Tis time again for the Blog Chain from the Absolute Writers Water Cooler. In this case we're to show our antagonist in a positive light. Well, I'm again returning to the web series I'm working on right now, End Of The Line. The part isn't cast yet, so I'm not sure what Marko will end up looking like. He's Styrian (that's a part of Austria) and aristocratic, charming and sexy and oh so ruthless. For a reason. One has to wonder how his life might have gone if only...
Anyway. One face that immediately springs to mind is that of Toby Stephens, son of two very distinguished British actors and with a quite a respectable career in his own right. For example, he got to play Rochester in Jane Eyre as well as Bond villain (how cool is that!?). But the part might just as easily be taken by Ben Barnes (of Prince Caspian and Dorian Grey fame) or Chris Pine (these days best known as the latest incarnation of Captain James T. Kirk).
At first I was going to meet Marko myself, but oddly enough that isn't how things happened...
"Mr. Branzer?" The chair made little sound as it slid across the carpet. Johnston rose as he moved that chair, precisely as he'd practiced time after time. Clients didn't want to see an attorney with human flaws. They paid for competence sublime and unflappable. Johnston prided himself on just such competence. He practiced.
"Yes," said the man stepping inside the office. Johnston judged him to be thirty at first glance, then mentally added ten years a second or two later. Something about those eyes. "I am sorry to be late." He was supposed to have been here three minutes ago. Germans and their punctuality.
"No worries," Johnston waved away that concern. "Please sit."
"Thank you." Marko Branzer didn't so much sit in the leather armchair offered as he claimed it. Johnston felt a stab of envy at his client's grace, and the way he managed to wear what was after all a rather old if elegant suit. To Johnston's practiced eye, a few telltale signs of wear had begun to show. One cuff frayed in the tiniest way. A brass button barely more loose than its fellows in the charcoal gray vest. A tie slightly faded. Shoes ever so slightly more scuffed than one might expect. Each detail possibly meaningless alone, but combined forming a specific message. Here was a man descended from what he had been. The suit was Saville Row, but not recent. A shirt good, but not the best. Yet here was a man who clearly was used to the best. That he was going without gave Johnston a mild pleasure.
"I am pleased to announce we've had success with out inquiries, Mr. Branzer."
"And by success you mean--?"
"The title to which you referred in your letters, that title is indeed vacant and therefore you may with reasonable certainty petition to claim it for yourself."
Johnston did not see the reaction he expected. In his experience, the distant relatives of noble families enjoyed the prospect of a title, of being able to call themselves The Right Honorable or His Excellency. A smile was common, often subtle but sometimes quite obvious and delighted. Some changed their posture, drawing themselves up as if they'd earned some kind of prestige by what was in truth just an accident of history. Not this one. Mr. Marko Branzer just stared at Johnston, stared without blinking until the attorney almost cleared his throat.
"If I may expound," he began, "the Von Alphsteins proper were of course reduced in the wake of the First World War. Three sons and two daughters died before it was over. Casualties on the front or victims of the Influenza. I don't know if you were aware, Mr. Branzer, but the autumn of 1918 saw one of the greatest health disasters in human history."
"The Spanish Flu," replied the man in front of him. "I am very familiar with it. Across the globe millions died, more than in the Great War to that date, and in a mere handful of weeks." He spoke low and looked away at the end.
"As it happens," said Johnston, "the Baron's oldest son and youngest daughter both perished."
"But the Baron himself survived? Or not?"
"For a time. He suffered a stroke and his middle daughter Greta cared for him until 1924." At the mention of the daughter's name, Branzer turned again to stare at Johnston.
"What happened to her?"
"She was your great grandmother I believe?"
"My grandfather and she were close."
"Quite so, quite so. I would hope they remained in correspondence, at least for a time?"
"Not as long as either of them would have wished, Mr. Johnston. But--what became of her?"
Johnston made himself sigh and rearranged his features in a mask of professional compassion.That mask had been the work of years and he was proud of it, taking a genuine pleasure in seeing its impact. "She had lost so much, you see," said Johnston, "and I fear she did not get along well with the remaining son of her own generation, the new Baron."
"That was his name, yes."
"He was a swine." Branzer's voice did not rise above a whisper, and every word dripped venom. Johnston did a take.
"Your knowledge," he said after a moment, "of their personal relationships--gleamed no doubt from your grandfather, I presume--cannot help but be more accurate than my own." Johnston now feared the worst. Some people got lost in the past, took everything personally, feeling the passions of strangers as if they had anything to do with the here and now. Adjusting his mask accordingly, Johnston did his best empathic nod while quietly adding another ten percent to the bill. "I'm sorry to say she died in 1925."
