The next morning started late. Perhaps calling it morning at all is being generous. I awoke to find Ehren sprawled out like a large pasty cat, with his arms wrapped around a trash can clutched tightly to his chest and his legs propped up on a chair. My head was pounding as if two raccoons were fighting over a piece of meat inside a hollowed out tree trunk but I managed, against all odds, to get to my feet. Looking out the window to the street below I could see the city already in full swing. Tourists pointed at maps, citizens ran errands, and two teenagers were getting an early start to a good time in a darkened doorway.
If you’re not used to it, picking up the day in mid stream can be as disorienting as coming into a conversation half way through and trying to piece together the back story on the fly. But I’ve made a life out of running the spine of that thin ridge between blatant lying and just plausible storytelling so I usually manage alright. After a few minutes spent floating in the calm waters of the city’s daily ebb and flow I pulled myself away and headed for the bathroom. By the time I returned I’d managed to gather myself together and find both socks that had ended up on top of a lamp. Ehren had started to stir but not moved more than a pace or two from the trashcan. A soft stream of German profanity slipped forth as he rubbed his eyes and started to laugh.
A moment later a knock at the door signaled Algis’ arrival. He had been polite enough to wait until precisely ten in the morning, an eternity by German standards. He also brought with him food. It was a mix of bread, meat, cheese, yoghurt, hard boiled eggs, and something that for the life of me I could never handle drunk, sober, hung-over, or any state in between; premade Muesli. Why anyone would want to eat something that looks and tastes like cat litter remains a complete mystery to me, and a mystery that I have no intention of investigating any further. Algis navigated his way into the room following a pathway between the discarded clothing and couch cushions. He set down his rucksack on the table and held out a piece of ham towards Ehren who responded by taking one look at it and making a sudden lurch for the trashcan. After taking a quick look at the train tickets I noticed some new pages had been added to the case file Algis had taken from his bag. From a quick glance they looked to be additional reports about the original search party that had gone missing.
“So, what’s in this file now that you didn’t want Henning to see?” I asked and saw Algis’ eyes shift momentarily to look out the window as he tried to stall for time. “Look, I don’t care that you were a little…selective…in what you shared with him. But I do care, very much, that you’re totally honest with me because it could be our lives on the line. Granted, I’m not all that concerned about yours but I’ve grown fond of mine and if I’m going to risk it for fortune and fame I sure as hell don’t need to be taking flak from behind. I’ll take mine in the chest, thank you very much. So tell me everything, or go get in the car with Hans and leave the men’s work to us.”
Algis looked briefly towards Ehren who had finally gotten himself upright and momentarily looked irritated with him and then went straight back to looking nauseous.
“There are two things.” Algis started, hesitantly.
“Oh Christ, here we go” I said just loud enough to get it out my system before the first drop over the cliff.
“After the first group set out I did even more research on the Krampus. I looked through folk tales, history, descriptions, rumors, and anything about recent activity. You saw most of what we found as did Herr Falke but he was very clear that certain differences between what I knew and Herr Henning’s beliefs were to be…”
“Ignored” I said more than asked, finishing his trailing off thought.
“Roughly, yes. It’s just that Herr Henning is convinced that the Krampus is vicious because of the attack on his son and the group going missing. But everything I found doesn’t show a history of senseless attacks or violence, even if you go back centuries. I tried to talk to Falke but eventually I realized pushing the point wouldn’t help so I kept it to myself, at least until now.”
I had suspected as much from the beginning but to hear someone familiar with Henning confirm it just added to my belief that, as usual, the story had more peculiar angles than a miscut diamond.
“So what’s the second addition?”
Algis flipped to a page in the folder and handed it to me without further comment but a knowing, almost excited, look on his face. It was a list of supplies that the search group had taken with them. Every single item was listed, alphabetically, along with its quantity, weight, maker, and who was to carry it. It was a masterpiece of fine German precision and the kind of anal retentive planning that I never would have the patience for. Why anyone would care, or what difference it would make, whether Jerry one or Jerry two carried the group’s folding shovel was completely lost on me but here it was laid out in breath taking detail. I had seen a similar list for the group before but two cryptic entries, buried far down on the list in-between yards of rope and extra wool hats, that hadn’t been there before, caught my eye.
