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CANDLES ALL ROUND, PLEASE
Under a dark sky the engine gives one last cough, clears its throat like an old man, then floods.
I get out, sit on the rusty-gold bonnet and raise my face to the heavy, cold air.
First things first: I'm going to smoke this damn fog dry.
A weekend in the country: bullshit.
What was I thinking? It was a bloody stupid idea in the first place. So much for get yourself a car, get yourself out, have a change of scenery.
The car's a heap of junk and my driving's worse than a cow on ice. Which means, if I want to drive anywhere, nobody will come with me. So there's nobody but me. I can deal with that in town – better than anywhere else, anyhow. Driving through the countryside alone is like eating Sellotape.
Someone's waiting for me in town – I'm finally needed again – but now I'm trapped out here. Of course, the guy who's waiting for me doesn't know that he's waiting for me, because he's lying in hospital, smashed to bits. They called me because they always call me in cases like this.
They haven't called anyone else, because they don't know who he is.
I phone Faller, thanking God we still know each other. Nothing's happened yet that could have forced us apart.
He answers after the second ring. 'Good morning, my girl.'
'Good morning, Faller.'
'The Ford's dead.'
'Can you pick me up, please? I need to get into town – urgently.'
'Where are you then?'
'In the middle of fucking nowhere,' I say.
'Mecklenburg. Between Zarrentin and Wherethehellever. Somewhere on the B195, north of the motorway.'
He's in the west of Hamburg, having breakfast probably. He could be here in an hour or so, if he puts his foot down.
'Don't go anywhere,' he says. 'I'll be there. Might take a while though.'
'I've got cigarettes. Call me when you get close, yeah?'
I hang up and grab the bonnet with both hands – it's already nearly cold. We've just never hit it off, this old car and me. Maybe it looked pretty good at first, maybe there was a superficial spark, maybe you could have been forgiven for thinking: genius! Why didn't anyone think of getting those two together! But in the end it was just one of those briefly exciting bar encounters, the kind that don't last ten sentences on closer inspection, and definitely not in daylight.
I turn up my coat collar, grab my bag from the boot and start walking down the road. Heading west. A vast landscape lies ahead of me: farmland and meadows and fields and a few isolated trees – a bit of ochre here, a bit of green there. I light my next cigarette and listen to my boots. We soon find a rhythm; we like walking on asphalt, my boots and me.
Faller will find me.
Behind me to the east, behind the wet, grim clouds and a long way away in this uniquely big Mecklenburg sky, there's a miserable scrap of morning sun.
I feel like a cowboy whose horse has been shot.
Faller's currently going through some kind of belated midlife crisis. I still can't believe he's bought a Pontiac. Sky blue, Catalina model, from the seventies. When he started spending more and more time openly checking out pretty young things his wife asked him if he wouldn't mind getting himself an unsuitable car instead. In fact, to put it another way, when he started claiming that the pretty young things were checking him out, his wife told him, 'You need something to do.'
And he's got that now – the Pontiac's always broken down. I'm in luck that his banger happens to be running just when mine isn't. 'Cos who the hell else could I have called?
Calabretta's got a big sign up saying No Servizio; it's nailed to his heart. I couldn't have dealt with that kind of misery this morning.
Klatsche will still be asleep. And he will have been behind the bar until just a few hours ago, so even if he were awake I couldn't assume he'd be able to drive.
And then there are Carla and Rocco. But they don't have a driving licence between them, and anyway, they're still officially on Calabretta-watch.
Seems me and my friends are a pretty immobile bunch.
He drives up slowly beside me, the Pontiac spluttering. He stops and rolls down the passenger window.
'I said to stay where you were.'
'Couldn't help it,' I say.
'But apart from that? Have a good weekend?'
I open the door, chuck my bag into the back seat and drop onto the black leather.
'Fantastic. That was definitely my last bloody trip out into the bloody country.'
He looks at me and shakes his head. 'Why do you do these things, Chastity? Just take off out of town? You need your concrete.'
What do I know? I thought I'd listen to my friends for once. Something had to give. All that sitting around just isn't for me. Since the business at the port, I'm still officially a public prosecutor, but unofficially I'm sidelined. They took a long time fretting over what to do with me. From the outside you'd imagine accusing your boss of corruption would get you promoted, but it's not looked on so kindly within the service.
And then there was the unauthorised use of firearms.
Having saved Calabretta's life is one thing; having shot a loser in the crown jewels instead of the leg is quite another. I don't know what happened to the guy after that; I never heard another word about it, and there wasn't even a murmur in the press. No idea how they wangled that, and I don't want to know either. They assured me that I had nothing to fear – just swiped my dad's army pistol and took me out of circulation for a while. And then, after months and months in the arse-end of nowhere, up they popped with the offer of a new job. A position created specially for me: victim protection.
If anyone gets half killed in a beating or a shooting or a hit-and-run anywhere in Hamburg, if anyone gets pushed off a bridge or a building and survives, it comes under my jurisdiction.
