IT ALL ENDED AFTER THAT FINAL SHOT. Immediately he had known. Whose idea was it to take shots, anyway? he thought as he woke up groggy with high-pitched ringing in his ears. How loud was the music? Wave after wave of humming vibrations came from his left. His neck felt stiff. He gazed up at the hazy ceiling and licked his dry lips. Next time, no shots. Devouring spirits was not the answer. He strained his eyes and looked over at the bedside table, quickly realising it was his smartphone doing the vibrating. Before he could reach out, it stopped. He rolled over and checked the screen; seven missed calls from a number in Tartu. His head jerked back. He snatched the phone off the table and called the number.
“Oh, thank God,” an old, husky voice on the other end said. “It’s Johannes.”
A chill ran over his skin.
“Johannes? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You need to come home. It’s Kraas. He had a stroke.”
“What!?” he shrieked, sitting up suddenly. “No! Is he ok?”
“He…” Johannes said, trailing off. “I don’t know. I went next door to pick him up for hunting, and he was on the floor. We are at Tartu Hospital. The doctors are with him now.”
He froze in place.
“Are you there?” asked Johannes.
“Uhh,” he groaned, supporting himself on the bed with his free hand, his head spinning. “Yes, I’m here. I’m… I’m on my way, Johannes. Tell him to hold on. Please.”
“Hurry, my boy,” said Johannes wearily before closing the connection.
He stood up, struggling to hold his feet. His face and body turned damp with sweat. Water, he needed water, and a train ticket. No, he would take a taxi. The trip from Tallinn to Tartu was long enough. In three minutes he was dressed. Hold on, Kraas, he thought as he rushed out of the door. Please. Hold on.
It was the worst flooding Berlin had seen in decades, a deluge of thirty-six relentless hours. Charlottenburg had somehow remained mostly unaffected, but according to the news, a large part of the city lay underwater. Underground train stations had become raging rivers. Transportation was crippled, and thousands of people were stranded. Meanwhile, Frederich sat sheltered inside Novalis Cafe in Charlottenburg, cradling an espresso and staring out at the street. He was pondering how easy it would be to kill a man in those conditions.
It was the perfect setting, he figured. Especially at nighttime. The rain would shield the act, and the flood would hide the body long enough to make a clean getaway. The water would wash away any trace evidence. Looking into space, he squinted while chewing the edge of his thumb, immersed in his hypothetical plan. He grew breathless, picturing himself creeping up on his target in the rain with a clip-point knife in hand, the only sign of his presence being the sharp sting of a deep gash across the victim’s throat.
Frederich, come back. His conscious voice shook him out of it. He blinked hard and gazed around to re-align himself with his surroundings. A young girl with a blonde ponytail sitting at another table was giving him a wide-eyed, expressionless stare as her mother spoke to another woman. He creased his eyebrows and glared back, causing the girl to desperately bury her face in her mother’s arm. He turned away and looked out of the window again. Reality came sharply into focus and the inescapable feeling returned. The dull ache in his chest reminded him that Kraas was gone.
The dissociative episodes were coming more often, he noticed. He knew the sinister thoughts were a symptom of something deeper. It was right there, tugging at him as he sat in his chair. It surfaced the day Kraas died, and had not let up since Frederich ended up in Berlin six weeks ago. If anything, the suffocating mood was growing stronger, allowing him no air to escape what felt like a cold void sucking him in. The longer he spent alone with it, the more murderous and brutal his thoughts became, and the more difficult it was to get them under control.
He had few answers for this rising tide. At first, speaking to someone about it had crossed his mind. He decided against it. The urge to kill was not something you simply got off your chest. No, he was stuck with it. On unusually heavy days he would toy with the idea of driving his pistol into his mouth, feeling the cold steel pressing against his teeth, and pulling the trigger. Problem solved. There was something compelling, almost appealing about such a clean and straightforward solution. Picturing death in those moments gave him an eerie peace. He would spend hours curiously admiring the depth of this mysterious void, feeling himself being dragged in further, before a voice in his head intervened and ordered him out of the house. A few hours each day in Novalis Café among strangers’ chatter on a backdrop of easy listening music kept him sane, although it never completely freed him from the feeling. The morbid episodes kept coming, and the shadow remained his constant companion.
Novalis was usually the last place a misfit like Frederich would frequent. It was quaint and beautifully decorated. Its pastel-coloured walls, warm lighting and elegant decor drew in people who were looking for more than a quick bite or caffeine fix. Stylishly dressed women spent hours gossiping and giggling over lattes beside families lunching in their Sunday best. Within this vibrant, wholesome place was Frederich, dressed in all black, the whole time remaining withdrawn and distracted. His state of mind was not healthy, he acknowledged, but he had no other way to fight it. His daily routine of brooding and coffee in a family-friendly environment was all he could think of, and it had been somewhat effective. At least during opening hours.
He caught the waiter’s eye and nodded, indicating he was ready for his glass of orange juice. The waiter nodded back, accustomed to Frederich’s regimen. Minutes later the waiter brought the drink over with a smile then returned to the front. The staff at Novalis had learnt quickly not to bother with the chit-chat and to stick to the routine; each day two espressos followed by an orange juice, all now ordered with nods and gestures.
He sipped his juice and lost himself in his thoughts again while continuing to watch the deluge outside. When the staff began wiping down tables, he sensed his despair rising. It was time to face another restless night in the black, followed by another morning with only memories of Kraas to comfort him.
He stood up and looked around. He was the last one there. The earlier liveliness was gone, and Novalis felt still and unfamiliar. He put on his black leather jacket and made for the exit.
It was now dark outside, and the rain was coming down harder than ever, taking only seconds to soak him through. He pushed his mop of hair out of his face and walked faster. As he neared Savignyplatz, it became apparent that the worst of the rain had reached Charlottenburg. The street leading to his apartment was flooded. He sighed and began trudging his way through the water, which seeped immediately into his boots and jeans and weighed down his legs. He laboured forward, struggling to see ahead. The rain came down harder again and gave him vertigo, forcing him to a standstill. He lifted his chin to the clouds in frustration while water crashed onto his face and a sea of white noise filled his head. Could things get any worse?
