|Primary Characters:||Rex, Brandtner, Böck, Höllerer, Kunz|
|Description:||The cops from homicide are at a banquet. But things go wrong from the start, and soon Brandtner’s and Böck’s lives hang in the balance. Can Kunz and Höllerer save them in time?|
“Hello, Fritz. Getting ready for the big day?”
The rotund homicide detective shrugged unenthusiastically at his boss’ greeting.
“I don’t know. Paola’s looking forward to it.”
“Great. Did you see Christian on the way in?”
“No. He’s going, I guess.”
Was it Brandtner’s imagination, or was there the slightest hint of a query in that statement? Was Kunz wondering how Böck was going to handle his predicament? Böck’s preferred date wasn’t exactly the kind of date the average police officer would dare to bring to an official function such as this huge banquet. Last year, as far as either of Böck’s colleagues knew, he hadn’t been involved with the handsome male nurse, Joe.
Discreetly changing the topic, Kunz turned to look at the dogs, who were prowling about the room, in anticipation of their sausage sandwiches. Kunz didn’t disappoint them. He deftly tossed the sandwiches to his canine colleague with son, then let Brandtner’s follow. Böck’s sandwich remained safely in the plastic bag, in the hopes that Rex and Junior, whose sandwich stealing talents matched his father’s, would leave it there.
“So how do Rex and Junior feel about being left with their uncle Peter?”
Brandtner himself wasn’t entirely happy about this type of function. Dressing up in a tuxedo, chatting with superior officers and their wives, simply didn’t appeal to him, and going anywhere at all without his trusted companion, Rex, and the younger dog, was even less appealing.
“I hope they’re going to have a great time.”
He didn’t add his suspicion that the dogs would indeed be having more fun than their dad. Some things couldn’t be changed, and the annual police man’s ball was one of them. This year, to make matters worse, it was supposed to be a much more glamorous affair, for various reasons, beyond a mere police officer’s understanding. Police politics didn’t interest Brandtner any more than official parties.
At last, Böck arrived, in a terrible mood. It seemed he had been just late enough to find himself right in the middle of the pouring rain that had erupted from the skies after his three colleagues had safely retreated into the building.
“What are you looking at?”
Böck was positively glaring and for a second, Kunz shrank back, faced with the ferocity of his smaller colleague. Then he realized that Böck was in fact addressing Rex.
“Christian, give it a rest. Look, Fritz has brought you your sandwich.”
Only slightly distracted, Böck removed his jacket, shook it and proceeded to hang it over the radiator. To Brandtner’s dismay, their pedantic new colleague, Kunz, launched into a recital of the office’s fire regulations.
“You can’t do that.”
Brandtner rolled his eyes. Here we go again.
“Are you talking to me?”
Little Böck, still dripping wet from the chilling downpour outside, advanced on Kunz, who, while far from a match for his famous countryman, Schwarzenegger, still towered a full head above Böck.
“I was merely pointing out that according to the fire regulations -”
“You know what you can do with those fire regulations -”
The menacing tone almost made Brandtner laugh. It was so hilarious, the way Böck resembled his second worst enemy, his boyfriend Joe’s dachshund, Magnus. Small, but fierce. With an effort, Brandtner restrained himself, knowing that he couldn’t hurt Böck’s feelings like that. To Brandtner’s relief, Kunz finally picked up on the potential volatility of the situation and backed off, raising his hands in the air, as if warding off a blow.
“Alright. I’m not going to say another word. Here. Enjoy.”
Kunz retreated to a safe position behind his desk, muttering to himself his usual lament. Terrible, just terrible.
Böck snatched his sandwich away and retreated to the relative safety behind his desk, wolfing the sandwich down, in a way that again reminded Brandtner of a dog, this time Rex. This proved to be an effective precaution. Both dogs whined a little, as they saw the sandwich they had counted on as their own, vanish down the throat of their least favorite human.
“It’s no use, Rex, Junior. That sandwich belongs – belonged – to Christian. Here. Catch.”
To distract his dogs, Brandtner threw each of them a ball. They caught the toys effortlessly, and peace once again ruled in the office. It wasn’t until after lunch that the topic of the banquet was touched upon again. Not surprisingly, Böck didn’t display any more enthusiasm than his colleagues. Brandtner thought he could guess one reason for his friend’s reluctance to attend the banquet. He considered asking, but decided against it. They were good friends, but Böck’s particular dilemma was extremely private, and somehow, Brandtner doubted his input would be welcome. This was something Böck needed to work out for himself.
That evening, Böck decided to discuss the banquet with his lover. Joe understood his position and wouldn’t be offended if they arrived at the conclusion that he couldn’t be allowed to come along. As he put the key into the lock, he fervently hoped that Joe would be back already. If he had to meet Magnus on his own – The dog was tiny, yet the fiercest creature Böck knew. His worst fears were realized. He called out Joe’s name, but the only reply was a frenzied barking, that rapidly got closer, accompanied by the click, click, click of the dog’s paws. Magnus was coming. Böck tried to take a deep breath and pretend he wasn’t the least bit bothered. As usual, it didn’t work. The dachshund bounded up to him as if he was an uninvited intruder. Böck could have sworn the little monster was baring his fangs, preparing to sink those vicious little teeth into his ankle.
“Stop. Sit. Go away. Daddy will be here soon. Leave me alone. Come on, I’ll feed you. Just don’t -”
Hastily, Böck retreated in the direction of the nearest door. He wasn’t quite quick enough. Instead he chose to escape to the safety of a chair conveniently placed right beside a chest of drawers in the long narrow hallway of Joe’s apartment. From the chair, that wasn’t nearly high enough to be beyond the dog’s reach, Böck climbed up to stand on top of the chest. He realized that he looked ridiculous, but he much preferred the safety on top, to the risks he faced down on the floor. Joe couldn’t be that long. To his relief he heard a noise from the front door. The dog had heard it too and was joyously bounding away in the direction his daddy would be coming from.
“Hello, Magnus. Take it easy.”
The tall nurse took the time to lift up the energetic little dog into his arms. Magnus’ long tongue shot out and left damp spots all over Joe’s face, to thoroughly welcome daddy home.
“Christian? Are you back already? What are you doing up there? Don’t tell me you’re still afraid of Magnus. Get down.”
When his lover wouldn’t move, Joe shook his head, amused and affectionate.
“Come on, Magnus. Daddy’s going to get you something to eat. I’ll be right back, Christian.”
Böck decided not to risk anything and remained where he was. Sometimes the dog had time for a quick bite before having his dinner.
“There. He’s occupied now. But really, Christian. How do you face dangerous criminals all day, when you’re so scared of a little dog?”
This was a touchy subject, so Böck really didn’t want to discuss it. He tried to distract Joe by changing the topic.
“Are you going to help me down or what?”
“I don’t know. It would serve you right if you had to stay there all evening.”
But Joe was a kind-hearted man and he held out his arms to his lover and helped him down, stealing a kiss as he did so.
“Now, would you like to tell me how your day was?”
“If you’ll tell me how yours was.”
