Felix shoved the gun into his mouth and cocked the hammer. His mind started racing against itself, looking for some reason to eat it or not to. There was nothing – not a single thought, only numbness. The other cars shot past too quickly to notice his dilemma. The seconds ticked past – he didn't know how quickly or slowly. He started to feel ridiculous. No, this didn't have to be settled now. He had to say goodbye to Torsten. And there were duties to fulfil, even though he'd spent his adult life cultivating a blindness to duty – after that, let the dead rest. No, nothing had to be decided yet. Carefully, he placed the gun in his lap and looked at it for a few more seconds, locked the safety, and put it back in the glove-box. He heard the ignition restart. He was going home.
At the Western cemetery in Vogelsang, the rain came down like bullets. Over the open grave, Felix stood alone with Fr. Juskowiak, a Polish Franciscan. Sheltered under a nearby tree, four saturated, boiler-suited gravediggers watched predatorily, smoking and waiting. Felix tried to lip-sync to forgotten prayers as Juskowiak completed the burial rites, and shook his hand. “Your brother's with God now” he said. Felix didn't know if anyone believed that. He felt patronised by the remark. “I don't know where Torsten stood on religion”, he answered, “I decided not to take chances.” Fr. Juskowiak thought of Pascal, and accepted the put-down with a faint smile. “Very prudent” he said. “I brought an envelope for you”, said Felix, unsure of the exact protocol. “That won't be necessary” responded the priest, as they turned and walked together. Regardless of the four vultures closing in on the grave, Felix's eyes and voice hardened. “WHAT'S THE MATTER?”, he shouted, “TOO FUCKIN' RIGHTEOUS TO TAKE MY MONEY?” Juskowiak seemed unfazed. “I apologise”, he said, “I didn't mean to cause offence.”“Yeah, I'll fuckin' bet you didn't”, continued Felix, “grovelling shitbag priest.”“If you'd prefer, I'll accept the envelope”, said Juskowiak calmly. Felix threw it at him, and turned away.
Instead of going back to his hotel in the Altstadt, Felix decided to walk through Bickendorf. He needed to walk, to unravel his anger. He'd grown up in this place, but it hadn't felt like home for a long time. Still, he had no other. At one end of the car-park where he stopped, a group of Russian kids queued for their turn on a weather-beaten concrete ping-pong table. At the other end, next to some swastikas and skinhead slogans, a Turkish youth was spray-painting an elaborate mural depicting the end of days as a techno-party. Felix knew better. He had seen the end of days many times. He walked down Venloerstr. past a bar, an imbiß, a tanning studio, and another bar. Everything wafted with stale spices and the sweet stench of cheap alcohol. Everyone wore leather and big jewellery. A Russian whore approached him. Jam-jar lipstick and thigh-high PVC fuck-me boots. He waved her away. A police-siren screamed past. There was an awareness in the street – there goes Felix Herold. You know what he is. Don't attract his attention. Avoid eye-contact. Be afraid. That's right, you miserable fuckers, be afraid.
On the other side of the street, through the crowd of defeated faces, he saw Radek Kadjinski hobble past, his mutilated arms uncovered by a filthy black T-shirt. Felix would never find it easy to look at a junkie's arms. It was one of the reasons he had cut Torsten off. Self-destructiveness, or weakness of any kind, disgusted him. He couldn't believe Kadjinski was still alive. Still, the Poles were a tough people, he thought – in the concentration camps, they lived longer than anyone else, and their junkies were no different. When Kadjinski arrived back to his bedsit that evening, Felix was waiting for him. Kadjinski took a moment to recognise the figure sitting in front of the door when he opened it – was it really Felix, Torsten Herold's brother? Twenty years earlier, the three of them had pulled their first heist together, at the BASF factory on Vitalisstr. But Kadjinski was too focussed on the Beretta Compact pointed at his chest to be nostalgic, and knowing it was Felix made him frightened, like an animal. Felix left hand beckoned him forth. Kadjinski let the door swing closed behind him, and stood there shaking. Felix grabbed a chair from behind him and swung it across the floor. “Siddown, Radek, siddown, you're makin' me fuckin' nervous standin' around like that”, he said, the coarseness of his kölsch dialect more pronounced than usual. Kadjinski sat down.
