The Pistol

The first primroses stretched their bright blossoms toward the sky. The snow and ice were slowly melting. Erwin Haselbauer came to a stop in the spring sun and let it warm his back. It was a pleasure just to stand still and look at the flowers in the freshly-planted flower boxes. You could almost see them grow. He strolled across the square in front of Salzburg’s cathedral, taking careful bites of the pastry he had just bought at the open-air market there. His glance slid reverently across the façade of the cathedral, which had been designed by the Austrian baroque architect Johann Fischer von Erlach and was the oldest baroque church north of the Alps. I must go to mass again next Sunday. How often had he resolved to do that? About as often as, from the warmth of his bed, he had shrugged off the intention once Sunday morning actually arrived. The cathedral bell chimed. One o’clock already. He turned his steps quickly in the direction of the bus stop at the Salzach river and the bus that would take him back to the Aigen district and his office.

Erwin was a punctual man; he didn’t like to exceed his allotted lunch break. But ever since he had stopped going home for lunch, wandering instead through his beloved Salzburg, munching on a sandwich or a pastry bought underway, it occasionally happened that he misjudged the time. And so it was that today he returned to his desk in the tax office eight minutes late. Winded from walking so quickly, he sank into his chair, reached for the next file on the tall stack that lay waiting for him, and pretended to lose himself in its contents.

His day used to take a completely ordered course. He took the bus home at midday to his small apartment not far from Linzer Street. He ate lunch and chatted with his wife, Adelheid. And then arrived punctually at his office again, refreshed and ready for the afternoon’s work. But these days, he didn’t dare go home for lunch. Adelheid was having an affair, and Erwin was afraid of running into someone he would rather not encounter. It was easier to stay away from the apartment during the day. Erwin had never cared for confrontation.

And so it was that he pushed away these destructive thoughts and turned his mind to his work. Calmly, conscientiously, he plodded through all the case files waiting for him that afternoon. Only one was left, at the end. A file he had already been through, but he knew that he wasn’t done with it. There was something not quite right about the case. He would have to go through it again, probe more deeply. But he put it aside for the next day, when he would be fresh and well-rested.

At home, he found a letter from the Tennis Club containing an invitation to its summer ball. Even though he had two months to answer it, it preoccupied him all evening. He considered the matter at great length. Dinner with Adelheid was over. Erwin had watched the evening news, and was on the point of retreating to his study to read, but suddenly it seemed urgent to clarify the issue. He came to an indecisive halt in the middle of the living room and waited until the next commercial break in the mundane television program that Adelheid had turned up so loud.

“Would you go to the Tennis Club ball with me?“

“When is it?“

“June 11th.“

“But it’s only the beginning of February.“

“I just wanted to know, to reserve tickets.“

Adelheid turned around in her chair to face him. She was an attractive, round-faced woman in her mid-forties, her hair dyed blond. Her dark eyes regarded him scornfully. She pursed her lips and gave a whistle. She was without doubt a charming woman, but recently she had acquired a couple of annoying habits that put him off. One of them was this whistle, which she produced any time she was displeased. Twenty years ago Erwin had found her liveliness delightful, had valued her humor and her gift for apprehending the essence of things quickly. Today, he was afraid of these qualities.

“Are you afraid your reservation will arrive too late?“

He pretended not to hear the sarcasm in her voice and made an effort to answer evenly, as if she had not wounded him. “I just want to know whether you’d like to come with me. I don’t want to go alone.“

For Erwin, the summer ball suddenly seemed like a fundamental question on the condition of his marriage.. Does she want anything at all to do with me anymore? Do we still belong together? Have we grown so far apart that she’s not even interested in keeping up appearances socially? Salzburg is basically a small town, a town full of civil servants like Erwin, a town that only brims with internationality and cosmopolitan flair during the summer, when guests to the Salzburg Festival bring it with them – and then take it away again. Most of Salzburg’s residents only notice the difference in the relative difficulty of finding a parking spot downtown during the festival. On the other hand, everyone at the tax office and the Tennis Club knew him, knew Erwin Haselbauer. That was his world, those were his kingdoms, work and sports. And he wanted everything in that world to be all right!

