by A. Schneider
Copyright 2017 Hutberg Verlag
Tony barreled into the lane. The car swerved a little because the side streets in this residential area hadn’t been salted. After 50 meters, he slowed down and looked around. He tried to make out the house numbers, but it was too dark to recognize them. Since he saw nobody waiting curbside, he continued further down the street. After 200 meters, he reached a turning bay. He stopped, jumped out of the car and ran to one of the houses to read the number. It was in the fifties. Dammit! House number 17, where he had to pick the doctor up, was in the first part of the street.
He walked back to the car, and what he had been dreading happened: His cell phone went off, the display showing “Billy.” Billy was his buddy. Like Tony, he was a cabby with many regular customers. When their appointments overlapped, they would help each other out. Over time, they had hooked each other up with a lot of lucrative fares: You scratch my back, and I scratch yours. And so far, they had never disappointed each other.
“Where the hell are you?” he heard his friend’s agitated voice after accepting the call.
“I’m here now,” Tony said. “You cannot imagine how much traffic there is in town.” He heard Billy heaving a sigh of relief.
“Thank God! He just called again and asked where you are.”
An hour earlier, Billy had called and given him the details of the job. He also asked him “not to fuck this up” because Dr. Frantz and his wife, who wanted to be taken to the opera, were two of his oldest customers.
“Don’t worry! I’ll be there on time,” Tony assured him.
Right after the call, he set the alarm on his cell to be on the safe side and continued driving downtown, hoping for another fare. There was still enough time. And he was lucky; somebody did flag him down. The fare went to the other side of the river. Tony looked at the clock: To go there and come back would take him about 30 minutes. In 40 minutes, he had to pick up Dr. Frantz. It was perfect!
The closer he got to the city center, the heavier the traffic became. There were more vehicles underway than usual. “I wonder why there is so much traffic today,” he thought out loud.
“That’s because of the railroad worker’s warning strike,” his passenger said.
Tony slapped his forehead. He suddenly remembered. The strike had been announced, and obviously, most people had decided to drive to work for this very reason. He glanced at the clock again: This one was going to be a close call.
Right after he dropped off the passenger, the alarm reminded him of his appointment. He had to cover 12 kilometers from where he was to Dr. Frantz’s address. It wouldn’t take him more than a couple of minutes under normal conditions, but the conditions were anything but normal because he was right in the middle of a gigantic traffic jam. He was only moving at walking pace, and he started to get nervous.
He considered his options. Sure, he could take an alternative route, but the risk that there were also snarl-ups on the bypasses was pretty high. He couldn’t decide what to do.
After missing the last chance to turn off, he realized that this had been a big mistake because the traffic came to a complete standstill. Fifteen minutes left, and he hadn’t covered half the distance yet!
At a quarter to seven, the time he should have picked up his fare, he wasn’t even near the place. A minute later, Billy called for the first time: “Dr. Frantz called and asked where his cab is.”
“Tell him three or four more minutes. I’m almost there.”
“All right, but please hurry up! The man sounded pretty nervous.”
Tony had lied to placate Billy. He could see the left turn where he had to branch off, but under the circumstances, he was miles away from it. There were emergency lights behind the junction, apparently an accident. Not that as well! He could have kicked himself. He shouldn’t have made this trip across the river. It had brought in 25 euros, which was well and good, but it hadn’t been worth it in the end because now he was late.
After twenty-two minutes, he drove off the main street and another two minutes later into the street where Dr. Frantz lived. The clock showed 7:09 PM.
“Don’t take it personally when he raises his voice,” Billy said. “He’s not easy, but he’s a good customer. Once, he hired me for a fare to Munich.”
“I’ll handle it,” Tony said. He had just hung up when he saw a shape in the beam of the headlights. A middle-aged woman in a fur coat was waving at him. He stopped and pushed the passenger door open for her. She slammed it shut again, opened the back door and got in. She was out of breath. “Why did you drive past us? We live in number 17!” she snapped at Tony, who frowned:
“Have you been waiting up there?”
“Yes! For 20 minutes in the freezing cold. And you just drove past us.”
“If I’d seen you, I–”
“Get a move on!” she cut him off. “My husband’s waiting!”
And that he was, about a hundred meters up the street. This time, Tony saw him. He looked about sixty–a gray-haired, wiry type, wearing a hat and an elegant winter coat. He also looked like someone who was a nightmare to his subordinates. Tony saw what Billy meant.
The cab had hardly stopped when the man yanked open the door. Ignoring Tony’s greeting, he got into the car shouting like a maniac: “Do you have a screw loose?! Where the hell have you been?! When I called Mr. Hingsen at a quarter to seven, he told me three more minutes. Are you too stupid to find our street? We ordered the cab for 6.45. You screwed up our whole evening!”–He pointed a threatening finger at Tony–“You will refund the money to me if they don’t let us in anymore! I paid 120 euros for a ticket.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I got stuck in traffic.”
“Don’t feed me that line! You guys have an excuse for everything. It’s unbelievable!” The doctor was beside himself with anger.
Tony stepped on the gas and barreled out of the street.
“It’s the third time in a row,” he heard the wife from behind. “The last one told us his navigation didn’t work. He had been wandering around for half an hour.”
“I didn’t have a problem finding your street,” Tony defended himself. “In a minute, you’ll see what the traffic’s like today.”
“Nothing but excuses!” the doctor took over. “When you see there’s a lot of traffic, you leave earlier to be on time. It’s that simple. But you’re not able to think that far because you’re stupid—all cab drivers are! In the past, there were standards, but today, every idiot can get a taxi license.”
Tony looked at him seeing himself as if he was watching a movie. He started yelling: “Shut the fuck up, old fart, or I’ll throw you out of my cab! Then you can see how you’ll get to your fucking opera!”
“How dare you?!” the doctor yelled back. “Are you out of your mind speaking to me like this?!”
Tony hit the brakes hard, unbuckled his seat belt, got out, rounded the cab and yanked open the doors. “Get out and be quick about it!”
Dr. Frantz stared at him in disbelief, his Adam’s apple jumping up and down. He hesitated but then got out. His wife did the same.
Tony slammed the doors shut and walked around the cab to get in again.
The doctor yelled after him: “I hope you know what you’re doing! I’ve never experienced such sassiness before! This will have consequences, young man!”
The two figures got smaller in the rear-view mirror. Who the hell did this guy think he was?! Tony wasn’t one of his fucking nurses! He hadn’t been spoken to like this since his schooldays. He realized how much he hated this job, and that he had been doing it for way too long.
An uncomfortable feeling seized him because he knew what he had done was not OK. Nevertheless, he continued to justify his action to himself.
He stopped at the next cab stand. A few minutes later, his cell went off. It was Billy.
“Tony, Dr. Frantz just called me. Tell me that’s not true!”
Tony tried to explain, but Billy, usually as cool as a cucumber, cut him off in a raised voice: “No matter what he says. You don’t throw a passenger out and especially not someone like Dr. Frantz. Do you have any idea who he is? I guess he’ll cause you a lot of trouble, and I have probably lost one of my oldest regulars. Thank you for this! I’m sorry, Tony, but I had to give him your name and cab number. I guess you’re in for it now.” Billy hung up without saying good-bye.
Tony realized that he had screwed up big-time. He felt miserable and would have liked to undo the whole thing, but he couldn’t. Why on earth hadn’t he kept his mouth shut?! In the worst case, he would have had to pay for the tickets.
A week later, he got a letter from the City, Department of Transportation. His worst fears came true: Dr. Frantz had filed a complaint against him. He was to comment on the issue within two weeks.
He wrote down how everything happened and posted the letter. Only a week later, he got the response. It said he was unfit for the transportation of people. He was to hand in his passenger transportation license. He had the right to appeal against this decision within two weeks. Besides, he was to refund Dr. Frantz 250 euros. The amount comprised the money for the opera tickets plus the fare for his cab ride back home. Well done! He lost his source of income because of his fucking lack of self-control!
This scenario ran through Tony’s head within a second. He was about to explode but suddenly calmed down. He realized that the doctor was right–at least from his point of view, because booking a cab for a particular time should be something you can rely on. But the tone and the insults!
Being convinced that everything would have turned out just the way he visualized it, he swallowed his anger and addressed the doctor in a calm voice: “You have every right to be upset, but I’m sure we can make it.”
“Are you kidding?!” the doctor yelled. “That’s impossible. We cannot be there by 7:30! You need a helicopter for that.”
“The good news is I know which streets to avoid,” Tony said. “I guess you don’t mind me driving a little faster.”
They had 18 minutes left to get to the opera. Considering the traffic situation, Tony himself didn’t believe he could make it. Nevertheless, he gave it his best shot. He used every bypass, and his local knowledge seemed to calm the doctor down. Since he wasn’t seat-belted, the warning chime didn’t stop sounding, which got on Tony’s nerves. He asked him politely to fasten his seat belt.
“Sorry, I forgot with all the excitement,” the doctor said in a normal tone for the first time.
Tony hoped for good luck, and his wish was granted. The traffic into town wasn’t as bad as the one in the other direction. He made it at the tail end of the yellow light at the first critical intersection, plus the right lane, usually used for parking, was free. He passed the other cars at 80, changed lanes deftly and managed to get through every traffic light in the nick of time.
He performed his masterpiece at the last bottleneck. There was a long line of cars in the left turning lane. Risking everything, he drove past the waiting vehicles hoping for someone to start slowly. It worked! In an unbelievably cheeky manner, he cut into a gap and barely made it through the traffic light. This action saved them at least ten minutes.
“Wow!” The doctor’s jaw dropped.
There was only one more traffic light, and that one was green. Tony stopped directly in front of the main entrance–time: 7:31.
He got out of the car, walked around it and opened the doors for his passengers. Mrs. Frantz looked a little shaky. “I’m really sorry for the delay,” he apologized once more.
Dr. Frantz handed him three ten-euro bills: “I don’t need any change back.” He checked his watch and smiled. “That’s unbelievable!” Then he gave Tony a pat on the back and raised his thumb. “Thank you very much. That was a great job!”
Around midnight, Tony received a call from Billy: “Hey buddy, what did you do to Dr. Frantz? Looks like you’ve taken one of my regulars away from me. The man is singing your praises. He needs to go to Bonn tomorrow, and he’s asking if you can take him there. What do you say?”
Usama told Rahman everything he had experienced over the last year. He left nothing out. The two friends celebrated their reunion, smoked hookah and discussed their religion throughout the afternoon. To back up his stories, Usama showed the photo album on his iPad to his friend. His lips spread in a smile, Rahman gazed at the screen, watching scenes of hands being amputated and people being lashed. Others were “interrogated” with blow torches and electric drills or executed: shot dead, beheaded and burned alive.
He enjoyed the shaky footage. It was stuff Usama had recorded with his iPhone: Photos and moving pictures that showed the fear in the eyes of traitors and enemies of Islam–precious material. Something that couldn’t be found on Youtube or even uncensored platforms–gritty reports of what people who broke Sharia law had to expect. Rahman was fascinated. He had been waiting patiently for his friend to come back and lead him into the battle against the infidels. He was more than ready for it.
When it started getting dark outside, Usama excused himself and left the room. From the balcony, Rahman saw him walk over to the shed and disappear into it. When Usama returned after a few minutes, he had a backpack in his hand. He invited Rahman to a car ride.
They drove through the night at 250 km/h on the autobahn. Rahman didn’t say anything, but he almost died of fear. In a long curve, Usama had to take his foot off the pedal in order not to skid off the road. “I missed this feeling,” he said, stepping on the gas again after they came out of the curve.
“Where exactly are we going?” Rahman said, glancing at the dashboard clock.
“Surprise,” Usama said.
Rahman forced a smile. “Everything’s fine as long as we’re back by 5:30.”
“Gotta open up the kiosk?” Usama said.
“Uh-huh.” Rahman nodded.
“Well, we are,” Usama said. “This won’t take too long. You’ll get some sleep before you go to work.”
After five minutes with maximum speed, Usama slowed down and blinked.
Rahman heaved a sigh of relief. He had a hunch when they left the autobahn. “Are we going to the Northeast Business Park?”
A sly grin flashed across Usama’s face. “Maybe?”
The further they followed the highway the more obvious it was that Rahman had assumed correctly. Like Usama, he knew the area well. Years ago, almost every weekend they were out here on their mountain bikes practicing their riding skills in the hilly terrain of a deserted gravel quarry.
And that was exactly where Usama was headed. He drove into the quarry through the two decayed pillars where the gate had once been and stopped after a few hundred meters.
“What are we doing here?” Rahman said.
Usama smirked. “Be patient. You’ll see in a couple of minutes.” He enjoyed keeping his friend in suspense. He turned off the engine and killed the headlights. Then he pointed at the glove compartment. “There’s a flashlight in there. Give it to me!”
Rahman opened the glove compartment and handed his friend the flashlight.
Usama turned around and took the mysterious backpack from the back seat. Then he opened his door. “C’mon brother! Let’s go!”
“Go where?” Rahman said.
Usama rolled his eyes. “I told you already to be patient. I wanna show you something.”
“Man, it’s fucking freezing out!” Rahman said but followed the lead of his friend. Standing beside the car, he looked around. Even though it was nighttime, he could see the environment well enough because the moon was shining brightly. Everything looked as he remembered it from his youth. Nothing had changed around here. In the distance, he saw the headlights of the vehicles on the highway against the background of a huge chemical plant. The many lights made the sprawling industrial facility look like a city. He put the collar up, tucked his hands into the pockets of his winter jacket and trudged with hunched shoulders after Usama.
The frozen soil crunched under their shoes, and their breaths clouded in the frosty air. The moonlight cast shadows. Rahman’s was almost twice as big as Usama’s.
“Do we have to walk much further?” Rahman said.
“Stop nagging, brother!” Usama said, poking his friend. “We’re almost there.” He pointed at something that looked like a monster lurking in the dark. In reality, it was the undefined shape of a container.
When they got there, Usama asked Rahman to stay behind and wait while he walked on. Rahman saw him stop after another 50 meters. He saw the dancing beam of the flashlight but couldn’t make out what his friend was doing. After a few minutes, Usama returned without the backpack. Something was burning at the spot where he had just been. From a distance, it looked like a sparkler. Usama pulled Rahman behind the container, and they backed against its wall. Seconds later, they heard a loud bang. Stones and soil rained down on the container roof. After the shower was over, the two of them walked to the spot where the explosion had taken place. A cloud of smoke and dust was hovering above it, and the smell of explosive filled the air. When Usama aimed the flashlight on the ground, Rahman saw the deep crater the explosion had left. The expression on his face was the same he had when he was watching the footage on the iPad.
“I’ve only used a small amount of explosive,” Usama said. “Can you imagine how much damage a trunk full of this stuff could do?”
Instinctively, he saw the waving hand. There was a group of men standing on the side of the street. They all had beer bottles in their hands. One guy stood out because he looked like Schwarzenegger in his very best days. He approached the cab and knocked on the passenger window.
Tony rolled the window down.
“Arnie” stooped over so he could talk to the driver. “You know your way around here?” he said with a thick accent.
“Being a cabby, I should,” Tony said.
“I wanna know where the girls are!” someone yelled while Arnie engaged Tony in a jovial conversation. “We came all the way from Bavaria because your city is allegedly so lively, but there’s nothing going on here. In fact, it’s a dead place. All the bars are half empty.”
“I want to know where the girls are!” the same voice yelled again. This time, Tony spotted the noisy troublemaker. He was a short man with extremely bushy eyebrows.
Arnie glanced over his shoulder. “What the hell, Sepp! I’m trying to have a conversation here.”
“What do you expect?” Tony said, pointing at the dash clock. “You guys are too early. All the action starts after ten.”
“But we want to have some action now,” Arnie said. “There must be a place that’s open around the clock. I mean, that’s a city with more than a million inhabitants, right? So give us a tip: Where can we find some girls? I’m not talking about a cheap dive. You know the type I mean.”
“Yeah!” Sepp supported him. “Tell us where we find them!”
Arnie’s last sentence made Tony’s pulse run faster. If he could take these guys to one of the high-end sex clubs, that would make his day! But being realistic, he came down again. He was sure that once they heard the prices, these guys would no longer be interested. He tried his luck anyway: “I know a place that isn’t cheap, but it might be too expensive for you guys.”
“Define too expensive,” Arnie said.
“75 to get in, and a hundred and fifty for a massage or half an hour with a girl.” Tony was convinced to get a no-thank-you, but Arnie proved him wrong.
“That’s not too bad,” the big man said. “Our war chest is full, and after all, we came here to live it up.”
Tony could hardly believe his luck. The one thing he regretted was that he could take only four people.
Another cab came down the street and was flagged by one of the group. “Four in here and four in the other cab!” Arnie directed his men.
Tony’s passengers farted, burped and talked obscenely throughout the short ride, but the joy over this fluke made him tolerate their bad behavior. When they arrived at the joint, he cashed up and got out with the men. He was surprised to see that the other cabby drove away after dropping off the passengers. That was strange. “Did your driver say anything?” he asked Sepp, who had been in the other cab.
The man with the bushy eyebrows grinned and shook his head. “No, but she was quite good looking. I would have made do with her”–He shrugged– “But she wasn’t interested.”
Tony got it! Being a woman, she hadn’t dared enter the sex joint, which meant her share was up for grabs! He didn’t see anything wrong with collaring it. The guys in the club wouldn’t know if he drove a van or a sedan. He could hardly believe it: 600 euros in one fell swoop! The deal the sex clubs had with the cab drivers included the cabbies getting 75 euros plus a chocolate bar–on convention days even 100 euros–for every customer they brought in.
Tony told Arnie he was going in with them to collect his chocolate bar. It was the stock tale every cabby gave his passenger because many a man would insist on being taken there for free if the word spread around how much they earned from such a fare.
After Tony pushed the bell, an eye peered through the peephole; then the door opened. The bouncer was muscular but not very tall. He winked at Tony, gave Arnie from Bavaria an envious once-over and let the group enter.
“Look at her boobs!” Tony heard Sepp’s excited voice as they approached the receptionist. She was mature but still good-looking. She turned to the new guests while naked girls waited in the background.
“A cab driver and eight guests,” Tony checked in.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” the receptionist said. “Is this your first time here?”
“It’s our first time in this city,” Arnie said.
“Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay so far.” She smiled for a few seconds before she wore her business expression again while reeling off her text: “The cover charge of 75 euros includes the use of our facilities like swimming pool, sauna and tanning booth. Half an hour with a girl is 150 euros. Any extras, you have to negotiate with the girls yourselves. Drinks are billed separately.”
Arnie nodded. “Alrighty!”
“Well, this would be 600 euros,” the receptionist said.
Arnie got the bills out of his pocket and paid.
Seconds later, eight naked, model-like girls appeared and took the fascinated Bavarians to the back. “This is a night you will never forget,” Tony heard one of the girls say as she disappeared behind the corner with her customer. One could cut her Slavic accent with a knife.
The guy gave her a playful smack on the rear. “That’s what I’m hoping!”
Tony had to wait for his money until the Bavarians had taken off their clothes. Eventually, the receptionist gave him his chocolate bar, slipping him six hundred-euro-bills. “Lucky you!” she whispered.
“That’s what I call the perfect start to a shift,” Tony said, putting 20 euros into the piggy bank on the counter.
Rahman hesitated when he saw the caller ID on his phone but then took the call. “What is it, Dad?”
“I need you here,” his father said. “Both cash registers need to be open when the soccer game is over.”
“Tsk.” Rahman’s big hands clenched around the steering wheel. “You know this is my afternoon off?” While speaking, he tried to concentrate on the traffic. The car he was following changed lanes. He accelerated and did the same. “What about Mehmet? It’s his turn.”
“Your cousin has let me down once more,” the father said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be calling you.”
“This unreliable piece of–” Rahman stopped in mid-sentence. Too late, he remembered the stationary speed camera at the end of the bridge. The very moment he slammed on the brakes, a red flash reflected off the wet tarmac. The following car almost ran into him. Seconds later, the same car pulled up alongside, and the driver looked over and sneered. “Fucking potato!” Rahman mumbled his standard insult for Germans.
“What’s that?” his father said.
Rahman inhaled sharply and released the air slowly to calm himself. Then he said: “Alright, I’ll be there, but only from five to seven. I have plans for this evening.”
“Thank you, son,” his father said and hung up.
Rahman remembered that the fine for using cell phones at the steering wheel had been raised to 60 euros just a few days ago. That plus the speeding ticket made this one an expensive trip. However, right now, he had bigger things to worry about. He concentrated again on the vehicle he was interested in. He could see its tail lights through the spray swirled up by the cars in front of him. The distance between them was about a hundred meters. He sped up to close the gap.
After another kilometer, the car pulled into the parking garage of a shopping mall. Rahman stayed on its tail.
Tony checked the cab ranks on his car computer: The average waiting time was 30 minutes. Business would pick up as soon as the soccer game was over. He made a face when he looked at the clock. It was too early to go to the stadium. Since he didn’t feel like waiting in a cab rank, he decided to drive around hoping for someone to flag him down. He was lucky. In front of a penny arcade, he saw a waving hand. It seemed to be his lucky day.
After the man named the destination, which was Chorweiler, Tony became suspicious. There was nothing wrong with going to Chorweiler even though it was one of the rougher areas of the city, but he had a sense of déjà vu. A few weeks earlier, he picked up two young men at the same spot right in front of the penny arcade and took them to Chorweiler. They directed him to one of the high-rises there and asked him to wait for a few minutes because they had to get something. Then they would go back to town. Knowing the reputation of the area, Tony objected, but the two had already gotten out of the cab and headed for the front door. Even though he had a bad feeling immediately, he didn’t react and stayed in the car. All he could do was hope that they had told him the truth. After 15 minutes, he realized they had not. He drove off, frustrated. Thirty euros down the drain. He could have kicked himself and promised to act quicker next time.
He considered his passenger in the mirror. The guy could be one of them. He wasn’t sure, though. His last doubts disappeared when the dude directed him to the same high-rise where he had been ripped off a few weeks before.
“Can you wait here? I just wanna pick something up. Then we go back to town.” Even the same words! While he was speaking, the young man was already getting out of the cab. However, this time, Tony was prepared. He unbuckled, grabbed his cell and got out of the cab. Just in time, he arrived at the front door to stop it from snapping shut.
The young man turned around in surprise. “What are you doing?”
“I’m coming with you,” Tony said, catching his breath. “No offense, but I don’t know you.”
“Er.” The young man swallowed hard. “Wait in the car! I’ll be back.”
“Just do what you got to do and pretend I’m not here,” Tony said.
The young man shook his head vigorously. “I got to go to my buddy upstairs. I can’t take anybody along.”
“Relax,” Tony said. “I’m not going to enter his apartment. And I’m certainly not interested in your business. I’ll be a good boy and wait in front of the door.”
“I cannot do that, believe me. I’ll be back here in two or three minutes—honestly!” Saying this the young man folded his hands imploringly in front of his chest, as Southern Europeans like to do. When he realized that he couldn’t change Tony’s mind, in fact, that this cabby was far from believing his story, he turned around and started a last desperate try: “All right, in this case, I can’t pay you because my friend has the money.”
Even though the young man was shorter than Tony and his build anything but formidable, Tony was careful not to get too close to him. He didn’t want to take any chances: Some people always have a knife handy in their pocket. Nevertheless, he made it clear to the man that he was no fool: “Listen! You don’t have a buddy up there. How do I know? You played the same scam on me a few weeks ago. See, man, you always meet twice. In the future, you better remember the faces of the cab drivers you rip off.” He pulled out his cell phone. “You owe me 60 euros for both fares. You either pay me now, or I’ll call the cops.”
“All right, you win!” the young man said with a look of numb resignation. “I don’t have any money on me. We gotta walk to the kiosk. My cousin works there. He’ll bail me out.”
The word “cops” had scared the shit out of him. Tony was convinced that he wasn’t really dangerous–just a small timer being out of luck on that day. Still, he warned him: “All right let’s go. But no cheap tricks!”
After exiting the high-rise, Tony looked around. He didn’t see a kiosk. “Where’s this kiosk supposed to be?” he said skeptically.
“It’s just around the corner,” the young man said and led the way. He didn’t try any tricks. Tony got his money at the kiosk and with that, the matter was settled. It definitely was his lucky day.
Loud music came from the stadium. The crowds poured out of their soccer temple and headed for the streetcar stop, parking lots and bars in the area. The heavy rain didn’t put a damper on their joy over their team’s victory.
Usama was standing at the north entrance. He was wearing the hat with the crest of the local soccer club back to front. He also had the matching scarf around his neck. He hadn’t been inside the stadium. It only looked that way. He pretended to be waiting for someone, but what he was really doing was watching the procedures.
When a cheering crowd passed him by, he kept a straight face and didn’t show any joy over his team’s victory. “Hey, buddy! We won three nil!” a man in a ridiculous fan outfit yelled. “It’s party time!” He raised his arms and performed a victory dance.
Usama forced a smile. His features hardened again as soon as the man turned his back on him and went on with his friends. Usama didn’t even know who “his” team had played against. And he couldn’t care less. He knew who they would be playing coming Wednesday though. That was what mattered to him and the only reason he was at the stadium.
He looked over the area taking in as much information as possible: The large field in front of the stadium emptied out quickly. Ten minutes ago, it was still packed. Now it was almost deserted. A few cabs were driving on the access roads. The quite impressive police presence ended after the game was over. Now, the cops were busy escorting the supporters of the visiting team to the central station. The stalls that sold beer and sausage were closing down. The ambulances were also leaving. Usama checked his watch when the bus of the visiting team pulled out of the parking garage. He noted that it was about one hour after the end of the game. He pulled out his iPhone. A warning signal indicated that the battery was low. There was only 5% power left. He forgot to charge it. "Dammit!" He took a video of the leaving bus until it was out of sight. He had just put the cell back into his pocket when he felt it vibrate. He pulled it out again. The screen showed, "Rahman." He took the call. "Make it short," he said in Arabic. "My battery is dying."
“I have good news,” Rahman also said in Arabic. “They met again and talked for half an hour. The guy gave him something. This time, I managed to follow him. He disappeared into the police headquarters.”
“Good job, brother,” Usama said. “Let’s meet in town at the usual spot. There, we’ll talk everything over.”
“I can’t be there before 7:30,” Rahman said. “Got to help my father in the kiosk. My cousin let him down again.”
“That’s no problem. Take your time,” Usama said and ended the call. “I knew it,” he mumbled while a triumphant smile flashed across his face.
Because there were too many cars waiting at the cab stand, Tony decided to drive through the gate and approach the stadium. Maybe he would have a better chance to get a fare near the access to the VIP area. When he saw there was a queue of cabs too, he drove on. The area around the stadium was nearly deserted now, but in the past, he had picked up passengers on the weirdest corners. He saw a man in a blue rain jacket about a hundred meters ahead beside the entrance to the parking garage. He looked like a potential customer. When he drove closer, the man waved. Tony pumped his fist. Bingo! He nodded as the man established eye contact to make sure the cab was free. Tony stopped. The man rounded the car and got in. “Downtown!” he said without greeting.
As usual, Tony did the math first. The fare was about twenty-five euros, which was good. When he took a look at his passenger in the rearview mirror, he noticed what he hadn’t seen before: There was a reddish discoloration on the right side of the man’s face. It looked like a burn mark that went all the way up to the temple. His passenger also had a strange look in his eyes, like a predatory stare. Tony quickly looked away when he met this stare. A few seconds later, he started a conversation, “How was the game?”
“OK,” Usama said with no excitement in his voice at all.
Tony was surprised at this reaction because the other supporters he had driven so far had been ecstatic about their team’s victory and wouldn’t stop talking about it. But then he shrugged. The guy’s refusal to ride shotgun had already indicated that he didn’t want to speak–for whatever reasons. He had given it a try just to be on the safe side. No problem at all; he respected the passenger’s wish to be left alone.
When they drove through a puddle, the water gushed to the left and right. Tony saw the yellow anorak too late. It had looked like there was just a bicycle leaning against the tree, but a man belonged to this bike. He was standing behind the trunk directly beside the access road.
Tony stopped, rolled down the passenger window and shouted an apology, but the only answer he got from the man was an angry look.
“Didn’t see him behind the trunk,” Tony said, trying to establish eye contact with his passenger in the rearview mirror.
“Shit happens,” Usama said looking out the window. “Keep driving.”
Tony frowned. After collecting himself, he accelerated to make it through the light. However, the cars in front of him made only slow progress because there was a traffic jam on the main street. Just before they reached the intersection, the light turned red.
When it switched to green again, and Tony was about to start, someone knocked hard on the passenger-side window. Tony turned his head. Seeing the yellow anorak, he rolled his eyes.
“You splashed water all over me!” the man yelled in a high-pitched voice. The hood had slipped off his head during his high-speed chase of the cab. His hairstyle–a narrow fringe of long, grayish-blonde hair plastered to an egg-shaped bald head–made him look grotesque. Pointing down at his brown corduroy pants, he yelled, “I’m soaking wet because of you!”
Tony bit his lips to suppress laughter. This dude’s appearance in connection with this voice plus a lisp was comical. He rolled the window down and said: “I told you I was sorry. Can’t offer more than an apology, can I?”
Noticing that Tony didn’t take him seriously, the man made an angry gesture and yelled: “You guys are all the same!”
Usama rolled down his window and butted in: “The man said he was sorry. So please let us drive on. The meter is running. It’s my money.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, asshole, was I? So stay out of it! …” The honking fest of the following vehicles drowned his tirade.
Tony started. “This guy isn’t playing with a full deck,” he said to his passenger, who mumbled something in a foreign language.
The cyclist, however, didn’t want to be fobbed off like this. He kept ranting, riding persistently beside the cab. “Six-three-three! “Got your cab number, pig! I’ll get you next time!”
The distance between them increased. Tony looked in the rearview mirror when he heard a long honk and saw that another cab almost ran his pursuer over. The man staggered and wobbled with his boneshaker but caught himself in the nick of time. Tony was relieved when the next traffic light turned green. “What an idiot!” he said to himself and burst out laughing. In the mirror, he saw that his passenger was also wearing an amused expression.
About half way into town, they got stuck in a traffic jam. There was a significant police presence. Three streetcars, all packed to the rafters with soccer fans, parked in a row.
“What’s going on?” Usama said.
“Looks like there’s trouble with the supporters of the visiting team,” Tony said.
“I get that,” Usama said. “But why are the cars not moving?”
Tony shrugged. “Guess the cops want the fans out of the streetcar, and they blocked the street so that they can cross to the other side.”
“Is it always like this after a game?” Usama said.
“It depends on who they play,” Tony said. “It’s always like this when Schalke, Dortmund or like today Frankfort come. They’re high profile games because these clubs have a lot of hooligans. Therefore, a lot of security is necessary. But when they play”–Tony thought for a moment–“let’s say Freiburg or Hoffenheim, there are hardly any police here.”
Usama nodded. Then he said, “And what about the friendlies?”
“Also,” Tony said, meeting Usama’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Hardly any police at all. I mean, the name says it: It’s a friendly.”
“Let me ask you something else,” Usama said. “You picked me up right in front of the stadium. Are only cabs permitted to go there?”
“Well, there’s security at the gate till the beginning of the second half,” Tony said. “They don’t let anybody pass unless he has a VIP card. But as soon as these guys are gone, everybody can access.”
Usama nodded pensively. “So I could approach the stadium in my private car?”
“I don’t know about that,” Tony said. Then he thought for a moment and shrugged. “Actually, I guess so. I mean, there’s nobody at the gate after the beginning of the second half, so who would stop you?–Why are you asking anyway?”
“Maybe next time, I’ll ask my buddy to come and pick me up, so I can save the money for the cab,” Usama said. He pointed at the meter. “This stop-and-go makes it pretty expensive.”
Tony chuckled. “Well, that’s bad for our business. I better stop answering your questions then.”
Usama smiled. “Fair enough.”
Abdul was surprised when he opened the door because he had expected this one to be a two-men meeting. Now Usama brought someone along–someone so big, someone he didn’t know even though the man looked familiar. However, he didn’t mind meeting Usama’s friends. On the contrary.
After the greeting, Usama introduced his companion: “This is Rahman. We’ve known each other for a long time.”
There was another exchange of cheek kisses before Abdul made an inviting gesture. Wearing glasses, he looked like a student–but like one who spent a lot of time in a muscle factory. The tight top he was wearing accentuated his athletic body. Even though he was taller than Usama, and the trendy beard made him look extremely manly, the comparison with Rahman, who had to lower his head when he walked through the doorway, was like that between David and Goliath.
Usama took a look around. The place was sparsely furnished. It was a regular student apartment–one bedroom and a living room–but the view was spectacular because they were on the 25th floor.
Usama approached the big window and looked outside. “That’s quite a view over the city you’ve got. How long have you been living here?”
“One and a half years,” Abdul said. Then he gestured toward the sofa. “Have a seat, guys! What can I offer you?” His eyes darted back and forth between his guests.
“Tea would be nice,” Usama said.
Rahman nodded. “Works with me too.”
Abdul winked at them. “Already prepared.” He went to the kitchen and returned carrying a tray with three tea glasses and a teapot. He set it down on the coffee table and seated himself on a chair across from his guests. He considered Rahman while pouring his tea. “Have we met before?”
Rahman looked up and shook his huge, hairy head. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe you’ve seen him in the mosque at the Friday prayer,” Usama said.
“Hmm.” Abdul thought for a moment, then nodded. “Maybe that’s it. I know I’ve seen him before. I mean, he sticks out, doesn’t he?”
“He sure does,” Usama said and laughed.
The other two joined him. Then everybody sipped their tea.
“What is it you wanted to see me about?” Abdul said after he set his glass down. “It sounded urgent.”
“It is,” Usama said. He pressed his lips together, thinking for a moment as if to figure out how to begin. “You know… one cannot be careful enough these days,” he continued. “Many a man claims to be a holy warrior when in reality, he spies for the infidel. I wonder how many of this vermin there is even at our university. That’s why I’ve been so reluctant with you. It was nothing personal.”
Abdul nodded. “I totally understand, brother. And what made you change your mind?”
“The situation,” Usama said. “I…”–He pointed at Rahman–“we need your help, and we’re willing to take the risk… Do you have what you told me you could get?”
“I can assure you you’re not taking any risk,” Abdul said. “And yes, I have them. I got them a while ago, and I’ve been waiting for your call.” He got up and walked over to his writing desk. He opened a drawer, got something out and came back. There was a small purple leather bag in his hand. He lifted it for Usama to see, then threw it across the table for him to catch and sat down again.
Usama weighed the bag in his palm. He opened it, bent forward and emptied the contents onto the table. Fascinated, he gazed at the small, conical precious stones that sparkled in blue, brown and red. “What are they, diamonds? –I don’t know about this stuff.”
“A diamond is a stone, and a brilliant is the name of a cut,” Abdul said. “A brilliant is cut in 57 facets, and these are brilliants. You can finance several attacks with them. What’s on the table right now is worth about 100,000 euros.”
“You kidding!” Usama said.
Abdul smiled. “Not at all.”
“Wow!” Usama nodded appreciatively. “I have to admit I’m surprised.”
Abdul cocked one eyebrow. “And why is that?”
“To be honest, I thought you were all talk and no action,” Usama said. “Well, I’m glad I was wrong. Where did you get them?”
“I told you my father was a jeweler,” Abdul said.
“And?”–Usama shrugged–“He just gave them to you?”
Abdul shook his head. “He didn’t exactly give them to me.”–He smirked–“But who cares.”
Usama turned to Rahman. “That’s the spirit we need,” he said pointing theatrically at Abdul.
Rahman nodded but didn’t say anything.
“So, are you going to fill me in?” Abdul said while Usama put the brilliants back into the leather bag.
“Of course,” Usama said and bent forward to give his words more emphasis. “We’re targeting the forecourt of the cathedral. We will place a car bomb there.”
Abdul didn’t seem impressed. “That’s basically the best place here in town to do it. I mean, if you want to cause maximum damage and arouse attention. So you need the brilliants to finance the explosives?”
“We have the explosive already,” Usama said. “There’s a fertilizer plant in the north of town. A while ago, Rahman and I got ourselves a few barrels of fertilizer from there.”
Abdul cocked his eyebrow again. “Fertilizer? I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
Usama scoffed and exchanged glances with Rahman. “I thought everybody knew that?”
“Excuse me,” Abdul said sounding slightly annoyed. “I’m not studying chemistry like you.”
Usama made a placating gesture. “OK! OK! Let me explain it as well as I can to a layman. Ammonium nitrate explodes when suddenly heated. With a few additives like aluminum grain or heating oil, you can even increase its blasting power. Exactly this ammonium nitrate is in high concentration in fertilizers. The guy who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 used this stuff. He killed 168 people.”
Abdul nodded as a sign that he understood. “And what do you need the brilliants for?”
“We need them for another attack,” Usama said. “Let’s call it a warm-up. Right now, an opportunity is presenting itself that we cannot ignore because we don’t get it too often.”
Abdul made an impatient gesture. “Are you going to tell me what it is?”
Usama smirked and sipped his tea again. Then he said, “Are you interested in soccer?”
“Um.” Abdul shot him an irritated glance. “I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I can’t think of something more boring.”
Usama chuckled and leaned back. “OK, that’s why you don’t know.”
“Don’t put me on the rack like that,” Abdul said, trying to stay calm.
Usama chuckled again.
Abdul glanced at Rahman, who had been looking at the screen of his cell phone for the last couple of minutes. He was totally absent-minded and didn’t seem to be interested in the topic at all. It was a strange situation. Abdul was under the impression that these two were playing a game with him. He looked back at Usama. “Are we having a serious conversation here?”
“Of course, we are,” Usama said gesturing for him to calm down. Then he cleared his throat, and his features hardened. “On Wednesday, the soccer club of this godless city is playing a Zionist team. Unfortunately, I heard about it only a few days ago. Nevertheless, we’re going to blow up their team bus.” He watched the news sinking in on his host.
Abdul expressed his admiration with a whistle. “That’s a brilliant idea!”
Usama pointed at the little leather bag on the table. “And these guys will get us the stuff we need to carry out the attack. A contact in Belgium hooked me up with someone who sells hand grenades. This person prefers gemstones over cash because they are easier to hide. I guess it has something to do with the tightened security after the attacks our brothers executed lately. I’m fine with that. Day after tomorrow, I’m going to meet with him to get the grenades. And on Wednesday, the three of us will blow the fucking Jewish vermin to hell where they belong.”
Abdul frowned. “As I said, the idea is awesome, and this will certainly send a strong message. But how is it supposed to be going down? I mean, with all the police and tightened security.”
“Uh-uh.” Usama shook his head. “I was at the stadium today. There was a lot of police there alright, but only till the end of the game. As soon as the supporters of the away team were gone, the cops were also gone. And the team busses leave later. They’re without any protection. We’re going to provoke an accident, just a fender bender, and when the driver opens the door and comes out, one of us enters, throws a grenade and gets out again. The explosion will shatter the windows, and we can do the rest from outside. It won’t take us longer than a few minutes. By the time the cops arrive, we’ll be gone. What do you say?”
Abdul nodded his approval. “You thought it all through.”
“I did,” Usama said. He pulled out his iPhone. The battery power was down to 2%. Nevertheless, he started a video and handed the phone to Abdul. “Check this out. It’s the way the bus takes from the parking garage.”
Abdul watched the video, then gave the cell back.
“You happen to have a charger for this?” Usama said.
Abdul shook his head. “I have a Samsung.”
“No problem,” Usama said and pocketed his cell again. “Do you have something to write?”
Abdul nodded. He got up and fetched a sheet of paper and a pen from his writing desk.
Usama drew, then spun the sheet so Abdul could see and explained his sketch: “That’s the stadium… That’s the route the bus of the away team takes… And here, halfway between the parking garage and exit West,”–He tapped his index finger hard on an x–“right beside the lift to the VIP area, we’re going to strike and annihilate the Zionist soccer team.” Usama looked resolutely into Abdul’s eyes. After a moment, he added: “Everything else that blows up is a welcome bonus.”
Abdul grinned, stroking his trendy beard. “Something like this has never happened in this city.”
Usama nodded. “That’s why it’s about time. The attack on the Christmas market in Berlin was a good start for the fighters in Germany, but our brothers in Belgium and France are still way ahead of us. We need to catch up with them and kill more infidels. Once we’ve pulled this one off, brothers in Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and other big cities will follow our lead. And this will destabilize their whole fucking system. Our advantage is that the police in Germany are slow and, fortunately, pretty stupid too.” He took the leather bag from the table and put it in the pocket of his rain jacket.
“I’d like to come,” Abdul said. “I mean to Belgium.”
Usama shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. It’s less dangerous when I go alone. With all the security now and the way we look, one person is less conspicuous.”
Abdul swallowed hard. He couldn’t hide his disappointment. “I mean, I’ve contributed the brilliants,” he started hesitantly. “I should have a say in this.”
“I just told you the reason why you can’t come,” Usama said. “Or is it that you don’t trust me?”
