The following is an excerpt from my new novel, The Thief Maker.
copyright 2006 by David H. Schleicher.
The Thief Maker can be purchased from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com or anywhere fine books are sold.
December 24, 1983
William Donovan was an eleven-year-old boy living in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and two younger siblings in Camden, New Jersey, when his world ended. Had he been better equipped to piece the puzzle together, perhaps if he had been an adult observing all this and not the young child living through it, he would have seen the signs.
For all intents and purposes, he thought he had led a relatively normal life up until then, living securely in a small, split-level brownstone not far from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. His family never wanted for anything. Both parents were from non-traditional backgrounds (his mother a type of American gypsy, having followed all the fads of free love and drug use through the late sixties and early seventies until she shacked up with his father, an ex-Navy man with bulging biceps, tattoos, and a penchant for hard liquor). But the parents were present and loving and affectionate. Growing up, William was keenly aware that many children had more, but also that many had less than they did. His parents weren’t big on gift-giving, holidays (his mother was a proud atheist from her counterculture roots), or furnishing their house with luxuries, but the children never felt they were at any loss or disadvantage. His mother and father were happily married, and the children loved both parents and one another. William at eleven, James at eight, and Susan at six all got along for the most part (as much as siblings so close in age can do), and they all cared deeply for one other despite the daily teasing and fighting.
His father took seasonal jobs in construction that had him away from the family for months at a time, but for most of the year, he worked at the docks in Baltimore loading and unloading cargo from ships. His mother, always a bit flighty and still very antiestablishment, never could seem to hold down a job, and spent her time working as a temp in various offices. During a solid yearlong span when William was ten, she worked as a librarian. In that year, William spent almost all of his free time in the library, obsessively trying to read every book on world history, descending chronologically from modern times to ancient history. By the time his mother moved on to another job, he had gotten as far back at the Middle Ages. William, seeing no practical reason to return to the library once his mother no longer was employed there, never set foot in the building again. On his eleventh birthday, perhaps at his mother’s behest to encourage his now dormant love for reading, his father gave him a book on medieval English history. They never celebrated birthdays beyond receiving a favorite meal and maybe a cake, so William treasured the rare gift.
His parents gave gifts in other ways. They never talked down to their children. It was almost as if they were in a partnership; everything was negotiable. Perhaps in giving their children reason to believe they had a say, their parents always got their way in the end. There always was a lot of reasoning and discussion even regarding the smallest details of the day, such as who should clean the dishes or take out the trash. They gave their gifts of time and affection, which seemed endless, their mother even more doting during those months when their father was away. Their father gave them all nicknames, rudimentary and simplistic, but showing a level of intimacy and care that not all men of his type showed their loved ones. William was always “Good Ol’ Willie Will.” James, the often forgotten and usually serious-minded middle child, was “Mr. Jimmie James.” Susan, the rambunctious little one was “Wild Susie Que.” Their mother, in stark contrast, always referred to them by their proper name.
Looking back, there were indeed many signs of the end. Perhaps the first one was the black box. William was probably no more than seven at the time. His father was away on some job down south, and his brother and sister were being cared for by a relative who lived at the beach. He was alone with his mother in that house for the better part of the summer. One day, she told him about how she used to be a transient before meeting his father, and how it was important for him to know, as the eldest child, how to pack up and go in a moment’s notice if the time ever came for such action. William took it as a strange conversation, unable to fathom a moment when such a need would arise, and he had rarely heard his mother talk about her “life before.” She carefully showed him how to pack all the necessities (clothes, small mementos, a flashlight, some food, money, and a pocketknife) into one small backpack.
“James and Susan are too little, but you’ll soon be a young man, and if something ever were to happen to your father or me, you need to know how to take care of yourself and them, even if you never had to,” she told him.
“But I’m too little to take care of Susie and Jimmie,” William pleaded.
“It’s important that you know how to do certain things, William, and you’ll thank me one day for teaching you. One day you might have to teach them.”