Adelheid’s world was the beauty salon where she worked part-time, and her friends and all their malicious, cutting gossip. “My private ski club” – that’s the way she referred to the girlfriends with whom she went cross-country skiing every weekend that the snow was good. They even met to go bowling – summer as well as winter. That’s where she must have met the new man, at some sporting event...
“If I have to go to your Tennis Club ball, then I’m taking someone to dance with!“

He stared, dumbfounded. That’s impossible. She’s just trying to make me mad.

“You wouldn’t dare.“ His voice was barely above a whisper.

“That’s what you think! Am I supposed to sit around all evening just because you can’t dance? It’s a ball. You’re suppose to dance, not sit around. If I go, I’m taking someone with me.“

Then the commercial break was over and Adelheid turned back to the cop show she was watching. It was that kind that featured police officers who race down highways and destroy at least three cars per episode. Erwin went to his study and sank into the armchair next to the window. He needed to think.

* * *

The next morning, Erwin stood in the kitchen, spreading marmelade on his breakfast toast, when Adelheid emerged from the bathroom in her bathrobe. She leaned against the doorway of the kitchen, watching him. “Marmelade, day after day. You’re too boring even to put something else on your toast for a change. Did you read all night again?“

The question was a veiled reference to his absence from their marital bed. Increasingly he’d been sleeping in his study, admittedly because he could think in peace about his needs, his dreams, and the dark side of their marriage undisturbed by the scents of her perfume and creams. Apart from the occasional half-hour of dozing, he’d spent this night brooding like many others. And shortly before sleep overcame him a little before dawn, he’d come to a decision. Today he was going to ask her the decisive question.

“Do you want a divorce?“

She had walked over to the coffeemaker and was pouring herself a cup of coffee when he spoke. Startled, she paused in the middle and stared at him.

“No. Whatever makes you think that?“

“You’d have a nicer life without me. More variety.“

“And just how would I finance it? The little I get from the salon wouldn’t pay for an apartment, or a car or vacation.“

“I just have the impression that you’d like it better.…“, he muttered, subdued. He placed a second slice of toast precisely on the first, wrapped the sandwich in yesterday’s waxed paper, put it in his briefcase with the newspaper, and pulled on his coat. The days of a cozy breakfast eaten together were long gone. Her petty bickering and mean-spirited remarks ruined his appetite, made his stomach hurt, and robbed him of the calm he needed so much for the demanding work of a senior civil servant in the tax office.

To soothe himself, he chose a route to the office that allowed him to walk the last half-mile along the Salzach river. The fresh air did him good. Crocuses poked their heads up through the last patches of snow. I hope the snow doesn’t freeze the flowers. The water level was high, a sure sign of the spring melt. Even so, the icy wind could kill the new buds on the plants, he considered worriedly.

It wasn’t until he had opened the tax file of a divorced businessman with no children that Erwin thought of his wife again. What would she live on, without him? She could just barely manage the rent on the apartment, but the car – a good solid German middle-class car that she needed for shopping, skiing and going out with her friends – would be out of the question. She couldn’t afford it. Alimony? She wouldn’t be able to claim much, and what she got would be short-term, just until she could get established again. Which meant nothing less than working all day. Being divorced from him would mean limits to her freedom and financial flexibility. The thought that she was financially dependent on him afforded him some fleeting satisfaction. A noble feeling. A feeling of superiority.

For the rest of the day, he worked through the stack of files, calculating, searching through old data stored in his computer, comparing, assessing, making decisions. The only interruption came with the news that the director of the tax office wanted to see him. Alfred Neuburg – known to those in the office as “horrible Alfred” because he fawned on people higher up the ladder and trampled on those below him – insisted that Erwin come to his office right away. There he greeted Erwin with expansive – and thus suspect – friendliness, shaking his hand heartily and inviting him to sit down at the conference table. Coffee and croissants were served. The exaggerated conviviality made Erwin nervous.

