During the final weeks of the Weimar Republic, a young woman washes up in the Havel River in picture-perfect Old Spandau. Bodies in rivers are hardly news in the chaos of 1932 Berlin, maddened by years of war, defeat, revolution, inflation, depravity, and now the Great Depression. But this one is different. Her dark hair is too short. Her wisdom teeth have been removed, something few German girls could afford. And her legs, dotted with suture marks, are bizarrely deformed, as if someone had taken giant pliers and turned them around inside her skin.
Willi Kraus is a decorated soldier and Germany’s most celebrated Jewish detective, thanks to his recent success at nabbing a monstrous child killer. Sent to investigate the floater, his search leads him into a German underworld he hardly recognizes. A princess goes missing, a hypnotist has dark secrets to hide, and a new power is ushering in the tides of change: the Third Reich.
“Simultaneously a work of historical fiction, a medical mystery, a thriller, and a work of crime noir, this debut novel powerfully captures the atmosphere of Berlin on the verge of Nazi takeover, the elegance and cultural brilliance amid the decadence, and the sense of impending doom.” – Library Journal, starred review
Berlin, November 1932
Dietrich’s legs were magic wands, slim, hypnotic instruments of sorcery that mesmerized millions. Willi could unfortunately only imagine their charms beneath the mannish pantsuit she wore that afternoon to Fritz’s. Bored to tears by the political soothsaying that muscled into every conversation these days, Willi had to fight to keep his eyes open. Lucky for him the tubular Bauhaus chair he was sitting on was killing his ass.
“And for you, Herr Inspektor-Detektiv?”
He reached for another glass of champagne. Even though his brain was flying, this celebration was depressing. Where else would Marlene Dietrich have shown up but Fritz’s housewarming? Half of Berlin were best friends with his old war pal. And all of them seemed to have turned out to see his new palace in suburban Grunewald. Sleek, long panes of glass wrapped around a curvilinear living room filled with paintings by Klee and Modigliani. The house was another masterwork by Erich Mendelsohn, architect par excellence of the Weimar Republic, who bowed at the effusion of compliments.
“So light. So free.” Dietrich fingered a shimmering Brancusi statue. “So moderne!” As for the rest of the city, her face collapsed into a mask of tragedy—it stank. In the two years since she’d last been here, the great star declared, Berlin’s famously invigorating Luft had got truly rotten.
“How you breathe here, I cannot understand.” She fl icked a gold cigarette case open, joining the others on the raw-silk couch. “Everywhere, the stench of Brownshirts. Hulking like baboons in front of the department stores. Shaking those goddamn cans at you.”
“Because they’re hopelessly in debt.” The general across from her placed a silver monocle in his eye. Dressed even for a casual afternoon in full uniform and a chestful of bronze medals, he had, if not the wisdom, certainly the position to ascertain his facts. Kurt von Schleicher was minister of war, commander of the army, and Berlin’s most infamous backstage schemer. “The Nazis,” he proclaimed, “are on the verge of ruin, my dear. Financial and otherwise.”
Willi’s eyes glazed over.
“Just look at this month’s elections,” von Schleicher chuckled. “ ‘Hitler Over Germany,’ indeed! The man flew to ten cities and lost twenty percent of his Reichstag seats.”
“And still the strongest party,” Fritz’s ex-wife, Sylvie, dolefully reminded.
“They have reached their zenith.” The general pulled off his monocle. “A year from now I assure you—you won’t remember Hitler’s name.”
What a relief when Fritz’s butler leaned over and whispered there was a call for Herr Inspektor-Detektiv.
“You may take it in the library if you would please, sir.”
“Pardon me,” Willi excused himself, shaking his half-dead legs.
Limping down the long, white hallway, he arrived at a glass- enclosed room that looked more like a fish tank than a library. It was Gunther calling from the Alex.
“Is she as beautiful as on screen? Sexy as Naughty Lola?”
“What are you calling about, Gunther?”
“Sorry to interrupt, Chief. But another floater’s turned up. A girl this time. Out in Spandau, under the citadel.”
Willi’s throat constricted as he toyed with the black receiver. “All right then, I’m on my way.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll let them know.”
“Oh, and, Gunther?”
“She is. Every goddamn inch of her. Even in men’s trousers.”
“I knew it! Thanks a million, Chief.”
