Read the full IAPM whodunit advent calendar

Read the full IAPM whodunit advent calendar 30.01.2013 - WHODUNIT ADVENT CALENDAR. DOOR 1.
Hey there! Glad you could join all the other followers who’re waiting for me to open a door of my whodunit advent calendar for them. My friends call me Zen. Seeing as you’re my Facebook friends, you can call me Zen too for the next 24 days.
OK – time to get on with my murderous tale.
It’s Saturday, so where do you think I am? In the office, of course! My company. My employer. My life. My company’s in projects. It does a lot of business with Asia and other countries over there. Big projects. Important projects. Innovative projects. In other words, we’re working every weekend up to Christmas. I’m in charge of Chinese operations. I travel there from time to time. Actually, I’m going over there in a few days’ time. To Jinan.
There are three of us in our ‘bunker’. That’s what we call our pin board-surrounded workplace. It’s right at the back of an open plan office with 30 people in it. It’s a bit depressing, but at least I get to sit next to the kitchen.
My work colleague Gisella – that’s Gisella with two 'l's – is just walking out of the kitchen door. Beautiful Gisella. And she’s wearing that perfume again! Bewitching! So I push my rolling cabinet in her path and say with the most positive karma I can muster, “Did you bring me a mug?”
“No. But you can make the coffee for the meeting if you like.”
“Who, me!?” Zen feels distinctly uncomfortable. “Who’s going to be drinking out of our mugs? Who’s coming for a meeting? The man who’s world is going to change in a few hours’ time?”
Gisella gave me a look that she ought to have needed a gun permit for. “I hope you realise that what we’re about to do to him’s going to be a pretty hard act to swallow.”

A brief recap. A hard day at the office. Compulsory weekend work. Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, a difficult meeting with Tanju Meier, a customer. That was yesterday. Now it’s Sunday. And things have obviously happened just as I’d anticipated. Gisella is leaning against my desk, still as a statue.
I’m about to get a cramp in my arm. The phone handset’s back in place. I’m trying to get the tone of my voice right. Because I don’t want Gisella to be upset about what I’m about to say. “Tanju Meier’s company’s going to go to the police because he disappeared without a trace after the meeting. But you know that already because you were listening in to the conversation.”
Gisella remained immobile, like a finely carved granite statue. No, more a marble statue because she was so pale.
“Listen, it doesn’t mean anything. Not for us, anyway.”
Even after repeating the same words a third time with an extra measure of positive karma in my voice, they still didn’t have the desired effect. Or maybe they did, because Gisella’s lips moved. Tensed, revealing sparkling white crowns. Good dentist, I thought to myself, finding it increasingly difficult to keep my thoughts on track. Gisella’s emotions were obviously also getting the better of her because her voice hit my eardrums like a shockwave.
“It’s about their survival. We’ve spoiled everything for them. They’re insolvent. It’s curtains for them.”
Yes, the content of the meeting with Tanju Meier from The China Senior Networks yesterday was a catastrophe for his company. “All three of us know that’s the death sentence for my company,” he said, standing up. We thought he was going to the toilet because he left all his things on the table. But he didn’t. That’s the last time that anyone saw him. Since then, there’s been no sign of life.

A brief recap. Our customer Tanju Meier has disappeared without a trace since we delivered some catastrophic news to him on Saturday. Right now, Inspector Piper is visiting our office as part of his investigation. The police have obviously started taking the missing persons report seriously. Up to that point, our team had been consoling itself with the terrible accident on the motorway. Gisella had done the research. A massive crash involving 16 cars right between the meeting venue and his destination. At exactly the right time. In thick fog. All you need is one idiot with his foot down. A speed merchant. And you have your pile-up.
“So that’s what you think happened,” commented Inspector Piper in response to Gisella’s question about whether he’d checked all the hospitals. After all, he could be in a hospital bed in a coma. “We’ll pursue that line of investigation. It’s one possible explanation.” Inspector Piper tapped around on his smartphone.
“Some people died in the accident,” I said, keeping the positive karma in my voice so that Gisella stayed quiet.
“Hang on a sec,” Piper interrupted me. He spoke into his smartphone. “Hello. Yes, still with them. Listen, there was a mass pile-up. Have you checked it out yet? Three dead. Four still in a coma. You’ll have their names in an hour? Great. Send them over to me. Maybe he was among them.”
Gisella nodded as he put his smartphone back in his jacket pocket. “Maybe,” she said. But Piper’s thoughts seemed to be going in an entirely different direction altogether. “What was the project that you ruined for him? How many millions did he lose?”
Zen hates feeling like a cornered boxer. “I …,” I uttered. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to say.