“That can be arranged. Are you hungry?”
“Not that hungry. Let’s talk first.
“Alright. In the living room? Or -”
Joe’s look hinted that the bedroom was the alternative and on any other day Böck would have been happy to follow the suggestion. However, today he had something on his mind. Reading Böck’s look, Joe dropped the smile, prepared to listen to any problem that was bothering his lover.
“Alright. What’s wrong? Are the bad guys giving you a hard time?”
“No. It’s something else. You know that banquet coming up?”
“Yes. Did Brandtner say you had to go?”
“No. Yes. I mean, we really are expected to go.”
“I’m sorry. I know how much you hate those things.”
“We all do. But you see, Fritz is taking Paola. Alex is taking Renate. So -”
“You’re wondering who to take? If you don’t know any women, I could ask one of the nurses at work. Women love that kind of thing. And Claudia and Martina and Christine are all very nice. Or if you want someone from work, I’m sure Renate could set you up with someone.”
“I’ve already got someone I want to take.”
“Then what’s the problem? Who is she?”
“It’s you, silly. I want to take you, or I want you to take me. Don’t you think we could go just as ‘friends’? Alex and Fritz wouldn’t give me away, you know that.”
“If you think it’s alright with your people. I don’t know. At the hospital, everyone’s more used to this kind of thing. Besides, it’s not really as official. Not for us nurses. The doctors might have a problem if they’re involved with someone not working at the hospital, or even when a doctor is involved with an orderly or someone like that. Anyway, the last thing I want is get you into trouble. This banquet isn’t such a big deal. I’ll watch some tv and you’ll endure the boredom for a few hours. Then you can come back here and I’ll help you forget all that stuff. Alright?”
“I’ll just ask Alex. If he thinks it’s ok, we’ll both go. Otherwise I’ll just have to take it. And you can ask Claudia and Maria or that other woman for me.”
“Martina. And Christine.”
“Whatever. The only nurse I’m interested in is you.”
Dinner was slightly delayed that night, but neither Joe nor Böck minded in the least. Even Magnus kept a low profile all evening.
The following morning, Böck decided to risk asking Brandtner’s advice. He was sure that if his boss felt it was acceptable for him to bring ‘a friend’ to the banquet, he and Joe would be able to take the risk. In fact, he might even add something about Joe being a cousin. For all everyone knew, he might be. Böck didn’t really resent the necessity for secrecy. He wasn’t naive enough to expect attitudes to change overnight, and his career meant so much to him that living this double life was worth it.
When he walked into the office, both his colleagues were there, and naturally the two dogs. Böck considered trying to get Brandtner on his own, but decided that Kunz would have to know eventually, and if anyone could think of a paragraph that prevented a police officer from bringing ‘a friend’ instead of a date, it would be Kunz. He might as well know right away if what he was hoping for was possible.
“There was something I wanted to ask you.”
Brandtner was all ears.
“Both of you, but especially you. This banquet – I was thinking – is there any way I could bring Joe? You know instead of a regular date.”
Böck deliberately tried to keep his voice level. He couldn’t believe he’d had the nerve to ask his colleagues this question. If anyone else found out – but he knew that Brandtner and even Kunz were different.
“Well – I don’t see why not. Of course, you’ll know best if you want to take the chance.”
“There’s no rule that says an officer can’t bring another person instead of a date.”
“That’s right. I seem to recall – Yes. There was some guy who brought his daughter once. And – yes, one of Renate’s friends brought her sister.”
“One of my colleagues at Theft brought his younger brother. The kid had a crush on one of the female officers. So I should think it’s perfectly possible.”
“I see. Thanks. I’ll tell Joe. Now he can be as miserable as I am.”
Brandtner laughed. That echoed his own sentiments exactly. To Böck’s and Brandtner’s surprise, Kunz joined in. Was there anyone who was looking forward to the banquet? Not Renate, Brandtner knew that for a fact.
Paola Kunz seemed to be the only one who was the least bit enthusiastic. But it was all part of the work. Some aspects of police work were less appealing than others. No doubt all professions were subject to some drawbacks.
“The best part is that dogs aren’t allowed. So at least I won’t have to dodge Magnus at every step.”
“Did you hear that, guys? No dogs. Aren’t you lucky? And you won’t have to wear those clown suits either.”
Rex and Junior flashed their dad a couple of superior grins. Who would want to be a human? They certainly wouldn’t.
The night of the banquet approached. On the day before, all three cops went to pick up their rented tuxedos. Upon inquiry, Brandtner learned that Renate had bought a dress for the occasion, but she had been very secretive about the way it would look. Not that Brandtner really paid attention to things like dresses.
Kunz was grumbling a little about the expense of buying dresses at exorbitant prices, but Brandtner and Böck caught the undertone of pride in their colleague’s voice. Here was a man who was very happy to be married.
“So, Alex, would you like me and Joe to drive you there?”
“Thanks, but I need to leave Rex and Junior at Höllerer’s.”
“So they’re going to babysit the entire brood?”
“Ours certainly. Including the dog.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And I thought Rex and Junior would be better off out there, than alone at the house all night.”
“What about Renate? Is she leaving hers with poor Peter too?”
“No. She said something about her sister’s place, and Leo’s not going to the banquet at all, so he won’t need a dog-sitter.”
“What? He gets out of it and we don’t?”
“One of the privileges of age. He said he’s not going, and that’s it, and I have to admit he’s put in his share of appearances at banquets and receptions.”
“Peter always managed to sneak out of it somehow, if I remember correctly.”
Böck smiled at the memory of how Höllerer would always have a plausible excuse for his absence at any function that required a tuxedo.
“He absolutely wouldn’t buy a new monkey suit, though the old one was at least two sizes too small. Good thinking. Maybe I should -”
“I guess not.”
At least they would all be in it together, and it was only one night per year. That didn’t stop each detective from wishing they’d been selected to work the night shift instead, but that duty mostly fell on their uniformed colleagues. After all, if anything major came up, a detective could always be sent for.
As Brandtner was going to pick Renate up and bring her to the banquet, he left the office early to take his dogs out to Höllerer and his family. With a smile on his face, he watched the dogs playing in the fenced in run, that used to be a paddock for horses, long before the inn became the home of one of Rex’ sons.
It really seemed as if the boys had been missing each other. Perhaps they missed their sisters and their mother as well. At least it wouldn’t be long until one of those sisters would show up. Come to think of it, Kunz and his family were cutting it a bit close. If they wanted to reach the banquet on time, they would have to hurry.
After saying a few words to his old colleague, and paying his respects to mrs Höllerer, Brandtner left the brightly lit kitchen. He’d be in time to pick up Renate, but unless the Kunz family showed up within the next five minutes or so, they might be hard pressed to arrive on time. Höllerer’s oldest daughter walked Brandtner out to his car. The girl was about 16 and had the biggest crush on her father’s ex-colleague. Normally, Brandtner didn’t really notice these things. However, the girl’s interest was a little bit too plain to overlook. She was a very pretty girl, but Brandtner wasn’t the least bit tempted. The girl even claimed to wish to follow in her father’s footsteps. If she took after her father, she should make a good detective, but Brandtner felt it was too soon to make any predictions about what her eventual choice of profession would be.
