by F. Charles Murdock
I’d heard for a long time that Eduard Dietl, the heralded Generaloberst of the 20th Mountain Army of the Wehrmacht, was a fan of my magic act when I still went by the name Klaus Königstein, so I had ample time for preparation. He’d been busy playing chess with men’s lives in Norway and Finland before the spring of 1944, but upon a visit to Graz in Austria, he requested a show and, as you could imagine, declining a request of a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party was putting a gun to your own head.
So on that balmy night in early June, I found myself on stage before Herr Dietl and 400 brawny members of the Sturmabteilung and Einsatzgruppen death squads. The show was a standard affair for me with tricks ranging from prestidigitation to levitation, from catching a bullet with my teeth to mind reading. The soldiers hung on my every word and gesture like the trained dogs they were, all of them erupting into rowdy applause each time my assistant and stage wife, Elise, survived one of my impossible illusions.
At the conclusion of my penultimate trick, making a murder of crows disappear cage and all, I waited for the applause to die down before calling for the attention of my audience. The men knew very well what announcement was coming for they’d heard I’d concocted an illusion especially for Herr Dietl. And so came time for my final trick, that night and ever after.
“And now, gentlemen, my final act for the night,” I crooned as Elise wiped sweat from my forehead. “I want to thank each of you for coming, especially Herr Dietl. It’s been an honor to perform for you.”
Eduard Dietl nodded in thanks as everyone erupted in raucous applause, me and Elise included. As the room quieted once more, I pulled out my largest black cloth and said a quick prayer beneath my breath. I turned back to the crowd, trying my damnedest to ignore Elise mouthing her own breathless plea.
“Herr Dietl, if you please,” I began, holding out my hand in submissive persuasion. “This being your trick, I would like very much to make you the heart of it.”
By then Elise was approaching his table in the center of the hall, her blue eyes locked on his, those of the rest of them ogling the curves of her body. She curtsied and offered a dainty hand. Herr Dietl took it with a wide grin, allowing himself to be lead on stage and into the spotlight while a second round of applause shook the walls of the tiny, drab theatre.
I shook his bony hand as we exchanged a look of good cheer, both of us smiling while the fields of Europe filled with the ruined bodies of millions. His men were standing now, their applause intensifying beneath whistles and hooting. I felt nausea wash over me, both for what was to come and what had already taken place. The moment pulled on some deep, incomprehensible part of me and I had to mask the shiver that crawled through my body. I took a step away from Herr Dietl, Elise completely covering me with the black cloth, a living shadow before men of true evil. I felt her hand on the small of my back for but an instant, but it was enough to settle me. I turned to the death squads and bowed, giving Elise time to slip offstage.
“Gentlemen, I will now transform before your very eyes,” I proclaimed beneath my shroud. There was murmuring at this, which I allowed to build dramatic presence. “All my work has lead to this night, to this act. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.”
I bowed once more to the audience and then one last time to Herr Dietl.
“Thank you and good night.”
In an instant, the black cloth folded in on itself as I fell away, Elise having hit the release switch at the perfect moment before fleeing the theater. I heard the many gasps as I dropped through the trapdoor and under the stage, seemingly dematerializing before their eyes. But this was only half the promised illusion: I had yet to become.
As quickly as I could, I grabbed the leather case I’d stashed below the stage and pressed it to the trap door before swinging it shut again, bracing it as I pushed upward so the door wedged silently back into place, completing the illusion. My hands must have been nimble enough because I heard more gasping as the cloth fell onto the outline of the case, giving my trick credence. By then I was crawling out of the theater’s basement and hurrying to the café down the street to watch the payoff with Elise.
Even now I like to imagine the look on the faces of those men when their commander pulled back the black cloth and saw the case. I wish I could’ve seen their astonishment when Herr Dietl revealed my transformation and then opened the case I’d so laboriously prepared. He would see the inscription, perhaps read it aloud, to the room of silent, wondering murderers.
Geh zum Teufel, it says. Go to hell.
And they would have but a moment to realize that I hadn’t lied... that I’d become, in truth, their ruin. Then the crucial ten seconds passed after the case had been opened and the bomb detonated. I watched the explosion and the theater collapse in on itself in the same way my shroud had as I’d fallen away from that stage and my previous life of legerdemain. Elise was at the table next to me, her face alight with a job well done.
Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine would keep Dietl’s death a secret, eventually reporting him dying in a downed plane, but I assure you such misinformation is mere illusion.
And as that little theater in Graz burned over the bodies of terrible, hateful men, Elise and I walked away from the inferno hand-in-hand, playing lovers to escape into the night, our mission complete, our hearts knowing a brief respite I dare call peace.