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Meanwhile, Frederich Abel is ready to do what he does best: end lives. The League is looking for ways to hit back against its enemy, and unleashes its newest asset. As Frederich goes on a vicious tear, collateral damage piles up. How many innocent people need to suffer to preserve the old order? What began as a quest to enforce The League’s unique brand of justice becomes a slow descent into mayhem which threatens to expose Frederich’s vulnerable underbelly.
‘Spectre Of Chaos’ is the riveting second book in the ‘Wrath Of Abel’ crime-action book series.
LOYALTY WAS LIFE. Erik Burscheid had always believed that. What would the world look like without a commitment to one’s family, to one’s friends, to one’s land? Without loyalty, there would be no civilisation. No progress. Empires grew because people did their duty. Those kids who treated their phones and even friends as disposable objects, they had no idea what an oath meant. You would get a blank stare if you asked them what long-service leave was. They owed their existence to the fact that their ancestors hung around. In the animal kingdom, staying together was the difference between survival and annihilation. Burscheid even stuck to his hairstyle, having had his ponytail since he was sixteen. He took pride in his consistency and dependability.
The League Of Reckoning was family, and Erik Burscheid would gladly sacrifice his life for it. He maintained loyalty at any cost, doing whatever the leadership asked of him. Pick-ups, drop-offs, mundane errands, breaking some bones here and there. Delivering a package or burying a body; it was all the same to him. It was all about loyalty.
He had just carried out his latest errand for The League, having dropped off the Abel kid to his apartment. As he left Abel’s place, the weariness of the long drive back from Copenhagen had hit him like a sedative. He picked up a Currywurst with fries for lunch then headed to the Grand Luxus to get some rest in his room. The search for street-side parking needed more time than usual, since the out-of-town soldiers bolstering Kalakia’s fortress had taken most of the spots. At least Burscheid could sleep easy knowing they were out there.
Once he managed to find a spot at Zoologischer Garten, he crossed the intersection and made for the hotel. He passed several soldiers on the way, many of whom he knew well, but still did not acknowledge — official policy. At the entrance, however, he did pay attention to a bright green food truck selling hot dumplings. He gave it a long glance while continuing toward the revolving glass door. Then he stopped. He spun around and glared suspiciously at the man inside the van. There was something about him. He had a sweaty, chubby face with red cheeks and a downturned mouth. He was staring into thin air and tapping his fingers on the bench. What’s bothering you then? Burscheid kept staring, analysing every feature of the man, bemused by his presence. Then Burscheid smiled. For all he knew, the guy’s one-night-stand from a couple of months ago had just called and told him he had knocked her up. If that were the case, then he would need to consider sticking around for the kid to have any chance at life. No running away. Not like Burscheid’s father had. Coward.
The fatigue was getting to Burscheid. He knew that because his mind was wandering. He had barely stopped in the few days since the attacks. The nap would do him good. He forgot about the sweaty-faced man and went through the revolving door. He was looking forward to that king-sized mattress, and figured he could even have a nip of whiskey before he dozed off.
The milk had coated her feet white. A thick pool of it flowed slowly outwards from the pot which had hit the floor with an ear-piercing clang. Her sharpened, disbelieving eyes remained on Kalakia as she studied his face, barely breathing, not daring to move.
Kalakia broke the stand-off by stepping around the mess and picking up the pot, placing it on the kitchen bench. He then lifted the tea towel from the cabinet handle and crouched down to begin dabbing the milk off his mother’s feet. Before long he felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze, then stood up. With a gasp she lunged forward and wrapped her arms around him. He responded by placing a hand behind her head and pulling her firm, tiny body into his chest.
“You’re here,” she said, pulling back and placing a hand on his cheek. “My boy,” she added, her eyes now softening and filling with tears.
Kalakia looked carefully at his mother. He had not seen her in over four decades. She was smaller than he remembered, and she had lost weight, especially around her face. She appeared weary, but her stare remained potent, seeping into him and flooding him with old emotions.
“Come,” she said, placing a hand on his wrist. “Leave the mess.”
She took off her shoes and placed them by the doorway before walking barefooted into the living room, where Kalakia followed and found her on the couch. He passed by her and ran his fingers along the old books on the shelf. The classics were still there, including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ also caught his eye. He recalled how much of an insatiable reader his father had been.
“Sit, my boy,” said his mother and patted an empty spot beside her.
Kalakia complied. My boy. He had not heard that phrase in a long time.
“I felt it was important to see you,” he said as he sat. “Trouble is coming.”
She nodded solemnly as though she understood everything.
“Trouble has always followed you, and you have always conquered it.”
“This is different.”
“I thought about you many times over the years,” she said, ignoring his ominous statement.
“Did you?” he said.
“I assumed you would try to forget me,” he said.
“Forget you?” she said with a headshake. “Nonsense. You are my son. I was angry at you, that is true. Angry at what you did to that boy, the path you took.”
The image of Arman falling down the cliff shot up with a thump. Kalakia remembered how Arman’s hair felt as he clutched it and mercilessly dragged the young boy to the edge and tossed him over. He heard Arman’s dreadful scream echoing over the valley.
“I disappointed you,” he replied.
“You did,” she said. “And I have forgiven you. I did so long ago.”
Kalakia recalled his mother’s anguish when news came that her son had committed murder. She had wept, continuously shaking her head and repeatedly whispering ‘no,’ refusing to accept it, until his father led him out the door. She had been too weak to follow them, crippled by shock and grief. Her scream from inside the house had been the last thing Kalakia heard before his father forced him into the backseat of their car.
“Do you know why I forgave you?” she asked.
“No,” said Kalakia.
“Because I finally understood something. You did not choose the path you took. Your future was already written.”
Kalakia felt the fog of sorrow come over him. He knew what she meant. Sensing the shift, his mother reached over and placed her hand on his cheek as though he were still that boy.
“You carried the burden for all of us,” she continued. “Your father was too distracted, your brother as well. For them, reputation was everything. They were not interested in the truth. It was too painful to face.”
