Winner of the English Language and Literature Division Creative Writing Competition - Short Story
Vienna, Austria, 1943
In happier times, the huge, aristocratic-looking building nestled on the banks of the Danube in Vienna’s first district had been known as the Hotel Metropol. But now an ugly red scar strafed its façade: the swastika flag of Nazi Germany. As the cold October evening drew a blanket of darkness over the city, the yellow windows of the Gestapo Headquarters glowed with activity.
A solitary SS officer stepped out of the gigantic ornate doors of the building and walked past the white pillars supporting the awning. It was a chilly night, and the weak streetlamps did little to tpenetrate the descending fog. Drawing his long trench coat closer to his body, the SS officer picked up his pace to the black car waiting for him. Seeing him approach, the driver of the car got out and shot out his right hand, palm down. “Heil Hitler!”
The SS officer raised his own gloved hand in response. “Heil Hitler. I am Hauptsturmführer Spiegel.”
The driver nodded. “Unterscharführer Fischer at your service.”
The two men got into the car and shut the doors. “Drive to the back. We will have a truck coming with us,” Spiegel said.
“What is it this time?” Fischer asked as he put the vehicle in motion. “Protesting workers? Dissenters?”
“Jews,” Spiegel said. “Possibly armed resistance. Someone reported a country house with suspicious activity in Lower Austria.”
Fischer chuckled. “Jews! This might get me a promotion.”
Spiegel shrugged. “It might. A friend of mine was killed in a Polish concentration camp recently. Some Russian-Jewish soldiers stole some rifles and escaped. Killed my friend and several other SS officers.”
Fischer scowled. “The dogs.”
Fischer parked, and the two SS men waited for the truck to pull out of the inner complex of the Gestapo headquarters. Finally, the rumbling of the truck’s motor echoed in the low tunnel, and a canvas-covered troop transporter joined them on the street, headlights glowing like tired yellow eyes. Spiegel pulled a map out of his leather briefcase. “Let us go.”
Fischer looked at him quizzically. “You are not German, are you?”
“Why do you not know your way around Vienna?”
“I do. I have just never heard of this address before. It seems like a very remote place. Ideal to hide Jews there. It is several kilometers beyond the city limits.”
Fischer nodded. “Ach so.”
They spent a few minutes in silence, with Spiegel studying the map of Lower Austria. The SS officer was a tall, dark-haired man, nearly thirty years of age. His young face was neither cruel nor kind. It had something methodical about it, expressionless like a marble statue, but functioning and alert like a well-oiled machine.
Fischer was shorter, blond, and proudly sported a yellow version of Hitler’s famous mustache. He was about five years younger than Spiegel, and his eyes glowed with the lust of life. A Mauser submachine gun was propped against his car seat. This was a conscientious addition to his standard-issue Luger pistol, which he carried in a shiny black leather holster. Spiegel carried one as well.
The black car and the grey truck rumbled over the cobble-stone streets of the sleeping city. Eventually, the small caravan left the assortment of drab-colored buildings and came out into the fields of Lower Austria. Finally, Spiegel looked up from his map and pointed for Fischer to turn. Fischer’s gloved hands spun the wheel, and they left the main road, followed by the truck.
“Did they let Unteroffiziere attend the ball last week?” Spiegel asked.
Fischer sighed in regret. “Nein, leider nicht. But I heard it was giant fun.”
Spiegel chuckled. “It was. Lena Baumgärtner was there.”
Fischer whistled. “She was? Now I really wish I had been there! Did she dance with anyone?”
“She danced with me,” Spiegel said, smiling and nodding triumphantly.
“Then I must congratulate you! She does not often accept invitations to dance. I know men who would kill to dance with the most beautiful girl in Vienna. I am probably one of them.” He laughed.
“She was drunk,” Spiegel said, smirking slyly. “I am not sure if she will remember it. But it was fun all the same.”
“Lena looks a lot like Nellie in that new film.”