"The cause of death?"
Johnston inwardly braced himself for unpleasantness. "The local coroner ruled it a suicide." His reading conveyed just enough doubt to hopefully give an injection of comfort.
"I don't believe that." This Branzer spoke without rancor, almost not even addressing Johnston at all. Typical of the type. Egocentric to the bone.
"We have copies of the official report, should you wish to peruse them."
"No need. No purpose at this point."
"As you wish."
Branze now moved with a speed that astonished Johnston. He produced a cigarette case from the interior pocket of his not-quite-the-best coat, and a matching lighter. A tiny dark cigarette appeared as if by magic on Branzer's lips. Johnston noticed this in the exact instant the cigarette became lit. Then case and lighter disappeared. It seemed to have taken a tenth of second. No more. Perhaps less.
"Knowing Uncle Alois as I did," said Branzer in a low voice, "whether he put the pistol in her hand or held it himself--the difference was no more than academic." He took a long drag on the cigarette. "What date?"
"Upon what date did my--did Greta von Alphstein die?"
"She...she shot herself--you were quite correct about the method--on the twenty first of June."
"On my birthday."
True or not, Johnston found that detail distasteful. "How extraordinary." He managed to keep a neutral tone.
"Not so much, either way." Branzer took another deep drag, allowing the smoke to wreathe about him. The effect was startling, mesmerizing, and to Johnston ratehr common. "And dear Uncle Alois? What did fate have in store for him? Had he married?"
"Twice actually, both times to young women of good family and considerable fortune."
"Were there children?"
"As it turned out, no."
"No, there wouldn't be." An old hate shone in Branzer's eyes, a hate born from pain. Johnston was experienced enough to recognize the signs, and feel put upon by having to experience it even second hand. Third hand in this case. "How soon did each of them die?"
"'The first died soon after the first World War. The second shortly before the Second."
"Alois outlived her?"
"But I might as well admit, Mr. Branzer, that Baron Alois von Alphstein came under suspicion for his second wife's death. There were evidently police inquiries following complaints from her family."
"Mr. Johnston--are you about to tell me justice was indeed done?"
"That perhaps is beyond the scope of my knowledge, sir. I can tell you the investigations were ongoing when the Baron met with an accident. His automobile slipped on a patch of ice one night and spun out of control. He suffered numerous broken limbs as well as other injuries."
"Did he die of them?"
"Six months or thereabouts."
The handsome client took another long drag on his cigarette. Closed both eyes as he did so. "Do you have family, Mr. Johnston?" he asked after an eternal several seconds.
"I do indeed."
"One hopes you and they are somewhat strangers to each other."
Johnston blinked, absorbing his client's words. Several responses immediately came to mind. His genuine reaction--startled distaste as such a baffling and boorish comment--did not. Honestly was rarely the wisest answer, in his experience. "Oh?" he finally said.
"Intimacy carries its own horrors, you see. Expectations coupled with the most intense of judgments, choices limited by a thousand thousand demands until answering them becomes habit. I've often considered how a relationship resembles a horse and its rider. The parent, like a jockey, squats upon the child's back and gives directions. Words and actions are like reins. All the power that an adult has over a child functions essentially as does a bit. Family traditions like blinders over the eyes. Pity the vast majority, Mr. Johnston, who never throw their rider off, who don't manage to jump the fence. It isn't easy. The rider, after all, has a crop. And even the best of them use it." Suddenly, Marko Branzer stopped. He lifted one hand to his cheek, a look of astonishment on his face. His eyes opened and stared at his fingers as they came away.
Oh dear God. The man was crying. Johnston looked around him, seeing if a box of kleenex or something might be nearby. His clients weren't usually so emotional. Finally, he remembered some were in his least-used drawer, the bottom left. He opened it, reached in and took out an unopened box of tissues. Soon, his fingers had removed the top. He turned to his client.
The chair was empty. The door finished closing. In the air a trace of scented tobacco lingered.
Don't know if I succeeded or not. Perhaps you'll let me know?
Here is the list of participants to the July Blog Chain:
bri ness: http://briallison.blogspot.com/
M.R.J. Le Blanc: http://libraryofandunien.blogspot.com/
Lyra Jean: http://lyratorres.wordpress.com/
Fokker Aeroplanbau: http://rightfarright.blogspot.com/
Alpha Echo: http://writersramblings81.blogspot.com/