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At Heidelberg University, Part 7

September 23, 2009

The final installment.

Outside The Sheep’s Head, December 3, 1903, 8:15 p.m.

Werner was afraid that he had frightened Dr. Reed with all that talk about murder and the end of the world. It didn’t matter. Soon enough the assistant professor would chalk it up to too much wine and forget all about it. What he’d said was still true, though. Someday he would have to answer for it. In the meanwhile, the air was crisp and smelled like trees, which was getting rarer and rarer nowadays, and the stars outside were beautiful. Just outside the reach of the restaurant lights he stopped to look up at them.

A blow to his chest knocked all the air out of him and flung him against a wall. The man who wrestled him to a standstill was too strong to be a beggar, though there was madness in his eyes and it looked like he hadn’t cut his hair in years. Something long and thin prickled at Werner’s neck.

“An island! An island in the Pacific Ocean! Do you even realize how long it took me to figure out what hemisphere I was in?”

Werner gasped, trying to get his breath back. He would have liked to put a hand to his throat but they were both being held down.

“Longer than I expected,” he said as soon as he could manage it. “You’re not the brightest bulb, are you?”

“I’m going to kill you!” The man growled and dug the knife in deeper. Werner winced, but that was all. His attacker looked confused. “Well? Aren’t you going to beg?”

“Why should I? I’ve already had my fun. My life’s been an anticlimax for years.”

The knife slackened. Then the man seemed to remember himself and punched Werner, then shoved him so hard he sprawled onto the icy concrete.

“Yes,” said Werner, not trying to get up. He’d bitten his tongue on the way down and now tasted blood in his mouth. He wanted to laugh, though this was the last possible place for something like that. “You know, I was going to send you to the moon, Albert.”

Albert, who’d been poised to kick him, lowered his boot. “What?”

“Or deep space, or the middle of an iceberg. I had to interrupt the show to change it at the last minute. I still don’t know why I did that.”

There was no reply. No blows came for a while, so Dr. Werner sat up painfully. Albert was standing over him, watching.

“You’ve ruined my life.”

“Oh, yes,” Werner nodded, rubbing his head. “It was quite unfair. The arrangement still holds, you know. If you survive the experience, you’re a free man.”

“God damn it!” Albert flung the knife to the ground and kicked it. “I was going to kill you! All those nights sleeping on rocks, it was the only thing keeping me going…”

“Then do it, already.”

There was a long pause. “I really did you a favor, didn’t I? You got to feel so pleased with yourself, being the wronged one.” He squatted on the ground and rubbed his head. “Now what are we going to do?”

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