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STOCKHOLM, FEBRUARY 1943
Kowalski couldn’t believe his luck. An intelligence coup for the history books!
The next morning in Stockholm, he passed the unprocessed microfilm and the wire recording, along with a coded report, to the courier. Then he walked back toward the Karl XII Hotel.
He was so elated that he never noticed the heavyset man in a leather jacket walking toward him until the man blocked his path, smiled a great friendly smile, and asked in Swedish for a match. He reeked of garlic.
Kowalski said he didn’t smoke and attempted to step around him.
“Halt! stehen bleiben,” barked Garlic Mouth in German. He pulled his left hand from his pocket to reveal a snub-nosed Beretta. A black Mercedes sedan swished to a halt at the curb. The back door swung open.
“Herein,” ordered Garlic Mouth. He jammed the Beretta into Kowalski’s spine and propelled him into the rear seat. A burly confederate already sitting there yanked Kowalski’s arms behind him and snapped handcuffs on his wrists. Then he stuffed a filthy rag into his mouth, and slipped a coarse woolen hood reeking of fuel oil over his head. Kowalski gagged. He felt the bile rise in his throat; he would suffocate in his own vomit. He tried to remember his months of training. Don’t panic. Keep alert. Stay in control. Easy enough for his instructor to say.
After what seemed about half an hour, the car stopped. A revolver was thrust in his ribs. He was propelled out the door, grabbed by the arms, frog-marched forward ten steps; then down a flight of stairs.
It stank of soot and coal dust and sewage. Fifteen more steps, then left, another door, more steps; he was backed onto a wooden chair.
The hood was yanked from his head; the rag pulled from his mouth. He closed his eyes momentarily to the glare. He was in a small, dank basement room. There were no windows, just a single bright overhead light.
Garlic Mouth and his friend stood on either side of the chair. Facing Kowalski across a pine desk was a slim, elegant man with the palest of blue eyes and a thin blond moustache. He would have been handsome, almost beautiful—a movie star or male model—were it not for the left side of his face, mottled red and cratered as if roasted in a blaze. His neck was hidden by a brown foulard. He had an unlit cigarette in his mouth. His voice was high, almost a woman’s, and calm, so calm, as he began in German.
“You are from where?”
“From Warsaw.” He struggled for outrage. “I am a Polish businessman and—”
“You lie,” said the man quietly. He nodded toward Garlic Mouth, who grabbed Kowalski’s wrists, still cuffed together, and wrenched them violently upward. An excruciating pain ripped through Kowalski’s shoulders and shot across his back.
“Schweinhund!” screamed Kowalski.
“Your name is Avi Ben Simon,” said the inquisitor, reading from a paper in front of him.
The prisoner’s gut tightened again. “No. Stanislaw Kowalski,” he insisted. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back.
Another cheerless nod. A second vicious jolt from Garlic Mouth left the prisoner gasping with pain.
“You are Avi Ben Simon. You are from Warsaw--but not a businessman. You are a Jew. A spy.” The inquisitor stood—he was tall, well built—and came around the table to stand before the prisoner. He wore a soft, fragrant cologne. He showed the prisoner the paper he’d been reading from. The prisoner said nothing; there was no point. His shoulders felt as if they’d been ripped from his body. The pain throbbed through him.
“And so, you see, we know all about you. Now why don’t you fill in a few details? Then we can all go our separate ways.”
So this how is it ends, thought Avi Ben Simon. What irony: to flee the Nazis in Warsaw; to be trapped by them in Stockholm. No hero’s return to my new homeland.
But he could still win, if he could only control his fear. There’d been instruction on this from a psychiatrist during training: If caught you can expect to be tortured. Brutally. These Nazi thugs knew nothing about the conversation he’d recorded yesterday, nor that he’d been able to dispatch it with the courier. Avi would give them nothing.
In the cellar, the interrogator continued solemnly with his questions. Avi refused to answer. They finished wrenching his left shoulder from its socket. He shrieked with pain. What was it the psychiatrist had said? If tortured, the only escape is to go into yourself, as deep and dark and as far as you can. They paused for a question. Then they wrenched the right shoulder. Another question. No answer.
As deep and dark and far as you can.
So, as the Germans meticulously shattered his body, Avi fled to the past. He summoned memories, frame by frame: A sesame cake still warm from the oven—an incredible luxury. It was the last meal with his family before he crawled through the sewers and escaped to the forests North of Warsaw.
They began breaking the bones of his fingers. They bent them until Avi could hear them crack, one at a time, like the wishbone of a Friday-night chicken. He wouldn’t talk. He-would-not-talk. He was holding hands with Hannah Lebel from across the street in Warsaw. She laughed as he told his clever jokes.
When he lost consciousness, they revived him with smelling salts and a bucket of freezing water. And still he fled. He sat proudly in the State Loge of the Warsaw Conservatory as his mother played Chopin. And now it was coming, he dimly thought. He was a child by the pond in Wenceslaus Park, watching the marvelous toy sailboat his father gave him, as it caught a gust and glided off across the waters. It could glide forever.
The inquisitor realized he’d lost his prisoner and wearied of the game. He gave a final sad nod. Garlic Mouth wrapped his left arm around the captive’s head, seized his chin with his right hand, and twisted sharply, farther than Avi Ben Simon had ever turned his head before.
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