I couldn’t believe it. But there he was, the handsome man I had met on the train in Germany three years earlier. I stood motionless as a still portrait of his attractive face was broadcast on the television. I know I stared, my mouth was surely agape; the mug in my hand crashed unceremoniously to the tile floor sending the dog scampering.
When I met him, he was eating a tomato and cheese sandwich. Such a strange little fact to remember, yet when I thought of him over the last three years, two things stood out for me, and the sandwich was one of them.
I was on my way that day from Frankfurt to Linz, Austria. My visit to Germany that year taught me that Germans keep a pretty good secret. I would be foolish and even reckless to share it on such a public forum. Revealing what I learned would change everything.
But that morning, as I stared at the television, the anchor’s lip rushing, eager to share the tantalizing tidbits somewhat confused and intermingled with opinion and fact made me relive my German experience.
His name, they said, was Jacob Braun. He was thirty-six, an influential architect from Bonn.
On the train on that June day, I sat in the wrong seat, in the wrong carriage, and potentially even at the wrong time. Coming from Canada, I learned all about the importance of the railways that built the country. My grade eight geography teacher had bored me to death with RR2 this and the CPR and CNR that, that no teenager would ever find interesting. He didn’t teach us how to navigate the system, only the tedious elements that forty years later weren’t helping me find my way through the network of train lingo and fast moving stations.
In Canada, people associate the train with the past. Too bad for those hardworking individuals who devoted their lives to laying track and dying for the economy’s advancement and prosperity. In Canada, people drive everywhere. Only those who live in major urban centers rely on some type of train or subway service. Cars and trucks dominate our transport system. A scenic train journey is for people who can afford the opulence of chugging across the vast terrain on a Via Rail vacation.
In Europe, people rely on the train. I envy them the luxury of traveling to their destination in style and never having to find a parking spot; never mind parallel parking which is on the driver’s test but infrequently used. Traveling by train is second nature to Europeans. Thinking of the incident, I remember another particularly striking feature of the man. He had beautiful hands. The sort men who play the piano should have. His digits were long and slender. Each nailbed had a distinct lunula showing, and his cuticles were healthy and pink. He wasn’t the sort of man who got his fingers dirty. Riding the train can be such an intimate experience because you can’t escape the proximity of other patrons regardless how you try to hide behind the cover of a book, earbuds, or staring rudely out the window.
Because I travel frequently, I speak with many people, sometimes poorly in foreign languages, I can’t quite grasp. My train partner was highly educated. I sensed that from our short conversation and his mannerism. His impeccable English, even though it was laced with the typical German accent and lyrical lilt, suggested a worldly education.
I had just finished my sojourn to Germany, visiting many villages and cities reachable by efficient train links. In Darmstadt, I toured my first Hundertwasser building and became fascinated by Germany’s beautiful and serene parks.
While Germans understand structural elements as is so evident in cities like Wiesbaden, Bremen, and Leipzig, their parks charmed me the most. Parks in Germany reflect nature. Somehow those landscape architects found the true meaning of balance between serenity and nature. God couldn’t have done it better.
Reserved as they seem to strangers, Germans keep the secret of their beautiful country to themselves. Jacob kept his secret as he conversed with me and smiled. Guarding his secret, which, as the news was spelling out, went unnoticed for nearly a decade.
During the lulls in our conversation that morning, I looked out the passing scenery, and flashes of lush greenery from perfectly manicured clover, wheat, corn, and beet fields zoomed past my periphery.
I remember being nervous. Shifting nervously, thinking the train conductor would usher me unceremoniously from the carriage, I must have talked too much.
Although my German has deteriorated, I still understand the basics. Jacob was reading Die Welt, a popular news magazine. The front cover captured a series of photographs of missing women. Grainy images of women loved by family desperately searching for their whereabouts and clinging to that deceitful monster called Hope. I couldn’t say for sure, but there were at least twelve squares with portrait faces of young women. Vermist! Like people on our Canadian milk cartons, each missing German person had a name and a family desperate for answers. I couldn’t help them then.
Jacob, I remember, exited at Regensburg. A beautiful city that most tourists have never heard of. Yet, it’s so charming with its medieval core, its surviving 12th Century stone bridge, and intersected by the blue Danube that Strauss made famous with his waltz serenade.
Enough already. I knew Jacob had boarded the train in Bonn from my short interlude. He said so. And since it was the weekend, he was making his weekly trip to Regensburg. I didn’t know the importance of the statement until I saw Jacob on the news.
Jacob smiled at me as he alighted the train, his suitcase wheeled behind him. I’m an observer. A bit of advice to my family, friends, or even strangers within my proximity. I see you. I notice intimate details that will eventually give you away.
The newsfeed had switched to a courthouse staircase. Jacob’s lawyer faced a hundred microphones and recorders shoved in his direction. Nicht schuldig. Der falsche Mann.
