Somewhere along the road between Souk el Khemis and Beja, Tunisia
“Fucking sand gets in everything!” Simco’s staring into his C-ration can with disgust.
“At least when the chow tastes like sand, it doesn’t taste like shit.” Mirsky’s older and more philosophical than young GI sitting next to him on the rocky ground. He forks the unidentifiable food, gray and slimy and tasting of nothing in particular. He’s eaten worse, a lot worse. Abruptly, he’s back in the hold of the ship, taking him and a thousand other refugees to the fabled land of America. The rat writhes in his grip, trying to bite, but he bashes its head against the bulkhead. He’d never been a particularly observant Jew, but that voyage had broken him of any urge at all to keep kosher.
Noise brings him back to preferable present. Thunder and lightening on the horizon. Or is it artillery? The soldiers huddled around the trucks and in the foxholes can’t tell. They’d been moving all day, escorting a convoy of gasoline tanker trucks up to the front, around Medjez-el-Bab.
“Are those our only choices: sand or shit?” Simco’s still poking glumly at his food, doesn’t even look up at the noise on the horizon.
He’s a good enough kid, Mirsky thinks to himself, but he pays attention to all the wrong things. Americans. What can you do? “Ain’t nothin’ else out here in this fuckin’ hellhole. I’ve seen Baku and I’ve seen Newark and lemme tell ya, this place is the pits.”
“Sand, shit… and them… those god-damned creatures…”
“You fuckin’ putz, Simco! I’m tryin’ to scarf down this, this here dog food!” Mirsky’s proud of the ‘this here’. A piece of slang that makes him sound more American. “I don’t need you bringin’ up those fuckin’ things! I’d just about put them out of my mind!” His annoyance masks a very real worry. The kid isn’t wrong. There are bad things out there, somewhere, in the dark desert. Worse even than Nazis.
And now the kid stares at Mirsky like he might be able to pat him on the head and make it all better. “But what do you think, Mirsky? You think we’ll get hit tonight? I heard from Nighfert, the radio guy, that platoon from the Big Red One got wiped out last night. No survivors!”
How many times has he done this in the past? Put a little iron into the spines of young men getting ready for the worst. Lots of practice and he’d actually gotten good at it. So he puts the right mix of unconcern and encouragement into his voice. “I think you need to grow a pair.” Another phrase he’s proud to remember. Sal Genovese used it once to a hitter who was having doubts. “We’ve had the Krauts on the run for a month now. And no bogeymen are going to change that. You gotta stop listening to rumors.”
That does the job. Simco’s face clears and he goes back to eating his food with, well, one wouldn’t call it enthusiasm, but at least a renewed sense of purpose.
Later. It’s full dark and The platoon is arranged around the tanker trucks, gun pits, jeeps, foxholes, all pointing outward. Mirsky and Simco share a foxhole. Mirsky’s making like he’s sleeping, his helmet down over his eyes and arms folded against the winter cold, but he’s keeping an eye on the kid. Simco’s a little jumpy, eyes moving constantly underneath the brim of his helmet, always adjusting the aim of his rifle to the latest noise, real or imagined, that catches his attention. Mirsky figures that the kid will wear himself out eventually.
Then Simco jumps up and works the bolt on his rifle. Mirsky drifts his hand to his rifle, just in case. Simco’s seen something, someone standing off in the darkness. He’s sure of it this time. His first try at the night’s password comes out in a dry mouthed croak. “Brooklyn?” No response. “Brooklyn?” The figure just stands there. Simco’s voice gains an octave in shrillness. “Brooklyn? You better give me the damned password or I’ll shoot!”
The voice that comes out of the night has an Ivy League accent. “Dodgers.” Mirsky lets his hand fall away from his rifle. Simco had almost shot the Lieutenant. That would have been fun to watch.
Lieutenant Gerard strolls up. And that’s definitely how to describe the way he walks over the rocky ground. By the way that Gerard makes Mirsky want to spit, he’s pure aristocrat. “At ease, soldier. Good to see that you’re staying alert.” He stands there for a moment, looking around at the trucks and the men, lord of all her surveys. “Your buddy resting up for his watch?”
