“Where’s Alex? I thought he’d be in by now.”
As always, Kunz made a big show of hanging up his coat, making sure it wasn’t creased. He took his time answering Böck. Böck should have been used to his new colleague by now, but he didn’t think he ever would, forgetting that he had been the inept rookie not so long ago.
“Why ask me? I just got in. Here. I have the sausage sandwiches.”
Kunz waved the plastic bag at Böck as if it would bear witness to his ignorance about Brandtner’s absence. No German Shepherd was there to play his usual tricks on the newbie. The sandwiches were safe. Kunz continued going about his morning ritual, infuriating Böck further. With an effort, Böck restrained his reaction. He contented himself with waiting for the first call of the day.
At the moment, they weren’t working any urgent cases, and what paper work there was, he had delegated to Kunz. In a way, it was practical to be able to leave all the administrative tasks to the pedantic Kunz, allowing Böck and Brandtner, and of course Rex, to focus on the active aspects of the police work. Just to annoy Kunz, Böck turned on the radio, letting the pop music blare out. The shudder that went over Kunz was highly satisfying to Böck’s eyes and a wicked glint appeared in the pale, watery blue. For a second he even contemplated singing along just to spite Kunz further. It was an American or British song, Böck wasn’t sure which, and it certainly – what was that expression again – rocked. Yes. The song rocked. Böck made a big show of his age. He liked to emphasize the fact that he was younger and fitter than the fat Kunz. But singing along would be going too far. Regretfully, Böck decided that as a homicide detective in the capital he was too dignified to sing along to a song on the radio.
Kunz shook his head, repeating his favorite expression.
“Terrible. Just terrible.”
Some of the crimes they witnessed around Vienna were terrible, but most of what struck Kunz that way was so petty Böck couldn’t understand how Kunz was able to produce such a strong reaction. Now Kunz hungrily glanced at the sandwiches on his desk. Böck rolled his eyes. He might feel a bit peckish, but how could Kunz work up the appetite he apparently did, just sitting behind his desk?
“You know, it would be a shame to waste those sandwiches. If Alex and Rex are going to be this late, maybe we should -”
“Alright. You have your sandwich. I’ll wait for the others. Go on. And while you’re at it, you might get me a cup of coffee.”
Unenthusiastically, Kunz got up and waddled over to the coffee machine. Personally, he would never risk drinking anything coming out of that thing. The hygienic conditions of this office were deplorable. He was about to launch into a recital of his favorite expression again, but realized he’d already said it once that morning. If he didn’t ration his outbursts, he wasn’t sure how Böck would react.
They were both interrupted in their thoughts by the sound of the phone ringing.
“Ah, that will be the first case of the day.”
Böck reached for the receiver.
“Böck. Oh. I see. When will you be in? Alright. I’ll tell him. Do you have any idea – Yes. See you then. Bye.”
Pensively, he hung up. What could this mean? But Brandtner would fill him in as soon as he got back.
Of course he knew what Kunz wanted to know, but he enjoyed teasing the other cop a little. It seemed Brandtner had an easier time of accepting that, than his playful exchanges with the dog. Besides, it was so much easier with Kunz. Rex was a lot smarter.
“What was that about? It was Alex, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. He said he wouldn’t be in until after lunch.”
“Did he say why? A new case? Or has something new come to light in one of the other cases?”
“I’m not sure. He just said he’d received a phone call and someone had promised him some important information. We’ll know more when they get in. Alright. How about that sandwich now? Toss it over.”
Kunz had just finished making the coffee, so he began by bringing the cup over. He then returned to this desk and rummaged through the plastic bag, eventually finding one of the sandwiches. With a flick of the wrist he threw the promised snack over to Böck, who caught it effortlessly. After all the practice they’d had, it was an easy matter to play catch the sandwich.
While the two other officers were munching their sandwiches, Brandtner drove over to one of the less attractive suburbs of Vienna. He wasn’t familiar with this one, but he’d worked cases in some of the others. Concrete and armed steel were its distinguishing marks, along with graffiti, broken phone booths and a generally depressing atmosphere. It was hard to tell that this was actually a part of the picturesque Austrian capital. The silhouette was totally unlike that of central Vienna. No Riesenrad, no beautiful old buildings, no parks and gardens. Just this desert of highrises. The predominant color was grey. No wonder this type of place fostered so many delinquents.
The name of the man who had called Brandtner that morning as he was doing his normal workout before work, hadn’t been familiar. He had sounded as if his name might be known to Brandtner, but it didn’t ring a bell. All he’d been able to gather from the brief conversation was that the man had some valuable information for him. What kind of information hadn’t been specified.
Brandtner reached the address he’d been given, after asking several unhelpful locals for directions. Uneasily he parked at the curb and wondered as he did so if his car would be left undamaged. Not if he left it unguarded, he guessed.
“Ok, Rex. You stay here. Watch the car. I’ll be back soon. No, Rex, stay. Good boy. There will be a sausage sandwich for you at the office. Don’t look at me like that. Who’s going to watch the car for me? You’re not going to speak to the informant up there. I’ll go and see him and you stay here, deal?”
Rex didn’t look enthusiastic. Maybe he sensed his daddy’s reluctance to leave him out here. But it was early in the morning. No one seemed to be about. Nothing could happen to the dog while Brandtner did what he had come for. The staircase smelled of urine and a glass pane in the door was broken. Some garbage lay about inside the doorway, and a stain on the wall didn’t encourage taking a closer look. Despite the early hour, someone was playing loud music in one of the apartments. An argument went on somewhere upstairs, as Brandtner began his climb to the tenth floor. He hadn’t liked the look of the elevator either. A good thing he worked out regularly.
When he finally reached the apartment that was his destination, he had his second wind. Ringing the doorbell he waited expectantly. It wasn’t often he got a phone call like this. Maybe the information would be useful, maybe not. You never knew, but it was certainly a change of pace. By the time Brandtner had decided to give up, the door creaked and opened a crack. It was dark inside, and whoever was standing there was hard to make out.
“Are you the homicide detective?”
“Yes, I’m Alex Brandtner. And you are -”
There didn’t seem to be any threat implied so Brandtner decided to do as he was asked. He was led into a sparsely furnished living room, that seemed to double as a bedroom. Despite the cramped conditions, the occupant of the room appeared to have done his best to keep it tidy, but there was no hiding the dilapidated state of the apartment. Though the light was bad, Brandtner was getting an idea of what his host looked like. The man was young, tall, thin and pale, but his features were handsome. Brandtner was sure that women found this young man attractive. Something in the eyes hinted at a weariness, and even pain. What kind of information would he have?
“You’re Moser’s successor?”
It seemed Brandtner had been under scrutiny himself. He wondered what kind of impression this silent stranger was getting of him.
“Yes. You knew Moser?”
“You could say that. Please, sit down.”
Brandtner accepted the offer. The sofa was broken down, and seemed to have come right out of a dumpster, but it would do. At least it was clean. Again he felt those solemn eyes rake him.
“You don’t know me?”
“No. Should I? Who are you?”
“My name is Fuchs. Ernst Fuchs. No. My name means nothing to you. I had expected to meet Richie. Moser. Did you know him?”
“I see. Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. I had just hoped we might make peace, but now that will never happen.”
The young man sighed, sounding as defeated as he looked.
“You obviously knew him well.”
Fuchs ignored the unspoken question and went on as if he hadn’t heard Brandtner’s last statement.
“Richie – Moser – put me away. He shot me. But I’d brought it on myself, I guess. I should have learned my lesson the first time I was inside.”
An ex-convict. The picture was getting a little clearer, but Brandtner still couldn’t understand why Fuchs had been so eager to speak to his predecessor. He would have to call Peter Höllerer and find out more about Moser’s past.
“That’s the reason I wanted to speak to him – now you. I suppose you know about the conditions in there.”
The last statement wasn’t quite a question, but Brandtner treated it as such.
“I think so.”
