I have reached the end of my journey. Victor Lenzen is standing before me, only an arm’s length away.
He has closed the front door behind him, shutting out the world. We are alone.
Lenzen seems changed. He is wearing a black shirt and jeans. He looks like an aftershave ad. Those pale blue eyes that I knew I would never forget, when I saw them for the first time, all those years ago in Anna’s flat—how could I ever have doubted myself?
‘What are you doing here, Linda?’ asks Lenzen.
He seems to me a touch shorter than when we last met. Or do I feel taller?
‘I want the truth,’ I say. ‘I deserve the truth.’
For a second or two, we stand there, looking at one another. The air between us seems to vibrate. The moment drags on painfully; I endure it. Then Victor Lenzen looks away.
‘Let’s not talk here,’ he says.
He sets off down the hall and I follow him. His house is large and empty. It looks as if he were about to move out—or as if he’s never really moved in.
I wonder what he’s thinking as he walks ahead of me, feeling my presence behind him. The fact that I’m here means that I’ve seen through him, that it’s not yet over for him, that it’s going into the next round.
He’s making an effort to appear calm. But his thoughts must be going haywire. We walk along a corridor hung with large-format grainy black-and-white photographs. The sea at night, the back of a woman’s curly head, a snake shedding its skin, the Milky Way, a black orchid and the astute-looking face of a fox accompany me on my way. Then we climb a short flight of free-standing stairs to Lenzen’s living room.
A designer lamp in metal and Perspex bathes the room in cool light. There is no television. There are no bookshelves, no plants. Just leather, glass and concrete. Designer furniture, two leather armchairs, a glass table and abstract art in blue and black. A faint smell of cold smoke hangs in the air. There is an adjoining open-plan kitchen. The room leads onto a balcony that is shrouded in darkness.
‘Please,’ Lenzen says. He indicates an armchair. ‘Sit down.’
‘You should be aware that other people know I’m here,’ I say.
It is my only trump.
‘If I don’t get in touch with them, they’ll come and look for me.’
Lenzen’s cold eyes narrow. He nods ponderously.
I take a seat. Lenzen sits down opposite me on the other armchair. We are separated only by the coffee table.
‘Would you like a drink?’ Lenzen asks.
He seems confident that I am unarmed. Presumably because he sank my gun in Lake Starnberg.
I won’t let myself be distracted—not this time.
‘You aren’t surprised to see me,’ I say.
‘How did you know I’d come?’
‘I guessed you weren’t anything like as ill as you made out,’ he says.
He shakes a cigarette out of a packet that’s lying on the coffee table and lights up.
‘Would you like one too?’ he asks.
‘I don’t actually smoke,’ I say.
‘But the main character in your book—she smokes,’ says Lenzen and places a cigarette on the coffee table between us, along with his lighter.
I nod, take the cigarette, light up. We smoke in silence. A cigarette-long grace period (it seems we’re both thinking the same) before we bring this to an end. I smoke mine down to the last millimetre before stubbing it out, steeling myself for the answers to my questions.
I don’t know why, but I have the feeling that Lenzen is going to give them to me now that the time for games is over.
‘Tell me the truth,’ I say.
Lenzen doesn’t look at me; he’s staring at an indeterminate spot on the floor.
‘Where were you on 23 August 2002?’
‘You know where I was.’
He lifts his gaze. We look each other in the eyes, like all those years ago. Of course I know where he was. How could I ever have doubted it?
‘How did you know Anna Michaelis?’
‘Are we really going to carry on like this? With these stupid questions?’
I swallow. ‘You knew Anna,’ I say.
Lenzen lets out a deep rumble—his mirthless version of a laugh. ‘I loved Anna,’ he says. ‘But did I “know” her? To be perfectly honest, I have no idea. Probably not.’
He snorts, grimaces, then throws back his head and lets it circle, making his vertebrae click. He lights another cigarette. His fingers are trembling. Only slightly. I try to digest his words.
I hear Julian’s voice in my head: ‘A crime of passion. So much anger, so many knife wounds, always point to a crime of passion.’ And my reply: ‘But Anna wasn’t in a relationship. I’d have known.’
‘You were…’ I find it hard to say it, as if it were incredibly lewd. ‘You were in a relationship with my sister?’