“I didn’t say that,” Abdul said clenching his hands tightly. But he relaxed again immediately. Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “You’re probably right.”
“Well then,” Usama said smilingly and got up.
So did Abdul and Rahman.
“Giving us the gemstones shows that you’re a holy warrior,” Usama said. “You’re a full member of our cell now.” While he hugged Abdul, he winked at Rahman who returned the signal.
The three men walked toward the apartment door: Usama, Abdul, Rahman–in this order. Pulling open the door, Usama hesitated. He turned around and looked at Abdul, his head cocked to one side. As if the topic had just come to his mind, he said: “Who’s the man who gave you the gemstones today? Is he a cop or with the secret service?”
Abdul got it immediately. He turned around, brushed past Rahman, who tried to catch him but wasn’t quick enough, and made a break for the living room. Even though Abdul was fast, he wasn’t fast enough to carry out his plan. The moment he whipped around with the gun he had retrieved from a hiding place, Rahman punched it out of his hand. The gun went off, but the bullet went into the ceiling. There was a brief struggle in which Abdul hurled, among other things, the coffee table at Rahman. But it was like David against Goliath. At some point, Rahman’s big fist landed on Abdul’s face, which sent the spectacles flying to the other end of the room. Rahman caught the tumbling Abdul, lifted him and put him in a wrestling hold waiting for instructions.
Usama came slowly back into the living room. He stopped and looked around. A smile flashed across his face when he saw Abdul’s glasses on the floor. He curved around the knocked-over table and chair and picked it up. Then he collected the gun, eyeballed it and chuckled.
In the meantime, Abdul regained consciousness. Finding himself in Rahman’s tight grasp, he tried to headbutt him to free himself, but these attempts looked ridiculous. As a result, Rahman tightened his grip, so Abdul could hardly breathe anymore and had to give up.
“Let him down!” Usama said.
Rahman executed the order immediately. The distribution of roles between the two of them was crystal clear: Usama was the one in command, the brain. And the big, strong, rustic looking Rahman was the muscle, the one who carried out every order without hesitation.
Usama approached Abdul and smiled. It was obvious how much he enjoyed this game. He put the glasses back on Abdul’s face donning them properly. “I want you to see me clearly,” he said, then pushed the gun into the man’s stomach. “So you were going to shoot us? Was that your plan?”
Abdul breathed heavily, and beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead.
“You really took me for an idiot, didn’t you?” Usama looked him in the eyes waiting for an answer. When it didn’t come, he continued: “Rahman has been watching you for the last couple weeks. Maybe that’s why he looked familiar.” He considered for a long moment before he went on: “I have to hand it to you. You’re a good actor.”–He chuckled–“But so am I. You know nothing about me; about the things I’ve done to guys like you. You don’t even know my real name. “–His expression became dead serious–“Talking about names. Yours means Allah’s servant. You should be ashamed of yourself working for the infidel! What a lowlife!” He tucked the gun into the waistband of his jeans and punched Abdul in the stomach.
Abdul groaned with pain and gasped for air. “You are the lowlife,” he said after he recovered. “You’re a shame for every true Muslim. When they asked me to work for them, I said yes immediately. I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the Muslims. You’re not a Muslim. You kill innoc–” He didn’t get farther because Rahman tightened the clasp.
Usama turned his head and stared off, the muscles in his jaw working. “You know what I see right now?” he said and continued without waiting for an answer: “I see myself play soccer with my brothers and cousins on a beautiful, sunny day. I see myself raising my arms triumphantly after I trick another boy and score a goal. My team is winning! When the ball lands outside the field in front of a security guard, the man makes a show of sending it back to us. He sets down his AK rifle, positions the ball, takes a run and kicks. The shot goes astray, and the ball flies over the wall of the compound. The man makes an apologetic gesture. He has made a fool of himself, and we laugh at him.”
Abdul gave an uneasy smile. “You like to hear yourself talk, don’t you? But you can keep your shit to yourself because I’m not interested in it.”
Usama punched him in the stomach. “You are going to listen to what I have to say,” he said calmly and continued his story while Abdul was dealing with the pain: “While one of my brothers heads for the house to get another ball, I sit down in the shade to rest for a minute. I look over to where the adults are. I take in the atmosphere, the smiling faces of my dad and my mother, of my oldest sister who is getting married, of my grandparents and uncles and aunties. Some men smoke hookah; others eat and some dance. Everybody is having a good time. I see a big, happy family. After a few minutes, my brother comes out of the house with a new ball in his hand. I’m about to get up when I hear this noise. It seems to come from above and sounds like a whistle that grows louder quickly. I see the worried expression on my dad’s face. Like he and everybody else, I look up at the perfectly blue sky. Suddenly, I’m blinded by the brightest light I’ve ever seen followed by darkness. When I come to, I hear somebody shout, ‘He’s alive!’
Men pull me out of the rubble. My clothes are scorched. Flaps of burned skin hang from my body. They put me on a stretcher and carry me to an ambulance. On the way, I catch a glimpse of the surroundings. There’s destruction everywhere. The house, my family and I used to live in, is a big heap of rubble. The smell of burned flesh is in the smoky air. I see a few charred bodies, snapshots I will never forget.”
Usama swallowed hard. There was silence for a long moment after he stopped talking. A single tear trickled out of his eye. He wiped it from his cheek. He backed off and yanked up his rain jacket and the shirt he was wearing underneath. He stood sideways to show off the burn scars on his right hip and part of his back. He pointed at the maimed side of his face. “You see this? The damn Zionists did this to me. So don’t tell me about innocence!”
“The story you just told justifies nothing,” Abdul said. “Nothing!”
Usama approached him again and punched him–this time in the face. “These godless pigs fired a rocket at our house!” he screamed, the saliva splashing out of his mouth. “They wanted to kill us because my father fought for the rights of our people! But Allah made me survive so I can avenge my family.”
“You’re out of your mind,” Abdul whispered, his face contorted with pain.
Usama calmed down again. Then he sneered. “It’s so satisfying to know that you know everything now but won’t be able to tell anyone because you’re just a few minutes away from hell.”
“Do you really think you can put your crazy plan into practice?” Abdul said with a painful chuckle. “Keep on dreaming. What happened in Berlin was an exception. You guys will never get a chance to repeat something like this.” He mustered his strength and kicked with both his legs.
Usama stumbled backward and found himself lying on the floor next to the upturned coffee table. When he got up, his jacket got caught in the table leg. For a moment, pure rage was in his eyes. But then he freed his jacket from the table leg, got up, checked if the gun was still in his waistband and walked calmly toward Abdul. “I’m gonna make you suffer. But before I finish you off, you’ll answer my questions.”
Abdul tried to spit at him, but it remained an attempt because Rahman tightened the clasp again.
Usama shook his head in disbelief and struck him across the jaw. When Abdul’s glasses slipped down his nose and fell to the floor, Usama stepped on them deforming the frame and breaking the glass. He struck again and again until Abdul went slack in Rahman’s arms. He pulled the cell phone out of Abdul’s pants pocket and held it in front of his face. “I need the password for this.”
Abdul spat blood and a few teeth. He lifted his head and said weakly, “Fuck you!”
Usama’s shoulders heaved with a sigh. “OK then. You’ve had your chance.” He walked to the kitchen where he rummaged through the drawers. A fierce look in his eyes, he returned with a pair of poultry scissors. Even though Abdul desperately jerked his hands, Usama managed to grab one. He applied the torturing tool on a pinky.
Abdul stopped fighting the moment he felt the sharp metal, and his face expressed sheer fear.
“The password to your cell,” Usama said.
“Fuck you!” Abdul whispered with tears in his eyes.
“Yeah, you said that.” Usama covered Abdul’s mouth with his free hand. His lips twitched when it snapped. Abdul’s muffled cry of pain wasn’t louder than a burble as the pinky–severed almost at the root–dropped to the floor.
“The password to your cell!” Usama said with a raised voice removing his hand from Abdul’s mouth so that he could speak.
Abdul didn’t say a word. On the contrary, he looked defiantly at his tormenter trying to endure the pain.
Usama waited for half a minute. When it was clear that Abdul wouldn’t talk, he said: “Suit yourself. You have one more pinky, two more thumbs and six more fingers.” He grabbed Abdul’s uninjured hand and applied the poultry scissors at the thumb. The sharp scissors cut through the bone with a crunching noise, and the bloody severed thumb dropped to the floor.
Abdul roared between clenched teeth trying to fight the pain while tears ran down his cheeks. He still didn’t say anything.
Usama grabbed the other trembling hand and applied the scissors at the thumb. He went closer to Abdul. Fixing him with a penetrating gaze, he whispered: “Just tell me, and the pain is over.”
Abdul’s expression was the one of a frightened animal as he shook his head.
Usama pressed his lips together. He didn’t avert his gaze. There was another crunching sound, and the second thumb dropped to the floor.
“OK! OK!” Abdul yelled under Usama’s cupped hand.
Usama took his hand away and backed off. “You’re ready to talk now?”
Abdul nodded breathing heavily. He had stuck it out for as long as he could. “It’s Abdul765!” he mumbled, blood and saliva dripping from his mouth.
“Let me check this.” Usama wiped his bloody right hand on Abdul’s T-shirt and keyed in the password. It worked. He hit the email icon and browsed through the emails. Then he approached Abdul again. “I’ll have a look at what you wrote about me later. I bet that’ll be interesting… But back to business.”–He turned to Rahman–“Tie his hands!”
Rahman held Abdul with one arm in a choke hold while fishing a zip tie out of his pocket. Then he tied Abdul’s maimed, bloody hands behind his the back.
“On your knees!” Usama said.
When Abdul wasn’t executing the order fast enough, Rahman forced him on his knees. Usama looked down at his victim, waving the poultry scissors in front of his face: “There’s something else I need you to tell me: When were you guys going to bust us? Do we have to worry? How much do you know?”
Abdul’s head hung limply. He was broken. He had given up. There was no more fight left in him.
“Hey, buddy! I’m talking to you!” Usama grabbed Abdul’s hair and pulled his head up, thus forcing him to look him in the eyes. “When were you guys going to bust us?” he repeated his question.
“As soon as a concrete plan had been fixed,” Abdul mumbled.
“Are they watching me?”
“No… I was to gather more information first.”
“What’s the story with the gemstones? Are they real?”
“They are… I swear, “ Abdul mumbled, spitting blood and saliva.
“That’s disgusting!” Usama said and let go of Abdul’s hair.
Abdul’s head lolled forward. His face was totally battered. His jaw was broken or at least unhinged. His nose was also broken, and his lips were split. His eyes were swollen to the point where they were just tiny slits. However, he mustered all the strength he had left and lifted his head, looking imploringly up at his tormentor. “Let’s get this over with.”
“As you wish,” Usama said and went to the kitchen. Coming back with a bread knife in his hand, he turned to Rahman who looked like an interested bystander: “That’s the fun part now.” He positioned himself behind Abdul and kicked him in the back. Abdul tumbled forward and landed on his face. While he was lying there helplessly, Usama winked at Rahman, wearing an amused expression. “Pay attention, brother. That’s what we did to traitors in Syria!” He kneeled on Abdul’s back, thus pinning him down on the floor, grabbed his hair and forcefully pulled back his head with one hand. With the other hand, he brought the bread knife under Abdul’s neck, right under the chin and started sawing through the windpipe. Abdul’s body shivered while blood gushed out of his throat. After a minute or so, the knife had gone through the esophagus and finally the back of the neck. Now, the head was detached from the spine. Usama stood up and triumphantly held it up for Rahman to see.
Blood was dripping out of it, and Abdul’s tongue lolled out of the side of the mouth. Rahman swallowed hard. He had seen the same thing on video but never in real life. He shifted his gaze to Usama, his expression a mixture of astonishment and admiration.
“Surely we shall cast those who reject our signs into the fire,” Usama said solemnly. “And as often as their skins are burned out, we shall give them other skins in exchange that they may fully taste the chastisement. Surely Allah is almighty, all wise.” He opened his hand, and the head dropped to the floor.
The nightlife district was jam-packed. Countless people, the majority of them in their twenties, were out partying–among them still many soccer fans. Their voices were hoarse and their blood-alcohol level high. After hours of drinking, many couldn’t walk straight anymore.
On the main street, the vehicles moved slowly in both directions. Time and again, the traffic flow was interrupted by someone who wanted to get out of or into a parking space or by drunk people who were jaywalking.
Security forces patrolled in small squads. The labels on the protective vests they were wearing marked them as police or members of the public order office.
Muffled beats came from inside the discos, bars and clubs. In front of them, people were waiting in line to be granted access. It was the hour of the doormen. Who would get in and who would not was up to them, and they used their power, rejecting everyone whose face they didn’t like.
The cab stand at Friesenplatz was entirely occupied. About a dozen more vehicles were waiting bumper to bumper on the street. An ambulance with the emergency lights on was sitting on the opposite side. Two paramedics were taking care of a girl while another girl, who could hardly walk in her high heels, yelled hysterically at them. The medics tried their best to calm her down assuring her that everything wasn’t so bad and that her friend would be on her feet again soon.
Its amber warning light flashing, a tow truck was sitting a few meters down the street. The driver pulled a pimped out BMW onto its loading area. A traffic warden stood nearby feeding her electronic device with data.
Two young men approached the driver of the tow truck. “Hey man, that’s my ride,” one of them said with a raised voice. “Unload it again!” He had heavy gold chains around his neck and wrists, and his wavy black hair was slicked back. Even though he radiated this don’t-mess-with-me attitude, the man from the tow service didn’t interrupt what he was doing. “That’s 120 euros,” he said coolly.
“Are you fucking kidding me?!” the owner of the BMW yelled.
The man from the tow service chuckled. “Not at all,” he said and continued doing his job without being impressed.
The other guy interfered and addressed the tow truck man in a more moderate tone: “Hey, buddy. Give us a break! The car’s been parked here less than ten minutes.”
Now the traffic warden stepped closer. “Ten minutes my ass,” she said. “It’s been parked here for almost an hour. Let me give you your options. Option one: You pay the man right away. That would be 120 euros plus a ticket for a parking violation, and you’ll get your car back. Option two: you let him take the vehicle and pick it up later at the tow service. If that’s the case, you’ll pay 120 euros plus the ticket plus 20 euros for each day the car is sitting in their yard. That’s the deal.”
“That’s highway robbery!” the man said.
The traffic warden smirked shaking her head. “I disagree. You could have easily spared yourself this one by observing the rules.”–She pointed down the street–“Look! This whole strip is for cabs only from 11 pm on.”–She jerked her head toward the opposite side of the street–“They’re all waiting over there now, blocking the outside lane. See what I mean?”
“What about them?” the owner of the BMW said gesturing toward the vehicles that also parked illegally. “Why are they not being towed?”
“Don’t worry,” the traffic warden said. “We’ll deal with them later. But we have to start somewhere.”
The guy’s brow furrowed as if he was trying to figure something out. Then he said: “Where the fuck is this tow service located, dude?”
“I’m not your dude, got it?” the traffic warden said bringing an air of authority to her voice. Then she pointed at the man from the tow service. “He’ll give you the address.”
The car owner said something in Turkish to his friend.
“Ready to roll,” the driver of the tow truck said to the traffic warden.
She nodded and turned to the young men again. “You heard him. He’s ready to leave.”–She shrugged her hands–“What’s it gonna be?”
The owner of the BMW turned angrily at the man from the tow service, “How much is it?”
The tow truck guy shook his head with an amused expression. “The price hasn’t changed. It’s still 120 if you want me to set it down again.”
The young man inhaled and exhaled sharply. “Set her down!” he finally said. Then he conversed with his companion in Turkish. They yelled at each other as if they were having an argument. Whatever it was, it ended with the friend saying the word, “fuck!” Then he got a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted off 120 euros and handed them to the car owner, who passed it on to the tow truck guy.
The traffic warden watched the scene smiling to herself until something else caught her attention. It was the sound of screeching brakes coming from further up the street.
There was an excessively long honk. Just in time, a cab came to a halt in front of two people–a man and a woman. Both were wearing soccer fan outfits. The man had a beer bottle in his hand.
Pointing at the red light, the cab driver yelled with a thick foreign accent out the window, “Are you colorblind?!”
“You wanna run us over, asshole?!” the man shouted back. The slur in his speech clearly indicated that he had been drinking more than he could handle. “Fucking Camel Jockey! Where did you make your driver’s license?” He banged his palm on the hood of the car. When the cabby honked again, he raised his right arm threatening to throw the beer bottle against the windshield.
“Don’t!” the woman said and stopped him.
“I’m gonna report you! I–”
“Drunken pig!” the cabby yelled while the drivers in the following cars honked impatiently.
“Let’s go, honey. Nothing happened,” the woman said showing the cabby the middle finger. She dragged her man along when he wanted to round the cab and start an argument. He gave in reluctantly but couldn’t stop himself from having the last word. “I’ll remember your face!”
The cabby shook his head disgustedly and drove on. When the drunk guy made another threatening gesture, he tripped on the curb, and the beer bottle slipped out of his hand. While the woman caught him before he hit the sidewalk, the bottle shattered on the ground.
Sitting in the first cab in line, Tony and Billy couldn’t help noticing the scene. “Look at this asshole. He doesn’t even collect the broken glass,” Billy said adding a dramatic: “Oh no, I hate having lushes in my car!” when the couple made a beeline for his cab.
“Guess you don’t have a choice,” Tony said and opened the door ready to get out. He hesitated when the couple stopped a few meters away from the cab.
“I spent all my money,” the woman said. “Do you still have some?”
The man shrugged, then clumsily fumbled through his pockets. Suddenly, they were surrounded by cops.
“Thank God!” Billy said and sighed with relief while Tony closed the door again.
Watching the conversation between the couple and the cops for a moment, Billy pulled at his blonde musketeer beard humming along to Dierks Bentley’s “Lot of leavin’ left to do,” which was playing on the radio. He lit a cigarette, adjusted his Stetson and resumed the conversation he had had with Tony before the couple caught their attention: “Tell me about your hot seat. How much did you invest?”
“500 altogether, material plus installation,” Tony said.
Billy nodded. “That’s not too bad. When are you starting doing the day shift?”
“I guess as soon as I find a reliable night driver,” Tony said.
A regretful expression flashed across Billy’s face. “Then we won’t be seeing much of each other anymore.”
Tony looked at him and smirked. “Unless you switch too.”
Billy shook his head. “No way!”
“Why not?” Tony said. “How long have you been doing the night shift now?”
“Almost 20 fucking years,” Billy said with a thoughtful expression.
“That’s way too long,” Tony said. “I’ve been doing it for just over a year, and I’m fed up with it already. Having to deal with all these lushes, plus you can’t lead a normal life anymore.”
“Still,” Billy said, shaking his head again. “You don’t meet any decent chicks during the day shift.”
Tony frowned. “C’mon. Are you serious? Don’t tell me that’s your priority.”
Billy shrugged giving him a guilty look.
“I can tell you one thing, though,” Tony said. “Maybe you meet them, but you won’t be able to hold them. I mean, you always work when ordinary people are off doing whatever they do, like partying–” He stopped talking because the car computer started to flash emitting an annoying beep.
Billy read the message, then pressed a button to shut it down. “It’s false alarm again! Dispatch should fine these guys. That’s the only way to teach them. Thirty euros–”
Another beep interrupted Billy disclose his schedule of penalties. He hit the button again. “Now this guy is blocking the channel because he’s too dumb to turn off the alarm! Honestly, nowadays every idiot can make the cab license. Some of them damn Camel Jockeys don’t even speak German. I don’t get how they pass the test.” He took a drag on his cigarette and exhaled. “I just don’t get it. The other day a passenger told me that he had been in a cab where the driver didn’t know where the central station was.” He looked at Tony. “Can you believe that?”
“Hmm.” Tony furrowed his brow and shrugged. “It’s hard to believe. I mean, everybody has to do the test.”
“Uh-uh,” Billy said. “These guys are smart. You know what they do? They take advantage of the fact that they all look alike. So one guy lends his license to all his kin.” He sighed and took another drag on his cigarette. For a moment, he twirled his magnificent mustache, then glanced at his watch, and his expression brightened again. “I’ve met an awesome chick.”
“Yeah, the Pole, you told me about her,” Tony said.
“Uh-uh.” Billy shook his head. “That’s history. She was just using me.”
Tony turned away and disguised a laugh with a coughing fit while Billy continued enthusiastically: “She’s a knock-out, dream figure, best tits in town.”–He drew two large curves in the air with his ringed forefingers–“I’ve driven her two times. She works in the Arcade.”
“Wow!” Tony said. “Sounds serious.”
“It is,” Billy said checking the time again. “I’ll pick her up in fifteen minutes and take her home.”–He grinned–“To her place, I mean. But maybe we’ll end up at my place.”–He winked at Tony–“You know what I’m saying?”
Tony knew what he was saying and nodded.
“You can’t imagine how much I envy you,” Billy said.
Tapping his chest, Tony gave him a surprised look. “Me? Why’s that?”
“You’re married to an awesome woman, and you have a beautiful home. That’s why. What more can a man ask for?”
Tony looked at his colleague with a stern expression. “I have my problems too.”
Billy scoffed. “Yeah? What would that be?”
“The main reason I wanna switch to the day shift is that my marriage will soon be over if I carry on like that,” Tony said. “My wife and I are drifting more and more apart.”
Billy shot him a surprised glance. “Sorry man, I didn’t know that. I thought you and Katrin were the perfect couple.”
There was another ring tone. Billy and Tony looked at the car computer where a countdown started from ten.
“No fucking way!” Billy said. “I’m pressed for time now. If it’s a longer ride, I won’t be at the Arcade in time.”
“Accept. I’ll take it,” Tony said.
Billy confirmed by hitting a button, and the ring tone stopped.
Tony read out the address that was showing now, “Touba, restaurant, 12 Hamburger Strasse.”
“That’s a hookah bar down at Hansaring,” Billy said. A smile flashed across his face. “They have a bombshell of a barmaid there. After seeing her, I always need to go to Dr. Müller’s sex shop. If you see her, say hello to her for me.”
Tony laughed. “You’re a sick old bastard!” He slapped Billy on the thigh. “You have a good time with your new flame!” There was some hidden irony in his words, but he meant what he was saying.
Billy smirked back at him. “We will!” He took one more drag on the cigarette and flicked it out the window. “See you when I see you, buddy!”
Tony pushed open the door and got out. At the same moment, the back door opened. A passenger was about to get in. Billy turned around saying: “I can only take you if it’s a short ride.”
“It’s, um, actually just a kilometer down the street,” the man said.
Billy nodded. “Works for me. Hop in!”
“I don’t get you guys,” the man said while he closed the door. “The other day, one of your colleagues refused to drive me. He said I should walk because the distance was too short for him.”
Tony pulled into traffic. The bar he had to go to was in the opposite direction, but he couldn’t make a U-turn and had to drive around the block. There were quite a few traffic lights, but knowing the circuit, he stepped on the gas because all of them would be green if he drove fast enough. However, after he made it through the first light, there were two cyclists riding side by side occupying the whole lane. Tony honked, but they didn’t give a damn. Chatting with each other, they went on as if they owned the street. When he finally had the chance to overtake, the light about 50 meters ahead was already yellow. Nevertheless, he accelerated. When he drove through it, the light was clearly red. Seconds later, he saw blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror and the request “stop/police.”
Tony made a wry face and stopped, but his expression brightened when he saw the officers get out of the cruiser. The younger of the two knocked against the window asking him to roll it down. Tony followed the instruction.
“Are you familiar with the traffic rules?” the officer said.
Tony ignored the question and turned to the older officer, who was standing a few meters away from the cab. “I’m quite in a hurry, Wolfgang!” he shouted over to him.
The older officer hesitated for a moment, then approached the cab. “Hey, Tony!” The joy in his voice was unmistakable. “How are you?”
The young officer turned around and shot his older colleague a confused glance. Wolfgang slapped him on the shoulder and said, “I got this. He’s an old friend of mine.”
Tony got out of the cab, and they hugged.
The young officer backed off and watched the cordial greeting.
“Haven’t seen you in ages,” Wolfgang said. “How has life been treating you? Is everything OK?”
“Can’t complain,” Tony said.
“Didn’t know you’re a cabby now,” Wolfgang said.
Tony shrugged. “One has to do something to earn a living.”
Wolfgang took one step back and looked Tony up and down. Then he approached him again and jabbed him playfully in the ribs. “You look fit! Still no potbelly. I take my hat off to you!”
“Costs me a lot of work, though,” Tony said. “It’s no longer as easy as it used to be, especially, since I sit all night. It’s every second day either running or swimming.”
“God!” Wolfgang said grabbing his paunch. “I wish I had your discipline. I’ve really let myself go lately. But I need to get active again.”–He lowered his voice as if he was telling a secret–“They’re planning to toughen up the fitness tests.”
“You only do the night shift?” Wolfgang said trying to keep the conversation going.
“I understood why you broke off contact and wanted to be left alone back then,” Wolfgang said. “I probably would have done the same.” There was a weird break, and the cheerfulness disappeared from his face.
Tony also got serious. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said.
“You’re damn right!” Wolfgang said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s not.”
“So how’s the family?” Tony said.
“I’m going to be a grandpa soon,” Wolfgang said. “It’s a girl.”
“Congratulations!” Tony said. “We have to catch up one of these days.”–He glanced at his watch–“But I need to run, buddy. I got a fare.”
“Sure!” Wolfgang said and offered him his hand. “Let’s get together again sometime. Um… I have tickets for the friendly on Wednesday.”
“Who are they playing?” Tony said.
“Maccabi Haifa,” Wolfgang said. “They aren’t bad, have two Brazilians on their team.”
Tony considered. A Bundesliga game would be alright, but he wasn’t keen on watching a friendly against a team from a developing country regarding soccer. On the other hand, he liked Wolfgang a lot, and this was a chance to revive their friendship. And Katrin also loved to go to the stadium.
“Call me tomorrow and let me know if you’re coming,” Wolfgang said, noticing Tony’s hesitation.
Tony nodded. “I will.” He was about to get back into the car when Wolfgang addressed him once more: “By the way, the light was red when you drove through it.”–He wagged his finger and winked at Tony–“Don’t do it again.”
Tony winked back, “I won’t. Take care!”
“You too, buddy!”
The young officer gave Tony a shy nod and followed Wolfgang back to the cruiser.
Tony drove on lost in thought. On the one hand, he was happy to have met Wolfgang again, but this encounter had stirred memories of the kind he didn’t want to have. He turned the radio on to distract himself and tried to push the thoughts about the past to the back of his mind where they belonged.
A couple came out of the door when he parked in front of the “Touba.” The woman approached the cab and addressed Tony through the lowered passenger-side window, “You free?”
“It depends,” Tony said. “Was it you who ordered?”
“No,” the man said, “but–” He didn’t get further because the woman jabbed him with her elbow.
“Idiot!” she hissed at him. Then she turned to Tony, “Yes. We ordered a cab.”
Tony eyeballed them skeptically. “Right,” he said, got out and walked past them to the restaurant.
“Hey, what’s up?” the woman yelled after him. “Are we not good enough for you?”
The man made a derogative gesture. “Forget about this asshole! There are enough cabbies who want to earn money.”
Tony ignored them and disappeared into the restaurant.
A fragrant smell hit him when he entered. The small place was packed to the rafters. He walked over to the bar. It took him a while to get the barman’s attention. “You ordered a cab?” he said when he finally got it.
The man nodded and turned to the waitress who just arrived with a tray full of empty glasses, “Who was the taxi for, Maria?”
“Table three,” Maria said. She turned to Tony and gave him a smile. “I’ll tell them you’re here.”
Tony smiled back and nodded his thanks.
The waitress’s eyes were almost black, and her long dark-brown hair shone like silk. However, her most distinguishing feature was her mouth. She had these well-formed lips by nature that some women think they get when they help with silicon. Billy definitely had a point. In his mind, Tony saw him drive to Dr. Müller’s Sexshop. He did not exaggerate. This woman was a knock-out!
Tony went back outside and waited in the car. After a few minutes, the back doors opened, and the passengers got in. The aroma he had smelled in the restaurant filled the car cabin. He dialed down the radio’s volume and said “hello” without turning around.
“Can you push the passenger seat all the way to the front?” one of the two said.
Tony leaned over and racked the seat forward as far as it would go while the passengers, two men, were having a lively conversation. He didn’t understand a word though because they were leading it in a foreign language. To him, it sounded like Arabic.
“I can’t stop thinking of how you cut that guy’s head off. That was awesome,” Rahman said. He was still processing what he had seen in Abdul’s apartment. Yes, Usama had told him what he did in Syria, and yes, he had watched the videos. But listening to stories and seeing something in a video was one thing; witnessing it was another. Today, he had seen his best friend in lethal action for the very first time, and that had made him kind of high.–In fact, he still was.
“That’s what we did in Syria all the time,” Usama said. “Because it’s what they deserve.”
Tony decided that he had waited long enough and said politely: “Excuse me, gentlemen! Anybody tell me where we’re going?”
“I chose the bread knife on purpose. It was pretty blunt. So this guy suffered a lot.” Usama interrupted his explanation and gave the driver the destination. “South City!” he said in German, then continued his conversation with Rahman in Arabic: “I believe in the knife. I think it’s the perfect weapon. A gun makes noise and leaves a bullet behind. Apart from this, it’s the weapon of the cowards. Unfortunately, we’re forced to use it to stand a chance in the battle of good versus evil.”–He pulled out a knife from his pants pocket–“That’s my baby. I love it… Look!”–He held it for Rahman to see–“The sheath is clipped to the pants pocket, so I can pull it out quickly.”–He hefted the black knife that consisted only of metal–“It’s 16 cm long and weighs just 100gr. A guy in my detail was an expert knife-thrower. He taught me. I’m not as good as him, but I’m pretty good.” He put the knife away and pulled Abdul’s gun out of his waistband. Looking at it pensively, he mumbled: “I bet we’ll find a use for this baby… SIG Sauer, holds 15 rounds. It’s a nice piece.” He tucked it back into his waistband and folded out the center armrest to make himself comfortable.
“I wanna do that too,” Rahman said.
Usama shot him a look. “What?”
“Cut an infidel’s head off,” Rahman said.
Usama smiled and slapped his friend’s thigh. “No worries, brother. Today was only the beginning. You’ll get your chance.” He retrieved the leather bag that contained the gemstones from his rain jacket’s pocket. Shaking his head, he contemplated it. “I don’t trust this guy. I guess it’s better to have them checked by an expert before we go to Belgium.”
“You can stop here,” Tony heard a voice from behind. He pulled over. Looking in the rearview mirror, he saw the silhouettes of the two men in the back. After they kissed each other good-bye, the big guy got out. When Tony saw him walking away, he understood why he needed all the leg room.
“We’re going on to Marienburg,” he heard the voice of the other one. “Continue down Bonner Strasse, take a left at the McDonald’s and go on straight ahead until I say stop.”
Tony started. There was quiet until his passenger said “stop” at an intersection.
“It’s 19,70,” Tony said.
Usama looked skeptically at the meter while searching for his wallet. “Why is it so expensive? I’ve taken a cab from where you picked us up before and never paid more than 15 euros.”
“There was a fare increase,” Tony said.
“When was that?” Usama said.
“About two weeks ago,” Tony said watching his passenger in the rearview mirror. He heard a swishing noise while the man was going through his pockets to find the money. When he finally found it, he reluctantly handed him a twenty-euro-bill.
Tony waited for a moment expecting to hear, “Keep the change.” It didn’t come, though. When he turned around to give 30 cents back, he lay eyes on his passenger for the first time. He was wearing a soccer cap back to front and had a fan scarf around his neck. Tony recognized him. He was the guy he had taken from the stadium to town in the afternoon. His passenger, however, didn’t seem to know him. He took the 30 cents and got out without saying good-bye. He even slammed the door.
“Asshole,” Tony thought and drove on. When the meter started again, he remembered the hot seat. It was something he still needed to get used to: The folded-out armrest broke the laser beam. As for the technology, a passenger was sitting there. It didn’t know the difference.
He stopped, unbuckled and leaned backward to fold up the center armrest. Then he drove on. On the next street corner, somebody flagged him down.
Usama had gotten out of the cab about a hundred meters away from his house. He wanted to walk a little. What he needed was fresh air after spending two hours in the hookah bar, and silence after the excitement of this day. He took a deep breath. Life was beautiful. What he had done was important, and it made him proud. He had rid the world of yet another traitor. He thought with satisfaction of Abdul and the way he killed him. This bastard would be burning in hell for all eternity! He noticed that he was clenching his fists. The mere thought of Abdul made him feel tense. He inhaled and exhaled a few times sharply, trying to relax. It worked. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his rain jacket and started walking through the quiet neighborhood. After a minute or so, he stopped dead. Shouldn’t there be something in his pocket? Something he should feel? Like a small leather bag? He felt again with his hand, then checked the other pockets. The gun was still in the waistband of his jeans, and Abdul’s cell phone was also where he had put it–in the back pocket. But his cell phone and the leather bag with the gemstones were gone. He had put both into the left pocket of his rain jacket.
He walked to the next street lamp and took a closer look at his jacket. Now, in the pale light, he saw that it was torn. He thought back and remembered. It must have happened when he got caught on the table leg after Abdul’s kick. “Dammit!” he cried out into the night.
He jogged back to the spot where he had gotten out of the cab scanning the sidewalk. There was nothing there.
He rushed home, praying the whole time that his iPhone had still some power left. Entering the yard, he saw a bluish light shimmering through the window of his uncle’s living room. It meant the old man was still up. Usama hoped that he had fallen asleep in front of the TV because now, he had neither time nor mood to talk to him. He unlocked the front door as quietly as possible. He could hear the muffled sound of the TV as he was tiptoeing to the staircase. When he was halfway up the stairs, one step creaked. Seconds later, the door to the living room swung open.
Usama rolled his eyes. Not that as well! He turned around and looked down at his uncle, who was standing at the bottom of the staircase. “I thought you were already in bed,” he said pretending to be surprised.
“Nope!” The uncle–a wiry man with salt-and-pepper hair and a well-groomed beard of the same color–shook his head. “I’ve been waiting for you. What happened this afternoon? I thought we agreed to talk.”
“I know,” Usama said. “And I’m sorry, Uncle, I really am. Something came up.”
“Like a soccer game?” the uncle said referring to the outfit his nephew was wearing.”
“Yes,” Usama said.
“About 160 years ago they invented something that’s called the telephone,” the uncle said. “Why didn’t you call instead of making me wait for you like an idiot?”
Usama shrugged. “Believe it or not. My battery went out of juice.”
The uncle sighed, barely hiding his skepticism. “Do I need to worry?” he said.
Usama shook his head. “You don’t, Uncle. Everything’s alright.”
For a long moment, nobody said anything. The only audible sound came from the TV in the living room. The light shimmering through the open door reflected in his dark eyes while the uncle looked inquiringly at his nephew. “You told me you needed a sabbatical, and you promised everything would be different when you come back. So far I haven’t noticed any change. I would even say it has gotten worse than it used to be. I mean,”–He bit his lips, searching for the right words–“you cloister yourself. I don’t even know what you do anymore. And that’s scary.”–The tone of his voice became softer as he shook his head wistfully–“We used to talk. We used to spend time together. Every day, you would tell me what happened at the University. But nowadays, I barely see you anymore. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Everything’s alright,” Usama repeated. “Really.”
The uncle scoffed. “That’s hard to believe. Everything cannot be alright when someone has been studying chemistry as long as you and hasn’t even made a midterm exam.” He waited for a response. When he didn’t get one, he made a dismissive gesture. “You can go!”
“Good-night, Uncle!” Usama said and continued to his room.
“Good-night!” the uncle called after him. “But don’t forget. Forbearance is not acquittance. We’re not finished talking!”
After closing the door, Usama rushed to his desk. He flipped open his MacBook, logged into his iCloud account and clicked on the icon “find my iPhone.” Seconds later, the device was spotted. “Please! Please!” he mumbled as he clicked on the option “emit sound.” He stared expectantly at his land line, but it didn’t ring. After waiting a few minutes, he located his iPhone again. This time the gray dot on the map just showed the iPhone’s position of the first spotting along with the information “device disconnected.”
Angrily, he closed the laptop. His phone’s battery was dead, and any chance of locating it was gone. Not that he gave a damn about the phone, but he needed the gemstones back. They were his only concern. He thought, then pulled Abdul’s phone out of his back pocket. On it, he dialed the number of the City Taxi call center. For a minute or so, he was on hold before his call was taken.
“I think I left my phone in one of your cabs,” he said.
“Did you try to call your cell?” the female operator said.
“Didn’t work,” Usama said. “It’s in silent mode.”
“OK. Do you remember the cab number?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” Usama said. “But the barman at Touba ordered the cab for me. It should be in your system.”
“When was this?” the operator said.
“About 30 minutes ago,” Usama said. He heard the clicking sound when the operator typed on the keyboard.
“There we go!” she said. “Three-seven-seven, Touba restaurant, 12 Hamburger Strasse. I’ll send out a message to the driver. Can I reach you at the number the caller ID is showing?”
“As (hic) the old saying goes, honesty (hic) is the best policy,” the man said, wagging his finger at Tony. “I’m telling you that’s (hic) BS! You don’t get far when you’re honest (hic)!”
Tony smirked and glanced over at his passenger. “Sorry, man, I disagree. That’s not my philosophy.”
The man made a dismissive gesture and hiccuped again.
“You gotta to do something about this,” Tony said. “I think you must hold your breath, count down from thirty and swallow.”
“I tried that already,” the man said shifting in his seat. “OK, I’ll give it another shot.” He inhaled and held his breath.
A warning signal broke the ensuing silence. For the last three minutes, the system had been cautioning the front-seat passenger with a gentle chime that he was unbelted. Now, it became more insistent. “That’s annoying,” Tony said. “Can you put on your seatbelt, please? The sound’s getting louder from this point on.”
Still holding his breath, the man nodded and clumsily belted up. After finishing his countdown, he swallowed hard and breathed out. It took him a minute to catch his breath again. “Seems to be working,” he finally said.
The man put a cigarette between his lips. “Do you mind?” he said and flicked the lighter without waiting for permission.
Tony rolled his eyes. “I actually do mind,” he mumbled.
Ignoring him, the man went ahead. But he had problems hitting the cigarette with the flame. An amused smile flashed across Tony’s face when he saw this. One couldn’t really tell from the way he spoke, but the man was obviously intoxicated. After a few attempts, he managed to light his cigarette.
“At least, roll down the window,” Tony said and opened the ashtray for him.
The man closed it again, then lowered the window half way and said, “I’m gonna use the big one.” He laughed at his “joke.”
Tony forced a grin. They drove in silence listening to the news.
“Can you turn that up a little?” the man said when the speaker mentioned clashes between locals and asylum seekers in an East German town.
Tony turned the volume up.
“These Easterners are not afraid to do something,” the man commented.
Tony turned to him when they were waiting at a red light. “So you think it’s right what they’re doing over there? I mean, beating up refugees?”
The man shrugged. “I bet they had a reason. And if not, these fucking Camel Drivers deserve it. I mean, they come here and harass the locals instead of being grateful for what they get.”
Tony scoffed shaking his head while the man took a drag on his cigarette. “It’s strange though that this only happens in the East. There’s an asylum seeker’s hostel not far from where I live. We don’t have any problems with them. We hardly see them, and they certainly don’t annoy us. I mean, these people lost everything. Don’t you think we have an obligation to help them?”
“It depends,” the man said. “When they come in hundreds of thousands, one has to reassess the situation. These people use our system, and only God knows how many of them are terrorists.”–His voice became excited–“You know how much money they get from the state?”
Tony shrugged. “Beats me.”
“1000 euros,” the man said. After taking another drag, he added: “Monthly per head. That’s twice as much as a pauper gets. None of these guys speaks German, but funnily enough, they know our health and welfare system inside out. They know all the benefits they’re entitled to.”
Tony furrowed his brow. “I seriously doubt that they get that much. They can’t get more than a welfare recipient. It would be illogical.” He pressed the home button of his cell phone and said, “How much money does a refugee get?”
Siri responded saying she was searching the Internet for an answer. A few seconds later, a list of options popped up on the screen.
Tony hit the first link. He tried to read and scroll while he was driving, but it didn’t work. When they stopped at a light, he could concentrate on reading and found what he was looking for. “Here it is,” he said reading out loud: “Mostly non-cash benefits and pocket money for the first 15 months… Is a refugee longer than 15 months in the country, he is entitled to aid at the level of social welfare… Financial aid is scaled and depends on age and family status blah blah blah… 79 euros monthly for a child younger than 6… 83 euros for a child between 6 and 13… Juveniles between 14 and 17 get 76 euros.” A honk coming from the car behind startled Tony. He started and looked at his passenger. “I don’t know where you get your numbers from.”
“Hmm… Really?” the man said.
