An extract from Lissa’s MA novel, Personal Liar.
Peter took a taxi from Salzburg Hauptbahnhof to the hotel. Sat in the back, he scanned through the new comments on Markus’s Instagram and replied to the good ones. After just a day and a half of doing this he’d found his method. By thinking like Markus, being as vague and generic as possible, and using emojis indiscriminately, the comments flowed from his fingers. So far, no one had suspected that they were interacting with an imposter and not the real Markus Mayer. And Peter didn’t think anyone ever would. He didn’t have any ethical qualms about what he was doing either. The impersonation was being done with Markus’s permission, just like any other social media assistant. The only unease he felt came from the possible consequences of detection rather than the likelihood. If anyone found out what was going on, they’d both be in a lot of trouble. The taxi stopped outside the hotel. Peter pulled on his beanie and fixed it close to his eyebrows hiding as much of his forehead as possible. He approached the front desk nervously but just like in Prague, the receptionist only glanced at the picture on Markus’s German ID. She didn’t scrutinize the couple of centimetres difference in height or notice that Peter’s blue eyes should have been brown. She didn’t expect him to be an imposter and had nothing to gain from seeing a different man on the ID to the one who stood before her. It was funny really how trusting most people were, how they accepted the information placed before them, unquestioningly.
Up in his room, Peter took the obligatory photos and posted them to Instagram. He changed into one of the promo t-shirts from Stuttgart Stoff, shoved two facemasks into his bag and went out the door again.
‘Have a nice day, Herr Mayer!’ the receptionist called out, friendlier than she’d been while checking him in.
Had she just seen the freshly posted photos on Instagram or googled Markus and found out he was in line to inherit millions of euros? Peter fixed a wide, Markus-like grin on his face, lifted a hand and turned away quickly. The sense of validation he experienced from her interest was heady but he couldn’t afford to enjoy it and risk drawing attention to Markus, or himself for that matter.
Getreidegasse was full of summer tourists and Peter looked around at the unfamiliar shop fronts and their wrought metal signage to try to get his bearings. Mozart’s birthplace was around here somewhere and was on Markus’s hit list but Peter had to head to Hellbrunn Palace first. It was three o’clock now and it closed at five. He had to take a bus too, to tick Markus’s eco-travel brand boxes. On this level, Peter felt Markus was asking him to do things he never would, but Peter didn’t mind, just as long as he could stay on tour and out of Stuttgart for a month.
He saw from the travel app that the bus was about to leave and jogged down towards the main road that ran along the river. He got on moments before they left, found a window seat, masked-up and took the photographic evidence of Markus’s eco-efforts.
‘Doing my bit to cut down on emissions while being a tourist,’ he typed, added hashtags and posted, and then sat back in his seat.
The palace was only ten minutes away and Peter went to the Stuttgarter Zeitung webpage. He scrolled down the page as he’d done at least ten times in the last two days until he came to the news article he was looking for. Today’s piece read as a rewrite of yesterday’s piece and the information was all the same. Oliver Lanz, a club manager had been attacked and killed on the Sängerstaffel and there was still no mention of a suspect or a motive. Peter looked up and out of the bus window and smiled at the thought of it. He imagined the police scratching their heads trying to make sense of it. Even if they found DNA at the scene they didn’t have his DNA on file. They’d be looking for someone who wasn’t even there and wouldn’t be there for a whole month. Surely in that time, they’d be forced to look elsewhere, conclude the murder was a drug deal gone wrong and that would be good. Peter didn’t fit the drug dealer profile.
At Schloss Hellbrunn, Peter got off the bus with all the other tourists and went into the lemon-coloured palace building first. He looked at the frescos and the interesting things in glass cases before coming out to the more famous water gardens. Here, were the well-known trick fountains, the stone table and chair set which shot water up from beneath and honour guard sprays which dripped down. Peter stayed away from these because he hadn’t taken the location photos yet and didn’t want splashes on the t-shirt. He also wanted a more landscape orientated first post, not the usual snapshots people took here. He turned in place and looking out towards the lawn decided to go that way.
