I Am Your Judge by Nele Neuhaus follows Police Detective Pia Kirchhoff and her partner, Oliver von Bodenstein, as they rush to find the Taunus Sniper, who seems to be murdering people at random, only to uncover a tragedy that might connect them all (Available January 12, 2016).
Police Detective Pia Kirchhoff is about to leave on her long-delayed honeymoon when she receives a phone call. An elderly woman has been shot and killed while walking her dog. A short while later another murder is committed and the modus operandi is eerily similar – a woman is killed by a bullet that smashes through her kitchen window … and in both cases the same weapon fired the shot. Two more murders follow in short order. None of the victims had enemies and no one knows why they were singled out. As fear of the Taunus Sniper grows among the local residents, the pressure rises on Detective Kirchhoff. She and her partner, Oliver von Bodenstein, search for a suspect who appears to murder at will, but as the investigation progresses, the police officers uncover a human tragedy.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Outside temperature, 37°F. No wind. No rain in the forecast. Perfect conditions.
He saw her coming. Her pink cap shone like a beacon in the early slate-gray light of the winter day. She was alone, as she was every morning. Only the dog trotting next to her, a dark, lithe shadow among the leafless bushes. Her route was always the same. She walked down Lahnstrasse, past the playground, then crossed the wooden footbridge over the Westerbach, turned right, and followed the paved path along the stream until it branched off to the left toward the school, which was the farthest point on her morning walk. From there she headed back via Dörnweg, which cut straight through the fields, then turned left after about a kilometer and crossed the wooden bridge to her house.
The dog did his business on the grass in the playground near the swings, and she conscientiously scooped up the poop and tossed the bag into the trash bin on the corner.
She walked past him not twenty meters away but didn’t notice him. From his hiding place, he watched her cross the bridge, its wood glistening with dew, and vanish beyond the trees. He had prepared himself to wait about half an hour, and was lying comfortably on his stomach under the dark green rain poncho. If necessary, he could lie there for hours. Patience was one of his strong points. The stream, only a thin rivulet in the summer, rushed and gurgled past his feet. Two crows hopped around him curiously, stared at him, and then lost interest. The cold was seeping through his thermal pants. A dove cooed in the bare branches of the oak tree above him. A young woman jogged past on the other side of the stream, light on her feet, perhaps exhilarated by the music she was listening to in her earbuds. In the distance, he heard the rattle of a local train and the melodious triad of a school bell.
Among the somber gray, brown, and black colors of winter, he discerned a flash of pink. She was coming. His heart rate quickened as he looked through the telescopic sight. He calmed his breathing and slowly moved the fingers of his right hand. She turned onto the path that curved toward the bridge. Her dog was trotting about a meter behind her.
His finger was on the trigger. He scanned the area to his left and right, but there was no one in sight. Except her. She followed the bend in the path and presented the left side of her face to him, exactly as he had planned.
He would lose a bit of the rifle’s precision by using a suppressor, but at a distance of less than eighty meters, that was no problem. The sound of the gunshot would have attracted too much unwanted attention. He breathed in and out, totally relaxed and focused. His field of vision contracted, settling on the target. He smoothly squeezed the trigger. The recoil that he’d anticipated jolted his collarbone. Only a fraction of a second later, the Remington Core-Lokt .30-06 round burst her skull. She sank silently to the ground. Bull’s-eye.
The ejected cartridge lay steaming on the damp ground. He picked it up and stuck it into his jacket pocket. His knees were a little stiff after the time he’d spent lying on the ground in the cold. With a few movements, he stripped down the rifle and stowed it in his sports bag. He folded up the poncho and stuffed it in the bag as well. After he had checked that no one was around, he left the bushes, walked across the playground, and headed off toward the Wiesenbad pool, where he had parked his car. It was 9:13 A.M. when he drove out of the parking lot and turned left onto the highway.
At the same time …
Chief Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff was on vacation. As of Thursday of the previous week, through January 15, 2013. Four whole weeks! Her last really long vacation was almost four years ago. In 2009, she and Christoph had gone to South Africa, and since then, they’d only had time for brief trips, but now they were flying almost to the other side of the globe, to Ecuador, and from there by ship to the Galápagos Islands. Christoph had often been hired as a guide by the organizer of the exclusive cruises, and Pia would be going along for the first time—as his wife.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and dreamily looked at the narrow gold ring on her finger. The official at the registration office was a bit miffed when Christoph put the ring on her left hand, but she had explained that the left side was closest to the heart, after all, so they had decided to wear their wedding rings on their left hands. That was only half the truth, because there were also other quite pragmatic reasons for this decision. For one thing, in her first marriage to Henning, she had worn her wedding ring on her right hand, as is customary in Germany. She wasn’t excessively superstitious, but she didn’t want to be reminded of her divorce or tempt fate unnecessarily. And second—and this was the main reason for her decision—it was extremely painful if someone gave her a firm handshake and almost crushed her finger with the ring.