He couldn’t help pitying this young man. A guy like that should have been busy living his life, making a living, not committing crimes that led to his being locked up behind bars for years of his life.
“Do you really? I wonder. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re a very handsome man. Even if you weren’t a police officer, life inside would be tough on you. Do you know what I’m getting at?”
A slight blush crept over Brandtner’s beautiful features. Yes, he had a pretty good idea of what Fuchs was trying to tell him. And there didn’t seem to be any intention of causing offense. It was just a simple statement of fact. Brandtner wasn’t offended, but he still didn’t feel any wiser about the cause of his visit.
“When I was sent back there – I was terrified of what would happen to me. The last time, I’d made the mistake of trying to fight back. They – never mind. This time I hoped I’d be strong enough to succeed where I failed in the past. I wasn’t. Of course I wasn’t. Have you heard of a man named Keller? Hans Keller?”
The name was vaguely familiar. Brandtner took a moment to reflect. Yes. A crime lord with connections to Russian organized crime. The man had made a mistake and been convicted of trading in illegal arms. Now Brandtner could guess part of what was on Fuchs’ mind.
“Yes. I know who it is.”
“We were cell mates. Do you have any idea of what that means? I mean what it really means, not just what it sounds like.
“I think so.”
“No. You don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to sit there so calmly and discuss this. Or maybe you could. You’re thinking it’s got nothing to do with you. Never make any mistakes, mr Brandtner. One false move and they’d be tearing you to pieces like a pack of wolves. And when they were done breaking you, they’d – I’m sorry. This isn’t why I sent for you. I mean no offense. I apologize in advance for this, but would you mind if I showed you something?”
“What would you like to show me?”
“It would involve removing my shirt.”
Brandtner was puzzled. He had no idea where this was leading, but he felt no menace from the broken young man before him. Why not let Fuchs take his time getting to the point? So he nodded his agreement and watched Fuchs warily unbutton his shirt. It was obvious that the young man wasn’t enjoying the spectacle he made. He put the shirt down on the table in front of them and turned his back on Brandtner. A strangled noise escaped Brandtner’s lips as he caught sight of what it was Fuchs wished him to see.
There was a deep scar in the shape of the letter K on the skin, or rather cut deeply into the skin. It was large, approximately the size of a fist and situated below the right shoulder-blade. The color of the scar was an angry red, and Brandtner could imagine the pain Fuchs must have felt.
Brandtner’s reaction had clearly reached Fuchs because with apparent relief, the young man snatched up his shirt and put it back on.
“The reason I show this to you is so you can understand something of what I went through in that cell. Every single night for three years. I was sent down for five but I got out due to ill health and good behavior. It’s not AIDS. You might think so, but it isn’t. I got pneumonia, and an ulcer, that’s all.”
All? Sounded quite enough to Brandtner.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes. I understand that you went through hell. It was Keller’s doing?”
“What do you think the K stands for? Yes, that’s his mark. He marked me for life, but he didn’t have to do that. Even without this scar, I have enough to remind me of him for the rest of my life.”
Brandtner broke off. Under the circumstances, his curiosity seemed obscene.
“How did he do it?”
A wry, humorless smile played briefly over Fuchs’ lips.
“If you really want to know -”
“No, that’s alright. I’m sorry I asked.”
“I don’t mind talking about it. It might help you understand what I’m about to do. He held the knife into a flame, heated it up. Like you brand cattle. Poor animals. I can related to what they go through. Then he marked me.”
“What? Go ahead, ask anything you like.”
“The pain – How was he able to keep it a secret?”
“You mean, why didn’t I scream? If I had, there would have been worse to come. Besides, two of his henchmen held me down. One of them pressed a hand to my mouth. And afterwards, he repaid them for their services.”
There was a pause in which Brandtner tried to figure out what it was Fuchs left unsaid. It seemed to him as if Fuchs was implying something he wasn’t getting.
“Oh. To spell it out: He let them take turns with me. Otherwise I was strictly off limits. That was the deal, of course. He ‘protected’ me, and in return – I belonged to him.”
“Doesn’t a deal imply that both parties are in agreement?”
“How typical of a cop. You don’t understand. In there, he and others like him make the rules. Most of them would say I was lucky. Keller is a powerful man. He still has connections. Apart from that time, he was the only one. The last time I was in jail I can’t remember how many -”
“Now I’m beginning to see, but I still don’t understand what it is you want to tell me.”
“No? I suppose I need to spell it out even more clearly. Maybe I ought to have felt gratitude. The reason I didn’t isn’t what you might think. Oh, I’m not gay, and unlike most of those convicts I would have waited until I was free again to meet women, to – Anyway, if he’d been like most of those simpletons, I would have submitted and accepted my situation. After all, a trade is a trade. Protection doesn’t come free. But he’s a monster. He enjoys inflicting pain. The only reason I wasn’t marked any more than I am is that the guards would have known. But he knew how to do it without leaving any visible scars. And he – No, that’s a story I’d rather not tell, and I’m sure you’d rather not hear it. I’ve called you out to the slums to give you Keller.”
The blank look on Brandtner’s face slowly turned to understanding. Was Fuchs offering –
“You don’t worry about what you say in front of your possessions. I know enough about him to put him away for life, not just another two years which is what’s left of his sentence. What do you want? Evidence about the trade in refugees? The illegal organ market? Prostitution? Not your average prostitution either. Children from Asia or Russia smuggled here from the East. And of course plain drugs. Crack, LSD – you name it. I can give you locations, dates, even the sums involved in some cases.”
“If you have this information -”
“Oh, I have it. The question is – do you want it? Can you handle it? Or is it too big for a homicide detective?”
“Yes. I can handle it. But what about you? If Keller has these connections, what would happen to you when -”
“Never mind about me. Just get him. That’s all I ask.”
“But it’s suicide.”
“Yeah? Isn’t that my business? What sort of life do you think I have ahead of me? I couldn’t make an honest living the last time I was out. Look around you. This place, I’m renting it second- or third hand from a friend who’s still inside. Actually, I can’t pay any rent. So what do I do when the welfare checks run out? Maybe I should do what Keller taught me, but I don’t have the stomach for it. And you know what? I’m not robbing any more banks or money trucks. The last time I tried someone died. I never meant for that to happen, but now I have blood on my hands.”
“Alright. I give you my word that if we can put Keller away for life and shut down his operation, I’ll do my best to keep you safe.”
Fuchs laughed. It was a weak, mirthless sound.
“And you expect me to thank you for that? If you really want to do something for me, I’d appreciate a quick, painless death when Keller’s lot catches up with me. Can you do that for me? A clean, quick end. That’s all I ask.”
“You don’t have AIDS. You’re young, healthy. Aren’t you?”
“Yes, the ulcer responded to the treatment, and the pneumonia too. But so what? You think I can just go to the job center and say, I’m a retired bank robber? Where do you think they could use my skills? The army? Would the police force have me? No. Like I said, I can beg, steal, rob or prostitute myself, but not much else.”
“If you give me Keller, I’ll see about getting you a job.”
Brandtner didn’t know why he had said that. He was under no obligation to give ex-cons jobs. But the young man’s story had touched him. There hadn’t been a trace of self-pity in his voice, contrary to what might have been expected. Just a chilling matter-of-fact detachment. Like his own life had long since ceased to concern him.
“Alright. If you can keep me alive, try to get me an honest job. Richie wouldn’t have done as much, but I had been hoping we could make our peace anyway. They told me he died on the job.”
“Yes. Some madman shot him.”
“I see. Well, I’m not surprised. Except it should have been me. Richie and I weren’t friends anymore, but he was a good person. Not like me. I was a loser from the start. That’s what he told me when he shot me and sent me to jail. But you didn’t come here for my life’s story. What do we do now?”
“I think you’d better come with me so I can keep an eye on you. Do you have any solid evidence with you? Paperwork, that sort of thing?”
“No. It’s all in here.”
Fuchs indicated his head.
“Alright. If you’d like to pack -”
“It won’t take me long.”