But only the victim, not the investigation.
Let me through, I'm here to hold his hand.
For the first few weeks, I stayed out of sight like a good girl and did as I was told. I've widened my horizons since then. Now I get a firm grip on the few cases that fall at my feet, even if that wasn't really the plan. Nobody's said anything yet though. What could they say? We're all in the same boat, after all, and the boat's called 'the good ship Let's Just Not Make a Fuss about the Bloke with No Balls'.
So there you are.
All things considered, no wonder I'm not wild about my temporary role.
All things considered, I was going stir-crazy.
Hence the crackpot idea of going away.
'Where to, then?' Faller does his taxi-driver voice. 'Home?'
'I've got to go to St Georg. To the hospital.'
'Aha,' he says, 'new patient.'
'New client,' I say.
'What about your car?'
'Let it make someone else happy.'
He accelerates and the Pontiac roars under my arse. It's a bit like driving a tank.
Always follow your heart. Or bury it at Wounded Knee.
My dad liked to trot that one out whenever I asked him what I should do. An old Native American proverb, I guess. Those boys had a snappy one-liner for every situation.
My heart says: Sit down and hold his hand. He doesn't look as though he's got anyone else to do it. I can recognise a lonely face from ten miles off.
The hand is warm and dry, and surprisingly soft for its size – it's a proper paw. I try to put both my hands round it. Ridiculous.
He was brought to the ward in the early morning, just after four. There are multiple fractures to his arms, legs and ribs; his right clavicle is smashed. There's a thick bandage round his right hand. The nurse says he's lost his index finger, but you can't just lose an index finger. He has no head injuries and his lungs aren't damaged. His kidneys are swollen but basically working. There's a single main doorway in his neck. That's where the drugs go in – the glittering disco stuff from the bags hanging on the drip stands. He's getting something to make him sleep and presumably all kinds of stuff for all kinds of pain. It's clearly working 'cos he looks strangely peaceful, and his face is unscathed, apart from a few scratches from the asphalt.
Forensics took his clothes; he had no papers on him.
He's really tall: with all the splints on his arms and legs he hardly fits the hospital bed. His hair shines silver-grey and it's close-cropped at the sides, a bit longer on top. His face is one of those angular models that men only grow into at a certain age. I'd put him at early-to-mid fifties. A man in his prime, if he weren't so broken.
Yeah, if he weren't so broken, he'd look a bit like a tall George Clooney.
The machines on the wall behind his bed start beeping. The nurse comes in and presses a few buttons. She smiles sympathetically around the room, as if I were a relative, even though she knows I'm not.
That keeps happening to me.
I don't always react to it very well.
'What was he wearing?' I ask her. 'Before the gown, I mean?' She switches off her smile, question marks blinking dully in her eyes.
'Where was he found?'
'I don't know exactly,' she says. 'Somewhere near here.'
Her stare is getting harder.
She seems to resent me: even if I'm not a relative, I could at least act like one.
She idly moves a few things from one side of the bed to the other, then hastily leaves the room before I can ask any more impudent questions.
I stay beside the tall, sleeping man and look at him.
I stay by him until the clouds finally seize power in the sky and it grows gradually dark; then I head home.
As I get out of the taxi in my road, cold rain falls on my head.
Yellow light rolls from Klatsche's window.
He's standing in the kitchen, making us cheese sandwiches; I'm sitting on the living-room floor watching two bottles of beer to stop them getting warm. We've turned the lights off and lit the candles. Klatsche started doing this a few years ago. A candle for each of us who needs it. Right now there are three: one for Calabretta, one for me, and one for Klatsche's gran. She's lying in bed in a care home in north Hamburg, with no idea what's what. At night they strap her down because she keeps wanting to run to the Moorweide bunker to get away from the bombs.
I never had a grandmother.
'Maybe we could start skipping my candle,' I say.
He stands beside me at the window with the plate of sandwiches. He's put gherkins on the cheese.
'Can you open the beer?' he asks. He says nothing about my candle.
'I don't need it any more.'
'The candle. I'm fine.'
'Sure,' he says.
We clink glasses and drink, then we bite into the sandwiches.
'What's our Italian friend up to?' he asks, chews twice, swallows, next bite, big one. Big bloke, big appetite.
'I rang Carla yesterday,' I say. 'Calabretta was watching sport on TV. Before that he spent the day on the sofa, but without a blanket. He even answered occasionally if she asked him something. And he ate a plate of pasta. Carla reckons he's starting to pull himself together.'
'Rocco says he looks awful.'
'No wonder,' I say, biting into a slice of bread and cheese. It tastes rich and deep. The gherkin crunches between my teeth. A good cheese sandwich can save lives, I'm convinced of that.
