The Ghosts of Altona
by Craig Russell
How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry!
which their keepers call
A lightning before death.
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet
No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.
The existence of near-death experiences is not disputed; their nature is. Many who experience an NDE are left with an over- whelming belief in an afterlife and lose all fear of death. Science views these experiences as powerful and convincing hallucinations triggered by the near-death release of highly potent neurochemicals and intense electrical activity in the brain.
Whatever the cause, whatever their true nature, near-death experiences leave those who undergo them profoundly changed.
The sky that day, he would later remember, had been the colour of pewter. When he thought back on it, that was what he would remember, the lack of colour in the sky, the lack of colour in everything. And that he hadn't noticed at the time.
Winter had been half-hearted. That day.
'So why, exactly, are we talking to this guy more than any of the other neighbours?' asked Anna Wolff as she and Fabel got out of the unmarked police BMW. 'Schalthoff has no record . . . never been so much as a suspect for anything and has no dodgy connections that we can find. I just don't get why you get a vibe from him. What is it - some kind of hunch?'
'No such thing as hunches, Anna,' said Fabel. 'Just your unconscious processing information your conscious hasn't got round to putting together. I know something about this guy . . . I just don't know what that something is. Yet.'
'Okay . . .' Anna stretched out the word. 'That makes it clear . . .'
'Bear with me.'
They crossed Grosse Brunnenstrasse and made their way to the apartment building. Like unseen fingers turning pages, an ill-tempered breeze peeled back the damp leaves clinging to the path and tugged at the flyers stapled to bare-armed street-side trees. The face Fabel had got to know so well - big eyes and tousled blond hair above a guileless grin - smiled out from the picture on the flyers. It was that smile, the innocence behind the smile, that had motivated what seemed like the whole population of Altona to join in the hunt for the missing boy. The neighbourhood was full of the flyers: small banners of hope that little Timo Voss would be found alive and well. Everyone was looking to find Timo alive and well.
But not Fabel. His job was, and always had been, to find the dead and the guilty, not the living and the innocent. Fabel knew he was looking at the face of a ghost.
'How do you want to handle this?' asked Anna.
'Let's play it by ear. I want to see if we can jangle a nerve. He was just that little bit too scripted the last time.'
As they reached the apartment building, a small woman, coat- and scarf-bundled against the weather, emerged from the common entry and barged between them. Anna caught the door before it closed, saving them from having to press the entry buzzer.
'It'll be a nice surprise for him.' She smiled.
'Second floor,' Fabel said and he led the way up a stairwell that smelled faintly of disinfectant. When they reached the apartment they wanted, Fabel noticed that the landing, too, seemed to have been recently cleaned. Bass echoes of pop music, drifting down from one of the floors above, haunted the stairwell.
When he pressed the doorbell it made an angry sound, like a bee trapped in a jar. Fabel waited a moment then, when no one answered, he rapped loudly on the door and called out: 'Herr Schalthoff?'
'Maybe he's out,' said Anna when there was still no answer. 'Or working a shift.' But Fabel waited, leaning in to the door and listening.
'I hear movement,' he said quietly.
He was about to knock again when the door swung open to reveal a man in his late thirties. Jost Schalthoff, who Fabel knew had worked since leaving school for the Hamburg City Council, was still dressed in his work overalls. He was medium height and had an open, pleasant, friendly type of face. Likeable. The kind of face you instinctively trusted.
It was you, you sick murdering fuck.
The thought fell into Fabel's head the instant Schalthoff opened the door. Little Timo Voss trusted that face of yours but all he was to you was something to be used and disposed of. You took him off the street, did what you wanted and then you killed him. And in the same instant of clarity, Fabel knew that if they searched Schalthoff's apartment, they would find little Timo.
Fabel could not pinpoint what it had been about Schalthoff's expression that had not been there the first time he had interviewed the council worker. Whatever it was it had instantly triggered his total certainty - something in his expression, something vague and fleeting, in that instant when Schalthoff, who had thought himself now in the clear, saw the police once more at his door. Something more than just guilt.
'We're following up our Timo Voss inquiry, Herr Schalthoff. We have a few more questions, if you don't mind.' Fabel showed his ID and smiled, keeping his tone light and matter-of-fact; Schalthoff tilted his head slightly, his expression dutifully ser- ious. And all the time Fabel knew Schalthoff was the killer, and that Schalthoff knew he knew.
'Of course.' The council worker held open the door and the two Murder Commission officers entered. 'Anything I can do to help. Terrible business . . . just terrible.'
With the door closed behind them, the music from the apartment above was muted to a vague baseline beat. Schalthoff led the two police officers along a short hall to the living room. Fabel scanned as he walked: three doors off. Two doors open: small bathroom and toilet, boxroom-cum-bedroom. One door closed, presumably the main bedroom. As he passed the bathroom, Fabel thought he picked up a hint of the same disinfectant odour he had smelled in the stairwell and on the landing.
