|Primary Characters:||Rex, Brandtner, Böck, Höllerer, Kunz|
|Description:||After the serial killer case, Brandtner’s heart isn’t in his work. On top of everything he’s injured. Now it’s really time to go. A man from his past returns, and needs some help.|
Brandtner was on his way out to Höllerer’s place. Being cooped up inside his house was wearing on his nerves. If he wasn’t allowed to get back to work soon, he’d go insane. It would be great to see his old colleague again. Höllerer was someone he could really talk to. Confide in. Not only was Höllerer an excellent cop, he was also a great friend. Rex too, seemed to be looking forward to the visit, or maybe even to seeing his son. When Rex had unexpectedly become a father, Höllerer had been one of the people who had volunteered to take a puppy. As always, Alex had been able to count on his old friend.
“Yes, Rex, we’ll be seeing Otto.”
It seemed to him that Rex knew exactly what he was saying. The tail thumped enthusiastically up and down on the seat. Dogs were pack animals. It was only natural that they would want to play with other dogs. Poor Rex hardly ever seemed to have any canine friends around. It was only rarely that he saw his girlfriend, or as Brandtner was hoping, his ex-girlfriend, or his daughters. People were busy, but he shouldn’t be too busy to let his dog have a good time. From now on, that would have to change. Maybe he shouldn’t have given Junior to Marlene, but when Renate’s friend and colleague from Vice had expressed a wish to own one of Rex’ offspring, he hadn’t wanted to refuse.
He and Rex were met at the door by Otto, several of the Höllerers’ offspring, and standing behind all of them, Höllerer himself. When the dogs had finished their elaborate greetings, the younger Höllerers took them out back to let them play. Brandtner couldn’t help smiling when he noticed how much Rex had improved in the past couple of weeks. The limp was now barely noticeable.
“Hello, my friend.”
“Peter. It’s always a pleasure to see you.”
Höllerer studied his friend gravely. The younger man had lost weight since he last saw him, and the pain in his eyes was new. Of course, Höllerer knew the facts of what had occurred. First Rex’ accident, then the tragic serial killer case. It was all a bad business.
“As it is to see you and Rex. Come on in. Would you like a beer?”
Höllerer brought a beer bottle from the fridge in the kitchen rather than bringing his friend into the bar. This would be far more private. When his eldest daughter returned, she would wish to see Brandtner and discuss her possible future career in law enforcement, but for now, the two men wanted to be on their own.
“Now. Tell me everything.”
“I can’t do this anymore, Peter.”
“You mean work as an officer?”
“That too, but for now, I just want to get back to work. For the time being. Rex and I go for long walks or we go running. Renate comes over nearly every night. Last weekend, Fritz and Paola brought their entire brood to visit. And Christian and Joe look in from time to time, with Magnus. But it’s not the same. If I have to stay inside the house for another week, I’ll go out of my mind.”
“Right. Have you talked to the people upstairs?”
“Yes. In fact, they said I could come back starting Monday, but it would be mainly desk duty. Even that would be an improvement.”
“I see. Well, go back to work. It will make you feel better. As you say, even if it’s only temporarily. What would you really like to do?”
“Train dogs. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Then do it.”
“As Christian pointed out to me, there’s not much money in it.”
“So what? Do what makes you happy. The money isn’t important.”
“It is when you have a dog to take care of. One day, I might want to get married. Not that I feel like it right now. But it might happen.”
“There’s nothing like it, my friend. How is Renate?”
“She’s fine. I’ve missed her.”
“You’re as bad as Christian, Fritz and Leo. Are you gossiping behind my back, all of you?”
“Of course not, but it’s only natural that we’ll want to see you settled. We’re your friends, naturally we worry about you. And look at the rest of us. Even Leo has a lady friend, and Christian has Joe. You’re the only one left on your own. Renate is a fine girl. You could do a lot worse.”
“I know. But I’m not ready to get back into a relationship yet.”
“I understand. What about the career change?”
“That’s not the only thing I want to change. I think it’s time for me to move out of Moser’s house.”
“You could be right. That old place will only remind you of the past. It’s time to move on. As it happens, I could help you. There’s a little house on the grounds here. I could let you have it for a very good price.”
“Please. I couldn’t accept any favors.”
“Why not? You’ll be doing me a favor. I love living here, but at times it gets a little dull. Having an old friend just round the corner would be wonderful. And think about Rex. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for him to have Otto to play with?”
“And your kids. Yes. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to put the house on the market?”
“Absolutely. We wouldn’t want just anyone right next door. If you don’t take it, we’ll have to leave it be. Would you like to take a look at it?”
“Yes, I’d love to.”
“When I say little, I don’t mean that it’s really tiny. It’s spacious enough. You and Rex and Renate would fit in just fine and even if you’d like to start a family -”
“Whoa. Who says anything about starting a family? Rex has already done that. I think I’ll wait a while longer.”
“Whatever you say. Just remember, there’s room for a couple of little ones if you should change your mind. There’s even a small garden out back. You’ll like it, I know you will.”
“You know what? I think I’m ready to make a deal right now, without even seeing the place.”