Kalakia listened carefully, mesmerised by his mother's insight.
“But you were different. You accepted who you were,” said his mother. “My little warrior,” she added with a tender smile.
Kalakia blinked and nodded.
“You have reflected on this for a long time,” he said.
“I had a lot of time to think after your father died. Are you still angry with him for sending you away?”
Kalakia’s jaw shut tight. He nodded.
“He also had no choice,” she said.
“He only cared about what others thought of him.”
“True, but it was more complicated than that. He loved you.”
“Did he? After Kraas went away, he barely spoke to me. The whole town looked down on us, and he would have fallen to his knees for them to accept him. Even when Kraas joined the armed forces, they still mocked us. Nothing we did was going to wash away the shame of who we were. We remained gypsies to them. Uncultured and uncivilised. Filth, and nothing more.”
“Your father could not help who he was. Just like you could not.”
“I defended our honour. What did he do? He disowned me for it.”
“He sent you away to protect you. They were going to kill you.”
“You believe I could not have defended myself? He underestimated me, and worse still, he underestimated himself. He always did. Do you know what Arman said before I killed him? ‘Your family are a pack of dogs, trying to walk on two feet like humans.’ You do not reason with such people; you humble them with force. It was then I realised my father’s way would not work. Men respect only strength and power.”
“You’ve had the rage of a lion, ever since you were a little boy. And you’ve always been stubborn, even more than your father. Nobody could convince you to see things differently.”
“Idealists. My father and Kraas.”
Kalakia’s mother gave a weary smile.
“I pray one day you’ll understand,” she said.
“I did not come to talk about them. I came to protect you from what is to come.”
His mother’s tenderness faded before his eyes, and her face turned hard. She lifted her chin and intensified her stare.
“Do you think I would need your help after all these years?” she said.
Kalakia smiled and shook his head.
“Every lion was birthed by a lioness,” he said.
“And don’t you forget it,” she snapped back before standing up. “Will you stay for lunch?”
Kalakia checked the time.
“I will,” he said.
“Good, I’ll get started right away,” she said before going into the kitchen.
Kalakia leaned back on the couch and gazed into space, thinking again about the day he murdered Arman. His father’s furious response. The fistfight which almost broke out between him and his father. The frantic drive to the train station to escape Arman’s family. The tight knot in his chest which he felt in exile every morning since that day.
Now Kraas was dead, and Kalakia’s life was under threat. The League was at war. With mayhem all around, Kalakia sensed his mortality for the first time in decades. With it came an irresistible craving to return home and revisit his past. To see his mother, and make sure she remained out of Stirner’s reach. The coming war would descend like the plague, and nothing would be the same once the dust settled. Above all, Kalakia had to admit; he came to visit because he craved the comfort that only home offered. He hoped it would inject him with the strength to face what was ahead.
He closed his eyes. The symphony of birds chirping came through from outside. He could hear his mother rattling around in the kitchen, just like when he was a boy. His father would be in his reading chair, Kraas would be out somewhere plotting his next scheme.
A knock on the door interrupted Kalakia’s nostalgia. He tilted his head. Francois. He went over to the front door and opened it.
“Stirner’s people made contact,” said Francois immediately. “He wants to speak with you.”
The pitch-black had swallowed them whole. Shirvan’s erratic breathing followed Brunswick from behind, the resonance of their shuffling feet on the tunnel interior amplifying each step. Brunswick’s stomach growled, while a sharp pain throbbed in her thigh. She knew where the tunnel led, but that barely made walking in total darkness any less unsettling.
It was six kilometres from the emergency facility to the tunnel opening. They would only know they had reached their destination when they saw the light coming through the cracks of the entrance. Until then, they would have to carry on through the abyss with barely a sense of time or space.
“How long do you think it’s been?” whispered Shirvan from behind.
They had barely spoken since they left the emergency facility.
“An hour, I think,” said Brunswick.
“I hope they’re ok back there.”
“They’ll be fine,” she snapped, wiping the sweat off her face.
Did he have to remind her? She had pushed the situation in the emergency facility to the back of her mind. The chaotic escape that led to the deaths of Aiko, Lena and Jonas had demoralised them. Especially Brunswick. Finding themselves in an even tighter space without food had tipped them over the edge. The firefight in the main facility had cut off the power. Everyone was hungry, exhausted and afraid. After the scuffle between Phil and Vitaly had broken out, Brunswick knew they had to act. She had deliberated for a long time before deciding that the secrecy of the Neutralaser project was no longer a priority. Something terrible had happened to Michael, Brunswick was sure of that, and that meant they would need to call someone else for help. She fired up the battery-operated satellite phone and made contact with the Inselheim Group. The Chief Security Officer Anke Müller called back and said that she had given a NATO unit the coordinates for the concealed tunnel exit. With a rough time window for extraction, Brunswick and Shirvan left immediately, terrified that The League Of Reckoning would figure out where they were.
Must be close now, thought Brunswick, realising she had been on autopilot. Shirvan had said nothing for a long time.
“Sorry,” she whispered absentmindedly.
“What?” said Shirvan from behind.
“Sorry I snapped at you before,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied. “You’re doing fine.”
Bullshit. There was nothing ‘fine’ about losing three of their friends, she thought.
“I think we’re close now,” added Shirvan. “We have to be.”
They proceeded in silence for a long time, before Brunswick saw a soft glow in the distance.
“There,” she said.
The appearance of their goal injected Brunswick with a thrust of energy that carried her forward. The aches in her body dissolved. She picked up her speed, kicking a large rock and almost tumbling over. Shirvan’s breathing rate increased behind her. The details and shape of the tunnel emerged, and patches of dirt and tiny pebbles on the floor appeared, along with the bare-concrete walls and ventilation system. Finally, they made it to the over-sized, hydraulic-powered steel loading cage. With Shirvan’s big eyes looking at her, Brunswick stood panting under the dim moonlight coming through the cracks between the boulders used to camouflage the tunnel entrance above.
