It sometimes happens that I look in the mirror and don’t recognise myself. I’m standing in the bathroom, contemplating my reflection—something I haven’t done for a long time. Of course, I look in the mirror every morning and evening when I clean my teeth and wash my face. But, on the whole, I don’t really look. Today is different.
D-Day. The journalist I’ve invited to interview me in my house will be in his car, on his way. Any minute now, he’ll come up the drive. He will get out, walk to the front door, and ring the bell.
I am prepared. I have been studying him. I know what I’ll see when he’s sitting opposite me. But what will he see? I stare at myself—at my eyes and nose, at my mouth, cheeks and ears, and then at my eyes again. I am surprised at my outward appearance: so that’s what I look like—that’s me, is it?
The sound of the doorbell makes me jump. I run through the plan in my head one last time, then I throw back my shoulders and head for the front door. My heartbeat is so loud that it reverberates all through the house, making the windowpanes rattle. I breathe in and out one last time. Then I open the door.
For years, the monster has pursued me even in my dreams. Now he’s standing before me, holding out his hand. I suppress the impulse to run away screaming—to go berserk. I must not hesitate, I must not tremble. I will look him in the eye. I will speak loud and clear. That’s what I’ve made up my mind to do; that’s what I’ve prepared myself for. The moment has come, and now that it’s here, it seems almost unreal. I press his hand. I smile and say, ‘Please, come in.’ I do not hesitate, I do not tremble. I look him in the eye and my voice is strong; it sounds loud and clear. I know the monster can’t do me any harm. The whole world knows he’s here—my publishing house, his editorial department… Even if we were alone, he couldn’t do me any harm. He won’t do me any harm. He’s not stupid.
And yet… It’s a tremendous effort for me to turn my back on him and lead the way into the house. I’ve decided the dining room is where the interview will take place. It wasn’t a strategic decision but an intuitive one. Charlotte, my assistant, comes into the room, takes his coat, busies herself, bustles about, chatters, offers drinks, exudes charm—all the things I pay her for. None of this is any more than a job for her. She has no idea what’s really going on, but her presence reassures me.
I try to appear relaxed and not to stare at him or size him up. He’s tall, with a few streaks of grey running through his short, dark hair. But the most remarkable thing about him is his alert grey eyes, which take in the room with a single glance. He walks across to the dining table, so big it could be used for a conference. He puts his bag on the first chair he comes to, opens it up and glances inside. He’s making sure he has everything with him.
Charlotte brings in bottles of water and glasses. I go over to the table where I’ve laid out a few copies of my latest novel, in which I describe the murder of my sister. He and I know it’s not a work of fiction but an indictment. I take a bottle and pour myself a glass of water. My hands are steady.
The monster looks the same as on television. His name is Victor Lenzen.
‘This is a beautiful house,’ says Lenzen, wandering to the window. He glances at the edge of the woods.
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘I’m glad you like it.’
I’m cross with myself for adding this last remark; a simple ‘thank you’ would have been enough. Clear statements. Don’t hesitate, don’t tremble, look him in the eye, talk loud and clear.
‘How long have you been living here?’ he asks.
‘Getting on for eleven years.’
I take a seat at the place already set with my cup of coffee. 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. He takes notepad, pen and digital recorder from the bag beside his chair. I wonder what else he has in there.
Charlotte has politely withdrawn to the next room. The game can begin.
I know a great deal about Victor Lenzen; I’ve learnt a lot these past months. He may be the journalist here, but he’s not the only one in the room who has done his homework.
‘May I ask you a question?’ he begins.
‘That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?’ I ask with a smile.
Victor Lenzen is fifty-three years old.
‘Touché. But I wanted to ask you something before we got started on the official questions.’
Victor Lenzen is divorced and has a thirteen-year-old daughter.
‘Well?’ I ask.
‘Well, I’ve been wondering—the thing is, it’s common knowledge that you lead a secluded life and that it’s more than ten years since you last gave an extensive interview…’
Victor Lenzen studied politics, history and journalism, then worked as a trainee reporter at a Frankfurt daily newspaper. He moved to Munich, rose through the ranks, and was made editor-in-chief at a Munich daily. Then he went abroad.
‘I’m always giving interviews,’ I say.
‘You’ve given precisely four interviews in the last ten years. One over the phone and three via email, if I’m correctly informed.’
Victor Lenzen spent many years working as a foreign correspondent, reporting from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Washington, London and finally Asia.
‘You’ve done your homework.’
‘There are people who believe you don’t exist,’ he continues. ‘They think Linda Conrads is a pseudonym.’
‘As you can see, I do exist.’
‘You do indeed. And now you’ve published a new book. The whole world’s clamouring for an interview, and the only person who gets one is me. But I hadn’t even asked for one.’
Six months ago, Victor Lenzen was offered a job at a German news station. He moved back to Germany permanently and since then he’s been working in television and print media.
‘What’s your question?’ I ask.
Victor Lenzen is reputed to be one of the country’s most brilliant journalists. He has won three major national prizes.
‘What made you choose me?’
Victor Lenzen has a girlfriend called Cora Lessing, who lives in Berlin.
‘Maybe I admire your work.’
Victor Lenzen is faithful to Cora Lessing.
‘Maybe you do,’ he says. ‘But I’m not an arts critic; I usually report on foreign affairs.’
Since moving back to Germany, Victor Lenzen visits his daughter Marie every week.
‘Don’t you want to be here, Herr Lenzen?’ I ask.
‘No, that’s not what I meant! I feel honoured, of course. It was only a question.’
Victor Lenzen’s mother died in the early nineties. His father is still living in the family home. Victor Lenzen visits him regularly.
‘Do you have any more questions that aren’t part of the official interview?’ I try to sound amused. ‘Or shall we begin?’
Victor Lenzen plays badminton with a colleague after work. Victor Lenzen supports Amnesty International.
‘Let’s begin,’ he says.
Victor Lenzen’s favourite band is U2. He likes going to the cinema and speaks four foreign languages fluently—English, French, Spanish and Arabic.
‘All right then,’ I say.
‘No, wait, one more question,’ says Lenzen. He hesitates—or pretends to.
Victor Lenzen is a murderer.
‘It’s just…’ he says, and leaves the rest of the sentence hanging menacingly in the air.
Victor Lenzen is a murderer.
‘Have we met before?’ he asks at last.
I look Victor Lenzen in the eye and see someone quite different opposite me. I realise what a big mistake I’ve made. Victor Lenzen is not stupid: he is mad.
He hurls himself across the table at me. I tip backwards off my chair, my head hits the floor hard and I have no time to work out what’s happening, or even make the slightest sound, because he’s on top of me and his hands are on my windpipe.
I thrash about, trying to break free, but he’s too heavy, and his hands have closed around my throat and he’s squeezing hard. I can’t breathe, and immediately the panic is there, rolling over me like a wave. I kick and struggle, nothing but the will to survive. I can feel the blood in my veins, heavy and hot and thick, and I hear a rushing in my ears as it swells and subsides. My head is bursting. I open my eyes wide.
He’s staring at me, his eyes watering from exertion and hatred. He hates me—why? His face is the last thing I see. Then it’s over.
I am not naïve. That’s how it could happen, or something like that. I know all about Victor Lenzen, and yet at the same time I know nothing. But I’m going ahead with it. That much I owe Anna.
I pick up my phone, feel its weight in my hand. I take a deep breath. I enter the number of the Munich paper that Victor Lenzen writes for and ask to be put through to the editorial department.