Timely Intervention

By Doug Muder

Matt Riser was into it. He stood motionless but for his fingers and a fast head bob that bounced the ends of his blond hair randomly across his shoulders like balls in a lottery machine. His eyes were closed and his teeth gritted. The sound ricocheted through the empty bar – harsh, angry, rapid-fire guitar noise.

And then it was gone.

Jerry stood by the grounding strip, his foot resting against the switch. His hands were in his pockets, and his belly rested on a big silver belt buckle that Matt figured must have been seriously cool among the Hell’s Angels back in the Stevenson administration.

“Fuck, man. What are you doing? Get off my switch.”

“You’re done, lab rat. I got a headache. I don’t need to listen to your shit.”

“I got to practice, man. I got a show.”

“You had a show last night too, lab rat. You want to play so bad, why don’t you be on time?”

Matt kicked at the floor, then turned around and paced two steps away from Jerry before he turned back. “Is that what this is about? It’s fucking finals week, man. I got projects. I blow my scholarship and they’ll boot me out of here. Nobody makes this place before ten. Not with finals. It’s fucking MIT, man. You want to get a crowd before 10 you go play in the computer center, not some shithole like this.”

“You don’t show up, how do you know who’s here?”

“How many people were here when I came in last night? Five?”

Jerry kept standing on the switch. “How many stuck their heads in and left because there wasn’t any music?”

He sounded bored with the whole discussion, which just wound Matt up tighter. Matt took a couple steps closer to Jerry, but not so close as to make their height difference obvious. “How many? You count them, did you? You use a calculator? Fuck me.”

“Enough.” Jerry leaned down and gave a hefty yank on the cord, pulling it out of a socket twenty feet away. “This place is for entertainment, but it’s not for my entertainment, and it’s damn sure not for your entertainment. I don’t pay you so that you can come in here when you want to get your ya-yas out, and stay away when you got something better to do. That’s what the customers do, Matt. You want to act like that, you be a customer. You pay me.”

Jerry turned and walked back toward the bar. The front door opened, and some geezer in a long dark coat came in. Maybe a professor, or some old alum slumming from the burbs. He went to the bar and sat on a stool, but seemed to be in no hurry. Jerry was ignoring them both in his practiced way, using the eyes in the back of his head. Matt had seen him ignore a customer like this before, only to be across the bar in a flash when the guy tried to reach for something he shouldn’t. Not that the geezer looked the type. He was the kind who moves slowly and doesn’t need to yank stuff. The coat, at second glance, was pretty good leather and must have set him back plenty.

Matt stroked a chord on the dead guitar and almost heard it. He jerked the strap over his head and dropped the guitar on a table as he walked to the bar. “Jerry, what are you saying, man? What’s this all about?”

“You know what I’m saying. You know what it’s about. It’s over here, Matt. Maybe it’s over for you for good, man. Cause you’re not serious. You got to decide what you are. You a player? Or just a geek who sticks mice with big needles?”

Matt felt the rush then, like a hit of cocaine up the nose. He was up to the bar and leaning halfway across it. “You want to know what I am. Maybe I’m the fucking Angel of Death, man. Maybe you shouldn’t mess with me like this.”

Jerry continued to look bored. He bellied the back side of the bar and stood straight, putting his chest at Matt’s eye level. “Big man. Tough guy. You want to scare somebody, go back to the lab. Inject those mice with leprosy or something and watch their tails fall off.”

“You don’t know me, asshole. You don’t know what I can do.”

Jerry tossed a towel down on the bar and turned to amble towards his customer. “I know all I need to know,” he said over his shoulder. “Get your stuff and get out of here.”

If I had a gun now, Matt thought as Jerry took a drink order from the geezer. One of those cool Luger automatics that the Army imports from Germany. Pow! Right in the back of the head. A fine pink mist of blood and brain matter would make it all the way back to the mirror. Matt could see it in his mind. He turned back to the bandstand to go unplug. “Not worth it,” he muttered to himself. “You go to jail forever and the rest of them get away.” He knew that Jerry wasn’t anywhere near the top of the List, not even now. That wouldn’t balance the scales at all, he knew. Not even close. “Patience,” he whispered.

Matt put the guitar in its case, unplugged an amp, and started coiling wire on his arm. He let his mind drift back to the List, the one he kept on the computer in his room. He thought about his plans, and all the things he had been learning. It calmed him. His breath became slow and steady. Losing the gig might not be such a bad thing. He’d have time to study after all, he thought. Maybe hanging onto the scholarship wouldn’t be such a highwire act this term. Maybe he’d have time to work on the Real Project, the one he had come here for.

“Mr. Riser?”

The voice was soft, and yet it carried, as if the old man were speaking right into his ear, rather than calling from ten feet away. Matt turned and looked the geezer over head-to-toe this time. Serious money, he thought. Nothing the old man wore was flashy, but the longer Matt looked at it, the more he realized what each piece of this outfit must have cost – the shoes, the coat, the suit underneath. His white hair was perfectly in place, and his white beard and moustache were full but trimmed short, not long and scraggly like Matt’s feeble attempt. This guy could have stepped right out of an ad in Geezer’s Quarterly.

“You miss your stop? This ain’t Harvard Square, dude.”

“I know where I am.” Matt knew the accent. This guy was European, but had been speaking English for so long that he didn’t expect anyone to notice. Germany, or maybe further east.

“Two and a half cheers for you, then,” Matt said, and went back to coiling his wire.

The old man said nothing for a few seconds, and Matt figured he would go away. But then he said, “I heard you play guitar last night. I was impressed.”

“Then you got no taste, grampa. You heard the man. I just got shitcanned.” Matt was starting to remember this guy. Someone had been in the corner last night by himself. Some old guy in the shadows, wearing a lot of black.

