Thursday, June 10, 2010
She felt like she was tipping over backward. As soon as she opened her eyes, everything started spinning around. And she felt sick. No, not sick; she felt ghastly. She could smell the vomit. Alina groaned and tried to raise her head. Where was she? What had happened, and where was everybody else?
They had all been sitting together under the tree, Mart beside her, with his arm around her shoulders. It felt good. She laughed, and he kissed her. Katharina and Mia kept on complaining about the mosquitoes, and they’d been drinking this sweet stuff—vodka and Red Bull.
Alina sat up with an effort. Her head was pounding. She opened her eyes and was shocked to see the sun was about to set. How late was it anyway? And where was her cell phone? She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here, or where exactly she was. The past few hours were a blank, a total blackout.
“Mart? Mia? Where are you?”
She crawled over to the trunk of the huge weeping willow. It took all her strength to get to her feet and look around. Her knees felt as soft as butter, everything was spinning around her, and she couldn’t see clearly. She’d probably lost her contact lenses when she was throwing up. And she’d certainly done a lot of that. The taste in her mouth was disgusting, and she could feel vomit on her face. The dry leaves crackled under her bare feet. She looked down. Her shoes were gone, too.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered, fighting to hold back the tears. She was going to be in big trouble if she showed up at home looking like this.
From a distance, she could hear voices and laughter drifting toward her, along with the aroma of grilled meat, which made her feel even more nauseated. At least she hadn’t landed somewhere out in the boonies; there were other people close by.
Alina let go of the tree trunk and took a couple of tentative steps. Everything around her was spinning round like a carousel, but she forced herself to keep walking. What a bunch of assholes they all were. Some friends! They’d just let her lie here drunk, with no shoes and no phone. Maybe fat Katharina and that stupid cow Mia were having a good laugh at her expense. She was really going to let them have it when she saw them tomorrow at school. And she would never speak to Mart again in her life.
At that moment, Alina happened to look at the steep bank leading down to the river and stopped short. There was somebody lying down there, in the stinging nettles, right next to the water. Dark hair, a yellow T-shirt—it was Alex. Damn, how had he gotten down there? What had happened? Cursing, Alina made her way down the bank. The nettles stung her bare calves, and she stepped on something sharp.
“Alex!” She squatted down next to him and shook his shoulder. He stank of vomit, too, and was groaning softly. “Hey, wake up!”
She waved away the mosquitoes that kept buzzing around her face.
“Alex! Wake up! Come on!” She tugged on his legs, but he was as heavy as lead and didn’t budge.
On the river, a motorboat passed by. The wake sloshed up on shore, making the water gurgle in the reeds and lap against Alex’s legs. Alina gasped in terror. Right in front of her eyes, a pale hand emerged from the water and seemed to reach out for her.
She recoiled and uttered a frightened cry. Among the reeds—not six feet away from Alex—Mia was lying in the water. Alina thought she could see her face just below the surface. In the diffuse half-light of dusk, she could see long blond hair and wide-open, dead eyes that seemed to be looking straight at her.
As if paralyzed, Alina stared at the gruesome sight, her mind reeling in confusion. What the hell had happened here? Another wave rolled in, Mia’s body moved, and her arm stuck out of the dark water as pale as a ghost, as if she were begging for help.
Alina was shaking all over, even though it was still intolerably hot. Her stomach rebelled, and she staggered, turning around to throw up in the nettles. But instead of vodka and Red Bull, only bitter gall came up. Sobbing desperately, she crawled up the steep bank on all fours, scratching her hands and knees on the stubbled slope. Oh, if only she were home in her room, in bed, safe and sound! All she wanted was to get away from this horrible place and forget everything she’d seen.
* * *
Pia Kirchhoff was typing into her PC the final report on the investigation into the death of Veronika Meissner. Since early morning, the sun had been baking the flat roof of the building where the offices of Kommissariat 11 of the Criminal Police were located, and the readout on the digital weather station sitting on the windowsill next to Kai Ostermann’s desk showed it was eighty-eight degrees. Room temperature. Outside, it was probably a good five degrees hotter. Schools had canceled lessons because of the heat. Although the doors and windows were open wide, there was no hint of a breeze to bring any relief. Pia’s forearm stuck to the desktop as soon as she leaned on it. She sighed and pressed PRINT, then added the report to the slim folder. All that was missing was the autopsy report, but where had she put it? Pia got up and searched through her out-box, eager to be done with this case at last. Since yesterday, she’d been holding down the fort alone at K-11. Her colleague Kai Ostermann, with whom she shared the office, was attending a course at the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden. Kathrin Fachinger and Cem Altunay were taking part in a nationwide seminar in Düsseldorf, and the boss had been on vacation since Monday at an undisclosed location. Commissioner Nicola Engel had granted Pia some time off when she was promoted to detective superintendent, but that, too, had fallen by the wayside because the department was so short-staffed. Pia didn’t really mind. She hated for anyone to make a fuss over her; the change in her rank was no more than an administrative formality.
“So where’s that damn report?” she muttered in annoyance. It was almost five already, and she was planning to go to her class reunion in Königstein at seven. The construction work they were doing on her farmhouse, the Birkenhof, often left her no time for any social life, but she was looking forward to seeing the girls from her old school after twenty-five years.
A knock at her open door made her spin around.
Pia couldn’t believe her eyes. It was her former colleague Frank Behnke, but he was totally transformed. He had changed his usual look—jeans, T-shirt, and worn cowboy boots—for a light gray suit with shirt and tie. He wore his hair a little longer than before, and his face no longer looked as haggard, which was an improvement.
“Hello, Frank,” she replied, amazed. “Long time no see.”
“But you did recognize me,” he said with a grin, shoving his hands into his pants pockets and giving her the once-over. “You’re looking good. I heard you stumbled up another rung of the career ladder. I suppose you’ll be taking over from the old man soon, eh?”
As always, Frank Behnke lost no time pushing her buttons, and he did it effortlessly. Her polite query as to how things were going for him stuck in her throat.
“I didn’t ‘stumble up’ the career ladder, no way. My rank was changed, that’s all,” she responded coolly. “And to whom are you referring as ‘the old man’? You mean Bodenstein?”
Behnke just shrugged it off with a grin and kept on chewing his gum. That was one thing he hadn’t managed to give up.
After his inglorious departure from K-11 two years earlier, he’d lodged a complaint about his suspension and been lucky enough to be reinstated. At any rate, he’d been transferred to the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden, and nobody at the Regional Criminal Unit in Hofheim had been sorry to see him go.
He slipped past her and sat down in Ostermann’s chair.
“Everybody flew the coop, I see.”
Pia muttered to herself as she kept on looking for that autopsy report.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” she then asked.
Behnke clasped his hands behind his head.
“Well, what a shame that you’re the only one here I can share my happy news with,” he said. “But the others will find out soon enough.”
“What is it?” Pia gave him a suspicious look.
“I got fed up with working the streets. I’ve done that shit long enough,” he replied without taking his eyes off her. “The Special Assignment Unit, K-11, all that’s behind me now. I always got the best evaluations, so they forgave me my minor indiscretion.”
Minor indiscretion! Behnke had punched their colleague Kathrin Fachinger in a fit of uncontrolled rage and committed enough other transgressions to warrant a suspension.
“I was having personal problems back then,” he went on. “That was taken into account. At the State Police office, I passed a couple of additional qualifications, and now I’m at K-134, the Office of Internal Affairs, responsible for investigating and bringing charges against police personnel and preventing corruption.”
Pia couldn’t believe her ears. Frank Behnke as an Internal Affairs investigator? That was utterly absurd.
“Along with my colleagues from the other federal states, in the past few months we’ve developed a strategic concept that will go into effect on July first nationwide. Improvement of services and professional oversight within subordinate departments, sensitivity training for personnel, and so on.…” He crossed one leg over the other and jiggled his foot. “Dr. Engel is a competent manager, but occasionally we get reports from the individual investigative offices about transgressions committed by colleagues. I can vividly recall certain incidents in this very office that were quite disturbing: failure to administer punishments in the office, not following up on misdemeanors, unauthorized IT queries, passing internal documents to third parties … just to mention a few examples.”
Pia abruptly stopped searching for the autopsy report.
“What are you getting at?”
Behnke’s smile turned malicious, and his eyes took on an unpleasant glint. Pia had a bad feeling about all this. As always, he was enjoying demonstrating his superiority and power with regard to his opponent, a character trait of his that she despised. As a colleague, with his envy and perpetually rotten temper, Behnke had been a veritable torment, but as a representative of internal investigations, he could be a disaster.
“You, of all people, should know best.” He stood up and came around the desk to stand close to her. “But you’re the obvious favorite of the old man.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pia replied icily.
“Oh, don’t you? Really?” Behnke moved so close that it made her uncomfortable, but she resisted the urge to step back. “Starting Monday, I’m going to start an authorized internal investigation in this building, and I probably won’t have to dig very deep to bring a few corpses to light.”
Pia was shivering despite the tropical heat in the office, but she remained outwardly calm, even though she was boiling inside; she even managed to smile. Frank Behnke was an unforgiving and petty person who forgot nothing. Old frustrations were still eating at him and seemed to have multiplied tenfold in recent years. And he was contemplating revenge for the injustice and humiliation he imagined he’d suffered. It wouldn’t be smart to make an enemy of him, but Pia’s anger was stronger than her good sense.
“Well then,” she said sarcastically, resuming her search. “I wish you much success in your new job as … a cadaver dog.”
Behnke turned to go.
“Your name isn’t on my list yet. But that could change at any time. Have a nice weekend.”
Pia didn’t react to the unambiguous threat his words implied. She waited until he was gone, then grabbed her cell and punched the hot key for Bodenstein. The call went through, but nobody picked up. Damn. She was sure that her boss hadn’t the slightest idea what a nasty surprise was waiting for him here. She knew pretty much what Behnke was insinuating. And it could have very unpleasant consequences for Oliver von Bodenstein.
