“EMMA FOR GOD’S SAKE, TAKE THAT DAMN POPSICLE OUT OF YOUR MOUTH AND ANSWER MY QUESTION!” Anna screamed, grabbing Emma’s left arm, forcing her to sit down at Anna’s dining room table.
Wincing in pain, Emma dropped the popsicle onto the oak table, threw her backpack on the parquet wood floor, and began rubbing her bruised and rapidly swelling arm. Disbelief and shock filled her eyes. She remained silent trying desperately not to cry in front of her aunts and uncle.
The abandoned popsicle began to melt beneath the warm glow of the dining room crystal chandelier.
Otto quickly stepped in between Anna and Emma. “Calm down… Everyone!”. Otto turned towards Emma. Kneeling so that he was eyelevel with his niece; in a calm voice Otto continued, “Emma, your aunt Anna shouldn’t have yelled at you…” He turned towards his older sister and shot her a scolding glare of disapproval then turned to face Emma again. “…or grabbed your arm that way. Are you ok?”
Ignoring Otto, Emma leaned right. Making eye contact with her least favorite aunt, Emma spoke directly to Anna, “You can’t keep me prisoner in this wretched museum you call a house while you attempt to interrogate me. I am nineteen years old and …”
Anna blasted back, “YOU…will sit there until I say you can leave.”
“Anna, please!” Otto interjected, “You’re not helping here. Let me do this.” Otto took a deep breath in, “Emma we just need to know what your grandfather told you last night.”
“Think carefully sweetheart. What exactly did he say to you?” Hildegard, Emma’s other aunt, added.
“That’s between Grandpa Wolfram and me.” Emma replied, “If he wanted you all to hear his words, he wouldn’t have whispered them into my ear.”
Anna responded, “Why… you ungrateful little bitc…”
“Anna…ENOUGH!” Hildegard demanded.
Stalling for time to think what her next move would be; Emma turned away from her aunts and uncle. Facing the table, she reached down towards her feet for her backpack. Her eyes were suddenly drawn to a shiny piece of metal protruding ever so slightly out the melting popsicle that laid on the table only inches away from her. “Is that what I think it is?” Emma thought. The object’s unmistakable shape confirmed that Emma’s eyes were not playing tricks on her. Hoping that no one else had noticed the mysterious object embedded in the popsicle, Emma quickly, yet nonchalantly, scooped up the decomposing popsicle, shoving the drippy mess into a side pocket in her backpack.
Pointing her bony index finger at Emma, Anna turned towards Otto and Hildegard. “If Hannah was alive, she’d know how to deal with this brat.”
“Don’t you dare speak about my mother! All of you…ALL OF YOU turned your back on her years ago. And do not think for a second that I don’t know the reason why either. That’s right …she told me.” Otto, Hildegard and Anna stood silent. Gobsmacked. “It is all because she wouldn’t play along in your little scheme to steal money from him… your own father. You all wanted a piece of the Ziegler’s Frozen Dessert empire. A multi-million-dollar empire Grandpa Wolfram started from scratch after emigrating to the United States when the war ended.”
Anna retorted, “That’s a lie!”
Emma shot Anna a look of disgust. “I’m leaving …NOW!” Emma stood up almost knocking Otto over. She briskly walked over to the front door and opened it.
Otto called out to Emma, “Wait!” Emma paused in the doorway keeping her back to her uncle and aunts. Otto pleaded, “Please try to remember my father’s exact words from last night. ANYTHING you can tell us would be so helpful. We can’t do this without you.”
Emma shut the door behind her and started running as fast as she could away from the house. “Goodbye and good riddance...” she thought to herself.
