ONE

NOVEMBER 1942

 

It was one thing to be cold, but quite another to be freezing. Not long ago, Paul Madsen had been warm and safe and at home. Now, he was in New York where his mind raced to find a way to rouse up some inner warmth. With nearly everything else having failed, he imagined himself back home in England, and for a while, the charade worked. He actually forgot about how cold and miserable he actually felt, but within a few seconds, a harsh wind soured him on the game he was playing.

Yet, the blistering cold was not the only difficulty Madsen faced. He was dying, literally falling apart internally at what one doctor had said was an unimaginably quick pace, and as recently as two weeks ago, another doctor had whispered that what he was, in essence, was a dead man walking. So maybe the cold, bitter wind was a bargain, he thought. To feel it meant he was still alive, but the all-consuming question was: how much longer?

Paul Madsen tucked his thin neck down deeper into the collar of his expensive overcoat, snuggling the downy shawl tighter around his throat. He pushed on. He had seen how nimble death could be so he fought the wind, seeking to expand his lead on the Grim Reaper. He had to exploit the promise of the one good deed he hoped would grab God’s attention, and cinch for him a sumptuous grant of divine mercy. Boy, did he need it.

He walked even faster.

With so many different directions to go in, he lost his focus momentarily, and when the howling North wind warned him that the temperature could fall even more dangerously low, he found the idea quite unattractive. He gazed at the sky. There was even less beauty in the appeal of the darkness of approaching night.

Desperation clutched at his inner resolve, and since there was practically nothing left of his weakened lungs, when the souped-up cough surged up from the depths of his bowels, he instinctively sensed that the end was near. At its peak, the wracking cough would normally only paralyze him until his strength matured enough to stabilize him, but this time, he was crippled internally, and knocked to his knees. Liquid, green snot dripped from his dilated nostrils at high speeds while the phlegm that stagnated in his tightly constricted chest exploded into his throat becoming vomit so translucent, it sprayed from his gagging mouth like polluted water.

Regaining his feet, he rocked to and fro in his exquisitely hand-crafted shoes, sure that death was muscling in on his turf.

Standing in the grim blackness that the night had conjured up, he steered his wobbly legs across a flat street that rolled down a steep hill next to a diner.

“Hey, man,” he shouted at a passerby, “please sir, tell me where do the niggers live?”

When Madsen burst into another spasm of god-awful coughing, the man frowned in disgust, and quickly walked away. He wanted to have nothing to do with anyone that wretchedly ill, especially at a time when no one had money for medicine.

Pulling himself together, Madsen managed to achieve a tiny measure of respectability. He boldly flung himself into the welcoming warmth of the cavernous restaurant, but  was immediately seized with the panic that the hacking cough would return, and that the patrons, sensing he had tuberculosis, would unmercifully pitch him out into the snow to die. He couldn’t risk that. He couldn’t imperil the mission that had brought him so far from home because what real value was there in dying incomplete? He would do what he had come to do, and driven by this euphoria, aggressively strolled across to the counter at a robust clip.

By the time he reached the counter, he had collected a big piece of his inner resolve, and though he realized his request would raise eyebrows, it wasn’t that ridiculously outrageous,

“Excuse me, kind sir,” Madsen said warmly, “but I can’t seem to find any niggers, and I’m in dire need of one. Could you tell me where they live?”

“Ah,” the diner’s owner nodded knowingly. “I see.”

Reading the man’s thoughts, Madsen quickly blurted. “Oh no, not for that.” He blushed. “I sorry if I misled you. I’m not a pervert. It’s just that—.”

“It’s none of my business,” the owner snapped, “but just the same, we don’t cater to them ‘round here.”

“Still, you must—?”

The owner stared at Madsen coldly. “I don’t know where you’re from, but, in this country, we’re not obsessed with those people. You a foreign correspondent of some sort?”

Madsen shook his head. The incessant demand to cough was tumbling round and about in his lungs, and he predicted that it wouldn’t be long before he was swallowed up in an avalanche of fitful retching. His bowels were already starting to swell with noxious gases. “Please,” he begged.

Aroused by Madsen’s pleading, the owner spoke cheaply. “If you’re not a fag or a commie news reporter, what would you do in coon-town?”

“Knock on any door….” Madsen stopped. He would burst the man’s bubble. He would leave. “I am sorry. I have come to the wrong place.” He hobbled towards the front door, the need to cough propped up by the dragging down of all the moisture in his mouth. “I bid you farewell.”

