When he did, he got the light in his eyes. Flicker flicker flicker, and back he went to dreamland.
I let him lie there for a while. Then, when I heard Sarkan moving around in the kitchen, I hurried downstairs. “You’d better call a doctor,” I said. “My friend seems to have had a heart attack.”
“Is it very bad?”
“I think he’s dead.”
The doctor was an Armenian and an old friend of Sarkan’s. He came in a hurry, rushed to our patient’s side, examined him at length, and began to massage his heart. That worried me – suppose it worked? But it didn’t, and he didn’t think to cut open Kotacek’s chest and try a fancier method of heart massage. He confirmed that Kotacek was dead, and wrote out a certificate of natural death which testified that Pedro Costa had died of coronary thrombosis.
They were very understanding at the airlines. They sent me to the proper officials and had me fill out the proper papers. Mr. Costa had died in Greece, and of course I would want to ship him back to Brazil for burial. No, I explained; he was a Brazilian citizen, but had originally lived in Portugal and would want to be buried in his family plot in Lisbon. It was all arranged. He would fly on the same plane with me, the Lufthansa flight that very evening. There would be no problem.
They refunded the difference between tourist passage and the fee for shipping a corpse, which turned out to be considerably less costly. With the difference I bought a sturdy pine box. I had the box delivered to Sarkan’s house, where we loaded Kotacek into it. I was a little worried about how he would travel. If the luggage compartment was not pressurized, he might get himself killed in there. I wasn’t sure how it would work. And, if the luggage was not secured some way, he could get badly knocked around.
I called Lufthansa and asked them about it, explaining that I would not want the corpse disfigured. They were understanding again. There was no danger, they assured me. The compartment in which he would travel was fully pressurized and quite comfortable. After all, it was what was used for transporting pets, dogs and cats and such, so it had to be safe.
That helped. It covered all the bases but one. There was still the possibility that Kotacek would come to somewhere between Athens and Lisbon, in which case we were in worlds of difficulty. No one would hear him bellowing down there, but there was a good possibility that he would suffocate.
I waited as long as I could on the chance that he might come to before flight time. He didn’t. I nailed the lid on his coffin – not too tight, in case he did come to – and called an undertaker, who sent a hearse to convey the coffin to the airport. At the Lufthansa flight desk his passport – stamped DECEASED – and his death certificate were attached to the coffin lid, along with several other official documents whose precise function I did not wholly understand. I was sent into a waiting room, and the coffin was placed on a conveyor belt which would take it, presumably, to the plane.
It was an excellent flight, not too crowded. I had a vacant seat next to me, the one I’d previously reserved for Kotacek. I leaned back and enjoyed the flight. One of the stewardesses reminded me slightly of Greta.
We caught a tailwind and landed fifteen minutes early. I breezed through Customs – I had no luggage at all by now, so that was no problem – and collected Kotacek from the appropriate depot. They didn’t have a hearse handy, so I had to rent a whole limousine. I gave the driver Kotacek’s address. When we got there, the two of us carried him inside and set him down in his living room. I waited until the limousine was long gone before I opened the coffin.
He was just as I had left him. But, I thought, suppose he had awakened? He would have suffocated. And, suffocated, he would look just as he looked now. I would never be able to tell the difference. I could only wait and see what happened. If he came out of it, he was alive. If he began to spoil, he wasn’t.
By the middle of the second day in Lisbon I was fairly certain he was dead. He had never been out quite this long before. I had him stretched out on his bed, and I was beginning to regret having taken him out of the coffin. I’d only have to stuff him back into it and call the undertaker.
But I was sufficiently exhausted to appreciate the rest. I spent almost all my time sitting around the house and doing next to nothing. I left once, to stock his kitchen with food, and one other time, to buy a strobe light at a photo supply shop in downtown Lisbon. The rest of the time I did as little as possible. I listened to fado music on his radio, took long glorious baths in his tub, cooked and ate small meals in his kitchen, drank port wine and black coffee and Spanish brandy, and loafed around while my body unwound and my nerves came back to normal. I hadn’t realized at the time what a strain the whole business had been. I had been on the go twenty-four hours a day for too many days and I badly needed a chance to loosen up a little.
When I wasn’t bathing or loafing or listening to records or eating or drinking, I searched his house. His records, after all, were what I had come for. If I couldn’t find them, I might as well have let him rot in jail. They might have been easier to find if I had known just what I was looking for. I didn’t. They could be anything from a set of ledgers to a spool of microfilm. I went over the house from top to bottom. I look up the carpet and looked under it. I checked for loose bricks in and around the fireplace. I moved pictures to search for hidden wall safes. I did all of the things they do in the movies when they are hunting for something and a few more besides, and I got nowhere.
