Book 2 – Chapter 15

As far as prison cells went, this one was pretty nice. It had a neat bed, that was only slightly too short for him, with white, fresh linens and a window that didn’t let in the morning – or noon? – sun, which was great, because Joachim’s head felt several times too big.

The room was spinning, so Joachim threw out an anchor, which meant, putting one foot down on the floor while still lying in the comfort and safety of the bed.

The place had this squeaky linoleum floor. Great for cleaning up people’s vomit, but cruel and unusual punishment for anyone with a headache-related condition.

There was this kind of soft draught in the room. Which was weird. How could there be a draft when there was only one window and a steel door that Joachim distinctly remembered being shut from the other side. And who left that steel door with the heavy lock open? And what was Carina doing here, sitting on a stool, just looking at him?

“Bloody Hell,” mumbled Joachim.

She wasn’t wearing the same outfit as yesterday. She had this Steve Jobs wannabe black turtleneck on and a long coat and way too many clothes in general.

She didn’t seem pleased to see him. At least there was no smile. Or maybe that expression was pity? Not like Carina had never had a bad hangover.

“Are you awake?” said Carina.

“What are you doing here?” said Joachim.

She leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm. It felt so good he wanted to cry. And to vomit because he was disgusted with himself.

“You called me, remember?”

Her tone was weird. There was no playfulness in it. Carina wasn’t the kind that got concerned. She was epically bad at comforting people.

Joachim groaned, closing his again.

“I was drunk,” he said.

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Shut up.”

He pressed his hands up against his forehead in a desperate attempt to contain the headache. Stupid alcohol. Why had he drunk it again? Never again. Maybe he should find a bar and drink some beers to take the edge off.

“I…” said Carina. “I have something to tell you.”

“You are still hell-bent on getting Hell-bent.”

“Huh?”

“You are still trying to find a way to sell your immortal soul to the Anti-Christ.”

“Let’s not argue okay? This is important. This is bad.”

Joachim got up. He could give in to excruciating headaches another time.

“What happened?” he asked. He blinked against the glare of reality intruding upon his neurons.

“They…” said Carina. “They are dead. All of them.”

Joachim blinked. Whom could she…

“Meike? And Alfred? And-”

“No,” said Carina. “Hannah and her crew. I went to see them yesterday. Thought that maybe they could… I don’t know… use a hand? When they went-”

“Carina?”

Her hand on Joachim’s arm squeezed.

“What was the name you had given to your goldfish in second grade?”

She stopped cold.

“Why are you…” said Carina.

“Was it Flipper?”

Carina stayed silent.

“Hello Faust,” said Joachim. “So good to see you again.”

Not-Carina groaned.

“Damnit,” she said. “Damnit, damnit, damnit. I was going to keep this up all day! You are way too paranoid for someone as inexperienced as you, do you know that?”

For a moment Joachim wondered if Faust had captured Carina and held her somewhere. If he had tortured her to gain personal information.

She made her choice. She wanted to be involved in this game. The moment she had done that she stopped being a civilian. It was out of Joachim’s hands now. He was as powerless to do anything about this as the moment Carina had left.

“What do you want?”

Faust’s illusion of Carina grinned in a way that Carina would never have grinned. It was far too wide, far too toothy, far too cold.

“The same thing as last time,” said Faust. “To offer you an alternative.”

Joachim’s brain was uncomfortably slow right now. He needed to find a better way to deal with his emotional stuff. Maybe he needed to find a therapist. One that wouldn’t lock him up once he revealed his belief that magic was real or who would get hunted shortly after Joachim had revealed this to him or who would be an evil sorcerer beholden to a cabal of even more evil sorcerers. Hmm, short list.

“I wasn’t lying,” said Faust. “Hannah and her crew really did manage to get themselves killed. Unfortunately I had nothing to do with it.”

Joachim took a deep breath, unsuccessfully trying to clear his head. He was way too tired and way, way too hungover to deal with this bullshit.

“Assuming any of this is true…” Yeah, right. “Who did?”

Faust smiled wistfully. He accidentally got the expression just right. Some animal part of Joachim wanted to take the illusion and toss her into his prison bed and have his way with her. Many, many times.

“I have other enemies than just her and her clown troupe,” said Faust, still using Carina’s voice. “They tried to cut a deal by the looks of it and when that didn’t work try to fight their way out to escape.”

“A deal with whom?” said Joachim.

The more Faust talked, the more he had to work to keep his lies consistent, Joachim figured. Plus it was a neat and comfortable way of interrogating someone that didn’t involve actually figuring out what was going on inside that man’s – or woman’s – hand.

“House Hades,” said Faust.

“House Hades? Aren’t you getting your mythologies mixed up a little bit?”

Not-Carina sighed.

“There is a lot you still need to learn about the workings of the Underworld. There is a lot more going on than any one propaganda machine would have you believe. At any rate. Maybe we should start talking about my offer, before I start giving away free knowledge.”

“You haven’t told me your offer yet,” said Joachim.

“Not a good policy to tell your enemies what you are after,” said Faust. “Now that your allies are decorating the insides of the Obsidian Palace though, I do think I can take the risk to tell you a bit more. You remember me telling you my offer was an alternative?”

“Yes,” said Joachim. “I do remember you saying those words.”

“I wasn’t talking about an alternative to Hannah,” said Faust. “I was talking about a third way. A place that is neither Hell nor Heaven.”

“Like… Earth?”

“Exactly. Earth,” said Faust. “What if there was a way to escape this war? What if there was a way for your soul never to leave your body? A way to live forever.”

Headache.

“You are a guy who tortures and lies to people,” said Joachim. “That is my answer.”

Not-Carina chuckled. Faust was such an asshole. It already hurt looking at Kukomu’s face. Now this…

“I don’t expect you to shake on it right now,” said Faust. “I would have been disappointed if you had. What I expect you to do, is what you will be doing anyway. Investigate if I’m telling the truth. Figure out what I’m up to. You will discover the truth in due time. The truth that Hannah hasn’t told you, just drawing a comparison here. My offer will stand.”

“Does your other offer still stand?” said Joachim. “The offer where I get to punch you?”

“Oh by all means,” said Faust. “If it makes you feel better. Though I wouldn’t recommend doing it inside a police station. They have cameras in this place and people watching us.”

“You mean, more people than usual?” said Joachim.

Not-Carina smiled.

“Maybe I will put you on the phone with Isabel,” he said. “As soon as I have found a way to make sure you will not be able to trace it. This whole war used to be difficult enough when you just had magic to worry about.”

“Fancy some help programming your VCR?” said Joachim.

Carina smirked.

“We have talked enough, I think. Isabel was kind enough to let me know your email address. I have already sent you my contact info. Your cellphone should be… with the officer at the front desk, I think?”

There was something still nagging Joachim. Something about the way Faust had talked about the alternative. He didn’t crave eternal life, did he? He already had it. He also seemed to be in a reasonably comfortable position, except for the part…

“You plan to defect, don’t you?” said Joachim.

Not-Carina had already gotten up and turned towards the door. Faust hesitated.

“Or not defect, as much as go AWOL,” said Joachim. “That is your secret plan.”

“We will be in touch, Joachim,” said Faust. “It is the best offer you are ever likely going to get. Don’t squander it.”

There were many people in his life who weren’t exactly on the side of good. Not even if he squinted his eyes and turned his head a little bit. None of them were the architects of a cold-blooded torture operation though that had spent years force-recruiting people and murdering people with industrial efficiency.

Sitting on his prison bed, making use of the pauses inside his throbbing headaches where he could actually hear his thoughts above the pain, he wondered if squandering his offer was somehow related to his plan to take Faust down and make sure he never could hurt anyone ever again.

Because that was what Joachim was going to do.

Book 2 – Chapter 14

Joachim took his time on the drive back. He trusted Hannah that much. It was two kilometers down the Autobahn, at a rest stop that he turned his phone back on. It was halfway to Munich that he got even halfway decent internet reception.

Who carved symbols into a human bone? Crazy people that was who. And wizards. He already knew that wizards exist. He had a two Euro coin made of solid gold to prove it. They didn’t look like any living language and the display of his burner phone was frustratingly slow.

He was almost in Munich when he got Jan-Hendrik’s email with a download link for a bajillion pdf files. The city was cloaked into darkness, pierced by ever-more-frequent city lights. It was at that point, almost home, inside a stolen car that Joachim realized that his home was gone and so was his computer.

He stopped somewhere off Leopoldstraße and cursed silently.

He probably could have stayed with Hannah’s gang, but they specifically told him to stay away. Not that he knew where to find them. Not that he had any number he could call. Just a bunch of email addresses.

“Fuck it,” he mumbled, still sitting in the driver’s seat of Andrej’s car. Still parked in front of a brightly lit Irish pub style bar, tempting him.

“Fuck it,” he whispered as he opened his email app and just started adding all the email addresses he knew of them into the BCC field.

Sort of homeless, he wrote. Need place to stay. Will trade spot on sofa for Andrej’s car that I am currently holding hostage at an undisclosed location. Best, Joachim.

“That oughta get their attention,” he mumbled.

