Just One Game
"Sorry, Burt, but these are for someone special!"
"You mean I'm not special? That's crazy talk."
"I promise. The next batch will be for you and you alone."
"I hope so!"
Burt, sitting behind the large wheel of the bus, laughed heartily. Doris was holding a plate of her semi-famous chocolate chip cookies. They were carefully wrapped in plastic and were meant for only one person. Burt was not that person, to his dismay. Nevertheless, he dutifully opened the doors of the bus to let Doris through. She gave him a wink as he did so. Her friends sitting in the back waved and said their goodbyes.
Doris carefully stepped off the bus and onto the pavement. She was forced to turn her body sideways in order to fit her portly frame through the doors. They closed behind her, and with a screech, the bus slowly lumbered forward toward its next stop. The chilly October air whipped across her face in a sudden burst, ruffling her hair. Doris gripped the china plate even tighter in her hands as she marched down the sidewalk. Each step she took heightened her anticipation and excitement.
"I do hope he likes them," Doris thought to herself over and over again.
They were, after all, very special cookies for a very special person. She paid little heed to the regular haunts that she passed on her way to the corner of 6th Street and Maryland Avenue. The drug stores were busy as children excitedly rushed to secure their last-minute Halloween costumes before they sold out. Doris smiled and took a peek into her purse. It was another special gift, although this one was more of a gag. She wondered if he would find it funny. Doris thought it was hilarious.
Another few minutes and she arrived at the entrance to the apartment building. Every step filled her chest like a balloon being inflated. The drab-looking structure loomed tall above her, being at least twenty stories high. It was monolithic. Intimidating. Doris knew it wasn't the building per se that made her uncomfortable. She knew why. But on this day, looking at the apartment made Doris nearly jump out of her skin with exhilaration. Today, after all, was a very special day. She was going to meet a very special person.
Doris paused in front of the rickety wooden steps that led into the building. With one hand, she adjusted her hair, hoping that it was just right. She straightened her dress as well. It was white, coming down to about her ankles, with a red floral pattern. After a moment of hesitation, she was satisfied that everything was in its proper place. Doris regarded the plate of cookies once more.
"I do hope he likes them."
She ascended the alarmingly decrepit stairs. Her jowls bounced up and down with each labored step. Once through the glass doors, she paid no heed to the numbered mailboxes. Doris had made this journey twice before. This, however, was a momentous day for both of them. Her destination was Apartment 3C. That's where her special friend resided.
Doris braced herself as if she were preparing for the Twelve Labors of Hercules. She climbed the interior staircase, taking breaks along the way to catch her breath. Doris took her time, not wanting to overtax herself. She needed to look and feel her best before meeting her friend. Today was the day... she knew it. She felt it in every part of her body down to her very bones. When she reached her intended floor, Doris's hands began to tremble. She was annoyed. This was no time to be nervous, she told herself. Doris gritted her teeth and, with an iron determination, willed herself to remain calm. Her body obeyed. Satisfied, she continued down the dimly lit hallway.
Level C was not an impressive floor, nor were the rest, for that matter. The carpet, once red but now seemingly beige, hadn't been changed in at least forty years. The wallpaper peeled in certain spots, and the doors to the apartments looked about as old as the carpet. Only the door numbers looked new, shiny, and made of brass. The old ones had fallen off quite some time ago. Surrounding it all was an oppressive chilliness that made her shudder. Doris didn't mind. The place was assuredly unimpressive, but she wasn't going to hold that against him. She had once lived in similarly meager surroundings. Besides, the decor didn't matter today. It was a special day, and Doris was going to meet her special friend.
She stopped in front of 3C. A little plaque under the number read:
The name always struck Doris as a bit funny for some reason. She couldn't help but chuckle to herself when she first heard it. But, just like her current surroundings, the name didn't matter. What was important to Doris was that Joseph occupied a unique place in the depths of her heart. Although they had only known each other for two months, Doris felt confident the time was right to take things to the next level. Joseph was much too shy, she knew, to be the one to initiate such things. Doris straightened her hair for what was probably the thousandth time and drew a deep breath. She exhaled as she knocked on the door.
