Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

He started driving.

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

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

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

It would take some getting used to.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

He could lie here for a bit. He could-

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

Joachim cried out in surprise.

He was still there.

Still there. Still there. Still there.

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

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

He tried to sit up but everything hurt too much.

“Calm down,” said Sanft’s voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why would he… Oh shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanft raised his non-existent eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Herr Schwartz?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Chapter 6

The curtain around Joachim’s bed started to move again, rattling.

He had let the steady beeping of his heartbeat on the machines lull himself into a slumber. How long had he slept?

Too long.

The air smelled of antiseptics hung in the air, announcing reality behind Joachim’s closed eyes. He opened them. Then he blinked trying to get rid of the blurriness. The light was dim. It had to be night. Or early morning. Hospitals had weird schedules.

“Herr Schwartz? Herr Schwartz, can you hear me?”

The man had way too low a voice for a doctor. He should have been a blues singer inside a smokey bar somewhere in the steel district of an American city. Somewhere with blue collar workers, sipping hard liquor, listening to music that would put hair on one’s chest.

“I hear you fine,” said Joachim.

He tried to get up. His body was weirdly stiff. There was no pain though. Painkillers. They had him on painkillers. Seemed to be the good stuff, too, from the way his head felt.

“How are we feeling?” said the doctor. Joachim kept forgetting his name.

Joachim chuckled at the question, as if the doctor had told him a joke. He managed to sit up without screaming. Without any pain actually, which was probably not a Good Thing To Do.

“You tell me,” said Joachim.

The doctor – Dr. Schekel! That was his name! – had the face of a man of indulgence. Just a little too much fat, just the faintest hint of an alcoholic’s eye-lids and nose, just the tiniest yellow stain on his perfectly-straight front teeth. He also seemed way too awake for half past five in the morning.

Schekel fished for the chart at the end of Joachim’s bed. He flipped through it with bored routine, stopping at this sheet or that, always reading for a specific detail on each one. It reminded Joachim of Sanft, taking his foot apart back in the restaurant. It had only been a couple of days since then. It felt like years.

“You are recovering remarkably well,” said Schekel.

“You are saying that like it’s bad news,” said Joachim.

“This is just… No, of course.” Schekel’s eyes snapped up, locking with Joachim’s. “This is good news. Very good news. How did you say you got those injuries?”

Images flashed through Joachim’s head. He felt his hand tremble a little.

“I fell down some stairs,” said Joachim.

“What did you do to the stairs in return?”

Joachim’s mind snapped back to the here and now. He couldn’t stay here. He couldn’t be lying around right now.

“It was an accident, nothing more,” said Joachim. “Sorry Herr Doktor, I got places to be.”

Schekel raised an eyebrow.

“With those injuries? I would like to see you try.”

He did.

It wasn’t that hard actually. Sure, as he pushed himself up and let his feet dangle off the bed, he felt sore all around. Sure, the stab wound in his back hurt something fierce, but not so much that he couldn’t move. Not so much that he couldn’t do something.

His feet hit the floor. His back straightened. Any minute he expected a bout of weakness to come, sending him on a one-way trip to the floor, but it didn’t. He stood.

“Tough guy, eh?” said Schekel. His smirk quickly turned into a frown. “I recommend you take this seriously. You are looking at a recovery time of many weeks. Three months is not uncommon. And that doesn’t include physical therapy. These injuries you sustained could have easily been deadly.”

Remembering the conversation Joachim had had shortly before getting to the hospital, he believed him.

He couldn’t stay though.

“Listen, Dr. Schekel. I know how you feel, really I do. Unruly patient, off to do something stupid that will likely get him killed and you are trying to stop it. You are powerless here. Your stress, your grief, it comes from not recognizing that, even though logically, you probably already know.

“I’m off to do something important. Something only I can do that will hopefully prevent people coming to harm. Something time-critical. I’m sorry for doing this. I will try not to hurt myself too much in the process.”

Joachim had hoped this would defuse the situation a bit, but Schekel only gave him a long, angry glare in return. Had Joachim come off as patronizing?

“You will have to sign a waiver, Herr Schwartz. You will be leaving against medical advice.”

Joachim nodded.

“And I have informed the police about your injuries. I don’t know whom you are protecting, but they stabbed you. Maybe you should reconsider that relationship.”

They’d find an empty apartment. It wasn’t like Kukomu was still there. It wasn’t like Joachim would be returning there any time soon.

“Thank you, Dr. Schekel,” said Joachim. What else could he say.

Joachim walked towards the door. Where did they keep his stuff? The nurse at the front-desk would know.

“I hope you know what you are doing.”

“So do I,” said Joachim, without turning around. “So do I.”

#

Sanft leaned against the ping-pong table, no doubt letting fabrics with the price tag of a small car get soaked with seven kinds of nature and city park sludge.

“I always do love a dramatic pause,” said Sanft.

A dull pain seeped into Joachim’s hand. He was still clutching the gold coin, unable to let it go, unable to relent the grip, unable to keep his body from shaking.

He had taken several deep breaths of the humid, spicy air, but it had done very little to calm him down.

“No,” he said finally. “I am not going to be working for you.”

Sanft’s face didn’t move a muscle.

Joachim felt a metaphorical door closing on him with all the problems of his every-day life flooding back in on him. (With some shiny new ones, along the lines of: What was going to happen now? Was Sanft going to turn him into a toad?)

Sanft looked away, seemingly unperturbed. He didn’t seem to look at anything in particular. Just enjoying nature.

Joachim felt fixed into place, almost bolted onto the world’s shittiest expensive park bench. Truth was he did feel threatened. He had just witnessed something he had believed not to exist when he had gotten up this morning. Joachim was not sure if he was going to walk away from the meeting. Could Sanft just make his heart stop? Make him drop dead and even call the ambulance for him play-acting the concerned citizen? It would make sense for Sanft to kill him. Joachim had no incentive to stay silent about what he had seen and recorded on his phone. Well, maybe everyone would think he was crazy. Would they though? Would Sanft think so?

Wasn’t Joachim jumping to conclusions assuming Sanft would outright murder him? Was there a memory erase spell maybe? Or a stern warning? Then again Sanft had admitted– well, not denied being a demon.

This was a good time to cry. Cry about the broken remnants of reality and his sanity.

The only explanation. Magic was the only reasonable explanation. That or ridiculously advanced technology.

“Why?” said Sanft, ripping Joachim from his thoughts.

Sanft was still day-dreaming by the looks of it, apparently enjoying the sight of a tree in the distance, barely visible in the autumn night’s darkness.

Joachim considered this for a second.

“Why I don’t want to work for you? Or hell?”

Sanft’s eyes wandered back to him. It made Joachim feel like getting stabbed by an icicle.

“Yes,” said Sanft.

“Well it’s logical,” said Joachim. He didn’t want to look at Sanft, but he didn’t want to look away either. He settled on unfocusing his eyes, turning Sanft into a hazy form. Barely there. “If there is a hell, there is a heaven and an immortal soul. No short-term pleasure is worth an eternity of pain. Simple as that.”

Sanft nodded at that.

“So you are not objecting on moral grounds, but rather because of the best personal outcome for yourself.”

“Well… um… respectfully, moral considerations were eclipsed by just how fundamentally stupid it would have been to agree.”

Sanft laughed out loud. Joachim nearly wet himself. He wanted to run away, but was afraid to do it. There was no telling what the demon-sorcerer-monster-HR-person might do about it if he did.

“What if I told you that you might have been a victim of propaganda?”

“I’d tell you that this was difficult to prove. There are just two superpowers with no independent countries to give independent feedback. Or rather a lot of countries whole-heartedly condemning you.”

The silence was deafening. There were street-noises somewhere in the distance, the rustling of the trees in the wind.

“I see,” said Sanft.

More silence. Some part of Joachim wanted Sanft to shoot him already and have it over with, yet the man remained perfectly still.

The man was breathing. And Joachim had watched him eat food. And turn a nickel coin into gold. Maybe this wasn’t a demon. There was too much attached to that word. It was too early to accept that idea.

Still, wanting people to believe that one was a demon didn’t speak volumes for one’s sanity.

“A little bit disappointing,” said Sanft. “This is quite the common response.”

“Must be frustrating to work in your profession. Hearing lots of no’s, doors slamming in your face,…”

Have you heard the good news about our Prince of Darkness Lucifer Morningstar?

“I have to tell you, Herr Schwartz, that you are showing great promise as a candidate. I want you to know that you can feel free to reconsider.”

“So you will honor our deal?”

“Our deal?”

“I say no and you will not be bothering for a very long time?”

“Absolutely.”

He extended his hand. His manicured nails gleamed in the twilight.

Joachim stood up, hesitated, then he moved the luke-warm coin into his other hand and shook Sanft’s.

“You seem to be an awful good sport about all of this,” said Joachim.

Sanft chuckled, the way only old men could chuckle.

“I have to admit,” said Sanft, “I still have an ace up my sleeve.”

There was no warning. One second they were shaking hands, the next Joachim’s body lit up with excruciating pain.

Chapter 5

The air was thick with the smell of wet dirt and spilled beer. Somewhere in the distance drunk fraternity students were singing songs of the subtly saucy variety, in proud, thick Bavarian dialect. The sun had almost completely gone down now. The street-lights from ten meters away cast stark shadows through the trees. Sanft was illuminated by the light of his tablet, tapping and swishing away on it for a moment. Then, satisfied, he looked up.

“It says right here one of your hobbies is reading fantasy and science-fiction novels,“ he said.

Joachim pushed himself off the ping-pong table and started walking around in a desperate attempt to get his brain working again.

“You know,” he said. “You know, I never asked, but… how did you get my CV? I am pretty sure I never applied to any headhunters.”

“There are a lot of people who value a good relationship to our company. Sort of a gray area in Germany privacy laws, I fully admit that.“

Joachim stifled a groan. He had had quite enough of Sanft‘s Agent Smith routine at that point.

“So,” said Sanft, “Consider this your test. If you fail it, we go our separate ways. You will not hear from us again, any time in the near future. If you pass, I will tell you about the job. I will tell you about your prospective employer. And the job will be yours, if you want it.”

Joachim perked up.

“Do you believe in the supernatural?“ said Sanft.

“No,“ said Joachim.

Sanft looked taken aback, so Joachim started explaining.

“The Millennium Foundation has put out a one million dollar reward for anyone who can demonstrate supernatural abilities inside the lab. Of all of the loons and cons claiming to have magical powers, siphoning money from their followers, none simply waltzed in there and took the check. The money has just lain there for decades. So no. I am confident there are no witches or mediums or whatever.”

“There could be a code of silence in place for those in the know.“

“In an age of camera phones?“ said Joachim. He was just gaining steam now. Years of Catholic school had left him with a couple of sore spots. “Funny how all those sightings of Big Foot and angels have gone down dramatically in the last couple of years.“

“It seems you have given the matter some thought,“ said Sanft.

“I was raised strictly Catholic, I am as atheistic as they come.“

“Very good,“ said Sanft. “So what would I need to do to convince you that it existed?“

Before Joachim could answer, he raised a finger.

“Keep in mind, it needs to be something irrefutable,“ he said. “Something that would convince you in a way that you would have to change your mind.“

“That is my test?“ said Joachim.

“That is your test,“ said Sanft.

“Do you ask this of all your applicants?“

“As a matter of fact, I do.“

What kind of question was that? Weirdest interview question ever.

He took a deep breath.

It was like a coding interview question. The point was not in getting the right answer – although that helped a lot – it was in demonstrating the way he thought. How he approached problems. The best approach to a question like this that Joachim had found was to just start talking until his brain had had chance to catch up.

