Wild Cards on Tor.com

Berlin Is Never Berlin

For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. “Berlin is Never Berlin” by Marko Kloos draws upon the seedier side of the city, beyond the dance club lights and all-night parties, as one bodyguard with a certain feline distinction goes on the prowl….Khan only had one job: chauffuer and guard a American weathly socialite and her friends. When his client Natalie Scuderi gets nabbed by the Georgian mafia, this joker-ace has no choice but to go underground and rescue her. “Losing the man’s daughter on the job would be a fatal black mark on his professional resume. Khan had never lost a client, and he wasn’t about to start a habit.”

 

 

The plane was only three hours into its flight when Khan was entertaining the thought of a massacre for the first time.

The surroundings were posh, and it was easily the most comfortable air travel he had ever enjoyed. Sal Scuderi’s private jet had the full executive luxury package, and the club seating in the Lear was so roomy that even Khan, all six foot three and three hundred pounds, could stretch his legs a little. There was a bar stocked with premium liquor, and he didn’t even have to pour his own drinks because they had a flight attendant on staff. The surroundings were more than fine. It was the company that triggered homicidal thoughts in Khan before they had even made it out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Natalie Scuderi, Sal’s daughter and Khan’s protectee for the week, traveled with an entourage. There were only four, but Khan suspected that she had picked her friends after a long and thorough vetting process to find the vapidest rich kids in the country. They had started with the champagne right before takeoff. Five minutes after wheels-up, they had commandeered the impressively loud luxury entertainment system in the cabin and started listening to Top 40 shit at high volume. It was a seven-hour flight to Iceland and then another three-hour hop to Berlin from there, and Natalie’s entourage seemed determined to party all the way through the trip.

A simple job, Khan thought as he watched the scene from the front of the plane, where he had a spot to himself next to the bar. Babysitting a bunch of spoiled kids. Easy money.

The center of the cabin had a four-seat club arrangement and a leather couch, and Natalie’s friends were all piled on the couch, glasses in their hands, talking loudly over the music and giving Khan a headache. Natalie herself was sitting in the back of the plane, in the single seat next to the bathroom. She was wearing headphones the size of canned hams on her head, and she was typing away on the computer she had propped on the little tray table in front of her.

Sal Scuderi was a high-risk insurance salesman and one of the main money-laundering outlets for the Chicago mob. His daughter dabbled in acting and singing, but as far as Khan could tell, she was mostly famous for being famous. They were on the way to Berlin, where Natalie was booked for introducing a new fashion line and opening a nightclub. Having a joker-ace as a bodyguard conveyed a certain image, and plenty of entertainment industry celebrities were willing to shell out money just to rent that image for a night or a long weekend out on the club circuit. Khan didn’t mind those jobs—they were easy money, just hanging out in clubs and looking mean for the cameras. But even milk run jobs had their hazards, and one of them was a migraine headache. He spent some time extending and retracting the claws of his tiger hand a few times while looking pointedly at the big-screen TV on the bulkhead above the couch, and someone turned down the volume a little. Just to make sure it stuck, he got out of his seat and walked to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. When he was between the couch and the giant TV, he took the remote and clicked the volume down a few more notches for good measure.

When he emerged from the bathroom, Natalie Scuderi had taken off her headphones and closed the lid on her laptop.

“How do you like the ride?”

Khan closed the door behind him and shrugged. “Beats the hell out of flying coach,” he replied.

“I’ve never flown coach.” The way she said it wasn’t boastful, just a statement of fact.

“Count yourself blessed.”

Khan noticed that Natalie’s gaze flicked from one side of his face to the other, and he knew that she was looking at the tiger half without being too obvious about it. Khan’s left body half was that of a Bengal tiger, and the demarcation line between man and cat went right down the centerline of his body. For a mob bodyguard, the tiger half paid many dividends. It gave him the strength, reflexes, senses, teeth, and claws of a tiger, and it made him look dangerous and imposing. Not even the roughest or most drunken blockheads wanted to test their mettle against a guy who was half apex predator. Claws and teeth had a way of triggering people’s primal fears.

Travis, Eli, and Melissa—Natalie’s friends—had been in such awe of Khan that none of them had even tried to make small talk with him. Now that he was standing next to Natalie and talking to her, someone had decided that he wasn’t going to tear off any heads on the spot. Melissa got up from the couch and sauntered over, champagne glass in hand.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Khan said.

She gestured at the line that bisected his face, fur on one side and skin on the other. He had grown out a beard to match the fur fringe on the tiger half of his jaw, to keep his looks symmetrical.

“Does that go, like, all the way down your body? Right down the middle?”

She tried to make it sound light and casual, but he knew what she was trying to ask because he had gotten the same question hundreds of times. Under normal circumstances, he would have given her a clever or flirty reply, like You’ll have to buy me drinks first to find out. But she wasn’t a paying client, and her gaggle of friends had been annoying Khan too much for him to tolerate a personal question like that.

“That’s none of your business,” he said. “Buzz off.”

The girl beat a hasty retreat to the lounge area. Next to Khan, Natalie chuckled and opened her laptop again.

“Now she won’t talk to you again for the rest of the trip.”

“That is fine with me,” Khan replied. “She doesn’t have to talk to me. She just needs to listen when I tell her to do stuff.”

Back on the couch, Natalie’s chastened friend shot Khan a glare. Then she picked up the TV remote and turned the volume up again.

This is going to be a long fucking week, Khan thought.

 

There was always some security bullshit involved when a joker-ace like Khan traveled by air, but it was increased by a few orders of magnitude when international borders were involved. Scuderi’s private plane meant that Khan hadn’t had to suffer the enhanced screening before their departure in Chicago, but the Germans weren’t going to let him skip a damned thing. He’d had to file his plans in advance, and when the Lear stopped at the private terminal at Berlin’s shiny new Brandenburg Airport, there was a welcoming committee waiting for him at customs and immigration.

“What is the purpose of your visit?” the customs officer asked when he checked Khan’s passport.

“Business,” Khan said. “I’m a bodyguard. My client is going through your no-hassle line over there right now.”

“Are you bringing any weapons into the country at this time?”

“No weapons,” Khan replied. He knew they’d go through his luggage anyway and check thoroughly. He carried a gun back home when he was working—no point disadvantaging yourself in a fight—but when he traveled out of the country, he didn’t pack so much as a nail file. Foreign cops got twitchy enough when they saw the teeth and claws, and if they hadn’t been firmly attached to him, he was sure they’d have made him leave those at home as well.

“Very well,” the officer said. “In accordance with laws and regulations regarding the admission of foreign persons with enhanced abilities, I have to ask you to follow my colleague back to the room for your entry screening. You can choose to decline, but in that case you will be denied entry into the Federal Republic.”

“Lead the way,” Khan grumbled. The world had had seventy years to get used to jokers and aces, and they still got civil rights parceled out to them like the nats were giving them treats for good behavior. Khan wasn’t the type for political activism, but something in him bristled at having to ask permission to come and go from some pencil-necked bureaucrats when everyone in the room would already be cut into bloody ribbons if he had violence on his mind. The security kabuki existed to make the nats feel safer, and they knew that as well as he did.

The inspection was Teutonically thorough. They made him strip down to his underwear, snapped pictures of him with a sophisticated spatial camera array mounted on the wall of the screening room, and took prints and iris scans.

“You sure you don’t want to put a tracking bracelet on me?” he asked when they rolled his tiger hand over the electronic print scanner—once with claws retracted, once with them extended.

“We only use those for certain criminal offenders,” the police officer taking his print said, mild pique in his voice. “You are not an offender.”

Could have fooled me, Khan thought, but he decided to keep it to himself. Customs and border police everywhere had a low tolerance threshold for humor and sarcasm.

The circus started almost right after Natalie’s entourage left the private aviation terminal. They had transportation waiting outside, two big Mercedes limousines. There was a small crowd of fans and photographers by the exit, snapping pictures with cameras and phones and yelling Natalie’s artist name excitedly when they spotted her. Natalie went by the mononym “Rikki,” which sounded like the annoying call of an exotic bird when it was shouted by dozens of people at high volume.

Khan stepped ahead of Natalie and walked between her and the bulk of the crowd. When they all caught sight of him, there were some audible gasps. He put on his most humorless face and rasped a low growl when the front rank of excited fans came a little too close for comfort. None of them dared to come within an arm’s length, and he ushered Natalie to one of the waiting limousines. As she climbed into the backseat, he stood guard and looked around. The situation was innocuous enough, a bunch of teenage kids squealing and taking pictures, but something made the hairs on the back of Khan’s neck stand up a little.

Over in the group of paparazzi standing twenty feet away, there were two guys who Khan thought didn’t quite act right. They weren’t shouting at him or Natalie’s entourage to pose for shots like the rest of them. They weren’t even particularly engaged in taking photos, and when they did, they seemed to focus on him rather than the celebrity he was guarding. When they noticed his attention, they shifted their lenses and snapped shots of Natalie through the car window like the rest of them. Khan tried to get their scents, but this place was full of new and unfamiliar smells, there were ten or fifteen people between him and the two not-quite-right photographers, and his group had almost finished entering the cars. Khan held out an arm to keep one of Natalie’s friends from getting into the front passenger seat.

“That’s my spot,” he told him. “You ride in the back or in the other car.”

The kid moved off to the second waiting car. Khan closed the rear passenger door and lowered himself into the front seat next to the driver. He made sure to keep eye contact with the two fishy photographers, just so they’d be aware they had been noticed.

I don’t know who you are, but I see you, he thought. As they rolled off past the squealing crowd of fans, one of the photographers lowered his camera, pointed a finger, and cocked his thumb like the hammer of a gun.

Pow.