“Siegel Buchstabe? What the hell is that?” I asked and heard Ehren answer from behind me, apparently starting to regain his sober legs.
“Sealed letter. Something official or important usually.” He replied as he dragged himself up to an approximation of a standing position before he came over to look at the list as well. “Who was it written to?”
“No idea” I replied. “It just lists the letter and says it was to be carried by Kolos with his name underlined. Either of you know who this is?”
“Only be reputation” said Ehren who then immediately looked like he was about to throw up and closed his eyes.
“Keep your eyes open and focus on just one thing. Trust me, closing them only makes it worse when the room starts to spin. What’s this next entry…Gewicht? Doesn’t that just mean weight?”
“Yes” said Ehren as he looked straight ahead with a determined gaze.
Considering how meticulously planned the entire expedition had been, from the selection of personnel detailed in the folder to the recording of every thread they were to carry with them, I found it hard to believe this was an accidental oversight or someone lazily cutting corners. Having done a fair bit of exploration in my time I also knew that experienced trekkers didn’t take along anything unless it served a very specific purpose. Even if they were traveling from town to town by rail and doing only limited hiking, there was no reason to take anything beyond essential supplies. That’s why I prefer to buy or otherwise get my booze along the way instead of carrying it with me as I go.
“So we have 50 kilograms of unidentified weight carried by 2 specifically chosen members of our intrepid crew and nothing to tell us what it is, what it’s for, or why it was sent along with a hunting party. Not to mention the fact that this list doesn’t match up with what they sent me originally. So where did this mystery list come from?” I asked while turning towards Algis.
“Well, it might have come from Herr Falke’s desk” he replied while his eye pinballed around the room, anywhere except where I was standing. “From a locked drawer inside his private study…that must have accidently been opened by someone late last night after he fell asleep.”
I looked at Ehren with raised eyebrows and a fake look of shock at this latest revelation and he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled subtly.
“Welcome to the party Algis, thanks for making yourself useful. Pour a drink if there’s anything left and help Ehren figure out our plan for Mainz. We leave when I get out of the shower, or at least once I get out of the shower and put pants on. Yes, that seems about right, pants first, then train.”
After a short bit of last minute packing the three of us set out for the station and climbed aboard a quiet passenger car near the front of the train. After stowing away our bags Ehren walked over to a set of seats and dropped in, stretching his long legs out under the table. Algis took up a seat next to him and started poring over the group’s reports about Mainz. By the way he quickly jumped back and forth through the pages I knew that he had already spent quite a bit of time with the folder and likely had large parts of it committed to memory. He reminded me of a boy I knew in school named Bill who never went anywhere without a math book in his hand and his nose deep in it. He had come to St. Michael’s from a small town out near Pittsburgh that has probably long since disappeared off the maps if it ever showed up at all. The story I heard was that his old man had contracted “Pennsylvania Pie Foot”, similar to Jake Leg, from drinking contaminated moonshine and couldn’t work anymore. That is, if he had worked to start with. So Bill ended up at the school so that his siblings could afford to eat and his father, drink. He was a non descript kid that looked a lot like the rest of our wayward citizens and if you weren’t careful you might just take no notice as he dissolved into the surrounding wallpaper. Nice enough, as far as I remember, but a few months had passed by the time I realized he had left the school and been sent off to work for an accountant. Hopefully his love of math made him more useful on the job than it did in P.E. class or trying to talk to the girls in town.
As the train started to move I took my seat across from the two Germans and watched out the window as a pair of backpackers came running down the walkway, their oversized bags heaving and metal water bottles swinging back and forth from a carabineer that looked suspiciously unused for its original purpose. After a short chase the lead, a young woman in her early twenties with long black hair pulled into a pony tail and wearing jeans with legs so tight I was amazed she could walk at all, stopped running and looked up at the station clock and then threw her arms in the air. Her companion was a slight man of around the same age wearing ratty sandals and a shiny new soccer jersey who by this point was trying to simultaneously catch his breath, avoid spilling the coffee he was carrying in one hand or dropping the pastry in his teeth. Both took a moment to check their tickets and futilely turn in place while looking for a station employee. As the two started to turn towards each other and argue, judging by the animated gesturing at least, I heard Ehren say with a laugh:
With that one word he turned away from the window and promptly fell asleep.
