The InterCity Express veered left with a protracted sparking screech. Ritter flexed his gun hand, but the tingling didn’t let go.
Outside the double-paned window, needles of sunlight bounced off yellow cranes reaching into purple sky above HafenCity. Concrete penthouses for plastic people. Behind that were the green slate roofs, ornate orange bricks, and shimmering mirrored windows of the Speicherstadt, the old warehouse district. The postcard picture put his teeth on edge.
Coming up on the right were squat brick warehouses covered with gang-like graffiti. Now that was more like it. Three punks in baggy black shorts and lace-up boots were teeing off next to beach chairs and a short case of Astra on the flat roof. It was the kind of thing the Amis used to do on Bagram Air Base.
Something banged the back of Ritter’s seat. His hand went to his hip. Then his mind caught up. His H&K was in the duffel bag in the overhead compartment. Turning, he saw an overly tan retiree struggling with two oversized burgundy suitcases, both marked with yellow ribbons. The square-shaped wife with the “blonde” buzzcut looked on disdainfully.
The other passengers were on their feet, grabbing identical trolley bags from overhead compartments and clogging the aisle with zero regard for one another. The kind of self-righteous civilians who condemned police brutality under any circumstance. The law is the law, they would say sternly over their red wine, then move on to the weather.
None would approve of the short trigger reset on Ritter’s ambidextrous Heckler & Koch SFP9-SF. Unless, of course, a two-time kiddie rapist named Mathias Lemke had kidnapped their seven-year-old and put him in an underground box with a short oxygen supply. Then it would be: Do whatever it takes, Herr Kriminalhauptkommissar. Just bring our little boy back home safe and sound.
The train went dark for a moment in the shadows of sooty brick buildings and even less friendly black-and-white graffiti signed by “Oz.” Ritter leaned back in his seat. That fucker sure got around. A few years back, the notorious sprayer contracted AIDS. Since then, his messages got a lot darker. Life-saving medication hadn’t improved his mood.
Up ahead was a nineteenth-century structure that looked like a smaller version of the Frankfurt central station. It had one hump instead of three. Heavy steel beams bent to support the frosted glass roof high above. Somehow, they managed to look baroque. Except for the “PHILIPS” sign in the paned windows spanning the tracks.
After the train pulled to a bumpy stop, the passengers shuffled toward the doors like sludge. Two minutes later, the stale air was swept away by a fresh breeze from outside. A muffled loudspeaker on the platform reminded travelers not to leave their luggage unattended. Anything to give registered voters a false sense of security, while guys like Ritter did the dirty work in the shadows.
Ritter waited for the grizzled old guy with the filthy backpack to load up empty plastic bottles and drag it to the next car. Then he grabbed his bag and headed for the door.
On the platform, thousands of voices echoed against the dome-like roof, filling the hall with a cold, comfortable din. The station was wall-to-wall humanity, like Frankfurt four hours earlier.
Ritter went with the flow to the wide cement stairway. In the shadows underneath, two young thieves closed in on a businessman dozing on a wooden bench. They pocketed his wallet and phone before he snorted awake. You snooze, you lose, asshole.
The stairway went sideways for a moment with an electric zap-zap. Ritter held onto the rail until the ground righted itself. The dizzy spell never lasted long, but it was hard to get used to. It always came out of nowhere, like a sucker punch.
The first time it happened, he found himself on his hands and knees, panting like a dog on the cold cement of a crowded S-Bahn station. The Bundeswehr doctors called it “cervical vertebra syndrome,” probably caused by that helicopter accident in Kandahar. The Amis called it “whiplash.” Commuters just thought he was drunk.
This was nothing in comparison. It didn’t even knock him down. He hitched the duffel bag over his shoulder and headed up the stairs.
The ground floor reeked of buttered popcorn and reefer. Arcade music was playing nearby. He walked through a wide, windy doorway, past the inevitable pale junkies clustered on the U-Bahn stairwell, and over to the front taxi in the long line at the curb. He opened the back door, threw his bag onto the seat, and said, “Alsterdorf.”
The fortyish driver looked like a failed sociology grad student. He put the cream-colored Mercedes in gear without a word. A heated political debate was blaring on the radio. It sounded local.
Next to the driver was a pint-sized rag called MOPO. As in Hamburger Morgenpost. Its screaming headline: “Whores vs. Yuppies!” A tasseled brown-and-white FC St. Pauli flag swung from the mirror, in open violation of traffic regulations.
Ritter leaned over the front seat. “Who’s winning?” he said.
The driver punched it through a stale yellow. “What’s that?”
“The whores or the yuppies?” Ritter motioned to the newspaper.
“Oh, that,” the driver said. “Don’t get me started. Fucking Christian Democrats want to gentrify St. Pauli! Tear down Herbertstrasse and build one of those business parks. You believe that shit? Nothing is sacred in this town.” He looked in the rearview. “Where you from?”
“Frankfurt,” Ritter said, all innocent civilian. “Is Herbertstrasse near the Reeperbahn?” Like he wanted tips about the red-light district. Or “Davidwache,” the smallest—and busiest—police precinct in Hamburg.
“The Herbert is the heart of St. Pauli! The Sozis will show those fascist bankers!” The driver slapped the wheel for emphasis. The flag fluttered approval.
Ritter gave the rage addict what he wanted. “Social Democrats run this town?”
