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Authors: Ferdinand von Schirach

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The Girl Who Wasn't There (9 page)

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
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Konrad Biegler was standing moodily on the terrace of the Zirmerhof hotel, listening to the mountain guide. The man looked exactly as Biegler would have imagined a mountain guide: tanned brown, tall, healthy. He’ll certainly smell of soap, thought Biegler. The mountain guide had a firm voice with a slight Italian accent; it sounded pleasant. The terrace of the hotel, he said, was ‘almost 1,600 metres above sea level’, the panoramic view was ‘unique, about a hundred peaks’ that ‘made the heart lift’. Up here, he added, there were ‘wonderful meadows’ and ‘idyllic mountain lakes’.

The mountain guide made many more such remarks. He wore a red polyester jacket with a hood and a fox on the breast pocket. Functional clothing, thought Biegler. The mountain guide named the ranges here: ‘Brenta, Ortler, Ötztaler, Stubaier.’ Biegler was sure the guide had climbed them all.

A woman with a very small rucksack said quietly that the Zirmerhof was as high up as the Schneekoppe, the highest peak in the Czech Republic. Her eyes shone as she looked at the mountain guide. ‘Except that this hotel doesn’t have snow on it,’ said Biegler, buttoning up his coat.


Biegler had been a defence lawyer in Berlin for thirty-one years. He was allergic to grass, hay, dogs, cats and horses. He wondered whether to make a comment. For instance, ‘We Germans always rate nature above other human beings.’ But he didn’t. It was nothing to do with him. He wasn’t going to have to live in the mountains; some time he could leave this place and go back to Berlin. The city is the right place for human beings, he thought. Biegler pulled himself together. ‘Relax,’ the doctor had told him.


In the middle of a trial four weeks ago, Biegler had fallen over one evening, just like that, in the corridor of the Central Criminal Court in Berlin, the Moabit. He had hit his forehead on a stone parapet and slipped to the floor. The doctor had sent him to a hospital where he and other patients suffering from ‘burn-out’ sat in a circle, throwing brightly coloured woolly balls to each other; in the afternoons he was supposed to cut shapes out of paper. Biegler had discharged himself after two days.

‘Then at least go to the mountains,’ the doctor had insisted. Preferably the South Tyrol. The doctor had read something out of a brochure: at this hotel, the Zirmerhof, it said, peace was understood as something more than ‘the absence of noise’, it was an ‘inner quality maintaining life’. Many famous people, the doctor assured him, had come to this mountain hotel to recuperate. He reeled off the names of Heisenberg, Planck, Feltrinelli, Trott zu Solz, Siemens, and a whole series of artists and writers. Eugen Roth had even written a poem about the hotel. Biegler booked a room.


Now the hotel guests were leaving the terrace with the mountain guide. Biegler stood up, arching his back. All the chairs at the Zirmerhof were uncomfortable, and he wondered whether there was some ulterior reason for it. The other guests – most of them mountain walkers – thought it weak-minded to sit on the cushions meant for the outdoor chairs. Biegler always took two of them.

He got a book out of his coat pocket. The doctor had not forbidden him to read. Biegler opened the book. He had been here for four days, but he still couldn’t concentrate on it. It was called
Positive Thinking For Managers
. His former secretary had given it to him as a goodbye present, saying that it would do him good. By now Biegler owned a considerable collection of such books.
Feeling, Thinking and Acting in Harmony With the Universe
The Power of Good Feelings
Living More Consciously, With 30 Motivational Maps and Online Materials
Seven Steps to Congeniality
; and finally Biegler’s favourite title:
Positive Thinking: Walking To Success. Mental Training For Your Personal Victory
. His secretary had just retired, and he had seen her successor only once.

Biegler’s wife Elly also despaired of his dismal mood. They had been married for twenty-eight years. Elly thought Biegler’s grouchiness was the result of his career and the murder trials in which he acted for the defence. However, she was wrong; Biegler simply considered ‘positive thinking’ a stupid idea. He had tried to wean the junior lawyers in his chambers off it. Good-tempered people, he thought, were either childish or sneaky.

A farmer was mowing the meadow in front of the terrace. His tractor was a fine-looking machine, but there was something wrong with its exhaust. Biegler thought there was something wrong with the farmer too – he mowed the same part of the meadow every day. He tried the positive-thinking trick and said a civil good morning to the farmer. The farmer stared blankly at him. Biegler nodded, satisfied.

