Chapter 16

The trunks of the tall beeches around them became dark pillars in the distance. They followed a barely recognizable path. Or maybe just the path of least resistance nature had given them that vaguely led into the right direction.

The air smelled musky and alive. The forest was still lush, even though the ground was semi-frozen from last night’s frost and Joachim could see his breath. The hiking made him warm soon enough though. The team had gotten him brand-new hiking boots his size. As huge and clumsy as those had felt at first, he soon learned to appreciate to be able to step into anything, his feet turned into invincible monster-truck wheels.

He kept watching his feet and his surroundings, looking for traps. Which was foolish. There wouldn’t be any. They hadn’t chosen a cabin to then have the police comb their surroundings for missing hikers. If anything they would have found a way to spot intruders, maybe have somebody with a rifle in position in case they showed hostile intention towards the locked door of the place, but that would be it.

They marched in silence, so Joachim didn’t try to make conversation. Or too much noise, apart from the labored breathing when the path got steep or treacherous. He seemed by far the least athletic of the bunch, even without a backpack. His injuries had made him even more short of breath than he had been before. Soon, it was all he could do to just grit his teeth and march forward. The entire rest of the team – including Isabel who had a little bit extra – were hiking as if this was Tuesday for them.

They came by steep slopes next to them, promising semi-deadly accidents. They came by a spectacular view on some sort of cozy little Bavarian village in a valley. They came by a picturesque little stream that was still running in the cold, wet rocks glistening in the rising sun, and crossed a centuries-old little stone bridge to get to the other side.

Eventually they got to a spot that looked like any other given patch of forest. Except this was where Hannah raised her fist and the group stopped in unison.

“This is where you split off,” said Hannah. She jerked her head at a patch of fir trees ahead. “The cabin is over there.”

Joachim raised an eyebrow.

“You are still sticking to my plan,” he whispered to her.

“It was a good plan,” she said.

“It has been described to me using slightly different adjectives.”

Hannah shot him a sarcastically enthusiastic glance and stayed silent.

“Right,” said Joachim.

He walked onward, leaving the team behind, whistling a tune of a pop song that had a title last time he had checked, only that he couldn’t remember it now.

Fir cones cracked underneath his feet.

Joachim didn’t see a cabin yet, but he saw a fellow hiker in a neon-green jacket that happened to be strolling into Joachim’s vague direction. The hardcore kind with the large non-hipster beard. The man was a little shorter than Joachim and had bad teeth.

“Servus,” Joachim greeted him.

“Grüß Gott,” said the man in return.

“Excuse me,” said Joachim. “I was wondering if you might help me.”

The man smiled politely.

“I was looking for a cabin,” said Joachim.

“You’re off the path,” said the man. He was speaking in a deep, Bavarian dialect. The kind you could only develop if your family had lived in this country for at least three generations. “The cabin you are looking for is about – uh – two hours south of here. Right that way.”

He pointed.

Something inside Joachim’s dead pan stare must have given the man the right idea.

“That is not the cabin you are looking for, is it?”

“Today is really not your day, is it Ruebezahl?”

For a moment the man feigned surprise. He made that fake part obvious though, Joachim was sure that this man was a much better actor than that.

There was rustling all around him. Interesting. Were there well-camouflaged soldiers around?

“I’m afraid you have the wrong man,” said the man.

“My mistake,” said Joachim. “Shall I just go on and knock on the door then?”

Joachim heard a growling sound behind him. A brief glance told him about the large wolf that was ready to pounce, baring nightmarish teeth. The European wolf was all but extinct. The creature behind him and the pack circling around them had obviously been a bit late on the uptake.

“What I mean is, I am not Rübezahl,” said the man. “Though Rübezahl has indeed noticed you now.”


“Come on,” said Joachim. “Those are beautiful creatures. It would be a shame if something impolite were to happen to them.”

Not-Rübezahl shrugged.

“You can still turn around.”

“You are still mad about the thing at your little garage?”

There was something that crossed the man’s face, before he could stifle it and return to a polite smile. He was scared. Did that mean the others, his masters, were scared as well? Joachim changed mental gears.

“You could have just answered the phone,” said Joachim, guessing they had burned all their old numbers by now. “We could have discussed this like civilized people.”

The wolves growled. In unison. Some primal, evolutionary part in Joachim’s brain would have been perfectly okay with peeing his pants now. The startled flight-or-fight instinct made the nerves in his body vibrate.

“We want you to leave,” said the man.

“You guys attacked me, did you know that?” said Joachim. “This sort of thing has consequences.”

“We don’t want trouble,” said the man.

“You have a funny way of showing that.”

Again in unison, the wolves sat down.

Some part of Joachim was itching for this fight, for using his super-strength to prove that he could best this foe. He needed to watch this tendency. Violence was rarely a smart option.

The man’s eyes rolled back into his skull.

“Speak,” he said, his voice changed.

“Nope,” said Joachim. “No deal.”

He turned towards the cabin and started walking, leaving the man behind.

The wolves trailed him.

The place was inside a hole in the ground. Basically. It was a small basin with steep slopes all around, at the bottom of which they had built a spacious cabin with two cars parked to the left and right of it. This time Joachim was stopped by a laser pointer. Or – more precisely – the thing he thought to be attached to said laser pointer that put a tiny red dot onto his hand, before it swiftly wandered on to Joachim’s chest.

“This is far enough, I should think,” said a high-pitched man’s voice.

There were designer suits and designer’s suits in the world, snazzy product design and costumes accentuating exccentricity, and this man was definitely wearing the latter. His blazer had velvet patches in the form of jigsaw puzzle pieces on them. His hedgehog gelled hair stood in random directions that looked so stylish, they had to have been chosen carefully. He had this tiny patch of beard on his chin and an unruly line pattern on his shirt. His eyes looked like pure evil. Cold, sociopathic, sadistic, even though, objectively speaking, they were just brown.

“Hi,” said Joachim. “Nice to meet you, my name is Joachim.”

The man maintained a healthy distance to Joachim, standing in the middle of the forest. So healthy in fact that it was far out of hand-shake range, making a Joachim’s extended hand more of a mocking gesture.

“What do you want, Joachim,” said designer-guy. He didn’t make air quotes, but they sure were audible in his tone of voice.

Joachim thought about this for a second.

“I want you to release the prisoners that are still alive and cease your operation until further notice,” said Joachim. “It is really just what I tried to explain to your guy in the garage. Before he tried to stab me. He thought I was with House Asmodeus…” Joachim tilted his head forward in what he hoped was a threatening. “He should have known better.”

“And if we refuse?” said designer guy.

“Do you really want to refuse? I mean you could, but more powerful people than me wouldn’t like it.”

“How did you do it?” said designer guy. “Erase somebody’s soul?”

Holy shit. Was that what the angel wannabe had done? Was there really a copy of somebody he killed living on on another planet?

Burning eyes. Somebody had charred that guy’s nerves from the inside out. Maybe that was all it took?

It didn’t matter. They hadn’t seen something like this before. They were scared. Time to use it. Time to crank up the arrogance to new levels.

“Well, I made an angel friend, obviously,” said Joachim.

“Impossible,” said designer guy.

“That word is starting to really bore me,” said Joachim.


Designer guy had taken his eyes off him. The sniper – if there was one – still had him pinned, so Joachim kept studying his foe.

Designer guy was mumbling something into the collar of his shirt. They were probably in radio-contact out here.

“Good news, Herr Schwartz,” said the designer guy. Had Joachim ever given his last name? Of course not. But neither had they ever told him the handles they used in the emails. It was an intimidation tactic. Scary how fast Joachim had stooped down to their level given the opportunity. “We are inviting you into our humble home.”

The man stepped forward, shoving his hand towards Joachim. Joachim shook it. It was ice-cold.

“You may call me Eulenspiegel, Herr Schwartz. Welcome.”

Chapter 15

The sky had a reddish-tone. It was sort-of red in the way that planet Earth’s sky was quite blue. The clouds looked the same. The red mountain ranges in the distance turned the horizon into a jagged line. There were cities. Cities that looked like slums in the days of Charles Dickens. Wooden hovels, covering everything, built in a neat grid pattern, with market places in between, no churches, no huge buildings, just hovels filling the entire valley. A huge obsidian tower stood on the side of the mountain on the other side of the valley, overlooking everything, or just trying to maintain eye-contact with the tower on the mountain Joachim was hugging.

They were lying on a field of rubble, sharp edges and pointy corners pushing up against Joachim’s puny, wounded flesh. His lungs rebelled against the scratchy, bitter dust, but his brain was too occupied by what his eyes were showing him.

“You realize what I’m seeing is sort of impossible,” said Joachim.

“You think you are hallucinating,” said Andrej.

There was some sort of creature – too large to be a bird – landing on the top of the tower on the other side. Joachim strained his eyes, but couldn’t make out too many details. It was black. It had wings. It seemed pissed and it slipped into the tower.

“Bullshit,” said Joachim. “This is too detailed to be a dream. This doesn’t seem to be something assembled by my subconscious because those huts down there look just too damn weird-… Is that fur down there on the one near the edge? Does Hell have a fauna?”

“Hell has entire eco-system,” said Andrej. “Where do you think lumber for huts comes from?”

“…a representation of the poverty of their souls so far away from their merciful Creator? Don’t ask me stuff like that. I’m not a theologist.” Joachim sighed. “I should have brought binoculars.”

Andrej handed him binoculars.

“Don’t get up too far,” he warned. “We really don’t want attention.”

There were people down there, moving around, standing in groups talking, none of them seemed to be in too great a hurry to get anywhere. They were all Caucasian. The women wore loose dresses of many fabrics thrown on top of each other, the men wore tunics with belts and pants, all of them wore either sandals or were barefoot. Joachim couldn’t spot any children. A couple of men wore working on a hovel, apparently fixing its roof. The one on the top was using a hammer with its head made of stone.

“Weird,” said Joachim.

He panned over to the market place. The most prominent feature was probably the chopping block with the iron shackles on a huge platform in the middle. There were also stocks with people inside. They were signs around their necks, but Joachim couldn’t make out the writing.

“It is not all like that,” said Andrej. “There are factories. The center, it looks positively modern. They build microelectronics even. The outskirts though, they all look like this in one way or the other. Or worse of course.”

“Worse… how?” said Joachim, fixating on the square some more. There didn’t seem to be any vendor stands. Nobody offering food. Which was weird. Did dead people eat?

“Battlefields,” said Andrej. “There are areas with resources, wildly contested. People are a resource too down here, you will see.”

Joachim wasn’t sure if he wanted to see. The dead couldn’t die, apparently, allegedly, but Joachim was pretty sure that he could.

“We found the cabin,” said Andrej.

Joachim nearly broke the binoculars in his hands. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He couldn’t talk loud or excitedly. Wherever they were, wherever this was, Joachim had no illusions that this was a dangerous place.

“Was it where I said it would be?” said Joachim, finally. He kept looking through the binoculars, without really looking at anything anymore. Turning around to look at Andrej would have been a thousand kinds of uncomfortable.

In the corner of Joachim’s eye, Andrej nodded.

“Like you said, intersection of road trips, yet place not talked about in documents. Only one place that made sense. Google Earth shows us cabin. Has to be the place.”

Joachim couldn’t help but smile. He’d been right. They had found them.

“Your plan is positively bonkers though,” said Andrej.

“Best I could come up with on short notice,” said Joachim.

“Insane. Reckless. Stupid. Will never work,” said Andrej.

Has worked before. You just have to have the balls to pull it off.”

“Death wish, you mean.”

“Not keen on moving in down there?” said Joachim.

“Not very,” said Andrej. “I am sorry.”

Joachim had been chewing the inside of his lip again. He noticed, because he started tasting blood now. He forced himself to stop. Now his teeth felt weird.

“I’m still going,” said Joachim. This time he turned around to look Andrej into the sort-of edge of his face.

“And we will help you,” said Andrej. “Hannah has agreed. You can go ahead with plan, we will do sort of our own thing in support.”

Joachim pondered this.

“That is more than I could have hoped for, I guess,” he said. “Does that mean you don’t think I’m an evil demon infiltrator anymore?”

“Does that matter?” said Andrej. Joachim could see him smile.

“Guess not.”

When they returned, they stumbled into a parking lot, in front of a hardware store… somewhere. Germany, judging by the license plate of the parked cars. Near Munich, judging by the assembled team standing in a circle around them.

They wore outdoor equipment now. Expensive looking outdoorsy jackets, hiking boots, hiking sticks and the kind of backpacks that closed around the waists as well. Thug guy – Daniel – still had his arm inside a sling, Isabel had opted for mirrored mountain-climber sunglasses, the kind with an elastic band. Hannah stood there, her arms crossed. Joachim was pretty sure the pistol in her holster was a Glock.

“Enjoy your vacation?” she said.

“It was hell,” said Joachim. “Without wanting to sound too dramatic.”

Nobody laughed.

He looked at the people around them. They looked so much like the demons in the church now. The same bored professionalism, even Isabel.

“Why are you helping me?” said Joachim. “Or is that a stupid question?”

Hannah uncrossed her arms and regarded Joachim calmly.

“The intel checked out,” she said.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Joachim.

“It’s the only answer you are going to get,” said Hannah.

Joachim stared at her. Nobody else spoke up.

“Let me guess then,” said Joachim. “Orders came in through the Copper Wire.”

“Yes,” said Hannah.

“Which of course doesn’t tell me whether or not you will shoot me in the back as soon as the mission starts. Trade me as a hostage to the very people I’m trying to stop.”

Hannah’s face was stone. A sort of bemused stone, but still stone.

“Nothing else I could possibly say would make any difference.”

“You could make a statement,” said Joachim. “You could tell me you are disgusted by what you have learned. It would tell me something about the character of the people into whose hands I’m about to put my life.”

“I have seen worse than them,” said Hannah. “But I have also seen better. You want to learn something about me? I will keep my team alive, I will finish this mission, which is stopping them and what happens to you is something I will decide depending how circumstances evolve. I could also give a shit whether you are getting into the car or not, but ultimately I’d prefer you did.”

“It gives the enemy something else to shoot at.”

“Among other things, yes.”

“Thank you,” said Joachim. “You are the best potential co-workers anybody could hope for.”

Joachim closed his eyes. He did it until his anger and frustration had calmed down. He did it until he had found a way to accept the helplessness of the situation.

They had to be stopped.

Nothing had changed.

This hadn’t been a good move. It had been the best move out of many, many bad ones.

Joachim got in the car.


The steps in the distance had stopped. There was only silence. Silence and blood. It was too hard to breathe to wonder about things and the lights were too pretty.

Footsteps, one pair of feet scuffing against the carpet. An elegant pair of gray suit-pants ending in a man’s shiny black shoes.

The man stood there for the longest time.

Then he sat down next to Joachim.

“You did well today,” said the man. “Far better than anybody would have asked of you.”

