Literary Fiction

The Sins of Others

By

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Synopsis

The braided story of a haunted conflict zone photographer and his estranged mother, a social activist turned militant fanatic who's been on the run from Interpol for thirty years, as well as the array of people they encounter on their (mostly) separate journeys to deliverance.

1993. The war-torn Bosnian countryside. Jane Abbott, a seasoned English conflict zone photographer who is no longer easily surprised, is surprised. Stunned, in fact, to’ve come across the son of THE notorious Ingrid Heimlich—who, until her traceless disappearance twenty years ago, had been the world’s most infamous leftist terrorist. Ben Heimlich, the stranded German kid and wannabe reporter she has picked up by the roadside, is either fearless or incredibly naïve—though probably naïve—and were it not for the platoon of Serbian partisans who intercept them on their way, she’d pestered him incessantly with questions of his mother’s whereabouts.

1994. Still reeling from the horror he had seen in Bosnia, Ben Heimlich moves to the United States and settles in the sparkling neighborhood and allegory known as Hollywood. As he gets older and, eventually, more affluent, Ben realizes that, no matter how ostensibly successful he’s become, he can’t escape his lingering despair.

Tuesday, October 12, 1993

This was not a sexy war. Nothing like her first one in Vietnam. Or later ones, like Haiti or El Salvador. Or Lebanon, East Timor, or Angola, or, most recently, Liberia.

Not sun-drenched and exciting in its horrid and yet inexplicably exhilarating misery. Not overrun by dubious characters in crumpled linen suits who gather at hotel bars late at night to work out shady deals, and battle-hardened journalists exchanging stories over cocktails in a haze of cigarette smoke and distant mortar fire. Not humming with that incandescent blend of horror and elation she had grown addicted to some twenty years ago.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was different. Bleak. Drab. And— much as it shamed her to admit this to herself—too close to home to easily detach herself; both the victims and the perpetrators of this latest genocide in Jane’s professional array of crisis zones were, to use an inappropriately impulsive word, “normal” people. Not different-looking foreigners in sun-parched desert lands and island states, or jungles faraway.

The victims here, they looked...like her. White and blue- eyed. European. Dressed in Levi’s jackets, Ray-Bans, and Adidas shoes. Plus, this ravaged city was a day’s drive, not a two day-flight, from where she had grown up. Not so long ago, she’d been in Yugoslavia on bloody holiday, for heaven’s sake!

The VW Golf in which Jane Abbott sat cruised past a clump of charred cadavers that lay headless in the middle of an open intersection on Zmaja od Bosne Street. Jane raised her camera, shot off five listless frames as they passed by.

Nothing new.

Through her telephoto lens, she cast a searching glance along the boulevard. Few people moved about, and even fewer cars. Those who did all ran or sped. Because their life depended on the speed with which they managed to evade the ceaseless rain of bullets from the mountainside.

Jane sighed.An entire town in time-lapse mode.

She focused her lens on an achingly gorgeous young woman who, had she been born in Western Europe or America, might be a supermodel now.Taking cover at the entrance of a pock- marked tenement, the undiscovered beauty peered toward the nearby hills.Then she hurled herself across the street.A few shots rang out. It was impossible to tell if they were meant for her. Or Jane. Or someone else. But the woman made it to the other side unharmed.

Sniper Alley, everybody called this street.

Jane sighed again, this time relieved. She and Dzenan, her Bosnian fixer and translator, were a few blocks out from the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo’s last open hotel, where the few remaining members of the foreign press corps stayed.

Dzenan turned to look at her.“You duck now, yes? I must go fast, this intersection, it’s not safe, it’s shit, it’s total shit.”

“Okay, go,” she said, and Dzenan went as fast as the decrepit little Golf was able to.

Streets that ran perpendicular to the mountains were most susceptible to sniper fire.Driving a taxi in Sarajevo—Dzenan’s job before Jane hired him full-time—was arguably the most dangerous profession in the world.

He slowed down a bit. “Okay,” he gasped. “Okay, we’re okay for now.”

Jane straightened herself up and glanced at him. Dzenan looked worn out. In the past eight weeks through which he’d worked with her, he’d seemed to melt away before her eyes. His cranial bones more prominent, the sockets of his eyes more marked. At only twenty-seven, he could have been her son, but fifteen months of little food, near constant fear, and waning hope had added twenty years to his emaciated face.

