InFinger of Guilt, star investigator Hans Fraksa claims that the Kinderfresser, the vicious child eater of Berlin, has been caught.
So why is he worried discarded, gnawed bones will keep appearing?
Follow the gruesome case with detective Willi Krauss in The Children of Wrath, by Paul Grossman, coming March 2012.
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St. Martin's Press
January 03, 2012
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Excerpt from Finger of Guilt by Paul Grossman
FINGER OF GUILT (Chapter 1)
The great gray Police Presidium loomed over Alexanderplatz like an aging father, forever reminding everyone of the law's inescapability, yet blind to the myriad infractions in full swing beneath its eyes: the prostitution and petty larceny, the passing packs of drugs. Even with the big redevelopment underway that spring of 1930, all the modern buildings and circular traffic patterns would never erase the vice from such a congested commercial heart, only push it deeper into the crevices. Which was why Berlin would always need men like him, Freksa knew. And yet, the terrible thought stabbed his brain: what if the old man's not as blind as he seems?
A tingle of humiliation burned his cheeks. Under his arm throbbed a painful boil. For a second his eyes closed. Then he stiffened his spine.
From his sixth floor office in the Homicide Commission he stared out the window, motionless as a statue, thrusting out his chin. The whole Alex sprawled down there, the restaurants and beer halls, the flagship department stores. It had taken all he had to reach this pedestal, every step combat. He deserved his hour of glory. If not for this, then for a dozen other blood-soaked battles.
If only he knew for certain nothing would mess it up.
Slowly, he let the breath leave his chest.
The famous glass globe atop the Tietz Department Store was already reflecting midday sun. This climb had taken very long, he knew. Longer than it had others in his unit. Streams of cars and buses below blurred into the face of his nemesis, those dark clever eyes always seeming to accuse the world of some atrocity. How like Kraus to play victim, with all the advantages he'd been born with. The whole infernal network. But never mind him now, Freksa commanded himself, gagging almost on injustice.
From the bottom of his pocket he clutched the cigarette case and banged out a Josetti. Sticking it in his lips he turned from the window, mentally patting himself on the back. You made it all on your own kiddo. Go ahead, enjoy it.
"Still here, Inspektor?" The secretary looked shocked. "Better hurry. With all that traffic. Don't want to keep the whole world waiting!"
Freksa nodded, frisking himself for a lighter.
Before he left he made sure to take a quick glance into Kraus' office. Son of a bitch couldn't keep his paws off the case. Kept offering tips the whole time: such and such a bible passage, such and such a storm canal. At least he didn't seem to know about the news conference. Freksa was relieved to see the bastard still at his desk, and he hurried down the hall.
The air outside was startlingly fresh. Greedily he breathed it in. Behind the wheel of the little green Audi he checked his face in the mirror. The thick blonde hair was flawlessly parted, the high round cheekbones shiny as polished boots. A veil of smoke drifting from the Josetti softened the sapphire glint women found so alluring in his eyes. If only a gaze could earn a fellow everything he needed in life.
He switched on the V-8 engine, comforted by its powerful trembling. Shifting the clutch he jerked into traffic, receiving a furious horn blast from a double-decker bus. Never mind him. Freksa cut him off. To his left, he noticed the unemployed in the park, hundreds of them huddled like crows on benches, shuffling around, some still in fancy suits from a season ago. The economic bust was worsening by the week it seemed, not just in Germany but across the globe. After all the high-kicking times, this was a real slide in the mud. It was disgusting, considering the sacrifice he and his generation had made for this nation. The whole thing going down the toilet now.
At least today, he saw at the corner kiosk, the headlines were trumpeting triumph. Child-Eater Caught! Freksa, Victorious! People were still devouring the news, gobbling up late editions. Four million inhabitants in Greater Berlin and every one of them had hungered for this for eight long months. The idiots. They didn't care about who had saved them. As long as they got their scapegoat they'd eat up anything.
