Book Extracts
Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach

People thought it was an accident. Scholten didn’t.
It wasn’t suicide either. Scholten would have sworn
to that. Naturally such a strange death was bound to
put ideas into certain heads. And very likely scandalmongers
were now going around saying Frau
Wallmann hadn’t had an accident at all; she’d killed
herself intentionally. Don’t let anyone try telling
Scholten that. He’d give them a piece of his mind.
What nonsense anyway. Why would Erika Wallmann
have killed herself? Because that fellow had a bit on
the side? He’d been sleeping around for years, starting
the moment he married her. And she’d known it as
well as Scholten did. Why would she kill herself
because of that, after twenty-five years?
Such a beautiful woman.
To look at her, no one would have thought she was
forty-six. The way she walked, with a firm, energetic
step, the way she held her head, the way she threw it
back when she was displeased, always reminded
Scholten of the time when her father offered him the
office job. She was fifteen then, but you could already
see what a fine woman she’d be.
And now it was all over. Scholten stared at the coffin.
As the harmonium player began the Ave verum, tears
came to his eyes. He covered them with his hand and
tried to picture her lying there now in her coffin. But
he very quickly gave that up.
She must look dreadful. The fall from the flight of
steps to the steep bank. Broken bones and head injuries,
they’d said. From the sharp edges of the rocks on
the bank. Then two days lying in the lake. And after
that the forensic scientists took their knives to her.
They probably opened her up entirely. They’d have to,
with a drowned body.
Scholten gagged. Taking out his handkerchief he
quietly blew his nose, wiped the corners of his eyes,
pressed the fabric over his mouth. He sensed that
Rothgerber, sitting beside him, was looking at him.
Scholten tried to divert his mind by reading the
messages on the ribbons of the wreaths.
To my beloved Erika, a last greeting from her Kurt.
The hypocritical bastard. He’d spent a lot on that
wreath, obviously, and the coffin and the whole funeral.
The chapel was full of flowers and candles. He’d always
been open-handed with Erika’s money. And now he
had it, all of it, no strings attached. The bastard.
Scholten moved slightly to one side so that he could
see him. Wallmann was sitting by himself in the front
row. Poor fellow, people would think. No children, no
family, nothing.
No. Only Erika’s money. And the firm.
Enough to drive you round the bend. Scholten
stared at the broad, red neck, the dark-blond, well-cut
hair, the massive shoulders in the black coat.
Rothgerber leaned over and tapped his arm. He
whispered: “That’s a handsome wreath you chose.
Excellent.” Scholten made a dismissive gesture.
Arsehole. When they were arguing in the office
about the message on the wreath Rothgerber had been
on Büttgenbach’s side. Of course the chief clerk is
always right. What was it Büttgenbach had suggested?
In silent remembrance of Frau Erika Wallmann. What
But Scholten had got his way. The wreath really was
a handsome one. And those not too slow on the uptake
could read the real meaning of the inscription: We will
not forget our boss Frau Erika Wallmann. From the office staff
of Ferd. Köttgen, Civil Engineering Contractors. Wallmann
for one would get the message.
When the coffin was lowered into the grave Scholten
was in the third row. The members of Wallmann’s
bowling club had pushed their ostentatious way to the
front. They and their wives, who were all tarted up, had
ranged themselves right behind Wallmann and didn’t
even let Büttgenbach through. Scholten stood on
tiptoe and craned his neck to see, but there was a
broad-brimmed black hat in the way.
Scholten bowed his head. He moved his lips as his
tears flowed. He said to himself: that’s not the end of
it, Frau Wallmann. I promise you. You can count on
me, Erika.
Wallmann did not meet Scholten’s glance as he
shook hands. He kept looking fixedly down, his eyes
red and damp, his chin quivering although he kept it
pressed against his chest. One of his friends from the
bowling club was standing beside him holding his arm,
as if Wallmann might fall over any moment. Would you
believe it? What a farce!
On the way back to the cemetery gate, Scholten
found himself walking with a group of the Yugoslavian
workmen. They had put on their dark suits and black
ties. They walked along in silence beside him for a
One of them touched his arm. “Herr Scholten, how
can such terrible thing happen? Boss’s wife was strong
woman, healthy. How can she fall off steps, splash, fall
in water? Had been drinking, don’t you think, Herr
Scholten stopped and grabbed the Yugoslav by the
lapels of his coat. “Say a thing like that again and you’ll
have me to deal with, understand? And then you can
pack your bags and fucking go home, get it? Because
you’ll be out of a job!”
The Yugoslav said: “Let go.” Scholten let go. The
man was one of the plasterers, hands like shovels, and
a head or more taller than Scholten. He brushed down
his lapels and said: “You no decide when I’m out of a
“We’ll see about that,” said Scholten. He turned
away and walked on. The Yugoslavians fell behind.
At the cemetery gate Scholten looked around. Rosa
Thelen was standing there alone, wearing a black coat
that was now too tight for her. Scholten said, “You can
come with me, Rosie.”
She blinked her short-sighted eyes at him in the
March sunlight and said: “Thanks, but Herr Büttgenbach
is giving me a lift.”
“Fine. Your arse will have more room in his car.”
Scholten got into his own vehicle.
“You brute,” said Rosa Thelen. “Can’t get a grip on
yourself even on a day like this.”
Scholten had to wait. The four minibuses were barring
the road. The workmen got in, jostling each other,
and now and then one of them laughed. They were
looking forward to the day off and the beer and cold
meats that Wallmann had ordered for them in the bar
opposite the works. Scholten muttered: “Wait till it’s
your own wake. Then you won’t be laughing.”
He followed the last bus but then turned off on the
road to the Forest Café. He was sure Wallmann would
rather have sent him off to the bar with the workmen,
but in the end he hadn’t dared to. He had invited the
office staff to the Forest Café. Not just the office staff
either. Scholten was sure the whole bowling club
would turn up. And the people from the Civil Engineering
Inspectorate, of course. He had seen the
Government Surveyor at the graveside and three or
four of the inspectorate’s project managers. And all at
the company’s expense.
Well, it belonged to the new boss now.

