Book 2 – Chapter 20

Lieprecht’s office looked like a museum. It was so chock full of display cabinets, glass boxes and things hanging off the ceiling that it was remarkable he had even fit his dark wooden desk with the intricately designed brass knobs in there. Clearly, the man had a hoarding problem. It was hard to breathe at the smell of dust, varnish and formaldehyde in this room.

Among the things he displayed were tiny Ancient Egyptian boats that looked like they were stolen from a grave somewhere. There were daggers and various iron prongs and strangely shaped ironcast tools, maybe used for leatherwork. The one thing Lieprecht pointed his well manicured finger to, sitting inside the corner, hidden in plain sight were three links of a dark metal chain.

“Innocent-looking, isn’t it?” said Lieprecht.

The man had the strangest look in his eye. Like somebody who was equally greedy and scared, not knowing whether to grab something or to run away.

Joachim leaned in to get a better look. There were no magic symbols engraved into the chain. The links weren’t even particularly well made, their structure crude and irregular, the way medieval tools looked.

“Excuse me if I don’t follow,” said Joachim. “How is this the most powerful weapon in existence?”

They sure had their touch of melodrama. And/or never heard of nuclear warheads.

“How much do you know about Vessels?” said Lieprecht. “About the work our guild does?”

Joachim shrugged. Better to play stupid and get more details in the process.

“There are several states of existence that a human being can enter,” said Lieprecht. “Its initial state is that of a corporal being, in entwined with its nascent soul. Brain and soul exist in perfect harmony with each other, in the way that the soul shapes the complex neural networks and in turn gets shaped by them. It is a kind of symbiosis that is impossible to achieve on this level of sophistication ever again.”

Joachim took this in. They were certainly taking care to merge their beliefs with science. Joachim sort of had to respect them for that, even if he feared that all of this he was telling him was hogwash.

“At the death of the biological body, the soul separates. Unless it is claimed by the Powers Above, it will drift into the underworld, Hell, as we Westerners call it. The human being in question is now a being of pure magical energy, free in many ways, less so in others. Earth does not have sufficient amounts of magic to sustain it and all but the rarest soul has the capabilities to exert influence upon it.”

“Wait,” said Joachim. “Are you saying Hell is a physical place? Just somehow… more magical?”

“Hell is very much a physical place,” said Lieprecht. “Somehow more magical, however, would be a gross oversimplification.”

There was something there. This piece of information connected to something else. Joachim just wasn’t sure what yet.

“As you might have gathered,” Lieprecht continued, “there are certain factions in Hell that very much wish to exert such influence. This is where the Fleshcrafter’s Guild comes in. It is our noble calling to once again restore the gift of a self-sustaining biological body upon the disincorporated souls. If you consider this for a moment, I think you will realize what sort of position this puts the Guild into.”

Joachim had been aware of this before. Nevertheless he whistled appreciatively.

“Between a heap of rocks and a huge, well-sorted collection of hard places,” said Joachim.

“Well put,” said Lieprecht. “We have put a lot of effort into keeping the process anonymized. Not even the Lord Guild Leader could easily find out when a certain body was created and which House it now belongs to. These structures are the results of many hard won lessons, many periods of time where knowledge, experience and skill were lost and rediscovered and developed. You will have to forgive me if we seem a bit harsh. Any discourtesy inflicted upon you was in a way nothing but the means to our continued survival.”

Joachim took this all statesman-like with a stern nod.

“So what about the chain?” said Joachim.

“It is simple,” said Lieprecht. “In a period of… less refined artisanship, the delicate balance between a soul and a freshly created brain were hard to achieve. Instead, bodies were created that were sort of universal, with chains to bind the soul into the vessel, forcefully keeping it from escaping.”

That had been the missing pieces. Inside Joachim’s head, several things clicked into place simultaneously.

“This makes it possible to steal a body!” said Joachim. “You could take it, unmarked as it is, and go anywhere without your House knowing where you went. A… rogue agent.”

Lieprecht nodded enthusiastically.

“That is the problem precisely,” he said. “Luckily this hasn’t really happened all that often. Herr Zayenkovic is a pretty notorious example, certainly. Also, the mechanisms of aging are optional, at least on a biological level. There are many treaties in place now that make it mandatory for enhanced camouflage and so forth, but I won’t deny that it benefits us greatly.”

“Not only could they steal the body, they could… live forever?”

Lieprecht smiled an evil little smile.

“That is the advantage and the curse. As long as the chains are in place, the soul will not leave the body, no matter how much trauma is inflicted upon it. Any wound will heal eventually, provided you keep eating. It is my personal theory that some of the modern myths about the undead stem from this very fact.”

Joachim remembered Andrej driving a truck through a portal and then through the wall of a cabin in the woods, reportedly having a grand time all the while. He remembered his driving style a couple of days ago. It fit.

A third alternative.

Faust wanted Andrej’s body. Perhaps he thought he could replicate the process.

The arm in the laboratory. Of course! One of the fugitives had cut off their arm to get rid of the mark. Joachim wondered if that worked. And if he would have the guts to do it to himself if necessary.

“The Great House of Hades,” said Joachim.

“What about them?” said Lieprecht.

“That is where he went. They were trying to negotiate something and things went sideways. They didn’t come back out.”

Lieprecht tilted his heads to each side, considering this.

“That is valuable information,” he said. “Thank you.”

“So that’s it,” said Joachim. “Our bargain is fulfilled? Just like that?”

“Herr Schwartz, you may well be lying,” he said. “Should you be foolish enough to try to deceive one of the most powerful guilds in the cosmos, you will soon learn your lesson. It might not be today, it might not be twenty years from now, but immortality gives you nothing if not patience. We do tend to have a long memory.”

Joachim nodded.

He didn’t feel comfortable at all here. Were the walls closing in a bit?

“I can go?” said Joachim.

“You may go,” said Lieprecht, “I do have another question for you. Just something that is of personal interest to me. If you will indulge me?”

Joachim took a deep breath and braced himself.

“This fugitive you sold out must be capable and probably has some friends. Who are you allied with? You have no standing. Why do you involve yourself in infernal politics?”

Why indeed.

Joachim felt resigned all of a sudden.

“There are some things too evil to be allowed to exist,” said Joachim. “And I have the feeling that if I don’t stand up and do something about them, nobody will.”

“You are doing this alone?”

“If I have to,” said Joachim. “I have a grant deal or whatever with somebody out there. Other than that I have no one to trust, which I think is probably not a bad thing.”

Lieprecht seemed taken aback at this. He went to the antique swivel chair in front of his desk and sat down.

“Are you trying to shoot for a place Above?” said Lieprecht.

Joachim shook his head.

“I already refused one.”

Bile rose up in Joachim’s stomach just thinking about it.

Maybe you should do your own research about what happened to the people inside the garage.

…violate the Covenant of Eden…

There are some fairly powerful individuals making sure that the Silence will not be broken.

Joachim wasn’t sure. Maybe this was propaganda. Maybe this was a subtle little head fake to turn him away from them. The feeling in Joachim’s gut, the way Hadraniel had behaved, all of it steered him towards another direction entirely though.

“Oh my,” said Lieprecht. “Oh my. Would you mind showing me the mark of your grant?”

Joachim shouldn’t have. There was no point in revealing more information than strictly necessary to anyone in a hostile environment like this one.

He did anyway. If only because he was curious.

Lieprecht had warm fingers. His hands were surprisingly soft for a man his apparent age. He carefully inspected the moving tattoo on Joachim’s arm.

“So what’s the verdict?” said Joachim.

“I want to apologize for the discourtesy I have given you,” said Lieprecht. “Please forgive me. I am unworthy.”

Lieprecht was trembling. Joachim pulled his arm away.

“What did you see?” he said.

Lieprecht shook his head.

“If you don’t know, I cannot divulge the information,” he said. “You will learn when you are supposed to learn. Please leave.”

Considering that moments ago he had wondered whether they would let him walk away at all, he was only too happy to oblige him.

Book 2 – Chapter 19

It didn’t take him long to figure out where to go next. The conversation Joachim had had with Hannah’s mother had given him some useful keywords to navigate the vastness of data the team had left him.

Berlin. That was where he needed to go next. That was where he’d find the people with answers.

When Joachim reached the city, it was the middle of the night. Unlike Munich, Berlin was full of dark, monolithic skyscrapers. It was covered in graffiti, trash and industry. It was covered in people who looked like human garbage. It was Joachim’s kind of town.

He knew where he wanted to go, but he took his time. He drove the scenic route, circling in on the historical like a vulture. In Munich, the poverty was contained like in ghettos. The poor people either lived in cramped honeycombs or they didn’t live there at all, with all the hip and pricey areas vast, clean and presentable. In Berlin, rich and poor blended effortlessly. Glittering malls stood surrounded by dirty gray apartment buildings. Large historical sites with pompous half-globe roofs were redecorated with torn concert posters, as if the city were reaching out to them, clawing at them, preventing them from flying off back into the dream world where they had been born.

