The data-dump was full of secrets. Secrets that were hard to discover and that probably only a handful of people knew. Places to visit, people to to talk to, deals that could be arranged.
There was a bar in Berlin. It wasn’t a huge bar. Certainly not a flashy one. It had this grimy old sign with a forgettable name. It had stained glass windows that nobody cleaned, with only little light seeping through them in either direction.
The bar had a central location, but it wasn’t easy to reach. It wasn’t on Google Maps, though the alley – too narrow for cars – was. It was in walking distance from the Bundestag. Per extension it was in walking distance from more than a handful of embassies and all of the most important ministries of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was in walking distance from three major subway stations, yet few people ever came here.
The door opened to Joachim with a creak. Even though smoking had been forbidden in public bars, the dark interior still smelled of it. This and the taste of stale beer in the air made the aroma of the place.
The bar keep was an ancient man. He looked like a skeleton that had wrapped wrinkly skin around him, tightly. He looked like a corpse too stubborn to die, while there was still a bar too clean, still a beer glass to fill for the bloated figures who sat on the stools, unaware of their environment.
A woman sat in the corner. She was not old, nor was she young. She could have been thirty or she could have been fifty. The light didn’t flatter her unclean skin and her patchy red hair and the darkness hid the rest.
The woman had no glass in front of her, just a large folder. This place was her office. As far as Joachim could tell, it had been for many years. He wouldn’t have to worry about being watched here. There would be counter-measures in place here designed to befuddle foreign intelligence services.
Joachim came up and sat down across from her. She looked up at him, half-bored.
Joachim had not called ahead. He had not let her know who he was and what he wanted and even that he was coming. A short look on her part was all the information he gave her and all the information she took.
She opened her folder and clicked her ballpoint-pen. The notes inside were all written in her handwriting, with scarcely any print between them. There was a large stack of them.
“Would you like to see a magic trick?” said Joachim.
The woman didn’t look up.
“I have seen them all,” she said. “And they bore me.”
Joachim lifted up his hands and showed them to her, even if she wasn’t looking. He showed her his sleeves that had nothing in them but an ace of hearts that he sheepishly took out and tossed onto the table. He then waved his hands in the air in a dramatic flourish and produced a three-piece chain, fashioned from crude metal, like it had been forged in medieval times from the front pocket of his sweater and placed it on the table.
The woman looked up, then stared at the chain.
“Not so bored now, are you?” said Joachim.
“How?” said the woman.
“I had it in the front-pocket of my sweater. Want me to show you?”
“Where did you get this?” she said, punctuating the question with a deadpan look.
“The Kreuzberg Medieval Market,” said Joachim. “Looks just like the one in the Fleshcrafter’s Guild, doesn’t it?”
The woman gave him an annoyed grunt.
“I’m going to perform a con,” said Joachim.
She stared at him.
“On the Fleshcrafter’s Guild?” she said.
The woman groaned in exasperation. “What do you want?”
“You help in performing said con,” said Joachim.
“I think you know who that individual is,” said Joachim. “I don’t think you know what he or she is planning.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed.
She clicked her ballpoint pen.
“I want to trick him,” said Joachim. “It is the only way I can win.”
“He needs to be stopped,” said Joachim.
“He is a traitor,” said Joachim.
The woman’s eyes fell to the chain. Then they wandered up again.
She seemed to understand the message.
She put down the ball-point pen.
“You want to perform a con,” she said, “on a powerful member of my House.”
“I figure that must open up some spots above. Must be hard to get promoted if nobody ever retires.”
The woman smirked.
“There is no way I can beat him in a direct fight,” said Joachim. “Or rather he won’t give me one.”
“There is no way I can con him, because he has infinitely more experience in it than I do.”
“The only way to beat a demi-god is with the help of another demi-god.”
“What do you want in return?”
“What you are asking puts me into a difficult position,” said the woman. “I don’t know if anything you said is true.”
“Yes, you do,” he said. “You have been doing business with Faust for years. You know what he is up to. At least you have suspected. The trips to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The secret labs. The strange requests. Does any of this sound familiar?”
The woman looked away. On the inside Joachim was celebrating now. He had made her think. He had made her doubt. He didn’t let any of this get through to the outside though, in fear of dispelling the effect he just had.
“Do you have a plan?” said the woman.
“You are looking at it,” said Joachim.
She glanced at the chain between them.
“That is a stupid plan,” said the woman.
“Tried and true bait-and-switch? It’s a classic. Every con works like that. Well… most of them do.”
The woman groaned.
“No, what I mean is, this is not a good bait. He will see through it.”
“Are you sure?” said Joachim. “Think about it. How long has he searched for this? How invested is he? And now he is on the run from people who are slowly finding out his secret. He wants this chain to be real. He wants to believe.”
The woman smiled.
“Ah to be young again,” she said. She leaned forward and she sniffed him. “So full of optimism. So full of energy.”
Instinctively, Joachim reached out and touched her hand. It was cold as ice, but she didn’t draw it away.
He brought his face up to hers.
“I’m not hearing a no,” said Joachim.
She smirked again.
“You are not hearing a yes either. I have a lot to lose here. And you still haven’t told me what part you want me to play in your plan.”
Joachim looked deep into her eyes. They were amber-colored. Beautiful. He wasn’t much of a seducer. Truth be told, he felt mostly helpless when it came to women. For some reason this was easy. Like the steps for a dance he only just remembered. Where these his con man reflexes of old kicking in? Or was she playing him, sending him signals, luring him?
“I will tell you in due time,” said Joachim. “All I want to find out now are your intentions.”
She stuck out her tongue and gently teased his lips with its tip. It was strangely erotic.
He felt guilty. Why was he feeling guilty? Carina wasn’t his girlfriend. And she was the one who left him. Just a gentle blow of his breath onto her lips. Reciprocate without reciprocating. Leave her wanting more.
The woman’s body shivered visibly.
“My intentions?” she whispered. “That depends on what you are going to do to her when this is over.”
Again with the stupid smirk as if it would make any difference at all to Joachim if the murdering psychopath he was facing was male or female.
“Kill… her if I can,” said Joachim. “Though that might be a little bit beyond my capabilities. I was hoping I could feed her to the dogs.”
The woman laughed loudly. Joachim glanced over his shoulder, but the drunks at the bar were apparently to catatonic to pay any attention to them and the barkeeper just didn’t seem to give a shit.
“The dogs being my betters? Oh that is rich. Anyway, here is the truth. I will tell it to you, non-signed, and I will deny all of it should you ever breathe a word about it.”
She bowed her head and took a deep breath. Apparently telling the truth involved great effort for her.
“I get Helga,” she said. “I really do. I envy her even. That thing she does? That wasn’t handed to her. She perfected that skill. All I can do… well, that is a conversation for another time. The truth is, I want what she is after. I’m done with the bullshit. I’m done risking my ass just so the Lords of Hell can live to see yet another millennium.”
She turned around her hand and grabbed Joachim’s.
“I want out,” she said. “For my help, I want you to promise me the first universal body we find. Don’t worry about its current occupant. I will have ways to deal with them. Do we have a deal?”