The opening chapter to my tenth novel, Monstrumfuhrer, due out January 24th from Comet Press.
1936’s December blew a bracing cold through high Ingolstadt. A cream colored new model Opel Olympia hummed through the twisting streets that ran between the crowded old edifices, necessarily clustered because of its encircling wall designed to defend it in its long gone capitol days. The car’s frame shuddered on the chipped cobbles just as the iron tires of the horse drawn carts had once.
A pudgy, flush faced boy paused at a curb to let the car rumble by, seeing himself stretch and thin in the bright world captured in the mud spattered chrome. It was as though he had been granted a brief glimpse of his future, better self to bolster him in the remainder of his awkward years. The boy smiled, and waved to the driver.
The well groomed man at the wheel looked down at the boy through the glass, acknowledging him with a nod for the clear passage granted, and a lazy half-salute. The boy waved harder, an excited puff of warm breath escaping between his teeth; he thought the man might be a movie star.
The car went on.
After a few blocks, it drew up to a curb across the street from one of the old-style gabled houses. This one sprouted a high, stone turret.
The engine of the Olympia cut out, and the driver’s door groaned open, relinquishing its motorist to the cold. The driver shuddered briefly beneath his rich, camel hair coat and set a feathered, Bavarian style hat on his head. One ivory gloved hand pushed the car door shut, and he crossed the street to the door of the house.
There followed a long moment after the visitor sounded the bell, in which the man turned slowly in place with his hands deep in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, stomping his feet for warmth. It was easy to see how the boy had mistaken him for an actor. He seemed too good looking to be anything else. His fine dark hair was neatly trimmed and styled, his face free of stubble, unmarred by even the blemish of cold.
A plump, white haired man with a broom mustache answered the door.
“Hello Friedrich,” the visitor said, doffing his hat.
“Beppo!” the older man exclaimed, stepping aside and waving him in. “Come in! Come in!”
The foyer was warm and the red drained from the visitor’s ears. The older man took his hat, but ‘Beppo (the name seemed a woeful misnomer)’ made no move to surrender his coat.
“Please,” Friedrich said, gesturing to a brass hook on the nearby mirror stand, “let me take your coat.”
“No really,” Beppo demurred. “I’m afraid I can’t stay. I’m expecting important news you see, and I must return to Leipzig in the morning.”
Friedrich held the hat in both hands, his lined face disappointed.
“Ah? Are you sure you can’t stay? At least for supper?”
The younger man shook his head, apologetic.
“I’m afraid not. It’s about my appointment, you see. I really must be there, and I want to get an early start.”
“Of course, of course,” the old man nodded, hanging the hat on the hook. “You’ll stay for a cup of tea, though?”
“Certainly,” Beppo allowed, removing his pristine doeskin gloves and folding them neatly.
The young man took a seat in the adjoining drawing room and regarded the collection of delicate ceramic Capodimonte gypsies capering on the mantle. They were snowed in under a blanket of dust. Nothing a man would keep in his house; these were the exquisite relics of Friedrich’s late wife, whose name escaped his memory. A cuckoo clock poised to release its inmate for hourly exercise hung high on the wall. The young man’s mind again wandered to the trip that lay before him and the important matter that waited at the end of it.
Friedrich returned, bearing a plain tray of china cups and a steaming pot. After a bit of clattering, he handed over a dainty cup and saucer. More womanly remembrances. The young man crossed his legs and sipped the tea as his host took the high-backed chair opposite him.
“How are your father and the factory?” Friedrich asked, brushing at his mustache with a table napkin.
“Thank you, fine,” the younger man replied. “He sends you his best as always.” then, as an afterthought before the tea touched his lips again, “As does mother.”
“Your appointment,” Friedrich ventured, “it will be at the university?”
The younger man shook his head.
“Not at the university proper,” he sipped, relishing his news as though it were contained in the cup. “Actually, Professor Mollinson has recommended me to Professor Von Verscheur’s staff at the Reich Institute.”
Friedrich raised his eyebrows.
The younger man uncrossed his legs and rested his elbows on his knees, excited. Friedrich was the first he’d told, officially.
“Of course, I don’t dare hope that I’ll be accepted, but if I should…,” he smiled uncontrollably revealing a gap between his two front teeth that spoiled his film star looks only slightly. “Think of it, Freidrich!”