“Your former employer said a number of things, but he did not say that you play the guitar badly.” Jerry really hadn’t said that, had he? Matt turned away to look for his guitar case, but really he just didn’t want to show this guy the satisfaction that his comment had caused. “I think you play quite well, and I believe you could play much better. You are still playing other people’s music. But I believe there is music inside you. I believe you have your own music.” Matt looked up, shrugged, and then went back to closing up his case. “I sense a sadness in you, a bitterness.”

Matt snorted. “Like you know the half of it.”

“The pain is in your heart, but it is not in your music. Not yet. You play with your fingers and feel pain in your heart. But when you play the guitar with your heart and feel the pain in your fingers, then your real music will come out.”

“You should write fortune cookies. What’s your angle on all this? Are you my fairy godmother?”

The old man smiled, as if this were some secret, special joke. A new, white business card was in his hand, as if he had materialized it out of the air. “I am someone who has need of a good guitar player. I am someone whose business it is to find young men such as yourself.”

Matt took the card. “Are you putting together a band?”

“Oh, yes. A most excellent band. And a club in which to showcase it.”

Matt looked at the card. Johann Karl, it said, and gave a Cambridge address. “I’ve got classes, you know.”

“Then we should speak of this when you have more time. Perhaps next Tuesday evening, after your finals are over. Come to this address at seven. My cook is quite excellent. I think you will find dinner to be most agreeable.”

Johann, if that was really his name, turned and walked towards the door, leaving half of some light brown mixed drink on the bar. “Sure thing, man,” Matt yelled after him – trying (and, he judged, probably failing) to get a hard edge of sarcasm in his voice. Then the old man was gone, and Jerry was toweling off the bar as if he had been all by himself for hours.

Matt looked down at the card and shook his head slowly. “What the fuck?” he said softly to himself.


The days that followed left Matt little time for speculation. Preparations for finals could always absorb whatever time became available, so even taking the gigs out of his schedule didn’t add any sense of leisure. Microbiology was easy, of course, since he had been way ahead of the class from the beginning. But it wasn’t enough just to get by. It was his home field, and he had a reputation to make. He wanted to be remembered and talked about, not just get an A.

And organic chem, that was a bitch. Matt knew he could do it, but it didn’t come to him like it did to Schuster. Schuster could see the fucking molecules in his mind, all three dimensions of them, all sides at once. He didn’t have to remember any rules or work through any transformations to know what the little buggers were doing. He just had to look at the pictures in his head, peer down through that mental microscope God or somebody had installed in his brain. Matt had to memorize, calculate, and practice long after Schuster was snoring away on the upper bunk, or staring into the FreeCell game on his laptop.

But Matt remembered what his uncle had said to him when he came home crying from his first little league game. “I don’t want to hear any of this crap about how good they are,” he had said. “Anybody can win when they have the advantages. When they have the talent, when they have the guns – it’s easy then . But I want to see what you do when it’s all stacked against you. That’s how I’ll know if I’ve raised you to be a man.”

The guitar stayed in its case under the bed, even late at night when he needed to blow off some steam so he could sleep. Touching the case reminded him of Jerry, and the way he just turned his back, as if Matt and his anger wasn’t worth noticing. It didn’t help that every day the story of Jerry pulling his plug reached some new set of jerks, one and all of whom needed to mention it as they passed in the halls or on the sidewalks. “Hey, Matt, I just heard about …” Like he should have published an announcement or something, maybe fire up the Emergency Broadcast System so that nobody would miss out on knowing that he had fucked up his gig. (Those were just about the only times when he thought about the strange old man, when people asked “What are you going to do now?” He didn’t tell them anything, but just said “I got some stuff to check out.”)

No, he didn’t take the guitar down to the study lounge at two and three in the morning and blast it through his headphones. Instead he opened up the file where he kept the List, and looked at every single name, right up to the top, right up to the name that had been on top of every List Matt had made since he was seven years old. Sometimes he even took the plastic baggy out of his desk drawer and looked at the lock of hair. “That cult-of-personality shit is going to be your ass,” he said to the hair. “Fucking barber sells locks of your fucking hair on the black market, like you were Joan of Fucking Arc. Do you even know? Do you know what this means? Do you know what I’m going to do with this shit someday?”


Tuesday, the day that the old man had picked for his dinner invitation, turned out to the be the day after Batista died. The old dictator had died peacefully of advanced old age at his palatial estate outside of Havana, surrounded by loved ones, descendants, and proteges. The successor he had hand-picked and put in power twenty years ago went on television immediately to deliver a eulogy, describing him as the savior of his country.

Matt normally would not have noticed, since he seldom paid attention to any foreign affairs or current events unless he had a personal stake. But he had slid his last project of the term under a professor’s door late Monday night, and woke up Tuesday with nothing to do but watch the morning news. He had never thought twice about Batista, or about Cuba at all other than in fantasies of spring break, but somehow this morning he could not get the Cuban strongman out of his head.

Schuster had left Sunday night for home in Ohio, and Matt had the room to himself. Most of the dorm had emptied out over the weekend, and Matt himself would have to be out by Friday. He turned off the tiny television and listened to the almost eery quiet. Then he turned on his computer and began to type in his journal:

I can’t stop thinking that here was a man with enemies, a man who killed people. Those people must have had relatives, friends, lovers – people who would want to make his life a living hell. And yet here we are, at the end of the Batista story. Curtain falls. Audience heads towards the exits. And the end, the final scene, was this beautiful death that Batista might have scripted for himself. No revenge. No suffering. Just like Trotsky and Mussolini, he got to enjoy the fruits of his crimes right up to the end. What about those enemies? They waited too long. They couldn’t pull the trigger and now it’s too late.