“Oh, Schwarz auf Weiß?”
“Ja, that one. A very good film.”
“True, but Lena is craftier than Nellie and not as easily seduced.”
“Also true! By the way, have you heard of the American bombing in Rotterdam?” Fischer chuckled. “They killed hundreds of Dutch citizens.”
“Ja,” Spiegel said, joining in the ridicule. “Those American farmers really do not know what they are doing in the air. It won’t be long before they realize that. We will send them back to their tractors soon enough. Someone must supply the Vaterland with bread. Turn left here, Fischer.”
Finally, the two vehicles came to a halt in front of an old, solitary country house. It was built in the traditional Austrian country style, with a porch and a gabled roof. But the wood was so dark that it was hardly discernible in the darkness. There was no light anywhere to be seen.
Spiegel peered through the windshield. “The perfect hideout. If there aren’t any Jews here, I’m going to be disappointed. Flashlights?”
Fischer produced two flashlights, and the two SS officers stepped out of the car into the frigid darkness. From the back of the truck, six SS troopers armed with rifles jumped out, their faces hidden in the shadows cast by their helmets. The driver and another SS officer exited the cab of the truck, both armed with Mausers similar to Fischer’s, along with flashlights. The red swastika armbands on their arms contrasted starkly with their black SS uniforms.
Spiegel made a circling motion with his hand to the other SS officer. “Back door!”
“Zu Befehl, Herr Hauptsturmführer!” The officer saluted and took three of the troopers with him. Leading the rest, Spiegel marched up to the front door and motioned for Fischer to knock. He obliged lustily.
“Aufmachen!” he roared, hammering the door with his gloved fist. “In the name of the Führer! Aufmachen!”
There was no response. “Stop,” Spiegel said, almost bored. “Kick the door in.”
Fischer moved out of the way, and two of the burly troopers rammed the door with their shoulders and rifle butts. In a few minutes, the door burst from the frame and crashed to the floor. Spiegel and Fischer shone their flashlights into the house, attempting to blind any potential attacker. Nothing happened.
“Search the house,” Spiegel commanded, drawing his Luger. He waited for his men to go in, then followed. While the others searched for hostiles, Spiegel went into the kitchen. By the beam of his flashlight, he examined the sink, the counter, and the cabinets. “Hasn’t been used in years,” he concluded. Fischer entered.
“Anything?” Spiegel asked the Unterscharführer.
“You might want to see this,” Fischer said, uncertainly. He looked confused and scared.
“What?” Spiegel demanded.
Fischer led Spiegel up to the second floor. On the way they passed the troopers and the truck driver, who all stood still and looked as witless as Fischer. Spiegel started to panic slightly. He could handle Jews, he could even handle gunfire and explosions, but he couldn’t handle silence. He tightened his grip on his Luger.
Fischer stopped by a doorway. A weak light emanated from it, not from a flashlight. “In there,” he said, unwilling to go any farther.
Hiding his fear from his subordinate, Spiegel marched boldly into the room, flashlight and Luger first. He swept his flashlight around the room and nearly screamed. In the middle of the room stood a table with two chairs. A single candle on the table showed a figure seated in one of the chairs. It was an SS Hauptsturmführer, and he looked exactly like Spiegel.
“Close the door,” the specter said.
Without a word, Spiegel complied.
“Konrad,” the ghost said, “it is good to see you again.”
“I thought you were in Switzerland,” Konrad Spiegel croaked.
The apparition extended an arm to the other chair. “Sit down, brother.”
Once again, Konrad complied. He holstered his gun, turned off his flashlight, and took a seat in the other chair. The two identical faces stared at each other in the flickering orange.
“This is a trap, or…?” Konrad asked. “Where did you get that uniform?”
“I would not call it a trap,” the ghost said. “It is more like a setup. As for the uniform, you know just as well as I that the underground has contacts in the Gestapo. It was not really very hard.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I’m offering you one last chance.”
“To join the underground?”
