(Fangs of the SS) CHAPTER 13: The Hitman And The Rabbi

Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel

“Just how stupid is that piece of shit?”

“Just how stupid does he think I am?”

Mirsky’s got a pissed off look on his face and he’s muttering to himself. Because he’s so intent on his own internal dialogue, questioning the sexual habits of Duvall’s mother and just how someone that stupid could actually get promoted to captain, and in Army Intelligence no less, which, he realizes pretty much answers his own question, because of all that, the skinny Russian Jew doesn’t notice that the inhabitants of Camp Cuckoo that cross his path: a mad scientist, a witch, something bipedal and wrapped in bandages, and others, all of them get out of his way.

He comes around a cluster of tents and there’s Maccabbee’s tent. Nobody around. He stops. For a man who was just seconds ago completely intent meeting the Fightin’ Rabbi and putting the next part of his plan into motion, he suddenly looks indecisive.  He steps forward, towards the tent. Stops again. Scratches the back of his neck. Spits.

Malkuth comes out of the tent. “Seriously. What’s the matter with you? You need to take a piss, the latrine’s over that way.” The golem walks over to Mirsky and stands in front of him. Looming very deliberately.

Mirsky puts on a confident face and metaphorically pulls on his big boy pants. “Hey, remember me?”

Malkuth doesn’t respond to the friendly tone, just folds his arms and keeps his voice bored. “Yeah, the pisher from the firefight last night. The one who was trying to tell the Rabbi what to do.”

“ The very one. The Rabbi inside? I need to talk to him.”

“He’s resting. That’s why I’m out here, to make sure you go away and don’t bother him.”

The big statue is the most impressive bouncer Mirsky’s ever seen, including that huge guy working the door up at the Cotton Club, but he’s worked his way past similar. Though in this case, his options are more limited than usual. Can’t bribe the golem and sure as shit can’t stick a gun in his face. So he sticks to words and keeps it mainly honest. “This is important! I ain’t just yanking your chain! I gotta talk to him.”

Not even the slightest budge, arms still folded, voice still bored. “And I don’t care how important it is. He’s got to rest. You have no idea how much this takes out of him.”

“I got some idea.”  Mirsky’s voice is still level and reasonable, but adamant. He’s not going anywhere. “Look, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. And I’m not here just for myself. The brass wants me to talk to him as well. C’mon, Stony, let him know I’m here.” A grin accompanies the nickname.

“It’s ok, Malkuth, I’m awake anyway. Bad dreams”

Malkuth and Mirsky turn to see Maccabbee standing at the entrance of his tent.

Malkuth’s face expresses exasperation. “Rabbi, you shouldn’t be up. You go back to sleep and I’ll chase this little shit away.”

“That’d I’d like to see, Lumpy.” Mirsky darts around Malkuth and approaches the Rabbi. “Listen, Rabbi, really sorry to bother you but I’ve actually got orders to talk to you. And, yeah, there’s some personal stuff I need to talk to you about, you bein’ a Kabbalist and all.”

Mirsky’s looking straight at Maccabbee, which is good because that way he doesn’t see Malkuth move crush his skull in one hand. Maccabbee shakes his head at the golem. “What can it hurt, Malkuth, talking to one of our own? OK, soldier, let’s talk inside.” He holds the tent flap open and gestures to Mirsky to go right in.

“No, no, Rabbi, after you.” It’s not that Mirsky doesn’t trust Maccabbee, it’s just that he’s professionally paranoid. The Rabbi smiles at him and proceeds him into the tent.

Malkuth stands alone outside, in the North African November. His hands curl into fists, rock grinds against rock.

Maccabbee sits down behind his desk. Mirsky looks around, there’s no other place to sit, he’s sure not sitting on the Rabbi’s bed, so he stands easy on the other side of the desk.

“What’s your name?”

“Benny Mirsky.”

“Where you from? Russia? You’ve got a bit of an accent, not a big one, but it’s there.” Back in Rabbinical school, Maccabbee always knew that he was going to be more of a scholar Rabbi than one that worked with people, helping them solve their problems, ministering to their needs. But he remembers enough of that part of his training to try to put the soldier in front of him at his ease.

“Yeah, Odessa via New York City.” Mirsky’s touched that the Rabbi is making such an effort to be concerned and caring. When it’s clear that he’s not very good at it. He’s not cold, the man on the other side of the desk, it’s just that he’s been alone among his living statues and books for a long time. So Mirsky does him the kindness of playing along. “Been in the states since the late 20s, got chased out by the civil war, when the Reds took over Odessa.”

