Berchtesgaden, Bavarian Alps, Monday, July 23
The tune drifted across the valley of Lake Königssee, rising and dying on a restless breeze. Carver turned to listen. A trumpeter on a boat far below played a Bavarian folk song. Rebecca loved it here. The lake was framed by mountains, and the setting sun bathed Mount Watzmann in a reddish-purple glow. He trudged back through the darkening forest to his car. He had a story to write, and he knew just the place to write it. The Goldener Bär restaurant in the centre of Berchtesgaden wasn’t busy yet and he installed himself at a corner table underneath the mounted head of a wild boar. Fortified by a foaming glass of Berchtesgadener Hofbräu, he bashed out 700 words in half an hour flat. “Fake SS Daggers Invading Nazi Memorabilia Market.” By Frank Carver. The lead quote, nicely hardened in translation from Bavarian to English, was from a local antique dealer complaining about “cheap Polish-made rubbish” ruining business. The Chronicle loved this stuff and would pay the hefty expense bill without giving him any trouble. Berchtesgaden was a great dateline. More importantly, it was a great place to spend a couple of days. Feeling inspired, Carver described the region as an “Adolf Hitler theme park.” It wouldn’t win him any friends with the tourist board, but it was true. The overgrown foundations of the Führer’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, on Obersalzberg, a hill above the town, attracted hundreds of thousands a year, as did the Eagle’s Nest, the guesthouse the adoring Nazi party had built for the Führer, high up on Mount Kehlstein.
Carver shut his laptop and ordered a Schnitzel. It was nine o’clock and the cavernous restaurant was full of tourists looking pleased with themselves after a hard day’s hillwalking. A massacre of mounted antlers covered the thick walls of the wood-panelled hall. A dozen members of the Berchtesgaden hunting society sat around a huge Stammtisch, the Regulars’ Table. The waitresses rushed around with armfuls of brimming litre glasses of beer. It was like the Munich Oktoberfest, minus the Oompah band. For a second, Carver felt transported back 5 years, when he had come here on his honeymoon. Eight weeks later, Rebecca was diagnosed with cancer. Twenty-two weeks later she was dead.
Suddenly the room went quiet. A group of men marched across the flagstone floor. Carver recognized the blond man in the middle. Hermann von Tietjen, the leader of the Freie Nationale Partei, the Free National Party, FNP. The next general election was less than two months off and Tietjen was expected to score big. His mantra was that Germany was under threat from its Muslim immigrants and should ditch the euro. The tall, aristocratic lawyer from Dresden was the charismatic populist Germany’s far right had been waiting for.
The hubbub returned. Tietjen and his entourage, five men with neat, Hitler Youth haircuts and grey suits, disappeared into a back room. What was he doing down here? Carver shrugged. It was time to leave. As he walked to the lavatory, he saw a man hovering by the closed door to the Jägerstube, the meeting room for the hunting association. He was far too short and puny to be a watchdog. He shot Carver a nervous glance.
As Carver settled the bill, angry shouts echoed through the hall. A few seconds later, three of Tietjen’s gang were frogmarching the little eavesdropper out of the restaurant. “Let go of me! Help! Help me! Arseholes! You Nazi fuckers!” The men smashed his face into the door, tore it open and dragged him out. Everyone watched in shocked silence. Carver rushed outside. He heard voices around the corner and stepped into an alley next to the restaurant. One of the men punched the little guy in the stomach, hard.
“Hey! Leave him alone!” Carver shouted. “I’ll call the Polizei!”
They stopped and stared at him. “Mind your own fucking business,” the puncher snarled. A broad-shouldered man with a porcine face walked up to Carver and stood so close that he could smell the sausage on his breath. It made him want to retch. They were about the same height. “Didn’t you hear him, fuckhead?” The two others came over. He looked at their brutish, empty faces, just discernible in the light from the street.
“I’m a journalist from England. I recognised your leader in there,” Carver said. “Do you want to get Tietjen into trouble? Just leave the guy alone and everything’s OK.”
The man in front of him put his hand in his jacket and pulled out a digital camera. The flash blinded Carver. They pushed him against a fence and walked off. “Scheiss Engländer. Du Nigger!”
“Nigger?” thought Carver. He turned to the man squatting on the concrete floor holding his stomach. “Shall I call an ambulance? I’ll call the police.”
“No. I’ll be OK.” His voice was shaky.
“Were you following them?” Carver asked, holding out his hand to help him up.