He checked his watch. It was too late for him to hit an electronic store and just buy a laptop out of his savings. He doubted that Mehmet, who had been accommodating to him before when he couldn’t get home without putting people in danger, would be available on short notice. He had three credit cards in three different names inside his wallet.

He got out of the car and just now remembered he could’nt lock it.

“Fuck it”, he mumbled, opened the door and tucked the GPS tracker back under the passenger’s seat. If somebody was going to steal this car, at least Joachim would know where they went.

He started wandering down the street.

The street lights in this part of town gave the area around a ghostly quality. Just the people though. The various cafés, clubs, bars and restaurants had their own light, throwing it against their own walls, making their buildings more real than real. Joachim’s fellow wanderers in the young night – some in groups and laughing and talking, some alone and determined, few just strolling, without any place to be – moved around the buildings like moths dance around light bulbs.

There was barely a wind, even here in the city. Even the cars swooshing down the dark, icy road barely stirred the cold, dead air.

Joachim had the vague goal of going to a bar he had visited once, years ago. One that served breakfast well into the night, as well as hard liquor. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember where it was though. He wandered forward, his hands jammed into his pockets, his face serious as if he was on his way to the National Conference for Responsible Guidelines for Agriculture or something.

What he really wanted was to get into a fight right now. Have somebody beat the shit out of him. That was mostly impossible though since the first blow Joachim landed, out of reflex probably, could fatally wound somebody. What did comic book heroes do when they were feeling self-destructive?

He stumbled and looked around to find himself in a bar. It was one of those jazzy places with the low lights and a bajillion glasses behind the bar in front of a lit screen.

Everything from that point on was sort of a haze. Joachim remembered the bar keeper, some smug college kid who seemed like a million times more charming than he was. He remembered two flat screen TVs showing stupid soccer matches between two teams no one cared about except the rich, drunk assholes in this place.

Who paid six bucks for a small bottle of beer anyway?

Joachim did. Joachim’s offshore credit cards did.

They also paid for a bottle of tequila that had a brand label but contained nothing but watered-down supermarket garbage.

Somebody insulted him. Or he insulted them first, he couldn’t remember. Either way they soon became friends, mostly because Joachim kept throwing money around. He had his arm around their shoulders and they sang a song. Or several. Simultaneously. Nobody could agree what to sing so they each sung their own. Good crowd too. Fat banker in a polo shirt who had his wife with him who drank and cursed like a truck-driver from… well… Bavaria. A couple of fellow computer programmers arguing over Ecuadorian craft beer.

Joachim remembered them playing cards. Pennies at first, then the stakes went up higher.

He remembered making out with the banker’s wife. Or the banker for all he knew.

Things got a bit out of hand afterwards and he was at the bar again. It was time he got his life priorities straight, after all. He couldn’t let other people’s problems distract him from his drinking. That was not a viable long term strategy.

Joachim remembered drawing out an Excel sheet on a napkin projecting his alcohol intake.

“The problem is,” he explained to the bar keeper, who was either listening enrapturedly or had gone home for the day to be replaced by a guy who kept chatting at the other end of the bar, “that I don’t know what my metabolism is like. Ever since – you know – the incident I heal a lot quicker. I can shake some things off I’m not like… like… liiiiike… whatever, I need to solve this equation for k – which is my metabolism coefficient, basically the number that says how well I handle alcohol, see? – and then I can estimate it. I was thinking about a two-… wait, no… three-dimensional graph between k and the amount of tequila I drink, showing how bad I feel when I get out of this. Hangovers are for suckers. See? See?”

They had this billiard table here or maybe it was a video game station. He remembered calling out large money bets and making a bunch of money. Mostly because the conditions for the bets were hazy and everybody was happy to call the bet off when Joachim looked at them all grumpy-like. That was the high point of the evening. It went down from there.

Joachim remembered somebody saying something racist about refugees. He remembered telling that man what he thought of him and his mother. He remembered going into vivid detail totally caught up in the process.

The man got up at this point and demanded they settle this outside. Joachim told him that wasn’t a good idea because – see? – he was way too strong and it wouldn’t end well for him. This went on for a while. It really interfered with Joachim’s life goal to reach his full drunk potential. He tried to explain that to the man using the graph he had drawn but he was having none of it.

His friends started to try and drag Joachim outside at this point, failing horribly, which caused Joachim to laugh his ass off, which caused them to try harder and put their backs into it, which caused them to fail even more horribly. That spiral went on for a while, happily escalating to a full-blown bar fight with lots of people politely apologizing or trying to deescalate, before throwing punches. Joachim sat that one out under a table somewhere.

Somewhere around that time must have been where the cops showed up. They mostly stayed outside though, waiting for backup or for things to calm down or something, because the ruckus had become a full blown riot at this point. People were raiding the bar. Bar stools were swung. There was some sort of no-rules multi-person fist fight going on where nobody wore shorts. One of the racist people – or maybe it was the banker? or his wife? – broke a cue against Joachims arm which was the funniest thing ever because it sort of wrapped around him and splintered and everything.

Joachim had figured that with him being involved, this was really not safe for anybody participating in this, so he walked out the door, calmly and slowly pushing anybody aside who got in his way. He took another swig of the bottle he had probably paid a month’s rent for – not that he would need next month’s rent now, he figured his lease was pretty much resolved along with the rest of his worldly possessions at that point – and the aroma of sweat and alcohol became the cold, calm air smelling of cigarettes and exhaust fumes.

That was the point where the cops arrested him.

Book 2 – Chapter 13

There was nothing like a human skull as a conversation piece over tea. Joe had had exactly one kind of tea – supermarket-brand Earl Grey – so Joachim had gratefully accepted an earthenware mug filled with it. Also, it was much more comfortable to sit down here, as his strained neck kept reminding him. He sat in a fold-up chair that looked and felt older than he was. Joe had taken the place of honor in her armchair, lording over the room like a medieval noble person.

Joachim had placed the grayish skull on the 1930s style desk Joe had down here. Its empty eyes looked at nothing in particular. Its barer than bare teeth showed no expression, no indicator of what it was Joachim should discover down here.

Andrej was… a demon? Somebody who had come back from Hell? Joachim didn’t believe in a life after death, so that was problem number one. Problem number two was, even if this was true, how did it help him stop Faust? Joachim had driven out all this way… He had driven all this way… He had…

He nearly dropped the cup.

“You okay there, youngblood?” said Joe.

They had wanted him out of the city. First Faust wanted to take him out of the game, now Hannah did. Did that mean he should drive back? Shouldn’t he trust Hannah? If for no other reason than that if he couldn’t trust her, he really couldn’t trust anyone.

“I’m fine,” said Joachim. “How long have you known Hannah?”

“Hah!” said Joe. “Hah! All her life.”

Joachim stared at her, at a loss for words.

“You mean she…”

“She’s my daughter,” she said. “Small wonder that she didn’t mention that.”

Joachim was taken aback. What did this mean?

He looked at the skull again.

“Is he…” said Joachim, letting the question trail.

Joe gave him a puzzled look then laughed hard, almost choking on her tea.

“No,” she said. “I was a kept woman back then. Married to a powerful and violent man. No, I have never been with Andrej. Hells no. He was much too young for me when we met anyway. Well, his body was young.” She waved it off. “You know what I mean.”

She laughed some more.

“So what is the story here? It can’t be a coincidence that you met Andrej and now you are sending corpses to Hell, while your daughter works for… you know.”

Joe smiled, then her eyes narrowed.

“If she hasn’t told you,” said Joe, “then she doesn’t want you to know. And as far as I know she has told nobody. Never even married, that one. I mean, yeah, not the line of work where you want kids around, I get it, but still.”

This was… if this woman was who she said she was, then Hannah was trying to build rapport. He felt the test stripes that were still inside the pocket of his jacket, then glanced at the tea cup Joe was holding. It wouldn’t exactly be easy to get a paternity – or maternity – test on two random samples, but it seemed far from impossible. Especially considering how interested Joachim was in the results.

“Who was her father? Your… late husband?”

“A perfect scoundrel,” said Joe. “Josip Kovačević. He smuggled prostitutes and weapons. Had a harem of battered women obeying his every whim, but he chose me. He was soft inside. All men are.”

“One hell of a father figure,” said Joachim.

“Oh that he was! Never lifted a finger when it came to little… Hannah though. Had to practically raise her by myself while he was off sleeping with I don’t know whom. I hadn’t even heard when he died. Had a heart-attack in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the Czech republic. I only found out when the self-proclaimed new boss – some half-blood upstart called Danijel Vira-something-or-other – tried to do me in. Not always good to know where the corpses are buried, I tell you that.”

It occurred to Joachim that Joe might not be nicest of people. Burying the corpses of young women who had been beaten to death by their johns… Young women who had been forced into sex slavery by her husband. She seemed awfully casual about that.

She also hesitated before calling her daughter Hannah. Joachim had already figured one didn’t turn to a life of crime using one’s real name. But calling herself little angel while working for the forces of Hell did need a special sense of irony. What a childhood she must have had. Must have felt right at home in the world where people tortured other people to death so Hell could have IT workers.

“So what was Andrej like back in the day?” said Joachim.

