"HAVE YOU EVER KILLED anyone?"
The man who asked me that had previously told me that he had a job for me. It had to be a pretty bad job. Just the kind people usually offer people like me. But I was used to it and I wasn't surprised anymore. I didn't expect the job to be so bad, though.
I sat in the cheap and somewhat run-down cafe before my breakfast and looked at the pale, gray-haired man with the thick glasses as if he were an alien. His face remained completely unmoved. He sat down with me without me asking him to. "What is it?" he asked cool. "Did my question upset you so much?"
"I would have been surprised to hear that from a former foreign legionnaire."
I raised my eyebrows. "Oh, yeah?"
He looked at me critically. "You don't look well. A little run down, I'd say."
"What business is it of yours?"
"You haven't answered my question yet."
"How do you know I was with the Legion? How do you even know I'm sitting here having breakfast?"
He smiled. It was a quiet, cold smile.
And then he looked at me with an indistinct look through the bottle-thick glasses he wore on his nose.
"I just know," he said. "I know all about you. I know your name. The one in your passport. And I also know who you were born with. At present you live in the apartment of a certain Tina Jörgensen. Pretty girl. The little one's a waitress, isn't she? Almost a little above your level."
I squinted my eyes. The bite I just had in my mouth got stuck in my throat by a hair's breadth. I decided the fun was over.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Don't ever ask me a question like that again," the gray explained quickly. "It just doesn't make sense. I won't answer." I looked at his lips. They barely moved. He should have been a ventriloquist, I thought. He would've had talent. I drank my coffee, took the paper napkin and wiped my mouth.
"What do you want?"
He didn't answer me directly. This seemed to listen to his peculiarities, I had already heard so much.
"I asked you if you'd killed anyone before."
"You know everything else about me. Why not that, too?"
"You should trust me."
"You have a chance to make a lot of money or stand there like an idiot," he replied. "The choice is entirely yours."
I took a deep breath and decided to play the game first. It was just too interesting not to. Because I was already standing there like an idiot. Anyone who lets himself be sustained by a waitress is an idiot at best, probably something much worse. Or the waitress is an idiot. Depends on your point of view. Anyway, I was burnt out enough to prick my ears.
"Okay," so I said. "I've already killed one man. Satisfied?"
His face remained motionless.
"I guess it didn't bother you too much."
"It was in Chad. Kind of self-defense."
"This thing I'm planning with you is also about self-defense, so to speak."
"Do you have a gun?"
"Do you need a killer? I'm not one."
He wasn't the first one to make me such an offer. Until now I had always refused such things. Sometimes I wondered why. There are people who make a pretty good living from it, although the low-wage competition from the former Eastern bloc is said to have already spoiled prices in this sector. And many a man who had got involved in it found himself in the end as fish food in some canal. "I guess this is the end of our conversation," I said. "I'm not a killer." I grinned. "Get yourself a professional. "Fast, effective and now quite affordable, unless you have special requirements."
He shook his head.
"The thing I'm talking about is completely different," he said. But that didn't seem very convincing to me.
I laughed hoarsely. "What's the difference? That much I understood: Someone's dead in the end." I shook my head. "This is not for me!"
"But you could!"
"I learned to kill. "Unfortunately, that's pretty much all I'm good at." I shrugged my shoulders and made a very thin smile. "Not much in civilian life, I'd say."
"Do you have any idea!"
"But you know, right?"
He smiled strangely. Just for a moment. It was the first time something like an emotion appeared on his face.
"To everyone, it's their first time, isn't it?"
I asked coolly back: "Do you think I'm so depraved?"
"Yes." He was very sure of himself and did not seem to have the slightest doubt that I was just the right man for him.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I guess you'll have to find someone else to carry out the mess you're trying to pull off." His pale blue eyes looked at me cool. He never dreamed of letting me off the hook. It's not that simple.
"They're pretty burnt down, aren't they?" he said. "Financially, I mean."
"There's just enough to pay for breakfast here!" I gave biliously back. I wondered how he knew so much about me. He was really well informed, the envy had to hand it to him. He reached into the inside pocket of his dark blue jacket and took out an apparently prepared envelope. Then he pushed it over my table.
"Please, take it."
"What is that?" I asked.
"That's five thousand marks."
Things got crazier and crazier.
"For what?" I asked. "Do you think you can buy yourself a killer for five thousand marks? "I don't think you're ticking right!"
"That's what you get for letting something go through your head."
"Would be the first time anyone would pay me to think!"
"Well, try and imagine half a million."
"D-Mark or lira?"
It took me a second to digest it. Then I asked: "And for this I shall kill a man?"
"One that deserves it."
"The only question is whether he agrees."
The grey rose. "Just think about it. I'll get back to you."
