Linda Conrads is a bestselling author who has lived as a recluse since witnessing her sister’s murder. When she sees the murderer on television, Linda takes matters into her own hands in the only way she knows how: through literature. The Trap is a captivating, fast-paced debut crime novel that became an international rights sensation in 2015.
Read an extract below.
I am not of this world. At least, that’s what people say. As if there were only one world. I am standing in the big, empty dining room I never eat in, looking out the large window. It’s on the ground floor. You look onto the meadow behind the house, and the edge of the woods. Sometimes you see deer or foxes.
It is autumn, and as I stand here gazing out, I have the feeling I’m looking in a mirror. The colours are building to a crescendo; the autumn wind makes the trees sway, bending some branches and breaking others. It is a dramatic and beautiful day. Nature, too, seems to sense that something is coming to an end; it’s summoning all its strength for one last surge. Soon it will be lying motionless outside my window. The sunshine will give way to wet grey and then crisp white. The people who come to visit me—my assistant, my publisher, my agent (there isn’t really anyone else)—will complain about the damp and the cold. About having to scrape the windscreen with numb fingers before they could set off. About the fact that it’s still dark when they leave the house in the morning and dark again by the time they get home in the evening. These things mean nothing to me. In my world, it is exactly 23.2ºC, summer and winter. In my world, it is always day and never night. Here, there is no rain, no snow, no frozen fingers. In my world, there is only one season, and I haven’t yet found a name for it.
This villa is my world. The sitting room with its open fire is my Asia, the library my Europe, the kitchen my Africa. North America is in my study. My bedroom is South America, and Australia and Oceania are out on the terrace. A few steps away, but completely unreachable.
I haven’t left the house for eleven years.
You can read the reasons why in all the papers, although some of them do exaggerate. I am ill, yes. I can’t leave the house, true. But I am not forced to live in complete darkness, nor do I sleep in an oxygen tent. It is tolerable. Everything is organised. Time is a current, powerful and gentle, in which I can drift. Only Bukowski introduces confusion into the order every now and then, when he brings in dirt on his paws and rain on his coat after a romp in the meadows. I love running my hand through his shaggy coat and feeling its dampness on my skin. I love the grubby traces of the outside world that Bukowski leaves on the tiles and on the parquet. In my world, there is no mud, no trees and no meadows, no rabbits and no sunshine. The twittering of birds comes from a tape, the sun comes from the solarium in the basement. It’s not a wide world, my world, but it is safe. At least, that’s what I thought.
The earthquake came on a Tuesday. There were no tremors beforehand— nothing that might have warned me.
I was in Italy when it happened. I travel frequently. I find it easiest to visit countries I know, and I used to go to Italy a lot. So I go back every now and then.
Italy is a beautiful and dangerous country because it reminds me of my sister.
Anna, who loved Italy even before she ever went there—Anna, who got herself Italian lessons on tape and listened to them so often that the tapes wore out. Anna, who saved assiduously for a Vespa and then careered around our home town, as if she were winding recklessly through the narrow alleyways of Rome.
Italy reminds me of my sister and of the way things used to be, before the darkness. I keep trying to drive away the thought of Anna, but it’s sticky, like old-fashioned flypaper. Other dark thoughts get stuck to it; there’s no stopping them.
So it was off to Italy, in spite of everything. For an entire week, I retreated to three spare rooms upstairs that I never use, and named them Italy. I put on Italian music, watched Italian films, immersed myself in documentaries about the culture and customs of the country, leafed through coffee-table books, and had delicacies from various regions of Italy delivered by caterers. And the wine. Oh, the wine. It almost made my Italy real.
And now I’m walking through the alleyways of Rome, in search of a particular restaurant. The city is muggy and hot, and I’m exhausted—exhausted from battling against the current of tourists, exhausted from warding off the advances of street hawkers, exhausted from drinking in all the beauty around me. The colours amaze me. The sky is hanging grey and low over the Eternal City but beneath it the Tiber flows a dull green.
I must have fallen asleep because, when I wake up, the documentary on ancient Rome is over. I’m confused when I come to. I can’t remember dreaming, but I have trouble finding my way back to reality.
