cw: references to WWII
The hour was late, and although the candle on David’s bedside table was nearing the end of its life, the boy couldn’t care less. It was a Sunday night, and on Sunday nights, Mr. Otto always paid him a visit. Tonight was no exception.
“Now what story do you want to hear this evening?” Mr. Otto asked as he pulled up a chair next to David’s bed. He was a tall man, Mr. Otto, David thought. Not that he had met many grown-ups in his lifetime.
“We’ve already done Mystery of the Mute Porter and Sign of the Painted Staircase,” Mr Otto continued as he adjusted the pair of round wire-rimmed glasses that sat on his nose.
“Don’t forget Death of the Fake Lynx!” David added.
Mr. Otto let out a soft chuckle. “Mrs. Schmidt tells me that you’ve been good about taking your ointment these past few weeks,” he said. “So how about I tell you a new story tonight?”
David chewed on his lips. That wasn’t exactly true. Just last night, he had thrown a fit over the pale yellow paste that the housekeeper rubbed on his leaden legs every evening, but if that was what Mr. Otto had heard, then David certainly wasn’t going to correct him.
“What’s it called?” David asked instead.
“Hmm, why don’t we call it the Clue of the Forgotten Claw?”
Hans had only ever been to a museum once, but he was certain that Mr. Fischer’s house, with its seemingly endless collection of artifacts, could qualify as one.
The housekeeper, a cross-looking lady named Mrs. Schwartz, had told Hans to take his time in each room so as not to miss even a speck of dust, but Hans was torn between doing his job and wanting to see as much as he could as soon as possible.
“He’s a little bit impatient, isn’t he?” David interrupted.
Mr. Otto raised a brow. “He does remind me of a certain 11-year-old boy.”
“Mrs. Schwartz also sounds very familiar,” David said with a grin.
“Are you going to let me go on with the story or not?” Mr. Otto asked.
“Continue, please!” David said.
Today, Hans was starting in a new room. As he opened the double doors, he let out an audible gasp. Where the last room was covered with paintings, this one was filled with precious stones and metals encased in glass display tables.
A curious-looking necklace at the very center of the room drew his attention. It was nothing like the other pieces in the collection. In fact, compared to everything else, this one was almost primitive in design. Just the thinnest band of leather accessorized with an animal claw.
He wondered if it was a mistake. As the only other person cleaning the house apart from Mrs. Schwartz, he considered himself practically an expert on Mr. Fischer’s collection. He was so puzzled at its existence that he stopped by to look at it every single day.
His strange behavior had certainly not gone unnoticed because just a week after he discovered it, Hans found himself standing before a man that could only be Mr. Fischer. He had finished cleaning for the day and was just about to look at the necklace before going home when he saw him standing before the very object he had wanted to see.
Now Hans had never seen his Mr. Fischer before, but he wasn’t born yesterday, and judging by the manner in which the man held himself, he had no doubt that he was face to face with the master of the collection himself.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Fischer,” Hans greeted. It was only polite to acknowledge one’s employer.
“This claw was taken from a wild saber-toothed cat thousands of years ago,” Mr. Fischer said without preamble. “I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to take such a magnificent creature down.”
Hans had learned about saber-toothed cats back when school had still been open. The image of a tiger with two huge blade-like fangs from an old textbook came to mind.
“I doubt it had truly been taken down, sir,” Hans said.
Mr. Fischer turned to face him. “Oh? What makes you say that?”
Hans shrugged. “Just that, if that were the case, wouldn’t the necklace have at least one of its fangs instead of just its claw?”
Mr. Fischer stared at him for a few seconds before breaking out into raucous laughter. “So you think it managed to escape? And where do you think it went?”
“Well,” Hans said as he fiddled with his thumbs behind his back, “I think it went home.”
“Home, eh? There’s a hopeful thought,” Mr. Fischer murmured. He glanced at the claw necklace with a strange expression on his face before turning to look back at Hans. “What’s your name, boy?”
Hans let out a relieved sigh. Finally, a question he could at least answer confidently. “Hans, sir.”
“Well, Hans, how would you like to see the rest of the rooms? Leave all that behind,” he said, gesturing to the cleaning tools Hans had with him. “Mrs. Schwartz shall take care of the rest.”
Almost as if she had been listening in on their conversation, Mrs. Schwartz entered the room in long, purposeful strides. Hans would have been worried about leaving all of his duties to the head housekeeper, but Mrs. Schwartz didn’t appear to look any crosser than she did whenever she looked at him.