A couple of flashy cars were already parked outside the
Forest Café when Scholten arrived. He was about to
leave his own car beside them, hesitated, then drove
into the overflow car park behind the building.
Von der Heydt, one of the project managers from
the Civil Engineering Inspectorate, was standing in the
doorway of the restaurant bar, holding a schnapps
glass. He shook hands with Scholten and asked: “How
could a thing like that happen, Herr Scholten? I mean,
those steps were checked by the Building Inspection
people. Surely they can’t be all that dangerous?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the steps,” said
Scholten. “But I don’t know the details. You’ll have to
ask Herr Wallmann.” He reached for a tray that a
waiter was carrying past and took a glass of schnapps
himself. Von der Heydt emptied his own in a hurry,
put the empty glass down on the tray and picked up
another. Placing a hand on Scholten’s arm, he guided
him over to the table. “Come along, let’s sit down.”
Scholten said: “Not here, though. I’m sure this is for
Herr Wallmann’s friends. I’ll sit over there.”
“No, no, you’re Herr Wallmann’s guest today too.
Come along, sit down. We’re all equal in the face of
Von der Heydt made Scholten sit on the chair beside
him. He raised his glass. “Let’s get this down ourselves
first. To help with the shock.”
Scholten gulped the schnapps down. Von der Heydt
detained the waiter, who was about to move on with his
tray, saying: “Hang on a moment, we’ll have another
couple of those.”
He put the two glasses carefully on the table and lit a
cigarette. Then he placed his arm on the back of
Scholten’s char, leaned towards him and said: “Tell
me, Herr Scholten, is it true about Wallmann having it
off with the secretary in your firm?”
Scholten looked at his schnapps glass.
“What’s the girl’s name? There she is, over by the
Scholten did not look up. He said, “You probably
mean Fräulein Faust.”
“That’s it. Inge, am I right? Inge Faust. Not a badlooking
girl at all. I guess she’s worth a mortal sin or
so.” Von der Heydt laughed.
“Could be,” said Scholten.
“But listen, Herr Scholten, she must be at least
twenty years younger than Wallmann, am I right? How
old is Wallmann, actually?”
“Forty-eight.” Scholten twirled his glass on the tablecloth.
“And Fräulein Faust is twenty-five.”
“Wow! So does Wallmann think he’s up to that kind
of thing? I mean, sure, he keeps fit. But wouldn’t you
say this is rather overdoing it?”
“It’s no use asking me. Ask Herr Wallmann.”
“So it’s true? They really are having it off?”
“I didn’t say so. There’s always gossip.”
Von der Heydt clapped him on the shoulder. “Yes,
yes, Herr Scholten, I know. I quite understand you
don’t want to tell tales on your boss. Don’t worry, no
one’s going to hear about it from me.”
Scholten picked up the schnapps and tossed it down
his throat. Von der Heydt instantly followed his
example. Then he looked around. “They’re slow with
the beer.” He wiped his mouth and leaned towards
Scholten again. “But you know, Herr Scholten, if it
is true, people might get ideas. About poor Frau
Wallmann, I mean.”
Scholten sat very upright and looked at von der
Heydt. “What are you implying?”
Von der Heydt went “Ssh” and nodded at the doorway.
Wallmann had come in with his friend from the
bowling club who had been supporting him at the
graveside, the Government Surveyor on his other side
and the rest of them behind him. Wallmann invited
the Government Surveyor to sit down. Seeing Scholten
directly opposite, he frowned. Scholten was about to
rise to his feet, but von der Heydt laid a hand on his
shoulder and said: “Excuse me, Herr Wallmann, we sat
down here just this minute, but is there a seating
Wallmann said: “No, no. By all means stay put.”
One of the tarted-up women took the chair on
Scholten’s left. Scholten half rose and adjusted it for
her. She smiled at him, a sad little smile as befitted the
occasion, but her expression was very friendly.
Scholten rose again, bowed and said: “May I introduce
myself? Jupp Scholten.”
“How nice to meet you, Herr Scholten,” she said.
“I’m Frau Sauerborn.”
Scholten said, “Pleased to meet you too,” and sat
down. He smoothed the tablecloth, pushed his
schnapps glass slightly to one side, drew it towards him
The woman wasn’t bad looking. Dolled up a bit too
much in her black costume, but there was real flesh
and blood under it. Scholten smelled her perfume and
unobtrusively took a deep breath. Pretending to be
looking at the door, he let his eyes dwell briefly on her
throat. She was no older than her mid-thirties.
Sauerborn, Sauerborn. Wasn’t that the bowling club
member who owned the brewery?
She settled on her chair. Scholten cast a quick
glance down and got a glimpse of her rounded knee
encased in black nylon.
He started, as if caught in some guilty act, when she
said, “Do you work in Herr Wallmann’s company?”
“Herr Wallmann’s company? Oh, yes. Yes, I work
“I mean, I suppose it is Herr Wallmann’s company
now?” She glanced briefly at Wallmann, who was talking
to the Government Surveyor, and moved a little
closer to Scholten. “Or wasn’t it all left to him?”
“Yes, yes, of course it was.” Scholten felt this was
awkward. Wallmann was sitting too close for comfort.
But the woman’s perfume won the day. Scholten
smiled, moved his mouth closer to his neighbour’s ear
and said: “There’s no one else to inherit.”
“That’s what I mean.” She sat upright, pushed her
plate back and forth a little. Then she smiled at
Scholten. “Have you worked for the company long?”
“Oh yes!”
“How long?”
“Good heavens. I’d have to think.” Scholten acted as
if he was indeed thinking. He nodded. “Yes, you could
call it a long time.” He looked at her. “Thirty-one
“That’s amazing! Well, now you must tell me how old
you are.”
