Theodora Lange denkt sich oft, es wäre besser gewesen die drei geheimnisvollen alten Bücher nicht in die Hände bekommen zu haben. Ja, viel besser, für eine 24-jährige etwas eigenbrötlerische gelernte Buchhandelskauffrau, die gern lässig und hübsch-provokant mit Rollerblades oder Longboard durch die Gegend fährt. Stattdessen ist sie im nun im Visier von Killern… das findet sie gar nicht witzig. Liebe, Sex... und jetzt auch noch ein lebensgefährliches Rätsel, das Theodora zwingend lösen muss. Ist es ein Vermächtnis aus der NS-Zeit? Oder geht es viel, viel weiter zurück? Der Sommer 2012 hat es in sich für Theodora Lange in allen Lebenslagen. Obwohl auf Englisch geschrieben, findet die Handlung der Geschichte ausschließlich im deutschsprachigen Raum, München, im Kanton Thurgau und der Provinz Südtirol statt. Conspiracies current, recent and very, very ancient are the stuff of many paperback thrillers Theodora Lange is well used to selling in the Bookshop in Munich. Not that such weighty matters are in any way part of her own life. She’s young, quirky and resolutely independent, often seen on rollerblades or her longboard risking life and limb and oblivious to the disapproval of her impetuosity. There are things which puzzle Theodora, life, love and sex, to name but a few. But these are issues which are suddenly of secondary importance when a bomb explodes in the antiquarian section of the Bookshop and she finds herself the guardian of three mysterious volumes. The summer of 2012 becomes much more complicated and perilous than she could ever have imagined.
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A legacy, a plot and a loner’s dangerous quest…
A bookshop closes and there is blood…
TheodoraLandby Malcolm James ThomsonCopyright: © 2014 Malcolm James ThomsonPublished by: epubli GmbH, Berlinwww.epubli.deISBN 978-3-****-***-*
SATURDAY 26 MAY 2012
There wasn’t what anyone would call a crowd. It wasn’t what anyone would call an event. It was the Whitsun weekend and many of Munich’s inhabitants were out of town.
I lingered at a table under a parasol, sheltered from the sun (promising a decent summer to come) outside the café on Dreifaltigkeitsplatz, Trinity Place, in the heart of the Bavarian capital. The small square is dominated by the large, popular and quite expensive restaurant Brasserie Stadtschreiber on one side. The inevitable church is at one end, a new shopping precinct at the other. Between them, across from the café, is the colonnaded frontage of what once had been a monastery. There in shadow of the arcade, was Manduvel Bookshop. Until yesterday it was the place where I worked.
And today it would close its doors forever. The premises had to be vacated completely by the end of June, emptied of fixtures and fittings and the inventory of books.
Yes, Bookshop, not Buchhandlung. The specialization in English language books had been a recent development, an experiment. It was an attempt to maintain a Manduvel presence in the premises where the bookselling family had opened a business in 1893. But now there was a normal Manduvel branch, the thirty-seventh in Germany, in the nearby urban mall. Maybe there was not that much demand for English books in Munich.
I couldn’t tell him that I would prefer to be alone with my thoughts. Dirk Seehof and his fiancée, Bea Schell, were probably my closest friends. And I had, after all, had a brief affair with him the previous summer. At least he called me Thea and not Dora. At Manduvel old Herr Lessinger called me Theodora sometimes. The others spoke of Dora even if I was addressed by them in front of customers as Frau Lange. Dora sounds dumb and I am not dumb. Nor am I Dora The Explorer except when it comes to sex.
“A sad day, Dirk.”
For him it would be, too. Addicted to British and American thrillers, he had long been a Bookshop regular. He repeatedly complained that his own life as a free-lance web journalist lacked any of the thrills and perils faced by the protagonists described in the pages of paperback crime and mystery fiction.
Neither Dirk nor I were to know that this deficit would soon be remedied.
“Pity there are no demonstrators... nobody with a loud-hailer crying ‘Save our Bookshop’. No story for you, I guess.”
Dirk shrugged and took a long draught of his beer.
In spite of the holiday Trinity Place was quite busy this Saturday. But few passing along the colonnade spared a glance for the display windows still full of books, still promoting best-sellers written in English as if on Monday business as usual would continue. One window was devoted to the antiquarian section of the shop where old, rare and valuable books gathered dust in an a cluttered alcove. They were from time to time examined by those who approached them with the utmost reverence but in most cases without the means to make any purchase. Although Herr Lessinger was the manager of the branch as a whole, it was the ancient volumes which had kept him working for Manduvel long beyond retirement age. His instructions had been that until the very last minute the shop should be operational and welcoming.
“You didn’t want to work on the very last day?” Dirk asked.
“I’ve never worked Saturdays, Dirk.”
There had been two Saturdays and the week in between that we had spent in bed. We had not so much surprised or shocked one another. It had been more about satisfying a kind of mutual curiosity. Just ten days, about a year ago. Been there, done that, got the teeshirt.
My teeshirt today was meant to be ironic. ‘So many books, so little time!’ in bold italics. Sammy Cohen was the Manduvel Bookshop exemplar of gender diversity. He had reminded me of the Miquel Brown song in which it had been about men, not books. He assured me that the track remained a popular dance anthem for the queer community.
No, I am not gay. I had thought I might be for about three months until Dorthe went back to Copenhagen. I had been younger then, just turned twenty-one, finished with university and starting my three year training at Manduvel. A Chamber of Commerce certificate states that I am now a Gelernte Buchhandelskauffrau. That’s one of those pseudo-qualifications our German society is addicted to. Theodora Lange is now officially authorized to sell books!
Where, or indeed whether, I might be selling books in future was a question still open. Sure, I could move to another Manduvel branch, but none has the atmosphere of the little Bookshop on Dreifaltigkeitsplatz. There will be no other branch which will make room for the antiquarian collection. We had been told that branded e-book readers are the shiny future. Spoken word recordings on memory sticks would be the next big thing. I wasn’t sure.
Herr Lessinger had said that the remaining rare books were to go to an Austrian dealer for a fraction of what they are worth. And so I didn’t have any serious twinges of conscience on account of the three volumes I was keeping quite safe in my flat.
