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The Final Testament
Short Tales about Deadly Books
By Peter Blauner
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2013 Peter Blauner
All rights reserved.
The doctor's hands were trembling as he took the clutching end of the clothes-pin and put it in his mouth. On some days, there was no other way to negotiate past the pain that caused his jaws to lock up. Carefully, he pushed the head of the pin past his lips, up to his gums, and then tried to wedge it between his clenched teeth.
Fighting back tears, he began to bargain. A dull, persistent throb he could accept if he could stay off the morphine and maintain a clear mind. The occasional hot skewer up through the cheekbone could be borne, even as his eyes blurred with tears. What he quietly feared was overwhelming, incapacitating anguish that would render him finally useless and put the work of his life at a permanent end.
It was autumn of 1938 and the news on the radio was not good. The Germans had crossed the border into Austria in March, meeting no resistance. He had tried to tell himself that this could be lived with. But then had come the introduction of the racial laws and the decrees that all Jewish assets were assumed to be improperly acquired and therefore subject to confiscation without advance notice. When they burned his books in the street, he joked about the progress of civilization. "In the Middle Ages, they would have burned me."
But then Nazis had shown up at the offices of the publishing company he owned, aiming a gun at his son and confiscating the financial ledgers. Soon after, the Gestapo had come to his home in Vienna without an appointment, leaving Berggasse 19 with six thousand schillings in cash. After that, he had no choice but to call upon favors from foreign friends in high places so that he could find another country that would accept him and the rest of the family should they manage, by some miracle, to be able to flee Austria with a few remaining assets.
Now he was in London and Hitler's troops had overrun Poland. On the radio, the Fuhrer was demanding the Czechs leave the Sudetenland. Back in Austria, brownshirts were swinging clubs and breaking windows of stores owned by Jews. The doctor's relatives who could not get out were being threatened, robbed and beaten on the street almost every week. Such things could not be controlled or reliably contained anymore. At the same time, the cancer in his own body was spreading. He'd recently lost much of his upper palate and right cheek to radical maxiofacial surgery. To block off the space left open between his mouth and the nasal cavity, he'd been forced to wear a large dental prosthesis he called "the monster," which caused constant irritation and made it difficult for him to talk. His speech, never euphonious, had become labored, nasal, and unpleasant even to his own ears.
He refused to take anything stronger than aspirin for the pain. He was eighty-two years old. The manuscript for his last and most dangerous book—the contemplation of which terrified and excited him at times—sat two-thirds finished on his desk. He knew he would not be able to complete it with a fogged mind. Yet some distraction was required to endure the discomfort and continue his writing.
He took the clothes-pin out of his mouth and turned it around, using the thin slat of a pincer to pry open a larger space between the prosthesis and his lower jaw. Then he jammed a Reina Cubana cigar into the aperture, struck a match, lit it, and lay back on the couch where his patients like Dora and the Rat Man had disclosed their darkest and most troubling secrets.
It had been years since he smoked regularly—the disease had been ravaging him since the 1920s—and he knew his daughter Anna would be furious to find him with a cigar in hand. But what other pleasures were left to an old man in a strange country?
True, the Nazis had surprised him by unexpectedly releasing some of the furniture and books from his Vienna study after he paid the exorbitant taxes and duties demanded. He took a measure of solace as he looked around. The famous couch was against a wall, covered by velvet pillows and a Persian blanket with byzantine designs as rich and complex as the dreams of the patients who used to lie upon it. Just behind the head was the green tub-like chair where he would sit sideways, out of the patient's sight, taking notes. On the walls were some of the pictures from back home: the carved mountainside temple of Abu Simbel, the depiction of Oedipus interrogating the sphinx, the photographs of certain dear friends. The mantles, bookshelves, and even his desktop were engulfed by pieces from his massive collection of Egyptian antiquities—Osiris, Isis, and figurine of the warrior goddess—but a special place of honor was accorded to the small statue of the Greek goddess Athena, whose calm thoughtful expression reminded him of his beloved daughter Anna.
Even among these familiar possessions, he had spent too many hours lately depressed and lost to himself in this room. But now, as he took his first puff, he became the master of his mood once more, magisterial and wise, the heady aroma in his nostrils, and blue smoke going down into his lungs summoning memories of better days. Yes, sometimes, a cigar was not just a cigar.
"Father, what are you doing?" Anna was in the doorway.
"Let me be."
