The Captain at the Gate
The knot on the rope holding the boat to the dock had swollen in the rain. As Rebecca bailed out the rainwater from the bottom of the boat, Maureen worked at the knot. Under her breath she cursed the stubborn hemp. Peter, ignoring the women, remained at the edge of the dock. He peered into the dark hoping that Alex would come.
A short sharp crack of sound came from Kilmarnock Hill. Maureen prayed that it was thunder, knowing as she clawed at the rope that it was not. At last she felt the knot loosen. As she untied the rope, she looked over at the boy. Maureen knew what she had promised Alex. She had every intention of carrying out his wishes. Try as hard as she could, Maureen could not keep from thinking of what that creature had done. During the hurried run down the path to the dock she kept reminding herself that the boy was not to blame but her heart had told her otherwise.
As she pulled the rope free, she called out to him. “Peter, get in the boat.”
Another explosion broke the stillness and echoed among the hills. The three of them stared toward the hill, two of them believing that a storm might be approaching. Only one of them knew what had happened. Maureen stifled her fear. Once more she called to Peter. When he failed to respond she ran forward and grabbed him by his right arm.
Peter swiveled out of her grasp, kicking her in the right ankle. In her eyes he could see the same contempt from her he had seen in the Leugers, in Radek, and in the servants. She knew him for what he was. “You lying bitch,” he screamed. “I hate you.” He hurled Alex’s bag at her and darted off into the dark, back toward Alex.
Stunned, Maureen could only look on as he disappeared.
“Let him go, Maureen,” said Rebecca. “He can go with Alex.”
She could; Maureen told herself. She could just leave. Once in the boat she and her baby would be safe, but she had promised Alex. If she ran fast enough, she could catch Peter before he reached the house. Still looking at the path up which the boy had disappeared, she called back to Rebecca. “Get to the village. Tell Ian to come as fast as he can ride.”
“But . . .”
“Do it.” Before Rebecca could protest, Maureen was gone.
Franz kicked open the closet in Maureen’s room. Damn the old bastard. MacTavish had led them right into a trap, but how had he known that they were coming? Boyd. Another useless bastard. Franz would strangle him with his own hands when he next saw him. He flung a dress down onto the floor. With Ferdie gone what was he supposed to do by himself? This damn house had two floors and two exits. How was he to watch them all? With the butt of his gun he smashed open each bedroom door, overturning beds, breaking into closets and blanket chests, rooting out any possible hiding place. Useless. The pig could have sneaked past without his even knowing it. Radek would be furious if the pig got away. Franz could always lie but what if the pig should reappear as a witness to the old man’s murder? Oh Jesus. It could be anywhere in the main house or hiding in the outbuildings.
As he strode out of the room, his eyes settled on a lamp sitting on a small night table. Franz stopped. He could do one thing. Franz could burn him out. At the very least he would make the doctor’s family pay for what the old man had done to Ferdie. He picked up the unlit lamp and hurled it against the wall.
Peter knew only one thing. Alex was in the house. He paid no attention to the calls behind him and ignored the stones over which he had tripped. The slick dampness of the ground beneath him had not kept him from running as fast as he could back to the house. As he ran, he kept thinking that Alex might be ill again. Leaving Alex alone was just like her. He would not have done it. Stupid bitch.
Franz would have to bring Ferdie. He could not take the chance of his brother being recognized. He would dump him in a swamp somewhere. Once in the kitchen, he would light the fire. From there, with the help of the lamp oil he had scattered about, it would soon spread through the house. With any luck it would drive the pig out from his hiding place. Franz could then finish him. The fire would attract people but Franz would chance that. It would take them time to arrive. If anyone did see him riding away, they would be too concerned with fighting the flames to stop him.
As he descended the stairs, Ferdie draped over his shoulders; he heard the back door open. Franz breathed a curse. The intruder had cut off his escape route. He would have to retreat and find a hiding place upstairs. Then a single question asked in a familiar voice made everything so much easier.
As Peter felt his way out of the dining room into the main hall, he considered what he had found in the kitchen. He thought it odd, the unlocked door and broken window. Alex must have had an accident. That was why he was unable to come. Peter was glad that he had returned. He wondered what had happened to the bitch. Perhaps she was somewhere behind him. Perhaps she had given up. He hoped so. They did not need her.
