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Authors: Ferdinand von Schirach

Tags: #Detective and Mystery Fiction

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BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
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Because Eschburg’s photographs aroused more press interest in Italy than anywhere else, the gallery wanted to show his new installation in Rome first. The Japanese who had bought
The Maja’s Men
made those two pictures available for the exhibition. The Polaroid plates, the screens, cables and computer were packed into wooden crates in Eschburg’s Linienstrasse studio and collected by a haulage firm.

A week later Eschburg flew to Rome. He boarded an airport bus on the runway. Hundreds of starlings were circling the air traffic control tower. Later, his taxi driver told him that Rome was using hawks to try driving those birds out of the city, but the tactic wasn’t working.


The gallery had hired the first-floor rooms of a restored seventeenth-century palazzo.
Over the next few days, Eschburg made preparations for the exhibition. He hung eighteen photographs along each of the longer walls of the main hall. The Plexiglas plates were lit from behind, showing the women’s bodies in a soft, sepia tone. There was a video screen at the end of the hall. The installation was programmed so that a beamer projected one of the Polaroids on to the screen first. A quarter of a second later, the computer laid a second Polaroid over it, making a new picture out of the two of them. Then the next photo was placed on top of that picture, and so on at intervals of a quarter of a second, until the sum of them all was yet another picture. The outcome was that the women photographed by Eschburg merged to form a new woman. Her face and figure were the average of all the models, their central point. All irregularities, folds and blemishes of the skin disappeared. The artificial woman looked younger than the photographic models, her face and body were perfectly symmetrical. And she was indeed beautiful.

Then the Plexiglas plates on the walls had their background lighting switched on, one by one, while the skin of the artificial woman on the screen grew proportionately paler. In the end the only source of light was the plasma screen. Now the artificial woman was almost white. In swift succession she was transformed into the great beauties of art history: Titian’s
Venus of Urbino
, Velásquez’s
Rokeby Venus
, Canova’s
Paolina Borghese
, Manet’s
, Picasso’s
and Stuck’s
The Sin
. After that she returned to her original form, placed her hands on her back, knelt on the floor, opened her mouth and screamed. Her figure blurred and dissolved, leaving only a white line in the middle of the otherwise black screen. Above the line, translated into all the major languages of the world, appeared Nietzsche’s words:


Smooth lies the soul and the sea

The line shrank to a dot, grew pale, and the screen switched itself off. The gallery was left in complete darkness for ten seconds. Then the large Polaroids began glowing gently on the walls again, and the programme started running once more.


Eschburg was invited to appear on a talk show the afternoon before the opening; the gallery owner said they could use the publicity. Before the interview, Eschburg smoked a cigarette on a balcony outside the TV studio. The back yard of the building was full of cardboard cartons torn open, empty flower tubs, and a chair with a broken back.

It was hot in the studio. The presenter spoke fast. An animator signed to the audience, letting them know when to clap. Suddenly the presenter jumped up, flung his arms in the air, and called something out to the spectators, who laughed. The gallery owner had said that the presenter had won a television prize for his ‘infectiously human’ talk show.

Eschburg saw Sofia. She was sitting in the front row of the audience; he could hardly make out her face.

Then the studio fell silent; the spectators were staring at Eschburg, who seemed to have missed something. Now the presenter was sitting beside him again. He wore a striped yellow and white shirt, with the stripes on the breast pocket mismatched by half a centimetre. Eschburg forced himself not to look at it. The illumination from the floodlights was refracted by a mote of dust on the presenter’s rimless glasses.

Eschburg thought of the note he had written in the dark last night. He didn’t know just what he had said in it, but he believed it had been important.

Everyone was still waiting. Eschburg smiled because he didn’t know what else to do. He wished all this would stop.

At last the presenter was speaking again, clapping his hands once more and turning back to the cameras. Now Eschburg saw a painting on a screen. He didn’t understand what the picture had to do with his installation. He heard the woman interpreter’s voice; it sounded metallic in the tiny receiver in his ear. ‘When is an installation finished?’ she was asking. ‘When is it finished?’

