Michael C. Keith
Start with big dreams and make life worth living.—Stephen Richards
In late spring, the Austrian Autobahn Authority set to work clearing away the buildings that once constituted the Mitterwallner’s dairy farm. A road connecting Mulau to Straublin was finally to be built after many delays. Consequently, a dozen private residences along the projected route were to be razed to accommodate the new motorway. Despite what was considered to be generous compensation by the government, several property owners fought the plan. After years of frustrating court battles, however, the farmers were forced to sell.
Autobahn engineer Max Prock was charged with removing all buildings that stood in the way of the planned four-lane freeway between the two towns. Before giving the go-ahead to demolition crews, he had to inspect targeted structures to make certain everything of value (copper pipes, brass fittings, et cetera) was stripped from them and that any inadvertently overlooked personal items were returned to families that once owned the buildings.
Two days after signing off on the Mitterwallner property, Prock was contacted by the demolition crew chief and told that something of interest had been discovered in a hidden subfloor of the dairy’s barn.
“I’ve just begun holiday with my wife and children,” snapped Prock. “What would you have me do, Waldheim?”
“We can’t go forward with our work, Max, since what we’ve found are clearly the valuables of the prior owner. You know the rules when such discoveries are made? Should we go on to the next property?”
“Scheisse!” spit Prock. “I’ll be there in the morning. Do nothing until I arrive.”
Prock’s wife, Hilda, understandably baulked when he told her that he had to return to the worksite. The demands of his job had become a point of tension, and Max knew that his devotion to his job was having a negative impact on their relationship.
“Please don’t make this harder than it is, Hilda. Do you think I like being pulled away from my family on holiday? I promise I’ll return quickly.”
“Fine,” said Hilda, dismissively. “The children and I will amuse ourselves as we usually do.”
Shortly after sunrise, Prock put a few things into his valise and filled the gas tank of his Opel Astra for the drive to the Mulau-Straublin worksite. In three hours, he arrived, and his mood had further deteriorated. This job is ruining everything, he grumbled, as he hurried into the construction trailer. There he was greeted by Waldheim.
“Sorry, Max. I know you were on holiday with the family, but this is a very puzzling situation. What we found beneath the barn is really quite amazing.”
“Well, what is it that’s so important that I had to abandon my wife and children?”
“Original oil paintings.”
“Huh . . . paintings?”
“Yes, let me show you. We haven’t touched a thing.”
Prock and Waldheim walked to where the barn had stood until recently. What remained was a deep bunker with a vast chamber.
“There’s a staircase at the back. Come let me show you. We can gain access to the underground room there,” said Walheim.
They walked along a narrow corridor until they reached a large open area. Tarps covered several piles of objects.
“So let’s have an unveiling,” said Prock, and Waldheim quickly complied.
“I estimate there are easily one hundred paintings here, and I think they were all done by the same person. An obvious master,” remarked Waldheim.
“Have you contacted the Mitterwallners?”
“No, you said not to do anything until you got here.”
“Well, I’ll make the call. Get me their number.”
After looking through the remaining paintings, they returned to the construction office, where Prock made the telephone call.
“Mr. Mitterwallner, this is Max Prock, chief engineer for the Autobahn, calling from your former property. We’ve discovered a large collection of paintings in what was a basement in your milking barn. We believe they must belong to you and would like you to come and claim them.”
After a long silence, Christophe Mitterwallner responded with words that surprised Prock. “I know of no paintings, Mr. Prock. If they are there as you say, someone else must have stored them there unbeknownst to my family.”
“Well, since they are on your former property, they now belong to you by default, Mr. Mitterwallner.”
“I . . . we, are not interested in them. Do with them as you please,” replied Mitterwallner, who then abruptly hung up.
“Gott . . . hilfe!” grumbled Prock. “What now?”
“What’s the matter”? asked Waldheim.
“The old man said they’re not his paintings and he doesn’t want them.”
“That’s odd. Well, we’ll have to contact the Transportation Ministry, I suppose,” said Waldheim.
“Yes, that would be the next thing to do,” replied Prock, shaking his head in frustration.
Prock made the necessary call and was told an official named Ludwig Bauer would arrive at the site in two days.
“Verdammt!” blurted Prock. “Now I’m stuck here until Bauer arrives. This is going to cause me big trouble on the home front.”
He was all too correct, as his wife said not to bother rejoining the family when he told her of his further delay.
“It will only disrupt things, Max, and I know you would rather stay at your job anyway, so that will make us all happy,” she snarled, before abruptly ending what had been a brief, one-sided conversation.
As it turned out, the representative from the Transportation Ministry was a day late arriving, so Prock was left to brood about his bleak domestic situation even longer. When Ludwig Bauer finally showed up, Prock was barely communicative.
“Okay, we need a decision right away about these paintings to get this project back on track,” he said, directing the just-arrived official to the trench containing the canvasses.
After inspecting the paintings, Bauer informed Prock that he would have to bring in an art expert to evaluate them. At this, Prock threw up his hands in exasperation and stomped away.
Three days later, a noted art historian from the University of Vienna spent the morning examining the colorful oil landscapes and still lifes. When he emerged from the dugout, he was ashen faced.
“Are you not well, Professor?” asked Bauer.
“Impossible! This is remarkable . . . unbelievable,” he gasped.
“What are you saying?” asked Prock, his aggravation peaking. “Please tell us what you mean. We must get things moving here.”
The elderly professor appeared on the verge of fainting and asked for a drink. Waldheim directed him to a seat and shouted to one of his workers to bring some water. It took the professor a while before he was able to gather himself.
“I cannot believe what I have seen. Those paintings down there are the work of . . .”
“Who?” growled Prock.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t say. Maybe it’s better not to say . . .”
“Tell us what you know. That’s why we brought you here, Professor!” demanded Prock.
“There are major implications to this discovery. The world will be shocked. History will be rewritten,” replied the professor, looking even paler than when he’d emerged from the underground vault.
“Tell us right now or we’ll be forced to bring in another expert and withhold your fee,” threatened Prock.
The professor stared blankly and mumbled to himself, “How could he have done these incredible paintings with everything he was doing . . . and to actually grow as an artist? Extraordinary! He was so mediocre when he started out. But how could he have produced all of this masterful work without anyone knowing? Nothing has ever been said or written. There is no record . . . ”
“Fick, Professor! Please tell us now!” barked Prock, leaning into the professor’s face.
“In Ordnung . . . ja!” answered the professor, emerging from his thoughts. “If you must know, I’ll tell you. But understand that your troubles will only be starting.”
“Fine. So what is this earth-shattering discovery?”
“The paintings down there are the work of . . .”
“Yes, yes . . .?” roared Prock.
“Hitler! They were all painted by Adolf Hitler!”
About the Author
Michael C. Keith is the author of more than 20 books on electronic media. In addition, he is the author of an acclaimed memoir, The Next Better Place (screenplay co-written with Cetywa Powell); a young adult novel, Life is Falling Sideways; and eleven story collections––Of Night and Light, Everything is Epic, Sad Boy, And Through the Trembling Air, Hoag’s Object, The Collector of Tears, If Things Were Made To Last Forever, Caricatures, The Near Enough, Bits, Specks, Crumbs, Flecks, and Slow Transit. He has been nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Award for short fiction anthology and a finalist for the 2013 International Book Award in the “Fiction Visionary” category. www.michaelckeith.com