Black Moth

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Among the Wolves (Historical Fiction, Writing Award 2023)
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
1906. Krakow's society loves gossip. When mysterious Rozalia gets poisoned, Bibi and her aunt investigate over teacups. But to discover which of Rozalia’s secrets costed her her life, Bibi needs courage to look behind the city’s prim façade. What will happen when she gets too close to the killer?
First 10 Pages

Krakow, 8th of June 1906

By the time Bibi goes to check Rozalia’s rooms, death has already settled there. Bibi can sense that something is different the moment she pushes the door open and steps into the dark entry hall.

At once, she knows she is alone. She feels engulfed by a concentrated sense of emptiness. And silence. The small flat is filled with silence so intense that it seems to vibrate in an effort to shatter itself. Afraid to disturb it, Bibi walks slowly, with reverence, as if she was entering a chapel.

It is cold, and Bibi hugs herself.

‘Rozalia?’ her voice quivers, uncertain.

Nothing. More silence, more emptiness.

Fighting against a rising desire to run away, Bibi forces her feet to move, step after hesitant step on the creaking floorboards.

First, she checks Rozalia’s bedroom. It is tiny and messy. Bibi hasn’t seen it before and looks with curiosity at the chaos of bottles, brushes, hairpins and coins at the dressing table. The small oak wardrobe is opened, clothes spilling from its dark belly. More clothes lie in a heap on the bed; undergarments, Bibi thinks.

A chilly draft drifts from the sitting room. Bibi shivers.

It is unseasonably cold for June and it has been raining; not the kind of weather to keep a window open at night. The window in Rozalia’s sitting room overlooks the yard. When the concierge’s wife, Mrs Kurek, went out to do her daily rounds, she noticed a net curtain billowing in the wind like a white flag of surrender. That got her wondering. The window had never been left open before. The woman who lodged there kept late hours and didn’t want the birds to wake her up in the mornings. Curiosity got the better of Mrs Kurek and sent her up two flights of steps to knock on Rozalia’s door. When there was no answer she went to report it to Mrs Klara Estreicher, the owner of the house and Bibi’s aunt.

Klara and Bibi had already had their breakfast. They were drinking coffee and reading the morning papers in tranquillity that Bibi had grown to relish. Then a knock on the door echoed over the entry hall and Mrs Kurek was heard, demanding to see Mrs Estreicher. Soon she was telling them about Rozalia’s opened window. The rain, the birds, so out of character…

‘I thought I’d better let you know, ma’am. In case she’s taken ill. I didn’t dare to enter, but perhaps you…’

‘Of course. Bibi, would you be so good as to check? If the door is locked, go to Kurek and ask for the spare key.’

Bibi ran upstairs, trying to ignore a growing sense of foreboding. And now she is standing at the door of Rozalia’s sitting room, looking at the little pool of rainwater that has gathered on the parapet and is dripping silently, absorbed by an upholstered seat of a chair that got pushed there. Despite the rhythmic movement and the gusts of wind that every so often shake the curtains, the room appears to Bibi to be separate from the rest of the world, as if held inside a transparent sphere.

Bibi has been to this room before, but never during the day. At night it appeared to her mysterious, lit by a gas lamp standing next to a chez-longue with its cushions and a heaped blanket that in the semi-darkness looked like a curled up, sleeping animal. But the light of the cold morning has stripped the room of its mystery. Now it just looks gloomy, despite some pretty, colourful ornaments: a brass candle holder shaped like a willowy woman, a green glass vase full of pink peonies, a cheerful, rustic wall rug. Perhaps the effect comes from the heavy walnut dresser that covers most of the wall opposite the door and dominates the room.

In the middle of the room, on a faded Turkish carpet, stands a round table and two chairs. On the table there is a leaf-shaped ashtray, a silver cigarette case decorated with irises, a crystal tumbler and a half empty bottle. It contains rose-flavoured liqueur, rosolis. Last night, when the bottle was almost full, Rozalia offered her some and Bibi declined.

