Europe is a good cure for writer’s block. So are old radio serials starring people of questionable character voiced by Orson Welles. This is a little bit of both.
People say I should have seen Munich before the war. I argue that I have seen most of it, in a sense: the half still standing and the rest scattered in the streets. From what I gather it was a lovely place with lovely people, though what they did and allowed to happen here was far from it. Sixth months after it was all over, those folks were walking around having lost a few pieces and carrying a look of puzzlement, as if still trying to understand what the hell just happened. They moved like a city-wide funeral procession through the bones of the city. I saw people lining up at soup kitchens next door to the remains of their apartments. But I didn’t feel any blame for those kinds of things: the Nazis made this place a ruin a decade before we dropped the bombs. On the bright side, it wasn’t sliced apart like a cake and each piece served up to one of the victors. It was more whole than Berlin or Vienna, even if it was just as hollow inside.
The locals wore black, as if in mourning. The army boys stuck out in their olive drabs. Me, neither. I liked red ties, though. The buildings were brown, and the sky was gray the morning I arrived. My passport said Green.
“What’s your business here in Munich?” The army kid eyed me suspiciously. Someone must’ve taught him that look; he wasn’t old enough to be that naturally wary of his fellow man.
“Work,” I lied. “Buddy of mine is running a relief group.”
“Where are you staying?”
“What’s his address?”
“Ludwigstrasse 24. Apartment 233. I think.”
The kid took a long look at the passport. That at least was genuine. I gambled on this kid’s naivete when it came to the address. I once had a friend who lived there. I wondered if it was still standing?
It continued to rain, dripping off the kid’s flat nose and down the drab green slick coat he wore. After another long moment he handed the passport back to me.
“Enjoy your stay.” He stepped back, the green of his coat melting into the creeping vines growing up the red brick walls of Sendlinger Tor. I tipped my hat and headed straight away for the Marienplatz. Two blocks down a rail-thin newsie leapt from beneath the awning of a bierhaus, holding a half-soaked paper and pleading in German. I gave him a half-hearted nein danke and continued on my way.
I hadn’t seen Serpico for a long time, and well before the war. He was working out of Naples then in the space behind his cousin’s restaurant. I remember the gelato being good and cheap. Serpico was just cheap. He was a wiry little man with thinning hair and a bushy black mustache that curled away from his nose. The hairs around his lip were permanently stained by tobacco and he was never far from a lit cigarette, which hung between the gap in his teeth. I dealt with him when my clients demanded it, or when only he could sell what I–what they–needed. He was never the one to contact me, until out of the blue I received a postcard from Munich, which read he had some pieces that would be in my interest to acquire. We could meet in the plaza and discuss business “after the show”, he said.
The Marienplatz was a broad plaza between a row of department stores and the municipal building–the Rathaus–serving as army headquarters. It was an old Gothic thing, cream brick rising three stories and ending in dark needling spires. A few soldiers poked about the two cavernous entrances, and the locals did their best to ignore them. I took a spot underneath the eave of a department store promising low, low prices on… I couldn’t figure the word… and sniffed the air, searching for the telltale signs of cheap tobacco and whiskey. It just smelled damp and a bit morose.
I waited. I had nothing else to do. As the second hand ticked by I took notice of a growing crowd, umbrellas drawn, standing about without much purpose. There was little organization to it, little conversation, just small clusters of umbrella-decked figures huddled beneath the old clock hanging by the tallest spire on the building. The gray-and-black mass continued to grow as the clock struck closer to the noon hour, until even small units of soldiers spilled from the inner walls of the building and looked up, waiting.
At this point even I was intrigued. Then the clock struck noon and I was treated to Serpico’s “show.” The clock—really, it wasn’t a clock at all—came alive with merry metal figurines, whirling dancing in front their stationary steel king. A pleasant, haunting, tympanic tune kept each false man in step. Two jousting knights rounded the corners of the infernal machine, each lance pointed at the other. One knight toppled the other from his horse and the crowd erupted in a mix of cheers and laughter.
It went on like this. It was cute. Then it was over. The clock fell silent again and the people dispersed, the soldiers back to soldiering.
A voice whispered in my ear, and I couldn’t miss the scent of a spent cigar. “Enjoy the show, my friend? Every day they gather here at noon and watch that thing. It’s quaint, isn’t it?”
Serpico took a step ahead of me and smiled with the remainder of his teeth. “The Germans are so romantic about their Gothic history. What they don’t tell you is that the building and the glockenspiel are hardly older than we are, see? Not 15th Century. Try late 19th.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “It’s all a show around here. Don’t forget that.”
“It’s been a long time, Serpico.” I did not say it was good to see him. His mustache was just as thick and curled, grayed with hints of tobacco.
“Welcome to Munich, hey?” He held out his hand and I took it.
“It’s lovely, real lovely. It’s not a fit for you.”
“Much about this place, is out of place, hey? I’m glad you came after my postcard. Not a minute too soon.”
“You made it difficult to ignore. Now what’s this all about?”
He shook his head. His voice lowered an octave. “Not here. Come with me, Mister Green. You’ll see. Oh, you’ll see.” His eyes seemed to twinkle.
I followed him without another word. He took me through a marketplace thick with the smells of cooking wurst and fresh-cut flowers, then through a narrow stone alleyway that was largely empty this time of day. A curious old fellow stood inside a doorway with a pipe, but paid us no mind. Where the alleyway opened into a small plaza—an old Dutch Elm shaded a cafe and a few sparse tables—Serpico ducked into a shabby-looking apartment building, up a flight of stairs, and then to the room at the end of the hallway. He reached into his pocket for a set of keys and opened the door, and with a sweeping gesture invited me across the thresh hold.
He lit a lamp and the soft glow illuminated a stack of boxy packages neatly wrapped in newspapers in one corner. There wasn’t much else. Some sparse furniture, a radio that may have been just for show. Serpico brushed past me and stood in front of the stack of packages, beaming. He could hardly contain himself.
“I know you are a man who appreciates fine art,” he said. Appreciate is not the word I would use. I knew it when I saw it. I leave the appreciation to my clients.
“I don’t suppose you have any gelato?” I asked.