His voice was a bit on the high-pitched side. Joachim blinked to try and make out his face in the blurry mess that his eyes showed him. Judging by his skintone and his pitch-black hair, the man had to be middle-eastern. He had a round face with lots of sharp edges, as if he had almost starved to death at some point in his life. He wore a three-piece-suit that seemed modest, yet elegant. Gray, with a black tie and a white shirt. None of the fabrics looked expensive. It looked neither stylish nor old-fashioned. It’s black round plastic buttons were the standard-issue of a billion department store suits.

Joachim was too weak to get up.

“Who are you?” he said.

“My name is Hadraniel,” said the stranger. “I am an angel of the Lord.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Joachim. “My name is Joachim Schwartz, I am the rightful ruler of China and Egypt.”

The man just smiled.

“Fortunately,” he said, “belief is not a strict requirement to enter the Kingdom.”

Great. More crazy people. This guy had just burned somebody from the inside out, though. Maybe he shouldn’t insult him.

“There is still hope, Joachim Schwartz,” said the man. “Have faith. You are close.”

“Any chance you could call an ambulance?”

“You have come far,” said Hadraniel. “Your last trial will be the hardest.”

“Because in order to go to Heaven, I still need to die?”


“I’m bleeding here,” said Joachim. “And we are sort of in a medical practice. If you could look around? There should bandages around somewhere.”

“If you want me to save you,” said Hadraniel, “I will. Answer me honestly though, if you could go to Heaven right now if you could enter an eternity of bliss, would you want to?”

“Why do you want to know?”

The lunatic with the destructive magic powers stayed silent.

For some reason Joachim did give the matter serious thought. He would give the man an honest answer.

“There are people who depend on me. I wouldn’t want to leave them behind.”

“The Lord has a plan.”

Joachim sighed. He felt himself go weaker. This wasn’t good. None of this was good.

“That’s just it,” he said. “I don’t trust an absent, imaginary God to have a plan. I don’t trust the universe to make sense. And frankly, I wouldn’t want it to. The idea of a powerful being directing our fates repulses me. It’s fascism.”

Hadraniel just listened, his face impassive. Was he going to kill Joachim? It wasn’t like the wannabe-angel was to concerned with Joachim bleeding out. Fuck him.

“And has God not created this world?” Joachim continued. “Isn’t that what the bible says? A world where people get tortured? Where the weak and the innocent are the ones who suffer the most? A world where children get malaria? Fuck God. Fuck his plan. If you are seriously offering me to retreat into an eternal choir, singing praises to the being who let all of this happen, then no. I’d rather be anywhere else. Especially if it’s an option that I can go out and do something about it, rather than ascending to a higher plane of existence.”

Something was changing inside Joachim’s body. Shifting.

“Are you going to get me to a hospital now?”

Joachim had expected Hadraniel to get angry or engage in creepy smiling denial. Instead, he seemed saddened by Joachim’s words.

“This world is rotten,” he said. “It can’t be fixed. The good will go on into the kingdom of Heaven. It is the only way.”

Joachim pushed himself up. Where did this energy come from? Healing magic? One last big burst of adrenaline?

“Nevermind then,” said Joachim. “I’m going to get myself there.”

Chapter 14

They had prepared a desk for him. A nice real-wood bamboo table waxed with something that faintly smelled of honey. There were three monitors on top, an ergonomic keyboard in the neighborhood of five hundred euros and a gaming mouse worth at least half that much. The huge, ergonomic black swivel-chair was perfection. They had gone as far as adjusting it to optimum height. Which was as considerate as it was creepy. The Linux machine underneath the desk breathed silently, its cooler a mere whisper, despite the raw power they had put into that thing. Its capacities would have put many commercial servers to shame.

They were all standing around behind him, probably armed, probably still unsure if they could trust him not to quickly turn around and murder everybody when they weren’t looking.

Joachim didn’t care. There were things more important than that. Things like the feeding multiple chat windows currently open across his screens, between which Joachim was frantically switching back and forth, as fast as his loopy brain would allow.

It had started with one, but every other hour another chat window opened up, adding to the conversation. Another presumably dead friend or relative. Another potential clue.

Is it really you? said the person on the other end pretending to be the late grandpa Schwartz. How old are you now?

I remember St. Benedikt’s, said the janitor. Is it still standing?

I never wanted to go there, said René, the kid who had died. I hated it there. And I hate everyone who went there, including you.

I joined the military, said uncle Ralf, the friendly, elderly neighbor. Legions they call them. Not much worse than the Bundeswehr. Long marches on foot and people yelling at you.

I deserve to be here, said Herr Ziegel, Joachim’s sixth grade math teacher. I am not a good person.

All this time praying and saying praise to God and for what? So he sends me here. FUCK YOU GOD. Seriously, said Rene. I just want to go home. That’s all I want. I just want to go home.

Isabel insisted that those messages came straight from Hell or the Underworld or the Great Beyond or the Nice Farm Where Your Dog Scrappy Lives Now.  Joachim’s only way to respond to this was by devising a twenty-question plan to prove that whoever was on the other line – however good that person might be at background checking and/or reading Joachim’s mind – was a phony liar. It was basically just him, his paranoia and a laptop, a beautiful distraction.

Which was precisely what this was. A distraction.

The rest of the team spent their time debating and apparently going through the intel Joachim had provided in double-time. The walls were filling up with old information in new formats. Neat little intel clouds labeled Ruprecht, Wieland, Ruebezahl, Siegfried, Hagen, Brunhilde, Erlkoenig, Holle, Eulenspiegel and Faust. Highlighted tidbits from emails were the most frequent ones. They were growing slowly. Glacial. They were doing things that had taken Joachim more than a fourteen hour day of work and they were probably going about it in ham-handed ways. While people died. While people were being tortured to death. Yes, he definitely needed a distraction. Otherwise he would have gone insane, done things that were a bit too risky and probably not rewarding.

Andrej – that was the scarred man’s name – was in constant deliberation with the boss – Hannah, that had to be her name.

Stefan – pony-tail guy – went in and out, being on all time Excel sheet duty by the looks of it. The thug had gone to fuck off somewhere and Isabel seemed to be doing a little bit of everything and a lot of staring at seemingly random walls.

Joachim? I haven’t seen you since my birthday party, said the chat participant claiming to be Joachim’s dead uncle. Have they taken you to my funeral? You were twelve years old. How old are you now? How long have I been down here?

I cheated on my wife, said Herr Ziegel. Not just once. There were so many women, I can’t even count them all. Sophie never knew. I surprised myself by how good a liar I was. How easy it was after a while. Even she couldn’t see through my bullshit, until… the accident.

Grandpa Schwartz said: I’m not saying, I’m not a bit disappointed there’s no chocolate fountain and topless angels giving me blowjobs (you are old enough now, right?) but it could have been worse. A lot worse. There are people down here… You see your body can’t really die. So there’s some who stretch this a bit. Sort of like piercings, only a bit more adventures all in all. They are in constant pain, but boy if they don’t look tough and scary. And then of course there are those who don’t get a say in the matter. You wanna know what hell is? Hell is other people. It’s true, even down here.

I didn’t meet my family, said René. I didn’t meet anyone I knew. This place is big. Bigger than India. Bigger than China. There’s more dead people than living, even if you don’t count the ones who died again.

The pastor was raping kids, said Herr Janoschek, the janitor. I helped him cover it up. That is my shame to bear. I met him down here. I found the son of a bitch. I made him pay. I wonder if he feels closer to God now that he’s nailed to a cross. Closer to his victims, more like.

None of this had to be real. Life after death was the oldest shtick the priests of old used to shake money out of people. Well, the second-oldest right after Toboklok, the Mountain God is angry and will drown your children, if you don’t let me sleep with the pretty virgin girl. This was no different. Though admittedly a better place in the afterlife wasn’t a common perk to offer with an IT job.

There was no afterlife, was there? It didn’t make sense. Brains rot. All the brains who pretended to talk to him now had rotted a long time ago.

“Would you like to visit some of them?” said Andrej, startling Joachim half-way into a heart-attack.

“Where did you come from?” he managed to say.

“Teleported,” said Andrej. “I see you are talking to dead people.”

Joachim raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t believe they are dead people,” said Andrej. “That’s OK. I am atheist, too. Still, actually.”

“So you don’t believe all of this nonsense,” said Joachim. His hand reached for the gold coin inside his pocket. There was more in the world to explore. Phenomena undiscovered by science’s best efforts so far.

“Afterlife? Of course, I believe. I have been there, many times,” said Andrej, then his eyes became sort of unfocused. “Seen things I could not unsee. It is not a pleasant place. This world around us here, it is much better.”

Joachim’s brain caught something there, but he didn’t know yet what it was.

“Did you really teleport behind me?” said Joachim.

Andrej shook his head.

“Of course not,” he said. “I used wormhole inside this living room.”


Andrej grinned.

“I can show you if you don’t believe me,” he said. “At any rate, my gift comes with a price.”

“You age every time you use it?” said Joachim, trying to fill the dramatic silence Andrej had left.

“Sometimes my way leads me through Hell,” said Andrej. “And not the pleasant parts. The gates of Hell are well guarded.”

“That’s how you got your scars?”

“Most of them,” said Andrej. “So how is your line of questioning going?”

“It’s… there are no inconsistencies yet,” said Joachim. “Wait… Have you been eavesdropping on my connection?”

Andrej held a hand to his mouth in mock shock at this accusation, then shrugged. “It is barely eavesdropping if you are using an unencrypted connection. More like not covering my ears.”

“This is a cable connection,” said Joachim. “So you’d still have to poison the ARP table.”

“What ARP table?”

“Must be the world’s shittiest internet connection then.”

“You have no idea.”

“Of course you could just have installed a rootkit on the laptop and read those chats from basically anywhere.”

Again with the hand to the mouth, this time slightly more exaggerated.

“Some hacker you are that you haven’t found it,” said Andrej.

“Who says I haven’t?”

This time it was Andrej’s turn to look stupid.

“You are bluffing,” he said, finally.

“If you are tired of drilling into suspicious LKMs you are just… tired of using a computer,” said Joachim. “Or not bored enough from pretend-dead people who take way too long to type.”

Andrej smiled.

There was a second rootkit of course. And a third. And a fourth, probably, in the form of an insanely obscure backdoor. Joachim had taken the liberty of having a second machine look at this network traffic and look at the packages his own operating system wasn’t showing. Still… better to pretend he was stupid.

“So you believe in an afterlife yet?” said Andrej.

“No,” said Joachim. “Well… maybe… no. No.”

“Time to take a trip then.”


Blood. More blood. His own blood.

Fuck. This wasn’t good. This wasn’t even in the same neighborhood as the regular-life good-or-bad distinction.

Joachim was raging now, his fists and legs swooshing through the air, as his body grew more stiff. Nerdy Holle was more agile than him and her giggles joined Hagen’s in a macabre harmony.

“Interesting that you feel pain,” said Erlkoenig. “Asmodeus must really hate his little minions.”

Joachim was out of breath. His entire body felt sweaty and exhausted, as if he had just run a marathon.

So tired.

Just lie down.

Footsteps were coming up the stairs outside, by the elevator. Joachim could hear them in the distance. How many people did they have on call?

Aw drat. He didn’t want to die.

The leader. He had to take out the leader.

Push yourself. Prove that you are not entirely worthless.

Joachim screamed in rage and drove Holle forward. She still held her knife. Her stupid bloody knife. She kept poking him with hit, cutting him, when he wasn’t careful. Holle didn’t show fear. More like strained focus. She had lost her glasses – apparently those were just for show – but there hair was so over-styled that it held.

And damn she was fast.


Joachim casually picked up an empty hospital bed and flung it at her.

Spin. Spin. Spin.

She jumped out of the way, pushed herself off another bed with the grace of a trained gymnast and came up behind Joachim.

Thank you.

Joachim bolted forward, his feet pushing against the carpet so hard, he could hear it tear. Erlkoenig didn’t even flinch when Joachim went at him.

Joachim lunged. A sharp, sudden pain in his chest made him stop and kiss the wall on the other side of the hallway, as Erlkoenig had casually stepped aside.

Joachim looked down.

A metal throwing star had buried itself inside his ribcage.

“A shuriken, really?” he said. “Aren’t you overdoing your otaku thing a bit?”

Erlkoenig just stood there, smirking. His leg was still a mess.

Holle came up just behind him.

The footsteps became louder.

With the power invested in him by shock, adrenaline and stubborn denial of reality, Joachim pushed himself back onto his feet.

Not a lot of time. Not a lot of options.

Joachim pretended to be injured far worse than he was, clenching his chest, producing a painful groan.

The gambit paid off.

Holle came up closer to him than she should have and Joachim put his foot against the wall behind him and pushed himself into her, heedless of injury. They collapsed to the floor in a heap. Holle had the common decency to look scared out of her mind before Joachim punched into her head with everything he had, crushing the ineffective block she had tried to put in the way, busting her skull, like an overripe melon.

Holle wasn’t moving anymore.

Joachim turned around, scrambling to get up, only to look into the barrel of Erlkoenig’s handgun.

“You think a bullet can kill me?” said Joachim. One last gambit. One last con.

“You think what you just did killed anyone?”

Oh right. He was dealing with crazy people.

Joachim could feel his eyes tear up.

He wasn’t sorry. He had to die at some point. Most people die for nothing. Have aneurysms and collapse on their way home from their nine-to-fives. Their lives from teachers painstakingly teaching them their ABCs all the way through their failed relationships, the chances they missed because they were too afraid, the savings that had ever so slowly accumulated over a life with an economy constantly testing just how much they were willing to endure. How much they were afraid to say no to.

It was such a gift to be able to die for something. To give all of this some kind of meaning. The ant that drowned diverting the stream saved the hive. All hail, John Maynard.

“I regret nothing,” Joachim whispered.

He could hear the click of the hammer being drawn.

Then Erlkoenig’s bloodshot eyes started to go up in flames and he collapsed to the floor, gun unfired.

Chapter 13

An empty cup and an empty pot of coffee right next to it. How long had he sat here, anyway? How long had those people deliberated?

The Ice Queen had intensely blue eyes and they connected with Joachim’s.

“The answer is no,” said the Ice Queen. “We don’t trust you and even if we did, we couldn’t afford to get mixed up in this.”

Joachim didn’t bother to hide his disappointment.

How? How could they look at this and say…

They deal with enemies like this every day. They have to pick their targets.

“I did kill one of them,” said Joachim. “Pretty sure that had been Siegfried.”

“Unfortunately, that doesn’t prove much,” said the Ice Queen. “Yes, vessels are expensive, but they are far from irreplaceable. All of this, the incident at the church, the descriptions you gave us about the parking garage, it looks like the work of a bad liar.”

Angry faces all around. A guy strong enough to quickly snap my neck behind me. How did that happen?

Con man reflexes started kicking in.

“Everybody lies,” said Joachim. “but nobody lies without a reason. What am I lying about and why?”

“You are trying to infiltrate this operation,” said the Ice Queen.

Nobody else was talking.

They were play-acting.

This was a test.

“No,” said Joachim. “If I wanted to infiltrate this operation, I could have come here, right after the job interview, eager for work. I did not. And for anything before that, I assume you have run background checks.”