“Good, that’s the spirit. Just in case I’ll show you around first, before we get down to business.”
Höllerer was right. Brandtner loved the house. Rex loved the house and especially the garden. Filled with enthusiasm once again, Brandtner shook hands with Höllerer and closed the deal. The price was extremely favorable and there would be no trouble at all, selling Moser’s house. It was in a good neighborhood and it was still well kept, apart from a few claw marks on the door. When he was driving back to the city, Brandtner was feeling more hopeful about the future than he had for a long time. Höllerer was right. What was the point of holding on to old memories?
Monday morning, Brandtner went back to work. Just as he’d suspected, it felt good to get out of the house, but his heart wasn’t really in his work anymore. He missed Rex and when he found himself with nothing to do, the memory of Dorothea’s last moments resurfaced and waves of guilt washed over him. There were times when he seriously wondered if her face would haunt him for the rest of his life. Rex was spending his days either over at his neighbor’s house or with his daughter at Renate’s place when she had a day off. With Rex taken care of, Brandtner took to spending more time at the office, but once Kunz hurried home to his wife and children and Böck finished his work as well, he’d be left alone.
One evening, about three weeks after returning to desk duty, Brandtner realized he’d forgotten to buy bread. He’d meant to look in at the bakery, but it had slipped his mind. On his way home, he passed a 7-11, and decided to stop and get a loaf. It wouldn’t be the same as the wonderful sausage sandwiches Rex loved so much, but at least it would be something. There were no other customers inside the store and that surprised Brandtner somewhat. It was only about 8.30 and normally there would be quite a crowd doing their last minute shopping on the way home. Apparently, there was a temporary lull in business.
He was about to say so to the guy behind the counter, when a new customer walked in. It was a young man, in his early 20’s, wearing a sweatshirt jacket with a hood. The hood was up, and underneath it, he was wearing a baseball cap. These days all young people dressed the same, but something about this one set off Brandtner’s alarms. Before he even had time to finish the thought, the young man pulled out a gun and aimed it at the man behind the counter.
“You. Don’t do anything stupid. Hand over the cash. Now. And you -”
Now the gun moved to cover Brandtner as well.
“You lie face down on the floor.”
Brandtner froze. Not another gun. Suddenly, he panicked. Breaking into a cold sweat, he remained glued to the spot. He couldn’t make a move. Unable to take his eyes off the shining metal of the gun, he stayed where he was.
“Are you deaf or something? Lie down. I’ll shoot. Don’t think I won’t. Are you trying to be a hero or something? Moron. Or are you from the east? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. Don’t you speak German?”
The man behind the counter hissed at the impossibly slow customer. Was he going to set that young madman off with his stupidity?
“Do as he says. Come on. Don’t make him do anything rash.”
“Yeah, listen to the man. He’s telling you the truth. Last chance. On the floor now.”
Brandtner wasn’t listening. In front of his eyes, another scene was playing itself out. Dorothea hitting him over the head. His finger pulling the trigger. Her body slowly falling, then hitting the floor. The bloodstain spreading across her chest. Blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.
The sound of a gun shot finally jolted him out of his daze. At first he didn’t feel any pain. It was as if something had bumped into his thigh. By the time the pain had registered, he could see the blood spreading from a spot just above his knee. He began to feel dizzy and in a second or two, he’d toppled over. As he hit the floor, the pain got worse. He could hear someone screaming. The dizzy spells turned into moments of complete blackout. During one of those, his uniformed colleagues must have arrived.
“Herr Brandtner? We have called an ambulance for you. I will apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. You’ll be fine.”
He tried to say something, but instead, darkness engulfed him. When he came to again, he heard a familiar voice. He couldn’t make out what the question was, but he heard the reply clearly.
“We don’t know yet. Nothing too serious, I should think. Don’t worry about it, frau Vorster. He’ll be just fine.”
Was Renate there? She would be able to tell him what was wrong with him.
“Alex. Well, this is just great. Every time I turn my back you end up in trouble. What am I going to do with you?”
He didn’t know where that came from. Until a few days ago, that had been the last thing on his mind, but even though he couldn’t remember much right now, he knew one thing and that was that Renate was someone he could trust. He needed her. It was vitally important not to let her slip away again. If she did, something terrible was going to happen.
“I suppose I shall have to. It’s clear that you can’t be trusted to go out on your own.”
“Frau Vorster, if you would -”
“I’ll be right here. Don’t worry about a thing, Alex.”
They arrived at the hospital and a team of medical staff got to work on him again. At last, the pain stopped. He also lost consciousness for a while. When he came to again, he was lying on his back in a hospital bed. The pain was gone. He was feeling much better, but he still couldn’t recall much of what had happened in the past hour or so. Renate. Where was she? He was sure she was supposed to be somewhere nearby.
Someone must have heard him, because a very strict looking nurse walked into the room.
“I see we’re awake now, herr Brandtner. Excellent. How are we feeling?”
“We – I’m feeling fine. A bit dazed, but fine. What happened?”
“That would be the anaesthetic wearing off. Nothing to worry about. The doctor should be here shortly. He’ll answer any questions you have. Now if you please, I will take a look at the wound.”