On his way back to the main road, Brandtner passed Kunz’ station wagon. He waved at his colleague and smiled at the crowded backseat. Two children and a dog were pressing their faces against the window and waving enthusiastically back at their new father’s colleague. At Renate’s place he met his rather impatient date for the night. She was pacing around restlessly.
“And they say it’s us women who can never get ready on time. What was it this time? Did Rex hide your car keys?”
He could tell that she wasn’t really upset. If they had half an excuse, he knew she’d much rather stay and – rest. Or failing that, she’d go out and solve a crime. Anything but dress up in the sensational ball gown she was wearing. Even Brandtner had to stop and admire the brilliant scarlet fabric.
“You look sensational. Sorry I’m late. It’s a long drive out to the inn. Come on. We’d better earn our pay.”
“They should pay us more for this kind of thing. What is it they say in the army? Above and beyond?”
“Exactly. At least we’ll get to watch Fritz all dressed up in a tuxedo, dancing and flattering the higher officers.”
“I should think he’ll leave that kind of thing to Paola. Men like him always marry that kind of talent.”
“You’re probably right. Look. We’ll be there on time, after all. Though maybe Fritz and Paola will be late. I can’t see their car anywhere, can you?”
“No. They should be so lucky. Ok. We can take five minutes and – relax. Try not to smear my lipstick.”
The relaxing five minutes were interrupted by an inconsiderate knock on the window.
Böck was smiling like a younger brother who had caught his brother with his girlfriend.
“I guess it’s time to go.”
Like his boyfriend, Joe was wearing a tuxedo, but unlike the cops, he actually looked comfortable in his. Renate shot him a look filled with admiration mixed with regret. It was always the good ones who were taken or otherwise unavailable. She’d have to help Böck and Joe keep up appearances and dance a couple of times with the handsome nurse. That was what friends were for, after all.
All four of them entered together, through the huge palace doors. Brandtner noted that Böck had chosen the added precaution of introducing Joe as his cousin from Linz. Perhaps they ought to have informed their friends about the plan, but he thought he handled himself well and picked up on the pretense and backed up his colleague’s story whenever it seemed suitable.
With Renate at his side, Brandtner began mingling with the other guests. Not surprisingly, there were plenty of his friends and even more acquaintances around. Gradually, he began to relax, but he couldn’t help glancing at his watch from time to time. Where was Kunz and his wife?
“What’s keeping Fritz and Paola?”
“You want to know what I think? I think they’ve parked the car somewhere and are having more fun than we are.”
“No. Not Fritz. He’s a stickler for following the rules.”
Renate smiled knowingly. A woman knew how to engineer these things. Her handsome date might not realize to what extent a woman was able to manipulate a man, but she did. Perhaps it was best not to enlighten him.
If she’d known what the Kunzes were really up to, she would have been surprised. Kunz was changing a faulty tire that had blown up on the way back from the inn. Being a cheerful man by nature, and knowing that every minute of delay would be taken from the boredom at the banquet, he didn’t much mind, and having married a cheerful, resourceful woman, he knew that Paola didn’t really mind the delay either.
The first indication that something was wrong came when Renate looked up, trying to locate her date. They had been mingling, circling the floor, in the hopes of being left to themselves after they’d done their duty.
Suddenly, there was a noise of broken glass and a few chairs being pushed over. Renate caught sight of a man wearing a ski mask. He was holding a machine gun, which he was aiming at – No. This couldn’t be happening.
At least she could see Brandtner nearby. She inched closer to him, and had time to call his attention to what was happening by the door before the man in the ski mask fired off a round into the ceiling. All hell broke loose. People were running for cover, one of the crystal chandeliers fell, and more glass and furniture was smashed in the mad rush for safety, a safety that didn’t exist. The man by the door had now been joined by five others, in identical outfits, armed with exactly the same type of automatic rifles. No one had been able to anticipate anything like this. Now Brandtner realized that the security guards were missing. Dead? Either way, security obviously hadn’t been enough, if these desperate characters had been able to force their way inside the annual police banquet.
“Don’t move. We won’t hesitate to kill anyone who tries any heroics. Is that clear? You might think you’re all big, tough cops, but guess what? No guns, no go. So just stay where you are, and no one will get hurt. Is that clear?”
A numb, dazed feeling spread throughout the room. It was true that they were all trained professionals, but their expertise couldn’t be put to much use like this, without their weapons. For the time being, no one could think of anything to say, or do, except to follow the intruders’ instructions to the letter.
Brandtner noted that the accent was German, not Austrian. Not that this fact meant all that much. Many Germans spent time in Vienna, some made their home there. It was still interesting to note that they didn’t seem to be, for instance, Arabs, or Yugoslavs. Germans. Or at least one of them was. That was all he had time to conclude, because at this point, he heard his name being called.
“Hey, Brandtner. You. Over here, now. You can bring the girl, but don’t try anything foolish, or she’ll pay for it. In fact, so will you. Come on, what are you waiting for?”
They knew him by name. What was this about? Could this really be terrorists, as had been his first suspicion? But there was no time for more introspection. Brandtner had a feeling he would need all his wits about him to escape this situation alive. Slowly, he made his way across the floor to the man who had called his name. The other men had spread out to cover more of the hostages. Hostages. He’d never before encountered a situation quite like this. Perhaps that was the intention. To kill most of the Viennese police officers.
“Wise decision. Alex Brandtner. Homicide’s poster boy. I guess this a new experience for you? Not so tough when you’re not hiding behind a gun, are you?”
Brandtner swallowed and tried to think of something to say. The main thing was not to lose his head. Whatever happened, he’d have to keep calm, and respond in a way that wouldn’t antagonize his captors.
“What do you want? If there’s anything -”
“Oh, there’s something alright, but you’ll find out when I’m good and ready, not when you decide to use your training on me. Where’s the little sidekick? Oh, there he is. Over here now. Yes, you. The little guy. Come on.”
When Joe saw his boyfriend being dragged away from him, he risked following. There was no way he’d stand around while he guy he loved was – yes, what were those men going to do to Böck, or any of them?
The man who had ordered Böck to approach didn’t at first seem to notice Joe’s arrival. He was too caught up in gloating. Two of Vienna’s high profile homicide detectives at his mercy. But Böck was taking a long time following the order and the man by the door had a schedule to follow. He nodded to one of his assistants who was waiting nearby. The man grabbed Böck by the shoulder and flung him to the floor before the leader of the group of hostage takers. Joe reacted before he had time to think about the consequences of his actions. He pushed the armed man aside and was about to kneel beside his boyfriend, but the man fired off a round right into the nurse’s chest. Without a sound, he dropped to the floor.
A cry escaped Böck’s lips and he struggled to get to his feet to see to his lover. A gun pointing into his face stopped the movement before he was off the floor. Helplessly, he was forced to watch how the man who had fired at Joe pulled his victim away, to place him beside the wall. Brandtner paled slightly, but remembered his duty. Aggravating the situation further wouldn’t help Joe or Böck.