“You could be an imposter,” said the Ice Queen.

“And you have asked me no personal questions whatsoever to determine this one way or the other,” countered Joachim. He was leaning on the table making eye-contact with everyone. “This is a test. An interrogation. You want to see how I react.”

Thug guy behind Joachim fidgeted, everybody else kept way too much eye-contact for somebody telling the truth. This was all the confirmation that Joachim needed.

“I know you are scared,” said Joachim. He got up. His autopilot had kicked in now, navigating him through the treacherous waters of human interaction“I know what you are scared of. I have fought some of those people with my bare hands and barely lived to tell the tale. They are smart, well-trained and possess abilities beyond the current realm of human understanding. I am a suicidal fool for trying to stop them.”

He let those words hang there.

“I will do it anyway,” said Joachim. “And if I kill only half of them, that means they will be only half as effective at torturing people to death as they currently are. With any luck, an organization of yours will take the half-dead carcass of their organization and finish the job.

“But I cannot go to sleep tonight. I cannot go back to my day job and my rent and my annuity insurance and forget about what they do. They could have just as easily come for me. They could just as easily come for any of my colleagues, my friends from college, anyone whose services they deem useful for hell. I will stop them. Are you with me?”

Nobody said anything.

Everybody looked to the boss. Meaningful glances were exchanged.

Of all the people in the room, it was the scarred man who said something.

“If this is con, it is good one, yes?”

Joachim looked around.

Pony-tail guy calmly opened a can of an off-brand energy drink and leaned back, apparently enjoying the show. Isabel was smiling all over her face at no one in particular it seemed. Joachim couldn’t see the damaged thug, but the boss looked serious.

“I have a plan,” said Joachim. “I would like your input.”

The scarred man turned to look at him.

“Ah input,” he said. “I love giving input.”

“Could have fooled me,” said Joachim.

Isabel’s eye’s went wide.

“Holy shit,” she said.

“What?” said a bunch of people simultaneously.

“Check the laptop,” she said. “You are not going to believe this.”


The place behind the doors wasn’t an average run-of-the-mill parking garage. It was the deranged vision of a man who had thrown away all pretenses of scale. Three floors had obviously been converted into one. The ramp led down, down, down to a huge loading area without any white lines on the floor designating individual spaces. The floor looked patchwork even. Somebody had put in some kind of piping and thrown more concrete on top, not matching the color or height of the surrounding concrete all that much. The air down here felt cold and the noise of the white truck ahead of them was a thunder roar in the dark emptiness. There were doors on the walls, a tight-looking, steel spiral staircase leading upwards in the furthest corner, far far away.

Joachim’s lungs cringed at the wall of diesel smoke they were walking through, his quasi-hostage walking in front of him, without a care in the world.

As they stumbled off the steep round, the noise of the engine cut off.

“Mind if I announce us?” said the kid.

“Go right ahead,” said Joachim.

The kid started shouting something in a foreign language, unlike any Joachim had ever heard. Internally he was burying his face in his palm.

“Mind to repeat that in German?” said Joachim. He hoped his tone was menacing. He was still getting a handle on that whole being-scary thing. He also wasn’t sure if the hobo outfit was helping or hurting him with that.

The dampened noise of footsteps closed in somewhere far away. The driver of the truck apparently hadn’t thought it necessary yet to get out.

The kid’s face looked confused. “Is my accent that bad?”, he said. The kid blinked. “Are you telling me you don’t speak Greek?”

That hadn’t been Greek. It had to have been Ancient Greek. Who actually speaks that? Wizards, apparently, that’s who. Shit.

Their conversation was cut short by more shouting in Ancient Greek shortly after the door on the other side of this neo-industrial bat cave flew open with a crash.

Three people appeared. The first one seemed to be the angry white male equivalent of a pit bull. Bald, stubble bearded, stocky and muscular and moving with all the tact and grace of a diesel train. Practically foaming at the mouth, Joachim noticed, as the dim neon light started highlighting his features.

He was accompanied by two other people. A nerdy-looking girl complete with chic designer glasses, a hipster T-Shirt and androgynously short hair. A pale, long-haired blond dude in a tracking suit trailed him on the other side, his bored eyes glancing back and forth between the kid and Joachim.

When the pit bull man saw Joachim’s face he snarled a curse. The few phrases Joachim could make out – years of Catholic schooling for the win – would have made Catullus blush.

“Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur?” said Joachim.

The man switched to German.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“You haven’t figured that out by now?” said Joachim.

Deathly silence. The kid in front of him slowly edged to the side, apparently so he wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire.

Pale bored dude was pale and bored, nerd girl seemed amused.

“Don’t play games with me,” said the pit bull man. Joachim couldn’t get over that that man was a wizard, fluent in two dead languages. He looked like a soccer hooligan.

“I’m not here to play games,” said Joachim. “I’m here to tell you to stop.”

This raised the man’s eyebrows. Joachim wasn’t sure how much of the personalities those people displayed was play-acting, but judging by his body-language and reactions, this man was definitely in charge. And he just seemed to love people telling him what to do.

The man stood there with his mouth half-open for a bit.

“Who are you?” he said, finally.

“My point precisely,” said Joachim. “Who am I? And how did I find your garage? Let me answer the second one: It’s because your security is garbage.”

The man raised his thick, rough index finger and pointed it at Joachim.

“We had a deal,” he said. “And we have kept our end of it for years now.”

Interesting. Quick, improvise.

“Did the deal include informing every yokel in town about all the details of your operation?”

The man lowered his finger.

“I didn’t think so,” Joachim continued. “Let me see the candidates.”

Nerd girl crossed her arms. Bored dude was still unsettlingly bored.

The kid had maneuvered himself into Joachim’s five o’clock position. Well, shit.

Keep calm. Stay in control.

Move it,” Joachim shouted.

For a second there was silence as Joachim’s shout echoed through the parking garage. Then finally, slowly, the pit bull man started to turn. Nerd girl’s face was twisting in anger at that, but she said nothing.

They started to walk towards another door at the end of the garage. The kid said something in Ancient Greek, but the pit bull man hushed him.

Who were those people anyway? The files had spoken of three teams with three operatives each, with a tenth person – Faust – giving them instructions. That was the best Joachim could have puzzled together. If they were all operatives, then the woman had to be Holle, unless they were cross-gendering. The kid was Hagen, since Joachim had murdered Siegfried. The boss guy was… Erlkoenig?

Behind the door was a huge elevator with doors that looked distinctively industrial.

In they went.

Those people kept whispering to one another. A few careful words from Hagen, a gruff answer from Erlkoenig. Joachim felt a thrill. Was he actually getting away with this? His paranoia cheerfully gave him a hundred things to worry about right now, but this was a Hail Mary pass. Different rules applied.

The elevator stopped five stories up. It had a heavy steel door that needed to be opened manually. The light was much warmer up here. Gentler. They stepped into a hallway. There were stairs. There were opaque glass walls. And a brass sign beside the door. Before Joachim could read it, they were already walking in.

Carpeted floors, modern art on the off-white walls. There was a reception desk with a computer screen, but nobody seemed to be inside. There were an awful lot of chairs around. Was this a waiting room? Was this a doctor’s practice?

All of the wizard people regarded the place with boredom, as if they had been here a hundred times before. They probably had.

“Right in there,” said Erlkoenig.

Joachim tried his best to keep his hand from trembling as he opened one of the many doors in the place.

Beds. There were beds behind the door. Metal-frame, white linen beds, with infusions next to them, for the people who were in them. There had to be a dozen of them, in only one room, filled with comatose patients of various ages and genders. Each had a monitor displaying vital signs. All of those patients seemed to be alive.

“Herr Wieland has helped us work out the kinks,” said Erlkoenig. “We can keep them under almost indefinitely now. When we transport them off, we just put each of them in a neat metal box. Clean. Simple.”

Joachim turned around to look at the man. There was something inside of him that was shaking.

A hammer. Why was he picturing a hammer?

“This stops today,” said Joachim. “I am going to need you to release all of them.”

This caused shocked silence among the ones present. Everybody was sort of eying Erlkoenig who in turn kept staring at Joachim. He did not look pleased.

“What happened to Herrn Slibovic?” said Erlkoenig.

Shit. Just stay calm.

“Is that any of your concern?” said Joachim.

The others were taking a step back from Erlkoenig now. He did not look angry, but he had to have some kind of tell that he was about to go off.

Not good.

“He sends his errand boy to shut down my operation? Is that what your House considers a partnership on eye-level?”

“Look, I don’t know what you discussed in detail. I have never even met Slibovic, okay? This is about damage control. We can shut this down today, then have a calm conversation about how we go on.”

The others took another step back. Apparently Joachim had chosen his words poorly. There was nothing to see on his face though. What to do now?

“I am calm,” said Erlkoenig. “Let’s start that conversation by sending a message. I will not let you bullshit me and you will respect me.”

Erlkoenig was fast. His fist came out of nowhere.

He hit Joachim in the stomach, driving the air from his lungs. Joachim saw him draw back his foot, aiming for his head. Joachim had just a fraction to pull his hand up and catch the blow.

Forward. He had to move forward. He wouldn’t be able to take a beating. But he’d probably be able to dish one out.

He held Erlkoenig by his shiny black loafer and punched his sheen. He could feel the bone shatter, but he didn’t hear a scream of pain.

All around him, pandaemonium started, with people drawing weapons and starting to circle him.

Joachim acted fast. He spun over his shoulder and landed on one knee, just as Hagen came at him with brass knuckles. Joachim half-dodged, half-blocked the first blow, scrambling to his feet while he did that. The second one caught him in the shoulder, sending white-hot pain all the way through his arm.


Joachim started swinging. He knew if he caught one of those knuckles to the head he’d be done for. If he lost the fight, he’d be completely at the mercy of his captors – and probably dead. He had nothing to lose and a lot of hate stored up.

As Joachim punched for him, trying for his head, he hit nothing but air. Hagen dodged him like a snake, his face a half-grin, as he danced around the frantic and terrified Joachim.

Joachim shouted and redoubled at his efforts, running into the man, trying to corner him and accidentally buried his fist inside the plaster wall, raining dust on one of the comatose patients.

Hagen hit him from behind, his sledgehammer fist barely missing Joachim’s kidneys. It hurt like hell anyway. Reflexively, Joachim jerked back his elbow as he freed his hand and the blow connected, cracking something inside Hagen’s ribcage.

Joachim used the force to spin around and try and catch a glimpse of the other fighters. Erlkoenig was blocking the door.

Wieland had left. Joachim had seen him turn away from the corner of his eye. To get help? And where was Holle? Where the hell was Holle?

He kept pummeling Hagen. He couldn’t afford not to. Maybe he needed to make an example of him. Maybe they needed to see it with their own eyes.

It was easier the second time around. The blood on his knuckles and arms and didn’t bother him too much. Other things did make his stomach twist. The crunch as Joachim flipped Hagen over his shoulder, slamming into a ground like a wet sack filled with pork. The way Hagen’s jaw was a broken mess of bloody flesh and teeth and barely even looked human anymore. It didn’t stop him.

“One of you, to save many,” he said silently, just moving his lips. “Save them.”

Erlkoenig seemed to be watching him impassively. There was no grace to Joachim’s fighting. Had he had any training, the fight would have been over quickly. A neat strike to the neck, breaking his opponent’s spine. Clean. Painless even. Facing somebody untrained, invested with the powers Joachim had been given, was actually worse for them. So. Much. Worse.

The only noise coming from Hagen was a labored breathing, gurgling, struggling for air. Was he… was he laughing?

“Die, pig,” said the female voice behind him.

The blade pushing itself into his back came as a total surprise to Joachim.

Chapter 12

Of all the rituals and infernal devices Joachim had imagined to be used for contacting the dead, he himself had never thought of a laptop.

It was a pink monstrosity with flower patterns of rhinestone set in its lid. It booted to Windows XP, which had just been discontinued in favor of Windows 10. Its desktop was littered with a bajillion files, completely covering up a photo of Isabel with a bunch of friends in front of a cityscape. Prague, probably. Pretty sure.

“Should I try ominous chanting?” said Joachim.

He wondered how Isabel could even use a laptop. Wouldn’t her mind-eyes go out of focus when she got tired and show her the insides of the machine all the time?

“If you want to,” said Isabel. She opened up Thunderbird and started to compose an email to “Bandwidth is crap. Email only, no Skype calls.”

“They have webcams in hell?”

Being blind didn’t stop Isabel from shooting me a glance like I was an idiot.

“Yes, Joachim, they have webcams in hell. They aren’t savages. Well, not all of them.”

She kept typing, apparently typing in a bunch of codewords from memory.

Apple-tree. Baracuda. Cain. Detriment…

“Anybody dead you want to talk to?” said Isabel.

“What is thecopperwire?”

“Oh! That is a good one. Legend has it that – like – 200 years ago they built a telegram connection down into hell. A copper wire. And the name stuck. Before then they had to rely on prophets to get their orders to earth. Must have been messy and unreliable or else they would have just kept doing that.”

“Prophets of hell?”

Another one of those looks.

“Yes, Joachim. Prophets of hell. That’s not just a privilege of the bird-people, you know.”


“Joachim, if you are an infiltrating sleeper agent or something after all, you are a stupidly annoying one. Yes, angels. Naked people with wings, flying around in cozy little diapers, playing harp. And blasting demons that huddle on planet Earth.”

A memory shot through Joachim’s mind. Images of bodies burning from the inside out. He pushed it away.

“How would I know,” said Joachim, “if somebody I knew ended up in hell?”

Isabel looked away awkwardly, chewing her lip. It had to be a learned gesture. Joachim was pretty sure she could see his face, but nobody could see where she pointed her eyes.

After an awkward silence in which Joachim had already guessed the answer, she finally gave it.

“Almost everyone ends up there,” she said. “It’s not all that medieval roasting-on-a-spit-for-eternity stuff. Well, some of it, but not all. There’s a bunch of cozier places. They are something like the Greek underworld, you know? Ghosts huddling together, helping each other out.”


“You still don’t believe?”

“I still don’t believe.”

“Okay, give me a list of dead people. Ten of them. Big place down there.”

Joachim needed a while. There were his two grandfathers, his sixth-grade math teacher, the kid in eighth grade who had gone into anaphylactic shock one summer and died, there was the friendly old man who had been their neighbor before his parents got divorced (Roasting on a spit? Did he believe that? No, he believed that they had incinerated him, along with his necrotic nerve cells and that that had been the end of him). There was this one janitor in the school with whom he had had a couple of conversations, even though that man had been ancient and wouldn’t remember him, if – ya know – the God of Isaac and Abraham had seen fit to preserve his consciousness… and send him to hell. Who else was there?

The girl in college. A friend, of a friend, of a friend, who had committed suicide. There was the mother of an old friend of his that he hadn’t seen in ages. Maybe she wanted to get up a message? And why not fill up the last two spots with ancestors that Joachim could name. See if they had anything interesting to say.

He told her his list.

“Good,” said Isabel. “This is good. This will work.”

