Read The Stronger Sex Online

Authors: Hans Werner Kettenbach

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Psychological, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Travel, #Europe, #Germany

The Stronger Sex (28 page)

BOOK: The Stronger Sex
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She said, “Something got in the way of it. These things happen.”
Yes, and so it would go on. She wanted me to expose myself a little more. I decided to go on the attack.
I asked, “You read faces, don't you?”
“Don't we all?”
I shrugged and drew the corners of my mouth down. Then I smiled. “Your husband seems to try it, at least.”
She looked at me in surprise. “My husband?”
I nodded, smiling.
“What makes you say that?”
I said, “He called me… er, a randy young dog.”
She stared at me. “He said
that
to you?”
“Not to my face, no. But that's what he called me.” I smiled. “In front of Herr Manderscheidt. The detective.”
She nodded slowly. Then she asked, “And are you sure that that… that man, that detective wasn't making it up?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Why would he do that? Herr Manderscheidt had more to say too. According to him, your husband even gave the reason why he thought me – well, a randy young dog.” After a brief pause I went on. “He said I was making eyes at you. And of course you liked it. And that it was plausible with such an old lady and such a young man.”
She nodded, but said nothing. I was wondering feverishly if that could imply confirmation of any of my various theories,
but I couldn't find any really convincing interpretation. After a while she asked, “Did that hurt you? Or perhaps, more likely, alarm you?”
“Did it hurt me? Well… I was thinking how much the idea must hurt
him
. If his suspicions were right. That would have hurt him badly, don't you think?”
She didn't reply. After a while she said, “But it did alarm you.” She smiled. “Didn't it?”
“Alarm me… my God, yes, it did alarm me, because if he suspected any such thing, well, I felt sure he'd take it out on you.” After a brief pause I asked, “And I think he would? Wouldn't he?”
“Yes, he would. Or at least, he'd try to.” She shook her head. “And as he has not tried to do that so far, I'm more inclined to think that your Herr Manderscheidt made it all up.” She laughed. “I really wouldn't be surprised either, with someone whose profession is snooping around. His sort probably scent adultery everywhere, something they can prove, for a good fee, naturally.”
Perhaps she had expected that I would join in her laughter. But I was thinking too hard about her theory, which after all I had considered myself, that Manderscheidt was a liar entertaining fantasies and trying to sound things out.
Suddenly she leaned forward and placed her hand over mine where it lay on the sofa. “Well, feeling better now? Haven't I set your mind at rest?” She stroked my hand slightly with her fingertips.
The touch of those cool, slender fingers, of the warm, soft palm of her hand affected me so much that a thrill ran through me. I leaned sideways, put my free hand on hers and pressed it slightly. It did not move. I caressed it.
She tried to withdraw her hand, but I held it fast.
“Now, now,” she said, pulling her hand away, and I let go.
She ran her fingers through her hair, brought her hand to the nape of her neck for a moment as if there were something to be rearranged in her plain, simple hairstyle, and then put it on her lap. She said, “But you wanted to talk to me about Ida and Tippi Hedren, don't you remember?”
“Of course I remember.”
As I paused for effect, she cut my pause short. “But?” she asked, with emphasis.
It was obvious: she was trying to play games with me. Provoke me. In the end I'd be driven to admit that I had wanted her very much; it had been the plain, urgent longing for a desirable woman. She wanted to watch me wriggle on the hook. Bring me to heel.
Anger boiled up in me. I said, “What do you mean, but? What's that question in aid of? You know what I think of that frightful article about the picture of Ida! The journalist's turns of phrase, her terrified tirades about fading flesh, devastated thighs, slack skin!”
I stopped and stared at her. Then I said forcefully, “I think very poorly of all that indeed. As you know! Or as at least you've known since just now when I tried to hold your hand. Would I do that if
you
were as… as horrifying a sight, as… repellent as that journalist claimed about Ida Rogers? I mean, what nonsense, all that about old age! Old age and the devastation it wreaks on human beings. Well, look at that film star Tippi!” And then I said, “Or look at yourself.”
She said, “Alex, Alex! What nonsense
you
are talking!” I reached out my hand and tried to touch her cheek. But she put her head back and my hand met empty air.
“Nonsense? What do you mean? Are you telling me I can't compare you with a film star? Well, OK, she may have had make-up artistes working on her all her life, cosmetic advisers, dieticians. And personal trainers, and gymnastics coaches. But that doesn't mean you're not just as desirable a woman as that actress. Very desirable!”
I half-rose and reached for her upper arm with one hand, while the other looked for something to hold on to and found itself on her knee, on her bare thigh. Skin on skin. When I went on, I could hear my voice strained, strained and small and breathless. I sounded beside myself. In that voice I managed to say, “What more can I do to prove it to you? Shall I?…”
I closed my fingers on her thigh.
“Alex!” Her voice was like a whiplash. She pushed me away with both hands. “Sit down at once!”
It sounded like school, first to fourth years. But I sat down.
She straightened her smock, which my hand had pushed up, and made that movement of tidying her hair again. She was breathing hard, put a hand to her upper arm and glanced at it. It looked as if, carried away, I had held it too hard.
After a while she leaned forward. She emptied the two mini-bottles into our glasses. Then she raised her glass and drank without looking at me.
My folly would take some beating, but I felt great pain. It hurt me that she had not raised her glass to drink to me. She had banished me from her circle of friends, that was it. I left my glass standing on the table, although I would have liked to drink from it, and just stared ahead.
After a while she said, “Think, Alex.” She took a deep breath. “What would have happened if we'd fucked on this sofa just now?”
I raised my eyes and looked incredulously at her.
“Yes, look at me! I name things by their names. Should I have said, if we'd made love? Or something else pretty to dress up the facts? We both know what it was all about for you, Alex. Fucking. And it would have been the same for me, if I had gone along with the idea. Or did you think I'd want to start a new life with you? A new love?”
I picked up my glass and drained it. She glanced at me, got to her feet and made for the kitchen. I said, “There's no need, thank you, I don't want any more.”
She said over her shoulder, “But I do, if you don't mind!”
My God, hadn't the put-down I'd brought on myself been massive enough already?
I crossed my arms and brooded until she came back with another little bottle. She opened it, poured some, sat down and drank. Then she said, “Right. What would have happened if we had fucked?” She stopped short, stared at me and asked, “Good heavens, what was
that
? Did you jump nervously again because I used that word?”
I squirmed for a moment, and then said, “I find it hard enough to hear your husband express himself like that, but coming from you…”
“Yes, well, never mind, you've got it behind you now. I just want to make it clear to you what it would have been like if we had… and so on. Although I think you know perfectly well for yourself. Only until now you've failed to face up to it.”
She sipped from her glass, and then said, “Well. Perhaps we would neither of us have been disappointed. It might have been a pleasant experience. You might have given me a… a good orgasm, maybe two or even three, I don't know what you're like at it. And as for me, I'm not sure either. Well, maybe it would have been an… an experience for both of us. For you, at least, a new experience, finding out what it feels like with such an old woman.” She laughed. “What she feels like, for instance. But, and here comes the
but
, my dear: but you would have been cheating on your young, attractive girlfriend who is so fond of you. You would have been abusing her trust. And forfeiting it. Maybe you tell yourself she would never have found out. But
you
would never have forgotten. And that would have made you suffer.
And something else: from then on you would never have felt quite at ease in your own skin, I mean literally. You'd have thought you could still feel the way you'd… penetrated an old woman. Let yourself go with her, in her, skin against skin, inside her faded flesh.”
I made an angry sound and sat back on the sofa. She said, “And I would have had a guilty conscience too. I would always have blamed myself for taking advantage of a young man, just to get myself a little pleasure. For interfering in his life and his girlfriend's life, for polluting them, soiling them. And I would never have been rid of that feeling.”