His smile briefly faded. After a moment he saw it as a joke, and forced a laugh. “I have here something a bit sweeter.” At that he picked one of the packages, a wide piece that nearly reached nearly to his shoulder, and with some difficulty walked it against the empty wall in the adjacent corner. He picked a small paring knife from the coffee table and began carefully cutting back the newspaper, working methodically from one corner to the next, moving with the same speed and deliberation of a surgeon. Having cut through two layers of paper he carefully peeled it back to expose the painting beneath. The corner was dark, and Serpico grabbed the small table lamp from next to the door and brought it closer, removing the shade to cast a blanket of naked light across the canvas.
I stepped closer to study it. I could almost hear Serpico trembling behind me, the lamp light flickering like a candle. The painting was in greyscale. It depicted a woman lying in repose in a boat, parasol extended above her head, water lapping just above her shoulders. The painting was linear and disjointed, typical of the Cubists. The woman’s face was fragmented, her body reassembled from it’s geometric parts. It was at the same time difficult and beautiful to look at.
“Where did you get it?” I asked, a tinge of astonishment bursting through.
“Does it really matter?”
Staring back at me with her deconstructed face was the woman in En Canot, one of Jean Metzinger’s masterpieces. I thought it was destroyed in the war. Hell, everyone thought it was destroyed in the war.
“It might,” I replied. “I want to know how much trouble I’m getting myself into.”
“It came about as part of a larger lot,” he replied. “Seller was clueless. He just wanted to move them before the Americans came through.”
I motioned to remaining stack of packages. “And the rest?”
“Nothing compared to this.”
“Do have a buyer lined up?”
“No. But I imagine you have someone in mind already.”
“I do. So what’s the bargain?”
“You’ll have twenty-five percent.”
I thought about it a moment. “I’ll take twenty-five percent…”
Cash registers went off in Serpico’s head.
“…on the rest of the lot. This one is going to be fifty-fifty.”
Serpico’s shoulders sank as if the air went out of him. “Surely you must be joking.”
“There’s only one of two reasons I’m here right now, Serpico,” I said sharply. “There’s at least a dozen folks that spring to mind ahead of me to contact first. Which means they all turned you down. And they know about it. That increases my risk, significantly.”
Serpico vigorously shook his head. “No, no! You are the first and only one I’ve reach out to, Mister Green. I swear it! Swear it to God!”
Well, since it was to God. “Then that leaves reason number two: you’re bottled up here in Munich and can’t get it out yourself, and you think I can.”
Serpico stuttered, and managed to choke out: “Well, I, I…”
“In that case,” I continued, “this is a lot more than just finding a buyer. And it puts me in a bad spot. Half the world is on the lookout for stolen Nazi loot, and half of them are right here in this city. Fifty percent.”
Serpico looked as if he was in anguish. He sighed. “Fifty percent.”
“And twenty-five on the rest.”
“I’m not asking your help on the rest!”
You would’ve thought I asked him to pull out the rest of his teeth. After a long moment he squeaked: “Twenty-five.”
“Deal.” I put on my hat. “You have a phone?”
“The number please.”
He wrote down the number on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
“Stay here until you hear from me again,” I told him.
He began to protest, but I held up my hand. “I won’t be long. Wait for my call.”
He nodded, and I bid him a good afternoon and left his shabby apartment. I immediately went to work. I found a hotel not too far from the Marienplatz that was hosting most of the officer class of the US Army but had an opening for a few nights. I asked the clerk where I might find a post office, the only one which now operated being the Allied Military office in the Ratshaus. That complicated things, but not by much. I crossed the plaza and went back to the department store with the low, low prices and finagled a handful of postcards and postage, then back to my room to send out word to some prospective clients. Each one read like this:
I’ve been having a lovely time here in Munich. Wish you could have come along to join me. I’m sorry I missed your birthday, but the work I’m doing here is important. How is Maria?
John would know what “Maria” meant. Each client had a different “women” I would write to, on the off-chance that some snoop of a postman didn’t look at each and get suspicious. It would be several weeks before I received word from any of them, but by that time I would at least have En Canot out of the country. I dropped them off at the post office. Some bored private took them without a word, and I gently grabbed his arm to get his attention.
“Ah-ha, pardon me,” I offered with a smile. “I’ve been working with the American Relief Corps. Heard of it?” I produced a small business card, which I received off an actual relief member that I donated a few bills to out on the street.
He nodded. “Yeah. So?”
I feigned a laugh. “Well, my mother—she’s a lovely woman, my mother, so kind-hearted—she assured me that she would be sending a care package to help with our work. Bless her, we could use it, you know.”
“Well, it’s going to be a rather large package, say,” I held out my arms and mimicked the dimensions of the painting. “Only as small as her heart, bless her. It’ll have my name on it, of course.” I showed him my passport. “I’m staying at the Hotel Rococo, just down the street. Would it be possible to get a ring when it arrives?”
“Listen buddy,” he sighed. “I’m not a concierge.”
“Of course,” I nodded. “Can I have it held here? I fear the Rococo has some sticky fingers.”
Of course that was fine with the Private.
I left and headed back for the hotel to ring up Serpico. I told him to prepare En Canot for shipment, and outline explicitly how to package it: how to wrap the painting for the voyage, and to pack around it some spare canned foods and other dunnage to provide the necessary weight. He seemed a bit perplexed, but didn’t argue. I gave him my address at the hotel, and the return address for my dear old mother in the States.
I hoped she didn’t mind being in on the con. She’d been dead for quite a while, after all.
Here was my plan: Serpico would wait three days, and drop off the package–with handwritten shipping and return addresses, and marked stamps carefully lifted from yesterday’s mail–at the post office. He would explain that it was delivered accidentally and ask them to hold it for me. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for such a mix-up in the postwar milieu. If they inspected the package they would discover it unopened, the weight fitting that of a care package sent from my lovely, departed mother, and it shouldn’t warrant another thought. I would wait a few hours and then arrive to inquire about the package, as I had been doing the two days prior. When I received it I would put on my best show, insisting that this surely wasn’t what my mother intended to send and that it must be returned to her.