“You didn’t have to do that. The man wasn’t any threat to you.”
“He sure isn’t now. Right. Let’s get down to business. Clock’s ticking. It’s up to you and your little sidekick how many of you cops walk out of here alive. That goes for the little ladies as well.”
The man nodded at Renate. That gave her an idea. Obviously this Neanderthal had never heard of female cops. Good. If he got the impression that she was just a frightened date, maybe she’d get a chance to make a difference. So, though she was as apprehensive as anyone else in the room, she remained standing demurely a few steps behind her man, eyes downcast, just like she imagined their captors expected her to.
“What do you want?”
“Good. I like that. Finally a little politeness. Ok. We want an outside line to communicate with someone who can fulfill our demands.”
“Some basics, like an escape car, in which we’ll be allowed to leave unmolested. Then the real thing. But all in good time. You’ll make time, won’t you? Yes, that’s what I thought. Now, let’s do a bit of a rearranging here. Too many people. Too much risk of panic. Listen up everyone. All women go into the dining hall. Any children? No? Good. Ladies, you have my word I won’t start firing while you’re walking out of here, as long as you leave now. Calmly. That’s better.”
A few of the women were slowly inching their way across the floor to the door that led into the room where supper was to have been served in – less than fifteen minutes’ time. After an inquring gaze at the man in charge, Renate turned to leave as well. Good. That should give her some time. Now if they didn’t leave a guard in there, or at least no more than one, then maybe – She thought she caught a glint in Brandtner’s eyes as he saw her leave, but she wasn’t sure. Either way, whether her boyfriend realized what she was planning or not, she had a job to do.
To some extent, her wish was granted. Only one guard was left with the women. The group of attackers must have felt that would suffice. Funny that they should have no idea that several women were working as detectives, inspectors and in various other capacities. Renate could see two of her colleagues, but decided that trying to enlist their help would be too risky. If she aroused the guard’s suspicions, her chance would be lost.
Despite that, Marlene, one of Renate’s partners, seemed to guess what she was about to do and began to create a diversion. She began to pant and whimper, while tearing at her gown. With a little more worrying the shoulder straps would slide down. Renate had to smother a smile. That should work perfectly with this sort of man. A panic attack that left one of the younger and prettier women in the room partially undressed should prove a highly efficient diversion.
“I can’t take it anymore. What are you going to do to us? You can’t hurt me. I’m going to get married in the autumn. My fiance – and my mother would – Please.”
“Just stay calm and I won’t be forced to fire. You.”
He whirled on one of the other women, startling Renate into thinking she’d been spotted as she sneaked behind one of the serving tables. There. She thought she’d seen a ventilation shaft. And there it was. If only she could work the screws loose a little and move the screen aside a little.
The guard couldn’t see her corner very well, and by now Renate saw that Marlene had managed to drop her dress to the waist, exposing her tiny bra. It was red and seemed to be made predominantly from lace.
That was the last Renate saw of the rest of the room. She was too busy getting to work on the ventilation duct’s screen door. Fortunately, the palace was old but well kept. No rust, but also, the materials used were not very durable. The screen slid aside quite easily, and allowed Renate’s slim body to slip inside, without being seen from the door. One goal accomplished. Putting her dexterity to some more use, she was able to pull the door shut behind her. She tried not to think about what crawling through dusty ventilation shafts would do to her dress. If it was ruined, she’d send the bill to the Police Commissioner. Besides, her work meant a great deal more to her than finery.
Saying a quick, not quite sincere prayer, she hoped she wouldn’t get lost inside the maze of tunnels inside the thick old walls. She hadn’t been to confession since her confirmation, but she was on the side of the angels so surely she’d find her way outside and get help. Though Renate didn’t make a habit of displaying her feelings too clearly, she was extremely fond of her boyfriend, and desperately hoped he’d be ok. He and his partner. That reminded her of Joe, the handsome, gentle nurse. His condition didn’t look good at all, but they would just have to hope that he’d pull through. He was young and healthy. That would have to be enough.
By the time Kunz arrived, the shooting inside the palace had alerted the remaining security guards to the situation. Though virtually all higher officers and several of the lower ranks were trapped inside the palace, enough uniformed policemen were cordoning off the area. Kunz showed his ID to the man in charge. With a look of gratitude, the uniformed policeman handed over responsibility to his superior.
“Sir. Thank god there’s someone left who can take charge.”
“Uh – yes. Keep watch out here. Have you sent for backup?”
“Yes, sir. But most of them are in there. We did put in a request for men from other cities, from -”
“I see. They won’t get here for quite a while. This is a very bad business. I’m not sure I know what to -”
The hopeful look in the uniform’s eyes made Kunz’ voice trail off.
“Right. I’ll see what I can do.”
“What’s wrong, Fritz?”
“We’ll talk over here.”
Paola had already seen the expression on her husband’s face. Trouble.
“It seems the entire palace has been taken over by a group of armed men. Most of the police officers are in there, as you know.”
“So the entire operation is in your hands.”
“I know, but what am I going to do? I’m just a homicide detective. This isn’t something I’ve been trained to do.”
“You’ll just have to make do with your common sense.”
“Oh. I’ll call Peter. He’ll be able to help.”
“Good idea. What can I do?”
Yes. Good question. What could Paola do? What would he allow his wife to put herself at risk over? Even more importantly, there was their unborn child to consider. Kunz’ initial reaction was to beg Paola to get back in the car and drive home again, but he knew that she wouldn’t do it, and under the circumstances, he also knew that he would need to rely on her support to get through this extremely difficult situation. This was a disaster of unpredictable proportions. What if most of Vienna’s police force would be wiped out all at once.
“Wait until I’ve called for Peter. Then we’ll make plans.”
That was one of the things Kunz loved about his wife. Her way of meeting any challenge head on. She was a trooper, all in one relatively small package.
Someone picked up after two or three rings. To Kunz’ relief, it was his friend and mentor, Höllerer.
“Peter. Something terrible has happened.”
“No. Paola and I are fine, but Alex and Christian and everyone else, more or less, have been taken hostage by a group of armed men. Do you see what I mean? Everyone who might be able to handle this situation is inside that palace.”
“Who’s there with you?”
“A handful of uniforms. Paola. That’s it.”
“I see. I can be there in half an hour. Hold down the fort. Try to get them talking. Find out what their demands are. I think the mayor will be there very soon, if he’s not already there. Perhaps you should let Paola deal with him.”
“Ok. Yes, I’ll do that. And thanks, Peter. I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
“Yes, you would. You know what has to be done. Don’t panic. You can do it. I have faith in you.”
After ending the call, Kunz remained standing, a pensive look on his face, until he felt his wife’s hand on his arm.
“He’ll be here as soon as he can. Paola, do you think you could handle the mayor’s office? Peter just reminded me that the city must have someone here to listen to the demands.”
“Alright, but I can do better than that.”
