Authors: Antonia Michaelis
She blinked, opening her eyes slowly. The rays of sunlight coming in through the window were reflected by the flute sitting on the music stand and fell to the floor like glass splinters. The hands of the old-fashioned clock on the edge of the bookshelf showed ten to four.
She had lifted her cell phone to her ear … still half-asleep … she must have nodded off reading.
The radio was talking to itself in a low voice. If one subtracted the half hour she’d been sleeping with her head on the desk, and if one assumed she’d gotten up at about seven o’clock, then she’d heard the news of Sören Marinke’s death eight times at this point. The story had grown details, like blossoms, since then, but only a few: a man walking his dog had found Marinke in the morning, or rather the dog had found him, and Anna had instantly wondered the color of the dog. Was it silver-gray? With golden eyes? Surely not …
Later, the announcer said that the body had been there for quite some time, maybe a day, covered by sand and snow. It was completely frozen by the time it was found … obviously, it was impossible for a body to freeze totally in just a few hours …
Eight times, she had calculated; eight times, she’d held her breath; and eight times, she’d breathed again, relieved. For eight times, she’d come to the conclusion that Abel couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Marinke’s death. His alibi for all of yesterday was Anna herself. And the day before, Thursday, he had been to the island of Rügen with Micha. If they had really been there, that is. If …
“Anna, are you there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I think I am,” she said, but her voice sounded far away. “I was … thinking … must have fallen asleep over my books. I’ve spent the whole day working out a stupid study schedule …”
No, she thought. No, that’s not true. I spent the whole day not calling you. For, of course, it was him. Abel.
“Anna,” he said, for the fourth time, as if there was nothing more to say, now that she’d finally answered. Nothing but her name. As if he’d just called to make sure she existed. She got up from her chair and went over to the window with the cell phone, her name ringing in her ears like an echo.
“Abel,” she said, “I’m going to mark this day in my calendar with a red pen.”
He was silent, sending something like a question mark through the line. “You never call me,” she said. “Usually it’s me who calls you.”
“Did you hear the news?” Abel asked, ignoring her remark.
He was right, she thought, this was no time for flirting.
“Yes,” she answered. “Your social worker is dead. A wolf bit him to death and buried him under the sand on the beach in Eldena.”
“No,” Abel said, with a pained tone in his voice. “No, he didn’t. The wolf wasn’t there. They’ve been here, Anna. Police. They … they visited … everyone whose cases … whose cases were on Marinke’s desk. It seems there were quite a few people not happy with his interference … Thursday. Looks like he died on Thursday, but they weren’t sure, or else they didn’t want to tell me they were sure. It’s all a mess … about the time of death … because of the cold …”
“You’ve got an alibi,” Anna said. “For Thursday. You were on Rügen.”
“An alibi, oh yeah,” Abel murmured. “That’s right. A wonderful alibi. A six-year-old girl. They will be back, believe me. They need a culprit. And I’m … I’m connected to both Rainer and Marinke. Everything fits.”
“But you didn’t shoot Marinke …”
“Do you think it was me?”
She hesitated; then she said, “The bus drivers, Abel! Didn’t you go by bus to Rügen? And the conductor in the train, too … I mean, they’re older than six.”
“I hope so.” He laughed.
“Can’t you find out how to contact these people?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, maybe. Maybe it’s possible. It’ll take a lot of calls, though. Tomorrow is Monday.”
And now, he’ll put the phone down, Anna thought, and I’ll sit here alone, again, with my books and my radio and the slightly varying radio news reports of Marinke’s death.
“Actually I called because …” Abel said and stopped. Anna heard Micha say something in the background, impatiently, as if she wanted to have the phone.
“Because we thought it might be nice to meet for a cup of hot chocolate again, in that café near the beach,” Abel said. “I mean, if you’re free.”
No, she thought. No, I’m not free. I don’t have time. I have finals in front of me, and a discussion with Linda behind me. A discussion in which she asked me—absolutely rightly—if it is smart to pursue a relationship in which one of the parties just has to open his mouth for the other party to come running.
