The city bus began to slow down as it approached the corner of Broadway and X Street. It came to a halt, letting out a loud creak as if to indicate its displeasure. The door hissed as it swung open, the wind whooshed into the bus, and rain dripped onto the floor.
A man in a black three-piece waterproof suit, John, made his way down to the first level of the double-decker bus. He took short, measured steps toward the front of the bus, stepping over a wet cigarette in a puddle of water, a wrapper that housed the remains of chewed gum, and a strip of unused condoms.
The bus driver, who was watching as the man made his way to the front, lost his patience and pushed a button on his console. There was another hiss, and the door began to close.
“This is my stop, sir,” John said with a slight irritation.
The bus driver stared angrily at him, then pushed the button again. There was another hiss and the doors opened. The driver said, “It’s policy. The cops hardly patrol this area, and it’s quite dangerous after nine o’clock.” He paused. “On account of the violence, you see. We have a two-minute limit at every stop once it gets dark.”
John glanced at his watch: a quarter to ten. Hope I’m not too late. He nodded at the bus driver and stepped out into the pouring rain. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the hoodie of his suit over his head.
The smell of the Colony District was unmistakable: decay, the metallic overtones of rust, the putrid smell of urea, and a faint, surprising smell of bacon. Glancing at the decrepit buildings that littered the Colony, John thought, the rain is suppressing the smell, at least.
The doors clicked shut, and the city bus continued along its route. There were two more stops before the wall that blocked off the Darkness, a sub-region of the Colony that was notorious for its drug-ridden ex–soldiers of war. The Darkness, formerly Teltow, was one of the few areas of Engelstadt that was so dangerous everyone stayed away unless they had no choice.
The Darkness, with its long, interconnected pipes, large areas with no electricity, and its mind-warped men—who attacked anything that moved—proved difficult to navigate. It was a region where discretion was paramount. The men who occupied the area were known as “Darkies,” because of their blind perception of the world, high on an alternative to Trioxycortinol, or Troxy for short, a drug periodically expunged into the air through the overhead pipes, which was meant to suppress their aggression. It was initially prescribed to reduce post-traumatic stress, but they had grown resistant, and now it only made them temporarily euphoric, before they reverted to their state of aggression. The Darkies, with their expressionless faces and eyes that glowed red from the drug, navigated the area expertly in the light or dark.
John felt a shudder run down his spine and shook his head as he snapped back to the present. Hopefully, I can avoid that whole area, he thought. I have about four blocks to the Red Balloon.
John caught sight of an old man sleeping inside the bus stop shelter, snoring, mucus running down his nose and calcifying in his beard. John shook his head in disgust.
John looked nostalgically at the words written on the side of a building: Immer vorbereitet sein, be always prepared. It had been ten years since he’d seen them. He reached into the pocket of his poly suit and felt the cold comfort of his steel knife under his fingers. I’m ready.
John headed toward the heart of the Colony, the pita-pita of raindrops hitting the ground helping to drown his loneliness. In the distance, the familiar sight of Old Beatrice made him smile. The busty sculpture had lights strategically placed around her bust, thighs, and her parted lips. She was quite seductive, and had made an impression on a young John. The lights created the impression that she was parting her legs for the individual looking at her, and she had inspired John to conjure up sultry imaginations on many vigorous, jerky nights. Even as an adult, it was always comforting for John to smoke a cigar under her parting thighs, wiggling breasts, and smiling lips.
“Psst... You looking for a good time, Mister?” a voice from the dark called. “I am all you need.” A slender woman in fishnet tights and a wool jacket stepped out of the alleyway as John walked past. She reeked of cheap perfume, cigarettes, and alcohol, and smiled, revealing her stained teeth. She ran her fingers through her hair suggestively. “You want to know how it feels to be with a virgin? I can see it in your eyes.”
John glanced at her. There is no way this woman is a virgin.
“I am on my way somewhere,” he responded.