He hit the breaks to avoid a drunk wobbling through traffic, his arm seized with burning. The monster boil had erupted days ago in the most tender part, underneath, almost at the pit. He should have gone and had it lanced, but everything had to be discharged like machinegun fire, Herr Doktor'd made clear. The evidence. The raid. This news conference. He was paying for it now though; thing had grown the size of a walnut. Grasping for his handkerchief he had to mop pearls of sweat from his brow.
At the intersection someone on the sidewalk recognized him.
"Hey look, there's Freksa now!"
People started swarming over, wanting him to autograph newspapers.
"Who is it?" they clamored to know. "Who's the monster?"
"You'll hear all about it soon enough." He nodded, waving them off.
On the big metal clock above Aschingers he saw it was nearing one. Nervous energy sprang through his veins. He could picture the photographers jostling for spots out at the factory gate, the swarm of reporters buzzing for a sight of him. This was the biggest story of the decade. And he was the hero.
Nice work, if you could get it.
When the light changed he hit the gas, trying to outrun a yellow streetcar. But the s.o.b seemed determined to crush him, so he bowed to superior power. The pain under his arm stabbed, making his vision a little fuzzy. Get a hold, he ordered himself, slowing down his breathing. Don't forget your lucky star, Hans.
Waiting to make the turn onto Kaiser Allee, however, he could feel his blood pressure rocket. The whole avenue was completely backed up. The Audi could sail at 80 kph, but here he was dead in the water, enroute to his own press conference. To distract himself he forced his mind to reconsider the strangely miraculous curvature of his life. How else could one describe it? When so few he'd started out with even made it to 20, how had he, Hans Rudolf Freksa, not merely reached 35, but the very pinnacle of success? From homeless waif to Germany's most celebrated detective. It was as if he'd been plucked from the masses and christened with a magic sword.
Of course it hadn't been like Fate simply carried him along on its shoulders. He'd had to acquire his saving graces the hard way. The lessons invariably cruel. He might have started out in a goose down bed, but life soon enough had him skewered over a pit fire. When he was eleven both his parents died of influenza. His relatives too poor to take him in. He was left alone in the world. And at that age, on the streets of Berlin, you either obeyed the laws of the wild, or perished.
Barely managing a turn finally, facing a solid wall of traffic, he found himself staring at the noisy gang in front of the corner billiards: homeless kids, a whole crowd of them, smoking, laughing like they owned the world. But when their leader emerged they stiffened like a wolves in a pack. The law of the wild never altered. It was always strength over weakness. And strength was determined by brute blows. All sorts of them. You learned not merely to bear the brunt, but to feel gratitude for every humiliation because the strong had what you needed: food, clothing, shelter. And the key was submission. When you were in a gang, father, mother, God all rolled into your Leader. It was useful training.
Kaiser Allee refused to budge. He smashed the horn then stuck his head out to see what the hell was wrong. The whole broad avenue was blocked by some sort of parade ahead. Communists! Hundreds of them. He couldn't believe it. Waving red flags and calling for a Soviet Germany. He felt like turning the Audi onto the sidewalk and plowing right through them. Against that impulse he sucked down air, pumping up an old Prussian march song in his head and drumming the wheel. There couldn't be that many Reds in Berlin, he consoled himself.
Averting his eyes he forced his attention to the gray plain of rubble to his right, where the U-Bahn station was soon to be dug. Until a fortnight ago it had been the Grand Hotel. He could practically still see those gabled towers rising to the sky. How many times had he eaten in that gas-lit Grill Room. The Herr Doktor had brought him there too once for lunch, so they could get to know each other. The man had given him creeps even then. The restaurant was overpriced but the food first rate. It wasn't the Kaiserhof, of course.
The Kaiserhof. All during his years on the streets, when he could run a three-card Monte game blindfolded, steer a John to any entertainment venue in the city, and pluck the most hard to reach wallet from any pocket, he never stopped longing for respectability. Never let go of the memory of his mother cooking kraut in the kitchen, or his father snoring on the couch. Because he came from a decent home he'd no intention of graduating, as the others did, into the world of professional gangsters. When trade gave him glimpses of the fantastic carpeted lobbies of the city's fine hotels, he realized where he wanted to be. So he did what he had to, and at the age of fifteen landed a job at the finest.