After about forty five minutes we arrived in Mainz. I had been here once before a few years back while trying to track down a rare book for a client. There was a folk tale floating around that Johannes Gutenberg, a local boy of some renown as a bookmaker, had hidden a priceless manuscript somewhere in town and it had never been seen again. Anyone who could find that lost manuscript, assuming that it still existed, would instantly become the talk of the literary world. Although that’s not something I ever yearned for the amount of money my client was willing to pay to try and obtain such a lofty status, was. So like any good detective story my journey started by doing a lot of meticulous research by canvassing the local taverns.
The beginnings of the tale are undisputed. Sometime in the mid 1450s, shortly after inventing the moveable type printing press that made production of books far cheaper than doing it by hand, Johannes produced around 175 bibles that immediately found buyers throughout Europe. Upon seeing their popularity the Pope commissioned Johannes to craft a masterpiece set of 13 identical bibles. Each was to be bound in the finest leather, have carvings with gold leaf inlaid, and pages adorned with illustrations from the greatest artists in the Christian world. Glowing reports from Aeneas Bartholomeus, who would later himself become Pope, tell us that the manuscript was done and the set of thirteen had been nearly completed when things suddenly took a turn for the worse and the story sets off on two distinct and disparate paths.
One version says Johannes had fallen out of favor with the church due to the ever shifting winds of religious politics. Upon he and his family being exiled from Mainz he supposedly took the manuscript with him as a form of protest and it, along with the thirteen copies, never surfaced again. Perhaps they were destroyed by Johannes or simply slipped through the cracks of history.
The alternate theory holds out Johannes as something of the crown prince prankster of Rhineland. He had bounced around from school to school as a boy, always thought of as exceptionally bright but also exceptionally unwilling to focus his attention on anything for more than five minutes at a time. With his father a master goldsmith Johannes had access to his workshops and as a teenager had allegedly gotten himself into trouble by minting, and spending, coins with his smiling face on one side and his bare butt on the other. His combination of crafting skill and ribald sense of humor would pop up again years later.
According to contemporary sources when nearing completion of the manuscript he had slipped in a few obscene, libelous, and most likely hilarious engravings of prominent church figures being intimately involved with the devil. Once the rumor of this special addition started to spread the church caught wind and quickly tried to save face, seize all copies, and have them destroyed along with their maker. Soon thereafter townspeople started seeing unfamiliar faces lurking about the markets and inns, asking questions about Johannes and his family. Sensing that the noose was quickly tightening Johannes booby trapped his printing press and escaped out a back window of the workshop. A few minutes later a group of church officials came bursting through the front door only to be met with an explosion that destroyed the printing press, badly damaged the 13 bibles apart from the lusty drawings that had been nailed to the door, and singed many a lace collar and pantaloon. Minutes before the explosion neighbors reported seeing Johannes running through the streets towards his home, his lengthy beard flowing behind him as he went, carrying a large folio in his arms. Knowing that he had to quickly light out for other territory, Johannes supposedly, and ironically, hid the manuscript in a nearby church and split town.
Regardless of what version of the story you choose to believe the fact remains that the manuscript never turned up and yet hundreds of years later there were still people willing to pay good money to chase after its ghost. Whether that’s because the manuscript is of historical importance and an example of master craftsmanship or because, as I strongly suspect, people just like looking at dirty pictures, the end result is the same. Interestingly enough, the front door of Johannes old print shop is still standing to this day, next to a church parking lot.
Mainz hadn’t changed markedly since my last visit. Some new shops had moved in, others had moved on, and it retained the same small European college town feel complete with book stores, coffee shops, and binge drinking. The town did have considerably more public art than most college towns though and even a few monuments to our good friend Johannes who had eventually returned to town and later died dead broke and largely unknown with even the location of his gravesite now lost to time. I guess after he was gone, and after he became famous, everyone realized how much they loved him. Typical.
Our first stop in town was St. Stephan’s church, an expansive gothic building on top a hill just outside the commercial district.
“This is the door we’re looking for” Algis said while pointing to a massive metal door that led into the main body of the church.
On the outside of the door were several emblems, inscriptions, and a shepherd’s crook like the kind I used to see in the Christmas pageant they held every year at St. Michaels. One year I even played one of the wise men until the nun in charge realized I hadn’t bothered to memorize my lines and instead was ad libbing, partially in Latin, as I went along. It might be the only time in the history of Christmas pageants that one of the wise men was dragged off stage by his beard and caned with his own crook.
