Karpen the Jew can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



AFTERWARDS, the newspapers screamed that John Albertson, president of Consolidated American Steel, accidentally had fallen to his death from a window of his suite on the sixth floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco. Four monstrously important diplomats swore to it.

I was there. Karpen was there also. It didn't happen like that. Probably the diplomats believed what they said and they looked at me with amazement afterwards and called me a liar. They said they had never seen me before. Okay. Select the truth for yourself. But I'm telling it my way because Brenda, she of the gardenia skin and the deeply exciting eyes, had a baby this morning and I fear to watch that baby grow, for it is also the child of Karpen the Jew and I wonder how very long it might live.

I met Karpen through Silverstein, the third night before Christmas Eve. Silverstein was violently shivering, although the fog was not particularly cold that night. I let him in and he sat down, shivering, holding his hat between his knees, and" said, "Have you got a drink, Jack?"

"Why, yes. Of course."

I gave him the bottle and he chose a water glass and drank whisky from it. I thought a slug that size would knock him cold, he shook so badly, but it didn't.

"You read the newspapers?" Silverstein asked. He was state executioner at San Quentin, the guy who operated the lethal gas chamber, and I'd met him in a beer joint. I will meet anybody, provided he is not fighting ugly from drink, and I'll listen to anybody, if he will talk, particularly in beer joints. I had known Silverstein thirteen months.

"I do read 'em," I said coldly, because Silverstein certainly couldn't have forgotten I was a newspaperman.

He said, "This morning we tried to execute Karpen," and looked at me with the dark brown eyes of his race almost starting from his head.

His words had had a shock punch behind them, and I'd felt it.

"Tried?"

Suddenly Silverstein let his head fall forward where his hands could hold it, and he began to sob. "I tell you!" he said with a gasp. "We tried at ten A.M. on the dot. The lever did not fail. You know how the chamber works? I trip this little lever, see, and a cyanide egg drops into sulphuric acid, and that makes the gas. But within a few seconds I knew there was something wrong. Karpen failed to squirm. He didn't choke nor gasp, the horrible way they do," Silverstein said. "Nothing happened whatever. And there the gas was, rising round him—"

I TOLD Silverstein to take more whisky, and when he realized what I was talking about, he did. He gulped the whisky from the water glass and it didn't hit him. It only made him hold on to himself a little.

Silverstein said, "I watched the indicators, I tell you! Enough gas to kill a herd of elephants. We blew the chamber out and Karpen smiled. We put a white rat in there with him and dropped another cyanide egg and the rat ran about, frantic, squeaking, and went into convulsions and died. But Karpen kept on smiling. After twenty minutes they took Karpen back to his cell. I—I went to see him there."

Abruptly Silverstein's voice was a horrified whisper. "I hadn't really looked at Karpen in the death chamber, but I looked at him now and—so help me!—I remembered him from some time long, long ago! I had never seen him during all my life, but I remembered him. From some time long, long ago," Silverstein whispered.

"They were going to try again at ten o'clock tonight. But"—and here his voice rose to an almost uncontrolled screech— "they didn't."

I looked at my clock. Twelve minutes past ten nu. My reason told me that Silverstein could not possibly know whether the execution had been attempted a second time, or not; because you can't cross the bay from San Quentin to San Francisco in anything even close to twelve minutes. Karpen, I knew, was a murderer, condemned to death for the apparently unprovoked slaying oi an international banker.

"Why not?" I said.

"Because—I let Karpen out," Silverstein said. "I—I remembered Karpen the Jew from some time long, long ago. I tell you I remembered Karpen the Jew!" the man screamed.

I said, "Excuse me," and started out into the hall where I had a telephone. I figured he was nuts. I figured I could shut the door into the hall and call some help. You never know what a nut might do—especially a nut who has been earning a living as an executioner. Nobody, I thought, can "let" a condemned murderer out of San Quentin, except a court or the California governor.

"Don't telephone," Silverstein said dully. "It's not what you think. I've got my right mind."

I don't know why I believed him. I came back and stood in the middle of my living room.

"Why do you come, now, to me, Silverstein?"

"Because you are my friend," be said, "the only one I have."

From his manner I guessed there was something else. He was holding something back.

"What else?"

"Because Karpen said your name," Silverstein strangely replied, lifting his head. "Karpen is waiting outside in the hall. Can he come in?"

WELL, that was something, all right. Perhaps you know that feeling when your spine seems suddenly to chill and the hairs rise on the back of your neck and between your shoulder blades. A condemned killer, fugitive from a death house, waiting outside in my hall. Wanting to come in. A killer whom I'd never seen in the flesh although I knew his features quite well from pictures-but who could have been acquainted with my own name only through some circumstance unknown to me. Can he come in?

"Has he got a gun?" I said.

"Why no. No, of course not," Silverstein said, and queerly added: "I think he does not need a gun."

I did. I needed a gun and I had one. I got it out of my desk and put it in my right coat pocket. I said, "Open the door."

Silverstein obeyed and Karpen the J...

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