|Primary Characters:||Rex, Brandtner, Böck, Höllerer, Kunz|
|Warning:||violence, some bad language|
|Description:||Keller still wants revenge on the man who helped Fuchs put him away for life. He kidnaps Rex. Brandtner will have to make a big sacrifice to save his dog’s life.|
The dog’s ears shot back and her hackles were up. This man was no friend of hers and she didn’t like his scent. Why did her human want her to go with him? He had never been very good at taking care of her, but he was the only one she knew. Still, her human did nothing to stop the bad-smelling man from grabbing her leash. She bared her teeth, but she was reluctant to bite. To her surprise, the new man reached into his pocket and held out a sausage to her. She sniffed it suspiciously, but could find nothing wrong with it. In one big bite the sausage disappeared down her throat. Since there didn’t appear to be anything else to do, she let the newcomer lead her out to his van. When the door shut behind her, the dog let out a whimper, but knowing there was no way out, she curled up and tried to sleep. She woke up to find that the van had stopped. The door opened, and the same man grabbed her leash again to make her jump out. There were other men there, and again, she whimpered in fear.
“Are you sure it’s in heat?”
“The guy said so. And she does seem grumpy enough.”
The other men didn’t join in the laughter. Too much was on their minds.
The oldest man present handed over a few bank notes and the man who had picked up the dog pocketed his pay and turned on his heel. His part of the operation was over. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to know. Keller was known to tie up any lose ends with less than gentle means.
“Lock the mutt inside the shed until we need it.”
She was shut inside a small, dark shed. There was no food or water, and nothing to lie on. The dog sniffed the floor unenthusiastically. In the end, she did like any other dog – made the best of the situation. Perhaps her opportunity would come. As she well knew, humans were slow and awkward on their legs.
“He goes for a run in the mornings.”
“Unless there’s some job emergency.”
“Go on. He takes the dog with him?”
The man nodded.
“You know which way he goes?”
“Through the woods and back into his backyard.”
“Excellent. Then I think we can get going. This place isn’t safe for me. I need to move on. But first we deal with mr Brandtner. Pity we can’t use the same method to lure him to us.”
The grey-haired man’s steely features moved into the semblance of a smile. Involuntarily, his men looked away. They all recognized the smile. Someone was about to get hurt, but as long as it wasn’t one of them, the money Keller paid them would make them ignore their feelings. With enough money, you could overlook most unpleasantness.
There was a festive mood in the office that night. For six weeks, the team had been hot on the trail of a serial killer. The man had been killing people for close to three years, at random intervals. Finally, the killer had been caught. His arrest was the result of a combination of brilliant deductive skills and basic, plodding police work, one step at a time. All the more reason for the team to celebrate. The case hadn’t originally been theirs, but had been placed in their hands after two victims had been found in Vienna. Most of the other cases had occurred around Linz, one in Salzburg. That body had been found in the cemetery where Mozart had been buried in his unmarked pauper’s grave.
Alex got up and stretched his aching back. It felt like he’d existed on stale coffee, and the odd sausage sandwich for months. Sleep was a distant memory. At least a full night’s uninterrupted sleep. While the case remained open, they had all been forced to snatch moments of restless naps over their desks, or on the floor. At least Alex had taken to spending the night in the office until he had the killer safely locked up. Böck and Kunz had taken turns, so that at any given moment at least two of the homicide detectives would be around.
“Thanks, Fritz, but we cracked this one together. All of us. Rex and Leo too. It’s all down to team work.”
Kunz caught the new note in his boss’ voice. Had he finally earned Brandtner’s respect? He knew that Böck still viewed him as very much the rookie, but Brandtner appeared to have been perfectly serious.
“Where are you going? I thought we were going out to celebrate?”
“Sorry. I have to get home. Uh – actually, there’s someone waiting for me.”
Brandtner took a closer look. Kunz, living with someone? This was something he’d better look into. He had had no idea that their awkward new colleague was involved with someone. The last thing he heard, Kunz had been single like the rest of them. Before he had time to inquire closer, Böck moved in.
“Someone waiting for you? I see. And?”
A totally new Kunz. He was actually standing up to Böck’s less than subtle baiting.
“Go on. Tell us all. You’ve been keeping this secret to yourself for far too long.”
“Well, you know, we’ve been kind of busy lately so -”
Brandtner thought of interfering. If Kunz couldn’t make it, that was ok. At least if he really had someone waiting for him, and it did sound that way. The guy appeared sincere. It wasn’t just a ruse, dreamed up to avoid their celebration, out of shyness. In any case, this changed Kunz seemed perfectly capable of standing up to Böck’s teasing.
“Come on. We want to hear all about her, don’t we, Alex?”
“Of course. If Fritz feels like sharing. You’re going, though, aren’t you, Christian?”
This appeared to catch Böck off guard. What was so special about Brandtner’s question? Did Böck too, have someone waiting? Interesting. The short cop paused in reflection. Then he appeared to come to a decision.
“Sure. We’ve been planning this for months. When we nailed the son-of-a bitch, we’d all go out for a bit of champagne. Are you sure you can’t make it, Fritz? Just one drink?”
Kunz hesitated. Could he? But he knew far too well that it wouldn’t stop at one drink. And Paola was waiting. The kids would be in bed, but his girlfriend would be awake, waiting for his news. In fact, he wanted to give her a call, to tell her about their success. He had a feeling they would be able to celebrate in an even more fitting way, together.
“Sorry. I’d have loved to, but -”
“She’s that tough, huh? Already. Must be some woman.”
“Yes, she is.”
Kunz was positively glowing. His admiration for his new girlfriend was immeasurable. Paola was a terrific lady, no question about it.
“Anyone we know?”
“Christian, if Fritz wants to keep this to himself, leave him alone. But I hope you’ll invite us to the wedding.”
“No, it’s alright. I’ll tell you. Remember the hockey club? The murder on the ice?”
Brandtner thought he knew where this was leading, but he was happy to let Fritz pick his own, slow pace when telling his story.
“Paola was working in the gym.”
“The cleaning lady? I see.”
Böck’s knowing voice hinted that he saw far more than Brandtner thought was possible, considering Böck’s preferences, but as a good friend and colleague, Brandtner let this pass. Kunz might not have picked up on Böck’s sexual orientation.
“She moved in about three months ago.”
“You’re living together? That’s great news. Well, don’t keep the lady waiting. I’m sure she’s missed you over the past couple of weeks.”
“Yes, she has. They all have.”
Böck’s voice was filled with disbelief. A girlfriend, and what else?
“She’s got three kids.”
“You’re a father? A stepfather? Wow, things move fast while your back’s turned. How about that, Alex? Fritz a dad. Who would have thought?”
“Congratulations. Three? An instant family.”
“Two girls and a boy.”
“12, 9 and 5. The boy’s the youngest. Terrific kids. Their father’s no longer around and hasn’t been for quite a few years. Sandrino’s calling me dad now.”
Brandtner walked over to Kunz and slapped his back in a friendly way, trying to ignore his own stiff neck. When he had celebrated enough, he’d take Rex home and he’d sleep for a week, in his own comfortable bed. No more sleeping on floors. Apparently, he wasn’t as young as he thought.
“Christian, we should let Fritz get home. Are you coming? Rex and I could go on our own, if you need to be somewhere.”
This was as close as Brandtner would ever come to asking Böck if he, too had someone waiting at home.
“Oh. Yes. Congratulations, Fritz. At least there won’t be any diapers that need changing. Right away, anyway.”
