An excerpt from

Night Driver

Marcelle Perks

Prologue

In the black and white photograph he looks too cheerful to have killed anybody. But because of what he did he was the first serial killer to make newspaper headlines all over the world.

Look again and his expression is less benign, as though he’s concentrating on something. The eyebrows are thick, like furry stripes, but his eyes are set too close together. Perhaps he is just frowning. The pre-war Hitler moustache he sports, with a bald stripe in the middle, makes him seem worse than he really is. His hat is broad and jaunty, with a light-coloured ribbon around the crown. It fails to hide his sticking-out ears. There’s a flap of loose skin visible above his tight collar. The tie is a ridiculous miniature, in the dapper fashion of the time. Even all these years on, this middle-aged man is still trying to impress. He took so much, when he needed so little.

Every time Lars the lorry driver looks at his good-luck photo of Fritz, he feels a tingle of recognition.

When Lars picks someone up, they usually ask about the photo attached prominently on the dashboard.

‘Who’s that?’

‘That’s our Fritz,’ he always says, zinging on the ‘z’ at the end. Usually he laughs then. If they know about the killer Haarmann already, it gets them thinking. He likes it better when they’re scared. Not that he knows who he will take and who he will just drop off at the next rest stop or wherever he’s heading. That’s Schicksal.

On the open road, anything’s possible, especially after dark. Real life just seems to disappear under the wheels of his lorry. The only world that stretches out into infinity is the burning strip of Autobahn he is travelling on and the possibilities that it carries: boys wanting to hook up with drugs or danger. Or something else. And if Fritz were here right now, in this world, Lars knows that he would just love it. Sometimes he wants to be Fritz; sometimes he is Fritz.

Such a force of nature could never be completely extinguished.

Chapter 1

What Francesca Snell disliked, she did badly. And when she tried her damnedest, trotzdem, to fight her inborn stubbornness, every part of her body sweated strife. At thirty-one it was hard adjusting to life in Germany. Until recently she’d worked for a dot.com company and travelled every month alone on business to amazing Caribbean islands. There’d been the unexpected thrill of the turquoise blue sea, and the warm balmy air that calmed her senses. She’d never even been with her parents on holiday before to a foreign country. After years of struggling to get a decent job with her English degree, of her parents being disappointed that their talented daughter only bounced from one lousy short-term contract to the next, suddenly she was an offshore B2B publishing consultant. She had a year-round glow and was always going off somewhere in a plane.

True, the job was more sales than creative, but she felt that her natural talent had been finally spotted. She could work anywhere and do anything as long as she had access to a laptop.

But then the recession came, and the publishing sector in which she’d worked was hit hard. With the rise of the internet, readers could search most things for free. She lost her fancy job, and struggled to find a new one. She panicked and sold her East London three-bed terraced house rather than risk falling behind on the mortgage. She’d had to struggle to find work in the creative industries, arts graduates were inevitably exploited, and it always irked her that the scientists and engineers who’d studied at university with her had it so much easier. Her parents didn’t have much money to support her, and resented the fact that she’d studied the soft option – arts rather than a profession. Her dad had hoped she would be a doctor or IT expert and never got tired of telling her so.

Of course, her husband was cut from another cloth. Not only was he an engineer, he was German. She’d met Kurt when he was testing a wind turbine project in the Cayman Islands. He’d been so relaxed then. He was naturally attractive, with wide-open features and deep blue eyes. His was the kind of face that made you think of old-fashioned movie stars in double-breasted suits. He hadn’t tried to get her into bed instantly like the English guys she was used to. Instead he took her to dinner and showed her the best place for scuba-diving. He dated her, fastidiously, as if they were sixteen. Her every whim mattered to him. He wasn’t a genius creative like her previous boyfriends, a crazy film director and a brash journalist, but his interest in her was overwhelming. And that was addictive. The only thing they had in common was mutual attraction, but at first that was enough.

That first week in the Cayman Islands they drank one Mudslider Sling after another as they watched the sun go down. After a year of commuting, seeing each other every three weeks, when she’d lost her job she’d taken the plunge and moved over to be with him. She’d sold her house at a good profit and thought she could always move back if things didn’t work out. But then the property boom in London went crazy, and before she knew it she was priced out of the market.

