by Doc Quantum, adapted from The Usual Suspects, screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie
Venice, Italy, Friday, April 25, 1986 — one week later:
The government of Italy had been taken over by the Fascist Party composed of Italian Nazi collaborators last year during the worldwide Axis coup d’etat that had retaken much of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa, and even America nearly overnight. Like Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy was ostensibly a member of the Axis, but it was only a junior member and was run by a Nazi governor who oversaw the new Il Duce‘s government.
The Italian Army had been concentrating on retaking Northern Africa over the past few months, even though Italy itself had not been completely secured to the Nazi governor’s satisfaction. The Axis powers had extended their reach too far, and security forces were too spread out to be very effective, forcing them to rely upon the existing governmental institutions, police departments, and for the most part local laws as well. Because of this, notorious criminals and members of the Resistance had been able to travel with little more difficulty throughout much of Europe than before the occupation. This was a situation that could not last for long.
One such criminal, a crippled Czech from Germany, now sat in an office of the Polizia de Stato, the Italian state police, where he told his story to the prosecutor.
“It all started back in Hamburg nearly six weeks ago,” he began. “An army truck loaded with stripped gun parts got hijacked just outside the city. The driver didn’t see anybody, but somebody screwed up, and he heard a voice. Sometimes, that’s all you need.”
Hamburg, Germany, Saturday, March 15, 1986 — five weeks and six days ago:
The darkness of an apartment room was shattered as a door was pushed open by brutal force. Countless silhouettes exploded into the room, the blinding white light of the hallway behind them. They were men in hoods with flashlights, and laden with weapons.
“POLIZEI! DON’T MOVE.”
The officers of the Geheime Staatspolizei, also known as the Gestapo — the secret police of Nazi Germany — cut through the darkness in all directions with their flashlights, finally settling on one man lying unclothed in bed and just emerging from a deep sleep, despite it being the middle of the day. The twenty-eight-year-old man with bright red hair and a freckled face squinted at the figures through the blinding white light, more annoyed than anything. He nearly laughed as he heard several guns cocking.
“Herr McGraw?” one shouted.
“Yeah,” he replied in German.
“Polizei. We have a warrant for your arrest.”
Red McGraw stifled another laugh as he said, “Will they be serving coffee downtown?”
Two dozen black-gloved hands grabbed him and yanked him out of bed.
Elsewhere, in an auto body shop, a dark, somewhat short, and stocky mechanic was working on an old Volkswagen while a blonde kid mixed paint in an automatic mixer a few feet away. The garage door suddenly opened, and a row of five men silhouetted by the bright sun walked in cautiously but confidently. The man squinted at them.
“Can I help you?” the mechanic said in a gruff voice.
“Who are you?” the mechanic said, reaching for something just under the Volkswagen.
All five men instantly produced guns and aimed them at Dyce. “Polizei!” one shouted as they surrounded him, their guns ready to shoot at any sign of trouble.
Dyce withdrew a filthy towel, using it to wipe grease and sweat from his forehead. “Sure you brought enough men?”
Dickie Stanton, a tall, thin, and somewhat effeminate man in his thirties, strolled casually down a Hamburg street in broad daylight. He was dressed conspicuously in a loud suit and tie with shoes that had no hope of matching. He smoked a cigarette and chewed gum at the same time.
Glancing over his shoulder, Stanton noticed a brown sedan with four men in it cruising along the curb behind him. He picked up his pace a little, and the sedan kept up. He looked ahead at the corner, trying to look as natural as possible and checking his watch as though suddenly remembering an appointment he had to make. The sedan stayed right on him.
He bolted. Stanton got no more than a few yards, however, before cars came out seemingly from everywhere, totally surrounding him instantly and squealing to a stop. Gestapo policemen jumped out of their cars, aiming their guns at him all around. Stanton stopped short, flapping his hands on his thighs in defeat before raising them above his head.
In front of a small Hamburg restaurant, an attractive couple walked briskly toward it and inside, charged with nervous, excited energy. The man was Wolfgang Hurtz, a well-dressed, fit man in his forties with slightly graying hair. The woman hanging onto his arm and gazing at him adoringly was Elsa Schneider, an attractive blonde career woman in her early thirties, who was much calmer than her companion.