Of course, Jacob was innocent. Of course, the police arrested the wrong man. In some lecture hall, the world over, attorneys must practice that phrase repeatedly until they sound authentic. I once abhorred defense lawyers. I couldn’t grasp their rationale for defending criminals. I’ve since learned that we wouldn’t have rights and laws without them. I believe in justice and truth, though both are not always swift and dutiful. What else would we do instead?
The lawyer was a stout man wearing a fine suit. He had a polished look about him and a seriousness that suggested his client was as innocent as he claimed. He barked into the microphones, “nicht schuldig!” to every question and accusation.
I learned many things about train travel in Europe. Train travel is an elegant way to cross from one country to the next. I learned the word alight.
When the automated voice announced the word, “watch your step as you alight from the train,” I assumed something got lost in translation. But alight really just means getting off a means of transport. It means get off or come down. A lovely word that doesn’t quite capture what happens as a person exits a train dragging an oversized suitcase like Jacob did that morning in Regensburg.
Jacob smiled at me once more before he alighted, and I waved. I wondered what on earth he could be dragging in that cumbersome luggage. I speculated he transported exotic antiques or religious artifacts and architectural salvage to decorate his apartment. As I mused over what sort of apartment a man like Jacob would own in Regensburg, I formed a detailed character sketch. He was a modern man, yet I sensed he’d choose an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows, the shutters spread open, and a breeze billowing in the sheer drapes. The apartment would have to be renovated but with the original charm intact. It would be just off the downtown core, in a warren of narrow passages and cobblestone streets. There’d be no elevator, and Jacob would manhandle the luggage to the top floor.
I pictured an exposed wall, the original brick, and beams setting the theme. The kitchen would be ultra-modern and small. The washing machine built into the bank of cabinets as Europeans do and which always horrifies American and Canadian tourists on all those international travel shows. A washing machine in the kitchen is where audacity and practicality meet ignorance.
As the train pulled from the station, I saw Jacob weaving his luggage through the crowd and terminal. A few pigeons scattered and parted the way for him. I’m pretty sure he no longer thought about me.
For the next hour, I created a life for Jacob. I made assumptions and was right on one account. Jacob was notoriously meticulous. While I pictured him in his make-believe apartment, I assumed Jacob decorated tastefully with high-ticket items, like the marble bust of Beethoven or Mozart, a crystal glass bowl in liquid shades of blue. A landscape painted by an acquaintance with talent. Jacob wasn’t the sort who decorated with trash bought off the internet.
He’d keep his shoes in a row, polished as leather should be, the warm scent wafting in the room whenever he opened the antique armoire that housed his wool jackets, his leather shoes, and the umbrella with the carved handle. Every detail about Jacob was exactly like the knit in his merino wool socks and cashmere sweater he wore that day.
His girlfriend would be tall, lanky, and athletic. She’d have poker-straight hair like she had grown and styled since she was young. She’d gather her blonde strands into a ponytail whenever she got down and dirty to sprint in the park. It would bounce with each stride. I think I called her Giselle, or Gaby, then changed her name to Nina. She had the sort of complexion that tanned easily; she had a permanent healthful glow and no wrinkles in sight, although she was a year or two older than Jacob.
Nina would joke about having children. Secretly she didn’t want any because, like Jacob, she preferred order over chaos. She had a shrill authoritarian laugh and a direct way of speaking to people, making them feel vulnerable with no place to hide. She worked in finance. Numbers were her thing, and she could understand and debate complex topics.
On her nightstand, she kept a few copies of the works by Schiller, Nietzsche, and Goethe. She didn’t read modern fiction and deplored romance novels and films.
If Nina had a weakness, it was her inability to resist chocolate. She hid bite-sized bits of Suchard and Lindt in the kitchen and her coat pockets. Although there is no shame in liking chocolate, Nina thought it was her Achilles Heel. She didn’t want anyone to know, especially Jacob.
Jacob knew about Nina’s secret addiction. He found it intriguing that she would go to such lengths to hide this secret. Nina didn’t live at the apartment; she only came for weekends. She owned an ultramodern home that her parents built for her. It was all glass, steel, and white with sharp corners, hygienic tiles, and futuristic furniture imported from Sweden.
I didn’t like Nina. She was the sort of woman who made me insecure with her stallion-like beauty. We had nothing in common. I didn’t like math at all. But I wanted Jacob to be happy.
Jacob wanted to have children eventually. A boy or girl. It didn’t matter to him as long as they were healthy and miniature replicas of himself and Nina. Jacob found Nina fascinating. He’d never met a woman who was so intelligent and confident. Nina knew it all and believed that knowledge was a permanent condition. Jacob would watch her over the rim of a book and mused secretly that Nina, though seemingly perfect, had a giant flaw. She was blind. Blind to her ignorance and impeded vision of life. It’s why he kept her around. He wasn’t so much in love with her beauty, but with that giant fissure that exposed her for what she was once you got up close and personal. She was a snob.