“You need to go to Zurich, my dear man – a trip I envy you very much indeed,“ said the director, personally pouring Erwin’s coffee and handing him the creamer.

Erwin was confused.

“It’s a matter of the utmost urgency. And very confidential. Not a word to anyone here, I absolutely forbid it.“

Erwin, growing more curious by the moment, merely nodded in confirmation.

“It’s to your credit that I became aware of certain irregularities in the tax return filed by the PC-OP company, which was founded two years ago. As you yourself determined in a – well, let’s just call it a confidential investigation,” said Neuburg, with a loud, affected laugh, “there’s a furnished office at the company’s address in Halleiner Street, but nobody is ever there.“ Neuburg then cleared his throat weightily, as if to indicate that what followed would be of great significance. “Yet in spite of this, revenues in the seven-figure range and immense profits are reported on the company’s returns.“

None of this was new to Erwin, since he himself had reported these findings on the PC-OP case – although there was no evidence that any investigation had been undertaken on the basis of these findings. That was the unresolved case on his desk; and he had already voiced his suspicions that something about the company wasn’t quite right.

“And why....“

“The criminal investigators, my dear Haselbauer, the criminal investigators!“ said Neuburg, and let his words hang in the air as if they rendered every subsequent question superfluous.

There ensued a silence that each man used to take a sip of coffee from the pre-warmed cups. Then Neuburg went on. “These international economic crime investigators...“ – Neuburg spoke as if he were talking about a new criminal band and not a group founded by Europol and made up of highly-qualified government employees – “have insisted on examining the files. And so it was that I discovered that this company allegedly works for countries such as Columbia and Bolivia, from which payments of huge sums are transferred to Austria to settle what are obviously fake invoices. All of them countries with whom we have no agreement on the exchange of information, much less extradition treaties.“

“And why should I go to Switzerland?“

“Because large sums of money come from there as well. The bank supervisory authorities in Zurich have been informed by our police, and they will offer you official assistance and support and provide you with all the information you need, Haselbauer. They don’t want to get their hands dirty either...“ Here the vague motions of hand-washing suggested that many an official would gladly have imitated Pontius Pilate in this regard. The implication was clear: there were to be no unpleasant surprises waiting for the little civil servant from Salzburg, He, Neuburg, director of the tax office, had seen to everything.

“Why don’t you go yourself if it’s such an interesting case?“

“My dear man,” Neuburg had risen and was now patting his employee’s shoulder. “You know how it is. Unfortunately, this Starkov fellow at PC-OP has joined the golf club I’ve been a member of for years. We know each other personally. In view of the turn things have taken, I afraid I have to steer clear of the matter entirely.“ Haselbauer understood at once. His boss was afraid of rumors that he was abusing the power of his office – no mere peccadillo for a civil servant of the country’s revenue service! Any form of unfair advantage was punished most severely by the authorities.

* * *

The night train “Maria-Theresia“ arrived in Zurich just before nine in the morning. Erwin had enjoyed not just the private sleeping compartment, but also the breakfast served to him there by the conductor of the sleeping car. He traveled first-class, as was customary for senior civil servants traveling on business.

The hotel booked for him lay directly across the square from the train station. The director’s secretary had made all Erwin’s arrangements. Evidently relieved to have delegated the work on this dubious little matter to his underling, Neuburg had granted Erwin a more generous per diem allowance than was usual. It wasn’t Erwin’s custom to stay at such expensive hotels; he would never have dared to book such a lodging for himself. He was more used to inexpensive family hotels and modest holiday apartments. If I didn’t still have a wife to support, I could afford this kind of luxurious city travel easily. Maybe in the company of someone nice from the office? It was no coincidence that this thought immediately brought to mind the pretty face of a civil servant who had just moved from Linz to Erwin’s office in Salzburg.

