I had worn religiously in my waking hours since retrieving it. At night when it was under my pillow – Addie is right, the points are painful and disruptive of rest unless removed – I sensed in my sleep that it was vibrating, but even more than that: it was trembling, building up to a shake. Of course, you can imagine a lot of things in your sleep, and this could easily have passed for just that sort of trifle. Except...
“I was with my father, within what looked like about a week of his death, when the crystal warmed, lit and trembled all at once. And it was not just something I noticed; my father did too, through my shirt, and asked me to lift the crystal free of the fabric so he could see what in heaven’s name was going on.
“‘So odd,’ he said, and reached out and touched the stone, and recoiled quickly. ‘It’s hot,’ he said. "Red-hot. How can you stand it?’
“I felt of it, and it was warm, but not in the extreme.
“‘What are you talking about?’ I said, and reached out to feel his forehead, to see if perhaps he was overtaken by a fever that had rendered hot anything that was warm. But he felt only slightly feverish.
“‘It burns!’ he said, and I shook my head.
“‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘It is but warm to the touch.’
“My father reached out again and touched the crystal, and again drew his hand back sharply, and blew on his fingers. Then, fear in his eyes, he looked up at me.
“‘It’s possessed,’ he said.
“‘Nonsense,’ I replied. ‘It is not possessed.’
“‘Something’s wrong!’ he said, the words a hiss, his eyes wide with fright. ‘It would not burn so ... if everything was as it should be.’
I was shaking my head.
“‘It’s probably just one of its odd qualities, papa. Perhaps it’s reacting to your illness, empathizing by adopting a fever of its own. It has strange qualities, no?’
“‘Has it ever shimmied and shone and burned?’ he asked.
“‘Shone, yes,’ I answered. ‘Shimmied ... I’m not sure. Recently, perhaps. But it never has burned, no.’
“‘Tell me again about Mussolini,’ he said.
“‘Mussolini?’ I said. ‘What? You mean about his dictatorship? Or about...’
“‘His death,’ my father said. ‘Tell me about his death. The one in the sea. Specifically what happened when you were underwater.’
“Now ... in all those years that had gone by, I had not even considered the possibility of Mussolini’s spirit passing into the crystal. I remembered well the old gypsy’s warning about keeping the crystal from the hands of the dying, and the portion of the myth about the solitary imprisonment within the stone. But I had truly seen no sign that anything unusual had transpired immediately following Il Duce’s Ligurian death, nor in the decades since. So I rejected the idea now.
“‘I can see where you’re headed, Papa,’ I said, ‘but I think it’s a bit farfetched.’
“‘Is it?’ he said. ‘Doesn’t the myth say that imprisonment in the crystal awaits the unworthy who have contact with it upon their passing?’
“‘Yes, papa, but good lord, Mussolini’s death came years ago. Don’t you think his spirit would have announced its presence before now?’
"My father was shaking his head, a look of disapproval on his face.
“‘I thought you were more open to possibilities than that,’ he said. ‘Didn’t I teach you to commune with nature, to listen to the heart of things? Do you not have an ability to hear and feel what others cannot?’
“‘Yes, Papa, but...’
“‘Then why do you assume that a trapped spirit – an evil spirit – would overtly let you know its intentions? Why have you not instead listened for telltale signs? Wasn’t this Mussolini devious and untrustworthy in life?’
“‘Yes, Papa, I guess he was that.’
“‘Then why are you blind to the possibility of his presence?’
“‘Well, for one thing, my signals have not been jammed since his demise. If he were here, with me, would I not have that same difficulty I had in the woods of northern Italy?’
“‘Why do you suppose,’ said my father, ‘that the effect of the qualities of a soul in our world would be the same from within the crystal? Why do you reject that portion of the myth?’
“‘But Papa, I do not reject the myth. It’s just...’