About lunch time it dawned on Matt that he needed to decide what to do about the dinner invitation. The more he thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed like a hallucination. If this Johann Karl was a band promoter, then Matt was the entire chorus line of the Rockettes. It had to be a practical joke, or some kind of come-on. “Fuck him,” Matt said, looking at the new white business card.

And then he put the card in his pocket and went out for a walk.

Outside, it was May – a fact that had been almost entirely lost on Matt until this instant. He dodged a couple of cars as he crossed the Drive, and stepped onto the bike path by the Charles. Bikes were few, but joggers seemed to be everywhere. Their bare arms made his own look white as a vampire’s. Matt checked his pockets to see if he had enough to buy lunch at Bangkok House, and then turned right. Harvard Square was a hike from here, but that was OK. He needed time to think.

The problem with that simple “Fuck him” wasn’t that he expected to get some great new guitar gig out of this. That was clearly a fantasy, and he wasn’t the kind to get suckered by appeals to his fantasies. The other guys might get palpitations when those Free Cuban Vacation notices appeared in their mailboxes, but not Matt Riser.

No, the problem with “Fuck him” was that it ended the story. He could imagine saying to Schuster, “This rich old fuck offered me a guitar gig, and wanted to feed me dinner so we could discuss it, but I said ‘Fuck him’ and stayed home and had a pizza.”

“Way to go, dude,” Schuster would say. And then he’d do his famous you-are-so-fucked-up head shake. Matt hated that.

Like it or not, the old bastard had Matt hooked. Even if the address on this card turned out to be the city dump, and Jerry and Schuster and five other jokers were waiting there laughing (in spite of the fact that most of likely suspects should be jetting halfway across the country by now), Matt had to go just to find out what this was all about.

Or maybe not. When he got to the Square he was more thirsty than hungry, so he got a Coke and walked around looking in windows until he had finished it. Then he wandered into a comic book and gaming card shop and looked around for awhile without buying anything. He toyed with the idea of losing track of time, or just forgetting about the whole thing. He could do the bookstore crawl, maybe catch a movie at the Brattle, and T himself home when it was too late to do anything else.

And that story sucked even worse than the first one. If the fuck-him attitude didn’t make it, then doing the Alzheimer’s thing was even worse. The old guy had him hooked. At about 5:30 he was in a bookstore, looking at one of those spiral collections of city maps. He pulled the card out of his pocket. “OK,” he said. “Where the fuck is this place?”


This place turned out to be in one of those little cul-de-sacs up on the Arlington side of Cambridge, the part Matt never got to and always pictured as a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. At least that was where the map book had said it was. Matt got lost two or three times looking around for it, wished a couple of times that he had actually bought the damn book, and tried on the idea of declaring that the address didn’t really exist. But it did, of course – the map book had said so.

When he found it, Matt realized that if the map book had not exactly lied, neither had it told the full truth. The address wasn’t in the cul-de-sac, it was the cul-de-sac. The little dead-end road was maybe half a block deep, and at the end of it was a single gate with a button to push.

“You are putting me on,” Matt announced to no one in particular. He hadn’t realized that Cambridge even had residential lots this large, and his mind refused to estimate the quantity of money it would take to buy one.

This pretty well put a QED on the practical joke theory, Matt figured. The owner of this place was most definitely not in Jerry’s bar last week, and could not possibly be interested in putting together a band with Matt in it. He looked around for whatever video camera might be set up to capture the moment of his full embarrassment, but the fact that he didn’t see one didn’t prove anything. MIT practical jokes were famous for their technology, and if the electrical engineers were in on this one, then almost anything could be a camera. (What did I do to piss them off? Matt wondered.)

But if he had been hooked before he had hunted down the address, Matt was really hooked now. Somebody would pay for this eventually, he promised himself, but unless he went through with it he would never find out who. “Here’s the plan,” he said out loud to himself. “We go ring the buzzer, say that the car broke down, and ask if we can use the phone. Then the Peruvian drug lords who own this place will send out a couple of thugs to tell me to fuck myself sideways. And then I can go home.”

It sounded like a pretty lame plan, but it was the best Matt could do on short notice. He took a deep breath, strode purposefully up to the gate, and pushed the button.

“Mr. Riser,” said a voice from a nearby speaker. Matt couldn’t be sure from just two words, but he thought that it wasn’t Mr. Karl’s voice. This voice was also an old man’s, but it was less melodious than the man he had met. “Do come in. I shall meet you at the front door.” He heard the thunk of a bolt withdrawing, and then the gate opened with hydraulic smoothness.

Matt looked down at his jeans and skateboarder shoes. Then he looked through the gate at a red brick path that meandered gracefully around a set of trees which presumably hid the front of the house. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t over yet, he realized. “Mother fuck,” he muttered, and then hoped the gate microphone wasn’t sensitive enough to pick it up.

So far, he reminded himself, it was all technology. Gates can be rigged. Speakers can be rigged. There was still a better than even chance that this was trespassing, he thought. But what else was there to do? Matt walked through the gate and tried not to panic when it closed behind him with another good solid thunk. “I wonder where the dogs are?” he said softly to himself.

The dogs, if any, did not make an appearance. Matt wandered uncertainly up the red brick path to find a predictable red-brick-and-leaded-glass mansion behind the trees. An elegantly dressed man Karl’s age and Matt’s height waited at the door. He was mostly bald and (in contrast with his distinguished bearing) had an almost comically large nose and set of ears, as if they had retained their youthful size while the rest of the face and body had shrunk with age. A Jew, Matt decided.

“Mr. Riser. Mr. Karl wished to be able to greet you himself, but certain business matters have him temporarily detained. He will join you shortly. My name is Solomon, and I am at your service. Is there anything you require?”

A Jewish butler, Matt marveled, having never conceived of the idea before. He imagined this could be a status symbol in certain circles.

“A beer would be nice,” he said tentatively.