At the district attorney’s office in Zurich, Erwin presented the official request for help that he had brought with him. An employee accompanied him to the bank. The sun shone, the wind chased small clouds across the sky. Erwin liked the city; it had not just a river, but a lake, too. It must be very restful to sit outdoors by the lake or the river at lunchtime. The cafés are already full of people, and everything seems more Mediterranean and warmer. The advantages of a milder climate were obvious.

The bank was a dignified building. Inside, they were greeted by a receptionist who led them to a meeting room dominated by high-backed leather chairs and a large table. There was no other furniture. Coffee was served with milk and sugar, and there was even a “Schöckeli,” as the receptionist in her dark suit so charmingly called the little piece of chocolate lying on the saucer next to the spoon. Large bottles of mineral water were already strategically placed on the table.

The bank’s legal specialist arrived and discussed the case with Erwin. They agreed on a joint approach and the information they would exchange. Two men then arrived, pushing a cart holding the stacks of files that Erwin needed. He worked concentratedly for several hours, and only after being reminded of lunch repeatedly would he allow himself to take a break around 1:00 p.m. to eat a salad in one of the open-air cafés. He took in lungfuls of the mild air and for just a few minutes had the feeling of being on holiday. Relaxed and contented.

That afternoon, they found the evidence they were hunting for, made two sets of copies (one for Erwin, one for the district attorney’s office in Zurich), and packed up their papers. The bank’s officers expressed their gratitude, assured the two men repeatedly how very unhappy they were not to have noticed any of this themselves, and led them to an exit at the back of the building, since the bank had been closed for more than two hours. Outside, the district attorney’s representative pointedly gripped his briefcase tighter, shook his head as if to free his mind from all the officious fussing, and said, in one word that completely confirmed Erwin’s impression: “Hypocrites!”

* * *

The evidence Erwin had gathered for the tax office in Salzburg lay securely in the hotel safe, and his ticket for the morning express train to Salzburg lay on his nightstand. With his work behind him, Erwin looked forward to the evening. There was just one thing he wanted to do: have a good meal! He was hungry. He strolled down the main street past the train station and stopped in front of a restaurant, studying the menu that hung outside and noting the prices. He calculated that dinner there, complete with a first course and wine, would cost him about 80 Swiss francs, or around $ 60.00, and with coffee and dessert the bill would rise to around $ 75.00, and bent his steps down a side street or two in the search of something more affordable.

Suddenly it began to rain. He turned up the collar of his jacket and hunched his shoulders. He had lost his bearings, and turned left and then right, keeping a lookout for familiar buildings. He must still be somewhere near the train station, he thought, and then – as much fascinated as repelled – he realized that he had unknowingly wandered into the red light district. He became somewhat desperate in his hunt for an acceptable restaurant where he could satisfy his hunger. When a woman at the door of a pub he passed called out to him to come in, he stepped only too gladly from the rain into the stuffy warmth inside. A man stood at a one-armed bandit next to the door, playing it with great force, and broke off his hectic movements to stare at the newcomer as he came in. The bosomy woman, who turned out to be the manager, did her best to speak comprehensible German and showed Erwin to a large and pleasant table at the window.

Erwin ordered beer and reached for the menu. He read it attentively and did his best to understand what the many Swiss dishes were, but most of it made no sense to him. Only one thing was familiar to him, a Swiss veal specialty, and since the words “best Swiss quality” concluded the description of the dish, he ordered it. A paper placemat appeared before him along with a knife and fork, and he received a salad as a first course without even having ordered it. Oil and balsamico vinegar were also brought to the table – something that you could only get in Salzburg by special request or not at all.

Erwin knew he’d done a good day’s work. The evidence for the illegal fund transfers lay safe at the district attorney’s office and a copy was in the hotel safe. He felt expansive, as travelers from far away sometimes do, and enjoyed the anticipation of waiting to be served a dish he had heard a great deal about. When the meal came, it exceeded his expectations, and he began to feel more and more relaxed. He leaned back in his chair, observing with a certain benevolence the man who had been playing the slot machine and who now sat at the next table in his heavy coat, its pockets bulging and sagging. Erwin greeted him jovially.