I seldom dream nowadays. In the first years of my retreat from the real world, I dreamed more vividly than ever before, as if my brain wanted to compensate for the lack of new impulses it was receiving during the day. It invented the most colourful adventures for me—tropical rainforests with talking animals, and cities of brightly coloured glass inhabited by people with magic powers. But, although my dreams always started off light and cheerful, they would sooner or later grow dark, like a sheet of blotting paper dipped in black ink. The leaves in the rainforest would fall, and the animals would stop talking. The glass became so sharp you could cut your fingers on it; the sky turned the colour of blackberries. And inevitably he would appear—the monster. Sometimes it was a vague sense of threat that I couldn’t get a proper hold on, sometimes a shadowy figure lurking almost out of view. Occasionally he would pursue me and I would run, trying to avoid looking back because I couldn’t endure the sight of his face, not even in a dream. Whenever I looked straight at the monster, I would die—die and wake up, every time, gasping for air like a drowning woman. And in those first years, when the dreams were still coming, I had trouble driving away the thoughts that came at night and settled on my bed like crows. There was nothing I could do about them; no matter how painful the memories, I couldn’t stop thinking of her in those moments—thinking of my sister.
No dream tonight, no monster, but I still feel uneasy. A sentence I can’t quite make out is echoing in my head. There is a voice. I blink, my eyes gummed up. I notice that my right arm has gone to sleep, and I try to massage it back to life. The television’s still on, and that’s where the voice is coming from—the voice that had found its way into my dream and woken me up.
It’s a man’s voice, business-like and neutral, same as all the other voices on these news channels that broadcast the lovely documentaries I’m so fond of. I heave myself up and grope for the remote control, but I can’t find it. My bed is vast, my bed is the sea, all these pillows and duvets, waves of coffee-table books and a whole armada of remote controls: for the television itself, for the receiver, for the DVD player, for my two Blu-ray players customised for different formats, for the sound system, for my old VHS recorder. I snort in frustration, and the news voice tells me about things in the Middle East I don’t want to know—not now, not today. I’m on holiday, I’m in Italy, I’ve been looking forward to this trip! It’s too late. The real-world facts that the news voice is reporting on—all the wars and disasters and atrocities that I’d been hoping to block out for a few days—have forced their way into my head, chasing away my sunny mood in seconds. The Italy feeling has gone, the trip’s off. Tomorrow morning I’ll go back to my real bedroom and clear away all the Italy stuff. I rub my eyes; the brightness of the screen makes them ache. The newsreader has left the Middle East and is now reporting on domestic affairs. I watch him with resignation, my tired eyes watering. Now the man’s finished his spiel, and there’s a live broadcast from Berlin. A reporter is saying something about the Chancellor’s latest trip abroad, while behind him the Reichstag rises up out of the darkness, majestic and imposing.
My eyes sharpen their focus. I start, I blink. I can’t believe it. But I see him! Right here in front of me! I shake my head, dazed. It’s not possible. I can’t believe my eyes. I blink again, blink frantically, as if I could get rid of the image that way, but it makes no difference. My heart contracts with a pang. My brain thinks: impossible. But my senses know it’s true. Oh God.
My world is shaking. I don’t understand what’s going on around me, but my bed starts to tremble and the bookshelves sway and then crash to the floor. Pictures fall, glass shatters, cracks form on the ceiling—hairline cracks at first, and then rifts as thick as your finger. The walls collapse, the noise is indescribable, and yet it is silent— utterly silent.
My world lies in ruins. I sit on my bed among the debris and stare at the television. I am an open sore. I am the smell of raw flesh. There’s a flash in my head, so dazzlingly bright that it hurts. My vision turns red, I clutch my heart, I am dizzy, my consciousness flickers. I know what it is, this keen, red feeling: I’m having a panic attack, I’m hyperventilating, any second now I’ll faint, I hope I’ll faint. This image—this face—I can’t bear it. I want to avert my gaze but it’s impossible; it’s as if I’ve been turned to stone. I don’t want to look anymore, but I have to. I can’t help it; my eyes are fixed on the television. I can’t look away—I can’t; my eyes are wide open and I’m staring at it, staring at the monster from my dreams, and I’m trying to wake up at last, trying to die and then wake up, the way I always do when I see the monster up close in a dream.
But I’m already awake.
The next morning, I climb out from under the rubble and put myself back together again, piece by piece.
My name is Linda Conrads. I’m an author. Every year I discipline myself to write a novel. My novels are very successful. I am well off. That is, I have plenty of money.
I am thirty-eight years old. I am ill. The media speculate about a mysterious illness that prevents me from moving freely. I haven’t left my house for over a decade.
I have a family. Or, rather, I have parents. I haven’t seen my parents for a long time. They don’t come to visit. I can’t visit them. We seldom talk on the phone.
There is something I don’t like to think about. But, at the same time, I can’t not think about it. It has to do with my sister. It happened a long time ago. I loved my sister. My sister was called Anna. My sister is dead. My sister was three years younger than me. My sister died twelve years ago. My sister didn’t just die; my sister was murdered. Twelve years ago my sister was murdered and I found her. I saw her murderer run away. I saw the murderer’s face. The murderer was a man. The murderer turned his face towards me, then he ran away. I don’t know why he ran away. I don’t know why he didn’t attack me. I only know that my sister is dead and I’m not.
My therapist describes me as highly traumatised.
This is my life. This is me. I don’t really want to think about it.
I swing my legs over the edge of the bed and get up. That’s what I mean to do, anyway, but in fact I don’t budge an inch. I wonder whether I’m paralysed. I have no strength in my arms and legs. I try again, but it’s as if the feeble commands from my brain aren’t getting through to my limbs. Maybe it doesn’t matter if I lie here for a moment. It’s morning, but it’s not as if I have anything other than an empty house waiting for me. I give up the struggle. My body feels strangely heavy. I stay in bed, but I don’t go back to sleep. The next time I look at the clock on the wooden bedside table, six hours have passed. That surprises me; it’s not good. The faster time passes, the faster night will come, and I’m afraid of the night, in spite of all the lamps in the house.
After several attempts, I do manage to get my body to go into the bathroom and then down the stairs to the ground floor—an expedition to the other end of the world. Bukowski comes rushing towards me, wagging his tail. I feed him, fill his bowl with water, and let him out for a run. Watching him through the window, I remember that it usually makes me happy to watch him run and play, but today I feel nothing; I want him to come back quickly so that I can get into bed again. I whistle for him. He’s a tiny, bouncing speck at the edge of the wood. If he didn’t come back of his own free will, there’s nothing I could do. But he always comes back—back to me, back into my little world. Even today. He jumps up at me, begging me to play, but I can’t. He gives up, disappointed.
I’m sorry, mate.
He curls up in his favourite spot in the kitchen and gives me a sad look. I turn around and go into the bedroom, where I get straight back into bed, feeling weak and vulnerable.
Before the darkness—before my retreat—when I was still strong and lived in the real world, I only ever felt like this when I was coming down with a bad bout of flu. But I’m not coming down with the flu; I’m coming down with depression, the way I always do when I think of Anna and all the things that happened back then that I usually block out so carefully. I managed to get on with my life undisturbed for a long time, suppressing all thought of my sister. But now it’s back. And, however long ago it may be, the wound hasn’t healed yet. Time’s a quack.
I know I ought to do something before it’s too late, before I get completely swallowed up in the maelstrom of depression that’s sucking me into the blackness. I know I ought to talk to a doctor, maybe get him to prescribe me something, but I can’t face it. The exertion seems insanely disproportionate. And, in the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ll get depressed, that’s all. I could stay here in bed forever. What difference would it make? If I can’t leave the house, why should I bother leaving the bedroom? Or my bed? Or the exact spot I’m lying now? Day passes and night takes its place.
It occurs to me that I could give someone a ring. Maybe Norbert. He’d come. He’s not only my publisher; we’re friends. If I could move the muscles in my face, I would smile to myself at the thought of Norbert.
I think of the last time I saw him. We sat in the kitchen, I cooked us spaghetti with homemade Bolognese sauce, and Norbert told me about his holiday in the south of France, about all the goings-on at the publishing house, and his wife’s latest hang-ups. Norbert is wonderful—loud and funny and full of stories. He has the best laugh in the world. The best laugh in both worlds, to be precise.
Norbert calls me his extremophile. The first time he called me that, I had to Google it—and marvel at how right he was. Extremophiles are organisms that have adapted to extreme living conditions so that they can survive in habitats that are actually life-threatening: in great heat or freezing cold, in darkness, in radioactive environments, in acid—or simply, and this must be what Norbert was thinking of, in complete isolation. Extremophile. I like the word, and I like it when he calls me that. It sounds as if I’d chosen all this for myself. As if I loved living in this extraordinary way. As if I had a choice.
Right now, the only choice I have is whether to lie on my left side or my right, on my stomach or on my back. Hours pass. I make a huge effort not to think of anything. At some point I get up, go over to the bookshelves that line the expansive walls of my bedroom, take down a few books, fling them on the bed, put my favourite Billie Holiday album on endless loop and slip back under the duvet. I listen to the music, turning pages and reading, until my eyes ache and I’m soft and spongy from the music like after a hot bath. I don’t want to read anymore. I’d like to watch a film, but I don’t dare switch on the TV. I simply don’t dare.
When I hear footsteps, I jump. Billie’s stopped singing. At some point I must have silenced her sad voice with one of my many remote controls. Who’s there? It’s the middle of the night. Why doesn’t the dog bark? I want to drag myself out of bed, grab something I can use to defend myself with, hide, do something, but I lie there, my breathing shallow, my eyes wide open. Somebody knocks. I say nothing.
‘Hello!’ a voice calls out. I don’t recognise it.
And then again. ‘Hello! Are you in there?’
The door opens. I whimper—my feeble version of a scream. It’s Charlotte, my assistant. Of course I recognise her voice. It was my fear that made it sound so strangely distorted. Charlotte comes twice a week to do my shopping, take my letters to the post office, do anything that needs doing. My paid link to the outside world.
Now she’s standing in the door, wavering. ‘Is everything all right?’
My thoughts rearrange themselves. It can’t be night if Charlotte’s here. I must have been lying in bed for a very long time.
‘Sorry to burst in like that, but when I rang the bell and you didn’t answer I got worried and let myself in.’
The bell? I remember a ringing working its way into one of my dreams. I’m dreaming again after all these years!
‘I feel a bit poorly,’ I say. ‘I was fast asleep and didn’t hear you. I’m sorry.’
I’m ashamed of myself; I can’t even manage to sit up. Charlotte seems worried, although she’s not one to be easily flustered. That’s precisely why I chose her. Charlotte is younger than me, late twenties maybe. She has a lot of jobs—waitressing in several cafés, selling tickets at a cinema in town. Things like that. And twice a week she comes to me. I like Charlotte—her short hair that she dyes a bluish black, her sturdy figure, her flamboyant tattoos, her dirty sense of humour, the stories about her little boy. The ‘cheeky devil’, she calls him.
If Charlotte seems nervous, I must look terrible.
‘Do you need anything? From the chemist or anywhere?’
‘No thanks, I’ve got everything I need in the house,’ I say.
I sound funny—like a robot. I can hear it, but I can’t do anything about it.
‘I don’t need you today, Charlotte. I should have let you know. I’m sorry.’
‘Not to worry. The shopping’s in the fridge. Shall I take the dog out, before I leave?’
Oh God, the dog. How long have I been lying here?
‘That would be great,’ I say. ‘Give him something to eat too, would you?’
I pull the duvet up to my nose to signal that the conversation is over.
Charlotte hovers a little longer in the doorway, presumably uncertain about whether she can leave me alone. Then she makes up her mind and goes. I hear the sounds she makes in the kitchen as she feeds Bukowski. I usually love it when there are sounds in the house, but today it means nothing to me. I let the pillows and duvet and darkness engulf me, but I can’t get to sleep.
I lie in the dark, thinking about the blackest day of my life. I remember that I couldn’t grieve when my sister was carried to her grave—not straight away. My head and body were bursting with one thought. Why? There was only room for one question: Why did she have to die?
I had the feeling that my parents were asking me this question— my parents, the other mourners, Anna’s friends and colleagues, practically everyone—because, after all, I’d been there; I must have seen something. What, for heaven’s sake, happened? Why did Anna have to die?
I remember the mourners crying, throwing flowers on the coffin, leaning on each other, blowing their noses. It all felt so unreal to me, so strangely warped—the sounds, the colours, even the feelings. A vicar who spoke in a strangely drawling voice. People moving in slow motion. Flower arrangements with roses and lilies—all monochrome.
Oh damn, the flowers! Thinking of the flowers catapults me back to the present. I sit up in bed. I forgot to ask Charlotte to water the flowers in the conservatory, and she’ll have left by now. Charlotte knows how much I love my flowers and she knows I usually look after them myself, so it’s unlikely she’ll have given them water. There’s nothing for it but to do it myself.
I get up, groaning. The floor is cool beneath my bare feet. I force myself to place one foot in front of the other, to walk along the hallway towards the stairs, go down to the ground floor, and cross the big sitting room and the dining room. I open the door to my conservatory and enter the jungle.
My house is dominated by empty spaces and dead objects—not counting Bukowski. But here in my conservatory, with its lush and rampant greenery, it’s life that reigns. Palms, ferns, passionflowers, birds of paradise, flamingo flowers and, above all, orchids. I love exotic plants.
The steamy heat of the conservatory, which I think of as my own little hothouse, brings out the sweat on my forehead almost immediately, and the long baggy T-shirt I wear as a nightie clings to me. I love this green jungle. I don’t want orderliness; I want chaos, life. I want the twigs and leaves to brush against me as if I were in a forest. I want to smell the scent of the flowers; I want to get drunk on it. I want to soak up the colours.
I look about me. I know that the sight of my plants should give me pleasure, but today I feel nothing. My conservatory is brightly lit, but outside it is night. Indifferent stars twinkle through the glass roof above my head. As if on autopilot, I carry out the tasks that usually give me so much satisfaction. I water the flowers. I touch the soil with my fingers, feeling if it’s dry and crumbly and needs water, or clings to my hands.
I clear a path for myself to the back of the greenhouse. This is where I have my own private orchid garden. The plants with their extravagant blooms are crammed onto shelves, or hang in pots from the ceiling. My favourite is here—my favourite and my problem child. It’s a small orchid, altogether unassuming alongside its lavishly flowering sisters, and almost ugly. It has only two or three dull, dark-green leaves and dry grey roots, no flowers, not for a long time now, not so much as a stalk. It’s the only plant I didn’t buy especially for the conservatory. I brought it with me from my old life, from the real world, many, many years ago. I know that it will never flower, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. I give it some water. Then I turn my attention to a particularly beautiful orchid with heavy white flowers. I let my hand glide over the leaves, finger its velvety flowers. The buds are firm to the touch. They are bursting with life. Not long now until they come out. I think how nice it would be to cut a few of these flowering stems and put them in a vase in the house. And, while I’m thinking all this, I’m reminded of Anna again. Even in here, I can’t get her out of my head.
When we were little, she didn’t like picking flowers as much as I did, or as much as the other children. She thought it was mean to break off their beautiful heads. A smile steals over my lips as I think of it now. Anna’s quirks. I see my sister before me quite clearly—her blonde hair, her cornflower-blue eyes, her tiny nose, her enormous mouth, the furrow between her pale eyebrows that would appear whenever she got cross. The small moles that formed a perfect triangle on her left cheek. The blonde down only visible if the summer sun lit up her face at the right angle. I see her quite plainly. And I hear her voice, clear as a bell, and her dirty, boyish laugh that contrasted so starkly with her feminine nature. I see her before me, laughing, and it’s like being punched in the stomach.