‘When it’s right,’ Eschburg said at last.

The presenter shouted something at the cameras again; the interpreter didn’t translate it. The audience applauded.

At last it was over and the big floodlights were switched off. A sound technician took the microphone off Eschburg’s jacket; the hairs on the back of his hand brushed past Eschburg’s chin. The presenter was signing autographs for the spectators. He turned round, shook Eschburg’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder. Sofia came up on the stage.


At the hotel, Eschburg got under the shower at once. The water tasted of chlorine. He stepped out on to the small balcony with only a towel round his waist. Down in the square a fat man was laughing; he wore a brightly coloured sweatshirt with the words
International Golf Team
embroidered right across its back. He was eating something out of a bag. His wife had no neck.

Eschburg went back into the room and dressed. He found the note he had written last night in a pocket of his jacket. He unfolded it, but the paper was blank.


The exhibition opened the next evening. The models stood under their photographs. Eschburg answered questions from journalists, he talked to guests, art collectors, the ambassador and a State Secretary for Culture.

When he was alone again, he went out on the terrace to smoke. Someone on one side of him offered him a light; he saw only the hand holding it. Eschburg turned.

The young woman’s upper lip was the shape of a perfect ‘M’. She was wearing a linen dress, and said she had come to Rome on purpose to see his installation. Her voice sounded friendly. Her eyes seemed to consist of different colours, with overlapping layers of green, grey and blue. Later, Eschburg found it impossible to remember their real colour. She was smiling at him.

She held out her hand without giving her name. For a moment her pupils widened, reflecting the light from the hall, and Eschburg saw himself in them. He pulled himself together.

‘Sebastian Eschburg,’ he said. His face was white.

She went on smiling, but did not let go of his hand. ‘I admire your work,’ she said. Her face came closer, her voice was lowered. ‘I’d very much like to work for you.’

‘I never have assistants,’ he said. Talking tired him. ‘But all right, phone me in Berlin.’

The young woman nodded. At last she let his hand go. ‘Many thanks,’ she said. ‘I won’t keep you any longer.’


He waited until he could breathe calmly again. He walked round the exhibition, saw Sofia in the middle of a group of journalists and nodded to her.

The air was better outside. He wandered along the streets. Outside one Renaissance palazzo he stopped and leaned against its stone walls. Then he went on, down to the Tiber and then up into the Trastevere quarter again. He sat down in a street café in the Piazza Santa Maria, and ordered a bottle of water and an espresso. Suddenly he was hearing all the voices in the café simultaneously and at the same volume. He felt as if a filter in his head had stopped working. This lasted about five minutes. The bell of the church of Santa Maria rang at eleven p.m. Its clear, bright sound lingered in the air over the piazza.

Eschburg put some money on the table and stood up. He went back, intending to cross the river over the Ponte Sisto; the yellow lights along the wall of the quay were reflected in the water. He stopped in the middle of the bridge. He saw and heard nothing; he was thinking only of the woman on the terrace. His legs were giving way, he clutched the balustrade of the bridge. A young couple laughed at him, thinking he was drunk. Then he saw Sofia. She was running to him; her face looked to him blurred.

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. She was breathless. ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You’re so pale.’

‘I… I’ve been wrong all this time,’ he said quietly.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Sofia. ‘Is it because of the young woman you were with on the balcony?’

‘Her skin, I touched her skin. I thought my head was open, my brain all orange and salty.’ He was trembling.

‘Sebastian,’ she said, ‘please calm down. Come along, let’s go.’

He stayed where he was. ‘Those faces and bodies… it’s only the golden mean…’ he said.


‘The most beautiful face is the most average face. That’s all. Beauty is only symmetry. It’s so ridiculous. I’m ridiculous.’

‘No, you’re not ridiculous, you’re —’

Eschburg interrupted her. ‘When I was very young I went out hunting with my father. He shot a deer. It had been standing in the clearing, calm and beautiful and perfect in itself. He cut through the dead animal’s belly, through the coat and the skin and the thin layer of fat. I heard the sound of it. The sound of the body opening up. And I saw the blood, Sofia, all that blood.’