‘You should try some, you know,’ Rozalia said. ‘My husband brought it from Lancut. It’s a special recipe. Even the Emperor is fond of it.’

When Bibi shook her head, Rozalia didn’t insist. She was distracted, her eyes darting to the door. Bibi, who for the first time visited Rozalia uninvited, could feel that she had chosen a bad moment. She was embarrassed, disappointed, even a little hurt as she watched Rozalia pour herself a glass and drain it. She seemed to be miles away.

It was raining heavily outside, but the window was open.

‘Aren’t you cold?’ Bibi asked, for something to say.


Rozalia started. She looked at Bibi as if only just noticing her.

‘Bibi, darling. I’m waiting for someone. Can we talk tomorrow?’

Of course, they could.

But it is tomorrow, and Bibi is standing at the same spot as last night. Reluctantly, she lowers her gaze and looks at the floor. A spider runs the length of a wooden board, from underneath the dresser towards the long dark shape lying on the carpet. But that is all right. Rozalia has never been afraid of spiders.

‘Rozalia,’ Bibi says in a whisper that breaks into a sob. Something is swelling in her chest, rising, and her voice is rising, too. ‘Rozalia. Oh, my God, Rozalia! Rozalia!’

Her cries alarm the people downstairs and are answered by agitated voices. A door bangs and there is a sound of footsteps on the stairs. The subtle mystery that death has worked in Rozalia’s flat is destroyed, like a virginal layer of fresh snow trodden with heavy boots. It makes Bibi inexplicably sad. But with the spell broken, she finally looks at the dead woman.

Rozalia’s death, Bibi can tell, was not peaceful. A grimace of pain has coagulated on Rozalia’s face; her limbs are twisted by spasms of agony. Her eyes are open, staring, horrifying. She is wearing the black dress she always put on in the evenings. Bibi used to admire how the lace bodice set off Rozalia’s beautiful necklace made in a shape of two moths joined together. It was this necklace and the habitual black that earned Rozalia the nickname she has been known by in Krakow.

Black Moth.

Bibi has never seen Rozalia without the necklace. She wouldn’t be surprised if Rozalia wore it in bed. Now the dead woman’s neck, despite the high collar of her dress, appears curiously naked to Bibi.

The necklace is gone.

‘It’s hard to say exactly when she died, but I’d say it couldn’t have been long after midnight.’

Doctor Wladyslaw Kohn finishes examining the body and with a fluid movement of his hand over the dead woman’s face, closes her eyes. He keeps twitching his nose and twisting his upper lip in a nervous tick. Bibi cannot take her eyes of his face. She hovers behind Klara, who is standing in the door, leaning against the frame.

‘Any idea about the cause of death?’ Klara asks.

Bibi notices beads of sweat forming on Klara’s temples under the heavy salt-and-pepper hair. Her aunt is very pale and her hand is gripping the doorframe so hard that the knuckles whiten. She is in pain but determined not to show it. Bibi knows that Klara would rather die than appear discomposed in front of a stranger.

‘I cannot tell. Some kind of attack,’ the doctor says. ‘We’d need to perform a post mortem.’

He leans again over the body, moving the dead woman’s head gently from side to side, running his fingers over the skull, searching for injuries. He shakes his head to indicate that he’s found nothing, then he stands up slowly, grimacing.

‘Pins and needles,’ he mutters in explanation. ‘So far I cannot see anything to suggest an unnatural cause of death.’

‘Shall we wait for Commissioner Grabski before we move the body?’

Doctor Kohn stops twitching his nose and fixes Klara with his eyes.

‘Mrs Estreicher, I mean no disrespect, but aren’t you… isn’t it a bit… irregular?’

Kohn is a police doctor and Klara knows him, as she knows everyone who works for the Imperial and Royal Police in Krakow, through her late husband. Stanislaw Estreicher held the prominent position of the Police Director before a sudden heart attack killed him at the age of fifty-nine. Calling a police doctor – and a police commissioner, too – to a death that doesn’t appear suspicious is indeed irregular.

