The rain has come after all. Again and again, the wind flings it at the kitchen window as though it were trying to break the glass. But it tires, and eventually ceases altogether, and soon the storm is no more than a memory, a mute flash of summer lightning in the distance.
I stand there, propped up at the kitchen table, trying to remember how to breathe. My body has stopped doing it for me automatically, so I have to focus all my attention on it. I don’t have the strength for anything else; I think of nothing. I stand like that for a long time.
But then a thought does reach me, and it gets me moving, and while I’m wondering at the fact that my arms and legs and everything else function the same as ever, I’m walking through rooms and climbing stairs and pushing open doors. Then I find him. He’s asleep, but wakes up when I sit down beside him. First his nose, then his tail, then the rest of his body. Bukowski’s tired, but he’s pleased to see me.
Sorry to wake you, mate. I don’t want to be on my own tonight.
I curl up in a ball beside him on the floor, half on his blanket. I snuggle up to him, trying to get some of his warmth, but he wriggles free; he doesn’t like it, needs his space. He isn’t a pussy cat after all; he wants freedom, room to move. Soon he is asleep again, dreaming his doggy dreams.
I lie there alone for a moment longer, trying to keep thinking of nothing, but an animal impulse stirs in my chest and I remember Lenzen’s embrace—the firmness, the warmth—and I have a feeling in my stomach as if I were in free fall, and again I try to think of nothing, but still I think of Lenzen’s embrace and the beast in my chest and its terrible name: desire. I know how pathetic I am, but I don’t care.
I know too that this isn’t about Lenzen; that it isn’t his embrace I desire, that my desire isn’t for him. I know who it’s for, but I mustn’t think about that.
Lenzen was merely the trigger, but now it hurts to remember what it could be like to live among people—the looks, the physical contact, the warmth. I don’t want to think about it, but I’m drawn into my memories, and then the rational part of my brain starts up again. The grace period is over, and I think: any minute now the police will arrive.
I know that I have committed a crime, documenting it myself fastidiously—all those microphones and cameras here in the house. I have done terrible things and the police will come and arrest me, no matter what Lenzen said. As soon as he can think straight again, he’ll call them. But it won’t make much difference whether it’s here or in some prison, that I sit on my own and vegetate with a knot of desire in my chest.
So I do nothing. I don’t go round the house destroying all the tapes and cameras that have so mercilessly documented my madness. I lie down on my bed and wait, glad that nothing of the past hours surfaces in my consciousness, because I know that there is such a lot there that could distress me. As I’m thinking this, it happens, and a thought pops up, clothed in Lenzen’s voice, although it’s my thought too: ‘The worst is the doubt. Doubt is like a thorn you can’t get a hold on. It’s terrible when a thing like that destroys families.’
I think of my parents, of what they were like in the aftermath of that terrible night—and, indeed, have been ever since. Subdued, as if someone had turned the volume down. They treated me gingerly, as though I had been made of glass. Gingerly and guardedly. Courteously, too, as if I were a stranger. I have always tried to interpret it as consideration, but deep down I’ve known that it is something else. It has taken Victor Lenzen for me to work out what that something is: it is doubt.
Linda loved Anna. No, Linda doesn’t have any motive at all. No, Linda wouldn’t be capable of a thing like that, and in any case, why would she? Impossible. No, never, definitely not, not a chance. But what if she had?
After all, we live in a world in which anything is possible: in which babies come into being in test tubes, and robots explore Mars, and tiny particles are beamed from A to B. So why not that? A vestige of doubt always remains.
I can’t bear it. I sit up in bed, reach for the telephone, dial my parents’ landline number that’s been the same for about thirty years, and wait. When did we last speak? How many years has it been? Five? Eight? I think of the drawer in the kitchen that is full of Christmas cards from my parents, because that’s the way we celebrate Christmas—we send each other cards. We haven’t spoken properly since Anna’s death. We ran out of words. Conversations became sentences, sentences became single words, words became syllables, and then we stopped talking altogether. How could it come to this? And can we ever get back from postcards—the only thing keeping us from total communication breakdown—to conversations? What if my parents seriously think I’m a murderer?
Do you really want to know, Linda?
Yes, I do.
It’s not until the ringing tone sounds that I remember that in the other world, where my parents live, time matters so much more than in mine. On the second ring I cast a hasty glance at the clock: it’s three in the morning—that late, damn it. How long did I stand in the kitchen, staring into space? How long did I spend watching my sleeping dog? How long did I lie there with the cold eyes of my surveillance cameras looking down on me like indifferent gods?
I’m about to hang up, having decided it’s too late for this, when I hear the alarmed voice of my mother.
‘Hello, it’s Linda.’
My mother lets out a noise that I can’t place—a deep, distressing groan. I don’t know what it means, and I’m searching for the right words, words to explain why I’ve got her out of bed in the middle of the night and to tell her that there’s something I must ask her that’s terribly difficult for me to ask, when there’s a crackle on the line followed by a drawn-out bleep. It’s some time before I realise that my mother has simply hung up.
