The day that I have longed for and dreaded in equal measure has arrived.
After warm weather these last few days, this morning is cool and clear. Thick frost covers the meadow and sparkles seductively in the sun. Children will find frozen puddles on their way to school and skid around on them, maybe poking them with the tips of their boots until they crack.
I have no time to take pleasure in the view. I have a lot to do before Lenzen arrives at midday.
I will be prepared.
A trap is a device to catch or kill.
A good trap should be two things: foolproof and simple.
I’m in the dining room, looking at the caterers’ food I’ve had delivered. There’s enough to feed an army, but there will only be three of us: Lenzen, the photographer he’s bringing with him, and me. I am, however, confident that the photographer won’t need more than an hour to shoot his pictures and will then leave us alone.
The light lunch consists of salads and other titbits prettily served in little jars, and wraps filled with vegetables and chicken. There are small pieces of cake set out on elegant porcelain and a nicely arranged fruit basket. I didn’t choose any of this food on grounds of taste; my sole criterion was whether the person eating it was likely to leave a decent sample of DNA behind. The salad and cake are ideal. You can’t eat them without using a fork and leaving traces of saliva behind. The basket of fruit is likewise promising. If Lenzen should bite into an apple, I could gather up the remains as soon as he’d gone, and have them analysed. As for the wraps: you can hardly eat them without making quite a mess with the sauce, which comes oozing out when you bite into them, so it’s likely anyone having one will wipe his fingers and mouth on a napkin afterwards. In that eventuality, I can expect usable traces of DNA on the napkin.
I remove the cutlery and napkins provided by the caterers. Then I pull on disposable latex gloves, take my own salad forks and cake spoons that I sterilised yesterday evening and arrange them on the serving trolley. Finally I open a new packet of paper napkins. I step back and survey my work. The food looks incredibly appetising. Perfect.
I pull off the gloves, throw them in the kitchen bin, put on new ones and take the only ashtray I have in the house out of the cupboard. I place it on the dining table where Lenzen and I are to sit. I have already laid out a few advance copies of my book, a thermal coffeepot, cream, sugar, cups and spoons, as well as bottles of mineral water and glasses.
The ashtray is by far the most important object on the table. I have discovered that Lenzen smokes. If he leaves a cigarette butt it will be like winning the lottery, so he shouldn’t have to ask my permission to smoke—he should find an ashtray ready and waiting on the table.
I glance at my phone. I still have loads of time before Lenzen arrives. I breathe in and out, pull off the second pair of gloves and throw them away too. Then I collapse onto the sofa in the living room and go through my mental to-do list. I soon come to the conclusion that I’ve taken care of everything that needed doing.
I look about me. The cameras and microphones that were installed for me a few days ago by two discreet members of a security company really are invisible. Good. If I can’t see them, even though I know they are there, then Lenzen certainly won’t be able to. My entire ground floor is bugged. It may seem naïve to presume that Lenzen is going to incriminate himself, but if psychologists—and other experts like Dr Christensen—are to be believed, some murderers are secretly longing to do just that: to confess.
I am prepared. I spent half an hour on the treadmill when I got up this morning—long enough to flood my brain with oxygen but not so long as to wear myself out. I had a shower. I dressed with care. I’m wearing black. Not blue, which conveys trust, or red, which emanates aggression and passion, or white, which stands for innocence, but black. Black means seriousness, gravity—and, yes, mourning.
I’ve had a good breakfast. There was salmon and spinach: pure brain food, according to a nutritional expert I once spoke to. After breakfast, I fed Bukowski and put him in one of the upstairs bedrooms with a bowl of water, something to eat for later and some of his favourite toys.
Now here I am on the sofa.
I think back to the telephone call I made some weeks ago to an expert from the regional criminal investigation department, and recall Professor Kerner’s cheerful manner, which stood in such stark contrast to the topic of our conversation.
