Frieda Lockner has a secret: she hears echoes of the dead.Despite her misgivings, she uses her 'gift' to help Kriminalkommissar Tobias Schluter solve the most brutal crimes. But with a serial killer known as The Stick Man haunting nighttime Münster, Frieda must face her darkest fears yet....
The devil is real. The world denies this glibly, but it is a wary disbelief, accompanied by a nervous laugh and a glance into the dark.
-- Fr. Carsten Derrick, 'Homilies'
They say that bad things happen in threes. Maybe this was the reason why the night they found the body behind Club Charlotte, Frieda's key snapped in the lock of her mailbox, moments before she discovered the poltergeist had been up to its old tricks again.
She picked up the crucifix from the spot behind the front door where it had been flung. The perpetrator was getting more and more insistent. She had nailed the cross firmly to the wall this time, but it had clearly been removed as easily as if she had merely secured it with sticking tape, leaving three neat round holes in the white wall. The nails were coated with a light dusting of plaster. But more disturbing were the droplets of what looked like blood oozing from the brazen Christ figure itself. That was if she could trust her senses. Seeing, even feeling, touching, tasting meant nothing in terms of proving an objective reality. She had learned this all too well the last few weeks. Hallucinations and the solid security of the here and now overlapped and deceived each other. That was the truth of it.
She blinked. The bleeding had disappeared, confirming the nonsense that had been made of her life by her uninvited and unseen guest.
Frieda laid the crucifix down on a cupboard in the hallway. Several pots and pans cluttered the doorway to the kitchen, and a glance into the living room told her that her sofa had shifted around a metre or so out from the wall.
Her visitor was certainly becoming demonstrably more physical. At the beginning, it had been content simply to slide a piece of cutlery a few centimetres across her kitchen worktop. But in the last few days, the activity had intensified. She could only hazard a guess as to why.
Frieda stacked the saucepans into the cupboard where they belonged and shoved the sofa back into place before wearily collapsing onto it with a yawn, grinding the heels of her palms into her gritty eyes. She thought how the poltergeist's antics were more annoying than they were eerie. Certainly not eerie enough to rob her of sleep.
Or so she thought. As she opened her eyes and blinked them back into focus, the unexpected script scrawled on the ceiling in spidery trails of what looked like black marker pen floated into clarity, like the bottom of a pond once the ripples have cleared.
Three words. Only three, and seemingly random, arbitrary, but enough to chill her bones:
"Eins Zwei Drei.'
She had only herself to blame, of course. Or rather, the 'gift' that she possessed. But if it were a gift, then it was in the German sense of that word — 'poison.' It certainly felt less like a present than a pollutant, an infection for which there was no cure.
Her parish priest, confessor and friend, Father Carsten Derrick had insisted that God had bestowed her particular ability upon her, although he had failed to explain why the Almighty would do so in contravention of Church teaching. Maybe God was a God of surprises after all, just as the current Pope had claimed.
Either way, Frieda was at least grateful for Father Derrick's quiet support. She could seek sanctuary with him and share his confidence without fear of recrimination or rebuke.
What Frieda's reality boiled down to had already been snapped up by Hollywood and become a cliche. She saw dead people. Well, no, she didn't. Not exactly. It was less overt than that. Maybe that was why Father Derrick had been prepared to bend the rules in her favour. It was necromancy by proxy. Not so much an ability to see or communicate with phantoms, as it was to pick up on the echo of a life that had been shot into eternity. She was cursed to hear the legacy of the report. A reverberation that might be infused with a sense of pain or peril that Frieda could empathise with, tune into. She did not so much see dead people as hear their last pitiful Auf Wiedersehen.
And it was this same ability that had resulted in her current domestic crisis. After vowing to keep her private and professional life separate, and succeeding for several years, a few weeks ago she had in a very real way brought her work home with her.
Frieda could still recall the sense of loneliness she had felt at the murder scene. Feel it so deeply that it left her lachrymose and overwhelmed her with melancholy. The cellar lit by cold fluorescence that revealed the colder intent of a sadist who had chained and tortured his victim over a period of several days and daubed the walls in their bodily fluids. That night she had not only heard the sickening echo of a soul rent prematurely from life, she had somehow acted as a conductor for it to earth through her and follow her back to her small Muenster apartment.
That night she had sensed an emptiness so intolerable in its totality that it drained her. Maybe that is how the unfortunate soul had become attached to her. An empathy that had created a vacuum so great that the restless spirit had been irresistibly sucked into it. And now it was desperately seeking to communicate with her, like an autistic child incapable of forming its thoughts and feelings coherently, and so having to resort to clumsy actions in its frustration.
