An excerpt from Snow White Must Die, an international best-selling detective thriller by German author Nele Neuhaus released for the first time in the United States. (available January 15, 2013).
On a rainy November day police detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein are summoned to a mysterious traffic accident: A woman has fallen from a pedestrian bridge onto a car passing underneath. According to a witness, the woman may have been pushed. The investigation leads Pia and Oliver to a small village, the home of the victim, Rita Cramer.
On a September evening eleven years earlier, two seventeen-year-old girls vanished from the village without a trace. In a trial based only on circumstantial evidence, twenty-year-old Tobias Sartorius, Rita Cramer’s son, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Bodenstein and Kirchhoff discover that Tobias, after serving his sentence, has now returned to his home town. Did the attack on his mother have something to do with his return?
In the village, Pia and Oliver encounter a wall of silence. When another young girl disappears, the events of the past seem to be repeating themselves in a disastrous manner. The investigation turns into a race against time, because for the villagers it is soon clear who the perpetrator is—and this time they are determined to take matters into their own hands.
The rusty iron staircase leading downstairs was narrow and steep. He felt along the wall for the light switch, and seconds later the twenty-five-watt bulb illuminated the space with a dim light. The heavy iron door opened without a sound. He oiled the hinges regularly so they wouldn’t squeak and wake her up when he came to visit. Warm air, mixed with the sweetish scent of wilting flowers, rose to meet him. Carefully he closed the door behind him, turned on the light, and paused for a moment. The large room, about thirty feet long by fifteen feet wide, was simply furnished, but she seemed to feel comfortable here. He went over to the stereo and punched the play button. The raucous voice of Bryan Adams filled the room. He didn’t much care for this music, but she loved the Canadian singer, and he usually took her preferences into consideration. As long as he had to keep her hidden, she shouldn’t lack for anything. As usual she said nothing. She never talked to him, never answered his questions, but that didn’t bother him. He moved aside the folding screen that discreetly divided the room. There she lay, motionless and lovely on the narrow bed, her hands folded on her stomach, her long hair spread out like a black fan around her head. Beside the bed stood her shoes, and on the nightstand a bouquet of wilted lilies in a glass vase.
“Hello, Snow White,” he said softly. Beads of sweat formed on his brow. The heat was almost unbearable, but that was the way she liked it. Before, she had always been sensitive to cold. His gaze drifted to the photographs that he had put up beside her bed. He wanted to ask her whether he could put up a new one, but he needed to save this request for the proper moment, when she wouldn’t take offense. Cautiously he sat down on the edge of the bed.
The mattress sagged a bit under his weight, and for a moment he thought she had moved. But no. She never moved. He reached out his hand and placed it on her cheek. Her skin had taken on a yellowish hue over the years and now felt stiff and leathery. As always she had her eyes closed, and even though her skin was no longer as tender and rosy, her mouth was as beautiful as before, back when she still talked to him and smiled. He sat there for a long while looking at her. His desire to protect her had never felt so strong.
“I have to be going,” he said at last, regretfully. “I have so much to do.” He got up, took the wilted flowers from the vase, and made sure that the bottle of cola on her nightstand was full. “Tell me if you need anything, all right?”
Sometimes he missed her laughter, and then he felt sad. Of course he knew that she was dead, yet he still found it simpler to act as if he didn’t know. He had never given up hoping for a smile from her.
Thursday, November 6, 2008?
He didn’t say “See you later.” Nobody who was let out of the slammer ever said “See you later.” Often, very often over the past ten years, he had imagined the day of his release. Now it occurred to him that he’d only thought as far as the moment he would walk out the door into freedom, which all of a sudden seemed threatening. He had no plans for his life. Not anymore. Even without the droning admonishments of the social workers he had realized long ago that the world was not waiting for him, and that he would have to deal with all sorts of obstacles and defeats in a future that no longer seemed so rosy. He could forget about a career as a doctor, which had once been his ambition after he passed his A-level exams for the university. Under the circumstances the training he’d received to be a locksmith, which he’d completed in prison, might come in handy. In any case it was high time he looked life straight in the eye.
As the gray, spike-topped iron gate of the Rockenberg Correctional Facility closed behind him with a clang, he saw her standing there across the street. In the past ten years she was the only one who had written to him regularly, but he was still surprised to see her. Actually he had expected his father to come. She was leaning on the fender of a silver SUV, holding a cell phone to her ear, and puffing nervously on a cigarette. He stopped. When she recognized him, she straightened up, stuck the phone in her coat pocket, and flicked away the cigarette butt. He hesitated for a moment before crossing the cobblestone street, carrying the small suitcase with his possessions in his left hand. He stopped in front of her.
