Berlin Noir

Katja Bohnet, edited by Thomas Wörtche

The following is an exclusive excerpt from “Fashion Week,” a story by Katja Bohnet in a new anthology called Berlin Noir, comprised of new noir stories set in various neighborhoods throughout the German capital.

Thea Stauffer looked at her hands and was surprised at how she had managed to let herself go. Blood was spattered all over the cream-colored bathroom tiles and Ansgar’s head was twisted at an odd angle. Thea thought about whether to pull the electric toothbrush out of his throat but couldn’t bring herself to do it because she thought the image pleasing. Although she had to leave for work, she found it hard to move. Seconds passed, and Thea felt something strangely soothing in the way blood was pooling under Ansgar. His white bathrobe of ultrafluffy organic cotton was turning pink. Thea relished the silence. It was only now that she realized how much she had missed the peace and quiet. Ansgar’s body convulsed one more time, and blood sprayed from his mouth. Thea thought about dialing the emergency number but then decided against it because she was enjoying being alone with Ansgar so much. She sat on the edge of the bathtub and listened to the sounds of the building. A door slammed, the heating gurgled, the boiler slowly cooled down again. Ten minutes later, her heartbeat had completely normalized. Thea got up and pulled the toothbrush from Ansgar’s throat. A quick test proved that it still worked perfectly. After that, she began to remove the evidence of Ansgar’s unnatural demise.

The previous day, Thea had walked along Brunnenstrasse toward Gesundbrunnen, appraising the shop windows of the competition one by one: straight cuts, fabrics in single or complementary colors, or patterned with oversize geometric motifs. Each store offered just a few items in its range. It was striking how impossible they were to combine and how much they cost. Anysweet draped individual pieces over driftwood while both Babe Berlin and Paranoia lit up the changing rooms in different neon colors. JuteJule had dressmaking patterns on display and advertised sewing classes. Just before the Bernauer Strasse subway station, Thea realized that each boutique’s uniqueness seemed completely uniform. She unlocked her store, which was next to the new coffee shop, Liberace. Coffee was now the golden calf of Berliners: life revolved around caffeine. Thea waved to the barista with a neighborly gesture. Her hand ran over cashmere and an alpaca-mohair mixture in mud shades, bought at Fashion Week two years before from a rep who’d impressed her with his precise language.

Seconds passed, and Thea felt something strangely soothing in the way blood was pooling under Ansgar. His white bathrobe of ultrafluffy organic cotton was turning pink.

That same year, Nebelkind had presented its new collection in a yurt that could only accommodate two hundred people. Thea had managed to get her hands on one of the coveted tickets, and the new editor of German Vogue, Sandra Mutterkorn, was sitting two rows in front of her. She was wearing a gray Prada suit that sat snugly on her shoulders. The models had their hair piled up into nests. A fog machine produced dry ice, into which they glided off. The man beside Thea tapped his foot in time to the Mongolian chimes. After the catwalk show, he handed her his card: Ansgar Möller. Design Director. Fashion Retail Worldwide. He invited her to a green sencha tea with lactose-free milk. Then he showed her his catalog and samples.

For Thea, it had been love at first sight. She admired the fabrics imported from Pakistan. No child labor, no chemicals, he emphasized. Nice to work with. Sustainability and fair trade were more important to Thea than anything else. She would have paid almost any price for such exquisite items.

Now, Thea flipped the switch and the light flickered; she turned on the old sewing machine and looked for the price tags. The day before, she had sold a long-sleeved shirt (modal-
merino mix) to a tourist who had taken up the changing room for an hour and tried on eight other sweaters. After a thorough consultation (suitable for all occasions, timeless chic, muted colors), the customer let herself be persuaded, not without asking for a discount shortly before paying by credit card. Thea sighed, because yesterday’s earnings seemed to reflect the whole month, the one before, and the past half year.

School had been torture for Thea. She preferred handicrafts to academic work. After getting average grades in high school, she had muddled through by selling herbal cosmetics for four years. It was a franchise business with poor margins, and door-to-door selling later on. Then, in the call center of a mail-order company, she advised bad-tempered shoppers who rang to complain about faulty goods. Weekend work, night shifts, no health insurance. Afterward she worked in the perfumery of the KaDeWe department store. Tough shifts, difficult customers, but at least she was paid a Christmas bonus. During her lunch break, she leafed through fashion magazines and catalogs. Pepped herself up with the lives of the rich and famous. Their world was so full of promise. Thea’s father had taken a job as a system administrator in Braunschweig early in life. This was the period when her mother was experimenting with soft drugs.

During her lunch break, she leafed through fashion magazines and catalogs. Pepped herself up with the lives of the rich and famous. Their world was so full of promise.

When her father died of a heart attack fifteen years later, Thea inherited his apartment in Brunnenstrasse, where she had already been living. Up until his death, she had paid her father rent. Inheriting that property had been a godsend. She could now save every penny of her salary to fulfill her dream: to do something, anything, in the fashion business. No more selling for others, but her own business, a boutique at last. The competition in Mitte was fierce, but she had already knuckled under for too long and made compromises where there were none to be made. There was no one who advised her against her business idea because she didn’t maintain friendships. Others, whether friends or relatives, were always a source of stress. She’d had two brief relationships: Klaus, who smoked too much weed and had completely lost the plot, and Dieter, who sold wooden planks at the hardware store and couldn’t get over his ex.

Meanwhile, Thea’s mother lived in Hawaii with a Brit who devoted his life to making surfboards, or at least that was the last that Thea had heard. When she took out a loan for the boutique at the Berliner Sparkasse, Thea knew what was at stake: the bigger picture, her life, her personal vision.

But the Curvy Models’ calendar was now flipped to the month of November: winter sales wouldn’t start for another six weeks. At least Berlin Fashion Week was before that. Thea decided to mark down her prices all the same. She couldn’t stay in business if sales didn’t pick up soon.

The clock showed eleven a.m. Thea sprayed disinfectant on her hands, although the product was only suitable for surfaces. Afterward, she discarded the sponges, rags, cleaners, and bleach in a dark-blue garbage bag, which she tied with a knot.

She wasn’t happy with the result. The blood was gluey and stringy, and stuck to everything. Thea wiped and washed repeatedly, but a red tinge remained. She had the scent of copper wire in her nose. She was sweating because it was proving unusually difficult to wrap Ansgar in the expensive flokati rug. Thea was hoping for the onset of rigor mortis, which didn’t happen—Ansgar’s body flopped back and forth as if it were made of rubber, and one of his arms always seemed to be in the way. Thea had once seen the procedure in a show with Idris Elba. She wouldn’t let these problems put her off what she had set out to do. By the time she finally dragged the body out of the bathroom, it was so stiff in its package that Thea wondered how Ansgar was going to fit in the elevator. Now that rigor mortis had set in, it was a problem. She then wrapped the body in several garbage bags, which she sealed with gaffer tape. In a gap on the outside she wrote in black capital letters: Careful! Fragile!—although Ansgar was anything but. He now looked like one of Thea’s showroom dummies. She rested briefly and made a call.

When the doorbell rang, Thea jumped because the postman never delivered to her building before two o’clock in the afternoon, and people rarely wandered into the backyard of their tenement by accident.


Excerpted from “Fashion Week,” by Katja Bohnet, copyright © 2019 by Katja Bohnet, translation copyright © 2019 by Lucy Jones, included in the anthology BERLIN NOIR, edited by Thomas Wörtche. Used with the permission of the publisher, Akashic.

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