“Not from here?” the man replied tersely.

Erwin confirmed that he wasn’t.

“Looking for women?”

Erwin shook his head again. “Just hungry.”

The man laughed as if he had just shared a confidential joke with Erwin and said he knew the feeling, and Erwin ordered beer for himself and his taciturn companion. Soon the man had joined Erwin at his table and the two were conversing cozily, even if the exchange was one of few words owing to the man’s accent and limited command of the language.

“Where you from?“

“I live in Salzburg.”

“Visiting family?”

“No, I’ve got two days of business in Zurich.”

The conversation went on like this. Erwin discovered that the man came from the Swiss canton of Thurgau, had been a bricklayer until he’d been laid off, and that he was pissed as hell at his ex-employer and wouldn’t mind getting his own back. “Oughta shoot crooks like him,” the man said in a hard voice.

When Erwin asked exactly how the man was thinking of getting back at his ex-employer, the latter thanked Erwin hurriedly for the beer and went on his way. A short time later Erwin asked for his bill. The rain had stopped and he wanted to get back to the hotel. He reached for his coat, which he had hung over the back of a chair to dry, and the movement made something scrape against the floor. Something must have fallen out of my pocket. Erwin bent over and groped for whatever it was. His fingers closed around an object that had the outline of a pistol, and the weight only confirmed his suspicions.

Startled, Erwin sank back into his chair. The manager saw his face and asked him whether he felt ill. Playing for time, Erwin ordered a cappuccino. Should he run after the slot machine player? The pistol must have fallen out of the man’s pocket while his coat hung over the back of a chair, just like Erwin’s. What do you call out to someone who’s just lost his pistol? Carefully he picked it up and let it glide unobtrusively into his own coat pocket.

Where should I take it, what should I do with it? Should I leave and try to find the owner – here, in this neighborhood? With all these bars? And even if I find him, what am I supposed to say to him? Does he have the right to expect that I go looking for him in this sorry part of town? Erwin had never been a man of quick decisions and action. Things should be thought through, that’s what experience had taught him.

And even if I find him, how should I approach him? What do I say to him? My dear sir, you’ve lost your pistol? Or: I think I’ve got something that belongs to you? His cappuccino arrived. Erwin needed time to consider a strategy, and ordered a French cognac for the sake of inspiration. And on the other hand: suppose I find the man and give him back his pistol. How do I know what he plans to do with it? What if he really does shoot his ex-boss? The thought made Erwin take a gulp of the cappuccino, which was too hot and burned his mouth. He reached for the cognac to cool the burn, but that was not a good idea either: the alcohol made his gums and tongue feel as if they really were on fire. If I keep the pistol, it’s larceny by finding, and if I look for its rightful owner – which is, legally, the correct thing to do – will I be guilty of aiding and abetting in murder? These and other similar thoughts circled in Erwin’s mind until he was so confused that he couldn’t decide what to do. What if the poor fellow, in despair at having no money, robs a bank or a post office? And takes hostages?

He could call the manager over to the table and give her the pistol. Would she believe me that I’ve just now found it? She’d call the police, and then... That would actually be the simplest solution. Erwin considered it further. The police would ask for his identification. …And my identity card is at the hotel-reception! Not a problem for the police; they’d take him to the hotel in their squad car. Pull up in front of a five-star hotel in a police car. The desk clerk would return Erwin his passport from the safe and presumably also mention to the police that he, Erwin, had deposited important documents in that safe. Surely the police will want to know what they are. You never know with people who run around with guns in their possession… Bank documents that reveal suspicious international payment transactions would then be spread out before the eyes of the law. Account statements would come to light, from the accounts of two men for whom there were search warrants out in Switzerland, or maybe they’d both been apprehended by now. Men who’d transferred huge sums of money to a PC-OP account in Salzburg. The more he thought about it, the more Erwin’s own situation seemed very implausible, not to say extremely delicate. Reason told him he was right to be afraid that the police would not be very understanding if he were to be picked up at eleven at night in the red light district with a pistol in his coat pocket. There followed a second cognac to soothe his nerves. If the episode comes to the ears of the tax office in Salzburg, Î will be in disgrace!

