Book excerpt

Once We Were Brothers

Ronald H. Balson

St. Martin's Press

ONE
 

 
Chicago, Illinois, September 2004
BEN SOLOMON STOOD BEFORE his bathroom mirror fumbling with his bow tie. He was eighty-three years old and getting dressed for Judgment Day. Years had come and gone since he had last worn his tuxedo, but then, Judgment Day was a black tie affair.
He uttered a Polish phrase to the man in the mirror and reached into his pocket to reexamine his pricey ticket.
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Opening Night Gala, September 26, 2004. La Forza del Destino. Main Floor, Aisle 2, Row kk, Seat 103—a seat he did not intend to occupy. Truth be told, he didn’t care much for opera. The ticket had set him back five hundred dollars, a goodly sum for a pensioner.
He pulled back the cuff of his shirtsleeve to check the time on his watch, a silver-band Citizen given to him when he retired from the Chicago Park District eight years ago. Four thirty—still two hours until the doors would open. He walked into his living room.
The windows of his modest one-bedroom apartment faced east, toward Lake Michigan and the row of condominium towers that stretched north in a line from the Loop to Thorndale Avenue like a stand of Midwest corn. The late-afternoon sun laid a track of shadows across Lake Shore Drive and onto the lush grass of the Waveland Golf Course, where he’d worked as a starter for almost fifty years. To his right, in the mirrored calm of Belmont Harbor, the luxury cruisers rested comfortably in their slips. He lingered. How he loved that view. He conceded that he might be looking at it for the last time.
Once more he checked his appearance in the mirror. He asked Hannah if he looked all right. Was he dapper? He wished she were there to answer.
Underneath his sweaters, in the bottom drawer of his bureau, lay a cardboard cigar box. Setting the box on the bureau top, he lifted the lid and removed a German P08 Luger, World War II vintage, in mint condition, purchased at an antique gun show for $1,250. Another hit to his savings account. He stuffed the pistol in his belt beneath his cummerbund.
Five o’clock. Time to walk to the corner, flag a southbound taxi, and join up with the glitterati at the “undisputed jewel of the social season.”
TWO
 
IN HIS DRESSING ROOM on the second story of his Winnetka mansion, a generous four-acre estate set high on a bluff overlooking the lake, Elliot Rosenzweig stood fumbling with his cuff links. “Jennifer,” he called out, “would you come help me, please?”
The young medical student, sparkling in her formal evening gown, breezed into the master suite and to the side of her grandfather, who was grappling with his French cuffs.
“Popi, we’re going to be late if we don’t hurry.”
He watched her hands easily fasten the gold links. So supple, so young. Soon to be a surgeon’s hands, he thought.
“There,” she said.
Beaming with profound adoration, he kissed her on the forehead. “I’m so proud of you,” he said.
“For fastening your cuffs?”
“For being my angel.”
“I love you, too, Popi.” She twirled and headed for the closet door.
“That’s a beautiful dress,” he called after her. “I like it.”
“You should,” she said over her shoulder, “it cost you a fortune. Nonna bought it for me at Giselle’s. It’s an original. Is Nonna going tonight?”
“No, I’m afraid not. She has another one of her headaches.” He winked. “She hates these public events.”
Jennifer lifted his Armani jacket from the hanger and held it for him as he slipped his arms through the sleeves. Smiling, she gave a short tug on his lapels and took a step back.
“You look very handsome tonight.” She kissed him on his cheek. “Now we need to go. All our friends are waiting.”
Together, hand in hand, they joined the rest of their entourage under the pink stone portico where the group filed into two limousines that would carry them downtown to the Civic Opera House. The iron security gates parted and the white limousines glided forward onto Sheridan Road and toward Chicago’s Loop.
THREE
 
