|Jul/Aug 2018 Fiction|
Image courtesy of British Library Photostream
At the age of 18, I left Budapest, the city of my birth, for Vienna. My purpose was to find Schaumann, an insurer. He owed my brother Péter a great sum of money.
As a boy, Péter enjoyed a brief and brilliant career as a piano prodigy. He was the breadwinner for our family, and Father his impresario. It was Father's idea to insure Péter's hands with the firm of Schaumann & Son, for 500,000 korona per hand. It could be said that the gimmick worked—the music press liked to write about the little boy with hands of gold—but only for so long. As Péter reached pubescence, the crowds began to dwindle, the money dried up, and Father began to eye Péter's hands.
He convinced Péter to crush his hands under the wheels of a streetcar. Péter went along with it for reasons too misguided to mention here. After the behanding, Schaumann issued a refusal to pay. This we all found strange, because the scene we staged had convinced a police investigation sufficiently.
Father abandoned us shortly after the incident. My brother and I spent time in an orphanage. Péter obsessed over finding Father, but my thoughts ran more frequently to Schaumann. I conceived of Schaumann as an architect of our fate, far more powerful than the worthless, drunken schemer who raised us. Having seen Péter suffer through adolescence without hands and without music, I felt the need to collect the old debt from the mysterious insurer. I knew only that his letterhead listed a Vienna address.
The train departed well past midnight, empty, but loud with the sounds of clattering metal, the squeaking of loose fixtures, sounds passengers cover over in the daytime with the hum of their presence. I sat beside the window and watched the milling darkness until dawn. As the sun rose, and the horizon began to assert itself, manmade elements began to sprout up in the landscape: trellises, abandoned stations, the clock towers of low villages, barracks. These human interruptions became more persistent as Vienna approached, snagging at my eyes until dizziness set in and I had to look away.
The seat beside me lay vacant but for a German newspaper, whose main piece of news was that I could not read German as well as I had assumed. I tried to sound out some of the words to myself, knowing I would need to call upon the language in just a few minutes. Perhaps my murmured and tentative German prompted the sneer from the Austrian border official. His uniform was foreign to me, for this border between Austria and Hungary had only recently come to exist. The sneer could have just as easily been for my stench. I suppose my posture looked strange, too. I kept adjusting a bulge at my groin, for that was where I had fastened my pouch of coins, tying it to my belt loops and letting it hang down inside my tattered trousers.
When I arrived at Schaumann's address, I was greeted by a charred hole. I went into a café on the same block, ordered hastily, and asked the waiter, in sloppy German made worse by my agitation, what had happened to the building. He recalled a fire, of course, but not how it started or whether anyone had perished. I showed the waiter the letterhead from Schaumann's agency and asked whether he knew of the man. He shrugged. He was pretty certain the building had been a residence of some kind, he told me, not a business.
I slurped away at a bowl of soup, despairing that Schaumann might have moved or gone bankrupt, or that his bones might lie among the blackened beams. Soon, the waiter brought me my bill, and suggested as politely as is possible that I not visit the restaurant again until I bought some new clothes and took a bath. I apologized sincerely for my state, and in return I think he took pity on me, for he told me not to worry, that I could find the current address of this Schaumann if I went to the library on the edge of the Stadtpark, where they kept records of such things.
I made an attempt to wash myself in a grand fountain at the center of the park, the hub from which its collection of groves, gardens, and ponds proliferated, strung up on the spokes of gravelly paths. No snow had fallen on Vienna, and people still walked in their autumn coats. The busy plaza in front of the library was lined with street performers and beggars, the latter of whom paused in their litanies of pleas as I passed. I felt the tug of their evaluation as I climbed the wide stone stairs.
The librarian wore a monocle over his eye—he had only one to wear it over. As I approached his desk, which towered above me, he gripped the far edge and pulled himself forward, leading with his nose. And so, most unfortunately, it was upon this organ that I made my first impression. He sniffed and blinked in surprise, or winked I suppose, and cried out, "Guard!"
"No! Please! I'm here to find someone," I rushed.
"Speak German, boy!" he spat down at me.
"Please. I try here is to find name. Schaumann. Schaumann is name I find."
"You think I'll find you whomever you please?"
"Please. Sir. I rode on train from Budapest."
"Yes. Yes. I try here is to find—"
The guard turned his bulk from the doorway and set a course for me.
"Why? Why?" I pleaded.
"This is a library!" replied the librarian, reddening with fury. "You come attired as a beggar, stinking like a dog, and expect me to help you? No! I will not!"
With no perceptible effort, the guard seized me under the arms and carried me toward the door. My feet barely grazed the floor as I backpedaled. I heard the librarian chortling behind me and managed to cast a glance back at his mocking little wave. The edge of the stone steps wheeled toward my face and the sky sank beneath my feet. Before I knew it, I lay heaped at the bottom of the stairs, an incandescent kind of pain radiating outward from my bones.
The guard was laughing heartily, but I denied him a glance as I patted myself down for damages. My jacket had ripped at the sleeves, as it had many times before, but I also felt a strange coolness around my hips. I brought myself wincingly to my feet, and as I did I felt the coins spill from the sack down my pant legs.
