By W.M. Achrya
He knew; no need to check a clock. The greyish, neon-tinted darkness filtering through the curtains on the hotel window told him.
He got up and, without turning on a light, went to the bathroom to relieve himself and have a drink of water. On the way back he caught sight of himself in the mirror over the combined desk and dressing table. Dark outlines of narrow hips, flat stomach, firm thighs. He was no body-builder, but he kept himself in good shape. A necessity in his line of work.
He always slept naked: a habit from the old RAF days when the seconds spent removing one’s pyjamas could prove fatal. In the nude you could simply step into the pants and trousers piled, fireman fashion, next to the bed, and be on your way in a matter of minutes. Some of his comrades slept in their underwear. A filthy habit, he thought. You could not be too fastidious about hygiene.
He would not go back to sleep for some time, he realised. He might as well review his plan for the following day. There were people involved, lots of them. His own people he could rely on, as far as you could rely on anyone, but the others were a set of unknowns. In these cases you had to be flexible, ready to improvise. Which called for careful planning: like a chess game, thinking several moves ahead, what will Black do if White does this, that or the other.
He needed to discipline his thoughts, and knew from experience that a pen and paper would help. Not to write down his plans, that would border on criminal stupidity, but seemingly aimless drawing was a good way to focus. Before sitting down at the desk he put on his dressing-gown. The brown and gold paisley-patterned silk kimono looked, felt and was expensive, like the rest of his clothing and personal objects, purchased some months ago. To become the character he had created for himself in this particular project he had acquired equipment to match his intended background and social position.
He turned on the desk lamp and reached into a jacket pocket for his pen. The black Parker fountain pen was another one of his recently acquired props, but more than that. Good writing implements were a sign of thoroughness, order, a well organised mind. He remembered the thrill he felt when, shortly after his arrival in the United States, he realised that twelve-year-olds and even older students were allowed to hand in their school-work in pencil. In a culture this sloppy he was certain to succeed.
The hotel writing pad was quite satisfactory in quality. He un-capped the pen and drew a square, turned it into a box in perspective, added a half-raised lid, some shading. Just so, their plan for tomorrow like in a little box. The usual precautions had been taken, he reflected. None of his people knew each other previously: everyone's identity papers were excellent forgeries from his most reliable source; a pattern of plots and counter-plots guaranteed their shares of the loot while protecting his investment.
He drew an oval and let it turn into a face. The paper suggested a white circus clown, so he added a pair of thin black question-mark eyebrows. A distinctive nose... he caught sight of movement in the mirror in front of him and the pen slipped. The ink lips curved in a sneer.
He gave the mirror a more attentive look: no, there was no-one moving behind him. The small hallway was dark and silent, the bathroom door closed as he had left it.
The timetable of the action, he thought, had to run like clockwork. The driver would pick up the rented truck while he himself was ostentatiously having breakfast at the hotel; his own pick-up point was a garage a few blocks away. The rest of his crew…
He drew a ruffle under the clownish face on the pad.
“Rather a good likeness,” said a voice.
It spoke German, slightly old-fashioned, correct but not stiff, like someone who was perfectly at ease with the formal “stage” variety of the language. The voice was well-trained, professional, controlled, beautifully modulated.
His head jerked up and he scrutinised the mirror.
Where he expected to see his own brown hair, pale complexion, hazel eyes and a neatly trimmed short beard, there was a stark visage with its natural features covered by white grease-paint. Black hair brushed back from a high forehead, whiplash-thin pencilled eyebrows raised in permanent disdain, Cupid's bow lips painted thin, ever set for a sneering sarcasm.
Only the prominent nose and the bone structure resembled his own.
Not here and now, but this was someone he ought to know.
He stared at the image in the mirror, remembering.
“Mephisto,” he murmured.
“You flatter me, Gruber,” said the apparition. “Or you're forgetting your education.”
“You... know me?”
“I've been following your... career... for quite a while.”
