The thought that Lenzen might hurt Charlotte in some way sends a surge of nausea through my body. His threat is probably an empty one, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I can tell by looking at Victor Lenzen that he’s having trouble hiding his smug smile. Here he is at last: the monster from my dreams.
The rain outside has grown heavier; through the window I can see bullets of water riddling the surface of the lake. People in the real world will be grumbling about it. The more prudent among them will be going about under wind-bent umbrellas like oversized walking mushrooms. The rest will be dashing from shelter to shelter like scared animals, while the rain drenches their scalps.
‘Do you like animals?’ I ask Lenzen, even before he’s sat down again.
Carry on. Keep things moving.
He sits down.
‘It’s my turn. Before we were interrupted, you asked me what my dog was called and I said, “Bukowski”. Now I’m asking whether you like animals.’
‘Oh, we’re still playing this little game, are we?’
I don’t respond.
‘You’re an eccentric woman, Frau Conrads,’ says Lenzen.
I don’t respond.
‘All right then,’ he says. ‘Not especially. I never had a pet or anything, if that’s what you mean.’
He glances at his notes, then looks me in the eye again.
‘I don’t like the tone our conversation is beginning to take,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry if I provoked you.’
I don’t know what to say to this, so I nod.
‘Let’s get back to your writing. What do you like most about your work?’
‘Creating my own realities. And, of course, providing my readers with something that gives them pleasure,’ I say, with perfect sincerity. ‘What about you? What do you like most about your work?’
‘Interviews,’ says Lenzen, and grins. He looks at his papers again. ‘Although—or maybe because you never appear in public—there’s a lot about you in the press and on the internet.’
‘Do you read articles about yourself?’
‘Sometimes, when I’m plagued by boredom. Most of it is pure fiction.’
‘Does it upset you to read things about yourself that aren’t true?’
‘No, it amuses me. The more off the wall, the better.’
That, too, is true.
‘My turn,’ I say. ‘Two turns.’
I consider for a moment.
‘Do you think you’re a good person?’ I ask.
I’m fishing in troubled waters. Up until now, all my questions have slid off him. I don’t know what I’m angling for. I had wanted to proceed in a structured fashion—find out what he looks like when he’s telling the truth, then what he looks like when he’s lying. And, finally, tighten the screws. But Lenzen is as slippery as an eel. Maybe I should try to provoke him.
‘A good person?’ he echoes. ‘My God, you don’t half ask some questions. No, probably not. But I make an effort every day.’
Interesting answer. Lenzen is silent, as if probing his words before eventually approving them. Keep firing.
‘What do you regret most in your life?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then think about it.’
Lenzen pretends to ponder.
‘The things that led to the break-up of my marriage, I suppose. What about you? What do you regret?’
‘That I wasn’t able to save my sister,’ I say.
‘Your sister’s dead?’ Lenzen asks.
‘Let’s drop this,’ I say.
He frowns, seems momentarily bewildered, but soon recovers his composure.
‘Where was I? Ah, yes. You say that the stories about you that are circulating on the internet don’t bother you. Does criticism bother you?’
‘Only when it’s justified,’ I say. Quick, keep going. ‘What do you most regret not having done?’
He’s back on track and replies immediately.
‘I should have been there for my daughter more when she was little,’ he says, then presses right on. ‘A critic once wrote that your characters are strong, but that your plots lack verve.’
‘What’s your question?’ I ask.
‘I’m still formulating it. What bothers me much more than the plot, you see, are some of the characters in your latest book. There are two characters in your novel who are less vivid to me than the others, and they are, interestingly enough, the murder victim and the murderer. The murder victim is—forgive me if I exaggerate—a kind, naïve country bumpkin, while the murderer is a soulless sociopath who likes killing young women. Why did you draw such archetypal figures when you’re so famous for your finely drawn characters?’
Every hair on my neck is standing on end.
‘That’s easy,’ I say. ‘I don’t regard those characters as clichéd archetypes.’
‘Don’t you?’ says Lenzen. ‘Take the murdered woman, for instance—Britta, as she’s called in the book.’
My scalp contracts. As she’s called in the book. He’s practically admitting he knows that she really existed and that she had a different name in real life.
‘Do you consider the character of Britta realistic?’ asks Lenzen.
Of course I do. Britta is Anna, Anna is Britta. She exists, she existed. I knew her as well as I know myself.