“What wound? I don’t remember.”
“The doctor will be right here. In the meantime, your fiancee is waiting outside.”
“Renate is here? Let her in.”
“Hm. I suppose a few minutes won’t do any harm. Alright. She can come in for a while.”
The door never even closed after the nurse, before Renate was there.
“Alex. Feeling better?”
“Yes, but what happened? Do you know? The nurse wouldn’t tell me.”
“I see. You don’t remember at all?”
“I was going to buy bread – there was a robbery. Did I get shot?”
“I’m afraid so. I heard the call on the radio and I came right over.”
“How bad is it?”
“I don’t know. You were hit in the thigh, just above the knee. Nothing life threatening, obviously, but I don’t know anything more than that.”
“How is Rex?”
“I called my sister. She’s taken both of them.”
“I can only stay for a few minutes. The nurse was quite adamant about that.”
“Did I ask you to marry me?”
“Yes, so you did. Don’t worry about it. I won’t hold you to it. You must have been delirious.”
“The nurse referred to you as my fiancee -”
“Do you think she’d have let me see you otherwise?”
“I see. Renate, don’t you want to marry me?”
“Do I want to marry you? Isn’t the real question if you want to marry me?”
“I just asked you. And I wasn’t all that delirious. I knew who you were.”
“I see. So you were serious?”
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life. Rex needs a mom and Liesl needs a dad.”
“So that’s it? You’re marrying me so your son can have a mother. Very nice.”
“Herr Brandtner. Frau Vorster. I said only a few minutes. Your time is up. Come back tomorrow morning, if you wish to see your fiance, frau Vorster.”
“Right. Thank you, nurse. I will. Alex – I’ll give that matter some thought and get back to you.”
“In the morning?”
“Alright. Bright and early.
She would consider his proposal. He was amazed to find that he was as eager to learn her reply as he was to know what the doctor had to tell him about his injury. How could he and Renate ever have drifted apart?
“So what did the doctor say, Alex?”
“He said – I don’t know. I think maybe I’ll walk with a limp for the rest of my life.”
“Are you serious?”
“He wouldn’t say anything definite, but that was the impression I got.”
“That’s terrible. Just terrible.”
Kunz was using his favorite expression and he certainly looked horrified as he was shaking his head sympathetically.
“Not really. I’m leaving the force anyway. If Rex can get by with a limp, so can I.”
Böck hadn’t said anything so far. He was being very quiet today. Brandtner thought perhaps it had something to do with the announcement he had made just now. Renate had kept her word. She’d come to see him before her shift began. To his delight, she’d decided to accept his proposal. He didn’t think he’d ever been that happy, despite the somber circumstances.
“What’s wrong, Christian?”
“Nothing. It’s just that I’ve been thinking. About work. Anything can happen. One day, one of us might be dead. Shot in the line of duty. If that happens, I want to be sure I’d lived as much as I could. Joe has had a job offer. In Linz. I think I’ll come with him. It’s time we made a stronger commitment.”
Brandtner and Kunz spoke at once, stunned by the new revelation.
“Are you serious?”
“Why not? Wherever Joe goes, so do I.”
“For better for worse, right?”
“Yes, Fritz. It’s like that for us too. I’ll miss you guys, but I’ll keep in touch. This is the right decision, I know. I can feel it.”
“You’re all going away and leaving me on my own. It’s not fair.”
“You’ll be fine, Fritz. You don’t need us anymore. Don’t you know what an excellent homicide detective you are? It’s time you got to work giving a new generation of cops on the job training. You can do it, you know you can. It would be such a waste if you didn’t. Remember how Peter was your mentor?”
“He still is.”
“You see. Besides, I’ll be close. You and Paola and the kids can come over and visit any time you like. You and Joe too, of course, Christian. And Magnus. I’d better put the old house on the market and -”
“I’ve been thinking. If it won’t be too expensive, Paola and I’ve been looking for a house. I wasn’t going to say anything right now, but I might as well. We’re having a baby, so we’ll need a bigger place.”
“In that case, I’ll give you a special price. Congratulations, Fritz. That’s wonderful news.”
“Yes, this is great news. When will you and Renate be starting your own production line?”
Brandtner blushed slightly.
“I think we’ll hold off on that for a while. We haven’t even had the wedding yet and it would be quite nice to be able to stand properly before I get married.”
Böck was happy for his friends, but he was also feeling a little sad that he and Joe would most likely never have any children of their own. Other than Magnus and others like him. Of course, you never knew.
Joe had all these very nice and friendly female friends. Any one of them might want to help them out. It was worth considering. Not that Böck had ever felt comfortable around children. They were such unpredictable creatures. Always wailing and making a mess and – but still, maybe it would be nice to have one or two.
By the time Brandtner was released from the hospital, he and Kunz had more or less finalized the deal. Before Böck and Joe moved to Linz, they had promised to help move Brandtner’s and Kunz’ furniture. They kept their word. While their own stuff left in a moving van, they spent the weekend going back and forth between the various houses, and also Renate’s apartment. Her sister and brother-in-law were helping her too, so it didn’t take very long to move all her furniture.
