Jack Marshall had served with Walker during the war, and now they work for The Company in postwar Vienna. With the help of Leslie, an analyst who worked undercover gathering intelligence from Hitler’s inner circle, they are tasked to do the inconceivable: recruit former Nazis with knowledge that can help the U.S. in the atomic race. But someone else is looking for these men. And when he finds them, he does not leave them alive.
In this tale of historical noir, of corruption and deceit, no one is who they say they are. Who is The Good Man in a world where an enemy may be a friend, an ally the enemy, and governments deny everything?
At 0300 his little black beauty warbled from the nightstand, and stirred Walker from his semi-erotic embrace of the pillow. Grable, his .45, was sleeping next to the receiver. She could sleep through anything. He was jealous.
“Awake?” Jack’s distinctive voice came over the wire.
“I am now.” Eyes focused on becoming alert.
“Meet me at the Narrenturm, ninth district.”
“The IP are here already.”
Walker washed a hand over his face, still in the fog.
“What is it, Jack?”
“Dead body in the Fruitcake House.”
The informative sentence ended with a click. The IP, the International Police, presence was a guarantee that the crime scene would not be kept contained.
Walker got out of bed.
His room was square, clean, and impersonal. The room measured 50 square meters and served as living room where the nice, upholstered chair was and bedroom where stood the bed. A modest walnut armoire rested against the wall space next to the bathroom door. There was a set of doors out to the balcony so small that it was an insult to a poor man’s suicide.
There was no pretension to domesticity or habit, like paintings, books, or luxurious furniture. His mirror in the bathroom was his daily reminder of what he presented to the world, and on the nightstand rested his Leich desk phone with its felt-covered base, curled cord, and petite Bakelite body that he answered when the outside world called him.
Each night before bed Walker draped a towel over the upholstered chair, and he placed a pail of water on the balcony. Then he inventoried the room. He knew that if something changed in the room he would wake up. Out of habit he slept without socks, his feet in the open air, so he could respond to anything that moved uninvited in the room.
The AKH is the General Hospital in Vienna, the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, the largest in the country, and the Narrenturm was the second mental hospital in Europe after Bedlam in London. The German word for the place was Gugelhupf because of its architecture. The asylum housed the mentally ill, the criminally insane, and political prisoners.
The AKH boasted the first lightning rods in Vienna on its roof and breakthroughs in hygienic practices. Walker wondered whether the lightning rods had anything to do with the electroconvulsive therapy he had read about back home, as he walked over to the chair, grabbed the towel, and tossed it onto the floor by the balcony door. Blood groups had first been typed in thorough Teutonic style at the AKH, while patients were chained to lattice doors at the Narrenturm, screaming like the forgotten poor and unrepentant heretics in medieval dungeons well into the nineteenth century.
He took off his shorts, went out onto the balcony naked in the cold air, picked up the pail of now freezing water and poured it over his head.
He had learned this trick from a Russian POW. Cold water forces the body to discharge negativity and disease. The POW, he was told through a translator, did this ritual every single day without fail regardless of season. The water made his skin scream. Walker never got used to the shock. The heaviness went out of him through his heels and his mind focused.
He toweled off, dressed, and coaxed Grable out of her sleep and under his arm.
Any time of night the Narrenturm is a nightmare. The building had a corkscrew circular corridor that spun off twenty-eight patient rooms on each of its five floors. Dessert cake. Each room had slit windows that only a starving bird could contemplate for roosting. Escaping the place was as formidable as finding it.
After Walker had given a brief flash of his papers and had inquired after directions, the MP told him in factual German that Courtyard 6 was accessible from one of several entrances. ‘Take Alserstrasse, Garnisongasse, or Spitalgasse, and then consult any one of the gateway maps.’ It was just the right number of precise German details to confuse him.