* * *
The deposit on three returnable bottles was enough for a pack of noodles. Five more would buy veggies to go with it. That was the currency he dealt in these days.
Before, in his former life, he hadn’t paid any attention to collecting the deposit, but had blithely tossed empty bottles into trash cans. That was exactly the sort of person who ensured his basic needs today. He’d received twelve and a half euros from the kiosk owner for the two bags of empty bottles. He got paid six euros an hour under the table by the greedy cheapskate for standing all day in this tin box at the edge of an industrial zone in Fechenheim, grilling hot dogs and burgers and deep-frying potatoes. If the cash register didn’t add up perfectly, the amount was docked from his pay. Today, everything had come out even, and he hadn’t had to beg for his money like he usually did. Fatso was in a good mood and had paid him what he was owed for the past five days.
Combined with the money from collecting bottles, he had about three hundred euros in his wallet: a small fortune. That was why, feeling suddenly flush, he’d splurged not only on a haircut but also a shave from the Turkish barber across from the train station. After a visit to Aldi, he had enough left to pay the rent on his trailer space for two months in advance.
He parked his rickety motor scooter next to the trailer, pulled the helmet off his head, and took the shopping bag out of the carrier.
The heat was driving him crazy. It didn’t even cool off at night. In the morning, he would wake up soaked with sweat. In the miserable lunch stand of thin corrugated iron, it could get up to 140 degrees, and the stifling humidity made the stench of sweat and rancid fat settle in his hair and pores.
The dilapidated trailer in the RV park in Schwanheim was supposed to have been a temporary solution, back when he still believed he could make a go of it and restore his financial situation. But nothing in his life had turned out to be as long-lasting as this temporary arrangement—he’d already been living here for seven years.
He unzipped the awning, which must have been dark green decades ago, before the weather had faded it to a nondescript pale gray. A puff of hot air gusted toward him. Inside the trailer, it was several degrees hotter than outside, with a stifling and stuffy smell. No matter how much he scrubbed and aired out the place, the odors had settled into the upholstery and every nook and cranny. Even after seven years, it still filled him with disgust, but for him there was no other option.
Ever since his plunge into the abyss, and as a convicted criminal, he belonged to the underclass, even among the residents of the slum on the outskirts of the metropolis. Nobody wandered in here on vacation or to admire the glitzy skyline of Frankfurt, the concrete and glass symbols of big money across the river. His neighbors were mostly blamelessly impoverished retirees or failures like himself who had landed on the down escalator. Alcohol often played a leading role in the story of their lives, which were depressingly similar. As for himself, he drank no more than one beer in the evening, he didn’t smoke, and he paid attention to his weight and grooming. He didn’t bother with the Hartz IV law of 2005, which combined unemployment insurance with social welfare, because he couldn’t stand the thought of having to show up as a supplicant and kowtow to the bigoted whims of indifferent bureaucrats.
A tiny scrap of self-esteem was the last thing he possessed. If he lost that, he might as well kill himself.
A voice outside the awning made him turn around. A man was standing behind the half-desiccated hedge that divided the property of his tiny plot from the neighbor’s.
“What do you want?”
The man came closer, hesitated. His piggy little eyes flicked angrily from left to right.
“Somebody told me you would help anyone who was having trouble with the authorities.” The high-pitched falsetto was a grotesque contrast to the massive figure of the man. Sweat was beading on his balding head, and the smell of garlic overpowered the even less pleasant body odors.
“Oh, really? Who says that?”
“Rosi, from the kiosk. She told me, ‘Go see Doc. He’ll help you.’” The sweating hunk of lard glanced around again, as if he was afraid to be seen there. Then he took a roll of bills out of his pocket. Hundreds, even a couple of five hundreds. “I’ll pay you well.”
“Come on in.”
Right off, the guy seemed kind of disagreeable, but that didn’t matter. He couldn’t be picky about his clientele, his address was not in any phone book, and he certainly didn’t have a Web site. Still, there were limits to what he’d do, no matter how much money was offered, and people knew that. With his previous conviction and the probation that was still in force, he couldn’t get involved in anything that might send him back to the slammer. But word on the street was that he’d already helped tavern owners and operators of lunch stands who had come into conflict with official regulations, desperate pensioners who’d been bilked on promotional shopping trips or by door-to-door salesmen, unemployed people or immigrants who couldn’t understand the complex bureaucracy in Germany, and young people who were seduced early by the temptations of a life on credit and had fallen into the debt trap. Anyone who asked for help knew that he worked only for cash.
He had long since gotten over any feelings of sympathy. He was no Robin Hood; he was a mercenary. For cash in advance, he would fill out official forms on the scratched-up Formica table in his trailer, translate complicated bureaucratic German into understandable everyday language, and offer legal advice for any situation in order to augment his income.
“What’s the problem?” he asked his visitor, who cast an appraising glance at the obvious indicators of poverty and seemed to gain confidence.
“Man, it’s sure hot in here. Have you got a beer or a glass of water?”
“No.” He made no effort to be friendly.
Long gone were the days of mahogany-veneer conference tables in air-conditioned rooms, trays holding little bottles of water and fruit juice, and glasses arrayed upside down.
With a snort, the fat man pulled out some rolled-up papers from the inside pocket of his greasy leather vest and handed them over. Recycled paper, small print. The tax office.
He unfolded the papers, which were damp with sweat, smoothed them out, and scanned the text.
“Three hundred,” he demanded without looking up. Rolls of cash stuffed in pants pockets always signified illegal earnings. The sweaty fat man could afford to pay a bit more than the usual rate he charged seniors and the unemployed.
“What?” the new client protested, as anticipated. “For a few pages?”
“If you can find someone to do it cheaper, be my guest.”
The fat man muttered something unintelligible, then reluctantly peeled off three banknotes and laid them on the table.
“Do I at least get a receipt?”
“Sure. My secretary will make it out later and give it to your chauffeur,” he replied. “Now have a seat. I’ll need some information from you.”
* * *
Traffic was backed up at Baseler Platz leading to the Friedensbrücke. For a couple of weeks now, the city had been one big construction zone, and Hanna was annoyed that she’d forgotten all about that and driven into downtown instead of taking the route via the Frankfurter Kreuz and Niederrad to Sachsenhausen. As she drove along at a snail’s pace behind a bunch of rusty pickup trucks with Lithuanian license plates crossing the bridge over the Main River, Hanna replayed the unsatisfying conversation with Norman that morning. She was still pissed off about his stupidity and his lies. It had been hard for her to fire him with no notice after eleven years, but he’d left her no choice. Before he stomped off in a huff, he’d fired off a series of nasty curses and issued several vile threats.
Hanna’s smartphone hummed, and she grabbed it and opened her mail app. Her assistant had sent her an e-mail. The header said “Catastrophe!!!” Instead of a message, there was a link to FOCUS online. Hanna clicked the link with her thumb, and her stomach lurched when she read the headline.
Hanna Heartless, it said in bold letters, and beside it was a rather unflattering photo of her. Her pulse began to race and she felt her right hand trembling uncontrollably. She gripped her phone harder. All she cares about is profit. The guests on her TV show have to sign a nondisclosure agreement before they’re allowed to speak. And whatever they say is scripted in advance by Hanna Herzmann, 46. Bricklayer Armin V., 52, wanted to speak during the show about his hassle with his landlord (the topic was “My Landlord Wants to Evict Me”), but with the cameras rolling, he was labeled a transient renter by the moderator. When he protested after the broadcast, he discovered another side of the supposedly sympathetic Hanna Herzmann, and of her lawyer. Now Armin V. is unemployed and homeless after his landlord finally succeeded in evicting him. Something similar happened to Bettina B., 34. The single mother was a guest on Hanna Herzmann’s program in January (topic: “When Fathers Hit the Road”). Contrary to preliminary arrangements, Bettina B. was portrayed as an overtaxed mother and alcoholic. For her, too, the broadcast had unpleasant consequences: She received a visit from Child Welfare.
“Shit,” Hanna muttered. Once something was on the Internet, it was impossible to delete. She bit her lip and thought hard.
Unfortunately, the article was close to the truth. Hanna had a real knack for finding interesting topics, and she wasn’t afraid to ask embarrassing questions and stir up dirt. In doing so, she basically couldn’t care less about the people and their often tragic fates. She secretly had nothing but contempt for most of them and their urge to bare all in return for fifteen minutes of fame. Hanna managed to coax the most intimate secrets out of people in front of the camera, and she was a master at pretending to be sympathetic and interested.
Besides, the true story was often insufficient, so a little dramatization was necessary. And that had been Norman’s job. He had cynically called the show Pimp My Boring Life and was happy to distort reality, regardless of how painful it might prove to be. Whether that was morally acceptable or not wasn’t Hanna’s concern; in the end, the show’s success in the ratings validated his tactics. Of course, the letters of complaint from disgruntled guests filled several file folders. They often didn’t understand until later, when they were subjected to public mockery, what sort of embarrassing things they’d said in front of a television audience. As a matter of fact, complaints arose only seldom, and that was due to the polished, absolutely airtight legal contracts that each person who wanted to speak on her broadcast had to sign in advance.
A car honked behind her, startling Hanna out of her reverie. The traffic was moving again. She raised her hand in apology and stepped on the gas. Ten minutes later, she turned down Hedderichstrasse and then into the back courtyard of the building where her company was located. She put her smartphone in her shoulder bag and stepped out of the car. In the city, it was always several degrees warmer than out in the Taunus region; the heat built up between the buildings until it felt like a sauna. Hanna fled into the air-conditioned foyer and stepped into an elevator. On the way to the sixth floor, she leaned against the cool wall and took a critical look at herself in the mirrored surface.
In the first weeks after her breakup with Vinzenz, she had looked terribly harried and exhausted, and the girls in Makeup had had to muster all their professional skill to make her look the way the television viewers expected. But now Hanna found her appearance quite passable, at least in the dim light of the elevator. She’d colored her hair to cover the first silver strands, not out of vanity, but from a sheer instinct for self-preservation. The TV business was unforgiving: men could have gray hair, but for women, that would mean eventual banishment to the afternoon cultural and cooking shows.
