Our Festering Hopes
But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.
A dizzying vortex of noise and colour swirled all around him, his body was falling. Desperate, he flailed through the rushing air, but could find no purchase as time and space whipped by. The riot of sensation and perception engulfed him. Phantasmal shapes loomed and contorted all around. Amidst the whirlwind; whispers from the past and possible futures. Through the deafening, twisting kaleidoscope, scenes of places he knew unfurled before being lost as they transformed into landscapes sinister and strange. Faces foreign and familiar leered out as images flashed by at breathtaking pace. Snippets of his life sped before his eyes, he saw himself in the church at his brother's funeral, then he was a child again, playing in the sunlit garden as his mother looked on. That idyllic setting was quickly replaced by the gruesome cacophony of the trenches. Now he and Clara were laughing in a pub, they almost shared a kiss just as the scene swirled away to the twinkling lights of Berlin at night. The focus shifted to an old house which came closer and closer until he floated right through the bricks and mortar, up a gloomy stairway before drifting to a halt behind a locked door...
Johan's eyelids flickered open. The pain came in waves, coursing through his head where he'd been struck. His vision was blurry and objects swam up to greet his groggy eyes. He saw faded, peeling wallpaper, limp, moth-eaten curtains and a tapestry of cobwebs woven over the darkened window. A mattress with some blankets and pillows beside some bags and cases were across from him. He lay on the floor of this decrepit room, staring up at the naked lightbulb that swung from the ceiling, making the shadows waver all around.
Then he remembered: Scharnhorst, Bauer, the shootout, everything. As if on cue he became aware of two figures standing to his side. One was Scharnhorst; the other was still shrouded in shadow. Now the second figure stepped forward out of the gloam and was bathed in the pale light from above. Johan's mouth fell open in shock as their eyes met through the veil. It was Clara Timmermann that stood before him.
He tried to speak but words failed him as his mind raced in a futile attempt to explain what he saw. Was he concussed? Or going mad? Was this apparition merely brought into being by the blow to his head? Could it really be her? Clara looked as radiant as ever, her strawberry lips were moist, her lustrous, raven hair fell in waves down her back and framed by long lashes her dark eyes shone. She resembled a Renaissance painting of an angel. Dressed in a silk blouse, heels and a white skirt she appeared solid enough. Then the phantom spoke.
"Poor Johan. You just couldn't stay out of it, could you?"
The husky voice was familiar but the tone was not. The faint Austrian lilt Johan had always found irresistible was there, but instead of being light and breezy her words were layered with menace.
It was now that Johan noticed the gun, his gun gripped in her hand. She took aim and down the muzzle of the Luger Johan saw the abyss. He was too astonished to move and too stunned to feel much fear as he took what must be his last breaths. Clara's aim wasn't steady and the barrel made little circles in the air as her hands shook. For what felt like an age, Johan teetered on the brink.
"You're taking too long!" admonished Scharnhorst, throwing aside a hefty length of wood and snatching the Luger from Clara's grasp.
Something clicked within Johan's beleaguered mind, this would be his only chance. Quick as a viper's strike his hand reached the ankle holster where his new PPK was stowed. While still lying prone, he drew and fired one-handed in a single movement like a gunslinger in the Old West, just as Scharnhorst squeezed the trigger. The gunshots reverberated around the room and grew louder with each echo off the walls, as if an entire regiment had let loose. Johan's aim was true, while Scharnhorst's was not, evidently panicked by Johan's explosion into motion he fired too early and the shot whizzed by Johan's head. The first bullet caught Scharnhorst in the neck, blood splashed down his torso and onto the worn floorboards, the second shot hit him square in the forehead, splattering the wall behind with dripping ichor. Scharnhorst dropped to his knees, his dead eyes accusing, as twin rivulets of red dripped down from his mouth. His finger spasmed and the Luger spoke again, propelling a bullet through the dusty floor. This would be Scharnhorst's last act; he keeled over backward with a thud, and lay still in a slowly widening pool of crimson.
