The Widow Killerby Pavel Kohout
Part literary thriller and part savage morality tale, The Widow Killer is the latest novel by noted Czech author Pavel Kohout to be translated into English by Neil Bermel. In the Nazi-occupied city of Prague during the last days of World War II, Baroness Elisabeth of Pomerania -- the widow of a German Wehrmacht general -- is found horrifically murdered, her/i>… See more details below
Part literary thriller and part savage morality tale, The Widow Killer is the latest novel by noted Czech author Pavel Kohout to be translated into English by Neil Bermel. In the Nazi-occupied city of Prague during the last days of World War II, Baroness Elisabeth of Pomerania -- the widow of a German Wehrmacht general -- is found horrifically murdered, her body ritually mutilated, her heart removed. Is her murder a demented political act by a Czech nationalist or the work of a sadistic serial killer? As Allied forces converge on the war-torn city, rookie Czech detective Jan Morava and Gestapo agent Erwin Buback are assigned to find out, before the killer uses the mounting political turmoil to strike again.
Still, the steps leading to the murders, and those depicting investigative procedures involving Czech and German authorities, are riveting; the characterizations (especially that of the idealistic, sadly disillusioned Morava) are distinctive and incisive; and Kohout raises his tale to an impressive level when the vainglorious "widow killer" resolves "I AM THE NATION the new avenger of Czech shame." The story reaches a brilliant apexwhen Nazi attempts to evacuate Prague and the detectives' pursuit of their quarry dovetail in a fiery climax. It's arguable that Kohout spells out his message rather too explicitly ("The unknown and unpredictable widow slaughterer stripped the thin veneer of civilization from mankind and threatened to return humanity to its savage prehistory")-but enthralled readers aren't likely to object. A superb reimagining of modern history, skillfully transmuted into absorbing fiction.
"Kohout has created a gripping morality play deftly disguised as a ripping good yarn filled with intrigue, history, and fatal romance."—The Los Angeles Times.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.42(w) x 9.61(h) x 1.27(d)
Meet the Author
Pavel Kohout was born in Prague in 1928. A leader of the Prague Spring of 1968, he was expelled from the Communist Party and his work suppressed for more than 20 years. With Vaclav Havel, he is responsible for the groundbreaking freedom document Charta 77. He is the author of I Am Snowing: The Confessions of a Woman of Prague, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Kohout divides his time between Vienna and Prague.
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Read an Excerpt
When the doorbell rang just after the siren, Elisabeth, baroness of Pomerania, was sure the caretaker had come to escort her down to the shelter; she donned the black fur coat she had just hung up, picked up her small emergency suitcase, unhooked the door chain, and realized that she had just let her murderer in.
Earlier, at the Vyehrad cemetery, she had noticed a man with a bulging bag over his shoulder; it was common these days to see Czechs decorating the graves of their patron saints. His appearance reminded her of a repairman, and she could barely see him because his face was obscured by the sun. Now she saw eyes of glass: no color or expression. He calmly wedged a scuffed shoe into the crack; a lanky body bundled in a cotton jacket followed it through the door. And there, finally, she saw the long and strangely slim blade. A poultry knife! she thought.
The baroness knew she was going to die, but she did nothing to prevent it. She was the only occupant left on the top floor, and the roar of airplane motors would have drowned out her screams. Besides, she had no desire to live.
For a Catholic, suicide was unthinkable; divine punishment was the best she could hope for. This unjust war would only end when those who began it were destroyed. A Russian partisan had shot her husband; a Maquis had killed her son in Brittany. It seemed logical that now a man from the Czech Resistance had come for her.
The patrician house began to shake as the eerie ringing grew more and more insistent. With each approaching explosion thewindowpanes, the chandelier crystals, and the goblets in the sideboard shuddered wildly.
Merciful God, Elisabeth of Pomerania prayed to herself, retreating into the salon as if he were her guest; a bomb, a knifewho cares, as long as it's quick!
Her killer's foot slammed the door shut behind him, while his free hand opened a satchel of straps.
Thunder, mused Chief Inspector Buback, in February? It was over before he knew it. A large aerial bomb, he realized, and it had fallen uncomfortably close by.