“Yessir.” Simco ventures a question. “Hey, Lieutenant, you think the Krauts are going to try anything tonight?”
Gerard’s voice is all hearty encouragement. “Not a chance, soldier. Headquarters doesn’t have any Germans in this sector. Should be a quiet night. But stay alert; you never know.”
Simco doesn’t look at Gerard, just continues to nervously stare out into the night. “What about the – you know – the monsters , Lieutenant? The ones that hit that platoon over in the 1st the other night? Any word on them?”
Oh, you poor dumb putz. Mirsky closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to witness the Lieutenant’s reaction. Which is very swift in coming.
“Private Simco, you stow that talk and do it now! You will zip that lip, do you understand?” Gerard’s right in Simco’s face.
Told ya, Mirsky mouths but he doesn’t bother opening his eyes or otherwise getting involved.
Simco’s braced at attention, staring wall-eyed. “Yessir!”
Gerard calms down and stations himself in front of Simco. His voice takes on a professorial tone, that of someone explaining the facts of life to someone almost genetically incapable of understanding. Mirsky’s knuckles go white. Russian, German, English, that tone is the same in all those languages. And that tone was the one most likely to launch Mirsky into serious violence against whoever was talking like that. “Spooky stories are fine around the campfire but not here in the field. Your job is to kick Kraut ass, not to make your buddies nervous with your talk about imaginary monsters.”
Something loud, wet, and messy happens. Simco blinks, completely confused, trying to figure out what just happened. Something’s happened to Lieutenant Gerard’s head. His face is missing? There’s just a bloody meaty hole. Simco raises a shaking hand to wipe away a piece of something that’s sliding down his face.
Gerard’s body falls to the ground, revealing a black uniformed figure that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. A smoking Luger that had just shot Lieutenant Gerard’s face off in a raised fist. When the figure speaks, a mouthful of fangs glint. “But what about real monsters? Is it allowed to talk about them?”
Simco yells, terror and incomprehension in his voice. Independent of his brain, his finger twitches and the bullets just knock the figure back a few steps, but not off his feet.
Mirsky’s been on his feet since the shot that killed Gerard. The bullets from his rifle join those from Simco’s and slam into the figure, with the same lack of result. There’s a second’s pause while the two men just stand there trying to understand what they’re seeing.
Then the creature in front of them snarls, more fangs, and lunges at Simco. Fast. Very fast. An unseen blow knocks Mirsky sideways into a Jeep. When the sparks clear from his eyes and he looks up from where he’s fallen, Mirsky sees the creature crouched over Simco, the young man helpless as a baby. When the creatures raises his face from Simco’s neck and blood drools from his teeth. Mirsky rolls underneath the Jeep and fires at Kordel, knocking him off Simco. Simco falls to the ground, bleeding out from the wounds in his neck.
MIrsky knows that he’s already lived longer than he’s had any reason to expect. But he never thought he’d check out like this. Sure, shot in the back of the head by some wiseguy looking to move up or on the losing end of some deal going south. But ripped apart and eaten by some kind of monster? Nope, Mirsky shakes his head and prepares to go down shooting.
The creature stands there, over Simco, looking at Mirsky. Then he looks down at Simco and back at Mirsky. He can’t decide who to kill first. Mirsky’s done some bad shit in his life and he’s known some guys who really liked killing. And he recognizes what he’s seeing. The bastard’s playing with them. Playing with his food. Cat with crippled mice. And then the gas tankers explode, one by one, and the entire scene is lit with a cheery orange glow. Jeeps and motorcycles with no headlights roar out of a nearby gully. The gunners in the back of the jeeps working the heavy machineguns mounted there continue to rake the trucks that they’ve already set on fire. The creature throws its head back and laughs in delight.
The startled Americans start firing back, trying to get their shit together. They soon realize what Mirsky and Simco have learned the hard way. Bullets are just no damn good. Some of the Americans get lucky and a Nazi jeep explodes, a motorcycle crashes. But the creatures just get up, walk out of the flames, and continue to attack. The sound of American screams start to become louder than the sound of weapon fire.
