I am sitting at the window looking out onto the lake. Sometimes I spot an animal at the edge of the woods, a fox or a rabbit—even a deer, if I’m very lucky. But there’s nothing there now.
I’ve been watching the sun rise. I haven’t slept. How could I have slept the night my world collapsed all over again? After the phone call?
I could hear him sit up in bed when I said my name. First there was a rustling down the line, and then his fraught voice.
‘Frau Michaelis!’ he said. ‘My goodness!’
I had to swallow.
‘It’s six in the morning,’ he said, alarmed. ‘Has something happened? Do you need help?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not really. I’m sorry to disturb you…’
There was a brief silence.
‘That’s all right. I’m just surprised to hear from you.’
I could hardly believe he’d called me ‘Frau Michaelis’. And then his professionalism—the practised composure that immediately took over, crowding out his surprise and his…his…
‘How can I help you?’
Hey, Julian, I’ve written a book in which you’re one of the main characters. How are you?
I force myself to be as formal with him as he is with me. Has he really forgotten me? It’s probably for the best.
‘I don’t know how much you remember—you investigated the murder of my sister some years ago,’ I say.
‘Of course I remember you,’ he replies after a moment. He sounds neutral. I swallow my disappointment.
What did you expect, Linda?
I try to recall my original intention.
This isn’t about you, Linda.
‘I have to ask you something,’ I say.
Entirely neutral. There’s…nothing there.
‘Well, it’s about my sister’s case. I don’t know whether you remember, but I found my sister, and…’
‘I remember,’ he says. ‘I promised you I’d find the murderer and I wasn’t able to keep my word.’
That, too, he says neutrally. But he does remember that.
Go on, Linda, ask him.
‘There’s something on my mind.’
‘Well, first of all, I’m sorry if I woke you; it’s a stupid time to ring anyone, I know… It’s… Well, back then…’ I swallow. ‘It wasn’t clear to me for a long time that I was the main suspect.’
I pause, waiting for him to contradict me, which he doesn’t.
‘And, well, I have to know whether you…’ I can hear him breathing. ‘Did you think I was the murderer back then?’
‘Do you think I’m the murderer?’
Still nothing. Is he thinking about it? Is he waiting for me to carry on talking?
He thinks you’re finally going to confess, Linda. He’s waiting for your confession.
‘Herr Schumer?’ I ask.
I miss our conversations and I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to sit down and let you convince me that poetry can be wonderful. I want to know what became of that tedious colleague of yours and did your wife really move out in the end and do you still have that whorl of hair on the back of your head? And, anyway, how are you? I’ve missed you, Julian. I had the feeling we were from the same star.
‘Herr Schumer,’ I say, ‘I have to know.’
‘The correct procedures were followed. We investigated every avenue to try to find the murderer.’
‘But I’m afraid we were never able to pin him or her down.’
‘Him or her’. Why not ‘the sister’?
‘You’ll have to excuse me: this isn’t the best time. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to speak now. Why don’t we talk more another day?’
After he’s conferred with his colleagues on how to deal with the fact that the main suspect from a decade-old case has got in touch with him out of the blue. After he’s worked out the best way to wring a confession out of you, Linda.
‘Thank you,’ I say lamely and hang up.
Julian—no, Superintendent Schumer—thinks I’m guilty. I’m on my own. I stand in my big living room, staring out at the lake. Everything is still—inside me, too. Then a switch is flipped and I remember.
It is summer. It is hot—a midsummer’s heat that even the approaching night can’t cool down. The air tastes stale and insipid, nighties stick to thighs, children everywhere toss and turn in their sheets, only to get up after all: Mummy, I can’t sleep. Terrace doors stand open, curtains gently flutter, mosquitoes are plump and contented. The air is charged, babies fret, couples row. I have had a row, too: I’ve screamed and raged, I’ve thrown things—ashtrays, books, cups, flower pots, my mobile, his mobile—everything I could lay my hands on. Shoes, cushions, apples, a can of hairspray, my sunglasses. And there was Marc, laughing uncontrollably—you’ve completely lost it, princess, you’re completely crazy, seriously, you should stop drinking so much—and there was I, even angrier because he was laughing at me, laughing off my anger and jealousy. My God, how can you even think such a thing, your own sister, that’s absolutely ridiculous, completely barmy, princess, I met her by chance, it’s a small town, and Christ, it was only a cappuccino, I didn’t know it was forbidden to have a coffee with your own fiancée’s sister, wow, she was right, you crack me up, there was I thinking she was completely nuts but she was right, you crack me up!