“We made it,” said Shirvan. “God, let’s not do that again.”
Brunswick rubbed his arm then marched over to the control panel mounted on the side of the cage.
“I can’t hear anything,” said Shirvan.
Brunswick trained her ears to the surface. The rescue team was probably still hours away. That was not going to stop her from going up. She pushed the button, and a loud whirring noise came from beneath their feet, as the cage began rising upwards with enough force to lift the mammoth weight of steel and rocks.
At the top they were greeted by the moonlight. Brunswick walked out onto the dirt and raised her head to the sky before sucking in an enormous breath of freedom. She gave a sigh of relief and stretched her neck, savouring the moment.
Her ears went stiff. A rush of footsteps came towards her from behind. She turned and flinched hard. A group of eight commandos dressed in all-black approached with their rifles held across their chests. Brunswick automatically lifted her hands into the air.
“Put your arms down,” said the group leader as the commandos surrounded Brunswick. “Nobody is going to hurt you if you cooperate.”
Brunswick hesitated, then slowly lowered her arms. Shirvan came over to her side. The two of them gazed at the small fleet assembled at the tunnel entrance. It was clear that they were not NATO.
“Move it!” yelled the group leader to his soldiers.
The engines of four army transport trucks came on and revved up simultaneously. The fleet of vehicles formed a straight line, and one of the trucks drove onto the cage.
“Who are you?” said Brunswick when the first truck had descended into the tunnel.
The group leader gave her a brief stare before checking his watch then looking impatiently toward the horizon. Who was he worried might come, wondered Brunswick? She studied him and the rest of the team attentively but found no clue which gave away their affiliation. Suddenly she could not shake the feeling that she and her team were mere pawns in a high-level game of chess. It made her feel tiny and insignificant, creating a pounding in her ears and a pressure in her chest which threatened to burst wide open. She began shaking with rage. A cloud of dust from the tyres of the trucks then blew into her eyes, and she knew that she had been tipped over the edge.
The disturbing mix of emotions had Frederich levitating. He felt surprise at Ida’s unexpected appearance, confusion at how Vidrik had been behaving. There was also the dark, familiar presence. Knowing that Vidrik had stalked and threatened Ida, as well as slaughtered her neighbour, Frederich was ready to rampage. Vidrik was a dead man, no buts about it. If only Frederich knew in Copenhagen what Ida had told him now. How could he have been so careless?
Standing in his living room with fists clenched, the chemical cocktail of surprise, confusion and fury exploded. He stepped forward and kicked the lamp over with a loud grunt, smashing it against the wall. Broken glass from the bulb crumbled to the ground. He grimaced from the sharp pain in his back where Vidrik’s bullet had struck him and stood there with his chest heaving up and down.
“Frederich,” said Ida sternly from the sofa. “Relax. Come sit here.”
Frederich stared out of the window, dragged away by his thoughts. He had greatly underestimated Vidrik. He should have known. That demented look on his face was a dead giveaway. If Vidrik was crazy enough to follow Frederich to Copenhagen and try to kill him, he was capable of anything. He would go after Ida again. By letting Vidrik go, Frederich had placed Ida in terrible danger.
“Frederich,” repeated Ida.
“Sorry,” he said, exhaling slowly and moving away from the window. “I’ve put you at risk again.” He sat down beside Ida, grasping his hands together and leaning forward.
“It’s not your fault. I just don’t understand what he wants from me. Can’t you talk to Kalakia?”
“Vidrik’s gone rogue. He went after me yesterday, but he got away. I… I let him escape.”
“Do you know where he is?”
Frederich bit his lower lip and shook his head.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him. I promise,” he said.
“That’s not why I came,” said Ida. “I don’t want anything to do with another killing. One time was enough.”
“This guy is crazy, Ida. You won’t be safe unless I stop him.”
“Listen, you do what you like. If murdering people makes you happy, that’s your problem. Just don’t drag me into it. Spare me the macho bullshit. I came here for answers. I thought maybe this guy didn’t get the message to leave me alone, that’s all.”
“He knew,” said Frederich. “He didn’t care.”
“Ok. So that’s the way it is.”
The spectre of Vidrik hung thick in the air and sucked the life out of their conversation. So did the memory of Frederich and Ida’s dreary last encounter at Lustgarten.
“I’m gonna go,” said Ida.
She stood up and began walking out of the living room. Before Frederich knew it, the same intolerable ache hit him in the chest like the last time Ida walked away from him.
“Don’t go,” he said in a knee-jerk way.
Ida stopped before she got to the door and turned around. The dull pain spread from his chest to the rest of his body.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Because I don’t want you to. I want you to stay.”
She was drawing him in again, trapping him with her questions. Only he was the one trying to keep her around. She stared expectantly at him.
“You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?” he said, hoping to buy more time.
Ida’s cheeks turned red, and she scowled, ready to spit fire at him. He had nowhere to hide. Tell her.
“Look,” he said. “I know you’re angry. I went behind your back last time. I lied to you. I shut you out. I thought I was protecting you, but all I did was hurt you and put you at risk. Now I’ve done it again. I’m angry enough at myself. I can’t take you being angry on top of that. Just let me help fix this. Please. If something happened to you…”
He felt hot everywhere, picturing Vidrik lurking over Ida with his deranged intentions. Ida’s eyes were unflinching, trained directly at him like laser rays. She appeared to be thinking, contemplating the best way to tell him how stupid and inconsiderate he was.
“I promised myself that whatever happened, I was never going to let anyone take advantage of me again,” she said. “No more shutting me out. If I see you holding back, I’m gone. Ok? I can take care of myself.”
“Ok,” said Frederich.
Ida nodded while maintaining a sharp expression which held Frederich in place like a misbehaving little boy caught in the act.
“So aren’t you going to offer me a drink?” she asked suddenly, lifting her eyebrows.
