She looked at herself in the mirror, touched her fingertips to the little red hood on her head, and laughed. The dress was a real dirndl, with a short skirt and apron. Papa had plaited her hair into two braids, and she really looked exactly like Little Red Riding Hood in her fairy-tale book.
He always brought presents―it was a secret that she and Papa shared, because he never brought anything for the others. Only for her. She was his favorite.
The door opened, and she uttered a frightened cry when she saw the wolf. But then she had to laugh. It wasn't a real wolf after all; it was only Papa, who had put on a costume. How lovely it was that she was the only one to share this secret with Papa. Too bad she could never remember anything afterward.
On a hot June day, the body of a sixteen-year-old girl washes up on a riverbank outside of Frankfurt. She has been brutally murdered and shows signs of long-term abuse, but no one comes forward with any information as to her identity. Even weeks later, the local police have not been able to find out who she is. Then a new case comes in: A popular television host is attacked, raped, and locked in the trunk of her own car. She survives, barely, and is able to supply only vague hints to the police, having to do with her recent investigations into an organization whose members are from the highest echelons of society, and the potential uncovering of a shocking history they'd prefer to keep from the public eye.
As the two cases collide, Inspectors Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein dig deep into the past and underneath the veneer of bourgeois society to come up against a terrible secret that is about to impact their personal lives as well. It is almost too late for a person very close to Pia before she and Oliver finally track down the big bad wolf. . . .
In Nele Neuhaus's second U.S. publication of her enormously popular series, tensions run high both inside and outside police headquarters, and a complex and unpredictable plot propels her characters forward at breakneck speed.
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NELE NEUHAUS is the author of the well-received Snow White Must Die. With more than three million copies of her books in print, she is one of the most widely read German mystery writers. Neuhaus lives in Germany.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Thursday, June 10, 2010
She felt like she was tipping over backward. As soon as she opened her eyes, everything started spinning around. And she felt sick. No, not sick; she felt ghastly. She could smell the vomit. Alina groaned and tried to raise her head. Where was she? What had happened, and where was everybody else?
They had all been sitting together under the tree, Mart beside her, with his arm around her shoulders. It felt good. She laughed, and he kissed her. Katharina and Mia kept on complaining about the mosquitoes, and they’d been drinking this sweet stuff—vodka and Red Bull.
Alina sat up with an effort. Her head was pounding. She opened her eyes and was shocked to see the sun was about to set. How late was it anyway? And where was her cell phone? She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten here, or where exactly she was. The past few hours were a blank, a total blackout.
“Mart? Mia? Where are you?”
She crawled over to the trunk of the huge weeping willow. It took all her strength to get to her feet and look around. Her knees felt as soft as butter, everything was spinning around her, and she couldn’t see clearly. She’d probably lost her contact lenses when she was throwing up. And she’d certainly done a lot of that. The taste in her mouth was disgusting, and she could feel vomit on her face. The dry leaves crackled under her bare feet. She looked down. Her shoes were gone, too.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she muttered, fighting to hold back the tears. She was going to be in big trouble if she showed up at home looking like this.
From a distance, she could hear voices and laughter drifting toward her, along with the aroma of grilled meat, which made her feel even more nauseated. At least she hadn’t landed somewhere out in the boonies; there were other people close by.
Alina let go of the tree trunk and took a couple of tentative steps. Everything around her was spinning round like a carousel, but she forced herself to keep walking. What a bunch of assholes they all were. Some friends! They’d just let her lie here drunk, with no shoes and no phone. Maybe fat Katharina and that stupid cow Mia were having a good laugh at her expense. She was really going to let them have it when she saw them tomorrow at school. And she would never speak to Mart again in her life.
At that moment, Alina happened to look at the steep bank leading down to the river and stopped short. There was somebody lying down there, in the stinging nettles, right next to the water. Dark hair, a yellow T-shirt—it was Alex. Damn, how had he gotten down there? What had happened? Cursing, Alina made her way down the bank. The nettles stung her bare calves, and she stepped on something sharp.
“Alex!” She squatted down next to him and shook his shoulder. He stank of vomit, too, and was groaning softly. “Hey, wake up!”
She waved away the mosquitoes that kept buzzing around her face.
“Alex! Wake up! Come on!” She tugged on his legs, but he was as heavy as lead and didn’t budge.
On the river, a motorboat passed by. The wake sloshed up on shore, making the water gurgle in the reeds and lap against Alex’s legs. Alina gasped in terror. Right in front of her eyes, a pale hand emerged from the water and seemed to reach out for her.
She recoiled and uttered a frightened cry. Among the reeds—not six feet away from Alex—Mia was lying in the water. Alina thought she could see her face just below the surface. In the diffuse half-light of dusk, she could see long blond hair and wide-open, dead eyes that seemed to be looking straight at her.
As if paralyzed, Alina stared at the gruesome sight, her mind reeling in confusion. What the hell had happened here? Another wave rolled in, Mia’s body moved, and her arm stuck out of the dark water as pale as a ghost, as if she were begging for help.