“Yeah, really,” Tony said. “You know. I’m sick of the hysteria about the refugees. They’re the only topic in the news these days. Why can’t they just leave them alone? They don’t do anything to anybody.”
“OK, I got the numbers wrong,” the man admitted. “But Merkel didn’t do herself a favor. I think it was a huge mistake to let them all into the country. What happened on the Christmas market in Berlin is on her. I mean, they just don’t belong here. Why do they not go to Saudi Arabia or one of the other oil-exporting sheikdoms?”
Tony frowned. “I have no idea, but I have to admit that’s a good question.”
The man went on smoking. The topic was exhausted. When he tried to use “the big one,” meaning flicking off the ash through the half-open window, he dropped the weed. “Oops!” he said feeling for it in his lap. “Where is it?”
That was no longer funny to Tony. “Find the damn thing!” he said harshly. “If you burn a hole in the seat, you’re gonna pay for it.”
“Calm down!” the man said and leaned forward to search for the cigarette. He finally spotted it. “There it is!” He picked it up from the foot mat. After pretending to check the floor for burn holes, he said, “No harm done.”
They drove in silence again.
After a while, the man said, “It’s about 20 to get to my house.”–He pointed at the meter.–“You can turn this off. I don’t mind. Why don’t you pocket the money? Your boss will never know.”
“No can do,” Tony said.
“Why’s that? Hot seat?”
Tony nodded. Then he said. “It’s my cab by the way. I don’t have a boss.”
The man shot him a surprised glance. “Really? You look pretty young.”
“Well, young is relative,” Tony said.
The man looked at the tag on the dashboard reading out loud: “Taxi Company Schuster. Your driver is A. Schuster.” He looked at Tony again. “I thought you were a student who’s making a few bucks on the side.”
Tony chuckled. “I’m certainly not a student.”
“What does A stand for–Andreas?” the man asked.
“Anton,” Tony said.
“And how long have you been a cabby, Anton?”
“Way too long. ‘Bout five years.”
“Doesn’t sound very enthusiastic,” the man said. “Why do you do it if you don’t like it?”
Tony frowned. “Good question.”–He considered for a moment–“I guess because the taxi company is a legacy of my father. Never thought I would drive myself one day.”–He sighed–“But here I am. God moves in mysterious ways.”
“What did you do before?” the man said. “I mean, what did you train as?” It almost sounded like an interrogation now.
Tony looked at him suspiciously. “Are you with the Stasi?”
“Sorry!” The man raised his hands in an apologetic gesture. “I don’t wanna sound you out. Just making conversation.”–He took another drag on his cigarette–“I thought you guys like talking to your customers.” Then he shrugged and looked out the window ignoring Tony, for a while that is, because he couldn’t be silent for long. Soon, he started talking again: “Why do you have a hot seat when you’re the owner of the cab?”
“I’m planning to hire a night driver,” Tony said. “But many drivers screw the owners over by leaving the meter turned off. With a hot seat, they can’t do that.”
“See!” the man said holding up a forefinger triumphantly. “That’s what I told you: Everybody screws over everybody in this world because that’s the only way to get ahead.”–He looked out the window to check where they were–“You can slow down now… Or don’t you screw the taxman?… You can stop here.”
Tony pulled over, a grin being the answer to the question. “That’s 21,20,” he said turning off the meter.
The man got his wallet out and gave him 25 euros. “You can keep the change.” He continued rummaging through his wallet until he found what he was looking for. “You’re a nice guy, Andreas!” he said. “I like you. That’s why I’m giving you this.”–He handed Tony a wrinkled business card like it was something precious–“It’s hard to find a German cabby these days. They’ve taken over this one too.”–He lifted a warning finger–“If we’re not attentive, they’ll take over the whole country… Anyway, if you need something, and I mean anything, call me. I’ve got connections. I can get you everything–even a bazooka.”–He made a finger pistol, imitating firing a shot–“Bang! (hic)”
“Thanks!” Tony said, in the practiced tone he used with drunk customers.
The man pushed open the door and hoisted himself out of the cab. After the door slammed shut, Tony looked at the business card. It said, “Wickert Import and Export.” He was about to toss it out the window but then changed his mind and put it in the center console.
For a while, Usama paced restlessly in his room. Then he opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside. “Dammit!” he cursed. He felt like kicking himself. He deeply inhaled the fresh air to calm himself. After staring into the night for a few minutes, he went back inside and slumped onto his bed. His eyes wandered around the room and finally rested on the poster on the wall across from him. It showed the giant draped cube of the Ka’aba with thousands of white-clad pilgrims walking around it. He mouthed the statements woven with golden and silver thread into the black kiswah: “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; Allah is the Great, Powerful and Sublime; praise and glory be to Allah; praise be to my glorious Lord; o, you compassionate! O, you benefactor!”
Looking at the Ka’aba had a calming effect on him. It took his mind off things. He suddenly smiled to himself remembering his pilgrimage to Mekka. Those had been the most beautiful days of his life. He had always been a strong believer, but being together with millions of fellow brethren had shown him for the first time how powerful his religion was. Not much longer, and the world would be freed from all infidels, and he would have contributed his mite. Allah’s gratefulness would be boundless. He thought of the bright colors of paradise, of the gardens of delights, of the relish of fruit, meat, milk and honey and wine that didn’t intoxicate. And it filled him with great joy. He saw himself in paradise, wearing gold jewelry and garments of brocade and silk and getting treated by virgins. There would be neither gossip nor lie nor sin. Nobody would ever be sad again. He saw himself mocking at the residents of Hell, mocking at those who during their life on earth had looked down on him and his fellow brethren. Now, they were suffering the worst torments for all eternity.–Losing the gemstones had been unfortunate, but it was not the end of the world. Allah would make him find a way. Allah would make all obstacles go away, so that he, Usama, could do what he had been chosen to do.
He took a deep breath. He felt much better now. He suddenly remembered what he had meant to do: Abdul’s cell phone! He picked it up from his desk and went through it. There were many photos of Abdul with a woman and a baby–also of a beautiful house with garden. It looked like they were a family. Usama contemplated. He knew of course that Abdul had been a traitor. But had it all been a scam? Had Abdul even been a real student? And was his father really a jeweler? If not, the brilliants were probably fake, and if they were, of what use would they be to him? That would be a real problem because he couldn’t go to Belgium empty-handed. Only in exchange for the gemstones, he would get the hand grenades. He was in a fucking dilemma…
He opened the email account. He read a few emails but found none that compromised Abdul. He continued with the messages and found something. One message from a few days ago referred to an important meeting on Saturday. Abdul texted that he needed the “items” for it. Usama was sure the “items” were the gemstones. Abdul didn’t mention a name or address. It looked like the investigation was still in its early stage, which meant he and Rahman could continue without being at risk of getting busted. He smiled to himself: The German authorities were dumb! There was no other way to put it. He had fought in Syria for the Islamic State, and these idiots didn’t even know.–Nevertheless, he had a lot of thinking to do.
He looked at the clock. Thirty minutes had gone by since he called City Taxi. He dialed the number again. This time, he wasn’t put on hold. He recognized the voice of the female operator he had spoken to before. “It’s about my phone again,” he said.
“Rrrright,” was the operator’s tentative response. It took her a moment to remember. “Oh yes!… I’ve sent out several messages, but the driver has not gotten in touch yet.”
“And what do we do now?” Usama said.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do,” the operator said. “Except for waiting till the driver gets back to me.”
“Why don’t we simplify things?” Usama said. “Just give me the cell phone number of this guy, and I’ll call him myself.”
“I’m sorry,” the operator said, “but that’s not how it works.”–Her tone was still friendly but determined–“Protection of privacy is company policy. That’s why we don’t give the personal details of our drivers including phone numbers to anyone.”
“What about the cab number?” Usama said.
“That’s not a problem,” the operator said. “You can have it. Just tell me again which fare we’re talking about.”
Again, Usama gave her the details, and again, he heard the clicking sound of the keyboard.
“It’s three-seven-seven,” the operator said. “I know the driver personally. If you did leave your cell in his cab, I can assure you that he will return it. Maybe he’s called it a night already. That’s the only reason I can think of, why he hasn’t reported back yet.”
“Meaning what?” Usama said. “That I have to wait until tomorrow night?”
“I can’t tell,” the operator said. “What I can do for you is send out another message. But then we have to wait. I promise to contact you as soon as I hear from the driver. And I’ll also leave a message for the day shift. Agreed?”
Usama hung up on her. She didn’t give him exactly what he wanted, but at least, he had the cab number now. “Three-seven-seven,” he mumbled to himself and jotted down the number. He was determined to find this cabby, and he would make the dude return what belonged to him.
Tony yawned. He took his eyes off the road and looked at the dash clock. It was almost three. The shift wasn’t over yet, but he was ready to call it a night. On an ordinary Saturday, he wouldn’t have dreamed of knocking off early, but he had made more money already than in three regular shifts thanks to the Bavarians. He heard a burp; then this flapping sound from an open window in a car at high speed. He knew what it meant when a passenger needed fresh air. He looked anxiously in the rearview mirror. The headlights of the following vehicle silhouetted the couple in the back seat. The woman’s head was resting powerlessly on her companion’s shoulder. She burped again. This time, it turned into a retching.
“If anyone is sick in here, tell me,” Tony said. “I have vomit bags.” He opened the glove compartment, peeled one off the stack and put it on the front seat to have it handy.
“Do you need one, sweetie?” the man said to the woman. He was also intoxicated if not as much as his wife or girlfriend.
“I’m good,” she slurred.
“Doesn’t sound like you’re good,” Tony said. “Once, someone vomited in here, right on the dashboard. It went into every crack. You cannot imagine the mess! Even three days later, the car was still smelly. And soiling charge is 250 euros by the way.”
The woman started retching again. This time, it was serious. Tony quickly grabbed the vomit bag, turned around and tried to pass it on, but he saw the woman cupping her mouth with both hands. The man was not able to help her. “Hold it!” he yelled and slammed on the brakes. “Don’t take your hands off!” He pulled over although they were on the autobahn. Vehicles with honking horns passed by at high speed. When he had the chance, he got out, rounded the car and pulled open the door. Some vomit was already oozing out between the woman’s fingers. At the moment she removed her hands, a fountain shot out. Tony managed to jump aside just in time. Watching her half hanging out of the car, he shook his head in disbelief. She vomited and farted, and her body convulsed in the most disgusting way. She actually was a good-looking woman–pretty face and slim figure–, but she was utterly ugly now. According to what Tony saw, she must have eaten a kebab not too long ago.
He looked up when he heard a long honking and couldn’t believe his eyes. The man, who had been sitting in the car just a minute before, was staggering on the autobahn. “My God!” Tony rushed toward him and pulled him onto the hard shoulder. “Are you suicidal?!” he yelled.
Not really understanding what was going on, the man tried to pat him on the shoulder. “Hey man, she’s never vomited in a cab before. This is embarrassing! Sorry about that. I’ll give you a good tip.”
“You sure will,” Tony said grumpily. “Do you have to vomit too? That’s your chance now.”
The man shook his head. “I’m good.”
Tony scoffed. “I heard this before.”
When the woman had emptied her stomach, Tony gave her some tissue to wipe her mouth and hands with. Looking at him with bulging eyes, she slurred a thank-you. The man patted Tony’s shoulder again and repeated what he had said before: “This is so embarrassing. I’ll give you a good tip, man.”
“Get in the car!” Tony said shaking off the man’s hand.
“Why are you so aggressive, dude?!” the man said.
Tony rolled his eyes and took a deep breath to calm down. He shouldn’t have let them into his cab in the first place. He’d had it with these drunks. He was so sick of doing night shifts! “Can we drive on now?” he said. “I wanna clock off.”
The woman looked up at him with an agonized expression and nodded.
“You sure?” Tony said. “Is everything out?”
She nodded again.
Avoiding stepping in vomit, Tony closed the door. Then he helped the man into the car. Pulling into traffic, he promised himself that this would be the last fare. After dropping them off, he would make a beeline for home.
Usama heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. Smelling the ever-present oriental aroma, he walked through the maze of allies in his beautiful hometown. He heard his father’s voice calling his name. And suddenly, his father was beside him, looking just the way he remembered him: a big, strong man with a long beard, wearing a white thawb. As usual, when they were outside their fortified compound, two armed bodyguards followed them. He was a child again, and his father was holding his hand.
They walked through Birzeit University and Al-Tireh. And with shining eyes, his father told him of the former glory of the Arabic Empire, of a time when those who now looked down on all Arabs still dwelled in caves. Then, everything around them was gone. He only saw his father and himself surrounded by a vast space of nothing. It was like being in the middle of the desert, but there was no sky above them. Even though they weren’t walking, they somehow moved. Then they stopped. His father stroked his hair, squatted down in front of him and looked him in the eyes. With a stern expression, he started to speak, his deep voice sounding like it was coming from far away even though he was right in front of him. “There is one world, my son, that’s not like our world. It’s called the West. A country called America leads the West, and America is the embodiment of evil. That’s why we call it the Great Satan. It is full of infidels who have only one thing in mind, which is enslaving us, the Arab world. To make it easier for them, they planted a cancer in our territory. And this cancer is called Israel. It’s the extended hand of the Great Satan. Israel has killed many of our people, including me. We have to destroy it first before we take on the Great Satan. We must fight this superior enemy with all means no matter how severe the collateral damage. There are women and children among them, but they are theirs. They’re not innocent. There are no innocents among the infidels. We must cover them with terror until they understand that there’s only one way in this world, the way of the prophet Mohammed.”
Suddenly, there was a penetrating sound. A light blinded Usama. It was the brightest light he’d ever seen. When his eyes could see again, his father was gone. He looked in every direction shouting for his father, but nothing. Burning tears ran down his cheeks when he realized that he was all alone in the vast space of nothing.
The sound of the alarm woke him. Even though he had slept just for a few hours, he felt well rested. He got up and looked at his reflection in the mirror. The right side of his face was stubbly. No hair was on the maimed left side. Pensively, he ran a finger over it. He would never be able to grow a beard like every true Muslim should.
He took his electric razor and shaved the right side of his face. Then he put on his white gown, rolled up his pants and walked to a small table in the corner of his room. A bowl and a pitcher were sitting on it. He filled the bowl with water from the pitcher.
“Allahu Akbar!” he said, starting the ritual washing for the morning prayer. He washed his face, his hands and his arms to the elbows, rubbed his head with water and washed his feet. After the ablution, he walked to the center of the room and stood on the prayer mat, facing the poster of the Ka’aba. With his palms raised to ear level, he recited the first words of the first surah of the Quran: “In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful.” Then he lowered his arms again letting them hang loosely by his sides and started to pray.
When he opened the door, Benni got up and came toward him with a wagging tail. Tony bent down and petted the dog. He made “Shhh!” and put a finger to his lips when the panting became too excited. Benni cocked his head and looked at him for a moment; then he seemed to understand. He walked away and lay down again.
Leaving the door ajar, Tony tiptoed into the room. He sat cautiously on the edge of Katrin’s side of the king-size bed. There was a book sitting on the nightstand. He picked it up and smiled to himself when he read the title. It was a manual on dog training. He put it back, then caressed his wife’s hair and looked at her extremely freckled face for a long moment. She stirred when he stroked her cheek. Without opening her eyes, she pushed his hand away and turned on the other side. When Tony kissed her neck, she jerked her head. “Leave me alone. I’m tired!” she said in a voice that didn’t sound sleepy at all.
Tony stopped. Pensively, he remained seated for another while, then got up and left the room. Benni followed him.
He went to the kitchen and retrieved a beer from the fridge. He went to the living room and slumped onto the couch. He took a swig from the bottle and stared into space. After a while, he bent down and petted Benni who was lying at his feet. “I wish I were you,” he said. “Do you wanna know why?”
Benni got up and cocked his head, looking at Tony with his almost black eyes as if he was listening attentively.
“Cause you don’t have to worry about anything,” Tony said nodding sadly. “Yeah, your master and your mistress have a problem that needs to be solved before it’s too late.” He sighed and took another swig. Then he reached for the remote control, stretched himself out on the couch and turned on the screen. He checked Netflix first. Since there was nothing new, he switched to the TV and started surfing. On most channels, commercials with sexual contents were running at so late an hour.
At some point, there was noise in the hall. A minute later, the toilet flushed; then Katrin stood in the doorway. She was only wearing panties. Tony swallowed hard when she approached him: These beautiful breasts, these well-formed hips, this slender waist and these legs. Oh, my! His wife was a beauty.
She lifted his legs as a matter of course and sat at the foot of the couch. Without saying a word she reached for the beer bottle and took a swig from it.
Tony looked at her in surprise. “Are you not afraid of putting on weight?”
“I’m sure one swig is no big deal,” she said putting down the bottle on the table again. She pointed at the TV. “Do you have to watch this?”
“I’m not really watching,” Tony said, “just zapping around. There’s only trash on now, but you have to admit these girls are hot.”
“Hotter than me?” Katrin said.
Tony stretched out his arm and pulled her closer. After resisting for a moment, she gave in.
“None of them is even half as hot as you,” he whispered into her ear.
Suddenly, Katrin slung her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately.
Benni looked up.
“I’m scared,” Katrin said.
“So am I,” Tony said pushing the strawberry blonde bangs out of her beautiful face.
Her eyes welled up. She bit her lips and shook her head so slightly it was hardly noticeable. “All this is destroying our marriage,” she said.
Tony looked at her affectionately. “Only if we let it. You know how much I love you.”
“Lately, I haven’t noticed anything of this,” Katrin said. “We hardly see each other anymore because of your damn night shifts. I mean, I’m a nurse; I have to do shifts, but you don’t. You said you’d be doing it for a couple of months, but it’s been over a year now. It almost looks as if you’re avoiding me. That’s not what I signed up for.”–Tears started running down her cheeks–“I’ve been trying to put myself in your shoes. I really have. I tried so hard to understand you, and to a certain degree, I did. Nobody can say I haven’t been patient. But how can I help you when you keep shutting me out? We are partners, right? And we’re supposed to help each other and to solve problems together.”–She sighed–“Remember the old times? We hardly ever had an argument, but now we’re fighting over the smallest thing. I don’t know about you, but I can’t go on like this. I want my old Tony back.”
Tony took a deep breath and wiped away the tears from Katrin’s cheeks with his thumbs. “What do you want me to say? Everything you just said is true.”
“Promise me you’ll stop this self-destruction!” Katrin said with a pleading tone in her voice. “The death of this boy is not on you. You did everything to the letter. Everybody said so.”
Benni whimpered. He seemed to understand the importance of this conversation.
Tony swallowed. He pushed his wife gently away so he could sit up. He put his face in his hands, shaking his head. Then he looked at Katrin, his mouth flapping wordlessly. After a long moment, he said: “It’s not the boy. It never really was.”–He paused searching for the right words–“I mean, it’s tragic that he’s dead, but I know it was an accident. The main thing is I’m disappointed in myself. Being a cop had always been my dream. And I thought,”–He scoffed–“I actually was convinced I’d be good at it, but here comes the first difficult situation where one has to prove oneself, and I fail and panic. I love you so much, and all I ever wanted was you to be proud of me.”–He also teared up–“But how can you be proud of a failure? That’s what’s tearing me up; that’s what I have to come to terms with.” He averted his gaze.
Katrin stroked his cheek. “Do you know me so little? I’ve always been proud of you. Not for a second, did I think you were a failure. Please, darling, you’ve got to quit beating yourself up like this!”
Blinking the tears away, Tony looked at her again. “I’ll try,” he said weakly.
“We’ll get through this,” Katrin said with a determined tone in her voice. “And I suggest we start right now.” She leaned in and kissed him.
Tony forced a smile when their lips parted again. “The cab has a hot seat now,” he said.
Katrin knitted her brow. “That means what?”
“It means I’m going to hire a driver for the night shifts,” Tony said. “The hot seat is to prevent him from cheating me. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ve already started to fix things.”
Katrin gave him a doubtful look. “Does that mean you won’t be doing night shifts anymore?”
Tony shrugged and nodded at the same time. “I’ll do the day shift. I’ll be here when you come home, and we can lead a normal life again.”
It took a moment for the news to sink in, but once it did, Katrin beamed and embraced him. “I was so scared of losing you. The thought alone was killing me,” she whispered.
“You’ll never lose me,” Tony said.
Katrin reached for the bottle and took another swig. Then she said, “Do you have to work tomorrow?”
“Because I’m off this weekend,” she said. “We could do something we haven’t done in a long time, like spending a Sunday afternoon together.”
“Sounds good,” Tony said. “I have a surprise for you too. I met Wolfgang last night. We had a nice talk, and he told me he has tickets for a friendly. He invited us. That would be Wednesday. “
Katrin nodded. “I’d love to go, but I have to check first if I can swap shifts with someone.” She put the bottle back on the table and noticed Benni watching her. “There’s nothing to be seen here, Benni,” she said playfully.
The dog responded with a sigh.
“Lie!” Katrin said.
Benni executed the command immediately.
Katrin bent forward petting and praising him. Then she turned to Tony again. She put one hand under his T-shirt and ran her fingers over his skin. “We’ve been practicing this for the last couple days,” she whispered seductively. “Looks like he got it… But now I’d like to know if you still got it.”
Holding her gaze, Tony said: “You know what I love most about you?”
“Uh-uh,” Katrin said shaking her head expecting a big compliment.
“These sexy freckles on your face, chest and shoulders,” Tony said. He gave her a peck on the forehead, but Katrin pushed him away. “You!” she said pouting at him. Then she poked him in the ribs, and both started laughing.
“Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt…” Kris Kristofferson’s voice came softly over the car radio while Billy was snoring. His Stetson had slid down and covered his eyes. The noise of a passing car woke him up. His mouth twitched, and he pushed the hat out of his face. For a moment, he was confused. After realizing that he was in his cab, he stretched his arms and yawned. He ran the tongue through his dry mouth and rolled all four windows down to let in some fresh air. He looked around: The street was empty. He checked the dash clock. It was after 1 pm, which meant he had been sitting there for more than an hour. “Dammit!” he mumbled and hit a few buttons on the car computer to check out the other cab stands. Much to his chagrin, the ones in the old town were quite busy. The cabs there didn’t seem to be waiting longer than 10 minutes. In frustration, he banged a fist on the steering wheel. “Damned if you do, damned of you don’t!”
When he was in the old town earlier, every few minutes, the message came through that people were waiting at the cab stand on Friesenstrasse. So he went there. But they were all gone when he arrived.
He considered what to do: Driving to another cab stand or even back to the old town would probably lead to nothing. He knew that as soon as he logged out and drove away, the message would come through again, “Passenger waiting on Friesenstrasse.” Someone was always waiting someplace where he wasn’t… He sighed feeling sorry for himself.
In the morning, he had a few good fares to and from the airport that amounted altogether to 150 euros. He yawned again. He actually couldn’t complain.
He reached under his seat, retrieved a magazine and started to do a crossword puzzle. He knew as soon as he occupied himself with something, customers would arrive. And lo and behold: a couple of minutes later, the doors opened. Billy pumped his fist and put away the magazine. He was back in business!
Immediately, he noticed the giant frame of the hairy guy who seated himself in the back. He also saw the burn mark on the face of the man in the passenger seat. Billy turned to him with an expectant look.
“Drive!” Usama said, pushing his seat all the way to the front to give Rahman the leg room he needed.
“Um…” Billy shrugged his hands. “Any particular direction?”
“Just go,” Usama said.
Billy hesitated. He looked once more in the rearview mirror at the giant in the backseat, then shrugged. “OK. You’re the boss.” He turned the meter on and started.
“Head for out of town,” Usama said. After a few minutes of silence, he began a conversation, “How are you today, Mr. Klaasen?”
Billy chuckled. “I’m not Mr. Klaasen, but I’m all right.”
Usama pointed at the tag with the driver’s ID. “That’s not you?”
“No, that’s the name of the company,” Billy said. He stretched his right arm and tapped on the lower part of the tag. “Down there. That’s my name.”
Usama read out loud, “Your driver is Wilfried Hingsen.”
“That’s me,” Billy said proudly, giving his passenger a smile. “But you can call me Billy. Everybody does.”
Usama forced a smile. “OK then, Bil-ly,” he said, pronouncing every syllable. “So, how are you doing?”
“Still good,” Billy said.
“How long have you been a cabby, Billy?”
“About twenty years,” Billy said.
Usama gave a whistle of surprise. “That’s quite a long time! And what shifts do you do?”
“I’ve been doing the night shifts for the last 15 years,” Billy said. “Suits me better. You earn more money, and there are hardly any traffic jams. I admit, sometimes it’s a little stressful because of the drunks. But one gets used to it, and it can also be quite amusing.”
Usama nodded, then pointed at the dash clock. “But it’s early afternoon now, and you’re working already. I thought the night shift starts at five or six.”
“That’s right,” Billy said lowering his voice as if he was giving away a secret. “On the weekends, I do double shifts. Don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” Usama said.
Both men laughed.
Billy looked in the rearview mirror. The giant was staring out the window. He didn’t seem to be listening to the conversation that was going on in front.
“Were you driving last night?” Usama said.
Billy nodded. “I sure was. I’ve been on the road since yesterday afternoon.
“Wow!” Usama pointed an admiring finger at Billy, wondering why he didn’t take notice of this oddball when they were riding home last night. This dude looked like someone from the 17th century–the long hair, this parted mustache with its tips pointing upward and this ridiculous hat. On the other hand, he hadn’t paid any attention to the cabby.–But would someone who finds a bag filled with gemstones continue his shift?–Hmm. Usama bit his lips pensively. However, this Billy guy said he had been driving all night, and the cab number was right too. The tag with the 3-7-7 on it was clearly visible on the dash next to the driver’s ID and a sticker showing the Confederate flag. “What station is that?” Usama said because the third country song in a row was playing.
“That’s my own playlist,” Billy said. “I love country music. I can listen to it all day. He started to sing along softly: “Islands in the stream. That is what we are. Sail away with me to another world.”–He turned to his passenger–“What kind of music do you like?”
“I’m sure you don’t know that kind of music,” Usama said.
Billy glanced over at him. “Try me.”
Usama hesitated, then said, “I’m into anasheed.”
“Anna what?” Billy furrowed his brow. “Is that some kind of rap?”
Usama sneered at him. “Rap?! I told you you wouldn’t know it. It’s Arab music, a cappella.”
“I see,” Billy said.
After a long moment of silence, Usama continued the conversation: “What is it you like so much about country music?”
Billy shrugged and thought. “Hard to say. Maybe the catchy tunes? Maybe the feeling of freedom they convey? You know, it’s not just country music. I’m also a Western fan.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Usama said pointing at the Stetson on Billy’s head.
The tone of Billy’s voice became excited. “I think there’s no Western I haven’t seen. I love America. I’ve been there a couple of times.–Have you ever been there?”
Usama shook his head.
“You gotta see it with your own eyes,” Billy said. “Otherwise, you can’t really judge because it’s not at all like they show it on TV. I think it’s a great country. The old America that is. I sure would have emigrated there if I had lived in the 18 hundreds.”–He grinned–“Maybe been a cowboy. I find characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody just fascinating.”
Usama, who didn’t have a clue what Billy was talking about, scoffed. “I don’t like America. And I don’t like the trash you’re listening to. Turn it off!”
“Excuse me?” Billy said giving him a surprised glance. “This is still my cab, and I decide what kind of music I play.”
Usama held his stare. “But I’m the customer. And I don’t wanna listen to it.”
Billy averted his gaze and considered. “OK,” he said, then turned off the music. “No need to get excited over this.” He looked calm, but he was raging inside. He could have kicked himself. He should have known better. The guy who was riding shotgun looked quite normal even though one could tell he was a Camel Driver, but his friend in the backseat with his bushy black beard without a mustache had jihadi written all over him. These guys were definitely not the right dialog partners for the topic. He should have kept his opinions to himself. “I’m not talking about American politics,” he said trying to make the best of a bad job. “Trump is an idiot, and his politics suck. Maybe you got me wrong. When I say, I like America, I mean the idea and the concept of the country like how the people emigrated from Europe to live their lives in freedom, and what they built up there. That’s what I admire!”
“Like killing off the natives, so the white man has more room to live?” Usama said. “Or enslaving the blacks?”
“Um, of course not,” Billy said with a bewildered expression. “I mean–”
“You know what?” Usama interrupted Billy’s attempt to explain. “You’re full of shit. All this talk about freedom. America doesn’t give a fuck about the freedom of others. America tries to annihilate everyone who doesn’t share its opinion. It’s the root of all evil in this world.”
Billy worked his jaw, looking at Usama whose expression was icy now. It took him a few seconds to collect himself. But once he did, he pulled over and said: “OK, that’s it! Nobody insults me in my cab! Get out!”
“Fuck you!” Usama said putting a knife to Billy’s stomach. “You’re gonna do exactly what I say. Are we clear?!”
Billy swallowed hard. “OK, OK,” he said glancing down at the knife. His voice became unsteady: “What do you guys want from me? Is this a robbery?”
Usama smirked and shook his head in disbelief. “Take a good look at us!”
Billy didn’t understand. He looked in the mirror at the giant in the back seat, then turned his head slowly and looked in Usama’s piercing eyes.
“Well,” Usama said. “Don’t you remember us from last night?”
Billy shook his head stiffly. “D-did I drive you last night?”
Usama nodded without breaking eye contact. “And you took something from us.” He pressed the knife harder to Billy’s stomach. “We need to talk. Drive!”
“What’s going on?” Billy said. He bit his lip with a fearful expression and pulled into traffic.
Jaeger could see the crime scene already from a distance. Illuminated by several spotlights, it gave an eerie air. About 50 meters before it, a motor patrol signaled him to stop. He showed his ID, and the officer told him to continue and park beside the other vehicles: two cruisers, an ambulance and a few unmarked cars.
After shutting off the engine, he took his cell phone from the holder and opened a photo. It showed him together with a woman–both smiling, a happy couple. He stared at it for a long time, then hit the option button. His finger went to the delete icon and hovered over it. He hesitated, then changed his mind. He closed the photo again and tossed the cell phone onto the passenger seat.
He opened the glove compartment, got a whisky bottle out and took a swig. After putting the bottle away again, he lifted one arm and smelled his armpit. He wrinkled his nose disgustedly. He adjusted the rearview mirror, so he could see his face in it. Running his hand across his unshaven chin and cheeks, he looked at his tired, bloodshot eyes. The crow’s feet added a good few years to his appearance.
He started to speak to the man in the mirror: “For Christ’s sake! Pull yourself together! They’re gone, and they will never come back to you! Deal with it!” He inhaled and exhaled sharply and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair to straighten it. Then he sprayed his mouth to disguise his alcohol breath. He readied himself, opened the door, got out and headed for the cordoned-off area.
He passed by officers in forensic white crime scene examiner suits who took photos, secured footprints and tread marks, searching every square meter for usable material. He nodded at the ones he knew. His face brightened up when he spotted Connie. As usual, she stood out with her short, blue, scruffy hair. She was talking to an elderly fat man. Seeing his other colleague, Jaeger’s expression darkened. Also as always, Bode was dressed to the nine. He was squatting beside the coroner.
“Good morning, gentlemen! What do we have?” Jaeger said as he approached them.
The coroner looked up and returned the greeting. Bode only answered the question, without looking up. “Male victim, mid-forties, no ID. The cause of death appears to be a broken neck. Had been battered pretty badly before he was finished off.”
The coroner nodded in agreement. “There are bruises on his face and neck.”
“Time of death?” Jaeger said.
“Hmm.” The coroner cocked his head, pondering. “I would say he’s been dead for ten hours? That’s a rough guess, though.”
Jaeger looked at his watch. “It’s a few minutes past midnight now. If your rough guess is correct, the time of death was around 4 p.m.” He looked at a tread mark not far from the body. It was clearly visible in the dirt that had collected on the little-used tarmac. Pointing at it, Jaeger said: “Doesn’t seem to be the murder scene. It looks like the body was dumped here.”
“Finding this out is your part,” the coroner said. “I have to go and do mine.” He put his utensils in his bag and got up. “The preliminary report will be on your desk in the morning.”
“Thanks, Doc!” Jaeger said, then put on rubber gloves and squatted beside his colleague.
“How do they do that?” Bode said pointing at the well-groomed mustache. “I mean, make the tips point upward.”
Jaeger shrugged. “Mustache wax, I guess.”
Bode scratched his own clean-shaven face pensively. Then he said: “We also found a Stetson. Taking this into consideration, I’m inclined to say our man here was one of these gay guys who like to dress up as cowboys.”
“Why is that?” Jaeger said with a stern expression.
“Well. Look at these.”–He pointed at the ringed fingers–“Only fags run around like that.”–He chuckled–“And after all, this city of yours is loaded with them.”
Jaeger considered a moment and said, “That’s possible.”–He shrugged–“But it’s also possible he came over from Dusseldorf to party on the scene.”
The grin on Bode’s face disappeared. “Very amusing.”
“I’m just saying,” Jaeger said. After thinking for a moment, he added: “The other day, I read that men who are always making jokes about gays are gay themselves. It’s their way to cover it up.”
Bode scoffed throwing his head back to remove the side-swept bangs that had fallen over his left eye.
Now, it was Jaeger’s turn to chuckle. Apparently, he had touched a soft spot. Now, with his bad humor gone, he concentrated on the body again. “But you’re right. This guy looks weird. And no clue who he is?”
“I already told you he had no ID on him,” Bode snapped. “If you want, frisk him yourself.”
Jaeger didn’t respond. He no longer felt like playing kindergarten. Instead, he examined one hand of the body. “Clean fingernails and pretty soft skin. What does this tell us?”–He looked briefly at Bode before answering the question himself–“This man didn’t do any physical work.”
Bode frowned, his expression giving away that he didn’t disagree. He also lightened up. “Maybe a pimp? A reckoning within the scene?” His eyes wandered down to the lower part of the body. An amused expression flashed across his face when he looked at the purple boots. “They are ridiculous!” he said. “I mean we’re in Germany and not in Texas, right?”
Jaeger laughed. For once, he was in complete agreement with Bode. But he turned serious again immediately. “They’re telling us something, though,” he said.
Bode gave him an expectant look. “Like what?”
Jaeger pointed at the heel of the right boot.
“It’s pretty worn off. I’ve seen that.” Bode said and shrugged. “So what?”
“It can be a hint to the line of work he was in,” Jaeger said.
Bode frowned. “It can also tell us that the guy had a limp.”
Jaeger shook his head. “I don’t think so. In this case, the wear would be rounder.” He got up and signaled at the two men who were waiting for permission to remove the body to go ahead. He smiled when he saw Connie approaching. She was the part of his team that made up for Bode’s hated presence.
“Hello boss!” she said. “I’ve just spoken with a witness. The man literally tripped over the body when he was taking a leak.”
“Hmm.” Jaeger took a look around. “What was he doing here? Seems to be a pretty secluded area.”
“He’s a cab driver,” Connie said. “They closed this road through the allotment gardens a few years ago, but the cabbies still use it as a shortcut.”
Jaeger sighed. “And I was happy to see that no reporter was here. I’m afraid the news is going to spread even faster now.”
A patrolman approached the three detectives. “It just came over the radio,” he said. “A cab driver has been missing since yesterday. He was supposed to hand over the cab at 6 p.m. They found the vehicle with the key in the ignition downtown a few minutes ago.”
“And how is this helpful?” Jaeger said.
The patrolman pointed to the body. “The description matches the victim.”
“Maybe the cabby who found him can identify the body,” Connie said looking at her boss.
Jaeger shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”
She turned to the patrolman, “Check if he’s still around! If yes, bring him here.”
The patrolman spun on his heel and rushed off.
“That fits,” Jaeger mumbled. “The right foot rests the whole time on the gas pedal while the heel is chafing on the foot mat.” He turned to the two men who were just about to take the body away, “Hold it!”
A minute later, the patrolman arrived with the cabby. “Just got him in the nick of time,” he said looking at Connie, who gave him a grateful wink.
“Good evening, sir!” Jaeger said removing his gloves. “I’m a homicide detective.”
The short, fat man, looking extremely uncomfortable, shook hands with him.
“I understand you’re a cab driver?” Jaeger said.
The man nodded.
“Can you take a look at the body for us?” Jaeger said. “We just learned that the victim could be a colleague of yours.”
The elderly fat man swallowed hard and said, “The sight of a dead body makes me faint.”
Jaeger frowned. “But you saw the body before, didn’t you?”
The man shook his head vehemently. “Are you kidding? I didn’t take a real look. I knew right away he was dead, and then I called you guys.”
“Don’t make such a fuss!” Bode said.
The cabby’s eyes darted back and forth between Bode and Jaeger. “He’s a cab driver?”
“Could be,” Jaeger said.
The man folded his arms.“Still. Do you think I know every cab driver in town?”
Bode shot him a stern glance. “Jesus! Stop being such a pussy!”
The cabby hesitated.
Connie gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “C’mon. It would help us a lot. Just take a brief look at the body.”
The cabby thought a moment before finally giving in. He turned and reluctantly approached the stretcher. A flashlight illuminated the open body bag. The cabby’s eyes widened as if he was looking at a ghost. Covering his mouth with one hand, he exclaimed, “That’s… Billy, the three-seven-seven!” Then he turned away, doubled over and threw up.
“Good morning! We’re with the homicide division,” Jaeger announced as he and Bode entered the City Taxi office.
One of the two women interrupted her desk work and turned to the detectives. “This is about the three-seven-seven, right?” she said with a sad expression.
Jaeger nodded. “We would like to speak with the shift leader.”
“Sure.” The woman got up. “Please follow me to the second floor.” She was a little overweight but had a beautiful face. “Billy was a good colleague,” she said when they climbed the staircase.
“Did you know him?” Jaeger said.
The woman stopped and turned around. “Of course! Everybody knew Billy. This world of ours has become such a dangerous place! I hope you solve this crime soon.” She walked on but stopped again a few steps later. Turning around, she whispered: “Is it true that he was downright butchered? I heard there was blood all over the place.”
Neither Jaeger nor Bode answered the question.
“Do you have any clues yet?”
Jaeger made an apologetic gesture. “We’re not at liberty to say. It’s an ongoing investigation.”
“I see,” the woman said pouting at him. Then she turned around again and walked on.
After reaching the second floor, she led them through a hall and stopped in front of a door labeled “switchboard.” They entered heading for the only man in the room. He looked up from his paperwork when the group approached him.
“These gentlemen are with the homicide division,” the woman said adding in a whisper, “It’s about Billy.”
The shift leader–a gray-haired man in his sixties with a big, red nose–got up. “I’ve been expecting you. My name is Deckert.”–His eyes darted back and forth between the two detectives–“I’m not sure who I spoke with on the phone.”
Jaeger smiled. “That was me.” He jerked his head at his colleague. “This is Inspector Bode.”
They all shook hands.
“Anything else, Helga?” the shift leader said when the woman made no move to return to her work area.
“OK. I’m on my way,” she said pursing her lips. Then she turned around and left the room.
Deckert clicked his tongue. “She’s so nosy!” he mumbled to himself, then turned to the detectives: “Terrible thing that. I drove myself for 25 years. Thank God, nothing ever happened to me. I haven’t even been in a dangerous situation. Now, hearing what happened to Billy, one might think, man, was I lucky!”–He shook his head–“And all this for a few euros. I mean, what do you earn in one shift? OK, he was doing the night shift. Still. I’m sure he didn’t have more than 300 in his wallet.”–He shrugged his hands–“But for some people, such a sum is apparently worth more than a human life. What a shame! Back in the days, I had mostly regular customers–big companies like Gerling, EMI, Sony. You know what I mean. Lattek, Calmund, Netzer, Harald Schmidt. I had them all in my cab. Miller of EMI even invited me to a cruise, but I said I’d only accept the invitation if my boys could come too. Back then I had 12 cabs running. He said, no problem. So we all went to southern France for a long weekend.”–He stared off dreamily–“The man had a 130-footer. He threw a hell of a party for us–”
“350 euros were in Billy’s wallet,” Jaeger interrupted. He had already noticed during their earlier telephone conversation that this man liked to hear himself talk. “He wasn’t robbed. All his earnings were still there.”
Deckert blinked rapidly, giving him a baffled look. “But, um, why was he murdered then?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Jaeger said. “Everybody around here seems to know Billy. Can you tell me something about him?”
“Well.” Deckert thought, rubbing his big red nose. “It’s true. Everybody knew him. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they knew anything about his personal life. Billy was always helpful and friendly. He was one of the few who cooperated with the call center. When we needed someone urgently, he would always be on the scene. Sometimes, he would stop by and bring a cake for us. We would eat it together, have a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze. But that was it. Most colleagues didn’t know anything about his background. Everybody took him for a local, but he was actually from the Eifel. He came to town as a young man to study but dropped out after a few terms. Some people thought he was an oddball because of his Western quirk.”–The shift leader shrugged–“Maybe he was. But he was a good man after all.”
“Yeah, we know that already,” Jaeger said. “Since Billy wasn’t robbed, the motive might be a personal one. What we don’t know and need to find out is if he had enemies, or if he’d had an argument with somebody. Is it possible that he had a problem with a colleague? I mean another cabby?”