Doris noticed a shadow appear underneath the frame. Not a word was spoken as the man on the other side looked through the peephole. Doris flashed her pearl-white teeth in a broad smile. Soon enough, the sound of locks was heard clinking out of place. The door was swung open slowly and carefully.
A thin, stern-looking man in his early seventies opened the door. He wore a white, buttoned-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up along with dark pants and suspenders. The left side of his face bore a massive scar that began at the corner of his mouth and curved upwards toward his cheekbone. It had the somewhat off-putting effect of always exhibiting a sort of sideways grin, even when he wasn't smiling. Keen, inquisitive eyes constantly darted hither and thither across his sockets as if they were in constant search of something. A smartly trimmed mustache and goatee adorned a prominent chin. His eyes were as blue as glaciers. The old man's sharp features softened when he spotted the familiar face.
They greeted each other warmly and exchanged the usual pleasantries. He gave Doris an affectionate peck on the cheek, and her stomach lurched. Joseph's thin, grey eyebrows extended upwards in a look of genuine satisfaction when he caught sight of the cookies.
"For me?" he said in his elegant Bavarian accent.
Doris assured Joseph that the baked goods indeed belonged to him. He took the plate in his hands and looked at her with a strange expression on his face.
"You know, I was afraid you weren't coming to visit today," said Joseph with apparent relief in his voice.
"Oh? Why is that?"
"It's silly. You're still a young woman, and... well I suppose I'm just waiting for the day you forget about me and leave for someone younger."
Doris made a face. "I'm not that young anymore, although I appreciate the compliment. Besides, I'd never, ever forget about you."
"Please," replied Joseph. "Come in."
He stepped out of the way to allow Doris through the threshold. Joseph set aside the plate of cookies on the kitchen table and grabbed two. He placed one in his mouth while the other he gave to Doris. Joseph winked at her, and she blushed ever so slightly. The old man beckoned her into his living room.
Joseph's apartment was not much of an improvement from the sights in the hallway. The place was spotlessly clean, but everything looked quite old. His possessions were repaired rather than bought anew. The couch where Joseph sat was a perfect example. The colors of the floral pattern were hopelessly faded while blemishes and tears were stitched back together. A sturdy, oaken coffee table sat in the middle of the room. Doris took a seat in a timeworn recliner that sported a few ancient stains. The only item of luxury that adorned the room was a brand-new Sony Trinitron television set.
Doris always chose the recliner since it was the closest to the window. She enjoyed how the lingering rays of the setting sun seemed to embrace her entire body. Joseph never shared that sentiment. He always said the sunlight hurt his eyes. They started things off with some small talk: the weather, traffic, and so forth. After a while, the old man relaxed his normally erect posture. He allowed his wiry frame to sink deeper into the sofa. Doris changed the subject.
"I have a little bit of a confession to make," she said playfully.
"Really? Keeping secrets from me?" he replied with a smirk.
"Oh, nothing that serious. It's embarrassing to admit, but I have to say that I was actually intimidated by you the first time we met."
Joseph grunted. "Intimidated? At a farmer's market? I picked up your purse for you when you dropped it. I was a perfect gentleman, if anything."
"I know, it's silly." Doris laughed. "But I don't feel that way anymore. Spending time with you these last two months… it's been really great." She wagged her finger at him. "Although you didn't always make it easy. It seemed like an eternity before you let me see your apartment."
He looked at the floor. "My social circle isn't very extensive. It takes a while for me to warm up to people. That's all. Besides, this apartment isn't exactly one of my main selling points."
"Well, it all worked out for the best," she replied happily. "You know, sometimes I feel like it was destiny. Meeting each other, I mean. Two lonely souls brought together by… God perhaps?"
