Of all the rituals and infernal devices Joachim had imagined to be used for contacting the dead, he himself had never thought of a laptop.
It was a pink monstrosity with flower patterns of rhinestone set in its lid. It booted to Windows XP, which had just been discontinued in favor of Windows 10. Its desktop was littered with a bajillion files, completely covering up a photo of Isabel with a bunch of friends in front of a cityscape. Prague, probably. Pretty sure.
“Should I try ominous chanting?” said Joachim.
He wondered how Isabel could even use a laptop. Wouldn’t her mind-eyes go out of focus when she got tired and show her the insides of the machine all the time?
“If you want to,” said Isabel. She opened up Thunderbird and started to compose an email to email@example.com. “Bandwidth is crap. Email only, no Skype calls.”
“They have webcams in hell?”
Being blind didn’t stop Isabel from shooting me a glance like I was an idiot.
“Yes, Joachim, they have webcams in hell. They aren’t savages. Well, not all of them.”
She kept typing, apparently typing in a bunch of codewords from memory.
Apple-tree. Baracuda. Cain. Detriment…
“Anybody dead you want to talk to?” said Isabel.
“What is thecopperwire?”
“Oh! That is a good one. Legend has it that – like – 200 years ago they built a telegram connection down into hell. A copper wire. And the name stuck. Before then they had to rely on prophets to get their orders to earth. Must have been messy and unreliable or else they would have just kept doing that.”
“Prophets of hell?”
Another one of those looks.
“Yes, Joachim. Prophets of hell. That’s not just a privilege of the bird-people, you know.”
“Joachim, if you are an infiltrating sleeper agent or something after all, you are a stupidly annoying one. Yes, angels. Naked people with wings, flying around in cozy little diapers, playing harp. And blasting demons that huddle on planet Earth.”
A memory shot through Joachim’s mind. Images of bodies burning from the inside out. He pushed it away.
“How would I know,” said Joachim, “if somebody I knew ended up in hell?”
Isabel looked away awkwardly, chewing her lip. It had to be a learned gesture. Joachim was pretty sure she could see his face, but nobody could see where she pointed her eyes.
After an awkward silence in which Joachim had already guessed the answer, she finally gave it.
“Almost everyone ends up there,” she said. “It’s not all that medieval roasting-on-a-spit-for-eternity stuff. Well, some of it, but not all. There’s a bunch of cozier places. They are something like the Greek underworld, you know? Ghosts huddling together, helping each other out.”
“You still don’t believe?”
“I still don’t believe.”
“Okay, give me a list of dead people. Ten of them. Big place down there.”
Joachim needed a while. There were his two grandfathers, his sixth-grade math teacher, the kid in eighth grade who had gone into anaphylactic shock one summer and died, there was the friendly old man who had been their neighbor before his parents got divorced (Roasting on a spit? Did he believe that? No, he believed that they had incinerated him, along with his necrotic nerve cells and that that had been the end of him). There was this one janitor in the school with whom he had had a couple of conversations, even though that man had been ancient and wouldn’t remember him, if – ya know – the God of Isaac and Abraham had seen fit to preserve his consciousness… and send him to hell. Who else was there?
The girl in college. A friend, of a friend, of a friend, who had committed suicide. There was the mother of an old friend of his that he hadn’t seen in ages. Maybe she wanted to get up a message? And why not fill up the last two spots with ancestors that Joachim could name. See if they had anything interesting to say.
He told her his list.
“Good,” said Isabel. “This is good. This will work.”
“So what happens now?”
“Now, I put in the request. They can probably only find three or four of those. They got records and all, though most of those are still paper. Once we have them, our friends below pull them out of whatever they are doing and put them in front of a computer so we can have a chat.”
“That does seem like an enormous undertaking,” said Joachim.
“Are you patronizing me?” She said it with a smile. “You are patronizing me. Well we can’t have somebody on our team who doesn’t believe. So technically, this stuff is all mission-critical. And it’s not like they care. Manpower is sort of abundant down there.”
There was movement on the hallway outside of the room. Was the thug back?
“Great,” said Joachim. “Sure. Make me believe.”
He did feel it. The lure of an afterlife. Proof that death was not the end.
No, all of this was just a comforting fantasy. No matter what kind of delusions those wizard-types had built for themselves, he couldn’t afford to get dragged into it. He had a job to do.