“Hello, Tobi,” she said with a nervous laugh. Ten years was a long time.
They hadn’t seen each other in all that time, because he hadn’t wanted her to visit him.
“Hello, Nadia,” he replied. It was strange to call each other by these unfamiliar names. In person she looked better than on TV. Younger. They stood facing each other, hesitant. A brisk gust of wind sent the dry fall leaves rustling across the pavement. The sun had slipped behind thick gray clouds. It was cold.
“Fantastic that you’re out.” She threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. “I’m glad. Really.”
“I’m glad too.” The instant he uttered this cliché, he asked himself whether it was true. Happiness was not the same thing as this feeling of strangeness, of uncertainty. She let him go because he made no move to return her embrace. In the old days she had been his best friend, the neighbors’ daughter, and he had taken her presence in his life for granted. Nadia was the sister he’d never had. But now everything was different, and not only her name. The tomboy Nathalie, who had been ashamed of her freckles, the gap in her front teeth, and her breasts, had been transformed into Nadia von Bredow, a famous actress who was in great demand. She had realized her ambitious dream to leave behind the village where they’d both grown up, to climb all the way to the top of the social ladder. He, on the other hand, could no longer put his foot even on the lowest rung. As of today he was an ex-con. Sure, he had served his time, but society was not exactly going to welcome him with open arms.
“Your father couldn’t get off work today.” Abruptly she took a step back, avoiding his eyes, as if his feeling of awkwardness was contagious. “That’s why I’m picking you up.”
“That’s nice of you.” Tobias shoved his suitcase into the back seat of her car and got into the passenger seat. The light-colored leather didn’t have a mark on it, and the inside of the car still smelled new.
“Wow,” he said, genuinely impressed, casting a glance at the dashboard, which looked like the cockpit of an airplane. “Cool car.”
Nadia smiled briefly and pressed a button without putting the key in the ignition. The engine sprang to life with a subtle purr. She expertly maneuvered the powerful automobile out of the parking place. Tobias glanced briefly at a pair of enormous chestnut trees that stood close to the prison wall. The view of those trees from his cell window had been his only contact with the outside world for the past ten years. The way the trees changed through the seasons was all that had remained of the world that had otherwise vanished in a diffuse fog beyond the prison walls. And now he, the convicted murderer of two girls, had to step back into this fog after serving his sentence. Whether he wanted to or not.
“Where should I take you? To my place?” Nadia asked as she turned the car onto the autobahn. In her most recent letters she had offered several times to let him stay with her temporarily—her apartment in Frankfurt was big enough. The prospect of not having to return to Altenhain and confront the past was tempting, but he declined.
“Maybe later,” he said. “First I want to go home.”
Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff was standing in the pouring rain on the site of the former military airfield at Eschborn. She had done up her blond hair in two short braids and put on a baseball cap. With her hands thrust deep in the pockets of her down jacket she was watching with a blank expression as her colleagues spread a tarp over the hole at her feet. During the demolition of one of the dilapidated aircraft hangars, a backhoe operator had discovered bones and a human skull in one of the empty jet fuel tanks. To the dismay of his boss he had then called the police. Work had come to a standstill for the past two hours, and Pia had been forced to listen to the insulting tirades of the ill-tempered foreman, whose multicultural demolition crew had instantly fled in alarm when the police showed up. The man lit his third cigarette in fifteen minutes and hunched his shoulders, as if that would prevent the rain from running down inside the collar of his jacket. He kept swearing to himself the whole time.
“We’re waiting for the medical examiner. He should be here soon.” Pia had no interest in either the blatant use of illegal workers at the site or the schedule for the demolition work. “Go ahead and tear down another hangar in the meantime.”
“Easy for you to say,” the man complained, pointing in the direction of the waiting backhoe and dump truck. “Because of a few bones we’ve got a big delay on our hands, and it’s going to cost us a fortune.”
Pia shrugged and turned her back on him. A car came bouncing over the uneven concrete. Weeds had gnawed through every gap in the taxiway and had turned the formerly smooth surface into a regular mogul run. After the airfield had been shut down, nature had emphatically proven its ability to reclaim every man-made structure. Pia left the foreman to bitch and moan and went over to the silver Mercedes that had pulled up next to the police vehicles.
