Long time ago (okay, its the year 2018) I wrote a short story for a small writing contest. The requirements were clear: Write a crime story, maximum 10 pages. And I had an idea: It all happens in one room (which I failed, as you can read down below) and I’ll tell the story backwards (like in this movie „Memento“ by Christopher Nolan).
At least (I still can’t believe it today) I achieved third place.
Last year a walked the Camino del Northe in spain. There I met hundreds of great people. Some of them asked me, to translate one of my stories, so they can read it. Luckily I also met Elisa, an editor from Berlin. She helped me, to finish this project. Also big thanks to the guys from deepl and to my colleague Jörn.
Long story short… Here is my translated version.
Martina S. is standing in the middle of her living room, looking slowly around. She has slept badly the last few nights, as can be seen in her pale face. In her hand she is holding a box. Tears run down her cheeks as she carefully puts away the last personal items of her husband, Johannes. Books on programming and cryptology, the biographies of famous people she’s never heard of (like someone called Konrad Zuse), and some pulp crime novels. Martina has decided to let go of as much as possible. She is afraid that the wounds of her soul might open up again.
After scanning the bookshelf, she pushes the remaining books closer together, to conceal the gaps created by her work. Later, she will put some glasses or vases in the new space. She puts the box down on the coffee table, then goes to the small cabinet with her husband’s sound system on it. She has decided to keep the sound system and all the old LPs Johannes used to buy on their flea market visits. She takes a duster out of her back pocket and carefully cleans the surface of the cabinet. For this, she has to slightly lift the memorial candles and the black framed picture of her husband. For a moment, her gaze rests on the photo that she chose with her mother-in-law. But as she feels the fine cracks which the past has inflicted on her soul start to open up again, she hastily puts the photo back in its place.
Martina S. leaves the living room. Later, when it is dark outside, she returns. Now she is just wearing a T-Shirt and her pyjama bottoms. With a glass of wine in her hand, she goes to the bookshelf and takes down an old biography she always wanted to read, but never did. Now, she has the time for this kind of thing, because even though there is a huge amount of bureaucracy waiting for her, she cares about herself for the first time in a long time.
Commissioner Geiger, Commissioner Stern, a paralegal from the public prosecutor’s office, and Martina S. are standing in the living room. Geiger is holding a cheap plastic vase in his hand, Stern has some files tucked under her arm. Martina is looking around attentively. The paralegal appears insecure, as if he doesn’t really know what to do. He keeps shifting from one foot to the other, looking from the sofa to an arrangement of armchairs next to the small bay window. He gives the impression that he would prefer to be sitting in his own living room in front of the TV, or at least behind his own desk in the office. In any case, he definitely doesn’t want to be here right now. Martina S. is staring into the void. Over the last few days, she has talked to three different psychologists and pastors, to try — unsuccessfully — to process everything that’s happened.
“We would like to reconstruct the course of events, whenever you’re ready, Mrs S.”
Geiger looks at Martina in a prompting manner. You can tell that he wants to wrap up this case as soon as possible. Martina S. just nods silently and barely perceptibly.
“You and your husband were sitting on the sofa having breakfast. At around 9:30 you got up and went into the kitchen, to get the butter. Your husband stayed in the living room.”
Martina nods again and again while Geiger speaks. Commissioner Stern lays out some pictures on the table – one after another. The paralegal from the prosecutor’s office takes some notes in a small leather-bound book.
“As you returned to the living room, your husband was standing here at the window, looking out.”
Martina nods again, and the commissioner continues.
“In your statement, you report that as he turned away from the window, he stared at you in a frightened manner.”
Martina S. feels her head throbbing. She takes one of the pills her doctor prescribed her.
“You wanted to ask him why he was staring at you, and just at that moment, you were struck from behind. You hit the ground. The next thing you remember is waking up in the ambulance. Correct?”
Martina S. nods and the commissioner puts the plastic vase on the table. His colleague, commissioner Stern, puts another photograph of the vase — the one that was standing, until recently, on a chest in the hallway — next to it.
“Last Saturday at 9:30 the burglar Symer A., an immigrant with an extensive criminal record, struck you from behind with a stone vase. On the basis of the trace evidence, and your husband’s injuries, it can be assumed that a struggle ensued, in which the immigrant Symer A. prevailed over your husband, without sustaining any injuries to himself. After that, he took about 500 euros out of the cabinet.”