They stopped at a staircase at the back of the restaurant, which led down to a dark room. Elsa took Hurtz’s arm and stopped him, saying, “Let me look at you,” then adjusted his tie and picked tiny specks from his suit as he shifted uncomfortably, still smiling at the attention. “Now remember,” she said, “this is another kind of business. They don’t earn your respect. You owe it to them. Don’t stare them down, but don’t look away, either. Be confident. They would be fools not to trust you. That’s the attitude you need.”
“I think I’m having a stroke,” said Hurtz.
“You’ve come so far, Wolfie,” Elsa said. “You’re a good man, and I love you.” Hurtz blinked at her and stammered, looking for a response. After a pause, she smiled and said, “Live with it,” then kissed him. She ran down the steps as Hurtz followed her closely behind and playfully grabbed her in the rear, causing her to stumble down the stairs. They stifled their laughter as they worked off their nervous energy with playful jabbing.
At the bottom of the steps, however, they transformed. Assuming a cool, professional exterior, the couple walked two feet apart from each other into the dining room, walking across the dimly lit room to a table in a far corner where two Frenchmen waited for them. The younger man was Monsieur Fortier, while the older was Monsieur Renault, and they were impeccably dressed and possessed an air of distinguishment. They stood out of respect and smiled as the couple approached.
“Elsa, nice to see you,” said Fortier.
“Sorry we’re late,” she said.
“Nonsense,” said Fortier. “Sit, please.”
Renault, struggling with his German, said, “You must be Herr Hurtz.”
“I’m sorry. Wolfgang Hurtz,” Elsa said, introducing him.
The Frenchman’s hand was already out. “Monsieur Renault. A pleasure.”
“How do you do?” said Hurtz as they shook hands, then taking the other Frenchman’s hand next, he said. “Monsieur Fortier. So nice to finally meet you.”
They all sat down at the table, smiling. Elsa ran her hand up Hurtz’s leg, squeezing firmly on his inner thigh, but her face gave absolutely no hint of what she was doing. Hurtz smiled and cleared his throat.
Outside the restaurant, four Gestapo officers led by a man in an SS uniform walked down the flight of steps, just now arriving at the bottom of them. One of them was dressed noticeably better than the others. He was Count Helmut von Stauffen, called the Black Knight by Adolf Hitler himself, and he was one of the Fatherland’s top counterespionage agents, having inherited the title from his father, who operated during World War II.
Within the restaurant, Fortier said, “Elsa brought us your proposal, and I’ll be honest. We’re very impressed. A bit skeptical, I must admit, but impressed.”
“‘Skeptical’?” questioned Hurtz.
Renault spoke in halting German. “We find the concept brilliant, but Hamburg is difficult for new restaurants, especially in the current… political climate.”
Hurtz winced. The German blitzkreig that had rapidly conquered Europe and much of the world last year had left many things up in the air. Business continued to be encouraged for propaganda purposes, but it was far from business as usual. Hitler was currently focused on defeating the United States through his beachhead in California, and day-to-day business was often sacrificed for the so-called greater good of the war effort.
“How can we be certain that our money will be returned in the long run?” continued Renault.
Hurtz glanced at Elsa, smiling confidently. “It’s simple, gentlemen — design versatility. A restaurant that can change with taste without losing the overall aesthetic. Our atmosphere won’t merely be painted on the walls.”
“This was the part of the proposal that intrigued us,” said Fortier, “but I’m not sure I follow.”
“Let’s say, for example–” began Hurtz before being interrupted by a brusk voice.
“This I had to see for myself.”
Hurtz looked up to see Count von Stauffen and four serious-looking men in Gestapo uniforms. He was not happy to see them. “Count, I’m in a meeting.”
“But I have wonderful news!” said von Stauffen in a mock-excited voice. “I’m here to bring you to your next meeting.”
“This is my attorney, Elsa Schneider,” said Hurtz, gesturing. “These are Monsieurs Renault and Fortier. Everyone, this is Count Helmut von Stauffen, known as the Black Knight.”
“Count von Stauffen, SS,” the uniformed man said and gestured at the men behind him. “These gentlemen are with the Hamburg detachment of the Gestapo. You are looking well, Hurtz. Better than I would have thought.”
“Is there a problem, Monsieur Hurtz?” asked Renault, concern marking his elderly face.
“The small matter of a stolen truckload of guns that wound up on a boat to England last night,” said von Stauffen. “The actions of a terrorist known as the Jester knocked out radar capabilities there for four hours very early this morning, and the boat couldn’t be tracked. (*) The guns are undoubtedly in the hands of the English insurgents by now. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Hurtz?”
