Chapter 1

 

I didn’t know if it was a record that Guinness would consider, but I’d been in Berlin exactly one hour before I found myself nose-deep in a psychotic girl’s crotch while she pressed a switchblade to my balls.

Mind you, I’ve never been good with girls. Throughout my thirty years they’ve laughed at me, thrown drinks in my face, called me nerd and dork and every variation of loser I can think of. One actually hit me with her purse. Like she was an old woman and I was a thief. That happened in a bar a couple years ago. She thought I said she smelled shitty instead of pretty. Truth be told she smelled like a petting zoo. Owning twelve cats will do that to you. Purses hurt, by the way. They’ve got buckles and zippers and shit that knows exactly where the bridge of your nose is.

But the thing about girls hitting you—it doesn’t hurt as bad as girls rejecting you. Trust me, I’ve been rejected by girls all my life, so I know. That’s a pain that sits in your heart, not on your flesh. Only thing you can do, if you can find the strength, is stay positive. As my buddy Tooth used to say, don’t sweat rejection, dude, there’s more pussy in the sea.

He wasn’t much for metaphors.

But to his credit, if he ever did see pussy in the sea, like just a lone vagina floating in the waves, all gray and pruned, he would have fucked it. The guy had a work ethic.

Despite all my bad luck with girls, however, I’d never had one shoulder-throw me to the ground simply for asking if she knew where James Peter Fountai—

That’s as far as I got before wham! My head hit so hard I saw stars.

Her free hand closed around my throat and squeezed. “Who are you?”

“Roger,” I mumbled, my chin rubbing against her jeans in an area that I normally associated with happy thoughts. That I could see the outline of her underwear and was getting an erection was something I would deal with later at therapy. If I lived.

“Roger who? Why are you here? What do you want? Answer me!”

I felt the dagger tip slip through my own jeans, felt my testicles try to retreat all the way up into my chest. “Huntington. James Peter Fountain invited me. For the Star Wars prequels to have never been made.”

She looked up at the large muscular man leaning against the wall next to us. “The fuck is he talking about?”

Muscle Man wore an army green sweater and sunglasses. His knuckles were raw and bloody and his black jeans were torn at the knees. Recent scrapes and cuts stitched across his cheeks. He’d seen some kind of action in the last hour. Probably out murdering more Americans asking for directions. “I dunno,” he said, “I thought the prequels were pretty good. That annoying pidgin-talking alien was a cock, but the red-faced guy, he was pretty bad ass. And I liked all the trade federation robots. What was it they said? ‘Roger Roger?’”

“Kill me now,” I mumbled.

“I heard that,” Switchblade Girl replied. “And if you don’t get real serious real fucking quick, I will plunge this knife up into the nub you call a dick and let you bleed out in front of me.”

“I told you. James Peter Fountain asked me to come here. I swear to you, I’m not lying.”

“Here?”

“Yes, here, this apartment in East Berlin. I’ve got a piece of paper in my pocket with this address written on it. He told it to me over the phone when I got to the airport. He said someone would be waiting for me. I assumed it would be him.”

She looked up at her cohort, eased up her grip on my neck. “Oh fuck. This is the guy?”

Muscle Man detached himself from the wall and leaned over me, his face upside down in my view. “You mean to tell us you’re the guy that kills killers? The stone cold fucking murdering crazy bastard that cuts baddies’ heads off? You?”

I swallowed. My Adam’s apple hurt. “I paint too.”

Slowly, Switchblade Girl rolled off of me, removing her knife from my groin. She flicked it closed, stuffed it in the inside pocket of her brown leather jacket. “I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else. ‘Roger,’ you said?” She offered her hand to me and I took it, letting her help me get up. Her palms were hot and her fingers were soft and I was aware, after I made it to my feet, that her eyes were now drawn down to the bulge in my pants.

Muscle Man said, “Knives give him a hard on. Definitely a serial killer.”

I turned away from her, embarrassed. Not that I should have been, considering she’d just tried to castrate me. I should have been furious, screaming at her, demanding some form of reparation. But some things just come to me innately, and trying to not look foolish in front of women is one of them. I gave myself a quick push down and faced her again. “Yes, my name’s Roger. And I’m still very confused as to what is going on here. Is this Peter’s place or not? Where is he?”

“Not here,” she said, moving now to the small kitchen where she opened a pantry and took out three cans of soda. She returned and offered me one, threw the other to Muscle Man. “Katrin,” she said.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Me, ya cock.”

“Right.” I turned to Muscle Man. “And you are…?”

“Not gay, so don’t get any ideas.”

Echoes of Tooth. That tough guy attitude showcased for self-preservation. I knew this guy better than he thought and I had no trouble calling him on his shit, even if he could kick my ass. “No worries,” I told him, “I don’t like flabby tits on men.”

He puffed up his chest. “But you’d like ’em if they was dicks.”

I was confused. “Tit dicks?”