While Geiger is talking, Stern puts some other photos on the table. They show Johannes with multiple lacerations to the head. His skull is crushed above his right eye. Stomach acid rises in Martina’s throat. The paralegal keeps writing in his notebook.
“Can you confirm the course of events described?”
Martina S. nods. Geiger hands her the statement and a pen.
“If you could just sign here.”
Martina can feel that the pill is working. Her headache disappears. She swallows several times, to get rid of the bitter taste. Then she signs the statement and thinks that she has survived the worst of it.
Ottfried Wegener has been doing his job for nearly 20 years. He is good at it. He arrives at the house early in the morning. He knows that the woman in the case is currently living with a friend. But since she wants to move back into her own home as soon as possible, they called Ottfried. The police officers have hurried this case. At least, that’s what he read in the newspaper that morning. They just arrested an immigrant from Syria or Iran.
Wegener gets out of his car and goes to the trunk. He takes out two cases of cleaning materials and carries them to the front door. He opens up with the key the police gave him. He is going to leave the key in the hallway before he leaves.
Inside the house the smell of blood hits him in the nose. But thanks to the article in the newspaper and the instructions from the police, he is prepared for the sight that presents itself to him as he enters the living room. Fortunately, the floor is parquet rather than carpet.
Most of the splatter landed on the small coffee table in front of the TV. Right next to it, there are some small chunks. Wegener just recognizes them as bone splinters. His “colleagues” from the forensics department don’t work with the same level of focus as him. He puts on his white protective suit and his blue shoe-covers, and slips into his disposable gloves, just as he has done thousands of times before. Then he gets to work, first cleaning the floor with cold, clear water, then with a simple cleaning agent, and finally a more aggressive one. He usually sticks to the “from top to bottom” rule, and wipes the tables, shelves and walls first. But he fears that sooner or later he will step on one of the many small bloodstains and aggravate the mess.
While he is removing some blood splatter from the armchair, he hears voices in the hallway. He recognizes them as the voices of his “colleagues” Geiger and Stern. The fat old commissioner and the slightly chubby younger woman enter the room, without knocking.
“May we have a quick look around?”
“Sure, no problem.” Wegener doesn’t even look up, just continues cleaning the floor with even greater focus. Nevertheless, his ears prick up.
“So there were no fingerprints on the crime weapon.” Geiger scrolls through his notebook. “Also, no evidence of burglary.”
He walks around, while Wegener goes over to the next stain.
“But the perpetrator was seen in this street by several people.” Stern also scrolls through her notebook. It is pink. “The technicians think it’s possible that he came through the basement. The door wasn’t locked.”
“That could be an explanation for why he wasn’t seen in front of the house.” Geiger leaves the living room for the hallway and yells: “The vase must have been standing right here. He takes it, because he sees Mr. S. standing in the living room. But he overlooks Mrs. S. in the hallway.”
He returns to the Living room. “And then BOOM.”
Stern scrolls again through her notes. “All his other burglaries were committed at night.”
“Attempted burglaries.” Geiger’s voice is lecturing. “Maybe he was getting better. He was getting bolder, anyway.”
Wegener looks at his work. The stains on the leather upholstery are no longer visible. All that’s left to do, is clean the speaker-box next to the cabinet. His two “colleagues” keep talking for some time. Ottfried Wegener listens with great interest.
Sven, Thomas, and Richard Obermeier have been standing for two hours in the small living room, taking photos, collecting hairs and putting them into little plastic bags, and taking fingerprints. They work meticulously. They have divided the room between them. Sven, who is much younger than his colleague Richard, is working on the right side of the living room, where there is a small sitting area. He has just taken a picture of the cabinet. Now, he puts down his camera and takes a brush and some black powder out of his work case, and starts to spread the handles of the cabinet doors and drawers. Meanwhile, Obermeier leaves for the hallway.
“I’m going down to the cellar door.”
Thomas only nods. Two forensic experts for a whole building isn’t enough.
He finds several fingerprints on the cabinet. Most of them are blurred. He transfers them onto an adhesive film and packs them away carefully. A comparison with the database will show that most of them belong to the residents or some regular guests or the cleaning lady. Sven Thomas has no hope that there will be any known burglar’s fingerprint among them.