[(*) Editor’s note: See The Jester: Laughter in the Dark, Chapter 3: Beware the Ides of March.]
Renault and Fortier’s confusion began to give way to suspicion. “Monsieur Hurtz?” asked Fortier.
“If you will excuse us for a moment, gentlemen,” said Hurtz, rising from his chair.
“We have several questions for you,” said von Stauffen. “You will be quite a while.”
Renault began to get up, saying, “We should leave you to discuss whatever this is about.”
“Please, sit,” insisted Hurtz. “Enjoy the meal.” He stood up and threw a number of bills on the table to cover the check for the dinner. He looked at Elsa, who moved to stand, but he sat her back down with a hand on her shoulder and said, “I’ll call you.”
Count von Stauffen took him by the arm, but Hurtz yanked away, looking over at the others in the room, who’d stopped eating their dinners by now and were looking at him with surprise. If he had been humiliated by the whole affair, he hid it well.
Inside a Hamburger Polizei lock-up, an officer opened a steel door, releasing a man who shuffled out across the cement floor. He had shabby shoes that were worn thin and wrinkled pants that hung too low and were loose at the cuffs. His right foot was turned slightly inward and fell with a hard limp, and his knee would not fully extend.
Another steel door opened and then another, until a total of five men walked in single file down the hall, the man with the lame foot at the front of the line. They came to another steel door.
The crippled man’s name was Alexander Koda, known to everyone he knew as Mouthpiece. His face was deeply lined, making his thirty-odd years a good guess at best. His twisted left hand bore the brunt of his slight but not debilitating palsy. Behind him were Wolfgang Hurtz, Dickie Stanton, Red McGraw, and Denny Dyce. Mouthpiece stepped through the door, followed by the rest.
“It didn’t make sense that I was there,” said Mouthpiece in the present. “I mean, these guys were hard-core hijackers, but there I was, a crippled Czech. At that point, I wasn’t scared. I knew I hadn’t done anything they could prosecute me for. Besides, it was fun. I got to make like I was notorious.”
The five men were ushered into the police lineup room in front of a white wall painted with horizontal blue stripes. Each stripe had a number at either end to denote the height of the man in front of it. Between these lines were thinner blue ones to tell the specific height in inches.
Bright lights shone on all of them. They squinted, trying to adjust to the spotlight. Hurtz leaned forward a bit and looked at the men in line with him, sharing a look of familiarity with Stanton and then McGraw. Dyce grinned at all of them.
“Where have you been lately?” McGraw said quietly to Hurtz.
“Be quiet in there!” an amplified voice shouted suddenly to all of them. “All right, you all know the procedure. When your number is called, step forward and repeat the phrase you’ve been given. Understood?”
They all nodded.
“Number one. Step forward.”
Dyce took a step forward, looking directly into a two-way mirror on the other side of the room. He spoke in a completely dead-pan voice:
“Number two. Step forward.”
A grinning McGraw stepped up, suddenly making a gun with his thumb and forefinger, mocking criminal intensity and pointing at the mirror as he shouted, in a campy tone, “Give me the keys, you mother#^@%ing, &@$*#^*$#@ pile of $#!^, or I’ll rip off your–”
“Stop that! Get back in line.”
McGraw stepped back, and the other men did their bit.
“It was a farce,” explained Mouthpiece in the present. “The whole thing was a setup. It was all the Gestapo’s fault. You don’t put men like that in a room together. Who knows what can happen? They drilled us all night. Somebody was pissed about that truck getting knocked off, and the police had nothing. They were hoping somebody would slip, give them something to go on. They knew we wouldn’t fight it, because they knew how to lean on us. They’d been doing it forever. Our rights went right out the window. It was a violation. I mean, it was disgraceful, even for Nazis.
“They went after McGraw first. He was a good guy. Crazy, though, and a top-notch entry man. They called him ‘the Dragon’ after an American grandfather he was named after. Apparently, his grandfather had led a band of Chinese guerrillas against the Japs back in the 1940s, leaving behind a poor wife and young son in the States when he was finally captured and executed. McGraw’s father himself went missing during the Nazi takeover of the U.S. in the 1960s. That’s two generations of McGraw men without any fatherly guidance. Two generations to screw up any semblance of a heroic grandfather’s legacy.”