“Tit dicks you’d like to suck, I bet. Boom.” He cocked his head. “This is getting weird. Be a lot easier if I just punch you, yeah?”

“He’s fucking with you,” Katrin said, patting the shoulder of my broken arm. It was in a padded sling but it still hurt. “He’s Craig. You get used to him. Well, maybe not the smell. What’s with the arm?”

“Cannibals. Long story.”

I saw my suitcase on its side near the door, where it had fallen out of my hands when Katrin took me down. I snatched it up and set it on a chair beside a small table. For the first time, I was able to take in the apartment, which was bigger than most houses I’d been in. More of a massive loft when you got down to it. I surmised that several adjoining apartments had had their walls knocked down to create one conjoined space. What appeared to be a series of bedrooms was across from the large living room furnished with three couches and a giant flat screen television. A bathroom was behind me, and next to the kitchen was a dining area.

Windows ran around most of the main living space, looking down onto a bustling city street. From where I stood I could see a dozen shops lining the street below us. It was a grand view of East Berlin. Mostly small eateries and liquor stores and delis. There were a lot of people out walking, plenty of them on cell phones, just like back in America. The occasional taxi went by, followed by sedans and delivery trucks. It almost looked like parts of New York City, without the trash, bums, and religious zealots waving signs on the street corners.

The one stark difference was the line of buildings off in the distance to the south. Large concrete blocks, every one of them the same. I’d seen pictures of them in magazines and books about the Cold War. Housing blocs. Cold, depressing, designed to stifle free thought. Stick some bars on the windows and they’d look just like prisons. Instead of tearing them down, the people of Berlin had transformed them into supermarkets and restaurants and megastores. I knew this because I could see the neon signs on them even from this distance. The new world and the old world comingling for the sake of commerce.

Just beyond them were the gold horsemen of the Brandenburg Gate. I could only see a snippet of it, but what I saw was pretty amazing. I’d have to go check it out the first chance I got.

“You’re early,” Craig said. “We weren’t expecting you till later in the day.”

“My ticket was upgraded. They put me on an earlier flight. Wish I knew how.”

“Early?” Katrin asked. “I heard you were supposed to be here weeks ago.”

I held up my arm to punctuate my injury. “Doctors frowned on me not healing up. Yeah. So between this and the idiotic questions the detectives in California wanted to keep asking me, I had to push things back a bit. So...Peter is coming back?” I asked. “Or do I just hang out here and stitch up my scrotum?”

“He’s back in an hour,” Katrin said. “And I suppose I’m sorry about the knife thing. We’ve had some people skulking around. A couple men in suits showed up here the other day. They took pictures of us then left. It was weird.”

“Took pictures of you? Like, just came in and snapped off…pictures?”

“Like I said. It was fucking weird. So yeah, we’re a little on edge.”

What had I gotten myself into? “Well I don’t have a camera, just clothes. Peter gave me the combination for the keypad. If he’d told me I was entering a ninja den I would have knocked louder.”

“Didn’t hear you knock at all,” Craig said, tossing his empty soda can into the trash. “Maybe try using some muscle next time, mate. We build our structures strong over here.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I’m sorry I just walked in. Considering you’re on high alert. I take it you have no idea what they wanted? The picture takers, that is.”

Katrin took a seat on the couch across from the television and started flipping channels. “Fuck no. And that’s what concerns us. There’s nothing here worth a damn, and Craig and I got nothing major on our records that should raise heads. But they snapped a half-dozen pics, swept some kinda wand thingy into the room, then turned and jogged off before Craig could get himself outta bed.”

“It was early. Sue me,” Craig said. “By the time I got down to the street they were in a car and gone.”

Letting go of the fact they each had records, I wondered briefly if Katrin and Craig were a couple. But judging by the way he took a seat clear across the room from her, I was banking more on them being roommates. “Put on the game,” he said.

“Fuck off,” Katrin replied. “And go clean yourself. You’re getting blood on shit.” Craig huffed and she settled on something that looked like a crime drama, only I couldn’t be sure because I had only studied my Learn German in an Hour ebook for about five minutes, right up to the part where it said most Germans speak fluent English.

She put the remote under her and glared at Craig as if to say, try and get it. He rolled his eyes and took out his phone, started fussing with it.

I cleared my throat, not quite sure what else to do.

She looked over the back of the couch at me. “That noise for me?”

“What? No. I just—”

“I’m not the Entertainment, you know. Either pull up a seat and chill out or go unpack. That bedroom over there is vacant. You might as well take it. There’s Wi-Fi in the apartment but Peter has rules against us giving out the password. You’ll have to wait for him to arrive to get it from him. If you’re hungry there’s meats and cheese in the fridge. Make a sandwich or go to the deli on the corner and get a sausage or something. Beyond that stay quiet because I’m watching this.”

“You’re watching shit,” Craig said, fingering one of the cuts on his cheek.