Returning the earpiece to the hook, Willi stood there. Bodies in rivers were hardly news in the chaos passing for Berlin these days. But he’d never heard of one surfacing in Old Spandau, that picture-postcard village far on the outskirts of town. A girl no less.
Back in the living room, they made a big fuss about his having to depart so abruptly. “Off to catch another fiend?” Sylvie leapt to escort him, slipping an arm through his own.
“Quite a star you’ve become, eh, Kraus?” Dietrich scrutinized him as she might a fine race horse. “Even in America they know of the great Detektiv who nabbed the monster Child Eater of Berlin. You ought to come to Hollywood. I bet they’d make a picture about you.”
“I don’t think they could find anyone quite boring enough to play me.” He forced a little smile.
At this Fritz laughed much too loudly, the long, jagged dueling scar across his cheek turning bright red.
Willi took the new speedway out to Spandau. A racecourse in summer, the Avus was otherwise open to vehicular traffi c and usually empty, one of the best-kept secrets in Berlin. The forest pines cast a baleful darkness as he picked up velocity. How Germans loved their forests, he thought, shifting into fourth. The deeper and darker the better. Personally he preferred the beach. Hard, bright sunshine. Open space. This road though was truly superb. A white streak through the wilderness. He was driving far faster than he should, he knew, after so much champagne. Yet the adrenaline rush was too exhilarating to forgo. This silver BMW sports coupe was the only luxury he allowed himself. He didn’t collect art. Didn’t travel. Didn’t keep women. He was boring. The 320’s six cylinders soared to 100 kph. Just boring enough to have become the most famous police inspector in Germany. The machine took the road as if it were barely moving at 110, leaving the forest pines a dim blur. What an ass Fritz could be when he was drunk. Willi floored it and rocketed past 120, seeming to hover over the highway.
Willi’d trust him with his life though.
In half an hour he was slowing to a crawl through the medieval streets of Old Spandau, one of the few parts of Berlin with real provenance. Narrow roads lined with half-timbered houses led toward the fifteenth-century citadel whose stalwart walls still rose where the River Spree joined the Havel. As he parked, he could see the sun beginning to set over the gray water. Down by the riverbank he spotted several uniformed officers in their leather-strapped greatcoats and shiny black-visored helmets.
“Inspektor,” they said, parting, instantly recognizing him.
Even in the street these days people recognized him, asking for his autograph. Taking their photo with him. The Great Kinderfresser Catcher. A mixture of awe and envy enveloped him as the cops grouped around. A lot of guys in the department didn’t care for his fame. He didn’t care for it either, frankly. What he cared for was being a Detektiv. Enforcing the law. Without the law, the weak were defenseless.
“Be prepared for a mess,” an officer named Schmidt addressed him.
Willi’d seen more than his share of corpses in the Homicide Commission of Kripo, Berlin’s Kriminal Polizei. Mutilated corpses. Decapitated corpses. Cooked-and-stuffed-into-sausages corpses. But this time his heart froze. Even in a city such as Weimar Berlin, maddened by years of war, defeat, revolution, hyperinflation, and now the Great Depression, nearly a million unemployed, its government paralyzed, the whole place topsyturvy with depravity . . . sex maniacs, serial killers, red-and brown-shirted thugs battling for control of the streets . . . a city that had reached the end, of no tomorrows, teetering on the brink . . . of insanity . . . civil war . . . dictatorship . . . something . . . this was a portrait of horror.
Faceup on the water’s edge, a girl was cradled like Hamlet’s Ophelia in the mud and weeds. Girl. She was a beautiful young woman, maybe twenty-five. Her alabaster skin was bloated but not so much as to obliterate her features. Young. Fresh. Alive. Even in death. Her glassy eyes were wide open, warm, dark, Adriatic pools, reflecting the cold German sunset. A smile of tranquillity, triumph even, twisted across her lips. As he bent nearer, Willi sensed some long-encrusted lever in his heart shift, and he was seized by an urge to reach out and take the poor thing in his arms. Around her shoulder, like a toga, a thin, gray cotton smock half- torn away revealed her large, round breasts, the nipples already blackening. He noticed at once the dark hair was far too short . . . as if her head had been clean-shaven not long ago.
What really got him though, like a hammer blow, were the legs. Stretched out before her as if she were napping, they seemed almost supernaturally misshapen. He crouched toward the orange glare of the water, holding his breath against her stench. The feet were normal, but from the knees down all the way to the ankles, the bone structure appeared . . . backward. As if someone had taken giant pliers and turned the fibula around.
