Apt Pupil (Scribner Edition), Page 2Stephen King
He watched Todd do nothing. Then he went down the hall and picked up the telephone. Still Todd stood in the living room, beside the table with the small lamp on it.
Dussander began to dial. Todd watched him, his heart speeding up until it was drumming in his chest. After the fourth number, Dussander turned and looked at him. His shoulders sagged. He put the phone down.
“A boy,” he breathed, “A boy.”
Todd smiled widely but rather modestly.
“How did you find out?”
“One piece of luck and a lot of hard work,” Todd said. “There’s this friend of mine, Harold Pegler his name is, only all the kids call him Foxy. He plays second base for our team. His dad’s got all these magazines out in his garage. Great big stacks of them. War magazines. They’re old. I looked for some new ones, but the guy who runs the newsstand across from the school says most of them went out of business. In most of them there’s pictures of krauts—German soldiers, I mean—and Japs torturing these women. And articles about the concentration camps. I really groove on all that concentration camp stuff.”
“You . . . groove on it.” Dussander was staring at him, one hand rubbing up and down on his cheek, producing a very small sandpapery sound.
“Groove. You know. I get off on it. I’m interested.”
He remembered that day in Foxy’s garage as clearly as anything in his life—more clearly, he suspected. He remembered in the fifth grade, before Careers Day, how Mrs. Anderson (all the kids called her Bugs because of her big front teeth) had talked to them about what she called finding YOUR GREAT INTEREST.
“It comes all at once,” Bugs Anderson had rhapsodized. “You see something for the first time, and right away you know you have found YOUR GREAT INTEREST. It’s like a key turning in a lock. Or falling in love for the first time. That’s why Careers Day is so important, children—it may be the day on which you find YOUR GREAT INTEREST.” And she had gone on to tell them about her own GREAT INTEREST, which turned out not to be teaching the fifth grade but collecting nineteenth-century postcards.
Todd had thought Mrs. Anderson was full of bullspit at the time, but that day in Foxy’s garage, he remembered what she had said and wondered if maybe she hadn’t been right after all.
The Santa Anas had been blowing that day, and to the east there were brush-fires. He remembered the smell of burning, hot and greasy. He remembered Foxy’s crewcut, and the flakes of Butch Wax clinging to the front of it. He remembered everything.
“I know there’s comics here someplace,” Foxy had said. His mother had a hangover and had kicked them out of the house for making too much noise. “Neat ones. They’re Westerns, mostly, but there’s some Turok, Son of Stone and—”
“What are those?” Todd asked, pointing at the bulging cardboard cartons under the stairs.
“Ah, they’re no good,” Foxy said. “True war stories, mostly. Boring.”
“Can I look at some?”
“Sure. I’ll find the comics.”
But by the time fat Foxy Pegler found them, Todd no longer wanted to read comics. He was lost. Utterly lost.
It’s like a key turning in a lock. Or falling in love for the first time.
It had been like that. He had known about the war, of course—not the stupid one going on now, where the Americans had gotten the shit kicked out of them by a bunch of gooks in black pajamas—but World War II. He knew that the Americans wore round helmets with net on them and the krauts wore sort of square ones. He knew that the Americans won most of the battles and that the Germans had invented rockets near the end and shot them from Germany onto London. He had even known something about the concentration camps.
The difference between all of that and what he found in the magazines under the stairs in Foxy’s garage was like the difference between being told about germs and then actually seeing them in a microscope, squirming around and alive.