‘Isn’t Britta more an idealised portrait of a young woman? A lily-white dream. Sickly sweet, clever, kind, and oh-so-virtuous. I mean, that scene where she reacts to the homeless man as a little girl, wanting to fetch all the homeless off the streets…’
Lenzen makes a noise of disparagement. I find it hard to stop myself from pouncing across the table at him and slapping him in the face. But I suppress the impulse. I decide to let him ask, not to interrupt him. I’m learning more from his questions than from his answers.
‘I have the feeling that Britta is an awful goody-two-shoes,’ Lenzen continues. ‘That flashback where she tries to persuade her sister to stop wearing leather for the sake of the animals—it seemed to me almost like a parody. Britta’s constantly taking other people to task and telling them what to do. I know you depict that in a positive light in your novel, but in real life, people like that get on your nerves and certainly aren’t idolised the way they are in your book—if such flawless people even exist, that is. But how do you see it?’
I gasp for breath, make a huge effort not to let him provoke me. The bastard.
‘I think there are people like Britta,’ I blurt out. ‘I think there are very good and very evil people and everything in between. It’s possible that we’re so obsessed by the nuances and the in-between that we block out the people at either end of the scale. We call them clichés or unrealistic. But there are people like that. Very few, of course.’
‘People like your sister?’ Lenzen asks.
The temperature in the room soars. I break out in a sweat.
‘I have the feeling that we’re talking about your sister here.’
The white of the wall opposite shimmers before my eyes.
‘Yes, just a thought. Correct me if I’m wrong. But you’ve written this unbelievably idealised version of the relationship between two sisters, and you have a sister you say you weren’t able to save. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe you mean “save” in a figurative sense—you’re a writer, after all. Maybe you weren’t able to save her from drugs or from a violent man.’
‘What makes you think that?’
Salty saliva collects in my mouth.
‘I don’t know. You’re obviously very fond of this character, Britta, despite the fact that she’s so awful,’ says Lenzen.
Suddenly I have the most extraordinary headache. The wall opposite seems to be bulging towards me as if there were something trapped in there that was trying to get out.
‘Yes!’ says Lenzen. ‘So good, so beautiful, so pure. A proper Disney princess. In real life, a woman like that would be unbearable!’
‘Well, I certainly find it astonishing that the older sister—what’s she called again? Sorry…’
My head is bursting.
‘Sophie,’ I say.
‘That Sophie gets on so well with the character. When Britta tells her sister that her fiancé’s not good enough for her. When she goes on and on to her about her great new job. When she’s constantly nagging her about her weight and her appearance. Perfect Britta—the Disney princess up on her high horse. Seriously, if I were a woman—if I were Sophie—Britta would annoy me more. I might even detest her.’
I did, too, I think.
The realisation is a blow to me. Where did that come from? It’s not new—I can feel it. It’s a thought I’ve had more than once before, but subliminally. On the far side of pain.
What kind of a person are you, Linda?
I shouldn’t think the thought, but I think it again. Yes, I detested her. Yes, she was smug. Yes, she was arrogant. Yes, she was always up on her high horse—Saint Anna. Anna, who could always wear white without spilling on it. Anna, for whom men wrote poems. Anna, for whom Marc would have left me, if she had wanted him, as she never tired of reminding me. Anna, whose hair smelt of shampoo even after a camping trip. Anna, whose name you could read backwards as well as forwards—Anna, Anna, Anna.
What’s going on here?
I struggle free, I surface, and I’m thinking straight again. I know what I’m up against; it’s my guilty conscience—nothing but my guilty conscience, base and insidious. My guilt at not being able to save Anna. It’s gnawing away at me, and to avoid being gnawed quite to pieces, my brain looks for a way out, even if it’s as mean and shabby as the thought that my sister wasn’t all that good.
How shabby, too, and mean, what Lenzen’s just tried to do. And how shabby and mean of me to fall for it. I’m too agitated, too exhausted, too impressionable. My head is throbbing. I must pull myself together. Lenzen has taken one of my castles, but my king and queen are still in play. I try to concentrate. And, as I collect myself, I realise what I’ve heard, what he’s said. The way he’s talking: it’s almost as if he harbours a personal grudge against her. Against Britta. Against Anna. And I realise something. My God.
It hadn’t occurred to me. I had always assumed that the police would have caught the culprit, if there had been any connection with Anna—if she hadn’t been an accidental victim. I thought that Anna had died because someone had taken advantage of a beautiful young woman who lived alone in a ground-floor flat and sometimes left her terrace door open. But maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe it wasn’t cruel coincidence at all. Is it possible? Did Anna know the monster?