Erwin’s letter of introduction from the district attorney’s office in Salzburg was in the possession of the authorities in Zurich. He was scheduled to receive the necessary documents from his Zurich counterparts in the morning, before his train left. The district attorney’s representative lives outside of Zurich near one of the nearby lakes; he told me that himself, spoke enthusiastically of the beautiful countryside. What happens when you drag Swiss district attorneys out of their beds in the middle of the night? By what right can I expect that they’ll put in a good word for me, a mere civil servant from a neighboring country?

Thus it was that, after mature reflection, Erwin came to the conclusion that he stood a good chance of spending the night in a cell instead of the magnificent French bed in his hotel room. And since everything seemed to suggest that he would have to choose between these two options, he knew what he would do. Reluctantly, unwillingly, he made his decision: I’ve got no choice, I’m taking the pistol. That makes me guilty of a criminal offense, but as long as nobody catches me… Unlawful possession of a firearm, that’s what it was. He comforted himself with the thought that he was preventing this dangerous object from being the cause of a human drama of unknown dimensions.

* * *

Erwin reached the plaza in front of the train station just before midnight. He breathed a sigh of relief as the illuminated hotel sign over the entrance to his hotel came into view. The lighted entrance beckoned, promising safety and refuge. Erwin made quickly for his room and disappeared into it. He packed his small suitcase, and then wrapped the pistol in a shoe bag and stowed it at the bottom of his briefcase under the documents from the bank. Thanks to his military training, long ago though it was, Erwin had expertly released the safety and unloaded the pistol. He hid the bullets in his dirty underwear in his suitcase.

The next morning was a series of pleasant events. It began with an outstanding breakfast buffet, interrupted by a visit from the representative of the district attorney’s office, who brought Erwin the promised documents. Erwin had the happy feeling of having discharged his mission in Zurich successfully. The documents revealed that funds transfers from the Italian region of Calabria that were highly likely to have come from the Ndrangheta, a southern Italian criminal organization, had increased the income of PC-OP by an additional million euros. There were photocopies of a report on the arrest of one Pierpaulo Palozzi at the airport in Zurich, together with a newspaper article on the embarrassing admission that Palozzi’s accomplice Arribaldi Domani had driven to Ticino and escaped over the Swiss border into Italy. The air of criminality on a large scale wafted briefly through the breakfast room of the hotel, and with the pistol in his briefcase Erwin felt like a tiny and insignificant part of an enormous, important venture: for the first time he had personally caught the scent of one of the most dangerous mafia organizations in existence.

As much as his work was appreciated by Director Neuburg, as much as the latter heaped praise upon Erwin’s achievements, in equal measure was Erwin disappointed at the reception he received when he got home early that evening. Adelheid immediately picked a huge fight. She screamed at him that he was to call when he intended to come home from a business trip, under no circumstances was he to ruin her afternoon and evening by simply turning up with no warning. Completely startled by her outburst, Erwin stood in the middle of his own apartment and realized that he was unwanted there. Then Adelheid disappeared in a huff of door-slamming to her bowling evening, or whatever it was that day. Erwin went into his study, where he had taken to sleeping, unpacked the dirty laundry from his suitcase, locked the pistol away in one of the lockable desk drawers, and conscientiously started the washing machine before he went to bed. The question of how to get rid of an illegal pistol in Austria preoccupied him only briefly before he fell asleep.

He turned this way and that in bed. In confused dream images, he watched as Adelheid, shot, fell over the edge of a steep incline in the mountains during a hike. Again and again she fell, from different cliffs. Sometimes in the dream she disappeared into a chasm, the echoes of her bickering drifting up to him, other times she drowned, complaining loudly, in an icy mountain stream. Suddenly Erwin was jerked awake by her voice at his ear.

