Prologue – Hood River
The police of Hood River, a small Oregonian town nestled on the south bank of the Columbia River, had been at a complete loss. The two corpses that were discovered in the woods around Reservoir Lake had been identified on the spot. That wasn’t the problem. The why of their untimely deaths had been easily found out, as well. The man had carried a letter in his pocket in which he notified the – to him unknown – reader of the shame and remorse he had felt. With that he had not even pointed at murdering his wife and son nor at his suicide, but rather at the misfortune and the destitution he had brought upon his clients.
Up till the day the bodies were found, the man and the Savings & Loans he had owned were known throughout Hood River, and even far beyond, for its trustworthiness. The banker and his wife were highly respected and frequented parties at the mayor’s, the chief of police’s and numerous other Hood River dignitaries. They starred in church gatherings and whenever there was a benefit for the poor and the ailing, the couple topped the list of benefactors. No one in Hood River and far beyond had a more reliable reputation than the S&L man, or it would be his diffident wife, ash blond and petit, who slid through life as careful as elegant. Their son would have turned 24 that summer. A boy for whom only the sky seemed the limit, both literally as well as metaphorically. Regional kite surf champion and valedictorian of his class at Hood River Valley High, a whizkid to boot.
It was not hard to leave all your savings in the hands of a man this unimpeachable, a natural born family man, a man with a heart that went out to those for whom life did not come easy.
And that was exactly what everyone had done: the mayor, the chief of police, the forensic expert and following them almost everyone else who had a dime to spare. The high interest rates, the apparent sterling saving schemes and the, advertised as risk-free, investment funds were a sure gain. All of Hood River’s residents had pulled out their savings from Western Union, from Chase, from all those impersonal and fair-weather banks driven solely by expedience. En masse they had brought their savings to the only banker in the whole wide world who meant them well.
A wrong choice, so it turned out after the bodies, gnawed at by the elements and various forest inhabitants, were removed from the banks of the reservoir, and after a thorough search of the bank and the banker’s family residence. The residence vault was open and empty. The bank vaults were equally empty and so were all saving’s accounts. In short: the money had vanished. Not a single dollar was found back.
The only solace, poor as it was, had been the knowledge that a fraction of everyone’s savings had, over the years, found its way back into the community by the warm-hearted donations of the banker’s family, which in hindsight turned out to be the unintentionally warm-hearted donations of the loyal bank customers.
The letter had been written by the dead man. A legion of paleographic experts were in complete agreement about that. Just as they had agreed upon the authenticity of the second signature at the bottom of the epistle: it was the dead woman’s. The same paleographic experts had not been able to find any evidence of a confession under duress. It seemed to be what it was: a murder/suicide pact. The woman had been shot from close range. She had a perfect little round hole in her head, dead between her two question-marked depilated eyebrows. Her piercing blue eyes – the same piercing blue eyes her son had – were gone and the coroner would not be surprised, or so he said, if birds of prey or other scavengers had feasted on them. The real mess was at the back of her head, where the skull seemed to have been blown away. The results of a full metal jacket; its shell was found right next to her body. The scavengers had feasted on her brains as well. Apart from some leftovers on small bone fragments not a single cell had been retrieved.
Even in death and gnawed at as she was, it was apparent that the woman had been desirably beautiful. Her slender body, by other women so often put aside as petite, lay gracefully between the high shooting grass. Her legs were folded under her body which, according to the chief of police, pointed to an execution. The coroner opposed with the observation that she would not have been shot in the face but rather from behind it it had been an execution. He, again, pointed at her signature on the letter, which made it believable that she had not been unsympathetic towards her own death.
Was it a deed of ultimate love if you looked your loved one in the eyes while murdering her? That was a question that remained unanswered, even after a heated discussion between the forensic expert and the chief of police. To the forensic expert it seemed easier to die captured in the loving gaze of your better half. The chief could not shed the feeling that such a loving better half had to be a cold-hearted bastard. At the same time he had to admit that his opinion might have been compromised by the painful loss of his money and eventually they had deemed the question inconsequential. It had no bearing on the case and dead was dead they reasoned when they tried to drown their sorrow at Brian’s Pourhouse on Oak Street.
The missing body of the boy was more troublesome. They had buried their son in the woods of New England, just a couple of weeks before their own demise and after killing him ‘in a humane way’, the banker had said in his letter. They had buried him where he would be safe from the murdering tentacles of the media and where he would be spared the indignity brought upon him by his father, until Judgment Day. There had been a halfhearted search in the vast woods around Boston, where the boy had only recently graduated from MIT, but the search was called off in a matter of days. There were too little leads and only God and Google Earth knew that it had been sheer reaching for the moon. It was impossible to search the 186.000 square kilometers of New England. The boy could be anywhere. No-one doubted his death, even though his signature had not been on the letter and even though there was no clue as to where his final resting-place was. The murder/suicide pact of the banker’s couple taught them that the banker had been quite meticulous in executing his tasks and the letter told them that it had not been the couple’s intention to ever find the boy’s body.
