The Perilous Journey Begins – Chapter 6

The Perilous Journey Begins Chapter 5


Budapest, Hungary

May 1869

Csongor Toth delighted in the serenity of a spring afternoon as he strolled contentedly along the Széchenyi lánchíd above the sun-sparkled Danube River on his way to the Royal Hungarian University School of Law. He lingered near the center of the span to admire the smooth catenary of the massive iron chains supporting the horizontal structure of the bridge between two massive stone piers and beyond where the chains vanished mysteriously into stone-clad riverbanks. His gaze followed the flat curve of one of the chains until it reached the stone face of the eastern pier, an impressive structure rising with classical elegance more than 150 feet above the surface of the cleanly-flowing water. He studied individual links in the chain (prodigious iron plates more than six feet in length) and the enormous iron rivets connecting the iron links to countless iron verticals supporting the iron roadbed beneath his feet and sustaining it from collapse. He wandered to the very edge of the narrow roadbed to evaluate the foundations of the stone river piers. When he leaned over the ornately-understated iron railing, the bow of a river barge glided into his view. A young woman of no more than twenty assisted a grizzled and sinewy man, likely her father, with various lines looped across the deck of the barge. Although Csongor’s intensely-logical mind briefly resisted the distraction, his attention shifted fully to her unbuttoned bodice, and while he admired the sweat-glistened curve of the young woman’s bosom all thoughts of bridge engineering receded. When the barge had cruised beyond the bridge and he could no longer see the young woman clearly, Csongor backed away from the iron railing and continued his walk in the pleasant warmth of the afternoon sun.

After passing respectfully beneath the imposing pair of stone lions defending the end of the bridge with silent ferocity from atop equally-imposing stone pedestals, he drifted southerly and worked his way through a multitude of pedestrians down to the Belgrád rakpart. He quickened his pace and darted around a mother and father pushing a newborn in a sky-blue baby carriage. When he passed the family he remembered that he had once considered engineering as a profession. His supple mind had always excelled at mathematics, and with fluency in three languages (his own as well as English and German) he had imagined the possibilities of designing engineering masterpieces in all of the great cities of Europe. During this period of youthful infatuation with both the science and art of engineering, Csongor had dreamed of graceful bridges spanning the widest channels of the Thames in London, stunning railway trestles clinging to precipitous snow-dusted cliffs in the lofty peaks of the French Alps, and dazzling towers of the most inconceivably-delicate structures shooting boldly into the skies above Budapest itself. But in the end, when his maturing mind had finally accepted that it craved not the analytical rigor of math and engineering but rather the messy uncertainty of debate and philosophy, he chose the law.

Csongor’s eyes shifted right across the Danube and swept up the sharply-rising slopes of the Gellért Hegy to the sprawling stone walls and parapets of the now obsolete Citadella. He recalled a lesson from a compulsory history class in which a senile professor, hunched over with age and tapping his cane on the polished marble floor behind the podium at the end of each sentence to emphasize the punctuation, droned on for an entire hour about the Hapsburg Dynasty and the construction of the Citadella in 1854 to guard the city from the rebellious masses and the transfer of the Citadella to the city after the Compromise of 1867 between Austria and Hungary and the symbolic destruction of portions of the fortified walls in two places and other useless facts he did not care to remember on such a pleasant afternoon.

When the odd reverie of the stooped professor and tapping cane had dimmed, Csongor’s eyes snapped from the Citadella to the path directly in front of his rushing feet, but then began jumping around as interesting distractions fell into his field of view. The boundary of his moving shadow, projected off to his left by the low afternoon sun and softened by cirrus clouds floating miles away, vibrated chaotically over the uneven joints of bricks inlaid along the walking surface next to the river. He instinctively swerved a few steps to the left to avoid a woman’s umbrella, and the head of his shadow scattered across a line of chairs set near a continuous stone curb hugging a much wider walkway running in front of a long arc of monumental buildings facing the Danube. The head of the shadow leaped from the ground when it collided with an ancient tree growing from the brick walk, and leaped again when it plowed into a cast iron light post, then fluttered across more chairs before crashing into another tree and another light post and more chairs and another tree. Csongor dashed back to the right until the fingers of his outstretched hand slapped the fluted iron stanchions of the iron railing that prevented him from plunging headlong into the swirling waters of the river. He began counting the stanchions—an obsessive habit he had failed to cure himself of—without slowing his pace: one, two, three, four…twenty-seven, twenty-eight…one-hundred-and two, and three, and four…two-hundred…and seventeen, and eighteen, and nineteen…a man lounging in one the chairs shook his fist at something, but this time Csongor did not see it…three-hundred, and one, and two, and…a child screamed after falling and cutting her knee on the sharp corner of the stone curb, but he did not notice her either…and thirty-five, and thirty-six, and thirty…rapid footsteps pounded behind him, growing louder and louder, but he did not hear them…forty-two, and forty-three, and—

A sweaty hand clutched Csongor’s shoulder from behind. Csongor whirled around, a fist concealed behind his back. The sweaty hand spoke before Csongor could strike. “Csongor, I’ve been searching for you. You were supposed to meet me at four. When you didn’t show, I guessed I might find you here.”