From the bottom of the stairs he could see a light in Alex’s room. He heard some noise coming from there, the scrapping of a table, the dragging of something heavy. Peter knew the cause. The doctor was ill. Peter felt his way up the stair. Once on the landing he noticed that the bedroom doors were open. The heavy stench of oil filled the air. If he had looked any closer, he might have noticed the broken locks and splintered wood but he could think only of Alex.
Peter pushed open the door to Alex’s room. Something was wrong. A small rectangular lantern sat on the dresser. He had never seen that lantern before. An overturned table caught his attention. The large chair had also been upset, as had his bed. They kept him from seeing the rear of the room. In the back of his mind a voice similar to Alex’s told him to leave but he could not leave without seeing Alex. Peter could only assume that Alex had fallen. Then he saw him lying in bed under the blankets. He shook him. “Doctor MacTavish. Are you ill, doctor?”
Peter pulled back the blankets to stare into the lifeless eyes of Ferdinand Leuger. As he stepped back, he heard, spoken in German, words he had dreamed of never having to hear again.
Franz stepped out from behind the door; Ferdie’s shotgun balanced under one arm. “Are you looking for your friend?”
Peter lunged for the door. Franz kicked it shut in front of him. Before Peter could step back, Franz wrapped the fingers of his left hand in the boy’s hair. He threw him on top of Ferdie. When Peter struggled to rise, Franz clouted him across the back of his head, stunning him. “Don’t go anywhere, pig. I’ve just started. Move again and I’ll hit you harder. Understand?”
Peter tried to think. Another slap struck the back of his head.
Franz slapped him again. “Yes what?”
Alex must be hiding. Franz would not want Alex. If he went away, Alex would be safe. “Yes, Your Excellency.”
“What are you pig?”
“Nothing, Your Excellency.”
Franz smiled. “Just like old times, isn’t it, Josef? Pity about poor Ferdie. You’re wondering where your friend is, aren’t you, pig.”
“Don’t hurt him . . . please,” Peter whimpered. “He doesn’t know anything.”
“Who? Your friend?”
“I’ll go with you. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Just like the whore, Franz told himself. He remembered how she had simpered and begged. Why should the pig be any different? “I don’t want you to come with me, pig. Do you remember what I told you about my orders changing? They did. Frederick’s dead. What do I need you for?”
He pressed the muzzles of the shotgun against the back of the boy’s head. He could do it now. Radek would be satisfied but not Franz. He pulled the boy up by his hair. “Let’s find your friend first, shall we, pig?”
He dragged the boy off the bed. A swipe of the gun barrels knocked the table out of the way revealing Alex’s body. He heaved Peter forward, throwing him onto Alex. The weight of the gun barrels pressed against the back of Peter’s skull smothering his attempt to scream forcing his face down into Alex’s bloodied chest.
“Have you ever noticed, pig, people die when you make friends with them. First you killed the old priest. You remember him. You couldn’t keep quiet so we had to string him up. He shit himself like a baby. So we made
you clean it up. But you don’t learn do you pig? Now, him. Tell me, pig, did you ever tell him what you are?”
A boot lashed Peter’s left thigh.
“Answer me, pig.”
“No,” he whispered.
Franz kicked him again, softer this time. “No, what?”
“No . . . Your Excellency.”
Franz yanked the boy’s head up by the hair. “You’re a liar, Josef, a stinking liar. Tell me the truth and I won’t hurt you any more.”
“I’m not . . . I’m not lying. He wouldn’t have wanted me if he had known. You know that.”
Franz released his grip on Josef’s hair, letting him drop his head forward. Again he pressed the gun barrels against the boy’s skull. “You never told him?”
Franz thought for a moment. Perhaps the pig was telling the truth. Did it matter? “That still makes you a liar, Josef. You never told him the truth, did you?”
He waited for a reply. When none came, he swung back his right foot. Before Franz could kick him again, Josef whispered. “No.”
Franz would have to end this soon. The pig could help him lug Ferdie down the stairs. He would tie Josef up and throw him onto Ferdie’s horse. Somewhere between here and Farmersville Franz would find a swamp. By morning, Franz, free of both Ferdie and the pig, would be miles away. With any luck people would blame the pig for killing the old man and starting the fire. Before he left, he wanted to hear one last thing from Josef. “Perhaps he did know, Pig. Perhaps he did. That was why he wanted you, wasn’t it?”
“It’s not true,” Josef whispered. He winced as the boot struck him.
“Tell me the truth. What was it like with him? Was it as good as it was with Frederick?”
