Rudolf Heinz’s life is far from perfect. His son avoids him, he’s a terrible guitar player, and he lives in constant pain. But there is one thing Rudolf Heinz is really good at – he’s the best profiler in Poland when it comes to serial killers.
When the police find the dead bodies of two young men, their heads covered in plastic bags marked with the numbers 21 and 37, Heinz faces his most challenging case. Taking on a killer who likes to play games, the investigation is complicated when he discovers the victims are priests, and the local police close ranks against him. As he analyzes each lead, Heinz’s search for the killer pushes him deep into his own past, unaware that he will soon have to save his own life. And he’s running out of time…
Praise for 21:37
World Literature Today’s Notable Translation 2013
‘Czubaj manages to create his own style and sense of place. This is gritty, realistic, almost noir-ish writing, yet suffused with real humour and human warmth. The story itself is well-paced, keeps you guessing, and the back story or personal life of the characters never slows down the investigation…it’s an intriguing read from a young author who cleverly uses and subverts all the Anglo-Saxon crime memes. If you want to discover a new country on the crime fiction map, this makes for a good introduction to Poland.’ Crime Fiction Lover
‘21:37 is one of those crime novels I love — dark, mysterious, with absolutely zero hint of cutesy to get in the way of getting into the crime and starting the journey toward its solution…I was beyond happy with 21:37. It kept me entertained, glued and — the best sign of a good mystery for me — I was constantly trying to guess who might be the killer and never figured it out… I read this book in one intense sitting, unable to stop turning pages… Definitely recommended to readers of darker crime fiction.’ The Crime Segments
‘Czubaj electrifies with storytelling, attention to detail and sense of humour’ Polityka
Daniel Wedich took a deep breath. It was a sultry spring night and the starry sky was promising another hot day. Wedich looked up and thought with sadness that he was not born under a lucky star. He turned fifty-three two weeks ago. Nature had not blessed him with a tall stature. He was the shortest student in his class, and his classmates used their physical advantage every now and then. It went on until the school shrimp enrolled in the boxing division of Gwardia Warszawa club. That was when everything changed. From then on he was the one giving it to them; he ruled over the yard and the sports grounds. Nobody dared to call him ‘weedy’, ‘wee dick’ or ‘weedjit’ anymore. He fought in light flyweight. His strong-point was speed. That was how he won. He was progressing, the national team coaches noticed him.
And that was the end of the upbeat part of the story, which he so often told for a bottle of beer. Fate defeated the boxer. Fate sent him to the local shop where he got involved in an argument with two roughnecks lubricated with alcohol, who, as luck would have it, had two other helpful buddies. Wedich won the uneven fight, but he was left with a broken brow ridge. If not for fate, he would go to the GDR, to Halle, to take part in a prestigious tournament. And then, who knows?
From that moment on everything changed in Wedich’s life, whom his colleagues started calling Halle.
Halle started on his night hunt along Podleśna Street. He passed Kępa Potocka Park, crossed Wisłostrada Street, deserted at that time of the night, and found himself close to the river. He was walking towards the Olympic Centre, which the sportsmen mockingly dubbed ‘the Palace’. The proximity of the seat of the Polish Olympic Committee made Halle think again about what could have been, if … If at least he was born a bit later. Towards the end of the 1970s, Polish boxing was still big in the world and Halle had to fight in the ring with real pros. In the next, lean decade there were no more young bruisers, and the old ones had dropped off. He would be without equal, of this Halle was sure. And what would happen if he became a professional boxer? Nobody would say that he fought in a laughable light flyweight. And he would change his name too, because the unfortunate one given to him by his parents made everybody think of one singer from the Military Song Festival in Kołobrzeg. Sometimes, over a bottle of Tatra beer, Halle would think up punchlines for interviews that he would give to sports papers before important fights. ‘What’s your strategy for this fight?’ ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ he answered in his thoughts. ‘Hit, rip the head off and Bob’s your uncle.’
Hit, rip the head off. That was his favourite bit.
Even though life laughed in his face, Halle was stoical and knew how to enjoy what little he had. He did not start drinking, like his friends from the boxing hall. He did not end up in prison or at the cemetery, like many others. He was happy to live near Kępa Potocka and not, like before, at Racławicka Street. He would not be able to come out in the night, like now, and collect rich people’s leftovers. Racławicka and Żwirki i Wigury area towards the airport was fenced off and christened ‘Marina’. Wedich quite liked the mysterious name, but he preferred the anonymous spaces along the Vistula River, still untamed by developers fighting for land in the capital like mad dogs.
