The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 2
James steps forward and smoothly takes the room keys from Helga, thanking her, and hands Ellen and Nora each a key to a room with bathroom. As the Brauns drift off, he whispers stagily "What a dump! I'll lay odds that there isn't a half decent restaurant in miles."
Ella smiles. "Well if everyone's going to be polite, I'm more than happy to take one of the bathrooms! As we have an hour until dinner, perhaps you'd all like to join me in my room for a pre-dinner whiskey? I never travel without a half bottle in case you can't drink the water."
"If you don't mind, it has been a long journey and I could do with freshening up. I'll join you a little later," says James, with a twinkle in his eye. He hands out keys to the others, picks up his and Nora's suitcases and begins to struggle upstairs with them.
Iain, Uriah and Greg realise that they are going to be sharing the bathroom on the landing.
Greg studies Professor Keizinger's note carefully. He sees that it is on a sheet of hotel stationery: presumably it was taken down from a phone call, rather than being delivered. There is no more information there than Helga had conveyed.
Nora has been writing down the guesthouse's phone number, and passes out copies to the other operatives. "I'm going to phone the Professor now, and arrange our meeting."
Iain stretches himself. "Well, I don't know about any of you guys, but I need to get a bit of exercise before dinner. Anyone fancy joining me for a quick run? Ella - any chance of borrowing that map you picked up at the airport?"
He heads out into the driving rain, leaving the others open-mouthed in puzzlement or admiration.
Greg and Uriah join Ellen in her room. Nora heads to her own room, but before leaving them she says, looking around her, "Is it just me or did the Brauns seem rather nervous? I think we should be wary of them - does that sound paranoid? And did you see how wary Gil was when he reminded his wife about the message?"
The three sit in Ellen's window, which looks over the street. Between a gap in the buildings opposite, the Neckar can be glimpsed, distant and dark. Uriah's and Nora's rooms also face this way: the others are on the back of the guesthouse, which surveys an alleyway and the back of the building opposite. Greg pours the whisky into a collection of toothmugs.
Nora takes up her telephone and is connected to reception: Helga answers. She requests an outside line, and gives Professor Keizinger's number. It is not possible to dial out directly on the guesthouse's system.
The number rings three times and is then answered in swift German. Nora waits for it to stop and says slowly "Professor Keizinger? Nora McShane, with the University of Central London team."
The Professor's voice sounds tense, but her English is fluent. She agrees to Nora's suggestion that she meet the party at the beer cellar instead of the guesthouse: she is to stop at the door of the cellar and look up across the street to the guesthouse windows before entering.
Nora is pleased to find plenty of hot water. She freshens up, pulling on her glad rags, ready for an adventurous night out...
She then fishes out her computer and loads up a Web browser, searching for a photograph of Professor Keizinger. She can find none, and decides to call the SITU number for a description.
"I'm sorry, we have no idea what she looks like," says the 'University of Central London' staffer on the other end.
Iain meanwhile is enjoying himself getting thoroughly drenched, pounding the cobbled streets around the Unter den Linden. He judges that this is probably a fairly studenty area: the houses are run-down looking, there are few cars, and there are plenty of beer cellars and bicycles around. The streets wind about up and down the hill with little regard for easy navigation, and he has to stop to consult Ellen's map every now and then. There are a few notable landmarks: a couple of old churches, something that looks like a disused theatre, a subterranean nightclub.
He finds that the University buildings are rather scattered, but that they start not more than ten minutes from the guesthouse. The Institute of Molecular Medicine is easy to spot as it is a brand new construction of blond brick, looking very out of place amid the medieval granite surrounding it. A large plaque in English and German indicates that it was co-funded by Bayer GmbH.
As Iain heads back down to the guesthouse he is accosted by a drunk who staggers out of the doorway of the disused theatre in front of him. "Have you any money? I need a cup of coffee," the man says in slurred German. Iain neatly dodges round him and carries on down the street, peering over his shoulder to see the drunk slump back into the doorway.
The sound of tuneful whistling, mingled with splashes, can be heard from James's room, and at around a quarter past seven he emerges, freshly groomed and ready to face the world. He knocks on Greg's door, where the Senator has just finished his brief unpacking, and then on Nora's, inviting them to join him in 'a little aperitif'.
They descend to the tiny bar, which is at one end of the dining room. Greg approaches Helga. "Thank you for your hospitality, Frau Braun - my room's marvellously comfortable. We really are glad to be staying in such a delightful guesthouse."
Helga blushes and sighs, clearly deeply moved, and looking shyly downwards thanks the Senator for his compliments. She and her staff will do everything they can to make his stay a happy one.
Greg, leaning one elbow on the bar, attempts to strike up a conversation. "How long have you and your husband been running this place, Frau Braun?"
James takes advantage of Helga's discomfiture to order drinks for the three of them.