A brief recap. Our customer Tanju Meier has disappeared without a trace. The CID is investigating every avenue, as emphasised by Inspector Piper yesterday. The portly police officer is back in our office again today. “No, nothing new,“ he called out as he walked through the door.
Piper made beeline for the empty desk where Ralph used to sit, as if he’d always been part of the team. He sat down, switched on the PC and stared at the Post-it framed monitor as it booted up. He knows that the login is sellotaped to the underside of the mouse pad. Ralph left for a sabbatical year last week. He’s going to spend it meditating in a Buddhist monastery in his quest to find Nirvana. And good riddance. Now he’s gone there’s nobody running to the boss telling tales every five minutes. Rumour had it that both of them had spent time in a Zen monastery together 20 years ago. When the boss was away, Ralph fed his koi fish. An “ah-hem“ tore me away from my thoughts. It was Piper, still watching the PC booting up. “I’d like a coffee please,” he said. Piper’s around five foot two or so. So he looks about ten years old when seated. Is he allowed to drink coffee…? I think sub-consciously. Piper looked up at me. “And I need somebody to show me what data you store on each server,” he said, winking to me across the desk. What would he see on the computer? I already knew. The proof that Ralph was the person who ruined our customer Tanju Meier’s Chinese deal. How lucky that Ralph hasn’t got a mobile phone in Nepal, I thought to myself. He can refute the accusations with silence.

A brief recap. Inspector Piper has searched our workmate Ralph’s computer because one of our customers has disappeared without a trace. I, Zen, feel like a ham sandwich that’s been squashed up in its paper bag to the size of a table tennis ball. I’ve been feeling that way since I got back from the team meeting with our boss. The China deal botch-up is going to cost the company over a million in contract penalties. I’ve never seen him that angry. He said when he’d finished with us idiots, jokers and schnooks, we’d feel like we’d been through the French Revolution. In other words, heads are going to roll. I twitch involuntarily at the thought of it.
What was that? I’d been hit on the shoulder by a pen. It hurt. It came from left, where Gisella was sitting. “Hey, your phone’s ringing,” she said.
Piper’s on the other end. “What exactly went wrong in the China project,” he asked. “It’s a criminal mess.”
I attempt to explain it to him without using any professional jargon. Otherwise he wouldn’t understand me. “Well, Ralph must have misheard a phone order. Instead of 1,000 walkers, our partner delivered 1,000 temps to Jinan because Ralph thought the person on the phone had said workers. They arrived five days ago.”
“How could a massive mistake like that go undiscovered?”
“Out partner’s got a lot of lines of business. He does practically everything. Including temp placement.”

A brief recap. Inspector Piper seems to suspect a connection between our customer Tanju Meier’s disappearance and a telephone misunderstanding on the part of our workmate Ralph. Ralph’s on a sabbatical year in Nepal and India and can’t be reached by phone. I’m sort of his replacement – the replacement contact for Piper, who’s sitting opposite me at the conference table. He simply can’t believe what went wrong in our China project. “May I call you Zen,” he asked, smiling, as if in an attempt to look like a Buddha. “First name terms?” I inquired. “Start talking,” he answered.
So I give him a summary of everything that happened. “Ralph misheard a telephone order. Two different letters that made a big difference. Instead of 1,000 walkers, our partner delivered 1,000 temps to Jinan because he thought the man had said ‘workers’. They arrived five days ago.” I pour myself a coffee.
“Who’s making sure that the temps all get back to Germany?”
“I don’t know. We’re not responsible for complaints. Our department can’t and isn’t authorised to get involved.”
“What is the China project all about, anyway?”
“We’re building the world’s first textile factory to be manned by senior citizens in China. It’s a source of extra income for elderly people who don’t have enough pension to live on, just enough to keep them alive.”
“I see,” said Piper. “A misunderstanding on the phone can cost lives!“ I know exactly what he’s talking about. It was on Facebook – the difference that it makes when you leave out the comma in the following sentence – “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

