Two women and two men from CID are standing in the foyer, which in some subliminal way manages to feel depressing. If the building looks like a ship from the outside, from the inside it looks like an engine room. Corridors and staircases lead off all over the place, the glass façade is reinforced by steel ribs, the ceiling hangs low and dark over our heads.
A cluster of black leather armchairs stands listlessly to the left of the entrance. Around twenty people are sitting in them; just by looking at them you can tell that they were asked to stay right there. None of them are relaxed; they’re all as stiff as broccoli. The CID officers are writing things in their notebooks. Now and again, questions are being asked – more and more of them, with the police quizzing the journalists, which the journalists must feel is like an inside-out press conference. At any rate, their faces say: what is this shit?
It’s amazing how similar the reporters and the detectives are, at least in terms of their clothes and attitude. The only fundamental difference between the two groups is their jackets: for the CID teams it’s jeans and T-shirt with a tight leather jacket, while the gutter press opts for an ultra-reserved blazer or well-cut corduroy. I look down at myself, at the thin, brown leather jacket in my hand, which I seem to have been lugging around with me for about twenty years, and think, yet again, that I’d definitely have passed muster as a policewoman.
Stepanovic goes over to his colleagues, briefly introduces himself and points to me, then he nods and holds his right hand to his ear, sign language for ‘I’ll call you’. His colleagues nod in return, but he’s already turned his back on them. Three big strides bring him to me, and two more take him to the lady at reception.
‘Stepanovic, Hamburg Serious Crime Office,’ he says, holding his ID under her nose. ‘And this is Ms Riley from the Public Prosecution Service.’
The little mouse of a receptionist is blonde, pretty, delicate and still a long way off thirty. Little bun at the nape of her neck; bright-green cotton cardigan around her shoulders. Not the kind of woman to lead the way. In three to four years, she’ll be assistant to the editor-in-chief of a second-rate magazine, and the editor-in-chief will be a man. Shortly afterwards, she’ll marry that man’s deputy, move to the suburbs and have two children, who’ll be even prettier than she is. By then, her husband will have become editor-in-chief of whatever magazine and everything in the front garden at home will be kept immaculate, and that’s the main thing.
I always wonder how anyone can stand a life like that, where colouring over the lines is never, absolutely never, ever permitted. Or if maybe they actually like it like that. At the same time, I wonder why I was born holding a pencil that, when I use it, will only leave any kind of visible mark outside the margins.
Anyway: the mouse on reception was the one who called the police. And she has information for us.
‘That’s Tobias Rösch over there in that cage,’ she says. She points her finger towards the entrance but doesn’t look.
‘He’s out of the cage now,’ I say.
‘Well, thank God for that. I was starting to feel sorry for him, poor man.’
‘Didn’t you feel sorry for him at first?’ I ask.
She leans a little closer to me and makes a face as if I ought to know what’s coming next. ‘Mr Rösch is head of HR,’ she says quietly. I suck my teeth and pull my head back a bit, as if to say: Oh, right,
I see – an arsehole.
Head of HR is obviously not a role that’ll make you popular in a time of crisis. Right now, his main job will be implementing the board’s proposed savings in the places they hurt the most. Meaning he’s probably meant to be getting rid of as many staff as possible, as quickly and as cheaply as he can, and then replacing them with low-cost freelancers.
‘I’d like to speak to the shop steward,’ says Stepanovic.
And I think that I’d actually still like to know why the mouse didn’t ring the police until around half past eight, by which point a pretty revolting state of affairs had developed round the cage. What time do the first people get here? Around eight? So why didn’t anyone ring us right away and say that there was a person lying here?
We’ll sort that out later. The CID will sort it out, says my inner guide to official channels. I have to learn to keep out sometimes.
The receptionist pouts and looks a bit miffed, clearly sensing that she might have palled up with us too soon, then favours us with the smile that she’s paid to deliver, reaches for the phone and dials a number. She lets it ring. Then she hangs up.
‘Mr Grabowski isn’t answering. He must be out of his office somewhere.’
Hold that smile.
‘We can easily wait for him in his office,’ I say.
‘I’m afraid I can’t leave my desk to take you up,’ she says, looking genuinely disappointed. I really wouldn’t like to be the man who has to endure this emotional spin cycle.
‘All the same,’ I say. ‘OK.’
Thin lips. All smiled out.
She pulls a slip of paper off a small pad, writes something on it, pushes it over the reception desk and makes her lips thinner still. On the paper it says: ‘Robert Grabowski, D 107.’
‘Will you find it?’ Governessy look. Will we find it?
Beats me if we’ll find it. Do we look like boy scouts? I mean, we’ve never been here before and the place is as convoluted as the engine room on a cruise ship. How should we know if we’ll find it? Part of me wants to give the receptionist a slap; the other part would rather shove her face in a pan of something sticky. I’m slowly running out of patience with uncooperative conversationalists this morning.
Stepanovic takes the note, pockets it, gives my elbow an unobtrusive tug and says, ‘Come on, Riley. We’ll find it. I’m a cop, aren’t I?’
This is an extract from Beton Rouge by Simone Buchholz, published by Orenda Books and now available now. Simone is a special guest at The London Book Fair on Tuesday 12 March 2019.
Image © Andrey Suzdaltsev