“You certainly took your time getting here,” she greeted her ex-husband, not sounding overly friendly. “If I catch a cold it’ll be all your fault.”
Dr. Henning Kirchhoff, acting chief of Frankfurt forensic medicine, appeared unfazed by her remarks. He calmly donned the obligatory disposable coverall, exchanged his shiny black leather shoes for rubber boots, and pulled the hood over his head.
“I was giving a lecture,” he countered. “And then there was a traffic jam near the fairgrounds. Sorry. What have we got?”
“A skeleton in one of the old underground jet fuel tanks. The demolition crew found it about two hours ago.”
“Has it been moved?”
“I don’t think so. They removed only the concrete and dirt, then cut open the top of the tank because they can’t transport those things in one piece.”
“Good.” Kirchhoff nodded, said hello to the officers in the evidence team, and prepared to climb down into the pit underneath the tarp, where the lower portion of the tank was located. He was undoubtedly the best man for the job, since he was one of the few forensic anthropologists in Germany; human bones were his specialty. The wind was now driving the rain almost horizontally across the open taxiway. Pia was freezing. Water was dripping from the bill of her baseball cap, and her feet had turned to clumps of ice. She envied the men of the demolition team who had been idled, as they stood around in the hangar drinking hot coffee from thermoses. As usual, Henning worked meticulously; once he had some sort of bones in front of him, time and everything else lost all meaning for him. He knelt down at the bottom of the tank, bent over the skeleton, and examined one bone after another. Pia stooped to look under the tarp, holding on to the ladder so she wouldn’t fall into the pit.
“A complete skeleton,” Henning called up to her. “Female.”
“Old or young? How long has it been here?”
“I can’t say exactly yet. At first sight there’s no tissue remaining, so probably a couple of years at least.” Henning straightened up and came back up the ladder. The men of the evidence team began their work by carefully securing the bones and the surrounding soil. It was going to take a while before the skeleton could be transported to the forensic medicine lab, where Henning and his colleagues would examine it thoroughly.
Human bones were always being discovered at excavation sites. It was important to establish precisely how long the corpse had been buried there, since the statute of limitations on violent crimes, including murder, ran out after thirty years. It didn’t make any sense to check the missing persons files until they had determined the age of the victim at death and how long the skeleton had been in the ground. Air traffic at the old military airfield had ceased sometime in the fifties, and that was how long it had been since the tanks were last filled. The skeleton might belong to a female American soldier from the U.S. base located next to the airfield until October 1992, or it could have been a resident of the former home for asylum seekers on the other side of the rusty wire fence.
“Why don’t we go somewhere and get some coffee?” Henning took off his glasses and wiped them dry, then peeled off the wet coverall. Pia gave her ex-husband a surprised look. Café visits during working hours were simply not his style.
“Is something wrong?” she asked suspiciously. He pursed his lips, then heaved a sigh.
“I’m really in a jam,” he admitted. “And I need your advice.”
The village huddled in the valley and looming over it were two tall, ugly monstrosities that were built in the seventies, back when every community worth its salt had approved construction of high-rise buildings. On the slope to the right was Millionaires’ Hill, as the old established families called the two streets where the few newcomers lived in villas on spacious grounds. He felt his heart pounding nervously the closer he came to his parents’ house. It was eleven years ago that he was here last. To the right stood the little half-timbered house belonging to Grandma Dombrowski. For ages it had looked as though it was still standing only because it was squeezed between two other houses. A little farther on was the judge’s farm with the barn. And diagonally across from it was the restaurant his father owned called the Golden Rooster. Tobias swallowed hard when Nadia stopped in front. In disbelief he surveyed the dilapidated façade with the plaster flaking off, the blinds pulled down, and the gutters sagging along the eaves. Weeds had forced their way through the asphalt, and the gate hung crooked on its hinges. He almost asked Nadia to keep going—Quick, quick, just get out of here! But he resisted the temptation, said a curt thank-you, and climbed out, taking his suitcase from the back seat.