He walked a little way. Over fifty larchwood benches stood round the hotel. As a guest at the Zirmerhof, you could buy the right to have your name burned on one of these benches by the village joiner. Biegler tried them, one by one. They were always placed so that he was obliged to look at the allegedly idyllic sights: mountains, meadows, trees, footpaths, rocks. Biegler’s mood darkened from bench to bench.

He didn’t want to disappoint Elly. He went to his room, which was no larger than the conference table in his chambers. Briefly, he entertained the notion of calling the hotelier and pointing out that the juridical system condemned the imprisonment of miscreants in cells smaller than twelve square metres as an offence against human dignity. He didn’t, because he was supposed to be recuperating. Elly had bought him hiking boots with red soles. Biegler shook his head and put them on.

A narrow path behind the hotel led into the forest. The undergrowth smelled musty; tiny living creatures were always ready to jump out at him from the tree trunks. He was sweating. There were cows in a large clearing; they belonged to the hotel. The hotelier had said they were docile. Biegler didn’t trust the hotelier, and kept his distance. Surely the cows must be deafened by the huge cowbells around their necks. He watched them until he felt sure that cows were not a sentient life form.

Biegler turned and went back to the hotel. He showered and lay down on the bed. Twenty minutes later, building work for a new flight of steps outside the hotel began under his window. The construction workers were listening to the radio. He opened the window and lit a cigarillo. A chambermaid knocked on his door and warned him that smoking in the rooms was forbidden. You could smell it out in the corridor, she said.


Two hours later, a cowbell rang to announce that it was time for supper.


A man in short lederhosen was sitting at the table next to his. The man moved jerkily, and had a yellowish dog that he called Wolf. The man’s wife had short hair and a massive face with jowls. When Biegler saw that the man had a huge knife with a horn handle in his belt, he asked to be seated somewhere else.

He was shown to the table of a married couple of teachers from Stuttgart. They were talking about today’s hike, and addressed each other by pet names. Supper was baked cheese dumplings in tomato sauce. The waitress sprinkled parmesan on them. Biegler wasn’t sure whether he would be able to eat the dumplings.

The husband asked Biegler whether he, too, had been out hiking that day.

‘Yes,’ said Biegler.

‘You really must go up the Weisshorn. There’s a wonderful view,’ said the wife, whom her husband addressed as Treasure.

‘Yes,’ said Biegler again. Fat from the cheese dumplings splashed on to his shirt.

‘Or go to the Bletterbach Ravine. UNESCO has named it a World Heritage Geopark. You can see mineral strata millions of years old there – it’s fantastic.’

Biegler did not reply, but Treasure wasn’t giving up. ‘You haven’t been here long, have you?’

‘Four days,’ said Biegler. He asked the waitress for bread, dry bread.

‘You can get a hiking map at reception,’ said the husband. ‘It’s helpful the first time you go out.’

‘Thanks,’ said Biegler.

‘What have you seen so far?’ asked Treasure.

‘The village graveyard. I like those enamel pictures of the dead. They look so lifelike,’ said Biegler.

‘Oh?’ Treasure sounded uncertain of herself. ‘Would you like to join us? We’re going up to the pass tomorrow.’ She smiled at him. She wore no makeup, and had a healthy pink skin.

‘No,’ said Biegler.

‘Don’t you like hill-walking, then?’ asked the male teacher. His glasses were steamed up with condensation from the food.


The couple stared at him. In such situations Elly usually saved the day, but Elly wasn’t here. Biegler put down his knife and fork. ‘Why do you like nature?’ he asked.

‘What kind of question is that?’ asked the teacher, laughing. ‘Everyone loves nature.’

‘I don’t,’ said Biegler. ‘And you haven’t answered the question.’

‘Why do I love nature?’ the teacher repeated.

‘We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us,’ said Treasure. She spoke sternly.

‘That sounds like a bumper-sticker slogan,’ said Biegler.

‘Wait a minute . . . I know you from somewhere,’ said the teacher, who had pulled himself together again. ‘Yes, now I know – I saw you on television. You were defending that murderer in Cologne who killed his whole family.’

‘No, that wasn’t me,’ said Biegler untruthfully. He didn’t like the turn this conversation was taking. ‘I still don’t understand why you like nature.’

‘It’s so beautiful and restful to go hiking,’ said Treasure. ‘And…’

‘And nature is much cleverer than we are,’ said her husband.

‘Nonsense,’ said Biegler. ‘Think of eels.’

‘Eels?’ asked Treasure, making a face. She didn’t seem to be keen on eels.