Things were good with Kurt the first year or so but then they had got married and moved here, and after that their relationship had solidified in a direction she didn’t like. What for Kurt was normality was, for her, oppression. After being an international jet-setter, suddenly she was stuck in the German suburbs with no driving licence. There was a bus once an hour. It was like living in the fifties. In their village there was no takeaways; you actually had to cook if you wanted to eat. If you went to the local pub, people only went there for nosh and were in bed by ten. Their house and garden was big – that was why they had chosen the village, and Kurt had grown up in the suburbs and was comfortable with it – and they had enough to live on, but every day was the same. Kurt worked, earned the money, but there was the unspoken assumption that she had to keep house. As a previously independent businesswoman, she was terrible at handling that. It upset her, having to live with her own clutter with no real job to pour her energies into. For the first time in her life, she felt as though she’d taken the wrong path. She just couldn’t shake it off, a secret dread that her father had been right all along. All this time she had been wasting her talents.

A lot of the time she would throw herself into creative projects she could never bring to fruition. Two non-fiction books fell through. The never-ending cycle of housework deadened her, and she knew that her ambivalence, in her occasional phone calls, worried her parents. She was proud and stubborn and didn’t like to reach out to anyone. A lot of her friends had distanced themselves now she was in Germany and not available to go down the pub.

Most of all she was frustrated with herself. She’d wanted security, a partner, to have children, but not this stilled life. She missed her old ways; the feeling of doing something with meaning and purpose.

When she had got pregnant accidentally, after a stomach upset made her pill ineffective, she hadn’t known how to react. This had been part of her long-term plan, but she hadn’t yet settled in Germany and had been secretly hoping to persuade Kurt to move back to the city and that she would find a job. Kurt had initially said he wanted her to keep the baby, but as her pregnancy had become visible, and her previously small breasts had become full and her flat stomach ballooned – and, she acknowledged, as getting heavier had made her more irritable – he’d started withdrawing from her. He wouldn’t admit that, of course. Every time she tried to discuss it, he gave her a shopping list of her failings that she was supposed to improve. And they hadn’t been intimate since the third month.

When they had first moved in, Kurt had convinced her that the key to coping with her new lifestyle was getting mobile, so she was taking daily driving lessons. But she hated the stupid driving rules. She had quickly realised she had a fear of driving; nothing else had the capacity to make her so anxious. She had persisted, but now it was even worse: it was hard to concentrate when you were hot and bloated and had to pee all the time.

The struggles with her driving instructor reinforced her view that living in Germany was miserable. But before she’d fallen pregnant she’d convinced herself that if she could just master this one mechanical skill, then she’d be able to drive to the local city, Hannover, and potentially find a new job and new friends. And if that was now out of reach, with the baby coming she would need to be able to drive just to buy baby supplies, to take the baby to its checkups, and so on. There was no corner shop and the doctor was three miles away.

Her driving instructor was laughably abrupt. His English was confined to a few words that he used inappropriately. Heinrich had been wearing drainpipe jeans since the eighties; he was fifty going on fifteen. There was no allowance made for the fact that she didn’t really speak German. She had learned quite a lot, but Kurt’s English was very good so they spoke English at home. Most of the vocabulary relating to cars, like ‘windscreen wipers’, was unknown to her, yet Heinrich would bark a command and expect her to instantly comply; he forced her to drive in that pushy style which was curiously German. Today was a typical lesson.

‘Right,’ he said, in his broken English, ‘Nächste rechts, go!’

Frannie squinted at the peculiar way the road snaked into the curve ahead. Could she make the turn? The car already seemed to be falling down the hill just moving into third gear. Her hand wavered on the gear stick. Should she change down to second gear already and risk the Mercedes behind going into her, or try and take the bend going at fifty? She fluttered with indecision.

RECHTS!’ Without warning Heinrich grabbed the steering wheel. The car dived sharply right. Through the windscreen, the road was a twisting blur. The wheel felt alien in Frannie’s hands. It was a struggle not to instinctively brake to control her panic, because doing that annoyed her driving instructor more than anything else. And when he got angry, he shouted in German and forgot all his English.

Shit. There was another parked car blocking her side. The road was alive with dangers. The car screeched left, right. She was having a hard time being delicate with the wheel. She checked the mirrors. Thank God there was no one behind her. Other motorists terrified her. She could only drive comfortably when she had the road to herself.

Her face was screwed up in concentration. The car lurched suddenly forward and the engine screamed with a grinding wrench. The speedometer topped seventy. She looked down, wondering if she’d pressed the accelerator by mistake. No, it was Heinrich again.