 

Khan’s tiger half didn’t sweat. This was something that he hadn’t known about canines and felines before his card had turned. Cats and dogs shed excess heat through panting, and through the pads on their paws. If he dressed to keep his tiger side cool, his human side was too cold, and if he dressed to keep his human half warm, his tiger half was too well insulated. Finding a happy medium was difficult even on temperate days. In the middle of a nightclub, the heat from hundreds of bodies contesting with the building’s inadequate air conditioning, it was downright impossible. Half an hour after the start of Natalie’s first engagement in Berlin, Khan’s button-down was soaked in sweat. He was standing close to his charge, shielding access to the booth where she was holding court with her entourage, while the crowd was mingling and hopping around on the floor to relentless Europop tunes.

The new nightclub was ostentatiously exclusive. All the patrons wore designer clothes and expensive watches, and Khan was sure that the cocaine being done in the bathrooms was high-grade stuff. He wasn’t much into pop culture these days, but even he recognized some of the celebrities lounging in the booths that surrounded the dance floor. One of the nearby booths held a group that was even more conspicuous than Natalie and her entourage. In the center of it was a playboy princeling from the one of the oil-rich Gulf states that had been swallowed up by the Caliphate, someone whose face was featured in the tabloids on a regular basis. He was tan and toned, with a thousand-dollar pair of sunglasses on his face and a Swiss watch on his wrist that was worth more than Khan’s car. Khan watched him trying to get Natalie’s attention for a little while. Finally, the princeling got out of his booth and walked over to Natalie’s corner, two bodyguards in dark suits immediately trailing three feet behind and on either side of him.

“Hold up there, sport,” Khan said and held out an arm to bar the way into the booth. The princeling looked at him with an irritated expression. He turned toward his bodyguards and said something that made them laugh, and Khan let out a slow breath and flexed his muscles to get ready for a tussle.

“It’s okay,” Natalie shouted from behind. “You can let him in. Only him, though.”

“You heard the lady,” Khan said to the princeling, who still regarded him like he was something rotting the dogs had dragged in. The princeling waved his hand curtly over his shoulder without turning around, and his bodyguards took a step back.

The princeling squeezed past Khan and sat down in the booth with Natalie’s group. For a while, they talked and drank together; Khan tried to ignore the insipid conversation while the princeling’s bodyguards tried to ignore him. Like their boss, they wore their sunglasses inside, which made them look like jackasses.

Khan smelled the trouble flaring up at the moment it started behind him, that unmistakable whiff of adrenaline and high emotions right before a fight breaks out. He started to turn around just as some liquid splashed the back of his neck and the tiger side of his face. One of the girls had voiced her anger at the princeling and emptied a drink in his direction, and some of the splash had hit Khan instead. From the way the prince’s hand recoiled from Natalie’s friend Melissa, Khan could guess the reason for the sharp and sudden outrage. And then, almost reflexively, the princeling slapped Melissa. The strike was hard enough to make her head rock back. Blood came gushing from her nose, and the metallic smell of it permeated the air.

Next to Khan, one of the princeling’s bodyguards caught on to the action and tried to wedge himself past Khan and between Melissa and the princeling. Khan yanked him by the collar of his suit and tossed him away from the booth and onto the dance floor, where he fell on his ass with a yelp and skidded backward a foot or two.

Behind Khan, the second bodyguard let out a curse in his own language and reached underneath his suit coat. Khan seized the hand holding the pistol with his tiger hand and wrapped his fingers firmly around the wrists of the other man. The second bodyguard dropped the gun with a strangled yelp. Khan caught it with his human hand before it could hit the floor.

“No guns,” he growled.

The pistol was one of the new lightweight European cop guns, with a frame made of reinforced polymer. He let go of the bodyguard’s wrist, transferred the gun to his tiger hand, and crushed it right in front of the man’s face. The frame buckled in his fist and then started spilling little metal tabs and springs from its insides. Khan hit the other man in the face with the barrel assembly. He shook the plastic bits of the frame to the floor and flung the broken gun parts aside as the second bodyguard dropped to the floor.

With Khan blocking the exit of the booth, the princeling scrambled over the back of the seating corner to get away. Khan took two long steps and hauled him up by the back of his shirt. The princeling yelped as Khan spun him around and tossed him onto the seat. Then he wrapped his tiger hand around the princeling’s neck and extended his claws just a little, enough to let the man know that hasty movements were now unwise. Khan smelled fear coming from him in big olfactory waves, and his heart was racing. It felt like holding a panicked rabbit by the ears. Next to them, Natalie’s entourage was in a headless, noisy panic, trying to stay out of Khan’s way and tend to Melissa at the same time.

“Touch them again, and I’ll rip your head off, you little chickenshit,” Khan said to the wild-eyed princeling. He finished the statement with a low, rasping growl and was rewarded with the smell of fresh piss wafting up from below the man’s waistline. Natalie’s friends were annoying as hell, but they were his charges, and men who hit women ranked lower on Khan’s vermin scale than plague-carrying sewer rats.

He lifted the princeling off his feet and threw him toward the first bodyguard, who was still sitting on the floor and dusting off his dignity. The two men collided hard and went down in a tangle of limbs.

Khan closed a hand around Natalie’s arm and pulled her to her feet.

“We have to go,” he said. “Right now.”

He was glad to see that Natalie seemed too shaken to argue, because he didn’t want to have to carry her out of the place like a sack of playground sand. Her retinue rushed to follow when they saw that Khan wasn’t stopping to wait, and they hurried across the dance floor toward the exit.

They were halfway across the floor when the doors of the nightclub opened and half a dozen angry-looking guys in suits pushed their way into the crowd. All of them were wearing ear pieces and grim expressions. The crowd around the periphery of the dance floor was densely packed, and the newcomers were pushing people aside with force as they came through. Khan turned and looked around for the fire exits. Things were about to get complicated, and Khan didn’t want to wait around to see whose side the cops would take.

There was a bouncer stationed at the fire exit. He stepped in front of Khan and his group as they approached the door and held up his hand in the universal “hold it” gesture. Khan wasted no time trying to figure out language commonalities. He grabbed the bouncer by the wrist of his outstretched hand and yanked him aside. The bouncer stumbled and went to one knee with an indignant yelp. Then he got back to his feet and lunged at Khan, who stopped him cold by raising his tiger hand and extending his claws in front of the man’s face.

“Don’t,” Khan snarled.

The bouncer blanched and backed off. Khan pushed the exit open, and the fire alarm started blaring instantly. The noise felt like a physical thing assaulting his ears despite the earbuds that kept the volume to tolerable levels for Khan, and once they were out in the cooler evening air of the street and the decibel level subsided a little, he almost sighed with relief. Behind them, the bouncer appeared in the door and yelled something in angry German, but made no move to follow them.

God, I fucking hate nightclubs, Khan thought.

 

Outside, Khan led the group away from the nightclub’s back entrance, which proved to be a more difficult task than putting the princeling’s bodyguards on their asses. Natalie was surprisingly helpful and collected. She was propping up Melissa and holding a wad of tissues underneath the other girl’s nose. Melissa and the two boys, however, acted like they had just survived a flaming plane crash. After the tenth high-pitched “Oh my God!” in fifty meters, Khan lost his patience.

“Would you shut up,” he told them. “She got slapped in the face, not shot in the head. Now move your asses before someone sends those cops after us.”

“He broke my fucking nose!” Melissa wailed, her exclamation only slightly muffled by the tissues Natalie was pressing against her face to catch the blood.

“We’ll have the front desk at the hotel call an ambulance,” Natalie offered. Melissa glared at Khan, but kept pace with the group.

Khan never used valet services. He had parked their rented luxury SUV in a garage half a block away from the nightclub. He rushed his charges to the garage as fast as he felt they could go without having to carry Melissa, who was still acting like someone had cut off half her face. The club was in a hip part of the city, and the sidewalks were still busy with foot traffic, but most people gave Khan and his group a wide berth.

He led everyone up the staircase onto the rooftop parking deck and had them get into their SUV. When it was Melissa’s turn to board, he held her back and turned her to face him.

“Let me see that nose,” he said. She grimaced and lowered the tissue wad she had been pressing against her nose for the last five minutes. The tissue had some red splotches on it, but the trickle of blood coming from her nostrils had already stopped. Khan had seen a lot of busted noses over the years, and hers was as straight as it had been on the plane yesterday.

“That’s not broken,” he told her. “He just gave you a little nosebleed, that’s all. Now let’s get out of here.”

The parking garage had three levels, with a ramp setup that required Khan to make a full circumnavigation of every deck before descending to the one below it. It was all ninety-degree turns, and the traffic lanes were narrower than the ones in American parking garages, so Khan had to take extra care every time he took a turn with the big seven-seat SUV they had rented. Back home, the size of it would have been nothing out of the ordinary, but over here, it felt like he was driving a monster truck.

He was making yet another right-hand turn at the end of a downward ramp when he saw headlights coming at them from the right. The strike was perfectly timed. Even with his reflexes, he had no chance to react and get the SUV out of the way of the other car, which had been shielded from his view by the concrete wall to the right of the ramp. Before he could even yell a warning, the other car plowed into their SUV. It struck the front of the car and caved in the passenger door. Khan felt the SUV lurching to the left with the force of the impact. To their left, the wall of the garage’s lower level wasn’t far away, and the driver’s side of the SUV slammed into it with the dull crunch of metal on concrete. Behind Khan, Natalie and her entourage shrieked in unison.

The look of tense concentration on the face of the other driver told Khan that this was an ambush, not an accident. The SUV was pinned in a sideways vise between the wall and the front of the other car. To his left, the concrete wall kept Khan from opening his door, and to his right, the other car’s bumper had dented in the passenger-side door.

“Get down,” he shouted at Melissa and her crew. Then he made a fist with his tiger hand and punched out the spiderwebbed windshield of the SUV. Khan sliced his seatbelt in half with one claw and climbed out onto the hood.

A second car pulled up behind the one that had rammed them into the wall and came to a stop with squealing tires. All the doors seemed to open at once, and several people came rushing around the first car and toward the SUV. Khan leapt over the hood of the car that had rammed them and placed himself in front of the right rear passenger door of the SUV. Someone in the SUV tried to open the door from the inside, and he pushed it shut again.

