At ten o’clock on a moonless September evening, Chris Schneider slipped toward a long-abandoned building on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, his mind whirling with dark images and old vows.
Late thirties, and dressed in dark clothes, Schneider drew out a .40 Glock pistol and eased forward, alert to the dry rustle of the thorn bushes and goldenrod and the vines that engulfed the place.
He hesitated, staring at the silhouette of the building, recalling some of the horror that he’d felt coming here for the first time, and realizing that he’d been waiting almost three decades for this moment.
Indeed, for ten years he’d trained his mind and body.
For ten years after that he’d actively sought revenge, but to no avail.
In the past decade, Schneider had come to believe it might never happen, that his past had not only disappeared, it had died, and with it the chance to exact true payback for himself and the others.
But here was his chance to be the avenging angel they’d all believed in.
Schneider heard voices in his mind, all shrieking at him to go forward and put a just ending to their story.
At their calling, Schneider felt himself harden inside. They deserved a just ending. He intended to give it to them.
By now he’d reached the steps of the building. The chain hung from the barn doors, which stood ajar. He stared at the darkness, feeling his gut hollow and his knees weaken.
You’ve waited a lifetime, Schneider told himself. Finish it. Now.
For all of us.
Schneider toed open the door. He stepped inside, smelling traces of stale urine, burnt copper, and something dead.
His mind flashed with the image of a door swinging shut and locking, and for a moment that alone threatened to cripple him completely.
But then Schneider felt righteous vengeance ignite inside him. He pressed the safety lever on the trigger, readying it to fire. He flicked on the flashlight taped to the gun, giving him a soft red beam with which to dissect the place.
Boot prints marred the dust.
Schneider’s heart pounded as he followed them. Cement rooms, more like stalls really, stood to either side of the passage. Even though the footprints went straight ahead, he searched the rooms one by one. In the last, he stopped and stared, seeing a horror film playing behind his eyes.
He tore his attention away, but noticed his gun hand was trembling.
The hallway met a second set of barn doors. The lock hung loose in the hasp. The doors were parted a foot, leading into a cavernous space.
He heard fluttering, stepped inside, and aimed his light and pistol into the rafters, seeing pigeons blinking in their roost.
The smell of death was worse here. Schneider swung his light all around, looking for the source. Large rusted bolts jutted from the floor. Girders and trusses overhead supported a track that ran the length of the space.
Corroded hooks hung on chains from the track.
The footprints cut diagonally left, away from the doorway. He followed, aware of those bolts in the floor and not wanting to trip.
Schneider meant to look into the girders again, but was distracted by something scampering ahead of him. He crouched, aiming the gun and light at the noise.
A line of rats scurried toward a gaping hole in the floor on the far side of the room. The boot prints went straight to the hole and disappeared. He heard rats squealing and hissing as he got closer.
To the left of the hole stood a metal tube of a slightly smaller diameter than the hole. Atop it lay a sewer grate. To the right of the hole was a small gas blower, the kind used to get clippings off walkways.
Schneider stepped to the hole and shined the light into a shaft of corrugated steel. Ten feet down, the shaft ended in space. Four feet below that lay a gravel floor.
A female corpse was sprawled on the gravel. Rats were swarming her.
Schneider knew her nonetheless.
He’d been searching for her all over Berlin and Germany, hoping against hope that she was alive.
But he was far, far too late.
The desire for vengeance that had been a low flame inside Schneider fueled and exploded through him now. He wanted to shoot at anything that moved. He wanted to scream into the hole and call out her killer to receive his just due.
But then Schneider’s colder, rational side took over.
This was bigger than him now, bigger than all of us. It wasn’t about revenge anymore. It was about bringing someone heinous into the harsh light, exposing him for what he was and what he had been.
Go outside, he thought. Call the Kripo. Get them involved. Now.
Schneider turned and, sweeping the room behind him with the light, started back toward the hallway. He had taken six or seven steps when he heard what sounded like a very large bird fluttering.
He tried to react, tried to get his gun moving up toward the sound.
But the dark figure was already dropping from his hiding spot in the deep shadows above the rusted overhead track.
Boots struck Schneider’s collarbones. He collapsed backward and landed on one of those bolts sticking up from the floor.
The bolt impaled him, broke his spine, and paralyzed him.
The Glock clattered away.
There was so much fiery pain Schneider could not speak, let alone scream. The silhouette of a man appeared above him. The man aimed his flashlight at his own upper body, revealing a black mask that covered his nose, cheeks, and forehead.
The masked man began to speak, and Schneider knew him instantly, as if three decades had passed in a day.
“You thought you were prepared for this, Chris, hmmm?” the masked man asked, amused. He made a clicking noise in his throat. “You were never prepared for this, no matter what you may have told yourself all those years ago.”