The Embassy of Flesh didn’t advertise. Among several brass plates announcing medical practices, lawyers and accountants, was a single sign labeled Carnis. There was nothing else, just those words. Still, when Joachim rang the bell, the door was opened for him instantly.

He took the elevator up. It didn’t look high-class or anything. It was one of those steel-colored ones with the square buttons like a million others. Built 1992. In case of malfunction please call this number.

Joachim hadn’t expected a Gothic cathedral- On second thought, no, that was exactly what he had expected.

The door’s opened on the third floor of a ten-story building. One glass door and he stood in front of an office. A large front-desk with an older woman in a suit and T-Shirt combination sitting behind it. The reception area had a living room suite and a ficus tree. There was a huge steel sign bolted to the wall.

Carnis GmbH.

Communication.

Well it was technically true, even if it omitted most of the details.

“Good evening, sir,” said the woman behind the counter. “How may I help you?”

“My name is Joachim Schwartz,” said Joachim. “I have an appointment.”

“Ah yes, Herr Schwartz,” said the woman. “Why don’t you take a seat. Herr Lieprecht will be with you shortly.”

Joachim took a seat. There was nobody else in the office and he didn’t hear any noise of phone calls or meetings or… typing going on. Still it took twenty minutes before a man with a black tie came out who wore the whitest shirt Joachim had ever seen outside of commercials. His silver hair was trimmed short, his wrinkled features looked sort of like an angry owl.

He didn’t say anything, but just sat down next to Joachim, looked ahead and steepled his fingers. It seemed to occur to the woman behind the front-desk that she urgently needed to be somewhere else right now and left.

Shirt-man took a deep breath, followed by a sigh.

Joachim would have to do gymnastics to just look at him and then he would have had a very intimate moment with the man’s ear. He opted to look straight ahead instead as if pretending that they were both just waiting for somebody.

“You have no standing,” said shirt-man – Herr Lieprecht? – as a way of greeting.

“You told me that on the phone,” said Joachim. “At least I think it was you. I called you two hours ago?”

“Yes, that was me,” said Lieprecht.

He stayed silent after that. They were both just staring ahead now, like waiting for a bus.

“I was hoping we could have a polite conversation,” said Joachim.

“Politeness is how we express our respect to those around us,” said Lieprecht. “I have no respect for you, because you deserve none. All I agreed to was a conversation.”

“You are a member of the Fleshcrafter’s Guild, are you not?” said Joachim.

“That seems to be what you think,” said Lieprecht.

“I would like to ask you some questions,” said Joachim.

“You have no standing,” said Lieprecht. “It is the be all and end all of answers you are going to receive. Our secrets are sacred, the trust put into us never invalidated.”

“Andrej Zayenkovic,” said Joachim.

Lieprecht took another one of his deep breaths punctuated with a sigh. When Joachim didn’t say anything more he said: “I can neither confirm nor deny any name you will bring forth. Trying to elicit information from me will only be trying my patience.”

“Maybe that is not his real name,” said Joachim. “Say do you remember somebody escaping with a piece of your handywork. Say, somebody wrapped in chains, running away from you or some House a couple of decades ago?”

Lieprecht stiffened.

“Wait here,” he said.

He got up and walked over to the front-desk. Then he picked up the receiver and punched a number into the phone. Lieprecht had a conversation in what sounded like Russian he kept glancing at Joachim, saying da.

Then he put his hand on the receiver.

“Herr Schwartz, would you mind coming over here?” said Lieprecht.

Joachim got up and did just that. Lieprecht handed him the receiver. Then he made himself scarce as well.

“Herr Schwartz, was it?” said a man with a… foreign accent on the other side.

“Yes.”

“It is a pleasure,” said the man. “My name is Magnus Ivinius Crutas. I am in charge of the European continent.”

“Charmed,” said Joachim. He was about to ask if he meant in charge of the guild operations on the continent or literally the continent, but then didn’t. He wouldn’t have liked the answer either way.

“We have been looking for the man you have been describing. Do you know where he currently resides?”

“I am surprised you can even talk to me,” said Joachim. “Seeing as I have no standing and all.”

“Herr Schwartz, our organization is in a delicate position and has been for as long as it existed. You will have to excuse the discourteous remarks that might have been made by my subordinates.”

Joachim’s hand was shaking. Every single word the man spoke exuded power. And all it had taken to speak to him was mentioning Andrej’s name. Was he going to walk out of this place alive? Somehow Joachim had the impression that it depended on the end of this conversation.

“I know where he is,” said Joachim. “This information has a price though.”

“Yes of course,” said Magnus Ivinius Crutas. “I can see to it that you are well compensated for your troubles. Provided you remain discreet and exclusive in your dealings.”

“Agreed,” said Joachim. “I am not interested in money though.”

“Then what are you interested in?”

Faust’s head on a pike.

“Information,” said Joachim. “Secrets.”

There was a pause on the other line.

“Please be specific, Herr Schwartz. Time is a precious commodity, even among the immortal.”

Was he sure he wanted to ask this? He had come here with a different question. Background info on Faust. Anything that could be used for blackmail or discern his motives. Now though…

A bone inscribed with symbols.

Andrej didn’t age. He had spent decades looking like a roughed-up kind of thirty. Why?

“Multiple questions. I will give you information depending on how much I like your answers.”

“Agreed.”

“How come Andrej doesn’t age?”

“A complex questions with many answers. For you it might be enough to know that he had taken an old vessel, from back when aging was more of a hindrance than a necessity. How do I know you have actually seen him?”

“He spent a lot of time in Munich, driving a white BMW. There is a man who had been buried in an unmarked grave in a forest in Thüringen about a thousand years ago. The grave is now empty. Many people are very interested in this grave and similar ones. Why?”

“They all belong to the same person. A person much similar to Herr Zayenkovic, but far older and far more dangerous. He had been hunted to the end of the earth and lives still. Your answer seems to imply that Herr Zayenkovic no longer resides in Munich. Do you know where he is now?”

Was there a connection somewhere?

“Yes on both counts. In how far are Herr Zayenkovic and the individual in question similar?”

There was silence on the end of the line.

“Those are dangerous questions, you are asking, Herr Schwartz. Perhaps I can make you another offer? I have a substantial amount of funds at my disposal. There are five million Euros inside the very office you are standing in. That is how much this answer is worth to me.”

That was how much he wanted to avoid telling him what was going on, thought Joachim.

“Pass,” he said. “What is there about those two that is so valuable that somebody would spent a lot of time and resources in securing it?”

“The end of peace,” said the voice on the telephone. “The end of order. The end of a truce that has remained uneasy and fragile for millennia. Herr Schwartz, if I told you this, I would violate the Covenant of Eden itself. I am prepared to do it, but please do not ask this of me lightly.”

“Do you want to have Andrej or not?” said Joachim. “Do it.”

Book 2 – Chapter 18

He didn’t expect to meet him here, but then again, Joachim wasn’t really surprised he’d show up.

Joachim’s legs felt heavy from the hike through the wilderness, but at least he wasn’t cold anymore. He had opened his jacket and taken off the sweater underneath, but still felt warm despite being able to see his breath.

Nature around him was gorgeous. The Thüringer forest was basically untouched by mankind, as were the endless green planes that came after, with scarcely a real path to get him where he needed to go and grass so tall, it kept tickling his fingers, as he had marched forward, feeling the tall plants like an elephant carving his way into the jungle.

His sneakers were a mess. Served him right for underestimating nature. He had been too cheap to invest in hiking boots and his feet had paid the price. The blisters he had earned today hurt with every step he took. And he would still have to go back to the car, since he hadn’t brought a tent. His backpack included nothing but a few magnesium tabs and a now mostly-empty bottle of water.

And there he stood, next to slight, hardly visible elevation in the ground that was the unmarked, recently disturbed grave that Joachim had come here to see.

He didn’t wear a suit this time. Somehow Joachim had expected Sanft to wear a suit anywhere, not to sleep, not to shower without wearing a custom-tailored garment. He had scarcely recognized the man in his dark-green winter coat and jeans and – yes – hiking boots. They were immaculate though. The hiking sticks sticking out of Sanft’s backpack seemed to have never touched the ground either. His skin looked as wrinkled and leathery as it had the day Joachim had sat down with him for the worst job interview of his life. His eyes – sunk deeply into his face – still had the same spark of amusement in them.

“Are you looking for someone amongst the dead, Herr Schwartz?” said Sanft. “I could put you into contact if you desire it.”

Joachim’s mouth was dry. He could feel his heartbeat against his chest. He was terrified of the man. Last time they had met he had casually turned a coin into gold. There was no telling what other kind of magic powers he had possessed.

“You were tracking me,” said Joachim. He was uncomfortably aware of the moving – possibly living – tattoo on his arm. A mark of a magical grant that was the source of Joachim’s super-strength. A mark that Sanft had inflicted on him.