And as the sound of breadcrumbs falling on the ground draws pigeons, the tinkling of the coins drew the beggars gathered in the plaza. I tried to fight them off with kicks, but there were too many of them. They toppled me onto my back, and I felt hands like starved rats sliding up my pant cuffs. They stripped me of every last cent as the guard's laughter rained down.
My first night in the park, I caught a rabbit with my hands, broke its neck, and brought it over to a campfire blazing at the edge of a shadowy grove. I approached the man tending the fire, a redhead, older than the rest. A long, wormlike scar inched up from the base of his skull through his uneven hair. I offered him the rabbit I had caught. He took it and skinned it expertly with his knife, which was long and chipped at the tip and drew the eyes of the other boys as it glinted in the firelight. He roasted the rabbit and, when it was done, tore off hunks of the steaming meat for his boys, many more of whom materialized from the trees after smelling the crackling fat. As for my share, I was left with the head. I thought of protesting, but a fine rain had begun to fall, and I wished to bed down in one of the redhead's tents, so I held my tongue.
"Next time kill something larger. A raccoon at least," said the redhead.
"I will. As long as you let me borrow your knife," I replied.
"My knife? And who's to say you won't slit my throat with it, eh?" he asked sullenly. I mustered a good-natured laugh in response, but his scowl told me not to bother. I earned no shelter that night. And so I resolved to keep any more small game I caught for myself. But in the next few days, I wasn't able to catch anything. And after almost a week of subsisting on grass, lichens, and occasionally the refuse of picnickers, hunger arrived, howling like a cold, dry wind.
Disheartened and slow moving, I spent my days either alone in the groves searching for food or else stumbling among the encampments of park dwellers. Most of the older men living in the park had survived the war, or at least attributed their madness and amputations to it, and they all seemed to have a few young boys who relied on them for protection from the other shell-shocked veterans. One of the veterans had an old pistol and so was known as the gunman. His collection of boys ate the best and thought themselves superior. Other veterans had knives, slings, handmade cudgels. One even had a bow and arrow. His little band was by far the most pathetic, and it was easy to see why: with only one arm, how could he possibly fire his weapon?
The park dwellers had a name for me. They called me golem. In the tale most people know, the golem was brought to life by a rabbi. The rabbi sculpted him of clay, eight feet tall with blank eyes and no voice. The rabbi made the golem for the purpose of protecting the local Jews from pogroms, but then something went wrong and the creature started killing people indiscriminately. In the end, the rabbi had to destroy him. The boys in the park called me golem because I loomed tall above them and had a way of trudging around deliberately. Also because of my eyes, I suppose.
One night the archer and his boys got their hands on some wine. I watched them for a while, and once they had reached the stupor they seemed so bent on attaining, I stole into the archer's tent, snatched his bow and quiver, and ran off.
The quiver contained just one arrow. Over the next few days, I spent most of my time in the woods shooting against an oak tree. The chips of bark gradually focused inward to a deep point as I improved my accuracy. As I shot and retrieved and shot again, I dreamed of my plan.
After spending some time in the library plaza, I had observed the guard at his post and discovered some details about his lunchtime routine. Each day at half past noon precisely, he'd check his watch, turn, and head into the library. But it always took at least three minutes for the other guard to reach the vacated post, which meant the entrance remained unguarded for that amount of time. It also meant the two guards passed one another on the floor of the library's entrance hall, somewhere near the librarian's desk.
My plan was this: I would follow the guard as he headed inside, just one minute behind him. That way, I would reach the entrance hall when the two guards and the librarian were most likely to be clustered together. Then, flexing my bow and pointing my arrow with a terrifying scowl, I would order the guards to the floor and make my demand of the librarian: summon me the address of Schaumann, insurer of Vienna, or I will shoot an arrow through your eye.
It occurred to me that I might fabricate some convincing fake arrows, just to make it look as though I had more than one in my quiver, but just as this thought popped into my head, I heard a cracking sound and realized my arrow had not stuck in its target; it had splintered and lay now in a heap upon the roots of the tree I had shot so mercilessly in my practice. I spiked my bow to the ground and began to shout at that tree and all the other trees around me. I accused the trees of many things: of deliberately shattering my single arrow, of allowing my father to pass under their boughs without falling and crushing him, of keeping Schaumann hidden from me, of blessing me with no natural capabilities—as if trees could bestow blessings. All this came out very incoherently. But then, suddenly, I felt my voice drop away, for I was overcome by the feeling of being watched. As I looked around me, still and silent, I wondered about this observer. Surely he had watched my arrow shatter and heard my rant, but did he also know of my plan? Well, what did he think of it? Was he also sorry it would not come to pass? Whomever my observer was, he was close. With soft steps I approached the sound.
The peacock swiveled its head into profile to regard me with a gentle black eye. It feinted to the side of me, bowing its head fluidly as it walked—it did not strut as peacocks are known to do, but rather bobbed along with light, careful steps. The bird brought to mind a young ballerina in eveningwear, ashamed at her own beauty and grace. I peeked around its body to get a look at its plumage, which it held tucked away behind it, a quiver of resplendent arrows to mock my shattered one.
