So they were all sitting on Merrick’s wall again – Phantom Spormann, Animal Ronsdorf, ThinMan Niehus, Sparks Krach, and Sugar Trietsch.
Ziss Schussler ran up, all out of breath. Loud, too: he had cleats on his shoes.
“Elsa, little Frieda Bohr’s mare, is missing. Stolen!”
Elsa was a Belgian draft horse, with long white and gold hair cascading over her hooves. But now she had been stolen.
Everybody looked at Phantom. Phantom said nothing.
There was a short blast on the factory whistle, and in moments the street was full of people. Sugar got cuffed by her mother, because here it was time for the next shift, and here Sugar was, still sitting on Merrick’s wall, and that meant that Sugar’s little sister was home all alone and hadn’t had anything to eat.
When things quieted back down, Phantom jumped down from the wall. He walked along the train tracks to just past the overpass, and came down into the factory yard just in front of Building 3. He went through the barracks gate and into the Russians’ camp. Fat old Kuhlmann was sitting at the yard entrance with his .08, pretending like he didn’t see Phantom. He gazed out over the railroad tracks.
Stash was lying half under his bunk. He was rolling a cigarette.
Before Phantom could open his mouth Stash said, “It wasn’t any of us that did it. We were all at a meeting, all night long.”
Since it wasn’t easy to get into Bohr’s stall, and since Elsa could easily trample strangers quite to death, and since all the Russians had been in the camp all night long, that left only a couple of possible suspects. They counted them.
Finally the only one left was Hansi Haas. Stash knew that Hansi Haas had already overstayed his leave by two days. Yesterday morning he had been seen lying drunk under the bushes by the train tracks. That afternoon he was shooting at rats.
They concluded that Hansi must have slaughtered Elsa, and that he must have had help.
Phantom went back to the others on Merrick’s wall. They sent Ziss Schussler back home. Then he reported the thing about Hansi Haas.
They discussed the matter from all sides. Sugar Trietsch was the first to think of the old washhouse in the Speckenbachs’ garden.
The Speckenbachs used to run a laundry there. The old stone building had stood empty for half a year or so. There was nothing but assorted trash in there now. They knew it inside out: they had broken in, and checked it out, but hadn’t found anything interesting. That, of course, would be the best place. They could cook all that meat there at one time, there was wood there, and nobody ever paid any attention to Speckenbachs’ old washhouse. Tonight they would have to take a look.
Whenever the Full Alarm sounded, sirens would howl, and the whole Quarter would move to the factory bunkers. The kids would sleep there, and the others would do whatever it was they normally did – darn, play cards, drink schnaps etc etc, till they fell asleep. When the coast was clear again, they would return to their shift at the factory, or head back home.
ThinMan Niehus always got to leave first, because he had to carry his crippled Grandma.
ThinMan was already waiting in the space under Stairway C as the others arrived one by one. Animal had a bottle of schnaps. Everybody took a swig or more. Phantom Spormann checked on the condition of his 765 Walther.
Then they all crept through the tunnel under the tracks, coming out at the scrap metal heap. They went up and continued along on the overpass. They could see bright little fireworks all along the horizon, like Christmas tree lights.
The air buzzed with the hum of approaching bombers. Just in front of Ramp A the anti-aircraft guns swung into position. They could hear shouts in the distance. Spotlights swung restlessly across the sky.
They pressed themselves flat against the embankment. After awhile they let themselves roll down from there, and they hurried on, ducking, through the neighborhood gardens to the picket fence around the Speckenbachs’ yard. They climbed over the fence and lay flat in the weeds, listening. “I smell something,” Animal said.
They sneaked up to the washhouse. The windows were nailed shut. Phantom climbed onto the flat roof. He had to fight hard to keep from coughing in the smoke that was coming out of the chimney. He crawled over to the dormer window, which was missing two slats, and looked in.
He saw the one-legged Pino Eckhoff. Pino was bent over a tub. He was using one of the slats to stir a brew of blood and meat. There was a carbide lamp hanging from the wall. Next to it, on a hook, was a belt holding a fat holster and a gun. Under the belt, on top of the straw, lay Hansi Haas. He was drunk.