Scholten rested one arm on the back of his chair
and smiled. “Guess.”
She looked at him, put two fingers to her cheek,
then shook her head. “It’s really hard to say.”
Scholten kept smiling. “I’m fifty-eight.”
“I don’t believe it! No one would think so to look at
The waitress leaned over Scholten’s shoulder, serving
turtle soup. Scholten said: “Could we have a beer
“Coming, sir.”
Between two spoonfuls of soup, Frau Sauerborn
said: “And what do you do in the firm?”
“Oh, just about everything.” He glanced across the
table. Wallmann was drinking his soup and nodding as
his friend from the bowling club talked to him.
Scholten said, “Bookkeeping. Looking after the filing
room, that’s very important in a firm like ours. Business
with the bank. Instructions to the workmen.
Organizing the trucks. And checking up on the
building sites. You have to keep an eye on everything.”
“Just like in our own business. Then you must have
been with the company already when Herr Wallmann
started there?”
“Yes, indeed. I’d been in old Köttgen’s office for
four years before Herr Wallmann joined us.”
“And he began in the office too?”
Scholten picked up his napkin and dabbed his lips.
He spoke into the napkin. “No, you’ve been misinformed
there. Herr Wallmann drove an excavator.”
“You don’t say! And didn’t old Köttgen mind when
he married his daughter?”
Scholten laughed and dabbed his lips again. “Old
Köttgen – ah, well, you should have known him.”
The beer came, and then the main course. Fillet
Steak Special, served on toast. After the first mouthful,
Frau Sauerborn lowered her fork and leaned towards
Scholten. She spoke from slightly behind his back.
“Is it true that Frau Wallmann was pregnant – Erika
Köttgen, I mean – when she married Wallmann?”
Scholten, his mouth full, nodded heavily. He leaned
back and picked up his napkin. “A miscarriage. After
the wedding. She couldn’t have any more children
after that.”
Frau Sauerborn nodded and cut a piece off her fillet
steak. She was about to lean towards Scholten again
when the bowling club member sitting opposite on
Wallmann’s left pointed his fork at her. “Ria, you
noticed the time, didn’t you? When did Kurt leave us
on Saturday afternoon?”
“It was exactly four-thirty,” said Frau Sauerborn.
“And how long does it take to reach your weekend
Wallmann shrugged. “Just under an hour and a half.
An hour and a quarter if there’s not too much traffic
on the road to the lake.”
The Government Surveyor nodded. “But then it
would have been too late anyway. I mean, it wouldn’t
have been any use even if you had arrived earlier.”
Wallmann shook his head in silence.
Von der Heydt, knife and fork poised in mid-air,
leaned forward and said: “Forgive me, Herr Wallmann,
I didn’t quite catch that. So the police really did check
your alibi, or shouldn’t I call it that?”
The bowling club member took a forkful of mushrooms
and said: “You can certainly call it that. It was
harassment, no less. They questioned us at the bowling
club, they even went to see my wife, isn’t that right,
Frau Sauerborn nodded. “They wanted to know
exactly how long Herr Wallmann spent at our place.”
“And they even got Büttgenbach to go to the police
station,” said Herr Sauerborn.
The Government Surveyor shook his head. “Outrageous,
if you ask me. Imagine them coming along after
such a tragic accident and suspecting someone of
Sauerborn gestured vigorously, chewed and swallowed.
He took a large gulp of beer and said: “They
have to. It’s the rules. If someone’s fished out of the
water they have no option but to investigate.”
Frau Sauerborn looked at the Government Surveyor.
“They can’t be sure there may not be something
in it.”
Wallmann, who had been brooding gloomily, said
suddenly: “But there wasn’t.”
“Exactly,” said Sauerborn. “There wasn’t. The alibi
was absolutely watertight.”
Von der Heydt, head still thrust forward, shifted in
his chair. “But how could you prove that? I mean,
sometimes proof is difficult. Who expects a thing like
this to happen?”
Sauerborn propped his elbows on the table. “Well,
listen.” He began checking points off on his fingers.
“Herr Wallmann came back from his sailing trip on
Friday evening. He saw to the boat and went up to his
weekend house. Then he realized he’d forgotten the
Scholten abruptly clutched his ear and then acted as
if he were just scratching it.
“What files?” asked von der Heydt.
Wallmann, red-rimmed eyes fixed on the beer glass
he was slowly pushing back and forth, said: “Files I
needed for a tender I was putting in. I wanted to get
the details finalized at the weekend. I thought I’d
brought the files from town with me. While I was out
on the boat I hadn’t realized they were missing.”
“You see?” Sauerborn said, nodding. “He didn’t
notice he’d left the files in town till he got back to the
house. But by then his wife was already on her way. She
was going to spend the weekend with him out by the
lake. So he couldn’t phone and ask her to bring the
files with her.”
“Yes, I see,” said the Government Surveyor. “What a
tragic chain of circumstances.”
“Yes,” said von der Heydt, “but I don’t understand
what that has to do with the alibi business – I mean,
what does it prove? To the police, I mean?”
“Just a moment.” Sauerborn raised both hands. “I
hadn’t finished. So he drove off to fetch the files. Just
under three hours to get there and back, no problem.
And then he saw Erika’s car up by the lake, in the
village. She’d arrived already. There’s a bar with a
butcher’s shop attached in the village, you see, and
when she went to the lake she always stopped off there
to buy meat for the weekend. And to drink a little glass
of grog. That’s right, Kurt?”
Wallmann nodded.
“Grog was her favourite,” said Frau Sauerborn.
Scholten crossed his arms over his chest.
