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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-one ONCE IN TOLEDO



e was baptized Francisco Maria Sanchez Perez but he couldn’t remember a time when he was not called Paco. Or Paquito. Or even ‘Joputa. At least, as he pulled the lapels of his jacket together, that was what he remembered.

He didn’t much care for the Russians, the Soviets, as they insisted being called, but if he wanted to keep a few worthless coins in his pocket and a few grains of rice in his belly, he had to keep playing nice with them. The NKVD were the worst, and his target was NKVD.

He moved quickly from building to building, the moonlight occasionally reflecting off crystals in his steaming breath. His boots, worn so thin, made almost no sound on the sidewalk. He wasn’t actually sure about the sound; his hearing had been off since his close call several days earlier. He wasn’t panting yet, but breathing heavily, needing to make contact and move under cover of darkness. When dawn came, the Fascist snipers would be back in business, and the odd Messerschmitt would sweep the streets of Toledo with bad intent for anything that moved. So far the winter of 1937 was looking a lot like the fall of 1936.

He wasn’t sure who this “Tovarish” was, certainly fat and red faced like the lot of them back in Madrid, drinking the best red wine and screwing the best whores. They were good about giving orders and pointing you in the best direction to die, but aside from their pilots, not a lot of them were left on the front lines. Not any more at any rate. When they had to cross Franco’s lines, to get back to Madrid, the red wine and the whores, they demanded local escort. Had he done it ten times or a hundred times? He couldn’t remember.

Paco shifted the Moisin-Nagant on his shoulder, wondering why the damn Russians needed to use a whole tree for a gun stock. He was certain that there were bricks in the fore grip, weighing him down. Even the vicious three-edged bayonet made it difficult to maneuver, too damned long. But the Russians sighted them in with the bayonets attached, so they weren’t worth a hill of beans to shoot with it removed.

Paco trotted to the corner of a deserted hotel building, checking the blue tile sign for Calle Espino to confirm he was close to rally point. He tucked himself into the shadows on the street corner. From his position he could see the Alcázar without obstruction, lit brightly now and with spotlights sweeping the south east end of the city, the Hapsburg fortress commanding Toledo from its highest point. He shook his head at how many had died trying to dislodge the Fascists, for nothing. Even killing Moscardó’s son was a waste, not very Republican at all, he thought at the time, but the Soviets had a gun to Madrid’s head and they hated symbols as much as the Fascists. But also he was tired, dead tired, and wasn’t sure he gave a shit any more.

No matter, he thought, Luis Moscardó was dead. Hundreds of Republican troops were dead, and from where he stood to the Casa Labra pub in Madrid, it might as well have been seventy five hundred kilometers as seventy five kilometers. He had a mission, with payment on completion, to find this Tovarish and somehow get him back to Madrid. Paco would let the poets and puppets and Largo Caballero worry about what it all meant.

He needed to cross a few more blocks to the print shop on Calle Trinitarios, where his guest was supposed to be hunkered down. He thought could make it most of the way in alleys, out of sight, but he would have to cross Calle Trinitarios eventually. There was no fiesta after the print shop, as they would need to get down to the Tajo and negotiate the motor-less boat around the south end of the city, under the lights of the Alcázar, and westward beneath the bridges to the break in the Fascist lines. It was a long shot, but still a safer bet than a Soviet NKVD officer strolling down Avenido de Madrid.

Still, Paco wasn’t going to get surprised again. He wasn’t sure how the Fascists had spotted him, let alone how they almost managed to drop a German 88 round on his head. Maybe they were using it for anti-aircraft and a shell fell on him by pure luck. Maybe some gilipollas actually sighted it in on him. This part of the city was almost empty, not a lot of movement. He didn’t know. Paco wasn’t exactly sure how long he was out. It took a few hours after he opened his eyes before he could see straight again. He still had a faint ringing in his ears. Paco wasn’t sure if he slept, but he knew he hadn’t been awake. He was still so tired he couldn’t have slept, certainly not well.

Paco blamed the Russians as much as the Germans and the Fascists, but he wasn’t on Franco’s payroll, so he needed to keep moving. He turned down the alley behind the hotel and moved with his jacket scraping along the building. He moved carefully but not slowly, uncertain how long his guest would wait. He had probably been there a day already. Maybe more or less. He was tired, but needed to keep moving.