I put down the phone and stare at the wall. Then I sink back into bed.
My name is Linda Conrads. I am thirty-eight years old. I am an author and a murderer. Twelve years ago I killed my younger sister Anna. No one can explain why. I probably can’t explain it myself. I’m probably quite simply mad. I am a liar and a murderer. That is my life. That is the truth. At least, it is for my parents.
A black thought that has been swirling around in my subconscious drifts to the surface, big and heavy, stirring up a maelstrom of other thoughts in its wake. Lenzen’s voice.
‘The Disney princess up on her high horse. If I were a woman—if I were Sophie—I would detest Britta.’
And I think: I did too.
The pain of that realisation. The memories. Yes, I did detest her; yes, I hated her; yes, I was jealous; yes, I thought it was wrong that my parents always favoured her—the younger one, the prettier one, the one who knew how to manipulate them, who looked so sweet and innocent with her blonde hair and her round child’s eyes that she had everyone wrapped round her little finger. Everyone except me, because I knew what she was really like; I knew how hurtful she could be, how inconsiderate, how cruel, how incredibly mean.
Mum and Dad will believe me, want to bet?
Do you like that bloke? I can make him come home with me, want to bet?
No wonder Theo reached the point where he couldn’t stand her any more; after all those years of their relationship, he’d had a glimpse behind the scenes; he knew her almost as well as I did.
Oh no, Anna wouldn’t do a thing like that, Anna wouldn’t say a thing like that, you must have got it wrong—she’s only little. You’re trying to tell me Anna did that? There must have been some misunderstanding; that doesn’t sound like her at all. Honestly, Linda, why do you always come up with such lies?
Anna, Anna—Anna, who could always wear white without spilling on it—Anna, who had mix tapes made for her by the boys—Anna, who inherited our grandmother’s ring—Anna, whose name you could read backwards as well as forwards, whereas my name backwards is a joke.
If you read your name backwards, you get Adnil. Sounds like Adolf or Arsehole. Now don’t go and get angry again, Adnil, I was only joking. Adnil—hahahahaha.
Yes, I detested my sister. That is the truth. That is my life. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about the police, who aren’t here although they ought to be by now, or about my parents, or Victor Lenzen or my own black thoughts.
I reach out for the bedside table, pull open the drawer, take out a packet of pills (a bumper pack from the USA—I love the internet), shake a few into my hand, wash them down with stale water, retch and then notice I’m hungry. My stomach rebels—my stomach full of pills. I curl up in a foetal position and wait for the cramps to stop. I want to sleep. Tomorrow is another day. Or, with a bit of luck, not. My stomach feels like a fist. Liquid collects in my mouth and I can’t help thinking of the pool of shock and poison and gall that Victor Lenzen left on my dining-room floor. Everything is spinning around me.
Pressing my hand to my mouth, I slip off the bed and totter towards the door. Bukowski glances up, sees that I’m beyond help and leaves me to my own devices. I stagger to the upstairs bathroom and just make it to the basin before throwing up. I turn on the taps, wait a moment and retch again, suddenly sweating—suddenly cold.
I stand in front of the mirror and contemplate my reflection. The woman looking back at me is a stranger. I frown, and examine the wrinkle that divides my forehead down the middle like a crack, and I realise that it’s not my face but a mask. I raise my eyebrows and more cracks appear, branching out, further and further. I press my hands to my head in an attempt to stop the pieces from falling and shattering, but it’s too late; I’ve started a process that I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.
I let go. My face falls to the floor with a clatter, and behind it is emptiness.
Am I mad?
No, I’m not mad.
How can you tell you’re not mad?
You just can.
How can you tell if you are mad?
You just can.
But if you really are mad—how can you know? How can you know anything with absolute certainty?
I listen to the voices arguing in my head, and I no longer know which of them is the rational one.
I’m back in bed. I’m lying quite still, but my thoughts are racing. I’m scared. I’m still cold.
Then a peculiar noise penetrates my consciousness: a buzz. No, a drone. It swells, subsides, starts up again. It’s throbbing, alive and menacing, and it’s getting louder. I hold my ears and almost fall out of bed. When I take my hands away, I realise that what I’m hearing is silence. That is all that remains, after this day that should have decided everything. Silence.
I sit up and listen until it dies away. Now there’s nothing—only the cool of the night. Everything is muted. My heart is beating dully, as if it no longer believes that this Sisyphean work is worth it. My breathing is quite shallow, my blood is flowing wearily, and my thoughts have almost come to a standstill. I think of nothing except a beautiful pair of different-coloured eyes.
All of a sudden I’m sitting up with the phone in my hand, although I can’t remember having made a decision, and I’m dialling a number.