A brief recap. A telephone misunderstanding – confusing walkers with workers – has led to the disappearance of our customer, Head of Chinese Operations, Tanju Meier. “We’ve already checked out everything that can be checked out,” Inspector Piper told me. I’m showing him around our kitchen and explaining how the environmentally unfriendly aluminium capsule coffee maker works, where the capsules are etc. “You lot have the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, Zen,” Piper smiled. I muse about the fact that he’s now calling me by my first name and say, “It also produces the most waste.” “OK, OK... the Lord giveth, the recycling company taketh away.” Piper had promised to keep me up to date on the Meier case and an update is what I’m getting right now. No calls have been made from Meier’s cellphone. None of his credit cards have been used. He wasn’t involved in the motorway pile-up, either. “At this stage of the investigations, you’re the last people to have seen him before he disappeared.” Piper’s eyes bored into my face like power drills rotating at maximum speed. I stayed cool. Like a rock. Just like I’d seen it done so many times before on TV. I lifted my hand up, very slowly, and pointed to the third kitchen cupboard door. Thankfully, my tongue obeyed me. I said, “The sugar’s in there.” He reaches out to pick up his cup. Places it under the cupboard door. He puts his hand on the handle and pulls. The door opens. He locates the sugar bag. His hand lifts it up. Liquid drips off the bottom of the bag. There’s a modestly sized pool of red liquid where the bag had been standing. It’s blood. It’s running down the bag, dripping into his coffee. Piper’s eyes bore into me again. “So,” he asked, “Is it Ralph’s or Meier’s?”

A brief recap. Inspector Piper has discovered blood in the kitchen. It literally dripped into his coffee mug. Is it the blood of our customer Tanju Meier, who’s disappeared without a trace, or our despised colleague Ralph, who’s officially on a sabbatical year? The kitchen will have to stay cordoned off until some light can be shed on the blood issue. Gisella’s called in sick, so she doesn’t have to face what appears to have happened during a long night in the kitchen. The red liquid is making its way down the back wall of the kitchen cupboard. It actually resembles raspberry syrup quite a lot. Whoever put the severed arm on the top of the cupboard made the mistake of not letting the blood drain out first. “It’s horrible,” I whisper into the phone. Gisella’s on the other end. Being a woman, so she’s obviously curious.
“Listen love,” I say. “You can probably guess what kind of a mood the boss is in. Actually, you probably can’t because that’s one of the most curious things that has happened today. He’s being incredibly friendly. His voice is completely different to usual. Almost shy. I think they suspect him. What do you think?”
“What does Piper think?” asked Gisella.
“He thinks the person who did it wanted the arm to be found. But he’s fumbling around in the dark. He says that nothing makes sense. He’s coming Gisella. I’m going to have to cut you off.” Piper, approaching from the kitchen, looks deflated and appears to be about 10 centimetres smaller than usual. Now he looks like a nine year-old when he’s sitting down. Blackmail? There’s no ransom demand. And a finger would have been enough for a ransom. No need for an entire arm. So what could the motif be? Why would somebody chop someone’s right arm off? And why bring it here to the office?

A brief recap. A severed arm has been found in our office. Whose is it? Inspector Piper is completely baffled. He says he has two possible suspects. Our customer Tanju Meier who disappeared just over a week ago and our colleague Ralph, who’s currently visiting monasteries in Nepal. This morning Piper applied for an international arrest warrant for Ralph. Partly because our company’s management has pressured him into it.
“It looks as if the boss wants to clear up the rumours. Did your colleague really have special protégé status? The works council’s told me some interesting things. Spying on colleagues. That’s not the done thing.” Piper puts a bottle of Coke to his lips and takes a sip. Something’s different about him. But I’m not quite sure what. His physical stance is exactly the same as it always is. He’s standing next to me. “A different drink,” I say, voicing a sub-conscious thought. Now I know what’s different. It’s the first time I’ve seen him without a cup of coffee. “Surprised?” Piper puts the bottle on my desk. I grin at him, shaking my head. “A-ha,” said Piper. “Missed a few things yesterday? Too nervous? Lacked concentration? Tell me, Zen, what was I drinking yesterday?” Piper’s body grew to the size of a twelve year-old as he spoke. A tall twelve year-old. “Listen, missing things would fit the profile of our perpetrator perfectly. It could just give him away. Can you explain that to me?”