Joseph rolled his eyes and snorted at the same time. "God? Please. The mind Doris." He tapped his cranium with his forefinger. "Logic has always guided my principles, even when the facts were unpleasant to acknowledge. I've never had much use for mystical nonsense." Doris frowned.
"But," he added hastily. "To each his own."
"I won't hold it against you," she replied. "Even if it makes you a heathen." The old man cracked a small smile.
The sun had finally disappeared behind the horizon. Trick-or-Treaters would soon start making the rounds. Joseph switched on an ancient lamp that sat on the end table next to him.
"Dear me!" exclaimed Doris suddenly. "I almost forgot your other present."
"More presents?" said Joseph, visibly surprised. "Doris, I hope you didn't go to any trouble."
"Well," she replied peevishly. "I guess it's my turn to be a little embarrassed."
Doris slid from her purse an intricately folded Halloween mask. She undid it and held up the piece of green and black latex to Joseph's face.
"Isn't it funny?" she chuckled. It was a mask of Frankenstein from the 1931 Universal film.
Joseph narrowed his eyes. His demeanor abruptly darkened, almost as if a switch had been flipped. The stiffness in his body returned, once again very alert. It was like a fox who had just been caught in the henhouse. Any trace of mirth vanished from his face.
Doris stopped laughing. "I thought maybe you'd wear it tonight. You know… since it's Halloween." Her voice had a twinge of apology to it.
Joseph recovered but wasn't quite able to mask his irritation. "No, I don't think I will," he replied crisply. He snatched it out of her grasp a little too quickly. Doris flinched.
The old man regarded the mask for a second or two before tossing it onto the couch. He saw the look on Doris' face, and like a talented musician, he changed his tune right away.
"I……I'm sorry," he said apologetically. "I didn't mean to snatch it out of your hands like that. I just think that… well, it's a childish joke."
"No, I'm the one who's sorry," replied Doris. "I know you're not one for silly games. I only wanted for you to… come out of your shell a little bit more, you know?"
Joseph's expression softened. "Don't try to dig too deeply. You never know what you might find." He smirked again.
"Oh, I think I already have a pretty good idea of what lies beneath that stony surface," said Doris softly.
Joseph smiled broadly, almost hideously. His deformity could have a bone-chilling effect in certain lights. A shiver ran down Doris's spine, but once more, she mastered her emotions. It was time. A special game for her special friend.
"I know what we can do," continued Doris cheerfully. "How about a game?"
The smile vanished from Joseph's face. Doris gathered that she had annoyed him once more. She added quickly:
"A mental one. I know how brainy you are. Much smarter than a simple Chrysler foreman." He scowled at the mention of his former occupation.
"It'll be fun. Just one game. We'll play riddles!"
Joseph twisted his disfigured mouth in an odd direction, and he furrowed his brow. He glanced at the discarded Halloween mask lying next to him. Joseph took a deep breath and looked Doris in the eye. She met his icy blue gaze.
"Alright," he replied accommodatingly. "Just one game. I find it doubtful it will be a game you will win, but so be it."
Doris grinned. She knew she had the old man now, especially after mentioning his job as a foreman. He intimated to her on several occasions how he felt the work had been beneath him. Joseph would always jump at the chance to prove his superiority at something, particularly if it was a mental challenge. It didn't matter if it was a pointless game. Flexing his intellectual aptitude clearly meant a lot to him.
"Perfect!" she squealed excitedly.
"Alright, but I doubt you stand much of a chance," he replied with poorly-masked arrogance.
"Oh Joey," said Doris connivingly. "I've come up with one that you have no hope of solving. It's an answer you wouldn't think of in your wildest dreams."
This time, Joseph cackled. It was the first time Doris had ever seen him do such a thing. It was a chilling sound. Metallic and yet also somewhat deranged in its hilarity. She couldn't help but flinch once again, but it was doubtful he even noticed. It was actually an insulting demonstration, but Doris let it go. Better that he'll have some fun, she thought.