There seems to be a general understanding that business is not to be talked over dinner, much to James's relief. He has positioned himself between Greg (who is at the end of the table) and Nora, and is attentive to both, with light small talk about skiing, the delights of Italy and other such things. He does not seem terribly impressed with the food, a pallid wienerschnitzel accompanied by rather sad broccoli.
Iain returns for dinner, having dried himself off and briefly logged on (this also requires asking switchboard for an outside line) to read his email and send a note to his fianc,.
James tells Helga that he will not be partaking of breakfast. "I doubt I could manage eating at such an early hour," he smiles. He is also looking around at the other guests: a family with two small children, and a pair of business-looking types, all are German.
After dinner the party regroup in Nora's room, which is the largest, to discuss strategy. A confusing variety of rival plans are put forward for how to ensure Professor Keizinger's safe arrival, but in the end the party decide to speak with her at the guesthouse rather than the beer cellar - more private and less noisy. Iain is to lurk around the street while Nora stands at her window: when the Professor appears and heads towards the beer cellar, as she was told to do, Nora will signal to Iain and he will intercept her and then bring her back to the Unter den Linden. Nora and Iain will then head for the beer cellar to have a drink and fraternize with the locals, while the others question the Professor.
It is clear that Nora has been doing some thinking over dinner. She reels off, in a manner some might find a little arrogant, a list of her conclusions so far. She thinks that the SITU team should have several main objectives: to avoid bringing themselves to the attention of the authorities, to find out about the last known movements of Helmut Schreik, and question any known acquaintances - and the same for the other victims - to discover why the Professor's paper was rejected by the European Molecular Letters journal, to find out what happened to the mysterious blood samples, to have any remaining sample analysed by a SITU-friendly lab - especially one dealing with drugs - and to question the Professor.
"I've found a good lab," says Ellen. She pulls out a rather snazzy, top of the range, palm top computer with mobile phone connection from her overstuffed handbag. "I am a bit of a gadget freak," she confesses. "But this helped me turn up a biochemical laboratory based at Broomwood Hospital in Kent: I've e-mailed them and all we have to do is obtain a sample and courier it over to them tomorrow and they will get back to us ASAP."
"Are they SITU-friendly?"
Ellen shrugs. "It's business to them, that's all."
Greg, who is standing by the window, the streetlight casting his shadow across the room, speaks up. "It's important that we gain Professor Keizinger's trust. This lady has probably become suspicious of many people and institutions that she has been dealing with for years. She will meet us for the first time tonight. We need to reassure her that she can be open and straightforward with us, and that we can do something to help her."
Ellen continues, "I was thinking about perhaps some surreptitious snooping around the Department of Inorganic Chemistry, before anyone knows we are interested in the case. Prof K could hopefully provide us with a map of the department with the security features marked, and the location of the files and so on. Iain, you might be best suited to that!"
Greg shakes his head. "Remember, people, we're in Germany now, not the UK or the USA. We need to mind our Ps and Qs. I think we should avoid lawbreaking unless there's some pressing need.""
Ellen shrugs. "Well, as for Molecular Biology, I'm afraid I know zip - I do have an interest in herbalism and the medicinal value of plants, so I might get away with a bit of flannelling on research into natural sources for medical treatments, but I don't think it would stand up in front of experts! So I'd be glad to take on the task of approaching European Molecular Letters tomorrow - with my background in publishing I may have a small advantage." She smiles. "I'm rather fond of a beer or two, so I volunteer to be part of the beer hall group. I have some additional questions for Prof K, if you haven't already thought of them: ask her about other mysterious deaths, gossip in the scientific community about other discredited and outlandish theories, Frankenstein's monster - that sort of thing."
James bursts out laughing. "Frankenstein!"
With noticeable difficulty, he brings himself under control. "I am sorry, you must forgive me. I, err, I suppose I just saw too many Hammer films in my younger days to be anything but sceptical." He continues to appear to have trouble controlling his amusement. "I don't think we need call the forces of the unknown in on the case of Helmut Schreik! I think it more likely that this scoundrel had merely assumed different identities at different points in his, ahh, career. Think about it; the DNA tests confirmed all the identities, suggesting that they are one and the same. I believe the surgery scars might attest to cosmetic surgery, in order to alter his appearance. We shall have to ask Professor Keizinger whether she believes this to be possible."
He glances around the group for support for this viewpoint, but his fellow operatives are studiously looking at their fingernails.
"And another thing, I don't consider our cover to be particularly secure, and I'm not happy about it. If we start asking questions at places like the European Molecular Letters journal or the University of Heidelberg, someone is going to twig, because they are likely to be au fait with who is who and what's what in this field. Regardless of the fact that we have a telephone number, all they actually need to do is telephone the University switchboard, where they will find out, in no short order, that there is no such department. And we are hung out to dry.'