“Stay there,” he shouted through the glass. “Call the cops. Number’s one-one-zero.”

He figured they’d send their biggest bruiser against him first, and the attackers did not disappoint. The guy who lunged at him was clearly a wild card. He was easily as tall as Khan and looked half again as heavy, with arms that were as wide around as Khan’s thighs. His face was dark gray, the skin ashen and rough like the bark on an ancient tree. Khan dodged a massive gnarled fist and raked his claws across the man’s side. It felt like taking a swipe at the trunk of a Pacific redwood. Then Tree Guy swung his arm around and caught Khan in a backhand that sent him flying over the hood of the attackers’ car. He tumbled across the dirty concrete of the garage deck and crashed into a parked car, taking out a taillight in the process. Khan scrambled back to his feet. His right arm felt like it had been smacked with a railroad tie.

In front of him, Tree Guy hooked one of his huge hands underneath the wheel well of the car Khan had sailed over. Then he lifted the car off its front wheels and pushed it out of his way in a motion that almost looked casual. His companions seemed content with letting Tree Guy do the heavy lifting of the fight. They were all over the rental car now. One of them yanked on the handle of the one door that was undamaged and reachable. When the door didn’t open, he flicked open a collapsible steel baton and swung it at the window, which cracked into a spiderweb on the first blow. Tree Guy wedged himself through the gap he had created between the cars and walked toward Khan with heavy, unhurried steps.

Khan extended his tiger arm to one side and let his claws pop out with a flick of his wrist. The flick wasn’t a necessity, but it always made him feel like he was getting ready for serious business, like pushing the button on a switchblade. Usually, even the big mob bruisers flinched at the sight of Khan’s curved three-inch claws, but Tree Guy’s expression didn’t change a bit. Khan bellowed a roar, and one of the nearby parked cars started bleating its alarm as if in fearful protest.

So you’re strong but slow, Khan thought. I can work around that.

His right arm was out of commission, but his legs still worked fine. Khan tensed his muscles and leapt sideways just as Tree Guy was about to reach him. He landed on the hood of the wailing car fifteen feet away, then pushed himself off for another leap toward the rental. The unknown goons had succeeded in smashing the rear passenger door’s window. Khan landed on three of his four extremities right behind the two men who were now fumbling to get the door open. He grabbed one of them by the collar of his shirt and yanked him away from the car as hard as he could. The man flew backward with a yelp, arms flailing.

The other man was still holding the baton he had used to smash the window. He barked an obvious obscenity in some Slavic language—Russian, or maybe Ukrainian—and lashed out with the baton. Khan had expected a swing, and the straight jab aimed at his chest took him by surprise. Even with his reflexes, he barely managed to deflect the jab, his claws clicking against the hard steel of the baton. The other man didn’t drop the weapon. Instead, he pulled it back and brought it down on Khan’s hand. The pain shot all the way from his hand up to his elbow, and Khan roared again. He made a fist and drove it into the other man’s face as hard as he could. Baton Guy’s head rocked back and smacked into the door frame of the rental car, and he went down hard and dropped to the ground with a muffled thudding sound. His baton dropped from his hand and clattered away on the concrete.

Khan sensed the blow aimed at him from behind and ducked out of the way just in time. Tree Guy’s arm barely missed the top of his head, whistling by so close that it ruffled his hair. Then the swing landed against the upper frame of the car door and crunched into it hard enough to rock the vehicle on its suspension and dent the roof in by half a foot.

Tackling Tree Guy was only marginally less futile than swiping at him. Khan went low and put all his bodyweight into the move, three hundred pounds of enhanced feline strength, but he only managed to rock him back on his heels. Tree Guy’s right arm came down, and Khan aborted his tackling attempt and rolled out of the way to avoid getting his spine pulverized. The last goon still standing decided to join the fray. He came around the back of the attackers’ car and closed in on Khan.

“He is stronger than you. You will not beat him,” the goon said in heavily accented English. Khan saw that he was holding a knife.

“Don’t have to beat him,” Khan snarled. “Just you.”

Tree Guy was almost upon him again, so Khan advanced against the last goon, who widened his stance a little and planted his feet. The utter lack of fear or concern from these men was a little unnerving. At home, nine out of ten bush league crooks would turn tail and run at the sight of his claws and teeth, and these guys stood their ground against him in a hand-to-hand melee, armed with nothing but blades and impact weapons so far. They had to be supremely stupid or very sure of themselves.

With the blade in the game, Khan felt free to bring his own cutlery into play. The goon feigned a jab with his left, and Khan obliged the ruse by raising his tiger arm to protect his face. When the man’s other hand flashed forward to plant the blade between his ribs, Khan brought his arm back down in a short and swift arc that was perfectly timed. The knife bounced to the ground, along with two or three of the goon’s fingers, and the blow forced him to one knee.

Nearby, the sound of distant police sirens reached Khan’s ears. He allowed himself a small grin. Another minute, and the German cops would be all over this parking garage.

Two rock-hard, unyielding hands grabbed him by the fabric of his jacket collar and the waistband of his slacks. He flung the elbow of his good arm backward in an arc and smashed it into Tree Guy’s head, but to no effect. His feet left the ground as Tree Guy lifted him up. Khan felt like a kitten someone was shaking by the scruff. Tree Guy lifted him over his head seemingly without effort. Then Khan was airborne. He tumbled in midair, trying to roll around to land on his feet, but the boost he had just gotten was so violently forceful and sudden that even his cat reflexes failed him this time. He sailed over a long row of cars and smashed into the side of a minivan, and the impact knocked all the breath out of him.

When he came to a rest on the glass-strewn garage deck, all his body’s warning lights seemed to be going off in his brain at once. He rasped a cough and tasted blood. The car alarms and the police sirens were still blaring, but everything sounded distant now, weak and faded, as if he had stuffed his ears with cotton balls. He tried to draw in a deep breath and muster the will to get up again, but the excruciating pain shooting through his chest made him abandon that impulse. People were shouting somewhere nearby, but he couldn’t make out the words. Somewhere in the noise, Khan thought he heard Natalie’s voice. Then there was the sound of slamming car doors and squealing tires. He tried to will himself to get to his feet, but his body refused to obey. When darkness finally washed over his consciousness, it felt almost comforting.

 

Khan woke up to the scent of alcohol and the sharp pain of something piercing the skin of his left arm. He tried to jerk the arm away from the source of the pain, but found that he couldn’t move it. When he opened his eyes, he saw that he was strapped down on a gurney, and a medic in an orange uniform was trying to insert a needle into his arm. The medic pulled the needle back when he saw Khan move and said something in German.

“Don’t speak the language,” Khan mumbled. His arm still hurt like hell, but it no longer felt like it had been worked over with a sledgehammer. He hadn’t lost consciousness since he had been sick with the effects of the virus when his card turned.

“Don’t move,” the medic replied in English. “You have broken bones and a head injury. Your spine may be injured too.”

Khan flexed his leg muscles against the pressure of the restraining straps. The buckles creaked under the force.

“Nothing wrong with my spine. Arm’s gonna be fine in a few hours too. Save your meds.”

“But you are badly injured. You may die without treatment.”

“I’m not dead,” Khan said. “That means I’ll be good as new tomorrow morning. Now take that needle away and unbuckle these straps before I tear them to shit and you have to buy new ones.”

The medic looked from Khan to someone else nearby and rattled off a few words in rapid-fire German. A moment later, a police officer walked up to them and looked down at Khan.

“You wish to decline treatment? We can not be held responsible if you do.”

“I’ll be fine. I’m a fast healer.”

The policeman exchanged a few words with the medic, who proceeded to unbuckle the gurney straps. Khan sat up and swung his legs over the edge to test them. Everything hurt, but nothing seemed broken below the waist. He put some weight on his feet and stood up with a grunt. The policeman and the medic took an involuntary step back as Khan unfolded himself to his full six foot three. He looked around to see that the parking deck was lousy with cops. There were at least a dozen of them, and several blue-and-silver police cars were clogging up the passageways of the deck and the nearby ramp, blue emergency lights flashing and radios squawking. The rental SUV stood alone and abandoned, its side dented in from the collision. The car that had rammed them was nowhere to be seen. Khan walked over to the SUV with slow and careful steps. It felt like someone had rubbed down his legs with broken glass, but he had gotten hurt in enough fights to know that he was already on the mend. The medic began to gather his supplies, but the police officer followed him, staying three steps behind.

“There were four people in this car. Two women and two men. Where are they?”

“There were two men and a woman in the car when we arrived. They have been taken to the hospital already.”

Khan didn’t have to ask which member of Natalie’s entourage was missing.

“You’re looking for a dark blue luxury sedan with front damage,” he said. “I didn’t see the brand because the front end was already in my passenger door by the time I saw the car. They kidnapped my client. Natalie Scuderi.”

“You will have to come with us to explain what happened and answer some questions.”

“Am I under arrest?” Khan asked.

“Not yet,” the officer said. He looked over to his colleagues, and Khan saw that he was nervously fingering his duty belt in the vicinity of his holstered pistol. “But we must insist.”

The last thing Khan wanted to do right now was to play twenty questions. Natalie’s trail was getting colder by the minute, and he had no time to waste. But there were lots of German cops in shouting range now, and they all carried guns and wore dour expressions. There was no way to decline the directive without starting to hurt people, and getting arrested for assault on police officers wouldn’t do a damn thing to get Natalie back either. He let out an annoyed sigh.

“Lead the way, then,” he said.