“Scientific method,” he started. “I would simply have to design an experiment that – if successful – made a non-supernatural solution improbable.”

“Interesting,” said Sanft. “And what would that look like?”

“You could have rigged this place up six times till Sunday,“ said Joachim

He pointed around haphazardly. The rusty, overflowing trashcan, the dark canopy above, the thick bushes all around.

“Cameras, microphones, you name it,“ said Joachim. “It would definitely help you tell how many fingers I‘m holding up behind my back. Besides…“

He pointed into the direction of the drunk chorus of Einst ging ich am Strande der Donau entlang, the rapiest song in German history.

“Anybody around here could be secretly helping you.”

“But you have picked this location,” said Sanft.

Joachim chuckled.

“Yeah right. And when the magician asks you to pick a card it could really be any card.”

Sanft gave him the freshly trademarked Sanft Silence.

“Hypnotical suggestion,” said Joachim. “Or you could have covered all the bases. There are only so many private places all around. Yes, it’s unlikely, but nothing I wouldn’t put past a skilled magician.”

“So far, so good,” said Sanft.

Sanft had this look on his face. Actually it was just his eyes. Hungry eyes. Eyes that were convinced he was the cat and Joachim was the foolish little mouse who had sat down to dine with him. The way the shadows danced on his face really highlighted this effect.

“Like I said, you could have suggested things to me hypnotically,“ Joachim heard himself say. “Maybe you will be able to tell me what number I’m thinking of. Or which number I‘m writing down on a piece of paper or whatever.“

“I doubt that, but go on,“ said Sanft.

Joachim could feel his brain reaching out, coming up with one outrageous scenario after the other.

“It would have to be something impossible,“ he said. “Something that even technology couldn‘t account for. I could ask you to turn diet coke into wine. I could ask you to give me next week‘s lottery numbers. Or…“

Joachim pulled out his wallet. He flipped open the coin pouch and fished out a two euro coin, gold-colored in the middle, silver-colored on the border, but mostly made of nickel, he knew.

He flung it into the air and caught it with a dramatic flourish.

Then he thought for a second and pulled out his chrome-colored multi-tool, popped out the blade and carved three notches into the coin’s metal.

Satisfied he packed up his multi-tool and wallet again and slapped the coin onto the table behind him.

“Without touching the coin, without letting it leave the table,” said Joachim. “Turn it to gold.”

Apparently this hadn‘t been what Sanft had expected. He stared at the ground for a couple of moments.

“And why would you have to accept that?” said Sanft. “It could still be a trick.”

“Extremely unlikely,” said Joachim. “First, the feat is impossible with current technology. Secondly, you couldn’t have prepared this trick in any way. You could use misdirection, but if you can’t touch the coin that should be hard. You could drug me, hypnotize me or any number of things, but you can’t do it to my cellphone camera.”

He held up his phone and smiled.

“That’s right,” said Joachim. “I would film the whole thing. Presumably you could still fake it, but the effort involved would be so tremendous that I have to ask what the benefit would be. I can’t see any. That’s why I choose to accept it.”

Sanft chuckled.

“The ultimate argument is economics then,” said Sanft.

“The ultimate argument is always economics,” said Joachim. “If death curses worked, the military would use them. Rooster heads are a lot cheaper than hellfire missiles.”

Sanft stood up with all the grace of a dancer and the quiet dignity of a foreign nation’s ambassador.

“Very well then,” he said. He produced a silver pen. “Start your camera, kindly leave my face out of it.”

Joachim needed a second to process this. Then he shrugged, as much for Sanft’s benefit as for his own, and started the camera. The flash on top produced a continuing light in the darkness, like a tiny spotlight. He walked around the table and trained it on the coin.

Sanft’s face betrayed nothing. He looked focused, his eyes glancing around the table. He brought his pen down and started scratching a line into the thin layer of dirt on top. Then another one. Then a number of concentric circles with the coin in the middle.

Some primitive part of Joachim’s brain started raising his pulse. It was the part that was afraid of scorpions even when it had never seen a scorpion. Something wasn’t right. This was unfamiliar, therefore dangerous.

Joachim felt silly. All of this was silly.

Sanft was busy carving symbols into the table now. Actually carving, not scratching anymore, definitely damaging his pen in the process. The symbols looked like cuneiform script. All sharp angles and wide endings.

“So this will convince you?” said Sanft.

He was really taking this test to the limits.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Joachim, keeping his cellphone trained on the coin. “Either I’m right or my world view gets shattered, but in the latter case, hey, free gold coin!”

“You could have asked me to throw a car or let things levitate,” said Sanft, working as if the random symbols he drew actually fulfilled a purpose. “It would have been much easier to accomplish than a transformation.”

Joachim shrugged once more.

“What can I say, non-believers are tough customers.”

Wait… was he serious?

Sanft was whispering something. The table’s stone surface started heating up immensely, making residual drops of water sizzle. Joachim had to take a step back, but kept the cellphone on point.

The coin changed. It wasn‘t a puff of smoke and a quick switcheroo either. It was as if a tiny drop of gold had fallen into the metal and was now mixing with it and not becoming thinner in the process. It was a soft, gradual, utterly impossible change and Joachim‘s brain drank in every little detail.

The smell of molten metal. The immense heat that made him sweat. But most of all, how the coin – his coin, minted 2005, worn condition, cut three times – slowly and utterly changed.

It took about twenty seconds and it was done.

Joachim stared for much longer than that, first at the coin then at a smug Matthäus Sanft, then at the coin again.

“There is one more thing we need to discuss,“ said Sanft.

#

It was Wednesday, so the plastic folder thudding into the empty spot between the wire mesh contraption full of empty ballpoint pens and the dusty, obsolete docking station was a turquoise one. Claudio placed his well-manicured consultant hand on top of it for emphasis.

“I just had a meeting,“ he announced.

He had done something to his hair. His golden locks were replaced by a buzz-cut that really brought out his thick designer glasses. The lack of hair meant the neon-light behind him was giving him a diffuse halo, hurting Joachim‘s eyes as he just glanced at him.

He was waiting for Joachim to look up from his laptop and pay attention to him. He liked to do that. Joachim had tried talking to him about this. It made working for Claudio a special pain. Joachim had spent the last half hour basically uploading the big picture of the his coding project into his brain, just to find the five places he needed to make changes to get ticket 17 resolved. The minute he started focusing on him most of this preparation would be lost and he could basically start over. Joachim had tried explaining this to Claudio. Claudio‘s response had been that this was how things worked around here and Joachim had to adapt. Not like Joachim blamed him. There were plenty of the necessities of business people life that Joachim couldn‘t relate to. And since this company focused on data insights rather than down-and-dirty programming, he was hopelessly outnumbered with his concern.

Joachim stifled a sigh. He let go of the colorful syntax-highlighted code on his laptop screen and swiveled around to Claudio.

“I just had a meeting with the client,“ he said. “What is it you said about the unit tests?“

The special pain in the back of Joachim‘s head cracked open and a tiny baby headache hatched from it doing a happy welcome-painful-neon-light dance.

Joachim could have told Claudio the entire story. He could have told him that they were a necessity to ensure code quality. That they were the proof that the module he was writing would work as advertised. That he had told him this three months ago and they had stricken this to be able to go down with the hours so they could make an offer the customer could buy.

Three days ago their perpetually smiling contact at the customer‘s had come around and asked him where those unit tests were. They weren‘t in the offer, the customer hadn‘t paid for them, yet somehow expected them to be included anyway. Said contact had a special kind of amnesia in this spot and would often come back and ask the exact same question two days later. Or assume that Joachim‘s answer had been ‘Yes of course! Immediately!’ and just wanted to confirm the deadline.

Working on this particular project was like drinking a nice warm cup of stomach ache in the morning.

“I said those were a change request and they should talk to you,“ said Joachim.

Claudio often seemed to have a special kind of amnesia that went the other way. Joachim had started to just draw clear lines and communicate clearly.

Claudio put his pensive face on. Thumb under chin, index finger tapping his cheek, the whole bit.

Inside Joachim‘s pocket, Joachim‘s phone vibrated, but he was too polite to answer it. Probably just somebody who couldn‘t dial in via VPN over the world‘s shittiest Wifi connection.

“Any chance we can fit this in the budget and still have it running by the end of the week?“

Joachim blinked. Some part of his brain stood on the last watchtower of reality, notching an arrow as the Powerpoint-wielding hordes arrived.

“You mean the end of next week?“

Claudio paused, his photo-perfect face presenting a delicate mask of seriousness. He sat down on the edge of Joachim‘s desk, obviously trying to assume the superior position. The office here had four other desks, belonging to people who were all at the customers‘ offices right now. Colorful cuboids of sticky notes, armies of ballpoint pens and tangled messes of cables formed a canyon of still life expressions of productivity, with dark, silent monitors calmly watching over each piece. There was definitely no shortage of low-budget creaky-back-breaking-piece-of-crap swivel chairs around.

“Actually, the deadline has been moved up. Will this be a problem?“

“Why didn‘t you talk to me first?“

“Well I had a-“

“You had a meeting.“

“Yes and this came up and I‘m informing you now.“

Claudio had found a way to make his blue puppy-dog eyes emit authority. A strange alchemy that was. Sometimes it worked perfectly. At other times, like right now, it made him look like a cute cartoon dog who‘s trying to be mean.

Joachim‘s cellphone buzzed again. Whoever was on it was really keen to put another item on Joachim‘s inbox pile.

“That‘s not enough time,“ said Joachim.

“Oh come on, can‘t you just-“

“No.“

“What if we strike out a couple of features?“

Joachim shook his head.

“This is already the minimum viable product.“

Claudio‘s mean puppy eyes intensified.

“We need to work as a team here,“ he said.

“Couldn‘t agree more,“ said Joachim.

“So you-“

“No.“

Claudio‘s face reddened. “I think you need to rethink your priorities here. This is an important project that could open a lot of future business, hell, a whole new business area for this company.“

He was right, of course. That‘s why Joachim had let himself maneuver into this corner to begin with. He could empathize with Claudio. He had these conversations with Günther, the big boss, who was probably even more distracted than everybody else around. Still…

“Imagine I was a surgeon,“ said Joachim. “And you asked me not to wash my hands before a surgery, because it saves time and will allow me to see more patients. More efficient and good for everybody right? But obviously the patient would get infected, just like this project would have tragic flaws that would become apparent months down the road. Instead of future business you will get this company unpaid after-work and pissed-off customers.

“Now just like a surgeon,“ Joachim continued, “it‘s my job to say no to requests like this. It‘s my job to communicate clearly what is and what is not possible, so you can make intelligent decisions and not let you fall into traps due to your – no offense – inexperience with software projects.“

Claudio looked taken aback for a second. He didn‘t start yelling though. Always a good sign.

“Maybe I can talk them down to next Wednesday at noon. But it has to be running until then.“

Joachim agreed to this. Not because it was a good idea, but because it was the best deal he was going to get without also getting an attitude readjustment from the big boss. It would mean working on the weekend to get it done, collecting overtime they both knew he couldn‘t convert into vacation days. There was no replacing the only programmer in the company. The only option for Joachim was to convert it into pay coming out at about six euros per hour of his life after taxes. And the warm feeling of having made a valuable contribution to a company who hired him despite being a college drop-out.

There was another voice in the back of Joachim‘s mind, but he shoved that one down violently.

Claudio nodded his polite thanks, grabbed his turquoise folder and swooshed forward onto the next item on his agenda, whatever it was.

Joachim pulled out his phone to check the missed calls. He recognized the number. It made him angry enough to push the call button.

“You can‘t call me at work,“ said Joachim.