“So remind me what’s special about this door other than the fact it’s big and metal?” I asked over my shoulder while looking out from the hill top towards the surrounding quiet neighborhoods.
“Well according to the file it’s the next spot on the trail that the search party followed because the Krampus made a special stop here after the adventure back in Frankfurt.” Algis responded while flipping through papers. Ehren picked up the narrative and pointed up towards the edges of town.
“Krampus starts there, in the Northeast of the town and works his way south towards the church. We know he chased down a bunch of kids near the outskirts and handed out his usual “attitude adjustments.” After that he basically put a good scare into the others, including one boy who, according to the file ‘lost control of himself’, while he herded them here.”
“To the very door of the church eh?”
“Exactly, and before you even ask, no, none of the kids were seriously injured” he answered with a wink. “After the kids get here to the door, Krampus gnashes his teeth a bit and then keeps heading south through town and into the countryside. Leaving just as quickly as he arrived.”
“I suppose you can’t blame him, he’s got a full schedule that time of year. I know Mainz is charming and all but he still had plenty of ground to cover before the night ended. No rest for the wicked, or at least the punisher of the wicked, and all that.” I added and turned to face the church. “The search group talked to somebody here at the church, yes?”
“Yes, Father Schäfer who is also a Professor in the Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies department at the University.” Algis chimed in while handing me a photo of the good father. He was a balding middle aged man with a polite smile and thick framed glasses who looked every bit the part of genial college professor and man of God. “He should be meeting us in the Bauernmarkt in a few minutes.”
We followed the twisting street down from the church and past what appeared to be a school, that likely educated some of the children who had received a special visit from the Krampus, and towards the heart of old town. Upon turning the final corner we were met with a mass of temporary booths, trailers, and stands spread out across the square and a nearby park. Shoppers moved from spot to spot, picking through flowers, trading gossip, and buying produce as I scanned the area for the nearest walk up bar. During my search I noticed one dairy farmer selling eggs under the watchful eye of a live hen that was perched next to him. I wondered if it was there as an attention getter, or to remind people of where eggs come from in case they had somehow forgotten, or if he just got bored during the slow spells and wanted company. I also started imaging what it would look like with a golden crown, perhaps a jeweled cape to go with it, and if Kate would be impressed by its regal bearing.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw Ehren gesture towards a cheese stand.
“We can stop for cheese if you want, I just don’t want any of that kind that smells like fish wrapped inside a sweaty shirt is all. Seriously, when food turns blue that’s usually a sign you should throw it out.”
“True, but I was actually pointing to Father Schäfer standing in front of the stand. But now that you mention it, let’s get cheese too while we’re there.”
We walked over towards him and found ourselves near the town’s old well, that had intricate details on the base, plaques explaining its history and was topped with a highly decorative cap.
“Father Schäfer, Arch Chuzzlewit, nice to meet you.” I said and watched as he turned first one way and then back around to face us. He held a large envelope under one arm that looked to be on the verge of bursting open, like seems of a cocktail dress borrowed from a skinnier friend. He shook each of our hands and then walked a few steps outside of the main throng of the market crowd.
“Very nice to meet you all in person. To be honest I was a little surprised to hear from Algis, I thought that Mr. Henning had gotten everything he needed when the first group came to town.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about” I replied. “The reports from the group you talked to didn’t say much about what they asked or what you told them.”
“Ah, I see. Well, and pardon me for asking, but would not it have been easier to talk to one of them back in Frankfurt rather than come here?” Father Schafer asked earnestly.
“I would have, but they’ve all gone missing.” I told him as I noticed Algis tense up momentarily out of the corner of my eye.
“Missing? As in…”
“As in gone. Vanished. Auf Wiedersehn. Didn’t leave much behind other than a thin paper trail and some bloody boots, complete with the feet attached.”
Father Schafer’s eyes blinked a couple times in rapid pace before he took off his glasses and cleaned them with his sweater. “Terrible. I didn’t spend much time with them but they were polite gentlemen and I am very sorry to hear that, especially for their families.”
“Thank you” responded Algis. “That’s why we need to know what you told them about the Krampus, so we can figure out what happened to them.”
