She’d been nervous, he understood, and sad. Talk was her way of dealing with it. But there was nothing to be done about the day really, just to get it over with.

He looked up again at the lumber truck that had blocked the road ahead. It was reversing laboriously from a muddy road that led into the woods. The driver had misjudged a metre of ground by one of the wheels. The soil here was still saturated, and for several minutes now he had been gingerly edging the vehicle out onto the roadway. He’d let the truck back a few metres in a controlled roll, and try to coax it back up again. His eyes stayed locked on the rim of mud that was pushed up higher by the rear wheel.

“You’d think the idiot would know,” Lisi said.

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? Didn’t you recognize him right away?”

“He looked familiar.”

“Really,” she said. “Did you just wash everything out of your head last night, or have you really forgotten the people here? So soon?”

He said nothing.

“Bad enough that they are going to destroy the forest, but it has to be that idiot Maier doing it. Manfred…?”

“Ah, him. Freddie.”

“It’s not his fault he’s got that face. But he was dumb. Now he drives a Beemer, a new one. Maybe you’ll catch him speeding in it. Wouldn’t that be funny?”


“Well,” Lisi said after several moments, “I’m not superstitious. But you’d wonder. Wouldn’t you?”

Felix nodded.

He let his gaze up the hill. Screened by the growth of conifers above the grassy verge was the hilltop village of St. Kristoff am Offenegg. It was well above them yet, with its ancient, baroque church and graveyard perched tightly on the hilltop, and a clutch of houses huddled just below. There were long views from the steps of the church, Felix knew, across the valleys and hills to the south, toward Slovenia. He and Lisi had 20 minutes to reach the village, and that church, where the anniversary service for Felix’s father, also a Gendarme in the Austrian police, was due to begin.

Maybe that bird knew something, Felix thought. But it had gone, with its prize. He had listed bird watching on his application to join the Gendarmerie. It had been his own joke, the only sly response he could come up with that particular day to his mother’s gentle, persistent nagging. She had brought the application form to him one evening a few weeks after he had come back from his trip. She had photocopies ready: birth, driver’s licence, and, of course, the sorry record of his undergraduate academics up until he had elected not to continue after second year.

His mother had also prepared the ground, using the contacts she had kept up with the friends and colleagues of her late husband in the Gendarmerie. That was her way, and it worked. Today it would work again, of course. For the second year, it was now the expected duty of Felix Kimmel Junior Felix the Second to take care of his grandfather Kimmel for the memorial service, and to manage the old goat. It meant sitting next to him at the service without appearing too solicitous. It also meant that Felix should be a buffer between his mother’s family and what was left of his father’s.

“Is Opa Kimmel…?” he began, but soon lost the thread of how he could phrase his question.

Lisi gave him a knowing look.

“Is he coming to the restaurant afterwards?” she asked. “Is that it?”


“Relax,” she said. “You know how he is. That’ll never change.”

It took the lumber truck another minute to make it out onto the road and to begin its trip down to the mill in Weiz. Through the open window of his sister’s Opel, Felix heard the crunch and the hiss of brakes as Maier prepared for the trip down. He gave a big wave as he passed. All of that family had that same lantern jaw, Felix remembered now, the jutting chin of the underbiter.

Lisi said something under her breath, but she managed a smile and a half-hearted wave to Maier. She let go of the handbrake, revved as she let the clutch in, and resumed the slow, winding climb up toward the village. There awaiting them would be their extended family, neighbours from the old house, and friends of their father.

Felix kept his window open. His eyes still hurt when he moved them. He rubbed at them but stopped when he heard a strange ticking from them.

“Ironic anyway,” Lisi said.

He looked over at her. She was seven years older, but to Felix she seemed middle-aged already, this 29- year-old teacher. The famous 29.

“The lumber truck,” he repeated. “I get it. Ironic, yes.”

Could she just not talk, for a minute anyway? He turned back toward the patches of view across the valley that were beginning to appear more and more between the trees. He wanted to believe it was the altitude making this hangover worse. He stared at a gap, and hoped that would beat back the images that were now coming to his mind.

It was the second year now since Felix Kimmel Senior had been killed in a collision with a lumber truck on the Weizklamm. His duties had been those of Abteilungsinspektor, department chief inspector, in the Judenburg district. In the tribute speech at his funeral it was pointed out that he had been looking in on his aged father, Peter, a widower who lived alone up here. Speed had been a factor, as the phrase went.

But Felix had had a glimpse of a Scene photo of his father’s Audi. It had been during a class exercise at the Gendarmerieschule on how to use EKIS, the police database. Felix Senior’s car had been accordioned and pulverized by its long fall down off the road. Felix had also learned about the booze in the car.

His mother had been angry when he’d told her about it, a rare thing indeed between them. Why was it necessary to dig into that? Whom would it help, to know this? Her anger quickly had turned on what worried her now her very own son. Could he not just give this a try? A couple of years only? Couldn’t he see that joining up now was perfect timing? The Interior Ministry was sticking to its plan to do the unthinkable, to amalgamate the Gendarmerie and the Polizei. Things would really be opening up. They would be looking for people who had a few years of Uni. The old days were gone, forever. He could even finish his degree at night, yes!

Guilt works, mother guilt best of all. Felix had finished his course, passed his Dienstprufung exam, and received his posting. He did not ask how or why he got a posting to Stefansdorf, a sleepy village near enough to Graz that he could hold on to his social life.

But his friendships from Uni had become awkward acquaintances, and rare phone calls. Seven months travelling from beaches in Spain to a squat in Copenhagen had not really settled him much. Giuliana had remained constant, however, but lately there had been something in the air there too. He did not want to think about that.

The woods ended. Ahead of them the narrow, winding ribbon of road twisted around another hairpin before its final run into the village.

“You won’t want to hear this,” said Lisi, “but I’ll say it anyway. You look good in that uniform.”

She glanced over after he made no reply.

“You lost your brain in some pub, some stube, the night before Dad’s memorial?”

“It wasn’t that much,” he said. “Maybe it was an unconscious thing anyway.”

“Don’t try that Freudian crap on me. I’ve read it, you know.”

She left the car in second now. He began to think, dimly, if anyone had studied the effects of high mountain air on a hangover. Frische luft, his oma his mother’s mother called it. Frische luft macht frisches herz! Fresh air makes the heart anew!

“Well, how’s Giuli then.”

This was conciliatory, he knew, but still he felt like asking her how her boyfriend Karl was, or Superbore, as he called him. Still as exciting as cold Baischel? The thought of that sliced meat lying cold in its greasy sauce made his mouth taste chalky and sour.

“She’s fine.”

A lie, he wondered: a white lie? Maybe it was a hope, more than a statement of fact. No: she was fine. Truly. She’d get over it. “It” was this thing that neither of them wanted to put a name on. If it had a name, it might be “commitment” or something like that. “The future,” maybe “our future,” to be precise.

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