I had decided to ask him for his discretion, and then to lay all my cards on the table and tell him everything. I told him about my sister Anna. I told him about the unsolved murder case. And I wound up by asking him my most important question: whether the traces of DNA that were gathered at the scene of the crime all those years ago had been kept.
‘But of course!’ he replied.
I am glad I talked to Kerner. Because, of course, if there’s one thing I want more than anything else, it’s for my sister’s murderer to break down in front of me. I have to find out what happened on that goddamn night, and I have to hear it from his own mouth. The thought of Kerner and his DNA samples reassures me. He is my safety net. I’m going to get Lenzen. One way or another.
I glance at the clock. It’s a little after eleven. I still have almost an hour to relax and go over everything in my head one last—
There’s a ring at the door. I start up in alarm. Adrenalin fills my belly and rushes to my head like a surge of cold water. My composure has vanished. I steady myself on the arm of the sofa, take three deep breaths, and then head for the door. Maybe the postman. Or a travel-ling salesman—do such people still exist?
I open the door.
For years, the monster has pursued me even in my dreams. Now he’s standing before me.
‘Good morning,’ says Victor Lenzen with an apologetic smile, and holds out his hand to me. ‘I’m Victor Lenzen. We’re a bit early. We left Munich in good time to make sure we weren’t late, but the traffic was much better than we expected.’
I suppress the impulse to run away screaming. I feel caught out, but I don’t show it.
‘No trouble at all,’ I say. ‘I’m Linda Conrads.’
I shake his hand. I smile. The way out of fear leads through fear.
‘Please come in.’
I do not hesitate. I do not tremble. I look him in the eye and my voice sounds strong and clear. It is only now that my tunnel vision opens out a little and I notice the photographer. He is young (mid-twenties, at most), and when I give him my hand he looks a bit nervous—nervous, but keen. He says something about being a fan of mine, but I have trouble focusing on him.
I let the two men into my house. They both wipe their feet politely. Lenzen is wearing a dark coat, which he takes off to reveal immaculate clothes: dark trousers, a white shirt, a black jacket, no tie. He is greying stylishly, and has just the right kind of wrinkles.
I take his coat and the photographer’s parka and hang them on the hooks in the hall, casting stolen glances at the two men as I do so. Victor Lenzen is one of those people whose charisma cannot be reproduced on a photo, whose presence transforms the atmosphere of a room. Lenzen is surprisingly attractive, in an unusual and dangerous way.
I’m annoyed at my flitting thoughts, and try to concentrate.
The men seem apprehensive in the large, elegant hallway of the house of this egocentric novelist who never sets foot outside. They feel like intruders. That’s good; uneasiness is good. I lead the way to the dining room, taking the moment to collect myself. Here goes. Their early arrival was, of course, intentional on Lenzen’s part, calculated to put me off my stride and allow him to take the helm, to dictate the course of action, to show me right from the start that I was not in control of the situation. It did, it is true, throw me briefly, but I have recovered my composure. I am surprised at how little I actually feel, now that everything’s under way. I’m in a kind of daze; I feel like an actor when the curtain goes up, an actor who’s playing the part of Linda Conrads. All this is a kind of act, really—a show put on for the cameras and microphones in my house, to which Lenzen and I are performing.
My decision to conduct the interview in the dining room was not a strategic one; it was purely intuitive. The living room seemed wrong to me. We’d have had to sit on the sofa, close up to one another—the soft, comfy sofa; it wouldn’t have been right. My study is up the stairs, along the corridor, at the end of the passage; it’s too far away. The dining room, on the other hand, is ideal. It is close to the front door; it has a large table that creates a certain distance. And it has one further advantage: apart from the times I stand here looking out the window, contemplating the edge of the woods, I hardly ever use it. When I’m alone, I eat in the kitchen. I’m alone a lot. I’d rather sit face-to-face with Lenzen in a room that doesn’t mean as much to me as, for instance, the kitchen, where I’m used to chatting to Norbert while we drink rosé and I stir the saucepans. Or the library upstairs, where I travel and dream and love. Where I live.