More precisely, he knows that there won’t be. The rag in his jacket, with which he just removed the fingerprints on the bloody vase, tells him this.
Commissioner Stern is standing in the middle of the living room, wearing a protective suit and some plastic overalls, and looking slowly around. She calls this moment “getting an overall impression”. Immediately, she recognizes the many books on the shelf and the mounted television. It seems as if the TV is screwed to the wall. On its black screen, she can clearly see some blood splatter. In front of her, the murder victim lies on the ground. A slightly overweight pale man in his mid-thirties, whose skull was obviously bashed in by a vase made of stone. The alleged murder weapon lies on the ground right next to the body. Sina Stern squats down and marks the position of the body with white tape. The two guys from the funeral home are waiting impatiently at the door. They will take the murder victim to the hospital, where Meier and Müller – the M & M’s of forensic medicine – will perform an autopsy on his body.
Sina Stern takes a step to the side. She has already taken several photos of it.
“You can take it away now.”
Without paying any further attention to the men, she turns around and continues to look around the room. To her right, there are three armchairs standing around a small table, framed by two speaker boxes. Nearly every piece of furniture is covered in blood. That is going to be a lot of work for the forensic experts.
Sina Stern memorizes every single detail. Then she closes her eyes. In her mind, she sees a dark figure hitting the woman first, then punching the man again and again and again. Initially, the man is hit lightly on the head. Maybe the murderer ran out of strength, or he underestimated the resistance of his victim. In any case: it seems to have been a long struggle. The man must have put up a fight. Sina sees how the unknown murderer takes several blows. Then she recalls the hands of the victim. There is no blood on his fingers. But there are several bruises on his forearms. Was it possible that the victim didn’t even try to put up a fight? Did he just try to protect himself? Maybe he was worried about his wife, lying on the ground with a nasty laceration.
Sina opens her eyes. At this moment it seems impossible to reconstruct the course of events. She has to wait for the results of the forensic experts. She takes a look at her watch. Thomas and Obermeier should be arriving any minute now. She decides not to stand idle any longer. She goes outside to support her colleague, commissioner Geiger, in questioning the cleaning lady. She knows that sometimes he can be a bit clumsy in dealing with people. Despite her short period of service, she has that over him.
Regina M. is 68 years old and works as a cleaning lady to supplement her meagre pension. Now she is standing stunned in the doorway to Martina and Johannes S’ living room… A veritable battlefield is spread out in front of her. The young Martina S. is lying facedown in her own blood. Right behind her lies the blue vase which usually stands on a small cabinet in the hallway. Regina squats down beside her.. She carefully takes her shoulder and realizes immediately that she is alive. A weight as heavy as her old cast iron cooking pot falls from her heart. Then she looks to Johannes and realizes immediately that there is no more life in him. Nevertheless, she squats down next to him and feels for a pulse. She is old enough to remember her father’s crazy stories from the the war. “Some people survived, even standing next to a grenade.” But her first suspicions are confirmed. Slowly, she turns back to Mrs. S. Only now does she think of her mobile in her handbag. She takes it and makes an emergency call. While she gives the details, lost in thought, she opens the drawers of the cabinet next to the sound system. As she sees the bundled banknotes, she falters and has to repeat the address. The police officer at the other end of the line asks her to hold. She presses the phone firmly to her ear. Then she looks down at Martina S., who lets out a groan. Her eyes are still closed. Regina looks at the bundle of money again. Then she reaches for it and without thinking, puts it in her handbag. She closes the drawer and carefully wipes the handle with her handkerchief. She squats down next to Martina S again and grabs her by the shoulders. “Help is on the way. Hold on.”
As Martina S. sets the breakfast on the coffee table in the living room, her hands are shaking. She almost drops the cups from agitation. On Saturdays, she and her husband Johannes always have a hearty breakfast while watching TV. He comes out of the kitchen and puts two bowls of scrambled eggs on the table. Then he takes a seat. Martina goes back to the kitchen again, to get the coffee. Actually, she wanted to switch from coffee to tea years ago, but she hasn’t made the leap yet. She will try it tomorrow — again. From that moment on everything will be different anyway. She looks at her husband. Like every time the day afterwards, he cannot hold her gaze. He turns his head away. Martina S. knows this movement very well. She puts the coffee on the table. Then she says: “I’ll just get some butter. Could you pour the coffee?”
