“Where did you get these?”
“Kotacek gave them to me. In Lisbon.”
“But the Stern Gang-”
“Thought they had killed him. They didn’t.”
“How did you manage that?”
“I tricked them.”
“You tricked them.” He put out his cigarette and freshened his drink. “You tricked them,” he said again. “That’s incredible. And then you got Kotacek back to Lisbon, where he turned the records over to you. So we get the information, and we also get a nice official-but-unofficial version going around which lists Kotacek as murdered in Prague by Sternists. This gets better and better. We have the best of both worlds, do you see? A live Kotacek whose secrets we know, and an officially dead Kotacek, and-” He sipped his drink. “I don’t suppose I should ask how all of this came about. It’s incredible good luck for us. Does Kotacek still think you are a Nazi? Does he know that you’ve taken this information? Of course” – shuffling the papers – “these are all originals, not copies. He’ll miss them, and no doubt that will tip things. Unless he actually gave these to you? I-”
“Kotacek is dead.”
“But – oh, I see. He died in Lisbon.”
“His heart, I suppose?”
“No.” I hesitated a moment, then decided the hell with it; it served him right for giving me assignments. I didn’t want to be his boy wonder. I wanted to be left alone, and if he heard this all the way through he would leave me alone for all time. He might slap my wrist for acting without a double-o number or whatever, but that was all he would do to me, and he certainly wouldn’t come knocking on my door with orders to rescue any more grubby Nazis.
“No,” I said, “it wasn’t his heart. I murdered him.”
When I left Kotacek’s room that day I went downtown and found a man named Alfonso Carmona. I told him what I wanted and he in turn told me something I had not known.
“What you seek is illegal in Portugal,” he said. “This is a Catholic nation, you know, and the church prohibits such rites. I assume your friend was not a Catholic?”
“Come inside, please. We can talk better in private.” We went into a cold, dark room. “There would be many persons in attendance?”
“Ah. Completely private, then.”
He stroked his smooth chin. “Then it is more nearly possible. I do not have the facilities myself, but there is a friend of mine, a colleague. He cannot do this thing openly, but if you will wait I will call him. Is that satisfactory?”
I waited while he made the call and chatted amiably but discreetly with his friend. He wrote out the name of the friend’s establishment and place of business. He took my address and said that he would see that a car and driver were sent to me in an hour’s time. I thanked him and took a taxi back to Kotacek’s house.
He was still out cold. I undressed him, put his best suit on him, and dragged him all the way downstairs again. The pine box still rested on the living room floor. I got him into it and nailed the cover shut. I had just finished when the hearse pulled into the driveway. There were two helpers plus a driver, and the four of us got the coffin loaded and headed for the funeral parlor.
On the way I thought of one of Kotacek’s little speeches. “The ghetto at Bratislava. The way they screamed when we sent them aboard the train… First give them showers. Hah, gas! And then the cremations. The Germans were brilliant technicians. They designed these magnificent crematoria on wheels. That is what one does with human garbage. Turn it to ashes and plow it into the ground. So that it shall be as though it had never existed…”
He had written his own epitaph.
The death certificate written in Athens was still on the coffin. The undertaker studied it, looked over the passport, then raised the coffin lid to examine Kotacek. “He is well preserved,” he commented. “Dry ice?”
“When he was shipped here, he was packed in dry ice?”
“I thought so. Of course they cushioned his face so that it would not burn the skin. Very well done. Now with cosmetics we could improve his appearance if this were to be a regular funeral, but for a cremation you would not want to bother, would you? I thought not. And there are no other mourners?”
“Then we may proceed.”
I told it all just the way it happened. How they put him in the oven, pine box and all, and how a few hours later I left the funeral parlor with the ashes in a paper bag. When I finished, neither of us said anything for several minutes. He poured fresh drinks for both of us, and we both seemed to need them.
Finally he said, “What on earth did you do with the ashes?”
“I thought of plowing them into the ground, but it seemed an excess of metaphor. I eventually threw the bag in a garbage can.”
“Mmmmm. Appropriate, I suppose.” He lit another cigarette. “You killed him.”
“Had him burned alive.”
He thought about it some more. “Actually,” he said, “we may be better off with him dead, the more I think of it. The Nazis’ll assume he died in Prague and that we never did get to his records. Which is just as well, their not knowing what we know, that is. Of course we did pick up a lot of bits and pieces through him, but the stuff you came back with is more important by far. Yes. Yes, I think we’re in better shape with him dead.”