Three weeks ago, she’d met his family. His two younger sisters. His parents who, although they hadn’t eaten anything but uncooked flour soaked in tepid rainwater for weeks, kept apologizing for not being able to serve her anything. And she’d met his pregnant wife.

Days later, Jane revisited their little flat and brought a bag of hardboiled eggs, three loaves of bread, a cube of butter, and twelve cans of Coke.The whole family broke into tears when she unwrapped the packages.

He slammed on the brakes.“Shit!”

Jane jerked forward in her seat.“What is it?”

He nodded at the far end of the street.

She turned.A platform lorry with a pile of corpses in the

back sat at an intersection, motionless, some fifty meters out. Or so it seemed.

Only upon closer inspection did Jane realize the vehicle

was under long-range sniper fire. The constant shots and crackles from afar had long dissolved into an ever-present aural blur she barely noticed anymore. But she saw the lorry faintly shudder in a fusillade of tiny puffs of dust and shattered glass as rounds kept slamming through its cabin door.

Jane picked back up her camera and shot off some twenty frames in quick succession, seeking refuge in the illusory feeling of security a camera provides: visually closer through the magnifying telephoto lens, yet more detached emotion- ally.Two men jumped from the beleaguered vehicle.The one from the passenger side was hit immediately and tumbled to the ground.The driver threw himself onto the pavement and tried to crawl across the street.Then he twitched, yelled out in pain, and stopped moving.

For five seconds.Then his head popped up again.

Jane dropped the camera in Dzenan’s lap and grabbed her other one. “Reload,” she requested without taking her eyes off the ordeal.

Dzenan clasped the camera. “We must get out of here, it’s not—”

“The shots are coming from the north, we’re not in the line of fire. Reload. Now.”

He did it without another word.

As Jane kept shooting, she heard voices yelling from behind a building on the other side. “Who is that? What’re they saying?”

Dzenan handed her the loaded camera, pricked up his ears. “They’re—I think they’re, how you say—passersby. Someone scream, like, Go, go, almost there! Behind the wall, ten more meters, you can do it!

Jane swapped cameras again and kept shooting.“You mean they’re cheering him on? Like a football player?”

“Football player, yes. But more valuable prize than stupid tin cup if he wins.”

The injured lorry driver came to rest behind a concrete road divider. He wailed out toward whomever cheered him on.

Jane refocused on the man.“What’s he shouting?”

“He screams I cannot move. My leg, my leg, help!

A few endless seconds ticked away, the intermittent silence

interrupted by the distant sound of screams and whizzing rounds that slammed into the street around the man.

Then his head just...exploded.

Jane zoomed in close. His skullcap had flown off, along with half his brain, chunks of which lay spattered on the ground. “Aw, fuck,” she groaned. “The bastards must’ve got him with a .50 cal.” She kept her finger on the button until the roll was full.Then she put the camera down.

And wept. Suddenly and out of nowhere, if only for a few brief moments. Then she caught herself. She wiped her face with her sleeve and opened the back of the camera. She removed the exposed roll, slid it in the camera bag between her feet, and put in a new one. “Let’s go,” she muttered.

No reaction.

She turned to look at him.“What.”

Dzenan sat without a word. Just gazed at her with slight

bewilderment.

What. You’ve never seen a woman cry before?”

His eyes came back to life. “Yes. But never you.”

“Yeah well, shut up, we gotta get to Zvornik. Pull back, go

right on Vrbanja Street, let’s circumvent this fucking mess.” Dzenan slammed the gear into reverse, pulled right, and sped up.

Jane checked her gear. For a while, they both sat silent. Under normal circumstances,the drive to Zvornik—a little town up north, where wholesale murders on the Bosniak populace were rumored to occur—would take an hour and a half.

But this was anything but normal.

Sarajevo had been all but locked down for some fifteen months.The medieval practice of besieging towns while killing random citizens at will—resurrected once again by anti-multi- ethnic Serbian troops last spring—had left thousands dead.

And hundreds of thousands stranded without food.

Electricity or running water were a long-forgotten luxury. Families survived on tree bark and what sparse supplies the UNICEF was able to get through.

Sarajevo, essentially a narrow strip of flatland in a bed of mountainous terrain, was one big shooting range; schoolyards and old people’s homes were shelled as randomly as hospi- tals, abandoned foreign embassies, and libraries.The city’s few remaining water wells were open mass graves now as a result of Chetnik snipers holding out for thirsting citizens to crawl into their firing line. People buried loved ones in their yards, for cemeteries had run out of space, and volunteers in lorries roamed around to gather up the bodies that accumulated in the streets. White flags, media signs, and other tokens of expressed neutrality were widely disregarded by the shooters and thus useless as survival aids.