Joseph covered his mouth as a few remaining giggles slipped out. He composed himself, almost to the point of becoming rigid in his posture.
"I'm sorry, my dear," he said calmly. "You are an intelligent woman, and if anyone ever had a prayer of beating me……it would be you. You like to pray, right?"
"Thank you," she replied, ignoring the jab to her religion. "I'm going to save that one for the end, though. Let's do some preliminaries first. Maybe you'll get exhausted on the way." Doris winked.
The old man stroked the hairs on his chin. "Very well," he replied almost mischievously.
Doris started the contest by throwing some softballs at him. They were simple conundrums that a child wouldn't have much difficulty solving. Joseph, in turn, would brush them aside with disdain. As the minutes wore on, Doris steadily increased the difficulty of her questions. Still, the old man was formidable. A look of boredom seemed to be creeping upon him. He yawned. As his interest waned, Doris snapped him back to attention by abruptly changing the subject yet again.
"We should take a trip sometime," she said almost dreamily. "You and me. I'm only a year away from retirement. That would be fun, right?" He looked at her for a long moment, not quite sure how they arrived at this topic.
"A trip?" He paused. "Maybe. I don't really like to travel much."
"I know the perfect place," she said eagerly. "I'd love to visit Croatia."
Joseph chewed his lower lip. He seemed to be scrutinizing the coffee table with some intensity. Then, he cleared his throat.
"Why in God's name would you go to Croatia? It's not worth dealing with the communists anyway."
"I'd like to see it again. I was born there."
Joseph's body froze. "What? You never told me that."
"I must have!" Doris replied innocently.
The old man shook his head. "No. No, you didn't. I would have remembered something like that."
Doris shrugged. "You ever been there?"
Joseph looked her right in the eye. "No, I haven't." He looked at his watch. "It's getting late. We can finish the game next week."
"I'm sorry," said Doris as she gently placed her hand on Joseph's knee. "I shouldn't have started babbling. Please. It's my last one. I know you can't resist."
He exhaled loudly. "Fine. Let's get on with it."
"Great!" Her joy was clearly palpable. "Here it is:
I'm very well hidden, yet seen every day. I have no recollection of those I slay. A secret I keep, though few may know. A debt needs paying for that which I've sown. Who am I?"
Joseph bore a hole through the woman's head, a being he now regarded as a stranger. He studied her, and for the first time, a chill crept up Doris' spine. The old man's gaze was harshly methodical. Practiced. It was a look he had given many times before. He could instinctively sense that he was in danger now. The only question in his mind was how much?
Finally, Joseph managed a disinterested shrug. "I must confess I don't know the answer to that one, Doris." He looked at his watch again. "Really, I should be getting to bed."
"Oh dear," said Doris softly. "You've really lost a step in your old age."
"Well, you can't win them all," he replied.
"I wasn't referring to the riddle," she said. "You solved that one the moment it left my lips."
"I'm not really in the mood for any more games tonight, Doris." His tone was harsh. In another moment, he was going to get up from his seat.
"At least check your answer," she replied. From her purse, Doris retrieved a small slip of paper neatly folded in half. She set it on the coffee table.
"I never gave you an answer," said Joseph venomously. "What's this about?"
"Stop being silly," she said with a smile. "Open it."
At first, the old man stood his ground. He shot a sideways glance at the piece of paper lying on the table. Then, he looked at Doris. A small, encouraging grin was plastered on her face. She nodded, as a mother would do when exhorting her child to take their first steps. Tentatively, and with some curiosity, he reached for the note and held it in his hands.
