This extract is from the start of Chapter Two. At this point in the story, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who has recently moved from Warsaw to the provincial city of Sandomierz, is investigating the murder of a much-loved local woman, Elżbieta Budnik. Her naked corpse has been found with the throat slashed outside the former synagogue building. Nearby a large razor-like tool has been found, which has turned out to be a special knife used for Jewish ritual slaughter. Szacki is preparing to question the victim’s husband, Grzegorz Budnik, as he has been put in charge of the case, rather than his colleague, Barbara (Basia) Sobieraj. But first he has to make a court appearance.
Prosecutor Teodor Szacki did not like cold weather, stupid cases, incompetent lawyers, and provincial courts. That morning he got a triple dose of all of them. He glanced at the calendar: spring. He looked out of the window: spring. He put on his suit and coat, threw his gown over his shoulder, and decided take an invigorating walk to the courthouse. By the time he reached Sokolnicki Street, where he slipped on the frosted cobblestones, he knew it was a bad idea. Somewhere near the Opatowska Gate his ears went numb, at the water tower he had no feeling in his fingers, and when at last he turned into Kościuszko Street and entered the dirty-green courthouse, he had to spend a few minutes recovering, blowing on his frozen hands. It was like the North Pole in this bloody, windswept dump–damn the place, he thought.
The courthouse was ugly. Its solid bulk may have looked modern when it was built in the 1990s, but now it looked like a gypsy palace converted into a public service building. Its steps, chrome railings, green stone, and irregular surfaces didn’t suit the surrounding architecture, or even the building itself; there was something apologetic about its green colour, as if it were trying to hide its own ugliness against the cemetery trees. The courtroom consistently developed the style of the whole block, and the most eye-catching item in this space, which looked like the conference room at a second-rate corporation, were the green, hospital-style vertical blinds.
Scowling and disgusted, Szacki was mentally bemoaning his surroundings, even once he had put on his gown and sat down in the seat reserved for the prosecution. On the other side he had the defendant and his counsel. Hubert Huby was a nice old boy of seventy. He had thick, still greying hair, horn-rimmed spectacles, and a charming, modest smile. The defence counsel, probably a public service lawyer, was the picture of misery and despair. His gown was not done up, his hair was unwashed, his shoes weren’t polished, and his moustache hadn’t been trimmed–he prompted the suspicion that he probably smelled bad. Just like the whole case, thought Szacki with rising irritation, but finishing off all his predecessor’s cases had been a condition for getting the job in Sandomierz.
Finally the judge appeared. She was a young lass who looked as if she’d only just graduated from high school, but at least the trial was underway.
“Mr. Prosecutor?” said the judge, giving him a nice smile after completing the formalities; no judge in Warsaw ever smiled, and if he did, it was out of malice, when he caught someone in ignorance of the regulations.
Teodor Szacki stood up and automatically adjusted his gown.
“Your Honour, the Prosecution upholds the arguments proposed in the indictment, the defendant has confessed to all the charges, and there is no doubt about his guilt in the light of his own statements and those of the injured parties. I do not wish to prolong the case, I am filing for acknowledgement that the defendant is guilty, that by means of deceit he repeatedly led other individuals to submit to various sexual acts, which covers all the characteristics of the crime described in Article 197 Paragraph 2 of the Penal Code, and I am filing for the court to impose a punishment of six months’ imprisonment which, I stress, is the bottom limit of the punishment stipulated by the legislator.”
Szacki sat down. It was an open-and-shut case, and he just wanted to get it over and done with. He had deliberately demanded the lowest possible sentence and had no wish to discuss it. In his thoughts he was endlessly composing a plan for his interrogation of Budnik, juggling topics and questions, changing their order and trying to envisage scenarios for the conversation, to be ready for every possible version. He already knew Budnik was lying about the final evening he had spent with his wife. But then everyone tells lies–it doesn’t make them into murderers. Perhaps he had a lover, maybe they’d had an argument, maybe they’d had a quiet few days, or maybe he’d been drinking with his mates. Back a bit–he should cross out the lover, because if Sobieraj and Wilczur were telling the truth, he was the most infatuated husband on earth. Back again–he couldn’t cross anything out, in case it was a small-town, thick-as-thieves conspiracy, God knows who, why, and for what reason he should be told anything. Wilczur did not inspire trust, and Sobieraj was a friend of the family.