I try to appear relaxed and not to stare at Lenzen. Out of the corner of my eye I can see him taking in the room in a few sweeping glances. He walks across to the dining table. He puts his bag down on the first chair he comes to, opens it up and glances inside. He’s making sure he has everything with him. He seems a tad awkward, almost nervous, but then so does the photographer. If I didn’t know any better, I would presume they were simply intent on making a good job of the interview, and put their jumpiness down to that. As far as the photographer is concerned, this may well be the case.
I glance at the large, empty dining table where I’ve laid out the copies of my new novel. It was not, of course, necessary to display the book; I am sure that everybody here is acquainted with the contents. But from a psychological point of view, it can’t be a bad idea to have the indictment to hand. The photographer will think the books are supposed to feature in the pictures. He’s fiddling about with his equipment while the monster takes a look around the room.
I sit down, take a water bottle, open it, pour myself a glass. My hands do not tremble. My hands—I ask myself whether it’s the first time I’ve shaken hands with a murderer. After all, you never know. I ask myself how many people I’ve shaken hands with altogether in my life and how long I’ve been alive. I do a quick sum in my head. Thirty-eight years: that’s about 13,870 days. If I’d shaken hands with one person every day of my life, that would make almost fourteen thousand people. I wonder how many had committed murder, and arrive at the conclusion that this is probably not the first murderer I’ve shaken hands with—just the only one I know about.
Lenzen glances at me. I force my thoughts to settle down; they’re flapping about like startled chickens, but eventually do as I tell them. I’m annoyed. And I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed. This is precisely the kind of carelessness that could prove fatal. I must concentrate from now on—that much I owe Anna.
I look at the monster. I look at Victor Lenzen. I hate his name. Not only because it’s the monster’s name, but also because I know that Victor means ‘conqueror’ and I believe in the magic of names. But this time the story is going to end differently.
‘Beautiful house you have here,’ says Lenzen, going over to the window. He looks across at the edge of the woods.
‘Thank you,’ I say, getting up to join him.
When I opened the door to him, the sun had been shining through the clouds. Now there’s a light drizzle falling.
‘April weather in March,’ says Lenzen.
I don’t reply.
‘How long have you been living here?’ he asks.
‘More than ten years.’
I jump when I hear the landline ringing in the living room. No one ever rings me on the landline. Anyone who wants to get hold of me calls my mobile. I see Lenzen give me a sidelong glance. The telephone is still ringing.
‘Don’t you want to answer it?’ he asks. ‘I don’t mind waiting.’
I shake my head, and the ringing stops.
‘I’m sure it wasn’t important,’ I say and hope I’m right.
I take my eyes off the edge of the woods and sit back at the table. It’s the place that gives me the strongest sense of security—my back to the wall and the door within eyeshot.
If Lenzen wants to sit opposite me, he’ll have to sit with his back to the door. That makes most people nervous and reduces their powers of concentration, but he accepts without protest. If he notices at all, he doesn’t let it show.
‘Shall we?’ I ask.
Lenzen nods and takes a seat opposite me.
He takes out notepad, pen and digital recorder from the bag that he has placed on the floor beside his chair. I wonder what else he has in there. He’s focusing his mind. I sit up straight. I feel the urge to cross my legs and fold my arms, but I resist. No protective gestures. I place both feet firmly on the ground. I rest my lower arm on the table and lean forwards, taking up space, asserting myself—what Dr Christensen calls ‘power poses’. I watch Lenzen straighten his papers and square up the recorder with the corner of the table.
‘Well,’ he begins. ‘First of all I’d like to thank you for your time. I know that you rarely give interviews and I feel honoured that you’ve invited me to your house.’
‘I’m a great admirer of your work,’ I say, hoping to sound noncommittal.