"You know what always struck me as odd?" Doris's voice was a whisper. "I never thought your new name did your old one justice…"
The old man's jaw almost hit the floor. He tried to form the words but found himself rendered entirely speechless. It was as if some long-dormant nightmare had become frighteningly real for him. Joseph slowly bowed his head as he gave the tiny slip of paper a hard look. Without saying a word, he opened it. It read:
For a solitary instant, Joseph's eyes belied violent intentions towards Doris. However, to his immense shock, he found himself staring down the smooth, black barrel of a Walther PPK. Previously concealed, Doris had unholstered the weapon while Joseph was reading the note. The old man put his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
"Doris……if this is another joke……I must say it's the worst one yet." He spoke calmly and methodically, like a musician assembling his instrument. He raised an eyebrow at the sight of the gun and regarded it with indifference. Somehow, it failed to unnerve him.
"Don't try to play dumb now," replied Doris coldly. "The look on your face already said it all. And if I'm not mistaken…it also seemed like you were contemplating murder just then. Honestly, I wasn't particularly surprised. It's what you do best, right?"
"I never killed anyone in my life." He took his time, choosing his words carefully.
Doris rolled her eyes. "What I find amusing is that, with a great mind like yours, you didn't figure it out sooner. I'd been giving you little breadcrumbs all evening!" She shook her head disapprovingly. The great detective…just a shell of his former self."
Joseph looked at the mask, staring lifelessly at him. He comprehended something but wasn't about to give Doris the satisfaction.
"Detective?" he snorted. "Doris, I hadn't realized what an ill woman you are. You've clearly mistaken me for someone else. Put that gun down, and I'll call a doctor."
"Shut up," she replied coolly. "The only person sick in the head in this room is you. You're the one who needs the doctor, Erich. You seem to be suffering from selective amnesia." Joseph narrowed his eyes.
"My name isn't Erich," he said, almost choking on the name. Doris simply grinned at him.
Doris's tone was patronizing. "Yes, it is. You are Erich Stengel. Sturmbannführer Erich Stengel to be precise." The corner of Joseph's mouth twitched ever so slightly.
"Oh, I see what this is now," he said gravely. "You think I'm……a Nazi? Some kind of war criminal, I gather?" He laughed. Not every German was guilty in that war, you know."
"I know," she said softly. "But you were." The smirk disappeared from his face.
"Is that so?" His voice was like the grating of metal. "Do you have proof? Or are you just the disturbed woman you clearly seem to be?"
"I'm the proof, Erich."
"What?" He paused. "What are you talking about?"
"We've met before, Erich. Some forty-odd years ago. Don't you remember me?"
Joseph's mouth dropped open. His steely mind worked furiously, but the answer was not forthcoming.
"I never met you that long ago." He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "I don't think I've ever met you before at all. Who are you?"
Doris glanced toward the window. Darkness had fallen. "I thought this evening would be appropriate for our last get-together. Halloween, after all, is the night when all the monsters get to come out of the closet."
She continued. "I'm going to tell you a story, Erich. And I want you to listen very carefully. What I have to say is very important for the both of us." The old man looked as if he was about to say something, then sealed his lips.
"You see, contrary to what you said earlier, you have been to Croatia before. The summer of nineteen-forty-three, to be exact. I was only a teenager, but I remember the day you came to my village. Lamortivec. A name I imagine you remember quite well."
The old man simply stared at her. His demeanor slowly changed with every word Doris spoke. It was like the crumbling of a façade. The kindness and charm he had displayed earlier steadily cracked. His eyes failed to conceal an unsettling coldness, like that of an experienced apex predator, a well-hidden wolf emerging from a flock of sheep.
"I met you there, on June the twenty-third. I remember you distinctly. With a face like that, you're a hard man to forget. Like the stuff of nightmares. Certainly, the one that keeps me up at night. Someone tried to kill you. They aimed for your head but took half your face instead. Lamortivec. My home. We paid the price."
"That afternoon, I was met by the sound of mechanized terror. A strange language filled my ears. The sound of dogs and heavy boots. The clinking of metal. Terrible shouting. Screaming. The screaming was the worst. My mother…whose face has now become a blurry smear in my memories…told me to run. I ran for longer than I should have, my lungs nearly bursting with the exertion. Guilt finally convinced me to turn back."
