Louis sat with Katia and Gustov outside of his tent in the shade of the trees. Cormac had gone back to his tent with his women to rest. Gustov did not have any women, at least not in a steady way he said. Occasionally he would bed with one of them when the mood suited him, but usually he slept alone not wanting to be bothered by their company.
“So, what part’a Italy ya from?” asked Louis, saying It-lee.
“I’m not from Italy,” Gustov frowned. “I’m from France.”
“Oh,” Louis tittered. “I’m sorry. I could tell ya weren’t from ‘round here, but for some reason I thought you were Italian.”
“Heaven’s no,” Gustov balked slightly. “I’ve been gone very long, since before the war. I guess I’m losing my accent”
“Well,” said Louis, continuing to laugh, “there’s some folks back home that’d say your English is better’n mine. Where’d ya pick it up?”
“Boston College” Gustov said, coaxing even more amusement from Louis. “Nineteen-twenty-six, and twenty-seven. I studied medicine there.”
“You’re kidd’n?” asked Louis. “You’re a doctor?”
“What the hell are ya do’n here in Yugoslavia?” Louis glanced around as if looking for an answer to his question.
“Well,” Gustov leaned forward and folded his hands together, studying them. “As you Americans say; it’s a long story.”
Louis looked at the Frenchman for a moment, waiting. Then he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “If ya don’t wanna talk about it…..”
“Actually, I do,” said Gustov, looking out across the camp, hesitating a moment. “Might be something I should get off my chest.”
He turned to look at Louis. “I was a cut-man for the Paris mob. You understand what that is?”
Louis held Gustov’s gaze, slowly nodding. “Somebody gets hurt do’n something they’re not supposed to be do’n, something illegal. They can’t go to a hospital ‘cause it’ll get reported. So they come to you to get fix’d up.”
“Right,” Gustov looked back out at the camp, letting out a long sigh. “And the pay was quite good. But the consequences could be very grave, as I soon learned. One day a young man with a gunshot wound to the abdomen was brought to my clinic.”
“What happened?” Louis asked after a long pause.
“I don’t know. I was told nothing, as usual, just to remove the bullet and see to his needs. The procedure was really quite simple. Besides, it wasn’t that bad; the bullet hadn’t gone too deep. But if I’d known he’d been smoking cigarettes laced with heroin, I would not have given him the morphine that killed him.”
“You mean he died on the table?”
“Yes. I had just taken out the bullet and was closing him up when I overheard the men who’d brought him to me talking in the next room. They mentioned the tainted cigarettes, how many he’d smoked right before they’d gotten into their little gun battle. I immediately checked his breathing, but he was already very dead. I had been operating on a corpse.”
“My God,” said Louis, looking carefully at the Frenchman, who still gazed out over the camp, obviosly replaying the incident in his mind. “What the hell’d ya do?”
“I finished sewing him up, as if he were still alive. Dressed the wound, then very quietly slipped out the back way. They must have heard me, and checked on him shortly after I left. Just as I was turning a corner down the street, I looked back to see them running after me. Four very dangerous, angry men. Men that I knew quite well. I had a good start and was able to elude them, but I could not go home. I called my wife from a friend’s, told her to take the children and get out. ‘Just go!’ I told her.”
Gustov paused, running his fingers through his thinning, gray hair, looking at the ground.
“She began to ask questions. Became angry and excited herself. I begged her to just go, that I couldn’t explain.”
His movements became animated as relived the moment, still looking down, but thrashing his arms in rage.
“‘Please, darling, just go!’ I told her, ‘Take the children and just go anywhere out in public!’ We argued over the phone, both of us shouting. Then I heard a noise in the background, a crash, then voices and more shouting. ‘Who are these men?’ my wife screamed. ‘Why are they here?’”
Gustov sat up straight and swallowed, looking back out over the camp, whispering. “Then, a voice said, ‘This is for Marcel.’ Then I heard my wife scream.” Gustov paused. “Then the line went dead.”
Louis sat there next to Katia, watching as the Frenchman slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes, clinching his fists to the side of his head, slowly rocking back and forth. A full minute passed before he spoke again.
“By the time I got to my house it was engulfed in flames. Fire trucks and police had just arrived. I had to be restrained, I was so utterly mad.”
Louis wanted to say something, but knew that no words were appropriate. He just sat silent, unable to imagine what the man must be feeling. Katia looked away, off toward the trees. After a few minutes of silence, Louis reached out and gently touched Gustov on the shoulder. He said nothing, only hoped his gesture eased some of the pain.