A brief recap. Before he went, Inspector Piper told me yesterday that he’d obtained material from both Tanju Meier and Ralph for a DNA analysis. But the laboratory is criminally overworked at the moment. So Piper won’t know for certain until the new year whether the severed arm on the kitchen cupboard belongs to one of the two missing persons.
“How did the CID get the material for the DNA analysis?” asked Gisella. She looks good. As always. And it has nothing to do with the festive hue of thousands of coloured lights. I’ve driven into town to buy a few more things for my China trip. Here, at the Christmas market, I fortuitously bump into my favourite colleague, who’s called in sick.
Christmas carols wrap our conversation in a warm blanket of music. The air is woozy – it doesn’t flow straight when you breathe it in, it weaves. We’ve mingled with a group of foreign tourists who’ve travelled from afar to discover the mysteries of the German Christmas. When Silent Night plays they all hum along to it in English.
“Look,” I venture, in response to her question. “Tanju has a family. His wife will have given them a toothbrush or something. And Ralph? It makes no difference! Nobody’s going to be able to reach him for months on that trip of his.” Gisella smiled shyly. We clink our mugs of mulled wine together. “Be careful Zen,” she said. “You too.” I smile back. The tourists – Americans I assume – form such a thick wall around us that we lose our inhibitions for a moment. We embrace each other. I put a hand on her coat where her bottom ought to be hidden under mountains of fabric.

A brief recap. “How’s the boss?” Gisella had asked me yesterday at the Christmas market, before we staggered off on our separate ways, fortified by three mulled wines. I thought her question was a little strange. He’s not good, obviously. Because of the bad things that have happened in our office. And because, as the boss, you’re the person who has to explain to the shareholders how the electric chair that you’ve sat yourself in works. How high you have to turn up the dial until it hurts. How much voltage you need to switch a manager’s lights off. By the way, the boss was touched by Gisella’s concern. “Gisella’s always been a generous hearted woman,” he said. Objective as ever. Politically correct. He has a stack of documents in front of him. They’re all dossiers about China projects. “But,” the tone of his voice changes, “You’re in my office to talk about your trip to China…”
I nod, politely. Try to find the right ending to his unfinished sentence. Rushing ahead, I say, “… and now we’re constantly talking about the fate of 1,000 temps and the arrest warrant against Ralph, who enjoyed feeding your koi fish …”
He interrupted me. Speaking loudly enough for the secretary to hear. “A bit more efficiency wouldn’t be amiss!” I froze. From my stomach to my toes, fingertips and hair roots. Big freeze. Then I followed his gesture. Then I grinned, too. “Well,” he growled. The boss has himself back under control. “Ralph was planning on visiting Tibet. If he’s managed to get there, we’ll need weeks if not months to reach him by phone and question him.”

A brief recap. The HR department informed my team by e-mail this morning that Gisella will be off sick until mid-January. It’s obviously all too much for her. Our customer Tanju Meier has disappeared without a trace. His company is bankrupt because of a telephone misunderstanding involving our colleague Ralph. He thought somebody had said ‘1000 workers’ so he sent 1000 temps to China instead of 1000 walkers. Ralph is travelling in the land of the Buddha and we won’t be able to reach him for months. And then we found a severed arm in our office. Women tend to be a bit squeamish about those things. It’s genetic. They’re programmed to have a low tolerance threshold. Obviously because they can’t afford to have any blood and germ-covered berries and mushrooms landing in their baskets. We men are much cooler. So cool that the following scientific hypothesis applies to us: Neanderthal men couldn’t feed their tribe with honesty because their hunting activities were pretty dangerous. So they mixed the mammoth meat with bits of their dead hunting party’s bodies. It’s affected our XY gene pool.
My office is right next to Gisella’s, so I obviously want to make sure she’s OK: After all, I may be Zen, but I do have a soft side. I can show sympathy. And I can also do this: put the phone back on its cradle and call into the kitchen: “No luck!” She’s got the day off. In the kitchen the two new people on the Malaysia team are making themselves instant soup in cardboard cups. Gisella’s mobile phone is still switched off. And she isn’t answering her landline. She’ll probably be out and about, I thought to myself. I decided to try again in an hour’s time.