Then something happened. Katrin sort of…changed. The look she gave Craig was so focused I swear I felt the hair on my arm stand up. Her eyes narrowed and her lips grew thin. Craig gulped and shook his head. “Stop looking at me,” he said, then stood up and went to a room off the living room. Had to be his bedroom judging by the way he slammed the door and turned on a stereo loud enough to shake the walls. There was a screech a second later as he plugged in headphones (or so I assumed) and the apartment was quiet again.

I had no idea what that was all about and I wasn’t about to ask. If she was serious about Peter coming back in an hour, I’d just wait it out on my own, in my new room. Or I could go hail a cab and get a ride back to the airport. Fuck this place. Peter hadn’t told me I’d be staying in a loony bin with two nutjobs and I was already hearing that voice in my head that said I should run away. Not Skinny Man’s voice, thankfully, which had grown quiet these late few weeks, just that voice of reason that keeps us all alive. Call it your gut, call it intuition, it was warning me that living here was going to be hell on Earth.

I brought my stuff into the empty bedroom and sat on the bed. The room was bare, save for a painting of a stone monastery on the wall. Maybe it was a real church, maybe it was made up, I didn’t know. I scanned my phone for any messages from Peter or my parents but there was nothing. I’d sworn off social media after the episode with the cannibals in San Diego because I was getting too many weird messages from sickos wanting details about my ordeal. So I currently had no one to engage with.

Except Tooth, who I swear I could hear somewhere in the room, chuckling. I knew it was just my screwed-up mind playing tricks again, just like when I heard Skinny Man, but I wanted so badly to believe he was real and could hear me. I needed a real friend. “This place kind of sucks,” I said.

Dude, Katrin is totally hot. Tooth’s voice sounded like it was in front of me now. Go talk to her. Maybe say something insulting so she sits on your face again. Most action you’ve seen in months.

“She was trying to stab my taint. She doesn’t want to talk to me.”

God, you’re being such a pussy. She knew what she was doing, and I could tell when she saw your pathetic lightsaber at half-mast she was proud of herself. Girls like to know they can give you a boner, man. Don’t you know anything?

“I’m not going to talk to her. I’m not gonna talk to anyone until Peter gets here and tells me what the flying fuck this is all about.”

I could almost kind of see Tooth now, which happened whenever my mind was really working overtime. He leaned against the dresser and fussed with his hat. Fine, be a wuss. You like it here, in Berlin? Remember those Nazi fucks we kicked the shit out of that time? Must be tons of ’em here, right?

“I don’t think Germany is like that anymore, Tooth. Seems to me they’re trying real hard to not be associated with that stuff anymore. Everyone I’ve met is polite. Well, except for the two people in the other room, one of whom is clearly British and one of whom was only defending herself against a strange man in her apartment so I can’t blame her too much.”

You’re losing me.

“I’m saying there’re no Nazis here. Let it go.”

How can there not be? Wasn’t that long ago. People out there...it was like, their grandfathers and shit.

“And our grandfather’s made black people use separate bathrooms. And our great grandfathers kept them in cages and whipped them if they didn’t pick cotton. Times change, you know, and new generations do their best to atone for their ancestors’ atrocities.”

Fine, there’s no Nazis. But you know what is here?

“Your dick cheese. Stinking up my new bedroom.”

Well yes, but I’m talking about beer, you cumstain. You’re in the fucking motherland and I’m so jealous I wanna punch you in the head. Get off your ass and go ask Katrin to take you somewhere to get a German beer. A real German beer. Not that Berline Weiss shit your read about in your travel book. I’m talking the good shit. Then, you get her good and drunk, bring her back here, and burrow into her chasm. C’mon, man, at least let me live vicariously through you. Go ask her.

I unzipped my suitcase and rifled through it for my phone charger. “I’m not asking her. She clearly doesn’t like me and I do not want to get on her bad side.”

Same old Roger. Still afraid of girls. Jesus.

“Fuck you, Tooth. I’m not afraid of girls, or anyone else for that matter. I just don’t see the point of pissing off my roommate. You wanna bang Katrin so bad, you go talk to her. I’m not asking her so let it go.”

There was a new voice behind me: “Who’re you talking to?”

I looked up, saw Katrin standing in the doorway to my room. She had the remote control in one hand and her soda in the other. 

“No one,” I said, embarrassed that she’d caught me having one of my conversations with a dead person. “Just talking to myself.”

She looked me up and down, scanned the room, then took another step in and looked at all the walls. Like she could smell something but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. “Well, tell your other self to keep it down and tell him I’m not in the mood for beer now. Peter called and said he’s coming to get you. He’ll be here in a couple minutes. Says you’re going out so grab a jacket and be ready.”

She turned and left the room. I could feel my jaw hanging open as I searched around for Tooth. His image was gone, as was his voice. I sat on the bed and stared blankly into the air before me.

How the hell had she known Tooth suggested I ask her to get a beer?