The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 14
Extract from The Ministry of Complaints
Hans Walter Neumann couldn't remember his journey home. All he knew was that now he was staring at his own reflection in the window of his apartment and he wasn't sure who he was anymore. How had he become involved?
Finding that he was in no mood at all to sleep he took Zelig Krüger’s coded pages over to his desk he sat down.
As a boy Hans had liked puzzles and he felt something of a thrill to think he might be able to decipher this one. If he did surely there would lay the answer to where Zelig Krüger had gone.
He spread the pages carefully across his desk. Each one was filled with the same neat handwriting and at the top of the page, very faintly so as not to be immediately obvious, were written two numbers.
Hans lent close to each of the pages in turn and looked closely at the two numbers.
What were they doing there? As his father would have said, maybe it is something, maybe it is nothing.
Over the next few hours Hans tried every trick he could remember from his childhood code breaking days but he was still scratching his head when noises from the flats around him indicated it was morning. He had been working all night and it was time for him to go to work.
And so it carried on, his new and unasked for life.
At night Hans worked fruitlessly upon the coded pages and each morning he went to work.
In the way that habits quickly develop into routines and routines into ruts his life disgorged itself along this new and all consuming pattern.
It was only crushed on the tram that he had the free time to think. With some crotch or bogey-filled nose flat up against his face his thoughts turned to Amelia and her mother. They had turned to them in their hour of need and pressing down on him was the notion that, so far, he had been a failure.
For all his hard work Zelig was still missing and he was no closer to cracking the code.
He imagined them waiting for him night after night in their apartment, for the soft knock at their door that would signal his return.
But what would he say?
‘You have put your trust in the wrong person. I am nothing and never will be. I am sorry.’
In the end a decision was taken out of his hands.
It was they came to see him.
‘I have a plan.’
The crayon this time was blue.
Looking up there they both were, apparently blown in by the wind.
"If he was dead then there would be a body."
Having first looked carefully over both her shoulders to check nobody was watching Amelia slid a rolled out page out from the sleeve of her coat and through the slot in the window.
It was a newspaper clipping, the article part of the regular ‘Citizen of the Week’ feature in The Morning Herald, and this week it was about a certain Gunter Hermann Bauer who worked as head mortician at the Aufhocker Morgue.
“I don't understand.”
Hans scratched his head. He had read the whole thing once and then again.
“What is all this about?”
Reaching one of her thin arms under the divide Amelie tapped at a point on the page about three quarters of the way down.
"All unclaimed corpses are kept for sixty days before incinerating them.”
A single tear rolled down her cheek as she pronounced the next sentence.
“If my father is dead then his body might have ended up there.”
The little girl pressed her nose right up to the glass and spoke in a low whisper.
“We will break into the morgue confirm this fact. Then at least we will know one way or the other.”
It took me two hours to find out Magnusdottir’s current British publisher and the name of her agent. Despite she herself being absent the book was still very much in print. This was her umbilical cord to the world. And, I hoped, to me.
I tried the agent first, spending some time composing the email. I hinted that I already knew the truth and that if Magnusdottir didn't meet with me I would publish this ‘truth’ anyway. Besides, I wrote, exposure now after all these years would be a boost for sales, open up Magnusdottir’s book to a new generation of readers. Where was the harm? Didn't the general public love a comeback? After I pressed the send button I went out for a cigarette.
Looking up at the desultory sky I thought of that film where the plane crashes in the Alps and the surviving passengers eat each other one by one. Zara was the kind of person who would make sure she was eaten last. I imagined her fighting with Russell, just the two of them left, Zara saying that if Russell loved her he would give himself up to be butchered and then when he refused, beating his chest and saying that he did love her but they should die together in each other's arms like Romeo and Juliet, she whipping off one of her high heeled shoes and spiking him again and again before gorging on his still warm flesh.
Zara was a survivor, didn't I know that more than anyone after all we had been through, and that's why I loved her.
After finishing my first cigarette I had another one for luck and for once it seemed the gods were on my side. On going back into the library I saw that the inbox on my email was indicating that I had one new message.
