Welcome to chapter fourteen of Christobel. The action is back in 2014 with Chris. Frieda is devastated by the death of Dieter and now the police are taking a worrying interest in his demise . . .
I hope you are enjoying this dual story of ministering angels. If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and then read each successive post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain? which is a digression into my views on some possible consequences of Brexit from the EU.
‘Oh Frie, I’m so sorry!’ Chris stretched his hand to take Frieda’s. ‘When did you hear?’
She sniffed, released her hand from his, automatically put both hers into her uniform pockets for a tissue but it was a vain search. Carrying used tissues was strongly frowned on for hygiene reasons of course. So she raised her arms to use her short sleeves instead. It didn’t matter about messing up her uniform. She wouldn’t be seeing any more patients today anyway.
‘Mutter phoned me fifteen minutes ago, after she’d let Vater know. Opa’s carer contacted her just after lunch, apparently. It seems he simply died in his sleep. Oh, poor Opa!’
Chris struggled to find words. In spite of his regular, professional experience of death, he’d never been good at comfort giving. ‘Yeah; poor Dieter. But it seems to have been peaceful, at least.’
‘Yes, that is something. Well, a lot, I suppose. And he didn’t want to carry on.’
‘No, he didn’t. It’s a merciful release.’
‘Well,’ Freida said, sniffing some more but composed now, ‘I must go and be with Vater. He is at home. I have got compassionate leave for a few days.’
‘Yes, you do that.’
‘Will you be okay to make your own way home later?’
‘Yes, I’ll be fine. I’ll get the tram. You go; I’ll see you later.’
And so, with Frieda’s help and moral support, Andreas sadly initiated the funeral arrangements for his second parent in nine months. Dieter’s body was removed to the premises of the undertaker, the care equipment was retrieved by the care-giving company and the carers departed to new assignments. They all said how sorry they were and what a privilege it had been to look after such a fine gentleman, and that they would of course attend the funeral to pay respects. Hans was really quite emotional and weepy and Frieda hugged him, rubbing his shuddering shoulder blades, and thanked him for all his kind attention. Her Opa couldn’t have had better care, she assured him. Biting his lower lip, struggling for control, Hans thanked her too.
On the third day, when Chris got home from work, Frieda looked decidedly anxious. There had been a development. The police had seized Dieter’s body without explanation, Andreas had reported, worriedly, and were to order a post-mortem. Chris’s jaw dropped. ‘Why?’
She frowned. ‘I don’t know! I have just said. They haven’t explained. ‘But post-mortems aren’t usually done. I can only assume that there may be suspicious circumstances.’
Two mornings later as they sat at breakfast, the intercom rang to signal a visitor at the outer door. Frieda went downstairs to answer it. A minute later she returned, her face ashen with alarm, leading two smartly-suited men: one short, middle-aged, swarthy; the other taller, slimmer, younger. The unspoken question in her voice hung in the air. ‘The police are here to see you, Chris.’
The older man took a warrant card from his pocket; proffered it for inspection.
‘Good morning. Please excuse my colleague and I for troubling you. I am Kriminalkommisar Müller from Osnabrück Police. This is Kriminalmeister Schumann. You are the partner of Frau Frieda Ernst?’
Chris rose shakily to his feet, the blood draining from his face too. ‘Er, yes?’ In his anxiety he’d automatically replied in English. ‘Er, ja.’
The policeman switched effortlessly to English, his expression coolly neutral. ‘We can speak English if you prefer. Will you confirm your name, please?’
‘Um, yes. Benson. Christopher Benson.’
The younger policeman consulted a notebook; nodded at his superior. Müller reached into his inside breast pocket and brought out a folded document; opened it to show Chris. ‘Mr Benson, I have a warrant for your arrest for the unlawful killing in collaboration with others of Herr Dieter Ernst. I must ask you to come to the police station with us.’
Chris sat down again sharply, before his legs failed him. Frieda, her eyes round with shock, looked as though she were about to faint too.
At the police station, after being registered at the reception desk, he was ushered into a cheerless interview room and told to sit at a metal table. Like his chair, it was firmly fixed to the hard floor. Müller and his colleague sat down opposite. Their chairs were free to move, he noticed. The older officer said, in German, ‘Mr Benson, I will explain the procedure. I am required to conduct proceedings in German, but if you prefer to hear questions and answer them in English, an interpreter can be present. Do you wish that?’