“So what happens now?”

“Now, I put in the request. They can probably only find three or four of those. They got records and all, though most of those are still paper. Once we have them, our friends below pull them out of whatever they are doing and put them in front of a computer so we can have a chat.”

“That does seem like an enormous undertaking,” said Joachim.

“Are you patronizing me?” She said it with a smile. “You are patronizing me. Well we can’t have somebody on our team who doesn’t believe. So technically, this stuff is all mission-critical. And it’s not like they care. Manpower is sort of abundant down there.”

There was movement on the hallway outside of the room. Was the thug back?

“Great,” said Joachim. “Sure. Make me believe.”

He did feel it. The lure of an afterlife. Proof that death was not the end.


No, all of this was just a comforting fantasy. No matter what kind of delusions those wizard-types had built for themselves, he couldn’t afford to get dragged into it. He had a job to do.

The door opened and the gang trickled in, taking their seats all around the table, with the wounded thug standing comfortably at the chair behind Joachim’s.

Grim silence, all around.

The Ice Queen looked straight at Joachim.

“We have made a decision,” she said.


“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, when people walked by, his arm reflexively raising the weathered cardboard cup. The weather had turned his fingers numb, even though he was dressed warmly. The cold was sneaky when one sat on the ground. It came gradually, circumventing his garbage-bag outfit and the three layers of clothes underneath.

He hated this plan already, but with no one to back him up, there were no other options.

“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled again, his eyes fixed on the vomit-brown building on the other side of the road. On the huge steel-colored garage door behind the steep slope downwards. No movement. Not for hours. He hoped the cameras he had planted had more luck. He couldn’t take out his cellphone to check now, could he? He couldn’t risk them seeing him.

Jesus, maybe he should have just gone to the stupid address. Hell was supposed to be warm, right?

“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled. He had put a few smudges onto his jacket. He wore a skirt fashioned from a garbage bag. His unshaven, overslept, swollen face hadn’t actually needed much work to look pathetic. The old woman walking by pretended not to see him. Joachim didn’t need magic to be invisible.

He was sitting in front of a no name supermarket – Euro-Buy. In front of him, a chain of abused shopping carts narrowed the path away from the sidewalk down to a chokepoint. That’s where he sat, like a proper beggar, forcing people to walk past him single-file, enduring their awkward glances and netting the occasional ten cents that he accepted with exaggerated thanks and blessings and hope-you-a-great-days.

His eyes didn’t leave the garage door, nor the building around it.

Nobody went in. Nobody came out. It had been five hours now and Joachim was prepared to last… how long? Sixteen? If he had to? There were bushes around the parking lot where he could pee. Hobos didn’t need shame.

It was necessary to stay here. He couldn’t risk being anywhere else. Not anymore.

“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, as his eyes remained fixed on the slope.

The worst thing about it was the

lack of sensory input and the endless stretches of time. At first, his mind started picking out shapes. That shadow the morning sun cast through the balding trees looked like a dragon was crawling up the vomit-brown walls. The still windows that nobody moved behind reflected the light like… spaceships? UFOs? The cars on the street were the human spaceships fighting them (pew! pew! pew!).

When the fantasies subsided, the real thinking started. The remembering.


The block hadn’t changed. The Buchenstraße in Taufkirchen still looked like a Turkish ghetto. Turkish shops and bars, cozied up underneath the huge concrete boxes that were apartment buildings. The place was loud, at any time of the day. Somebody always had loud music blaring, dogs were always barking, cars lets their engines howl.

Mehmet was already walking towards Joachim as he walked down the street, his back straining against the stupid, heavy black duffle bag and the useless garbage inside.

Mehmet was wearing a tracking suit, sneakers and an honest-to-god golden chain. His black hair was trimmed to a stubble, his long face clean-shaven.

“Blacky,” said Mehmet.

A pun on how Joachim’s name meant Schwartz. Funny to Mehmet because Joachim was reportedly the palest guy he had ever seen.

Joachim shouldn’t have come here. He had sworn to himself to stay clear of all of this. Yet, if Joachim didn’t want to live in the forest for the rest of his life, he needed to risk leading his pursuers to someone. Better to people who could handle themselves. Or better to people he wasn’t all that fond of to begin with, a cynical, sarcastic voice inside his head added.

“Long time no punch-in-the-face,” said Joachim and grinned at him.

Mehmet laughed and made a great show of slapping his shoulder, sending waves of pain through Joachim’s body.

I was surprised when you called,” said Mehmet, discreetly steering Joachim into the arched gateway to the yard, away from prying eyes. “Honestly, I thought you had moved, or were dead or something.”

“I just went legit,” said Joachim. “Felt like dying at the time, but I got used to it.”

Mehmet grinned and held his hands in front of him in disbelief.

“You are here,” he said. “This deserves to be celebrated.”

Joachim held up a hand.

“I’m on the clock.”

Mehmet raised his eyebrows.

“You are pulling a job? What happened to your mortgage and your two point seven kids? How will they eat with their father locked up with the rest of us?”

Joachim snorted, hoping to seem amused at this. Always the dance with this guy. Let’s pretend to be friends. Let’s pretend that Mehmet wouldn’t hang Joachim out to dry. Let’s pretend that Mehmet hadn’t done just that several times already.

“I need a quiet place to work,” said Joachim. “Computer work. Just a desk, some electricity, some light, and no people around. I brought my own internet.”

Mehmet gave Joachim a piercing look. Everyone Joachim had ever met on the streets had their own little lie-detector-shtick and this was Mehmet’s. Too stupid for words. As if Joachim’s face would suddenly start to twitch and morse-code I-A-M-A-C-O-P.

Half a minute of exaggerated staring later, Mehmet seemed satisfied.

“What’s in it for me?” said Mehmet.

“You want in on the job?” said Joachim. “I could use someone like you.”

Chances were that the wizard-people had bank accounts and large amounts of less-than-traceable cash lying around. Joachim could picture himself getting in there with some actual thugs. Then again, he could also picture those thugs turn on him two seconds after they cheerfully signed on with the wannabe-demons.

“Nah, I got stuff to do,” said Mehmet. “I was thinking more of a manager’s cut.”

“So you are my manager now?” said Joachim.

“I don’t see me asking you for something, do you?”

Joachim laughed. He made a big show of it.

“Give it five minutes,” said Joachim, surprised by the acid in his own tone of voice. “I’m sure you will think of something.”

Mehmet folded his arms.

“You are going to have to do better than that if you want me to let you camp out in my uncle’s basement.”

Joachim reached into his back pocket and retrieved the bills he had folded up anticipating this very moment.

“A hundred Euros,” said Joachim. “As a sign of respect and a half-assed apology for not writing Christmas cards.”

He handed Mehmet the money. Mehmet let Joachim’s hand hover in mid-air for several seconds before taking it.

“No strings attached,” said Joachim. “You can keep that cash whether you are going to help me or not.”

Mehmet stared at Joachim, his face unreadable.

Was he hurt? Insulted? Trying to figure out if he could get more money out of this?

Finally Mehmet tilted his head, gesturing Joachim to follow him.


“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, when people walked by. His hand felt numb, wishing for gloves. Stupid oversight.

The parade of disinterest in front of him had never really broken, no matter the time of day. Slowly but surely though, a gaggle of old women had formed in front of the Euro-Buy, chatting and glancing into Joachim’s direction. They were trying to be sneaky about it, that’s how he noticed. After a couple of careful glances he was sure it wasn’t his paranoia anymore. No matter, though. He had bigger concerns.


The air in the basement tasted of plastic, wetness and old laundry. It was completely filled with cloth-covered furniture, except for a shabby little desk in the corner, with a crooked swivel chair in front of it. Joachim’s eyes reflexively looked for and found the cracked socket in the wall, underneath the desk.

The air-raid shelter style barred lamp gave ample light, as did the rays of light seeping in through the grilled basement windows.

It was quiet here. That’s what surprised him, the quietness. Untouched by the busy restaurant above, he started to get to work.

His raid of the office had been ludicrously successful. Nestled into his trusty black duffle bag were all the hard-drives, all the flash drives, a bunch of important-looking loose documents and the contents of flying wizard’s pockets.

Opening the bag and looking at them, Joachim’s exultation turned into a sober kind of focus.

It was time to get to work.


The glances weren’t hidden anymore. Most of the women had gone over to openly staring now. One of them was standing in the Euro-Buy entrance, arguing loudly with a guy in a blue Euro-Buy apron.


Fourty thousand, five hundred and thirty-one. That was the total number of files they had on the hard-drive, Joachim had plucked out of their file server, with various copies of those files still cluttering the hard-drives of their desktop computers. On top of that number came emails and random junk.

Assuming that every document on average holds a page of information, he could picture an average hardcover book with six hundred pages. Multiply this by 67.5 and get sixty-eight hardcover books filled with boredom. A horrible, horrible year’s worth of avid reading. It was time Joachim whipped out some magic of his own.

The awkward, old, dusty keyboard of the old laptop made his hands hurt. Fuck it. This was important.

It was like having a conversation with the data. That’s how it felt. Trying to get an obstinate semi-autistic child to explain the world to you. He had to ask the right questions, and once he had them he could maybe get answers that would help him.

How many authors were there? There had been three people in the church. The earliest timestamp on the files was eight years ago. If all three of them worked tirelessly on whatever it was that they did all day, ignoring weekends and holidays and the screaming of their own smothered brains, they would be writing about five documents a day. Each of them. Every day. For eight years. There had to be documents from other sources. Were they downloaded? Like manuals from the internet or something?

Nope. Most of the documents were Word and Excel files. The Sherlock Holmesian conclusion was that there were more than three of them.

What was important? Where was the useful information?

Probably something recent. Something they were up to lately, rather than years ago. Three thousand six hundred and five files since January 1st this year.

Joachim cracked his knuckles. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

He clicked the first file.


His phone rang. Joachim had only given the burner’s number to one person.

“Hello Kukomu,” he said. “Is everything all right?”

“No,” said Kukomu.

Joachim’s stomach dropped.

“They showed up at the apartment,” said Kukomu. “I thought you should know.”

There was silence. Shit. Shit shit shit.

More silence.

Joachim needed to ask. He needed to know.

“Is anyone hurt?”

“No,” said Kukomu. “Nobody has come to harm. I have sent Temperance away with the children and stayed behind as a guard.”

Joachim’s brain needed a couple of seconds to process this.

“I want to apologize right now,” said Kukomu. “Several of your kitchen knives have gotten damaged in the fighting. The same goes for your furniture.”

“Those were dangerous people,” said Joachim. It was the best his brain could come up with.

“They are competent hand-to-hand fighters, I will grant them that,” he said. “I hope you do not mind about the damage. Unfortunately they got away, so I will have to get away for a while before they return in force. Can I reach you at this telephone number?”

“How did…? What the…?”

“Goodbye, Joachim. I will talk to you soon.”

He hung up, leaving Joachim staring at the wall, phone still pressed to his ear.

Images of nerdy, suburban Kukomu at a Shaolin monastery flashed through his mind.


Joachim didn’t want to keep going, but he couldn’t stop either. He had been asking the questions. He had been getting the answers. The problem was that each answer was more horrifying than the one before.

It had been a puzzle constructed from a thousand spreadsheets and pdfs. Snatchers. That’s what those people were. They stole people, manufacturing accidents and disappearances or moves to foreign countries to work at companies that didn’t really exist. It hadn’t been easy to find out. Not because they made huge efforts to obscure their efforts, but rather because they had been callously mundane about it, describing their victims as ‘projects’, with all the language that surrounded it. After hours of work, Joachim was one hundred percent sure of what was going on. The picture didn’t change anymore, the image just turned sharper with every new file he opened.

They killed their victims in the end. Each and every one of the people they snatched. It turned out that telekinesis was really awesome to nudge the odds in certain situations – say – to create believable ‘traffic accidents’. First though, they tortured them. Until they signed the contract.

Joachim wasn’t sure how they hid the marks of what they had inflicted – or what it was they inflicted in particular, there was no mention of the methods used in the ‘extended negotiations’ – but he did find compliance check lists for hygiene procedures for livestock kept in confined spaces for extended periods of time. Extended being months rather than weeks.

Joachim emptied his – what? eighth? – cup of instant coffee and used his foot to flick the switch on the crappy plastic electric kettle underneath the desk. He didn’t drink it to stay awake or for the mental boost. He drank this bitter, sour, wet-cement excuse for coffee for the subtle high the caffeine gave him. It was this or alcohol. Or maybe he would have started smoking. He certainly felt like it. Especially with what he saw in the other folders.

Those people weren’t necessarily good at online stalking – even after years of practice – but they were incredibly disciplined and thorough. There were thousands of candidates, all of them selected for IT skills, many of them with less than impressive resumes even. There were text files filled with information on all of them copy and pasted from the web, each with an address and a timestamp, obviously added by hand. Promising candidates were followed with regular reports on where they were when and what they did and what they were up to and who was close to them. Everything.

He needed to keep working. He needed to figure out who they were, how many and where. He needed to figure out their schedule.

He needed to figure out how to stop them.

And how long had they been watching him?


“Excuse me?” said the clerk in the blue Euro-Buy apron.

Joachim blinked, reluctantly turning his head away from the unchanging building on the other side.

“Excuse me?” said the clerk, yet again. Why was this the universal way to call attention to yourself in modern society? Apologizing as a way of greeting a stranger.

Joachim followed the details of his appearance of upwards, journeying to find his face. Worn-out sneakers. Blue jeans, the knees dirty and not in a fashionable way. The pockets of the apron of the apron were stuffed with… stuff. Pencils, paper, empty candy wrappers, the upper end of a brown paper bag. The Euro-Buy logo was just typeface. The red and white letters on a blue background made people envy the color-blind. It featured prominently on his chest. His face was sweaty and nervous. Tiny black eyes, looked out from above deep shadows underneath them. He had a cheap haircut that was way too short, like somebody had just taken a machine to it.

The clerk reacted to Joachim’s eye-contact.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

Joachim looked back at him, raising an eye-brow. The poor guy was apparently in need of an answer, utterly dismissing even sarcastically enhanced social cues.

Joachim shook the paper cup inside his hand.

“Spare some change,” he said.

The clerk had apparently found his footing, and stemmed his tiny fists into his sides.

“People have been complaining,” he said.

Joachim kept glancing back to the building. He couldn’t afford to miss anything. The truck was arriving tomorrow.

“People with too much time on their hands?” said Joachim.

He had to get a count. How many people were in there? What did they do in preparation? Where did they keep the prisoners?

“You can’t sit here,” said the clerk.

“What if told you I have a permit from the city?” said Joachim.

“You have a permit from the city?”

“No, but I like asking what if questions.”

“You need to go,” said the clerk in what had to be his best apprentice-that-he-caught-screwing-up voice.

He didn’t have time for this. But he also couldn’t afford to let a fight erupt right there.

“Now that you mention it…,” said Joachim, pretending to think about. “Yes, you are right.”

He sat there, staring at the clerk in silence for a while, occasionally glancing at the street.