She and Christoph had secretly and quietly been married on Friday at the registration office in Höchst, which was located in the garden pavilion of the Bolongaro Palace. Without inviting friends, family, or witnesses and without telling a soul. They weren’t going to announce their marriage until after they returned from South America, and then they’d throw a big party next summer at Birkenhof.
Pia tore herself away from gazing at the ring and went back to trying to stuff the piles of clothes on the bed into two suitcases as efficiently as possible. They wouldn’t need thick sweaters and jackets. Instead, they were taking summer clothes. T-shirts, shorts, bathing suits. She was also delighted to be escaping wintertime and all the Christmas festivities, which had never much appealed to her. Instead, she would lie in the sun on the deck of a cruise ship, reading a book or simply loafing for once. Of course, Christoph would have a lot to do, but he’d have free time, too, and the nights would be their own. Maybe they’d send postcards to their parents and her sister and brother—yes, especially to him and his arrogant wife—and tell them that they’d gotten married. Pia could still hear the disapproving comment of her sister-in-law, Sylvia, when she learned of her divorce from Henning. A woman over thirty has a better chance of being struck by lightning than of finding another man, Sylvia had pessimistically prophesied. Pia had in fact been struck by lightning one sunny morning in June six years before, in the elephant paddock of the Opel Zoo. And that was when she and Dr. Christoph Sander, the director of the zoo, had met for the first time and instantly fallen in love. For the past four years, they’d been living together at Birkenhof in Unterliederbach, and quite soon had concluded that they wanted to do so until they died.
The cell phone on the kitchen table rang. Pia ran downstairs to the kitchen and looked at the display before she took the call. “I’m on vacation,” she said. “Actually, I’m about to head out the door.”
“‘Actually’ is an extraordinarily vague word,” replied Oliver von Bodenstein, her boss, who occasionally had the nerve-racking habit of being too literal and nitpicky. “I’m very sorry to bother you, but I have a problem.”
“We have a body, and it’s close to your neighborhood,” Bodenstein went on. “I’m in the middle of an urgent matter. Cem is out of town, and Kathrin is out sick. Could you possibly run over there and take care of the formalities for me? Kröger and his people are already on the way. I’ll be there to take over as soon as I’m done here.”
Pia quickly went over her to-do list in her mind. She was on schedule and had made all the arrangements necessary for a three-week absence. She could finish packing in half an hour. She knew Bodenstein wouldn’t ask her unless he really needed her help. She could put in a couple of hours without going into panic mode.
“Okay,” she said. “Where do I have to go?”
“Thank you, Pia, I really appreciate it.” She could hear the relief in his voice. “It’s in Niederhöchstadt. The best way is to turn off the highway toward Steinbach. After about eight hundred meters, there’s a road across the field on your right. Turn there. Our colleagues are already on the scene.”
“Got it. See you later.” Pia ended the call, pulled off her wedding ring, and put it in a kitchen drawer.
* * *
As usual, Pia had no idea what to expect at the site where the body was found. When she called to say that she was on her way, the detective on watch had simply told her that a female body had been discovered in Niederhöchstadt. Near the exit to the town, she turned right onto a paved road through the fields; from far off, she could see several patrol cars and an ambulance. As she came closer, she recognized the blue VW van of the evidence team and other, unmarked vehicles. She parked on a small patch of grass in front of a thicket, grabbed her beige down jacket from the backseat, and got out.
“Hello, Ms. Kirchhoff,” a young uniformed colleague standing at the cordon greeted her. “You’ll have to go around behind the bushes to your right.”
“Good morning and thank you,” she replied, and followed the path he’d indicated. The bushes created a little grove in the midst of the open field. As Pia went around the corner, the first person she encountered was Chief Detective Inspector Christian Kröger, head of the evidence team of Hofheim Kommissariat-11.
“Pia!” Kröger shouted in amazement. “What the heck are you doing here? You’re on—”
“Vacation,” she said with a smile. “Oliver asked me to get started out here for him. As soon as he arrives, I’m gone. What have we got?”