Deckert shook his head. “Not that I know of.” But then he added, “I mean, everything is possible.”
Bode took the initiative: “I understand there’s a panic button in every cab. Why didn’t he hit it?”
Deckert shrugged. “No idea. But even if he had, I don’t think it would have made a difference.”
“Why?” Bode said.
“Look,” Deckert said with an embarrassed expression. “What happened to Billy was terrible, no question about it. Nevertheless, the taxi business is not dangerous. Attacks on cabbies are very rare, and one getting murdered is even rarer.”–He rubbed his nose again–“As far as I remember, the last such case dates back more than 15 years. And that incident wasn’t even a robbery. The cabby was just unlucky because he was the first one to cross the guy’s path after he had a fight with his wife. I know it’s not correct, but exactly for this reason, because nothing ever happens, most drivers ignore emergency calls. There’s also the fact that often the alarm is set off by colleagues who don’t know how to handle the car computer even though that’s an essential part of our training.”
Jaeger noticed that the woman whose desk was next to the shift leader’s followed the conversation attentively. When their eyes met, she raised her hand as if she was in school. She apparently wanted to say something. With a friendly nod, Jaeger invited her to speak.
“Saturday, I was doing the night shift,” she said. “And I noticed something. I, um, don’t know if it’s important, but–”
“Every piece of information is helpful and important to us,” Jaeger said. He smiled at her and moved closer.
“Somebody called,” the woman said with a more assertive tone in her voice now. “He had lost his cell phone in Billy’s cab.”
Jaeger raised his eyebrows. “Is such a call unusual?”
The woman shook her head. “Not at all. But he wanted me to give him Billy’s number. Of course, I told him we don’t do that. I gave him the cab number, though.”
The detectives exchanged glances, not sure if this piece of information was helpful or not.
“Do you remember the time?” Bode said.
“Sunday morning about two,” the woman said. “And around two-thirty, he called again.”
“Did Billy return the cell?” Jaeger said.
The woman shrugged. “That I don’t know. I radioed several messages for him to report but didn’t get a response.”
Bode made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “I don’t think this has anything to do with our case. That happened early Sunday morning, but Billy wasn’t murdered before the afternoon.”
Jaeger smiled at the woman to let her know that he had a different take on that. “You got this one in your system?” he said.
The woman nodded eagerly. “I can tell you off the top of my head. It was at 1:36 for Touba. That’s a restaurant. I can find the address for you.” She looked at Jaeger expectantly. When he nodded, she turned in her chair to face her computer and entered the data in record time. “It’s 12, Hamburger Strasse,” she said.
“Do you also have the number of the man who called?” Jaeger said.
The woman nodded.
“Please write it down for us,” Jaeger said.
The woman did so and handed him the paper.
Jaeger passed it on to Bode. “Check out this number. My gut tells me there’s something to it.”
Bode accepted the slip reluctantly. “I’m sure it’s a waste of time.”
Jaeger shot him a stern glance and said: “I’m not asking. I want to know who asked for Billy’s number on Saturday night.” Then he turned to the woman again: “Thank you so much. That’s probably an important clue you’ve given us.”
She gave him a diffident smile, then peered at her colleagues, noticing with satisfaction that they had caught the scene.
It was early afternoon, and only two patrons were in the restaurant: One was reading the paper; the other was working on his iPad. Both were smoking a hookah. Soft music played in the background.
Maria and the owner, Omar, were behind the bar, doing the accounts for the weekend in an old-fashioned way: While he read out numbers from sales slips, she keyed them into a calculator. They looked up and nodded at the newcomers when Jaeger and Bode entered. Bode grimaced when the aroma of the hookah hit him. His expression changed though when he spotted Maria.
The detectives headed toward the bar. Jaeger showed his ID and introduced himself and his colleague. While Maria continued feeding the calculator, Omar put down the sales slips, looking at the officers expectantly. “What can I do you for, gentlemen?”
“How about answering a few questions,” Bode said, his tone suggesting that he didn’t like Omar’s corny phrase.
The restaurant owner shrugged and continued with his informal way of speaking, “Sure. Shoot.”
“It’s about Saturday night,” Jaeger said. “Were you working?”
Omar smirked. “I’m always working. This is my place.”
“Good,” Jaeger said. He wanted to continue but was interrupted by Maria.
“I was also here,” she said shooting a provocative glance at Bode who couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Feeling caught, the detective averted his gaze quickly.
Maria giggled when she saw him blush.
“It’s about a cab you ordered for a patron,” Jaeger continued, his eyes darting back and forth between Omar and Maria. “Saturday night around one-thirty. Do you remember?”
Omar scoffed. “You have any idea how many taxis I call for my patrons every night?”–He shook his head, pointing at the stack of sales slips he had been holding in his hand when the two detectives entered–“And Saturday, the place was jam-packed. No way I remember a particular order.”
“My colleague said, around one-thirty,” Bode said. “So put on your thinking cap!” It was obvious that he didn’t like the restaurant owner.
Omar took a deep breath and released the air slowly while thinking. Then he shook his head again. “Can’t help you there, I’m afraid.”
“Around one-thirty, you say?” Maria barged in, setting down the calculator.
The two detectives turned to her, nodding unanimously.
Maria looked over at the table where the paper-reading patron was sitting. Then she turned to Omar: “Wasn’t the cab for the two guys who were sitting on table three?”
Maria gave him a leg up: “The big guy and the one with the burn mark on his face.”
Omar frowned at her. “Maybe! I don’t have the memory of an elephant like you.”
“Can you describe them?” Bode said to Maria in a noticeably friendly manner.
“Why you asking anyway?” Omar said. “Have these guys been up to something?”
Bode shot him a stern glance saying in a harsh tone: “This is an ongoing investigation. We ask the questions. You answer. Got it!” Then he turned to Maria and smiled again.
Omar turned away, took a glass and started to polish it.
After considering for a moment, Maria said: “I believe I can. They were young guys, in their mid-twenties. And they weren’t German. I would say Turks or Arabs. One was big; I mean really big.”–She indicated with her hands what she meant–“Broad shoulders and about two meters tall. And he had long hair and a bushy beard. The other one was of medium height. He had a slim figure. But he stood out because of the burn mark on his face. Um,”–She held up an index finger–“and he was wearing a soccer fan outfit, I mean a hat and a scarf. But I don’t know which team. Don’t know about soccer.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Bode said. “But you have a brilliant memory.”
While Maria answered the compliment with a smile, Jaeger peered at his colleague: Never before had he seen him like this. Usually, he was rough and unfriendly when he interrogated someone. Just the way he was with Omar. Jaeger scratched his head smiling to himself. Something was going on! The way Bode talked to Maria was just not him. And he kept being proactive: He pulled out his cell phone and showed Maria a photo. “Can you take a look at this for me?”
“The check please!” a patron shouted.
Maria signaled that she would be with him in a second, then looked at the photo. Since it was too small, she took the phone out of Bode’s hand and enlarged the picture. She started laughing.
The detectives exchanged baffled looks.
“What’s with him?” Maria said, giving back the cell phone.
“What’s funny?” Bode said looking at the photo Deckert had sent to him. “He’s the cab driver, isn’t he?”
Maria got serious again and shook her head. “He’s a cab driver alright but certainly not the one who was here Saturday night.”
Omar, who was curious, craned his neck to have a better view, still polishing the same glass. “I know the guy,” he said. “Isn’t he the one you refused to drive with?”
“That’s him,” Maria said.
Bode gave Maria a puzzled look. “What’s the deal with him? You say he wasn’t here Saturday night, but you seem to know him.”
Maria scoffed. “You bet I do! That’s the cowboy. I’m not sure; I think he calls himself Billy. He’s driven me home from work a few times. You know”–She hesitated–“I hate to badmouth people, but this dude gave me the creeps. He was always undressing me with his eyes. When he drove me the second time, he said it was OK if I paid him only half of the fare. And the third time, he said he couldn’t accept any money from me. That was strange and embarrassing. I certainly didn’t want to find out what he would be saying the next time.–I also had to listen to this stupid country music all the time because he wouldn’t play anything else.”–She shook her head–“No. He wasn’t my kind of guy at all. I called a different cab company from then on.”
The detectives chuckled but turned serious again immediately.
“Is something wrong with him?” Maria said.
“He’s been murdered,” Bode said.
“God!” Maria swallowed hard. “I’m sorry to hear that!”
When the patron asked for the check again, Bode looked at Omar, suggesting that he take care of it. The restaurant owner took the hint. Though reluctantly, he put down the glass and walked to the man.
Bode turned to Maria again: “Can you describe the cab driver who was here?”
“Sure,” she said furrowing her brow as she was thinking. “He was tall but not too tall. About one-eighty, I guess. Slim, short brown hair, brown eyes–quite a handsome fellow in his late twenties. He didn’t look like a cabby.” Saying this, she looked Bode up and down.
He averted his eyes and blushed. “Ca-can you come with us to, um, headquarters?” he halted. After clearing his throat, he continued: “Your statement and above all the description of the two men you ordered the cab for is very important.”
Maria pressed her beautiful lips together. She seemed undecided. After considering for a moment, she said: “Sure. There’s not much going on anyway at the moment.”
“Good!” Bode said and beamed. “It won’t take long, and I’ll give you a lift back after we’re done.”
Jaeger gave a whistle of surprise.
“OK,” Maria said and disappeared behind a door labeled, “personnel only.” After a few moments, she returned with a messenger bag hanging from her shoulder.
“What’s going on?” Omar said to her when he came back from cashing up.
“I’ll be gone for a while!” Maria said. “The police need my help.”
Omar gave her a surprised look but let her leave with the detectives without offering a word of protest.
With all five doors hanging open, the cab was sitting by the vacuum cleaner machine at a gas station. Humming along to the music from the radio, Tony removed all the crumbs, dirt and detritus of his weekend shift. He emptied the pocket of the driver’s door taking out the receipt books and the pepper spray he had in there just in case, and cleaned that too. Spotting a few coins in the gap between the driver’s seat and the center console, he quickly withdrew the nozzle. It happened before that the vacuum sucked up even bills because he didn’t react fast enough. To get the coins out, he had to push the driver’s seat all the way back. After doing that, he saw the iPhone. It had slipped all the way under the seat.
Such a find was nothing out of the ordinary. Over time, he had found so many cell phones and other items in his cab that he could easily start a business selling the stuff. He picked up the iPhone and considered it. He pressed the home button. It was always his priority to give back everything he found, but having done more than 40 fares, he had no clue which one of his passengers had left the cell behind. On his part, there was nothing that could be done to return it to the owner because it was turned off. The owner couldn’t even call him. If he or she wanted it back, they had to contact City Taxi. That was the only way now.
After putting the cell in the center console, Tony turned his attention to the coins again. Fishing them out of the narrow gap was a difficult job but worthwhile. He collected almost five euros, which raised his good mood even more.
The reason for his cheerfulness was the conversation he had had with his wife. The ice age between them was definitely over. Sunday afternoon had been fabulous. They had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, and later, went for a long walk. They did a lot of talking. Within two hours, they communicated more than they had in the last six months. The outcome was that they agreed to give themselves another shot. They made love again, actually several times, for the first time in months. All this revived old, almost forgotten feelings and made him fall in love with his wife again.
When, as the last job, he cleaned the leather seats with a cloth, he noticed that the center armrest protruded. He folded it out and pushed it forcefully back into the correct position. After the cab was clean inside, he drove through the car wash and then home.
Around 3 p.m., Benni rushed to the door to welcome his mistress. Tony was sitting in a recliner watching a movie when he felt his wife embrace him from behind. He paused the movie. “How was your day? he said, caressing her hands. “Anything worth telling?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Katrin said. She walked around the recliner and sat on Tony’s lap. “But now I’m home and don’t want to talk or think about it.” She stroked his head affectionately. “And what have you been doing all day?”
“I slept late, did some jogging, walked Benni and cleaned the cab and”–He gave her a kiss on the forehead–“missed you like hell.”
“Is that so?” Katrin said and kissed him back. “Any applications for the position of a night shift driver?”
Tony shook his head. “Not yet. But I’m sure they’ll come in soon.”—He looked her in the eyes—“I meant every word I said to you yesterday. You don’t need to worry.”
“I know,” Katrin said and smiled. She checked her watch. “I’ll make you something to eat before you leave.”
“But just something small,” Tony said. “I’m not that hungry.”
Katrin got up and headed for the kitchen. While she was preparing a meal, she shouted, “You be careful tonight!”
Tony, who had resumed watching his movie, paused it and said, “Why? What do you think will happen to me?”
“I bet that’s what the murdered cabby thought!” Katrin said. A moment later, she came back into the living room and held the “Express” under Tony’s nose.
He saw the headline, TAXI DRIVER MURDERED! After reading the article, he stared into space with an expression of disbelief. “This can’t be,” he mumbled to himself.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Katrin said.
Tony swallowed as he looked her in the eyes. “That’s… Billy!”
Katrin frowned. “You mean the cowboy? The guy you’re always talking to?”
This whole thing was a shock. It was incomprehensible to him, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Just over a day ago, he had seen Billy, chatted with him, taken over a fare from him. And now he would never see him again? It was surreal. Suddenly red lights were flashing. He slammed on the brakes. In his mind, he saw himself crashing into the car, but centimeters before it, he came to a halt with screeching tires. He breathed a sigh of relief.
In his rearview mirror, the driver established eye contact with Tony and tapped his forehead at him. Tony gave him an apologetic smile. But then he became angry when the man didn’t stop shaking his head like a nodding dog. “Fuck you!” he mouthed showing him the middle finger. Eventually, the man started again. So did Tony, trying to concentrate on the traffic.
Already from a distance, he saw the group of colleagues standing by the first cab. They were having a lively discussion. There was no doubt about the topic because every single one of them knew Billy at least by sight. Tony pulled onto the cab rank and checked the car computer for relevant information. He was surprised when one from the group approached him. He knew him by sight but had never spoken a word with him, not even exchanged greetings.
“Have you heard?” the man said. Being Iranian, he spoke German with a strong accent.
Tony gave him a sad nod.
“He was a buddy of yours, right?”
Tony nodded again.
“Yeah,” the man continued, “I always saw you guys shooting the breeze. Do you know anything concrete?”
“Only what they say in the paper,” Tony said.
The man nodded in the direction of the other colleagues. “One of them knows the guy who found him. He says they lured Billy to a secluded area and beat him to death. Then they took his money.”–He sighed–“It’s just a terrible thing to happen. I’m kind of afraid to do the night shift now. I mean, none of us is safe as long as these killers are on the loose.”
“Killers?” Tony said.
“Do you think it was only one?” the man said.
Tony shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, let’s hope they catch him or them soon,” he said, ready to finish the conversation.
“Yeah.” The man bobbed his head pensively, apparently trying to keep the conversation going even though the topic was exhausted.
The reason Tony didn’t want to discuss Billy with him was that he knew that the man hadn’t even liked Billy. Not too long ago, Tony had witnessed an argument between the two of them. It was the usual stuff going on between cabbies on a daily basis. The different groups like the Turks or the Iranians or the dwindling Germans kept to themselves. The only reason for talking to a member of the other crowd was to accuse them of cheating and stealing fares. Tony never wanted to be dragged into this and had stayed out of it from day one. He would rather read or surf the net or listen to the radio than talk to or befriend another cabby while waiting for passengers. Billy had been the exception, but only because he imposed his company on him.
Tony had not shared most of his stupid ideas like hating foreigners, including foreign colleagues, but he liked Billy for hooking him up with lucrative fares. And talking to him when they were waiting on the same cab rank was the price he was willing to pay for this.
As for the Iranian standing by his window, Tony wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the sadness the man displayed wasn’t put on. Maybe he felt truly sorry for Billy.
Nevertheless, Tony felt uncomfortable talking to him and was eager to end the conversation. Since the man didn’t leave, he changed the topic. Looking at the eight cabs waiting in front of him, he said: “Slow business today. Shouldn’t they be pouring out of the offices around this time?”
“They should,” the Iranian said and shrugged. “But there’s no way of telling.”
There was another long moment where nobody said anything. “I guess I’ll drive around a little,” Tony finally said and turned on the motor. “Maybe I’ll be lucky, and someone flags me down.”
“It’s worth a shot,” the colleague said watching Tony reverse. But then he gestured for him to wait. “I almost forgot. Two guys were asking for you. One of them left his cell in your cab. At least, that’s what he said.”
Tony stopped. “He’s right. I found it.–But how did he know he could find me here?”
The colleague shrugged. “Maybe you gave him a lift from here before?”
Tony frowned. “Hmm, maybe.”
“Anyway,” the colleague said, “I told him you were here a lot. He said he’d come back.”
Tony nodded his thanks and pulled into traffic.
Jaeger smiled to himself when he opened the door. Bode, who had actually no business being in the room because Maria was working with the sketch artist, was so engrossed in watching the woman that he didn’t even notice Jaeger. Repeatedly, he glanced furtively at Maria, but she also peeked at him. They were apparently attracted to each other. While Jaeger could totally understand why his colleague was falling for this beautiful girl, it was beyond him what Maria saw in Bode. Then again, there was this old saying, “There’s no accounting for taste.”
Maria shook her head while pressing her lips together. She was not satisfied. “I don’t know,” she said looking at the sketch on the computer screen. “Nose, mouth, ears and hair are about right, tsk, but something’s missing–probably just a detail.”–She gestured with her hands, trying to explain what she meant–“He has this distinct burn mark, alright, but you don’t see it when his right side is turned away. His features are kind of harder and his face narrower. You know what I mean? He wasn’t ugly, but there was something creepy about his eyes. He had this crazy, icy stare.”
The sketch artist thought for a moment, then made a few changes and looked expectantly at Maria. “Like this?”
Maria gave him a thumbs-up. “That’s it!” Now she relaxed. A satisfied expression played across her face while she looked at Usama on the screen. “He can use this for a passport photo.” She raised her arms, folded them behind her head and stretched herself in an unbelievably sexy manner.
Bode’s Adam’s apple jumped up and down when he saw this. He averted his eyes immediately when Maria looked at him. “Um, I-I think it’s time for a break,” he stuttered.
“It won’t take long my ass,” Maria said and looked at her watch. “I’ve been here almost two hours. Omar’s gonna fire me because of you.” There was a joking undertone in her voice.
Jaeger cleared his throat to draw attention to himself, pretending he just entered.
Bode looked over to the door and was staggered to see him.
Spreading his hands, Jaeger said: “I’ll go and get you guys some coffee?”
“I could use one,” Maria said.
“And I need to go to the bathroom,” the sketch artist said and got up. He left the room together with Jaeger.
When they were alone, Bode picked up on Maria’s last sentence: “If he fires you, he’ll get into trouble with me.”
“Really?” Maria smiled seductively.
“I need to pay you a compliment,” Bode said. “Your powers of observation and your eye for detail are excellent. You’d make a good cop.”
“I don’t know about that,” Maria said. “My professional aim is a different one.”
“Like what?” Bode said.
“Like being a translator,” Maria said.
Bode looked at her in surprise. “So you’re not a full-time waitress?” Relief was resonating in his voice.
“Of course not,” Maria said shaking her head. “I only do this on Friday, Saturday and sometimes Monday. Currently, I’m in this stage where children want to prove to their conservative parents that they’re able to get along without their money. That’s why I got myself a job. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Dusseldorf again to study.”
“I’m from Dusseldorf!” Bode said. “Well, Neuss.”–He made a dismissive gesture–“But that’s the same thing.”
“And you work here in Cologne?” Maria said, again with a joking undertone. “With the archenemies?”
Bode shrugged. “Hadn’t much of a choice.”
Maria stared off pensively for a moment, then said: “I think the rivalry between Cologne and Dusseldorf is bullshit. Both cities are beautiful.”–She looked at Bode again–“Do you know the background of all this?”
The detective shook his head. “It has always been like this, and it always will be.”
Maria held up a well-manicured black-nailed forefinger wagging it. “I strongly disagree. It hasn’t always been like this. The real reason dates back to an event that happened in the thirteenth century. You know which one?”
Bode wore an amused smile. “No idea.”
“The battle of Worringen in twelve-eighty-eight,” Maria said. “The Dusseldorfers declared themselves the victors. They also announced their victory over the inhabitants of Cologne, which was total nonsense because in reality they were just a bunch of free riders.”
“Elaborate,” Bode said pretending that this remark had wounded his Dusseldorf pride. “How do you know all this anyway?”
“I wrote an essay about the topic back in school,” Maria said. “You wanna hear about it?”
Bode nodded. “Sure.”
“Well, the Colognians, the Duesseldorfers and the Brabantians fought the Archbishop of Cologne together,” Maria said. “While the Dusseldorfers had been forced into the fight by their feudal lord, the Colognians rebelled against the bearings and intents of their archbishop. They revolted because they wanted to defend the freedom of their city. Back then, Dusseldorf was just a village with 200 inhabitants, which also means their contingent of troops couldn’t have been more than forty or fifty men if at all. But nine to ten thousand men took part in the battle according to historians. However, the archbishop’s army was defeated, and he was captured. In the context of the changes this event caused in the Rhineland, Cologne kept its city privilege and even got imperial immediacy while the village of Dusseldorf also received city right. What the inhabitants of Cologne resented the Dusseldorfers for was them acting as if they had won the battle alone with their fifty manikins. And this resentment survived through the centuries. That’s it.”
Bode looked at Maria with his mouth open for a moment, then started laughing.
Maria frowned. “What?”
“I bet that’s the Cologne version,” Bode said. “How long have you been living here by the way?”
“My whole life,” Maria said. “I was born in Cologne, but my family is international. My father is Spanish, and my mother is Mexican.”
Bode nodded thinking of another question to keep the conversation going. “Do you… have a boy…friend?” His Adam’s apple jumped up and down while he was waiting for the answer.
Maria giggled. “A few hundred on Facebook.” But she turned serious again immediately, shooting him a glance that made him blush. “Just kidding.–No, I don’t… Are you dating someone?”
Bode was about to answer when the door opened. Jaeger entered the room carrying a tray with three paper cups.
“I’m afraid you need to take the first cab,” Tony said when the two men opened the doors and wanted to get in.
“We wanna ride with you,” the one at the passenger door said and got in.
“But there–” Tony stopped in mid-sentence. The matter had sorted itself out because someone was hopping into the first cab.
“We’re going out of town,” Usama said while pushing his seat forward.
Tony was happy to hear this because it meant this one was a good fare. “There are many ways to get out of town,” he said while starting. “Can you be more specific?”
“Just go straight, I’ll tell you when to turn,” Usama said.
Apart from Usama giving directions from time to time, they drove in silence. Tony’s thoughts were still with Billy. He just couldn’t get him out of his head. To distract himself, he turned the radio on.
When they were almost out of town, Usama addressed him: “You picked us up from the Touba Saturday night.”
Tony turned his head and looked at his front-seat passenger. He couldn’t see the burn mark on the right side of his face, but in the sparse shine of the car computer display, he recognized Usama due to his second striking feature: his predatory stare. “Right!” he said flicking his fingers. “I took you to the southern part of town.”
Usama nodded. “You have a good memory.”
“Sorry, I didn’t recognize you right away,” Tony said. “In general, I hardly look at my customers.”
Usama made a dismissive gesture. “That’s OK.”
“It doesn’t happen very often that I drive somebody two times,” Tony said. “As for you, it’s actually the third time.”
“Is that so?” Usama said.
Tony nodded. “Saturday afternoon, you were in this cab too. Remember the incident with this weirdo on the bicycle at the stadium?”
“I do,” Usama said and laughed. “That was you too?”–He shook his head in disbelief–“Well, that’s a remarkable coincidence.”
“You can say that again!” Tony said.
There was silence again for a few minutes.
“It’s not a coincidence that we’re riding with you today,” Usama picked up the conversation.
Tony furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“We lost something in here Saturday night,” Usama said. “And we would like to have it back.”
Tony understood immediately. “Sure,” he said, opened the center console, reached into it and triumphantly produced the iPhone. “Voila, here it is!”
Without saying a word, Usama took the cell phone and pocketed it.
Tony scoffed. “You don’t have to say–” He didn’t finish the sentence because, in the corner of his eyes, he saw his front-seat passenger make a quick movement. Then he felt something cold and sharp on his throat.
“Keep driving!” Usama said.
“Robbery” was the first thought that went through Tony’s mind. At the same time, he couldn’t believe this was happening. However, staying alive and not getting hurt was more important to him than the money in his wallet. “Let’s get it over with,” he said after he got over the initial shock. “I’ll give you the money. No problem.”
“Take a right up there!” Usama said without responding to the offer.
Tony did what he was told and turned into a rutted dirt road. After a few hundred meters, Usama said, “Stop!”
Tony stopped. He was horrified.
“Turn the headlights off!” Usama ordered.
Tony turned the headlights off. Now, they were surrounded by total darkness. There were a few headlights of passing cars in the distance, but Tony couldn’t expect any help from them. He was totally on his own. He tried to stay calm and think rationally. The alarm button! He had never used the thing. It was somewhere in the foot well. Was it on the side or above the gas pedal?–Damn! He couldn’t remember. He was too excited. He tried to feel with his left foot.
Usama said something in Arabic to Rahman. A moment later, Tony’s hair was grabbed, and his head yanked back. He could feel and smell the breath of the back seater. “I told you already you can have the money!” he said. “The wallet’s here in the side pocket.”
“We don’t want your dough,” Usama hissed into Tony’s ear, spluttering. “Isn’t there anything else you want to give back to us?”
Unable to move his head, Tony glanced sideways at Usama. “Like what? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He felt a punch on the side of his skull and contorted his face with pain. At the same time, he heard a loud ringing in his right ear.
“Like a small purple leather bag with some beautiful gemstones in it,” Usama said. “You found my cell but not the stones? Likely story!”
Tony panted desperately. “Maybe a passenger took your leather bag. I don’t check the backseat for lost property after every fare.”
Usama pressed the knife so hard against the throat that the blade cut into the skin. Tony screamed with pain.
“Bullshit!” Usama said. Then he spoke in Arabic again, after which Rahman loosened the grip a little.
“Listen,” Usama continued in a suddenly softer tone. “Just give back the stones, and we’ll let you go. If you don’t, you’ll end up like your buddy Billy. He gave you up.”
Even though the last sentence didn’t make any sense to him, Tony felt as if he was hit with a sledgehammer when he heard it. Billy was dead, had been murdered! Now, Tony realized that he was in mortal danger; that he needed to act. He didn’t understand all this talk about gemstones. But this was something bigger than a robbery.
“OK, OK,” he said as if he was willing to relent. Feeling the knife’s pressure on his throat getting less intense, he used the opportunity to grope with his left hand for the pepper spray in the door pocket. He didn’t think twice when he found it. Taking it out in a swift movement, he pressed down the spray button aiming at Usama, who let up on him immediately. He screamed and dropped the knife and tried to protect his face with both hands. Suddenly, the headrest was gone, and the backseater was all over Tony, trying to strangle him. He aimed the spray at Rahman but didn’t really hit him. Trying desperately to free himself from his iron grip, he saw out of the corner of his eye that Usama was waving a pistol around. A second later, the gun went off with an ear-splitting report. Missing Tony’s face by a hairsbreadth, the bullet went through the driver’s window, leaving a big jagged hole. The noise startled Rahman so much that he briefly relaxed his grip on his victim. This one moment was long enough for Tony to elbow him hard in the face. Rahman screamed with pain and let go of him. As he pushed open the door, Tony heard another shot over the ringing in his ears. He jumped out of the car and ran for his life.
He pulled open the door when the buzz sounded and shouted morosely while entering: “This couldn’t wait till tomorrow?!”–He looked at his watch–“It’s 1:30! I need some sleep too.”
The duty officer, who was chatting with the desk sergeant, turned around. “Calm down, Jaeger! I wouldn’t have called you if it weren’t important.” Then he walked toward Jaeger with a file in his hand. Handing it over, he jerked his head in the direction of the waiting area. “I’m sure this guy can help you with your cab driver case. I’m actually doing you a favor here. So don’t be pissed off at me.”
Jaeger looked over to the waiting area. Staring off blankly, a man with a bandage on his head was sitting there.
Screwing up his face, Tony cautiously touched the wound on his head. He had a terrible headache, and his ears were still ringing. The whole right side of his head, where Rahman landed his punch, hurt, and his face was burning and itching, especially the eyes. He also got a share of the pepper spray. He had only one wish: to get home and into bed.
For the very first time, he had feared for his life. And it was a miracle that he had gotten away. He could only remember bits and pieces of what happened after he got out of the cab. He was running and yelling for help. He tripped, got up to his feet again and continued running, feeling the hot breath of his pursuers on his neck. When he reached the main road, he tried to flag down a car, but nobody would stop. He finally stood in the middle of the road, forcing someone to stop. At first, the woman was yelling at him, but she became very helpful and sympathetic after Tony told her what happened. The next thing he remembered was being treated at the emergency department. They wanted to keep him in the hospital, but he refused to stay.
Jaeger was still grumpy when he introduced himself. “I don’t know about you, but I need a strong coffee,” he said when he and Tony walked down the hall to his office.
“What?” Tony said. “You have to speak louder. I can hardly hear.”
Jaeger asked again if Tony wanted a coffee, this time shouting.
“I’ve had enough during the interview,” Tony said wiping a kerchief over his runny eyes.
“What we are going to have is not an interview,” Jaeger shouted. “And it won’t take long. I promise. I’m investigating the cab driver murder case, and I understand that you can help to solve it.”
“I don’t know about that,” Tony said, “but I’ll try my best. Just do me a favor and make it short.”
Jaeger nodded. “Will do!” He stopped at the automatic coffee maker. Waiting for his cup to be filled, he looked Tony up and down. Seeing the swellings and bruises on his face made him feel sorry for him. He had a faint idea how the man was feeling right now.
Tony also glanced furtively at Jaeger. Never before had he seen a detective so unkempt. He even thought he smelled alcohol on his breath.
After they seated themselves in the office, Jaeger browsed through the file the duty officer had given him. Then he looked up. “Did you need stitches?”
Jaeger remembered that he had to speak loud and repeated the question.
Tony nodded and pointed at the side of his head. “I feel like shit,” he said. “Still, I think it looks worse than it is. It took them a while to stop the bleeding.”
Jaeger reached for his coffee and wanted to drink, but it was still too hot. He set it down again. He searched his rumpled jacket and smiled when he made a find. “You smoke?” he said when he got a cigarette pack out of his breast pocket.
“I don’t,” Tony said but then added, “Now I could do with one, though.”
Jaeger slammed the pack, so one cigarette popped up and held it out to him. Seeing Tony’s shaking hand as he reached for it, he could tell that he was still in shock. He gave him an encouraging smile when he held out the lighter for him.
Jaeger lit one himself and tried the coffee again. It was still hot, but he managed to take a small sip. “Let’s get this over with,” he finally said. “I’m especially interested in what they said about Billy.”–Looking at the file in front of him, he quoted–“If you give back the stones, we’ll let you go. If you don’t, you’ll end up like your buddy Billy. He gave you up.”–He looked at Tony–“What does that mean? Did you know Billy in person?”
“Of course, I did,” Tony said. “We kind of worked together. I sometimes took over a fare for him. And when we were at the same cab rank, we would chat.”–He took a drag on the cigarette and almost coughed–“I mean, he has never been at my house. But I would call him a buddy of mine.”
With the smoke streaming out of his nose, Jaeger thought out loud: “When they mentioned Billy to threaten you, there must be a connection, unless they read about it in the paper.” He contemplated for a moment, then addressed Tony: “How did he give you up? Any idea what that means?”
Tony shrugged. “Beats me. Everything about these guys was weird. The one riding shotgun was doing all the talking. After five minutes or so, he said they lost something in my cab on Saturday night. I mean, why didn’t he say it immediately? It was as if they were playing a game with me. However, I had found an iPhone, and I gave it to him. He didn’t even say thank you. Instead, he was babbling on about a small purple leather bag with gemstones in it. When I told him I didn’t know anything about it, he freaked out and held a knife to my throat.” He pointed at the bandage taped to the side of his neck.
Jaeger clicked his tongue thinking, then looked Tony in the eyes. “You sure you didn’t find them?”
“Found what?” Tony said.
“The diamonds,” Jaeger said making an apologetic gesture. “I mean… we’re all just human.”
“Are you out of your mind?!” Tony yelled scowling at the detective. “Firstly, he was talking about gemstones, and secondly, of course not! If they did leave them behind, they are gone forever because the next passenger pocketed them. I don’t check if someone lost something after each fare.”
Jaeger shrugged his hands. “OK. I got it.”
Tony inhaled and exhaled sharply, trying to calm down. He stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette. Smoking just wasn’t his thing. When he was breathing normally again, Jaeger continued:
“Did you give them a lift on Saturday night? If yes, where did you take them to and where from?”
“I did indeed,” Tony said. “They ordered a cab from a hookah bar in Hamburger Strasse.”
Jaeger, who was about to take another sip from his coffee, put the paper cup down again, looking at Tony. “You remember the name of the place?” he said having a sudden inspiration.
“Um, yeah,” Tony said. “Touba.”
“Was that at 1:36 a.m.?” Jaeger said expecting to hear a yes.
Tony shrugged. “I don’t remember the exact minute, but it was at that time.”–He scratched his chin thinking–“Yes, I remember now: Billy had to pick up somebody at two o’clock. That’s why I did the fare for him. Um.”–He shook his head– “Why is that relevant?”
Jaeger flicked his fingers, jumped up and rushed to another desk. He opened a drawer, got out a file and browsed through it with a contented smile. Then he approached Tony and laid two photo fits out on the table. “Do they look familiar?”
Tony swallowed hard because he recognized Usama immediately. Tapping on his picture, he said: “This is the one who did the talking… I’m not sure about the other one.”
Jaeger frowned. “Didn’t you say you drove them two times?”
“I did,” Tony said looking up at Jaeger who was towering over him. “But I hardly ever look at my passengers. Besides, it was dark both times and the guy,”–He tapped on Rahman’s picture–“if he’s the one, was sitting in the backseat. What I can say for sure is that he was big and had long hair.” He looked once more at Rahman’s bearded, round face and said: “I’m ninety percent certain he’s the other guy.”
“Ninety percent,” Jaeger repeated and put another photo fit on the table.
“Um.” Tony was flabbergasted when he saw it. “Am I supposed to be that?”
Jaeger nodded. He sat down again, took the last drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out. “According to the waitress, that’s the cabby who picked the two guys up.” Pensively, he scratched the paper cup with his thumbnail and said: “I think I know what happened to your colleague Billy, and what they meant by ‘he gave you up.’”
“Me too,” Tony said. “It’s a case of mistaken identity, right? They were after me from the very beginning.”
The desk phone rang.
Jaeger held up a forefinger signaling Tony to wait, then picked up the phone.
Tony watched him during the brief conversation. He couldn’t hear anything but had the feeling that this was about him, which Jaeger confirmed after hanging up:
“We found your cab. The key was in the ignition. Your full wallet was also there, which clearly proves that it wasn’t a robbery. You know about the shot-out window, but somehow they also managed to damage your fender.” He had hardly finished the sentence when his cell phone chimed. He opened the message and showed Tony the picture of his damaged cab.
Looking at the picture, Tony saw a dent in the fender beside the headlight. “Tsk. Do these idiots not know how to drive?!” he said irritably. “Where is it now?”
“On the way to the crime lab,” Jaeger said.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Not that as well! How long will it be there?”
Jaeger shrugged. “A few days, maybe?”
“Anyway,” Jaeger said picking up where they left off due to the phone call. “They were solely after the gemstones. The operator of City Taxi call center had given them the number of the cab that took the fare, not knowing that, um,”–He looked at the file–“the three-seven-seven, which was Billy, had passed it on. When Billy got what these guys wanted from him, he told them that he gave the fare to you. Nevertheless, they beat the shit out of him and killed him.–Where did you drop them off?”
“The big one got out at Chlodwigplatz,” Tony said. “The other one rode on to Marienburg.”
Jaeger wrote this down. “You have to show me where. But it can wait until tomorrow.” He exhaled sharply, shooting Tony a thoughtful glance. Then he checked his watch. “Where do you live, Mr. Schuster?”
“Widdersdorf,” Tony said.
Jaeger put the files in a drawer and got up. “Let’s get out of here. I can give you a lift. Widdersdorf is my direction.”
The inconspicuous van was sitting between the other parked vehicles, in it Rahman and Usama, both debilitated by the pepper spray. The latter kept trying to make out details of their environment because everything he saw was blurred. His swollen face was scarlet red and burned like hell. He was fighting back coughing fits and still had difficulty breathing. Every few minutes, he had to wipe his watery eyes with a kerchief.
Rahman for his part had come off better as for the pepper spray, but he was in pain as well because Tony’s elbow did a number on him. He had a black eye and a swollen probably broken nose. To stop the bleeding, he had packed his nostrils with gauze.
However, the two of them were so furious with Tony that their physical pain was secondary. Besides, they needed the gemstones back.
“I’ve heard of this stuff,” Usama said. “I never thought it would be that painful. Fuck!” He reached for a water bottle and took a long gulp. “Man, that’s good,” he said after setting the bottle down again, relishing the effect of the soothing water. He burped and handed the bottle to Rahman. While his buddy was drinking, Usama looked at the green numbers of the dash clock. “That’s incredible!” he said.
“What is?” Rahman said after setting down the bottle.
Usama touched the dash clock with his hand. “I can’t even read this. What’s the time?”
“Two-thirty,” Rahman said.
“Fuck!” Usama cursed again. “This messes up my whole schedule. When do I do the night prayer now?”
“Relax,” Rahman said. “The night prayer is voluntary. So it’s not a problem when you miss it once.”
“I haven’t missed a single prayer since my return from hajj,” Usama said. “And I want it to stay this way.” He glared at Rahman, shaking his head. “You’re so full of shit sometimes!
Suddenly, headlights illuminated the quiet street. A car passed the van and stopped in front of Tony’s house. After a couple of minutes, a man with a bandaged head got out.
“That him?” Usama said.
“Yeah,” Rahman said.
While Tony disappeared into the house, the car turned around and drove away again. Usama and Rahman ducked to avoid getting seen in its headlights.
When a light went on in the house, Usama breathed a sigh of relief. “OK, we got that son of a bitch. After we pray, you’ll go and check out the place.”
Tapping his chest, Rahman turned to him in surprise. “Me?”
“Yes, idiot!” Usama bristled at the stupid question. “Or do you see anybody else around here?!” He blew his nose and wiped his tearing eyes.
When Benni heard Tony enter, he got up and walked to the ajar door. He pushed it open and trotted across the slippy floor to the hall to welcome his master. As usual, he was pretty excited. Even though Tony petted him affectionately, the dog sensed that something was amiss. Cocking his head, he gazed up at Tony as if he was waiting for him to explain why there was a bandage wrapped around his head.
Tony went to the bathroom and undressed. Looking at his reflexion in the mirror, he shook his head in disbelief. Once or twice, he was in a fight when a teenager, but his face had never been so battered. Nevertheless, he considered himself lucky because he could be lying dead out there–just like Billy two days earlier. Would these guys continue chasing him? Where was he going from here? Letting out a big heavy sigh, he decided to leave answering these questions for tomorrow.
After he undressed and washed up a little, he sneaked into the bedroom and lay down. Katrin’s breathing was deep and regular; she seemed fast asleep. After a while, though, she turned around and clung to him. “I’ve been waiting for you. But then I fell asleep,” she said in a sleepy voice. She groped for his face to give him a kiss. When she felt the bandage, she recoiled and turned on the bedside light in no time. She sat up and stared at her husband. “What happened to you?!”
Tony bit his lip fighting back the tears. “I was assaulted,” he said hardly audibly. He felt so humiliated especially since Katrin had warned him before he left. But he had shrugged it off as if something like that could never happen to him.
“Oh my God!” Katrin said trying to regain her composure. She was far away from showing this I-told-you-to-watch-out attitude. On the contrary, she pulled her husband gently toward her and embraced him. Then she cautiously cupped his face and examined it. “What have they done to you?”–She teared up–“Is there anything I can do? I can make you chamomile tea.”
“Uh-uh,” Tony said and gently freed himself from her grip. “I only wanna sleep.”
“But you have to tell me what happened, sweetie,” Katrin said.
“OK.” Tony took a deep breath and told the story from beginning to end, leaving nothing out. A few times, he was interrupted by Benni, who walked excitedly back and forth in the room barking at the window.
After Tony finished, Katrin stared off in disbelief for a long moment. She’d always been afraid that something like this might happen. Being a cabby at night was dangerous. There was no doubt about it. But she never really believed it would happen, not to Tony that is. “What are your plans now?” she said.
“Since I can’t use my cab, I’m gonna hire one,” Tony said.
“What?!” Katrin expressed her disagreement by shaking her head vigorously. “You can’t go on driving now as if nothing happened! I mean”–She swallowed hard–“these guys didn’t get what they wanted. I’m sure they will still be coming after you. You have to stay home till the police catch them.”