He was going to leave.
I shouted: "Wait!"
He stopped, came back two steps. "What else is there?"
"It's a really big deal, isn't it?"
"You know that for yourself. At that price."
"Why don't you use a professional?"
"I want you!"
"And why none in the scene? An experienced one. If I were you, I would. The risk is much lower. I mean, I'm a sort of rookie. I could screw it up."
"I don't think so."
"But that's still not an answer to my question."
"Give up the questioning. Didn't the Legion teach you that?"
So he turned around and was gone. I also got up and went to the window. I still held the envelope with the five thousand bucks in my hand. Outside, I saw the guy get into a cab.
I have to pinch my ear, I thought. I pinched. But I hadn't dreamed.
Later, in Tina's apartment, I just sat there for a while thinking about this grey man with the thick glasses. But as much as I tried my brain cells, it was pretty hopeless to figure out who he was. A gangster boss? A boss's emissary? The emissary of an emissary?
No, I thought. Things got bigger. Provided he really meant what he said about half a million francs. But he seemed serious. I felt involuntarily to my chest where I wore the damn envelope with the five thousand mice. My thoughts were moving in a circle. And in the center of this damn circle was half a million. Here not some medium-heavy drug lord wanted to eliminate the competition. So the grey probably came from a completely different milieu. I had suspected it from the beginning.
Instinctive, so to speak. The gray one had something very correct.
Something civil servantlike, so to speak. And maybe he was. An official. An intelligence man who needed someone to get the hot potatoes out of his fire.
And why me? The question pounded in my skull at least five hundred times. Why me and not a top professional? The grey had to have aspects in his bill that I didn't know.
I felt the envelope again.
Five thousand bucks doesn't bind you to anything, I thought. So take it and use it. You've been thinking. That does your part of the job. I thought I did.
I would have wished it had been that simple, but of course I knew it was not. It all depended on who I was dealing with.
Perhaps they would also send me an angel of death if my answer was finally negative. Nobody could rule that out. And the other thing was the five hundred thousand francs. That was something. You could start over. On the other hand, I'm sure so did whoever did this job. But I wouldn't have minded. Nothing against half a million and nothing against starting over. I wouldn't have cared where. Australia or South America, it wouldn't have mattered.
Later, when Tina came home, I was still sitting there lost in thought.
"What's the matter with you?" Tina asked.
"Oh, come on, something's up. "I can see that in your face."
We've been together long enough to be able to read each other's noses. Tina was in her early twenties and I thought she was pretty. She always had her shoulder-length hair stuck together somehow, which gave her something practical, patent.
And so it was. She always knew what to do.
Her eyes were green-grey.
A pair of eyes that meant something to me.
"You can't go on like this with you," she said. "You hang around all day."
I took a deep breath and said nothing.
My thoughts were still miles away. I was wondering what to do with the offer the gray man had made me. Half a million... I just couldn't get that out of my head. Every man has his price, I am convinced of it. And maybe that was mine. I thought of the compensation I had received from the French state for my services in the Legion. Almost used up. Somehow I had never had a particularly lucky hand when it came to money. How long would it take to get half a million francs through? But that was a sum that would keep me afloat for a while. Probably more than that.
"What do you think of something bourgeois?" said Tina.
"Huh?", I did. I looked at her, she looked back.
Her grey eyes looked at me. "What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Of work. A job. I'm not talking about these shady business you call business, though."
"Let's drop the subject," I waved off.
"Let's drop the subject," she imitated me. "You say that every time." She crossed her arms under her chest.
"Next month the rent will go up."
I raised my eyebrows.
"You haven't told me anything about that."
"Well, I'll tell you right now." I tell you because I think that you could slowly contribute too. We live here together, after all. "And I don't earn that much money to pull out trees."
"All right," I said. "How much do you need?"
"I didn't mean it like that."
It had been a long time since she'd asked me for money. She hated that, I knew it. So it was really urgent.
"Okay," I said. "A thousand?"
I reached into the inside pocket of the jacket, took two notes from the envelope and put them on the table. "It's all right," I said. "You're entitled to the money." She stared at those two thousand bucks as if she'd never seen one of those. Then she looked at me the same way.
"Where did you get this?" she asked.
"It doesn't matter, does it?"
"I want to know."
"Do I ask you where your money comes from?"
"It's no secret."
"I'm not asking you. So don't you ask me either!"
That was a bit harsh. Brushier than I intended. But what was I supposed to do? Tell her it was a down payment on a hit? Then it would almost certainly be over between us. She wouldn't have understood that.
So if she thinks I pulled off some little scam. That was better than the truth.
She finally took the money and put it away. Then she smiled a little embarrassed, but in her very special, inimitable way. It was probably that smile I loved her for. I replied.