A brief recap. The police obviously have no idea where to start looking for our customer Tanju Meier, who’s disappeared. They apparently haven’t got any hot leads on the severed arm that was found in our office either. My boss doesn’t believe that Inspector Piper still has me among his suspects. “He’s got nothing against you going on the trip to China. I spoke to him about it this lunchtime. So you’ll be flying over there as planned.”
“Hey, any news...“ At that point he lifted his forefinger to interrupt me. Reflexively, I think about what I’d just said. I nod. With humility. “Sorry,” I said, backtracking the sentence and starting again from scratch. “Sir,” I said, pausing deliberately, “... were you able to find out how the investigation is progressing?“ My boss gave me a friendly smile. “Yes, I was.” He grinned. “They’re doing everything they can to locate Ralph. Piper believes that the story about the sabbatical year and the Nepal trim was a cover up.” I try to respond with a curt nod only, and not to think about it any further. I’m a good guy. Yes, Zen has kept himself well under control – at least until now. He isn’t going to disappoint anyone. Not now and not tomorrow.
Something that sounds like a voice tears me away from my thoughts. “Here, take it,” I heard. My boss held out a postcard to me. “Arrived today. From Rome. No sender’s address or signature.” The postcard shows a picture of St. Peter’s Cathedral. And the square outside it. With the obelisk. I turn around. “It’s very nice here,” I read. “The weather’s great! I arrived safely and everything’s fine.”

A brief recap. The police now have a prime suspect. They don’t believe that my colleague Ralph is climbing in Nepal or meditating in Buddhist monasteries. I don’t allow myself an opinion. Inspector Piper has asked to meet with me. He’s probably already sitting in our conference room. “There you are.” Piper sounds genuinely pleased that I’ve arrived. “I’ve brought something along for us,” I reply, trying to look as serious as possible. I put two bottles of Coke on the conference table. But Piper is obviously not in the mood for small talk. He isn’t going to touch the bottle during the entire one and a half hours that we remain in that room.
“Let’s get down to it.” I was surprised to discover that Piper didn’t want to hear about Ralph, his private life, his hobbies or his many, many dark secrets. “You’re going to China the day after tomorrow?” He sounded a little jealous. “According to my information, you’re returning to Germany on the 23rd. Just in time to put something nice under the Christmas tree for your wife and kids.” I nod. “That’s right,” I say.
“But you’re not back in the office until 14 January because you’ve got to use up the rest of your holiday leave.”
Where’s Piper heading with this? I don’t quite understand why he feels the need to check my schedule for the next four weeks with me. Then he asks, “Is your marriage OK?” He asks what my children are called, how old they are, what hobbies they have and what schools they attend. “I’m giving my son a punch bag for Christmas,” murmured Piper. “So that he can work off his aggression. He’s asked for it. What are you giving your son?” I improvise. Because I have to. I put some extra good karma in my voice. “I haven’t decided yet,” I said. “I thought I’d bring him something back from China.”

A brief recap. By this time, you’ve probably grasped that Inspector Piper knows more than he’s letting on about the disappearance of Tanju Meier. About the unidentified severed arm that was found in our office. And, naturally, about our colleague Ralph, who’s travelled to Nepal and can’t be reached. It’s all completely crazy, I think to myself.
It’s late afternoon, and the Christmas market is already so crowded you can hardly move. Piper’s stabbing in the dark, I think to myself, and watch the two boys at the stand opposite me as they try and twist their father’s arm. They’re using every trick in the book to persuade him to buy them some chocolate covered fruit. Piper, you’ve got no idea, I murmur into the mug of mulled wine that is already half empty. “Please Daddy, please Daddy, please Daddy,” the children squeak in their pre-pubescent voices – that have the same grating effect on me as two chainsaws might. They cut through the sounds of the brass band that are drifting over this way. Merry Christmas. The boys are about the same age as mine, I think to myself. Their father is still refusing to buy them chocolate apples. Refuse, I think, is an apt word. Piper, you’re refusing to tell me what you know. You’re playing with me. The tone of the boys’ voices indicates that they’re coming closer to achieving their objective. Just like me, I murmur into my half-empty mug. Suddenly, I hear a plinking noise. Am I crying? Not me, I murmur, looking back to the father and his sons. Tomorrow, I think, and take a handkerchief out of my coat pocket. The two boys are holding their chocolate apples up triumphantly, like kings with sceptres, for all to see. Tomorrow, I think again, and know that I’m going to have consumed a large quantity of mulled wine by then.