Joe’s eyes went distant.

“Haunted,” she said. “In a way, he still is, he just hides it in his daredevil act. Dying does funny things to a man. Not aging, not feeling pain, unless he wants to, seeing the hellgates…”

“Do all… returned people see them?”

“Everyone I ever met, though those things are far from stable. You have to be a special kind of crazy to use them casually. Some make time go all wonky, spit you out years later while you are trapped in them. Some suffocate you. Some never let you out at all. Others of course… they lead you straight into the hands of the enemy. Special kind of crazy, let me tell you.”

“Well we already established how crazy I am,” Joachim reminded her.

She laughed.

“Yes we have!”

Joachim had a sense that Joe was grateful for his company. There was just the one bed and no sign of anyone for a long distance around. He didn’t even see a phone down here, just a stack of books filled with crossword puzzles next to her bed and a tiny portable TV set next to them.

“Haunted how?” Joachim asked. “Was there somebody after him?”

Joe chuckled.

“Everyone was after him. The crazy bastard escaped. I mean, first of all, they craft you new bodies down there. I heard them talk of forges more than once. He must have gotten a hold of one of those and then just run like his butt was on fire. It probably was too.” She took a long sip of tea, then kept dreaming for a bit. Joachim didn’t interrupt her. “First time I met him, he was covered in chains, wrung so hard that that one surgeon I knew couldn’t remove them without killing him. For all I know they still cling to him, buried in his flesh somewhere. I don’t think they were crafted from any earthly metal. Spooky, eh? Anyway, we soon started working together. Him and the boys – my husband’s men – they played nice together, not least of all because he spoke Bosnian. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but I don’t think I have ever seen him take advantage. No drugs that one, no girls, word was that he was a fruit, but nobody ever said anything about it. Nobody dared.”

“What is your daughter like as a person? Do you think she is a good boss?”

Joe shot him a sideways glance.

“That is dangerous talk right there,” she said. “In this family, we are not kind on traitors, you hear? Far as I know my daughter is a born leader, much better than many of those that have a penis. She has been at it since she was fifteen… more than twenty years ago, now.” She went a bit pale. “I’m getting old. Sooner or later, one of you has to stuff me into one of my barrels, eh? Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about. She is a bit secretive at times, but her family blood runs strong. Like oaks they were, all of her grandparents. You have nothing to worry about.”

There were a thousand questions Joachim wanted to ask Joe. A million little details. He wasn’t sure that she would give him straight answers though. Why was he here? What was he supposed to see? Was this an appeal to his emotional side? Did Hannah figure that her mother and him would end up having a conversation?

He stood up and – his head bent to not bump into the ceiling – he approached the desk. He lifted up the skull. It did seem real for what that was worth. It looked real and it felt real, its surface in turns rough and smooth, with a bunch of tiny little grooves at the anatomically correct places.

What was he supposed to see?

He went over to the chest, opened it and gently placed the skull back into its resting place. It was then, that he noticed another bone, a leg bone that looked odd. Mostly because somebody had carved long rows of symbols into it.

Book 2 – Chapter 12

The road was barely a road anymore when Joachim brought the car to a halt. There were two grooves of frozen soil that got swallowed by the forest around more and more with no soul inside. Angry skeletons of bald beech trees had raised their many fingered branches as a warning against interlopers. The frost covered leaves of the brush work remained deathly still, continuing all the way in, until the distant darkness swallowed them.

He got out.

It was almost completely dark now. The sky had turned to a deep purple. Not a single gust of wind disturbed the cold air around. The air that smelled of nothing particular, especially through Joachim’s blocked nose.

Joachim was alone.

He had tried his best to convince Carina of the error of her ways, of the dangers that she was oblivious too. He had showed her the knife scars that she had already seen before. It had been of no use. The conversation had only degenerated from there.

He was alone.

Perhaps that was for the best, he thought, as he haphazardly started to walk into the forest, exploring it, the moonscape of the frozen soil unrelenting underneath his feet. If he didn’t have anybody close to him then they wouldn’t get hurt. They wouldn’t get caught in the crossfire as Joachim set out to… do what exactly?

He felt tired. He felt as if somebody had sucked the marrow out of his bones leaving something frail and brittle behind. Something lost, devoid of a purpose.

You guys were just fucking, he told himself. This is for the best. And – by the way – this is your fault. You had to tell somebody. You had to tell them that the monsters were real. If anything, you got only yourself to blame.

The forest got darker and he hadn’t brought a flashlight. Did Isabel watch him right now? Could she see in the dark? How ironic that would be. Being able to see through walls and not being able to see in the dark. Almost like having the strength of a moving truck and not being able to protect the ones he… liked. Sort of. The ones he was fucking. Certainly the ones who were close, in one way or the other.

Enough with the pity party. You have a job to do.

He walked a sort of half-circle around the car, squinting out into the distance. There was some sort of rock formation out there that sort of looked like a hut. There were a few pieces of flattened brushwork in another direction that could have been a path. And there was some sort of round concrete thing close-by that sort of looked like a cistern or something.

He stopped periodically, listening for noises. There was the soft rumbling of cars in the distance where the Autobahn ran. Other than that… nothing.

Had he come to the right place? He had driven here mostly by memory, his cell phone switched off. He couldn’t afford to get tracked here. Who knew what kind of ‘contractor’ lived in the middle of the forest.

“Johanna?” he called out. He was surprised at how far his voice carried in the stillness around, echoing from far, far way. He was even more surprised when he got a response.

A trap-door opened, relatively close to the car and an old woman in a thick-looking white winter jacket climbed up a ladder. The trap-door had an actual bush attached to it with moss and everything and it didn’t slide down, even at this angle. The old woman, her silver hair in a knot behind her head, her ears covered with earmuffs, had a rifle slung over her shoulder.

Joachim thought it best to casually raise his hands, just so there would be no misunderstandings of the Joachim-shot-dead kind.

“Who are you?” said the woman.

“Name’s Joachim,” he said. “Hannah sent me.”

“You new?” she said.

“Still, technically, in my twenties,” said Joachim.

The old woman didn’t have much in the way of humor. She didn’t shoot him on the spot though, which was always a good sign.

She kept her distance to Joachim, standing beside her hole, leveling a flashlight into his direction.

“People call me Joe,” said Johanna.

“I’m jealous,” said Joachim. “Nobody ever called me Joe.”

This time he got a chuckle. Progress.

“You got something for me?” she said.

Joachim thought a second on how to answer that.

“I’m just here for a status report,” he said.

As a response, Joachim got the flashlight pointed into his face.

“I know that car,” she said.

“Belongs to Andrej,” said Joachim.

“I know,” she said. “I was the one who sold it to him. Didn’t think he’d ever loan it out to anybody.”

“Well,” said Joachim. “He doesn’t technically know he did.”

“You stole Andrej Zayenkovic’s car? You crazy, suicidal idiot.” This time she laughed heartily. “Well come on down then, before you freeze into place, will ya?”

Joachim didn’t need to be asked twice. He backtracked to the hidden trap door, seeing more and more of the old woman who called herself Joe.

In Joachim’s stereotypical experience, old women came in the varieties of frail or overweight. Joe was neither. She looked tough, her spine upright, her arms healthy. She reminded Joachim of a cowboy… cow-woman, riding her horse, toting a pistol and driving her cattle down the prairie in the worst of weathers.

If she mistrusted Joachim, she didn’t show it all, waving for him to follow her and climbing down slowly enough that Joachim could have easily shot her given the intention and the gunpowder-charged wherewithal.

He followed her down into a brightly lit corridor with a painfully low ceiling, closing the trap-door behind him.

The walls, floor and ceiling were bare concrete, but the room behind the first door looked more like an apartment. It had a bed, a desk and a big green arm-chair with wooden swirls at the end of its armrests. A large standing lamp was giving off a warmer light than the grate-covered things on the ceiling.

“Used to be a bunker,” said Joe. “Probably Wehrmacht, but who the hell knows.”

She walked ahead into an empty room. Joachim followed.

The room was spacious. There were no windows, but lots of dust, except for that one spot, marked with a faded chalk ‘X’.

“All empty, as you can see,” she said. “So much for your status report.”

Why had Hannah sent him here. There had to be a reason. Something he should ask. Something he should see. Would he give himself away by asking too much?

“What is it you do for us, anyway?” said Joachim.

“You are new,” said Joe. “Hannah didn’t tell you?”

“Oh she totally did,” said Joachim. “Right after spelling out her plan for the next five years and the latest celebrity gossip. It is hard to get a word in with her, she is such a blabbermouth.”

Joe wagged her finger at Joachim.

“You are far too young for sarcasm, young man,” she said. “And my business is in corpse removal, if you must know.”

Joachim looked around.

“You seem to be quite good at it,” he said.

“Well, thank you,” said Joe.

“How do you-,” said Joachim. “I mean, do you bury them out there in the woods? That must be hard work.”

Joe smirked.

“I got a slightly better method than that,” she said.

Joachim looked around. No digging tools, the ground undisturbed except for a single spot…

“You are using a wormhole aren’t you?”