“You didn‘t have to return my call at work, but you did,“ said the smooth, calm voice on the other end.

“I already told you that I wasn‘t interested,“ said Joachim. It did feel flattering to be valued. Maybe he returned the call for the confidence boost. The nervousness about everything he had just said had probably started settling in deep inside his subconscious.

“How about we discuss this over dinner? You have never had Italian until you have eaten at Bendini‘s,“ said the voice. “My treat.“

Joachim paused and considered this. It had been a while that he‘d eaten a restaurant. Strapped for cash as he was, this offer was tempting. It seemed perfectly decadent.

“You are going to love the offer,“ said the voice.

“Am I now?“

“A copious salary, company car, company apartment, thirty vacation days a year, paid over t-“

“A company apartment?“

“Oh yes,“ said the voice, immediately charging into the breach. “Forty square-meters. They have more spacious ones in other cities but…“

The voice kept talking.

At the end of the conversation Joachim found he had somehow agreed to meet him at eight today. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night, he thought. Not a bad way to end a week that really could have gone better.

#

Gold tasted like any other metal. Joachim’s teeth hurt because he had done the Western movie trick, trying to bend the coin, but had only managed a small additional notch. The other two euro piece he had tried hadn’t budged at all.

There were patterns in the dirt in front of the bench. The wind had laid out the soil, as if taking a brush to the cobble-stoned ground. Tiny pieces of grass had grown, dried-up and finally died in the cracks. Staring at all of it, staring at anything, Joachim’s mind eventually saw patterns. Witches, dragons, towers, space ships, eagles, owls and fishes with lots of teeth.

“I have never had a gold treasure before,“ said Joachim, carefully testing the waters of reality.

“I always enjoy this moment,“ said Sanft‘s voice from far, far away. “I have had this conversation many times, but it has never truly become predictable.“

The air smelled burned. Everything on the stone table had heated up big time. Its metal net was still glowing faintly.

“You were offering me a job,“ said Joachim.

Sanft had to be an honest-to-God sorcerer. Would he be learning magic now? What did wizards need a business intelligence department for?

Reality still felt a bit shaky around Joachim.

“Do I have your attention now?“ said Sanft. His voice had changed a bit. It had become more intense, more enunciated.

“You do,“ said Joachim.

“It’s important that you keep breathing,” said Sanft. “Try to relax. Your mind will need some time to adjust.”

Sanft was just standing there, relaxed, his hands inside his pocket. His tie was a bit crooked. Otherwise he looked like the healthiest ninety-year old Joachim had ever seen.

“What are you?” said Joachim.

Sanft remained silent.

“Are you… a wizard?” said Joachim.

“No,” said Sanft.

“A djinn?” said Joachim.

“No.”

“A demon?”

Sanft remained silent.

Joachim’s mind started exploring the possibilities.

“A demon…” he said, tasting the word. “A demon… A Christian demon? As in hell and fire and sulphur?”

Sanft shrugged.

“I have never actually held a pitchfork,” he said.

This could have been a good moment to panic, but Joachim’s brain remained calm. He had been in stressful situations before. Locking his emotions in a neat little drawer had never been a problem for him. Normalcy was a challenge. A building on fire was just a chance to follow a script and prove himself valuable by not panicking.

Calm.

“This has a lot of implications,” said Joachim. The logic part of his brain was on vacation right now. He dragged it back kicking and screaming.

“As I said I have had this conversation many times. There is no better way to make a devout Christians than to prove to him that, yes, demons are real and, yes, there is a hell waiting to punish the wicked.”

Joachim nodded.

“The company whose name I’d know,” he said. “It’s hell, isn’t it?”

Sanft crouched down in front of him, bringing himself below eye-level.

“Everything I told you is the truth,” said Sanft. “Remember that.”

There were arguments going on inside Joachim’s head. A cacophony of voices.

Sanft had had conversations like this one before.

People immediately wanting to repent their sins, to become regular apostles. Looking at it from this perspective, it made sense that demons didn‘t make their existence known.

The next thought he had made his blood chill. Would Joachim be able to walk away from this meeting? If Sanft wanted to keep him quiet, then this could easily be his last chance, no matter what Sanft had told him.

“You made me eat meat on a Friday,” said Joachim.

Sanft stayed silent.

“I chose it myself,” said Joachim. “Is that what you want to tell me?”

So how sure was Joachim that there was a god? Enough to be killed right now? Should he maybe go confess his sins first?

And why would he choose to work for the bad guys? Were they even the bad guys or was all of this simply propaganda? He didn’t have enough information.

Or maybe he did.

Sanft hadn’t said one word.

“So you want to make a contract with me?” said Joachim.

“That’s right,” said Sanft. “Take all the time in the world to consider this. I think we both realize that this is an important decision.”

Sanft wasn’t going to seduce him, he had said. He was simply showing Joachim an alternative path that his life could take. Joachim would then seduce himself. There was no need though. This was obvious.

“I do have an answer for you,” said Joachim.

Chapter 4

Joachim’s plate looked like the bottom of a well-seasoned slaughter house. The lute music had stopped, to be replaced by the murmur of conversations somewhere behind him. Joachim felt full, tiny portions with hidden amounts of olive oil be damned.

“Let’s talk about your criminal history,” said Sanft.

Joachim’s brain went from drowsy to completely awake in less than two seconds. Excellent.

“I don’t have a-”

“Well they never actually caught you,” said Sanft.

Did he know? How could he possibly? Nobody involved in any of it had a reason to talk to anybody. Joachim‘s brain frantically ran down the list. Petty theft. Some cons. Lots of computer intrusions, though those mostly for fun and for the challenge. All of that fell under the statute of limitations by now.

“Well,” said Joachim, “I have done a number of things I am not particularly proud of. Things that were tremendously stupid.”

Dessert appeared. Dark forest fruits on something white and goopy, held by stocky, but skillful hand.

For a moment Joachim was acutely aware of all the people listening in to this conversation.

Did he care?

He looked up to Vittorio, only to see that Sanft was whispering something to him. Vittorio smiled and thanked Sanft, then smiled at Joachim.

“Were you content with your meal?”

“Yes,” said Joachim. “Thank you.”

Vittorio’s smile widened. Then he bowed slightly and left.

Puzzled, he glanced over to Sanft.

“I have settled the bill,” said Sanft.

“So this is the end of our conversation?” said Joachim.

“Only if you want it to be,” said Sanft.

Criminal history. Was he accusing him, deciding if he was going to steal from the company? Or were these… attractive qualities for corporate gray areas?

Joachim looked down at his dessert. His grandparents had grown up in the rubble of world war two. They had taught him to respect food. Joachim could eat something even if he felt sick about it, because one simply did not waste food. He didn’t feel hungry anymore though.

“I don’t feel comfortable discussing this in a restaurant,” said Joachim.

Sanft gave him a stern look. Then he sighed.

“I suppose we could take a little walk. The weather outside is quite lovely,” said Sanft.

Joachim hated all the parts of this conversation. Better to get it over with quickly.

“Let’s go,” said Joachim.

Sanft looked at his dessert, almost indignant, then back at Joachim. He got up. Joachim felt a tiny surge of joy at the power he had gotten back.

They left the mists of this place behind, ascended the dusty stairs, walked through the bicycle-infested yard, over to the ridiculously clean pavement.

The street was narrow with cars parked left and right, slowing traffic to a trickle. The sun was setting, coloring the sky above purple. The shops had already gone to sleep hours ago, their windows dark. In between were the bars and restaurants, wide awake, casting their light out, their tables and chairs on the pavement like extended, greedy tongues. People shuffled by. The crowd of Munich’s evenings. Tired office workers in suits, eager to get to their dates. Loud party-goers in fancy jeans and shirts, already acting drunk. Goth girls in frilly black dresses performing their high-heeled pilgrimage to the Necropolis club, two streets over.

While Joachim had to eel their way through them, negotiating pavement space by a complicated language of body language and eye-contact, Sanft did not seem to have any trouble. People made way for him.

Sanft followed Joachim from a bemused distance, as he made his way to the English Garden, the sprawling park that ran all along the Isar river, straight through the middle of the city.

At this time of the year, it felt like crossing over into a different world. One moment there were hundreds of cars crawling across the orange-lit asphalt, the next they were walking a neat path underneath a thick green canopy, half-hidden by shadows.

Joachim was in luck. There was a tiny nook with a ping-pong table and a bench. Both of them had seen better days. The metal net of the table had rusted so heavily, it had left a brown corona on its stone surface. The wooden bench was so withered, it looked like it might crack underneath their weight. Joachim leaned against the table, he gestured Sanft towards the bench.

Sanft sat down, parking his million euro suit on a collection of dirty lumber.

“Like I said, I’m not proud of it,” said Joachim. “My father wasn’t paying alimony or child support. Hasn’t paid a cent of it yet. I couldn’t get support from the state without him filling out the damn forms. So there I was stranded in this city, a hundred euros to my name. I had no apartment, no job, just an acceptance letter from the TUM. Today I would have chosen a different path, but back then…”

“You swindled companies out of thousands of euros,” said Sanft.

Joachim grunted.

“It was stupid, I’m not proud of it, but let’s not pretend that these dirtbag weapon manufacturers didn’t deserve it.”

Sanft was at it with his tablet computer again, producing what he was looking for with ominously few taps. He passed it over.

“Those are your records on the lock picking championship‘s website, are they not?“ he said.

Yup, they were.

“I don‘t see my name anywhere,“ said Joachim, looking up at Sanft.

That was because he used a pseudonym.

“That is because you used a pseudonym,“ said Sanft.

He took his tablet back, swished around for a bit, then showed it to him again. It showed a video of sixteen-year-old Joachim, wearing a dark hoodie several times his size, calmly explaining how to open a high-security look with common household tools.

Joachim grimaced.

“You deal with a lot of locked doors in your business intelligence department?“

Sanft smiled.

“Figuratively at least,“ he said. “It speaks of a certain kind of mind to acquire a skill set like this. That is why I brought this up.“

Jesus. This man had epic level background check skills.

“A mind who is looking for shortcuts? A mind who thinks the world owes him a living?“

“No,“ said Sanft. “A mind who is not afraid to think outside of the box. A mind who is not intimidated by obstacles or opposition. A mind who makes getting the job done his personal responsibility.“

Joachim shook his head.

“You learned all of this about me from one lock picking video, huh?“

Sanft said nothing in the way he had this entire evening.

“In all honesty,“ said Joachim, “What are my key qualifications here? I mean if you want an IT guy, are we talking of a rootkit-and-Metasploit type for your cloak-and-dagger job? It‘s been a while since I‘ve actually done anything like that. Technology has changed.“

“Actually,“ said Sanft, his long, bony finger whipping through the air, “we are chronically short on capable IT personnel. We have sensitive emails servers to be taken care of and we very well can‘t bring in outside help.“

The wind blew around them. All this fresh air was starting to make Joachim giddy.

“We also need to make sure our databases are safe and our communications encrypted,“ said Sanft.

Joachim almost laughed.

“You have a whole spy department and are lacking in those areas? Are my colleagues a bunch of old-timers or something?“

Sanft chuckled. It was unsettling.

“You could say that,“ he said. “Though you would probably be ill-advised to say it to their faces.“

So there were gray areas. Sanft wouldn‘t talk about the gray areas, Joachim was certain of that. He could make a pretty solid guess though. Apart from spying on people, Sanft wanted him to con people out of passwords. Maybe chew through some old websites to see if there were any unpatched holes. Joachim couldn‘t be sure, but that was what it felt like. What else could he mean by bringing down companies?