“It would be careless of me not to, wouldn’t it, Herr Schwartz?” said Sanft.

Joachim kept expecting Sanft to sit down the first opportunity he could find. He just looked so frail. Yet, despite his appearance, he had the physique and energy of a dancer. He walked around the grave with an easy grace, taking in the landscape around him and smiling.

“What a beautiful spot to be buried, don’t you think so?” said Sanft. “I have seen so much worse. It is so… peaceful here. Lots of space to unfold, not like those cramped church cemeteries.”

Joachim was surprised Sanft would voluntarily set foot on holy ground. Then again, Joachim had been attacked in a church a couple of months ago and no divine light had kept that demon back then from smashing the pews into Joachim.

“Who is buried here?” said Joachim.

“Oh nobody,” said Sanft. “The grave is entirely empty. However if you were asking whose grave it is then the answer is no one you need to concern yourself with. A local troublemaker, a product of less civilized times.”

Joachim stifled a groan. He couldn’t expect straight answers out of his kind. He’d say what he had come to say and leave. That was the way of it. The problem was that Sanft would take his sweet time doing that.

“Faust claimed he pointed me out to you,” said Joachim.

“Faust?” said Sanft. His attention had wandered to everything but Joachim, but now he had it back. “Who is-… Oh yes, of course, Faust. Yes, that is correct. Though I am afraid we are not on friendly terms anymore. He has gone a bit overboard with his… ambitions.”

“Do you still remember what we had eaten when we first met?” said Joachim. “What did you have with the salmon?”

“The crayfish, you mean? Avocado tartar on baby spinach. Goodness. He really has you running scared, doesn’t he?”

“Never hurts to be careful,” said Joachim. “Speaking of, we are being watched.”

Sanft chuckled.

“No, we are not. I have taken the liberty of taken a few precautions. How are you feeling these days? How are you adjusting?”

Joachim laughed out loud. He had to, even risking punishment for his insolence. It was the only honest response he could give.

“Are you serious?” said Joachim. “You are concerned for my well-being?”

Sanft didn’t seem angry at this. Nor did he get that psychopathic gleam in his eyes that would have suggested a power play.

“We are not evil,” said Sanft. “House Nicostratus were barbarians, as was to be expected of the lesser Houses. I did know… Faust was going to put you into its course, but I had thought you’d seek allies first and do this slowly and methodically. You will go far, even if you obviously can’t know the big picture yet.”

“And what is that big picture of yours? Did you not profit from those people getting tortured to death?”

“No,” said Sanft. “Neither I nor we profited from House Nicostratus’s actions. Unless you define the word we a lot more broadly than I usually do. As to the big picture…” Sanft tilted his head from side to side ever so slightly, thinking this over. “We are all players on some boards and mere pawns on others, if at all. We need to choose to be players or pawns is all we ever will be.”

“You think me taking on Faust is foolish?”

Sanft shrugged.

“That remains to be seen and depends on your approach. He will most certainly be a fugitive soon. You are being played in more way than one on your pursuit of him. Among them, interestingly, Faust himself.”

“Then why don’t you help me out here?” said Joachim. “Tell me what he is after.”

Sanft smiled his tiny smile.

“I don’t remember swearing an oath of loyalty to my House,” said Sanft. “Not that it matters anyway. You will serve us once you are dead.”

Joachim smiled.

“Is that so? I don’t recall us signing a deal.”

“The grant you were given is a mark of reservation for your soul. No other House will dare touch you after you are dead. Apart from dragging you in to deliver you to us, of course. And I have it on good authority that you already refused Heaven. Until you are dead, you are a free man off course. You don’t need to serve us up here, unless you want to make your afterlife much more comfortable or earn large sums of money.”

He hated that man.

Remain calm. There is a way out. There is always a way out.

“Provided there is an afterlife.”

Sanft gave him a deadpan look.

“I’m taking my chances.”

“And that I don’t find a way back into Heaven,” said Joachim.

Sanft chuckled.

“Would you… would you want that, Herr Schwartz? You have taken such issue with the things Faust had been up to. I would be rather surprised if you signed up with the fanatics upstairs.”

“And why is that? That Hadraniel fellow was nice enough,” said Joachim.

Nice enough if one disregarded him killing people with a hand-gesture and being totally okay with Joachim bleeding out on the floor, since he was going to Heaven now.

“There is no way that you would believe me,” said Sanft. “You will have to do your own research.”

“I’ve been getting this a lot recently. Any pointers?”

“Maybe you should look up what happened to the people you fought so hard to save back in that garage.”

Joachim’s stomach twisted into a knot. This couldn’t be good. Images of Hadraniel burning somebody’s brain from the inside flashed through his mind.

Burning eyes.

The smell of frying meat coming from a corpse.

Fifty innocent people.

He pushed it out of his mind. There’d be time to process this when he wasn’t staring down a tiger.

“Why is the grave empty? Why is Faust digging up ancient corpses?”

Sanft shook his head.

“Faust hasn’t dug up anything. This grave has been empty for many years. And as to the why, I’m afraid you are going to have to find this out yourself. Sometimes procedure can be a bit of a hindrance.”

Joachim glowered at the man.

“Why tell me anything if I will find out myself and do what you want me to do in the process?”

“Herr Schwartz,” said Sanft, “you might be a pawn on many boards and a player at some, but in most games you are yet too insignificant to enter into the equation. You are not part of an elaborate plot. You are a casefile on my desk. That is it.”

And just like that Sanft turned and left through an invisible doorway.

Book 2 – Chapter 17

Lerchenweg 19 in Potsdam was the nineteenth white house with a wiremesh fence in a series of virtually identical white houses with wiremesh fences, each with their own little patch of green grass, their own unique set of tiny decorations – garden gnomes, ceramic frogs, flower pots, wind chimes, tiny replicas of classical statues – on an identical ground, paved with identical tiles. Number nineteen didn’t even have a unique door or fancy window decorations. It was the same modern gray metal and glass door that almost every other house on that street had. The trees on the other side of the road, across from it, hinted at just how young this development had been. How much history they had paved over here to ruin it with their sameness.

Or this place had actually been a dump before, in that case good riddance.

The name on the white plastic door bell was Becker. That was not the name of the man who lived inside.

Nobody reacted to Joachim’s ringing, so Joachim jumped the tiny, yet locked, garden door and walked up to the front door.

Nobody reacted to Joachim’s knocking, so he casually pulled the door open, cracking its soulless frame with a violently loud snap.

The room on the other side looked fresh. Lots of white Ikea furniture. Classical books – The Odyssey, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Selected Shakespeare plays – sat on the otherwise empty shelves untouched. A staircase with fake marble slab leading upwards.

There were no pictures on the wall. The whole place smelled of plastic.

The carpet muffled Joachim’s footsteps as he made his way to the living room.

Emptiness here. Hardwood floors, no dents from furniture. Nothing. It was sort of zen actually.

Had he come to the right place?

The whole place was silent. The whole place was clean. It looked like nobody had ever lived in here.

He looked outside the window, just to see a narrow asphalt path, marked with a hopscotch cross drawn in colorful chalk, and the next row of houses. No garden.

Who would live upstairs? Who would live upstairs and cast aside the easy escape routes the ground level offered.

Joachim went back to the entrance to cast the carpet aside, revealing a trap door in the corner of a house that was not supposed to have basement.

The trap door was locked.

He opened it.

There was no ladder that led down in what looked like a drop of three meters. The good thing was that his super-strength included his legs.

He jumped.

The floor down there was hard, but it didn’t hurt him. It was covered in small white tiles, that much he could see before he tapped the light-switch.

When the light came, he saw more.

The place was some sort of laboratory. It had an experimentation area surrounded by acrylic glass, with a huge tube on top to suck off fumes. It had a bunch of equipment – electronic devices in the broadest sense – with white plastic casings and many buttons. On a cursory glance it didn’t even look all that weird. If one disregarded the mummified human arm inside the glass box, suspended above the countertops. Rows of cabinets waited above and below, their white doors closed and unlabeled, waiting like ghostly guards, impassively watching.

There was no chemical smell about the place, which surprised Joachim. The whole place smelled of… dust? A bit of rubber?

Was that how archaeologists worked these days? He hadn’t imagined to find a hat and a bullwhip down here, but whatever happened to digging tools? Or shelves filled with sixteen volumes about a time period of ten years?

There were no doors. This laboratory, built in an illegal basement, underneath a house that was a carefully constructed lie was all there was to it. Joachim briefly summed up the amount of money, time and effort that had to go into setting this up and estimated just how much the owner of this lab would have to charge to make up for it.

Joachim started opening the cabinets, discovering beakers, test tubes, a bunch of pointy metal things, all of it either unused or ridiculously clean. He had to work all the way to the end, to a large double-door cabinet, to find something more interesting.

