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.”