Expat American journalist Sam Kramer is burned out: too many dead bodies, too many wars covered, too little meaning in it all. He’s got a dead-end job at the Daily European as the correspondent for Vienna, where nothing happens now that the Cold War is over. And that is exactly how Kramer likes it.
But his private neutral zone is shattered with news of the suicide of Reni Müller, a German left-wing firebrand and Kramer’s long-estranged ex-girlfriend. To his surprise, Kramer suddenly finds himself the executor of Reni’s literary estate—but the damning memoir named in her will is nowhere to be found. Tracking down the manuscript will lead Kramer to the unsettling truth of Reni’s death, drawing him back into the days of the Cold War and showing him the dark side of the woman he loved.
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A Mystery of Cold War Europe
By J. Sydney Jones
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2015 J. Sydney Jones
All rights reserved.
She'd think it was a lark, Kramer tells himself. Playing got-you-last. Reni thumbing her nose at all of them for one final time. Even had herself planted in consecrated ground. What a joke that was. Kramer would love to know how many marks out of Herr Müller's hefty wallet that took.
Renata Müller, queen of the German Left, one-time head of the Green coalition in the German Parliament—Red Reni the press loved to call her—laid to rest with full Catholic honors despite committing suicide.
But that just didn't compute to Kramer. Reni was not a suicide type of woman.
And there was the melon-faced priest at the rain-soaked interment with the sack of dirt in a blue plastic shopping bag to keep it dry, sprinkling it on her coffin like pepper on a steak. The same priest who'd gone around twenty some years ago muttering about the evils of their cohabitation. Jesus, what a lovely last laugh.
"They serve an excellent pike here, Sam," Herr Müller says, not lifting his eyes from the hand-printed menu he's scrutinizing.
"Great," Kramer replies. He's seated across an expanse of blue-and-white checked tablecloth from Müller, playing at studying his own menu some more, but actually eyeballing a waitress in a dirndl that shows way too much cleavage.
Kramer's also trying to figure out Müller's post-funeral invite, but not spending too much time on it. He never turns down a free meal. His shoes are sodden from the rain, and his stomach sour from too much single malt the night before. A man in that condition does not ask why, just when.
"And the white wine is tolerably good as well." This time, Herr Müller fixes Kramer with penetrating blue eyes; the nares of his hawk nose quiver. "But I seem to recall you being a beer man."
"No. Wine is fine." The words are out before Kramer can stop them. He suddenly remembers Reni's warning about her father: He can charm a snake, Sammy. He makes you want to please him.
Herr Müller smiles, with lips only, then beckons the waitress and orders for both of them. After she leaves, they sit listening to the clink of cutlery at other tables.
Kramer finally ends their silence. "Sorry about your daughter."
Herr Müller's jaw muscle works, like a stage direction for grief. Kramer has trouble taking him seriously with his health club tan in November and his white hair freshly coiffed for the occasion. But maybe he's just trying to keep his mind off the body in the coffin, too.
"Renata will be missed by us all," Müller replies. "But let's be honest, Sam. She was very hard on friends. She could be a difficult person, demanding at times."
Kramer says nothing as the wine, salad, and rolls are delivered.
"Lord knows, we had our differences," Müller says, filling the wineglasses. "Lately, we called a truce, but in the years you knew her, Sam, Renata and I had a rift between us. I assume you were aware of that."
Kramer nods and thinks to himself, More like the Grand Canyon.
"Yes," Herr Müller continues, "we eventually overcame our differences. Some never did, I am afraid to say. Gerhard, for example ..."
Kramer perks up at his mention. "Yes. Where is he? I expected to see him at the funeral."
"Gone. Taken himself off somewhere." Müller munches desultorily on the salad and swallows. "The male syndrome of the late twentieth century, Sam. Chaps who cannot stand to be hidden by the much larger shadow their mates cast." Herr Müller looks at Kramer appraisingly, with a touch too much interest. "You haven't stayed in touch with him?"
Bells go off in Kramer's head. So this is why the lunch, he figures. "No, I haven't seen him in years."