It dawned on me that the bird had likely escaped from the zoological garden, and for a moment I considered whether I could convince it to follow me, for perhaps if I returned it to the zookeeper, he might give me some reward. But then I felt my hunger gather itself up and blow through my body, roaring and shrieking. Before I knew it, I had fitted the peacock's head in my clawed hand and wrenched it around. I lay with all my weight upon the bird, feeling the tickle of the thrashing feathers, the heat of its breast, trying my best not to let my sighs of exertion coincide too closely with its final breaths.
I ate well that night, and in the morning went to the library plaza to sell the feathers. They sold quickly, and despite admonishing glances from the guard at the library entrance, I stayed my ground until my stock of feathers flew away.
The man who bought my last feather asked me where I came upon them. I began to answer, lying, but caught myself: I was speaking Magyar again.
"It's alright," he replied in Magyar. "I'm Hungarian, too."
Like an eel into muck I slipped back into my mother tongue, and I told the man, more or less honestly, where I had gotten the feathers.
"Tell me something," said my customer. "Did you find the peacock beautiful?"
"You must have been very hungry, then."
Yes, I had been hungry, I explained, but I did not believe the bird deserved to go on living just because I found it beautiful.
"That's an interesting idea," he commented, with a single dry laugh. But just then he saw a shadow fall over my expression.
"Is the young man bothering you?" the guard asked my customer.
"Not at all."
"He came into the library a week ago. Trying to steal the books!"
My customer turned to me. "You're looking for a book?" he asked.
I told him I was looking for a man.
"Schaumann," he tried out the sound of the name. "No first name? Well, let me see."
And with that, the man stepped past the guard and started up the stairs toward the library. I flashed the guard a gloating smile.
The guard kept a close eye on me as I waited on a stone bench for the man to return. When he did, I rose from my seat, but he shook his head.
"I found a Schaumann, first name Hans, who used to sell insurance," my customer explained, "but he died 20 years ago. No other Schaumanns were listed as insurers."
I thanked him, but my disappointment must have sounded through. He looked me over once and then looked down. He considered his feather, twirling it between his fingers.
"Have you worked before?"
The automat where I went to work had a long, straight kitchen behind the dividing wall of mahogany and glass. On the exterior of the wall, the side facing the dining room, elegant carving work weaved around the pigeonholes where hot dishes nested. I was responsible for placing plates in the holes from inside the kitchen. I also stepped in to wash dishes occasionally and swept the floor when it became too strewn with food for the line cooks to move freely. In contrast to the dishwashing and sweeping—boring, graceless tasks—the placing of plates satisfied me: you'd quickly grab a piping hot dish from the end of the line, swivel with food in hand, and slide it onto a shelf, all in a fluid maneuver. Wafts of aromatic steam would burst to the ceiling of the pigeonhole and fog the glass on the dining room's side, where diners put in their coins. I took particular pleasure at watching and smelling the steam.
The man who got me the job, who bought the peacock feather from me and tried to help me find Schaumann, had the same duties as me, which I found odd because he was older and wore a well-cared-for wool suit when he wasn't working in the kitchen.
Let's call him Laszlo, like me.
When Laszlo placed dishes in the pigeonholes, he worked quickly and accurately, but I sensed agitation rise up in him each time he approached the wall, a sort of stage fright. It wasn't until I was sent to sweep up in the dining room, a fairly rare occasion, that I realized why. As he set dishes in their holes, his eyes worked with frenzied quickness, like bees maddened by so many blossoms, scanning the crowd of diners. Before long, I asked him for whom he was looking.
"He comes here every weekday at lunchtime. He has very strange habits when it comes to what dish he selects. I can't make head or tail of it."
I asked Laszlo to point the man out to me, and the next day he did: black hair, bushy eyebrows, knobby cheekbones around which his entire face seemed to revolve. When it came to clothes, he wore the latest, all his overcoats lined with blood red silk and cut to the calf, and pinned to his lapel, a pewter eagle perched atop a skull of bone.
Soon Laszlo and I began to bet on the man's dish. When I didn't have money to bet, we would wager chores. But I won consistently, and here's how: if it were a particularly cold day, the man would keep his overcoat on until he was seated and would eat either gulyás or whatever dish was hot enough to fog the viewing window completely; if it were mild outside and his jowls hung slack, the nearest he came to expressing contentment, I could count on him for a poultry dish; if he were upset—and he hid this well, only a slight tightening of his mouth as he sat down could betray it—he ate the rarest meat the wall had to offer.
In retrospect I should have realized that the money Laszlo lost to me in our game far exceeded what he could have afforded on his salary. What may have blinded me to this fact was the smile he displayed at each loss, for I had never seen a man lose in such a marvelously good-natured way. His expression, upon confirming his defeat, came in rapid but distinct stages: his eyes glazed over and wrinkled at the corners; his mouth tightened, and the angle of his head suggested he was about to confide something in me, but this notion fled his face just as it took shape; then he would move his head back and raise his eyebrows and hands simultaneously, a gesture common to those resigning themselves to fate.
Lazlo and I conducted our pay-ups in the alley behind the restaurant on our breaks or after work. One day, Laszlo was paying me a particularly large sum of money—he was so sure of schnitzel that day, who knows what system he followed to lose so consistently—when a man materialized before us. Set deep in rings of grime, his eyes squinted against the light and wind, as if these things offended him.