She helped him pack his things, and then she packed hers, including among her belongings a small, metallic black box, not much larger than a jewelry case, with a silver keyhole. It made a jangling noise when she took it from her bureau and put it in her bag. Though small, it looked heavy, and William was mesmerized by how dark it was—dark like a black hole that sucked in all the secrets he never knew his mother had and locked them away in its tiny space. She actually took him out on the street and showed him how to hitchhike and how to spot out people from a crowd: people who were dangerous, people who might be helpful, and people to avoid or ignore. William thought that maybe this was all make-believe, as his mother was prone to play elaborate games that could last all day or even all week, where they spoke with funny accents or pretended to be carnival workers or politicians or explorers or whatever the kids felt like pretending to be at the time. These extended role-playing games generally annoyed their father and were saved for times of the year when he was not at home. William felt uneasy, though, that she was playing this game only with him.
At the end of the day he asked her, “How will I know when I need to do this?”
“You’ll know,” she assured him. “There will be signs.”
They never spoke of it again. He was, however, allowed to keep the pocketknife under two conditions: that he never show it to his brother or sister, and that he only use it in self defense. On occasion in the ensuing years, William caught a glimpse of that strange, black box sitting out on his parents’ bureau or stuck up high on a shelf in the closet. He always had the unnerving feeling that it was omnipresent; it was always there, hidden away in his parents’ bedroom, taunting him sometimes at night, reminding him of his mother’s peculiar lessons and that strange day, reminding him that he might at some point have to do something about it.
Probably the biggest sign—and even the little ones saw this as highly disturbing, since it could hardly haven been predicted and it happened so quickly—was the day in late November of 1983 when their mother told them, “While your father was away, he met another woman. He wants to marry her, and he wants nothing to do with us. We can’t stay here. We moving up to Jersey, where Aunt Mae lives.”
The children couldn’t believe their ears, and they were stunned and hurt because there was no opportunity for reasoning or discussion, something that had always brought them comfort even in the most unfortunate of times. They couldn’t believe their father would abandon them. They had met Aunt Mae maybe once or twice, at a picnic somewhere in Delaware, that boring strip of highway between Maryland and New Jersey where all their other relatives lived. They couldn’t recall liking her very much.
“She’s the one that smells like cat pee,” James was quick to remind them.
At first they thought maybe this was another role-playing game, and their mother was being the consummate actress.
“Yippee, we get to play orphans, and pretend like we’re moving,” Susan squealed.
William was happy, albeit very skeptical, of this delusion, and he played it up even as they packed all their belongings and loaded up the old Ford station-wagon, as it seemed to keep the little ones calm and secure in the thought that Daddy would be home any minute to scold Mommy for playing another silly game. Three days had passed, and everything was ready to go, the little ones still gleeful and helpful, William growing increasingly distraught.
“Why do we have to go to Jersey? Dad wouldn’t do this to us,” he said to his mother. “I’m old enough. You have to tell me the truth.”
“Look, you know your father has been getting worse with his drinking,” she told him in the confidence of the now-empty parental bedroom, with that little, black box staring at him from atop a pile of suitcases. The drinking, was that true? William always thought his father was a harmless drunk, usually jovial, and if not, passed out where no one had to pay him any mind. Had it really gotten worse? He didn’t recall any heightened moments of screaming or fighting, but then again, it had been so long since his father was at the house maybe his memory was tricking him in its selection of moments. She continued in a hushed tone, the younger ones probably having their ears pressed to the door outside trying to see if the gig was up yet. “Sometimes two people just drift apart, fall out of love, meet other people.”
“But Dad still loves us, doesn’t he? How can he just leave us kids?”
“I don’t know.” She lowered her eyes and shook her head, as if she wanted to say more but couldn’t find the words. It was the first time William noticed some gray hairs among his mother’s dark auburn locks. When she looked up, there were dark circles around her eyes and wrinkles at the corners. Had his mother really aged so much without him even realizing it? “Please, William, you’re the man of the house now. Help me, and play along for James’s and Susan’s sake.”
William placed his hand on his mother’s knee, for the first time not as child hungry for affection, but as an adult hoping to provide comfort. “Okay, Mom. Let’s go.”
The next day they were moved into the cramped, one-bedroom apartment off Mickle Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. Aunt Mae and two mysterious older men helped them move all their stuff in, but never came around after that.