 

It wasn’t an arrest, but the whole affair wasn’t just a cordial exchange of information either. As soon as the German cops brought Khan into their police headquarters, a pair of officers in body armor appeared by his side and escorted him to an interview room, submachine guns held loosely by their sides but obviously ready for use. As they walked through the halls of the police station, passing officers glanced at Khan and gave him a wide berth. When they reached the room, Khan’s escort had him sit down on one of the chairs in front of the table inside. Then they took positions on either side of the door. Two people in plainclothes walked in and sat down on the other side of the table. Neither offered to shake his hand when they introduced themselves, and they started asking him a barrage of questions.

Half an hour later, Khan started to reconsider his earlier decision to comply without violence. The two cops across the table—he had forgotten their names almost right away—seemed to have a fetish for hearing the same information reiterated in twenty different ways. He was sure they were taking a page out of the police interview playbook, to see if they could catch him in contradictions and poke holes in his story, but Khan grew increasingly irritated.

“And you did not know these people at all?” one of the cops asked. “You had never seen them before since you got to Germany?”

“No.”

“What about the person you said was a”—he consulted the notepad in front of him—“joker-ace? The man who looked like his skin was made up of tree bark?”

“No,” Khan said. “Trust me, I would know if I had. Bastard picked me up and threw me fifty feet. Haven’t met a lot of joker-aces who can do that. Look, I love chatting with you fellas, but you really ought to be out there looking for the people who kidnapped Miss Scuderi. I think you won’t much enjoy the media shitstorm that’s about to come down on you.”

“The criminal police are already investigating,” the other cop said. “We have set up a dragnet to look for the car you have described, and for anyone matching the description of Frau Scuderi. But in the meantime, we have to be certain that you are telling the truth.”

“Of course I’m telling the fucking truth. What, you think I helped kidnap my own client?”

The cop shrugged and smiled in an apologetic way that seemed entirely insincere.

“I don’t know how such things work where you come from, but over here, that would not be unusual. We have many organized crime groups. Germans, Russians, Italians. Chechens, Serbians, Turks. There is a lot of competition. People cross over sometimes. For money or power.”

Khan felt the blood rise in his face.

“I’ve been in this business for ten years. The people I deal with, they go by reputation. Loyalty is everything to them. You betray their trust, you end up on your knees in a junkyard somewhere while they take your fingers off with a fucking pipe cutter. That’s how such things work where I come from.”

He extended his claws a little and drummed them on the table in front of him. They made a tapping sound that seemed very loud in the small room.

“Arrest me and inform the American embassy so they can send someone over. Or get off my ass and let me get back to my job. I have a missing client, and I don’t see you people doing jack shit to find her.”

The two cops exchanged a few sentences in German. Khan wondered what he’d do if they took him up on his challenge and locked him up. Finally, one of the cops rapidly clicked his pen a few times and dropped it on the notepad in front of him.

“You are not under arrest, Herr Khanna. But you will need to keep yourself available for further interviews. We have asked for assistance from our colleagues at the federal office for special abilities. They are sending someone from Kassel to talk to you.”

“Great. Tell them they can find me at the Hotel Adlon. If I’m not out and about.”

The two plainclothes officers got up from their chairs, and Khan rose with them.

“You will find that we here in Germany do not like it when people try to bring justice about on their own. Leave the police work to the police.”

“No worries,” Khan said and flexed his tiger hand slowly. “I’m just going to do some tourist stuff. Sightseeing. Maybe get some souvenirs.”

 

They’d handed him his stuff back when they released him, and his phone never stopped buzzing with incoming messages on the entire half-hour taxi ride back to the hotel. In her Rikki persona, Natalie was a big enough deal in the pop culture scene that her violent kidnapping would make front-page news on both sides of the Atlantic. Back home in Chicago, they were seven hours ahead of Berlin time, which meant the news clips reporting on the incident would make the evening broadcasts.

When they were almost back at the hotel, his phone chirped again. This time, it wasn’t the chime of a message, but an incoming call. Very few people had his mobile number, and those who did were people who wouldn’t react well to being ignored. The caller ID was “unknown,” but that wasn’t unusual. A lot of his clients were allergic to easy identification. He swiped to accept the call.

“Hello,” he said.

“The fuck have you been,” Sal Scuderi said, in a voice that was just one or two decibels short of a shout. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for hours. What the hell happened?”

“The German cops had my phone,” Khan replied. “Event last night went sideways, and we got jumped in the parking garage when we left the venue.”

“They said you were the best in the business. That’s why I fucking hired you. To keep shit like this from happening.”

“It was three nats and a joker-ace,” Khan replied. “They knew what they’d be up against. And they brought just the right guy for the job.”

“I don’t give a flying fuck if they hired Mighty Joe Young for the job. You were supposed to keep her safe. You find my girl and bring her home. If you want to ever get another job in this town, you bring her home and fix what you fucked up.”

Khan gritted his teeth. Scuderi was an insurance salesman, not a mob boss, but plenty of people in the Chicago scene relied on his services. Losing the man’s daughter on the job would be a fatal black mark on his professional resume. Khan had never lost a client, and he wasn’t about to start a habit.

“I’m going to find her,” he said. “That was a kidnapping, not a hit. They’ll come to someone with a ransom demand. Makes no sense any other way.”

“They already did,” Scuderi said. “I got a message this morning. They want thirty million. I have forty-eight hours to come up with the cash.”

“Did you take it to the Feds?”

“Fuck the Feds. The message said they’ll cut her up into small pieces if I involve the cops. Whatever you do, don’t fucking tell the Germans anything.”

“I may have to,” Khan said. “Not sure I can do this by myself. This isn’t Chicago. I don’t know the local players.”

“Then find someone who does,” Scuderi said. “You’ve worked for enough high rollers around here. Gotta be some favors you can call in. Just don’t run your mouth. If they kill my little girl, you’re going to be in a world of shit.”

“I’ll get her back. They won’t . . . oh, fuck me.” The car had slowed down and taken a turn into the driveway of the hotel, and Khan looked up to see a throng of people under the awning of the entrance, most wielding cameras or microphones.

“What is it?”

“I just got to the hotel. Fucking reporters everywhere. I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”

Khan ended the call, glad for an excuse to exit the conversation. If he wanted to find Natalie and determine who snatched her, he would need a clear head and no distractions.

The throng of reporters streamed around him as soon as he stepped out of the taxi. A dozen different people stuck microphones in his direction and asked him questions in both German and English. He tried to ignore them and quickly make his way to the entrance, but he found his way blocked by people and camera lenses. His frustration manifested itself in an unhappy growl deep in his throat, and the path ahead magically cleared enough for him to pick up his stride. The crowd of newspeople moved with him, but nobody tried to block his way again, and they all kept at least an arm’s length away.

Natalie’s talent agency had rented a huge three-bedroom suite on the top floor of the hotel. Khan half-expected to find the place tossed and ransacked, either by the cops or the people who had taken Natalie, but when he walked in, it looked just the way it had when they left it. He went into his own bedroom and changed out of his suit, which was now in tatters and smelled of medical disinfectant. When he peeled his old clothes off his body, he looked at himself in the mirror. The fight with Tree Guy had left its mark in the shape of a dozen bruises of various sizes and colors, from light red to angry purple. Khan’s wild card had given him the gift of rapid regeneration and recovery from injuries, but for some reason the quick healing factor didn’t extend to bruises, which took just as long to disappear as before. He stepped into the bathroom and turned on the shower, cranking the temperature adjustment as hot as it would go, then ran the water until the room was filled with steam. The scalding hot water hurt his bruises as if someone was punching him all over again, but the sensation wasn’t unwelcome. It kept his anger simmering, which was where he wanted it so he could bring it to a boil quickly.

It felt good to be in a clean suit and smell like himself again. Khan went through his luggage and took stock of the gear he had brought. There were no weapons in his bag, but even if he had brought any, he doubted that anything in his gun safe back home would make a dent in Tree Guy, who had shrugged off slashes from Khan’s claws that could have gutted a steer. He remembered the blows the other joker-ace had dished out, and the feeling of getting tossed over several rows of parked cars like a half-eaten bag of chips. This was not a fight he’d be able to win with his claws or teeth, but his brain wasn’t serving up any solutions to the problem, and the bag in front of him held no answers either.

Out in the suite, Khan heard the soft click of the main door lock and the voices of Natalie’s friends. They stopped their chatter when they saw him emerge from the bedroom. It took him a few seconds to recall the names of the two boys: Travis and Eli. Travis was wearing a large adhesive bandage above his eyebrow.

“You guys all right?” he asked.

“We’re okay, man,” Eli answered. “They didn’t do anything to us. Travis just got cut by some glass from the window. But they took Natalie.”

“No shit,” Khan said. “Tell me what you saw after they smashed in your window.”

Between the three of them, Khan was able to assemble a sketchy picture of what had gone on while he was busy getting the tar whomped out of him by Tree Guy. The attackers had bashed in the rear passenger window, dragged Natalie and her three friends out of the car, and made off only with Natalie, who had struggled against her abductors while they had stuffed her into the back of a second car that had pulled up while Khan was tied up fighting.

“Did they say anything?”

“Not to us,” Melissa said. “They were just talking to each other. Just a few words.”

“Any idea what language?” Khan asked.

Melissa and the boys shook their heads. He sighed and sat down on the couch next to them. Everything about this shouted mob hit to Khan. But why would the foreign mob here in Berlin have any interest in a socialite rich girl from Chicago? Kidnappings were usually high-risk, low-reward schemes thought up by desperate bush league amateurs, not pulled off by professional enforcers.

“I need to find out where they took Natalie,” Khan said. “If any of you have any ideas or remember anything else, tell me now. I want to know all the details. Even if you think it’s not important.”

“Have you tried her phone?” Melissa said.

Khan shook his head.

“That’s the first thing they would have taken from her. Unless they’re dumber than dirt. Everyone knows you can track a cell phone’s location.”

“Well, let’s see anyway.” Melissa pulled out her phone and tapped away at the screen. “We use that friend tracker thing. So we can find each other when we’re out together.”