Csongor relaxed the belligerent fist. “I apologize, my treasured roommate Kelemen. The serenity of the afternoon and the golden warmth of the sun encouraged me to forget our appointment. I trust you will forgive me.”

Kelemen frowned. “Of course I will forgive you, Csongor. Don’t I always forgive you? Have I ever not forgiven you?”

The corners of Csongor’s delicate mouth lifted imperceptibly. “You are right. I cannot think of a single time you have not forgiven me. A remarkable achievement.”

“I could not say if it is remarkable or not, but that is not the point. Would you like a pilsner? The afternoon is very hot, and I would like some refreshment before we talk.”

“A grand idea. I would never refuse a beer purchased by someone else. It always tastes better when I do not have to pay for it.”

The two continued south on the Belgrád rakpart until they arrived at a small restaurant with spotless picture windows, colorful flowers springing from earthen planters, and tables and chairs meticulously arranged on the brick pavement outside in the waning light of the fading day. They sat at one of the small, square, white-table-cloth-covered tables at the side of the street and each ordered a beer from the mustached but slightly-balding waiter. The street noise amplified when people departed places of work and scurried along the rakpart to return home for the night. A young couple emerged from the river of people flowing in front of the restaurant and occupied an adjacent table to enjoy a few glasses of red wine before continuing homeward. When the beers arrived, Kelemen immediately lifted the tall glass to his lips and downed half of the pleasantly-bitter lager.

Csongor sipped twice from his glass then set the drink next to the small candle located precisely in the center of the table. “You must be thirsty. I have never seen you drink this much beer at one time.”

Kelemen fidgeted, and then lifted his glass again. “I do not think it is the thirst. I think it is because I am nervous.” He poured the remaining beer down his throat with a single unbroken motion and slammed the empty glass on the table.

Csongor lifted his glass and sipped again. “Nervous? Nervous about what?”

Kelemen raised his left hand above the table and displayed a splinted little finger. “This is why I am nervous.”

Csongor shrugged. “You are nervous of your little finger?”

Kelemen elevated his chin to conceal the utter disgust of his visage. “No, of course I am not nervous about my little finger. I am nervous about the man who broke it two nights ago.”

Csongor smirked, more noticeably than before. “Is there much pain?”

This time Kelemen did nothing to conceal his disgust. “Of course there is much pain. It hurts like holy hell. Why do you think I am drinking this beer? I am trying to dull the pain. I will likely drink a few more beers before we leave this table tonight. If I’m lucky I will collapse into a coma and there will be no pain whatsoever.”

Csongor’s smile faded. “And what is the name of the unruly brute who broke your little finger? And, I might add, to what purpose?”

Kelemen concealed the splinted little finger beneath the white tablecloth and waved with his good hand at the slightly-balding waiter. The waiter hurried to the table. “Another beer please. No, I’ve changed my mind. Do you have a good supply of pálinka? I might drink very much tonight.” The waiter nodded. “Then bring me a large glass of pálinka. I don’t care which one. Csongor…another beer?”

“No thank you. Unlike you, I have no desire to stumble into the Danube and drown before I return to the flat.”

Kelemen spoke to the waiter. “Fine. Just the pálinka then, a very large one.”

Csongor touched the rim of his glass, but did not drink. “Is it wise to mix beer and pálinka in the same minute? I have never known you to drink this much.”

“You would drink too if you faced the dilemma now confronting me.”

“Ah, yes. The broken finger. This is a dilemma.”

Kelemen slapped the damaged hand on his leg and winced from the shot of pain. “Damn it, the finger is not the point. The police officer, Mészáros—the one who patrols evenings near the School of Law—he is the point.”

“How is officer Mészáros, who I have met only once, the point?”

The waiter arrived with the large glass of pálinka. Kelemen gulped half of it before proceeding with his explanation. “Really Csongor. You are tedious at times. Officer Mészáros is the one who broke my little finger two nights ago.”

The conversation suddenly intrigued Csongor. “And the purpose?”