That was the truth. It was maybe ten minutes later when they walked down the stairs. Not until now did Brandtner notice that Fuchs walked with a slight limp, something that became more pronounced as they descended the stairs. Brandtner would have offered his support, but he noticed Fuchs had a tendency to withdraw as soon as the other man crossed some invisible safety zone around him. The car was still intact, it seemed, and Brandtner couldn’t guess if Rex had had to show his impressive set of teeth.
On catching sight of the dog, Fuchs tensed up momentarily, then appeared to relax.
“That’s Richie’s dog, right? Rex?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“He helped Richie bring me in. I didn’t realize you’d have taken over Rex.”
“Yes. In fact, I have Moser’s house now.”
“Oh. Well, no hard feelings, Rex. Hello. Remember me? I’m one of the bad guys, but I won’t give you any trouble.”
Rex pricked up his ears and moved his head from side to side as if he was trying to figure out who he was facing, then he jumped up, putting his paws on Fuchs’ arms. Brandtner was about to call Rex off, but something in Fuchs’ eyes stopped him. For some reason he sensed that Fuchs wanted to receive this cordial greeting from the dog, so Brandtner waited. Rex barked once, encouragingly and licked the pale, thin face.
“I’m sorry about that. Rex, get down. Well, apparently he’s decided you’re not one of the bad guys, after all.”
To Brandtner’s astonishment, Fuchs now bent down and hugged the dog and patted him vigorously. When he straightened up, the look on his face didn’t encourage any comments about his actions. Brandtner just opened the door and gestured for him to get in. Soon they were heading back to the city.
“I think I’d better bring you to the office. Just to take your statement.”
“I understand. Is that fat guy still working there? Höllerer?”
“No. He left a while back.”
“What about the old guy – Stockinger?”
“No. He moved away.”
It didn’t seem as if Fuchs cared much either way. He was just trying to make conversation.
At the office, Brandtner found his colleagues eagerly awaiting his return. He was touched to find that they had bought a fresh batch of sausage sandwiches for him and Rex. All eyes fastened on the newcomer. It was plain that no one recognized their visitor.
“This is Ernst Fuchs. Do you remember Richie mentioning him, Christian?”
A cold look filled Böck’s watery eyes.
“I know who it is. He’s the one who tried to kill Richie -”
“No. I didn’t try to kill him, I just -”
Little Böck sprang at Fuchs and grabbed him by the neck. The ex-convict was taller and obviously much stronger, but he made no move to defend himself from his attacker. Brandtner felt impelled to separate the two men before more harm was done. From Kunz’ desk came the customary reaction.
Yes, this looked pretty terrible. Police brutality at work. Except Böck wasn’t doing much damage and undeniably he felt justified in his reaction. This man had attacked Böck’s partner and friend, Richard Moser.
“That’s enough, Christian. Let go of him. Mr Fuchs has come to give us valuable information.”
After some more feeble attempts to shake Fuchs, Böck let go, but the look of anger on his face didn’t change.
“Let’s hear it then, fast.”
It turned out that the information Fuchs could give them was vital. They would be able to shut down all of Keller’s operation, permanently. Brandtner didn’t delude himself into believing the illegal traffic would end that way. Soon others would move in and take Keller’s place. Still, this was a major breakthrough in the endless work of the Austrian police. Year after year, new illegal trade flooded in from the East. All they could do was try to stem the tidal wave. In the vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union all kinds of organized crime flourished. Unless a new iron curtain was raised between east and west, there was no stopping the crime from being imported into Austria and from there to the rest of Europe.
Towards evening, Brandtner encouraged Böck and Kunz to go home. He would finish up the paper work. In a way it was very simple. Fuchs had provided the facts they needed. Now all that remained was to submit the evidence to the courts. The law would do the rest. It had only taken about six hours. Keller and his crime empire were finished. An era was over. But for Fuchs the ordeal had just begun. Though rendered harmless, or nearly so, Keller still had a long arm. His minions would still be able to reach out and punish the informant who had sold their master out. Brandtner knew that what Fuchs had outlined, about a quick painless death being a luxury he might not be allowed to enjoy. Men like Keller loved to make an example of the ones who had trespassed against them. The thought made him sick.
As a young rookie cop, still in uniform, Brandtner had been in charge of collecting the remains of a man who had been guilty of the same betrayal. Not only he, but his wife and child had suffered the wrath of a crime lord, far less important than Keller. The ME’s report had listed the torture that had been inflicted on the three helpless victims, before their home had been doused in gasoline and ignited. Young Brandtner had never before seen anything so charred. He had been violently sick in the yard outside the ruins of the house, and he had never even met the victims while they were still alive. This time, it concerned a living breathing person standing before him. Someone who was far from dead yet. If Brandtner could do anything about it, Ernst Fuchs wouldn’t die like that.
He watched Kunz pack up his things and put his coat on. In the doorway, the man turned and faced his superior.
“Are you sure it’s alright for me to leave?”
“Yes, yes. Go home and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Böck didn’t seem to have any intention of going. He was leaning on his desk, glaring at Fuchs, eyes filled with hatred.
“What are you going to do with this – this – this lowlife?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you going to let him walk around free, when Richie’s dead and buried?”
“Fuchs has done his time. He’s been released for good behavior. Once a man’s paid his debt to society -”
“I can’t believe you’re saying that. After what this bastard tried to do to Richie -”
“That’s enough, Christian. You’re tired. Go and get some rest.”
“Are you ordering me to go? Why? What are you and Fuchs going to do? Go out for dinner? Celebrate Richie’s death?”
“Forgive me. I was out of line. But still – this man -”
“I will have to see to his protection. It’s customary to protect our informers, as I’m sure you remember. When his involvement is known, Keller -”
“Yes. I’m well aware of that. Serves him right. Why should we interfere with the law of the street?”
Throughout this exchange, Fuchs had remained silent, as if the conversation didn’t concern him. In fact, it even seemed as if he hadn’t heard his name mentioned. His shoulders sagged and Brandtner recalled that Fuchs hadn’t had anything to eat all day. When the sausage sandwiches had been passed around he hadn’t been able to eat his share, or maybe he’d lost his appetite under Böck’s cold stare. In any case, he had given Rex his sandwich. And he must be tired. Though he had assured Brandtner that he was healthy, he looked far from strong. The years in jail appeared to have seriously affected his condition. Though he had appeared totally indifferent to the attention fixed on him, it now appeared as if he had a good idea of what was being said about him.
“Mr Böck is right. Why bother? I’ve done what I came to do. Now I’ll just get going and take the bus back to the apartment. Thank you, mr Brandtner.”
“For helping me get my revenge on Keller. That’s all I wanted. Now it won’t be long until I can rest.”
Despite himself, Brandtner was impressed. Whatever else he was, Fuchs was a very brave man. That helped the detective make his decision.
“No. I gave you my word I’d keep you safe, and that’s what I’m going to do. Böck, go home. I’ll handle this.”
The internal struggle was clearly visible on Böck’s face, but in the end he gave in.
“Alright. I have to assume you know what you’re doing, even if it’s totally incomprehensible to me. Fine. Deal with it any way you like. I can’t bear to look at this bastard.”
“I don’t blame you. Would it come as a surprise to you, mr Böck, if I told you that I don’t like to look at myself either? I can’t stand seeing my own face.”
Böck looked as if he was about to let out a sharp reply, but seemed to think better of it and merely shook his head, and picked up his leather jacket from the desk behind him. Slamming the door behind him, he vanished down the hall.
“Mr Fuchs, I’m going to let you stay at my house. Shall we?”
“Why? Don’t you agree with your colleague? Lowlife, bastard, what else did he say? It’s all true, you know. He might have added whore and coward too and – killer. Because that’s what I am. Keller’s whore. If I’d been a braver man, I’d have let his minions kill me. I wouldn’t have come with them and given myself to Keller. And if I hadn’t killed a man, I wouldn’t even have been in there in the first place.”
