It was strangely familiar.
Father's house was in partial shade, the neighbouring houses miles away and the trees looked gigantic. Needles coloured the ground. The entrance hall was tidy and clean. It did not resemble her last visit. It was bright and vibrant. There were flowers and the greys were shrouded in a bright white mixed with the wistful sky blue.
From the living room, a staircase led downstairs to a long, covered room with a swimming pool and the same bright colours. Wall-sized windows gave a view of the outside. Flowering trees, wandering birds and an automobile in front of the driveway awakened the carefree time.
Claire was alone. No matter how long the corridor was beyond the room, she could not reach it. With slow steps she ran out of the house, not noticing how her father waved kindly from the balcony and called her silently.
The nougat-brown car was open. When she took her seat, new trees had grown and made the road narrower. With a jerk and a lack of knowledge, she steered the four wheels onto the asphalt before heading downhill. Past the villas, she came ever closer to the valley.
Claire had no idea what she was doing. Was it the house that had frightened her or her father in doll-like form looking at her from the balcony? With her eyes closed, she raced into a town - it wasn't hers.
Mist enveloped the buildings and gave them permission to grow into castles. A skyscraper with water pouring out pushed her away. Like a mighty hand, it pushed the girl back up the street towards her father. The former valley had become a lake. Rising, the water brought her out of the wagon. Crawling and waving her hands, she rushed into the strange cellar.
Her father continued to stay on the balcony. The confidence in his eyes had disappeared. The water rose and engulfed the street. Claire closed the door and watched it shatter the windows.
Claire was confused.
She had never had a dream that led from a current of liberating fears to a feedback of these. Either they were profoundly sad and laced with fear of not being able to accomplish anything, or they were blessed with glee that made them fly. This kind of transformation had thrown her off her game this morning.
She wished that her father was not there. She wished that Rothmann was not the one she was looking for. Claire wished for a lot. Too much to fulfill everything.
Strangely, Léonard and Monique were not present when she asked about Julius. Emma was in her bed, sleeping longer than she had for days, overtaking even Claire with her sleepiness. As he claimed on the way out, Julius had the map to the Seelenherz Inc. in his head.
"Do you know who Léonard means we're going to meet?"
They were sitting in the tram. He turned his head from the window towards her.
"Yes and no. Léonard has been working on a plan since his birthday that he hasn't told me about. Possibly tonight."
"Since his birthday?"
He nodded. A rumble almost made them fall. The tram was an old model and drove rapidly through the industrial zone.
"Seelenherz Inc. has done some crooked business with the abbey. That's not to say that everyone in the company knows about it, but there must be at least one or two high-ranking employees who are leading a double life," Julius explained, "Because there are several relationships involved, between the Abbey, Seelenherz and the Duke family. They possess a connection."
Julius looked around: "Later, when we are alone, I will tell you more."
What was presented in Berlyne as imposing, incomparable and spectacular in natural form as a skyscraper in the middle of a city of millions was, for visitors to both headquarters, a poor comparison for the gravity of this building. Or rather six buildings.
The biggest houses are in Valdebourg, the Enalits used to say, referring to the Seelenherz Inc. When you got off the tram, you found yourself in a narrow gorge. Some facades resembled sandstone, others were a chrome state of white and translucent. The cacti lived at the edge of the window, millimetres away from falling to their death.
The side street, or rather an alley, was the end of the line for both of them. In front of them rose the sanctuary of entrepreneurial art, a gigantic bulwark of the capitalist. Seelenherz Inc., the oldest company in the country, was a cruelly fussy inventory of bureaucracy and hard work.
"It was founded four hundred years ago. That coincides with the proclamation of the Free Duchy in the same year," Julius murmured.
A cigarette gave him the opportunity to calm down.
"That's what Léonard asked," Claire returned perkily, helping herself.
"Although the founding fathers are known, it is assumed that they worked closely with the ducal family. The interesting thing, and perhaps what drew Léonard's attention, is that the abbey was involved. By that time, their power was already crumbling in the Empire."
"That's why they went with Seelenherz?"
"That's why they went with Seelenherz. They have seen into the future and realised that the world is changing. That's how Léonard and I take it. Don't get me wrong; today's Seelenherz is not a product of the Abbey. Rather, it is a small source of income for the Order. As I said, one or two senior members, if not the President himself are devotees. Of course, the staff knows nothing about it," he told her.
"The ducal family and the abbey are connected? Is the entire Free Duchy ultimately a world created by the abbey?"
"No. There are only reports from the family chronicle that the guys went in and out. Whether for good or bad I don't know. Unfortunately, this is not recognisable and even Professor Reck could speculate. What does the duke's family have to do with it... we'll have to ask them ourselves..."
They had plunged from the alley into life. They were the only ones who got out, it seemed strange to Claire. To find a company that had become part of the country in such a confined space.