“Mr. Prosecutor,” the judge’s strident voice shook him out of his lethargy, and he realised he had only heard every third word of the defence counsel’s speech.
He stood up.
“Yes, Your Honour?”
“Could you take a stance on the position of the defence?”
Bloody hell, he hadn’t the slightest idea what the position of the defence was. In Warsaw, apart from exceptional circumstances, the judge never asked for an opinion, he just got bored listening to both sides, withdrew, passed sentence, job done, next please.
Here in Sandomierz the judge was merciful.
“To change the classification of the crime to Article 217, Paragraph one?”
The content of the regulation flashed before Szacki’s eyes. He looked at the defence counsel as if he were a madman.
“I take the position that this has to be a joke. The counsel for the defence should familiarise himself with the basic interpretations and jurisdiction. Article 217 concerns assault and battery, and is properly only applied to minor fights, or when one politician slaps another one in the face. Of course I understand the defence’s intentions–assault and battery is a privately prosecuted indictment, subject to a punishment of one year at most. There is no comparison with sexual abuse, for which the penalty is from six to eight months. But that is the crime your client has committed, Sir.”
The defence counsel stood up. He gave the judge an inquiring look, and she nodded.
“I would also like to remind the court that as a result of mediation almost all the injured parties have forgiven my client, which should result in a remission of the sentence.”
Szacki did not wait for permission.
“Once again I say: please read the Code, Sir,” he growled. “Firstly, ‘almost’ makes a big difference, and secondly, remission as a result of mediation only applies to crimes subject to up to three years’ imprisonment. The most you can petition for is extraordinary commutation of the sentence, which in any case is ridiculously low, considering your client’s exploits.”
The lawyer smiled and spread his hands in a gesture of surprise. Too many films, too little professional reading, Szacki thought to himself.
“But has anyone been harmed? Did anyone suffer any unpleasantness? Human affairs, involving adults…”
A red curtain fell before Szacki’s eyes. He silently counted to three to calm himself down. He took a deep breath, stood up straight, and looked at the judge. She nodded, her curiosity aroused.
“Counsel for the defence, the prosecution is amazed both at your ignorance of the law and of civilised behaviour. I would remind you that for many months the defendant Huby went about houses in Sandomierz county kitted out with a white gown and a medical bag, passing himself off as a doctor. That in itself is a felony. He passed himself off as a specialist in, I quote: ‘palpation mammography,’ and suggested prophylactic examination, with the aim of making the women bare their chests and give him access to their charms. Which comes under the definition of rape. And I would also like to remind you that he assured most of his ‘patients’ that their bosoms were in good health, which might not have been true and could have led them to abandon their plans for prophylactic tests, and thus to serious health problems. In any case, that is the main reason why one of the injured parties refused to agree to mediation.”
“But in two of the ladies he felt a lump and prompted them to get treatment, which as a consequence saved their lives,” retorted the defence counsel emphatically.
“Then let those ladies fund a reward for him and send parcels. What concerns us here is that the defendant committed an illegal act and must bear the consequences, because it is against the law to go about the houses telling lies and fondling women. Just as it is against the law to go about the streets knocking out people’s teeth in the hope that later on at the dentist’s some more serious problems will be discovered and treated.”
He could see that the judge was having to stop herself from snorting with laughter.
“And the case has led to a serious discussion within the province about preventive action and the need for mammograms,” said the relentless defence lawyer.
“But is this a formal motion?” Szacki felt weary.
“These are circumstances that should be taken into consideration.”
“Your Honour?” Szacki looked inquiringly at the amused judge.
“The session is closed. The sentence will be announced on Monday at ten. Mr. Prosecutor, would you please come to my office for a moment?”
The judge, who once he had checked the case list became Maria Tatarska, had an office as ugly as the rest of the building, equally nastily decorated in dirty-green colours, but at least it was spacious. Szacki knocked and was invited to enter just as Judge Tatarska was taking off her gown. An electric kettle was already burbling away on a cabinet.
“Coffee?” she asked, hanging up her court uniform.