Lenzen nods. I think of the small, flat smartphone, taped to my chest in a makeshift fashion and now recording everything, and I wish he’d reply. But he shows no sign of doing so. Only sits and smokes. Still he avoids looking me in the eye. And I realise that things have changed. Now he’s the one who can no longer endure my gaze.
‘May I ask you a question?’ I begin.
‘That’s what you’re here for,’ says Lenzen.
‘Why did you come to my house?’
Lenzen stares into space. ‘You can’t imagine what it was like,’ he says.
I twist my mouth wryly.
‘The call to my editor: a famous author wanting to be interviewed by me. I didn’t know what was going on. I was vaguely familiar with the name Linda Conrads from the cultural pages, but apart from that it meant nothing to me.’
Lenzen shakes his head.
‘The literary editor was offended at being ignored. He wanted to interview you himself, of course. I didn’t care. I was looking forward to the interview.’
Lenzen gives a bitter laugh. He takes a nervous drag on his cigarette and carries on talking.
‘Ah well. Our trainee arranged a date for the interview and I got an advance copy of the book to prepare myself.’
‘So I read it. You know, the way you read something you have to read for work. Whenever I could snatch the time: on the train, on the escalator, a few pages in bed before going to sleep. I skipped a lot. I don’t much rate crime novels—the world is brutal enough as it is; I can do without books full of…’
He realises how wrong that sounds coming from him and breaks off.
‘I didn’t notice,’ he says at length. ‘Until the chapter where it happens, I didn’t notice.’
I despise him for avoiding the word ‘murder’. He says nothing for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
‘When I read that chapter… It was funny. I didn’t understand at first. I expect my brain didn’t want to understand and put it off for as long as it could. The setting seemed familiar to me, in an unpleasant, disturbing way. Like something I might have seen in a film once—completely unreal. I was on the train at the time. When I realised—when it became clear to me what I’d read—it was…funny. It’s odd, when you suddenly remember something you’d repressed. At first I wanted to put the book down and think of something else—forget all about it. But the first domino had fallen and, one by one, the memories were coming back. Then I got bloody furious.’
He looks at me. His eyes scare me.
‘I had tried so hard to forget that night. So hard! And I had almost succeeded. I…you know…you live. You work. You don’t sit around thinking about the past. At least, not all the time.’
He loses the thread, buries his head in his hands, plunges into thought, surfaces again and forces himself to carry on talking.
‘I haven’t been walking around all day every day for twelve years thinking to myself that I’ve killed somebody. I…’
He’s said it. My hands are trembling so much I have to press them flat on my thighs to keep them still. He’s said it! He said that he killed somebody.
Lenzen breathes in and out.
‘But I did. I did. And the book reminded me that I had. I had almost forgotten. Almost.’
In stunned shock, I watch Lenzen bury his head in his hands once more, chastened and self-pitying. Then he straightens up again. I don’t know why, but he seems to have made up his mind to answer all my questions. Maybe because he thinks no one would believe me anyway. Or because it does him good to talk. Or maybe because he made up his mind a long time ago that he wasn’t going to give me the opportunity to tell anyone.
No. He can’t do that! He wouldn’t get away with that and he knows it.
‘Once I’d realised what the book was about, I did some research into you. It didn’t take me ten minutes to find out that you were Anna’s sister.’
He looks at me when he says Anna’s name, as if he were searching for her features in my face.
‘I had to come,’ Lenzen says simply.
‘You wanted to know what evidence I had against you,’ I say.
‘I didn’t think you had any evidence against me. If you had, you’d have called the police. But I couldn’t be sure.’
He laughs his mirthless laugh.
‘A nice little trap,’ he says.
‘You didn’t come unprepared.’
‘Of course I didn’t. I have everything to lose—really, everything.’
I sense the threat contained in these words. I endure it. I wonder whether he’d reply if I asked him what happened that night.
‘Where was the music coming from?’ I ask instead.
He knows at once what I mean.
‘The first time, it came from a small mobile device in the photographer’s bag. The second time, from my other phone—the one not on the table.’
I should be getting worried that he’s so willing to answer all my questions, but I keep going.
‘How did you get the photographer to play along?’
Lenzen raises the corner of his mouth, as if he’d like to smile but has forgotten how.