“We’ll see. Right now, I don’t even know if I can do anything. My gun’s back home and -”
“Sir, I can help you there. I sent two of my boys back to the station and they’ve brought reinforcements. How much firepower do you need?”
“Just one handgun and some ammunition, for now. That reminds me. What about the anti-terrorist squad? The army?”
“I don’t know, sir. Only the mayor can make that kind of decision. Maybe it will take the prime minister.”
“I see. Well, then I’ll ask them.”
How had he ended up in this situation? It had to be a nightmare. Any second now he’d wake up, to find that this was just one of his usual nightmares which became more frequent whenever some particularly stressful event came around.
In the meantime, the armed men had herded their remaining hostages into a cowering group in the middle of the dance floor. They were told to kneel with their hands behind their heads. Three men were left to guard their helpless prisoners. The remaining two appeared to have some sort of special plan for Brandtner and Böck. Böck still hadn’t been allowed to go and see to ‘his cousin’, who was lying motionless in a corner, a large pool of blood spreading around him. Brandtner could guess how his partner was feeling, but at the moment, there was nothing either one of them could do.
“Now you, Brandtner. On your knees like the others. And you. Good. Hands behind your heads. You know the drill.”
“What is it you want?”
“When I get someone to negotiate with, I’ll reveal my demands, but that’s nothing for you to worry your pretty head about. Here’s what I had in mind. Five years ago, your lot killed my brother. Someone’s got to pay for that. Why not you? Uh oh, don’t make a move, Böck, or you’ll be next. Want to join your foolish friend over there? It can be arranged.”
Brandtner looked up into the masked man’s eyes. He had a feeling the man was serious. This wasn’t how he had imagined it would end. On his knees, hands behind his head, no way to fight back. He didn’t even know who his would-be killer was. But he doubted that the man would listen to any pleas, so he kept his calm.
If this was his time to go, what could he do to prevent it? Would panicking, losing his dignity, achieve anything? He felt strangely resigned to his fate, as if once the moment arrived, there was nothing else to fear. Rex and Junior would be looked after. Renate – but he couldn’t allow himself to think about her.
While Brandtner’s thoughts touched on her, Renate herself was finally emerging from the ventilation duct. Her hair was a tangled mess of spider’s webs, but nothing worse, at least she hoped so. The dress was a ruin, but she’d only bought it so her boyfriend would be tempted to get her out of it anyway. Besides, a boyfriend and colleagues and friends were worth more than any piece of fabric, no matter how expensive. Now all she needed to do was to find her way around the palace and get help. She was sure that the shooting inside would have attracted attention. There should at least be a number of uniformed cops, and if she wasn’t very much mistaken, Kunz. Wasn’t that the sound of a helicopter? Yes, reinforcements were on the way. But they would need her information to know where to focus the attack. Though she’d lost one of her shoes somewhere along the way, Renate struggled on. Impatiently, she kicked the remaining one away. It was ruined anyway. She didn’t have long to walk. Soon a young police officer in uniform with a strained look on his face held up his hand to stop her progress.
“I’m Renate Vorster. Vice. I have important information for your superior. Who is it?”
“Uh – when I left – Helmut – who’s in charge now? Is it the chief?”
“No. One of the guys from Homicide showed up all dressed up. I think he was supposed to be in there. Kunz, I think.”
Renate’s face lit up. Yes. There was a lot more to the new homicide cop than met the eye.
“Take me to see him. Now.”
She let the incorrect title go. Formalities wouldn’t get them anywhere. Kunz appeared to be deep in conference with – wasn’t that a familiar figure? Höllerer. Kunz’ mentor and a former colleague of Brandtner’s. Even better. This was the man they needed. Brandtner had told Renate about how brilliant the man was.
Nothing appeared to faze him. Once, or so Renate had been told by the old pathologist, Höllerer had defused a bomb with his bare hands, with only seconds to spare. All thanks to a short course on explosives. Somehow, Renate didn’t have any doubt that it was true.
Kunz looked around, a slightly confused look on his face. Paola? No. Renate. But wasn’t she supposed to be –
“Renate. Where did you come from?”
“In there. Listen, I know which rooms they’re keeping them in. And Fritz, Peter, they asked for Alex by name. I’ve got a bad feeling about this whole thing.”
A glint in Höllerer’s eyes told Renate that she had been understood.
“We’ll get him out of there in one piece.”
“That’s right. We will. So does anyone have anything for me to wear? Come on. I can’t work in this dress. A sweatsuit, that kind of thing. And some shoes.”
“I think I might be able to help. My daughter has some workout clothes in the car. They will fit you, I’m sure. She’s almost your height.”
“Great. Thanks, Peter.”
Kunz cast one last look at his wife, as she was successfully dealing with the mayor’s people. He could never get over how lucky he’d been to find her. Was there anything his tough little wife couldn’t do?
The attack would be launched from two main directions. A janitor had shown the special force how to enter through the roof. There was a way down through the attics, and into the floors above the main halls. Höllerer, Kunz and Renate would be leading another team, of ordinary police officers, most of the remaining skeleton crew from several different stations all over Vienna. All in all, that team consisted of ten people. The plan was for the special force to draw attention away from the smaller group who would, it was hoped, be in a position to infiltrate the room where the women were being kept. From there, Renate and Brandtner’s friends would find a way of ensuring Brandtner’s and Böck’s safety.
Ambulances were standing by outside, but Renate fervently hoped her boyfriend wouldn’t be needing them. As for Joe – The condition of the nurse was something no one wished to contemplate further at the moment.
Renate had been against the large scale attack from above. Something like that would only serve to aggravate the situation inside the palace. The lives of the hostages would be placed at even more risk. If Renate or Höllerer had been allowed to make the decisions, a more subtle approach would have been adopted.
But even Paola’s talents at persuasion had been insufficient, and the mayor’s people had been unable or unwilling to see the point of view of the experienced police officers still remaining. Now all they could do was to implement their own plan, and hope and pray that they would be in time.
It proved surprisingly easy to make their way into the cellars and from there up to the first floor. Fortunately, it appeared that after securing the rooms they were currently occupying, the hostage takers had left the rest of the palace virtually unguarded. Why? Was the place booby-trapped? Höllerer had grave misgivings, and he could read in the eyes of his companions that they shared his concern. Or – were the men on a suicide mission? At least no more gunfire had been reported, since the first signs of trouble had been detected.
Renate considered their next step. She knew that there were only two doors leading into the room where the women were being held, including the one connecting to the other room, the one where her boyfriend and the other male officers were being kept. That left only the more stealthy approach. If she could somehow find her way back into the ventilation ducts and through that route gain entry, she was sure the guard wouldn’t notice, and it would be possible for her to finish him. That was a big if. But Kunz had been given a blueprint of the building and could guide her to the nearest ventilation grille. Before she entered, she held a whispered conversation with her two friends.
“When I’ve taken out the guard, I’ll let all of you in.”
“It’s no use, Fritz. You won’t fit into the ventilation duct. But it’s alright. Even if you could have squeezed in, the guard would never mistake you for a woman. Now, let’s waste no more time.”