"I was met with silence when I returned. Awful, unnatural silence. Everything appeared frozen in time. I cried like an aimless fool, barely comprehending what had just happened. Then, I noticed the footprints in the dirt leading into the forest. I followed them, silently retracing the steps like a shadow, for I was a wisp of a girl back then. I came to a freshly-dug pit, and it's here that my memory becomes more volatile."
"Screaming. Gunshots. Thump. Screaming. Gunshots. Thump. And on and on it went until the neat, little rows of humanity became shorter. One of the guards grabbed me from behind. He brought me before an officer…"
Joseph, who had been listening to every word in stony silence, suddenly looked as if he had been jolted with electricity. He met Doris's gaze and squinted, studying her with a calculating efficiency. Then, he let slip the faintest of gasps. Shock and astonishment momentarily melted his icy features. His eyes went wide.
"No, that can't be," he said more to himself than to Doris.
"He was tall. Very gaunt. And he had the bluest eyes I've ever seen…"
"This is impossible, it can't be…" The old man's voice grew fainter.
"I will say, though, his most defining feature was his face…"
Joseph went pale. He leaned in to get a closer look at her features in the flickering light.
"He looked as if he was smiling……and frowning……at the same time." The corner of Joseph's mouth twitched again.
"Stitches were holding his face together, but blood still leaked from the creases. The odd little diamonds on his collar were stained red. A jolly, laughing skull was perched atop his cap."
"When the guard brought me to him, he daubed the ghastly wound with a blood-soaked handkerchief. And then…you looked down…and into my eyes. An odd expression. Hesitation? Contempt? Only you know for sure."
Joseph was perched at the edge of his seat now. His hands squeezed the edges of the couch until his knuckles were white.
She leaned closer, their faces only inches apart. "You remember what you said to me?" Doris whispered.
A deafening gasp filled the silence, realization exploding in his mind. The old man jerked backward like he had just witnessed a corpse reanimate. His breathing became heavy while his mouth was left agape. The two glaciers in his head were close to tumbling from their sockets.
"Was ist eins noch mehr?" she said quietly.
"You……you were just a child," he muttered.
"I grew up. And you've gotten old, haven't you? Frankenstein."
Erich shifted his focus to the coffee table, shaking his head in disbelief. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked up at the ceiling. An audible sigh left his lips.
"Not a pleasant feeling, is it?" she said. "It's okay. You can be yourself now."
Erich steadied his breathing, managing to regain some of his old composure. He studied Doris intensely and never again allowed her to leave his sight. An odd mixture of hatred and fascination colored his demeanor.
"Well," he replied suddenly. "This has turned out to be quite the evening."
He turned his attention to the black, swirling void outside the window. For a time, neither spoke a word to each other. The little gray cells in Erich's mind were firing at full capacity. He looked once more to the gun in Doris's hand. It didn't shake. Then, he looked into her eyes. They betrayed not a single glimmer of doubt. He nodded.
"How did you find me?" said Erich, breaking the silence.
She pursed her lips. "Let's just say it took a long time. A very long time. Most of my life."
"Your accent. You sound just like an American."
"Years of practice," said Doris with a hint of pride in her voice. Erich regarded her curiously.
"What exactly do you want from me?" he said at last.
"I don't want anything from you. I'd be naïve to expect any kind of remorse or an apology."
A look of genuine confusion crossed Erich's face. "An apology? For what?" Doris tilted her head to the side, not sure how to respond to the old man.
Erich shrugged. "Your people, a partisan, tried to assassinate a German officer. We couldn't tolerate that kind of activity."
"My home had nothing to do with it. We were innocent."
The old man snorted. "Are you certain of that?" Doris didn't answer.