As Szacki was on the point of replying that yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk, Judge Tatarska turned to face him, and he had to concentrate on making sure no signs of his emotions appeared on his face. And on trying not to swallow his saliva in a theatrical way. Under her gown, Judge Tatarska was a regular sex bomb, with the body of a girl from a centrefold, and the amount of cleavage revealed by her purple blouse would have been thought daring in a night club.
“Yes please, one spoonful, no sugar, lots of milk.”
They chatted for a time about the case, while she made them both coffee. Small talk, nothing interesting. He imagined she had brought him in here for some purpose. Other than the pleasure of communing with his professional coolness, gaunt figure and ashen face of a guy due to turn forty in a few months’ time, who had spent the winter feeling depressed and neglecting his physical fitness. He knew he looked like a state official. Usually he couldn’t care less, but right now he would have liked to look better. He also would have liked her to get to the point, as he had to leave in the next five minutes.
“I’ve heard a few things about you, about your cases–my colleagues in the capital have told me.” She was looking at him closely. Szacki didn’t answer, but waited for her to continue. What was he supposed to say? That he know of her by hearsay too? “I won’t say we made any special enquiries when the rumour went round that you were staying on here. You must have realised by now that personnel changes are not an everyday event in the provinces. From your perspective it can’t have been obvious, but in our little world it was a minor sensation.”
He still didn’t know what he was meant to say.
“I also looked in the press, I read about your cases–some of them are first-class crime stories, well known ones. I was intrigued by the murder that happened during Hellinger’s constellation therapy.”
Szacki shrugged. Hellinger, devil take it, if not for that case, if not for the affair, if not for the old secret police stories, right now he’d probably be eating boiled eggs in tartare sauce (how appropriate) on Solidarność Avenue, and arranging with Weronika for one of them to pick up the child from school. If it weren’t for Hellinger, he’d still have a life now.
“In my time I’ve been very interested in Hellinger. I even went to Kielce for a constellation, but they cancelled it and I didn’t feel like going a second time. You know how it is, a single woman, long evenings, too much thinking. Thinking there might be something wrong with her, maybe she needs therapy. Stupid thoughts.”
Szacki couldn’t believe his own ears. She was trying to pick him up. This sex bomb with legal training was trying to pick him up. He braced himself, the old habit of a married man. He braced himself at the thought of the flirting, the rendezvous, the lying, the text messages sent on the sly, the phone set to silent, and the office hours wasted on meeting up in town.
And he realised the married man’s habit was just that–a habit, second nature, but only that. He was free, he was single, he had a flat with a view of the Vistula. He could make a date with a girl from the provinces and roger her standing up in the kitchen. Simple as that. Without any pangs of conscience, without any scheming, subterfuge, or pussyfooting about innocent friendship.
He had to fly. But he made a date for the evening. Hellinger, of course, that was quite a case, he’d be happy to tell her about it.
Except that he’d have to blow Klara away.
WITNESS INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT. Grzegorz Budnik, born 4 December 1950, resident at 27 Katedralna Street, Sandomierz, higher education in chemistry, chairman of the Sandomierz City Council. Relationship to parties: husband of Elżbieta Budnik (victim). No convictions for bearing false witness.
Cautioned re criminal responsibility under Article 233 of the Penal Code, his statement is as follows:
I met Elżbieta Szuszkiewicz in the winter of 1992 during the “Winter in the City” campaign, when she came here from Krakow to run drama workshops for children. I had never met her before, although she had spent her childhood in Sandomierz. In those days I used to coordinate all events held at the Town Hall. I couldn’t help noticing her because for some people that sort of campaign is drudgery, but she produced such a good show with the children at the end of the festival that they got a standing ovation–it was Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer. She was young, not yet thirty then, beautiful, and full of energy. I fell head over heels in love, without any real hope–I was a provincial official, and she was a big-city girl who’d been to drama school. But two years later we got married in Sandomierz cathedral on the Sunday after Easter. Unfortunately we never had any children, though we very much wanted to. When it turned out we would have to go through all those medical procedures, we considered adoption, but finally we realised that we would continue to look after children through our social activities. I less so, in view of my duties on the council, but Ela devoted herself entirely to it. She taught at a school, but mainly she organised events, brought in artists and devised the most fantastic workshops. It was our common dream to set up a special place, an arts centre for children, where we could organise entire summer camps, like the American ones. But we kept putting it off, there was always some issue of the day to take care of. We were supposed to get it off the ground this year, to look for property and take out a loan.