“You don’t know what you’re missing, boy,” she said, thrusting her hips forward.
John looked past her. He could make out the silhouette of people moving in the dark alley. “I’ll survive.” The woman watched him with distrusting eyes as he walked away from her, then retreated back into the darkness.
The red light district was known for its assortment of drugs, gambling, cheap sex, and debauchery. It was often frequented by the elite, who went to great lengths not to be associated with the place. There was a distinct contrast between the Darkness and the business region, the dichotomy of light and dark existing within a few blocks of each other.
An uneasy codependence endured between these two worlds. The leader of the organization, the Drogenbarone, controlled the nightclubs and sex shops that populated the red light district, and was also the sole provider of the Trioxycortinol suppressant the Darkies craved. The government subsidized the Drogenbarone, to keep the drug flowing through the pipes, and in return they got a suppressed population that existed behind a wall the Drogenbarone controlled. The Drogenbarone used the profits to build up an arsenal, network, and defenses. The vast amount of resources available to the Drogenbarone, along with the threat of war, kept the government out of the region.
John turned the corner and the lusty image of Beatrice appeared like a welcome home sign, after ten years away. He watched as her legs opened and closed provocatively, in rhythm with the fluctuating lights. Her nipples pointed skyward with every electrical pulse, a beacon that called to every district of Engelstadt.
The familiar sign of the Red Balloon flickered. It was a strange name for the headquarters of a criminal organization. Mike, who happened to be John’s brother, was a big fan of the energetic song by Nena, “99 Luftballons.”
The street was lit up with signs, which shimmered on the wet concrete. The rain was still pouring hard, and John’s three-piece suit was doing an excellent job of keeping him dry, but he was still ready to get out of the rain.
The street was not too crowded, but John could see the eager crowd standing in front of the windows, surveying the individuals on offer. Most were men, but on the weekends a lot of them would be women. It was not uncommon to come across the overworked female business executive, looking for a means to let out her frustrations.
John walked past the small group, whose jeers and cheers could be heard over the rain.
“You got it, girl. Shake that,” urged a man, who waved his wad of cash like a lasso. A few people in the group watched the man in silence. They were probably pros at this game, who knew the unwritten rule: the loudest often lose at the game of wooing.
“...he was knocked out because the Mamba has a bit more finesse. The Ram just came to the ring and attacked with brute force,” a man exclaimed as he walked past John. He was talking to a woman, who looked equally excited.
John knew exactly where the couple was coming from. The Den was just a block away, one of the many places that offered bare-knuckle boxing—another relic of the past that had made a big comeback in the Colony. The Mamba was a legend: every month there was at least one news article about his exploits in the ring. People devoured these stories.
The familiar figure of Antonio finally came into view. He was one of the mainstays of the Red Balloon, as consistent as the lustful image of Beatrice. John crossed the street quickly and headed toward him.
Antonio stood under the flickering lights of the Red Balloon in all-black attire—not the best attire for a rainy evening, but no one argued with Antonio on his sense of style. He had a trumpet slung around his neck, and he stared menacingly at John as he approached.
“Good night, Antonio?” John asked sarcastically, smiling for the first time since he’d stepped off the bus. Though he’d never gotten along with Antonio, it was good to see a familiar face, even one that was scarred. He wore weird masks to cover the scar.
Antonio shrugged. “I’ve had better.”
“Mike is expecting me,” John continued.
“An urgent meeting came up. You’ll have to wait till that ends. He told me Krystal would come pick you up when that meeting is over.” He brought the trumpet to his mouth and started playing.
I guess that’s the end of that conversation. He always plays the petulant kid when he doesn’t feel like talking.
John watched Antonio shift his weight from one foot to the other, in time with the music. He seemed so calm and at peace, at odds with his violent nature. Given his role as the enforcer for the Drogenbarone, a visit from Antonio was never considered a positive thing. He was a legend in the District and everyone knew of his ability to make people who opposed the Drogenbarone disappear.