I flinched and gasped. And as if to affirm the appropriateness of my shock, the man drew a knife from his pocket and demanded the money he had just seen pass between Laszlo's hand and mine. I looked to Laszlo. A surprising expression greeted me: beatific and understanding, Laszlo's eyes answered some question that had formed, unbeknownst to me, on my face. Yes, Laszlo.
Before I had time to consider this peculiar exchange any further, Laszlo grabbed the man's wrist and twisted his arm above his head. The knife clattered to the ground. Laszlo shoved the man forward and kicked away his knife, drawing a knife of his own from his pocket. The would-be robber scrambled up and touched his bleeding cheek in astonishment. Disappointment crossed his face, as crosses all faces upon waking. He lunged. Laszlo took a single step across his path, seized him, and delivered four flashing stabs to his chest.
The man didn't make much noise. He stepped slowly back from us until his hand found the alley wall. With the steadying wall, he limped into the light where the alley met the avenue.
Back in the kitchen, Laszlo rinsed his knife in the sink and, brazenly, I thought, and gave it a few quick whets on the butcher's sharpener. For the rest of the day a silence built up between us, a divided silence, mine jumpy, Laszlo's unusually serene.
The next day Laszlo was unwilling to bet on dishes. I asked why. He replied that he'd rather not say until our shift was over. Against custom, he asked if he could walk home with me.
"I'm trying to poison him," said Laszlo on our walk.
"The subject of our wagers."
Somehow this fact did not surprise me as much as his tone, which was removed and very far from the intimately jocular banter we shared when placing bets (though we did feign gravitas, elaborately, when declaring a winner).
"He has made a cuckold of me."
"That's not true."
"He is my father."
"That's not true, either."
"Then why?" he asked me, with a slight and mocking smile.
"You're a killer."
Laszlo stopped and faced me.
"Yes. However, I do not want to kill this man. I will, but I do not want to. Clearly you see something in his expressions I do not, but I see enough. I've noticed what he does when he begins to eat. He breathes, he chews slowly, his eyes go a little dim and sweep from side to side..."
I had noticed the same thing in our man. But to me it wasn't anything special—many share a similar expression during the first bites of their lunch.
"Those first bites make him a child to me," said Laszlo, "and innocent."
I was sure Laszlo, if he was indeed a killer, had killed people with whom he sympathized before. I told him as much.
"Yes, yes, of course. But this is something different. Our man is a hardened sinner, one who takes pleasure in acts of great depravity. Rumor has it he used to keep a cellar of wolfhounds, starve them, cut out their eyes, and every now and again unleash them in churches. Goodwill enrages him, but he also mistrusts it fundamentally, which makes him restless and vigilant. I have watched him for many weeks, and our automat is the only place he attends without his bodyguards. He likes it there. He likes the novelty of it, maybe. His first bites of food at lunch, this is the only time I have seen him look like a person. And now I will kill him in this rarefied state."
Laszlo looked quite cheerless at this last admission, so I asked him: if indeed this man became a person at a certain moment, when at all the other moments of his days he was something else, then wouldn't it be best to let him die at the zenith of his personhood?
"Then you do it," Laszlo replied. "Here."
I found Laszlo's hands clasped around my palm. Into the pocket between our hands he had slipped a small vial.
"The money is no issue. You can have my full share. At the very least, it will allow you to quit the automat for a while. If that is what you wish."
It snowed through the night and into the next morning. When the man came into the automat, I looked to the cooks' line and there sat a plate of wienerschnitzel with buttery boiled potatoes, steam from both commingling in the air above the dish. The man approached the mahogany wall still wearing his overcoat, something he never did. I kept the vial in the fold of my rolled-up sleeve. During my swivel from the line to the pigeonholes I found a spare instant to pour its contents into the potatoes. I could see the man's eyes, yellow and tired, through the wall as I went to place the dish. I dipped the plate to a low shelf, but the man caught my eye and nodded upward. Slowly I raised the plate to a pigeonhole at the level of his hand. Again he nodded, presumably in gratitude. He slipped his coin in the slot and the little glass door sprung open.
I tracked him through the frames of the pigeonholes as he walked to his table. Laszlo, over by the sink, watched also. Our man went for the veal first—he pierced a sizable piece on his fork, closed his mouth around it, and let the tines slide out clean from his lips. The hot mouthful brought rosiness to his jowls and a shine to the peaks of his knobby cheekbones. The wrinkles around his lips fled to points unknown. His nostrils flared in little bursts, siphoning in cool air. His eyes glistened and smiled at the corners. The next bite, he balanced a piece of potato on top of his forkful of veal, and his expression leveled out to an even contentment. He maintained this expression until the poison took hold, which, thankfully, didn't flood his face with fury or outrage—just surprise, innocent surprise.
Under these circumstances, I first killed for money. The money for this killing, as Laszlo had promised, was more than enough to end our employment at the automat. The night after, we shared a bottle of wine at Laszlo's apartment. Instead of furniture, several locked chests served us as table and chairs.
Laszlo asked me to confirm my commitment to the profession in which I had found myself: with little sense of drama, he inquired as to whether or not I had a moral problem with killing those whom others wished to be killed. I told him I did not.
