By Ellis Hastings
The man looked nothing like a German. At least not the typical German one would imagine when picturing the second world war. His hair was of medium-length and swept neatly to one side and resembled the dark chestnut of a whiskey barrel. His face, devoid of any freckles or markings, apart from a single scar below the right eye, was non-descript with a pair of hazel eyes. His skin was a smooth and natural tan making him look closer to an Italian than a German. When the man spoke, he spoke in fluent and unbroken English without a trace of a foreign accent and he proved himself to have extensive knowledge of happenings and popular culture in the West. His favorite automobile: Ford’s Model T. His preference of food: a cheeseburger with fries. And his favorite brewery: Boddington’s. If you met the man—or at least the facade he had put on—you would be absolutely certain that he was as American as American gets. Yet, Henry Layman, or so he goes by, was a German spy.
“Open the cell,” said a British soldier by the name of Sergeant Wilson. His voice was hoarse and dry and decorated with a heavy scouse accent. “Let’s see what we can get outta ‘im.”
The grind of metal on metal pierced the halls as the door to the cramped holding cell was pulled open. The cell was dark without windows; only lit by a single, flickering lightbulb, and the floors reeked of sweat and the subtle but distinct scent of fear. In calmly walked the spy; putting up no fight and needing no escort. It appeared as if the man was visiting the pub to catch up with old friends. He strode across the sticky floor and sat with his back to the wall; his eyes facing the front of the cell where Sergeant Wilson and an American soldier simply called Simmons waited.
“Gentlemen,” Henry said, mimicking the dialect of a Yankee. “How’s the war treating you two? Not too banged up, I hope.”
Sergeant Wilson scowled, “Still trying to make small talk, are you? You’re not weaseling your way out of this one, Layman.”
A soft chuckle escaped the spy’s lips, but otherwise, they stayed closed for the time being.
“We know you’re one of them,” Sergeant Wilson fumbled with a tin of tobacco. He popped open the top and dug out a glob of the heavy-scented tar then placed it into a small square of paper and rolled himself a cigarette. The spy raised an eyebrow inquisitively; silently asking what the Brit was talking about. “One of the Germans.”
Sergeant Wilson set the tip of the makeshift cigarette ablaze and sucked on the other end. When he exhaled, a dark cloud of smoke filled the room. “If you confess now we’ll go easier on you.”
“Confess what?” Henry asked sarcastically, “That I’m a spy?”
Sergeant Wilson nodded then took another drag.
“Well, it wouldn’t be a confession unless I admitted something that wasn’t already common knowledge, Sergeant. As a man of such an honorable rank, you should know that.” Henry turned his attention to what his captor was smoking, then added, “Oh, and here’s a tip: that stuff’s going to kill you.”
At this, Sergeant Wilson couldn’t help but laugh, “You sound just like my wife, you know.”
“If your wife knew half as much about this world as I do, I’d say she’s a keeper,” Henry grinned, “But that stuff’s really going to be the death of you. Your side may be winning the war against the Germans, but your lungs are losing the war against that bad habit of yours. In fact, they’re already halfway gone.”
The laughter stopped. Sergeant Wilson eyed the spy with a look of resentment.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, Sergeant. At least not yet. You’ll see the end of the war, and your side will be victorious when the Fuhrer offs himself and his wife. But come 1950, your humble abode will be a box underground.”
“Why don’t you—” Sergeant Wilson began before being interrupted by the spy.
“And you,” Henry pointed at Simmons who stood silently behind the British soldier. “You’re not much more than eighteen, are you?”
Simmons looked to Sergeant Wilson timidly; unsure if he should respond.
“You’re a little on the shy side. That’s okay. I’d be quiet too if I was in your current circumstance. The loss of a young man’s childhood pet is quite tragic, indeed. It is the final milestone that marks the end of childhood. Everything after that is nothing but menial jobs and taxes.”
The young soldier’s eyes went wide with shock. The spy was right about what had happened to him. Two days before, his beloved companion from an early age, a grey sheepdog named Tony, had passed away from natural causes. How could the spy have known? He had been captured three days prior, and Simmons hadn’t spoken a word about the loss of his furry friend to anybody.
Henry smiled warmly. The grin of an illusionist who had cleverly tricked an audience. “That’s the reaction I was expecting.”
“Let’s get to the point,” Sergeant Wilson demanded. He was an impatient man and was growing increasingly agitated with the German.
“Yes. Let us.”
“Are you a spy?”
“I should ask you that same question, Sergeant. Am I?”