“So then what?” asked von der Heydt avidly.
“Well, pay attention,” said Sauerborn, “because here
comes the alibi.” He paused for the waiter to take the
plates away and pointed to the empty beer glasses.
“Bring us a couple more, will you?”
“And some spirits,” said Wallmann. “Not the
schnapps you were serving before.”
“Cognac, sir?” asked the waiter.
“Yes, cognac,” said Wallmann.
Sauerborn settled comfortably in his chair, leaned
his elbows on the table, pointed his forefinger at von
der Heydt and said: “He went into the bar and told his
wife what had happened. And then he set off for town
from there, at ten to seven. The butcher, sorry, I mean
the barkeep, he confirmed it. Erika was sitting there
drinking her grog at the time. And he reached us in
the bowling club at eight exactly.”
“You must have driven pretty fast,” said von der
Heydt, “if it usually takes an hour and a half.”
Sauerborn laughed. “He’s never needed that long.
Speedy Kurt, we call him in the club. He always drives
that way, don’t you, Kurt?”
Wallmann said: “And they call you Randy Günther.”
Sauerborn laughed. “So they do.”
Frau Sauerborn shifted in her chair and said: “But
what’s that got to do with Kurt’s alibi?”
“Now, now, take it easy,” said Sauerborn. “I was only
Von der Heydt raised his beer glass, noticed that it
was empty, put it down again and said to Wallmann:
“Hang on a minute, I don’t quite understand. So you
went to the bowling club before you fetched the files?”
Wallmann nodded. “On impulse.”
Sauerborn took a deep breath and let it out again.
Then he said: “So there you are. We were living it up a
bit that evening. It was our fault.”
Wallmann said: “No, mine. I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Nonsense, Kurt. It could have happened to anyone.
And you’d have been back too late in any case. So we
got rather merry, and by the end of the evening he
wasn’t fit to drive. I took him home with me. Better
safe than sorry – I know Kurt. And he didn’t leave our
place until four-thirty on Saturday afternoon. Fetched
those files from the office and drove back to the lake.
He arrived at the house there just after six.”
Von der Heydt leaned back in his chair. “Yes, now I
see. So he has what amounts to a twenty-four-hour
Wallmann was playing with a beer mat. “Just a little
over twenty-three hours,” he said.
“Well, put it however you like, but it was during that
time your wife fell off the steps and into the lake.”
“On the Friday evening,” said Wallmann.
Sauerborn said: “She didn’t go into the house at all.
Her car was still outside the door, with the meat she’d
bought in it and her weekend things.”
“You don’t say.” Von der Heydt rubbed his chin. “So
why did she go down the steps? I mean, they lead to
the landing stage, if I’ve understood the situation
correctly. Does anyone know what she did that for?”
The Government Surveyor said: “Herr von der
Heydt, I think that’s enough in the way of questions.
This is a wake, you know.”
Wallmann put the beer mat down and clasped his
hands on the table-top. “I don’t know why she did it.
I’d give a lot to know. But I really have no idea.”
Scholten folded his napkin and then unfolded it.
The waitress served ice cream. After her second spoonful
Frau Sauerborn said: “It’s really odd, her going
down those steps. Particularly as she didn’t like boats
or going sailing, did she, Kurt?”
“No, she didn’t.” Wallmann pushed his ice away,
picked up his empty cognac glass and signalled to the
“Oh, Ria, really!” Sauerborn’s voice had risen
slightly. “Sometimes you talk pure nonsense! What’s so
odd about it? She probably heard a noise and went to
see if there was anyone prowling around the boat.
After all, it’s valuable. Four bunks, heating, toilet.
Built-in kitchen. Right, Kurt? Must have cost you a
packet, after all.”
Von der Heydt’s spoon remained in mid-air. “How
much, then?”
The Government Surveyor noisily cleared his throat
and then asked: “Are you having any trouble with the
Buildings Inspectorate, Herr Wallmann? Over that
flight of steps, I mean? Because if I can help you in any
way . . . ?”
“No, the steps are fine. Solid timber, with handrails.
And made of good stout planks. You only have to ask
Scholten here. He replaced half a dozen steps last
autumn because they’d developed some cracks. When
was it exactly, Scholten? When you went over to paint
the fence?”
Scholten felt Frau Sauerborn looking at him. He
said: “Yes, it’ll have been around then.”
The bastard. Wallmann was just trying to belittle him
in company. As if anyone would be interested in the
fact that he’d painted the fence. Scholten finished his
The waiter came and refilled the glasses. “Coffee will
be served in a minute.”
Wallmann said, “Where’s your wife, Scholten? I
didn’t see her at the cemetery.”
Scholten swallowed. “She couldn’t come. She’s feeling
unwell again. She asked me to give you her regards
and say how very sorry she is.”
“Thank you. My regards to her, and I hope she’ll
soon be better.”
Frau Sauerborn asked, “What’s the matter with her?”
Scholten shook his head. “Poor health in general.
It’s her nerves. A funeral like this upsets her too
“It upsets us all,” said Sauerborn.
Silence fell. After a while von der Heydt said: “Perhaps
the steps were slippery? After a frost, maybe? We
had that sort of weather last week. Or was it different
up by the lake?”
“No, you’re right,” said Sauerborn. “The steps must
have been slippery. Timber like that can get very icy in
frost. She wasn’t expecting it, she slipped, and she
couldn’t catch hold of anything to stop herself falling.”
The Government Surveyor nodded. “That’s perfectly
possible. Yes, very likely.”
Wallmann rose to his feet. “Would you excuse me a
moment?” He went out.
Sauerborn pushed his own chair back. “You must
excuse me too. It’s the beer.”