It may have been minutes or hours, but he moved to within sight of the print shop. The street lights were out, but the periodic sweep of search beams from the Alcázar gave him just enough lumens to see the sign out front. The plate glass had been shattered long ago and was now covered with boards. But the red paint stripe across the shingle style sign told him he had arrived.

Paco waited for the last pass of the spotlight and moved quickly to the front door of the print shop. He knocked in the code he was instructed, then waited.


He knocked again, louder this time.


He cursed. He looked down at this left wrist and remembered that he lost his watch in the shell blast, and had no idea what time it was.

One more try, he thought, and knocked again with the bottom of his fist.

“No pasarán,” someone croaked in a Russian accent.

Paco laughed. “You better let me pass if you want to get the hell out of Toledo. Hurry, open the door.”

In seconds the lock crunched and the hinges squealed as the door swung open. Paco saw a pale faced man in a poorly fitting suit, silhouetted by a single, sad candle, standing inside.

“I can’t wait for you to invite me,” Paco said, entering quickly.

“Stop!” the man barked, and Paco noticed the austere Tokarev pistol in his hand.

“What the hell are you doing?” Paco hissed.

“Who are you?” the Russian asked. His Spanish was heavily accented.

“I am me. Who are you?”

“Show me your papers,” said the Russian.

“You show me your papers, ‘joputa.”

They stared at each other.

“Madrid has given me orders to get Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Ivan’ich Stravinsky of the NKVD out of Toledo and back to Madrid,” Paco said.

The Russian looked the Spaniard up and down. In the dim light, Paco could see that he had sharp, angular features, and looked, in his mind, more Germanic than Slavic.

“Where are your papers?”

“I have been living in my own filth for two weeks trying to get to you. I wiped my ass with them days ago,” Paco growled. “Do you want to go to Madrid or not?”

Behind him spotlights swept the street again.

Stravinsky lowered his weapon. “I don’t suppose I have any choice.”

Paco exhaled. “We must move quickly, Tovarish. When the sun comes up the Fascists will be flying over this part of town again.”

“Where have you been?” Stravinsky tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants. “I’ve been freezing my ass off in here.”

“It’s a dangerous place out there, Tovarish,” said Paco. “I’m tired.”

“All right, let’s go then,” Stravinsky grabbed a small canvas bag from the floor.

“OK, you need to follow closely,” Paco said. “We are going to move east, through the alleys and head toward the Tajo. There is a small boat and we will float it down the river under the bridges and out of the city. A few kilometers past the Peraleda Bridge, we will move overland north.”

The Russian shrugged. “We have little time until dawn now.”

Paco looked down at his left wrist again. Still no watch.

“What time is it?”

“Almost 5 am,” said Stravinsky.

It couldn’t be that late, Paco thought. Could it?

“Let’s move out of here then. We need to get closer to the river. If we have to hole up one more day, it may be safer.”

“I’m starved,” said Stravinsky. “I haven’t eaten in days. I’ve only had a mouthful of water.”

“I don’t know the last time I’ve eaten or drank,” said Paco. Thinking about it, his stomach growled and he smacked his lips, tasting dust. “I’m hungry too, like I haven’t eaten in years. But I can’t help you with that yet. We need to move.”

The Russian frowned but did not speak. He motioned his head toward the door.

“Stay close,” Paco said. He waited as spotlights swept the second floor, then stepped outside.

He moved quickly with Stravinsky one pace behind. Paco shifted the weight of the rifle on his shoulder and ducked into another alley just worth of the print shop.

The two men moved with a hand against the wall to guide them. They headed east, toward the river and escape.

There was no sound now in this part of Toledo, except for their footfalls. Darkness still cloaked them, but also, Paco thought, the Fascist snipers who could be hiding on rooftops or in upper story windows. Night had not taken a side in the conflict.

Paco wasn’t sure how long it took them to reach Avenida Castilla La Mancha, the last major road they would need to cross. From there it was a short distance through the trees to the river bank where Paco had hidden the boat.

Directly across the street, Paco saw a church. It looked very familiar, obviously, since he had passed it on the way in.

Hadn’t he?

Stravinsky elbowed him and pointed. One of the double doors in front was askew; a dull glow escaped into the street. “Do we have a few minutes? Let’s go in and see if they haven’t anything to eat or drink. They’ve got to have something, yes?”