“You are,” Sergeant Wilson said.
“There you have it. Congratulations.”
“I want you to say it,” Sergeant Wilson bore down on his coffee-stained teeth in frustration.
“Would that make you happy?” Henry asked. “Well, I suppose it would be kind of me to do so. Your birthday’s coming up before the end of the month. Consider this an early present: I am a spy. Being more specific, I am a spy for the Third Reich.”
Sergeant Wilson found it strange how the spy had known of his upcoming birthday but pushed the thought to the back of his mind, “You can drop the fake American accent.”
“It isn’t fake,” Henry laughed. “When you spend enough time around a certain culture, you begin to develop their accent for yourself.”
“Where are you from originally?”
“Alsleben. It’s a small village in Saxony-Anhalt, 180 kilometers Northwest of Dresden. Your kind should know that area well, Sergeant, you’re planning to reign fire upon it in just a few months.”
Sergeant Wilson’s mouth hung open in shock. “Where’d you hear that?”
“How did you know that, damn you? Tell me!”
“There’s a lot of things I know, Sergeant. For example, I know that your wife will live another thirty years following your death. But there’s no need to worry if you’re the jealous type; she won’t remarry.”
“Sergeant?” A new voice spoke. It belonged to Simmons.
“What is it?” The British soldier asked; never taking his eyes off the spy in fear that the captive would try something fast.
“What’s he talking about? Are we going to bomb Dresden?”
Sergeant Wilson sighed, then nodded.
“Why? There’s no one there except for women and children.”
“A smart young man, you are,” the spy said.
“Shut up!” Sergeant Wilson demanded, banging his fists on the cell door. The German did so with a devious grin.
“We can’t do that, Sergeant. Dresden holds no political stronghold for the Third Reich and there are British and American prisoners of war there. Doing so would kill them and thousands of innocent people.”
“They’re not innocent, Simmons. They’re German, they’re—”
“But they’re German civilians, Sergeant. They’re no threat to our countries!”
The spy watched the argument between the Brit and American with delight.
“Enough, Simmons!” Sergeant Wilson commanded, “We mustn’t discuss military plans further. Our arguing is only giving him what he wants,” he cast a crooked finger to Henry. “He wants to see us against each other. He’s trying to play innocent and make his people look like victims.”
“You’re half right,” Henry said. He now stood with his face hovering just behind the bars. If he wanted to, and if the bars were wide enough, he could reach out and seize either of his captors by the neck and strangle them. “I was trying to play innocent. You hit that nail on the head. But make my people look like victims? That’s incorrect. They’ll become victims once your allies consume their families in flame.”
Sergeant Wilson turned back to the captive with a snarl, “And you…”
“And me,” the spy echoed like a parrot.
“I don’t know how you know about that plan, or how you know my birthday is approaching, but you better start telling us everything you know before I bury my blade in your neck.”
“You wouldn’t do that, Sergeant. When I fall—be it to your blade or by the gallows tomorrow morning—everything I know and the things I could teach you will be gone forever.”
“Then tell me what you know, now.”
With his hands tucked snuggly behind his back, the spy paced the room. Simmons believed he saw the captive slide a finger towards his pocket but remained silent when Henry opened his hands, and nothing fell from them.
“Ah but doing so would be a waste of both my time and yours. Unless you are a believer in the supernatural, that is?”
“Then my mouth will remain shut. I shan’t entertain a simpleton such as you with the secrets of my… talent, you could call it. That would do neither of us any good.” The German cast his eyes to a fearful and uncertain Simmons, then said, “Your favorite number is thirty-four, you prefer the color grey but also like orange, and a secret you’ve never told anyone is that you accidentally killed your sister’s pet gerbil when you both were children.”
“What in God’s name are you?” Simmons cried, stumbling away from the prisoner until his back pressed firmly against the wall outside the cell. He previously believed the spy to be impossibly skilled at the art of reading people; however, now he was certain there was something different about the man. Something young Simmons couldn’t quite name. However, it seemed to Simmons that this man was unlike any man either he or Sergeant Wilson had ever encountered. “How do you know that? Tell me, Layman, tell me!”
“I thought that would get your attention. Let me first ask you the question I asked your Sergeant. Do you believe—”
“I do, I do!” Simmons had his hands clasped firmly against the bars and rattled them like a prisoner trying to pry the door open.