"You know, you never thanked me for saving you from the man with the knife," he said, after a moment's hesitation.
"Oh, no? Thank you."
"You're very welcome."
I didn't really understand this at the time, but now I wonder whether he meant to suss out some irregularity in my motivation—clearly gratitude didn't figure highly in it. And yet, when I thought about it, I was grateful to Laszlo, long before he saved me from the man with the knife. He had gotten me a job, a place to live, food to eat. In fact, for the past few weeks, he had made me the focus of all his attention. I would have done anything he asked of me.
Anyway, my response seemed to satisfy him, and so my tutelage began.
The first night he handled basics: how to keep my money safe, how to avoid incriminating routines. He explained how I could render myself forgettable, difficult for me, he said, because I am large and somewhat scary looking. He outlined the types of clients who would find me: they would be jealous husbands, they would be malicious wives; they would be politicians and party leaders, they would be rebels and revolutionaries; they would be upstarts in business, religious fanatics, quiet bureaucrats harboring lifelong grudges; they would be people for whom a life stood in the way of a great sum of money. He told me what words I could use to achieve distance and control with these people, how to avoid provoking the rage and sorrow that would send them to me. He described methods of following people covertly. He suggested a tailor who would make me a coat with pockets suited to my needs, a cobbler who would sole my shoes in thick black felt to hush my footsteps. He showed me the fingerprinting techniques of the police, and gave me the card of a master glove maker. He wrote down the address of a reclusive optician who made, for customers such as Laszlo, powerful telescopes that collapsed to the size of snuff tins. In a trunk, under the guard of a lock that required two keys, there lay the makings of poisons: sachets of herbs, tiny labeled vials, heavy brown bottles, and beakers of exotic shapes. He wrote down recipes for several poisons and tinctures, and asked that I burn these notes once I had committed the formulae to memory. He unlocked another trunk and brought out a rifle and pistol; he showed me how to assemble and disassemble each. He taught me the rudiments of marksmanship and weapons-handling, and suggested several places outside the city where shooting practice would go unheard.
And one day, he took me back to the library.
Even in my new clothes, with my clean-shaven face and neatly trimmed hair—Laszlo knew how to handle a barber's shears, it must be said—I remained apprehensive about returning. I was sure the guard would have some remark with which to detain me, and I cycled through a few cutting replies I might aim back at him, but as we passed, we did not draw his gaze at all. And when Laszlo stopped at the desk of the librarian with the monocle, the man looked directly into my eyes and failed to see the filthy urchin he had thrown out a month before.
Laszlo must have caught sight of my astonishment, for as we walked away along the lamp-lit tables of the main hall, he smiled and vaguely explained, "It's happening already."
Lazlo introduced me to the City Records section in the basement. The works there were more coarsely constructed than those in the rest of the library: a cramped hand on broad onionskin sheets, covers made from scrap leather. Leather covers of the same size bound newspapers, too, and it was as if the act of binding made the collection of pages more of a story, elevating it to something more than a shroud in which to bring a fish home.
"Like titans. They can't get along with the works upstairs," Laszlo said of them. I barely registered the aptness of his comparison. My thoughts were elsewhere. Laszlo had only spent a few minutes trying to track Schaumann down the day I met him, but now we had hours. As my gaze coursed across the book spines, I knew something more about the insurer must lurk there. I envisioned the pages fluttering free of their bindings and the room expanding around us to accommodate their multitude.
"Something wrong?" Laszlo asked. I nodded no and struggled to regain my concentration as Laszlo began a lecture concerning how the public record was to be used for our purposes: what information was pertinent in tracking someone down, learning their routine, and predicting their movements.
Outside after lunch, Laszlo interrupted the peeling of his postprandial apple to gesture at a passing woman with his knife. "What do you make of her?" he asked as she shuffled by the coffeehouse, her hands twiddling inside a fur muff. I shrugged. Laszlo wiped his knife, pocketed it, and silently led me out onto the sidewalk. We followed the woman for an hour, then spent the afternoon trying to determine her identity by counter-checking the things we had observed with information we accrued down in the basement of the library. As a result Laszlo and I were able to guess—accurately, to my amazement—the identity of the man she was going to meet at midnight, how long their affair had been going on, and approximately when and how it would come to an end.
We spent a month practicing these techniques. I had little time to myself, most of which I spent sleeping or otherwise daydreaming about the people into whose lives Laszlo and I peered and—sometimes—reached. I slept at Laszlo's apartment now, not having bothered to pay the bill at the hotel where I had been staying. I bedded down on a shabby rug in the corner farthest from where the light swept in from the living room window; Laszlo had no couch, no extra bed within the maid's quarters, which like the rest of the rooms in his apartment, housed his trunks.
Every time we visited the library, I thought about Schaumann and hoped Laszlo and I might have some extra time to try to find him—it might even prove a valuable exercise, I thought. But whenever I got close to suggesting this idea, Laszlo would announce some pressing engagement and promptly end the lesson.
One day, when I finally managed to make my request, Laszlo asked me to wait. "There'll be time. I have something else to show you now at my apartment."