Three days later I met the grey man with the thick glasses again. It was around nine in the morning when he was at the door. Tina was already gone. Luckily. She worked in a café with a pastry shop and had an early shift today. I must have looked pretty sleepy when I opened the door to horror. He smiled fleetingly.
"I was afraid they would be Jehovah's Witnesses," I said blatantly.
He obviously didn't think it was very funny.
"Have you considered the matter?" he asked without responding to my remark.
I just nodded.
"I've come to the conclusion that I don't know enough about this yet.
"Of course not." He made an indefinite gesture. "Can I come in?"
We walked down the narrow hallway into the living room. He sat down in one of the much too bulky chairs.
"You'll get an advance," he explained, as if I'd already agreed. He seemed like a good judge of character. Anyway, he knew I bit and hung on his hook. I had eaten his bait and there probably wasn't much point in continuing to deny it. I decided to accept it. As a fact.
"How much?" I asked.
"A hundred thousand. Set up a Swiss bank account. We'll wire it in."
"I want two hundred thousand."
The grey slightly distorted the thin-lipped, bloodless mouth.
"There is no room for manoeuvre. Make a note of that." He raised his hands. "I also find my offer very generous."
"All right," I said. Actually, one should always be particularly suspicious of generous offers. I'm sorry it wasn't me. But it probably wouldn't have helped if it had been me.
"Who tells you I won't take the hundred thousand and leave with it - without doing anything for it?"
"You won't do that. I wouldn't recommend it to you anyway. Believe me, we'd track you down anywhere. They wouldn't be safe from us anywhere. So you better forget about that thought."
I had a feeling he was right.
"It was just a question," I said.
He nodded and even seemed understanding to me.
I took a deep breath. "Who is it about?"
"About a Russian."
"There's 150 million of them. I'd like to be a little more specific."
"Of course." The gray one bent over. "He's a nuclear scientist. A great number of the former Soviet Union, which now sees a chance to earn a golden nose."
"I've heard of such things. But more than rumours hardly ever get out into the open."
"Go to a scientific congress, say for rocket technicians or nuclear physicists. It's like a contact centre."
"And this man is so important?"
"In what country will he earn his money in the future?"
"It doesn't matter to you. "Anyway, you and I will sleep better if he never gets there."
There were certainly enough potential prospective buyers who wanted to buy out one or two pieces of fillet from the bankruptcy assets of the red giant empire. From the Middle East to the Maghreb and South America.
"What you're going to do will be in all our interests," the Grey explained, as if he had to remove any scruples from me. He himself didn't seem to be bothered anyway, as cold as he presented himself to me.
"Now I understand the high price you pay," I replied.
His face remained unmoved.
"The man who does this job will then be chased around the globe by some secret service."
"Not unless there's a connection between those involved. You're a blank slate. You have one chance."
Slowly I thought I understood in outline what kind of game was being played here. On the other hand - with half a million in your pocket you could play dead man for quite a while and disappear somewhere until the air was clear.
But that was one thing that needed to be well planned.
He raised his thin eyebrows a little bit and then said: "I asked if you had a gun before."
"I don't have any."
"Then I'll get you one."
I had decided to go through with it. I don't know what would have happened if I refused. I really don't have the slightest idea...
"Do you have a picture of the guy?" I asked.
"Along with the gun."
The grey rose.
I wondered again who I was dealing with, who was behind the man with the bottle glasses on his nose. Many came into question. The Israeli secret service Mossad, perhaps, if it was an Arab country to which the Russians were drawn. But as far as I knew about it, the Mossad liquidated it himself.
What about the CIA?
There were certainly a number of interested parties who intended to prevent the transfer of a Russian nuclear crack at any price. And if I had known the country this man wanted to serve, I would probably have been a lot smarter.
But the grey man knew that, too, and that's why he wouldn't tell me a word about it.
I walked him to the door.
"It was not particularly skilful of you to come to this apartment," I rebuked him.
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me through his bottle glass.
"I don't want to drag Tina into this."
"Why would that happen?"
"Don't play dumb. You know that as well as I do."
"Do you think I'm an idiot? Then I don't understand why you want to work for me!"
"Anyway, I don't want it to happen again," I certainly explained.
"Don't worry, we saw each other for the last time today," he told me.
"And what will happen now?"
"Set up an account in Zurich within the next fortnight. I'll call you then."
"And the gun?"
"You will get."
He left the apartment. I ran to the window and waited to see him appear somewhere down the street. I almost wanted to give up when I saw him. He looked around several times. A taxi came up, stopped and he got in. I remembered the number - both the car number and the phone number of the taxi company, which was oversized on the side doors.
I went to the phone and called.