The Serbians controlled the mountain range, whereas the city was controlled by Muslim paramilitaries, as well as multi- ethnic Serbs from mixed-faith families and various machine gun-wielding gangs of criminals.

Trying to get in or out of town was viewed as quasi-suicide, but after having heard new rumors about more atrocities in the northeast, Jane had to go; heading for the kinds of places others ran from was her job. Allegedly, some colleagues back in London had a saying about her: Once Jane gets off a plane somewhere, it’s time for others to get on that very plane and leave before the shitstorm hits.

Something like that.

As a seasoned Reuters correspondent,she’d seen and photographed a thousand violent deaths—in fact, her archives burst at the seams with pictures deemed too graphic and “offensive” to be picked up by the Western press. She was a veteran, for God’s sake, she was as used to this as anyone could get.

So why the recent bouts of crippling sadness—even tears? Why had the witnessing of human suffering begun to feel more painful as of late? At the age of forty-seven, Jane found it, oddly, increasingly more difficult to disassociate herself from what she saw.Weren’t we supposed to grow more jaded—and less sensitive—with age? What was it with that overkill of empathy of late?

“This is shitty intersection also,” Dzenan announced. “I must go fast again, okay?”

“Knock yourself out, darling.”

As they sped past shot-up buildings, scattered corpses, plumes of smoke, and listless faces of survivors in the street, Jane sank back into her reverie. She could have had an easier life. She could have done what everyone had told her she should do when she was young: get some kind of business management degree and work with Dad, take over his accounting firm. Marry John, her college sweetheart, who’d asked her to become his wife, and was a cardiac surgeon now. Jane and John, requesting the delightful honor of your kind attendance to the celebration of their silver wedding anniversary at their Surrey country home.

Or at least she could have stopped at forty-five.

Go home, quit dodging bullets, settle down.Write a book or two about her exploits in the wretched corners of the world. Become a talking head, argue world affairs with obstinate conservatives from leather chairs in air-conditioned chat show studios. Seek solace in the fact that human hatred perse- veres despite her work, and not because of it.

Having spent some time with Dzenan’s family and having seen his wife’s abiding confidence that things would soon improve had made Jane envious. Optimism without evidence. Oh, what she’d give for being able to retrieve her hope for there to be a better, more benevolent and equitable world to be ahead. But she’d seen too much proof of mankind’s inability to learn from its mistakes to still think—

“Checkpoint,” Dzenan hissed.

Jane looked up. They’d reached the city’s outskirts: empty pastures, scattered homes, darkly billowing plumes of smoke below the distant mountain range. Less than half a klick ahead, the road was blocked. X-shaped wooden stakes, razor wire, and three Unimogs. About two dozen men in olive drabs.

“Here we go,” Jane mumbled to herself as she pulled her passport and press credentials from her breast pocket. “Have your passport ready,” she summoned Dzenan, who looked ill at ease.“Take a breath, we’ll be fine.”

“Yes, yes, I take breath, I take breath,” he said with slight impatience in his voice.

Jane looked at him. He was Serb—no one had to know his wife was Croat—which meant they weren’t going to get shot.

Probably.

Out here, one never knew who one would come across. The beleaguering Serbian troops were but a bunch of motley crews—not much unlike the wayward gangs in the city center. On all sides of this fight, idealists and psychopaths—fighters of conviction, opportunity, and homicidal lust—had long amalgamated to one big entangled mess of unpredictability.

“Just act excited about their cause,” she said.

“Excited, yes. Okay.” Dzenan took a stabilizing breath, made a fist, and raised it from the open window as he slowed toward the paramilitary fighters by the road.With a smile that looked convincing, he approached the guard who’d flagged them down, shouting something that, judging by the sound of it, was jubilant.

The guard did not return his smile. Clutching a machine gun with his right, he raised his left palm in a gesture for them to present their documents. Dzenan handed over their passports, along with Jane’s press card. The checkpoint guard, a stoic-looking twenty-something with a kind of Mohawk-mullet-combination haircut, a handlebar mustache, and a thin red band around his head, took off his mirrored aviator shades and studied their IDs. For a disconcertingly long time.