“She still smells like cat pee, and those men smelled like poop,” James was quick to point out, and the children were not sad at all that they never saw Mae or those men again.
William wondered what was going through the minds of his siblings. Did they miss their father as much as he did? Did it build a yearning in their stomachs so painful they could barely eat? If this was one of their mother’s games, then it had gone way too far, and surely she had gone mad. Maybe their father was looking for them right now. Maybe William needed to show them how to hitchhike back down to Baltimore, back to their cozy brownstone, where their father would be waiting with open arms. If this was a game, then they hated their mother. If this wasn’t a game, then they hated their father, but their mother even more for allowing this to become the truth of their childhoods.
Mom got a job at the Campbell’s Soup factory doing bookkeeping, and the kids were quickly enrolled in a public school even more dilapidated than the one they attended in Baltimore. The kids seemed even more brooding and ghetto here, though each of the siblings still managed to find ways to make friends with some of the schoolchildren out of necessity and for the sake of playing the game out to completion. Their mother’s rules for role-playing had always been: don’t be squeamish, and if you’re going to do it, go all out, and do it well. The continued keeping up appearances for one other in those following weeks, still playing games, laughing, teasing one other, fighting and pretending as though having to share their bedroom was “fun,” and all their new school friends were wonderful, and Camden was the greatest place on earth.
The final and most disturbing sign came on the morning of Christmas Eve when their mother, the devout atheist and proud naysayer of all holidays both commercial and/or religious, brought home a Christmas tree. It was a huge monstrosity, alive and smelling piney, sprinkling hundreds of needles all down the sidewalk and up the front porch into the tiny living room of their first-floor apartment. William couldn’t believe she dragged it in all by herself with her small and increasingly frail five-foot-four frame. The thing had to be at least seven feet tall. It ate up the better half of the living room, and as William helped her secure it to the floor, one of the branches practically smashed through the window, which now was completely blocked by the all-encompassing tree. No one could see inside, and they could not see out. This thing had trapped them. It made William feel claustrophobic, since he knew they were also trapped in from the other side of the apartment by the tiny, black box now being kept in the bedroom closet.
James and Susan looked up at their mother with equal parts bewilderment and scorn, as if their squinting little brown eyes were saying, “This is the last straw, Mommy. This game is over.”
Their mother just looked at all three of them and smiled. “C’mon, I thought it would be fun to do it like other families, decorate the tree together, sing some carols. Huh, how ’bout it? Sound like fun? Let’s play the nice happy little American family for a change.”
William stared at her deadly, and, without the least bit of teasing or sarcasm, replied, “I thought that’s what we had been playing all along.” For him, his whole life had become a lie right before his very eyes. He wished both his parents would disappear, not just his father. Living in those cramped quarters with these naïve little brats pawing at him constantly for some consolation or reassurance that Mommy wasn’t mad and Daddy was coming back, he could barely hold back his desire to strangle his siblings right there in front of that damn tree!
“Aww …” his mother played it out beautifully. “Good Ol’ Willie Will, don’t be so mean. Mister Jimmie James, don’t look so serious. Wild Susie Que, don’t be so sad. We’re together. It’s Christmas Eve. We’re going to decorate this fucking tree, and we’re going to have a blast.” In equal parts shock and awe (Mommy never called them by their nicknames and never dropped the f-bomb before!), they did decorate that horrid tree with all the tinsel and lights their mother could muster at the Woolworth’s, and they all smiled, even James, but no fun was had. They went to sleep that night, Mom on the couch in the living room, the children packed into that tiny bedroom, William on the top bunk, James on the bottom, and Susan on the cot next to the dresser. Even after all that had happened and with all the signs that had come before, not one of them was prepared for their world to end that very night.