“Bingo,” said Joe, pointing at him like she was a teacher telling the class which of her fourth-graders had just given the right answer. “Though that is Andrej’s word for them. I am perfectly comfortable calling them hellgates.”

“You dispose of corpses… by throwing them into Hell,” said Joachim.

“That’s right.”

He nodded appreciatively. Legally speaking, following the old adage no body, no crime, this was perfection. Hannah’s crew could murder people in broad daylight and not get convicted for it, just as long as they knew how to drive like Andrej. Hell, they wouldn’t even need Joe if Andrej could just dump them. Or maybe that needed a special kind of gate? Or did Joe did that grimy business of making sure the corpses on the other side weren’t identifiable? Or maybe that gate opened up right on top of a lava lake…

Joachim took a step back away from the X.

“Let me show you something,” said Joe.

She went back to her apartment area and Joachim followed, ducking, asking himself if he should go on all fours to be faster.

Her ‘living room’ was even nicer up close. It had carpets and a burning scented candle that smelled of cinnamon. It also had a large wooden chest that looked like positively pirate-y with its heavy iron hinges and all.

She opened it, producing a long-drawn creak.

If anything, the bones inside the chest made it look even more pirate-y.

“May I introduce, Andrej Zayenkovic,” said Joe. “Or rather his mortal remains from before he went to Hell for his sins.”

Book 2 – Chapter 11

“You are insane,” said Joachim. “This is insane. It’s a terrible idea.”

They were sitting inside another insta-rental car, rented through an app, just like the one they had used to chauffeur Wieland around. While the other one had been dirty, this one looked and smelled squeaky clean. It was one of those modern cars that combined classical elements with other stuff that were pure science fiction. All of it in the little details. An analog speedometer with a metal needle and a radar in front and back that made those modern, psychologically optimized noises when he got closer to the cars parking in front and back of him.

Joachim hated to drive. He didn’t own a car and therefore lacked experience. Therefore he was constantly scared to run somebody over, to confuse the stupid pedals for instance or not react quickly enough or react wrong. These new app-driven insta-rentals had him pay for every minute you rented the car for, like an invisible needle driving you on. Both did little to improve his mood for this conversation, as he navigated his way through Munich’s rush hour traffic, his eyes glued to the street.

“Well, that is one valid opinion to have,” said Carina.

“You don’t know what you are talking about,” said Joachim.

“I know more than you did,” said Carina.

“I never agreed to do anything like this,” said Joachim.

“Oh didn’t you? It sure could have fooled me. When did you last apply for a job? Did you even try to collect unemployment? Or were you just planning to live on your blood money savings?”

Joachim suppressed a roar. This woman. This woman knew how to press his buttons. Should she ever work for the enemy… good night.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said. “And you know it.”

“And where are we going right now?” said Carina.

She had crossed her arms, Joachim could see that much from the corner of his eye. He threw a sheepish glance at the navsat showing an address that was… nowhere. It was a piece of forest in the Bavarian wilderness that surrounded Munich and the tiny satellite towns orbiting it. It showed up on the navsat as a patch of green, nothing more.

“It’s your life,” said Joachim. “And your immortal soul.”

This caused her to be silent for a second. When she started speaking she was a bit more calm about it.

“It is my life,” she said. “And my decision. Do you honestly think I’m heaven material? Do you think they have play rooms up there?”

“Well, self-flagellation is proud Christian tradition actually. There doesn’t need to be an afterlife, though,” said Joachim. “It could all just be a big delusion that insane minions of powerful wizards buy into. Point is, they are up to some evil shit.”

“That’s quick to judge,” said Carina. “You meet one troupe of psychos and now that’s set in stone? You think they will have me assassinating old ladies or something?”

“You probably won’t,” Joachim conceded, “but you will be involved with the people profiting from that torture. With the people who are letting it happen.”

Carina groaned.

“Then what isn’t evil these days? There’s people in China committing suicide rather than making the chips for your cellphone. Where does the chain of evil stop? With the overseer of the plant? With the people making a living writing apps for your cellphone? You sit there pretending you are some kind of vigilante saint, wearing clothes made by children in Bangalore, driving a car made of materials that come out of some Third World mines, burning fossil fuels that come out of some brutal dictatorship in the Middle East.”

“Actually, this is an electric car.”

This time Carina’s groan was a scream of frustration.

“Do you seriously want me to continue?”

“I think I got your point just fine,” said Joachim.

He had ignored the pleas of the navsat that kept rerouting him and driven off to a more quiet part of the city. One of those narrow streets cutting a path between apartment buildings, cars on both side of the road.

“Have you?” said Carina. “Have you? Then where does evil stop and good start? Is the tobacco industry evil? How about guns? How about advertisement? How about the cellphone providers with their zero-euro cellphone contracts that trick idiots out of their money?”

“You are talking about signing a demon contract with Hell,” said Joachim. “That doesn’t give you pause?”

He was distracted right now, scanning the area around him, then rechecking with his cellphone.

“Should it?” said Carina. “If I signed up with an oil company everybody would say that I made a responsible fucking decision. In this deal, I get super powers and a decent place in the after-life on top of a salary that is… unmatched. By any company anywhere. Why are we stopping here?”

Joachim put the car into a parking space at the side of road. It was impossibly narrow and a complete exercise in frustration.

“It’s your life, it’s your decision,” said Joachim. “You asked for my opinion and I have given it.”

He stopped the car, then started fumbling with the navsat searching the menu for a way to delete the history.

“They have probably records in the cloud, you know,” said Carina.

“They could,” said Joachim, “but the debit card connected to the account is registered under a fake name in Argentina. It should take potential stalkers some time to connect this to me.”

He finally found the option, using that annoying mini-joystick button and the history went bye-bye. Then he unbuckled and started to get out of the car. A confused Carina followed him.

“What are we doing out here?” she said.

“Stealing a car,” said Joachim. He locked the rental and the tiny LED in the window switched to green, signaling an end to this particular drain on his funds.

Carina’s mouth gaped open.

“Seriously?” she managed to say, catching up with him as he made his way up the sidewalk. Joachim couldn’t decide if she was judging him or cheering him on. Probably both.

“Yep,” said Joachim, his eyes firmly on his cellphone.

“You want to steal some poor guy’s car,” she said. The mix was about fifty-fifty right there.

“I want to steal a specific guy’s car,” he said. “Somebody who was dumb enough to let me plant a GPS tracker on him.”

Joachim put away his cellphone and pointed at the white BMW at the end of the road.

“Is that what you were googling at the hotels? How to hotwire a car?” she said.

The ground was icy, almost making Joachim slip and fall. He also felt watched. Behind every curtain was a potential pair of eyes, waiting to see and report him. He liked computer crimes much better. Nothing like rerouting one’s traffic through three other countries.

Finally he got to the car and threw himself on the ground, checking the tubes and cables underneath. The car was too old to have an alarm, but could very well have been rigged to explode if hotwired. Andrej seemed like the type.

Satisfied with what he saw, Joachim got up and pulled out his slimjack. Another thing he hadn’t used in a long time. It was a thin piece of metal that could be inserted into a car door, destroying the rubber isolation under the window. It took him some fishing around, but finally he got the door open.

Quickly he got in and opened the passenger’s door.

“Get in,” he said. He ripped off the plastic cover underneath the steering wheel and picked out the wires.

“Don’t you think he will mind?” said Carina. If there was judgment left in her voice, Joachim couldn’t hear it. All he heard was excitement. Not for the first time he wondered if Carina was maybe a bad influence on him.

The engine came to life.

“And how would you even find a recruiter?” said Joachim. “There’s a bajillion headhunters out there, all perfectly benign.”

Joachim started adjusting the mirrors. This car did not have a fancy radar system for getting in and out of parking spaces. This could be interesting. He started the engine and started a gentle physical discussion with the stick shift.

“And what kind of skills do you have to offer?” said Joachim.

“You mentioned they look for IT people, right?” said Carina.

“You work in IT?”

Carina stared at him.

“I wrote the backend on the WhyULate app. The one you installed on your phone? How do you not remember that?”

“Oh,” said Joachim. Sheepishly he added: “Right.”

“As far as recruiters go,” said Carina, “Let’s see if I can find one named Sanft.”

Joachim nearly rammed the car parking in front of them.

Book 2 – Chapter 10

The test stripe inside Joachim’s hand was blue, matching the ones he had neatly placed on the white plastic bar table. They had all ordered coffee. Now there were three cups standing with them in the cold, steaming and untouched.

“Are you satisfied yet?” said Hannah. She had wrapped her punk outfit into a long winter coat and a scarf she had picked up from her car. She looked much more like a business woman now. Somebody who stood in one of those platinum member lounges at the airport, swirling a glass of brandy while checking her emails.

Joachim glanced back at the pharmacy with the colorful display of cold meds enlaced with ivy. He had bought every blood test they had had available, not caring what the woman had the register had thought. The first two had told him everything he wanted to know. The last four were just… because he didn’t believe the results for some reason. Or perhaps he just wanted Hannah to stay, to tell him something that made sense.

“Yes,” said Joachim. “How do you know Isabel defected?”

Carina was still absent-minded. She kept walking around, fidgeting. Maybe she was cold, even though it was already four degrees above freezing again.

