The Widow Killerby Pavel Kohout
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
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In Prague during the final months of the Nazi occupation, a sadistic killer consumed by his own psychopathic agenda relentlessly stalks his victims.
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....
With this startling opening, The Widow Killer plunges deep into the diabolical workings of the killer's mind. As the lives of Czech detective Jan Morava and Gestapo agent Erwin Buback collide to solve this politically charged murder case, both must grapple with their own inner turmoil as will as the violent war-torn world that surrounds them. Using the murder as its epicenter, The Widow Killer explores the deepest recesses and complexities of the universal human condition.
In Praise of The Widow Killer:
"A daring, moving, historically insightful novel of great distinction. Daring in it perspective, moving in its execution--one recognizes the dramatist at work--insightful in that it reveals the dangerous delusions of historical hubris." --Siegfried Lenz
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
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- 6.42(w) x 9.61(h) x 1.27(d)
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The Widow Killer
By Pavel Kohout
PicadorCopyright © 1995 Pavel Kohout
All rights reserved.
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 Vy ehrad 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 the window-panes, 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 knife — who 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 Heidi — and them alone — when 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 adjutant — and, he suspected, his secret overseer — had 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 Národni 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, Tetera — the pretty boy of Four Bartolom jská Street — who 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 motive — sometimes 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 gestured — a bit more politely — for 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 left — how 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, definitely — after 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 herself — ugh! that was what had repulsed him most afterward — while 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.
Excerpted from The Widow Killer by Pavel Kohout. Copyright © 1995 Pavel Kohout. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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