Here was Ilse Koch. Here were crematoriums with their doors standing open on their soot-clotted hinges. Here were officers in SS uniforms and prisoners in striped uniforms. The smell of the old pulp magazines was like the smell of the brush-fires burning out of control on the east of Santo Donato, and he could feel the old paper crumbling against the pads of his fingers, and he turned the pages, no longer in Foxy’s garage but caught somewhere crosswise in time, trying to cope with the idea that they had really done those things, that somebody had really done those things, and that somebody had let them do those things, and his head began to ache with a mixture of revulsion and excitement, and his eyes were hot and strained, but he read on, and from a column of print beneath a picture of tangled bodies at a place called Dachau, this figure jumped out at him:
And he thought: Somebody goofed there, somebody added a zero or two, that’s twice as many people as there are in L.A.! But then, in another magazine (the cover of this one showed a woman chained to a wall while a guy in a Nazi uniform approached her with a poker in his hand and a grin on his face), he saw it again:
His headache got worse. His mouth went dry. Dimly, from some distance, he heard Foxy saying he had to go in for supper. Todd asked Foxy if he could stay here in the garage and read while Foxy ate. Foxy gave him a look of mild puzzlement, shrugged, and said sure. And Todd read, hunched over the boxes of the old true war magazines, until his mother called and asked if he was ever going to go home.
Like a key turning in a lock.
All the magazines said it was bad, what had happened. But all the stories were continued at the back of the book, and when you turned to those pages, the words saying it was bad were surrounded by ads, and these ads sold German knives and belts and helmets as well as Magic Trusses and Guaranteed Hair Restorer. These ads sold German flags emblazoned with swastikas and Nazi Lugers and a game called Panzer Attack as well as correspondence lessons and offers to make you rich selling elevator shoes to short men. They said it was bad, but it seemed like a lot of people must not mind.
Like falling in love.
Oh yes, he remembered that day very well. He remembered everything about it—a yellowing pin-up calendar for a defunct year on the back wall, the oil-stain on the cement floor, the way the magazines had been tied together with orange twine. He remembered how his headache had gotten a little worse each time he thought of that incredible number,
He remembered thinking: I want to know about everything that happened in those places. Everything. And I want to know which is more true—the words, or the ads they put beside the words.
He remembered Bugs Anderson as he at last pushed the boxes back under the stairs and thought: She was right. I’ve found my GREAT INTEREST.
• • •
Dussander looked at Todd for a long time. Then he crossed the living room and sat down heavily in a rocking chair. He looked at Todd again, unable to analyze the slightly dreamy, slightly nostalgic expression on the boy’s face.
“Yeah. It was the magazines that got me interested, but I figured a lot of what they said was just, you know, bullspit. So I went to the library and found out a lot more stuff. Some of it was even neater. At first the crummy librarian didn’t want me to look at any of it because it was in the adult section of the library, but I told her it was for school. If it’s for school they have to let you have it. She called my dad, though.” Todd’s eyes turned up scornfully. “Like she thought Dad didn’t know what I was doing, if you can dig that.”
“He did know?”
“Sure. My dad thinks kids should find out about life as soon as they can—the bad as well as the good. Then they’ll be ready for it. He says life is a tiger you have to grab by the tail, and if you don’t know the nature of the beast it will eat you up.”
“Mmmm,” Dussander said.
“My mom thinks the same way.”
“Mmmmm.” Dussander looked dazed, not quite sure where he was.
“Anyhow,” Todd said, “the library stuff was real good. They
must have had a hundred books with stuff in them about the Nazi concentration camps, just here in the Santo Donato library. A lot of people must like to read about that stuff. There weren’t as many pictures as in Foxy’s dad’s magazines, but the other stuff was real gooshy. Chairs with spikes sticking up through the seats. Pulling out gold teeth with pliers. Poison gas that came out of the showers.” Todd shook his head. “You guys just went overboard, you know that? You really did.”
“Gooshy,” Dussander said heavily.
“I really did do a research paper, and you know what I got on it? An A-plus. Of course I had to be careful. You have to write that stuff in a certain way. You got to be careful.”
“Do you?” Dussander asked. He took another cigarette with a hand that trembled.
“Oh yeah. All those library books, they read a certain way. Like the guys who wrote them got puking sick over what they were writing about.” Todd was frowning, wrestling with the thought, trying to bring it out. The fact that tone, as that word is applied to writing, wasn’t yet in his vocabulary, made it more difficult. “They all write like they lost a lot of sleep over it. How we’ve got to be careful so nothing like that ever happens again. I made my paper like that, and I guess the teacher gave me an A just cause I read the source material without losing my lunch.” Once more, Todd smiled winningly.