FESTIVAL BANNERS HUNG FROM the art deco columns of the Civic Opera House’s mezzanine and multicolored buntings looped from the balustrades, all gaily surrounding the opera celebrants gathered in the foyer below. Costumed servers carried champagne and hors d’oeuvres on silver platters. In the corner, a subgroup of the Lyric Orchestra played selections from Rossini overtures.
Raising her voice to be heard above the din of conversations, Jennifer asked, “How many years have you been coming to opening night, Popi?” She smiled as she accepted a canapé from an Elizabethan palace guard.
“Since 1958, angel. Although in those days they didn’t pay so much attention to me.”
“You mean you weren’t a Platinum Grand Benefactor?”
“I always gave what I could to support the arts, but…” His answer was interrupted by the approach of Chicago’s mayor and first lady, who were being shuttled about by Lyric’s artistic director.
“It’s nice to see you again, Elliot. You’re looking well.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I think you know my granddaughter, Jennifer,” he answered in the noisy hall. “It always brightens my day to see you and Edith.” Rosenzweig flashed a congenial smile as he warmly took the hand of Chicago’s first lady.
“Quite an event, the Lyric opening, thanks to you and the board,” said Mayor Burton. “The city owes you a great deal, Elliot. You’re a priceless resource.”
“Maybe not so priceless, John.” And the two of them laughed.
While they continued to exchange flatteries, Ben Solomon quietly wound his way through the crowd toward the Grand Benefactor. He was oblivious to the music. He heard no conversations. He saw only his target. Making his way across the floor, he declined a flute of champagne from a seventeenth-century Italian peasant girl and felt for the Luger in his belt. The Lyric quartet pizzicatoed through the delightful strains of La Gazza Ladra.
He paused until the mayor and his wife had moved on to the next grouping and walked directly to Rosenzweig, his heart pounding like a pile driver.
“What did you do with all that jewelry?” he said inches from Rosenzweig’s face.
“Excuse me, sir?” said the esteemed donor with a smile, unsure if this was part of a staged repertoire. Perhaps an opera joke?
But there was no sign of frivolity. “Just curious,” Solomon said. “I asked you what you did with the jewelry—you know, the watches, diamond bracelets, wedding bands. You had a whole chest full. Don’t you remember?”
Rosenzweig looked to his granddaughter and shrugged.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”
In a flash, Solomon drew the polished Luger and pressed the barrel hard against Rosenzweig’s forehead. A woman screamed. The crowd immediately backpedaled into a large ring.
“Popi!” screamed Jennifer.
“Recognize this gun, Otto? Should be real familiar to a Nazi officer,” Solomon said, waving the crowd away with his left arm. “Look at me, Otto. It’s Ben Solomon. Here we are, together again, just like when we were kids. Never thought you’d see me again, did you, Hauptscharführer Piatek?”
Rosenzweig held up his hands in conciliation. The room was silent except for the words he delivered, slowly and evenly.
“You’ve made a mistake, sir. My name is Elliot Rosenzweig. It’s not Otto. Or Piatek. I’ve never been a Nazi. In fact, sir, I am a camp survivor.”
Very slowly, he held out his left arm. “Jennifer, undo my cuff link and roll up my sleeve.”
As she did, his forearm displayed the blackened tattoo: A93554.
The gunman considered the offering, and then sneered. “You’re a lying Nazi murderer and I can see the fear in your eyes, Hauptscharführer. Scream and cry and beg, Otto, like the innocent women and children who cowered before you. Mothers and fathers and grandparents. People who never hurt a soul. And the babies. All the children.” He gestured wildly to the stunned crowd. “Tell them who you really are. Look at them all. They’re listening. The masquerade is finished.”
From out of nowhere, Solomon was blindsided and knocked to the marble floor. The gun slid along the tiles and came to rest against the staircase. Tackled by a Chicago Bears linebacker in formal attire, Solomon lay curled on the floor, weeping, his head shuttered in his forearms.
As he was pulled to his feet by security guards, Solomon screamed, “He’s a Nazi. He’s a murderer. He’s Otto Piatek. He’s Otto Piatek.” The screams melted into sobs as they led the old man away. “He’s Otto Piatek.”

 
Copyright © 2010, 2013 by Ronald H. Balson

RONALD H. BALSON is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator and a writer. His practice has taken him to several international venues, including villages in Poland that inspired this first novel.