Jane observed him furtively. He looked like a punk. Rowdy, raw-faced, bleary-eyed. Someone who, before the war broke out, had likely been a street thug and a petty thief. Loads of disaffected youths had joined the paramilitary troops on both sides, plundering and murdering like feral beasts. Unleashed, free to do whatever they desired.

The punk bent down, leaned into the car, and looked past Dzenan toward Jane. “English?” he spat out, his breath heavy with the smell of booze.

Jane looked back at him.“Yes.”

He looked back down at her credentials.

Engage with him, Jane told herself. Remember what you’ve

learned: be neither frightened nor annoyed. Treat him as an equal.Act as if you’re on his side. Grant him the satisfaction to be taken seriously for once. She pulled out a road map, held it up, and smiled. “I’m a photo journalist with Reuters,” she uttered casually, avoiding any indication to be searching for a version of the truth he might not want to be unearthed.“I am on my way to Zvornik. Could you possibly tell me the best route to—”

He raised his left hand in an imperious gesture for her to stop talking. A little shit. With a loaded submachine gun. In a national adventure playground with no rules. Powerful at last. He straightened himself up again and made a half-turn to his left, letting out a vocal noise that sounded somewhere in between a comment and a growl.

Jane followed his gaze. A female soldier stood some fifteen meters over by the roadside to Jane’s right, behind some rust-heap of a car that looked as if it was about to fall apart. German license plates were duct-taped to the backside of the comically decrepit old Passat. The bonnet was up. Someone in the driver’s seat, out of view, kept trying to start up the engine, but nothing but a tired wheezing sound emerged.

As the female soldier walked to Dzenan’s Golf, the guard said something to her and lurched off.

“You are English?” the female soldier asked. Unlike the men nearby, she looked civilized.And unlike her fellow guard, she did not smell like a liquor store.

Jane sighed, relieved.“Yes. Could you please—”

“What are you doing here,” she sternly cut Jane off, put her hand against the window frame, leaned down. “Do not go further.You think Sarajevo is bad—you have not seen bad.” She gave a furtive nod to the northern horizon, followed by a side glance at her fellow soldiers, all of whom were out of earshot now. “Everybody lose their mind out there,” she murmured gravely.“Is like hell on earth.You turn around. Now. Okay.”

Jane surveyed the guard. She was in her twenties and looked quite pretty, even in her less-than-flattering combat uniform. Her long, dark hair was put up in a flawless bun, her makeup style in line with all the latest Western beauty trends. But her face looked blank. Shell-shocked and resigned.

“I appreciate your concern,” Jane said. “But it’s really not my job to run from stories.”

The woman leaned in closer. “Turn. Around.”

“Perhaps I can have a word with your superior officer before you order me to turn around? The UN has cleared all members of the foreign press to—”

“I do not order you to turn around. I recommend it. Strongly. You do not know what is going on out there. I do.”

Jane exhaled sharply. “You seem to be unsure of whether you’re on the right side of this fight.”

The female guard returned a hollow stare. “Right side? There is no right side. Only victor’s side and victim’s side. This is my home. I must choose. You do not.”

Jane was momentarily distracted by the driver of the car whose engine wouldn’t start. As he exited the driver’s seat, she recognized his face. She’d seen the adolescent-looking boy before—a week ago, at the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo’s last resort to (barely) keep up services. He’d stood out, not only because of his young age but, too, his gear; she’d seen him carry an ancient-looking Pentax 6x7, a noisy, bulky, and decidedly idiotic choice of camera for a photo journalist.

And then there was the nagging fact that he looked so familiar. She’d seen the boy before somewhere. She just couldn’t place him. Which was unusual—for her at least, because her facial memory was usually impeccable.

Dzenan’s voice cut through her reverie.“What you want to do? Turn? Go?”

Jane faced the female guard. “You’re going to let us pass, then?”

She straightened herself up.“You want to go?” she snarled. “Go. I warned. Is not my problem.”

Jane turned back to the boy from the hotel. He’d closed the bonnet and the driver’s door and stood behind his car, a tattered camera bag in hand. He looked completely lost.

“You okay?” Jane called out to him through the open window.

The boy looked up. “Yes—no. I’m—my car broke, it does not jump on,” he stammered in broken English with a heavy German accent.

Jane turned to her left again. The female guard stepped off and waved them through. Several paramilitary men— including little-shithead-with-the-big-bad-gun—were loitering nearby, smoking, drinking, monkeying about.

Jane turned to Dzenan and pointed at the broken-down Passat. “You think you can have a look at his car?”