She made as if to put the hair back from his face, but he struck her hand aside.

‘That night my father killed himself in his study,’ he said.

His face was distorted. He seized her by the shoulders and shook her. ‘Don’t you understand? I was wrong. It was all wrong. Beauty is not truth.’

‘You’re hurting me. Stop it,’ said Sofia, freeing herself.

‘The truth is ugly, it smells of blood and shit. It’s the body sliced open, it’s my father’s head shot away,’ said Eschburg.

‘You’re frightening me, Sebastian,’ said Sofia.

He had bought the pocket-knife in France, years ago, and had carried it with him ever since. The paint on the wooden handle had faded, and the maker’s name was barely legible. He opened it up.

‘What are you doing?’ she cried, stepping back.

‘Go away,’ he said quietly. ‘Please, you must go away at once.’

He slid down the balustrade to the ground. The knife cut deeply into the back of his hand.

‘I’m frightened myself,’ he said.


At one in the morning, Monika Landau was still at the desk in her office. She was forty-one years old, and had been working for the last six years in the capital offences department as one of the public prosecution team. The photograph of the young woman who had been abducted was lying in front of her. TV and the Internet had been showing it for hours. The police had found the photo in the suspect’s apartment; he had papered his walls with huge prints of it. He had also painted a red cross on the picture above his bed with his fingers. The report from Forensics said that it was
animal blood – a way of putting it that did not reassure anyone.

It had all begun with the call to the police which, like all emergency calls, had been recorded. The caller was a woman; her voice sounded young, at a guess she was about sixteen or seventeen years old. She was frightened, she said, she was lying in the boot of a car. The man had bitten her in the head. She gave the suspect’s name and the street where he lived. And then she said something else, in a very low voice, indistinctly. The police thought she had to whisper so that her abductor couldn’t hear her. ‘He’s evil,’ said the young woman, or perhaps it was, ‘He is the Evil…’ Landau couldn’t make it out properly. After that the connection was cut.

After the call, a patrol car went to the address; that was routine. The officers found a torn, blood-stained dress in a dustbin in the yard there. That was enough for the investigating magistrate to issue a search warrant. Less than an hour later, investigators were ringing the suspect’s doorbell. He opened the door to them. He seemed calm.

They found traces of blood on the floor beside his bed. The forensic pathologist said they matched the blood of the woman whose dress had been found in the dustbin. There was a chest under the bed containing sadistic porn films, handcuffs, whips, blindfolds, gags, vibrators and anal chains. There were scales of skin on the handcuffs and the whips; they, too, came from the unknown woman.

All the equipment one would need for an autopsy was in a metal container in the wardrobe, among the man’s shirts: scalpels, clamps, skull splitters, an electric bone saw.

A few hours later, the officers knew that on the day when the woman phoned the police the suspect had hired a car. The police commandeered it from the car hire firm. They found tiny traces of blood in the boot, and again the DNA was the same. The suspect had driven 194 kilometres in the car, so helicopters searched within a radius of a hundred kilometres round Berlin. The choppers, with heat-seeking cameras on board, had been flying over the woods and fields surrounding the city for hours, but they all knew how helpless they were – the area was simply too large. Eight groups of a hundred officers each were engaged in the operation; all police leave in Berlin had been cancelled.


Everything about this case is strange, thought Landau. The investigators didn’t know the young woman’s name, they didn’t know how old she was, where she came from, even who she was. So far there had been no blackmail threats, no demands and no body. Even the suspect didn’t fit the usual pattern: he was prosperous and had committed no previous offence. Money could obviously be ruled out as the motive. A pity, thought Landau; it would have made the case easier to understand. Only the clues were straightforward. Landau put on her coat and drove to the police station where the suspect was being held. She would have to question him herself.