‘Be that as it may,’ Lenzen continues, ‘I was utterly fascinated by the description of the murder—that is to say, the chapter where Sophie discovers her sister. It’s terribly painful to read, very affecting. What was it like for you writing that scene?’
My right lower eyelid twitches. I can’t stop it.
‘Difficult,’ is all I say.
‘Frau Conrads,’ says Lenzen, ‘I hope you’re not under the impression that I don’t like your book because that’s not the case. The protagonist, Sophie, for instance, is a character I could wholeheartedly sympathise with for long stretches of the novel. There are, however, a few things that strike me as anomalous, so that I am, of course, thrilled to be able to take this unique opportunity to ask the author why she depicted things one way rather than another.’
‘Oh yes?’ I say. It takes me a moment to get my nausea under control; I have to gain time. ‘What strikes you as anomalous, apart from the murder victim?’
‘Well, the murderer, for example.’
Now it’s getting interesting.
‘Yes. The killer is portrayed as a soulless monster—a typical psychopath. Then the gimmick that he must leave something at the scene of the crime—from a writer of the calibre of Linda Conrads, I’d have expected a more subtly drawn character.’
‘There are sociopaths,’ I say.
I’m sitting right opposite one. I don’t say that.
‘Of course, sure. But they’re extremely rare, even if ninety per cent of all detective stories and thrillers seem to revolve around criminals of that kind. Why did you decide on such a one-dimensional character?’
‘I believe that evil, like goodness, really exists. I tried to convey that.’
‘Evil? Really? Isn’t there evil in all of us?’
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘In some measure.’
‘What is it that fascinates you about criminals like the one in your book?’ Lenzen asks.
‘Nothing at all,’ I say.
I almost spit the words.
‘Nothing at all. A cold, sick soul like the murderer in my book holds no fascination for me whatsoever. Only the possibility of making sure that he ends up behind bars for the rest of his life.’
‘In literature, at least, you can make sure of it,’ Lenzen smirks.
I say nothing.
You wait and see, I think.
See what? another part of me thinks. How?
‘Wouldn’t a more complex psychological motive have been more interesting?’ Lenzen continues.
It’s been clear to me for some time that he’s no longer talking about my book but about himself—that he’s maybe even trying to justify himself. I know that, he knows that, and each of us knows that the other one knows. Maybe I should speak out, at last. Sweep all the metaphors and circumlocutions off the table.
‘Such as?’ I ask instead.
Lenzen’s eyes change; he’s seen through my crude ploy. We both know that I’m asking him for his own motive.
He shrugs. Slippery as an eel.
‘I’m really no writer,’ he says ingeniously. ‘But tell me, why didn’t you kill your main character off at the end? It would have been realistic. And dramatic at the same time.’
Lenzen stares at me.
I stare back.
He asks another question.
I don’t hear it.
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.
Love, love, love.
Please, no, I can’t take any more.
I whimper. Grip the edge of the table. Look about the room in panic, searching for the source of the music. Nothing. Just a large spider crawling over the parquet; I can hear the sound its legs make on the wood. Plick-plick-plick-plick.
Suddenly Lenzen’s face is very close to mine; I can see the little veins in the very white whites of his eyes. The monster from my dreams is right in front of me. I can feel his breath on my face.
‘Are you afraid of death?’ asks Victor Lenzen.
My fear is a deep well that I have fallen into. I’m suspended vertically in the water. I try to touch the bottom with my toes, but there’s nothing there, only blackness.
I shake myself, try to keep above water, stay conscious.
‘What did you just say?’ I ask.
Lenzen frowns at me.
‘I didn’t say anything. Are you all right?’
I gasp. God knows how, but I manage to get a grip on myself.
‘You know,’ Lenzen continues, unmoved, ‘it was the ending that surprised me the most. The fact is that I was convinced all the way through that the killer didn’t actually exist and that the devastated sister would turn out to be the murderer.’
The ground is disappearing from under my feet. There’s only darkness below me—the Mariana Trench—eleven thousand metres of blackness. Anna’s face laughing, mocking. My fingers round the knife. Cold fury. I plunge it in.
Do I plunge it in? Me? No, no. Not that, no. It lasts only a brief, awful moment. No, it wasn’t like that! It’s the music! The monster’s presence. It’s my tense nerves! Maybe he’s even given me something! I’m not with it. I wasn’t with it! For a brief, awful moment I wondered whether my massive sense of guilt stemmed not from the fact that I was unable to save Anna, but from the fact that I… That I… You know. Perhaps there was no fleeing man, after all. Just Anna and me. Perhaps the fleeing man was a story—a lovely story such as only an author’s brain could come up with.