Hanna had hardly stepped out of the elevator on the sixth floor when Jan Niemöller appeared out of nowhere. In spite of the tropical weather outdoors, the manager of Herzmann Productions was wearing a black shirt, black jeans, and even a scarf around his neck.
“All hell has broken loose!” Niemöller trotted along beside her excitedly, waving his skinny arms. “The phones are ringing off the hook, and nobody can reach you. And how come I have to hear from Norman that you fired him with no notice? Why didn’t you tell me? First you give Julia the boot, now Norman—who do you think is going to do the work?”
“Meike is going to fill in for Julia during the summer; that’s already been set up. And we’re going to be working with an independent producer.”
“And you don’t even ask me about it?”
Hanna looked Niemöller up and down.
“Hiring and firing is my job. I took you on to deal with the business stuff so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
“Oh, so that’s how you see it?” He was insulted, of course.
Hanna knew that Jan Niemöller was secretly in love with her, or, rather, with all the glory surrounding her, which also spilled over onto him as her associate. But she viewed him solely as a business partner—as a man, he was not her type. Besides, he’d been acting so possessive lately that she needed to put him in his place.
“That’s not just the way I see it; that’s the way it is,” she said with a tad more coolness. “I appreciate your opinion, but I’m the one making the decisions.”
Niemöller opened his mouth to protest, but Hanna cut him off with a wave of her hand.
“The network hates this sort of publicity. We’re no longer in a very strong position. With the shitty ratings in recent months, I had no choice but to kick Norman out. If they take us off the air, all of you can go scrambling for another job. Do you get it?”
Irina Zydek, Hanna’s assistant, appeared in the hallway.
“Hanna, Matern has called you three times. And almost every newspaper and TV news desk, except for Al Jazeera.” Her voice had an anxious undertone.
The rest of the staff appeared in the doorways of their offices, and their concern was palpable. The news had obviously gotten around that she’d fired Norman without notice.
“We’re meeting in half an hour in the conference room,” Hanna said as she walked by. First, she had to call Wolfgang Matern back. She couldn’t afford any trouble with the network at the moment.
She stepped into her office at the end of the corridor; it was flooded with light. She dropped her shoulder bag on one of the visitors’ chairs and sat down behind her desk. As her computer booted up, she leafed quickly through the callback messages that Irina had written on yellow Post-its, then picked up the phone. She never liked to put off unpleasant tasks for long. She hit the speed-dial number for Wolfgang Matern and took a deep breath. He picked up in a matter of seconds.
“It’s Hanna Heartless,” she said.
“Good to hear you’ve still got a sense of humor,” the CEO of Antenne Pro replied.
“I’ve just fired my producer without notice because I learned that for years he’s been doctoring the bios of my guests if he found the truth too boring.”
“You mean you didn’t know that?”
“No!” She put all the indignation she could into this lie. “I’m stunned. I couldn’t check out every story, so I had to depend on him. That is—or was—his job.”
“Please tell me that it won’t turn into a bloodbath,” said Matern.
“Of course not.” Hanna leaned back in her chair. “I already have an idea for how we can turn this thing around.”
“What is it?”
“We’ll admit everything and apologize to the guests.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Retreat disguised as an advance,” Wolfgang Matern said at last. “That’s precisely why I admire you. You don’t run and hide. Let’s talk about it tomorrow over lunch, okay?”
Hanna could almost hear his smile, and a weight lifted off her heart. Sometimes her spontaneous ideas were the best.
* * *
The Airbus had not yet come to a stop when people started undoing their safety belts and getting up, ignoring the instructions to remain seated until the plane reached the gate. Bodenstein stayed in his seat. He had no desire to stand in the jammed aisle and get jostled by the other passengers. A glance at his watch assured him that he had plenty of time. The plane had landed precisely at 8:42 P.M. after a forty-five-minute flight.
Ever since this afternoon, he’d had the feeling that he was finally putting his life in order after two turbulent, chaotic years. He’d made the right decision to attend the trial of Annika Sommerfeld in Potsdam and draw a line of finality under the whole matter. He felt that a load had been lifted off his shoulders. He’d been carrying it around since last summer—no, actually from that day in November two years ago when he’d been forced to acknowledge that Cosima was cheating on him. The breakup of his marriage and the fling with Annika had thrown him for a complete loop emotionally and caused serious damage to his self-esteem. In the end, his private misery had affected his ability to concentrate on his work and led him to make mistakes that he never would have made before. Although in the past few weeks and months, he had also recognized that his marriage to Cosima had not been nearly as perfect as he’d convinced himself it was during their twenty-year relationship. Far too often he’d backed down and acted against his will for the sake of harmony, the children, and outward appearances. Now that was all in the past.
The queue in the aisle finally began to move. Bodenstein stood up, retrieved his bag from the overhead compartment, and followed his fellow passengers toward the exit.
From Gate A49, it was a real hike to the terminal exit. At one point, he followed the wrong sign, as he often did in this gigantic airport, and ended up in the departure hall. He took the escalator down to the arrivals level and stepped outside into the warm evening air. A few minutes before nine. Inka was supposed to pick him up at nine. Bodenstein crossed the taxi lane and stood in the short-term parking area. He spotted her black Land Rover in the distance and smiled in spite of himself. Whenever Cosima had promised to pick him up somewhere, she would always show up at least fifteen minutes late, making him very annoyed. Things were different with Inka.
The SUV pulled up next to him and he opened the back door, heaved his roller bag onto the seat, and then climbed in the front.
“Hi.” She was smiling. “Have a good flight?”
“Hello.” Bodenstein was smiling, too, as he fastened his seat belt. “Yes, wonderful. Thanks for picking me up.”
“No problem. Anytime.”
She put on the left-turn blinker, glanced over her shoulder, and merged back into the line of slow-moving cars.
Bodenstein hadn’t told anyone why he’d gone to Potsdam, not even Inka, although in recent months she’d become a good friend. He leaned back against the headrest. The episode with Annika Sommerfeld had undoubtedly had one positive result. He had finally begun to think about himself, which had proved to be a painful process of self-realization. He had come to understand that very seldom had he done what he really wanted to do. He’d always yielded to Cosima’s wishes and demands, because of his basic good nature, because it was easier, or maybe because he felt a sense of responsibility, but none of that mattered. The end result was that he’d turned into a boring yes-man, a henpecked husband, and with that he’d lost all his sex appeal. No wonder that Cosima, who hated routine and boredom more than anything, had fallen into an affair.
“By the way, I got the key to the house,” said Inka. “If you like, you could take another look at it tonight.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea.” Bodenstein looked at her. “But first you have to drive me home so I can pick up my car.”
“I can drive you home afterward; otherwise, it’ll be too late. They haven’t turned on the electricity yet.”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No problem.” She grinned. “I’m off tonight.”
“Well then, I’ll gladly take you up on that offer.”
Dr. Inka Hansen was a veterinarian and worked at an animal clinic in the Ruppertshain district of Kelkheim with two colleagues. Through her job, she had found out everything about the house. It was half of a duplex, and the builder had run out of money. For six months, construction had been stopped, and the house had gone on the market at a relatively reasonable price.
Half an hour later, they had reached the construction site and teetered their way across a plank to the front door. Inka opened it and they went inside.
“The stone floor has been laid, and all the wiring is done. But that’s it,” said Inka as she strolled through the rooms on the ground floor.
Then they went up the stairs to the second floor.
“Wow!” Bodenstein exclaimed. “The view is spectacular.” In the distance they could see the glittering lights of downtown Frankfurt to the left and the brightly illuminated airport to the right.
“And nobody can build in front of it to block the view,” Inka declared. “In the daytime, you can see all the way up the hill to Schloss Bodenstein.”
Life certainly took strange detours sometimes. He’d been fourteen years old when he fell in love with Inka Hansen, the daughter of the horse veterinarian from Ruppertshain. But he’d never worked up the courage to tell her. And so it ended in misunderstandings, which had driven him to study far away. There he had met Nicola, and then Cosima. He’d stopped thinking about Inka until they happened to meet during a murder investigation five years ago. Back then, he had still believed that his marriage to Cosima would last forever, and he probably would have lost contact with Inka if her daughter and his son hadn’t fallen in love with each other. The past year, the two had gotten married, and at the wedding he, as the father of the groom, had been seated next to her, the mother of the bride. They’d had a good conversation, then kept in touch by phone and went out to eat a few times. Over several months, a genuine friendship had developed, and the phone calls and dinners soon turned into a regular habit. Bodenstein liked being with Inka; she was easy to talk to and a good friend. Inka was a strong, self-confident woman, who placed great value on her freedom and independence.
Bodenstein was happy with his life now, except for his housing situation. He couldn’t stay in the carriage house at the Bodenstein ancestral estate forever.
In the vanishing daylight, they inspected the whole house, and Bodenstein was warming to the idea of moving to Ruppertshain so he could be closer to his youngest daughter. For the past few months, Cosima had also lived in Ruppertshain. She had rented an apartment in the Zauberberg, the former TB sanatorium, where she also had her office. After months of accusations, counteraccusations, and insults, Cosima and Oliver now got along better than ever before. They shared custody of Sophia, which was the top priority for Oliver. He would have his youngest daughter to himself every other weekend, and sometimes during the week as well, when Cosima had deadlines to meet.
“This is really ideal,” he said enthusiastically when they’d finished the tour. “Sophia could have her own room, and when she’s a little older, she can come over here alone or even ride her bike to my parents’ place.”
“I thought of that, too,” Inka replied. “Shall I put you in touch with the seller?”
“Yes, I’d appreciate that,” Bodenstein said with a nod.
Inka closed the front door and led the way across the plank toward the street. The night was hazy, and the heat of the day was still palpable between the houses. The scent of charcoal and grilled meat was in the air, and they heard voices and laughter from one of the backyards. “Just imagine,” he said, “if all goes well, we could wind up being neighbors.”