“Yes, and to re-embrace your heritage.”
“Shhhh!” Konrad hissed. “Do you want to get me killed? I am not a Jew.”
“Our mother was a Jew! How could you forget that?”
“Hold your mouth!” Konrad whispered hoarsely. “You know that label means death! I am doing the right thing!”
“Since when, in all the history of the world, has it been the right thing to betray your relatives and your people? To murder them? Do you not realize that no matter how sincerely you believe Hitler’s lies about this ‘Aryan race’ of his, he will not spare your life if he ever finds out you are not a part of it?”
“The Führer will conquer the world, Gerhard! Some day you and your underground will no longer have a place to hide. I have chosen the winning side.”
Gerhard scoffed. “Do you consider what happened at the Russian front a victory? The Soviets are advancing. The Allies have taken Africa and are bombing Rome. Hitler is not a god. Konrad,” he said, his voice waxing tender, “you are my brother, and I love you. It hurts me to see you walk this path, and I know it would hurt Mama too if she were still alive. What you are doing is wrong, and someday you will have to give an account for your deeds. Please, join me! I remember how you were when we were children. We played together, sang the psalms together, prayed together! Please, do not forsake the teaching of your youth!”
“Stop. Stop. You have wasted both my time and yours in coming here. Just go. I won’t arrest you.”
“Oh, Konrad,” Gerhard chuckled. “You cannot arrest me. You know that. To turn me in would be to turn yourself in. Such is the complication of having a twin brother who hasn’t destroyed the evidence of his lineage.”
“I told you. Just go.”
Gerhard pointed at the swastika on Konrad’s sleeve. “Do you see that thing? To me, it looks like a dead spider, you know, when they fold their legs inward. That is exactly what Hitler is. He has spun his web of deceit around you, spit in your eyes to blind you. He is sucking your life from you, and you are paralyzed and do not feel it. But the spider has been trodden on, and his victims do not yet know it.”
Konrad stood up abruptly. “Enough. If you will not leave, I will.”
Gerhard stood as well. “No, brother. You know what must be done. It shall be done today. I am sorry.”
From behind the door, Fischer suddenly heard the sharp report of a handgun. He burst into the room, nearly colliding with Spiegel, who had his gun drawn. Spiegel spun around and pointed at his twin, who also brandished a Luger. “Impostor!” he shouted. “Shoot him!”
Before Fischer could squeeze the trigger on his Mauser, the twin fired a few more wild shots, sending his assailants to retreat into the hallway. Then he bolted through a window and half-fell, half-climbed down the side of the house. Fischer and Spiegel darted back into the room and to the window. A dark figure was sprinting across the fields, making for a nearby barn. He was waving and shouting something. Fischer lit up his Mauser, illuminating the room with the sharp yellow darts of fire. But still the figure kept running.
“Unterscharführer!” Spiegel yelled at the SS officer stationed by the back door. “Verfolgung aufnehmen! Shoot him!”
A few seconds later, four more shapes darted out from the shadows of the house and fired their weapons at the retreating figure. Spiegel, Fischer, and their men scrambled out of the second-story room, down the stairs, and out the back door. The shooting had stopped.
The Unterscharführer and the three troopers surrounded a limp form lying in the field. It lay face down, and already the dark blood bubbled out, moistening the fertile ground. When Spiegel and the rest arrived at the site, the Unterscharführer saluted. “He is dead, Herr Hauptsturmführer.”
Spiegel nodded. “Get the shovels. And bandages. He shot me in the arm upstairs.”
As the men went to the truck to get the shovels, Spiegel alone stayed by his slain brother’s side, pressing a gloved hand to his arm. Tenderly, he squatted down, but he did not turn over the body. “Aufwiedersehen, Konrad, my brother. I will redeem our family name and yours.”
Squinting, Gerhard saw something small clinging to Konrad’s shoulder. It was the dried-up corpse of a spider. With a sigh, Gerhard brushed it off. It fell into the puddle of blood and sank.