Clara rushed over to his side.
"Paul!" she cried.
Johan got to his feet with difficulty, his head still throbbing and adrenaline still racing.
"Get away from there!" he boomed.
Clara flinched at the command and her fingers withdrew from the dropped pistol they'd been inching towards. Slowly she got up and backed away.
"What the fuck is going on here?" demanded Johan.
Clara ignored him; her lovely features were etched with despair as she stared at Scharnhorst's remains.
"Did you hear me? I said I want some answers! Start from the beginning and tell me everything."
She took a deep breath, "All right, from the beginning," she said quietly.
"First thngs first, that body you found at the factory wasn't me. Obviously."
"Who was it then?"
Clara sat down on the mattress, and haltingly at first but then with increasing confidence started to talk, as Johan listened, incredulous
"Some Polish hooker, I think the name was Anja Devlana. We chose her because she had a similar body type to me. Paul picked her up and brought her back here, he hit her over the head but then started to get cold feet. I didn't know if she was alive or dead at this point but I took the shotgun, pointed it at her face and then...then she opened her eyes and I just panicked and fired, then I fired again until there was nothing left."
She shuddered, her eyes staring vacantly into space, "It was horrible, I hated it and I hate myself for doing it. Every time I close my eyes I can still see that girl's face."
Clara composed herself for a second or two before continuing.
"Then we put her in my clothes and planted my and my stuff on the corpse. Paul dumped the body. He also pulled out all her teeth and dumped them in the Elbe just to be safe, you know, because of dental records. That was one job I admit I didn't have the stomach for," she said, making a face as if recalling an unpleasant dish she'd tasted.
This still wasn't making any sense to Johan; he couldn't imagine the Clara he'd known participating in the acts she described.
"Why did you kill her?"
"I had to get away, disappear."
"Because I'm Jewish."
"You never told me."
"I was careful, I never told anybody apart from Paul."
"How come you never got hassled by the Nazis?"
"By being discrete. Most importantly though I bribed a manager at the census office to 'lose' my file. He was reluctant at first but money and certain...other favours changed his mind."
She shook her head sadly, "How naïve I was to think that would be the end of it. This regime is evil, Kristallnacht only confirmed it. There are camps Johan and once you're sent there you never come out."
"Nonsense, those are work camps."
"That's just a euphemism. Believe me I know, back in Vienna my parents were sent to the camp at Dachau. They're d-dead now," managed Clara, wiping a solitary tear from her cheek.
Johan stood in shocked silence as she continued.
"And more and more of these camps are popping up everywhere, it isn't going to stop. There's even one called Sachsenhausen just outside Berlin. About a month ago I got a letter saying I had thirty days to report for immediate transfer to one of these camps. You see in Germany they had no information on me, but after Austria was annexed all the records on Austrian citizens became available to the German authorities, and so that's how they caught me."
"Surely they couldn't be getting away with this."
"They are, the few who know about it just look the other way. Who's going to stop them anyway? The French and the English haven't the balls to stop Hitler; they're just letting him take Czechoslovakia and probably Poland next. Where will it end?"
The coppery smell of Scharnhorst's blood was beginning to intermingle with the sickly-sweet aroma of Clara's perfume and the general reek of decay emanating from the house. The bulb above continued to sway, making the shadows it cast on the walls look twisted and nightmarish.
"Paul and I knew we'd have to get out sooner or later but the summons to the camp made us accelerate our plans. Of course when you're on their lists you can't just get up and leave. That's why I agreed to be Austerlitz's spy in exchange for the fake passport and documents, but he wanted money as well."
"So you seduced von dem Bach, then blackmailed him?"
"Exactly. That old fool, it was almost too easy. It worked out quite well actually; you need money to start a new life so we just kept most of it for ourselves. I knew if all went well we wouldn't be around to have to pay off Austerlitz in full."