A knife appeared in the masked man’s other hand. He squatted by Schneider, and touched the blade to his throat.
“My friends will come quicker if I bleed you,” he said. “A few hours in their care, and your mask will be gone, Chris. No one would ever recognize you then, not even your own dear, sweet mother, hmmm?”
At a quarter to four the following Sunday morning, Mathilde “Mattie” Engel wove through the crowd jammed into Tresor, a legendary underground nightclub set inside an old power plant in the hip Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
In her thirties, strong and attractive, Mattie reached a series of industrial passageways that linked the club’s two huge dance floors. She yawned and ran her fingers through her short, spiked blond hair as electronic music throbbed and echoed all around her.
Mattie’s roving sapphire eyes took in the graffiti-lined walls, the smoky air, and all the hard-core partiers trying to make their Saturday night last until midmorning at least.
A stocky Eurasian man appeared in the hallway ahead of Mattie. He had a tattoo of a spiderweb beneath his left eye.
“The countess still here, Axel?” Mattie asked, loud enough to be heard.
The man with the spiderweb tattoo jerked his head back in the direction he’d come from. “She’s with the Argentine. They’re on something stronger than booze, weed, or blow. I’m guessing ecstasy.”
“Just as long as it’s not crystal,” Mattie replied. “I hate tweakers.”
“You’re on your own in any case,” Axel warned. “I can’t have your back on a gig like this.”
“Think it will ruin your image as a creature of the night?” Mattie said.
“Private will send you a finder’s fee.”
Axel grinned. “Even better. Thanks, Mattie.”
She nodded. “Do I have a clean way out of there?”
“Fire exits at both ends of the floor.”
Axel thought about that. “I’ll make a call. The bar. You’ll have to dance.”
Mattie slapped Axel’s big palm and moved by him toward the entrance to the dance floor. She got out her cell phone as she walked, flipped it open, and called up a school picture of a brunette teenager.
The Countess Sophia von Mühlen of Austria was seventeen. A week ago she ran off with her father’s polo instructor, a thirty-three-year-old Argentine scoundrel and fortune hunter named Raul Montenegro.
In exactly four days, the countess would turn eighteen and of age to wed.
Which is what the countess’s family was desperately trying to avoid, and why Private Berlin had been hired to track her down and return her to Vienna.
Sophia’s mother had died three years before of a drug overdose. Her grandmother, the formidable Sarah von Mühlen, did not want the family name or fortune tarnished by further scandal, especially when Sophia’s father, Peter, a prominent politician in the Tyrol, was preparing to run for higher office.
“Spare no expense,” the grandmother had told Mattie. “Find her.”
Mattie had done just that, tracking the young countess via credit card charges and GPS data from her cell phone to the nightclub. Luckily she’d known Axel, the head of security at Tresor, since her days as a Kripo investigator with the Berlin Kriminalpolizei.
Mattie put away her cell phone and moved onto a dance floor packed with writhing, sweating bodies dancing to a convulsive mix laid down by a DJ named The Mover.
She angled toward the bar, nodding to the bartender, who was snapping shut his cell phone. She climbed up at the waitress’s station and began to dance her way down the bar in time with The Mover’s beat and riffs.
The crowd noticed and began to hoot and cry for her. Mattie smiled, playing the drunken chick. But her eyes moved everywhere until she spotted Sophia von Mühlen and her Latin lover on the other side of the room.
The countess’s arms hung around Montenegro’s neck. She was kissing his chest. His hands were roaming all over her.
Mattie looked beyond them for the fire escape doors.
But then the countess suddenly pushed away from the polo instructor, and wove unsteadily toward the hallway, a lucky break for Mattie, who jumped off the bar and caught up to her in the tunnel where she’d left Axel.
“Sophia?” she said and flashed her badge. “My name is Mattie Engel. I’m with Private Berlin. I’m here to take you home.”
Sophia laughed scornfully. “I’m eighteen. I can do what I want.”
“You’re not eighteen for another four days,” Mattie shot back in a no-nonsense voice. “Let’s go. And try not to make a scene.”
Sophia smiled. “I’m good at making scenes. Big ones. The kind that attract reporters.”
“Not on my watch,” Mattie said, grabbing the countess by the back of her elbow, and applying force to pressure points there.
“Owww,” Sophia whined, “you’re hurting me.”
“You’ll hurt more if you don’t move,” Mattie replied and began hustling the countess down the hallway, heading toward the main entrance to the club.
“Sophia! Hey! What do you do there?”
Mattie glanced over her shoulder to see the polo instructor, whacked on drugs and booze, angry, and storming after them.
Mattie held on to Sophia and flashed her badge at Montenegro. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Raul. She’s going home.”