The door opened and the gang trickled in, taking their seats all around the table, with the wounded thug standing comfortably at the chair behind Joachim’s.
Grim silence, all around.
The Ice Queen looked straight at Joachim.
“We have made a decision,” she said.
“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, when people walked by, his arm reflexively raising the weathered cardboard cup. The weather had turned his fingers numb, even though he was dressed warmly. The cold was sneaky when one sat on the ground. It came gradually, circumventing his garbage-bag outfit and the three layers of clothes underneath.
He hated this plan already, but with no one to back him up, there were no other options.
“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled again, his eyes fixed on the vomit-brown building on the other side of the road. On the huge steel-colored garage door behind the steep slope downwards. No movement. Not for hours. He hoped the cameras he had planted had more luck. He couldn’t take out his cellphone to check now, could he? He couldn’t risk them seeing him.
Jesus, maybe he should have just gone to the stupid address. Hell was supposed to be warm, right?
“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled. He had put a few smudges onto his jacket. He wore a skirt fashioned from a garbage bag. His unshaven, overslept, swollen face hadn’t actually needed much work to look pathetic. The old woman walking by pretended not to see him. Joachim didn’t need magic to be invisible.
He was sitting in front of a no name supermarket – Euro-Buy. In front of him, a chain of abused shopping carts narrowed the path away from the sidewalk down to a chokepoint. That’s where he sat, like a proper beggar, forcing people to walk past him single-file, enduring their awkward glances and netting the occasional ten cents that he accepted with exaggerated thanks and blessings and hope-you-a-great-days.
His eyes didn’t leave the garage door, nor the building around it.
Nobody went in. Nobody came out. It had been five hours now and Joachim was prepared to last… how long? Sixteen? If he had to? There were bushes around the parking lot where he could pee. Hobos didn’t need shame.
It was necessary to stay here. He couldn’t risk being anywhere else. Not anymore.
“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, as his eyes remained fixed on the slope.
The worst thing about it was the
lack of sensory input and the endless stretches of time. At first, his mind started picking out shapes. That shadow the morning sun cast through the balding trees looked like a dragon was crawling up the vomit-brown walls. The still windows that nobody moved behind reflected the light like… spaceships? UFOs? The cars on the street were the human spaceships fighting them (pew! pew! pew!).
When the fantasies subsided, the real thinking started. The remembering.
The block hadn’t changed. The Buchenstraße in Taufkirchen still looked like a Turkish ghetto. Turkish shops and bars, cozied up underneath the huge concrete boxes that were apartment buildings. The place was loud, at any time of the day. Somebody always had loud music blaring, dogs were always barking, cars lets their engines howl.
Mehmet was already walking towards Joachim as he walked down the street, his back straining against the stupid, heavy black duffle bag and the useless garbage inside.
Mehmet was wearing a tracking suit, sneakers and an honest-to-god golden chain. His black hair was trimmed to a stubble, his long face clean-shaven.
“Blacky,” said Mehmet.
A pun on how Joachim’s name meant Schwartz. Funny to Mehmet because Joachim was reportedly the palest guy he had ever seen.
Joachim shouldn’t have come here. He had sworn to himself to stay clear of all of this. Yet, if Joachim didn’t want to live in the forest for the rest of his life, he needed to risk leading his pursuers to someone. Better to people who could handle themselves. Or better to people he wasn’t all that fond of to begin with, a cynical, sarcastic voice inside his head added.
“Long time no punch-in-the-face,” said Joachim and grinned at him.
Mehmet laughed and made a great show of slapping his shoulder, sending waves of pain through Joachim’s body.
I was surprised when you called,” said Mehmet, discreetly steering Joachim into the arched gateway to the yard, away from prying eyes. “Honestly, I thought you had moved, or were dead or something.”
“I just went legit,” said Joachim. “Felt like dying at the time, but I got used to it.”
Mehmet grinned and held his hands in front of him in disbelief.
“You are here,” he said. “This deserves to be celebrated.”
Joachim held up a hand.
“I’m on the clock.”
Mehmet raised his eyebrows.
“You are pulling a job? What happened to your mortgage and your two point seven kids? How will they eat with their father locked up with the rest of us?”
Joachim snorted, hoping to seem amused at this. Always the dance with this guy. Let’s pretend to be friends. Let’s pretend that Mehmet wouldn’t hang Joachim out to dry. Let’s pretend that Mehmet hadn’t done just that several times already.
