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CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON (Chapter 1)
Whalers returning from the Arctic seas in the summer of 1803 reported an aurora borealis of an intensity never observed before. Professor Wollaston had described the phenomenon of polar refraction to the satisfaction of the scientific community some years before. Of course, that fact did not diminish the awe of the folk who dwelt along the Baltic seaboard. All those who lived in Lotingen, myself included, not eight miles from the coast, stared up at the night sky. We could not fail to be stupefied by what we saw. The massive clouds were painted as darkly crimson as fresh blood, the Northern Lights flashed like a lady’s fan of mother-of-pearl held up to the midday sun. Little Lotte Havaars, the nursemaid who had been with us since the day that Immanuel was born, told us that the neighbours in her village had noted unnatural behaviour in their animals, and autumn brought news of hideous plants and monstrous births which seemed to defy the laws of Nature. Two-headed piglets, calves with six legs, a turnip as large as a wheelbarrow. The coming winter, Lotte muttered darkly, would be like no other in the history of Man.
My wife’s dark eyes glittered with amusement as Lotte prattled on. Helena glanced at me, inviting me to share her mirth, and I was forced to return her smile, though it went against my nature, for I was born and bred in the country. My heart seemed to knot itself in a tight ball, I felt a heavy sense of oppression, suffocation almost, the sort of unsettling sensation that a distant thunder-headed cloud provokes on a broiling summer’s day. And when it came, it was a terrible winter. Lotte’s intuition had been proved correct. Lashing rain by day, biting frost by night. And then, snow. More snow than I had ever seen before.
Indeed, the first day of February, 1804, was the coldest in living memory. That morning, I was busy in my office at the Court House in Lotingen, writing out the sentence of a wrangle which had required the better part of a week to decide. Herman Bertholt had taken it upon himself to improve the landscape. He had lopped two branches off a valuable apple tree belonging to his neighbour, Farmer Dürchtner. That tree spoiled the view from his kitchen window, the offender argued. The rights and wrongs of the case had divided the town, of course, it was a matter of vital importance. If a precedent were allowed, we could expect an epidemic to follow. I was in the very act of writing up my conclusion – I therefore sentence Herman Bertholt to pay thirteen thalers, and pass six hours in the village stocks – when a knock sounded at the door and my secretary entered.
‘There’s a man outside,’ Knutzen slurred.
I glanced with distaste at my aged secretary. His grubby shirt was still unchanged, the collar stained a grimy brown, his heavy boots unpolished. He had been working in his duck-run again. I had lost that battle and had long grown tired of complaining. Gudjøn Knutzen was one of a handful of men in the village who were able to write their own names. On that strength alone, he had escaped the destiny of his father, and all the male ancestors of his family. But the Royal purse was empty. The King had chosen armed neutrality, while the other great states of Europe took their chances against the French. Civic expenses had been cut to pay for military necessities as a consequence. Soldiers had to be re-equipped, generals better paid, horses pampered and fed, fit and ready for the war which everyone knew was bound to come. Heavy cannon had been purchased from Bessarabia. All this brought hardship, even misery to Prussia. The lower ranks of the judicial administration, myself included, had been hard hit by the latest economies. But Knutzen had been thrust back into the Dark Ages. His wages had been halved. Consequently, he worked as little as possible, and spent as much time as he could filch from me with his ducks. He had become a peasant again. Like every man in Europe, he was paying for the French Revolution and for the fright that Napoleon was spreading throughout the continent of Europe.
Helena had promised to give him one of my cast-off shirts next time the pedlar came to town. I glanced out of the window, reflecting that the pedlar’s wagon would not be coming through for quite some time. Snow had begun to fall again, the flakes as large as laurel leaves. It had fallen all day the day before, and had been threatening all the morning. What – I wondered idly – could drive a man abroad on such a day? My curiosity was piqued, I admit. Even so, I decided, the minute the visitor has finished his business, I shall close the office and take myself home for the rest of the day.
‘Show him in,’ I said.
Knutzen wiped his nose on his sleeve. Whenever he happened to take his one-and-only jacket off, which was rarely, I was inclined to believe that it stood up of its own accord.
‘Aye,’ he said, withdrawing slowly from the room.
He left the door wide open, and I could hear him mumbling out in the hall.