Khan watched her mess around with her phone for a few moments. There was virtually no chance the kidnappers would have forgotten to strip Natalie of her phone, but he was fresh out of ideas at the moment, so he decided to humor Melissa. As expected, she let out a disappointed little huff and showed Khan the screen of her phone. It showed a map, and the last location of Natalie’s phone was marked with a gray dot. Khan took the phone and zoomed in on the map to see that the spot where her phone had last connected to the data network was the parking garage where they had gotten jumped.

“They turned it off. Or probably smashed it right there,” Khan said.

“Hey, I wonder if they got her watch too,” Eli said.

“What watch?”

“She bought one of those watches that connect to your phone. So she can track her workouts. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I really don’t,” Khan said. “But go on.”

“It’s like a computer on your wrist. You can even make calls with it.”

“Does it need the phone nearby to work?”

Eli shook his head. “Not the kind she’s got.”

“Can you track that thing?” Khan asked Melissa. She looked at her phone’s screen again and shook her head.

“It’s not on here.”

“You gotta be the owner,” Eli contributed. “Natalie could do it. From her laptop. It’s set that way so you can track down your stuff if you lose it.”

“Well, she’s indisposed,” Khan said.

“But her laptop’s here,” Melissa said. She got up and walked over to the bedroom the girls shared. A moment later, she came back with the laptop Khan had seen Natalie use on the plane. She handed it to Khan, who opened it and put it on the coffee table in front of him. The excitement that had been welling up inside of him died down again when he saw the login screen.

“Fuck. It’s locked.”

“I know her password,” Eli offered. “I set up all her tech stuff for her. Unless she changed it recently.”

“Give it a shot,” Khan said. He turned the laptop around and slid it in front of Eli, who hunched over the keyboard and started typing away.

“Got it,” he said.

“Holy shit.” Khan grinned at him. “So you do have some useful skills. Now I’m glad I didn’t chuck you out of the plane on the way here.”

 

The tracking map on the laptop looked like a bigger version of the one on Melissa’s phone. Eli logged in, toggled a few settings, and turned the laptop so Khan could see the screen.

“There’s her phone,” he said. “Same place. And there’s her watch. It’s gray too. If it was turned on right now, it’d be blue.”

The dot that marked the position of Natalie’s watch was right in front of a large square building labeled as Flakturm.

“What the fuck is a Flakturm,” Khan asked. Eli took the question as a directive and did a search, then scrolled through the results.

“Whoa. It’s a thing left over from the war. Big concrete tower, for air defense.”

“You mean like a bunker?”

“Look.” Eli brought up an image. The structure looked square and brutal. The concrete was stained and dirty from decades of weather exposure. There were no windows or other external reference points, but judging by the height of the trees lining the pathways around the building, he guessed the concrete monstrosity was at least six floors high.

“Does it say what’s in that thing?”

Eli closed the picture and scrolled through a few more pages.

“It says there’s a museum inside now. Some artist commune. And a nightclub. Looks pretty cool, actually.”

Something tickled Khan’s tiger instincts, and he felt the hair on his neck bristle. Over by one of the windows, there was a soft scraping noise. Khan looked up and saw a hint of movement in the corner of the window, like a fluttering drape. Then it was gone. He heard another sound, the faintest ticking of something hard on metal, this one from above. Their suite was on the top floor, and there was nothing above them but the roof.

Khan got up and walked over to the window. The windows in their suite stretched from floor to ceiling and opened onto a narrow balcony that ran the width of the suite. He made a shushing gesture at Melissa and the boys. Then he opened one of the windows and stepped out onto the balcony. The night air was pleasantly cool and carried thousands of city smells with it. In front of the hotel, on the other side of Pariser Platz, the columns of the Brandenburg Gate glowed in the darkness, illuminated by dozens of spotlight fixtures.

Khan turned to look up at the edge of the roof and sniffed the air again. There was a presence up there, something bigger than an enterprising raccoon. Something was up there in the darkness, quietly breathing.

The part of the roof above the top floor was a sloping face of green-tinged copper sheeting, topped by a rail. The rail was just at the limit of Khan’s vertical leaping range. He flexed his leg muscles a few times and extended his claws. The copper roof slope was almost too smooth for him to get traction, but he managed to get a hand on the rail at the top. He hauled himself up and dropped onto the roof.

The rooftop was flat and lined with rubberized material. Every few dozen feet, Khan saw the dome-shaped bubbles of transparent skylights. There were two small sheds in the middle of the roof that looked like maintenance shacks, and a large tripod antenna was anchored between them. In the darkness above the sheds, Khan saw a shape crouched on an antenna crossbar, twenty feet high.

“Don’t make me jump up there and pluck you off that thing,” he growled.

“Good evening, Herr Khan,” the shape said, in a dry and reedy voice that put the hairs on the back of Khan’s neck on edge again.

“So you know who I am. Not too hard to figure out, I guess.”

“We know who you are. We have been keeping an eye on you ever since you entered the country.”

“Who’s we?”

He walked closer to the base of the antenna to decrease the range between himself and the stranger, to improve his chances at making good on his threat and snatching him out of the air if needed. The rooftop visitor shrugged. A pair of leathery wings unfolded and blotted out the stars of the night sky behind him. He stepped off his perch and landed in front of Khan silently, with just a single flap of those enormous wings.

Close up, he made Khan’s hairs stand up even more. He was clearly a joker-ace. His body was squat and short, and covered with coarse black hair except for his wings, which looked like leather sails. Even his eyes were uniformly black, and when he opened his mouth to speak again, Khan saw that his teeth were pointed and very white, the only part of his body that wasn’t the color of spilled ink at midnight.

“I have several colleagues in the area, and they would not like it if you tried to hurt me,” the stranger said.

“I won’t pick a fight if you don’t,” Khan replied. “Again—who the fuck is we?”

We are with BDBF,” the visitor said. “Bundesamt für Besondere Fähigkeiten. The federal office for special abilities. What you at home call S.C.A.R.E.”

“I just flew in from Kassel, and boy, are my arms tired,” Khan said with a chuckle. The man in front of him either didn’t get the joke or wasn’t in a jovial mood, because he merely cocked his head quizzically.

“My name is Fledermaus,” he said. “And five thousand meters above us, my colleague Überschall is keeping an eye on things from above. Rest assured that he can be here very quickly.”

“Fledermaus,” Khan repeated. “And Überschall. Sounds like the title for a sitcom.”

“I am not familiar with that word.”

“Never mind. They said you’d come. Are you here to ask me questions about my client’s kidnapping, too?”

“You claim there was an enhanced individual involved. So far, the only such person confirmed to be involved was you. That is why the Berlin police asked us to assist.”

“There was someone else,” Khan said. “Three nats—regular people. And one wild card. Big, strong guy, looked like a tree. Bark for skin and everything. He held me off while the nats grabbed my client.”

“Looked like a tree,” Fledermaus repeated.

“Yes, a tree. Rock-hard skin. And strong as shit. He threw me over a whole row of parked cars. Couldn’t make a scratch in him, not even with these.”

He held out his tiger hand and extended his claws, three inches of curved black keratin knives glistening in the moonlight, then retracted them again so Fledermaus wouldn’t feel threatened.

“If that is true, it would be very interesting,” Fledermaus said.

“So you know the guy?”

“I have heard of him, yes. That is our main task at BDBF. To keep our eyes on people such as him. And you. But the man you speak of, he is not known to be in Germany.”

“Well, unless I got beaten up by his twin brother, I’d say you’re wrong. Who is he?”

“We do not know where he comes from. Some sources say he is from Ukraine. We know he works as hired muscle for many groups. Sometimes for the Chechens or the Serbians, but mostly for the Georgian mafia. They call him Mukha. The Georgian word for ‘oak.’”

“Georgian mob. Super,” Khan said. Back home in Chicago, the Georgians were not to be fucked with. They were not as numerous as the Russians or the long-established Polish mafia, but they had a reputation for stomach-churning violence.

“You think the Georgians took your client?”

“I’m not sure. They were Eastern European, though. I’ve been around that kind long enough.”

“I do not think I have to warn you about these people, then,” Fledermaus said. “They have no respect for the local authorities, and they are very violent. If you go after them, the police may not be able to protect you.”

“The police sure weren’t any help in that parking garage,” Khan said. He hesitated, then decided to throw caution to the wind. Time was running short, and he couldn’t shop around for allies. “Do you know anything about a local place called the Flakturm? Big, ugly concrete tower in the Tiergarten park.”

Fledermaus cocked his head a little. His ears were large and pointy, with tufts of coarse black hair sprouting from the tips.

“I know of it, yes. A relic of the war. They had three of them in the city. I think this one is the only one left. Apparently it was too large to blow up. The walls are very thick.”

“They say there’s a museum in this one now. And a nightclub. Know anything about that?”

Fledermaus shook his head.

“I’m afraid not. I am not from Berlin, and I do not frequent nightclubs. The noise, you see.” He flashed an awkward-looking smile. “But I do know that the criminal element often uses legal places such as this to cleanse the money from their other activities. The Italians use restaurants. The Arab clans have their tobacco lounges. And the Russians and Georgians—“

“Bars and clubs and gambling,” Khan finished. “Same as back home.”

“BDBF can only intervene in law enforcement matters if we are asked to do so by the local authorities,” Fledermaus said. “I cannot help you with whatever it is you are planning to do. You are in our area of responsibility. If you commit any offenses, we will not need a request from the police to deal with you.”

“That guy who looks like a tree. Mukha. You must have a file on him. Any idea if he has any weaknesses? Unofficially speaking, I mean. Since you know for sure he’s not even in the country right now.”

Fledermaus considered Khan’s question for a moment. “Officially, I cannot help you, as I said.” He smiled again in his awkward way. His teeth were very bright in the darkness. “Unofficially, I can point out that he is very much like a tree. You cannot take down a tree with claws and fists. But there are other ways.”