The Stronger Sex by Hans Werner Kettenbach


She sent the car for me. That’s what you say, isn’t it? The car. The chauffeur merits no special mention.

Well, so she sent the car for me. His car, her husband’s car, but she was the one who had made the appointment with me in advance. And she had asked how I was planning to get to them.

I’d said that was no problem, my car would be at the garage for its service that day, but I’d take a taxi. No, no, she replied, that wouldn’t be necessary. She’d have me picked up. I tried to decline the offer, but it proved difficult, and in the end I gave up because it occurred to me that it was uncivil to reject the offer of a lady who, as I assessed it, must be forty years older than me.

And sure enough, around ten-thirty in the morning a middle-aged man in a grey chauffeur’s uniform, carrying a peaked cap, turned up in the secretaries’ office. I was standing beside Simone Berger; I’d come in to ask her to make a change in a letter I’d dictated. Frau Enke asked the man how she could help him. He replied that he had come to pick up Dr Zabel at Frau Klofft’s request. Frau Enke and Simone looked at me. I told the man I’d only be a moment, would he mind waiting? The man said of course he’d wait, but out in the car if that was all right, because he had left it outside the door on the no-parking lines. With a slight bow he left again.

When I came out of our office entrance, he was not sitting at the wheel of the car, a sturdy, gleaming black limousine, but standing on the pavement beside it. He took off his cap, appeared to line up the hand holding the cap with his trouser seam, and put his other hand out to open the back door of the car. All this startled me so much that, against my own preference, I got into the back seat with my briefcase and sank into the comfort of its luxurious mouse-grey leather upholstery.

I’m almost sure that Simone had opened the tall window on the first floor to look down, and that Frau Enke couldn’t resist the temptation either and was peering over Simone’s shoulder. I guessed they were cackling with mirth over all the ceremony of which I had so surprisingly become the object, or do I mean the subject? But I wasn’t going to let myself look up at our office windows while the limousine purred smoothly away.

The upholstery in the back seat was soft, and at the same time smooth and firm. Calf? Lamb? Cowhide? No idea. Expensive, anyway. And extremely comfortable. The panelling in the back of the car also looked expensive, some kind of high-grade wood with a reddish glow to its graining. Between the two spare seats opposite the soft upholstery where I was ensconced, both of them folded up, there was a little cupboard made of the same wood. The on-board bar, probably.

“Is that a bar in the middle there?” I asked.

The chauffeur did not react, but kept looking straight ahead down the road, unmoved. I was beginning to wonder why when I noticed that a glass panel between the driver’s seat and the back of the car was up. There’d be a switch somewhere to allow loudspeaker contact between the chauffeur and his boss sitting behind him. “Can’t you take a detour, Georg? How long are we going to crawl along like this?”