I admit that last bit would require some convincing on my part, to send it home–to the address of a safe house where I would then retrieve it–sight unseen. I figured that, if the rest of the postmen were as bored as the Private, it would be accepted without much bother. Of course, that isn’t how it happened in the end.
Now that I had two days to kill, I decided I needed a routine. I took to finding a spot outside the Café Strudel, where I could watch the curiosities of human behavior as it played out on the plaza. I ordered a pastry and espresso in the morning, and a cheese baguette and latte in the late afternoon. It was the first morning when I spotted a young woman sitting alone at the edge of the café, reading a book with her croissant. Strawberry blonde hair tied up beneath her hat, long brown wool coat. I liked her. I made note of her and decided that if she was there again the next morning, and still alone, that I would introduce myself.
On the next morning I arrived to find her at the same table, so I went to make my acquaintance. Her head was still buried in her book as I approached.
“Tische für zwei, mein Fraulein?”
Her head stayed down. I cleared my throat, which startled her.
“Oh…!” She looked up, and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak German.”
“Thank goodness. That’s about my limit.” That got a laugh. “I don’t mean to impose, but this café is awfully crowded, and you are alone…” I did my best Cheshire grin.
The café was half empty; she must have knew I was lying.
“Please sit,” she said. I did. I studied her for a moment, until she parted her rose red lips in amusement and said, “What?”
“Oh, I was just trying to read the title of your book,” I replied. “You seen absorbed by it, so I thought it must be worth a look.”
She hesitated, then sheepishly raised the book cover from her lap.
“Riders of the Purple Sage,” I said. She blushed. “I always preferred the shorter side of Zane Grey. Tales of Tahitian Waters, and the like.”
“I feel so silly,” she admitted. “It’s not much of a novel, is it?”
“Not everyone needs to be a fan of Goethe,” I said.
“I came here to read because I thought no one might bother me.”
“I’m sorry if I–“
“No,” she quickly corrected me. “It’s mostly my roommate. She teases me about it.”
“Well that’s unfair,” I booed. “She must just be here for the Wagner operas?”
She laughed. “No, I don’t think she enjoys opera.”
“What a hypocrite, then. I’d ask what she is here for, but I’d much rather know what brings you here?”
“I’m a nurse. We both are.”
“Well this is certainly a city that needs some healing.”
“It’s still beautiful. Have you been to the Königsbau? Or the Festsaalbau?”
I shook my head. “I have not.”
“Oh, you should!”
“Maybe you could show me sometime.”
She withdrew ever-so-slightly. “You do play it forward, don’t you? We haven’t even been introduced yet.”
“Do you think? Of course I didn’t, I just thought–” I feigned embarrassment. “Well, my name is Sparrow Green.”
“Nice to meet you, Mister Green.”
“Please call me Sperry. My friends do.” I paused. “Was I too forward again?”
She smiled. “No, Sperry. I’m Margaret.”
“Nice to meet you, Margaret.”
“Ah…” I smiled. “Very well. You get around the city quite well, I take it?”
“As much as I can,” she said. “I told been I was really something before the war.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that.” A waiter arrived and I ordered an espresso and a scone. Molly refused my offer of a drink.
“So what brings you to Munich, Sperry?” she asked.
“I was needed here, just like you were,” I replied.
She scoffed at the evasiveness of my answer. “And what is it you were needed to do?”
“I’m a dealer in rare antiquities.” That wasn’t too far from the truth.
“You still didn’t answer my question,” she chided.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “I’m here to reclaim some art stolen by the Nazis.”
“Really?” I could hear the intrigue bubbling up in her voice.
“I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry. That was more than I should have said.” I took a sip of espresso. “I trust you can keep that between us?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“But can I say,” she continued just above a whisper, “that you should commended for what you’re doing. The Nazis did horrible things… but taking all those treasures really was the icing on the cake.”
“Yes,” I said, quickly adding, “so the lady reads Zane Grey but is a bit of an art connoisseur, eh?” She blushed again. I was about to change the subject when a thunderous sound erupted from the plaza. I turned, and it was the giant clock that struck twelve, bringing out the steel marionettes to dance.
Molly seemed pleased at the display for just a moment before a look of panic fell over her. “Oh my! I didn’t realize it was so late. I’m supposed to meet some friends for lunch.”
“I’m sorry to kept you.”
She stood up. “Not at all. I enjoyed it, Sperry.”
“As did I, Molly. Will I see you tomorrow?”
She shook her head. “I have to work…” she seemed to hesitate and then blurted, “the day after next, perhaps?”
“That sounds fine.” I would be gone by then, but she didn’t need to hear that.
She was a lovely woman and I was sorry I wouldn’t see her again, but I supposed it was for the best. The next day I didn’t need distractions as I waited for Serpico to drop off the package at the post office. And she would have been a fine distraction.
It turns out that Serpico would have been difficult to miss regardless of how beautiful my companion was. About one in the afternoon I spotted the wiry Italian ambling down the street, struggling to keep the large package balanced between his lanky arms. I watched him enter the post office. Minutes later he left and disappeared behind one corner of the Rathaus. I ordered another espresso and waited for a while longer, as was the plan. Finally, about half past three in the afternoon, I paid my bill and walked across the plaza to the post office. I inquired about the package at the front desk. The dark-haired clerk called out to the back room.
“Hey Marv, we get any big packages for a Green?”
A mop-haired kid stuck his head out. It was the bored Private from my previous visit.
“Oh yeah. Care package from mom, right?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Yeah. We had a mail truck headed out that way so I put it out for delivery.”
“Out that way?”
“The American Relief Corps. That’s where you work, right?”
“Yes, but,” I fought back my frustration, “I asked to have it held here.”
“I thought I was helping you out there, Mack. Sorry.” He wasn’t that sorry.
“It’s alright,” I sighed. It wasn’t. “Now where can I find it?”
He made a funny-looking face. “You need me to tell you where you work?”
I realized what I did. “No. Of course not. Thank you gentlemen. You’ve been helpful.” I walked out. Once I rounded the corner and was out of sight of the post office I pulled the business card from the American Relief Corps bloke from my pocket. The address was a long walk from the plaza, so I got moving.
The Corps took up the first floor of an old bank abandoned before the war. One of the picture windows was gone, the frame covered by a tarp. A rudimentary sign hung out front announcing their presence, first in German, then English.