“Like a mermaid, eh?” Schmidt smirked.
“That’s what we’ve been calling her, sir.” Another cop made it clear the joke was not Schmidt’s. “Fräulein Wassernixe.”
“Never mind that. Has the pathologist been sent for?”
“Jawohl, Herr Inspektor-Detektiv.” Schmidt saluted. “He should be here momentarily.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dr. Ernst Hoffnung declared minutes later, after Schmidt and the others had lifted the poor girl onto the back of the ambulance.
Willi watched the senior pathologist give the body a quick going over.
“Suture marks,” Hoffnung said with certainty. “Somebody’s tampered with these legs. It’s extraordinary. From the feel of it . . . well, I don’t even want to say. I’ll have to open them up and look.” Hoffnung’s gloved fingers pressed and poked the entire length of the corpse, ending with a quick tour inside the mouth. “I’m not sure yet what the cause of death is, but I can tell you this. She’s almost certainly not German.”
Willi had worked with Hoffnung enough times not to underestimate his talents, but this was magic. “What tips you off?”
“Wisdom teeth all removed. Not one in a thousand German girls could afford it.”
“Any guesses where she’s from?”
“The only place they routinely work on teeth like that is America.”
Willi looked across the wide, gray expanse of water where the two rivers converged. Rain was coming in from the west, making a silvery sheet as it moved across the dense network of islands and inlets on the opposite shore. Somewhere out there, he ruminated, feeling a dozen eyes upon him, this girl had breathed her last.
“Who did you say called this in?” He turned to Schmidt.
“A Frau Geschlecht. Lives in that house, over there. Krone-burg Strasse seventeen.”
He handed Willi a report. The handwriting was blurry. Or was it Willi’s eyes?
Unable to look at it, he glanced across the street.
The house was more like a compound, several old buildings behind a high, white wall. Squinting he could just make out a sign above the doorway: institute for modern living. A sudden pounding filled his skull. Thunder. The first drops of rain. Checking his watch, he saw it was after six. At seven he had a dinner appointment he couldn’t miss. He’d have to come back in the morning.
The rain caught up with him, and by the time he reached Kurfürstendamm, the Ku-damm as natives called it—Berlin’s Great White Way—his speedy little BMW was hopelessly stuck in traffic. When he was a kid, motor vehicles were a rarity even on the Ku-damm. Now, despite the traffic signals, between the autos, trucks, streetcars, motorbikes, and double-decker buses, it was faster to walk than drive the grand boulevard. On the buildings all the plaster decorations, the scrolls and shells and roses of the past, had been stripped away for streamlined glass and steel. A thousand neon advertisements flashed from the sleek façades, their blues and reds blurring in the rain, bleeding across puddles, mesmerizing him as he inched past sidewalks thronged with people pouring from movie palaces, overflowing cafés, eddying around blazing department- store windows. Crowds. Neon. Noise. Berlin carried on. Despite all reason.
His throat never failed to tighten up when he passed Joachimstaler Platz, where Vicki had been killed. A truck jumped the curb one morning and crashed into the café window where she’d been sitting. Glass slashed her carotid artery. Two years and the pain had just slightly eased. Only the thought of Stefan and Erich a few blocks farther cheered him on.
He was a good half an hour late when he entered Café Strauss, a colossal affair on Tauentzien Strasse with seemingly hundreds of white-gloved waiters. Even across the crowded dining hall, though, the boys spotted him and began shouting, “Vati! Vati!
Over here!” Willi could see their maternal grandmother, Frau Gottman, in her black hat and fur-trimmed suit, frowning at them for such a display, drawing attention to themselves like pygmies. And then at him . . . for being late. Stefan, eight, and Erich, ten, however, never ones to be stifled by etiquette, jumped from their chairs, napkins still tucked to their collars, and flung themselves into his arms.
After Vicki had died, he and the Gottmans had agreed it was probably healthier if the boys came to Dahlem to stay with them. They had a big villa with a large garden, and Vicki’s younger sister, Ava, could care for them while completing university. Miraculously, the arrangement had worked. The boys were thriving. And the miracle worker was Ava. How she gleamed at the boys’ happiness, Willi saw as he hugged them. He had always thought she looked like Vicki, if a slightly more down-to-earth version. But her love of the children made her appear even more similar.
