The two detectives stood over the autopsy table, regarding the remains. The dead man had been Caucasian, middle-aged, overweight and balding. The body had a flattened, burst look, the flesh of the torso split in a number of areas. The intestines had already been removed, most of them having to be brought in separate from the body. The left arm was connected only by tendons and strands of muscle. As the coroner sprayed the corpse, cleaning it down, the water ran red with blood onto the stainless steel table and down the drains set into its surface. There were ligature marks on his wrists that indicated they’d been tied, and the man had a strange blood-bruise that circled most of his face, the face itself misshapen as if something had tried to suck it into a hole.
The coroner was a lean man with African features and a bass voice that sounded suitably sombre as he spoke into a recorder about the each step of the post-mortem. He spoke in German, his diction clipped and precise. The room was chilly, its surfaces all white tile, steel work units and painted concrete walls. The coroner said something to his assistant, a sallow, pinch-faced young woman, who handed him a scalpel. He began to make a Y-shaped incision down the torso, preparing to open up the chest cavity.
Unlike scenes in so many films, when a body falls from a great height, it rarely lands intact. It is, after all, a soft container of flesh whose shape is reinforced with rather brittle bone that tends to break on impact. The overall effect is that of dropping a meat balloon full of blood. The two detectives watched with detached interest, as a customer might watch a butcher prepare joints of meat. This was not their first autopsy.
Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, tasked with investigating crimes with far-reaching consequences. They were in this room in Berlin today because the dead man might have a connection with two open, and possibly connected, cases. Blowfly was neat and trim in dress and looks, his Oriental features stretched over fine bone structure, his manner still and relaxed, a faint Irish lilt to his voice. Jerm had a more neutral English accent, was more restless, and taller and more angular, with cropped dark brown hair which was never quite brushed into place. Her face had a subdued, dour expression without seeming cold, though whether that was from her job or because of her character was anyone’s guess.
‘So this guy fell from this building, TV Tower,’ Blowfly said.
He’d only arrived half an hour ago, having come in on a different plane to Jerm. He was still catching up.
‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘The Fernsehturm. One of their most famous buildings, overlooks Alexanderplatz. His name’s Erich Ulbricht. He was a broadcaster, but he didn’t work in the tower himself.’
‘What’s with the mark on his face?’ Blowfly asked.
‘Oh, you’ll love this. When he hit the ground, he was wearing a gas mask.’
‘You heard me. A gas mask. The guy was wearing it when he was thrown off.’
‘We sure he was thrown?’
Jerm had a picture of TV Tower ready on her phone to show him.
‘Oh yeah, I know it,’ he said, nodding.
It was straight and thin, tapering to a point like a needle. About two thirds of the way up was a sphere, with another, rectangular structure above it. Most of the rest above that was an antenna.
‘See the glass ball?’ Jerm said. ‘That’s where the restaurant and viewing gallery are. Usual deal with these things, great view of all the big stuff nearby, you know; the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz . . . And it turns too. These restaurant places always have to turn now. Anyway, whoever did this to the guy, hung him by his feet down over the ball bit here. He was hanging right down in front of the windows of the restaurant.’
‘Kind of like . . .’
‘. . . A public hanging? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. There’s a definite punishment vibe coming off this thing. So he’s let hang there, his wrists tied behind him, wearing this gas mask and he’s thrashing around . . . Some of the staff think to run upstairs to see if they can pull him up. But when they get to the office he’s hanging from, they throw open the door and it’s . . .’ She paused. ‘The door was rigged. When they opened it, it released the end of the rope.’
Blowfly looked back at the corpse on the stainless steel table.
‘Two hundred and ten metres, give or take.’
‘That’d do it all right.’
Neither of them spoke for a minute. Blowfly already knew why Jerm had taken an interest in the case. Erich Ulbricht worked for Hewbrys Holdings, or at least, the radio station he worked for was owned by the company. Hewbrys Holdings was connected to two of their other cases; a bush-fire in Australia and a terrorist attack on the Thames Barrier in London. And now this.
‘Different M.O.’ Jerm commented. ‘Completely different situation. Again. But it’s got the same stink off it. Someone’s playing games.’
‘Yeah, I’m having a theory,’ Blowfly said.
‘Great, I’ll call the press.’
Blowfly didn’t rise to the jibe. He was well used to his partner’s sarcasm. They were both about to say something else, when the coroner lifted his head and pulled down his mask for a moment.