Even if Brandtner still couldn’t walk well enough for the ceremony, it had been decided that they would move in together anyway. The wedding could wait. Living together couldn’t. On Sunday evening, all the work was finished and everyone sat down in Höllerer’s garden to have a couple of cold beers together. Dr Leo Graf had been invited and for once he’d brought his dog, Rex’ ex girlfriend, Xena and, even rarer, his lady friend, frau von Ravensburg.
“Here’s to marriage. And love.”
“And to friendship.”
Everyone drank to that as well. Höllerer turned to Kunz to give him some last minute advice, but also to try and boost his self esteem.
“So now it’s time.”
“For you to spread your wings, my friend. You’re ready.”
“I don’t know. Besides, I have no idea what my new colleagues will be like.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. Give them a chance to prove themselves, and if you don’t like them, you can always call me or Alex. We’ll always be here for you.”
“Thanks, Peter. I appreciate the vote of confidence and – your friendship.”
“You’ve certainly earned it. The vote of confidence and my friendship. Don’t forget to keep in touch. You know me, I always love to hear about the old place. And Sandra will probably want to work there in the future. ”
“I will. I promise. And I’ll do what I can for Sandra.”
“Now before I forget. Congratulations. Paola, Fritz, I must say I applaud your decision to have a large family. There’s nothing like it.”
“Thanks. Paola and I are really happy about it.”
“And Christian. You’re leaving Vienna. Who would have thought that day would come? I always expected you to rise in rank but stay in the city. ”
“Yes, I suppose I always did too.”
“It’s my fault. My family is from Linz so I wanted to go back. I’m sorry to drag Christian away from you.”
“Nonsense. There’s always a point when it’s time to let go. Work isn’t everything in life. Besides, they should consider themselves lucky to have you in Linz. Both of you.”
Dr Graf had decided to join the conversation. Böck stared at him. It was Brandtner who was dr Graf’s closest friend. Apparently, the old man was more fond of his old friend’s colleagues than they’d believed.
“Thanks, Leo. I appreciate that.”
“Don’t mention it. You’re a fine officer. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that you’ve become the chief of police over there.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Renate couldn’t keep quiet any longer. She was happy too and she didn’t care who knew about it.
“You and Joe will come back from Linz for the wedding, won’t you?”
“We wouldn’t miss it for the world, would we, Joe?”
“Of course not. I hope you’ll be very happy.”
“I know we will.”
When the party broke up, Renate hugged and kissed everyone, and the men shook hands with each other. It was a very emotional moment. They would see each other again, but from now on things would be different.
At least everyone except Böck would still be nearby. They could still see each other from time to time. Even so Brandtner couldn’t help feeling a little melancholic. Sternly he told himself that Böck would be back to visit. There was no reason to feel this sentimental. It would have been far worse to lose touch with Renate.
Maybe he was getting old. A few years ago, he wouldn’t have dreamed of making this type of commitment. Now, he knew he’d feel lost without Renate by his side. She had come to mean as much to him as Rex and his colleagues. More. Not more than Rex, but more than the others, as was only natural. He’d feel better soon. It was just the finality of seeing Böck leave for the last time. He could be tiresome, but there was no one more loyal. Just like Kunz and of course Höllerer. Still, this wasn’t medieval times. There were trains, buses and planes, not to mention telephones. He had to snap out of his mood.
“Nothing. I’ll just miss the guys.”
“Of course. But you’ll see them again.”
“I know. And I have you. Did I tell you how happy you made me by accepting my proposal?”
“Yes. Frequently. But please tell me again. That’s something a girl can never hear too many times. ”
“Well, in that case. I’ll even carry you to the bedroom -”
“No, you won’t. I absolutely draw the line there. Besides, you’re in no condition to carry anyone.”
“I know. Don’t remind me. I’ll just limp there on my own and you can wait for me there, how about that?”
“Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.”
A loud bark told them that Rex had already gone to bed. Brandtner was wondering how he was going to break the news to his canine son that he’d be sleeping in the kitchen with his daughter from now on. It would be a time of changes for all of them.
One morning, Brandtner got a call from the office. It wasn’t Kunz as he had expected but someone much higher up. What he learned gave him food for thought. It brought back memories of a case he’d nearly forgotten after all the new developments. With a distant look in his eyes, he finished the call.
“Nothing. It’s just that – do you remember Ernst Fuchs?”
“Of course I do. You told me all about it. What about him?”
“Now that Keller’s empire has been crushed, Fuchs or rather Axel Hoffmann wants to return to Europe. Germany to be precise. Berlin. And he could use some help.”
“I thought you said he had a girlfriend out there?”
“Yes, but apparently Muriel got married. To someone else.”
“Oh. Poor Axel. What are you going to do about it?”
“Well, he’s been given the green light. The German authorities have been notified and they have given their permission for him to settle there. Of course, he needs something to do. I thought we could invite him over here to discuss that. There should be something I can help him with. I still have connections even if I’m no longer on the force.”
“That’s a wonderful idea. Why don’t you call him or write him right away?”