When the explosion happened I was on my way out of Trinity Place and already on the receiving end of judgmental glances. In Munich one is supposed to be seen at the wheel of a BMW manufactured locally. Or another German premium marque. If female, then driving an open convertible or a monstrous SUV is very okay. It is also tolerable to be astride an expensive all-terrain bicycle when one wears to good advantage (as I was frequently told I did) cut-off denim shorts. Equally acceptable is to be the young adult piloting a high-tech push-chair with a trophy baby inside, who could be a future Porsche driver. Less well viewed is a wild young woman carving through city traffic on a skateboard (Plan B deck, Element wheels, Tensor trucks and Reds bearings) which I had bought from a place in Cologne. They build Fords in Cologne, too, although for a Bavarian they do not count as German cars.
The sudden blast from the colonnades distracted me and caused me to smash into a Mini driven by a lady-who-shops. Her expressions of indignation meant that it was a few minutes before I could get back to Trinity Place, an elbow bruised once again, my board under my arm.. I arrived at the same time as the first emergency vehicles.
Dirk did file a story, claiming implicitly to have been an eye-witness to the incident. It was assumed that due to the impending closure of the business a defect in the gas powered central heating system had been neglected. Ninety percent of Dirk’s observations were in truth provided by me. He had left a good hour before everything went bang. Why did I linger? As always I had something to read with me. Today it was the latest issue of the cooler-than-thou bi-monthly Monocle magazine (it weighed about a kilo). The publisher had named Munich the most liveable city in the world a couple of years earlier and so I had become a subscriber. The day was very warm, the café chairs outside the see-and-be-seen Brasserie Stadtschreiber were welcoming and I reckoned that I looked quite good.
A very pompous francophile (who didn’t last a full weekend) had once claimed that I could best be described as jolie laide. Quirky, then, no beauty but also not horrible looking. He had asserted that my comportment was tolerant of gymnophoria (the sensation that someone is mentally undressing you) if not conducive to apodyopsis (admiration by one inclined or provoked to imagine me naked). I tended to prefer shorter words.
“Good legs! Great arse!”
That was a verdict I was okay with. Skateboard riding is good exercise. So is roller skating. Or racing on inline blades. I have even been known to resort to a Razor kick scooter. Mercury had wings on his heels. I simply like having wheels underfoot, self-propelled rather than motorized.
So, yes, Dirk got his information from me. Why did I call him? One reason is that I feel comfortable with the notion that those with whom I have shared intimacies, even if the episode was short, should remain somehow part of my life. I still enjoy infrequent, only half-serious but nevertheless lurid and stimulating online chat sessions with Dorthe Larsen. Some might find it odd that Dirk Seehof and Bea Schell and I remained good friends after I had borrowed Bea’s fiancé last summer. Part of the reason is that I am a very good cook.
Dirk’s article would appear buried deep on the website of the least read Munich daily newspaper and would not, to my regret, include my characterization of Elsa, the woman who was the day’s sole fatality.
“Frau Elsa Brundt was the assistant manager of Manduvel Bookshop, with the charm of a traffic warden, the sincerity of an estate agent, the human kindness of a robot and the personal odour of a basket of laundry long overdue for washing.”
My descriptions of the other colleagues were kinder. Jane Gallagher and Jock Bain were Brits, although to be precise Jane hailed from Ireland where her name could be given asó Gallchobhair which meant ‘lover of foreigners’.Whichmight explain Jock, who tended towards outspoken Scottish nationalist politics. They were low-budget preppy types, recently graduated students in Germanistik. They chose for some reason to deny that they were co-habiting. Neither were injured. Jane reacted to the emergency by making lots of tea, the British response to anything short of the Apocalypse. Jock got in everybody’s way as he recorded video on his iPhone.
Frau Peine, a quiet, sad woman in her mid-fifties, suffered what might be a broken hip when the blast of the explosion toppled her off the step-ladder she had been using. On the stretcher she was cursing her misfortune in perfect English (all Bookshop staff were bi-lingual) but Frau Peine was using turns of phrase which might have been expected of a foul-mouthed sailor. That was a surprise. Jock got the audio.
Herr Stemm, our notorious hypochondriac, at long last had ailments which were not imaginary, a fractured wrist and nasty burns on his scalp. Middle-aged and a proponent of Prussian virtues, he was also a vain man. His bouffant toupée had gone up in flames. Jock got a close-up of the charred remnant.
Frau Hopkins, whose English was far from perfect in spite of being married to a Welshman, was carried off unconscious to an ambulance. She was the sympathetic, motherly type although without any children of her own.
Dear Sammy Cohen seemed more concerned at the loss of an earring rather than the earlobe to which it had been attached. Jock almost fainted when he identified the small lump of detached flesh.
One of the passers-by injured by flying glass was, it transpired, a bishop. Clerics have a minatory ubiquity in Munich. As do visitors from the rich states of the Arabian Gulf. Three dark ladies laden with shopping bags from expensive boutiques needed attention to their wounds, insisting on waiting in some discomfort for the arrival of female paramedics. That Dirk also mentioned in his piece.
What I didn’t like was his pathetic attempt to add further human interest to his report. He implied that Herr Lessinger had died of a broken heart, felled by the enormity of the Bookshop’s impending closure. The old man had in truth passed away three days before in a clinic on the other side of town. His demise followed months of illness and he was sad only that he would not be able to visit his grand-children in Florida. Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger was otherwise sanguine with regard to the inevitable outcome of the affliction he preferred to call consumption.
I quite enjoyed the fact that Dirk had used my snarky reference to the fact that the shelves at the far end of the Bookshop housing all the bodice ripper, vampire and zombie titles (genres I had scrupulously avoided even when I had belonged to the target age group) had survived the explosion and the conflagration that ensued unscathed.
TUESDAY 29 MAY 2012
The funeral was more interesting than I had anticipated. This was partly due to the fact that I used public transport instead of my skateboard. I had misread the tram timetable and arrived at the Nordfriedhof cemetery more than a half hour too early. Seated on the low wall surrounding a nineteenth century grave, in the shade of Gabriel’s huge outstretched wings, I smoked a spliff in funereal tranquillity. And so it was that later…
A Whiter Shade Of Pale.
(Procol Harum, it had been my Dad’s all-time favourite song!) And so it was that later I was super-alert to the sudden atmosphere of contempt, hurt and undisguised hostility when Vera and Agnes at last met.
