What Comes Before

by John Nadas

“I understand, Mr. Leitinger. You want to send us a thaumatic camera. For the last time, no,” Brosz said. He waited, his sense of the other man shrinking in the quiet of the headset. He picked a pig’s tail of cord from his cufflink a second time; he was used to candlestick telephones on small tables.

“Mr. Dr. Brosz,” Leitinger said, “Clearly, you don’t understand. A thaumatic camera would produce efficiencies—”

“We neither need nor want one,” Brosz said. He propped his elbows on Zenervic’s desk. He stared at the photo above the mantel, at Ferdinand II’s head, now bearded, and the diaphanous orbit behind. “Is my competence in question?”

“How can I put this?” Leitinger said. “Your institute will receive a thaumatic camera, along with a trained cameraman, next Monday. Morning, all being well. You needn’t do anything. Inspector Zenervic needn’t do anything. Not even paperwork. It couldn’t be easier for everyone concerned.”

“And what if we were to fail to cooperate?” Brosz asked.

“Erno,” Zenervic whispered, learning forward and batting his cigarette box like a call bell. “Easy now.”

“It is not for any of us to say,” Leitinger said. “The law is not only quite new but also quite nuanced. Any result would be a matter for the appointed judges.”

“I see,” Brosz said. He moved the cord again. He paused, cooling the words in his mouth. “To be frank,” he said, “I am disappointed. I had to cancel a session to take this call.”

“We wanted to give you another opportunity to choose for yourself, Mr. Dr. Brosz,” Leitinger said. “I wish you the best. Goodbye.”

Brosz eased the handset onto its body. He shook the inside pocket of his jacket twice. “Honestly, why ask someone to do something you know they won’t?”

Zenervic slid his cigarette box at Brosz. “I couldn’t believe it when I picked up,” he said, “Like a choirboy.” He shook his head. He rose and walked to the window. He licked his finger and touched a windowpane. He turned, leaning against the windowsill. “We could do with some radiators, Erno. New piping. Those books, for Meszmus. Didn’t you want some easels?”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Brosz peeled a cigarette from the box. He lit it with one of his matches; he hurt his thumb. “Give and take.”

Zenervic nodded at Brosz and turned back to the window. “I sympathize. They don’t see everything, up there. And you’ve a right anyhow. They should have consulted you.”

“I guess so,” Brosz said. He didn’t know: the regulations changed every year or so.

“You do, Erno,” Zenervic said. “Do you believe it? About the cameras, I mean.”

“These thaumatic photographs seem to show halos.” Brosz gestured at the emperor’s portrait. “That much, I believe.”

“I don’t mean that,” Zenervic said. “I mean the stuff about the future, what will happen to a man. All that.”

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Brosz said. “And nor do they.” That was half the point, as far as Brosz was concerned. He joined Zenervic at the window. He saw a childish gong of a sun with childish clouds above, and below them half-children in uniform walking on a flat, green lawn. Peta Keppel parted from the other inmates, kicking high as he ran. Brosz watched as Baric waggled his truncheon and shouted words Brosz could not hear. Keppel knelt, raising his hands in inadvertent prayer.

“That one,” Zenervic said. He folded his arms. “Meszmus says the boy can’t even count properly.”

“I know,” Brosz said. When indoors, Keppel was shoulders up and chin down, deerish only in the way his head checked movements either side. Brosz trilled his lips at it all.

Zenervic sighed. “Anyway.”

“Anyway,” Brosz said.


“Hell,” Carteski said. He wriggled in his chair, spilling over it. His wrists ran aground on the summit of his belly.

Brosz motioned his pen behind his notepad. He hadn’t yet written anything. “Are you uncomfortable?”

“No,” Carteski said. His manacles clattered. “I’m dandy.”

In their first meeting, Brosz had suggested that Carteski use two chairs arranged side by side, one for each leg. “Remember what I said about the chairs,” Brosz said.

“And you remember what I said,” Carteski said. “I shall not be subjected to the disgrace, the implied chubbiness and gluttony, of two chairs. One chair. And nice, like yours.” He squinted at Brosz. “Two, indeed. I could not face myself.”

Brosz valued when one part of a man led another to a public place. He did not value stalling. “Could we return to the issues at hand?”

“She was no innocent,” Carteski said.

“She denied everything,” Brosz said.

“And I keep telling you, she is as culpable as anyone.” Carteski scratched one of his hands with the other.