The building of the Prague Gestapo, where Buback worked as liaison officer for the Reich's criminal police office, swayed wildly for what seemed like an eternity, but did not collapse. The proverbial quiet followed the storm; time stopped. Eventually sirens began to wail, and the officers and secretaries trooped down to the shelter.
He stared, motionless, at the two faces on his desk.
Buback disliked the shelter, in the basement of the old Petschke Bank. Some of its safes had been converted into cells; he'd heard a good interrogation there helped political prisoners remember all sorts of forgotten details. So he stayed upstairs, thunderstruck: the blast and the shaking had brought Hilde and Heidi back to life.
Their framed picture had traveled with him throughout the war. The offices changed, as did the cities and countries, but everywhere they had smiled radiantly at him, older and younger versions of a quiet, soothing loveliness. He conducted meetings and interrogations as they gazed at him from that final peacetime summer on the Isle of Sylt; for the most part he barely noticed them. But not an hour went by without Buback remembering in a flash of joy that they were alive.
They had been on his desk last year in Antwerp as men in other departments prepared for the retreat by burning documents in the courtyard. He had sneezed as the pungent smoke tickled his nose, and for a moment he did not understand the voice on the telephone telling him that both of them were dead. The smiles in the picture still glowed inside him; they flatly contradicted what he heard. Then the official from Berlin headquarters read him the police report.
Two years earlier he had sighed with relief when Hilde and Heidi were sent away from threatened Dresden. Wine was the only significant industry in the medieval Franconian village where Hilde went to teach war orphans. Therefore, it could not possibly be on the Allied target list. A stray bomb killed Hilde and Heidiand them alonewhen it fell unexpectedly in broad daylight on their apartment.
When the news finally hit him, the picture's glowing expressions froze into lifeless grimaces. He still kept the little frame on his desk, but when he looked at it he felt nothing, not even regret. Until just now, when another bomb fell close by.
Yes! Suddenly he was sure: they had been sitting opposite each other, with an empty chair and place setting for him at the end of the table, as always. Which meant that, in a sense, he had been with them even at the moment the blast and heat transformed them instantly into smoke and ash.
With the unexpected bomb, a feeling of liberation exploded inside him: it was an angel of merciful death that had first carried off his loves and now returned them to him. The motionless features softened; their old warmth returned. Entranced, he noticed only dimly that Kroloff had come in with a stack of papers.
Buback's adjutantand, he suspected, his secret overseerhad been assigned to him by the Gestapo; Kroloff shaved his high, narrow brow every other day so that his thinning hair would look fuller come peacetime. He announced that a direct attack had taken out the corner house on the block. Just opposite the National Museum, he said regretfully; a few yards further and the Czechs would have had a taste of what happened in Dresden!
A few yards further, Buback thought, and I would have been with them, smoke and ash.... Only half listening, he had to ask Kroloff to repeat the second piece of news. He had thought he was beyond surprise, but Kroloff's announcement quickly proved him wrong. Colonel Meckerle should hear about this directly from him, he decided.
Morava barely recognized Prague. It was as if seven years later the city had finally recovered from the shock of the German occupation. As they left the police station on Národní Avenue, his driver had to wait for long lines of fire engines and ambulances to roar past, belching acrid fumes from wartime gasoline substitute. People hurried along the sidewalks toward the river Vltava. All day the illegal foreign broadcasters in Kromeríz had been reporting last night's deadly Allied bombing of Dresden. The recent air raid, despite its brevity, had panicked the Czechs: would Prague meet the same fate?
Assistant Detective Morava didn't think it would. In the first place, he was a born optimist, and in the second, he didn't believe that at this stage of the war the Allies would flatten the capital of an occupied nation. What was more, Air-Raid Control had already determined that only a couple of bombs from a few planes had hit Prague. The prevailing opinion at police headquarters was that a navigator had confused the two cities and made a tragic mistake.
Even so, emergency plans were automatically set in motion. Workers from all departments spread out to the affected areas to supervise the excavation work and report on the damages and losses. Moments earlier, Morava had been heading out as well, but Superintendent Beran sent him back up to his desk.
"Catastrophes bring out the criminals as well as the Samaritans; you'll hold down the fort here, Morava."