As he watched Antonio moved in time with the music he was playing, John couldn’t help but feel a certain admiration for the man. He walked under the beam to escape the rain and turned toward the crowd across the street. The window dancer moved alluringly, in rhythm with Antonio’s rich notes. He watched as the men waved their wads of cash in the air, vying to win her for the night. The woman seemed to bask in the attention. She swayed her hips slowly as she turned her back to the crowd. There was a momentary silence as her buttocks captivated the crowd, then she slowly turned around to face them, placed a finger to her lips, and licked the tip. She slowly ran the finger down her chin, between her breasts, and along her well-sculpted stomach. Just before she reached her waistline, her finger stopped. She stared at one of the ladies in the crowd and then pointed at her. There was a loud shriek as ladies’ hands shot up in the air, to muted applause, and disappointed groans. She had her candidate for the night. John wondered how much the woman would be paying for the pleasure.
Krystal, the Drogenbarone’s assistant, touched John on the shoulder. He turned around and smiled back at her.
“He is ready for you,” she said. Krystal waved at Antonio, who stopped playing and stared at her coldly. She turned toward John again. ”Come with me.”
John nodded and headed into the Red Balloon, feeling the cold eyes of Antonio on his back. He felt better when the trumpet playing began again.
Inside, the noise of the pouring rain was replaced with harsh beats and metallic music—a robotic voice repeating “Check this out,” followed by a drum loop and the futuristic sound of a laser.
Krystal waved for him to follow her down the corridor. The skylights lit up the narrow hallway, and John could hear muffled noises behind the doors. He was well aware of what went on behind them.
Krystal stood, arms folded, in front of the elevator at the end of the hallway. As John took his place beside her, he felt a sudden urge to walk through the big black doors that separated the chaos inside from the relative calm of the hallway. But the two suited men standing in front of the doors would have had something to say about it.
The elevator door slid open and Krystal stepped into it. John followed, accompanied by one of the suited men. Krystal pushed the third-floor button and waited patiently as the door slid to a close with a gentle thud.
The elevator began its ascent. John stared thoughtfully at the buttons. It’s funny how the uninitiated fall into the comfort of believing what they see. Mike and I know the hidden floor so well, from when we needed to hide from our dad, or plan something stupid. But to most people, there are only three floors to this building. He started to say something, then thought better of it. The elevator decelerated and the door slid open with a chime.
Another of the Drogenbarone’s men stood just outside the elevator. It took a few seconds, but John recognized the man. The man, however, did not seem to remember John. He motioned for John to step out of the elevator and John obliged. As he stepped into the quiet hallway, John raised his arms to the ceiling to make it easier for the man to pat him down.
Two more men stepped out of the door at the end of the hallway and toward the elevator. As they reached John, the man patting him brushed him to the side to make way for them. The two men stepped into the elevator, turned around, and stared aloofly at the hallway.
Is that Mathias and Julius Rogner of the Rogner family syndicate? The Rogner syndicate had a stronghold in the Kreuzberg District. It seems strange that someone so powerful would come out here so late, and without a significant number of bodyguards.
“You know, this is not the first time I have come here, Hasso,” John snapped as Hasso’s palms climbed up his thighs.
Hasso stopped for a second, looked at John, and resumed patting. Krystal lifted her index finger to her lips, to tell him to be quiet. John obliged.
Hasso pulled the knife from John’s pocket. He looked at it for a second and tossed it to the second guard, who was still standing by the elevator. The guard examined it for a second, then nodded at Hasso.
“You will get this on your way out,” the man by the elevator said to John as he held up the steel knife.
Hasso stepped aside after he was satisfied with his search, and pointed John toward the door at the end of the hallway.
John nodded and headed down the corridor to the main entrance of the office. As he reached the door, he snapped his fingers, turned around, and pointed at the man who was standing by the elevator.
“Ortwin, right?” John called. “Ortwin Kropp?”
The man stood silently staring at John.