From within the noise came a barely audible scream of distress. He lowered his head and turned toward the source of the sound. He listened hard. It came again, this time from further down the street. Or had it been behind him? It was hard to tell with the rain. He waited a long time and finally shook his head dismissively. His mind was playing tricks. He lifted his leg and resumed pushing through the deluge. Then he stopped again. He noticed his heart was beating quicker and that his skin had grown more sensitive to the impact of the rain. His body never played tricks. He shielded his eyes with his hand and scanned the parked cars with their submerged wheels. There was no movement. He checked the entranceways of the apartment buildings. It was hard to know from his position if anyone was there. Then he turned back to one of the cars, a Mercedes SLK convertible. He moved a few steps closer until he saw it; the car’s windows were foggy. Someone was inside. He plodded forwards without hesitation, his feet crashing against the water. He tried the front door. It was unlocked. When he pulled it open, his body shook. A brawny man in a light grey suit was in the driver’s seat, bent over the passenger side and gripping a young woman in a chokehold.
The man spun around and looked at Frederich in surprise, his gaze fierce and unsettling and his chest heaving up and down. He had a crew cut and a long, bushy beard. The woman’s hair was tangled, and her deep brown eyes were wide open and filled with terror.
“Help me!” she yelled.
Something primal electrified Frederich. He knew his training; maintain space while assessing the situation, and fight only if communication broke down. Despite that it blew past him, and he was too slow to catch it. Just like he had been the last time it came. Oh, no. The rage surged through and took him with it. His peripheral awareness sharpened, and all he could see was the man; all he could feel was an overwhelming need to destroy him, to reach inside and snatch the life out of him.
He stretched his arms out and yanked the man out of the car by his shirt collar, dragging him onto the flooded street face first. The man reacted quickly, jumping at Frederich’s feet and knocking him off balance. Frederich now found himself in the water with the man’s superior weight on top of him. Two hands pressed down on his face and submerged it. He tried pushing his torso up, then twisted left and right with his hips, but his opponent relented. He grasped the man’s arms. They were immovable. Shit, he’s a brawler. It was all happening too fast. There was no space or time to think. The void was now his only comfort, seeping into him like water as he ran out of oxygen. He let go and went with it, further than he had ever gone. The panic dissolved, and calmness reigned. His mouth opened, and water began pouring into his throat.
The woman’s muffled scream sounded in the distance.
“Stop it! Let him go!”
Her words jolted Frederich. He remembered that two lives were in danger. He opened his eyes and turned his focus outward again.
“Please!” came her muffled voice again.
Frederich tried wriggling his body. When that failed, he lifted both of his knees and rammed them into the man’s backside, forcing him to fall forward. He wrapped his left arm around the man’s shoulder and with a mighty heave and twist of his body, dislodged himself and reversed their positions. He now had the high ground, and the man was the one underwater. He knew his advantage would not last long against his stronger opponent. He took the man by his shirt collar and pulled him up. He then bent back and head-butted him with full force, smashing his forehead into the soft part of the man’s face with a crunch. He sucked in a large gulp of air then brought his head down again on the man’s nose before pushing him back underwater and choking him with both hands as tightly as he could muster. A gush of blood oozed out over the water’s surface. The man struggled, but with only a fraction of the strength he had before. After some time he stopped moving. Frederich continued to press down until he was sure the man was dead.
Her eyes stayed fixed on the dead body lying in the water while Frederich retched and coughed and struggled to regain his breath. Still faint, he turned his attention to the surroundings. He shielded his eyes from the rain with his hands and scanned the windows of the apartments and down the street for observers. There was nobody around — as far as he could tell.
That gave him a choice; he could call the police or flee. He looked over at the young woman. She had witnessed him start the fight, so self-defence was probably not an option. He had protected her from what looked like attempted murder. His lawyer could run with that. In any case, there would be consequences. Police interviews. A drawn-out trial. Media attention. He could imagine nothing worse. He would rather plead guilty. The best thing would be to clear his tracks and get the two of them inside, and decide later once the flood had died out. The police could do nothing in those conditions anyway.
He hurried to clear the scene, first wiping the car’s doors clean of prints with his jacket sleeve. He felt inside the water beneath the convertible and found it was too low, so he fought and struggled with the man’s body until he could push it underneath an SUV parked in the next spot. The effort left him again breathless. He steadied himself on the side of the car for some seconds. Then it was time to go.
He went over and placed a hand on her shoulder. There was no reaction. She stayed in her place like a statue, still facing the dead body.
“We need to go!” he yelled.
No reaction. No movement. The sheer volume of rain was making communication difficult. Plus they had already lingered too long. He clenched his fists. Stay calm, Frederich. He took her by both hands and stepped in closer.
“We can’t stay here! It’s time to go!”
She turned to him with a stiff face.
“Please,” he mouthed, pleading with his eyes.
She gave a slight nod. He nodded back then let one of her trembling hands go and led her with the other. As they moved forward, she turned around for one last look at the man’s body.
They progressed slowly down the street without incident, trudging their way through the shin-deep water. Two blocks later they reached his building. The water level had now reached the front step. With steady hands he found his keys and they made their way up the stairs to his first-floor apartment.
He switched on the light, revealing the hallway and series of four doors. The bathroom was on the right, followed by the kitchen and a modestly-sized bedroom. He led her through his old-style apartment and into the living room at the back, leaving behind a trail of wet footsteps on the hardwood flooring. He encouraged her to sit on the three-seater sofa and switched on the lamp. She cooperated, still in a state of shock, and resumed staring at nothing. The curtains were open, he noticed. He went over to the window and checked the yard as well as the surrounding apartments before shutting the curtains. He went back over and kneeled in front of her. Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
After a long pause, she turned and faced him. Her mouth was partially open and her hands were still trembling. She swallowed hard.