A brief recap. This morning, I (Zen) had no idea how I’d got home the previous evening. Even on my way to the station this lunchtime, my mind is still fuzzy. I’d tried to drown all the stuff that’s going on in the office, right up to the international arrest warrant for Ralph, with mulled wine. Even the separation from my wife and children – erased from my mind. The alcohol did it’s job. I look out of the train window. It’s been dark outside for a while. The landscape is a giant black hole. Is it pulling me in? The thought that I could easily have missed my connection made me dizzy. Or was it the rest of the alcohol in my blood? I look at my smartphone to see what time it is. Another 20 minutes or so to Munich, where I have to change trains. Then I have to check in. I check my e-mails. There’s a new one. It’s my boss wishing me a safe trip. Very nice of him! His e-mail ends with a link to a newspaper article. Film crew uses real body, says the headline. The article is about a director who got hold of a real dead body to make everything look more realistic. In the last scene the body was chopped up. The police had been able to find all the body parts, except for the right arm.
I put the smartphone in front of me on the table and continue reading. I’m wide awake now. I only notice that we’ve stopped in Munich when my fellow travellers have been standing at the train doors with their suitcases for a while. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving among the passengers getting off the train. I curse. Partly because I haven’t got much time to get my connection. When I arrive at the right platform, I wonder whether I’ve remembered to bring my smartphone with me. I look through my coat. Several times. But I can’t find it. I look to see whether the train is still at the platform. But it isn’t.

A brief recap. As unbelievable as it sounds, the severed arm that they found in our office was a movie stiff body part. A real one. I, Zen, am burning with curiosity. But I won’t be getting any new information from Inspector Piper or my boss because I left my smartphone on the train yesterday evening. It was on. The battery was almost full. So the person who found it won’t have any problem finding my wife’s address and sending it to her.
Because I don’t have the phone, I have to ask another traveller what time it is. There are two of us who can’t sleep. “Have you got someone snoring in your compartment, too,” he asked me. He’s African. The customs officials in Munich gave him the works. I was next in line, but they only asked me for my ID card.
He asks what I’m going to be doing in Rome and tells me it’s half past five. The conductor puts his head outside his compartment door. “Coffee’s ready,” he says. The rocking of the train calms me. The African man tells me about himself and his sister’s wedding – the reason why he’s travelling to Rome. We both watch the sun slowly rising, dragging the Italian countryside out of the dark and gradually adding new contours, depth and colour. We marvel at the medieval-looking villages and towns sprinkled on the headlands. We chat about this and that, eventually moving on to our favourite holiday destinations and Christmas customs in Africa. It’s half past ten when our train arrives at Roma Termini …

A brief recap. At my company, everybody thinks I landed in Peking yesterday and that I’m travelling to our customer today. I smile at the thought. I imagine that this is what it must feel like to be a child discovering all the amazing things you can do with the smallest effort. A child who’s found an ant nest and is digging into it with a stick. That’s what it’s going to be like at the office today. Piper will probably have arrived by now after yesterday’s newspaper article about the dismembered body. He’s going to be turning over every little stone in the plant pots at least twice. Like an archaeologist. A historical digger. They’re in a profession that’s got centuries or more of work here in Rome. Every few metres you come across more ruins and remains, palaces and churches in this city. Any tour guide will agree that the road I’m walking down right now is one of Rome’s top insider tips. Via Giulia. Formerly a magnificent main thoroughfare. I'm walking along it, trying to find the little local café that I visited yesterday. The owner was very nice. The only guests were locals. And it didn’t have tourist prices. I like that. Another insider tip. There it is! I recognise the corner ahead of me where I have to turn left. I walk a little faster and arrive at a little square. My perspective widens. Found it! I walk into the tiny café straight into the midst of gesticulating Italian men in animated conversation. I try to get my bearings. To the left are three men forming a wall. I hear somebody say, “Hey Zen.” Who said it? The same voice continues talking in Italian. The three-man wall opens slightly, leaving a gap for me to look through. And I can hardly believe who I see sitting at a little table behind them.