Some moments later, a heavily built man in dark travelling clothes and high riding-boots clumped determinedly into the room, leaving a trail of scattered drips and melting slush in his wake. The ghostly pallor of his face, and the unhealthy tremor which shook his body as he stood before me, led me to believe that he had mistaken his destination. He seemed to require the care of a physician, rather than the services of a magistrate.
‘What can I do for you, sir?’ I asked, waving him to the visitor’s chair, sitting myself down again behind my desk.
The stranger pulled his copious black cloak more tightly around his shivering frame and loudly cleared his throat. ‘You are Magistrate Stiffeniis, are you not?’ he said gruffly.
‘Indeed, I am,’ I nodded. ‘But where are you from, sir? You are not from Lotingen.’
The visitor’s large, grey eyes flashed defiantly.
‘Weren’t you expecting me?’ he asked with evident surprise.
I shook my head. ‘Given the sudden turn in the weather,’ I said, glancing out of the broad bay-window at the snow, which fell even thicker than before, ‘I was expecting nobody this morning. What can I do for you, sir?’
He was silent for a moment. ‘Didn’t the Königsberg coach arrive?’ he asked suddenly.
‘I have no idea,’ I replied, wondering what this was leading up to.
‘You received no news from Procurator Rhunken?’ he insisted.
‘I received no post at all this morning,’ I replied. ‘Nor do I know Herr Procurator Rhunken. Except by reputation.’
‘No post?’ the stranger muttered, slapping the palm of his right hand down hard on his knee. ‘Well, that throws a stick in the wheel!’
‘Does it?’ I asked, perplexed.
He did not reply, but opened his leather shoulder-bag and started to rummage around inside it. Any hope I had that he might produce something to explain his presence in my office was dashed as he pulled out a large white linen handkerchief and loudly blew his nose.
‘Am I to presume that you are Procurator Rhunken?’ I probed.
‘Oh no, sir!’ he spluttered behind the white square. ‘With all respect, he’s the very last person I’d wish to be at this moment. My name is Amadeus Koch, Sergeant-of-Police in the city of Königsberg. I work as the administrative clerk in Procurator Rhunken’s office.’ He pressed the linen cloth to his mouth to stifle a cough. ‘In the absence of the post, sir, the best thing I can do is to tell you why I have come.’
‘Please do, Herr Sergeant Koch,’ I encouraged, hoping to make some sense of this puzzling interview.
A weak smile appeared on the man’s white lips. ‘I won’t waste any more precious time, sir. In my own defence, and given the present state of my health, I will only say that the journey from Königsberg has done little to assist my powers of reasoning. To be brief, I have instructions to take you back with me.’
I stared at him. ‘To Königsberg?’
‘I only pray the snow will not prevent us…’
‘Instructions, Herr Koch? Tell me exactly what brings you here!’
Sergeant Koch began to search about in his bag again. At length, he pulled out a large white envelope. ‘The official communiqué regarding your appointment was sent yesterday by the post. For reasons unknown, it has not arrived. But your commission was entrusted to me. This is for you, sir.’
I tore the packet from his outstretched hand, read my name on the cover, then turned it over. A large red Hohenzollern seal closed the flap, and I hesitated an instant before daring to break it and examine the contents.
Most honourable Procurator Stiffeniis,
Your talents have been brought to Our attention by a gentleman of eminence, who believes that you alone are capable of resolving a situation which holds Our beloved Königsberg in a grip of terror. All Our faith and consideration are due to the notable personage who suggested your name, and that same faith and consideration now resides in you. We have no reason to doubt that you will accept this Royal Commission, and act accordingly with all haste. The fate of the city lies in your hands.
The note was signed with a flourish by King Frederick Wilhelm III.
‘There have been murders in Königsberg, Procurator Stiffeniis,’ Sergeant Koch pressed on, his voice hushed as if fearing that we might be overheard. ‘This morning I was ordered to inform you of the matter.’
Confusion clouded my mind.
‘I am at a loss, Herr Koch,’ I murmured, staring hard at the paper in my hand, reading one particular phrase over and over again. What were the ‘talents’ that I was supposed to possess? And who was the ‘eminent gentleman’ who had brought them to the attention of His Majesty, the King? ‘Are you certain that someone hasn’t made a mistake?’
‘There’s no mistake,’ the sergeant replied, pointing to the envelope with a smile. ‘This is Prussia, sir. That envelope’s got your name on it.’
‘Isn’t Procurator Rhunken investigating the case?’ I asked. ‘He is the senior magistrate on the Königsberg circuit.’