The contents of the shelves inside of it were used. There were notebooks – handwritten, that was more like it! – stacked up on one. There were cardboard boxes, frayed with heavy use. There were rows of test-tubes labeled in immaculate handwriting. Alpha-4, Beta-1, Beta-2, Beta-3, Gamma-1, and so forth. They were soil samples.

Joachim grabbed the notebooks and leafed through them.

Sample Beta-4 inconclusive.

Some scientific jargon followed. Lots of abbreviations. Something about PCR results and restriction enzymes.

Joachim glanced up at the arm, then at the book again. He placed it down on the cleaner than clean countertop and started snapping pictures.

There were maps inside the book, neatly cut out and glued into place. Somebody had really been going for that gold star with this piece of homework.

The maps were too close to place them, but the labels were in… Arabic?

What followed were stunningly detailed drawing of corpses. Or rather mummies and bones. Then pieces of clothing with approximations of what they could have looked like. Medieval garbs. A sort of tunic and a cloak. Leather boots. More data. More terse words about procedures and experiments performed.

No match. That was what it said. No match to what?

Joachim pulled out the neat metal stands containing the tubes with the samples, one after the other. Which one was the most frequently used? Which one had a name that differed from the others?

The samples went all the way to Kappa. Was the arm in the case the original? Could Alpha be?

He looked at the contents of the tube and couldn’t quite make it out. Was this… human flesh?

Somebody had gone through a lot of trouble to secretly identify a grave. This couldn’t be Andrej. Joe had Andrej’s bones. Hannah wasn’t dead. At least not likely dead. For centuries.

Faust?

Joachim looked at the arm again. It was a blackened, leathery thing, completely shrunken in on itself. So much so, that it didn’t even look real anymore. More like something made out of plastic. If it was real, Joachim couldn’t even tell if this arm – a right arm – had belonged to a male or female.

He went back to the notebooks and started flipping further. The digging sites had been chosen all over the world. There seemed to be no pattern to them, no logic. There was one in England of all places. There was one in the Czech republic. Why would there be…

Joachim looked at the garbs again. Medieval times. It could have been the Crusades. In that case there probably was a distinct path leading from Dourbershire, England all the way to a place in the Middle East.

Should he destroy this? Would it thwart Faust’s plan?

No. He was watching. In a way, Joachim did exactly what Faust had told him to do.

Joachim kept taking pictures of the notebooks with his cellphone, but he didn’t know if he really needed to be that subtle. What was going to happen if he just took everything? Whom was he trying to fool by clandestinely making copies?

On the other hand, he had to start practicing being a spy at some point.

It took him an hour to make the copies and put everything back into its place. There was no sign of the archaeologist who had done all of this work. The last pages actually detailed two routes going through Germany. Close-by even.

Joachim’s eyes widened. Of course. Why would the lab be this pristine and have only one shabby little cabinet filled with equipment that had actually been used? This was a field lab. It was new. Created for this very dig site.

And it was at this dig site where the archaeologist’s search had stopped.

Book 2 – Chapter 16

The one thing that surprised Joachim after four hours on the Autobahn was just how easy all of this was. First of all, the cheap-as-peanuts used lemon he was driving was actually a halfway decent car. The roads were empty enough not to be too much of a bother and he could just hold a comfortable speed and do a lot of driving straight ahead and it was just like swimming in the way that he subconsciously remembered how to do it.

The landscape he could see past the anti-noise walls was stunningly green, with coniferous forests taking in the winter sun on the endless slopes of hills he had never known were there. Easy on the eyes. Therapeutic even. He wished his car – this driving coffin built before Kohl had been chancellor and giving off such a cigarette stink as if Federal Chancellor Schmidt had been chauffeured around in it – could turn into an airplane, or better yet, a pair of wings, so he could explore those slopes with his body, the way his eyes kept exploring it.

There was nothing holding him back now. No job, no girlfriend, no overpriced tiny apartment, not even any stuff he had to move. No allies who kept trying to recruit him for plans that they couldn’t talk about. Plans their infernal overlords had deemed necessary. Plans that he would learn about now.

He should have felt isolated and he did feel a bit alone. He should have felt without purpose, without context, utterly uprooted, but he did not. For the moment at least, he felt free, letting the engine of his new car howl as its prehistoric wheels dug into the asphalt, pulling him forward.

They were dead. Dead in a way that kept them from walking the earth. Dead in a way that kept them from resetting their dead-man’s-switch. The email had gone out. Joachim had sucked the first five gigabytes through his cellphone into his shiny new laptop that hadn’t even received the bliss that was Linux yet. There was more. There were hundreds of gigabytes, dwarfing the data Joachim had liberated from the body-snatchers’ offices. More than he could review in a month of work. Probably enough for a year if he wanted to get a complete picture.

It was all there. The shard he currently had unpacked, he had managed to decrypt it, too. It contained email archives from two years ago, among them Hannah’s. It looked real. It was real. Hannah’s crew didn’t have the know-how or the manpower to pull something like this off.

Jesus, Joachim thought. They are dead. They are all dead.

There was something about them that had seemed invincible. Or at least careful enough to survive almost anything. They were smart. They were well-trained. Faust had casually taken them apart or at least driven them to take themselves apart which – to Faust – was probably the same thing.

The downside of having a car from the dark ages was the car radio that only accepted cassettes. Or the radio. Joachim didn’t know which he hated worse. He hadn’t listened to the radio or watched actual TV in ages. Not since he had been a teenager. Atheism aside, he did wish for a special hell for whoever first looked at the numbers, figured repetitive advertisement – playing the same stupid commercial again and again and again until the jokes had long stopped being funny, until nothing in it had any meaning, after Joachim had made a holy oath never to buy that shaving cream or laundry detergent or insurance policy – was worth it. Just go ahead. Do it.

Joachim had a pathological hatred for free TV and radio and ads you couldn’t click away and now he was stuck out here on the Autobahn, with only a vague destination in mind and nothing to distract him from his thoughts.

How do you catch someone who could create illusions of anyone – and probably anything. Someone who now watched his every move. Isabel never went into detail just how much she could see, but for all Joachim knew, she could read the time of his watch. And she had already read all those emails, most likely. There was no advantage to be had here.

Think.

Whenever Joachim wanted to change the rules, break the rules, get an unfair advantage, he would do a con. To do a con – on probably one of the most experienced con men in the universe – he needed to know what he wanted. What Faust wanted so badly that he would ignore risks and common sense to get it. There was something. Giving Joachim Wieland had been a risky move. Or at least costly.

He wanted to go AWOL. How? Using what? What did he need Joachim’s help for? He was good for punching people and installing printers, basically. None of this seemed to figure much into immortality.

Think.

He only had one pair of far-reaching eyes. That was Isabel weakness, if she had no others. Looking at one thing meant not looking at other things. There were limits to the things she could see. If he had many enemies, why did he keep talking to Joachim? Why was Hannah so important? Why did Hannah send Joachim to see her presumed mother? There was a piece of information that was staring him into the face here, that he was missing. What was it?

Think.

An archive full of intelligence. He couldn’t read the right questions. Hannah couldn’t talk to him because she couldn’t divulge classified intel. It was apparently okay to do this post-mortem. Who else got a copy of the archive? What were the pieces that only he had? A story about Hannah’s origins. A story about Andrej. A bunch of symbols carved into his bone. A list of known associates of Faust’s operation-

Of course!

Faust was doing his own thing. He was hiding it from his superiors. The best way to hide it was in a clandestine operation. The body-snatchers had been organized in cells with no cell really knowing what the other cells were up to at any given moment. It would not only have been possible to hide something in there, it would have been easy. Joachim pulled into a rest-stop. He was in no-man’s-land right now. The previous GDR territories – the New States – had beautifully developed cities, but everything in between – the smaller towns, the villages – seemed underdeveloped. All the greater was the surprise to see a huge, mint-condition building with walls built of glass and steel, offering gas, a supermarket, washrooms, showers, a restaurant and – thank the gods above and below – free WIFI. All of this at prices that he would have never found in Munich in a hundred years.

He sat there clutching his steering wheel, ordering his thoughts.

He had to find the intersecting set. That was the trick there was to it. First of all, a list of all the external contacts Faust’s operation had had that were not directly involved in the day-to-day business. Especially if they were investigators, researchers or deliverers of unusual equipment. These could include people Joachim and Hannah had already questioned about Wieland.

Second of all, find out what Hannah’s crew had known about all of this. And about him, actually. He was itching to look into their cards.

Third of all, answer the important questions. Who was Hannah? Who was Andrej? How were they connected to all of this?

All of this with the single important question: What was Faust after?

Joachim looked up at the rest stop. Would they take offense if he lived here for a while? Sleeping inside his car like the homeless person he technically was?

A thousand more questions ran through his head.

What did Isabel know about all of this? Was Carina safe? What was the true nature of Hell? Was there actually a Greek god called Hades? Or was it just a wizard who fancied to call himself that name?