For the next few weeks, Mr. Fischer showed Hans the rest of the rooms and filled the latter’s head with stories about each acquisition. Hans especially loved hearing about how a young exiled princess had told Mr. Fischer about a lucky stone that she had hidden inside a painted staircase. Or how he had given half of a unicorn tapestry to a mute porter who had saved his life while he had been on a cross-country trip some years back.
Hans took all of Mr. Fischer's stories home and recounted each one of them to his mother who seemed especially thankful for the distraction. He knew that she was worried about the lack of letters from her sister who was living abroad. Despite his young age, Hans was not completely ignorant. He had heard things here and there. He’d heard about soldiers marching in the east, but he didn’t think that trouble would reach their little town.
Unfortunately, both fear and fire tended to spread quickly, and on the morning after the first snowfall, Mr. Fischer took Hans aside.
“Listen, Hans,” Mr. Fischer began.
Hans stood up straighter for no good news ever started that way.
“I might be gone for a little while,” he said. “Should something happen, I hope you can grant me a favor.”
“What is it, sir?”
“I want you to take the claw necklace out of its display case and keep it safe.”
Hans opened his mouth to speak, but realized that he didn’t know what to say, and so shut it promptly. As if sensing his reluctance, Mr. Fischer pressed on. “You’re the only one I can trust with this, Hans.”
“What about Mrs. Schwartz?” Hans suggested.
“Oh, I trust Mrs. Schwartz with my life,” Mr. Fischer said. “But she’s already going to be responsible for everything else. I don’t want to risk this one slipping through the cracks.”
To even suggest the possibility of Mrs. Schwartz not being on top of anything seemed like blasphemy, and judging by the expression on Mr. Fischer’s face, he knew it, too.
“How will I know when it’s time?” he asked. He still didn’t understand why his employer wanted him to take the claw necklace for safekeeping, but the relief on Mr. Fischer’s face told Hans that he had made the right choice.
“You’ll know it,” Mr. Fischer said, a faraway look on his face. It was an expression that Hans had seen before.
“That’s conveniently vague,” David remarked.
Mr. Otto sat up straighter in his chair. “You think so?”
“It’s also unfair,” David continued. “Mr. Fischer is putting all the burden of the responsibility on Hans’ shoulders. If the claw necklace were as valuable as Mr. Fischer implied, then he should have given it to Mrs. Schwartz or taken it upon himself to guard it.”
“Why, David,” Mr. Otto said. “That’s pretty insightful of you.”
“It’s what father would have done,” David murmured under his breath, looking away as he did so. “Tell me what happens next.”
Since that day, Hans had not seen Mr. Fischer at all. It was as if he had never existed. Then, just two weeks later, a group of armed soldiers arrived in town. Hans saw some of them on his way to Mr. Fischer’s house. He had been planning to ask Mrs. Schwartz about it, but when he got there, he found his answer waiting for him at the Grand Salon.
Most visitors were introduced to the house through the Grand Salon. It was where Mrs. Schwartz had scrutinized Hans from head to toe back when she had first hired him to clean the house. Now, she sat there opposite three soldiers, but somehow, Hans didn’t think that it was quite the same situation.
“And who is this?” one of the men asked.
Hans could feel his heart beating loudly inside his chest, but before he could answer, Mrs. Schwartz rose to her feet. “That boy comes here to clean five days a week,” she said. “Go on then. Go do what you’ve been told to do.”
Hans kept his head down, and without a word, proceeded to cross the Grand Salon. As soon as he closed the double doors behind him, Hans removed his shoes, and in just his socks, ran as fast as he could to where the claw necklace was being kept. He couldn’t really explain it, but he got the sense that this would be his only opportunity to do what Mr. Fischer had asked him to do.
Pulling out the key that Mr. Fischer had given him that day, Hans opened the glass display table as quickly as he could although his hands were shaking terribly. After pocketing the claw necklace, he made sure to move the rest of the items around, so that no one would suspect that anything had been removed. Then, he locked the display table again before running all the way to the other end of the house where the back entrance led out into the woods.
When he arrived home, Hans’ mother was so relieved to see him that she pulled him into a suffocating hug as soon as he entered the house.
“I’m so glad you’re safe, Hans!” she said. “From now on, you have to stay inside the house. No more going to Mr. Fischer’s, okay?” Hans was so alarmed by his mother’s response that he could only nod his head.