“Good. And how about you now, Sergeant Lawrence Robert Wilson? You’re named after your father. He was killed in the trenches not too far from here back in the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ when you were but a teenager. His tragic yet heroic attempt to shield his comrades from an artillery strike both inspired you and broke your young heart. You were unable to cope with your loss in healthy, more conventional ways, so you took up smoking. Now, at the age of forty-three-going-on-forty-four, you have known the warm embrace of tobacco for just about two-thirds of your life.”
Sergeant Wilson was at a loss for words. The bitter hiss of a Winter’s wind emanated beyond the walls, along with the faint sound of hail pattering off the tiled roof above like pennies dropped into a pail.
“Let me ask you again, Sergeant. Do you believe in the supernatural?”
“I…” Sergeant Wilson shook his head. Not in disagreement, but in a confused denial. He considered himself both a skeptic and a man of logic. The mere possibility of the supernatural went against everything he believed. However, the improbability—the absurdity—of the spy reciting his life story as easy as if it were a favorite passage in a book, shook him to the core. “I… I guess I can’t deny the facts presented to me.”
“Good. Because there are things on earth that man is too unadvanced to understand. At least ordinary man. You see, there are secrets of this universe—keys to open doors to the strange and mystical. If you’re like me, you can see the light side of the world—the best in humanity. The love and compassion that lies behind many actions. Even some that are deemed controversial. Actions that harm a few, but in the effort to help many.”
“But that gift comes with a curse of its own. People of my ancestral line also see the darkest corners of the earth, the universe, and the abyss beyond. From death and destruction brought upon the planet like a scourge by man himself; to creatures—beasts—that lurk in the hidden spaces of earth, lying in wait for a curious adventurer to disturb their rest; to what lies beyond the aspect of existence as we know it.”
“Existence as we know it,” Sergeant Wilson echoed. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’re a staunch Atheist, Sergeant. A self-proclaimed man of science. Let me say this in the kindest way possible: you are ignorant. But that’s okay, because, like bad habits left behind in childhood, ignorance can be unlearned. The first one’s free: consciousness isn’t the only means of existence. It is but a single level on the plane of being.”
Sergeant Wilson nodded slowly; struggling to grasp what the spy was claiming. After a pause, he said, “What’s the second?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What’s the second level on this plane?”
The spy laughed, “I said the first one’s free. For the next, you must do me a favor.”
Sergeant Wilson scowled, “What?”
“It’s simple, really, and of no great inconvenience to you, Sergeant. I would like to request a glass of water. My throat has grown dry and is greatly sore.”
“Very well,” Sergeant Wilson turned to his assistant, “Simmons, grab the prisoner something to drink.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” the young soldier replied. He rushed out of the room, not wanting to miss what the spy was saying. He found himself fascinated, almost drawn, to the man. Normally, he would write-off what was being spoken of as fallacy. However, seeing as how the spy already knew so much about the personal lives of both him and Sergeant Wilson, Simmons couldn’t help but keep an open mind.
Back in the cell, Henry continued to speak.
“The end of life is just what it claims. The final act of being alive. But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of existence. In fact, death is nothing more than a door to the next level of the plane. Now, to help you understand, Sergeant, time as you know it is linear, is it not?”
“It is,” Sergeant Wilson said.
“Correct. I want you to picture a line graph. However, instead of curving upwards, it goes straight. Tell me when you have the image in your mind.”
“I’ve got it.”
“Wonderful. Now, I want you to place a dot somewhere near the middle of the graph. That dot represents your birth. The infinite space before it is time before your soul was molded. Now, place another dot further ahead. That represents death. The rest of the line running on for a distance longer than the human mind can comprehend is what comes next. The afterlife as it is called in various religions throughout the world.”
Simmons returned to the room and handed the glass of water to Sergeant Wilson who passed it through the bars to the spy.
“Thank you,” Henry said. “What awaits man at the end of his life varies based on said man’s beliefs. Are you familiar with a substance within the human brain called dimethyltryptamine; or known as DMT for short?”
“I can’t say that I am,” Sergeant Wilson confessed, embarrassed for his lack of knowledge.
“Don’t feel too bad, Sergeant, of course you aren’t because it won’t be discovered by science until a few decades after your death. Young Simmons; however, will still be well and kicking when it reaches the public’s attention.”