As Willi sat between the boys, their little arms hooked through his own, Frau Gottman adjusted her black feathered hat. A great beauty, once an actress on the Viennese stage, she possessed a skilled repertoire of subtle emotive abilities. “You knew of course dinner was for seven.” Guilt being one of her best.
Generally Sunday dinner was at their house, and every once in a while he was late. Okay. It was a far drive from town. They forgave him. But today the Gottmans had taken the boys into town, to see the Ishtar Gate. Ergo, no reasonable reason to Frau Gottman for Willi’s tardiness, since he lived a few minutes’ walk from the restaurant.
“If you must know,” he said with greater terseness than he intended, “it was police work. A young lady’s body in the Havel.”
His mother-in-law’s eyes widened. That he could say such a thing in front of the children! But his children weren’t the ones disturbed by his work, Willi knew. When she started fiddling with her pearls, he reached across the table and squeezed her hand, earning a slight smile. They’d both lost Vicki, after all.
And they both lived in a Germany growing worse by the week for people like them.
To the Gottmans, to most German Jews—his own parents had they lived long enough—it was incomprehensible that he’d become a Detektiv. Centuries of oppression made careers in law enforcement anathema. Police were the enemy. The tools of tyrants. If he really was so interested in the law, why hadn’t he become a lawyer? But a cop he’d become. A famous one at that. And to a man rooted in practicalities like Max Gottman, founder of Gottman Lingerie, achievement was what mattered, not bourgeois sensitivities.
“Goodness knows, Bettie”—he shot his wife the severest of looks—“it is the police alone keeping any stability in this country. The man is serving the republic, not the czar.” He turned to Willi with a look of concern. “How are you, my son? How was that terrible cold you had?”
After the boys had recited a roster of school achievements— Erich the highest grade on a geography exam, Stefan a part in his elementary school’s winter festival, Willi asked Ava how things were at the university.
“Willi. Don’t tell me you forgot. I graduated. A year and a half ago.”
His face turned red. “Yes, of course. How dumb of me.” He examined his plate as if something were written on it. “What are you doing now then? Besides raising the boys so superbly, I mean.”
Sometimes he really found it hard to look at Ava, so similar was she to his lost wife. Same velvet skin. Same chestnut eyes. That long, sleek curve to her neck.
“I’ve told you a dozen times. I have a part-time job.”
“Yes. Sorry. Doing what, again?”
“I’m a stringer, Willi. I send in reports about what’s going on at the university to one of the big Ullstein papers.”
“That’s fascinating. You know my old war pal Fritz—”
“Yes, I know, you goose. It’s Fritz I work for.”
He noticed Ava’s bemused smirk. How you live in your own little world, it seemed to say.
Vicki’d had such a natural air of glamour about her. Ten times a day Willi had looked at her and thought they ought to put that pose on a billboard in Potsdamer Platz. It was so perfect, so full of unconscious grace. Ava, he’d always thought, belonged more behind the camera than in front of it. Not that she was any less lovely, just endowed with a different elegance: that of keen intellect and artistry. It pleased him to know she was pursuing her writing. What she was doing with Fritz was another matter.
“So then . . . how are things at the university?”
The chestnut in her eyes quickly darkened. “Positively awful. A year ago I’d never have believed it. The whole student body’s stampeded to the Nazis. Anti-Nazi faculty are being boycotted. Jewish teachers and students get hate mail telling them to get out. It’s no different in the high schools. Erich hasn’t complained about it yet, but I’m the one who picks him up at Volksschule. Every week more students show up in Hitler Youth gear. I don’t know how much longer things will stay tolerable for him there.”
Willi felt like a man on an ocean liner who suddenly finds water around his feet. “But . . . what are you suggesting, Ava?”
“I don’t know.” She lifted one eyebrow just the way Vicki used to. “Maybe we’ll have to send him back to Young Judea, with Stefan.”
“Erich.” Willi looked at his oldest son. “Are you having trouble at the Volksschule because you’re Jewish?”
Erich turned white. He seemed about to say something, then stopped. He was not a child reticent with words.
To Willi this said more than enough. “Can you finish the semester out?” he asked, alarmed. “It’s only, what . . . another two weeks?”
Erich shook his head. “It’s not so bad, Vati. Really.”
“Then over recess we’ll assess the situation and take appropriate action. How does that sound?”
Willi noticed him quickly rub away tears.