‘Go! Gehen!’ His foot was furiously working the parallel pedals. His face bristled with indignation. The car groaned as it responded to double commands. They sped abruptly left, forcing an oncoming vehicle to give them priority. Heinrich began to shout terse stuff in German she didn’t understand.

Was machst du?’ He looked as if he was about to slap her. His startlingly green eyes, which once must have made him cute, didn’t fit the rest of his face.

She flashed him a warning look. She was older than his teenage regulars, and they were both frustrated that it was taking her so long to master the basics. Not speaking each other’s language didn’t help. And the fact that she was heavily pregnant.

The first five months or so she’d almost ignored her pregnancy, telling herself not to stress about it. Then she’d hit the sixth month and woken up a crazy woman, consumed with the overwhelming desire to get everything ready for her baby, which she knew now was a boy – Kurt had insisted on finding out, and the evening of the scan had been almost as nice to her as when they’d first met, as if getting an heir was their singular reason for being together. He said he loved her, but seemed to prefer the company of his mates. She had focused on getting the nursery just right, on having all the toiletries on hand (even the ones she might not even need). It all had to be perfect. And she’d booked a driving lesson every day so she’d be able to drive and look after her baby like a proper mother.

And now, alarmingly soon, tomorrow was her driving test, and if she didn’t pass there wouldn’t be another chance to do it again before the baby was born. She couldn’t imagine how it would be once he was there, but she was sure it would be even harder to summon her energies.

Houses whooshed past. It was hard actually driving at the speed limit; Frannie always wanted to go much slower. She hated the constant pressure to concentrate on the road every second. She tried to sit straight, forget about her bump.

Suddenly, the road opened out, as a stream flows into a river, into a Schnellstrasse, the B6. The long, straight road thrummed with gleaming cars. Frannie’s knees trembled. Now she’d have to somehow filter in and keep up with the flow of traffic that drove so close that if the windows were open you could smell their aftershave.

Gehen!’ shouted Heinrich. He flapped his little notebook at her. There was a dreadful screech, as if the car was driving over something broken. Frannie hadn’t quite got into fifth gear. Heinrich shouted something. Frannie grimaced. Her white maternity dress was limp with sweat; it was an exceptionally hot June. Desperately, she looked for a gap in the traffic to get off the feeder road. The speeding cars ignored her frantic signals. Meanwhile, the entry lane was merging, but some idiot was behind her gunning for her tail-lights all the way.

Shit. Frannie went, pushing the car in front of her practically off the road. There was the whisper of a near-collision. Beside her, Heinrich gasped. Normally he had to tell her not to drive so slowly. Now, with the devil in her, she was belting down her side of the white line for all she was worth. When she really wanted something she could surprise herself.

She was going to pass the driving test. She must.

Chapter 2

When Lars was in his lorry it did not feel like work. Driving for him was nothing more than reflex. He was a tall man, but, inside his cab, the extra height of the lorry went to his head. He liked it best when he had all the weight of a full load hooked up to the gears. He used the truck’s massive bulk to frighten other drivers and the berth of his cab to pick up men.

For a gay man, he was relatively old; already forty, with a beer belly. Still, Lars was good at attracting young ’uns. His shaved head gave him a tough, odd-looking baby face. His deep brown eyes looked as though they were always misbehaving.

He could have done many jobs, but driving suited him. When he was on the Autobahn he could cruise along on autopilot. It gave him hours of time to fantasise. And, when he was rolling on the road, there was only one thing on his mind.

Lars obsessed about young men’s flesh the way other people salivated over cars. He saw people as falling into rough types. His favourite, Type I, was naturally fair and practically hairless (or at least on the chest and stomach). He liked their skin to have a rosy hue so that if you pushed at it with a fingernail it would flush. Type II was Irish-looking, with black hair and light eyes, but the skin tone was still milky with little hair. Then there were the rough-boned types from farming stock, and the lean, lanky Northern breeds. The dark, hairy ones he left. They were a turn-off, and if his little man couldn’t get hard then there was no point.

The one he loved was Hans, a dark blond. He gave Hans every cent he earned while the good-for-nothing  was out doing God knew what. Without him the boy would be nothing.

He was feeling lucky. He pulled into a rest stop. There was just a stand selling hot sausages, and a toilet. The bare basics for a hunting ground. He stepped out to take a cigarette, every part of him focused on the other patrons.