The identification papers he had forged himself, but he left me with the names of several talented forgers should I need other documents. When I inspected the papers, I saw he had substituted his name for mine.
"Think of this as an exchange," he said with the smile he reserved for my most brazen naivety: an eye-smile, with lips tightly pressed to hold back, I thought, a frown of slight concern.
"An exchange," I continued, admiring the workmanship of the forgery. "I'm not sure you'd like to trade your life for mine. Do you know anything of it?"
"No," said Laszlo. "All I know is that you're looking for a man called Schaumann."
Against all reason, I told Lazslo then about about Péter and his hands and our father. I explained my suspicion that Schaumann had wielded an oversized hand in our fate.
"Why do you want to kill this Schaumann?" asked Laszlo, after a pause.
"I'd like to redeem the misery he's caused my family," I said.
"For your brother."
"Yes, for my brother."
"It doesn't sound like your brother cares about this Schaumann very much," he said.
"Of course he does."
"Why did he stay in Budapest, then? Why didn't he come to Vienna with you?"
"He thinks our father is all to blame. But once I talk to Schaumann—"
He interrupted: "Talk to him? I thought you were going to kill him?"
"I have to talk to him first."
"What are you going to talk to him about?"
He could tell I wasn't certain.
"A mysterious, unfindable man gets all the blame, does he? What about your father? What about you? Where were you when little Péter put his hands under the streetcar?"
I tried to break in, but Laszlo persisted.
"And this Schaumann. I have no doubt you'll destroy him eventually, because you now have the skills to do so, but tell me, how do you think you'll feel?"
"I don't know that I will," I replied.
Laszlo nodded, showing the same inward bemusement he'd shown when twirling his newly bought peacock feather. He then handed over to me his knife, a straight blade with an ebony handle. I immediately protested it was too generous. Laszlo used that knife for many small tasks each day, and the grip, I explained, had worn to fit his hand, not mine.
"What difference does it make to the knife?" he asked.
After a moment I realized he wanted an answer to this question. "None," I admitted.
"So take my knife, and learn a lesson from it. Let the hands of others wield you however they may. And stay sharp."
Just then a brisk knock sounded. I half expected him to reach for the knife or some other weapon, as he often did instinctively when he heard footsteps in the hallway outside, but instead he calmly glanced at his watch, rose, and strode over to the doorway. Several uniformed porters entered and busied themselves with Laszlo's trunks. He shook my hand, and in my palm I found the keys to my new home.
I wrote to Péter frequently in the first months of my new career. I told him I had secured a job at an apothecary, and I rambled on about the food, wine, and music of Vienna, lingering particularly on the last. I made sure to read the music press of Budapest and suggest various concerts I thought he should attend, insisting that an empty seat awaited him, reserved under his name. Not knowing where better to reach him, I addressed the letters to a house of prostitution I assumed he still frequented.
I did not attend many concerts myself. I did attend art exhibitions, of Klimt, Grosz, Otto Dix and others, but I wrote this habit off as research: from the paintings of these talented but very sex-obsessed men, I was able to stock my mind's eye with a collection of whores, famous dancers, and bohemians from which I fabricated affairs to tell Péter about. I did not want him worrying after my social life.
In the letters, I left out my efforts to find Schaumann. I had tried to find him, of course. More or less immediately after Laszlo departed, I scurried off to the library and, finding it closed, broke in. I searched until the morning and confirmed what Laszlo had told me: no living insurer named Schaumann existed in the public record. An obituary marked the death of a Hans Schaumann, insurer, deceased. Hans. I had a hunch this man might be my Schaumann's father, and thought perhaps the younger Schaumann would share his father's first name, but to be safe I tallied a list of all Schaumanns within the city limits: there were 65 of them. I wrote down their 65 addresses in a notebook and copied them over to commit them to memory. I also purchased a detailed map of the city and put black dots at the residences of my Schaumanns.
For years I peered into their living rooms and knocked on their doors on false pretenses, sometimes in disguise. Eventually I threw out the map with the black dots, for I had them memorized. I found Schaumann the lawyer, Schaumann the clerk, Schaumann the soldier, Schaumann the peeping tom, Schaumann the invalid, but never Schaumann the insurer. And the better I became at tracking people down, the more my failure smarted. Surely he must have clients—how did they find him?
As for my own clients, they flowed in from the channels Laszlo had described. I was always able to meet their needs. I worked. I applied a set of skills easy enough to acquire, but ones no one else in Vienna—or Central Europe, for that matter—seemed to possess. I gained great sums of money and kept it in gold, secure in locked trunks in my bare apartment. When I had filled all the trunks my predecessor left me, I bought new ones. In time, they too were filled.
The socialite tracked me down seven or eight years after I came to Vienna. I was sitting in my office, a small room I rented above a café, when she barged in.
"I'm looking for death," she began, without so much as a greeting, "I understand you supply it. I take it you're familiar with most life insurance policies. Mine pays out double if you die in an accident. My son's the beneficiary of my policy. He's spoiled, and I intend to keep him that way. He had a father, but the worthless sot squandered his fortune on some mining venture in the Urals. I'm penniless myself. So how's my boy supposed to afford his tutor? His horse and stable in the country?" She paused long enough for me to catch on these were not rhetorical questions.