Turning down the nearest alleyway she could find; Emma ducked behind a battered emerald green garbage dumpster. Cloaked within the shadows of the night, hidden away from the outside world. Tears erupted as she broke down and openly wept the death of her grandfather, the only father figure she had ever known. Since her mother’s murder eleven years ago, he was the only person that showed her any compassion, love, genuine interest in her, or respect. Emma and her grandfather shared so much in common: their love of art, bike rides together, attending auctions together, going to movies, but most of all… their love for Wolfram’s award winning, lavender-green tea flavored popsicles…especially on exceptionally hot New York summer afternoons. There was no one left in this world for her now. Emma sat down, bent her legs up to her chest and starred off into the night. Somewhere between the stench of rotting garbage and the hypnotic moonlight Emma’s thoughts drifted back to the previous evening, the last time she would ever see her grandfather alive:
Wolfram Ziegler was dying. Everyone knew it. Today’s heart attack had been the worst one yet, leaving him little time remaining in this world. The doctors could do nothing more. Around his hospital bed the vultures gathered. His three estranged adult children: Anna, Hildegard and Otto; all there for one reason. All there to steal his secret; anxiously waiting for his death bed confession before eternal darkness claimed his worthless soul. “Come on old man… tell us!” they each silently wished.
For the past four hours Wolfram’s private hospital room stood silent save for the machines that were keeping him alive. A chaotic never ceasing symphony of beeping, chirping, pinging, suctioning, and alarm bells. Occasionally Wolfram would wake up and open his eyes only to quickly shut them again after realizing there was no one in his room that he wanted to communicate with.
Emma raced through the doors to Wolfram’s room and straight to her grandfather’s bedside. Anna, Hildegard and Otto paid her, or her entrance, little attention and all relocated to a remote corner of the room in order to strategize quietly amongst themselves. Emma grabbed her grandfather’s lifeless hand and clinched it tight in hers. Her eyes followed the IV tubing as it left the hanging bottle, snaking its way down the metal pole, slithering across Wolfram’s bicep and finally plunging its sharp metal fang deep into his black-blue bruised vein. As he laid there unconscious…motionless… Emma wondered if he had already died. She was relieved when she saw his oxygen mask fogging up as he exhaled.
Emma leaned over Wolfram’s body and softly spoke, “I’m here grandpa. I love you.” Immediately Emma felt Wolfram squeeze her hand. Moments later Wolfram slowly opened his eyes. With his free hand Wolfram pulled the oxygen mask away from his face and smiled at Emma. Wolfram glanced over at his three preoccupied children. Careful not to draw their attention, Wolfram motioned to Emma to come closer. Emma leaned in close to her grandfather, her right ear inches away from his lips.
Barely audible, Wolfram whispered “Don’t trust them. Any of them.”
Emma looked over at her aunts and uncle. Squeezing Wolfram’s hand, she nodded her head signaling she understood.
Swallowing hard, trying to bring moisture back to his mouth Wolfram continued, “There is a special popsicle sitting in Anna’s freezer. Waiting there for you. Our favorite flavor. You MUST find it tomorrow before she does.” Wolfram paused briefly, “Eat it in celebration of my life…promise me.”
A confused look came across Emma’s face.
Wolfram squeezed Emma’s hand harder. “Prom…ise…Me!” he struggled to repeat, this time loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.
Otto, Anna, and Hildegard sprang out of their chairs and raced to their father’s bed.
Understanding that this promise was somehow important to her grandfather Emma replied, “I will. I will…I promise!”
“Father! Father!” Anna cried out. But it was too little too late. Wolfram closed his eyes, exhaled one final breathe and departed his body. Immediately machine alarms began to wail, buzz and beep.
Otto turned to Emma. “We need to talk. It’s extremely important Emma! Tomorrow at your Aunt Anna’s house, ok?”
Emma starred down at Wolfram’s peaceful facial expression, “Yeah ...yeah whatever.
As more and more medical staff rushed into Wolfram’s room to answer the alarms Emma took the opportunity to fade into the mayhem and out of the room. Leaving in tears.
