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Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist. -- Emerson

Gadfly Novels


Excerpt from The Plato Escape

The Plato Escape
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        Denyes Lajos lunged toward the small window in his cell. The scene in the prison yard below forced him to clench his fists in tight balls, and then he clutched the bars until his knuckles blanched.

        "No!" He screamed. "You can't do this! He's committed no crime. He's not a criminal!"

        The uniformed men of the AVH, members of the Hungarian secret police, faced the outer wall and paid no attention to his cries of desperation. Calmly, they checked their rifles and waited stiffly in the night cold. The firing squad kept the muzzles of their rifles pointed downward to protect the barrels from the falling snow.

        Under the conical shaped lamps spaced along the prison wall, Denyes recognized Pal Merse-Hidas as he was led into the courtyard blindfolded, hands tied behind his backside. Merse-Hidas was the leader of the Social Democrats and as such, a respected leader of rank and merit. Certainly he was well-liked and knowledgeable and non-violent, a gentleman in every respect, someone who had never done anyone any harm. He stumbled and nearly fell, but the guards who led him reached out and prevented it. He was placed against the stone wall and lashed to a post facing the uniformed men.

        "This is insane! We are your countrymen. You mustn't do this. No! . . . No!" His once lusty voice, weakened from the flu, seemed to float above the firing squad like an apparition, absorbed by the snowfall.

        Rifles flared, and the sudden crack echoed across the prison walls, amplified on the still air. Pal Merse-Hidas jerked, slammed against the wooden post, and slumped in a heap, the rope stretching with his weight. He didn't move. Blood ran from beneath his body in the cement grooves between the bricks.

        "You can't kill all of us!" Denyes cried his throat raw. His reduced volume didn't detract from his anguish, and his words tumbled past his lips only a little above a whisper.

        Denyes Lajos stood five-five, petite by male standards, but he appeared larger because of his mammoth head, strobe-like eyes, and bristle brush moustache. Able to command attention through a mesmerizing combination of compelling body language, erudite oratory, and energizing inquisitiveness about human events, politics had been a natural development. When aroused at heated meetings concerning the vital interests of Hungarian citizens, he often took the stance of a speeding train.

        The Russians must be losing, he thought. Yes, that explained the executions. The AVH must be desperate, their time limited. They were covering their acts of terror by eliminating prisoners who would testify against them when the Freedom Fighters took over.

        Earlier in the day, he'd heard the shouting and clamoring of thousands of people. He had stood at his cell window and watched for signs of activity. From his position in the prison, he could make out Marguerite Bridge, and his heart leaped and soared when he spotted the crowd crossing the Danube river, flags and banners waving. How many? He wasn't sure. Perhaps as many as fifty thousand!

        Later that afternoon, gunfire echoed through the streets. It's begun! The revolution! At last! Crowds of people gathered outside the walls. They yelled their defiance and encouragement. "We want Nagy, we want Nagy! Ruszki haza, Ruszki haza! Free all prisoners!" Someone produced a bullhorn. "Stalin's statue is no more! We've taken the radio station! We"ve given the Russian sixteen demands! Long live Hungary!"

        A clanging steel door forced Denyes to leave his memory and look again. His frosty breath trailed above his head as he hyperventilated, and his nostrils flared with effort. Josef Kodaly, fiery leader of the Peasants Party, was led to the wall and placed near the body of Merse-Hidas in the blood-soaked snow, the snow beginning to glaze the bricks.

        Denyes felt the cold reality of death and the chill of his unheated cell, and he tucked his hands under his armpits trembling uncontrollably, teeth chattering. The cell was dismally austere: a steel bunk with a smelly blanket on a dirty mattress, a yellow bulb, encased in a steel web, spraying a sickly light from the ceiling, a simple hole in the floor for his elimination, a rust-stained sink for his water. He was no longer a person, just prisoner #1314.

        The crowd outside had dispersed just before nightfall. The streets were quiet. What was going on? Would the Russians leave the country? He prayed for Imre Nagy to talk sense to the Russians.

        Rifles recoiled and Kodaly's six-four physique collapsed like a released marionette. His body folded in sections taking on a truer perspective, one of extreme insignificance. Denyes wiped the tears from his eyes and moustache, shut his eyes against the smarting fluid, and waited for the next nightmare.

        He mumbled, "Russian stooges!"

        It was snowing harder now coming on a slant from the north driven by winds of an arctic front. Lorand Benczur of the Christian Democrats appeared next, his short acrobatic figure straining against the ropes. He managed to spit on one of the guards, and a muffled cry came from deep within his bowels.

        "Long live Hungary! Death to the AVH!"

        Benczur's body back lashed from his post, and he came loose from his bonds and slid a few feet away leaving a swath of blood across the snow.

        Mute now, Denyes shivered. The next move loomed inevitable as he remained the only one left of the opposing political parties that had been freed by Imre Nagy. Under the new coalition government headed by Nagy, when Hungary declared their independence from the Soviet Union, Denyes had been appointed Under Secretary of Defense. It was Nagy's way of proving to the people that Denyes controlled the Smallholders Party. The appointment of him to a government post made him the first non-communist to serve since 1947.