Tony scoffed. “Are you serious? That can last forever… And you know we depend on the money. How are we going to pay the bills?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tony,” Katrin said. “We’re far from being down on our uppers. We can do without the cab money for a few days.”
“But…” Tony searched for the right words. He stroked Katrin’s cheek tenderly, trying to soothe her. “Believe me, something like this won’t happen again. I’m warned now.”
Katrin sighed. “I don’t know.” She gave him a skeptical look. “These guys murdered your colleague. They’re killers.”
Both looked at Benni because he was barking at the window again.
“Be quiet, Benni! You’ll wake the neighbors.” After hushing the dog, Katrin turned to Tony again: “Sleep in tomorrow. I’ll walk Benni before I go to work. We’ll talk everything over when I come back. OK?”
They kissed each other good night; then Katrin turned off the light.
Usama approached him. The demented look in his eyes scared Tony, and he slowly lifted his arm and trained the gun on him. He couldn’t aim though because his hand trembled uncontrollably. His face contorted as if he was in pain when he tried to pull the trigger. He just couldn’t do it. “Stop right there!” he yelled, but Usama kept walking toward him. Tony felt the fear-sweat on his brow. When Usama was just a few meters away, he dropped the gun, turned around and ran. Usama followed him.
Tony had always been an excellent runner. That’s why he was surprised when Usama seemed to gain ground. He came so close that Tony could feel his hot breath on the back of his neck. Thinking of other ways to escape, he asked himself why he was even running from this man instead of confronting him. Usama would never stop chasing him. He needed to end this right now. He stopped and turned around, ready to fight, but Usama was gone.
The running had given him a stitch in his side. Gasping, hands on his thighs, he doubled over to catch his breath. While recovering, he heard a bell ringing. At first, it sounded far away; then it got louder. Looking up, he saw a streetcar, heading directly toward him. It passed without stopping, but its doors were open, so he had no problems hopping on it.
The streetcar was packed with people he knew or had seen before. He noticed that they were staring at him. They even backed off and seemed to be scared of him. Someone shouted, “Murderer!”
When Tony lowered his eyes and looked down his body, he saw that his hands were red and sticky with blood. Horrified, he jumped off the streetcar again. Looking around, he found himself in a part of town he had never seen before. His hands were suddenly clean again. All the blood was gone. He started walking. After a while, however, he heard the bell again. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the streetcar. I was following him, and now everybody was shouting, “Murderer!”
Tony broke into a run, but he wasn’t able to shake off the streetcar. It followed him–even where there were no tracks. Sometimes, the gap between them seemed to widen, and the bell sounded far away, but then it came closer again, ringing louder and louder, drowning the shouting of the passengers. Suddenly, the streetcar was directly behind him. Tony gave everything, but he had reached his limit. Any moment now, and it would–
He woke up bathed in sweat. The ringing in his ear continued. He took a deep breath, being relieved that everything had only been a dream. He hadn’t had this kind of a nightmare for a long time. But what about the rest? Had this been a dream too? Had he been assaulted? Had he been in an emergency department and at a police station?
He lifted his hand and touched his head. He felt the bandage. No dream! A chill flushed through his body. He was afraid to open his eyes, but he did it anyway. Blazing daylight filtered through a gap in the curtains. The rest of the bedroom was in semi-darkness. He turned his head: Katrin’s side of the bed was empty. The ringing in his right ear was annoying. Did the gun’s report damage his ear drum? He pinched his nose and puffed his cheeks like he would do after a plane landing, but nothing changed. Suddenly, he realized that the ringing was real. It was the land line. He got up and went to the living room. He picked up the receiver, instinctively holding it to his right ear. He groaned with pain and changed sides.
Katrin’s head nurse was on the other end of the line. She wanted to speak with Katrin.
Astonished by this request, Tony looked at the clock. It was almost nine a. m. “I don’t understand. Isn’t she at work?”
“I wouldn’t call if she were,” the head nurse said. “I thought maybe she swapped shifts with someone and got it wrong.”
“No,” Tony said. “She knows she’s on the early shift today.” He was baffled. “Have you tried her cell?”
“I tried her number two times. Both times, a man told me I had the wrong number.”
Tony checked the other rooms. Only now, he noticed that Benni wasn’t there. The runners Katrin used for walking him were also missing, but the messenger bag she would take to work was still sitting on a chair in the hall. Maybe there was something wrong with Benni, and she had taken him to the vet? He had been pretty restless last night.
“Are you still there?” he heard the head nurse’s voice.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Alright, the head nurse said. “Let’s hope nothing serious happened. Let me know if you hear anything.”
Right after the conversation, Tony dialed Katrin’s number. The call was answered immediately.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God, Kat! What’s going on?”
“I’ve been expecting your call,” a male voice said.
Tony recognized it immediately, and a shudder went through his body. How on earth could he have been so naive?! Of course, they were still after him! And of course, it had been easy for them to find out where he lives: His address label was clearly visible on the dashboard of his cab. Now, these criminals had Katrin in their grip because of his stupidity! He could have kicked himself.
“I have to admit I underestimated you,” the voice continued. “But it won’t happen again. You can take my word for it.”
“What have you done to my wife?” Tony said after swallowing the lump in his throat.”
“Nothing so far,” Usama said. “By the way, the dog’s here too, and I haven’t done anything to him either. It’s totally up to you if it remains like that.”
Tony took a deep breath. “What do you want?”
“I told you last night,” Usama retorted. “A very simple thing. I want you to return what doesn’t belong to you.”
“And I told you that I don’t have it,” Tony said.
“That’s disappointing,” Usama said. “I thought you would be more motivated to tell the truth now that I’ve got your wife.”
Feeling his powerlessness, Tony clenched his fist.
“If you haven’t realized by now how serious this is, you’re the dumbest dumbass,” Usama continued.
“But I don’t have your gemstones,” Tony said pleadingly.
“Stop feeding me this line!” Usama’s voice had an aggressive tone now.
“But I–” Tony didn’t get round to finish the sentence because Usama cut him short:
“I’ll call again to tell you the details. If I were you, I wouldn’t want to get the cops involved. And don’t bother trying to track this phone. I’ve disabled locations.”
“Wait!” Tony yelled into the phone. “Hello?!” He listened, but the connection was lost. As he stared off with a terrified expression, his left arm went limp, and the phone dropped from his hand.
Jaeger was the last of his team to arrive. He first went to the living room to talk to his colleagues. After they updated him, he went to the kitchen to see Tony, who was sitting at the table there, his face buried in his hands.
“Don’t worry,” Jaeger said seating himself across from him. “We’ll get them.”
Tony didn’t respond. After a long moment, he looked up, the expression on his face reflecting his state of mind. “These criminals have my wife, and you tell me not to worry? We all know what they’re capable of.”
“Sorry,” Jaeger said. “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course, they’re ruthless. What I was trying to say was that we’ll do everything to get your wife out of this safe and sound. They will make a mistake, and then we’ll strike.” After a pause, he added: “But to be able to help you, there’s one thing we need to be absolutely sure about.”
Tony gave a half shrug. “What is it?”
Jaeger hesitated, then sighed. It was obvious how difficult it was for him to say what he was going to say. “I know I’ve asked you this before, but are you really telling the truth about these gemstones?”–He looked him in the eyes–“You definitely don’t have them?”
Tony glared back at Jaeger as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard. His lips moved, but no words came out. It took him a moment to find his speech. When he did, he started yelling, “Are you fucking kidding?!” He jumped to his feet, knocking over the chair by accident.
Bode and Connie were at the door in no time. Jaeger signaled that he had everything under control. They disappeared again while Tony gave vent to his anger by pacing up and down. He wanted to run his hand through his hair but then remembered the bandage on his head. “Do you really think I’d put my wife’s life at risk for these damned gemstones!?” he yelled. “You cannot be serious!” He took a deep breath, picked up the chair and sat down again. “This must be a bad dream,” he said.
“Unfortunately, it’s not,” Jaeger said making an apologetic gesture. “I only asked because we need to be a hundred percent sure. One cannot play games with such people, but I believe you now and won’t ask again.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I know you’re just doing your job. Usually, I’m not that impulsive.”
Jaeger gave him an understanding smile. “That’s okay.”
At this moment, the telephone rang. Bode appeared at the door and gestured for them to come.
“Agree to his demands but insist on talking to your wife,” Jaeger instructed Tony while walking to the living room.
“Try to drag the conversation out by repeating his demands,” Connie added. She was sitting at the table, a laptop in front of her. Jaeger and Bode positioned themselves behind her. The three detectives put in ear pieces; then Connie signaled to Tony to pick up.
He readied himself and lifted the receiver. “Schuster residence!” he said with a steady voice.
“Hello, sir! This is Thomas Ahrweiler. I’m calling because of your ad.”
“Um. What?” Tony stammered. Having been prepared to talk to his wife’s kidnapper, he was speechless for a moment.
“You’re looking for a driver for the night shifts, right?–Or am I not speaking with Mr. Schuster?” the man said, his accent giving away that he was a local.
“Well, you are,” Tony said.
“Alright then,” the caller continued. “I’ve been driving for Brück for the last three years. You know him, don’t you? He’s a board member. You can ask him about me. I’m sure he will confirm that I’m reliable–”
“Excuse–” Tony butted in, but the man wouldn’t stop talking.
“I’ve never had an accident. In August, I had a turnover of 4,000 at five shifts per week. I don’t do Sundays and Mondays. That’s not negotiable. I mean, a man needs his time to recover. Do you have a merc? What’s your cab number? Maybe we met before. In the morning, I only do the airport. Even though…”
“Listen!” Tony tried to interrupt, but Ahrweiler simply wouldn’t stop talking.
Jaeger gestured for Tony to end the call.
“Listen! L-i-s-t-e-n!” Tony yelled into the receiver, finally getting Ahrweiler’s attention. “This is a bad time right now. I need to leave the line open because I’m expecting an important call.”
“A-a-alright,” Ahrweiler stammered. “Then… I’ll call later. But the job’s still available, right?”
“It is,” Tony said. “But I’ll call you.”
“Alright then. Let me give you my number.”
“Your number is in my call log,” Tony said rolling his eyes and hung up.
“God!” Bode exclaimed removing the earpiece. “What a blabbermouth! I feel sorry for his passengers.”
“He lives here in Widdersdorf,” Connie said pointing at the graphic on the screen. That’s just around the corner.”–She looked at Tony–“In case you wanna know.”
But Tony couldn’t care less. As much as the topic of hiring a driver had occupied his mind lately, at the moment, he had to take care of something that was a million times more important.
Just a minute later, the telephone rang again. The detectives hurried to put back in their earpieces. Connie nodded at Tony, and he took the call. This time, Usama was on the other end of the line. He got right to the point: “The delivery is going down this evening. I’m gonna call you around 8 p.m. to give you detailed instructions. You’re coming with your cab. As soon as we–”
“Wait a minute!” Tony interrupted. “You said the delivery is going down this evening, and you’ll call me around 8 to give me detailed instructions. I got that. But I can’t come with my cab.”
“Why not?” Usama said. “Haven’t you found it yet?”
“The police have,” Tony said. “But the car’s in the body shop. You shot out the driver’s side window and also damaged the fender, remember?”
“Oh, sorry about that!” Usama said in a sarcastic tone.“It takes a while until you can see properly again after you get pepper-sprayed.
“I was only defending myself,” Tony said. “I didn’t ask to be attacked.”
Usama scoffed. “Get a different cab then. Same model, E-Class station wagon but without ads on it.”
Tony looked over at Jaeger, who signaled with a shrug that he too had no explanation for this request.
“I can do that,” Tony said. “I can rent a cab, but I cannot promise that it’ll be without ads.”
“I’m sure you can,” Usama said. “Just consider that your wife’s life is on the line. As soon as we have the gemstones, you’ll get her back and the doggie too.”
Connie gestured for Tony to keep the conversation going.
“Can I talk to her?” Tony said.
Usama chuckled. “Of course not.”
“How do I know she’s still alive?” Tony said.
“I guess you have to take my word for it, cabby,” Usama said.
“I want proof that she’s unharmed, or.” Tony didn’t finish the sentence. He remembered too late that he had absolutely nothing to threaten the kidnapper with.
“Or what,” Usama said sounding amused now. “I don’t think you’re in a position to make demands. If everything goes down well this evening, you can talk to your wife as much as you want to.”
Connie looked at Tony. “Twenty more seconds,” he could read from her lips. He searched for words to stall Usama. “Um, and where will we–”
“I don’t hope you’ve been so stupid and contacted the cops because if so, your wife’s dead,” Usama said with a suspicious undertone in his voice. There was a crackle, and the line went dead.
Connie ripped out the earpiece and stared at the graphic that didn’t move anymore. “For crying out loud! Three more seconds, and we would have had him!”
Jaeger clicked his tongue angrily.
Connie shot him an apologetic glance as if it was her fault. “I can narrow down the district,” she said. “The call came from the southern part of town.”
Jaeger nodded, then turned to Tony, “That’s where you dropped them off, right? We’ll catch them tonight.”
Tony held the detective’s gaze expressing his skepticism by shaking his head. “You heard him,” he said. “Just to be clear. I won’t take part in anything that puts my wife’s life in danger.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, her life is in danger already,” Bode said.
Ignoring him, Tony continued speaking with Jaeger, “What’s your plan anyway?”
Jaeger considered and said: “We kinda have to play it by ear. You need to trust us.” Then he clapped his hands to get across his can-do attitude. “Let’s get to work, guys!”–He turned to Connie–“I need you to analyze the call, voice, background noise, etc. I want a detailed profile of the guy.”
Connie nodded and got up.
Then Jaeger turned to Bode, “You’ll get us some fake gemstones in a”–He looked at Tony–“What was it? A small purple leather bag?”
“Um.” Bode shrugged, his eyes popping out of his head. “Where from?”
“For Chrissake, be creative!” Jaeger yelled raising his arms in a helpless gesture.
“Take it easy! I’m on it!” Bode said, also with a raised voice.
Jaeger took a deep breath to calm down. Then he turned to Tony again: “Did you make this hire cab thing up?”
Tony shook his head. “Of course not. Some companies hire out cabs if your own is in an auto shop. You even keep your cab number, and the radio gets adapted to it. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I think 50 euros per day, but I don’t have to worry about that because my insurance is gonna pay.”
“Good,” Jaeger said looking at his watch. “You’ve got a few hours. That should be enough time to get everything done.”
Katrin had a headache. She winced when she felt the bump on her head. However, that was her smallest problem at the moment. She took a step forward and examined the two small windows. She tried to open them, but their latches were tight and hard to move. After a few attempts, she managed to push one to the side so she could open the window. Behind it, there was a close-meshed lattice grill firmly fixed on the outside. There was no way she could move that, apart from the fact that the window was probably too narrow for her to crawl through. Maybe she could call for help! Moving her head as close as possible to the grill, she started to scream, “H-e-l-p! H-e-l-p!” She listened hoping for a response. When none came, she yelled again, “H-e-l-p! Anybody! I’m here! I’m kidnapped!” Again, she listened, and again, there was no response.
She tried a few more times. At some point, her voice failed her, and she gave up. There seemed to be nobody out there who could hear her.
She looked around. She could see reasonably well thanks to the light that filtered through the lattice grill. The room was small and had a low ceiling. It seemed to be a boiler room because there was a huge tank in one corner. It was connected to pipes that disappeared into the wall. There was an air mattress on the floor and beside it a bucket and toilet paper. She walked to the door. It had no handle. She threw her weight against it, but the door didn’t move an inch. There was definitely no escaping for her.
She sat down on the air mattress. Rubbing her wrists, she felt the marks left by the cable ties. Trying to find an explanation for all this, she relived what had happened: She was wearing headphones listening to music while keying an appointment into her calendar. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw a white van approaching the small parking lot about 200 meters away. To her, it was just another dog owner who probably lived further away and couldn’t walk the long distance to the field. She didn’t give it a second thought and concentrated on her phone again. She stepped out of the middle of the road, though, in case the vehicle would be going further. About a minute later, someone ripped the cellphone out of her hand and grabbed her. The white van she had seen before was right behind her. She cried for help and tried to fight back but didn’t stand a chance against this man. He was huge, had long black hair and a bushy beard. Her resistance grew weak when he twisted her arm behind her back. She was bound and hooded and pushed into the van. The door slammed shut, and the van started with screeching tires. After a few seconds, it braked so hard that she was flung like a rag doll across the loading area.
She didn’t know how much time had gone by when she regained consciousness. The vehicle gently rocked as if they were driving at high speed on the autobahn. From time to time, she heard Benni’s whine. They also got him. He had been at least a hundred meters away when they took her. He must have heard her cries for help. After the van stopped, she heard the kidnappers talking to each other. They were two, and they spoke in a foreign language. It sounded like Arabic. A few minutes later, the door opened, and she was grabbed. They took everything out of her pockets and led her into a house and down a staircase into this room. She heard a clipping sound and at last was rid of the cable ties. Then the door banged shut and was locked.
She had walked Benni before having her shower and breakfast. That’s why she had only thrown on the tracksuit pants and a hoodie shirt. She felt chilly and pulled the hood over her head.
She asked herself where she was, and if the kidnappers were going to talk to her at some point? When they were forcing her into the van, she feared for her life, but as soon as she could think rationally again, she put two and two together: There was this assault on Tony, yesterday, and today, she was kidnapped. The connection was obvious.
She lifted her arm to look at her watch, forgetting that she wasn’t wearing it. Did Tony already know? If she didn’t show up at the hospital, they would call at nine latest. Then he would wonder where she was. He would see that Benni wasn’t there, but also that her bag was there. He would guess that something happened to her on the field.
Last night, he told her he didn’t take the gemstones which these criminals were after. But if this was true, then how can he return them? Her eyes filled with tears. She no longer knew what to think. She was scared, and her fear grew the more she contemplated. She felt helpless. She looked around the room, which was like a prison cell to her. How on earth could somebody be so cruel? She had nothing to do with any of this. She sniffed and wiped the salty tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
A noise startled her. She listened. She heard the sound of a door being unlocked. Then the staircase creaked. Steps approached and stopped in front of her door. A lamp went on and bathed the room in dim light. The door was being unlocked. “Pull the hood over your head!” she heard a commanding voice.
Katrin reached for the hood and pulled it over the hoodie’s hood. She sat up straight. Now blindfolded, she heard approaching footsteps. They stopped beside her.
Usama had a tray with sandwiches and a bottle of water in his hands. He looked down at his victim whose body was shivering.
“Why am I here?” Katrin said in a hoarse, trembling voice. She could hardly speak after all the shouting she had done.
“Your husband has something that belongs to us,” Usama said while setting down the tray. “Since he refuses to give it back, we took something that belongs to him. That’s why you’re here. As soon as your husband returns our property, we’ll let you go.”
“What happened to my dog?” Katrin said.
“Oh, he’s okay,” Usama said. “Don’t worry about him.”
“Can… could you bring him here? Please?”
Usama chuckled. “No, I can’t.” Then he walked back to the door and left the room.
Wearing a ball cap to hide the bandage on his head, Tony drove through town. As he approached a large intersection, the vintage ring tone sounded again. He hastily pressed the button to accept the call.
“How are we doing, cabby?” Usama’s voice sounded over the car stereo. “How do you think we’re doing?” Tony answered.
Usama chuckled. “Don’t worry this will soon be over if you play ball. I want you to drive across the Deutzer Bridge.”
“Again?” Tony said.
Usama didn’t comment and just said, “I’ll be in touch!” Then he hung up again.
Tony took a left turn following the order even though he didn’t understand what kind of game they were playing. He had managed to get a cab without ads which proved to be harder than he had imagined. He had to make quite a few phone calls but eventually found a company that was able to help him. They had one E-class Mercedes station wagon without ads. As announced in the morning, Usama’s call came around eight. He made Tony drive to the remotest part of town to one of the few still-existing pay phones. When Tony was there, a call came in, and Usama gave him instructions. He told him to find the cell phone he had hidden behind a tree trunk a few meters away from the box and drive back to town. From then on, all communications went over this cell phone. Usama had called several times already, sending him all over the city. Now he was crossing the river for the sixth time.
Trying to find something that would reveal anything about the kidnappers, Tony had checked the phone–a Samsung–when he connected it via Bluetooth to the car stereo system. However, the phone had been wiped clean. The address book and call log were empty except for the calls he had made with Usama. The phone’s location service was enabled, though, which probably meant the kidnappers knew where he was every step of the way. Several times, Tony had looked around and checked his environment but had seen nothing suspicious. There was no telling if one of the many cars around him was following him. On the other hand: They probably wouldn’t be that stupid. The next call came in when he was on the bridge.
“Now, I want you to head for the A 57!”
Hearing this, Tony could no longer control his anger. “You’re sending me onto the autobahn?! What’s the point of all this? Why don’t we just meet, and I give you the gemstones?”
“Listen, cabby!” Usama said, his voice calm but the threatening undertone unmistakable. “You do what I tell you to do. Remember we have your wife. So head for the fucking A 57.”
“We’re crossing the bridge,” Connie’s voice came over the radio. “He’s all yours.”
“Thanks, Connie,” Jaeger said into the radio device and set it down. Then he nodded at Bode who was at the wheel.
Bode turned on the motor, and the dark Audi slowly rolled toward the T-junction. There, they stopped and waited. They had a good view and could see every vehicle that was coming from the direction of the bridge. The detectives saw about a dozen cars approach, among them a few cabs with their roof lights on, but only one of them without ads. Suddenly, they heard a long honk. Bode looked in the rearview mirror and saw the man in the car behind them gesticulate. Bode sighed. “Why don’t you just pass?” He rolled down the window and put his arm out, signaling the man to overtake him. There was another honk. Eventually, the man decided to follow the suggestion, but not without cursing out loud while he passed by.
“I hate these assholes!” Bode said.
It was one of the few times that Jaeger agreed with him, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he urged his colleague to concentrate on the job. While the other cabs made a turn and headed for the nearby taxi rank, the one without ads kept going straight. They also saw Connie’s Golf as she took the first exit after the bridge. The vehicles coming from the bridge stopped at a pedestrian light. When the line of cars started again, Bode waited until the cab had passed and merged.
After putting themselves in an inconspicuous tailing position, Bode started a conversation: “This afternoon, I informed myself about our friend here. Did you know there’s a file on him?”
Jaeger gave him a surprised look. “Schuster has a rap sheet?”
Bode shook his head. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about a personnel file.”
“You’re kidding!” Jaeger said. “He was one of us?”
Bode nodded. “He was until he killed somebody during an operation. After that, he quit for personal reasons. That’s five years ago. I wonder why he didn’t tell us.”
Jaeger stared off pensively, saying nothing.
“I knew from the beginning, there was something off about this guy,” Bode added.
Several cars in front of them made a turn. Now they were directly behind the target vehicle. Bode slowed down and changed lanes. Then he continued giving his opinion about Tony: “I don’t buy his story about the gemstones. I’m sure he pocketed them. Of course, at the time, he didn’t know what he got himself into. I checked his financial situation. The man is far from being flush. He has to pay off his house and the cab.”
“It’s interesting that you mention this as a side note,” Jaeger said, suppressing his anger. “That’s a vital piece of information.”
Bode didn’t respond to the reproach. Instead, he said: “I go by my instincts. And they tell me this guy is leading us on a merry chase.”
“Uh-uh!” Jaeger shook his head. “My experience tells me otherwise. I asked him twice, and both times he said quite convincingly he doesn’t have them. It makes no sense. He’s not the type that would risk his wife’s life for this.”
“Some people will do anything for money,” Bode said.
When Jaeger didn’t respond, Bode said confidently, “So it’s my instincts against your experience?”
“You can put it that way,” Jaeger said. After a long moment, he added: “In the future, be so kind and share the results of your research immediately!”
Rahman wrinkled his itching nose, which was in a cast now. He was driving Usama’s BMW. He had to because his best friend was still incapacitated struggling with the ramifications of Tony’s pepper spray attack. While the swelling in the face had gone down, his eyes were still sore and watery.
Riding shotgun, Usama watched the vehicles around them. Benni was in the back. He whined while continuously sniffing on the back seat. From time to time, Rahman talked to him to calm him down. The dog had spent the night with him, and they had bonded with each other.
At this time, the traffic was heavy, which made it easy for them to stay undetected while tailing Tony.
“This Golf over there looks suspicious,” Usama said pointing at a car directly behind the cab. “It’s been following it for quite a while.”
Rahman changed lanes and slowed down. They watched the Golf. At the next big intersection, however, it turned.
“False alarm,” Rahman said.
Benni began whining again.
“He’s starting to get on my nerves,” Usama said and turned around glaring at the dog. “Shut up!” Turning around again, he mumbled, “I hate dogs. They stink.”
Benni kept sniffing and whimpering.
Rahman laughed. “Don’t be so hard on him, Usama.”–He extended his right arm to the back and petted the dog who was quiet immediately–“He knows that his mistress is in the trunk. All he wants is to be with her. That’s natural. Dogs have an acute sense of hearing and a super sense of smell. They can discern about a thousand scents. They actually rely on their sense of smell to interpret the world. If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a kilometer is for them about 5000 kilometers away. There are more than 200 million olfactory cells in their olfactory glands. A human being has only five million.”
“Olfactory glands?” Usama scoffed. “What the fuck are you talking about?” He gave Rahman a weird look. Never before had he heard something intelligent like this coming out of his mouth. “How come you know so much about dogs?”
“I watched documentaries about them,” Rahman said. “They interest me.”
“Really?” Usama frowned. “What breed is he?”
“Golden Retriever,” Rahman said. “That’s one of the best breeds. If you want to get yourself a family dog, you wanna choose this one.”
“I don’t,” Usama said.
“I mean theoretically,” Rahman continued. “They’re obedient, playful and intelligent, and good watchdogs at the same time.”
“How old is he?” Usama said.
“Hmm.” Rahman considered. “He’s still young. I guess not even one year old. Converted to a human age, he’s eleven or twelve. So not even a teenager.”
“Wow!” Usama said. “You do know a lot.”
“I quite like this little fella,” Rahman said. “He even knows a few commands already. If it were up to me, I’d keep him.”
“Yeah well, it’s not up to you,” Usama said. “I hate dogs. They stink.”
“I know. You said that.” Rahman shook his head, then concentrated on watching the surroundings again. The cab was about thirty meters ahead of them. It was also a moving red dot on a tracking app on an iPad that was sitting on the center console.
When someone changed lanes unexpectedly, Rahman had to slam on the brakes. Benni banged against the seat. Rahman stretched out his arm to the back to pet the whining dog. Then he looked at Usama. “How much longer? We better not leave too late for Belgium. The A 4 can be a bitch. You can never be sure to get through without a traffic jam. I mean, we’ve been watching him from different angles for more than an hour. And we haven’t noticed anything suspicious. I’m sure he hasn’t contacted the cops. This guy is playing ball.”
Usama considered for a moment, then took his cell and dialed. “Don’t go on the autobahn. Head for the Zoo Bridge but don’t drive onto it. Take the exit Flora/Zoo and head for Mülheimer Bridge!” He hung up without giving Tony a chance to say anything. “OK, let’s get this show on the road!” he said to Rahman. “Go faster!”
Gnashing his teeth, Tony followed Usama’s instruction. After leaving the exit ramp, he had to stop on the left-hand turn-off lane of the first intersection because the light was red. While he was waiting, his gaze fell upon the small purple leather bag on the passenger seat. Asking himself if the kidnappers would fall for this, he took it and put it in his pocket. He startled when out of nowhere a person appeared beside the cab, opened the passenger door and got in.
The heavyset man winced at seeing the bandage taped to Tony’s neck. “What happened to you, man?” But then, he made a dismissive gesture. “Never mind! Take me to Ebertplatz!”
Tony looked at him hesitating.
“C’mon, buddy, let’s go!” the man said indicating the direction. “I don’t have all day.”
Realizing that the man was an ordinary passenger, Tony shook his head. “Sorry, no can do!”
The man looked at him in surprise. “Your roof light is on, buddy, which means you’re free, right?”
“Yeah, sorry about that, but I’m not,” Tony said. “I need to pick somebody up.” He reached across and pushed open the passenger door. “So please, get out!”
“The hell I will!” the man said closing the door again.
When the light switched to green, the cars behind Tony started to honk. He put on his hazard lights, stuck his arm out the window and signaled them to pass him on the right. There were two lanes turning left anyway. Then he turned to the man in the passenger seat again, who was sitting there with crossed arms like a sulking child: “Get out!”
“I’m not getting out!” the man said. “I know this isn’t the best fare for you, but you guys are obliged by law to take every fare no matter how short.”–He nodded–“I know my rights. You’re a cab driver. If you don’t like this job, get another one, but until then, please meet the wishes of your customers.”
Tony took a deep breath. “I’m asking nicely one more time. Please get out!”
“And if I don’t?” the man said.
Tony didn’t respond.
“That’s what I thought,” the man said cockily. “I’m not getting out. Do your fucking job. I’m not drunk or anything. If you refuse to drive me, I’m going to report you to the Department of Transportation. I know my rights.” He pulled out his cell phone and was about to take a picture of the ID tag on the dashboard when screeching tires could be heard.
Tony and the man looked to their right where they saw a dark Audi stop in front of the cab blocking the lane. Guns in their hands, Jaeger and Bode jumped out of the car and rushed toward the cab. While Jaeger yanked open the passenger door, Bode trained his gun on the man. “Police! Hands up!”
“Er. What’s going on?” the man said, dropping the cell phone and putting up his hands.
Tony gestured at Bode saying, “That’s a misunderstanding!”
But the detective did not listen. With one hand, he dragged the man out of the cab, then pushed him to the ground where he pinned him with his knee while holstering his gun and got a pair of handcuffs out.
“P-p-police,” the man mumbled without putting up resistance. He seemed confused. There was nothing left of the self-confidence he displayed before.
“That’s what we are,” Bode said seeming to enjoy his part. “And you’re the bad guy who’s getting arrested now.”
Tony got out of his cab and hurried toward Bode yelling, “He just wanted a ride!”
Handcuffing the man in a pretty rough way, Bode kept ignoring him.
“Are you not hearing me?!” Tony turned to Jaeger. “This man has nothing to do with anything.”
Jaeger slowly lowered his gun.
“I just wanted to go to Ebertplatz,” the man said, his voice whiny with fear. “I didn’t know he had a fare. I won’t do it again.” He lifted his head as far as he could, trying to look around. Being pretty immobile with his hands cuffed on the back, the heavyset man panted for air, looking like a stranded fish. He lowered his head again resting it on the tarmac and started to cry.
Now Bode finally realized that something was amiss. He glanced at Jaeger expecting an order. A vintage ringtone sounded. “Dammit!” Tony exclaimed and hurried back to the cab. He hit the accept button.
“I warned you,” Usama’s angry voice sounded over the car stereo. “You made a big mistake, cabby.”–Tony from inside the car, as well as Jaeger and Bode outside, looked around, but all they saw were passing vehicles–“I told you what would happen if you involve the cops. You had your chance. The deal is off for today.”
“This won’t happen again. Please don’t hurt my wife,” Tony pleaded, but the connection was already lost.
Tony got out of the car and walked toward Jaeger, “You have it all figured out, right? You’re such an idiot! And I trusted you!”
Jaeger didn’t answer. Instead, he nodded at Bode: “Get off of him already and take off the cuffs!”
Tony got the leather bag out of his pocket and threw it on the tarmac. Then he raised his arms in a helpless gesture, turned around and walked back to the cab.
“What are you doing?” Jaeger said following him. “Where are you going, Schuster? We can fix this!”
Tony didn’t listen. He slammed the car door shut and started. After a few meters, he stopped again.
Jaeger hurried toward the cab.
Tony rolled down the window and handed him a cell phone. “Give it back to him. I hope he’ll sue you,” he said and took off.
“Don’t be acting stupid!” Jaeger shouted after him.
With a grim smile, Usama watched Tony taking off. Lowering the binoculars, he turned to Rahman who was standing beside him. “This dude wanted to frame us. He’s gonna pay for it big time.” There was an ominous tone in his voice.
They were on the Zoo Bridge about a hundred meters away and had a grandstand view. Dusk was approaching, but the intersection was well lit up by street lamps. Usama worked his jaws and dropped the rolled-up rope he was holding in his left hand. He had brought it to let it down for Tony to attach the bag with the gemstones to it. He turned around and looked pensively at the BMW that was sitting, hazard lights on, in the breakdown lane. It rocked at the airflow of the passing vehicles. He saw Benni. Still restless, the dog appeared from time to time at the window, fogging it up with his breath.
A devilish grin flashed across Usama’s face. He walked to the car and opened the trunk. Walking away from it again, he was whacking a baseball bat into his palm. “Get the dog!” he said.
Rahman looked at him with a shocked expression. “Oh no, Usama! We cannot do this.”
Right after Tony turned into the cul-de-sac where he lived, headlights blinded him. A car with its high beams on came from the opposite direction and barreled past him. In the rearview mirror, he saw the make and part of its license plate. It was a dark BMW. He heard screeching tires when it turned into the main street. Under normal circumstances, Tony would have gotten worked up over this because the entire neighborhood was a 30-zone, but at the moment he had other things on his mind. He couldn’t get the picture of Katrin being helpless in the hands of her kidnappers out of his mind. He was so afraid that these criminals were going to hurt her. The thought of it alone drove him crazy. The situation was totally fucked up, and all because of the inability of these idiot detectives. How could someone behave so amateurishly?!
Was there anything at all he could do now? Shaking his head pensively, he looked down at the cell phone sitting on the center console. He couldn’t call them because they had called him with a suppressed number. The only thing he could do was hope for them to contact him again. Of course, he didn’t have the fake gemstones anymore. He would have to play it by ear then. Tony recalled Usama’s words. The man said, “Our deal’s off for today,” which was actually a good thing. It suggested he would contact him again tomorrow.
Tony parked in front of his house. He got out and walked mechanically toward his front door. When the motion sensor triggered the lighting, he saw something lying on his doorstep. It looked like a bundle. He stopped and swallowed hard. He had a bad feeling about this. After a long moment, he walked cautiously closer. Now, he saw what it was. It was Benny, his pink tongue lolling out and the fur on his head blood-smeared. Tony sank to his knees petting the dead animal. His shoulders were shaking, and his body convulsed as his mouth opened in a silent cry.
Everyone was lost in his own thoughts. They had been driving without saying a word to each other. Rahman, who was riding shotgun now, broke the silence: “Why did we have to kill the dog?”
“To send a fucking message,” Usama said in a raised voice. It was obvious that he was still angry because the delivery of the gemstones had gone south. He exhaled sharply and shook his head while staring blankly at the road. Was this operation cursed? Every fucking thing went wrong! He bit his lip.
“Why are we still meeting with these guys?” Rahman said.
“Because I’m not letting go of this,” Usama said. “We’re gonna blow up these fucking Jews tomorrow. We have to because we won’t get this chance again anytime soon.”–He scoffed–“Is there anything at all you can figure out yourself?”
“Why are you like that?” Rahman said.
Usama took his eyes off the road and turned his head. “Because you’re starting to get on my nerves. All this whining over a fucking dog! Sometimes I ask myself if you’re still committed to our cause.”
Rahman stared at him in disbelief. “How can you even think that?! I’m as committed as you are, but I don’t see what we gained by killing this dog.”
“You see?” Usama shook his head slamming one hand onto the steering wheel. “Here we go again!”
You can shake your head as much as you want,” Rahman said. “We’re done with the cab driver, so what was the point?”
“Wrong,” Usama said in a calmer voice. “We’re far from being done with him. This asshole will come around and give us back our property. And when he does, we’ll have the money to finance more attacks. Do you understand that, brother? This whole thing isn’t over yet. I’m positive the cabby wants his wife back in one piece. Everything else would be unnatural.”
Rahman nodded pensively. Usama was right.–He was always right. “And what’s your plan for the upcoming meeting? I mean, they’re not gonna give us the grenades for free.”
A devilish grin flashed across Usama’s face. He took one hand off the steering wheel, pulled his knife out of his pocket and held it for Rahman to see it. “There is no plan. We’ll play this one by ear.”
Rahman smirked. “OK.” Everything was alright again between them.
They passed the border. The passport checkpoints were deserted and looked decayed. So did the once busy buildings for customs clearance. Both their iPhones went off, the screens showing the message, “Welcome to Belgium.” All direction signs were in German, Flemish, and French now. Eupen was just a few kilometers from the border. Their appointment was at 11 PM. They were on schedule.
The radio was in AF mode and re-tuned to the local station which was playing German schlager. Rahman turned the volume up and bobbed his head to the music, mocking it.
“Turn this shit off, bro!” Usama said.
Rahman laughed and changed the station manually.
Shortly after they drove off the autobahn, they saw the words “police/please follow” flashing red in the rear window of a white Opel in front of them. The unmarked police car pulled over at the next emergency rest stop, and Usama did the same. “No need to worry,” he said as they watched two plain-clothes officers–a woman and a man–approach their car. While the man positioned himself at a safe distance from the BMW apparently ready to draw his gun if it came to the worst, the woman–a middle-aged good-looking blonde–came closer and gestured for Usama to roll down the window, which he did.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” she said in German. “Please turn on the dome light.”
After Usama followed her instruction, she gave the occupants the once-over and bent forward to scan the car cabin. “Can I see your IDs, please?”
“Did we do something wrong?” Usama said while reaching for the glove compartment.
The woman shook her head. “Just a routine check.” She smiled and took the IDs Usama held out for her. “Sit tight. I’ll be back.”
Usama and Rahman silently watched her and her partner get into their car. “We need to be careful on our way back,” Usama said. “It’s actually a good thing they’re checking us now. So we can get familiar with the procedure.”
After a few minutes, the doors of the Opel swung open again, and the officers returned. Same as before: She approached the driver’s side window while the male officer acted as a bodyguard.
“Do you mind opening your trunk for me?” she said.
“Not at all,” Usama said. “Um. I can open it from here… Or do you want me to get out?”
“Let’s do it the old-fashioned way,” she said. “Please step out of the car.” Usama did as he was told, and she followed him to the back of the car. He pushed the button, and the trunk lid popped open. Then he stepped aside to give her space.
After checking the trunk thoroughly, she nodded at Usama. “OK, you can close it again.”
Usama did so.
“Where are you headed?” she said.
“Eupen,” Usama said. After a long moment, he added, “Business meeting.”
“What kind of business?”
“My friend here”–Usama nodded in the direction of the passenger seat– “has a kiosk. He plans to get a few goods in Belgium. They’re cheaper here than they are in Germany.”
“Good luck with that!” she said and gave the IDs back to him. “Have a safe trip!”
Usama and Rahman watched the officers get in their car and pull into traffic. “Fucking cunt!” Usama said contemptuously. “I think it’s better to keep the hand grenades in the driver’s cabin on our way back.” He winked at Rahman and gave back his ID.
Usama pulled a face when they arrived at the parking lot where the delivery was to take place. There were only a few free bays on the far end. He preferred a spot from where they could take off immediately if necessary. He looked at the clock. It was a quarter to 11. He took his iPhone from the center console, wrote a message and pressed the send button. The answer came a few seconds later. “They’re running late,” he said after reading it. “They won’t be here for another hour.” He turned to Rahman, “Wanna eat something?”
“Hell yes!” Rahman said. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse right now.”
“What about this place ‘Istanbul Imbiss’ we passed?” Usama said.
Rahman shrugged. “Fine with me.”
Usama started the car and wanted to back out of the parking bay but hesitated.
“What’s wrong?” Rahman said.
“Nothing,” Usama said and turned the motor off again. “I don’t think we’ll find parking space there. Let’s walk. It’s not far.”
They got out and headed for the town center.
Rahman looked around. He seemed impressed. “It’s a lovely place,” he said. “Why’s everything written in German?”
“Because they all speak German,” Usama said. “This region used to belong to Germany. After World War I, it went to Belgium. The Germans reclaimed it in World War II but then, of course, lost it again. Now it’s called the German-speaking Community of Belgium.” Usama made a derogatory gesture. “These fuckers are even more German than the Germans in Germany. I should know. My uncle used to have a girlfriend here.”
After a ten minutes’ walk, they arrived at the restaurant. They ordered three kebab–two for Rahman–and a black tea each.
“Who is this guy we’re meeting up with?” Rahman said while chewing.
Usama shrugged. “Don’t know him. I only have the name, Dominic. A friend of mine in Brussels referred me to him. What I know is that he’s not a fellow believer. He’s a criminal.”–He shrugged–“But to achieve our goal, we have to do business with guys like him.”
“Does he speak German?” Rahman said.
Usama shook his head. “Don’t think so. So far, we’ve been communicating in English.”
Rahman stopped chewing. “Are we gonna waste him?” He looked expectantly at his friend.
After Usama sipped his tea pensively, he said: “We’re doing everything that’s necessary to get the hand grenades.”