“Ida,” she said quietly with a hoarse voice.
He nodded, relieved that she was speaking.
“I’m Frederich,” he said.
She blinked multiple times and took a deep breath, closed her eyes and leaned back on the sofa. He went inside, snatched the pillow and blanket off his bed and tossed them over his shoulder. When he returned, he found her peeling off her clothes. He turned around and faced the wall, and waited. He looked again and she was down to her underwear, while her sopping, brown skirt, black stockings, white t-shirt, brown platform boots and leather jacket were scattered at the base of the sofa. He covered her up immediately, refusing to allow his mind to wander. With the blanket over her body, she turned to lay down while he scrambled to position the pillow underneath her head. She closed her eyes and rolled into a foetal position. Soon after she was asleep, her breathing now slow and steady.
He went into his bedroom and opened the bottom drawer of his dresser. Beneath the clothing was a box, which he placed on his bed to unpack. Inside was his pistol, three boxes of subsonic ammunition and a suppressor. He loaded the pistol and suppressed it. The gun had been in the drawer since he came to Berlin. Instinct told him that the man he had killed was no ordinary civilian. If so, he would likely have friends. Those friends would have the same violent tendencies. Frederich would need to stay vigilant. It was an impulse which came from years of training. Still, he was confident he had covered all the angles. Ida was the only loose end he could think of, and she was sleeping soundly on his sofa.
He carefully inspected the pistol. It had been a gift from Kraas for his seventeenth birthday which he maintained in immaculate condition. It was as much a weapon for him as it was a sentimental reminder of his father. When he was satisfied with its current state, he double-checked the safety then settled upright on his bed and placed the pistol beside him. His ears instantly began latching onto every sound, both inside and outside of the apartment. He heard the fridge humming inside and the movements of his upstairs neighbour. A dull pressure pushed against his skin. His temple twitched. He knew the telltale signs well. He was alert and ready to act, and he would remain that way for as long as he felt was necessary.
While Ida slept on, groaning and shifting at times, Frederich remained watchful, resting lightly only for short periods. The adrenaline from the fight eventually settled, and he began experiencing strange states of consciousness as the night wore on.
The first images came during a moment of light sleep. He saw the man’s fierce gaze cutting into him, unflinching and uncompromising. He felt the man’s fingers pressing into his face while it was underwater. He tossed and turned under the heavy weight and convulsed from the terror of being suffocated. Eventually, a moment of profound tranquillity broke through, where he looked down on the man’s bloodied, lifeless face partially submerged in the water, his fierce gaze gone forever.
He jerked abruptly and was met by a howling sense of grief and despair. It sucked him in and took his mind back to the day Kraas died. He saw himself in the back seat of the taxi as they raced down the number 2 from Tallinn to Tartu. His foot was tapping rapidly on the floor and he was urging the now annoyed driver to speed up. His phone rang when they were ten minutes away from the hospital. It was Johannes. He answered instantly.
“Johannes! Is he ok?”
There was only the sound of people rushing around in the background.
“Johannes?” he yelled again.
“Frederich,” said Johannes with a weepy voice. Frederich’s stomach knotted up. “He’s gone. I’m sorry, my boy.”
He left his body. The phone fell out of his hand. His eyes widened, and his lips began trembling. He was quick to realise how ill-prepared he was for this moment. He went numb, and the rest of that day and the next became a strange dream. He was now standing dumbfounded at the funeral, unable to cry. Random members of his village approached him, dressed in black, and offered their condolences with a soft touch on the shoulder. ‘He was a great man,’ they said. ‘What a heartbreaking loss.’
It was now late at night, and he was sitting on the sofa in his childhood home staring at the moonlight coming through the window. He felt empty, desolate like nuclear aftermath, unable to grasp the emerging darkness. Without warning, the ground beneath him gave way and he found himself thrust headfirst into the infinite reaches of terror. The howling panic shook him like nothing before, and spurred an overwhelming urge to flee, to escape the place which had come to represent Kraas. That meant leaving Tartu and also Tallinn. The next day he met with Kraas’ lawyer to discuss his inheritance, which turned out to be the house and 400,000 euros of savings. He looked on, stunned. Where did the money come from? The lawyer had no idea. His instructions were only to ensure a swift handover. Frederich reluctantly signed the papers. More condolences came. He returned to Tallinn, packed his bags and fled Estonia without alerting anybody. His only impulse was to escape and then stay in motion.
Green, transient landscapes passed by in the train window, including the farms, towns, forests and winding rivers of the countryside. The void was there, growing stronger as he travelled from place to place across eastern Europe, from Riga to Warsaw, Bratislava to Vienna. He had lived and slept beneath the shadow of Kraas’ death, from hostel to city landmark, each day blending into the next until he reached Berlin, where something told him it was time to stop.
As he sat upright on his bed in the dark, it had all caught up with him. The unravelling process began with a thickness in his throat. Shit. The tears rose to the surface and he lifted the blanket quickly over his face. He clenched his jaw and stuck his head in but with no effect. After three months of tightly holding it in, grief came gushing out of him. He moaned and wailed while the image of Kraas’ face grew vivid. Those sharp grey eyes would never watch over him again. He would never again see that bald head with the rough white stubble. Kraas would never pass by and rub the top of his hair again while he was reading, and he would never have the chance to complain about it while secretly liking when Kraas did that. I miss you. The words kept repeating in his mind, over and over, like a grief mantra, slowly cleansing him of his burden. The tears soaked his blanket until there were none left. Then, without meaning to, he fell asleep.
Michael Inselheim rolled up his shirt sleeves and wiped his forehead free of sweat. His associate handed him a cold bottle of water from the Jeep, which he used to cool the back of his neck. He rolled the bottle over his cheek and savoured a short reprieve from the desert heat. How did people live in such conditions, he wondered? He was hard-pressed to think of anything less interesting than the bland rocks, raw dirt and ugly shrubs which covered the Kazakh desert landscape.