This is greeted with yet more silence.
While waiting for Professor Keizinger's arrival, Greg goes down to reception, to find Gil Braun there. He asks if he can see the guest book, and the landlord nervously offers it to him: it is full of unremarkable German names, plus a few foreigners, mostly appearing to be visiting academics from Europe's great universities. He shakes his head in amusement, thinking what the American academics he is familiar with would say if they found they had been booked into a place like this.
"This really is a fascinating old building, Herr Braun. So many of the buildings we have in California are all new. This guesthouse must have such a history."
Gil smiles proudly, his yellow uneven teeth showing and his chest puffing. "Yes indeed, Herr Senator, Unter den Linden has here been since four hundred years in this place. The great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was resting here, when he a student at the University was." His accent is thick and definitely German, despite Greg's suspicions. Perhaps 'Gil' is short for 'Gilbert'.
Gil explains that there are a total of six staff who work here: he and his wife, a chef and three maids, none of whom are relatives. The Brauns are here full time, the others work variable hours. He opens up considerably under gentle questioning, and is certainly much less shy than when Helga was present. But Greg is able to elicit nothing that suggests the guesthouse is anything other than unremarkable.
Greg then heads back upstairs, and spends a few minutes wandering up and down the landing. He finds that almost all its boards are creaky. Whether the creaks would help detect midnight intruders is another matter, though, because a building this old would probably creak all the time whether or not there was someone walking about. The guesthouse is a little way from the river, about five minutes walk, and all the rooms at the front look over it to some extent. None of the windows are at all secure, and they could easily be forced with a crowbar.
The party's rooms occupy the whole of the first floor, and lie directly above the dining-room and kitchen area: the reception is more or less at the foot of the stairs, below the communal bathroom. Investigation of the floor above reveals a similar layout, with a trapdoor in the ceiling betraying the presence of an attic. There are only a few small windows on the ground floor, in the reception and dining-room - there are spaces for others, but they have been bricked up. There is a service door at the back of the building, underneath Greg's own room, which opens into the alley. The neighbouring buildings seem to be unremarkable dwellings.
Ellen fires up he computer again, and hunts for information on Heidelberg. There is a great deal of material on this historic city, and she buries herself in accounts of its past - none of it terribly relevant to the current investigation, she fears. One interesting reference concerns mentions of the city in fiction. She finds that in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, the hero, Baron Victor von Frankenstein, is a student at the University of Heidelberg when he makes his discoveries of the nature of galvanic life, and that it is in this city that he constructs his first monster (shortly before being hounded out by the enraged locals).
As for recent local news, there are two German papers on the net, but the Helmut Schreik / Philip Kaufmann / Gunther Blauer / Helmut Konig affair seems not to have made either of them.
Iain heads off to lurk across the road from the guesthouse, the rain still pouring down, and finds a doorway to stand in. At five minutes to nine, he sees a figure tentatively approaching the beer cellar: a slim woman in a belted raincoat, clutching a small black umbrella. Her face is difficult to make out, but he assumes it to be the Professor. He lights a cigarette to signal to Nora at the window, glances down the street to see if the woman is being obviously followed (she is not) and steps forward to confront her. "Professor Keizinger?"
She gives a small, stifled scream, and glares at him. "Please! Must you leap out at me like that, young man? What is the meaning of this?" Her tone is fierce.
Iain apologises and introduces himself. The Professor seems to soften slightly, and she agrees to accompany him to the Unter den Linden. They switch to English, as hers is rather better than is his German.
Dripping, they enter the guesthouse and mount the stairs to join the rest of the party.
Greg is standing opposite the door, the light behind him, and he turns slowly to face the Professor as she enters. He speaks in a strong, confident, welcoming voice. "Good evening, Professor Keizinger. Please let me make the introductions. This is Nora McShane, Uriah Sutherland, James Bowater, Ellen Wallace, and I am Gregory Wentworth. We are all glad to meet you. Please make yourself comfortable, and then we can begin."
Iain guides the Professor to the remaining chair, which she takes with some relief. Clearly Greg's speech has reassured her somewhat.
James has crossed to the window and is peering out, looking for anyone who is obviously standing about, any occupied parked cars, etc. He sees nothing to concern him.
Ellen, Nora and Iain make their excuses and head off to the beer cellar, somewhat to the Professor's surprise, but the reduction in numbers makes the room a little less cramped at least.
Professor Keizinger is an attractive woman of around 40, with short, greying blonde hair. Her face bears the marks of recent strain. Under her raincoat, she is wearing a formal grey suit, and she carries a large clutch bag. She gratefully accepts a drop of Nora's whisky: her manner is a little withdrawn.
James is as charming as he knows how to be, and politely leads her into an explanation of the facts of the case.