Müller shakes his head. "One would think he would at least return to pay his final respects. She was his wife, after all." Müller pauses momentarily, smiling at the waitress as she brings the main course. Then his eyes lock again on Kramer. "But let's speak of more uplifting topics, Sam. You, for instance. What have you done with yourself all these years?"
Kramer shrugs. It's his experience that when people ask such questions, they don't want real answers. It's easy for him to put the mask on; years of being the anonymous interloper and interviewer have prepared him. So for the next few minutes, as they both attack the meal, he regales Müller with tales of the life of a foreign correspondent: the trail of stories that led him from Belfast to Kabul to Sarajevo.
"So you've settled in Vienna," Müller suddenly interrupts. "Not a bad city. It's where you all met, isn't it?"
"Yes." All of us, Kramer thinks.
Suddenly, Herr Müller's smooth facade cracks. He bows his head in his long, tanned hands, and a sob escapes his lips, partly choked off.
"God, how awful. Dead all those days and none of us even caring. Left to her neighbors to find her."
He looks up, eyes red-rimmed but still piercing.
"It was the smell, you see. There was this powerful stench, and they thought perhaps a gas line had a leak."
"I don't get it." Kramer can no longer play the disinterested role. "It's just not like her. Why the hell would she do it?"
Müller shakes his head abruptly, as much to steel himself as to indicate I don't know. "She left no note."
"Could it have been an accident?"
Another shake of Müller's head. "Not likely. The coroner thinks she may have ingested the better part of a bottle of sleeping pills. Though it was difficult to tell after so much time had elapsed. She was depressed."
"About Gerhard leaving?"
"Hardly." Müller has control of himself again. "It was bigger than that. Since being out of Parliament, she felt useless—that the best part of her life was past. I cannot understand such pessimism, myself," he quickly adds. "There is always something to live for. Always a new day to present itself. She could have done so many things with her life. But you younger people seem to want things easily, instantly."
Suddenly, the idea seems ludicrous to Kramer. "You're saying she killed herself because she was no longer in Parliament? Come on."
Herr Müller lifts his hands shoulder height, stretches them palm upward. An uncharacteristic shrug for such a verbal man.
"Who knows what thoughts arise at three in the morning?"
They get through the lunch and exchange addresses, though neither has the faintest desire to see the other again. Herr Müller honks once as he departs from Bonn in his silver Mercedes. Standing in the gasthaus parking lot, Kramer wonders if Müller got what he was looking for out of the lunch meeting; he knows that he himself did not. A viable explanation for Reni's suicide has yet to be offered.
The rain has let up some, but the afternoon is dark and somber. Kramer returns to his room at the Hotel Bad. It is functional: a pine-veneer single bed and meager comforter along with a matching faux-pine wardrobe and nightstand. A tiny dormer window looks out on the steeple of the Catholic church. Beyond it is the greenery of the cemetery where Reni was buried this morning.
Kramer has no plans; he's not scheduled back at the paper until tomorrow. He expected old friends to turn up for the interment; that they might wake the dead. Now, this room seems a silly expense. He could catch the afternoon flight back to Vienna; be in the office first thing in the morning.
Instead, he slumps onto the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, rubbing his eyes, feeling sudden exhaustion. Early this morning, he caught the red-eye from Vienna to Bonn; that and the effects of the heavy lunch and wine are catching up with him. He yawns, kicks off his damp shoes, and stretches out on the bed, pulling the comforter over him.
Sleep comes effortlessly; and suddenly Reni is hovering over him, on him like a glove, her bushy blonde hair tossed about her face, teeth biting into her lower lip as if to hold off the moment of climax. The only position she knew—on top.
She moves slowly on him, minuscule rotations of her hips and fluttering interior caresses, as he holds back, too. He stares into her face that looks in pain, feels himself joining her, part of her, so much in love with her that it hurts. And when she comes, she opens her eyes in surprise, looking at him, looking into him, her mouth formed in a silent scream of pleasure.