He scoffed. “Are you fucking joking? You want to offer him a cup of tea, maybe, while I fix his shit car?” He tossed a glance at the men. “No fucking way. We can take him if you want, but we leave now, before they get more drunk and change their mind.”

Jane looked at him, then back toward the boy.“Need a lift?”

He looked relieved.“Yes, that would be great, if it is not too much trouble. I could maybe—”

She grimaced.“Oh, bloody hell, get in! This is not the time nor place for etiquette, or would you rather get shot?”

He scurried over to their car and got in. “Sorry. Yes. Thank you. So much.”

“Go,” she summoned Dzenan.

He did, raising his right hand and flashing a V-sign at the gathered soldiers as they passed.

Jane glanced into the rearview mirror as they drove away,then made a half-turn to her left. “Jane Abbott, Reuters, London,” she said, speaking up to drown the noisy squeaks and rattles from the moving car. “This is Dzenan. Best fixer in Sarajevo.”

Dzenan grinned and gave a mock salute.

“Hello, Jane. Hello, Dzenan. I am called Benjamin. Ben. And thank you very, very much, I was—I do not know what to do without you, the—the soldiers, they said to turn the motor off and looked through my boot, and then the car did not jump on again, and some of them were holding their guns at my face, laughing, and I think they were quite drunk.”

Jane studied him. Where the bloody hell did she know him from? “Ben what? What’s your surname? Where’re you from? Who’re you with?”

“Surname—Heimlich. I come from Germany. Berlin. I came to Sarajevo alone.”

“No, I mean who do you work for?”

The boy fell silent for a moment, his head and shoulders swaying with the movement of the car.“No one.”

Jane kept observing him through the second rearview mirror that was suction-cupped right next to Dzenan’s to extend her visual field. Heimlich—why did that name ring a bell?

The boy named Ben looked haggard. Not quite like Dzenan, but not far. Angular features, sunken cheeks, and darkly piercing eyes. Eyes she couldn’t help but think she’d seen before. Not being able to place him drove her mad.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” he stated with the subtle pride of twenty- one-year-olds who think they’re all grown up.

“No offense, dear, but you barely look eighteen. So what on earth possesses a twenty-year-old from Berlin to come to this place? How did you even get into Sarajevo?”

“Twenty-one.”

She chuckled. “Oh, forgive me, twenty-one, never mind then.”

She saw him give a tenuous smile. “So?” she asked.

He looked confused. “So?”

“How did you get in? Don’t tell me you drove out to Sarajevo from Berlin all by yourself.”

“Yes. That. Or no, actually, not direct. I buy the car in Berlin two months ago for a hundred-fifty marks. It was—you say piece of shitty, yes? I thought it will break sooner or later, and I drive it until then and leave it.” He paused, gazing off into the colorless environment.“I think today was a bad time for it to break.”

She laughed.“You think?”

“Yes. But before I come to Sarajevo, I drive south, through Austria and then to the Adria, the—Adriatic Sea? I drive down there along the coast for three weeks, and then land inwards to Sarajevo.”

Jane sighed, mumbling,“Fortune truly does favor fools.” “Pardon?”

“Nothing.You certainly picked a lovely time of year for a quaint little motoring jaunt.”

“Yes. Not too warm and not too—”

I’m joking! What on earth were you looking for at the Adriatic Sea in the middle of a sodding war?”

“The other side.”

“What other side?”

“The—I’m not sure. The other side of hatred, I suppose.” She let out a snort. “Are you trying to be poetic?”

“What? No, sorry—my English, excuse me, it is very bad. I mean it is all very complicated in this country. Who hates who, and why, and what is the history of all of it, and so on.” She grinned. “So you’re on a little study trip. History in Motion and all that.”

“Yes. That.”

Jane tried to gauge him. She couldn’t tell if he was dense or shrewd. Did he just not catch her sarcasm? Or did he choose to ignore it? The faintest glimmer of a smile was lapping round his mouth.Who knew, perhaps he was the one taking the piss out of her, and not the other way around.

“You know,” he said, “I met some French and Austrian neo-Nazis in a fishing village down there by the sea.”

French neo-Nazis. That’s a new one.”

“Yes, very strange. They run around in uniforms with swastikas and look like clowns. And they say they join the Croats in the war against the Serbs.”

