Hitler was right.
Elias White scrawled the three words across a pad of paper, waiting for the students to arrive and for his 9:30 class to start. No, too provocative. Hitler was right? No. That made him sound unsure, something he tried never to be, neither in person nor in his writing. Was Hitler Right? It’d do, but it could be improved upon. He’d have to think about it.
Elias was trying to decide on a title for his newest article, a 15,000-word examination of Jewish issues in pre-war Germany, which he was nearly one hundred percent sure would be picked up by the Harvard Historical Review. He had already mailed it off, but had decided to change the title later. The title was everything. He wanted it to be shocking enough for the Harvard professors to notice and discuss it. He wanted the professors to be impressed by his courage in presenting an argument which flew so virulently in the face of political correctness. He imagined their faces as they read the title with horror; then, as they read on, they would be reassured by his intelligence, reason, and multi-colored graphs.
Elias also wanted the article to be posted on White Supremacist websites, so he could argue furiously against its misinterpretation by evil people with a harmful agenda. This kind of conflict usually resulted in the most prized of all commodities, news coverage. He imagined himself arguing his case on CNN, protesting with Chris Matthews, trading friendly jibes with Bill O’Reilly, perhaps even losing his temper and demolishing a token White Supremacist. The Historical Review was always looking for content of this sort, an opportunity to spark lively debate, and the name Elias White would soon be a perfect fit for their plans.
Elias White was a junior history professor who said what he thought, not what he was told to think. He was a man who presented arguments about Nazism, hate, power, and human nature, while others argued about who really invented the cotton gin. He was not afraid of hot-button topics. He was a researcher who traveled all over the world for his provocative and challenging articles. And he was going to get tenure.
The original premise of Elias’s article was that the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany was actually a symptom of class struggle, an explosion of resentment by working-class Germans against a segment of the population they perceived as middle-class or rich. White got the idea while on vacation in Germany with his girlfriend Ann, who was interviewing for a six-month post-doctoral study program at Heidelberg University. There, he had been wandering around the musty book stacks in the library, and – crouching down as if looking for some crucial document, while actually trying to get a peek up the skirt of a German girl studying at a desk – he stumbled across a box of handwritten journals.
The journals were the diaries of local German soldiers who had fought during the Second World War, collected by the university and translated into English by a German graduate student in 1955. While waiting for the girl to uncross her legs, White sat and browsed through the diary of an artillery officer captured on D-Day. His leg had been amputated – needlessly, the officer felt – by an American Jewish doctor. While recovering in England, the officer, Heinz Werthal, scripted a ten-page rant about how the Jews owned everything and could never be trusted. White knew he had struck academic gold.
The diaries were in a box marked “Mull”, which, White remembered from three years of high-school German, meant “trash”. There were three other boxes there, full of diaries, documents and writings. They were from soldiers, housewives and even a few leading German intellectuals, all ready to go out the back door to the garbage pile, all full of Nazi rants. It was beautiful.
Especially good was that they were on the way to the trash. It gave White the opportunity to claim that the documents were “rescued”. In fact these documents were about to be “destroyed”, which was almost as intriguing as being “banned”. White already knew that his description of the discovery of the diaries would contain a passage about how he had searched for them for many years. It wasn’t a lie. He was always looking for cool documents to write journal articles about. Following the German girl into the library had nothing to do with it.
“You have to be careful about seeming to present Nazism as a positive force,” Ann had written back from Heidelberg after Elias had returned home and sent her the first draft.
Ann had missed the whole point. There was something about academia she just didn’t get. It was going to hurt her significantly throughout her career, Elias knew. She was always studying. Learning and knowledge had very little to do with it, once you had mastered the basics. Once you had studied enough so that you could find Poland on a map and you knew the names of the last three Presidents, the rest was mostly opinion. It was all in how confidently you expressed yourself. He had tried to bring her up to speed on this a few times, and arguments always resulted. And the trick wasn’t to be the smartest person in the room. That stopped being important in third grade. The trick was getting yourself noticed.
Students began to trickle into the room. Elias looked down at the paper he had been doodling on, and saw three letters he had penned in majestic, swirling script underneath his name: har. The rest, vard professor, would have to come later. He had a class to teach.
“Most of humanity,” Chico said, “isn’t worth the bullets it would cost to kill them.”
Think of the implications of that comment, Dixon thought. Unlike the rest of them, Dixon’s time in prison had not been wasted, because he had learned to think of the implications of other people’s comments. He had learned to think about all kinds of things. He had spent nine years looking out windows, staring at the prison laundry, at the workout yards, watching, learning, about humanity. The others were thinking about the best way to get a free carton of smokes and he was thinking about karma, and souls, and the significance of actions and the meaning of life. Dixon had not come to any firm conclusions, wasn’t sure there were any, but he had learned to think.
For instance, before Chico uttered his comment, Dixon had been wondering about how badly it damaged your karma to point a shotgun in a teller’s face and get them to give you the bank’s money. Not as badly as pulling the trigger, he had decided. Pointing the gun and scaring the shit out of someone was a forgivable act, one you could make up for. You could give some of the money to a worthy cause and be done with it. You could use the money to end suffering, even if it was your own, and be karmically back to square one. The important thing was not to pull the trigger. So then, why load the gun? In case the cops showed up. Then you’d have to kill a cop. But that was a different issue, because they were armed and could kill you. Self defence.
The debate could go on and on.
