Chapter 1 - A strange encounter
Bad Kissingen, Bavaria
Be wary of love.
It creeps up on you slowly, like a lazy, half-gorged python.
Only once you let it get close, let its smooth tongue caress your hungry skin,
it will grow voracious and constrict your naked throat with its murderous embrace.
Annaliese shook her head to get the gruesome nursery rhyme out of her mind, as she rushed along the half-timbered houses of the high street rising from a quilt of morning mist.
Today was not the day to get dragged down by her mother’s ancient warnings about the perils of love. Her heart had drummed a fast dance ever since she opened her eyes this morning. Today she would finally get her pay rise, her ticket out of her father’s hut on the bad side of Mount Zuckerhut.
Bells chimed as the door of the old bakery swung open. The scent of freshly baked bread and roast coffee made her knees buckle. But she had no time for breakfast—if she was late today, Rotunda would stall the promotion again.
She allowed herself a quick glance at the famous mural adorning the bakery walls. A first ray of sunlight reddened the cheeks of a chubby farm girl as she presented the king with her heavenly pastries until, at the other end of the wall, the golden-haired king spited traditions and made this talented commoner his queen.
Warmth spread through Annaliese. Maybe there was hope yet—even for her.
A squatty, dark brute of a man stepped out onto the high street.
She stopped short and held her breath. She had almost trampled onto the polished Italian leather shoes of the Head of the Bad Kissingen Savings Bank.
“Hey, Sepp.” She couldn’t help the hopeful tone in her voice.
He busied himself with his oversized umbrella and maneuvered around her, eyes riveted on the ground.
Heat rose to her cheeks. Was it possible that, at 39, she had completely slipped under the radar of love and right into spinsterhood, now only heading towards a sad and lonely death?
No. She tore into the fog rising from the earth of the Black Forest, leaves squishing under her laced-up boots. She was on an amazing upward trajectory and would soon be a respected Associate Director at the Bad Kissingen Waterworks. And maybe the confidence of her new position would finally rid her of the invisible curse that seemed to propel men away from her.
By the time the bombastic water treatment facility peeked through the maples, her breath came in bursts, and stitches jabbed between her ribs.
At least she was only three minutes late, so far.
She hurried on towards the building’s symmetrical white facade that curved backwards underneath the red tree crowns like a denture in a gummy smile. Only the megalomaniac years of World War II could have produced this unnecessarily intimidating colossus.
But despite the building’s dark history, her stomach fluttered every time she neared the waterworks. Being amongst people always awakened that buried glimmer of hope that her life could still somehow, magically, turn around.
She pushed open the tall doors, seemingly built for giants. You invariably felt small and less responsible in the grand marble-studded entry hall. Just a little cog in the big machine of the town’s water quality.
Though she would become a slightly bigger cog today. Her heart expanded.
To thwart Rotunda’s wrath for now being a full six minutes late, she resorted to her usual maneuver: she bypassed her desk and stepped straight through a tunnel-like entrance towards her first chemical test.
Clutching the bulky testing equipment to her chest with one hand, she balanced herself with her other arm on the overly ornamental iron railing of the corkscrew staircase.
Someone stepped onto the stairs right behind her. An unusual, expensive scent enveloped her, spicy like the Middle East. She couldn’t see the man without turning around, but the mix of peppercorn, sandalwood and saffron was intoxicating.
His gaze seared into the back of her neck. She used her free hand to adjust the coil of hair the wind had swept out of her braid on her mad sprint to work.
But her imbalance hooked the equipment case onto an ornamental sunflower in the iron railing. She missed the final step and her heart skipped - she would fall flat on her face and break the equipment.
The man grabbed her around the waist, his hand digging into her side. Catching her just before she could fall.
“Hossa,” a melodious voice said with an upbeat North-Western accent. She jolted upright as the man’s fingers lingered around her waist. Had he felt the extra weight?
She pulled away and took a breath. Thank God. He wasn’t the attractive Bedouin prince she had feared judging by his fragrance. His hair was a little too red to be auburn and his jaw was a bit too soft for a man. Yet, there was something about him that commanded attention. His polo shirt, boat shoes and gold signet ring indicated he was part of management—albeit a good ten years younger than the rest of the old boys’ club.
“Looks like unknown dangers lurk here in the dark.” A lazy smile tinged his voice as his eyes locked into hers, through thick square-rimmed glasses.
Why was he still staring into her eyes? Had he asked her a question, and had she been too stunned to hear it? She wanted to laugh, but his expression was serious.
“What?” she said, her voice rusty like a door-hinge at her father’s cabin.
Management ranked so far above her menial job as quality surveyor that they rarely ever stooped down to the lower levels of the facility where the actual water work got done, and even more rarely spoke to her.
He ran his hands through his hair. “I just noticed you and wanted to say hi. I’m Ed Sherbert.” His gaze, through the glasses, was unblinking, an unusual green blue—almost turquoise.
