Authors: Frank Tallis
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #Crime
The landlord returned with another bottle of vodka and banged it down in the middle of the table.
'So,' said the woman. 'What's your name, then?'
'Felix,' said Otto.
Otto lifted the bottle and tilted the neck over his glass. He had tipped it too steeply, and the clear liquid began to splash out, over the rim and onto the deeply scored table top.
'Hey, hey,' said Lili, straightening his hand. 'Take it easy, Felix.'
She guided the bottle back to its upright position, letting her hand linger on Otto's. One of the old men was shouting something about the battle of Solferino, and the fiddler suddenly burst into a discordant but recognisable gypsy folk melody. Otto picked up the glass and poured the contents down his throat. The cheap vodka was rough and excoriating.
An image entered his mind, uninvited and vivid.
Her blonde hair – like spun gold in the candlelight. Her green eyes incandescent with rage
He shouldn't have asked her for more money and he certainly shouldn't have hit her. But the argument had escalated. And suddenly there she was, framed in the doorway, brandishing a kitchen knife. Otto shook his head, and made a gesture – as though trying to push the memory out of his mind.
'What's the matter?' said Lili.
'Nothing,' Otto replied. He turned to look at the violinist who, except for a pair of cloudy white irises, was almost invisible in his shadowy recess. The vagrant was sawing his bow with a crude violence. The sound he created was diabolical – as were his mephitic exhalations.
Lili poured another drink and, without looking to Otto for approval, drained the glass herself. She then caressed the arm of his jacket.
'Very nice,' she said. 'Velvet. And so well cut.'
She leaned back and looked at Otto more carefully, inspecting his clothes and estimating their value. Although somewhat dishevelled, he was a handsome young man. His long dark hair and the squareness of his jaw gave him the look of a Romantic poet.
'So what do you do, eh?'
Otto didn't reply.
He pushed his fringe back, plastering the hair over his crown with the sweat from his forehead.
'Of a kind.'
'How d'you mean?'
Otto took Lili's hand and deftly removed a paste ring from one of her fingers.
'Quiet,' said Otto. 'Watch.'
He then presented Lili with two closed fists.
'Which hand is it in?'
Lili smiled and touched his left. Otto showed her that it was empty. She then touched his right – which also proved empty.
'Very clever! I'll have it back now!'
Otto pointed at the vodka bottle.
Lili leaned forward, and said softly: 'Well, I never . . .' Her ring was inside – where it had apparently floated to the bottom.
'Now we'll have to drink the whole lot to get it out,' said Otto.
Lili laughed loudly – like a rattle. She edged closer, and as she did so Otto felt her hand slide across his thigh.
'Show me another one,' said Lili. 'Go on.'
'All right,' said Otto. He took the last three coins from his pocket and laid them out in a row. 'I want you to watch very, very carefully . . .'
HE MORGUE WAS
cavernous and cold. A large electric light suspended at the end of a long cord hung several feet above the body. Its wide conical shade created a pool of illumination beyond which it was difficult to see anything but shadow.
Professor Mathias peeled back one of the mortuary sheets and examined Fräulein Löwenstein's face. Her skin was without blemish and under the close light her hair shone brighter than ever. Although her lips were no longer red but a curious blue, she was still very beautiful. Indeed, the strange colouring of her lips seemed to add a further dimension to her unnatural perfection. She looked, to Rheinhardt, like an exotic doll.
'Forgive me,' said Mathias. 'What did you say her name was?'
'Does it matter, Herr Professor?'
Mathias looked over his glasses
'Of course it matters, Inspector.'
'Her name was Charlotte Löwenstein.'
Mathias looked down at the woman's angelic face and repositioned a spiral of her hair. Then, after a few moments' silence, he rested his knuckles against her cheek and began to intone: 'Lotte! Lotte! Just one more word! Just a word of farewell! Farewell, Lotte! For ever adieu!'
'Goethe,' said Rheinhardt.
'Well done, Inspector.
, of course.'
Mathias did not remove his hand. Instead, he stared at the corpse, his face brimming with compassion.
Rheinhardt coughed, somewhat disconcerted by the professor's eccentricities.
'Professor. If we could proceed . . .'
Mathias sniffed in disapproval.
'When you work with the dead, Rheinhardt, you learn to take things slowly.' He continued to gaze at the Fräulein's face, and as he did so he sighed, his breath clouding the air. Mathias turned to look at Rheinhardt, his head descending and rising with almost bovine slowness. His rheumy eyes swam behind thick magnifying lenses. 'Do the dead make you uncomfortable, Rheinhardt?'
'Actually, Professor, they do.'
'Be that as it may,' said Mathias, 'it is my belief that the dead are still deserving of small courtesies.' Saying that, the professor covered Fräulein Löwenstein's face, and under his breath continued to quote from
The Sorrows of Young Werther:
'Be of peaceful heart . . .'
Rheinhardt was relieved when Mathias finally snapped out of his abstracted state and began to show signs of industry. The professor rolled up his shirtsleeves, tied his apron, and began to arrange the tools of his trade on a white metal trolley: knives, saws, chisels, small metal mallets, and a drill. The professor was clearly unhappy with the arrangement and began tinkering with the positions of several objects. Rheinhardt could see no obvious reason for these trivial changes, and suspected that Mathias was engaging in some obscure superstitious ritual. After a few minutes of deliberation, the professor nodded, and his expression changed from mild anxiety to satisfaction.