She explains that she can send the party a copy of the report she made to the police, but as none of them are technical experts it would probably be more helpful to ask her directly about any points of interest. The head wound was caused by a wooden club, estimated around a metre long: a baseball bat would fit. She did not identify the fingerprints herself - she has no access to police fingerprint records. That was done by the investigating officer, Detective Inspector Otto Fuchs. It is standard practice to take prints from both hands, particularly if there has been tissue damage such as due to soaking in water: one hand's prints might not be good enough, although in this case apparently both were. She took samples of skin for DNA tests from both hands, from the head, from both legs and from the abdomen: the last three linked to the Konig identity, the others to the other three names as described. The corpse had no valuables on him: the body appeared to have been searched roughly, as the pockets were torn. There were no objects remaining in any of them. There was also no identifiable stomach contents, suggesting the dead man had not eaten in several days. The water in his lungs was the same as that in the river, suggesting that he did in fact drown there. She was unable to follow up the Konig identity as she had done the other three, because her police contact Fuchs was taken off the case at that point: she had no access to police records herself.
James asks if he can see a copy of her paper, and she smiles for the first time, although rather mirthlessly. Fishing in her handbag she passes over a screed of paper: it is covered in molecular diagrams and graphs. James studies it carefully but can make little of it.
"You are holding it upside down," says the Professor.
"This fellow Fuchs, the detective," presses James, not put off, "is he a friend? Might he be able to help us with information?"
She frowns. "I really don't know... yes, he is a friend, we have done much work together in the past. But he has been taken off this case now, and I believe he may have been..." she grimaces wryly "discredited, along with myself, for pursuing it."
"What about the substance that was found in the body? Was it similar to any drugs you know of, or did it exhibit any particular unusual properties?"
"Well, it was some sort of metal salt, but not one that is commonly found in biochemical pathways. Perhaps one of the rarer heavy metals. It was not radioactive, and it seemed to be chemically rather inert: that was all we could ascertain, so Otto had it sent to the inorganic people for analysis, as I said in my letter. But I never heard back from them: I don't know whether he did, or to whom he sent it."
"Did you keep any of the material yourself? We were thinking that perhaps we could get it analysed privately."
"The police are very careful about forensic samples, Mr Bowater. They would not have taken kindly to my abstracting some of the evidence." She offers her glass for more whisky.
"Do you think that the scars you observed could have been the results of cosmetic surgery?"
"Possibly. I am not a medical expert. But it was much more than would be necessary for a simple change of identity, or something of that kind: and far more clumsily done than a good surgeon would manage, I would hope, here in Germany at least."
Uriah, who has been silent up till now, speaks up, his voice soft. "I was thinking that it might be possible to retrieve those results from the Department of Inorganic Chemistry by - unorthodox - means, if necessary, thorough their computer systems. Could you help us at all with access to that?"
Greg frowns but remains silent.
Professor Keizinger says "Sorry, I have no password there, and our own system only links to the public parts - I think, I am not a computer expert either! But I can certainly let you into our system." She does not seem at all fazed by this suggestion of criminal activity.
"The other plan we had was to visit European Molecular Letters and find what their side of the story is."
"Oh, that will be rather difficult. They are based in Bologna, in Italy."
Meanwhile, across the street in the Freikeller, Nora, Ellen and Iain are fraternizing with the locals. The clientele seem to be mainly students, and several are keen to display their command of English. Iain feels a little left out, as his two female companions attract far more attention than he does: the drinkers are almost entirely male, and the general impression they give is of being hot, red-faced, tall, friendly and tipsy. The cellar is very full, and by the time Iain has returned from the bar with three litre steins of bock, Nora has drifted away and is the centre of a group of admiring men.
The main topic of conversation at the bar is the upcoming round o European football competitions, in which for the first time ever two of the three current champions are German: can Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund successfully defend their titles? Iain and Ellen manage to shift the chat to tomorrow's Hallowe'en celebrations. Apparently this is a big festival in this part of Germany: there are huge street parades, with everyone in costume, fireworks and the like. The student societies compete to have the best float.
Discredited scientists are a little more difficult to bring into the conversation. Martin Fleischman and Stanley Pons, the proponents of cold fusion, come in for a good deal of stick, as Fleischman is an Englishman (although presumably of German ancestry). When asked whether German scientists would ever fall into the same trap of rushing to publish doubtful results in support of outlandish theories, the students are adamant: no true German would ever be so rash. The academic community here is extremely conservative.
Hours pass in an alcohol-fume-filled haze, and Iain and Ellen start to think it is probably time to head back across the street. But as they rise to leave the Freikeller, they realise that Nora is nowhere to be seen.
11.20 pm, Thursday 30 October 1997
Iain and Ellen: the Freikeller
James, Greg and Uriah: Nora's room in the Unter den Linden, with Professor Keizinger
Nora: location unknown