Neither, Herr Lessinger had admitted to me, should know of the other’s existence. Philanderer he might have been, but the old man had never revealed the surnames of his lady-friends. Both were somewhere in their mid to late sixties, well-situated widows, their sexual appetites almost undiminished, each convinced that the aged bookseller was hers alone. I recall Vera described as insatiable although Agnes was praised as the more inventive.
Such frank, revelatory and intimate conversations with Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger had been few and far between. They often coincided with the days when I wore a dress or a skirt instead of my customary ultra-skinny jeans to work. The late unlamented and officious Elsa Brundt (as the Bookshop’s moral guardian) spoke to Herr Lessinger quite often of a suspicion she harboured. According to her, from time to time I wore a dress or skirt without the requisite underwear. The old man protested earnestly that such unseemly temerity from young Frau Lange was quite unthinkable.
When the mourners assembled for the non-denominational service I confirmed that I was both the youngest person present and the best dressed. Vera, Agnes and others of advanced years had in their wardrobes ensembles which they wore with increasing frequency for funerals. My black knitted cotton dress from Comme des Garçons was more often worn for clubbing nights, bloused over a belt to be very short indeed. But unbelted it fell almost to my knees. My hat was a black straw trilby. I had bought three, the other two chrome yellow and cherry red respectively, for twenty euro at a market in Ibiza. My black flat-heeled ankle boots (I also owned them in neon green and silver) were more or less okay, I thought. Yes, I have the habit of buying in threes and I alternate between gleeful bargain hunting and self-indulgent extravagance. Anyway, in the chapel at least I was not on the receiving end of the kind of tight-lipped frowns which had been Elsa Brundt’s specialty.
It took me a moment to identify the man whose glance (no, repeated furtive glances during the pastor’s anodyne eulogy) could be deemed interested. Or at least curious.
Rudiger Reiß is in his late thirties, looks fit and has an upright posture. He’s taller than me and I am quite tall. I had seen the man in charge of all the Munich branches of Manduvel just once, at the beginning of the year. He had announced then in glib management-speak to the assembled staff that the branch on Trinity Place was to be abandoned by the concern. His timing, we had all agreed, sucked. It had been the Monday following the weekend which had been lengthened by the Epiphany holiday on the Friday. On the twelfth day of Christmas he had probably rehearsed.
Twelve drummers drumming.
Drumming us out of our jobs. Then as now Reiß had worn a smart black suit and looked a bit like the aloof duty manager of an expensive hotel. And on Saturday he had turned up, too. I had seen him in earnest discussion with someone from the gasworks emergency crew.
“You seem to be the only one here today from the Bookshop,” Reiß said, next to me in the graveyard. We laid flowers on the spot where in due course the ashes of Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger would be interred. I mumbled something about the others nursing their wounds. I wondered if he noticed that my floral tribute was one of the largest. In fact it had been ordered by my Aunt Ursel and the card was in her name as well as mine.
If we are being precise Ursel Lange is, in fact, my very elderly great-aunt. She is strict but very generous. The latter quality explains how it is that I can live much more comfortably than if I had to make do with the pittance paid to a trainee Buchhandelskauffrau. Aunt Ursel sets great store by qualifications. Her expectation is that my framed certificate will go on the wall of the small but still profitable bookshop, Brunnenbach Bücher, in the middle of the little Swiss town of Weinfelden. This is an enterprise which has been in our family’s hands for almost a century. I am supposed to take it over eventually.
“But for his illness, he would have been there to the very end, I suppose.”
I nodded. He would have been in the Bookshop where he could well have died. I reckoned that Elsa Brundt had speedily installed herself in the cubby-hole which passed for Herr Lessinger’s office in the chaos of the antiquarian section which had born the worst of the explosion.
Rudiger Reiß looked more worried than sad.
“You don’t plan to stay with us at Manduvel, Frau Lange?”
I chattered on about Weinfelden and Aunt Ursel and Brunnenbach Bücher (feigning enthusiasm for the promised legacy) as we processed down the paths of the Nordfriedhof. We made for the street where on the opposite side there was an Italian pizzeria. It was supposed to be quite a lively place in the evenings but during the hours when burials took place it was happy to welcome thirsty people dressed in black. Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger had with typical attention to detail arranged for a sum of money to be deposited with the manager. It was enough in fact to ensure the alcoholic stupefaction of the few following Vera who strode ahead, possibly much in need of a schnapps. Agnes marched with similar energy about ten metres behind her erstwhile rival. Then came Rudiger and I and a handful of others.
He still looked worried.
“Are you in trouble with the gasworks people? Negligence resulting in death? Proceedings of some kind?”
“You are very direct, Frau Lange!”
“Call me Thea. Herr Lessinger used my full name, Theodora. You may not, however, call me Dora. And, yes, I am very direct.”
I had the feeling that my straightforwardness came as something of a relief.
“To be quite frank, Thea, it wasn’t a gas accident. It was an incendiary device, a bomb if you like, so positioned that the antiquarian section would be devastated. It is a matter for the police now. The only trouble I am in now arises from my inability to deliver the antiquarian collection to our Austrian associate.”
“For a laughable price!”
“I have heard that Herr Lessinger was of that opinion.”
Then he said something which almost caused me to gasp. Reiß would have noticed were he not concentrating on the fast traffic which makes crossing Ungererstraße a fraught undertaking.
“Three quite intriguing books could have survived, you know. But Lessinger stipulated that they should be placed in his coffin and… I dare say at this very moment … they are being consumed in the crematorium as he is by flames.”
“I saw you twice at the clinic. But I had no idea you’d been visiting Louie.”
Agnes looked tearful. She and Vera had taken the window table next to the one where Rudiger and I sat. And, yes, we were eavesdropping.
“He was a very orderly man. Quite adept at scheduling his affairs, it would seem,” said Agnes with a sniff.
Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger. Funny how the given names of some people seem almost superfluous. As for the affectionate diminutive, Louie, I wondered whether the old man was any happier with that than I am when someone calls me Dora. I had briefed Rudiger Reiß (Rudi? Maybe not) about the two ladies while we waited for our beers to arrive. Vera had indeed ordered an Obstler with her coffee. Agnes stayed with mineral water.
