Joanna McKethan

Chapter 1

Allmannshausen, Germany, Spring 1977


The Day My Home Turned into Prison

“Man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away.”—

Socrates, Dialogues of Plato, Phaedo 62

I live in a beautiful prison—a castle resurrected, her once hidden beams laid bare.

Call me Lexi, short for Alexandra Campbell Sewell, and now add, ‘von Ost’ to the end. I am an American bride in Bavaria.

Marriage to Jon swept me up into the currents of Schloss Enzian situated on a rocky outcrop above the village of Allmannshausen, and propelled me into this parapet two stories above him.

Taking a break from sculpting, I looked outside the window surprised to see an S-Klasse Mercedes which looks like a black limousine crunch gravel and stop. A chauffeur hopped out and opened the door of the back seat facing me.

Out poured a man thinner than paper onto our stone walkway. Erect, he stood close to seven feet tall. Dressed in black from head to foot, he took off black shades and looked up directly at me. I stared down into lumps of coal—eyes with no hint of light or mercy.

I jumped back into the shadows.

Jon, who is this man, and why did he come? I said to stone walls, and the question hung heavy in the air, and a curious commotion rose in my chest. I checked a sudden impulse to race downstairs to find out. Light pinged off the small silver case he carried. A shudder of foreboding trickled across my shoulders. Had I known ahead what it portended—bold assertion—I would have prevented his arrival, or kept Jon from ever opening the thing.

Whatever that man touched, he corrupted; whatever he devised, was evil.

I returned to the parapet. Closing and bolting the windows, I noted Stiefmütterchen, little red and purple pansies staggering up the walkway, drooping where the tall man drug through them with his cane, tearing their ruffled faces. There was something daunting about pansies broken in January. Why did one call such beautiful flowers “little stepmothers”? They mocked Jon’s artful garden among the larch and linden trees.

Planted next to the linden bark was the chauffeur. I blanched. Half his face was fallen, dragging, as if it had no muscles.

I crept down the castle steps of my own home, gripping the railing.

Quite simply, I had to know, had to look what came in the eye. I don’t mean that man; I had no intention of looking him in the eye again, although something told me that day would come. All I wanted was to hear enough to know what he brought, and if this were one of the secrets Jon hid from me since our wedding less than a year ago. I wanted to know very badly.

As his wife I had every right to know, couldn’t fathom what secrets he—who kept tabs on me—would keep from me. I had to figure out what he was up to.

Reaching the bottom floor, I veered left into the dining room where one corner butted against Jon’s study. I could hear voices but could not distinguish words. Nearing the wall, I leaned an ear against cold stucco.

“He left it to the group…,” spoke the deep, gravelly voice I attributed to the thin man.

“And?” Jon said.

“Whether you care or not…whether you want to or not, you must hand it over…you can see what I brought…you must keep this for us.”

So…he offered an exchange of some kind.

“I don’t have what you want. And even if I did,” I heard Jon say, “it didn’t belong to him, anyhow, so he couldn’t give it away. Nor can I—it is not mine.”

“No?” he said, as if he were reasonable. “Ah, but you must surrender it to us, anyway. If you don’t, we will inform the press that your family has Nazi connections, and you will lose your business.” He corrected his first impression.

“How did you find us? Our name has changed.”

How?” His laugh was unpleasant. “We are not powerless, even now. Secret power is greater…over and over, it proves superior.”

What Nazi connections? Well, I did know Jon’s father had belonged to the Nazi party and would not join the family in the exodus that ensued due to his Nazi loyalty and to his heart attack enroute. How could he have left anything valuable? And who would fault Jon his father’s connections?

“That is dirty dealing. Theft and extortion,” Jon said.

“Let me say a little more…,” and the thin man’s voice trailed off into a whisper and I heard no more, except the noise of a box slammed shut, and chairs scraping the floor.

Now I was more frustrated than ever: I knew less, since I knew more had been imparted and could not reveal to Jon I had eavesdropped. So I could not ferret out more information. Worst of all, I knew enough to worry. Chills rippled down my back and legs.

Natascha, rounding the corner from the kitchen, towel in hand, stopped short and laughed. “What in the world are you doing, Alexandra? Oh, I see,” she said, smiling a big, mean smile. “You’re eavesdropping. I’ll tell Johann you need to speak to him.”

“You do that, Natascha,” I said. “And what will that get you, a raise?” I said.

“No, probably not. Just teasing, Alexandra,” she said.

“Who is that man?” I asked her, hearing the door close and his shoes clicking over the stone into the hallway.

“No idea, except that he has something to do with our father.”

“I see,” I said, relieved at hearing the front door close and a car leave the drive.

“Yes, poor Father,” she said, brushing straight brown hair up off her neck into the bun she wore.

“You have a sad story, don’t you?” I asked, sympathetically.

“Yes, but nothing for you to worry about. If you plan on seeing Johann, you might want to brush your hair. It looks untidy,” she said, withdrawing, leaving the towel on the banister rail as she ascended the stairs, I supposed, to her room. Strange woman, Jon’s sister. I peeked in the mirror but saw nothing amiss except that my hair looked black in the dining room’s low light and was extremely curly. Oh, Natascha. You don’t mean to confide in me. Divorced and living here indefinitely as she was, I must learn to put up with her.

But that goal dwarfed before my primary one of unveiling every secret Jon kept from me…with or without his help.