Not a bad story. The fleeing man, no more real than the fawn in the clearing. Linda and her stories.
No. This is not like the fawn story. I’m not a liar and I’m not mad. I am not a murderer. I shake off the black thought and focus my attention on Lenzen again. I nearly let him manipulate me.
I look at him. He exudes…cheerfulness. I shudder. That cold, almost imperceptible smile in his pale eyes. I don’t know what’s going on in Lenzen’s head, but I no longer doubt that he has come here to kill me. I was wrong: he isn’t a wolf. He doesn’t kill swiftly and surely. He enjoys this part—he enjoys the game.
His voice echoes in my head: ‘Are you afraid of death?’
Victor Lenzen is going to kill me. His hand slips inside his jacket. The knife. My God.
I have no choice.
I take the gun that I’ve taped to the underside of the table, ripping it loose. I point it at Victor Lenzen and pull the trigger.
Sophie’s thoughts often returned to that night. She was still tormenting herself with the question of what had seemed so odd about Britta’s flat. There had been something. She had seen it at the crime scene and she saw it in her nightmares, but it kept eluding her.
She was sure this detail held the key. Her brain was simply too full of other things for her to think straight. Yesterday alone so much had happened. First the police officer had come round and reprimanded her. Then her father had been taken to hospital with a suspected heart attack, and her mother, of course, was a nervous wreck, even though it had turned out to be a false alarm.
Sophie, on the other hand, was still keyed up. No question of sleep. And the night was so silent. No Paul beside her anymore, filling the bedroom with his steady breathing. Sophie was glad he had gone, really; she was too exhausted to be in a relationship, thinking of marriage and children as Paul would have liked. She was too angry—at herself, at the world. It’s a sign of grieving, her therapist said. Perfectly normal. But Sophie didn’t feel normal. At the moment she felt ill-disposed towards everybody. Except, perhaps, for that young police officer who had the disconcerting knack of always saying the right thing.
Sophie felt agitated. She had once heard that many people who have suffered a great loss either break down or freeze up, only dimly aware of the outside world. Over the past weeks she had witnessed both: her father’s numbness, and her mother’s breakdown—although her mother was now so sedated she no longer felt much either. Sophie, however, felt everything.
Since she wasn’t going to get to sleep again tonight, she got up and went to her study. She sat down at her desk, which was strewn with printouts and newspaper clippings, and switched on the computer.
Over the past days and nights, she had drawn a precise map of her sister’s life. She had talked to Britta’s tearful friends and to her shocked ex-boyfriend, but her queries hadn’t got her anywhere. None of them could begin to imagine anyone wanting to harm Britta. Maybe Britta had surprised a burglar. Or maybe some sicko had stalked her—something like that. A stranger. Cruel chance. It was the only possibility: that was the unanimous opinion.
But Britta hadn’t complained about a stalker. She hadn’t been worried in any way. Britta’s friends were as clueless as Sophie. There was only one avenue left to explore.
Sophie went onto the website of the internet start-up that Britta had worked for as a graphic designer. Britta’s job had been the only area in her life that didn’t overlap with Sophie’s. If Britta had known her murderer, it could really only be a colleague; Sophie knew all the other men in Britta’s life. She’d only caught a glimpse of the shadow at the terrace door before he disappeared across the terrace, but she would never forget his face. That’s why she found the young policewoman’s questions about their family and Britta’s private life so unnecessary. Sophie knew what she had seen: a stranger.
She glanced at the time. Almost 2am. She remembered that Britta had often stayed on in the office until late, sometimes even spending the night to meet deadlines. She wondered whether her colleagues had similar hours.
Sophie took the telephone, dialled the agency’s number and let it ring. But no one picked up. Britta’s colleagues were the last people she could check out; after that she’d be at a loss as to what to do next.
She had an idea. Sometimes on company homepages there were photos and brief biographies of the employees—especially with new, small companies like Britta’s. She scanned the page again. Yes, there was a button labelled ‘Team’. Sophie clicked on it with trembling fingers.
The photo hit her like a blow to the stomach.
Britta was looking out at her with a broad smile on her face. Blonde hair, big blue eyes, freckled nose. Britta, who had always smelt so good; Britta, who had always caught the spiders that Sophie was so afraid of, trapping them in old jam jars, carrying them carefully outside and setting them free on the grass. Sweet-toothed Britta, who was always chewing gum.