“Have you not heard of his reputation? To begin with, he despises lawyers. Secondly, he despises students of the law even more. Thirdly, he imagines we students of law are all very wealthy. And fourthly, he has demanded some of us to pay for his personal protection to keep us safe from harm when we travel to and from the school at night.”

“How much does he want?”

“100 forints a week.”

“This is an amount you can easily afford. Why don’t you just pay officer Mészáros and be done with it?”

Kelemen squirmed in his chair then swigged another gulp of pálinka. “Whether or not I can afford the amount is as much the point as is my little finger. I told Mészáros I would not pay him a single krajczár for his so-called protection.”

“And what did he say?”

“He did not say anything. He broke my little finger. Then he said something. He told me to deliver 200 forints to him in front of the School of Law tomorrow at midnight or he would break more fingers.”

“I thought the cost of his protection was 100 forints?”

“He charged me extra for the trouble of breaking my finger.”

Csongor lifted his beer and poured a healthy swig across his tongue. “Sounds fair.”

Kelemen’s face reddened as he sputtered his reply. “It is not fair at all! Nothing about this is fair. I refuse to pay anything to this so-called policeman who is extorting money from innocent law students. I refuse. I will never pay him.”

“How many broken fingers can you afford?”

Kelemen calmed himself before finishing the last of the pálinka. He waved at the waiter: “Waiter, another pálinka—in a larger glass this time,” then addressed Csongor. “This is why I am talking to you and buying you beer so you do not have to pay for it yourself.”

“You imagine there is some way I can help you with this problem?”

“Of course I imagine you can help me with this problem. You have helped me in the past with other problems. You have a special gift with people. You are the most skilled and ruthless debater in the school. And, more importantly, you are absolutely fearless. I want you to talk to the policemen and convince him to leave me alone.”

Csongor reflected before speaking. “It would cheer me greatly to talk to officer Mészáros and convince him to find someone other than you to protect. However, because of the inherent risk I would not accept this assignment without proper compensation.”

“You would not?”

“No, I would not.”

Kelemen’s eyes narrowed. “What manner of compensation are you thinking of.”

Csongor stroked his chin. “I was thinking of…100 forints a week, but only until the end of the semester.”

Kelemen slammed his injured hand on the table then groaned at the pain. “Csongor…”

“Yes, my beloved roommate?”

“You are an ass.”

Csongor simpered uncharacteristically. “Yes, I know. Then it is agreed. To be fair, I will provide said legal services on a contingency basis. If I successfully convince the good officer to relinquish his claim to provide you with protective services, then you will pay me. If I fail to convince him, then you can either pay him or let him break more of your fingers.”

“You are still an ass.”

“Do not worry about tomorrow night. I will meet officer Mészáros at midnight in front of the School of Law on your behalf. You can stay in the flat and rest your little finger.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The next day, fourteen minutes until midnight. Kelemen sat at his Bösendorfer baby grand piano (a gift from his mother three years ago on his twenty-first birthday) in the spacious flat he had shared with Csongor for three semesters. The splinted little finger on his left hand throbbed with each beat of his anxious heart. Another glass of pálinka, his fourth of the evening, waited patiently next to the finely-carved wood music rack angled above the polished white and black keys. He thought of playing a few notes, but then remembered the broken finger. He tapped his left thumb on middle C, and plunked down the scale C…B…A…G…, but the splinted finger bounced annoyingly on the white keys, and then wedged painfully between two of the black keys. He swore, reached for the pálinka, and before the glass touched his…

Police officer Mészáros endured the passing minutes beneath the glow of a street lamp on Szerb Utca near the Royal Hungarian University School of Law. Light rain sprinkled down and glistened the street. Nearly midnight, and his 200 forints had not yet arrived. Not to worry. Still a few minutes to go. And if the forints do not arrive, I will break another finger. Maybe a thumb or a wrist. Who knows? He paced beyond the dispersed rim of the light, then pivoted back into the light. He leaned indifferently against the damp lamp post, then bent his knee and rested the heel of his boot on the cast iron base. He yawned. He rubbed the back of his neck. Footsteps. He stood erectly and peered into the shadows beyond the rim of light. Splashing. Louder. Footsteps. Louder. Csongor Toth, his overcoat buttoned to his neck, stepped into the light.

Surprised, Mészáros snorted, “Who the hell are you?”

Csongor introduced himself with an elegant bow. “I, my good sir, am Csongor Toth.”

“Where is the spineless law student Kelemen? He is the one I want. He owes me money. A lot of money.” The rain intensified.