Hannah’s poker face was perfect again.

“I first met Sanft two years ago,” she said. “We normally have a different recruiter, but he knew all the codes. Truth be told, we were desperate for candidates. There are only so many things you can hand to civilian firms.”

“Whom did she defect to?” Joachim tried. “The Great House of Asmodeus? Are they enemies of House Paimon? Are you still working for House Paimon?”

Thoughtfully Hannah turned her cup, her index finger wrapped with a fresh plaster Joachim had applied.

“There are many things demons compete about,” she said. “It’s rarely just souls though. Most souls end up in Hell. Territories are mapped out. Few demons actively fight against the bird people. They hide from them. We hide from them. There are no weapons to defend against them.”

There was a distinct image Joachim had of Hannah. She was tied up. Her limbs were bound with documents labeled Top Secret and ropes made of loyalty and internal chains made of promises she has made. And leather-wrappings made of politics. Joachim didn’t get angry at her. She seemed generally willing to talk. She seemed to have a need to talk, even, as if she was trying to tell him something important. Something that could save his life. Or hers.

“Hell has never been static,” she said. “It has been at war, as long as anyone I have spoken to could remember. The balance of power shifts. There is no Satan, just a parade of immortal kings, backstabbing each other.”

“Kings like Paimon and Asmodeus?” said Joachim.

Hannah looked up at him.

“Yes,” she said. “They are not interested in manpower. Wars are not won by manpower anymore. As our technology advances, so does theirs, constantly limping behind.”

“Like the universe’s largest third world country,” said Joachim. “They want skills, they want weapons. That is what they are competing about.”

“Yes,” said Hannah.

That was all she said. She stayed silent after that, quietly blowing air into her hands to warm them.

“Why did you give up Wieland?” she said, finally.

“You will have more luck getting intel out of him than I had,” said Joachim.

Hannah frowned.

“You hunted that man,” she said. “You wanted revenge.”

“I wanted him off the face of the earth,” said Joachim. “So he couldn’t hurt people anymore. Do you see him joining up with Faust in the near future?”

Hannah smiled, but her smile disappeared quickly.

“You will not be able to get to Faust,” she said. “He is far too clever.”

Joachim shrugged.

“We will see,” he said.

“Don’t let your pride get in the way,” said Hannah. “You won this round. You won your personal war. Why don’t you let it rest?”

“I can’t,” said Joachim.

Hannah actually lifted her cup, and looked at the dark liquid inside, swirling it, without ever bringing it near her face.

“People like Faust,” said Hannah, “people like foreign dictators, they don’t go away. You will spend your life trying to throw down one, while ten more will rise up. They are like the tide, like tornadoes and earthquakes and sharks, a fact of life. Inevitable.”

“He is not invincible,” said Joachim. “I will finish what I started. And aren’t you… Don’t you want revenge on Isabel?”

Hannah shook her head.

“She made her choice,” she said. “It’s… business. I will investigate, see if she did something sloppy, but… there are no feelings involved here. I protect those that remain loyal. That is my job.”

“There is more to this than that,” said Joachim. He could feel it. Like an intuition. There was something Hannah didn’t tell him. Couldn’t tell him. “What is Faust after?”

Hannah met Joachim’s eyes. There was something. Something she was trying to tell him, without telling him.

“What demons are usually after,” she said. “Power, influence, resources. Either for themselves or for their masters.”

“There has to be something more specific than that,” said Joachim. “Faust is on a tight schedule here. I could have killed Wieland, at the very least accidentally. There was no way Faust could have known I wouldn’t. He had this shiny chess piece and he kissed it goodbye, to buy time. Time for what?”

Hannah seemed to be stifling a frustrated groan. The tone of her voice did not change as she continued, but it sounded more artificial to Joachim than ever.

“Demons have masters,” she said. “Those masters have schemes too complex to be fully understood.”

It was in that moment Joachim understood what Hannah was trying to tell him.

“So those demons would do things that were against their own will,” said Joachim. “And maybe use somebody external to add an additional layer of obfuscation to whatever they are up to.”

Hannah nodded gratefully.

“But those external elements would also not understand the big picture,” Joachim continued, “in case they got captured.”

“Demons often find themselves unable to betray secrets,” said Hannah. “There is often nothing more to it than that. Sometimes those… external elements would have to take things on faith.”

“Yes,” said Joachim. “I can see now how it is impossible for me to ever foil Faust’s plan. What had I been thinking?”

“There will be a time for revenge,” said Hannah. She spoke slowly, carefully. “It isn’t now, but you have to recognize it when it comes.”

Joachim stayed silent, mulling this over. Interesting enough that Hannah would refer to herself as a demon. Did she have hidden capabilities?

“It is a pity,” said Joachim. “What is the next job you have for me?”

“Do you trust me enough to give you one?” she said. She made intense eye-contact when she asked that. There was a hidden meaning behind the question. Did you get all of this I was trying to tell you? Do you trust me on this? Can you work on faith without having all the information?

“I want to bring down Faust,” said Joachim. “Is that still your priority as well?”

“Yes,” said Hannah. “Albeit one that can only be achieved in… a specific time in the future.”

“Then I’m in,” said Joachim.

Carina was coming back. She had been strolling around on the parking lot shifting snow around with her feet. She didn’t seem less gloomy than before, but more settled. Calm.

“Good,” said Hannah. “There are a few errands you could run for me. One to a specific contractor we have been working with. Johanna Rebane. She runs a unique kind of business, you will see. I will give you the address. Just ask her for a status update and tell her I sent you.”

Joachim nodded.

“Good,” she said again. She took a deep breath. “I would tell you we can talk more when things have calmed down, but I’m a bit too much of a realist to assume they ever will. See you soon. Remember this, see you soon. And please don’t follow me, it wouldn’t help either of us.”

She turned and walked over to her car. Joachim stayed and looked after her, lost in thought.

Soon? What had that been about?

“We need to talk,” said Carina.

Aw crap. Had there ever been anything positive coming after those words?

Reluctantly, Joachim turned towards Carina whose melancholy had been replaced with determination. Joachim braced himself for impact.

“I have made a decision,” said Carina. “And I want to talk it over with you.”

Book 2 – Chapter 9

As far as hotel rooms went, the Winterer Gasthof was pretty decent, even if it made no pretext of trying to compete with big hotel chains. It had those rustic, historical beds fashioned from heavy wood, with leaf patterns carved into the headboards. It had thick curtains, smelling of the times when smoking in hotel rooms wasn’t just tolerated, but normal. There was a thick heavy deadbolt on the door that no master key would open from the outside. There were no cameras. Finally, the man at the frontdesk was happy to give him a key after receiving a one-hundred Euro bill extra instead of identification.

They had given them a good room, too. Far down the hallway, thick, soundproof walls, lots of light, while the window went out to the courtyard, with few prying eyes seeing the freshly-showered man in department store pyjamas tied to a rustic, historical bed, fashioned from heavy wood, with leaf patterns carved into the headboards.

Wieland made no attempts to scream, nor did he struggle against the thick hemp rope Carina had used to immobilize him. In a way, this made Joachim insecure. Sooner, rather than later, Carina would want him to tie her up and Joachim could already see himself fumbling around, never coming near the neat symmetry of Carina’s ropework. It was just one of those emotions that was stewing inside of Joachim right now. Right next to it was the fear of getting caught, should somebody actually hear something from outside the door, and the uncomfortable feeling of slipping back into a lifestyle Joachim had left behind years ago, never wanting to return. Obsessively researching an evil, secret organization was one thing. This, this, checking into a hotel under a false name and bribing the front desk, was too familiar for comfort. Having somebody involuntarily tied to the bed was probably the cherry on top of his relapse sundae.

Carina and Joachim sat on the other bed in silence, watching Wieland. Waiting. When the knock finally came, Joachim nearly had a heart attack. There was the loud noise of breaking wood. When Joachim looked to his hand, he realized he had accidentally broken off a corner of the headboard that he now held in his hand. He sighed. It was a pity about the bed, he thought, as he carefully opened the door.

“Took you long enough,” said Joachim.

Hannah glared at him. She was wearing a punk outfit. Jeans with holes in them showing off patches of pale, shaved skin. A Rolling Stones T-Shirt with frayed hems. Somehow she still looked authoritative though. It was all ine her body language, the way she carried herself. She could have been naked, sitting at the head of a boardroom table, and people would calmly take orders from her.

“I’m not used to be bossed around like this,” she said. She extended her hands, presenting the empty hallway all around. “I came alone as you asked.”

“Which means that Andrej is standing by at the entrance of the closest wormhole, Stefan probably has a sniper rifle on this room and… what happened to Daniel?”

She froze for a second. Good. Joachim had counted on the team being here.

“Do you have him?” she said.

“Come in,” said Joachim.

He let her in and closed and dead bolted the door behind her. Hannah walked over to the incapacitated Wieland. Casually, she checked his pupils with a penlight for some reason. She also touched his body in a hundred different places as if checking if any of his bones were broken. Finally she got out a needle and pricked one of Wieland’s toes, prompting no reaction whatsoever from the helpless psychopath who kept impassively staring at the ceiling.

