The road led back to Munich. It led to nine hours of driving. To exhaustion. To eating shitty, overpriced gas station meals and to way too much time alone with his thoughts. It didn’t matter. He had a plan now. A way to fight back. The road led to the lobby of the Herzogspalast Hotel in Munich, a huge affair with a chandelier and ugly leather furniture that had probably cost more than anything Joachim owned put together.
Roughly around ten grand, Joachim realized as he did the math. Though he maybe had some insurance money coming once he had figured out how to do his paperwork without paper.
Behind the wooden monstrosity of a curved front-desk sat Kukomu in a page’s outfit. He grinned.
Joachim didn’t pay him any mind and steered towards the sofa with the coffee table and the menu that promised cups of coffee for six Euros and up. He sat down, breathed in the sofa’s new-car-smell and looked outside to the shores of the Isar that the hotel overlooked. A peaceful river, framed by snow, with nobody around to disturb it. As Kukomu walked up to Joachim he started to envy it.
“How do you do it?” said Joachim without looking up. “Having an illusion perform an actual workday, chat with customers, get yelled at by the manager… what kind of obsessive-compulsive mind does it take to keep that up?”
“Maybe this isn’t an illusion,” said Faust – or Helga, whatever. “Maybe this is my real body.”
Joachim was too tired for her bullshit and shot him a disdainful look. Her and her stupid moustache and the helplessness she had projected when they had first met and the fake family she had gotten him to care for. She wasn’t just a sociopathic liar – she was a sociopathic liar, that was for certain – but also an artist. The way that a serial killer decorates his crime scenes and arranges corpses like Leonardo da Vinci sketches. That kind of artist.
“I doubt it,” said Joachim. “I wonder if you are ugly. I wonder if that’s why you keep hiding your face.”
Kukomu just stood there, hands folded, keeping his page persona. Smiling. Smiling, ever so politely.
“How did you find me?” she said.
Joachim had replayed this moment inside his head so many times, he was almost paralyzed by now. This was the moment. This was the moment when infinite potential became the definite past, when the decision tree flattened into a straight, imperfect line.
“Ritter Lothar von Heimelsdingen,” said Joachim.
There was such a strange power in names, Joachim realized. Maybe that was how demon-summoning really worked. Shouting do you know who I am into a telephone, do you know who my daddy is friends with. Faust completely lost her shit. That is to say, she glanced around nervously and started to talk in a whispering voice.
“What do you know?” she said. Her accent had changed. The illusion she presented him with right now, was a Nigerian speaking in a Scandinavian accent.
“For starters, that he’s pissed you are leading people to his graves,” said Joachim.
“You have spoken to him?” Faust whispered through her teeth.
Joachim looked out to the Isar river again. His heart was pounding, his stomach was twisting. The difference between a regular person and a con man was that the latter had crossed the line from wanting to throw up all the time to actually enjoying this. Once crossed it was pretty much impossible to go back. Joachim had never done it.
Faust sat down next to him, all matters of decorum and cover forgotten. The sofa actually bent under the weight of her illusion. Another interesting tidbit.
“So you know what he represents?” said Faust.
Joachim shook his head.
“I honestly don’t care,” he said. “It is another scheme I want nothing to do with, in a game that I don’t want to play.”
“That is the entire point,” Faust hissed. “A way to escape the game. I thought you would jump at this. I honestly thought you would jump at this.”
Joachim turned around to him.
“You are a mass-murdering piece of shit,” he said. “I hate you so much I have trouble sleeping at night.”
“They are the mass-murderers,” said Faust. “You think giving them a couple of moments of torture followed by an eternity of doing exactly what they were doing before was evil? They have ice-cold Club Mate in Hell for fuck’s sake. They are fine. You want to know what’s evil? You know what I protected them from?”
Joachim stayed silent, looking straight into Faust’s fake, dark eyes. He wondered if he could dispel the illusion, just by staring at it intensely. If he knew that his eyes were deceiving him… but that was stupid. It wasn’t in his mind. The sofa was bending. This was more like mobile force-field sort of deal. Much more powerful.
Jesus… if she could project these things anywhere, she could easily murder people and just dispel the illusion and be gone. Or frame people for crimes. Or make a TV appearance as a president, threatening another country with nuclear weapons.
“There are wars going on in Hell, destroying immortal souls. The Houses have always fought for territory. The lesser Houses puppets of the Great Houses. The Great Houses themselves are pyramids protecting those that are rich and powerful. All of this goes down to the poor shmuck who just died and has no idea what’s going on and who will die again, permanently, for no better reason than to keep those in power safe and happy. They have endured thousands of years, wrapped in a cocoon of death. This thing you are doing right here, is nothing but the extension of their wars. Wars over territory that have as much meaning as scoring points in soccer.”
And all of that power in the hands of an egomaniacal sociopath.
“Sounds just like you,” said Joachim. “Making people your pawns, letting them do the dirty work, torturing and killing others to score prestige. Wasn’t that what you told me? Wasn’t that the reason you have given me, why these people needed to die?”
The illusion of Kukomu next to Joachim rubbed its temples.
“Why are you here?” said Faust through it.
“It’s simple,” said Joachim. “I’m going to kill you.”
Faust blinked several times, processing this.
Then there was a long silence during which her illusion stayed eerily still. It didn’t even breathe.
Joachim pictured her running towards the windows and then to her computer doing any number of checks. And probably the odd magic circle, too.
That was great. He needed her paranoid. He needed her to be anything but thinking clearly and thoroughly.
“How?” said Faust, finally.
The illusion had started breathing again.
“I don’t do James Bond villain,” said Joachim. “Let’s just say I took a little page from your playbook.”
The illusion suppressed an actual scream of frustration. Joachim wondered if there was some kind of manager looking at them now, but he didn’t turn around to check.
“Could you turn off your suicidal conscience for about two seconds? You know what I could do for you now that you have found Lothar? What I could do for Carina? Do you even care where you are going to end up when-… Huh.”
“Maybe I will pay a little visit to your girlfriend. She has been all over town, at the usual demon hangouts, did you know that? Would be so easy to slap her with a tattoo and turn her into my personal slave. How would you like that?”
This fucking asshole.
“I wouldn’t like it,” said Joachim. “There is nothing I can do to stop you from doing that, though. Which is my problem, precisely. As long as you walk around, you will do evil shit, with little thought for anyone else.”
“Oh Joachim,” said Faust. “We could have done great things together. It’s a shame it has to end this way.”
Joachim felt as if somebody was pointing a gun at him now. This entire plan hinged on being too valuable to get killed. Faust had scoured the earth looking for Ritter Lothar and found nothing. Joachim was the only lead she had. If she was going to attack him, it was only to incapacitate him and torture him until he revealed everything he knew about him. It was a gamble and right now all his money was sitting on Red and the roulette wheel was spinning.
“Why did you come here?” said Faust. “There is no way you will get to me in time.”
Wait! She is actually here?
Joachim didn’t have much time to process this, since at that moment the hotel lobby erupted into violence.