ROTH BRAUN SLOWLY TWISTED THE DOORKNOB AND GAVE THE door a slight shove. A familiar medicinal odor stung his nostrils. Outside, the sun warmed a midsummer day, but here in the dungeon below the house, the old man lived in perpetual twilight.
Roth imagined a Jew stepping into a delicing shower and let himself relish the horror he might feel in that moment of realizing that more than lice were meant to die in this chamber.
Roth was in a very good mood.
The smothering quiet was broken by the sound of the old prune’s tarred, seventy-eight-year-old lungs rasping for relief. Gerhard’s wheezing annoyed Roth, ruining his otherwise perfect mood.
The only living soul he despised more than the Jew who’d stolen his power was Gerhard, who had allowed the Jew to steal his power.
He glanced at Klaus, the gangly male nurse who had tended his father for three years. The white-smocked man hovered over Gerhard in the corner of the room, refusing to meet Roth’s eyes. Gerhard Braun sat in a dark-red leather recliner, blue eyes glaring over the nasal cannula protruding from each nostril.
“Good morning, Father,” Roth said. He closed the door quietly and stepped into the room, pushing aside a curtain of tinkling glass beads that separated it from the entryway. “You wanted to see me?”
His father looked at a servant, who busied himself over the table in the adjacent dining room.
By the trembling in his voice, either Gerhard really was dying, or something was upsetting him, which invariably sowed its own sort of death. How many men alive today had been responsible for as many deaths as his father? They could be counted on two hands.
Even so, Roth hated him.
The servant dipped his head and exited through a side door. The steel door closed and the nurse flinched. Glass in a cabinet behind the table rattled despite the room’s solid-concrete walls. The nineteenth-century Russian crystal—one of dozens of similar collections pilfered during the war—had once belonged to the czar. The Nazis’ defeat should have sent Gerhard to the gallows; instead, the war had left his father with obscene wealth. The paintings alone had netted him a significant fortune, and these he owned legally. He’d shipped them to Zurich, where a hotly contested law made them his after remaining unclaimed for five years.
Compliments of the Swiss Federation of Art Dealers.
Until the day I suck the energy from your bones, I will love you for showing me the way.
Until the day I suck the energy from your bones, I will despise you for what you did.
Gerhard held up a newspaper. “Have you read this?”
Roth walked across the circular rope rug that covered the black cement slab and stopped five feet from Gerhard. A hawk nose curved over his father’s thin, trembling lips. Wispy strands of gray hair backlit by a yellow lamp hovered over his scalp. Skeletal, blue-veined fingers clutched what appeared to be a Los Angeles Times. A stack of newspapers—the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, London’s Daily Telegraph, and a dozen others— sat a half-meter thick on the small end table to his left. Gerhard routinely spent six hours each day reading.
Gerhard flung the paper with a flick of his wrist, never removing his eyes from Roth. It landed on the floor with a smack.
The male nurse pretended to fiddle with the oxygen tank. Roth stood still. This attitude of Gerhard’s was no longer simply ruining his mood, but destroying it altogether.
“I said, ‘Read it’!”
Roth calmly bent and picked up the paper. The Los Angeles Times was folded around an article in the Life section, “Fortune Goes to Museum.”
Roth scanned the text. A wealthy woman, a Jew named Rachel Spritzer, sixty-two years of age, had died three days ago in Los Angeles. She’d been survived by no one and had donated her entire estate to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
“So another Jew’s dead.” Roth lowered the paper. “Your legacy lives on.”
His father clutched the arms of his chair. “Read the rest.” His chest sounded like a whistle.
If Roth wasn’t a master of his own impulses, he might have done something stupid, such as kill the man. Instead, he set the paper on the windowsill and turned away. “You’ve read it, Father. Tell me what it says. I have a ten o’clock engagement.”
Roth walked to the bar. Control. “Just tell me what has you so concerned.”
“The Stones of David have me concerned.”
Roth blinked. He poured a splash of cognac into a snifter.
“I’m finished chasing your ghosts.” He swirled the brandy slowly before sipping it. “If the Stones still exist, we would have found them long ago.”
Gerhard managed to stand, trembling from head to foot, red as a rooster around the neck.
“They have been found. And you know what that means.” He launched into a coughing fit.
Roth’s pulse quickened a hair and then eased. If the man wasn’t dying, he was losing his mind. Surely the Stones hadn’t been found after all this time.
Gerhard staggered three steps to the windowsill, pushing his startled nurse out of the way, and grabbed the newspaper. He leaned on the wall with one hand and held the paper up in the other. He threw the paper toward Roth. It fluttered noisily and landed on the black slab.
“Read it!” Gerhard’s eyes drilled him. So then maybe there was something to this.
Roth picked up the paper, found the article, and slowly read down the column. What if Gerhard was right? What if the relics did exist after all? They would be priceless. But the Stones’ monetary value didn’t interest Gerhard—he already had enough wealth to waste in his final years. Gerhard’s obsession was for the journal that had gone missing with the Stones.
And Roth’s obsession was for the power that had gone missing with the Jew who’d taken the journal.
He had spent nearly thirty years tracking down innumerable leads, searching in vain. There was no telling how much wealth had been stripped from the Jews when Hitler had gathered them up and sent them to the camps. Much of the fortune had been confiscated by the gestapo and recovered after the war, but a number of particularly valuable items—priceless relics that belonged in museums or in vaults—had disappeared. Some of those treasures could be found in this very house. But any wellheeled collector knew that the most valuable collection had vanished for good in 1945.
The Stones of David.
One stunning item in Spritzer’s collection is an extremely old golden medallion, better known as one of the five Stones of David. According to legend, the medallions are the actual stones selected by David to kill the giant Goliath. The smooth stones were subsequently gilded and stamped with the Star of David. The collection was last verified in 1307, when they were held by the Knights Templars. The collection was rumored to be held by a wealthy Jewish collector before World War II but went missing before the claim could be verified.