A sly look crept into Böck’s watery blue eyes. He couldn’t resist one last dig before following his boss and the dog out into the corridor.
“If I remember correctly, your Paola is still young. She’ll want a large family, now that she’s met a great guy like you.”
Kunz’ chubby face went a vivid pink. Tact, clearly wasn’t Böck’s strong suit. Or delicacy.
“Christian. Leave Fritz alone. Most people want to start families. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll want to as well. Let’s go. Rex.”
The dog’s ears pricked his ears and he looked inquiringly at his daddy. Was he supposed to drag Böck across the floor? If so, no problem. The other cop could be a nuisance at times, though Rex always managed to outsmart the petty tricks in the end, but daddy just wanted him to come, so regretfully, Rex did as his beloved daddy asked him. The office was a good place, but they’d been in it for far too long this time. A few minutes out in the backyard wasn’t enough for a big, agile dog. Even if his dad was only going to one of those people places, it would be a change of scenery.
Kunz hurriedly put on his jacket and the cops said their goodbyes in the parking lot.
“Alex, would you drop me off at home before going back? I don’t have a car right now.”
“Of course, Christian. In fact, we might just pick up a few bottles and go over to my place. Or yours? You pick.”
Yes, something was definitely up. There it was, that sly look. Brandtner guessed that Böck’s place would be out of the question. Interesting. Well, no use speculating. If Böck wanted to talk, Brandtner would listen, but whatever it was, it wasn’t any of his business, so he wouldn’t pry.
“Really? Great. It’s pretty late so I guess most places will be closed by now.”
“Yes, but I know a bar where we can get some good champagne, and they make a couple of delicious sandwiches too.”
At this hour, it didn’t take them long to reach the bar Brandtner had mentioned. Traffic was down to almost zero. Of course, this was just a plain Tuesday night. Over the weekends, and in the tourist season it would be different.
To Brandtner’s surprise, Böck didn’t come inside with him, but chose to remain in the car, with Rex. The dog stared unenthusiastically at his daddy, but decided to stay and keep an eye on things. Being a colleague, Böck most likely wouldn’t try to make off with their car, but still, who knew what the man might get up to?
It really looked as if Böck was up to something. Glancing around him furtively, he pulled out his cell phone and dialled a number. Rex sniffed the man inquiringly, but didn’t recognize many of the words he was speaking into the phone.
“We nailed the bastard tonight. So me and – some of the guys – are going out to celebrate. You know how it is. I know you guys over at the hospital know how to party. Yes, I love you too, Joe. I have to hang up. Someone’s coming.”
Böck hurriedly put the phone away. He could see Brandtner’s elegant shape appear in the doorway of the bar. Though Böck was already involved, he couldn’t force his gaze away from the long, slender legs and the way the jeans clung to the lithe form. When his colleague opened the door, Böck managed to tear his eyes from the enticing image the other man made. How many nights had that vision haunted Böck’s dreams? Even now, with Joe in his life, Böck couldn’t help looking, when he thought Brandtner wasn’t paying attention.
“Yes. Rex has behaved himself.”
The dog’s eyes seemed to imply that Böck had not, but he was unable to figure out what the other cop was up to.
Brandtner slipped into the driver’s seat, put the car into gear and soon he was on his way to the house his predecessor had bought for himself and the dog, but death had robbed him of the chance of enjoying the place for very long. Now it was Brandtner’s home.
“There. It’s funny. I’m not really tired anymore. When we put away the last of the paper work, all I wanted was to sleep for a week. Now I feel like I could party for a while. I think Rex is very tired though. He probably doesn’t feel as if he can relax at the office. For him, it’s been work 24 hours a day, for months.”
“For all of us. But we finally got him. The sick bastard.”
“Yes, we did. Come on. You know the way.”
Brandtner turned on the light in the hallway, dropped his jacket on a dresser by the door, and proceeded into the kitchen to see to the dog. Just as he thought. The water dish was empty and so was the food dish. After rummaging through the cupboard, he found the bag of dry food and filled up Rex’ dish. He did the same with the water dish, then found a few glasses for himself and his guest.
Maybe he should have called Leo. The pathologist was the one who had provided the final missing piece of the puzzle, by spotting something so insignificant that nine out of ten would have missed it, thus leaving the killer free to commit more atrocious crimes. But the old man would be in bed by now. Brandtner contented himself with making a mental note to show up at the doctor’s place the following day, bringing another bottle of the fine vintage.
Grabbing a few plates for the sandwiches, Brandtner joined Böck in the living room. He poured some of the champagne, then opened the paper bag that contained the sandwiches. There were two for each of them, including the dog. It had been a very long time since their last proper meal. Maybe around lunchtime. Brandtner wasn’t quite sure. Anyway, now everything was fine. He was beginning to relax a little. The neck would get better.
“To team work.”
“Yes. And to luck.”
They drank, had a few bites of their sandwiches, then Böck wanted to make another toast.
“To forensics and pathology.”
Toasts were all very well, but there was a time for talk and a time for drinking and eating, and this was definitely an occasion for the latter. Without many more words, they applied themselves to their feast.
Rex was finished much sooner than the men, who had strange ideas about polite behavior. In either case, Rex’ work was done. His daddy was safe, and that tiresome Böck was no threat. Finally, he could sleep.
The men didn’t notice the dog leaving. Brandtner was going over details of the case in his mind, until he reminded himself that this was a celebration. No time for memories from his work. Gruesome details from autopsy reports could wait. He needed to have more fun. Delighted that the long period of hard, unrelenting work was over for this time, he took a deep breath and stretched to relieve some of the insistent pain in his neck.
“Nothing. Just my neck. I guess I shouldn’t have slept on the floor. It will pass.”
“I could -”
Böck reached out and placed his hands on Brandtner’s shoulders. Not a good idea. It felt so good – He shouldn’t –
Brandtner tensed up, but knew that if he pulled away he might offend his colleague. Still, he would have felt awkward enough if anyone else from the office would have offered the same thing. No reason to jump to conclusions about Böck’s intentions. To his surprise, Böck’s hands were amazingly skillful. After a few minutes of that, the pain was receding.
“That’s great. Where did you learn to -”
There you go again, Alex, prying into other people’s business.
“Oh, a – friend of mine – works in a hospital.”
“I see. Thanks.”
Brandtner was about to pick up his glass and have a little more of the wonderful champagne, when he noticed that Böck didn’t withdraw his hands. Instead, his colleague was moving closer. The look in his eyes told Brandtner that he shouldn’t have accepted the back rub. How would he handle this awkward situation? Böck didn’t seem to pick up on his lack of enthusiasm. Of course. The alcohol would have affected the shorter, slighter man more.
Not even the tone of voice provided a clue. Böck’s face kept coming closer, until – Brandtner swore inwardly. He didn’t want to hurt Böck’s feelings, or face any trouble at work. They needed to be able to count on each other on the job. In the end, though, he saw no other solution than to gently put his hands on Böck’s shoulder and push him back a little.
“Christian – I’m not -”
At last, Böck realized the potential mine field he’d stepped into. This was exactly what he’d been afraid of, in the years they’d been working together. From the time he’d managed to get over Moser, he’d found himself increasingly attracted to the beautiful Brandtner.
“Of course not. Forgive me. I must have had too much to drink. Please – Let’s just forget this ever happened.”
“No problem. Nothing did happen.”
But the mood was irrevocably spoiled. Böck shook his head to clear it. Time he went back to – Damn. How could he do this to Joe? There he was, waiting for him at home. In their bed. And what was going on behind his back?