"But von dem Bach started to threaten you, didn't he?"
"Not at all, he was meek as a lamb, too afraid anyone would find out about the affair to do anything. I knew you never liked Paul and I knew if I turned up dead he'd be your first suspect, so I scribbled some passages in my diary about von dem Bach getting aggressive and terrorising poor little old me. The idea was the cops would find it when they searched the house and turn their attentions to the chief, leaving Paul and I free to escape off into the sunset."
So von dem Bach really was innocent of everything save for adultery, Johan felt guilty for having doubted him. At this Clara's voice took on a scornful tone, "We didn't figure the cops would be fucking stupid enough to overlook it. That's what Paul was doing at my house when you turned up, he was going to retrieve the diary and turn it in. But you saw one of the tickets to New York, he was terrified you'd put two and two together. He wanted to kill you to make sure we'd get away with it, but I wouldn't let him."
"Maybe you should've."
Clara looked at his scarred, bruised and bandaged face.
"I'm sorry. The last thing I wanted was for you to get hurt but..."
She trailed off, her eyes downcast toward the floor.
"The diary said you were pregnant with von dem Bach's child, I take it that was a lie too?"
"Half-true, it's really Paul's child."
Johan eyed her slender figure, wondering whether Clara was being truthful. She appeared sincere, but recent events had shown that her capacity for duplicity was matched only by her beauty.
"I don't get why you had this elaborate plan, couldn't you have just stowed away on a train or something?"
Clara remained silent for a while, playing with a loose strand of hair.
"Well that's exactly what my sister Claudia tried, she, her husband and daughter had hidden on a train bound for Switzerland, they'd gotten past all the checkpoints and inspections only to be found by Swiss border guards. The Swiss turned them right over to the SS; I don't know where they are now."
Johan didn't have much family left, his parents and brother had died young. He tried to think of some words of comfort, but they wouldn't come.
"Paul told me that our best chance would be if I was crossed off their lists, otherwise they would never stop looking. It wasn't just for ourselves, we had the baby to think about too. That's why we did what we did. We would've been long gone too if the fucking weather hadn't decided to intervene, the Zeppelin flight was delayed for a couple of days due to the storm so I had to hide out here until it blew over. We were just about to leave before you showed up."
After hearing the tale Johan didn't know what to do. The policeman in him wanted to bring Clara down to the station under lock and key and make her answer for the heinous crimes she'd admitted to, the other half of him just wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her until she was breathless.
Clara looked up at him, "So, what happens now?"
"I suppose I have to take you in."
"Somewhere that girl had a family, Clara. She probably had hopes and dreams too, and you ended them."
Johan knew that if he were in her position he would do anything to survive. But murdering an innocent girl? He knew that was something that he could never fathom, let alone go through with.
She stared at him, aghast. Her face went pale, and her expression became a portrait of distress.
"You think I enjoyed it? You think I wanted any of this to happen? We had no choice!"
"There were other ways."
Johan retrieved the handcuffs from his belt.
Behind her eyes fear rose like a serpent as he approached. Johan could see the fresh tears glistening on her cheeks.
"No...You can't. Please Johan, they're going to kill me! Doesn't that matter to you?"
He was close enough now to reach out and touch her.
"Don't you get it? They're going to kill me and take the baby! After all these years do I mean nothing to you?"
Johan stopped in his tracks. When he looked at her imploring gaze he didn't see that of a murderess, he only saw Clara. He just couldn't do it. For the first time in his life Johan was about to let a criminal, and a killer at that, walk free. After all she must have been through (he could scarcely imagine how hard it must have been) Johan's conscience wouldn't allow him to arrest a weeping pregnant woman, let alone the one he loved.
He sighed and lowered the handcuffs, "You're free to go."
That pronouncement did little to stop the flow of tears, Clara looked over to where Scharnhorst lay.