After the main course Grandpa ordered the boys to go have a look at the dessert counters. “Take your time. Examine each one carefully before you choose,” Max instructed, knowing that dozens of creamy tarts and intricately layered cakes were on display.
As soon as they were gone, the jovial smile dropped from his face. “Willi, listen to me.” His voice descended to a tremulous whisper. “I know you’re not involved in politics, that you are merely an Inspektor-Detektiv with the police. But you do serve the government, and I know you have friends. So I’m asking you, begging you really, if you have or ever get even the least hint of information as to what is going to happen . . . you will promise to let me know, won’t you? It’s just that all our money is tied up in the business. If something were to happen, well . . . I’m thinking of the boys. Their future. If the time has come to pull out, I want to know, before it’s too late.”
“Pull out? What do you mean?”
“Sell the firm. Liquidate my assets. Transfer them abroad.”
“Why on earth would you do that?” Willi’s throat constricted. “Everyone’s in the same boat. England, France, even America, have all got just as many unemployed.”
“But they haven’t got Nazis.” Max’s eyes widened. “What if, God forbid, those maniacs manage to take over? The things they promise! How can one make rational choices in an atmosphere like this, never knowing what tomorrow will bring?”
Willi respected his father-in-law greatly, but inside him an anger exploded that made him feel like grabbing the man’s lapels and shaking sense into him. Pull out? What was he talking about? Had fear overcome all logic? They still had a constitution, yes?
An army. Laws. Had Max so little faith in Germany, in his fellow Germans, that he thought they’d sell themselves out to a gang of criminals? Had men like Willi fought and bled and died in the Great War, won an Iron Cross for bravery behind French lines, so that men like Max had to pack up and run?
Alexanderplatz—or the Alex—was the great traffic hub of central Berlin, a sprawling plaza crisscrossed by streetcar lines, swarming with motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, and framed by two of the city’s largest temples of mass consumption: the Wertheim and Tietz department stores. Beneath all this was the new U-Bahn station, a juncture of several of Berlin’s busiest subway lines, and overhead the S-Bahn station, which sent elevated trains hurtling to every far corner of the metropolis. The Alex was also home to the vast, old Police Presidium building, occupying one full corner on the southeastern side of the square, a soot-covered behemoth built in the 1880s, half a dozen stories tall with several churchlike cupolas. Coat and hat already in hand, Willi entered Entrance Six at precisely 8 a.m.
As an Inspektor-Detektiv he was head of one of numerous units in the Homicide Commission, with three Detektivs and a staff of fifteen working under him. As the only Jew in the commission, in the entire building practically, he felt it imperative to maintain an air of authoritarian distance with them all, except, that is, for his secretary, Ruta, and his junior apprentice, Gunther—both of whom he treated more like family than underlings.
“What news, Ruta?” he asked the sexy grandma of six, who despite the new longer skirts managed to show most of her leg. Years ago, she claimed, she’d been a Tiller Girl at the Wintergarten.
“All quiet on the western front, boss,” she replied, grinding away at her little wooden coffee mill. Every morning she made the most delicious fresh brew on the small gas stove Inspektor-Detektivs received. When she was in a good mood, they got hot Brötchen, too, from the Café Rippa downstairs. “No casualties since Miss Mermaid.”
Somehow, she always knew about things practically before they happened.
“Oh, and Pathology called. Dr. Hoffnung wants you to drop by as soon as you can.”
“Excellent. Gunther in?”
“Send him down to Hoffnung’s when he comes.”
The pathologist, smoking a pipe in his white smock, was staring out a window when Willi arrived. The moment Hoffnung turned around, Willi was struck by the dark disquiet in his eyes.
“It’s an extraordinary thing I’ve seen.” He motioned Willi to sit. “Had you told me about it the day before, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But there it is.” Hoffnung relit his pipe.
Willi saw the pathologist’s hand was trembling. Really trembling.
“Let’s begin with the externals.” The smoke seemed to relax Hoffnung. “That gray smock the girl was wearing is standard issue at Prussian state mental asylums. Numerous scratches on the scalp indicate her head had indeed been clean-shaven, a practice at several of those institutions. Other than that, there were neither major internal nor external injuries. She was very much alive when she went into that water. And didn’t drown. Managed to keep herself afloat fifteen or twenty minutes before she succumbed to hypothermia. Six, maybe seven hours before we pulled her out. I’d say she was one very determined young lady. Sure as hell wanted to live.”