I run out of ammunition. I’m hot and my T-shirt sticks to my back and between my breasts, and I stop and stand there, panting, and I say, ‘How do you mean?’
Marc looks at me. He stays put—no more missiles for him to dodge—but snorts with laughter.
‘How do I mean what?’ he asks.
‘How do you mean, “she was right”?’
Marc shakes his head and, briefly, raises an eyebrow in exasperation.
‘Well, if you really want to know, Anna said it would be better if I didn’t tell you we’d met because you’d go ballistic.’
For a moment I am quite weak with anger. I try not to look at him; if I look at him now, I’ll explode. I fix on the newspaper lying on the dining table, concentrating on the headline—German troops in Afghanistan—and then on the photo of the columnist. I stare at the weather-beaten face with unusually pale eyes. I try to calm down. The face flickers before my eyes and I stare at it, but it’s no help at all.
Marc snorts again. ‘And, idiot that I am, I say, “Come on, Anna, what rubbish. Linda is cool.” And Anna says, “You’ll see, Marc. You’ll see.”’
He’s not grinning any more. He’s staring, as if seeing me for the first time—as if he’d only now realised that his fiancée isn’t cool after all. Cool: the word he always uses to describe me to his mates. Linda is cool, Linda loves football and beer, Linda doesn’t cause any trouble if I spend a night away. Jealousy? Oh, please. Not Linda. Even when I had that thing going with the woman from the marketing department, Linda understood. It was purely physical. I confessed and she understood, because she’s cool. We talk about everything. Linda’s up for anything: lads’ films, cans of beer, porn. Linda has the best sense of humour in the world. Linda is cool.
Marc stares at me. ‘Why are you being so uncool?’ he asks.
My anger is clenched tight like a fist, and I grab the car keys and am gone.
Outside, it’s even warmer; the summer night is hot and throbbing. I get in my car and speed off, breathless with rage, my foot pressed down on the accelerator. I find my way; it’s not far. The streets are empty and shimmer blackly, and suddenly I’m at her door, leaning on the bell. She opens up to me in a short dark dress, cellulite-free skin, pearl-necklace smile, gum in mouth. What’s the matter, Linda? And I’m in the flat. What the hell’s going on, Anna? What the hell is this? Are you trying to drive a wedge between me and Marc? Is that it? Are you trying to steal my fiancé, you manipulative little cunt?
She laughs her little laugh, because she knows I never get truly angry, and because swearwords sound ridiculous coming from my mouth—wrong, somehow, and put on, as if I were imitating some actor. She blows a chewing-gum bubble—pop—and says, ‘In my experience, men don’t let you steal them if they don’t want you to,’ and then she laughs this laugh and heads off for the kitchen, leaving me standing there, and it’s only then that I notice the music—the Beatles, on vinyl—my Beatles record that the little cunt stole from me; you never listen to it anyway, Linda.
I can’t believe it—she simply buggers off and fucking makes herself a fucking salad, and I have no choice but to trot along after her like a fool, still yelling my head off: What is this, Anna? What is this? You already have everything you want. You’re not interested in Marc. She ignores me until I grab her by the arm and say it again: You’re not remotely interested in Marc. He’s not even your type, so what’s all this about? What is this, Anna? You’re not fifteen anymore. It’s not funny to steal my boyfriend for the hell of it. We’re not teenagers now and, let’s be honest, it wasn’t funny when we were.
But this is different. She tears her arm free. You’re crazy, Linda. I don’t know what you want from me. You and your stories: you always have to make such a drama out of everything. Snap out of your fucking victim role. I can’t take anything from you that you don’t let me take. I can’t steal any man from you that you don’t let me steal. Your whingeing is really getting on my nerves—nobody understands me, nobody likes me, I’m so fat, I’m so ugly, nobody reads my stories, I’m so broke, I’m so miserable, boo hoo hoo…
For a moment, everything goes black—black with anger—but I fight the anger. I’m not fifteen any more; I said so myself. I’m not a fifteen-year old loner. I don’t have spots or spare tyres or ridiculous glasses: I have money, I write, I’m making a name for myself, I have a fiancé, I’m a grown-up woman. I don’t have to let my sister bait me; I can simply breathe away my anger, take the wind out of Anna’s sails, turn round and go home. I don’t have to play along with her, I don’t have to let her provoke me. I can simply go home before this gets out of hand—and these things always get out of hand and Anna always ends up winning, and I always end up being blamed, because Linda tends to exaggerate a bit; Linda can be melodramatic, she’s always been like that; Linda and her stories.