‘Herr Rhunken has suffered a stroke,’ Sergeant Koch explained. ‘He has lost the use of his lower limbs. It would appear that you have been chosen to carry on his work, sir.’
I considered this proposition for a moment. ‘But why, Sergeant Koch? I have never met Herr Rhunken. Why should he recommend me in such glowing terms to King Frederick Wilhelm?’
‘I cannot help you on that point, sir,’ he said. ‘All will be made clear in Königsberg, no doubt.’
I had no alternative but to accept this assurance. ‘You mentioned murders, Sergeant. How many are we talking about?’
I caught my breath.
I had never had to deal with a serious crime in my career as an arbiter of the law, and had always considered the fact a matter of good fortune. The sentence I had been writing not ten minutes before was the most important to come my way in the three years that I had been employed in Lotingen.
‘The first victim was found a year ago,’ Koch ploughed on, ‘though the police made no progress on the case and they forgot about it quick enough. But three months ago, another corpse was found, and a third person died last month. Just yesterday another body came to light. The evidence would seem to suggest that they all died by the same…’
A knock at the door froze the words on Koch’s lips.
Knutzen came shuffling in again and dropped a letter on my desk. ‘This has just been delivered, Herr Procurator. The post-coach lost a wheel on the outskirts of Rykiel and was four hours late getting in.’
‘I took the coast road, fortunately,’ Koch murmured as Knutzen left us alone once more. He gestured to the unopened letter in my hand. ‘You’ll find confirmation there of what I’ve just told you, sir.’
I opened the envelope, and found an order signed by Procurator Rhunken in a spidery, uncertain hand, which seemed to confirm what Sergeant Koch had said about the magistrate’s poor health. It provided formal notification of the fact that the murder case had been handed over to me, but added nothing more. I set the letter down, swept by waves of conflicting emotion. Obviously, I was gratified that my professional talents had been recognised. And by Procurator Rhunken, whose name was foremost among magistrates in Prussia by reason of his rigour and his determination. What surprised me more, however, was the fact that he had even heard my name. And that he had passed it on to the King. What had I done to attract their notice? Why should such powerful people place their trust in me? I was not so vain as to imagine that nowhere in the whole of Prussia was there any man better suited to the task. Except, of course, for the unresolved question of my mysterious ‘talents’. The concluding words of Herr Rhunken’s communiqué did nothing to set my doubts at rest:
…there are particular aspects of this case which should not be committed to paper. You will be informed of them in due course.
‘Are you ready, sir?’ asked Sergeant Koch, gathering his shoulder-bag and standing up. ‘I am yours to serve in any way which will expedite our departure.’
I remained seated in mute protest against this driving sense of urgency. The contents of another letter that I had received from Königsberg seven years before echoed in my mind like a taunt. On that occasion, I had been compelled to make a promise which the simple act of accompanying Sergeant Koch to the city would force me to break.
‘How long will I be required to stay?’ I asked him, as if it were, above all, a practical question.
‘Until the case is solved, Herr Stiffeniis,’ he answered flatly.
I sat back in my chair, wondering what to do for the best. If it were a matter of passing a few short days in the city, closing a case which Procurator Rhunken had been preventing from completing by ill health, no harm would come of it. If I proved unequal to the task, I would simply be ordered to return to the oblivion from which I had come. But then, I thought with a spurt of mounting ambition, what would be the limits to my future career if I were to succeed?
‘I must take leave of my wife,’ I said, jumping to my feet, the choice made.
Sergeant Koch pulled his cloak more tightly around him. ‘There’s not much time if we’re to reach Königsberg before nightfall, sir,’ he said.
‘I need but a few minutes to wish my wife farewell and kiss my little ones,’ I protested on the strength of my new authority. ‘Neither Procurator Rhunken nor the King would deny me that small luxury, I think!’
Out in the street, a large coach bearing the Imperial coat-of-arms stood waiting in the snow. As I climbed aboard, I could not avoid reflecting on the incongruity of my situation. There I was in a state coach, holding a letter signed by the King imploring me to solve a case that not one of the great magistrates in his service had been able to resolve. It should have been the crowning moment in my short career, the day the dark clouds parted and the sun shone brightly on one of her own, my abilities not only recognised, but usefully employed for the good of the nation. But then the words of that old letter came echoing back once again:
Do not return. Your presence has done more than enough damage. For his sake show yourself no more in Magisterstrasse!