He grabbed his laptop and headed out.

Book 2 – Chapter 15

As far as prison cells went, this one was pretty nice. It had a neat bed, that was only slightly too short for him, with white, fresh linens and a window that didn’t let in the morning – or noon? – sun, which was great, because Joachim’s head felt several times too big.

The room was spinning, so Joachim threw out an anchor, which meant, putting one foot down on the floor while still lying in the comfort and safety of the bed.

The place had this squeaky linoleum floor. Great for cleaning up people’s vomit, but cruel and unusual punishment for anyone with a headache-related condition.

There was this kind of soft draught in the room. Which was weird. How could there be a draft when there was only one window and a steel door that Joachim distinctly remembered being shut from the other side. And who left that steel door with the heavy lock open? And what was Carina doing here, sitting on a stool, just looking at him?

“Bloody Hell,” mumbled Joachim.

She wasn’t wearing the same outfit as yesterday. She had this Steve Jobs wannabe black turtleneck on and a long coat and way too many clothes in general.

She didn’t seem pleased to see him. At least there was no smile. Or maybe that expression was pity? Not like Carina had never had a bad hangover.

“Are you awake?” said Carina.

“What are you doing here?” said Joachim.

She leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm. It felt so good he wanted to cry. And to vomit because he was disgusted with himself.

“You called me, remember?”

Her tone was weird. There was no playfulness in it. Carina wasn’t the kind that got concerned. She was epically bad at comforting people.

Joachim groaned, closing his again.

“I was drunk,” he said.

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Shut up.”

He pressed his hands up against his forehead in a desperate attempt to contain the headache. Stupid alcohol. Why had he drunk it again? Never again. Maybe he should find a bar and drink some beers to take the edge off.

“I…” said Carina. “I have something to tell you.”

“You are still hell-bent on getting Hell-bent.”

“Huh?”

“You are still trying to find a way to sell your immortal soul to the Anti-Christ.”

“Let’s not argue okay? This is important. This is bad.”

Joachim got up. He could give in to excruciating headaches another time.

“What happened?” he asked. He blinked against the glare of reality intruding upon his neurons.

“They…” said Carina. “They are dead. All of them.”

Joachim blinked. Whom could she…

“Meike? And Alfred? And-”

“No,” said Carina. “Hannah and her crew. I went to see them yesterday. Thought that maybe they could… I don’t know… use a hand? When they went-”

“Carina?”

Her hand on Joachim’s arm squeezed.

“What was the name you had given to your goldfish in second grade?”

She stopped cold.

“Why are you…” said Carina.

“Was it Flipper?”

Carina stayed silent.

“Hello Faust,” said Joachim. “So good to see you again.”

Not-Carina groaned.

“Damnit,” she said. “Damnit, damnit, damnit. I was going to keep this up all day! You are way too paranoid for someone as inexperienced as you, do you know that?”

For a moment Joachim wondered if Faust had captured Carina and held her somewhere. If he had tortured her to gain personal information.

She made her choice. She wanted to be involved in this game. The moment she had done that she stopped being a civilian. It was out of Joachim’s hands now. He was as powerless to do anything about this as the moment Carina had left.

“What do you want?”

Faust’s illusion of Carina grinned in a way that Carina would never have grinned. It was far too wide, far too toothy, far too cold.

“The same thing as last time,” said Faust. “To offer you an alternative.”

Joachim’s brain was uncomfortably slow right now. He needed to find a better way to deal with his emotional stuff. Maybe he needed to find a therapist. One that wouldn’t lock him up once he revealed his belief that magic was real or who would get hunted shortly after Joachim had revealed this to him or who would be an evil sorcerer beholden to a cabal of even more evil sorcerers. Hmm, short list.

“I wasn’t lying,” said Faust. “Hannah and her crew really did manage to get themselves killed. Unfortunately I had nothing to do with it.”

Joachim took a deep breath, unsuccessfully trying to clear his head. He was way too tired and way, way too hungover to deal with this bullshit.

“Assuming any of this is true…” Yeah, right. “Who did?”

Faust smiled wistfully. He accidentally got the expression just right. Some animal part of Joachim wanted to take the illusion and toss her into his prison bed and have his way with her. Many, many times.

“I have other enemies than just her and her clown troupe,” said Faust, still using Carina’s voice. “They tried to cut a deal by the looks of it and when that didn’t work try to fight their way out to escape.”

“A deal with whom?” said Joachim.

The more Faust talked, the more he had to work to keep his lies consistent, Joachim figured. Plus it was a neat and comfortable way of interrogating someone that didn’t involve actually figuring out what was going on inside that man’s – or woman’s – hand.

“House Hades,” said Faust.

“House Hades? Aren’t you getting your mythologies mixed up a little bit?”

Not-Carina sighed.

“There is a lot you still need to learn about the workings of the Underworld. There is a lot more going on than any one propaganda machine would have you believe. At any rate. Maybe we should start talking about my offer, before I start giving away free knowledge.”

“You haven’t told me your offer yet,” said Joachim.

“Not a good policy to tell your enemies what you are after,” said Faust. “Now that your allies are decorating the insides of the Obsidian Palace though, I do think I can take the risk to tell you a bit more. You remember me telling you my offer was an alternative?”

“Yes,” said Joachim. “I do remember you saying those words.”

“I wasn’t talking about an alternative to Hannah,” said Faust. “I was talking about a third way. A place that is neither Hell nor Heaven.”

“Like… Earth?”

“Exactly. Earth,” said Faust. “What if there was a way to escape this war? What if there was a way for your soul never to leave your body? A way to live forever.”

Headache.

“You are a guy who tortures and lies to people,” said Joachim. “That is my answer.”

Not-Carina chuckled. Faust was such an asshole. It already hurt looking at Kukomu’s face. Now this…

“I don’t expect you to shake on it right now,” said Faust. “I would have been disappointed if you had. What I expect you to do, is what you will be doing anyway. Investigate if I’m telling the truth. Figure out what I’m up to. You will discover the truth in due time. The truth that Hannah hasn’t told you, just drawing a comparison here. My offer will stand.”

“Does your other offer still stand?” said Joachim. “The offer where I get to punch you?”

“Oh by all means,” said Faust. “If it makes you feel better. Though I wouldn’t recommend doing it inside a police station. They have cameras in this place and people watching us.”

“You mean, more people than usual?” said Joachim.

Not-Carina smiled.

“Maybe I will put you on the phone with Isabel,” he said. “As soon as I have found a way to make sure you will not be able to trace it. This whole war used to be difficult enough when you just had magic to worry about.”

“Fancy some help programming your VCR?” said Joachim.

Carina smirked.

“We have talked enough, I think. Isabel was kind enough to let me know your email address. I have already sent you my contact info. Your cellphone should be… with the officer at the front desk, I think?”

There was something still nagging Joachim. Something about the way Faust had talked about the alternative. He didn’t crave eternal life, did he? He already had it. He also seemed to be in a reasonably comfortable position, except for the part…

“You plan to defect, don’t you?” said Joachim.

Not-Carina had already gotten up and turned towards the door. Faust hesitated.

“Or not defect, as much as go AWOL,” said Joachim. “That is your secret plan.”

“We will be in touch, Joachim,” said Faust. “It is the best offer you are ever likely going to get. Don’t squander it.”

There were many people in his life who weren’t exactly on the side of good. Not even if he squinted his eyes and turned his head a little bit. None of them were the architects of a cold-blooded torture operation though that had spent years force-recruiting people and murdering people with industrial efficiency.

Sitting on his prison bed, making use of the pauses inside his throbbing headaches where he could actually hear his thoughts above the pain, he wondered if squandering his offer was somehow related to his plan to take Faust down and make sure he never could hurt anyone ever again.

Because that was what Joachim was going to do.

Book 2 – Chapter 14

Joachim took his time on the drive back. He trusted Hannah that much. It was two kilometers down the Autobahn, at a rest stop that he turned his phone back on. It was halfway to Munich that he got even halfway decent internet reception.

Who carved symbols into a human bone? Crazy people that was who. And wizards. He already knew that wizards exist. He had a two Euro coin made of solid gold to prove it. They didn’t look like any living language and the display of his burner phone was frustratingly slow.

He was almost in Munich when he got Jan-Hendrik’s email with a download link for a bajillion pdf files. The city was cloaked into darkness, pierced by ever-more-frequent city lights. It was at that point, almost home, inside a stolen car that Joachim realized that his home was gone and so was his computer.

He stopped somewhere off Leopoldstraße and cursed silently.

He probably could have stayed with Hannah’s gang, but they specifically told him to stay away. Not that he knew where to find them. Not that he had any number he could call. Just a bunch of email addresses.

“Fuck it,” he mumbled, still sitting in the driver’s seat of Andrej’s car. Still parked in front of a brightly lit Irish pub style bar, tempting him.

“Fuck it,” he whispered as he opened his email app and just started adding all the email addresses he knew of them into the BCC field.