I had a plan by the time I walked through the door. The receptionist had her back to me, so I lightly rapped the desk to grab her attention.
“I’d hate to be a bother, but I believe a package was mistakenly delivered to you.”
She knew nothing about it and went to get a supervisor. I stood around and took in the ramshackle place. It was like the city itself in miniature, a bit fallen to pieces but not quite toppled over yet. I felt a honest tinge of guilt about it. Oh, I was getting soft, I know. It is a dangerous thing for someone in my profession to start to feel for something other than hard currency.
I heard the receptionist return, but the voice was not hers.
“Sir, I understand…”
I turned around and there was my beautiful strawberry blonde nurse. Molly had her hair pulled back and the rose-red lipstick. She stuttered in pleasant awkwardness.
“This was really not my intention, I assure you… I believe you have something of mine.” I added, “But it is nice to see you again.”
The receptionist made herself scarce.
“Of course, where are my manners? It’s nice to see you as well.”
“I hope you mean it,” I teased.
“I do, of course.” She took it far more seriously than intended.
“The post office delivered a package this afternoon — a rather large one, I would say — that was addressed to me. It’s my fault: I told the gentleman at the post office that my mother was sending a care package for your organization, and he took some initiative. What I failed to tell him was that she was also including some of my personal belongings. It’s a bit embarrassing, I must admit.”
“Not at all! My, isn’t that kind of your mother. I’m sure we can sort this through. Please, follow me.” She lead me through a hallway to a large stock room in the back. Shelving and boxes and various foodstuffs and toiletries lined every wall that I could see.
“I thought you were a nurse?” I said.
“I am. Part of our outreach includes distributing medicines, making house calls… being on such a shoestring budget, we can’t hire everyone we need, so I do all sorts of other things around here.” She tried to make light of it. “I think you might call it a brevet rank.”
“Never spent enough time in the army to find out myself,” I said. That got a pity laugh.
“Over here.” She brought me to a long wooden table loaded down with half-open boxes. “I sure hope we haven’t shelved anything of yours, Sperry.”
I scanned the table and immediately knew which box was mine. It was already opened. “Well, let’s find it, shall we?”
I feigned inspection of a few boxes, my eye fixated on the long flat box that held En Canot. I couldn’t tell what was in it at this point. If Serpico had followed my instructions, the painting should have been well-hidden beneath a bed of canned foods and toiletries. Molly seemed ignorant of the whole thing; I felt safe.
“A-ha, here it is,” I made a show of it. “‘Mister Green’, right there on the box. I’m surprised she didn’t put a little heart over the ‘i’ in Munich,” I joked. I looked through the box, and my jovial nature took a quick turn south. Inside were a few unclaimed groceries and some scraps of dunnage paper. I searched again all the way to the bottom; nothing.
The color must have drained from my face, because Molly’s voice carried some alarm. “What’s wrong? Something’s missing, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I worked to regain my composure. “It’s empty.”
“Oh Sperry, I’m sorry! We’ll find everything for you. What’s missing?”
I froze. Yes, what was it that I’m missing? Things that are not obvious in a care package? Things, like not a million-dollar painting?
“Well,” I choked out. “Some monogrammed collared shirts, and handkerchiefs… and a manicure set.”
“Let me get one of the German girls,” she said. “We’ll find it, Sperry.”
“Thank you,” I said, but my voice was as absent as my mind. I searched the other boxes in a panic. I moved on to the nearest shelves, which of course yielding nothing. I wasn’t thinking straight. What would I have done if I came across a four-foor-tall, oil on canvas painting? And what if the German girl found it? How would I explain that away? What if it never was in the package to begin with?
The last one made me think of Serpico. Did he double-cross me?
Molly returned. An older, stout woman was with her. Neither expression was hopeful.
“Ines says she didn’t see any of your things, Sperry,” Molly said apologetically.
“What was in the package?” I asked.
Ines shrugged. “Canned foods,” she said in rudimentary English. “Some toothpaste. And things.”
“Nothing… out of the ordinary… for a care package?”
She shook her head. “No. Canned foods. Toothpaste. Things.”
En Canot had never been in the box to begin with. My panic quickly grew to rage; I turned away to conceal it. Serpico! Serpico, that lying, twisted, little old snake. He tried to pull one over on me. I couldn’t figure his angle on this one, but I was certain he had one. Well, I’d have to fix that. I’d have to make a plan to fix that. But first I needed to get away from here. I quickly composed myself and turned around.
“I’m sorry, Sperry. I don’t know what to say…” Molly’s voice trailed off.
“It must be some mixup,”I brushed it off. “My mother, she’s a kind soul, but sometimes confused. I’m sure she sent the other things in a separate package, then.”
“Sperry, if the things turn up…”
“Oh, if they do I know you’ll do the right thing. And you know where to find me,” I smiled. “But I’m sure it was just a mixup, that’s all. I’m rather embarrassed to have put you through all this. I should leave you to you work.” I went to leave.
Molly stopped me with a touch of her hand. “It wasn’t a bother at all. Please, thank your mother for me.” There was a pause, then: “Will I see you tomorrow at the cafe?”
Even angry, that question pleased me. If there was a silver lining to Serpico’s antics, it was seeing Molly for another afternoon. “Yes. I look forward to it.”
I bid her and Ines farewell and left the office of the American Relief Corps. I was going to visit Serpico, but first I returned to the hotel to catch sight of my senses again. I was certain I would kill him if I left right away. I sat there awhile and seethed, upset at allowing myself to be so easily duped, embarrassed for the scene I caused in front of Molly. That she still looked forward to seeing me… well… that finally cooled me down enough to pay a visit to my friend Serpico.
I found my way back to the small plaza with the Dutch Elm. It was early evening, and near dark. I meant to simply confront Serpico in his apartment—rough him up a bit, if necessary—and straighten things out as I saw it. As my other plans went this trip, so to did this one. I got no closer to the apartment building than the trunk of that old tree when I spotted Serpico leaving, another man in tow. I quickly ducked behind the thick trunk and spied as they continued around the edge of the building and out of view. I don’t think I had any choice but to tail them.