“He didn’t . . .”
Again the boot lashed out. “Why else would he have wanted you?”
“He wanted . . .”
”What? What did he want?”
Josef looked at the dead man’s face. “He wanted me to be his son.”
Again the boot struck. Franz’s voice shrieked. “Stinking liar! There’s only one reason why anyone would want you. You know that, don’t you pig?”
Franz lowered the gun barrels against the boy’s head. “Tell me the truth, pig.”
“Get away from him.”
Franz turned to see a small woman in a black jacket and mud-splattered brown dress. Between her gloved hands she held an ancient pistol identical to the one the old man had used.
Maureen had assumed that she could overtake Peter before he could reach the house. She failed to account for the slipperiness of the footing, the boy’s speed and her mind telling her that one stumble could kill her baby. Although she tried not to think of it, what might lie ahead also slowed her steps. Peter, having only one thought in his head, that Alex was in the house, had not slowed. Unable to overtake him, Maureen followed behind until she found herself standing outside the back door of the house.
The open kitchen door told her that the boy had entered the house. Who had opened the door for him? Against all logic she told herself that it must have been Alex. She could have been wrong about the noise. She stepped into the darkened, silent kitchen. As she passed the window, she felt something crunching beneath her feet. She knelt and touched something sharp scattered on the floor. Glass. Maureen looked up at the smashed window pane.
Someone had forced their way into the house. Why should she risk herself and her baby for a boy who could not stand the sight of her? Yes, she had promised Alex but he would not have wanted her to risk his grandchild’s life. Alex. He might still be hurt and hiding somewhere. Maureen remembered how she had hurt him before. She could not just walk away without knowing. As she entered the dining room, she heard voices coming from deep within the house.
The voices became clearer as she approached the stairs. She could make out two voices. One was Peter’s. The other belonged to a man. She strained to listen but could not understand the words. Then she heard another sound, of a body being dragged and struck. Maureen ran her tongue over her dry lips. From inside her jacket she pulled out the pistol Alex had given her. She climbed the stairs, her shaking right hand gripping the pistol handle. With every step she wondered why she did not turn and run. The thought of Alex held her to the stairs. The light in the hallway coming from Alex’s bedroom allowed her to see the opened doors of the bedrooms. She looked at the broken lock on the door of her room. She wondered what kind of force could have broken it. She heard the strange man’s voice barking in a foreign language. Catching her breath and raising the pistol, she pushed open the door to Alex’s room.
The man had his back to her. Almost six feet tall and weighing at least one hundred and eighty pounds, he towered over a small body. That small body lay upon another body. Maureen could see enough to know that there was nothing she could do for Alex. From beneath the man’s right arm the butt of a gun protruded. The barrels of the gun had been placed against the back of Peter’s head. As Maureen watched, the man swung a foot back and kicked him. The man shrieked; an ugly taunting that Maureen had heard before, used by older students to bully smaller ones. But this was not a school ground. This taunting foretold murder. Her arms still shaking she raised her pistol and called to the man. She called to the boy. “Come here, Peter.”
Peter remained pressed against Alex.
The man stared at her and at her pistol. He smiled. Instead of backing away he planted a foot on Peter’s back and swiveled towards her pointing his weapon directly at her abdomen. “You’ve never used that before, yes?” He pulled back the hammers of his shotgun.
Maureen looked down at the hammer of her own pistol. It still lay at rest. She had forgotten to pull it back. The act would only take a second, a second that she did not have.
The man stepped towards her. “You are Mrs. McKay, yes? You are with child, yes? I will shoot the child in you first, if you do not put the pistol down, yes?”
The shaking in Maureen’s arms grew worse. All she could think of was that her baby was going to die. She placed the pistol on the floor.
Franz continued to move towards her. “Good. I do not want to hurt a pretty lady like you.” He now stood directly in front of Maureen. Without looking down he gave the pistol a kick. It slid across the floor of the room coming to rest underneath the dresser. Still smiling Franz studied the woman. She was, as Boyd had reported, a bit on the small side. Good. Less resistance. He would keep her alive, for a little while.
As the man pressed forward, Maureen stepped back. She could smell the whiskey on his breath. “Please, just go away,” she murmured. “I won’t tell anyone. Just leave us alone.”
Franz placed a finger against her left cheek. He moved it slowly down the side of her face enjoying the feel of her skin. “First I do my work. Then we talk. We will become friends, yes?”