Montenegro glowered. “She consents to be with me. She’s eighteen.”
“She might have consented to sex. But she’s not eighteen.”
The polo instructor’s shoulders dropped as if in submission. But then he rushed right at her.
Mattie let go of the countess and raised her hands to defend herself.
Montenegro tried to bat her hands away.
Mattie snatched his right hand and twisted it sharply toward the floor.
Montenegro grunted in pain and went to his knees, shouting, “Run, Sophia! Run!”
The Countess von Mühlen was off like a shot.
She dodged by a girl with shocking pink hair, and started accelerating.
Mattie cursed, released Montenegro, and took off after the countess.
But it was almost impossible to keep up with her. Despite the drugs and alcohol in her system, Sophia proved nimble as she twisted and spun her way through the crowd.
“Stop that girl!” Mattie shouted, holding up her badge.
Instead, one wasted guy in his early twenties tried to block Mattie’s way. But she slid her right foot behind his leg, popped him in the chest, and sent him sprawling on his back.
Other people started yelling after Mattie just as she spotted Sophia running past Axel, who stood at the doors to the side exit.
The countess disappeared outside.
Somebody grabbed Mattie’s jean jacket from behind.
She twisted. It was Montenegro. She let her arms go limp and let the jacket slip off her. Then she kicked the polo player in the shin.
He screamed and fell.
Mattie scrambled after the countess, snapping at Axel, who watched in amusement, “You could have grabbed her or something.”
“And miss this fun?”
“Stop the crazy lover for me at least!” Mattie shouted over her shoulder.
She ran out onto the street without listening for the bouncer’s reply.
The sidewalk was lined with people still waiting to get into the club.
Mattie flashed her badge at them. “A girl just came out a minute ago. Where’d she go?”
The guy closest to her was sucking on a joint. He shrugged.
The girl behind him said, “I didn’t see her.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake, I lost her, Mattie groaned to herself. Damn it! She could just hear Sophia’s imperious grandmother ripping her apart for the blunder.
But then Mattie heard a groan and violent retching coming from behind a large Dumpster parked across the street.
“There goes the hundred euros she promised us,” the joint smoker said, sighing.
Mattie flipped him the finger and crossed the street. She looked behind the Dumpster, finding the Countess von Mühlen hunched over, and vomiting everything she’d churned up making her escape.
“C’mon now, Sophia,” Mattie said, helping her to stand after she’d finished and was just panting. “Let’s get you somewhere I can wash you up.”
For a moment the countess seemed not to know where she was, or who Mattie was, but then she started crying, “Where’s Raul?”
“He’s going to be lying low for a while,” Mattie said, taking gentler hold of her arm and steering her away from the club toward her car.
“I’ll get away,” Sophia vowed. “I’ll find him. We’ll be married.”
“When you’re eighteen you can do what you want. Until then there is someone who wants to talk some sense into you.”
“My father?” the countess replied with open contempt. “All he cares about is himself and his career.”
“Actually, it’s your grandmother who hired us.”
Mattie saw fear surface in Sophia, who said, “But I want to see my father.”
“I bet you do, but Oma’s calling the shots now.”
Something seemed to go out of the countess right then, all the hostility and fight certainly. She trudged along in a submissive posture until they reached the car, a BMW 335i from the Private Berlin pool.
When Mattie went to open the passenger side door, Sophia fell into her arms, blubbering, “I just wanted someone for myself. What’s so wrong with that?”
Mattie’s heart melted. “Nothing, Sophia, but…”
Mattie’s cell phone rang. She couldn’t do a thing about it. She held on to the young countess and let her sob her heart out.
Twenty minutes later, Mattie was driving the young countess through the streets of Berlin toward Tegel Airport. She checked her phone at last, seeing that the call had come from Katharina Doruk, her best friend as well as the managing investigator at Private Berlin.
At four in the morning?
She got Katharina’s voice mail and left a message: “Kat, it’s Mattie. Don’t worry. Got the package. Heading to the jet. Get some sleep.”
When Mattie hung up she heard snoring. Sophia was lights-out, face against the window, drooling from the corner of her mouth. Mattie prayed she wouldn’t get sick in the brand-new car. It still had that sweet leather smell.
Fortunately she reached the private air terminal at Tegel International without another accident. She roused Sophia, who looked around blearily, got out, and followed her as if in a trance.
The pilot was inside, filing his flight plan, and told Mattie to get Sophia aboard the jet.
They were entering the jet’s cabin when Mattie’s cell phone rang again.
“Mattie Engel,” she answered.
Mattie heard weight in her friend’s voice. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
There was a long hesitation before Katharina replied, “Chris is missing.”