“Are you getting up now? Or do I need to call the cops?”

“I’m not getting up,” said Joachim as if it was the obvious logical conclusion. “No, while you are right, that I do feel the need to go, it is outweighed by my need to sit here for a while longer.”

The clerk groaned. He himself was looking back at the angry pack of denture-wearing harpies who were staring at him in unison.

“I will call the police,” said the clerk.

Joachim pitied him. On any other day, on any other freaking day Joachim would have left almost immediately. It wasn’t the choice he made today. Today he said: “At which point I will get up, calmly walk away and be back thirty minutes later. You can’t get arrested for vagrancy, if you are not lingering.”

“You are hurting our business here,” said the clerk.

What was that noise? That couldn’t be…

“I have not seen anybody turn away because of me,” said Joachim, continuing the conversation absent-mindedly.

It was a truck. An anonymous white truck. No logo, nothing. And it had just turned straight onto the ramp Joachim had been watching for half a day.

“Look, please, just go.”


Joachim got up and broke into sprint.

They had placed their lair right between tens of thousands of apartments, like your friendly neighborhood tumor. They had deemed it too risky to transport their projects inside individual cars. Too easy to track. Too easy to be stopped by the police. Better to collect everyone and hide them inside bags of fertilizer, behind bags of even more fertilizer, inside a legitimate truck with a manifest and all. A truck that was supposed to arrive tomorrow. It seemed they had advanced the schedule.

The driver was getting out, fumbling with his keys as he tried to unlock the place. Joachim was standing behind him before the driver noticed him.

Joachim felt a surge of joy. If that wasn’t the teenager in the overalls from the church. He had gone with jeans and an understated shirt now, sun-glasses tucked into the V-sections formed by many undone buttons, looking more like an MBA student than a car mechanic – or a truck driver.

The kid glanced back.

“Why are you dressed like a hobo?” he said.

“Why are you dressed like an idiot,” said Joachim. “Oh, my mistake, that’s just your face.”

Joachim didn’t know if it was terribly safe to touch the wizard-kid. Instead he tried to suggest through the use of dominant body language that Joachim would strongly prefer it if the kid didn’t turn around. Always going for the direct and violent solution now. It was as if his new-found strength had drained his intelligence out of him. If you had one badass hammer, all your problems started to adopt nail-like qualities.

“And what now,” the kid hissed. “Do you honestly think there is still room for negotiation after what you pulled?”

“Had to prove that we were serious, didn’t I? Plus, you attacked me. I would have been perfectly happy to just have a discussion, but no, you had to get out a ruler and unzip your pants.”

Joachim collected his courage and just forcefully turned the kid around, bringing them face-to-face.

“So let’s try this again,” said Joachim. “We are going to go in there and have that little discussion.”

The kid smiled.

“Sure,” he said. “Let’s.”

Chapter 11

It was the bandaged woman watching him now. She stared at him and couldn’t stop smiling, apparently.

The coffee was now replaced with disgusting black tea. Joachim drank the sludge anyway.

“What’s your deal?” said Joachim.

“Seen too much,” said the woman. “It fucks you up.”

At this point Joachim was too annoyed and nervous to care about being shot anymore. He felt tired. He felt time running out like an hourglass filled with tiny drops of acid, hitting his skin.

“Why are you smiling?” said Joachim.

“You were supposed to be our new hire,” said the woman. “Now look at you! So proud. So determined. Ever wonder if they understand us in advance or if they just get lucky?”

Headache. A headache stemming from too much caffeine and replaced pain from sitting on a fold-up chair, when he really should have been lying in bed high on anaesthetics.

“You have a name?”

“Isabel,” she said.

“Hi, Isabel. Why are you wearing bandages, Isabel?”

She reached up with her short fingers and

and undid them. Her eyes were white underneath, her pupils clouded by cataracts.

“They told me they could restore my vision,” she said. “And they did. I see better than ever now.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Four… three… now you are making a peace sign.”

Joachim had seen a man turn lead – or rather copper, zinc and nickel – into gold. Why did a woman who could see things without using her eyes startle him so much?

“It’s okay,” she said. “You can ask. I know you’re curious.”

He did have a couple of questions, now that he finally had somebody willing to answer them.

“You see things without using your eyes?”


“Can you blink?”


“How do you go to sleep?”

“I lie down. Sometimes I see things while sleeping that wake me up. Mostly it’s fine. You get used to it.”

“Can you see colors?”

“More than a human can.”

“Do you have night vision?”


“Heat vision?”


“See things other than light?”

“Yes. Walls are optional. So is distance, actually, but there are restrictions.”

“What kinds of restrictions?”

“Headaches, mostly. It needs intense focus. Like looking through a spyglass you make with your brain. If I move it too much, I perceive too much and I throw up.”

“Do you believe you are a demon?”

“No, I’m not a demon.”

“Do you believe in demons.”


“Ever seen one?”


“Ever seen into hell?”


“Did you see me in the stairway when I was moving up?”

“I saw you from two streets away. Nice scooter.”

“Thanks. Stole it myself.”


“Hail Satan?”

“We don’t work for Satan. We are members of the Great House of Paimon. Or at least we owe them fealty.”

“Fealty? Seriously?”

“Almost all dead people are anachronistic by today’s standards. Why do you think they need IT people?”

Joachim took a deep breath, digesting those answers.

“How do you know hell exists?” he said, finally.

“Because several friends of mine are there,” she said. “I have spoken to them.”


The earliest of mornings had turned the sky a deep purple. Joachim’s feet hurt. He had walked the entire way. The subways had gone to sleep for the day between one and five.

It was an apartment building, like a thousand others. Balconies with umbrellas. A roughly textured wall, drenched with a color to boring to comprehend. A doorbell panel filled with random family names, some of them scrawled onto ripped pieces of paper and stuffed inside the plastic covering.

The dead man’s email address had been for a Sergio Luccanesco, but there was no label to match it.

He hesitated putting the battery back in. The police might be pulling the records eventually and tracing it right here if not back to him.

The email account wouldn’t give him anything anyway. He had downloaded it completely. Then he had gone to every major online service he could think of and done a password reset for this email address into the blue, coming up with a dozen or so accounts, most of them empty. But not the Dropbox.

There were pdfs of invoices in there, for this address and for a Herr Simpler on the third floor. Had time not been as pressing, he might have gone a lot further than that, maybe identifying all the other people that lived there. But he couldn’t risk them burning their hideout and with it everything he could discover about their operation.

The front door was closed and his lockpick skills were rusty. It took him a full two minutes of protesting knees, until he had it open.

The apartment building’s stairway was disturbingly mundane. There was a note on the pinboard on the first landing urging tenants to keep down the noise in the backyard, between the hours of 22:00 and 8:00, right next to a schedule when what trash was going to be picked up. The lights were on an automatic timer, like any stairway anywhere. The stairs themselves were those low-key kind of dirty, brown marble that Joachim had seen everywhere. The doors he walked past had name-tags in various shapes and sizes, some of them had none, some of them announced the name of their inhabitants in bold black letters on brass.

The place was silent as the grave and Joachim cringed at every noise his feet made. When he reached the third floor, he had to admire their craftiness: The door fit in perfectly. It even had a small tag, speaking of an A. Simpler. The doormat was an anonymous brown. He could have walked past this door a million times. How many were there like it?

Joachim took a deep breath and looked around. Nobody here to see him. Nobody coming out to check, unless he’d make too much noise. Using the doormat as his cushion, he started to work on the lock.

They shouldn’t be home, he thought to himself. They didn’t know their colleague was stupid enough to leave their address in his cellphone. They seemed to have believed that whole situation had been a trap, so either they had figured they were made and had already trashed this place or they were leading any tail they had on a wild goose-chase and stayed away, hoping this place wouldn’t be discovered.

Or they came straight back here to regroup and this was going to get really uncomfortable, really quickly.

“Well, they are scared of me,” Joachim whispered to himself under his breath.

German locks were uncomfortably tight – compared to the spacious American locks every lockpicker started on. He needed to assume weird angles making progress slow. Yet, his fingers seemed to remember what to do, even if his brain didn’t.

First pin, second pin… third pin… fourth…

“Open,” whispered Joachim, a little bit too loud for his comfort this time.

The lock had turned. Next he used one of his favorite tools: A tiny spreader that kept the lock under tension with a tiny knob to turn it so he could open and close the lock at his leisure. Some part of him was swooning in nostalgia. Not many bright moments in his childhood, but this had been one of them.

One turn, two turns, another half a turn and the door opened.

Joachim held his breath.


Nobody was shooting at him. As good a start as any.

Ducked, awkwardly walking forward, he stepped inside, pulled out his tool, glimpsing into a dark apartment, as he closed the door.

Silence. A clock ticking somewhere inside. A fridge making weird fridge mumblings. The air inside was cold. Nobody had turned on a radiator.

No light was burning. Joachim’s eyes slowly got used to the darkness. A small apartment’s hallway, the floor bare, as were the walls, a strip of ripped wallpaper dangling from one of them. No pictures, no furniture, no shoes standing around, no jackets hanging off of anything. At first glance, it looked deserted, like a horrible tenant had moved out of the place decades ago. The place smelled of dust and cleaning supplies.

For the longest time Joachim just stayed where he was. Crouching in the darkness, trying to breathe silently, listening.

Then he got up, erecting himself and walking slowly and casually, glancing around into the various rooms.

The kitchen looked well-equipped and meticulously clean, almost like a surgical operating room. Knives stuck to the wall on a long magnetic strip. A polished steel refrigerator reflected the dim lights from the outside, stoically watched by rows and rows of bare-level ingredients. Flour, sugar, noodles, stacks of tin cans on shelves. Not a single plate was out of place. The counters were emptier than any counter had any business to be. Even the brand-new dishwasher was empty, but the wet air inside hinted that it had recently been used.

Leaving it behind, Joachim noticed the living room with the balcony hidden somewhere behind a pile of carefully arranged boxes. Hundreds of cardboard boxes, many of them sealed with duct-tape, all of them in slightly different sizes. The living room – the storage room, really – was full of them. The next door was just a closet and – unsurprisingly – it contained an array of cleaning supplies, so plentifully redundant, so carefully arranged that the inside looked like a shelf-unit inside a supermarket. Most of it was still wrapped and closed. Only the front-most items showed any use. The people who lived here folded rubber gloves.

Joachim blinked in stunned silence and closed the perfectly-oiled, silent door.

The next room down was the jackpot.

It was an office, holding three cheap-as-dirt desks and a bunch of venerable old filing cabinets. Belying the painting of order and neglect that the rest of the apartment was, this room was sparkling with individuality. The desk lamps were different, so were the computers and how the items were arranged on each of them. There was even a plant in the corner of the room that looked reasonably well cared for in the dark.

Joachim took a deep breath and stepped in. He should have felt at home here. This was his core area of competence, much more than breaking and entering and galaxies apart from hand-to-hand combat. Still – or probably because of that – he felt a quiet sense of dread. These computers could have been secured in a million different ways. They could literally burst in flames if they were rigged that way and he did something wrong, or just destroy their data in other ways or alert their owners to the fact that somebody was right here, trying to take a peek at their secrets. They could also just be encrypted, making any of Joachim’s attempt to retrieve anything in vain.

“You are not that paranoid,” whispered Joachim.

Still he turned on only a single one of them, not wanting to risk the others. He put in a Knoppix CD that felt ancient after all those years into its drive and let the computer boot from there instead of the hard-drive. It would prevent the computer from asking embarrassing questions, like – for example – what the password was, and just grant Joachim access to the hard-drive.

It took two whole minutes for the machine to boot up, but the wait was worth it. One click and the contents of the hard-drive danced in front of him in tiny blue folders. Did he dare plugging in a flash-drive? Who would booby-trap a computer and then not bother to encrypt the hard-drive?

The flash-drive inside his pocket had stayed there forever. It was a like a coin or a paper-clip or a month-old receipt, something that one just carried around, but never ever used. It was tiny and black and apart from a tiny piece of lint stuck to it and the faded letters it still looked brand-new.

He sent a brief prayer to any god that could hear him and then plugged it in.

Chapter 10

The peppermint tea was empty now. They were kind enough to make him coffee. At least after he had explicitly asked for it. Some tiny part of him wondered if they would poison him as he started to slurp down delicious, delicious caffeine. He needed it. The caffeine headache that was announcing itself would have been murder. It didn’t matter if they poisoned him, actually, as his injuries kept reminding him. He had had his chance to run away. Joachim was crippled prey that needed to get with the herd. If that herd rejected him he was pretty much dead anyway.

“You don’t say much,” said Joachim to the scarred man with the skull T-Shirt. He looked young. In his early twenties probably. Patches were the swollen pink flesh of healed burns, instead of hair. He wore it longish, too. He looked like the world’s most damaged goth.

The man heard Joachim just fine, reacting when spoken to, but didn’t say a word. Hadn’t said a word for the two hours Joachim had sat there talking at him and slurping an entire pot of peppermint tea.

“I get it,” said Joachim. “Didn’t use to say much either. Kept thinking people around me were stupid. Like they couldn’t possibly understand me.”

More silence.

The Ice Queen had gone away with her laptop to somewhere with the bandaged woman. Cowboy man had driven the thug to probably the same hospital Joachim had just escaped from. It was just him and Mr. Talkative.

“Thing is,” said Joachim, “It gets lonely after a while. The moment you step out of your head, the moment when other people can see you, that’s when this feeling will stop. Not a moment before.”

The man’s face was empty. He didn’t react emotionally. Instead, he seemed bored, looking at Joachim with all the attention one might afford a goldfish.

He had tried talking to him in German and English, had thrown a few pieces of French and Spanish at him. No results. For some reason Joachim had no illusions that this man would shoot him in the head the moment he got the order to do so.

There was movement in one of the other rooms now. A door was opened. Bits of conversation drifted over.

…need to see what the wire says about…

He is either telling the truth or this…

…us to decide. We need… the orders or else we…

…keep trying. I will…

One glance at the scarred man and Joachim knew that getting up was a Bad Idea. Not that he wanted to anyway. He returned to his coffee, more to have something to do than anything else. Something to do that would cover up his nervousness.

Ice Queen came around the corner. She put a polite smile on her face for a second, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“Herr Weiß, is it?”

“Schwartz,” said Joachim.

“Of course.”

She sat down on her customary seat at the head of the table, putting down a tablet computer in front of her.

“This is quite the tale that your data tells us,” she said. “So you have spent your time doing some freelance hacking?”

“Something like that,” he said. “I’m sure you already know the whole story.”

Another polite smile. She opened her laptop.

“Maybe you could tell it to us anyway, just so we can fill in the gaps.”

“There are bad guys up to no good and I didn’t manage to murder all of them. Now they have probably accelerated their schedule. How is that?”


“So is this.”

“I am ever so sorry.”

“I’m not. I need your help. You are the only ones with the skill and resources to help me.”

She closed her laptop again. Then she closed her eyes. Then she took a deep breath.

“What do you think is going on around here?” she said. “Who do you think we work for?”