Halle took a special liking to the area around the Olympic Centre. He noticed good cars stopping there in the evenings. Their owners would meet and then, after several minutes, they would leave. Halle heard from somebody that it was one of the favourite tryst places for those who – here his interlocutors would always smile – ‘do it differently’. Poofs left behind not just used condoms, but also cans, unfinished bottles of beer, cigarettes in crumpled packets and even clothes. Halle could vouch for all of that: he himself found a t-shirt once, admittedly way too big for him, as well as a pair of unworn shoes. Somebody must have got really scared, he thought. Otherwise who would leave their shoes behind? And a good pair at that.
He recalled the shoe story now and felt better straight away. He had been in a good mood recently. The weather was nice, it had been warm for the last two weeks. There were more and more night rendezvous and plenty of leftovers to be scooped. Halle lit a cigarette. He was entering his hunt terrain.
A few cans and bottles were already clinking in his backpack when he noticed something strange. Somebody was staring at him from where the wall of trees started. Halle tossed the cigarette and put the backpack down. Years of experience had taught him that in this kind of situation it was best to have both hands free. Hands, which could still hit and rip heads off.
He looked at his watch, which he found in the bushes nearby last summer. It was 3.40 a.m. Nobody should be here at that time of night. He looked around. Strange. He could not see a car anywhere. He looked straight ahead again. The figure by the tree was sitting motionlessly and staring towards him. Wedich narrowed his nearsighted eyes and decided to come closer. Perhaps he would give the other one a fright? That would potentially mean an interesting loot. In such circumstances the most important thing is not to show any fear.
Halle made a step forward.
The other one still did not move. Strange. You are sitting somewhere in the middle of nowhere, at night, and somebody approaches you. Natural reaction would be to get up or even jump up, because you never knew what might happen and what the intruder’s intentions towards you were. The person that Halle was approaching was still sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him. On his head – Wedich squinted again – he had some kind of a hat. Maybe he is drunk, thought the ex-boxer. He looked at the trainers, seemingly in good nick. He might be lucky tonight. The hunt was showing promise.
But something was wrong. The person was still sitting, but not leaning against the tree, as one could expect. There was somebody else there. The sitting man’s back was resting against the other person. Halle noticed the second pair of stretched out legs. He slowed down. He could still only see the outline of those two, doing their strange gymnastics by the Palace at dawn.
‘What are you staring at, faggots?’ Halle said to the two sitting men. ‘What are you doing here?’
Seize the initiative, that’s the way.
They should jump up now. But there was no reaction. Halle heard something crunch under his foot. He thought with satisfaction that he had just crushed a snail’s shell. Why do those bastards have to crawl under people’s feet? Something was still not adding up here. He took one more step and finally understood.
The head. The sitting man had something on his head. Halle felt his stomach in his throat, as if he was taking a ride on a Ferris wheel. But it was not the head stuck in a bag that was the most terrifying. The ex-boxer saw something strange where the mouth should be. Something that scared him stiff.
He turned around abruptly and vomited onto his bag with the takings of the whole night. He wiped his mouth and beard with his hand.
‘What the fuck… Holy shit!’
He could tell something really bad had happened. It would probably be wise of him to disappear. Pity about the trainers …
He started walking towards the parking lot by the Olympic Centre. A drowsy song was oozing from the warden’s box. Through the window Halle saw that the man in a uniform with the word ‘Security’ on it was asleep with his head resting on his hand.
Halle started banging on the plastic wall of the box.
‘Hey, man, there, by the main footpath … A bit further down … Somebody is lying there … Or rather sitting … I think there are two of them …’
The drowsy man considered pressing the alarm button which would summon the patrol. But the security company did not like sending cars here, so he should expect trouble. Two young musclemen with shaved heads, wearing black uniforms, would surely laugh at his inability to deal with the situation. At the fact that he was not able to take care of one pint-sized hobo collecting tin cans.
‘Yeah? And what? I go there and you mug my box, right?’ He looked at the battered radio, still on. ‘I'm not an idiot.’
‘No, that’s not it… There…’
Halle pointed towards the trees.
There was something in his face that made the security guard change his mind. He pressed the alarm button on the remote. If the worst comes to the worst, he will have to explain himself.
The patrol arrived twelve minutes later.
It was 12th April 2007, the beginning of spring.
At 4.45 the birds’ morning song by the Vistula river was interlaced with the howling of the police sirens.