Kalakia knew Stirner would be unable to resist. His mother was chopping the onions when he went into the kitchen to tell her. There was a brief moment of hesitation; a silent, reluctant acknowledgement that he was leaving too soon. They had barely begun to bridge the gap caused by the last forty years. She froze, the knife still in her hand, then nodded solemnly.
He emerged from the house and his sharpness of mind returned as the breeze hit his face. It brought with it the real world, where Kalakia was the most feared man on the planet. Inside he had merely been his mother’s son. Her boy.
A group of ten soldiers stayed back to guard the road leading into Kalakia’s hometown. The rest of the fleet drove over an hour away into the mountains as a security precaution before Francois dialled the connection provided by Stirner’s people. He handed the phone to Kalakia. The call rang for almost a minute as Kalakia stood by. A childish power play, he noted. Finally, there was an answer.
The line remained silent for some time — another ploy.
“I do not blame you for not knowing what to say,” said Kalakia. “Worry not, old friend. Your cowardice has spoken clearly.”
Stirner let out a throaty grunt.
“Old friend,” he said. “Consider it a favour between friends that I even made the call. I was going to finish you off without saying a word.”
“It is far too late for courtesy. You are a traitor. That is how you will be remembered. The world will voice its disgust about what you have done, and then it will forget you.”
“I have other plans for my legacy,” said Stirner.
“You lack honour, and you lack imagination. Plan all you wish. The result will be the same.”
“Say what you want. Just know, your tyrannical reign is over. A new order is emerging.”
“You bore me, Stirner,” said Kalakia. “Does this conversation have a purpose?”
“You won’t be bored for long, don’t worry,” replied Stirner. “Oh, I have waited for this. It wasn’t easy putting up with a pompous bastard like you. But that is what I do. I wait. And now, it’s time. Your soldiers are ambitious people, and they are intelligent enough to see the truth. I can offer them real power. Your model is outdated. They’re going to leave you in droves and come to me. By the way, Matthias Vidrik says hello.”
Kalakia went quiet, giving Stirner all the space he needed to boast and run his mouth. Already Stirner had revealed a part of his strategy to target League soldiers for defection. Stirner was hinting at a war of ideologies. Kalakia maintained his silence.
“Ha!” said Stirner. “For once the great Kalakia is speechless. You know, you spent so much time focused on the illuminated spaces that you forgot to look in the shadows. You forgot the place that raised you. Sure, the governments and the elite feared you, but there was another group who truly despised you. How long did you expect them to tolerate all of this? Their retribution is coming.”
Kalakia could sense Stirner’s arrogance growing by the minute, morphing into hubris.
“One last thing,” said Stirner. “Why did you send your men to my home? What did you hope to achieve by destroying it? Did you think I would be so stupid as to leave my family exposed?”
“We will meet again soon,” said Kalakia and prepared to hang up.
“You burnt down my home,” cut in Stirner. “Allow me to return the favour. Goodbye, ‘old friend.’”
Stirner ended the call.
Burscheid assumed he was still wired from the drive. After twenty frustrating minutes he had found no way of relaxing, let alone falling asleep. The bed beneath him was the perfect blend of firm and soft, so that was not the problem. The whiskey had done little to ease his nerves. He had once heard on the radio while driving that counting backwards from one thousand would help him sleep. That had done nothing for him either. After a while he sat up and supported his back with the pillow. He found himself thinking about the man from the food truck. That chubby-faced ball of sweat looked like he had bottomed-out in life. He might have otherwise made it as an enforcer with The League. He had an intimidating look. He had the size. What was he doing serving dumplings from a food truck? Then Burscheid’s eyes widened. The truck. It was taking up a large portion of the sidewalk and posing an unwelcome obstruction for the passers-by. No one in their right mind would allow it in such a high-traffic area. Without warning, the unease that had kept Burscheid awake emerged through the fog of fatigue, bringing with it a message of doom that sent tremors down Burscheid’s spine.
He bounced off the bed and quickly put on his shirt. He ignored his socks and tossed his shoes on before rushing out, not bothering with the laces. Outside he slapped the elevator button multiple times. After some seconds, he grunted and took the emergency stairs instead, shuffling down the steps as quickly as possible and emerging in the lobby. The urgency overtook him, and he broke out into a jog. The front revolving door had people in it. He took the side door instead. Upon exiting he halted suddenly. The food truck was empty. In front of it were two teenagers, a boy and a girl with hole-riddled jeans and t-shirts. The boy was holding a dumpling while staring in confusion at the street. Burscheid followed his gaze and saw the chubby-faced man getting into a black Audi sedan.
“Why did he just leave like that?” said the boy to his friend in German.
A sharp pain shot through Burscheid’s chest like a bullet had struck him. His legs began moving by themselves.
“Everyone move!” he screamed while swinging his arms frantically to the side. “Get away from the truck!”
He hugged the two teenagers as he approached and forced them along with him to the side. The boy holding the dumpling yelled out as his food flew out of his hand. Then the ground shook beneath their feet, the explosion scorching Burscheid from behind while lifting the three of them into the air.
Frederich flinched from the thunderous boom. Hot tea spilt on Ida’s hand and onto the carpet as she almost lost her grip. The two of them lifted their heads simultaneously and looked at each other with worried expressions as aftershocks continued to rumble in the distance.
“What was that?” said Ida.
She leaned over and placed the cup on the table. Frederich went to the window but saw nothing when he looked out, only a clear sky. The two of them instinctively made for the door. They barrelled through the hallway and left the apartment, leaving the front door open, and quickly descended the stairs before going out to the front of the building and onto the street. There was a large plume of smoke rising in the air from the direction of Zoologischer Garten. People stood disoriented on the sidewalk sharing concerned expressions. Frederich did not doubt that The League was involved. He would need a closer look.
Ida was gazing up awe-struck at the smoke with her lips parted. She then lowered her head and turned toward Frederich with a dazed expression.
“Go inside, Ida,” said Frederich.