“I like to think that my wife and children were dead before that fire was started.”
Gustov opened his eyes and glanced at Louis, then looked back at the camp of partisans.
“I did not fully realize what kind of men I was dealing with. I thought I would be able to reason with them, convince them it wasn’t my fault. I had always felt that my ability to reason and persuade was my greatest talent, even more so than practicing medicine itself. A good portion of healing people is convincing them that they can be healed. But these men were not reasonable at all. They had paid me well over the years, enough to keep a separate clinic just for them. They would contact me with a secret code, and I would drop everything and meet them there. They always paid in cash and paid generously. I never asked questions. For five years I did this, keeping it from my family and friends, also operating a successful, legitimate practice.”
He looked back at Louis and slowly shook his head, lips pressed together, unable to find words, no tears left to cry.
Louis studied Gustov’s features, both admiring and pitying the man. Again, he looked back at the camp, scanning the different tents as Louis read his mind. He could tell Gustov wanted to go back to the moment when he first met these men, when it wasn’t too late to say no. Suddenly the Frenchman’s eyes narrowed.
“Later,” his voice grew deep, a type of scar tissue to their resonance, “I learned that the young man who died on my table was the son of one of the major underworld bosses in Paris. The authorities would do nothing. All evidence of foul play was destroyed in the fire. So I decided to do something myself.
“Over the years, I had saved a good deal of money and made many contacts. I was able to stay in hiding quite easily with a reasonable amount of comfort. But I knew it was only a matter of time before they found me. Not only was there a price on my head, there was an even higher price on my live body. I heard all kinds of horrible rumors of what was planned for me when I was caught by these men. And I realized the longer I stayed in Paris, the more likely I was to be betrayed by the people who were protecting me, a rival family with limited power. The police offered to protect me, but I did not trust them. It was well known that many officers were on the take. And why not? They were paid very little, plus they were often blackmailed.
“So I bought a gun and some information. I was told the name of a small bistro that overlooked the Seine. The man whose son died in my clinic ate there often, the man who had my family killed. I learned of a back passageway into the bistro. He would eat at the little place alone, I was told. His bodyguards always waited out front. I bought the information from people who also wanted the man dead. But for whatever reason, they could not do it themselves and couldn’t protect me afterwards, not even with an escape. That’s what kind of horrible people I’d gotten myself mixed up with, even the ones who were protecting me. I was giving them money to hide me out. Then I paid them for information, knowing all along that they would eventually make money off my murder, if I let them.
“I went into the place half expecting to be killed myself. But I no longer cared. I demanded at least one moment of satisfaction for my family.
"And there he was, in the back at a private table by an open window that looked out on the river, only a few feet from the inconspicuous doorway I’d just come through. We knew each other somewhat in passing. He gasped when he saw me, spilling his soup. ‘No, please!’ he said. First, I apologized for his son’s death, explaining to him what actually happened. Then I told him that what I was about to do, was for my wife and children.
"He begged and began offering me large sums of money, insane amounts. I don’t know how long I stood there, him begging for his life right up to the moment I shot him, over and over, until the gun was empty. Then I simply left the way I’d come, his blood splattered all over me. Through my own crude arrangements, I left France that same day, wanted by both the police and the mob. That was nineteen-thirty-six. I haven’t been back since.”
“How did you end up here?” Louis asked thoughtfully when Gustov paused to look at him.
“A very old acquaintance of mine was able to get me a job working at a hospital in Sarajevo. It didn’t pay much, but I’ve found that helping people gives me some semblance of happiness.”
“I’m half Jewish, so when the Germans came, I took my chances with the resistance. I told them I would only use a weapon if absolutely necessary. I would not actively seek out and shoot anyone ever again. At first they did not want me, but within hours there was a gun battle and several men were wounded. For obvious reasons, they kept me around.”
At that moment Katia stood and went into the tent.
“How long have you been with Prodki?”
“Since last Christmas.”
“Oh, yeah.” Louis nodded. “So you were part of the big holiday recruitment, huh?”
“Yes, that’s right. I was one of the men who listened as Prodki screamed his exaction down to us in the valley that day.”
Louis looked intently at Gustov, meeting his eyes. “What do you think of Prodki?”