“Give it to me!” Micha said breathlessly. “Anna, listen! I had this idea … it works like this: you bring your flute … for, you see, Abel told me the rest of the story—I mean, the part I missed because I was asleep—and we tried to wake up the dog after those two policemen had left … we tried all day long, but the dog just won’t wake up. He’s breathing, lying on the deck and breathing, and that’s all … and so, I thought, you know, if you play the flute, really nicely and everything, isn’t it possible that it will wake him up? In a fairy tale, that could happen, don’t you think? And we could cook dinner together … we have spaghetti, you know, and …”
“One thing at a time,” Anna said, smiling. “I’m on my way.”
“Are you calling it a day, study-wise?” Linda asked, peeling onions, wiping her hands on a blue apron. Anna nodded and hugged her. “I might be out late,” she said.
Linda took a corner of the apron and wiped away a tear that might have come from peeling onions. “Okay, honey, I hope not too late.”
“Wait,” Magnus said. She was half out the door already. “Here. If you stay for dinner … one usually brings something if one’s invited to dinner at someone else’s place.”
He held a bottle of red wine in his outstretched hand, a bottle of good wine, wine so old it was about to turn to vinegar. Valuable wine. Anna shook her head. Magnus stuffed the bottle into her backpack and nodded.
“Talk to him,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier with a good bottle of wine. Talk to him about my offer. At least try.”
And Anna hugged her father, too, because he believed that a bottle of good wine could solve most problems. Or, who knows? maybe he didn’t really believe that. She got onto her bike.
For some reason, she’d thought that everything would be the way it was the first time: that Abel and Micha would be sitting in the back of the café, in the stern of the glass ship; that there would be exactly one empty chair at their table; and that she would walk toward it, a vague, light happiness filling her body. But, of course, nothing is ever as it was the first time. The café was packed. There were even people seated at tables on the terrace, outside in the cold wind, with the collars of their jackets turned up and their hands around cups of tea and coffee in search of a little warmth. And when Anna saw Abel and Micha waiting next to the stairs, amid people coming and going, she didn’t feel light and happy. Instead, she felt a pang of sorrow.
She’d heard shreds of sentences as she’d passed people on her bike—bloody, raw shreds of words that were full of pleasant shivers. She knew why these people were here: to be near the place it had happened. All these people had heard the news. One group came
in from the beach across the way, from the other side of the mouth of the little river, and Anna heard: “police tape … dogs … traces … snow dug up … did you see where he was lying?” Others were on their way to the beach: “have a closer look … maybe draw a conclusion … creepy … just imagine that … maybe during the night … and then that shot from behind.”
Anna followed Abel and Micha out onto the pier in silence. The pier was quiet and free of people. “Why are we meeting here?” Anna asked. It was the first thing any of them had said. “Why here, with all these people?”
“Because we always come here, that’s why,” Micha said, but Abel shook his head. “That’s not the only reason,” he said in a low voice. “There’s something else. You … you might think it’s stupid, but … but I wanted to see who’d be here. This is the place where all rumors converge … I bet he’s here, too, because he’s also interested in the rumors.”
“Who?” Anna asked.
“The murderer,” Abel said, looking out over the sea. They had arrived at the very end of the pier, where a green light attached to a post was guiding the ships home, a light with neither a lighthouse nor a lighthouse keeper attached to it. “They will blame me for this, I’m sure,” Abel said. “And there’s only one way to convince them that it wasn’t me … a better way than phoning bus drivers and train conductors. If I find the real murderer, if I present that murderer to them on a silver tray … understand? Then they will have to believe me. Then they will have to let me go.”
“But nobody’s holding you,” Anna said. “Did they say that they believe that you …?”
He shook his head. “Not yet.” Damocles, she thought, had returned.
He put both arms onto the white metal rail and looked down onto the ice, where countless traces of life had marked the thin layer of snow: footprints of bald coots and ducks, swans and mergansers. And somewhere on the ice, Anna wondered, were there also traces of death—footprints of a murderer?
