Authors: Edward D. Hoch
Emerson nodded. “You don’t need to tell me any more.”
They shook hands. Then Visor added, “There’s one other thing.”
“It must look like an accident.”
Emerson was staying at a small hotel a mile across town from Mona Kirst’s room. When he returned there, the sky to the west had taken on a sort of glow, diffusing the pale light of the full moon through a layer of mist. He’d flown many missions under a moon like that, skimming over the ice-blue clouds with a sense of power he couldn’t put into words. All was silent in his world above the clouds, and even the bomber’s roar muffled by the sands of night. It was a world he hoped to recapture someday, somewhere.
“This is a man to see you,” the balding little desk clerk told him. “Over there.”
Emerson turned to see a stocky, middle-aged German standing by the side of the desk. He had a folded newspaper stuffed into one pocket of his topcoat. “Mister Emerson? I’ve been waiting for you.” He spoke English well, but with a strong accent.
“Yes?” Emerson’s muscles tensed. Had Colonel China somehow heard of his mission?
“My name is Burkherdt, and I’m with the
I would like an interview.”
Emerson raised an eyebrow. “Do all American businessmen rate newspaper interviews?”
The stocky man squinted and shook his head. He needed a shave. “All, no. But you are something special, are you not? You led the bombing raid in Augsheim in the final days of the war.”
“Now can we talk in private?”
Emerson glanced at the room clerk still hovering behind his desk and motioned toward a little bar off the lobby. “How about in there?”
The bartender frowned as they entered. “It’s late,” he said. “We close in ten minutes.”
Emerson laid a bill on the bar. “That’s all right. One drink and then leave us alone. We just want to talk.”
The reporter slipped off his topcoat and tossed it over a chair. Underneath, his suit was rumpled and stained. He gave the appearance of a man without a woman’s care, a man no longer interested in his appearance. “So you came back to see the city, Mr. Emerson.”
“The reporters on the
are very alert. How did you know about me?” There was no sense denying it at this point, and the web of a plan was beginning to form in Emerson’s mind. Perhaps he could use this reporter’s story to reach Colonel China.
“I researched an article on the bombing raid last year. Your name appears in the Air Force’s official history. I was checking airport arrivals this morning and I recognized your name on the passenger list. Simple, no?”
“I suppose so. What do you want, Burkherdt?”
“A story. What does any newspaperman ever want? Why did you come back—to see the place?”
“Perhaps you might say that, I suppose. I had an interest in it, and I heard they were rebuilding here.”
“Rebuilding, yes. All Europe is rebuilding this November. Have you seen the ruins?”
“I’ve seen them.”
“Like Rome, no? Or ancient Greece?”
“You are out of the Air Force now?”
Emerson nodded. “I’ve been out for almost two years.”
The stocky man was making notes on the back of an old envelope. “I was in it, you know—in the bombing. My wife, too. She was horribly burned.”
“She was a Catholic. Religion never meant much to me, but that night she died… She was begging me to kill her at the end, to put her out of her pain. I knew it was against her religion. I sat there for two hours holding her hand, just talking to her, making her want to live again. When finally she overcame the pain enough to say she still wanted to live, only then did I give her the release of death. The sin, if there was a sin, would be on my soul, not hers.”
Emerson looked at his hands. “A lot of innocent people died in the war.”
Burkherdt nodded sadly. “But you helped to end the war. They say Hitler himself flew over the city on the morning after the bombing, looking down at the fires that still were burning. Perhaps it was then that he knew it was hopeless.”
“Look, what do you want of me?”
“Only your observations on the city, Mr. Emerson. What do you see of Augsheim now, three years after you destroyed it?”
“I see a city trying to rebuild itself, trying and seeming to succeed. I see a city far from dead. I see… hell, what do you want me to see? If I hadn’t led that bombing raid, someone else would have!”
Burkherdt scratched his bristled face. “Of course, of course. Tell me, do you ever dream about them? About the people who burned to death in Augsheim?”
“No. I never dream.”
