I stare at Norbert, who still has his finger on the bell.
‘About time,’ he says and pushes past me without a word of greeting. A first breath of winter comes in at the door with him. I want to say something but don’t get that far.
‘Have you gone completely mad?’ Norbert snarls at me.
Bukowski jumps up at him. He adores my publisher. That isn’t saying a lot because Bukowski likes everyone. Norbert is fuming, but he softens for a moment to ruffle the dog’s coat before turning to face me again, the furrow back between his eyebrows. If I’m honest, I’m bloody glad to see him, furious or not. Norbert may flare up easily, but he’s also the kindest person I know. He simply gets hot under the collar about everything: politics, which is getting more and more stupid; publishing, which is getting more and more corrupt; and his authors, who are getting greedier and greedier. Everyone knows Norbert’s outbursts and his heated tirades, which, when his blood is really boiling, he lards with juicy expressions from his beloved France: putain! or merde! or sometimes, if it’s really bad, both at once.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask, when I’ve begun to recover from the late-night intrusion. ‘I thought you were in the south of France.’
‘What’s going on? That’s what I’m here to ask you!’
I really and truly have no idea why Norbert is so furious. We’ve been working together for years. We’re friends. What have I done? Or is there something I’ve forgotten to do? Has my work on the thriller made me overlook something important? My mind is blank.
‘Come on in first,’ I say. ‘I mean, properly in.’ I lead the way to the kitchen.
I switch on the coffee machine, pour Norbert a glass of water and put it down in front of him. He has taken a seat at the kitchen table, but he gets up again when I turn to face him, too cross to keep still.
‘Well?’ I ask.
‘Well?’ Norbert echoes, in a tone that makes Bukowski back away in confusion. ‘My author, Linda Conrads, who’s had my support as a publisher for over a decade, has taken it upon herself to abandon the marvellous literary novels she’s been writing with pleasing regularity for years, and to piss off her readers and critics (not to mention me) by making her next book a blood-and-guts thriller. No consultation, no nothing. As if that weren’t enough, Her Ladyship has to rush off and tell the press, without once talking it over with her publisher. Because she is obviously of the opinion that I am not just the head of a pretty big, pretty lucrative business with a pretty large number of employees, who works his balls off day after day, not least for her and her books, but that I am, above all else, one thing: her very own printing press. Putain bordel de merde!’
Norbert’s face has assumed a deep-red hue. He picks up the glass and takes a sip. He’s about to say something else, but changes his mind and drains his glass instead, making angry glugging noises.
I don’t know what to say. I hadn’t for a moment thought Norbert might cause me any trouble, but I realise he’s capable of causing me immense trouble if he wants to. Getting my book published and seeing that it receives the usual press is a fundamental part of my plan. No book, no interview. Damn it, I don’t have the time or energy to quarrel with Norbert, or go looking for a new publisher. I have other problems. Of course, any publisher would give his right arm to have me: I’m successful and I’m sure the new genre isn’t going to scare off my fans. A few of them, maybe, but for those who give up on me, there’ll be others. Anyway, that’s not the point; I don’t care in the slightest how many books I sell, as long as Lenzen takes the bait. But I can’t say that to Norbert—that it’s not merely a book at stake here.
I don’t want a row, least of all with one of my only friends. My brain is working overtime as I consider whether to let Norbert in on my secret. It would be wonderful to have his support.
‘All right, I’ll repeat my first question,’ Norbert says, putting his glass down on the table and jolting me out of my thoughts. ‘Have you gone completely mad?’
I think to myself how much I’d like an accomplice, someone I can trust. I think to myself that in a crisis, a genuine, full-blown crisis, there’s no one I’d rather have at my side than Norbert.
‘Well?’ he asks impatiently.
Fuck it, I’m going to tell him. I pull myself together and take a deep breath.
‘Don’t say anything yet,’ he hisses, raising a hand to silence me. ‘I’ve forgotten something.’
He dashes out of the room. Bewildered, I hear him open the front door and vanish into the night. A few seconds later, he reappears with a bottle of wine.
‘For you,’ he says, putting the bottle on the kitchen table. He still looks grumpy.
Norbert almost always brings me wine from the south of France when he comes to visit—the best rosé I know. But, then, he’s not usually cross with me.
Norbert notices my confused expression.
‘Just because you behave like a silly cow doesn’t mean I’m going to let you go thirsty,’ he says, giving me a see-how-nice-I-am-to-you look. I suppress a smile, but at the same time I feel like crying. I think how incredible it would be to have Norbert on board—he’d believe me; he might even understand me. But it’s too dangerous; I can’t drag him into all this. Damn it. What am I to do?
The coffee machine interrupts my thoughts with its gurgling, and I pour us both a cup.
‘Don’t think you’re let off the hook,’ Norbert says. ‘You owe me an explanation.’
I sit down. Norbert settles opposite and I grope around for a plausible story.
‘How is it you’ve already spoken to the others in-house and not to me?’
‘Because I wanted to talk to you in person when you got back from your holiday instead of writing you a silly email,’ I say. ‘Only you spoilt my plans. I didn’t even know you were back!’