“I’m leaving!”

Startled, Erwin tore himself from the dream and sat up in bed in disbelief. Huddled in his bathrobe, he watched Adelheid as she packed her suitcases, helped her carry a crate of jewelry and treasured mementos to the car, gave her both sets of keys, dug the registration out of the desk drawer, where it lay locked up underneath the pistol, and then took his leave of the many years of his marriage with the words “You can keep the car.”

Now there was only one more problem to solve: he had to get rid of the pistol!

* * *

The air grew warmer during the day, the days longer; summer signaled its arrival. Roses bloomed in front gardens. At noon every day, Erwin went for a walk along the Salzach river, sat on one of the benches, ate a sandwich, and chatted. You’ve guessed it: he wasn’t alone during his lunch break. Tatjana Schmiedinger, the new co-worker from Linz, pampered and surprised him every day with a new creation. Whatever she maneuvered between the two slices of dark bread, it tasted like the work of a master. Whether it was turkey with chutney, or salmon with the thinnest of lemon slices and sour cream, or shrimp in Thousand Island dressing or the most delicate cheese – and here, thought Erwin, one really ought to speak of fromage rather than mere cheese – she offered Erwin a variety that presumably wasn’t confined to the food.

Their interests coincided completely, whether it was film, new literature, or the opera. A high point of every Sunday was their habit of going to an art exhibition and then to brunch. The Rupertinum, Salzburg’s museum for modern art, was on the program for the coming Sunday, and afterward they planned to sit in the café in the Museum atrium over cappuccino and pastries.

And so it was that the Tennis Club summer ball drew closer and closer. It was the first ball in Erwin’s life that he actually looked forward to attending. Tatjana had admitted to being a rather mediocre dancer. Erwin borrowed a videocassette from the local public library and with its help, attempted to refresh his memory of a few simple dance steps he had learned in his youth. This went so well that he even dared to try a waltz alone in his front hall, waltzing left as well as right.

The day of the ball, a Saturday, he treated himself to a pair of expensive Italian shoes with leather soles. They were as light and soft as a dream and had never known a coat of black shoe cream, and thus could be counted on not to ruin a lady’s slipper if he put his foot down wrong. His tuxedo had been to the cleaners, the shirt professionally starched and ironed. He intended to take particular care with his appearance, starting with personal hygiene; after all, he had had to listen repeatedly to Adelheid’s assertions that men who are well-dressed and smell good stand a better chance with women. He dried off after his shower to the strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube and tried out several pirouettes in the hall without once hitting the wall. Barely into his trousers and shirt, he danced on, enjoyed the movements and feeling as if they were becoming ever more a part of him. After repeatedly scrutinizing his appearance in the hall mirror, he left his apartment, convinced that he was the very picture of a good-looking respectable man in the prime of life.

The evening was a complete success. Erwin put even the young men on the dance floor to shame. The waltz earned him the applause of the younger members of the Tennis Club, who didn’t learn standard dances anymore. It was after two in the morning when Erwin brought Tatjana to her front door, where her long, heartfelt kiss told him that their relationship was developing nicely. But he held himself back; he had already decided not to move too fast. He was serious about Tatjana. He didn’t want to take her by surprise, didn’t want to insist that she come home with him, not to the apartment that still bore all the hallmarks of Adelheid’s bourgeois out-of-a-magazine taste. There would be new furniture before he invited Tatjana.

The air was mild, but suddenly Erwin shivered. Monday, he decided. Monday he would take the afternoon off and go to one of Salzburg’s good stores and see about new furniture. All the old things would have to go! Except for the kitchen, bathroom, and his study, the whole apartment needed redecorating. Tatjana would surely advise him!