“I see.” Brosz checked the clock. Carteski had arrived four years prior, and Brosz had spoken with him many times. Their cyclic conversations bored Brosz, but they did not trouble him. To Brosz his work was as heaping grains of sand. A given session with a patient might seem similar to the one that came before it, but the spaces between the first and last man were often great. “Do you really believe that?”

“I suppose her seductive powers could have exceeded her,” Carteski said. “Do flowers know their own scent?”

Brosz only thought about flowers when he thought about gifts for Agnes. He glanced at the clock’s minute hand. “Mr. Carteski, please save the poetry for your cell.”

“Mr. Dr., are you married?” Carteski asked.

Brosz hadn’t expected the question. “Yes.” His pen lay on a page, among dense bubbles budding from a central “Carteski.” Brosz skimmed some words: rational insanity, oft. now ‘psychopathy.’ Remains dangerous. Likely irredeemable, fancies himself. The mysteries of Jan Carteski were to Brosz fewer than he had hoped: the man seemed mostly glass.

“What’s her name?” Carteski asked.

“No names, Mr. Carteski,” Brosz said.

“Have you any progeny?” Carteski asked.

“No,” Brosz said. He and Agnes had not been blessed, in that way at least. He would have said “no” either way.

“Shooting blanks, as they say?”

“No,” Brosz said. Agnes had agreed no one was to blame.

“Are you queer?” Carteski asked.

“No,” Brosz said. “Where is this going?”

“Alright, alright.” Carteski grinned. “Have you known many women, sir?”

“Only one,” Brosz said. It had only ever been Agnes. They had been neighbours in childhood. “And I do not regret it.”

“Here is my point, Mr. Dr.. What do you know of women, their seductive powers?” Carteski batted his wrists. “Whether they know of their power or not, and I tend to think said power is active, rather like thought, say, whether or not, from the very littlest to the eldest, each woman harnesses it. The little ones are the best, you know.”

Brosz underlined irredeemable. He allowed his pulse to recede. “Is that all you have to say?”

“Mr. Baric would put it thus: she was asking for it, mate!” Carteski stamped his feet. “Whether she knew it or not. And either way, it’s not like I could have behaved otherwise. You would not leave your dinner in care of a dog, would you?”

“You are not a dog, Jan,” Brosz said, bringing the two men to their usual impasse. “You could have done otherwise.”

“Can you cartwheel?” Carteski asked.

“Jan,” Brosz said. He reached for his cigarette box.

“Can your nostrils help loving a rose?”

“Jan,” Brosz repeated, opening his cigarette box. “Enough.” He put a finger on a cigarette.

“Some men are made stupid, others are made intelligent,” Carteski said. “Some can’t cartwheel. Others have no nose. And some, they cannot resist the seductive powers of women. Would you fault an invalid for his lack of walking?”

“You know full well what I think, Jan. You do not want to believe it was really you. You’re making excuses.” Brosz lit the cigarette. He was certain: irredeemable.

“I’ve told you, Mr. Dr.. It’s not that. I do not give a shit, as they say. I just do not care. Besides, I did not even fuck them all, did I?”

“You tried,” Brosz said.

Carteski cocked his head. “What might have been.” He shrugged. “I would have been a great man had I been.”

“Very droll,” Brosz said.

“Should we swap chairs and clothes next time, names even, in due respect of all we might have been?” Carteski said.

Brosz stood. He put his cigarette out. “Jan, it isn’t the same. For one thing, rape is a crime—and wrong.” He felt stupid having to say it.

“Could I have a cigarette?” Carteski asked.

Brosz did not even answer.


Meszmus was describing a new way to teach inmates arithmetic.

“I see,” Brosz said. They were seated in a row of chairs. He fought to see past the other man and listen. Meszmus’ new moustache, and his nasal hairs, cried for a wetted razor.

“One hundred cards, each with a number. I set a number. I deal five cards to each player at the start of each turn, at random. I reveal new cards from the deck one by one, lining them down the middle of the table. The winner is the first man to produce a set of seven cards the sum of which is the number I called, by way of any combination of the four basic operations. They seem to enjoy it,” Meszmus said.

“I see,” Brosz said. “Not exactly a game of skill, then.”

“There is much skill in making the best of what one has.” Meszmus rubbed his beard. “Don’t you agree?”

Brosz would not be persuaded. “Do they bet?” he asked, before he thought it. He willed the cameraman’s arrival.

Meszmus frowned at Brosz. “Of course not.”