“Certainly. In the meantime, you should make yourself at home. You may sit or wander as you like. I have been told that Mr. Karl’s collection of art and other memorabilia is rather extraordinary.”

Solomon exited and returned promptly with Matt’s beer. It was European, he guessed; heavier than what Matt usually drank, but with a surprising amount of flavor. He could get used to this, he thought. The chair he sat down in probably cost more than all of Matt’s possessions put together, and as much as he tried to put that thought out of his mind, he could not sit comfortably. Maybe the old man would expect him to have dressed better than this. “Fuck him,” he whispered. “He never told me I was going to Fuckingham Palace.”

He couldn’t just sit here. The walls had several well-framed prints of paintings that Matt vaguely remembered from a couple of trips to the MFA downtown. Most of them were violently colored abstracts, stirring in an unsettling sort of way. Strange taste for an old fuck, Matt thought. Then something caught his eye and he moved closer to the largest of the paintings. “Fuck me,” he said softly.

“Excuse me?” The old man was right behind him.

“Mr. Karl!” Matt jumped enough that a splash of his beer reached the carpet, but the old man pretended not to notice.

“Johann, if you please,” he said pleasantly. “Do you like the painting?”

Matt did a triple-take, looking back and forth from Johann to the painting. Then he glanced around the room at the other paintings. “These aren’t prints, are they?”

“No. I find original art to be so much more evocative.”

Matt opened his mouth, but several seconds passed before any words came out. “This isn’t just ‘original art’. These are Hitlers.”

Johann nodded approvingly. “You are a student of art? A connoisseur?”

“No, but I’m not illiterate either. These are fucking Hitlers! This is Wotan Rising!”

Johann moved closer to the painting and gestured to the bright orange streaks near the top. “Actually not. This is a study that Adolf did in the winter of 1949, about six months before Wotan Rising. You can tell that he was still experimenting with the flame imagery.”

Maybe you can tell, Matt thought. He realized that his mouth was still open. He quickly drank a gulp of his beer and paced into the center of the room. “These should be in a fucking museum, man. I mean, people don’t have original Adolf Hitlers hanging in their living rooms.”

“Parlor,” Johann corrected.

Matt took another two gulps of beer, then wished he hadn’t because he immediately had to belch. Johann, again, appeared not to notice. “Did you buy these, man? I mean, how rich are you?”

“Actually no, I did not buy the Hitlers. They were all gifts, and I have no idea what they would sell for.” Johann now began to pace, and his voice turned wistful, as if the evening were late and he had already become tired. “Adolf had a long memory. He could carry a grudge for decades, but he also never forgot a favor. He always repaid, and with interest.”

“You did Hitler a favor?”

Johann was looking away from Matt, at nothing in particular, or rather at something that seemed to be much further away than the walls of this room. “Oh, yes,” he said distantly. “Yes indeed.”

Matt scoffed. “What? When you were ten?” He pointed at another violently colored abstract across the room. “I don’t know when he did that one, but it had to be way before Wotan Rising.”

Johann shook himself out of whatever spell had been on him, then looked back at Matt in perfect geniality, as if the younger man had made some mildly amusing comment on the weather. “Of course not. I am sorry to have misspoken. The debt is a family debt. It was my father, Johann the First, to whom Adolf was indebted.” He looked at his watch. “Come. Dinner is ready now. The story tells better over food.”

Johann began walking – presumably towards the dining room, Matt conjectured. But their path snaked through one elegantly furnished room after another, back and back through the house. He tried to examine the artwork and other wall decorations as they passed, but it all went by too quickly.

“This one may interest you,” Johann said suddenly. He had stopped, and Matt came within an inch of running him over. Johann reached onto a bookshelf and took a baseball off a small round stand. “Are you a fan?”

“Sort of.”

“I follow the game only sporadically myself, but my driver Ramos has a passion. Especially for this particular player.” Matt took the ball from Johann and looked at the autograph: Fidel Castro. Then he turned the ball around two or three times in his hand. The stitching was uneven and the cover had an unusual texture for a baseball. “This isn’t a major league ball,” he commented.

“Very observant. One suspects that the University of Havana athletic department was not well funded in 1945.”

Matt blinked, then stared back at the white ball as if he thought it might tell his fortune. “He signed this before he came to America?”

Johann nodded. “Do you perhaps know the story of how Castro learned his famous knuckleball?”

“The Spanish Dancer? He didn’t invent it?”

“Oh my, no.” Johann took the ball back from Matt and replaced it on its stand. “Though I’m not surprised you think so. Castro himself was rather embarrassed by this story, I think, so after he and the Dodgers started winning all those championships in the 1950s he tried to play it down by inventing all sorts of fanciful accounts of his early years. But the truth is that he was very close to giving up on baseball. He was studying law, and had some thoughts about going into politics, of all things.”

“Cuban politics? How much future could there have been in that?” Matt took another gulp of beer, realized he was already feeling a little unsteady, and noticed for the first time that he had never gotten around to eating lunch. “So what happened?”

“A new pitching coach came to Havana, a great and famous ex-major league star who couldn’t get a job in the United States: Eddie Cicotte.”

“The Black Sox pitcher? The guy who threw the World Series?”

“The same. Banned for life from American baseball, and far too old now to play himself, but in the 1940s he was one of the few men on the planet who knew how to throw a proper knuckleball. It was a tremendous stroke of luck for a young Cuban pitcher to have access to a teacher like Cicotte. And Fidel has always been a man who takes advantage of his luck. Cicotte was also the one who tipped the Dodgers off about Castro, though Branch Rickey always denied it.”

“And the ball …”

“– comes from Cicotte. Castro autographed it for him before going off to the Dodgers’ training camp in Florida.”

“And I suppose you have it because he owed your father a favor.”

“More than one.”