Sophia went to a high-backed leather chair and plopped into it. “I need a Coke or something,” she said. “Maybe some rum in it.”
But Mattie ignored her and listened intently to her phone.
“He took personal leave early last week,” Katharina was saying. “He was supposed to be back the day before yesterday, but he never checked in. He still hasn’t. I’ve tried his cell, the house, e-mail, text. Nothing.”
This wasn’t like Chris Schneider at all, Mattie agreed. He was a careful, methodical detective, and a stickler for following the agency’s rules and procedures, which included checking in when you were supposed to.
“You try the chip?” Mattie asked at last.
The year before, Private employees around the world had been offered a small locator chip that could be embedded under the skin of the upper back so they could be found in case of emergencies. Mattie had balked at the idea, thinking that if it was misused it could turn totalitarian in nature.
But to her surprise, Schneider had agreed to the procedure.
“That’s why I was calling,” Katharina replied before hesitating again. “I’m lying in bed, couldn’t sleep after some voodoo tea my mother made me drink. And I was thinking that you could authorize it.”
“I don’t have that authority, Kat,” Mattie said.
“You’re the closest to it, Mattie.”
“Not anymore I’m not. Are you ready to report Chris missing to Kripo?”
“I don’t know. I’m confused. You know…he could be off with someone.”
Mattie hesitated, and then sighed. “I can’t control that.”
“I’d hate to send in a rescue team in that sort of situation.”
“I can see your dilemma, but I can’t help you. Look, you’re going to have to call Jack Morgan to get authorization.”
Morgan owned Private and ran its famous Los Angeles office.
“I put in a call to him an hour ago. He hasn’t gotten back to me.”
Mattie chewed on her lip, then said, “I’m sure he’s okay. But if he hasn’t checked in by noon, say, or if Jack hasn’t called in, we’ll activate the chip.”
“Unless you hear from me, I’ll be at the office at noon,” Katharina said.
“I’ll be there too,” Mattie promised, and hung up.
Outside, thunder boomed and through a porthole window she saw lightning split the sky. Rain began to drum on the roof of the aircraft. Mattie looked over at Sophia, who was watching her with genuine concern.
“Who’s Chris?” Sophia asked softly.
Mattie swallowed at a sick taste seeping into her throat, and then replied, “Until six weeks ago, countess, he was my fiancé.”
As dawn approaches, I find myself standing in a room with mirrors for walls and ceiling, and a big round bed with red sheets.
I am naked in this room of mirrors, stripped of all disguises save one—the reconstructed face a surgeon in the Ivory Coast gave me twenty-three years ago.
I look at my face, this ultimate mask, and smile because no one would ever know that behind it is me, and because a rare beauty has agreed to join me here in this room of reflection and pleasure.
Except for the snakeskin stiletto heels, the stunning brown woman shutting the door is naked too. She’s from Guadeloupe, or so she says. Her name is Genevieve. Or so she says.
Whoever she really is, she smiles weakly as I set the canvas bag I carry on the bed.
“I have seen you around before,” she says in an uncertain French accent.
I don’t even blink. “Have you now?”
“I think.” She looks at my case and tenses. “What’s in there?”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It’s something rare and beautiful.”
She nods, but there’s no conviction in the gesture.
“You seem concerned,” I say.
She rubs her hands together. “Just nerves. One of my friends here, Ilse? She disappeared last week. You might have seen her. A spinner? German?”
I wave my hand dismissively. “I don’t remember names, my dear. They’re artificial. Made up. I mean, do you use your real name here, Genevieve?”
She hesitates, but then shakes her head.
“There you go now,” I say in a teasing, friendly manner. “It’s all a fantasy. You can be whatever person you want to be. Or anything you want to be. I am comfortable with that. Are you?”
Her eyes shift, pause, and then she nods the tiniest of nods.
“Good,” I say, but part of me feels a twinge of anxiety. Did she see me with Ilse? No. That’s impossible. I’m certain we were alone at all times.
And so I open the bag, revealing a primitive ivory and black leather mask crafted as a leering monster. The stain and lacquer finish is cracked with time, and burnished in places. But the lips have retained their deep henna color. So have the areas around the slits cut for the wearer’s eyes.
“A Chokwe tribesman in the Congo made it a hundred years ago,” I tell Genevieve. “It’s very rare. It cost me a small fortune.”
I put the mask on, hooking the hemp straps that hold it to my face so I can see clearly through the eye slits.
The mask smells of Africa, of moldering wood and nutmeg and roasting peppers. My breath echoes inside the mask, slow and languid, like a leopard contemplating prey.
I gesture for Genevieve to lie down on her back on the bed. She’s staring at me, and at my mask, and there’s enough fear in her eyes that I feel myself stir and harden.