Alina was shaking all over, even though it was still intolerably hot. Her stomach rebelled, and she staggered, turning around to throw up in the nettles. But instead of vodka and Red Bull, only bitter gall came up. Sobbing desperately, she crawled up the steep bank on all fours, scratching her hands and knees on the stubbled slope. Oh, if only she were home in her room, in bed, safe and sound! All she wanted was to get away from this horrible place and forget everything she’d seen.
* * *
Pia Kirchhoff was typing into her PC the final report on the investigation into the death of Veronika Meissner. Since early morning, the sun had been baking the flat roof of the building where the offices of Kommissariat 11 of the Criminal Police were located, and the readout on the digital weather station sitting on the windowsill next to Kai Ostermann’s desk showed it was eighty-eight degrees. Room temperature. Outside, it was probably a good five degrees hotter. Schools had canceled lessons because of the heat. Although the doors and windows were open wide, there was no hint of a breeze to bring any relief. Pia’s forearm stuck to the desktop as soon as she leaned on it. She sighed and pressed PRINT, then added the report to the slim folder. All that was missing was the autopsy report, but where had she put it? Pia got up and searched through her out-box, eager to be done with this case at last. Since yesterday, she’d been holding down the fort alone at K-11. Her colleague Kai Ostermann, with whom she shared the office, was attending a course at the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden. Kathrin Fachinger and Cem Altunay were taking part in a nationwide seminar in Düsseldorf, and the boss had been on vacation since Monday at an undisclosed location. Commissioner Nicola Engel had granted Pia some time off when she was promoted to detective superintendent, but that, too, had fallen by the wayside because the department was so short-staffed. Pia didn’t really mind. She hated for anyone to make a fuss over her; the change in her rank was no more than an administrative formality.
“So where’s that damn report?” she muttered in annoyance. It was almost five already, and she was planning to go to her class reunion in Königstein at seven. The construction work they were doing on her farmhouse, the Birkenhof, often left her no time for any social life, but she was looking forward to seeing the girls from her old school after twenty-five years.
A knock at her open door made her spin around.
Pia couldn’t believe her eyes. It was her former colleague Frank Behnke, but he was totally transformed. He had changed his usual look—jeans, T-shirt, and worn cowboy boots—for a light gray suit with shirt and tie. He wore his hair a little longer than before, and his face no longer looked as haggard, which was an improvement.
“Hello, Frank,” she replied, amazed. “Long time no see.”
“But you did recognize me,” he said with a grin, shoving his hands into his pants pockets and giving her the once-over. “You’re looking good. I heard you stumbled up another rung of the career ladder. I suppose you’ll be taking over from the old man soon, eh?”
As always, Frank Behnke lost no time pushing her buttons, and he did it effortlessly. Her polite query as to how things were going for him stuck in her throat.
“I didn’t ‘stumble up’ the career ladder, no way. My rank was changed, that’s all,” she responded coolly. “And to whom are you referring as ‘the old man’? You mean Bodenstein?”
Behnke just shrugged it off with a grin and kept on chewing his gum. That was one thing he hadn’t managed to give up.
After his inglorious departure from K-11 two years earlier, he’d lodged a complaint about his suspension and been lucky enough to be reinstated. At any rate, he’d been transferred to the National Criminal Police office in Wiesbaden, and nobody at the Regional Criminal Unit in Hofheim had been sorry to see him go.
He slipped past her and sat down in Ostermann’s chair.
“Everybody flew the coop, I see.”
Pia muttered to herself as she kept on looking for that autopsy report.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” she then asked.
Behnke clasped his hands behind his head.
“Well, what a shame that you’re the only one here I can share my happy news with,” he said. “But the others will find out soon enough.”
“What is it?” Pia gave him a suspicious look.
“I got fed up with working the streets. I’ve done that shit long enough,” he replied without taking his eyes off her. “The Special Assignment Unit, K-11, all that’s behind me now. I always got the best evaluations, so they forgave me my minor indiscretion.”
Minor indiscretion! Behnke had punched their colleague Kathrin Fachinger in a fit of uncontrolled rage and committed enough other transgressions to warrant a suspension.
“I was having personal problems back then,” he went on. “That was taken into account. At the State Police office, I passed a couple of additional qualifications, and now I’m at K-134, the Office of Internal Affairs, responsible for investigating and bringing charges against police personnel and preventing corruption.”
Pia couldn’t believe her ears. Frank Behnke as an Internal Affairs investigator? That was utterly absurd.
“Along with my colleagues from the other federal states, in the past few months we’ve developed a strategic concept that will go into effect on July first nationwide. Improvement of services and professional oversight within subordinate departments, sensitivity training for personnel, and so on.…” He crossed one leg over the other and jiggled his foot. “Dr. Engel is a competent manager, but occasionally we get reports from the individual investigative offices about transgressions committed by colleagues. I can vividly recall certain incidents in this very office that were quite disturbing: failure to administer punishments in the office, not following up on misdemeanors, unauthorized IT queries, passing internal documents to third parties … just to mention a few examples.”