But the scream turns into the chirruping of a cricket, and Kramer slowly crawls out of the dreamscape to hear his telephone ringing. He grapples for it clumsily and finally gets the receiver to his ear.
"Yes?" His voice low and thick from sleep.
"Mr. Kramer? Have I disturbed you?"
"Yes and yes."
Silence at the other end.
"Who's speaking, please?" Kramer finally asks, rubbing his face to wake up, to wipe away the vision of Reni.
"Sorry. Walther here. Dieter Walther of Schnelling and Walther."
The caller pauses as if that is supposed to mean something to Kramer. It doesn't.
"We telephoned you in Vienna, but your office said you were here in Bad Lunsburg. I must have missed you at the funeral today. Handy that you are in town, though."
"Why is that?" Kramer says, beginning to feel annoyed.
"Because of the will, you see. Renata Müller's. I am her lawyer, and you have been mentioned in the will. Perhaps you could stop by sometime before leaving Bad Lunsburg."
It's the best offer Kramer's had today. He glances at his wristwatch: a little after four in the afternoon.
"How about in ten minutes?" he says.CHAPTER 2
The office is where the voice on the telephone said it would be: opposite the half-timbered town hall. The firm of Schnelling and Walther is in a new three-story building with a long glass facade to catch the reflection of older "quaint" buildings. It has no character of its own. The offices are on the third floor; Kramer takes the stairs instead of the elevator.
It's all palms and leather couches there; a secretary sits at the mahogany desk with a phone to her ear. She smiles at Kramer as he enters, nodding to a couch, and continues the conversation. Kramer sits, picks up an art magazine from the glass table in front of the couch, and leafs through reprints of abstractions, nudes, and graffiti before the secretary finally hangs up the phone, reattaches a clip-on earring to her left lobe, and smiles again.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," she says in English. "Mr. Kramer?"
"You're to go right in. The door to your left." She gestures in back of her.
He gets up and goes to the door, knocking lightly before opening it. A small, thin man sits behind a massive desk and looks up with owl eyes as Kramer enters.
"Have a seat," he says, not bothering to rise.
Kramer crosses to the desk. Behind the little man is a view of the old town hall and rolling green hills in back of it. Kramer takes a chair in front of the desk.
"I spoke with you on the phone, Herr Walther," Kramer begins.
"Schnelling, actually," the little man interrupts, placing two pale hands on the green desk blotter in front of him. "Herr Walther had an urgent meeting to attend. But we both dealt with the unfortunate Frau Müller's estate."
Kramer takes an immediate dislike to the man without really knowing why. His size makes Kramer, at six four, feel rather ungainly. But it is more than that. There is an air about the man, a pomposity that rankles. Frau Müller. The Germans have never found an equivalent for Ms. Never even tried.
A gray file folder sits on the desk to Herr Schnelling's left, and he opens the front cover.
"I believe Herr Walther explained that you are mentioned in Frau Müller's will."
"He said that, yes."
"You were a friend of Frau Müller's?"
"Renata Müller and I go way back."
"Lovers, if it's any of your business."
The owl eyes blink; the pale hands thrum fingers on the blotter.
"Quite," he says. "There is no question of inheritance, you see, Mr. Kramer. A re quest rather than a be quest."
He smiles, pleased with the turn of phrase.
"That's why I was interested in your connection to the deceased. Professional rather than prurient interest."
"Just how am I mentioned in the will?"
Schnelling refers to the pages in the file now. "As executor, I believe her phrasing was ..." He shuffles pages, comes to the passage. "Yes. She has named you executor of her literary estate."
It is the first Kramer has heard of it. "What literary estate?"
"Let me read the paragraph, and I quote: 'I do hereby name Sam Kramer of Vienna as executor of my literary estate. In case of my untimely death, it will be up to him to dispose of notes, interviews, and finished manuscript for my memoirs as he sees fit.' End quote."
Kramer sits forward in the chair. "She was writing memoirs?"
Schnelling shrugs. "I was merely her lawyer, not her confidant. But if she was engaged in any such activity, then the results must surely be stored at her home. All safe-deposit boxes are listed with us and the contents already accounted for. No mention of memoirs in any of that."