The company was called Rentdorff. Afterwards it was no problem to find out the address and so I got into my rusty Volvo to pay a little visit to this taxi company.
I finally came to a simple asphalt yard where I parked my car. One of the taxis was there with the bonnet open. I saw the lower half of a back and two legs. The rest leaned over the engine and seemed to be busy quite intensively. I stepped a little closer.
"I'm looking for Rentdorff," I opened.
"Get in the house," it growled out from under the hood. I shrugged my shoulders and passed him and his cab.
The house was a grey, unadorned building whose exterior plaster had cracks in several places. The door was half open.
"Yes, what is it?"
It was an energetic, commanding woman's voice barking at me. The dragon of the company or something like that.
With two steps I was in a kind of office and faced a rather buxom forty-something woman who was sitting on a wheelchair and swirling around to me.
"Who are you?" she asked, then took a radio call and looked at me very critically.
I waited until she was finished.
After all, the number I was trying to pull should have the greatest possible effect.
I pulled my badge out of her pocket and held it under her nose. A few weeks ago I bought them from the junk dealer. It must have been the prey of some autonomist.
Anyway, she was real.
And whenever you wanted to know something, this piece of tin had the great quality of opening people's mouths.
"So I said "Criminal Investigation Department" with the biggest portion of self-confidence I could quickly scrape together and looked the buxom dragon right into the watery-blue and all in all rather critical eyes.
The woman in her forties leaned back a little. It took almost two full seconds before something changed in her face.
But when it happened, I knew I was halfway there.
I let her take a second and third look at the badge. "Take a long look," I said. "I understand you're careful, but the badge is real!"
I secretly prayed that she would not ask me for my identity card with passport photo. Because I couldn't have shaken something like that out of my sleeve right now. The scepticism had not yet left her face, when I decided that attack was now the best defense. "I have a few questions for you. It's about a man who was transported by one of your cars over an hour ago."
She seemed to be taking the pill I slipped her.
"Which car?" she asked.
"I wrote down the license plate number."
I gave her a note.
"And what do you want to know about the passenger?"
"Where he went."
With one hand she was already on her radio, probably to call the driver. But then she stopped.
"What did the man look like?"
"Grey hair and very thick glasses. Mid-fifties, I'd say."
"And you're really police?"
Maybe my cop act would have been more convincing if I'd shaved first. I played the annoyed one and made a big gesture.
"Do you think I have all the time in the world? This guy's long gone before you realize what's going on!"
"All right!" I grunted and pulled my last trump card out of my sleeve. My very last one. I told her there was a police station she should call. "Ask about Borowski," I told her. "That's me."
She was thinking.
It was a simple trick. Borowski really existed. He was a patrolman and a few weeks ago he had recorded an accident in which I had been involved. I just remembered his name and his precinct. And if the fat dragon really wanted to be on the safe side and called there, then I could assume with some probability that she was told that Borowski was not to speak because he was on the road, which would make the dragon think that my fairy tale story was true. But she didn't pick up the phone, instead she called her driver. And a minute later I knew that the grey man with the bottle glasses had got out in front of the Hotel Maritim.
"Thank you very much," I hissed to the dragon.
"What's he done, the guy you're chasing?"
"Everything is subject to data protection," I returned to her. "Suppose you were involved in a murder case, then you didn't want that to get spread around, did you?"
It was the first time I saw something like astonishment in the bloated face of the woman in her mid-forties.
A MINUTE LATER I WAS back behind the wheel of the Volvo and I thought: hit the jackpot! If the grey one had let himself be set down in front of the Hotel Maritim, then maybe he lived there. And that meant I had a real chance to learn more about him. So I drove to the Maritim, parked the car somewhere in the area and then watched the entrance for a while. People came and went. Unaccompanied men, mostly. Business travellers. A group of Japanese were also present. The staff had its dear need with them, because among the Japanese nobody seemed to be who knew anything other than his mother tongue in such a way that it was sufficient for an understanding.
But I saw no sign of the horror.
Maybe he was on the road again long ago. It was also possible that he had only changed here to another taxi or the subway in order to shake off any pursuers. I finally ventured into the foyer. At the reception was a sweaty doorman, quite fat and with a dark moustache. He was not allowed to take too much breath if he wanted to avoid the buttons jumping off his much too tight jacket.
I looked around. From a newspaper rack I took a hotel journal, which was distributed here for free and drew one's attention to the sights of the surroundings in three languages. In an emergency, I could pretend to read in it. Emergency, that's when this gray man suddenly crossed my path here. I had no idea how he would react, but it would certainly have been better if he didn't know that I was spying on him. I turned to the doorman and pulled off my cop number again. It worked out outstandingly.
"I'd like to ask you not to make a fuss," I whispered to him and quickly put the badge away again.