I breathe in and out, in and out. It works well; I manage to calm down. The colours return to normal; the world loses its reddish hue, and all is well. Then Anna says, ‘How do you know what my type is anyway?’ And when I say, ‘What?’ she repeats her question with exaggerated clarity: ‘How…do…you…know…what…my…type… is…anyway?’
I stare at her—her round eyes and pointy canines—and she’s finished chopping the tomatoes and wipes her damp fingers on a tea towel and looks me in the face: ‘Marc is an attractive man.’
I can only stare at her, and when I do eventually manage to choke something out, my voice is hoarse: ‘But you’re not interested in Marc.’
Anna shrugs her narrow shoulders. She smiles, blowing a chewing-gum bubble. Pop.
‘Maybe I just want to see if I can.’
All at once, an unbelievable pain shoots through my head—keen and piercing. I see red, and the knife finds its way into my hand, and I don’t remember exactly what happened next—no, I don’t really remember, I quite honestly don’t remember. The rest is silence, and the smell of iron and bone. I am stunned, truly stunned. I don’t understand, my brain refuses to understand, and I wipe away fingerprints and then we’re in the living room; Anna has staggered into the living room—not far, a few metres; it’s a small flat. I open the terrace door (air, I need air) and the world is red, deep red, and I’m not breathing air; I’m breathing something red, something thick and gelatinous, and I hear an awful tune: All you need is love, la-da-da-da-da—sweet and mocking—love, love, love. The world looks peculiar—sharp-edged and hard. I’m in a photograph, and somebody has turned up the colour saturation as high as it will go. I’m disorientated. What has happened? Why is Anna lying on the floor? What’s that blood doing there? Blood gives Anna the creeps—how can she be lying in a pool of blood that is spreading almost to the tips of my shoes?
I take a step back; I stare at Anna on the floor, dead or dying. My God, what has happened? Somebody must have been here—where is he?
A breath of air wafts across my face and I look up, sensing a movement, and give a start. There is somebody there, disappearing through the terrace door. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, there’s somebody there. Don’t turn round. But he does turn around, and our eyes meet, and I know he killed Anna. The moment drags on, and then the man’s gone and all I can see are the curtains at the terrace door blowing in the wind like willow branches, and I avert my eyes and see Anna in a pool of blood—and my brain doesn’t understand what’s going on—how could it? I let myself in, because Anna didn’t answer, and I came into the flat and found Anna like this, dead and bleeding, and there was this man at the terrace door—oh my God, oh my God—and I thought he was going to kill me too—that I would die, like Anna—oh my God, please, please, dear God, I’m so scared, it smells of blood, there’s blood everywhere.
I pick up the phone and call the police. I’m trembling and whimpering, and I think of the man at the terrace door, in the dark, barely visible. I only saw him briefly, but those eyes—those cold, pale eyes—I’ll never forget, not as long as I live.
The police come. I sit there and stare at Anna, and the police ask me questions and wrap me up in a blanket. There’s this good-looking police officer with different-coloured eyes, and I can’t speak at first, not at all. I don’t know what’s going on. But I make an effort—such a nice man, I’d like to help him, and I pull myself together and tell him about the cold, clear eyes in the dark and the terrace door and how it’s not possible that Anna’s lying there in a pool of blood, because Anna freaks out at blood. I ask him why and he promises to find out, and at some point there’s a stretcher and a photographer and more police, and then I’m in a police station and then I’m in bed and my parents are there—oh my God, oh my God, no.
Marc is there too. He sits down beside me and strokes my hair mechanically—it’s all so awful, my poor princess, oh my God. Later he makes a statement—the same statement as everybody else, the same statement my parents make, and all our friends. The story they have spun around themselves and would defend with their lives: a happily married couple and two inseparable sisters who adore one another. No, they never quarrelled, never, not even when they were little, and certainly not as adults. Little fits of jealousy between sisters? Goodness, no, nothing like that—what nonsense, what a cliché. They loved each other, got on well, thick as thieves, the pair of them—adored one another, inseparable.
I repeat the story about the man with the pale eyes and forget it’s a story; I’d forgotten that, even as I was making it up. I tell my story and I’m good at telling it (Linda and her stories). I tell my story over and over again, I tell it for my life, and I get drawn into it, I become one of the characters—the murder victim’s sister, desperate and broken, lonely and withdrawn—‘She never really recovered, poor thing, the two of them adored one another. Inseparable, they were.’
But the truth is gnawing away at me, struggling inside, hurling itself about in me like a caged beast trying to break free. Still I believe in my story. I am my story; it’s a good story. And I grow ill; I can no longer leave the house, and I keep the beast locked away and continue to believe in the cold eyes and the stranger.