‘Eels are perfect for understanding nature,’ said Biegler. ‘It’s like this: every eel you see in Europe was born in the Atlantic, in the Sargasso Sea near the Bahamas. The larvae swim from there to Europe. It takes them about three years. Understand? For three years all they do is swim across the sea. On the coast they grow larger, swim up the rivers, wriggle over some damp water meadows, and finally spend the next twenty years living in a stretch of water somewhere. All that’s crazy enough, but now it gets disgusting. The eel stops eating, and changes. Its eyes get larger, its stomach and anus disappear, and huge sexual organs form in it. Believe me, they really are huge. They fill the entire eel, you could even say the whole eel is now a single sexual organ. And what does it do?’

The teachers stared at Biegler.

‘It has to go back,’ said Biegler. ‘Five thousand kilometres back by way of water meadows, rivers and seas, until it reaches the Sargasso Sea. At last, half dead with exhaustion, it arrives. The other eels are already there. It dives half a kilometre down into the water, has sex for the one and only time in its life – in the dark, of course – and dies.’ Biegler pushed his plate aside and waited for a moment. ‘I only mean to say that I don’t think nature thought up any sensible ideas for the eels. In fact I’m pretty sure nature never thought up anything at all. Nature doesn’t think, it’s hostile or at best indifferent. So to answer your question: many thanks for the invitation, but I have no desire at all to climb any mountains or look at mineral strata millions of years old.’

Biegler stood, nodded to the couple, and went up to his room.


It was still light outside. The meadow fell steeply away outside his window, down to a pool of water in a hollow in the ground. A duck was slowly swimming round in circles there; the water was black. He heard a gnat behind his ear, closed the window and got his thumb wedged in it.

It soon felt stuffy in the tiny room; a smell of cleaning fluid came from the plastic shower. He looked for the gnat, couldn’t find it, showered, put his pyjamas on and got into bed. Reading the hotel brochure, he saw that it offered an ‘Alpine hay-bath’ for ‘that fresh, comfortable sensation’. Biegler thought of his allergy to hay. He wondered whether Elly would believe him if he claimed to have an allergy to mountain air.

Biegler closed his eyes. He saw himself frolicking over the newly mown meadow with the man in lederhosen, the massive woman and the two teachers, naked in the morning dew. Then he fell asleep.

Biegler was woken by the sound of a delivery van’s engine. He had opened the window again in the night and now the room smelled of diesel. He looked at his watch: just before six. He tried dropping off to sleep again. A few minutes later the church bells began ringing for early Mass. Biegler groaned and sat up. He took his coat off the hook, put it on over his pyjamas, and went outside in his slippers.

It was cool. He lit a cigarillo. Around now Elly would be having breakfast in her conservatory. She went to her practice at eight. He called her.

‘I’m bored,’ he said.

‘Don’t you like it there at all?’

‘It’s a Magic Mountain for senior teachers.’

‘Have you been out walking?’

‘Every day. I’m fine now, fit as a fiddle. I could come home.’

‘You ought to stay there a while longer, Biegler,’ said Elly. She said it gently. She always called him Biegler.

‘You know, the food here is horrible. It gives me indigestion the whole time,’ said Biegler.

‘At least another three weeks,’ she said.

He knew that tone of voice; for all her gentle manner, she could be stern. He drew on his cigarillo and coughed.

‘And you ought to smoke less.’

They said goodbye. Biegler put his phone in his coat pocket. He wished he were in his regular café on Savignyplatz now. He imagined reading the newspaper there, eating a croissant and watching people in the street.

Recently Elly had spoken quite often of a round-the-world trip. He liked the idea of seeing other countries, but as soon as he was really there he hated them. There was something different wrong every time: the beds, his digestion, the heat, the insects, the mode of transport. He also refused to bathe in the sea; in his opinion, dry land was the natural habitat of human beings.

Biegler smoked for a little longer. He was feeling afraid that he would never be allowed back into a courtroom again. He put his cigarillo down in an ashtray where rainwater had gathered overnight.


After breakfast – Biegler was just drinking his second cup of coffee on the terrace – his phone rang. Not recognizing the ring tone, he ignored it. Only when the other guests looked at him, and a man raised his eyebrows, did he place the sound. His secretary was calling. Biegler’s office manager had taken her on, saying that she was very capable. Biegler had seen her only briefly on her first working day, because after that he had been in hospital. She was young, pretty and intelligent.

‘Good morning, Herr Biegler,’ she said. ‘How is your holiday going?’

She has a nice voice, too, thought Biegler. Someone will fall in love with her and marry her, she’ll get pregnant, and I’ll have to pay for it all.

‘Are you recuperating?’ she asked.