She shifted on her feet.
He seemed to expect a reply.
“Annaliese,” her voice rasped.
“Pleasure to be working with you.” He smiled broadly, sinking deeper into her eyes, then pivoted with the energy of a dancer and strode back up.
At the head of the stairs, he turned to give her one last look. She was still staring at him but quickly averted her eyes and walked to her testing site.
She shook her head. Why was she so jittery? This man was clearly just a new manager introducing himself. Maybe up North in Cologne, it was customary to go up to every single employee for a personal introduction.
When she dipped the test strip into the purified water she quickly forgot about the strange encounter. Nitrate levels were at 9.5 per liter.
Nitrates only affected the health of Kissingen residents if it rose above 10, but 9.5 was unusually high.
She had to run a SURP test, maybe a chemical injector or filter was clogged. Of course, she had no formal chemical education to fall back on, but over the last ten years on the job she had devoured one liquid chemistry textbook after the other at the local library and shadowed and interrogated the chemical supervisor, who came in once a month, until he had opted for early retirement.
Her watch pinged for 11 am. She could not be late for her performance review. She raced upstairs, her heart pounding in her chest.
Her review was in the smallest meeting room in the building. Two years ago, a row of employees had marched out of this room, covering their faces. Not to be seen again until Annaliese, with a start, recognized Will, their Operations Manager collecting her garbage and Achim, their Head of Accounting, serving her pizza at the Italian restaurant that closed down soon after.
She had to secure this promotion. If she ever got laid off, without a high-school degree, her 10 years of on-the-job experience wouldn’t count, and she would end up like Will or Achim. Not to think about the many more years she would still be stuck paying back-rent to her father if she didn’t get the raise.
She wiped beads of sweat off her forehead and opened the sliding door with a bit too much force. It slammed into the wall with a thud.
“Glad you could join us, Annaliese.” Rotunda Ockenheimer swept back her long golden bob and looked at the monstrous watch she had bought at an auction.
Her boss was not in a good mood. Maybe someone had told her the truth about her god-awful oil paintings—or her even worse culinary experiments.
Next to her, the CEO of the Kissingen waterworks looked up from his phone, brows furrowed. He was a bald man in his fifties, with deep gray eyes and a sharp wit. He had been a confirmed bachelor until his secretary had unconfirmed his status last year after a shared business trip to Munich. Every time Annaliese saw him, something pinched in her chest. He had always been courteous to her—if only she had some feminine guile, maybe she could have swayed him into giving her a chance instead.
He gave her a friendly but distracted nod. No pinch in her chest today.
She sat down opposite her two superiors, nostrils confused by the warring scents of patchouli and Hugo Boss after-shave.
“First off, I would like to hear from you,” Rotunda said with a fake smile on her perfectly painted tangerine lips. “How would you describe your performance this year?”
“I—well, this year we had 5 critical pollutants, all of which I detected and liquidated.” Annaliese dealt with contaminations on her own. Despite being the Head of Quality Assessment, Rotunda knew nothing about chemistry and spun out of control whenever an unusual pollution level took time from her artistic pursuits.
“Detecting threats is fine,” Rotunda said, “but quite frankly—a monkey can do that. When I cast my eyes to my vision of your future… I’m expecting just a little more… extraordinariness from you. What I would like to see at the Associate Director level is just a bit more creative flair.” She spun her pen with a disturbing Dalí-motif between her fingers.
“I’m not sure I understand. My job is to test, to register, to analyze. If anything bad happens, I contain it. It’s science.” Not an art show, she wanted to add.
“I don’t see where creative flair could come in,” she said instead.
Rotunda blew back her long fringe and looked at Annaliese as if she were a five-year-old. “Science can only take us this far. As a manager you often need to perform in urgent scenarios where creative problem solving is required.” She looked at the CEO as if he was going to give out gold stars for her erratic views on managing scientific processes.
The CEO shifted uncomfortably but seemed too awed by Rotunda’s caprice to directly contradict her.
“Look,” he said, “doing a good job is not good enough. We’re in constant competition. Bad Kissingen’s water quality is compared to all other water facilities in Germany. Schwabing is biting at our heels for the top spot. I need you to do everything you can to help Rotunda keep us at the top of the leaderboards. Especially now.” He exchanged a meaningful glance with Rotunda, who nodded vehemently to indicate she knew what he was referring to but was probably clueless. She often complained on the phone to someone that upper management saw her as a loose cannon and didn’t keep her in the loop on developments.
Annaliese looked from CEO to Rotunda, but neither cared to explain why Kissingen’s water quality was especially important right now.
“I can definitely do that, but I’ve worked here for 10 years with a flawless record, and no promotion, pay rises lower than inflation.” Annaliese’s ribs grew tight, restricting her breath. “Are you saying I can’t rise to the next level unless I demonstrate… extraordinary creativity?” Her voice had taken a shrill tone. There wasn’t another water facility she could go to within the next 20 miles. They knew she was trapped here and had to do whatever they demanded.