She came toward him, with her hand out. His beloved daughter. Gaunt, too wise for her own good, and still unmarried at forty-three. He worried for her, especially the degree of repression revealed by his own analysis of her. But she was his joy and hope for the future. The last and most capable of his six children. Her keen and incisive mind was the most like his own, and he strongly believed that one day she would become an estimable psychoanalyst in her own right. When it was time to flee Austria, she had handled the most troublesome details. More important, she was the only person he trusted to help him put the prosthesis into his aching mouth every day and to continue his life's work after he was gone.
"Where did you get that from anyway?" She reached for the cigar.
"That annoying Mr. Dali who came to visit the other day," the doctor confessed. "His paintings leave me cold. But the cigars he brought are superb so far."
"If you're smoking one of them now, you must be even more insane than he is. You're a doctor who doesn't listen to his own physician. Aren't you sick enough?"
"Yes, I'm sufficiently sick. But if you want me to live longer, let me finish this cigar."
"Don't be ridiculous." She plucked it from between his withered fingers. "They'll cut the rest of your jaw out if you keep doing this."
"Better to cut off the whole head and be done with it." He muttered between clenched teeth.
"Anyway, you have a visitor."
"Is there an appointment?"
With the dislocation and lack of sleep these days, his grasp of his schedule wasn't what it once was.
"No. And I'm not at all sure you should see him."
"Who is it?"
He'd been sitting in his desk chair with its stark totem-like back, with one leg slung over an arm. At once, he came to attention.
"Sauerwald from Vienna?"
He watched her sweetly protuberant eyes and slightly lopsided mouth for a hint of a smile.
"He's downstairs right now."
The doctor stroked the white beard that had become more of a chore to trim lately. "What does he want?"
"He wouldn't tell me." Her words came out in an uncharacteristic rush. "He insisted he must speak to you in private. He says it's a matter of great concern. I'm surprised they even let him in the country."
"Some of the English still think appeasement is possible," the doctor muttered. "They don't know enough about aggressive urges."
"I've told him to leave already but he's very persistent. He politely requested that I at least tell you he was here and mentioned that you both knew Josef Herzig."
"Show him in," the doctor sighed, waving away the lingering dragons of smoke in the air.
"Are you sure?"
"Shall I ask twice?"
Anna looked in distaste at the smoldering cigar between her fingers and left the room. He listened to the strain of polite conversation in the foyer and the singing of birds in the garden. A heavy tread on the stairs caused a slight tightening of his stomach. He wished she hadn't taken the Cubana with her.
The man before him was in his thirties, of medium build, with blond hair and blue-gray eyes. He wore a dark wool suit, narrow at the waist and broad in the shoulders, probably the handiwork of one of Vienna's finest tailors provided at a steep coerced discount. His nose was reddish and waxy-looking as if he'd scrubbed at it too vigorously. Under his arm, he carried a brown leather attaché case, bulging at the seams.
"Pardon me if I don't get up," the doctor said through gritted teeth, and passed a hand to indicate the length of his slowly atrophying body.
"I understand." Sauerwald nodded curtly. "May I take a seat?"
Freud nodded toward a plain wooden chair near the bookcase. Instead Sauerwald took the doctor's own plush green chair behind the head of the couch.
"Do you know who I am?" Sauerwald asked, turning the chair so he could look straight at Freud.
"I have heard your name."
"I'm sure you have." Sauerwald put the leather case flat on his lap. "Years ago, I was a student of Dr. Herzig's at the University of Vienna."
"Herzig was a good man and a fair card player," Freud said, parceling out his words judiciously. "You are a chemist then."
"Yes, I had my own laboratory in Vienna before I was hired by the government."
"Of course, this was a few years ago, when one had to wear one's Fatherland Front pin on the outside of the lapel and the swastika on the inside. The National Socialists were considered to be a terrorist group then, setting off bombs all over Vienna. My job was to work with the police, analyzing the contents of the material that was used in these explosions. Which I did very well, you see. Because thanks to our friend Dr. Herzig, I have learned to cultivate the virtues of patience, observation, and careful planning."
Freud put a hand over his mouth, revealing nothing by his expression. Never betraying that he'd had heard stories before he'd left Vienna. That, in fact, the reason Sauerwald was so efficient at dismantling these devices and determining the content of explosives was that he'd created them himself in his own laboratory the day before. Patience, observation, and careful planning.
"But you did not come here to talk about ordnance," Freud said matter of factly.
"No, herr professor, you are right." Sauerwald patted the case on his lap. "We have even more urgent matters to discuss. I know you have heard my name more recently because I am a member of the National Socialist Party now. I am one of those given the task of liquidating illegal Jewish assets and turning the profits over to the Reich. And I have been assigned to take a special interest in you and members of your family."
"As I'm sure you remember, Dr. Freud, members of the party came to your publishing office and your home in Vienna to conduct a thorough investigation and confiscate the relevant records."
State-sanctioned thuggery. The doctor grimaced as the prosthesis dug into his badly-damaged soft palate, under pressure from the tongue he was trying to restrain. Not only had Nazi criminals come to the publishing office and stuck a gun in his son Martin's stomach while rifling the safe and stealing every coin they could find. Then they had come to his house down the street and taken six thousand Austrian schillings as their due. But worst of all, the Gestapo had detained his precious Anna for questioning, leaving her father pacing the floor, smoking cigar after cigar, unable to speak or eat, as he fretted that she'd been taken to the camp in Dachau that people were starting to talk about. When she was finally returned to him, exhausted but intact, he'd wept and sworn he would use whatever strength he'd left in his cancer-ravaged body to get them out of Austria.
"What you may not know," Sauerwald said, "is that I personally went to your publishing office after these oafs trampled though, and I looked for all things they might have missed."
"As I recall, there wasn't much left." Freud fidgeted in the swivel chair before his office desk.
"To the contrary, these idiots were so busy stuffing their pockets with money that they missed what was most valuable on the premises. Your books and papers."
Freud said nothing, adjusting his spectacles and staring intently.
"I must confess that even though I'd heard Professor Herzig speak highly of you, I had never actually read your work before." Sauerwald rubbed the palms of his well-manicured hands over the surface of the attaché case, warming to his subject now. "As I said, most of my training has been in the field of chemistry, so this business of suppressed desire and hidden aggression had not much interested me before. But as I read through your papers, I found a world that I had not known about before. You are the great discoverer of people's secrets, herr professor. Aren't you?"
"Some people have said that." Freud shrugged. "But I find it a crude and reductive description of psychoanalysis."
"Do you?" Sauerwald thrust his lower lip in a mock-pout. "Well, I believe I have discovered some of your secrets, Dr. Freud."
Freud took a small sharp breath and cold stinging air passed through a small gap in the roof of his mouth.
"I'm not sure I understand," he said.
Sauerwald pulled several pieces of paper out of the leather case on his lap.
"These are letters of correspondence to banks in Zurich, Paris, and London. You have been sending money overseas for years. This is entirely illegal."
The doctor said nothing.
"You could have been detained from leaving Austria and your whole family could have been imprisoned," Sauerwald said, his voice rising in stentorian admonition. "It was a clear act of disloyalty that could have been punished."
The doctor tried to use the tip of his tongue to shift the prosthesis to a more comfortable position as the cords of his throat tensed.
"You should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law." Small white flecks of spittle flew from Sauerwald's lips. "You profited from the neuroses of the bourgeois class when our nation was starving. You violated racial laws restricting Jewish parasitism. You committed acts of treason by diverting this money from the national treasury."
As he spoke, Sauerwald slapped the top of the attaché case, which continued to bulge as if a heavy item was still inside. His complexion became rough and spongy, and his voice began to crack.
"Your age and fame are no excuses," he continued. "You should be dangling from the end of a hangman's rope with your family beside you, instead of living out your days in comfort with your beloved statues and pictures around you, and your daughter brewing tea for you in the kitchen. I could have stopped you from leaving at any time and made sure your life ended in agony without adequate medical care. And my superiors in the party would have thanked me by advancing my career."
"But you did not," Freud observed quietly.
"No. I did not."
Sauerwald exhaled and relaxed his hands, allowing the normal color to return to his face.
"I was given back my passport and allowed to board the Orient Express with my family," the doctor noted, taking care to articulate each word despite the prosthesis. "I am in another country, safe from 'the hangman's rope,' as you call it. My wife is with me, my children are secure. But you continue to speak as if I had reason to fear you. Why?"
"Dr. Freud, you still have four sisters living in Austria," Sauerwald replied. "Don't you?"
"For the moment, they are safe and free. But I promise you, under the Reich, that will not last."
The doctor looked away, his eyes gliding past all his other rescued antiquities as he thought of his spinster sister Dolfi. An old maid who had devoted her life to caring for their mother. Freud's jaw ached and dampness spotted the corner of his right eye as he sniffed deeply.
"So what is it exactly that you came here to discuss?" he asked.
"I wish to talk to you about books, Dr. Freud." Sauerwald crossed his ankles, settling in more comfortably.
Excerpted from The Final Testament by Peter Blauner. Copyright © 2013 Peter Blauner. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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