A couple were rowing outside their car. The girl, flabby, boringly dressed, was being loud about something. Lars drowned her out. Her boyfriend was about eighteen, far too good for her. Type II, slender. He was inhaling a cigarette as if he’d only just got the hang of it. Lars bought a sausage to get closer to them. He made his face look affable, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. His sharp white teeth sank into the meat. Their voices got louder. Lars could hardly breathe; if anyone had looked, they would have seen that his knees were quivering.

‘Get there yourself, then!’ The girl flounced off and jumped into in her red car, squealing out of the car park. The boy held his hands out in the air. Then he stumbled over in the direction of the booth, all big eyes and hunched shoulders.

Lars just gave him a friendly nod when he bought a beer. He didn’t have to start anything; the boy took one look at his warm eyes and that was it. Some of them even called him Onkel.

‘Second time she’s done that,’ the boy said, looking down at the floor. He carried on slugging at his beer.

‘Mmm,’ agreed Lars, affably, as if everywhere he went he saw the same thing happening.

‘Are you going Hannover way, by any chance?’ said the boy.

‘Yeah, as it happens,’ said Lars.

‘Can I get a ride?’

Lars nodded his head. He enjoyed this bit: being the thoroughly normal guy doing another guy a favour. When they’d finished, he opened the door of the cab for the youngster.

‘Thanks, I’m in a bit of a fix!’ the boy said, pink in the face.

‘I’ve got a drop-off at the Moonlights Club,’ Lars said, casually wiping his mouth. ‘You can jump out at Pferdeturmkreuzung or you can walk from the club to the train station.’

The young man blinked a lot. His face was mulling it all over.

‘Fags are in there; beer’s under the seat in the cooler,’ said Lars as if he’d been expecting company. His face was open, natural. He was neither handsome nor ugly, but he smiled so much that people opened up, especially when they wanted something.

‘That’s the third time Vera’s left me,’ said the boy.

‘Oh,’ said Lars, stroking the handle of his gear stick. ‘And who might you be?’

‘Peter,’ the boy said, his cheeks still flushed a brilliant pink. He was a blusher. Lars loved to see blood suffusing under the skin.

‘If you like, I can get you into the club. My mate is part-owner. There’ll be plenty of Veras there,’ said Lars. His tongue darted energetically over his lips. He had to push his body further down in the seat to hide his erection.

‘Really?’ said Peter, his young face caught in a half-smile.

‘Sure, just say the word.’ Lars beamed at Peter again. But his smile was clearly just a shade too eager…

‘You know, I’ll get out at Pferdeturmkreuzung,’ Peter said, not so sure suddenly.

Lars laughed as if he didn’t have a care in the world. ‘Jawohl.’

From then on he drove like a crazy man. He jabbed his foot down and turned the lorry abruptly out of the slow lane into the middle one. A car had to shoot into the fast lane to avoid him. Lars knew the full spatial length of his vehicle and drove erratically in and out of lanes, scattering motorists like ants. It felt as if all the raw vibrations of the truck were being pounded through his inner thighs.

Peter’s flush had spread to his neck. His lower lip shivered. For some reason he looked down at the gear stick and noticed Lars’s hard-on. He squeezed his eyes shut. He shouldn’t have got in the truck and he knew it.

The high pitch of a mobile phone broke the tension. Lars answered, taking both hands off the wheel to do so. Peter’s face glowed crimson.

‘Another one?’ Lars said. ‘Now, right this minute?’ His voice wavered, like a child disappointed at not getting his favourite ice cream. ‘If you could just give me half an hour.’

The person on the other end answered and Lars frowned at the response, his fat stomach flapped over his jeans. Whatever he was doing now, this looked like work.

Peter’s expression was frozen like a wounded animal. Perhaps he thought that if he was quiet and still enough, the truck driver might forget he was there.

#

KONZENTRIEREN!’ shouted Heinrich directly in Frannie’s face. She couldn’t even look at him, dared not take her eyes off the busy road. The other vehicles continually changed lanes, slid off on slip lanes or overtook each other. She was terrified she would drive into the back of someone who had abruptly changed lane, or that someone would ram her from behind. The B6 had a speed limit of a hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. It was way quicker than her comfort zone of below seventy. Driving faster was both physically harder, and also mentally: she had to react quickly at this insane speed to the numerous traffic lights waiting to catch her out.

To make things worse, it started raining.

Heinrich shouted a word she didn’t know. He must mean the bloody windscreen wipers. Her panicked fingers blindly pressed buttons, but she got the indicators instead. Shit! She hated fussing with any extras: lights, wipers, indicators; didn’t even know where the horn was. Keeping the car in forward motion was hard enough. She was gripping the wheel so hard that it was hot. The rain pattered down remorselessly. Temperatures inside the car started to rise.