“I’ll – I’ll just call a cab. It’s been great, Alex, but it’s getting late. Or rather, early. See you at work.”
“No need to come in to work tomorrow. They know where to reach us. After this, we can afford to sleep in.”
Böck stared at Brandtner. Was this it? The end of their team work, their friendship, the respect they had for each other.
“If you don’t want to, that is. I might be in later in the afternoon. It depends.”
“Oh. You’re sure you’re not -”
Yeah. You’re not upset I just tried to kiss you –
Brandtner too, was slightly drunk and suddenly very tired. He missed the subtext in Böck’s voice. All he could detect was the pain and shame. Though he wanted nothing more than to retreat into his bedroom and sleep beside his most loyal friend, the dog, he wanted to say something to reassure Böck there were no hard feelings.
“Christian, I’m sorry. You know I’m dating Renate now and – even if -”
“Even if you didn’t, you’re not into men. It’s ok. I knew that really. Blame the champagne. I hope you can forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. Still friends?”
“Still friends. And I might be in later tomorrow. I’ll see.”
“Good. Who knows what new cases might be waiting for us.”
Böck wanted to beg Brandtner not to tell Kunz about his faux pas, but of course, he had nothing to worry about. Brandtner was a terrific friend. He wouldn’t sell him out. His secret was safe with him.
“Thanks. For – everything.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Böck turned abruptly and picked up the phone. Normally, he’d ask permission to use his host’s facilities, but the incident just now had rattled him sufficiently for him to forget his good manners. No difficulty in getting the cab to come for him. Soon he’d be back home, with Joe and if he worked really hard on it, he might be able to forget this humiliating mistake. Before long, they could hear the cab pulling up outside in Brandtner’s driveway. Watching his friend leave, Brandtner felt all the fatigue that had been building up during the weeks of grueling work catch up with him. The pain in his neck might be gone, but his entire body felt numb. Rex had the right idea. Sleep was just the thing. Exactly what he needed. As he got ready for bed, he kept hoping this incident wouldn’t spoil his and Böck’s friendship, but he was far too weary to really pay much attention. Time enough the next day.
Keller watched his men file into the cars. One of them led the bitch into the van with shaded windows. Time to implement the plan. Alex Brandtner would pay for his interference. Perhaps Ernst Fuchs was beyond Keller’s reach, but someone would pay the price. Those of his men who caught his smile felt chills go down their spines. Working for Keller held its own dangers and pitfalls, but unfortunately, the crime lord also paid better than anyone else in the business. As long as they watched their own backs, surely they would escape unscathed this time too? And once Keller’s had his revenge, he would move on to a more benevolent climate. Rio, was everyone’s guess.
The cars set out towards Vienna. Dawn was close, and they had a long drive ahead of them. At 7 in the morning, give or take ten minutes or so, Alex Brandtner and his dog would be going on their daily run in the woods. According to Keller’s plan, they would approach from the direction of the woods behind Brandtner’s house. From the rendez-vous point, they would set out on foot. One man, who claimed to have experience with dogs, from his days as an animal control employee, would bring the bitch, who according to another expert would be at her most attractive to male dogs. Once the male dog was near, the other men would spring the trap. They had brought a net, heavy gloves and a syringe, containing a drug that was guaranteed to put a big dog to sleep in an instant.
Things appeared to be proceeding smoothly. Just as well. Keller had been known to use rather primitive methods to – motivate – his crew. No one dared to put that rumor to the test. Around 7.15 they could all hear the sound of someone running through the woods, and they stayed back, under cover of a thicker expanse of trees. Soon the dog appeared. He seemed to sense something, and moved closer. To begin with, he didn’t look very interested in the bitch. The men began to move about uneasily. What if all their hard work would come to nothing? Keller’s reaction didn’t bear thinking about.
But now something about the bitch caught the male’s attention and he fixed her with rapt attention. He sniffed the air between them, and barked encouragingly. The man holding the female’s leash didn’t release her, so Rex moved closer, keeping his head submissively low, and his tail politely high. The entrancing creature mustn’t be offended in any way. Though Rex had rarely been allowed to encounter bitches in heat, he knew the rules of the canine mating ritual. As he crouched on the ground at the bitch’s feet, the other men closed in, flinging the net over him. Though he reacted quickly, he wasn’t quick enough. A sudden sting made him whimper as much in fear as in pain. Within seconds, his vision was blurring. A few more seconds and he blacked out. Two of the men picked him up and carried him back to the car. As easy as that. Now they had to hurry. It wouldn’t be long now, until Brandtner noticed that his devoted friend was missing. At the isolated farm house, which had become Keller’s temporary headquarters, both dogs were locked in the shed on the grounds. Phase two of Keller’s plan could be put into effect.
Impatiently, Brandtner glanced at his watch. Where could Rex be? Was he sniffing something long dead? Brandtner didn’t think he’d chased up any wildlife. Normally, Rex would only bark at squirrels and hares, never give chase. He was far too devoted to his daddy and his work.
“Rex. Where are you? We’ll be late for work. Come on.”
Torn between his duties and the concern about his dog, Brandtner remained standing indecisively. He might as well go back and look for Rex. There was no way he was going to leave his dog in the woods all day.
After half an hour of fruitless searching, Brandtner was forced to give up. By now, he was far more worried than earlier. This was so unlike Rex. Something had to be wrong. Back at the house, he stopped only briefly in the bathroom to clean up and put on something more formal than his jogging suit. He snatched up the phone and dialled the number for the office. Both his colleagues would be in by now, no doubt wondering what had become of him. He recalled that Rex had been abducted once before, while he was still living with Richie Moser. Was the man responsible still a threat? He had to find out. Perhaps he ought to call Höllerer, not Böck or Kunz, who would have no useful information. But he didn’t know if Höllerer would be in, so he decided to check in with the office first, on the off chance that a ransom demand had already been delivered. Kunz was the one to pick up.
“Fritz? Rex is missing. I’m afraid someone’s taken him. Has there been any unusual phone calls?”
“No. Sorry. What can I do? Do you want me to go out to your place and help you look?”
“Yes. No. Is Christian there?”
“No, he’s a little late. Are you sure you don’t want me out there?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Just stay by the phone, and call me if you hear anything. When Christian gets in one of you can do a bit of research. Did you know that in Moser’s day, Rex was abducted?”
“He was? No. Never heard of that. But we’ll get right on it. Don’t worry about it, Alex. We’ll get him back.”
As soon as he’d hung up, there was another call.
“Sorry to disappoint you, mr Brandtner. This isn’t your little friend Böck. Listen carefully. I have something I’m pretty sure you want back. If you’re as fond of that dog as people say, you will meet me at a place of my choosing. You will come alone, and unarmed. If you fail to comply with these demands, the dog dies.”
“Who are you? How do I know that you have my dog?”
“You’ll just have to take my word for it. As for my name – You must know it fairly well. After all, you and a close friend of mine, mr Ernst Fuchs were instrumental in putting me away for life. Except, I’m no longer in jail, mr Brandtner. Now you will do as I tell you, or the dog dies. There are plenty of interesting ways to kill a big dog. Did you know? Many of them will keep it alive until the last possible moment. Not a pretty sight. Will you comply?”
There was something in the man’s voice that led Alex to believe he meant every word he said. Alex’s throat felt dry and he had to cough and start over before he was able to reply.
“Yes. Don’t hurt him. I’ll be there.”