“I will. Axel Hoffmann. I’d nearly forgotten. I hope the poor guy is feeling better. The last time I saw him, he was a wreck.”
“So you told me. Prison time can be tough on anyone.”
“Especially if you fall victim to a man like Keller.”
Brandtner could barely suppress a shudder. Once he’d come close to almost the same fate. He still had a scar on his back, to remind him. Fortunately, the scar didn’t bear any resemblance to the letter ‘K’ as had been intended.
“I think I’ll call an old friend in Berlin.”
“I didn’t know you had any friends up there.”
“Well, it’s hardly a friend, but it’s someone who owes me a favor. We worked a case together many years ago. She might be able to help Axel.”
“You have no reason to be jealous.”
“Oh, really? Is she old and has warts all over her face?”
“Hardly. The last time I saw her she was almost as pretty as you.”
“Nice touch. Almost.”
“Honestly, there was nothing going on between us. It was strictly work. Still, she was single the last time. Maybe she still is. Axel might like her.”
“Matchmaking, are you?”
“There’s no harm in trying. Now that Muriel got married, Axel’s on his own again. Poor guy.”
“You’re right. I hope he likes this Berlin cop.”
“Anke Neumann. Last I heard she’d had a promotion. Someone will need to keep an eye on Axel at least for the first year or so. She’ll do fine.”
“If she wants to. What does he look like anyway, this Axel?”
“Don’t ask me. How should I know? All I can tell you is that Christian once referred to him as one of ‘these good looking guys’. Does that answer your question?”
“I guess so. Joe’s a babe. Axel should be really something.”
“Hey, now I’m jealous.”
“You, have absolutely nothing to worry about. Joe might be a babe, you are perfect.”
“Absolutely. Honestly. I’ve never seen any guy as hot as you.”
“Ok, now you’re making me blush instead. Maybe we should stop talking about people’s looks. Except for yours. Speaking of perfect -”
“Are you talking about me?”
“Who did you think? Christian?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything about that, but now that you’ve mentioned his name – what’s the deal there? You two seem just a little bit too close.”
Brandtner stared open-mouthed at his fiancee. Was she serious? How on earth could she even think such a thing? He was about to argue with her, when he realized she was laughing at him.
“You should have seen your face. I’m sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist. It was too hilarious to pass up on. Don’t worry about it. I’ll never say anything about it again.”
“Renate – Christian did have a crush on me once, but you’ve seen him with Joe. He’s over that. And as for me – do you really need to ask?”
“No, silly. So that’s it. Poor Christian. Tough luck. On the other hand, his loss, Joe’s gain. And mine too.”
“Thanks for telling me though. That had to take some guts.”
“I surprised myself. At the time it was just too mortifying. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt Christian’s feelings either.”
“It must have been a very difficult situation, but I know you handled it well.”
“Thanks. I tried my best.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get in touch with herr Hoffmann. It’s very sweet of you to want to help him.”
“He helped us break Keller’s network. Without his courage, those people would still have been bringing in weapons, drugs and innocent women and children from the east.”
“I know. At Vice we get to see those poor traficking victims up close. I’ll have to thank herr Hoffmann personally.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that. The last time I saw him he was feeling really bad about himself. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that full of self-loathing.”
“He was doing time for murder, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, but it should have been manslaughter. There was nothing intentional about it. I guess sometimes the system slips up.”
“That’s true. On the other hand, sometimes the guilty walk away scot free.”
“I know. Anyway, I’ll get in touch with Axel right away.”
Axel Hoffmann was eager to thank his benefactor so he was only too happy to accept the invitation. In all the time he’d spent in Australia, he’d never stopped missing Europe and his own language. He would have preferred to settle in Austria but realized that even if Keller and his people were gone, his old friends were still around and the risk of falling back into his old destructive behavior was simply too great. Berlin was far enough away to provide a fresh start, but still close enough to home to feel comfortable. Maybe they’d make fun of his accent, but no one would have any trouble understanding him.
Even though his own relationship had come to nothing, he was pleased for his benefactor, when he learned that Brandtner was now living with his fiancee. He was also glad to learn that the beautiful dog, Rex, was still around. Axel was wondering what Lotti would think of the police dog. Of course, she was a nice friendly dog, so he didn’t think he’d need to worry about that. He’d expected Brandtner to come and pick him up at the airport, but instead a stunning brunette was there to meet him.
“Yes. Are you frau Vorster?”
“So Alex told you about me. Great. He probably didn’t mention his injury to you, did he?”
“He wouldn’t. Alex has been shot.”
“In the line of duty?”
“No. It was an armed robbery and he got caught in the middle.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear that. Is it serious?”
“No. He’s fine, but he still walks with a limp so I said I’d pick you up. It’s a bit difficult for him to sit cooped up in a car. Put your dog in the back. Here. I’ll help you. She’s very pretty.”
“Her name is Lotti. I see. It’s very nice to meet you, frau Vorster.”
“You and Alex are on a first name basis, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Your fiance has been very kind to me.”
“Then all this herr and frau business is just silly. I’m Renate.”
“Renate. And I’m sure you know my name is – now – Axel.”
“Yes, Alex told me. It’s a pleasure to meet you too, Axel.”
Axel couldn’t help glancing at the lovely young woman out of the corner of his eye. Since Muriel had left him, there hadn’t been any other women in his life and before that, in prison, he hadn’t seen a woman for years. It was quite a change from his youth. His early years had been full of women of all ages. He was also looking forward to meeting his benefactor, Brandtner. The news about his injury had caught him unawares. What a terrible accident. Brandtner deserved better. He was such a good guy.
“Is Rex well?”
“Didn’t Alex tell you? Rex had an accident too, but he’s almost recovered by now.”
“Oh. Things change so quickly when you’re out of the country. You lose touch. Of course, that was the idea.”
“Did you get homesick?”
“And you won’t miss those beaches and the surfing?”
“The surfing? I was in the outback. The only time I saw a beach was when Muriel – my ex-girlfriend – and I were on vacation once. I never tried surfing.”
“I see. Well, here we are. Oh, speaking of Rex. His daughter lives here with us. Alex gave her to me.”
“I didn’t know Rex had been bred.”
“It wasn’t meant to happen. Long story. Keller tried to get his hands on you and found Alex instead. Surely you know about all that?”
Axel’s face lost all trace of color. Had Brandtner ended up in trouble because of him?
“Keller escaped. He managed to abduct Alex. Don’t worry though. He was killed before he could do any damage. Alex is fine. It’s just that they used a bitch in heat to lure Rex to him. They hit it off just fine and the result was four puppies. You’ll meet my dog, Liesl. She’s one of the puppies, though she’s grown up by now.”
“I’m looking forward to it. Oh, there they are. Would it be alright for me to let Lotti out so she play with them?”
“Of course. They’re both very well trained. I’m sure they’ll all have a wonderful time. And there’s Alex.”
Axel extricated his long limbs from Renate’s small car and stood up to meet Brandtner.
“Axel. How nice to see you again.”
“Alex. Your fiancee just told me about the accident. The accidents. I’m terribly sorry to hear that.”
Brandtner shrugged. What else had Renate told him? Surely not about Dorothea? They had had a long painful discussion about that after the incident and he knew Renate understood, but even so, it was a memory he wanted to put to rest once and for all. And would she have told Axel about Keller’s attempt to grab him? There was no reason why she shouldn’t, but he’d been hoping to tell Axel about that himself. Still, the man deserved to know. And no harm done.
“As you can see, both Rex and I are fine now. I hope you’re doing well too.”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
Brandtner was amazed at the change the young man had undergone. The last time they’d met he’d been a wreck. Now he looked physically fit, had a suntan Brandtner envied him and he’d built some new muscle, working on those farms. But how would he really be feeling, emotionally? It was hard to tell. Axel wouldn’t meet his eyes for more than an instant at a time. Brandtner guessed that what Axel had been through wasn’t something you shrugged off as easily as your body healed.
“Please. If you like, I’ll show you around the house. Dinner will be ready in a little while. Just leave your dog – Lotti, isn’t it? – in the garden with the others. She’ll be fine. There’s some kibble in the kitchen and fresh water too. We let them come and go as they please. As you can see, there’s a fence around our property so they won’t bother the guests at the inn. By the way, you remember Höllerer?”
“He’s the one running the place. If you like, we could go over there later and have a couple of drinks. Höllerer would love to see you again.”
“Thanks. I’d be happy to see him again. As I remember, he was a nice guy.”
Axel looked so unhappy, Brandtner was forced to conclude that maybe not all police officers had been as fair in their treatment of him. But he didn’t want to pry, so he made no mention of his guess. Another reason for Axel’s look might have been Höllerer’s association with Moser. That was another complicated business.
They made the tour of the house, and Axel expressed admiration for it. He was rather pleased not to see Moser’s house again. It had been a good place to stay, despite the fact that Keller’s men had caught up with him there, but the memories of Richie were best left alone. Later, over dinner, they began discussing Axel’s proposed new career. During the course of the conversation, Brandtner’s resignation was also brought up.
“You’re not going to work in the police force again?”
“No. After Rex’ accident, it hasn’t been the same. Of course, now it might be argued that I’m not fully fit myself.”
“I see. I’m really sorry. What do you intend to do instead, if I may ask?”
“All my friends ask that. What I’d really like to do is train dogs.”
“Train dogs? That sounds wonderful. I wish I had the knowledge to do something like that.”
Renate shot the handsome but sad young man an appreciative glance that wasn’t lost on her fiance.
“Lotti seems to be very well trained.”
“Do you think so? It’s very kind of you to say so. I suppose she was very easy to train. And I had time on my hands.”
“You see. But that can’t be all you’re good at.”
Why did she have to make that sound like she was flirting? Brandtner knew that wasn’t Renate’s intention and he certainly didn’t resent his guest’s good looks, but wasn’t she being a little bit too forward with someone she’d just met? It seemed Axel felt the same way. He blushed slightly and looked away. Apparently, he’d never do anything to offend his host.
“I don’t really know anything. Except for robbing banks and so on. I had been considering work at a security firm. Maybe as a guard. On the other hand, I’m sure their background checks would find me a security threat and they wouldn’t hire me.”
“It’s not a bad idea though.”
“I’ve also considered working as a private investigator. After all, I know a lot about crime from the other side, as it were.”
“That’s a really good idea.”
Brandtner was getting excited about the whole thing. Maybe he too could do something like that? It would be interesting and not too different from his old work and he’d find the time to train dogs anyway. Yes, this was definitely worth considering. They began discussing the matter further and it turned out Renate had a few useful suggestions as well. As the evening wore on, Axel’s plans had taken on a more solid form.
“I know someone in Berlin. A police officer. She could help you out. You’ll need someone in the police force who can keep an eye on you for the first couple of years. For your own safety if nothing else.”
“Do you think Keller’s people are still looking for me?”
“No. Absolutely not. We got them all. It’s just as a precaution. And they’ll want to keep an eye on you too. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, of course. I quite understand. But I’ve started a new life. I’ll never do anything to risk going back to prison. I’d rather die.”
The vehemence startled Brandtner. Of course it was only natural that he’d want to stay away from a prison cell after what he’d suffered the last time he’d been in one.
“Speaking of Keller – I hope you don’t mind my mentioning it, but frau Vorster – Renate – told me about how Keller and his people got to you. I’m terribly sorry. That was exactly what I was afraid of when you decided to protect me.”
“Axel – it’s alright. No harm done. I’m fine. Rex is fine. Keller is dead, in case you didn’t already know. He’s not going to come after you or me again. Neither will his people. It’s over. Try not to worry about it anymore.”
“But it’s not right. After all you’ve done for me -”
“Don’t mention it. Anyone would have -”
“Done the same? For a convicted killer and a -”
“Axel. It’s over. You have a new life. Soon I will too. We have to forget. I know it must be harder for you than for me, but please try. If you let him cause you pain even now, when he’s dead, he’s winning. Don’t let him do that. He’s gone and you’re here. Let the past rest.”
Axel stared thoughtfully at Brandtner, but after a while, he relaxed. Brandtner was right. If he let Keller continue hurting him from beyond the grave, he deserved to feel the way he did. He had to make an effort to move on. If Brandtner could, so could he.
In the morning, Brandtner and Renate did their best to persuade Axel to stay for a few more days, but he was eager to get started on his new life. After a visit with Höllerer, Renate drove Axel and Lotti to the airport and wished him good luck.
“You’ll have to promise to keep in touch. I know Alex would like that too.”
“And if it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll figure something out. I have friends too.”
“I really appreciate that. Herr Brandtner – Alex has done so much for me already.”
As Renate watched the plane for Berlin take off, she wished with all her heart that Axel would be able to make a fresh start up there and that this time around, he’d be more successful. Such a nice guy. It was obvious he’d ended up running with a bad crowd, but there couldn’t be anything fundamentally bad in him. Renate knew that she was usually a good judge of character.
When Axel landed in Berlin, it was getting late. He knew no one would be there to greet him, but all in all, it felt quite good to be starting a new life, in a city where no one knew anything about his past. And he had Lotti. He also had a new apartment to go to, even though he guessed it would be in a part of the city which would remind him of his own past. That was fine. There wouldn’t be any old friends he might run into. Besides, Axel Hoffmann didn’t have any past. He’d been born on the way to Australia only a couple of years ago. Axel Hoffmann was free to make his own history from now on.
Brandtner had encouraged him to get in touch with his colleague, Anke Neumann, as soon as possible. He planned on doing so the very next day to get it out of the way. Just as he’d told Brandtner and Renate, he understood the necessity of having a police officer check up on him, but still, it was a bit humiliating.
In the years since he’d been released he hadn’t even picked up as much as a speeding ticket. That had nothing to do with the fact that Axel Hoffmann didn’t have a driving licence and certainly didn’t own a car. He had made a vow to himself never to break the law again.
It was just as well that he hadn’t expected much from his apartment, because as soon as he walked in, he noticed that the place was completely empty. There was nothing there except a bathroom. In the kitchen there was a sink, a stove, and a few cupboards. That was all. Not even a fridge. Fortunately, he had brought some things and that night, he slept on a pile of blankets, with Lotti curled up at his feet.
The following day, he didn’t change his original plan. He would still go and see frau Neumann, but first he needed to go shopping. As always, he gave priority to Lotti. His first stop was at a pet store. The second item on his list was a mattress and some linens. Next he bought some groceries. Now he only needed some second hand furniture and he’d be all set. Making the purchases, then feeding Lotti and finally having something to eat himself took up half the day.
In the early afternoon, he set out to find frau Neumann. It felt eerie, going into a police station voluntarily. He kept expecting someone in a uniform to grab him and drag him off to a cell, but he knew he had to pull himself together and make a good impression on frau Neumann. Brandtner had gone to a lot of trouble on his behalf. It wouldn’t do to disappoint the Berlin cop.
What he didn’t know was that Anke Neumann was up to her neck in work. A series of armed robberies was baffling the Berlin police, and on top of everything, she had a puzzling murder to solve. The last thing she wanted was to have a convicted killer to babysit. How on earth could Alex Brandtner have wished this on her?
Axel Hoffmann reported at the front desk and was told to take a seat and wait. He wasn’t sure if the lady was making him wait on purpose to demonstrate her superiority or if he’d simply called on a busy day. In any case, he was kept waiting for close to an hour. When the middle-aged man on the other side of the counter waved at him to follow a young policeman in uniform, he had just about given up hope he’d get to see frau Neumann that day.
“This way, please.”
Even the young man seemed to be in a hurry and Axel wondered if maybe he ought to have picked another day. The young man left him outside an open door, leading into a well lighted office. Behind the desk a young woman was sitting. She was talking on the phone, making notes on a notepad. At last, she put down the receiver and Axel thought she’d be ready to see him, but she merely turned towards her computer and punched a couple of keys. She waited impatiently for the result to show up on her screen then stared unseeingly across the room, clearly trying to figure something out. Finally, she caught sight of him and straightened up. The frown on her face appeared and vanished so quickly Axel wasn’t quite sure he’d seen it.
“Are you Axel Hoffmann?”
“Yes. Frau Neumann?”
“That’s me. Well, what are you waiting for? Come on in. Let’s do this, while I have a moment to spare.”
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“What? Oh. Not your fault.”
She seemed to be making an effort to be civil and he appreciated it, but deep down, he was beginning to feel he might have made a mistake coming here.
“So you want to start working here?”
“Yes. Did herr Brandtner fill you in on my background?”
“He did. What you did was very brave. Well done. I’m curious. Why did you decide to settle here?”
“I thought that if I ran into some of my friends from my youth, I might find it hard to stay out of trouble. Besides, I’m supposed to be dead. If they saw me, it would lead to all kinds of questions.”
“True. Have you ever felt the urge to go back to a life of crime?”
She didn’t expect him to answer that question truthfully, but she felt it was something that needed to be asked anyway.
“Never. I don’t expect you to believe me, but I would never do anything to risk going back inside.”
“Alright. So what did you hope to do? I’ve read your file. No trouble out in Australia. On the other hand, you won’t find that many sheep farms in central Berlin.”
“I’d do anything. Unfortunately, the only thing I do know about is crime, so Alex – herr Brandtner – and I were discussing security firms and especially private investigating.”
“You want to be a PI? Hm. Interesting choice. Most of us cops don’t like PI:s, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Personally, I think there’s enough work to go round for all of us. The PI:s who don’t give us any trouble, are ok with me. Right. As it happens, I know some people who might be able to help you. An ex-cop and another ex-criminal have gone into business together. You should fit right in.”
“Yes, it sounds that way. I appreciate all the help you can give me.”
“Here. Take this card. Call that number. Ask for a guy named Christoph or Gianni.”
“Which one’s the ex-cop and which one is the other?”
“Gianni’s the ex-cop. Now, where do you live?”
He told her the name of the neighborhood. It wasn’t a slum area. In fact, compared to what he was used to, it was quite interesting. Many artists and students. He liked it. Run down old buildings, with quite a lot of potential.
“I see. Interesting place. As it happens, I don’t live all that far away from there. If I get off work before 10 this evening, I’d like to ask you out for dinner.”
“You don’t have to do that, frau Neumann.”
“Anke. May I call you Axel? It will easier, won’t it?”
“Anke. But really, you seem to be a busy woman and I don’t want to impose.”
“Nonsense. Give me your phone number. If I can’t get away before 9.30 I’ll call you. Otherwise, let’s meet at -”
“Excuse me. I have a dog. I don’t want to leave her alone in the apartment.”
“I see. As a matter of fact, I have a dog too. A schnauzer. Well, then meet me at my place. I imagine you haven’t settled in yet? Right. See you around – 9.30. Here’s my address. Now you’ll have to excuse me. I have work to do.”
As if to emphasize that the audience was over, frau Neumann – Anke – began to peruse the computer screen. Axel didn’t know what to make of all this. The young woman was attractive. Unusual-looking but definitely attractive. He couldn’t guess what she really thought about him, but he was afraid that he hadn’t made a very good impression. Something about the way she was acting hinted that she was only trying to repay an old friend for some favor she owed him. Nothing more.
He had wanted to refuse her invitation, but somehow, it was hard to do so. In all his life, he’d never encountered a woman like her. When he was young, girls had fallen at his feet if he merely looked at them. That was a very long time ago. The only people who had treated him that way lately had been men. It was confusing. Well, he would let her buy him dinner once and if she wasn’t too obviously relieved to get rid of him afterwards, he’d repay her kindness. After that, they would be even. If she contacted him again – but she wouldn’t. He was quite certain of that.
Now he wanted to get started with his new profession. If it worked out, he’d be a private investigator. That was quite a promotion for him, no matter what you counted as his original status. Already, he felt that life in Berlin would be interesting. For the first time in years, he was beginning to look ahead, instead of backwards. Now, at last Axel Hoffmann could make his own mark in life.