In the middle of the grass, he pulled the mask into place and fixed it under his large sunglasses. The sky was overcast, but the building shone. He stuffed the phone on the tripod and posed with a loose V hand sign next to his face. It wasn’t a pose a Brit could do without feeling as if they were telling someone to get lost but it was on-brand for Markus. Then he changed it up and sitting down cross-legged in the sweet, fresh lawn, turned his head for a more thoughtful pose. This done, Peter leaned over the phone to edit. He applied Markus’s usual filter and a couple of clicks later the phot was posted. The comments and likes started building immediately.
‘Take care of yourself on your solo trip. I hope you’re feeling refreshed and relaxed!’
‘I remember going there as a kid. Wow. It hasn’t changed.’
While the comments were dropping, the phone pinged with a message from Tina reminding him, or rather Markus, to hashtag the hotel. Peter edited the post and quickly responded to a couple more comments. As Peter dictated into the phone a new post dropped. It was from Katsi’s handle and Peter stopped talking mid-sentence.
‘Markus. I’m here too! Beautiful Palace of Hellbrunn!’
He could hardly believe it, Markus’s crazy stalker. She couldn’t be here. Peter clicked on her name and there she was, posing beneath the stag’s head he’d just passed. He groaned. How had she known Markus was meant to be here? It didn’t really matter. She could look for Markus all she liked but she’d never find him. But his triumph was short-lived. Peter looked down at the bright yellow t-shirt he wore, pinching it and pulling it away from his body. The Stuttgart Stoff letters emblazoned across the front, the one he’d just posed in as Markus.
No she wouldn’t find Markus, she’d find him.
An irritated sigh juddered out of his body. If she saw Peter in this t-shirt and the same jeans, she’d know something was up. Peter couldn’t tell her he was impersonating Markus, he wasn’t allowed. No one must know Markus was in rehab. But if he didn’t have a convincing answer to give her, and he didn’t, she’d likely jump to some illogical conclusion. She’d think Peter had hacked Markus’s account or that he’d done something to Markus. She might even call the police.
He had to get away from here and make sure he wasn’t seen.
Peter got to his feet and walked quickly towards a large tree on the gravel path. The ticket office and the exit were about a hundred meters away. It was a long way to walk in a bright yellow t-shirt on the flat lawn but it was the only way out. At first, he was lost for a solution, but then it came to him. Inside the palace, he had snapped a picture of a huge scroll sculpture of musical score. Now he posted it to Instagram and added a comment as if he were still in that exact place.
‘Look at this amazing tribute to Salzburg’s most famous son. Feeling truly inspired to pick up a violin when I get home. Never too late!’
He added the hashtags, remembering to include the hotel.
Peter waited with the phone up to his face and after a minute the first response landed, then another but nothing from Katsi, which was good. He imagined her seeing the post and making a beeline for the location, because that’s exactly how he’d been, back when he was Markus’s stalker and not his impersonator. He nodded and urged himself on. Now was the time to make a run for it.
He crossed the grass, walking quickly, holding his hand up to his face as if the overcast day was still too bright for him. He was the only person on the lawn, a bright yellow dot and people watched him. The palace windows looked down on him too as a lot of inquisitive eyes. He could imagine Katsi at one of those windows, seeing him and thinking he was Markus, turning to come down the stairs, rushing now, not wanting to miss him. Peter broke out into a jog.
He reached the gravel and headed to the exit, his breathing getting quicker until he made it to the parking lot where the buses were waiting. He passed these and carried on to the taxis, approaching the first one and practically ripping the door handle off trying to get in.
‘The Ambassador Hotel,’ he said sinking into the back seat, but the driver simply turned around and looked at him.
‘Bitte,’ Peter added.
‘What’s the rush? You haven’t stolen anything have you?’
Peter laughed, thinking he was joking but seeing the driver wasn’t, he straightened up a little. As he did, he saw her. Katsi was standing at the entrance, her long blonde hair lifting as she walked. She was looking his way.
‘Please — drive,’ Peter said. ‘Go!’
The driver stared at him.
Peter gritted his teeth. ‘Look, that’s my girlfriend and she’s just told me she wants to get married and hold our reception here, and I just said —’
Before he could finish his sentence the driver had taken off. The taxi wheels spun in the loose grit.
Chapter Twenty One
At the hotel, Peter asked the male receptionist not to tell anyone he was here.
‘I must be absolutely clear about this,’ he said with his hand coming out and cutting through the air as Markus’s sometimes did.