A brief recap. There are coincidences that are so big, they can’t possibly be coincidences. When I stopped off at a café after my walk in Rome yesterday, I bumped into my colleague Gisella. I’d initially thought that we wouldn’t be seeing each other until one day later. But then the Italians moved aside to reveal a little table in the corner where she was waiting for me. I was so relieved to see her, I felt like somebody had lifted the weight of the obelisk outside St. Peter’s cathedral from my shoulders. It took me a while to stop shaking. Then we embraced, kissed and kissed again. And again, and again. The Italians were unperturbed. I told her about my journey, the mail from our boss with the newspaper article and about leaving my smartphone on the train. “Because I was so nervous,” I joke. “So everything’s gone to plan.” She placed a new smartphone for me on the table.
Then we walked across to our first apartment together. It’s a beautiful old building with roof patio and panorama view of the Pantheon and St. Peter’s Cathedral. A dream that will last for weeks, years and decades to come. We’re still lying on the bed. Outside the well over one hundred churches in the old city are chiming midday together. We could stay in bed for another whole day if we wanted to. “No way,” said Gisella, indignantly. I’d teased her by suggesting that we should take an educative tour of the Roman emperors’ palaces. She pulls the cover over her head. Slips down beside me. Kisses me. Takes hold of me with both hands where I like to be held most. I push my little pillow aside, she opens her legs and I slide up on top of her.

A brief recap. We’ve started a new life in Rome. I’m amazed at all the things Gisella has managed to do in the few days that she’s been there. The beautiful apartment on Campo di Fiori, the full fridge and the much milder climate is a help to me in my moments of weakness when I think about the wife and children I’ve left behind. “You know,” I say, “I think I’m happy.” The sound of our soles hitting the pavement echoes. It’s as if we’re announcing to everyone that we love each other. Gisella has hooked her arm into mine. She doesn’t care that we’re getting black looks from people who can’t get past us in the narrow alleyway. “Are you looking forward to seeing your new workplace?” she asks, kissing my cheek.
“You bet,” I whisper.
It isn’t far. I know exactly where we have to go. Straight on to the bridge, across the Tiber, up to St. Peter’s square and left through the columns. Twenty minutes or so. Then we find ourselves outside a building protected by cast iron ambulatories – narrow, fancy columns with a roof. I look at Gisella with a question in my eyes. She nods. “And, how do you like it?“ she asked. It takes me twenty seconds to gather my thoughts and answer. “A dream,” I say, pointing to the door. “It’s open.” We walk in together. The door is wide enough for both of us to pass through it. My eyes quickly get accustomed to the dimness. I like what I see. Everything’s freshly renovated. There’s someone finishing off the whitewashing at the end of the giant room. He’s concentrating on his work, moving his roller up and down. I say, “Hello Tanju.” “How’s it going?” I wait until he puts down the roller and turns around. Tanju wipes his brow. “Nearly ready. Everything’s going according to plan. We’re ready for the workers.”

A brief recap. Gisella, Tanju and I had every reason to celebrate being reunited well into the night. Gisella chose the Trattoria where we ate. Of course. And Tanju was the one who said we ought to be going home. After all, he was the one who had to be out of bed first. Gisella and myself weren’t needed until ten. Despite that, we were at our store half an hour earlier. It looked fantastic with the cast iron ambulatories. The sales room was enormous. It’s brilliant! Many people would have said the location wasn’t ideal with the Vatican’s big audience hall just around the corner. But for our purposes it was perfect. The bus routes go almost directly past it. It’s a bit like a gift from God. At 10.30 a.m., a stream of Italian men started arriving, helping themselves to the tramezzini that Tanju had ordered for them. Tanju is ticking them off a list and assigning work to them. “They’re good looking,” whispers Gisella to me, and I punch her lightly in response. We were all there by eleven. Almost simultaneously a big truck backed around the corner. It got bigger and bigger. Moving closer centimetre by centimetre thanks to the driver’s precision manoeuvring. A few men sprang out to help guide it in. Finally it came to a standstill. The engine was turned off. The men opened the back door. It was filled with boxes right up to the roof. The men lined up to form a human conveyor belt. Quickly, they passed box after box along the line into the shop. Then another team of men started opening them and assembling their content. By the evening, three truckloads would have been unloaded. The men would have unpacked 1000 walkers from the boxes and assembled them.