Csongor advanced closer to Mészáros to assess his build and height. “Kelemen will not be coming to see you tonight. He has sent me to meet with you on his behalf.”

Mészáros yawned without covering his mouth. “On his behalf? Then I assume he sent you to pay his debt.”

Csongor shrugged. “In a manner.”

Mészáros expanded his chest aggressively. “In a manner? What the hell do you mean?”

Csongor did not back away. “I am here to make an offer.”

“An offer? I’m not interested in any offer. Just pay me the 200 forints or I will break more of his fingers. Maybe I will break his thumb or his wrist. I have not decided yet.”

Csongor leaned forward to purposefully collapse the space separating him from Mészáros. “I offer you a single lump sum payment of 2,000 forints, but only on the stipulation that you never bother Kelemen again.”

Mészáros’s eyes widened. “2,000 forints?”

Csongor winked nonchalantly. “Yes, 2,000 forints, but only on the stipulation…”

Kelemen drained the last swallow of pálinka and set the empty glass on the piano bench. He considered refilling the glass, but decided the pain in his little finger had dulled sufficiently to diminish the need. He also felt a bit lightheaded, and leaving the stability of the piano bench could offer the risk of falling and hurting his other hand—or possibly breaking his neck. The delicate gears in a French bell-strike clock centered on the stone mantel above the hearth whirred and the bell rang twelve times. Kelemen pulled a watch from his pocket and flipped open the engraved cover. Four minutes after midnight. He noted to himself that he should adjust the mantel clock forward by four minutes. He decided to practice major scales with his right hand, beginning with C major. He placed his thumb on middle C and raced smoothly up the white keys to the highest C of the instrument and then back down again. He moved his thumb up one half-step to C-sharp, and raced up and down again, playing mostly black keys. He glanced across the room to a large window, and observed the rain for the first time. He moved his thumb up another half-step to D, and executed the thumb under at G cleanly and then added C-sharp as the hand travelled up and down the keyboard again. He set his index finger on E-flat to play the…

Officer Mészáros suggested a compromise. “Maybe I should offer you my protection too. Then I can collect 200 forints every week and I will have 2,000 in only ten weeks.”

Csongor’s sober expression hardened. “I would advise against adding me under the wing of your dubious protection. I strongly recommend acceptance of my offer. I truly believe this is in your best interests.”

“Another law student lecturing me on my best interests. I have dealt with the likes of you before. Maybe I should break your finger too, and then you will understand.” Mészáros chuckled.

“I can see you are a determined negotiator. I am willing to increase the amount to 3,000 forints, but this is my last offer.”

“That is a lot of money, and begins to interest me.” He stroked his chin. “Here is my offer to you. I will accept the 3,000 forints, but will expect the law student Kelemen and you to begin paying me 100 forints each week beginning the first day of September. You will have my protection for the entire summer, and then you will begin the weekly payments for continued service.”

Csongor listened attentively. “We will not be here during the summer.”

Mészáros snorted, “It is not my problem.”

Csongor reflected briefly. “I will accept your offer.” He reached inside his raincoat and produced an envelope. “The money is in this…”

Playing major scales with one hand did not relax Kelemen as much as he had expected, but he decided to forge ahead to the last scale anyway: then he could tell Csongor he had accomplished something useful this night other than drinking too much. He placed his index finger on A-flat to play an A-flat major scale. Only four flats. Not too hard. When he had finished, he moved his thumb up one half-step to A to play A major, the final scale that would reach the highest note on his piano. His hand accelerated up the keyboard, and when he reached the last A at the last white key at the very end of the keyboard, a note he rarely played, and his little finger deftly pressed the key—Kelemen recoiled. What a thin, inadequate sound! He pressed the white key again, and again the same. He tapped it repeatedly to loosen the action and still could not produce the fullness of sound he expected. This is odd, he thought to himself. He shoved the piano bench back and stood. He raised the lid to its highest position and set the prop. His eyes bounced along the strings, and when they reached the highest note, he discovered that one of the three strings was missing. What is this? He tried to remember if he had ever played the highest key before and decided he had. Who would have taken a string from his Bösendorfer baby grand piano? And why? He slumped down on the piano bench and…

After finding a good spot directly under the light, Mészáros shoved his finger under the envelope’s sealed flap and ripped it open. He pulled a tight stack of forints through the jagged tear, licked his thumb, and began counting. It did not take him long to count the large denominations. He began stuffing the money back into the envelope. “I must say I’m surprised. Like you promised, there are 3,000 forints here. But how did you know we would agree to this exact—”