“Wait.”

Madsen stopped, but kept his back to the man. “Are you talking to me?”

“Go into the kitchen, through that door. Bernie is back there.”

Madsen turned slowly. “Bernie?”

“Yeah, Bernie,” the owner rasped, “a real-live nigger.”

 

<<<<<

 

Madsen hurriedly pushed through the swinging doors, roughly dispelling the air bagged in his throbbing chest. He was doubled over by the force of the impact, and now adding to his woes was a ragged fever.

Straightening himself up, Madsen spied an elegant-looking black man in a chef’s hat and apron. The man instantly took a step backwards. Madsen grinned, knowing that the aura of doom that surrounded him could not have been inviting. “You may not believe it, Bernie, but today is the luckiest day of your life.” Then he collapsed to the floor.

Moments later when he came to, it came as no surprise to Madsen when he found the black man was nursing him, had loosened his shirt, and was wiping his brow with a cold, damp cloth.

“Thanks,” Madsen offered weakly. He reached into his coat pocket. “It seems as if you have already earned this.” He shoved an envelope into Bernie’s hand. “Here, take this,” he commanded softly, “there isn’t much time.”

“Who are you?” Bernie asked suspiciously. He glanced at the envelope with even greater concern. “And, what is this?”

Summoning the last of his well-known iron will, Madsen tried to stand, but found it difficult, so he insisted that Bernie help him to his feet. “Is there anywhere we can have a bit of privacy?”

“This way.” Bernie escorted Madsen to a table.

Once seated, Madsen knew he had to talk fast because there wasn’t much time left. He coughed, glad it was only a mid-tempo roar, and composing himself, he pointed to the envelope. “War bonds. Also some stock certificates.” He stared at the black man. “They’re yours.”

Why?”

Madsen ignored the question. “As bearer of these bonds and certificates, whenever you’re ready to start living like a king, all you have to do is to redeem them. That’s all it takes. Everything is endorsed–.”

Why?”

When Madsen stopped coughing, he spoke wearily. “You’re rich, Bernie. You’re the richest black man the world has ever seen.” When Bernie fell back, clutching his chest, Madsen grinned triumphantly. “You do understand, then?”

“I know about war bonds,” Bernie confessed.

“There’s nothing you really need to know. I have taken care of everything. You’re filthy rich, Bernie, just like I was.” Madsen winced. “Easy come, easy go.”

A tear rolled from the black man’s eyes. “May the Lord—“

“Yeah, yeah,” Madsen grumbled, “my sentiments exactly, but I’ve been a very evil, mean person.” He shrugged casually. “Trouble is, I’ve enjoyed the dickens out of being me, the infamous Paul “Mad-Dog” Madsen.” For a brief while, he felt absolutely giddy, but soon he was coughing and wheezing again. Turning increasingly paternal, he stuffed his hand into another pocket of his coat. “The stocks and bonds were for you. Do you have any children?”

Bernie nodded.

“Well, this is for your children’s children’s children.” Madsen handed Bernie a simple, unadorned jewelry box.

“I-I don’t understand.”

“And you probably never will, but listen carefully. What’s inside this box is highly valuable, and to be quite honest, people will kill to get their hands on those documents.”

Bernie gulped. “Documents?”

“Don’t fear. As long as you keep them in your family, passing the box along from generation to generation, all will be well.” Madsen gripped Bernie’s arm tightly. “No one outside of your family must ever know about this box, understand?”

Bernie nodded.

“Good, because it is very, very important that you understand this.” Madsen lowered his voice. “To say anything to anyone about the contents of this box would…” He paused. “Simply put, it would bring about the total and immediate destruction of your entire family.”

By who?!”

“Your government,” Madsen croaked. “Your president.” Madsen released his grip. “You have been warned. I can do nothing more.”

“Th-these document,” Bernie stammered fearfully, “what are they?”

“Enough to destroy this country.” Madsen felt stronger. “There is a duplicate of what you have in that box stashed away in a private Swiss bank account, but international bankers and an assortments of other rogues may eventually sniff it out.”

“Wh-what happens then?” Bernie timidly quizzed.

Madsen sighed. “If that happens, then everything will go to your descendants.”

“Then what?”

“Then what?” Madsen laughed merrily. “They will own the whole damn country, that’s what!”