The majority of the job was going to be boring. He was certain of it. Intelligence work – the legal kind as well as the illegal – was about filtering through the bullshit. It was taking data that would fill libraries if printed out and find that one page that contained actionable intel. Or conjure statistical insight by averaging values from a large number of them.

Could he dismiss this offer? Joachim had told himself he was done being a criminal. He had quit the way an alcoholic quit the booze. He separated his trash, for God‘s sake. A rock or a grain of sand, both of them sink in the water.

But Kukomu’s expression last night had stuck fresh inside his mind.

“You have to give me a hint,“ he said, finally.

“Very well,“ said Sanft. “It‘s about time, I think.“

#

It was inconvenient at first, but Joachim adjusted pretty well.

They had carried the heavy, smelly leather couch from his living room into the bedroom. The air-mattress in its place had linen a large fluffy pillow and a rainbow-patchwork quilt, thin enough to be cool in the summer. He had emptied the shelves inside his bedroom as well and stacked the about one-hundred-and-twenty boardgames therein in several haphazard towers in front of the shelf-units inside the living room which were half-filled with Joachim‘s autobiography told by book titles – The Hitchhiker‘s Guide to the Galaxy, Illuminatus!, How to Win Friends and Influence People, among many others – half stacked with even more board games in various shapes, sizes, colors, conditions and states of dustiness.

Piece by piece, his nerd cave made way for their family life. Kukomu and Temperance slept in the bed, as did their youngest, Iyanda. Mojisola and Farimade had settled on the couch and on the isolation mattress on the other side of the room respectively.

Living with them brought a strange routine to Joachim‘s life. He would wake up with them about one hour before sane people got up. Temperance would walk past Joachim‘s bed, fully dressed in multiple layers of loud colors, humming to herself as joyful as the annoyingly cheerful bird vomiting rainbows over his oh-my-God-why-do-keep-hanging-out-with-him bird friends. Soon the smell of freshly brewed coffee and self-made bread filled the apartment and Joachim helped Mojisola and Farimade set the large plywood construction that vaguely passed for a breakfast table. (The screws might not have matched each other in size, color or angle in which they held on to the bulky legs, but it was large enough to play Warhammer on, definitely hand-made, if not lovingly so, and folded up to be put in the corner so it didn‘t take all the space in the living room.)

The white plastic fold-up chairs were a recent acquisition. Joachim had so much practice setting up now he could do two simultaneously, swirl them through the air and almost set them up perfectly on the other side of the uneven plywood.

Meanwhile Iyanda was either doing goofy dance routines or practicing his screeching voice, while Kukomu calmly walked into Joachim‘s microscopic bathroom, dressed in nothing but his tighty-whities and his blue plastic slippers – to start trimming his mustache.

When Kukomu was dressed – wearing black socks, suit pants and a white shirt without a tie were casual wear for him – he sat down at the head of the table, waited about two seconds for silence and started a morning prayer. After that, everyone ate.

Since he couldn‘t leave the house that often – lest he had to explain to his neighbors and eventually to his landlord where exactly the subletting clause inside his contract was and who those non-German speaking were anyway and could we see their residence permit or green card, please – Joachim had to do the shopping. And it was always the basics. Flour, sugar, eggs, spices, milk and so forth. Every day, Temperance surprised him anew. Yeast bread rolls with self-made jam. Spicy-sweet pancakes with raisin syrup and cream cheese. Ultra-spicy tomato-and-chilli omelets that everybody but Joachim ate with a casualness usually reserved for food with the tiniest dash of pepper. And that was just breakfast. It put a bit of a strain on Joachim‘s pre-strained budget, but buying food for him felt like the best investment Joachim had ever made.

After breakfast Joachim would go to work, while they remained here. The little ones had started digging into his board game collections – most of them had English rules – and were pretty disciplined about packing them back up. Joachim had never bought into this whole collectible thing and obviously neither had they, eagerly strategizing over battles, designed in the 1970s. There were also Joachim‘s tiny first-generation flat-screen TV and enough frustratingly slow internet devices for everybody.

It helped them pass the day. Unfortunately it also gave them way too much time and access to follow the news and keep up with their former neighbors online. Temperance always made a big show of her optimism, but one night Joachim was sure, Joachim had heard her crying in the kitchen. The ever-quiet Kukomu had grown almost completely silent these days, only impassively taking part in conversations and spending long spells just sitting with a book in his lap and staring into nothingness.

It was in the evenings when Joachim was finally able to do something constructive about the entire situation. While the air filled with the delicious, foreign smells of Temperance‘s cooking, Joachim dug into books about immigration and asylum law. He had finished with the texts two weeks back, but he kept coming back to to them while reading the case studies.

The folder Joachim had started about their case was ever growing with print-outs and forms. Everything Kukomu had filed. Everything Kukomu had received as responses. Research about Nigeria. Preliminary research about other European countries‘ policies. Every day he wrote emails, filled out forms, send out letters. All the while he was painfully aware that he himself faced two years in prison for this stupid, impulsive stunt. This sure wasn‘t what he had expected to go to prison for. Computer fraud, larceny, organizing a resistance against a fascist regime, murdering his father, sure. But hiding illegal refugees? Life sure had a way of surprising him.

It didn‘t take him long to learn that most of what was written in the forms was pure fiction. There were many questions Joachim didn‘t ask. Like where exactly the circular burn scars on Kukomu‘s arm came from. Or why they kept up with the careers of specific mid-level Nigerian politicians and military officers. Kukomu wouldn‘t talk about his past. Which was exactly what had gotten him into these troubles to begin with.

“This man is too stubborn for his own good,“ said Temperance to Joachim one night.

Joachim could see what she meant.

“What is it you are running from? If the extremists have left that area…,“ said Joachim to Kukomu later that same night.

He shook his head.

“It‘s not safe,“ he said.

“Are you afraid they will come back?“ said Joachim.

“No,“ said Kukomu.

“What are you afraid of?“

Kukomu wouldn‘t tell him.

What exactly was he on the run from? Was Kukomu Bankole actually his real name? His passport seemed real enough but if he had government contacts the personal information inside didn’t have to be.

There were only brief periods where Joachim had been close to losing it. Apartment space in Munich wasn‘t cheap. Hell, rents had exploded so hard over the last couple years that his overpriced apartment from back then was now legendarily cheap. With everyone on this tiny room and no family nearby, Joachim found himself with no place to retreat to. Soon he was wandering the streets, just trying to avoid people. Once or twice he left the apartment at one in the morning, just to take a walk in Olympiapark.

There was no way he could afford a second apartment though. It was the legal fees that were killing him. Weirdly specific questions about refugees were not exactly covered by his insurance and Munich lawyers didn‘t come cheap. He was burning through over a grand a month, happily eating all of his savings, and that was only because of clever spending.

And what if one of them got sick? Would he take them to the hospital?

Even as he played his first edition Galactic Encounter against Mojisola and Farimade and lost horribly to laughs all around, he could hear the desperation they were all trying hard to shove away.

This was not a long-term solution. It had been a stupid plan from the very beginning and Joachim was working very hard to execute it to perfection.

Chapter 3

Joachim watched Sanft delicately dismembering his ravioli, taking care to examine the greenish-white filling, before lifting it up into his mouth

The sour wine was probably expensive enough that Joachim might as well have drunk liquid money. Still, he needed it for a different purpose now. He needed that tiny bit of uninhibitedness. That microscopic feeling of intoxication that he could point to as an excuse for the things he wanted to say. The hypnotic lute music in the background wasn’t helping. Neither were the way he kept tracing spirals on the table’s uneven copper surface.

“Everything you just said about the job made it sound shitty,” he told him. He had gone from testing the waters to cannon-balling right in.

Sanft just nodded patiently, sliding miniscule bites of food into his old-man mouth.

“I mean seriously,” said Joachim, “if the food hadn’t been that good, I would have ran out screaming by now.”

Another patient nod. Dark eyes watched Joachim. Not menacing or amused. More a sort of professional attention, as if Joachim was an Excel sheet to be figured out and expanded on.

Joachim took a deep breath. Somehow he had expected to enjoy this. Tell off a headhunter and feel powerful in a situation where he would normally feel anything but. Right now though he felt like it was his job to fix this now. Had he been manipulated?

“Let’s start with the salary,” said Joachim. “I was honest with you, now please be honest with me.”

Sanft put down his fork. Then he picked up his napkin. Then he wiped his mouth. Then he put down the napkin and lifted up his glass of wine, rotating it inside his hand.

“Ninety-thousand euros a year,” he said, looking straight Joachim straight into his eyes. “Plus bonuses and additional benefits, as discussed beforehand.”

Something inside Joachim’s brain didn’t quite understand. He had theoretically known that numbers that high existed, he had just never really encountered one until now.

For some reason Joachim couldn’t stop blinking as his brain was processing the implication of what he had just heard.

“Laptops mean employers want you to put in overtime at home,” said Joachim.

“I don’t know if that’s generally true,” said Sanft. “But it is in our case. The hours can be nothing short of gruesome. There is also little chance of promotion in the first couple of years.”

“Well the department is small…,” said Joachim. Honesty. Oh so much delicious honesty.

“I’m glad you were paying attention.”

This could potentially be hell. Then again the more money they pay you, the more they respect you. Simple as that. If they pay you twenty grand a year, there will be a bad-tempered supervisor monitoring your pee breaks. If they pay you a hundred thousand, you can come and go as you please as long as the work gets done, while your personal assistant will ask you what you would like to have for lunch today.

Time for a deep breath.

“You are aware that I’m a college drop-out,” he said.

“You participated in a number of interesting projects,” said Sanft.

“Participated,” said Joachim. “None of them were mine. To be one hundred percent completely honest, I can show you companies in this city where you can throw a rock and hit a better programmer than me. All of which would kiss your ring for an offer like that.”

It was the truth. The brutally honest truth. There had been this moment where he had seen the great filing cabinet of society, taken a long hard look at himself and finally put himself into the drawer that he belonged into. This amount of salary. This amount of reward for that amount of work. This sort of retirement plan as the realistic outcome at the end of the line.

Throw a rock. Just throw it upwards to hit the drawer with the people above.

The problems that money could solve though. Jesus.

“I do believe I have an accurate picture of your capabilities,” said Sanft.

That made one of them.

“If you say so,” said Joachim.

And yet this job offer was somehow still on the table. He could feel the raw excitement bubbling up inside of him. The fear of losing this. The drive to just grab it. Hard. And not let this opportunity pass. It wasn’t just for him…

He had to be realistic though. This was only going to work if Sanft was one-hundred percent sure what he was buying. Otherwise he might change his life later. Or the company would invest a bunch of money into his training and be disappointed when Joachim couldn’t perform. Right now this was an air castle. All the time, effort and heartbreak invested was one conversation over good food. Better to hit him with the tough questions now and test the thickness of the ice, than get surprised later.

“I don’t deal well with authority,” said Joachim. “Especially with people I don’t respect or who know nothing about what I do and how I do it.”

“You must have had a difficult relationship with your father,” said Sanft.

“I just really want to punch him,” said Joachim, before he could think about why the hell he answered that one. “It’s just that he’s gone and there’s this sad old drunk that’s left in his place, so frail he would shatter if he tripped.”

Joachim wanted to laugh. He did just fine, jokingly open up to a stranger about what other people would have considered their most private secrets. Somehow though he couldn’t put his own feelings into words – or even feel them – most of the time. His intimacy issues in a nutshell.

How much wine had he had?

“In this aspect, the job is perfect for you,” said Sanft. “Flat hierarchies and you get to take on the big guys. Bring down opponents several times your size. Lots of giants to punch, if only proverbially.”

