Passport to Crime

Rest in Peace

by Thomas Przybilka and Gitta List

 

Translated from the German by Mary Tannert

It was one of those days in the Rhine Valley around Bonn when you didn’t know how the weather would turn out to be—hazy and humid or hazy and cool. The calendar said it was spring, but the day paid no attention to the laws of the four seasons. Instead, it did what it wanted, and at the moment it was behaving like November.

The three-minute tea didn’t make the morning any better, and one glance at the newspaper confirmed what Rasmus Degen already knew, which was that there were still entirely too many idiots in the world. The GUS states reported the world’s first theft of atomic weapons systems. Two drunken technicians had bet on whether it was possible to steal a nuclear warhead. It was. Well, at any rate those two idiots aren’t running around free anymore, he grumbled as he stirred his tea energetically. And maybe it would finally occur to the big bosses over there that they needed to keep a closer eye on their vodka.

Degen had taken a couple of days of vacation. He’d used the first to go to Euskirchen, a little spot on the edge of the Eifel that was, architecturally speaking, pure horror, but it did have one special feature that Rasmus valued very much: Quaedvlieg’s Pipe House. Nowhere else on earth could he immerse himself so completely in sampling a large selection of the finest tobaccos and inspecting an equally large selection of the most exquisite pipes. Moreover, only at Quaedvlieg’s could Degen get his favorite tobacco: Preute-Berndorf’s To Die For.

Beyond that, he had fallen hard for a Ser Jacopo that looked good, lay excellently in the hand, and had lightened his wallet to the tune of three hundred euros—the value of quite a few books. This last calculation derived its relevance from the fact that Degen earned his daily bread as a “cultural mediator”—a bookseller, to the uninitiated. One of his passions was crime fiction. He read it, he dreamed of it, he hoarded it. His bookshelves were home to a collection of detective novels, police procedurals, and spy stories that would have done any library great honor. And for years now, he had also cared for a steadily growing archive of secondary literature on the subject of crime fiction that authors were glad to turn to for their research. They came to find out who had said what when, and on what topic, to discover which novel had contained the first murder by curare poisoning, and whether there was such a thing as a Japanese James Bond. Most of the time, Rasmus Degen was able to help them, and that made him very happy, because he couldn’t stand unsolved puzzles.

This morning, on the second of his two vacation days, Degen and his old friend Walter F. Steinacker planned a pleasant hike through the Siebengebirge, a range of seven hills on the east bank of the Middle Rhine, southeast of Bonn. Just as he put the kettle on for more tea, he heard Walter’s signature doorbell technique: two shorts followed by two more shorts. The man was early. He was probably desperately in need of a breather, whether from his work as chief inspector of the homicide division, the sermonizing of his doctor (his liver was in bad shape), or maybe from life itself. All of which made sense to Degen, so he turned off the stove, grabbed his leather jacket, and headed for the door.

They set off for the Drachenfels hill, in the Siebengebirge, taking the train to Rhöndorf, which offered fast access to the woods and trails. It was midweek and the trails were largely deserted. Both men appreciated the silence, each lost in his thoughts. The scents of moss and wood surrounded them and the air up here above the Rhine Valley was clear and spicy.

“Anything happen over Easter?” asked Degen. He began to fill his pipe, but remembering the adage that only forest rangers or arsonists smoke in the woods, he stopped short of lighting it and merely sucked on the stem.

“Extraordinarily quiet. Apart from a dead woman in the old Kaiserbau apartment complex, but that was a false alarm. She died of natural causes.”

“The old Kaiserbau building? I lived there myself for a while, years ago. Horrible place. I always had the feeling that it was so big and anonymous that there could be a dead person behind every door who’d go undiscovered until his corpse started to stink.” Degen shuddered at the memory of his time there. The residents knew the garbage chute better than their own neighbors.

“Well, that’s definitely what she did. She’d been dead a few days by the time a neighbor noticed the smell. Pretty observant of her. Sometimes no one notices for a long time.” Steinacker gestured briefly to the left and the two men took the fork in the trail.

“So it’s really an unexplained death,” concluded Degen.