‘Really?’ He puts on a face, as if he were genuinely flattered. There is a pause and I realise that he’s expecting me to elaborate.
‘Oh yes,’ I say. ‘Your reports from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria—you do some important work.’
He lowers his eyes and smiles modestly, as if embarrassed by the praise that he has elicited from me.
What are you playing at, Herr Lenzen?
With my upright posture and my controlled, steady breathing, I am sending my body all the signals it needs to be focused yet relaxed, but still my nerves are tense, almost snapping. I can’t wait to find out what questions Lenzen has prepared and how he intends to conduct the interview. He must be just as tense, wondering what I’m hoping to achieve, what kind of a hand I’ve dealt myself, what trumps I have up my sleeve. He clears his throat and glances at his notes. The photographer is busy with his camera; he takes a trial shot, then goes back to looking at his light meter.
‘All right,’ says Lenzen. ‘My first question is the one all your readers must be asking. You’re famous for your literary, almost poetic novels. Now, with Blood Sisters, you’ve written your first thriller. Why the switch in genre?’
That is the question I’d expected him to start with and I relax a little. I do not, however, get round to answering, because at that moment I hear noises coming from the hall—a key turning in the lock, then footsteps.
I catch my breath.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, and get up.
I have to leave Lenzen alone for a minute. But the photographer is there with him, and the idea that he might be in cahoots with Lenzen doesn’t make any sense at all.
I go out into the hall and my heart sinks.
‘Charlotte!’ I cry, unable to conceal my dismay. ‘What are you doing here?’
She frowns at me, her coat dripping.
‘Isn’t it the interview today?’
She hears the murmurs of the two men coming from the dining room and looks at her watch in bewilderment.
‘Oh God, I’m not late, am I? I thought the whole thing didn’t start until twelve!’
‘I wasn’t actually expecting you at all,’ I whisper, because I don’t want Lenzen to hear. ‘I left a message on your voicemail. Didn’t you get it?’
‘Oh, I lost my mobile the other day,’ Charlotte says casually. ‘But now that I’m here…’
She leaves me standing there, puts her bunch of keys down on the sideboard next to the door and hangs up her flimsy Little Red Riding Hood coat.
‘What can I do for you?’
I have to restrain myself from slapping her and pushing her back out with force. The murmuring in the dining room has stopped—the men must be eavesdropping.
I need to get a grip on myself. Charlotte is looking at me expectantly. In this brief moment of silence, the telephone starts to ring again. I do my best to ignore it.
‘I’ve finished getting everything ready,’ I say. ‘But you could make some coffee—that would be great.’
I have already made coffee; it’s in the thermal pot on the table. But no matter—I don’t know whether I can avoid an encounter between Charlotte and Lenzen, though I’ll try to at all costs.
‘Sure,’ says Charlotte. She glances in the direction of the living room, where the insistent ringing continues, but she passes no comment.
‘I’ll come and collect the pot in a minute,’ I call after her. ‘I’d like to be left undisturbed until then.’
Charlotte frowns again, because I’m not normally like that, but presumably puts it down to the unusual situation: I never have strangers to the house and certainly never give interviews. The telephone goes quiet. I toy with the idea of looking to see who the persistent caller was, but think better of it. Nothing can be as important as this.
I return to the dining room.
From her car, Sophie watched a ginger and white cat lying on the lawn in front of the house giving itself a thorough wash. For a good ten minutes now, she’d been trying to psych herself up to enter the building where Britta had lived.
The day had got off to a bad start. When she had finally dropped off after a sleepless night, Sophie had been woken by a journalist wanting to speak about her sister. She had hung up, furious. Then she had rung Britta’s landlord to find out when she could collect Britta’s belongings from the flat, but couldn’t get hold of him. Instead, she had talked to his son, who had offered her his condolences and then plunged into a story about his brother, who had died in a car crash as a schoolboy—so, of course, he knew exactly what Sophie was going through.