He nodded. "All right," he said. He made it very serious. All the better. I gave him a brief description of the gray man. "Have you been accommodated with someone who looks like this?"
"You wouldn't happen to have a picture?" he asked.
"No, I'm sorry. But glasses this thick are really rare."
He raised his hands regretfully.
"I don't think I can help you there," he said.
"The man took a taxi from outside this hotel."
"About an hour ago."
"I've been on duty here since this morning. And during that time, Commissioner, no one to whom your description applies has taken up residence here."
Mr. Inspector! My goodness, I thought. How fast, you could be promoted if you did it right.
I put a stern face.
"You wouldn't be interfering with our investigation, would you?"
"No, of course not."
"I wouldn't have advised you to. Criminal thwarting is called that. Have you heard of it?"
"Well, listen, I'm telling you the truth."
"This is a big deal. If you screw this up, you're in trouble." I took a meaningful break and then pointed with my left hand to the lift. "You see that woman up ahead?"
"Yes, the ones with short skirts. That's ours too."
"I wouldn't have thought so!"
He seemed very impressed and now he was sweating even more.
I felt sorry for him.
"All right," I muttered and turned around. And when it hit me like a punch in the stomach. I saw the horror coming from one of the halls.
He wasn't alone. Next to him went a tall man with thin blond hair. He was probably in his mid-forties and quite lean.
I instantly uploaded the hotel journal.
They came closer and walked past me towards the exit, where they stopped for a moment and exchanged a few excited words. I only saw their mouths open and close again and turned back to the doorman.
"Look at the greyhead at the exit, my good man!"
He looked pretty lame and then leaned over to me. "This is not a guest," he assured me.
"Really not! Believe me, I have an eye for faces."
"And you would have kept the face?"
"And the man next to him?"
"He lives here."
The Grey and his companion now went out into the open air. "What's his name?" I said.
"Look in your fucking guestbook already!"
He looked. The blond guy called himself Bo Erikson and was Swedish. And the best part: He had even left the number of his passport. I wrote it down.
"How long is he staying?"
"He didn't say anything about that."
"What's his room number?"
"Don't tell him about me."
"Of course not."
I was now also moving towards the exit. I knew I had to be careful. I let my eyes wander a little and then I saw them sitting in a black Mazda.
They seemed to be talking.
A kingdom for a bug! I thought. Then blond Erikson got out and slammed the door behind him. The Mazda roared away immediately and got himself into the traffic in a rather brutal way. Someone honked and I estimated the number of birds shown at that second at half a dozen.
I could just remember the car number, but I also saw the emblem of a well-known rental car company and was therefore able to calculate that even this track would not lead very far.
Erikson, however, came straight at me.
He didn't know me. At least, that's what I assumed. When he reached me, he briefly raised his eyes and looked at me for a full second with his bright blue eyes before passing me.
I didn't look around and wondered what role the Swede played in this whole thing.
What may have been behind all that theatre?
I took a deep breath.
Does it really matter?
This is an uncomfortable question, which I had previously avoided answering a little.
No, it didn't matter. Not the slightest. I wanted half a million, and if the guy I was supposed to kill was a bastard, so much the better.
"How would you feel about living in Rio?"
"Rio. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you speak Portuguese?"
Tina laughed. Her teeth flashed. "Well, then nothing can happen!"
I reached over the table and took her wrist. She was eating and had a fork between her fingers. I looked into her eyes.
"What is it?"
"I'm serious," I said.
"If I had enough money... Why not? Then you can live anywhere, can't you?"
"That's the way I see it."
"I've always wanted to go to Africa."
"To Mount Kilimanjaro. Must be great." She shrugged her shoulders. "Unfortunately, the necessary change is not available."
"Suppose we had enough."
"Oh, stop it!"
"Why? Can you imagine?"
She sighed and leaned back. I let go of her wrist. "This must be another weirdo of yours! I can only tell you to keep your hands off it!"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I think you misunderstood me."
"No, I don't think so."
This is one of the disadvantages of a longer relationship. You know each other too well.
"I have to leave later," I told her.
"You've been more forthcoming before!"
"I'm just telling you."
In the late afternoon I really got dressed up.
Tie, jacket, even a reasonably ironed pair of trousers. And the three-day beard was off, too. I wanted to look about like the guys who went out and in the Maritim, make commercial traveler with obtrusive aftershave. I couldn't serve with the latter, but there was so much of it in the air in the hotel that it wasn't even necessary. Of course Tina became curious.
"How come you're dressing up like that?"
"I have to watch someone," I said. And I wasn't even lying about that. "Some kind of detective job."
"And there's money for that?"
"And you don't think it all sounds pretty far-fetched?"