“I need a quiet place to work,” said Joachim. “Computer work. Just a desk, some electricity, some light, and no people around. I brought my own internet.”
Mehmet gave Joachim a piercing look. Everyone Joachim had ever met on the streets had their own little lie-detector-shtick and this was Mehmet’s. Too stupid for words. As if Joachim’s face would suddenly start to twitch and morse-code I-A-M-A-C-O-P.
Half a minute of exaggerated staring later, Mehmet seemed satisfied.
“What’s in it for me?” said Mehmet.
“You want in on the job?” said Joachim. “I could use someone like you.”
Chances were that the wizard-people had bank accounts and large amounts of less-than-traceable cash lying around. Joachim could picture himself getting in there with some actual thugs. Then again, he could also picture those thugs turn on him two seconds after they cheerfully signed on with the wannabe-demons.
“Nah, I got stuff to do,” said Mehmet. “I was thinking more of a manager’s cut.”
“So you are my manager now?” said Joachim.
“I don’t see me asking you for something, do you?”
Joachim laughed. He made a big show of it.
“Give it five minutes,” said Joachim, surprised by the acid in his own tone of voice. “I’m sure you will think of something.”
Mehmet folded his arms.
“You are going to have to do better than that if you want me to let you camp out in my uncle’s basement.”
Joachim reached into his back pocket and retrieved the bills he had folded up anticipating this very moment.
“A hundred Euros,” said Joachim. “As a sign of respect and a half-assed apology for not writing Christmas cards.”
He handed Mehmet the money. Mehmet let Joachim’s hand hover in mid-air for several seconds before taking it.
“No strings attached,” said Joachim. “You can keep that cash whether you are going to help me or not.”
Mehmet stared at Joachim, his face unreadable.
Was he hurt? Insulted? Trying to figure out if he could get more money out of this?
Finally Mehmet tilted his head, gesturing Joachim to follow him.
“Spare some change,” Joachim mumbled, when people walked by. His hand felt numb, wishing for gloves. Stupid oversight.
The parade of disinterest in front of him had never really broken, no matter the time of day. Slowly but surely though, a gaggle of old women had formed in front of the Euro-Buy, chatting and glancing into Joachim’s direction. They were trying to be sneaky about it, that’s how he noticed. After a couple of careful glances he was sure it wasn’t his paranoia anymore. No matter, though. He had bigger concerns.
The air in the basement tasted of plastic, wetness and old laundry. It was completely filled with cloth-covered furniture, except for a shabby little desk in the corner, with a crooked swivel chair in front of it. Joachim’s eyes reflexively looked for and found the cracked socket in the wall, underneath the desk.
The air-raid shelter style barred lamp gave ample light, as did the rays of light seeping in through the grilled basement windows.
It was quiet here. That’s what surprised him, the quietness. Untouched by the busy restaurant above, he started to get to work.
His raid of the office had been ludicrously successful. Nestled into his trusty black duffle bag were all the hard-drives, all the flash drives, a bunch of important-looking loose documents and the contents of flying wizard’s pockets.
Opening the bag and looking at them, Joachim’s exultation turned into a sober kind of focus.
It was time to get to work.
The glances weren’t hidden anymore. Most of the women had gone over to openly staring now. One of them was standing in the Euro-Buy entrance, arguing loudly with a guy in a blue Euro-Buy apron.
Fourty thousand, five hundred and thirty-one. That was the total number of files they had on the hard-drive, Joachim had plucked out of their file server, with various copies of those files still cluttering the hard-drives of their desktop computers. On top of that number came emails and random junk.
Assuming that every document on average holds a page of information, he could picture an average hardcover book with six hundred pages. Multiply this by 67.5 and get sixty-eight hardcover books filled with boredom. A horrible, horrible year’s worth of avid reading. It was time Joachim whipped out some magic of his own.
The awkward, old, dusty keyboard of the old laptop made his hands hurt. Fuck it. This was important.
It was like having a conversation with the data. That’s how it felt. Trying to get an obstinate semi-autistic child to explain the world to you. He had to ask the right questions, and once he had them he could maybe get answers that would help him.