Rahman nodded, then smirked and continued eating.
At about 11:30, they walked back to the parking lot. When they arrived, Usama saw that a few vehicles had left. There was a free bay right at the entrance now. A smile flashed across his face. He reparked his car. Then, they waited.
He sent another message. The answer came immediately. “He’ll be here in five minutes,” he said and pulled Abdul’s gun from under the driver’s seat.
“You wanna shoot him?” Rahman said.
Usama shook his head: “I don’t think we should start a shootout in the middle of the city.” He winked at Rahman. “But you always have to be prepared.” He tucked the gun into his waistband and covered it with his shirt. “I don’t know what to expect, how many they are. You just watch every move I make. When I attack, you attack.” He pushed the seat all the way back. “And you’ll be driving on our way back.”
Rahman nodded. “Gotcha.”
A few minutes later, a red Renault Clio pulled into the parking lot. It drove all the way to the other end and stopped. Usama’s iPhone received a message. It read, “I’m here.”
Usama and Rahman got out and walked over to the Clio. Three men got out. One of them was older, maybe 50, the other two probably in their mid-thirties. They looked European.
“Hi! One of you Usama?” the shorter of the younger ones said in English with a thick French accent when he saw Usama and Rahman approach. He had short-cropped blonde hair and seemed to be the leader of the group.
“That’s me,” Usama said. “You’re Dominic?”
The man nodded. “Sorry for being late. We got stuck in traffic.”
“No problem,” Usama said.
“You bring the brilliants?” Dominic said.
Usama slapped his jeans pocket. “Right here. And you brought the hand grenades?”
Dominic nodded and pointed at his car. “Right over there.”
Usama shrugged his hands. “So let’s do this. What’s the procedure?”
“It’s simple,” Dominic said. He slapped the shoulder of his older sidekick. “Eric here is the expert. He’ll check the brilliants, and when they’re good, we give you the hand grenades.”
“OK,” Usama said and went with his hand into his jeans pocket. The following happened within a second: He made a step toward Eric. Making a show of giving him the brilliants, his hand came out of his pocket holding a knife. He slit Eric’s throat with a practiced movement and stepped to the side to avoid being hit by the gush of blood. At the same time, Rahman took care of the guy who was posing as a bodyguard. If Dominic did bring him to secure his well-being, the man was doing a poor job because he reacted way too slowly. Apart from that, he didn’t stand a chance against Rahman who punched him hard and snapped his neck even before he hit the ground.
Dominic showed a quicker reaction, though: Grasping the situation immediately, he turned on his heels, got into the Clio and started the car. Usama tried to open the door, but Dominic had pressed the lock button already. Rahman banged his huge fist against the passenger-side window but had to jump to the side when the car backed out of the parking bay, its front swinging out. Then it took off with screeching tires.
“There go our hand grenades!” Usama shouted while helping Rahman back on his feet. “Let’s go get them!”
As they were getting into their car, they saw the Clio crash into an oncoming van at the exit of the parking lot. There was a lot of honking and cursing in French and German until Dominic finally backed up. When the driver–a tall, fat man–got out of the van, Dominic raced off, sideswiping the vehicle again. “That’s hit and run!” the man yelled looking after the Clio trying to catch the license plate.
The delay caused by this benefited Usama and Rahman. They started just in time to see the Clio driving onto the main street heading out of town. Usama sighed with relief because a high-speed chase through the city center would have raised too much attention. And that was something they certainly did not need. The tall, fat man was standing in the middle of the road and tried to stop them when they approached.
“Run this asshole over!” Usama said.
Rahman flashed the headlights, signaling to the man to get out of the way. When the man realized the BMW didn’t slow down, he jumped to the side. It was a close call. “Hey!” he yelled and looked after the car, perplexed.
Even though there wasn’t much traffic, Dominic almost caused another accident when he drove through a red light. Lucky for him, the other car stopped in the nick of time. They were out of town after a few minutes. Since the BMW had more horsepower than the Clio, Rahman and Usama closed in on Dominic. They were in the uplands, and beyond the city limits, the area became mountainous. Now it was even harder for Dominic to shake off his pursuers. When the road was winding up a mountain, Rahman and Usama caught up with him. However, overtaking was risky because of the many dangerous curves and constant oncoming traffic.
On a stretch without a bend, Rahman chanced it and pulled up alongside the Clio. Usama rolled down the window and trained the gun on Dominic. He was literally just one meter away from him, sitting tensely behind the steering wheel. “Pull over!” Usama shouted.
For a moment, Dominic took his eyes off the road and shot Usama a scared glance, but he didn’t slow down. Instead, he kind of ducked away as if he wanted to dodge the bullets he expected.
Usama shouted again, “Pull over, or I’ll shoot you!”
Dominic kept driving without showing a reaction.
“Bastard!” Usama cursed and fired. The driver’s side window of the Clio shattered, but Dominic wasn’t hit. Rahman slamming on the brakes had caused Usama to jerk the trigger. Headlights appeared in front of them; they needed to get back into their lane.
They had to wait because more vehicles were coming. When the road was clear, Rahman wanted to pull up alongside the Clio again, but this time, Dominic tried to prevent him from doing it. He swerved to the left to block the BMW. When Rahman tried to overtake him on the right, Dominic swerved back again. This game went on until the road was level.
“Overtake this asshole already!” Usama yelled impatiently.
“I’m doing my best here!” Rahman retorted. “If you think you’re the better driver, take over!”
Usama shot him an angry glance but then tried to control his anger.
Rahman started a new attack. This time, he succeeded. Dominic, however, was far from giving up. He was desperate. Having seen the slaying of his associates, he knew that these guys would kill him too. Therefore, he had nothing to lose. When Usama began to train the gun on him again, he swerved to the left, crashing into the BMW. There was a loud bang. The side mirrors of both cars broke. The jerk caused Usama to drop the gun. Lucky for him, it fell on the vehicle floor and not out of the window. For a few seconds, both cars drove side by side as if glued together. Then the BMW skidded. Rahman had problems keeping it on the road. He had to slow down and let the Clio go.
Usama was raging. “This motherfucker damaged my car! I’m gonna kill him!” He bent forward groping for the gun on the floor. It took him a few moments to find it.
“Why don’t you shoot his tires?” Rahman said. “That’ll solve the problem.”
Usama considered for a moment, then nodded. “Stay about five meters behind him and keep the car stable.”
Rahman accelerated to close the gap while Usama leaned far out of the window and took aim. He fired and missed. He fired again and missed again. But the third shot was a bull’s eye. The Clio spun out of control and crashed through the guard rail with a loud bang.
Rahman slammed on the brakes. They got out of the car and rushed to the broken guard rail. They saw the Clio’s tail lights in a ravine. “How do we get–” Rahman stopped in mid-sentence.
There was an explosion that made the ground shake under their feet. They felt the heat wave of the blast, raised their arms instinctively to protect their faces and ducked away. When they looked again, they saw the burning wreck of the Clio wrapped around a tree about thirty meters down the steep slope.
“Fuck!” Usama cried looking up to the purple sky. “Why?” Was Allah testing him? He exhaled sharply. He looked at the bottom of the ravine again, taking in the smell of burning gas, hearing the crackle of wood and melting steel. It reminded him of his time in Syria. Over there, he used to feel the same sensation when they engaged with the enemy. Somehow, this memory calmed him down and made him focus again. For a brief moment, he had doubted Allah, forgetting why he was doing all this.
“Do you think he made it out of the car?” Rahman said.
“I hope this motherfucker burns in hell,” Usama said.
Rahman’s huge shoulders sagged. “What do we do now?”
“We’ll go home and finish the job,” Usama said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Both turned around when they heard a car door slam. Somebody had stopped. The curious driver approached them. Usama looked at Rahman and smiled. “Come on, brother! Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
Two police cars and a convoy of fire trucks came toward them when they drove away from the crash site. Usama looked at the speedometer. “Stay within the speed limit,” he said to Rahman. “We don’t wanna attract attention.”
“Are we letting the bus thing go now?” Rahman said after a long spell of silence.
“The hell we are,” Usama said.
Rahman took his eyes off the road and glanced over at him. “And how do we do that without hand grenades?”
“We’ve still got the ammonium nitrate,” Usama said.
Rahman knitted his brow at him, then concentrated on the road again. “But how is this supposed to be going down? Are we sparking it off by remote ignition?”
Usama shook his head. “We are not doing anything. I am. I will either run a car into this goddamned bus or drive beside it and set off the explosion manually.”
Rahman frowned. “But then you’ll blow up as well.”
Usama turned his head and looked at him. “That’s pretty much the idea.”
Rahman swallowed hard. “Are we talking about–” He didn’t say the word.
Usama nodded. “Is there anything greater than giving one’s life fighting for Allah?”
“But–” Rahman started, but Usama cut him short:
“I’ve made my decision!” He began to recite solemnly: “So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory. We will bestow upon him a great reward.”
For a long time, there was silence again.
“You don’t need me for pulling off another attack,” Usama eventually said.
Rahman scoffed. “Another attack? There won’t be another attack if I don’t have hand grenades. What are you talking about?”
“I told you we’re not done with the cabby,” Usama said. “I promise you we’ll get the gemstones back from him. Then you can buy as many hand grenades as you need.”
Lying on the sofa, Tony started up. He looked at the three phones–his cell phone, the land line and the one he had gotten from the kidnappers–on the table and listened. Nothing. The ringing had only been in his aching head. He lay back again and stared at the ceiling. His most fervent wish was that a phone would ring. He checked his watch. At this time, Katrin would leave when doing the day shift. His eyes filled with tears when he saw his dirty fingernails. He couldn’t help it. All this was so terrible! Again, he saw in his mind Benni with a smashed head and himself digging a hole in the garden to bury him. The whole night, he hadn’t slept, waiting desperately for the kidnappers to call. Since he hadn’t had much sleep the night before either, he nodded off from time to time, having the worst nightmares.
These criminals had demonstrated again that they stopped at nothing. However, as terrible as it was, apparently, they had taken out their frustration on the dog and thank God not on Katrin.
A million thoughts were running through his head: Why on earth did they not call? And if they did, would he be able to trick them somehow? Was there any chance at all for Katrin and him to get out of this mess unharmed? Questions upon questions and he could answer none of them. One thing was sure, though: Under no circumstances, would he cooperate with these detectives again. They had shown that they were totally incapable. He was convinced that Katrin would only get out of there when he took matters into his own hands.
He was pretty sure that his position had improved since yesterday because the kidnappers had probably made their first mistake. When the BMW zoomed out of his street last night, he recognized part of its license plate. Memorizing it was a mere instinct and due to his police training. Of course, at the time, he didn’t attach any importance to it, but that changed after he found Benni on the doorstep.
He sighed and sat up straight. He cocked his head and shook it. When it didn’t help, he poked a forefinger into the ear that wasn’t covered by a bandage. A teardrop had run into it.
A shrill sound startled him. This time it was real. He looked automatically at the phones, but the ringing didn’t come from there but from the doorbell. He got up, rushed to the door and opened up. Seeing Jaeger and Bode, he was disappointed.
“Good morning, Mr. Schuster!” Jaeger said. An insecure smile flashed across his face when he extended his hand.
Tony just stared at him. When it was clear that he wouldn’t greet him back, Jaeger retracted his hand. He cleared his throat and said,
“Can we talk?”
Tony shook his head. “I don’t know what about.”
“About the next steps we’re going to take. You have to cooperate with us. Or do you want to jeopardize your wife’s life? These perps are extremely dangerous. They have a do-or-die attitude.” There was a pleading tone in Jaeger’s voice.
Tony scoffed. “You gotta be kidding me! After what happened last night you dare come here telling me this load of horse shit?! We are not going to take any more steps because me cooperating with you guys endangers my wife’s life.”
“We know it didn’t go as planned last night, and we’re really sorry about that. But I can assure you this won’t happen again.” Jaeger looked at Tony, waiting for a response. When it didn’t come, he said, “Tell me at least if the kidnappers contacted you again?”
Tony shook his head in disbelief. “You’re not hearing me, are you? I saw you do your job yesterday, and what I saw was totally amateurish. These guys outsmarted you every step of the way. How can I trust you again?”
Now Bode butted in: “I don’t think you have a choice, Schuster!”
“You don’t say!” Tony said giving him a scornful look. “I think we’re done here.” He tried to slam the door in their faces, but Bode made a quick step forward and put his foot in the door.
“Why didn’t you tell us you’ve been with the police?” Bode said.
“Tony swallowed hard. “Because that’s my business and has nothing to do with anything?”
“And what about this cock and bull story you fed us regarding the gemstones?” Bode said. “We know that you took them.”
Tony glared at Jaeger, who averted his eyes.
“That’s enough!” Tony said looking at Bode, waiting for him to pull back his foot. But the detective didn’t move.
“C’mon, Schuster. We need to know what’s going on,” Jaeger made another attempt. “Your wife’s life is on the line.”
Tony ignored him, giving Bode a menacing look. “Take your fucking foot out of my door!”
“Do it!” Jaeger said in a resigned tone.
Even though reluctantly, Bode followed his instruction.
Tony banged the door shut. “You can’t fool us,” he heard Bode’s angry voice through the closed door. “We know about your financial situation, Schuster!”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself, prick!” Tony shouted over his shoulder. He headed for the bathroom where he supported himself with both hands on the edge of the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The traces of the attack were still visible on his face, neck and head. But all this was secondary now. He ripped the bandages that made him look like a clown off his head and neck, undressed and stepped into the shower cabin. There he took a long contrast shower: hot and cold, hot and cold. It did him good and revitalized his aching body.
After getting out of the shower, he looked at his reflexion again. What he saw was a different Tony. He was still bruised alright, but he had a different body language. His face showed pure determination: no more crying, lamentation and self-pity! From this point on, he would act and not just react. He would hunt Katrin’s kidnappers down and destroy them in their own nest like the vermin they were!
He opened the cabinet and took out a pack of painkillers. After popping a few pills, he went to the living room, took his phone and dialed Steffen’s number.
Sitting cross-legged on the air mattress, Katrin stared off into the semi-darkness. She tried to understand what happened the night before. When putting her in the trunk, the kidnapper who communicated with her was relatively friendly. Before closing the trunk, he assured her that she would see her husband once the lid opened again. She thought he talked about minutes, but then they drove forever–probably through the city because they stopped and started many times. Apart from the depressing darkness, she was quite comfortable because they had padded the trunk with blankets. Almost the whole time she heard Benni whining. He was in the driver’s cab and must have smelled her. He even barked a few times when she said his name. At one point, they stopped for a longer time. She heard other vehicles zoom by as if they were sitting on the hard shoulder of a highway. Another ride followed, but on this one, she was no longer comfortable. The kidnappers drove aggressively, and she was thrown around in the trunk. When the car stopped again, she heard their loud voices. They were having an argument in their language. After the ride continued, also fast, but not as fast as before, she couldn’t hear Benni anymore. She called his name several times, but he didn’t respond. There was no more whining and barking. When, at last, the trunk lid opened, she didn’t see Tony as promised. On the contrary, the kidnappers dragged her out. When she asked what was going on, they told her to shut up and took her back to the basement.
Something must have gone wrong; she asked herself, what. Was it possible that Tony had told her only half the truth? Could that be? She considered for a long time. Pictures flashed through her mind, snapshots: She and Tony meeting for the first time. The two of them smiling and caressing each other. They had been the perfect couple until the day this terrible accident happened. Everything was different from then on. Tony changed completely. He retreated into his shell and shut everybody out, even her. It was the most difficult time in their relationship, and they drifted apart. Still! She shook her head and repressed the thought immediately, hating herself for even considering it. How could she doubt her husband’s sincerity! He loved her and would never sacrifice her for a couple of gemstones. If something had gone wrong, it sure wasn’t his but someone else’s fault. It had to be!
There was noise outside. She strained her ears. The muscles in her body got tense when the light bulb went on. While hearing the door getting unlocked, she quickly changed into a kneeling position, grabbed the hood and pulled it over her head.
She heard footsteps. The kidnapper approached and stopped in front of her. She felt his glare. In anxious anticipation, she lifted her head without being able to see. For a long moment, she waited for the kidnapper to say something, but he didn’t. When she could no longer stand the silence, she said in a trembling voice: “What happened yesterday? You said, when the trunk opens again, I would see my husband. You lied to me.”
“I did not,” Usama said. “I meant what I said, and if it had gone my way, everything would be over now. You would be home. But your husband did something I told him he could do under no circumstances.”
“What did he do?” Katrin said.
“He involved the cops, and therefore, the delivery didn’t take place,” Usama said. He cleared his throat. Then he continued: “But I’m here because there’s something I need to tell you.” He paused for effect and said, “Your dog’s dead. I’m really sorry.”
“What?!” Katrin’s head sank into her hands.
Usama squatted down across from her. “We had to kill him to send a message.”
Katrin sobbed and wept quietly under the hood. When Usama put a hand on her convulsing shoulder, she recoiled. “Benni didn’t do anything to you,” she said between sobs.
“Benni, uh?”–He nodded approvingly–“Nice name for a dog. Too sad that he’s gone. Especially since he was so young.” After a moment of consideration, he said: “You know we’re not the bad guy’s here, right? We warned your husband. We told him something terrible would happen if he doesn’t give the gemstones back. I hate to break it to you, but he is greedy and selfish. I don’t think he loves you.”
“Liar!” Katrin cried. “He does love me, and he doesn’t have your damn gemstones. He would have told me. We tell each other everything.” After a moment she added, “And you are a monster!”
Expecting her kidnapper’s reaction, Katrin breathed heavily, her well-shaped breasts heaving up and down. Suddenly without premeditation, she ripped the hood off her head and stared at Usama. “I’m no longer scared of you!” she yelled. Then she spat in his face.
“Fucking bitch!” Usama slapped her reflexively. Wiping the spit off with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, he glowered at her. It was the first time he saw her face. It was beautiful despite the angry look she gave him, or maybe because of it: the blue eyes, the freckles around her perfect nose, the long sandy hair, the pale skin! It wasn’t the first time that he had a good-looking, helpless woman in front of him. According to Islamic law, he wasn’t allowed to touch somebody else’s wife. At the same time, however, his prisoner was his property, and he could do to him or her whatever he wanted. Things had changed since yesterday. He wanted to set her free. He really did. But her husband tried to be a wise guy and didn’t keep his end of the deal. She was his prisoner now.
Katrin tried to hold his gaze, staring into his distinctive greenish gray eyes, noticing the burn scar on the right side of his face. He didn’t look at all as she had imagined him. His crony who had grabbed her on the field was big, but this man was of average height and build. He wasn’t threatening in a physical way, but there was something evil in his eyes. Katrin teared up. She sniffled and finally looked away. “I’m no longer scared of you,” she repeated weakly. It sounded more as if she was trying to convince herself.
A grin flashed across Usama’s face as he watched Katrin wipe the tears from her cheeks. Everything was under control again! “As I said, I’m sorry about Benni. I wish we didn’t have to do it,” he said, then got up and walked away.
Katrin uttered a deep sigh after the door closed. Everything was different from this point on because she had done something very dumb in her grief and anger over Benni’s death: She had seen the face of one of her kidnappers and would always be able to recognize it. She flung the hood across the room.
He stepped out onto the street. Under normal circumstances, he would have praised the weather because it was a perfect late-summer day. However, unfortunately, the circumstances were everything but normal. He looked around with inquiring eyes, scanning the lines of cars parked on both sides of the cul-de-sac. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but, of course, they wouldn’t be that stupid. He walked to his hire cab, got in and drove off.
He turned onto the main street and drove downtown. He kept looking in the rearview mirror but didn’t see anyone following him. He was sure, though, they were. They wouldn’t just let go. He glanced at the clock. It was still too early to put his plan into action. He needed to kill about ten minutes.
He stopped at a gas station and went into the restroom. Then he bought himself a coffee. When the ten minutes were up, he drove on, but now a little faster because the success of what he was about to do depended on the right timing. When he approached a railroad crossing, the light turned red. He acknowledged it with a smile and stopped. At the moment the gate went down, he took off, passing the two cars in front of him, making it through the closing gate just in time. In the rearview mirror, he saw a Golf coming to a hard stop. It had swung out, trying to “slip through” too, but the gate was already too far down.
Pumping his fist, Tony stepped on the gas, praising Deutsche Bahn for being prompt. Having managed to shake them off gave him a real sense of achievement. It was his second lift of the day. The first one was the email he received from Steffen. His ex-colleague and friend had attended to the matter immediately without asking questions. The computer came up with four hits for the plate number fragment Tony had given him. One of the car owners was registered in Marienburg, which was the district where he dropped off Usama Saturday night.
He noticed that the painkillers had done their job; his headache was gone. He slipped his hand into his jeans pocket and pulled out a wrinkled business card. Watching the traffic with one eye, he read the number on it and dialed.
The call was taken immediately. “Good morning. Wickert import and export! How may I help you?” he heard a male voice over the car stereo.
Bode kept in step with Jaeger, trying hard to overhear the conversation. When he picked up that Tony had gotten away, a sardonic grin flashed across his face.
“How could this happen?” Jaeger spoke into the phone. “I thought you were a professional… Put out an APB on the cab immediately. We have to look for him. We need this guy. We’re not getting on without him… We’ll meet at the office.” Jaeger angrily clicked his tongue when he hung up.
The two detectives arrived together with the forensic team at the Uni Center. The street cop at the entrance sent the group up to the 25th floor. A very young-looking street cop was waiting together with an older man and a mannish woman in the hall upstairs. While the members of the forensic team went straight into the apartment, Jaeger and Bode were briefed by the cop: “The super and the, um, lady here found the body and called 1-1-0.”
Hearing the word “lady,” the mannish woman muttered to herself.
The street cop walked with Jaeger and Bode to the apartment door from where they could see the legs of the body in the living room.
“How much longer do I have to stay?” the “lady” yelled.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Jaeger said.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to do my job,” she griped looking at the huge plastic watch she was wearing around her wrist. “I’ll never get it done by noon.”
The super nodded in agreement.
Ignoring the two, Jaeger turned to the street cop again, “Do we know who the victim is?”
“Not yet,” the cop said. “The super says a guy named, um,”–He consulted his notepad–“Rh…aba Abdul lives in the apartment.”–He shrugged his shoulders while a smirk flashed across his face–“Don’t ask me, which is which. I mean the first name and family name.”
Jaeger glared at the cop. “Abdul sounds like a first name to me, young man.”
The cop’s grin froze, and he cleared his throat. After a moment of awkward silence, he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment. “However, this is something else in there. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Bode sneered. “In all the years you’ve been on the force?”
Jaeger suppressed a laugh. “Let’s take a look,” he said, then shouted into the apartment, “Can we get some shoe covers here?!”
One of the forensic people came and handed him three sets.
After entering the living room, they were hit by a terrible stench. What had been visible from the hall was harmless. Seeing the whole picture now in connection with the smell, Bode, who followed Jaeger, turned away immediately. He retched, doubled over and threw up.
“What are you doing?!” the head of the forensic team yelled. “Man, you’re contaminating the crime scene.”
“I told you,” the street cop said covering his nose.
Jaeger was much more experienced than Bode, but even for him, this crime scene was a hard thing to look at. He was on the brink of vomiting but managed to pull himself together. He turned toward Bode: “It’s OK. You don’t have to be in here.”–He pointed in the direction of the hall–“Take their statements!”
Bode nodded and wiped his mouth with a tissue. His face was as white as chalk. He quickly left the apartment, followed by the street cop.
Holding his breath, Jaeger gestured for the coroner, pointing at his nose. The man smiled, stopped what he was doing and approached him holding out a small container. Jaeger dipped his finger into it and rubbed the camphor ointment under his nose. With the stench being masked now, he dared to breathe again.
He nodded his thanks, then concentrated on doing his job. He looked around. A headless body, the hands bound behind the back, was lying in a large pool of dried blood in the center of the room. The head was sitting beside it in a smaller pool of blood. The overturned furniture suggested that there had been a fight. Even though a murder with robbery couldn’t be ruled out, this looked like something entirely different.
He walked over to the headless body. “Is this what I think it is?” he said, pointing at something on the floor that had already been marked.
The coroner who was leaning over the body straightened up and turned around. Now Jaeger could see the dark colored mutilated hands.
“They cut off both his thumbs,” the coroner said. “The other one is over there!”–He pointed at it–“It was done while he was still alive. Looks like he was tortured.”
Biting his lip, Jaeger kneeled down beside Abdul’s head. It was bloated. A foamy liquid drooled from his mouth and nose. Nevertheless, one could still see that he had been good-looking. “Who does something like this?” Jaeger said shaking his head. “What a shame!”– He turned to the coroner: “Was he still alive when he was decapitated?”
The man nodded. “I’m afraid so. His windpipe was cut, and that’s the cause of death.”–He pointed at the bloody bread knife beside the body–“That’s your murder weapon. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years, seen a lot of crime scenes. This one is the worst so far.”
Jaeger got up and walked toward the coroner. “Can you tell me the time of death?”
“Hard to say. The rigor mortis is already gone. The way it looks, um,”–The man shrugged–“three days, I guess?”
Meanwhile, Bode interviewed the superintendent and the woman in the hall. Even though he was still pale, he overcame his shock and was on top of things again.
“Is he the guy who lives here?” the superintendent said.
“It’s highly likely, but we can’t say for sure yet,” Bode said.
“Is it drug related?” the super said.
Bode sent him an inquiring glance. “Why would you ask me that? Do you know anything? Was he dealing with drugs?”
“No, no!” the super said shaking his head. “I was just guessing. I don’t know anything.”
“Let me ask you a question for a change,” Bode said.
The super shrugged. “No problem, but I don’t think I can answer it. If he’s the guy who lives here, there’s nothing I can tell you about him. Neither can anybody else who lives on this floor because he has nothing to do with anybody. I have never exchanged a word with him.”
“So you know absolutely nothing about him?” Bode said. “No idea what he did for a living?”
“Oh, that I know,” the super said. “There are only student apartments on this floor. So he was a student. And he had a lot of lady visitors when he was here.”
“What do you mean, when he was here?” Bode said.
“That he wasn’t here very often,” the super said. “I mean, a lot of students live in this building, and they’re here all the time. I see them every day. With him, it was different. Like he also lived somewhere else.”
Bode wrote something in his notepad. “And these women,” he said. “Were they always different ones?”
The super nodded. “Always a different one.” The way he said it sounded as if he was jealous. “But don’t ask me what they looked like because I don’t remember.” He thought for a moment and then rolled his eyes as if he suddenly remembered something.
“What is it?” Bode said.
“There was one girl I’ve seen a few times,” the super said. “I don’t know if she was his regular girlfriend, but her name was Julia… Cute little blonde.”
“Hmm. For someone who doesn’t know anything, you seem to know a lot,” Bode said, making another note. Then he looked up again. “Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary lately?”
“I haven’t noticed anything. I’m a pensioner. I come here every day for a few hours, do what I have to do and leave.”
“How come you found him?” Bode said.
“Today, the old water meters get replaced,” the super said. “The house management informed the tenants four weeks ago and asked them to enable access to their apartments between eight and noon. When nobody opened here,”–He jerked his head toward the woman–“she came to me. I rang a few times, and since nobody opened up, I used the master key. We saw somebody lying on the floor and also smelled the stench.”
Bode turned to the female plumber and heating installer who checked the time on her plastic watch, rolling her eyes impatiently. He had noticed that every time she moved, a whiff of body odor passed by. He felt nauseated again but pulled himself together. Nevertheless, he didn’t hide his disgust and fanned the air with his hand while the butch pretended to have nothing to do with it.
“That’s exactly how it went down,” she said. “We entered the apartment, smelled the stench, saw his legs from the hall and turned on our heels; didn’t touch or change anything.”–She pointed with the thumb at the super–“He called the police right away. I mean, it was crystal that what we saw was a dead body.”
Noticing her dirty fingernails, Bode shook his head disgustedly.
“And now I need to go,” she continued unimpressed. “I have a schedule to observe and must be done here by noon.” She glanced at her watch again and made a resigned gesture. “But that’s no longer possible!”
“You can leave now,” Bode said. “But give your details to my colleague over there.” His expression suggested that she was the ugliest woman he had ever seen.
Tony checked his environment. From outside, the house had looked like an old factory building, and the room he was standing in, was probably a production hall once. It had a high ceiling, cinder-block walls, exposed copper pipe work and milk glass windows. Now, it seemed to be used in three ways: firstly, as a dwelling, because there was a kitchenette, a sofa bed, a recliner, an enormous flat screen. Secondly, as an office, because there was a writing desk with a laptop, a telephone, a scanner and a printer on it, just a few meters away from the “living room.” And thirdly, as a workshop, because there were machinery and workbenches covered with tools on the other side. Altogether, it was a dingy place. Tony would never have come here, but he didn’t know who else to turn to. Steffen would have probably helped him, but he didn’t want to drag him into this anymore than necessary. Already, getting him the addresses of the car owners hadn’t been exactly legal.
Wickert came back from the “kitchenette” to the “living room” carrying two steaming cups of coffee. He handed one to Tony, who blew on the hot beverage to cool it down and then took a sip.
Watching him, Wickert said: “To be honest, I don’t remember much from Saturday night. I’ve got a mental blackout. After the soccer match, I went with friends to the old town. That’s all I remember. Where did you say you picked me up?”
“Far away from the old town,” Tony said. “On the other side of the river, in Poll.”
“Holy shit!” Wickert exclaimed. “That means I was with my ex again. The bitch is always taking advantage of me when I’m drunk. Now I know why she’s been texting me.”
“You were not sober, but you didn’t seem that drunk to me. You had a terrible hiccup, though.” Tony said, ready to get the hell out of there. If the guy couldn’t remember anything, probably everything he had said was bullshit, plus he couldn’t say he liked him very much. He had an entirely different memory of him: Within his recollection, Wickert was much taller and respectable-looking. The man who was standing across from him wasn’t tall at all. In fact, he was a whole head shorter than Tony, had a huge beer belly, a three-day-beard and thinning slicked-back hair. Tony guessed him to be in his mid-forties, but he probably looked older than his age. Even though he was wearing an expensive suit, he looked unkempt and sleazy.
Wickert started laughing, exposing his yellow, stained horse teeth. “That’s exactly it!” he said. “You can’t tell if I’m drunk from my behavior. But when I have these hiccups, I’m totally plastered.”
Tony forced a smile.
Wickert got his cigarettes from the table and offered him one. Tony declined with thanks.
“So what brought you here?” Wickert said after he took a few drags.
Tony set down the coffee pot and pulled Wickert’s business card from his pocket. “You gave me this and said you could get everything.”
“Sure,” Wickert said. “That’s my business.”
“It doesn’t need to be a bazooka,” Tony said. “A handgun with a full clip will do.”
“Um.” Wickert scratched his head, the cigarette smoke streaming out of his nostrils. “What do you need a gun for? You wanna drop someone?”
“Is asking stupid questions your way of doing business?” Tony said. He thought for a moment, then flicked the business card away. “That’s what I figured. Just idle talk.” He shot Wickert a disgusted glance and headed for the door.
“Hey, hey!” Wickert shouted, his words echoing in the large room. He hurried after Tony and grabbed him by the arm. “Wait a minute! Of course, I can get you a gun. I just wasn’t prepared for this. Sorry, man. I couldn’t care less what you want to do with it. It’s none of my business. I mean, driving a cab at night can be a dangerous thing. A man needs his protection, right? You came to the right place.”
Tony turned around. “I need it immediately.”
“Let me see what I’ve got,” Wickert said lifting his hands in a reassuring gesture. Then he walked deeper into the workshop area.
Tony saw him open one of the lockers there. After rummaging for a while, he returned with a gun. He ejected the magazine and showed it off. “Heckler & Koch, P8, 9 mm with fifteen rounds, service piece of the Bundeswehr.”
“I know,” Tony said, unimpressed.
“This one can’t be traced back. But it’ll cost you,” Wickert said holding the gun out to Tony.
Wickert frowned. “Something wrong?”
Tony blinked and seemed absent-minded, but after a few seconds, he was on top of things again. “Everything’s fine,” he said and took the gun. But everything wasn’t fine because the hand he held the gun with started to tremble uncontrollably.
Wickert looked at Tony with surprise. “Is really everything OK?”
“That’s what I said,” Tony snapped at him.
“OK, OK!” Wickert said trying to placate him with calming hand gestures. “None of my business.”
“How much?” Tony said.
“Um. Here’s the thing,” Wickert said. “I got this one actually for somebody else. I can order another one for you. But I won’t get it before tomorrow.”
“I told you I need it right away,” Tony said.
“Hmm.” Wickert thought, looking Tony up and down. “OK,” he finally said. “I hope selling it to you won’t get me into trouble. I’m kind of putting my reputation as a businessman on the line here.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “How much?”
Wickert cleared his throat and swallowed. “Fifteen hundred?”
“Where’s the next ATM?” Tony said.
“Um.” Wickert shrugged. “Chlodwigplatz I guess.” He was apparently surprised that Tony made no attempt to beat down the price.
“I’ll be back in twenty,” Tony said and gave back the gun to him.
A grin flashed across Wickert’s face. Concluding this deal had definitely made his day. “No problem. If you want, I can get you a bazooka too. Won’t last longer than three days!” he shouted after Tony who hurried out of the room.
When he opened the door to leave his room, Usama ran into his uncle.
Looking at the tray with coffee, fruit and two sandwiches his nephew was carrying, the old man raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Where are you going?”
“Um.” For a second, Usama was insecure, but he regained his composure immediately. “I’m on my way to my lab?”
“And what’s with the tray?”
“Oh, that!” Usama smiled. “I’m working on a project. I have to carry out a few experiments for my preliminary exams. That’s why I’m eating right there.”
The uncle nodded pensively. “I’ve noticed. There’s been a lot of activity over there. I was wondering what you were doing. What happened to your face by the way?”
The swelling had subsided, but Usama’s eye area still looked slightly sore.
“An experiment went wrong,” Usama said. “I wasn’t wearing safety glasses.”
“Oh, oh!” the uncle said raising a warning finger. “Chemistry can be dangerous.”
“Don’t worry,” Usama said. “It won’t happen again.”
There was a moment of awkward silence. The uncle broke it, “No classes today?”
“Nope.” Usama shook his head. “The prof is sick.”
A doubtful expression flashed across the uncle’s face. “You just mentioned your preliminary exams. Let’s talk about them,” he said in a tone that didn’t leave his nephew any choice.
Usama shrugged as a sign of consent and turned around to walk back into his room. The uncle followed him. Both seated themselves across from each other at the table. The uncle took a deep breath and looked around. The black ISIS flag over the door caught his eye. He was about to say something but then stopped himself. He pressed his fingers together in a thoughtful pose. “We, um, need to talk about your study,” he started hesitantly.
“OK. What about it?” Usama said.
The uncle scoffed and looked him in the eyes. “You have no idea?”
Usama shrugged. “Not really.”
“I have two rhetorical questions for you,” the uncle said. “The first one is: How many times have you told me you were taking your preliminary exams? And the second one: How long have you been studying?”
Unable to hide his embarrassment, Usama grinned sheepishly. “You know how long,” he said. “And you also know that doing chemistry studies is far from being easy. I’m giving it my best shot.”
The uncle shook his head. “No, you’re not! On the contrary, you just slack off. And to add insult to injury, you blow my money.”
Usama’s eyes widened. “But you–”
The uncle stopped him with a sharp hand gesture and continued: “It can’t go on like this. I raised you like my own son. You got everything you wanted. But my patience is exhausted now.”
“You’ve done a lot for me, and I’m grateful for it,” Usama said and lowered his eyes. Staring at the table, he inhaled and exhaled sharply and added hardly audibly, “But you couldn’t replace my parents.”
Realizing he had touched a sore spot, the uncle changed his tone: “I know that.”–He heaved a sigh–“But you also know that was impossible because parents are irreplaceable. The only thing I could do was give you a decent home and provide for you. That’s what I did. And here is one thing you must not forget: Your father was my brother. I lost somebody too.”
Usama scoffed. “The two of you were never close.”
The uncle swallowed hard. “Why would you say that?”
“That’s what I learned when I was there,” Usama said. “They even told me you hated one another.”
The uncle bit his lips. “That’s not true. We had different visions of life. But I’m not going to discuss that with you. I want to talk about your study.”–He paused searching for the right words before he continued–“Let’s break this up. Until two years ago, everything was alright. You never complained. You liked it at the university. You had friends. Then, suddenly for some inexplicable reason, you didn’t like it here in Germany anymore. You told me you wanted to get to know your homeland, which is completely understandable. That’s why I supported the idea. You said you needed this hiatus to find your inner balance, and when you’re back, you will finish your study in record time. And here is the problem: You didn’t keep any of your promises. On the contrary, since you’re back, you’ve been hanging out with this Rahman.”–He pointed at the ISIS flag over the door.–“And what’s this? I mean, it’s your room, and you can put whatever you want on the wall, but that’s the symbol of a terrorist organization. You might as well put a swastika on your wall.”–He shook his head–“What is wrong with you, son?”
“Rahman is my best friend, and I don’t consider ISIS a terrorist organization,” Usama said. “They are real Muslims. They fight the ones who murdered my father.”
The uncle shook his head. “Listen, Usama! I hate to break it to you, but your dad was not a saint. He had blood on his hands too. Of course, he shouldn’t have died, but he sort of had it coming. These groups fight each other, and if everyone avenges the death of the last victim, the killing never ends.”
Usama scowled but didn’t say anything.
“However, it can’t go on like this with you,” the uncle said. “I’ve decided to give you an ultimatum.”
Usama raised his eyes again, trying to hold his uncle’s stern gaze.
“I’ve done a little research myself,” the uncle continued. “I called the university, and they told me you haven’t been there for weeks.”–He frowned–“So I don’t know what you’re doing in the shed, but certainly no experiments for your preliminary exams. But”–He made a suggestive gesture with his hands–“everybody is entitled to his privacy. I can tell you, though, that if you’re not taking your preliminary exams this year, I’ll cut you off, which means you’ll have to get yourself a job or something. But you won’t get a single cent from me anymore. Don’t get me wrong, son. It’s not at all about the money. It’s about the principle.” Again, he paused to search for the right words to say. After a long moment, he found them: “But you must know that if you make it, or I see your good will at least, I’ll go on supporting you.” The uncle remained seated waiting for his nephew’s reaction, but Usama just stared at the table again without saying anything. He checked his watch. “I have to go back to the practice,” he finally said, got up and went to the door. There, he stopped and turned around. “Please think this over, son. I’m serious this time.” His voice was almost imploring. He pointed at the hookah sitting on a shelve. “Speaking of real Muslims, smoking hookah is haram.”
Jaeger looked up and then over at Bode when he heard the buzz. He couldn’t help but smile: His colleague was obviously in love. Since the morning, he had received a dozen messages, which he read with a smile and answered immediately. It was also the first time that he had come to work not wearing a tie. This girl might even turn him into a better person… Jaeger snapped out of his revery and continued reading Tony’s personnel file. When he was through, he set the file down on the table and leaned back in his chair to digest what he just read. Then he started a monolog commenting on the pictures that he saw in his mind’s eye:
“The parents are gone, and the 15-year-old son has the place all to himself. He uses the opportunity and throws a party. That’s what kids like to do. The problem is that this place isn’t just anywhere in town, but in Hahnwald, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods. Almost every resident is a millionaire, and safety is a huge issue ever since an East European gang of burglars terrorized the area, which ended with a murder a few years back.”
Bode who was working at his computer looked up and listened to his colleague thinking out loud.
“Two masked boys armed with toy guns sneak onto the property. They are friends of the 15-year-old. All they want is to scare the hell out of the party guests to spice things up. A neighbor, however, who’s watching them, doesn’t know that. He thinks the East Europeans are back and calls 1-1-0. One of the two first responding officers to the ‘crime scene’ has just finished his training. It’s his first real operation, and his inexperience shows up when he’s looking into the barrel of a gun. He feels threatened and shoots. For him, it’s self-defense.” Jaeger stopped talking. After considering for a while, he went on, addressing Bode directly: “I understand why Schuster didn’t mention that he used to be a cop. If you’re honest, you must admit that what happened to him could have happened to anyone. Being in such a stressful situation, you don’t have much time to think, and you can quickly lose your head, especially when you’re inexperienced. And I guess that’s what he blames himself for: losing his head; not thinking rationally. He can’t get over the fact that he shot this boy dead. He probably erased all memory of his time with the police, so he doesn’t have to think of it anymore–if that’s even possible. However, so much as mentioning his time on the force will bring back the memory, and that’s what he was trying to avoid. That’s why he didn’t say anything.”
Bode clapped his hands. “You should have become a psychologist,” he said with an unsympathetic expression. “And I’m being sarcastic… Why are you defending this guy? He’s as guilty as can be. He brought all this shit on himself when he took the gemstones.”–Bode shook his head in disbelief—“I do not get you.”
“And I don’t get why you’re so convinced that he took them,” Jaeger said.