“So Herr Lessinger’s life did not consist only of a passion for bibliophile rarities?” Rudiger said, with the faint trace of a smile.
“No. Books and sex. Both were very important. I liked that in him a lot.”
Reiß obviously wondered whether I shared Louie’s priorities but simply nodded.
I suppose it was inevitable that Vera and Agnes would sit together. They seemed to know none of the other mourners. They did, after all, have something in common.
“The books that were to be burned with him… did he mention that?” Vera asked after some hesitation. Agnes nodded.
“I thought it an odd gesture, even for him. And… how pointless. They would have been cremated in Trinity Place on Saturday with all the others! Although the poor man was not to know that, of course.”
“I wonder what their importance was.”
Rudiger Reiß and I took our second beers outside to one of just two tables. The pavement on Ungererstraße, so close to speeding, stinking traffic, is not conducive to dolce far niente.
“You are, I suspect, as curious as I am,” said Rudiger Reiß.
“Does it show?”
“To me, yes. It is my job to know what catches people’s imagination, what intrigues them, what engages their attention. My field is retailing, not books. I always take a book with me when we go on holiday, but mostly I don’t manage to finish it.”
“It used to be ‘we’. Not any more. The divorce became final last month.”
“Okay, I am intrigued… by the business with the books, I mean. Your marital status is neither here nor there.”
A decrepit truck from Bulgaria crawled past belching diesel fumes and making so much noise that conversation was for a while impossible. It gave me time to think.
“You can’t know exactly which three books went missing, I guess. The inventory of the antiquarian section was never computerized. Herr Lessinger was in two minds about that. On the one hand he resented your penny-pinching. On the other he was quite proud of his old fashioned card index and hand-written ledger… now presumably reduced to ashes.”
“True. But when it became know that the prognosis for Herr Lessinger was… very unfavourable… then the late Frau Brundt stepped in. She was determined to demonstrate her efficiency. She reported what looked to her like an anomaly. A ‘three volume lot’… no more precise details given… was checked out of the Bookshop in Herr Lessinger’s name. But at a time when he was already immobilized in that place where he died. Odd, wouldn’t you say?”
It was the moment for me to resort to distraction. Removing my trilby meant that my bunched up dirty-blonde hair (perfectly clean, in fact, but the colour is commonly so described) could fall loose onto my shoulders. I took a moment to gather it together at the nape of my neck. Axilla display, the presentation of the naked armpit, is something men tend to notice and Rudiger Reiß was no exception. He cleared his throat and continued.
“My thought was that Lessinger might have taken the books to show to a potential buyer… part of the service, you know… and that maybe a sale was in the offing. Our computers do record sales and acquisitions. Proper bookkeeping makes that imperative.”
“But there was no sign of any mysterious ‘three volume lot’ having found a buyer?”
Now Rudiger Reiß grinned. It made him more attractive. He reminded me of somebody.
“No, none. You know, Lessinger was very good… he became quite clever about selling books on to wealthy collectors before we even had to pay for them. He was often just a middle-man on our behalf in a quick-turnaround transaction, but the practice generated enough revenue to keep the antiquarian section just about viable.”
“Goodness! That goes a bit against my picture of him. Okay, an aging Lothario but also an ardent and serious book lover… at the Bookshop and with his own collection which was limited to incunabula in Latin. Did you know that the world’s largest collection of incunabula is here in Munich? Twenty thousand of them in the Bavarian State library.”
Rudiger Reiß nodded as I explained that incunabula were books not handwritten by scribes but produced in the ‘first infancy of printing’ prior to the year 1500.
“That was Lessinger’s passion,” I concluded. Not one of the three volumes in my stewardship was in Latin or printed prior to the sixteenth century. But of course I did not mention that.
“Ancient books and two merry widows?”
Rudiger gestured to where Vera and Agnes had come out to take the two taxis they had ordered. It looked as if at the last minute they decided to exchange cellphone numbers.
“The beginning of a beautiful friendship?” I suggested.
“Who knows? And… who knows whether there were in truth three precious books in the old gentleman’s coffin?”
WEDNESDAY 30 MAY 2012
Books in Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger’s coffin? It was a question the funeral director might be in a position to answer. That Reiß and I had agreed.
“Strange business, for sure. I could, I suppose, make time for an undertaker visit tomorrow. Perhaps you might like to join me?”
Late the next afternoon he collected me from where I’d agreed to meet him, on a street corner close to my flat. He was very punctual. I got into Rudiger’s car, a new but very small Volkswagen Polo.
“She got the Audi,” he said with less bitterness than I might have expected. Maybe I was supposed to say something. He threw me a glance but learned little, since I had donned my RayBan Aviators. I had slung a belt (seventies vintage von Lehndorff) around the black dress I had worn the day before, hiking it up to a non-funereal length. Often people assumed that my shoulder bag was a Chanel copy. It wasn’t.
On the subject of fakery, nothing could have been more obsequious or spurious than the excruciating piety of the funeral director.
“We take great pains to respect the wishes of the departed. Often special costuming is requested… or keepsakes are to accompany the deceased on his or her onward journey. For reasons of hygiene, of course, we are unable to fill requests that the casket should contain food or drink.”
Hygiene? A danger of posthumous food poisoning?
Yes, there had been items contained in a cotton bag for insertion into the coffin of Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger.
“The nature of the items will, however, remain a secret. Not because it is knowledge I am unable to share, but if books they were…” The dapper little hypocrite tailed off.
The problem was that the mortal remains of Herr Lessinger had been laid in the coffin, an expensive one, by an efficient, reliable but almost illiterate Transylvanian.
Grigor was short, rotund and surprised us a bit with an angelic smile. His German was as minimal as the funeral director had suggested, but in his own tongue he chattered almost without drawing breath. After lengthy confusion and much sign language it was clear that he feared he was being accused of purloining the coarse cotton bag in which the three books had arrived.
As for the books themselves, we learned a goodly amount. Grigor had some talent for drawing. His cubicle had samples of his work pinned up on the wall. Some of these I chose not to examine too closely, since it was clear that the little man found his artistic inspiration in his work with the deceased. If the anatomical sketches seemed to mimic the cold Renaissance objectivity of da Vinci, Grigor’s memento mori portraits were serene and almost affectionate.