It’s the truth. Norbert gives me a piercing look.
‘And why a thriller?’ he asks. ‘Seriously!’
I hesitate, then decide to stick as close as possible to the truth—but without giving too much away.
‘Do you have brothers and sisters, Norbert?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m an only child. My wife says it shows.’
I almost laugh. Then I grow serious again.
‘I had a sister. Her name was Anna.’
‘Had?’ he asks.
‘Anna is dead. She was murdered.’
‘Oh God,’ says Norbert. ‘When did that happen?’
‘A long time ago now—twelve years last summer.’
‘Merde!’ says Norbert.
‘Did they catch the culprit?’
‘No,’ I say and swallow hard. ‘Never.’
‘Putain,’ says Norbert softly. ‘That’s awful.’
We’re both silent for a moment.
‘Why have you never told me this before?’
‘I don’t like talking about it,’ I say. ‘I’m not very good at pouring my heart out. Maybe that’s why I’ve never really got over it. I have a different way of dealing with things, you know; I get over what’s happened by writing about it. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.’
Norbert is silent for a long time. Then he nods.
‘I see,’ he says.
As far as he’s concerned, that’s the end of the matter. He gets up, searches in the kitchen drawer for a corkscrew, finds one, uncorks the bottle of wine he’s brought me and pours us each a glass. A ton is lifted off my mind.
One hour, a great deal of talking, three espressi, a bottle of excellent French rosé and three quarters of a bottle of whisky later, we’re sitting at the kitchen table doubled up with laughter. For what must be the tenth time, Norbert is telling me the story of how he once got so smashed in a bar with a certain politician (who in those days was still fat and endearingly slobbish) that afterwards he was caught by two policemen trying to fit his car key into the door of someone else’s Porsche.
Every time he tells me this story, I laugh. I even smile for Norbert when he gets onto the subject of his fiftieth birthday party and the way I freaked out because the band had the nerve to play All You Need is Love by the Beatles.
I remember that evening as if through a veil. It was one of the better evenings not long after Anna’s death, in that strange in-between time, after the shock and before the breakdown, when I was by no means myself anymore but still functioning.
Norbert and I didn’t yet know each other well; I had only recently switched publishers and he had no idea what I’d gone through. Didn’t even know I’d had a sister. I remember drinking Prosecco despite the antidepressants and dancing with Marc, my fiancé, even though I no longer felt anything for him. I remember that I stuck to the dress code and wore white, although I had been going around in black up until then. I remember thinking that this could be my life—going to parties, and drinking Prosecco and dancing, and granting eccentric friends their innocuous wishes. And I remember that I was on the dance floor when the earthquake started—dancing with Marc as the first bars struck up love, love, love—and reality was swallowed up in an insatiable vortex, leaving me behind, leaving me with the blood—with Anna and the blood. I gasped for air and struggled to surface from the blackness, but the song had me in its grasp. I opened my eyes wide. The people around me were singing along. I was gasping for air. Stop! Stop! I cried, inaudibly, and they carried on singing; they didn’t hear me. All you need is love, la-da-da-da-da. Then I really screamed, as loud as I could: Stop! Stop! Stop! I screamed until my throat was sore, and the people around me stopped singing and dancing and turned to look at me, and the band stopped, nonplussed, and I stood there on the dance floor, shrieking: Stop! Stop! Stop! I was still caught in the vortex, still in Anna’s flat, still helpless, still alone, and Marc’s arms were round me and his voice was whispering: Shh, calm down, it’s all okay, and out loud it was saying: Sorry, my fiancée’s had too much to drink. Could you let us through, please?
Norbert doubles up with laughter as he recalls it. He has no idea what really happened that night—thinks I’d simply had one too many, and suffered from a deep-seated and unaccountable aversion to the Beatles.
I don’t talk about what happened to Anna now and I never have done. The fact is, there is no longer a single person left in my life who knows that I once had a sister and what happened to her—not counting my parents, that is. No old friends, no classmates, no mutual acquaintances. For the people around me, Anna has never existed.
So how could Norbert associate my freaking out with the murder? That’s why it’s okay for him to laugh. He has no idea about that moment when I entered Anna’s flat and found her lying on the floor, dead or dying, and then spotted her murderer lurking, his eyes cold and pale. For a few horrific seconds I was turned to stone, while Anna had turned to stone forever. I was a statue and Anna was ghastly, rigid and unmoving. The whole room seemed to freeze, except for a single ghostly movement at the edge of my vision. The record player, so cruel and false, with the record—an old record of mine that I’d given to Anna—spinning.
All you need is love, la-da-da-da-da.
The song that is the reason I never listen to the radio, out of sheer terror it might be played.
I swallow the lump in my throat and push the thought far away. It’s good that Norbert’s laughing. Doesn’t matter what he’s laughing at.