Bode scoffed. “Because it fits his profile! Even the fact that he shot the boy does. The guy’s a loser. He shouldn’t have joined the force in the first place if he couldn’t handle the pressure.”
Jaeger propped his elbows on the desk and rested his head on his hands, giving his colleague a long estimating glance. “You know, Bode–” he started, but then he paused in mid-sentence because his office phone was ringing. Checking the caller ID, he rolled his eyes before taking the call.
“Do I have to be prepared for more glitches in the Schuster case?” the chief’s deep voice boomed out of the receiver. It was so loud that even Bode could hear every single word.
“What do you mean, sir?” Jaeger said.
“What do I mean?” the chief repeated. “Yesterday the failed delivery; today the failed surveillance. That’s what I mean. Which brings me right to the point: When were you going to tell me that you lost Schuster?”
“Um.” While Jaeger was searching for an answer, he looked at Bode, who quickly averted his eyes, shifted uncomfortably in his chair and turned to his computer again.
“You know that you have to keep me up to date on everything,” the chief continued. “But you don’t do that. Instead, I’m getting my information from hearsay or a third party. That’s not the way it works here.”
“Understood, sir!” Jaeger said. “I’m very sorry about that. But I thought we could fix–”
“Are you aware of the explosive nature of this case?” the chief interrupted. “What happened during the 2015/16 New Year’s Eve celebrations around the cathedral damaged our reputation. The press labeled the Cologne Police Department the most incompetent throughout Germany. We’re still being watched closely and can’t afford another failure.”
“I totally understand, sir,” Jaeger said.
“I have to answer to somebody too, and everything you do reflects on me.”
“Of course, sir.”
The chief’s tone became a little softer as he continued: “I heard you have some personal issues, Jaeger. I mean, it’s none of my business, as long as they don’t interfere with your job, which they obviously do.–Did your wife leave you?”
Jaeger swallowed hard. “She did, sir,” he said after a long pause.
“Well, listen, Jaeger,” the chief continued. “These things hurt. I understand what you’re going through, and if all this is too much for you, why not ask for some time off so you can sort out your problems and get a clear head again? I’d be the last to say, no.”
“I can handle it, sir,” Jaeger said trying to stay calm.
“Suit yourself,” the chief said. “Nevertheless, consider this conversation a strong warning. Any more mistakes, and you’re out.”
Jaeger took a deep breath and put down the phone. He looked at his colleague, who was engrossed in doing something on his computer and did not return his gaze. “So you have nothing else to do than calling uncle every five minutes to tell him of our failures?”
Bode stopped “working” and leaned back. His right arm extended, he continued playing with the mouse. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh really?” Jaeger scoffed. “I’m telling you right now what I think of you. I mean, not you being a Dusseldorfer, but you being a colleague.”
“You’re wasting your breath. I’m not interested,” Bode said, playing with the mouse, staring at his computer screen.
“But you should,” Jaeger said. “If only because we have to work together here every day. You know the basics of the job. I give you that. However, apart from that, you’re a”–Jaeger paused searching for the correct word–“pretentious asshole!–Yes, that’s what you are! That’s the right term. You do know that you have a serious problem, don’t you? Must be rooted in your childhood. Maybe unrequited love? But then again, I’m not a psychologist. There can be many reasons for your stupid behavior.”
Bode said nothing. He flicked his hair back and tried to avoid any reaction that could tell if Jaeger had touched a sore spot. He managed it pretty well, but there was one thing that ruined all his efforts, something he couldn’t help because he couldn’t control it: He went puce in the face, which, of course, he couldn’t see. But he felt it.
Jaeger wasn’t done yet and continued: “Or maybe you have an inferiority complex. If I were you, I’d consider consulting a shrink. I know many people say it’s an American thing, and you have to pay yourself because health insurance doesn’t cover it. But I’m sure it’s worth a try. I know a few people who did receive help from them. They are much better now.”
Since Bode started to look like a scolded hound, Jaeger stopped. They worked in silence for a while. At some point, Bode addressed Jaeger in a tone as if the previous conversation never happened, “I found something odd here.”
Jaeger looked up.
“It looks like Billy’s murder and the Rhaba case are connected,” Bode said.
Jaeger frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“Well,” Bode said, “we didn’t find a cell phone in Rhaba’s apartment, but, of course, he had one. I just got his phone records from his phone company, and his number is identical to the one I’ve got from the person who called the City Taxi call center, asking for Billy on Saturday night. Looks like he’s one of the kidnappers.”
Jaeger got up and walked over to Bode’s desk. “What are you waiting for? Call the number!”
The loud ringtone startled him, but then, he felt relieved. At last! However, strange was that the display showed a number. The kidnappers had only called with a suppressed number the day before. He hit the accept button anxiously. “Hello?”
“This is Inspector Bode with the Cologne homicide division. Who am I speaking to?”
Hearing Bode’s voice over the car stereo, Tony was flabbergasted. He had been dead sure that the kidnappers were contacting him again. And now the cops?
“Hello! Who am I speaking to?” Bode repeated.
Tony scoffed. “So you located me. Congratulations! But that won’t change a thing. I’m not gonna cooperate with you.”
“Is… that you, Schuster?” Bode said.
“It’s Schuster,” Tony heard him say to somebody, the astonishment in his voice unmistakable. There was some background noise. Then he heard Jaeger’s voice, “What’s going on, Schuster?”
“I’m doing your job,” Tony said. “That’s what’s going on. And I haven’t changed my mind about anything.”
“Forget about that for a minute,” Jaeger said. “Just answer me one question: Why are you answering this number? That’s all I need to know at the moment.”
“Um… I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing,” Tony said. “But that’s the phone the kidnappers gave me yesterday. I was actually expecting them to call.”
“So they haven’t contacted you again? Do you–”
“I told you I haven’t changed my mind,” Tony cut him short and ended the call. Then he took the phone from the console, put it on the passenger seat and smashed it with the gun.
He parked at a safe distance. It was almost the same spot where he dropped off Usama Saturday night. He covered the last meters on foot. This residential area was one of the best in town. Most properties were hidden behind high hedges or walls. The house belonging to the address Steffen had given him was quite impressive. It was more like a mansion. There was a sign reading, “Eye Clinic Dr. Mohammed Anta” at the entrance. Mohammed Anta was a name on his list.
He stopped and considered. His advantage–the moment of surprise–would be gone if he went in there, and the kidnappers saw him. On the other hand, he needed to get the lowdown on this Dr. Anta. According to Steffen’s information, he was 62 years old, which meant he couldn’t be one of the kidnappers because the two guys who attacked him had been in their mid-twenties. Of course, Dr. Anta could still be the instigator. Whatever. Tony had no choice but to go in there.
He trembled with excitement when he entered. The practice was upstairs. The receptionist, a middle-aged lady, was on the phone. She smiled and gestured for him to be patient when he approached her. He nodded at her and took a look around. Three patients were sitting in the waiting area, which was segregated from the reception area by showcases with binoculars, old spectacles, magnifying glasses and so on. The furnishing of the practice was pretty tasteful. An ad for laser eye surgery caught his attention. It praised Dr. Anta as a specialist.
After hanging up, the receptionist made a note in her calendar and turned to Tony. “Do you have an appointment, sir?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. But I need to talk to Dr. Anta,” Tony said with a steady voice. He suddenly was calm and collected. He couldn’t explain why, but all excitement had disappeared.
The receptionist, who was already checking the appointment calendar, looked up again, arching an eyebrow.
Tony gave a half shrug. “It’s an important personal matter.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” she said and pointed at the people in the waiting room. “The doctor is very busy. You can come back and try around 6 p.m. I can’t promise anything, but maybe he’ll find some time for you then.”
Tony hesitated. He couldn’t leave without getting some information. He needed to improvise. “Maybe you can help me out,” he said trying hard to come up with an idea. And suddenly it came to him: “When I returned to my car from shopping day before yesterday, there was a dent on my fender.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the receptionist said.
“Yeah,” Tony said. “A man told me he had seen a dark BMW sideswipe it when backing out of the parking space. He also gave me the license plate number. I have a friend who’s with the police, and he found the address to this license plate for me. You know that’s a case of, um, hit-and-run.”
The receptionist gave him a confused look. “I don’t follow. What are you trying to say?”–She shrugged–“That this practice is the address?”
“Exactly,” Tony said.
The receptionist shook her head: “The doctor?–No way! He would never commit a hit-and-run in the first place, and in the second place, he drives a Mercedes.”
“How old is the doctor?” Tony said.
“Um.” The receptionist hesitated. “Why is that relevant?”
“Well, the witness said the driver of the BMW was a young man,” Tony said.
“The doctor is certainly not a young man,” the receptionist said furrowing her brow. “I don’t know… He’s in his early sixties, maybe?”
“Then it’s not him,” Tony said. “Perhaps, the witness got it wrong.”
“Or maybe, he didn’t see anything and wanted to show off,” the receptionist said bobbing her head. “It happens.”
“Sure,” Tony said. “Thanks anyway.”
The receptionist gave him a nod. “No problem. Good luck finding the culprit!”
Tony turned to leave but hesitated. He turned around again and addressed the receptionist once more: “The doctor wouldn’t have a son, would he?”
“No,” she said. “He has a nephew, though.” After thinking for a moment, she added, “He drives a dark BMW.”
“Maybe it’s registered in his uncle’s name?” Tony said.
“I wouldn’t know,” the receptionist said.
Tony leaned in and lowered his voice. “I actually don’t care about the hit-and-run, but somebody’s got to pay for the damage. It’s a rental, you know.”
“I understand,” the receptionist said and nodded thoughtfully, looking at him with her hazel eyes. “Why don’t you go over and ask him yourself?”
Tony shrugged his hand. “Go over where?”
“To the living area, I mean. Maybe Usama is at home. Take a left when you exit, and a left again. There’s the private entrance.”
“Thanks a lot!” Tony said pumping his fist.
The smell of hot coffee filled the room when Usama entered. This time, he wasn’t scowling. On the contrary, he seemed relaxed, wearing a friendly expression. “I brought you something to eat,” he said and set down the tray on the floor in front of Katrin. Then he gestured for her to help herself.
Katrin didn’t react. She didn’t even look up. But she felt his gaze when he pushed the tray closer toward her. After a long moment, though, she responded, her voice hardly audible, “I’m not hungry.”
Usama squatted down. “Have some coffee then,” he said taking the steamy mug from the tray, holding it out for her to take.
Katrin kept ignoring him and stared down at the floor. After a while, she shifted her position. She bent forward and hugged her knees protectively. Now, her long hair covered her face entirely.
“Hmm.” Usama thought about what to do next. He gently touched her shoulder. “Are you OK?”
When Katrin kept refusing to communicate, he put the coffee mug back on the tray. “Suit yourself.”
Katrin slowly lifted her head and looked at him through her hair. “How can I be OK?”
Usama shrugged. “It was a rhetorical question. Blame your husband. I didn’t ask for this.”
Katrin exhaled sharply as if she had made up her mind. She straightened and pushed the bangs out of her face. “OK, I’ll have some coffee.”
With a smile, Usama handed her the mug. “Here you go!”
It was quite obvious how reluctant Katrin was to accept anything from this man, but he was right: She needed to drink at least. After taking a few sips, she looked at Usama over the brim of the mug. “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you believe my husband when he says he doesn’t have your gemstones?”
“Because he’s lying,” Usama said holding her gaze. “He’s an infidel. And all infidels lie through their teeth.”
Katrin blew into the mug to cool the coffee and took another sip. Then she said: “I know my husband, and that’s why I’m sure he isn’t lying about that.” After a pause, she added: “What does a person’s belief have to do with telling the truth anyway? You’re a Muslim, apparently, and my husband is…”–She shrugged–“He’s actually nothing. He was baptized alright, but he hasn’t been to church for years. He’s just a man who wants to get along with everybody. He treats everybody with respect and expects others to do the same to him. Is that why you hate him?”
Usama scoffed. “Don’t be silly! I don’t care if he has or hasn’t been to church. What matters is that he’s not a Muslim. And to answer your question: A person’s belief has to do with everything because it’s the only thing that matters. Everybody who does not believe in Allah”–He lifted his hand and listed with his fingers–“Christians, Jews, Hindus, non-believers and so on is an infidel. He’s a link between human being and animal and only good for being a slave.”
Katrin swallowed hard, then looked up. “Are you serious? I can’t believe I’m hearing this. Why can’t we all live together in peace in this world?” She stared pensively into the coffee mug as if she could find the answer to her question there. After a long moment, she looked at Usama again. “Tell me! I just want to understand.” Her voice was almost imploring.
“The answer is simple,” Usama said. “Because your kind wants to rule this world we live in; because you wallow in vice and deny the existence of Allah and even mock him.”
Katrin opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. She felt funny, somehow weak and tired. Nevertheless, she braced herself. She emptied the coffee mug and set it down on the floor.
“Want me to let you in on a secret?” Usama said.
Katrin gave a half shrug looking at him with blinking eyes, trying to concentrate.
“Today’s the day,” Usama said. “At last, this city will feel Allah’s wrath.”
“What are you talking about?” Katrin said.
“Remember what happened on the Christmas market in Berlin?” Usama said. “Something similar happens here today.”–His voice became solemn–“There’s a soccer game on in the stadium. The guest team is from the Jewish state and calls itself Maccabi Haifa. After the game, I’ll blow up their team bus in the name of Allah. Today, the Muslims in Germany will catch up with their brothers in Belgium and France.”
“I don’t understand,” Katrin said drowsily. “You mean–a terror attack? You want to kill innocent people?”
Usama laughed scornfully. “You can call it whatever you want, but innocent people?–I don’t think so. They’re not innocent, and they’re not people.”
Katrin tried to look him in the eyes. “How can a person be so full of hatred? What happened to you?”
Usama stared back at her saying nothing.
“What’s your name?” Katrin said softly.
Usama scoffed shaking his head.
“I mean,”–She pointed at his face–“I’ve seen you and can easily describe you if I wanted to. So you might as well tell me your first name.”
Usama considered, then swallowed hard and said, “Translated into your language, it’s Leon.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” Katrin said. “What happened to your face, Leon? I’m a nurse. I’ve seen this before. It looks like a burn mark to me.”
Usama’s mouth opened as if he wanted to say something. But then he changed his mind. “That’s none of your business.”
“You’re right,” Katrin said making a gesture of apology. “I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath before she continued: “What you just told me is shocking, Leon. And I think if you really do that, you won’t live up to your name. A lion stands for honor, courage and strength, not for insidiousness. But that’s what your plan is: insidious. There’s no other word for it. I mean, how can you even justify this? I admit that I never read the Quran, but I’m sure it’s not very different from the Bible which teaches love and tolerance. I cannot believe that Muslims are supposed to murder other people.”
“First of all, the Holy Quran is totally different from your Bible,” Usama said. “Because it is the book of truth. And secondly, don’t lecture me about tolerance. I think you guys are the last who can do this. You like to brag about tolerance and fucking welcome culture, but when I watch the news, I see a different reality. I see burning asylum seeker hostels and Muslims who get beaten up and insulted by Nazis. So don’t go there!”
Katrin sighed and said: “Of course, there are some bad people here. But we live in a democracy where everybody can speak their mind. Nobody denies there are people out there who don’t think much about Muslims, but they are of the old school. And by the way, you can find them everywhere, not just in Germany. However, most Germans are tolerant. Believe it or not.”
Usama scoffed. “Actually, I don’t give a fuck what you guys are. In a few years, we will have conquered the whole world anyway. There will be only one religion, the true religion, which is Islam. And then you guys will be slaves. Women will be wearing headscarves, and the law will be Sharia.”
Katrin looked at him with squinted eyes. “We respect your way of living. Why don’t you respect ours? And why do you hate women so much? Your mother is a woman. Equality for women has brought humanity forward. And I’m happy and proud that women don’t have to hide behind a veil in our culture; that we have the right to be heard, and that we can make our own decisions.”
Usama shook his head. “Muslims don’t hate women. On the contrary, we respect them. But their part in society is unambiguously defined in the Holy Quran.” With a fanatic expression, he started to recite in Arabic: “Alrrijalu qawwamoona AAala alnnisa-i bima faddala Allahu baAAdahum AAala baAAdin wabima anfaqoo min amwalihim faalssalihatu qanitatun hafithatun lilghaybi bima hafitha Allahu waallatee–”
“I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying,” Katrin interrupted.
Usama switched to German: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given the one more strength than the other and because the men support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them first, next, refuse to share their beds, and finally beat them lightly; but if they return to obedience, do not seek not means of annoyance against them: for Allah is most high and great above you all.”
“You can’t impress me with the stuff you learned by heart,” Katrin said. “I don’t even think your interpretation is correct.” She stopped talking and winked. What was going on? She was nauseated and had blurred vision. She looked down at the coffee mug, then shot Usama a suspicious glance. Nevertheless, she cleared her throat and continued in a slurred voice: “It’s beyond me how one can adapt something that’s older than 15 hundred years without reservation to our modern time.”
She felt a hard slap on her face and slumped sideways, her head landing softly on the mattress. She saw Usama’s face hovering over her. It was a grotesque grimace. “The Holy Quran is for eternity, bitch!” The words that came out of its mouth sounded muffled as if she was hearing them through a wall. She wanted to say something but couldn’t. Her tongue was paralyzed.
Screaming out loud, Usama picked up the coffee mug and smashed it against the wall. He was beside himself with anger. This bitch had proven right what’s written in the Holy Quran: Women are the greatest danger to men and society! He could recite a dozen paragraphs to prove it right away. His belief in the moral impurity of women and in them being no more than potential messengers of the devil was unconditional. He knelt down and pushed the long sandy bangs out of her face. She was totally knocked out. A demented grin flashed across his face when he wrapped his hands around her throat, ready to squeeze the life out of her. He had drugged her because he had had other plans with her. She was a beauty and desirable for every man, no doubt about it, but what she just said killed off all sexual cravings in him. No! He wouldn’t touch this dirty slut! He didn’t need that.–Especially since he was just hours away from paradise, where 72 virgins were waiting for him.
The private entrance, a wrought-iron gate, was accessible from an alley situated between the walls of the doctor’s and the neighboring property. Looking through the gate, Tony could see a part of the large garden, which was actually more like a park. The many trees and bushes blocked his view of the house. His heart started to beat faster when he considered the possibility that Katrin was being held prisoner on this property.
There was an intercom on the pillar of the gate. Tony was about to press the button but withdrew his hand again. He had no plan so far, but he needed one. Suppose he pressed this button and the kidnappers would meet him eye to eye, what would he do? He had the gun alright, but they were at least two and on their home turf at that. He shook his head: No, what he needed was a different approach.
It was a snap decision. He looked around for cameras. There were none. He looked down the alley in the direction of the street. The spot where he was standing now was a secluded nook. He could only be seen from the street if someone was looking directly from the alley’s entry. Cars passed from time to time, but there was nobody there. He tucked the gun into his waistband, readied himself and climbed over the gate.
He ran toward a chestnut tree and squatted behind its trunk. He had a good view from there. The villa’s rear was even more impressive than its front. There were four windows with green shutters, two per floor, on each side of the large front door which was accessible from a podium. In a wide semi-circle, three steps led up to it. There were two columns on this podium that supported an oval balcony, which also served as a roof to the entrance. In the center of the rooftop, there was a huge dormer. If Tony’s mind hadn’t been occupied otherwise, he would have taken the time to admire this piece of architecture. It was one of the most beautiful houses he had ever seen. Apparently, laser eye surgery paid off.
There was a carport beside the house. Two cars were parked in it: a gray Mercedes SUV and a black BMW. The BMW looked like the one he had seen coming out of his street the night before. There was another building deeper in the garden about 50 meters away from the mansion. It looked like a storage shed.
Since Tony didn’t want to walk into a trap, he decided to wait. Sooner or later, something had to happen. And so it came. He hadn’t been lying in wait for long when he saw a man stepping out onto the balcony on the second floor. He didn’t recognize him immediately, but when the man turned his face, he saw the burn scar. Tony’s hand clenched the grip of the H & K, and he noticed that he was sweating.
Usama seemed angry and to be talking to himself. He stayed for about five minutes and then went back into the room. Shortly after, he came out of the front door. Carrying a tripod and a video camera, he walked to the storage shed and disappeared into it. The thought that Katrin could be held in this building struck Tony immediately. He had to go in there.
After looking in every direction for any other activity, he got out of his cover and moved in a crouched position toward the shed. He cautiously opened the door and slipped in. There was a weird smell in the air. It reminded him of his school days: The chemical lab used to smell like that. There were three doors in the long, narrow hall. One door was ajar. On the wall at the end of the hall, there was a black flag with a white circle and Arabic writing on it. He had seen this flag before in a documentary about ISIS. The tripod with the video camera was set up in front of it.
A scraping sound came from behind the ajar door. Tony cautiously approached it and peered through the crack. The smell was even stronger now. The room looked like a chemical lab. It was crammed full of chemical equipment. Usama, wearing breathing protection and safety goggles, was at the other end of the room. He was busy filling a slate-colored substance with a shovel from a heap into a bag. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that he didn’t notice Tony entering the room. All the more he started up when he heard a gun being cocked. He froze, then turned around slowly. Nobody could see it because of the mask he was wearing, but his jaw dropped when he saw Tony. He didn’t understand. How on earth did the cabby find him?
What Tony saw, however, was that Usama’s grip tightened on the shovel handle. “Don’t even think about it,” he said. His jaws were working, and his expression left no doubt that he was dead serious.
Looking straight into the muzzle of the H & K, Usama reconsidered and decided not to try any tricks–at least not yet. He dropped the shovel and raised his hands.
Tony tore the breathing protection and the safety goggles from Usama’s face. “Where is my wife?”
Usama nodded in the direction of the hall. “Over there in the other room.”
“Lead the way!” Tony stepped aside to let him pass.
Usama moved slowly toward the door.
Tony followed him at a safe distance. “I never wanted any of this,” he said. “But you left me no choice. I didn’t take your gemstones.”
They walked down the hall. Usama stopped in front of the last door. He turned around and said, “The key’s in my pocket.”
“Get it out! But no tricks!”
Usama slowly lowered his right arm and slid his hand into his pants pocket. Then he whipped something out. Tony saw it flying through the air and felt a pain in his right ear. At the same moment, Usama charged. This action, however, did not turn out as planned because the knife throw hadn’t been good enough. The sharp knife only grazed Tony’s head.
Usama didn’t manage to whip the gun out of his opponent’s hand. He was quick alright but physically inferior to Tony, who easily brought him under control. He smashed the attacker against the wall. “You piece of shit! I swear to God, I’m gonna kill you!” he yelled thrusting the muzzle of the gun into Usama’s mouth.
Usama yelped in pain, then breathed heavily, peering anxiously at the gun. “OK, I give up!” he sputtered.
Tony pulled the gun out of his mouth and poked it into his ribs. “You’re gonna pay for what you did to Billy!” His forefinger was at the trigger. Just a tiny movement and this animal would get what he deserved. But suddenly, it happened: His hand started to shake.
The fear in Usama’s eyes turned into astonishment when he noticed that his opponent had a problem. He saw the beads of sweat on Tony’s forehead and his attempt to control his trembling hand.
When Tony realized that he couldn’t pull the trigger, he simplified matters and pistol-whipped Usama.
Tony felt a sharp pain in his right ear. He touched it with his hand and winced. Damn, that hurt! It was almost the same spot where Rahman had hit him two days ago. When he pulled his hand back, he saw that it was covered in blood. The stitches were ripped, and the wound had opened up again. He looked at the floor. A throwing knife was lying there a few meters away from him. However, there was no time to contemplate whether he had just had a guardian angel. He needed to concentrate on finding his wife. He bent down and searched Usama’s pockets. He found a key ring with three keys on it. The second key he tried fit.
He thrust open the door and felt for a light switch. Turning it on, he closed his eyes for a moment hoping to see Katrin when he opened them again. But there was a staircase. He walked down it and found himself in another hall with two more doors. He tried the first door. It wasn’t locked. He pushed it open and turned on the light. The room was full of junk. He went to the other door. That one was locked. One of the three keys he had on him fit. When he opened the door and turned the light on, he saw Katrin. She was lying motionless on an air mattress in a corner of the room. He called her name, but she didn’t react. He rushed toward her, realizing that something was wrong. Kneeling down beside her, he patted her head. Even though her eyes were half open, she seemed to be fast asleep. “What happened to you, sweetie?” he whispered looking her up and down. He tried to wake her, slapping her face.
She looked at him through her half-open eyes but didn’t seem to recognize him.
“Wake up, Kat! We’ve got to go!” Tony said slapping her face again.
Katrin’s lips moved as if she was trying to say something.
“What is it?” Tony said and put his ear right to her mouth.
“Tired…I am…so tired!” Katrin whispered.
“OK!” Tony said lifting his head again. “I’m gonna get you out of here.” He got his cell phone out to call 1-1-0 only to realize that he had no signal. He considered for a moment, then lifted Katrin like a small child and carried her. After he arrived upstairs, he gently put her down and got his cell phone out again. “Thank God!” he murmured seeing the full bars. When he started to dial, he saw a figure approaching him from the corner of his eye. Turning around and pulling out the gun was one movement.
Rahman stopped dead in his tracks. Now, wearing this nose cast, he looked even eerier. Apparently, he was as surprised at seeing Tony as Tony was surprised at seeing him.
This time, though, Tony made short work of his adversary and pulled the trigger. He even managed to do it without his hand trembling–no first sign of an anxiety attack.
But the joy at this self-conquest did not last. Even though the gun report startled Rahman, he didn’t drop. Tony fired another round. But again: Rahman stayed on his feet like a terminator. He spread his arms and looked down examining his body, surprised that he didn’t see a bullet hole. Suddenly, he started laughing and walked toward Tony.
Desperately, Tony pulled the trigger once more even though he realized already that Wickert had foisted blanks on him. He felt a hard punch to his head.
“Hey, Usama!” Rahman slapped his friend in the face. “Wake up, brother!”
It took Usama a while to open his eyes and regain consciousness. When he did, Rahman said, “What the hell happened here?”
Usama blinked, then coughed and spat out a piece of broken tooth. He stared at the face hovering above him and seemed disoriented. After another long moment, he remembered. He pushed Rahman away; got up and fell over, but Rahman caught him.
When he was steady on his legs again, Usama touched his forehead and winced. The pistol grip did a number on his head. Nevertheless, he pulled himself together, got a kerchief out of his pocket and dabbed off the blood. Looking around, he saw the blood trail leading to the closed basement door. He turned to Rahman: “Did they escape?”
Rahman shook his head, ignoring the fact that Usama had a broken front tooth and was speaking with a lisp. “They’re in the basement. He had carried her upstairs, but I got him.”
Usama visibly relaxed.
“But there’s something wrong with the bitch,” Rahman said. “Like she’s stoned out of her head.”–He smirked–“Did you drug her?”
Usama nodded. “I wanted to fuck her. Then I wanted to kill her. But I left her for you.”
“Um, thanks!” Rahman said. “But can you tell me what happened, please? How did he find us?”
Usama shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me! And to be honest, I couldn’t care less. This asshole sneaked up on me and attacked me from behind. I didn’t have a chance. He had a gun.”
“Which was loaded with blanks,” Rahman said.
Usama frowned. “Really? How do you know?”
“He tried to shoot me,” Rahman said.
“Son of a bitch!” Usama mumbled running his tongue over his broken tooth.
“What about the cops?” Rahman said. “Do we need to worry about them?”
“Uh-uh.” Usama shook his head. “I don’t think so. He did this on his own. If the cops knew anything about it, they would be here by now.”
Rahman thought, then hesitantly nodded in agreement. “And now what?” he said. “What about the gemstones?”
“What about them?” Usama said and pressed his lips grimly together. “He told me again he didn’t have them. And to tell you the truth, I believe him. Maybe it was as he said. Maybe his next fare found them.”–He shrugged–“And if he has them, to hell with it! He won’t be able to enjoy them. I don’t give a fuck about these damned brilliants anymore!”
Rahman stared at him in disbelief. “And how am I supposed to get my hands on explosives? I mean, I can’t make this stuff myself. I’m not a chemist.”
“We’ll go ahead with plan B,” Usama said.
Rahman frowned. “What’s plan B?”
“Plan B is you coming up with an own fucking idea,” Usama retorted. “Can you do that?”
Rahman attributed his friend’s rage to the fact that the loss of the gemstones had gotten them into so much trouble. He understood and couldn’t be angry with him. He thought hard, persuading himself that he was able to get the needed explosive for carrying out an attack on the cathedral square or any other busy place. He could do it by himself, and afterward, he would follow Usama to paradise. “I can do that, brother,” he said resolutely. “I will come up with my own plan.”
The answer soothed Usama, and his anger disappeared in the blink of an eye. “OK,” he said in a friendly voice. “We’re a little behind schedule now. I need you to fill the blasting agent into the bags. After you’re done, I’ll”–He stopped in mid-sentence and thought for a moment–“Did the guy get here in his cab?”
Rahman shrugged. “No idea. Check the chair by the door. Everything I took off him is on it.”
Usama walked to the chair. There was the gun, a cell phone and–a smile flashed across his face–a car key with a tag reading, “Rental Cab Wolters.” Triumphantly, he held up the key. “We’re gonna take the cab instead of the BMW. A wagon is even better than a sedan plus a taxi is much more inconspicuous than a car that’s been sideswiped. I’ve had it with surprises. Let’s play it safe this time. Get the cab when you’re done filling the bags. After that, I’ll tell you what’s next.”
“Oh, and Rahman,” Usama added. “Do not disturb me now. I have to record the video and must also do the afternoon prayer. You can do yours later.”
Since Abdul had been studying business economics, Connie tried her luck with the corresponding faculty first. She met a few students who knew Abdul. However, they couldn’t give any real information about him. But then, this cute blonde approached her when she heard Connie say Abdul’s name.
“Why are you asking about him?” the girl said.
“I’m a detective and investigating his murder,” Connie said.
The girl’s jaw dropped at hearing this, and her eyes filled with tears. It was evident that this piece of news was a terrible blow for her. Her reaction was more than grief over the death of a fellow student.
“What’s your name, dear?” Connie said.
“Julia,” the blonde said between sobs.
Connie gave her a sympathetic look. “What was your relationship with him, Julia?”
“I dated him until recently,” the blonde said with quivering lips. “What happened? Why was he murdered?”
Connie made an apologetic gesture. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, dear. It’s an ongoing investigation.”–She got a pack of paper handkerchiefs out and offered it to the sniffling girl–“But you can help to solve this crime by telling me everything you know about Abdul.”
Wiping the tears away, Julia nodded. “OK. What do you need to know?”
“How long have you two been together?” Connie said.
“Just a few months,” Julia said. “I don’t know.”–She shrugged–“I guess I was more into him than he was into me.”
Connie nodded pressing her lips together. “Did you meet any other friends of his?”
Julia shook her head but corrected herself after thinking for a moment, “Once, I saw him with somebody.”
“Can you tell me about it?” Connie said. “Where did you see him?”
Julia inhaled and exhaled sharply before she spoke: “A few weeks ago, Abdul started to avoid me without any explanation from one day to the next. He wouldn’t answer my texts anymore, and he also screened my calls. So I started to watch him.”–She gave a half shrug–“I know one shouldn’t do that, but I was jealous. I thought he had somebody else. I just wanted to find out.”
Connie gave her an understanding smile. “I’m not here to judge you, dear. Just tell me what you saw.”
“Well,” Julia said. “I followed him to the department of mathematics and natural sciences. There, he met with a guy that had a mark on his face. They talked for a while and then drove off in a BMW.”
Connie produced her cell phone and showed her a picture. “Does he look familiar?”
Julia shook her head.
When Connie swiped to the next picture, she was sure Julia would show a different reaction, which she did.
“That’s him!” the blonde said without hesitation.
A feeling of triumph rushed through Connie. She felt sorry for the heartbroken, grieving girl, but there was nothing she could do for her at the moment. She held out her card, though, and told her to call in a few days. Maybe then, she could give her some information that would help her to find some closure.
Next, Connie hurried to the department of mathematics and natural sciences to continue her investigation.
Entering the building that housed the lecture hall of the Chemical Institute, she heard students knock on the tables for applause. Seconds later, the door opened, and a stream of students poured out of the lecture hall. Randomly, she addressed two young men, asking them to take a look at the sketches of Usama and Rahman and the photo of Abdul.
The guys made a funny couple. One could already tell that the balding, bespectacled shorter man would be a professor one day while his companion who seemed to spend a lot of time in the tanning booth and at the gym was qualified to be a model. The “professor” who was explaining something to the “model” stopped his conversation to answer Connie’s question, “Who’s asking?” While speaking, he blinked nervously, pushing his metal rims into place.
Connie showed her ID. “I’m with the Cologne Police Department.”
The model frowned and took a careful look at the ID. Then he pointed at Usama’s sketch. “He studies chemistry with us.”
Connie’s expression became alert. “Is he here now?”
Both young men shook their heads in unison.
“He only comes once in a blue moon,” the model said. “I don’t even know what semester he’s in.” He looked at his buddy, but the professor just shrugged.
“Can you give me his full name and address?” Connie said.
“Usama, um…” the model started.
“Anta,” the professor helped him out, blinking nervously, again pushing his metal rims up the bridge of his nose. “Usama Anta. His uncle has an eye clinic in Marienburg. He’s an excellent laser eye surgeon.”
“And you’re sure you’ve never seen the other two?” Connie said letting them swipe once more through the pictures on her phone.
The professor took a long look at Abdul’s photo. “I’m almost sure I’ve seen this guy with Usama,” he said.
Connie raised her eyebrows. “And?”
The professor shrugged. “Nothing. I only saw them talking a few weeks ago. I wasn’t close enough to hear the subject of their conversation.”
“Thanks for your help,” Connie said returning the smile of the model.
“Is Usama in trouble?” he said.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell, but you’re a lifesaver,” Connie said. Then she pulled out her cell phone and turned away.
“Aren’t you supposed to give us your card in case we remember something important?” the model called after her.
Connie, who had noticed him checking her out during their conversation, turned around again and forced a smile. “Nice try, Casanova.” Looking him up and down, she added: “I might even have done it if I were into men.”
“Dammit!” she heard him say as she walked on and put the cell phone to her ear. She was happy to have some valuable information for her boss after the blunder with Tony.
Wearing the ihram, the symbol of purity and equality, Usama sat cross-legged in front of the ISIS flag holding a remote control in his right hand. He cleared his throat and readied himself. Then he looked at the video camera and pressed the recording button, starting to speak calmly:
“Let me begin by reciting chapter 59 verse 2 of the Holy Quran because that’s what happened to you: ‘It is he who expelled the ones who disbelieved among the people of the Scripture from their homes at the first gathering. You did not think they would leave, and they thought that their fortresses would protect them from Allah. But Allah came upon them from where they had not expected, and He cast terror into their hearts, so they destroyed their houses by their own hands and the hands of the believers. So take warning, O people of vision.’
My name is Usama Anta. I am a soldier of the Caliphate–may Allah strengthen and support it. I set out to emulate my brothers in Brussels, Paris and Berlin. I have divorced the worldly life, and I hope to be killed for Allah’s sake. In the blessed battle whose causes of success are enabled by Him, I advanced toward my enemy. I am the one who drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the team bus of the Israeli soccer team of Maccabi Haifa, which represented the Jewish nation–a nation known to live by scheme and deceit from the dawn of history, from the time Allah created them.
The Zionist state is the root of all evil, and this entity and its allies like Germany must know they will be at the top of the target list for the Fedayeen who are going to follow my example. Brace yourselves because your end is near! Be aware that you will not stop smelling your own burned flesh as long as you take part in the bombings and murders in the Caliphate. You must know that our fight will not end as long as you continue your war against the only true religion. Indeed, this is just the beginning. I am calling up all my fellow brethren to follow my example and fight the enemies of Islam until they are defeated. We need to spread fear and dread until they no longer dare to leave their homes. Allah is the Greatest.”
He pressed the stop button on the remote, got up and replayed his recording, watching it with a satisfied smile. Then he started to pray.
Everything went quickly after Connie’s news came in. Jaeger pulled Usama’s address from the computer; then he and Bode set off. Fifteen minutes later, they drove into the street where Usama lived. Since there was no parking space in front of the house, Bode continued driving. They saw the cab they were passing alright but didn’t ascribe importance to it at the time.
They read the sign “Eye Clinic Dr. Mohammed Anta” at the entrance when they arrived at the house. However, they were looking for the private entrance which they found eventually. They saw a white van parked not far from the wrought-iron gate. Somebody seemed to be home. Jaeger pressed the button on the intercom a few times, but there was no reaction. “Let’s try the eye clinic,” he said to Bode.
The receptionist turned to the two men and put on her professional smile as they approached. This smile faded when the detectives showed their IDs.
“We would like to speak with Dr. Anta,” Jaeger said.
“The doctor is very busy at the moment,” the receptionist said. “But you can have a seat in the waiting room.”
Jaeger shook his head. “We need to speak with him right now!”
“Is this about the accident?” the receptionist said.
Jaeger frowned. “Accident?” What do you mean?”
“Oh!” The receptionist covered her mouth with her hand. Then she looked back and forth between Jaeger and Bode.
“What accident?” Jaeger said.
“Well,” she started hesitantly. “Just an hour ago, there was a man here, claiming that the doctor has damaged his car. But–” She stopped in mid-sentence because at this moment, the door to the treatment room opened, and the doctor came out, walking a patient to the front desk. Even though Dr. Anta noticed the interested looks of the two men standing there, he ignored them and turned to his employee, giving her a document. After shaking hands with the patient, he headed back to the treatment room.
Jaeger was about to say something, but the receptionist preempted him. “Doctor!” she called after her boss. “These two gentlemen are with the police. They’d like to speak with you.”
The doctor stopped and turned around. He checked his watch and walked back toward them.
Jaeger introduced himself and his colleague and came right to the point. “We’re looking for Usama Anta.”
The doctor raised his eyebrows. “He’s my nephew. What do you want from him?”
“We’d rather discuss this with him. Do you know where we can find him?”
Shooting Jaeger a chilly glance, the doctor cleared his throat. “As I said, I’m his uncle. Usama lives with me. I believe I have the right to know what this is about.” Even though he spoke with a slight accent, his German was perfect.
“Fair enough,” Jaeger said. “A fellow student of your nephew has been murdered. We’re investigating the case.”
The doctor swallowed hard, scratching his trimmed salt and pepper beard. “Are you suggesting that my nephew has something to do with this?” he said after a long moment, the tone of his voice being worried rather than angry.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” Jaeger said. “We just want to talk to him.”
Dr. Anta took a deep breath and thought for a moment. Then he said: “Usama is not home. He’s at the university.” Even though he gave it his best shot, the detectives could tell that he was a bad liar.
“One of our colleagues has been to the university,” Jaeger said. “She couldn’t find him there. In fact, she was told that your nephew hasn’t been there too often in this semester.”
Dr. Anta wanted to say something but hesitated. Finally, he shrugged his hands. “Well, I guess I can’t help you there.”–He jerked his head in the direction of his waiting room–“You have to understand my patients are waiting.” Then he turned around and walked back to the treatment room.
Silently, Jaeger and Bode looked after him. Jaeger approached the front desk once more and showed the receptionist a sketch saved in his photos. “Is that the man who asked for the doctor?”
The receptionist nodded.
Leaving the eye clinic, Jaeger dialed a number. Since the call wasn’t taken, he left a voicemail: “This is Chief Inspector Jaeger. I need a search warrant in the Schuster case for Usama Anta. Call me back ASAP!” After he took the phone down again, he muttered: “When you need them, you can never reach them!”
“Was that Schuster’s sketch you showed her?” Bode said.
Jaeger nodded with tight lips. “I don’t know how he did it, but he found them.”
When Rahman opened the rear door of his van to get more bags, he saw Dr. Anta leaving the house, walking toward the shed. He had a bad feeling about this. However, it was too late to warn Usama.
Rahman leaned deep into the van’s loading area so the doctor wouldn’t see him. He knew the old man didn’t like him, which was actually a strange thing because everything was fine back when he and Usama were kids and even teenagers. Only later, when he became an adult, their relationship cooled. Rahman wasn’t sure; maybe it had something to do with the way he expressed his belief in Allah, like wearing this beard. However, there was no more need for him to figure out the reason. It was the last time ever he would be here. Nevertheless, the respect for the old man was still there, and he preferred to stay out of his way.
Just when he was sure that the doctor had passed, he heard his voice, which wasn’t very friendly: “What are you doing?”
Rahman straightened himself and turned around. “Ahlan, Mr. Anta! I just helped Usama to transport something.”
“Hello!” Dr. Anta said. He frowned when he saw Rahman’s nose cast, and his voice became friendlier. “My God! What happened to you?”
Rahman chuckled. “It’s hard to believe, but I ran into a glass door.”
Dr. Anta sucked the air between his teeth. “Ouch! That hurts.”
Rahman nodded. “You can say that again!”