“If you remember all Böck said, then I’m sure you remember what I said too. When a man’s paid his dues to society, he’s like any other man. I have offered you the hospitality of my house. Do you refuse?”
“I’m just trying to figure out why you’re making this generous offer. Are you like Böck? Do you find me attractive?”
What? Where did he get that idea? Böck hated Fuchs, it had been obvious from the moment he’d found out who the stranger was. Or – Yes, it fitted in with the picture Brandtner had of Böck. He would envy Fuchs his good looks but he would be drawn to him just the same. Unlike most policemen, Brandtner didn’t think the implication Fuchs had just made was worth starting a fight over. It was only natural that he was wary of the attentions of members of his own sex, after what he’d suffered inside the prison walls.
“No. I’m not like Böck, but he’s a friend of mine and a colleague. Though I don’t agree with him, I respect his reaction. Moser was his partner and friend. Even though I didn’t at first remember your name, I am familiar with the case. Despite that, I can see your side of the story. It was inevitable that the two of you came to blows sooner or later. Two old friends ending up on opposite sides of the law. You did what you had to do, but so did Moser.”
“Don’t think I blame Richie. He had no choice but to shoot me. There are no hard feelings. Once he was my best friend. And mr Böck doesn’t frighten me. He’s nothing like Keller or even his minions. Forgive me for asking – but I had to know. My answer is yes. I will accept your hospitality. If you’re sure you’re up to the danger. It won’t be long now, until Keller’s eyes and ears report back to him, and he’ll know who sold him out. He’s not stupid. I was released three weeks ago. Anyone could figure out the connection.”
“I’ll deal with it. My offer still stands.”
“Then I guess we should get going. I’m rather tired.”
“And hungry, I suppose?”
Fuchs shrugged indifferently.
“Not really. I don’t have much of an appetite anymore.”
When the two men got up, Rex jumped up from his blanket on the floor and waving his tail happily, he led the way. He recognized the words hungry and many other human sounds. Dinner and bed, not to mention a run around the garden beckoned to him. At last those humans were doing something other than talk, talk, talk all night.
During the drive over to Brandtner’s house, Fuchs retreated back into his apathy, and only roused himself when he saw the pleasant neighborhood where first Moser and now Brandtner had made his home. The garden especially, appeared to impress him. He didn’t say anything, but Brandtner thought he could detect a spark of something in the pale young man’s eyes. He didn’t comment either, just parked the car and ushered his guest up to the front door. Rex enthusiastically ran back and forth, and from somewhere, he managed to produce a tennis ball, rather the worse for wear. He dropped it expectantly at Fuchs’ feet and barked encouragingly.
“You don’t have to do that. Let him play on his own. I’ll just put away a few things and I’ll be right with you. Go on ahead.”
“It’s alright. He’s had a long day.”
To Brandtner’s surprise, Fuchs put down his sports bag on the grass and proceeded to bounce the ball in all directions, each time the dog brought it back. When Brandtner returned, he noted that Fuchs finally had some color in his cheeks. Apparently, meeting Rex had done him good.
“Are you two ready for some dinner?”
The new animation fell off Fuchs like a cloak and he reached down for his sports bag, following his host inside. Dinner didn’t seem to be his first priority. Once inside, he seemed to shrink back even more. Brandtner thought he could guess why. In the office, the contrast between Fuchs’ threadbare clothes and the surroundings hadn’t been so great, but now, in the nicely proportioned house of Brandtner’s predecessor, the young man must be feeling even more out of his depth.
“Do you think I could use the shower?”
“Sure. The bathroom’s over there. In the meantime I’ll fix us some dinner.”
Twenty minutes later, Brandtner was beginning to wonder what was taking his guest so long. Could he be intentionally stalling so he wouldn’t have to have dinner? If so, it was unnecessary. Brandtner had never force-fed any guest so far, and didn’t intend to tonight either. Finally, the bathroom door opened and Fuchs peered outside. He appeared to have little enthusiasm for venturing further.
“There you are. Dinner’s ready.”
Fuchs’ eyes were roving across the room, taking it in from wall to wall. Was he looking for something?
“Can I get you anything?”
“Uh – yes, I – Could I borrow some clothes? Nothing fancy, naturally, just some jeans and a t-shirt. Anything will do. I didn’t have time to -”
He gave up making excuses, realizing that his host would be smart enough to guess the state of his wardrobe. In Brandtner’s company, Fuchs felt like a homeless wino. Richie had been elegant, but Brandtner had the grace of a model or actor.
“No problem. Just a second. I’ll find something. You and I have to be about the same size.”
That was generous of Brandtner. Though Fuchs stood maybe half a head taller, his general condition had deteriorated after his last spell in jail. Where once there had been smooth, lean muscle, there was a far more bony appearance. Still, the clothes would fit well enough. This was no formal dinner. Fuchs didn’t know why he bothered keeping up appearances. It was only fair that the law-abiding citizen had all this, and that he – the hardened criminal – came away with nothing.
Returning with an armful of garments, Brandtner walked across to where his guest was huddling, apparently cold after the shower. Something about the arms caught Brandtner’s eye. Long, thin lines that could only be scars. Hadn’t Fuchs said that Keller had restricted himself to leaving one single mark on his cellmate’s body? What then was this? Had Fuchs been lying to him all along?
“I thought you said that -”
Too late, Brandtner realized he had been guilty of unforgivable rudeness. Was it really any of business?
“That Keller only left one mark on me? Yes. That’s right. This wasn’t his doing.”
Without elaborating further, Fuchs grabbed the offered garments and retreated into the bathroom, emerging five minutes later, fully dressed. That taken care of, they sat down to dinner. As Brandtner had come to expect, his guest didn’t do more than listlessly push the food around on his plate. Under his host’s gaze, Fuchs forced down a morsel or two, but soon abandoned the attempt.
“I’ll do the dishes.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I can do it. Haven’t I spent the last three years doing the dishes?”
“I see. Well, it’s not necessary but -”
This was something new. One of his guests actually begging to be allowed to do the dishes after dinner. Böck certainly never did, or Höllerer. Kunz hadn’t yet been invited. None of Brandtner’s dates ever thought to offer either. It was a kind of unspoken agreement never to refer to anything as mundane as domestic chores, but he thought he could understand why Fuchs was being so adamant. Being forced to accept someone’s charity couldn’t be very appealing, no matter what the reason.
“Be my guest. I have some paperwork to do. It won’t take long. Oh. The guest room is over there. That door, on the right. When I’m done with my work, I’ll go and make up the bed. I don’t get that many guests so I’ve been using the room for storage.”
“No. I’ll do it myself. Is there linen and so on in there?”
“Over there. In the closet and the chest of drawers by the window.”
“Then I’ll manage. Thank you.”
Brandtner had to admit that he’d never had such a troublefree, unobtrusive guest. There really wasn’t anything to object to about this quiet young man. Until now, Brandtner hadn’t considered what his next move should be. He was reasonably sure that Fuchs’ presence at his house had gone unnoticed. It must have been completely unexpected and unpredictable for anyone attempting to track his movements. Bearing this in mind, Brandtner decided it would be safe to leave Fuchs alone the next day.
When his guest returned from the kitchen, no doubt intent on making up his bed, Brandtner intercepted him.
“Listen, as far as I can tell, you should be perfectly safe here during the day tomorrow. I have a few loose ends I need to tie up, including this information you gave us. When that is finished, I will be able to take a few days off. That should give us time to find a solution to your problem. Is that alright with you?”
“It’s fine. Please don’t go out of your way for me. Who would guess that I’m here in your house?”
“Exactly. That ought to give us a little time. I’ll try to be back by early afternoon.”
There didn’t seem to be anything else to say, and Brandtner had already learned that Fuchs wasn’t much of a talker anyway, so they just said goodnight and retreated into their respective bedrooms. One thing appeared to have changed, however. Rex took up a position just outside of Fuchs’ door as if the dog could somehow sense that their guest was in danger and needed being watched. Neither man made a comment, and though Brandtner was a bit surprised at his dog’s behavior he felt no jealousy or resentment. At times, Rex would be working even in his spare time.