In response her face hardened and she flared out her nostrils. Frederich got the message immediately. He nodded, and together they began running toward the source of the smoke. They reached the intersection of Kantstrasse where the traffic was at a stand-still. There were frightened faces everywhere. Frederich and Ida turned and sprinted in the direction of Zoologischer Garten. They ran the next few hundred metres against a stampede of terrified people. Eventually they reached Zoologischer Garten, where ambulance sirens, police sirens and pandemonium met them. They took a moment to catch their breath then worked their way around the crowd to the Grand Luxus hotel. It was barely recognisable, the explosion and resulting chaos having redrawn the entire area. Half of the facade was missing, and there was a large crater in the street. People lay screaming, bloodied, covered in dust, with ambulance personnel attending to them. The police were creating a security barrier around the scene, urging bystanders to leave the area. Frederich squinted and looked into the distance. Was it? Yes, it had to be. He recognised the ponytail and pale skin. It was Erik, hunched over on the ground. A medic approached but Erik waved him off. After multiple attempts, the well-meaning samaritan finally gave up and moved on to check on other people.
The screams were merciless. Frederich felt his insides being set ablaze by the piercing shrieks of agony before a deathly chill descended and made him completely numb. He turned toward Ida. Tears were streaming down her face as she took in the scene, her body shaking and teeth chattering. She searched for Frederich’s hand without averting her eyes and found it, wrapping her fingers around his and grasping tightly. Frederich could feel her absorbing every ounce of the suffering around them, taking it into her embrace while buckling under the weight. Somehow she held on, gripping Frederich’s hand tighter when the pressure threatened to overwhelm her, her unflinching gaze remaining on the senseless destruction that had hit the city.
Frederich arrived at Berlin-Wannsee station early in the afternoon after a thirty-minute train ride. He exited the station building then carefully re-checked the pinned location on his smartphone as people walked around him toward the street. He was still perplexed by the directions Intel had given him, which included a set of obscure coordinates accompanied by ‘go there and wait for instructions.’ They had not specified a time, so he decided on going before dark, and with Erik out of action, the train seemed like a good plan B.
The map showed Wannsee to be tucked in the south-west of Berlin, surrounded by lakes and an expansive forest. Marked on the screen were castles, villas and sailing clubs. The town itself was wedged between greenery on one side and water on the other. After the mayhem in Zoologischer Garten, the calming effect was instant. Frederich felt himself return to his body. Tingles ran over his skin and washed away his agitation. He sucked in the fresh air and absorbed the feel of the forest. The place reminded him of home. If Kraas were alive and came to visit Berlin, Frederich knew the first place he would have taken his father, who loathed cities.
Enough reminiscing. It would be dark soon. He cut through the town and went into the forest, following the footpath as far as possible. Another look at the map showed the coordinates to be deep in the area shaded dark green. He checked around to make sure he was alone then melted into the trees, travelling a couple of hundred feet through thick shrubs. Once the map showed he had reached the coordinates, he stopped and looked around. He hoped the satellite signal was accurate. The only possible place to go next was a small opening between the trees to his right. He waited a while then trampled in that direction through the bushes, hoping he would find the next clue. He got one better, when a pale, nervous-looking young man stood waiting for him. The kid’s eyes seemed way too alert, and he looked malnourished. His black jumper sat loosely over his bony body, and he had on a pair of light blue jeans and old, torn-up sneakers.
“Come,” he said as Frederich approached.
He turned and led Frederich out of the opening, through more thick bushes, until the overgrowth abruptly ended, revealing a well-concealed bunker entrance below eye level. The paved path was covered with scattered dirt and weeds while dipping sharply and leading toward a wide concrete entryway. At the top were three security cameras pointed in multiple directions, and there was a ‘Restricted Area’ sign on the sidewall. The concentration of surrounding trees and shrubs did an effective job of keeping the light out. Deep inside it was completely dark.
“In there,” said the kid, pointing into the shadows.
Frederich gave him a courteous nod. He took a glance backwards as he began walking in, feeling the downhill pressure on his heels, but the gaunt young man had already disappeared. While Frederich walked with his head still turned, he collided into something hard and unyielding. It was like hitting a wall, sending shockwaves through his face and neck and bowling him over.
“You right there, Abel?”
Frederich quickly reoriented himself and found himself face to face with an unimpressed looking Scheffler, standing with his typical man-mountain stance, legs wide apart and shoulders back. The singlet was gone, replaced by a black, buttonless shirt similar to what Kalakia wore. Scheffler was also clean-shaven and had his hair brushed neatly to the side.
“Scheffler?” said Frederich.
“No, it’s Winston Churchill. Did you damage your brain? You need to watch where you’re walking.”
“No, I just wasn’t expecting to meet you here.”
“No shit you weren’t expecting me. Come on.”
Scheffler turned and marched away through the bunker tunnel. Frederich quickly got up and followed before Scheffler bashed the side of his fist against a button on the wall, causing a thick, metal security door to roll shut behind them.
They went through a long, pitch-black walkway which descended further and further underground before a dimly lit hallway appeared. The clicking of keys was the first thing Frederich heard. He looked left and right as they passed a long series of barely lit, bare-concrete rooms. Each one was lined with desks and computer terminals. Overlapping wires flowed in every direction, and on each leather chair sat someone either focussing on a screen, quietly talking into their headset, or furiously typing away. The walls were covered top to bottom with dozens of displays, all of them showing various surveillance footage. The scope of the place was breathtaking. Room after room after room, all dedicated to scrutinising every conceivable street, square or public area. Airport terminals appeared. Train platforms, shopping centres, even beaches were monitored. Meanwhile, nobody acknowledged Frederich. Each person remained wholly immersed in their work.
“Welcome to Intel, Abel. This is where the magic happens,” said Scheffler, stretching his arms out to either side as he walked.
Frederich caught up with Scheffler and marched beside him.
“Very chic,” said Frederich.
“Don’t take the piss.”
They passed yet another room which was the first without computer screens. It had shelves from floor to ceiling filled with all manner of weapons and equipment. Frederich paused briefly to take a closer look. There were vests, grenades, rifles, pistols, hunting knives, binoculars and various high-tech equipment, all in stacks.