Paco focused his eyes. No, this church was familiar. Maybe in the darkness…he looked upward and to the east. A light grey aura was emerging, coloring the edges of the buildings. Dawn was not far off; the first tendrils of light would creep past the buildings into the city.

Where did he remember that church?

Paco had grown up in Toledo, but far to the west, close to the Peraleda Bridge. He had been down this street before, a thousand times. Is that why he remembered the church? Who cared? This part of town was still largely deserted, too dangerous for either side, or for civilians.

Paco hadn’t been to Mass in at least fifteen years, at least since he turned eighteen and moved out of his parents’ flat. His ass was beaten plenty of times by priests and nuns in school, and he never did really pick up the Latin of the Mass. He was no Communist, though, or Anarchist, and he was very uncomfortable with the violence the left had unleashed on the Church. Not that the Church didn’t have it coming, he thought, but they had gone too far. Killing priests and nuns didn’t help anyone’s cause and gave the Fascists an excuse for their own atrocities in the name of God. But he wasn’t in charge, and it was 75 kilometers to Madrid. He was very tired, very sleepy, and he wanted to find a bath and a bottle and a giant bowl of cocido and a black haired madrileña as soon as possible and sleep for a week or a month. But they needed to keep moving and let the Church take care of itself.

“No, we need to move.”

“I’m starving. We need to stop for a minute. You were the one who was late,” hissed the Soviet.

“No, we…” Paco stopped in mid-sentence as Stravinsky broke cover and ran for the church doors.

On the steps, Stravinsky slowed and drew the Tokarev from his waistband. He extended the gun, pushed open the door slowly and disappeared.

“Mierda!” Paco cursed as he crossed the street. He slowed as he climbed the stone stairs.

He held the rifle in both hands at his right hip and walked into the church.

Stravinsky hadn’t gotten far. Standing in the narthex, he stood gawking at the interior.

Paco strode next to him, looking around himself. The church was newer, by Spanish standards; probably built in the middle of the previous century. The interior was dark, lit only by a handful of candles throughout the nave and several on the altar. The construction was brick and block with paneling, a dark stained wood, that seemed to suck up the little light given off by the sputtering flames. Wooden statues of the panoply of Catholic saints ringed the nave and pews in the aisles. A statue of the Virgin Maria, in her light blue mantel, stood to the left of the altar, and to her side, San Patricio, astride a nest of snakes. Opposite her was her husband, Jose, the original Pepe, and to his side stood San Miguel, his spear pointed at the head of a devil prostrate before him. Above the altar, Christ was crucified once again, nailed to a crude wooden cross. A simply painted sign, INRI, had faded from years of display. The altar itself was a simple table of three marble pieces, covered with a dirty white corporal. On the corporal were a simple silver chalice and a bronze colored ciborium.

Stravinsky tapped Paco on the chest with his left hand and gestured toward the altar with his head. A small, hunched over figure knelt in front of the altar.

Paco shrugged. Stravinsky shook his head, then gestured again toward the altar. Paco squinted a bit at what appeared to be a pile of rags or a duffel bag to the side of the kneeling figure.

“Hola,” Stravinsky called out. The small figure lifted its head and rose.

It was a priest, a small man, Paco saw, maybe 150 or 155 centimeters tall at most. He had greasy black hair slicked almost flat to his head, and thick framed glasses. He wore a black sweater and black shirt with, of course, his Roman collar. He moved, or rather shuffled, into the center aisle. He was wearing dingy black pants, sandals and black socks with holes in each big toe. He did not speak.

“Do you have any food?” Stravinsky asked in a loud voice. The sound echoed in the chamber, bouncing off the stone floors and ceiling.

The priest held his hands at his side, then turned them palm up. “No, there is no food left. I was saying Mass by myself.”

Stravinsky strode toward him confidently. Paco moved up behind, rifle still on his hip.

“There must be food in here,” Stravinsky said, less loudly than before. “You still look fat. A fat little Papist pig.”

The priest shrugged. “I wish there were food and I would not be so hungry.”

Stravinsky came to an abrupt halt. Just a few rows of pews from the altar, he could discern that the duffel bag was actually a dead soldier. Stravinsky raised the Tokarev and pointed it at the priest. He walked toward the body.

“Looks like UGT militia. How did he get here?”

The priest looked first at Paco, then Stravinsky. “He just walked in with someone.”

“When?” Stravinsky demanded.