How many authors were there? There had been three people in the church. The earliest timestamp on the files was eight years ago. If all three of them worked tirelessly on whatever it was that they did all day, ignoring weekends and holidays and the screaming of their own smothered brains, they would be writing about five documents a day. Each of them. Every day. For eight years. There had to be documents from other sources. Were they downloaded? Like manuals from the internet or something?
Nope. Most of the documents were Word and Excel files. The Sherlock Holmesian conclusion was that there were more than three of them.
What was important? Where was the useful information?
Probably something recent. Something they were up to lately, rather than years ago. Three thousand six hundred and five files since January 1st this year.
Joachim cracked his knuckles. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
He clicked the first file.
His phone rang. Joachim had only given the burner’s number to one person.
“Hello Kukomu,” he said. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” said Kukomu.
Joachim’s stomach dropped.
“They showed up at the apartment,” said Kukomu. “I thought you should know.”
There was silence. Shit. Shit shit shit.
Joachim needed to ask. He needed to know.
“Is anyone hurt?”
“No,” said Kukomu. “Nobody has come to harm. I have sent Temperance away with the children and stayed behind as a guard.”
Joachim’s brain needed a couple of seconds to process this.
“I want to apologize right now,” said Kukomu. “Several of your kitchen knives have gotten damaged in the fighting. The same goes for your furniture.”
“Those were dangerous people,” said Joachim. It was the best his brain could come up with.
“They are competent hand-to-hand fighters, I will grant them that,” he said. “I hope you do not mind about the damage. Unfortunately they got away, so I will have to get away for a while before they return in force. Can I reach you at this telephone number?”
“How did…? What the…?”
“Goodbye, Joachim. I will talk to you soon.”
He hung up, leaving Joachim staring at the wall, phone still pressed to his ear.
Images of nerdy, suburban Kukomu at a Shaolin monastery flashed through his mind.
Joachim didn’t want to keep going, but he couldn’t stop either. He had been asking the questions. He had been getting the answers. The problem was that each answer was more horrifying than the one before.
It had been a puzzle constructed from a thousand spreadsheets and pdfs. Snatchers. That’s what those people were. They stole people, manufacturing accidents and disappearances or moves to foreign countries to work at companies that didn’t really exist. It hadn’t been easy to find out. Not because they made huge efforts to obscure their efforts, but rather because they had been callously mundane about it, describing their victims as ‘projects’, with all the language that surrounded it. After hours of work, Joachim was one hundred percent sure of what was going on. The picture didn’t change anymore, the image just turned sharper with every new file he opened.
They killed their victims in the end. Each and every one of the people they snatched. It turned out that telekinesis was really awesome to nudge the odds in certain situations – say – to create believable ‘traffic accidents’. First though, they tortured them. Until they signed the contract.
Joachim wasn’t sure how they hid the marks of what they had inflicted – or what it was they inflicted in particular, there was no mention of the methods used in the ‘extended negotiations’ – but he did find compliance check lists for hygiene procedures for livestock kept in confined spaces for extended periods of time. Extended being months rather than weeks.
Joachim emptied his – what? eighth? – cup of instant coffee and used his foot to flick the switch on the crappy plastic electric kettle underneath the desk. He didn’t drink it to stay awake or for the mental boost. He drank this bitter, sour, wet-cement excuse for coffee for the subtle high the caffeine gave him. It was this or alcohol. Or maybe he would have started smoking. He certainly felt like it. Especially with what he saw in the other folders.
Those people weren’t necessarily good at online stalking – even after years of practice – but they were incredibly disciplined and thorough. There were thousands of candidates, all of them selected for IT skills, many of them with less than impressive resumes even. There were text files filled with information on all of them copy and pasted from the web, each with an address and a timestamp, obviously added by hand. Promising candidates were followed with regular reports on where they were when and what they did and what they were up to and who was close to them. Everything.
He needed to keep working. He needed to figure out who they were, how many and where. He needed to figure out their schedule.
He needed to figure out how to stop them.
And how long had they been watching him?
“Excuse me?” said the clerk in the blue Euro-Buy apron.
Joachim blinked, reluctantly turning his head away from the unchanging building on the other side.
“Excuse me?” said the clerk, yet again. Why was this the universal way to call attention to yourself in modern society? Apologizing as a way of greeting a stranger.