First time he put on his uniform at the Kaiserhof, my God. The stripes up the trousers. The rows of brass buttons. That cap with the visor and leather chin strap. Like being crowned prince. "Bell Boy Freksa at your service!" The joy with which he lugged those suitcases. But what they didn't do in the back room if those buttons didn't shine. And how they shook you down for those meager tips you sweat for. Three years in that dank dormitory, earning his way up to Floor Captain. Just as he began to despair he'd never be anything more than a bellboy: August 1914.
And the uniform completely changed.
"You'll be late for your own funeral." The Kommissar slapped a meaty hand on his shoulder as he climbed from the Audi. Newsmen swarmed around. A fifteen minute drive had taken an hour and twenty minutes. Berlin was creeping with communists! His every muscle was sore with outrage, his underarm throbbing menacingly. What did we bleed for? Die for? To turn this country Bolshevik? Now, his eyes widened with despair at the spectacle around him: there had to be a hundred reporters frantic at his arrival. They were already turning their cameras towards him. He could feel their mob-like energy, wanting to tear him apart with questions.
Why did it come as such a jolt?
When the news broke this morning it was as if the city had woken to discover Germany had actually won the Great War twelve years ago. Church bells ringing. People cheering. In the halls of Reichstag the bitterest enemies united in thunderous applause. In the parks and on the river, on the elevated trains and underground, in factory districts and along the swank esplanades of the West End, the whole of Berlin sighed with gratitude. Now, ironically, it was their savior suffering with nervous indigestion. Even the Kommissar couldn't miss it.
"What, you, stage fright?" he bellowed. "Want me to hold your hand?"
Freksa'd certainly never felt uncomfortable facing the press before. Usually the storm of camera flashes gave him a real high. This was different. This felt like a massive tidal wave he'd somehow reached the crest of, which even now threatened to pull him under. He took a breath, knowing he'd faced worse in his day. Far worse. He was doing alright, wasn't he, riding on top. The only thing trying to drag him down was Kraus.
God damn that relentless Jew!
Clenching his teeth he offered the Kommissar his best killer grin.
The factory entrance was lined phalanxes of tripods with cameras aimed at a speaker's podium. In between, an anxious army of reporters massed with sharpened pencils, starving to know how he'd snapped the trap door shut, and who he'd finally snared. Step by step, as if pulled by a giant magnet, he made his way up front.
Without warning though, a furious bang braced his body for an explosion. Snare drums, he understood, but it made no difference. His arms rose to shield his head. Every clap of thunder, every crashing garbage can still tossed him back into those trenches of death, twelve years after he'd come home. At night, he still flung awake, drenched with sweat, holding out arms to stop the gas. When he drank he still saw headless corpses sprawled on barroom floors. So many scars burned and tortured him still. His heart swelled with shame.
"You sure you're alright?" the Kommissar grabbed his shoulder.
"I'll be fine." Freksa steadied himself, gasping in air.
As he straightened his back and continued toward the podium, a soul-stirring melody--pounding drums, ringing glockenspiels--felt as if they were lifting him off the ground. The Doktor stopped at nothing, he understood. He'd trucked in an entire SA marching band, along with a detachment of Brown Shirts in high polished boots, leather chest straps, blood red armbands. They stood in stiff ranks to the right of the reporters, blaring a Nazi anthem, lending a dubious effect to this official news conference Freksa thought, because after all, this was his show.
The boil under his arm felt like a volcano ready to blow. Brown Shirts sang with the pounding music, their voices blasting through the sunny afternoon, giving him a shiver. Not that he wasn't on their side. He'd joined more than a year ago. How could he ever forget that day he took the oath to this very melody, as if all the physical and spiritual energy he possessed had merged with ten thousand others:
Dem F�hrer des Deutschen Reiches und Volkes, Adolf Hitler --
Dem F�hrer des Deutschen Reiches --
But there were things even the party shouldn't have jurisdiction over. He'd actually had the temerity to suggest to the Herr Doktor that perhaps he'd invested too much propaganda value into a criminal case, which after all was a matter for professional detectives. The limp little dwarf had screamed for half an hour: "A state is in the making where all law will spring from the wisdom of the F�hrer, Freksa! If you are committed to bringing about that state--" His shifty eyes left little doubt Freksa'd better be, because the price of disloyalty was no secret.