I followed them to a small restaurant a few blocks away. I sat down at little bistro across the way and ordered sauerbraten and a bier and did my best to listen. I kept myself at Serpico’s back and did my best to look away, but I did get one fleeting glimpse of the other man, the elderly sort with grayed temples and little on top except his hat. They were as close as they could get to me without being in the bistro, and rather careless with their voices. Perhaps they thought that, by speaking English, they didn’t need to be careful. I couldn’t place the other man’s accent, not exactly, but I took it to be Eastern European. He spoke English well; better than Serpico, probably.
“So we have a deal?” I heard Serpico ask.
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you want them, no?”
“So you want them? Take them, please.”
“For man who wants them off your hands, your prices say otherwise.”
“Please… everything is open for negotiation.”
“How much permission do you have to move?”
“Permission? Please! There is no one else in this deal except you and me…”
They were talking about the remainder of Serpico’s art treasury, which he was now trying to cut me out of, as well. I finished my meal and waited in the shadow of a doorway just beyond stone’s throw of the restaurant. As I hoped, Serpico parted ways with the old man and headed back to his apartment, back toward me. He was in good spirits, moving with an additional spring in his step and humming just under his breath. He passed by me within arm’s reach, and I lunged forward from the darkness and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back into the doorway with me.
I slammed him against the brick of the building and pressed the meat of my arm deep into his throat. I heard him wheeze, but he could not shout out. His eyes were wide.
“So looks like you’ve been busy, friend,” I spat. “I was just out for a walk and couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. Care to fill me in? Or did you forget our deal?”
I eased the pressure on his windpipe until his voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Mister Green… of course not, twenty percent as we agreed, yes?”
“Twenty-five. Seemed you forgot to mention that to your dinner guest. Or mention me.”
“You’ve been busy with other business, I decided not to bother you… but I see that was a mistake, now.”
“Not the only mistake you made. Where’s En Canot?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why Serpico, I hoped you thought better of me. The box was empty.”
“That’s a lie!”
“Try that again. Where is it?” He sputtered but nothing came out. “Where is it?”
“Perhaps it would be easier to talk…” he wheezed. “If I could talk.”
“Let’s talk, then. No shouting, I hope?” I warned. I released him. He took a big, sucking gulp of air and grabbed at his throat. “Where is it?” I repeated.
“I put it in the box,” he said.
“There was nothing in that box but expired cans of beans and half-used tubes of toothpaste.”
“I packed it just as you asked.”
“Then you forgot the most important item,” I cut back. “Now I’m getting tired of this game, Serpico. Tell me where you stashed it, or I’ll have to find a place to stash you.” I reached a hand into my coat and aimed a pointed pocket at him.
He scoffed. “You’ve never carried a gun.”
“You’ve never left Naples. You wanna trust your life to old habits?” He was right; it was just my finger in the coat. I pressed it harder into the side of my pocket to make it look gun-like.
“Alright! Alright.” He held up his arms. “You’re a very bad man, Mister Green.”
“I’ve been called worse. Where’s the painting?”
He paused for a moment, his eyes down, searching for something in the darkness. He looked up to me. “The day before I was meant to take the package to the post office, I was contacted by a buyer for the painting. He offered to purchase it, sight-unseen, if I was willing to finish the deal quickly.”
“The old man you met tonight?”
“Then why not call me? Why still send out the package?”
“I was suspicious. To have someone reach out to me, just after I reached out to you? I thought maybe you let it slip, that someone got to you. I had to keep up the show, my friend.”
“You sly bastard. You sure had me.” I eased the finger back from my pocket. “So where’s the painting now?”
“Well, I… got spooked. I moved it for safekeeping.”
“I rented a room across from the Rathaus, through an acquaintance of mine working there. That’s where I am to meet ‘the old man’, as you say: Mister Borsos.”
“Tomorrow afternoon. Five o’clock. Of course, you are welcome to come. I’ve meant to invite you.”
“I’ll meet you in the plaza. As we did on our first meeting.”
“Don’t try and cross me again, Serpico.”
“I wouldn’t dare consider it for such a bad man, my friend. Until then… goodnight.” He slipped off into the night.
I let him go, waited a few minutes, caught my breath. Then I went for a flop back at the hotel. I slept uneasy.
Now I had an afternoon to kill, and I did it back at the café. They knew me by name now.
“Just a coffee, bitte. And one of those pretzel rolls.”
The waiter delivered my order and left me alone. I waited. I wondered if Serpico would show. I wondered if Molly would show. The thought of her was the only thing that brought me calm. I felt sorry for weaving her into this, even if by a single thread. She was a good girl; long after I left she’d remain so. For a little while longer I could imagine she could be mine.
I saw Molly approach from across the plaza. She moved with a light step, but something in her expression weighed her down, something I hadn’t seen before. She always was so bright and cheerful; but I supposed we all had a right to days where we were less so. I thought nothing more of it once she caught my eye and smiled.
“Is this you regular table now?” she asked.
“Only if you’ll still sit here with me.”
“I’d be delighted.” She took her seat and allowed me to pick up the tab on a coffee and croissant.
“No book today?”
She shook head. “I don’t think I’ll need one.”
“Well I hope I can keep up to Zane Grey’s standard. I thought your apartment was the other way?”
“Oh. Well, I had to meet a friend this morning at the market.”
“The one who hates both Grey and Wagner?”
She laughed. “Yes, that one. You’re in a good mood, Sperry, after what happened.”
“Oh,” I tried to make light of it, “I’ll admit I was a bit surprised that mother didn’t pack those things, but life must continue. I’m sorry you saw me that way.”
“Well I just hope another package arrives soon. I hope it wasn’t also misplaced, or that someone just took it… oh, this city is just full of wolves and vultures!” I saw that weighty look return, her red lips quiver. Something was indeed bothering her much more than I realized.
“Come now… it’s a beautiful city, remember? You said so yourself. I hope it’s not my situation that has you like this?”
She shook the weighty feeling away again. “No, it’s not like that. It’s just been hard as of late. The Corps is in desperate need of money, with little to go around… I don’t know how much longer we can go on. But I shouldn’t bore you with our troubles…”
I was feeling soft again. “I’d love to help. How much to you need?”