“I owe you one.” The man winced, struggling to his feet. “I’m a journalist too. Freelance. Wolfgang Renner. I work in Berlin. Were you here for them too?”
Carver shook his head.
Renner looked relieved. He tilted his head back to stop a nose bleed. “I feel sick. I’ll go back to my hotel.”
They walked up the steep, deserted street and came to a bench overlooking the town and the valley beyond. “I’ve got to sit down,” said Renner. He fished a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one. The flame illuminated his face. He had a cherubic face but there were pronounced wrinkles around his bulbous grey eyes. Carver guessed he was in his late thirties, prematurely aged by fags, booze and late nights.
“Why don’t you press charges?” Carver asked. “The place was full of witnesses. I’ll testify. Get them doing community service for a few weeks. It would be a bad headline for Tietjen before the election.”
“No. No time. I’m working on something big.” Renner took out a handkerchief to wipe blood from his nose and spotted a tear in the arm of his black leather jacket. “Fuck. Cost me 300 euros. Who do you work for?”
“The London Chronicle.”
“Wow. I’m honoured!” Renner paused. “You know, Tietjen is a dangerous guy. A contact of mine works for the FNP leader in Saxony. He says Tietjen’s not the mild-mannered, reasonable guy he pretends to be. He’s a complete and utter fucking maniac, apparently. A neo-Nazi to the core.”
Carver raised his eyebrows. “Interesting. On TV he looks like the perfect son-in-law.”
“Yeah, well. He’s not.”
They sat in silence. Carver looked at his watch. He had to get up early to catch the flight from Munich to Berlin.
“I’m going to let you into a secret,” said Renner.
“Because I need your help.”
Carver looked down at Renner’s split lip and ripped jacket. Renner coloured. “Look,” he said, “if what my source tells me is true then I’m sitting on the biggest story since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and if I’m going to break this story properly then I need credibility. The credibility that comes with the Chronicle.”
“Go on. I’m listening.”
“My contact’s boss was summoned to a secret meeting chaired by Tietjen in Dresden a couple of weeks ago.”
“And they are going to assassinate Gutman. Before the election.”
“Right. But I thought the Nazis hated Muslims more than Jews these days.”
“Maybe, but I don’t see any Muslims about to become Chancellor anytime soon.”
Renner flicked his cigarette butt to the ground and spat some tobacco off his tongue. “His boss argued against it. But Tietjen just started screaming and grabbed the guy by the collar and told him not to breathe a word of it if he valued his life.”
“Yes but even they’ve got to know it would never work, Gutman’s got to be the best-protected politician in Germany since Hitler! And why would Tietjen bother risking it? He’s going to sail into parliament in the election.”
Renner shrugged and lit another cigarette.
“I don’t buy it,” said Carver. “Even if Tietjen did say something it was nothing more than macho posturing.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Renner. “Until last week.”
“What happened last week?”
“My source’s boss died in a car accident. Just a few days after that meeting.”
“How did it happen?”
“His car hit a tree. That’s all I know. Now my source is shit-scared and won’t talk to me anymore.”
The blood was congealing around his nose. His lip was badly swollen. “Have you ever had a scoop? A lucky break? Sometimes unbelievable things happen, even in boring Germany! Remember 9/11? Some of the pilots lived in Hamburg, plotted quietly for years. Don’t you think this is worth looking into at least?”
His large eyes were fixed on Carver with a furious, imploring stare. “You’re the Chronicle. You’ve got resources, credibility. Don’t you want to work on a real story? A monster scoop? We could work together!”
Carver recognized something in Renner’s eyes. That starving, desperate, tunnel-vision look that said I’m going to sell my grandmother, I’m going to skip my own wedding, pawn my daughter’s puppies, I’m going to lie, steal, commit all the seven sins and invent some new ones to nail this story. Carver had come across terriers like Renner before. Once they got their teeth into something, you could swing them round the room on it. Neo-Nazis out to get Germany’s first Jewish candidate for chancellor? Nice. Too nice. His face betrayed his doubts.
Renner gave up. “Your loss,” he said. “I’ll do it alone then. But swear you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone.”
Carver nodded. “I promise.”
As Renner stood up, Carver tapped his arm. “You got a business card?”
Renner broke into a grin and fumbled in his back pocket. “Sure.” He retrieved a used bus ticket and scribbled his mobile number on it “Here’s my business card. Ring me.” He hobbled up the hill and disappeared into the darkness.