Chris stared, dumbfounded. He felt light-headed. The room was moving in and out of focus; voices rising and falling. Talons of nightmare clawing, snatching. Disbelief. Unreality. This couldn’t be happening. Müller’s voice came, as if from a distance, back in English. ‘Mr Benson? Do you understand? Do you want an interpreter?’
Chris made an effort to pull himself together. ‘No, that’s all right.’
‘Very well.’ The officer switched back to German. ‘I will now read the charge to you and then you will be interviewed.’ Müller pushed a sheet of paper towards him. ‘This is a list of your rights. I will talk you through them. I have already said that you have the right to an interpreter and that is allowed at all stages of the legal proceedings.
‘You are entitled to appoint a local lawyer to represent you and be present at this interview, free of charge. We can provide you with an emergency number to call an advice hotline for such a lawyer, who should be able to come here today to assist you during interview and at your first appearance before the investigative judge, which will be no later than tomorrow. Then, if the matter is taken to court, you can either retain the preliminary lawyer or appoint another one. In either circumstance you will have to have the means to pay such a private lawyer, some of the money in advance. Alternatively, if you cannot afford to do so, the court may appoint a defending lawyer to act for you. If found guilty, you may still have to pay some or all of the lawyer’s costs at some point in the future.
‘The investigating judge will decide whether or not you are permitted bail pending a trial, but if you are detained it may be appealed.
‘You have the right to remain silent during interview without detriment to your defence. But if you pick and choose which questions to answer, that could count against you.
‘After the interview you may respond with a statement, indicating any extenuating circumstances you feel might be relevant. That is the gist of your rights. Do you understand all that?’
‘Yes,’ Chris muttered, miserably, ‘I think I understand.’
‘Fine.’ Müller pushed another document forward, with a ball point pen. ‘You must sign this confirming that you have been informed of your rights. If you refuse to do so, it will be recorded. All right?’
‘Please sign then.’
Chris did so, with a trembling hand.
‘Thank you,’ the officer said, impeccably polite. ‘I must now give you a written copy of the arrest warrant.’ He slid a third form across. ‘And do you wish to arrange a lawyer to assist you during our interview?’
‘Er, yes, I think so.’
Officer Schumann got up and walked to a high shelf where there was a landline telephone sitting in its dock. He brought the handset to the table and handed it to Chris. There was a number taped to the side of it. ‘Call this number,’ he commanded. ‘You will go through to an advice line. Give them your name and tell them you are under arrest at the city police headquarters and require a lawyer to assist you at interview as soon as possible. They will put you through to someone.’
Chris, all fingers and thumbs, did as he was told.
He waited in a holding cell for the woman lawyer he’d nervously spoken to on the phone to arrive, before being taken to another interview room to meet her. She was surprisingly young, probably not very much older than Frieda. Perhaps the younger ones did these sorts of routine, run-of-the-mill jobs. She got up from her seat and shook his hand. Her tight smile was formal, efficient. She spoke in English. ‘Hello, Mr Benson. I am Emilia Weber. I gather you are English. Would you like to speak in your language or are you happy with German?’
‘Er, could we speak English, please? I’m not completely fluent in German yet. And I’m a bit flustered’ Chris stuttered.
‘Of course.’ Her smile became friendlier. ‘You might feel more relaxed doing that, and you can perhaps tell me what this is all about more easily. But the interview will have to be conducted in German; have they told you that?’
‘Yes, they have. I’ve said I don’t want an interpreter.’
‘Good,’ Emilia Weber said briskly. Well if there’s anything you don’t understand I will help you out; all right? Now, tell me as honestly as you can, in your own words, what all this is about.’
Chris felt suddenly overwhelmed, wanting to fall on this kind person’s shoulder, this woman who was surely on his side, and burst into tears. But he composed himself and told her, as she listened patiently, neither frowning nor sympathetically nodding at his confession. Yes, that was how it felt: like confessing sins to a priest in the hope of absolution, or soul-baring to a Samaritan volunteer. Not that he’d ever done either of those things.
When he’d finished and she’d taken notes sufficiently detailed to understand the case, she pondered for a few moments. ‘I see. It is a complex situation; a complicated moral problem. And there are others involved, apart from the deceased gentleman. I would imagine that as you seem to be being honest and not denying the charge, you might be reluctant to say too much for fear of shifting blame onto or incriminating the other suspects. Would that be right?’