It’s a few seconds before Mirsky realizes that he’s trying to fire an empty rifle, trigger just going click.
The creature chuckles. “Come out, come out, little mouse.” He steps over Simco and walks towards where Mirsky is hiding under the Jeep.
Mirsky digs himself deeper underneath and fumbles for his bayonet, where it’s hanging from his belt. Of course, in all of this, it’s gotten all tangled and is around his back. He’s pawing at it, keeping an eye on the booted feet slowly walking towards him when things get really loud for a minute.
It happens so quick, Mirsky’s not sure what he sees. In between one step and the next, the booted feet disappear as another Jeep runs right into the monster and squashes it against the Jeep that Mirsky’s hiding under. The crash rings all the bells in his head and he ducks just low enough to miss being decapitated by the transmission gear box of the jeep he’s hiding under.
The creature screams, not in pain, but in rage. There’s a tearing sound, and the creature’s head lands on the ground, staring right at Mirsky. It looks like something grabbed it and pulled. It’s all pulped out of shape, black blood mats the blond scalp and brains ooze from the shattered skull. But for a minute, the eyes remain aware, hating. Then, in front of Mirsky’s unbelieving gaze, the head just crumbles away, fast motion decay, leaving just a skull with large fangs.
A boot, a big boot, a really big boot, comes right down on the skull and crushes it into the dirt. The sounds of the attack change, new guns, fewer American screams, more German shouting. Something heavy starts shooting right over Mirsky’s head, some sort of heavy machinegun. A pile of brass shells starts to build on the ground in front of Mirsky’s gaze. The boot is joined by its mate and whoever owns those huge feet moves away, towards the fighting.
Mirsky shakes the incomprehension from his head, realizing that he’s doing noone any good stuck beneath this fucking Jeep. If he’s going to die, he’s going to die on his feet. He grabs a spare clip from his belt and reloads his rifle. Rolls out and on to his feet, eyes steady over the rifle sights, looking for a target. At first, he doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. The shapes make no sense.
A Jeep has slammed into the one that Mirsky was hiding under. In the back of that one, a soldier is firing a .30 cal into the Nazi monsters. Another Jeep has skidded to a halt not far away and a figure(Tip) is also firing a .30 cal from the back. They seemed to be used to dealing with monsters like these Nazi nightmares. They team up and concentrate their fire on one monster at a time. No matter how fast it moves, how it tries to dodge, they keep a steady stream of heavy fire on it until it finally crumbles, screams, and flares up. Mirsky can’t figure out that last, they’re not using tracers, so why do the Nazis burn up when they die?
Four others, two from the Jeep next to Mirsky and two from the other Jeep, advance right into the Nazi monsters, all of them loaded for bear with Thompsons or other better than normal weapons, all of them keeping up an impressive rate of fire. One of them is big and bulky, one of them is sporting some impressive tits, one of them looks like it has four arms. The four armed one has weapons in all of its hands. All of them are getting shot, Mirsky sees their uniforms, US Army green, puff and flare from the impact, but none of them drop or even flinch.
Mirsky sees the Nazi monsters fall back in confusion, then regroup under the screamed orders of the monster in charge. Seeing as how guns weren’t having any effect, they get close with claws and knives. They’re fast, much faster than the one attacking them. The burning trucks, the darkness of the night, the billowing smoke, all of it makes it hard for Mirsky to see and the Nazis move so fast that they’re like photographs. He doesn’t see them move but after each blink of his watering eyes, they’re somewhere else. They close with the American attackers and the guys on the .30s have to stop for fear of hitting their own.
Then the Nazi monsters get a bad shock. An eviscerating slash brings back a handful of clay. Another coughs, gags, spits after getting a mouthful of clay.
And when they’re close enough to do that, they’re too close. Hands grip. Hands tear. Hands crush. Mirsky sees the four armed one meet a Nazi monster grip to grip. That still leaves two of its hands free. Two hands with a .45 in each mitt. Two .45s that are emptied right into the monster’s head while it’s held helpless, squirming, trying to break free.
