‘The shot blew out the lock and caught Herr Oberth in the bum before he had time to get his head out.’
‘Get his head out from where, Fraulein?’
‘From between Frau Hentner’s legs, sir.’
The younger of the two policemen flushed and looked up at the emperor’s portrait for reassurance; he could have sworn the old walrus raised his eyebrows. He heard Hauptmeister Brukenthal say, ‘This is a serious investigation, Fraulein Nicolescu. There were only three people in that room and you were not one of them.’
‘I never said I was in the room, Herr Hauptmeister. I was in the viewing gallery.’
Meitert sensed the man beside him become very still. He glanced sideways; his superior had turned pale, and though the room was chilly, his forehead gleamed sweat.
‘Viewing gallery?’ croaked Brukenthal.
‘That’s what we call it, sir. It was really only a cupboard until the holes were made. Some of them ask for it, you see. Old Pastor Kroner for instance. He used to come with two ladies. One of them told me he would hiss instructions through the hole. A considerate old gentleman – he’d always use his handkerchief.’
‘Kroner be damned!’ shouted Brukenthal, causing his colleague to drop his pen.
‘Are all the rooms so equipped?’, asked Meitert, fascinated.
‘Oh no, sir,’ she said, looking instead at Brukenthal. ‘Only the garret. It’s a very discreet house. Our patrons expect it, Herr Hauptmeister. That room is very popular, because it’s the only one on that landing. Herr Wolff has reserved it every Monday afternoon for the next three months.’
‘Wolff the apothecary?’ asked Brukenthal faintly. He had played cards with him only two nights ago.
‘With his wife’s milliner. She brings a new hat every time and models it for him after she’s removed everything else. Then he takes her on all fours; he kneads her arse as if it’s dough.’ She looked from one gaping face to the other.
‘There’s Frau Goldschmidt. She likes to be tied to the bed and called a whore.’
‘Good God,’ gasped Meitert. ‘By whom?’
‘By Mendel Goldschmidt, of course! They could hardly make all that noise at home, not with the children – the servants would talk. His patients wouldn’t like it.’
Brukenthal said: ‘Meitert, take the lady’s statement. It seems she is not here to waste our time after all.’
‘Your Christian names, Fraulein Nicolescu?’
‘Chambermaid to Frau Enescu, 22 Weinangerstrasse. Bürgermeister Hentner had no business frightening her with that gun –‘
‘Thank you, Fraulein – place and date of birth, please?’
‘Șeica Mică – 4th October 1862’.
Meitert paused. ‘Put Kleinschelken, and get on with it, man!’ muttered Brukenthal.
‘You speak very good German, Fraulein,’ said Meitert.
‘So I should. Our patrons are nearly all Saxons, apart from the odd Hungarian officer – or priest -’
‘I think you have told us enough about your patrons, Fraulein,’ interrupted Brukenthal. ‘Do carry on, Meitert.’
‘Fraulein, please tell us from the beginning what happened this afternoon.’
‘Frau Hentner came, along with Bürgermeister Hentner’s coachman, Herr Oberth, at about two o’clock. She was heavily veiled, as she always is – ‘
‘They made a habit of this?’
‘Oh yes, they’ve been coming for three or four months now, near enough every Wednesday. They always ask for the garret.’
‘Did they know about the viewing gallery?’
‘And do you always station yourself there?’
‘I have watched them on a few occasions.’
‘The penalties for blackmail, I should warn you –‘
‘- not blackmail, sir…for what I can learn.’
Meitert swallowed, and ran his finger around the inside of his uniform’s stiff collar.
‘Frau Hentner is such a pretty lady. She has such lovely underthings and he has a way of undressing her so slowly, and so tenderly, that standing there in the dark my own clothes grow hot. Oberth kisses every bit of skin as he uncovers it. “My husband sees me, Franz, but he does not look at me,” she said to him the first time. She was crying a little, and trembling, but he was very gentle with her.’ She shifted on her chair, put her shoulders back. Meitert took in her high bust, her slender waist, and wondered how much was due to tight-lacing, a custom he disliked intensely. His first sexual encounter had taken place in a brothel when he was soldiering; the woman had worn a formidable corset which forced her breasts upwards until they resembled meringues in a confectioner’s window. They had not felt as firm under his palms as he had expected, and the corset had creaked throughout the proceedings.