My heart is now beating like mad and my breathing is galloping and my blood has started flowing again and my thoughts are coming thick and fast, because I’m finally making the call I’ve put off for eleven years. I know the number by heart; I’ve dialled it often enough only to cut off the connection immediately, every time.
The first ringing tone is nearly more than I can bear; I almost hang up again from pure reflex—but I push on. The second ring sounds, the third, the fourth, and with a kind of relief I’m beginning to think he’s not there. Then he picks up.
Jonas Weber’s mobile was vibrating for the third time in half an hour. He took it out of his trouser pocket, looked at the display, saw that it was Sophie and cursed himself for having given her his number. After a brief internal struggle, he answered.
‘It’s Sophie Peters. I have to talk to you.’
‘Listen, Sophie, this isn’t a good time,’ he said, sensing Antonia Bug and Volker Zimmer turn to look at him as he spoke her name. ‘Can I ring you back?’
‘It won’t take a second and it’s really, really important,’ said Sophie.
Something in her voice alarmed Jonas. She sounded odd—manic.
‘Okay. Hang on.’
With an apologetic glance at his colleagues, he left the scene of the crime they’d been called to, extremely glad, in fact, to step outside for a bit.
‘Okay, I’ve got away for a moment,’ he said.
‘Are you in a meeting or something?’
‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I was in the museum a moment ago. I was looking at van Gogh’s sunflowers. And…you know that I told you it must have been a stranger? That no one who knew Britta would have hurt her in any way? You said I made her sound like an angel? That’s what she was, you see. A kind of angel.’
‘Sophie,’ said Jonas, ‘slow down a bit. I can’t keep up!’
He could hear her nervous breathing at the other end of the line.
‘I knew straight away that I’d seen something in Britta’s flat that didn’t belong there. I told you, do you remember? That the culprit had left something behind, like a serial killer in a film. Something was out of place—I just didn’t know what. But now I do!’
‘Keep calm, Sophie,’ said Jonas as patiently as he could. ‘Take a deep breath. That’s the way. Now, carry on.’
‘Okay, so I said it must be a serial killer—a lunatic—and you said that there aren’t serial killers in real life; that most crimes are committed by the victim’s partner. All that stuff.’
‘Sophie, I remember very well. Where are you going with this?’
‘You said it couldn’t be a serial killer because, for one thing, there wasn’t a series because there’s no comparable case. But what if Britta’s the beginning? The first in a series? What if he keeps going?’
Jonas was silent.
‘Are you still there? Jonas?’
‘I’m still here.’
Her story was a muddle, but he realised that he was going to have to let her talk.
‘Good. Well, in any case… I told you I was in the museum, in front of van Gogh’s sunflowers. Do you remember how I told you that something wasn’t right in Britta’s flat? Now I know what it was. No idea why I didn’t think of it before—it’s as if my brain had been blocked. Probably because it was far too obvious and somehow, for whatever reason, I was looking for something subtle, something obscure. But I knew it, damn it, I knew it!’
‘It was the flowers,’ said Jonas.
There was a moment of shocked silence.
‘You knew?’ Sophie asked.
‘Not until just now,’ said Jonas, trying to sound calm. ‘But listen, Sophie, I really should be getting back.’
‘Do you know what that means, Jonas?’ Sophie asked in excitement, ignoring his last words. ‘The murderer left flowers in Britta’s flat! What normal murderer, acting in the heat of the moment or out of base motives, would leave flowers next to his victim?’
‘Let’s talk this over in peace some time, Sophie,’ said Jonas.
‘I’ll ring you as soon as the meeting’s over, I promise.’
‘The murderer left them there, do you see? They weren’t Britta’s flowers! Britta didn’t like cut flowers! Everyone knew that! The flowers are probably a kind of trademark of his! If that’s the case, he’ll do it again! That’s the direction your investigations must take. Maybe it’s not too late to stop him!’
‘Sophie, we’ll talk later, I promise.’
‘But there’s something else I must te—’
He hung up, put his mobile back in his pocket and returned to the airless flat.
The scene of the crime, which his colleagues were going over with a fine-tooth comb, was similar to the scene in Britta Peters’ flat. On the living-room floor lay a blonde woman. She was wearing a white dress that was now almost saturated with her blood. As far as appearances went, she could have been a sister of Britta Peters. Like her, she too lived alone; like her, she had a ground-floor flat. When the police officers had arrived, the door had still been open.
Sophie’s words went through Jonas’s head: ‘The flowers are probably a kind of trademark of his.’
Jonas looked about the flat as he went back to join his colleagues. There was one big difference between the crime scenes: here the flowers he’d brought with him weren’t strewn about.
Again, Jonas heard Sophie’s voice: ‘He’ll do it again! But maybe it’s not too late to stop him!’
He looked at the corpse of the blonde woman. She was holding a small, neat bunch of white roses, which stood in lurid contrast to the dark dried blood in which she was lying.
It was too late.