Johann started walking again, and within a few minutes they had completed their trek to the dining room. It was large and had a long, dark wood table. Matt was afraid they would sit at opposite ends of it and converse by shouting, but instead Johann led him through the room to a small alcove surrounded by leaded crystal windows. Outside the sun was setting, and a garden that Matt imagined to be filled with color was fading into grayness. The alcove contained a table slightly larger than a restaurant table-for-two. Johann sat with his back to the dining room, leaving the window seat for Matt.

Solomon appeared silently and filled Johann’s glass with a dark red wine. As he poured, his sleeve rose slightly and Matt noticed something bluish on his wrist, like an ink mark. How strange, he thought, that this fastidious butler would have a dirty wrist. Matt got another glimpse as his own glass was filled: it was a tattoo, though he didn’t see enough to make out what it was a tattoo of. Weird, he thought. Why would an old guy like Solomon have a tattoo?

An appetizer arrived, little balls of something that tasted like fish. Solomon named it as he set down the plates, but Matt could not place these sounds as belonging to any terrestrial language. He gulped down two or three of the balls quickly, and realized just how hungry he was.

“If I recall correctly, you had expressed a curiosity about Adolf Hitler.” Matt’s mouth was full of fishball, so he nodded and made an inarticulate noise.

“My father met Adolf as a young man in Vienna. His mother had recently died, and his father many years earlier, so Hitler was on his own, trying to make a living from his art. Unfortunately for him, his paintings were rather literal and kitschy at that time, and he was not meeting with much support in the Viennese art community. But my father sensed a potential in him. He saw a passion, the kind of inner pain that makes for great art if it gets channeled properly.

“My father befriended Hitler, and even bought a few of his paintings, such as they were, to keep him going. When my father, foreseeing the approach of the inevitable war, relocated his business to Zurich, he convinced young Adolf to move his studio there as well, and arranged for him to receive some proper training. While other young men his age were being gassed in the trenches of France, Hitler was safely in Switzerland learning his craft, learning to channel his pain into great works of art. Many critics have commented on the theme of survivor guilt that runs through his middle periods.”

“If your father knew Hitler in Zurich, he must have known Jung too.”

Johann smiled almost to the point of laughter. “It was my father who introduced them. Hitler actually rented a room from Jung for a while, you know, after he first came to Zurich. That was not easy to arrange, I must say. ‘I am a psychologist, Johann, not a taker-in of wayward boys.’ I can still hear him. … Or rather, I can still hear my father’s imitation of his voice. But Carl eventually gave in. My father could be very persuasive.”

This sounded like a tall tale to Matt. If Matt let him, Johann would probably start drawing Chamberlain, Dewey, FDR, and all the other greats of the 20th century into the story. “It’s weird,” Matt said. “Way back when there were all those 100th birthday retrospectives on Hitler, I never heard about anybody named Karl. Hitler must not have talked much about your father.”

“My father preferred it that way. He was a private man, as am I. Adolf understood this. But he never forgot. For years after, when he had left Zurich and set up his more famous studio in Leipzig, we would still get the odd canvass or two sent to us. No note, no explanation, just a painting that showed some new wrinkle in his style or vision.”

Solomon returned as if on cue. He cleared away the salad plates and set down the main course, a steak dish that he called “chateau beyond” or something that sounded very much like it. Matt attacked his baked potato with gusto. At some point they would have to start talking about the band, but if Solomon kept bringing good food out on his tray, Matt could wait.

“And what of you, Matt Riser? I sense there is a great deal to know about you.”

As if I would tell you just because you asked, Matt thought. “I’m a student. I play the guitar. Not much else.”

“And were you born in this condition?” Johann asked pleasantly.

Matt, in spite of himself, smiled. He shook his head. “I was not born in this condition.”

“You had, perhaps, a home, a place where you grew up. I have, in the course of my life, listened to a great many people. I have a fascination with their voices, their accents, their patterns of word choice. You are, I say with some confidence, not a Bostonian from birth.”

The bite of steak in Matt’s mouth would not be ready to swallow for some while yet. How was it, he wondered, that the older man managed to eat smoothly and talk smoothly, without the two ever getting in each other’s way? “New York,” he mumbled through his chewing.

Johann looked upward and to the right, as if trying to listen more carefully with his good left ear. After a short pause he concluded, “Not originally.” He took a bite of vegetable and chewed slowly while he thought. “There is indeed much of New York in your voice. But it lies on top of an earlier accent, which I believe is perhaps not English.”

Somewhere in Matt’s brain a warning light began to flash. Spooky, he thought. Any idiot could tell that he wasn’t Bostonian, but it had been years and years since anyone had guessed that he wasn’t American. His file at the registrar’s office would have that information, of course. Had Johann gotten it somehow? What else did he know?

Matt glanced up from his plate and caught Johann looking at him intently, like a chemist looking at an anomalous spectroscope reading that might or might not turn out to be important. Matt realized that he wasn’t used to being looked at, much less studied or analyzed. He had grown accustomed to living in a world that was hard of hearing and slow to pay attention. The real world, the world he knew, was a place in which automobiles pretended not to see you until the last minute, girls in the cafeteria tried not to make eye contact, roommates grunted minimal responses while staring at a computer screen, and professors lectured while facing the blackboard. In the real world men stood on soapboxes in the Common and shouted through megaphones while crowds hurried past without appearing to notice. You could turn your amp up to 10 and scream your darkest secrets into a mike without anyone taking you seriously.

That was the real world. What world was this guy from?

“You came, I think, from Europe. As a child.” Matt nodded. “And Matt Riser, is that a stage name or did you change it when you came to America?”

“It was changed.”


Don’t tell him! said a voice in Matt’s head. He’ll find out everything. And yet, he knew it to be a voice that did not want to be obeyed. It was the masochist shrinking from the lash, the virgin protesting in her fantasy of rape. “Mattias Rusovic,” he said.