The main street was stripped of its former opinion. One building site followed the next. Attempts were made to connect the buildings with bridges. The different building styles were an expression of the epochs in which there was an economic boom.
The main entrance with many flags waving and the coat of arms above the half dozen doors showed their power. Julius was gallant and opened the door for Claire. They wore neither suit nor dress, it was typical of the city, not employee-like.
The dark entrance hall was honeycombed. A statue of the founding fathers shook hands with invisible people. Once again, the coat of arms was enthroned among them. It seemed all the more sinister to her that the abbey should have been there.
Receptionists sat or stood behind the counters. The interior resembled a large hotel with each room having a small box, complete with a key and the necessary letters.
"That's where we have to go," Julius pointed the way.
Breathing is something strange...
The friendly gentleman with wide protruding ears smiled at both of them as Claire walked toward him. It was a greeting one would not have expected. Too formal and monotonous, memorised to perform the routine activities.
"We would like to see Mr. Silberlilie - if he is here," the young woman gulped.
He won't be there. Then we can go.
And come back another time! No matter how wobbly your legs are, you've made it this far! Julius is with you and he's not coming next time!
"Claire Silberlilie. His daughter." she choked.
"One moment, please."
Without further ado, he was with one of his colleagues and there were whispers. Seconds that seemed like hours, he came back to them.
"Wait a moment, he will be notified."
He pointed to a corner with straw chairs and a panorama of the main street. As the light shone inside, it was the only smell of freedom outside in this black chamber.
Julius played his role as a silent companion well. The mimicless transposition of his face was a dull sight for the gentleman.
"He's here," Claire repeated nervously.
"He's not coming to pick you up. We're being taken to him," Julius reassured her, "Your father is head of a department... they always have such appendages."
"My favourite thing would be if he didn't want to see me."
She clung to her legs. Worried and inhibited, she tried to go into her unfulfilled fantasy world to direct the following moments.
One could see the stress on her face. The pale skin changed into an apathetic, dying being. Unstable and exhausted sounds played a piece of sorrowful music in her head. Almost amused, Julius regarded her. Her dark blue eyes haunted his. With an uncomfortable squint, she managed to block him.
Right now, I'm turning my back on everyone…
People came out of lifts, stairwells, and from outside. Anyone could have been their father's appendage. None came to them, some chatted with the receptionist, and others searched for documents in their pockets. An oversized typewriter was brought to the lift by two errand boys.
"Would you like a cigarette?"
"Is it tension or do you really have such a grudge against him?" asked Julius.
She did not answer but fixed her gaze on the black-haired man approaching. Brought in by the receptionist, he stood before them in the blink of an eye.
"Miss Silberlilie? You and your companion can come along. Your father is already expecting you."
Claire did not want to get up. Her legs were moving. She was behind him.
It went a long way through the entrance hall to an endless corridor with endless doors. It was the same, always the same. The group didn't really move. They were on a treadmill that brought them to a standstill.
At some point, the man kept silent, they took steps and a lift. It went over a bridge in the middle of a tiny green area, surrounded by offices, and more stairs came.
Just when Claire thought they had reached the other side of the world; they were in front of the last lift.
"To the twelfth floor. It's the third door from the left," he said goodbye.
"We seem to be in a madhouse," she chortled when they were alone in the confined space.
They had not met anyone for several floors.
"Truly." grinned Julius, "Upstairs they await us with straps to tie us to the bed."
She was impatient. The inertia and the noise of the machine drove her crazy.
There they were at last; the twelfth floor.
The ceiling was ten feet above them. The chequerboard tiles were covered by a marble fountain. This tiny miniature form bubbled up water and sank it again. Emerald black columns divided the room evenly. Pure white walls with golden lamps, each parted in the middle and decorated with porcelain hats, were gentle and paid respect to the seven ebony doors.
It was a mysterious foyer. This whole place was a dream. There were no windows. One lost one's bearings. Where were they? Above or below ground?
"There is no thirteenth floor." Julius broke the silence, "This is where the bigwigs of Seelenherz Inc. gather."
"Third door from the left," Claire whispered and walked forward.
He corrected her right gait to the right side. There were no name tags in front of the ebony. A knock had to suffice and serve the conviction of being correct.
There were no surrendering words of entry. Rather, the barrier between them was opened.
"Good afternoon, Claire."
Benedikt Silberlilie looked worn out. The rings under his eyes testified to several sleepless nights. His pale appearance resembled a drowned man. Since his arrival in Valdebourg four days ago, he had barely spent three hours in bed.
"You made it to Valdebourg," he spoke blandly.
Had he noticed Julius? Or what is he worried about?
"This here is Léonard," Claire introduced Julius, "Emma's cousin."
Benedikt had returned to his place. Smaller than Berlyne, it was contradictorily a beautiful palace.