‘Naturally, Herr Mayer. We take privacy very seriously here.’
‘And please don’t put any calls through or say you’ll take a message…’
‘We won’t. Is everything okay? Do you need me to call the police?’
‘No,’ Peter said quickly but politely. The thought of the police becoming involved was the worst possible outcome. They’d want to see his ID and they’d look at it more closely. ‘I just… don’t want to be disturbed.’
Peter went up to his room and crossed towards the window. Standing just to the side of the curtain he looked down on the Getreidegasse below. They’d given him a good room with the preferred view but now he stared down suspiciously, glancing at every blonde woman who passed.
It had been a close call and he’d survived it but that wasn’t the end of the problem. In the taxi back, Peter had scrolled back through Markus’s Instagram and had seen Markus had posted his whole itinerary, more or less, for the entire month. But Katsi hadn’t been in Prague yesterday and she wouldn’t follow Markus to Venice, would she?
It was only two hours to Salzburg from Stuttgart on the train but Venice was an eight-hour trip. There was no way to know. Except, Peter wondered, did he dare to direct message her as Markus? He did dare but remembered what Jayson had said. It wasn’t a good idea to encourage a stalker. These people could be dangerous.
He shook his head. She wasn’t dangerous in that way, but in another way she was. Peter was supposed to go out to a restaurant tonight, but Markus had posted about that too. How could he go in there, introduce himself as Markus and take photos dressed as Markus with Katsi lurking about. He would be a bag of nerves.
Peter opened the calendar and with the swipe of a finger, deleted the restaurant entry. If Tina asked why Markus hadn’t been to his scheduled appearance, he’d say it had never been in there. Instead, he ordered sushi to his room and ate it hunched over his phone. He did some more Instagram admin and then went to the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Forty-eight hours later and there was still nothing new.
‘No news is good news,’ he said to himself, pushing an avocado roll between his teeth but Peter doubted his own thoughts.
A question sprung to mind and he googled the answer.
‘What percentage of crimes in Germany are solved?’
Around 50 percent.
His next question was more specific.
‘What percentage of murders in Germany are solved?’
This answer introduced him to a new term, ‘cleared’. Around 97 per cent of murders in Germany were cleared.
The statistic unnerved him and Peter carried on googling, searching for articles and information to support a different opinion. At around ten o’clock at night he found something.
In the US at least, homicide clearance rates were lower where the victim was a drug dealer an addict or homeless. It made for miserable reading but picturing Oliver as one of these statistics, did not.
Oliver was a coke dealer and the police probably knew that by now. They’d likely searched his apartment and found his equipment or questioned people at the club. Maybe they’d found some coke there too. Could it be that the police were already actively looking into the drug-dealing angle and that’s why the story had died in the paper? No one really cared what happened to drug dealers, at least not enough to pay reporters to write about it.
Peter smiled at this thought and held onto it as he brushed his teeth and got into bed.
When he checked out early the next morning there was a new receptionist on duty. Peter lay the card on the counter between them and waited for the man to check the incidentals.
‘Ah, Herr Mayer,’ he said raising his thick eyebrows. ‘I was given some information this morning from a colleague.’
Peter lowered his roller case. ‘Yes?’
‘A young lady was asking after you last night. She was really quite insistent that she be able to talk to you and even asked my colleague to let her have a key for your room.’
‘A key!’ Peter’s voice wavered.
‘Yes. She claimed she was travelling with you. My colleague called your room, but you had put the phone on do not disturb. He explained to her that unless she was registered as a guest, he couldn’t let her in. I hope he didn’t—’
‘No. No,’ Peter said. ‘Thank you. I wasn’t expecting anyone. She’s not a guest here, is she?’
‘No…’ The man’s eyebrows danced again. ‘I don’t think she even stayed in the city last night. My colleague asked if he could call her a taxi to another hotel and she asked for it to the station instead.’
‘How odd,’ Peter said more smoothly.
‘We wouldn’t have troubled you with it but thought you should know.’
‘And, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Just a small, blonde woman, my colleague said,’ A deliberate smile spread across the receptionist’s face, not particularly dangerous-looking and it was probably just a case of mistaken identity.’
‘Yes,’ Peter said. ‘I bet you’re right. Anyway, thank you.’
He picked up his case again and went out to the taxi he’d ordered.