“They say that killing people from ten thousand feet is different from killing them face-to-face. They say it’s an impersonal thing, with no feeling afterward. Did you find it so?”
“There are feelings,” Emerson said, aware that his palms were sweating. “There were for me, anyway.”
“Feelings, but no dreams.”
“I think you’ve got enough,” Emerson said, getting to his feet. “They’re closing now.”
“You haven’t finished your drink. Just one or two more questions, please. Are you married?”
“What is your job?”
“I’m a buyer for a chain of specialty shops. I’m looking for possible gift items to import.”
“There is nothing for you in Augsheim.”
Emerson got to his feet. “Nothing but memories. Thank you, Mr. Burkherdt, but I really must be going now. I’ve had a long day.”
“Certainly.” The German studied him through drooping eyes. “I appreciate the interview.”
Emerson went upstairs to his room and undressed for bed. He fell asleep almost immediately. It was a trick he’d learned during the war.
Burkherdt’s interview was not in the morning paper, and so he waited till afternoon. He found it on page one of the
complete with a candid photograph of himself emerging from the hotel on the previous day. He wondered if Burkherdt had followed him on his journey to Mona’s room, but then decided against it. The reporter surely would have mentioned something.
Toward evening he went again to the bar where he’d met Mona. This time they dispensed with the preliminaries and went at once to her room. Visor was not there.
“He didn’t think it would be safe two nights in a row,” she explained. “But here is the information you wanted. China’s picture and a schedule of his usual movements.”
Emerson studied the face in the photograph, an ordinary enough face, set between officer’s cap and eagled shoulders. “All right,” he told her.
“Stay a bit,” she cautioned, “in case someone is watching. My customers are always good for at least a half-hour.”
He sat down on the bed. “Why do you do this, anyway?”
She smiled sadly, staring at the darkened square of window. “An odd question for you to ask. Why do you do it? Why do you kill?”
“You know about it?”
“Enough. He tells me. He trusts me. You should, too.”
“Did you see the story about me in the
“I destroyed your park, your buildings, your lives.”
“And this was only one of the cities. There were many others. It’s no different up there. It’s exactly the same as killing a man with your bare hands—or at least it was for me. When the war ended, I had to go on. Now I work unofficially for a government agency that would throw me to the wolves in a minute. Why do I do it? Because if I didn’t I think I’d go mad.”
“Are you so sure of your sanity now?” she asked.
She lit a cigarette, waving the wooden match afterwards to put it out. It might have been a signal to some watcher outside the window, but he knew it wasn’t. He trusted her, just as Visor did. “Do you want to make love to me?” she asked casually.
His mouth seemed suddenly dry. “I’m sorry. I have to be going.”
“It’s the killing, isn’t it? It’s that instead of sex.”
“I have a job to do.”
“Get out of it,” she said. “Get out of it before it destroys you.”
He paused at the door. “I guess it destroyed me the first time I flew over a burning city.”
Then, more serious than he’d seen her before, she came to him at the door. “Emerson,” she whispered, “be careful. You came back too soon.”
He left her in the doorway and hurried down to the street.
Emerson waited in the shadow of a ruined building until he saw Colonel Roger China enter the Allied Officers’ Club on schedule. Then he walked several blocks until he found a telephone. It took them several minutes to page Colonel China and get him to the phone, but finally his voice came on the other end of the line.
“Colonel, you don’t know me, but as a fellow officer I thought I might appeal to you. My name is Emerson. You may have read about me in the newspaper.”
“Emerson. Yes, you’re the one who led the bombing raid.”
“I must talk to somebody. Could I come to see you?”
A snort from the other end. “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
“Please, sir. It’s an important matter.”
There was a moment’s hesitation, and then China said, “Very well. I can give you ten minutes. No more. Ask for me at the desk.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Emerson waited a half-hour before putting in his appearance. He saw Colonel China at once, standing with a group of English and French officers near the entrance to the club dining room. Playing out the charade, he asked at the desk, and waited while the colonel was summoned.
