Prologue – The Last Chapter
No dreams. Blank mind. Only darkness.
And suddenly a piercing noise somewhere out there. But in here he was safely hidden. His eyelids heavy, so heavy. The rest of his body leaden. His heart beating the steady rhythm of a slave galley.
The noise grew louder. LOUDER.
Stop – my ears!
His eyelids seemed to be stitched together, and he had to separate them forcefully. Opening his eyes, he squinted into glaring white. Anything was better than this erratic, annoying noise. He must find the source and switch it off, return to blissful sleep here in –
Where the hell was he?
Things slowly took shape in front of him. Iron everywhere. Weights, on the floor and on bars. This definitely wasn’t his study. It wasn’t a room he had ever seen before.
The slave galley in his chest skipped a few beats, as adrenaline leaked through a hole somewhere. Not enough for coordinated action, but enough to start him thinking. He closed his eyes again. First things first.
– My name is Tarek Waldmann.
Good start. Now slowly put together what happened last, one step at a time. This routine had been drilled into him when he was a child, for the times when he had carelessly lost his leather E.T.
Last memory before everything went dark?
– I am a murder suspect.
The leak in the galley got bigger. Panic flooded in.
– Right, how about some more concrete memories?
Let’s start again. Last recollection before everything went dark?
– I was in Helga’s flat. Helga, who is supposed to be my mother all of a sudden. She had wanted to tell me the last chapter of my story and explain everything to me.
He snorted a laugh. Now that it was too late, they all wanted to explain everything to him.
He had pushed open the door to Helga’s kitchen, his insides bubbling like lava. Calmly, Helga had shut the door of the little stove in the corner. Turning to face him, she wiped her sooty fingers on her navy-blue trousers and looked up. A smile that could read him.
And suddenly he was lying here, a bottomless chasm between him and Helga in the kitchen. How to bridge that gap now? Too hard. Much better to go back to sleep. He moved into a more comfortable position, but his back bumped into something soft.
Someone else, right beside him. A heavy arm draped possessively across his upper body, the hand curled round his chest. He took it, chuckling. Lina and her desperate need for physical contact. Her embraces had turned into something like a Heimlich maneuver. He pulled the hand and arm tighter across his chest, like the edge of a blanket, wanting to huddle up against the body behind him. No resistance.
Does that really feel like Lina? something in him whispered. Or even someone alive?
He blinked, drew himself up, and studied the hand in his. Strong, straight fingers. Age marks. Definitely not Lina. Without letting go of the hand, he looked over his shoulder.
It was Helga alright. There was his mother, sleeping, her arm strangely twisted in his grasp. She didn’t seem to mind, though. He pulled at it and shook her, but he already suspected what her response would be. He knew something about dead people by this point. They didn’t wake up in a hurry.
Two in two days, Tarek. What will the two friendly Viennese police inspectors say to that?
Again, double-edged blades pierced his eardrums. A doorbell, jarring and demanding. Somebody was banging on the sturdy door with their fists, making it shake. Calling Tarek’s name – open the damn door!
Adrenaline surged through his heart, roaring at him to feel fear at last. To comprehend that no one in Helga’s story was going to live happily ever after, especially not someone who was up to his neck in everything. That he had to do something, dammit, and at once!
He couldn’t. Something had shackled his energy and brain, and dumped them into a glassy tank of water. Now here he was, watching the two of them make a panicky attempt to explain who it was who had gotten him into this mess, to get out before it was too late. It certainly didn’t look like a lesson in escapology. With a resigned smile, he patted Helga’s hand.
Oh Mum, he thought hazily. What have we done?
Chapter 1 – The Biographer without a Past
Vienna, Sunday, 27th December
Hermann, today I found our boy. Just like that, as if he’d been waiting for me all this time, right in front of me and I couldn’t see him. You know how I can always sense when something big is about to happen? Like when Dad died? Two hundred kilometers away and as fit as a fiddle when we last visited him and Mum. I told you over breakfast about the dream I’d had that we would lose him, and you said: What utter nonsense! Didn’t you see how he looked last Sunday? He’ll outlive all of us, you said. And then the phone rang, and it was Mum. Remember that? I have a sixth sense about these things.
But today everything was normal, other than that it’s been snowing again since this morning. But that doesn’t count, it’s winter, after all. It got colder, but that doesn’t count either. Of course, I had to rub it in when I saw the Masopusts, you know the people who live downstairs on the mezzanine level. They claimed last week that winter had breathed its last, that it was a non-event, a total bust (old Masopust’s favorite expression. She always repeats everything like a parrot, as if the feminist revolution had never happened).