With sarcastic emphasis on the word “career”, enough to jog Gruber's memory. A book called “The novel of a career”...
“Hendrik Höfgen,” he said.
“At your service.” The sarcasm was still there, tinted with vanity.
“It would seem that Barbara’s brother’s filthy literary emissions of did me more good than harm in the long run. When did you read about me?”
“I heard about you in middle school,” replied Gruber, too dazed to question the situation. "And there was the scandal a few years ago, about banning the novel."
“There you are, a scandal and everything, almost twenty years after my death. Impressive, isn't it? Without that book I'd simply be a dead actor these days. When you come over this way, Gruber, remind me to thank my brother-in-law.”
Gruber felt an icicle trickle down his spine. He shivered.
Mirror-Höfgen scrutinised him in silence.
“You were working, Gruber,” he said after a while. “Don't let me interrupt you.”
“How could I... do you actually think...”
Gruber was disconcerted. Did this... this... thing expect him to go on reviewing his plans with Höfgen/Mephisto watching from the mirror? And why?
“Why… why me?” he finally managed to ask.
“As to the why, I was bored,” said Höfgen. “I'm not at liberty to divulge anything precise about the other side, but one needs a hobby. As an actor I'm rather partial to people-watching.”
“And as to why you,” he went on, “you interest me. We're more alike than it might seem. Just think about it for a while.”
“We're both German. That's it,” Gruber said testily. “I'm alive, you're dead. You were an actor, I'm a … let's say a private entrepreneur.”
The white pancake rippled as Höfgen's real eyebrow rose briefly.
Gruber went on: “You were a Nazi, I'm without party affiliation. You rubbed elbows with the high and mighty, I'm my own boss. My own... Führer,” he sneered.
“Please, Gruber. That was extremely tacky.”
“Humph!” Höfgen's superciliousness was getting on Gruber's nerves.
“Your condition of being alive might change any moment,” stated the apparition.
Another icicle ran down Gruber's back.
The face in the mirror continued: “An aneurysm, a drunk driver, a poorly de-iced air-plane wing. There's no such thing as Fate or Just Retribution. Blind chance is all. Don't worry about it.”
Höfgen went on: “I survived and died in bed...”
“By suicide, yes,” Gruber muttered.
“Not at all. It really was an accidental overdose. But my health was poor and it didn't matter much. As I was saying, I died respected and relatively wealthy, a legend of German theatre, in 1963. My stupid idealist brother-in-law didn't have all the answers: he did commit suicide, in 1948.”
“So?” Gruber was beginning to feel slightly drunk from lack of sleep. He re-capped the fountain pen, folded his hands and faced the mirror. “Enlighten me. In what way are we alike?”
“Well, as you've already mentioned, we're both German. That's a non-trivial observation. You went to school before the system deteriorated, so, like me, you've had the benefit of a classical education. Meaning a historical perspective and training in stringent thought, improving your ability to manipulate minds. And strengthening the conviction that your place is among the shepherds, not the ignorant herd.”
“Now, wait a minute, Höfgen! I was in...”
“The RAF, yes. A radical left-wing elitist organisation arrogantly assuming the right to murder people for your so-called ideals.”
“And your party comrades? That was slaughter on an industrial scale!”
“I did what I could to help! I saved Ulrichs’s life!”
“Until he got shot trying to escape. All you saved was your own sorry arse after the war. Got yourself de-nazified over Ulrichs's dead body.”
“I tried! I was an actor, dammit, not a politician!!!”
The white mask in the mirror distorted with rage and struggled to shut down in ironic impassivity again.
“Be it as it may, Gruber,” resumed the icy voice, “we both started out as communists. Another good school, wasn't it?”
“I suppose so. It was good discipline, for oneself and as a part of a group. One learned obedience first, and then leadership. One studied causes and effects, the base and the superstructure; those principles hold today more than ever.”
“But we both left the movement.”
“The times were changing, yours as well as mine. Being a communist was no way to reach the ultimate goal.”