"It didn't matter anyway," he continued. "Any village would have been sufficient. It was the show of force that was necessary." He paused and again manifested the same confused expression. "It wasn't anything personal…"
"What?" asked Doris, raising her voice.
"It's true. Although I was never a trained military man, I thought I conducted myself with admirable restraint. You should have heard what was happening further east. Or would you have preferred the Ustaše to handle it? Torturing and beheading. A collection of criminally deranged individuals if there ever was one."
"I see," said Doris mockingly. "You wiped out an entire community as a favor to us?"
Erich's tone was grim. "It was war. And I had a job to do, however unsavory it may have seemed." With that, the pair fell silent for two full minutes.
"You know what I find most disappointing about you?" asked Doris abruptly. Erich furrowed his brow. "All the potential that brilliant mind had to offer, and you waste it on the Gestapo?"
"Waste it?" exploded Erich. "I didn't waste a thing! I put people in prison that actually deserved it, which is more than I could say of my colleagues. Amateurs. Hacks. Political appointments. They couldn't police their way out of a paper bag. Waste it? You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"Oh, but I do," Doris retorted. "I've had the luxury of four decades to learn everything there is to know about you." She paused. "And there's no getting around the fact that you possess the morals of a turnip."
Erich sneered. "Morals? What a quaint idea! Who decides morality? You? Me? The sea of worthlessness out there?" He pointed at the window. "Morality is a lie that exists to serve mankind's downtrodden. It puts limits on the great so that the stupid may continue to live. It's the same purpose with religion. Putting your faith into invisible nothingness. It's pathetic."
"Here's what I know," he continued. "I placed my faith in my own intellect. I served a purpose to myself. Ernst Muller never raped another teenager again once I was through with him. Heinrich Klausmann stopped lighting houses on fire the day he met me. And why did I do this? Not because it was 'right' or 'wrong,' but because Man owes it to himself to strive for perfection. It's how we move forward as a species."
Doris couldn't help but be in awe of this man. Not even a man, she thought. He was more akin to a machine. Something that could think but couldn't feel. A man obsessed with his own ingrained sense of superiority. A man, she thought, who still continues to fruitlessly struggle for perfection. It was pitiable, in a way. She knew Erich Stengel never experienced true satisfaction in his life, continually grasping for something that was always going to be unobtainable.
"Well Erich," she said after a while. "That's not exactly a comfort to me. Clawing my way up the steep parapets of the mass grave while the dead eyes of my friends and family watched wasn't a cost that needed to be paid for human progress. I didn't need to pay with my blood, but I did anyway as it oozed from my back. I think it's all just a clever delusion for a warped and sadistic excuse for a man."
"This," he said almost laughingly. "This is just priceless." He spoke to no one in particular, looking past Doris as if she wasn't even there.
"Find something amusing in all of this?" she asked.
Erich glanced at the mask sitting beside him. He smirked. "You know, I never thought that name was warranted. To be labeled as such. And for what? A few spilled Croatians?"
He snarled hideously. "Nobody cares about the world of good I did for humanity before the war. Putting away murderers, rapists…degenerates. No one remembers that! How many people lived because of me? I disposed of those goddamn animals! The epitome of human garbage!"
Erich put his hands up. "Oh, but you're right. I swept away a handful of shepherds and milkmaids. What luminous lives they would have gone on to lead had they survived. I tried to be fair with you people, and I got half my face torn off for my trouble!"
The old man smiled widely. His yellowed, gruesome teeth were clearly visible. Doris couldn't help but cringe inwardly.
"You fucking idiot," he whispered. "You claim to know everything about me, but you don't have the slightest idea. For you, it's all black-and-white. Good versus evil and all that other bullshit you mental invalids believe in. Clearly, I'm not the paragon of virtue that you obviously are."
He raised his eyebrows. "About to partake in a bit of murder yourself, are we?"