“I guess it’s good for them, something with low stakes,” Brosz said. He made a smile at Meszmus. He listened as Kropopin discussed some pornographic pictures the guards had confiscated earlier that morning: various young women in nothing but boas stood beside vases or other young women.

“Alright, Over Lieutenant,” Zenervic said. “Don’t ruin it for the rest of us. I’ll rank the ladies myself, thank you.”

Kropopin snorted. “Sorry, sir.”

Baric and Ligovesc entered the room then. They had a trunk between them, which they lowered onto the floor.

A man stood in the doorway. “Thanks,” he said. He walked in, removing his hat and cloak, and hung both items on the hat stand. He stood before the row of chairs and plucked one of his suspenders. “I am Erwin Sarvis, as some of you know. I am your cameraman. The purpose of this meeting is to demonstrate a thaumatic camera, and afterwards begin to instruct you in its use and upkeep, including the composition of the relevant chemicals.” He opened the trunk. He removed a tripod, light, camera, cover, and metal plate, severally, uniting them in a metre-high structure. “May I have a volunteer?” he asked.

Zenervic raised his hand right away.

“Inspector Zenervic,” Sarvis said. “Thank you.”

Zenervic stood beside Sarvis. “No need,” he said. “Alright.” He brushed epaulettes with the backs of his hands. He corrected his collar. He removed his hat and balanced it on his forearm. “Where do you want me?” He looked at Brosz and rolled his eyes.

Brosz did not smile at the other man. He took out his cigarette box and matches.

“Please,” Sarvis said. “The smoke would interfere.”

Brosz nodded, resting the equipment on his knee.

Sarvis pulled Zenervic’s vacated chair away from others and placed it near the camera. “People disagree about the workings of thaumatic cameras,” he said. “Is anyone here familiar with mechanical thaumaturgy?” He paused for a few seconds. “Then I shall not bore you with the technical details, my friends. Inspector Zenervic.” Sarvis pointed at Zenervic’s chair. “If you don’t mind.”

Zenervic sat on his chair, adjusting it with his hands on either side of the seat. He twisted one of his cufflinks, then the other. He checked his collar again. He faced the camera.

Sarvis hid beneath the fabric cover, one arm exposed to the room. “If you could look the lens in the eye, Inspector.”

Zenervic moved his head to one side and then back.

Sarvis counted from five to zero, fingers falling.

Brosz did not cover his face. He did not know to. The light chased him behind his eyelids, behind his hands. He closed his eyes several times; he rubbed his face.

“Is this normal?” Zenervic asked. “I can’t see a damn thing.” He coughed. “I need to be able to see, you know.”

Brosz heard nervous laughter.

“It subsides very quickly,” Sarvis said. “Usually.”

Brosz could make out the form of a man moving to the trunk. The man removed something from the trunk and closed it. Brosz blinked, and all the colours and forms came into place.

Sarvis opened a pot and placed it atop the trunk. He dipped a brush in the pot, and used it to coat the metal plate. He produced a small pipe with a woman’s face carved in the bowl and lit it; he nodded at Brosz. He bent over and inspected the plate. Then he offered it to Zenervic.

Zenervic examined the photograph and smiled. “I’ll be,” he said. He flashed the photo at everyone.

“Congratulations, Inspector,” Sarvis said. “A lovely halo.”

Zenervic pushed his seat back to the front row. He sat and offered the photograph to Brosz.

Brosz declined. He looked at Sarvis.

Kropopin poked Zenervic. “Let me see.”

Zenervic handed Kropopin the photo.

“And that, my friends, is all there is to it. Cheap and effective. Efficient,” Sarvis said, puffing on his pipe. “Each inmate shall be photographed twice. That’s four minutes, more or less, multiplied by.” He paused, fixing on Zenervic.

“Four hundred,” Zenervic said.

“Well, there it is. I hope you feel better. I understand you were all a little reluctant when thaumatic cameras were first suggested,” Sarvis said, clapping his hands together.

“We were?” Kropopin said. He surveyed the room, his chair squeaking.

“No, no,” Zenervic blurted. “Not exactly.”

Kropopin looked at Brosz and then Meszmus. “Chaplain?”

Meszmus detached his pince-nez and rubbed their lenses with a small rag. “I can’t see any issues.”