‘He owed me a favour. A big favour. I sold him the whole thing as a harmless prank—the crazy author who never leaves the house freaks out a bit and we get a great story. Don’t think too badly of him. He wasn’t at all keen. But he had no choice in the end.’
I remember the frosty atmosphere between Lenzen and the photographer.
‘Why did you do it in the first place?’ I ask. ‘Why the whole show?’
Lenzen sighs and stares at the floor. He looks like a magician whose marked cards have just fallen out of his sleeve in full view of the audience.
‘I had to play safe. So that you wouldn’t go to the police and send them after me.’
I see. Sowing doubt in my mind was a sure-fire way of getting me to keep silent—the nutty writer who never leaves the house—lonely, eccentric, unstable, almost completely cut off from society. I look at Lenzen, this grave, quiet man. No wonder I was taken in. Certain things I might have expected of him—lies, violence, denial at all costs, maybe even an attempt to kill me. But I’d never imagined him capable of this great show—walk-on parts and props and musical numbers and all. Masterly. Because who’d suss a thing like that? And who’d believe me if I told them?
‘You tried to make me think I’d murdered my own sister,’ I say, spitting out the words.
Lenzen ignores me.
‘How did you know that I’d fall for it? How did you know that Anna and I didn’t always…’
I falter. The thought is incredibly painful.
‘Anna told you about me,’ I say.
Lenzen nods. It’s like a punch in the stomach.
‘What did she say?’
‘That you’d always quarrelled, even as children—like fire and water, the two of you. That she thought you were selfish and was sick of your arty airs… That you had called her a smart alec and—excuse me—a manipulative little slag.’
My mouth feels horribly dry.
‘But even if Anna hadn’t told me all that,’ Lenzen adds, ‘what sisters don’t hate each other, at least every now and then? And what survivor doesn’t feel pangs of guilt?’
He shrugs, as if to say it was almost too easy.
We’re silent for a moment. I try to put my thoughts in order and Lenzen wreathes himself in cigarette smoke.
Now I have to ask the question. I’ve been putting it off, because once he’s answered it, everything will have been said and I don’t know what will happen next.
‘What happened that night?’ I ask.
Lenzen smokes and says nothing. He’s silent for so long I’m afraid he’ll never answer. Then he stubs out his cigarette and looks at me.
‘August 2002,’ he says. ‘God, it’s a long time ago. Another life.’
I try not to nod. That summer twelve years ago. Anna still alive. Me engaged. Suddenly successful. Suddenly rich. My third book a bestseller. My parents’ silver wedding anniversary. The summer Ina and Björn got married—the party by the lake where we got drunk and went skinny-dipping with the newlyweds. Another life.
Lenzen takes a deep breath. My mobile, still in record mode, burns on my skin.
‘Anna and I, we’d been…we’d known each other for about a year. I’d just become a father, and I’d just been made editor-in-chief. I had the feeling that I was somebody. There were envious people, sure—people who claimed I’d only got the job because I’d married into the family who owned the company. Voices who thought I was only after my wife’s money and clout. But I knew that wasn’t true. I was good at my job. And I loved my wife. I had found my niche in life. But then I go and fall head over heels with this young girl. It’s ridiculous, but these things happen. We kept our relationship secret, of course. She thought it was fun to begin with, and kind of exciting—forbidden love. I thought it was dangerous right from the start. A few times her boyfriend almost caught us. He knew something was up and he dumped her. She didn’t care. But it frightened me, because I was afraid we’d be found out. Only I couldn’t give her up. Not at first.’
He shakes his head.
‘Idiotic, completely idiotic. And so banal. Such a cliché. Because, of course, the girl wants me to herself at some point—and, of course, I don’t want to leave my young family. We row. Again and again. In the end, I tell her it’s over, that we’re not going to see each other any more. But the girl’s used to getting her own way. She threatens me. She’s suddenly changed beyond all recognition, says things that should never be said to anyone.
‘“What if I go to your wife? Do you think she’d like to hear that you’re here with me while she’s sitting at home on her own, breastfeeding your ugly baby with her saggy tits?”
‘I tell her to be quiet—that she knows nothing about my wife, about my marriage. But she isn’t quiet.
‘“I know all about your marriage, my love. I know that your dear father-in-law will kick your useless arse out of the door when he finds out that you’re cheating on his spoilt little girl. Do you really think you got that job because you’re so competent? Look at you! Standing there as if you were about to start blubbering, you ridiculous loser! I mean, really, you’re not my idea of leadership material.”