A brief recap. 1000 walkers were delivered to our shop near the Vatican yesterday – undamaged and precisely on time. The three of us are sitting at our table. We’re amazed by the sight of the 20 industrious workers. 12 hours later, the last box has been unloaded, unpacked and the last walker has been assembled and polished until it shines. Just three days until we open. In Germany, we celebrate Christmas on 24 December. But here in Italy they celebrate one day later. Tanju wants to have a look through the advance orders with us, prepare a rosta and define our work processes. All practical activities. Gisella and I are very motivated. “How many orders do we have?” she asked, taking the sheet that Tanju was about to read out. “Wow,” she squealed. “Darling,” she squealed. “Amazing,” she squealed. “Control yourself!,” shouted Tanju, interrupting her. And we know that he’s right. That we have to listen to him, the man who organised everything.
“Listen,” began Tanju. “OK,” he said. “It’s like this.” He coughed slightly. “We’re completely booked out until the New Year. And on Sundays and pilgrimage days until well past Easter. We’ve found a genuine goldmine.” Obviously, Tanju had already calculated how much money we were going to make. “OK,” he began. “It’s like this.” He coughed slightly. “The day rate for renting a walker is twenty euros. But you can also rent them by the hour. Tour operators get a 15% discount. That’s an average of EUR 18,590 a day, based on our annual revenue. And for what? For making it possible for senior citizens who don’t walk very well to visit St. Peter’s Cathedral, have an audience with the Pope and attend mass.

A brief recap. Our walker rental service is about to open. We’ve got 1000 walkers, polished and shiny, waiting to be pushed through St. Peter’s Cathedral. “The Vatican thought it was a good idea right from the outset.” Tanju corrected me. Loudspeaker announcements penetrate the arrivals hall. It’s seething with people – unbelievable! Women with suitcases so big they can hardly carry them. Behind them a businessman in a suit, pulling his case behind him. Then another person right behind him. The plane landed twenty minutes ago. He ought to be here by now. But the luggage carousel isn’t moving yet, so we’ll have to wait for a while. “We had to keep the Vatican in the dark about the 1000 Chinese people were without walkers until the insurance claim was paid out,” said Tanju. We’ve been busy discussing our perfect coup from start to finish all day. It’s interesting that each one of us views it from a slightly different perspective. Gisella thinks that the 1000 temps thing isn’t funny. Not for them, anyway.
“At least they got to see China,” I attempt to appease her.
“After all,” added Tanju, “They’ve profited from their trip to Jinan. They’ll get paid and they didn’t have to work. So it was all holiday, holiday and more holiday.”
“Do you think they’re back yet?”
“Probably not.”
The conveyor belt behind the thick pane of glass is now full of suitcases. Out come the first passengers, stopping to gain their bearings and then making a bee line for their cases on the black conveyor belt. We’re playing the game. First one to see him wins. Gisella winked. There he is. Now we’re all here.

A brief recap. Our boss has now managed to join us. It was a pretty impressive reunion. He walked through customs with his overladen trolley grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Are those our Christmas presents?” was my first question, and I didn’t have to explain to the other three that I wasn’t being serious. “Zen … my friend,” he said. We all looked at him. “Now you can finally stop calling me sir,” he continued. “Let’s forget all that formal office stuff.” Then we played the guess what’s inside game. Gisella put a slender finger on the case holding the goose. It’s cooking in the oven at our apartment right now. The wine bottles are circulating. The Romans down on Campo di Fiori below us are probably wondering why those four Germans are sitting on the panorama balcony, celebrating and repeatedly attempting to sing Jingle Bells in rounds, even though that’s completely impossible. We take turns checking on the goose, basting it every ten minutes. We draw straws to see who’s next turn it is. “Listen, boss,” I say when Gisella returns with the good news that the goose will be ready in half an hour. “There’s one thing I’d be interested to know.” I sit up straight. My body language indicated that I was being serious for the moment. “That arm. We never discussed that. How did it get from the movie set to the office?” The boss sat upright too. Suddenly, everyone’s serious, awaiting his reply. “No idea,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s a complete mystery to me. I haven’t got a clue. Neither has Piper. A madman?”
“I’ll toast that!” I say, raising my glass. We grin at each other. Sing the next song. Clink our glasses and wish each other MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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