But Dixon realized, from Chico’s one comment, that he was in a lot of trouble. These other three had no sense of karma. He sensed that they didn’t really want to rob the bank. What they wanted was to wield The Power, that ultimate power you have when you pull out the shotgun and wave it around and people respond. Boy, do they ever respond. They’ll lie down when you tell them, they’ll roll over, they’ll bark like a dog if you like. You’ve got five or six people, bank managers, housewives, bosses of small firms, anyone who happens to be in the bank at the time, who’ll do whatever you say. If The Power is the point, then the chances that the bank will be robbed successfully are slim. The other three are going to drag out The Power, make it last longer than necessary, Dixon knew. And time meant cops. And cops meant a shootout. And a shootout meant everyone going out in a blaze of glory and no money and no farmland outside Edmonton, Alberta, which had been his plan all along.
It was too late to back out now. They were on their way to the bank.
Dixon had a bad self-image, but his image of humanity in general was even worse. He thought he was lower than snake shit – and he was one of the noblest people he knew. These other three in the back of the van had not a single positive characteristic he could think of that would make him feel anything if they were to be shot dead.
They were not dumb people, Dixon knew. Chico was smart, aggressive and charismatic, and had organized this whole robbery from scratch. Without Chico, Dixon might well be working in the lumberyard for the rest of his life, six dollars an hour and a rooming house and three visits a week to his parole officer. His first two months out, he had no energy to do anything, just took himself back and forth from work, and crawled into his bed in his tiny room and looked at the ceiling until it was time to go to work again. He didn’t wish he were back in prison, but he did occasionally wish he were dead. There was no reason to go on, nothing to look forward to but a life of punching in, punching out. Sleep wake work sleep. He mentioned his depression to the court-mandated counsellor, who was not interested.
The court-mandated counsellor had been counseling cons for fifteen years and figured if they mentioned depression they were trying to score a prescription for pills so they could sell them on the street. The court-mandated counsellor was interested in whether Dixon was using illegal drugs. The counsellor shrugged, said “It’s normal” and tested his piss.
Then Chico came along, a machine operator at the lumberyard, and began talking about the bank. Chico was the type of person Dixon no longer wanted to know, a criminal who believed crime was his calling, with a hatred for the straight and narrow and a professed feeling of brotherhood for all cons. Chico ranked people according to the seriousness of their crimes. Dixon’s multiple armed robbery convictions put him just below a murderer, high praise indeed from a sociopath like Chico, and necessary experience for the job he was planning.
At first Dixon had been hesitant. He really did consider parole a second chance, and there was a part of him that wanted to be a normal civilian, just a guy who had his own place and went to work and had a family. But he knew he was kidding himself. “Guys like us don’t have families,” Chico told him. “Not until we make the big score. Then we have a family and live in a country with no extradition laws.” Chico laughed. “American girls don’t want the likes of you and me.”
That sounded about right to Dixon. He was so convinced no women wanted to talk to him that he avoided the eyes of the pretty teenager who sold him coffee and a bagel every morning on his way to work, at the small store across from the bus stop. He never spoke to Lois, the leggy secretary at the lumberyard, and whenever there was paperwork to hand in to the office he would give it to one of the other guys, who would take it just for an opportunity to view her firm calves. Dixon didn’t even entertain the idea of visiting a prostitute, which the other men in the rooming house told him was a rite of passage for parolees. Dixon considered himself not good enough for prostitutes. And yet he also considered himself to be one of the finest human beings in the prison system.
“Hey man,” Chico asked Dixon as they both slumped against the wall in the back of the speeding van. “You look good all shaved up. You got a date later?”
Dixon had shaved the night before, shaved off a beard he had been growing for ten years, a beard that made him look like a member of a biker gang. It was a badge of working-class toughness, all the country boys in the Maximum Sec block had one, and Dixon had removed it without a word to anyone. Got a haircut, too. Now he hoped he looked like a businessman late for a plane. Chico wasn’t paying him a compliment on his new, clean-shaven appearance, Dixon knew. Chico thought something was up.
“Dixon, how come you got a hammer and a chisel, man?”
He didn’t sound suspicious, just curious. Guys often changed their appearances just before a robbery. The cops always showed an old photo of you. Dixon smiled his easy, winning smile, which he had learned to use to disarm people, and turned up the slow Southern drawl, magnifying the effect. “You don’t ever know what you’re gonna run into, pardner,” he said.
Chico waved his sawn-off shotgun, making Dixon flinch. These guys knew less about gun safety than they did about bank robbery. “That’s what these are for, man.”
Dixon grinned at him. These men he was going to rob the bank with were not dumb, but dumb had nothing to do with it. The dumbest criminal Dixon had ever known, his cousin, once robbed a liquor store and got away with it. Mostly, he got away with it because Dixon got tried and convicted of the crime, due to his physical similarity to his cousin and because they both had the same name.
After the trial, family members made the cousin come forward and confess to the police that they had the wrong guy, but by this time Dixon had already been convicted, and the DA couldn’t admit he’d just convicted the wrong guy. It was a five-year term, Dixon’s first stint, and he did it as a juvenile offender as he was only sixteen at the time. By the time Dixon got out, just shy of his twenty-second birthday, he had become a hardened criminal. The cousin had got a job and straightened out his life.
Being smart had nothing to do with it.
What mattered was your karma, and these three looked karmically bankrupt. Where did that leave him? Maybe he was too and he just didn’t realize it yet. If you judged a man by the company he kept, then Dixon was in trouble.
Which was nothing new.