"I just...just can't do it on my own," she sobbed.
"I'll go with you," blurted Johan without thinking.
He surprised even himself, he didn't know if what he was doing was right.
They say murder changes a person. Was this woman who'd coolly talked about killing a complete stranger even the same one he'd known before?
She'd planned on eloping with another man without so much as telling him a thing. Did she even give a damn about him?
Johan couldn't answer those questions, but he couldn't change the way he felt.
She rubbed away the teardrops that rolled ran down her face and regarded him in disbelief.
"There's nothing for me here, Austerlitz wants me dead. We'll go somewhere far away from all this, and raise the child together. New York, Buenos Aires wherever you want."
He saw that she was looking at Scharnhorst again.
"I know you probably hate me, but in time maybe you'll grow to feel the same way about me as I feel about you. I love you Clara, I always have."
Clara seemed taken aback by all this. Her eyes were puffy and her mascara was running but to Johan that barely detracted from her loveliness. He wished he didn't have to make his declaration of love while the various cuts and bruises made him look about as attractive as a blocked drain.
"I...I never knew you felt that way."
Johan took her hand in his, "I knew it from the first minute I laid eyes on you. What do you say? Will we leave all this behind and start afresh?"
In another life Johan had always wanted to settle down and start a family. He'd thought the opportunity for marriage and children had passed him by, now here was a chance to fulfil all his old wishes. He felt like he was looking down the barrel of the Luger again as he waited for her response, if she said no, the grim finality would be the same as if she had fired. Though he carried the gun now, Clara wielded all the power and she knew it. Hardly daring to breathe and not daring to hope, he waited, silently willing those perfect lips to form the answer he craved. The reply when it did come was wondrous in its economy.
"Yes," said Clara softly.
A great wellspring of joy erupted within him. It was as if all the stresses, troubles and pain from the last few days had evaporated like the morning dew. The heavy, stuffy air in the room now seemed to hang light, and intoxicate with blissful delight. Though Johan was no believer, he felt like all the choirs of angels in Heaven high were singing in jubilant elation. For the first time in what felt like an eternity he smiled widely, for once in his life true happiness was within reach. He wrapped Clara in a tight hug and leaned in for the kiss, but she pulled back.
"Did you hear that?"
He could feel her heartbeat against his chest.
"Hear what?" asked Johan, annoyed by the interruption.
He had scarcely asked the question when he realised what Clara was referring to; vehicles outside. Johan reluctantly left Clara's embrace and crossed over to the window, he may as well have tried to peer through the wall, it was boarded up solidly. Now there were voices and the heavy tread of footsteps from downstairs. Who were they? Austerlitz's goons? No, more likely to be the reinforcements he'd had Ilsa call.
Clara caught his eye, she looked uneasy.
"It's all right. They're just the police backup I requested. I'll talk to them and before you know it we'll be on our way," said Johan, rubbing her arm reassuringly.
She nodded, "I hope so."
There came a thunder of jackboots stampeding up the stairs. It wasn't policemen who burst into the room a few seconds later, but a dozen burly SS men. They were dressed in their intimidating black uniforms and all carried shiny and sleek automatic weapons. Major Metzger strode in behind them wearing the ubiquitous pin-striped suit and long leather trenchcoat that all Gestapo agents seem to favour while in the field.
Metzger's shrewd gaze flitted around and took in everything in the room, lingering on Clara and Scharnhorst's body for an instant or two.
If the sight of the dead man distressed him he hid it well.
"We came as soon as we could, my men and I were the closest unit available," said the Major.
Johan tried to stifle the scowl that was threatening to show on his features. He cursed mentally, Metzger would be harder to deceive than some police sergeant and he couldn't pull rank on him either. Still there was the chance he wasn't aware of Clara's secret.
"I'm glad to see you sir, Scharnhorst wouldn't come quietly," said Johan trying to appear relieved.