Joachim buried his face inside his hand.

Somewhere in the distance, Vittorio took his plate away. The smell of fried bacon and steak was carried over by the east wind.

An alternative path indeed. This was the moment when people gave up on their dreams and took the corporate job in order to provide. Only that it was Joachim’s dream to provide. So shouldn’t he?

He had already said more than he would have wanted to say. Why not rip the lid of Pandora’s box?

“I hate corporations,” said Joachim. “From the bottom of my soul. They are capitalism pressing with all its power against everything what it means to be human. They treat their mid-level employees like cogs inside a machine, evaluated by nothing but numbers. They look at their low-level employees as if they were yeast bacteria that they would whip if they could. They turn their high-level employees into high-functioning sociopaths.”

He opened his eyes to see slices of meat, fried and juicy, covered in Italian bacon with a tiny leaf of sage on top. It smelled heavenly. His hands grabbed the cutlery and started to dig in.

“It’s like cancer for society really,” he continued. “They do enough lobbying that they can change the very laws that are meant to keep them in check. These corporations become powerful enough to make a mockery out of democracy.”

He put a juicy bite of beef into his mouth. The meat was firm. The kind of meat that lingered, sending wave after wave of taste into his taste buds.

Everything was better with beef.

“And don’t give me any of this bullshit about how they care,” Joachim continued between bites. “Any publicly traded company cannot engage in unprofitable behavior. By law. It’s all up to the stockholders who are sitting a comfortable distance away, looking at a single line on an Excel sheet. In the end the problems of the world are the product of unthinking, short-sighted, profit-induced, unconscious reflexes of all participants following a tendency of human behavior to buy the cheaper milk even though everyone knows it will destroy farms, the environment, the livestock’s quality of life and eventually human dignity as well. In the end a great many people just don’t care. They get theirs, they get out, everyone knows but nobody puts a stop to it.”

He was halfway through his second steak of four by now.

“The alternative for me is to try and do something that actually matters. Being a part of the solution, so to speak. And I don’t see that happening, spending all my waking hours working for a system whose effects I’m trying to counterbalance.”

Ah well. The interview had been so much fun until this point. At least he would get a kickass story out of it. Pity for the salary though.

Sanft was absent-mindedly massaging the skin on his fingers. The eating gave Joachim something to do to bridge the awkward silence.

Why was he thinking? It couldn’t be that hard to say ah well, thank you for your time. Especially with someone who must have been in this sort of situation a million times before. Was he…?

He couldn’t possibly still be looking for a way to talk Joachim into this.

“Did you ever hear the proverb that you cannot cheat an honest man?” said Sanft. “If those companies you are investigating have dark secrets, then by taking them down, you are making the world a better place.”

“Mental acrobatics for the win?” said Joachim.

Jesus.

“I could quote Gandhi at you here. I could tell you about changing systems from the inside. But I won’t. What I will tell you is: Don’t let fiction, prejudice or the very extreme ends of the spectrum tell you what life in a big company is like. Also, this is not be like any other job. It will surprise you.”

In other words: Dear candidate, you are stupid, this job is so awesome I can’t even make arguments why. But that hadn’t been the point, had it? Sanft was now pretty acutely aware of Joachim’s attitude. If that didn’t disqualify him, then…

Supposedly there were good companies.

“I’m telling you there is a good chance I will get frustrated and quit,” said Joachim. “Or pretend to work until you fire me. I’m an expert slacker.”

“What if I told you I was willing to take that risk?”

“I would tell you that you are either extremely confident or trying to scam me.”

“I am not trying to scam you.”

“Is what a scammer would say.”

Joachim took a deep breath. The thick air in this place was getting to him, making him dizzy.

He felt helpless. This was scary. He didn’t want to take this job, did he? Did he?

Shit.

Then again, what did he have to lose?

“So how does honesty feel for you?” said Sanft.

“Liberating,” said Joachim. “In a way.”

His meat was almost gone at this point. How had that happened?

“Some people perceive it as threatening. Do you feel uncomfortable yet?”

Joachim shook his head.

“No,” he said. “So far I’m good.”

Sanft produced a tablet computer and flipped open its heavy leather cover.

“Let’s see what I can do to change that.”

#

There were two ways Joachim’s subconscious thought the good guys’ headquarters would look like. There was of course the magnificent fortress, inspired by comic books and James Bond movies. Lots of scifi equipment with holographic interfaces and people talking techno-babble. Steel walls. Lights that came from stripes on the said walls. Windows that opened on gorgeous open landscapes.

The second one was squallor. This was definitely biblical influence of his Catholic upbringing at work. His subconscious connected poverty with virtue. Preachers sitting in chair cycles in dirty basements, helping people overcoming addictions. Scientists solving the energy crisis in damp attics, surrounded by stacks of paper that were held together with string.

In reality though, some of the real good guys met at a simple round table (or rather an octagonal table built by pushing tinier, appropriately shaped tables together.). They were sweating inside the extra-godly rooms of the Hl. Christophorus parish hall. Wood panels from the seventies, scratchless from underuse, the omnipresent smell of honey-wax and crucifixes – oh so many crucifixes – complete with little icons of Virgin Mary, copper castings of praying hands and kids‘ pictures of Jesus screaming Did we mention we were Christians?.

They looked simple, too. No costumes, no movie-actor looks. They looked like people Joachim had seen on the subway. A bull-faced nurse. A heavily tattooed construction worker with muscles like a forklift. A bright-eyed engineering student, her hair braided, her body taller than anybody else in the room. People old and young, beautiful and ugly, outgoing and silent.

And they were very, very human. Nothing like the courageous people from the history books.

“It’s just so pointless,” said Svenja. She was the tall girl. “They just keep changing the guidelines. Where does that leave us? Nobody out there cares.”

Half a year ago he would have accepted this with a nod. Half a year ago he would fired up some sort of video game and forgot about what an asshole life could be, at least for a little guy.

Two weeks ago he had had a conversation though.

“You have changed, man!” said Alfred. He was the heavily tattooed construction worker jock. He grinned at him with two teeth missing. They were collecting signatures, approaching random people on the street. Mindnumbing work. Joachim’s introverted side wanted to curl up in a blanket somewhere in a cave in the mountains and just read for two days straight.

“What do you mean?” said Joachim.

“You came in here three months ago and you were this quiet little dude. Never said more than ten words. And now? You got people looking up to you, for some reason.”

He didn’t know about the looking up part. He had started ordering people around though. Or rather encouraging them, really. It was just the feeling that the work gave him.

The world was still a fucked up place, but right here and now, he could help clean up a tiny corner of it. Let somebody else fight world hunger or end wars or find a cure for diseases that killed millions.

The feeling that he could actually do something was addictive. It was like something had snapped into place for him. He wouldn’t let go now. It was the thing his mind drifted to when he let it wander. It was what kept him up at night. It was his default option for how to spend his free time. For how to get exercise. For how to meet people to hang out with. For what to do every time he felt sad. He was a locomotive with two legs when it came to the Association and sometimes he had so much energy it felt like he could just pull everyone with him.

“Don’t you see?” he told Svenja. “We can make them care. Not by violence. Not by being clever. It’s just hard work. One more blanket. One more bowl of soup. One more second of your life spent working for something the world considers important but couldn’t bother to get off the couch for. One more second sacrificed doing something that feels pointless. They are the building blocks of a house that nobody can tear down.”

He looked around the room, emulating something he had probably seen in a movie somewhere.

“Standing up and doing something selfless is contagious. The world is full of bullshitters. If you want it to listen to you, you just have to stand up and show them that you aren’t one of them. Other people will follow the trail you blaze. Just like we did.”

It was true. He could hear himself speaking with a different voice. Loud. Confident. Where was the frightened nerd, when he was tapping into his beliefs like this?

It was true what he told her. He had followed a blazed trail. Meike – the nurse – had been the one who had started all of this. She had gone through the process of making this a non-profit registered association. She had made the deal with the good pastor to get us these rooms, rent-free. All of it with little encouragement and with few resources. Joachim had stumbled in long after that in one of his let’s-make-a-new-experience moods where he just sat down with them one evening.

Svenja didn’t seem too moved, but she nodded. It was all Joachim could do. Listen to them. Encourage them. And sacrifice the seconds.

“I have spoken to Herrn Landhorst and there is little they can do to help us,“ she said, finally. “They are closing down to reception centers themselves. There is simply not enough money to go around to keep the classes going,“ she said.

“There‘s never enough money to go around,“ said Alfred. “It has never stopped us before.“

Meike shook her head. Her face never looked resigned when she faced opposition. She just started looking mildly pissed. Just like right now.

“They tightened the guidelines again,“ she said.

Ah the dreaded guidelines. Before all of this, in Joachim‘s naive worldview, city officials were sort of the embodiment of law, explaining how things worked to the ignorant mortals. Now, a complex legal code regarding immigration law was in the process of being amended with individual guidelines on a local level building a shaky foundation for the day-to-day. If that wasn‘t enough, most city officials ignored both and substituted it with their long years of experience, their better judgment and their all-out ignorance about what the law actually said. Joachim didn‘t hate them – humans were human- but many refugees didn‘t speak German or English, let alone being able to afford a German lawyer who could take up their case.

“We teach them here if we have to,“ Joachim countered. “Bring in volunteers like we did on that water-chain thing. We use everything we have to continue the classes until somebody finds the money to do them properly.“

Joachim liked this. His social skills might have left something to be desired at times – with him doing nothing but programming, IT work and playing board games one wondered why – but here he could shine with his problem solving skills.

All the while, he heard Alfred’s voice inside his head: “I’ve been on several, OK? People always get discouraged. Life will keep kicking you in the teeth, the magic will fade away and finally your comittment to the cause burns out. You need to make the connections to your friends here. Those will last. Carry them with you to the next cause.”

Svenja turned to Meike, she seemed to consider it.

Yeah, as if Joachim had an easy time making friends. If there was some kind of magic formula, Joachim sure as hell hadn’t discovered it yet.

“Would Pastor Pausch go for it?“ said Svenja.

“I will talk to him,“ said Meike. “It‘s still dicey.“

“It‘s a whole lot better than nothing,“ said Joachim.

“It‘s important they keep their routine,” said Svenja. “Last time the classes broke off for just a week and we lost a third of the attendees.“

Grim nods all around.

They talked about the details for a bit when Meike glanced at Joachim and said: “I need to talk to you later on. I got some bad news.”

Joachim grunted, then smiled, semi-amused. “If it’s bad news, hit me right away,” he said. “Bad news at once, good news you can take your time.”

She looked around.

“I didn’t want to do this in front of everybody,” she said.

Oh shit. What was it now?

“Don’t worry about it, just shoot,” said Joachim.

Famous last words.

She told him. “I’m sorry,” was how she finished.

“What do you mean getting deported?”

Svenja and Carina looked at Joachim like they were about to hug him.

They would send him away. Him, his wife, his three little kids. There was some part of Joachim’s brain that was convinced that if he kept denying it, reality would eventually give in and change its course.

Kukomu had showed him pictures. The charred ruins of his house. Members of Boko Haram executing people on his front lawn. How was this happening? Joachim had read the Nigerian police reports himself. He had listened to Kukomu’s stories. The German government had looked into the case and granted him asylum. And now they were just sending him back? Into the hands of what had been ranked the world’s deadliest terror organization last year? Which – by the way – was stronger than ever before according to the news.

For a minute he thought Alfred was going to be so smug about being proven right. But he wouldn’t be. He would probably be the first one to give him a pat on the back. It was life that continued to teach Joachim lessons in humility.