Maureen brushed the finger away. “Friends with the man who killed my father?”
Franz understood that feeling offended would be natural for her. “He killed my brother. I killed him. Self-defense, yes?”
“The boy? Is that defending yourself?”
Franz looked puzzled. “Boy?”
“Peter. What you’re doing to him.”
Franz smiled. “Ah, the pig.”
“Our name for him, like a pet, yes?” Once she understood the truth any interest or sympathy she had for the pig would evaporate. “Do you want to know why we call him that?”
Franz stepped backwards until he reached Josef. Once more he grabbed Josef by his hair. As Franz smiled at Maureen he barked out another command, this time in English. “Tell the pretty lady why we call you pig.”
Peter closed his eyes. If he pretended hard enough all of this might go away.
Maureen looked on unable to move or speak, her hands pressed over her mouth.
Franz lashed out with his left boot, feeling embarrassed as he did so. He had wanted to make a favorable impression. “Tell her!”
The boy said nothing.
Franz, about to give him another kick, found himself being shoved aside by Maureen.
“Leave him alone.”
Franz placed his right hand around her throat. He had never liked a woman telling him what to do. Franz slapped her just enough to send her sprawling across the floor, the same kind of slap he would have given to Katrina for similar insolence.
Franz reached down and shook Peter loose of Alex. He held him in the air by his coat collar as if he were exhibiting a prize. “Tell the pretty lady what you are. You killed her father. She should know why.”
With every syllable Franz shook him.
Peter kept his eyes squeezed shut. He thought only of the time when Alex and he had been together.
“Tell her, pig!”
Maureen pulled herself back onto her feet. “Stop it, please.”
Franz ignored her. “Do you know why we call him the pig? We found him living with them. We bought him, cleaned him and made him look like a person. Then we gave you a better job, a job that you liked, yes, pig?” Franz released his grip. Peter fell to the floor. He began to crawl back towards Alex. Franz placed a foot upon his back. “Why don’t you tell her about it?”
Peter pressed his face against the floor. Just as well, thought Franz. He would have the pleasure of telling her himself. He removed his foot. “You should be proud, pig. You were very good at it. Go crawl back to your friend.” He watched the boy creeping away. “You have been very bad, haven’t you, pig.”
Smiling he turned back to Maureen. “Why die for something like that?”
Maureen stared down at the floor. A small trickle of blood seeped through a cut in her lip. She wiped it away with the back of her hand, wondering, as she did so what it would be like to die.
“We had another reason why we called him pig.”
Maureen looked up. She knew what was going to come. “Stop it.”
Franz smiled and threw back his head. The swagger of his shoulders reminded Maureen for the briefest of moments of the portrait of James.
“Have you seen two pigs fuck? Only he was not the boar.” Franz looked at Peter. “Isn’t that right, sow?”
Maureen stepped towards him. As she wiped away the blood trickling from her mouth she looked down at the body of her father and at his son moaning beside it. She looked at the man who had destroyed them both gloating as if he had done a great and noble deed. She knew that she and her child would die at the hands of this madman. In all of it she felt strangely calm. “Why did you say that,” she asked as if she were addressing an unruly student.
“Why not?” Franz replied feeling a tiny bit defensive. “It was true.”
“True? You stupid, evil animal. What do you know about truth?” Her words strangled by anger and revulsion, Maureen swung back her right hand to strike him. Franz caught it by the wrist and squeezed. He frowned. Her revulsion should be directed at the pig, not at him. Besides, he had never liked being called stupid. The woman needed another lesson. He prodded Maureen’s stomach with the barrels of his shotgun. Franz twisted her arm pressing it against her back. Clamping the gun against her chest Franz pinned the woman against him. He leaned down. His tongue felt her left cheek.
Radek had told him never to leave an enemy alive at his back. Franz had never been very good at listening, not when it came to his small pleasures. He had forgotten Josef but even if he had remembered him, Franz would not have considered him important. The pig was dead. There remained only the small matter of stopping his breathing.
Josef would have agreed with him. If Franz had decided to kill him there and then, Josef would have done nothing to stop it. If Franz had only left Maureen alone, Josef would have remained beside Alex allowing Franz to do whatever he wished, but not to her. Alex had loved her.