“Eastern Europe, then. The Balkans.”


Johann nodded, as if he appreciated the full significance of this. “And it was your parents who brought you to this country?”

Matt looked down at his plate, which had somehow become empty. “An uncle. My parents stayed behind.”

Johann was silent for some while, but Matt did not look up at him or attempt to guess what he was thinking. “Parents, I believe, would not be separated from their son by choice,” the older man said eventually. “They were, in all probability, unable to accompany you, or to follow. They were, perhaps, already dead.”


“The Scouring of Budapest, it happened when you were how old? Five?”


“You and your uncle, you were quite fortunate to have escaped.”

“So he tells me.”

“And your parents, do you have memories of them?”

“Some. My uncle saved some photographs. He told me some stories.” Again, there was silence. When Matt looked up, Johann was holding his wine glass with both hands, resting his elbows on the table. He was looking directly over the glass, into Matt’s face. He felt a bolt of something surge through his chest and he shouted: “They were just people, damn it! Nobody had to kill them. They were no threat to anybody. Those motherfucking bastards!” Matt felt his eyes get hot, but he gritted his teeth and refused to cry. Crying just let the anger out, he knew. It was useless, worse than useless. It let the anger out in a way that didn’t hurt anybody. They wanted you to cry. If you cried you would never kill them.

Johann looked pained, almost guilty. “There are people you do not know,” he said. “People whose names do appear in the newspapers, in the history books. People who worked very hard to prevent this. But some events have such momentum …”

“Bullshit!” Matt yelled. “Nobody cared. Nobody cares even now. He’s still there, still on top. All the great powers know what he did and they don’t care. Now some people even say it never happened.”

“They say it because they want to believe it. It offends our humanity, to know what men are capable of. It is so hard for us to accept that civilians can be killed by the tens of thousands. In civilized Europe. In the 20th century.”

“But it happened,” Matt said firmly.

“It happened,” Johann agreed, and then added, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “I believe that it is perhaps time for dessert.”

He called for Solomon, and the servant entered immediately, carrying a tray with two tall parfait glasses filled with something red. He must have been listening, Matt thought, and felt the same conflict between anxiety and excitement that Johann’s probing eyes and questions had aroused.

“Strawberries Romanov,” Solomon announced, looking at neither of them as he set down the desserts. Matt watched more carefully this time, and saw that the tattoo on his wrist was actually a number. Matt could attach no meaning to it. The number was too long to be a date. It looked like a serial number, the kind of thing that would appear beneath a bar code – which, if it existed at all, was well covered by Solomon’s sleeve. He fantasized briefly that Solomon was a robot, and that Johann had taken him to a check-out counter where his arm had been pressed against an SKU scanner. But it was too weird, and Matt decided he would rather let it be a mystery than ask about it.

Johann said nothing, and Solomon exited.

“You may think that I do not know how you feel,” Johann began softly, but Matt interrupted.

“And you’re going to tell me that you do. You with the father who lives to a ripe old age and gets priceless paintings as gifts from famous artists.”

Johann did not raise his voice, but he persisted. “When I was about your age, I was very deeply in love.”

Matt again broke in. “And she left you for another guy, so you know what deep heartache is. I saw the movie on an airplane once. It sucked.”

Johann remained unruffled. “I saw my lover dragged away by armed men and killed. I was beaten and weak. I could do nothing.” He spooned up a strawberry from the parfait glass without taking his eyes away from Matt, who found the urge to look down irresistible. Both men kept silence for perhaps half a minute.

“But you lived,” Matt said. Johann nodded slowly. “And you’re rich. You must have influence. Power.” Johann continued nodding. “Did you hunt them down and kill them?”

Johann gave a long sigh and put down his spoon. “I thought about it. I thought about it a great deal. There were times when I could think of little else. And I did find them,” he said. “But I did not kill them.”

“Why not?”

“By then many years had passed. In time the fantasies of revenge lost their force. I found that revenge was a very poor substitute for what I really wanted.”

“And what was that?”

“I wanted it all never to have happened.”

Matt laughed derisively and shook his head. “Fat chance of that.”

Johann nodded sympathetically. “So it would appear,” he said. “You, then, still dream of revenge.”

“Every day.”

“And yet, you have not become a terrorist, in spite of all that,” the old man said. “You are a student, are you not? Studying what?”


“Not warfare, then. Not nuclear physics. Not weapons.”

“Biology is the greatest weapon, if you know what to do with it.”

“And what would you do with it?”

I’ve never told this to anyone, Matt thought. Not even Uncle Josif. And yet, he knew that he would tell. He knew that he could not not tell. No one had ever wanted to know before. All your life, he thought, you imagine that you are holding a secret in, when actually the world is holding it out. And as soon as someone wants to know, you have to tell them.

“If you have a sample of someone’s DNA – a fingernail, say, or a lock of hair – and if you know it really, really well, you can custom design a plague for that single person. You can, if you know what you are doing, choose any kind of death you want – a horrible one, painful, nasty, long. You attach it to some common bacteria and you set it loose. And everyone gets it, but who cares? It’s not designed for them. They get the sniffles, or nothing at all, but they pass it on to everyone they meet. And because the world is a smaller place than most people realize – exponential rates of infection being what they are – before too long your little beasty finds its target and he dies just like you scripted it. And only you know why.” Matt looked up searchingly, meeting Johann’s eyes. “People tell me it’s impossible, that the technology is fifty years away, but they’re wrong. I know I can do it. I’ve seen it in my mind.”

Johann nodded. “I do not doubt you,” he said softly. “But what happens if this man, this target, has close relatives? Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mother and father – might they get something more than just the sniffles?”

“Yes.” Matt was stonefaced and his voice was firm, unwavering.

“And this does not concern you?”

“Did it concern him to kill all of my family? If they die, I hope they die first. I hope he watches them die.”