“The Krampus?” he said with a genuinely puzzled look on his face while replacing his glasses “I would not be the person to ask about mythology, you would want Professor Märchenerzähler. He is a literature professor over at the University.”
“Weren’t you at St. Stephan’s on Krampusnacht?” I asked while casting a quick glance over towards Ehren and Algis who had both moved in closer since the conversation took an unexpected turn.
“No, I was out of town giving a series of guest lectures at Würzburg University on translating ancient texts. I heard about some of the usual commotion that happens on that night from the students, but most of it had to do with how much they drank and who got sick where.”
“So if the group didn’t ask you about the Krampus, what did they want?” Ehren asked.
“Herr Henning asked me to translate some text to Old High German and he sent them to come and pick up the work, make sure it was what Herr Henning wanted, and then they were on their way. Off to their next business meeting I would guess considering their haste.”
At this point I could feel the confusion radiating out from both Ehren and Algis. If I had looked closely enough I’ll bet I could have seen little question marks above their heads like in the old cartoons they used to show before the main feature.
“Do you still have a copy of what you translated?” I asked and then quickly added “We were in such a rush to leave and find them that we didn’t get the chance to ask Herr Henning in person.”
“I am afraid not, no. Herr Henning was quite clear that no copies or records were to be kept. The only existing copy was what I gave to his associates. You know how those business types are with contracts, all secrecy and paperwork. Personally I don’t have any interest in such things but it was a nice little mental challenge even if the subject matter was not compelling.”
“I know what you mean, I leave all that talk to the gents who like wearing fancy suits. I prefer a good story than a boring contract, no matter what language it’s in.” I said with a friendly tone of voice and broad smile.
“Yes, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to translate parts of a purchasing contract into Old High German but I certainly was not going to refuse the assignment. Whatever it was that he was trying to purchase, if Herr Henning wants something translated that is his prerogative. Honestly, I was surprised that he even knew what the language was. Outside of the academic world there isn’t too much interest in any old languages these days sadly enough. But I guess everyone is so focused on where they are and where they’re going they don’t worry much about where they’ve been.” At this point Father Schafer looked down at one wrist, and then the other, before finding his watch.
“Speaking of that I must be off for my next class, but it was nice to meet you Gentlemen and I wish you all the very best in finding your associates.” With this he warmly shook our hands, bowed, and walked out of the market and towards the University.
I turned to look at Ehren and Algis and raised my eyebrows. They both looked lost, like a pair of overgrown boyscouts who had dropped their map in a stream and left their compass back at the campsite with that one asthmatic kid every troop has, whose parents forced him to join because the fresh air would be “good for him”.
“So they weren’t here to ask about the Krampus, but to pick up some contract written in a language nobody uses anymore?” a bewildered Algis asked aloud.
“It looks like it, and they were playing the part of Johnny Businessman to boot. You boys know them a hell of a lot better than I do, were there any corporate suit and tie types mixed in?”
“None” replied Ehren as Algis shook his head “they were all ex military. Although I know at least one of them was the educated kind, Kolos. He joined up after he had finished school so he could find an easy path to officer course training.”
Ehren’s facial expression didn’t change much but I could see the subtle hand gesture he made, clearly showing what he thought of such people. I knew immediately what he meant. I’ve known soldiers, sailors, and wingnuts from countries all around the world and every rank from cherry private all the way up to people with more metal on their jacket than in their helmet. Out of all those people, the ones that instantly caused more friction than a fat guy wearing sandpaper pants were the types who only signed up as a way to kill time by wearing fancy outfits, avoiding actual work or danger, and ordering people around before they retired and used their “service” history as a shortcut up the corporate ladder.
“All right, so we’ve got one Pointdexter and a bunch of soldiers picking up a letter, carrying a bunch of unspecified weight, and not seeming to be too worried about finding the Krampus before he attacks anyone else” I said just as I started to get a familiar sensation that spread from my fingertips up through my arms and to the back of my neck. The first time I remember feeling it I was eleven and had just snuck into the back of a county fair beer tent. I was on my third or fourth round before I was suddenly spotted by a local pillar of the community who I’m sure was only in the tent to denounce the evils of alcohol. I had felt a small prickling sensation just before hearing his shrill, nasal, voice and bolting under a tent flap, dragging a case of beer along with me.
