The conclusion of Dror Mishani’s taut and claustrophobic detective story, Reflections in the Lake, is spelled out in its very first sentence. However, it takes the duration of the piece for the reader to catch on and comprehend how and why the case set at the anonymous lakeside hotel is to become the very last of Detective Fassaro’s career. Like many skilled writers of suspense and mystery, Mishani employs foreshadowing to great effect by meticulously planting his clues, while carefully avoiding giving away too much. Once the case unravels and the world implodes around its protagonist, the conclusion is both surprising and tragic. As a detective piece, the story is a masterclass in restrained and considered plotting. However, it is the lonely, autumnal mood of the story that stays with the reader once the mystery has been resolved. The isolation of the characters finds reflection in the sparse geographical markers in the text and there is a dreamlike feeling to the hotel, where darkness is “crawling among the tall trees” in the forest surrounding the lake. The lake itself is “like a big whale made out of glint and dark”. Thus, the place in which this tragedy plays out feels every bit as desolate as the characters themselves. With this story Mishani once again manages to illustrate how the detective story can be used as a powerful tool to explore the loneliest corners of the human soul.
It was Detective Chief Superintendent Fassaro’s last case, but he did not know that yet. He lingered by the closed door for a moment, and then strode quickly into the room, trying to hide the turmoil inside him.
Room 303. The room.
As the door opened and the room spread out before him, Fassaro saw the lake through the wide window. It was gleaming in the light of the setting sun. In the forest around it darkness crawled through the tall trees. There was an ambulance on the shore and next to it three police cars and the forensic team’s tent, which Fassaro had left a few moments earlier, when he could no longer look at the body that had been pulled out of the water.
A young policeman was guarding the room and when Fassaro asked him his name, he answered keenly, ‘Martin. Sergeant Martin Brandle, sir.’
‘How long have you been here, Brandle?’
‘When did you get here? To this room.’
He was taller than Fassaro, thin and pale, and his voice trembled when he answered the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department.
‘Twelve o’clock, sir,’ he said.
The pain spreading through Fassaro’s head was both dull and sharp. Unbearable. He wanted to be alone in the room.
‘Brandle,’ he said, ‘I want you to find out how many rooms overlook the lake and how many of them were occupied this morning. Ask for a list of the guests’ names and telephone numbers. Then you can return to the station.’
One of the first things he had realised when he had been called to the crime scene in the afternoon was that a guest at the hotel might have seen what had happened on the shore.
‘Of course, sir,’ said Brandle. ‘I can also collect statements from the guests.’
Fassaro did not want Brandle to collect anything. He wanted to talk to the guests himself. Despite two sleepless nights, he would handle the case exactly the way he had conducted countless investigations, mostly murder cases, throughout his thirty years in the police force. Coolly and methodically. Apart from locating potential witnesses, there had to be a search. Had someone already ordered Brandle or some other idiot to rummage through the drawers before he could do it?
‘Only Inspector Weibel was here, sir,’ said Brandle. ‘Do you want me to do another search?’
Fassaro calmed down.
What exactly was he hoping to find? He listened to Brandle’s footsteps going down the corridor, and when he heard him enter the elevator, he locked the door behind him and sprawled out on the bed. If he had stayed there for a few more minutes, he would have fallen asleep. The white curtains billowed in the cool breeze. He got up and turned on all the lights because the sky was now black with heavy clouds. The drawers of the bedside table were empty and there was nothing under the pillows. The couple’s clothes were laid out on separate shelves in the wardrobe – the husband’s few items on the right and her things on the left. With his one and only hand, Fassaro took out the shirts, dresses, skirts and underwear, and arranged them on the bed. Then he looked for her suitcase and found three books inside it, two in English and one in French; there was also a small plastic bag with some packets of pills and a red leather belt.
Where do women hide things they don’t want to be found? Despite his renowned perceptiveness, Fassaro had no answer to that. The suitcase had no hidden compartments. There was nothing unusual in room 303, apart from the picture hanging above the double bed: instead of the customary landscape there was a huge photograph with a close-up of an open human hand.
Fassaro stood in the middle of the room and looked around, as if trying to tune into an inaudible message. Then he turned to glance once again at the lake, which flexed itself under the window like a huge, darkly glowing whale.
He had not intended to take part in the husband’s interrogation, but after a short talk with Weibel he realised he had no choice.
‘We should take him to the station,’ suggested Weibel. ‘He has a story that needs to be checked.’
The headache cut through his thoughts.
‘He claims the victim had a lover here. He thinks the lover killed her.’
Was Weibel blushing because she had to say the word ‘lover’ twice? They were standing outside the room which had been allocated to them in the hotel’s management wing, and although Weibel had left the door open, Fassaro could not see the husband from where he was standing.
‘Of course he thinks that,’ he said. ‘Does he also know who the lover is and where we can find him?’
