On a rainy November day police detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein are summoned to a mysterious traffic accident: A woman has fallen from a pedestrian bridge onto a car driving underneath. According to a witness, the woman may have been pushed. The investigation leads Pia and Oliver to a small village, and the home of the victim, Rita Cramer.
On a September evening eleven years earlier, two seventeen-year-old girls vanished from the village without a trace. In a trial based only on circumstantial evidence, twenty-year-old Tobias Sartorius, Rita Cramer's son, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Bodenstein and Kirchhoff discover that Tobias, after serving his sentence, has now returned to his home town. Did the attack on his mother have something to do with his return?
In the village, Pia and Oliver encounter a wall of silence. When another young girl disappears, the events of the past seem to be repeating themselves in a disastrous manner. The investigation turns into a race against time, because for the villagers it is soon clear who the perpetrator isand this time they are determined to take matters into their own hands.
An atmospheric, character-driven and suspenseful mystery set in a small town that could be anywhere, dealing with issues of gossip, power, and keeping up appearances.
About the Author
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Thursday, November 6, 2008
He didn’t say “See you later.” Nobody who was let out of the slammer ever said “See you later.” Often, very often over the past ten years, he had imagined the day of his release. Now it occurred to him that he’d only thought as far as the moment he would walk out the door into freedom, which all of a sudden seemed threatening. He had no plans for his life. Not anymore. Even without the droning admonishments of the social workers he had realized long ago that the world was not waiting for him, and that he would have to deal with all sorts of obstacles and defeats in a future that no longer seemed so rosy. He could forget about a career as a doctor, which had once been his ambition after he passed his A-level exams for the university. Under the circumstances the training he’d received to be a locksmith, which he’d completed in prison, might come in handy. In any case it was high time he looked life straight in the eye.
As the gray, spike-topped iron gate of the Rockenberg Correctional Facility closed behind him with a clang, he saw her standing there across the street. In the past ten years she was the only one who had written to him regularly, but he was still surprised to see her. Actually he had expected his father to come. She was leaning on the fender of a silver SUV, holding a cell phone to her ear, and puffing nervously on a cigarette. He stopped. When she recognized him, she straightened up, stuck the phone in her coat pocket, and flicked away the cigarette butt. He hesitated for a moment before crossing the cobblestone street, carrying the small suitcase with his possessions in his left hand. He stopped in front of her.
“Hello, Tobi,” she said with a nervous laugh. Ten years was a long time. They hadn’t seen each other in all that time, because he hadn’t wanted her to visit him.
“Hello, Nadia,” he replied. It was strange to call each other by these unfamiliar names. In person she looked better than on TV. Younger. They stood facing each other, hesitant. A brisk gust of wind sent the dry fall leaves rustling across the pavement. The sun had slipped behind thick gray clouds. It was cold.
“Fantastic that you’re out.” She threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. “I’m glad. Really.”
“I’m glad too.” The instant he uttered this cliché, he asked himself whether it was true. Happiness was not the same thing as this feeling of strangeness, of uncertainty. She let him go because he made no move to return her embrace. In the old days she had been his best friend, the neighbors’ daughter, and he had taken her presence in his life for granted. Nadia was the sister he’d never had. But now everything was different, and not only her name. The tomboy Nathalie, who had been ashamed of her freckles, the gap in her front teeth, and her breasts, had been transformed into Nadia von Bredow, a famous actress who was in great demand. She had realized her ambitious dream to leave behind the village where they’d both grown up, to climb all the way to the top of the social ladder. He, on the other hand, could no longer put his foot even on the lowest rung. As of today he was an ex-con. Sure, he had served his time, but society was not exactly going to welcome him with open arms.
“Your father couldn’t get off work today.” Abruptly she took a step back, avoiding his eyes, as if his feeling of awkwardness was contagious. “That’s why I’m picking you up.”
“That’s nice of you.” Tobias shoved his suitcase into the back seat of her car and got into the passenger seat. The light-colored leather didn’t have a mark on it, and the inside of the car still smelled new.
“Wow,” he said, genuinely impressed, casting a glance at the dashboard, which looked like the cockpit of an airplane. “Cool car.”
Nadia smiled briefly and pressed a button without putting the key in the ignition. The engine sprang to life with a subtle purr. She expertly maneuvered the powerful automobile out of the parking place. Tobias glanced briefly at a pair of enormous chestnut trees that stood close to the prison wall. The view of those trees from his cell window had been his only contact with the outside world for the past ten years. The way the trees changed through the seasons was all that had remained of the world that had otherwise vanished in a diffuse fog beyond the prison walls. And now he, the convicted murderer of two girls, had to step back into this fog after serving his sentence. Whether he wanted to or not.
“Where should I take you? To my place?” Nadia asked as she turned the car onto the autobahn. In her most recent letters she had offered several times to let him stay with her temporarily—her apartment in Frankfurt was big enough. The prospect of not having to return to Altenhain and confront the past was tempting, but he declined.