The next few days, more soldiers rolled into town. Radios and tools were confiscated. Gardens and pantries were raided. Unsurprisingly, the soldiers had taken over Mr. Fischer’s home. Several people had been delegated to keep the house running, but Hans noted curiously that Mrs. Schwartz had not been among them.
He voiced his thoughts out loud over dinner, which, tonight, was composed of potatoes and a little bit of soup. It wasn’t exactly a feast, but with the way the soldiers had been rationing everything, Hans was happy to have anything at all.
His mother sighed. “Perhaps she has gone home, Hans.” There was an unspoken “or” in his mother’s statement, and Hans decided that he didn’t want to press any further.
Things were worse in other towns, and so while Hans worried for him and his mother as well as for Mr. Fischer and Mrs. Schwartz, he endured. Some days were easier than others. On these days, he made stories up for the younger kids in the neighborhood and found wild berries growing in the woods to make his mother smile. On these days, the claw necklace, which he had taken to wearing under his shirt, made him feel like he still had something to look forward to.
Other days, however, he felt the weight of it bearing down on him more and more with each passing day. Perhaps this was what Atlas felt when the gods had condemned him to carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity, he thought.
But just when he thought that there would never be an end to all of this, it was all over. On the morning after the first snowfall, a year after the soldiers had first appeared, every single one of them had vanished. Fled in the middle of the night. They had left in such a haste that people reportedly found whole meat pies that were still waiting to be eaten on Mr. Fischer’s dining table.
In the next few weeks, help from different parts of the land poured in. There was more food than Hans and his mother had seen in a long time. Other things that they had taken for granted such as laughter and sugar and school returned.
Hans had always been a bright student, so it came as no surprise to anyone that he was among the few who were sent abroad to study in a prestigious school. The government would pay for everything. His mother had cried buckets at the news.
Hans packed only a few things with him, but he made sure that the claw necklace was one of them.
A decade was plenty of time to forget. In the last 10 years, Hans had grown so much, made new friends, and often visited his mother who had moved to live with her sister. On the day he completed his studies in university, his mentor, a kind gentleman named Mr. Williams, sat him in his office and asked him what he wanted to do with his life next.
“I would like to go back to my hometown, sir,” Hans answered.
The surprise was evident on Mr. Williams’ face. “What could you possibly want to go home for?”
Hans touched the claw necklace underneath his shirt before proceeding to tell Mr. Williams the story of how he had met Mr. Fischer as a young boy and how both he and Mrs. Schwartz had disappeared without a trace. “I want to find out what happened to them.”
“It’s been so long, Hans,” Mr. Williams said. “If you haven’t heard back from them by now...”
Hans shook his head. “I know what you’re saying, sir,” he said, “But I just think that if the saber-toothed cat had really died, I’d have a necklace made with a fang, not a claw.”
Save for the sound of the boy’s breathing, the room was as quiet and as still as it could be. Mr. Otto slowly stood up from his seat and leaned over to tuck David in bed. The young boy had already fallen asleep. He blew out the candle next to the bed and was just about to leave when he heard David mumble a question sleepily in the dark.
“Mr. Otto,” David said with a yawn, “Did Hans ever find Mr. Fischer and Mrs. Schwartz?”
Mr. Otto stopped in his tracks. Although he knew David couldn’t see him, he still turned around to face the boy. “Perhaps we’ll find out next Sunday.”
“Hmmkay,” David answered. “You have a good night now, Mr. Otto.”
“Good night, Mr. David.”
Mr. Otto closed the door behind him carefully so as not to make a noise and proceeded to walk quietly along a corridor so narrow that only one person at a time could possibly go through it. As he reached the very end, he felt around the wall for a latch, opening a secret door that led to the rest of the house.
In the kitchen, he found Mrs. Schmidt mending a shirt by the window. “Good evening, Mrs. Schmidt,” he said.
“Good evening, Mr. Otto,” she said, her face looking as cross as ever. Not that Mr. Otto ever minded. Over the years, he had gotten used to Mrs. Schmidt’s pinched expression, and to be honest, he much preferred it over the look of horror he had seen on her face many years ago the day she told him that David’s father had been taken away by the Germans.
“Any news?” he asked.
Mrs. Schmidt shook her head.
Mr. Otto nodded grimly. He would have to go to Utrecht tomorrow morning to see if he could find out anything more. Unlike the story he had just told David, the war in their reality was far from over. But if there was one thing Mr. Otto knew, it was that all stories had to end eventually. He would just have to do everything in his power to make sure that this one ended well, if not for him, then at least for David.