The awkward silence is interrupted by a commotion downstairs heralding the arrival of Commissioner Grabski. The policeman, his face unshaven and grey, his clothes wet and muddy, looks the worse for wear. However, he greets them politely and takes in the scene in front of him.

‘What happened?’ he addresses Klara.

She ignores the question: ‘Have you been working all night? What’s going on?’

The commissioner rubs his eyes: ‘The water level on the Vistula is very high. Crowds of onlookers were gathering there last evening. The director sent us to keep order and monitor the situation. I’d just come home when the message arrived from you.’

‘Is there going to be a flood?’

‘Hopefully not. There’s still no cause for alarm, but there’re lots of people about. We don’t want anyone to end up falling into the water. So, how can I assist you?’

‘We found her like that,’ Klara says, pointing at Rozalia’s body.

The commissioner crouches by the dead woman, then looks around.

‘No signs of struggle or burglary. What do you say, doctor?’

Doctor Kohn repeats what he said earlier.

‘Since I’ve been called, I’d like to take the body to examine it further. Her family would like to know what she died of. Did she have any family?’

‘A husband,’ Klara answers not looking at the doctor.

She looks at Commissioner Grabski, who returns her gaze, a quizzical expression on his face. Bibi can tell something is passing between the two, but she has no idea what.

Grabski rubs his chin and says in response to their silent communication: ‘I am under orders, Mrs Estreicher. I was only dismissed for a couple of hours to grab something to eat and change into dry clothes. I’m afraid I need to return to the riverbank.’

‘Her necklace is gone,’ Klara says quietly.

Her dark blue eyes that normally give very little away for a moment seem pleading. Klara Estreicher is of the heroic generation who lived through the disaster of the Polish upraising in 1864 and seems to be able to bear anything, yet, Bibi senses, this death has cut her to the bone.

The commissioner sinks into thoughts, a deep frown on his forehead. He is in his late forties, but looks older in the cold morning light, weighted down by a sleepless night and this new misfortune. Mechanically, he examines the mess at Rozalia’s bureau – a collapsing pile of books and newspapers, a programme of a piano concert, a silver paper knife darkened with age, a kerosene lamp with a dome of milky glass that had burned all the oil, a pen stained with ink, an open ink well.

‘She was writing something, but there’s no paper…’

His voice trails off. He puts his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and stands there, staring at a dark stain on the carpet. He seems to Bibi too preoccupied to notice what is in front of his eyes, but she is wrong. Bending over, Grabski runs his fingers over the stain, brings them to his nose and inhales sharply.

‘Alcohol,’ he mutters to himself. Then he turns to Klara and says in a business-like voice: ‘I have to leave now but I’ll return as soon as I can. In the meantime, I need to ask you to lock the room and touch nothing here. Let no one come here until we know how she died.’

Klara nods. She understands about the police work and knows how to act. Dr Kohn goes away, saying that he’ll send men with the cart for the body and promising to inform them as soon as he discovers anything. After he leaves, the commissioner asks:

‘Are you going to be all right, Klara?’

Klara smiles sadly and nods: ‘I shall be well, thank you. I’ve got Bibi.’

The unexpected compliment warms Bibi. She’s never thought that Klara could need her.

Antoni studies Klara’s face for a long moment, then asks tentatively: ‘Is there something you’d like to tell me? A particular reason you sent for me? I mean, it doesn’t look as if she… as if someone…’

It doesn’t look as if somebody killed Rozalia. And yet, Bibi realises, that was what she thought when she first saw Rozalia’s body. Is Klara thinking the same? When she replies, her voice gives nothing away: ‘We’ll talk later, Antoni. Do come as soon as you can, will you?’

‘Of course.’

Bibi shivers in the cold air: ‘Can we close the window?’

‘Yes. You can close it now.’

After the dead body of its occupant has been carried away, the room loses most of it sombre, out-of-time feel. People has come and gone, talked, examined, scrutinised. Life has pushed death back to its corner.