Morava's boss had become the legend and the terror of the Prague underworld in the interwar years, but because Beran had always steered clear of politics, the Germans left him in his post. Of course, now he only had jurisdiction over Czech wrongdoers; Germans were tried (and sometimes even punished) by the occupiers.
Morava knew he should fill his time with useful work on his assigned cases. The front moving west toward Prague swept in criminals along with war victims, but at the moment he wasn't in the mood to deal with them. He put on the radio to find out more about the raid. They were broadcasting solemn music, apparently while the censors tinkered with the official statement.
He thought of Jitka and longed to see her. Why not use her sensational chicory coffee as an excuse? Summoning his courage, he crossed the hall to Beran's office. She raised her large brown eyes, disconcerting him as usual. This house of horrors was no place for a shy lamb like Jitka! But otherwise he never would have met her.... Before he could speak, the phone rang.
"I'm sorry," she answered like a well-mannered schoolgirl, "the superintendent is out in the field.... No, I don't know ... everyone is out on call after the air raid, but I can let you speak with the assistant detective.... Yes, one moment please, I'll put him on."
She handed him the receiver, but he was so enchanted by her serious smile that he did not realize who was barking at him.
"What's your name?" the voice snapped.
"Yours first," he retorted.
"Rajner, as in the police commissioner. Now, if you please ...?"
"Morava ... Jan Morava.... I'm sorry, sir."
"So, Morava." To Morava's surprise, the much hated and feared commissioner softened a bit. "Listen closely. Take a driver, or a taxi, for all I care, and get over to Vltava Embankment, number five, top floor, but fast! Someone's put away a wealthy German lady; apparently it's a pretty messy job."
Morava wasn't following. He decided to object.
"But, sir, the Gestapo takes care of German cases...."
"They're the ones who asked for Beran. Until I can get hold of him, I'm sending you. But watch out, kid, do you understand?"
The long arm of the Nazis hung up. Morava stood immobile, his face burning, with the receiver clamped against his ear. Jitka was shaken.
"Gosh, I ... I forgot to tell you who ..."
He hung up and flashed a smile at her.
"It's fine, believe me. Is there a bicycle around?"
"I'm sure I can get you a car. Wait downstairs a minute."
He hurried after her, mesmerized by her supple gait. He felt vaguely jealous when the garage manager, Teterathe pretty boy of Four Bartolomejská Streetwho also fell under her spell, agreed to drive Morava there personally in a freshly washed car.
They had barely turned left just past the National Theater when Morava smelled the fire and spotted a column of smoke. The corner house down by Jirásek Bridge (renamed Diensthoffer by the Nazis) was aflame and half in ruins. They drove onward into a black snowstorm; particles of soot and flecks of half-burned paper drifted down from a blue sky. The car wound past a line of stopped trams and came to a halt at a blockade of fire engines. Morava and the driver gazed upward, openmouthed. After a while, the detective had grown accustomed to murder victims; they were nothing more to him than strange-looking store mannequins. He had never seen the prolapsed innards of an apartment house.
The top four floors had collapsed down onto the second, leaving a motley chessboard of paint, wallpaper, and tiles on the outside wall of the neighboring building. Paintings, tapestries, mirrors, wall lamps, bookshelves, racks with towels, hooks with bathrobes, even sinks and toilets hung forlornly in space. Morava thought about the people who had used them and shivered. In his line of work he had learned to think of violent death as a temporary suspension of societal norms. Often there was a motivesometimes a poor one, but it could always be traced. Scores of people in this building would have welcomed the fliers as angels of salvation; wiping them off the face of the earth made no sense at all.
An anxious policeman ordered them to move along. Morava sent Tetera back, praying that he wouldn't go to Jitka for payback on the favor. Showing his papers, the detective dodged past the rescue workers and their machines to Number 5, two buildings down. A pair of disfigured corpses on the pavement did not faze him; they were no worse than the cases he saw every day. As he walked, he took care not to get his imitation leather boots wet in the puddles near the fire hydrants.
He rang the single bell, which must have led to the caretaker's apartment. There was no answer. Tentatively he tested the handle of the heavy double doors and found them unlocked. The entrance hall, its marble mosaic dominated by the inscription SALVE, led to an elevator of dark wood as spacious as a small bedroom. `It bore him silently upward, with a regal slowness. Even as he stepped out of the elevator at the top, he could have sworn he was at the wrong address.