“We’re being watched, it’s time to go.”
Ehren and Algis both suddenly stood up straighter and swiveled their heads scanning the crowd. I knew well enough to trust my senses and walked straight towards the edges of the market along the path father Schäfer had taken with Algis and Ehren following directly behind. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a pair of men follow suit from across the square and try to trace our route without drawing too much attention. They were tall and well built, wearing the kind of muted colors and dark jeans that you see in any European crowd. They were also both wearing dark sunglasses on an overcast day and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that trying too hard to look casual makes you stick out like a polar bear at a penguin convention. Seeing them suddenly on the move just raised the alarm another notch.
As I rounded the corner and walked through an alleyway I almost stumbled directly over the body of father Schäfer. He was lying next to the contents of folder spilled across the ground, with a dark patch of blood half way up the back of his jacket and a whole pool of it underneath. I had paused for a moment as Algis and Ehren joined me in the alley and upon seeing the body started walking closer to it.
“Leave him. He’s gone and nothing we do is going to bring him back so let’s avoid leaving our fingerprints on a murdered man. We need to keep moving.” I said and continued down the alleyway.
Suddenly there was the harsh sound of a door slamming against concrete and thundering footsteps, not from behind where Algis and Ehren were, but from just to my right. I instinctively turned towards the blur closing in at a high rate of speed and bent at the knees to better absorb the impact I knew I couldn’t avoid. Just as I had managed to turn and face the oncoming mass of humanity he dropped his head and attempted something of a rugby style tackle that picked me up off the ground and slammed me into the brick wall behind. Unfortunately for him there were two problems with his choice of attack. One, he had managed to ram his own head into the wall, along with my spine, in his exuberance and I could tell he was momentarily disoriented. Two, he had hit me hard enough to piss me off, but not put me out.
Seizing the opportunity I raised my right arm directly over my head and brought the point of my elbow down right at the base of his neck, resulting in a deep thud and his chin popping up from the impact. I quickly wrapped my right arm around his head, passed it in front of his neck, clasped my hands together and arched my back hard while jumping up and wrapping my legs around his massive torso. I could feel the blade of my forearm and wrist cutting into his windpipe as his hands frantically tried to pry my arms off his throat. As I continued to squeeze and twist my upper body to apply even more pressure he stumbled back a step, and then forward a step, and then back again as he tried to pull his head out of my stranglehold. I could see and hear Algis and Ehren yelling at the two men who had followed us out of the market but didn’t seem interested in getting any closer, or involved at all, by this point. A moment later, my attacker had dropped to one knee, and then both, and gave a final rasping, sputtering, gurgling sound, like a sleepy horse, before falling over and landing on top of me, hitting face first into the pavement. I held the choke for a few more seconds just to be sure before I rolled him over on the ground.
His face had gone deep red, almost purple, from the lack of blood flow which, ironically, was now flowing again straight out of the large cut on his forehead. I wasn’t sure if it was from the wall or the ground but in either case it was graphic and ugly like the strippers in a third grade club, in a rust belt city, stuck working weekday shifts. He was a barrel-chested young man with a shaved head and comically undersized legs that seemed like they had been grafted on from another body. He looked exactly like guys I knew who loved being in the gym but only so long as it made their upper body bigger. I patted down his jacket and pants before finding his wallet and taking it out just as Algis and Ehren came jogging up the alley. I could see our two friends from the market had backed off but remained standing near the entrance.
I pulled some kind of ID card from the wallet and handed it to Ehren.
“Any idea who our friend is?” I asked while taking his cash and putting it in my pocket before dropping his wallet in a puddle.
“No, but it’s an expired student ID for a Hauptschule in Frankfurt. Says his name is Ottokar Nashorn and judging by the date on the ID he’s about 18” Ehren responded as he handed the ID back while Ottokar’s legs would occasionally twitch as if he were being electrocuted.
“Is he still out?” asked Algis while I had circled to the far side of his body so I could watch the two other men carefully observing from the entrance to the alley way. While looking directly at them I smiled, wound up like a soccer player, and kicked Ottokar hard in the ribs. Apart from the crunching sound it didn’t produce much of a result.
“Yep, looks like he’s still out. Unless you want to check his pulse or give first aid, I recommend we keep going.”
“Agreed” Ehren said quickly and stepped over the unconscious attacker.