        But now Janos Kadar had gained control of the government, supported by the AVH, and Moscow. Nagy had lost the support of the Russians. He'd made too many reforms, kept too many promises. Prominent people and leading politicians, along with himself, had been arrested once more.

        Denyes turned away from the window and groped for the bunk trying to maintain balance. Denyes collapsed on the edge of his bed staring at the blocks of stone in the wall. Despite the cold, perspiration beaded his forehead, and his hands hung limply over his knees. Desperately, he scanned the room looking for something that would help him escape.

        The wooden bowl!

        Excited he grabbed it and shattered the bowl against the steel frame of the bunk, but it broke into useless shapes. None of the pieces was sharp enough to use as a weapon against the guards who would soon arrive to get him.

        Outside, the night lay rough and raw over the prison as low-slung clouds full of threats streamed across the Danube River clinging to the hills beyond. His stone habitat filled with an atmosphere of chill and foreboding. What had been the recurring message of his dream? Or was it a nightmare? It was there all around him but he couldn"t recognize it. The dream had tried to force its way into reality. Was it karma, destiny, premonition that he would be freed and exonerated? His growing anxiety had bordered on insanity. The future had arrived on the wildness of the storm. And he believed none of it.

        Angered, he lurched to his feet and began pacing the cell. Just when he thought he had figured out the dream, it vanished as if teasing him to follow. Hallucination? That must be the answer. He laughed aloud, the sound of it like a lunatic. But thinking about the dream prepared him for one last interrogation. Thirteen days now since his incarceration.

        The flame of hope for his life diminished. Like a wick in an oil lamp, the flame had been reduced until the flame flickered weakly and then went out.

        He tensed. The muscles in his back tightened into iron. He had developed a sixth sense about who was outside his door. This time he knew there were two of them. An unfamiliar face appeared in the peep hole of the steel door. Where was Gyula, the friendly guard? Blunt sickness curled his stomach and he felt like vomiting. The door swung opened softly on silent hinges. One of the guards shackled his arms behind his back.

        Sandwiched between two burly guards, he stumbled along the hallway and down the steps becoming aware of every detail and every sensation, stairs that squeaked under his weight, the grim grip of the guard"s hand on his shoulder, knees that ached from old soccer injuries.

        The interrogation room hadn't changed; for some reason he thought it might have: one simple chair for the prisoner, one ink-stained desk, one upholstered chair for the major, and a shaded lamp that hung from the ceiling. The floor was caked with grime and stains of uncertain origins. Denyes was shoved into the hard-backed chair directly under the lamp before the guards left the room. How many decades had the walls of Foutca Prison seen so much suffering? He imagined the walls caulked with maltreatment.

        How he longed to see his wife and three children just one more time. The vision of them appeared at the door of their simple home. The house might have been seen as dull with every piece of furniture drab and worn. The house denied his position as a party leader. He"d made sure he lived without rewards, sacrificing luxuries for his family to prove he wasn't just another selfish bureaucrat. He kept only a modicum of books, mostly Hungarian literature and poetry, a copy of Das Kapital by Karl Marx, and a few copies of Nagy's speeches.

        For a few minutes, there were no sounds, no sounds except the pounding of his temples and the vein-busting throb behind his eyes. He struggled for control of his body functions taking a deep breath trying to eases the awful knowledge that his end was near. It helped to keep his back straight, a discovery he had learned on the fifth day of his captivity.

        Major Kihaly sauntered into the room as if on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. He was just over six feet and slim. His face was a series of sharp points from his narrow nose to his high cheek bones that suggested an oriental heritage. His face had the quality of a pasty white mannikin, plastic-like and immobile as though a smile might shatter the mask and expose the real Kihaly underneath, an inhuman monster behind the facade. He lowered himself slowly into the chair behind the desk and folded his waxen hands on top of a folder.

        Kihaly was a career officer of the AVH, trained at Ludovika Akademia. When Hungary went to war against Russia in 1941, he was taken prisoner when the Russians routed the Germans in the Ukraine. He volunteered to parachute into Hungary as a partisan. He led attacks against the Nazis disrupting communication lines and blowing up bridges preventing the Nazis from gaining the Romanian oil fields. After the war, he joined the Communist Party and rose among the ranks.

        Denyes kept his eyes trained of the major's face. He would not bow like other inmates. On infrequent occasions, he had been allowed to walk in the yard with other prisoners, trudging and shuffling like a zombie, head and eyes cast down, as if he were ashamed of his plight.

        Denyes could tell from Major Kihaly's expression that the major had tired of the game, the same riveting stares, the same questions, the same pat answers, the same innuendos and veiled threats. But strangely, underneath the hostile exterior, there had developed an almost friendship-like quality between them, something composed of mutual respect and perhaps a desire to be somewhere else doing something innocuous or silly. In another time, they might be drinking cognac and playing chess.

        "Our first snow of the season."