Meitert resisted the urge to put his free hand under the table.
‘Stay here, Fraulein,’ said Brukenthal. ‘Come outside, Meitert.’
The two men eyed the girl through the grille. Meitert was wondering what it would be like to unpin that pile of glossy black hair and see how far down her naked back it would fall. Sitting there alone she looked forlorn, vulnerable. What she must have to put up with in that house, thought Meitert. Then her eyes met his, and she again arched her back and – yes, he had no doubt now. She was pointing herself at him.
‘I’ve been impressed with you, Meitert,’ Brukenthal was saying. ‘A very promising recruit.’
Meitert dragged his attention away from Fraulein Nicolescu.
‘We have need of men like yourself.’ Brukenthal placed an avuncular hand on his arm. ‘I could put you up for the Lodge, of course.’
You’re shitting yourself, you old bastard! ‘Put me in charge of this case, sir.’
Brukenthal hesitated. ‘Of course…you are perfectly capable. You’ll find Oberth in the care of the Hungarian Sisters; tell him he would be a fool to press charges.’
Oberth lay on his stomach on a narrow bed in a private room as bare as a cell. His shirt was turned up to his waist and sheets covered his legs, but his bum was bared to allow the wound to breathe. Meitert tilted his head to work out the angle the bullet had taken, carving a groove across the left buttock. The sight did not alarm him; he had seen far worse serving in Herzegovina. The wound was crusting nicely and there were no signs of mortification. He drew up a chair. Oberth propped himself up on an elbow and reached out a hand to shake Meitert’s.
‘You’re the first man I’ve seen in here. One or other of the nuns comes in here every ten minutes with some excuse or other, and always touches my arse – the good side, I mean. There was one – I was pretending to be asleep – who rustled up to the bed and then just stood there breathing. She bent down and kissed my bum and rushed out before I could look round!’
Meitert laughed and said, ‘I’m surprised Mother Superior hasn’t decided to charge admission.’
‘A scribbler came from the Hermannstädter Zeitung, apparently, but they wouldn’t let him in.’
‘You’d do better not to speak to anyone. What were you thinking of doing about the mayor?’
‘I don’t give a damn about that old fool. Carolina – Frau Hentner I mean – is all I care about.’
‘She’s at her father’s house. He has locked her in her old room. Not even her mother is allowed to see her.’
Oberth turned his face into the pillow and groaned. Meitert leaned forward.
‘What do you want to happen, Oberth?’
The coachman lifted his head and presented a stricken face to the policeman.
‘I want to saddle a fast horse, put her on it, and take her with me to Klausenburg. Provided she’ll come, and provided this,’ he nodded over his shoulder, ‘heals up alright.’
‘What do your nurses think?’
‘They said a matter of days before I can walk, but weeks before I can ride.’
‘Since you’re the most fun they have had in ages I expect they’ll want to keep you here as long as they can.’ Meitert examined his fingernails, and went on talking, as though to himself. ‘In a few weeks the mayor will have calmed down and realised he is lucky not to be up on a charge. I shall visit Frau Hentner myself and tell her that as she has had a shock I shall not immediately wish to interrogate her, but when I do she must come in person to the Postenkommando. In the interests of discretion I shall advise that she then leave by the rear door, into the stable-yard…it’s pretty busy there, Oberth. No-one will notice another horseman.’
To the casual observer there was little to distinguish the house on Weinangerstrasse from its respectable neighbours, but with his policeman’s eye Meitert registered the closed shutters on the upper floors, the peeling paint and the general air of seediness – the house looked as if it was trying to shrink away from its own façade. To his delight Maria Nicolescu answered the door herself.
‘I was wondering when you would come,’ she said.
He was mesmerised by the sway of her bottom – was it deliberate? – as he followed her up the narrow staircase. ‘We’ve been rather busy,’ she said, over her shoulder. ‘Fortunately the locksmith came quickly.’
‘Show me the viewing gallery first,’ he said, panting slightly, as they faced each other on the top landing. She was standing quite close; she had a musky scent, mixed with that of clean laundry.
She had not moved very far into the narrow space, and he stumbled against her in the gloom. Her arms came up around his neck.
‘What’s your name?’ she whispered.
‘Shut the door, Gustav.’