“Those legs, Doctor—”
“Well, as I said. I’d never have believed such a thing possible. In both cases the fibula, the bone that runs from knee to ankle, had been surgically removed and replanted in the opposite direction, grafted in place with some highly advanced techniques I am wholly unfamiliar with. For years doctors have been hypothesizing about the possibility of bone transplants, but as far as I know, none has ever been successfully performed. Until now.”
“Bone transplant?” Willi, who thought he’d heard it all, was dumbfounded. “But—why?”
“I don’t know. To see if it could be done, I suppose. I only report what I saw.”
“How long ago might this transplant have occurred?”
“Six months, at most. The grafts were completely healed. The legs completely healthy—except of course that she never could have walked on them. Hobbled, perhaps. With crutches.”
“Hobbled.” Willi was trying to grasp this. “You mean the surgery crippled her?”
“Yes.” The doctor lowered his eyes. “That’s precisely what I mean.”
Willi felt his throat tighten. “The girl had been healthy? Her legs were healthy? And she was . . . experimented on? Deliberately disabled?”
Hoffnung stared out the window. “Almost beyond belief, I know. We all assume doctors are guardians of life. Implicitly trustworthy. Even ancient civilizations revered their medicine men. But here, today, in Berlin in 1932, we have a surgeon who appears to have had no qualms about using a human as a guinea pig.”
He turned to Willi with pained dismay. “Inspektor, whoever did this was a genius. A madman. But with exceptional talent. Surely one of the top orthopedic surgeons alive.”
Closing the door to Pathology, Willi ran straight into Gunther. At least a foot taller, though probably half Willi’s weight, this towering beanpole with a long Prussian nose and virulently infectious smile had come to Willi straight from the top tiers of the Police Academy in Charlottenburg. A country bumpkin from up north, all Berlin to him seemed a fairy tale. Oh, he stuck his foot in his mouth on occasion, no easy task considering he wore a 14 shoe. But he was smart. Efficient. Tenacious as a battering ram. And totally in awe of Willi. They got along supremely. Willi’d been planning to take the boy out to Spandau. But the autopsy report changed that.
“Yes! Good morning, sir!”
“Regarding the case from yesterday . . . I need some information.”
“Jawohl.”Gunther smiled, instantly ready with a notebook.
“I want the name of every top orthopedic surgeon in Germany, in the Berlin area especially.”
“Orthopedic surgeons. Got it.”
“The name of every American and Canadian female missing in Berlin over the past year.”
“I want you to check with every Prussian state mental asylum if any female patients between the ages of twenty-three to twenty-six have gone missing in the past year. And find out which of those institutions shave their patients’ heads.”
“Shave heads. Okay. What else, sir?”
“I need you to dig up whatever you can about bone transplants. See which doctors have written about it, lectured on it, what ever.”
“Bone transplants. Yes, sir. What else, sir?”
“That’s all. No. Wait. Better go to Hoffnung’s office. Tell him I want you to see the girl.”
“Go to Hoffnung. See girl.” Gunther kept writing.
“Look at her closely, lad. Listen to what the doctor tells you. And ask yourself, Gunther, ask yourself, what kind of world is this we live in?”
Willi drove alone in an unmarked police car back to where the Mermaid had surfaced. First stop: Kroneberg Strasse 17. The Institute for Modern Living. Stepping through a medieval-looking iron gate, he approached the large, white stucco house and pressed the front bell. Eventually slow, heavy footsteps approached. When the dark oak door finally opened, he was relieved not to have brought along Gunther.
Before him stood a naked woman, at least seventy, suntanned head to toe like burned toast, breasts sagging.
“Guten Morgen,”she said with an inquisitive glow in her eyes. “How might I be of service?”
“I’d . . . I’d like to speak with Frau Geschlecht if I may.”
“Frau Geschlecht’s in gymnastics now. She won’t be finished until half ten. Might I help you? I’m Fräulein Meyer.”
“Yes. How do you do, Fräulein.”
“You may come in of course. Everyone’s welcome here, regardless of race, income, age, or physical condition.”
“But you’ll have to take off all your clothes. Gawkers who refuse to disrobe are not permitted.” She smiled.
Willi heard some kind of strange drumming coming from inside.
“I’m not here to gawk, Fräulein, I assure you.”
He showed her his Kripo badge.