“Would you like that?” Inka asked.
As she stood next to her car, she turned around to look at him. In the light of the streetlamps, her natural blond hair shone like honey. Bodenstein admired once more her classic facial features, her high cheekbones and lovely lips. Neither the years nor the hard work as a veterinarian had diminished her beauty. He once again wondered why she’d never had a husband or a steady boyfriend.
“Sure.” He walked around the car to the passenger side and got in. “That would be wonderful. Why don’t we grab a quick pizza at Merlin’s? I’m as hungry as a bear.”
Inka got in behind the wheel.
“Okay,” she replied after a brief hesitation, and put the key in the ignition.
* * *
For the third time, Pia drove around the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town in Königstein, looking in vain for a parking spot as she cursed the size of her SUV. In front of her, a minivan pulled out of a spot, and she skillfully backed into the space. After one last look in the rearview mirror, she grabbed her bag and got out. She had never been to a class reunion and was honestly eager to see the girls from her old school. As she walked past the ice-cream shop, her eyes fell on a lattice fence with the gaping hole of a construction site behind it. This was where the building had stood in which she’d found the corpse of Robert Watkowiak two years before. The fact that there had been a dead man in the house certainly hadn’t helped the real estate agent sell the property.
Pia went down the pedestrian street and turned right at the bookstore, heading toward Villa Borgnis in the direction of the spa park. Pia could hear laughter and the babble of voices drowning out the splashing of the fountain surrounded by a border of flowers. She turned the corner and had to smile. The same flock of chickens as in the old days!
“Piiiiia!” a red-haired woman called shrilly, coming toward her with arms outstretched. “How wonderful to see you.”
A big hug and kisses left and right.
Sylvia’s face was radiant as she pushed her toward the crowd, and the next moment Pia was surrounded by familiar faces, astonished to see how little her friends had changed over the years. Someone put a glass of Aperol spritz in her hand. Kisses, smiles, effusive embraces, genuine joy at seeing one another again. Sylvia gave a witty speech, which kept getting interrupted by laughter and whistles, and finished by saying she hoped everyone present would have a lot of fun. As thanks from the class of 1986, Yvonne and Kristina gave her a big bouquet and a gift certificate for a wellness weekend, and Pia had to stifle a grin. Typical gifts from well-to-do women of a certain age. But they came from the heart, and Sylvia was moved to tears.
Pia sipped her cocktail and made a face. This sweet stuff was not exactly her favorite drink, but it was totally in at the moment, having regrettably supplanted good old Prosecco in popularity.
She turned around to see a dark-haired woman in whose adult features she recognized the fifteen-year-old girl she once knew.
“Emma!” she cried in disbelief. “I had no idea you’d be here, too! How great to see you.”
“I’m glad I decided to come. I confirmed at the last minute.”
They gazed at each other, then laughed and shared a big hug.
“Hey!” Pia’s eyes now fell on the round belly of her old childhood friend. “You’re pregnant!”
“Yep, imagine. At forty-three.”
“That’s no big deal these days,” replied Pia.
“I have a daughter, Louisa, who’s five. And I actually thought that would be it. But when it rains, it pours.” Emma took her by the arm. “And you? Do you have kids?”
Pia felt the familiar pang that this question always provoked.
“No,” she replied breezily. “But I’ve got horses and dogs.”
“At least you can lock them up at night somewhere.”
They both grinned.
“Wow, I never thought we’d ever see each other again,” said Pia, changing the subject. “A couple of years ago, I ran into Miriam. Somehow, everyone always comes back to the beautiful Taunus.”
“Yep, even me.” Emma let go of her arm. “Excuse me for sitting down for a moment. This heat is really getting to me.”
With a sigh, she sank onto a chair, and Pia sat down beside her.
“Miriam, you, and I,” said Emma. “We were truly the Terrible Trio. Our parents had their hands full with us. How’s Miri doing?”
“Good.” Pia took another sip of the orange-colored stuff. In this warm weather, her mouth had dried out from talking so much. “Last year she married my ex.”
“Are you kidding?” Emma opened her eyes wide. “And … you—I mean, that must be pretty tough for you, isn’t it?”
“Oh no, no. I’m fine with it. Henning and I get along better than ever, and we still work together occasionally. Anyway, I’m not alone.”
Pia leaned back and looked out across the terrace. It felt like being on a class outing in the old days. The girls who’d been friends back then had quickly found one another again. Behind the tall cedars, the tower of the ruined fortress was glowing in the light from the spotlights against the dark blue backdrop of the evening sky, and the first stars were faintly glimmering. A peaceful, carefree evening. Pia was happy she’d come. She didn’t do enough socializing in her free time.
“Tell me about yourself,” Pia said. “What are you doing these days?”
“I got a teaching degree, but after two years at an elementary school in Berlin, I joined the German Development Service and went abroad.”
“As a teacher?” Pia asked.
“At first, yes. But then I wanted to go into crisis areas. Really do some good. So I joined Doctors Worldwide. As a logistics tech. Then I was really in my element.”
“What did you do there?”
“Organization. Transporting medicines and health-care supplies. I was responsible for communications technology, plus the housing and welfare of staff members. Customs clearance, route planning, the motor pool, the maintenance and daily operation of the camps, project security, and contact with personnel back in Germany.”
“Wow. That sounds exciting.”
“Yes, it certainly was. Usually, we’d find catastrophic conditions, zero infrastructure, corrupt officials, and tribes at each other’s throats. In Ethiopia six years ago, I also met my husband. He’s a physician with Doctors Worldwide.”
“So why did you come back here?”
Emma patted her belly.
“Last winter, when I found out I was pregnant, Florian—that’s my husband—insisted that I return to Germany with Louisa. After all, a pregnancy at my age is risky. I’m staying with his parents in Falkenstein. Maybe you’ve heard of my father-in-law: Dr. Josef Finkbeiner. Many years ago, he founded the Sonnenkinder Association.”
“Of course I’ve heard of it,” said Pia with a nod. “Helping single mothers and their children.”
“Precisely. A really fantastic cause,” Emma declared. “Once the baby is born, I won’t be able to do much else. At the moment, I’m helping out a little at the organization, planning the big celebration for my father-in-law’s eightieth birthday in early July.”
“And is your husband still in some disaster zone?”
“No. Three weeks ago, he came back from Haiti and is now giving speeches all over Germany for DW. I don’t see a lot of him, but at least he’s home on weekends.”
A waiter came over with a tray, and Emma and Pia each took a glass of mineral water.
“Hey, it’s really great to see you again.” With a smile, Pia raised her glass. “Miri will be glad to hear that you’re back in Germany, too.”
“The three of us should get together. Maybe chat about old times.”
“Good idea. Here, I’ll give you my card.” As Pia rummaged in her shoulder bag for a business card, she felt her cell phone vibrating.
“Excuse me a moment,” she said, handing Emma her card. “I have to take this.”
“Your husband?” Emma asked.
“No. My job.”
Today was Pia’s day off, but if murder was suspected and her colleagues belonged to a different Kripo unit, she was the one they’d call. It was as she’d feared: A girl had been found dead in Eddersheim.
“I’m on my way,” she said to the officer on duty, who was already at the scene. “Half an hour. Text me the exact address.”
“You’re with the Criminal Police?” Emma asked in astonishment as she held up the card. “Detective Superintendent Pia Kirchhoff.”
“As of today, chief detective superintendent.” Pia gave her a wry smile.
“What do they want you for at this time of day?”
“They found a body. And unfortunately, I’m on call.”
“You work in Homicide?” Emma stared at her in surprise. “Jeez, that’s exciting. Do you carry a revolver, too?”
“A pistol. And it’s not really that exciting. Mostly frustrating.” Pia grimaced and stood up. “Well, at least I’ll spare myself the big good-bye with everybody. If anyone asks about me…”
She shrugged. Emma also got up.
“You know what? Why don’t you come to our summer party? Then at least we’ll get to see each other again. And if Miriam feels like it, bring her along, too, okay? I’d really love to see both of you.”
“I’d love to come.” Pia gave her friend a hug. “See you soon.”
She managed to escape unnoticed. Ten after ten! Crap. A dead girl. It was going to be a long night, and since she was the only one on call in her department, the unpleasant task of notifying the parents would fall to her. Facing the disbelief and despair of the victim’s family members was the worst part of her job.
As she walked down the pedestrian street to her car, her cell phone rang again and the display lit up. The duty officer had texted her the address: Mönchhofstrasse in Hattersheim-Eddersheim. By the locks. Pia got into her car, turned on the ignition, and rolled down the windows to let in some fresh air. She typed the address into her GPS, fastened her seat belt, and drove off.
Calculating route, the friendly female computer voice informed her. The route is in the direction displayed.
Distance: 22.7 kilometers. Arrival time: 22:43.
* * *
Hanna turned down the little cul-de-sac at the edge of the woods. Her house stood at the end. The exterior floodlights, which were activated by a motion detector, bathed the house in bright light. She braked to a stop. She hoped she wouldn’t find Vinzenz waiting there, or even Norman. But then she saw a bright red Mini with Munich plates parked in front of the double garage door and gave a sigh. Meike had apparently arrived a day early. She parked next to Meike’s car and climbed out.
“Hi, Meike!” she called, smiling, although she wasn’t exactly in a cheerful mood. First the ugly argument with Norman, then the conversation with Wolfgang Matern. At seven o’clock, Hanna had had a crisis meeting with the whole team in the conference room. Then she and Jan had met with a female freelance producer who chain-smoked for an hour and a half in a dim, stuffy lounge full of suits in a side street off Goethestrasse and kept making outrageous demands. A total waste of time.
“Hi, Hanna.” Meike got up from the top step. Two suitcases and a carryall stood by the front door.
“Why didn’t you call and tell me you were arriving today?”
“I tried about twenty times,” said Meike reproachfully. “Why’d you turn off your cell?”
“Oh, there were so many hassles today. I must have turned it off at some point. But you could have called the office.”
