TWENTY ONE - Klara
Even heading into the dungeon of the dreaded Petschek Palace, I want to do a happy dance. Fuchs is dead. I am not certain exactly how that came about. But it has to be something I did....right? He was healthy as a horse otherwise.
Suddenly, my imminent death does not seem useless at all. I may have saved thousands of lives by somehow managing to kill Fuchs. Is it too selfish of me to have hoped that my own life and the lives of my family and friends were among those that were spared? Perhaps. But I feel it all the same. I wish I had more time. I wish Ester had more time. I wish so many, many things.
The brightly lit hallway leads the way to a hulking door which has a look of finality about it. I know where that door leads. Koch opens the door and shoves me in, making me stumble. There is a perceptible drop in temperature which somehow feels symbolic. I grope around and clutch the cold wall for support. The smile on his thin lips was far colder than the basement or the walls.
I go down the steps into the basement. Before, when Petschek Palace was still a bank under Dr. Julius Petschek, the basement housed the bank’s safes and vaults. The rich clients were probably brought down here to access their safes, because the rich carpeting continues into the hallway in the basement.
I am keeping a fairly brisk pace. Yet Koch finds it necessary to push and prod me into going faster. And to think that I had thought the man to be mild mannered when he was talking to Gunter!
Finally, when we are nearly at the end of the passage, he grabs me and makes me stop in front of a metal door. He opens the door and shoves me inside. The plush carpet under my feet suddenly gives way to a harsh, cold, concrete floor.
There is nothing in the room. Absolutely nothing. I look around and correct my earlier observation. There is something in the room. A pair of iron handcuffs hang from the ceiling.
I look at Koch. I had expected him to lock the door and leave me in this coffin. But he is still here. His eyes, which are like narrow slits in his long, thin face, are trained on me. A large stone slowly drops into my stomach. What is he thinking? Why does he not leave? I rather prefer being alone in the coffin to his company.
With my heart thudding in my ears, I wait to see what he is going to do next. Fortunately, he simply looks me over at a leisurely pace, smirks at me and says, “I will see you soon, fraulein.”
The heavy, metal door closes with a resounding clunk and I am left wondering how soon will soon be. The room, it is a stretch to call it a room, but I I don’t want to say that I am sitting in a box. There is nowhere to sit, no light to see by, no windows and nothing to do. The floor is so cold, I am sure that my backside will be numb soon after I sit.
I am sure that the place that I am locked in, was a vault. Hence the lack of any ventilation. I walk around for a little while and am about to finally sit down when m skin erupts in goosebumps. The utter silence around me is broken by an agonised scream. Oh my God! They are torturing some poor soul. I clap my hands over my ears, but the scream is now ringing inside my ears. I cannot un-hear it.
The scream is followed by so many more, I lose count. I know tears are running down my cheeks, but I can’t seem to stop them. I try to block out the sound, but I can’t. Somehow it feels like I am disrespecting his sacrifice by trying to ignore his suffering. So, I sit there, in the darkness and suffer in my own way along with him.
I don’t know how long it goes on for, but eventually, everything goes quiet. I hope the poor man is not dead. Then again, I hope he is dead, so he won’t have to go through this ever again. It will be my turn soon. I think they have left me alone to stew on it.
I think I fall asleep after some time, because the next thing I know is the clang of metal. The door to my room opens and a harsh ray of light seeps in. All I see is long shadow framed in the doorway. I blink, trying to focus my sleep blurred vision. A light comes on in my room. It is set into a deep recess in the ceiling. They must have a switch outside the room.
It is Frank. I remember the way he had looked at me before he sent me here, and a shudder runs through me. I stand up, desperately trying to control my shaky legs. There is nothing I want to say to him, so I wait for him to say or do something. I tell myself that no matter what, I will not tell him anything. Fortunately, I really don’t know much at all, other than Otto, Tomas, Frank and Fischer’s names. I vow to myself that I will not tell him their names. The man’s tortured screams earlier now give me strength. If he suffered so much pain, I can do it too.
Frank saunters to the middle of the room. There is no one with him. He must think me completely harmless to come in here all alone. I could make a dash for it. As he comes closer, I unwittingly step back, away from him and come up with my back to the cold steel walls. I quickly look around. It is an instinct.
As soon as my back hits the wall, he stops walking. He says nothing, just stands there, looking at me. He is not overly tall, not like Gunter, but he still towers over me. There are bags under his eyes and thick bushy eyebrows. An overly large nose, strong chin and a receding hairline. I can’t pinpoint one single thing on his face that makes him look ruthless. Perhaps it is the way he carries himself that screams ruthlessness. Nevertheless, he is standing right in front of me and doing nothing. Saying nothing. His silence is somehow sapping my resolve.
Finally, there is a break in his face. A smile. And then he says, “Well, Fraulein Barsch. What were you thinking? Trying to kill Reichsprotektor Fuchs!”
Does he expect me to say anything to this? Well, he can keep waiting. I am not going to open my mouth. Once again he lapses into a silence. And then the silence is broken with a cracking smack. His hand across my face. There is so much force behind that blow that I am thrown sideways and bang my head against the other wall.
I don’t know how I am still conscious. He closes the gap between us, grabs my hair and pulls me up to my feet. His face is mere inches from mine when he says, “You are very lucky. That Flachwichser Moravek squealed already.”
The pressure on my scalp is agonising. I sink my teeth into my lower lip to stifle the scream that is threatening to slip past. Frank grabs my jaw with his other hand, his fingers digging into my cheeks and says, “I wonder if I should keep you alive to see your mother and sister’s corpses, or shoot you now and be done with it.”
I want to spit at his offensive face. Instead, I raise my hand and crack it across his face. His eyes register shock. Did he think he was the only one who could slap people around? Well, now he knows. I want to smirk back at him. but the pain in my scalp is overwhelming.
I can see clearly that my little act has enraged him. With his hand still in my hair, he pushes me back until my back hits the wall again and then buries his fist in my stomach. I would have doubled over, but he is still holding my head captive.
"Die Sau! You dare!” He pulls out the gun strapped to his belt and I hear a click. It is followed by a bang which rattles my brain in the small, enclosed space and then comes the fire.