Friedrich smiled broadly at his young guest’s enthusiasm. He probably had little more than an inkling of the importance of the news. The Reich Institute he had heard of surely, Von Verscheur, likely he had not.
“But why shouldn’t you hope for the best, Beppo?” he said, wagging a finger in a way his grandfather used to do. “You are a brilliant physician. Your father always knew you would exceed all our expectations.”
The young man rubbed the bridge of his nose and chuckled at the praise. Friedrich knew nothing of the Institute or of his skill as a physician. These were just empty, stupid words of encouragement.
“You embarrass me,” Beppo said. “It’s only an assistant’s position.” Of course it was more, but what did the old man know or care?
“Ah,” said Friedrich, mustering more encouragement, “but Herr Professor Von Verscheur is a great man, is he not? Great men recognize greatness in others.”
The young man sat back and sipped his tea. In his blindness, the old man had stumbled upon a truth. A hope he had not dared to express himself, but one that he harbored nonetheless.
“We are at the threshold of exciting times, Freidrich,” he said, glad to give free rein to his excitement even in this dusty drawing room to an uneducated widower who still called him by his childhood nickname. “In every flowering aspect of our culture, particularly in the realm of scientific knowledge, Germany is at the forefront of revolutionary thought. Human genetics is at last taking its rightful place among the classic sciences. Soon, it may even surpass them. All that is required to usher in the new era are men with the will to put the theories of great thinkers like Von Verscheur to practical application;men with the courage to further the boundaries of human understanding by any means. Men…”
“Men like you, Beppo?” Friedrich interrupted, smiling mischievously across his tea cup, fat fingers shoved into the too small handle.
The young man exhaled, like a ship with slackening sails. He stared at the old man. The nickname was suddenly unwelcome. Like the word ‘life,’ too small and paltry a thing to describe such a grand and expansive concept. It was almost insulting.
He watched the old man’s expression falter, eyes falling, perhaps for the first time, on the party pin on the lapel of his coat.
The young man laughed, shaking his head. He was truly embarrassed now. Did a lion roar at an insect in its path? Ridiculous.
“Yes, Friedrich,” he said, letting the old man know it was alright again. “Like me.”
The last, he said into his empty teacup.
“Exactly like me.”
The cuckoo sprang and toodled out the advancing hour.
After that, conversation dwindled. Friedrich spoke of his wife and the loneliness of the house, and his thoughts of selling and moving back to Gunzburg near the factory. The man pined for the old rustic village and was now intent on returning to his memories of farm tools and beer. Some were born to endless night, the younger man thought. At the end of this maudlin tirade, he glanced at his wristwatch.
He muttered his excuse and they both stood up, he still didn’t know the name of Friedrich’s late wife.
“I’m sorry to see you leave so soon, Beppo,” Friedrich said, as he took his hat off the hook in the foyer.
He looked at the old man, not without affection, for he could hear the sincerity in his voice. This man had worked for his father, had raised him up on his shoulders as a boy and shown him the workings of the factory, though they had bored him even then. He had taken pride in his work nonetheless. He was a good German.
He clapped the old man’s shoulder, pursing his lips.
“It’s regrettable, Friedrich,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be in Ingolstadt again.”
The old man shrugged.
“Perhaps if you come to Christmas in Gunzburg, to see your family, you will see me there too, one of these days.”
“Perhaps,” he said, smiling and setting his hat on his head. “Thank you for the tea, Friedrich. It was good seeing you.”
He turned toward the door and opened it, the cold blasting his face.
“Just a moment, Beppo,” the old man said behind him. “I’d almost forgotten.”
He turned, and the old man gestured to a weighty, belted stack of books on the stand beneath the mirror, which the younger man hadn’t noticed before.
“I remembered your fondness for antique books,” the old man explained, smiling behind his moustache. “These are for you.”
The younger man pulled the door closed and moved to the books. He unbelted them and sifted through the stack. They were very old, bound in leather, some of them filigreed, the pages yellowed. His fingers trembled slightly as they traced the embossments, as they always did when physically connecting to old words and in his mind, to the forgotten men who authored them.
“These are very old,” he said, and there was a flutter in his chest. Some of them were probably quite valuable.
He inspected the titles, his marvel building with each subsequent name. Here was Paracelsus and the great Agrippa…Frater Albertus…the legendary Eirenaues Philalethes…mad Alhazred…John Dee…some even he had never encountered in his readings.