Holding two wooden dowels connected with a thin wire, Csongor Toth advanced swiftly until he stood directly behind Officer Mészáros. Csongor looped the deadly ligature over the officer’s head and pulled it taut against his throat. Mészáros clutched the 3,000 forints in his hand until his shuddering grip relaxed and the money fluttered erratically across his jerking leg into a shallow puddle of dark rain spreading away from the toes of his meticulously polished boots.
♦ ♦ ♦
Kelemen, still wearing pants and socks from the night before, sat at the side of his bed and rubbed his throbbing head with his throbbing left hand. He stood and stretched. When he bent backwards and arched his spine he noted a touch of unpleasant nausea at the back of his tongue. The rain had stopped and sunlight glowed on the window sill beneath the blinds. He thought of making a cup of tea, and waddled unevenly across the bedroom to the door that led to the main living area of the flat. He opened the door and the brightness of the room throbbed inside his head. It took him a moment to notice Csongor Toth relaxing on the settee.

“Csongor. Why are you up so early? I didn’t hear you come in last night.”

Admittedly a little tired, Csongor politely covered his mouth and yawned. “It is after lunch, my lazy roommate. I thought you had died with your pants on.”

“After lunch? No wonder I feel terrible. I think I shall make some tea. Would you like a cup?”


Kelemen massaged his jowls. “But before I make tea, I have to share something quite odd with you.”

“You assume I want you to share something odd?”

“Last night, just after midnight actually, when I was practicing major scales with only my right hand because the splint on my left hand kept sticking between the black keys, I noticed for the first time something wrong with the high A.”

Csongor feigned surprise. “Something wrong with the high what?”

“The high A.”

“And what was wrong with the high A?”

“It took some work to figure out, but I finally opened the lid and discovered one of the strings is missing.”


“Yes, completely gone.”

Csongor shrugged indifferently. “You are sure it did not just break?”

“No. I would have seen part of the wire. Here, let me show you what it sounds like.” Kelemen walked to the piano and tapped the key. The note sounded perfectly. He struck it again, and again the note rang out full and true. “This is not possible.”

“Maybe you are playing the wrong note. And you should have the piano tuned. The A sounds a touch flat to my ear.” Csongor yawned again.

This angered Kelemen. “I am not playing the wrong note. I swear to you that the note did not sound properly last night.”

“I noticed the empty bottle when I arrived this morning. Maybe you were too drunk and just imagined the problem.”

This possibility concerned Kelemen. “I could not have been so drunk to have misheard the note and to have seen a missing string when it was not missing.”

Csongor sniffed. “Not that anything you just said makes any sense, but all manner of things are possible when you drink too much. But enough of this: I have something more important than an unruly note on the piano to discuss with you.”

“Something more important?” Kelemen shook his head then winced at the throbbing and sat down on the piano bench.

Csongor stood and kicked a small suitcase with his foot. “I have decided to take a holiday. I leave on the train in less than two hours.”

Kelemen swung around on the bench and slouched. “A holiday? But the semester ends in a few weeks. Can’t you wait till then?”

Csongor lifted the suitcase. “It does not matter to me. I tire of classroom law and stuffy professors who put us to sleep and should have died years ago.”

“Where will you go? When will you return?”

“I do not yet have the answers to those questions, but maybe I will go anywhere I please, and maybe I will never return.”

“Will you write to me?”

“Likely not. But I do have one last bit of business with you.”


“Yes.” Csongor plucked a sealed envelope from his pocket and presented it to Kelemen. “Listen carefully my treasured roommate. You are to keep this envelope in a safe place, a place only you can find. Never open the envelope. When three years have passed, burn the envelope and its contents then scatter the ashes.”

“Never open it?”

“Yes, but there is one, and only one, exception.”

Kelemen grew more worried with each spoken word. “And what is this one exception?”

Without sentiment, Csongor responded smoothly, “If the police come to arrest you because of your involvement with the policeman Mészáros, then you may give them the envelope.”

“Csongor, I do not understand what you are talking about.”

Csongor lifted the suitcase with ease and carried it to the front door of the flat. He hesitated when his hand felt the chill of the cylindrical knob. “It is good you do not understand. Adieu my comrade. I wish you a successful career in the law.” And with a casual flick of his hand to signify a wave, he opened the door and walked out.

Rich Ritter discovered a passion for writing during his tumultuous high school years. This zeal was consumed by technical writing during his lifelong profession as an architect until the age of 49, when he began work on his first novel. Ritter was born in Iowa, raised in the social cauldron of Southern California, completed his architecture degree (Cal Poly SLO) in Denmark, and is a 40-year Alaska resident.