“I take that to mean I’m right,” John declared.
Krystal reached out, opened the door, and ushered him in. “I can take your suit now,” she said.
John nodded. He took off his wetsuit jacket and handed it to Krystal, who stared at his thin gray tie, white shirt, gray pants, and dark waterproof shoes. She smiled approvingly, turned around, and headed out of the room, quietly closing the door.
Mike, the Drogenbarone, sat at his desk, staring at John as he stood in the doorway. John made no move to approach Mike without his approval, and Mike didn’t give any indication that he was interested in extending this gesture. He just watched John quietly through his tinted glasses, an intimidating figure in his black silk polka-dotted neckerchief, white shirt with a wad of hundred-dollar bills sticking out of the pocket, a lit cigar in his right hand. He had begun to gray along his sideburns and it had the effect of making him seem more distinguished.
“Black suit and tie? Good look. Something Dad would appreciate,” John said, breaking the silence.
Mike raised his left hand to shut John up, then pointed to the chair in front of him. John made his way to the desk and sat down quietly. Mike pointed to a bottle of brandy on the table, and John nodded approvingly. Mike put his cigar on the cigar holder to his right, reached for the bottle, and poured out two glasses, handing one to John.
John took a sip, then leaned forward. “Look, Mike, I…”
Mike cut him off, raising his left arm and gesturing for John to drink. Mike took a sip and placed his cup on the large mahogany table that separated the two men.
As the silence in the room got more uncomfortable, John’s gaze fell upon a photo of Mike smiling with his arms around his beautiful wife, Ursula. John remembered when no one thought Mike had a chance of attracting her interest. But Mike spent many nights investigating what her interests were. He bribed her close friends to share information about her that would give him an edge over her many suitors. When Ursula found out about his antics, instead of being angry, she was impressed. She said no one had shown that much interest in her and that she wanted to get to know him.
The picture on the table showed the softer side of Mike. It was not so much Beauty and the Beast, as a loving Wolf and a surprisingly comfortable Damsel. The Mike who sat across from him was the polar opposite, stone-faced and menacing.
There was also a picture of Mike’s two daughters, Klara and Cecilia, on the table. John felt a pang in his stomach, and looked away. The last time I saw Klara and Cecilia, they were tiny toddlers who got into more trouble than most. Now they are beautiful young women, and I missed the rest.
I hate that picture, John thought as he stared at the image mounted on the wall behind Mike. His father, Major General Ulrich Reichenau, sat in a gray suit vest, cross-legged, on the very same chair that Mike was currently sitting on. He had the sleeves of his shirt folded to his elbow, a glass of whiskey in his right hand, and a cigar in his left. He stared menacingly at the camera, the smoke from the cigar captured in its ascent. Mike and John flanked the gray-haired man.
I thought I left that world behind—so why do I now feel a yearning for it? John’s father had masterminded the deal to distribute a cheaper alternative to Trioxycortinol to the soldiers, and he was awarded the contract, under false pretenses. The drug worked for a period, but in the long run it had adverse effects on the soldiers exposed to it. Instead of stopping, though, he tripled the cost of production and began to rake in a tremendous profit. That sort of ruthlessness befitted the man in the picture and John hated him for it.
Mike finally broke his silence. “You walked out of here, John. I remember you screaming to the high heavens, as you walked out of this room twelve years ago.”
Jolted back into the present, John said, “It’s fifteen. I walked out fifteen years ago.”
“And yet, here you are again.” Mike paused. “As I recall, I asked you not to go, but you insisted. You left behind everything we had built as a family, and never respected me enough to tell me why. And now you’re back. WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT?” Mike roared, bringing his fist to the table with a loud thud, causing the picture of Klara and Cecilia to fall flat.
John reached out and faced the picture up again.
“You know, I tried my hand at so many things in the last few years. I even tried journalism. I wrote under a pseudonym—”
“What the FUCK!” Mike said in frustration. “You come all the way here to tell me a story? You have got to be KIDDING me!”