Immediately the apartment door flew open. On the threshold was a man in a leather coat who had to be from the Gestapo.
"Der Hauptkommissar? Well, finally."
"The superintendent's on his way," Morava replied. "I'm his assistant; Commissioner Rajner sent me."
His decent German had the desired effect. The man gestureda bit more politelyfor Morava to follow him. In the bedroom, a number of men were standing around. And on the table was an object unlike anything he had ever seen before. When he realized what it was, he felt his stomach heave.
He had a fabulous view from his bench on the far side of the Vltava. It's like being in a box at the theater, he thought happily; no! it's like being in the choir loft! Even past noon, the weak February sun struggled to break through the mantle of cold air, but he was still dripping hot. He unbuttoned his jacket, placed his satchel between his legs, and rested his arms on the back of the bench. Relaxed and at ease, he drank in the spectacle before him and slowly regained his composure.
He was delighted that no one was around to disturb him. The embankment was deserted; the city had crawled into its shell at the first sign of danger. To the left across the river, fire engines and ambulances swarmed around the destroyed corner building. However, he was most interested in the building he had just lefthow long ago? He stared at his left wrist; he could see the hands of his watch, but could not read them.
It felt like ages. He had passed the burning wreckage and traipsed across a bridge covered with shards and chips of brick. A while later, a siren had sounded on the other side and the first fire engine appeared. Two private vehicles had pulled up at HIS house much sooner than he'd expected. That man, he remembered, that oaf I met on the stairs! He deserved it TOO....
No! He couldn't kill an innocent person, especially not a man. He was not a criminal; he was an INSTRUMENT. He was chosen to CLEANSE. That was why the METHOD had been strictly defined for him. He'd blown it that time in Brno, true; he'd been a terrible disappointment. They'd said in the papers that the person who'd done it was a DEVIANT. But he was not a deviant; he had just been clumsy. It was his fault they hadn't recognized the MESSAGE. He was lucky he hadn't been punished for his failure. Or was it luck?
Clearly my services were still required!
He laughed aloud with joy: today he had pulled it off perfectly. What must they be thinking? What do they make of it? This time they must have understood! The newspapers won't dismiss it so easily this time. Maybe they'll use photographs too; yes, definitelyafter all, words can't do it justice. The only thing he lacked now was proof of the deed, and the papers would take care of that. An indisputably faithful picture of his work, just like the picture SHE had once given him as a guide.
Only now did he fully remember what happened in that apartment. While he was doing it, he'd been curiously detached, as if an outside force were directing him. He had neither felt nor perceived anything he had said, seen, or done. But it had all been recorded, and now it began to play itself back, like a film rewound to the beginning.
The past became present; the sun and the river vanished: now, in the twilight of the room, he relived each of his movements, noticed each of her reactions. And he marveled at his calm and efficiency as he quickly and precisely performed a horribly complex task. No, he was no longer a third-rate hack from Brno; in those lean, empty years he had matured into a master, just like that unknown painter.
She must have sensed it as well. The whore in Brno had squirmed and squealed like a crazy woman, even fouled herselfugh! that was what had repulsed him most afterwardwhile this woman had immediately recognized his AUTHORITY. Maybe she wouldn't have screamed without the gag, but he couldn't have risked it. He couldn't tell when her life ended, because even in death her doglike stare followed him. Now he had finished the task, and when he stepped back, he saw that IT WAS GOOD.
The film ended, the lights came up, and the river was back again. He was even more tired after this rest than he had been before it. Sternly he ordered his muscles to pull him upright and grab his satchel. Now he had to find a place in this unfamiliar city where he could inform the ONE who gave him the task that it was complete.
Through a blast-shattered window the chill day entered the room. Its pungent air stilled his stomach. Meanwhile, Assistant Detective Morava mustered his strength, as he had often done before, so he would not look inexperienced in front of the Germans. There were six of them, all but one clad in the long leather coats that had become the secret police's civilian uniform in the Protectorate. Their apparent leader was a giant whose chest threatened to split his coat open.