With some trouble, Sophie tore her eyes from the photo and contemplated the pictures of the other employees. Three were of women and could be ruled out immediately. Another six were of men: the two managers, the art director and three computer scientists. None of them was the man Sophie had seen in Britta’s flat.
She continued to scroll down and then stopped. There were two placeholders that had names and job titles beneath them, but contained no photos. Sophie’s heart beat faster and she made a quick note of the names: Simon Platzeck, Social Media, and André Bialkowski, Programmer.
Once again, Sophie glanced at the time. What were the chances that anyone would be in the office in the middle of the night? Not very high. But what was the alternative? Go back to bed and stare at the ceiling? She got dressed, took her car key and pulled the door shut behind her.
Sophie’s body felt strangely light as she left the multi-storey car park adjacent to the complex where Britta had worked. Seventy-two hours without sleep. She looked about her. Of the four office buildings within eyeshot, only one had a light showing. Otherwise, the area, which would be filled with people in a few hours, was deserted: black asphalt, a few solitary street lamps, and a few taxis speeding along the road. Sophie headed for the building where the light was showing, then stopped short. It was numbered 6-10, and Britta had worked in numbers 2-4—the dark, deserted glass block next door.
Disappointed, Sophie turned back. She took the lift and went into the underground section of the car park. The air down here felt poisonous; it reeked of exhaust fumes. Sophie rummaged in her bag for the key and had almost reached her car when the feeling hit her. She was not alone.
She stopped in her tracks: she hadn’t recognised the murderer, so she had assumed that he hadn’t known her either.
What if that weren’t the case?
He would come after her. Try to kill her, the eyewitness. There was someone there, right behind her.
She turned round, her heart thumping. No one. Her footsteps and gasping breaths echoed through the deserted car park as she hurried towards her car—nearly there now, only a few more steps. Then she froze mid-movement again. There was something there—a shadow crouching on the back seat. Or was there? No. It was trick of the light. Or was it?
The shadow moved. Sophie’s heart skipped a beat, then started galloping again. He’s going to kill me too, she thought, numbly. She wouldn’t make it. She couldn’t even scream; she could only stand there and stare. Then the spell broke. Out, thought Sophie. I must get out of here. And: Too close, I’m far too close. Three more steps and he’ll reach me. Three more steps and he’ll kill me.
At last her brain did what it was supposed to do: it tore itself free from all other thoughts and sent terror coursing through her body. The fear of death came like a surge of icy cold water, drenching her body, her clothes, her hair, and momentarily taking her breath away. Then the paralysis ended and Sophie’s body switched into survival mode.
She turned and ran, and the crouching shadow emerged from her car and began to run too. He was fast and he was coming closer. How fast can you run, Sophie, how fast? She ran towards the exit, her heart pounding, her breathing shallow, the man and the knife right behind her. She crashed into the lift doors and frantically pressed the button, rapid footsteps behind her. She didn’t turn round; she thought of Orpheus in the Underworld—turn round and you’re dead, turn round and you’re dead—and the lift didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come. Sophie ran to the stairs, heaved open the creaking steel door, burst through, and headed up the stairs. She heard the door slam shut behind her with a loud crash. Had the man with the knife taken the lift? What if he had taken the lift? What if the man with the knife was waiting upstairs, if…?
With a brutal shriek, the staircase door opened below and footsteps began to sound up the stairs. Sophie ran on, the taste of metal in her mouth, stumbled, struggled to her feet, carried on, the man with the knife behind her, closer and closer. Don’t turn round, don’t turn round. Turn round and you’re dead. What if he throws the knife—just throws it? At your back?
Sophie came to the exit of the underground car park, hurled herself at the door, but it was locked. How can it be? Oh, please—if he gets you, you’re dead—please, pretty please, open. Locked—and right behind her, the man with the knife, right behind her, the footsteps coming closer. Again, Sophie hurled herself at the door, and this time it sprang open. It hadn’t been locked, not even jammed; she hadn’t pressed the handle down firmly enough. Too stupid to open a door… Run, Sophie, damn it, don’t think, run!
Sophie plunged into the open and ran. Along the front of the deserted building, along the deserted street, the footsteps and the knife behind her—black blood, Britta’s open eyes, the look of surprise on Britta’s face, and the figure in the shadows, the figure in the shadows. Sophie ran and ran and ran and ran, until she no longer knew where she was, until she could no longer hear anything but her own footsteps and her own breathing. Only then did she stop.