She kissed her daughter on the cheek, prompting a grimace. Then she opened the front door and helped Meike take in the bags.
Moving from Berlin to Munich seemed to have done Meike good. Since Hanna had last seen her, she’d put on a little weight. Her hair was washed and her style of clothes had normalized a bit. Maybe she was finally about to give up the late-puberty look of a homeless squatter.
“You’re looking good,” she said.
“You sure aren’t,” replied Meike with a critical glance. “You’re really looking old.”
“Thanks for the compliment.”
Hanna kicked off her shoes and went to the kitchen to get an ice-cold beer from the fridge.
Her relationship with Meike had always been complicated, and considering this initial exchange, Hanna was no longer sure it had been a good idea to ask her daughter to fill in as a production assistant during her summer vacation. She had never paid any attention to what other people said about her, but Meike’s hostility was causing her more and more concern. On the phone, her daughter had immediately made it clear that she wasn’t taking the job as a favor, but for purely financial reasons. Still, Hanna was looking forward to having Meike stay with her over the summer. She hadn’t yet gotten used to being alone.
The toilet flushed and Meike reappeared in the kitchen.
“Are you hungry?” Hanna asked.
“No. I already ate.”
Exhausted, Hanna sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, stretched out her legs, and wiggled her aching toes. Hallux rigidus in both her big toes, the price of wearing heels for thirty years. Walking in shoes with heels more than an inch and a half high was becoming more and more of a torment, but she couldn’t resort to wearing tennis shoes.
“If you want a cold beer, there are a couple of bottles in the fridge.”
“I’d rather make some green tea. Have you started drinking again?” Meike ran water into the kettle, took a mug out of the cupboard, and looked in drawers until she found the tea. “Maybe that’s why Vinzenz left. How is it that you manage to scare off every guy?”
Hanna didn’t react to her daughter’s jibes. She was too tired to get into the sort of argument that Meike used to provoke on a daily basis. She knew that the worst of the hostility would taper off after a couple of hours, so she tried to ignore her comments for the time being.
Meike was a child of divorce. Her father, a notorious smart-ass and nitpicker, had moved out when she was only six. Since then, he had spoiled her on every other weekend and successfully incited her animosity toward her mother. His brainwashing was still working eighteen years later.
“I liked Vinzenz,” said Meike, crossing her much too skinny arms over her meager breasts. “He was witty.”
She had been a completely normal kid, but as a teenager she’d put on almost two hundred pounds as a result of overeating because of emotional problems. Then at sixteen, she’d practically stopped eating altogether, and a couple of years ago, her anorexia had landed her in a clinic for eating disorders. At five seven, she had weighed only eighty-six pounds, and for a long time Hanna had been expecting a call telling her that her daughter was dead.
“I used to like him, too.” Hanna finished her beer. “But we grew apart.”
“No wonder he decided to leave.” Meike gave a contemptuous snort. “Next to you, nobody has any room to breathe. You’re like a tank, rolling over everybody with utter disregard for the consequences.”
Hanna sighed. She felt no anger at the hurtful words, only deep sadness. She would never be able to feel real affection for this young woman, who had deliberately tried to starve herself to death. And it was Hanna’s own fault. During Meike’s childhood and youth, her own career had been more important than her daughter, and that’s why she had yielded the field almost without a fight and with a feeling of relief. Meike had not seen through the perfidious little power play of her father, and for years she had idolized him without reservation. Meike had no clue that he had used his daughter to exact revenge on Hanna. And Hanna took care not to mention the topic.
“So that’s the way you see me,” she said softly.
“Everybody does,” Meike snapped back. “You never care about anyone but yourself.”
“That’s not true,” Hanna countered. “For you, I’ve—”
“Oh, give me a break!” Meike rolled her eyes. “You haven’t done shit for me! All you ever cared about was your job and your boyfriends.”
The teakettle began to whistle. Meike turned off the burner, poured water into the cup, and dropped in the tea bag. Her abrupt movements betrayed the inner tension she was feeling. Hanna would have liked to put her arm around her daughter, say something nice to her, talk and laugh with her, ask her about her life, but she didn’t do it because she was afraid of being rejected.
“I made up the bed in your old room upstairs. There are clean towels in the bathroom,” she said instead, putting the empty bottle in the recycling bin. “Please excuse me. I’ve had a trying day.”
“No problem.” Meike didn’t even look at her. “When do I have to show up tomorrow?”
“Is ten o’clock all right for you?”
“Sure, that’s fine. Good night.”
“Good night.” Hanna stopped herself from adding her daughter’s childhood nickname, “Mimi.” Meike wouldn’t appreciate hearing that from her mother. “I’m glad you’re here.”
No reply. But no insult, either. That was progress at least.
* * *
“What’s going on here?” Pia ducked underneath the crime-scene tape after making her way through an excited crowd.
“There was a summer party over there in the sports club tonight,” her uniformed colleague explained.
“I see.” Pia looked around.
Looking up ahead, she could see fire engines and two ambulances with mutely flashing blue lights. Next to them were a patrol car, two plainclothes cars, and Henning’s silver Mercedes station wagon. Behind them, a section of the woods was brightly lit. She went around the beach volleyball court and glanced briefly into the open side door of one of the ambulances, in which a dark-haired young woman was being treated.
“She discovered the body,” explained one of the EMTs. “She’s in shock and has a blood-alcohol content of point twenty percent. The doc is down by the river tending to the other boozer.”
“What happened? Did she drink herself into a coma?”
“I don’t know.” The medic shrugged. “The young lady here is twenty-three, according to her driver’s license. Actually a bit old for this sort of thing.”
“Which way do I have to go?”
“Along the path down to the river. They’ve probably gotten the gate open by now.”
“Thanks.” Pia continued on. The path ran alongside the soccer field. The floodlights had been turned on, and the crowd of rubberneckers on the other side of the chain-link fence was even bigger than up front by the crime-scene tape. Pia was having a hard time walking in her unusually high heels. The glaring lights from the fire department and rescue vehicles were blinding her, so she couldn’t see where she was going. Firemen holding their cutting torches stood in front of an open iron gate.
Two EMTs came toward her in the darkness, carrying a stretcher, and the emergency doctor ran alongside them, holding an IV in the air.
“Good evening, Ms. Kirchhoff,” he said. They knew each other from similar incidents at similarly ungodly hours.
“Good evening.” Pia cast a glance at the boy on the stretcher. “What’s with him?”
“Found him passed out next to the corpse. Very drunk. We’re trying to wake him up.”
“Okay. I’ll see you later.” She teetered along the path as curious bystanders gaped at her from behind the fence of the stadium. She silently cursed her decision to wear high heels today.
A few yards farther on, she encountered two uniformed officers and her colleague Ehrenberg from the break-in department, who’d been on call today and had phoned her.
“Good evening,” Pia said. “Could all of you please make sure to clear the people out of the stadium? I don’t want to see any photos or videos of a corpse showing up on Facebook or YouTube.”
“Thanks.” Ehrenberg briefed Pia on the situation before she moved on, thinking enviously about her colleagues, who were now enjoying a pleasant weekend. She could hear excited voices in the distance, which gave her a hint as to what was going on. Another fifty yards and she had reached the brightly illuminated scene on the bank of the river. At the foot of a steep slope stood Pia’s ex-husband, Dr. Henning Kirchhoff, with Christian Kröger, head of crime-scene investigations at Hofheim police HQ. Dressed in white protective overalls and under the harsh light of the floodlights that had been set up, they looked like two Martians on a riverside stage who were calling each other names like “dilettante” and “bungler,” one with corrosive arrogance, the other with hot-blooded rage.
Directly beyond the reeds, a boat from the river police heaved to and turned a glaring spotlight on the bank, bathing it in light bright as day.
Three colleagues from the evidence team were following the heated argument from a suitable distance with a mixture of resignation and patience.
“Hey, Ms. Chief Superintendent. Nice dress,” one of them remarked with an appreciative whistle. “And great legs.”
“Thanks. What’s going on over there?” asked Pia.
“Same old, same old. The boss is claiming that the doc is deliberately destroying evidence,” said another officer, raising his camera. “At least we already got our photos.”
Pia made her way down the slope, hoping that she wouldn’t stumble in front of everybody and land in the stinging nettles, which grew abundantly on both sides of the narrow path.
“I can’t believe it!” Kröger shouted heatedly when he caught sight of her. “Now you’re tramping right through the DNA evidence! First Ehrenberg, the smart-aleck detective, then the damned corpse slicer, then the emergency doc, and now you, too! Why can’t everybody be more careful? How are we supposed to do our work properly?”
His question was entirely justified. The spot where they were both standing measured no more than fifty square feet.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” Pia paid no attention to Kröger’s outburst; she was used to it. He was a perfectionist and preferred to have every crime scene or discovery site all to himself for a few hours before anyone else contaminated it.
“Hi, Pia,” Henning greeted her. “Are you a witness to the slanderous statements that this person has once again heaped on me in the most unprofessional manner?”
“I’m not interested in any problems of cooperation you two may be having,” Pia snapped. “What happened here?”
Kröger glanced up, his eyes widening as he stared at her with an expression of amazement.
“Is this the first time you’ve ever seen a woman in a dress?” Pia barked at him. Without jeans and sensible shoes, she felt out of place and oddly vulnerable.
“No, but … you, yes.” The appreciative look in his eyes might have flattered her at some other time, but right now it pissed her off.
“Have you had a good look? Then tell me what we have here.” Pia snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Well?”
Kröger cleared his throat. “Uh … yes. Hmm. Here’s the situation: The unconscious boy was lying on his stomach, precisely where our colleague the medical examiner is standing now. His left leg was in the water. The girl is exactly where we found her.”
The body of the young girl was caught between the reeds and the weeds on the riverbank. She was floating on her back, her eyes wide open. One arm was sticking out of the water. With each gentle wave, she seemed to move.
Pia looked at the gruesome scene in the cold glare of the floodlights. For a moment, the horror of the deed threatened to overwhelm her. Why should a person so young have to die before she’d even had a chance to live?