“‘You have closed your mind, Jacques, to possibilities. Open it, my son, and perhaps we can learn a truth here beyond what we can see. Let’s concentrate on the crystal, and perhaps witness that which the old gypsy told you. Maybe we will see within it the soul of Mussolini himself, or hear his cry to get out.’
“‘Papa,’ I said, trying to interrupt.
“‘And if truly fortunate,’ he went on, ignoring me, ‘perhaps we’ll witness his escape, and his overdue passage from this world to the other side. Maybe that’s all that’s required to trigger it: the knowledge that he’s there, and a witness to the passage. I cannot but think the man has some answering to do to the Almighty.’
“Now, while he was talking, I was getting very nervous. That’s why I had tried to interrupt. While I realized the general wisdom of his words, they made me uneasy. Call it a fear of the unknown; of the possibility of what might transpire if what he said was true – if Mussolini was within the crystal. And so it was only with reluctance – a bowing, as it were, to the authority of my mentor – that I took the pendant from around my neck and hung it from the arm of a crucifix that stood like a guardian in a base on my father’s bedside stand. There, me sitting and him prone, we could both study the crystal’s pulsating light and visually probe the possibility of its spiritual message without thought of being burned as my father’s hand had been – though again I found the surface of the stone to be but warm.
“For the remainder of my stay that afternoon, we passed the time talking aimlessly, somehow mesmerized by the crystal, comforted by it, but not really seeing anything beyond the smooth surface and soft glow pulsing from within.
“I left – with the crystal – when relieved by Johnny for the evening shift, and returned for the late-night vigil around midnight. My father was sleeping, and soon I was nodding off. As my last act before joining him in slumber, I again hung the necklace from the crucifix, and my final conscious thought before falling asleep in a nearby easy chair pertained to the simple beauty of the crystal.
“When I awakened a short time later, I found my father watching me while sitting up in bed, a position he had not attained in some days. The ravages of disease seemed temporarily to have faded, and he was carrying on his face the kind of smile that comes with knowledge.
“‘What is it, Papa?’ I asked.
“‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It is just that I feel better. Almost well enough to rise.’
“I reached out and patted his hand, and thought it a little clammy to the touch.
“‘It is good to hear, Papa, but do not push. You must conserve what strength you have left.’
“‘For what?’ he said. ‘To lie here some more, waiting for death? I tell you, I wish to rise, if only for a few minutes, and to step outside and breathe the night air.’
“‘Up?’ I said. ‘You wish to go outside? But Papa...’
“‘Come, Jacques,’ he said, ‘help me up.’ And with that he tossed aside his covers and held out his hands for my help. I was so stunned by this sudden surge of energy that I complied, and helped him as he wobbled to the door of his bedroom, and then across the living room to the front door.
“Once outside, he leaned into me, and together we looked skyward. It was pitch black on the ground; the moon, a mere sliver, was failing to light the night. But above us, in the clearing over the Twin Lakes, the stars were thick, the visible portion of the Milky Way crossing in an east-west trajectory. The Big Dipper sat bold and clear on the northwestern horizon, and bright points of shooting light – shooting stars – were visible every few seconds.
“‘It’s wonderful, the night sky,’ he said.
“‘Yes, Papa,’ I said. ‘It has always inspired me. And apparently, tonight, it has inspired you.’
“He turned his head up to me, and smiled.
“‘You have no idea,’ he said.
“That night, before we’d gone outside, something had happened in my father’s bedroom. And I had slept through it. Consequently, I did not know nor could I know that instead of dealing with a short-term terminal illness, we of the Lafitte clan would still have our patriarch for years.
“At first, and until recently, it seemed like my father was simply the recipient of a remarkable recovery. He slowly regained his health, and then his vitality, and eventually returned to his old ways: a little trapping, a little hunting, a little fishing, though mostly he would stay at his cabin, reading. There is, after all, only so much physical ability in a man of nine decades. Beyond that, he expressed a desire for more privacy, and we obliged. His cabin is so far removed that it was actually a relief not to have to go there too often. Still ... the request was colored by something else. There had been a new facet to his personality – an altered trait, if you will – since that night by his deathbed. I had taken little notice, though, rejoicing instead in the fact of his renewed vigor.