“I believe that you believe you are working for Satan, or rather one faction in Christian hell,” said Joachim. “No matter whether or not this is true, there seem to be people with abilities around with no compunctions about torturing people on said assumptions.”

The Ice Queen and the scarred man traded looks. The woman drew a long and exasperated breath.

“The people you have fought work for House Nicostratus. Does that mean anything to you?”


“Is there more information you would like to share with us?”

“Yes. I have several hard-drives full of them. What you have are just the ones I considered the most interesting.”

“Have you ever heard of the Great House of Paimon?” said the woman.


The man’s eyes widened at the mention of the name. He looked down, disconnecting from the conversation.

Great. So the man with the weapon wasn’t a foreigner or an asshole, he was just regular-kind crazy. Joachim felt safer already.

“Want me to google it on my phone?” Joachim suggested.

“Just don’t believe the bullshit The Lesser Key of Solomon says about him,” she said. “He is a King of Hell. There is no dromedary.”

“Fascinating. You do realize I don’t believe in any of this? Are you helping me or not?”

“And what would that help look like?”

“First off you help me find the cabin.”

The woman looked away for a second, pondering.

“How do you know the cabin even exists?” she said.

“It exists. We can look at the evidence together. Its location is never mentioned, but I know a couple of ways how we can find it.”

“What then,” said the woman.

“You agree with what they are doing?”


“Then we stop them. You are going to help me stop them. That is what this is about.”

The Ice Queen stared at Joachim for the longest time.

“What if we decide not to help you?” she said.

“Then I will try on my own,” said Joachim. “And I will fail.”


The old bakery was a bike-shop now. A faceless mannequin, wearing a silver bike-helmet was driving down a miniature mountain. The courtyard behind it still smelled wet, as it had five years ago, as it had in the driest of summer days and the most arctic of winters.

The drive-in leading to it was clean now, though, as was the courtyard. Everything was clean. The tiles looked so neat with the shrubbery of old removed, even the cars parked here looked just a bit cleaner than they used to. All of this in five short years.

Joachim felt disappointed and vaguely unsafe and pondered this as he crossed the courtyard, walking up to the metal door that he knew wouldn’t be rusty anymore, the smell of wetness and trashcan leading him towards it, promising him that even though this place had changed, it had still remained the same. What a dirty lie.

The past was his happy place of a sort. Nostalgia was his comforting blanket. And this place had just changed on him when he hadn’t been looking for… five years.

Nothing to cry about, nothing to really get angry about, just one of those every day frustrations. Like finding your go-to kiosk from back when had gone out of business or they didn’t produce your favorite kind of juice anymore. A microscopic tragedy, so miniscule that few people would give you sympathy for it. A tiny, private piece of pain.

The courtyard still had its old weird shape though. It was sandwiched between five apartment buildings with perched roofs and curtained windows like eyes sullenly squeezed shut. The courtyard’s shape wasn’t symmetrical or… anything really. It looked sort of like an oddly-shaped cloud, except with straight edges and ninety-degree corners. A naturally grown piece of architecture, tucked away from the noise inner-city streets. What better place to hide something? Walking in he had the feeling of this place swallowing him. Or maybe this was just an embrace. His destination was at the very end of the courtyard.

The aroma behind the now-flawlessly painted green metal door had stayed the same: A stale stew of rotten vegetables and nastier things collected in the bottom of large black plastic containers, enriching the air with a wall of stench that kept people from lingering in the place. The newly installed light automatically turning on almost gave Joachim a heart-attack.

He took deep breaths. No use trying to avoid the smell. He was going to spend a little bit of time here, get a little bit of work done. Better to focus on getting used to it now than being distracted.

He cringed on the inside when his hand touched the bacteria-coated handle of the trash-container, but there was no use for that either. The container moved recalcitrantly. Joachim needed to be careful with his strength. The last thing he needed was tossing that thing against the wall and standing in the middle of a garbage-explosion.

Finally, the container creaked out of the way, revealing a metal plate in the floor. It was rusty, dirty and utterly undisturbed. Joachim breathed a sigh of relief. Underneath the plate was the duffle bag. It was black and heavy and covered in cobwebs. Well, not heavy anymore.

Was the super-strength some sort of evil demonic power? Would it corrupt Joachim from the inside? He didn’t know a way to switch it off. Maybe he’d soon start hearing whispers in the back of his mind urging him to commit sins.

He set the bag down with a tiny clinking noise and lovingly wiped the cobwebs off it. He needed to check the insides. He only vaguely remembered what he had put inside. Only…

He couldn’t go home. Kukomu was home, so was his family. There were a million other places to go, but after today, whatever wizard secret army there was, was probably already mobilized and looking for him. He couldn’t go to the obvious places. Right here was as good a place as any to unpack this. If one of the tenants came down here at this hour, Joachim was sure he could deal with a weird look or two.

He zipped the bag open, inhaling the musty old-closet smell rising out of it.

First of all there was his trusty old college laptop which looked clunky and obscenely heavy now. This dusty brick was full of neat security tools, but was now in bad need of a software update. Or even better of a completely new operating system and a whole new set of software. He’d have to do something about that soon.

Underneath the laptop was one set of spare clothes and a yellow tube of good old-fashioned Rei, the laundry detergent for travelers and hobos who wash their clothes in a sink. Black T-Shirt, black boxers, black socks, a thin pair of training pants for laundry day.

Outside the wind rustled up a plastic bag, making Joachim cringe every time it did and glance at the calm metal door. They were out there. They were looking for him. He was pretty sure they hadn’t followed him here, so this was a better place than most to hide, cloaked into the garbage smell. He breathed it in deep and smiled when he saw the tiny black leather pouch sticking out of the bag.

His lockpicks. He flicked the pouch open and examined them. No rust had collected on their thin, tiny, alienly shaped metal. Was he still any good with them? Joachim had to be careful not to get to nostalgic about them, pressing down memories of hacker cons and watching the championships of people opening crazy locks in less than a minute of time.

Joachim put it on the pile of clothes on the floor, on the laptop and took out the external hard-drive next. Huge, compared to recent models, and silver. Requiring an external power source, too. Of all the items in this bag this was the one he had put the most preparation into and most likely, all of it had been in vain. It did contain the odd TV show and movie, but mostly, it contained books. Gigabytes of them. Books for survival in every conceivable situation. Everything from huge tomes about physics, chemistry and biology, up to practical how-to guides what plants to eat for every country in the world. Hours, if not weeks of his life had gone into this (almost no money, since most of it was pirated), but now, with the internet so freely available, it was barely useful anymore. Still… it felt good to have it around.

There was a tiny translucent plastic case containing burner SIMs. Hard to come by and sort of illegal, since he had registered them under fake identities. They would probably not work anyway after five years. Joachim sighed. Upgrading your get-away bag. One of those yearly chores that one tended to put off until next year. Paranoia never seems to be worth the effort until the danger is there.

There was a stone-age cellphone plus charger in there. There was a multi-tool gadget with all the tools needed for most situations. There were a measly two-hundred Euros in cash that had been a big investment for the cash-strapped student Joachim of the past. There was a small red first-aid kit in a nylon case with a zipper. All of this was cuddling up to a small backpack filled with some rudimentary wilderness equipment and travel-size hygiene supplies. Everything he needed to survive the first days of the zombie apocalypse. And a few extras.

There was a sheet of paper with a list of pre-registered internet accounts – a dozen different email accounts, file sharers that no longer existed, forum accounts and more – none of which were terribly useful, but they had made him feel like a spy, so they had had to go in.

And there was a trusty little flashlight with a pack of batteries. No bag like this could ever feel complete without it.

Carefully, gently, Joachim packed all of this back in. It felt like taking apart a gun and putting it back together again. Calm, prepared, all the things he wanted to feel right now. He could feel his pulse slowing down, his hands were no longer jittery.

Fresh, deliberate thoughts flowed into his brain. He couldn’t run away. Not yet, anyway. Those people expected him to try and run. They had people in place to deal with this eventuality.

How many people were there right now who refused to sign a contract and were now being hunted? How many in a year?

No, he couldn’t run yet. He needed to come up with a better plan. If his enemies were all-powerful they wouldn’t be hiding. Their power had to have limits and he needed to find out what they were. What he was up against.

The cellphone Joachim had taken from the dead man’s pocket would probably go a long way to help him with that.

Chapter 9

Way too many guns.

One itchy trigger finger and the neighbor downstairs wouldn’t even wake up as Joachim’s corpse hit the floor.

“I got intHe went inside.

The place was empty, as far as apartments went. Gray-painted walls, black-tile floor, a bare light bulb dangling off the ceiling, four people pointing silenced guns at him, as Joachim calmly closed the door behind him.

This place could really use some furniture.

“This place could really use some furniture,” said Joachim.

He was quite close to pissing his pants now.

How did they even get silencers? The silencer alone got you two years in prison in this country. The woman on the far left had her eyes bandaged. How much did she see? All of them dressed differently, but casually. Shirts and T-shirts all around. Jeans all around. Nothing of that blending-into-a-persona-like-freaking-sociopath thing.

Joachim calmly raised his hands. It seemed like the thing to do that wouldn’t get him shot dead right now.

He kept blinking against the bright light. He could barely make out their faces.

“Sanft sent me,” said Joachim. “I’m short on time. Who is in charge?”

The woman on the right raised her gun a little.

“Me,” she said. “You the newbie?”

“That’s how Sanft thinks about me.”

“How did you do that?”

“No clue.”

Why did you do that?” she said.

“He was annoyingly stupid and I needed to make a point,” said Joachim.

“Funny,” said the guy to the right who had his gun almost up to Joachim’s head. “You want us to make a statement?”

Joachim looked back at the woman.

“This guy right here is annoyingly stupid, too. If you wanted to shoot me you would have done it already.”

Nobody moved.

Way too many guns for comfort.

el for you,” said Joachim. “And I want to find out if we can make a deal.”

“You have a funny way of showing that,” said the girl with the bandaged eyes. Her voice was raspy. How much did she smoke?

“Do I have your attention?” said Joachim. He nodded towards the guns. “Did I mention I was short on time? I’d say my plan worked just fine.”

Plus, he had really wanted to hurt somebody. Show them he was powerful. Show them they couldn’t mess with him. He cringed on the inside as he realized that and looked at the muscular guy still sitting on the floor, holding his arm.

Joachim looked past the firing squad and saw a huge empty table with a bunch of fold-up chairs around it in some kind of living room area.

“Mind if sit down? I just came from the hospital. I kinda sorta got stabbed. I really shouldn’t be walking around, actually.”

Nobody moved.

“You can still shoot me at the table?” said Joachim. “I will let you put down some plastic sheets so the floor doesn’t catch any nasty blood-stains?”

They lowered their weapons.

Five minutes later Joachim was sitting at a huge plywood table. There were shelves on the long wall across from the door, filled with maybe fifty large cardboard boxes. There were probably a hundred patches of tape residue on all the other walls where posters and photos and whatnot had been ripped off shortly before they let him in. This group was doing some investigating of their own apparently. Joachim wasn’t safe yet, but at least he had time to catch his breath and reassess the situation.

There were five of them.

The brute with the dislocated arm sat down across from Joachim, staring daggers and making his stomach twist a little with guilt.

The stupid guy with the gun had an ugly ponytail and dressed in a denim shirt. He stood by the doorway rolling a cigarette.

The girl with the bandages had short auburn hair and was a little on the chubby side of things, even though her baggy hoodie hid it well. She stood in the corner behind Joachim, never turning her face away from him. She could definitely see. Why did she not move?

The other guy was a silent dude with a lot of scars in a black T-shirt showing a skull with staples in it. He had fucked off to wherever.

That left the woman in charge. She wore a professional dark-green blouse, the sleeves turned up, her weapon in front of her. She had a heart-shaped face with soft features, framed by short black curls, but merciless blue eyes. She didn’t seem in the mood for bullshit, sitting at the head of the table.

They had offered Joachim tea. Joachim had accepted it. There was peppermint tea in a Anton Hallenberg GmbH cup in front of him, the company Joachim was still, technically, employed at. For some reason, it seemed like a nice gesture.

“I have a file locker link for you,” said Joachim. “Look at the files. Then let’s have a conversation.”

“Before I start this,” he continued. “I need to know whether a literal truckload full of people getting tortured to death is a bad thing for you.”

The woman in charge – the Ice Queen, that was a good name for her, with her pale skin and vaguely psychopathic eyes – hid her reaction. Cowboy guy frowned. Thug looked utterly disgusted. So far, so good.

“I got intel on it. I got a file locker link for you.”


They looked like ordinary people on the street, that was what unnerved Joachim most. The first man, the one in the middle, looked like a business type, his hair cropped short, his honest-to-whatever-deity-there-was goatee immaculate, his suit ever-so-slightly shiny and his tie neatly tied with a stylish, asymmetrical knot. His companions didn’t seem to match.

The other man looked like a teenager and wore coveralls, classic deep blue with no company logo. The woman looked like a suburban mum, in her disheveled blouse and food-stained jeans. Her hair was tied back a little too harshly, hinting at a neurotic personality that didn’t carry into her body language. She and the second man moved with the controlled urgency that people trained for dangerous situations exhibited. They secured the place. They went through every nook and cranny, one by one, never speeding up or slowing down, as if they had cleared this exact church a thousand times before.

They didn’t seem to be carrying weapons. Joachim was unsure whether he should find this comforting or not.

Breathe. Breathe normally. Can’t give away your fear.

Like a lion in the tall grass, the first one got a little bit closer whenever Joachim wasn’t looking. He could almost feel the escape route to his left and how it became less and less of an option. They probably had somebody stationed outside. Joachim had bet on them enjoying the chance to keep their Silence too much to force a mundane to be around. They would also probably prefer to do their murdering away from prying eyes. It was a risky bet, but he couldn’t offer the pastor anything else, now that he knew that his pursuers could and would enter churches.

Run away. Run away. Run away.

It was pointless. Even if he got away, they would trace him right back. And every time they’d do that, Joachim would bring more innocents into the crossfire. They had probably anticipated he’d go to a church. They also probably had people to intercept him should he come near a police station.

Joachim’s conman reflexes kicked in. He felt his posture straightening and an easy smile forming on his face that he didn’t feel.

“Hey there,” he said. “My name is Joachim.”

Joachim’s voice sounded a lot more steady than he felt.

The man’s face was hard to read. “Did the other one leave?” he asked. His voice sounded disturbingly normal, he even had a slight touch of the playful Munich dialect in his speech.

“Yes, he’s gone,” said Joachim.

The man nodded at somebody behind Joachim’s back.

“Not the smartest move sending him away, was it?”

“Because now you can use your powers without worrying about disturbing the Silence,” said Joachim.

The man smiled.

“Someone is fast on the uptake. Not fast enough to save you, but still.”

“All clear,” said the teenager. Did he sound Polish?

“Right,” said the first man. “Are you going to come with us voluntarily or am I going to have to break your legs and drag you?”