Our life together worked out well, there was only the occasional quarrel, we had a good social life, maybe a bit less these days–the winter is so long, and our place is at its best when you can sit in the garden.
Szacki felt worn out. The short transcript was the result of a three-hour conversation. Budnik went off into digressions, or long silences, sometimes wept, and occasionally felt obliged to affirm how very much he loved his wife, and to tell an anecdote from their life together. At times he was so genuine that Szacki’s heart was bleeding. But only at times–besides that, the prosecutor’s nose for lies could smell something nasty. Budnik was definitely telling the truth about one thing–his feelings for his wife were movingly real. But apart from that, he was lying through his teeth.
My wife and I spent most of the last few days together. Over the winter we had worked a lot, so we had decided to spend Easter on our own at home, just the two of us. In any case, we had nowhere to go and no one to invite. My sister had gone to visit our brother who lives in Germany, and Ela’s parents had gone to Zakopane. They were all supposed to be coming now, on Sunday, for our fifteenth wedding anniversary, we wanted to have a party, a sort of second wedding. We hadn’t met up with anybody since Saturday, that is, we saw people we know at the blessing of the Easter food. We didn’t go to the cathedral for it, but to Saint Paul’s, to have a bit of a walk. No one after that, on Sunday we slept in too late for the Resurrection Mass, had a modest, but festive Easter breakfast, read a bit, chatted a bit, and watched a bit of telly. That evening we went for a walk, after the walk we looked in at the cathedral, but not for mass, and said a few prayers together at the Holy Sepulchre. I can’t remember if anyone else was there, there must have been someone. We actually spent the whole of Monday in bed–Ela had a sore throat, it was terribly cold this Easter. On Tuesday she was still feeling unwell, there was nothing we had to do, so we stayed at home. Just in case we cancelled a visit to our friends, Olga and Tadeusz Bojarski. I can’t remember, but I think my wife must have called them, on Monday evening or Tuesday morning. I went to the office for a while on Tuesday, and a few people saw me there. I came home in the afternoon, I brought us some food from the Trzydziestka restaurant, Ela was feeling better, she looked quite well, and we were even sorry we’d called off our get-together. In the evening we watched a Robert Redford film on Channel One, about a prison, I can’t remember the title. And then we went to bed. Very early, I had a headache. I didn’t get up in the night. I haven’t got any prostate problems. When I woke up, Ela wasn’t there. Before I’d had time to start worrying, Basia Sobieraj called.
“I’m glad you’re questioning me. It could be hard for Basia to do it.”
“I’m questioning you because I am in charge of the inquiry. Emotional considerations have nothing to do with it.”
Grzegorz Budnik nodded in silence. He looked awful. After hearing all the stories about the legendary councillor, Szacki was expecting a portly gent with a moustache or a pepper-and-salt beard, a receding hairline and a waistcoat buttoned over his belly–in short, a classic MP or mayor from the television. Meanwhile Grzegorz Budnik was like a retired marathon runner: small, thin, and wiry in the typical manner of a predator, as if there wasn’t a single cell of fat in his entire body. Probably capable in normal circumstances of beating many a heavy from the provincial gym at arm-wrestling, today he looked like someone who had just lost a long fight against a deadly illness. His short red beard could not conceal his sunken cheeks, and his sweaty, unwashed hair was sticking to his skull. He had dark rings around his eyes, which were red from crying and clouded, probably from tranquillisers. Slumping and closed in on himself, he reminded Szacki more of the Warsaw vagrants he used to question almost every day, rather than a staunch councillor, chairman of the City Council, who put fear into the other officials and his political opponents. The picture of destitution and despair was completed by a large plaster, crookedly glued to his forehead. Grzegorz Budnik looked more like a homeless drifter than a civic official.
“What happened to your forehead?”
“I tripped and hit it on a pan.”
“I lost my balance, waved my arms about, and hit the handle of the frying pan, the frying pan leaped up and bashed me on the head. It’s nothing serious.”