It took him a few minutes of concentration and manoeuvring to get his key into his front door lock and turn it; this was probably attributable to the many glasses of sparkling wine he had consumed that evening. But when he saw the light in the living room, he was startled. Had he forgotten... And then a horrible suspicion came over him suddenly, as suddenly as the naughty thoughts he had been having earlier. He opened the door to the living room, and there she sat, in the center of the couch, asleep. The television was on, late-night programming had already begun to show pictures of well-endowed naked women with telephone numbers superimposed across their breasts. Adelheid’s head had fallen to one side, her mouth open; she was drooling on her left shoulder.

“Adelheid!“ The one word carried all his horror and dismay at her sudden appearance

She woke and sat up, sleepily. “I’m back. Thanks for making up my bed for me. I won’t leave you again. It was a mistake. I found that out when we moved in together. He was so banal, so boring...“ She got up and went into the bedroom.

Erwin was too confused even to ask who the poor idiot was with whom she had spent the past few months.

* * *

“Never, never, never!“ was the only word he could get out through his gritted teeth. Rage made him clamp down so hard on his sandwich of French chèvre on arugola with cranberry relish that some of the relish oozed out and dripped down onto his trousers.

Tatjana looked at him sympathetically. “You’ll have to move out, dear. That’s the first step.“ Tatjana ought to know. She was divorced herself; she had revealed that much. Erwin nodded in agreement.

It wasn’t hard to find a small apartment: it was the end of the summer semester and many of Salzburg’s university students were moving on. Tatjana was the source of sound advice. She was the one who chose – with Erwin’s approval, naturally – the sunny little ground-floor apartment with the small terrace that they found in the southern Salzburg community of Anif. “That way, it won’t be far to work. It’s enough for now,” she observed, “until you’re divorced.”

And it was Tatjana who ordered the movers for Friday morning, because that was when Adelheid worked all day in the salon. Together, they packed up his study and all his personal belongings with the help of two moving men, who loaded everything into the truck. It took longer than expected to pack Erwin’s books because he insisted that they be placed in the boxes in a particular order. He also refused to let anyone else pack up the contents of his desk. He pulled up a chair, made himself comfortable, and systematically cleared out drawer after drawer. Finally he got to the locked drawer where the pistol still lay; he had forgotten all about it.

At that moment, someone came running noisily up the stairs, gasping for breath. Adelheid.

“Then it’s true, what the neighbor said on the phone,” she said loudly in the hall when she saw what was happening. Outraged, she pushed her way past the movers into his half-empty study, and went white with shock when she spotted Tatjana.

“So that’s the way it is!” she gasped. Her voice echoed hollowly in the room. She turned to leave, and then it occurred to her that good wishes were in order for his future life. “Don’t think for one minute that I’ll agree to a divorce! You two are in for a lot of trouble from me!” Then the front door banged hard, and she was gone.

Erwin sat, his hand frozen on the handle of the half-open drawer. He was trembling. Tatjana moved toward him and patted his shoulder, put her head down next to his and spoke softly. “Everything will be all right, dear, everything will be all right.“

Her glance fell on the pistol lying in the half-open drawer, and she reached in, picked it up, and stood, thoughtfully staring at it, for some time. “Is it registered?”

Erwin jumped. “No. Not in my name, anyway.“

Again Tatjana reached into the drawer, gathering up the ammunition that lay next to the pistol. In one swift motion, both pistol and bullets disappeared into her large handbag.

“It’s better this way! Who knows, maybe it’ll be of use to us some day,” said Tatjana, and left Erwin sitting in his study. “I’ll wait for you in my car,” she called to him from the hall.

He nodded absentmindedly, and sat there in front of the desk, uncertain what to do. The two movers came in, pulled all the drawers out of the desk, and took them away. Then they took the desk itself. Lost in thought, Erwin went on sitting in his chair in the empty study. He had suddenly become afraid. Somewhere – I think it was in a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room – I read that men always end up with the same type of woman. No matter how many different women they’re with! The thought made him shudder.

Being published in:
“Moerderisch unterwegs“, Anthologie of Famous German Crimewriters.
Edited by Edith Kneidl, Vienna 2006

© Jutta Motz | © Translation by Mary Tannert

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