Frieda reconsidered as she lay staring upwards at the scrawl on her ceiling. The attempts to communicate, however annoying, however unsettling, were fundamentally pitiable. The Catholic church deemed that those human souls who lingered on the mortal plane were trapped in a purgatorial state, paying their dues but bound to the earth by some unfinished business. In the case of the unfortunate victim in the cellar, that business might be nothing more or less than a quest for justice. The perpetrator was still at large. The police had sought Frieda's help in the hope of her interpreting some psychic remnant at the scene to aid their search. But all that had prevailed upon her senses had been that gaping maw of loss and emptiness. As if it had so consumed the victim that he could entertain no other notion. Like a radio turned up at full volume that drowns out any other sound.
Almost randomly, Frieda recalled a tree from her childhood. The six metre monstrosity that had stood in a neighbouring garden, just across the street from her parents' house in the small Westfalian village of Ottmarsbocholt. To this day she had seen no other tree like it. It's boughs had drooped, but with none of the grace of a willow. They just hung without any sense of form or symmetry, their covering of strange deep purple leaves suggesting a disturbing air of despair and hopelessness. It represented in physical form just what Frieda had felt in that cellar. And to some degree the roots were now a part of her. She had unwittingly established some kind of organic connection, and as much as Frieda pitied the entity — she could not allow herself to call it a soul, to personify it — it troubled her.
Emotional and physical exhaustion finally overwhelmed her thoughts, and Frieda fell into a deep and, mercifully, dreamless sleep.
"I thought I'd give you a call to check you are okay after last night. I mean, you never get used to seeing that kind of shit."
There was a deep sigh on the end of the phone. "I should know. I've had to wallow in it for the last twenty years."
Frieda stifled a yawn as she combed her fingers through her tangle of auburn hair. She hadn't slept on the couch in ages. Now she knew why. She might as well have not slept at all.
"What time is it?" she asked blearily.
"A little after eight."
"And you want to know if I've had any revelations since I got home."
She smiled as the seasoned Kriminalpolizei detective, Tobias Schluter let out a snort. "Is that your psychic powers talking, Frau Lockner, or am I just so transparent?"
"Mm, no. And yes," chuckled Frieda. But her mirth was short lived as the image of the young girl's contorted body lying in the rubbish-filled alleyway behind Club Charlotte forced its way through her drowsiness.
"Nothing more," she said quietly, squeezing her eyes shut, but failing to diminish the power of the mutilated girl's staring eyes and bare-toothed grimace that was seared into her mind. "I'm sorry, Kriminalkommisar."
He was right. Nothing could ever inure a sane human being to that sort of horror.
What had Father Derrick once reminded her? That when Satan fell, he took a third of the host of heaven with him, so we should hardly be surprised if we bump into some of his infernal minions now and again. Frieda could readily believe that one such diabolical entity had been the artist of that horrific scene.
Schluter sighed, his disappointment evident.
"Do you think we are dealing with the same culprit?" asked Frieda.
"That's what I was hoping you might help shed some light on, Frau Lockner. At first glance, I'd say no. Our cellar boy was strung up for a week before he died, as you're aware. The killer sliced chunks off him throughout before putting the poor bastard out of his misery. Meanwhile, our girl last night was strangled and then apparently cut up postmortem by the murderer."
Frieda closed her eyes and mentally transported herself back to the rear of Club Charlotte. Once more she could hear the distant throb of the dance music pulsating in the chilly air. Had the nauseating smell of rotten food and stale urine threatening to make her heave all the more as she stood beside the lifeless body lit up by the cold white glare of crime scene lamps.
The girl was no older than nineteen, maybe twenty. Her body was twisted, asymmetric; the legs wrenched at impossible angles as though the killer had twisted them in the sockets like the limbs of a doll. One arm was flung outwards at ninety degrees, one finger pointing to the other arm that had been crudely severed and discarded about two metres from the rest of the naked corpse.
Meanwhile those eyes, and that horrific grin of exquisite terror were framed by blood-matted dark hair that had been peeled back from the skull, the scalp flayed jaggedly from the white bone with all the precision of a wolf tearing at prey.
The first impressions hit Frieda in the gut as she revisited the scene. But her gift was to move beyond them. What could she hear above the tumult of such vivid visceral horror?
Pain, despair, and loss, always loss. These were always the prominent echoes, deafening at times, but usually not so that other imprints could not be recognised in the background static caused by the snuffing out of an existence. As Frieda recollected that moment, she tried once more to make sense of it, identify any kind of coherent signature within the melee of confusion.
Happiness? Frieda cocked her head slightly like a spaniel alerted to a faint noise. She isolated it, homed in on the faint trace. Yes, she had not been mistaken. A residual contentment was coming through. And satisfaction. Sexual? Perhaps, but she could not be sure. And encompassing these echoes like a shell, a further ripple. Recognition, knowledge, affiliation. An unmistakeable awareness that could only mean one thing in Frieda's experience.
"There is something," she breathed into the telephone receiver.
