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From the Prologue of HOFFMANN (the first volume of the spy-trilogy
by Brian Abercrombie (Toby Martins)


  The lights went out all at once. For a brief moment it seemed to Piotr Dobrunek as if he were standing deserted in total darkness. But along with the sudden beginning of the shrill notes of the little flutes and the rattle and at the same time pounding of the drums, he became aware of the many little lanterns that slowly began to pierce the darkness and formed into columns. Scarcely had the individual processions begun to move when the crowds of people, who like Dobrunek had waited silently in the sudden darkness, immediately were flowing up and down the narrow streets and alleys like the waves of an ocean in which he was threatened with drowning.

  It was Monday, February 28, l977, four o'clock in the morning in the city of Basel. The annual Morgenstreich, as the people of Basel call their nocturnal introduction to carnival, had again lured thousands from within and without the country with its spell. At exactly four o'clock the electric lights of the city went out and only the candles and battery-operated lamps of individual groups illuminated each of the carnival processions and the faces of those standing nearby. In constantly changing groups the spectators followed the various guilds and created more or less long processions that penetrated the dense throng of people. The city seemed to be bursting at the seams. Accompanied by the shrieking and clatter of the musical instruments, the lights and people moved like one single living mass without head or limbs.

  Dobrunek allowed himself to be carried along. Aimlessly he followed the group in whose wake he happened to be drawn. He was longing for it to become day. Then he could at last get rid of his burden. It had been decided that a man with a big camera bag would be the least conspicuous on this day and could most certainly and punctually be able to deliver its contents at the designated meeting place. Flash bulbs were going off everywhere capturing the colorful show. A man with a large camera bag was something quite natural there. Dobrunek, however, seemed to himself to appear anything but normal. He did not know the contents of the bag and did not want to know either. He was just a minor employee in the Yugoslavian consulate. His daily activity was pure bureaucratic work. His job was to sign that papers had been read and to answer unimportant letters from around the country, but he did not play courier-particularly under such strange and, to him, questionable circumstances. They had even suggested giving him a gun for his own personal security. This had sounded an alarm for him, for he knew that couriers were never armed. Why then suddenly him? He had not been able to refuse the mission-as he would have preferred to do. Orders were, after all, orders. But at least he was not going to carry a pistol around with him. This would have seemed to him as if he were actually tempting fate. So against orders he had hidden it in his desk drawer. A rumpled trench coat, which offered less than adequate protection against the prevailing cold, and a shapeless felt hat were supposed to lend him-in the eyes of his superiors-the appearance of a harmless tourist. A camera bag without a camera might also have been noticeable. So they had handed him a very expensive apparatus with which he was to pretend to be an enthusiastic photographer. Never in his life had Dobrunek had a camera in his hand, and he had also never felt the need for one. How stupid photos were, he thought. Pictures of people I don't know tell me nothing. Landscapes of places where I have been are never properly reproduced, and pictures of places where I never was only awaken the unfulfillable desire to travel. He had often expressed himself in this way. In addition snapping pictures was too expensive for him. His little garden, which gave him much pleasure, required enough care, attention, and money. Since his mother was sick, he was at the moment in need of money. Probably they knew that and had consequently tried to make him more willing with the prospect of a nice bonus for success. For along with his orders, he still had to play a part and play well as they had impressed upon him. But if this affair was so important, why had they picked him in particular? He had never yet played courier. Besides, he didn't think he looked at all like a tourist. But perhaps that would actually not be noticeable in the confusion.

  The processions, which appeared to most people as a colorful and splendid show, made only a supernatural and ghostly impression on Dobrunek. The masks that kept all human features from being recognizable seemed to threaten him with their impressive size. The flickering lights affected him like flickering sparks of life. He tried to throw off his gloomy mood and thought of his garden and that his mother would, he hoped, be well again soon.

  Slowly the morning began to dawn. It was getting on toward time for him to go to the appointed meeting place. The people began to drift off. The first eating spots began to open, and from each doorway warmth and the enticing aroma of onion and cheese pies ("Zwiebel"- and "Käswaie") mixed with the steam of hot coffee and cigarette smoke accosted him. He felt hungry. When he had given up the bag, he wanted to go to one of those places and get some onion pie ("Zwiebelwaie") and a glass of "Fendant"-afterwards coffee. The idea of this treat encouraged him. He hurried up the steps of Kellergässchen. Individual groups of drums and pipes passed him. They would trail through the city in their new raiment piping and drumming throughout the whole morning until they were formed into an orderly procession in the big Monday afternoon parade. He passed St. Peter's, quickly crossed Petersgraben, and hurried across the square in the direction of the University Library. There were still no spectators here or any people seeking out a place to rest. A group in black and white masks and ragged costumes passed by him.

  The blow in the back hit him so unexpectedly that he fell instantly. The bullet had penetrated his spinal column upon entrance and in exiting tore an ugly hole in his chest. With an effort he dragged himself to the side. The group of jugglers who had seemed to be passing him by were now surrounding him. They continued to stamp in time and blow on their flutes.

  No one passing by could see what was occurring in the center of this group. A man holding a gun with a silencer stood over Dobrunek. He took the camera bag away from the dying man. Then he aimed at Dobrunek's head. In the fraction of a second that still remained to him, Dobrunek suddenly realized two things: In spite of the mask that the man wore, Dobrunek recognized him by the strange glass eye that stared starkly at him out of the mask-just as it had during the unmotivated visit of this man four days before. And he realized that his camera was by chance aimed directly at his murderer. The shot came in unison with the snap of the camera. No one noticed it. The men again formed a procession and, piping and drumming, disappeared.

  Dobrunek, who had not taken a single photograph in his life and did not think much of this occupation, succeeded in death in taking a sensational picture: He had photographed his own murder.

  This, however, changed nothing much: Phase three had gone awry



© Toby Martins, 2005