In darkness and frustration Walker found the wrought-iron gate with a nice curvy snake that he thought was the caduceus. He looked at the serpent. Was it the caduceus of Hermes or the rod of Asclepius? He touched the single snake, ran his fingers across the diamond-shaped iron fixtures. Old man Hermes must have stolen back his staff and had just enough time to get away from the crazies with only one of his snakes. The caduceus, he remembered, had two.
Above him, darkness; ahead of him, in the curving hall as he climbed, voices. He saw Jack, who, intuitively turning his head to his shoulder, saw him before turning his head back to face forward, as International Police and some suits swarmed around, the air charged in a Babel of languages. Even in a crowd Jack Marshall stood out as a man not to crowd.
Walker went to stand next to Jack. Standing at ease – hands behind his back – out of habit. Jack uttered his words just audibly enough for Walker to hear. “The German word for magician is Der Zauberer. Our friend is a magician. He sets the stage, does his trick, and then poof he’s gone. No clues. Nothing.”
Approaching them were the four-to-a-jeep policemen, one representative for each of the national flags that controlled the city. They were reporting to the Inspector in their respective languages. Walker knew the Inspector would summarize the scene for him and Jack in English.
The Frenchman who wore a long haggard face from smoking too many cigarettes, spoke with a phlegmatic bass. The Brit recounted events in his reedy voice with an affected posh accent; no doubt picked up from the BBC back in Birmingham. The Russian, after he had spoken, stood at attention with winter in his face, whereas the American, a young kid, gave a smiling report, about as graceful as a southpaw in a room of righties. Walker’s ears listened for any German, keen for the second verb at the end of the sentence so he could understand what was being said. The Inspector scribbled notes with a very short pencil that took brevity to an art form.
Finally. In his lilting Austrian-inflected English: “Gentlemen, it appears we have an unfortunate scenario here. The victim was discovered this evening, two hours ago to be precise. The police arrived at the scene after hearing a tip from an informant that this facility was being used for black-market trading. Thinking that they might discover black-market penicillin or other commodities popular these days, they made this discovery. Our medical examiner is making an assessment as I speak.”
Jack and Walker remained silent.
The man continued as the four policemen lingered solemnly and choir-like behind him. “The victim in question was, according to our preliminary findings, a man of the medical profession with questionable ethics.”
“You mean a Nazi doctor,” Jack said in his tone of an officer weary of formality and needing facts.
The Frenchman murmured “Bosch” and covered his racist word with a cough. The Inspector’s eyes looked behind him without turning his head.
“Yes, a doctor. The deceased is said to have performed unseemly medical experiments on prisoners in the camps. He did horrible things to children, women, and particularly, Russian prisoners of war. Unconscionable.”
The Russian, a silent Boris, stared ahead without a flinch or thaw.
The Inspector with a modest bow of the head and genteel click of his heels handed Jack a piece of paper. It was a preliminary. Jack said nothing. His eyes took in the paper with a downward glance and he began the short walk to the scene.
Walker and Marshall entered the patient’s cell. The room smelled of something tarry. Some other men who had just been there left in whispers, leaving them alone with the doctor and the body. When the doctor, who was dressed in the all-black priestly garb of his profession, saw his helpers leave and these new men arrive, he switched from his native language to English the way an owl with fourteen neck bones moves his head in ways not humanly possible.
“How’s the patient?” Marshall asked the little man near the body.
“Dead a day or two by his liver temperature. Rigor has set, as you well can see from the positioning.” The doctor was making his own notes while he talked.
“Any thoughts to cause of death, Herr Doktor?” Walker asked, knowing that coroners had looked at enough mortality to be either humble or inhumanly arrogant.
The doctor used his fingers to show an invisible syringe and did the motion of pressing the plunger. Abgespritzt. Lethal injection. I would say, carbolic acid.”
“Sounds to me that would be a fast way to go, Doctor,” Jack said with his hands in his topcoat’s pockets.
“Not necessarily. Ten to fifteen millimeters of the liquid, if injected directly into the heart, should induce ventricular tachycardia in, say, fifteen seconds. Our man here was not so lucky. First, I found no such puncture in the chest. I did find, however, a puncture in one of the extremities. I would say this man took an hour to die. Look at him.”