The following morning, Brandtner got up, had breakfast and worked out, all without seeing any trace of his guest. He wasn’t altogether surprised to find that Rex had decided to stay behind that day. So Rex really was working. Something must have alerted the dog to the risk their guest was facing. That dog never ceased to amaze Brandtner.
What might have surprised him slightly was that his guest had not been asleep when he left, and in fact hadn’t been for quite some time. Brandtner could have no way of knowing anything about the sleepless nights Fuchs had had to endure even after his release.
For a moment, he felt guilty about hiding in his room, while his host, who had gone out of his way to be civil to him despite everything, was going about his business out there. But he couldn’t really think of anything to say. When pleading his case, he had said all there was to say. Now Brandtner knew all that was to know about him, and having learned all that, there was no way he could respect a man so stripped of all dignity. When Fuchs heard the door slam shut, he reluctantly got out of bed. Nothing would be gained by hiding out in here all day. He hadn’t expected to find Rex around, but was stunned to feel a certain joy. There was something so reassuring and endearing about a dog. No threat, no condescension, just affection that didn’t demand anything in return.
“Hello, Rex. Did you have your breakfast yet?”
Rex’ reaction hinted that it was an unfair question, or maybe that it was meaningless. If he had been fed, he could eat again. Trying to convey this by vigorous waving of his tail, he was gratified to note that their guest was easily fooled into refilling his bowl. Humans had this ridiculous notion about how much dogs should be allowed to eat. As every dog knew, you could always eat, provided the meal was appetizing enough, or if you were bored enough. Possibly, this man might be impelled to throw a ball about as well. But the dog was disappointed. After making sure there was plenty of fresh water in the other bowl, Fuchs entered the bathroom, leaving the door standing slightly open. When the last morsel of dry food had gone, Rex trailed after their guest and found him splashing some aftershave on his face.
Strictly speaking, the aftershave must have belonged to Brandtner, but Rex had no use for human scents anyway, at least not those that came out of a bottle, and no sense of what belonged to whom anyway. His dad had given this man the run of the house, why should that not include all those foul-smelling bottles and jars?
Fuchs hardly noticed the dog’s entry. Pensively, he was toying with the razor he had found on the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet. He didn’t consciously make a decision, but he found that his hand lazily drifted down to place the cool steel against the sensitive skin on the inside of his lower arm. Brandtner had noticed. For a second, Fuchs’ pale face was suffused with a slight flush. Would Brandtner think he had lied about the abuse he had suffered at Keller’s hands? If so, perhaps that was to be preferred over the truth. Quickly, now, before he changed his mind, Fuchs flipped the razor over in his hand so that the sharp edge touched his skin. So easy, and at least temporarily, the inner chaos would still and give him some peace. It was his own business after all. Who was to say what he could or could not do to himself? Would anyone care? Anything that helped was preferable to the darkness that would come welling up inside, if nothing could be done to avert it. In the past, before the robbery had gone terribly wrong, there had been women. At times, alcohol or tranquilizers. Now, this. Cheap, clean, no side effects. No complications in the form of undesired attachments. Yes, he would do it. He needed to feel the uncomplicated sting of a razor cut, which drowned out the underlying pain.
He was interrupted by the sound of a low whimper from the dog. Fuchs tore his gaze away from the steel and the white skin, and faced Rex. The dog looked concerned. When he saw that he had drawn the man’s attention, he followed up with a plaintive bark. With a sigh, Fuchs put the razor back on its shelf.
“Yes, you’re right, Rex. It’s a coward’s way. No dog would do it. Either a quick cut and then nothing, or – I should grow up and stop feeling sorry for myself. Would you like to go for a run now? It’s been years since I went for a run. I could use the exercise.”
When they got back, Fuchs again refilled Rex’ bowl, having no idea what amounts of nutrition were adequate for a dog of Rex’ size, even one living such an active life. But Rex had no interest in the dry food. This was sausage sandwich time at the office. Still, a dog’s work was never done. He’d wait until the evening, when his dad would be sure to bring refreshments.
Brandtner returned around four thirty that afternoon, and he didn’t disappoint Rex. There were sausage sandwiches for all of them. Not that Fuchs had any more appetite than the night before, but it did seem as if his mood had improved slightly. Brandtner hadn’t had any intelligence about Keller’s network, but he didn’t delude himself into believing the crime lord would leave this betrayal unpunished.
“I have rearranged my work a bit, so the next few days I can stay at home. As long as I can be reached by phone, it will be alright. Böck is covering things at the office.”
“There’s no need for you to go out of your way over this. I can take care of myself.”
“Perhaps, but I think I’ll keep an eye on you, just the same. In the meantime, I’ve made a few calls, and I’m looking into relocating you. Possibly to Germany, if you don’t have any objections.”
“It’s all the same to me, but Keller’s network extends all over Europe, so I’m not sure it will do any good.”
“I think it will be necessary to give you a new identity, but don’t worry about it. I’ve approached Judge Schiller about it. Hopefully, things will be taken care of before the end of the week.”
Fuchs stared at Brandtner, as if he hadn’t seen him before.
“Do you really think that’s possible?”
“Yes. I do. You can make a fresh start somewhere else. I don’t know what sort of work you’ll be able to get -”
“That’s alright. Anything will do. It’s not as if I’m that qualified anyway. I never finished high school. It’s funny, though. Richie was as wild as I was, but somehow, he managed to get his act together.”
“You were at school together?”
“Yes. We met in kindergarten. Well, not exactly kindergarten, but at that age, anyway. For several years, we were inseparable. Richie and Ernst. Like brothers.”
Brandtner sensed there was a story behind all this, but he knew it was no use prying into Fuchs’ past. If the man wanted to confide in him, he would. Strangely enough, it seemed Fuchs was willing, even eager to get that story off his chest.
“I suppose you’re wondering what went wrong. In a way, I think you should ask yourself what went right, for Richie, but not for me. If you asked some of your colleagues back then, they would have said that we were both heading for trouble. Shoplifting, smashing windows, even stealing the odd car. And we were in fights with other gangs, of course. Once, Richie stabbed a guy, and for a while it was touch and go. If Richie’s stepfather had found out, there would have been hell to pay, but I didn’t have a father of any kind, just my mother’s boyfriends, and they never bothered to discipline me, so I said I’d take the blame.”
“And did you?”
“Yes. Who cared about what I did?”
“But – if you were so close -”
Again, Brandtner could have bit his tongue. How would Fuchs interpret his curiosity? The outburst from his guest that followed his thoughtless question took him by surprise.
“Close? What do you mean by that? Are you implying -”
“Implying? No. I’m not implying anything. You were such good friends and then -”
Fuchs retreated into himself, no doubt reliving moments from the past. Brandtner cursed his own insensitivity.
“Forgive me. I had no reason to flare up like that. You’re my host. All this that you’re doing for me – I should show more gratitude. Besides, if you were implying something, you were right. Richie and I – for want of a better word, I suppose you could say that we were – lovers. For a while. We were adolescents. As time went by, I became increasingly attracted to girls. Not Richie – or rather, he was attracted to anyone who flattered him, but it was me he – loved. And I couldn’t return his feelings. He took it badly. I think that’s why he decided to turn his life around completely. When Richie made a decision about something, he stuck to it. We used to be friends, he wanted us to be more, but since that wasn’t possible, we became enemies.”
So that was the explanation to the apparent mystery. Brandtner was quite sure Höllerer couldn’t have told him any of it. Yes, it made sense. He couldn’t help wondering if Böck’s feelings for Moser would have turned to hate in time, or if they had been returned. No one would ever know, now that Moser had died his hero’s death, becoming for all intents and purposes a saint in Böck’s memories.
“Yes, I think maybe you do. Can you understand how guilty I felt? When we were children, I really loved him, just not the way he wanted me to, and I threw that love back in his face. On the other hand, I suppose I can take credit for his conversion into the thoroughly good guy your colleague Böck fell for all those years later.”