“Yesterday,” said the priest.

Stravinsky moved, towering over the priest by more than 30 centimeters. The Soviet could see at least four more bodies between the first and second row of pews. He pointed with the Tokarev. “What about these?”

“The day before,” said the priest. His voice quavered a bit. “They just walked in too.”

“Just walked in?” said Stravinsky. He approached the body near the altar and turned it over. Paco could see the corpse was slashed and mutilated, gaping wounds that reminded him of shrapnel or something worse.

“How did they end up like this?” asked Stravinsky.

“Someone…someone killed them,” whispered the priest.

“Someone?” shouted Stravinsky. “Someone should have killed you. It’s a shame we only got half of you in this cesspool of a city. Rapists and pillagers, draining the blood of the peasants.”

Stravinsky leaned into the priest, as if he would kiss him, their noses almost touching. “Do you know what I do for a living, you little pig?”

The priest began to tremble as he shook his head no.

“I make Papist filth like you tell the truth. Your lies may work on your bourgeoisie pig followers, but not me. I’ve broken a hundred like you in Madrid already, and I’m headed back to break a thousand more if I can. Do you know how much I would love to peel off your fingernails and shove them down your lying throat?”

The priest pressed his lips together tightly. He looked at Paco and then back at Stravinsky.

“Come on, we have to get you out of here. The Fascists will be rolling through town at dawn.”

Stravinsky walked between the pews and examined the other bodies. “Yes, UGT militia. Well intentioned simpletons, but terrible soldiers.”

“Let’s go, Tovarish. Someone else will need to figure this out.”

Stravinsky stood. “So where is the food, piglet?”

“I have no food,” said the priest. “I have been cut off for over a week.”

Stravinsky left the pews and walked up the center aisle.

“What’s in the cup and the dish?” He pointed again with the Tokarev.

The priest’s eyes widened, and with sudden and surprising quickness, he interposed himself between the Russian and the altar.

“That is the Eucharist! It is consecrated!”

Stravinsky laughed. “It’s crackers and wine, you little worm. You said you had no food.”

“It is consecrated. It is no longer…”

Stravinsky was almost on top of the smaller man.

“We believe it is no longer bread and wine. It is the body and blood of Christ,” said the priest.

Stravinsky tossed his head back and roared with laughter. “Magic and fairy tales! I’m starved. Get out of my way…”

The priest threw his arms out to block the Russian.

“If you make an Act of Contrition, I will give you Communion,” he said. He looked at Paco.

Paco shifted the rifle in his hands, but felt paralyzed.

“Get out of my way, piglet,” said Stravinsky.

The priest backed up until he was pressed against the altar, his hands still outspread.

“Make an Act of Contrition and I will give you Communion,” he said.

“I confess…that I’m going to stick my pistol up your ass and pull the trigger,” said Stravinsky, still laughing.

He pushed the priest, who staggered but held his ground, his hands were still outstretched.

Stravinsky turned and grinned at Paco. “Aren’t you hungry?”

Paco was frozen. The Moisin Nagant was heavy in his hands and his shoulder ached but he couldn’t move.

The Soviet swung the pistol at the priest, and struck the smaller man in the head. The priest crumbled in front of the altar, a line of blood seeping from his forehead.

Stravinsky reached for the chalice and lifted it to look inside. He raised the cup to his nose and sniffed. He then held it away from his body, and spoke to the motionless priest. “Na Zdorovie!”

Paco tried to move his feet, tried to scream but couldn’t. He could only watch.

The Russian raised the chalice to his lips.

Stravinsky’s eyes widened as the tip of a spear emerged from his right shoulder. His arm went slack, the chalice slamming onto the altar.

Stravinsky turned slowly to see the statue of San Miguel pulling back on the spear, withdrawing it from his flesh.

Stravinsky’s mouth gaped and he staggered backward. The statue shook and a massive pair of white wings emerged from its back, spreading to nearly 4 meters across.

Stravinsky screamed and took another step backward. He raised the Tokarev with his left hand and fired at the statue.

The slugs struck San Miguel’s chest and glanced off, the report of the blasts painfully loud, filling the sanctuary.

The statue raised the spear over its head and took two menacing steps toward Stravinsky. The Tokarev’s slide locked open over an empty magazine. Stravinsky toppled backward over the priest, still lying in a heap in front of the altar.