Brosz ignored Meszmus. “How can we be sure this camera does what you say?” He had first read about thaumatic cameras the year before. The unqualified identification of good men. He had been skeptical. The pre-beatificative properties of the subjects. “See,” Brosz said. “I keep hearing and reading about these thaumatic cameras. But what do the halos mean, exactly?”

“I don’t follow,” Sarvis said, releasing thick smoke.

“What do they tell us?” Brosz asked. He lit a cigarette, then returned his box and matches to his jacket.

Kropopin asked, “Don’t you read the papers, Brosz?”

“I do, Over Lieutenant. But I don’t believe everything I read in them,” Brosz said. “With respect,” he added.

“The camera, Mr. Brosz, i—” Sarvis said.

“Mr. Dr. Brosz,” Brosz said. It was the first time he had corrected someone in that way.

“Mr. Dr. Brosz,” Sarvis said. He rocked his pipe in one hand. “I needn’t trouble him with the biology then, need I?” He grinned at Brosz. “But for the rest of you. When one opens a body, one finds in the darkness a conical organ somewhere between the lungs, below the heart. Our best minds agree that this organ, the anima major to use its technical name, the psyche to use its common one, responds to our actions and thoughts in certain ways. Roughly, what we call “sin” degrades the tissue of the anima major. The inventors of the thaumatic camera, myself included, supposed we could confirm the meaning of halos by comparing subjects’ images to their psyches. We photographed over one hundred inmates in a prison in the capital, with each man either approaching death or awaiting it. Blackened, shrivelled psyches predominated among those men serving life sentences, and those we recovered from the gallows. And the vast majority of those men with damaged psyches, moreover, were haloless. A tight correlation between thaumatic images and psyches, in conclusion. And a link so much like a causal relationship that it is one, practically.”

“But it is still not a causal relationship,” Brosz said. He managed not to laugh. He looked at Zenervic and Kropopin.

“Ours is not a precise science, Mr. Dr,” Sarvis said. “And has psychiatry anything approaching such evidence?”

“I wouldn’t like to say without proper rese—” Brosz said, wishing God had made him reckless.

“Judge not,” Sarvis said, his beam fleeting. “And our sample is representative for your purposes, here,” he said.

“We have four hundred inmates here, Mr. Sarvis,” Brosz said. “And only a handful near their end. Some are sixteen.”

“Does a man really change all that much?” Sarvis asked.

“I should hope so,” Brosz said. “Shouldn’t you?” He put one hand over the other to stop them trembling.

“Very funny, Mr. Dr.. But I am not one of your prisoners. And we must ask ourselves, in the end, would your prisoners even be here if they were of good psyche?” Sarvis asked.

Brosz sighed. “Our boys—”

“Some of our inmates are rehabilitated,” Zenervic said.

“And how many?” Sarvis asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Brosz said.

Sarvis waved at the photo of the emperor suspended above the doorway. “Are you telling us, sir, that there is nothing whatsoever useful or predictive in these halos?”

Brosz shook his head. “No. No, of course not.” He smoked two cigarettes one after the other and did not speak.


“I didn’t do anything,” Keppel said. He pulled at the creases in his trousers. He sniffed, wiping his nose on his collar.

“Peta,” Brosz said. “I know.” He found Keppel as true as air or God. “But we need to think about what is best for you, here and now. Your appeal didn’t succeed.” Brosz had not even read the letter to the end. They were all the same.

“But it wasn’t me,” Keppel said. “I never met the guy. I don’t even remember his name.” Keppel rubbed his shoulder against a red patch on his bald, apple-less throat.

“You shouldn’t scratch your neck, Peta,” Brosz said. “Are you applying that ointment? Twice a day?” He favored Keppel, and did his best not to. He wondered if it was anything like being a father or uncle.

“Yes.” Keppel turned his head away from Brosz. He inflated his cheeks and let the air out.

“Is there something wrong with the ointment?” Brosz asked. He scrawled a note in his pad. Peta’s condition continues to deteriorate. Possible excoriation disorder. “Do you like the itching? Is that it? Do you like lying to me?”

“No, doc,” Keppel said. “I just forgot, is all.” He straightened, cornering Brosz’s eyes with his. “Can I go yet?”

Brosz lit a cigarette. He thought about letting Keppel smoke one. He had allowed it twice before. “It is difficult, all of it.” He took a long drag. “It is not your fault, Peta. Do you understand? Sometimes, things go wrong.”

“I know, I know,” Keppel said. “They said some guy will photograph me tomorrow morning.” He kicked his heels together. “Why do they want to waste that money on photographing me?”