Almost six months had passed since Wolfram died. Emma had begun to find comfort in the distraction’s dorm life provided her. A full load of college classes occupied her days while studying and weekly get-togethers with friends ate up her nights. Saturday mornings were reserved for laundry. This Saturday was no different. Emma removed all the books out of her backpack and threw the pack into the dirty clothes pile. CLINK! Emma picked up the backpack and shook it. CLINK! ... CLINK! She unzipped the backpack’s side pocket, held the pack upside down and shook it again. A popsicle stick and a mysterious key fell onto the bed. CLINK! ... CLINK! How could she have forgotten about the key? “What was a key doing frozen in a popsicle? Is this why grandpa Wolfram didn’t want Anna to find the popsicle?” She pickup up the key. Turning it over, guiding it between her fingers Emma studied the key for a couple of minutes. Nothing unique other than having the number 713 stamped into. She placed the key back onto the bed and picked up the popsicle stick. Half the length of the stick was stained yellow from the ice pop. The other half held the familiar logo ZIEGLER’S POLAR POPS. Emma turned the stick over. There… etched into the wooden stick, in her grandfather’s handwriting, she read the message out loud to herself: “My dear Emma you must call: +49-69-55-55-12-34 without delay.”
Emma grabbed her phone and dialed the number. RING...RING… an automated computer-generated voice answered, “In order to complete the voice recognition portion of this call please state you name clearly”. Emma remained silent…. just listening. Fifteen seconds passed before the computer-generated voice returned, “Voice verification failed…goodbye.” The phone connection terminated. Without pausing to absorb what just happened, Emma hit redial on her cell phone. RING...RING… again the computer-generated voice answered, “In order to complete the voice verification portion of this call please state you name clearly.”
This time Emma replied “Um, hello my name is Emma Ziegler,”
The computer interrupted, “One moment while we verify your voice”. Once again fifteen seconds passed before the computer-generated voice returned, “Approved. Please wait while your call is being transferred.”
“Great, I wonder how long I’m going to have to wait.” Emma said to herself. Holding the phone to her ear, she stood up, walked over the stove and poured herself a cup of hot tea.
Emma’s phone receiver clicked two times.
Suddenly a man’s voice came on the line. “Hello Miss Ziegler. My name is Hans Vogel. How are you today?”
“Fine…”, Emma replied apprehensively “…I guess. What did you say your name was?”
“My name is Hans Vogel. I represent the Valknut Security Trust and Holdings Corporation located in Frankfurt, Germany.”
“Security Trust and Holdings? I’m sorry I must have dialed the wrong num-“
Hans interrupted Emma, “Oh I assure you Emma… “Hans paused, “…may I call you Emma?”
“Well I guess you can, but…” Emma replied.
Hans continued, “As I was saying I assure you Emma, you dialed correctly. Your grandfather hired our company to safeguard information he felt was valuable and at risk of being stolen. He also left instructions on what do with these items when he passed away. We at Valknut send our condolences to you for your loss.”
“I am totally confused. What information are you referring to?”
“Regrettably, I am not at liberty to discuss this over the phone. I have already dispatched a company car to come pick you up. It will arrive any minute now. When the car arrives, the diver will honk the horn four times. Please have your passport with you and be ready to leave when our driver arrives.”
“Passport? Company car? Wait a minute I cannot leave just like that. I have classes to attend Monday. Final exams are next week.”
In a calm voice Hans responded, “I understand your predicament. We have been waiting nearly six months to hear from Wolfram’s rightful heir, we were starting to have our doubts. During this time events have occurred, threats have arisen, that now jeopardized decades of noble work your grandfather has put into making things right again. Unfortunately, we have extremely little time to react to these threats. Did your grandfather give you a key?”
Emma’s head was spinning in confusion. “Making what things right again?”
“You’ll have your questions answered all in good time. But first…Do you have Wolfram’s key?”
“Yes, I have the key.”
Outside her open dorm room window a car honked its horn four times. Emma looked out towards the street to find a black Mercedes town car waiting for her.
"I see the car. When will I hear from you again?"
"This is where we part ways. For the safety and confidentiality of our clients, no one representative is provided with all the client’s information, Instead the information is divided among multiple representatives. You will meet the next representative on board our company jet. I wish you well… go now."