“Keepsakes, ja, ja,” he had understood and rummaged through a fat portfolio. One drawing I found very poignant, a toy carousel which had been placed in the coffin of a child. The pencil strokes were quite faint in Grigor’s work, but in this case he had given the merry-go-round dabs of jewel-like colour. I could see that Reiß found it heart-rending, too.
“Lessinger, ja, ja.”
He showed us three drawings he had made. The first had the very sketchy outlines of a book, but he had devoted care to the cover which featured a cross, its arms of equal length. I gave a slight shudder when I saw that Grigor had used a red felt-tip pen to fill a scarlet field surrounding a white cross. The Swiss coat of arms. I had a slim volume of similar appearance at home, after all, about the size of a normal ring-binder as the Transylvanian confirmed with precise gestures.
Grigor mimed the suggestion that the line of text embossed on the cover below the white cross might be a telephone number. But he merely hinted in his drawing at what could be as easily letters as numbers. Reiß gazed at a spot on the ceiling in dismay.
My pretence of intense interest in subsequent revelations must have been convincing for Rudiger Reiß. The second cover was emblazoned with the standard of the Third Reich, the eagle’s wings outstretched, a swastika in the wreath grasped by the talons of the stylised bird of prey. I prevaricated with regard to the size of this book, suggesting it might be small, maybe pocket-sized. Grigor disagreed. It was square-ish, and almost as big as a vinyl record album.
Of course it was.
I made no effort to clarify the matter of the illustration on the cover of the third book, leaving Reiß thinking that it was a representation of the Virgin Mary. If memory served it was in reality a Black Madonna, the dusky Miriam of Magdala. I hadn’t bothered to take a look at my three books for weeks. While Rudiger Reiß struggled to understand Grigor, who was, we thought, trying to declare how fervent was his personal embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I wracked my brain in an effort to recall just how and when the three books had come into my possession. That was an easier task than speculating as to why three books burned with the remains of Herr Lessinger had covers which appeared to be faithful facsimiles of those cached in my flat.
“Why did Grigor make drawings of the three books, though? The sentimentality of that child’s carousel I can understand. But… old books?”
Rudiger Reiß nodded, and made an effort to frame the question in a way that the Transylvanian could perhaps comprehend.
Suddenly Grigor beamed broadly. He bent over his sketch pad and drew the quick portrait of a man with a bald head and a full beard, using a marker to give the fringe of the beard an orange tint.
“Draw for he!” said Grigor.
Early March, mid-March, late March. Three months ago. On the first Saturday of the month there had been drinks after the Bookshop closed for the day to celebrate Herr Lessinger’s birthday. I had made a point of being there, shuffling out of my warmest quilted winter coat to reveal the kind of mini-dress (it was tweed, and the hold-up stockings were very, very long) which gave Elsa Brundt apoplexy. Knowing that the end was coming (the closure of the bookshop) and that no future birthday of his would be observed on the premises, Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger had splashed out on a premium champagne (Veuve or Dom, one or the other). At the time he had hinted that in a couple of weeks he would be going into hospital. For observation, he assured the staff.
Beware the Ides of March.
By the end of the month some of us had became aware that the prognosis was gloomy, that Herr Lessinger had weeks at most to live. But my only visit to the clinic had been before that terrible news came.
“Check those three books out for me, Theodora. I’ll let you know when I want you to bring them to me in this depressing place.”
But no such summons ever came. And after learning that his condition ruled out any hope of survival I never went to visit him again. I knew it was cowardice. At the end of April, when there were the first new leaves on the trees, I had summoned up my courage. I had a friend ink a simulated tattoo, Ex Libris Lessinger, so positioned that even a very unwell old man might be momentarily cheered by the sight. And, although he had not asked for them, I had the three books in the bag ready to deliver. But I got cold feet at the last minute.
The tattoo hasn’t altogether faded even today, although it is now little more than a shadowy smudge on my mons veneris.
“What are you thinking, Thea?” Rudiger Reiß asked after a while.
That I liked his after-shave, Dior’s Eau Sauvage. I had accepted his offer to drive me back to where I lived.
“About asparagus,” I said.
“Yeah, easier to think about asparagus than about the significance of books with the Swiss flag, the Nazi symbol and the Madonna on their covers. And about who else might have been as interested as we were and just a bit quicker off the mark!”
At the open-air market there was organically grown asparagus, the grand cru. I bought enough for four. The ham from a neighbouring stall was presumed to come from pigs who had been deliriously happy prior entering the slaughter-house. Rudiger Reiß seemed quite happy to accept my invitation to supper.
“I am moderately intelligent. I am very opinionated and tend to provoke in a variety of ways. But I am such a good cook that even Bea is prepared to put up with me. She’ll like you.”
Bea Schell needed to be explained. Dirk Seehof’s fiancée often disliked any fourth person invited to my table. Granted, the pierced punk who was also a sensitive poet and had been in raptures after a dinner at the beginning of the Spargelzeit had been odd. He quoted Proust, who claimed that asparagus ‘transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume’, and was the kind of person the fastidious Bea would usually cross the street to avoid. The anarcho-rastafarian albino musician had proved a tedious table companion, his efforts to disguise his thoroughly middle-class origins pathetic. Then there was the graffiti artist, Zachary. His grunge-erotic work would permanently embellish one of the walls of my flat. The lingering acetone whiff of his colour sprays had spoiled the delicate aroma of the loup de mer on that occasion. And then there had been the film student whose sole topic of conversation was pornography. I found some of his work really great. Bea did not. She suspected that if I had been asked nicely to appear before his camera I might have said yes. Which was quite perceptive of her.
Bea assumed that all of these occasional guests had not only shared my table but also my bed, including the jolly lesbian who had entertained us with stories of the adventures of her ‘dykes on bikes’ sisterhood. That evening we had enjoyed baked oysters. But Bea Schell was quite wrong. Bea knows me quite well, but only up to a point. My sex escapades were mostly at his place, where I would be the one delivering the exit line. Dirk had been an exception.
“To Bea you will appear normal and unthreatening. She will be reassured!”
As we reached the fifth floor and while I fumbled to find my key (Rudiger Reiß carried the shopping) I wondered where I had stashed those three damn books.