“Considering the circumstances, he is a very hard yet very fair man. He’s one of those men who is made by war and great conflict. Otherwise, he would be a very simple obscure man, still teaching math at a small obscure college, off with his family, happy and content. But war complicated him. The dreadful tragedies of life did not break him the way they broke me. He has become something very different than most. It will be interesting to see how he turns out.”
The Frenchman looked toward Louis’s tent and nodded. “Katia has taken quite a liking to you, my friend.”
“Yeah, well,” Louis stammered. “I like her too, but I’m married.”
“Very happily married.”
“I understand, but does she?”
Louis looked at the tent, then back at Gustov. “Haven’t really thought to tell’er. I mean, she doesn’t say much.”
Gustov just nodded.
“Last night she showed me a picture of her with a fella and two young’uns,” asked Louis. “You know anything about’m?”
“No,” said Gustov, letting out a long sigh. “But I’m sure they’re dead. She was part of a group found back in March wandering about six kilometers northeast of here. Right away, I could tell she was badly traumatized. I’ve not once heard her speak a single word, and you are the only man she’s allowed near her.”
Louis frowned. “I haven’t done anything with her. Besides,” he looked back at the tent, “I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.”
“No, Captain Louie,” said Gustov with a smile that made him look much younger. “It doesn’t seem that you do.”
“You don’t know what happened to her?”
“Captain Louie,” Gustov looked intently at the American, motioning with his hand toward the camp. “Look out there at those people. You could walk out there and ask anyone what happened to them. Chances are, if they wanted to talk about it, they would simply say the Germans came and took everything they had and killed everyone they knew. A few might be able to say they escaped with a loved one or two, but not many.
"You see, Captain Louie, it’s a constant effort for these people not to dwell on the recent past. They are always trying to find ways to look forward. They are constantly seeking this. Despair is the real killer.” He paused, his eyes scanning the mountains that surrounded the valley. “And no, I don’t know what happened to Katia. Outside the pale of this war, I’m sure it was something that would be deemed an atrocious crime, worthy of considerable attention and legal action. But unfortunately, she’s now just another victim of the Nazis. Just another one of the many thousands that…….”
Gustov stopped speaking just as Katia stepped back out of the tent wearing a clean light-blue summer dress. Her hair was tied back away from her face with a green ribbon that matched her eyes. She stood there a moment looking at the two men as they admired her, displaying a slight hint of poise, arms down at her side. Louis could now see more clearly the girl as she must have been before the war, happy and carefree, living a simple sheltered life in some cozy little village, totally oblivious of the destruction ticking in the distance.
“Well,” said Louis, “don’t you look pretty?”
The corner of Katia’s lips turned upward, dissipating some of the sadness in her eyes, causing Gustov to utter a few words in the Slavic tongue, obvious remarks of complement.
“I just told her she looks as lovely as a flower,” said Gustov, standing with a slight bow to Katia, then turning back to Louis. “Perhaps, I was wrong. Just another victim, seems suddenly a very poor choice of words. Thank you for listening. Good day, Captain Louie.”
As Louis watched Gustov walk back to his tent, Katia moved to his side and began gently tugging on his hand. He looked at her, noticing the innocent child-like smile. She stepped backwards, pulling him to the tent, letting out a soft moan, a piquant call to come and play. He was so weak he could not fight against her pull. Soon she had him inside the tent and her thin arms wrapped around his neck as she kissed him. Exasperated, he stood there awkward, not sure what to do. She pulled back and smiled, then leaned forward in a soft, slow pecking motion, making happy little chirping sounds, lifting her shoulders with each kiss.
“I’m married,” he finally said, gently pushing her back, holding up the ring on his finger. He knew by the look in her eye that she’d already seen it, but now he was making her look at it. “I like you a lot and I think you’re real pretty, but I have a wife and I love’r very much.”
Her arms slowly fell to her side as she took a few steps backward, her smile gone, a look of shame and embarrassment on her face. Not wanting to cause her any more harm, Louis reached in his jacket and pulled out his son’s little bronzed shoes, the two-inch footies dangling from his hand. But the moment he saw the look in her eyes, he realized he had in fact stirred some of the dormant grief deep within her. Her lips began to tremble as she slowly reached for the little shoes, gently taking them from Louis. Then she laid herself down in a fetal position on the mat, cradling them in her arms like a baby at her breast, and quietly crying.
For a long time he just stood there, leaning on his crutches, not knowing what to do, watching as she relived some tragedy he could not imagine, lost in a sad little world. Finally he laid down beside her and placed his arm around her, tenderly shushing her like a scared child until they both fell asleep.