“That’s right, sir. Pleased to meet you.” The harsh lights of the club anteroom played down on China’s balding head, giving it momentarily the appearance of a grinning skull. His eyes were dark and deep-set, and the weathered skin of his slim face was stretched taut. He was an ugly man, but he had the bearing of a leader.
“We can talk in here,” China said, leading him into a smoking room hung heavily with the male trappings of the military.
“You have a nice club here.”
The colonel nodded. “It’s a nice retreat from the rest of Augsheim. If I may say so, you did a thorough job with your bombs, Emerson.”
“I’d like to forget about that, sir. It’s one of the reasons I came to you.”
“And why me?”
“You’re the ranking officer in Augsheim. After that newspaper interview, I felt I had to talk to someone—a countryman.”
“What’s your trouble, man?”
“I… I feel I did the wrong thing. I feel that the whole war was wrong and I was wrong to kill all those people. I suppose that’s really why I came back here. I need somebody like you to tell me, sir.”
Colonel China regarded him with something like distaste. “War is never wrong to a soldier. If you think so, it’s just as well you’re out. I won’t say I agree with every aspect of our government’s policy, but I fought for it. Now, after the war, is the time to work for changes in that policy.”
“I do want to change it, though!” Emerson insisted. “War is nothing but burning and looting and killing!”
China smiled slightly. “But you see, even to change it, to achieve an end to war, would necessitate more of the same. This old world will never be free of war until the Russians and the English—and, yes, the Americans too—are as defeated as Germany is today. Perhaps that will be the only true communism this planet will ever know—the communism of destruction and defeat.”
“Who would rule a world like that?”
“The strong will survive. There are always rulers. Hitler was one, until he went mad.” Then suddenly he got to his feet, ending the conversation. “I’ve given you more than ten minutes already. Come see me tomorrow at my office.”
“Thank you, sir. You’ve helped me.”
Colonel China paused. “I did it for a fellow officer. Have all the doubts you want, but remember one thing. Don’t ever forget how to kill.”
Emerson found a nearby bar from which he could observe the club parking lot. He kept his eye on the big black car in which China had arrived. The Allied Officers’ Club had been carefully chosen as the one place where China would probably drive himself. An enlisted man who might be his regular driver would not be allowed inside, and colonels weren’t usually important enough to keep drivers waiting outside a bar all night. No, China had arrived alone and would leave alone—unless he decided to drive another officer home. In that event, Emerson had two alternate plans.
It was two in the morning before China appeared, but he was alone. Though he’d obviously been drinking, he walked hurriedly to his car and got in. Emerson stepped out of his hiding place and ran across the street.
“Please, sir,” he said, pulling open the door on the passenger side. “I’ve been drinking. Could you drop me at my hotel?”
Colonel China stared at him with surprised distaste. “What’s the matter with you, Emerson? Get out of this car!”
Emerson gave a last glance to make sure the parking lot was empty. Then he leaned over and delivered a short judo blow to the colonel’s throat. The man coughed once and started to sag, and Emerson broke his neck with a second blow.
He slid over the body into the driver’s seat and edged the car quickly out of the lot. The highway to Colonel China’s rented house had been carefully covered, and Emerson knew exactly the right place for the accident. He aimed the car for the guard rail and jumped.
It started burning at the bottom of the gully, and he had to keep low to avoid being silhouetted by the flames.
Emerson had killed a great many men in the brief years since the war. It didn’t bother him any more, if it ever had. He reported to a quiet man behind a desk in Washington and went where he was sent, to contact people like Visor and Mona in dingy back rooms. Sometimes he wondered how much official Washington ever knew of his activities, if they knew anything. Perhaps, in the bureaucratic confusion of the postwar world, he was a lost segment simply serving the whims of some minor department head. But the truth of Emerson was that he didn’t really care.
He walked back into town, thinking abstractly that he would like to see Mona again before he left Augsheim. The city was sleeping, and he strolled for a long while among the ruins, seeing them for the first time bathed in a silvery moonglow. The mists of the previous night had dissipated, and the air was clear with November coolness.