Frieda opened her eyes, which shone with conviction. "I didn't pick up on it at the time," she said. "But I think the girl knew her killer."
"Really knew? Casual acquaintance? What?" snapped Schluter.
Frieda frowned. "More than casual. There's a depth, an attachment, at least on the victim's part. The trace is too strong."
"Might she have been thinking of some other person at the time of her death?" Schluter asked dubiously. "Current boyfriend or even an ex-lover she's yearning for at the time of crisis?"
Frieda shook her head as the echoes became deafening. "No. There's betrayal. A strong sense of betrayal. She's confused, angry, disbelieving. She can't understand why he's doing this."
Schluter was silent for a second as Frieda emerged from her analysis, one by one mentally turning down the volume knobs of the various psychic noises until all fell silent and she was left with just the sound of her own breathing.
"All right, Frau Lockner," Schluter sighed. "It's textbook. Victim knows the killer. Never a surprise. We're doing the usual round of exes, friends of friends, family members."
He paused. "But why only pick this up now, Frieda?" he enquired curiously. "Why not last night at the scene?"
Frieda shook her head, rubbing her eyes till they were red. She felt so tired.
"It's not an exact science, Inspector," she admitted. "Not science at all in fact. Sometimes the scene is just too intense. It's a maelstrom of emotions all bombarding me at once. Sometimes only the benefit of distance can help me resolve all the various pieces of the jigsaw and see how they fit."
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle another yawn then said, "I just hope it's of help."
"Always, Frieda," came the police officer's ready reassurance. "Always. Now go back to bed."
But although she was bone-weary and took Schluter's advice, Frieda could not sleep. She tossed and turned for an hour before finally giving up. She took a shower, threw on a pair of jeans, t-shirt and a comfortable cardigan, wove her hair into her trademark single braid and after a glance in the hallway mirror decided she looked much more presentable. Other than for the dark circles under her eyes, she looked close to human.
Had she blinked she would have missed the movement behind her. Her heart began to race as she stared at the reflection of her bedroom, and the open doorway that the almost imperceptible shadow had flit across. Might her eyes have been playing tricks? Given her weariness that was not unlikely. But with all that had been happening the last few weeks, the likeliest explanation was not a rational one.
She turned slowly and stared into the room. She sidestepped a little so that her bed came into view. Just fifteen minutes earlier she had left it unmade, the duvet scrunched up in a ball as it always was, the pillows askew and dented where her head had lain on the soft feathers of their interior. But now the covers were smooth and flat, the pillows plumped, the bed made with all the professionalism of a five-star hotel's room service.
Frieda swallowed, her lips and throat suddenly parched. She had thought that the poltergeist could not disturb her, but this unexpected helpfulness was something other than annoying, and in every way more unnerving than the attack on the crucifix, or the rearrangement of kitchen utensils. This felt more invasive. It was an intrusion upon the place where she was most vulnerable, the room where for several hours each night she lay unconscious, undefended. The making of the bed was less a sign of helpfulness, than a reminder from the entity that it could reach her anywhere, not least where she was most unguarded. It felt like a threat.
She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. She told herself that she was overreacting, hyping a mischievous prank into something more. In the long history of the poltergeist phenomenon, the recorded incidents of direct physical assault could be counted on one hand. The rarity should have consoled her. But the fact that there were recorded exceptions loomed larger in her mind than the benign majority.
She grabbed her coat from the peg in the hallway, and shoved her feet into some flat shoes. She needed to get out. She needed some air.
The devil's work is largely implicit. He operates under cover and in the shadows. A hellish agent provocateur, whispering deviance into the ears of men, luring them into sin.
-- Fr. Carsten Derrick, 'Homilies'
It was a little after nine and the rush hour traffic had started to thin when Frieda left her apartment on Weseler Strasse. She filled up her small Fiat at the nearby Westfalen tankstelle, and although it was far too early grabbed a burger and fries from the drive-through Burgerking next door to the gas station. Then she took the A43 autobahn and headed out of the city.
The road ahead was clear. Most of the traffic was on the opposite carriageway, heading into Münster at this start of another typical work day. She pressed her foot to the accelerator and the Fiat growled reluctantly at her eagerness to leave the city behind.
Frieda was a child of the German countryside, having been raised among the farms, forests and fields of rural Nordrhein-Westfalen. In her teens she had grown to hate the silence and solitude, and had yearned for the hustle and bustle and excitement of the city. University had beckoned the bright Gymnasium student, and this had been just the excuse she had needed to make her escape. She had found an affordable flatshare, and for a time the usual round of gigs and parties that comprise student life outside the lecture halls had given her a much-needed shot of excitement. But then it all seemed to change overnight.