Hochkeppel had said this client might well be a little difficult. Herbert Klofft had begun in a small way, building up a business, not very large but soon flourishing, and had never been able to shake off the autocratic manner that maybe he’d needed back then. The not very large business must indeed be flourishing if its boss had himself driven around in a limousine like this. But if he was so fond of letting everyone know that he was in charge, why did his wife not only fix his appointments, she also had the use of his car without asking him?

The chauffeur wasn’t going the way I had expected. Coming out of the city centre he did not turn into the lively main street of the old suburb where, almost a hundred years ago, the well-to-do had built their villas in the outskirts of the woodland beyond. Instead of taking the direct link, he drove down to the expressway running along the bank of the river. You make faster progress there, of course, but there’s less to see. Not the densely inhabited, four-storey apartment blocks dating from the late nineteenth century, nor the crowds outside the colourful shops opened in the suburb by the Turks. All you see here is a barge now and then making its way laboriously upstream, its broad bow wave out ahead of it, or another moving fast and almost silently down to the valley.

From the expressway you rather abruptly reach the villa district. A solitary traffic light suddenly gives you the chance to filter out of the main stream of traffic and into a narrow side street. To the right and left of this turn in the road a few crumbling houses still stand, and on the corner there’s an old inn with low window sills, which must once have been the first place where carriers stopped to rest on their way downstream to the city with their horse-drawn carts. But less than a hundred metres further on the road suddenly changes again, becoming a narrow avenue lined on both sides with tall elms.

It was a hot day in late June, and under the arching foliage I suddenly felt that I had reached some kind of refuge. The fitful roaring and humming of the traffic going along the road in the opposite direction died away, silence fell. A long-buried memory of one of the few times I’d been in these parts before surfaced in my mind. My great-aunt was housekeeper for a university professor who lived here. She had visited our home for coffee one Sunday, and I had been told to go back with her, carrying a package containing some kind of unusual kitchen utensil that my father had got for her.

I would rather have stayed at home in front of the TV, and the package didn’t seem to me worth the trouble. My aunt could easily have carried it herself. But no, I not only had to take it to the oak front door under the projecting roof but into the house, and then to make matters worse she told me to sit down in the kitchen, have a glass of blackcurrant juice, which I didn’t like, and wait for her a moment.

It was quiet in that house, in fact deathly quiet in the incredibly large, shining kitchen with its tiled floor, the evening sun outside cast a pink, melancholy light, and then she came back with the professor in tow. By now I’d realized that she wanted to present her clever little great-nephew to him. The professor, I suspect, had been resting after lunch, had fallen asleep, and my aunt had roused him from the sofa at a bad time. White hair tousled, with a white moustache, he came into the kitchen at a doddery pace, knocked his shoulder against the doorpost, rubbed it with a wry expression and managed a smile when his glance fell on me. He nodded and muttered something I couldn’t make out.

I got to my feet, but before I could say anything, he had made his way past me, opened the door of the enormous fridge, took out a carton of milk and opened it. He got no further, because with two steps my aunt was beside him, taking the carton from him and filling a glass that she handed him. He emptied it, gurgling slightly as he drank, held the glass out to her again, and she refilled it. He went on to drink a third glass, still gurgling, before he had had enough. The two of them stood there for a moment, my aunt with the milk carton, the professor holding the glass and looking into space as if expecting to find inspiration of some kind there.

Unexpectedly, he puffed out his cheeks. My aunt straightened her shoulders and turned an unmistakably severe glance on him. The professor hesitated for a second, then let out the air through his nose again with a suppressed grunt. Saying no more, he turned away, hesitated as he spotted me again, nodded and smiled once more and left the kitchen.

On the way home in the tram I tried to make something of my impressions, but it was hard to decide which had been more remarkable – the aloof, perfect silence of that part of town, where no one ran about shouting, the special smell of the house and its kitchen, which was presumably the way posh, rich people’s homes naturally smelt, or the behaviour of the professor who, I felt sure, would have drunk the milk straight from the carton if my aunt hadn’t intervened. I rather felt that after those three glasses of milk he would actually have opened his mouth and belched if my aunt had not transfixed him with so stern a gaze.

Our client’s villa, which was in a winding side street, also had a roof that came down low and an oak front door. I managed to avoid any further attentions from the chauffeur by nipping out of the car as soon as it was through the entrance and stopping outside the door. I waved to him as he came around the bonnet, called, “Thank you very much!” and went up the three steps to the front door without my escort. However, he was having none of that, but caught up with me on the steps and rang the bell for me.

I expected to go through a question-and-answer ritual over the intercom fitted beside the door, and then be let in by a black-clad housemaid with a little white apron, or even a butler. But the door opened at once, and a woman of medium height with thick grey hair cut short and grey eyes appeared. She offered me her hand, saying, “Hello, Dr Zabel. I’m Cilly Klofft.” Her hand was cool and dry.

She was smiling, but her eyes examined me thoroughly; I followed her while the chauffeur closed the front door from the outside. She was wearing a summer dress with a bright flower pattern, and sandals on her bare feet. This woman couldn’t be seventy, as I had assumed from what my boss told me about her husband. If her hair hadn’t been so grey, and you saw her from behind, you could have taken her for thirty or forty years old. I noticed how my nostrils suddenly picked up a faint, unusual aroma. No, this wasn’t the chilly smell of a rich household, it must be her perfume, and an attractive one too.