“A Mr. Sarvis will photograph you, yes. His camera will help get you out of here,” Brosz said, disingenuous despite himself. “Depending on what the photograph is like.”

“Wow,” Keppel said.

“Yes,” Brosz said. He liked to see hope in Keppel.

“Does he do the camera?” Keppel asked.

“Yes,” Brosz said. Possibly an imbecile, he recalled.

“Does he fix up the photograph too?” Keppel asked.

“He will make yours,” Brosz said.

“Is he a Jew?” Keppel asked. He followed Brosz’s cigarette with his head. “Can I have one, doc?”

“How should I know if he’s a Jew?” Brosz said, ignoring Keppel’s request for a cigarette. He frowned at Keppel. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, you know,” Keppel said. He shrugged.

“I don’t know,” Brosz said.

“They are against us,” Keppel said. “And they lie.”

Then Brosz did not care that Peta Keppel, possibly an imbecile, certainly ignorant, grew up on a potato farm on the eastern border alongside ten older siblings. “What a wicked thing to say, Peta. I had thought better of you,” Brosz said. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile,” he added.

Keppel peered at Brosz. “Doc, are you a Jew?”

Brosz put his hand to his forehead. “You’ve put me in a difficult position. If I were to answer, then I would treat your question with far more respect than it warrants. If I were to decline, then you would think me a Jew and refuse to answer my other questions to the best of your ability. Correct?”

Keppel scratched his throat on his shoulder again. He gazed at his shoes. “I didn’t mean to play a trick.”

“I believe you, Peta,” Brosz said. He was sure it was a blind trap. He lit another cigarette.

“When did this guy get here?” Keppel asked.

“He arrived two days ago. He started yesterday. He will soon leave; he has trained some of us.”

“How will it help me get out of here?” Keppel asked.

“It’s complicated.” Brosz was not convinced that Keppel would understand. “They say the photograph is special. It is meant to show if you are truly good or not.”

Keppel asked, “And if I go to heaven?”

Brosz was surprised. “Maybe.”

“What do you think mine will show?”


“That’s forty so far. And only one of them with a halo,” Zenervic said. He opened his cigarette box, setting it between Brosz and Kropopin. He made a mountain out of his left cheek with his tongue. “Damnit, only one. Can you believe it?”

“Keppel?” Brosz asked. He helped himself to a cigarette.

“No,” Zenervic said.

“Mathas,” Kropopin said. “I am trying to stop,” he added, pushing the cigarette box towards Brosz. “Drinking also.”

Zenervic laughed. “And eating? Fucking?”

Brosz didn’t laugh. He wanted to quit smoking too. He lit a cigarette.

“Back to business,” Kropopin said, his hands forming a small surrender.

Brosz nodded. He remembered Mathas confessing in their first session: to setting a street aflame when he was ten years old, to drowning his parents’ dog, to murdering his best friend. He felt the twelve years since on his nose. Mathas was ready, Brosz was sure of it: another man. “I would have recommended we take steps toward discharging Mathas at next month’s review,” he said. He resisted any links with photos.

“Me too,” Kropopin said. “His conduct is exemplary. Spotless bed, boots. The lot. And from what I understand, it was a scuffle. With his friend, I mean. Wasn’t it?”

“Not exactly,” Brosz said. He had discovered a thorough historian in Mathas. He saw Mathas narrating an old plan to bait a friend with money, to stab the friend in the neck in an event practiced many times over in a mirror. He saw a man who had known the beast. “He—”

“Anyway,” Zenervic said. “Meszmus says the boy goes to confession each week. And reviewing his file, I would not have had strong objections to either of your recommendations.”

“But, Keppel,” Brosz said. He had thought about it all while Agnes slept. He had gone to their kitchen and taken a drink. “I would have bet on it.”

“I know,” Zenervic said. “Borond, Slibovic, Alberti, and Jenev, too.”

Brosz sighed.

“Indeed,” Kropopin said. He put his fingers on the cigarette box and then pulled them away. He got up, pushing the chair back, and walked to the window. “Sir,” he said, “you might want someone to take a look at this smudge.”

“They’ve none of them put a foot wrong since they arrived,” Zenervic said. “You’ve had good sessions with each one, Erno? Your professional judgement?” He joined his hands.

“Very productive,” Brosz said. “I believe they could be reintegrated one day.”

Zenervic put his head in his hands.

