That a pig of a day,” said Max Jaeger. It was i seven-thirty in the evening and he was pulling on his coat in Werderscher Markt. “No possessions handed in; no clothing. I’ve gone back on the missing list to Thursday. Nothing. So that’s more than twenty-four hours since estimated time of death and not a soul has missed him. You sure he’s not just some derelict?”
March gave a brief shake of the head. “Too well-fed. And derelicts don’t own swimming trunks. As a rule.”
“To cap it all,” Max took a last puff on his cigar and stubbed it out, “I’ve got to go to a Party meeting tonight. "The German Mother: Warrior of the Volk on the Home Front".”
Like all Kripo investigators, including March, Jaeger had the SS rank of Sturmbannfuhrer. Unlike March, he had joined the Party the previous year. Not that March blamed him. You had to be a Party member to gain promotion.
“Is Hannelore going?”
“Hannelore? Holder of the Honour Cross of the German Mother, Bronze Class? Naturally she’s going.” Max looked at his watch. “Just time for a beer. What do you say?”
“Not tonight, thanks. I’ll walk down with you.”
They parted on the steps of the Kripo building. With a wave, Jaeger turned left towards the bar in Ob-wall Strasse, while March turned right, towards the river. He walked quickly. The rain had stopped, but the air was still damp and misty. The pre-war street lights gleamed on the black pavement. From the Spree came the low note of a foghorn, muffled by the buildings.
He turned a corner and walked alongside the river, enjoying the sensation of the cold night air against his face.
A barge was chugging upstream, a single light at its prow, a cauldron of dark water boiling at its stern. Apart from that, there was silence. There were no cars here; no people. The city might have vaporised in the darkness. He left the river with reluctance, crossing Spittel Markt to Seydel Strasse. A few minutes later he entered the Berlin city morgue.
Doctor Eisler had gone home. No surprise there. “I love you,” breathed a woman’s voice in the deserted reception, “and I want to bear your children.” An attendant in a stained white tunic reluctantly turned away from his portable television and checked March’s ID. He made a note in his register, picked up a bunch of keys, and gestured to the detective to follow him. Behind them, the theme tune of the Reichsrundfunk’s nightly soap opera began to play.
Swing doors led on to a corridor identical to a dozen back in Werderscher Markt. Somewhere, thought March, there must be a Reichsdirektor for green linoleum. He followed the attendant into an elevator. The metal grille closed with a crash and they descended into the basement.
At the entrance to the storeroom, beneath a No Smoking sign, they both lit cigarettes — two professionals taking the same precaution, not against the smell of the bodies (the room was refrigerated: there was no stink of corruption) but to blot out the stinging fumes of the disinfectant.
“You want the old fellow? Came in just after eight?”
“Right,” said March.
The attendant pulled a large handle and swung open the heavy door. There was a whoosh of cold air as they stepped inside. Harsh neon strips lit a floor of white tiles, slightly sloping on either side down to a narrow gutter in the centre. Heavy metal drawers like filing cabinets were set into the walls. The attendant took a clipboard from a hook by the light-switch and walked along them, checking the numbers.
He tucked the clipboard under his arm and gave the drawer a hard tug. It slid open. March stepped over and pulled back the white sheet.
“You can go now, if you like,” he said, without looking round. “I’ll call when I’ve finished.” “Not allowed. Regulations.”
“In case I tamper with the evidence? Do me a favour.” The body did not improve on second acquaintance. A hard, fleshy face, small eyes and a cruel mouth. The scalp was almost entirely bald, apart from the odd strand of white hair. The nose was sharp, with two deep indentations on either side of the bridge. He must have worn spectacles for years. The face itself was unmarked, but there were symmetrical bruises on either cheek. March inserted his fingers into the mouth and encountered only soft gum. At some point a complete set of false teeth must have been knocked loose.
March pulled the sheet right back. The shoulders were broad, the torso that of a powerful man, just beginning to run to fat. He folded the cloth neatly a few centimetres above the stump. He was always respectful of the dead. No society doctor on the Kurfurstendamm was more tender with his clients than Xavier March.
He breathed warmth on to his hands and reached into the inside pocket of his overcoat. He pulled out a small tin case, which he opened, and two white cards. The cigarette smoke tasted bitter in his mouth. He grasped the corpse’s left wrist- so cold; it never ceased to shock him — and prised open the fingers. Carefully, he pressed each tip on to the pad of black ink in the tin. Then he put the tin down, picked up one of the cards, and pressed each finger on to that. When he was satisfied, he repeated the process on the old man’s right hand. The attendant watched him, fascinated.
The smears of black on the white hands looked shocking; a desecration.
“Clean him up,” said March.