The sea of reporters parted to let him past. Amid all the cheers and congratulations though, it felt as if some door in the back of his brain were prying open, part of him sneaking out. Surely some one had to realize what a travesty this was. But no. They wouldn't stop applauding. Bunching his fists into furious mallets he thundered up the stairs two at a time, feeling a gathering storm in his chest explode into a cyclone of light. As he turned, his retinas were stabbed with frenzied flashes of phosphorescence. For an instant he thought: this is what it must be like entering Valhalla.
Behind the iron fence, however, inside the old factory complex, a strange sound intruded on his ascendancy. Family members of the soon-to-be-accused were emitting a long, low, plaintive wail. The crowd of reporters shifted with disquiet trying to see who they were. The Storm Troopers, however, came to the rescue, bursting into furious chanting, keeping time with drums. "Race Shame! Race Shame! Germany Awaken!"
For God's sake, Freksa thought, clutching the podium. Let me just get through with this. And raising his hand finally to indicate he was taking reigns here, the chanting quickly ceased. Lifting it higher, lifting his whole arm stiffly, a dead hush settled over the crowd.
He could feel the terrible burning boil under his arm wanting to pull him down, to drag him off the podium. Deep in his heart, a secret guilt pumped, like after his parents had died, that somehow he had caused this calamity, brought the world upon his head. At least his unit had turned out to support him: Mueller, Meyer, Hiller, Stoss, all present. And of course the Kommissar, nodding, go on, go on, with a meaty cigar between his lips.
Freksa closed his eyes a moment inexplicably flung back to his childhood bedroom, clutching his Illustrated Book of Teutonic Tales. The Sword of Victory dangling before him. The traitor waiting to be unmasked. Do this with honor, he tried to pull himself back to the present, lifting his chin and preparing to point his finger. But what was he doing here? His stomach trembled. Of all faces! Spotting him in the back, Freksa felt like he was the one who'd been betrayed. Kraus!
Hadn't they taken every pain to make it clear he wasn't wanted, refused even to tell him the address here? The man could never keep his nose out, especially from this case. Up my ass every step of the way, Freksa fumed. Well fuck him. The evidence is irrefutable--the burlap sacks, the cleavers of death, the means of disposal--all right here in the abandoned factory where the vermin scurried about.
Courage, kid. He punched his arm mentally. You've got nothing to reproach yourself for. As long as they never find out. And yet, as he cleared his throat to commence the accusation, it was as if his insides turned hollow. Nothing came out. There was nothing to come out. Everyone just stared at him. He coughed a few times, stricken with terror.
What if the real killer strikes again?
He felt himself grow very small before a giant scale of justice, desperate not to see which way it tilted. But I have nothing to be ashamed of, he cried. What choice was I given? And who doesn't gain at least part of what he has at others' expense? Isn't that the law of nature?
Shaking the vision from his brain he thrust forward his torso, gripping one of the microphones, clutching it like a hand grenade.
"Good afternoon," he thundered into the maddening inferno of camera flashes, making him feel as if he were being lifted onto a blazing funeral pyre.
Germans are a nation of blood and race, he remembered Goebbels screaming, buttoning his trench coat as he limped from the office. Certain people stand beneath the law, Freksa. They deserve what they get.
From the back of the crowd though Kraus wouldn't quit staring. Even over the firestorm of lights, Freksa could see those two gleaming eyes affixed on him. Implacable. Irrefutable. How he hated him! And yet, strangely...how he suddenly wished they didn't have to be enemies. For in those dark eyes were the only reflection where the finger of guilt was aimed where it belonged.
And it soothed Freksa's tormented flesh.
FINGER OF GUILT Copyright 2011 by Paul Grossman.