“A short distance away, underneath a weeping willow, we found vodka bottles and Red Bull cans. Also a few articles of clothing, shoes, a cell phone, and quite a lot of vomit,” said Christian Kröger. “It looks to me as though a group of young people got unauthorized access to this off-limits area so they could get drunk undisturbed. And somehow things got out of control.”
“What about the boy?” Pia asked.
Henning had already examined the unconscious youth before he was taken away in the ambulance.
“The kid had been boozing a lot,” he replied. “And threw up. His pants were unzipped.”
“And what do you conclude from that?”
“Possibly he wanted to relieve himself. But then he fell down the riverbank. He has fresh scratches on his hands and forearms, presumably from trying to break his fall.”
Pia took a step to one side to make room for Kröger’s people. Two of them hauled the girl’s corpse out of the water.
“She hardly weighs a thing. Just skin and bones,” said one of the men.
Pia squatted down next to the dead girl. She was wearing a bright-colored top with spaghetti straps and a denim miniskirt that had hiked up and was bunched around her waist. There wasn’t enough light, but to Pia, it looked like the girl’s pale, bony body was covered with dark spots and welts.
“Henning? Are those bruises?” Pia pointed to the belly and upper thighs of the dead girl.
“Hmm. Could be.” Henning shone his flashlight on the body and frowned. “Yes, bruises and lacerations.”
He inspected first her left, then her right hand.
“Kröger?” he called.
“What is it?”
“May I turn her over?”
Henning handed Pia the flashlight and with his gloved hands turned the girl over onto her stomach.
“Good God!” Pia blurted out. “What is that?”
The lower portion of the girl’s back and her buttocks were completely shredded; her backbone, ribs, and one side of her pelvis shone white through the darker muscle tissue.
“Wounds from a boat propeller,” Henning pronounced with a look at Pia. “The girl didn’t die tonight or in this location. She’s been in the water longer than that, and the formation of skin maceration on her hands is already fairly advanced. Her body was probably washed up here on the current.”
Pia stood up.
“You mean that she had nothing to do with the other teenagers?”
“I’m only the medical examiner,” said Henning. “Figuring it out is your job. The fact is that the girl did not die tonight.”
Pia rubbed her bare upper arms and shuddered, although it was not cold in the least. She looked around, trying to get a picture of what might have happened here.
“I’m going to try to find out something about the young woman who discovered the body,” she said. “Please take the body to the forensics lab. I hope the DA will grant authorization for an autopsy ASAP.”
“Here, let me give you a hand.” Kröger gallantly offered her his arm to help her up the slope, and she took it.
“Thanks.” Pia flashed him a quick smile when she reached the top. “But don’t make a habit of it.”
“Absolutely not,” he said with a grin. “Only when you’re negotiating rough terrain in a cocktail dress and inappropriate footwear.”
“You hang out with Henning too much.” Pia grinned, too. “I can tell by your choice of words.”
“He may be an arrogant bastard, but his vocabulary is unbelievable. I learn something new every time we go out on a call.”
“Then you could probably write off your emergency calls as continuing education. See you later.”
Kröger waved good-bye and made his way back down the slope.
“Oh, Pia?” he called. She turned around.
“If you’re cold, there’s a fleece in my car.”
Pia nodded and made her way to the ambulance.
* * *
Spending the evening in the company of old classmates and the unexpected encounter with Pia had done Emma good. Elated and in an excellent frame of mind, she opened the dark green Gregorian front door of her in-laws’ big villa. She and Florian and Louisa had the entire second floor to themselves. Having grown up in a faceless neighborhood of row houses in Niederhöchstadt, Emma had fallen in love at first sight with the big house of weathered red brick with its oriel windows, little towers, and white-mullioned windows. She loved the high ceilings with their plaster ornamentation, the glassed-in bookcases, the pattern of the parquet floors, the elaborate carving of the banisters. It was charming. Florian’s mother called the style of the house “rococo,” but Florian had disparagingly dubbed it “wedding cake–style.” He found it kitschy and overly ornate, and to Emma’s great regret, he had no intention of living in the house on a permanent basis. She could easily have stayed on forever.
The villa stood on the edge of a huge park that extended all the way to the woods. Right next door was the residence of the Sonnenkinder Association. Before Florian’s father had founded the group in the late sixties, it had been an old folks home. Later, the building across the street had been added, in which the administration, the kindergarten, and the classrooms were located today. Farther back in the park stood three bungalows with their own driveways, in which close associates of Emma’s father-in-law lived with their families. The house in the middle had actually been built for Florian, but he had preferred to leave home, so now it was rented out.
Emma had slipped off her shoes as soon as she got in the car. Her ankles and feet swelled up every day in this heat wave, and in the afternoon it was almost unbearable to wear shoes. The wooden steps creaked under her weight. Behind the milky-glass triptych of panes in the front door she could see a glimmer of light. She quietly opened the door and tiptoed inside. Florian was sitting at the kitchen table in front of his laptop. He was so lost in concentration that he didn’t notice her come in. Emma stood in the doorway for a moment, observing the sharp contours of his profile. Even after six years, she still found the sight of him fascinating.
In the beginning, there had been no love lost between them when they first met at the camp in Ethiopia—she was the technical leader of the project, he her medical counterpart. From the first instant, they had done nothing but argue. Nothing happened fast enough for him, and she was angered by his arrogance and pushiness. It was no simple task to transport medicines and technical gear hundreds of miles on the country road. Yet they were working for the same cause, and although she had been terribly annoyed by him, as a doctor he had impressed her deeply. He worked on behalf of his patients until he was utterly exhausted, sometimes seventy-two hours at a stretch, and in emergencies he was quick to improvise so that he could help and heal.
Dr. Florian Finkbeiner never did anything halfway; he was a doctor through and through, and he loved his profession. Anytime he could not save a human life, he regarded it as a personal defeat. It was the contradictory nature of his personality that slowly but surely had cast its spell over Emma: on one side the sympathetic humanitarian and on the other the worrywart doubter who could sound almost cynical. Sometimes he sank into a deep melancholy that bordered on depression, but he could also be witty, charming, and downright entertaining. Besides, he was probably the best-looking man she had ever met.
Emma’s colleague had given her a warning when she admitted that she’d fallen in love with Florian. “Keep away from him if you don’t want to make yourself unhappy,” she’d said. “He lugs the problems of the whole world around with him.” Then she added mockingly that maybe he was exactly the right man for someone like Emma, with her need to help everyone. Emma had immediately suppressed the doubt that these words aroused in her. She would always have to share Florian with his job and his patients, but what was left over for her was enough. Her heart overflowed with tenderness when she saw him sitting there. The curly dark hair, the shadow on his cheeks and chin, the warm dark eyes, the sensitive mouth, the tender skin on his throat.
“Hello,” she said softly. He gave a start and turned to stare at her, then slammed his laptop shut.
“Good God, Emmi! Do you have to sneak up on me like that?” he blurted out.
“Sorry.” She flicked on the ceiling light. The halogen lamp bathed the kitchen in a gleaming white glow. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Louisa’s been whining all evening,” he said, getting up. “She didn’t want to eat, said she had a stomachache. Then I read her a couple of stories, and finally she fell asleep.”
He took Emma in his arms and kissed her on the cheek.
“How was the reunion? Did you have fun?” he asked, placing a hand on her stomach. He hadn’t done that in a long time. Just a little more than five weeks and this pregnancy, which had not had the most fortuitous start, would be over. Florian hadn’t wanted a second child—and she actually hadn’t, either, but somehow it had happened.
“Yes, it was really interesting to see everybody after such a long time. In some ways, they’ve hardly changed at all.” Emma smiled. “And I met my best friend from those days. I haven’t seen her since we graduated.”
“That sounds great.” Florian smiled, too, then cast a glance at the kitchen clock above the doorway. “Is it okay if I go over to Ralf’s for a beer?”
“Of course. You deserve it after an evening of putting up with Louisa.”
“I won’t be late.” He kissed her again on the cheek, then put on his loafers, which were standing next to the door. “See you in a while.”
“Okay, see you. Have fun.”
The door closed behind him, and the light went on in the stairwell. Emma heaved a sigh. The first few weeks after he got back from Haiti, Florian had acted strange, but now he seemed more like himself. Emma was familiar with his dark phases, when he acted cold and introverted. They usually passed after a couple of days, but this time it had taken a lot longer. Even though it was his idea to stay in Falkenstein until the baby was born, it had to feel odd for him to be suddenly back in Germany, living in his parents’ house—the house he had fled almost twenty-five years ago.
Emma opened the fridge, got out a bottle of mineral water, and poured herself a glass. Then she sat down at the kitchen table. After all the years of their gypsy lifestyle, which had taken them to the most remote places on earth, she found the idea of finally settling in and putting down roots very tempting. Next year, Louisa would be going to school, and that would be the end of living in some camp somewhere. Florian was an excellent surgeon, and any clinic in Germany should be glad to take him on. Besides, at forty-six he was no spring chicken. Most of his bosses, as he had mentioned recently in a discussion of this very topic, were younger than he was. But he couldn’t imagine having to face on a daily basis the degenerate and overfed victims of the affluent society at a hospital. He had made this statement with the same vehemence that he used to describe his own goals, and Emma understood that nothing would change his mind.
She yawned. Time for bed. Emma put her glass in the dishwasher and turned off the light. On the way to the bathroom, she looked in on Louisa, who was sleeping soundly and peacefully, surrounded by her stuffed animals. Emma’s gaze fell on the book that Florian had been reading to the little girl, and she had to smile. Who knows how long he had to read out loud, she thought. Louisa was crazy about fantasy stories and fairy tales. She knew them all by heart: Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White and Rose Red, and Puss in Boots. Emma gently closed the door. Florian would get used to his new life soon enough. Someday they would have their own house and be like a real family.