‘Erm, yes, I suppose so,’ Chris said miserably.
‘Very well then. In that case, and as it is complicated, I would caution silence for the most part at this stage. As I am sure you will have been told, you have the right to remain silent. She pressed a buzzer on the desk and after a minute or two Officer Schumann appeared. ‘Right,’ she said, switching to German, ‘we are ready for the interview.’
And so the interview was largely a formality. Chris was asked to confirm his full name and other personal details, his address and last address in England. And his occupation; how long he’d been working in Germany. The detectives asked for his account, his version of the events that led up to or precipitated or actually caused Dieter’s death. Frau Weber, sitting alongside him, repeatedly interjected that he wished to remain silent. Müller sighed patiently, his face betraying no irritation. He was doubtless well used to it and pressed doggedly on with his fruitless questions. When things had been taken as far as they could be, the Kriminalkommissar invited Chris to make any statement he wished to in mitigation.
Chris looked uncertainly at his councillor. She nodded encouragingly. He spoke, uncertainly, apologetically, as if the policeman listening held the power to bestow understanding and forgiveness too. ‘Well, just that Herr Ernst did say that he really wanted to die. He said so several times. He was very unhappy, but unable to end things himself. He was no longer able to because he had deteriorated so much. He could barely move. And, well, I felt very sorry for him. We all did. I thought I was acting for the best. That is it, really.’
He looked pleadingly into Müller’s expressionless eyes, seeking sympathy. There may have been a glimmer of empathy there, but if so it was fleeting. He simply said, ‘Is that all you wish to say, Herr Benson?’
‘Yes,’ Chris murmured.
The detective looked at his watch; said, ‘Interview concluded at fifteen fifty-eight pm’ as Schumann switched off the recorder.
It was too late in the day now to arrange an appearance before an investigating judge but, he was told, the matter could be dealt with the following morning. Meanwhile, Frieda would be informed that he was being detained until then. She would have the task of telling the hospital he couldn’t come in, fabricating some sort of plausible-sounding lie. He was returned to the cell and Emilia Weber took her leave, saying she would be back in the morning for the hearing. He was offered a meal which he ate lethargically, forcing it down a constricted oesophagus, alone with his dismal, fearful thoughts.
A soft autumnal sun lit Osnabrück for the early morning handcuffed drive in a police van to the court, but as far as Chris cared, it could have been pouring with rain. He peered through the small window at the carefree, untroubled people on the pavements, doubtless many of them hurrying to their jobs with nothing more concerning on their minds than the weighty decision of what to have for dinner tonight or reaction to their latest social media post. Lucky you, he thought. Lucky law-abiding people. Sensible people.
There was a lengthy weight, punctuated by the arrival of Frau Weber, in another bleak holding cell until he was taken to the courtroom. It was surprisingly thinly populated: just an usher, a recorder, two security guards, Officer Müller and the judge, Herr Richter himself: tall and forbidding in his red robes, having more the look to Chris’s English eyes of some sort of ecclesiastical celebrant than a figure of law.
And already seated there was Andreas, with a man at his side, presumably his own counsel. Chris was ordered to sit next to him, as Frieda’s father, Dieter’s son, raised his expressionless eyes to meet his. There was no nod of salutation, no smile. Andreas looked as stressed and fearful as Chris felt. If the judge was feeling any sort of emotion, any revulsion at the alleged crime, it wasn’t evident in his calm demeanour. He regarded the accused completely dispassionately.
The session was surprisingly brief. Chris and Andreas were again asked to confirm their identities and the details of the summonses were read by Müller. The judge asked questions, establishing a picture of their individual involvements in the matter in his own mind, and then asked Müller to report the interviews. Emilia Weber said little; presumably the proceedings were being conducted correctly.
It suddenly hit Chris that Andreas must have also been arrested the previous day and had also undergone charging and interrogation. There must have been other detectives junior to Müller working on the case too. But where was the third conspirator?
It seemed that Andreas had largely chosen to be silent too, so that the interviews didn’t take long to relate. And that was it. The judge rose to retire to his private chambers to deliberate, leaving the court sitting, waiting. Fifteen minutes later he was back. He addressed Chris and Andreas over the top of his half-moon rimless glasses.
‘Andreas Ernst and Christopher Mark Benson, it is my determination that you will stand trial at the Niedersachsen Regional Court, Osnabrück for conspiracy in the murder of Dieter Ernst. You will both be detained in custody until then.’