MAYBE ONE DAY PLASTIC BAGS WILL BE BETTER THAN GULLS
It’s as if the buildings are breaking over people. One, two, puke: big chunks, everyone dead. A couple of architects on speed wanted to play Tetris against each other, and then everything got out of hand. Brutal boulders in washed concrete and steel stand around the place; they were white once, in the sixties and seventies of the last century; they used to gleam, but now the light is peeling off in great flakes.
There are cracks everywhere.
In between there’s mirrored glass, merciless. The few open windows might also be smashed or broken or be missing in some other way, you never know exactly what’s caused the black holes in the façades. The streets are canyons, and although lonely trees and brave squares of grass have been planted here and there, this is no place for any kind of life.
Lying at my feet, in the middle of a heap of fallen plaster, is a sky-blue lighter; it strikes me as sad and comforting in equal measure; I pick it up. The warm wind whirls a plastic bag through the air, and a second flies behind it. Maybe one day plastic bags will be better than gulls after all.
Sometimes I hold fast on to things that just drift past like that; it postpones facing the big stuff a little, but of course it doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with the thing I’m here for, so I shove the lighter into my trouser pocket and the flying plastic bags out of my mind, and approach the almost-dead man in the half-carbonised car.
It was one of those early-morning calls that send you out on the trail without a pause for breath. Could I head over there? A burning car. Again. Apparently we really need to get a grip on these burning cars.
I’m not particularly interested in the burning cars. You know exactly why your cars keep burning, Hamburg.
But this time it wasn’t just a car set on fire. There was also a person. Setting people on fire in cars – bugger that, it’s not right.
I went without coffee, just slipped hastily into my boots and then into a taxi. When I reached the north of the city, a fireman was cordoning off a wide area around the scene of the fire. He said that the black Fiat hadn’t been ablaze for long, they’d got here quickly. They’d been busy in this neck of the woods anyway because, you know, every morning since last summer there’ve been cars burning round here left, right and centre. The cheek of it, and besides, sheesh, our lovely cars.
‘Yes, yes,’ I said, this car business gets on my tits.
‘…And this morning’ – he just kept on talking – ‘they were burning here in City Nord.’
But there are fires all over anyway, I think as I stand around, still a bit out of sorts because I’m so knackered. Everyone keeps getting worked up about the fires, and everyone keeps getting worked up about the helicopters searching the city for hotspots at dawn. Obviously you can’t help hearing them, but they shouldn’t be getting worked up about the helicopters, or about the burning cars either. They ought to be getting worked up about the things that cause people to set stuff on fire. The anger, the rage, the stupidity. We close our ears to it as if we could muffle our brains at the same time.
The fire has only affected the front of the Fiat; from behind the car looks almost new. But there’s still smoke inside it, the poison must have crept in through every crack.
The driver’s door has been cut open.
‘Was the car locked?’ I ask the emergency doctor who’s kneeling beside the man on the asphalt, getting ready to insert a drip. His colleague pumps oxygen into the unconscious man’s lungs.
‘All the doors were locked,’ says the doctor. ‘And I was a bit surprised that he didn’t call for help, given that everyone carries a phone these days. Or that he didn’t just open the door – that’s usually possible, isn’t it?’
‘Perhaps he was asleep,’ I say.
‘Perhaps he was drunk,’ says the doctor, and it sounds like an accusation.
‘But he’ll survive, won’t he?’
Shrug. ‘I can’t say. Depends how long he was in there for. And on the exact mixture he inhaled. The fire brigade say they were here ten minutes after receiving the call, but of course the car will have been burning for a few minutes before that, so you never quite know.’
‘What are his chances?’
‘After twelve minutes in the smoke, not so good.’
The man on the stretcher has one of those faces that look older than they are. Finely cut features, heavy stubble, but his skin looks soft and smooth, his eyebrows and lashes are thick and dark. He’s not even thirty. His black curly hair is almost chin-length.
He’s wearing a dark suit, not particularly expensive-looking. They’ve ripped open his pale shirt so that they can revive him quickly if necessary. That doesn’t seem to have been needed yet, though, so his heart must still be beating.
All around us is dawn.
‘The guy’s got a good constitution,’ says the doctor, standing up. ‘Pretty strong.’
To me, though, he looks delicate, but I don’t say that. I can’t even think it properly, I’m afraid that the mere thought could weaken him.
He seems to be taken care of for the moment – the drip is in; the oxygen mask is on. Two paramedics carefully raise the stretcher and push it into the ambulance.
‘Where are you taking him?’ I ask.
‘Barmbek hospital,’ says the emergency doctor.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
The doctor gives me a somewhat perplexed look and says: ‘Don’t mention it.’
Then they drive off.
Excerpt published with permission from Orenda Books. For more information about this title, click here.
Simone Buchholz was born in Hanau in 1972. At university, she studied Philosophy and Literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award, and second place in the German Crime Fiction Prize, for Blue Night, which was number one on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for months. The next in the Chastity Riley series, Beton Rouge, won the Radio Bremen Crime Fiction Award and Best Economic Crime Novel 2017. She lives in Sankt Pauli, in the heart of Hamburg, with her husband and son. Follow Simone on Twitter @ohneKlippo and visit her website: simonebuchholz.com.
Rachel Ward is a freelance translator of literary and creative texts from German and French to English and a qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors.