Fear, by Dirk Kurbjuweit, is a powerful new psychological thriller that exposes the evil lurking beneath the surface of civilised society.
Randolph insists he had a normal childhood, though his father kept thirty loaded guns in the house. Now he has an attractive, intelligent wife and two children, enjoys modest success as an architect and has just moved into a beautiful flat in a respectable part of Berlin. Life seems perfect—until his wife, Rebecca, meets the man living in the basement below.
Their downstairs neighbour is friendly at first, but soon he starts to frighten them—and when Randolph fails to act, the situation quickly spins out of control.
‘Fear shifts our moral codes. It makes us sympathetic to violent revenge, accessories to murder. Do we want the victim to survive? No, we don’t. Long after I had put this book down I still didn’t. A great achievement.’ Herman Koch, author of The Dinner
Read a chilling extract below.
WHY IS MY FATHER IN PRISON? I don’t have to make a big secret of it. He has been found guilty of manslaughter.
If he was sentenced to just eight years, that is because he confessed, and because his motives seemed less atrocious, somehow, than those of a murderer. We accepted the court’s judgement. It is hard for us, but we can’t say that justice has been ill served. My father agrees. Of course he had hoped for a mild sentence, but it was clear to him from the outset that he would go to jail as a result of his actions. There can be no talk of a spur-of-the-moment act—it was planned and carried out in sound mind.
My father’s age played no part in the trial—he did not act out of befuddlement or in a state of senility—but it was, I think, taken into account at his sentencing. The court wanted to offer him the prospect of spending his last days with his family, a free man. His sentence may be reduced after a year or two, and we cling to the words ‘day release’. My father would spend his days with us and in the evening I would drive him back to Tegel. ‘To Tegel’ is another phrase we’re fond of using. Others say it and mean the airport. We mean the prison.
I must confess that I am not innocent of this manslaughter. I could have prevented what happened, but I didn’t want to. When my father came to see us in late September last year, I knew what he was intending to do. It was a sunny day, and our windows were open, letting in all the noise of the street. The roads in our part of Berlin are cobbled, and the rumbling of the traffic is sometimes a torture to me when I work at home. My wife thinks I’m oversensitive. I once told her that Schopenhauer regarded sensitivity to noise as a sign of intelligence: the more sensitive a person was, the more intelligent he was likely to be. ‘Are you trying to tell me—’ she began. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m not.’ Before long it had developed into one of those exchanges that can make married life so unpleasant. I later apologised. It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but perhaps it was true.
I was expecting my father. He had let me know he was coming the day before, and soon after he’d left home my mother rang to tell me he’d be with me in two hours at the latest. This was a recent habit. My mother didn’t think my father should be driving anymore, and if he didn’t turn up at the expected time I was to initiate search-and-rescue operations immediately. Rebecca and I agreed with my mother and didn’t like letting the children in the car with him, but my father knew nothing of this. It would have hurt and upset him—he still saw himself as a first-rate driver.
While I was waiting for my father, I wondered whether a man who no longer drove well could be a good marksman. Not that it was likely to be a tricky shot. He’d manage. I also caught myself picturing the drive going wrong in some way so that he wouldn’t have to prove himself as a marksman at all. It would only take a minor accident to prevent his arrival and foil the murder plot. I always thought of the anticipated act as murder back then—it was only afterwards that our lawyer pointed out to me that it might technically be considered manslaughter, and that manslaughter was less severely punished.
But I wasn’t really hoping for an accident. I wanted this murder. I’d been thinking about it for long enough, and now it had to happen. My wife had taken the children to stay with her mother—the circumstances couldn’t have been better. My father’s drive, his last for the time being, would ideally be a smooth one. I’d followed the radio bulletins, and there were no traffic jams.
A few cars rumbled past and eventually I saw my father park his Ford outside our house. It’s a lovely late nineteenth-century house: wooden beams, red walls, a turret, bay windows, dormers. We live on the upper ground floor in a spacious flat with rather imposing high ceilings, stucco mouldings and private access to the garden. Above our flat is a second storey, and there are flats in the attic and basement too—four households in all.
When I opened the door and saw my father standing there, I wondered where he had put his gun. He usually wore it in a holster under his left arm, but it might also have been in his overnight bag. In the past he had often carried a little leather pouch with him, such as pipe smokers like to use for a small assortment of pipes and tampers and tobacco, but in his there was a Walther PPK—or a Glock or a Colt. We had given him the pouch one Christmas, my mother, my sister, my little brother and I, though I’ve forgotten the precise year. He had used it for a while, presumably to make us feel our present was appreciated, but he soon went back to using his holster. From his point of view, it made more sense to carry the gun under his arm where he could get at it more quickly. The pouch needed unzipping, wasting precious seconds that could have cost him his life. I assume that was his logic.
My father was wearing a checked jacket, grey cloth trousers and comfortable shoes of the kind that provide a firm and secure footing. I think he wanted to look respectable when he was arrested—not like a thug who had stumbled into a crime, but like a mature man who had thought through what he had done. A man who had, what is more, done the right thing, even if others might not see it that way.
When we said hello we were, as so often, uncertain whether to shake hands or hug. My father held out his right hand, hesitantly, and I was about to take it but changed my mind, and at the same time my father changed his mind too, and we withdrew our hands and hugged each other in an almost disembodied embrace, without squeezing, without touching cheeks, looking hastily away when it was over. That was all we were capable of at the time. He came in and I made him an espresso while he unpacked homemade jam from his bag—cherry and quince. I wondered at the way my mother had taken even this opportunity to send us jars of the jam she produced so tirelessly, but that’s my mother for you. We sat at the kitchen table and I told him the latest about the children. That was a safe topic between us—we didn’t have many. In the evening we watched a football match: Bayern versus Bremen. We drank half a bottle of red wine and then went to bed. Neither of us mentioned Dieter Tiberius.
The next day my father sat on the sofa reading Auto Motor and Sport. As always when he came to visit, he had brought a pile of magazines with him. He could make them last all day; I think he reads every article. Before I go to see him now, I buy up half a newsagent’s, mainly magazines about cars and guns, but also political magazines. My father is very interested in politics. Maybe they’re not such unhappy hours for him, sitting in his cell reading, with no one to disturb him and no need to feel guilty about frittering away time that others would have liked to spend with him—his wife, for example, and, once upon a time, his children.
That day, the second day of his visit, nothing happened. Dieter Tiberius was lying low in the basement. I couldn’t hear him moving around, but his toilet was flushed now and again, so he must have been in. In fact, he was always in. Over supper that night my father told me about developments in cylinder-head technology, or maybe it was carburettor technology—I can’t remember—and then about new Israeli settlements on the West Bank. That took him far back into the history of the Middle East; my father likes reading history books. We drank the rest of the red wine, and then, when it was nearly midnight and my father had said all he had to say on the subject of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, we went to bed. I was surprised. What was he waiting for? We hadn’t talked anything over, but it was perfectly clear why he was here. Our family had come to a tacit understanding. Surely I couldn’t be mistaken?
The next morning I got up early and went out in the garden. It hadn’t rained for a few days and I put the sprinkler on, making water rain down on the grass, flowerbeds and shrubs. I think I was hoping to hear a shot, so that it would be over at last, but I heard only the birds and the occasional rumbling of a car on the cobblestones. I walked round the outside of the house, passing the basement windows. There are four altogether: on the left, Dieter Tiberius had his bedroom, in the middle was the kitchen, and on the right, the living room, which had two windows, one at the front of the house and one at the side. The windows are small and low, just above the ground. Dieter Tiberius lived in gloom. I didn’t see him on my way round; I would have had to stoop, which I didn’t, of course. Maybe he saw my feet; I don’t know. At that point he had about ten minutes to live.
When I got back to our flat, my father was sitting at the kitchen table. In front of him lay a pistol—a Walther PPK, calibre 7.65 mm Browning, but I only learnt that later, from the indictment. The prosecutor was keen to demonstrate his own knowledge of firearms—knowledge that, despite having the father I had, I didn’t possess. I knew nothing about pistols and had no desire to.
