Gaelle turned away from the man in the car and stepped out onto the sidewalk, the money in her hand. The instant she slammed the door, she was sure of it. They were coming for her. The black cars on the avenue seemed to be a funeral procession, their movement oddly ponderous and mysterious, too. She had sold information, and yet, at the time she had done it, the future had seemed so impossibly distant, but now, of course, it arrived like claustrophobia. Perhaps the next car would be the one she was afraid of, and if not that, then maybe the one after. She guessed they would slash her, but if she was lucky they wouldn’t do that or spend any time “talking” to her. Perhaps they would send a woman to kill her, but would that be any better?
It wasn’t the actual being dead, she told herself, that mattered so much as how she got that way. That’s why she hated knowing that it was coming, since it exaggerated her fear, the glint of the knife, the expression of malice, the frankness of the job. Perhaps she would be able to make them pay a price, since she had a small knife in her bag, but a lot of informers had carried knives, and what good had it done them? And she had heard rumors, too, that some of the women in the park had been blinded before they had been killed.
She hugged her shoulders and stood there, trying to find a way to cheer herself up. It was only a matter of going back to the darkness of the time before she had been born, but then this left her trembling, since she knew the darkness before she was born was a matter of coming toward the light, but now, if she entered it again (no, when she entered it again) she would be going away from the light. Please, she thought. Please. Then she stood there and trembled. It was the knives that got to her. How long did she have, one hour, two, a night? Maybe even an extra day.
The men who had come to see her, and a couple of the women, too, had tried to impress her, even though she had been paid. They had bragged about what they had done, what they were going to do, how much money was coming from Moscow, what lies the Brownshirts were going to tell, where arms were being stored. She had traded all of it, to the left and to the right, and she hadn’t done so badly, either, that is in terms of money. At least she had her funeral-society dues paid up to Immertreu, one of the Rings, or gangs, in the city.
Gaelle suspected there was a difference in military terms between being a source of information, a sort of glorified gossip, and a spy. Spies were taken out and shot. Or worse. Maybe they talked to a spy for a while first. But in the end it came down to the same thing. And each group had an army. The Socialists, who were trying to run the government, had the Reichsbanner. Then there were the Brownshirts. The Communists had the Red Front Fighters. There were other vaguely military groups, too, the Steel Helmets, Organization Consul, Organization Escherich. She had spied for all of them, or she guessed she had, since often she only knew that a bit of information had been important, but not to whom or why.
Felix smiled at her as she came away from the car, and even in this light his bad teeth were visible. He was sixteen years old, his jacket a little too large for him, but it didn’t make him seem like a child in a coat, but a man who had shrunk. You could see it in his tired, cagey eyes, and in his face, too, which was like that of a feral creature who knew that the most important quality was patience. His fingers touched a button on Gaelle’s blouse and then undid it to expose her underwear.
She gave him the money she had just made, and he reached into his pocket for the other bills and folded the new ones into the pile.
“It’s about like last night,” he said. “Maybe a little slower. But it’ll pick up after midnight. That’s when the gentlemen come out. Why, they may have to spend a little time drinking to get up their courage, but they’re good tippers, you know?”
Gaelle glanced at him uneasily and said, “Yeah. Late. That’s always the way.”
He was beginning to develop some peach fuzz and a little acne, too. Six months before she had found him looking for food in a trash can and had taken him to a restaurant. When he had finished a bowl of soup, a plate of sausages, boiled potatoes, and cabbage, he had said, “Now, why would you do something like that?” He had pointed at the empty bowl. “Why would you waste money on food for someone like me?”
“You’ve got to eat,” she had said. “Why, I’ve been hungry myself. After a couple of days you think about eating your shoes. You’ve got to eat something. Why, I may be trouble but I’m not so bad as to leave you hungry.”
His eyes had widened for a moment, but his surprise, which seemed innocent, only allowed a deeper look into that wary darkness. He shook his head as though someone had hit him with a stick. “Oh, you’d buy me food? You shouldn’t do that. No, you shouldn’t, my cream puff.” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “That is an unnecessary expense. We will cut down on unnecessary expenses.” The bottom of the bowl had a little broth in it and he tipped it up to get that. Then he had said, “You and me. We can do some business.”