The coachman cracked his whip, and the vehicle leapt forward. I took it as a sign of destiny. I should leave the past behind, and look towards a brighter and more prosperous future. What more could I possibly want? It was, when all was said and done, a glorious opportunity for professional advancement.
Helena must have been sitting at the window as the splendid vehicle pulled up outside the small, draughty house on the edge of the town which was tied to the prebend of Lotingen. As I climbed down, she ran out to meet me with neither hat nor coat, ignoring the biting north wind and the driving snow. She stopped before me, looking uncertainly up into my face.
‘What has happened, Hanno?’ she gasped, stepping close and slipping her arm through mine.
She listened as I told her all that had come to pass, slowly drawing away from me, clasping her hands protectively across her breasts. It was a gesture that I knew only too well when she was disturbed or upset by something I had said or done.
‘I thought that you had chosen Lotingen precisely to avoid such things, Hanno,’ she murmured. ‘I truly believed that here you had found what you were seeking.’
‘I did, my dear,’ I told her instantly. ‘I mean, of course, I have.’
‘I do not understand you, then,’ she replied. She hesitated for a moment, then went on: ‘If you are doing this for your father’s sake, nothing can change what happened, Hanno. Nothing will ever change him.’
‘I hoped you would be proud to see me getting on,’ I said, perhaps a trifle more harshly than I intended. ‘What ails you, wife? I have no choice. I must go when the King commands it.’
She looked down at the ground for some moments.
‘But murder, Hanno?’ she challenged suddenly, glancing up. ‘You have never dealt with such a heinous crime before.’
She spoke with fierce passion. I had never seen her in such a nervous state before. She threw herself upon my chest at last to hide the evidence of her weeping, and I glanced quickly in the direction of Sergeant Koch. He was standing stiffly by the carriage door, his expression blank and unchanging, as if he had heard nothing of what my wife had just said. I felt a flash of resentment for the embarrassment she had caused me.
‘Wait there, will you, Sergeant?’ I called back. ‘I’ll not be long.’
Koch bobbed his head, a tight-lipped smile traced faintly on his thin lips.
I led Helena quickly into the hall. Her manner was restrained and watchful. I cannot say what reaction I had expected from her. Pride, perhaps? Joy at my rapid promotion? She had shown no sign of either.
‘The King has called me to Him,’ I argued. ‘A senior magistrate in Königsberg has given His Majesty my name. What would you have me do?’
Helena looked at me, puzzlement traced upon her face, as if she failed to understand what I had just told her. ‘I…I do not know. How long will you be gone?’ she asked at last.
‘I cannot tell,’ I said. ‘Not very long, I hope.’
‘Run upstairs, Lotte. Fetch your master’s things,’ Helena cried suddenly, turning to the maid. ‘His carriage is waiting at the door. Be quick! He’ll be gone some days.’
As we stood in the hall alone, I knew not what to say. Helena and I had been wed four years, and had never spent a single night apart. A special bond of shared suffering tied us, one to the other.
‘I am not going off to fight the French!’ I declared with a nervous laugh, reaching out and drawing my darling close, kissing her gently on the forehead, cheek and lips, until the return of Lotte interrupted those brief, welcome moments of intimacy.
‘I’ll write every day, my love, and tell you of my doings. The minute we arrive, you’ll have word of me,’ I said with all the bluff sanguinity that I could muster to brighten the melancholy of parting. ‘Kiss Manni and Süsi for me.’
As I took the travelling-bag from Lotte, Helena threw herself upon me once again and let forth her emotions with a force and intensity I had never known in her before that moment. I thought it was on account of the children: Immanuel was not yet one, Süsanne barely two.
‘Forgive me, I am so troubled, Hanno,’ she cooed, her soft voice almost lost in the deep folds of my woollen cloak. ‘What do they want from you?’
Unable to reply, unwilling to speculate, I drew back from her embrace, straightened my mantle, threw my bag over my shoulder and walked quickly down the path towards the waiting coach and Sergeant Koch, my head bent low against the blizzard. I skipped aboard the coach with a light foot and a heavy heart.
As the vehicle slowly pulled away, the wheels crunching on the thick carpet of snow, I looked behind, watching until the dear, slender figure in the white dress was entirely swallowed up by the snowstorm.
The question that had perplexed Helena now returned to vex and puzzle me. Why had the King chosen me?
CRITIQUE OF CRIMINAL REASON Copyright © 2006 by Michael Gregorio