‘I just thought you’d be interested to know,’ he said to them, his English spoken with a trace of American twang. ‘The gas mask had its breathing tube sealed. He wouldn’t have been able to breathe while he was wearing it. My preliminary examination of the lungs confirms it. He was asphyxiated. Even if he hadn’t fallen, he would have been dead within a minute or two.’
‘Any idea why?’ Jerm asked.
‘I believe that would be your job,’ the coroner replied. ‘Though I’m sure the Berliner Polizei will already have a long list of suspects. Mister Ulbricht was a divisive figure in Germany.’
‘How so?’ Blowfly said.
‘He was what you’d call a “shock jock”. Paid to spout offensive opinions. Even the name of the radio station, “Schutzwall“, is intended to get a rise out of people. Strictly translated, it means “rampart” or “protective wall”, but you would just call it, “the Wall”.’
‘That was the name of the Berlin Wall in German,’ Jerm told Blowfly. ‘Der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. The Anti-Fascism Rampart.’
‘Yes,’ the coroner said. ‘Though, perhaps it’s intended to be ironic, given Ulbricht’s politics and those of the station generally. He was the poster boy for every right-wing, reactionary campaign over the last few years. He would have had plenty of enemies already, but after the guest he interviewed last week, well . . . there are probably thousands more.’
‘Why’s that?’ Blowfly asked.
‘The living aren’t my problem,’ the coroner said. ‘They’re yours. The interview got posted everywhere online. You should hear it for yourselves. You’ll understand.’
Giving them a grim smile, he pulled up his mask and returned to his work.
Erich Ulbricht’s fateful interview had been with a Polish woman named Dominika O’Reilly. She was an environmentalist who had been brought on to talk about the pollution in China’s cities; she had written an article about it in one of Germany’s newspapers, comparing it with the pollution Berlin faced in the seventies and eighties. She was thirty-six years old; a lean, active looking, slightly unkempt woman, her straight blonde hair cut in a bob just below the jaw-line, the features of her face blocky but strong and attractive, prematurely lined by what appeared to some underlying anger or frustration. Her eyes had the intensity of a campaigner.
‘Ulbricht brought me on to his show to make a point,’ she told the two detectives, her accent a light-sharp, chirping mix of Polish and Irish. ‘I was there to talk about climate change, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I had to say. He just wanted an excuse to go off on a rant about China.’
They were sitting down at a wooden table and benches outside a café beside the Documentation Centre at the Berlin Wall Memorial. O’Reilly had chosen the location, saying she did not want to be interviewed in a police station. She had had bad experiences with the police in the past. Blowfly and Jerm were inclined to agree. They had already checked out her criminal record, which listed a series of arrests for various extreme protests, ranging from chaining herself to mining machinery in Australia, to hanging off a bridge in the path of a container ship carrying toxic waste down a river in the US. She was now a German citizen; seemingly the only country she’d lived in where she’d never been arrested. Blowfly had a latte in front of him, Jerm had a black coffee and was lighting a cigarette. O’Reilly had only asked for tap water. She didn’t look too happy about the cigarette smoke, but she didn’t say anything.
‘When we talked on the phone,’ Blowfly began, ‘you said you weren’t surprised to hear Ulbricht died wearing a gas mask. Hearing that someone’s been thrown off a building with a gas mask on would be pretty surprising to most people.’
‘I’m not most people,’ O’Reilly replied. ‘Perhaps I was being insensitive about someone who’d just been murdered. I don’t particularly care that he’s dead, but it’s horrible how he died. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The reason I said I wasn’t surprised was because of his background. You said you’d listened to the interview?’
‘Yes,’ Jerm said, exhaling smoke, ‘but we’d like to hear the story straight from you.’
O’Reilly sipped her water, tilting her head back to look at the sky. Across from them was one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with one of the old watch-towers. It was there as a monument now, a reminder. But Berlin had moved on, consigning that part of itself to history.
‘It’s funny, how different things are normal in different places,’ the young woman said. ‘Fifty years ago, that wall dividing the city was normal. Stasi surveillance and all its informers, the horrible paranoia, was normal. Life recovering from the world’s worst war was normal. City streets obscured by a choking smog was normal. Now we think this is normal, what we have now. And yet this has only existed for such a very short time. I like this normal – here, now, in Berlin. The environment is taken seriously.’ She gestured over her shoulder at a billboard on the wall. It was for an organization called Naturschutzbund Deutschland, and showed a boat passing through water whose surface was carpeted in garbage. ‘It’s part of normal conversation. People don’t consider you a nut for talking about conservation, climate change, that kind of thing.’