“I think the whole world is.”
“How’s that? Oh, yes.” He put out the cigarette, looked at me. “I should be irritated, shouldn’t I? You took matters into your own hands. Made a moral judgment and acted upon it. You were ordered to keep him alive, and yet you killed him. In spite of orders. Against orders.”
“I should be angry.” He got up and walked to the window. To the window he said, “But I’m not angry, Tanner. Not even mildly irritated. I’m not entirely certain why that is. I’m a poor administrator, I’m afraid. I like men who take matters into their own hands. And who act upon their moral judgments. It’ll be a hell of a day when we all turn into machines. A godawful day.” He turned to face me. “You know something, Tanner? I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead.”
Evan Michael Tanner was conceived in the summer of 1956, in New York’s Washington Square Park. But his gestation period ran to a decade.
That summer was my first stay in New York, and what a wonder it was. After a year at Antioch College, I was spending three months in the mailroom at Pines Publications, as part of the school’s work-study program. I shared an apartment on Barrow Street with a couple of other students, and I spent all my time – except for the forty weekly hours my job claimed – hanging out in the Village. Every Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square, where a couple of hundred people gathered to sing folk songs around the fountain. I spent evenings in coffeehouses, or at somebody’s apartment.
What an astonishing variety of people I met! Back home in Buffalo, people had run the gamut from A to B. (The ones I knew, that is. Buffalo, I found out later, was a pretty rich human landscape, but I didn’t have a clue at the time.)
But in the Village I met socialists and monarchists and Welsh nationalists and Catholic anarchists and, oh, no end of exotics. I met people who worked and people who found other ways of making a living, some of them legal. And I soaked all this up for three months and went back to school, and a year later I started selling stories and dropped out of college to take a job at a literary agency. Then I went back to school and then I dropped out again, and ever since I’ve been writing books, which is to say I’ve found a legal way of making a living without working.
Where’s Tanner in all this?
Hovering, I suspect, somewhere on the edge of thought. And then in 1962, I was back in Buffalo with a wife and a daughter and another daughter on the way, and two facts, apparently unrelated, came to my attention, one right after the other.
Fact One: It is apparently possible for certain rare individuals to live without sleep.
Fact Two: Two hundred and fifty years after the death of Queen Anne, the last reigning monarch of the House of Stuart, there was still (in the unlikely person of a German princeling) a Stuart pretender to the English throne.
I picked up the first fact in an article on sleep in Time magazine, the second while browsing the Encyclopedia Britannica. They seemed to go together, and I found myself thinking of a character whose sleep center had been destroyed, and who consequently had an extra eight hours in the day to contend with. What would he do with the extra time? Well, he could learn languages. And what passion would drive him? Why, he’d be plotting and scheming to oust Betty Battenberg, the Hanoverian usurper, and restore the Stuarts to their rightful place on the throne of England.
I put the idea on the back burner, and then I must have unplugged the stove, because it was a couple more years before Tanner was ready to be born. By then a Stuart restoration was just one of his disparate passions. He was to be a champion of lost causes and irredentist movements, and I was to write eight books about him.
Tanner was my first series character, but I didn’t know that when I started writing about him. As pleased as I was with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he wasn’t yet a series character because you can’t have a one-book series. (Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Some years later I wrote a book called The Specialists, and it did in fact turn out to be a one-book series. But I digress…)
By the time I finished Thief, I knew I wanted to write more about this guy. I’d written several novels under my own name by then, plus several dozen under pen names, but it seemed to me that this was the first book with a voice that was uniquely mine. That felt good, and I wanted more of it.
Thief ends with Tanner the putative employee of a government agency so secret that he doesn’t know its name, and his boss doesn’t know that Tanner doesn’t really work for him. So his boss sends him off to rescue a particularly odious Nazi war criminal, and Tanner accepts the assignment, and carries it out in his own idiosyncratic way.
What a different place the world was when I wrote this book! There was barely a patch of rust on the Iron Curtain; not only were Perestroika and Glasnost decades in the future, but the world still had some turning to do before the Prague Spring of 1968. The Iron Curtain’s gone, the Soviet Union’s gone, and Czechoslovakia has bifurcated itself amoeba-style into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the last a development no one anticipated but which Tanner (like an abiding majority of Czechs and Slovaks) would have wholeheartedly approved.
Kotacek, the unpleasant chap Tanner rescues, is of course a Slovak, not a Czech, but somehow the notion of calling the book The Canceled Slovak never entered my mind. Go figure.