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.”
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.”
“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-”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.