Reiß had left early, claiming a crack-of-dawn flight to Frankfurt the next morning, after thanking me for what he pronounced to be the best asparagus he had tasted this year. Then the incriminations began.
“Bea, you were flirting with him… quite openly,” said Dirk.
She and Reiß had chatted as he examined my bookshelves. I would not be buying a further Billy unit now that I had the ManduvelPlus e-book reader app on my cellphone. Quite why my friend Bea had drawn the attention of Rudiger Reiß to a certain category of my shelved volumes I hadn’t understood.
Palindromic Polysexualityby Kane Archibald I hadn’t even had the courage to finish.
The business with the three books of more immediate concern had been discussed. Bea and Dirk heard about the funeral, about the strangeness of wanting to take something to read into the hereafter, about Louie Lessinger’s two lovers.
That it had been my Aunt Ursel who had prompted her good friend Lessinger to admit me to the Manduvel trainee program was duly noted.
But Dirk Seehof was right. His fiancée now blushed. Now this I had never seen before. Colour! The girl has a pallid complexion, longish ashen hair most often held back with an Alice band. She always dressed in shades of beige and grey which do nothing to contradict those who call her the ‘greige ghost’. Her style might be called preppy, her appearance that of the conservative daughter of a good family. If she could have afforded it there would be a triple-strand pearl necklace to emphasize the stringent respectability of her dresses, blouses, skirts, sweaters and cardigans. Bea Schell does so not do jeans.
For the Munich diner en blanc in July last year I had persuaded her that white could be seen as palest beige. Wittelsbacherplatz had been transformed into a sociable wonderland, even in the shadow of the word headquarters of the Siemens concern. The picnic I had packed was delicious and the wine more than enough to ensure that a taxi would be needed to get us to our homes afterwards. It had been great fun and we planned to be there for this year’s edition of the flash-mob event.
Bea generally claims to be a junior bookkeeper in her firm’s accounts department. It is tacitly accepted that she is rather more than that. She has serious computer coding skills, although her appearance and comportment put her far away at the very opposite end of the spectrum from the cliché of the unsavoury digital nerd. Granted, she wears geeky glasses when working at the computer, but the thick frames are not black but almost translucent tortoiseshell. Bea is finicky, self-effacing, often asked to repeat herself since her whispering speech is often unclear. Her one hobby is obscure. She dismisses it as experimental digital fabric design but the show leaves us speechless when she lets her creations (psychedelic fractals swirling and resembling Paisley or Jacquard patterns) be displayed on my big screen.
On the other hand, Dirk insists that Bea is also formidably competent in a range of martial arts skills.
“My employer, Segirtad GmbH, specializes in security of all kinds, including advanced niche areas of cyber expertise.”
I do think it had come as a surprise to Rudiger Reiß when he saw with what expertise Bea had dealt with the bong which had been brought to the table while I was making our espressos. She knew where I kept it, in the second oven under the long granite kitchen worktop, one never used for baking. Yes, that’s where the books were, too, tucked beneath the lowest baking tray.
Segirtad Home Security - Safe As Switzerland
The lock on the door of my loft, that of the gate at the bottom of the drive at Säntisblick, Aunt Ursel’s home in Switzerland, were all products of the firm which was well on its way to become a leader in the field. But there were corporate divisions whose clients were not simply prudent home owners. Bea had always been reticent about that, even when she had smoked.
“I wasn’t flirting. I was just more talkative than I sometimes am here at Thea’s place.”
Getting high together was a second major pillar of my friendship with Dirk and Bea. The three of us shared an appreciation of good marihuana. Bea and I also shared a respect for Dirk’s qualities as a lover, my esteem of his prowess restricted, of course, to that brief affair a year earlier.
I was, to put it bluntly, hesitant about whom I welcomed into my personal space.
No man is an island.
Maybe not, but I’m a woman, Master Donne. My isle floats sovereign and free where I will it to be, TheodoraLand, its beach as rarely trod by any Man Friday as Crusoe’s.
Those invited to make up a dinner foursome in my loft were chosen for their immediate entertainment value. Hardly any would ever show up twice. This was in part because my flat was for me still something of an embarrassment. A twenty-four year old Gelernte Buchhandelskauffrau was not customarily the owner of what had once been the studio of a famous painter on one of the best streets in the bohemian Schwabing neighbourhood of the Bavarian capital.
Thank you, Aunt Ursel!
When I thought I could get away with it, I’d swear that it was the atelier where Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky had once painted. It was a claim made by many owners of similar properties in the neighbourhood. Some rooms on the same top floor had long ago been converted to become a separate self-contained apartment. In six years I had five different neighbours with whom I exchanged little more than nods of greeting. What remained of the studio, what I own, is the atelier itself. Its ceiling is over four metres above the floor, there is a huge north-facing window and in the corner a tight spiral staircase leading to a hatch giving access to the roof. Had I made a bit more of an effort with the furnishings and decoration (had I not settled to a large extent for Ikea) my home could have qualified for a photo story in a lifestyle magazine.
Loft living in Munich.
My bed is not hidden away. It is neither two metres wide nor is there a mirror on the ceiling. It is well positioned for watching the Sunday night thriller on television and sex is much more often on the screen via the web than on that mattress.
When I am asked about the wall painting I do not take the trouble to dissemble. Anyone grievously shocked shouldn’t count among my friends or even acquaintances. That the giant mural adding vivid colour to one of the three walls (the others remained pristine white) is a faithful rendering of my own pudenda was a fact I made no effort to deny.
The same does not hold for the dog.
The Mighty Quinn.
It is a painting of a dog, a slim and tawny hound with perfect posture, forelegs straight and a strange look in its eyes. It sits erect, watchful, surrounded by an ornate Baroque frame. It might be said to be life-size but only if it were a very big dog indeed.
I explain, with brevity, that my grandfather had been very attached to his dog. Then I can steer the conversation back to the banal and much less complicated, confessing to a modicum of exhibitionism in my comportment.
“Makes sense of a kind… puppy on one wall, pussy opposite!” A frequent conclusion.
Bea concentrated on the bong.
“Talkative, sure. And always bringing the conversation back to sex!” Dirk insisted, more bemused than annoyed.
Bea’s flush had subsided. She held the sweet, aromatic Alaska Thunderfuck smoke in her lungs for an eternity before exhaling.