Fledermaus shuffled to the edge of the roof and put a hand on the railing. In the light coming from the square and the Brandenburg Gate beyond, Khan saw that he was wearing some sort of high-tech ballistic armor, cut out low on the sides to make space for his enormous wings. He swung himself over the rail and looked back at Khan. “Just ask yourself, Herr Khan. If you were a tree, what would be your worst fear in life?”

Fledermaus nodded a curt goodbye and jumped off the roof. Khan walked over to the railing to watch the German joker-ace glide over the Pariser Platz and soar through the space between the central columns of the Brandenburg Gate before disappearing in the darkness of the park beyond.

“Squirrel shit,” Khan said into the silence.

 

The Flakturm was a foreign presence in the calm tranquility of the Tiergarten. Somehow, even the peaceful trees and meadows that surrounded it didn’t mellow its massiveness or the complete lack of aesthetic concern evident in its architecture. As Khan walked toward it, he felt something like existential dread at the sight of the thing. Near the top of the tower, four round gun platforms jutted out at the corners like the leaves of a giant concrete clover leaf. It was a structure built for war, and it looked out of place here in this park in the middle of a modern, cosmopolitan city. Khan walked around it twice at a distance to get an idea of the layout, and it struck him that nobody had ever tried to pretty up that ugly block of concrete, as if they knew all these years that no coat of paint or architectural surgery could make it look inviting.

Whenever he wanted to get into a place without an invitation, Khan would scale the fire escapes and get in from the roof, or pop open a window on the way. But this place had no windows, no fire escapes, and the roof was more than a hundred feet above ground, atop sheer concrete sides without handholds or other features. There were thin concrete beams jutting out of the walls near the gun platforms, but even those were much too high for him to reach. The Flakturm truly was a fortress by design, with only one obvious way in and out. Khan watched from a distance as late-night revelers arrived and walked into the entrance vestibule, and others left and noisily made their way to the distant parking lot at the edge of the Tiergarten. Every time the front door opened, he heard a smattering of thumping electronic music. He spent half an hour looking for alternative entry points before deciding to throw plan B out the window. On the eastern horizon, the colors of the sky had started to shift from black to dark blue and purple. The best time to bust into a place was this exact time of the night, when everyone was tired and winding down, and reflexes and reaction times were at their worst.

I hope you’re really in there, kid, Khan thought as he cut across the lawn and briskly walked toward the entrance vestibule.

The entrance was a set of double doors, one each on the inner and outer edges of the exterior wall. He pushed open the outer door and walked inside, past a group of club-goers on the way out. The wall of the Flakturm was at least ten feet thick, and when he walked through the second set of doors and into the foyer, the temperature dropped by a dozen degrees. He pulled out his phone to confirm a hunch and saw that his reception had dropped to nothing. No radio signal would make it through that much concrete, which was why Natalie’s watch had dropped off the map as soon as they had brought her inside.

As Eli had learned online, it was a multiuse building now. The interior looked far more welcoming than the outside. The foyer was two floors high and looked like a boutique computer store, all white wood and tasteful accent lighting. There was a broad staircase leading up to what looked like an art installation, and down to a pair of glass doors that had a pair of broad-shouldered guys standing in front of it. Beyond the glass doors, Khan saw the reflections of flashing strobes and neon lights. On the right side of the foyer, there was a bar that had throngs of people standing in it, chatting and swilling drinks. A few of the patrons looked over at him, and some nudged their friends to draw their attention to him, but the stares were curious, not concerned. Berliners seemed used to seeing weird and unusual things.

He walked down the steps to the club. The two bouncers looked like they were unsure how to deal with him. One of them fidgeted with his lapels while the other put a hand under the jacket of his dark suit and tried to look casual about it.

“You can try to draw whatever the fuck that is,” Khan said when he had reached the door. “Or you can let me in there without losing a hand.”

The second bouncer removed his hand from his waistline and held it up in a placating gesture. Khan saw that he had been reaching for a pepper spray dispenser on his belt. The first bouncer opened the door for him.

“Just looking for someone,” Khan said. “I won’t be long.”

Even at this hour, the club was packed. Dozens of people were gyrating to thumping electronic music, and dozens more were watching from the edge of the floor or hanging out in the seating groups tucked into alcoves along the periphery of the room. The air smelled like weed, spilled booze, and sweat, and the room was radiating warmth, the collective body heat of all the late-night revelers dancing and drinking and groping each other in the corners. It was everything he hated about nightclubs, turned up to maximum intensity. As Khan skirted the edge of the dance floor and walked deeper into the bowels of the club, a smoke machine hissed and spewed a stream of thick fog onto the dance floor. The cloud temporarily displaced all the awful smells of the place, and it cut visibility in the vicinity of the dance floor to three feet or less. He went to the left until he found the row of seating alcoves on that side of the room, and started to map out the periphery of the place. There had to be other exits.

It took him five minutes to find all the doors in the room. Most of them were fire exits that led to dirty concrete stairwells where people were making out or smoking joints. One was behind the bar, and Khan could see people going in and out every few seconds, carrying armfuls of glasses and empty bottles. There was only one door that was locked, secured with a keypad. He concluded that if they were hiding anything in this place, it was behind that door.

Khan looked around to see if anyone was paying attention, but saw nothing except for club patrons lost in their own worlds. If the bouncers had called for backup, it hadn’t found him yet. He waited until the fog machine blasted another thick cloud of water vapor onto the dance floor. Then he turned toward the door and wrapped his tiger hand around the knob.

The door was reinforced with steel liners, but Khan could max out the weight plates on the gym machines with just his feline arm, and he strained only for a moment before he wrenched the lock out of the frame with a dull crack. The handle came off in his hand, and he dropped it onto the ground and kicked it aside. Beyond the door, there was a long, dimly lit hallway that had more doors leading off to the left and right. He counted them: four left, four right. Then he stepped into the hallway on light feet and closed the access door behind him.

The first door to the right was a janitorial closet, shelves of cleaning materials and a bunch of mops and buckets. The first door to the left was an office, a desk with a computer screen and a filthy-looking keyboard, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, and shelves with stuffed binders and untidy stacks of papers. Khan moved on to the second set of doors. Natalie wore a particular perfume, something that smelled like waving a freshly cut lilac over a warm blueberry pie, and he hoped that the whiffs of it he caught in the stale air of the hallway were not just his wishful imagination. He reached for the handle of the second door to the right and yanked it open.

Inside, three men sat around a table littered with ashtrays and bottles. There was a TV set in a corner of the room that was showing a news report. The air was thick with the smell of old cigarette smoke and body odor. One of the men turned around to see who was standing in the door, and his eyes widened. Then he muttered a curse, which got the attention of the other two.

“Shit,” Khan said.

For just a moment, the space between them practically hummed with the anticipation of the impending violence. It was that split second before a fight Khan knew all too well, the moment that felt like everyone was holding their breath before committing to action. There was no way to talk these men down, and if he hesitated, he’d give them an edge. He flicked out his claws just as the first guy grabbed a bottle off the table and threw it at him. Khan jerked his head to the side, and the bottle sailed past him and smashed against the wall of the hallway behind him.

There was no grace to the fight. The room was only ten feet square and had a table and a bunch of chairs in it, and there was no way for anyone to execute any fancy maneuvers. It was like an attempted assassination in a phone booth. Two of the men pulled knives and the third swung his fist at Khan, and only his reflexes kept him from getting shanked on the spot. He recoiled from one knife and slashed at the hand holding it, then drove his fist into the face of the second knife’s wielder. The bare-handed one of the group was the only one to connect with Khan. His fist cracked into Khan’s eyebrow on the human side of his face, and Khan saw a burst of stars exploding in his field of view. He roared, and in the confines of the room, the sound was so loud that it made the ashtrays on the table bounce and clatter.

One of the knives was on the floor now, but the other was still in play, its owner slashing with quick and practiced moves. Khan jerked away from the edge of the blade and bodychecked the bare-handed fighter into the TV shelf in the process, and the man went down along with the screen as the shelving collapsed. The knife made another arc and stabbed into Khan’s shoulder blade, then skidded off the bone to carve open a few inches of his tiger fur. Khan lashed out  and raked all five claws across the remaining knife wielder’s face and neck. He leapt back, bounced off the doorframe behind him, and collapsed in the hallway with a wet gurgling sound. The smell of blood was suddenly thick in the air.

The guy who had held the other knife was doubled over and shouting incoherently. Khan saw that his swipe at the knife hand had taken the hand off at the wrist. He picked the man up and hurled him against the concrete wall, then did it again. After the second impact against the rough concrete, his opponent crumpled to the floor and stopped his pained shouting. Maybe ten seconds had passed since Khan had turned the door handle, but he was panting for breath, and his heart was pounding like he had just run a hundred-yard dash. Blood was running down from a gash in his right eyebrow and clouding his vision, and he used the sleeve of his sport coat to wipe it out of his eye.

The man in the hallway was a mess. Khan had opened him up along the whole length of his collarbone. The puddle of blood spreading out from him was already pooling from one side of the hallway to the other. Khan wondered about the depth of the shit he was likely to find himself in over killing someone on foreign soil, even in self-defense. But he’d have to be around for them to charge him, and that was a shaky proposition at the moment. All it took was another room of mobsters, but ones who were packing guns instead of blades. He had come here to find Natalie, though, so Khan steeled himself and went back to opening doors.

Two of the remaining rooms were stockrooms, haphazardly loaded from floor to ceiling with boxes and crates of supplies, and thankfully devoid of armed men. Khan went to the end of the hallway, where the last two locked rooms waited. He hadn’t smelled the scent of Natalie’s perfume again, and for a moment, a sort of deep, dark fear gripped his mind as he convinced himself that he’d find nothing, and he would be stamping license plates in a German prison for absolutely nothing in the end.

Then his heart skipped two beats when he saw that the last door on the right had a security keypad next to the handle, just like the entry door had.