Without letting go of her he kicked it closed, and kissed her. He ran his hands down her spine, pulling her close. A moment’s hesitation, then he felt her respond, raising herself up on tiptoe. He felt the tension in her buttocks and back – no corset! She was kissing him back now, with clumsy energy. Pulling away at last, he could see her outlined in the pale light that threaded through two small punctures in the wall.
‘Close your eyes,’ he said.
He fingers found their way through the voluminous folds of her coarse-woven drawers to the necessary opening at the back.
‘You’re slippery,’ he murmured. She hid her face in his shoulder. Mock modesty, of course, but even so…he slid a finger upwards –
Great God, he thought, virtue in such a place!
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, withdrawing his hand and patting down her skirts.
‘Don’t be,’ she whispered.
He kissed her again, swiftly, gently. ‘Show me the room, Maria.’
A lamp, a neatly-made iron-framed bed, a bedside cabinet with a vase of red paper roses, a folding screen concealing a wash-stand, was all the room contained. The only sign that remained of the drama of the screaming coachman, the weeping woman and Bürgermeister Hentner bellowing like a bull and waving his pistol, was a bullet-shaped dinge in the wall below the window. He saw at once how the peepholes had gone undetected. The room was papered with an overpowering pattern of exuberant white flowers, their pistils so dark a red as to be almost black. As he ran his hand across the paper to find the piercings he noticed the blood on his fingernail. He turned round to see Maria lift two roses from the vase, and push them into the holes, instantly transforming the flowers into vast billowing breasts with fantastically erected nipples. Then she started to unbutton her bodice.
‘No, stop. Don’t rush this,’ he heard himself say.
‘You don’t like me?’
‘I like you very much indeed.’
‘Then why –?’
‘Maria, when you came to the Postenkommando, and you looked at me the way you did…when you moved the way you did…sorry, what I am trying to say is this: you work in this house…yet you have never been with a man?’
‘Every man who comes here with a woman wants to be with her more than anything else in the world. Nobody looks at me. I wanted someone to follow me upstairs.’
With Maria stripped to the waist in a tumble of pillows, Meitert was a boy again in the hedgerows behind Martinsdorf, gorging himself on the blackberries Farmer Gottlieb insisted were his. He nuzzled her armpits, licked the shiny sweat from the hollow of her throat and between her breasts. Later, he would identify that moment as the one when he began to fall in love. Ah, but what would Mutti make of a Romanian? She’d had Gottlieb’s daughter in mind for him, though Gustav disliked her pale eyelashes and the smell of milk on the turn that she gave off when she stood too close to him. But he had Brukenthal over a barrel now; that promotion ought to appease his mother.
As conscientious in her practice of ritual purity as she was about her cooking pots, Ester Goldschmidt’s creamy flesh quivered as she lowered herself into the mikveh, not because the water was cold but because she was thinking of the celebration that awaited her at 22 Weinangerstrasse now that her prescribed banishment from the marriage bed was coming to an end.
Hauptmeister Brukenthal propped Ilse the laundress against a sack containing sheets from 22 Weinangerstrasse from which she would later that day wash all traces of stiff patches, tears, sweat and the occasional smear of blood, and explained why he could not take her there again. ‘It would be like appearing in front of my subordinate with my trousers round my ankles,’ he said, an appropriate analogy as at that moment that was exactly where they were.
Frau Wolff’s milliner was trying on a new creation that she had no intention of showing to her customer.
In the bedroom of her girlhood Carolina Hentner was packing a small portmanteau, ‘in case,’ she explained to her father, ‘that policeman wants to keep me longer at the Postenkommando.’
Lying on his stomach at the Hungarian Sisters, Franz Oberth’s wound was itching; his bum-kisser had reassured him that this was a good sign. As he fell asleep, the beating of his heart became the thudding of hooves on the road to Klausenburg.
In the garret in 22 Weinangerstrasse Gustav was entertaining a wriggling Maria with his police-report voice.
‘”A search of the suspect revealed her to be in the possession of an unused pudendum muliebris in near perfect condition.”’
‘Your cunt, Maria. “The item in question had sustained some superficial damage due to the zeal of the arresting officer. What remains of the barrier is scheduled for demolition this afternoon.” Let’s see what else you’ve been hiding. “Item, one fine black curly pelt, concealing…ah, this little hood, which when pushed back reveals…” Now my love, what would you like me to do with this?’
‘Oh…maybe what Herr Oberth was doing…’
‘By all means…’