Emma grabbed the key, her jacket, wallet and passport. She raced out of her dorm building and jumped into the idling Mercedes. The Mercedes sped off towards LaGuardia Airport’s private airfield.
Fifty-five minutes later Emma sat alone in one of only two chairs aboard the Valknut Bombardier BD-700 Global Express company jet. To the right of where she sat rows upon rows of safe-deposit boxes ran the entire length of the cabin wall.
The co-polit approached her. “Good evening Miss Ziegler. My name is Aaron. I work for Valknut. We are currently in route to Frankfurt Germany. Once you have supplied me with your destination, I will arrange ground transportation for you.”
Emma looked bewildered.
Pointing towards the wall of safe deposit boxes Aaron added, “Maybe one of these will be of some help. May I have your grandfather’s key?”
Emma handed Aaron the key. Aaron glanced down at the key briefly, he then located the safe deposit box numbered 713, stuck Wolfram’s key in it and opened the small door. He removed a long narrow black box and delivered back to Emma. “I hope this box contains some of the answers you are searching for.” He sat down next to Emma.
Emma sat still for a moment silently contemplating, “Security Trust, international travel, a safe deposit box? What am I walking into?”. She opened the safe deposit box, , and looked inside. Inside the box sat three items: a post-it note with the number GPS: 49.7054,7.3288 scribbled on it, a credit card, and another key. Emma reached in and removed each item. She handed the post-it to Aaron.
Aaron entered the GPS coordinates into his phone. “I’ll have a car waiting for you when we land.”
Felsenkirche Church, Idar-Oberstein, Germany
Emma’s car arrived at the GPS location. She exited the car and ascended the two-hundred- thirty steps leading to the ‘Chapel-in-the-rocks’.
An elderly priest holding a ledger book under his arm greeted her at the entrance. “Good evening, you must be Wolfram’s granddaughter. I’m Father Klaus. I spoke with Aaron earlier today. I have been expecting you. Please come in.”
“Hello Father. I find this all very overwhelming. No one’s been able to explain what’s going on or why I’m here.”
“I suppose an explanation is in order.”
“Yes, please that’s all I’m asking for.”
“Then come with me.” He led her to a large tapestry that hung on wall behind the alter. He pulled the tapestry to one side revealing a hidden tunnel.
They began descending the narrow, damp, dimly lit tunnel. Emma felt the temperature dropping and the passageway becoming pitch black. Father Klaus turned on a flashlight and began speaking. “Only Wolfram and I know the existence of this ancient hidden passage, but I fear this will change as more and more treasure hunters overrun this chapel. Wolfram and I discovered it when we were teenagers serving the church as altar boys”.
“But surely others know this tunnel exists?” She asked.
“There were other clergy that knew of it. But that was many years ago. Those who knew have since died or transferred to other chapels.” Father Klaus continued, “At the end of world-war two the defeated Nazis crated all the paintings, art, gold and other treasures they had stolen from Jewish families into trucks and attempted to smuggle them out of Germany. One evening in May 1945, while walking home from a friend’s house, young Wolfram came upon one of these military vehicles in a ditch. The Nazi driver shot dead in the front seat. He discovered the stolen loot and asked if I would help hide it down here until he could return it to their rightful owners.”
Twenty minutes later Emma and the priest reached a small flooded landing.
“Underground spring water is now flooding out these caves. I am too old to fight Mother Nature. Left unattended this cave will drown in water. Your key is the only key that unlocks that door. This ledger book catalogs each item, dates they were looted and the last known addresses. Wolfram made it his life mission to return these stolen items back to their rightful owner’s families. He wanted you to carry on his mission. Wolfram knew if you ever found out about this room, and entered it, his promise to make things right again would become yours.”
Removing the key from her pocket, Emma unlocked the heavy steel door, and stepped into the room, gladly inheriting Wolfram’s promise.
A taxicab pulled up to the church steps. Anna exited the taxi, holding a 9mm Luger, she approached the steps.