“Maybe later,” he said. “First I want to go home.”
* * *
Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff was standing in the pouring rain on the site of the former military airfield at Eschborn. She had done up her blond hair in two short braids and put on a baseball cap. With her hands thrust deep in the pockets of her down jacket she was watching with a blank expression as her colleagues spread a tarp over the hole at her feet. During the demolition of one of the dilapidated aircraft hangars, a backhoe operator had discovered bones and a human skull in one of the empty jet fuel tanks. To the dismay of his boss he had then called the police. Work had come to a standstill for the past two hours, and Pia had been forced to listen to the insulting tirades of the ill-tempered foreman, whose multicultural demolition crew had instantly fled in alarm when the police showed up. The man lit his third cigarette in fifteen minutes and hunched his shoulders, as if that would prevent the rain from running down inside the collar of his jacket. He kept swearing to himself the whole time.
“We’re waiting for the medical examiner. He should be here soon.” Pia had no interest in either the blatant use of illegal workers at the site or the schedule for the demolition work. “Go ahead and tear down another hangar in the meantime.”
“Easy for you to say,” the man complained, pointing in the direction of the waiting backhoe and dump truck. “Because of a few bones we’ve got a big delay on our hands, and it’s going to cost us a fortune.”
Pia shrugged and turned her back on him. A car came bouncing over the uneven concrete. Weeds had gnawed through every gap in the taxiway and had turned the formerly smooth surface into a regular mogul run. After the airfield had been shut down, nature had emphatically proven its ability to reclaim every man-made structure. Pia left the foreman to bitch and moan and went over to the silver Mercedes that had pulled up next to the police vehicles.
“You certainly took your time getting here,” she greeted her ex-husband, not sounding overly friendly. “If I catch a cold it’ll be all your fault.”
Dr. Henning Kirchhoff, acting chief of Frankfurt forensic medicine, appeared unfazed by her remarks. He calmly donned the obligatory disposable coverall, exchanged his shiny black leather shoes for rubber boots, and pulled the hood over his head.
“I was giving a lecture,” he countered. “And then there was a traffic jam near the fairgrounds. Sorry. What have we got?”
“A skeleton in one of the old underground jet fuel tanks. The demolition crew found it about two hours ago.”
“Has it been moved?”
“I don’t think so. They removed only the concrete and dirt, then cut open the top of the tank because they can’t transport those things in one piece.”
“Good.” Kirchhoff nodded, said hello to the officers in the evidence team, and prepared to climb down into the pit underneath the tarp, where the lower portion of the tank was located. He was undoubtedly the best man for the job, since he was one of the few forensic anthropologists in Germany; human bones were his specialty. The wind was now driving the rain almost horizontally across the open taxiway. Pia was freezing. Water was dripping from the bill of her baseball cap, and her feet had turned to clumps of ice. She envied the men of the demolition team who had been idled, as they stood around in the hangar drinking hot coffee from thermoses. As usual, Henning worked meticulously; once he had some sort of bones in front of him, time and everything else lost all meaning for him. He knelt down at the bottom of the tank, bent over the skeleton, and examined one bone after another. Pia stooped to look under the tarp, holding on to the ladder so she wouldn’t fall into the pit.
“A complete skeleton,” Henning called up to her. “Female.”
“Old or young? How long has it been here?”
“I can’t say exactly yet. At first sight there’s no tissue remaining, so probably a couple of years at least.” Henning straightened up and came back up the ladder. The men of the evidence team began their work by carefully securing the bones and the surrounding soil. It was going to take a while before the skeleton could be transported to the forensic medicine lab, where Henning and his colleagues would examine it thoroughly.
Human bones were always being discovered at excavation sites. It was important to establish precisely how long the corpse had been buried there, since the statute of limitations on violent crimes, including murder, ran out after thirty years. It didn’t make any sense to check the missing persons files until they had determined the age of the victim at death and how long the skeleton had been in the ground. Air traffic at the old military airfield had ceased sometime in the fifties, and that was how long it had been since the tanks were last filled. The skeleton might belong to a female American soldier from the U.S. base located next to the airfield until October 1992, or it could have been a resident of the former home for asylum seekers on the other side of the rusty wire fence.
“Why don’t we go somewhere and get some coffee?” Henning took off his glasses and wiped them dry, then peeled off the wet coverall. Pia gave her ex-husband a surprised look. Café visits during working hours were simply not his style.
“Is something wrong?” she asked suspiciously.
He pursed his lips, then heaved a sigh.
“I’m really in a jam,” he admitted. “And I need your advice.”