A Nazi standing in one of their vehicles sees what’s going on and makes a decision. “Fall back! Fall back!”
The surviving monsters make it back to their jeeps and motorcycles and speed away into the night. The Americans don’t bother to pursue. Instead, the ones who rescued them turn to inspecting the fallen and doing what they can to patch them up.
Mirsky slowly lowers his unfired rifle and tries to figure out what he just saw. Slowly it comes to him and it’s a with a feeling of utter disbelief that he recognizes what’s been attacking the Nazis. In the last month or so, he’d heard guys starting to refer to the war as Weird War Two, on account of all the strange stuff that was showing up: Nazi superscience, robots, monsters, all kinds of hoodoo. But he’d not paid it much mind. But now, the big shape looming in front of him, back lit against the burning gas tankers, he believes wholeheartedly.
“Golems… Fucking golems.”
The four armed one hears him and looks up from where it’s pulling a wounded American from a shot up truck. Its features are smoothly beautiful, a mix of male and female. “Well, we ain’t fuckin’ elves.”
The guy manning the .30 on the back of the Jeep next to Mirsky climbs down. He’s tall and thin, younger, in his early to mid-20s. Mirsky notes that he’s wearing captain’s bars and throws him a salute. Delicate features that worry, stress, and sleeplessness have drawn lines down his face and put black around his eyes. He’s a young guy but there’s something in his eyes and the way he carries himself that tells Mirsky that he’s seen and done things. He nods at Mirsky. “Captain Maccabbee and his Golem Desert Rats, yeah that’s us.” His accent places him on the East Coast, not a whole lot of Europe or Russian in his voice.
The American soldiers who are still alive creep out from under jeeps and out of trucks where they had been trying to hide from the Nazi monsters. One of the golems who looks like a woman, moves to help them. She, it, Mirsky’s still trying to believe what he’s seeing, looks up at him. “You Jewish? Not many people know what golems are.”
Mirsky nods. “Yeah, New York via Odessa. Thought you were fairy tales, no offense, even with all this Weird War shit.”
The Captain, Maccabbee, motions to the biggest golem, the one that looks like he just stepped out on old golem movie, a silent, that Mirsky remembers seeing as a kid. “Malkuth, get the medic kits from the jeeps and see what help we can give.”
Its voice is deep and slow. “Right away, Rabbi.” It walks like its knees don’t work very well but it moves like an avalanche, like nothing can stop it.
Still inanely making small talk, but Mirsky can’t help himself, still trying to get a grip on what he’s seeing. “I didn’t think that golems could speak.”
Maccabbee nods, looking out into the darkness. “Usually they don’t. But I thought it’d be wrong to create them without a voice.”
The female golem, the one that had talked to him before, is crouched over Simco, who’s still feebly alive, drifting in and out of consciousness. She raises her head and calls out to Maccabbee. “Rabbi, over here!”
He goes over to the golem, Mirsky tags along behind. In all the weirdness, he’d almost forgotten about the kid. “What have you got, Binah?” His shoulders slump when he sees the wounds on Simco’s neck.
Mirsky softly whistles through his teeth when he sees the carnage. Ripped gouges, deep on the side of Simco’s neck. The kid’s got his hands pressed tight over the wounds, blood, black in the light of burning trucks, pulses through his clenched fingers. His eyes, panicked, roll, showing a lot of white. Mirsky kneels beside him, holds his shoulder. “You’re gonna be ok, Simco. We’ll get you patched up.” He looks up. “Hey, you, golem, you want to maybe hurry up with that fuckin’ medical bag?”
Something cold trickles down his spine when he’s ignored. Something bad’s about to happen.
The female golem, Binah, looks at Maccabbee. The dark and the flames and running shadows turn her sculpted face into something ancient, something in a temple dispensing pity and judgement to gathered worshippers. “This one will turn, Rabbi. Should I?” She shrugs her rifle off her shoulder and into her hands.