I need to calm him down before he gets out of hand, John thought. “Mike…” John began again. “You need to keep cool.” As soon as it was out he knew it was the wrong thing to say.
“DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE! DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE TELL ME TO KEEP COOL!” Mike screamed.
The door to the office swung open, and Hasso walked in with a gun aimed at the floor. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Mike glared angrily, then reached for his glass of brandy and threw it at Hasso, who stood confused by the door.
“GET THE FUCK OUT!” Mike screamed.
Hasso dodged the oncoming projectile; it hit the wall behind him and shattered. Hasso stepped out of the room and shut the door behind him.
Mike slumped into his chair and let out a deep sigh.
“What’s going on, Mike? Everyone seems on edge tonight....”
“Tonight?” Mike retorted. “You haven’t been here for fifteen fucking years. What do you know of my agitations?” He reached into his desk and pulled out a new glass, then grabbed the brandy and filled the glass halfway. “Someone is making a play,” he said, taking a sip.
“Really? How do you know?” John asked. “You have the support of all the families. Who would be stupid enough to challenge you?”
“They are making a play for the Kreuzberg district, and Goetzpeter Rogner is losing control fast,” Mike clarified.
“Is that why Mathias was here?” John asked.
“Two of Goetzpeter’s top lieutenants, Hermann Dryoff and Arnold Rumohr, were found in their beds this morning, their throats slit from one ear to the other.” Mike paused solemnly. “They were good men…relatively speaking. The person responsible must be new blood. None of the current players are stupid enough to attack the circle directly. Whoever is leading this group is one calculating son of a bitch.” He took another sip. “Whoever could get that close to Hermann Dryoff deserves some degree of respect. I plan on giving it to them.”
John was silent as the news sunk in.
“Brings me back to what you are doing here. Are you looking to aid your fledgling journalism career? Is this some ploy to gain access to the underworld?” Mike placed his glass on the table and reached for his cigar.
“I appreciate your acknowledgment of my fledgling journalistic career. But I came to the end of that road many years ago. There were too many rules, and people I could not afford to piss off. In other words, it reminded too much of working here. My other career paths were the same. I thought it was time for me to return to what I was excellent at.”
Mike leaned forward and flicked the end of his cigar into a silver ashtray. “It’s been 15 years, John. What makes you think you still have what it takes? A lot has changed—we have expanded and diversified. My rivals will pounce if they see the slightest hint of weakness. They are against my turning this organization into a legitimate one. You saw Mathias on your way out. Can you believe he suggested I was incompetent in finding the killers of Hermann Dryoff and Arnold Rumohr? Can you imagine that sort of shit happening when our father was alive? The person would have been shot immediately, and their hearts carved out of their chest as a warning.” Mike took another long puff of his cigar and blew the smoke in John’s direction. “Do you think you could survive in a world like that?”
“I saw Antonio playing his trumpet downstairs. If he can survive in this world, so can I.”
“Fair point,” Mike said, reaching for his glass. “How did Mara take the news?”
“She didn’t,” John said solemnly. “I haven’t spoken to her in three years.”
This piqued Mike’s interest. “Trouble in paradise?”
“You have no idea. I don’t want to talk about it.” He paused. “How are Ursula, Klara, and Cecilia?”
“Oh, you remember them? Fifteen years with no word, and now you want to know how they are?” Mike shook his head. “They are doing well, but forgive me if it takes me some time to break the news that their favorite uncle is back from the grave.”
“The grave?” John asked.
“The grave,” Mike confirmed. “I need some time to myself to think about all of this.” He rubbed his temples. “To make a decision about your request.”
“Take your time, Mike,” John said.
Mike reached for the radio on his desk. “Mani, bring the car to the front. My brother needs a ride back to the city.”
There was a pause, then static. A hoarse voice came from the speakers. “Yes, sir!”
The two men sat in smoky silence under the menacing eyes of their father.