She turns around and leaves the room.
Johannes pours the coffee and puts some sugar in his cup. Martina yells from the kitchen: “Could you give me a hand?”
In the living room Johannes S. puts down his cup and stands up. He walks towards the door. There, his wife is standing. And again, he cannot hold her gaze. This becomes his downfall. Martina S. lifts the heavy vase over her head. Then she hits her husband with full force on the forehead. Something cracks. He staggers back and lifts his hands to protect himself. Martina S. strikes him again. His hands fall. Martina S. raises the vase for the third time. Her fingers are sweaty. She grips tighter, because she fears the vase might slip. Then she brings it down on her husband another four times. Every single hit brings him further to his knees. A little more blood spurts onto the walls and furniture with every impact. But as if by a miracle, none of the splatter lands on her. After the forth strike, she pushes her husband towards the sofa. There he collapses.
Marina S. looks at the vase in her hand. One side is covered with blood. The other side is totally clean. She walks to the door. Then her fingers clasp the vase as tightly as possible. She concentrates. She is afraid that she might hit herself to hard. Then she swings the vase as hard as she can and hits the back of her head. She drops the vase. It falls to the ground. Everything goes black around her. Slowly, she sinks down and falls onto her face.
Martina S. is sitting on her armchair and listening to some music. Her face is puffy from crying. She was able to hold the tears back all day, but after she got back from her job at the supermarket and realized that her husband wasn’t at home, they burst from her eyes like torrents from a breach in a dam. She cried for half an hour. After that, she vomited several times. Now she is sitting quietly in the living room, thinking about the day, the past, and the day ahead.
Earlier, at work, she took the cashier’s mobile and, during a quiet moment, locked herself in the toilet. Then she called her old friend Sven Thomas. She cried bitterly for a long time and had to tell her story over and over again. It took her quite a bit of effort to tell him about her plan, but she had to be sure. She doesn’t want to be punished for what she is planning. She’s already been punished enough. She had to convince Sven of this. She talked to him for half an hour. Finally, she heard the door to the toilets being opened. She hung up in a panic.
Later, in the evening, sitting in the armchair, she is sure that she managed to convince her former classmate.
Johannes S. has slept badly. He has a headache. The three cups of coffee he drank with his morning cigarette didn’t provide any relief. Something is wrong, he can feel it. He took a painkiller in the bathroom. Now his wife is standing in front of the mirror, getting dressed for work. Johannes S. has often asked himself why a supermarket cashier has to be dressed up in such a chic way. She only has to pass goods over a scanner. There is nothing more to it. But he doesn’t want to have that discussion this morning.
He turns on the TV and watches the news. Then the weather. There will be rain later that day. He couldn’t care less. He leaves the living room. When he returns, he has a sandwich in his hand. Again, he sits down in front of the TV and eats the sandwich. Then he hears the bathroom door opening. Steps in the hallway, first getting louder, then softer. His wife has also gone to the kitchen. One moment later she enters the living room with a cup of coffee in her hand. She sits down next to him. She smells good. When she gives him a kiss, his headaches fade away. Now he knows what he needs. He doesn’t need pills or even more coffee. He will take what he needs.
He waits until Martina S. has put her cup down on the table. Then he takes one of the sofa cushions and hits her in the face with it. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but the past has shown that this way, she becomes more compliant. And he is not in the mood for a long discussion right now. He rips off her trousers and his own. Then he penetrates her. At first, she resists, then she just cries and endures it. Like every time.
After he has finished, he leans back on the sofa. She stands up and walks to the bathroom, as if in a trance. He can hear her throw up in the toilet. He puts on his trousers again and turns off the TV.
Some time ago on a Sunday
Martina and Johannes S. are walking through a small flea market together. Earlier, they looked at some pictures, but they were too corny. There was nothing of interest in the books either. Suddenly, Martina S. stops in front of a sales stand and points to a vase. It is big and heavy. There is a blue print on the grey surface. It might be a picture of a bundle of grain. Martina S. persuades her husband to buy the vase. For a while they walk hand in hand across the flea market. Then they drive back home.