She dabbed the tiny drop of blood with some form of testing strip that promptly changed color.

“He’s real,” she said. “Not an illusion, possibly an imposter.”

Joachim blinked. Of course it was obvious now that an illusion probably wouldn’t go all the way down to the chemical level, but for some reason he hadn’t thought of it.

Hannah pulled at the leg of the pyjamas and gestured at Wieland, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“Bugs,” said Carina.

“And fleas,” said Joachim. “Faust can hear and see through his illusions. Or he can’t. At any rate it was safer to move him.”

“And rape me,” said Wieland in a raspy voice.

“Search him,” said Joachim. “Faust had ears on him. Either he was an illusion or one of his illusions was near or he had been bugged. Either way it was better to move him, undress him, shower him and move him some more. This is the third hotel room we have him in. I will add it to your tab.”

Hannah snorted.

“He’s ours then?” she said.

“If you still want him,” said Joachim. “Maybe you will have more luck getting him to talk.”

Hannah kept looking at Wieland thoughtfully.

“It’s good work,” said Hannah, “but it hasn’t helped you. You are being watched.”

Joachim glanced towards Carina who was looking around nervously. The stress was getting to her. It was getting to Joachim, too.

“Isabel?” said Joachim.

Hannah nodded.

“You think Faust has broken her already?” said Joachim. He shuddered when he tried to imagine it. He wasn’t sure he believed in demons, but Faust had been the architect of the entire torture operation Joachim had been fighting against all this time. There were probably no bounds to the methods he would employ to get somebody to cooperate.

Hannah stayed silent for the longest time, just staring at Joachim, her mouth a thin line.

“There have been some new developments,” said Hannah. “We have reason to believe Isabel has defected.”

Joachim blinked. Technically he knew what these words meant, but the full implications of that sentence didn’t quite reach the thinking parts of his brain yet.

“This entire snatching operation-” said Joachim.

“A ruse,” said Hannah.

Striking at shadows, Wieland’s words echoed inside Joachim head. A long game of Battleship going on for the rest of your life.

“Can you do me a favor?” said Joachim.

“As long as you promise you won’t let my blood fall into the wrong hands,” said Hannah.

Smart people were annoying.

“I’m sorry,” said Joachim. “I just want to be sure.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” said Hannah. “You will want to use your own equipment though and that means leaving Wieland behind.”

Joachim shook his head.

“I don’t care about him,” he said. “Faust wouldn’t have let me have him if he was worth anything.”

“Thanks,” said Wieland.

Joachim put his hand on Wieland’s throat and had Carina untie him. It took agonizingly long. He waited for him to pounce, sacrificing himself, just to hurt his girlfriend (or whatever). He didn’t though. Wieland kept perfectly still. Whatever Wieland expected to find on the other side, it had to be a lot more pleasant than anything in this world.

Was he a spy? Did he expect to report to his superiors about all the things he had learned? It was unnerving fighting against opponents who weren’t afraid to die. Every single one of those people was a suicide bomber.

Finally, Joachim heaved Wieland to his wobbly, bare feet.

Hannah unlocked the door and let in Andrej who had already been standing there. Joachim hated it when his paranoia was proven right. He wanted to tell himself that his caution was excessive, that he was delusional, but reality continuously didn’t allow him to relax.

Joachim nodded towards Andrej, more in acknowledgement than greeting. Andrej had a neat little gun pointed square at Wieland and barely paid attention to anyone else. He pulled him out and Hannah closed the door.

“I assume you will want us to have a chat now?” said Hannah.

“There is a café right next to a pharmacy, down the street,” said Joachim.

Hannah glanced at Carina.

“Is the civilian coming, too?”

“Are there civilians in this war of yours?” said Joachim.

Hannah crossed her arms. Joachim remained firm, meeting her gaze.

“Very well,” she said.

They both just stood there, Carina looking back and forth between them. Hannah was keeping him here a bit longer, Joachim realized, allowing Andrej to get away.

“What happened to Daniel?” said Joachim. “Did he defect, too?”

Hannah visibly fought to keep her expression calm, but her face betrayed the anger, the way her eyebrows moved, the way her jaw kept clenching.

“No,” said Hannah, “he is still with us. Special assignment.”

That was all he was likely to get out of her on the subject, Joachim knew.

“Let’s go then,” said Joachim.

“Let’s go then,” said Hannah.

Carina frowned, hesitated, said nothing, then followed.

Book 2 – Chapter 8

The light went on suddenly, just as Joachim pushed the button. Pitch darkness turned into perfect color, like ripping a photograph out of an envelope. The smell of sweat and the soft whimpering noise had already told Joachim what he had wanted to know.

The address hadn’t been an apartment. It was a basement compartment. A tiny, windowless concrete box with nothing but a bare light bulb and a chair. A chair that was bolted to the floor and looked a lot like the one they had used to torture their victims with its fake black leather padding and its actual leather restraints.

The man fastened to that chair had seen better days. His eyes were duct-taped shut, as was his mouth. There was dried blood on the left side of his face. It had soiled the shoulder of his neon-yellow tracking suit.

Joachim recognized him instantly.

This was Wieland. The man he had presumably… possibly talked to on the phone ten hours ago.

It was Carina who jumped forward to make the first move, before Joachim could stop her.

“He’s semi-conscious and they duct-taped a cloth into his mouth,” she said. She pulled out a multi-tool. Circumstances aside, Joachim thought it was sort of hot that she carried one of those.

“You really shouldn’t-”

“He will choke on this,” said Carina. “It’s a wonder he hasn’t yet.”

“This is Wieland,” said Joachim. “He-”

“I know, you told me,” she said, without turning around. She started checking his limbs. Mumbling something about circulation she started to fumble with one of his restraints.

“Do you think this wise?” said Joachim.

“His right leg is cold, much colder than his left,” said Carina. “Means the restraint cuts off circulation.”

She looked up at Joachim.

“We are better than them,” she said. “We have to act like it.”

Wieland started to stir, mumbling his thanks.

“How are you feeling?” Carina asked him.

Wieland blinked against the light, then looked over to Joachim. His left eye looked bad. It wasn’t swollen, but the white inside of it was mostly red.

“Been worse,” he said.

He started stretching inside the chair, the restraints groaning softly against the strain.

Wieland started to chuckle.

“What a turn of events, eh?” he said.

“How do we know he isn’t an illusion?” Carina whispered.

“Easy enough to find out,” said Joachim. “Wieland, you have ten seconds to answer three questions. You answer wrong, I will assume you are an illusion and bash in your head, you got that?”

Wieland chuckled again, this time it went over into a manic giggle. He had pressed his eyes shut and seemed to try and curl up, but was held by the restraints.

“I want to know what kind of rivet you used to fasten the restraints to the chair in the cabin. I want to know the operating system of your mail server. I want to know how many locks there were on the door in your hideout at Freisinger Landstraße and what kind. Ready? Go.”

Wieland took a deep breath and gave Joachim a level look.

“The restraints were fastened using 12cm bolts, not rivets. The operating system on most of our mail servers was a custom Linux, kernel version… 4.6-ish? And trick question, we never had a hideout at Freisinger Landstraße, as far as I know.”

“Still could you sitting next to Faust talking to a hand puppet,” said Joachim.

Another burst of giggles from Wieland.

“I know,” he said. “That’s why you have to cut off my finger.”

Joachim extended his hand to Carina who was still holding her multitool.

“You can’t be serious,” she said.

“Trust me,” said Joachim.

Carina seemed to hesitate, but finally placed the tool inside Joachim’s hand.

Joachim snapped out a knife.

He stepped towards Wieland.

Wieland only let out the faintest breath of fear as Joachim grabbed him by his ugly, greasy ponytail and jerked back his head, knife pointed at his throat.

He looked him into his shiny blue eyes, one of them drowned in blood from the inside, then brought the knife around and liberated a single strain of hair.

He saw surprise on Wieland’s face. More importantly, his hands and feet relaxed as well. No signs of a loop going on.

Joachim pulled the strain free, examining it, finally letting it sail to the ground.

None of this was conclusive. Wieland could be sitting next to Faust somewhere, Faust could pay extra special attention to getting all the details right and maybe illusions could leave hair behind. Funny though that Faust’s Kukomu had always left the sink spotless when he had been shaving.

None of it was conclusive, but Joachim had no idea how to test this further. At least in the short-term.

“Having fun?” said Wieland. His voice was so tiny and croaky.

“Want me to cut off your nose next?” said Joachim.

“Go ahead,” said Wieland. “There is nothing you can do that others haven’t done to me before.”

“Did you and Faust have a falling out?” said Joachim.

Wieland smirked.

“What do you know about the Great House of Asmodeus?” he said. It seemed more like a rhetorical question, yet Wieland stayed silent, waiting for a response.

“They are big and powerful?” Joachim tried. He didn’t feel like playing their psycho games. He wouldn’t allow himself to get sucked into this.

Wieland laughed.

“No,” he said. “And yes. They have the smallest standing army among all the Great Houses, so… not big. But they are one of the most powerful.”

“Should I be hearing this?” said Carina.

