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.
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.
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?
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-
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.