* * *
The village huddled in the valley and looming over it were two tall, ugly monstrosities that were built in the seventies, back when every community worth its salt had approved construction of high-rise buildings. On the slope to the right was Millionaires’ Hill, as the old established families called the two streets where the few newcomers lived in villas on spacious grounds. He felt his heart pounding nervously the closer he came to his parents’ house. It was eleven years ago that he was here last. To the right stood the little half-timbered house belonging to Grandma Dombrowski. For ages it had looked as though it was still standing only because it was squeezed between two other houses. A little farther on was the judge’s farm with the barn. And diagonally across from it was the restaurant his father owned called the Golden Rooster. Tobias swallowed hard when Nadia stopped in front. In disbelief he surveyed the dilapidated façade with the plaster flaking off, the blinds pulled down, and the gutters sagging along the eaves. Weeds had forced their way through the asphalt, and the gate hung crooked on its hinges. He almost asked Nadia to keep going—Quick, quick, just get out of here! But he resisted the temptation, said a curt thank-you, and climbed out, taking his suitcase from the back seat.
“If you need anything, just give me a call,” Nadia said in parting, then stepped on the gas and zoomed off. What had he expected? A cheerful reception? He stood alone in the small blacktop parking area in front of the building, which had once been the center of this dismal dump. The formerly white plaster was now weathered and crumbling, and the name Golden Rooster was barely visible. A sign hung behind the cracked milky glass pane in the front door. TEMPORARILY CLOSED, it said in faded letters. His father had told him that he’d given up the restaurant, citing his slipped disk as the reason, but Tobias had a feeling that something else had brought him to this difficult decision. Hartmut Sartorius had been a third-generation innkeeper who had put body and soul into the business. He had done the slaughtering and cooking himself, he pressed his own hard cider, and he never neglected the restaurant for a single day because of illness. No doubt the customers had simply stopped coming. Nobody wanted to eat dinner or celebrate a special occasion at an establishment run by the parents of a double murderer. Tobias took a deep breath and walked over to the courtyard gate. It took some effort just to get the gate open. The condition of the courtyard shocked him. In the summer, tables and chairs had once stood beneath the spreading branches of a mighty chestnut tree and a picturesque pergola covered with wild grapevines, and waitresses had bustled from one table to the next. Now a sad dilapidation reigned. Tobias’s gaze swept over piles of carelessly discarded refuse, broken furniture, and trash. The pergola had partially collapsed and the unruly grapevines had withered. No one had swept up the fallen leaves from the chestnut tree, and the trash can had apparently not been put out on the street for weeks, because trash bags were piled next to it in a stinking heap. How could his parents live like this? Tobias felt his last ounce of courage fade away. Slowly he made his way to the steps leading up to the front door, then reached out and pressed the doorbell. His heart was pounding in his throat when the door was hesitantly opened. The sight of his father brought tears to Tobias’s eyes, and at the same time a sense of rage was growing inside him, rage at himself and at the people who had left his parents in the lurch after he’d been sent to prison.
“Tobias!” A smile flitted over the sunken face of Hartmut Sartorius, who was only a shadow of the vital, self-confident man he had once been. His thick, dark hair had turned thin and gray, and his bent posture betrayed the weight of the burden that life had imposed on him.
“I … I really should have cleaned things up a bit, but I didn’t get any time off and—” He broke off, his smile gone. He merely stood there, a broken, shamefaced man, avoiding Tobias’s gaze, because he knew what his son was seeing.
It was more than Tobias could bear. He dropped his suitcase, spread his arms wide, and clumsily embraced this emaciated, gray stranger who he scarcely recognized as his father.
A little while later they sat awkwardly facing each other at the kitchen table. There was so much to say, and yet every word seemed superfluous. The gaudy oilcloth on the table was covered with crumbs, the windowpanes were filthy, and a withered plant in a pot by the window had long since lost the fight to survive. The kitchen felt damp and smelled unpleasantly of sour milk and old cigarette smoke. Not a piece of furniture had been moved, not a picture taken down from the wall, since he’d been arrested on September 16, 1997, and left this house. But back then everything had been bright and cheerful and clean as a whistle; his mother was an efficient housewife. How could she permit such neglect, how could she stand it?
“Where’s Mom?” Tobias finally said, breaking the silence. He saw at once that the question caused his father more embarrassment.
“We … we wanted to tell you, but … but then we thought it would be better if you didn’t know,” Hartmut Sartorius said at last. “It’s been a while since your mother … moved out. But she knows that you’re coming home today and is looking forward to seeing you.”
Baffled, Tobias stared at his father.
“What’s that supposed to mean—she moved out?”
“It wasn’t easy for us after you … went away. The gossip never stopped. Finally she just couldn’t take it anymore.” There was no reproach in his voice, which had turned quavery and faint. “We were divorced four years ago. She’s living in Bad Soden now.”
Tobias swallowed with difficulty.
“Why didn’t either of you tell me about this?” he whispered.
“Ah, it wouldn’t have made any difference. We didn’t want you to worry.”
