The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
This happened in London, although it could have happened in Dublin or New York or any major city of the world. It could have happened in some backwater as well, but it happened in London, not far from Piccadilly Circus. But where it happened is of no real importance—when is more relevant, but that will become clear in the telling of it. The story derives from a Scotland Yard confession, to which the author was privy before his retirement.
It was early evening of a cold December day just before Christmas, 1947. The pavements glistened under falling heavy mist and traffic sounds were muted. Two men were walking down a street. The man following came up behind the man ahead. The man ahead felt the barrel of a pistol in his back. He was told to keep walking and was ordered into a dark doorway.
“This was a trick,” he said in a hushed voice, back over his shoulder. “I was told this was a meet for the cause.”
“Get down those stairs.”
The man ahead did as he was told and at the bottom was pushed through a door. Inside, the room was dark but the man behind switched on a light. It was a dank basement room of ancient drooling bricks, criss-crossing pipes, dust and cobwebs, deep below the street. There was a table. A few chairs. An old desk. Little else except looming shadows. The man ahead saw a rat stand up and look at him in a far corner when the light went on. Then he was struck a stunning blow to the back of his head. He couldn’t think. He fell to the cement floor and as he fell his Mauser Schnellfeuer, the ugly machine pistol he kept in an inside pocket of his trenchcoat, was ripped away. Minutes of heavy breathing passed. Then consciousness returned.
“Awake?” said the man with the guns. He held the Mauser in his left hand and a long-barrelled Webley in his right.
“Yes.” The man on the floor looked around. As he took in this filthy empty room he was filled with fear and at the same time outrage.
“Where am I?” Then he realized that he was bound hand and foot with heavy cord, could not move. “Where am I? Who are you? What’s this? Who are you? What is this?” His head was clearing. “Obviously, you are not the man I was supposed to meet.”
“I am the man you were supposed to meet—inevitably. I’m your punisher. No, your redeemer. We are Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo.”
“Punisher? My what? Is that what you said?” Then he felt outrage become rage and raw anger. “Who in hell are you? Some kind of maniac?”
“Of course, we are both maniacs, living in a mad insane simian world. I told you, I’m your punisher.”
“My punisher …” he muttered to himself, “my punisher.” Then, he looked up intently and saw, for the first time, a tall thin man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, a sharp pointed aquiline nose and eyes pale as icewater. The man’s demeanor portrayed no emotion, only purpose. Now the bound man felt a thrill of uncontrollable fear as he looked at the neat gray overcoat and the gray fedora downward slanted over the cold pale eyes.
“My punisher? For what? And who in hell are you to punish me? Some kind of damn fascist cop? Where is this place? How did I get here? Oh, yeah, I remember. You stuck a gun in my back. Why did you have to hit me so hard? My brain’s scrambled.”
“I can see straight, but you’ve given me a thudding headache. What’s this all about? I can see your intention isn’t robbery, so what is it?”
“As to where you are, this is Purgatory. You are on your way to hell.”
“What then, are you some damn loony representative of the Church? An agent for the Vatican or something? I don’t have to tell you, do I, that I don’t believe in hell?”
The tall thin man spoke slowly, with supreme confidence, “Oh, oh, I assure you, you’re going to hell, whether you believe in it or not.”
“You know it, then?”
“I’m a veteran of several wars as are you. I’ve had your file for some time. You’ve sunk from soldier to terrorist.”
“Hell—ha! Now look you, enough of these crazy metaphysics. Who are you and—”
Strangely enough, I laughed at the end. It was such a surprise and a release of tension I guess.