Pia abruptly stopped searching for the autopsy report.
“What are you getting at?”
Behnke’s smile turned malicious, and his eyes took on an unpleasant glint. Pia had a bad feeling about all this. As always, he was enjoying demonstrating his superiority and power with regard to his opponent, a character trait of his that she despised. As a colleague, with his envy and perpetually rotten temper, Behnke had been a veritable torment, but as a representative of internal investigations, he could be a disaster.
“You, of all people, should know best.” He stood up and came around the desk to stand close to her. “But you’re the obvious favorite of the old man.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Pia replied icily.
“Oh, don’t you? Really?” Behnke moved so close that it made her uncomfortable, but she resisted the urge to step back. “Starting Monday, I’m going to start an authorized internal investigation in this building, and I probably won’t have to dig very deep to bring a few corpses to light.”
Pia was shivering despite the tropical heat in the office, but she remained outwardly calm, even though she was boiling inside; she even managed to smile. Frank Behnke was an unforgiving and petty person who forgot nothing. Old frustrations were still eating at him and seemed to have multiplied tenfold in recent years. And he was contemplating revenge for the injustice and humiliation he imagined he’d suffered. It wouldn’t be smart to make an enemy of him, but Pia’s anger was stronger than her good sense.
“Well then,” she said sarcastically, resuming her search. “I wish you much success in your new job as … a cadaver dog.”
Behnke turned to go.
“Your name isn’t on my list yet. But that could change at any time. Have a nice weekend.”
Pia didn’t react to the unambiguous threat his words implied. She waited until he was gone, then grabbed her cell and punched the hot key for Bodenstein. The call went through, but nobody picked up. Damn. She was sure that her boss hadn’t the slightest idea what a nasty surprise was waiting for him here. She knew pretty much what Behnke was insinuating. And it could have very unpleasant consequences for Oliver von Bodenstein.
* * *
The deposit on three returnable bottles was enough for a pack of noodles. Five more would buy veggies to go with it. That was the currency he dealt in these days.
Before, in his former life, he hadn’t paid any attention to collecting the deposit, but had blithely tossed empty bottles into trash cans. That was exactly the sort of person who ensured his basic needs today. He’d received twelve and a half euros from the kiosk owner for the two bags of empty bottles. He got paid six euros an hour under the table by the greedy cheapskate for standing all day in this tin box at the edge of an industrial zone in Fechenheim, grilling hot dogs and burgers and deep-frying potatoes. If the cash register didn’t add up perfectly, the amount was docked from his pay. Today, everything had come out even, and he hadn’t had to beg for his money like he usually did. Fatso was in a good mood and had paid him what he was owed for the past five days.
Combined with the money from collecting bottles, he had about three hundred euros in his wallet: a small fortune. That was why, feeling suddenly flush, he’d splurged not only on a haircut but also a shave from the Turkish barber across from the train station. After a visit to Aldi, he had enough left to pay the rent on his trailer space for two months in advance.
He parked his rickety motor scooter next to the trailer, pulled the helmet off his head, and took the shopping bag out of the carrier.
The heat was driving him crazy. It didn’t even cool off at night. In the morning, he would wake up soaked with sweat. In the miserable lunch stand of thin corrugated iron, it could get up to 140 degrees, and the stifling humidity made the stench of sweat and rancid fat settle in his hair and pores.
The dilapidated trailer in the RV park in Schwanheim was supposed to have been a temporary solution, back when he still believed he could make a go of it and restore his financial situation. But nothing in his life had turned out to be as long-lasting as this temporary arrangement—he’d already been living here for seven years.
He unzipped the awning, which must have been dark green decades ago, before the weather had faded it to a nondescript pale gray. A puff of hot air gusted toward him. Inside the trailer, it was several degrees hotter than outside, with a stifling and stuffy smell. No matter how much he scrubbed and aired out the place, the odors had settled into the upholstery and every nook and cranny. Even after seven years, it still filled him with disgust, but for him there was no other option.
Ever since his plunge into the abyss, and as a convicted criminal, he belonged to the underclass, even among the residents of the slum on the outskirts of the metropolis. Nobody wandered in here on vacation or to admire the glitzy skyline of Frankfurt, the concrete and glass symbols of big money across the river. His neighbors were mostly blamelessly impoverished retirees or failures like himself who had landed on the down escalator. Alcohol often played a leading role in the story of their lives, which were depressingly similar. As for himself, he drank no more than one beer in the evening, he didn’t smoke, and he paid attention to his weight and grooming. He didn’t bother with the Hartz IV law of 2005, which combined unemployment insurance with social welfare, because he couldn’t stand the thought of having to show up as a supplicant and kowtow to the bigoted whims of indifferent bureaucrats.
A tiny scrap of self-esteem was ...
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