Keller proceeded to outline his demands. Brandtner’s mind raced ahead, trying to find a way to circumvent the crime lord’s plan, but could think of nothing to do. Whatever he tried, Rex would pay for it. Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to let that happen. For a moment, he contemplated calling Kunz to let him know what he was about to do, but decided against it. His faithful colleagues would come to his rescue, but it wasn’t fair of him to put their lives at risk. This was personal. Keller’s problem was with him, not Kunz or Böck.
Brandtner wasn’t surprised when he found himself in an isolated spot far from the city. Uneasily scanning the surroundings, he determined that there were no witnesses. Nothing to deter Keller and his men from springing their trap. He wondered if all Keller wanted was to see him dead, or if the man had something more elaborate in mind. Brandtner was no coward, but the scar on Fuchs’ back, along with the scanty information the young man had given him, about what he had suffered at the crime lord’s hands had chilled Brandtner. There was no mercy to be expected. With a sinking feeling, Brandtner realized that his sacrifice might be in vain. Rex might already be dead. At least he doubted that Keller had bothered to torture the dog before ending his life. That was some small consolation.
Now two men approached. There was no weapon to be seen, but Brandtner wasn’t foolish enough to expect that his adversary would be sending unarmed men to pick him up.
“Mr Brandtner? Will you come willingly or do we have to – help – you?”
“I will come with you. Is my dog alright?”
The men grinned broadly as if at some hidden joke.
“You could say that. More than just alright. I’d say he’s doing just fine.”
Their attitude puzzled Brandtner, but he forced himself to take their words at face value. He had to hope that Rex was still alive. All this couldn’t have been for nothing. Despite everything, Brandtner didn’t regret having helped Ernst Fuchs starting a new life in Australia. Not until now did it occur to him that the abduction of Rex might have been set in motion solely so Keller could find his former cell mate and exact his revenge from him. Brandtner hoped that they wouldn’t use Rex to force the information of Fuchs’ whereabouts from him.
But officially, Ernst Fuchs had died during the shooting at Brandtner’s place all those months ago. Hopefully, Keller believed that. Besides, the Australian authorities had been informed of the crime lord’s threats against the immigrant. If a man matching Keller’s description tried to enter the country, the local police would be alerted. Fuchs would be safe enough.
The two men escorted Brandtner to a car parked some way up a small forest road. One of them got into the backseat next to their prisoner, the other took the driver’s seat and started the engine.
“Where are we going?”
The driver laughed and ignored him. Brandtner was about to repeat the question, though he knew it was useless. These men didn’t have to tell him anything, and of course they knew that. After a moment’s consideration the other man spoke up.
“You did want to see your dog, didn’t you? He’ll be waiting for you.”
That was all the explanation he got. Still, it was more than he had expected. He was being taken to an isolated farm house, where he was made to enter the main building. The two men who brought him in were joined by two more. All large, sturdy men. No one appeared to be wielding any guns, not that he could see.
They herded him into a spacious farm kitchen. A huge fireplace caught Brandtner’s attention. There was a fire roaring on the hearth, though there appeared to be electric heating in the house. An older man was stirring the fire, his back to the newcomer. The grey-haired man got up and turned to face his prisoner. Though Brandtner had never met Keller in person, not even during the trial, he had no doubt this was the man who had tormented Ernst Fuchs during his years of sharing a cell with him. There was something about the eyes that was truly chilling. No trace of emotion could be seen there.
“Ah. Mr Brandtner. I see that the rumors about your beauty weren’t exaggerated. Very pretty.”
Brandtner hoped that this was only part of the intimidation.
“Where is my dog?”
“How touching. It appears man is the dog’s best friend. All in good time, mr Brandtner. I will deal with your dog after I deal with you.”
Keller walked closer, and Brandtner felt himself being grabbed by rough hands. Two of Keller’s goons had moved in from behind and were holding him in a vice. He was held immobile in their hard grip. He felt another hand shoot out, this time to tilt his face up for the man’s inspection. Brandtner’s hadn’t known how tall the old man was, or how strong. The fingers ate into his chin, no doubt leaving marks, but this was only the beginning. All Brandtner’s strength was needed to keep his face from betraying the fear he felt. In the line of duty, Brandtner had faced many criminals, but no one had scared him like this one did.
“Like I thought. Exquisite. This is going to be a pleasure. What would you say if I were to bring you with me? You took my Ernst from me. It’s only fair that you take his place.”
The other hand moved down to Brandtner’s chest and with a quick movement, tore the t-shirt to shreds.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we have time for that. There’s so much to be done, before I have to leave. What a shame. Strip him to the waist.”
This last was apparently directed at the two men who were holding the prisoner. Hurriedly, they obeyed. Soon Brandtner’s jacket and the remains of his t-shirt were lying on the floor. Keller had returned to his task over by the fireplace. This errand didn’t take him long. Within seconds, he was back facing his prisoner.
Brandtner’s eyes were irresistibly drawn to what the man was holding in his hand. It was a large hunting knife. For a second, Brandtner feared that this knife would be used to kill his dog, then he realized that the blade was red hot. Keller had been holding it in the fire, to heat it up. Knowing what the knife would be used for, Brandtner had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. Branding. Keller would leave his mark on him.
“Place him face down on the floor, and hold him. All of you. But don’t gag him. I don’t mind the screaming. Not at all.”
Keller’s voice seemed to imply that on the contrary, he would relish the sound of pain issuing from his victim. That could well be. From what Brandtner had heard of this man, that would be in keeping with his character.
Tensing up in anticipation of the bite of the hot steel, Brandtner lay waiting. But the moment dragged on longer than he had expected. When the touch came, it was not steel on skin, but a hand on his – ass.
“Yes, such a shame. Perfect. When we’re done maybe we will have time to get a little more intimate. But first -”
The pain was beyond anything Brandtner had been able to imagine. He’d been wounded in the line of duty, injured during workout. Once, as a child, he’d fallen from a tree and broken his wrist and his clavicle. None of that had hurt like this. He wasn’t even aware of screaming, until his vocal cords were already hoarse and numb. Before long, he wasn’t merely screaming, he was begging for the pain to end. The loss of dignity was worse even than the pain. Brandtner heard himself offering Keller anything he wished if only the pain would end. In the end, the pain began to lose a little intensity. After a while, Brandtner’s regained control of his mind.
“There. All done. Very nice. What do you say? The best one so far. Yes. A very pretty K.”
Brandtner slumped to the floor, unable to hold his head up any longer. He kept fading in and out. The pain was still there, though receding slightly. But there was something he had to do. Something he needed to say. He struggled to make his mind work. Important. Urgent. Yes. Rex.
“What about my dog? Will you let him go now?”
“The dog, yes. Why not put him out of his misery? You. Take the mutts out into the woods and shoot them. Not here. Drive some distance. Leave the bodies out there and come back right away.”
Brandtner’s voice was barely audible. The screaming had taken its toll. He felt numb. All in vain. Rex was going to die, and so was he.
“He called a minute ago and said someone had taken Rex.”
“Taken Rex? What on earth for? I’ll call him and find out.”
“He wanted us to do a bit of research to find out who might be behind -”
The sound of a phone ringing interrupted Kunz. Böck’s face lit up.
“That will be Alex. I’m sure Rex had just played a little trick on him. The rascal. I’ll get it.”
Picking up the phone, Böck looked smug. He was sure he had the explanation to the dog’s absence. As he listened to what the caller had to say, his expression changed to one of increasing concern, and by the time he hung up, to alarm.
“Keller’s escaped. That must be it. He’s after revenge, for Ernst Fuchs. Alex was at home when he called?”