#

To Lars the truck was an extension of his personality. When he was calm he drove solidly. When his mind was torn up, everything became erratic. When Peter had said he didn’t want to join him at the club, he had driven like a two-year-old. He rumbled up to the next traffic lights as if he didn’t know what a red light was. He hit the brakes sharply at the last minute, working up a sweat. The smell of him crept into the cab. Peter looked as though, if he had to endure much more of this, he was going to be sick.

A little grey Volkswagen emblazoned with ‘Heinrich’s Driving School’ was crawling in the slow lane in front of him. Lars grinned to himself. He pushed down his foot on the accelerator, feeling his body thrum to the extra vibrating movement of the truck. The learner driver was driving as slowly as she dared. He didn’t have any tolerance for learners. He drove to within a few centimetres of her bumper. See how she found that! He laughed out loud. The car tried to speed out of danger and then was abruptly braked back. The instructor was obviously insisting on the speed limit. From the frantic head movements of the passenger and driver, a row was in full swing.

The car signalled left and moved to the next lane. Lars did the same, squeezing in behind in hot pursuit. The instructor turned his head to look back at him and Lars nodded affably. Never look pissed off when you want to frighten somebody. If they’re confused you scare ’em worse. The learner driver went back into the slow lane. Lars once again followed them, forcing two cars to hastily brake. A horn hooted. He was really playing them.

Lars laughed to himself. He went on tailgating the little car. Peter groaned. His mouth made lots of swallowing noises. The learner driver’s movements were becoming more and more frantic. In a minute she was going to shoot through a red light. The cab echoed with the sound of Lars’s maniacal laughter.

#

Frannie couldn’t think straight. All she wanted was to get away from the goddamn truck. Her thick blonde hair kept falling into her eyes. This bloody truck driver was practically leaning on her bumper! She just wanted to put as much distance between them as possible. Shit. The light had just gone red. The car was already over the line; she had to go for it anyway.

Nein!’ There was a screech as Heinrich performed an emergency stop.

Frannie’s head was jerked forward. She could feel the vibrations down into her solar plexus. She screamed. It was as if something deep inside her had been wrenched. Oh, my God, the baby! Frannie’s hand immediately went to her stomach. Her middle had absorbed the jerking motion like a punch. She had to resist the urge to go and yank the driver out of his cab and give him what for. She couldn’t believe this was happening. The car was clearly marked as a driving school vehicle. Everything started to get dark; she remembered what the nurse with the pink hair had said on her pre-natal course and tried to slow down her breathing. Her every thought was concentrated on keeping the baby safe.

Heinrich was too shocked to carry on shouting. He’d written down the licence number of the truck, and looked as though he was thinking about what to do with it.

She pushed on the hazard lights and forced her way out of the door. ‘I can’t…’ she said, oblivious to the honking cars that minded very much that she was holding up the traffic on the B6. She had to breathe. No longer cared what anyone thought. She took in huge gulps of fresh air as the rain battered down her fringe and stood there trying not to look eight months pregnant.

‘I drive.’ Heinrich leapt round into the driver’s seat.

She got back in the car. The green traffic light had been on for some time and the car leapt forward to escape the angry motorists who were lining up and gesticulating.

‘Baby OK?’ He was trying to speak English.

‘Not sure,’ she said, waggling her head. Her stomach had swelled into a dull zone of discomfort.

As Heinrich drove, he kept glancing at her. Something warm trickled down her leg, soaking her dress. At first she thought she had wet herself, but it was much worse. Heinrich saw the blood before she did. Her white dress showed up every trickle of it.

‘Shall I take you to the hospital?’ said Heinrich, pulling over, his face creased in concern. He had turned from adversary to support in minutes and it made Frannie want to weep with gratitude.

‘No, they have no records for the pregnancy,’ she said, her hand holding her stomach. ‘My gynaecologist is just round the corner.’ She showed him her doctor’s card for the address and Heinrich seemed to understand.

She tried to think positive, but it was hard to suppress the tears that kept forming, however hard she blinked. She had to learn to drive in order to function in the sticks, but she hadn’t anticipated anything like this would happen. How often did your driving instructor forcibly perform an emergency stop? Her hand shook as she took her mobile out of her handbag to call Kurt.

‘We go there, now,’ Heinrich said, as concerned as if he were the baby’s father. He put his foot down and drove as if he had a flashing blue light.