“We’ll have to do a forensic examination.”
“It’s nothing serious.”
“Not because we’re worried about you. We have to check in case it’s the result of a fight or a wounding.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
Szacki just stared. He didn’t believe anyone.
“You know of course that you can refuse to make a statement or answer specific questions?”
“But you prefer to tell lies. Why is that?”
Budnik sat up proudly, as if that might add truth to his testimony.
“When was the last time you saw your wife?” Szacki didn’t let him get a word in.
“I told you…”
“I know what you said. Now please tell me when you really saw your wife for the last time and why you lied about it. If you don’t, I’ll put you on remand for forty-eight hours, charge you with murdering your wife and apply to the court for your arrest. You’ve got thirty seconds.”
Budnik slumped again even more, and contrasting horribly with his pale complexion, his red eyes filled with tears, reminding Szacki of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
Gollum, hissing “My precious!”, incapable of existence without his treasure, addicted to a thing that could never be his. Was that what the relationship between Grzegorz and Elżbieta Budnik had been like? A provincial Gollum, the uglymug do-gooder and the city girl, beautiful, clever and good, a premier division star making a guest appearance on the youth league. Why had she stayed here? Why had she married him?
“But I told you…”
Without twitching a muscle, Szacki tapped out a number on the phone while at the same time extracting a charge sheet from his desk.
“Szacki here, put me through to Inspector Wilczur please.”
Budnik put his hand on the phone hooks.
“Why did you lie?”
Budnik made a gesture as if he wanted to shrug but lacked the strength. Szacki pulled the transcript towards himself and clicked his ballpoint.
I am changing my statement. I saw my wife Elżbieta for the last time on Easter Monday at about two p.m. We parted on bad terms, we had started to argue about our plans, she insisted time was running out, that we were only getting older and that if we were ever going to make our dreams about the centre come true we had to start doing something at last. I preferred to wait for next year’s local council elections, and to run as mayor, because if I won, everything would be easier. Then as typically happens when you argue, we started reproaching each other. She accused me of putting everything off until later, and for politicising in just the same way at home as at the office. I told her she was being unrealistic, thinking you only have to want something very much and it will all become fact. We were shouting and hurting each other’s feelings.
“O God, when I think the last words I ever said to her were that she should take her sorry arse back to Krakow…” Budnik began to sob quietly. Szacki waited for him to calm down. He felt like having a smoke.
Finally she took her jacket and left without a word. I didn’t chase her, I didn’t go looking for her, I was furious. I didn’t want to apologise, I didn’t want to say sorry, I wanted to be on my own. She had plenty of friends–I suspected she’d gone to see Barbara Sobieraj. I didn’t get in touch with her on Monday or on Tuesday. I read, watched television and drank some beer. By Tuesday evening I was starting to miss her, the Redford film was good, but I was sorry to be watching it alone. My pride wouldn’t let me call that evening, I thought in the morning I’d go over to Barbara Sobieraj’s place or call her. I covered up these facts because I was afraid our quarrel, and the fact that I hadn’t gone looking for her, would look bad and would incriminate me in the eyes of the law.
“Didn’t it occur to you that these facts might have significance for the inquiry? Isn’t finding the murderer important to you?”
Once again Budnik all but shrugged.
“No, it’s not. Nothing’s important to me now.”
Szacki handed him the transcript to read through, while at the same time wondering whether to lock him up or not. He usually listened to his instinct on such matters. But his compass was confused. Budnik was a politician, a provincial one, but a politician, in other words a professional liar and hoodwinker. And Szacki was certain that for some reasons, which he would be sure to discover, he hadn’t told him the whole truth. Nevertheless his grief seemed genuine. Totally resigned grief at an irrecoverable loss, not the quaking, fear-filled grief of a murderer. Szacki had had rather too many opportunities to observe both these emotions and had learned to tell them apart.
He took a file full of photos out of the drawer and filled in the heading on an exhibit form.
“Have you ever seen this tool?”
At the sight of the photo of the razor-machete Budnik went pale, and Szacki was amazed it was actually possible for skin as chalk-white as his to do that.
“Please answer the question.”
“No, I’ve never seen a tool like that before.”