        "Yes," Denyes answered quietly. Both knew the vacuous meaning of this last encounter. "We need the moisture." From the open window, he thought he smelled wet hay recently cut and rolled into huge balls.

        The major glanced at his wrist watch. "The counterattack should begin at dawn."


        "Six thousand Russian soldiers and seven hundred T34 tanks. Our comrades will never forsake us. Did you think they would? It will be over in a few days, perhaps hours."

        So the revolution had begun, Denyes thought. Months and weeks of negotiation had failed. The filthy Russian garrisons needed reinforcements. The first hours would confirm his belief. Denyes was convinced that hundreds of Soviet soldiers would discard their uniforms and join the revolt.

        During previous interrogations, Kihaly had been relentless. He wanted to know everything about his captive, his friends, lovers, family members. His secret desires, his favorite books, anything to catch him off guard and reveal secrets.

        Denyes had suffered days without sleep, beatings and humiliating strip searches, even the anal cavity. Long hours of standing until he had faced the major quivering from fatigue. Once a forced confession was achieved, the AVH would use it in a trumped up trial. The court and its audience would never suspect otherwise. Such was the justice system in communist Hungary.

        Denyes reversed the interrogation method by asking a question first. "Why did you betray your own people?"

        "I'm a communist first, then Hungarian."

        "And that makes you a traitor."

        The major allowed a trace of a smile at the corners of his mouth. "History will determine who is the traitor, not you."

        "The Yanks."

        Kihaly continued his amused expression. "Yanks? Don't be absurd."

        "You're afraid, aren't you? The West. They're coming. President Eisenhower said so. Radio Free Europe says so. If China can send volunteers to North Korea, why can't America send volunteers to Hungary? We will hold out until they get here."

        "Good Fascists never give up hope do they?"

        "I'm not a Fascist! I'm a socialist. You can't comprehend the difference can you?"

        Kihaly straightened in his chair and spoke with authority. "For the last time, who are your accomplices? I know one of them is Zoltan Zelk."

        Denyes felt the insipid stupidity of the interrogation starting up again. Would he be tortured again before the bullets? He knew Zelk as a formidable leader, perhaps even stronger than Nagy. He took a deep breath.

        "Will it help to speed my release?"

        "Truth always helps." The major flexed his fingers cracking his knuckles but kept his hands on the desk.

        "Are you sure I'll be freed?"

        Kihaly leaned forward, took out a pen from his uniform shirt, and opened the file folder, ready for a revealing confession. "Who are your accomplices?"

        "There are three of them, all brave men but in the last analysis, traitors one and all. I"m ashamed to expose them. I feel sick about it."

        "Of course," Kihaly said drily. He waited a few seconds. "Go on, who are they? Name them."

        Denyes hesitated, watching Kihaly's face transform into intense concentration. "Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin."

        Slowly and deliberately, Kihaly closed the file folder and replaced his pen. His cadaverous hands went back to the folded lifeless position on the desk.

        Denyes explained. "It was Potsdam, you see. The big three met and divided up Europe. It's their fault. Hungary would be free today if it wasn't for their treasonous behavior against basic human rights."

        Angrily, the major called for the guards who marched into the room. Denyes was pushed and kicked into the courtyard, and the cold air snatched his breath away as it slammed against his body.

        Snow fell heavily now. An ugly pinkish dawn streaked gloomy clouds like dirty dish water. The lamp lights sprayed an amber wash over white marbled snow. The soft glow belied the magnitude of the scene. Denyes thought of a surreal still morning somewhere in the country. He looked up letting the downy flakes caress his face. Memories of his boyhood flooded back. He heard his mother calling for him to come in for supper. The dream was now a reality.

        The opening salvo of artillery guns shook the courtyard yanking Denyes out of his reverie. Smaller ballistics of tank cannon opened up several blocks away near the eastern city limits. The Russians! The frightful clank of armored vehicles crunched against cobblestone streets just outside the walls. Machine pistols and small arms answered from rooftops. The Freedom Fighters! Denyes wondered if they could hold out until the American GIs arrived.

        A cold wet invaded the back of his thin suit coat as he was thrust against the post. Beside him, three gentle mounds indicated where his friends lay dead beneath the snow. His mind flooded with ever changing scenes, as if he was traveling at a high rate of speed in a car along the highway. He saw his life as one long continuous thread of failures. How he wished to do it all over again! Confusion, bitterness, the rape of Hungary once more. Romans, barbarians, Hapsburgs, the Treaty of Trianon. Nazis and now Russians. This time would be no different. He knew that help would never come. He realized many things but now it was too late.

        "Zoltan," he moaned. Terror gripped him. "If you're still alive, fight on, patriot. I love you!"

        He trembled as his lips formed the words a confirmed atheist could never utter. They reached across the intervening space where the leader of the firing squad hesitated.

        "Dear God! Forgive all my sins!"

        Then, almost like a miracle, all his tension drained away from him. Serenity entered his mind, and he felt his muscles relax.

        "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . ."

        Speeding lead ripped away his chest and comforting prayer. He pitched backward, then forward, slumping in a lifeless heap.

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