“Uh – I suppose so.”
“What are you waiting for? We have to go.”
“Shouldn’t we warn him first?”
Böck cursed inwardly. Of course he should have thought of that himself. Now the rookie had scored a point. Snatching up the phone, Böck dialled his boss’ number. No reply.
“There’s no reply.”
Both men made their way down to the parking lot more quickly than usual. Even Kunz seemed to move faster and appeared more agile.
“We’ll take your car. Mine’s still at the repair shop.”
Kunz seemed embarrassed, but didn’t argue. Under normal circumstances, Böck would have taken the opportunity of teasing his colleague about the battered old station wagon he was driving, or about the children’s toys strewn all over it. As it was, he didn’t even comment on the pantyhose he found on the floor at his feet. What could Kunz and his Paola have been up to? But there was no time for pleasant banter. Brandtner needed them. And Rex. For the first time since Böck had met the dog, he found himself actually feeling concern for its safety. Normally, he’d be too jealous of the attention being showered on the creature by the man Böck had worshiped in silence for so long. But without the dog the office wouldn’t be the same. They had to get both of them back safely.
At Brandtner’s house there was nothing of interest to be found. How would they be able to track Brandtner? The house turned out to be a dead end. Now what? Böck put in a call to their uniformed colleagues and for once, they were in luck. An observant civilian had spotted something unusual going on around an abandoned farm house. If that was anything to do with Keller – Again, the two men got into the station wagon and proceeded to drive towards the abandoned farm house.
“I’ll just call Höllerer. He’ll want to be in on this. It’s out near his place, so he’ll make his own way there. He’s devoted to Alex.”
The man who had been given the unenviable task of disposing of the dogs, stared uneasily at the shed. If he opened the door, what would those mutts do to him? Better bring something from the kitchen. Fortunately, there was another, more modern kitchen, where there was a well-stocked larder and a refrigerator. Armed with a few sausages, the man dared to open the door to the shed and timidly lured the dogs outside. The male was still slightly unsteady on his feet after the drug that had been used to knock him out. He was followed by the female.
With a sigh of relief, the man shut the two dogs into the back of the van. Hopefully, it would be easier to dispose of them once he found a good isolated spot. He didn’t dare to drive far, for fear of angering Keller further. A five minute drive would have to be enough. There were no houses nearby and the man didn’t think there would be any people out walking, not at this time of year. Reluctantly, he opened the back door, keeping the gun ready. Keller should have sent two men to do the job. How could he cover two dogs, with only one gun? Instantly, his fears were realized. Before he had time to react, the female dog had launched herself through the air. The shot went wide, not even grazing either of the dogs, and now it was too late. Soon the male was hanging by the other arm, tearing the sleeve to shreds. The impact of the female dog’s jaws caused the man to drop the gun.
“Just go. I’ll tell Keller I shot you. Don’t hurt me, please.”
It almost seemed as if the dogs understood the plea in the man voice. They let go, and turned to run into the woods. Before the man had time to recover his gun, the male dog had picked it up and retreated after his female friend.
He was standing out in the woods, talking to himself. The dogs he had been sent to shoot were gone. Better get back to Keller before he was missed.
By the time Böck and Kunz had made their way out to Keller’s headquarters, Höllerer was already there. A SWAT team had surrounded the building, and the attack was about to be launched. Suddenly, Höllerer felt a nudge on his right leg. He looked down, and found Rex standing there. The dog’s posture spoke of dedication to his work. If Keller and his men had been holding the dog, how could he be standing out here, apparently unharmed? Höllerer reached down and patted the dog’s neck.
“Good boy, Rex. Is Alex in there?”
Now all three cops noticed that Rex wasn’t alone.
“Hey there, Rex. Who’s your friend?”
Höllerer took a closer look at the new dog, then nodded decisively to himself.
“Not just any friend. This is a lady friend. You have a girlfriend, Rex? Does daddy know about that? Come on, let’s get him back.”
It seemed the new dog was mimicking Rex’ behavior, and was standing at attention. The look in her eyes was so fierce, Böck involuntarily took a step back. Even the dog had a girlfriend. So did Kunz. The entire world was involved. Of course, so was he. He had to remind himself of that.
The attack was set into motion, and the three homicide detectives took cover, while their colleagues did their work. Despite the lighthearted banter of a moment ago, each man was filled with somber thoughts. Would their friend still be alive? What would Keller have put him through? The attack was over as suddenly as it had begun. No more shots were fired, and the members of the SWAT team silently filed into the building, securing room after room on their way inside. Höllerer could see that the dog was eager to follow, but fearing the worst, the retired detective didn’t think that was a good idea.
“You stay here, Rex.”
One look at Kunz told him that the man who had replaced him at the office wouldn’t be up to facing the carnage inside.
“Kunz? Will you please keep Rex here. I think his lady friend will stay with him.”
To Böck’s surprise, Rex only gave one muffled growl, then sank to his haunches by Kunz’ side. Oh, so that dog would obey anyone, would he? Anyone except for Böck. But he was too concerned about his boss to linger, wondering about the dog’s puzzling behavior patterns. The large ex-cop and his smaller colleague decided that it was safe to venture inside. One of the members of the SWAT team recognized Höllerer and waved him on. Humiliatingly, Böck had to produce his id to be allowed to follow.
“Where is he?”
“Brandtner? I don’t know. It’s chaos in here. Watch out for that stiff.”
Böck hurriedly withdrew his foot. He had been about to step right into the mangled remains of one of Keller’s men. The man had fallen right in the doorway.
“Christian. In here.”
Böck followed Höllerer’s authoritative voice into a large old-fashioned farm kitchen. Paramedics were swarming around a body, lying face down on the floor. Alex. He couldn’t be – Hurriedly, both Brandtner’s friends kneeled beside him, anxiously scanning his torso for any sign of life. So much blood. The paramedics patiently stepped around the two men.
Höllerer’s normally good-natured face was strained and his voice held a hard edge, telling Böck that the older cop was as worried as he was.
“He’ll be ok. This – it looks like someone was trying carve some kind of mark into his back.”
Keller. Böck caught sight of a uniformed colleague and looked up.
“Did you get the escaped con? Keller.”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the boss about that. Take a look at these stiffs. But they look pretty young to be someone like that. I know two injured perps were taken away in an ambulance. Might have been one of them.”
Höllerer glanced inquiringly at one of the paramedics, his hand indicating the man lying at his feet.
“Is he conscious?”
“Yes. Here. We can move him now.”
Two of the paramedics lifted Brandtner off the floor and took him over to a stretcher by the door. Considering the condition his back was in, no one tried to make him lie down. Again, Höllerer kneeled in front of his old friend and gently put out a hand to touch Brandtner’s shoulder.
The face was ashen, and the look in his eyes was tormented.
“Peter, they killed Rex.”
“No. He’s fine. They’re outside now.”
The words didn’t appear to have any impact. Brandtner might as well not have heard his old friend.
“They shot him.”
“No, Alex. Christian. Could you go and get Rex for me?”
Böck’s face was slightly green, after taking in all the blood on the floors, the walls, the furniture. Keller’s men had put up a fight. Most of them had died defending their boss.
“You can stay with Kunz if you like. We’ll be right out.”
Something was on Höllerer’s mind, but he didn’t feel he could ask. Not with so many strangers about.
“Alex, are you -”
How did he ask a man who had just had his back carved with a knife if he was ok? But that wasn’t really what Höllerer was asking. He knew what Keller had done to Fuchs while they were sharing a prison cell. Having read reports on Keller’s activities, he also knew what else the man was capable of. A psychopath as well as one of the leading names in Austrian organized crime for the past 20 years.