“Ten minutes until launch,” said Shirvan, having just spoken to the field team on the phone.
“Are they ready for post-launch?” he asked.
“Of course. The Neutralaser goes underground straight after discharge.”
Inselheim looked out at the horizon where the dummy rocket would be launched, and his eye twitched again. After a short pause, it twitched again. He loathed waiting. That was why he refused to line up for anything, he thought, as he rubbed his thumb against the pale strip on his bare ring finger. It had been three months since he took his wedding band off, but having the finger naked still felt strange. He wondered how Mira would react once she found out that the project which ended their marriage was finally complete. She probably could not care less. She was happily wrapped up in her new life in London with Mr. Best-Selling Author, who judging by the photos was giving her all the attention she craved. Unlike Inselheim.
“Eight minutes,” said Shirvan, staring at his watch.
Inselheim made a fist to stop himself rubbing his finger and began pacing back and forth.
“Stop fretting. It’s going to be fine, Mr. Inselheim,” said Shirvan from a distance.
Inselheim sniggered to himself. If Shirvan knew how bad their situation really was, he would be pacing right next to him. In reality, the very survival of the company was tied to the success of the Neutralaser project. They had nothing to fall back on. The test had to succeed — no exceptions.
Inselheim looked up at the crisp blue sky, beyond which over 1,000 operational satellites belonging to dozens of countries were in orbit. This would be the Inselheim Group’s fifth rocket launch for the month. So far the cover story had held up, but they were pushing their luck. It had been over twenty-four months since Inselheim publicly commissioned the short-range ballistic missile project as a way to disguise the Neutralaser. No eyebrows had been raised yet, but it was a matter of time before the phone calls started pouring in from both East and West. Inselheim was proud of his cover project idea. It was a stroke of diplomatic genius. He had gifted his team something to test with as well as an excuse to fire rockets without raising suspicion. Far from adding yet another missile to the arms race, however, Inselheim was going to shock the world by revealing the device that would put an end to the threat of nuclear destruction. Most importantly, he was going to immortalise the Inselheim name. When all was done, the history books would extensively cover the life of Michael Inselheim; son of Thomas Inselheim and saviour of the world. He only wished his father would have been around for the moment.
His phone began vibrating in his pocket, disrupting his daydream. It was Brunswick.
“Hello, Kimberley,” he said as he put the phone to his ear.
“Hello, Michael,” said Brunswick. “How are you feeling?”
“Cool as a cucumber.”
“Five minutes!” came Shirvan’s voice from behind.
“Liar,” said Brunswick.
“You?” said Inselheim.
“Liar,” said Inselheim with a slight smirk, which was the closest thing to a smile he had experienced in months.
“Well, nervous, but still confident,” said Brunswick. “The team is in good spirits. That helps.”
“Elias Khartoum called,” said Inselheim flatly.
Brunswick sighed, then went quiet.
“What did he want?” she asked.
“He wants to do a cash pick-up this Monday. A fee of 250,000 euros as penalty for falling behind.”
“They’re tightening the screws on us. What are we going to do, Michael?”
“I’ve got the money. I’ll fly back and meet him. Let’s just get this right.”
“We will. I’ve got to go. The team’s ready for the launch.”
As Inselheim hung up, the gravity of the situation hit him. The lightheadedness came back and an ominous fear descended over him, causing his heartbeat to speed up. It had been a gruelling ride, which began when he slowly lost his grip on everyday company operations, becoming more and more engrossed with the Neutralaser project. As the Americans and Russians innovated beyond expectations, the Inselheim Group was uncharacteristically slow to respond. The worst blow was having to recall their newly released transport helicopter. Costly on-site repairs had resolved nothing. They had to redesign the fuel system from scratch, his engineers told him. After months of disruptions for his clients and the fatal crash in Ukraine, the lawsuits began. He had been warned early about the potential problems, but he had fooled himself into believing that his team would find a way to solve them. As the mistakes and costs piled up around him, he continued to roll the dice and grew more obsessed with finishing. Now he had no more rolls left.
Making matters worse was that bloodsucker, Kalakia. There was nothing more Inselheim could have done to keep him in the dark. The Neutralaser team did all of their work in the remote underground facility. Documentation and communication remained in-house and the facility had no internet connection. Inselheim had even refused to allow public road access. Paranoia was a must when it came to Kalakia. His people were everywhere, and Inselheim was sure he had been tailed earlier in the week on his way to the office. The Inselheim Group was by far the most profitable company in Germany and had been on track to overtake the mighty American weapons manufacturers in turnover. The more the company grew, the more demanding Kalakia had become. Half a million per week in extortion money became three million. Now Inselheim was coughing up over a million a day. The one time he tried to negotiate a reduction, he got a cracked rib courtesy of Kalakia’s enforcer, Elias Khartoum. Inselheim had no choice. He would have to fly out early in the morning to make it back to meet him.
“Ready for launch, Mr. Inselheim.”
Shirvan, Inselheim and the rest of the team put on their protective goggles and stared out into the flat, brown desert in anticipation. Inselheim tensed his jaw and held his breath.
“Ok,” began Shirvan. “Launching in.. 10.. 9.. 8.. 7.. 6.. 5..”
“Come on,” whispered Inselheim, curling his hands into fists.
“4.. 3.. 2..”
The nuclear-capable ballistic missile launched in the distance with a bright red-white trail of burning fuel behind it. It climbed steadily through the sky, shrinking gradually, continuing to rise until a bright blue beam shot out from the ground at an angle and caused a blinding flash of light to explode over the horizon. The rocket and its burning trail disappeared. Inselheim’s jaw slowly fell open. Dumbfounded, he turned to Shirvan, who was on the phone with the field team. When Shirvan hung up, he removed his goggles and approached Inselheim with a grin on his face.
“It’s a success, Mr. Inselheim. The rocket has been disintegrated.”
Inselheim’s throat felt thick and lumpy.