Steinacker nodded. “A classic case. She must have staggered around in the throes of death and fallen against the edge of the table; at least, she had a bad head wound, as if someone had hit her. Nasty. But that isn’t what killed her. According to the autopsy, she simply managed to poison herself. It was probably unintentional, but it was a horrible death all the same.” Steinacker headed for a bench placed strategically so that anyone sitting there had a view of the slopes of the Siebengebirge and down into the Rhine Valley. Traffic on the Rhine was heavy as always: Container ships, open-deck freighters, low in the water from the weight of their cargo, tugs and push boats and excursion steamers from the Weiße Flotte line all vied for space. The steamers were another sign that spring had come.

“Dear God, and no one heard her? I mean, thrashing around and falling against a table makes a lot of noise, and someone who panics usually calls out for help.”

“Someone who’s had a heart attack might not be able to talk or call out. But she had a shoe in one hand, probably to bang on the floor with. They were new. Patent-leather slippers. The shoebox was still on the table.” As Degen sniffed at the tobacco in his pipe, Steinacker’s gaze followed a young woman who was somewhat inadequately dressed for the weather in a very short skirt over long legs—probably in the hope of warmer temperatures.

“That’s strange.”

Steinacker turned to Degen. “Why? You just said that nobody notices anything in a huge apartment complex like that.”

The young woman vanished around a bend in the road and Degen stuck his pipe back in his mouth. “Did I? How old was she, anyway?”

“In her early fifties. A lonely heart, to all appearances. Not married, no boyfriend, but even so, she wasn’t the type to spend the evening in front of the TV with a bottle of wine. She preferred lots of brightly colored little pills with her techno music. She had a really expensive stereo system and a huge collection of CDs. The stereo was switched on. She must have been listening to it when she died. . . .”

“So you took a pretty good look around.”

“Of course. We always search the place in a case like that. Why do you ask? Playing detective again?”

“Nonsense! So she died on Good Friday?”

“Yes,” said Steinacker.

“So we’ve got a dead woman who listens to loud techno music on Good Friday, of all days. And none of the neighbors complained? That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Degen, you’re getting on my nerves. Who said the music was loud?”

“Just thinking out loud,” said Degen. “I mean, you probably thought of that yourself. And that at the end she was obviously trying to get someone to notice her. Because it was Good Friday in the Rhineland—a very Catholic part of the world where most people her age give in to social pressure and spend the day quietly. One of the neighbors must have heard the noise and wondered.”

“Catholic schmatholic! Degen, I came out here for a hike, not a busman’s holiday! Just drop it, will you?”

Steinacker stood up without warning and started down the trail, moving at a tempo Degen found hard to keep up with. So much for the good mood and relaxation, he thought; he should have kept his questions to himself. But it wasn’t more than half an hour before Steinacker, having meanwhile calmed down, got tired of the vigorous pace himself.

“Of course it’s depressing, a case like that. And sure, somebody ought to have noticed something. And she did have the music turned up loud. But first of all, the pathologist says she died of natural causes, and second, we can’t prove that she tried to communicate something and that someone deliberately ignored her hypothetical communication. And when that happens, you know what we do? We close the case. What else are we supposed to do? We can’t file charges against the whole building for failing to respond to an emergency it may not even have noticed!” Steinacker sniffed and ran one hand energetically down the front of his jacket as if smoothing an imaginary wrinkle.

Degen knew his friend well enough to understand what was really bothering him: Even after twenty years on the job, Steinacker wasn’t so hardened that a miserable death like this one failed to move him. On the other hand, he couldn’t go on pursuing a “case” that, from a police point of view, wasn’t one. So Degen dropped the subject and devoted the rest of the hike to more cheerful topics. The fresh air and calming influence of the woods did them both good, and by the time they were almost to Königswinter, Steinacker’s irritation had flown. The two men took a short break on the banks of the Rhine at the ferry landing, where Degen was finally able to light his pipe while Steinacker rolled himself a cigaret. They sat companionably until the ferry arrived, watching all the dachshunds, poodles, and terriers pull their owners along behind them

The other side of the Rhine likewise offered spring entertainment: They encountered two unleashed Rottweilers for every dachshund on a retractable leash, and whether the former were running away or hunting inline skaters wasn’t clear.

Their mood buoyant, the two men decided to end their outing over beer and lunch at Midi, their favorite haunt. An hour later, Steinacker got to his feet.

“Time to go. I’ll see you later, Degen.”

“Okay, see you later. Oh, and Walter?”

“Yes?”

“You’re a good cop, old man.”

Steinacker rolled his eyes, but he was grinning. “Thanks! And you’re a good bookseller. You just stick with that.”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. Rest in Peace by Thomas Przybilka and Gitta List

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