“So that means you’re living here all by yourself?”
Hartmut Sartorius nodded, shoving the crumbs on the tablecloth back and forth, arranging them in symmetrical patterns and then scattering them again.
“What about the pigs? And the cows? How can you do all the work yourself?”
“I got rid of the animals years ago,” his father answered. “I still do a little farming. And I found a really good job in a kitchen in Eschborn.”
Tobias clenched his hands into fists. How foolish he had been to think that he was the only one being punished by life! He’d never understood before how much his parents must have suffered too. During their visits to the prison they had always acted as if their world was intact, yet it had all been a sham. How much effort that must have cost them! Helpless fury grabbed Tobias by the throat, trying to throttle him. He stood up, went over to the window, and stared blankly outside. His plan to go somewhere else after spending a few days with his parents, so he could try to start a new life far from Altenhain, now disintegrated. He would be staying here. In this house, on this farm, in this crappy dump of a village where everyone had made his parents suffer even though they were completely innocent.
* * *
The wood-paneled restaurant in the Black Horse was jam-packed, and the noise level was correspondingly high. Half of Altenhain had gathered at the tables and the bar, unusual for a Thursday night. Amelie Fröhlich balanced three orders of jägerschnitzel on a tray as she made her way over to table nine. She served the customers, wishing them “Guten Appetit.” Normally master roofer Udo Pietsch and his pals would have some dumb remark ready, aimed at her bizarre appearance, but today Amelie could have been serving naked and probably nobody would have noticed. The mood was as tense as during a World Cup game. Amelie pricked up her ears when Gerda Pietsch leaned over toward the next table occupied by the Richters, who ran the grocery store on the main street.
“I saw him arrive,” Margot Richter was saying. “What barefaced impudence to show up here, as if nothing had ever happened!”
Amelie went back to the kitchen. Roswitha was waiting by the counter for the order for Fritz Unger at table four, a medium rump steak with onions and herb butter.
“What’s all the uproar about tonight?” Amelie asked her older colleague, who had slipped off one of her orthopedic shoes and was discreetly rubbing her right foot over the varicose veins on her left calf. Roswitha glanced at the boss’s wife, who was too busy with all the drink orders to worry about her employees.
“The Sartorius kid got out of the joint today,” Roswitha confided in a low voice. “He did ten years for killing those two girls.”
“Oh!” Amelie’s eyes widened with surprise. She knew Hartmut Sartorius slightly. He lived all alone on that big, run-down farm of his down the hill from her house, but she hadn’t known anything about his son.
“Yep.” Roswitha nodded toward the bar where master carpenter Manfred Wagner was staring into space, his eyes glassy as he held in his hand his tenth or eleventh glass of beer this evening. Normally it took him two hours longer to get through that many beers. “Manfred’s daughter Laura—that’s who Tobias killed. And the Schneeberger girl. To this day he hasn’t told anyone what he did with their bodies.”
“Rump steak with herb butter and onions!” called Kurt, the assistant cook, shoving the plate through the serving hatch. Roswitha slipped her shoe back on and maneuvered her corpulent figure skillfully through the jam-packed restaurant to table four. Tobias Sartorius—Amelie had never heard that name before. She had arrived in Altenhain only six months ago from Berlin, and not by choice. The village and its inhabitants were as interesting to her as a sack of rice in China, and if she hadn’t been turned on to the job at the Black Horse by her father’s employer, she still wouldn’t know a soul.
“Three wheat beers, one small diet Coke,” shouted Jenny Jagielski, the boss’s wife, who had taken charge of the drinks. Amelie grabbed a tray, set the glasses on it, and cast a quick glance at Manfred Wagner. His daughter had been murdered by the son of Hartmut Sartorius! That was really intriguing. Here, in the most boring village in the world, undreamed of abysses suddenly opened up. She unloaded the three beers on the table where Jenny Jagielski’s brother Jörg Richter was sitting with two other men. He was actually supposed to be tending bar instead of Jenny, but he seldom did what he was supposed to do. Especially when the boss, Jenny’s husband, wasn’t there. She deposited the diet soda in front of Mrs. Unger at table four. Then she had time for a short pit stop in the kitchen. All the guests had their food, and Roswitha had gathered new details on a further round through the restaurant. With glowing cheeks and heaving bosom she now recounted to her curious audience what she’d learned.
Amelie, the assistant cooks Kurt and Achim, and Wolfgang the head cook were all ears. Margot Richter’s grocery store—Amelie had been surprised to hear that everyone in Altenhain said “we’re going to Margot’s,” although strictly speaking the store belonged to her husband—stood directly across from the former Golden Rooster. That was why Margot and the hairdresser Inge Dombrowski, who had stopped at the grocery that afternoon for a little chat, had been eyewitnesses to the return of that guy. He had climbed out of a silver luxury car and walked over to his parents’ farmhouse.