These were the alchemical and magical texts of the old masters, some dating back to the 15th century at least, and in good condition, hand copied. Their teachings were of course obsolete, but the books themselves were a treasure trove of historical value. He considered refusing the gift, shaking the old man by the shoulders and making him aware of the literal fortune which he sought to give away. An antiquarian or a museum, maybe even the Reich Institute would pay out a charitable sum for these books. They would be carefully preserved and copied as cultural artifacts. But if he did, what would Freidrich truly do with them? He would laugh at his young guest’s enthusiasm and leave them here in the foyer to gather dust like the dainty gypsy figurines his wife had left behind.
Money from their sale would help him and his new bride immensely as well. Who could use it more; an old man bumping about the cavernous, waning days of a lonesome twilight, or a young doctor with promising years ahead of him?
He struggled to retain his composure and smiled.
“Wherever did you get these, Freidrich?”
Friedrich waved off their importance.
“Oh, the prior owner was an invalid. She didn’t get out, let alone upstairs. I found them in an attic room. Old textbooks, most of them, left over from the university days, no doubt.”
The younger man nodded, thumbing briefly but lovingly through the aged pages, inspecting the hand-inked paragraphs with their quasi-mystical formulas and complex diagrams. The university Freidrich spoke of was the old Jesuit university in Ingolstadt, where the astronomer Christoph Scheiner and Weishaupt, the founder of the Illuminati had taught. It had been closed in 1800 by Maximillian.
“This was a boarding house back then,” Freidrich went on. “Many of the students and young priests stayed here over the years.
The doctor paused on one of the pages, admiring an astoundingly detailed anatomical cross section of a human eye. It looked to be hand drawn, accurate to the minutest detail and annotated in a broad, handsome Latin. The drawing was strikingly beautiful. An eye so laid bare and removed from the context of the body was like a fanciful creature, alien of form, sprung entirely from whimsy.
Friedrich ran his liver-spotted hand over the back of his neck modestly.
“Probably just a lot of quaint old foolishness compared to what they assign you to read in Munich.”
“Not at all,” the doctor said, reluctantly closing the book and reading the cover. It was some sort of experimental log, unpublished. He didn’t recognize the author’s name. Some anonymous medical student long dead. “One should never disparage things of the past, Friedrich. Who can say what has been written and perhaps forgotten?”
“Well,” Friedrich smiled. “They are yours, Herr Doktor.”
The doctor smiled thinly. Herr Doktor. It was infinitely better than ‘Beppo.’
“Thank you again, Freidrich. I will cherish these.”
Friedrich waved him off and moved to open the door for him.
He stepped out into the cold again, hugging the books as if they would warm him. Snow drifted down outside like the remnants of frozen, dying stars.
“Drive carefully,” the old man said.
The doctor stepped out into the street.
There was no traffic, and he crossed easily. The old man lingered in the doorway behind him and called;
“Give my love to your mother and father!”
The young doctor raised one gloved hand but did not look back. He reached the Olympia, now frosted with ice.
He wrenched open the door and slid in, setting the books on the passenger’s seat beside him.
“And to all the Mengeles!” Friedrich called.
Dr. Josef Mengele nodded as he closed the door, and mouthed a final goodbye. He shivered and turned the engine over, revving the accelerator, flooding its oily heart with combustible life. He could see his own breath. He wanted to let the car idle a bit before he began, but he saw that Friedrich intended to wait in the open doorway and see him off.
The old man’s love for the Mengele family was admirable, but a bit dogged for one who had drawn simple foreman’s wages and enjoyed only a passing friendship at his father’s tool factory. He knew his father had aided Freidrich’s family in some way long ago. Some trouble with the man’s son, he believed. But where was that son now? In his lonesomeness, the old man had practically adopted Josef in the short span of time they had spent together.
Still, he could not begrudge Friedrich his gift.
Mengele glanced at the spines of the books on the seat as he put the car into reverse and prepared to draw away from the curb. Paracelsus’ Der Grossen Wundartzney leapt out at him. So too, Albertus Magnus’ Physica. And then there was that enticing book with the drawing of the eye, marked in French, ‘Journal Experimental.’ The one by the unknown author, M. Victor Frankenstein.
When he shifted back into first gear and eased the Olympia onto the street, Friedrich was still waving from the doorway of the old house. The snow pelted the windscreen furiously as he guided the car out of Ingolstadt. A driving storm greeted him when he at last pointed it toward Leipzig.