The Dante Deception: Chapter One

The Dante Deception – Chapter One

In The Dante Deception, The Natalie Brandon Series by JenniLeave a Comment

April 1967
Unterlengenhardt, West Germany

The old woman cackled as a dog snatched the sandwich from her lap. The German shepherd carried the sandwich into a corner and nosed the black bread aside to get at the spicy sausage.

Christof Ehrlichmann held his breath. There were three half-eaten sandwiches under the couch. The cats—thirty, at last count—had coated the floor and furniture in urine. He had no idea how the old woman managed to eat anything without throwing up.

“Irma,” the woman said. “Make me another sandwich. Baby is wearing the first one.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” his mother said, hurrying into the kitchen.

Christof glared at her. If he dripped a single speck of paint on the floor, she sent him to bed without supper. But people believed this filthy creature was a princess, so they let her do things even children knew they shouldn’t.

He looked at the old woman’s sweater, its sleeves streaked with excrement. The first thing his mother did when they arrived was open a window. Usually, the woman slammed it shut, her frail arms shaking with effort. “How dare you expose me to them!” she’d cry. “You know they want to kill me! Have you forgotten who I am and what I know?”

“No one wants to kill you,” his mother always said.

“No one wants to kill you,” his mother always said.

“Everyone wants to kill me,” she’d reply. “Even you.”

Today, she’d left the window open. A breeze twirled the threads of the curtain’s cat-clawed hem. It still smelled of death. The old woman buried animals by wrapping them in newspaper and setting them in the yard. “It stinks here,” he said. “I want to go home.”

“Christof,” his mother snapped. “Don’t speak like that in front of her.”

The woman, called Anastasia, was supposed to be the daughter of a murdered king. Her house, a filthy barracks behind a six-foot fence, didn’t look like a princess’s castle. But inside, he’d discovered a fair amount of treasure. The tabletops were stacked with books, gilded photo frames, and jewel-studded icons. When no one was looking, he traced the unfamiliar Cyrillic inscriptions in his notebook.

Nothing about the woman herself, however, resembled a princess. Her hair was short and white. Her lips were crooked and she hid them when she talked. Her eyes were blue, appropriate for a princess, but something still wasn’t right. Other blue things, like cornflowers or the river Neckar, got darker the deeper you looked. The old woman’s eyes had no depth, no darkness. The only thing inside them was nothing.

That’s when he realized—she had no idea who she was.

That’s when he realized—she had no idea who she was.

Her visitors couldn’t see it. They came in long black cars, the women in filmy skirts and the men in tweed jackets. They bowed and pressed their lips to her speckled hand, licked by a dog only moments ago. “Your Imperial Highness,” they called her. Sometimes they gave her money. If they didn’t, the old woman held a napkin to her face and demanded they leave her alone. His mother would escort the astonished guest to the door, apologizing for the woman’s behavior.

It mystified him that anyone could leave this house still believing her a princess.

His mother emerged from the kitchen with another sandwich, bowing as she set it on the table.

Christof looked away. He didn’t want to see the old woman chew with her mouth open again. Through the slats of the fence, he saw a car pull up and its driver get out. “Mutti! Someone’s outside.”

“No, no, no, no, no.” The woman moaned and slumped in her seat. “Make them go away.”

“They will,” Christof said. “As soon as they smell you.”

His mother pinched his neck. “She needs our help, and we must give it. Do you want me to take away your paint?”

She doesn’t need our help, he thought. She needs a laundress and a straitjacket. But the threat of losing his paint was enough to silence him as his mother met the man outside and escorted him to the threshold. The old woman reached for a sodden newspaper and crumpled it, holding it over her mouth.

She doesn’t need our help, he thought. She needs a laundress and a straitjacket. But the threat of losing his paint was enough to silence him as his mother met the man outside and escorted him to the threshold. The old woman reached for a sodden newspaper and crumpled it, holding it over her mouth.

Christof gagged.

The visitor, a tall man with a thin moustache, removed his hat. His suit was crisp, with a sharp crease down the center of each leg. He’ll see, Christof thought. He’ll take one look at her and know she isn’t a princess.

“Your Highness,” the man said, “my name is Edward Turner. My father was a soldier in the Great War. He was injured on the Eastern Front, and taken to your hospital in Tsarskoe Selo.”

“War,” the woman mumbled. “It all started with the war.”

“It changed all of us, Your Highness.”

Her rheumy eyes narrowed. “Did it destroy you? Did it rob you of everyone you ever loved?”

“No, Your Highness.”

“Then do not compare your suffering to mine!”

“I didn’t mean to upset you, Your Highness. I just wanted to pay my respects.”

The old woman paused, inspecting him over the edge of her newspaper. “You may enter.”

The old woman paused, inspecting him over the edge of her newspaper. “You may enter.”

