Èze, near Nice, Cote'd'Azur, March 21
Siegfried Stahl stirred his coffee and frowned at the happy shrieks of children playing in the street. “They'd never lie still,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head. “Stressful for the men. Crawling around on their parents in the graves. Took several bullets to silence them. Ja, Ja. Had to be strong as steel in those days.”
He shivered. There was a chill in the air, despite the late afternoon sun warming the terrace of his villa. He picked up the red sack from the wrought-iron table, fiddled with the knot and pulled out a handful. How they sparkled. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies; many still encased in the gold settings from bracelets, necklaces, engagement rings. He tilted his palm. An intense red beam, refracted by a ruby, pierced his grey eyes and made him squint. He poured them back into the sack, went into his bedroom and locked it in the safe. He had been strong.
The doorbell rang. He frowned. He wasn't expecting anybody. The man on the doorstep had a bulky frame and was less than half his age. “Herr Stahl?” The man smiled, turning his thin eyes to slits in his fleshy, pugnacious face. “Sven Wuttke, Free National Party. Here is my membership card. I am regional leader for East Mecklenburg.”
Stahl studied the card and looked up at Wuttke.
“I was visiting the area. I'm on a much-needed holiday. Our leader asked me to drop in on you and convey the party's gratitude for your support, Herr Stahl.”
“Oh! Herr von Tietjen?”
“Yes. He received your letter. About the legacy.”
Stahl opened the door wider. “Please, come in!”
“The FNP shall inherit all I have,” said Stahl, leading his guest into the living room. “It's my patriotic duty.”
“My God!” Wuttke admired the panoramic window showing the grand sweep of the Côte d'Azur bay far below. “What a beautiful home you have.”
“May I offer you a beer, young man?”
Wuttke nodded. “That would go down well.”
Stahl headed down the corridor towards the kitchen. The floor vibrated from heavy footsteps behind him. A hand appeared in the corner of his eye. It held something long and white. The cord tightened around his neck and jerked his head back. His dentures flew out of his mouth. Black stars flashed across his vision. He yanked Wuttke's arm forward with all his strength and thrust back with his leg and his hip. Wuttke lost his footing and fell to the floor. He looked up at the old man in astonishment.
Stahl tore the noose off and gasped for air. He turned and tried to scream for help as he staggered towards the front door, but he only managed a weak croak. His hair bristled at the sound of Wuttke's feet. He rammed his elbow back but failed to make contact. Wuttke slammed him against the door, forced the rope back over his head and tugged it so sharply that Stahl fell. Choking, he grasped the noose with his arthritic hands as the young man hauled him across the white marble floor. In the living room, Wuttke flipped him onto his stomach and crunched a knee into the small of his back. The cord loosened enough for Stahl to breathe. He fought for air with a long, whining rattle. He felt the cold rubber of surgical gloves on his skin as Wuttke clicked handcuffs around his wrists.
“Take what you want. Let me live. I beg you!”
Wuttke tied his ankles together and dragged him underneath a massive chandelier in the centre of the room. It was shaped like an iron cross and attached to a central beam by a heavy link chain. He brought over a chair and climbed on it, looping the end of the rope around the central section of the cross. Stahl strained against his cuffs and whimpered.
“Don't fight it,” Wuttke said. “You're about to die for the Fatherland.”
Stahl felt his sphincter twitch violently. Wuttke jumped off the chair and tugged hard on the cord, using his weight to hoist Stahl up by the neck. The old man's face went purple. His mouth tore open in a silent scream. He was on his feet now, his head facing upwards.
“You're going to get on the chair,” Wulff said. Stahl shook his head.
Wuttke punched him in the stomach. As Stahl bent double in agony against the taught rope, Wulff picked him up by the legs and lifted him onto the chair. He pulled the slack out of the cord before Stahl could tumble off, and climbed on the chair himself to tie the noose to the chandelier. “No,” Stahl gurgled. “Please.” He was getting an erection. He could no longer keep his bowels closed. Wuttke grimaced in disgust. He jumped off. Stahl felt the handcuffs being unlocked. Then Wuttke pulled the chair away.
Stahl kicked frantically into the void. The chandelier swung but held. The orange and blue horizon darkened. Blinding images of a sun-drenched, prosperous life flooded his mind. The pictures faded, and as his bursting heart gave its final beat, he heard the distant shrieking of children.