Stravinsky scrambled to his feet. San Miguel thrust the spear at him again, piercing his chest near to his left shoulder. Stravinsky’s left arm fell useless to his side, the Tokarev clattering to the floor.

The statue drew the spear back again. San Miguel grasped the spear in two hands and thrust again. The point struck the Russian under his rib cage on his right side. Stravinsky looked at the shaft helplessly. He screamed until his breath gurgled.

The statute thrust again, the point of the spear poking out of Stravinsky’s back. Blood poured from the entry and exit wounds. Stravinsky’s mouth opened and closed without a sound.

The statute rotated the shaft 90 degrees and with a single violent tug, pulled the spear out of Stravinsky’s body. The spearhead emerged with a half meter section of the Russian’s small intestine.

Stravinsky collapsed straight down, blood bubbling on his lips. San Miguel turned and faced Paco.

Paco moved toward the statue. He tried to stop himself, but his legs betrayed him. “No, please, no!”

San Miguel held the spear in both hands, the tip aimed directly at Paco’s heart.

“Please, no,” Paco said. He tried to stop walking, but couldn’t. He held the Moisin Nagant in front of him with two hands, still on his hip, but he couldn’t move his arms.

The statue held the spear tip to Paco’s heart. Paco could feel the sharp point pressing through his jacket and shirt against the skin of his chest.

Paco closed his eyes and fell to his knees, slipping in the spreading pool of Stravinsky’s blood. He felt the spear point release, then heard shuffling feet.

“Make your confession and I will give you Communion,” said the priest.

He opened his eyes to find the priest standing before him, holding the ciborium in his left hand and a Communion wafer in his right.

“What?” Paco croaked.

“Make an Act of Contrition and I will give you Communion,” the priest repeated.

Paco shook his head. The statue of San Miguel was back in place, motionless.

“What happened?” said Paco.

“Terrible things happen in war,” said the priest. “Make your Act of Contrition.”

Paco’s mind reeled. He struggled to grasp what had just transpired. Did his eyes deceive him?

“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The priest spoke softly, then made the sign of the Cross with his right hand.

He extended the wafer to Paco and he took it on his tongue.

“Put down the rifle, son,” the priest said softly.

Paco looked down at the Moisin Nagant, still tightly clutched in both hands.

The bayonet was covered in blood and gore.

His hands began to tremble.

“What happened?”

“You are forgiven,” said the priest. “You can put down the rifle.”

Paco stood but did not release the rifle.

“The statue killed him. I saw it,” said Paco.

“You say so,” said the priest.

Paco rose and stumbled over to Stravinsky’s corpse. He lay wide eyed in death, hands clutched to the wound in his right side.

Blood dripped from his bayonet onto Stravinsky’s rumpled suit.

“How?” Paco asked.

The smaller man did not respond.

“And the others?”

“You brought them here over the past couple of days…”

“How?” His mind reeled. “How?”

“Put down the rifle,” said the priest.

“How?” yelled Paco. “How? How? How?”

“Terrible things happen in war, son.”

Paco looked again at the rifle, the wicked bayonet slick and dripping with viscera.

He dropped the rifle to the floor with a clatter.

Paco brought forth a helpless cry then ran, bursting through the church doors into the dawn’s early light.

He did not notice the single drop of blood fall from the spear onto the feet of the statue of San Miguel.




You have heard the story of Milt Johns many times before...he writes fiction for a living, but dreams of a career as a petty office bureaucrat. Actually, Milt is a father, husband, attorney, local politician, and author. His publications include two novels, Patriot Future: A Novel, Lyford Books, July 1997 and Fear and Greed, Amazon Books, February 2012, He is also published in nonfiction: “Introduction to U.S. Intellectual Property Law,” 11 Software Tech News 2, August 2008 and “The Reagan Administration's Response to State Sponsored Terrorism,” 8 Conflict 4, 1988. He is currently working on his third novel, a legal thriller, and writes poetry when the spirit moves him.

He has argued before the Supreme Court of Virginia, been awarded a medal by the Government of Spain, completed the Army 10 Miler, and was appointed by the Governor of Virginia to the Board of Visitors at Radford University.

Milt is a co-founder and chief operating officer of PJPF, Inc. and a contributing editor to The Piedmont Journal of Poetry & Fiction.

In his free time, Milt likes to eat, sleep, shoot, and watch college football.

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