'Let us begin,' he said.
Mathias picked up an oversized pair of scissors and began cutting the corpse's dress. He began in the middle of the décolletage and proceeded down to the waist. When the cut was complete, he tugged gently at the material: dried blood had made it adhere to the corpse's skin. The material came away gradually, revealing Charlotte Löwenstein's naked breasts and torso.
'No corset,' commented Mathias.
He pulled at the sheets, covering the body so that nothing was exposed except the blood-encrusted crater over Fräulein Löwenstein's heart. When one of the dead woman's nipples threatened to reappear, Mathias repositioned the sheet to protect her modesty.
'I beg your pardon,' he said softly.
Rheinhardt was finding Mathias's sympathy for the dead both tiresome and macabre.
The old man probed gently around the wound with the tips of his fingers. As he did so, he started to hum a tune. Rheinhardt listened to the first verse and wondered whether he was being tested again. He found it impossible not to rise to such easy bait.
The professor stopped, ending his impromptu recital on a wheezy, unsteady note. The sound called to mind a set of ancient bellows closing.
'Is it? The tune just came into my head. I don't know what it is.'
. . .'
'Ah yes, I remember now. You sing a little, don't you?'
'A little . . .'
'Without a doubt.'
Mathias began to hum again and continued probing the wound. He then took a magnifying glass from his trolley and lowered his head to get a closer look. The professor suddenly stopped humming mid-phrase, and gasped. After a moment's silence, he said in a dramatic stage whisper, 'Ahh, yes.'
'What is it?' asked Rheinhardt.
'She's been shot,' replied Mathias.
'I thought we had already established that, Professor.'
Mathias shook his head.
'I have always been a great believer, Rheinhardt, in the Roman dictum:
. More haste, less speed.'
'You know,' said Rheinhardt, 'I can't say that surprises me.'
The professor ignored Rheinhardt's pointed remark and continued his leisurely inspection. Closing one eye, the old man altered the focal length of the magnifying glass and nodded. Then, speaking more to himself than to Rheinhardt, he said: 'A direct shot – into the heart, at close range. There are the powder burns and . . . yes, I see some muzzle bruising.'
Rheinhardt's fingers were going numb, and he was beginning to regret seeking Professor Mathias's assistance. Mathias returned the magnifying glass to its special position on the trolley and picked up a medium-sized silver knife. He then made a deep cut in Fräulein Löwenstein's white flesh, which opened with the slow grace of a scallop shell, exposing the pulpy redness within. Rheinhardt had attended many autopsies but he still found them highly disturbing.
'Excuse me, Herr Professor,' Rheinhardt took a step backwards. 'I think I'll leave you to it.'
'As you wish, Inspector,' said Mathias, clearly becoming more absorbed in his task.
Rheinhardt walked around the autopsy table and out into the darkness. Behind him he could hear Mathias sorting through his tools. First he heard some tapping, and then the grating of a saw. Rheinhardt assumed that Mathias was removing a rib. As Mathias worked, he began to hum the Schubert tune again. His performance was slow, and many of the notes were cracked or unsteady. Yet his old voice, and the lingering quality of each phrase, imbued Schubert's joyful walking tune with infinite pathos.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Rheinhardt found that he was standing next to a bank of square metal doors. He knew that most of the chambers behind them were, in all probability, occupied by corpses. The frozen dead.
He turned and looked back at the strange little man who was hunched over Fräulein Löwenstein's body like a goblin or dwarf, something from a fairy tale by the brothers Grimm. Under the bright light, Mathias's breath had condensed in the cold air and collected over the table as a fine, luminous mist. Rheinhardt blew into his cupped fists and rubbed his hands together. The mortuary chill was seeping into the marrow of his bones.
Making his way back to the autopsy table, Rheinhardt stopped to examine Professor Mathias's tools, attempting to ignore a sound that reminded him of the leg being pulled from a roast chicken.
Suddenly the lights went out and the morgue was plunged into total darkness: an expanse of impenetrable pitch.
Professor Mathias was still quietly humming the Schubert song and Rheinhardt, already unnerved by the eerie ambience, was conscious that his heart was beating a little too fast. Count Záborszky's words – like an auditory hallucination – entered his mind:
I smell evil
'Professor?' Rheinhardt called into the void.
The humming stopped.
'Oh, it's all right, Inspector, the light usually comes on again after a few minutes – probably something to do with today's storm. Personally, I think we should have stuck to gas.'
There was a small movement, and the clatter of metal on tiles. Rheinhardt felt something hit his foot.
'Oh dear,' said Mathias. 'I seem to have disturbed one of my instruments.'
There was a loud click, and suddenly the light came on again.
'There we are,' said the professor. 'Told you so.'
Rheinhardt looked down and saw a scalpel on the floor by his foot. He crouched down and picked it up.
'Your scalpel, Professor?'
'Just put it back on the trolley for the moment – not with the others, though. Bottom shelf, in the glass retort.' As he said this, Mathias was removing a large piece of bloody matter from Fräulein Löwenstein's chest. Rheinhardt quickly looked away, bowing his head. To distract himself, he turned the blade idly in his hands and let it flash a few times as it caught the light. Rheinhardt noticed that the scalpel was engraved with a cursive script:
Hans Bruckmüller and Co.
'Yes, what is it?'
'Does the name Hans Bruckmüller mean anything to you?'