Now she was sitting here, in the car. It was a hot day; the sun was beating down on the black roof. Sophie didn’t want to get out; she wanted to sit and watch the cat for a little while longer. But, as if the creature had guessed her thoughts and didn’t fancy being watched, it rose elegantly, casting a disdainful look in her direction, and marched off.
Sophie sighed, summoned all her energy and got out.
From somewhere nearby, maybe from behind the house, came the sound of children playing. There was no sign that anything terrible had ever happened here. All the same, Sophie had to force herself to take every step that brought her nearer the front door. When she finally stood at the door of the block of flats, she swallowed, scanning the names on the doorbell panel. Britta’s makeshift label was still there, written in her schoolgirl handwriting and stuck on with sticky tape. Sophie averted her eyes and, pressing her lips together, rang the bell of the elderly lady on the second floor. A crackle indicated that someone had activated the intercom.
‘Yes?’ came a faint voice. ‘Who is it?’
‘Hello, it’s Sophie Peters—Britta Peters’ sister.’
‘Oh. Ah ha. Come on up, Frau Peters.’
The door buzzed. Sophie gritted her teeth and found herself in the hallway. She hurried as quickly as she could past the door to Britta’s ground-floor flat and on towards the stairs. On the second floor she was met by an old lady with smartly cut short hair and a pearl necklace.
Sophie held out her hand.
‘Come on in,’ the woman said.
Sophie followed her along a passage into an old-fashioned living room. The pastel colours, the lace doilies, the antiquated wall unit and the lingering smell of boiled potatoes were improbably soothing.
‘Nice of you to come so quickly,’ the old lady said, after offering Sophie a seat on the sofa and a cup of tea.
‘But of course,’ Sophie replied. ‘I came as soon as I got your message.’
She blew on her tea and took a small sip.
‘The neighbours said you’d been asking whether anyone had seen anything.’
‘I thought people might tell me more than they’d told the police,’ Sophie replied. ‘You never know. To be honest with you, I go mad at the moment if I don’t get out of the house a bit.’
The old lady nodded.
‘I know what it’s like,’ she said. ‘I was the same when I was a girl—always up and doing.’ She took a sip of her own tea.
‘I was at the doctor’s when you were asking around,’ she said. ‘That’s why you didn’t find me in.’
‘I see. Have you told the police what you saw?’ Sophie asked.
‘Oh, them…’ said the old lady with a dismissive gesture.
Sophie frowned. ‘But you did see somebody?’
The old lady began to rub away at an invisible stain on her dress. Sophie put her tea down and leant forward. She could barely control her trembling hands.
‘You said you’d seen the man who killed my sister,’ she prompted her, when the woman showed no sign of volunteering any information.
The old lady stared at her for a moment, then gave a loud sob and slumped down in her chair.
‘I still can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Such a lovely girl. She always did my shopping for me, you know. I’m not as steady on my feet as I used to be.’
Sophie watched the woman cry for a few moments. She wasn’t capable of feeling anything much at the moment. She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and handed it to the woman, who took it and dabbed at her eyes.
‘You said you’d seen somebody,’ Sophie repeated, when the old lady had calmed down a little. Every muscle in her body seized up as she waited for the reply.
Going over the conversation in her head as she drove along the motorway, Sophie could hardly contain her anger. The whole thing had turned out to be a huge disappointment. The woman was lonely and had fancied a chat with someone about Britta, who had visited her regularly. On top of everything else, she had cataracts and was nearly blind. Sophie had listened to her for a little while longer and then made a dash for it.
She thought of Britta as she overtook a car—Britta, who had helped old ladies with their shopping and must have listened to their stories with the patience of a saint.
Sophie drove as if in a trance. Eventually, she slowed the car and flicked on the indicator. She had reached her destination.
The young woman who opened the door flung her arms around Sophie’s neck.
‘How lovely to see you. Come in. We’ll sit in the kitchen.’
Sophie followed Friederike into the house.