Chapter 1 – Berlin
The man who stood staring at him did not look familiar at all. His flabby cheeks were ashen as if he had not been out in the sunlight for a very long time. They glistened with perspiration. Dark eyebrows hid his eyes, made them look like they were just empty sockets. His dark, almost black hair was unkempt. It had not seen shampoo or a comb in days; a barber had not been anywhere near it for months. Attractive lips, though, the only part of the man that seemed to have a sort of firmness about it.
He glanced down, taking in the grubby white T-shirt and the jeans, stained in the wrong places and too tight for his fat belly that showed in the small gap between shirt and jeans. The brand new, almost sparkling white sneakers looked totally out of place.
Repulsed by his own reflection Jonathan turned around and walked away in the other direction, towards the Pariser Platz. He was not sure what had hurt him more: the sight of himself in the shop window, the cruel words of the boy or his own stench that hit his nose the second the boy had uttered the words. He tightened his grip on the plastic bag and fixed his eyes on an imaginary spot that moved forward with him on the sidewalk, about three feet further down the street. He walked past the fancy shops, past the pubs, the restaurants and terraces that lent Unter den Linden its metropolitan grandeur. He passed under Branderburger Tor and crossed the street, oblivious to the stares of the four horses and the goddess Victoria herself. He continued down the wide avenue that so brutally cut the park in two. Only upon arriving at Grosser Stern he noticed that people rounding him took a wider bend than civility obliged and he looked up. His eye caught the grimace of a girl walking towards him, her nose already turned up. She straightened her face immediately, but it made him, again, painfully conscious of the foul odor he spread.
He made a sharp turn to the left and disappeared in the park. Trying to find lanes as vacant as his mind he crisscrossed through the park, ending up in a dark little alley lined with shiny green shrubs and roofed in by the dense foliage of horse chestnuts. It shielded off the early but hot May sun that had caused the excessive sweating while he had been touring the city.
The wooden bench, hidden in a cove, seemed forgotten by the park authorities and was in desperate need of a touchup. Its paint was peeling off and it was soiled with bird shit.He could not care less, for its seclusion fitted his state of mind. He sat down and rested his elbows on his knees. He stared at the beige gravel under his feet.
He would turn 20 in less than three weeks and he had given himself this short trip to Berlin as an early birthday present but also to get away from Amsterdam and to rethink his life. He had started a study in journalism, but wasn’t sure anymore if that was the right choice. Wasn’t he more cut out to be a writer?
Angrily he wanted to kick away a pebble, but he sort of missed it and instead of it flying away it just rolled a couple of inches across the path, where it was stopped in its movement when it bumped into something. He bent over to pick it up, consciously aware of how his belly got jammed between his ribs and his legs. Blood rushed to his head and he felt slightly out of breath, not only because of the effort of bending over, but also because the little booklet he had picked up turned out to be a Moleskine pocket notebook, a writer’s notebook.
It snapped him out of his lethargy and he flicked through the little book. He knew its specs by heart: buff colored, 64 pages, plain and thread-bound with the last 16 sheets detachable. He had not seen it lying there before, the color of its soft cardboard cover exactly the same as that of the graveled path. It had no empty page left in it and… He noticed that it missed a page. Not one of the detachable sheets, but one at the beginning of the notebook, crudely ripped out. He gently touched what was left of the page as if to comfort it. Anything written deserved to be saved. Why was this page ripped out? Had it contained a message to friend, to a business relation? Or had it carelessly been discarded, not deemed important enough to remain at its rightful place in the notebook?
He pared over the closely covered pages. The owner had used a black pen with a very delicate nib throughout the notebook. The handwriting was extremely tiny, the lines so closely set, that he could not even make out which language was used. Most of the pages contained plain text; others had what seemed addresses and telephone numbers on it.
Most intriguing were the pages that were covered in what looked like algebraic formulae. Neat small letters, lots of brackets, plusses and minuses, digits, and all in fine print. Being a humanities student, he had no head for sciences. He leafed backward to the text pages and, again, tried to make out what was written down and when he could not, he switched to the pages with the addresses. Apart from the house numbers it was impossible to make out any of the actual addresses. He finally studied the last page, the only page with legible words written on it.
His mind drifted towards his own Moleskines, all neatly stacked on the shelves above his desk, all within easy reach when he was writing. But he never wrote anymore, not even editorials. He had not used his computer for ages and he could not even remember since when he had stopped using his notebooks.
© Mina Witteman