Sort of homeless, he wrote. Need place to stay. Will trade spot on sofa for Andrej’s car that I am currently holding hostage at an undisclosed location. Best, Joachim.

“That oughta get their attention,” he mumbled.

He checked his watch. It was too late for him to hit an electronic store and just buy a laptop out of his savings. He doubted that Mehmet, who had been accommodating to him before when he couldn’t get home without putting people in danger, would be available on short notice. He had three credit cards in three different names inside his wallet.

He got out of the car and just now remembered he could’nt lock it.

“Fuck it”, he mumbled, opened the door and tucked the GPS tracker back under the passenger’s seat. If somebody was going to steal this car, at least Joachim would know where they went.

He started wandering down the street.

The street lights in this part of town gave the area around a ghostly quality. Just the people though. The various cafés, clubs, bars and restaurants had their own light, throwing it against their own walls, making their buildings more real than real. Joachim’s fellow wanderers in the young night – some in groups and laughing and talking, some alone and determined, few just strolling, without any place to be – moved around the buildings like moths dance around light bulbs.

There was barely a wind, even here in the city. Even the cars swooshing down the dark, icy road barely stirred the cold, dead air.

Joachim had the vague goal of going to a bar he had visited once, years ago. One that served breakfast well into the night, as well as hard liquor. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember where it was though. He wandered forward, his hands jammed into his pockets, his face serious as if he was on his way to the National Conference for Responsible Guidelines for Agriculture or something.

What he really wanted was to get into a fight right now. Have somebody beat the shit out of him. That was mostly impossible though since the first blow Joachim landed, out of reflex probably, could fatally wound somebody. What did comic book heroes do when they were feeling self-destructive?

He stumbled and looked around to find himself in a bar. It was one of those jazzy places with the low lights and a bajillion glasses behind the bar in front of a lit screen.

Everything from that point on was sort of a haze. Joachim remembered the bar keeper, some smug college kid who seemed like a million times more charming than he was. He remembered two flat screen TVs showing stupid soccer matches between two teams no one cared about except the rich, drunk assholes in this place.

Who paid six bucks for a small bottle of beer anyway?

Joachim did. Joachim’s offshore credit cards did.

They also paid for a bottle of tequila that had a brand label but contained nothing but watered-down supermarket garbage.

Somebody insulted him. Or he insulted them first, he couldn’t remember. Either way they soon became friends, mostly because Joachim kept throwing money around. He had his arm around their shoulders and they sang a song. Or several. Simultaneously. Nobody could agree what to sing so they each sung their own. Good crowd too. Fat banker in a polo shirt who had his wife with him who drank and cursed like a truck-driver from… well… Bavaria. A couple of fellow computer programmers arguing over Ecuadorian craft beer.

Joachim remembered them playing cards. Pennies at first, then the stakes went up higher.

He remembered making out with the banker’s wife. Or the banker for all he knew.

Things got a bit out of hand afterwards and he was at the bar again. It was time he got his life priorities straight, after all. He couldn’t let other people’s problems distract him from his drinking. That was not a viable long term strategy.

Joachim remembered drawing out an Excel sheet on a napkin projecting his alcohol intake.

“The problem is,” he explained to the bar keeper, who was either listening enrapturedly or had gone home for the day to be replaced by a guy who kept chatting at the other end of the bar, “that I don’t know what my metabolism is like. Ever since – you know – the incident I heal a lot quicker. I can shake some things off I’m not like… like… liiiiike… whatever, I need to solve this equation for k – which is my metabolism coefficient, basically the number that says how well I handle alcohol, see? – and then I can estimate it. I was thinking about a two-… wait, no… three-dimensional graph between k and the amount of tequila I drink, showing how bad I feel when I get out of this. Hangovers are for suckers. See? See?”

They had this billiard table here or maybe it was a video game station. He remembered calling out large money bets and making a bunch of money. Mostly because the conditions for the bets were hazy and everybody was happy to call the bet off when Joachim looked at them all grumpy-like. That was the high point of the evening. It went down from there.

Joachim remembered somebody saying something racist about refugees. He remembered telling that man what he thought of him and his mother. He remembered going into vivid detail totally caught up in the process.

The man got up at this point and demanded they settle this outside. Joachim told him that wasn’t a good idea because – see? – he was way too strong and it wouldn’t end well for him. This went on for a while. It really interfered with Joachim’s life goal to reach his full drunk potential. He tried to explain that to the man using the graph he had drawn but he was having none of it.

His friends started to try and drag Joachim outside at this point, failing horribly, which caused Joachim to laugh his ass off, which caused them to try harder and put their backs into it, which caused them to fail even more horribly. That spiral went on for a while, happily escalating to a full-blown bar fight with lots of people politely apologizing or trying to deescalate, before throwing punches. Joachim sat that one out under a table somewhere.

Somewhere around that time must have been where the cops showed up. They mostly stayed outside though, waiting for backup or for things to calm down or something, because the ruckus had become a full blown riot at this point. People were raiding the bar. Bar stools were swung. There was some sort of no-rules multi-person fist fight going on where nobody wore shorts. One of the racist people – or maybe it was the banker? or his wife? – broke a cue against Joachims arm which was the funniest thing ever because it sort of wrapped around him and splintered and everything.

Joachim had figured that with him being involved, this was really not safe for anybody participating in this, so he walked out the door, calmly and slowly pushing anybody aside who got in his way. He took another swig of the bottle he had probably paid a month’s rent for – not that he would need next month’s rent now, he figured his lease was pretty much resolved along with the rest of his worldly possessions at that point – and the aroma of sweat and alcohol became the cold, calm air smelling of cigarettes and exhaust fumes.

That was the point where the cops arrested him.

Book 2 – Chapter 13

There was nothing like a human skull as a conversation piece over tea. Joe had had exactly one kind of tea – supermarket-brand Earl Grey – so Joachim had gratefully accepted an earthenware mug filled with it. Also, it was much more comfortable to sit down here, as his strained neck kept reminding him. He sat in a fold-up chair that looked and felt older than he was. Joe had taken the place of honor in her armchair, lording over the room like a medieval noble person.

Joachim had placed the grayish skull on the 1930s style desk Joe had down here. Its empty eyes looked at nothing in particular. Its barer than bare teeth showed no expression, no indicator of what it was Joachim should discover down here.

Andrej was… a demon? Somebody who had come back from Hell? Joachim didn’t believe in a life after death, so that was problem number one. Problem number two was, even if this was true, how did it help him stop Faust? Joachim had driven out all this way… He had driven all this way… He had…

He nearly dropped the cup.

“You okay there, youngblood?” said Joe.

They had wanted him out of the city. First Faust wanted to take him out of the game, now Hannah did. Did that mean he should drive back? Shouldn’t he trust Hannah? If for no other reason than that if he couldn’t trust her, he really couldn’t trust anyone.

“I’m fine,” said Joachim. “How long have you known Hannah?”

“Hah!” said Joe. “Hah! All her life.”

Joachim stared at her, at a loss for words.

“You mean she…”

“She’s my daughter,” she said. “Small wonder that she didn’t mention that.”

Joachim was taken aback. What did this mean?

He looked at the skull again.

“Is he…” said Joachim, letting the question trail.

Joe gave him a puzzled look then laughed hard, almost choking on her tea.

“No,” she said. “I was a kept woman back then. Married to a powerful and violent man. No, I have never been with Andrej. Hells no. He was much too young for me when we met anyway. Well, his body was young.” She waved it off. “You know what I mean.”

She laughed some more.

“So what is the story here? It can’t be a coincidence that you met Andrej and now you are sending corpses to Hell, while your daughter works for… you know.”

Joe smiled, then her eyes narrowed.

“If she hasn’t told you,” said Joe, “then she doesn’t want you to know. And as far as I know she has told nobody. Never even married, that one. I mean, yeah, not the line of work where you want kids around, I get it, but still.”

This was… if this woman was who she said she was, then Hannah was trying to build rapport. He felt the test stripes that were still inside the pocket of his jacket, then glanced at the tea cup Joe was holding. It wouldn’t exactly be easy to get a paternity – or maternity – test on two random samples, but it seemed far from impossible. Especially considering how interested Joachim was in the results.

“Who was her father? Your… late husband?”

“A perfect scoundrel,” said Joe. “Josip Kovačević. He smuggled prostitutes and weapons. Had a harem of battered women obeying his every whim, but he chose me. He was soft inside. All men are.”

“One hell of a father figure,” said Joachim.

“Oh that he was! Never lifted a finger when it came to little… Hannah though. Had to practically raise her by myself while he was off sleeping with I don’t know whom. I hadn’t even heard when he died. Had a heart-attack in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Czech republic. I only found out when the self-proclaimed new boss – some half-blood upstart called Danijel Vira-something-or-other – tried to do me in. Not always good to know where the corpses are buried, I tell you that.”