“Are you sure?” he whispered.
“One hundred percent. I just got word from Brunswick. The device is already in the underground tunnel and is being driven back to the facility. She says she’ll be ready with the champagne,” said Shirvan. “Congratulations,” he added, tapping Inselheim lightly on the shoulder.
Inselheim blinked a few times. His hands began shaking, and he found himself chuckling involuntarily. His body floated into the air and random areas began tingling.
“Woo!” he screamed in a cathartic fit of excitement.
He grew dizzy and bent down to support himself against his thighs as his eyes filled with tears. He surrendered with relief and thought of his late father, and how he might react had he been around to witness the moment. After decades of planning, years of risk, failure and constant stress, Inselheim had fulfilled his promise. His father’s technological vision was a success.
“We did it,” he whispered, picturing his father’s plump red face. “We did it!” he screamed out into the open desert.
Frederich awoke abruptly with daylight coming through the crack between his curtain. His state from the night before seeped through immediately. He cursed himself for falling asleep for so long then jumped out of bed and marched to the living room to check on Ida.
She was still sleeping. He relaxed and leaned against the doorway. Her pale olive skin was glowing in the morning light, and her knotted light brown hair lay plastered over parts of her face. The rain had smeared eyeliner around her eyes and upper cheeks, and a red swelling had formed on her chin, presumably from a strike to the face.
He turned back toward the kitchen, then remembered his pistol was on the bedside table. He moved it into the drawer beneath then went to make coffee.
He had just prepared the Moka pot with water and roasted coffee when he heard a cough coming from the living room. He turned off the stove. Inside he found Ida slouched forward on the sofa with the blanket wrapped around her. He thought about what he should say to someone who formed their first impression of him as he killed a man. He cleared his throat.
“Hey,” he said.
She turned to him with a sullen face and studied him. He swallowed and shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
“Hey,” she replied.
“Are you ok?”
She pouted and shook her head.
“Anything I can do?”
“Can I have some water?” she asked with a hint of a latino accent.
He went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water. Ida gave him a brief look then accepted the glass and took a large gulp. He sat on the other end of the sofa and looked on. She stared into space for a long time and appeared preoccupied. Then she turned to him.
“I can’t stop thinking that if you had not come, I might not be alive now. So thank you.”
Frederich nodded. She looked away for a second then began shaking her head.
“Jesus, I can’t believe Elias is dead!” she declared with a frown.
“You knew him?”
“Yes, we’d been seeing each other for a few weeks.”
“Do you know his last name?” he asked, eager to find out the man’s identity.
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“What happened? What exactly did I walk in on?” he asked.
She squinted and frowned while recollecting the events.
“First, I took the train to his apartment. When I got there one of the neighbours was walking out of the building, so I didn’t press the doorbell. It was so wet, and I just wanted to get inside. So I went straight up. When I got to the front door, I saw it had been left open. I was going to yell out when I came inside, but he was talking to someone on the phone called ‘Inselheim’. I knew something was wrong because he sounded different — quiet and business-like. I’d never heard him speak like that before. So serious. He liked to joke around, at least with me. The last thing he said as I walked up behind him was…” She paused and leaned her head to the side. “It was something like ‘Listen Inselheim, I’m either leaving your place with a money bag, or a body bag. The choice is yours.’ Then he turned around and saw me.”
“What did you do?”
“I froze. I didn’t know what to do. He hung up the phone and then his eyes went cold. He didn’t even try to play it off. He just stared at me. That was when I knew I was in trouble.”
Frederich remembered the look the bearded-man Elias had given him in the car. It was ominous.
“Did you try to run?”
“No.” Her eyes became glazed with tears. “He took out a gun. I was too scared to move. He took my purse and phone and put them in the kitchen. Then he tied my hands and feet together and left me in the bedroom with the door open. I begged him to let me go, but he didn’t reply. I was in there for hours, until it got dark. He didn’t say anything. I was so scared I was shivering the whole time. Then he made a phone call, and someone came.”
“Another person came?”
“Yes, he came inside the bedroom with Elias to check me out.”
“What did he look like?”
“His hair was black, with a ponytail, and he was pale. He was tall, and he had a black trench coat on.”
“Ok, what else?”
“He didn’t say anything. He only nodded, and then they went to the other room. They talked about something. I couldn’t hear. Through the door, I saw Elias give him my stuff and he left.”
“He took your phone and purse?” asked Frederich.
“Yes, my passport was in there too,” she replied. “Then Elias came and untied me. He said we were going for a drive, and that if I did anything stupid when we were outside or tried to escape, his people knew who I was and they would murder my family, my best friends, everybody I loved.”
She paused. Her lips were quivering. Frederich continued to watch on in silence. When she resumed, her voice became filled with rage.
“I mean, it was a fucking crazy thing to say! And the way he said it, and the way he was looking at me, and the way the other guy looked at me. I believed it. I still do. He’s connected to something terrifying. I just know it.” Ida had her face scrunched in disgust. Then it went stiff again with fear.
Frederich speculated about this Elias. If he were part of an organised outfit, then Ida would likely have been killed that same day. She was left with an impossible choice: try to flee and risk the lives of her loved ones or quietly go to her death. The swelling on her face gave a clue to her next move.
“You tried to escape when you got in the car?”
“Yes. I begged him again to let me go. But he just looked at me with his dead eyes and smiled. The Elias I knew was gone. Before we could leave, it started raining hard. You couldn’t see outside. So we waited. I think he was expecting the rain to stop. The street flooded almost straight away. I wish I didn’t, but I panicked and tried to escape. He was too quick. I didn’t even reach the door handle before he pinned me down. He punched me. When I screamed, he became angry and held me down by my throat. I couldn’t breathe. Then you came.”
Ida began trembling. Telling her story had been a point of focus which had held her together. Now it seemed the terrifying reality had caught up with her. Frederich watched the aftershocks of her trauma boil up to the surface. So far he had been analysing the information she was giving him for anything useful. It was time to put that aside.