Jane saw him sigh. “And all because fifty years ago,” he carried on, “Hitler helped the Croats fight the Serbs. All the hatred never goes away. It just...how do you say—adds up. Over the decades and the centuries, yes? I am sure you know what the Nazis did here to the Serbs in the 1940s. The hatred gets inherited from one generation to the next.”

“Very perceptive, Professor Heimlich.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Do you guys have sarcasm in Germany?”

“No.”

She snickered. He reminded her a little of herself at twenty-one. Foolish. Professorial. Filled with fragmentary knowledge of the world. And oh so confident to’ve figured it all out. His lecturing attitude, however, did not match his some- what coarse exterior: he looked...rough. Proletarian. Unlike her, and all her former peers at university, he didn’t match the stereotype of Intellectual Idealist. He rather looked like someone who was laying pipe on oil rigs or construction sites. Maybe it was just his sunken face and piercing eyes that made him look so hard. These black and anguished-looking eyes she was but sure she’d seen before. Somewhere.

—————

Some ninety minutes later, they crossed through a deserted hamlet, far afield. The village was ravaged beyond recognition: not one wall intact, the street so littered with debris that Dzenan had to slow down to a crawl. Open bags and clothes lay strewn about, as if left behind in a panic. And no sign of life. Jane had little hope that any one of those who had once lived here were alive. Since the beginning of the war last year, some fifty thousand Bosnian Muslims were assumed to have been murdered or expelled.

“We are close now,” Ben stated matter-of-factly from the backseat.

“Close to where?”

He pointed at what was left of an annihilated farmstead by the road. Faint wafts of smoke still emanated from the capsized roof. “Fume. The Serbs were here short ago. We get close to them.”

Jane pulled a shred of blue fabric from her camera bag— she always kept some spares—and handed it to him. “Tie this around your right arm.”

“For what?”

“Today we’re pro-Serbian.”

“But I am trying to be neutral.”

She dropped her chin and glared at him.

He quickly clasped the dark blue shred. “Pro-Serbian.Yes.”

Minutes later, they moved along the empty motorway, still heading north. Jane broke the preceding stretch of silence. “So what’s your plan then?”

Ben turned to look at her. “My plan?”

“You said you figured you’d be forced to leave your car behind sooner or later. How were you planning on getting back home? Have you actually thought about that, considering how flights or trains are rather hard to come by round these parts?”

“No plan,” the boy responded in a deadpan voice. “Things never end up as I plan. No reason to make plans.”

“So that’s your philosophy.”

“No philosophy. Just... reality. Too late for a philosophy.”

She tried not to laugh aloud. “Aren’t you a bit young to be this jaded? Tell you what, darling, why don’t you give it a few years? And then get jaded?”

He smirked wryly.“You have been to other wars?”

As they took a right-hand bend, they beheld the burned-out carcass of a lorry in a roadside ditch. Dzenan slowed down. One charred cadaver, barely recognizable as having been a human being once, lay dried up by the driver’s door. Jane raised her camera, shot off six frames.

Ben shot off one.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve been to other wars.”

Dzenan gave her a questioning look.

“No use, keep going,” she uttered with a tired nod toward the corpse.

“And over the time you go to wars, ”Ben said,“and show the people in the First World all the pictures of the truth, do you think they look? Like, really look? Do you have the opinion we make progress? I mean as a species? Do you think we gain more... you say empathy, yes?”

“Yes. We say empathy.” She switched cameras, scanning the horizon with her tele lens.A giant plume of thick black smoke had just begun to rise up from behind the hill crest to the north. “And no, I do not.”

She put her camera down and glanced into the rearview mirror again. She couldn’t get a read on him. The boy was obviously a bit weird. Not wrong, but weird. But what was his impetus? He’d come here, after all.Which meant he cared. And yet he didn’t seem to think there was an actual point to being here. How was a twenty-one-year-old this cynical already, this... resigned? She was, sure, but she’d reported from the dark side of the world for more than twenty years. Back in ’68, however, when she’d been twenty-one, like him, she—most her entire generation—had been so optimistic, so... afire with indomitable confidence to change the world.

1968.

The very number summoned up a flood of memories. Jane had gone to university in Paris then. Swept up in the polyphonic roar against the fascist oligarchic ruling class, she’d partaken in the occupation of the Sorbonne. She’d affiliated with the Situationists. She’d written essays for Le Monde Libertaire and joined the Fédération Anarchiste. She’d rioted, built barricades, thrown cobblestones and petrol bombs. None of which advanced her cause. And all of it bestowed on her a burgeoning taste for danger and adrenine. A taste that would, gradually and day by terrifying day, end up overshadowing and taking hostage her devotion to her cause. At first, however, those days had been a time of unformed hubris and euphoria. A universal hunger for renewal with confusing recipes. Ungalvanized enthusiasm to create a less iniquitous society. They were going to change everything.