It occurred to Joachim that Joe might not be nicest of people. Burying the corpses of young women who had been beaten to death by their johns… Young women who had been forced into sex slavery by her husband. She seemed awfully casual about that.

She also hesitated before calling her daughter Hannah. Joachim had already figured one didn’t turn to a life of crime using one’s real name. But calling herself little angel while working for the forces of Hell did need a special sense of irony. What a childhood she must have had. Must have felt right at home in the world where people tortured other people to death so Hell could have IT workers.

“So what was Andrej like back in the day?” said Joachim.

Joe’s eyes went distant.

“Haunted,” she said. “In a way, he still is, he just hides it in his daredevil act. Dying does funny things to a man. Not aging, not feeling pain, unless he wants to, seeing the hellgates…”

“Do all… returned people see them?”

“Everyone I ever met, though those things are far from stable. You have to be a special kind of crazy to use them casually. Some make time go all wonky, spit you out years later while you are trapped in them. Some suffocate you. Some never let you out at all. Others of course… they lead you straight into the hands of the enemy. Special kind of crazy, let me tell you.”

“Well we already established how crazy I am,” Joachim reminded her.

She laughed.

“Yes we have!”

Joachim had a sense that Joe was grateful for his company. There was just the one bed and no sign of anyone for a long distance around. He didn’t even see a phone down here, just a stack of books filled with crossword puzzles next to her bed and a tiny portable TV set next to them.

“Haunted how?” Joachim asked. “Was there somebody after him?”

Joe chuckled.

“Everyone was after him. The crazy bastard escaped. I mean, first of all, they craft you new bodies down there. I heard them talk of forges more than once. He must have gotten a hold of one of those and then just run like his butt was on fire. It probably was too.” She took a long sip of tea, then kept dreaming for a bit. Joachim didn’t interrupt her. “First time I met him, he was covered in chains, wrung so hard that that one surgeon I knew couldn’t remove them without killing him. For all I know they still cling to him, buried in his flesh somewhere. I don’t think they were crafted from any earthly metal. Spooky, eh? Anyway, we soon started working together. Him and the boys – my husband’s men – they played nice together, not least of all because he spoke Bosnian. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but I don’t think I have ever seen him take advantage. No drugs that one, no girls, word was that he was a fruit, but nobody ever said anything about it. Nobody dared.”

“What is your daughter like as a person? Do you think she is a good boss?”

Joe shot him a sideways glance.

“That is dangerous talk right there,” she said. “In this family, we are not kind on traitors, you hear? Far as I know my daughter is a born leader, much better than many of those that have a penis. She has been at it since she was fifteen… more than twenty years ago, now.” She went a bit pale. “I’m getting old. Sooner or later, one of you has to stuff me into one of my barrels, eh? Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about. She is a bit secretive at times, but her family blood runs strong. Like oaks they were, all of her grandparents. You have nothing to worry about.”

There were a thousand questions Joachim wanted to ask Joe. A million little details. He wasn’t sure that she would give him straight answers though. Why was he here? What was he supposed to see? Was this an appeal to his emotional side? Did Hannah figure that her mother and him would end up having a conversation?

He stood up and – his head bent to not bump into the ceiling – he approached the desk. He lifted up the skull. It did seem real for what that was worth. It looked real and it felt real, its surface in turns rough and smooth, with a bunch of tiny little grooves at the anatomically correct places.

What was he supposed to see?

He went over to the chest, opened it and gently placed the skull back into its resting place. It was then, that he noticed another bone, a leg bone that looked odd. Mostly because somebody had carved long rows of symbols into it.

Book 2 – Chapter 12

The road was barely a road anymore when Joachim brought the car to a halt. There were two grooves of frozen soil that got swallowed by the forest around more and more with no soul inside. Angry skeletons of bald beech trees had raised their many fingered branches as a warning against interlopers. The frost covered leaves of the brush work remained deathly still, continuing all the way in, until the distant darkness swallowed them.

He got out.

It was almost completely dark now. The sky had turned to a deep purple. Not a single gust of wind disturbed the cold air around. The air that smelled of nothing particular, especially through Joachim’s blocked nose.

Joachim was alone.

He had tried his best to convince Carina of the error of her ways, of the dangers that she was oblivious too. He had showed her the knife scars that she had already seen before. It had been of no use. The conversation had only degenerated from there.

He was alone.

Perhaps that was for the best, he thought, as he haphazardly started to walk into the forest, exploring it, the moonscape of the frozen soil unrelenting underneath his feet. If he didn’t have anybody close to him then they wouldn’t get hurt. They wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire as Joachim set out to… do what exactly?

He felt tired. He felt as if somebody had sucked the marrow out of his bones leaving something frail and brittle behind. Something lost, devoid of a purpose.

You guys were just fucking, he told himself. This is for the best. And – by the way – this is your fault. You had to tell somebody. You had to tell them that the monsters were real. If anything, you got only yourself to blame.

The forest got darker and he hadn’t brought a flashlight. Did Isabel watch him right now? Could she see in the dark? How ironic that would be. Being able to see through walls and not being able to see in the dark. Almost like having the strength of a moving truck and not being able to protect the ones he… liked. Sort of. The ones he was fucking. Certainly the ones who were close, in one way or the other.

Enough with the pity party. You have a job to do.

He walked a sort of half-circle around the car, squinting out into the distance. There was some sort of rock formation out there that sort of looked like a hut. There were a few pieces of flattened brushwork in another direction that could have been a path. And there was some sort of round concrete thing close-by that sort of looked like a cistern or something.

He stopped periodically, listening for noises. There was the soft rumbling of cars in the distance where the Autobahn ran. Other than that… nothing.

Had he come to the right place? He had driven here mostly by memory, his cell phone switched off. He couldn’t afford to get tracked here. Who knew what kind of ‘contractor’ lived in the middle of the forest.

“Johanna?” he called out. He was surprised at how far his voice carried in the stillness around, echoing from far, far way. He was even more surprised when he got a response.

A trap-door opened, relatively close to the car and an old woman in a thick-looking white winter jacket climbed up a ladder. The trap-door had an actual bush attached to it with moss and everything and it didn’t slide down, even at this angle. The old woman, her silver hair in a knot behind her head, her ears covered with earmuffs, had a rifle slung over her shoulder.

Joachim thought it best to casually raise his hands, just so there would be no misunderstandings of the Joachim-shot-dead kind.

“Who are you?” said the woman.

“Name’s Joachim,” he said. “Hannah sent me.”

“You new?” she said.

“Still, technically, in my twenties,” said Joachim.

The old woman didn’t have much in the way of humor. She didn’t shoot him on the spot though, which was always a good sign.

She kept her distance to Joachim, standing beside her hole, leveling a flashlight into his direction.

“People call me Joe,” said Johanna.

“I’m jealous,” said Joachim. “Nobody ever called me Joe.”

This time he got a chuckle. Progress.

“You got something for me?” she said.

Joachim thought a second on how to answer that.

“I’m just here for a status report,” he said.

As a response, Joachim got the flashlight pointed into his face.

“I know that car,” she said.

“Belongs to Andrej,” said Joachim.

“I know,” she said. “I was the one who sold it to him. Didn’t think he’d ever loan it out to anybody.”

“Well,” said Joachim. “He doesn’t technically know he did.”

“You stole Andrej Zayenkovic’s car? You crazy, suicidal idiot.” This time she laughed heartily. “Well come on down then, before you freeze into place, will ya?”

Joachim didn’t need to be asked twice. He backtracked to the hidden trap door, seeing more and more of the old woman who called herself Joe.

In Joachim’s stereotypical experience, old women came in the varieties of frail or overweight. Joe was neither. She looked tough, her spine upright, her arms healthy. She reminded Joachim of a cowboy… cow-woman, riding her horse, toting a pistol and driving her cattle down the prairie in the worst of weathers.

If she mistrusted Joachim, she didn’t show it all, waving for him to follow her and climbing down slowly enough that Joachim could have easily shot her given the intention and the gunpowder-charged wherewithal.

He followed her down into a brightly lit corridor with a painfully low ceiling, closing the trap-door behind him.

The walls, floor and ceiling were bare concrete, but the room behind the first door looked more like an apartment. It had a bed, a desk and a big green arm-chair with wooden swirls at the end of its armrests. A large standing lamp was giving off a warmer light than the grate-covered things on the ceiling.

“Used to be a bunker,” said Joe. “Probably Wehrmacht, but who the hell knows.”

She walked ahead into an empty room. Joachim followed.

The room was spacious. There were no windows, but lots of dust, except for that one spot, marked with a faded chalk ‘X’.

“All empty, as you can see,” she said. “So much for your status report.”

Why had Hannah sent him here. There had to be a reason. Something he should ask. Something he should see. Would he give himself away by asking too much?

“What is it you do for us, anyway?” said Joachim.

“You are new,” said Joe. “Hannah didn’t tell you?”