“It wasn’t your fault. You mustn’t blame yourself. Sometimes these things happen.”
Brandtner felt that his words were hopelessly inadequate, but he really had no experience to draw on in this instance. Or maybe he did. Sometimes women fell for him, and sometimes he was unable to return their feelings. What was the difference really? This could have happened to him. His best friend Georg – but that was different. Georg was now a happily married man, and besides, they had never been tempted by a life of crime. Still, friendship and love could be a minefield of complicated emotions, he knew that.
“I guess so. To some people. Well, now you know. Are you going to disillusion your friend Böck or are you going to let Richie’s memory remain spotless?”
“I’m not sure. At the moment, Böck isn’t my highest priority.”
That silenced Fuchs. He knew he could trust Brandtner. The cop was nothing like Richie, or Böck. Still, all this kindness offered without any expectation of repayment made him feel awkward. It had been twenty years or more since the last time he’d been treated this way. Before his mother had begun her long slow descent into alcoholism. She had died about six months after her son’s last stint in jail had begun. He hadn’t been allowed to attend her funeral. When he visited her grave on his release three weeks earlier, he had been distressed to find that all traces of the love he had felt for her were gone. Even worse, he could no longer recall her face. The same applied to his girlfriends. He could hardly remember their names or how many of them there had been.
That was when he had woken up to the realization that he was truly alone. First he had lost Richie, then his mother, and now he knew that he had never had anything else. His good looks, his charm – they had been a poor substitute for true affection from loved ones. The girls he had gone out with had been attracted to the image of him, not the man himself. And – it was no use deluding himself – the image of the daring young bank robber had played an important part in the attraction he held for those women. Take away the weapons and the money, what did you have? Not a lot. There were plenty of other good looking losers in the suburbs. How could he have allowed his life to be wasted on so little? Abruptly, he turned and vanished into the guest room. He kept to himself the rest of the evening, hating himself for his ingratitude, but was unable to face Brandtner again.
Earlier that day, at the office, Böck had watched Brandtner disappear down the hall. The little man had been shocked and hurt when he realized that Brandtner persisted in offering Fuchs his hospitality. What was wrong with his superior? Had Fuchs’ good looks turned his head? Funny. Böck had always considered Brandtner as the straightest of straight guys, just as much as the happily married Höllerer. That surely was a match made in heaven. Böck surmised that the marriage was firmly based in a shared love for the pleasures of the dinner table. Höllerer. Yes, he had been an excellent police officer, and a good friend. Maybe he could shed some light on Brandtner’s strange behavior. Böck dialled the number for the inn and waited. A breathless young voice at the other end of the line, sounded busy and harrassed. Many guests even at this early hour apparently. Böck was unable to guess whether the young person was one of Höllerer’s numerous offspring or one of the hired help, but frankly he couldn’t care less.
“Böck speaking. Is Peter – mr Höllerer there?”
“Just a second.”
The second turned into minutes, and Böck was forced to listen to appetizing sounds of beer being poured into large tankards. At least that was the images evoked in his mind. His fingers began to drum out an irritated tattoo, enervating Kunz.
“Oh, hello, my friend. How are things at the office?”
There was a slightly wistful tone in Höllerer’s voice. Food might be one of his big loves, but his work used to be another.
“Oh, I can’t complain. So. How are things at the inn?”
“And the family? Your mother? Your wife? The children?”
“Everyone’s doing great. Christian, is anything wrong? If there is, maybe I could leave the inn to my brother-in-law for a while.”
There was a sort of pleading in Höllerer’s voice that touched Böck. He knew how much his former colleague loved the inn, yet he must also miss his work as a homicide detective.
“No. Nothing like that. It’s more personal.”
“What is it? Come on, tell your uncle Peter all about it.”
“It’s Alex. He’s behaving totally insane. I just don’t -”
“He’s met a girl?”
“No. It’s not a girl. Remember Ernst Fuchs?”
A pause on the other end of the line led Böck to believe Höllerer’s sharp mind was getting to work on the implications the mention of that name evoked.
“Yes. I thought he was still inside.”
“No. Got out for good behavior, if you can believe that.”
“What about him though? What’s he got to do with Alex? You’re not saying -”
“I don’t know what I’m saying. This Fuchs called Alex and offered him information about his ‘husband’, Hans Keller. Now Fuchs is staying over at Alex’ place. Richie’s house.”
At this, a hint of a sob crept into Böck’s voice. Of course, Höllerer knew about Böck’s feelings for Moser, though he had never referred to them in any way. Still, he couldn’t believe Brandtner shared Böck’s partialities. There had to be something else behind the odd development. He knew that Brandtner was a conscientious cop and if he felt he needed to protect an informant, he would, regardless of Böck’s feelings on the matter.
“I’ll tell you what, Christian, I’ll go over and see Alex. He’s not at the office, I take it?”
Naturally, Böck wouldn’t be discussing his superior the way he had, if Brandtner had really been around.
“No. He’s at home. With that -”
“Yes, I see. When I’ve had a little talk with him, I’ll get back to you. Try not to worry. Besides, it’s not as if Fuchs killed Richie. Cheer up. I’m sure there will be a perfectly normal explanation to all this.”
“Really? I don’t see how that can be, but I appreciate your help, Peter.”
“Don’t mention it. What are friends for?”
After he’d hung up, Böck really did feel a little better. Höllerer would take care of it. He used to know Moser and that meant he was someone who could be trusted.
Though he was quite happy as an inn-keeper, Höllerer did miss his days as a homicide detective, there was no denying that. And though he felt like he was letting his family down, he was actually quite pleased to be able to get away for a while. Back to his old friends, those who were still left. Moser dead, Stocki far away. But Brandtner and Böck were still around, and now he would go and see them, one after the other. Höllerer decided not to call and announce his arrival in advance. It wasn’t that he put any stock in Böck’s jealous ravings, but it didn’t do any harm, showing up unannounced. Old friends did things like that.
He was slightly taken aback by the greeting he received at Brandtner’s house. To his astonishment, he found himself looking into the barrel of a gun. Brandtner was pulling a gun on him? Just like he had thought. Something was up. He had a nose for trouble and right now it was itching like mad.
“Hello, Alex. Is that a way to greet an old friend?”
“Oh, sorry, Peter. Didn’t know it was you. Come in. I’ll explain all about this -”
“Yes, I think you’d better do that. I just had a call from Christian. He was upset.”
Brandtner sighed as he tucked the gun back into the waistband of his jeans.
“I see. Christian is disappointed in me. He feels I’m desecrating Richie’s memory.”
“Something like that. So what’s really up? You’re protecting an informer?”
“Yes, what else would it be?”
Höllerer gave Brandtner a long searching look, which had the younger man turning away, embarrassed. Oh. He should have known how Böck would interpret his interest in the handsome Fuchs.
“I see. Christian must have put a rather different slant on this arrangement. I’m just surprised you were taken in.”
“Who says I was taken in, my friend? I still say there’s something else behind all this. Come on, tell me. Where is your guest anyway?”
“He took Rex for a walk.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“No, but he was getting restless, cooped up in here. And I can’t blame him. He’s been locked up for three years. The open spaces out here must be appealing. Come on. Let’s sit down and have a long talk. Like in the good old days.”
Höllerer stretched out on the comfortable sofa, intent on getting to the bottom of this slight mystery. Brandtner chose one of the likewise comfortable armchairs, facing the table.
“I know how this must look. Me fraternizing with one of Richie’s old enemies. But you should see him, Peter. Fuchs. He’s a broken man. The years in jail have taken a terrible toll. He’s about my age, and he should be healthy, happy even, but what happened to him in there – He’s paid for his crimes against society. I know, a man was killed, but Fuchs never intended for that to happen.”
“True. The investigation bore that out. He should never have been sent down for first degree murder. It should have been manslaughter. Still, if he hadn’t held up that money transport -”
“I know. I’m not defending his actions. It’s just that -”
“You felt sorry for him. Yes, I did too. And Richie and he went way back. Grew up together.”