I asked my father whether he wanted an espresso, and he did. I had switched on the machine, a beautiful Domita from Italy, soon after getting out of bed, to give it time to warm up. I unscrewed the filter holder and swapped the small filter for the big one, because I wanted an espresso too. Then I pushed the filter holder against the mill, setting it grinding and roaring. The ground coffee trickled into the filter until it was full to the brim. I took the tamper—heavy-duty metal with a rosewood handle—and pressed the coffee firm. I screwed the filter holder into the machine, placed two cups under the spouts and pressed the start button. The machine growled and the coffee ran brown and oily into the cups—always a glorious sight. You and your espresso fetish, my wife says, sometimes mockingly. People like me have to make a fetish out of everything, which doesn’t just get on other people’s nerves—it gets on mine too. We sipped our coffee in silence, the pistol on the table like a metal question mark. Should we really?
What happened next is best related in the words of the indictment: At about 8.40 am, the accused, Hermann Tiefenthaler (my father, that is), left the flat of his son, Randolph Tiefenthaler, with the Walther PPK, then in his lawful possession, and descended to the basement, where he induced the tenant, Dieter Tiberius, to open the door to his flat, either by knocking or ringing the bell, and then killed Tiberius with a close-range shot to the head. Tiberius died instantly.
I rang the police. My father had asked me to, but it was in any case clear that this was the line we would take: no crazy getaway, no cover-up. We stood by the act. We still do—I can say that without reservation.
The policeman who picked up the phone, Sergeant Leidinger, greeted me almost affably. He knew me well, and he knew the house—he’d been here a lot over the past few months and sometimes found our case cause for amusement, but he immediately grew serious when he heard that I had a death to report. I used those exact words, quite deliberately: ‘I have a death to report.’
‘Your wife?’ Sergeant Leidinger asked, and I could hear his alarm, which gave me, I must admit, a certain satisfaction, after all the doubts the authorities had about the gravity of our situation.
‘No,’ I said, ‘not my wife, thank goodness—it’s Dieter Tiberius.’
For a few seconds there was silence, and I’d love to know what Leidinger was thinking then.
‘We’ll be right with you,’ he said.
My father packed his bag and put on his checked jacket. Then he sat down at the kitchen table again, the Walther PPK in front of him. I made him another espresso. We had sometimes sat there like that in the past, before he set off for home—usually with my mother, because he never came without her—and funnily enough, I now said some of the things I always said: ‘Have you got everything? Sure you haven’t forgotten anything?’
My father went to have a last look in the bathroom and found his shaving foam.
‘You can’t check too often,’ I said.
‘Who knows when I’d have got any,’ he said.
It had just occurred to me that you might not be allowed a wet shave in prison because of the razor blades—I knew nothing about life in prison—when the doorbell rang. Sergeant Leidinger and his colleague Rippschaft, who was also well known to me, were the first to arrive. Later, others came: policemen in uniform, plain-clothes detectives, a doctor, forensic investigators, pathologists.
My father told Sergeant Leidinger that he had shot the basement tenant. He said nothing else and was quiet throughout the proceedings. They didn’t put handcuffs on him, perhaps because of his age, and for that I was thankful. We hugged when he left, properly this time. It was a long, loving embrace, the first of our life. We clung to one another and he said something that may sound strange to outsiders. ‘I’m so proud of you,’ he said—a statement that can only be understood as a kind of closing summary, a father’s attempt to take stock of his relationship with his son before disappearing into prison. He had never said it before—or, indeed, anything like it. Maybe he wanted to make clear to me that, up until the appearance of Dieter Tiberius, he had considered my life a success, an absolute success, and that Dieter Tiberius was a mere episode in that life and no more—an episode which, thanks to a well-placed shot, was now over. He wanted to make clear to me that, in spite of the long silence between us, he was aware of that success—and he wanted to encourage me to continue along the path I had taken. I think that’s why he said what he did.