Alone, each medallion may be worth over $10,000,000. But the collection in its entirety is valued at roughly $100,000,000. The relic will be displayed in a museum yet to be disclosed with the following cryptic caption at Rachel Spritzer’s request: “The Stones are like the lost orphans. They will eventually find each other.”
Sweat cooled Roth’s palms. He set the paper on the bar, set an unsteady finger in its margin, and scanned to the end.
Rachel Spritzer lived alone in an apartment complex she owned on La Brea Avenue and died a widow. The complex will be sold by the estate, along with much of Spritzer’s noncollectible property.
Rudy and Rachel Spritzer immigrated to the United States sixteen years ago, five years before Rudy was killed in an automobile accident. (See B4.)
For a moment Roth’s vision clouded. His mouth went dry.
“Now I have your attention?” Gerhard demanded.
Roth read the article again, searching for any phrase that might undermine the possibility that this Jew could be anyone other than whom Gerhard was suggesting.
“She was sixty-two,” Gerhard said. “The right age.”
Roth’s mind flashed back to those war years when he was only twelve.
Even if the connections were only circumstantial, he could hardly ignore them.
“I knew the Jew survived,” Gerhard said.
“She donated only one Stone. There were five.”
“If one Stone exists, then the journal exists. Someone has that journal!”
“You will make her speak from the grave.” Gerhard swayed on his feet, right fist trembling. His eyes looked black in the basement’s shadows.
“She knew. She knew about the journal.”
“She’s dead!” Roth snapped. He took a deep breath, irritated with himself for losing control. The fact was, Gerhard’s history with the Stones gave him knowledge that no one else could possibly have.
“You know well enough that the journal implicates the entire line of elders. It lists each of our names and the names of the women we killed. It must be found!”
Mention of the women triggered a coppery taste in the back of Roth’s mouth. The last time he’d seen the journal, it contained 243 names. Roth would one day surpass that number, he had vowed it. But even a thousand or ten thousand would not compensate for the one that had escaped Gerhard.
“That woman would toy with me even in her death,” the old man said. “In her house, in her belongings—somewhere, the old bat left a trail. You will go to Los Angeles.” The nurse, Klaus, moved to assist Gerhard back to his seat, but the old man shook him off. Klaus retreated.
Gerhard was right. The Stones could lead to the journal. The journal could lead to the Jew. The Jew would lead to power, a supernatural power that his father had never attained. But Roth would. The prospect of finding the Jew after so many years felt delightfully obscene.
Roth realized that his fingers were trembling.
“The United States,” Roth said absently. “We don’t have the same liberties there.”
“That’s never stopped you before.”
The notion swarmed Roth like bees from a disturbed hive. Hope. More than hope—a desperate urgency to possess. Pounding heart, dry mouth. He was no fool. He would neither fight the emotion nor show it.
After lingering so long on the edges of his mind, the desire to possess this one lost hope swallowed him. This is what Roth lived for, the purest form of power found in the very emotion that at this very moment raged through his body.
In his mind’s eye he was already flying to America. He would have to move quickly, set the trap immediately. There was no telling how long they would keep the old Jew’s collectibles in Los Angeles.
Roth stared into his father’s blue eyes for a few long seconds, torn between the man’s mad obsession with the past and his own with the future. What Roth did for tomorrow, Gerhard did because of yesterday.
Who was the better man?
He remembered the first dead Jew he’d seen in the camps twenty-eight years ago. He’d been eating fresh eggs and sausage prepared by one of the Polish servants from the village for breakfast. It was the most delicious breakfast he’d ever tasted. Perhaps leaving his mother in Germany to spend the summer with his father up in Poland would be a good thing after all. He was twelve at the time.
“What?” his father asked, walking toward the window overlooking the concentration camp.
“Why do Polish eggs taste better than German eggs?”
His father pulled back the curtain, and Roth saw a woman hanging from the main gate. Gerhard answered him, but Roth didn’t hear the response. The year was 1942, and hers was the first of many dead bodies Roth would see in Poland. But there was something about the first.
Roth let the memory linger, then returned his mind to the Stones.
His father’s eyes glistened with tears; his face wrinkled.
“The Jew took my soul. She took my soul! I beg you, my son.” Roth felt a terrible pity for him. A single tear broke free and ran down Gerhard’s right cheek.
“If the Jew is alive, she will be drawn by the Stone,” Roth said.
“Forget the Jew. I must have the journal. You see that, don’t you? More than anything, I must have it.” He held out a spindly arm laced with bulging veins. “Swear it to me. Swear you’ll bring me what is mine.”
Roth looked at the large swastika on the gray wall, sickened by Gerhard’s weakness. He would make it right, because the Stones meant far more to him than they could possibly mean to his father.
“Come here,” Roth said to the nurse.
Klaus glanced at Gerhard then stepped out from the shadows. Roth backed up and stepped off the rug. There was the right way and the wrong way to do this, and the purest in mind knew the difference.
“Farther, to the middle of the rug,” he said.
Klaus took another step so that he stood near the center of the rug.
“I would like to repay you for your care of my father,” Roth said.
“Few men could put up with a whining old man the way you do. Is there anything you would like?”
No response. Of course not.
“Anything at all?”
The nurse lowered his head. “No sir.”
Roth pulled out his gun and shot Klaus through the top of his head while he was still bent over. The slug likely ended up in his throat. The man dropped in a pile.
Roth looked at his father. “You should have sent him out.”
“You’re working against your own kind,” Gerhard said. “He was pure.”
“Then I did him a favor by sending him to his grave pure.”