“But eventually, that new facet started gaining more and more of the total personality, and my father became less of a quiet, assured presence who governed his family with love and wisdom, and more of a bully who directed us with bluster.
“This was gradual, though, not easily discerned – as though a devious creeping malignancy were edging in under cover of fog or night. But being exposed to the man as long as I have been, I finally did notice – though not, as I said, until recently.
“This realization did not come suddenly, but built, as I recognized more and more the same personality expressing itself that I had seen in Mussolini in the Italian woods. And as the realization dawned, a dread grew inside of me – and then a certainty.
“One day, while nearing his cabin to visit him, I noticed the start of the rotting in the woods circling his home, and a slight temperature deviation the closer I came to my destination. Being summer, though, hot and hotter are more difficult to delineate than variations in other seasons. The telltale sign, though, came when I stumbled upon a wounded and obviously dying squirrel that had been evidently mauled by another animal. I wouldn’t have noticed him except for a sudden spasmodic movement on his part as I passed nearby. And that was the problem: I wouldn’t have noticed.
“Here was an animal in obvious distress, and no doubt sending out accompanying signals, but I wasn’t picking them up – wasn’t empathizing, as though my signal was being jammed … as it had been in the woods of Italy.
“And that was, for me, the giveaway – the announcement that Mussolini could well be at hand. It set me to analyzing, and I began to see what might well have happened, and to believe that the myth of the crystal may indeed be one hundred percent accurate.
“It was a perception that was hard to dispute, no matter how much I might want to. And subsequent events only tended to support it. Here is an example:
“I had gone to his place one day for dinner, arriving early to help him prepare the meal. When I entered the kitchen, though, he started screaming at me to stay out. This had never happened before. The kitchen had long been a room in which we shared talk and chores; where we prepared meals from the animals we had trapped or shot in the wild. But now...
“‘Stay the hell out,’ he yelled at me as I stepped through the kitchen door.
“‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Are you brewing up state secrets?’
“‘Lasagna!’ he yelled. ‘Now out!’
“I stepped back into the living room, but with him still in my line of sight. He was moving feverishly, grabbing condiments and oils and diced vegetables and mixing them furiously in a large bowl, then layering them into a large pan ... one I had not seen before.
“‘Where did you get the pan?’ I asked.
“‘Mail order,’ he said. ‘How can I be expected to bake lasagna without an appropriate pan?’
“‘I didn’t even know you liked lasagna,’ I said.
“Without further preamble, he launched into a tirade laced with obscenities, directed at me and the cabin and the Island and his cookware ... all in Italian; or more precisely, all in the tongue of an accomplished Italian. It literally set me backward a couple more steps, for I had never heard my father use such language – either foul or Italian. The only foreign language he knew, had ever spoken, was the French handed down by his forebears. He knew no Italian; had never, to my knowledge, had contact with any Italians.
“I didn’t know what to say, at first, but then decided. I could answer in the same language ... maybe catch him in a verbal error that would truly identify him for who I thought he was.
“‘So you didn’t perish completely in the Ligurian Sea,’ I said in Italian.
“He didn’t respond at first, other than to continue his work on the lasagna. But the pace of that slowed noticeably.
“‘You took refuge in the crystal,’ I said next, again with no response.
“‘Give me back my Papa, you bastard,’ I said next, my anger boiling. My father – or the person occupying his body – straightened at that, stopping his food preparations, and slowly turned. On his face was a smile, a ghastly, toothy smile, and his eyes were wide, alight with pleasure.
“‘Jacques,’ he said in English. ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, my boy, but it sounds quite wonderful. Italian, correct?’