He made his next move without hesitation, shifting closer to her and placing a hand on her shoulder. First a sob broke out, then she began weeping. He wrapped his arm around her and felt her despair, and with it, remembered her look of terror. He tensed his jaw and made a tight fist with his hand, furious again without knowing why. He had lost it, and not for the first time. He remembered when he snapped like that last, when that intruder broke into their house in the middle of the night and tried to kill Kraa… Don’t, a voice warned him as the ominous shadow converged. Don’t think about that. He blinked and shook his head, then took a deep breath to settle himself.
He looked down and focussed on Ida instead. After hearing her story, he was now convinced that his decision not to contact the police had been the right one. It was better to stay put for the time being, at least until some questions could be answered. Who was Elias, and what was he involved in? How much danger was Ida in? What would the police uncover once someone discovered the body? He could only speculate. For the moment he had to cast such questions aside. Ida continued to cry for a long time, and he continued to console her. There would be plenty of time to expose criminal connections and deal with the case of this so-called ‘Elias’.
When Ida finally composed herself, sniffling and sitting up straight again, Frederich left her alone and went to his room to browse the news on his laptop computer. There was nothing breaking about a murder in Berlin. He gazed into space while tapping his fingers on the trackpad. The body must have still been under the car. He switched his focus to his sphere of control and went into the living room.
“Do you want to check up on your family?” he asked Ida, who was laying on the sofa underneath the blanket.
“Yes,” she said, sitting up and looking alert. “But my family lives in Montevideo.”
“You’re from Uruguay?”
“Yes, but I’ve been living in New York.”
“Ok. You should still get in touch with them. Any friends or anybody who needs to know where you are?”
“No, I don’t think so. I was travelling with my friend Pia. She left weeks ago. We had a fight, and we haven’t spoken since.”
“So you’re in Berlin alone?”
“Yes, I was on a world trip. Berlin was our latest stop,” she said then looked down at the floor.
He watched her quietly but decided not to press further. His fridge only had a few slices of salami and a pair of eggs.
“Ok, I’m going to get groceries. My laptop is in the bedroom. I’ve set up a guest account for you to use.”
He was about to reach for his phone to give to Ida but then stopped. What did he actually know about her? Was Elias really just a fling or was she in deeper than she led on? He could be coming back to an ambush.
“Are you ok?” asked Ida, having noticed his state of deep thought.
He made eye contact and tried to read her for answers. She was… simply there. Nothing in her words or behaviour had given him reason to doubt her.
“Here’s my phone,” he said. “Call or message whoever you need to. If you hear or see anything suspicious, call 110 straight away, ok? I’ll be quick.”
Outside he scanned the street. Nobody was waiting. No police sirens. The parked cars within sight were empty. He relaxed slightly but remained alert for the entire walk. The floods had now subsided and the heavy rains from the previous night had reduced to a light drizzle. It was only a matter of time before the traffic got moving again and Elias’ body was discovered.
At the supermarket Frederich was met with the Saturday evening rush. He picked up a collection of foods which satisfied his survivalist preferences; some ready-made sandwiches and protein bars, bananas and apples, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, oatmeal, milk, a large bag of mixed nuts and dried fruits and ingredients for pasta. He thought for a second about Ida and added a bottle of fresh orange juice to the basket. He then worked his way through the long queue and returned to the apartment.
After unloading the groceries into the kitchen, he went to the living room and found Ida fully clothed and seated upright with a hard stare on her face. She also had her leather jacket and shoes on. His pistol was resting on her lap. He knew where he had left it.
“After what happened I don’t feel safe anymore. So I checked your room. Can you tell me what this is?”
Frederich narrowed his eyes.
“You went through my drawers?” he asked.
“What is this?”
“It’s my pistol,” he said bluntly, remaining standing in place. “Is there a problem?”
“Frederich,” she said, frowning and rubbing her hand over her face. “I appreciate what you did. Really. And I feel like I should trust you. But I’m terrified right now. When I found the gun I had a panic attack. I was going to run away from here, but I’m scared to go back to my place. I don’t know what’s waiting for me there. I just… I don’t know,” she said, throwing up her hands. “I just need some reassurance.”
“Ok. How can I reassure you?”
“Just… answer some questions. And please tell me the truth.”
“Ok,” he said, slowly approaching.
“No, stay there,” she said, gripping the gun. The safety was still on.
“Ok,” he replied, reaching his arms out with palms facing forward. “What would you like to know?”
“Did you know Elias? Are you part of some mafia group?”
“No. I didn’t know him. And I’m not part of any criminal groups.”
“So how did you get there in the middle of a storm? Nobody was walking outside in that weather. Only you happened to be there.”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question,” Frederich admitted. “One minute I was having a coffee, and the next I was walking home in the middle of a flood. Then I heard you scream. I’ve always had good senses.”
“That doesn’t explain the gun and how you could beat Elias. He was strong, and everyone was afraid of him. Do you work for the government? Are you with the military?”
“No, and no,” he said, crossing his arms.
“Then what? You don’t look like the kind of guy who would have a gun and be able to kill people.”
Frederich took a deep breath. On the one hand, he understood her concern. She had been traumatised, and she had seen him kill a man. He would be just as untrusting in her position. Also, people always assumed he was a student or an artist. To understand him, a person would need to know his unusual history. He was still reluctant to tell her anything. He never spoke about his past to anybody. He considered his next step while she stared at him expectantly.
“I’m not part of any groups,” he found himself saying. “I just had a strange upbringing.”
“What does that mean?”
His palms grew sweaty. He rubbed them on his pants and sat down on the rug to get comfortable.