Her face, if not her body, registered appropriate alarm. “Oh, dear. My. Yes. Then you must come in. Frau Geschl-e-e-echt,” she yodeled into an open doorway.
Willi followed her uninvited, then froze at the sight.
In a large room with a wooden floor and not a stick of furniture, a dozen mostly elderly women, hair pulled tightly into “Gretchen” braids, danced completely naked, thrusting arms and legs about like nymphs in a magic spring, while a naked man who had to be ninety kept rhythm on a tom-tom.
“Beauty! Health! Movement!” they chanted.
“Frau Geschlecht!” Fräulein Meyer shrieked above it all. “There is a Kripo man to see you for goodness’ sake. An Inspektor-Detektiv!”
The tom-tom halted. The dancers turned in unison. One of the women stepped forward with a sagging chin held proudly, graciously high as she walked.
From magazines such as Berliner Illustrierte, Willi was familiar with the nudist movement sweeping Germany. Everyone from good middle-of-the-road burghers to socialist health-food fanatics seemed to have joined the cult of the naked body. Curative gymnastics, hydrotherapy, colonic cleansing, sun worship, sour-milk diets, electrical-wave treatments, were thought to bring about an exalted state of tranquillity, health, and beauty. A new awareness that the naked body radiated perfection. It was as if the whole German nation, Willi thought, desperate to rid itself of the past, were trying to start all over again—from scratch. And Germans, whatever else they were or weren’t, did what they did to the ultimate.
Dramatic though her entry may have been, Frau Geschlecht had little information to offer that wasn’t already in the police report. She had been on the third-floor solarium holding a yoga position, she reiterated, as unconcerned with her lack of clothing as Adam or Eve, when through the window she spotted what looked like another naked body. At first she thought it might be someone from the institute gone for a morning dip. But the longer she held the position, the clearer it became that the body wasn’t moving. After she’d phoned the Spandau police, Schmidt and the others arrived. She’d pointed out the spot on the shoreline and that was that.
“You’ve been a great service.” Willi smiled and put away his notebook.
“Please do come again.” She offered to let him kiss her hand. “We have introductory lectures every Wednesday and Sunday at seven.”
He retreated from the naked paradise with little more than unsightly images to shake from his head.
Outside, sunshine had broken through the morning clouds. The tall, round Citadel tower rose against the medieval town. Far to the right he could see the S-Bahn station, and across from it a large café with an outdoor beer garden. Perhaps I should snoop around in there, he thought. But over the inn’s front door he noticed the red flag and white circle branded with its fierce black swastika. Hitler was said to have designed the banner himself. And Spandau, Willi remembered, was a Nazi bastion.
He turned to the river. A long, white pleasure boat was working hard to cruise against the strong, gray currents. It hit him. Of course. The boat was traveling the same route the Mermaid had, in the opposite direction. He jogged the steps down to the pier and inquired when the next one was.
“But where would you wish to go, mein Herr? We have two boats,” he was none too pleasantly advised. “As it says right on this sign: the northern route or the southern. To Wannsee, or Palace Oranienburg. Each ten marks.”
He looked at his watch. It would have to be Oranienburg at noon. But before investing three hours on a boat ride, he knew, he ought to check in at work.
Next to a news kiosk stood a yellow phone booth.
“Kommissar Horthstaler says you’re to call him at once, urgent.” The very constraint in Ruta’s voice conveyed her excitment.
“Urgent. Ah, well, yes. Then be so good as to connect me with the Kommissar, would you, my dear.”
Through the open phone-booth door Willi noticed the late-morning headlines: GOVERNMENT CRUMBLES! VON PAPEN FORCED TO RESIGN!
“Kommissar Horthstaler—Kraus here.”
“Kraus, you are to go directly and at once to the Presidential Palace.”
“Jawohl, Herr Kommissar.” Willi was stunned. “May I ask why?”
“The Old Man wants to see you.”
“Von Hindenburg’s office was adamant. You are to get there immediately.”
“Jawohl. But . . . why would the president wish to see me?”
“How the hell should I know? Maybe he wants to appoint you chancellor.”
Had he not just read the headlines, Willi might have found this funny.
Copyright @2010 Paul Grossman
Paul Grossman has been a freelance journalist for many years with published articles in major magazines such as Vanity Fair and Details. He is also a long time teacher of writing and literature at the City University of New York. The next Willi Kraus novel, Children of Wrath, will be out in February, 2012.