“Odessa, huh? I’ve heard that’s a nice city.”

“Oh, it was, at least before the war and the Reds. Sure, it wasn’t a picnic under the Tsar, but a fellow could get by. And there was always different people coming in from all across the Black Sea, always business that could be done.”

“Is that what you were, a businessman, back there?”

“Somethin’ like that.”

At the change in Mirsky’s tone, Maccabbee figures out that the get to know you part of the conversation is over. “You said something about the brass wanting you to talk to me?”

Mirsky hands over the documents that Duvall had given him. “I’ve been assigned to you as a liaison.”

“Liaison? Is that what they’re calling it?” Maccabbee looks through the documents.

Mirsky lets loose a single derisive laugh. “Fuck that noise, Rabbi, they want me to spy on you, that’s the skinny.”

At that, Maccabbee looks up from the papers. His tone is polite and inquiring. “You know, spies usually don’t admit that they’re spying.”

Mirsky takes a half step towards Maccabbee, his body suddenly tense, all traces of the easygoing GI bullshit artist are gone. “That’s because I need you to trust me. Because I need you more than I need those fucking officers.” His voice is low and fervent.

Maccabbee lays the transfer documents down on his desk, takes his time flattening out the folds and creases with the palm of his hand. He’s not afraid, just thinking. “So now we get to the meat of it. Why do I need to trust you?”

Mirsky pulls out the letter from his sister, doesn’t give it to Maccabbee, just holds it. His voice remains low, but not as intense. He doesn’t like asking for help. He’s never begged for anything in his life, always figured out another way to get what he’s wanted. But this is for Leah. For Leah, he’ll do what needs to be done. Even beg a crazy Rabbi for help. “My sister’s in trouble, big trouble, the kind of trouble that Jews in Europe are in.”

“Where in Europe is she?”

“Yeah. I just got a letter from her, she’s heading out of Budapest, going towards Istanbul, then probably to Palestine. That’s why I need your help. That’s why I need you to trust me. I help you with this liaison shit, you help me later.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that.” And his sorrow is genuine. But he’s also puzzled. This conversation is going in unexpected directions. “But what can I do to help you? For that matter, what can you do? We’re both soldiers, under orders. And we’re fighting Nazis, helping destroy the Reich. We’re doing good work here. All the Nazis we kill here, those are Nazis that can’t hunt your sister.”

A slashing hand waves away all of Maccabbee’s words. “That’s all strategic shit. You think those goys in high command, Eisenhower, that crazy fucker Patton, give two shits about us Jews? You’re the one with the golems, you’re the one with sacred duty to help Jews.” Another step closer to the desk and now a finger jabs for emphasis on the desk’s top. The typewriter clatters a little as it wobbles. “What’s happening to my sister is no different than what happened to the Jews in the Prague ghetto back when Rabbi Loew made the first golem.”

Maccabbee doesn’t lean back from Mirsky’s intensity. He just cocks his head to one side and looks at the man. “You weren’t lying about knowing about golems. That’s a pretty obscure story.”

Mirsky dismisses the irrelevancy. “Lots of stories where I come from.”

“You don’t care about orders?” Maccabbee decides to take this as far was it will go. He wants to know more about this man. He thinks he might know what kind of man he might be. Yes, he’s spent most of his life in one yeshiva or another, but Maccabbee would recognize them on the streets as he would to or from study. Luftmensch and their type. Though this Mirsky seems to be tougher than the usual layabout and scam artist. Mirsky’s next words don’t come as much of a surprise.

“Rabbi, I’m a fuckin’ gangster from Odessa. Anything that I’ve ever had, I’ve taken my own self, no one’s ever given me orders for long. I’m here, wearin’ this uniform, because I didn’t want the hassle with the draft board. And, yeah, I wasn’t gonna turn down the chance to kill Nazis.” The tone is matter of fact. And then comes the pitch. “The way I see it, I can help you out with a lot of things. I can tell that prick Duvall enough to keep him off your back, make you less scary, maybe even a little less Jewish. Duvall, he doesn’t like Jews and all this Camp Cuckoo hoodoo and magic, that scares him. Scares him and his superiors. Maybe you lost the nose for it, Rabbi, growin’ up in America, but  my nose is starting to sniff that special pogrom smell. When the goyim get scared, they start lookin’ for Jews to kill.”

“But I’m on their side! Do they have any idea how much it’s cost me to make the golems? The golems that are going out and killing monsters for them!” Maccabbee sees the pity in Mirsky’s eyes and sits back, ashamed at his own naivete and the whining tone in his voice. “Yeah. I know. Ok. You’re right.”