"Your aunt mentioned him. He was at your birthday, wasn't he?"
Did he see him as a souvenir? Julius wanted to shake his hand. Benedikt didn’t refuse, he completely ignored the young man.
"What brings you to Valdebourg, Claire?"
"I'm going outside for a moment," Julius whispered to her.
After that, he had already closed the door behind him.
Somewhat irritated, she forgot about her father. Leaving her alone was not in the cards. There was no scenario in which Julius would disappear.
"Here I am, Claire." he said sternly and kindly, "There's an empty chair."
"I wanted to come and say hello. There's nothing wrong with me."
"I can see that."
"Is... is Mr. Rothmann not here?" she asked sheepishly.
"No. He does my duties in Berlyne. My being here has to do with an urgent problem. I can't tell you any more than that it's about a million Kronen that have disappeared."
"A million? What has that to do with you?”
He nodded hesitantly.
"It doesn't matter. Claire, I'm worried about you, what are you going to do?"
She looked at her father. Should she tell him everything she had planned so far or keep him on edge? The memory of the meeting in Berlyne made her sad. She had been vicious, had thrown all the bad things at her father and hurt him. At the time, it was as if he had been a doll that Claire had torn apart. Now he was a being of flesh and blood. Should she have apologised?
"Give me a little time." she whispered distantly, "I have something to do before I go my way."
"Why are you talking in riddles?"
"I want to start at Seelenherz at this time!"
He gasped for air before continuing.
"You won't be able to get through this."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I'm your father."
"I know I can do it."
Benedikt went to her. With his hands on her shoulders, he initially wanted to stare into her eyes when he turned her away.
"We both know you don't want that. You have another dream."
Something in his eyes shone. It was her face. A brief smile from her father weakened him. His unhealthy posture made him feel old. Benedikt was not stressed. He was helpless. Unable to give his daughter anything, he took his hands off her shoulder. Stained with his dirt, he took a step back.
"It's nice that you came," he whispered, "Normally they don't allow family in the workplace. It's nice that they made an exception."
She felt a shiver come over her father.
"I'm sorry about what happened in Berlyne... I don't know what was wrong with me."
“I..." Claire began.
She was too ashamed to form a sentence. She didn't want to be reminded of it. It was equally unpleasant for him, but he drilled deeper.
"Do you forgive me?"
Claire looked at him. Did he care about something? Strange pity grew inside her. She wanted to hug him, but she refused as she thought of earlier. She couldn't be there for him.
"How are Bolderich and Giselle?"
"Both are doing well. Giselle will soon be travelling around the world with her husband."
"That's nice.” Claire envied her sister.
"It's good to spring from the old feathers to broaden their horizons. It will be fun for them and maybe, maybe they will find a nice place to live with their child together."
Benedikt was sweating.
"You have good friends. Léonard, Emma... they look after you, don't they?"
She silently answered the question in the affirmative. Her father went to the desk.
"I still have work to do. Forgive me for not being able to be there for you..."
Claire was on her feet.
"Father..." she murmured, caught.
Mindlessly, she waved at him from the doorway. One last photo from the room showed the white walls and cluttered filing cabinets. He could not cope with it alone.
"I forgive you."
He stared sheepishly at his typewriter. An inaudible thank you escapedhis lips.
Julius was waiting outside.
It was a crash. A height difference between father and daughter. Like an unnoticed music box that had stopped turning when the door was closed.
It has been a dream.
Julius sat by the fountain in the middle of this aristocratic corridor. His tenseness was absent-minded. Was he trapped in the depths of himself or was he listening to his voice in his head?
"We can go."
Her voice echoed in the foyer. It was under pressure when she found the words. She didn't know if she could come another time.
At the same time as the two went to the lift, two doors opened. Her father's and the middle one.
"Claire, wait!" and "Have you solved the problem, Mr. Silberlilie?" overlapped. To whom she stared first was impossible to tell. Forgotten in this oversized space, Benedikt turned away.
"No. Give me some more time, Mr. Haarmann."
Claire was befuddled. She stared hostilely at the man. It was the dead expression in his posture, the almost convulsive attempt to do the splits - and of course the face that she recognised.
"He was invited to Léonard's birthday party," she whispered to Julius, "Haarmann. How could I forget his name? He's father's boss."
"Don't waste them! More millions may be disappearing as we speak! I recommend myself."
Disgusted by his appearance, he ignored Benedikt's further dialogue.
"Good afternoon." he greeted them, "I know you!" he added confusedly, "You were at the Melaten estate, Claire was the name."
She stood stiffly in front of him and whispered the answer. Father was not far from them, watching the conversation. If he had had the courage, he would have jumped in and intervened, but his shy nature locked him in.
There was no more opportunity to listen to him as Haarmann pushed them both into the lift and, with taciturn courtesy, set the machine in motion.