Joachim glanced at her. She looked worried. He had told her of the consequences of knowing certain things. Back then she had told him to tell her anyway. Doesn’t everybody? Nobody would really believe the consequences of knowing until they had seen it with their own eyes. It would already be too late then. There was no ethical way to get sucked into this world, the world behind the curtain. It just happened to people when they weren’t careful. Like car-crashes.

“What you don’t know,” said Wieland. “Could kill you.”

He grinned. His teeth were brown with dried blood. He looked positively disgusting.

“I’m not sure I want to hear you rambling,” said Joachim. “How about you tell me where Isabel is?”

“With Faust,” said Wieland.

“Where’s Faust?” said Joachim.

“How should I know?” said Wieland.

“If you are not useful to me, I will kill you,” said Joachim.

Wieland’s grin was even broader now than just before.

“Go ahead. I go back to Hell and will be back in a year or two. No rest for technicians down there. You on the other hand will lose your friend.”

“She’s not my friend,” said Joachim. “And I can torture you.”

“And I can shut off my pain receptors, moron,” said Wieland. “And besides torture? Murder? Are you still taking the moral high-ground with me?”

“It isn’t so hard, considering what you have done,” said Carina.

Joachim could see her shiver. She was not okay with what Joachim was doing right now. Joachim could tell. She seemed attracted, excited and repulsed at the same time. None of this could have been healthy.

“You want me to go psycho-killer on this situation?” said Joachim. “Have you smell your own burning flesh? Amputate your limbs until I can carry you like a backpack?”

“You don’t have the balls,” said Wieland. “That’s one. Two is that I have been at the mercy of real psycho-killers. Or – let’s say – matured and experienced psycho-killers. They don’t call it Hell for nothing.”

Wieland was right, Joachim realized. Faust had given Wieland to him on a silver platter and it didn’t matter one bit. There was nothing he could do with him, nothing he could really use him for. Wieland must have read that realization off Joachim’s face, because he continued.

“House Asmodeus is famous for lies. For trickery. Fighting against them is a long game of Battleship, going on for the rest of your life. They will get in your head. They will have you strike at shadows. They will have you die the death of a million tiny cuts. It is what they are famous for. They have played this game with fallen angels. There is no winning here.”

“What is Faust’s real name?” said Joachim.

Wieland hesitated. For the fraction of a second, he looked down at his chair. It was long enough to give Joachim the right idea. He smiled.

“I think you could use a shower, don’t you?”

Wieland’s eyes widened. There might have been no way to win the war. Wieland would need a lot more practice though before he’d be winning battles against Joachim.

Book 2 – Chapter 7

Joachim didn’t need to come close to his apartment to realize how hopeless it was.

The building had been old-school Munich postwar. A perched red roof, plastered yellow walls, a highly inflammable stairway made entirely of wood that creaked like a pirate ship on the way up.

There was nothing left.

The roof was but a charred skeleton, the walls had caved in – either on its own or as a result of the fire department’s actions, Joachim didn’t know. The ruins of what had been his freshly minted home were still smoldering, still smoking, with the fire people pumping water into the lower levels.

Everything around was a living nightmare. There were three fire trucks and four ambulances inside an area that was entirely closed off. Most prominent however were the eight people covered with tarps on the ground between them. People who were never going to get up again.

Around the red and white barrier tape was a large crowd of shocked onlookers, craning their necks, trying to get an idea of what was going on. The air felt toxic with the taste and smell of burned things. Joachim just wanted to vomit and curl up in a corner somewhere.

He had left this place a little over five hours ago. There was no way it could have burned this quickly by natural causes. This was obviously no electrical fire or a stove that somebody left on. Somebody had done this. Somebody had killed those people – the anonymous neighbors Joachim had never spoken to – just to get to him. Or not even to get to him, just to send him a message.

He realized all of a sudden that he was holding Carina’s hand. She had pressed up her head against his chest.

“I guess I don’t have to put off going to Ikea anymore,” said Joachim.

“That lamp was hideous,” said Carina. “Good riddance.”

Joachim wanted to cry, right then and there, but he didn’t let himself.

“You see this?” he said, pointing to the ambulances and the EMTs, meaning the corpses between them that they couldn’t see anymore because they too had become part of the crowd of onlookers. “This is what they do. This is why I can’t let this go.”

“I know,” said Carina.

The space where his apartment had been, the dinner table that he had almost had sex with Carina on this morning, it was gone. He could see there was nothing there. Everything he owned, all the garbage and all the treasures he had collected over the course of his flawed life, they were burned to ashes and buried underneath the dead lives of the other people, who had lived in the apartments above.

All his research…

Had that been the target? Had they been worried? Was there something in those files?

Joachim had encrypted copies all over the internet. He had copies on flash-drives soldered into cans that he had buried in the woods. Wieland would have thought of that. Wieland would also have noticed that he hadn’t been home. Wieland would also not have thought for a second that this would rattle him. Joachim had gotten stabbed and had still come after them the last time, if Wieland didn’t know that, Faust would.

“Ah shit,” said Joachim.

“Yeah,” said Carina, hugging him.

“No,” said Joachim, “worse than that.”

Wieland wanted Joachim to hold still. He didn’t want Joachim on the move. He didn’t want to take away his excuses not to come after him. Who had alerted him of the fire? How long after the fire had it been that they had known? Who actually wanted him to sign away his soul, figuratively and possibly literally, to team up with them?

Joachim stroked Carina’s back signaling that he didn’t need to be hugged anymore. All the hugs in the world wouldn’t make him feel less alone right now.

He dialed Andrej’s number, but he only got voicemail. He had probably used a burner. Hannah’s eagle scout troupe was in full paranoia mode right now.

Joachim started typing out a fucking email.

“What is it?” said Carina.

“I don’t know yet,” said Joachim. “Not for certain.”

He typed frantically. There was something else. His brain wanted to tell him something. Something he had seen. Something that was going on.

He looked up, searching his surroundings. When he found it, his stomach dropped to the floor.

He saw an African man. A Nigerian man. He was nerdy in an old-fashioned sort of way.

He wore one of those department store shirts with the stripes, visible under his gray felt coat. He also wore suit pants and shiny black shoes and a look of fake puzzlement on his face. Joachim pushed Carina behind his back.

He wanted to tell her to run, but reconsidered.

“Stay close,” he whispered.

It took him less than a minute to get through to him, since Joachim was now impartial to gently shoving people out of his way. Unstoppable force, meet not-really-immovable object.

“Hello, Faust,” said Joachim.

The demon turned and smiled at him.

“Joachim,” he said. “I have missed you.”

To his left and right Joachim could see identical faces with different closing, subtly strewn into the crowd. Joachim had already figured him for an illusion. Otherwise they wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“You could have stopped by,” said Joachim and glanced at the destroyed building. “Somehow I think you know just where to find me.”

“Oh did you live here?” said Faust, in mock surprise. Joachim still had to get over the fact that ‘Kukomu from Nigeria’ now spoke fluent, accentless German. He also had to get over the fact that he sort of, kind of, had fallen for a Nigerian scam.

“Not anymore,” said Joachim. “How have you been? How are your key performance indicators on torturing people to death these days?”

“He’s not a hallucination,” whispered Carina. “I can see him, too.”

Faust sighed.

“He has such a gift for the melodramatic,” said Faust. “Doesn’t he?”

Faust looked back at Joachim.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” he said.

“Oh sure,” said Joachim. “Person-whose-name-is-none-of-his-business, this is Kukomu, who likes to call himself Faust, an evil Hitler-wannabe from Hell.”

Faust shook his head.

“I was hoping to have a civilized conversation,” said Faust.

“Oh this is civilized,” said Joachim. “Do you see me punching you?”

Faust shrugged.

“Maybe you should,” said Faust. “It could have some therapeutic value.”

“What do you want?” said Joachim.

There was something weird about the way Faust moved. He seemed stiff. Or rather, he seemed to be repeating the same couple of movements over and over again, like a character from an old computer game. He kept straightening his jacket. He kept tilting his head a little bit to the side. Only his face seemed to be expressing something real.

“I want to offer you an alternative,” said Faust.

His eyebrows tilted microscopically. He did a bit of a droopy thing with his mouth. Did he somehow map the movements of his real face to the movements of his illusion? Could Joachim maybe get a read on him?

“To punching you,” said Joachim. He conspicuously looked towards the corpses. “Nah, I think I will pass.”

“Oh Joachim-”

“Herr Schwartz, will work just fine.”

Joachim,” said Faust. “I had nothing to do with this fire. Neither had anyone who works for me.”

“I know,” said Joachim. “I don’t give a shit.”

“I chose you well, didn’t I? I’m a scary judge of talent, am I not?” Faust paused dramatically. Joachim was seriously reconsidering Faust’s offer to punch him. It wouldn’t hurt him, but maybe it would get him to shut up. Or mildly irritate him. Sort of like pissing on Hitler’s desk. It wouldn’t change anything, but it could be immensely satisfying on a personal level. “I want you to work for me.”

“What?” said Joachim and Carina at the same time.

“Well, Joachim, clever boy that you are, you have already noticed there are greater things going on. As… distasteful, as you might have found my operation of the last couple of years, it did buy me favors with a considerable number of Houses.”