‘And I tell her that she should shut up, but she carries on.
‘“Don’t think you can get rid of me. By the time I’m finished with you, you’ll have nothing left. No wife, no job, no child. And don’t think I’m not serious. Don’t go thinking that!”
‘I’m stunned. Rigid with fury. Almost blind. And she laughs.
‘“The way you’re looking at me, Victor! Like a dog in disgrace! Maybe I should call you Vicky from now on. That’s a lovely name for a dog, isn’t it? Come on, Vicky. Heel! Good doggy.”
‘She laughs her naughty laugh—her boyish laugh that I’d fallen so desperately in love with, but that now makes me feel sick. She laughs and laughs; she won’t stop. She carries on until…’
Lenzen breaks off. He’s silent for a moment, caught up in his memories. I hold my breath.
‘Family man stabs mistress,’ he says at length. ‘That’s the kind of headline the papers run in these cases. Four words: Family man stabs mistress.’
He laughs again. I’m speechless. I don’t know what shocks me more—the fact that Anna had a secret affair with a married man for almost a year, or the incredible and awful banality of Lenzen’s motive. A lover’s tiff. A man who is provoked by his mistress and ends up killing her in a fit of rage. I hear Julian’s voice: It’s always the partner.
Life is often so much less spectacular than fiction.
‘You’re a murderer,’ I say.
Something rips inside Lenzen.
‘No!’ he screams.
He thumps his fist down on the glass table.
‘Fuck!’ he roars.
But he recovers his composure at once.
‘Fuck,’ he says again, this time quietly.
Then, in short sharp bursts, it comes tumbling out of him.
‘I didn’t mean to do it. I hadn’t planned it. I didn’t kill anyone to protect myself or cover anything up. I simply freaked out. I saw red. It was only a few seconds before I came to my senses again. Only a few seconds. Anna—the kitchen knife—all that blood… I stared at her—stared and stared. Stunned. I couldn’t get my head round what had happened, what I’d done. Then the doorbell rang and straight after that a key turned in the lock. I’m standing there as if I’ve turned to stone, and suddenly this woman comes into the room. And looks at me. I can’t describe what it felt like. But then I could move again, and all I wanted was to get away. So I went out through the terrace door and ran. Scared—my face a mess from crying. I ran through the night. Home—where else? Instinct, I guess. Threw away my clothes, threw away the knife, automatically, like a robot. Went to bed. To my wife, the baby in her cot beside us. And waited for the police. Stared at the ceiling, rigid with terror, waiting for the police. Lay awake in panic all night, and went to work as if on autopilot the next day, but nothing happened. Lay awake in panic another night—and the next and the next. But nothing happened. I couldn’t believe it. I almost wanted it to happen—wanted them to come and get me, if only to put an end to the waiting. At times I managed to persuade myself that it was only a bad dream. Might even have ended up believing it, if it hadn’t been all over the papers. I tried to save my marriage, but it was going down the pan, in spite of the baby. Might have done anyway, even if I hadn’t been completely distraught after that night. Even setting aside the fact that I could hardly bring myself to hold our baby—with these hands that had… I don’t know. The fear certainly remained. The intense fear of the first days and weeks became less acute, but it was still there. Not just fear the police might pull up outside my house with screaming sirens, but the fear that I might meet the woman with the short dark hair and the shocked look in her eyes, who had surprised me in Anna’s flat. Bump into her in the supermarket. Or at a party, or… I was in a permanent state of fear. But no one came. At some point, I realised that Anna had kept her word. She really hadn’t told anyone about us. Nobody knew about us. I didn’t feature in her life. There was no connection between us. I was a chance acquaintance nobody knew existed. I was unbelievable lucky. Unbelievably lucky. After a while, you start to think there might be a reason why you’ve got off. That you’ve been given a second chance. Maybe have some task to perform. Then this job cropped up in Afghanistan. No one wanted it, no one felt like venturing to the front line in a war-ravaged, dusty country. But I wanted the job. I thought it was important work. So I went, and when my contract came to an end, I carried on. It was work that mattered.’
He nods emphatically, almost as if he needs to convince himself. Then he is silent.