Dirk Seehof was not wrong. And it was odd to hear Bea being so single minded in conversation that she was speaking quite distinctly rather than whispering or mumbling. Not that she spoke of any sexual quirks or improprieties of her own, she just recited a few of mine.
That the narrow door to the bathroom (dissimulated in the fleshy folds depicted in the mural) would spring open when the shiny clit was hit…
I had gazed into the distance and decided not to whip up a quick dessert…
That the fidelity of the representation could be verified quite often in summer when I ventured forth nonchalantly knickerless…
I had taken off my belt so that Comme des Garçons permitted no such confirmation…
That image-matching software could be used to find on the interwebs photos of me which were both deliciously and explicitly indecent…
I had begun to consider an interesting idea…
That the roof on which I sunbathed was overlooked by the staff-room of the Technical College…
I had pointed out that any plumbing or electrical problems I had in the flat were resolved by experts from the Berufsschule which backed onto my building. Whether instructors or trainees they were polite and efficient. But my idea was developing. I would mention it when Rudiger Reiß left.
“Okay, you were using Thea as a reference, but it was you talking about sex! And Reiß found you fascinating! He didn’t even glance in Thea’s direction!” Dirk concluded, still miffed.
Not quite true. Before Dirk and Bea arrived (while I was instructing Rudiger Reiß in the fine art of peeling asparagus) I am pretty sure my sitting position was such that he noted my fading ink.
Ex Libris Lessinger.
I am, I suppose, a child of the raunch culture. The very first photo I took when I got my first cellphone with a camera was a blatant nude self-portrait. In that respect I know I am by no means alone.
“Image-matching software… that could be very helpful!” I declared, loud enough to cut short the minor bickering between Dirk and Bea, my back turned to them as I took from the refrigerator another bottle of Saran Nature.
And from the lower oven I took out three books.
The cover with the Helvetic cross, scanned in on my MacBook Pro, generated no direct matches even when Bea ran the software she herself had improved. But there were some close results. The format, the typography and the texture of the cover, field grey but with a coarse linen finish, was that of many bound volumes in various Swiss national archives. The title, Projekt Fortezza, meant nothing to any of us. And there was also what Grigor had suggested was a ‘cellphone number’.
“Civil engineering… archaeology… something along those lines,” said Dirk after flipping through a few pages.
“Makes a change to be dealing with a tangible mystery, not a virtual binary conundrum,” Bea whispered, pushing her glasses up from where they had slipped to the tip of her nose.
The Nazi emblem produced thousands of hits. But I suggested that none would be helpful. What I had in my hands had once been an album of blank pages. These were now filled with dense handwriting in the old Germanic style, the Suetterlin script no longer taught after the war. They would demand time to decypher although Bea thought that there might be an OCR program which could help.
Notre-Dame de Champbasse.
The image of the Magdalene again returned thousand of approximate hits.
“A hundred and eighty Black Virgins in France! But none in the tiny village which was once known as Champbasse,” said Dirk. He was using his own smartphone to consult Google and Wikipedia.
Bea looked disappointed. But I assured her that it was real progress to determine that the Swiss volume was some sort of official record.
“Switzerland… are these books quite soon going to be on their way to your aunt?” Bea Schell wondered.
I though that might be a very good idea, particularly if others in Munich apart from Rudiger Reiß and I were taking an interest. We had not been the only persons sufficiently curious about the contents of the coffin of Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger to seek out the Transylvanian mortician. I re-filled empty glasses with Saran Nature.
FRIDAY 1 JUNE 2012
Before leaving for the station to catch the Zurich express which I would leave in Weinfelden I checked a local Munich news blog to see if there was anything more about the fire at the Bookshop. The theory now was something of a compromise; less innocent than a mere accident caused by faulty gas heating but not quite as laden with menace as a wilfully introduced explosive device. A large number of cardboard cartons had been delivered to the Bookshop by a removals firm which would have the job of clearing the shelves and allocating contingents of the English books to other Manduvel branches in the city and elsewhere in Germany. The crates were not, it was stressed, flameproof. There was also mention of very inflammable items stored recklessly in the basement below the antiquarian section. A spokesman for Manduvel (I wondered if it might have been Rudiger Reiß) had confirmed this.
Those items, I was pretty sure, were the colour spray aerosol bombs and markers used when we organized a Bookshop event to promote a coffee table volume dedicated to urban art. ProZax was the tag of a trio of graffiti artists and indeed it had been the founding member, Zachary, who had embellished the wall of my flat to such good effect. He would have removed his stuff from the basement had he not been detained by the police. The biggest piece Zack had scribed was deemed politically sensitive, drawing attention as it did to the cover-up of the activities of clerical paedophiles by prominent Bavarian church leaders.
I could, I suppose, have removed the ProZax gear myself.
But was this not a moot point? However flammable the cached aerosols might have been it could hardly have been a matter of spontaneous combustion.
“It’s not a cellphone number, in my opinion. ‘39’ at the beginning is probably not the Italian international calling code… that system is relatively recent. What we have here is more likely an indication of the year.”
Okay, I thought as I concentrated on entering the sixteen digits into the Google search window while listening to Bea on a Skype connection.
“Also… and this is a bit spooky… the suffix ‘Gs5’… may be slightly ominous.”
Almost as she spoke I finished my entry, ‘…Gs5’.
Google failed to return a single hit. I told Bea of the result.
“Fuck!” said Bea, out of character. Her expletives tended to be less vehement and not often vulgar.
The train entered a long tunnel and for a while there was no reception.
“Tunnel!” I explained to Bea who sounded impatient. When the connection was restored she announced that she had been using a very different search engine, one which delivered useful metadata.
“That’s information concerning the search term itself, before showing any list of files found. And your entry gets a ‘ping’… triggers a red flag and the warning that this precise search term is on somebody’s watch list! Whose… I don’t know.”
“Fuck!” I agreed.
“Funny, that ‘Gs’ extension… quite archaic. Geheimstufe… ‘secrecy level’… some of us still use it when we want an old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger frisson.”
Bea confirmed that the confidentiality scale ran from one to five.
I sighed. A top secret Swiss file, not where it belonged in the Confederation, although it could be said to be on its way home. The train was now moving out of the station at Bregenz, the single stop in Austria.