McGraw sat in a chair in the interrogation room, smiling at the interrogating officers. “This has to be embarrassing for you guys, huh? I mean, you know and I know this is a complete farce, but at least I don’t have an SS fairy making me play along. That’s got to suck–”
“Are you done?”
“Do you work for a broad?” asked McGraw. “That would have to be the worst.”
“Are you done?”
“Still, I guess dignity is a small price to pay for a pension,” McGraw continued. “A small pension, mind you, but a pension nonetheless…”
“So where did you hide the truck?”
“What truck?” said McGraw.
“The truck with the guns, schweinhund!”
McGraw laughed, “You kill me, you really do. Do I get a phone call, or did the Nazis take that away, too?”
“Would you like to know what your friend Stanton told us?”
“Do I look stupid enough to fall for that?” said McGraw. “Geez. Beat me if you gotta, but no more of the candy-land tactics, man.”
“WHERE’S THE #^@%ING TRUCK?”
“Stanton always worked with McGraw. He was a real tightwad, but when it came to the job, he was right on. Smart guy. Got whatever you needed for next to nothing. Rumor has it that his uncle — whom he was named after — was a former American stage actor who plied his trade as the cross-dressing American mystery-man called Madam Fatal, passing himself off as an old woman to evade calling attention to himself. Dickie Stanton, a capable actor as well, often liked to use that cross-dressing gimmick during heists and con-jobs, or sometimes just for fun on a Saturday night. He didn’t like the term ‘transvestite,’ but that’s basically what he was.”
Dickie Stanton sat in the room now, sweating profusely. “I want to call my lawyer. I don’t know about any truck. I was in Bremen all night on Friday.”
“That’s not what McGraw said.”
Stanton shifted in his seat. “Who?”
“McGraw. He told us another story altogether.”
“Was it the one about the transvestite hooker with dysentery?” said Stanton. “I swear, I never knew she was a guy until–”
“He told us about the truck.”
“To be honest, it was more like a mobile home,” said Stanton. “He made a lot of money at it. I had an uncle who liked to dress up in women’s clothing, but he–”
“Who took the guns off your hands?”
Stanton pretended to be confused. “Hey, are we talking about the same thing, here?”
“I am losing my patience.”
“You guys have nothing on me. Where’s your ‘reasonable suspicion’?” Stanton said with a smirk, referring to the phrase the Nazi regime often used to justify their actions. While the laws of the land from before the Nazi Occupation the previous year had ostensibly been retained, the fact was that the Nazis always found ways to bend those laws.
“You’re a known hijacker. You’re sweating profusely. That’s our reasonable suspicion. Save us the time. Tell us where the truck is. We have ways of making you talk.”
Stanton knocked on the table. “Hello? Can you hear me in the back? Reasonable suspicion. Where is it? I want–”
“–my lawyer,” said Dyce, who was simply laughing the whole thing off. “I’ll have your badge, &@$*#^*$#@. I know you. You don’t think I know you’re on the take? This whole precinct is dirty. You don’t have a #^@%ing leg to stand on.”
“You think so? I can put you in Volksdorf the day of the hijacking.”
“I live in Volksdorf,” replied Dyce. “What the hell is this? You come into my store and lock me up in front of my customers. What the hell is wrong with this country? Are you guys gonna charge me or what?”
“Do you know what will happen if you go to prison once more?”
“I’ll #^@% your father in the shower. Charge me, @$$hole.”
“Dyce was just a bad bastard, a petty criminal from a long line of petty criminals, and rumor had it that Dyce wasn’t even his real family name. He was good with explosives and mean as a snake when it mattered. But Hurtz was the real prize for them, for obvious reasons.”
“I’ll charge you when I’m ready.”
“With what?” asked Hurtz.
“You know damn well, dead man.”
“Hey, that was your mistake, not mine,” said Hurtz angrily. “Did you ever think to ask me? I’ve been walking around with the same face, same name — I’m a businessman, gentlemen.”
“What’s that? The restaurant business? Not any more. From now on, you’re in the getting-interrogated-by-us business. I’m going to make you famous, schweinhund.”
Hurtz showed just a flicker of contempt. The threat had hit home. These weren’t just the Hamburger Polizei or even the Gestapo he was dealing with anymore — this was the SS. “Like I said, it was all your mistake. Charge me with it, and I’ll beat it. Now let’s get back to the truck.”
A fist slammed into Hurtz’s jaw, snapping his head back. Blood flowed from his mouth.