He grabbed the door handle, wrenched it down, and threw himself against the door with all the force he could muster. It popped out of the frame, spraying bits of the lock, and swung inward with the grinding sound of steel against concrete as the bottom edge of the door, now crooked in its hinges, dragged across the floor and left a chalky white scrape mark.

Natalie was lying on her side on a field cot on the far side of the room. There was a little table and a folding chair, and a chemical toilet in one corner. She didn’t wear a gag like a kidnapping victim in a movie. They had tied her wrists and ankles to the frame of the cot with several loops of commercial plastic ties. She had her back to him, but turned her head at the sound of the door busting open. He could tell that she couldn’t turn far enough to make out who had just entered the room.

“Motherfuckers,” Khan growled. He peeked into the hallway to make sure he wasn’t about to get jumped by reinforcements. Then he rushed over to Natalie’s cot.

“Are you okay, kid?”

He saw recognition in her eyes, and she murmured something, but it was slurred gibberish. Her eyes were glazed over and she looked like she was having a hard time focusing. He cursed again. They hadn’t bothered with a gag because they had sedated the shit out of her to keep her quiet.

“Let’s get you out of this place.”

He used one of his claws to snip through the plastic ties, carefully stripping them off her wrists and tossing them to the ground one by one. When he was finished, he put his tiger arm behind her shoulders and helped her to a sitting position.

“Soft,” she mumbled. “’S like you’re a cat.”

“Half right,” he said. “Can you walk?”

She swung her legs over the edge of the cot and tried to get to her feet, then stumbled sideways almost immediately. Khan caught her before she could fall, then raised her and draped his arm across her shoulder again. “This is going to be a mess,” he said. “We have to go, kiddo. Can’t call the cops from in here. Gotta get outside. Come on.”

He practically carried her up the hallway back to the entrance to the main part of the nightclub. She was holding on to him, but clearly out of it, and the toes of her white linen shoes touched the ground maybe three times in the entire awkward twenty-meter shuffle to the door.

Almost there, Khan told himself. Across the dance floor, out the main doors, call the cops once we’re outside.

In the nightclub, the thumping music was still churning up the crowd. The flashing lights of the dance floor illumination painted the fog from the machine in bright streaks of red, green, and blue. He went for the most direct route to the exit, straight across the dance floor, bumping people out of the way left and right.

In the space between the dance floor and the exit door, a familiar shape was making its way through the fog toward him: thick arms and legs, short hair on a square-looking head, beady eyes in a face that looked like it was hewn out of a petrified tree trunk. Mukha moved without hurry, but Khan knew that he would not be able to get past the bastard and through those doors, not with Natalie to safeguard.

He lowered Natalie until she was standing on her own very unsteady feet. Then he drew a deep breath and roared at Tree Guy, the loudest roar he had ever squeezed from his lungs and vocal cords. In the confines of the Flakturm, it sounded like a slowly imploding building.

That got the attention of the crowd. They retreated from his vicinity like the tide pulling away from a shoreline at the onset of ebb. Mukha didn’t seem impressed, however. He kept up his infuriatingly unhurried gait, advancing without any hint of hesitation: stomp, stomp, stomp.

When Mukha was ten feet away, Khan reached into his sport coat and brought out the bottle he had prepared in the hotel room’s bathroom before he had set out for the Flakturm. It held a mixture of gasoline, procured by Eli at a nearby service station, and high-proof alcohol, all mixed in with hand soap and a few scoops of laundry detergent. In his youth, back when Khan was still scrawny Samir Khanna, he had experimented with many flammable and explosive substances with his friends, and he hoped that he had remembered the ratios for this particular cocktail correctly. He granted himself the luxury of an extra second to aim. Then he hurled the bottle straight at Mukha.

The cocktail hit the joker-ace right in the middle of his chest. The bottle shattered, and the flammable liquid inside sprayed, and left globs and droplets on the floor in a wide arc in front of Mukha. Most of it, Khan was happy to see, remained on Mukha’s body, soaking the clothes he had draped over his bulky frame. Khan reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the road flares he had brought along. He ignited it with a quick swipe on the leg of his pants. Mukha hesitated, then stopped and looked down at the sticky goop that was covering the front of his torso.

Step aside,” Khan shouted in Polish, the only Slavic language he knew. He had no idea whether Georgian had any similarities to his mother’s native tongue, but he guessed that Mukha spoke Russian, and maybe he knew some other language that was similar enough to Polish to get the gist. Mukha raised his head again and looked at Khan with an unreadable expression.

“Step aside,” Khan repeated, and waved the road flare for emphasis. “Or I swear I will burn you down along with this shithole. I bet you’ll stay on fire for days.”

Mukha’s face showed no indication that he comprehended the threat, but Khan guessed the smell of gasoline and the lit flare in his hand conveyed the message clearly enough even if this guy didn’t understand a fucking word of Polish after all, because a few heartbeats later, he raised his hands slowly to chest height and walked back half a dozen steps. Khan loaded up Natalie again and headed toward the exit, road flare extended toward Mukha.

We may make it out of here alive after all, he thought. But the brief glimmer of triumph he felt was extinguished a moment later, when the front door opened and four broad-shouldered guys with pissed-off expressions hurried through. They spotted Khan and Natalie, and one of them shouted something at his companions. Then he pulled out a handgun and held it low as he was advancing.

“Shit,” Khan said.

He tossed the road flare in Mukha’s general direction, not aiming to hit the guy but not particularly concerned whether he did. Then he scooped up Natalie and carried her over to the nearest emergency exit he had spotted earlier. He kicked the door open at a run and catapulted two of the stoners behind it into the staircase. A few people were hanging out on the stairs, and Khan barged through them, ignoring their yelled protests as he knocked them aside. He took four and five steps at once, up onto the next landing, and then up the next staircase. Below him, the door banged open again. He peered over the railing to see the four broad-shouldered goons huffing up the first set of stairs. Behind them, Mukha filled out the doorframe and followed the goons with heavy steps that kicked up cigarette butts and concrete dust. One of the armed goons looked up and spotted Khan. He raised his gun and cranked off a shot. Khan flinched back and heard the bullet smack into the concrete somewhere above his head. For the first time since he had walked through the front doors of the Flakturm, the thought came to him that he could die in here. Too many bad guys, a joker-ace who couldn’t be beaten in a stand-up fight, no weapons, no allies, and now nowhere to go.

Make it up to the roof, he told himself. Take it from there. At least the phone will work again up top.

He raced up the stairs and the landings. Natalie’s weight wouldn’t have slowed him down much even under normal circumstances, and with adrenaline flooding his system, it was like she was barely there. By the time he got to the top landing on the sixth floor, their pursuers were only halfway up the stairwell.

A steel door with large rust stains marked the end of the escape path. Khan put down Natalie and threw himself against it. It took several attempts to dislodge the rusty piece of shit from the frame, but on the fourth body blow, it popped open with a sharp metallic squeal.

Outside, the night air was warm and humid. The stairwell door opened onto one of the circular gun platforms Khan had seen jutting from the top corners of the tower. The guns were gone, of course, and nothing but rust-stained concrete remained where the gun pits used to be. Khan could tell that there used to be concrete catwalks connecting the gun platforms, but someone had demolished large chunks of them, and there was nothing left to get them safely across to the next platform. He had run into a dead end, and the only way out was a hundred-foot drop they wouldn’t survive. The gun platform had a waist-high concrete balustrade, and he lowered Natalie in front of it so she wouldn’t fall off the roof, and away from the door so gunfire wouldn’t hit her by accident.

Behind him, the pursuers were almost at the top of the staircase. If he wanted to hold them off, he’d have to fight them while they were trying to make it through the door, not when they had space to spread out and hit him from several directions.

“Call the cops,” Khan told Natalie. He hoped that she was awake enough to understand what he was saying. “One-one-zero.”

He handed her his phone and turned toward the door. Then he took off his sport coat to free up his range of movement, unsheathed the claws on his tiger hand, and roared a challenge at the unseen pursuers who were just now making their way onto the top staircase landing.

They didn’t do him the favor of coming through the door single file and letting him pick them off one by one. Instead, the goon with the pistol stuck his head around the corner of the staircase and aimed his gun at the doorway. Khan leapt sideways as the shot rang out, losing sight of the top landing.

“Come out and let’s settle this shit,” he yelled through the doorway. The reply came in Georgian, and it didn’t sound like they agreed with his proposal. He glanced back at Natalie, who was still looking like she had just woken up from a deep sleep.

For the next minute or two, they were at an impasse. It was a true Mexican standoff. Every time Khan stuck his head around the corner, the mobster with the gun would fire a round in his direction. He couldn’t rush them without catching a bullet or two, and they couldn’t come out to finish him off without getting cut to ribbons. But time was working against Khan, because he knew that with every passing moment, Mukha made his way farther up the stairs. And there was nothing he could do about it, because he had gotten them stuck in a dead-end kill trap like a fucking amateur.

Khan could smell and hear Mukha as he lumbered up onto the top landing and toward the door. He reeked of gasoline-and-soap mix, and his footsteps echoed in the staircase. Khan bared his teeth and growled. Then he backed up to the low balustrade where Natalie was still hunched and took a running start toward the door just as Mukha filled out the doorframe with his bulk. Khan put all his weight and force into a flying leap, three hundred pounds of pissed-off ballistic feline, thousands of foot-pounds of energy, and slammed his feet right into the middle of Mukha’s chest.

It felt like trying to dropkick the front of a speeding truck. The shock of the impact traveled from Khan’s feet to the top of his skull. He bounced off Mukha’s chest and careened into the doorframe, then back out onto the gun platform, where he landed flat on his back. He turned his head to see that Mukha was on his back as well, lying in a cloud of dust a few feet inside the staircase landing.

Mukha sat up, slowly shook his head once, and started to get to his feet.

“Come on,” Khan groaned. “What does it fucking take.”