“Why did they kill him?”
“Alex, Rex is fine. He’ll be right here.”
Höllerer could hear the clicking of dog’s claws on the floor behind. He turned and found both dogs trotting up to the wounded man on the stretcher.
“Here he is. Girlfriend and all.”
Rex cast his daddy a worried look. He could smell blood – his daddy’s blood – but at least daddy was sitting up, and looking at him. Brandtner’s face lit up.
The dog gave an encouraging bark and bounded up to his daddy. The face licking that ensued earned dog and owner a disapproving look from one of the paramedics, but everyone else smiled and relaxed. At least here was one happy ending, amidst all this carnage.
“So that’s it. I was wondering what was wrong with one of the wounded men we took away earlier. His sleeves were torn to shreds and his arms looked like they had had a close encounter with a wolf. One of these, or both must have bit him.”
“Good boy, Rex. And good girl.”
Brandtner was too weak from the blood loss to make any comment, but he appeared to relax and was now resting his head on his dog’s shoulder. Höllerer could see that one hand was feebly patting the thick coat. The paramedics returned, intent on taking their patient away.
“Ok. Time’s up. You’ll have to see your dog later. We’ll take you to the hospital now.”
“No. No hospital. I just want to get home.”
This was exactly what Höllerer had been most concerned about. Did Brandtner have something to hide? What had happened to him? Torture, and what else?
“Alex – You need that back seen to. We wouldn’t want that – wound to leave a scar.”
“No. I just want to go home. Peter, please. Make them take me home.”
“Could a doctor visit him at his house?”
Frowning disapprovingly, the paramedic in charge appeared to consider the request.
“I suppose so. But he really needs to go to a hospital. The shock alone -”
“Yes, I see. But as you can see, the patient wants to go home.”
“Very well. This is on your hands. If there’s any change in his condition, you’ll have to call a doctor right away.”
“Of course. In fact, a friend of ours is a doctor. I’ll call him in any case.”
It was clear that Brandtner would not be moving anywhere on his own. Two paramedics led him out to Höllerer’s car. Böck got back into Kunz’ car, and followed Höllerer back to Brandtner’s place. The two dogs had already jumped into Höllerer’s large, comfortable van. Not even the female dog hesitated to get into this one. The smell and look of it was totally different from the one in which they had been abducted. Brandtner sat hunched over in the seat next to his old friend. Höllerer kept casting worried glances in his direction. Would he be able to stay conscious? Had the paramedics been able to stem the blood flow? Perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea, humoring his friend, after all. A hospital might have been the best place for him.
“I didn’t want to ask before, but – are you ok?”
For a moment, Brandtner stared blankly at his former colleague. Then understanding appeared to filter through to the injured man.
It appeared he was about to go on, and elaborate on his reply, but it was a while before he was able to continue.
“Peter, he – I thought – at least Rex is safe.”
“Yes. He’s just fine. Don’t worry about him.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Höllerer could see that his friend had tears in his eyes. Best to pretend not to notice. They were close, but there were some things a guy wanted to deal with on his own. After a while, Brandtner appeared to have collected himself.
“I want you to know, nothing happened. Nothing more than -”
The deep cut. That was a relief. Höllerer didn’t know what he would have done, if he had had reason to believe Keller had done more than torture Brandtner. Now he could put that unsettling possibility out of his mind for good. Whether Keller was alive or dead, he wouldn’t be back to trouble Brandtner again.
“It will heal. Fuchs couldn’t show that wound to anyone. A doctor will be able to -”
“I know. Under the circumstances, a scar isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you, but I’ve never felt anything so -”
“Try to forget about that. Everything’s going to be ok.”
“For what? I didn’t do anything.”
“For being a good friend. Christian – he’s always been loyal to Richie’s memory, and Kunz is just the new guy, but he’s good. Getting better. And a very nice guy.”
“Yes, he seems like good material. As long as he starts believing in himself.”
“I think he admires you. He’s always asking about what Höllerer would have done in any situation.”
Nothing more was said on the way back to the house. On arrival, Höllerer and Kunz jointly managed to help Brandtner inside. Böck went on ahead and turned on all the lights. Rex led his new friend around his home, and showed her the sights, starting with the kitchen with his dishes and the dry food. Being the clever dog and polite host that he was, Rex also managed to open the cupboard door and pull out the dog food. He almost succeeded in pouring the kibble into the food dish. But dishes are only human ideas anyway, and both dogs happily began to gobble up the food off the floor. An encouraging bark produced the satisfying result of having Böck refill the water dish at the sink. After seeing to the dogs, Böck rejoined his friends in Brandtner’s bedroom. Their host was lying on his side, facing his guests. It appeared Brandtner was making the introductions. Kunz and Höllerer had never formally met.
“Sir, it’s an honor to finally meet you.”
“The honor is all mine. I’ve been hearing great things about you.”
“About me? Really?”
A slight flush suffused Kunz’ features.
“And please, call me Peter.”
“Oh. Then you must call me Fritz.”
“There, I see you’re both properly introduced.”
“Christian. Are Rex and his new friend all set?”
“Yes. They had helped themselves to the food, but I refilled the water dish.”
“I guess – I should probably get going. Paola will be waiting. That’s my girlfriend. And the kids.”
“You have a family? Good for you, Fritz. There’s nothing like it.”
“I know. Well, I’ll check back tomorrow, Alex. If there’s anything I can do, just call me, alright?”
“I’ll remember. Thanks, Fritz.”
“Perhaps, I should get back as well. If you’ll be alright?”
“I’ll be fine now.”
“Alex, I’ll call Leo. He’ll know what to do about the wound. Remember, I promised the paramedics to take good care of you.”
“Alright. I’ll be in good hands, even if his usual patients are a bit less lively.”
“Right. But I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten any of his training. And if there’s anything I can do -”
“I know. Thanks.”
“Oh. My wife will send over some food. I don’t suppose you will be doing any cooking for a while.”
“Perhaps not. I’d appreciate it. Her food is always delicious.”
“Well, expect Leo first thing in the morning then.”
Böck remained seated at the head of the bed, staring anxiously at his boss.
“Are you sure you’re ok? That old man -”
“Yes, yes. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be just fine.”
“Oh. Well, I guess you won’t need me anymore. I’d better get home, but I’ll be back tomorrow. Is there anything you want me to pick up? From the office or at the store?”
“Not at the office. Work can wait. But if you’d like to buy some groceries -”
“Will do. Oh, can I use your phone? My car still isn’t working.”
“Of course. I’d let you use mine, but it’s still -”
“I’ll have someone drop it off later.”
Glancing uneasily over his shoulder, Böck dialled the number not to his own house, but to Joe’s.
“It’s me. Would you come and pick me up? At Brandtner’s place. Yes. No, he’s alright now. Thanks.”
Since Böck’s friend lived in the same area as Brandtner, Böck didn’t have so long to wait. When he heard the car pulling to a stop in Brandtner’s driveway, he debated with himself what to do. Should he ask Joe inside and make introductions, or just sneak out and go? But if he chose the latter, that would imply that he was ashamed of himself, his lifestyle and Joe. He walked over to the door, opened it, and called to Joe.
“Come in. I’d like you to meet my boss.”
Joe gave Christian a look filled with love. He admired his short boyfriend tremendously. Christian was no less filled with admiration for his tall, handsome friend.