He suddenly felt how difficult it was to stay on his feet. Two sleepless nights with almost no food were too much at his age. What would he have done without Weibel? Eva Weibel was the only investigator in the CID that he could rely on. He had recommended her transfer to the department two years ago. Since then, despite her youth, he had involved her in all the cases that had needed sensitive handling. She, for her part, admired him and never acted without his authorisation. She was single and showed no interest in men. When necessary, she would even spend the whole night at the station. Fassaro asked Weibel if she had any painkillers and she said she would get some from reception. He asked her for a cup of white coffee too, and then entered the room where the husband sat waiting.
Why didn’t he arrest him immediately? Weibel would have done it, no questions asked. Was it because he wanted to hear the husband’s story? And perhaps to watch him talk about her. To hear the disdain in his voice, in order to prove himself right.
Fassaro sat in Inspector Weibel’s chair, facing the husband. She had noted on the police form that Marc Zafran was 44 years old, two years younger than his wife. He seemed agitated, but not intimidated.
‘Who are you? Where’s the policewoman that was here before?’ he asked, but Fassaro did not answer. Zafran owned a real estate agency for luxury apartments, and in the hotel car park there was a black Saab waiting for him, in which a meticulous search ordered by Weibel had revealed no suspicious marks. And he was twenty years younger than Fassaro.
Weibel came back and handed him the painkillers. She had brought a coffee for Zafran, too.
‘Shall we continue?’ she asked as she sat down next to Fassaro. ‘Marc was telling me about what happened this morning.’
‘She woke up at about five thirty,’ said Zafran. She usually wakes up around then.
It was only now that Fassaro noticed Zafran’s strange voice. He was a tall, handsome man, and yet his voice was high-pitched, almost feminine.
She had switched on the bedside lamp in order to read, and this had woken him up. At six-thirty she had told him that she was going to have a swim in the lake.
‘Didn’t that seem strange? Wasn’t it still dark outside?’ asked Weibel.
‘She told me she went to the lake at that hour every morning,’ Zafran replied. ‘She bathed without a swimsuit, like you found her, and she didn’t feel comfortable doing that in the daylight, when people could see. She wasn’t so young anymore.’
Fassaro closed his eyes as the pain shot through his temple.
Marc had fallen asleep again and hadn’t looked out of the window when Marianne had gone down to the shore, taken off her bathrobe and entered the cold water. How long did she swim? When did she come out of the water? Somebody must have been lying in wait for her in the forest. Somebody must have watched her through the trees, through the morning mist and the dark as she undressed.
He was the only one looking at her. No-one saw her but him.
The bathrobe found on the shore was wet, which suggested that Marianne came out of the lake, put it on, and then took it off again and returned to the water. The window in the room had been closed and Marc said he hadn’t heard her screaming for help, if she had indeed screamed. Other guests hadn’t heard her either. He only woke up at nine, and when he looked out of the window, he saw his wife’s bathrobe on the shore. There was no sign of her. He first thought that she might have gone for a stroll in the forest, but when she didn’t come back, he went downstairs and asked the receptionist for help. They began the search in the forest, but around noon Marianne was found by the divers in the lake. Her body was pulled out of the water and placed on the wet grass.
Fassaro washed down the pills with tap water from the restroom in the hotel lobby. Then he splashed some lukewarm water on his face. A cleaner, Korean perhaps, was wiping the floor with a scented rag. She smiled at him when he came in, as if they knew each other, and Fassaro tried to recollect if they had met before. Perhaps she had seen his face in the newspapers. The following morning he would have to talk to most of the hotel’s employees.
Weibel had pleaded with him to hear Zafran’s story about the lover, and this was the only reason why he now returned to the room, even though before he had gone out to the toilet he had told her, ‘It’s a waste of time, Eva. I don’t believe a word he says.’
What was it about Marc Zafran’s words that convinced Weibel? Was it his hatred of his wife? And the fact that he didn’t conceal it?
They had first stayed at the hotel eight or nine years before, Zafran said, and he suggested that Weibel check the exact date, which must have been recorded in the register and probably also at the police station.
‘Why at the police station?’
‘Because during our first visit somebody broke into our room and stole our credit cards. And quite a lot of cash, too. We filed a complaint but the police never caught the culprits, or got our money back, despite the fact that Marianne and I were questioned for hours, as if we were the thieves. This was one of the reasons why I didn’t want to come here again. And why Marianne insisted on coming back. I suppose she first met him then.’
‘How many times have you come back since then?’
‘Only Marianne came back. Almost every year. Always in September or October. Sometimes even more than once.’
‘And you didn’t join her?’
‘Never. She would find reasons to cancel our summer holidays and then, in September, when I couldn’t leave the company and the school year had already begun for Sandra, she’d tell me she needed a break. Touching, isn’t it? I mean her devotion to that lover and her naive lies. Don’t you think so?’
He said all this to Weibel, and only looked occasionally at Fassaro. But when she asked, ‘And all these years you actually knew what she was doing here?’ Marc smiled at him. ‘We’re not idiots, Ms Weibel,’ he said. ‘Despite what women tend to think. Of course I knew what she was doing here. It was convenient. I didn’t find Marianne very attractive in the last few years, if you know what I mean. She didn’t age well. It can happen to good-looking women, too. Her poor lover apparently didn’t mind, but I still like younger women. Fortunately, they also still like me. When Sandra started high school, I decided it was time to get married again. I thought I’d be able to use Marianne’s little romance to persuade her to give me a cheap and easy divorce. That’s why I joined her here this time, two days ago, without telling her in advance. I planned to surprise her with her devoted lover and make the split easier for everyone.’