"He'll have to give up riding," I said. "And studying. They'll probably put him in an orphanage."
"Yes, that is unless we do something about it. This is my social calendar."
She handed me an overstuffed black leather book.
"I won't make any dates after May," she said.
I asked her whether the person she wanted killed was going to be at one of these events.
"Of course," she said. "The person is me. You're going to give me the most stylish death in Vienna. I recommend you kill me at one of the charity balls. If possible, I'd like to be killed immediately after committing an act of benevolence. But, ultimately, that's a detail I'll allow you to sacrifice for beauty's sake. I simply must have a beautiful death."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, I don't feel I need to explain myself any further, not to you. You know what you're doing. Now as for your payment, my will leaves you 60,000 kronen. Will you do it?"
"I'll require payment beforehand, and it'll have to be in gold," I replied, "But yes. For that I'll kill you any way you want."
We shared a pause, and I couldn't help but let her face entrance me. A mismatched face. The features seemed to have been wrought by a childish hand, suggesting some individual care but no thought to composition: a sketched nose, eyes pressed under a layer of glass. Her expressions always seemed on the verge of definition, like smoke—revolving, collapsing, reforming, a cloak that is motion.
I spoke with her again only once. At the end of a day of shopping, the socialite entered a coach with a dandyish sort of man, each to doors on either side. The socialite and the dandy rode together to a townhouse in the Spittelberg. He checked the street for onlookers as he held the door for his lover, though his clothes deafened any sense of discreetness he meant to achieve.
Outside the house, I waited until morning. I don't know why. My surveillance up to that point had provided me with more than enough details about her.
When the socialite opened the front door on her own, her eyes found me without pause, even though I had chosen my hiding place with care. From the opposite sidewalk she beckoned, and when I made no move to get up, she stifled a little giggle and beckoned again, more theatrically, with a diving nod of the head.
I quickly collapsed my telescope and rose from the bush where I was hiding. Brushing nettles from my clothes, I hurried toward her, but as I was about to step into the street I saw her flail her arms and cry, "Stop!"
I stopped. Inches from my face, a man on a bicycle passed by, trailing a few angry rings of his bell.
"I saved you," she said, when finally I reached her. As I came close, she turned her eyes up and added, "Does that count as an act of benevolence?"
"I get hit by bicycles all the time," I said. "I'm used to it. Besides..."
I looked up at the window of the townhouse, a margin between curtains.
"He's almost certainly asleep," she said. "And I'm not so sure he'd care. But now the moment's passed. Let's walk."
As she walked off in front of me, and the wind pushed the smell of her hair into my face, I counted vapors of anise and wine-sweat and something more exotic I couldn't place. I looked down at her feet to find her stepping a bit crookedly. I offered my elbow and she took it.
"It's not some lover's quarrel that makes me wish to die," said the socialite.
"You can tell me if you wish."
"Well, all the business about my son is true. I do wish to provide a comfortable life for him. But I've also sensed for a long time that my death was not fated to be a peaceful one. A gypsy told me when I was a girl. And just as long ago, I decided that the most graceful way to fulfill this prophesy would be to die at the hands of another. And if I'm to die this way, I wish to die in a way that's flattering for me. I don't see why a death can't be the most beautiful part of one's life. I know I'm vain. But so what? Is it really vanity if I won't be around to enjoy it?"
I said I didn't know.
"Oh, I can tell you don't really care, and that's alright, but let me tell you something. You should be flattered I chose you. Now let me see them."
She stopped and turned toward me. She reached out, for my hands I realized, but I kept them in my pockets. I surrendered when she took hold of my wrists. She peeled off my gloves and stuck them both in the pocket of my coat, where she jostled and surely registered the shape of my knife. Then, with a touch so light it seemed to brush only the hairs on my knuckles, she flipped over my hands and began to rub circles in my palms with her thumbs.
"You really ought to take better care of those fingernails. It's what they hide that's most remarkable. Your fingertips. Little bulbs, so fragile. Are they a trait of your family's?"
"Remarkable. Your hands are beautiful, Laszlo, so beautiful."
A number of half-formed expressions played on her face, like a mysterious object twirling at the surface of murky water. I thought I saw understanding.
"Please," I drew my hands away and returned them to my pockets. "There's nothing remarkable about my hands."
"Let me see them again."
"No," I said, directly and humorlessly, and turned away from her. I wanted to break into a run, but realized I'd draw too much attention to myself, so I walked away, as quickly as I could, the weight of my knife tapping at my thigh with each stride.
I hadn't held Father's hand in years, but I did then: I suggested my hand into his, and together we watched Péter grip the rail. As the train bore down, I faintly pulled Father toward me. He blocked a gust of wind, and made for me a little eddy of dead air, which must have been what made me feel so serene. The streetcar struck Péter's forehead as it passed, bucking over his hands before it tottered and, with a creaking pause on two wheels, tipped over. Father and I had not counted on the car striking his forehead, nor the car derailing as it did. The derailment actually proved fortunate. It spread a layer of confusion over the scene, distracting bystanders from the flaws in Péter's performance: the staginess of his turn before he rushed toward the car, and the fact that, as anyone could see, he had gripped the rail firmly without even attempting to snatch the watch Father had dropped nearby as a diversion. The watch survived the incident, completely unharmed.