Phantom tried to pry another slat loose. Just then the racket of artillery fire, coming from the tracks, shook the air. Phantom watched as Pino hobbled to the door, opened it, and looked out. Then he leaned on it to get it to shut again. Hansi Haas tried to stand up, but he fell back into the straw.
The crash from the first wave of bombs came from the direction of the freight depot. Phantom jumped off the roof. The others were there instantly.
Phantom spun the chambers on his 765 Walther and cried, “Let’s go!”
They ran to the door and burst inside. Phantom fairly leaped to the wall where the carbide lamp was hanging. He stood over Hansi Haas. ripped the holster belt off its hook , and cried to the others, “Hold Pino!”
Pino Eckhoff was holding the slat high over his head, with both hands. He fell to the ground when Animal jumped him from behind. Phantom draped the belt with its fat holster over his shoulder. He sat down on a chest and aimed his gun at Hansi Haas. Phantom said, “You swine.”
Hansi pulled a bottle of schnaps out of the straw. He took a swig, and then threw the bottle to Phantom, who also had one. The bottle went the rounds to Pino, who emptied it. “So how much of the hack do you want?” asked Hansi.
Phantom flew into a rage, and ThinMan shrieked, “That’s Elsa you’re calling a hack! Elsa never did anything to anybody, everybody pitched in and brought her food,” etc etc. “Someone ought to beat that pig’s ass blue, and then some!”
The washhouse reeked of burnt hair, flesh, and foul things. There was blood spattered everywhere. Elsa’s feet with the gold and white hair cascading over the hooves were laid out in the corner, framing the head with its gold and white mane.
Sugar was stroking the mane, but then suddenly she jumped at Hansi and gave him a couple of swift kicks in the side, full of rage. Animal planted his shoe on Hansi’s chest, Hansi screamed, and everybody was yelling.
But eventually Phantom outshouted them, “Stop! Cut it out! This is ridiculous. Elsa is dead, and there’s nothing left to do but divide and distribute.”
Fires were going under two of the tubs. A stew was rolling in one, flapping, making big bubbles. Large chunks of flesh were cooking in the other. Sparks stabbed a couple of the pieces with a pitchfork, and threw them onto the floor. The hams and one side of the loin lay in bloody pools in the other tubs.
They got sweaty from all the sawing and hacking, and right in the middle of the work, a bomb landed close by. The blast threw them all to the floor.
Half the roof flew off. The carbide lamp crashed to the floor, and they had to put out the burning straw with hot stew. In the middle of the confusion Hansi Haas tried to rip the holster off Phantom’s shoulder, but Phantom was quicker. Hansi, still drunk, fell back down. Phantom said, “Try that one more time and I shoot.”
It was now very light in the washhouse, what with half the roof missing, and the sky all lit up by fires and searchlights.
They packed the chunks of flesh into their canvas bags, left a couple of pieces for the other three, and set off, the heavy wet bundles slung over their shoulders. They ran along, ducking. A couple of times along the tracks they had to throw themselves flat. At the viaduct they split up.
Phantom crawled further, over to the overpass. He threw his bundle into the opening of the secret tunnel they had dug out.
Just as he was replacing the cover, he heard somebody else crawling close by. It was Stash, behind two nettle bushes, trying to make himself as flat as possible.
Phantom whistled their signal. They pulled the bloody package back out. Stash took a piece and put it in his pack. Phantom gave him a second piece, and kept half a ham for himself.
During the sorting out he told Stash the whole story.
Stash said, “That’s the crummy thing about this war, that you all have to act so much like grownups, you and the others, Phantom, being all of thirteen years old.” “Almost fourteen,” Phantom said. “That’s not so young.”
They lingered under the bushes. They had a smoke, and looked out over the scene, all the way to the horizon. There were fires and clouds of smoke everywhere.
Phantom said, “They’re going to smash the whole thing completely flat.” Stash said, “But they’ll build it back, they will, your father and the others, and this time people will listen to them. They will have learned a lot in the meantime. And now there will be the Soviet Union,” etc etc.
Phantom put his cigarette out. “No,” he said, “that’s something we have yet to see.” And so they parted, each headed in his own direction.