Dr. Anta pointed at the nose cast. “For how long do you have to run around like that?”
“They told me three weeks,” Rahman said.
Nodding pensively, Dr. Anta looked curiously into the van. Then he turned to Rahman again. “There’s been a lot of activity in the shed over the last few days. What are you guys doing there?”
Rahman shrugged his massive shoulders. Instead of answering the question, he hesitated.
Dr. Anta frowned. “Is Usama over there now?”
Rahman swallowed. The door to the shed was open, and he was sure the doctor would check no matter what he said. Apart from that, his presence alone suggested that Usama was around. “He’s in his lab,” he finally said and leaned into the van again.
Shaking his head, Dr. Anta watched him with a stern expression for another moment, then turned around and walked off.
He noticed the strange, chemical smell immediately when he entered the shed. “What is it with this boy!” he mumbled at seeing the video camera set up in front of the ISIS flag. He also noticed the drag mark on the floor. It stopped at the cellar door. Was this blood? He walked to the door and found it locked. He turned around and approached Usama’s lab. The closer he got, the more extreme the chemical smell became. He looked through the open door and frowned when he saw Usama whose back was turned on him. “What’s going on here?” he said as he stepped into the room.
Engrossed in thought, Usama winced when he heard his uncle’s voice. But this self-consciousness only lasted for a second. His last prayer had given him additional strength and determination. He turned around and looked at the old man with an unfazed expression. “That’s none of your business, uncle.”
Dr. Anta was tongue-tied. There had been disagreements between him and his nephew in the past, but never before had the boy talked to him in such a disrespectful manner. And why did Usama suddenly have a broken front tooth? It took him a few moments to regain his composure, but then he said: “This is not how it works around here. I’m not accountable to you. I own this place, and I decide where I go and when. So answer my question. “What are you doing here?”
Instead of answering, Usama glowered at his uncle.
“What happened to your tooth?” Dr. Anta went on. “Another experiment gone wrong? And why are you wearing an ihram? Why is there a video camera set up in the hall? What’s this smell here? And what’s on the floor out there in the hall? Is that blood? I want to know what’s going on in my house right now.”
There was a long moment of silence because Usama still refused to answer any of the questions.
“Two detectives were here,” Dr. Anta said. “They were looking for you, Usama.”
Usama shrugged. “I don’t give a fuck.”
Dr. Anta’s gaze swept the room and rested on the bags, which were lined up in a neat row. He made a step toward them and opened one.
“Can you not do that?” Usama said.
When his uncle tried to look inside the bag, Usama rushed at him, grabbed his arm and pulled him away.
The attack on him was bad enough, but the terror in Dr. Anta’s eyes was more attributable to the thought that flashed through his mind because the scales fell from his eyes. Suddenly, all this made sense to him: the detectives asking for Usama, Rahman’s strange behavior outside, the video camera in front of the ISIS flag and the substance in these bags. He looked Usama in the eyes. “Tell me this is not true!”
“What?” Usama said even though he knew that his uncle had gotten on to him.
“Tell me you’re not planning to kill innocent people.”
Usama scoffed. “I’m not gonna kill innocent people; I can promise you that. Just a few Zionists.”
“Are you out of your mind?!” Dr. Anta yelled. But then, he looked at his nephew, shaking his head pitifully. “What is wrong with you, Usama? Where does all this hatred come from? I–I tried everything to give you a good life here in Germany.”
Usama started laughing as if he was out of his mind. “You are a piece of shit, uncle! That’s what you are. My dad never liked you because you are a traitor and an infidel! You turned your back on your people and the only true belief! You are deplorable! Do you really think I listen to you?!”
When he saw Usama’s fanatic expression, Dr. Anta’s anger transformed into fear. He did no longer recognize the person standing in front of him. Was this still his nephew? Was this the boy he had raised? He grabbed the person by the upper arms and started to beg: “Please Usama! Nothing happened so far. We’re one family and need to stick together. I won’t tell anyone, I swear. We’ll sort this out. You can undo everything.”–He jerked his head in the direction of the bags–“But you have to destroy all of this.” His gentle brown eyes filled with tears.
Usama broke free from his uncle’s grip. “You won’t tell anyone. You’re damn right about that, old man! But I’m not going to destroy anything. Period!”
Dr. Anta breathed heavily, his eyes darting back and forth between Usama and the bags. He tried desperately to provide more arguments, but his mouth flapped wordlessly. “Oh no!” he suddenly said in Arabic with a threatening undertone in his voice. “I won’t allow this to happen. You’re my nephew, but if you don’t back away from your plan, I’ll turn you in.”–He shook his head contemptuously–“People like you are a disgrace to Islam. It’s your fault that those who don’t like us have an easy job of it. Sorry, son!” He turned around and headed for the door.
Usama swallowed hard. His mind raced. No, he couldn’t let this happen! With a demented look in his eyes, he took a crowbar and followed his uncle.
Rahman heard Usama’s voice when he approached the shed. He couldn’t make out what he was saying, but his best friend sure was furious. Then there was a noise that sounded like a piece of metal hitting the floor. After entering the shed, Rahman stopped dead. His jaw dropped, and his hand let go of the bags. He blinked because he didn’t believe his eyes. What he saw was inconceivable and couldn’t be real. The same man he had spoken with just five minutes ago was lying sprawled lifeless on the floor. Usama was standing by, his white ihram splattered with blood. There was a bloody crowbar on the concrete floor just a meter away from him.
Rahman’s gaze darted back and forth between Usama and the body. “Is he–dead?” he said even though the answer to this question was obvious: The doctor was lying on his back, his body twisted and blood pooling around his caved-in head. His eyes were wide open, staring at nothing in the distance.–How could he not be dead?
Usama didn’t answer. He just looked at Rahman with a vacant expression.
“What… have you done?” Rahman said, still hardly able to speak. He had always admired Usama. Everything his friend did, he considered being right. But this? It was something he couldn’t understand at all. How could he kill his own uncle? He slowly shook his big, hairy head and said: “I’m backing out, Usama! I cannot be part of this.”
Usama’s expression darkened. He swallowed sharply, glowering at Rahman. He made a step toward him without breaking eye contact and said: “He saw the blood trail and wanted me to unlock the door to the basement. He would have found them. I had no choice.”–His eyes narrowed as his face expressed pure contempt–“I’m so disappointed in you.”–He shrugged–“But then again, I’ve known all along that you’re a coward. Pussying out when the going gets tough. People like you make me sick!”
“I’m not a coward, and I’m not pussying out,” Rahman defended himself. He pointed at Dr. Anta’s body. “But I have principles, and I go by the Holy Quran. This man is a Muslim and moreover, is–was your uncle. He was family. How could you do this to your own flesh and blood? I’m not as good as you with the Holy Quran. I don’t know every surah by heart, but I learned that much: ‘And whoever kills a believer intentionally, his punishment is hell. He shall abide in it, and Allah will send His wrath on him and curse him and prepare for him a painful chastisement.’ No 72 virgins are waiting for you, Usama.”
Usama pressed his lips together. His nostrils flared while he breathed heavily through his nose. His jaw set grimly, he nodded and backed off. Then he said, “Check this out!” He bent over the body and spat on it scornfully. Then he kicked it. ”You see this?!” Spreading his arms, he walked back and forth. “He’s not my uncle; nor is he my family! He’s a damn, fucking traitor. He wanted to turn me…”–He stopped and pointed at Rahman–”…us in. He’s not better than the rest of these infidels. He abandoned us a long time ago. That’s why he deserved to die. I hope he rots in hell.” He spat on the body again.
Rahman averted his gaze. Ruminating, he tried to understand the whole thing. Did his best friend have a point? Was the killing of Dr. Anta justified before Allah?
Usama noticed how Rahman was fighting with himself. He approached him again and put a hand on the giant’s shoulder. “We need to stick together, brother. We knew from the beginning it wouldn’t be easy. But what I did I had to do. It was part of our mission.”
Rahman looked indecisively at Dr. Anta’s body.
“Let’s go ahead with our plan,” Usama said. “I’ll pull it off in the stadium, and you will get rid of the bodies.”
Rahman’s eyes moved slowly from Dr. Anta’s body to his friend’s face. “What do you mean by bodies? There is only one dead body, isn’t there?”
Usama went even closer to Rahman and whispered: “You gotta kill the cabby and his bitch. We can’t let them go. It’s too late for this. It doesn’t make any difference to me, but to you. The cops have already been here, and they’ll figure it out soon. It’ll be hard to keep your promise when you’re behind bars. Forget about the old man. He can stay, but the two of them need to disappear. Take them to the quarry. Get rid of all the evidence. Maybe you can still find out about the brilliants. These two are all yours. You can fuck the hell out of the bitch before you kill her.”–He got something out of his pocket and held it in front of Rahman’s face–“This is my claim of responsibility. Put it online.” He kissed Rahman’s bearded cheek. “I love you, brother,” he said as he blinked back his tears. Then he gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
Rahman didn’t react and kept staring off.
“Brother!” Usama yelled slapping his face. “Did you hear anything of what I just said?”
Rahman’s eyes blinked as if he was snapping out of a trance. He shook his head, and his gaze focussed again.
“You OK?” Usama said.
“Fine… I’m fine,” Rahman stuttered and took the memory card.
“Is the cab in the yard?” Usama said.
Rahman shook his head.
“Go get it now!” Usama said. “We don’t have much time left.”
The giant turned around and left the shed.
Usama looked after him, his lips spread in a satisfied smile.
“Dammit!” Jaeger said when he looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes have passed since I called him.” He dialed the number again but again only got the voice mailbox which was asking him to leave a message.
Bode didn’t comment. He had given him the silent treatment since they left the eye clinic. The whole time, he had either been texting or looking out the window.
Eventually, Jaeger turned his head and looked at him. “That’s what I call an uncomfortable silence,” he said with a smirk. But his attempt to clear the air was fruitless. Even though Bode winced at hearing the sound of Jaeger’s voice, he kept ignoring him.
Jaeger turned away again and looked pensively out the window, drumming his fingers on his thighs. The sigh he finally heaved suggested how hard it was for him to say what he was going to say. “What…I said…back at the office…I didn’t really mean it.”
“So I’m not a pretentious asshole?” Bode said, the tone of his voice suggesting that he wasn’t really up for reconciliation.
Jaeger scoffed while he continued looking out the window. “Don’t get me wrong. That’s not an apology. It’s about my word choice, which I admit, was kind of insulting.”
“So… It is an apology?” Bode said.
Jaeger clicked his tongue and mumbled, “That’s not gonna work!” After a pensive moment, he gave it another try. He turned his head and looked at Bode. “OK. I apologize.”
He waited for Bode to say something like “apology accepted,” but when nothing came, he continued: “Listen, Bode! We can go on like this.–I mean getting on each other’s nerves day by day. Or we can take a break and talk. What’s it gonna be?”
Bode stared defiantly through the windshield, saying nothing.
“Are we in kindergarten here?!” Jaeger said shaking his head in disbelief.
“I’ve been out of it lately because of all this trouble with my wife,” Jaeger said in a conciliatory tone. “I know that’s no excuse, but”–He made a helpless gesture–“I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that we’ve been working together for six months now. We never went for a beer after work. I don’t know a damn thing about what you do in your spare time or what your hobbies are or…”–A smiled flashed across his face–“Well, there’s one thing I do know.”
“And what would that be?” Bode said looking at him for the first time.
“I know that you have a crush on this bartender. You’re texting an awful lot these days.”
Bode couldn’t help smirking.
“You know what’s the biggest problem nowadays, Bode?” Jaeger said and answered the question himself: “People don’t speak enough with each other. They communicate alright, like ‘how are you?’ and ‘what’s new?’ But that’s shallow. They don’t really care. Nobody wants to hear about real problems. You know what I mean?”
It took Bode a moment to nod thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re right,” he said. “We’ll meet again tomorrow. I mean Maria and I.”
Jaeger winked at him and smiled. “She’s a fox. I think you’re a lucky bastard.”
Bode shrugged. “I really don’t know yet where this is going.”
Jaeger’s smile froze when he looked ahead again: There was a big, bearded, long-haired man on the sidewalk about fifty meters away. He was looking up and down the street. Bode saw him too, and both detectives thought the same thing.
Bode got his cell phone out and opened his photo folder. Then he and Jaeger compared the composite sketch to the man standing on the sidewalk. He was wearing a nose cast alright; his face wasn’t a hundred percent recognizable, but there were his other important features like height, build and hairiness. Bode looked at Jaeger, who nodded. “That’s him for sure,” he whispered as if the man could hear them.
In the meantime, Rahman had crossed the street, still looking up and down. Suddenly, a content smile flashed across his face. He broke into a jog, heading right for the detectives’ car.
“What the fuck?!” Bode exclaimed. “I think he’s seen us.” He pulled his gun out of the holster.
“Hold your horses, Bode,” Jaeger said, even though he too was wearing a worried expression. He reached in the door pocket, retrieved a city map and quickly unfolded it. Then both detectives bent down their heads, pretending to study it. Rahman, however, was focused on the cab he had just spotted and didn’t pay any attention to them. He didn’t even see them.
Bode and Jaeger heaved a sigh of relief when they saw him pass. The fingers of his right hand, which was more of a paw, were playing with a car key. While Bode watched Rahman’s moves in the rearview mirror, Jaeger quickly folded down the sun visor and used the vanity mirror. They watched him walk on for another 30 meters. Then he disappeared behind a car. Seconds later, a cab pulled out of the line of parked cars. It rolled slowly past them and turned into the alleyway leading to the backyard entrance of the Anta property.
Jaeger slapped his forehead. “Dammit! That’s Schuster’s rental cab. I saw it before.”
“You sure?” Bode said.
“A hundred percent,” Jaeger said. “It’s the cab number six-three-three. I told you he found them.”
“So what do we do?” Bode said.
Jaeger thought. “We can’t go in there without a warrant,” he said. “The chief gave me a strong warning today. One more mistake and I’m out.”–Looking at the dash clock, he heaved a deep sight–“Let’s wait a little longer. If the DA hasn’t called in 15, we go in, warrant or no warrant.”
The fifteen minutes were almost up when a cell phone rang. Jaeger put it to his ear without checking the caller ID.
Bode could tell from his reaction that it wasn’t the DA. But the tense expression on his partner’s face while he was listening gave away that it was something important. When a second call came in, Jaeger addressed his dialog partner for the first time, and Bode learned that his uncle was on the other end of the line.
“Just a moment, chief,” Jaeger said. “I have to put you on hold for a moment.”–This time he looked at the screen before taking the call.–“The DA!” he said unexcitedly and put the phone to his ear again. “The matter resolved itself. Thank you all the same for calling me back,” he said and switched over to the chief again. Seeing Bode’s bewildered look, he held up a forefinger, signaling him to be patient. Just before he hung up, he assured the chief that he was on his way to headquarters, which again caused frowns with Bode.
After the conversation was over, Jaeger took a deep breath. Then he turned to Bode: “Well, that was your…”–He hesitated and decided to rephrase–“That was the chief I’ve just spoken to.”
Bode nodded. “I know. What did he want?”
“It seems that we have a whole new development here,” Jaeger said. “We are to return to headquarters immediately. A homeland security agent is waiting for us. They’re going to take over the case.”
“What?!” Bode said. “I mean… why? That’s our case.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Jaeger said. “But we were wrong about Abdul Rhaba–like totally wrong. He wasn’t one of the kidnappers. On the contrary.”
Bode frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I just learned that he was a mole at the University,” Jaeger said. “Last Saturday, so on the day he was murdered, he was supposed to meet with a suspect. They won’t tell us any details because these cases are only handled internally.”
Bode clicked his tongue and slapped his forehead. “We were barking up the wrong tree!”
Jaeger nodded. “That’s what I said. They didn’t kill him because of a disagreement, but because they found out that he worked for homeland security.”
“Which explains the brutality,” Bode added.
Jaeger jerked his head in the direction of the villa. “Our buddies here are Taliban or ISIS or whatever. In any case, they are terrorists and up to something. Probably wanted to finance something with the gemstones we’re not supposed to know about. Considering two murders and one attempted murder, it’s more than obvious that they mean business.”–He clapped his hands–“Alright, Bode! We’re here, and at least one of them and maybe even Schuster and his wife are in the house over there. The chief ordered us back to hand the case file over to homeland security.–What’s your take on the situation?”
Bode inhaled and exhaled sharply. After considering for a long moment, he said: “To tell you the truth, I don’t like this idea at all.”
Jaeger grinned and raised his hand. Bode hesitated at first but then high-fived him.
“Deep inside, I always knew you were a badass!” Jaeger said.
“You’re the badass,” Bode countered. “You planned this while you were still on the phone with the chief. Or why else were you so brief with the DA?–Because you don’t need a warrant when there’s probable cause, right?”
Instead of answering, Jaeger pointed at the start button. “Let’s go! Pull up in front of the gate! The two badasses are going in there!”
At this moment, Bode’s phone buzzed again. Bode hesitated and looked at Jaeger, his finger hovering over the start button. After getting an encouraging nod from his partner, he took his cell, read the message and beamed.
“I don’t need to ask if it’s her, do I?” Jaeger said.
Bode looked at him. “Do you mind if I quickly answer that?”
Jaeger shook his head in amusement. “Go ahead!”
Bode typed a short answer, then fired up the motor and started. They were about to turn into the alleyway when the white van they had seen earlier barreled out of it.
“Watch out!” Jaeger shouted, but Bode couldn’t prevent the accident even though he stood on the breaks. With a nasty bang, the van crashed into them.
The man behind the wheel was Rahman. He looked at the detectives with a blank expression as he reversed and speeded off with screeching tires. Bode tried instinctively to chase him, but there was a clunk when he started, and the car caprioled like a horse.
Jaeger grabbed the radio and issued an APB while Bode got out of the car to check the damage. When he saw it, he threw up his hands in frustration: The left front wheel was pushed in, being at a 45-degree angle to the tarmac. This vehicle couldn’t move 5 meters, let alone take up the chase of another car.
“Dammit! That was–” Bode didn’t get around to finish his sentence. He heard a motor rev and the noise of tires taking a curve with high speed on dry tarmac. Turning around, he saw the cab racing toward him. He jumped to the side in the nick of time.
He was wondering why he didn’t feel any pain. There was just numbness. He actually felt like his body and mind were separate entities; as if his mind was hovering above it all like a formless, weightless virtual cloud.
The last thing he clearly remembered was Rahman’s iron fist landing on his face. Everything else since then was a blur: He was carried into the basement and discarded like a piece of trash. He had no idea how much time had passed, but at some point, the same man carried him and dropped him again. He heard the voices of the kidnappers. Then, something sent him flying through the air, and he banged against a hard surface. He tried to figure out where he was. Was he on a swing?–No, that couldn’t be. It kind of felt like driving. That was it! He was in a vehicle!
They would probably kill him, but he was fine with it. He was no longer afraid of dying. He actually asked himself why he was still alive.
Something heavy weighed on his legs. He tried to move his arms, but he couldn’t because they were bound behind his back. He opened his eyes a crack, which took him a great effort. What he saw was a dirty-white metal wall.
Blood trickled from the wound on his head. He tried to lift his head to see what was weighing on his leg, but he was too weak. Summoning up his last remaining strength, he finally managed. He saw something red. It was Katrin’s hoodie. Her body was totally twisted.
Tears ran out of his eyes. He loved her so much, but he hadn’t been able to protect her. He had pitted himself against her kidnappers but had gone down in flames. As so many times before, he had failed. And now these animals would kill her. What a pathetic quitter he was to let it happen just like that, without putting up a fight to the last breath!
The vehicle took a sharp bend, and the centrifugal force did its job: His back pressed hard against something sharp. Shifting his position, he felt with his bound hands. There was something cold and hard; something with a sharp edge: It was a spade. So he and Katrin were on their way to their funeral.
He jerked his shackled hands. He had hardly any room to maneuver but enough to give it a shot–maybe. Even if he wouldn’t stand a chance against these guys, he owed it to his wife to try everything he could to the very end. And what was the worst that could happen?–That he died, which he would do anyway.
He started to chafe the plastic cable tie on the blade of the spade. With his mind’s eye, he suddenly saw a small flickering flame that grew into a steady glow, and his body and mind became one again.
Absent-minded, Rahman drove along the highway. A tear ran down his cheek. He was still thinking of his farewell to Usama. It had been more emotional than expected. “I’ll see you soon in paradise, brother,” were Usama’s last words. Then they embraced tightly and kissed each other’s cheeks.
Scenes from his childhood and adolescence flashed through his mind. He and Usama had spent so much time together. He thought of how they met for the first time: Usama came to his school right after his release from the hospital. Back then, he didn’t speak much German, but he was a fast learner. There were a few kids who bullied him and made fun of his burn marks. Usama didn’t take it. Even though he wasn’t the strongest physically, he took them on. He patiently waited for his chance, till he met them alone and then gave it to them with stones and a baseball bat. Soon nobody dared to touch him anymore. Rahman admired that, and before long they became best friends. Later, he developed even a different kind of feeling toward Usama, but he suppressed it because it wasn’t right.
It was Usama who opened his eyes to many things, especially regarding Islam. It was Usama who woke his Arab awareness, who told him that he didn’t belong to the country he was born and living in. Later, when Usama told him he would join ISIS, he wanted to go with him. Unfortunately, his situation and background made it too difficult. So they decided he would stay and join the fight when Usama was back.
Now, without him, everything would be much more challenging. On the one hand, he was afraid of what he needed to accomplish, but on the other hand, he was confident because he had learned a lot from Usama. Of course, he hadn’t undergone military training, but he could throw a hand grenade. There wasn’t much to it. Every idiot could do that.
His nose was itching. He pressed slightly with a finger on the cast and winced. He looked forward to taking revenge for this on the potato. As Usama had suggested, he would grill him one more time. There were enough methods to make somebody talk. Getting these damned gemstones back would make everything so much easier for him. In any case, he would do to him what Usama had done to Abdul. As for the woman, he would have his pleasure with her first even though she wasn’t in the best condition.
He saw the gravel quarry in the distance. He glanced over his shoulder through the small window into the loading area: The cabby and his wife were sprawled out on top of each other. They were not moving. They were obviously still unconscious. He would take his time with the two of them. A content smile flashed across his face.
“It’s not our fault,” Bode said. “We left right after you called. But then this guy drove into us.”
Even though he was speaking in a low voice, Jaeger heard every word. And he smirked at listening to Bode lying blatantly to the chief. The way it looked, they had become a team.
The Anta property was crawling with police now. So far, the detectives had only seen the shed. There was no doubt that the room with the eye-stinging smell had been used to store chemicals that could be used to build a bomb. They couldn’t connect all the dots yet, but one thing was clear: This was something big.
Jaeger looked thoughtfully at the doctor’s body. Life was unpredictable. He had talked to him just over an hour ago. Now the man was dead. What happened here? Why was the doctor killed, and who did it? Why was there a blood trail leading down to the basement? Had Schuster’s wife been held here? If yes, where were she and Schuster now?
The traffic flow stopped about half a kilometer before the stadium. Now, vehicles could only move at walking pace because thousands of jaywalkers temporarily suspended the traffic rules. Even though Usama was in the middle of this, he didn’t worry. There was enough time left.
He had a feeling of great anticipation. He felt as if he was standing beside himself; as if he was a passive observer of his own actions. He noticed with satisfaction that the police was pulling out. A convoy with blue lights switched on broke its way through the downtown traffic.
He winced. There was a knock on the passenger door window. A man’s grinning face appeared behind the glass. Then the door was yanked open. “Hey! Two more coming,” the man said while he was getting in. After seating himself, he looked Usama up and down and frowned. “Nice outfit!” Then he started laughing. “Didn’t know that carnival started already.”
The back doors also opened.
Usama was tongue-tied. He hadn’t thought of that. Of course, he was driving a cab, and it was only normal for people to get in just like that, especially with the cab shortage right after the game. He should have locked the doors from inside. Now, it was too late.
“The man in the passenger seat pointed at Usama’s ihram. “What’s that on your shirt? Ketchup or–blooood?”–He made a show of being scared–“Are you dumb?… You no speak German?”–He waved a dismissive hand–“Never mind, buddy! I’m joking. Just take us to the old town. We won today. It’s party time!” He threw up his arms and did a victory dance in his seat.
Everybody laughed except the “cabby.”
Usama turned around. There were a man and a woman in the backseat, both also wearing fan outfits. When they pulled shut the doors, he found his voice again. “No can do!” he said shaking his head.
“Why?” the woman said. “That’s about 20 euros. Is that not a good enough fare?”
Usama shook his head. “I said no! Get out!”
“Have you ever heard of transport duty, pal?” the woman said. “You cannot choose your customers.”–She craned her head to read the cab number on the dashboard–“I’m gonna report you, pal!”–She crinkled her nose–“What’s that smell in here anyway?”
“Yeah, I noticed that imme–”
“Get the fuck outta here!” Usama yelled pulling a knife.
“Easy!” the man in the passenger seat said backing off with a terrified expression. He pushed the door open and got out of the cab. The two in the backseat followed his lead.
“This guy isn’t playing with a full deck!” the woman ranted after she got out. “These fucking kanacks! How can such a dude be allowed to drive a cab?” She got her cell phone out and dialed while Usama took off with open doors and screeching tires.
Rahman drove down the gravel ramp into the abandoned quarry. He stopped after a few hundred meters and looked around. Everything was quiet. This place held many memories for him–good memories, memories of Usama. His eyes welled up with tears. Dammit! There it was again. He needed to get Usama out of his head. There was no reason for him to be melancholic because soon he would see him again. But until then, he needed to pull himself together and focus. He blinked back the tears, then turned his head and looked through the window into the loading area: The woman was moving. The cabby was still lying motionless.
He lifted his huge right hand and made a fist, considering it. The skin on the knuckles was cut. His lips parted in a smile. He really did a number on this guy! But he needed him conscious. Maybe he should dip his head into one of the water holes? That should bring him back to life. Contemplating, Rahman looked for a suitable spot. There was a mound not far off that looked pretty good. Behind it, he would be shielded.
Driving down the steep, rutted dirt road, Rahman enjoyed the rocking of the van. That was totally different from driving in the city. It reminded him of his old mountain biking days. And of course, Usama was in his head again. He immediately pushed the memories to the back of his mind and tried to concentrate again.
When he arrived at the mound, he realized it was the same spot where Usama showcased his abilities as a bomb maker last winter. The crater was filled with water now.
He got out of the van and took another look around. There wasn’t a soul in sight. He was absolutely safe here. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, debating. What should he do first? Dig a hole? And who should he begin with?
After minutes of deliberation, he decided to have his pleasure first and do the work later. He would start with the woman, then take his time with the cabby. Happy to have arrived at a decision, he rounded the van and opened the rear door. The very last his eyes saw was the cabby’s anxious face.
With all the strength he had left, Tony thrust the spade toward Rahman. The sharp edge almost decapitated the giant. His head tilted back, and blood gushed out of the slashed throat. The big man stumbled and slumped down to the sandy ground.
Tony jumped out of the van, ready to take the second kidnapper, but to his surprise, nobody else was there. He sneaked to the front and looked into the cabin. It was empty. He looked around again and finally convinced himself that the other kidnapper hadn’t been in the van, for whatever reasons.
Breathing heavily, Tony couldn’t believe he had gotten away. He never really thought he would have a chance against the kidnappers, especially the big one. He just didn’t want to make his last exit without a struggle.
He dropped the spade and walked back to the rear of the van. He leaned into the loading area to pull out Katrin. She looked like road kill. He placed her carefully on the ground and freed her from the cable ties. When she opened her eyes, she whispered his name, which meant she recognized him. She seemed to be a little better now.
“Everything’s alright, sweetie,” Tony said with tears in his eyes. “We beat them. We’re out of danger.”
“Maccabi Haifa,” Katrin whispered. It took her a great effort to speak.
Tony nodded even though he didn’t understand what she meant. She groaned with pain when he touched her arm, trying to lift her up. He carried her as gently as possible and put her in the passenger seat. Then he got into the driver’s seat, and they set off.
Katrin kept slurring, “Maccabi Haifa.”
Looking at her, Tony said: “Let me get you to a hospital first, sweetie. Then we can go to the game.”
Jaeger took the call even though he didn’t recognize the number, and he was more than a little surprised to hear Tony’s voice.
“Don’t ask me what happened in the last twelve hours. Just listen to what I’m saying. My wife and I are safe. One of the kidnappers, or to be more precise, the terrorists, is dead. I don’t know how far you are with your investigation, but his accomplice is going to blow up the team bus of Maccabi Haifa, the soccer team. I don’t know how; I don’t know when. I’m only hoping there’s still enough time left for you to stop him.”
“Thanks, Schuster!” Jaeger said and hung up. Connecting the dots immediately, he gestured for Bode to follow him. They hurried to the nearest patrol car to take the necessary action over the radio.
Almost all spectators had left the stadium. Usama checked the time. The bus would be leaving the parking garage any minute now. Once more, he went through the scenario: As soon as he saw the bus, he would drive slowly toward it, accelerate and run into it. The explosion would tear the bus apart, and the fire would do the rest. Nobody on or near the bus would survive.
He looked eagerly at the exit of the parking garage. He couldn’t explain why, but suddenly he was feeling tense and nervous. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Trying to bring his racing pulse under control, he closed his eyes and slowed down his breathing. What he saw made him relax again. It was the colorful light of paradise.–Just a few more minutes, and he would be there. He would see them all: The men who fought first the Soviets and then the Americans in Afghanistan; the martyrs who died every day in Syria and Irak by dastard American drone strikes and Russian airstrikes; the heroes of 9/11 and last but not least his beloved father, who will be so proud of him.
When Usama opened his eyes again, he saw the bus. It pulled out of the parking garage and slowly turned onto the main road. He readied himself and started the engine. “Allahu akbar!”
He was about a hundred meters away from the bus and about to accelerate when he heard the wailing of police sirens in the distance. However, there was no time for him to deal with that because a cyclist in a yellow anorak appeared in front of his vehicle. Usama winced when something hit his windshield. “Six-three-three!” the cyclist yelled. “Told you I’d remember your cab number. Safe journey, asshole!”
This high-pitched voice sounded familiar, and Usama recalled his first encounter with the man. In the rearview mirror, he saw him standing in the middle of the road with a gloating expression on his face.
Usama looked at the windshield. A bilious green liquid was running down on it. He scoffed and turned on the wiper to clean it. Too late, he realized that this was the one thing he shouldn’t have done. In a heartbeat, the wiper blades spread the thick substance across the windshield. He pressed the switch lever of the windshield washer system. That didn’t help either. The blades just smeared over the color film without getting the shield clean.
He tried to lean out the side window to see what was in front of him. But this would only have worked had he been as tall as Rahman. Being just of medium height, he could no longer reach the gas pedal with his foot once he leaned out the window. He yanked open the glove compartment, searching for a cloth or something he could use to clean the windshield. There was nothing there.
He was desperate. All he saw when he looked ahead was a thick green film. He tried the washer system once more–in vain. Too late, he noticed that he was no longer on the road. He didn’t even have the time to regret that he had decided to set off the ammonium nitrate with acetone peroxide. On purpose, he had chosen this risky option because of the high shock sensitivity of this detonator.
There was an impact, followed by a bang. The airbag went off, and Usama felt as if he was punched in the face.
Onrushing patrol cars blocked the road, forcing the guest team’s bus to stop. Seconds later, everybody who was still near the stadium witnessed a massive explosion. A cloud of bluish smoke shooting out of its windows, the cab went off the ground and levitated for a second. Then it made a hard landing, blazing fiercely now. Thick clouds of black smoke billowed out of it into the blue sky.
When he walked back to his cab after the funeral, Tony saw Jaeger and Bode. The latter had a new haircut. The side-swept bangs he used to push out of his face after every second sentence were gone. Since he was also dressed more casually than before, it almost looked as if he was trying to change his image.
The detectives greeted Tony with a nod when they approached him. Pointing at the many cabs that were leaving one by one, Jaeger said: “Normally you only see so many of your colleagues in one spot at the central station or the airport. Billy must have been a pretty popular guy.”
“He was,” Tony said. “And we all are gonna miss him.”
Jaeger nodded with a sad expression. Then he changed the subject, smiling again: “How come you’re not in a hospital? I heard the guy broke your cheekbone.”
Tony nodded. “But there’s not much they can do about it. The doctor said it’d heal on its own.”
Jaeger examined Tony’s face. “I can see it’s still a bit swollen. Does it hurt?”
Tony shook his head. “Only when I laugh.”
The two detectives looked at each other and started laughing. Tony tried not to join them.
“How are you holding up in general?” Jaeger said, now being serious again.
“I guess I’m doing fine,” Tony said.
Jaeger nodded. “And your wife?”
Tony gave a half shrug. “Her collarbone is fractured. They kept her in the hospital for observation. Otherwise, I think there’s a lot she needs to get out of her system. I’m on my way to pick her up.”
Jaeger made a step toward Tony’s cab and ran a finger over the right front fender. “Looks like new.”
“Picked it up from the body shop this morning,” Tony said. “Would be great if one could fix everything so easily.”
“Hmm.” Looking at Tony with a meaningful expression, Jaeger rocked his head slowly. “Maybe one can if one tries hard enough.”
Tony’s frown suggested that he wasn’t sure he understood.
Smiling again, Jaeger continued: “I want to thank you once more, Schuster. What you did Wednesday was a humdinger of a job.”
Tony lifted his hands defensively. “You have to thank my wife. She gave me the important piece of information.”
“We will,” Jaeger said. “Nevertheless, it was you who connected all the dots and acted accordingly. We still don’t know all the details, but something went wrong on the part of the terrorist.”–He shrugged–“It’s still a mystery why he crashed into a stone bollard, and why he fired his bomb so far away from the bus he wanted to blow up. Maybe the charge went off early due to a technical failure. It’s also possible that the oncoming patrol cars were making him nervous. What we do know for sure is that it was a suicide mission. The terrorist you eliminated had a memory card on him. On it, we found a video with a claim of responsibility. Thanks to you, there was only one casualty–a passing cyclist. He suffered a severe head injury, but he’ll be okay again. I’m sure it would have been a different story if you hadn’t acted the way you did.”–He nodded gratefully–“Well done, Schuster!”
“I did what everybody would have done,” Tony said.
“I don’t know about that,” Jaeger said. “Don’t sell yourself short. I read your file, and I totally understand what you went through after what happened back then. If it ever haunts you again, tell yourself, ‘I took one life by accident, because that’s what it was, an accident, but I saved dozens maybe hundreds on purpose.’ If you ever incurred guilt, you’ve paid it back in full measure. That’s for sure. Perhaps you should consider joining us again? You know we’re always looking for good people.”
Tony bit his lip and forced a smile. “You never know,” he said shaking the hand Jaeger held out to him. He was surprised and hesitated when Bode extended his hand too, saying:
“I guess I owe you an apology, Schuster. I was dead sure you had the gemstones and didn’t want to fork them over. Sorry about that; was stupid of me to doubt you. What you did Wednesday was great.” He gave Tony the thumbs up, then, in his embarrassment, pushed the bangs that were no longer there out of his face.
Choking laughter, Tony accepted the apology and shook hands with him. Then he checked his watch. “I got to run, guys!”
“That’s okay,” Jaeger said. “We don’t want to keep you from picking up your wife. Just one more thing: Both of you need to stop by, so we can officially close the case. Any time it suits you. Just give me a ring beforehand.”
“OK,” Tony said, nodded a goodbye and got in his cab.
On the way to the hospital, he saw a couple on the side of the street trying desperately to flag him down. Since he was in a hurry, he ignored them and drove on. However, when he saw their disappointed faces in the rearview mirror and also realized that the woman was pregnant, he changed his mind. He stopped and reversed.
“We ordered a cab almost an hour ago. I need to get my wife to Eduardus hospital,” the man said through the rolled-down window.
That wasn’t Tony’s direction at all, but seeing that they did need help, he said, “Alright, jump in!”
The man gave him a grateful smile. “You’re a lifesaver!” Then he helped his wife get in.”
Tony regarded the woman in the rearview mirror. She was obviously not well. Even though her freckled face was twisted with pain, she looked beautiful. She reminded him of Katrin. “Maybe you should fold out the center armrest,” he said making eye contact with the husband in the mirror. “That’s more comfortable for your wife.”
“Thanks, man!” the husband said and followed Tony’s advice. “Why is it so hard to get a cab today? Is there a trade fair on?”
“Today was the funeral of the cabby that was murdered,” Tony said.
The man nodded. “I see! I heard about that. It was last week, right? Terrible thing.”
After dropping them off at the hospital, Tony was about to call Katrin to tell her he was running late when his phone went off. At first, he didn’t want to take the call because he didn’t recognize the number, but then he changed his mind.
“Good afternoon! This is Thomas Ahrweiler,” a familiar voice sounded over the car stereo.
Tony was glad to hear it.
“I thought you might have lost my number. That’s why I decided to call you back,” Ahrweiler said.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ahrweiler,” Tony apologized. “I’ve been tied up over the last couple of days. Believe it or not, I was going to call you today. If you want, we can meet up later to talk everything over. Since you also live in Widdersdorf, you’re the perfect man for me.”
“How do you know I live in Widdersdorf?” Ahrweiler said.
“Well.” Tony tried hard to make up an explanation. He couldn’t tell him that the police had retraced his first call. He actually could, but then he would have to do a lot of explaining, which he didn’t want to. “Um, I think you mentioned it when you called me the other day.”
“No, I didn’t,” Ahrweiler said. “Didn’t get around to it. But you can admit you’ve checked me out already. I don’t have a problem with that. I mean, who wants to buy a pig in a poke.”
Tony couldn’t help chuckling. “Guilty!”
“Who did you ask?” Ahrweiler said.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” Tony said. “But I can assure you that I only heard positive things.”
Ahrweiler heaved a sigh of relief and went on: “Well, as I said, I’ve been driving the cab fifteen years. At first, I did the day shift until my first divorce. That was after four years. She walked out on me. Guess a cabby wasn’t good enough for her. Of course, I have to pay for the kids–a boy and a girl. They’re twelve and fourteen now. I don’t have a problem with that. They’re my kids and my responsibility, but what I do have a problem with is that I have to support her as well even though she’s been living with another partner for at least three years. She tried to hide it, but I found out. Anyway, these are personal issues, and you might not be interested in them. My second wife was from Thailand. We met on the Internet, and I thought she was the one. I really did. But once, I got her to Germany the whole thing went south. It took me a while to get it that she only used me. We were married for five years. You know it’s difficult for me to be alone. I admit that. That’s why I married again, but this time–”
“Mr. Ahrweiler!” Tony interrupted. “You can tell me all this later. Let’s say 6 p.m. at my place?”
Ahrweiler wanted to continue, but Tony terminated the call. He tried hard not to burst out laughing because of his broken cheekbone.
He stepped on the gas and ignored a few other people who tried to flag him down. At one point, he realized that the meter was still running. He slapped his forehead. How could he forget the hot seat again?
At the next red light, he turned around, leaned back and tried to fold up the center armrest. For some reason, it jammed. He couldn’t push it all the way up. He folded it out again and looked into the small tunnel. There was something in there that prevented the armrest from engaging. Tony reached for it and retrieved a small purple leather bag. When he opened it, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His jaw dropped as he stared at the sparkling brilliants. The honking from the cars behind him brought him back to reality.
His mind was racing when he put the car in gear and drove on. He thought of Jaeger. “I know I’ve asked you this before, but are you really telling the truth about these gemstones?” And he remembered his reaction to it. He heard Bode’s angry voice through his front door: “You can’t fool us. We know about your financial situation, Schuster!” And he recalled Bode apologize to him just 20 minutes ago: “I was dead sure you had the gemstones and didn’t want to fork them over. Sorry about that. It was stupid of me to doubt you.”
What would he tell them now? “I found them in my cab?”–Nobody would buy this! At least, he wouldn’t. And what about Katrin? Wouldn’t this put her belief in him to an acid test? He had just gotten his life on track again. He and his wife had plans they wanted to realize. He shook his head wearing a determined expression. There was no fucking way he would take that risk!
Despite the traffic and although he was on the Deutzer Bridge where there was no stopping, he hit the brakes. Ignoring the cacophony of car horns, he put on his hazard lights. He grabbed the bag, got out, rounded the car and walked to the railing. For a second, it occurred to him that he and Katrin could really use the money they would get for these gemstones. But then he smiled. There was so much more than money in this world. He had Katrin. He loved her, and she loved him. How could he be any richer? He threw the bag as far as he could into the Rhine. And he felt great as he got back into his cab and drove on.
Tony is an ordinary guy. He lives in a big German city and earns his living by taking people from A to B. When Usama gets into his cab, he is just another customer. Not in his wildest dreams does Tony imagine that the man sitting in his back seat is an Islamist fanatic–someone who fought and killed for ISIS; someone who returned to the country he grew up in to carry out a terrorist attack. Neither of them knows that their paths will cross again soon, and that one will draw the other into a spiral of escalating violence.