Extract from The Ministry of Complaints
The Aufhocker Morgue, the temporary home of the recently departed, inhabited an inauspicious side street behind Karl Baedeker square.
On the stroke of midnight three days after their meeting at The Ministry of Complaints Hans, Amelia and her mother stood on the pavement outside it their faces blacked up with the very same lump of coal Hans had used on his last nighttime flit.
This time the mission was much more ghoulish one.
“The window I have chosen is at the rear.”
Amelia’s words came out of her in puffs of clouds.
“Enter there and no one will see us. Mother is going to stand and keep watch."
It was another viciously cold night. High above their heads the moon was wrapped snugly in clouds. Even the stars had gone on holiday for somewhere brighter.
Hans held both his breath and his sphincter as Amelia lifted the loose cobble above her head.
On two, seeing she was about to topple backwards, Hans grabbed the stone from her and in the same movement, only in the opposite direction, each force having a counterforce, he hefted it towards the window.
For thirty seconds they stood as still as the crumbling statues of Orpheus and Eurydice that adorned the front of the building. Then came the distinctive hoot of an owl.
Frau Krüger’s signal.
No police had come running at the sound of the crash. No busybody had taken note.
"Put your hands together and give me a bunk up."
Even for her small size Amelia was surprisingly light, like a bag of feathers, and Hans asked himself not for the first time what was he doing putting her in so much danger? She still had her whole life ahead of her. If any risks were to be taken shouldn't…
"Come on Herr Neumann."
Amelia’s face reappeared on the other side of the window, a ghostly balloon against a backdrop of black.
"The sooner we get in the sooner we get out."
Checking first to see there was no one coming down the alley Hans hauled himself up and tumbled through, his old bones groaning.
A stub of candle they had brought for the purpose was lit and they made their way silently through the corridors. These were unadorned except for every twenty feet or so exactly the same portrait, a silver haired man with an enormous stethoscope around his neck. Herr Schloppen, Director of Medical Services, famous for his work with pregnant women. He had pioneered the procedure for transplanting their wombs onto retired draft-horses, the better that the women should miss only two days work during the gestation period.
Behind Schloppen in the pictures was the bucolic scene of a horse chewing grass, a number of human foetuses visible in the clear sacs on its back.
When they came at last to a pair of large white swing doors, the word ’Mortuary’ stamped on each of them in thick black letters Hans put a hand on Amelia’s arm.
"Are you sure you want to go in there? There will be..." He attempted to think of some less unkind words but finding none he simply said, "Dead bodies."
Amelia turned her large eyes up to Hans and paused. Some deep thought seemed to cross her face.
"My father said you have to face up to your fears. If you run away once then you will never stop running."
The drop in temperature was immediate. The room was freezing, even colder than the air had been outside and their breath now came out now not in pretty little clouds but fully fledged muscular ghosts, bobbing and weaving to the ceiling above their heads.
As their eyes adjusted to the wide open vistas of the room they could see the shapes before them were gurneys. There were twenty in total, four rows of five, and on each one was a body, covered to the neck with a plain white sheet.
They might have been sleeping and in a way they were, except this sleep was eternal.
Stopping by each of the gurneys in turn Amelia lent in close while Hans held up the candle and turned down the top of the sheet.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No. No. No. Not him. Not him. Not him."
The faces, Hans thought, looked peaceful in death and the idea came to him that if he should find an empty gurney he might climb upon it and lie there. For what did he have to live for except this crazy mission? Better to give up now before he did bring about not only his own actual death but Amelia and her mother’s too.
He felt a small cold hand slip into his own dangling one. It gave a gentle squeeze.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I am sure. I have not come this far for nothing.”
Expecting the worst, this last one did seem worse than all before, Hans gritted his teeth and folded back the sheet.
For a few seconds there was nothing and then, quietly, "He's not here."
There was a further squeeze on his hand.
"I couldn't have done this without you Herr Neumann. You've been even more helpful than I thought you would be. You really are quite wonderful."
It was on their way out of the mortuary, however, that they noticed the second pair of double doors. On this was another sign written in the same bold black letters.
’Overflow. No Unauthorised Access.’
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