* * *
The soccer field was empty now, but sensation-seeking onlookers still crowded in behind the fence blocking off the sluiceway, and members of the press had arrived by now, as well. Pia tried one more time to reach her boss. No luck. His cell was turned on, but he didn’t pick up. She did get through to Detective Superintendent Kai Ostermann, who picked up at once.
“Sorry for bothering you,” Pia said. “We just retrieved a body from the river in Eddersheim, near the locks. I could use your help.”
“No problem,” Kai replied, without a word about the late hour. “What do you want me to do?”
“I need a warrant for an autopsy, tomorrow morning early. And maybe you could check the list of missing persons. A girl between fourteen and sixteen years old. Blond, very thin, dark brown eyes. Henning thinks she’s been dead for a few days.”
“Got it. I’ll drive over to the office right away.”
“Oh, and please try to reach the boss.” Pia ended the call and sent Bodenstein a text. He’d been away for four days now, but last week he’d told her that he’d be back Thursday night.
“Ms. Kirchhoff!” called a man with a camera marked Hessen TV on his shoulder. “Can we get a couple of shots?”
From force of habit, Pia wanted to say no, but after thinking a moment, she changed her mind. A spot on TV might be very helpful in clearing up the identity of the dead girl.
“Sure, go ahead,” said Pia. She asked one of the patrol officers standing at the cordon to accompany the camera people and reporters to the site where the body had been found. HR, SAT1, RTL Hessen, Antenne Pro, Rhein-Main TV. All of them would rather listen to the police channels than to music on the radio.
One of the ambulances had left with the dead-drunk kid, and a hearse had pulled up.
Pia knocked on the side door of the other ambulance, and it was opened at once.
“Could I talk to the young woman?” she asked.
The EMT nodded. “She’s still in shock, but we’ve got her stabilized.” Pia climbed into the vehicle and sat down next to the young woman on the folding seat. She had a pale but pretty childlike face with wide eyes, in which Pia saw fear and horror. What she had just experienced was going to haunt her for the rest of her life.
“Hello,” said Pia in a friendly voice. “I’m Pia Kirchhoff from Kripo in Hofheim. Would you please tell me your name?”
“A … Alina Hindemith.”
She smelled unpleasantly of alcohol and vomit.
“She just told me her name was Sabrina,” the assistant EMT interjected. “And her ID says—”
Pia cut him off. “Would you mind leaving us alone?”
“I … I can explain everything,” whispered the young woman, staring at the ceiling of the ambulance. “It … it was stupid of me, but … but I borrowed my big sister’s ID. We … we look a lot alike.”
Pia sighed. Unfortunately, this trick worked in almost every supermarket in Germany.
“I … I used it to buy some booze. Vodka and slivovitz.” She started to cry. “My parents are going to kill me when they hear about it.”
“How old are you, Alina?”
“Fif … fifteen.”
Fifteen years old with a blood-alcohol content of .20 percent. A brilliant achievement.
“Can you remember what happened?”
“We climbed over the gate. Mart and Diego knew the place and said nobody would bother us there. And then … then we just sort of sat around and … and drank.”
“Who else was with you?”
The girl glanced at Pia and then frowned. She seemed to be having trouble remembering.
“Mart and Diego and … and me. And Katharina and Alex … and…” Alina’s voice tracked off and she looked at Pia in terror. “Mia! I … I don’t know exactly what happened. I … I blacked out. But then I saw Mia lying in the water. Oh God, oh God! And Alex was so drunk, I couldn’t wake him up!”
Her face contorted, and then the tears streamed down.
Pia let her cry for a moment. The girl from the river couldn’t be Mia, who’d been drinking with Alina and her friends. Henning was seldom mistaken, and the wounds from an outboard motor corroborated the fact that the dead girl had been in the river a long time. Pia’s cell rang; it was Kai Ostermann. Unfortunately, all he could tell her was that so far his queries had produced no results. Pia thanked him and ended the call.
She asked the girl for the last name and address of the unconscious boy, then for his parents’ phone number. After jotting them down, she climbed out of the ambulance and spoke briefly with the EMT.
“She’s stable, so we can let her go home,” he said. “Tomorrow, she’ll probably have a huge hangover, but there’s nothing to be done about that.”
“What about the boy?”
“He’s already on his way to Höchst. I’m afraid he’s got more than just a pounding head in store for him.”
“Good evening, Ms. Kirchhoff,” somebody said. Pia turned around, to see a dark-haired man with a three-day stubble, who was wearing faded jeans, a T-shirt, and well-worn moccasins. He seemed vaguely familiar. It took a few seconds before she recognized Dr. Frey, the state attorney.
“Uh … hello, Dr. Frey,” she stammered in astonishment, almost blurting out “What on earth happened to you?” She’d never seen him wear anything but a three-piece suit and tie, and he was always clean-shaven, his hair slicked back with gel. He looked her over with the same mixture of curiosity and amazement.
“I was at a class reunion when Dispatch called,” she said with a hint of embarrassment.
“And I was at a backyard barbecue with friends and family.” Even the SA seemed to consider it necessary to justify his unusual attire. “They told me about the discovery of the body, and since I was in Flörsheim anyway, I volunteered to handle the case.”
“Ah, that’s … that’s good.” Pia was still a bit confused by this unexpected metamorphosis of the SA; she couldn’t have imagined that he had friends or would enjoy a relaxing evening barbecuing. He smelled slightly of alcohol with a hint of peppermint. Apparently, he wasn’t completely immune to worldly pleasures. It was a whole new side of this notorious Calvinist noted for his iron discipline and workaholic tendencies. In her eyes, he existed only in his office or a courtroom.
“Are you going to call the parents of the two drunk kids?” The EMT slammed the side door of the ambulance shut.
“Sure, I’ll take care of it,” said Pia.
“They told me you’re in charge of the investigation.” State Attorney Frey took her arm and pulled her aside so that the ambulance could move past.
“Yes, that’s right,” Pia said with a nod. “My boss is still on vacation.”
“Hmm. So what exactly happened here?”
Pia briefly explained the situation. “I considered it proper to grant the press access to the site where the body was found,” she said, concluding her account. “My colleague could find no record of any missing person’s report that might be linked to the victim. Perhaps the public can assist in identifying the dead girl.”
The SA frowned but then nodded in agreement. “Clearing up a fatality. It’s always preferable to resolve a homicide as rapidly as possible,” he replied. “I’ll take a look at the case. We’ll probably be seeing each other later.”
Pia waited until he had vanished in the darkness, then tapped in the phone number that the girl had given her. A light breeze had come up, and she shivered. The reporters returned.
“Do you think we could get another brief statement from you?”
“Just a moment.” Pia walked away a few yards toward the riverbank so she could talk in private. An extremely alert male voice answered. “Good evening, Mr. Hindemith. My name is Pia Kirchhoff, from Kripo Hofheim. It’s about your daughter Alina. Don’t worry, she’s fine, but I’d like to ask you to come to Eddersheim. To the locks. You can’t miss it.”
The men from the undertakers came down the footpath carrying a body bag on a stretcher. The cameras started flashing at once. Pia went over to Kröger’s vehicle, which, as usual, was unlocked, grabbed the fleece jacket from the backseat, and slipped it on. Then she gathered her hair into a ponytail, using an elastic to hold it in place. Now she felt more like herself and ready to face the TV cameras.
* * *
Since early in the evening, people had been grilling and drinking all over the trailer park. During the summer months, the social life of the residents took place mostly outdoors, and the later it got, the more the noise and alcohol levels rose. Laughter, yelling, music—nobody took anyone else into consideration, and occasionally trivial incidents would escalate to loud and even physical arguments between neighbors who even when sober couldn’t stand one another. Usually, the trailer park operator managed to mediate the squabbles, but the hot weather had stirred up animosities to such a degree that the police had been called in several times over the past week to prevent anyone from being injured or killed.
It had been years now since he had been invited by anyone, because he had consistently refused every invitation. The last thing he needed was some sort of camaraderie with the other residents of the trailer park. Given his history, it was clearly better if no one knew who he really was or why he was living here. The leaseholder was the only person he had ever told his real name, and he doubted that the man would remember him. There was no official lease agreement for the trailer. Not wanting to draw attention, he always paid the rent on time and in cash. His official address was a box at the Schwanheim post office. Here, at the trailer park, he didn’t exist. And that’s the way he liked it.
Years ago, he had made it a habit to go for a walk while people were partying and getting drunk. The noise didn’t bother him, but ever since he’d started working at the lunch stand, he could hardly tolerate the smell of grilled meat and sausages that wafted over to him. So he’d walked a ways along the bank of the Main River, and he’d sat on a bench for a while. Normally, the slowly flowing river calmed him, but today the monotonous lapping of the water had put him in an agonizing state of heightened awareness, which made him even more cognizant of the wretchedness of his life and his total lack of prospects. To escape the senseless replay of his thoughts, he’d started jogging along the river, all the way to Goldstein and back.
Total physical exhaustion was normally the best way to put a stop to these bitter thoughts. But this time, it hadn’t worked. Maybe it was because of the unbearable heat. A cold shower had brought only temporary relief; half an hour later, he was again drenched in sweat, tossing and turning in bed. A shrill ringtone suddenly came from his cell phone, which was in its charging stand on the table. Who could it be at this hour? he wondered. He stood up and glanced at the display, then took the call.
“Sorry to disturb you again so late,” said a rough bass voice. “Turn on the TV. It’s on every channel.”
Before he could reply, the caller hung up. He grabbed the remote and switched on the tiny TV at the foot of his bed.
Seconds later, he saw the serious face of a blond woman on the screen. Blue lights were flashing behind her, and black water glinted between the trees illuminated by floodlights.
“… of a young girl was found,” he heard the woman say. “According to preliminary estimates, the body had been in the water for several days. We hope to obtain additional information from the autopsy.”
Two men were loading a stretcher with a body bag on it into the hearse, and behind them two figures clad in protective overalls were carrying a plastic bag. Then the camera panned over to the sluiceway.
“Not far from the locks at Eddersheim, the body of a young girl was discovered today floating in the Main,” said the voiceover. “The identity of the girl is unknown, and the police are hoping for tips from the public. This is reminiscent of a similar case from a few years ago.”