Joachim followed the details of his appearance of upwards, journeying to find his face. Worn-out sneakers. Blue jeans, the knees dirty and not in a fashionable way. The pockets of the apron of the apron were stuffed with… stuff. Pencils, paper, empty candy wrappers, the upper end of a brown paper bag. The Euro-Buy logo was just typeface. The red and white letters on a blue background made people envy the color-blind. It featured prominently on his chest. His face was sweaty and nervous. Tiny black eyes, looked out from above deep shadows underneath them. He had a cheap haircut that was way too short, like somebody had just taken a machine to it.
The clerk reacted to Joachim’s eye-contact.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
Joachim looked back at him, raising an eye-brow. The poor guy was apparently in need of an answer, utterly dismissing even sarcastically enhanced social cues.
Joachim shook the paper cup inside his hand.
“Spare some change,” he said.
The clerk had apparently found his footing, and stemmed his tiny fists into his sides.
“People have been complaining,” he said.
Joachim kept glancing back to the building. He couldn’t afford to miss anything. The truck was arriving tomorrow.
“People with too much time on their hands?” said Joachim.
He had to get a count. How many people were in there? What did they do in preparation? Where did they keep the prisoners?
“You can’t sit here,” said the clerk.
“What if told you I have a permit from the city?” said Joachim.
“You have a permit from the city?”
“No, but I like asking what if questions.”
“You need to go,” said the clerk in what had to be his best apprentice-that-he-caught-screwing-up voice.
He didn’t have time for this. But he also couldn’t afford to let a fight erupt right there.
“Now that you mention it…,” said Joachim, pretending to think about. “Yes, you are right.”
He sat there, staring at the clerk in silence for a while, occasionally glancing at the street.
“Are you getting up now? Or do I need to call the cops?”
“I’m not getting up,” said Joachim as if it was the obvious logical conclusion. “No, while you are right, that I do feel the need to go, it is outweighed by my need to sit here for a while longer.”
The clerk groaned. He himself was looking back at the angry pack of denture-wearing harpies who were staring at him in unison.
“I will call the police,” said the clerk.
Joachim pitied him. On any other day, on any other freaking day Joachim would have left almost immediately. It wasn’t the choice he made today. Today he said: “At which point I will get up, calmly walk away and be back thirty minutes later. You can’t get arrested for vagrancy, if you are not lingering.”
“You are hurting our business here,” said the clerk.
What was that noise? That couldn’t be…
“I have not seen anybody turn away because of me,” said Joachim, continuing the conversation absent-mindedly.
It was a truck. An anonymous white truck. No logo, nothing. And it had just turned straight onto the ramp Joachim had been watching for half a day.
“Look, please, just go.”
Joachim got up and broke into sprint.
They had placed their lair right between tens of thousands of apartments, like your friendly neighborhood tumor. They had deemed it too risky to transport their projects inside individual cars. Too easy to track. Too easy to be stopped by the police. Better to collect everyone and hide them inside bags of fertilizer, behind bags of even more fertilizer, inside a legitimate truck with a manifest and all. A truck that was supposed to arrive tomorrow. It seemed they had advanced the schedule.
The driver was getting out, fumbling with his keys as he tried to unlock the place. Joachim was standing behind him before the driver noticed him.
Joachim felt a surge of joy. If that wasn’t the teenager in the overalls from the church. He had gone with jeans and an understated shirt now, sun-glasses tucked into the V-sections formed by many undone buttons, looking more like an MBA student than a car mechanic – or a truck driver.
The kid glanced back.
“Why are you dressed like a hobo?” he said.
“Why are you dressed like an idiot,” said Joachim. “Oh, my mistake, that’s just your face.”
Joachim didn’t know if it was terribly safe to touch the wizard-kid. Instead he tried to suggest through the use of dominant body language that Joachim would strongly prefer it if the kid didn’t turn around. Always going for the direct and violent solution now. It was as if his new-found strength had drained his intelligence out of him. If you had one badass hammer, all your problems started to adopt nail-like qualities.
“And what now,” the kid hissed. “Do you honestly think there is still room for negotiation after what you pulled?”
“Had to prove that we were serious, didn’t I? Plus, you attacked me. I would have been perfectly happy to just have a discussion, but no, you had to get out a ruler and unzip your pants.”
Joachim collected his courage and just forcefully turned the kid around, bringing them face-to-face.
“So let’s try this again,” said Joachim. “We are going to go in there and have that little discussion.”
The kid smiled.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s.”