“Joe, this is Alex Brandtner. Alex, this is – my boyfriend – Joe – Josef Koenig.”
“Pleased to meet you, mr Koenig.”
“Please, call me Alex. Any friend of Christian’s -”
“Alex. And you must call me Joe.”
“Joe’s a nurse.”
In Böck’s voice, the pride over his boyfriend’s achievements could be clearly detected.
“Christian, I think mr Brandtner – Alex – looks tired. We should get back.”
“Oh, of course. See you tomorrow, Alex.”
“Yes. Go on. I’ll be fine.”
He really felt completely bone weary. The day had been going on forever. Now all he wanted was to cuddle Rex and go to sleep. Where was that rascal now? Probably cuddling his girlfriend. Brandtner felt like the father of a teenager who had met his first girlfriend. A bit obsolete. When he’d heard the door shut behind his last visitors, he looked around for Rex. There was no sight of him, but Brandtner thought he heard something from the kitchen.
“Rex, where are you? Aren’t you coming to bed?”
There was a pause, and to Brandtner’s relief, he could hear the click click of dog’s claws on the floor, coming in his direction. Both dogs jumped up on the bed, forcing Brandtner to retreat towards the other end of the bed, all the time painfully aware of the burning sensation all over his back. It would be crowded, but somehow, he didn’t want the dogs to sleep on the floor. They would manage. At least they were all safe, and Keller would never be a threat anymore.
Brandtner was dreaming about a pain that didn’t end. It grew to such proportions, he felt he was being reduced to a mere speck of something that was the recipient of all that pain. He was being swallowed up by the pain and carried away with it. Suddenly, he became aware of an insistent noise penetrating the dark place he was in. It was a while longer before he could identify it as the doorbell ringing. Shaking himself awake, Brandtner struggled to break free from the clutches of the dream. Eventually he was successful, and managed to get out of bed. The dogs had left him some time during the night and were already watching the door in anticipation. He fumbled with the lock and when the door swung open, he found his old friend, the pathologist, on the doorstep.
“You shouldn’t be up walking. Go on, get back to bed. Have you had any breakfast yet?”
“Uh – no.”
“I’ll see to that.”
Normally, Brandtner would have reacted slightly less warmly to someone taking over the running his life, and his home, but at the moment, he was tired and dazed, and being bossed around by the older man felt quite good. He knew he ought to call his mother and let her know he was safe, but since his mother wouldn’t have been informed about the incident in the first place, that could wait. Also, he should get in touch with Renate. Since she was a colleague, although not a homicide detective, she would before long learn all about what he’d been through. Perhaps she would even be treated to an embellished version. But that too had to wait, until he felt able to face the world.
It wasn’t long before the pathologist returned, bringing a tray with breakfast.
Brandtner seized the glass of orange juice, emptied it, had a few sips of coffee, but tried not to even look at the toast or any other solid food. He felt queasy and had absolutely no appetite. To his relief, his old friend didn’t make a great deal of fuss over that.
“There. Peter told me there was an injury I needed to take a look at. Perhaps we could do that now? If you’re feeling up to it.”
“I guess so.”
Brandtner’s voice didn’t betray any eagerness to get this unpleasant experience over with.
“Right. Where -”
“It’s my back.”
Awkwardly, he tried to remove the t-shirt Höllerer had found for him in his one of his drawers. Fortunately, it was an old, washed out one. The wound had opened some time during the night and left a dark stain.
“Let me do that. Ah. This looks ugly. A knife of some kind?”
“Is that a letter?”
“Right. Yes. I don’t think you’ll need stitches. Did the paramedics give you a shot of antibiotics?”
“I – They gave me some injection. More than one. For the pain, and -”
“Good. In fact, I took the liberty of calling the hospital. I didn’t elaborate on where I was practicing. They must have formed the impression that I was your personal physician.”
“Well, you are, aren’t you? I can’t be bothered to go and see any other doctor, unless they order me to.”
“The muscle tissue isn’t harmed. No. This will heal nicely. You’re young, healthy.”
“What about a scar? Will it leave a scar?”
“I shouldn’t think so.”
“Not in the shape of a K?”
“K, huh? No. Definitely not. Put that right out of your mind. If there’s any trace of it, no one will be able to make any sense of what it is. Your young lady doesn’t need to worry.”
A brief smile flew over Brandtner’s pleasant features.
“Renate isn’t squeamish. In fact, if it had left a scar, I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if she would have thought of some excuse to go and see Keller and get even.”
“Alex, I just heard from the hospital. The man is dead. Your people -”
“Oh, I see. Not a great loss to the world.”
He was relieved, never again to have to fear the psychopath’s cold eyes, or the voice that didn’t leave you any doubt about the depth of the man’s insanity. With a shudder, Brandtner put the memory out of his mind.
By the time the pathologist had to leave for work, Brandtner was feeling a little better. He had been given some painkillers, and felt able to get through the day on his own.
A little later, Böck showed up at the door. Since the old pathologist had left the door unlocked, he had no trouble letting himself in. Anxiously, Böck scanned his boss’ face for any signs of a reaction to his revelation last night. Since the incident a few days earlier, Böck didn’t think Brandtner had been left in any doubt about his sexual preferences, but it was different, having dared to come out of the closet. For a cop, that might well mean professional suicide. On a personal level, Böck feared he had lost Brandtner’s friendship. However, as far as he could tell, there were no such indications.
“Hello. I brought some sausage sandwiches. If you’re hungry -”
“Even if I’m not, I’m sure these two are. Thanks, Christian. Any big cases at the office?”
“Nothing. And I think Fritz can handle any minor case that might come in. He knows where to reach me.”
“Oh. I know you can hold down the fort for a while. At the end of the week, I’m sure I’ll be able to get back to work.”
“No rush. Like you said, we can manage. You shouldn’t overexert yourself.”
“Come on. I’m not a child, you know. Haven’t you been injured in the line of duty before?”
“Yes. I also had to pick up the remains of jumper, back when I was a rookie. He’d picked the Riesenrad to jump from so you can imagine how little was left of him to put into the plastic bag. After that, I was happy to take some leave, I can tell you. It’s not all about the physical stamina, you know.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea you’d had to do that.”
“Oh, I’ve done a lot of things I’d prefer to forget. Once I was first on the scene where a man had killed his wife and two children, then himself. That’s no fun.”
“Don’t tell me. I’ve seen my share of tough scenes too. Sit down.”
“I’ll just make sure the dogs have enough to eat.”
Through the open door, Brandtner could follow his colleague’s progress in the kitchen. It was amusing to see how scared he was of the female dog.
“Christian, she’s not a wolf. She won’t eat you alive.”
“No. But have you seen that look? She’s as fierce as that Xena, the warrior princess on tv.”
“You watch Xena, Christian? You amaze me. Buffy too?”
Böck’s voice didn’t encourage any further jokes at his expense, so Brandtner hurriedly moved the conversation along slightly different lines.
“Xena. That’s a good name for her. Have you found out where she’s from? Was she stolen?”
“No. The surviving man told me Keller had someone buy her.”
“I see. Then I guess I need to find her a new home.”
“Do you think Rex will accept that? They seem – close.”
“Oh. Yes, I guess so.”
“Alex – I was wondering -”
“About Joe and -”
“Oh. Maybe we can go on a double date some time.”
What? As easy as that? He should have known Brandtner was different from the other colleagues. Though Böck couldn’t imagine Kunz giving him a hard time over his lifestyle either. Perhaps it was time he stopped giving Kunz such a hard time about – everything.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. He seems like a very nice guy.”