“That’s for later,” said Scheffler without stopping.
The hallway continued as far as Frederich could see, splitting two ways in the far distance. Meanwhile, they went into a room on the right, where yet more computer screens covered the walls. Inside were eight people at their desks, their faces illuminated by the glow of their monitors. The surveillance videos on the walls were clear and crisp, revealing almost every detail. Frederich recognised The Louvre in Paris on one of the screens before it switched over to a random alleyway. Another display had a top-down view of an apartment block in what could have been Budapest or Prague.
“Team, meet Frederich Abel,” said Scheffler as soon as he entered the room.
Except for one person with headphones on, the entire room stopped what they were doing and turned around. They studied Frederich curiously, looking him up and down. Some of them seemed sceptical; others were openly smiling. One of those grinning was a freckled guy with red dreadlocks and a black bomber jacket.
“Nice,” said the freckled guy with a look of wonder. “Frederich Abel, in the flesh,” he added with a thick British accent.
“Let’s save the ass-kissing for later,” said Scheffler. “We’re short on time. Abel, this is Gerricks.” Scheffler signalled toward the freckled man. “Gerricks is usually with the Wealth Hunters, but we’ve got him leading the surveillance effort against these bastards who attacked us.”
“Wealth Hunters?” said Frederich.
“Yep,” cut in Gerricks. “We’re the guys who make sure no one hoards too much currency. Off-shore accounts, investment properties, shares, cash, gold bars. We find it. No matter how well they hide it.”
“Sounds fun,” said Frederich, nodding his approval.
“As you’ve probably already gathered, that’s not the top priority at the moment,” said Scheffler. “Our surveillance teams have been flat-out gathering information about the enemy, but we’re still in the early phase. We’ve identified dozens of them, interrogated a few. Your work in Copenhagen was a big help. We’ve got a ways to go before we get to Stirner, more surveillance to do, but after yesterday, we need to speed things up. They’re building momentum. We have to flex.”
“What do you need me to do?” said Frederich.
“We’ve got a special task for you,” said Scheffler. “I heard you were there after the explosion at the Grand Luxus?”
Frederich frowned and nodded.
“The guy who did it. We know where he is,” said Scheffler.
A current of electricity shot through Frederich’s body. He lifted his head slowly and his expression hardened.
“Where?” he said.
“Gerricks. You’re up,” said Scheffler.
“It was a real stretch tracking that son of a bitch,” said Gerricks. “He moved quickly, and changed cars before he left Germany. But like I said, nobody gets away from us. He’s holed up at this apartment in Poznan, Poland.” Gerricks pointed at the screen Frederich had been looking at earlier. “We don’t know which apartment he’s in exactly, but he hasn’t left the building. That much we’re sure of.”
“Who is he?” asked Frederich.
Gerricks handed him a smartphone.
“All the information’s on this. His name’s Havel Drexler. He was Czech military before he quit and turned soldier of fortune. Did private contracts in Africa and Afghanistan for elites looking to make a profit out of chaos. Drexler specialises in hit jobs and fake terrorist attacks. He’s been off the radar for a while though.”
Frederich had found the images of Drexler on the smartphone and was flicking through them while listening to Gerricks. He took note of Drexler’s bright-red face and scowl.
“The address where he’s hiding is on there,” said Gerricks. “My direct line is there too. I’ll contact you if he moves while you’re in transit. Whatever you need while you’re in the field, you call me.”
“Ok,” said Frederich.
“Here’s your credit card,” said Gerricks. “You can use it for any necessary purchases.”
Frederich took hold of a credit card with the name ‘David Anders’ printed on it.
“Weapons,” said Gerricks. “Do you have any special requests?”
“I’ve got my pistol,” said Frederich.
“You’re a pro now, Abel,” cut in Scheffler. “We’ve prepared a field pack for you. Stun gun, hunting knife, torch, food essentials. Anything else you need, you ask.”
“Ok,” said Frederich.
“Remember, this is all about sending a message,” said Scheffler. “These guys need to know just how in over their heads they are. Interrogate first if you can, then go to work. Whatever you do, make it messy, and I mean messy. We want this felt right at the top.”
Scheffler was unflinching, his dead-serious expression leaving no doubt about what he wanted.
“I’ll get it done,” said Frederich.
“I know you will,” said Scheffler.
The room grew silent. There were no more taps on keyboards. No shuffling around. No words were spoken. All eyes were on Frederich again.
“We’ll be here,” said Gerricks. “Whatever you need.”
“Right,” said Scheffler, slamming his hand hard on Gerricks’ desk, making him jump with shock. “Let’s go, Abel. Thank you, gentlemen. Love your work.”
Scheffler marched straight out, and Frederich followed as though Scheffler had him by a string. They went into a small room which had only a desk and one chair.
“When do I leave?” asked Frederich.
“Right away. We’ve got a car parked for you on the street in front of the station. Black Mini Cooper.”
“Ok,” said Frederich.
There was a short lull.
“Those filth,” said Scheffler, suddenly spitting at the ground. “They’ve got no honour, do they? Killing innocent civilians like that.” He looked into the distance with a scowl. “Really riles me up.”
Frederich’s face became hot, as he was taken back to the scene of the explosion, to the bloodied, anguished faces of the people caught up in the chaos.
“Anyway. You holding up alright?” said Scheffler. “Need anything from me before you go?”
Frederich shook his head.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“Of course you are,” said Scheffler.
“I did have one thing to ask,” said Frederich.
“How much do you know about Matthias Vidrik?”
“I know he’s a traitor who doesn’t have long to live. I also know you had some trouble with him.”
“Yeah, he came after me.”
“Why are you asking?”
“Because he didn’t just go after me. He’s been stalking a friend of mine here in Berlin. Ida.”
“You’re worried he might go after her again? He’s got other things to worry about, don’t you think?”
“He’s not a rational guy. I learnt that the hard way.”