“Nasty business,” said Kröger. “A woman was shot in the head. In broad daylight and less than a kilometer from the Eschborn police station.”
“When did it happen?” Pia asked.
“Shortly before nine, apparently,” said Kröger. “A bicyclist saw her collapse. Bam, just like that. He didn’t hear a gunshot. But the ME thinks she was shot with a rifle, fired from some distance away.”
“Shit. Is Henning here yet? I didn’t see his car.”
“No, fortunately we’ve got a new guy. Ever since your ex clawed his way to the top medical job, he hasn’t had time for any outside jobs.” Kröger grinned. “Which is fine with me.”
He harbored a deep dislike for Henning Kirchhoff, and the feeling was mutual. The two often were as touchy as vying prima donnas, though it never affected the thoroughness of their work. That was the only reason everyone else put up with their childish wrangling as they questioned each other’s competence. Their verbal battles at various crime scenes had long been legendary.
After Professor Thomas Kronlage retired the previous summer, Henning became director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine. The university had wanted to consider outside applicants, but Henning’s qualifications in the field of forensic anthropology were so valuable that it had given him the director’s post so it wouldn’t lose him.
“What’s the new guy’s name?” Pia asked.
“I forget,” muttered Kröger. “Sorry.”
The man in the white overalls who was squatting next to the corpse slipped back his hood and stood up. Not that young, Pia saw, but his shaved head and thick mustache made it difficult to guess his age. A bald head did make a man look older than he really was.
“Dr. Frederick Lemmer.” The medical examiner took off his right glove and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Same here,” Pia replied, shaking his hand. “I’m Pia Kirchhoff from K-11 in Hofheim.”
The site where a dead body has been discovered was no place for polite conversation, so Pia let the brief introduction suffice. She prepared herself for the sight that awaited her and stepped closer to the body. The knitted pink cap and the white hair of the victim formed surreal splotches of color against the gray asphalt, brown mud, and a blackish pool of blood.
“Schindler’s List,” Pia muttered.
“Pardon me?” Dr. Lemmer inquired somewhat testily.
“The movie with Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley,” Pia said.
The ME grasped at once what she was referring to and smiled. “You’re right. It does look a bit like that. The film was in black-and-white, and only the girl’s coat was red.”
“I’m a visual person. For me, the first impression of a crime scene is always important,” Pia explained. She put on latex gloves and squatted down. Lemmer did the same. In her many years at K-11, Pia had learned to preserve an internal distance. That was the only way to bear looking at gruesomely mutilated and disfigured corpses.
“The bullet penetrated the left temple.” Dr. Lemmer pointed to the clean entry wound on the victim’s head. “When it exited, it blew off almost the whole right side of the skull. Typical of a large-caliber semi-jacketed round. In my opinion, the murder weapon was a rifle, and the shot was fired from a long distance.”
“And since in this area, it could hardly be a hunting accident, I would assume it was a well-aimed shot,” said Kröger, who was standing behind them.
Pia nodded and studied what was left of the victim’s face. Why would a woman between sixty and seventy years old be shot on a public thoroughfare? Was she a victim of opportunity, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Some of Kröger’s people, in their white overalls, were using metal detectors to comb through the thicket and adjoining pasture, searching for the projectile. Others were taking photographs or recording measurements with an electronic device in order to track the direction from which the shot had been fired.
“Do we know who she is?” Pia got up and looked at Kröger.
“No, she had nothing with her but a house key. No wallet, no cell phone,” he said. “Do you want to talk to the witness? He’s sitting in the ambulance.”
“Yes, in a minute.” Pia looked around and frowned. Empty fields and pastures. In the distance, the TV tower and the skyline of Frankfurt glittered in the pale winter sunshine that had fought its way through the thick cloud cover. About forty meters away, tall trees lined a stream. Through the bare branches, she saw a playground and beyond it the first houses of the Niederhöchstadt district of Eschborn. Paved roads with streetlights ran through the fields. A parklike recreational area, ideal for riding bikes, jogging, speed-walking, and—
“Where’s the dog?” Pia asked suddenly.
“What dog?” Kröger and Dr. Lemmer asked in surprise.
“This is a dog leash.” Pia bent down and pointed to a worn, dark brown leather leash, which was wrapped around the woman’s shoulders and torso. “She was out here walking her dog. And since we found no car key on her, she must live nearby.”