One night, or to be more precise, one very early morning she and a group of friends had been heading home after a particularly protracted bar crawl. The streets were teeming with fellow revellers pouring out of clubs and takeaways, making it seem more like Saturday afternoon than early Sunday morning. Police officers were always a regular feature to keep the rowdiness in check, so at first Frieda and her friends thought little of the flashing police car lights outside the theatre on the corner of Neubruckenstrasse. It was a common enough sight.
It was only when they were within several metres of the scene that it became clear that the police presence signified something more serious than just the usual drunken misbehaviour. A cordon had been set up, and a uniformed officer shepherded them around the area. By the pulsing blue lights of the police car, a body could be seen lying inert beneath a white sheet on the blood-spattered pavement.
And then it had happened for the first time.
Frieda had stumbled as what felt like a huge weight, an emotional boulder, unexpectedly crashed down onto her. More than that, the burden seemed to penetrate her and explode inside her chest, her stomach her head. Billows of rage, confusion and ultimately hysteria flooded her, deluged her self-control and swamped her consciousness. She had heard a piercing shriek that froze her blood. She only discovered later that it had emerged from her own throat.
That was how her gift, her curse, had manifested itself. The echo of the deceased young theatre-goer, stabbed in the street for a few Euros and his iPhone, whose final moments had been somehow recorded in the fabric of his surroundings, had hit her in all its raw power, literally knocking her from her feet. In the years since, she had learned to brace herself against this initial blow, and to filter the emotional onslaught. But back then she'd had neither the understanding nor the emotional strength to do this. The episode had simply hospitalised her.
It was as a result of that first incident that she had encountered Schluter and Fr Derrick. The latter, as chaplain at the St Franziskus Krankenhaus on Hohenzollernring, had been interested in her spiritual welfare; while Schluter had been understandably keen to interview the crazy girl who had screamed disjointed threats and accusations into the air at a murder scene.
She had been discharged from the hospital after a week, and a battery of tests that confirmed her excellent health and state of mind. But that first terrifying experience took its toll and Frieda had slipped into a morass of anxiety and depression. Her studies suffered, one by one her friends stopped calling, and eventually only the peace and quiet of the countryside she had once so despised could offer her soul the balm it required. She had returned to the family home and gradually recovered.
Her mother had arranged a twenty-four session round of therapy, stretching over the course of a year, with a local and respected psychologist. But although Dr Bloemberg was pleasant enough, and cordial, and made her feel at ease, his psycho-babble ultimately meant and achieved little. His insistence that she summarise her life pictorially -- seated at a desk in one corner of his consulting room with wax crayons and paper like a child in Kindergarten -- seemed particularly pointless.
But Frieda had played along. Mostly she would just zone out during each fortnightly appointment, giving the appropriate responses to the doctor's satisfaction. And afterwards she would cycle off into the woods and bask in their restfulness.
Of course nature was cruel. The survival of the fittest and the law of tooth and claw meant that in the countryside death was all around her. The natural world was no idyllic paradise. In all truth, the peace she enjoyed there was a sham, a facade, a blanket thrown over reality that obscured it from her senses. If there was any place redolent with death, it was there. It should have screamed at her, made her recoil. But she heard nothing, for it was Frieda's curse to hear only the human tragedy. She did not know if this revealed more about her, or the essence of man in general. That of all creatures he alone had been made a living soul, and thus he alone created ripples in reality when that soul was ripped from the earth.
And as a result, the city she had craved had become to her a spiritual megaphone, a cacophany. This conglomeration of human beings did not just disturb the every day peace with their loud music, loud cars, loud arguments. For Frieda, the disturbance was greatest when the music and arguments stopped. When the body fell silent, the soul screamed, and no matter how hard she stopped her ears, Frieda heard every sickening decibel of that departure. And in a city of a quarter million souls, the noise never ceased.
She had occasionally wondered why she could not share in the joy of birth, of newborn souls gurgling with delight in the arms of devoted parents. But she was deaf to the delirium of life's beginning. Again it spoke to her that the passing of a soul is the greatest horror in the universe. Even in the presence of those who died in their beds and not at the hands of a psychopath, the fear cut so deeply into the ether that it tore into Frieda too. It was no mere scratch. It dug in, sliced the soul and gouged out hope.
Frieda exited the autobahn and took the road towards the village of Senden, speeding past the familiar forests of her childhood. From Senden it was only a few kilometres farther on to Ottmarsbocholt and the family home, but this was not her destination today.
Instead she turned towards Venner Moor, a popular local destination for dog-walkers and amateur naturalists. Frieda parked her Fiat on the rough patch of ground beside the beauty spot and set off through the trees. She felt raw, worn out somehow, reminiscent of the effects of that night in Neubruckenstrasse ten years before.
She breathed in the sweet damp smell of the trees and earth that surrounded her, cocooned her. For once there was no background noise, no interference. Just blissful calm.
Had Frieda known the horrors that were to come, she may have thought twice about leaving that place of sanctuary