S-21 was a former high school turned into the Tuol Sleng prisonby the Khmer Rouge.
The Cambodians called it “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” (the place where people go in but never come out).
Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng.
Only six are known to have survived.
I placed my finger on my king and gently toppled him. Dr. Tartov studied the board.
“You revealed yourself in your opening,” he said. “The Latvian Gambit is almost never employed by black because it allows such an early advantage for white. I was surprised to see it because it is always reserved for tournaments, and only employed then to display contempt. You are not a tournament player and could not, of course, know this. It is an arrogant opening, one I had not seen in many years. But, as you found out, I know how to deal with it.”
As always happens when a dictator falls, there were rumors that he had escaped. Conflicting reports of the exeution, confusing photographs, a lack of a gravesite. He had held us in his wicked grip for twenty-five years. Countless victims arrested and tortured, thousands shot or merely vanished, Romania turned to a nation of informers leaping at shadows.
As the dust of history settles, certain things are always revealed. Secrets seldom die with their keepers. A chance meeting in Paris fifteen years ago had started me on this quest, and now I stand before him at last, this infamous tyrant consigned to the history books as a mere footnote to a crumbled empire.
He has asked me here to help confer a different kind of immortality than the one he now possesses, to write a story so fantastic it will be widely read, yet never proven.
Even in the candlelight I see he has not aged a day since 1989.
Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania with an iron fist from 1965 until the collapse of Eastern Bloc communism in 1989. Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled, but were captured and shot by a hastily assembled firing squad on Christmas Day at an army base near Targoviste.
The bodies were buried without fanfare, causing many Romanians and remaining family members to doubt whether the graves in Bucharest actually contained the dictator’s remains, or any remains at all.
Is it just me, or does this man look like a vampire?
On July 11, 1804, the most famous duel in American history was fought between Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexender Hamilton. The meeting took place on a New Jersey cliff overlooking the Hudson River.
Eyewitness accounts vary. Pendleton, Hamilton’s second, said his principal fired deliberately into a tree, but Burr’s second said it was merely a misfire. They both agree that Burr remained upright while Hamilton fell, clutching a .54-caliber wound to the abdomen that shattered his liver, diaphragm and spine. Thirty-six hours later he was dead.
I cruised the Lower Ninth in my rented Ford, first time back since Katrina. Everything was gone.
When I found it at last, Jeffus sat high on his porch sipping julep from his big tin cup. House looked much the same, though the boards was new and the paint fresher. “How was your house spared so?” I asked.
He cackled up. “Child, this ain’t the same house. This here the Rodney’s place from down the street, there on the corner. My old house got knocked atumble and floated off. This here one stayed upright and floated close, so we jacked her up onto the footings and set to fixing her. Took nigh three years, but we got her done.”
“What the Rodneys say?”
Jeffus took a long swallow, then gave me his squint. “All them Rodneys is gone. Kilt or lost, but not a one of them ever come back here.”
In the 2000 U.S. census, 98 percent of Lower 9th Ward residents identified themselves as black, and of those, a little over half lived in households that earned $19,999 or less per year. It was a place rich in culture and heritage, home to musicians and artists who often inherited the small four-square houses from relatives. The Lower Ninth was a place apart, cut off from the city proper by a shipping channel.
During Hurricane Katrina, the Industrial Canal’s flood walls gave way and water surged through the neighborhood and pushed hundreds of houses off their foundations. Water up to 12 feet deep stood in some areas for weeks. It was the last neighborhood to have power and water service restored, and the last to be pumped dry.
Today, there’s a feeling of desolation on nearly every block of the predominantly African-American neighborhood. Block after block of empty lots, jagged foundations and tangled brush where there had once been one of the great Amercian neighborhoods. Less than 37% of its residents had returned a decade later.
George greeted me with his usual smile, ushered me up onto the shoe bench as he got out the tin and rag, his long fingers deft and surprisingly unstained.
“You still got any shoes with me?” he said, peering up. “I know I had those oxfords.”
“No, you finished them last month.” I looked at the wall crowded with pictures, framed clippings, awards. George and the mayor, George and the governor, George and the chief of police. Everybody came here for a shine. “How long has it been again?”
“I been doing this seventy years,” he said. “Long enough.”
This story is inspired by George Manias, who has run a shoeshine and hat cleaning store in downtown Peoria since 1948. Unlike this story, George’s is still open. He wants to make 75. I think he’ll make it.
She’d been awake for a long time when the knock came.
“Come in,” she called.
“I’m sorry to wake you, ma’am. We haven’t yet set a schedule––”
“Please. Stop. No apologies.” She threw back the covers and stood, surveying the room as the orderly opened the curtains to let the January sunlight spill through the tall windows. “So much history,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” said the orderly.
Dressed and breakfasted, she walked into the Oval Office and stood for a moment. So many years to get here, the arduous forever campaign that really started, if she was honest, in grade school.
The Chief of Staff opened the side door. “Good morning, Ms. President.” He held a clipboard. “Before we get started, somebody important is waiting to meet you.”
A most unusual man came in, seven feet tall with a gray oblong head and tilted obsidian eyes. He extended a long hand. “Ms. President.”
The walls and floor are of fitted stone, the elm ceiling beams adzed from trees long perished. In a corner is a basin chiseled from river rock. An iron pipe juts from the wall and drips into the basin, each drop a musical note in the stillness.
The silence is immense except for the basin’s drip and the sometime whisper of a snake moving across the floor.
The boy knows from books that snakes are creatures who wish only to be left alone. They will not trouble him here. This has become his place. He will tell no one about it.
You have of course heard of the Koh-i-Noor, the famous Mountain of Light. It is said this diamond was carried through history on a torrent of men’s blood, and that any male who possesses it will add his own to the river.
Legend tells us the stone was mined from Galconda by King Alauddin Khalji. Babur the Mughal received it as a spoil and was assassinated by a rival. His great grandson presented the stone to the Afghan Shah Durrani, who wore it as a bracelet while losing his life in battle. Son to son it passed, each new owner meeting a grisly fate.
The defeated Maharaja of Lahore presented the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria as a peace offering. She commanded it be set as the centerpiece of the Royal Crown of Great Britain.
Is it mere coinicidence that the only two long-reigning British monarchs since this event have been women?
This story is inspired by a novel I am reading, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Mountain of Light. In this book, the narrator recounts how Britain barely retained possession of its chief colonly during the 1849 Anglo-Sikh war. The Koh-i-Noor serves as a touchstone for his recollection and is glimpsed throughout the story.
A reporter from an anti-establishment newspaper in Seattle once asked a 67-year-old Jacques Cousteau if he had faith in anything. Cousteau gave a strange reply: “I believe in the instant.” Cousteau’s wholesome public image was at odds with his private conduct, which included a taste for fame, multiple mistresses, and at least two illegitimate children he refused to acknowledge.