The socialite had circled several events in April, but only one caught my eye: a benefit concert for an orphanage. I was surprised to find the orphans were allowed to attend. Péter had played at the concert hall when we were very young, so I knew the attic passages from past explorations with him. I drilled a series of peepholes in the floor to observe the socialite. I set charges around a chandelier fixture, thinking I might use it to create a distraction.
Before intermission, the socialite took a break from the performance and strolled down the hall to the atrium. At the top of the stairs, she looked down to find an orphan in the middle of the atrium floor, struggling to tie his shoe. She descended the stairs, approached the orphan, and stooped to help him. I could hear her murmuring something to him as she worked away at the laces. Whatever she said made him giggle. His shoe tied, the boy ran off, but she stayed crouched, looking on at him with an expression I could not see.
I felled the chandelier on her. I don't know if the orphan saw the chandelier fall, but I can only assume he heard the crash. I find this unfortunate, because I don't intend to make children witnesses to outrageous acts of violence. The sound was so loud, it made me jump back from the hole I had wrought in the ceiling: a wooden ripping, a tinkling whoosh, and a great shattering.
I brought myself to the edge.
Her legs emerged as a single trunk at the fringe of the tangle of glass. One of her arms stuck through, and the leaves around it shone the color of her flesh. A tiny trail of blood coursed down her wrist from the heel of her hand. Her fingers curled.
Against my better judgment, I attended her funeral—under the cover of disguise, of course. I chose the arrogant, squandering aristocrat for this occasion; I had even fabricated a convincing prosthetic for the nose. The thawing day sent snow slumping from headstones and left fingers of dampness on the church's façade. I observed the mourning crowd from within it. I saw her son, who struck me as an unremarkable boy. I could not tell whether his droopy eyes were an effect of recent tearfulness or merely boredom. I recognized few of her male acquaintances present, most of whom wore the clothes of bohemians and artists—the suits beyond a quality they could afford and yet rumpled and ill-cared-for, the hairstyles overly fussy. As a sort of game, I began to assign them fanciful roles in her life. This one had made her an abstraction in oils. This one had tried opium on her recommendation. This one had let her destroy a drawing room of his country home for sport.
I did recognize the dandy, who even at a funeral, did not deny his outfit some splashes of color: a vermillion tiepin, oversized links in his watch chain—but who am I to criticize his costume of mourning? His tears seemed genuine, and his weeping swelled his lips and made them even redder than usual. Lingering over her casket, he let a ribbon looped around his finger unfurl, at the end of the ribbon, a key. The key spun freely down, turning its last wild turn, until the ribbon tautened and the key was hanged. The dandy let his victim swing a few strokes, and in this I could see it had been a key of considerable use, no keepsake. It did indeed open a door. I know because when it came time for me to approach the casket, hunching in affected grief, I deftly lifted the key out of its intended resting place and stowed it away in my pocket.
I couldn't avoid her face. In stillness her features had finally attained coherence; her expression had defined itself, and so her face had lost its beauty. When I went to rise from my hunched position, I discovered I couldn't, and I realized my grief was not affected after all. I felt a hot unclenching in my face and chest and knew tears had been dispatched; I felt them arrive with a sort of relief. I looked back down at her face and searched for just one of the features or expressions that had struck me as so marvelous, but I could find none. Only as my eyes became completely blurred could I imagine.
My footsteps and the closing door behind me broke a stillness that had built up in the enormous, undivided room. The socialite had decorated her love nest with much hanging silk and plush pillows, daubs of wine and meat and olive colors. I felt stabs of nausea at the thought of the pillows muffling her cries of pleasure, the silk winding around her wrists, her neck. A bathtub lorded it over a corner of the room, flaunting its lack of partition, its shamelessness. The claw feet seemed to wriggle in delight.
I paced loop-de-loops about the floor until it occurred to me to take up a weapon. A poker by the fireplace entered my view. At first, I let it lay loosely in my palm to test its weight. Then, I swung the iron in a few grand arcs. Finally, I brought it down on the rounded lip of the bathtub. This did nothing but send a lingering vibration through my hands and wrists, but the numbness made it all the easier to go on in my attempt to break the thick, white enamel. After several hits, a crack began to drive down from the lip of the tub. The rhythm of my sharp breaths, the swing of the iron, and the clanging impact lulled me into a faintly peaceful feeling.
I heard a wrenching crack, a thump on the floor, and a rocking sound. A great, white sliver had gone missing from the tub. I stooped down to take a closer look and, from this position, noticed a flaw in the wainscoting near the floor.
Behind the panel I found a stash of black books. Some were diaries about her daily life, others contained impressions of music and art. Eventually, I came upon a book whose pages were filled with newspaper clippings. Soon I realized what the clippings had in common. The articles never mentioned me by name, nor did they ever seem to guess at a connection between murders, but the dossier she had assembled seemed almost complete. Me and my crimes.
Among the papers on her desk I found information regarding her life insurance. On the letterhead of her policy, "& Son" had been omitted. It was just Schaumann now.
Georg Schaumann. 14 Dannhausergasse, 2nd Floor.