I had already devoured the morning newspaper with my coffee, but as I wanted to put off the start of the working day I immersed myself in the ads. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a certain text. “Cutting off heads”. Followed by a mobile number. The ad was under “Services.” It didn’t sound much different from “Installing bars,” “Dustless hardwood floor refinishing” or “Demolition of buildings.” What could these heads be, I started thinking. It’s probably just a joke. Or a mistake… I continued to flip through the pages. But the seeds of anxiety were sown. I couldn’t concentrate; the words, devoid of meaning, were rolling before my eyes. Cutting off heads. Curiosity was gnawing at me. I got up and walked back and forth across the room. I knew that if I didn’t call, I would think about it all week…
“Hello?” The voice had a nasty pitch.
“I’m calling about the ad,” I said, unsurely.
“Yes, what about it?” the man on the phone brightened up.
“Well…” I said timidly. “What exactly do you offer?”
“Cutting off heads!” I caught a distinct accent. “I think it’s written clearly enough.”
“Heads, what kind of heads exactly?”
“People’s own heads only.”
“You’re kidding me!” I exclaimed.
The line went dead. He had hung up. “He was probably angry,” I thought, “What a fucking idiot!” For sure, I was so damn excited. And it wasn’t only out of curiosity… A strange breeze blew past me, setting my blood on fire like melted tiger fat. I picked up the phone again.
“Yes,” said the familiar voice.
I hastily mumbled some kind of apology. I was afraid that he would hang up again.
“I’d like to know how it works?“ I asked, cautiously.
“It’s very simple,” said the man. “You fill out an application, we make an appointment and… get to work. It’s fifty dollars.”
I barely managed to stifle my laughter. We were silent for almost a minute.
“So we must see each other before that?” I asked in a thin voice.
“Yes, we have to… But today I’m busy.”
We set up a meeting for the next day at five o’clock in the afternoon. I wasn’t very keen on being alone with such an individual. I offered him to meet at the Viennese pastry shop on the Russian Square. He said he didn’t mind. I asked him how we would recognize each other.
“I’ll recognize you,” he assured me.
In the evening I showed the newspaper to my wife, I had circled the ad in red. “Nonsense,” she said. She was so beat from work that obviously nothing could impress her. I confessed to her that I had called the number…
“What?!” she said unbelievingly.
I gave her the general gist of our conversation.
“So you want them to cut your head off, huh?” she asked abruptly.
“Why on earth would I!” I protested vigorously.
“Why did you call, then?!”
“Well… it seemed interesting,” I stuttered.
The next day, exactly at five o’clock, I showed up at the shop. The wind was piercing, but inside the pastry shop the heaters were working, so it was warm and bright. I took off my coat and looked around. Someone waved at me from the tables at the back.
“Hello,” the man got up and offered me his hand. “Kurt.”
He was short, small even, but his shoulders were extremely broad. He had a dark face with prominent cheekbones and a powerful brow. His hand was huge and hard as a bone. He wore a black leather jacket. Next to his feet lay a long case, like those ones used for carrying oboes or saxophones around. We sat down. He was drinking pink milk with a straw from a tall glass. His shiny anthracite eyes studied me intently.
“So you’re the executioner,” I tried to sound casual. “Looks like you’re not from around here?”
“No,” he said vaguely, “but I’ve been living in Bulgaria for five years.”
“And how is it, is there any work?”
“Oh, yeah! I’m not complaining,” then he took out a little piece of paper and slid it towards me. “The application, please.”
It had been typed up on a rickety typewriter with only capital letters and read as follows: I, the undersigned, dots, dots, dots, National Identification Number, dots, address, dots, declare that I want my head to be cut off. I do so of my own free will and conviction, without any foreign intervention. I sign this application with the full knowledge of the consequences arising from such an action, precisely – the separation of the head from the body with a single blow. Signature, date.
I looked at him dumbfounded.
“Do you have the right to do this?”
“Of course,” he nodded and passed me a piece of paper. “Here’s my license. Number 1645789K. Issued in Valladolid, Spain, where the headquarters of the World Association of Executioners is located…”
The photo matched. The text was written in a gothic script, of which I didn’t understand a thing. I shrugged.
“It applies to all of Europe,” Kurt assured me.