Scheffler sighed and nodded.
“So I was wondering,” said Frederich. “While I’m away, if someone can keep an eye on her?“
“She’s that important?”
“Yeah, she is.”
“Alright. I can’t have our people wasting time playing bodyguard. But if she has any problems, she can call in. I’ll let Gerricks know. Tell her to use the codeword ‘Abel.’”
“No. That’s it.”
“Right. Well,” said Scheffler with an encouraging nod. “Go get em’.”
Frederich nodded back. He was about to turn to leave but had to ask the question.
“By the way, what’s with the shirt and hair? It’s not like you to be all neat and trim.”
“You haven’t worked it out yet? I got a bump. A big one. I’m General of Europe.”
Frederich broke out smiling.
“General? Congratulations,” he said.
“Don’t look so happy. That means you’re still under my command.”
“I can handle that,” said Frederich, still smiling.
“Let’s see how long that lasts,” said Scheffler.
On the way out they stopped by the weapons room, and Frederich picked up the backpack with his field equipment. He carefully scanned the piles of weapons one last time before snatching two tear gas grenades off the shelf and packing them into his bag. He left the bunker with the bag on his back and marched up the ramp, stomping through the shrubs then working his way out of the forest. There was no sign of the kid from earlier.
Back at Wannsee Station, he located his car and drove off, lost in thoughts about his upcoming mission. His eyes stung from fatigue and his shoulders felt stiff. His planned night of rest at home was ruined, but he barely minded. The anticipation was energising him, and it had nothing to do with excitement. He was spurred on by the prospect of slitting Havel Drexler’s throat and watching him bleed to death. The thought summoned the shadow, creating a firm pressure all over Frederich’s body while slowly pulling him inward into the fiery abyss. He put up no resistance, gripping the wheel harder while sensing the demon inside, itching to be unleashed. It would get its chance soon enough.
The passenger door opened from the outside before Francois’ bald, weathered head popped in, his white goatee reaching down to his tie.
“Ready,” he said.
Kalakia stepped out and adjusted his shirt. League soldiers were spread all around him, covering every entrance. The underground carpark at the Burj Khalifa was empty, except for the cars of Kalakia’s two guests. In recent times, Kalakia had been escorted only by Francois and a tiny handful of rotating soldiers, typically choosing to forego having a permanent security detail. It had been unnecessary, and also would have been a sign of weakness. Kalakia’s grip had been absolute, his identity and whereabouts concealed from those who had nothing to lose. Those who might have the capacity to harm him were smart enough to know better. The price paid would have been too high. As a result, The League could put its finest soldiers to better use.
Those days were now over.
With Francois leading the way, Kalakia was accompanied to the elevator by six hand-picked members of The League’s Supreme Force. The door opened, and the eight of them got in. The elevator lifted seamlessly, and Kalakia observed the thick necks and broad shoulders of his men from behind, their bulletproof vests bulging through their jackets. They were handsomely paid, the security and livelihood of their families dependent on their loyalty, and most importantly, they were battle-tested. The prerequisite for entry to Supreme Force was expert-level hand-to-hand combat training, extensive military training and a minimum of ten years of field service. Their allegiance to The League and their tenacity were unquestionable.
They were also human. Kalakia could never allow Supreme Force’s power to concentrate. The Ottoman Janissaries and the Roman Praetorian Guard before them had grown so overconfident that they were able to topple and replace their rulers at will. Supreme Force was a sleeping giant in much the same way. If their power superseded their duty, they would become a threat. Kalakia’s solution was simple and elegant; he split Supreme Force into hundreds of splinter cells which were unaware of each other’s identities. Members were occasionally moved between cells, but they never had a complete picture of the global web. Now members of Supreme Force had become Kalakia’s Supreme Guard, and like Roman Emperors and Turkish Sultans before him, Kalakia was aware of the danger. His protectors were his potential oppressors.
The elevator reached Kalakia’s penthouse, where a dozen more soldiers had secured the lobby. Kalakia could not be sure of Stirner’s brazenness. Short of a daytime ground assault or fighter-jet attack on downtown Dubai, he felt he could have his meeting securely with the heads of the American and British intelligence agencies. Francois gained access to the apartment and Kalakia entered first, his Supreme ‘Guard’ remaining by the door.
Seated upright at the table were Charles Burley from the CIA and Georgia Tuttman of MI5. Lurking over them were League soldiers standing guard by the windows.
“Good afternoon,” said Kalakia, approaching the table and taking his seat. “Excuse the delay. You will appreciate the need for added precaution. Let us skip the pleasantries and move straight to the purpose of this meeting. You know why you are here.”
“Our people have already told you,” said Charles Burley in his Texan accent. “The CIA has no connection or knowledge of the attacks whatsoever.”
“Yes,” chimed in Tuttman. “You know as well as we do that nobody in Five Eyes can afford such foolishness. And I do speak for all of our members.”
Kalakia sighed while carefully studying Burley and Tuttman’s determined faces. He then turned to Francois, who disappeared inside for a moment before emerging with two manila envelopes. Francois walked around the table and placed one in front of both people, checking to ensure he was giving the correct envelope to its intended recipient.
“What’s this?” said Burley.
Charles Burley grasped his envelope, ripping the edge off with one clean motion. Georgia Tuttman carefully opened hers and gasped as she looked inside.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Burley.
“What is the meaning of this?” yelled Tuttman.
Burley reached into his envelope and took out the severed finger of one of his agents. He scowled in disgust and flung it onto the table, then reached into the envelope again and took out the photo of his agent sprawled on the floor with a bullet hole in his head. He looked up sharply at Kalakia.
“That’s one of our men,” he said. “Why did you do this?”
Tuttman now had out the photos of one of her high-ranking people, who Kalakia had ordered killed the same way.
“I want to ensure that you appreciate the seriousness of this situation. I will not tolerate complacency. You claim to have had no part in these attacks. Demonstrate your commitment to stability by helping bring these terrorists to justice.”
