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He hurried down the street, his wooden shoes clacking anxiously against the Parisian cobblestones. Anonymity was key if he was to survive this mission. Trying hard to be as unrecognizable as possible, he jammed a tweed cap onto his head and brushed his blond bangs into his eyes, shielding his face from the afternoon light. Before leaving Berlin, he had gone shopping, and, with what money his benefactor left him, he bought a set of clothes tailored in the Parisian style. On the train, he had felt confident, but in Paris, he felt all eyes watching him.
Pressing his side against buildings, he kept to the shadows, struggling to keep the package he clutched tightly away from the filth that suffocated the city. It seemed like everywhere the Nazis went, destruction followed. He heard that they could catch you for anything here — for looking like a Jew or a Jewish sympathizer or even a Resistance member. He scoffed at the idea. He was not interested in who ruled and who died, only in his package.
He remembered the day when he received the contents of that mysterious package. He was a child then, maybe thirteen, fourteen, his blue eyes still wide with hope and the belief that all men were good. In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. Anne, with her brown hair and her shiny eyes and her unfailing sense of optimism, had said that. Part of the reason he was doing this, he knew, was for that little Jewish girl who turned his world on its head. She would have loved the danger. And he would have loved her but it was too late, and she was snatched away from him like the whisper of a dream, always hanging at the edges of his consciousness but never able to cross the threshold into his mind.
The package had arrived the day she went away.
It was not presented to him in some conventional way. It was pressed into his hands by his dying father, whose blood sealed the envelope and his fate. His father’s last words were unintelligible, garbled by the blood pouring out of a wound on his neck, but the sentiments were clear enough. His father died for the package, and he would do the same.
This package was a slap in the face to the Nazis. It was confiscated by an S.S. officer, prepped for Adolf Hitler’s personal collection, but his father had stolen it from under Alfred Rosenberg’s nose and managed to get it into the safe hands of his son, despite the Nazis’ best efforts. He knew that if he was caught with the package, he would be shot in the street like a dog.
He traced a hand over the ordinary brown wrapping, one finger absently picking at tape in the corner. With a flash of guilt, he recalled his first time discovering its contents. In a fit of rage, he tore open the wrapping, blinded by an overwhelming sense of grief and frustration. As soon as he gazed at what lay inside, however, he forgot all his pain. He was mesmerized by the patterns of color, of the gaudy adornments of gold and silver, how it seemed to give off an ethereal light, magnificence laying on a dirty wooden table in his cramped house. He was poor before he met his benefactor, and many nights, he would go hungry or cold, but never once did he consider selling the package. He would simply unwrap its paper shield and gaze at it until its glowing beauty consumed his soul and all other thoughts were erased. It held a power over him that he could not explain.
His benefactor had found him two years later, haunted and fearful, untrusting of anything other than his beloved package. She seized the package from him, explaining that she knew the owner of the painting, and that if he stayed with her for a year, she would lead him to her, allowing him to finally fulfill his father’s mission. Over the course of that one year, she had come to love him as a son, and he had come to love her as the mother he never had. It was with great sorrow that she handed him a photograph that would lead him to the owner, knowing that when he found the owner, he would be gone forever. And it was for this purpose that she gave him a second present, one that was now hidden deep in his pocket, an ominous reminder of what was soon to come.
The sky had begun to streak with gray, the golden glow of late afternoon fading into murky twilight. He fished the photograph out of his coat and stared at the faded picture. A rickety old building stared back at him. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, examining the worn wooden steps and the rotting doorframe. The whole building sagged, looking like it would collapse into itself, but he could not afford to be emotional about the affair. He had very little time as it was to find the building without wasting any more being critical of someone’s living quarters.
When the sky turned a rich shade of velvety blue and the stars began to twinkle, he started to get nervous. He had only an hour before curfew ended, and he could not afford to get caught by a Nazi patrol. He had a mission to accomplish.
He turned into an alley, letting the darkness swallow him. He stumbled along the poorly paved path, keeping one hand on a wall to steady him, trying to ignore the mold that clung to him like a moth to light. He tripped over a large stone and nearly crashed into a wall. Taking a step back, he looked at the building in front of him. It was tall, rickety, with a rotting doorframe and well-worn steps. Something akin to elation filled him as he walked up those steps and knocked on that door. It was the closest he had ever come to relief.
Suddenly, the door swung open, and he was greeted with the sight of a pale woman, with papery skin, dressed head to toe in black, completely colorless save for the red paint covering her lips. He drew in a sharp breath as he looked her over, briefly closing his eyes. She looked so similar.
“Adele Bloch-Bauer?” he asked, his normally raspy voice soft with shock.
“Yes,” she said warily, one hand on the door.
With shaking fingers, he handed over the package. “I believe this is yours.”
Still suspicious, she took the package from him, her slender fingers carefully peeling away the wrapping. She gasped when she saw the content, one hand flying to her mouth in complete surprise. She turned the unwrapped package toward him.
“It’s my portrait,” she whispered, wonderstruck. “Thank you.”
His heart leapt into his throat when he looked between the two women. The painted one was clad in opulent garments — a golden dress, extravagant jewelry — and her hair was a rich ebony, while the real one was rather drab, but there was no mistaking the distant expression in their eyes and the tilt of their red, seductively painted lips.
She was the painting his father died for, she was the woman in the painting who saved him when he was starving, freezing, she was the woman he worshipped. And she was the woman for whom he would sacrifice himself.
He nodded and poured his emotions, his soul, into a single glance, staring into her eyes, silently thanking her for everything she had indirectly done for him. Closing his eyes once more, he stepped down the stairs and stood in the cobblestone street, his fingers tightening around the metal in his pocket.
The Nazis were after him. He knew that. His benefactor knew that. Even this woman standing before him, gazing at him with sorrowful eyes, knew that. He would have to be a fool to think that the Nazis would let their humiliation go without seeking revenge. It was a miracle that he survived even this long, given that the S.S. was relentless and extremely efficient, especially in finding the perpetrators of these types of heinous crimes. Nazis had been sniffing around his home, his benefactor’s house, asking his neighbors questions, and he knew that it was only a matter of time until they caught him.
Almost as soon as the thought entered his head, he heard footsteps in the darkness, shouts in German, then the all too familiar marching of S.S. officers. The woman smiled at him, a warning look in her eyes, and slipped into her house, locking the door firmly. If she was caught with the painting, she would be killed. The soldiers would reach the alley within seconds, and when they did, he had no illusions as to what they would do with him. If he had to die, he would rather it be on his own terms.
Sucking in a deep breath, he pulled the present, a gun, out of his pocket and flipped it so that the barrel pressed into the side of his head. The cold metal bit into his skin, a chill running straight through his skull. The soldiers rushed into the alley, shouting at him in broken French to drop the gun, to face them, but he could not hear a word. All his senses were focused on the six millimeter circle that would define his life by causing his death.
“Thank you,” he whispered, echoing the woman’s words.
He pulled the trigger, and the earsplitting shot ricocheted off the buildings. Then as suddenly as the sound started, it ended and all was silent.
Soldiers surrounded him, a German boy with blue eyes and blood matting his blond hair. He had died a death so violent and lived a life so deprived of any kind of real joy, but that night, his body was bathed in a pool of moonlight and the ghost of a smile was fixed on his lips, and his peace was avenged at last.