Whatever was happening in the castle, he couldn’t shut me out. No, he just couldn’t. I closed the drawer noisily and walked around to Jon’s study door and knocked.

“Jon?” I called. “We need to talk.”

He opened the door and smiled at me.

I returned his smile. “Hello.”

“Hi, Lexi, what are you working on today?” he said, entering the hall and blocking the door so I couldn’t go into his study. He reached out to stroke my hair a time or two.

“Oh, piddling, Jon. I was sculpting and looked out the upstairs window when I saw a black Mercedes drive up. Who in the world was that, Jon? Someone you know?” I asked him innocently, smiling again, always melting into a puddle before him. “You didn’t call me down, and I don’t like being left out, you know.” I stuck out my lips in a pout.

He patted my shoulder. “Be glad you were. He is not anyone I want you to meet.”

I caught his hand, glad we agreed. “I could tell from upstairs. Why did he come?”

“Oh, he thinks he knows about my family. He doesn’t, though. I’d offer to have coffee with you, and talk, but I have spa business that won’t wait. See you tonight at Abendesssen. We’ll talk then.” He gave me a dismissive peck on my forehead, turned and retreated into his office, closing the door in my face where I stood, rebuffed and angry.

Natascha chose that moment to return downstairs.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, brown eyes stretched wide.

“Nothing, Natascha. Why should there be?” My, how defensive I sounded.

“Oh, nothing. Shall I knock for you?” she asked.

“No. We already talked. You caught me in slow motion retreat.”

“No problem.”

“No problem at all,” I said, leaving to walk outside. Let her draw her own conclusions. Nothing I said mattered. I pushed through the heavy entrance doors, letting them thunder behind me. I looked at the mailbox and saw a white envelope peeking out of the box with another letter which bore my husband’s name, Johann Heinrich von Ost. The white one with ‘Alexandra von Ost’ scrawled on it was mine. No return address or name. Matter of fact, no canceled stamp graced the upper corner. Strange.

I turned it over and tore it open.

I slipped the card out of the letter. ‘Ami, go home. Sonst vereckst Du,’ which translates as, ‘or die’. Someone came close—to this very door—someone evil and creepy, who used the intimate “Du” instead of the formal “Sie” to threaten me. Was it the thin man or his chauffeur?

I marched right back into the house and up to Jon’s study door and knocked loudly.

Jon opened the door. “What, Lexi?” he said in exasperation. I need to work.”

He made me mad. “Call the police, Jon.”

“The police? Why in the world—”

I shoved the card into his hands. “Did your stranger leave this? I’m calling the police if you don’t, Jon.”

He quickly read the card handed him. “A death threat to you. Why, in God’s name?”

“Don’t know, Jon, just know I’d like to stay alive.” I placed my hands on my hips.

Verdammt noch mal,” he said, “I really had to get these bills paid and a contract rolling. Of course, Lexi, we’ll call the police. But you can’t mention the limousine, is that clear?”

“Why in the world, not?” I demanded.

His head jerked up in shock. “This isn’t like you, Lexi. You just can’t. That’s all I can tell you. I don’t believe this came from him,” he said, turning it over and over.

“Two weird things in a day that don’t connect—I doubt it. Should you be touching it?”

“Oh!” He immediately held it taut from edge to edge. “Let’s call them.”

He dialed from the lobby and sat in the great room waiting with me for their arrival.

They arrived quickly. We gave the police the card and answered a few questions.

“Probably a prank,” one of them said as they left with the evidence.

“Shouldn’t you be bagging that?” I asked them.

He smiled at me with great superiority. “If we bagged everything that might become evidence, we would fill the universe.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but had your name been on the envelope, bet you’d be bagging it.”

Silently, he pulled out a plastic baggie and slipped the card and envelope into it, maintaining eye contact the whole maneuver. He smiled at me.

I smiled back.

“Thank you, officers,” Jon said, treating it like a big joke.

Once they were gone, I glared at Jon.

He lifted his hands. “All right, Lexi, don’t be mad. I know this has set you off. I am taking it seriously. Do you want me to stay with you awhile?” his voice softened, and he pulled me to him, kissing my hair.

“No, Jon, I’m fine. And the last thing I want is house arrest.” I jerked my head away.

“I understand, but when you go to town or Munich or out for a walk, just write it on a slip of paper and put it under my door if I’m working. File your flight plan, which routes you intend to take, and your estimated time of return.” He flashed one of those smiles that had won me over completely just a year and a half ago.

“All right, darling,” I said, forgetting irritation and anger and impulsively kissing his cheek like I had the time I set off the fireworks between us with a first kiss. I waved good-bye as I returned upstairs to my room.

I feared I might endure an untimely demise like the poor pansies that sparked the winter landscape with hints of a spring sun. I changed the order of things when I asked my first husband, who had brought us to Germany to live, for a divorce in order to marry Jon.

My hand on the door, I answered my fear. God doesn’t punish that way. He champions truth, the underdog, the one threatened. And always brings what is hidden to light. I will flood Jon’s family with a searchlight. If we have a target on our backs, I will know why.

Who are you, Enemy, and who are we?

Perhaps our own secrets resist exposing the most.

And suddenly in the light of day, as though in answer, Enzian’s lights dimmed.

I wanted light, but tiptoed around in darkness.

Read: Chapter 2


Chapter 1

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Chapter 1 December 7, 2013