The clatter of a passing streetcar broke his concentration. He looked up in time to see it disappear behind the canopy of a chestnut tree, then glanced at his watch. Eleven-thirty. He'd been at it since five that morning. He removed his glasses and spent a long moment rubbing his eyes. What was it Orwell had said about writing a book? "A horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness." Sometimes, Benjamin Stern felt as though this book might be fatal.
The red light on his telephone answering machine was blinking. He made a habit of muting the ringers to avoid unwanted interruptions. Hesitantly, like a bomb handler deciding which wire to cut, he reached out and pressed the button. The little speaker emitted a blast of heavy metal music, followed by a warlike yelp.
"I have some good news, Herr Doktorprofessor. By the end of the day, there will be one less filthy Jew on the planet! Wiedersehen, Herr Doktorprofessor."
Professor Stern erased the message. He was used to them by now. He received two a week these days; sometimes more, depending on whether he had made an appearance on television or taken part in some public debate. He knew them by voice; assigned each a trivial, unthreatening nickname to lessen their impact on his nerves. This fellow called at least twice each month. Professor Stern had dubbed him Wolfie. Sometimes he told the police. Most of the time he didn't bother. There was nothing they could do anyway.
He locked his manuscript and notes in the floor safe tucked beneath his desk. Then he pulled on a pair of shoes and a woolen jacket and collected the rubbish bag from the kitchen. The old building had no elevator, which meant he had to walk down two flights of stairs to reach the ground floor. As he entered the lobby, a chemical stench greeted him. The building was home to a small but thriving kosmetik. The professor detested the beauty shop. When it was busy, the rancid smell of nail-polish remover rose through the ventilation system and enveloped his flat. It also made the building less secure than he would have preferred. Because the kosmetik had no separate street entrance, the lobby was constantly cluttered with beautiful Schwabinians arriving for their pedicures, facials, and waxings.
He turned right, toward a doorway that gave onto the tiny courtyard, and hesitated in the threshold, checking to see if the cats were about. Last night he'd been awakened at midnight by a skirmish over some morsel of garbage. There were no cats this morning, only a pair of bored beauticians in spotless white tunics smoking cigarettes against the wall. He padded across the sooty bricks and tossed his bag into the bin.
Returning to the entrance hall, he found Frau Ratzinger punishing the linoleum floor with a worn straw broom. "Good morning, Herr Doktorprofessor," the old woman snapped; then she added accusingly: "Going out for your morning coffee?"
Professor Stern nodded and murmured, "Ja, ja, Frau Ratzinger." She glared at two messy stacks of fliers, one advertising a free concert in the park, the other a holistic massage clinic on the Schellingstrasse. "No matter how many times I ask them not to leave these things here, they do it anyway. It's that drama student in 4B. He lets anyone into the building."
The professor shrugged his shoulders, as if mystified by the lawless ways of the young, and smiled kindly at the old woman. Frau Ratzinger picked up the fliers and marched them into the courtyard. A moment later, he could hear her berating the beauticians for tossing their cigarette butts on the ground.
He stepped outside and paused to take stock of the weather. Not too cold for early March, the sun peering through a gauzy layer of cloud. He pushed his hands into his coat pockets and set out. Entering the English Gardens, he followed a tree-lined path along the banks of a rain-swollen canal. He liked the park. It gave his mind a quiet place to rest after the morning's exertions on the computer. More importantly, it gave him an opportunity to see if today they were following him. He stopped walking and beat his coat pockets dramatically to indicate he had forgotten something. Then he doubled back and retraced his steps, scanning faces, checking to see if they matched any of the ones stored in the database of his prodigious memory. He paused on a humpbacked footbridge, as if admiring the rush of the water over a short fall. A drug dealer with spiders tattooed on his face offered him heroin. The professor mumbled something incoherent and walked quickly away. Two minutes later he ducked into a public telephone and pretended to place a call while carefully surveying the surroundings. He hung up the receiver.
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