“It must be someone who’s somehow connected to me,” Abel whispered. “That only makes sense. I mean, why would anybody shoot Rainer Lierski and then Sören Marinke? And … who will be next?”
Anna shook her head. “Nobody. Because we’ll figure this out before that. We’ll find out who … or what … is going on here. I’m going to help you. I can keep my eyes and ears open … if you just tell me, where and when …”
He turned to her abruptly. The ice in his eyes gleamed in the sunshine. “No,” he said. “Don’t do that. Promise me you’ll keep out of this mess. This isn’t a game or a history test. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Thanks,” Anna replied angrily. “I just turned five last week.”
Abel put his hands on her shoulders and looked at her even more intensely, as if he wanted to burn a hole into her. “They’re dead, Anna,” he whispered. “They’re both dead. Dead as stone. Don’t you get that?”
“I do.” She looked down at her feet.
“If you two could stop fighting,” Micha said, “it would be good, because right now we’re supposed to wake the dog with the flute, remember?” She had been busy climbing on the railing but now
stood next to them, her cheeks reddened, her pigtails half-undone. Nothing about her suggested the word
So Anna pushed her thoughts about Marinke aside and took out her flute. It was cold, of course, and it was out of tune, but a dog probably wouldn’t hear the difference. “What do you want me to play?”
“I dunno,” Micha said. “Something nice.”
Abel nodded; leaned against the green, painted post, on which the light for the ships was attached like a traffic light; and started to roll a cigarette. “We should see if we can do something about that dog,” he said. “He isn’t well. His wounds are deep, and his sleep is even deeper. He had almost given up when they pulled him out of the water …”
Anna made a list in her head of all the pieces of music she could play by heart, from the easiest to the most difficult. She thought of all sorts of complicated melodies, but none seemed good enough to wake a wounded dog living inside a fairy tale. In the end, she closed her eyes and imagined that she was standing on the deck of the green ship. On the horizon, she saw the black sails of their persecutors, who hadn’t yet given up. The little queen was standing there with her, and before them, in the cabin, lay the motionless body of the dog. Next to him, a blind white cat gave a bored yawn. And then she knew what to play.
She put the cool silver to her lips and asked the flute for a simple melody, one without ornamentation, a melody whose text you could read in the air … if you knew it:
There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
She heard Abel humming next to her, and she was pretty sure she’d heard the words before; it was a song from one of Linda’s old LPs, and it was probably on one of Michelle’s cassettes, too … the cryptic, dark poetry of an old Canadian.
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years …
“The little queen bent down to pet the silver-gray dog,” Abel said. “And in this very moment, the dog blinked. He lifted his head ever so slowly, looked at her with his golden eyes, and wagged his tail. Then he rose, crept out of the cabin, and jumped into the water. A little later, a sea lion was swimming in the waves, next to the green ship. But the waves had almost stopped moving, and the lighthouse keeper scratched his ear with the arm of his glasses. “Soon, soon the sea will freeze,” he said, “and we won’t be able to sail on any longer. And what will we do then?”
Anna put down the flute. For a moment, she thought she’d seen something out there, in the water, something in the middle of the mouth of the river, which was kept free of ice so the fishing boats could pass. It was a round, dark head with glittering black eyes. Nonsense. Later, she would think that it hadn’t been a sea lion’s head at all but, instead, the head of a man—and a vision of something that would happen much later, but, of course, that was even more nonsense.
Abel took her free hand and led her off the pier, back to the café. Micha ran along beside them like a little dog.
“‘The sea hasn’t frozen yet, has it?’ the little queen said. ‘But what’s that over there? Another island? Shouldn’t we go there and have a look?’
“‘No, we shouldn’t,’ the lighthouse keeper replied. ‘For that, my little queen, is the island of the murderer.’
“‘I don’t believe that,’ the little queen said, shaking Mrs. Margaret so hard that her blue flowered dress flew up and down. ‘Mrs. Margaret is shaking her head, do you see? I want to go there and find out for myself who lives on that island.’