I enjoy having him here. I love his sense of humour and his arch cynicism, the kind only those well treated by life can afford. I wish he’d spend the night; there is certainly no shortage of spare rooms. I want to call him a cab, but Norbert insists on driving home, saying something about a meeting the next morning. Damn it! Just when it’s all so nice and normal—a friend here with me who is as close as a big brother, and my dog asleep at his feet, his eyebrows twitching in a dream, as if he’s encountered something quite astonishing. It’s only the three of us, but at this moment my house is full of life.
I suppress a sigh. Of course, it can’t stay this way. I shouldn’t even hope to hold onto such a lovely moment. Any minute now, something will happen to destroy it. What will it be?
It’s Norbert. He gets up. I suppress the impulse to cling to him.
‘Please stay,’ I murmur. ‘I’m scared.’
He doesn’t hear me; maybe I didn’t even say it. Norbert takes his coat, glares at me, says that if I absolutely have to write a bloody thriller, the manuscript had jolly well better be good, and staggers off towards the front door. I shouldn’t let him drive in that state. I follow him. My limbs feel like lead.
He turns to face me, grabs me by the shoulders and looks me in the face. I can smell the whisky on his breath.
‘A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us,’ he says in an almost accusatory tone.
‘Kafka,’ I say. Norbert nods.
‘You were always quoting that. A book must be an axe, Linda. Don’t forget it. Thriller or not, I need something real from you—something about life and emotions and…’
He mumbles something incomprehensible, lets go of my shoulders and begins to button up his coat. Starts all wrong, gets in a muddle, begins over again, gets it wrong again, nearly blows his top, gives up, leaves his coat undone.
‘This book is an axe, Norbert.’
He looks at me, suspicious, then shrugs his shoulders. With a single look, I try to say all the things I can’t put into words. I scream: I’m terribly frightened, I don’t want to die, I need someone to talk to, I’ll drop down dead if he leaves now, I feel like the loneliest person on the planet. I don’t scream loud enough.
My publisher says goodbye with a smack on each cheek. I watch him disappear into the night. I don’t want him to go. I want to tell him everything—about the earthquake, about Anna. I want to tell him my plans. He’s my last chance—the safety of the shore, my anchor. I open my mouth to call out to him, but I can no longer see him. It’s too late; he’s disappeared, cast off.
I’m on my own.
He clutched the gun with both hands, steadied himself, took aim and shot.
Jonas Weber hated the idea of ever having to point his gun at a real person. Once, he’d needed to fire a warning shot, and he hoped it would stay that way. But he loved target practice at the range; he’d always liked shooting. As a child he’d shot at tin cans with his father’s air gun; as a teenager he’d taken idiotic pot shots at sparrows and pigeons with his mates. Now he shot at targets with his service gun. He liked the caution required when handling firearms—the care, the rituals involved. Usually it didn’t leave much room for other thoughts, but today his brain wouldn’t settle.
He remembered the scene of the crime that he’d been called to the previous night—all that blood. He remembered the corpse, and the witness who had found the dead woman and surprised the murderer. A peculiar story. So much to get straight, and so many questions.
The night had been long and strenuous. No chance of going home before dawn and crawling into bed with Mia. Then he’d made a stupid mistake. Even now, he didn’t know how he could have let it happen. He was usually so unfazed when dealing with victims’ relatives. No idea why the whole thing had got under his skin like that. The victim had looked pretty awful—seven stab wounds. But it wasn’t the first time he’d seen such a thing. True, he’d been exhausted. But he was used to that.
It must have been the woman, maybe a few years younger than himself—the witness who’d found her sister stabbed to death and seen the murderer escape. Jonas had caught himself watching her as he talked to his colleagues. A paramedic draped a blanket round her shoulders—an odd gesture given the heat that night. The woman was sitting there, deep in thought. She hadn’t trembled or cried. Perhaps the shock, Jonas thought, until she turned her head and looked straight at him with a strange intensity. Not tearful or confused or dazed or in shock in any way, but utterly lucid.
Since then, the scene had kept coming back to him; he couldn’t get it out of his head. The woman had shaken off the blanket, come towards him, and looked him in the eye. As if full sentences required too much energy, she spoke only a single word.
Jonas had to swallow.
‘I don’t know.’
But he had the feeling that wasn’t enough—that he must give her something more—and before he had time to think, added, ‘I don’t know what happened here, but I promise you I’ll find out.’
He could have hit himself. How could he make promises to a relative? They might never find the culprit. He didn’t know anything about the crime. He had behaved with a complete lack of professionalism! Like an idiot policeman in some stupid film.
He recalled the reproachful look his new colleague Antonia Bug had given him: wasn’t he supposed to be more experienced and less easily fazed than her? He’d expected her to mention it as soon as they were alone together, and how grateful he’d been when she hadn’t.
Jonas reloaded his gun. He tried to concentrate, to shake off the scene. He had enough problems as it was; he couldn’t go wallowing in self-reproach for some small blunder. He hadn’t really promised the woman anything. He couldn’t make promises—everyone must know that. It was something you said sometimes: ‘promise’. Just a word. Anyway, the statement had been taken now; he’d probably never see the woman again. He raised his gun, tried not to think of anything, and shot.