“If you need anything, just give me a call,” Nadia said in parting, then stepped on the gas and zoomed off. What had he expected? A cheerful reception? He stood alone in the small blacktop parking area in front of the building, which had once been the center of this dismal dump. The formerly white plaster was now weathered and crumbling, and the name Golden Rooster was barely visible. A sign hung behind the cracked milky glass pane in the front door. TEMPORARILY CLOSED, it said in faded letters. His father had told him that he’d given up the restaurant, citing his slipped disk as the reason, but Tobias had a feeling that something else had brought him to this difficult decision. Hartmut Sartorius had been a third-generation innkeeper who had put body and soul into the business. He had done the slaughtering and cooking himself, he pressed his own hard cider, and he never neglected the restaurant for a single day because of illness. No doubt the customers had simply stopped coming. Nobody wanted to eat dinner or celebrate a special occasion at an establishment run by the parents of a double murderer. Tobias took a deep breath and walked over to the courtyard gate. It took some effort just to get the gate open. The condition of the courtyard shocked him. In the summer, tables and chairs had once stood beneath the spreading branches of a mighty chestnut tree and a picturesque pergola covered with wild grapevines, and waitresses had bustled from one table to the next. Now a sad dilapidation reigned. Tobias’s gaze swept over piles of carelessly discarded refuse, broken furniture, and trash. The pergola had partially collapsed and the unruly grapevines had withered. No one had swept up the fallen leaves from the chestnut tree, and the trash can had apparently not been put out on the street for weeks, because trash bags were piled next to it in a stinking heap. How could his parents live like this? Tobias felt his last ounce of courage fade away. Slowly he made his way to the steps leading up to the front door, then reached out and pressed the doorbell. His heart was pounding in his throat when the door was hesitantly opened. The sight of his father brought tears to Tobias’s eyes, and at the same time a sense of rage was growing inside him, rage at himself and at the people who had left his parents in the lurch after he’d been sent to prison.
“Tobias!” A smile flitted over the sunken face of Hartmut Sartorius, who was only a shadow of the vital, self-confident man he had once been. His thick, dark hair had turned thin and gray, and his bent posture betrayed the weight of the burden that life had imposed on him.
“I…I really should have cleaned things up a bit, but I didn’t get any time off and—” He broke off, his smile gone. He merely stood there, a broken, shamefaced man, avoiding Tobias’s gaze, because he knew what his son was seeing.
It was more than Tobias could bear. He dropped his suitcase, spread his arms wide, and clumsily embraced this emaciated, gray stranger who he scarcely recognized as his father.
A little while later they sat awkwardly facing each other at the kitchen table. There was so much to say, and yet every word seemed superfluous. The gaudy oilcloth on the table was covered with crumbs, the windowpanes were filthy, and a withered plant in a pot by the window had long since lost the fight to survive. The kitchen felt damp and smelled unpleasantly of sour milk and old cigarette smoke. Not a piece of furniture had been moved, not a picture taken down from the wall, since he’d been arrested on September 16, 1997, and left this house. But back then everything had been bright and cheerful and clean as a whistle; his mother was an efficient housewife. How could she permit such neglect, how could she stand it?
“Where’s Mom?” Tobias finally said, breaking the silence. He saw at once that the question caused his father more embarrassment.
“We…we wanted to tell you, but…but then we thought it would be better if you didn’t know,” Hartmut Sartorius said at last. “It’s been a while since your mother…moved out. But she knows that you’re coming home today and is looking forward to seeing you.”
Baffled, Tobias stared at his father.
“What’s that supposed to mean—she moved out?”
“It wasn’t easy for us after you…went away. The gossip never stopped. Finally she just couldn’t take it anymore.” There was no reproach in his voice, which had turned quavery and faint. “We were divorced four years ago. She’s living in Bad Soden now.”
Tobias swallowed with difficulty.
“Why didn’t either of you tell me about this?” he whispered.
“Ah, it wouldn’t have made any difference. We didn’t want you to worry.”
“So that means you’re living here all by yourself?”
Hartmut Sartorius nodded, shoving the crumbs on the tablecloth back and forth, arranging them in symmetrical patterns and then scattering them again.
“What about the pigs? And the cows? How can you do all the work yourself?”
“I got rid of the animals years ago,” his father answered. “I still do a little farming. And I found a really good job in a kitchen in Eschborn.”
Tobias clenched his hands into fists. How foolish he had been to think that he was the only one being punished by life! He’d never understood before how much his parents must have suffered too. During their visits to the prison they had always acted as if their world was intact, yet it had all been a sham. How much effort that must have cost them! Helpless fury grabbed Tobias by the throat, trying to throttle him. He stood up, went over to the window, and stared blankly outside. His plan to go somewhere else after spending a few days with his parents, so he could try to start a new life far from Altenhain, now disintegrated. He would be staying here. In this house, on this farm, in this crappy dump of a village where everyone had made his parents suffer even though they were completely innocent.