Two doors open. One door closed.
The living room was clean and tidy and extended into an open-plan kitchen. A picture caught Fabel's eye; it hung on the wall of the hall, just where it opened out into the living area. It was an expensive-looking print of an oil painting, mainly in blacks, dark blues and reds that seemed to combine the abstract with the representational. A hooded and cloaked figure of indeterminate gender stood on the shores of a river. Behind the figure, a riot of shapes and colours suggested some fierce conflagration consuming a city; in the foreground, the figure and the blaze behind it were reflected in the dark, glittering water. The painting had been signed: Charon.
The picture looked a little out of place in the apartment - all the furniture was modern and tasteful without being expensive: a well-filled bookcase beneath the window; coffee table; couch and two armchairs. All clean lines. The kitchen counters were uncluttered and populated only by a kettle, toaster and counter-top microwave. Everything functional. Everything in its place. With the exception of the dark print hanging in the hall, Schalthoff's apartment spoke of someone controlled; someone who sought reassurance in efficiency and order. Someone not given to untidiness. To chaos.
But Jan Fabel, who had headed the Hamburg Murder Commission for fifteen years and had become the Federal Republic's leading investigator of serial killings, knew it was a sham: a carefully constructed fence to enclose the dark, irresistible chaos that churned and roiled deep inside Schalthoff. Something that had to be contained.
One door closed.
'Can I get you a coffee, or something?' Schalthoff made an open-handed gesture of hospitality.
'We're good . . .' said Anna.
'Actually, I could do with a cup of tea,' said Fabel. 'It's so chilly out. If it's not too much trouble.' He cast an eye over the books in the bookcase: horror, supernatural, a lot of Gothic classics. A brochure for the Jewish Cemetery Altona, which was a monument maintained by the city department Schalthoff worked for, sat on top of the bookcase.
'Not at all,' said Schalthoff smiling. 'Tea, you say?'
'If you have it,' said Fabel. When their host turned to go into the kitchen area, Fabel shot a look at Anna. She caught it and nodded: Fabel was trying to keep Schalthoff occupied.
One door closed.
One door closed but unlocked: all Fabel would have to do was go back into the hall, turn the handle and push. But he had no warrant. And other than an instinct and an opinion that Schalthoff's choice of art and literature jarred with his taste in interior design, Fabel had no probable cause. And that made the insubstantial panel bedroom door as secure as a moat and drawbridge.
Fabel watched as the council technician busied himself in the kitchen. In an unconscious gesture, Schalthoff wiped his palms on his overalls before taking a pale blue teapot from one of the cupboards and rinsing it out under the hot tap. Then he reached up to open one of the wall-mounted units to take out a cup. The pause had been less than momentary: a microsecond of hesitation as his hand had passed one of the countertop drawers.
What's in the drawer, Jost? thought Fabel. What is it you don't want us to see? Again, Fabel cursed his lack of a warrant.
'I hope we didn't catch you on the way out.' Anna stepped towards the kitchen part of the open-plan living area, placing herself between Schalthoff and a clear view of the hallway.
'Not at all, I-'
'Do you mind if I use your bathroom?' Fabel interrupted him. It worked. The council worker looked off balance for a sliver of a second, frowned, then wiped clean his expression with a courteous smile. Again, there had been so much squeezed into that sliver of a second.
'No . . . please go ahead,' he said. 'It's at the far end of the hall, nearest the door. To your right.'
Fabel nodded and went back into the hall. The heartbeat pulse from the upstairs music stopped for a moment, before kicking into a different rhythm. Behind him, he could hear Anna affecting a chatty tone.
'There's not a lot we need to ask you,' she said. 'You knew little Timo, I believe?'
'No . . . who told you that?' Schalthoff's tone was even. 'I hadn't heard of him until he went missing. It's sad, really, when you think how close by he lived - just around the corner, really. That's city life, I suppose. Anonymous.'
Fabel knew Anna wouldn't be able to stall him for long. He passed the bathroom, then checked over his shoulder to make sure Schalthoff was still in the kitchen and that Fabel was out of his line of sight before taking the few steps further along the hall to his goal.
He stood before the closed door. If he opened it and found Timo's body, it would be a legally invalid search. For the search to be admissible, he would have to lie and say he thought he had heard a noise, had probable cause to believe Timo was alive and captive behind the door. Except Fabel knew he wouldn't lie.
But if his gut feeling about Schalthoff was right and he and Anna left without looking behind that closed door, there would always be the chance they'd be leaving a still-alive Timo to his fate. He listened. No sounds from behind the door, but he could hear Schalthoff and Anna in the living room: small talk, but now the faintest chord of impatience in Schalthoff's tone.
He placed his hand on the handle.
Please let me be wrong. Please don't let it be me who finds it.
He opened the door.
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