With that, she turned abruptly and crawled into the narrow space. While the short conference had been going on, some of the men had been taking off the door to the ventilation shaft. This time it was even worse. She didn’t think she’d ever suffered from claustrophobia, so the new feeling had to be something else. Deep down she knew what it was. This time, she was going to have to kill a man, without warning. But knowing that her boyfriend’s life, as well as those of many others depended on her action, Renate was sure she would be able to perform her duty without flinching. Never mind how she would feel afterwards. Now all that mattered was the assignment.
Again, luck was with her. Many of the women were shrinking back towards the wall, covering the view of the door to the ventilation shaft. Now, if only the ones standing closest would be able to keep their heads and not give away what was going on –
To Renate’s relief, Marlene was waiting for her, and as soon as she heard the slight shuffle of footsteps from behind her, she began to open the door. All this she was able to do without turning around. Renate was sure that the guard wasn’t aware of anything unexpected. Soon Renate was able to slide out onto the floor.
Here she hit an unexpected snag. She’d been wearing an evening dress, and unless the man was half-blind as well as a moron, he’d never take her for one of the helpless hostages. That was a drawback, but she told herself that the state of her dress would have given her away anyway. For a second, she contemplated following Marlene’s example and shed the workout clothes Höllerer had generously lent her, but she couldn’t bear the delay, and besides, by the time the man saw her, it would be too late. So she released the safety on the gun and stepped out from among the group of women.
The movement caught the man’s eye, but for a second, he was unable to take in the implications of what he saw. This was still a woman, no matter what she was wearing, and before his brain started working again, Renate had pulled the trigger. There was just a dull thud, nothing loud enough to attract attention from the next room. Good. The silencer was doing its job.
To her relief, the women hostages didn’t cry out, whatever their reaction to seeing a man crumple up and die before their eyes. Renate knew she was a crack shot but she hadn’t dared to hope that she would hit the guard straight between the eyes as she had. But she didn’t have time to stay and admire her own handiwork. There was an extra gun for Marlene, but Renate decided it would be better if her friend herded the hostages down the hall to comparative safety. The further away the better.
“Do you have a gun for me?”
“Yes, but I want you to take the women out of this room. Try to get them outside, but if you hear any sounds of trouble, just take cover in the nearest room. Alright?”
Fumbling inside the hem of the sweatpants, Renate managed to find the spare gun and handed it over to Marlene. That was all the time she could spare for the freed hostages. Now she and the rest of the team had to move on. It was amazing how silently Höllerer and Kunz could move. Most of the time, Kunz came across as slightly awkward, and in fact downright clumsy. There was no sign of that now. He moved as stealthily as all the others. Good. Every last member of the team would be needed for the next phase of the operation.
Höllerer remembered the special force and was wondering what had kept them so long. A worried frown settled over his face. If they’d encountered some kind of booby trap – He was right to worry. They didn’t get much further without spotting some disturbing signs. As explosive devices were in a way Höllerer’s specialty, he had no difficulty identifying the traps that had been rigged to stop their progress. The room where the main body of the hostages were being kept was effectively surrounded by a set of cunningly placed charges. Kunz frowned in concentration and moved closer to his mentor.
“What sort of detonators?”
“I’m not sure. Not timed, I think. Probably intended to go off at a touch. Their safety measures, no doubt.”
Renate chafed at the delay. Did anyone have the equipment to deal with this obstacle? She had to get to Brandtner before it was too late. At least there was one door apparently free of the booby traps.
“What about the direct approach? Just going in through that door?”
“It might come to that. I guess now we know what’s keeping the special force. This could turn messy. Obviously these guys intend to do the greatest possible harm.”
“I don’t care. We don’t have time. Let’s just break down the door and -”
Kunz and Höllerer silently debated Renate’s suggestion. Did they really have any choice? The special forces wouldn’t be here for some time, he guessed. Choosing a more roundabout route, for example through the ventilation system, would only make them more vulnerable to attacks while they extricated themselves from the cramped space.
“You know what you have to do.”
Four of the men positioned themselves around the door, and at a sign from Kunz, they launched themselves at the ancient oak door. For this to work, they would have to use the element of surprise. They were pinning their hopes on the fragility of old hinges and other metal components. There was a fair amount of creaking and crunching, but finally the door broke free of its fastenings and crashed to the floor inside. Though they all knew that they would be greeted by hostile fire, they burst through the doorway, intent on taking out as many of the enemy as possible.
To Renate’s horror, the first thing she caught sight of as she flung herself forward in her desperate rush to save her boyfriend, was a small group of people who stood out from the rest of the crowd. Brandtner on his knees. A masked man pressing the barrel of his gun to the back of his head. Böck, helplessly watching, his eyes darting between the unmoving form of his lover by the wall, and the kneeling figure of his friend and partner.
While Höllerer scanned the room for hidden explosives devices, and Renate froze in horror, watching her boyfriend about to die before her eyes, Kunz was the only one to react quickly enough. Though he had deep-lying issues about firing a gun at another human being, this time he didn’t hesitate. Just like Renate, moments earlier, he fired off a round, straight into the armed man’s face. For a second, the man didn’t react at all, but Kunz hadn’t missed. Within seconds, the machine gun dropped from the man’s lifeless fingers and clattered to the floor.
In the meantime, the rest of the team began to take out the remaining hostage takers, who had begun to return fire. Soon all of them but one were disposed of. Unfortunately, the last one managed to get to the other door, unscathed, and since that room had now been emptied, there was no one to check his progress.
Höllerer didn’t wait. He took off in pursuit. His protege, Kunz, followed closely in his footsteps. Half the team responded to Renate’s impatient hand signal and hurried after the homicide detective and his predecessor.
Still, for a second or two, Renate remained frozen to the spot, her eyes drinking in the sight of her boyfriend, safe, but for once, quite unable to move or say a word. The near brush with death must have stunned him. But there was work to do. The explosives – If the one remaining enemy was able to set off those charges, or if some of them was linked to a timer – that finally caused Renate’s sluggish thoughts to start moving again.
“Everyone out. We’ve found several explosive charges deployed all across this floor. You’ll have to go through there. Enter the ventilation shaft, then go down to the cellars and get out through another ventilation shaft. It’s open, you can’t miss it. Go.”
That dealt with the main body of the hostages. But what about Joe? How would he be able to go? And Brandtner and Böck still looked as if they might be in shock.
Though she knew the minutes were ticking away, and an explosion might be imminent, Renate kneeled in front of her boyfriend to offer some comfort. They didn’t have the time, but she would take it anyway. Her hands moved gently across his face and hair. She pulled him closer and for a second she allowed herself to feel his face against hers.
“You’re not hurt, are you? We have to go.”
“Yes, of course.”
Slowly, he got to his feet, looking as if he still wasn’t all there, but his gaze fell on Joe, and on Christian helplessly searching for a sign of life.
“Christian? Is he -”
“I don’t know. I’m afraid -”
Finally, Brandtner’s senses returned to normal. Joe would need to be carried outside.