“Oh no, no, I can’t ask you to…”
“You didn’t. I’m telling you I want to help. Listen, I’m concluding a large business deal later this afternoon. I can drop off a check at the Corps offices. Say, five thousand?”
She seemed as if in shock. I took her hand steady her. “‘Mister Green, I don’t know what to say.”
“You can start by calling me Sperry again,” I teased. “I thought we were well past that.”
“Sperry, yes.” I thought I saw that weighty-ness return, but then she worked out a smile. “That… thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Well, now that we’re past that…”
…and so we had a pleasant conversation, and for a brief time I felt half my age and was in love for the first time again. I knew that it was all just a show, but I didn’t care. Molly made me feel something I hadn’t for a long time. I was getting old and soft and heading for trouble, but here, sipping coffee and eating a pretzel and talking with Molly, I said the Hell with it.
We came up against the late afternoon and there was nothing left but crumbs and coffee rings. I was afraid that I would need to find an excuse to duck out ahead of Serpico’s arrival, but Molly checked her watch and had to go. I stood to see her off.
“Now I will see you this evening at the Corps office?” I asked.
“You will,” she promised. “Goodbye, Sperry.”
“Goodbye.” Oh, how was I going to say goodbye to her tonight, knowing that was it? I wouldn’t tell her I was leaving. I would have to lie. I felt a bit bad about that.
I left the café and circled around the perimeter of the Rathaus, crossed the plaza past the water fountain, and ended again in front of the cheap department store where I started. It was ten minutes to five. The sun skirted above the row of weary buildings in the west and turned the Rathaus orange. Folks crowded around me, working through a busy afternoon on the plaza. I waited, trying to keep my heart from crawling any further up my throat, doubtful that Serpico would come. He was probably long gone, money lining his pockets, the painting… well who cares once he has the money? I should’ve forced him at finger-point to take me to the painting last night and settled it up right then and there. That’s all just part of getting soft, I was letting things slip…
A hand fell lightly on my shoulder and I nearly sprung out of my skin. Serpico laughed.
“Did I scare you, Mister Green?”
“Hardly,” I said. “I could smell you two blocks back. You’re just creeping up on me like a wraith.”
At that he just laughed some more.
I looked around. He was alone. “Where’s your buyer?”
“He arrived just before you did. He’s waiting upstairs.”
“You left him with the painting?”
“Do not worry my friend. I have taken precautions.”
I grunted. He simply continued to smile.
He took off and I worked to keep up. He slipped his skinny frame through the small openings between thickets of people, while I needed to push my way through with a polite German word. Serpico stopped in front of a gray building, pressed the buzzer. After a moment the door clicked and we went through. The corridor stank of grease and stale beer. The elevator was out of order; we took the stairs up four stories. Serpico talked, unending.
“My friend, he is superintendent here. When they have empty apartments, sometimes I use them to cache my… merchandise… when my home is too inconvenient.”
“You mean when you don’t want people to know where you live.”
“That’s what I said. They get a bit nervous, too, being so close to all those soldiers. Works in my favor. Most of the time.” We walked into to the fourth floor and to the end of hallway. The door was unmarked. Serpico pulled out a brass key, turned it in the lock, and the door gave way with a soft click. He made a grand, sweeping gesture with his arm.
“After you, my friend.”
I stepped past him. Two bare windows on the far wall, overlooking the plaza, brought in the warm orange light from outside. The room was a single, sparse place slapped together from ancient blue wallpaper and rotted wooden floorboards. I squeaked with every step, taking in the room. There was no Mister Borsus. There was no En Canot. It was empty save the dust and two men.
“What the Hell –?” I blurted out.
From behind me I heard two distinct sounds of clicking metal. The first was the lock on the door. The second I recognized all too well.
Serpico stood there with a pistol in his hand and a smug look on his face.
“Your gun, Mister Green,” he ordered.
“I don’t have one.”
“Hands up, away from your pockets.” I did as he told. He stepped toward me, close enough to smell the tobacco tied up in his mustache, and pressed the gun barrel into my stomach. He searched through my pockets with his free hand, then patted me down until he was satisfied I was telling the truth. He took a step back.
“Feel better?” I spat. “It was my finger, you idiot.”
It took him a minute to get the joke, then he laughed. “I didn’t think so. You were always foolish like that, to never carry a gun.”
“I can think of a dozen men that carried one and are still dead.”
“It’s getting harder to tell truth from fiction, Mister Green. You got me on that one. But now it’s time to start talking straight.”
“Fine. You start: where’s the buyer? The painting? You just set this up to rub me out?”
“Mister Borsus was never going to buy En Canot. He never even knew I had it. He just wanted the rest.” With his free hand he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it with an Imco lighter. “No twenty percent for you, I might add.”
“Well that’s irrelevant now. I was going to cut you in, you know, but not now. As for the painting, it’s time you tell me what you’ve gone and done with it?”
“The Hell with you, Serpico.”
“Yes, to Hell with me. Unfortunately, I have the pistol tonight. You got what you wanted to hear last night. Now it is my turn to get the answers I want.”
A thunderous sound came from outside. The Rathaus glockenspiel was doing it’s thing again. Serpico flicked the gun barrel.
“You don’t tell me I want to hear, and I’ll leave you bleeding on this floor.”
“You’ll bring every soldier in Munich up here if you do.”
“Not with all the commotion. I can shoot you nice and loud and no one will bat an eye. Now where’s the painting?”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me beat it out of you last night. I don’t have it because you tried to stiff me on the package.”
“You know, when you attacked me last I should have deserved it, trying to sell the rest of lot behind your back,” he blew a thick cloud of smoke. “I would have understood you if you did that. But when you told me the painting was missing… well, understand, I was a bit in shock. Confused might be the better word. I didn’t get what you were trying to pull.” He took a drag on the cigarette. “Still don’t.”
“What the Hell are you talking about?”
“When you threatened me with–” he waved his free hand in the air, index finger outstretched, “that finger-gun of yours, well, I told you what you wanted to hear. Yes, I didn’t pack the painting, I lied. Yes, I found a buyer for it, I lied. You’ll be surprised how creative you get when your life is on the line. I made up the bit about storing the painting here, set up this little meeting, at a time and a place when I knew I would be the one pointing the gun and asking questions.”