That, my friends, is just perfect. Her mind is playing games, inventing scenarios far worse than what I have in mind for a late, late-night delight.
Isn’t it interesting how that works, that the mere suggestion of threat stirs the darkest regions of the mind?
Sensing her fear, indeed feeding on it, I kneel next to Genevieve, caressing her soft cocoa breasts, and then slide my fingers into her bare mystery, all the time glancing around at the mirrors that surround me, admiring my newest mask from an array of perspectives.
I am not a young man, but I tell you one and all that my manhood stands like a spear when Genevieve begins to writhe under my insistent touch. It’s an anxious writhing, and that only fuels me more until it’s simply impossible to keep my desires at bay any longer.
Pulling her around and throwing back her legs, I poise to enter her, my hips cocked. The breath of the beast I’m becoming rasps from my throat in sharp, cutting bursts.
Genevieve looks up, clearly frightened by the monster crouched above her, which only excites me more.
“What is your name, chéri?” she asks in a quivering voice. “What should I call you while we have sex?”
“Me?” I say, and then thrust savagely into her. “I am the Invisible Man.”
Private Berlin occupied the penthouse suite atop a green glass and exposed-steel Bauhaus-style building on the south side of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin’s Mitte district.
Clutching a cup of strong coffee, increasingly worried about her ex-fiancé, and still groggy after less than five hours of sleep, Mattie Engel stepped out of the elevator into the agency’s lobby at a little before noon.
Three days late was not like Chris at all, she thought for what seemed the hundredth time.
Unless he went off with someone.
To Greece. Or to Portugal.
Like we did when we first fell in love.
Private Berlin’s lobby featured polished steel sculptures that depicted milestones in the history of cryptography. She passed one of an Enigma machine, and another that included the death mask of Blaise de Vigenère, the sixteenth-century French secret code genius, whose blank eyes seemed to follow her as she crossed to a retina scan on a black pedestal next to pneumatic doors made of bulletproof glass.
Before she could look into the scanner, Katharina Doruk appeared on the screen above the doors. Olive-skinned with long, wild ringlets of hair, Katharina was one of the most exotically beautiful women Mattie had ever known. She was also one of the toughest—a second-generation Turkish-German who’d grown up in Wedding, a rugged immigrant neighborhood, and the only daughter among six sons.
Katharina peered through her reading glasses. “We’re in the briefing room.”
“Any word?” Mattie asked.
“No, but we’ve got a video conference with Jack in five minutes.”
Mattie tried to suppress the anxiety that firmly took root in her after the screen went dark. She pressed her right eye to the scan, seeing a soft blue light pass left to right. The glass doors opened with a hydraulic sigh.
Mattie trudged down a hallway that overlooked a long, linear park where the ground had been shaped into two huge triangles, one facing west and the other east.
Until the fall of the communist German Democratic Republic, or GDR, the park had been an infamous stretch of the Berlin Wall’s no-man’s-land, a garishly lit, wide, and sandy stretch between the inner and outer cement barriers and the barbed wire and gun towers that had divided the city in two back in 1961.
Ordinarily, Mattie would have paused to look down at the park because, no matter what her mood, it usually made her feel better. The park represented a terrible time in her family’s life, and in her city’s life.
But it was also a powerful symbol of new beginnings, and she believed in new beginnings. New beginnings were the only way to survive.
That morning, however, Mattie could not get herself to look at the park. Deep in her gut, no matter how much she tried to quash it, she feared that Chris’s disappearance hinted at the end of something.
But I wanted us to stop, didn’t I? Didn’t I?
Before Mattie could drown in those questions she ducked into an amphitheater with rising tiers of desks that faced a curved wall of screens glowing flat blue, waiting for a feed.
Katharina sat at a desk on the highest tier beside a man who looked like an aging hippie, with long silver hair, round wire-rimmed glasses, a scruffy beard, and a Grateful Dead tie-dye sweatshirt.
His name was Ernst Gabriel, Dr. Ernst Gabriel, and he was the smartest person Mattie had ever known, a polymath with five advanced degrees, including an MD, a PhD in computer science, and master’s degrees in physics and cultural anthropology.
Gabriel was also a forensics expert and ran Private Berlin’s investigative support system. He’d be the one turning on the tracking system and operating it.
Mattie was climbing the stairs toward Gabriel and Katharina when a tall, muscular, bald man in his late thirties appeared behind them. Tom Burkhart was Private Berlin’s newest hire. Until recently he’d been a top operator with GSG 9, Germany’s elite counterterror unit. He usually ran security details.
Mattie frowned, wondering why Katharina had called him in.
“Hi, Burkhart, Doc,” Mattie said, before kissing Katharina on both cheeks.
She took a seat between Burkhart and Gabriel just as the big screen at the front of the amphitheater blinked and then lit up with the handsome and very tanned face of Jack Morgan, owner and president of Private.
Morgan peered at them and said, “I just got in. I was sailing over from Catalina and don’t have coverage out there. Is he still missing?”
“He is, Jack, going on three days now,” Katharina replied in English. “I’d like permission to activate his chip.”
Morgan winced slightly. “The chip? You’re sure? I wouldn’t want to invade his privacy unnecessarily.” His eyes shifted. “Mattie? What do you think? Shouldn’t this be your call?”
Mattie flushed. “Jack, uh, I don’t know if you heard, but we broke off the engagement.”
Morgan looked greatly surprised. “I didn’t. I’m sorry. When?”
“Six weeks ago,” she said. “So it’s entirely your call, Jack.”
Morgan digested that, and then said, “Gabriel, have you had a chance to look at his credit card receipts? His cell phone records?”
“I just got in, myself, but I did manage a quick search,” Gabriel replied. “I’ve got a steady trail of purchases in and around Berlin and Frankfurt, all on his Private card, until this past Thursday evening. And then nothing. And I’ve got a long list of phone calls that ended about the same time. Nothing since. I haven’t dug into the particulars yet.”
Morgan put his hands in a prayer pose. “What was he working on?”
Katharina gave her laptop several commands. Morgan’s face shrunk and shifted left on the big screen. A photograph of a soccer player performing a dramatic scissors kick appeared beside him.
“This is Cassiano, the top striker for the Hertha Berlin Sports Club, and the top goal scorer in the German second league,” Katharina said. “Manchester United hired us to look into him because they are thinking of acquiring him.”
Even though Cassiano had proven himself a prolific scorer, the British team was concerned about the Brazilian’s erratic play in a handful of games. They’d wanted him vetted before offering him a contract.
Katharina said, “But as of two Fridays ago, Chris told me he had just a few loose ends to look into, but he was leaning heavily toward clearing Cassiano.”
“And Chris’s other case?” Morgan asked.
Katharina typed on her laptop again. A video clip played showing a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses that shielded much of his face. He exited a black Porsche Cayenne and walked away from the camera. A beautiful, elegant woman climbed out the other side and followed him.
“That’s Hermann Krüger,” Katharina informed them. “Billionaire. Early fifties. Big art and car collector. Very secretive. Doesn’t like his name in the media. Grew up in the GDR, but took to capitalism quickly after the wall came down. He built a fortune in real estate here in Berlin and big public works projects in Africa.”
Mattie said, “Didn’t we do some work for his company?”
“Two years ago,” Dr. Gabriel confirmed as he reworked the band that held his ponytail. “A comprehensive review of their security system. But we didn’t deal directly with Krüger himself.”
“But Chris was dealing with him?”
“No,” Katharina said. “Krüger’s wife, Agnes, is the client. She believed he was seeing other women and asked us to look into it. As of the last update I got, Chris had located at least three mistresses. He’d also discovered that Krüger visited prostitutes, lots of them, sometimes twice a day.”
Burkhart snorted. “Twice a day? An older guy like that must be taking testosterone supplements to be able to get it up that often. And Viagra.”
Mattie cringed. She’d had limited interaction with Burkhart since he’d joined Private. But overall she’d found him to be headstrong, crude, and abrasive, perhaps good traits for a counterterrorism expert and bodyguard but not, in Mattie’s opinion, for the kind of delicate investigative work Private Berlin often performed.
“Chris didn’t mention testosterone or Viagra,” Katharina sniffed. “But I know he had an appointment set for tomorrow to update Frau Krüger.”
“How much would Hermann Krüger stand to lose if his philandering went public in a nasty divorce case?” Morgan asked.
“A billion,” Gabriel replied. “Maybe two.”
Private’s owner thought about that. “Why did Chris take time off?”
“I don’t know,” Katharina said. “He texted me last Monday that he needed a few days’ personal time and that he would call me on Thursday at the latest. He’s such a hardworking guy, I gave him the time without questioning it.”
“Of course,” Morgan said. “That’s it. No other cases?”
“Not that I—”
“Not true,” Gabriel interrupted. “He was working on something else, Jack.”
My mother was the first to show me the power of masks.
She was a makeup artist with the German State Opera and Ballet. She was also a traitor to her country, to her husband, and to me.
But those are stories for another time.
As a child I lived with my mother and father in a prefabricated apartment building that the state erected in the far eastern reaches of Berlin, out where the city met farms where livestock was raised for milk and slaughter.
I note this, my friends, only because in addition to being a raging alcoholic, my father was a professional butcher.
The day I learned about the power of masks, my father was at work, and the opera house was dark for the season. I must have been about seven and had been sick with chicken pox.
Trying to cheer me up, my mother climbed into the attic and brought down a large trunk. She opened it, and I swore I could smell old people in there—you know, the scent of slow, inevitable decay?
She pulled out a Papierkrattler mask, which featured smirking, cartoon features: ruby lips, a gargantuan nose, wild eyes, and a raccoon tail for hair. She said it was last used fifty years before during a parade in Ravensburg, down near the Swiss border.
My mother said that the mask had once belonged to her mother, who had died in the bombing that reduced Berlin and my father to smoking rubble and desperation in the last year of Hitler’s war. The mask had somehow survived.
“This mask is a miracle,” my mother told me. “A miracle.”
She set it aside and brought out another mask, this one black, narrower, and fitted across the bridge of the nose like a criminal’s disguise.
“It’s from Don Giovanni, the opera,” she said as she slipped it on me.
“Who’s Don Giovanni?” I asked.
“A bad man who dies badly. That is how an evil person dies. The death of a sinner always reflects their life. Remember that.”
Of course I would later learn that this was complete and utter nonsense.
Death is never a form of retribution.
Death is a thing of beauty, something to behold, a moment to celebrate.
But good son that I was, I agreed earnestly. My mother brought out her makeup kit and showed me how to paint my face. She gave me surly lips, sunken eyes, and wicked brows that made me laugh.
After she’d added a wig and glasses, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I really was someone else, most certainly not me anymore.
“Do you know why they use masks and makeup in the theater?” my mother asked.
I shook my head.
“A mask changes you. So does makeup. With the right mask you can be anyone you want to be. With a mask you can hide in plain sight. You can do what you want, act the way you want. With a mask, it’s almost like you’re invisible and free to be anyone or anything you desire. Like a prince. Or a tiger.”
I nodded, feeling possibility swelling inside me. “Or a monster?”
“Even a monster,” my mother said and kissed me on the head.
A new video appeared on the screens to the right of Jack Morgan’s head.
It showed a woman wearing a shabby black dress over black denim jeans. Mattie’s initial thought was that at one time she must have been attractive.
But the woman’s hair was dry and mussed. Her skin was sallow. And her eyes were sunken and dark. She looked like she’d lived a very, very hard life.
“This is from our lobby camera, early morning, two Fridays ago,” Gabriel told them. “Here, Chris comes out to meet her.”
Mattie frowned, feeling strange and then hollow when Chris went to the woman and embraced her, pressing his cheek to hers and rubbing her back.
“Who is she?” Mattie managed.
“I don’t know,” Gabriel replied, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “But I did see her come out of his office about an hour after these images were taken. I also heard him say that he would look into something for her and there would be no charge. They hugged again. She left.”
Morgan said, “Can you go into Chris’s files, find out who she is?”
“With your permission, Jack,” Gabriel replied.
“Granted,” Morgan said.
Gabriel typed again. He paused, seemed puzzled, and typed again. “That’s odd,” he muttered.
“What?” Mattie asked, leaning over to see the scientist’s screen.
The old hippie was typing again. “This should do it.”
But instead of Schneider’s digital file folders, Gabriel’s screen was filled with bright pink, emerald, and black pixels that seemed to shift and move and crawl over one another, as if they were alive.
“What the hell is that?” Gabriel said, shocked and staring at the screen.
“What’s going on, Doc?” Morgan demanded.
Gabriel mumbled in disbelief, “I think we’ve been hacked.”
Up on the big screen, Morgan looked perplexed and then angered. “That’s impossible,” he sputtered. “I just spent millions upgrading the security system. Gabriel, you were part of that effort.”
The computer scientist held up his hands in surrender. “I was, Jack. But I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like someone dumped thousands of termites into Chris’s work area. They’ve eaten all the data.…”
Katharina Doruk interrupted, “I thought you once told me that you can always bring back echoes of files, Doc.”
“Not this time,” he replied. “Whoever did this was good, Kat. Scary good.”
Morgan looked furious, but said: “We’ll deal with this breach later. Between the hacking and the cases he was working on, I think we’ve got cause enough to activate Chris’s chip. Do it, Doc.”
Mattie nodded her agreement with Morgan’s decision, but she felt agitated by questions that suddenly shot at her from all sides.
Who hacked the system? Why? What if it’s a coincidence? What if this is separate and Chris is off on a vacation he decided to extend? What if we find him there with another woman? Should I care?
But should I?
“Give me a minute, Jack,” Gabriel said, entering a command that stripped his screen of the brilliant termites.
He typed in a second command and his screen filled with a long list of names. He scrolled down to Chris Schneider’s, and then highlighted a corresponding series of numbers and letters.
After making a copy of that code, Gabriel called up an application called Sky Eye. He entered the code into a blinking box and hit Enter.
Half of the amphitheater’s screen jumped to a Google Earth view of Berlin. Mattie was first to spot the blinking orange icon out on the far eastern outskirts of the city, several kilometers south of the neighborhood of…
“Ahrensfelde?” Mattie said, puzzled. “Can you bring us in, Doc?”
Gabriel was already ahead of her. He highlighted the blinking icon and hit Enter. The picture zoomed down and in, revealing the blurry image of a building in the shape of an L. It had an arched roof that looked broken in places.
Dense vegetation pressed in around the place, which abutted a large undeveloped space choked with trees and brush.
“Cross-reference it with the city plan,” Mattie said.
A moment later, an address popped up on the screen along with a file. Gabriel clicked on the file and it opened, revealing a PDF of the building’s handwritten property records.
Blown up on the screen that way, the words Mattie read sent an involuntary shudder through her for reasons she could not fully explain.
“What’s it say?” Morgan demanded.
Mattie looked at her boss and replied with a slight tremor in her voice: “It says the building is abandoned now. Has been for twenty-five years. But back in the communist era, it was a state-run Schlachthaus. A slaughterhouse.”
A few minutes later, Mattie rode in the passenger seat of an agency BMW while Tom Burkhart drove them across the Spree River and then east through the city toward the neighborhood, or Kiez, of Ahrensfelde.
Jack Morgan had ordered them out to the slaughterhouse, and demanded that Dr. Gabriel start figuring out how in the hell someone had managed to breach Private’s state-of-the-art firewall. Katharina was supposed to go to Chris’s apartment to see if his personal computer contained any notes on the cases he was working.
Burkhart said nothing as he drove. Mattie was glad for it. She was in no mood to talk. Apprehension had enveloped her, and she tried to fend off the sense of being trapped by studying the giant television tower with its revolving ball and spire looming high above Berlin, getting closer with every moment.
The communists built the tower in 1965 as a way of showing the West that they were modern enough to accomplish such a feat. At more than three hundred meters high, it was visible from virtually everywhere in Berlin on a sunny day.
But it was gray now. The clouds hung low in the sky. Drizzle had begun to fall on the tower and on the S-Bahn, the elevated train station at Alexanderplatz, a bustling part of the city day and night.
The tower loomed over it all as did the Park Inn Hotel, a communist-era building that had been spruced up. The Park is where Westerners would stay when visiting East Berlin before the wall came down. It was said that there were more electronic bugs in the Park Hotel than anywhere else on earth.
Mattie tried to imagine Chris at eighteen. In her mind, she saw her ex-fiancé standing out there on the plaza between the tower and the Park Hotel, one of half a million protesters gathered in early November 1989.
She saw Chris and the others acting and speaking in defiance of the scores of Stasi—the dreaded and oppressive East German secret police—who surrounded Alexanderplatz that night, filming the crowd, trying to intimidate the protesters into disbanding.
During their two-year romance, Chris had told Mattie very little about his childhood and adolescence. She knew that his parents died in an auto accident when he was eight, and that he’d grown up in an orphanage out in the countryside somewhere southeast of Berlin.
But Chris also told her that shortly after the uprising began in earnest, he left the orphanage with some friends and went to Berlin, ending up on Alexanderplatz the night of the largest protest, the one that showed the world how much the East Germans wanted freedom.
Chris said that he’d felt like his life really began that night as the wall began to crack and crumble, falling not five days later.
“I was free for the first time in my life,” Chris said. “We were all free. Everyone. Do you remember, Mattie? What it felt like?”
Sitting next to Burkhart as they drove east, hearing Chris’s words echo in her mind, Mattie did remember.
She saw herself at sixteen on the west side of Checkpoint Charlie, cheering and singing and dancing with her mother when East Berliners broke through the wall there and came freely into the West for the first time in more than twenty-eight years.
Mattie remembered seeing her mother’s face when her sister came through the wall that night. They had all wept for joy.
Then, in Mattie’s mind, her mother’s teary face blurred and became Chris’s the morning he’d asked her to marry him.
She felt a ball in her throat and had to fight not to cry in front of Burkhart.
Mattie’s cell phone rang. It was Dr. Gabriel. “Good news,” he said. “He’s moving. Not much, a couple of meters this way and that, but he’s moving.”
“Oh, thank God!” Mattie cried. Then she looked at Burkhart. “He’s alive!”
“Well, all right then,” the counterterrorism expert said, downshifting and accelerating east on Karl-Marx-Allee.
Excerpted from Private Berlin by James Patterson Copyright © 2013 by James Patterson. Excerpted by permission.
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