Morava introduced himself. They merely nodded expectantly, which he took as permission to go about his business. Briskly he pulled out a folded tablet and opened it to a clean page, so he could take notes for a later briefing, as Beran had taught him: the pathologists may laugh at it, Morava, but this is how we get the human picture before it disappears under a mountain of professional jargon.
The Germans left him alone, conferring among themselves sotto voce, as if they didn't want to disturb him. He watched them in his peripheral vision as he worked, trying to guess what they might want from him. At least it prevented him from devoting his full attention to the gruesome spectacle on the table.
Only the civilian in the beige overcoat acted like a detective; he silently watched Morava wade through the mosaic of fine shards around the table with the woman's torso on it, filling the pages of his notebook with tiny handwriting. However, when Morava finished, it was the hefty one who addressed him. The man's high Gestapo rank was almost palpable; he stood, feet apart, and planted his hands on his hips in imitation of his Führer.
Morava answered as concisely as possible, the way he'd been taught.
"A sadistic murder."
"We figured that out already," the German snarled at him. "Any other bright ideas?"
Morava had always found it difficult to talk to people who raised their voices. His windbag of a father had labeled him a scaredy-cat, and this reputation followed him to Prague. Only Superintendent Beran had realized that it was an inborn aversion to the sort of violence that hides intellectual weakness.
Morava had to clear his throat again, but then he answered firmly. "At the moment, I can only tell you what I see. I'd have to investigate, but given the nature of the case"
The man he took to be a detective broke in.
"The colonel wanted to know if you recognize an MO."
Morava looked over at the corpse again. This time his training prevailed; he examined it dispassionately, as an object of professional interest. The bizarre and horrible tableau did not remind him of anything he'd read or learned in his few years as an apprentice. He shook his head. The man probed further.
"Do you know of any religious sect that might have done this?"
He should have thought of that himself. Yes, there could be a ritual behind it, but what? There was nothing like this in Czech history, at least.
"No, not offhand."
"Where the hell is your boss?" the large one exploded.
When afflicted, Morava used to imagine his tormentors without their clothes. It still worked; the overfed pig in front of him wasn't the least bit frightening.
"With the rest of my colleagues, at the air-raid sites," he explained. "The city was just bombed for the first time."
"No! You're joking!" The Gestapo officer turned caustic again. "How could we have missed it? You want to know what bombing is, kid? Go have a look at Dresden!"
Suddenly he sounded almost insulted. Morava imagined the sinks and toilets hanging from the walls of the corner house, things their owners had been using just a short while ago. Those people certainly hadn't missed it.
"The police commissioner is having the superintendent tracked down," Morava assured him. "I'm sure he'll be here as soon as he can."
The practical one spoke up again. Slender and gray-haired, he looked like the most reasonable of the lot and differed noticeably from the rest in his behavior and tone.
"Will you wait for him or start the investigation yourself? How quickly can you put a team together?"
A fellow detective, that's why. He tried to explain it to him again.
"Our department is only authorized to investigate criminal acts committed by Czechs...."
"This one will be transferred to you."
"But the victim is German," Morava objected.
"Unfortunately so. Except the murderer is Czech. The building's caretaker met him."
Morava was dumbfounded. Privately he had been betting on a refugee or a deserter hoping to extort money and jewelry from a fellow German. But that was no motive for butchery like this.
"Well, hel-lo," he whispered in Czech.
In addition to years of experience in the field, Chief Inspector Buback brought an extra qualification to his new post in Prague. He was a Praguer by birth and had an excellent command of Czech.
The young detective's involuntary gasp amused him.
Buback imagined all the things he would overhear in the near future. Hanging this case around the neck of the Czech Protectorate's police was one of the masterly moves Colonel Meckerle was known for.
The tactic had nothing to do with the nationality of the criminal or the victim. The von Pommeren clan had a problematic reputation: in addition to the government's general distrust of the German aristocracy, there were doubts about this particular family's loyalty to the Führer.
In the eyes of the Czechs, however, the baroness represented the German elite; her murder could prompt another bloody reprisal. Of course, at the moment that wasn't a possibility. It would be unwise to inflame the natives when this land would soon be the site of Germany's decisive battle with its enemies.