“And with that he turned back to the lasagna and continued his preparations, though at a measured pace.
“I stood in the doorway, silently puzzling, convinced ... but knowing there was nothing I could do to convince anyone else. And even if I did, what could be done? How does one rid oneself of an unwelcome neighbor, especially when the neighborhood is the body of an old man? I must have stood there, watching, for three or four minutes. Finally I turned and walked away without another word, out the front door, along the lake, through the now putrefying forest rim, and home.
“In the days that followed, I stayed away, doing some small-game hunting, and noticing something I hadn’t noticed before. After each kill, as the mist of the creatures I dispatched were wafting upward above their corpses, I could see them looking at me. Some of the looks were, I sensed, baleful, but most struck me as accepting, as though the movement out of the body was a fully expected and not unpleasant sensation.
“And each time I observed these looks, I was reminded of the crystal, and of my father’s inability to depart his body as these creatures were departing theirs. And any doubts I entertained as to the need for action just melted away with the days.
“We had not lost Mussolini in the depths of the Ligurian Sea; his body, yes, but not his spirit. It should, by all rights, have gone someplace hot, but by happenstance had entered the crystal around my neck. And ultimately, when death was near in my father, in a body that had lost its will, this evil spirit found a host. And like a renter bent on owning, it was staking its claim to more and more of the property. And at some point in this process of moving in, the Mussolini spirit had become dominant, and had begun jamming me.
“My father would have passed on to another plane without this intrusion. He would have been lost to us, and we would have mourned; but he would have been free to follow his own path, to join his wife in whatever comes after. But now ... now he was trapped in his body, held there in a tightly wedged symbiosis with a man rightfully despised throughout the world, a man everybody thought had died at the hand of partisans, a man I saved and who, in saving, I inflicted upon my own flesh and blood, upon my own father.
“This is why I have brought you here, Addie, and you, Avery.
“First, I need confirmation of what I believe with all my heart to be true. I believe – despite your doubts, Avery – that you will see the truth after more exposure to my father. You are a journalist, trained in the techniques of the interview, in eliciting information that a subject might be loathe to divulge. I know he was difficult today, that he said he will talk only to Addie ... but I’m sure it was because he dismissed you without consideration; that he did not know – did not sense in you – that you are a writer, a preserver of words. My guess is, when he does know, he will speak to you. He might not open up – too much truth could unearth more than he wishes, starting with retribution – but I think he will drop tantalizing hints toward the truth. Mussolini had a large ego, and I seriously doubt it was reduced by his time in the crystal. A chance to go on the record at this late date – to be heard once again, even cryptically – may well prove attractive.
“My father – or rather Mussolini – has never said, “Yes, I am here, the man you saved from the partisan bullets.” He has been too shrewd for that, but the signs are all there. Beyond the lasagna incident, he has on occasion let slip an Italian phrase or accent. I have heard him in sleep mutter barely discernible but nonetheless identifiable words – names, really, of people and places in Mussolini’s life. His mistress, Claretta, for instance. A brother-in-law he had executed. Hitler, once.
“And then – I hate to subject anyone to this, but it is another signpost – there is an unspeakable stench that utters forth from his mouth at times of great agitation, as if from a great foul place; the same kind of smell we encountered in the ringed area around the Twin Lakes. It is simply not of human derivation.
“‘So I need you to speak to him, Avery, and determine the probability, at least, that what I say is legitimate. Or better yet, to subscribe to it. For coming from you – a person of limited religious belief steeped in the laws and ways of mankind on earth – such subscription would equate to validation of what I say.
“And once Avery has confirmed my belief, Addie, then I want you – for it is apparent that you already understand the situation for what it is – to help me get rid of Mussolini once and for all. Once we are all of a mind that this ... possession ... has happened, that my father has not simply adopted in senility the ways of a man whose story he was told time and again, then I want to send the intruder packing.
“I will want you, Addie, to perform an exorcism.”
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