A Lifetime To Die

  • Year : 2013
  • Author : P.S. MERONEK

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The darkest of secrets sometimes linger for a lifetime. When they are finally exposed they can be like the discovery of an ancient tomb, perhaps better left alone, although never ignored. Aristotle Mercury’s father knew too much, so he was silenced. With the help of his friends in the Russian mob, Aristotle’s Uncle Jacob is able to move in and take over as the new head of the now successful factory that his own brother created.

The year is 1968. As the Red Army’s tanks roll into Wenceslas Square in the very heart of Prague, a seventeen year old Aristotle learns the horrible truth about his father. Five years ago someone else was murdered in his place to make it appear as if he was accidentally crushed under a factory press. Since then his father has been alive and imprisoned in the notorious Prague Institute for the Criminally Insane.

In a daring rescue Aristotle retrieves his barely alive father from the bowels of the terrible prison. After a short time his father succumbs to the ravages of his imprisonment, but not before he divulges the location of the evidence which proves he owned the now thriving factory, and of Uncle Jake’s murderous duplicity in stealing it from them.

With the Russians taking over the country, and the mob closing in to eliminate the only living heir to a burgeoning fortune, Aristotle flees Czechoslovakia and makes his way to America, vowing to one day go back and even the score.

He settles in New York, in Greenwich Village. He’s honest and works hard to learn the new ways of a strange land. Soon he befriends his eccentric landlord, the elderly Mrs. Schroeder. Telly, as his new friends in America like to call him, ignites a withered spirit of adventure in the lady who still believes in the good in people. She owns some property, and Telly has a talent for building. They both learn Telly also has an eye for the deal. Together they first develop her land, and then other land in the exploding New York real estate market. Telly’s ambitions lead him from the posh boardrooms of New York to the lucrative shores of New Jersey, where he’s almost killed as he constructs the world’s largest casino.

Never too far from his mind, always there to haunt and motivate him, Telly dreams of the day he will finally return to his homeland and exact vengeance on his Uncle Jake. In a sweeping saga of familial betrayal spanning three decades of intertwining lives, Telly Mercury finally gets his chance for justice. But does righting of wrongs of a demon filled closet come with a price too high? Secrets are sometimes better left untold, in spite of their screams from across the years to be heard.

His own salvation hanging in the balance, Telly must somehow accept that forgiveness trumps retribution, and money truly can’t buy happiness. And just maybe, as it is with Uncle Jacob, forgiveness is the worst possible epithet for a life lived in the accompaniment of the unquenchable thirst of greed and murder.



"I should have guessed it.” I marveled at its simplicity. For some odd reason it had not occurred to me. But now, as I thought about it, I felt stupid.

We hit another pothole, this one deep. The five of us were jarred painfully as Karlov’s older panel truck bottomed out.

“Needs new springs,” Karlov apologized over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. He and his wife rode in the truck’s two front seats. The three of us sat on the bare metal floorboards in the back. There were no other seats, and no windows aside from the ones in the front.

“As long as it looks good,” I told Karlov. Recently, for this operation, he had painted it black, like the night that surrounded us.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Father Svabinsky. “Often the best kept secrets are those left out in plain sight. No one ever looks there.”

“Records.” I shook my head.

“No government department can live without them,” said the Father.

It was a given Pop never went through Intake under his own name. After the priest had jumped onboard, he looked anyway to confirm it. He hadn’t paused for two seconds on that one, though – that’s why they brought me in. The records had pictures, and what made it even easier was that they were originals, stapled to the front of every file. They never updated them, but they never got rid of them either. The law required they be kept. When we found the right file I’d be staring Pop right in the face – as I last saw him when I was eleven years old. It was a haunting notion.

Even now my mouth was dry and my palms wouldn’t stop sweating. It was like we were bringing him back from the dead. I almost couldn’t believe it. Even if I had wanted to, I realized there was no going back now.

My biggest fear was that he was dead. If anything could have stopped me that was it. My guts were in my throat, but I had to find out. If Pop was alive I’d deal with it. If he was gone, I would deal with that, too.

“What was on the chisel?” asked Oskar. He was making conversation.

“What chisel?”

“The one in the picture, around his neck. You said it was engraved.”

I nodded. “That’s right. But to be honest, I don’t remember. I’m not sure I ever knew in the first place.”

Svabinsky said, “When you see him you can ask him.”

Karlov turned another corner and slowed. “A hundred yards, on the left. I’ll pull up to the curb a few feet past the entrance and try to get it out of the direct light. That way with the new paint it won’t seem so old if they see it.”

A few seconds later the brakes squealed slightly as the vehicle came to a stop. To me they sounded like air raid sirens.

“All right, this is it,” the Father whispered quietly. “Everybody on their best behavior. Let’s go.”

Karlov got out first. Wordlessly, he went to the back and opened the door for the rest of us. Ana slid in behind the wheel. If we all got out in one piece, she would drive back.

I took a deep breath and nodded to the Father. He reached under my chin and adjusted my collar. Then he jerked his head, and we followed him up the sidewalk. Our heavy boots made a hollow, thudding sound as we went.