"No, that's the way it is. You can believe it or not."
"Why don't you take me with you?"
"No. I can't do that."
"Either it's not as clean as you're trying to tell me, or..."
"Or the person you're supposed to be watching is female and has arranged to meet you for this observation beforehand."
"I don't think that's funny."
"How about you just trust me a little bit more?"
She raised her eyebrows.
I hung around in the entrance hall of the Maritim for quite some time and waited to meet Erikson. I was already determined to go through with it, but I wanted to be able to assess the risk. And I wanted to know at least in outline who I was dealing with. On the other hand, at half a million, my risk sensitivity was naturally dampened by quite a bit.
I had to wait a long time for Erikson. Unfortunately there was a new porter at the reception by now, otherwise I would have asked him if the man of number thirty-four was in his room at the time. If not, I could have looked around a bit. But I didn't want to pull my police work again. In the end, it caught my eye, and then I was the badass.
And just stop by number thirty-four like that?
On the off chance, so to speak? But that could go south.
Finally, Erikson came. His jacket seemed rather wrinkled - in a way that did not make it clear whether it was fashionable intent or carelessness. He passed me by the hotel bar without even noticing me. I followed him and saw him sitting for a drink a little while later. He seemed pretty thoughtful. What would I have given to know what was going on behind his high, sunburned forehead? I pushed myself somewhere into the corner to be able to observe him better and not to attract too much attention.
Maybe Erikson was seeing someone. Anyway, if I was lucky. But I didn't have one.
A big-bellied redhead talked to Erikson several times. The Swede did not react at first, but then finally got involved in a small talk.
The fat man told a lot about himself. He was a representative for lingerie fashion, tingelte from department store to department store and had now bought a holiday home on the Baltic Sea. And his daughter would graduate in three months and then study. Both are quite expensive, the daughter and the holiday home.
The Swede didn't say much about it. The little he brought over his lips was certainly not a bit accentuated. Finally, the fat man made the suggestion that they could still move around a little bit together.
"I come here more often," he said. "I know my way around here, believe me. "As far as nightlife is concerned, too." He grinned dirty. "I know what's going on."
At first the Swede hesitated. Then he emptied his drink and nodded. "Good," he said. "Why the hell not?" Erikson smiled tiredly. "I could use a little variety!"
"Didn't you?" said the fat man. "You just need something like that every now and then!"
The fat man stroked his red hair, which was shaved quite short and stretched upwards like the stubbles of a harvested field of corn. "I just need to go to the little boys' room first," he said.
Erikson just nodded. And the fat guy disappeared for a few minutes. I, however, wasted a few thoughts on the question of whether this really was an accidental encounter or a cleverly staged conspiratorial meeting. In the environment in which I had set foot, everything had to be expected in this respect. Nevertheless, I decided on the first option.
"Are we taking my car or yours?" asked the fat man when he got back.
The Swede grinned.
"If we're gonna have one, it's yours!"
"I don't have one here."
They left the bar and I followed them as inconspicuously as possible to make sure they left the hotel. Then I made my way to room number thirty-four. One of the hotel staff was kind enough to show me the way. I probably would have gotten lost otherwise, too. The guy didn't suspect a thing. Not the slightest. Probably it was the same with him as with most people: You just can't believe that a crook shaves and wears a tie. So I finally stood in front of number thirty-four and only had to wait a few moments until I was alone in the corridor.
There was a very ordinary lock in the door. So no trouble for me. I brought a special piece of wire for this part of the drama. I needed a few seconds, then I had made it. I entered and closed the door behind me while glancing at the situation. It was just an ordinary hotel room. Nothing special. A single room. And it seemed to be inhabited by a man who made sure everything was in its place.
On the bedside table was a small electronic alarm clock with illuminated display. Next to it a magazine. I took a good look at the alarm clock. Made in Hong Kong. As far as you could see, it really just seemed like an alarm clock.
The bedside drawer was empty.
I went to the closet, opened it, saw some jackets, trousers, a shirt and a suitcase underneath. I looked at the jackets. They had no labels, but were of obviously good fabric quality. New wool or cashmere or something else in the price range. It looked as if Erikson didn't care that anyone could trace the origin of these clothes - whoever that might be. I searched the jacket pockets and the pockets of the trousers. There was nothing in there but a pack of Tempo tissues. Then I took the suitcase and tried not to mess up the underwear that the Swede had folded so carefully. The same applied to her as to the rest of his things. Good quality and no labels. I let the view once again carefully circle through the whole room. But it seemed like today wasn't supposed to be my day. There was nothing here. No crumbs. There wasn't even anything in the ashtray. Then my eyes got caught on the bedside table again at the magazine.