“What terrorists?” said Tuttman, throwing up her hands. “We don’t even know what you’re dealing with here.”
“I understand your political position,” said Kalakia. “Deny all knowledge and remain neutral. Wait until the worst has passed. This would be wise under normal circumstances. However, let me assure you; these are not normal circumstances. Neutrality is not an option.”
Kalakia’s words ushered in a tense silence. Charles Burley began shaking his head. Georgia Tuttman sat back with her arms crossed, her face flushed red.
“This is ridiculous,” muttered Burley to himself.
“Mr. Burley,” said Kalakia. “If you have something on your mind, share it. But I warn you, be careful with your words. My tolerance is running dangerously low after the events in Berlin.”
Kalakia and his fellow titan faced off. Burley’s hands were quivering, his nostrils flared. Kalakia dug into him with his stare, sensing himself nearing the edge. He and Burley both possessed enough firepower to devastate the other completely, except it was the Americans with the most to lose. The United States could cripple The League any time they chose, but the cost to them would be so colossal that they would never attempt it. The ensuing conflict would shatter the world economy and destabilise society for years. The modern world was a machine whose momentum was not permitted to stop, and it was Kalakia who had his finger on the off-switch. He was not looking to go to war with the global powers. That would be suicide. It was Stirner he wanted. Yet since the attack on the Grand Luxus, his darker impulses had risen like evil spirits, and he found himself close to the point of no return. His desire to lash out was almost irresistible. From the moment the explosion went off in Berlin, Kalakia knew he would annihilate anyone who did not cooperate.
Georgia Tuttman uncrossed her arms and leaned forward.
“Tell us what you need, and I’ll see what MI5 can do,” she said.
Kalakia extended his fingers out to release the tension and took a deep, calming breath. He nodded at Francois to hand Tuttman the next envelope. Tuttman opened it and began sifting through the photos of Stirner as Burley reluctantly reached out and snatched his envelope from Francois’ hand.
“Both of you know who Horst Stirner is,” said Kalakia. “It is in everyone’s best interest to locate him quickly. If we do not, then this conflict will escalate, and innocent people will die. There will be more disruption caused to the global economy than at any time since the Second World War. This act of terrorism in Berlin is only the beginning.”
“Ok,” said Tuttman. “We’ll keep an eye out for him. Anything else?”
Kalakia recalled Stirner’s words. You forgot to look in the shadows.
“Yes,” he said. “I want profiles on your most wanted criminals, and I want them by midnight tonight. I expect your partners in the Five Eyes to cooperate, as well as all nations you collaborate with.”
“Which criminals exactly?” said Burley. “This is a long list you’re talking about.”
“Use your common sense. I have no interest in wife killers and petty thieves. Focus on those who are capable of extreme violence. Those associated with organised crime and drug cartels, anyone on your terror watch list, those associated with guerrilla groups, and so forth.”
“You think this is blowback from the underworld?” asked Tuttman, leaning forward while rubbing her chin.
“Yes. The League has extinguished their influence over the years. Our demise opens the door for them to reassert control.”
“I can give you a list of influential figures who would have plenty of motivation to want you dead,” said Tuttman.
“While we have given the world’s elites ample reason to support Stirner, they are not the tip of the spear. We must address the threat directly.”
“There’s no way we can meet your deadline,” interjected Burley.
Kalakia leaned back and steepled his fingers.
“Is that so?” he said. “Your collective is the single most efficient espionage alliance ever devised, with almost a century of cooperation. You are above national law, able to act with total impunity. You have coordinated countless coups, brought down numerous governments, and you have outclassed the Soviet Union. I trust you can scrape together some documents in one day.”
“Why are you coming to us?” said Tuttman. “The League’s intelligence is second to none. You’ve already taken our brightest people, and your technology is light-years ahead of ours.”
“Ms. Tuttman, The League has co-existed with your respective governments for almost three decades because we know our mission. We police inequality, and we do so because you cannot, or rather, will not. We are the only line of defence against greed and corruption. Policing your criminals was never our job. As a result, many have slipped through our net. This was a critical mistake, but be assured we will correct it. In the meantime, global stability is at stake. The files, by midnight. Otherwise I will count you as an enemy and will act accordingly. None of your people will be safe.”
“Fine,” said Tuttman.
Burley bit on his lower lip and looked down at the table.
“Mr. Burley,” said Kalakia with a firm voice.
“We’ll get you what you need,” said Burley.
“Good. Then that will be all. Unless you have further questions?”
“Time is ticking. Francois will show you out.”
Francois signalled the way to the door with an open palm, and after a short hesitation, the pair stood and allowed him to usher them out.
A short time later Francois was at Kalakia’s side, while Kalakia remained occupied with the view of the Dubai skyline, which was sweltering under the afternoon sun. Francois remained patiently waiting with his hands clasped behind his back.
“It’s time,” said Kalakia after some time. “Convene a council of war.”
“In two days. At the fortress.”
Francois prepared to walk away.
“Wait,” said Kalakia, still looking out of the window. “What of the bomber?”
“He’s still hiding in Poland. Scheffler gave the job to Frederich.”
Kalakia hesitated for a moment, gripped by a sudden tension in his chest. Then he nodded, and Francois’ footsteps disappeared out of the room. Kalakia considered this latest development. He understood Scheffler’s reasoning. The question was: would Frederich be able to cope with the war-time pressure? Perhaps it would be best to test him further in the field with a low-stakes assignment. Then Kalakia thought better of it. For what he had in mind, Frederich was exactly what was needed. In the worst case, Frederich would snap and unleash hell. Kalakia had no objections to that, not after what Stirner had done in Berlin. An unhinged Frederich fit perfectly into Kalakia’s plan. It would remind Stirner and anyone who supported him of the consequences of threatening The League.
For a time Kalakia descended further into the dark, twisted areas of his mind, imagining the brutal ways he could humiliate and punish Stirner. Finally, he went into his study with the sudden urge to refresh his reading on Otto von Bismarck.