It started with a loud knock on the door that awakened William suddenly from a very deep sleep. It was freezing cold in that bedroom. The heater must have broken again in the middle of the night, as it did last week. He could see his breath as he exhaled, and pulled his blanket up to his chin. The bunk beds were right up against the only other window in the apartment besides the one in the living room that was now eclipsed by that ridiculous tree. He could feel a bitter chill creeping in through the cracks where the window clung flimsily to the wall. He looked down at Susan on the cot, curled up tightly into a little ball under her covers, clearly not disturbed at all by the loud noise. It was silent now, like the secrets inside that black box. As he listened to the wind howl around outside and slip in through the windowpane while a light snow fell, William thought back to all the world history books he read on WWII and the Holocaust. He thought of how there must’ve been the same eerie quiet on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the calm before the storm, when the Jews were sound asleep before the SS raided the ghettos and smashed all their windows and dragged them out to meet their deaths by gunfire in the streets or in the cattle cars waiting to take them to concentration camps. He stared into the open closet opposite the bunk beds, into the inky black of night, and tried to adjust his eyes so he could see that black box staring back at him. It seemed to ridicule him for thinking about the Jews and for sitting there wide awake in his bed on Christmas Eve, freezing and scared that something horrible was about to happen.
James screamed so loud and so high it could’ve broken the window. William turned his head so quickly he gave himself whiplash. He jumped back as he saw that man standing there, with the black ski cap turned up, the black overcoat, the black boots, and that face so pale and so empty, staring back at him like a ghost silently screaming from the Jewish ghettos. The phantom darted from the window. They heard some loud knocks on the wall, followed by a cascade of thumping out in the living room, and a faint scream from their mother.
William leapt out of bed and almost twisted his ankle from the fall from the top bunk. He turned to his little brother, whose face was as white as that ghost in their window, and whose mouth was agape like some overwhelmed idiot. He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders, and gazed upon him with a glare that bled right through his shit-brown eyes. “Don’t move, Jimmie James.” He let go and then turned to his little sister, who sat up on her cot with the same dumbfounded look of shock and awe she displayed earlier that day at first sight of the tree. “Stay right here, Suzie Que.”
William walked to the dresser and opened the top drawer. He lifted up the baseboard and pulled out his pocketknife, concealing it in the palm of his right hand. With great command and authority, and a swift gate unhampered by the near twisting of his ankle, William marched into the living room ready to take charge. His mother was gone. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and flickered, but it was the wide-open front door and the army of uniformed men and blinding sirens from the tops of police cars just beyond their front porch that really disoriented him and knocked him right off his high horse.
A man—a black man in a black suit and huge, black overcoat who stood by that open doorway—turned to William with piercing eyes. “You look like the man of the house,” he said with a smirk.
“Who are you?” William demanded, as if in some strange role-playing game he had the upper hand in this whole horrific charade because this was his home; it was his mother who was gone and his brother and sister who cowered, scared shitless, in that back bedroom.
“My name is Anthony, William. I work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I need your help. You have to stay calm and be strong for your mother and for James and Susan. They’re counting on you.”
“Why should I listen to you?”
“Well, if you look out that door you’ll see your mother being escorted in handcuffs into that car. There’s a chance you might never see her or your father again. But if you stand up and be a man, and listen to what I have to say, answer my questions, and do what I tell you, I promise you will be reunited one day.”
William wondered if his mother had been able to turn back and see him, she would’ve given him some kind of sign to run back into the bedroom and pack up all his necessities into his backpack and take James and Susan by the hand and lead them out the window and run, run far away, run all the way back to Baltimore or to wherever, it didn’t matter. She could not, as she was already tucked away into the back seat of that police car. William was left to his own devices, and the only person he had to turn to was this stranger, standing before him, leering over him, inching closer, placing a hand on his shoulder, looking down at him with those piercing eyes, eyes that were brown and dark and deep but menacing, where his brother’s and sister’s were soft and welcoming.
“Tell me, son,” Anthony said, “where does your mother keep that little, black box?”
William hated that box, and at that moment, as scared as he was, he still hated his mother; he was glad to tell. “In the closest, in the bedroom.”
“Be a good sport and get your brother and sister out of there. Bring them out here so I can go in and get that box.”
William did as Anthony said, and he took Anthony on his promise, for he no longer trusted his mother or his father or even his own judgment. The life he had lived was over. After they took that black box, he stood there in that doorway with his little sister clinging to his waist and Jimmie, all stoic and serious-like, standing a few steps ahead in the snow on the porch. William watched as those men, those ghosts, like the Nazi Gestapo, marched down the sidewalk and the street into their cars and took his mother away forever.