There was no way out this time. There was nothing he could do. This was federal level stuff. It wasn’t up to the city not providing beds or the state changing guidelines. He was denied asylum and was sent home. One family’s worth of beds free for somebody the government had decided deserved it more. It shouldn’t have made a difference. But it did.

One by one they tried to talk to him. One by one they gave up.

Svenja told him she would be there if he needed somebody to talk.

Alfred wordlessly clapped him on the shoulder.

Carina shot him a look of pity. So did Ghim Dae-Su.

Finally there was only Meike left.

“I’m going to do something about it,” said Joachim.

Meike smiled grimly.

She was the toughest-seeming person Joachim had ever met and he held a fierce respect for her. When she was silent, she looked so timid she could easily go unnoticed in any crowd. Invisible, until she cut her personality loose. And then God help you.

“You are not going to tell me that it’s impossible?”

She shrugged a little.

“Would that change anything?”

No. No it wouldn’t.

It was the government against him. The stupid, fucking government with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

It was like standing in front of a tsunami wave. There was no way to avoid getting crushed. But it couldn’t make Joachim move if he didn’t want to.

Chapter 2

The crayfish were fried to shiny red perfection, arranged in a mandala on different shades of green. It was like digging into a painting.

Luckily Sanft showed his food the same reverence that Joachim did, so he didn’t feel like a complete dork, staring at his plate like dumbfounded idiot.

The crayfish smelled amazing. They crunched softly as Joachim’s knife dug through their shell. He tasted their meat. It was like trying a butter-soft, salty, fatty designer drug.

“There are some fuzzy edges all around, as there always are inside a small interdisciplinary team,” said Sanft absent-mindedly.

Sanft was obviously bound by a confidentiality clause. Joachim’s brain tried to fill in the blanks, but he needed to wait for additional information. Also, his fingers kept exploring the table. It was a smooth, metallic moonscape. He couldn’t have stopped touching it if he had wanted to.

“It’s a small department inside a larger company. I am not at liberty to disclose which one, but yes, you would know its name.”

Somewhere behind the fuzzy curtain of his shellfish meat high Joachim raised his defenses. He was a college dropout. Even though he was lucky to be in IT where people didn’t much care where you came from as long as he could get the work done, big companies usually had strict hierarchies based on academic qualifications.

But why was he being headhunted just so he could do the IT equivalent of scrubbing toilets? It didn’t add up.

“The headline here is business intelligence. You supply vital information on the basis of which important decisions will be made,” Sanft continued. “There is a certain degree of confidentiality involved in this. My apologies in advance if I have to be a little bit vague in sections.”

Joachim nodded as his mouth became an avocado-flavored water amusement park. It took willpower to eat this slowly. To savor it.

“Your work is strictly speaking IT, some software development, some good old-fashioned cable plugging, much like your current position isn’t it?”

It was Joachim’s turn to feel the weight of an NDA on his shoulders. He was still unsure how much he could reveal about his company and his work and his projects. The usual key to this was: Tell them what Google could tell them and be vague in other places.

“That’s right,” said Joachim, not seeing the harm in answering that one.

Between microscopic fork-tips full of crayfish, Sanft started to feed him bits and pieces of information. The more Joachim heard, the less interested he became.

“We are really using a wide range of technologies,” said Sanft, piercing a leaf of spinach with the refined elegance of a violinist heart surgeon. “You will find anything from COBOL to MeteorJS.”

That was his first stumbling block. Was he serious? He made sure he had heard that correctly.

COBOL was an attempt to make programming more readable to outsiders back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was ugly, unwieldy and had been obsolete shortly before mammals came onto the scene. Programmers whispered campfire stories about the odd bank software that still ran on it and scared each other half to death.

Edge on the other hand was a hip new technology on the block that programmers raved about. Many hip new technologies had been around in recent times that would quickly get swallowed by an even newer and even hipper technology, an extensive collection of which fitting quite comfortably between COBOL and Meteor.

Leave it to a headhunter to take a mess of epic proportions and make it sound like a selling point.

Joachim just smiled and nodded at this. He took a careful sip of the wine, pretending to appreciate it, even though it just tasted sort of sour and wine-ish.

It was a tiny little clue, but it spoke volumes. What Sanft was saying was: We don’t really have the budget for IT. We don’t have a budget for IT, because we don’t value it. We haven’t valued it for a long time. That’s why we have so many different technologies floating around. Creative, capable people got lost and ended up with us, worked on whatever unicorn project they wanted to – because, hey, we don’t care about quality as long as we see results – and then left for greener pastures. We prefer to see their work as half-completed, rather than half-unusable-mess and half-non-existent.

Ten minutes down the road, Sanft waved the next red flag: “You will be participating in numerous projects, with a wide range of tasks. There is a great deal of variety in your work. It rarely gets boring.”

Translation: What is this ITIL you speak of? What do you mean IT work is different from standing in the field plucking coffee beans? We can just assign you to everything and have you working on something else on a minute’s notice right? Don’t focus on the migraines and mental exhaustion from absorbing half a book worth of information every time you do that. Focus on the fun and excitement. Oh and I hope you are better at prioritizing your tasks than I am. Because I’m going to be shouting at you for every project that didn’t meet its deadlines, that you had no say in.

Anyway, IT really confuses us. Instead of doing it properly we use the Chinese Wall Construction method of throwing everyone at it who can carry a keyboard. Except we don’t want to hire additional people, so enjoy the overtime, dork.

The ravioli had arrived. Gold-colored, with molten Parmesan on top. Their smell was divine.

For a moment Joachim asked himself if he was an ungrateful prick. Shouldn’t he try to adjust his attitude a little bit? Then again, listening to a sales pitch meant having your bullshit detector on. The more a salesperson was trying to cajole him into a product’s merits, the more attention he needed to pay to the product’s flaws. If only to balance out his emotions to something resembling neutrality.

That being said, being nastily sarcastic was fun.

“We are giving you a modern laptop with an operating system of your choice.”

Two possible translations for this one: Remember what we said about our IT budget? Wouldn’t it be great if we could sell some of your time to the customer? That way we practically don’t have to pay you at all! Besides at some point all your IT work will be done, right? Right? Right?

The other one: We basically need 24/7 tech support. You geeks don’t have a personal life anyway right? You do appreciate working here don’t you? Yes, I know that this is a service that big companies pay contractors a fortune for and we expect you to do it for the seven bucks an hour after taxes when you try to convert overtime into money. Have I told you about our IT budget today?

Amendment to both of those: We expect you to carry that laptop around at all times and never, ever use it for anything other than business. Same goes for the second cellphone you are going to be carrying that will keep ringing deep into the night because three employees before you have had that number and angered a lot of people before they sailed on to greener pastures.

Jaded? Who? Him?

Somehow he couldn’t enjoy the food though. It was like raiding the free buffet at a gallery opening without even the intention of buying a painting. A form of stealing. Like somehow he wasn’t paying the price he was emotionally obligated to pay. Why had he thought this was a good idea again?

He tried to compensate by asking detailed questions.

What are the colleagues like? How well connected to public transportation are the offices? Are there hobby groups?

Wasn’t that what he had agreed to do? Give this an honest chance? And they were both grown-ups. Sanft had invited him to this dinner. He had the right to say no at the end of the evening.

Joachim kept pondering this as he washed down the last piece of ravioli with palate cleansing water.

It was Sanft though who asked him about it though.

“You seem to be withdrawing more and more,” he said. His own plate of ravioli was only half-empty. On the one hand because he took his sweet time eating it, on the other hand because he did the majority of the talking. “Do you have reservations about this job?”

“I…,” Joachim began. Two grown-ups. Come on, do it. “Yes, I do.”

He looked Sanft straight in the eye. If he was displeased about it, there was no trace of it on his calm Hindu monk face.

“Please tell me,” said Sanft.

“I don’t know,” said Joachim. Somehow he was drawing a blank here. How could he say this constructively? And politely?

“Let us try an experiment,” said Sanft. “You can try being honest with me. Blunt, undiluted honesty. Most people hesitate to do it because they are afraid to offend. I however am selling you something and you being honest will save us both time.”

It felt like pushing against a wall inside his mind.

“Do I still get the meal?” said Joachim, testing the waters.

“You still get the meal,” said Sanft, mildly amused.

“Okay,” said Joachim. “Here we go.”

#

Joachim‘s childhood home had always had this sweet smell of mold. It was never visible. It was in the walls, hidden behind the plaster and flowery wallpaper, behind the rough brown tiles of the bathroom and the smooth white tiles of the kitchen. Sometimes his mother would open the balcony doors and send a wave of cold, chaotic air through the apartment, whirling up loose papers and sometimes tossing down plants in splatters of black dirt. She couldn‘t do it when Joachim‘s father was home, because he wouldn‘t have it. In the last days, that was pretty much every day.

It was okay with Joachim though. He liked the smell. It was how home ought to smell.

It was the four of them. His parents, his older brother Florian – Flo – and him. They both had their own rooms. Joachim‘s was an exhibit telling the story of his childhood in pieces of junk. There was the flaky cartoon wallpaper that his parents had put up back when they converted their old home office. Dancing elephants with balloons that Joachim had found patronizing since he first learned what the word patronizing meant at seven.

The broken pocket calculators Joachim had pretended were Star Trek tricorders when he had been four were still stacked on his stained, scratched, crumbling desk, right next to his first computer – a 486 – he had gotten for Christmas when he had been eight. The stacks of dusty programming books and computer game boxes formed two chest-high towers on the floor. They had grown into a sizable collection, now that he was eleven.

He loved his room. It was his world, removed from the outside world that sucked. If he closed the door, the troubles would mostly stay outside. The kids at school bullying him. His father who would ask him why he had only scored a 2+ on his last exam. (Because Joachim‘s father had told him that a straight-up perfect 1+ was barely acceptable for someone of his intelligence and Joachim had basically given up on working after that.) His mother who wanted him to be a genius that changed the world but never seemed to listen to him when he had a problem. Always offering the same terrible advice he had tried three times and hadn‘t had any success with. (If somebody say‘s freak to you, say Hi freak, I‘m Joachim.)

It was all okay though. He had his computer. Now, a computer was something beautiful. It never judged. When it didn‘t do what he wanted it to do, it wasn‘t because his head was too big or his movements uncoordinated and clumsy, it wasn‘t because he stuttered or didn‘t dress well enough, it was because he‘d screwed up. He would fix his mistake and then it would work. There was little he could compare to the pure joy of computer programming. Constructing something that then worked on its own. The same way somebody built a car. It was weeks upon weeks of bending metal bits and that glorious moment when the engine actually started roaring and the moment of ecstasy, that came from seeing every part of it simultaneously in his mind and knowing exactly how and why it worked. And would keep working. With no more work required in this area. Forever.

He had read about computer programs that had been written in the sixties and still ran today, performing their duties. Electrons didn‘t rust.

All in all, he had liked being at home. More than most of the things that had come after, for sure. Sometimes he blamed Flo for what happened. Yes, the yelling was bad. It was going on every night now for months, audible even through two closed doors. It wasn‘t so much the volume though, if he was honest. It was more that some part of him always wanted to make out the words.

He couldn‘t pinpoint the day he had first started hating his father. Maybe it was when he had demanded Joachim should excel at everything and never so much as lifted a finger to help him learn or open new opportunities. Instead he told him how he‘d been back from everywhere he wanted to go, a long time ago, leaving Joachim struggling to fulfill his standards while he felt big. Maybe it was when Joachim had come home crying after getting beat up by a mob in elementary school again, finding him sitting in a cloud of cigarettes, a glass of beer in his huge hairy hand a shot glass of Bommerlunder akvavit in front of him, telling him that it was Joachim‘s fault they came after him. He shouldn‘t have provoked them. Maybe it was when his mother had come into his room late at night for the tenth time and cried into his shoulder until there were two wet spots on his pajama shirt where her eyes had been.