Kropopin tapped the window and stepped back from it. “But who’s to say, really? The reality is we can’t be sure.”

“Sorry?” Brosz asked.

“Come on, Brosz, even you and your damn couch,” Kropopin said. “Remember Radchak. Pavescu.”

Brosz lit another cigarette. Each man had killed within days of his release. “And the rest.” He laughed, smoke vaulting high. “Only an idiot would seek a perfect system.”

“Are you calling me an idiot?” Kropopin asked.

“No, no,” Brosz said.

“I strive for perfection. And you should too, Brosz,” Kropopin said, folding his arms. “In everything you do.”

“Don’t get holy with me, Kropopin!” Brosz said.

Kropopin wiped his brow with his hand and scoured the windowpane. “Maybe we should just keep them all under lock and key.”

Brosz laughed this time, throwing his hands up. “My God, that really is moronic. These are lives, too.”

“You don’t have children, Brosz,” Kropopin said, striding to the door handle and then turning to retrieve his hat. “With respect, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Brosz closed the door after Kropopin left.

Zenervic rapped his desk. “Erno,” he said.

“What?” Brosz said. He realised he had only a bald cigarette butt in his fingers.

“From a purely administrative, statistical point of view,” Zenervic said. “Erno, listen to me.” He stopped and rubbed his face. He put a cigarette in his mouth. “God damnit, Erno. The government has sent more research through. These papers.” He indicated a pile on his desk. “The evidence is robust. More, each day. See for yourself. Please. The victims. The time we’d save. The money! What if haloless men really are beyond redemption? Imagine the possibilities. You could help those inmates who really needed it, devote more time to them, set them free sooner.” Zenervic closed his cigarette box.

“Permanent solitary confinement, based on a damn photograph? It’s preposterous,” Brosz said.

“And us making such decisions isn’t?” Zenervic asked, cigarette unlit and rolling. “We’re just men, Erno. You know, they’ve kept track of the work we’ve done here too. Compare all the numbers.” He rested his hands on his desk, palms facing the ceiling. “Please.”


Brosz added another candle to the congregation. He knelt on the ground and made a cross. He put his hand on a nearby railing, pulling himself up. He saw a small head in a pew at the top of the nave. Its hair was much darker than his.

“Father,” Brosz said as he sat next to Tapeki. It was the closest he had ever been to Tapeki. He saw hooks on the priest’s collar. He had heard the other man was only twenty-five; the old priest had been ten years Brosz’s senior. “I have some questions,” Brosz said, nervous, aware they were theological ones: his faith lived in his chest.

“What can I do for you?” Tapeki said. He was fixed on the altar.

“Have you heard of thaumatic cameras?” Brosz asked.

“I have,” Tapeki said. He placed his hands on the pew in front. “Rather too Swiss for my tastes, if I’m honest.”

“We’ve been asked to use them,” Brosz said. “Told, really.” He wiped his palms on his trousers.

“You work in the institute, yes?” Tapeki said. “Youths and such, isn’t it?”

“There is a youth section, yes,” Brosz said. “My job, well. I’m supposed to decide if an inmate, and all our inmates have been convicted of serious crimes, horrible acts, may ever be released into society.” He began taking out his cigarette box. He stopped, letting the box tumble back into his jacket pocket. “I’ve been wrong before, Father.” He inhaled.

“We’ve all been wrong before,” Tapeki said. He laughed. “God, wasn’t that a priestly thing to say?”

“Yes, it was,” Brosz said.

“What happens to the irredeemable ones?”

“These men, Father. They might have been hanged,” Brosz said. “You must understand, it is compli—”

“You will not shock me,” Tapeki said.

“They are transferred to one of several high security institutions. There, they are placed in complete solitary confinement, for the protection of other inmates.”

“I’m sure,” Tapeki said. He looked at Brosz and smiled.

“It is permanent,” Brosz said. He looked away.

“I see,” Tapeki said. “Eternal separation.” He grinned.

“They say these thaumatic cameras can tell us if someone may be rehabilitated,” Brosz said. “There is research.”

“Is there now?” Tapeki sighed, drumming one hand on his knees. “They say many things about those cameras, don’t they?” He stretched his arms. “Every year there is some new miracle pump. The idea that some have been chosen for salvation, well, that is fairly Biblical, which is to say about as much as most things the Church teaches. But the idea that we could know for certain who has been chosen for salvation by the Lord, that is something else.” Tapeki paused. “Allow me to be priestly again. Isaiah says, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.