“You deserve no less.”
“Thanks, for being so understanding.”
“I’m not a Neanderthal. The colleagues back at the Academy might not agree, but I always judge a person by his or her actions, not by any conventions.”
“Right. Well, I should get back to the office. I put the groceries in the kitchen. Call me if you need anything more.”
“Will do. Thank you, Christian.”
It wasn’t long before visitor no 3 showed up. Höllerer. As promised, he brought a bag full of delicious dishes cooked by his wife, or the resident cook. The ex-cop took a doubtful look around the room, taking in the emptiness of the place. He frowned, then appeared to come to a decision.
“You know, Alex, why don’t you and Renate come over and stay at the inn for a while? Bring the dogs. It’s the off-season and we’re nowhere near full.”
“That sounds tempting, but I don’t know. I should get back to work in a day or two. It’s not as if I’m an invalid, you know.”
“Of course not, but before that nasty wound heals, I really think you ought to take it easy for a while. Kunz and Böck can hold down the fort in your absence.”
“That’s not the issue. Naturally, they’ll do fine. It’s just not -”
“Oh, come on. Give yourself a break. The bad guys won’t take over Vienna if you take a week off to convalesce. Call Renate and ask her.”
“Alright. I will, but she’s as dedicated to her work as I am.”
“Tell her you can have the honeymoon suite.”
The spark in Höllerer’s eyes told Brandtner that this was just his friend’s sense of humor.
“You don’t have a honeymoon suite.”
“True, but you can have the most comfortable rooms.”
“I appreciate it.”
Was it so totally out of the question that he and Renate and the dogs took some time off? He ought to put more trust in his colleagues’ abilities. They could cope without him for a while.
This was an unexpected development. It had never occurred to Brandtner that Xena might be expecting puppies. He had merely been taking her for a routine checkup to the attractive vet his predecessor, Moser, had been dating for a while. She was the one who had broken the news to the stunned grandfather to-be.
When the puppies were born, he found himself with four new dogs on his hands. Two was a bit much, but six? Impossible. He might as well hand in his resignation and breed German Shepherds for a living. In a way, that was an attractive thought. The force was always looking for mentally stable, physically healthy dogs. But he was far too fond of his work to really consider early retirement. In the meantime, he had to find new homes for at least four of the new dogs. He found himself dialling Höllerer’s number, as so many times before when he was in need of help.
“Alex? What can I do for you? Would you like to come up over the weekend? Renate seemed to be really happy out here.”
“Yes, it was great, and maybe we’ll find time to visit later. Right now it’s out of the question. I’ve got an important case going and she’s busy too.”
“Alright. What else can I do for you? You need any help with the case?”
“Not this time, but I’ll let you know. Lately, Fritz has shown a marked improvement. He’s not even afraid to fire his gun anymore. Is he still keeping in touch with you?”
“Yes. Fritz is very eager to take advantage of my modest experience in our line of work.”
“You’re far too modest. No, this time, I’ve got a really big favor to ask you. Xena’s just had four puppies, and I was hoping -”
“You want us to take one of them. Alright. Only the other day, my wife was saying that we could really use a guard dog out here. A place down the road was burgled a few months ago.”
“Thanks, Peter. I appreciate your help. As always. The puppy will be ready to leave his mother in about 2 months.”
“Looking forward to it. The kids will be ecstatic. We could never keep a dog while we lived in the city.”
One gone. Three more to go. Who else might help him out? Brandtner got to thinking about his two colleagues at the office. Kunz and Böck might be able to help him out. He decided to sound them out as soon as he got to the office.
“Christian, Fritz, I have some news for you.”
“Oh? Good news, I hope.”
Böck was feeling more relaxed these days. Last week he had finally had the courage to introduce Joe to Kunz, and everything appeared to be going fine. Though he wasn’t totally sure Kunz had understood who it was he was introducing. The look in his colleague’s eyes had hinted that perhaps he had taken the tall nurse for just a good friend.
“Xena’s just had her puppies. Four. Peter said he’d take one of them, and now I was hoping -”
Kunz’ face lit up.
“That’s a great idea. Marina and Chiara have been begging me to get them a puppy. Can we have a female?”
“Yes. There are two of each. Come on over in a few weeks time and let the girls pick out their favorite. Christian -”
“What? Oh, no. You’ve got to be kidding me. Me and a dog? No way. Joe’s got a dachshund that is driving me nuts as it is. Magnus is a monster in that cute disguise.”
“Don’t tell me a dachshund has you running scared? You’re not serious.”
“I’m not taking any puppy, and that’s final. Why don’t you ask Leo? Or Renate?”
“That’s a very good idea. I’ll do that. And Christian – try to make friends with Magnus.”
“Joe’s telling me that too, but it’s not so easy. Dogs are smart creatures. They can tell when you’re a bit – uneasy about them.”
“Maybe he’s jealous. You’re a newcomer in his life.”
Böck shot Kunz a look. It sounded a whole lot as if Kunz had indeed understood perfectly the nature of his relationship with Joe. Maybe it was time he stopped selling his colleague short. The guy was ok, and a lot smarter than he looked at first glance.
“Yes. That’s possible. Well, shall we get down to some work? Did you bring the sausage sandwiches, Fritz?”
“Then I’ll make the coffee. Alex needs to make a few calls, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes. I suppose I might try to reach them before they get too busy. If I have to drag Leo away from one of his corpses, he won’t be pleased.”
The speed with which the pathologist picked up the phone, convinced Brandtner that his friend hadn’t been in the middle of an autopsy, after all.
“Leo? It’s Alex. You know, I was wondering if you might be feeling a bit lonely in your place, all on your own. Oh. Well, maybe the lady likes dogs? You see, Xena just had all these puppies and – Right. Yes, that would be fine. I can’t keep all those dogs. Thanks, Leo, I appreciate it.”
Böck looked inquiringly at his boss.
“He said he’d take Xena, but not a puppy. At his age that seems to be too much trouble, and I think his lady friend feels the same way.”
With a sigh, Brandtner returned to his puppy marketing. If Renate would –
“Hello. It’s me. Yes. We did. Any time. Your place or mine?”
Böck rolled his eyes in an exaggerated way, when he heard the tone Brandtner was using with his girlfriend. If he caught himself or Joe sounding like that, he’d shoot himself. Well, maybe not.
“Listen, darling, I was wondering if you’d consider taking one of the puppies. Yes, they were born last night. Rex and I thought it was best to get out of Xena’s way. They’re all doing fine, and I managed to place two of the puppies already. And Xena. Leo said he’d – Ok. I knew I could count on you, darling. A female? Alright. Peter will have to take a male. Thanks. See you tonight.”
“If you’re all done cooing, maybe we could get some work done.”
“So she agreed to take one of the females?”
“Yes. Just like you and your girls. Alright, Christian, I’m all ears. What do you have for me?”
He’d keep one of the male puppies. Rex might enjoy having a companion around the house. There shouldn’t be any aggression between father and son. In a way, it would be fascinating to be able to train a dog from puppyhood. One that would be his own pet, not a police dog. But he was certain the son would follow in his father’s footsteps. Things hadn’t turned out so badly after all.
“How about it, Rex? We’ll keep Junior, right?”
The enthusiastic bark that greeted the question seemed to imply that Rex was happy indeed about developments even if his girlfriend now kept him at a paw’s length and seemed to be decidedly hostile at the moment. As long as his daddy was with him, Rex was happy to accept almost any conditions. At the moment, all was well in the dog’s world.