They didn’t quite know how. But they would.

And then nothing turned out as they’d hoped.

Their fight was marred by disappointments and miscarriages. The change they’d been so confident would come—the end of selfishness, the dawn of a new era of humanity—did not materialize. Disillusioned activists sold out or turned embit- tered. Got rich and sluggish. Or more militant.

Some much more militant.

By the early seventies, far-left European terror cells took shape, went underground, and took up arms. They aligned themselves with global revolutionary groups, and what began with noble dreams of righteousness soon led to robberies and bomb attacks, hostage-takings, airline hijackings and, ultimately, assassinations.

Not surprisingly, the European public was divided over their support or hatred for these groups.

After rage came jadedness: by the time the eighties came around, young people, sick and tired of their hippie parents’ dated creeds, wanted to consume and not revolt. “Winning” superseded being on the right side of evolving history. Wall Street jobs, designer clothes, Rolex watches, and Ferraris were the dernier cri, not cries for social equity and concepts for a better world.

That was it. Their glorious revolution had but failed.

Jane, no longer self-assured that what she did would make the foggiest difference in the tenor of the world, grew numb. Her photographic documents of global suffering did not ring in the change she’d hoped they would.

The German boy behind her had it right. People didn’t care. And, most alarmingly, she herself cared less and less. Grew callous as she roamed from war to war and genocide to genocide. Gradually, her quaint belief in actual change gave way to simply wanting to be spared the guilt of idly standing by and doing nothing in the face of Man’s depravity.

Gone was her youthful fervency. She’d become a living stereotype—quixotic aging lefties who hug trees and whine about pollution, poverty, nuclear arsenals, or social inequality were silly characters in TV sitcoms now. Forgotten were the idols of her youth—Marx and Trotsky, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, or the Red Brigades. Even questionable ones, like Baader-Meinhoff, Ilich Sánchez, Ingrid Heimlich, Margherita Cagol, or—

Jane froze.

Heimlich!

That was it! Of course! That’s who he’d reminded her of this entire time!

Jane whirled around and gawked at Ben.

He did a faintly startled double-take. “What? Is something—”

You’re Ingrid Heimlich’s son!

What?” Dzenan blurted out and also spun around.

Ben looked at her as if she’d caught him stealing from her purse.“How do you—”

“You’ve got her eyes! And you’re the age her son would be.” She twisted in her seat. “I knew you looked familiar! Good Lord, it’s been driving me mad since the moment I saw you.There were rumors that she’d had a baby in—’72, was it? But no one’s ever gotten hold of you. I can’t tell you how hard I’ve tried to—how hard every media outlet in the world’s tried to—Is your mother—is she alive? Do you know where she is? Where did you grow up? Do you have any—”

She saw Ben’s anguished face and stopped herself. “Forgive me. This is obviously more surprising to me than to you.You must be sick of people reacting when they hear your name and find out who your mother is.”

The tension in his face dissolved.“No.”

“No?”

“I mean—it happens rarely.”

“It—how can that be?”

He gazed at her. “There are, like, two million Heimlichs in Germany,” he said, as if surprised to actually have to spell this out. “And plus, the woman who gave birth to me is, you say—old news? Not many people remember anymore. I mean, not young people.”

“Of course. Sorry,” she said with a smirk, trying not to stare too hard at him.

Unbelievable. The illustrious Frau Heimlich’s son. In the backseat of their car. In sodding war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina, of all places in the world. Life truly was bizarre. Ingrid Heim- lich—born, like Jane, in 1946—was arguably the world’s most enigmatic left-wing terrorist. And she was still at large, despite twenty-three years on the run. Despite multi-million-mark- rewards. Despite Interpol’s relentless hunt. Despite the fact that governments of no less than thirteen countries had outstanding warrants for her arrest. No one had a clue about her where- abouts or what she looked like now—the last known photo- graph of Ingrid Heimlich had been taken back in...1977, if Jane remembered correctly—or if she was even still alive. But loads of rumors about her exploits were still making the rounds. Well. Among “old folks” north of forty at the least.