The driver turned around completely. “Goddamn right! Mertens is going to turn the Herbert into a national monument. That’ll stop those real estate sharks.”
“Mertens? Who’s that?” Ritter kept one eye on the right blinker of the bus looming on their left. The side was covered with a semi-transparent advertisement for a zoo. The passenger nearest him was a giraffe.
“The Innensenator, but he’s okay,” the driver assured him, shooting ahead of the bus, which then veered into the lane behind them.
“That the top cop?” Ritter said, settling back in his seat. The driver looked like somebody who donned a black mask and threw Molotov cocktails at riot cops on May Day. He wondered how the antifa type would square the circle.
“Yeah, but he’s a Sozi,” the driver said, like that made Mertens some kind of double agent. “The senate votes at the end of the week. Then we’ll see who owns the streets.”
“That we will,” Ritter said. Wherever you were in the world, the locals always knew what time it was. All you had to do was ask.
■ ■ ■
After checking into Best Western under his own name, Ritter changed into sweats and went down to the basement for his Green Beret exercises. No equipment, just fifteen minutes of running in place, mid-air toe touches, and off-ground clap pushups to make up for the train ride. The only other guy in the room was a heart attack candidate on a treadmill engrossed in an overhead TV special called “Herbertstrasse: The New Silicon Alley?” Clever.
After a cold shower upstairs, Ritter was a new man. He grabbed a MOPO from the front desk and hit the street. Outside, he stood with all the hardworking losers on the sidewalk. The red light turned green, and the herd stepped onto the street. Ritter held his ground. It was more instinct than anything, like when walking point in Hindu Kush. Civilians didn’t get it. You listen to your gut, you might stay alive.
Out of nowhere, an unmarked brown Opel station wagon shot past his nose, driving on the wrong side with flashing front lights but no siren, and nearly took out a dozen cursing pedestrians. At the nearby intersection, it slid to a stop, only to lurch forward a meter at a time. Ritter smiled. The two plainclothes inside weren’t afraid to bend a few corners hunting bad guys.
Sure as shit, the driver craned his neck until he saw what he was chasing on a parallel street. The Opel lurched forward to the next intersection, where it did a smoking brodie and disappeared. Ritter was smiling so hard it hurt. The light had turned red again. He waved off a honking metallic gold Porsche SUV.
Two blocks later, Ritter’s nose led him to a restaurant serving fresh seafood next to a canal. It looked like a former boat dock. The place was packed under the huge umbrellas. They didn’t call Hamburg natives “fish-heads” for nothing.
Storm clouds hung over the canals like one big flying saucer. Underneath was purple sky streaked through with orange.
The combination made the restaurant look like a living painting.
Ritter was searching for a free table when a pretty girl in a black ankle-length apron appeared at his side. Light freckles were sprayed across a slightly bent nose under wild locks of blonde hair. She looked nineteen going on forty. Her name tag said “Jenny.”
Ritter felt something wake up in his pants.
“Right this way, sir,” Jenny said, leading him down the two steps to the redwood dock. Her purple eyes were dancing as he sat down on a woven chair. She didn’t hand him the leather-bound menu she was holding against her breasts. “You look like a man who knows what he wants.”
Ritter laughed at that. The whole evening had become glossy above the shimmering water.
A rowing team streamed by soundlessly, their coxswain at ease.
“Fish would be good,” Ritter said.
The waitress bit her lip playfully. “Would you care to be more specific? Or should I guess?”
Ritter held her look. “I think we both know the answer to that, Jenny.”
She blushed slightly but recovered quickly. “May I bring you something to drink with that?”
“Water,” he said.
She gave him that look again. “Shaken or stirred?”
This was too easy, he thought. “What do you think?”
“Shaken it is.” She hesitated.
“Is there a problem?” he said. It was possible she had bitten off more than she could chew, but he doubted it.
Jenny was frowning now. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I’m not?” Ritter had taken great trouble to lose his Frankfurt accent two decades before. Most people thought he was from Hannover, home to High German. Jenny, on the other hand, had a tinny harbor accent that was one hundred percent Hamburg. He wouldn’t be surprised if she spoke Low German at home.
“No.” Jenny sounded sure of herself. “You look like you’ve seen everything.”
Ritter suppressed a laugh. “Why do you say that?”
“The crinkles around your eyes,” she said, like she had just figured it out. “And you’re, you’re so well put together.”
Well, now. That was specific enough to indicate serious physical interest. “Thank you.”
“There’s something mysterious about you, like a secret agent man.”
Ritter felt his face go blank.
“Oops,” Jenny said.
“Just don’t tell anyone. Or I’ll have to kill you.”
Jenny gave him a look that could have raised the dead. “Is that a promise?”
“Yes,” Ritter said. “When do you get off?”
She showed him sharp teeth. “Anytime you say, sir.”
“This is just my day job,” she confided. “My night job is Down Under.”
Ritter stared at her name tag again. This had better not cost him money.
A heavy shadow crossed overhead. He felt what could have been a raindrop.
“Gotcha!” she said triumphantly. “Down Under is an Aussie bar.”
And you just showed your hand, he thought. “You working tonight?”
“Not anymore,” she said.
Ritter felt a real raindrop. Then another. “We’d better find some cover,” he said.
Jenny didn’t disagree.
Their footsteps on the wooden deck were echoed by rapid-fire pitter-patter on the big umbrellas.
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