The spy took a sip of water and cleared his throat, “It will be stated that this substance, DMT, is made within the pineal gland and is naturally released upon expiration. This is what will be called the near-death phenomena upon its discovery. When the substance is released into your brain, you see whatever you always believed in, or so the doctor who discovers it will claim. He’ll say that whatever religion you follow, in the end, will be what you see. If you’re a Christian, you’ll encounter Jesus and the Father awaiting you at the pearly gates—or perhaps the poet Virgil at the gates of Hell. If you’re Muslim: Mohammed. Hindu; Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna, or whichever deity you fancy. He’ll be very close in his prediction, I can promise you that. However, as I believe your people say: close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Instead, DMT acts as an energy source for your soul—you can call it a portal if you like—that simply transfers your consciousness from the physical realm to the spectral realm.”
“What’s there?” Sergeant Simmons asked.
The spy smiled. Only an ounce of water remained in the glass. “I am free from any weapons apart from my words, am I not, Sergeant?”
“What’s there?” The British soldier repeated, louder.
“It is said knowledge is power; that the pen is mightier than the sword. For me to share such an intimate secret with you will require another favor.”
Sergeant Wilson sighed, “More water?”
The spy shook his head, “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t require a refill at this time,” he sighed longingly, “You knew in the back of your mind that this was coming, Sergeant. What I do require is to be released. My people—and I’m not talking about the German people—but those connected with me by blood and spirit, who share the same existential knowledge of the universe and all its mysteries, are slowly becoming no more. In early history, those like me were a dime a dozen. However, as time progressed, and man became further distanced from the first bloodline, we have dwindled. Each generation is blessed with fewer and fewer souls like us, and I fear and see that within one hundred years there will cease to be a single one of us.”
“The Wise Folk.”
Sergeant Wilson paused, then said, “Why do you wish to be released?”
“The answer to that, Sergeant, is simple. I can see a full life ahead of myself if I am freed from this prison. I’ll live to see the turn of the century, and then a few years more. You and I both know what happens to spies in war. If you refuse to release me, come morning, I’ll be at the gallows and my life will be cut two generations short. You may think of me as a war criminal, and that may be true, but the Wise Folk aren’t evil. We’re each individuals with varying ideals. There will come a time in the future that the wisdom of my people will not just be valued but needed. There are dark things to come in the twenty-first century, Sergeant. The Wise Folk believe it to be the last century of man’s existence on this earth unless it is stopped.”
“That’s over fifty years away, why should that matter to me?”
Henry sighed, “You’re showing the ignorance of man with that statement, Sergeant. It has no effect on you, but what about the billions of people who it does? Those who are soon-to-be-born? Are their lives-to-be of any less value than your own?”
“He’s right,” Simmons claimed. “Think about the future, Sergeant.”
“Yes, precisely! Listen to your inferior. As a soldier, you should want to preserve life, whether that life is currently underway or not. Release me from my cell and you’ll never see me again, and I won’t go back to spying. Doing so would be of no use, anyway, because at this time next year the war will be lost for Germany. I’m not just asking this of you, Sergeant, but I’m begging it of you. Let me warn my people.”
Sergeant Wilson looked to Simmons, who nodded. “Just do it, Sergeant. We can say he made a dash for it when we took him to the gallows and escaped.”
Going against everything he had ever been taught, Sergeant Wilson removed the key to the cell from his pocket and regretfully slid it into the lock.
“Thank you, Sergeant, thank you,” Henry said as he awaited the opening of the cell.
Suddenly, Sergeant Wilson froze. He cast his eyes to the spy, then removed the key from the lock.
“Let him go, Sergeant,” Simmons urged.
Sergeant Wilson shook his head, “I can’t. Doing so would endanger my people,” he smiled cruelly at the spy, then extended his arm above the sewer grate in the floor and released the key. It passed without a sound between the grate and disappeared. “The only other person who can open the cell is the hangman.”
There was a tense silence between the three men. With the flick of a wrist, the spy produced a small white pill from his sleeve. He placed the capsule on the tip of his tongue and swallowed it with the last ounce of water from the glass.
“So be it. My unfortunate fate ends on this side of the plane. Yours will continue into the next,” The spy turned his attention to Simmons for the last time, “Thank you for trying, young man. Your life will be long and prosperous.”
Suddenly, the spy’s eyes turned white as the orbs rolled into the back of his skull. His breathing grew sharp and sporadic; bringing a froth of white, bubbly waves to his lips. His knees buckled beneath him, and the spy slumped back against the wall into a seated position. After a few final convulsions, Henry Layman—as he claimed to be—was dead.
About the Author
Ellis Hastings has several works published in the ezine Schlock, and has had a work published in the 2016 anthology of Big Bridge. He resides in the old outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia where he works feverishly on his first novel.