Calabretta had actually tried his luck with Betty, our elegant pathologist. She'd given him the cold shoulder a couple of times in the last few years, probably because he'd acted like an idiot. In matters of the heart, Calabretta's as big a loser as I am. But this time she'd gone with it, for whatever reason. And then it had actually worked out between them; maybe it was the stars, or the moon, or the harbour air, or maybe Betty had just gone soft. They'd been glued to each other for a whole year – he was at home with her, and she with him and everything was full of happiness. There was something almost creepy about it – as if they'd ordered the sun to takeaway. But then, overnight, Betty switched to a better sun, at a forensic medicine conference in Munich. A Swiss professor. She chucked in her life in Hamburg. And Calabretta.
That was last winter, and since then he's been black inside.
We drink beer.
I mention that I was at the hospital and what was going on.
'You don't know who the guy is?' asks Klatsche.
'Nope. And nobody seems to be missing him yet.'
'What are you planning to do?' he asks.
Do my job, I think. I say: 'Have a look at his stuff. And sit by his bed and wait for him to wake up.'
'Is he under guard?' asks Klatsche. He's a street kid. He hasn't lost the instinct for when someone's in danger. His bristly hair pricks up like antennae; his green eyes have snapped to attention.
'I don't know why he was beaten up, but there's always a policeman sitting outside his door,' I say.
Klatsche nods, settles his antennae again, swigs his beer and says: 'Should we light a candle for him?'
So two evenings a week, just before the cemetery shuts its gates, I go to visit Minou. There aren't many people about between the graves at that time. Only the old trees look at me. Branches nodding towards me now and again are quite enough company.
Nobody knows about me and Minou. My colleagues on the squad don't and nor do my two-and-a-half friends. Nobody knows that she had to die because I fell in love with her.
If you want a girl from the Kiez – the red-light district – and you're not her pimp, you have to pay him for her. I knew that, of course. But I thought nobody would notice.
It was almost nothing really. Whenever I saw her it was still under the heading of services offered. Nobody can look into people's hearts, can they? Or so I thought.
And suddenly she was dead.
The price that Minou had to pay for me wanting her.
They just shot her.
Come on, boy, girls in the Kiez are part of a business model. You knew that. So don't make such a fuss.
But I do make a fuss. I miss her. She's on my conscience. You can twist it how you like. I could bash my head through solid concrete for it.
When I stand by her grave, I drop to my knees. Whether I want to or not.
Sometimes, someone puts flowers on her plot.
It isn't me. I can't. I write her little notes and bury them.
And then I'm there at her grave, half kneeling, half curled in a ball, waiting for night to fall from the sky.
They won't do anything like that to me again.
Or to anyone who belongs to me.
The girl from Herbertstrasse and the love-sick cop.
Sounds like a shit story.
The last summer holiday before high school tears us apart. Some of us are going to one place, others are going to another.
The last summer before things get serious, says Dad.
As if it had been a barrel of laughs till now.
I wear cut-off jeans and Dad's old army shirts and sometimes clogs. Mostly I go barefoot. I like the warm streets under my feet. I like needing to be careful.
We play James Bond on the banks of the Main. The boys want to play James Bond. Or we play World War II. Then we ride through Sachsenhausen on our folding bikes. Germans versus the Allies.
I'm always the Americans.
The boys go nuts for Dad's army shirts.
We play war or James Bond till the sun ducks behind the houses.
All of Frankfurt glows gold and orange and pink. It comes from the red sandstone that they built the city from.
At night in bed I think that sometimes I'd like a girl friend, but I don't know how to get one. And I think that I'd like a mother – a mother who's here, that is; here with me. Really, I want my mum.
Every evening I think about her and ask myself over and over again how she could do that, just go off. And Dad stands outside my door and sheds secret tears for me and my childhood and our broken family. And I act like I don't notice, and try to damn well pull myself together again.
He really can't help it.
She just wanted to get away. Out of the country bombed by the war when she was a kid.
And then this man – this other officer – took her with him.
That's what I tell myself. In bed at night.
Dad really can't help it.
But he still thinks it's all his own fault.
I hadn't even been born. So I've got nothing to say.
Perhaps my mum had just met my dad. Whoever he was.
I do know one thing: my mum wanted a son called Henri. Because of all the sailors she used to know.
Through the streets of Altona. Alone.
I like running around alone. I run to and fro and to and fro. And whenever I go past my parents' supermercato, I pop in.
It sucks me in, the shop. Because an Italian can't walk past his family, says my dad.
But I don't like to stay long. I usually go straight out again. It's cold in the shop. The chiller's too big.
And if my mum catches me, I have to sort things. Into boxes, out of boxes, in and out. I hate sorting boxes.
It's not complicated or anything, but it makes me crazy. Because it seems so pointless. As if I only have to do it so I'll stay in the shop. So I won't run around outside.
But running around outside is the only thing that untangles my brain. When I'm running around outside I can cope.
It's my way of sorting things, I tell my mum.
She doesn't understand. She wants me to sort the boxes.