But the caged beast doesn’t give up, and one day it summons up all its strength—all its brute force—and makes one final attempt. I see a man who resembles the character in my story, and I’m forced to reflect, to return to that night, and I grapple with the man with the cold eyes and fight for a confession, but I will not get it into my head, I will not accept—will not, will not, will not accept—that the confession I am fighting for is my own.
That I am a murderer.
And the rest no more than a good story.
That’s how it could have happened. Something like that.
I stand at the window and look out onto the edge of the woods and the lake.
Sophie stared at the telephone, willing it to ring, but it remained doggedly silent.
She went into the kitchen, took a wine glass from the shelf, filled it to the brim and sat down. She gave a start when she heard a creaking sound.
Only the floorboards. She tried to calm down, taking a gulp of wine and beginning to put her thoughts in order.
She had the feeling she was being followed. But was she really, or was it her nerves, which were now in tatters? No, there had been someone there that night, in the underground car park. And who knows how often he had pursued her since without her noticing.
Sophie looked at her mobile. Still no message from Jonas Weber. She let her index finger hover over the call button, then left it. What was the point? Jonas would only give her a lecture on how she should leave police work to the police and have a bit of confidence in them.
If any kind of progress were to be made, she would have to take the matter into her own hands—that much was clear. She got up and reached for her jacket, but then hesitated and sat down. She switched the TV on—and then off again.
If only she’d got to Britta’s a couple of minutes earlier. If she’d let herself in instead of wasting time ringing the bell. If she’d administered first aid straight away. If, if, if. Sophie knew it was her guilty conscience driving her to keep busy. She simply had to find the man. But how?
Suddenly, it came to her.
It was essentially easy. She’d seen the murderer and he’d seen her. But while it was true that she hadn’t recognised him, he certainly seemed to know who she was. Somehow he must have found out, for he was following her—trying to catch her on her own so he could do away with the eyewitness to his crime. He wasn’t going to stop. The perfect opportunity hadn’t yet presented itself to him.
What if Sophie served herself up to him on a silver platter? What if she didn’t run the next time she sensed him behind her but stayed put instead?
No, that was completely crazy. Self-destructive.
Sophie leant back on the sofa and took another gulp of wine. She reflected on the fear Britta must have felt in the last minutes of her life and told herself that fear was not a valid excuse for inaction.
She drank more wine and lay down, staring at the wall. She turned over and stared at the ceiling. The white grew whiter and whiter, gleaming and shimmering before her eyes. But there was something else. Sophie could make out microscopic dark spots, smaller than fruit flies, and yet more than mere specks of colour, for when she looked more closely, she saw the black growing before her eyes, puncturing the white and getting thicker and blacker, until all at once she realised what was going on. There was hair sprouting out of the ceiling, thick and black like pubic hair, growing towards her. The ceiling was becoming porous; it would cave in on her if she continued to lie there like that, doing nothing.
Sophie leapt up, drained her wine, and went along the hall to the bedroom, grumbling at the removal boxes that Paul still hadn’t collected. She was furious—at herself, at the world—and would have liked to take one of the stupid golf clubs that were sticking out of the box labelled ‘Misc.’ and bash something with it. She rummaged around in her hold-all for the pepper spray she had bought a short while ago, put it in her handbag along with her wallet, keys and mobile, left the flat and stormed down the stairs.
The darkness was velvety and smelt autumnal. Sophie realised that the stifling hot summer had given way to a moody autumn.
She walked along the night streets, moving further and further from the busier parts of town, deeper and deeper into the shadows. She hadn’t really stopped to think about her plan.
A trap for a murderer. With her as bait.
Perfect, provided you weren’t overly attached to life.
Sophie realised that she was thinking in the terms of a TV crime drama, with the murderer, the victim, the pesky eyewitness, the nice police officer. Somehow it was easier that way: to view the affair not as a genuine tragedy, not as a real part of her life, but as just another case.
Sophie walked and walked. Fewer and fewer people passed her. It turned chilly—cold, even—and the wind was biting. Sophie unbuttoned her jacket; she wanted to be cold, to shiver, to feel something other than grief or anger at last, even if it was only coldness. Or pain.
Something inside her understood how self-destructive such thoughts were, how crazy this plan was, driven only by her overwhelming feelings of guilt. But Sophie silenced the warning voice and turned into the dark park that lay before her.
She sat down on a bench and waited. She stared into the shadows, growing colder. It wasn’t long before she saw him.