He fished for another road flare, but his hands couldn’t find a pocket, and he remembered that he had just discarded his coat. It was on the ground by the edge of the platform, fifteen feet away. Khan stood on aching legs and staggered over to the coat, but it was too late. Mukha was already at the door again, and behind him, three mobsters brought up the rear. They followed Mukha onto the platform and fanned out behind him. One of them aimed his gun at Khan in an infuriatingly casual manner.

He flexed his leg muscles for another jump, even though he knew that he’d never take down all three men in time, not even if they didn’t have the fucking Mukha as a shield.

Sorry, kiddo, he thought. I fucked this one up for both of us.

In the cloudless early morning sky above the Flakturm, a thunderclap boomed. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, and it was so loud that it made Khan’s teeth rattle. He felt the impact of something heavy landing on the gun platform behind him. Khan turned his head to see a man in a military-type flight suit straighten himself out as if he had just landed a mildly challenging acrobatic routine. The newcomer was wearing a helmet with a gold-tinted visor that made him look a bit like a robot. The helmet was white, and it bore a call sign written onto the side with stick-on vinyl lettering: ÜBERSCHALL.

For a heartbeat, time seemed to be frozen.

Then the mobster with the gun raised his arm and moved the muzzle of his weapon from Khan over to the newcomer.

The guy in the flight suit clapped his hands and pushed them outward in a shoving motion. There was another thunderclap, this one so unbearably loud it made Khan roar in pain. When he looked up again, all three mobsters were on the ground, and Mukha was on his back again, twenty feet inside the staircase hallway beyond the door. This time, he didn’t try to get up again.

Khan heard the soft rustling of very large wings behind him. He turned around to see Fledermaus come to a soft and gentle landing on the gun platform right near Natalie, who recoiled at the sight of the white-fanged German joker-ace.

“He’s all right,” Khan assured her. “He’s with the good guys.”

The man in the flight suit took off his helmet and ran a gloved hand through his hair, which was ash-blond and cut short in the military fashion. He looked like a runway model, blue eyes over chiseled cheekbones. When he spoke, his diction was perfect, even if his accent was so German that it made him sound like a war movie villain.

“Is everyone all right?”

“Yeah, we’re okay,” Khan replied. “They pumped Miss Scuderi full of sedatives. She’ll need to get to a hospital, and soon.”

“This is my colleague,” Fledermaus said. “Major Florian Lambert, also called Überschall. Also with BDBF.”

“I figured. Very nice of you to drop by,” Khan said. “Could have shown up a bit sooner.”

“Like I said, we were keeping an eye on things from above. Pardon my late entrance, but my colleague here is a bit faster in the air than I am.”

“So you knew where we were all along?”

“We were tracking you since you left the hotel. But we are not allowed to intervene unless we have positive verification of a special abilities target.”

“This oaf over there,” Khan said, and nodded at the hallway where Mukha was lying. “I told you he was around.”

“Unfortunately, our rules of engagement make no allowance for hearsay,” Überschall said. He walked over to the goons he had knocked senseless and began to tie up their wrists with plastic restraints he fished out from a pocket on his flight suit. The pistol was on the ground next to one of the mobsters. Überschall picked it up, ejected the magazine, racked the slide to clear the chamber, and fieldstripped the weapon with quick and practiced motions. Then he tossed the parts of the gun into the concrete dust. Khan watched him walk into the staircase vestibule to the spot where Mukha was laid out, still motionless.

“Not that I’m holding a grudge,” Khan shouted after him. “But if that fucker moves, stick a match up his ass and let him burn until Christmas.”

When the adrenaline subsided, Khan felt utterly drained. He sat down next to Natalie while Überschall played field medic and checked her overall condition. Now that the fight was over, the top of the Flakturm was an oddly peaceful place. The sun had started to rise above the eastern horizon, painting the sky in shades of deep purple and orange. Down below, life continued as if nothing had happened. Khan heard the laughter and chatter from nightclub patrons as they left and made their way through the park, and all around them, the city was starting to stir from its brief slumber.

“What’s going to happen to Mister Woody over there?” Khan asked Fledermaus and nodded in the direction of the unconscious Mukha.

“He did not register with the authorities when he entered the country,” Fledermaus said. “That is a violation of our law. I imagine we will have strong words with the authorities in his home country. As for him, we have a facility in Butzbach for people with special abilities. I think he will spend a bit of time there as our guest.”

“That’s a lot of risk they took. Six guys, two cars. And a joker-ace smuggled in. A lot of effort, and no guarantee of a payout. Why would they do that?”

“They told me,” Natalie mumbled behind them. Khan and Fledermaus turned around in surprise. She was sitting up with her arms wrapped around her knees, and she merely sounded drunk instead of incoherent.

“They told you what?” Khan asked and sat down next to her.

“They said my father owed them money. Lots of money. Said they weren’t letting me go until he paid up.” She shuddered a little and hugged her knees tighter. “Told me they’d start cutting off fingers if he didn’t. Send ’em back to him in a box, one by one.”

Khan looked over at the still unconscious mobsters and suppressed his sudden desire to grab them by the neck and throw them off the gun platform. He didn’t much care for her music or her social circle, but Natalie was just a kid, barely out of her teens, and no threat to anyone. He had killed mobsters and other dirtbags in cold blood before, but he’d never lay a hand on an innocent, especially not one so close in age and appearance to his little sister Naya. All of a sudden, he didn’t have any more scruples about the mook he had slashed to shreds down in the nightclub’s back hallway.

In the distance, sirens cut through the tranquility of the park. Khan looked over the balustrade and saw blue lights flashing. At least a dozen police cars were rushing up the access road from the nearby parking lot. The German police sirens had a two-tone pattern that was somehow even more annoying than the shrill ululating wail of the cop sirens back home: BEE-DO, BEE-DO. The blue lights cut through the semi-darkness of the early morning and drew erratic light patterns on the concrete walls of the Flakturm.

“Some things are the same everywhere,” Khan said.

“What is that?” Fledermaus asked.

“The cavalry always shows up five minutes too late.”

Forty-eight hours and an interminable amount of police interviews later, Khan and Natalie’s entourage were in the air again. He had fully expected to join Mukha, the Tree Guy, in whatever high-security facility BDBF had set up for wayward wild cards in Butzbach. But the BDBF guys seemed to have a great deal of pull with Germany’s federal police. He’d had to sign a legal paper obliging him to return for a court appearance if the prosecutor decided to file charges, and then they released him on his word and returned his passport, much to Khan’s astonishment.

There was no Top 40 music blaring in the cabin of the Learjet on the way to Keflavik. Natalie and her friends were huddled on the lounge seating and talking while sipping drinks. Khan knew the shell-shocked look in their eyes all too well. He spent most of the flight to Iceland thinking about the kidnapping and of all the ways he screwed up. In reality, he knew that he couldn’t have done much better, but he also knew that the open wound on his professional ego would take a much longer time to heal than the bruises on his body.

Half an hour before their descent into Keflavik, he called Sal Scuderi from the onboard phone. “We’re on our way back,” he said when Sal answered. “Two-hour layover, then four more hours. She’ll be home by dinner.”

“How’s my girl?”

“She’s doing all right,” Khan said. “Still shaken. It’ll take a while.”

“I can’t even tell you what kinda state I’ve been in the last few days. You dropped the fucking ball, my friend. I mean, I’m happy you got her back. But you let them take her to begin with.”

Khan sighed heavily. “How much do you owe them?”

“The fuck are you talking about?”

“The Georgians. They told Natalie that you owe them a shitload of money. Said they’d send her back in little pieces if you didn’t pay up.”

“You know that’s bullshit tough guy talk. You don’t damage the valuable goods.”

“Sal,” Khan said. “Cut the crap. How much?”

There was silence on the line for a few moments. Then Sal Scuderi let out a shaky breath. It sounded like the remaining air escaping from a flaccid old balloon. “Twenty mil.”

“You borrowed twenty mil from the Georgian mob? Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“They were about to get it back,” Sal said. “It would have been okay. If only . . .”

“If only what?”

It took a few seconds for Khan to understand, and when he did, he felt his anger welling up again. “You took a policy out on her. A high-risk one.”

“Geez, Khan. The kid has had a policy on her since the day she was born. It’s what I do. I got a policy on the wife too. And the fucking dog. What kind of asshole do you take me for?”

Khan looked over at Natalie, who was curled up in her seat, looking like someone who needed about two weeks of uninterrupted sleep.

“The kind of asshole who’d try and pay off his debt with his kid’s life insurance policy,” he said. “I knew you were shit, Sal. I just didn’t know you had no fucking soul left.”

“You’re one to talk. How many people have you killed for guys like me?”

“Too many,” Khan conceded.

There was another long pause. Then Sal cleared his throat.

“You have a rep. You get paid well because you do what you’re told. You want to see any of your fee, you keep your mouth shut about this. In front of Natalie, or the media, or the cops. You fuck me over, and I’ll make sure you never get another job in this town again.”

“Don’t ever fucking threaten me,” Khan said. He could have growled into the phone for emphasis, but right now he was too tired for theatrics. Instead, he just ended the call and turned off his phone.

Across the cabin, Natalie was watching him with concern on her face. He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, and she returned it.

He got up from his seat in the back of the plane and moved past the entourage to the Learjet’s bar. He uncorked the Scotch decanter and poured two fingers’ worth of whisky into a glass, then repeated the process. Then he walked over to Natalie and held out one of the glasses.

“Got a minute to talk?”

She looked at him in surprise. Then she nodded and got to her feet.

“Sure. Let’s go in the back.”

He let her walk ahead. Before he followed, he picked up the remote from the lounge table and turned on the TV.

“Turn it up as loud as you want,” he told Melissa and the boys.

On the way to the back, he glanced out of the window. Outside, a steel-blue sky flecked with clouds was meeting a restless ocean, sunshine glittering on waves.

Fuck the fee, he thought, and went to talk to Natalie.

 

“Berlin Is Never Berlin” copyright © 2020 by Marko Kloos
Art copyright © 2020 by Micah Epstein

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