When the train reached Passau, I had to show my credentials to the border security who boarded the train. He wasn’t interested in my Canadian passport. He seemed to be looking for someone. A refugee or illegal.
I slowly stored Jacob away in my memory bank for safekeeping. The last time I saw Jacob, he opened the door to his apartment and felt content to have reached his destination. He slipped off his shoes, stripped his garments, and folded them neatly into the hamper. He wanted a hot shower before Nina arrived. He left the suitcase in the hallway. He poured himself a glass of merlot and sat barefoot on the Bauhaus chair facing the street and sinking sun. His stomach rumbled, thinking about dinner.
As the news ticker spun across the bottom below the anchor, a series of faces populated the screen. It’s when I recognized Nina. Every single face had a classic symmetry. Pale skin, long blonde hair, startling eyes lined to accentuate their iris, and keenness on their brow.
Those women in the picture had something else in common. They were missing. They had vanished from their ordinary lives without a hint of where they were hiding. Their missing date ranged from six years ago to one month ago. I dug into the information about the case available on the internet.
With trepidation, I returned to my travel log and confirmed the date. The day Sabine Hofer didn’t show up for work, missed her lunch date with her girlfriends, and hadn’t been seen since coincided with the date on my ticket stub.
In my pathetic German, I explained what I witnessed on the day to the agent taking my call on the tipline. It’s circumstantial, he told me.
The police released a few details, like the remnants of a tomato and cheese sandwich and track marks on the carpet from a large suitcase. There was no DNa.
None of the women came from the same city. Their last whereabouts became pin marks on a map that followed the train line in a country that is breathtaking and perhaps the tourist industry’s biggest secret.
Despite my keen sense of observation, I had sat across from a serial killer, and I found him charming.
Very good story Monika; a great setting and a well told tale with an easy tension. leading up to, as usual, a nice twist at that end. I always imagine ‘they’ are serial murderers and now that the world is ‘open’ again ‘they’ will be out in force. Lucky for the narrator he wasn’t toting a set of suitcases – with an empty one “just in case’
Hi Susan, thanks for stopping by. Although the story is based on true elements, it’s really influenced by the Netfilx story on Jeffery Dahmer. I hope you are doing well and still writing. Happy New Year!
Same to you dear Monika
It’s high summer here – what could be bad!
An yes I am – when the mood hits me.
Monika, once again I enjoyed both your short stories posted. So proud of you and all the work you are putting into your writing.
Thanks, Dorothy. I appreciate you reading them. Sadly, I don’t have much time for fiction right now. Still writing internet content for two companies now. We are loving the UK, life in London is amazing. We’re so lucky to be in this gorgeous house and neighborhood. Though driving is a bit chaotic. Weather here has been amazing. Are you in Panama? I saw that Amber went. Might get down there at the end of the year. We’re here til the end of May. Cheers! Hi to all.
Great to hear from you. It must feel like you are living in a Charles Dickens story being in UK at this time of year. We went to London in 1995 for a weekend when Air Canada had a sale. Stayed in a hotel just across from Scotland Yard office so we were within walking to a lot of places. First day we were there we went on a tour of London & the first people on the tour bus after us was a lady from Coaldale. She was a hairdresser who had a shop close to our hotel so we saw her almost daily. It was great to have her & her friend to spend the day with. We are still home in Coaldale but are leaving on Friday for Panama, will be there until March 23 if all goes well. Stayed home for Xmas as Emma was coming for the week. Can’t miss spending time with her. Weather since Xmas has been mild & sunny. Amber & Heinz went to Panama Dec. 3 and plan on staying until the middle of April. She came home for 4 days Xmas eve. Her daughter in law committed suicide Dec. 22 so came home to see her son. They had been together for 15 years, no children. Don’t know any details as only have had short conversations with Amber. Will be able to talk with her in Panama. Stacey was always quiet but always seemed happy to me. I guess you never really know what people are thinking.
Stories were good. You made me feel so sorry for Rose but living in winter easy to see how that can happen. When we lived in Abbotsford there was a guy there who was suspected of murder. He wasn’t good looking like your guy. The clerk at the 7-11 store disappearing the middle of her night shift. Val’s sister Donna was the permanent night girl but she was off that night. When she was questioned by the police about anyone who made her uncomfortable during her shifts she picked this guy’s picture out. He was charged but got off. This was before security cameras. He use to show up in Emergency quite frequently & we were told to call the police anytime he came in. As soon as we called the waiting room would fill up, no one in uniform but keeping an eye on him. Seen in the news a few years later that he was convicted of murdering a woman in the Okanogan. Too bad he got off the first charge so the second woman would not have had to die. Wonder if there were more.
Not much new with us, just looking forward to getting away. Enjoy your time in UK and hi to Kevin,
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