Dussander dragged heavily on his unfiltered Kool. The tip trembled slightly. As he feathered smoke out of his nostrils, he coughed an old man’s dank, hollow cough. “I can hardly believe this conversation is taking place,” he said. He leaned forward and peered closely at Todd. “Boy, do you know the word ‘existentialism’?”
Todd ignored the question. “Did you ever meet Ilse Koch?”
“Ilse Koch?” Almost inaudibly, Dussander said: “Yes, I met her.”
“Was she beautiful?” Todd asked eagerly. “I mean . . .” His hands described an hourglass in the air.
“Surely you have seen her photograph?” Dussander asked. “An aficionado such as yourself?”
“What’s an af . . . aff . . .”
“An aficionado,” Dussander said, “is one who grooves. One who . . . gets off on something.”
“Yeah? Cool.” Todd’s grin, puzzled and weak for a moment, shone out triumphantly again. “Sure, I’ve seen her picture. But you know how they are in those books.” He spoke as if Dussander had them all. “Black and white, fuzzy . . . just snapshots. None of those guys knew they were taking pictures for, you know, history. Was she really stacked?”
“She was fat and dumpy and she had bad skin,” Dussander said shortly. He crushed his cigarette out half-smoked in a Table Talk pie-dish filled with dead butts.
“Oh. Golly.” Todd’s face fell.
“Just luck,” Dussander mused, looking at Todd. “You saw my picture in a war-adventures magazine and happened to ride next to me on the bus. Tcha!” He brought a fist down on the arm of his chair, but without much force.
“No sir, Mr. Dussander. There was more to it than that. A lot,” Todd added earnestly, leaning forward.
“Oh? Really?” The bushy eyebrows rose, signalling polite disbelief.
“Sure. I mean, the pictures of you in my scrapbook were all thirty years old, at least. I mean, it is 1974.”
“You keep a . . . a scrapbook?”
“Oh, yes, sir! It’s a good one. Hundreds of pictures. I’ll show it to you sometime. You’ll go ape.”
Dussander’s face pulled into a revolted grimace, but he said nothing.
“The first couple of times I saw you, I wasn’t sure at all. And then you got on the bus one day when it was raining, and you had this shiny black slicker on—”
“That,” Dussander breathed.
“Sure. There was a picture of you in a coat like that in one of the magazines out in Foxy’s garage. Also, a photo of you in your SS greatcoat in one of the library books. And when I saw you that day, I just said to myself, ‘It’s for sure. That’s Kurt Dussander.’ So I started to shadow you—”
“You did what?”
“Shadow you. Follow you. My ambition is to be a private detective like Sam Spade in the books, or Mannix on TV. Anyway, I was super careful. I didn’t want you to get wise. Want to look at some pictures?”
Todd took a folded-over manila envelope from his back pocket. Sweat had stuck the flap down. He peeled it back carefully. His eyes were sparkling like a boy thinking about his birthday, or Christmas, or the firecrackers he will shoot off on the Fourth of July.
“You took pictures of me?”
“Oh, you bet. I got this little camera. A Kodak. It’s thin and flat and fits right into your hand. Once you get the hang of it, you can take pictures of the subject just by holding the camera in your hand and spreading your fingers enough to let the lens peek through. Then you hit the button with your thumb.” Todd laughed modestly. “I got the hang of it, but I took a lot of pictures of my fingers while I did. I hung right in there, though. I think a person can do anything if they try hard enough, you know it? It’s corny but true.”
Kurt Dussander had begun to look white and ill, shrunken inside his robe. “Did you have these pictures finished by a commercial developer, boy?”
“Huh?” Todd looked shocked and startled, then contemptuous. “No! What do you think I am, stupid? My dad’s got a darkroom. I’ve been developing my own pictures since I was nine.”
Dussander said nothing, but he relaxed a little and some color came back into his face.