“How you doin', Felix?” was all Kadjinski could think to say. He needed to fix, but he was trying desperately to stay cool.
“Well, to tell yah the truth, Radek, I've been better.”
“I was real sorry to hear 'bout Torsten”, responded Kadjinski.
“Wow, yah heard about that”, retorted Felix, “I thought all you fuckin' people become anonymous on the spike. Why not? Yah'll fuckin' look the same.” There was hatred in his tone.
Kadjinski repeated that he was sorry about Torsten.
“Cut the shit”, said Felix, “You know why I'm here.”
“I dunno nothin', Felix”, pleaded Kadjinski, “On my mother, I swear I dunno nothin'.”
“Fuck your mother”, Felix fired back, pointing at him, “I wanna know where Torsten scored his shit.”
“Felix, I swear to Christ, I dunno.”
Felix leapt out of the chair and broke Kadjinski's nose with the butt of his gun. Blood started flowing down his face and neck, dripping onto the spaces where the cracked greasy linoleum left the concrete floor exposed. Kadjinski started crying, his hands over his face. Felix grabbed his works from the folding table and stood over him.
“LOOK AT ME!” he commanded. Kadjinski was afraid not to. He saw the point of the needle approaching. He heard Felix's voice – “I'm not even gonna waste a bullet on yah, miserable prick. Now, you tell me what I wanna know, or I'll whack an air-bubble into yah. I swear to Christ, Radek, you'll die screamin'.” The syringe came closer and closer. Felix was searching his arms for a vein that wouldn't collapse. He found one. He started working the flesh, the spike at the ready in his other hand. The needle started to pierce the mangled skin. Radek Kadjinski screamed – “ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT”. Felix stood back, still holding the needle over him, and waited for Kadjinski to speak.
“The guy's name is Drusko Mavrovic. Serb. He's a user too” he said, still crying.
“What does he look like?” demanded Felix.
“Tall, skinny, wears leather”
“Does he carry a gat?”, asked Felix.
“I dunno. I think so”, whimpered Kadjinski.
“What about you? You ever score from 'em?”
Kadjinski shook his head – “Not lately.”
“I heard things”, said Kadjinski, his red swollen eyes now trying to avoid Felix's.
“What things?”, demanded Felix. Kadjinski did not answer.
“I heard his stuff was bad. People started gettin' sick. Some people died.” Kadjinski broke down crying again. It was what Felix wanted to hear.
“Where does he deal?”, continued Felix.
Still holding his throbbing nose, Kadjinski answered – “In Vo
gelsang, in the cemetery.”
After a few seconds of silence, Felix emitted a low, disturbing laugh. It was strange to Kadjinski. It brought his fear back, worse than ever. “What's so funny?”, he pleaded. Felix threw the needle on the table and started toward the door. “Torsten”, he said, “the fuckin' moron, he's buried there.”
Felix's room at the hotel overlooked the Deutzer bridge, on the West bank of the river. The place was a dive – twelve rooms, no bar, no kitchen, no TV, coffee and bread for breakfast, fresh linen every third day. The Czech receptionist chain-smoked in front of him, the only thing that amused him about the hotel. He stood at his bedroom window, looking at the bridge. There was nothing else to look at, except the gun on the bed. He started to wonder how cold the river would be if someone was to … fall from the bridge, and had to stop. The walls were closing in. He had to find some way to stop thinking, short of a bullet. He grabbed his jacket, went downstairs, and outside – where was he going? Revellers, tourists, and patrons of the Altstadt's many gay-bars passed by on the cobblestone streets. In the distance, he could see the Dom, St. Maria's cathedral. The structure was made visible by what looked like green artificial lighting. Felix wondered if that was deliberate. He needed something to do. He decided to find out.
