Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
THE MAN IN SLEEVES CASE
It was a hot summer day in Wales. The year was 1953. The pub was a quaint place, with an old waiter who would wear rustic clothing and an unkempt walrus mustache. The clients were mostly local, many of them farmers, though some were workers from a recently opened factory. At first the opening had provoked strife amongst the highly traditional local population. Eventually the local economy grew and the pub's clientele doubled. So the bartender found himself a supporter of the new industry. Along with the positive changes, there had been a negative change; conflict between the community of farmers and the factory workers who only recently moved in was far from uncommon. The quaint little pub was having increasingly frequent brawls. Luckily the old barman always knew who to call upon when a fight broke out: the local rabbi.
"And ye fish that I caught at Stillmirror lake was half my body length; that'nt no bass."
A small group had gathered around the drunken man. Amongst them was a stranger. He had absurdly long sleeves for the weather and wore mitts, which would leave one to believe hat he could have been burnt by a fire or some acid. Yet his face, which was not covered, showed no signs of being maimed in any way.
The doors to the pub burst open and a group of three soldiers entered the room. The crowd cheered as they came in, clad in uniforms. The barman offered, "Free drinks for those who defend our nation?"
One of the younger soldiers was about to nod when the officer pushed him back and replied for the group, "No, we'll pay like everyone else." This brought a second round of cheers from the crowd.
"So what did ye do? We're running out of stories," asked the bartender as he poured a pint for the soldiers.
Obviously enjoying the attention, the youngest in the group recounted, "Hunting for S.S. in hiding. Easy to spot; they all have swastikas tattooed on their back. We found one, and ... " his speech was interrupted by the arrival of the rabbi. The bartender served him soda, as he knew he wouldn't drink any alcohol. After the rabbi, came a factory worker, Ol'one-eye Sam. The rounded man always wore a grease-stained white shirt. He had one eye, which he had lost in a fight. Ironically, during the war the Sam had hid from the recruitment officers. Yet curiously, he would always get in fights. The ugly man took out his own bottle of whiskey and asked the bartender for a cup of water. The bartender glared at him, but gave him the cup. He emptied it by throwing the water in the face of the rabbi next to him. He then poured whiskey into his cup as if nothing had happened. Next he went to a child.
The 8-year-old boy would never go to the pub, but his grandfather was sick and had sent his grandson to fetch a pint for him. Sam knew the boy would bring ample change. So he started blurting out threats as he wanted the child's money. The rabbi then stepped up and started taking money out of his pocket and offered it to the man if he would let the boy go. But Sam thrust a punch in the rabbi's face and sent him back. The youngest soldier, who had been raging inside the whole time, stepped up and tried to throw a strike at Sam, but was caught halfway by one of Sam's fellow co-workers. The two other soldiers stood to help their friend and one of the farmers, seeing an opportunity to take revenge on the factory worker, stood at the soldiers' side. Ol'one-Eye Sam pushed the young soldier flat to the ground and in a matter of minutes a large melee had started.
During the melee, the stranger who covered his body had his shirt ripped off, to reveal over a dozen swastika tattoos. Almost instantly the fighting stopped. Some of the swastikas had been turned into square tattoos. But in the middle of the tattoos, there was a brand, which could not be altered. Taking Sam by surprise, two of the soldiers grabbed him by the neck and gave him to several farmers who dragged him out of the pub. Then the officer simply said while staring at the ugly, red swastika brand that had formed ugly bumps around it, "Well, well. What do we have here? This would make the second kraut we catch in a day and the fifth in a week, a record for the regiment."
The man covered in swastikas sat in a chair, devastated, and spoke for the first time, "My name is Sergeant Jonathan Wellsburg, of Her Majesty's Navy and I have been missing in action since February 12th, 1944. I can explain myself but it's a long story."
The officer replied, "You'd better have an explanation, Jonathan, because if we find you guilty of anything, you'll face the death penalty. If you are who you say, you'll face it for desertion." The officer turned to the private standing next to him and ordered, "Go find a telephone and inform Central Intelligence of our catch." The rabbi walked up to Jonathan and spat out a few angry words before leaving the pub.
Jonathan sighed and started his story. "Nine years ago, I was on a mission. My assignment was to find a member of the French Resistance who had vital information. It was mentioned that he had been smuggling Jewish children to England and it was implied that I help him. I was taking a small plane with six other soldiers. Amongst them was Lieutenant Dennes. The flight was going well until we had to descend for the landing. We were spotted by German anti-air cannons and were shot down. Three of us managed to escape with parachutes: Private Cordate, Lieutenant Dennes, and I. We were not far from our destination, only 30 miles. The first thing we did when we landed was remove our parachutes and run; we knew we had been seen and we knew we'd be chased with bloodhounds. Dennes had a brilliant idea of not bothering to bury the parachutes, of just hurriedly picking out the needed supplies and putting them in our boots, which were of water-proof rubber. We then sealed the boots under an open flame. We had estimated that we had a 15-minute lead. Then we ran in our stockings to the nearest river. Any man with at least an ounce of common sense would be able to tell that if you jumped into the river, you'd be carried downstream where the Germans would certainly be waiting. But Dennes' idea was not to swim in the river, but to merely walk in the mud on its edge until we arrived at a lake. By walking in the mud, we left large footprints, which were impossible to conceal. But unable to use the Bloodhounds that couldn't smell in the mud, the Germans would be heavily handicapped. We walked for several minutes until we found a lake, which we crossed by swimming. Then, Dennes ordered us to wait in hiding for the Germans to come looking for us on the perimeter of the lake. They eventually came and Dennes looked for a lone, poorly guarded vehicle that we assaulted, quickly killing the driver and surrounding soldiers. We took their uniforms and drove the vehicle due north, to our destination. On several occasions, we were stopped by the occasional German patrol. But each time, we simply said we were given orders to track down a commandeered vehicle."