The four of us stepped up to the huge front entrance gate. It was made of heavy iron spikes, which speared the night sky ten feet above the ground. There were concrete walls on either side, and razor wire trailed off in the distance in both directions. Spotlights at regular intervals glinted off the spikes’ circular ridges, making them appear as gleaming steel teeth. It seemed a cold and godless place. I wondered how the priest could have come here so many times in the last number of years. But maybe it was where he felt he’d been most needed.

“We’re closed,” the static-filled voice said sleepily. It came from the call box mounted on the concrete wall left of the gate.

“It’s Father Svabinsky.”

There was a pause. Then, “Who?”

“Father Svabinsky.”

Another pause. “Come back tomorrow, Father. We’re closed.”

Svabinsky and Karlov exchanged places. Karlov hit the call button.

The box said, “Are you deaf, Father? I said we’re closed! Come back tomorrow.”

“This is Special Intelligence Officer Colonel Yari Andropov of the KGB.” Karlov’s accent was perfect. “I wish to speak with your watch commander.”

Another pause, this time longer. Someone was waking up, I thought humorlessly.

“Did you say KGB?” asked the box, now more alert.

Karlov spoke deliberately. “Special Intelligence Officer, Yari Andropov. KGB. I am not accustomed to being kept waiting. Who am I speaking to?”

There was a much briefer pause. Then, “A guard is on his way to the gate, Colonel. He will be there in a few seconds. I am sorry for the delay, uh, he was making his rounds. He’s coming now, sir.”

I felt almost giddy. The response was something I had never before imagined, never experienced firsthand. The power was awesome.

A guard appeared in the wash of the front walkway lights beyond the gate. Two German Shepherds strained at their leashes, dragging him along. He jerked hard on the leather straps and they fell in beside the man. Their panting and occasional low growls were clearly audible. He warned them with a gruff snarl of his own. The dogs backed down even further. They sensed no threat, except from their master, who now completely controlled them. One word from the guard, I realized soberly, and anyone of us would be instantly torn to shreds.

“May I see your identification papers, please?” he asked officiously.

“Certainly.” Karlov mechanically handed our papers to him through the bars.

He looked at them quickly, pausing briefly when he came to the Father’s, and then, longer, on Colonel Yari Andropov’s. He looked up, comparing the man on the other side of the gate to his picture. “Of what need has the KGB of a priest and a doctor?”

Karlov stared directly at the guard. Evenly, with no hesitation, he said, “The priest is an informant. The doctor tells us when they are dead. Perhaps you would like to be a test subject?”

The guard immediately spoke into his two-way radio: “Vorak, open the front gate.”

Karlov still stared at the man.

There was a faint buzz. The guard yanked the gate open.

We walked in silence the hundred or so feet up the front walkway. Another guard, almost as young as I was, held the huge metal door open for us. We were escorted the rest of the way by a third of a similar age. Late shift, I thought, young and impressionable. That was good. No wonder they had snapped to attention. They were probably all shitting their pants right now.

We followed him to an office, where I felt a slight sense of déjà vu. Ana’s model was nearly exact.

“Please be seated.” The guard was formal. “The Commander knows you’re here. He has instructed me to inform you –”

“That I will be right out. Good evening, Colonel.” The watch commander closed the door of his inner office and took the short walk across the antechamber with his hand extended. “Or shall I salute? I’m never quite sure how to act under these circumstances. That will be all, thank you, Vorak.”

The guard left us alone with him.

“How may we be of assistance to the KGB, Colonel…?”

“Andropov. Yari Andropov.” I saw Karlov’s meaty forearm contract powerfully as he gripped the other’s hand. A momentary flash of pain betrayed itself onto the officer’s face. Good for Karlov, I thought. Not out of hospital three weeks, and yet already had his strength back. I felt more at ease as I witnessed his intimidation working.

“And you are?”

The smile vanished from across the watch commander’s face. By now he sensed he’d made a mistake. He realized that the KGB was far worse than he’d heard – his eyes gave away his thoughts. The main objective in his mind now was just to cooperate with this Russian spook in whatever way he could, and get rid of him and his crew as quickly as possible without incident.

“Major Smetana, sir.” He almost succeeded at hiding his anxiety, but the ‘sir’ thrown on the end gave it away.

“We need to see your inmate records, Major,” said Karlov, as if he were asking for the time of day. He waited for what he knew must come. His timing was perfect.

“Of course you have your authorization papers.” The Major shrugged apologetically.

“Of course.” Karlov handed the officer the forged orders.

The Major barely glanced at them. “My copy?”

“To look at.”

The Major handed them back. “I’m sure the warrant is in order, Colonel. Who are you looking for?”

Karlov’s face never changed. He must have had ice water in his veins. He stared at the Major, saying nothing.

Smetana merely nodded. “All right. If you’ll just sign here, I’ll take you over to Records.”

Karlov signed the proffered logbook. When the Major moved to retrieve it, Karlov hung onto it long enough to tell him, “If we find him, we’ll be taking him with us. And yes, I have those papers as well if you need them. After you, Major.” He stepped aside.