The room was on the third floor, bleakly furnished: four chairs, a desk, no pictures, neon lighting. The suspect sat by the window with his right wrist handcuffed to a radiator pipe. This was his third interrogation; so far he had denied everything, but he had not yet asked for a lawyer. The secretarial staff had gone home, so the police officer on duty would have to type up the interview himself. He sat down and switched the computer on.

‘So far you’ve only been provisionally held,’ said the police officer to the man. ‘In a couple of hours’ time the judge will see you and issue a warrant for your detention in custody. This is your last chance to save yourself. Do you remember the caution we gave you? You don’t have to answer any questions here and now.’

The public prosecutor was seeing the suspect for the first time. She nodded to him. He did not react.

‘Where’s the girl?’ asked the police officer.

‘I don’t know,’ said the man.

‘Listen, we don’t have to begin at the beginning all over again. We know you abducted the woman. So stop beating about the bush. What have you done with her? Where is she? What’s her name?’

‘I don’t know,’ repeated the man.

‘Is she still alive? Have you locked her up somewhere? Does she have enough warm clothing? Water? Food? Have you any idea how cold it is tonight? Minus nine degrees. She’ll freeze if you’ve left her out of doors.’

The police officer had not typed anything on the computer yet. There was no recorder in the room, and no video camera.


Interrogations, reflected Landau, are complicated. Why would anyone confess at all? If the perpetrator of a crime stops to think for a moment, he knows that he’ll lose by confessing. A man confesses to a crime only if he’s going to get something in return – maybe a more lenient sentence, or the relief of having unburdened his conscience, the prospect of sleeping peacefully without nightmares. Or sometimes he just wants the recognition of the officer questioning him. Landau believed that only good experiences in childhood can ultimately lead to a confession. She had conducted many interrogations; she knew how difficult it is to tell the truth.


The police officer told the man he would never be able to look at his own face in the mirror again; night after night he would see the young woman there, she would follow him all his life. What he had done was bad, but he could still redeem himself. Any judge would be more lenient if he talked now, if he told the whole story and saved the girl. The police officer was talking to him quietly, in a monotone, repeating what he said again and again.


The interrogation had gone on for over three hours when it happened. ‘I have two daughters myself,’ said the police officer. ‘They’re twelve and fourteen years old.’ His voice had changed; he was speaking very quietly.

Landau sat up and took notice. She didn’t understand what the police officer was doing. Of course a clever officer forfeits his power during an interrogation. He has to get the criminal to trust him. If the interrogating officer is enraged or horrified, or forgets for a moment that he is speaking to another human being, he won’t get anywhere. A police interrogator can go very far and risk a good deal in such circumstances. Landau had heard interrogations when she almost thought a kind of friendship was developing between the police officer and the criminal. But no interrogator brings his private life into it, she thought now. That’s too dangerous.

The police officer got to his feet, picked up his chair by its back and carried it round the table. It was a metal chair, and he slammed it down on the floor right in front of the suspect. Then he turned briefly to Landau and shrugged his shoulders. It looked like an apology, but Landau didn’t know how to take it.

The police officer sat down. The suspect raised his eyebrows and looked at the other man. The officer leaned forward. His face was less than thirty centimetres from the suspect’s.

‘You wanted it this way,’ said the police officer. ‘I’ll explain to you first. I want you to know exactly what I’m going to do to you.’

Landau realized that the situation was getting out of control. Later, she often thought of this moment, and then she wondered whether she could have prevented it. But she always came to the same conclusion: she hadn’t wanted to.

‘These days,’ said the police officer, ‘we don’t do it with electric shocks to your balls, or knives, or beatings. That’s Hollywood stuff. All I need is a kitchen towel and a bucket of water. It’s fast. We’re on our own here, you bastard, the others are out searching for the girl. If you say what happened later, no one will believe you. You won’t have any visible injury, no scars, there’ll be no blood, it will all be inside your head. Of course you’ll call a doctor later, but he won’t be able to establish anything. It’ll be my word against yours. You don’t even need to wonder which of us the judge will believe. You’re a rapist and now you’re going to pay for it. No one holds out against what I’m going to do to you for more than thirty seconds. Most of them give up after three or four. You will…’

At that moment Landau managed to stand up, and she left the room without a word. She walked down the brightly lit corridor to the toilets. She closed the door of the ladies behind her and leaned against it. The place smelled of chlorine and liquid soap. When she had calmed down, she put her handbag on the shelf and washed her face, bending over the basin to let cold water run over the nape of her neck. She folded a paper towel, moistened it and pressed it to her eyes. Then she went to the window and opened it.