* * *
“I’m so glad that I’ve got three weeks’ vacation.” Karoline Albrecht gave a contented sigh and stretched out her legs. She was sitting at the dining room table in her parents’ house with a cup of her favorite tea in front of her—rooibos vanilla—and she could feel the stress of the past weeks and months gradually sloughing off her and making way for a much-needed rest. “Greta and I will get cozy at home, or else we’ll just sit around here with you and eat cookies.”
“You’re most welcome.” Her mother smiled at her over the rims of her reading glasses. “But didn’t you two want to fly off to somewhere in the sun?”
“Oh, Mama, I think I’ve flown more than Carsten this year—and he’s a pilot!” Karoline grinned and sipped her tea. But her cheerfulness was all an act.
For eight years, she’d been an executive partner at an international management consulting firm, responsible for the restructuring and internationalization of companies; and two years ago, she’d been promoted to head of management consulting. Ever since then, she had spent most of her time in hotels, airplanes, and the VIP lounges at airports. She was one of the very few women to hold such a high position, and the obscene amount of money that she earned seemed almost immoral. Her daughter, Greta, was in boarding school, her marriage had ended long ago, and all her friendships had fizzled out over time for lack of attention. Her job had always been her highest priority; even when she passed her university entrance exam with a grade-point average of 4.0, she had wanted to be the best. She had completed her degrees in business administration at elite universities in both Germany and the USA, graduating with honors. And afterwards, her career had proceeded at a meteoric pace.
But for the past couple of months, she had felt empty and exhausted, and with the fatigue came doubts about the meaning of her work. Was what she did really so important? More important than spending time with her daughter and occasionally enjoying life a little? She was forty-three and had never really lived. For twenty years, she had rushed from one deadline to the next, living out of suitcases and surrounded by people who meant nothing to her and vice versa. Greta felt comfortable with Carsten’s new family; she enjoyed having siblings, a dog, and a stepmother who was actually closer to her than her own birth mother. Karoline was on the verge of losing her daughter, and it was her own fault, because she had made herself dispensable in her daughter’s life.
“But you do enjoy your job, don’t you?”
Her mother’s voice tore Karoline Albrecht out of her reverie.
“I’m no longer so sure about that,” she replied, setting her cup on the table. “That’s why I’m taking a leave of absence next year. I’d like to spend more time with Greta. And I’m thinking about selling the house.”
“Really?” Margarethe Rudolf raised her eyebrows but didn’t seem particularly surprised. “Why is that?”
“It’s much too big,” said Karoline. “I’m looking for something a bit smaller and cozier for Greta and me. Something like this.”
She had chosen to leave the house as it was when she bought it: stylish, luxurious, and energy-efficient, 4,300 square feet of living space with exposed concrete floors and every conceivable comfort. But it had never felt really homey, and she secretly yearned for her parents’ comfortable old house where she grew up—with its creaky wooden stairs, high ceilings, battered checkerboard floor tiles in the kitchen, bay windows, and the outmoded bathrooms.
“We should drink a toast to your new life,” her mother suggested. “What do you think?”
“Sure, I’m on vacation, after all.” Karoline smiled. “Have you got a bottle in the fridge?”
“Of course. Champagne,” her mother said with a wink.
A little later, they were sitting across from each other, clinking their glasses in a toast to Christmas and to Karoline’s decision to make some fundamental changes in her life.
“You know, Mama,” she said, “I’ve been so driven, wanting desperately to live up to the perfect image that everyone had of me: disciplined, reasonable, organized down to the last detail. But it was stressing me out because I wasn’t doing all that out of genuine interest, but only because everyone expected it of me.”
“You’ve set yourself free now,” her mother concluded.
“Yes. Yes, I have.” Karoline took both her mother’s hands. “At last I can breathe again and sleep soundly. I feel like I’ve been living underwater for years but suddenly surfaced and realized how beautiful the world is. Work and money aren’t everything in life.”
“No, sweetheart, you’re right about that.” Margarethe Rudolf smiled, but her expression was sad. “Unfortunately, your father has never come to that realization. Maybe someday he will, after he retires.”
Karoline doubted it.
“You know what, Mama? We’re going shopping,” she said firmly. “And we’re going to cook together on Christmas Eve, the way we used to.”
Touched, her mother smiled and nodded.
“Yes, let’s do that. And why don’t you bring Greta over tomorrow evening, and we’ll bake cookies. Then you two will have something to munch on when you’re here for Christmas.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 Nele Neuhaus.
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Nele Neuhaus storms the German bestseller charts with each of her crime novels featuring investigative team Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff. Initially self-published, there are now over 5 million copies of her books in print. She is also the author of Snow White Must Die, Bad Wolf, and The Ice Queen.