Maybe, back then, he hadn‘t hated his father at all. He did fear him, especially when was drunk, but also, he was just sad and disappointed when he saw the other kids interact with their dads. Even jealous sometimes.

The alcohol turned his father into a monster. That was how he saw it. In the mornings, he was fine. He was genial, making jokes. He gave helpful advice. He meant well, just as his mum always kept telling him. It was when he got home from school, at the latest when they sat at the dinner table, that he started criticizing them.

Dinner was definitely the worst. His father would sit there, not even touch his food for ten minutes, watching everybody else eat.

Sit up straight, he‘d bark.

Lead your spoon to your mouth and not the other way around!

Look at the mess you‘ve made! Could have happened to anybody, but always to you first!

When he actually started eating, it was Joachim‘s mother who got the flak. No matter what food, it always tasted horrible to him. The meat was done wrong. The fries were soggy. What did she do to the salad?

In those moments, Joachim would glance over to the coffee table and see the beer and the shot glass standing there. It was quite helpful actually, like a signal post. It allowed Joachim not to let it get to him. This wasn‘t his father. It was his other father.

Joachim learned to eat quickly, bearing the criticism he‘d catch every evening and getting back to his room to lose himself inside his computer again. It became easier when his brother started talking back. He‘d get the worst of it after that.

In the last months, the nightly yelling got worse. His father had caught mum looking at other men one too many times. Before then he had kept ranting about other people as well. All those selfish and egoistical people that he had to suffer when they went out. He‘d tell Joachim‘s mother about all their flaws, loud and angrily, until he passed out. Now though it was pretty much all insults for his mother, all night long. He called her worthless. He told her that if she left him, she would die alone and penniless. He told her that she was lucky that she had found a man like him and maybe he should leave her. He called her a whore. He called her worse things.

Those days he started drinking earlier and earlier. It was around that time when Flo hit puberty as well. His father had never been violent before. Not really. He wrestled them sometimes. He would also shake their hands and just keep pressing them until they cried out in pain to show how strong he was. It had all been mostly in good fun though, but now, Flo really got under his skin.

It hadn‘t been every night either, the hand-crushing thing. And yes, Joachim had earned himself a slap to the face when he had all but asked for it back then. And even Flo only earned slaps and some arm twists and shoves every other week or so. At least as far as Joachim had noticed. As far as Joachim knew, it had been one bad day that had destroyed everything.

It was a Wednesday. He knew, because he had gotten home early that day. Grandma was already sick and would die in a couple of weeks and mum had driven over to take care of her. Father had started drinking early that day. Usually he didn‘t open the akvavit before dinner, let alone lunch.

Joachim had never seen him like this before. His father looked haunted. Possessed. His bloodshot eyes kept darting across the room as if the furniture was plotting against him. He kept staring at Joachim and him and Joachim was smart enough to get out of his way. He considered leaving for the day, but he didn‘t want to leave his brother and his father alone with each other. On some level he had known what was going to happen.

At about four pm, he heard them yelling at each other. They had sniped at each other all day, but now they were really going at it and he put Commander Keen on pause and went to check it out.

Father was standing there, tall as a mountain. His stained t-shirt tight against his beer gut, his scraggly beard held foam. He was shouting at Flo at the top of his lungs, incoherently and loud enough so Joachim’s ears hurt. Then he turned towards Joachim. And Joachim saw the red steel wrench his father was holding in his hand.

Joachim stared. Somebody shook him. Flo.

„Leave,“ Flo shouted. His face was thin and pale just like Joachim‘s. Right now his eyes were wide with fear. „Just run!“

„You stay right where you are!“ his father rumbled. Even his words sounded zigzag with alcohol.

Joachim took a slow step back.

What was he going to do?

His father turned back towards Flo that was when Joachim sprinted to his room and closed the door so hard it produced a bang like a pistol.

He threw himself onto the ground and rolled under his bed.

He closed his eyes. Then opened them. Then closed them. He listened to the sound of his breathing. He tried to make out words but they were muffled.

He stared at the dusty slats down there for what seemed like forever. He studied the patterns in the wood, breathing in the bitter dust, feeling it scratch the inside of his lungs, while Flo and father shouted at each other.

Should he do something? Should he call the police? Or mum? Or somebody?

A loud bang made him jerk. It was louder than anything before accompanied by the crunching of wood, like somebody had taken a sledgehammer to the dining room table. His breathing sped up.

He rolled out and stood up, placing one hand on the door handle.

Was this smart? He had to go check this out. Maybe somebody was hurt.

He ripped the door open and moved along the wall to see what was up.

The first thing he saw was the gash in the door frame. The second was Flo, his face defiant, grinning pugnaciously. He was taller and more muscular than Joachim. He looked almost like a man now.

“Do it,“ he shouted at father, spitting the words. “Do it, you miserable drunk and they can finally lock you up.“

His father was breathing heavily.

„You don‘t respect me,“ he murmured. „None of you do.“

Joachim did. Didn‘t he? What had he done?

„Don‘t you just want to swing that again?“ said Flo. „Don‘t you want to feel big and strong, you pathetic excuse for a-“

„SHUT UP!“ his father roared.

Joachim had never heard him get this loud and it terrified him.

None of the two had seen him. What was he going to do? They were both stronger than him, so he couldn‘t just push them. And they wouldn‘t listen to him unless he chose his words really well.

God, what was he going to say?

Time was running out.

Joachim felt himself shivering. It was like watching a traffic accident. Like a car that had gone off the road and was now in mid-air, free fall. Something was going to happen. There was no way to prevent that. Somebody was going to walk away hurt. Something was going to break.

He was the only one who could step in. The only one who could still fix it.

“STOP!” he shrieked at the top of his lungs.

They didn’t react to him. His father was yelling something incomprehensible at Flo. Flo was yelling back simultaneously, each of them getting louder, their words trying to wrestle each other down.

Panic.

Joachim charged in.

They both fell silent.

He just stood there, his arms spread to hold them apart. It was stupid. Simply symbolic. But it worked in this instance.

Flo’s face was a mask of hatred and anger. His father’s wasn’t much off.

For a brief moment they both took breath.

“You both need to calm down,” said Joachim. “This is pointless.”

Couldn’t they see that?

His father hesitated. He could see it in his eyes. He realized he had a chance here. All of them did.

His father’s expression hardened.

“Stay out of this, Joachim,” he said.

“You want to shout at him too?” said Flo. “Get your whole family into the loony bin, like you did mum?”

Father shoved Joachim aside to get to Flo.

It was just a simple shove. Not even as hard as usually when he got angry. This time though, Joachim stumbled over his own feet and lost his balance. His hands extended towards the floor, trying to break his fall. Unfortunately, this did nothing to prevent the right side of his face to connect with the corner of the table.

Things got hazy after that.

First he was just numb and not aware what happened around him. He was lying there and his face felt weird and wasn’t that the weirdest pattern in the styrofoam plates in the feeling. Looked sort of like two-headed dragon.

Then slowly, like somebody turning up a volume-knob, the pain emerged.

He had never been in that much pain before. It was difficult to compare it to something. He focused his attention on screaming his head off and twisting his body into new positions that lessened it, but always only for a while.

People were hurrying around him. Father. Flo. After a while, strangers. They put cold things on his face, but that made it worse. They tried to put a syringe into his face, but he was scared of needles ever since he had read that book about heroine junkies, so he wouldn’t let them. Finally, they put a breathing mask over his face and passed out.

He woke up in the hospital the next morning. Or noon. He could feel the bandages on his face. He felt numb. Hazy. Out of it.

They operated on him a week or so later. Time flowed differently there.

He had never told them that it had been an accident. Sort of.

After a month in the hospital he learned that mum and Flo had moved out and were going to take him with them. His childhood home had shattered the same moment his zygomatic bone had.

Chapter 1

The restaurant was on basement level. Joachim just needed to take a step off the busy street, through a pathway framed by overgrown fences and a steep descent down the dusty, worn-down stairs that looked like they were built in Roman times. The massive oak-wood door felt appropriately ancient as well. As did the the sound in the air, when the door silently surrendered to Joachim‘s weight and slowly swung open.

Misty was the word to describe the place. There was an open kitchen just behind a narrow bar. With only the tiniest of windows on top of the rough stone walls, the kitchen fumes had nowhere to go. They were not thick enough to obscure anything, but it gave the whole place and especially the tables – tiny candle-lit islands inside a shallow pit – a dream-like ambiance. And they were definitely intoxicating.

Floating on a cloud of sizzling meat and stewing bolognese, Joachim‘s path was blocked by a smiling waiter. A short and stocky old man with a heartily protruding gray full-beard and an immaculate white shirt.

“Do you have a reservation?“ he asked. He sounded like an Italian fairy-tale uncle and had one of his thick short fingers on a leather-bound ledger in front of him.

Joachim blinked. What had been the headhunter‘s name again? It was one of those names that people say at the beginning of a phone conversation where his brain made the decision if this was a stranger or not and then if this was important or not. A name spoken on the phone was something to be categorized, not remembered.

He blinked again. The pressures of the work-day had left him in a daze. Did he have his name in an email somewhere? He shoved his hand into his jeans pocket trying to coax out his phone.

“Are you Herr Schwartz?“ the waiter asked.

“Yes,“ he said, looking up gratefully.

“Follow me,“ said the waiter.

The waiter went three steps ahead, then turned around halfway in friendly expectation.

All right then, Mr. Mysterious.

They navigated around the round tables and the other diners on their conversation islands. The place was half-full with guests, a few of them, blessedly, dressed a bit worse than Joachim was (sweaty purple polo shirt, dusty jeans that had crawled under a dozen desks today, the uniform of IT people all over Germany). At the other end of the restaurant was a single booth that looked like it was carved into the rock. A small sturdy table stood in there with a single chair in front of it, its back to the room, and a small bench on the wall-side.

The table looked different in design and making from the rest of the furniture. It was massive, while the other tables and chairs had thin legs. Its top was covered by a copper plate, all battered and historical-looking.

“Herr Sanft has not arrived yet,“ said the waiter.

“Yes, I‘m tragically early,“ said Joachim, trying to smile in a friendly way, getting an even friendlier smile in return.

Joachim sunk down inside the chair. The wood moaned softly underneath his weight. It wasn‘t padded, yet the wood was flexible enough to pass for comfortable.

He stared at the empty bench across from him, when he noticed somebody beelining for his table out of the corner of his eye.

“Good evening, Vittorio,“ said a sonorous voice. “Did your daughter get better?“

Joachim could see the waiter – Vittorio – bow slightly as he shook an old man‘s hand.

“Yes, she did,“ said Vittorio. “And you will never guess the first thing – the very first thing – she asked when she got better!“

“What was that,“ said the voice.

Joachim felt like he was eavesdropping at this point. They were standing behind him, but he enjoyed listening in a little bit too much. He had trouble making emotional connections. People who did it with ease fascinated him.

“She got up and smiled and said ‚Papa, can we go to the orthodontist now?‘. Can you imagine? An eight year old girl excited about getting braces?“

A thoughtful pause.

“She is a fascinating kid, your daughter.“

“That she is,“ said Vittorio. “Your guest tonight has already arrived and I took the liberty of opening your customary Gaja Barbaresco for you.“

With a jolt, Joachim stood up at this, nearly knocking back his public monument of a chair.