“You telling me the painting was in that box?”
“When I sent it you, it was.” He took a step forward. “Where is it, Mister Green?”
“I don’t have En Canot, Serpico.”
His eyes reflected the devil in him. “Where is it, Mister Green?”
“You’re out of your mind!”
He was now a hair’s breath away, the gun barrel brushing against my jacket. “One last time. Where’s the–?”
If it was the last time, I thought it best not to wait it out. I rushed him, grabbed his wrist just behind the gun and forced him to aim high; I heard the gunshot rattle my eardrum. It was enough of a surprise that I managed to force him backward, until his back was against the wall, gun arm forced above his head, and my other arm grabbing his chin and working with all my strength to push his head right through the plaster. I heard him grunt, felt his entire body trembling in rage, and then felt a swift knee to my stomach that did it’s best to double me over. Serpico’s gun arm came down hard atop my scalp and for a second I saw stars, dropping my ass to the floorboards.
I couldn’t see straight, but I saw enough of Serpico advancing toward me to know I couldn’t sit this out for long. As he brought the gun down, I launched myself from my knees—I’ve long been out of school, but I can still manage a decent linebacker impression—and pinned him at the waist. I heard a second gunshot and felt a stabbing pain in my right shoulder, as if someone rammed a red-hot poker right across my scapula. Momentum carried me forward, Serpico backward, and then I was on top of him, pinning his gun arm against the floorboards and again with my left arm at his throat.
The glockenspiel fell silent outside. I heard the polite applause of the crowd out on the Marienplatz. Much closer I heard the soft guttural slops of a man struggling to breathe, the desperate slaps of gunmetal on wood as Serpico fought to raise his arm, the rough scratching of his other arm against my face as he tried to push me off. Serpico’s half-gone cigarette smoldered on the floor beside us, filling the place with its stench. The pain in my shoulder ebbed and flowed with every twitch of muscle as I fought to keep him pinned down, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold him much longer.
I tightened my grip around his throat. Serpico’s eyes bugged, and he furiously pushed by head sideways to force me off. I could see one of the windows overlooking the plaza, the dark orange glow of the setting sun washing over the glockenspiel, the needling spires of the Ratshaus, the golden sky behind it. My right shoulder flinched from the pain, releasing the pressure it held down on Serpico’s gun-arm. His arm went up, and with a final surge of adrenaline I tried again to bring my right shoulder down to bear on him.
The gun went off. I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I passed out.
It was some time later that I woke up. I wasn’t in the apartment across from the Rathaus anymore. I was in a jail cell. On the other side of the bars two soldiers stood guard. I could see the ‘MP’ patches on their sleeves. They looked away, backs straight, rifles shouldered, stiff upper lip: the perfect image of the good soldier. Someone had patched up my shoulder. It still hurt bad. My right ear still sounded like a symphony.
“Hey,” I mumbled. My throat was hoarse and had to think hard about forming words. “Hey, you… what happened? What am I doing here? What—“ I couldn’t continue.
One of the MPs looked at me, said something to the other MP under his breath, and marched off. The other one turned toward me, watching, keeping that perfect stand of attention.
“A little water?” I asked.
He said nothing.
“Water!” I demanded, throat burning.
“You’re hardly in a position to demand anything, Mister Green.” The first MP returned with an officer—if I had my bars straight, he was a full Lieutenant—who stood just inches from the bars, arms folded behind has back. He looked down on me with contempt.
“I need some water.” It was one of the most pathetic things I’ve ever said to another man.
He studied me for a moment, then turned to the first MP. “Get our guest a glass of water.”
“Thank you.” It was one of the truest things I’ve ever said to another man.
“How’s your shoulder?” he asked dispassionately.
“It could be worse. The bullet went straight through. You’ll be fine. Eventually.”
“What happened? Where’s Serpico?”
“So you do know the man who shot you?”
“I knew him quite intimately, at the end.”
“What were you doing there with him?”
“He was thief. He stole some personal belongings from me, from a package sent by my mother. I arranged to meet him to get it back.”
“So you met him before?”
I shook my head. “Never. Talked to him over the phone. He called himself Serpico. Was that even his real name?”
“It was. What was it you claim he stole from you?”
What was it I told Molly? “Some monogrammed shirts, handkerchiefs. Possibly a manicure set.”
The Lieutenant laughed. “Is that all?”
“Why, yes. Is that a problem?”
“I find that hard to believe, Mister Green. If you knew Serpico—which you say you didn’t, so let me elaborate—you would know that he is one of the most notorious black marketeers in Europe.”
I feigned shock. “That man that I was trifling with?”
“He’s spent a lifetime building up a network in southern Italy. When the Allieds invaded he fled north and has been hiding out in Bavaria for years, and in Munich since the end of the war. He specializes in rare artworks, and we believe he’s been trying to secret stolen art from the city for a tidy profit. Now, you’re telling me this same man bothered to steal some of your shirts?”
I shrugged. “I can’t say how those kind of men think.”
“What are you doing here in Munich, Mister Green?”
“American Relief Corps.”
The Lieutenant didn’t respond. I knew I was done. Serpico probably sung like a bird. This Lieutenant probably had En Canot and the rest of the stolen paintings in army possession by now. He was just toying with me, to see how far I was willing to dig myself in. I looked around the jail cell to get familiar with my surroundings.
The Lieutenant let out a slow sigh. Then said, “Is that all?”
The MP returned, and handed a small glass of water through the bars. I took it, nodded, my head in thanks, and gulped it down.
“I want it stated that I don’t believe you, Mister Green. I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know what you were doing with Serpico. I don’t think you’ve told me an honest word since I’ve been standing here.”
I set the glass down on the bench beside me, watching the Lieutenant, waiting for the hammer to drop.
“But Ms. Applebaum confirms that you did volunteer your time at the American Relief Corps. That some of your items were stolen from a care package your mother sent, and that it was her suspicion you were to confront the thief. She also identified Serpico as that thief.”
It took all of my might to keep my jaw from dropping.