Of course he can, Christof thought. He said the magic word—pay. His mother guided the stranger to the old woman’s chair and came to stand in front of him, blocking his view. “Mutti,” he said softly, tugging on her apron strings. She swatted him without turning around.

Turner dropped to one knee beside the old woman. “My father’s name was Peter. He said you spoke to him once. Do you remember him?”

She lowered the newspaper and clenched it in her disgusting hand. “What did I say?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. My father wouldn’t talk about the war. The only thing he said had no words at all.”

“What was it?” Christof asked, leaning around his mother.

Turner flashed him a ghost of a smile. “A leg, gone below the knee.”

Riding bikes, running, jumping, swimming…he couldn’t imagine all that being taken away. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Hospital,” the old woman muttered. “I had a hospital?”

His mother nodded. “With your sister. You worked there together.” She’d read a book about the murdered princess’s family and considered herself an expert now. His mother trusted books too much. “Do you remember, Your Highness?”

His mother nodded. “With your sister. You worked there together.” She’d read a book about the murdered princess’s family and considered herself an expert now. His mother trusted books too much. “Do you remember, Your Highness?”

Nein! You would never ask me that if you had seen the things I have seen!”

Here it comes, Christof thought. When faced with something she couldn’t remember, the old woman claimed not to want to remember. With shouts and tears, she abused the person who asked. Because they thought she was royalty, they didn’t press her. But playground bullies did the same thing every day, until someone refused to give in. Had grown-ups forgotten how everything really worked?

He slid down from his chair and stepped out from behind his mother. “What did you say to this man’s father?”

“Christof!” His mother picked him up and spun, depositing him behind her. “Forgive him, Your Highness. He didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Yes, I did! I want her to help this man.”

“It’s nothing, really,” Turner said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.” He stepped back and his heel came down on a cat’s tail. The cat howled and hissed as Turner’s cheeks ripened like cherries.

Christof glared at the woman’s loose, flappy lips. All this man wanted was a word about his father, and she didn’t even have the decency to lie. “Tell him! If you really were the princess, you’d tell him.”

Christof glared at the woman’s loose, flappy lips. All this man wanted was a word about his father, and she didn’t even have the decency to lie. “Tell him! If you really were the princess, you’d tell him.”

“And who are you,” she hissed, “to give orders to the daughter of an emperor?”

“You’re no one! You’re lying and I hate you!”

The electric crack of his mother’s palm against his cheek stole his breath. He looked into her eyes, but there was no softness, no hint of regret. “Mutti, she’s not who she says she is.”

“You’re a stupid child, Christof, speaking of things you cannot understand.”

But I do understand, he wanted to say. She told a lie and you believe it, and now people kiss her hand and make her sandwiches and pretend she doesn’t sleep in a room full of animal feces. His mother, the old woman, the man…they all wanted him to be quiet so they could go on believing a lie. “She’s not who she says she is! Why can’t any of you see it?”

His mother gripped his face in one hand, squeezing until his teeth cut the tender flesh of his cheeks. “You think you’re special, don’t you? You think you know so much that it makes you better than the rest of us?”

Blood and saliva pooled in his mouth. His eyes burned with tears.

Blood and saliva pooled in his mouth. His eyes burned with tears.

“I’ve caused too much trouble,” Turner said. “And I apologize. But if I may, Your Highness…”

“Yes?” the false princess said.

The man reached into his pocket. Christof twisted in his mother’s grip to see what he held. It was a photo of a man in a hospital bed. Two girls stood behind him with smiling blurry faces. “It was the only thing my father had to give. I’d be honored if you would sign it for me.”

The old woman reached for the photo, curling it in her filthy hand as she picked up a pen. She drew a pointed arc—an A—the first letter in a name that wasn’t hers. Christof saw her hesitate twice during the inscription, as if she didn’t remember how to form the letters. “Life is hard now,” she said, handing it back to Turner. “It is not like it was then.”

“I understand.” Turner reached into his pocket. “If I may…”

“No!” Christof shouted. “That’s what she wants!” His warning emerged as a gurgle, launching a flue of blood and saliva onto his mother’s hand.

She shrieked and pushed him away.

The marmalade cat under his feet howled when he stepped on it.

He lost his balance.

His arms flailed, but they couldn’t save him. As he fell, he saw Turner hand a stack of bills to the old woman. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am, Your Highness.”

But I told him the truth, Christof thought. And it didn’t matter at all.

But I told him the truth, Christof thought. And it didn’t matter at all.

Behind the blood-red rush of anger, the realization came: Turner wanted to be deceived.

Christof smiled.

So let it be, he thought, as his head struck the table and a white light exploded behind his eyelids. I warned them.


Stay tuned for the next few chapters…


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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I’m working on a series of Natalie Brandon thrillers. To find out when new books are released, click here to sign up for my mailing list and get two free books!

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