The thirty or so metres between the Dom and Hauptbahnhof opposite were full of youths on skateboards, attracted like insects to the light. They hung out and spoke English and did their best to look trendy and global. Some attempted stunts on the steps leading up to the cathedral. While Felix approached the stonework of the building, a huge boom-box accosted him, blaring techno at 200 bpm. Felix didn't mind the stunts or the chatter, but the music irritated him intensely. He visualised pulling out the gun and letting every kid there have it. He suppressed the image. He required silence. He approached the Gothic stonework and placed his hand against it. He felt its dampness, removed his hand and examined the moisture on his palm. There was no discernible humidity. It was as though the stones were crying. He noticed that the cathedral door was ajar. At eight o'clock, it was puzzling. Felix hadn't envisaged ever being in a church again, but he required silence. He saw his right arm push the door further open. He watched his footsteps as they carried him inside. It was dark except for the central altar at the other end of the cathedral, so in silence and darkness, Felix sat, and did his best not to think. It was no good. Regardless of what lapsed Catholics and daytime atheists tell themselves, sitting in a church, especially one as intimidating as St. Maria's Cathedral in Köln, creates the tendency to appeal to the world in the second person. Felix's appeal was this: If it is possible, let this cup pass. Was it to be like this – to be crushed by a humanity he could neither bear nor throw off? Felix started to cry. From nowhere, he felt a hand on his right shoulder. Still sobbing, Felix saw the wiry build, the short-cropped hair, the goatee beard of Fr. Juskowiak. He did his best to compose himself. “Father, what's going on?”, he said. “One of my duties is to maintain this cathedral”, said the priest, “We are an understaffed diocese. You look troubled. Is there something you would like to talk about?”
“It's been too long, father”, answered Felix, “I'd be wasting your time.”
“Let me be the judge of that”, said Juskowiak, “You made a shrewd wager on your brother's behalf. Why not make one for yourself?” Felix stood up. With an outstretched arm, Juskowiak gestured him toward the confessional.
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been”, Felix stopped, then continued, “twelve years since my last confession.”
“Yes, my son”, said Juskowiak in his comforting, formulaic monotone, “and what sins have you committed in that time?”
“I was indifferent to my brother”, answered Felix, “Even now he's dead, I feel nothing for him. We went our separate ways years ago.”
Juskowiak shrugged – “Sometimes we can't help how we feel. What else preys on your mind?”
“Nothing preys on my mind, father”, said Felix defiantly.
“I don't believe that”, said the priest, “If it was true, then you wouldn't be here.” Felix could feel himself being cornered. Very well, if this priest wanted everything, then he would have everything. He answered – “I have killed, father, for money.” Fr. Juskowiak took a moment to digest this knowledge, even though he had possessed it already. He had not expected Felix to be so succinct. He continued – “How many times, my son?”
Felix looked away – “I don't recall, father. Many times.”
“And did those acts cause you no suffering?” asked Juskowiak.
Felix strained to remember what it had been like in the beginning. He answered, “The first time, I was ashamed. The second, less so. After that, I felt nothing. They were not moral men.”
“So you judged them, and now you judge yourself” Juskowiak probed further.
“I've never hoped for redemption” Felix explained. Juskowiak could still hear defiance in his voice.
“Why not?”, pleaded Juskowiak, “Because you're not a coward? Do you really think God cares about machismo?”
“What does he care about, then?” retorted Felix. Through the screen, Juskowiak could see that his eyes were empty as he said this.
Frustrated, Fr. Juskowiak hesitated a moment before pressing his argument – “What's important is that you care. I can see it in you. It's useless to deny it.”
“So what about my penance?” asked Felix sarcastically. He wanted to wind the exchange up.
Juskowiak paused another moment to ask himself – Was there any chance this man could be saved? Maybe not. The revenge instinct, the most time-honoured of all moral intuitions, was too strong in him. Three-thousand years of myth and habit. It was hardwired in some people. Still, Juskowiak felt a duty to try. “Ordinarily”, he began, “I would advise prayer, but in your case that would be trivial, and anyway I know that you don't remember the words. Your penance must be greater.” He could see Felix was mocking him, looking forward to whatever he would say. He continued – “It was I who buried your mother and father. You didn't come back for those funerals. You say you were indifferent to your brother, and yet here you are. You're not here just to bury him, are you?”