Jerm thought about the other two cases they were still working on; one that concerned bush-fires in the Australian state of Victoria, the other the Thames Barrier in London. Both had an environmental facet to them, though she and Blowfly had been unable to establish that as a solid connection.
‘You very worried about climate change?’ she asked.
‘I should be,’ O’Reilly answered. ‘But I mustn’t be worried enough.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because it’s so serious, I should be out planting bombs to stop all this coal mining and oil drilling. I should be helping to blow up these mines and oil rigs. That’s how serious it is. It’s going to bring down civilization as we know it, so I should be doing anything possible to stop it. But I don’t. I should be willing to go to prison to make change happen, but I’m not. I don’t go far enough.’
‘You’re not going to do anyone any good in prison,’ Jerm remarked bluntly. ‘Tell us about the circumstances leading up to the interview.’
‘Yes, the interview,’ O’Reilly said, grimacing. ‘Not that it was an interview at all. I’d been asked to talk about my article on air pollution in China. In some cities, on some days, they have to wear masks when they go out on the streets. That was what I wanted to talk about. I mean, it’s only a symptom of the level of carbon in the air. You know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached four hundred parts per million?’
‘I’ve heard it,’ Jerm said, ‘but . . . well . . . I don’t really know what it means.’
‘It hasn’t been that high in the last three to five million years!’ O’Reilly exclaimed, her voice taking on the tone of an evangelist, her hands clasped in the air. ‘Back then, sea levels could have been thirty metres higher than today. The atmosphere’s been doing its thing, changing ever so slowly over all this time and then the industrial revolution comes along and suddenly the carbon levels start rocketing . . . It’s not just a few shifts in the weather we’re talking about here. We’ve affected the air and the seas so much, we’ve changed the Earth’s future capacity to support the world as we know it. That’s how big a deal this is. That’s what I wanted to talk about . . .’
Pausing, she lowered her hands, giving the two detectives a sheepish, but bitter smile.
‘You see how I get. Anyway, I knew Ulbricht would ambush me, turn it into a chance for him to launch into some tirade against China. I’ve been caught out by people like him before. They don’t want real discussion or debate, they’re not trying to draw out the truth. This time, I thought I’d take a different approach. I’d employ some of his own tactics. I’d dig up some dirt on him. I knew he’d grown up in East Berlin, so when I was invited on the show, I contacted someone I know at the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde, the Stasi Records Agency, who hold all the old files from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.’ She rolled the German words off her tongue, as if tasting them. ‘My friend was surprised nobody had done a search on Ulbricht before, given the number of people who hate him, but there you are. Anyone can apply – the MfS files are all open to the public. Or perhaps nobody had dug far enough down. The Germans are keen to let it all lie, I suppose. It’s taken a lot of tolerance for Berliners, living together in the same city, to get past the suspicion, the paranoia that existed back then. Imagine how you’d feel if you found out that your neighbour had informed on you to the Stasi – or even one of your own family? If its people had looked for revenge on one another, Berlin would have descended into chaos. Instead, they had to forgive and forget, to get on with their lives. It’s so complex, so fascinating. And it’s extraordinary, what you can still find in the Stasi files from that time. Did you know they have an archive of sweat and body odour samples? I think it was for when they needed to use tracker dogs. The bastards even recorded your smells . . .
‘Whatever. I learned that Ulbricht had worked for the Stasi. He was an informer first, in university, then an operative, then an interrogator. The last references to him in the Stasi material were in connection with the South African Police. I kept digging and found mention of him in a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. Apparently, when the wall fell, he moved to South Africa, where he continued to practise his trade.’
She paused once again, for effect this time, to ensure she had the full attention of her audience.
‘Ulbricht’s method of choice was the gas mask. He would put it on the prisoner and, if the victim didn’t talk, he’d block the air tube so they couldn’t breathe. He would do this until they passed out, then open the tube again. When the prisoner regained consciousness, he told them he would do it again, but this time he’d let them suffocate. He claimed they never failed to tell him everything he wanted to know. After the fall of apartheid in ’94, he ran back to Germany. No charges were ever brought against him in either country. He managed to successfully build a new life in the media, covering up his past.’