She stopped. After a while I asked, “Is that all?”
“Yes,” she said, “that's all.”
I stood up. She rose too and moved aside. I passed her. She followed me to the door, took hold of the handle before me and opened it. I looked at her. Before I could prevent it, she kissed me on the mouth. She said, “Think it all over, Alex. And look after yourself.”
I said, “Goodbye, Cilly.”
29
I dawdled on the way home. I drove along the expressway beside the river at a snail's pace, looking out at the water and the shipping. Had she intentionally aroused me just so as to humiliate me even more thoroughly?
I heard fragments of music from a brass band on board an excursion steamer going upstream close to the bank. The band was playing a waltz. Suddenly the music was drowned out by the hooting of cars behind me. My speed must have been too leisurely for the other drivers on the road. I moved over into the right-hand lane and they began overtaking me one by one. A woman driver even gave me the two-fingers sign.
Women were once supposed to be gentle, reserved creatures. At least, my mother had tried to teach me that girls were more delicate and sensitive than boys and I should treat them accordingly. My father had told me the same. He himself had never been a real gentleman, but he tried to bring me up to behave like one, and some of all that was still with me.
But many women, not to mention girls, didn't seem to think anything of that these days. Had women got more aggressive?
Maybe it was to do with women's lib. But I couldn't understand how Cilly could have expressed herself in such vulgar, brutally forthright terms. True, I'd never felt comfortable myself with the stilted phrase “we made love”. But did she have to use such a vulgar verb instead, the language of the streets? I spent some time trying to think of an alternative, but nothing really satisfactory occurred to me.
I didn't feel like putting my car in the garage. It would have left me feeling that I had already retreated to the safety of my apartment for this Saturday afternoon and evening, cutting myself off from the world.
When I had found a place to park in the street and was walking back to my apartment, a car door opened ahead of me. Herr Manderscheidt got out of the car. He wore a sports jacket, a shirt and tie, trousers with well-pressed pleats, and he had left the woven shoes at home.
Smiling, he came a few steps toward me.
“What a surprise,” I said. “Were you coming to see me? On a Saturday devoted to leisure?”
He said, with a broad smile, “Yes, sorry about that. I do apologize, but you know what they say, no peace for the wicked. I just had a kind of idea again.” He offered me his hand. “Good day, Dr Zabel.”
“Good day to you too, Herr Manderscheidt. I can't wait to hear your idea.”
His smile became a broad grin. “Do you fancy going to the races with me?”
“Just a moment…” Was the man unhinged? “Going to the races? Horse races, do you mean?”
“That's right. It's the Hypo-Bank Grand Prix today. And excellent weather for it, don't you think?”
I said, “Herr Manderscheidt, if this is some kind of joke, I have to tell you that you've picked a bad day for it.”
He switched off the grin. “Sorry, Dr Zabel. But it was only half a joke.” He lowered his voice. “Frau Fuchs and Herr Schmickler are out there. At the racecourse. The man I had watching them has just let me know.” With a shrug of his shoulders he went on, “And I thought it might interest you to see the pair of them in the wild, in their natural habitat, so to speak.” He smiled.
“I see. And then, bang bang, we shoot them down?”
“Well…” He drew down the corners of his mouth, tilted his head slightly and looked sideways at me. “Just an idea of mine. But an outing might do you good. And the weather is really perfect today.”
The fact that I hadn't said no yet obviously encouraged him. “And one can eat very well out there, too.” After a brief hesitation he added, “Not to mention the racing. Excellent sport.” Another sideways glance. “If you want to place a bet, I may be able to give you a good tip.”
“Do you bet on the horses often?”
“Often?” He grinned. “Let's say sometimes.”
“I see.”
“I go out there quite a bit.”
“Yes?”
He said hastily, “For professional reasons. Many of the people I have to deal with like moving in those circles. Or belong to them.”
BOOK: The Stronger Sex
2.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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