I went there, took the sheet and leafed through it. I don't know exactly why I did it. Maybe instinct or something like that. In any case, this colourful sheet was the only one in this room that had a personal touch, so to speak.
It was a magazine about sailing yachts.
At least, I thought. Now I know that Erikson may be a sailor. Or it wants to and is interested in it. It wasn't much either.
And then I saw the number scribbled with a felt-tip pen. Probably a phone number. And probably a foreign one. I noted them down on my hand because I only had a weak old ballpoint pen, but no paper. Then I made sure I finally got out of the room. I also succeeded without attracting anyone's attention.
Maybe I should be a hotel thief, I thought.
Wasn't that an alternative to what I was about to get into?
But as a murderer, I just had the better tariff.
We lay together in Tina's worn-out bed. She had her head on my shoulder and purred to herself. My hand slipped through my thick hair. She'd have trouble getting it. I'd ruffled it up pretty good.
"How about you take a few days off next week," I said.
She must have been on cloud nine or eight. Sex always made quite a lasting impression on her. But the thing I wanted to talk to her about was important. And I couldn't put them off too long either.
I said, "Did you hear what I said?"
"I'm going on a little trip next week."
Now she became more awake. "Where to?"
"Zurich, Switzerland. I thought you might want to come with me. Have a nice few days in a beautiful city. Something different than your fucking pastry."
"All right, I'll ask my boss."
The only holiday we had taken together so far had been a cheap trip to the Costa Brava in the off-season. She raised her head and looked at me. And then she suddenly became suspicious.
"What do you want in Zurich?"
"Not why! You're not just going to Zurich."
"I want to set up an account."
"Where you can leave the millions you always dream of, huh?"
"Yes, that's right."
"You know what, you take care of getting a vacation - and I'll take care of the rest. Clear?"
I called the number Erikson had taken down twice. First time in the evening. But nobody picked it up. Next time next morning and this time with more luck.
"Company Kreuzpaintner, Vienna", said a voice in gruesome Viennese diatribe brand Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Yes, good day," I said. "I was wondering if there were any seats left."
"Excuse me?" He pronounced it like Verzeeääihung.
"Well, seats. For the bus trip to Rimini."
"We are an import/export office, not a travel agency", it came a little higher German now, but also noticeably more unfriendly by the management. "I think you've got the wrong number."
"No. Somebody gave me your number. And Kreuzpaintner is right too."
"It's not exactly a rare name!"
"It may be, but..."
"Listen, mein Herr." He said Heeeeeeeer instead of Herr. "I'm sorry, I can't help you." He hung up on me. And I was sorry too. Finally, I would have liked to know a little more.
Vienna, I thought. Why not make a little detour to Vienna? Vienna, Zurich... Almost got out of the way, huh?
The next week we went on our trip to Zurich. Tina had actually got the whole week off, which I had not expected in my dream. But that way we could take a little time.
We drove by intercity. Across Germany and then into the mountains. It's a nice way to travel. My Volvo probably wouldn't have survived a track like this.
We stayed in a good hotel. It was so good that Tina was all fucked up. I told her to show her astonishment a little less clearly. It was already noticeable. Anyway, we had some nice days.
I set up my account and Tina was still drilling around about it. She was persistent. Why I wanted to have an account here, when I wouldn't pay any taxes that I could evade and so on. She was just curious. One of their very few unpleasant sides. But I could live with that.
"What do you say we make another little detour to Vienna?" I said.
"You call this a little detour?"
"Vienna is great, isn't it?"
"Imagine: We'll take the quad through the city and..."
"All right with that?"
"Yes. I'm just wondering if this isn't getting too expensive."
I smiled. "Is it your money?"
"Then let me waste it my way."
"All right, fine."
"If it's all of them, we can still go to the station mission."
"Oh, stop it!" She laughed.
"I don't know what you got! I've done this before!"
It was only a few minutes later when I read a report in the paper. Not a headline, but a short message on the last page.
The Russian scientist Prof. Dr. Yuri Sergeyevich Snegov died yesterday in a traffic accident in Berne. A passenger car caught the 52-year-old in a confusing side street. The driver is a fugitive. He's wanted. Snegov, who worked in the former Soviet Union on the development of carrier systems for nuclear warheads, made a private visit to Switzerland.
All the way to Vienna, I couldn't get that damn Russian out of my head. Did this Snegow really die of an accident? It seemed that way. But it could also have something completely different behind it. After all, it was also possible that the people on whose behalf the gray man had recruited me had a whole series of other secret bearers of the former USSR on their death list in order to prevent Libya, Iran or whoever put together a kind of ex-Soviet brain trust. After all, the opportunity was quite unique. Prices as in the sale on the grabble table.