The room was where we knew it to be, and the cabinets containing the inmates’ files were in the location we expected.

“I’ll be in my office if you need me,” the Major told Karlov. “Unless…”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” Karlov already had a file drawer open, browsing through it. “You may post a guard outside the door. I will summon you if I have need.”

I would have thought it better if Karlov had made the Major stay – then we could have kept an eye on him. But we needed some degree of privacy. We had no way of knowing what we were going to find. This way, if anything we hadn’t thought of did come up to change our plans, we might just be able to talk about it.

Karlov looked across the room at Father Svabinsky. The priest was standing beside the now closed door, listening carefully to the Major’s receding footsteps. He nodded to us. Karlov quickly moved aside and I took over.

My heart pounded against my ribcage as I began to leaf through the folders, moving as quickly as I dared. There were a lot of files, more than the Institute’s four hundred and two rooms. That would stand to reason. They probably never updated them. People would come and go one way or another.

I flipped through the faces, careful not to miss any of them. I was amazed at how ordinary they all looked. A few were even smiling. I imagined what kind of lives they had endured. What had they been like as children? What kind of families had they come from?

A bead of perspiration fell onto one of the pictures, and I quickly wiped it off, realizing in the same instant how silly the gesture was. Who was left to look at these? No doubt on occasion law would require the authorities add a bit of new information to some of the files. Perhaps a new drug they doped an inmate with, the name of a visitor, however unlikely, or possibly a copy of someone’s death certificate. Some of the pictures were yellowed and cracked with age. Were these some of the deceased, or did they still live here, long ago forgotten by those on the outside world – the real world?

They seemed more like ghosts than real people. My mind wandered while I continued my mechanical march through the files. What was that I’d thought just now? The real world? Was there such a place? For these people, this was it. What had the world been like for Pop all these years? I falsely hoped it had been as he’d made it, but I knew that was wishful thinking. Look how my own life had gone. Pop may have been locked up – tortured even – against his will, but what about me? Was I any better off living with the illusion of hope Mama and I had held onto for so long? Maybe our kind of torture had been worse. Maybe believing you could work towards something and have a better life was fool’s gold. At least these people had the absolute certainty they were going nowhere.

I shook my head, moving on to another drawer. Karlov made a motion for me to hurry. I ignored him. I was moving as fast as I could. The files were arranged alphabetically, but it didn’t mean a damn thing. Pop could be the first, or the last. There was no way of telling. I had to go through them all and hope for the best.

The uniform was hot. I was starting to itch, but I forced myself to ignore it. Another drop of perspiration fell on to someone else’s picture. This time I ignored it, too.

I finished the first big drawer and pulled out another. And then another. I kept going.

‘How many in a drawer?’ I asked myself, to keep my mind sharp. Fifty? Seventy-five maybe? Couldn’t be more than that. I was on – what? Was it my third, or my fourth drawer? I’d lost count. It didn’t matter anyway.

My eyes were tired. I couldn’t remember when I’d last blinked. I held my place with the fingers of my right hand while I massaged my closed eyes briefly with my left. I paused to look at Karlov and Oskar, standing together. Oskar gave me a quick thumbs up. Svabinsky’s expression over his shoulder was serious. I stole a glance across the bank of drawers along the cabinets that made up the inmates’ records and discovered I was two thirds of the way through them.

One third left. I dug back in.

Pop wasn’t here. My heart began to sink as I closed yet another drawer. I was down to the last three, and still no Pop.

I opened the third to last drawer. My hands moved more slowly now. It wasn’t fatigue, even though I wasn’t certain how long we’d been doing this. A minute? An hour? Who cared? All I knew was that I hadn’t found him yet.

It now occurred to me that each file I folded over on top of the last one meant one less hope of Pop being here. I knew that if Pop’s file wasn’t among the rest of them it could mean only that he no longer existed. They had killed him and wiped the slate clean. No evidence. Those bastards! My son of a bitch uncle! I’d kill him when –

“Only two after this one,” Karlov whispered urgently, his hand on my shoulder. I looked into his eyes. “Don’t give up, Telly,” he whispered more gently this time. “He wouldn’t want that.”

I stared at him, feeling empty and alone inside. But Karlov was right. I nodded and went back to work.

I hit paydirt halfway through the second to last drawer and almost ripped the file folder as I jerked it from its slot. Something fell out. My reflexes were quick, and I caught it.

It was Pop’s chisel.

I quickly stowed the chisel deep in my pocket. There was no time to look at it now.

I turned my attention back onto the folder in front of me, but my hands were trembling so badly I couldn’t read any of the words if I’d wanted to. What I did see was his picture.

Pop stared back at me through the years, isolated, lonely, and afraid – but maybe still alive. My heart was singing. I wasn’t aware of the others as they crowded around to look for themselves. No one had to ask me it if was him.

The Father broke the silence first. “Karlov, get the Major.” he whispered, then to me, “Aristotle, don’t you even think about freezing up on us now.” His eyes were like the red-hot embers of a burning fire.

I turned to look at him, hissing between gritted teeth, “Hell would freeze over first, Father. We’re not done here.”

I was sure he liked what he heard.