“He’s certainly got some nerve,” Roswitha fumed. “The girls are dead, and this guy shows up back here as if nothing had ever happened!”
“But where else would he go?” Wolfgang remarked nonchalantly, taking a gulp of his beer.
“I don’t think you get it,” Roswitha told him. “How would you like it if the murderer of your daughter suddenly showed up right in front of you?”
Wolfgang shrugged indifferently.
“What else?” Achim pressed her. “Where did he go?”
“Into the house, of course,” said Roswitha. “He must have been surprised when he saw what it looks like now.”
The swinging door opened. Jenny Jagielski marched into the kitchen and put her hands on her hips. Like her mother, Margot Richter, she was of the opinion that her employees were going to rob the cash register behind her back or somehow pull a fast one on her. Three pregnancies in rapid succession had ruined Jenny’s figure, who’d been of stocky build to start with. By now she was as round as a barrel.
“Roswitha!” she called sharply to the woman who was about thirty years older. “Table ten is waiting for the check.”
Roswitha vanished obediently, and Amelie tried to follow her, but Jenny Jagielski held her back.
“How many times have I told you to remove those disgusting piercings and brush your hair properly when you come to work?” Disapproval was written all over her puffy face. “And a blouse would be more suitable than this skimpy top. You can’t be serving food in your underwear. We’re a decent restaurant, not some underground Berlin disco!”
“But the men like it,” Amelie countered. Jagielski’s eyes narrowed and red patches appeared like crimson brands on her fat neck.
“I don’t give a damn,” she snapped. “Take a look at the hygiene regulations.”
Amelie had a bitter retort on the tip of her tongue, but at the very last second she managed to control herself. Even if she found Jagielski unpleasant, from her cheap perm down to her plump bratwurst calves, Amelie should keep her mouth shut. She needed this job at the Black Horse.
“And you two?” The boss glared at her cooks. “Don’t you have anything you should be doing?”
Amelie left the kitchen just as Manfred Wagner toppled over and brought the barstool down on top of him.
“Hey, Manni,” called one of the men from the table of regulars. “It’s only nine thirty!” The others laughed good-naturedly. Nobody got excited about it; this same spectacle, or something similar, played out almost every night, but usually along about eleven. Then they would call his wife, who would show up within a few minutes, pay his tab, and steer her husband toward home. This evening, however, Wagner altered the choreography. This man who was normally so placid struggled back to his feet without anyone’s help, turned around, grabbed his beer glass, and smashed it on the floor. All conversation stopped as he staggered over to the table of regulars.
“You assholes,” he mumbled, his tongue thick with drink. “You sit here talking all kinds of crap like it was nothing! None of you give a damn!”
Wagner held on to the back of a chair and looked around wildly with his bloodshot eyes. “But I, I have to … look at this … pig … and think about…” He broke off and his head drooped. Jörg Richter had stood up and now put his hand on Wagner’s shoulder.
“Come on, Manni. Don’t make trouble. I’ll call Andrea and she…”
“Don’t touch me!” Wagner howled, pushing him away so violently that the younger man lost his balance and fell. He grabbed hold of a chair and pulled the man sitting there down with him. All at once, chaos erupted.
“I’m going to kill that pig!” Wagner kept bellowing over and over. He was thrashing all about; the full glasses on the table tipped over, their contents spilling onto the clothing of the men sprawled on the floor. In fascination Amelie watched the scene from the cash register as her colleague fought for her life in the midst of the melee. A regular old-time brawl in the Black Horse! Finally something was happening in this dismal dump. Jenny Jagielski dashed past her into the kitchen.
“A decent restaurant,” Amelie muttered derisively, earning a dirty look. Seconds later the boss came storming out of the kitchen with Kurt and Achim in tow. The two cooks overpowered the drunken man in a flash. Amelie grabbed the broom and dustpan and went over to the regulars’ table to clean up the broken glass. Manfred Wagner was no longer belligerent and let himself be led away without resistance, but at the door he wrested himself from the grip of the two cooks and turned around. He stood there swaying, with saliva running from the corners of his mouth into his disheveled beard. A dark spot was spreading on the front of his pants. He must be really drunk, thought Amelie. She had never seen him piss himself before. Suddenly she felt sorry for this man she had always secretly ridiculed. Was the murder of his daughter the reason why he drank himself into a coma with such persistent regularity every night? It was deathly quiet in the restaurant.
“I’m going to get that bastard!” Wagner yelled. “I’ll beat that … that … fucking killer to death.”
His head fell forward and he began to sob.