“The ultimate goal, Gruber? Don’t make me laugh. Your ultimate goal is to line your own pockets.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Höfgen. Money is just a means. The goal, mine as well as yours, is power. When we left the movement, we both kept up that particular dedication. To power.”
“Power? As an actor, I gave people a cathartic experience. I enriched their lives. In what way is that power-hungry?”
“Controlling the thoughts and feelings of your audience, that’s your power right there. The power to make yourself loved, to make thousands of people feel that you’re a part of their lives.”
“Bah! Real power is the kind that comes with real money: the power to buy politicians and make laws. Me, I had to crawl in the dirt and kiss big fat political arses just to be allowed to continue my work.”
“You could have left the country.”
“And do what, become a butcher’s helper in Chicago? Or talk hot air and print pathetic little bulletins in Paris? I was an actor, Gruber. The German language was my tool and I needed my audience.”
“What, Höfgen, dead these twenty-five years and still feeling sorry for yourself? Anyway, you’ve made it very clear that you were good at landing on your feet. ‘An icon of German theatre,’ isn’t that how you put it?”
“No, you’re right, Gruber, all that’s water under the bridge. In any case, things are easier for you. Pull off your big coup, disappear, have your money work quietly for you in Switzerland for a while and then come back, a different name, a different face, ready to wield power.”
“Quite so. I don’t have to worry about my audience. Punters, Höfgen, punters by another name. You needed them. They gave meaning to what you did. I just despise them, when I grant them the honour of considering them at all. What did you just call them? The ignorant herd.”
“Ironically, the ignorant herd might become my genuine power base if I were alive now.”
“I have followed some of your so-called stars. Yes, Gruber, things have changed. With my iconic status and a smart agent today I could be making and breaking politicians, or rather thumbing my nose at them on my way to the bank. The entertainment industry is quite possibly the industry now. In my days real wealth still had to do with tangibles: gold, steel, coal, cloth; today it’s all about pushing the new brand of opium for the people. Forget about art, sell in a franchise, spin off gadgets, t-shirts and music records to rip off the kids, get a contract with a fast-food chain and you write your own ticket.”
Mirror-Höfgen had lost some of his edge; he looked wistful, nostalgic over a future no longer his.
“No matter,” he ended the long pause. “You’re an intelligent man, Gruber. You know better than to swallow the pap that the entertainment industry feeds you. In real life being the good guy doesn’t make you win, that’s the simple truth. You’ll do well, Gruber. I’ll be watching and applauding. Break a leg…”
… and Höfgen was gone. Gruber could still discern a pale oval shape in the mirror, but rapidly it took on the image of his own face.
Suddenly, incongruously, Gruber realised his earlier mistake. He had drunk water from the bathroom faucet. A minor detail, yes, but this was not the time to behave out of character. Höfgen was right: they were both actors and living the illusion made it easier to sell to the punters. He reached over to open the mini-bar refrigerator. Booze, he noted distractedly without distinguishing the individual little bottles. This was not the time for alcohol. Those old Jews had a point, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to booze and a time for refraining from boozing.
A much better opium for the people, booze, he thought. Religion was dead, but who needed it, when there was alcohol, football, gambling, tabloids, daytime television. They did the job much better, the job of stopping the punters from actually putting two and two together.
Where would we be without opium for the people, he thought. Luckily for us, the punters are amusing themselves to total stupidity. We the crooks, the thieves, the con artists, illegal or legal - no difference anyway if you’re big enough - we stay sober, do the job and bring home the bacon.
He found a few green-tinted bottles lying down in the mini-bar. Like an absurd joke, the labels had red five-pointed stars on them. San Pellegrino. An elegant brand bottled water, adequate for his character. He picked up one of the bottles, unscrewed the top and took the trouble to pour the water into one of the crystal highball glasses on the desk.
He drank it down in measured mouthfuls, took off his dressing-gown and returned to bed.
He went back to sleep almost immediately.
There was a long day ahead of him.