She led me into a spacious living room with its far wall almost entirely made of glass. Beyond it lay a terrace and a garden, apparently not very large but densely planted.

She offered me a glass of juice, which I declined with thanks, saying maybe afterwards. Then she asked if I would sit here with her for a moment before she took me up to see her husband. I sat down in the armchair she indicated, looked out at the garden and remarked on the pleasant sight it presented. “Yes,” she said, “the gardener comes twice a week.” She smiled and sat down opposite me.

Her face was browned, so were her arms and feet, and her legs to above the knee. She probably went to a sun-tan studio regularly. Or maybe she had a sun lamp at home here, next to a home gym in the cellar.

The skin just below and at the corners of her eyes was rimmed with tiny lines. So were the corners of her mouth. She was probably rather older than she looked after all.

Maybe she sunbathed out on the terrace, all the same. Of course no one could see into this garden from outside.

I suddenly realized that I was staring at her as if tongue-tied. I took a deep breath, but she got in first. “Have you been working for Dr Hochkeppel long?”

“For a little over a year.” My voice sounded hoarse; I cleared my throat. “A year and three months next week, yes.”

She nodded. “He’s retired now, is he, more or less?”

“You mean Dr Hochkeppel?” Even as I asked I could hear alarm bells ringing. So she’d talked to Hochkeppel on the phone before he asked me to call her. I wondered, had he himself told her he had retired? And if so, why, when he hadn’t?

She nodded. “Yes, of course. I mean Dr Hochkeppel.”

“Well, yes… more or less, as you say. A kind of retirement, you might call it.”

She nodded again. After a brief pause she said, “Naturally. He’s reached retirement age, after all.”

I shrugged my shoulders and smiled – rather a foolish smile, I am afraid. “To be honest, I’ve no idea how old he is.”

“Seventy-seven.” She was silent again for a moment. Then she said, “A year younger than my husband.”

“Oh, I see.”

A bell rang twice, briefly, in the hall, but she seemed to ignore it. She glanced out at the garden, and then back at me. “But I hope he’s well?”

“Dr Hochkeppel?” There I went again – what a stupid remark! I could have bitten my tongue off. “Yes, I think so. He’s fine, so far as I can tell. He’s… yes, he’s in good health.”

She nodded, and said, after a while, “Give him my regards, would you?” Then she stood up, smiling. “Well, I’ll take you to my husband now. He seems to be getting impatient.”

I followed her out. She went ahead of me to the stairs leading up to the floor above, which had been extended. At the top of the staircase a chair lift had been fitted, the sort you see in the small ads. Stairs to climb in your home? No problem!

At the last moment I remembered what my father had told me about his dancing lessons in the Sixties, recommending me to do as he had been taught then, if I didn’t want women to think me a lout. I hurried past Frau Klofft and went up the stairs ahead of her.

When we were at the top, she took my arm and stopped. I looked at her.

She said in an undertone, “My husband has… attacks sometimes. They’re unpredictable. Please don’t lose patience with him. Even if he happens to, well, to get abusive.”

David's Revenge by Hans Werner Kettenbach


Ninoshvili’s letter has made me curiously uneasy. It’s ridiculous, but I felt something like a presentiment of disaster at the mere sight of the dingy grey envelope when I came home today after teaching five tedious lessons and found it lying on the hall table. I stared at the stamp, with its colourful picture of King David the Builder swinging his sword against the Mussulmen. I deciphered the postmark as Tbilisi, removed an imaginary speck of dust from my coat sleeve, and began to feel afraid.

Ninoshvili writes to say he is very happy to tell me that, after persistent efforts, he can travel to my country at last. The Cultural Ministry of the Republic of Georgia has officially commissioned him to visit the Federal Republic of Germany, where he is to get in touch with publishing houses interested in bringing out Georgian literature in German translation. Unfortunately, he adds, Matassi can’t come with him, but he looks forward to picking up our friendship again, seven years after we first met.

The letter has taken a good four weeks to get here from Tbilisi, and since Ninoshvili says that “all being well” he will be “making my final preparations in about a month’s time”, he could turn up on my doorstep at any moment.

I actually rose immediately from the desk where, with a stifled groan, I had just sat down, lifted the net curtain and looked out. The street lay deserted in the midday sun. No taxi in sight.

Or perhaps he’s coming from the bus stop on foot to save money, bringing only a small, well-worn case with him? Perhaps he’s already walked past the house, sizing it up. Perhaps he’s on his way now, stepping quietly, coming through the garden, looking around with those inscrutable dark eyes.

Oh, that’s enough of such absurdities! I have no real reason to be afraid of this visitor. He’ll mean a certain amount of inconvenience for me, of course, I can see that in advance. The postscript to his letter, in which he hopes that I can help him “to find inexpensive accommodation”, is clear enough. He probably thinks it will be only natural for me to ask him to stay here. Every other toast we drank in Tbilisi was to the hospitality of the Georgian people, and now, seven years later, I have to suffer the consequences of that admirable quality.