* * *
Tobias Sartorius stepped out of the shower and reached for the towel. He wiped off the steamed-up mirror with his hand and looked at his face in the dim light produced by the last functioning lightbulb in the bathroom. The last time he had looked in this mirror was on the morning of September 16, 1997. Later that evening they had come to arrest him. How grown-up he had felt back then, that summer after he’d graduated from high school. Tobias closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cold surface. Here, in this house, where every nook and cranny was so familiar, the ten years he’d spent in prison seemed to have vanished. He remembered every detail of those last days before his arrest as if it had all happened yesterday. It was incredible how naïve he had been. But until today he’d had those black holes in his memory, although the court had refused to believe it. He opened his eyes, stared into the mirror, and for a second was surprised to see the angular face of a thirty-year-old. With his fingertips he touched the pale scar that ran along his jawbone to his chin. The wound had been inflicted in his second week in prison, and it was the reason why he had spent ten years in solitary, with almost no contact with his fellow prisoners. In the strict hierarchy of prison life the murderer of two teenage girls ranked only barely above the lowest filth, the child murderer. The bathroom door didn’t close tightly anymore; a cold draft struck his wet skin and made him shiver.
From downstairs he could hear voices. His father must have a visitor. Tobias turned away and pulled on underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt. Earlier he had surveyed the depressing relic of the big farmhouse and confirmed that the front part looked downright presentable in comparison to the rear section. He gave up completely his vague plans to flee Altenhain as quickly as possible. He couldn’t possibly leave his father all alone in this mess. Since he couldn’t expect to find a job any time soon, he might as well spend the next few days getting the farm into shape. Then he would see what happened. He left the bathroom, passed the closed door to his room, and went down the stairs, out of habit skipping the steps that creaked. His father was sitting at the kitchen table, and his visitor had his back to Tobias. But he recognized the man at once.
* * *
When Oliver von Bodenstein, the detective superintendent and head of the Division of Violent Crimes at the Regional Criminal Unit in Hofheim, got home at nine thirty, he found that his dog was the only living creature in the house. The greeting he received seemed more embarrassed than cheerful—an unmistakable sign of a guilty conscience. And Bodenstein smelled the reason why before he saw it. He’d had a stressful fourteen-hour day. First there was a tedious meeting at the State Bureau of Investigation; the discussion of a skeleton discovered in Eschborn, which his boss, Commissioner Dr. Nicola Engel called a “cold case”; and last but not least the farewell party for a colleague from K-23 who had been transferred to Hamburg.
Bodenstein’s stomach was growling, because he’d had only a few chips along with a quantity of alcohol. Disgruntled, he opened the refrigerator and saw nothing inside that would gratify his taste buds. Couldn’t Cosima have done some grocery shopping if she wasn’t going to fix him any dinner? Where was she, anyway? He went down the hall, ignoring the stinking pile and the puddle the dog had left, which thanks to the floor heating had already dried to a sticky yellow spot. Then he went upstairs to his youngest daughter’s room. Sophia’s bed was empty, as expected. Cosima must have taken the little girl with her, wherever it was she’d gone. He wasn’t going to call her if she couldn’t bother to leave him a note or at least send him a text message. Just as Bodenstein had gotten undressed and stepped into the bathroom to take a shower, the phone rang. Naturally it wasn’t in the recharger on top of the chest of drawers in the hall, but somewhere else in the house. With growing annoyance he began searching for the phone, swearing as he stepped on a toy that had been left on the living room floor. Just as he located the phone on the couch, the ringing stopped. At the same time the key turned in the lock of the front door, and the dog began barking excitedly. Cosima came in, carrying their drowsy daughter and a huge bouquet of flowers.
“Oh, you’re home,” she said. That was her sole greeting. “Why didn’t you pick up the phone?”
His hackles rose at once.
“Because I couldn’t find it. Where were you, anyway?”
She didn’t answer, ignoring the fact that he was dressed only in briefs, and went past him into the kitchen. She put the bouquet down on the table and then held Sophia out to him. The girl was now wide awake and whimpering unhappily. Bodenstein took his little daughter in his arms. He could smell that her diaper must be full.
“I sent you several texts to ask you to pick up Sophia at Lorenz and Thordis’s.” Cosima took off her coat. She looked exhausted and frazzled, but he didn’t feel guilty.
“I didn’t get any texts.”
Sophia wriggled in his arms and started to cry.
“Because your cell was turned off. You’ve known for weeks that this afternoon I’d be at the film museum for the opening of the photo exhibition about New Guinea.” Cosima’s voice had a sharp edge to it. “Actually you promised to stay home tonight and take care of Sophia. When you didn’t show up and your phone was off, Lorenz picked her up.”
Bodenstein had to admit that he had indeed promised Cosima to come home early. He’d forgotten, and that annoyed him even more.
“Her diaper’s dirty,” he said, holding the child a bit away from him. “And the dog pooped in the house. You could have at least let him out before you left. And would it be too much to ask that you do some grocery shopping so I could find something to eat in the fridge after a long day at work?”