Something inside Joachim’s body went haywire with fear. He could feel the irrational panic rising that just wanted to get away, to run, even when it meant running into a wall. Joachim couldn’t let that happen. Letting that happen would mean death at this point. Or something horribly unpleasant that would make him wish for it. He kept his emotions in a steel vice, tightening until they stopped struggling.

“What are you planning to do to me?” said Joachim.

They stayed silent.

“You are assuming I know something. I probably don’t know much. Whatever little snippets I might have unintentionally picked up, that’s what you are after,” said Joachim. “You want to make sure you know everything. Probably torture me?”

More silence.

“Maybe torture me just for fun,” he continued. “You believe you are demons after all, don’t you?”

A chuckle.

Joachim was looking weak, he could feel it. Being a conman was about first, foremost and almost always about uncertainty. Time to turn the tables.

“There’s gotta be something bigger than you guys,” said Joachim. “After all you are afraid to break the Silence. I wonder if I can use that against you.”

“You can try,” said the first man. “Doubt it will help you, but please.”

They were all standing around him now. The first man in front of him, almost close enough to shake his hand. The other had taken position behind him.

Like wolves.

“What if I give you something you want more than me?” said Joachim.

“You mean something you won’t give us after we tortured you for it?” said the first man.

“Good point,” said Joachim. “And thank you for confirming the torture part.”

The goatee-ed man looked annoyed now. “Dragging you it is, then.”

He reached out with his hand to grab Joachim. Joachim made the snap-decision to let him. Better to give in voluntarily than to lose face – and energy – through a futile struggle.

The man’s fingers closed around Joachim’s extended arm. He pulled. Joachim put up the tiniest of resistances, just to test how strong his opponent really was.

“What in-” the man said.

That was weird. The other guy didn’t seem to be all that strong.

“Get out!” yelled the man. Joachim could hear the two people behind him running away.

Joachim grabbed the man in an acrobat’s grip, holding on to him, as he held on to Joachim. He barely dodged the fist headed for his head and used the momentum to land a punch of his own. It was weak, untrained, uncoordinated and he pulled it at the last second, because he was a chicken, but it connected all the same. It should have been little more than a slap but it wasn’t.

He could feel something crunch under his hand. Blood spurted out of the man’s mouth. Joachim was so startled he let go off him and the man fell to the ground.

The man was far from defeated though. He made a complicated gesture with his hand and shot across the dusty, well-worn church ground, faster than he had any right to be and finally levitated to his feet like a bored superhero.

“I must say I’m impressed,” said the man. Blood was dripping of his chin, yet his voice was perfectly unimpeded. “I completely believed your performance.”

There was a dull, throbbing pain inside Joachim’s hand. For some reason his brain kept returning to a gold coin that couldn’t possibly be gold.

The man – demon? – raised his arms once more, slowly, purposefully, and an entire pew rose into the air as if gently lifted by a hundred wires. Once in mid-air the enormous wooden construct starting spinning, rapidly gaining speed.

“I am not giving up this easily,” said his levitating would-be torturer.

Joachim was just staring, dumb-founded.


Move, goddamn you.

Please move.

With a war cry that came out somewhat more high-pitched than intended, Joachim ran towards his opponent, just as a comet made of solid wood crashed down on him and became splinters underneath Joachim’s reflexively raised fists.

The smell of sawdust hung in the air as Joachim threw all his weight behind a punch that barely graced the man and sent him spinning. He levitated out of the way, both of his legs now dangling from his flying body.


The man wasn’t expecting to win this.

That was the instinct Joachim had. He was simply trying to buy time to let his friends get away, expecting to die in the process. The fight or flight reflex deeply inside Joachim’s brain went flat-out into the fight direction.

Joachim charged, jumping at him, but he kept slipping from his grasp, dodging his blows. The man was difficult to punch in mid-air, but judging by the way his body tensed and the redness of his head, he wasn’t going to keep this up a lot longer.

Was it easier for the man to lift a pew than himself?

“You fight like an amateur,” said the man. He spiraled up into the air, hovering above him like an angry angel. “Can’t believe whom they are promoting these days. What piece-of-shit House do you come from anyway?”

Joachim didn’t really want to keep fighting, but if he ran away, it would signal weakness. They would come after him. They would hurt him. Then they would kill him.

Calmer than he felt, he walked over to a large, iron candle-holder and picked it up, letting it spin inside his hand. It felt light as a feather. What the hell was going on?

“Yeah, figured you wouldn’t tell me,” said flying man.

A painting of Jesus healing a leper started rattling and then came loose from the wall. It was quickly joined by about a thousand more items, big and small, shooting towards Joachim inside an angry storm. The candle-holder inside his hand became a deadly blur, shredding the small pieces into tiny ones. Joachim’s wrist started hurting fiercely. As did the rest of his body.

How long would Joachim’s strength last? How long until the demon aimed a random splinter at Joachim’s carotid artery? Or pulled a gun on him?

There was only one way out.


Collecting all the strength in his legs, Joachim started sprinting towards the still hovering man and jumped, shooting into the air. The man dodged, but Joachim’s hands reached for the man’s immaculate suit and once they held on to something Joachim just started pounding the man’s face with his right. No elegance, no technique, just raw strength and too much fear to stop his apparently industrial-strength fist from smashing into the man’s head.

They  fell, Joachim screamed, still hitting him. Again and again and again. Images of his schoolyard bullies jumped through his head. The balance of power was reversed now, as all the buried anger inside of him, every last bit of psychotic, narcissistic rage, came lashing out.

Finally, the other guy stopped moving. Looking at the bloody, barely breathing mess of a man underneath him, Joachim very nearly threw up.

“The… others…,” said the man, his mouth moving slightly underneath all that blood and swollen flesh. “They have seen… you…. Guess your liege… won’t be too happy… about that… huh?… I hope they rip… your ugly vessel to shreds… before you can skip town.”

The man tried to spit in Joachim’s face, but only had more blood dribbling out of his mouth.

“Do you have a name?” said Joachim

The man just grinned at him. His teeth were a bloody, crumbled mess.

“Do you believe you’re coming back?” said Joachim.

“Sooner… than you think.”

An idea occurred to Joachim. Something he needed to do, regardless of how he felt about it.

“When you do,” he said, “Go to and enter the password applepie, lower-case, one word. It will tell you where to find me.”

Something crossed the demon’s face, but he was too unreadable – and too bloody and swollen – to read.

It didn’t take the man long to die after that. Just a minute or so, before he stopped breathing.

Unreal. So unreal.

It was the first time Joachim had ever seen someone die. The first time he had caused the death of a human being directly or indirectly. He didn’t feel like throwing up any more. His stomach was lead. He felt like ripping his own heart out and frantically shoving it into the man’s chest, so his assailant could live instead of him.

Maybe he should perform CPR? No. The others were still out there. Who the fuck knew what powers they had. This had been self-defense. Joachim had done nothing wrong. Had he?

What had happened here anyway? How had he done that?

Leave. He had to leave. Especially before the non-magical authorities showed up.

Joachim would get caught eventually. Beating somebody… to death… left a ton of DNA evidence.

Unless the guy’s colleagues got rid of the corpse, of course.

He got up, feeling his protesting joints. The church around him was a mess. Nothing was at its place anymore, the walls bare, the floor riddled with ever-finer pieces of debris, a carpet of large wooden splinters, interlaced with broken candles, canvas and the odd piece of metal or stone. The large cross levitating above the altar was still there… looking at him.

His hand was throbbing with pain and twitching involuntarily. He tasted blood. And gall.

I’m sorry, God, he heard himself think. I’m not safe here. I need to run.

Or rather, do something a bit more effective.

Chapter 8

Even at six in the morning it had only taken one ring of the bell until the sputtering buzzer was triggered, opening the heavy, featureless white metal door for Joachim. They must have seen him, even though he couldn’t spot any cameras.

Joachim didn’t worry. He was too busy walking upright to do that.

Of course, there was no elevator. Why would there be?

The stairway looked like it had seen better days. The grayish stone-slab stairs were worn-down to a groove in the middle. The railing was new, its white upbeat-ishness not fitting with the rest of the place. The pinboard at the first landing held only a torn scrap of paper. The air smelled like smoke. Couldn’t blame a guy for smoking inside with those temperatures, but Joachim’s non-smoker lungs had trouble getting used to breathing here, cramping even though his struggling body needed the air.

There was a crack of light on the second floor, but no sound besides his own footsteps. He tried not to breathe too hard. Not to show them weakness.

It took forever to reach that stupid door. His legs weren’t weak so much as they were shaky and twice he almost ripped his tendons as his foot came down sideways on the weirdly shaped stairs.

The man behind the door was a thug. A brute. One of those bodybuilder-and-tattoo types with all the corporal aesthetics of a wide oak armoire. He had the obviously self-inflicted jarhead hair-cut to match, a white, sleeveless shirt that exposed his bulging arms and eyes that were way too small for a face that bulgy and cramped.

The man gave Joachim an angry stare.

Joachim tried to catch a glimpse at the man’s ink to get an idea of his political orientation. Apparently the man’s wordview was gangsta.

“Sanft sent me,” said Joachim.

Angry hiphop man looked him up and down.

“The fuck are you?”

Joachim blinked at this, his tired brain not comprehending the stupidity of that question.

“Somebody with little time and less patience,” said Joachim.

“Fuck off,” said the man. He took a step back and moved to close the door. Joachim put a foot in between, nearly dropping to the ground.

“I really don’t have time for this,” said Joachim.

He took the arm of the beefy mountain, his bony, soft computer scientist hand closing around what was mostly muscle and he squeezed.

The man let out a squeal of pain that seemed way too high-pitched for somebody his size. Joachim spun his arm, tossing the heap of a man like a rag-doll smashing him into the gray plaster wall on the other side of the door, almost lifting the man off the ground entirely. A tiny, effortless twist and Joachim could feel the man’s shoulder dislocate.

“That’s who I am,” said Joachim, shoving the defeated man to the floor, sending him skitting along the floor right into a carpet. “And if that doesn’t tell you anything, you are all useless to me anyway.”


The bulky man in a frayed brown sweater with strings sticking out, flappy jogging pants and an ultra-fashionable gray fuzzy socks plus Birks combination who opened to Joachim’s frantic knocking looked nothing like what Joachim had imagined him to look like. The full white beard fit in a way, the noodle sticking in it most certainly did not, neither did his blood-shot eyes.

“Can I help y-”

“Please apologize the interruption,” said Joachim. “I need to rejoin the church. I’m in quite a hurry.”

The house the man lived in was picturesque though. It was this little 1950’s thing with a pitched roof, completely overgrown with ivy. The garden in front of it was fragrant with fallen leaves from the ancient oak tree that dominated it. Acorns cracked musically under the feet of everyone who came down the way.

The man straightened, adopting a more priestly demeanor, but failing comically.

“Do you know what time it is?”

Joachim glanced at his cellphone and winced. It must have cracked when he had fallen on the ground in unspeakable pain. The spider web shaped destruction made a mockery of the last four years he had treated his valiant old Samsung with the utmost respect.

“Eleven pm, sir,” said Joachim. He had to have been unconscious for at least an hour. It explained a few things. “So anyway, I left the church a couple years back and it turns out I made a terrible mistake. Do you have a rejoin form at hand? I won’t take up any more of your time after that.”

The man, Pastor Wilhelm Pausch, starting massaging the bridge of his nose. Then he took a deep breath. Then he gave Joachim a stern look that was supposed to convey authority or something.

“First of all, yes you can rejoin the church, but not through a form. We will have to have six meetings, one per week, during my office hours,” said Pausch. He stressed that last part.

“Yeah, I’m going to need to do this a bit quicker,” said Joachim. “I have demons after me.”

Pastor Pausch just nodded. Talk to a priest and you could get away with saying a lot of kooky shit.

“Ah bloody hell,” said Pausch, “Come in before I change my mind.”

Joachim was about to step in, when he had a funny feeling in his stomach.

“Can we go to the church instead?”

Joachim gestured towards to the whitish abomination of a building with the classic green imperial roof on the clock-tower and gothic windows that looked garishly out of place on the way-too-bright walls. The St. Christopherus church had this more-well-behaved-than-thou attitude that made it the architectural equivalent of that one annoying sibling who kept making grimaces behind your parents’ backs after you got punished for something.

Pastor Pausch gave Joachim a meaningful glance.

“My dinner is getting cold, son.”


Pastor Pausch groaned.

“Let me get my keys.”

He left the door ajar, muttering something under his breath while retrieving the keys. Then they both left for the church. The pastor didn’t even bother to change his clothes, apart from donning a coat.

Joachim could feel the paranoia starting to get to him. Were there people inside that dark car parked into a different direction than the others that lined the sleepy leaf-covered street? Were there whispers on the icy wind? Were there people watching from the dark windows in the distance?

This was way too experimental for stakes that high, but… the rewards were equally high. Was there an inherent benefit in being bureaucratically Catholic? Was there something about a church that would protect Joachim against the magic-people-wannabe-demons? Or about a priest?

The hypochondrical fear of magic that was creeping up Joachim’s spine, eating at him. Did something inside his chest tingle? Was that a sign of him being a stupid idiot who should try using his brain for change and not be such a wuss? Probably.

“You seem troubled,” said the pastor. He blazed a trail through the leaves, like a Birk wearing cart horse. His socks had to be soaked already.

“You could say that,” said Joachim.

The church was just across the street. The heavy wooden side-portal was teasingly close already. The priest reached into his coat pocket and looked over his shoulder.

“Do you feel like talking about it?”

“As soon as we get in?”

He unlocked the door. Incense seeped out into the night as the darkness inside opened up to them. The inside looked beautiful. Historical benches with intricate gothic carvings, the floor was uneven and humble, the large stained-glass windows were dark in the night.

As Joachim walked in he saw the altar, an untreated slab of stone, a small brass crucifix set with stones was hovering in mid-air held by wires and a tiny sanctuary lamp shining in a far-away nook behind all of it.

When the door closed, Joachim realized just how tense he had been. He felt so relieved he could have melted right there.

Joachim strolled towards the central corridor, his right hand on one of the pews, letting his fingers drink in the texture of the smooth, cracked wood, as they slid over.

He wanted to sit down for a bit, take a nap, maybe have a drink. All of it simultaneously, if at all possible.

“Do you believe in God?” Joachim asked the priest, not looking at him, being caught in his own world where it was warm and cozy and people who could turn him into gold with their brains did not exist. “Do you believe in angels?”

When Joachim glanced behind, he could see Pausch calmly closing the door, smoothing out his clothes and making the sign of the cross.

“Yes, I do,” he said. Something about the acoustics in this place made his voice all resonating and dignified all of a sudden. “How about you?”

Joachim had expected the question, but was still taken aback by it. He didn’t know what to say and hesitated for a moment. There was no point in anything but blunt honesty though. “The problem I always had was the get-rewarded-for-believing principle. To me that reeks of a scam. It doesn’t make sense. I mean let’s say there is this super-powerful space ali-… god… who created Planet Earth and the life upon it and the entire rest of the universe, if you like. And then he shows himself talking to some desert people through a burning bush? Anytime He talks, it seems to be this lone prophet who then insists people follow him because he had a vision that nobody else witnessed. Take Moses, Paul, the other apostles, Joseph Smith, take whomever you like. All of them took a very worldly profit out of their religiousness, just like modern TV preachers in the US who insist that you pray on the cash that you send them.”