But, I said, when there’s a crisis, it never just rains. It pours. That’s the only way I know it. Bad luck always shows up with a few snotty siblings in tow. That’s what I told them when I ran into them and their fat mutt at the trash cans. „We won’t forget this winter any time soon,“ I said, “just like the financial crisis.“ Old Masopust just smacked his lips, grinding his jaws as if his dentures had a life of their own.
„Better take our Lutzi out for her walk now, or she’ll do her business right in front of our door,“ he said. And then they steamed away, all three of them broader than they were tall, and without so much as a „Happy Holidays,“ either.
That was the highlight of my day. The rest was just like all the other days since you’ve been gone.
And then our boy just popped up in front of me on the laptop. I knew immediately that it could only be him. That insincere, phony name those people gave him – there can’t be that many of them around. I was so shocked I closed the laptop, and when I opened it again, everything was black. For a second, I got all panicky that he would be lost forever, that I had blown my only chance. Nonsense. Of course, he wasn’t really gone, only for a moment…
After a few cups of fennel tea and a walk in the park around the corner, I was alright again, and I worked through my notes for the computer course on geriatrics. It might as well have been hieroglyphics. The young man in the trial class threw foreign words around everywhere, most of them English, of course. He talked so fast I could hardly keep up, and now all I have are these totally useless notes.
Don’t believe for one moment that much has changed in the last twenty years. Only the methods they use to suppress us, and the oppressors themselves. Where it used to be the Communist Party, now it’s the young who intimidate the elderly with their technology, their secret codes, and those little arrows on the screen, which are impossible to control because they make everything move so fast. Practices that were once common in the bad old days in East Germany are now everywhere. And yet people call themselves modern these days. They control us with their computers, just like the Stasi did with their spies. Anyway, I managed to write a letter. Nothing special, just a few lines. It took me a whole afternoon of hard thinking and eleven pages of drafts.
It didn’t take so long because I was so excited, but because of the plan. That’s right, I have a plan now, ever since I had a good look at our boy’s website, a very good look indeed. Biographer – honestly. Have you ever heard of such a profession?! If I keep a cool head, this plan might actually work. Although I’m not sure at the moment if I will really have the heart to do it… That stupid heart of mine has always told me what to do, and you know what? In most cases, it’s been right. No telling why? But there’s still time.
He responded so fast I didn’t have time to even catch my breath. I couldn’t believe it. My first contact with our boy!
I know, I know… a voice over the phone isn’t a real meeting, you’ll probably say. No more than a bit of hot air chopped up and squeezed through a wire, and put together again at the other end. Nothing you can grasp or even look at. You’re right, of course, although you still don’t understand how a wretched little moment can grab your whole life and throw it off a cliff.
It was only his voice, and only for a few minutes. But I couldn’t have tolerated anything more than his voice. Not yet.
Because I swear our boy sounds like you. He rasps a little when he starts speaking, as if the engine has to warm up first.
It was as if I could hear you talk. He clears his throat, just like you always did. My knees turned to jelly. But only in my head, because the rest of me had turned to ice, you know?
It was just as well we didn’t talk long, and there were hardly any lulls in the conversation. He sure is a blabbermouth, our boy. He told me he lives in Ireland, as if I didn’t know that already. Maybe that’s why he has that funny accent. His “r” doesn’t come from the back of this throat but from somewhere under his tongue, and the “e” sounds as if there’s a “y” attached to it, and a “u” to each “o.” Still, he sure has the gift of the gab. I was so amazed.
I wonder who he got that from. Maybe Uncle Richard? But no. He always bored us to death with his poems at our family gatherings, old Richard.
Probably goes with the job, our boy being so good with words. Of course, it was easier for him than for me. He didn’t have to pretend that we were only strangers who might do business.
But I could tell he felt something, too. Because when I asked him why he writes biographies, of all things, our boy was speechless for a moment. And do you know what he said then?
„I don’t have a past,“ he said, „that’s why I write about other people’s.“
What a smooth talker he is! Nearly had to laugh. He probably says that to everyone. But I didn’t even blink and managed a great response that would have made you proud.
„Don’t worry,“ I said, „I have enough past for the two of us,“ which made him laugh.
That was the nicest gift I ever got, after all those horrible Christmases. Sorry to have to tell you, Hermann, but your presents were always the worst. But you went to such great lengths to choose the wrong things that I never had the heart to tell you. Yes, I know, that’s not at all like me.
Anyway, our boy laughed, and I would have loved to tell him that he giggles like a girl, but that I didn’t mind at all, because hearing him laugh is just like Christmas for me. Before we said goodbye, he laughed again and said he’s looking forward to meeting me.
So, it’s true. He doesn’t know. Not a thing.
The rest of the evening, I cried my eyes out and exercised, and exercised and cried my eyes out. But today was the very last time, I know that now. Because today I found our boy. And starting tomorrow, I will see to it that he gets back everything those people stole from us. The truth, each and every chapter of it.