"Who gave you the right to judge me?" Erich continued. "You of all people? A peasant girl from the backside of nowhere. Let me tell you something: I'm not like other people. Not like the rest of them out there." He craned his neck in the direction of the window once again.
"I was excellent at my work — the best among them. And a man like that doesn't cut corners when it comes to his craft, a sentiment that I found wanting in my inferiors. I made it a point to be the best, and that's what I was…what I still am even after all these years."
Erich leaned back into the sofa. His flashing blue eyes and extra-wide smirk made him appear nearly demonic in the darkened room. Doris had remained silent throughout the old man's tirade, betraying not a flicker of emotion. Her features were the texture of stone.
"I guess I'm supposed to be impressed by that little speech. Is that right Erich?" The old man maintained his ghastly scowl. "I'm always amazed by the mental gymnastics your kind has to go through to justify their actions. All done in the interest of covering up the fact that you're all killers at heart. A disease of the soul, maybe?"
"You see, you are partly correct Erich. Nobody besides myself gave me permission for what I'm about to do. In the end, I'm a selfish woman. There's a lot of people who would like to see you tried and hanged for your crimes. But I didn't call the police…because I wanted you all to myself."
Doris's voice started to tremble. "I've wanted you ever since that day. The day when my lifeless family and neighbors watched me haul myself out of that pit. I gave myself the right at that moment. And I knew that when the day finally came for us to meet again…that would be a special day unlike any other."
She leaned closer to Erich. "But here's the difference between you and me. I know…deep down in the pit of my soul…that what I'm doing is wrong. Not only in the eyes of God but in my own eyes as well. And in the eyes of my parents, who taught me right from wrong."
"Oh," he rasped. "That makes everything better then."
"But you? You have no conception of what it is to be wrong." Doris pulled back the hammer. "God will judge me as I am about to judge you."
Erich inhaled sharply. "It's one more sin that will be added to many others in my life," said Doris. "But you know what? It's just like what you said to me all those years ago."
Erich gritted his teeth.
"What's one more?" she said softly. Then, the game was over…
Doris sat at the bus stop; a plate of chocolate chip cookies rested in her lap. She inhaled a hefty portion of the chilly autumn air and let it fill her lungs. Doris closed her eyes and smiled. Before long, the telltale rumbling of the bus snapped her out of her reverie. The vehicle pulled up beside her, and the doors opened. Doris ascended the steps of the bus. Burt, the driver, was beaming like a child on his birthday when he spotted the goodies in her hands.
"As promised," said Doris as she handed Burt the plate.
"For me?" he replied innocently. "Shucks Doris, thanks! A part of me thought you were kidding when you said you'd bring me a batch."
"Kidding?" said Doris slyly. "I always keep my promises, Burt. You can count on that."
"Well, thanks! Thanks a lot!" The bus started to move again, and Doris took a seat towards the middle as usual.
An old woman with spectacles and hair as white as fresh snow was reading the newspaper in the seat next to Doris across the aisle.
"Anything good in there today?" asked Doris of the old woman. The latter gave her a startled look and began folding up the newspaper.
"Oh, it's just terrible," stammered the woman. "Well, I guess good on the one hand, but……still ghastly. The pictures they show in the newspaper!"
"What is it?" asked Doris.
"A man was shot to death inside his apartment!" the old woman replied excitedly. "But it turns out he was some kind of Nazi war criminal. He was living here! Right under our very noses. Can you believe that?"
Doris's mouth gaped. "You're kidding! Who was he?"
"Oh, apparently, he had some awful nickname. They called him 'The Frankenstein of Lamortivec' or some such." The old woman mangled the name of the village considerably.
"Wow, that's……that's really incredible," replied Doris.
"And that grisly picture of the crime scene! The devil was wearing a Halloween mask of all things." She folded the newspaper, unable to look at the dead man's picture any longer.
"It just goes to show," continued the old woman. "You never know who some people really are."
"No," said Doris. "No, you really don't."