Kramer thinks: Young to be writing memoirs. Then a second thought, "When did Ms. Müller name me her literary executor?"
"Really, Mr. Kramer. I don't know ..."
"Oh, come off it. She's dead. I was her friend."
"Yes." Schnelling says it grudgingly, as if he means no, and examines the clause. "It was appended October the second of this year."
Kramer makes the calculation. "Several weeks before her death?"
"Yes," Schnelling says. "Is that significant?"
It's Kramer's turn to shrug. "I don't know."
They sit staring at each other for a moment; another blink of Schnelling's round eyes.
"I assume you will want to take possession of the materials in question before your return to Vienna, Mr. Kramer. I am prepared to accompany you to Frau Müller's house at your convenience."
They meet the next morning at Inheritance, Reni's name for the farmhouse she purchased with the money her mother left her. Kramer is bleary-eyed after anesthetizing himself the night before with several bottles of Dortmunder beer. The day is as featureless as he feels; Herr Schnelling is checking his watch, leaning against a purple Porsche as the taxi drops Kramer off.
"Am I late?" Kramer sidesteps a mud puddle in the unpaved drive as he approaches Schnelling.
"A trifle." Tight, humorless smile. He is wearing a homburg and a pinstripe double-breasted suit that makes him look even shorter than he is today. In the light of day, his skin looks almost translucent, Kramer decides.
"After you. Mr. Kramer. I believe you know your way?"
Kramer does. He and Reni lived here for several months before moving on to Greece. The outside looks much the same as it did more than twenty years ago: a low, white-walled structure in the shape of a U. The barn and stalls at one end of the U were long ago converted into a solarium and study. One difference: there are neighbors now. The farmland on the edge of the town has been developed; Inheritance is now ringed by small, tidy bungalows with small, tidy gardens. They enter the door in the middle wing; it is locked, but Schnelling produces the key. Kramer has an eerie feeling as the lawyer opens the door, like someone unlocking his own past.
There is a strong smell of disinfectant as the door opens, and a shiver passes over him as he remembers Herr Müller's comments about the stink.
"There we are," Schnelling says with false goodwill.
Kramer takes a moment to orient himself; nothing in here is as it was when he lived here with Reni. The entryway has been knocked down so that the door opens immediately onto the living room. It's all hardwood floors and white walls, a far cry from the linoleum and shoddy wallpaper that used to be here. All ladder-back chairs and pine cupboards instead of cheap aluminum and Formica. The walls are a photo gallery. Kramer gazes briefly at them as Schnelling leads him to the study. Reni and her father in endless variations: first step, first bike, first graduation. There are only a few of Gerhard and Reni. Who photographed them? Gerhard is heavier than Kramer remembers him. Also clean-shaven—which is, surprisingly, an improvement. Reni does not look happy in those few shots with Gerhard; she reserves the smiles for her father.
"Any papers or memoirs that exist should be in the study." Schnelling leads Kramer past a closed door that was once their bedroom.
Kramer stops, turns the knob, but the door is locked.
"The body was found in there," Schnelling says, and Kramer jerks his hand away as if burned. "Nothing of interest, I assure you. The police surveyed it thoroughly at the time."
Kramer nods and feels his stomach flip-flop. He wants to get this over with, get away from the smell of disinfectant, the black-and-white memories on the walls. It is claustrophobic; it is her life since leaving him, and he wants no part of it. He is a stranger to it, an interloper.
"I suspect the papers will be in the file cabinets," Schnelling says as they reach the study.
The first room to be converted after Reni bought the old farm, this study has not changed over the years. The old rolltop desk is still there along with the Olivetti portable he wrote some of his first stories on. He immediately determines to take this with him: a reminder of better days. The Schiele nude they bought in Vienna still hangs on the wall along with a red-and-black woven bag from Crete. Memento of their first visit there.
Excerpted from Basic Law by J. Sydney Jones. Copyright © 2015 J. Sydney Jones. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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