Joachim was in no condition to drive, but he did anyway. In fact, he punched it, heading towards a very specific location, swerving beside cars. Most of them were slowing down around that spot. Probably to rubberneck at the burning hotel behind him.
Still, he got more than his fair share of honking as he blatantly ignored traffic laws and common decency, cutting people off, nearly causing half a dozen traffic accidents.
There was an art to this, Joachim realized. He had to make this look real. He had to make it look as if he was actually trying to get away and at the same time make sure that his pursuers wouldn’t lose him.
He tried to do this by doing fancy maneuvers. He could probably lose them by crossing a red-light or making a sudden turn. Instead he sped up and drove snake-lines, driving a route he had picked that only really had one way he could go. If Faust was good enough at thinking on her feet, she would have her lackeys waiting for him at his destination.
Joachim’s car clearly hadn’t been built for this kind of pursuit. The motor had started to make strange noises and at every brake and turn it screeched like an angry banshee.
They were driving down a forest road, heading north, with the sun at their back. There was no way to turn away from the road without crashing into a pine and the drivers going the other way were likely squinting against the low winter sun. Luckily the road wasn’t icy.
Joachim carefully tapped the speed dial on the cellphone rigged up inside. The other side picked up at the first ring.
“Did it work?” asked a woman’s voice.
“I might have oversold it a bit,” said Joachim. After the other side was silent, he added: “You will see it on the news later.”
“Are we still on track?” said the woman.
“Very much,” said Joachim.
The traffic had gotten lighter and the black Audi further down the road that was pretending not to follow him was giving him some room.
“How is our little star?” said Joachim.
The woman on the other end snorted.
“Probably had two whiskey for breakfast and has punched one of the make-up girls.”
“Jesus, is she okay?”
“After getting paid double her rate? I sure as Styx hope so.”
With the road clear, Joachim hit the gas some more. The car was vibrating a lot, making it feel like an unstable space shuttle. It didn’t do wonders for Joachim’s body which kept telling him about the exciting new kinds of pain it had discovered.
“We are not getting another shot at this,” said Joachim. “We have to get this just right.”
“Listen, I have been doing this since you grandfather was happily swimming around in your great-grandfather’s ballsack. You just worry about not fucking up your part, okay?”
“Roger that,” said Joachim. He hung up, nearly crashing into an incoming car as he did.
The forest was clearing up now. Faster than he had expected, but when he had test-driven this route, he hadn’t done it at twice the speed-limit.
There were frozen pieces of farmland ahead and the looming steel scaffolding of electrical towers. Pretending not to notice the red Nissan that followed him now, he calmly turned towards the Autobahn and slowed down a bit. Or rather kept the same speed, only this time legally.
His pulse went down a considerable amount, but not the tension in his neck, nor the exhaustion, nor the million different kinds of pain his body felt. At least his hand had stopped bleeding, which, considering he hadn’t had the chance to clean the wound yet, was probably also not a good thing.
It took him half an hour on a convoluted road to get to the office space they had rented in the depths of the Euroindustriepark. A piece of shit backyard office that had originally belonged to some now-dead side branch of a big, evil and boring corporation and was now inhabited by seedy internet startups and consulting businesses.
Joachim parked the car up front ostentatiously. This whole mission depended on how stupid Faust gave him credit to be. Here was hoping she wanted this enough not to get paranoid.
The elevator upstairs was a metal coffin that somehow had been cleared for six people, even if it only fit three if they were really comfortable with each other.
The door to the office wasn’t closed.
The office wasn’t furnished.
It had a carpet that was torn to shit and a couple of holes in the ground with plug sockets and network ports. There was only one office that had one desk and one laptop that was chained to it and a swivel chair that had five different dials to adjust it, none of which making it any less uncomfortable.
Joachim fired it up and made a video call. The webcam image of an unshaven man appeared. It featured a goatee that the rest of the beard hair had outgrown a bit, a crooked nose that had obviously been broken before and healed badly and several scars. The hair on top of the man’s had was patchy.
“Ritter Lothar,” said Joachim. He bowed to camera.
“Do not speak my name,” said Lothar in what sounded like the strangest regional accent, Joachim had ever heard. “You never know who is listening.”
“I am sorry,” said Joachim, bowing again.
“Is it done?” said Lothar.
“I failed to execute your commands, my liege,” said Joachim. “The witch but lives.”
“Imbecile!” Lothar shouted. “Fool! How can you stand before me, yet living, without my command carried out? Worthless! Worthless is what you are!”
“I am sorry, my liege,” said Joachim.
“This is unacceptable,” said Lothar.
“Please, if you only give me one more chance, I swear I can-”
“Enough of this. I will deal with this myself,” said Lothar. “This has gone on for far too long.”
The video call ended.
Joachim took a deep breath. So far so good.
He got up and went over to the kitchen, which featured a lonely little fridge and a brand-new microwave among a jumble of loose cables and unused outlets. He winced as he bent down and retrieved an ice pack, then stood there cluelessly, unsure where to press it.
He was being watched. Joachim didn’t know how he knew, but he could feel it. The best thing he could do right now was to try and recover, try and be ready for the next part of the plan.
He put the icepack down and pulled out a bottle of tequila instead. There was no running water up here. No easy way to clean the bloody mess that was Joachim’s right hand, but he had time. He sat there for half an hour picking pieces of stuff out of his flesh, when the doorbell rang.
He groaned as he got up and carried himself to the buzzer. The intercom didn’t work and the big camera in front of the entrance was a dummy. All he could do was press the button.
“Your arrival was timely my liege,” said Joachim, as he opened the door. “Pray tell how you got here so-… Faust.”
The illusion in front of him was wearing Carina’s face again.
Her clothes were different this time. She was wearing jeans and a leather jacket that looked like they had gone through a dryer filled with rocks and scissors. The face Faust showed him a sympathetic one. She raised her hands as well.
Could this be… her? Joachim thought. No, it couldn’t be. Carina didn’t know he was here. He couldn’t possibly have found her.
“Actually it’s Helga,” she said. “That is my real name. Or at least what people called me, many years ago.”
Joachim’s body shaped up for a fight. He knew all the exits to the place and that included the spots were walls were thin. He was also sure he could survive a drop from the window. At least he had survived it when he had tried it, preparing for the trap.
“Have you come to finish the job?” said Joachim.
She couldn’t possibly have known they would use this place. So she didn’t have dupes inside the office. Unless Mary Catherine Montague – Bloody Mary – of House Asmodeus had double-crossed him. In that case he wouldn’t have to worry much about it though, because he would already be fucked.
“I have come to talk this over,” said Faust. “I overreacted.”
How fast could her illusions form? Stupid idea. This whole plan. He should have let it go a long time ago. Let somebody else deal with the problem. Accepted the fact that he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore or look at himself in the mirror or live with himself having done nothing.
He hated Faust so much. He had spent months fantasizing about killing her, every day. Every time by a different method, too.
“You have a funny way of asking for sympathy, wearing this face,” said Joachim.
Faust’s illusion of Carina closed her eyes and shook her head.
“It’s me,” said Faust. “This is the body I have inhabited for the last thirteen years.”