"I can see that. Isn't she dead?" asked Metzger, pointing lazily in Clara's direction.
"That's what we thought. The body we found was actually a prostitute named Anja Devlana, Scharnhorst imprisoned Clara in here. I don't know why, he was insane."
Metzger's stoic expression didn't reveal anything. He mulled that over for a few seconds before addressing Clara.
"And you, my dear? Do you know why he did those things?"
"N-no, he was...he wasn't thinking rationally," she stammered, without meeting his eyes.
"She's still very shaken, the poor girl's went through quite an ordeal," said Johan, eager to distract Metzger's attention from Clara.
Metzger gave a curt nod, apparently satisfied.
"Yes, I'm sure it must have been terrible. Oh, but I think I can shed some light on why Scharnhorst hid here."
Johan swallowed, "W-why do you think he did?"
Metzger didn't answer immediately; instead he produced a small silver case from his pocket and extracted a cigarette. One of the SS men lit it for him before returning to the background.
He puffed thoughtfully for a moment before speaking.
"Are you aware Ms. Timmermann is a Jew?" he said, spitting out the word as if it were obscene.
With that one sentence, Johan's entire world came crashing down all around him. All the long-harboured dreams that just minutes ago had seemed so attainable were now rendered impossible. His crushed hopes lay strewn at his feet like so much rubbish.
Metzger misinterpreted Johan's crestfallen silence as surprise.
"Yes, I only found out last night. Remember in my office when we were talking? That fax I received was from my colleague in Vienna, detailing a list of Austrian Jews, homosexuals and other filth thought to be in Berlin. It is my belief that having effectively faked her own murder, Ms. Timmermann and Scharnhorst intended to flee the country."
Metzger appeared to be revelling in his moment of glory.
"I know this comes as a big shock to you Johan, and I know it's difficult but we all must make sacrifices for the Fatherland. It's for the greater good of the Reich. I'll see that you get a commendation for this, not only did you solve the murder but you uncovered a Jewish fugitive as well. Thanks to the tireless efforts of men like you and I, racial purity is finally within our grasp!"
Johan felt physically ill, he looked over to Clara who appeared little better.
"As for you my dear, I am afraid Dachau awaits," said Metzger, stroking Clara's cheek.
She shrank back as if she'd been scalded by his touch.
The sight filled Johan with rage.
He watched as the SS men took her away from him. Clara didn't struggle; she seemed resigned to her fate, and that was the most disturbing thing of all. He knew her terrified face as they led her away would be etched onto his soul forever.
Johan remembered the pistol in his hand, maybe he could put a stop to this he thought wildly.
But no, brutal, terrible logic told him he had six bullets left and thirteen armed men as his targets.
Metzger took him aside, "I wouldn't be surprised if she was the spy in our midst, Jews are notoriously untrustworthy as you know."
His voice washed over him, Johan tuned it out like a radio broadcast being lost to waves of static.
He felt numb and brittle as glass, it seemed any second now he would fall apart and shatter into fragments.
It still hadn't sunk in; surely fate couldn't be so cruel? For Lady Luck to grant all his wishes with one hand before she took them away with the other was too much for him to bear. Johan dug out the bullet from his pocket; this was supposed to bring him luck.
He let it drop to the floor.
Renown and grace no longer ruled in this world, in their place there was only desolation.
What was left for him now?
Austerlitz had a price on his head, but from torment such as this death would be a relief.
Metzger was talking about the promise of promotion and decorations, as if those things mattered any more.
He realised he was still holding the gun.
His finger twitched near the trigger.
Ignorance is bliss.
Well, there you have it.
There's a few things I'm not quite happy with in this chapter, don't know if I chose the right ending and I'm not sure about that surreal bit at the beginning.
Anyway I hope you enjoyed the story and I hope the twist wasn't too predictable.
I thought the quote from the poet Lord Byron, sort of summed up the tone of the tale.
Oh, and I'd love to hear what y'all think.