“Oh she totally did,” said Joachim. “Right after spelling out her plan for the next five years and the latest celebrity gossip. It is hard to get a word in with her, she is such a blabbermouth.”

Joe wagged her finger at Joachim.

“You are far too young for sarcasm, young man,” she said. “And my business is in corpse removal, if you must know.”

Joachim looked around.

“You seem to be quite good at it,” he said.

“Well, thank you,” said Joe.

“How do you-,” said Joachim. “I mean, do you bury them out there in the woods? That must be hard work.”

Joe smirked.

“I got a slightly better method than that,” she said.

Joachim looked around. No digging tools, the ground undisturbed except for a single spot…

“You are using a wormhole aren’t you?”

“Bingo,” said Joe, pointing at him like she was a teacher telling the class which of her fourth-graders had just given the right answer. “Though that is Andrej’s word for them. I am perfectly comfortable calling them hellgates.”

“You dispose of corpses… by throwing them into Hell,” said Joachim.

“That’s right.”

He nodded appreciatively. Legally speaking, following the old adage no body, no crime, this was perfection. Hannah’s crew could murder people in broad daylight and not get convicted for it, just as long as they knew how to drive like Andrej. Hell, they wouldn’t even need Joe if Andrej could just dump them. Or maybe that needed a special kind of gate? Or did Joe did that grimy business of making sure the corpses on the other side weren’t identifiable? Or maybe that gate opened up right on top of a lava lake…

Joachim took a step back away from the X.

“Let me show you something,” said Joe.

She went back to her apartment area and Joachim followed, ducking, asking himself if he should go on all fours to be faster.

Her ‘living room’ was even nicer up close. It had carpets and a burning scented candle that smelled of cinnamon. It also had a large wooden chest that looked like positively pirate-y with its heavy iron hinges and all.

She opened it, producing a long-drawn creak.

If anything, the bones inside the chest made it look even more pirate-y.

“May I introduce, Andrej Zayenkovic,” said Joe. “Or rather his mortal remains from before he went to Hell for his sins.”

Book 2 – Chapter 11

“You are insane,” said Joachim. “This is insane. It’s a terrible idea.”

They were sitting inside another insta-rental car, rented through an app, just like the one they had used to chauffeur Wieland around. While the other one had been dirty, this one looked and smelled squeaky clean. It was one of those modern cars that combined classical elements with other stuff that were pure science fiction. All of it in the little details. An analog speedometer with a metal needle and a radar in front and back that made those modern, psychologically optimized noises when he got closer to the cars parking in front and back of him.

Joachim hated to drive. He didn’t own a car and therefore lacked experience. Therefore he was constantly scared to run somebody over, to confuse the stupid pedals for instance or not react quickly enough or react wrong. These new app-driven insta-rentals had him pay for every minute you rented the car for, like an invisible needle driving you on. Both did little to improve his mood for this conversation, as he navigated his way through Munich’s rush hour traffic, his eyes glued to the street.

“Well, that is one valid opinion to have,” said Carina.

“You don’t know what you are talking about,” said Joachim.

“I know more than you did,” said Carina.

“I never agreed to do anything like this,” said Joachim.

“Oh didn’t you? It sure could have fooled me. When did you last apply for a job? Did you even try to collect unemployment? Or were you just planning to live on your blood money savings?”

Joachim suppressed a roar. This woman. This woman knew how to press his buttons. Should she ever work for the enemy… good night.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “And you know it.”

“And where are we going right now?” said Carina.

She had crossed her arms, Joachim could see that much from the corner of his eye. He threw a sheepish glance at the navsat showing an address that was… nowhere. It was a piece of forest in the Bavarian wilderness that surrounded Munich and the tiny satellite towns orbiting it. It showed up on the navsat as a patch of green, nothing more.

“It’s your life,” said Joachim. “And your immortal soul.”

This caused her to be silent for a second. When she started speaking she was a bit more calm about it.

“It is my life,” she said. “And my decision. Do you honestly think I’m heaven material? Do you think they have play rooms up there?”

“Well, self-flagellation is proud Christian tradition actually. There doesn’t need to be an afterlife, though,” said Joachim. “It could all just be a big delusion that insane minions of powerful wizards buy into. Point is, they are up to some evil shit.”

“That’s quick to judge,” said Carina. “You meet one troupe of psychos and now that’s set in stone? You think they will have me assassinating old ladies or something?”

“You probably won’t,” Joachim conceded, “but you will be involved with the people profiting from that torture. With the people who are letting it happen.”

Carina groaned.

“Then what isn’t evil these days? There’s people in China committing suicide rather than making the chips for your cellphone. Where does the chain of evil stop? With the overseer of the plant? With the people making a living writing apps for your cellphone? You sit there pretending you are some kind of vigilante saint, wearing clothes made by children in Bangalore, driving a car made of materials that come out of some Third World mines, burning fossil fuels that come out of some brutal dictatorship in the Middle East.”

“Actually, this is an electric car.”

This time Carina’s groan was a scream of frustration.

“Do you seriously want me to continue?”

“I think I got your point just fine,” said Joachim.

He had ignored the pleas of the navsat that kept rerouting him and driven off to a more quiet part of the city. One of those narrow streets cutting a path between apartment buildings, cars on both side of the road.

“Have you?” said Carina. “Have you? Then where does evil stop and good start? Is the tobacco industry evil? How about guns? How about advertisement? How about the cellphone providers with their zero-euro cellphone contracts that trick idiots out of their money?”

“You are talking about signing a demon contract with Hell,” said Joachim. “That doesn’t give you pause?”

He was distracted right now, scanning the area around him, then rechecking with his cellphone.

“Should it?” said Carina. “If I signed up with an oil company everybody would say that I made a responsible fucking decision. In this deal, I get super powers and a decent place in the after-life on top of a salary that is… unmatched. By any company anywhere. Why are we stopping here?”

Joachim put the car into a parking space at the side of road. It was impossibly narrow and a complete exercise in frustration.

“It’s your life, it’s your decision,” said Joachim. “You asked for my opinion and I have given it.”

He stopped the car, then started fumbling with the navsat searching the menu for a way to delete the history.

“They have probably records in the cloud, you know,” said Carina.

“They could,” said Joachim, “but the debit card connected to the account is registered under a fake name in Argentina. It should take potential stalkers some time to connect this to me.”

He finally found the option, using that annoying mini-joystick button and the history went bye-bye. Then he unbuckled and started to get out of the car. A confused Carina followed him.

“What are we doing out here?” she said.

“Stealing a car,” said Joachim. He locked the rental and the tiny LED in the window switched to green, signaling an end to this particular drain on his funds.

Carina’s mouth gaped open.

“Seriously?” she managed to say, catching up with him as he made his way up the sidewalk. Joachim couldn’t decide if she was judging him or cheering him on. Probably both.

“Yep,” said Joachim, his eyes firmly on his cellphone.

“You want to steal some poor guy’s car,” she said. The mix was about fifty-fifty right there.

“I want to steal a specific guy’s car,” he said. “Somebody who was dumb enough to let me plant a GPS tracker on him.”

Joachim put away his cellphone and pointed at the white BMW at the end of the road.

“Is that what you were googling at the hotels? How to hotwire a car?” she said.

The ground was icy, almost making Joachim slip and fall. He also felt watched. Behind every curtain was a potential pair of eyes, waiting to see and report him. He liked computer crimes much better. Nothing like rerouting one’s traffic through three other countries.

Finally he got to the car and threw himself on the ground, checking the tubes and cables underneath. The car was too old to have an alarm, but could very well have been rigged to explode if hotwired. Andrej seemed like the type.

Satisfied with what he saw, Joachim got up and pulled out his slimjack. Another thing he hadn’t used in a long time. It was a thin piece of metal that could be inserted into a car door, destroying the rubber isolation under the window. It took him some fishing around, but finally he got the door open.

Quickly he got in and opened the passenger’s door.

“Get in,” he said. He ripped off the plastic cover underneath the steering wheel and picked out the wires.

“Don’t you think he will mind?” said Carina. If there was judgment left in her voice, Joachim couldn’t hear it. All he heard was excitement. Not for the first time he wondered if Carina was maybe a bad influence on him.

The engine came to life.

“And how would you even find a recruiter?” said Joachim. “There’s a bajillion headhunters out there, all perfectly benign.”

Joachim started adjusting the mirrors. This car did not have a fancy radar system for getting in and out of parking spaces. This could be interesting. He started the engine and started a gentle physical discussion with the stick shift.

“And what kind of skills do you have to offer?” said Joachim.

“You mentioned they look for IT people, right?” said Carina.

“You work in IT?”

Carina stared at him.

“I wrote the backend on the WhyULate app. The one you installed on your phone? How do you not remember that?”

“Oh,” said Joachim. Sheepishly he added: “Right.”

“As far as recruiters go,” said Carina, “Let’s see if I can find one named Sanft.”

Joachim nearly rammed the car parking in front of them.