To Pausch’s credit, he didn’t seem to be offended by Joachim. Instead he calmly indicated for Joachim to follow him. He walked up to the altar, knelt for a second and then climbed the stairs to sit down on a padded stool at the wall next to it.

Joachim followed him and continued talking.

“The only reason we got Christianity in Germany right now is because the Roman Emperor thought it more economical to make sacrifices to one god instead of twelve. I mean, think about it. Christian doctrine encourages law-abiding behavior and a special turn-the-other-cheek kind of submissiveness. There is even some sick shi-… questionable passages in there where Paul encourages a slave to go back to his master and serve him as he serves Christ. This whole religion is an arbitrary set of highly antiquated rules that have zero relevance to anything.”

Was he ranting? He was ranting. He was using the poor man as a waste dump for all the aggression he had against the church and its stupid, inflexible, hypocritical, stupid views.

Joachim sat down next to Pausch, who had a calm and dignified listening face, nodding at all the right places.

“Why do you want to rejoin the church?” he said.

Joachim cringed.

How was he going to explain this?

And what was the real reason to rejoin anyway? It seemed like a clever hack the second Sanft had claimed that he was a demon, but… If God was real, then he couldn’t be hedging his bets, he needed to believe. And he couldn’t. The realization must have crept up on him while chewing the poor man out. Besides, he had no evidence that the people after him actually were demons.

True, the people after him had magical powers. True, those powers needed to come from somewhere that was currently doing a very good job hiding from scientists and the media and everyone with a camera cellphone. But he didn’t need angels and demons and rules for eating kosher and mixing fabrics and a self-contradicting cosmology on top of it to explain it, did he? There were a whole bunch of simpler explanations that hadn’t been ruled out yet. And if God did exist there was too much about the world that would make Him an asshole, unworthy of anyone’s worship.

“I don’t know,” said Joachim. More to himself, than to Pausch. “None of this makes sense to me yet. I am perfectly willing to change my mind, but there are just so many contradictions.”

“You can’t understand God with your mind,” said Pausch, slowly and priestly. “You first have to open your heart to Him. You need to feel God’s love for you.”

“Respectfully, but this is utter nonsense,” said Joachim. “You can understand anything with your mind. Claiming that you can’t means asking people to accept a lie – or an imperfect theory if you like – without questioning it. That isn’t wisdom, it’s the end of all knowledge. A cesspool of self-perpetuating ignorance.”

“It is faith,” said Pausch.

The man frustrated him.

“I do love a good discussion,” the priest continued. “I have had many of those. The truth is there are many contradictions in the bible, there are many reasons not to believe, but that doesn’t keep people from doing it. Does it?”

There was an intelligence that resonated in Pausch’s voice. Joachim liked him,

“If you are here to tell me that it’s difficult to believe in God, then I agree with you,” Pausch continued. “And this could have been a much shorter conversation and my dinner wouldn’t have to be getting cold back at my house. But I don’t think that is why you are truly here. Would you like to tell me about it?”

“I…,” Joachim began. He felt silly, now.

There was a weird noise from outside. Sort of like an angry metal bee. Weird noise. Weird.

I had demons after me? Or rather people with supernatural abilities pretending or believing themselves to be demons?

“I’m in trouble,” said Joachim. “And I could use some help.”

Pausch nodded.

“And how can I help you?”

There was this noise again. Sort of like a power tool coming from the other end of the church. Who was doing home improvement at this hour of night- Oh shit.

Joachim’s blood ran cold. Was he being paranoid? Well, there were people using what sounded like an electric lockpick on the locked front-door while he was inside. Being concerned about that seemed like a reasonable emotional response.

“Pastor,” said Joachim.

The front entrance of the church opened slowly, letting dim light seep in. The outlines of three men were visible behind it.

The one in the middle started walking in, towards the altar and Joachim and Pausch.

A man-shaped figure in the dark, moving as if he had all the time in the world.

“Hello, there,” said the intruder.

A chill ran down Joachim’s spine.

“Pastor,” said Joachim. “you need to leave. Do it now. Get out.”

He looked back. Pastor Pausch had gotten up, but seemed frozen in place. When Joachim made eye-contact, he stirred.

“I am sorry,” said Joachim. “Those are dangerous people. I need to talk to them alone or they might hurt somebody.”

The pastor nodded apprehensively and started stumbling towards the side-door. Joachim did his best to seem calm, as he walked towards the intruders.

Would the priest call the police? What would happen then?

Joachim’s stomach crumbled in on itself. This was like sticking his hand into a jar filled with scorpions. Nothing good could come from it. Yet, Joachim was not a good runner. The last time he had been in a fight had been in eighth grade and he hadn’t done well back then. He had to talk to them. It was the only thing he could do that had any chance of succeeding.

Chapter 7

You don’t win wars by being reactive. You win them by forcing the enemy to fight you on your terms.

It was cold in the parking lot. And if it weren’t for his watch, there wouldn’t have been any way to guess it was morning with the pitch-darkness all around. Everything was eerily quiet. Sleeping cars, sleeping, balding trees, only the Krankenhaus München Nord had already opened its eyes. The windows of the ugly concrete box were already alight.

Joachim had sat down on a leaf-covered Vespa scooter that wasn’t his own, freezing to the bone, his fingers trembling as he fumbled with the wires. Been a while since he had done that. Been a while since he had done a lot of the things he had done in the last couple of days. His past self had always been this temptation, something so easy to fall back into. Now that he needed it, he realized he was rusty all over.

The engine of the scooter that wasn’t his own grumbled into life. Technically he didn’t even have a license to ride one of those. It was dark, the streets could reasonably be icy, he was injured and sitting on a vehicle he didn’t know. Even if he took the police out of the equation, this was a bad idea.

He put on the ill-fitting helmet he had liberated from the now-unlocked compartment underneath the seat.

He started driving.

He’d drive carefully, he told himself, as he ran the red light on the empty street, edging the wayward little scooter towards the speed limit.

The city around him was asleep. Nothing but the gloomy light of street-lamps, set far apart, this close to the northern edge of Munich. The street didn’t have many turns up here and the patches of green were more frequent. Only a few cars were already on the road, but Joachim avoided them all the same. Paranoia was good for him, he decided. Paranoia would help him stay sharp. He’d be ready when the real monsters would come, no matter how many times he’d jump at his own shadow before that.

He tried to enjoy the feeling of being watched. The feeling of walking – or driving – into a trap. He tried to enjoy the icy air scratching inside his lungs and the sensation of riding a scooter with the asphalt moving like a hungry razor blade just a hand’s width underneath his feet.

It would take some getting used to.

Leopoldstraße was one section of Munich’s main artery running from north to south, straight towards its heart. It didn’t really feel all that central though. True, it graced the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität, true, it had more than its fair share of monuments and plazas including a huge arc celebrating victory in battles and admonishing for peace as its inscription claimed. Leopoldstraße was long though and the outer reaches held anonymous offices, ancient apartment buildings that constantly got refurbished and tiny side-alleys filled with green islands where bankers pretended the world around them didn’t exist. Leopoldstraße 256 was an anonymous apartment building, perfectly fitting in with several other anonymous apartment buildings, near the very northern end of Leopoldstraße, far away from Munich’s warm, beating heart.

Even though each building had a different color and a different architectural style, they all seemed to blend together into city-ness. Another bunch of curtained windows with the occasional empty flowerbox in front of them. Another set of satellite dishes and cars parked up against the side-walk, choking the streets.

Joachim didn’t even bother to drive the scooter around. He just parked it in a tiny gap right up front and walked up towards the door.


Joachim’s body felt as if somebody had put his bones into a jumble. He wanted to throw up but wasn’t quite sure which way up was.

He had to have passed out from the pain, because he was lying on the ground and the ground was cold, dirty, wet, unpleasant, cold, dirty, hard and not the slightest bit comfortable.

He blinked against the semi-dark. The shape of tree branches, a gorgeous autumn canopy, contrasted against the deep purple night sky. It was beautiful. It felt so peaceful, so removed from the discomfort that his body felt.

He could lie here for a bit. He could-

“Oh good, you are awake,” said Sanft’s voice.

Joachim cried out in surprise.

He was still there.

Still there. Still there. Still there.

Joachim spotted the gold coin cozied up in the dirt, not half a meter away from his face. He reached out and picked it up.

Moving hurt. His muscles obeyed him, but only sluggishly, as if the electrical impulses running through his nervous system needed a couple of seconds to get there.

He tried to sit up but everything hurt too much.

“Calm down,” said Sanft’s voice.

He was close. Joachim felt a hand hovering above his shoulder and instinctively drew away from it. More pain. A dull ache. Numbness in most parts of his body. A spine that didn’t like the weight of the rest of the body at the moment.

Something was wrong with his right arm. It felt wrong. And it hurt in a different way than the rest of Joachim’s body did.

“There are things you need to know,” said Sanft’s voice. “Things that your survival depends on. So listen. Are you listening, Herr Schwartz?”

Joachim sat up, gritting his teeth to do the world’s hardest push-up. The contents of his stomach used this opportunity to hurl themselves upwards as well. Joachim vomited, right there, right below the ping-pong table. This space had probably seen worse, but still he felt bad about it. He had more important concerns right now though. Like air. He coughed for air. His stomach felt like a crumbled up juice box. Hell of a way to get rid of a good meal.

“Look at your arm, would you kindly,” said Sanft’s voice.

Joachim didn’t listen. The taste in his mouth was rancid, like sulfuric acid behind its sell-by date. The sweetly-sour smell in the air around him made him want to throw up again. Instead he gripped the edge of the table and pulled himself up to his shaky legs.

Joachim didn’t need to turn around to look at him. He wasn’t in any kind of danger. Sanft had had plenty of opportunity to do bad things to him when he had been unconscious.

Joachim knew that Sanft meant his right arm. His left arm felt awkward and numb, as if somebody had taken out the bones and put them in backwards, just like pretty much the entire rest of his body. His right arm didn’t. His right arm felt burned and swollen.

It wasn’t easy to look at it, physically speaking.He was leaning on the table and sort of needed it to stand right now.

He looked around. They seemed to be alone. A quiet, lonely path lined with the occasional park lantern lighting it, cut through a dark mass of trees whispering to each other. Nobody had reacted to Joachim screaming in pain. He had thought Munich was different in this regard – here they ran towards you so they could stare – but apparently all cities were similar when the chips were down.

He tightened his protesting muscles and pressed against the table. Then he started to roll up his sleeve.

There was something there. It was dark and he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. While his arm felt like he had fished fries out of boiling oil with his fingers, it looked fine. Except for a black spot about ten centimeters above his wrist.

Not a spot. Not a circle. Not anything with geometrical outlines. It was a symbol, more intricate than anything Joachim had ever seen. It looked like somebody had made up a new Chinese character and just kept going, adding complexity all the way towards the molecular level. Except it didn’t really look Chinese, more a mix between the hard angles of Nordic Futhark runes and the curvy embellishments of Sanskrit. Weird. It looked like the brainchild of a schizophrenic who wanted to create an Elven alphabet where there was one letter for every conceivable sentence. Of all the bad things Sanft could have done to him he hadn’t expected getting a tattoo- Hey, wait a second!

“What the hell,” said Joachim. His voice was hoarse. His throat hurt. He must have screamed in pain before passing out. “I didn’t sign a demon pact.”

“Oh this isn’t a two-way contract,” said Sanft. “Don’t worry. Your conscience is clean.”

He sounded amused. Sanft stayed a shape at the edge of Joachim’s vision. He was too important to pay attention to right now. Since he was too powerful to do anything about there was nothing productive Joachim could do about him, so Sanft was safe to ignore.

Joachim stared at the symbol instead. Was it moving? It could be magical. Suddenly he seriously considered amputation.

“So you drafted me,” said Joachim, not taking his eyes of the thing, his left arm and shoulder protesting weakly about the strain.

“Not really a draft,” said Sanft. “This is a grant. Continuing your simile, I didn’t send you to Vietnam, I just dressed you up in military fatigues and handed you a machine gun. Since I’m just giving it to you without a price tag attached, getting your consent is strictly optional.”

But why would he… Oh shit.

“But I will look like I signed a demon pact. So now… the angels are after me? No, they could see through your ruse. Are there angels?”

The symbol was definitely moving. In random ways too. A curve here that flattened a little, a new embellishment that reached out a bit.

“There is a special place in Hell where grants like this one get registered. It will look like you got recruited and now other demons will come after you. Why else would we invest the resources? In other words: The Vietcong will come after you and until you join the army, you will not have backup.”

“Drat,” said Joachim. This seriously felt like cheating. Then again… self-professed demon. Sanft had said hell.

Joachim turned around. More to lean at the table than to look at Sanft who was himself leaning back against that rectal carcinome of a park-bench. “And if I don’t get scared by your people I will go to heaven.”

“If there is such a place,” said Sanft. His smile was small, but still large enough for Joachim to want to smash it with a brick. “Think about that while they torture you for information for days on end.”

Joachim should have been scared, and indeed there were some nerves in his head that were running white-hot with tension, but ultimately he just got more and more calm. The more serious this situation became, the less leeway he could give to his emotions. (Laughing manically was what Joachim felt like right now.) Besides, when being faced with a bully there was only one way Joachim wanted to react.

“Ooooh, I’m soooo scared,” he said. “I have to endure unspeakable suffering for a limited amount of time just so I can get into an eternity of bliss, what an awful deal that is. Besides you are following a code of silence, right?”

Sanft raised his non-existent eyebrows.

“A code that you should follow as well or the demons coming after you will be the least of your problems. There are some fairly powerful individuals making sure that the Silence will not be broken.”

“Cryptic threats being cryptic and all, I now know that I just need to stay among witnesses to be safe from supernatural powers,” said Joachim.

The obvious kind at least. And then there were all the unpleasant things one could do with mere physical force. Especially if one outnumbered his opponent.

“You are welcome to try, of course,” said Sanft. “Your enemies are nothing if not patient.”

Joachim shoved the gold coin into his pocket. It was time to leave. There were places he needed to be and he didn’t quite know how much time he had. A good plan today was better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

He could have stayed. Whatever those enemies were, Joachim was sure they wouldn’t come near him with Sanft around. Then again, he didn’t want to find out the hard way

“If you want to change your mind about this job opportunity,” said Sanft. “Go to Leopoldstraße 263 and ring the bell at the highest apartment. Don’t wait too long.”

Joachim started to walk away on shaky legs. Leopoldstraße 263. That had to be on the corner of Griegstraße, just above that dirty laundromat. Funny how there were demon lairs in this city that everyone just walks or drives by.

“Sanft?” said Joachim, one foot already on the path away from here. He had one more thing to say.

“Yes, Herr Schwartz?”

“Go fuck yourself.”