‘No one ever recuperates on holiday,’ said Biegler. ‘Why are you calling?’

‘Wait a moment, I’ll put your colleague on the line.’

One of the young lawyers from his chambers came to the phone. ‘We’re sorry to disturb you, Herr Biegler, but we can’t make the decision without you.’

‘What decision?’ asked Biegler.

‘We had a call from the remand prison this morning. An inmate wants you to take on his defence. His girlfriend has been here already; finance won’t be any problem.’

‘What’s the charge?’

‘Murder. It’s that big case; the press had a field day, printing new stories on the subject almost every day. It was about five months ago. He killed a woman.’

‘Is said to have killed a woman,’ said Biegler.


to have killed a woman. That’s what we say until he’s found guilty:
to have done so-and-so. Good heavens, what do they teach you lot these days?’


‘Has he been charged yet?’

‘Yes, a month ago. The court is about to set the dates for the trial.’

‘Which courtroom?’

‘The 14th Criminal Court.’

‘Who’s appearing for the prosecution?’

‘Monika Landau.’

‘Do I know her?’

‘She’s been with Capital Crimes for six years. Came from Narcotics, before that she was with Robbery. She’s considered to be fair. But we haven’t faced her in a trial ourselves before.’

‘Tall, dark-haired woman? Early forties?’

‘Yes, that’s her.’

‘I remember,’ said Biegler. ‘Who’s doing the psychiatric report?’

‘No one so far. The client refused to see a psychiatrist.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ said Biegler, ‘but I’m stuck here, can’t get away.’

‘Yes, that’s what we thought too. But then we found that memo in the files, and we decided to call you.’

‘What memo?’

‘Until now the client’s been represented by a lawyer from Legal Aid. We don’t know whether the Legal Aid guy failed to notice the memo or whether he just didn’t bother about it. Anyway, the press hasn’t mentioned it yet.’

‘Again, please: what memo?’

At that moment the farmer with the defective tractor drove past the terrace. Biegler pressed his phone to his ear to hear what the young lawyer was saying, and shouted at him to speak up. Then he said, ‘Don’t fax the memo to me here – not secure enough. I’m leaving at once. I’ll be at the Bayerischer Hof in Munich this evening, so you can send it there by courier. Apply for a review of the remand order. And then find someone in the office to summarize the files for me, and let me have the summary the day after tomorrow. I ought to be at chambers around two in the afternoon.’

‘Yes, I’ll see to all that.’

‘I’ll be in touch,’ said Biegler, and ended the call without saying goodbye.


The hotelier charged Biegler for all the days he had booked. Tap water appeared on the invoice as ‘Zirmerhof Water’ at a cost of two euros per jug. Biegler was irate, and quoted Montaigne’s comments on landlords in his travel journal. Even then, he pointed out to the hotelier, they had a reputation as cut-throats.

He was glad to be sitting in his car. Halfway down to the valley he stopped, got out, and walked through the apple orchards along a gravel path. After a while he took his jacket off and carried it over his arm. He picked an apple from a branch, ate it, and wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief. Two hours later, tired from walking, he sat down on a rock. There was no wind, and his shoes were dusty. Biegler’s mind was at ease. He thought of his sixtieth birthday last year. A friend had given him a steel tube, saying that it would survive even nuclear war. ‘Put the things you want to outlast you in it and bury it in your garden.’ The tube had spent a week lying on Biegler’s desk, and then he had thrown it away.


Driving over the Brenner Pass, he listened to jazz. Bill Evans,
; Dave Brubeck,
Time Out
; Herbie Hancock,
The New Standard
. When he was seventeen he’d wanted to be a musician himself. He had appeared at clubs then, playing jazz trumpet. Audiences liked his rounded, mellow tone. But then he had met Albert Mangelsdorff with his gigantic trombone. Mangelsdorff used to play and sing into the mouthpiece at the same time. Biegler had known at once that he himself would never play again.

He put off phoning Elly until he was over the border between Italy and Austria. She was cross, of course. ‘Oh, really, you’re hopeless, Biegler,’ she said.


Three hours later, Biegler was parking in front of the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich. ‘Civilization at last,’ he said, meaning room service. He over-tipped the concierge.

Although he usually showered, now he lay in the bathtub for almost an hour. When the floor waiter delivered the envelope to his room, he was still in his dressing gown. Biegler found his reading glasses, sat at the desk and read the memo. He lay down on the sofa. He knew how sick he really was, but he had to go back. They’ve gone too far, he thought.

BOOK: The Girl Who Wasn't There
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