“You knew about that?”
“Yes, Richie told me one night when we were on a stakeout.”
“Of course, he didn’t tell me everything, but I think I can guess. That’s how it is. You can’t change the way you are. Just like Christian’s feelings weren’t returned.”
“You knew about that too?”
“So did you. It’s obvious when you know the signs. When I met my wife – oh, never mind. I came here to talk about you. So, you’ve taken it upon yourself to be Fuchs’ bodyguard? Is it wise? Can you handle it?”
“What else can I do? If I ask to have him put in a safe house, how do I know that his whereabouts will not leak out? So many people are involved in those formalities.”
“True. Well, I understand. Forget about Christian for the moment. He’ll get over it. If there’s anything our Christian needs, it’s to grow up. The world doesn’t revolve around him, no matter what his mother thinks. What all our mothers think.”
Brandtner grinned at the thought of his own dear mother. How hard it had been for her to understand his choice of career. Now she was proud of him.
“How about if I stay here with you and help you out? That way, no outsiders need to be involved. You could use my help.”
“Yes, but I can’t ask you to put your life at risk. What would I tell your wife and your mother if anything happened to you?”
“Nothing will happen to me, Alex. It will be just like the old days. You and me, and Rex.”
“Alright. Great to be working with you again, Peter. Here.”
Brandtner handed over his handgun.
“Won’t you need it yourself?”
“I have another one.”
He walked over to his study, only to return minutes later with another gun in his hand. Höllerer was gazing through the window, a pensive look on his amiable face.
“Shouldn’t your guest and Rex be back by now?”
“You’re right. They’ve been gone quite a long time. I hope -”
The sound of gunshots fired not so far away brought the two men to their feet and had them running towards the windows. Höllerer moved with a speed and agility which belied his rather rotund shape. They stayed back to avoid making a target, anxiously scanning the garden, and the driveway respectively. Nothing could be seen, in the deepening twilight outside, but now Brandtner could hear Rex barking furiously, calling his dad out to assist him. Brandtner heeded the call. Höllerer picked the front door when his former co-worker chose the back. Silently, efficiently, they covered the perimeter. Still nothing, but they could hear Rex’ barking, leading the way. It seemed their objective was out in the stretch of woodland, behind the house.
A bullet zinged by, uncomfortably close to Brandtner’s head and he hit the ground, rolling over, taking cover behind an oak, just on the border between his garden and the woodland. He scanned the darkness behind him to catch sight of Höllerer and there he was. A looming shadow, against the darker background. As their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, they began to make out other shapes. Two attackers, swiftly, quitetly making their way from tree to tree, staying low, never presenting a target for longer than seconds at a time.
Where were Rex and Fuchs? They had to be somewhere nearby, most likely taking cover as well, but it was only a matter of time before the attackers found their prey. Rex had fallen silent. His superior senses had detected the approach of his dad and his old friend. Satisfied that he had called for backup he waited. Brandtner didn’t think the attackers had noticed that help was on its way. Trusting that Höllerer would provide cover for him, Brandtner ventured out of the relative security of his hiding-place. He had to find Rex, and make sure Fuchs was unharmed. Rex was fine, or his bark would have sounded different.
Stealthily making his way in the direction he guessed his dog and his guest were hiding, he kept his head low and stayed close to the ground. When he reached his objective, he couldn’t see anything and almost fell over Rex. In the darkness of the early night, the dog didn’t show up very clearly. Petting the dog, while making sure he was indeed alright, Brandtner looked around for his other protege. Yes. Fuchs was lying on the ground, curled up into a ball. It was too dark to see any blood, but Brandtner guessed he had been hit. With a gesture, he ordered Rex to stay with Fuchs, while he went after the shooters. Before he crept off again, he saw Rex crawling off a little distance to a spot where he could keep watch over his charge without being seen.
The men were professionals and Brandtner had to hand it to them, they moved quietly, and efficiently. It seemed they must have had the place staked out for some time, because they appeared to know their way around quite well. Not as well as Brandtner, however. This was his home and had been for a few years now. He knew it like the back of his hand. That meant he knew something the attackers might not be aware of. Very soon they would reach a steep incline. If you didn’t know about it, it was practically invisible. Stumbling about in the dark could mean risking your neck, literally. The fall was high enough to cause serious injury if you were out of luck. Brandtner intended to push them in that direction now. If he had any luck, they would fall, and fall badly.
Apparently, one of the men was confused about the direction. He must know his target had been hit at least once, but since Fuchs had obviously been able to move away, his location would be unknown. Still, the hunter knew his prey couldn’t have gone far.
Brandtner slowed his walk to a crawl and managed to get between the man and the precipice. He then made a small noise, like someone injured, and waited. The man obviously had keen hearing, and began walking towards the source of that sound. Staying completely still, hardly daring to breathe, Brandtner waited. He was rewarded. The incline was invisible in the deepening gloom. A crash and a curse announced the satisfactory conclusion the the deception. There was no more sound from the man who had fallen. He might have hit his head and lost consciousness, or – but Brandtner had no time to worry about that just now. He had to make his way back towards Rex and the others.
The other shooter had been in luck. He more or less stumbled across Fuchs’ hiding place. This was almost too easy. Keller’s little girlfriend wasn’t much of an adversary. One more shot and the job would be done. The man raised his gun to carry out his assignment.
A slight noise had the hitman staring in the other direction. Rex flew through the air, attaching his considerable jaws to the man’s arm, twisting it around, making him drop his weapon. By the time Brandtner had made his way back, all the fight had gone out of the man. His coat arm had to be torn to shreds.
“Alright, Rex. Let him go.”
Cuffing the man, Brandtner called for his old partner.
“Peter. Would you come and get this one for me?”
“What about the other one?”
“He fell down the slope. I haven’t heard anything from him since then. Rex, would you check on him? Bring him in, if he’s able to walk.”
Brandtner wanted to see to Fuchs.
“Are you ok?”
“Yes. He got me in the shoulder, but I think it’s ok.”
Brandtner kneeled on the ground and tried to make out any details of the prone form. He hesitated to touch Fuchs, knowing how he resented such intimacy.
“Do you think you could walk?”
Fuchs scrambled to get to his feet, smothering a whimper of pain. He felt faint, but considering the circumstances, he thought he was surprisingly well.
“Yes. I think the bullet just grazed my shoulder.”
“Is there much bleeding?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see when we get indoors. Where’s Rex? I want to thank him. Without his help -”
As if the mention of his name had brought him back, the dog barked encouragingly. Brandtner took that to mean that the other attacker was unconscious or dead. Either way, he could wait. It was time to call this in. Fuchs would need medical attention, and so would one or both of the shooters. The wounded man seemed to stumble, and Brandtner and Höllerer were just in time to catch him as he began to fall to the ground. There must have been more blood loss than he had thought. Between them, they supported the unconscious Fuchs, and placed him on the sofa. Taking advantage of his guest’s unconsciousness, Brandtner made a cursory physical examination. The injury was worse than they had at first thought. Brandtner thought the bullet had passed through the shoulder, leaving a rather large exit wound, hence the excessive bleeding.
“Peter, would you call for an ambulance and report this incident to our colleagues?”
By the time the ambulance, and the police, represented by Böck had arrived, Fuchs had come to. He refused to be taken to hospital, so the paramedics treated him on the spot. They left, taking the two wounded shooters away with them. One of the men was in serious condition, the other had severe dog bite wounds on his arm, but it appeared he would make a full recovery.
Höllerer calmed Böck down, and after encouraging the little man to leave, he too, left for home. By now, Fuchs was conscious and had allowed himself to be moved to the guest room bed. The paramedics had given him something for the pain, and he appeared to be in surprisingly good condition, emotionally and physically.
“I guess he just wants me dead.”
“That’s something to be grateful for, I guess.”
Rex jumped up on the bed, settling down at Fuchs’ feet.
“Rex. You know the rules.”