The headquarters of the Reich Kripo are in Werderscher Markt, but the actual hardware of police business — the forensic laboratories, criminal records, armoury, workshops, detention cells — are in the Berlin Police Praesidium building in Alexander Platz. It was to this sprawling Prussian fortress, opposite the busiest U-bahn station in the city, that March went next. It took him fifteen minutes, walking briskly. “You want what?”
The voice, edged high with incredulity, belonged to Otto Koth, deputy head of the fingerprint section.
“Priority,” repeated March. He took another draw on his cigarette. He knew Koth well. Two years ago they had trapped a gang of armed robbers who had killed a policeman in Lankwitz. Koth had got a promotion on the strength of it. “I know you’ve got a backlog from here to the Fuhrer’s hundredth birthday. I know you’ve got the Sipo on your back for terrorists and God knows what. But do this for me.”
Koth leaned back in his chair. In the bookcase behind him, March could see Artur Nebe’s book on criminology, published thirty years ago, but still the standard text. Nebe had been head of the Kripo since 1933. “Let me see what you’ve got,” said Koth. March handed over the cards. Koth glanced at them, nodding.
“Male,” said March. “About sixty. Dead for a day.”
“I know how he feels.” Koth took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “All right. They’ll go to the top of the pile.”
“Should have an answer by morning.” Koth put his glasses back on. “What I don’t understand is how you know this man, whoever he was, had a criminal record.”
March did not know, but he was not going to hand Koth an excuse to wriggle out of his promise. “Trust me,” he said.
March arrived back at his flat at eleven. The ancient cage lift was out of order. The stairs, with their threadbare brown carpet, smelled of other people’s old meals, of boiled cabbage and burned meat. As he passed the second floor he could hear the young couple who lived beneath him quarrelling.
“How can you say that?”
“You’ve done nothing! Nothing!”
A door slammed. A baby cried. Elsewhere, someone turned up the volume of their radio in response. The symphony of apartment life. This had been a fashionable block, once. Now, like many of its tenants, it had fallen on harder times. He continued on up to the next floor and let himself in.
The rooms were cold, the heating having failed to come on, as usual. He had five: a sitting room, with a good high ceiling, looking out on to Ansbacher Strasse; a bedroom with an iron bedstead; a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchen; a spare room was filled with salvage from his marriage, still packed in boxes five years later. Home. It was bigger than the forty-four square metres which was the standard size of a Volkswohnung — a People’s Flat — but not much.
Before March had moved in it had been occupied by the widow of a Luftwaffe general. She had lived in it since the war and had let it go to ruin. On his second weekend, redecorating the bedroom, he had stripped off the mildewed wallpaper and found tucked behind it a photograph, folded up very small. A sepia portrait, all misty browns and creams, dated 1929, taken by a Berlin studio. A family stood before a painted backdrop of trees and fields. A dark-haired woman gazed at a baby in her arms. Her husband stood proud behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder. Next to him, a little boy. He had kept it on the mantelpiece ever since.
The boy was Pili’s age, would be March’s age today.
Who were these people? What had happened to the child? For years he had wondered, but hesitated — he always had plenty at the Markt to stretch his mind, without finding fresh mysteries to unravel. Then, just before last Christmas, for no reason he could properly define — a vague and growing uneasiness that happened to coincide with his birthday, no more than that — he had started to seek an answer.
The landlord’s records showed that the apartment had been rented between 1928 and 1942 to one Weiss, Jakob. But there was no police file on any Jakob Weiss. He was not registered as having moved, or fallen sick, or died. Calls to the records bureaux of the Army, Navy and Luftwaffe confirmed he had not been conscripted to fight. The photographer’s studio had become a television rental shop, its records lost. None of the young people in the landlord’s office remembered the Weisses. They had vanished. Weiss. White. A blank. By now, in his heart, March knew the truth — perhaps had always known it — but he went round one evening with the photograph even so, like a policeman, seeking witnesses, and the other tenants in the house had looked at him as if he were crazy even for asking. Except one.
“They were Jews.” the crone in the attic had said as she closed the door in his face.
Of course. The Jews had all been evacuated to the east during the war. Everyone knew that. What had happened to them since was not a question anyone asked in public -or in private either, if they had any sense, not even an SS-Sturmbannfuhrer.
And that, he could see now, was when his relationship with Pili had started to go bad; the time when he had started to wake up before it was light, and to volunteer for every case that came along.
March stood for a few minutes without switching on the lights, looking down at the traffic heading south to Wittenberg Platz. Then he went into the kitchen and poured himself a large whisky. Monday’s Berliner Tageblatt was lying by the sink. He carried it back with him into the sitting room.
March had a routine for reading the paper. He started at the back, with the truth. If Leipzig was said to have beaten Cologne four-nil at football, the chances were it was true: even the Party had yet to devise a means of rewriting the sports results. The sports news was a different matter.