When traveling, there are times when you just get the feeling that you’ve seen everything there is to see in a city. You visited the famous church, saw old town, and got the souvenir magnet. Or maybe you’re just burnt out on the crowds, or the local pub scene, or shuffling through museums full of oil paintings of fruit bowls. For me, once dead bodies of people I can be connected to start appearing out of nowhere, it’s usually a good time to pack my bags and hitch a ride anywhere but where I’m at.
The three of us quickly worked our way back to the train station and bought tickets to the next stop, Heidelberg. After buying a couple, or a baker’s dozen, beers at the convenience store in the station we climbed aboard the train, stowed our luggage, and took up a set of seats in the far corner of the last car. Just after we had gotten underway, I could feel the tension start to ease slightly as Algis traced a shape on the small desktop.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked while getting a start on another beer.
“Father Schäfer. He gets killed in an alleyway after he talks to us, and then we get attacked by three guys from the market? Who the hell were they and what did they want?”
“One guy what?” asked Algis.
“We were attacked by one guy. The other two didn’t seem to want to play in our game. Granted, I was busy at the time so maybe I missed something, but did they actually attack you or make any physical contact?”
“No” added Ehren “they took about two or three steps forward but they weren’t focusing on us, they were watching you. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure they actually said anything to us at all. They were angry and shouting at Ottokar, cursing, things like that, and then they just backed off when we confronted them.”
“Well then, we had our young friend Ottokar and the two gentlemen from the marketplace who all seemed to know each other but need a little teamwork practice on. Seems like Ottokar jumped the gun or just went off script all together. The real question, if you’re the curious type, is what were they doing following us and what is it about father Schäfer that scared them enough to kill him in broad daylight? That, of course, assumes that they killed him and it wasn’t a random stabbing, or some kind of freak accident.”
“I’d be ok with making that assumption” said Ehren while peeling the label off a bottle of beer “but the timing is strange. If they didn’t want whatever he knew to get out, why not kill him before he met with the first group, or at least immediately after if you’re just tying up loose ends? He didn’t really tell us much anyway.”
“True, he didn’t tell us much about his work, but we did find out that the group wasn’t interested in hearing about the attack and that they came disguised as businessmen. So then, what’s the big secret about what they were doing?” I said.
The next two or three minutes passed in silence. I knew that Ehren didn’t believe Henning’s explanation of the attack, at least not in full, but there’s a difference between someone editing a story while still getting the basic plot right, and them asking you to play a role but refusing to give you the script. One thing you learn quickly in my line of work is that people lie. They lie about big important things and they lie about little insignificant details. They will lie straight to your face, in a letter, by smoke signal, or through the medium of interpretive dance. They will swear to their truthfulness on the very lives and souls of their children, with their hand on a bible, and with tears streaming down their face, as they carry right on lying without missing a beat. They will lie for any reason or none at all. So knowing all that, the only real question is what lies can you trust and what lies need to make you stop and think. The reality is that danger is just part of the job. If you aren’t willing to take certain risks, and do so without knowing all the facts, you’d be better off at home selling pencils or handing out towels at the gym. But that doesn’t mean you leap in blindly, or for free. Even for someone like me who failed every math class I ever took, the formula is pretty simple. The less truth I get the more danger there is and the more danger there is, the more I charge. Ultimately, just because I don’t trust someone doesn’t mean we can’t do business together, they just have to pay extra.
“Well boys, if you’ll excuse me I have a business meeting to attend” I said after the long pause. I stood up from the seats, picked up the remaining bottles of beer, and ran my hand over my mustache, curling the ends into sharp points.
“Business meeting? What do you mean?” asked Algis, looking more confused than a drunk gypsy trying to play solitaire with a tarot deck.
“I mean I’m going to go and give those two girls up front the business.” With a smile and bow of my head I saw both Algis turn around quickly to look towards where the girls were sitting while Ehren just laughed and saluted.
“Spend a little less time looking at that folder of yours and you might just see something more interesting” I said professorially to Algis and walked down the aisle. As I went I could feel two sets of eyes on me from behind and, far more importantly, two sets of eyes from in front. The train was on its way to Heidelberg, but I was on my way to the train’s handicap bathroom (always bigger and easier to maneuver in) with two girls, five beers, and a couple days worth of pent up energy.