The fourth day, he came in from the cold. I was downstairs and heard him bustling around up there. I went up to see him, and there he was at the head of the stairs with a gun in his hand. I’d come across the gun in my search, a little.22 caliber item in the bedside table. Now it was pointed at me.
“Easy,” I said. “Take it easy.”
“We are in my house in Lisbon.”
“How long have we been here?”
“Just a few days.”
“A few days.” He looked at me, then at the gun. He still had it pointed at me. I didn’t really think he was going to shoot it, but I wasn’t sure.
“We were supposed to go to Cairo.”
“It was impossible.”
I had had four days to prepare my answer. “There is a war going on there,” I said. “Israel has invaded Egypt. The government has fallen. It seemed unwise to go there now. At the last minute I managed to cancel our plane reservations and book passage here.”
He shuddered. “You were wise, Colonel Tanner. Of course you should have consulted me first.” He lowered the weapon, came down the stairs. He looked, I saw, much the worse for wear. Loose folds of skin hung down from his face. His eyes were bloodshot, rimmed with massive circles. He looked like a man who had stayed up all night, not like one who had been sleeping for four days like a corpse.
In the living room he suddenly discovered the pine box. “What is that?” he demanded. “It looks like a coffin.”
“It is a coffin.”
“What is it doing here?”
“I had to ship you in it,” I said.
“In that thing?”
“Yes. From Athens to Lisbon.”
“In that thing? In a coffin? Me? In a coffin, like a corpse?”
“Yes. There was no other way.”
“I could have sat in a seat like a human being-”
“You had one of your seizures. Don’t you remember?”
“But you did that to me. The flashlight-”
“Not this time. You had the seizure yourself. In fact I thought it was a heart attack, and a doctor pronounced you dead.”
“And then I rode in a coffin.” He shuddered violently. It was too vivid a glimpse of his own mortality, and he didn’t like it one bit. That shudder of his was damned real. Then he got hold of it and turned it into a laugh. “In a coffin!” he said, now delighted with the idea. “A joke on them all, eh? A fine joke.” He set the gun down on a table and rubbed his hands briskly together. “Well, we are home now. Perhaps this is better than Cairo, after all. Well, I need a bath, a shave, and some food. You will draw my bath, please. Not too hot but not too cold either. Then while I bathe and dress you may cook something. You can cook? Of course, I am sure you can, Captain…”
We were home now, and I was his aide, all right. And his orderly and valet and man of all tasks. I drew his bath and laid out soap and a razor for him. He certainly needed a shave. His beard had gone on growing while he was in his fits. This had led me to assume he was alive, until I remembered that the beards and fingernails of corpses continue to grow for a while after death, another thought I didn’t care to hold onto for any length of time.
While he was washing himself and shaving, I cooked him a big meal. I wanted plenty of food in him because I had the feeling that the next few days were going to be rough ones for him. I wanted him in good shape. I’d worked out the methods I’d have to use to get the records. Winning his confidence wasn’t going to make much difference – he was still in command, he was the general and I was the lieutenant or captain or major or colonel, depending upon his mood, and he wasn’t about to turn his records over to me. I had to break him, and break him good. And I had had plenty of time to find a way to do it.
I fed him six eggs and five strips of bacon and plenty of toast and coffee with cream and sugar and some sweet rolls and everything else that I could find that he could eat. He was full of compliments for my cooking. He wiped his mouth and belched and wiped his mouth again and trundled off to the bathroom. When he came out I was in the doorway waiting for him. I didn’t bother with the flashlight this time. I had the strobe aimed right in his face, with the flashing mechanism set to just the right frequency. He got one step out of the bathroom and collapsed into my arms.
I took him back to the bedroom, stripped him, stretched him out on his back and tied him up neatly, spread-eagled, his feet and hands fastened with thin cord to the bedposts. I hadn’t wanted to knock him out again but I couldn’t think of a better way to get him in position and set the stage. I didn’t expect he would be out too long, anyway. His usual stretch was only a few hours, and the four-day blackout he’d just had was atypical. If it took four days, I would just have to wait.
I set the stage the way I wanted it. I masked off all the windows and the door so that not a ray of light entered the room. I set up the strobe light so that it flashed not into his eyes but off to the side, and I set the frequency way below the level that knocked him out. It flashed quite slowly, on and off, on and off. I found a small record player downstairs and pawed through his records until I found one of Nazi marching songs. It was a 33 rpm recording, and I set the player for 45 rpm. I turned off the strobe because it was bothering me, and I sat in the darkness and waited for something to happen.
Nothing did for a very long time, perhaps six or seven hours. Then I heard him breathing, starting to stir. I leaned over and flicked on the strobe light and let it flash monotonously on and off. I turned a dial on the record player and the “Horst Wessel Lied” began to play, pitched too high and played too fast. I kept my hand on the volume dial and made it now louder, now softer, now louder, now softer.