“I can’t say I wholly trust her story, either. But I’m not willing to waste my time and resources trying to sort all of this out. So I’m letting you go.”
“Not quite. I’m releasing you into temporary custody of Ms. Applebaum. She promised me that she would see you off at the train station, where you will leave this city. If you try to return I’ll put you back down in this hole, and reopen this investigation, and keep you here until I feel like I’m good and done with you. Is that clear?”
I nodded. One of the MPs unlocked the prison door and swung it open. I walked out.
“She’s waiting for you outside,” the Lieutenant said.
I paused. There was one question I had to ask. “Where is Serpico?”
“He’s dead,” the Lieutenant said. “Shot through the head when we found the two of you, apparently by his own hand. You were barely conscious, shouting for Ms. Applebaum by name. We contacted her, and she sorted things out. We searched his apartment, and didn’t find anything you described.”
“Nothing? Nothing at all?”
The Lieutenant shook his head. “No. If he did have your things—if he had anything worth selling—it was long gone by the time we got there.”
I nodded. I understood what he meant. “Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“Get of out here,” he ordered.
So I left.
I walked through the stone archway of the Ratshaus on onto the plaza. It was a beautiful afternoon. And there was Molly, brown coat, green scarf, strawberry blonde hair and rose-red lips. I smiled, like I had not in a long time. She embraced me, and I flinched at my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she said, withdrawing.
“It was worth it,” I said. “Thank you.”
“I’m supposed to take you to the train station,” she said reluctantly.
“I know. We can go. But we can take our time.”
So we walked, away from the plaza and back toward Sendlinger Tor where just beyond the station stood. We tried small talk, the weather, the fine architecture that we passed, the lovely smell of wurst and fresh-cut flowers in the air. Eventually I couldn’t bear it. I changed the topic of conversation.
“Molly, I have to know,” I said sternly. “Why did you do it?”
“Do what, Sperry?”
“Please, don’t be coy now. This is my only chance to ask. I’ll never see you again after this.”
“Don’t say that—“
“Please. You’re a bright girl. By now you must have sorted things out. When the police contacted you, said I was in trouble, what had happened, who Serpico was… you put two-and-two together.”
She nodded. “I did.”
“But you told the military police what they needed to hear—what I needed them to hear. You put yourself in an awful place to do that, you know. They’ll be keeping an eye out on you for as long as you stay in Munich.”
“Then why do it, Molly? For me, when you know what I am?”
“I’d rather not say–”
“Do you love me?”
At that her face wrinkled. Then she did the unexpected. She laughed at me. “Sperry, no. Of course not. I don’t love you. I mean, I enjoyed our conversations. But I’ve only known you a few days…” she caught the look on my face. “I can tell I hurt you. I’m sorry.” She placed my hand in hers.
I pulled my hand away. “No. It’s alright. It’s my foolishness. I once had someone tell me that all this city was a show. It was all a show, both you and I.”
“I did enjoy our time together. That was no show.”
I ignored her. “You still haven’t answered my question. Why?”
She sighed deeply, reluctantly. I saw that feeling of weight wash over her face again. “I knew who you were, Sperry. But not when the police contacted me. I knew even before you came to our building and found the empty package and got so upset. I found out who you were when the postman first dropped off that package, Sperry.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I knew exactly which package you came looking for. I saw your name on it when Ines opened it up, and she removed the cans of food and other things. And I saw her eyes when she pulled that painting from the box.”
“En Canot, by Metzinger. That is what you were looking for, correct? The painting that you and Serpico were trying to sell, get out of Munich?”
“…Yes. So when I dropped by a little while later, asking for my things—“
“We hid away the painting so no one else would find it. Including you.”
“We both lied, plenty, I think.”
“Where is it now? What have you done with it?” My voice grew more aggressive and I took a step toward her, but Molly stood defiant.
“Or what? You’ll kill me, too, Sperry? It’s long gone. Do what you will. The painting is gone.”
I stepped back. I thought of that bored Private, and everything I told him. I thought about what I told Molly on that first day we met. Yes, I had gone too soft, said too much, trusted too much with a few too many people. What a fool I was. And there was Molly—my innocent, beautiful Molly—with a little glint in her eye and smug look upon her face as she wove together the threads of her story.
What a fool I was, I thought.
“Where is the painting?” I said again, more pleading this time.
“I sold it. The morning before we met for the last time.”
“When you came from seeing your ‘friend’.”
“Ines knew what it was, too—she remembered seeing it the last time it was put on public display in Munich, during one of the Nazi exhibitions on ‘degenerate art’—and she knew someone who might be willing to take it.”
“For a fee, of course.”
“I told you, Sperry… the agency is in desperate need of money. What he paid will allow us to keep going for another year.”
“Well, aren’t you just a fine little thief?”
“I don’t like what I did,” she shot back, “but I did it for the right reasons.”
“And you probably gave it over to some Nazi,” I replied. “It’s probably kindling in his fireplace right now, erasing another crime, just like they tried to do with everything else.”
“I don’t believe that! Not everyone who fought and died in Germany was a Nazi. There are good people here, too.”
“Yeah. Good people who let the bad people have their way for far too long.”
“And was your way better? Selling the painting for the sake of yourself? Letting it languish forever in some private collection, never again to see the light of day? At least there’s a chance my buyer will do what is right, when the time is right.”
“And you believe that.”
“I do.” And she did.
We had reached Sendlinger Tor. I looked up to the red brick gate, then beyond it, and then back to her. I had to say, what she pulled off was impressive. I smiled at the thought.
“Well, my darling, you did well. I just hope it doesn’t blow up in your face after I leave.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“You don’t have to. You can come with me.”
“I told you, Sperry. I don’t love you. But I did owe you a favor. That’s why I helped free you. I have some money for your troubles, for your train ticket and a good meal. I hope that will be enough.”
She handed me a small roll of bills. I would have liked to decline it, but at this point I was penniless. Then she reached for an another hug, and kissed me softly on the cheek.
“Goodbye, Sperry.” She whispered it into my bad ear. But I got the gist of it.
“Goodbye, Molly,” I said.
Whether she stayed to watch me leave, I’ll never know. I grabbed the first train out of Munich, and didn’t look back.
copyright The Caddis Hypothesis 2017