Mirsky’s polite enough to ignore the outburst. “And I know you got the golems to fetch and carry for you, but to be honest, Rabbi, you don’t look too good. So, maybe I can help you out with regular human stuff, you know, do what sergeants do to make their captains’ lives a little easier.” He shrugs. “And me, well, I know more than the usual guy how to get those little things that make life a little easier in this shithole of an army.”

Maccabbee files away that information. “From what you say about this Major Duvall, I can see that I’ve gotten too isolated here in Camp Cuckoo. I trust your nose on that, Sergeant.” Then he leans forward, puts his elbows on the desk, and stars straight at Mirsky. “But Bathory – she’s the one making the vampires – I’ve got to do all I can to kill her. That’s the most important thing. She’s got to die as soon as possible. She is powerful and deadly in ways that I’m just starting to understand. And I’m going to need all the help I can get against her. So, you protect me from the brass and help me against Bathory and I’ll see what I can do to help your sister.”

The offer is not received as Maccabbee had hoped. Mirsky’s tone is scathing. “‘See what you can do?’ Lemme remind you, Rabbi, I’m a gangster and I know weasel words when I hear them. I’m gonna need more than that.”

He’s tired. He’s worried. He’s in pain. He’s even scared. But no fucking gunsel from a diseased Russian ghetto is going to threaten him. His gaze never leaves Mirsky’s. “You’re calling me a liar? Not too smart to say that to the man with the killer statues.”

“Not too smart to threaten the man with a gun, Rabbi.” Then Mirsky bends and his tone changes. Maccabbee notes that as well, notes that this sister of Mirsky is more important to him than pride. “But no, ain’t callin’ you a liar, just sayin’ I need some serious reassurances.”

Maccabbee considers and decides not to be insulted. They both have something that the other wants. He stands. “You want serious reassurances? Then you’ll get serious reassurances.” The Rabbi goes over to the locker at the foot of his cot, puts the books on the lid over on to his cot, then, after searching for a bit – and to be honest, drawing it out a little to make the hitman start to wonder just what might happen, starting to increase the tension – he pulls out an especially battered and very old book, some sheets of clean paper, ink and pen.

Maccabbee opens the book on the desk and begins to page through it. “This book is the lost teachings of Sabbatai Sevi, the one who might have been Messiah.” He looks up at Mirsky. “I want to get these ‘reassurances’ of yours completely correct, you understand.” He finds the page of diagrams he was looking for. “Now, please, no talking, don’t interrupt me, no matter what you might see.”

The Rabbi begins to pray, first softly, then with a stronger voice. As he prays, he draws out a diagram on the sheet of paper in front of him. Swift, sure strokes. A perfect circle. Lines in the circle. Letters and words in Hebrew. He begins to sway back and forth in the rhythm of the prayer.

Mirsky looks on, a little skeptically. Sure, the guy can create golems, the proof’s right outside, but this? This is just same old crazy shit from the ghetto, from the wackadoos who were always preaching about how the Messiah is coming back, any day now, real soon, and all will be made better. And people got themselves all wound up, start actin’ all crazy, and what changed? Nothing. Not one fucking thing. You want things to get better, you got to do it yourself. And a gun in the hand makes it a whole lot easier.

And then Mirsky noticed that the Rabbi was doing the drawing with his eyes closed, without hesitation, without any sort of mistake. Mirsky blinks. That’s a neat trick. When the prayers become louder and the letters and diagram begin to glow, Mirsky’s skepticism crumbles. A little. Ok, more than a little. This crazy momzer might be the real McCoy. But a gun still makes things easier.

Maccabbee finishes the writing out the last letter at the exact same time and he utters the last syllable of the prayer. He opens his eyes. He nods in satisfaction at the sight of the glowing sheet of paper. He looks across the desk at the sergeant who’s hiding his discombobulation behind a pretty good poker face. But the awe and the unease, they’re there. Tired as he is, the Rabbi suppresses his smile of satisfaction.

“This is my promise to you.” He folds up the paper into a precise square, the light dims but doesn’t disappear from it. “It’s signed with one of the thousand names of the Lord, our God. Is this the kind of serious reassurance you were looking for, Benyamin Mirsky?” He holds the square of paper across the desk to the Russian hitman.

Mirsky takes it without hesitation. His hand doesn’t shake at all. “Yeah, that’ll do it. You got yourself a deal.” He places the paper square in the envelope with the letter from Leah. “Now, Reb Maccabbee, how can I help you kill Nazi leeches?”

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