“Do you know what it’s for?”
“I have no idea.”
At about four p.m. a touch of warmth finally appeared in the sunlight, a shy hint of spring. Prosecutor Teodor Szacki turned his face to the sunshine and drank cola from the can. There was no other cola for him.
After interrogating Budnik he had met up with Wilczur and told him to find anyone who might have seen them over Easter. At church, on a walk, in a restaurant. Every bit of the interview had to be checked, every acquaintance questioned. Kuzniecow would have got palpitations half way down the list of demands, but Inspector Wilczur just nodded his gaunt head; in his black suit he looked like death taking an order for the harvest. Szacki felt ill at ease in the old policeman’s presence.
Now he was waiting outside the police station for Sobieraj, to go on a romantic walk with her to the city hospital. In fact he was surprised they had an anatomical pathology department here–he had been sure they would have to go to one of the bigger cities, Kielce or Tarnobrzeg.
He lazily opened one eye when he heard a car hooting. Sobieraj was waving to him from some characterless piece of junk. He sighed and dragged himself off to his feet. An Opel Astra.
“I thought we were going to walk there.”
Why is it always the case that the smaller the hole, the more usual it is for everyone to go everywhere by car?
“Three quarters of an hour each way? I don’t much fancy it. Not even with you, Mr. Prosecutor.”
In three quarters of an hour I could walk to Opatów and do a tour of every village on the way, Szacki had it on the tip of his tongue to say, but he got into the car. It smelled of air freshener and stuff for cleaning plastic, and must have been several years old, but it looked as if it had only left the showroom yesterday. The ashtray was empty, the speakers were putting out smooth jazz, and there were no crumbs or little bits of paper anywhere. In other words she was childless. But she was married, she had a ring, she must have been about thirty-five. Didn’t they want them? Couldn’t they have them?
“Why couldn’t the Budniks have children?”
She cast him a suspicious glance as she joined the traffic on Mickiewicz Street. They were driving towards the exit for Warsaw.
“He couldn’t, right?” Szacki pressed on.
“Right. Why do you ask?”
“Intuition. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s highly relevant. The way Budnik mentioned it, as if in passing, as if lightly. That’s how men talk who’ve heard so many times that it doesn’t matter that they almost believe it.”
She looked at him closely. They passed the courthouse.
“My husband can’t have children either. I tell him it doesn’t matter too, that other things are important.”
“And are they?”
Szacki said nothing as they drove around the roundabout and past a hideous modern church, a pile of red bricks arranged in the shape of the gates of hell, ugly, oppressive, and totally unsuited to its surroundings and to this city in general.
“I have an eleven-year-old daughter. She lives in Warsaw with her mum. I feel as if she’s getting more and more alien, fading from sight by the day.”
“Even so I envy you.”
Szacki was quiet; he had been expecting anything but this sort of conversation. They came to what was rather grandly called the by-pass and turned towards the Vistula.
“We’ve had a bad start,” said Sobieraj, without taking her eyes off the road for a moment. Szacki wasn’t looking at her either. “I was thinking about it yesterday, that we’re both trapped by our own stereotypical thinking. To you I’m a stupid little provincial, and to me you’re an arrogant jerk from Warsaw. And of course we can go on playing that game, except that I really do want to find Ela’s murderer.”
She drove off the by-pass into a small side street and parked outside the surprisingly large hospital building. It was L-shaped with six floors, built in the 1980s. Better than he’d thought.
“You can laugh and call it small-town overdramatising, but she was different. Better, brighter, purer, it’s hard for me to describe. I knew her, I knew everyone who knew her, I know this town better than I’d like to. And as for you, well, this is no time for bullshit, I know how many times you were offered a transfer to the regional court, to the appeal court, and what a career they predicted for you. I know your cases, I know the testimonials and the legends about Teodor Szacki with the snow-white hair, that brave defender of Justice.”
Finally they looked at each other. Szacki held out his hand, and Sobieraj gently shook it.
“Call me Teodor.”
“You’ve parked in a disabled parking space, Basia.”
Sobieraj took a card out of the glove compartment with a blue logo on it symbolising disability, and put it on the dashboard.
“Heart. Two attacks. I probably wouldn’t be able to give birth anyway.”