He discovered his bonds. He called out for me. He wanted to know what was happening, why he was tied, where he had been taken. I did not make a sound or move a muscle. I stayed very still on the dark side of the room while the light flashed and the crazy music played on and on.
After a while, maybe fifteen minutes although it seemed like an hour to me and must have constituted a week of subjective time to Kotacek, I began to vary the frequency of the flashes. I still kept them way below the blackout range, but varied the flash speed enough to turn his world a little further inside out. He was getting hysterical now. I didn’t want to overdo it. He was supposed to have a bad heart, and I was putting him through a special kind of hell.
Finally I began to talk with him. The two of us had always spoken in Slovak, so I avoided that language at first. I cupped my hands around my mouth to make my voice hollow and as weird-sounding as possible, and I talked to him in German.
“We must have the records. You must tell us where they are. The Fuehrer wants your records. You must find the records. Where are the records? The Fuehrer needs the records…”
I broke that off after a while, moved to another part of the room and hit him with Spanish. He had a working knowledge of that and of Portuguese as well, and I kept pitching at him in both of those languages, then shifting gears, working in German again, returning to Slovak, pitching my voice a little differently each time.
I had him reeling. I kept it up long past the point where I myself was thoroughly bored with it, and then I cut it all out at once, the talking, the flashing, the music. I turned off the record and cut the strobe and sat down in the darkness. He didn’t make a sound at first. Then I heard him making a sort of clicking noise. I couldn’t figure it at first, and then I got it. His teeth were chattering.
A few minutes later I got things going again. I pitched the strobe at a different part of the room where I’d drawn a large black swastika on the wall. I set the speed down low, so that a beam of light would illuminate the swastika on the white wall for about four seconds, then there would be four seconds of darkness, and then the light again, a nice boring pattern. I slipped noiselessly over to the side of the bed and whispered in his ear.
I told him he was on trial, that he was going to be killed. I begged him to confess so that his life would be spared. I kept on in this vein, over and over. He asked what he had done, what he was supposed to confess to, where he was, who was going to kill him. He was just filled with questions. I pretended that I did not hear anything he said. I talked on over his words, switching languages constantly, often in mid-sentence. I asked the same questions over and over again, and then I began to intersperse the questions with others. The location of the records. The number of his account in the Swiss bank. The name of the bank. At one point I very nearly had him. He told me the name of the bank, the Zurich-Geneva Bank of Commerce, and then he stopped cold. “Tanner!” he shouted. “What in God’s name are you doing to me? What is it? What do you want?”
He was oriented again, and I was worried. But I was fairly sure it was going to work. He had let one part of his guard slip. He had mentioned the name of the bank. The rest would come in due time. He knew who I was and knew where we were, but he would lose the thread before long. The music and the voice and the flashing had to get him sooner or later. I think it would have gotten anyone, sick or healthy, young or old. I’m sure it would have gotten me.
He never recognized me after that. I kept it up, the mixture as before, constantly changing it, constantly keeping it the same. The first thing I got was the bank account number, then the current balance. It was about what I had guessed, just over half a million Swiss francs, or about $130,000 U.S. I jotted down the account number and some other scraps of information, and when I was done I had enough to get the money out of that account and into my own numbered account at the Bank Leu.
It would take a trip to Zurich, and perhaps require some false identification and a copy of Kotacek’s signature, but it could be done. On the way home or at my leisure. Already I was portioning out the money in my mind – so much to Hungary, so much to Israel, so much to Macedonia, to Ireland, to Kurdistan, to Croatia. And some, no doubt, to the girl in Macedonia who expected my child. And perhaps a bit to Kurt Neumann, and surely some to Sarkan’s friends in Athens, and…
But I still had to find the records. I turned my attention to Kotacek, squirming in his little homemade hell of Nazi march music played off tempo and a light that flashed on and off, on and off, illuminating a black swastika on a white wall.
It didn’t take very much longer. He coughed it up in bitter gasps and he cursed around the words, cursed the Jews and the Czechs and the Negroes and the Orientals, cursed all the persons and peoples he blamed for the miseries of the world, all of which miseries had suddenly come down around his head. The words poured out in a bitter stream of Slovak, a river of black slime. I couldn’t listen to him. I fled from the room and went down the stairs to the living room. There was a false drawer in his desk. The drawer’s bottom was composed of two pieces of very thin wood artfully fitted one atop the other. I took the fittings of the drawer apart and slipped out one of the pieces of wood to expose the meat in the sandwich, a dozen sheets of onionskin covered with careful, tiny writing. Part was in Slovak, part in code. The part I could read was enough to convince me that I had found the bacon. This was what they wanted in Washington. They were welcome to it.
I went back upstairs. He was roaring now. I turned off the music. I got the strobe light, and pointed it not at the wall, not at the swastika, but at him. His face was drawn, his eyes wild. I set the frequency of the strobe up to the right level and let him have it. His eyes swallowed up the magic flashing light as if hungry for the blackness it would bring, and his face relaxed in mock death as he went out and under.
I put out the strobe light, turned on the light overhead. I went to the window and removed the black paper and masking tape. Outside the hot Portuguese sun was shining. Before I had not known what time it was, whether it was night or day.
I stood for several minutes at Kotacek’s bedside. I had gotten what I came for, what I had been sent for. The records for my pudgy string-puller, the money for whomever I decided to give it to. And a filthy old Nazi, a pathetic old Nazi, had been saved from the rope. No trial, no execution. He could go on living, writing his letters, weaving his webs of intrigue, bolting his food, injecting his insulin, worrying about his heart, and periodically, tasting false death in a cataleptic fit. He could go on in this fashion for a year or two years or five years or more, until one time the seizure was permanent and the death real.
I thought over my mission and decided that I did not like it very much. I should not have saved him from the Czechs, who had a right to kill him, or from the Israelis, who had an equal right to put him in his grave. And I could not make myself believe that saving him was of such monumental consequence to the United States of America, or that a living Janos Kotacek made for a better world.
I had not even improved Kotacek’s situation. I looked at him, a creature of fits and palpitations and gall and urine, and thought how much better off he would have been at the end of a rope. The Israelis had whittled off a piece of him, and the trip from Prague to Athens to Lisbon had shaved him smaller, and now I had turned his mind inside out and picked his brains. God alone knew what he would be like when he came out of the fog this time. What would he remember? And what would be left of him?
Only an excess of hatred kept me from wasting pity on the man. “You have lived too long, and to no good purpose,” I said aloud, and turned and walked from the room.
When I got back to New York I went straight to my own apartment. There was a note from the post office. I’d had too much mail for the box to hold, and would I please come down and pick it up. I called them up and told them they could damned well deliver it, since that was what the senders had had in mind when they put stamps on my mail. They grumbled but sent it over, three big sacks of it. I dumped everything out on the floor and spent two days just sorting the stuff, trying to determine what to read first. I was just getting to the point of opening and reading various letters when the telephone rang. A girl asked if this was the Rutledge Coat-Checking Service. I said it wasn’t. But wasn’t this TRafalgar 4-1114? No, I explained, it wasn’t TRafalgar anything, it was seven goddamned numbers, and I didn’t like it any more than she did, and I suggested she join the Anti-Digit-Dialing League. I hung up and went back to my mail, and it was half an hour later before I got the message.
The Rutledge was the hotel where I’d met him the other time. 1114 was his room. Coat-Checking Service sounded like Kotacek, and I’m sure some bright-eyed young genius spent three weeks of government time thinking up that one and another week patting himself on the back. What was left? The telephone exchange. TRafalgar 4. Meet him a four o’clock? Probably.
I stopped at the desk on the way in and asked the aging faggot room clerk the name of the party in 1114. “Nelson,” he said. Sure, why not? That explained the TRafalgar. They were worse than hog butchers in Chicago; they used the squeal and all.
He opened the door for me, led me inside, made drinks for both of us. He looked exactly as he had looked at our last meeting. The suit was different, a gray one this time, also expensive, also ill-fitting. We found chairs and sat down and looked at each other. I waited for him to start it. He, after all, had called me.
“You’re here,” he said at length. “And on time. The girl who phoned you was afraid you might not have understood the message. Said you made some flip reply, as though she had really called the wrong number.”
“I didn’t want to interest anyone tapping my phone.”
“Of course. That’s what I told her.” He worried the ash on his cigarette. “I know most of what happened this trip, Tanner. I suspect we can call the mission a qualified success. To be quite frank, I don’t think anyone else could have done as well. You got the man out of prison. That in itself was remarkable. And I can think of no better end for him than having him abducted and killed by Israelis. Keeps the U.S. out of it entirely, and puts our friends in Czechoslovakia in rather a bad light. As though the Jews had to get him themselves, don’t you see, because otherwise the Czechs would have let him off too easily. Instead of the fun and games of a war criminal trial, they came off looking like a bad joke. Like the brunt of a bad joke.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry he had to die. And sorry he died without getting his records to you. Though, to be honest again, I never expected much in that direction.” He smiled humorlessly. “I didn’t actually expect to see you again, either.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know if you have anything you wanted to report, Tanner. But if so, now’s the time.”
I still didn’t say anything. I opened my briefcase and took out Kotacek’s notes and handed them to him. It took him a few seconds to figure out what they were. When he looked up his face was a study. Coat-Checking Service indeed! If he wanted to play games, I had the bat and the ball, and he had a hole in his glove.