I blink, dazed. Victor Lenzen has finally confessed.
For so many years, I have thought it would be a relief to know the truth. But now I feel only emptiness. Silence is filling the room. You can’t hear a thing—not so much as a breath.
‘Linda,’ Lenzen says at last, leaning forward in his armchair. ‘Please give me your phone.’
I look at him.
‘No,’ I say with a firm voice.
You must pay for what you’ve done.
My eyes rest on the heavy ashtray on the coffee table. Lenzen notices. He sighs sadly and leans back.
‘Some years ago I reported on death-row candidates in the States,’ he says.
My mind is whirring. I’ll never let Lenzen have my phone. He’s going to pay for what he’s done; I’ll make sure of it.
‘They were fascinating, those men,’ Lenzen continues. ‘Some of them had been on death row for decades. In Texas I got to know one of them a bit. He’d been sentenced for a robbery and murder he’d committed with a few mates in his mid twenties. In prison he converted to Buddhism and began to write children’s books. He donated the proceeds to charity. The man had been sitting in jail for almost forty years when he was executed. The question a case like that raises is: is the sixty-five-year-old who’s been sitting on death row for forty years for a murder he committed as a twenty-five year old still the same person? Is he still the murderer?’
I look at Lenzen, hoping he’ll keep talking, because I don’t know what’s going to happen when he stops.
Where are you, Julian?
‘What happened that night was a dreadful mistake,’ he says. ‘A momentary loss of control—only a moment. Terrible and unforgiveable. I’d give anything to be able to turn the clock back. Anything. But I can’t.’
He falls silent.
‘But I’ve done penance,’ he begins again, ‘as well as I could. Every morning I wake up with the intention of doing my best. Of doing good work. Of being a good person. I support a lot of wonderful organisations. I do voluntary work. I even saved somebody’s life, for God’s sake! A child! In Sweden, in a river. No one dared go in the water. But I did. That’s me! What happened back then, that…that was only a moment. Am I to be judged by that all my life? In my own eyes? In the eyes of my colleagues? My daughter? Am I never to be anything but a murderer?’
For quite some time he hasn’t been talking to me but to himself.
‘I’m more than that,’ he says quietly.
Now I know why I was taken in by him, why I believed him. He wasn’t lying to me when he said he was innocent—just a journalist, just a father, just a good man. He really believes it. It’s his truth—his skewed, distorted, cobbled-together, self-righteous truth.
Lenzen glances up at me.
There’s determination in his eyes. A cold shudder runs down my back. We’re alone. Julian’s not going to come. Who knows whether he ever got home? Who knows whether his girlfriend will ever pass on my message? It no longer matters. It’s too late.
‘You can still do the right thing,’ I say. ‘You can go to the police and confess what happened that night.’
Lenzen shakes his head. ‘I can’t do that to my daughter.’
He doesn’t take his eyes off me.
‘Do you remember asking me whether there was anything I’d kill for?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, swallowing heavily. ‘Your daughter.’
At last I understand the strange expression on Lenzen’s face that I wasn’t able to interpret. Lenzen is sad. Sad and resigned. He knows what’s next and he doesn’t like it. It makes him sad.
I look at him—the journalist, the war correspondent. What a lot his grey eyes have seen, what a lot of stories in those lines on his face. I think to myself that in different circumstances, I would probably have liked him—in different circumstances, it would be nice to sit here with him and talk about Anna. He would remind me of things I had forgotten or never known about—little quirks. But these aren’t different circumstances and there are no others.
‘I’ve made sure that someone will come and look for me if I don’t report back,’ I remind him huskily.
‘Give me your phone, Linda.’
‘What I’ve told you is only meant for you,’ he says. ‘It’s true what you said earlier—you more than deserve the truth. It was only fair to tell you what you wanted to know. But now give me your phone.’
He gets up. I stand too, and back away a few steps. I could make a dash for the stairs, but I know he’d be quicker and I don’t want him behind me—him and that heavy ashtray.
‘Okay,’ I say.
I put my hand under my jumper and pull out the phone. Lenzen’s body relaxes. What follows happens quickly. I don’t stop to think. I make a dive for the windows, fling one open and hurl the phone out in a high arc. It lands somewhere in the grass. A hot pain grips my arm. I turn around.
And find myself looking into Lenzen’s cold eyes.