Johann brought his hand up to his mouth and placed a finger lightly on his lip as he thought. “I see,” he said without judgement. “And if you are in a hurry, if you get sloppy in your design, could even more die? Half-brothers, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, third?”


“And if it mutates, even more?”


“With what limit? Could his entire nation, his entire people, go down to the grave with him?”

Matt frowned and shook his head. “Unlikely,” he said coldly.

“And the many and various nationalities of the Balkans, including your own, are they not more tightly bound up, more closely interrelated, than they would care to admit? Might all of mankind be a more tightly knit family than we dare to imagine?”

“What you are suggesting is extremely improbable.”

“But possible.”


Matt was tensed to the point of quivering. He set down his wine glass for fear of snapping the stem. How dare this old man interrogate him. He should never have told. He should never have come at all. That kindly looking SOB with his soft voice and his questions. Who put him up to this? Who would he tell?

“I began to realize that I did not really want revenge when I started to think seriously about time,” Johann said, so softly that Matt could barely hear him over his own breathing and pulse. “Have you ever thought about time?”

“What?” Is this old guy crazy? Matt wondered. One minute he’s talking about plagues sweeping humanity, and the next he mumbles some total non sequitur about time. Maybe the conversation was getting to be too much for him. Maybe he would start to babble and drool, and then Solomon would come to escort Matt to the door.

“You must have thought about time. The popular media does so much with it these days. Time travel. The possibility of changing history.”

“Sure,” Matt said. “They did it on Star Trek every other week.” He was finding the abrupt change of subject to be strangely calming. Johann was just a rich old loon. It didn’t matter what he knew, or thought he knew. Who would take him seriously?

“Have you ever thought about what you would do if you had a time machine? If you could change history so that the events that afflict you would never have happened?”

Matt decided to play along. “You mean, I could go back and find the Budapest Butcher as a baby and smother him in his crib, before he ever killed my parents or anyone else.”

“Yes,” Johann said. “But would you do that? Could you? There he is in his cradle, an innocent infant who has never harmed anyone. Can you kill him?”

“Absolutely. No hesitation. No remorse. He’s dead.”

“And what of those who loved him? His parents? His siblings? All they would know is that some man had come in and smothered an infant for no reason. Some monster.”


“So what if they had a time machine as well? Wouldn’t they find you as an infant and smother you in your cradle? To save their infant son?”

“Maybe. If they could.”

“And how far might it go? How many infants, back and back and back through time, would have to die? Would things ever be right?”

“I don’t do metaphysics,” Matt said. “Maybe you should ask a priest, not a guitar player. Ask one of those priests Trotsky had killed.”

“Like Stalin,” Johann said softly.


“Forgive me. It was a nickname. The Patriarch at the time of the purge, Dzhugashvili. He was another friend of … of my father.”

“Well then, you should know. Did he want revenge?”

“He died screaming for it, if the accounts are to be believed.” Johann pushed his dessert away and downed the last of his wine in a gulp. “And if there is indeed another life — as he believed there was — then perhaps he will get it. Perhaps he will, someday, be revenged on all who wronged him.”

“I’m not willing to wait that long,” Matt said firmly.

They looked across the table at each other, eye to eye. Then Johann pushed his chair. “I have decided,” he said. “I have heard you play and I have seen what kind of man you are. You are my guitar player.” He stood quickly. “I have arrangements to make. I will not be long. Consider the house to be your own, and Solomon to be your servant.” Without waiting for a response, Johann turned and left the room.


The old bugger could move fast when he wanted to, Matt thought, wondering what could have lit such a fire under Johann. Matt himself was feeling a bit woozy with the wine and the heavy meal. He pushed himself slowly away from the table and stood up carefully so as not to get dizzy. “Beats the hell out of pizza and Coke,” he said to himself.

He wandered out into the main dining room, and realized that he had no chance of finding his way back to the Castro baseball or the Hitler originals or the front door. He picked a doorway at random and went through it into a long hall. These walls were also occupied, but with photographs rather than paintings.

Matt heard a hum and saw the lights flicker. An elevator, he thought. There must be an elevator here somewhere. This was just the kind of old mansion that ought to have a Batcave deep below it. He imagined it filled with stainless steel and high-tech wizardry, crawling with technicians who kept track of Johann’s far-flung network of painters and priests and old spitball pitchers. “Jesus,” he laughed, “I should drink wine more often.”

The photographs were all of Johann or his father. The family resemblance was uncanny, and Matt could only deduce which was which by looking at the clothes and background for clues about the date. One or the other of them was arm-in-arm with a jovial, aging Hitler, his bushy white beard all askew and unkempt. In another he was shaking hands with an Orthodox archbishop in full regalia — probably this Stalin that Johann had mentioned at dinner. In another photo Johann (probably the younger one this time, Matt figured) was posing in front of a Cambodian restaurant in what appeared to be San Francisco. Next to him was a rather short oriental man beaming with pride.

“I wonder where they keep the bathrooms in this place,” Matt said to himself. The doorways in this hall all looked alike, so he picked one at random, opened it and flicked on the light.

He reacted instantly, before his conscious mind had a chance to process any of it. He was down on his knees, gripping the carpet, heaving up all the steak and wine and strawberries and whatever else might have been hanging around in his stomach. His eyes and nose filled with watery liquids and his mouth tasted like acid. When he was sure there was nothing more waiting to come up, he spat some acid onto the rest of it, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Jesus Fucking Christ,” he said.

When he looked up, they were still there. Photographs, black and white, covering the walls. In the center of the room a table piled with more photos, and in the corners were filing cabinets filled with God-knows-what. The scenes were of unremitting horror: emaciated people, little more than skeletons, toothless, dressed in identical dirty striped uniforms; more skeleton-­thin bodies, naked and clearly dead, piled in a trench like rotted logs; black uniformed men standing by, oblivious, bored, while two others beat a starving child with rifle butts. Matt closed his eyes, smelled his own vomit, and wished he could throw up again.