Joachim just stared at his dark, dark eyes. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.

Keep your anger in check,” thought Joachim. Try to figure out his game.

“I know you hate me right now,” said Faust. “You sympathize with the poor souls we had to… convince to take deals that were actually in their best interests. I mean… how many people are really going Upstairs these days? You have no idea what kind of dangers we protected those people from, once they reached the Other Side. They are set for eternity. I dare say some of them have personally thanked me once they realized what kind of – ah – bullet they have dodged.”

“You want me to sign up as well then?” said Joachim.

“Look around,” said Faust. The body of the illusion Joachim was talking to broke out of its irritating cycle and pointed at the crowd around them. Curiously, none of them had reacted to the conversation they were having. They just stood there, gaping, some of them holding up camera phones.

“Are you seriously going to tell me that you are like them,” said Faust. “They are sheep. It’s people like those over there…” He pointed at the fire trucks. “…that make a difference. People who run into burning buildings. People who do what is right, what is necessary, even if every nerve in their body tells them to run away or to call for help or let somebody else deal with the danger.”

“So… what are you offering?” said Joachim.

“An alternative,” said Faust. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. Or what looked like one at first glance.

It was a card, it was expensive, with its beige card-board, with its weight and its beveling and everything. It wasn’t printed though. There was simply an address, obviously written in ink, in an elegant handwriting.

“Is that your office?” said Joachim.

“No,” said Faust. “That is the location of Herrn Wieland.

Tied up and ready for any punishment you see fit to inflict upon him.”

“Is this a trick?” said Joachim.

Faust chuckled.

“Would my answer to that question make a difference to you? At any rate, we will be in touch.”

He turned around and pushed into the crowd. Joachim knew it was pointless to pursue him. This illusion Faust had created would just dissipate as soon as there were no witnesses around.

Book 2 – Chapter 6

Carina was unwilling to talk about any of this as they drove into the city. They drove in one of the newer models of the streetcars, where the seats were narrow and close together and Joachim had to sit down diagonally, with his feet in the aisle, to even fit in there. His back hurting wasn’t helping the situation. Neither was the almost unreadable screen at the very front of the car that counted down the stations.

“Did they really burn down your apartment?” she asked.

Joachim didn’t know how to answer that one. He stared outside for long seconds, watching the snowy streetscape rumble by. Shitty apartments and shitty shops. Gold-buyers, tanning salons, kitchen designers. Wieland could be hiding anywhere in this god-forsaken city. With Faust’s help he could have been hiding in the middle of Marienplatz and Joachim would never find them.

“I know as much as you do,” said Joachim.

She smiled wistfully.

“You suspect the phone call is a trap.”

Joachim got out his phone and showed it to her.

“Andrej’s email was signed with his private key. If they have that then… Hannah’s whole infrastructure is compromised. Cryptography is always the last line of defense. They need the key file, they need the password that hopefully only resides in Andrej’s head. That email is as genuine as it’s going to get.”

Carina closed her eyes and shook her head as if Joachim had just said something really silly.

“So he’s not a doppelganger, but he could still have done it under duress,” said Carina. “That’s what you are thinking right now, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’m preparing for right now, yes,” said Joachim.

Carina laughed and shook her head more.

“You are just so fucking paranoid, you know that?”

Joachim felt anger rising up inside of him. It wasn’t aimed at her though.

“I lived with an illusionary family, Carina. I had a wife that didn’t exist cook dinner for her husband, her equally non-existent kids and me. I was playing board-games with those kids and they were good at them. I… I don’t know if those were actual illusions or if Faust was in my head and I spent my evenings lying around hallucinating.”

Why was he thinking about this now? He didn’t need this now. He had a job to do. What was wrong with him?

Carina broke eye-contact. She was staring out of the window now and the scowl on her face was all for Joachim.

“If they actually are demons,” said Joachim, “they have centuries of experience. They are smarter than me. They thrive on manipulating people to do their dirty work – their fucking evil work – for them. It is a wonder I even made it this far. By all rights I should have died in that cabin on that insane gambit I cooked up. My apartment burning down – if that happened – is just the bill arriving.”

No reaction from Carina to that, instead: “You stalked me didn’t you?”

“No,” said Joachim.

Carina turned to him her eyes filled with tears.

“You stalked me and filled one of your dossiers on me and now you lie to me about it.”

“I-…”

Joachim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Why was this so hard? He faced down people with guns using his bare hands, why did this give him pause?

“I didn’t actually,” said Joachim.

The scowl on Carina’s face deepened.

“Liar,” she said.

“It’s basic economics,” said Joachim. “Not everybody in my life is an enemy spy. I’m not that important. Why would somebody impersonate my girlfriend, when you could just as easily be a waiter or a janitor or-”

“Oh, now I’m your girlfriend? When we are fighting? When you are afraid to lose me?”

“That’s not what I-…” Joachim groaned in frustration. “Why is this so hard?”

“Oh I’m going to make this really easy for you,” said Carina. “Do you have a file on me?”

Joachim jumped out of his tiny medieval torture device of a seat.

“No, I haven’t!” he said, maybe a bit too loudly. “When I met you I wanted things to return to normal. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in paranoia, okay? I don’t. Maybe you are a fucking demon. Maybe you already ingested me with a slow-moving poison or whatever, but you know what? I’m fine with it. I’m fine with taking a fucking chance once in awhile, okay?”

Joachim breathed heavily. His face felt flushed. An old lady was openly staring at them, not even averting her eyes when Joachim turned to look at her. All the other people in the streetcar minded their own business. How often did these reality TV scenes play out in Munich’s public transportation system? Once per day? More often?

He sat back down.

Carina was looking at him more calmly now. It was impossible to read that woman.

“I like you,” said Joachim.

“But?” said Carina.

“No but,” said Joachim.

She glanced outside.

“This is our stop,” she said.

They got up, supporting themselves against the steel poles from the streetcars final twists and turns.

“I believe you,” she said. “I believe you, just… don’t lie to me. All of this stuff is hard enough to belief as it is.”

The doors slid open and they almost stumbled into Andrej’s arms. He was leaning against the blue-coated streetcar stop, a cigarette in his hand, many more on the ground around him. His coat was open, revealing a thin-looking sweater in plain black and a pair of jeans that looked like it had actually been pulled behind a car. Andrej seemed utterly oblivious to the cold. His facial expression barely changed when he spotted Joachim.

“Kept me waiting,” he said.

“Came here as soon as I got the email,” said Joachim.

Carina sat down on one of the wire-mesh bench seats underneath the streetcar stop’s roof. She crossed her legs and her arms and just sort of stared, brooding over something. Maybe this conversation wasn’t her fight. She was probably still thinking about what happened with her brother.

“You really want to fly solo on this one?” said Andrej.

“I do,” said Joachim.

Joachim wanted to justify himself, then he realized he had already made his position clear.

He didn’t like being a disposable resource. He didn’t like being called in, waiting things out and then being benched as soon as something unexpected happened. He worked better on his own. At least for now.

Maybe Andrej read all of that out of his body language, maybe he just didn’t care one way or the other. What Andrej did do was shrug and that was that.

“You mentioned you had something for me?” said Joachim.

With a small flourish, Andrej produced a flash drive.

Joachim took it. He was grateful to have it, whatever it was.

He looked at Andrej.

“Anything happens to us, this will be useful. We have dead-man’s-switch. Encrypted files on entire enemy operation. Twenty-four hour after horrible death of all team members, you will access to everything. Just in case.”

Joachim nodded his thanks. This whole perspective was too grim for Joachim to find any appropriate words.

“Hannah thinks of you as wrecking ball,” said Andrej. He snipped his burning cigarette butt into the virgin snow piling up against a round metal trash can. “You go in and you do things, with Geronimo-style, yes? This game though, this Great Game, it is about layers, like onion. Minions have minions who have minions. You want to find demons, you have to dig your way to core. Takes years, decades even. This speed, this brutality, it is new. Scares many. Interesting times, yes?”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at,” said Joachim.

Andrej looked around. He jerked his thumb at the bank behind him. Then he pointed at the LCD-display with the arrival times for the next streetcars. Then he pointed at the logo of an insurance company on the other side of the street. Then at a police car, parking further away.

“This world, it is corrupt. Every layer of society it has demons or people serving demons. Every bullet, every cellphone contract, every light bulb sold serves purposes of Hell. Their resources are endless.”

“The dead are ruling over the living,” said Joachim.

Andrej nodded.

“On Earth as it is in Hell,” he said.

“It can’t go that deep,” said Joachim. “Somebody would have noticed.”

“That is point,” said Andrej. “Nobody notices, because everything is influenced rather than controlled. Everything is owned, rather than managed.”

“Sounds to me like taking a wrecking ball to this doesn’t seem to be that bad an idea,” said Joachim.

Andrej lit another cigarette and gestured with it between his fingers.

“My thoughts exactly,” said Andrej. “I have to bid you farewell now. It will not be long though. I have feeling we will see each other again – sooner rather than later.”

“Unless one of us dies tomorrow?” said Joachim.

Andrej grinned.

“You should know by now, the devils will not let you off that easy.”