The British officer itched his chin and remarked, "All that would explain is why you went missing, Jonathan. Not why you disappeared for nine years and certainly not why you have all of those swastikas on you."
"Let me continue," begged Jonathan. "When we met up with the French Resistance, it was decided that Lieutenant Dennes would return to England several days later with the intelligence. Private Cordate and I were ordered to stay with the French Resistance and to do whatever they told us. Cordate was killed while trying to sabotage railroad tracks used to ship men and supplies from Berlin. I was assigned to escort one of the Jewish children on my way back to England, as the mission had been a success. His name was Broxberg. In order to prevent a large number of Jewish children from escaping, the Germans had put an ordinance, limiting an adult to accompanying one child to cross the Spanish border. From there we would take a three-day train trip to the coast where we would be able to take a ship back to England. Everything went fine with only one German check until the train ride. I got to know Broxberg pretty well: he was brilliant at math and aspired to becoming a lawyer. Things started going bad when we were in Spain; the train had to stop 12 miles from the coast and a whole contingent of German troops, also taking a ship but to some other destination, joined us. Initially, they were nice and joked around with Broxberg, even giving him chocolate. An officer came up to me asked if I was the parent. My German was very good and that is why I had been chosen for the mission, but I could never get my adjectives right. When I said that I was the parent of the brilliant child, the officer said that I spoke with a British accent and asked me, still not suspecting anything, why I was taking the train. So I used my undercover story that I was a wealthy man taking a vacation in Spain, but that my wife had suddenly died and so I had to return to England at once. I had designed the fanciful background story, because if I admitted to being English, I would look less suspicious and it worked for the first check. The German officer said that because of bureaucratic protocol, he had to check all identification cards of British passengers. My fake identification card had a flaw that hadn't been noticed before. They found us; Broxberg was sent to Austerlitz.
I was questioned about the location of British ships, even civilian transports. When I refused to say anything, they tortured me; they tattooed swastikas on me; branded swastikas on me; or sometimes took a knife and carved swastikas on me."
When the officer was about to object when Jonathan quickly cut in, "My engagement to the military was only three years long, so I've technically committed no offence."
The officer simply snickered, doubt in his voice, then replied, "Once I caught an S.S. and had to confine him for several weeks. In that time he compulsively carved swastikas on himself. Wouldn't surprise me if you had some similar story. Besides, that doesn't explain why you are in the United Kingdom right now, especially Wales."
Jonathan now desperately replied, "In America, I faced trouble with reintegration into normal society because of what they did to me. So I decided to go find Lieutenant Dennes, who apparently had survived. I heard this when I was in Russia."
The officer spat in his face and snickered, "You're probably here to piss on the urns of those you killed in some concentration camp before you wreak havoc and kill more innocents." The officer lit a cigarette and yelled for the two other soldiers to each take Jonathan by one arm and drag him into a jeep that had just arrived outside of the pub. Before being tossed into the jeep, the officer whispered something in his ear: "It's your word against that of the court."
The trial went very poorly; Jonathan was convicted of once being a member of the S.S. Records were examined and Lieutenant Dennes was found to have died in 1952. The military records, which could have proved Jonathan's innocence, were classified, and real S.S. members, hoping to alleviate their sentence blindly accused him of murder, treachery, and anything else they thought of. Jonathan was to be executed three miles away from the pub.
Jonathan had several blocks to cross between the courthouse and the vehicle that would take him to where he would be executed. Between him and the vehicle, a large, angry crowd had formed, many of which where Holocaust survivors or veterans. As several police officers dragged him down the street, anything from rotten tomatoes to smelly pairs of shoes were thrown at him. The crowd included an old man; a farmer dressed in dirty overalls; a woman who was waving a brand on her arm that indicated a number; and young man in his twenties who was calling him names. When Jonathan passed the young man, he jumped on Jonathan and cried his name. At first Jonathan did not recognize him and thought the young man was trying to strike at him, but then he recognized who the young lawyer was: Broxberg.
"How did it go?" asked Broxberg to Jonathan as he stepped out of the Plastic Surgery room.
Jonathan looked at his still mangled chest, and then replied, "Bad, but in time it will heal."
This story has all the attributes of a good mystery, while reading like an incident that really happened. It paints a convincing picture of post-war England, a challenge for any writer, but particularly for a such a young writer.