“There you are,” Johann said behind him. “I see you have found my special collection.”

Matt gestured down at the vomit. “I … I …”

“Think nothing of it. You have made, I believe, the most appropriate possible response to this particular form of art.”

Matt staggered to his feet. “This is art? This is your special collection?”

Johann nodded. “I collect, from obscure corners of the world, forged photographs of horrors that never happened.”

Matt stepped around the puddle and walked to the picture of the trench filled with bodies. “This is fake? This never happened?”

“It never happened.”

He touched the glass over the photo, and then his eyes went from one photograph to the next. “And that? And that?”

“None of them,” Johann said. “It is artifice. They are all fakes.”

Matt could not take it all in. Who would imagine such things? And who, having imagined them, would want to create images of them, to look at them again, to show them to others? “What kind of a man are you?” he demanded. “This is sick! This is disgusting! Perverted!”

“It is, however, quite striking. Is it not? Were you not affected?”

“How could I not be? That doesn’t change anything! Who could collect stuff like this? You’re a pervert!” Johann said nothing. Suddenly it was all clear to Matt. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what this is all about. You aren’t putting a band together. You never were. You’re a queer or something. You went to the club and thought I had a cute butt, so you made up this story to lure me out here, so you can do something to me. And the food, the wine, it’s all drugged or something. Any second now I’ll pass out and then … and then … I don’t know what.”

Johann waited for Matt to be silent and shook his head sadly. “You will not pass out unless you hyperventilate yourself. The food and wine were, quite simply, food and wine. The club and the band are quite real. I am dealing with you honestly in these matters. Concerning your other observation, I see little point in lying to you. I am, as you suspect, a homosexual. But my days of trying to attract young men, especially heterosexual young men such as yourself, are long past. Your ‘cute butt’ (as you put it) is quite safe from me. I expect that it will draw many young women to our club, young women whom you will find much more attractive than an old queer.”

Matt sputtered, but no words came out. If he should not be angry, he knew, then he should be embarrassed. And vice versa. But which?

He stared at Johann, studying him for signs of treachery and finding none. He looked different, older perhaps, or just more tired. “Did you get strawberry juice on your tie?” Johann looked confused. “Your tie,” Matt said, “you changed it.”

“So I did,” Johann commented, looking down. “Yes. I had a spot on the other one.” The old man looked confused for a moment, like an aging actor searching for his place in the script. “I have made the arrangements, though it took somewhat longer than I expected. Do you know the club called Rancor?”

“Down by BU, on the Green Line.”

“It is mine now. It will be closed for the next three weeks while some changes are made. Could you be there tomorrow night to meet the other young people I have assembled? I think you will find that you fit together quite well. I have a talent for such things.”

Once again, Matt knew he was hooked. This still didn’t make any more sense than it had when Johann had handed him a card in Jerry’s bar. But if he didn’t go through with it, he would never understand what was going on. “I’ll be there,” he said. “But no promises. If I don’t like these guys, I’m gone.”

“As you should be.” Johann walked out of the room and Matt followed him, trying to put the pictures and the vomit out of his mind. “Now that we have a plan, I believe that the purpose of this evening has been accomplished. And I believe that you will not be completely comfortable until you are safely returned to your room. Shall I have Ramos return you?”

Matt nodded. They seemed to be moving back towards the front door.

“There are, perhaps, a few more things you should know, so that you are not surprised tomorrow evening. Since I am not a musician myself, I have taken the liberty of arranging for someone else to oversee that side of the business. I trust you will approve.”

He said the name, and Matt stood in stunned silence for several seconds. “No shit?” he said softly, shaking his head. “How did you do that? He hasn’t played since the 60s.”

“Oh, no. He still plays – quite well, if I am any judge. But he has not toured or recorded since the 60s. He has no need for money, but I was once in a position to do him a small service, and now he has agreed to do me this somewhat greater one in return. There is, I believe, little that he does not know about playing the guitar. I trust you will benefit from your association with him. Do you find this arrangement satisfactory?” Matt nodded speechlessly. “Shall we shake hands on the deal then?”

Matt extended his hand warily and Johann shook it gently. Looking down, Matt saw the same kind of number tattoo on Johann’s wrist that he had noticed on Solomon’s.

“What does that number on your wrist mean? I’ve seen a lot of tattoos, but not on people your age, and not numbers.”

“It was from a government program, when I was a young man. They wanted to keep track of all the homosexuals, to give us all numbers.”

“And Solomon is homosexual too?” Of course, he thought. He would be more than just the butler.

“Solomon’s sexual preferences, I fear, are by now as theoretical as my own. But no, Solomon is not a homosexual. There were, at that time, many categories of people that the government wished to keep track of.”

“Weird. How come I never heard of this program?”

Johann sighed. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “And it didn’t last. Sometimes I think that it never happened at all. Solomon and I are among the handful of people who still remember.”

“Weird,” Matt repeated.

They reached the door, which Johann opened for Matt.

“I should point out one more thing,” Johann said as Matt stepped through to the outside. A car was waiting a few steps away, its engine running. “If this endeavor succeeds to the extent that I think it might, it may require a considerable amount of your time. By fall it may prove necessary for you to postpone your further studies.”

“Yeah, right.” Matt found this all impossible to take seriously. He would just have to take it one step at a time. “I guess if I become a rock star surrounded by groupies – female groupies – I could maybe delay my graduation for a year or two.”

“An entirely reasonable attitude.” Johann began to close the door, but then thought better of it and added a final comment. “If all proceeds as I imagine, I shall have taken a great mind from the science of biology,” he said. “I trust that I shall be forgiven.”