Blowfly and Jerm had already heard the story, and Ulbricht’s apoplectic reaction to it during the interview, which had resulted in the show going off the air while O’Reilly was escorted from the building. Ulbricht had been placed on a leave of absence until the issue was resolved. Even a controversy-courting station like Schutzwall FM couldn’t employ someone who might have once been a torturer.
‘So a guy whose job it was to torture information out of people became an interviewer on the radio,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘Nice.’
‘He polluted the airwaves with his filthy arguments and accusations,’ O’Reilly said, scowling. ‘He used his position to humiliate others, to inspire fear and hatred and to denounce decent people with his propaganda and to undermine scientists who were warning against climate change, which was one of his pet hates.’
‘As I said, I’d never wish that kind of death on anyone, but I’m not sorry he’s dead. Whoever did this, they’re making a point. A bit heavy-handed, I’ll grant you . . . and unlike me, they’re not compromising. To be honest, I’m surprised someone hasn’t already claimed credit for it. This isn’t a normal murder, I think it’s the act of a terrorist. And terrorists want publicity.’
The three talked for a little while longer and then Blowfly and Jerm thanked Dominika O’Reilly for her time and she left. The two detectives regarded each other for a moment.
‘Definite pattern around this climate change thing,’ Jerm observed. ‘They’re all aspects of global warming, aren’t they? You get more bush-fires in Victoria, more storm surges along the Thames. And now this: a climate change denier who’s also a torturer, outed by an environmentalist.’
‘There’s something else,’ Blowfly added. ‘I think there’s something here about the classical elements.’
‘The classical elements, the four states of matter . . . y’know; earth, air, fire and water. Earth is solid, air is gas, fire is plasma and water is liquid. Although sometimes there’s five, if you include the quintessence, or aether.’
‘Oh, sure. Right.’
‘No, listen,’ Blowfly persisted. ‘The first victim, Cameron Davis, burned to death. The second, Antonia Abbot, drowned. This guy, who “polluted the airwaves”, fell through the air while suffocating . . .’
‘Yeah, yeah, I get it. But . . . so what?’
‘So it’s symbolism of some kind. Like O’Reilly said, someone’s making a point. Yes, it looks like the work of terrorists, but where are the claims of responsibility? She’s right; terrorists want publicity – that’s what it’s all about. I’m betting there’s going to be another victim, possibly two. And the next one’s likely to be something to do with earth.’
Jerm slapped the table and blasted smoke from her mouth.
‘Goddammit, Blow! You’ve cracked the case! We just have to stop someone dying of earth and we’ll nail the bastards who are behind this.’
‘You’re such a piss-taker,’ Blowfly sighed.
‘You’re such a bullshitter,’ she retorted.
‘It’s why we make such a good team,’ he replied, grinning.
She smiled back, picking up her case and taking out her tablet. Opening a window, she typed in Ulbricht’s name and the words ‘climate change’.
‘Let’s see if he pissed off anyone special with this denial stuff,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘The violence against the victims has all been up close; it feels more personal than your average terrorist. I’m betting it’s someone who actually met him – maybe someone who featured on his show . . .’ A photo caught her eye and she stared at what had appeared on the screen. She spread her fingers over it, zooming in on the picture. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’
‘No question o’ that,’ Blowfly murmured.
‘Smart-arse. Look at this.’
The photo was only tagged with Ulbricht’s name, but the image showed four people. The detectives recognized three of them. The image was a scan of a newspaper article about a group that had been assembled by the CEO of Hewbrys Holdings to ‘investigate the possible effects of climate change on air quality in Central Europe’. The people standing next to Erich Ulbricht in the picture were named in the newspaper’s caption, but it was just part of the image; the words wouldn’t show up on a search of the web. Next to the radio presenter was Hewbrys’ ‘Environmental Affairs Spokesperson’, Antonia Abbot and ‘Atmospheric Chemist’, Cameron Davis. The fourth person was a ‘prominent environmentalist’ named Michal Jánošík. Jerm went on to do a search for Michal Jánošík online, while Blowfly opened his laptop and checked him out on the Interpol database.
‘He’s got a record,’ Blowfly said. ‘Numerous arrests; most seem to be for protests of one sort or another. He’s got a sheet longer – and more extreme – than O’Reilly.’
‘He’s also dead,’ Jerm declared. ‘Murdered last year. Looks like we’re going to Poland.’