Meckerle knew that until they could deploy the nearly completed ultimate weapon, they would need perfect order in the Protectorate. And for this he needed absolute control of the police. Now that the small and unreliable Protectorate Army had been disbanded, the gendarmes were the only Czechs with an arsenaleven a small and militarily insignificant oneand, more importantly, a good communications system.
The murder investigation would be transferred to the Czech police: a matter of the utmost importance, they'd be told. They'd be hostages! Finding this sort of criminal was like looking for a needle in a haystack, Meckerle had assured Buback. We'll run them ragged! We'll dig in the spurs and pull the reins at the same time! And then, using you, he explained to Buback, we'll get our hands around their throat!
"Elisabeth von Pommeren," the superintendent now told the Czech, "was a member of the oldest noble family in Germany; her husband was a general of the Reich's armed forces and was posthumously awarded the Knight's Cross. For this reason, we are invoking the Security Decree of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, signed on first September 1939, section two, paragraph twelve, according to whichand I quote`the police departments of the Protectorate are required to act on the instructions of the Reich's criminal police,' end quote. What's more, the imperial protector will no doubt offer a reward for the capture of this criminal. The murderer must be found. Lack of diligence will be treated as sabotage."
Buback watched the youth scribbling in his notebook, concentrating so hard his tongue nearly hung out. The kid wasn't their intended audience, but he would convey the message accurately to his superiors. Thirty-three months ago, thousands of Czech hostages had paid with their lives for the assassination of the Nazis' acting imperial protector, Reinhard Heydrich. The boy could certainly imagine the carnage to come if Germany decided that this murder had a political motive.
"Do you want your people to keep the evidence?" the youth asked with surprising practicality.
"I'll tell you what we want," Meckerle thundered. "I want that monster's head. How you get it is your business! Detective Buback will be watching your every move. Unless he finds incredibly good reasons for your mistakes and delays, I will personally bring them to the attention of the Prague Castle and Berlin."
The colonel's explosions always rattled his own men; therefore, it irritated Buback when the kid merely cleared his throat again.
"I understand. May I use the telephone?"
Meckerle gestured with a glove.
"Tell your supervisor that his absence today is quite exceptionally excused. Tomorrow at eight hundred hours I expect to see his personal status report on my desk at Bredovská Street. Even"and here he raised his voice again"if it's thundering and bombs are falling!"
More bombs were falling on his beloved Dresden as they spoke, Buback remembered. Was his old home still standing? Anyway, what was the difference ...? Once the others had trooped off, Buback took his anger out on the Czech.
"Is there a problem? The telephone is in the entrance hall; hop to it and look smart. We haven't touched anything here, it's your neck on the line now."
The kid rushed off and was heard asking a Jitka to get him an autopsy team quickly. Buback was alone in the apartment for the first time. He looked at the unbelievable object, which someone had created not long ago from a human being, and shivered.
He described in a whisper how he had done the deed and, as expected, heard praise. He left the church a new man; the unbearable tension of the previous days was behind him. He had done it! He'd erased the shame of Brno. He had proved he was worthy of TRUST, and now he, and no one else, would carry out the rest of the assignment. This morning he had still doubted himself; would it be humanly possible? But incredibly SHE had calmed his fears and confirmed him as HER judge on earth.
For the first time in years, his spirits were high. However, he had a new problem. He had less and less control over his body. Even after a long rest, he felt as if he'd been marching all day. But even when doing IT he'd just stood there; there had been no resistance. Why this stupor; why did even a light bag weigh him down?
The answer he received was so simple he had to laugh. A woman rolled her bicycle out of a nearby courtyard; as she walked she bit into the heel of a loaf of bread, and his stomach immediately cramped up. Of course, he realized; with all the excitement, he'd had nothing to eat or drink since yesterday.
He placed his satchel on the sidewalk and pulled his wallet from the inside pocket of his raincoat. Sure, he had tons of ration coupons left, even halfway through the month; he'd neglected himself completely the last few days. This would have to stop. If he was to succeed and fulfill the HIGHEST OBLIGATION, he needed strength.
He looked around the unfamiliar street and wasn't the least bit surprised to find a restaurant directly opposite. "Angel's." How appropriate. His spirits revived immediately and he could feel his saliva start to flow.
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