Later, when we were in Vienna, I tried to find something about this Snegow in other newspapers. Tina was very tingly because I bought a stack of paper at the station and then took it to my hotel.
"What do you want with it?"
"It says the same thing everywhere!"
We went out that evening. The Burgtheater. Tina wanted to go there. Some difficult piece was played there, so there were more than enough free places. I looked at my program. Happy days from Beckett. A woman sits in a pile of sand and talks and talks and talks, while her husband fidgets around somewhere on the stage and occasionally grunts out a brief response. Afterwards we went for dinner.
When we came back to the hotel, Tina was quite tired and fell into bed like a stone.
I was still leafing through the papers. One by one, I searched for the name Snegow. I didn't find him. Only in the courier was a small message, but without a name. I was just talking about a Russian scientist.
That's the smartest thing I've ever been.
I looked over at Tina.
She was fast asleep. Actually, I was tired, but I felt like I couldn't sleep now. There was just too much going on in my head.
I got up, opened the lift door and stepped out onto the small balcony that belonged to our room. It was a balmy night. One of the first mild nights of the year.
Our room was on the seventh or eighth floor. I looked down at the bustle. From the road came a constant noise, almost like a sea surf. My eyes glided over the city's galaxy of lights and I thought of all kinds of things. There was a big mess in my head. I thought of the grey man, of the bank account in Zurich, to which hundreds of thousands would be deposited in the near future, I thought for a second of Erikson and of the company Kreuzpaintner, for whom I was in Vienna.
And I thought of Tina.
What happened to her when I did the job?
I hadn't given it enough thought, I realized.
Then what should I tell her?
Just get out of the picture? Goodbye? It would have been the easiest thing to do. And probably the safest. But I didn't really want that, not if I could avoid it anyway. I wanted to take her with me as far as I could. And that depended on her. And a little bit of me too. About my ability to lie to her, to be exact, because I couldn't put her through the truth. She wouldn't have understood them.
But I've had a little practice in lying, so why should I worry?
The guy who served us breakfast the next morning was almost two meters tall, but quite narrow. He looked like a scarecrow and didn't seem to be working in his job for long, because he needed a total of five ways to bring breakfast to us completely to the table. In the end, however, we had everything. The coffee was only lukewarm when we got our three-minute egg.
"Too bad," Tina said sometime, during breakfast. "If Yugoslavia wasn't fighting now, we could go a little further south and lie in the sun for a few days on the Adriatic. Should be warm enough as it is."
"Yes," I meant absent. "Fucking civil war." There were also people who went there especially to experience a little war. I wasn't one of them. In this respect I had had my share of adventures and was saturated for the next hundred years.
"But we could still go down to Italy!", she suggested.
"We've only just arrived in Vienna!"
"Venice. What do you think about that? I'll call my boss at home and ask him if that's okay."
I shook my head.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
"I'm busy, that's enough, isn't it? Another time we can go to Venice. Really. But not now."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It was just a suggestion."
I tried to smile, but the result was probably not so special.
She looked at me. And in a very special way, which she rarely did. "I actually know very little about you," she said in a rather thoughtful tone.
"I mean, about your past. About what you were before we met."
"I've always been the same."
"You don't like to talk about it, do you?"
"Why would you say that?"
"Because you've always skilfully dodged me on questions like this." She raised her shoulders a little. Then, with an inimitable movement, she stroked a strand of hair out of her forehead that had cheated its way out of her hairstyle. "That's true, isn't it?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"My life isn't that interesting."
"I think so."
"I love you. That's why I care."
I looked up, right into her green-grey eyes. "What counts is the present," I said without much persuasiveness.
"Do you think so?"
She wouldn't let up. Not today. She made another attempt.
"You were at the Foreign Legion."
"Out of stupidity."
"That can't be all that was!"
"I don't believe a word you're saying."
I drank my lukewarm coffee before it was completely cold and then headed my egg.
"Were you in the Gulf War, too?" Tina asked.
I laughed hoarsely.
"The Allies have waited too long to attack. My time was up." I shrugged my shoulders.
"Too bad, actually."
I saw Tina's frown.
"I would have liked to participate in the Victory Day parade in New York."
"Sometimes I really think you're crazy."
She was silent for a while, and I thought she wouldn't get back to it. But I miscalculated.
"What was before?" she asked. "Before you were in the Legion?"
I could have also said: Nothing you'd like. But I didn't want to stir their curiosity.
Thriller by Neal Chadwick
Shortly after the end of the Cold War, a former foreign legionnaire is hired to kill Russian nuclear scientists suspected of being hired by interested third world countries. He gets into the whirlpool of a conspiracy from which there is no escape - because suddenly the powerful can no longer let him live...
- ISBN (eBook)
- ISBN (Buch)
- 2018 (Juli)