Cosima didn’t answer. Instead she gave him a look from under raised eyebrows that really sent him into a fury, because it made him feel both irresponsible and rotten. She took the crying baby from him and went upstairs to change her and put her to bed. Bodenstein stood in the kitchen undecided. Deep inside a battle was raging between pride and common sense, and at last the latter won out. With a sigh he took a vase from the cupboard, filled it with water, and put the flowers in it. From the pantry he got out a bucket and a roll of paper towels and set about cleaning up the dog’s deposits in the hall. The last thing he wanted was a fight with Cosima.
* * *
“Hello, Tobias.” Claudius Terlinden gave him a friendly smile. He got up from his chair and held out his hand. “Great to see you back home.”
Tobias briefly grasped the proffered hand but said nothing. The father of his former best friend Lars had visited him several times in prison and assured him that he would help his parents. Tobias was never able to explain the motives for his friendliness, because at the time of the investigation he had caused Terlinden considerable trouble. The man seemed not to have held it against him; on the contrary, he had immediately engaged one of the best criminal lawyers in Frankfurt to defend Tobias. But even he was unable to forestall the maximum sentence.
“I don’t want to bother you two for long, I just came to make you an offer,” said Claudius Terlinden, sitting back down on the kitchen chair. He had changed hardly at all in the intervening years. Slim and suntanned even now in November, with his slightly graying hair combed back, although his formerly sharply chiseled features had turned a bit puffy. “Once you’ve settled down here, if you can’t find a job, you could come work for me. What do you say to that?”
He gazed expectantly at Tobias over the rims of his reading glasses. He was not an impressive man in terms of either physical size or good looks, but he did radiate the calm self-confidence of a successful entrepreneur. He also possessed an innate authority, which made other people behave courteously, even obsequiously, in his presence. Tobias did not sit down but remained leaning on the door frame with his arms crossed. Not that he could see many alternatives to Terlinden’s offer, but something about it made Tobias suspicious. In his expensive suit, his dark cashmere coat, and with his shoes polished to a high sheen, Claudius Terlinden was like a foreign presence in the shabby kitchen. Tobias felt a growing sense of powerlessness. He didn’t want to become indebted to this man. His eyes shifted to his father, who sat there with his shoulders hunched, mutely staring at his clasped hands like a devoted serf before the lord of the manor. This image did not please Tobias in the least. His father shouldn’t have to bow to anyone, especially not Claudius Terlinden. Half the village felt indebted to him because of his smug generosity, since no one was ever able to reciprocate. But Terlinden had always held the advantage. Almost all the young people from Altenhain had worked for him at one time or profited from his help in some way. In return Terlinden expected only gratitude. Since half the people in Altenhain were employed by him anyway, he enjoyed a godlike status in this one-horse town. The silence turned awkward.
“Well, then.” Terlinden stood up, and Hartmut Sartorius instantly jumped to his feet. “You know where to find me. Let me know what you decide.”
Tobias merely nodded and watched him leave. He stayed in the kitchen as his father showed their guest to the door.
When his father returned two minutes later, he said, “He means well.”
“I don’t want to be dependent on his benevolence,” Tobias replied fiercely. “The way he walks in here, like … like a king bestowing the favor of his presence on his subjects. As if he’s better than us!”
Sartorius sighed. He filled the kettle and put it on the stove.
“He’s helped us a lot,” he said softly. “We had never saved up anything, always put it into the farm and the restaurant. The lawyer cost a lot of money, and then people stopped coming here to eat. Eventually I couldn’t make the mortgage payments to the bank. They threatened to foreclose on the property. Claudius took care of our debts to the bank.”
Tobias stared at his father in disbelief.
“You mean, the whole farm actually belongs … to him?”
“Strictly speaking, yes. But we have a contract. I can buy back the farm at any time and have the right to live here until I die.”
Tobias needed to digest this news. He declined the tea that his father offered him.
“How much do you owe him?”
Hartmut Sartorius hesitated a moment. He knew his son’s fiery temper well. “Three hundred and fifty thousand euros. That’s how much I owe the bank.”
“The land alone is worth at least twice that!” said Tobias, making an effort to control himself. “He exploited your situation and got an unbelievable bargain.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” Hartmut Sartorius shrugged. “There was no alternative. Otherwise the bank would have auctioned off the farm, and we would have been out on the street.”
Something suddenly occurred to Tobias. “What about the Schilling land?” he asked.
His father looked away, staring at the teapot.
“Good Lord.” Hartmut Sartorius looked up. “It was just a meadow!”
Tobias was beginning to understand. The pieces were snapping into place in his mind. His father had sold the Schilling land to Claudius Terlinden, and that’s why Mother had left him! It was not merely a meadow, but the dowry that she had brought into the marriage. The Schilling land had been an apple orchard with little true value. But after the change in the land-use plan in 1992 it had become probably the most valuable piece of land in the Altenhain district, because it comprised almost fifteen-hundred square meters in the very center of the planned industrial park. Terlinden had had his eye on the property for years.