Todd handed him several glossy prints, the rough edges confirming that they had been home-developed. Dussander went through them, silently grim. Here he was sitting erect in a window seat of the downtown bus, with a copy of the latest James Michener, Centennial, in his hands. Here he was at the Devon Avenue bus stop, his umbrella under his arm and his head cocked back at an angle which suggested De Gaulle at his most imperial. Here he was standing on line just under the marquee of the Majestic Theater, erect and silent, conspicuous among the leaning teenagers and blank-faced housewives in curlers by his height and his bearing. Finally, here he was peering into his own mailbox.
“I was scared you might see me on that one,” Todd said. “It was a calculated risk. I was right across the street. Boy oh boy, I wish I could afford a Minolta with a telephoto lens. Someday . . .” Todd looked wistful.
“No doubt you had a story ready, just in case.”
“I was going to ask you if you’d seen my dog. Anyway, after I developed the pix, I compared them to these.”
He handed Dussander three Xeroxed photographs. He had seen them all before, many times. The first showed him in his office at the Patin resettlement camp; it had been cropped so nothing showed but him and the Nazi flag on its stand by his desk. The second was a picture that had been taken on the day of his enlistment. The last showed him shaking hands with Heinrich Gluecks, who had been subordinate only to Himmler himself.
“I was pretty sure then, but I couldn’t see if you had the harelip because of your goshdamn moustache. But I had to be sure, so I got this.”
He handed over the last sheet from his envelope. It had been folded over many times. Dirt was grimed into the creases. The corners were lopped and milled—the way papers get when they spend a long time in the pockets of young boys who have no shortage of things to do and places to go. It was a copy of the Israeli want-sheet on Kurt Dussander. Holding it in his hands, Dussander reflected on corpses that were unquiet and refused to stay buried.
“I took your fingerprints,” Todd said, smiling. “And then I did the compares to the one on the sheet.”
Dussander gaped at him and then uttered the German word for shit. “You did not!”
“Sure I did. My mom and dad gave me a fingerprint set for Christmas last year. A real one, not just a toy. It had the powder and three brushes for three different surfaces and special paper for lifting them. My folks know I want to be a PI when I grow up. Of course, they think I’ll grow out of it.” He dismissed this idea with a disinterested lift and drop
of his shoulders. “The book explained all about whorls and lands and points of similarity. They’re called compares. You need eight compares for a fingerprint to get accepted in court.
“So anyway, one day when you were at the movies, I came here and dusted your mailbox and doorknob and lifted all the prints I could. Pretty smart, huh?”
Dussander said nothing. He was clutching the arms of his chair, and his toothless, deflated mouth was trembling. Todd didn’t like that. It made him look like he was on the verge of tears. That, of course, was ridiculous. The Blood-Fiend of Patin in tears? You might as well expect Chevrolet to go bankrupt or McDonald’s to give up burgers and start selling caviar and truffles.
“I got two sets of prints,” Todd said. “One of them didn’t look anything like the ones on the wanted poster. I figured those were the postman’s. The rest were yours. I found more than eight compares. I found fourteen good ones.” He grinned. “And that’s how I did it.”
“You are a little bastard,” Dussander said, and for a moment his eyes shone dangerously. Todd felt a tingling little thrill, as he had in the hall. Then Dussander slumped back again.
“Whom have you told?”
“Not even this friend? This Cony Pegler?”
“Foxy. Foxy Pegler. Nah, he’s a blabbermouth. I haven’t told anybody. There’s nobody I trust that much.”
“What do you want? Money? There is none, I’m afraid. In South America there was, although it was nothing as romantic or dangerous as the drug trade. There is—there was—a kind of ‘old boy network’ in Brazil and Paraguay and Santo Domingo. Fugitives from the war. I became part of their circle and did modestly well in minerals and ores—tin, copper, bauxite. Then the changes came. Nationalism, anti-Americanism. I might have ridden out the changes, but then Wiesenthal’s men caught my scent. Bad luck follows bad luck, boy, like dogs after a bitch in heat. Twice they almost had me; once I heard the Jew-bastards in the next room.