My sixteen-digit, case-sensitive, alpha-numeric search string had alerted someone to my interest in something which was not only not my fucking business, not only highly confidential but something which was not where it should be, conceivably in a vault protected by formidable Swiss security. There was still time to toss my laptop (perhaps geo-tagged or otherwise device-identified) out of the train before it crossed the Swiss frontier at Sankt-Margrethen.
Modern air conditioned trains do not have windows which can be opened.
I was in possession of an electronic device which had been used to ask a question which should not have been rightfully posed! Not good. I was also carrying with me the item of apparent interest, with a number on the cover which was not that of a telephone somewhere in bella Italia. And that. I suspected, was a lot worse.
Sankt-Margrethen. It was worth a try. I wondered where my laptop’s journey would end. When the doors of the train hissed open it wasn’t too hard to hurl the lightweight notebook towards a freight train heading in the opposite direction on the track across the platform. A pity that there was nobody with who I could exchange a fist-bump or a high-five when the computer landed on an open waggon. It caught the light for a moment when it came to rest on the green netting covering the whatever loose cargo was being exported from Switzerland. Garbage, refuse, trash, I speculated unfairly, on its journey to some accommodating Eastern European destination.
A next-generation MacBook had been on my shopping list anyway.
At Weinfelden I left the Zurich express feeling safe. Bea had called and found a complicated way of informing me that my Google indiscretion had not set the Swiss authorities in hot pursuit. Although how on earth could she know that? No, it was Italians who were the interested party. ‘39’ was pure coincidence.
Well, Fortezza did sound Italian after all. I had jumped to the conclusion that the reference might be to the Italian-speaking Swiss canton Ticino.
Bea said that she and Dirk would be on their way in a few days, not to Tessin, but to Weinfelden. I needed their help, she said. Dirk Seehof typically found the whole book mystery compelling. While he saw it immediately from a Dan Brown perspective, Bea claimed she was due some leave. I found wouldn’t mind their company. Aunt Ursel would be the fourth at table.
My great-aunt had not shown surprise, although I had never before invited anyone to join me in Weinfelden. Ursel Lange insisted that not only she but also her housekeeper, Frau Steinemann, would be happy to welcome my guests to the big house, Säntisblick, on top of the hill overlooking the vineyard slopes. Although many homes with a view of the majestic mountain had the same name, the Lange residence was very grand, slightly forbidding behind high walls ensuring total privacy. Although it had the steeply pitched roof to deal with winter snows there were round towers at each end. The sloping site meant that below the main entrance floor there was one more, and three storeys above. For one elderly lady it had been for a long time far too big. It would be until the day she died.
I assured Frau Steinemann that Dirk and Bea were engaged to marry and that they might well find the Arvenholz pine panelled turret bedroom to their liking. It was as far removed from my own room as the house allowed. Dirk tended to shout encouragement with the vociferous enthusiasm of a football fan supporting his team when engaged in sexual congress. This Ursel would find most amusing, given that I had told her last summer that Dirk was also markedly well endowed. The term ‘porn star dimensions’ (fully warranted, I promise) had not crossed my lips, but I left my great-aunt in no doubt whatsoever. I never thought she would meet him, did I?
Why did I not prolong my affair with Dirk?
Why did Ursula Lange break off her liaison with Ludwig-Viktor Lessinger when she was in her mid-forties?
At this point in my story (for it is one of intrigue, criminality and peril, the sort that Dirk loves to read) there should already be a corpse lying somewhere. That of Herr Lessinger doesn’t count, does it? But, no, I feel I must digress and get a couple of things clear about my family.
My Swiss great-aunt, Ursel, née Ammann, was briefly married to Heinrich Lange, a German bookseller originally from Leipzig who settled in Weinfelden. There was, as they say, no issue.
After the divorce Heinrich then married Ursel’s older sister Erika. My grandmother was never called anything but Omi. My Dad turned out to be an only child, as did I. He was given the middle name Nestor, meaning ‘the traveller’ according to some sources. His first name, Adolf, was pointedly ignored and after a while forgotten.
Omi and Ursel were both of a generation of women not generally known for their independent spirit. However neither had any doubt that they were the equals of men. I cannot recall any stories told about their own father, Herr Ammann, who may have been quite insignificant to them. But there was no doubt that for the sisters it was the maternal lineage which counted. There was a very ancient photo of their mother, a woman with the same shine in her eye as my great-aunt. There was sometimes mention of the wealthy and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine, the twelfth century successor in the Merovingian bloodline who (and this was significant) married a man nine years her junior.
“Young boys are an important part of my life!” Ursel still announces with a twinkle in a smoky voice. She is in her nineties.
Ursel loves the raised eyebrows her declaration causes. Then with perfect timing she explains that she is, of course, referring to her support of the football team, Young Boys, from the federal capital, Bern. She goes on to point out that the name is no more stupid than that of one of the Zurich clubs, Grasshoppers. If pressed Ursel admits that her true allegiance was to the very successful German club, Borussia Dortmund, whose team colours they shared with Young Boys, yellow and black.
Yellow and black diagonal stripes also decorate the shutters of the big house with a superb view of the Alps. Heinrich Lange had bought Säntisblick before the war. It had been home to Heinrich and his Ursel, then to Heinrich and his Erika, my Omi (although with Ursel still in residence), then to the two sisters on their own and in the end just to Ursel. And, in a way, it was home to me.
Aunt Ursel’s monster high-definition television set (almost always tuned to Sky Sport) was the sole modern touch in the cosy parlour, the Bauernstube, which was otherwise dominated by the traditional tiled stove. Not that Ursel Lange is an inactive stay-at-home football-crazed crone. Far from it. She had a weekly bridge evening with friends who were not all her contemporaries. She was very active in an association which had as its mission the promotion of traditional and ethnic music. Until her eyesight began to fail she enjoyed target shooting and still liked nothing better than to clean her Sig-Sauer and show off by loading it while blindfold, a trick she had insisted on teaching me as well. I was a decent shot, too.
“You never know, child. You never know!”
Her upright gait and leathery complexion speaks of plenty of fresh air, inhaled on long hikes in the hills of the neighbouring cantons, Appenzell and Sankt-Gallen.
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