Bibi has had little experience of death. Her maternal grandfather died when she was too little to remember much of it. Hers is a family blessed with children who all safely navigated the perilous waters of infant diseases. Both her parents enjoy excellent health. Klara, however, is no stranger to loss. Bibi, still too stunned to cry, observes her older relative with somewhat revered interest, as if hoping to learn by her example how one should act.

Once they are left alone, Bibi expects Klara to lock the room like Antoni told them. Instead, Klara lingers, sitting hunched in Rozalia’s armchair with her face in her hands.

‘You know, I never visited her here. You did, though. Last night, and before.’

Bibi blushes. She’s had no idea that Klara knew about her night visits to Rozalia.

‘I don’t sleep well, you know that,’ Klara says. ‘But it’s fine, child. If you felt you needed to seek confidence or advice from Rozalia, it was nothing to me.’

‘It was just that she was so… so easy to talk to about things you couldn’t talk about to anyone else. You understand?’

Her voice breaks. She realises that she will never speak to Rozalia again, never have a chance to tell her what she came to tell last night. She bites into her lip, hard.

‘Oh, I do.’ Klara seems to sink even deeper into the armchair, the fight against pain, illness and fresh grief going out of her. ‘In our way, we were close friends. But that’s not the point now. You were here last night. Can you tell if anything looks different? Missing or messed, I don’t know…’

Bibi, who has already asked herself these questions, has got her answer ready: ‘I don’t think so. Everything looks the same. But I’ll check the bedroom, maybe the necklace is there.’ Bibi doubts that, but it is something to do. Something that she can focus on right now.

She walks away leaving Klara alone. Klara looks on a brink of tears and instinct warns Bibi that it is better not to witness Klara’s display of grief.

The necklace is not on the dressing table or under Rozalia’s bed. There is, though, an intriguing parcel wrapped in grey paper and tied with a piece of string stuck at the bottom of the wardrobe. Bibi is tempted to untie it and check what’s inside. What harm could it do? But when she calls to Klara and suggests it, she gets a curt answer: ‘We can’t.’

Bibi feels a surge of annoyance. Why can’t they have a quick look?

Her irritation makes her bold: ‘Do you think someone killed her?’

Klara jerks her head so sharply that it causes her pain and she grimaces.

‘What on earth makes you say so, Bibi?’

‘Why else would you call the police doctor? And Commissioner Grabski?’

She thinks how preoccupied and excited Rozalia was last night. Who was she waiting for?

Klara sinks back into the armchair. In the gloomy light her face, hair, even her dress, appear grey, as if Klara has stood too near Mrs Kurek when she was beating carpets in the courtyard and got covered in dust. When she speaks, her voice is so quiet that Bibi has to strain her ears to hear her.

‘My first thought was that she killed herself. She’s been unstable, unhappy for so long. And recently… She wasn’t herself. Cancelled her plans. There was this feverish air about her. I think something has happened that has finally sent her over the edge. I want to find out what it was.’

A suicide? That has not occurred to Bibi. She knew Rozalia for just over a week. And yet, nobody has ever made such an impression on her. There was so much passion in her. Could she have harboured thoughts of death all the time?

‘Bibi,’ Klara says gently. ‘Come here, girl. Sit next to me. You’re shaking.’

Klara’s right. Bibi’s whole body is gripped by sudden spasms. On weak legs, she walks towards the chez-longue and collapses. Klara reaches over and pulls the blanked over Bibi’s shoulders. The woollen fabric smells of cigarette smoke, damp and Rozalia’s musky perfume.

‘Last night when I came here, she…,’ Bibi whispers, ‘she was strange. Elated, somehow.’

Elated, Bibi thinks, alive, full of anticipation. Not like someone who was thinking of death.

Unless whatever she had anticipated had proved a disappointment.

‘And what about the necklace?’

She remembers how striking it looked that morning she first met Rozalia.

Bibi’s first morning in Krakow.