As Franz tasted Maureen’s skin eighty-five pounds of rage struck. The force of the boy’s charge staggered Franz. He wheeled away from Maureen. Josef, clinging to his hair, pummeled him. Franz cursed, pounding Josef’s back with his empty hand. Josef’s charge had no thought, no plan. Franz’s experience in roughhouse fighting and size more than made up for Josef’s one advantage, surprise. Within a few seconds Franz regained his balance. With a swipe of the shotgun he broke the boy’s grasp and sent him hurtling against the overturned table. Franz swung his gun up pointing the barrels directly at Josef’s chest.
As Franz pressed the triggers, Maureen jammed the gun barrels up towards the ceiling. The barrels exploded, the shot smashing into the plaster. Franz found himself holding an empty gun and looking into Maureen’s face. Burning with anger she breathed one word. “Bastard.”
Whatever self-control the man had, dissolved. He slammed the butt of the gun into her chest. As she staggered back, he struck her as hard as he could across the face knocking her to the ground. He grabbed her by the bonnet, dragging her up onto her feet and threw her face first against the dresser. Tossing the gun aside, he pushed her down against the top of the dresser. Using both hands he ripped the jacket off her back.
Josef looked on. He knew what Franz would do. Josef knew he could not stop it. If he attacked Franz, he would just be swept aside again. Then his hands touched something, the hilt of Alex’s sword, lying forgotten where it had fallen, hidden by a table leg.
Josef staggered to his feet. Again he rammed Franz in the back. With both hands holding the sword, he slashed at Franz’s left leg ripping through cloth and flesh. Screaming Franz wheeled, releasing Maureen. He lurched towards Josef, blood streaming down his trousers leg. The wound slowed but did not stop him. Josef knew it would not. He could not stop Franz anymore than he could stop a storm. Neither did he wish to stop him. He might, however, give Maureen a few seconds to escape. He owed Alex that.
As Franz stumbled towards him, Josef stepped back, holding the sword up in his hands. Franz hesitated. Somewhere in his sluggish mind a plan evolved. He swooped down and grabbed the shotgun. Josef swung the blade. It slammed against the barrel of the shotgun jolting him. Franz smiled and moved towards him. Josef knew that if he kept retreating he could pull Franz away from Maureen. He could see the woman crawling towards the door. If he could find a way . . . The barrel of the shotgun smashed against the sword shaking his grip.
Maureen felt the man’s hands releasing her. Her knees too weak to support her she slid towards the floor. She caught herself by the edge of the dresser. The one thing her mind could focus on was the open door. Beyond it lay safety. She had staggered halfway towards it when she remembered Peter. Maureen turned her head to see the man’s back. As the man moved, Peter’s head and upper body appeared. He held a sword. Alex’s sword. The boy noticed her looking at him. He mouthed one word. “Go.”
The voice that always told her to be logical and sensible now spoke up. She had to leave. She had her child to save. As she listened to the voice, she looked into Peter’s eyes. In them she saw that for Peter there would be no escape except the one he would find at the hands of that man. She reeled towards the door.
Josef stepped back as Franz approached. He had the blade but Franz could use the barrels of the shotgun to beat it off. Franz also had a longer reach. He would want to close in and use a knife or his hands. Josef estimated that he might hold Franz off for two or three minutes. That would be enough to allow Maureen to get out of the house.
Again Josef stepped back. Behind his feet he felt Alex’s body. He could keep retreating leaving Alex behind. That would be the sensible thing to do. Instead he waited for Franz to approach. As he waited, he felt a peace settling over him. He recalled one of Alex’s favorite poems. The old man had read it to him once on a quiet evening.
And up spoke brave Horatius,
The captain at the gate
To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds.
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods.
Ridiculous, Josef told himself. The pig had no gods, no temples, no fathers; just the memory of an old man who had allowed him to be his son. Alex had died because of that mistake. It had all been a lie. Even so, he could not give it up.
Although his arms were tired he held the sword a little higher as Franz approached. Franz swung to the left. Josef swung with him. Franz lunged to the right. Josef followed. Franz’s right boot lashed out hooking the back of the boy’s legs. Josef, yanked off balance, fell backward. Before he could recover Franz clamped a boot on his right wrist squeezing it forcing Josef to release the sword. Ignoring Josef’s kicking legs; Franz bent forward and seized him by the throat. Josef’s resistance had lasted just a little more than two minutes. He was still kicking when Franz hauled him up into the air. Franz held him out at arm’s length. He squeezed the boy’s throat. . Josef ceased his kicking. Unable to do more he closed his eyes. His last thought, as consciousness left him, gave him some comfort. Alex had never known what he was.