What is a panama hen? You may well ask. In this case it is the title of a short crime story, featuring Karo Rutkowsky. The out-of-work teacher, moonlighting cleaning lady and chronically cash-strapped PI solves cases and/or gets into trouble in two dozen of my crime stories. They have been published (in German) in two volumes: „Der Beuys von Borbeck“ and „Grab mit Aussicht“.
„The Panama Hen“, translated by Edna McCown, was selected for and published in „The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories. 4th Annual Collection.“ Edited by Edward Gorman. I was delighted, of course.
The story is also available as Kindle ebook.
Other ebook formats will follow.
“No, Frau Rutkowsky, I can’t go to the police. Absolutely not. My husband goes bowling with our local policeman. You don’t know how things are in a village. And if my husband were to find out…” Frau Papendieck shook her head. “I couldn’t bear it. I’d rather kill myself.”
Karo thought she would ask for double her advance, just in case.
“And you don’t think that your husband would believe you, if you assure him that –”
“No. Why should he? If I weren’t sure myself that it couldn’t possibly be me in the photograph, I wouldn’t believe me either! Sometimes at night, when I think about it and my thoughts go round and round in circles, I’m afraid that I’m going crazy. Recently I got out of bed at two in the morning to look at the photo. Just to prove to myself that I hadn’t imagined it all…” Frau Papendieck pulled a frilly handkerchief out of the pocket of her blouse and dabbed her eyes.
“Well,” Karo said. “It does sound strange. Do you take drugs?”
“Have you ever experienced memory lapses?”
“No, at least not that I can remember. Well, I forget things now and then. My shopping list. Or a birthday. But I would never forget that I had slept with a stranger, believe me. And especially not in that position.”
They both looked at the color photo that lay on Karo’s desk.
“But that looks like your backside, right?”
“Yes. That’s what makes it so terrible. Ever since our vacation to Panama last year my backside is unmistakable.”
“Oh, so the hen is from Panama?”
Frau Papendieck smiled for the first time. “We were a bit sloshed and thought it was a funny idea. The drawing is from an ad for rum. We tore it out of a magazine that was lying around in our hotel. Dirk said it looked like such a happy hen. That’s his nickname for me, sometimes. Because… he says that I cluck like a happy hen when…uh, when, hmm, you know what I mean.”
“Yes, well, so then we wandered through Old Town and stumbled on the tattoo shop. That’s where it happened.” Frau Papendieck shook her head. “I’ve told myself that it’s not totally unthinkable that the tattoo artist used the image again, that there’s another woman walking around with a hen on her right buttock…but that she would come to our village, to our farm, and be photographed like that, and that I would be blackmailed with the photo, that simply cannot be! It just can’t. It’s a nightmare…Will you take my case, Frau Rutkowsky?”
Karo nodded. She would take the case. Even though the countryside wasn’t exactly her thing. But the people lining up in front of the Lichtburg weren’t waiting for her, they were in line for the new Tom Tykwer film. And only in her other job, as a highly-paid cleaning woman in a few select villas in south Essen and a fabulous loft in Katernberg, could she be choosy about the work she accepted. She didn’t enjoy that privilege as a private detective. Not yet.
Karo took the photo. The man was barely visible, the woman a bit more so. The kitchen table was made of old pine, the curtains were Laura Ashley. One of the clients she cleaned for, who loved the English country look, had the same curtains. “And this was taken in your home?”
“No, no! At our farm, yes. But not in our house. This was taken in the former worker’s cottage. A little house behind the orchard. We’ve rented it out for a year now.”
“Aha. To whom?”
“To someone from Cologne, Max Penk. He uses it primarily on the weekends.”
“What sort of man is he? The photo was taken in his kitchen. Could he have something to do with this?”
Uli Papendieck hesitated. “He’s a very nice man. Likeable. Only…”
“Well…I don’t think he’s the blackmailing sort. Because he’s really too nice. And he has plenty of money. But… well, he writes mysteries, and I’ve asked myself whether a mystery writer might perhaps like to, you know, try something like that. But I don’t really believe he did.”
“Max Penk?” Karo asked. “I’ve never heard of him. He can’t be very successful. Maybe he needs the money and would rather carry out a crime than write about one.”
Uli Papendiek shook her head. “He really wouldn’t need to. If you promise not to tell anyone…”
Karo raised her hand. “On my honor as a private detective!”
Frau Papendieck leaned over and whispered, “He’s really Sophie Réchaud.”
“Sophie Réchaud? No! Really?”
“That’s what I said.” Uli Papendieck nodded several times.
Sophie Réchaud was the new star of German country house mysteries! Rosamunde Pilcher meets Stephen King. Even Karo had heard of her. Him.
“Sophie Réchaud is a man. Well, well.” A man with all the marks of a prime suspect. “Does he know about your tattoo?”
“Please! Of course not. Nor does anyone else.”
Which couldn’t be true. “Perhaps he climbed up on a ladder and looked into your bedroom?”
“Nonsense. We’re not in Bavaria, after all! And Herr Penk is from Cologne. I already told you that.”
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Excerpt from: Gesine Schulz „The Panama Hen“.
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