‘How are you? And your parents? How are they bearing up?’
Sophie was used to these questions by now and was ready with a stock phrase. ‘We do our best,’ she said.
‘You were all so brave at the funeral.’
Friederike’s lower lip trembled. Sophie opened her handbag and, for the second time that afternoon, took out a tissue.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Friederike said tearfully. ‘I should be the one comforting you!’
‘Britta was your best friend,’ Sophie replied. ‘You have as much right to be sad as I do.’
Friederike took the tissue and blew her nose.
‘It was so odd at the funeral,’ she said. ‘Throwing flowers on the coffin, when Britta hated cut flowers.’
‘I know,’ Sophie said and almost had to smile. ‘It was the same when my parents and I were planning the funeral. The undertaker looked at us as if we were mad when we said that Britta didn’t like them. “What do you mean? All women love flowers!”’
Friederike gave a sniffly laugh.
‘Not Britta,’ she said. ‘The poor flowers. Imagine, you’re standing there in a meadow, minding your own business, and somebody comes along and snaps off your head.’
The two women had to laugh.
‘Sometimes Britta could be a real fruitcake,’ Sophie said.
Friederike smiled, but the moment passed as quickly as it had come. Tears welled up in her eyes again.
‘It’s so unbelievably awful. I can’t get my head round it.’ She wiped her tears away. ‘Did you really see him?’
‘Yes,’ she said simply.
‘My God. I’m so glad you’re all right, at least.’
She cried for a while, sobbing loudly, then made an effort to pull herself together.
‘Do you know what I miss most?’ she asked.
‘Ringing Britta when I need advice,’ Friederike said. ‘It’s weird. I’m three years older than her, but she was definitely the more grown-up of the two of us. I don’t know what I’ll do without her.’
‘I know what you mean,’ Sophie said. ‘Britta always said out loud the things everyone else was only thinking: “You’ve put on an awful lot of weight, my dear sister. Maybe you should be a bit more careful what you eat!” “Sophie, are you sure Paul’s the right man for you? I don’t like the way he looks at other women.” “That bag’s real leather, isn’t it, sis? Are you all right with that?”’
Friederike gave a quick burst of laughter.
‘That really does sound like Britta,’ she said. ‘It’s funny. It used to annoy me sometimes. Now there’s nothing I’d like more than to hear one of Britta’s lectures on our plastic-polluted oceans, or the atrocities of factory farming.’
Friederike sniffed, then blew her nose.
‘What did you want to talk to me about, Sophie?’
‘I wanted to ask you something.’
‘Do you know if Britta had been seeing anyone lately?’
‘A man, you mean?’
‘No. Not since Leo left her.’
Sophie sighed. The crime of passion theory favoured by the police (that much she had managed to glean from the interviews) was seeming less and less likely. Britta had not been in a relationship at the time of her murder.
‘Why did they split up?’ Sophie asked. ‘Britta never talked about it.’
‘Because he’s a complete prick, that’s why. He even accused her of cheating on him.’
‘Yeah,’ Friederike snorted. ‘Britta—unfaithful! Can you believe it? If you ask me, there’d been something going on for a while between him and that Vanessa he’s going out with now, and he wanted to blame the break-up on Britta.’
‘Why would he have done that?’
‘It doesn’t matter now anyway,’ she said at length.
Sophie nodded. Her heart sank. She hadn’t really believed the police would be proved right about the crime passionnel, but that didn’t stop her from hoping that Britta had been seeing someone in secret. Crimes committed within a relationship were almost always solved. But when there was no obvious connection between perpetrator and victim, it became tricky for the investigators, and the chances of solving the crime plummeted.
‘Anyway,’ Friederike said, jolting Sophie out of her thoughts, ‘it wouldn’t have made sense for Britta to go on dates. Why would she have carried on dating?’
‘What do you mean?’ Sophie asked.
‘Oh my God,’ said Friederike. ‘Didn’t you know?’