COUNTDOWN TO TOKYO OLYMPICS. US MAY COMPETE FOR FIRST TIME IN 28 YEARS. GERMAN ATHLETES STILL LEAD WORLD. Then the advertisements. GERMAN FAMILIES! PLEASURE BECKONS IN GOTENLAND, RIVIERA OF THE REICH! French perfume, Italian silks, Scandinavian furs, Dutch cigars, Belgian coffee, Russian caviar, British televisions -the cornucopia of Empire spilled across the pages. Births, marriages and deaths:
TEBBE, Ernst and Ingrid; a son for the Fuhrer. WENZEL, Hans, aged 71; a true National Socialist, sadly missed.
And the lonely hearts:
FIFTY years old. Pure Aryan doctor, veteran of the Battle of Moscow, who intends to settle on the land, desires male progeny through marriage with healthy, Aryan, virginal, young, unassuming, thrifty woman, adapted to hard work; broad-hipped, flat-heeled and earring-less essential. WIDOWER aged sixty once again wishes to have Nordic to mate prepared to present him with children so that old family should not die out in male line.
Arts pages: Zarah Leander, still going strong, in Woman of Odessa, now showing at the Gloria-Palast: the epic story of the resettlement of the South Tyrolese. A piece by the music critic attacking the “pernicious, Negroid wailings” of a group of young Englishmen from Liverpool, playing to packed audiences of German youth in Hamburg. Herbert von Karajan to conduct a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — the European anthem — at the Royal Albert Hall in London on the Fuhrer’s birthday.
Editorial on the student anti-war demonstrations in Heidelberg: TRAITORS MUST BE SMASHED BY FORCE! The Tageblatt always took a firm line.
Obituary: some old Bonze from the Ministry of the Interior. “A lifetime’s service to the Reich …"
Reich news: SPRING THAW BRINGS FRESH FIGHTING ON SIBERIAN FRONT! GERMAN TROOPS SMASH IVAN TERROR GROUPS! In Rovno, capital of the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, five terrorist leaders had been executed for organising the massacre of a family of German settlers. There was a photograph of the Reich’s latest nuclear submarine, the Grossadmiral Donitz, at its new base in Trondheim.
World news: In London it had been announced that King Edward and Queen Wallis were to pay a state visit to the Reich in July “further to strengthen the deep bonds of respect and affection between the peoples of Great Britain and the German Reich”. In Washington, it was believed that President Kennedy’s latest victory in the US primaries had strengthened his chances of winning a second term…
The paper slipped from March’s fingers and on to the floor.
Half an hour later, the telephone rang.
“So sorry to wake you.” Koth was sarcastic. “I had the impression this was supposed to be priority. Shall I call back tomorrow?”
“No, no.” March was wide awake.
This you will love. This is beautiful.” For the first time in his life, March heard Koth chuckle. “Now, you are not playing a joke on me? This is not some little trick you and Jaeger have worked out between you?”
“Who is it?”
The background first.” Koth was enjoying himself too much to be hurried. “We had to go back a long way to get a match. A very long way. But we got one. Perfect. No mistake. Your man has a record all right. He was arrested just once in his life. By our colleagues in Munich, forty years ago. To be precise, on the ninth of November 1923.”
There was a silence. Five, six, seven seconds elapsed.
“Ah! I can tell that even you appreciate the significance of the date.”
“An alter Kampfer.” March reached down beside his chair for his cigarettes. “His name?”
“Indeed. An old comrade. Arrested with the Fuhrer after the Burgerbraukeller Putsch. You have fished out of the lake one of the glorious pioneers of the National Socialist Revolution.” Koth laughed again. “A wiser man might have left him where he was.”
“What is his name?”
After Koth had rung off, March paced around the apartment for five minutes, smoking furiously. Then he made three calls. The first was to Max Jaeger. The second was to the Duty Officer at Werderscher Markt. The third was to a Berlin number. A man’s voice, slurred with sleep, answered just as March was about to give up.
“Rudi? It’s Xavier March.”
“Zavi? Are you crazy? It’s midnight.”
“Not quite.” March patrolled the faded carpet, the body of the telephone in one hand, the receiver tucked beneath his chin. “I need your help.”
“For God’s sake!”
“What can you tell me about a man named Josef Buhler?”
That night, March had a dream. He was at the lakeshore again in the rain and there was the body, face down in the mud. He pulled at the shoulder — pulled hard — but he could not move it. The body was grey-white lead. But when he turned to leave, it grabbed his leg, and began pulling him towards the surface of the lake. He scrabbled at the earth, trying to dig his fingers into the soft mud, but there was nothing to hold on to. The corpse’s grip was immensely strong. And as they went under, its face became Pili’s, contorted with rage, grotesque in its shame, screaming “I hate you … I hate you … I hate you …"