Mirsky’s bad feeling gets worse.
Maccabbee’s voice is filled with sorrow and resolution. “No, I’ll do it.” He pulls his pistol.
Mirsky jumps up and stands in front of the Captain. “Wait, what the hell are you doing? He just needs some bandages!” He looks over to where the rest of the American soldiers are gathered by the wreckage of the trucks. “Hey, I need a medic over here!”
Maccabbee makes to move past him. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that, soldier. I’m very sorry.”
Mirsky doesn’t budge. “Fuck you’re sorry. You ain’t doin’ a damn thing to him.” He starts to put his rifle between himself and the Captain.
Strong hands, clay hands, close around his arms from behind and hold him motionless. He freezes as the familiar sensation of a gun barrel in his ear happens. The voice is the same as had stated that golems aren’t elves earlier. “You wanna calm down. The Captain is saving your life, is what he’s doing.”
Simco looks up as Maccabbee approaches. The soldier’s pale and his eyes are unfocused, there’s very little blood trickling from between his fingers where he’s still got them clutched around his neck. Binah, the golem, stands up from where she was couched next to Simco and gets out of the way as Maccabbee gets close.
But just as the Captain raises his pistol, Simco’s face changes, just for the briefest instant. Mirsky can’t see it clearly, still implacably gripped in the golem’s hands, the flickering shadows make everything indistinct. It looks like his face bulges somehow, like there are suddenly more teeth in his mouth.
Mirsky hears Maccabbee mutter. “May God have mercy on you.” And he shoots Simco in the head. And then a second time.
Some of the American soldiers look up at the sounds of the shots. One of the golems, one who looks like some bearded ancient Middle Eastern king, walks towards them. “Nothing to worry about. One of those Nazi bastards didn’t want to surrender.” His voice is deep and reassuring, even though it’s coming from a large clay man dressed in a US Army uniform and carrying a machine gun. “Get everybody into anything that’ll run. We’ll escort you back to the base. But I bet those Nazi rats haven’t even stopped running yet.”
The Americans seem to take comfort in that and start moving faster, look less worried.
Mirsky struggles against the hands that are still holding him. Maccabbee looks over Mirsky’s shoulder to the golem that’s holding him. “It’s ok, Geburah. You can let him go.”
The hands release Mirsky and he staggers as he gets his footing. He turns around to glare at the golem who was holding him. Now that he’s up close, Mirsky notices that there’s a word in Hebrew carved in the golem’s forehead. “Someday, pal, you and me.” The golem’s fine, unsettlingly androgynous, features express an amused disdain, an expression the face seem to be well suited for. The expression does nothing to calm Mirsky down. “You, me, a sledgehammer, you can count on that.”
The golem doesn’t respond, just waves a dismissive hand and goes to help the other golems.
Mirsky heads towards Maccabbee, his anger still strong. He wants to raise his gun, kill the man, easy enough, an action he’s taken many times before, but he only shouts. The golems have shown him the uselessness of any other action towards the man that they protect. “What the fuck?! What the hell did you just do? You can’t shoot the wounded! What kind of monster are you?”
Binah effortlessly lifts Simco’s body and carries it over to where the American dead are being loaded onto one of the remaining Jeeps. Maccabbee watches, silently, and Mirsky doesn’t think he’s going to answer. “He was dead as soon as he was bitten, Sergeant. I’m very sorry. If I hadn’t killed him, he would have turned into one of those monsters that just attacked.”
“You can’t know that! How could you know that?! They got all sorts of new medicine these days. Maybe he would have gotten better.”
Still not looking at Mirsky, Maccabbee shakes his head. “Because I’ve been fighting these leeches and their bitch commander ever since we landed in Tangier. Because I’m a combat cabbalist and killing demons is what I do.”
“You’re completely around the bend, you know that? Bughouse! Demons. You’re off your nut.” Mirsky waves a dismissive hand at the Captain and turns to go.
Kicking his way across the desert floor in angry contempt, he’s still close enough to hear Maccabbee softly say. “One demon in particular. Countess Elizabet Bathory.”