‘I swear that in the exercise of my office I will be faithful to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany and the constitution of the city of Berlin, in accordance with the law and for the good of the general public, and I swear to carry out my official duties conscientiously, so help me God.’ She had taken that oath twelve years ago, and she still knew it by heart. ‘So help me God.’ Most of the younger public prosecutors left that clause out; everyone had a free choice there. But she had said it; she still retained her childhood belief in a kind, omnipotent deity.

She looked out at the inner courtyard of the old building. It was dark, and there were lights on in only a few of the rooms. She took a deep breath. The air was so cold that it hurt her lungs. She closed the window again, sat on the radiator, took one of her shoes off and massaged her foot. She hadn’t slept for twenty-six hours.

She thought of the trial in which she had been involved four years before. A jealous husband had tipped boiling milk over his wife’s breasts, intending to punish her. Landau had prosecuted the husband, but during the trial the wife had killed herself. After that case, Landau had wanted to give up. But her head of department had said something that she felt was both horrifying and consoling, and she had borne it in mind every day since then. ‘We don’t win cases, we don’t lose cases, we do our job,’ he had said.

All at once Landau sat up straight. Suddenly she was wide awake, with her mind perfectly clear. She hurried out of the ladies, down the corridor, and pushed the door of the interrogation room open. She had left the police officer and the suspect together for twenty-four minutes.


Later, Landau was sitting alone with the police officer in the neon-lit canteen. He was one of the most experienced officers in the Berlin police force, fifteen years older than Landau. She had known him ever since she began working in the capital crimes department. She knew that he was thoughtful and reserved, he had never drawn his gun, his judgement was flawless. She asked him why he had done it. He had not said anything yet. He pulled the paper label off a bottle of water, stuck it to the table and smoothed it out. He stared at the label, but he still said nothing.

At last he began to speak. He told her about another case of abduction, eighteen years ago.

‘I still remember every detail,’ said the police officer, without looking at Landau. ‘I remember the gold bracelet on the man’s wrist, the loose button on his shirt, his thin lips and the way he drummed his fingers on the table. After two days we got to the point where he said he would show us the place in the forest. I was sitting beside him as we drove there. He smelled unwashed, he had saliva in the corners of his mouth and he was coughing. And grinning, but all the same I had to be friendly to him. “Twelve days before Christmas.” Those words kept going round in my head all through the drive to the forest. It was about as cold as today. When we got there, a colleague of mine spotted the ventilation pipe and ran to it. He was tearing off his jacket as he ran. He scraped the leaves off the pipe, he was shouting that everything would be all right now. We all dropped to our knees beside that pipe and dug like crazy in the snow and the frozen ground. Another of my colleagues broke the crate open. I saw the scratches the little boy had left inside its lid. There was a red transfer on his forearm, some kind of animal, an elephant or a rhinoceros, maybe something else. The picture was ragged at the edges and washed-out; it looked so unreal on the child’s bluish-white skin.’

The police officer raised his head and looked directly at Landau. ‘You see, it’s that damn transfer. I can’t get it out of my mind. Do you understand that? I just can’t get it out of my mind.’


On the afternoon of that day, Public Prosecutor Landau wrote a memo in her office. It was not long, twelve lines. She read it again twice, signed it and pinned the sheet of paper to the files. Then she went to the registry and asked one of the secretarial staff there to fax her memo to the interrogating officers.

‘In what case?’ asked the secretary.

‘The new one. The file on it is in my office,’ said Landau. ‘The accused is called Sebastian von Eschburg.’

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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