“How much did he pay you for it?” asked Tobias in a low voice.
“Ten thousand euros,” his father admitted, hanging his head. A lot that big in the middle of the industrial park was worth fifty times that amount. “Claudius needed it urgently, for his new construction project. After everything he’d done for us, I couldn’t refuse. I had to let him have it.”
Tobias’s jaw tightened as he clenched his fists in helpless fury. He couldn’t reproach his father, because he was the one to blame for the regrettable situation into which his parents had fallen. He suddenly had the feeling that he might suffocate in this house, in this damned village. Still he would stay—for as long as it took him to find out what had really happened eleven years ago.
* * *
Amelie left the Black Horse shortly before eleven, going out the back way through the kitchen. She would have liked to stay longer tonight so she could hear more about the topic of the day. But Jenny Jagielski strictly adhered to the labor regulations for minors, since Amelie was only seventeen and she didn’t want to risk any hassle with the authorities. Amelie didn’t care; she was happy to have the waitress job and earn her own keep. Her father had turned out to be a skinflint, just as her mother had always described him, and denied her the money to buy a new laptop. He told her that the old one was good enough.
The first three months in this miserable village had been dreadful. But now that the end of her involuntary sojourn in Altenhain was in sight, she had decided to make the best of the next five months until her eighteenth birthday. By April 21, 2009, she would be on the first train back to Berlin anyway. Then nobody could stop her.
Amelie lit a cigarette and looked around in the dark for Thies, who waited for her every night to walk her home. Their close friendship was like raw meat for the village gossips. The wildest rumors made the rounds, but Amelie couldn’t care less. At the age of thirty Thies Terlinden still lived with his parents, because he wasn’t quite right in the head, as people in the village surreptitiously whispered. Amelie shouldered her knapsack and headed off. Thies was standing under the streetlight by the church, his hands thrust deep in his jacket pockets, his gaze fixed on the ground, but he fell in beside her as she passed.
“What a commotion there was tonight,” said Amelie. Then she told Thies about what had happened at the Black Horse and what she had learned about Tobias Sartorius. She had gotten used to almost never getting an answer out of Thies. People said he was stupid and couldn’t talk; they called him the village idiot. But that wasn’t true. Thies wasn’t stupid at all, he was just … different. Amelie was different too. Her father didn’t like the fact that she spent time with Thies, but there was nothing he could do about it. With cynical amusement, Amelie sometimes thought that her bourgeois father probably bitterly regretted having rescued his wacky daughter from his brief first marriage. He’d only done it at her stepmother Barbara’s insistence. In Amelie’s eyes her father was nothing more than a gray, shapeless blob with no corners, edges, or spine, a man who cautiously proceeded through his humdrum bookkeeper life, always at pains not to rock the boat. It had to be sheer horror for him to have an ex-con seventeen-year-old daughter with behavioral problems, whose face was decorated with half a pound of metal, and who wore only black clothes. As far as her hair and makeup were concerned, she could have been the model for Bill Kaulitz from the band Tokio Hotel.
Arne Fröhlich undoubtedly had excellent reasons for objecting to Amelie’s friendship with Thies, although he had never issued an ultimatum. Not that it would have done any good. Amelie had spent her whole life disregarding other people’s opinions. She thought the real reason her father tacitly tolerated their friendship was that Thies was the son of his boss. She flicked her cigarette butt into a storm drain and continued thinking out loud about Manfred Wagner, Tobias Sartorius, and the dead girl.
Instead of walking down the well-lighted main street she had turned into the narrow, gloomy lane that led from the church through the village, past the cemetery and the back yards of the houses all the way to the edge of the woods. After walking for ten minutes she and Thies reached Waldstrasse, where only three houses stood a bit above the rest of the village on large plots of land. In the middle was the house where Amelie lived with her father, her stepmother, and her two younger half siblings; to the right of it stood the Lauterbachs’ bungalow; and a bit off to the left, surrounded by parklike grounds, was the big old villa belonging to the Terlinden family, right at the edge of the forest. Only a few yards from the wrought-iron gate of the Terlindens’ estate was the rear entrance to the Sartorius farm, which stretched all the way down the hill to the main road. In the old days it had been a real farm, with cows and pigs. Today the whole place was one big pigsty, as Amelie’s father was fond of saying disparagingly. An eyesore.
Amelie stopped at the foot of the steps. Usually she and Thies parted here, and he would then keep walking without saying a word. But today he broke his silence when Amelie was about to go up the stairs.
“This is where the Schneebergers used to live,” he said in his monotone voice. Amelie turned around in astonishment. For the first time this evening she looked directly at her friend, but as usual he averted his eyes.
“Really?” she asked in disbelief. “One of the girls that Tobias Sartorius killed lived in our house?”
Thies nodded without looking at her.
“Yes. This is where Snow White lived.”
Copyright © 2012 by Nele Neuhaus