“I was adopted when I was seven. The man who adopted me, Kraas, was with the Soviet Army before he retired at the end of the Cold War. He was also with the Spetsnaz, which is kind of like a Russian Special Forces. I grew up in a village called Sassväku, near Tartu. It was just the two of us. When I got a bit older, he took me out with him hiking and hunting in the forest. Over time, I don’t know, it just happened. He started training me. I noticed the guns he had around the house. I started asking him questions about his life. Imagine it for a second, an orphan and an elite soldier. How else were we supposed to bond? I learnt all kinds of things from him: hand-to-hand combat, firearms, survival tactics, espionage, military strategy, political theory. We spent hours in the forest rehearsing battle scenarios. I was an angry kid, and Kraas helped me channel my anger the only way he knew. I followed in his footsteps and he made me into a soldier.”
The room fell silent and Ida remained perfectly still.
“You think I’m an idiot,” she said.
“It’s the truth.”
She stood up.
“Look, I don’t know what to believe, but I’m going crazy here. I’m going into the yard to get some fresh air.”
She shoved the pistol into her jacket pocket as she stood up and marched past Frederich.
“Wait..” said Frederich, reaching his hand out impotently.
Ida quickly stomped her way through the hallway. The door opened abruptly then slammed shut. Frederich frowned and scratched his head. His burning red face reminded him why he kept his past to himself. The gun. He was about to chase after her but was held back by his embarrassment. His face began burning again. He reassured himself that the safety was still on. He looked out of the window and followed her walk from the door to the bench at the back of the yard. He continued watching her, wondering how he could have told that story differently. Elias then popped into his mind and he took hold of his laptop computer. He looked out of the window one more time at the brooding Ida then settled on the sofa and opened the Berliner Morgenpost website.
His eyes widened and he leaned forward. Under ‘Breaking News’ was a large headshot of the bearded man Elias. Frederich recognised the fierce stare. Laid over the picture were the words ‘POSSIBLE MOB HIT IN CHARLOTTENBURG’. He clicked on the picture immediately then began scanning the article. Elias’ last name was ‘Khartoum.’ It rang no bells.
The article explained how an unsuspecting driver of an SUV had notified the police after running right over Khartoum’s body when pulling out of his parking space. Frederich read further. Khartoum’s criminal background was detailed. Five years prior, he was tried for the murder of a prominent French politician but acquitted due to ‘missing evidence.’ Six years before that, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for extortion but served only six months after new evidence emerged proving his innocence. He was twice charged with assault, but each time the charges were dropped. There were suspected links to organised crime. Serious individual. There was no mention of Frederich or Ida. That was a good sign. Frederich clicked out and checked the other news sites. Similar information was given, and each source claimed that there were no suspects at present.
He thought for a moment with his fist to his mouth then ran a search on ‘Elias Khartoum’ and found an article on TZ Daily. It was written by a journalist named Jochen Weisman. The headline was ‘21st century Illuminati under our noses.’ Frederich read with curiosity as Weisman referred to Khartoum’s remarkable acquittal rate in the German courts as the tip of a sinister iceberg. Weisman speculated that Khartoum had a guardian angel protecting him, then detailed an interview given by an unnamed source-in-hiding who claimed to have been tortured by Khartoum. According to Weisman’s source, Khartoum was a member of a worldwide criminal organisation, one equally as obscure as the Illuminati. The source claimed that Khartoum had stabbed his associate to death and had been extorting him for years before he refused to continue paying. The source had been tortured for hours in an abandoned warehouse in Zehlendorf until he was able to undo his bonds and escape. The dots could not be connected, admitted Weisman, and Khartoum had an uncanny ability to avoid prosecution. But the clues spoke volumes. Finally, Weisman quoted a name which gave Frederich a jolt and made his hairs stand up: Kalakia. The alleged mastermind of the organisation. Frederich could scarcely believe it. His lips parted and he put the computer down on the coffee table.
He recalled what he knew about Kalakia. There was the usual hearsay. Kalakia was a crime boss with deep ties to the Russian and Italian Mafia who tormented governments and murdered politicians to assert his power. To others, Kalakia was a modern day urban legend which was spread using the power of the internet, a symbol intended to distract from the real people behind the killings. Frederich paid no attention to the talk. He knew better. He turned his mind to the story Kraas had told him when he was 17.
It was in the middle of a harsh winter when he was still living in Tartu. He and Kraas were spending long periods of time by the fireplace after exhausting days of training in the snow. On one particular evening, they were discussing the corruption of lobbying in government and Kraas hinted that even lobbyists answered to somebody. When Frederich pressed him to explain further, Kraas topped up his glass with Vana Tallinn before settling in to tell Frederich about a group known in intelligence circles as The League Of Reckoning.
According to Kraas, the fall of The Berlin Wall had not only created space for a counterculture revolution, but also left behind a breeding ground where organised crime could thrive. An up-and-coming syndicate figure, known only as Kalakia, had emerged and established a base in Berlin for his unique brand of enterprise; extorting the world’s politicians, bankers and billionaires. Kraas described Kalakia as a sociopath and brilliant tactician who commanded the loyalty of some of the most gifted killers in the world.
Kraas explained how The League originated in central Europe in response to rising wealth inequality and currency debasement in the capitalist world, eventually spreading to the United Kingdom and the United States before moving into Southeast Asia and then South America. The League’s doctrine stated that concentration of wealth and power was inevitable in both the First and Third World, and that the State was unfit to resist it. A counterforce was needed to both police and tax the plutocracy. Using force, and murder when necessary, The League Of Reckoning would take excess money from the elite and funnel it back to the lower and middle class and the third world through proxy organisations. Word spread quickly. People were charmed by The League’s principles, despite its brutal methods. Droves of criminals, military personnel and even civilians abandoned their lives and swarmed to join the organisation. The League’s power grew exponentially and cast an ever-increasing shadow over governments and companies all over the world.
At first, the major powers resisted. A bounty of $250 million was offered for information leading to the capture of Kalakia. Kalakia responded in ruthless fashion. In a day which became known as ‘The Worldwide Horror,’ various government figures and heads of companies were simultaneously assassinated on three continents, with the United States, the United Kingdom and newly-capitalist Russia hit the hardest. The death toll crossed 1,500 and shocked the world. A warning had been sent. The League would not be threatened. It was lethal, ubiquitous, highly organised and untraceable. The governments reluctantly fell into line, and the major media companies were instructed to report on League activities as mafia rivalry gone global. The world economy was forced to adjust. Suddenly, no man or government could touch Kalakia, or even acknowledge him in public.