“Here, I’ll help you.”
Together, Böck and Brandtner lifted the nurse off the floor. They were painfully aware that he might already be dead. Worse, moving him might aggravate an internal injury. At the moment, though, they were out of options. If they waited for the paramedics to arrive, the palace might go up in flames around them. They needed to find a way out. It was clear that Joe couldn’t be carried through the ventilation system, and Renate didn’t know of any safe route. She could have shouted out loud in frustration. If it hadn’t been for those explosive devices deployed all over the floor, they could have just walked down the stairs and out to the waiting ambulances. As it was, the paramedics might as well have been a thousand miles away. There were two stairwells, and both turned out to be a dead end, due to the explosives planted at the top of the stairs.
“Listen, I’ll open that window over there and call for help from outside.”
“Alright. We can’t stay here.”
Renate hurriedly began to struggle with the rusted old window-catches. She was painfully aware of what a target she made to the enemy still at large, but at this point, she couldn’t consider her own safety. Finally, the decayed metal responded to her frantic efforts and the window swung open. Cautiously she peered outside.
“Hey. Can we get some help in here? There are explosives everywhere, and we can’t get out. And we need a paramedic now. Up here. Could you rig up a ladder or something? The windows are ok, it seems.”
Having received a favorable reply, Renate retreated to kneel beside Joe. His boyfriend and Brandtner had lowered him to the floor. She placed her fingers on the side of the nurse’s neck and after some breathless waiting, she finally felt a weak, thready pulse.
“It’s ok, Christian. He’s hanging in there.”
Now Renate and Brandtner retreated to give Böck some privacy as he bent over his unconscious boyfriend. At the moment, there was nothing they could do, but wait for the end of the drama. Instinctively, they sought out each other’s proximity to find some slight comfort. Brandtner had faced his own death and Renate had killed for the first time. Both needed whatever support they could offer each other.
They weren’t kept waiting for long, fortunately. Not just one but two paramedics calmly ascended the ladder provided by the Viennese central fire department, and went to work on Joe. After making sure his vital signs were stable, they moved him onto a stretcher and skillfully maneouvered him out the window and down to their waiting colleagues on the ground. The ladder provided an escape route for the three remaining officers.
Before long they were safely standing on the pavement. Leaving Böck to go off with his ‘cousin’ in the ambulance, Brandtner and Renate went looking for an update on conditions inside. They found that the special force had returned from the roof without having been able to gain access to the lower floors. Most of Kunz’ group had returned as well, but there was no sign of Höllerer or Kunz himself.
Höllerer didn’t waste any time getting to work on the explosive devices he had found. Most of them proved fairly easy to defuse. They were simple makeshift contraptions and seemed to have been rigged up less according to some big plan but as a sort of afterthought. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until he found another, far more elaborate arrangement, which turned out to be connected to a timer. Worse, that timer was counting down to a time no more than five minutes later. So he had been right in his guess as to the nature of the attack. Who were these people? What motivated them to throw their lives away like this? But he had no time left for useless speculation. Instead he informed Kunz, formally in charge of the operation, of his findings, and urged his protege to get most of his men out of the palace as soon as possible.
“But, Peter -”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll get this thing defused in no time. Besides, you’ll send for the experts, won’t you? I know they’re standing by outside.”
“Yes, but – Right. I’ll go after that last guy. Unless the special force got him, he’s still around here somewhere. Do you think Alex and Christian got out alright?”
“I’m sure they did. Now go. Don’t let him get away.”
Deep down, Kunz didn’t feel nearly as sure as he hoped he was sounding. The last sighting of the escaping criminal had been somewhere on the second floor. After making sure that his team were retreating, Kunz began to cautiously creep around the corridor. Each time the old oak floors creaked under his feet, he winced, expecting at any second to feel a bullet hit him. But nothing happened, he heard nothing and after a while he almost suspected the criminal had managed to somehow escape. That was when he finally caught up with him. The man was trying to gain access to a fire escape. With slightly shaking hands, Kunz raised his gun and aimed it the fleeing suspect.
“Stop. Police. Hands in the air.”
Slowly, the man turned but he didn’t drop his gun, or show any signs of wishing to surrender. Spellbound by the slow progress of the gun which swivelled around towards him, Kunz knew he had to break free of his paralysis. If he didn’t fire, he knew he would soon be dead. It was his life or the suspect’s. Still, he felt strangely reluctant to pull the trigger. He could see the other man’s hand squeezing the trigger of his gun and – There was a loud bang and Kunz was astonished to see his opponent topple over and fall, dropping his gun to the floor. He couldn’t believe it. He’d actually pulled the trigger. Cautiously, still holding out his gun before him, Kunz approached the fallen suspect, prodding him with his shoe. No. Not a trace of life left in him. Mission accomplished. But why did he suddenly feel so weak? Kunz had to sternly remind himself of what his admired mentor Höllerer might have done in a similar situation. Astonishingly enough, that helped. It was time he made his way outside.
He reminded himself that Höllerer was still, presumably, busy defusing that explosive device. Had the bomb experts arrived yet? So far, there had been no alarming signs, so Kunz suspected that Höllerer had been successful in disarming at least the simpler devices. But what about the timer? By the time Kunz found his way outside, there was still no sign of Höllerer and the bomb experts. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, most of the windows facing the street were blown out, and huge flames billowed out through the empty window frames. Kunz was huddling miserably beside his wife, his boss and Renate. They were slow to react. Dumbly, they stared up at the devastation. All the hostages were safely outside as well as most of the police officers, including the special force. But Höllerer and the bomb experts – were they still inside the inferno?
Brandtner didn’t reply. He didn’t think anyone could survive the destruction he was witnessing. The beautiful old palace was being reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. Mozart had dined there once. The emperor had visited countless soirees and balls. Now – thanks to some mindless criminals, it was all coming to an end. Worst of all, had three brave men died in there, trying to avert the disaster? There wasn’t anything else to say. Renate and Brandtner clung together, not wanting to believe that Höllerer was gone. They could see that Paola was trying to comfort her husband, but at the moment, it was as if she wasn’t there. Then suddenly, three very sooty figures emerged from behind the corner of what remained of the palace. Coughing and retching, they still appeared more or less intact.
“I told you it would be alright, my friend.”
Kunz and Brandtner suddenly found a strength they didn’t think they possessed and ran to greet their friend. They had believed him lost in the flames, but here he was anyway, safe and sound.
“We managed to defuse the big one, but the timer went off anyway, setting off others. Unfortunately, there were more of those smaller charges than we’d anticipated. There was no time to get to all of them. When one of them went, the others followed. We were only just in time to leave by one of the downstairs windows. Any news about Joe?”
“No. Christian left in the ambulance with him. You should be seen to by a doctor yourself.”
“That’s not -”
“Don’t argue. We’ll all go. By now, Christian should be able to tell us more about Joe’s condition.”