“You think so?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “You could use a little help.”
He lifted his pants and showed the holder he had made for the ice pick he carried inside his sock. The handle was taped to give him a good grip, and he pulled it out to show the tip, which had been ground on the curbs and stone sidewalks of Berlin. The tip showed like a star in the night sky. Then he put it away. The ice pick made him more trustworthy, or dangerous, although Gaelle saw the two as being intimately related.
He had started right away, holding the money, negotiating a price, mak- ing sure her clothes were clean and that she ate something when she forgot. He had been living in an abandoned building with some other boys his age.
Gaelle turned back to the avenue where the cars came along with that casual searching. She hadn’t thought of the information as a betrayal so much as a way of making a little extra money. And she liked the idea of having something serious on someone. It could work to protect you, or it could turn into a good reason for someone to get rid of you. She had thought it would work for protection, and now she saw that wasn’t anywhere near as likely as she had supposed.
So she stood there, looking at the lights, trying to judge which were looking for excitement and which were looking for her in particular.
“You look worried,” said Felix. “What’s bothering you?”
Gaelle just shrugged. She thought about that glint.
“I know,” said Felix. “Why, people think they can get away with things, that we’re just a limping boy and a girl with a scar.” He looked around. “Oh, I know how to look like I’m keeping my place. But they better be careful.”
“I’ve got things on my mind,” she said.
Well, he thought, maybe a gravelstone was allowed to be moody, but these women with a deformity of one kind or another had value in the nighttime market of Berlin. That’s something he could depend on.
“You’re not eating,” he said. “And you got to keep your clothes better . . .”
She wished she could go home and get into the hot water of her bath, where she looked at herself in the mirrors around the tub. Nothing had happened to her body. That was the same, even better now: she was thin, small breasted, blond, twenty-two years old. The scar on one side of her face had changed her forever, but in the slick skin of the burn her features seemed about to emerge, and it was this suggestion of metamorphosis that people craved. People saw something trying to get out, and whatever this quality was, it made them gasp. Her scar was like seeing a movie star through filmy silk that hinted at a beauty greater than the one that might actually be seen when the silk was dropped. This possibility of emerging loveliness, at once contradictory and compelling, brought the high prices she charged in nighttime Berlin. Her face suggested everything that was beautiful and yet doomed. It was a perfect expression of the erotic, or of that tension between the impulse to live and the forces arrayed against it.
She had a wild desire to go home, too, to her parents’ apartment with its solid furniture, its tables and a sofa with lion’s feet, the pictures of hanging game on the wall, the scent of cologne that her father, an assistant manager in a bank, wore when he went out the door in his striped trousers, his vest, his dark coat. Her mother was always glad to see her, and wanted nothing more than to be in Gaelle’s presence, as though if the two of them could be together, why then there was hope. Still, the scar, which Gaelle had gotten in an automobile accident two years before, had changed everything: as far as her parents were concerned, the scar was evidence of a curse, of a lack of hope, of how they had been deceived by what they had assumed was the progression of ordinary life. Gaelle still felt the odd swaying of the automobile before it had turned sideways and rolled over and then the colognelike coolness of gasoline on the side of her face.
A car swept up to the curb with a slow, tidal movement, its brakes perfectly silent. A driver in front and one dark figure in back. Beyond the car the trees in the Tiergarten appeared like enormous black feathers against the lights of the city. The driver reached over and stared out the passenger window, as though he wasn’t sure this was the right place, but after a while he crooked one of his white fingers. Come here.
Gaelle wanted to ask for help, but it occurred to her that maybe it was better to say nothing. Maybe they might grab Felix first, and the less he was on his guard, the more he would operate like a canary in a basket in a coal mine. If they grabbed him, she’d try to disappear into the shadows, or run into the Tiergarten, getting rid of her shoes first.
“Go on,” she said. “See what they want.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Informer by Craig Nova. Copyright © 2010 by Craig Nova. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.