With this pronouncement, the small birdlike man clicked his little black bag shut and left Jack and Walker inside the cell.
Walker’s eyes took in the history of the room. He estimated that the room was tall enough, walls thick enough, that a man could scream all he wanted and nobody would know he existed. He imagined centuries of such screams within this room and maybe some claw marks on the walls, too. “How did he get in here?”
“And what does the staging job mean?” Jack said.
The dead man was propped on a stool, naked. A metal T, evidentially meant for chaining prisoners, was behind him with one part of the cross bar holding his left arm secure while his right hand, bent in rigor, rested over his heart. The corpse’s left arm had received the injection, the head was cocked back, the throat muscles taut but the mouth closed shut in typical Germanic reticence. The eyes were clouded over, the light gone from them when the heart had stopped. The legs were neutral, the back straight in a way that any mother would be proud of such perfect posture.
Walker and Jack walked around the body without saying a word. In front of the corpse was an SS uniform, folded neatly in a stack. The shirt’s right collar patch bore the runic double lightning bolts, the left patch and matching right shoulder board said, with its three diamonds and two double bars, Hauptsturmführer, Captain. His .32 was holstered and accounted for at his feet, next to his shined-to-a-sheen boots.
Jack said nothing. His mind had already processed the scene.
They descended the stairway towards the exit. Both stopped to look at the display of the hydrocephalic baby inside a formaldehyde jar. Walker and Marshall stopped, looked at it, and said nothing, because there was nothing to say.
“What do you think, Walker?” was the question once they were outside.
“The Inspector said that this dead man was a medico but there was no serpent badge on the uniform. That tells me he wasn’t in the Medical Corps. He had to be a straight-up SS man, maybe with some medical knowledge or simply passing through the camp. But he’s no doctor, so I don’t know how the Inspector could say he was doing medical experiments, unless that report of his says something I’m missing.”
Jack answered, “It doesn’t. Anything else?”
“Those slacks,” Walker replied. “They had cat hair on them.”
“So the dead guy either had a cat…”
“Or the killer has one, because there are no cats here that I can see. Another thing: those clothes were pressed and regulation-folded. He wasn’t wearing them when he was killed. Besides, nobody would walk through Vienna these days with that uniform. They either were placed in front of him as he was dying, or after he was dead. It’s all staged to make some kind of statement. Question is, where did his street clothes go.”
Jack touched his breast pocket, where the Inspector’s report rested privately. “We have another problem, Walker.”
“And what might that be?” Walker thought he knew what Jack was thinking but he waited.
Jack was quiet.
“What? You want me to go chase down an orange tabby?”
“Relax, Walker. That Inspector’s report is in German. That’s why I didn’t show it to you.”
“So my German isn’t perfect, but I can manage. What does it say?”
“It gives us the man’s name.”
They stood outside together as the sun was arriving.
“That man…” Jack pointed with his eyes upward to the stone turret from hell “was on our list. Either way we’ll never be able to talk to the Captain.”
“So what’s your recommendation?” asked Walker, afraid of the answer.
They walked to the curb together. Jack had hailed a cab, opened up the suicide door, got in, but delayed the driver with a few words in German, and from the car window said to Walker, “Talk to Leslie later to see what she thinks after I get tonight’s details to her. I’ll get a report on your desk that might interest you.”
He banged on the side door as a signal to the driver to take off.
Excerpt from The Company Files: 1. The Good Man by Gabriel Valjan. Copyright © 2018 by Gabriel Valjan. Reproduced with permission from Gabriel Valjan. All rights reserved.
Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series and The Company Files from Winter GoosePublishing as well as numerous short stories. In 2018, he was shortlisted for the Bridport and Fish Prize Short Story Prizes.
Gabriel lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he enjoys the local restaurants, and his two cats, Squeak and Squawk, keep him honest to the story on the screen.