Turning around he saw a man that was as tall as Vittorio the waiter was short. Hairless and wrinkled he looked like a seventy-year-old on his third round of chemo, yet he had the easy posture of a much younger man. The suit the man wore was a thing of wonder. An elegant combination of a jacket, a vest, a shirt and a tie in black, blue, dark green and white, with accents of silver holding it together. Each layer was thick and expensive-looking and obviously made by someone who had cared deeply about his craft. The man wore it effortlessly, the fabric hugging the figure of a dancer.

“Joachim Schwarz?“ he asked.

The man had no eyebrows, yet his creased face lost nothing of its expressiveness because of it.

Joachim smiled and extended his hand, playing his usual job interview persona. Friendly, professional, not at all under-dressed. Well, at least his wrinkly black battle-worn leather shoes were still passing for shiny.

The man shook it.

“Matthäus Sanft,“ he introduced himself. The professional smile that he mirrored made him look like a kind grandfather. “Please sit.“

He not so much sat, as eased and hovered down onto his bench. Immediately, Joachim held his hands up in polite defense.

“Look,“ he said. “As I said before-“

“You are here for the free meal,“ said Sanft, his tone amused. “I am aware. And it will be a good one. Won‘t it Vittorio?“

The waiter smiled and bowed slightly, just as much as his heavy set figure would allow.

“What would you like to drink, Herr Schwartz?“

“Just some water please,“ said Joachim, as Vittorio made his way around the table, placing silverware, a large plate and a heavy cotton napkin in front of each of them.

“Can I tempt you to try the wine?“ said Sanft. “You will not believe how good it is, until you have tasted it.“

Joachim made eye-contact with Sanft‘s dark eyes. He wasn‘t one to drink during important conversations, but… it was Friday. And he didn‘t want to be impolite. And one sip couldn‘t kill him.

“Oh well, it‘s the weekend,“ said Joachim. He turned to Vittorio, “and a wine glass please so I can try a sip.“

Vittorio accepted the order with a friendly nod and disappeared.

“What I‘m trying to say is: Fair is fair,“ said Joachim. “I will listen to your pitch and will consider it honestly.“

“Most kind,“ said Sanft. “You do realize that this is a job interview as well? I will be evaluating you, just as you will be evaluating me.”

“Go ahead.”

Sanft placed first the napkin, then his hands into his lap and then seemed content to just look at Joachim.

Joachim felt awkward. He had suddenly forgotten why he had wanted to be here in the first place.

“This feels weird,” said Joachim. “Feels like I’m cheating on my wife.”

Sanft raised the eyebrows he didn‘t have.

“You are married?”

Joachim shook his head.

“No, I‘m not.“

Sanft fished for eye-contact and Joachim met his gaze.

“There is nothing wrong with exploring your options,“ he said.

Joachim smiled wistfully.

“This feels a step further than a Google search.“

“It doesn’t need to be anything else though.”

Vittorio arrived with the wine, letting it hover before Joachim, allowing him to read the label – it had a year on it and a bunch of fancy Italian words – then he produced two wine glasses with a flourish and gently set them down at what seemed to be a precise distance from either plate.

Vittorio poured the wine with an almost religious gravitas. It was deep and red and flowed into the glasses with the lowest of murmurs.

Afterwards he hovered about. Joachim looking up at him was enough to prompt him to speak.

“Herr Sanft has taken the liberty to order our signature four course meal in advance. Crayfish with avocado tartar on baby spinach, followed by home-made ravioli with spinach and ricotta, then either Saltimbocca alla Romana or sole in lemon sauce. As a dessert we serve panna cotta with hot forest fruits.”

“The veal for me, thank you Vittorio,” said Sanft.

Was Joachim going to have… Oh what did it matter?

“For me too, please.”

Vittorio didn’t write any of this down. He simply said: “Please let me know if you need anything at all.”

Then he left.

Sanft had gone back to quietly looking at Joachim. Was this really the same person who had called him at work three times? Or did they have cold-callers on payroll and brought people like Sanft in to finish things off?

“Look,” said Joachim, “I’m going to be honest with you.”

More staring. What was up with this man?

“I’m not sure I should leave my current employer this soon,” said Joachim. “I barely even worked there a year. How would it look if I switched now?”

“Like a better offer came along,” said Sanft.

Joachim nodded in mock appreciation.

“That is… confident,” he said.

No response.

OK, two can play this game. Joachim imitated Sanft’s gesture with the napkin and placed his hands on his lap. Then just looked at him.

A minute went by.

“So you are going to seduce me then?” said Joachim.

“I don’t know,” said Sanft. “But let us find out.”

Joachim perked up.

“Let me ask you a question, Herr Schwartz”, said Sanft. “Are you happy where you are right now?”

This did seem like a fairly standard question, yet Joachim needed to think about this, before he could answer.

“Well…,” he said. “Yes. Reasonably. I mean no job is perfect, but… I’m glad to have it. The people are great. So is the atmosphere.”

This sounded beyond lame. Joachim wanted to present himself as a rising star. Somebody who had been offered his dream job, with no offer in the world being able to make him err off course. But it wasn’t. It was just… reasonably good. And Joachim had a distinct feeling that he wouldn’t have had an easy time to fool Sanft on this point.

“Do you have challenges?” said Sanft. “Are you making a comfortable living? Are you moving ahead in life? Could you see yourself working there in five years?”

Could he? Another tough question. Though much easier to bridge his insecurities here.

“Yes, I could,” he said.

“Well there you have it,” said Sanft, gesturing towards Joachim with his long, thin, leathery hand. “If you have everything you need or want, what could I possibly tempt you with?”

That… made sense.

“Even if I wanted to,” Sanft continued, “nobody can seduce a happy person. What I will do is show you an alternative path your life could take. If I’m lucky, you might decide to seduce yourself.”

Joachim leaned back into the hardest backrest mankind had ever created.

“OK,” he said. “All right. Please tell me about the job.”

Joachim had been on some weird job interviews in his life. There was the consultant who had asked him what kind of salad he would be and why. Or the assessment center inside this bank where they tried to compete at a board game, but everyone only had a fraction of the rules. And also the software engineer who said he let Joachim ask the questions and use those to assess whether he was the right man for the job. Until this day though, he had never been interviewed by an actual, bonafide demon. It took him a while to recognize him as one, Joachim being an atheist and all.

All of this came back to Kukomu anyway.

#

Kukomu was the Nigerian version of your average Western bureaucrat. The kind of guy who does the filing for the guy who does the filing and basically stamps papers all day. Receding hairline. Thick moustache. The social charms of a stapler. He dressed like people used to dress in the sixties. Department store shirt in mauve, brown or stripes. Cotton pants. Black leather shoes at all times. Joachim worked in IT and even he questioned Kukomu’s fashion choices.

As a German who had grown up amongst white people all of his life, he found the color of Kukomu‘s skin fascinating. He was black. Not tanned, not brown, but pitch-black. The contrast between his skin and his eyes caused Joachim to stare at him to the point of uncomfortableness.

Kukomu was the quietest man Joachim had ever met. It wasn‘t just that he didn‘t say much, he also moved without making a sound, seemingly just appearing at places like a cat. Or a really suburban, African version of Batman. The night Joachim had met him Kukomu had pure helplessness written inside his eyes.

Munich Central Station looked like a an abandoned world war two airplane hangar. Huge walls and a tall roof with steel trusses, large enough for sixteen trains to drive in side by side. Large enough to hold a whole lot of darkness and loneliness.

The giant billboards showing color-rich shots somebody had taken on their new cellphone had been swallowed by it. The Starbucks logo had gone to sleep. Just a few stragglers shuffled through the emptiness of the space, along a tiled floor paved with flat chewing gum and stray newspapers, their steps echoing in the distance, joining up with Joachim‘s own. And there he stood.

Like a suitcase nobody had cared to pick up. His arms were extended in powerlessness as he tried to make sense of the arcane secrets of the Munich subway plan. His disheveled head turned as Joachim walked past him. He saw him. He immediately walked towards him. Joachim was having none of it.

Joachim was feeling seven kinds of tired. His eyes burned. His bones creaked as they rubbed against each other. His back was a mess. He had carried a heavy side strap bag along the entirety of the Munich airport. After flying back from the other end of Germany. After getting up at silly o’clock in the morning. He had waited an hour for the suburban train to arrive there, had spent more than an hour riding back into the city and finally – finally, finally, finally – saw the comforts of his nerd cave appearing on the horizon, just a tiny subway ride, about fifteen minutes of walking and four stories up the stairs with no elevator. He could do this. He could do this. He could-

“Excuse me,” said a polite voice in perfect English. “Could you help me with this?”

Joachim tried to glare at him, but only managed a tired look. The better parts of his upbringing took over and he heard myself saying: “Well, certainly. What are you trying to do?”

It was his best helpdesk voice, too. Talking felt weird. The inside of his mouth was acidic with cheap airport coffee and at the same time sort of dry.

“I’m trying to get to this address,” said the stranger, pointing at a folded and battered stack of papers in his hand with said address circled. “What kind of ticket do I need to buy?”

Joachim took a closer look and his heart sunk.

The man was a refugee.

The papers were filled with stern bureaucratic Legalese. They instructed him to go to this location and not to err off his course while getting there. He had gotten here from Dortmund, which meant he had not travelled less than Joachim had today. And he had probably done it by cheap regional trains. The camp was in Feldmoching. Same subway that Joachim was going to take to get home.

Joachim glanced at him again. Nerdy shirt, dusty and sweaty, cotton pants and leather shoes that had seen better days. Not to mention the fear in his dark brown eyes and the skittish way in which he moved. He seemed utterly intimidated.

Stifling a sigh Joachim stepped towards the plan and pointed at the stops.

„Right here, you see? That‘s three rings,“ he said. Rings were the traffic zones the city used. Mixing those up could get someone stuck with a ticket several times the price of the one one could have used. Or with a sixty euro fine for buying the wrong one.

Joachim went through the entire plans hanging there with him, explaining it to him three times – which ticket he needed to buy, what train to get on, where to get off, yes one ticket for the subway and the bus is enough, trust me – but each time the stranger seemed to get more confused.

Finally Joachim operated the ticket machine myself.

„There,“ he said pointing at the dirty touchscreen display. It demanded five euros and forty cents for a one-way trip in stern, bold, black letters.

The stranger hesitated.

Here we go, Joachim thought, he was about to get scammed. Nobody talks to anybody they don‘t know in a German train or subway station, unless maybe to ask for directions. All the other conversations he had had were beggars, scammers and confused drunk homeless people talking incomprehensible gibberish that he – yes he! – absolutely had to listen to.

The stranger opened a strangely shaped leather wallet that didn‘t have a coin pouch and folded two more times than should have been necessary. When he opened it, all Joachim saw was a sad lonely ten euro bill.

„That‘s almost all I have,“ said the stranger.

Joachim kept his face straight. He couldn‘t let himself be moved.

„That‘s how much it costs,“ he told him.

His wallet filled with the seventy euros of a middle-class IT worker was feeling uncomfortably heavy at this point.

After a pause of several seconds the stranger finally fed the bill into the machine‘s greedy bill receptacle. Joachim gave him a brisk goodbye and was on his way.

The escalator downwards looked and smelled like somebody had chewed and peed on it. Maybe not even in that order. Joachim‘s brain was giving it this glow that only the promise of the comforts of his bed and maybe bootlegged American TV shows streaming through optic fiber could give. His legs stopped, suddenly anchored to the ground. It was that pang of guilt that he felt all of a sudden. The stranger might have been for real. Those papers sure looked legit. It‘s not like he asked for Joachim‘s credit card number. As long as he wasn‘t giving him money…

„Hey,“ Joachim said over his shoulder. „We are actually going to be on the same train. Would you like to join me?“