Yes, Rex knew them well. ‘Stay off the guest room bed’ was a recommendation, not an order, so he stayed put, knowing he usually got away with things by displaying an endearingly innocent face. What? I don’t understand, he seemed to say.
“It’s alright. I don’t mind. Thank you, Rex. For saving my life. You too, mr Brandtner.”
“Just doing my job.”
“I think you’re doing more than can be expected. You mustn’t think I don’t appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
Rex began to crawl towards the head of the bed, carefully avoiding bumping into the wounded man, and accidentally hurting his shoulder. Once he got to Fuchs’ face, he proceeded to lick the now even paler cheek.
“Rex, that’s enough. Sorry about that. Sometimes -”
“Never mind. I’m fine.”
“Ok, suit yourself. I’ll bring you dinner in a little while and then you’d better get some sleep.”
When Brandtner returned to the guest room, he found that Fuchs had fallen asleep. Weighing the need for nutrition against the need for rest, Brandtner finally decided that food could wait. Time enough the following day.
That morning, Fuchs slept late. Around ten, Brandtner received a much awaited phone call. This pretty much settled things. It was obvious that Austria wasn’t safe anymore for Fuchs. Even serving a life sentence, Keller would never rest until he had his revenge on the man who had sold him out. However, after receiving the message, Brandtner was sure Fuchs would be safe. Brandtner silently walked over and opened the guest room door a crack. Yes, finally, his guest was awake. Maybe the sound of the phone ringing had woken him up.
“How are you doing?”
“Not bad, considering.”
“Want me to bring some breakfast?”
“I guess so. That phone call, was it anything to do with me?”
Brandtner decided that Fuchs would much rather have some good news about his future, than the breakfast tray, so he entered the room and sat down on a chair near the head of the bed.
“Yes. Good news, in fact. How would you feel about Australia?”
“Australia? As in moving there?”
“Are you serious? How have you been able to fix this?”
“I pulled in a favor or two. The paperwork is on its way.”
“What’s going to happen to me over there?”
“You’ll get a job and a new life. If you’re sure. I could tell them you want to wait and see if you can get a protected identity in Germany or Switzerland, or somewhere around here.”
“No. I’ll go. This is too good to turn down. Thanks. I owe you.”
“Don’t worry about it. Thanks to you, we’ve been able to put Keller and his gang away for good. Now, how about that breakfast?”
After breakfast, the doorbell rang, and Brandtner slid over to the door and peeked outside. He put away his gun and relaxed. It was Böck, bringing the promised paperwork.
“Hello, Christian. I thought you’d want to send Kunz over.”
“No. If you want a job done, you’d better do it yourself. Is he awake?”
“Why? Did you want to go in and say hello?”
Böck ignored the taunt. He wasn’t sure why he had come. In a way, he was beginning to feel guilty about the way he had treated Fuchs. Whatever else the man was, he was no coward. The way he had accepted the threats against him without showing any fear had impressed Böck, reluctant as he was to relent. In addition, he had heard Richie speak of Fuchs in a slightly less chilly tone at times. It seemed the two men had grown up together and been friends for greater part of their childhood. Even Richie hadn’t hated Fuchs as much as could have been expected.
“I’ll take those, thanks. Why don’t you go on into the kitchen and have some coffee? I sent Rex out to get a few sausage sandwiches. There should be one or two left for you, if you hurry.”
“What about the sofa in the living room?”
“There’s still a big blood stain there since last night. I’ll have it sent to the cleaners later.”
Inside the guest room, Fuchs had managed to sit up. Brandtner debated with himself on whether he should help Fuchs with the pillows or let him manage on his own. The seemingly uncomfortable position made him decide. He bent over his guest and quickly pulled up the pillows behind Fuchs’ back.
“Thanks. Was that Böck?”
“Yes. Don’t worry about it. He’s not coming in here.”
“He doesn’t bother me. Guys like that are wimps at heart. I could hold him off like this, with one arm.”
“I noticed. Here. Your new identity.”
Brandtner lay the passport and the other documents out on Fuchs’ lap. He opened the passport and flipped through the pages for his guest’s inspection.
“Axel Hoffmann? Hm. I like it. Good name. I always felt Ernst was such an old man’s name. My mother told me it was her father’s name. Axel. Yes. I could get used to it. 27? A new name, a new life and a bit of rejuvenation. Good. If only I could really erase and rewind and go back a few years.”
“How old are you really?”
“You don’t look it. I suppose this suits you better.”
“Maybe. Who’s the real Axel?”
“I’m not sure there is one.”
“Oh. I’d hate to take some poor sod’s name and life from him.”
“If there was a real Axel, my guess is he’s dead. Forget him. You’re Axel now. Better get used to it.”
“I’ll try. I can’t believe this. What have I done to deserve this?”
“You know what you’ve done. Only a handful of people are as brave as that. Most of them are dead. Don’t waste this new chance.”
“Don’t worry about it. I won’t. Well, Rex, I guess this is goodbye. Take good care of your dad. I’ll miss you. Both of you.”
That last statement was barely a whisper. Fuchs glanced down on the dog, to avoid the embarrassment of facing his benefactor. Brandtner understood. He was feeling a little awkward himself. It was time he remembered his other guest, even if it was only Böck.
“As soon as the doctors give you a clean bill of health, we’ll drive you to the airport. I think we’ll use an ambulance, or maybe a van of some kind. That way you’ll stay out of the public eye.”
“Will you and Rex be ok? Now that Keller knows you’re involved.”
“Oh, we’ll be just fine. It was you he was after. Once you’re gone he won’t have any interest in me. And I can tell you right away, that Ernst Fuchs died in the shooting incident last night. Those two hitmen won’t dare to contradict that story, once it hits the papers. Keller might suspect something, but I don’t think he’ll have any way of tracing you. Leave all that behind.”
Brandtner made sure his guest was comfortable, then returned to his colleague. Böck was helping himself to the two remaining sausage sandwiches.
“Oh, hi, Alex. You did say that -”
“Of course. They were meant for you – or Kunz if he’d been the one to bring the paperwork. Thanks. In a day or two, I’ll be back at the office. Nothing major has turned up?”
“No. Nothing I can’t handle. Alex – I’m sorry I overreacted earlier. You were right and I was wrong. Like you said, once a man has paid his dues, he’s like any other man. Richie wouldn’t have wanted me to treat his old friend like this.”
“I don’t think so either. I’m sorry I never met Moser, but I know he was an excellent officer and a good friend. It was a sad loss to the department.”
Böck seemed to accept Brandtner’s unspoken attempt at reconciliation. Nothing more was said about Fuchs or Moser.
Three days later, Brandtner and Böck took Fuchs – or rather Hoffmann – to the airport. They waited to see him off, then drove back to the station in silence. 48 hours later they received word from their Australian colleagues that Hoffmann had arrived safely, and was on his way to his new home. That was the last they heard from Fuchs, or Hoffmann as he would now be known, for about three months. Then one morning, a letter arrived at the office, addressed to Alex and Rex Brandtner. Brandtner stared at the envelope, a slightly puzzled expression on his face. Not many people would address a letter to him that way. But speculation was useless, so he tore it open and looked at the contents. There was a short note and a photo. In the photo, a healthy-looking young man smiled back at him. At the man’s feet was a large puppy. It seemed to be a sheepdog of some kind.
“What was that, Alex?”
“It’s a letter from Axel and Lotti.”
“Lotti? He’s got a girlfriend already? Those good looking guys move fast.”
“Actually, Lotti’s more like a daughter. Take a look. The girlfriend’s name is – Muriel. Funny name. She’s not in the picture. Just Lotti.”
“Oh, a dog. Look at that baby, Rex. What do you think of her?”
Rex barked enthusiastically, either because he knew Kunz was on his way with the sausage sandwiches, or because he recognized his friend Fuchs, or whatever the humans called him. Then he bounded over to the door to greet Kunz, the sandwich bringer. Life went on, after all, and a dog could always eat.FIN