I think back to one of the first sessions with my therapist, shortly after Anna’s death. The police had no clues, and the identikit picture they’d assembled with my help was useless. Even I didn’t think it looked much like the man I’d seen. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do any better. I remember saying to the therapist that I had to know why this had happened—that the uncertainty was a torment to me. I remember her telling me that it was normal, that not knowing was always the worst thing for the relatives. She recommended a self-help group to me. A self-help group—it was almost laughable. I remember that I said I’d do anything, if I could find out the reason. That much at least I owed to my sister. That much at least.
Why? Why? Why?
‘You’re obsessed with that question, Frau Conrads. It’s no good. You have to let go, live your life.’
I try to shake off Anna’s image and all thoughts of her. I don’t want to think about her because I know where that leads me; back then I almost went mad, knowing that Anna was dead, and that her murderer was still somewhere out there.
Not being able to do anything was the worst. It was better to stop thinking about it altogether. Distract myself. Forget about Anna.
I try to do the same now, but it doesn’t work this time. Why?
Then the news reporter’s face flashes across my mind, and something in my head goes click. I realise that I’ve spent the past hours in shock.
And at last it’s clear to me. The man on television I was so distressed by was real.
It wasn’t a nightmare; it was reality. I’ve seen my sister’s murderer. It may be twelve years ago, but I remember every detail. It is compellingly clear to me what that means.
I drop the watering can. It lands with a clatter, and the water spills out over my bare feet. I turn around, leave the conservatory, stub my toe on the way into the house, ignore the pain, and hurry on. Swiftly, I cross the ground floor, take the stairs to the first, skid along the hallway, and arrive in my bedroom out of breath. My laptop is lying on the bed, vaguely menacing. I hesitate, then sit down and pull it towards me, my fingers trembling. I’m almost afraid to open it, as if someone might be watching me through the screen. I open Google and enter the name of the news channel where I saw the man. I’m nervous and keep hitting the wrong keys; it’s not until the third try that I get it right. I bring up the homepage and click my way through to Reporters. I’m on the verge of thinking that the whole thing was just a figment of my imagination after all—that the man doesn’t exist, that I dreamt him.
But then I find him; it only takes a few clicks. The monster. Instinctively, I hold my left hand in front of the screen to cover his photo. I can’t look at him—not yet. The walls are starting to shake again, my heart is racing.
I concentrate on breathing, close my eyes. Nice and calm, that’s the way. I open my eyes again and read his name, his profile. I see that he’s won prizes—that he has a family and leads a successful, fulfilled life. Something inside me snaps. I feel something I haven’t felt for years, and it’s red hot. Slowly, I take down my hand from the screen.
I look at him.
I look into the face of the man who murdered my sister.
I am choked with fury, and I can think only one thing: I’m going to get you.
I clap my laptop shut, put it away, get up. My thoughts are racing. My heart is pounding.
The incredible thing is, he lives very close by! For any normal person, it would be no trouble to track him down.
But I’m trapped in my house. And the police—the police didn’t even believe me at the time. Not really.
If I want to speak to him—if I want to confront him, to call him to account in some way—then I have to get him to come to me. How can I lure him here?
The conversation with my therapist flashes through my mind again.
‘But why? Why did Anna have to die?’
‘You have to accept the possibility that you’re never going to get an answer to that question, Linda.’
‘I can’t accept that. Never.’
I think it over, feverishly. He’s a journalist. And I am a famous author, notoriously withdrawn, who’s had all the big magazines and TV channels clamouring for an interview for years now. Especially when a new book’s out.
I remember what my therapist said: ‘You’re only tormenting yourself, Linda.’
‘I can’t stop thinking about it.’
‘If you need a reason, invent one. Or write a book. Flush it out of your system. And then you must let go. Live your life.’ Every hair on my neck is standing on end. My God, that’s it! Gooseflesh spreads over my body.
It’s so obvious.
I’ll write a new book. The events from back then in the form of a crime novel. Bait for the murderer and therapy for me.
All the heaviness has left my body. I leave my bedroom; my limbs are obeying me again. I go into the bathroom and have a shower. I dry and dress myself, go into my study, boot up my computer again and begin to write.