Felix's tone became menacing – “That's a dangerous question, father.”
Despite the implicit threat, Fr. Juskowiak pressed on, his own voice becoming insistent, metering itself for emphasis – “Your penance – is not – to avenge him.”
Felix's adopted formality left him now. He remembered his anger at the burial – “Fuck you, priest!” He crashed his fist against the door of the confessional and left at pace. But walking back through the Altstadt, as his stride-pattern and his temper slowed, Felix conceded to himself that this priest had been right, and yet he had been utterly wrong. His father, a pious useless weakling, had called him a sociopath so often that it became convenient for Felix to believe it, but now he knew better. He was here to avenge Torsten, precisely because he believed in a moral order. Yes, he knew that now. In spite of himse
lf, he had always believed in a certain order of things. Junkies OD. Criminals get shot. Religious maniacs die beaten and confused, betrayed by their own illusions. In the end, everyone gets what's coming to them. But who would give him, Felix, what was coming to him? He found it inconceivable that anyone else could ever bring about his destruction. Therein lay his dilemma.
He decided on the cemetery because it would be difficult to choreograph a shooting in Vogelsang – too many open spaces, too much visibility, nowhere reliable to toss a gun in fifteen seconds or less. Felix reasoned that witnesses wouldn't be a problem in the cemetery. Late at night, nobody went there unless it was to score. The first junkie who found the corpse would fleece it for freebies. It was a self-contaminating crime-scene.
Felix watched the Serb make the nightly journey from his apartment building on Matthias Brüggenstr. As the life-cycle of each assignment entered its final hours, as its conclusion became inevitable, a very great calmness would take hold of him, a kind of perfect self-possession. He would feel his foreboding melt away, being purged from his body in an episode of exhilarating physical excitement, preparing him for a state of absolute composure. But this time was different. He was only two hundred metres and ten minutes away from his appointment with the Serb, and his body threatened to betray him. He battled with himself to contain an unfamiliar sensation bordering on nausea. He attached the silencer to the barrel of his Beretta. Seven minutes – get yourself together, Felix.
His mind kept fading in and out of focus – Juskowiak's final remark repeated itself over and over. Your penance is not to avenge him. Felix's hands were sweating. Four minutes. He went through his final checklist – the escape route – Venloerstr, Hohenzollern Ring, the altstadt, across the Deutzer bridge, through Deutz, onto Kalkerstr, next the Gremberg junction, and from there south toward Bonn. You're a fuckin' professional, Felix. Don't drop the ball. Two minutes. Time to start walking.
He put his hand in his pocket. Click-clack went the gun. He saw Drusko Mavrovic standing beside a black marble gravestone, a hundred metres away. There was a reassuring, almost tactile recognition of the phenotype and the body-language, like the knowledge of an old hand in an abattoir – Remember, you've seen a million goons just like him.
Felix approached. He stopped in front of the man. “You Drusko?” he grunted.
“Who wants to know?”
“I was told you could help me out”, said Felix.
“Depends on what you're lookin' for” said Mavrovic with a belligerent gold-toothed grin.
“It's my brother”, said Felix, “He's hurtin' really bad.”
“Regular o'mine?” probed Mavrovic.
“You wouldn't know him”, said Felix. He went inside his coat – “He's just another anonymous piece of junkie filth.”
Drusko Mavrovic saw the gun and checked whatever it was he had to say. It was gratifying for Felix to see his face change. Felix squeezed the gat, put the first one in his chest. The Serb went down. Felix could see he was still conscious. It felt good. He waited a few seconds, and put another pill in him. The Serb's head went pop, atomising itself against the gravestone. Three, four, five. He wanted to empty the magazine. He counted off the shots – six, seven – and stopped firing.
That left one more round, in the chamber. Felix didn't want to ask himself why.