Brosz leant forward. “And what does the man say?”

“I don’t know. When I was younger, I was sure God had put each of us in place.” Tapeki paused. “Not like chess pieces, mind. Nothing so crude or vicious as that. Suppose you are coming to dinner, and I know you prefer beef to pork—”

“No parlour games, please,” Brosz said.

“Hear me out,” Tapeki said, chuckling. “I could serve you two plates, knowing you’d freely choose beef. It’s a bit like that, I used to believe. God put you here, knowing you’d choose salvation.”

“But what if you only served pork?” Brosz asked, disoriented by the comparison between God and a dinner party host.

“Indeed,” Tapeki said. “Or you didn’t like beef, could never like it, even. Were born to hate it.” He rested against the pew. “It’s a funny one, isn’t it? Anyway, I like Isaiah better. We must trust that whatever is, this big puzzle, is all for the good in the end,” Tapeki said. He bowed his head. “It isn’t very satisfactory, I know. None of it is.”

“But what about the cameras, Father?” Brosz asked.

“How is your faith, Mr. Dr.?” Tapeki asked.

“Look, I’ve seen my fair share of miracles.” Brosz recalled his first, him a youth gawping at the sudden replacement of absent legs in the hospital bed opposite. There were atheists, Brosz knew, but he thought them lunatics.

“Well, it is very easy to believe God exists,” Tapeki said, his voice newly angular. “But do you think He is fair?”

Brosz moved along the pew to the aisle.

“Pray with me,” Tapeki said. “Please.”

“No,” Brosz said. “My wife is waiting.”


“I did it,” Keppel said. He smiled, and then he shook the smile away from his face. “I’m sorry. I lied to you.”

“Excuse me?” Brosz asked. He’d been doodling while Keppel sat, both of them silent: cones and boxes and Sarvis.

“I killed him,” Keppel said. He moved in his chair.

“Has someone told you to say this, Peta?” Brosz asked, confident they had. “Is this because of the photograph? I saw your photo, and I must tell you that I am not yet persuaded—”

“No, and no,” Keppel said. He closed his eyes.

“But they didn’t have any evidence,” Brosz said. “Not really.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Keppel said, voice smooth. “I did it. I also cut him open, from the neck, you know, like a pig. His cone, it was all black. I cooked it later. I still don’t know how you all caught me. I don’t live in that village. I had never been there before, either. I was just doing pilgrimage. I did a woman too. You all don’t know that.”

“That is very inventive, Peta,” Brosz said. He consulted his notepad. Peta still struggles to recall his childhood, unclear if trauma or inability to retain the information, he read. Peta seems out of time, effectively: cannot think backwards or forwards. N.B. This state may be good for Peta. Brosz went back further. Subject Keppel extremely diffident. “They didn’t catch you, Peta,” Brosz said. “Not exactly. One person in that village described you, and poorly. Your advocate should have worked harder. Who told you to confess?”

“Nobody,” Keppel said. “Nobody. I did it.”

Brosz raised his eyebrows. He fumbled with his cigarette box. He picked two cigarettes, offering one to Keppel. “Calm, Peta. I need you to explain to me. I don’t understand.”

“Doc, I did it. There is nothing else to say.” Keppel took the cigarette from Brosz, like water from a pump, and bit its end. He moved the cigarette to the centre of his lips. “I’ve killed three people in all. I’m sorry. I’ve been pretending to you. I’m sorry for that, too.”

Brosz lit both their cigarettes. “Peta, this is nonsense. You don’t even like it when someone kills a fly.” He realised he believed Keppel was telling the truth. It was strange, like rolling through a familiar landscape only to see the trees were stone towers. It was not like cartwheeling, he thought. He thought about the photo, the idle eyes and the naked head.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Keppel said. “I just did it, is all. It was like I was riding myself, like I was my coach.”

Brosz asked, “What happened?”

“I said,” Keppel said. He showed his teeth this time.

“Fine, fine,” Brosz said. He decided to move things along. “The important thing is, where do we go from here?”


“I didn’t approve this,” Brosz said. He watched Carteski and Keppel ascend a large truck, two guards behind them. The inmates were tied together with chains, along with others too dark to see. “They just need more time. There have been some promising developments.” Brosz paced, running a hand through his hair and pulling at his moustache. He neared the truck and pinched one of the guard’s sleeves, holding onto the cloth.

The guard put his hand on Brosz’s chest.