“And how exactly it’s supposed to happen?” I swallowed hard. “The separation…”
The executioner bent down and opened the case slightly. I peered in cautiously. Inside of it lay a huge black axe, sharpened like a razor. My jaw trembled. I could only whisper: “When?”
He flipped through his notebook.
I didn’t even care. I filled out the application. Kurt took a napkin and drew me a map of the exact place where I had to go. Then he slurped what was left of the milk and stood up.
“Well, see you soon,” he patted me on the shoulder.
When my wife heard what I had done, she looked at me with an open mouth. Soon, however, her face took its usual empty expression – like a porcelain doll. She poured herself a glass of milk and took a bite of an apple.
“So you seriously decided to do this?”
“Nonsense!” I objected. “I just wanted to check… Don’t you think we should inform the police?”
“Mmm, why?” she raised her eyebrows.
“Why?!” I was outraged. “Some guy is running around with an axe this huge, offering people to cut their heads off for $50. Do you think that’s normal?”
“But you signed the application,” she reminded me. “You were the one who got in touch with this guy! So who is the bigger nutcase here?”
I had to admit that her words made some sense. The police would have laughed at me. However, I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to get to the bottom of this! I asked her to come with me on Thursday. She downright refused. She didn’t have any issues with her head, and she very much liked it where it was. I sensed her sarcastic tone, but continued to insist.
“Okay, okay,” she said finally. “Fine! I’ll go!”
The following days I was out of my mind. I wandered, groaned and touched my neck as if I was really about to part ways with my head. I wondered what one feels at that exact moment. I remembered that as a child someone told me a story of a man who had had his head cut off and then had taken it under his arm and run off… I searched the Internet but found nothing on the subject except for photos of the notorious guillotine.
The taxi came to pick us up a little after eleven. It was a sunny day. My wife didn’t utter a single word all the way through. The taste of my morning coffee was still bitter on my tongue. I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous evening. I felt stupid. Our taxi left us at the end of Durvenitsa neighborhood. On the right was the car service. We passed a mountain of tires and then turned into a dark street. It was muddy and I heard my wife cursing under her breath… We found ourselves in front of a wire door with a stop sign hanging on it.
“It’s here!” I said.
“Seems locked,” she said.
A dog threw itself at the wire door and started barking. We were about to go back when Kurt emerged from somewhere, kicked the mutt and opened the door for us. I apologized that I had brought my wife without warning him. He waved his hand dismissively and led us to the shed in the backyard.
“I’ll ask you to make a short statement,” said Kurt.
We found ourselves in a room with a bare cement floor. In the middle of it was a wooden block, smeared with black blood clots. A thin old man in a blue apron was leaning on the huge axe. Kurt introduced him as his assistant. My wife was standing behind me, her hands in her pockets, down to the elbows. On the table there was an old tape recorder. Kurt pushed the button and said:
“This is for my documentation. Answer briefly. Why do you want me to cut your head off?”
“Well…” I started indecisively. “Actually I don’t.”
The tape rolled with a tearful rasp.
“Really?” asked the executioner, surprised. “Then what are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to see how far you would go…” I licked my dry lips. “I didn’t believe that such a thing was possible.”
“Do you believe it now?”
“Oh, yes, yes!” I nodded briskly. “Of course, I will pay you those 50 bucks. Don’t worry…” I was about to pull out my wallet…
“Plus a penalty,” Kurt noted darkly. “$5,000.”
“Whaaat!?” I gaped in terror. “But your service costs only $50!”
“The service costs much more,” he smiled condescendingly. “But since few people can afford it, the difference is covered by the European Fund for Protection of Traditional Occupations. Otherwise we will be left jobless. Unfortunately, the subsidy is granted only for completed services. Refusals are at customer’s expense…”
“But this is ridiculous!” I cried out.
“Those are the rules,” he frowned. “I guess your wife will bring the amount here tonight. Otherwise I will be forced to do the service.”
I turned around. My wife’s face was twisted with rage.
“Do you see now, you fool!” she hissed. “You can’t finish anything! Bastard! You deserve your melon to be cut off for real!”
And she ran out.
The assistant brought three chairs. Kurt turned the tape recorder off. We sat around the block and waited.