At the hospital it emerged that though Höllerer had inhaled smoke and dust, his eyebrows had been singed and he had some minor burns on his hands, he was perfectly fine. That, however, could not be said about Joe. Brandtner and the others found Böck whitefaced but collected, awaiting the outcome of the emergency surgery Joe was undergoing. It turned out that his colleagues had somehow heard the news and one by one those that weren’t working had slipped into the room. Quietly, they offered their sympathy to Joe’s boyfriend. Apparently, Joe had come out to all his co workers, and no one seemed to make much of that. One of the women asked Böck if he’d notified Joe’s parents. Böck stared blankly at her, as if he hadn’t heard her.
“I’m Christine. Joe might have told you about me. We’re on the same ward. Did you call his mother and father?”
“No. I didn’t think -”
“Of course not. Would you like me to do it? I know his mother and -”
“Try not to worry too much. Joe wouldn’t want you to distress yourself. He’s tough. He’ll pull through.”
After putting her hand reassuringly on Böck’s, the nurse vanished to make the necessary phone call. Joe’s parents didn’t live in Vienna, so they weren’t expected to show up at the hospital, but naturally they had a right to know what had happened to their son.
“I should have thought.”
Brandtner put a protective arm around the smaller man’s shoulders.
“That’s alright. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“Yes. Christine is nice. Joe told me about her. He used to go out with her before – and now she’s been dating his brother for a while, off and on.”
“She’s right, you know. Joe would hate to see you worrying so much. And he’s a fighter. He’ll make it. You just wait and see.”
Renate hurriedly offered her reassurances but faltered as she saw that Böck wasn’t taking in what she was saying, so she stepped back and let the resourceful Paola take over. It really seemed as if the small energetic woman was at least partially successful in calming Böck down. Christine returned from her grim conversation with Joe’s parents and added her own reassurances.
“Christian – I’ll go and ask again. He should be out of surgery any time now.”
Before Christine had time to approach the nurse on duty – a friend of hers – the door opened and the doctor walked out, wearily removing his gloves.
“Who’s next of kin?”
Christine pointed to Böck and stepped aside, wordlessly.
“Your cousin should make it. We were able to stop the hemorrhaging, and repair the damage. He’s stable, and should be regaining consciousness soon.”
The surgeon nodded absently, his mind already on the first sleep he’d be getting in 48 hours. Paola hugged Böck, then moved aside to let Christine and Renate take turns celebrating Joe’s recovery. Brandtner, Kunz and Höllerer approached and offered their more subdued support.
“Will you be alright on your own, Christian? We’ll have to return to the office to type out the report.”
“What? Oh, yes, of course.”
“I’ll do yours too, so don’t bother coming into the office at all tonight or tomorrow.”
“I appreciate it. All of you.”
“If you don’t need me anymore, I think I’d better go back home.”
“Thanks for your help, Peter. Without you -”
“Don’t mention it. I was happy to be of help.”
“I’ll be around tomorrow to pick up Rex and Junior.”
“We’ll be around to pick up ours too. If it’s alright for the kids to spend the night as well?”
“Oh, I should think so. They’re probably in bed already. See you tomorrow.”
“I ought to go back to my office and fill out my report.”
“No. Can’t it wait?”
Put into other words, what Brandtner was saying was I need you. Please stay. Renate responded to the pleading in his voice.
“I guess so. Or I could type it out in your office and drop it off on the way home.”
That way, they wouldn’t be separated. Neither one of them wanted to be alone that night. The unspoken words were heavy in the air around them, and they hardly noticed that the Kunzes were disappearing. Soon, they were standing outside in the hospital’s parking lot, suddenly realizing they didn’t have a car, and no way to get home.
“On second thought, let’s forget about the report. We’ve done enough for tonight. You look about as exhausted as I’m feeling. My place?”
“Good thinking. Now what? Do we hitchhike or not?”
Brandtner thoughtfully looked around. At this hour, there might be one or two weary interns sneaking out after one of their seemingly endless shifts, but apart from that, there were only three or four cars in the parking lot. But there was a squad car. What if – Yes. It slowed down and pulled to a stop.
“Sir? We thought maybe you’d need a ride home.”
“Yes, please. You can drop me off at -”
“My place. I’ll drive detective Brandtner home.”
A look passed across the young uniformed officer’s face, as if to say yeah, right. But out loud, he said nothing, only opened the door and offered his superior officers a seat. Ten minutes later, they were upstairs in Renate’s apartment, feeling as if they hadn’t slept in weeks. All the emotional exhaustion of the night caught up with them, and Brandtner felt close to losing control. When he looked at Renate, he could guess that she was feeling the same way, but nothing much showed on her face. He reached out and pulled his girlfriend into his arms, pressing his face close to hers.
“I guess I owe you and Fritz, and Peter my life.”
“Only doing my job.”
Now he could hear that her voice was close to cracking, and they said nothing while they moved into the bedroom and dispensed with some of their clothes. Renate would have liked to shower for an hour, but somehow, she couldn’t make her weary limbs move any further. This was it. The end of the line. Unless she got some sleep right about now, she didn’t know what she would do. But Brandtner’s tone had touched a nerve inside her. He might have been dead. It was so close. Too close for comfort. And she – she’d killed another human being in cold blood. Who knew how the man would have reacted? Maybe he would have surrendered if she’d called out a warning, and given him a chance to give up. But she knew she had never had that option.
He could feel the tension in her body and wondered if it was only his near miss that was on her mind. Now it occurred to him that she’d been in the other room with an armed madman. What if –
“Renate, that guard in there – He didn’t hurt you in any way, did he? You know you can tell me anything -”
“Did he hurt me? No, Alex. I hurt him. Really hurt him, as in killed him. Just like that. No warning, nothing. I never gave him a chance to drop his gun and -”
He should have known. That was the only possible option. If the man had called out a warning to his accomplices – Of course she had to shoot to kill. He’d been in that situation himself a few times. Killing was never pleasant, and he had to agree with Renate, killing in cold blood was far worse than in a self defense situation.
“I see. But you did what you had to do. If you hadn’t, who knows how many people would have suffered? And you have to remember, he’d still be alive if he hadn’t attempted to take hostages.”
“Don’t you think I know that? It doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“I know. It doesn’t. You just have to – Believe me, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now, with time -”
“I know I’m being silly. It’s just -”
“Sh. Come here. Let’s not think about it anymore. It’s too close, too real right now. We need a little time for the experience to fade. You’re tired, aren’t you? After you’ve had some sleep you’ll feel a lot better. So will I.”
“Alright. Alex, if I’d lost you -”
“Don’t talk about that now. Don’t even think about it. I’m here. Nothing’s wrong. Joe made it. Peter made it. We’re all safe. Lie down.”
Eventually they were able to settle down and rearrange their limbs in a vaguely comfortable pattern. Feeling each other so close helped. It wasn’t long before they both drifted off to sleep. The night had been long and seemingly overwhelmingly hard to get through, but at last it was over. Dawn came through the windows, promising a brilliantly sunny day, but the cops on Renate’s bed didn’t notice. If they dreamt, they didn’t remember when they woke up much later in the day.