Fassaro didn’t want to hear any more. He was about to take the rope out of his pocket when Weibel asked, ‘But even if she had a lover here, why do you think he killed her? What possible reason could he have had?’
‘The reason? Because instead of making everybody’s lives easier by agreeing to leave me, Marianne decided to leave him. She confessed she’d been having an affair for years but begged me to forgive her and swore she would never see him again. It was a terrible, terrible disappointment for me.’
Fassaro heard only fragments of what followed. His grip on the rope got stronger and he felt it would soon cut his hand.
‘Why would she leave him if she loved him?’ asked Weibel.
Marc laughed. ‘You didn’t know Marianne. She may have loved him, but she found it very difficult to part with our shared bank account.’
Fassaro got up from his chair and pulled his only hand out of his pocket.
‘That’s a nice story,’ he said quietly. ‘And I’d probably start looking for the lover who murdered your wife if I hadn’t found this rope in your room.’
Weibel stared at him, uncomprehendingly. And Marc Zafran did not say a word.
‘I found it under your bed. I believe this is the murder weapon.’
They did not leave the hotel until after midnight. The white Citroen glided, almost alone, along the wet road. As usual Weibel drove and Fassaro sat in the passenger seat. The rain had stopped, and he opened the window and lit a cigarette.
Obviously, the story was not over yet, although Marc Zafran had now been taken into custody. He had already hired Wilson and Sons, the best and most expensive law firm in the country. But the rope with which Marianne had been strangled, and which had been found in Marc’s room by the head of the CID, was a piece of evidence that even they would have a hard time handling. There was no proof of his story about Marianne’s lover, and there would not be any in the future. The single glove which Zafran claimed to have discovered in their room and which Marianne had allegedly admitted belonged to her lover, was never going to be found either.
For a while they drove in silence. Fassaro closed his eyes. Suddenly Weibel said, ‘I can’t understand how I missed the rope. I’m sure I looked under the bed.’
Fassaro’s eyes were still closed when he told her, ‘It’s all right, Weibel. Don’t take it so hard. The important thing is that we found it.’ He blew silver smoke into the freezing air.
‘But why would he keep it? This contradicts everything you’ve ever taught me.’
Now Fassaro opened his eyes and looked at her. What was she really asking him? Her eyes seemed moist.
‘I don’t see any contradiction,’ he said, and Weibel quickly answered, as if she had been waiting for his reply: ‘He didn’t love her, right? He despised her even. And it’s the sentimental killers that keep mementos of the crime, isn’t it? Those that love their victims until the end and want a keepsake from the last moment they had them in their possession. If Marc Zafran had really murdered his wife, wouldn’t he just have left the rope in the lake?’
Fassaro was silent.
Was it because Weibel was lonely that something in this story roused her, he wondered. She had always been a fast driver but tonight, apparently because of the wet road and the rain, she had slowed down and the journey was taking longer.
‘Maybe he didn’t notice that he’d taken the rope with him until he was already back in the room. And maybe my theories are not always correct. That’s a possibility too, isn’t it? He did murder her, Weibel. You know that, don’t you?’
‘There’s another possibility.’ She kept her eyes on the road when she said it.
‘That Marc’s story is right. That she did have a lover here. That he’s the one who murdered her because she left him. Then he planted the rope in Marc’s room.’
Only now did Fassaro realise she was not driving to his house on Bunuel Street, or to the police station. He grasped what she was really trying to say.
‘I’m almost sure that’s what happened. Marianne simply made a mistake,’ she said.
Fassaro didn’t want to talk about Marianne anymore. Not now, not with Weibel. But Eva continued, and he felt the sharp pain cutting through his thoughts again.
‘She shouldn’t have left him, you understand? She simply made a mistake. She should have left her husband. Can you imagine how he loved her? How he loved this woman, while her husband hated her so much. He waited the whole year for her to be with him just once, for two or three weeks. He never got married or had any other relationships. Just her, for nine years. He agreed to live completely by himself in order to spend two weeks a year with her on the lake. And he certainly didn’t think she had aged badly. To him she was the most beautiful woman in the world when she went into the lake this morning, you understand? He couldn’t let her go. Yet she decided to leave him. And he loved her so much that he could not imagine her living without him…’
Fassaro wanted her to stop talking then and there, because everything she said was exactly right.
‘Weibel, can you tell me what you’re doing?’ he asked, when the car stopped by the roadside in complete darkness.
‘I called the station,’ said Weibel, ‘to check who it was that interrogated Marianne back then, when they first came here a few years ago.’
Fassaro did not say anything. Eva Weibel took a deep breath before she continued. The man sitting next to her was the person she felt closest to in the whole world.
‘Detective Chief Superintendent Fassaro,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I have to ask you a difficult question.’
*Image: SJAMES R. EADS