The R.U.N.—the Red Underground Nation, the terror cell she’d founded back in 1970—had spooked industrialists and chief executives around the world. Roaming round the globe like daring rock stars with machine guns and, if rumors were to be believed, clandestine aid from anti-Western secret service agencies, Ingrid Heimlich and her band of comrades had inspired legions of young activists who’d come of age in Europe’s postwar years. The R.U.N. had hijacked planes, launched bomb attacks, and blackmailed heads of state. They’d published and distributed illegal books. They’d stirred debates on chat shows and in parliaments.They’d roused both bitter hatred and transfigured adoration in divided factions of the populace. And they were despised by every Western government.

Jane knew everything that was publicly known about Ingrid Heimlich. Which wasn’t much. She could not contain herself. “Where were you—born?” she asked, trembling with anxiety.

Ben calmly met her gaze. He looked conflicted, as if deliberating with himself. Then he sighed.“My birth note—how you say—”

“Birth certificate.”

“Yes, birth certificate. It says Damascus.”

“Damascus? Syria?”

“But I don’t remember. Someone left me with my grandmother in West Berlin when I was something like three weeks old.”

Jane’s head spun with questions.“And your grandmother died when you were—six, was it?”

He looked up, surprised. “Yes. How do you—” He stalled, then smirked. “Oh, right. Your generation. They know all about her. Like the people in my age know all the things about Madonna or Tom Cruise or so.”

Jane laughed. “Where did you”—she hesitated to ask, but couldn’t help herself—“where were you raised after she passed away?”

He looked down into his lap. “In a—how do you say—a child home?”

“A child protectory?”

“I think that is what it is called, yes.”

“And when did you—”

A sharp clanking noise reverberated through the cabin of the car, as if a pebble had hit the undercarriage.

Jane turned to Dzenan.“What’d we hit?”

Dzenan checked the rearview mirror. “Don’t know. I see nothing on the road.”

Jane turned back to Ben.“So where did you—”

“Aw, shit!” Dzenan cursed.

Jane turned back to him.“What.”

“Shit, shit, shit!”

What!

Dzenan looked at her, then nodded forward.

Jane peered through the windscreen. A plume of thin white smoke was emanating from beneath the bonnet. “Aw, shit indeed,” she groaned. “Two cars breaking down in one sodding day?”

They pulled over and got out.

Dzenan stepped in front of the car and opened the bonnet. He was about to check the motor when a quiet whirring sound emerged, followed by another piercing clank, near the wheel house, it appeared. Then a distant gunshot echoed through the hazy morning air.

“Incoming,” Jane hissed. She spun around and peered southeast toward a distant forest area from where the round must have come. But she couldn’t see a bloody thing; due to torrential rainfalls in the previous days, the air was thick with haze. She turned back and checked the car. A jagged, coin-sized hole was ripped into the wing. “I’d reckon it was about two seconds between the impact and the sound,” she said. “The shooter’s probably close to a klick away.” She surveyed the environment. They were sitting ducks, standing in the middle of a massive stretch of open pastureland. She grabbed Ben by the arm and pushed him back into the car. “Go.” She summoned Dzenan.

“But the motor’s—”

Go. As far as we can get from whoever’s shot at us. We’re targets in a shooting gallery.”

They got back in—the motor started up immediately, thank God—and sped away, down the dead straight country road toward the distant forest on the lowland’s other side. The smoke from beneath the bonnet got thicker by the second. Jane clenched her teeth and braced herself.

“Who shoots at us?” Ben asked from the backseat.

Jane kept checking the rearview mirror.“No one out here knows who’s shooting whom. It’s a goddamn free-for-all.”

“But—why?”

Jane scoffed. “You serious? How long’ve you been here now!”

“In Sarajevo, three w—”

“I know!” she snapped. “You told me! It’s what’s called a rhetorical question. What I meant is, after having been around here for three weeks, you should’ve picked up on the fact that there is no why. Why does anyone kill anyone? It’s just what arseholes do. Conquer. Plunder. Rape, intimidate, and kill. Something to do with inconsolable anxiety about their tiny knobs, I must presume. Men are just born fucking wankers. No offense, Dzenan.”

“None taken. Total wankers.”

A pause.

“Wankers,” she overheard Ben mumble in the back.

About the author

Born and raised in Germany, Florian Schneider is a former small-time photo journalist turned marginally less small-time advertising photographer. He lives in Southern California with his incredibly impressive Mexican-American wife. view profile

Published on June 15, 2020

Published by

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Literary Fiction

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