From then on, the name Kalakia was relegated to myth status while The League continued to hold the who’s who of power hostage. Kalakia’s loyal soldiers were everywhere, hidden among every population, ready to martyr themselves for The League. Kalakia had risen to become the most powerful man in the world. Any attempt on his life would lead to an apocalyptic upheaval involving the unhinged, wholesale slaughter of the world’s elite.
How Kraas knew so much about The League, he did not reveal. At the time Frederich was deeply impressed by the story. He too felt compelled to become a soldier against corruption, to apply his training at the highest level. He hounded Kraas with questions. Who was Kalakia, and what did he do before he established The League Of Reckoning? How did The League manage to spread so quickly? How many members did it have? How could Frederich become a soldier? How did Kraas know so much about The League?
Kraas only chuckled and shut his eyes. He began snoring soon after, leaving his half-empty glass of Vana Tallinn on the table. Frederich had remained there that evening, deep in thought. He had noticed Kraas' reluctance to say more. It might have been the Vana Tallinn, but Frederich knew his crafty father well. He was hiding something. The next day Frederich asked again about The League, but Kraas told him not to get hung up on conspiracy stories. Frederich continued to press the matter in the coming weeks but Kraas only grew more irritated. Frederich reluctantly let it go, but remained curious.
Years later when he moved to Tallinn he would research the events of ‘The Worldwide Horror’ with fervid fascination. It was an unprecedented event. The assassinations were brazen and skilfully executed. A sniper hit on a billionaire businessman in daylight in Manhattan. A member of parliament suffocated in his sleep. Knife attacks. Car bombings. Poisonings. Fatal beatings. The League Of Reckoning was a terror organisation of unimaginable scope and capable of unhinged brutality. Now Frederich found himself questioning whether he had killed one of its members.
He opened a new browser window and searched for ‘Jochen Weisman.’ He clicked on an article titled ‘Award-Winning Journalist Jochen Weisman Dead.’ It was dated three weeks after the exposé on Elias Khartoum. Weisman had died on his way home from work after his Audi TT collided with a tree. Drug and alcohol readings had returned nothing. TZ Daily ran a tribute article on Weisman’s career, calling him a ‘courageous, one-of-a-kind journalist’ while praising his ‘groundbreaking investigations into political corruption and organised crime.’ When Frederich finished reading he raised his eyebrows. He knew not to believe in coincidence.
He felt a dull pressure in his head. The situation had taken a dangerous turn, above all for Ida, he suddenly realised. If no evidence came to light tying him to the killing, he could walk away. Ida did not share that luxury. He went to the window and looked out. She was still on the bench, staring into space, unaware that things were about to get far worse for her. He frowned. This was the last thing she needed. The second she left his building she would likely be hunted by what could be the most vicious and dominant organisation in the world.
Frederich’s mind began ticking rapidly, processing the situation from every angle. Tallinn. Kraas. Berlin. Ida. Khartoum. The League. It dawned on Frederich that he was just as involved as Ida was. He took his phone out and made a long overdue phone call. It dialled for a long time before there was an answer.
“Hello?” said Johannes with his husky voice.
“Hi, Johannes. It’s me. Frederich.”
“Frederich?” said Johannes with a tone of disbelief. “Oh, my boy, thank goodness. We’ve all been so worried about you.”
“I know. I’m sorry I didn’t call.”
“Are you in Tallinn?”
“No. I’m in..” He paused. It was probably safer not to tell Johannes where he was, considering what he had just learnt. “I can’t say where I am. I just wanted you to know that I’m safe.”
“Oh, Frederich. What’s going on? We never had a chance to talk after Kraas died.”
“There wasn’t much to say, I guess. I just had to leave.”
“I understand. It was a difficult day. Are you well?”
“Yes, I’m ok. How are you doing?”
“Huh,” said Johannes, coughing and clearing his throat. “You know me. Carrying on.”
Frederich’s mouth softened into a smile.
“Good,” he said.
“It’s strange not having your father around. There’s nobody to go hunting with anymore.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Frederich softly. “Hey, Johannes?”
“Yes, my boy?”
“Did you and Kraas ever talk about me?”
“Talk? Of course. All the time.”
“I mean, about my future. Did Kraas ever tell you what he wanted for me?”
“Well, I… I think he had no idea, now that I think about it. He worried about you. But you know your father. He was a soldier. A simple man. He served the people, but he never liked to tell anyone what to do.”
“Yeah,” said Frederich. “That sounds like him. Thanks, Johannes.”
“Are you coming home soon?”
Frederich looked down again to where Ida was sitting.
“Not for a while. There’s something I need to do.”
“Huh!” exclaimed Johannes, clearing his throat again. “Just like your father.”
Frederich chuckled lightly.
“I’ll come to visit as soon as I can. We’ll go hunting.”
“I’ll be here. Look after yourself, my boy.”
Frederich closed the connection with a sense of lightness. Just like your father. He had been aimlessly drifting since Kraas died. He was now ashamed to admit how close he was to giving up. If he had not heard Ida’s scream, who knows what would have happened? In any case, he felt differently now. Khartoum had been the wake-up call he needed. Frederich had died in the water under Khartoum’s weight, and then returned — but not unchanged. With the memory of Ida trembling and weeping in his arms, he thought up a plan which would seem insane to a reasonable person. To Frederich, it made perfect sense. He took a long, deep breath, and finalised his decision. His time in the wind was coming to a close. He stared into the void with full knowledge of what he had to do.
Step one: find a way to make contact with The League.
Step two: admit to killing Elias Khartoum.
Step three: ask for a job, and finally,
Step four: negotiate Ida’s freedom.