The wood-paneled restaurant in the Black Horse was jam-packed, and the noise level was correspondingly high. Half of Altenhain had gathered at the tables and the bar, unusual for a Thursday night. Amelie Fröhlich balanced three orders of jägerschnitzel on a tray as she made her way over to table nine. She served the customers, wishing them “Guten Appetit.” Normally master roofer Udo Pietsch and his pals would have some dumb remark ready, aimed at her bizarre appearance, but today Amelie could have been serving naked and probably nobody would have noticed. The mood was as tense as during a World Cup game. Amelie pricked up her ears when Gerda Pietsch leaned over toward the next table occupied by the Richters, who ran the grocery store on the main street.
“I saw him arrive,” Margot Richter was saying. “What barefaced impudence to show up here, as if nothing had ever happened!”
Amelie went back to the kitchen. Roswitha was waiting by the counter for the order for Fritz Unger at table four, a medium rump steak with onions and herb butter.
“What’s all the uproar about tonight?” Amelie asked her older colleague, who had slipped off one of her orthopedic shoes and was discreetly rubbing her right foot over the varicose veins on her left calf. Roswitha glanced at the boss’s wife, who was too busy with all the drink orders to worry about her employees.
“The Sartorius kid got out of the joint today,” Roswitha confided in a low voice. “He did ten years for killing those two girls.”
“Oh!” Amelie’s eyes widened with surprise. She knew Hartmut Sartorius slightly. He lived all alone on that big, run-down farm of his down the hill from her house, but she hadn’t known anything about his son.
“Yep.” Roswitha nodded toward the bar where master carpenter Manfred Wagner was staring into space, his eyes glassy as he held in his hand his tenth or eleventh glass of beer this evening. Normally it took him two hours longer to get through that many beers. “Manfred’s daughter Laura—that’s who Tobias killed. And the Schneeberger girl. To this day he hasn’t told anyone what he did with their bodies.”
“Rump steak with herb butter and onions!” called Kurt, the assistant cook, shoving the plate through the serving hatch. Roswitha slipped her shoe back on and maneuvered her corpulent figure skillfully through the jam-packed restaurant to table four. Tobias Sartorius—Amelie had never heard that name before. She had arrived in Altenhain only six months ago from Berlin, and not by choice. The village and its inhabitants were as interesting to her as a sack of rice in China, and if she hadn’t been turned on to the job at the Black Horse by her father’s employer, she still wouldn’t know a soul.
“Three wheat beers, one small diet Coke,” shouted Jenny Jagielski, the boss’s wife, who had taken charge of the drinks. Amelie grabbed a tray, set the glasses on it, and cast a quick glance at Manfred Wagner. His daughter had been murdered by the son of Hartmut Sartorius! That was really intriguing. Here, in the most boring village in the world, undreamed of abysses suddenly opened up. She unloaded the three beers on the table where Jenny Jagielski’s brother Jörg Richter was sitting with two other men. He was actually supposed to be tending bar instead of Jenny, but he seldom did what he was supposed to do. Especially when the boss, Jenny’s husband, wasn’t there. She deposited the diet soda in front of Mrs. Unger at table four. Then she had time for a short pit stop in the kitchen. All the guests had their food, and Roswitha had gathered new details on a further round through the restaurant. With glowing cheeks and heaving bosom she now recounted to her curious audience what she’d learned.
Amelie, the assistant cooks Kurt and Achim, and Wolfgang the head cook were all ears. Margot Richter’s grocery store—Amelie had been surprised to hear that everyone in Altenhain said “we’re going to Margot’s,” although strictly speaking the store belonged to her husband—stood directly across from the former Golden Rooster. That was why Margot and the hairdresser Inge Dombrowski, who had stopped at the grocery that afternoon for a little chat, had been eyewitnesses to the return of that guy. He had climbed out of a silver luxury car and walked over to his parents’ farmhouse.
“He’s certainly got some nerve,” Roswitha fumed. “The girls are dead, and this guy shows up back here as if nothing had ever happened!”
“But where else would he go?” Wolfgang remarked nonchalantly, taking a gulp of his beer.
“I don’t think you get it,” Roswitha told him. “How would you like it if the murderer of your daughter suddenly showed up right in front of you?”
Copyright © 2013 by Nele Neuhaus.
Nele Neuhaus is one of the most widely read German mystery writers. More than two million copies of her books are currently in print. She lives near Frankfurt, Germany.