“Erno,” Zenervic said, “Let it go.” He walked up to Brosz, a cigarette outstretched. “There’s nothing you can do. Let’s go and talk about something else, anything else.”

“No,” Brosz said. He turned to the guard who had touched him. “Give me your keys.”

“What?” the guard said. He smirked at his colleague.

“Give me your damn keys,” Brosz said, pushing the guard. “Now.” He pressed his hands against the guard’s chest.

“Erno,” Zenervic said, interceding between the two men. “Are you fucking crazy? Stop it.”

“It’s not fair. They needed more time. Would you call a race before the horses ran?” Brosz paused, awaiting any changes in mood or intention in Zenervic. “A favour, Siggy. My first and only,” he said, exhausted. He stepped back.

“Damn you, Erno,” Zenervic said. He turned to the guard with the keys, smiling, near making to pat the other man on the back. “Listen, son, just give him the keys.”

The guard looked at Zenervic.

“That’s an order, Private,” Zenervic said.

The guard unslung his rifle. “Please, understand, Inspector. And whoever you are, sir,” he said to Brosz. “I am under orders from Chief Inspector Kovak and, naturally, on the authority of his imperial majesty, Ferd—”

“Jesus Christ,” Zenervic said. He pushed the guard’s rifle barrel to one side and reached for the keys. The guard didn’t stop him.

Zenervic gave the keys to Brosz, and Brosz opened the back of the truck. Brosz started on Keppel’s ankle shackles. He missed the keyhole the first time. He tried a second time, but he dropped the keys. He was shaking.

Zenervic helped Keppel down. “This is ridiculous,” he said. He checked the buckle on his pistol holster.

Keppel looked at Brosz and Zenervic. He walked back towards the institute. Then he started running.

“Maybe,” Brosz said. He started on Carteski’s shackles. He had stopped shaking. He could feel the water on his face.

“Always knew you were queer,” Carteski said. “You couldn’t bear the thought of me leaving. Is it love?”

“Shut up.” Brosz shoved Carteski to one side. “The others, quick now.”

“All of them?” Zenervic said. “Erno, I’m sorry. But I don’t even know who’s in there.” He stepped back, removing his cap and batting it against his leg. “Could be anyone.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Brosz said. He wiped his face; he felt like he was full of coffee.

“Turn off the engine,” Zenervic shouted.


“It has been some time, hasn’t it? You look well, Mr. Dr. Brosz,” Sarvis said. He played with the thaumatic camera’s lens. He put a hand on one side of his shirt and then moved it away. He nodded at the guard, who left the room.

“Thank you,” Brosz said. He shifted his legs. His wrists and palms pressed against each other. He disliked the heat too, the dark red walls: the impression of a vast being’s mouth. “How is Sigmund Zenervic?” Brosz had prayed for Zenervic. He had not seen him since their arrest.

“Inspector Zenervic is fine, and has even retained his rank. We had his photograph. There was also some clemency, as in your case,” Sarvis said. “His imperial majesty can be sentimental.” He smiled. “But yourself, Mr. Dr. Brosz. I am afraid we do not have a photograph.”

“No, you do not,” Brosz said. The guards had offered to take his picture several times, and after that it was compulsory.

“It is the fashion to smile these days,” Sarvis said.

“It is quite strange,” Brosz said. He thought about Agnes. “Could you send it to my wife?”

“I’m sorry?” Sarvis said.

“She wants a photograph of me,” Brosz said. “She has another, but it’s years old. More than ten.”

Sarvis was solemn. “Are you sure?” he asked. “You will not be able to see her for a long time, I imagine. You will not be able to explain to her, if—”

“Quite sure,” Brosz said. He filled his lungs; he tried to conceal his handcuffs.

Sarvis took the photograph.

Brosz heard Sarvis brush the metal sheet.

Sarvis pressed the sheet into Brosz’s hands. “There.”

Brosz felt the photograph. He blinked, looking at Sarvis’ face. “Quicker now,” he said. “Purple gone already.” He covered the picture, thrusting it at Sarvis. “No need.”

John Nadas is a European writer based in Victoria, Australia. He is interested in Australian and European settings, as well as universal themes. Conversations about God, fairness, and fate inspired “What Comes Before.” How can we reconcile choice with grace? He is pleased to appear in Mysterion. You can find him at johnnadaswrites.com or @JohnNadas.

“What Comes Before” by John Nadas. Copyright © 2020 by John Nadas.

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