But what’s our spare room for, after all? It can’t be permanently reserved for Julia’s old school friend, Erika, who likes her pleasures and uses it as a base for her excursions to the West every six months, leaving it impregnated with her aggressive perfume. Or for Ralf’s friends, a couple of whom have already slept off their hangovers in the bed under the sloping roof, after having too many beers to ride their mopeds home. They probably didn’t even remove their trainers. David Ninoshvili will appreciate being asked to stay in our spare room. Let him have it.


I’m only trying to fool myself. It remains to be seen whether this visitor from Georgia is really as harmless as he seems.

Matassi. That evening in the bar of the Hotel Iveria. The next afternoon, when Ninoshvili invited me to his apartment. And last but not least, the middle of the following day, when Matassi knocked at the door of my hotel room, bringing me the article she’d photocopied for me in the library.

Matassi wore pale blouses and skirts in plain colours, and once I saw her in a bright summer dress with a white collar. No tall circular cap, no laced bodice, no strings of beads dangling from her temples. No long, plaited braids lying on her breast; she wore her black hair cut short. Yet she had the same exotic charm as the women in Georgian national costume smiling at visitors from the posters at the Tbilisi branch of the state-run Inturist travel agency. Round cheeks, dark thick eyebrows and lashes, shadows around her eyes. Full lips.

On the evening when Ninoshvili brought her to the hotel bar with him and introduced her as his wife, Dautzenbacher and the bearded Slavonic lecturer from Heidelberg – I forget his name – immediately sat up and took notice. Dr Bender, the only woman in our party, went to her room in a fit of pique on finding herself increasingly left out of the conversation. She pleaded a headache, but didn’t bother to make it sound plausible. I had stayed in the background, and found myself rewarded by the intriguing impression that Matassi was casting me glances of much greater interest than those she gave the other two, who went on tirelessly posturing. I even received a dazzling smile now and then.

Next day, Ninoshvili didn’t tell me that she’d be expecting both of us at his apartment. Instead he asked casually, after our group had all lunched together, whether I would like to visit a Georgian home, and I instantly decided to skip the afternoon’s study programme. I followed our interpreter through the winding streets of the Old Town, immersing myself in a flood of strange smells and sounds. I thought, with growing alarm, that if I were to lose sight of my guide I’d never find my way back through this teeming labyrinth.

When Ninoshvili, with an inviting gesture, opened a small gate in a high wall, I found myself in a quiet courtyard surrounded on three sides by balconies. I saw wooden balustrades, elaborately carved and painted sky blue. Washing lines crossed the courtyard up to the second floor. On the wall of the house there was a large stone tank with a tap above it. Two children, sitting in the shade on the trodden mud of the courtyard floor, inspected me with dark eyes.

The round table in Ninoshvili’s living room was laid with three cups and three plates, and the aroma of fresh coffee hung in the air. As I looked around me, Matassi appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. She was wearing the summer dress with the white collar. She smiled at me and said, in English, “Good afternoon, Mr Kestner. How are you?”

Ninoshvili said he would just go out to the confectioner’s for something to nibble with our coffee, and when I protested that I couldn’t possibly eat anything else after our lavish lunch, he waved the objection away with both hands, smiling, and went off. Matassi brought the coffee. I asked her if she didn’t have to go to work. No, she said, not today. And how, I asked, had she known that I’d be coming? She hadn’t known, she replied, but she had hoped I would. Hoped I would? Why? A silent glance and a smile were her only response to that.

Perhaps it was the wine and vodka freely dispensed by our hosts at lunch, when toast after toast was drunk, and anyone who didn’t empty his glass every time was offending the sacrosanct table manners of the Georgians. But be that as it may, as soon as Ninoshvili had set off for the confectioner’s I embarked on a determined flirtation with his wife, threw my ideas of a guest’s proper conduct overboard, and began to feel I was hovering under the blue sky, in the summer wind wafting in through the balcony door.

When Matassi showed me a little book written by Ninoshvili, and leaned over my shoulder to translate the Georgian print of its title for me, moving her pale brown forefinger along the line, I turned my face to her. The tip of my nose touched her cheek, and I breathed in a perfume that I had never smelled before. The Orient and myrrh sprang to mind and remained lodged in my memory, although to this day I don’t know what myrrh really smells like. I kissed Matassi’s cheek. She did not draw back. I took her in my arms and kissed her on the mouth. She returned the kiss before, smiling, she freed herself.

I felt no scruples about deceiving my host. If I did feel a little sorry for anything afterwards, it was only that when Ma-tassi showed me first the kitchen and then the small, shady bedroom, I didn’t pull her straight down on the bed, which was covered with a woven spread and provided with plump pillows. I was afraid that Ninoshvili, swinging a bag of pastries, might surprise us in a situation that couldn’t be satisfactorily explained in a hurry, my trousers around my feet, her summer dress pushed up to her armpits. At that point I imagined him dropping the bag and reaching for a knife, washing away the shame with blood, Matassi’s blood, but also, and fatally, mine.

As I thought later, with annoyance, I need not have feared the Georgian’s revenge, or at least not that he would catch us in the act. Ninoshvili didn’t come back for a full hour. He said he had been held up.