“I will be looking out for resourcefulness, creative thinking and proactive ideas from you in the next 3 months and then we can reassess.” Rotunda looked pleased that she had stalled the promotion again.
The CEO shot Rotunda an annoyed look. “We still need you to stick to protocol, Annaliese.”
Rotunda glowered at him but continued, “I want to promote you, I really do. God knows I could do with the help - nothing I could wish for more than to be able to dedicate my own time to the bigger picture and have a trusted adjutant on the ground, taking care of the day to day...” She fluttered her lashes at the CEO in a quest for sympathy, seemingly unaware that she was describing the way her department was already running.
She stood up. “Look, I’m not asking for much, just a few more facets I want to see you unfold, and in 3 months, everything could look very different. Maybe you’ll have turned into that beautiful butterfly we all know you can be.”
Big crocodile smile directed at the CEO.
“A butterfly who sticks to protocol.” He added and grabbed his notebook to go.
How could she ever have thought the CEO witty. Annaliese’s stomach bubbled with anger. But the review was over – nothing she could do about the promotion she so desperately needed.
Hands clenched into fists, she stomped back to her desk. Annoyingly it was located right opposite Rotunda who kept her gaze directed straight at her monitor as Annaliese hacked the irregular Nitrate-values into her spreadsheet, fingers quivering, whilst contemplating how she could stuff creativity up Rotunda’s behind.
At 4 pm on the dot, she jumped up and left the waterworks, but dragged her feet on her way home, calculating how much it would cost to pay off her father and move out of the miserable hut. Another five years. Endless. She kicked a loose branch in her path and pain soared through her leg.
What now? Maybe if she discovered the source of the Nitrate contamination, maybe if she unearthed an illegal fertilizer dump in one of their supply streams, she could bring it to justice. This wasn’t part of her job at all, so she could label it ‘creative problem solving’ and then Rotunda wouldn’t have a choice—she would have to give her the promotion after all. Her chest expanded and filled with eagerness.
If only she could get started right now.
But she’d have to wait till the morning to start her detective work.
Chapter 2 - A job at peril
A storm howled around the mountain hut the next morning, beating a window into its frame time after time and waking Annaliese before it was even 5 am. Shivering, she made coffee and left early for work so that she could get a head-start on investigating the Nitrate contamination and force Rotunda to promote her immediately.
The red and gold maples that usually stood still admiring their reflections in the calm surface of King’s Lake, swayed dangerously; wind ruffled the lake’s surface. Despite the cold and the early hour, Rotunda’s father, Mr. Ockenheimer stood waist-deep in the banks of the Lake, wearing yellow suspendered fishing-pants. He struggled with his fishing bag that he pushed deeper into the water.
She was about to walk past when a desperate bleating stopped her in her tracks.
Mr. O. wasn’t struggling with his fishing bag at all.
He seemed to be baptizing a rebellious baby goat.
Lake water splashed around the pair, and the hoarse, manic voice of Mr. O. droned into her ear as he chanted a prayer and dipped the protesting animal into the water three times, then held its head under the lake’s surface for way too long. The bleating stopped.
Annaliese’s blood turned to ice. Was he really...? There was no time to wait and find out. She stripped off her shoes and waded into the water, her dirndl dress soaking, heavy and heavier around her legs, slowing her down.
The animal gave everything in its struggle for life, managing to raise its head above water - only to be pushed down again.
She reached Mr. O. and pulled at the black, furry mass between his hands, staring into his enlarged, glazed pupils.
“What… the hell… are… you… doing?” Her words accentuated her efforts to pull the goat up and away from the wiry old man.
“What the hell are you doing? This is the devil’s spawn.” He pushed down the goat’s head that had just raised itself above water again.
“Let… him… go.” She shoved the old man and he stumbled backwards but didn’t fall. She got hold of the goat and pulled him towards her, rueful shrieks, and lake water bursting from his nostrils, tearing at her heart.
“The sign of Satan.” Mr. O. pointed a quivering finger at the goat’s crippled hind leg.
“That is ridiculous.” She pressed the wet little heap of misery to her chest and its heartbeat pulsed against hers. It seemed to have exhausted itself in the struggle and clung limply to her wet dress, snorting and snuffling, legs twitching.
Mr. O.’s eyes were scorching as she backed away from him, goat in arm.
He wrung his hands above his head. “You’ll see, he’ll bring doom and disaster. The only black devil in a litter of whites. White parents, black spawn. Satan’s doing.”
As she waded to the shore he yelled, “I’ll tell your father, you’ll regret crossing God’s will.”
Her skin prickled as she imagined having to explain to her father that she had pushed one of his oldest friends into the lake and stolen his goat. But she would deal with that later. First, she needed to make sure the goat didn’t get pneumonia.