An older man blinked under the bright lights.
“Yep, I remember there was a girl found in the river once before. It was over there in Höchst, at the Wörthspitze. To this day, they don’t know who the poor girl was. If I remember rightly, it was around ten years ago, and then…”
He turned off the TV and stood there in the dark. He was breathing hard, as if he’d been running.
“Nine,” he whispered in a strained voice. “It was nine years ago.”
Fear crept like goose bumps all over his body. His probation officer knew that he lived here. So it would be no problem for the police and the SA’s office to locate him. What was going to happen now? Would they remember him?
All trace of fatigue had left him, and his thoughts were coming thick and fast. There was no hope of going to sleep. He switched on the light and took the cleaning bucket and a bottle of bleach from the cabinet next to the kitchen unit. They were going to come here, search through everything, and they’d find her DNA in his trailer! No way could he let that happen, because if he violated probation, he’d have to go straight back to the joint.
* * *
Pia closed the front door carefully, making sure that the dogs weren’t going to break out in a chorus of welcoming barks and wake Christoph. But no dog awaited her on the enclosed porch; instead, she smelled the aroma of roast meat and saw that a light was on in the kitchen. She set her shoulder bag and car keys on the hall cabinet. The four dogs were sitting in the kitchen, watching Christoph’s every movement with synchronized adoration. He was standing at the stove, dressed in shorts, the T-shirt he wore to bed, and an apron, holding two meat forks in his hands. The fan on the stove was on high.
“Hi,” Pia said in astonishment. “Are you awake or sleepwalking?”
The dogs turned their heads only briefly and wagged their tails; then they went back to watching what was happening on the stove, which was much more interesting.
“Hey, sweetie,” said Christoph with a grin. “I was almost asleep when I remembered that I’d left the roulades in the fridge. And I promised Lilly that I’d make roulades for a homecoming dinner.”
Pia had to smile. She went over and gave him a kiss.
“In all of Germany, could there be another man who would get up at one-thirty in the morning to roast roulades when the temperature is almost eighty degrees? Unbelievable.”
“I’ve even filled them,” Christoph said, not without pride. “Mustard, cucumbers, bacon, onions. A promise is a promise.”
Pia took off Kröger’s fleece jacket and hung it over the back of a chair before plopping down onto the seat.
“How was your class reunion?” Christoph asked. “Must have been fun if you could stand being there so long.”
“Oh, the reunion.” Pia had totally forgotten about it. The laughing and chattering women on the terrace of the Villa Borgnis beneath the velvety black sky filled with stars seemed to her like a harmless idyllic short film before the horror flick called reality. And in this particular reality, a teenager had died.
She kicked off the sling-back heels, which were now candidates for the garbage can after she’d tramped through the underbrush.
“Yes, it was quite nice. But unfortunately, I had to leave and go to work.”
“Work?” Christoph turned and raised his eyebrows. He knew what nighttime work meant in Pia’s profession. It was seldom benign. “Bad?”
“Yep.” She leaned her elbows on the table and rubbed her face. “Really bad. A dead girl, and two teenagers who drank themselves into a coma.”
Christoph didn’t bother with a cliché like “Oh God, I’m sorry.” Instead, he asked, “Do you want something to drink?”
“Yeah, a nice cold beer would hit the spot about now, even though I was once again reminded this evening that alcohol doesn’t solve any problems, only creates them.”
She was about to get up, but Christoph shook his head.
“Stay there. I’ll get it for you.”
He put down the meat forks, covered the roasts, and turned down the temperature of the gas oven. Then he took two bottles of beer out of the fridge and opened them.
“No. Not necessary.”
Christoph handed Pia a bottle and sat down next to her at the table.
“Thanks.” She took a big swig. “I’m afraid you’ll have to pick up Lilly by yourself tomorrow. Since there’s nobody else at the office, I’ll have to go to the autopsy. Sorry.”
The next day, Christoph’s seven-year-old granddaughter was arriving from Australia to stay at Birkenhof for four weeks. When Pia learned of the plan a couple of weeks before, she hadn’t been especially enthusiastic. She and Christoph both had full-time jobs, and they couldn’t leave a small child alone in the house. What upset her most was the selfishness of Lilly’s mother, Anna, Christoph’s second-eldest daughter. Anna’s companion and father of the little girl was a marine biologist, and he’d taken over the leadership of a research expedition in Antarctica that spring. Anna wanted to go with him, but it was impossible to take a school-age child along. At that time, Christoph had turned down her request to take care of Lilly, saying that she was the mother and was responsible for her daughter, so she would have to forgo the trip. Anna had begged desperately, until Christoph and Pia finally agreed on a compromise. They would take care of the girl during the two weeks of Australian winter vacation. Anna was the only one of Christoph’s three daughters whom Pia didn’t particularly like, and she wasn’t surprised when the two weeks turned into four. Anna had pulled one of her tricks with Lilly’s school and arranged a leave of absence for her daughter. Typical. So once again, she’d been successful at getting her way.
“That’s no problem.” He reached out and stroked Pia’s cheek. “What happened?”
“It’s all a bit mysterious.” She took another swallow of beer. “A sixteen-year-old boy who’s in a coma after an orgy of drinking, and a young girl we fished out of the Main. She must have been in the river for a long time, because her body had been run over and partially shredded by the screws of an outboard motor.”
“It was, believe me. We have no idea who the girl is. There’s no missing person’s report that fits her description.”
For a while, they sat at the kitchen table, drinking beer without talking. That was one of the many traits that Pia loved about Christoph. Not only did she find it easy to talk to him but they could also sit in silence without feeling uncomfortable. He always knew when she wanted to talk about something or when she simply needed his silent company.
“It’s already two o’clock.” Pia got up. “I think I’ll jump in the shower and then go to bed.”
“I’ll be finished here soon.” Christoph stood up, too. “I just have to clean up the kitchen.”
Pia grabbed his wrist, and he stopped and looked at her.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“For being you.”
He smiled. She loved the way he smiled.
“That’s all I have to give,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around her. She snuggled up to him and felt his lips on her hair. And for a moment, everything was all right.
* * *
“We’re going to Uncle Richard’s, just you and me,” said Papa, motioning her over. “Then you can ride the pony and open your presents.”
Oh yes, she wanted to ride the pony! And all by herself with Papa, without Mama and her brothers and sisters! She was happy and excited. She’d been to Uncle Richard’s only a couple of times with Papa, but it was strange that she couldn’t quite remember the house or the ponies. She was looking forward to it immensely, because Papa was also taking along the lovely new dress that she had tried on but never worn until now.
She looked at herself in the mirror, touched her fingertips to the little red hood on her head, and laughed. The dress was a real dirndl, with a short skirt and apron. Papa had plaited her hair into two braids, and she really looked exactly like Little Red Riding Hood in her fairy-tale book.
He always brought presents—it was a secret that she and Papa shared, because he never brought anything for the others. Only for her. She was his favorite. Mama had gone away with her siblings, so Papa had her all to himself.
“Did you bring something for me?” she asked curiously, because the big paper shopping bag was still bulging.
“Of course.” He gave her a conspiratorial smile. “Here, do you want to take a look?”
She nodded eagerly. He took another dress out of the paper bag. It was red, and the material felt cool and very soft under her fingers.
“A princess dress for my little princess,” he said. “And I bought you some matching shoes, too. Red ones.”
“Oh, awesome! Can I peek?”
“No, later. We have to go. Uncle Richard is waiting for us.”
She let him pick her up, snuggling close. She loved his deep voice and the scent of pipe tobacco on his clothes.
A little later, they were sitting in his car. They drove for quite a while, and she got excited whenever she saw something she recognized. It was a game that she always played with Papa when they were together on a secret outing. That’s what he called it, because she couldn’t tell her siblings, or they’d be jealous.
Finally, the road came to an end after passing through the woods to a clearing where there was a big wooden house with a porch and green shutters.
“That looks just like the one in my fairy-tale book!” she cried excitedly, and she was delighted to see the ponies in the meadow in front of the house.
“Can I take a ride now?” She was fidgeting on the seat.
“Of course.” Papa laughed and parked the Mercedes next to a couple of other cars. There was always something going on at Uncle Richard’s, and that made her happy, too, because they were all friends of Papa and had brought presents and candy for her.
She got out of the car and ran over to the ponies, who let her pet them. Uncle Richard came out and asked which pony she wanted to ride. She liked the white one the best. His name was Fluff; she remembered that now. How sad that she knew the pony’s name but couldn’t remember anything about what the house looked like inside.
After half an hour, they went inside. Papa’s and Uncle Richard’s friends were there. They all said a cheerful hello and admired her dirndl and red hood. She turned around to show it off and laughed.
“Okay, now take off the dirndl.” Papa put the shopping bag on the table and took out the dress. Uncle Richard set her on his lap and helped her put on the dress and the genuine silk stockings, the kind that Mama wore. The others laughed because she was so clumsy attaching the garters, which were fastened to a belt. That was fun!
But the most beautiful thing was the dress—a real princess dress in red. And the red shoes to go with it, with high heels.
She looked at herself in the mirror and felt so proud. Papa was proud, too; he led her through the living room and up the stairs, as if they were at a wedding. Uncle Richard led the way and opened a door. She was amazed to see in the room a genuine princess bed with a canopy.
“What are we going to play now?” she asked.
“Something that’s a lot of fun,” replied Papa. “We’re going to change our clothes, too. Just wait here.”
She nodded, then climbed onto the bed and began hopping around. They had all admired her beautiful dress and were so nice to her. The door opened, and she uttered a frightened cry when she saw the wolf. But then she had to laugh. It wasn’t a real wolf after all; it was only Papa, who had put on a costume. How lovely it was that she was the only one to share this secret with Papa. Too bad she could never remember anything afterward. That was really sad.
Copyright © 2012 by Nele Neuhaus
Translation copyright © 2014 by Steven T. Murray