story first published in Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine issue Sept-Oct 2006
– April 24, 2009 updated version published on my blog
Melusina and the Honor Amongst Thieves
by Tasha G.
“For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”- Rudyard Kipling
I had just finished with the wanna-be beatnik I picked up at the Biergarten on Dietrichstrasse when my cellphone rang.
Andreas Müller lazily smoked a Gauloise as I leaned over the bed and retrieved my phone from the end table. “Hello?”
“Melusina,” Karl said, calling me by my codename.
I climbed out of the bed and sat down on the chair in the opposite corner of the room so Andreas could not overhear the other end of the conversation.
“Have you made contact with our first target?” Karl asked.
“Yes, my vacation has been wonderful,” I said, keeping my voice as light as possible.
“He’s there now?”
When I answered in the affirmative, Karl told me to call him back and hung up.
“I understand,” I spoke into the dead air. “Yes, that will be fine. I will get on it immediately.”
I clicked off the phone and turned towards my guest. He patted the mattress. I shook my head. “Sorry. That was my boss calling from the States. Things have gotten crazy in the office. Several co-workers are out with the flu and we’re behind on some projects. He asked if I would work on some marketing layouts from my laptop.”
“Jerk. You’re on vacation.”
“That’s the advertisement business. It’s pretty cutthroat. There is always another agency anxious to lure your clients.”
Andreas slipped into his clothes: black jeans, black turtleneck, and even a black beret. I’d bet anything he owned a beat-up copy of Kerouac’s On the Road.
“Lissa, I’d really like to see you again and show you around Berlin,” he said.
“That would be great. Why don’t I give you a call after I get some work done?”
“Sounds good.” Andreas kissed me at my hotel door before leaving.
I slipped into my kimono and dialed Karl’s private business line. He answered immediately.
I had been working for Karl for seven years. He rescued me from the streets when I was 21. Evidently, he had been watching me for awhile and had seen something beyond the broken exterior. That was back when I was Eve Foster: throwaway kid who’d survived five years eating out of garbage dumpsters and a near-rape. I had told him off at first, suspecting he was a pimp.
Instead, he had taken me to his estate where I had been trained as one of his assassins. Karl ran one of the most elite, covert underground organizations in the world; and attributed most of its success to his employment of women. He often claimed any idiot could pull the trigger of a gun. Due to centuries of subordination, females learned to survive by their wits and cunning, which was the real reason for being deadlier than the male.
Despite all the time I worked for Karl, I knew little of his personal life. I doubted any of his employees did. A Renaissance man in his mid-40s, salt-and-pepper hair, distinguished face, and possessed a voice that rivaled Charles Boyer. He listened to opera, collected antiques, smoked cigars, drank scotch, and spoke a dozen languages.
My latest assignment brought me to Berlin. An affluent German named Frank Klein had contacted Karl about a set of books from the Russian Imperial family that had been stolen from his villa in Charlottenburg.
He suspected two young men who had been painting the interior of his guest bedrooms. Due to certain business practices, Herr Klein didn’t want to contact the police, so I was chosen to retrieve them.
“I don’t think Andreas Müller has the books,” I now told Karl. “We spent most of the evening discussing jazz and Ginsburg. I sensed a nervous reaction from him when I brought up my passion for book collecting. He definitely knows something, but I don’t think he is the one who actually stole them.”
“Tomorrow I want you to pay a visit to the other painter, Dirk Braun. And remember how I want it to go down.”
“Good. Be careful.”
He wished me luck and I put down the phone.
Night passed slowly and the next morning I was anxious to get out. I dressed in a pair of low-rise blue jeans and a white t-shirt that bared my midriff. I felt naked without my pistol, but it brought too much attention to try to board a plane with one nowadays. I knew of clandestine places to pick up a black market Makarov. But Karl didn’t want me wearing a weapon for this case. So I had to count on Dirk not having a gun either.
Considering the biographical sketch given to me, Dirk was just a low-end thug in over his head.
I exited the hotel, walked a couple of blocks over to the U-Bahn Station, rode the underground several stops, and got off at Mehringdamm.
Both Andreas Müller and Dirk Braun lived in Kreuzberg. The infamous district of Berlin was densely populated with lower-class German families, left-wing artists, punks, homosexuals, and a large Turkish immigrant community. The curious mix of alternative cultures and the decidedly Oriental flair gave it a unique atmosphere.
I found Alexanderstrasse 9 and rang Dirk’s doorbell.
“Ja?” A voice of too many beers and cigarettes answered.
“Mein Name ist Julie. Ich-“
“Go away,” he responded in German. “I am not interested in anything you are trying to sell.”
“Your friend, Andreas Müller, sent me,” I said quickly in German before he hung up the connection. “He says he owes you one.”
Dirk laughed. “Really, huh? Well, come up then. Third floor.”
I opened the main door as soon as the buzzer sounded and made my way up the stairs. Dirk stood in the entranceway of his apartment. His appearance matched the photo Karl had given me. Tall, skinny, with the drained appearance of a user. His eyes traveled down my body.
“Hi.” I smiled. “How are ya?”
“Ah, your accent. You’re American, right?” He switched to English. “Come in.”
It was a small apartment with one large room that served as both the living room and dining area. A tiny kitchen was set off to the left side, and the bedroom and bath were to the right. The pale yellow paint was worn and chipped, the furniture long past its prime, and the carpet stained.
“You have a nice place.” I managed to say while checking we were alone.
“Yeah, give a guy a state-of-the-art stereo system and Playstation- what else does he need? Besides female company.” He winked.
I joined him on the couch. We made the requisite small talk and then he asked the obnoxious question- “How did a nice girl like you get into this business?” So I gave him a story about being an expat and this being a quick way to make some money as I traveled around Europe on the rail.
I continued chatting while his hand stroked my leg, but when it reached the inside of my thighs I grabbed it and pulled him down onto the floor. I pinned him with my body and twisted his arms behind him.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“I want the books you stole from Herr Klein.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, and I pulled back his fingers. He sucked in his breath.
“Frank Klein. You had a job painting his house and decided to take a souvenir. Remember now?”
I put him in a choke hold. “I don’t want to have to ask again.” I loosened my grip so he could speak.
“All right.” He gasped for breath. “I swear I don’t have them anymore. I was getting nervous. I felt as though I was being watched. Bulle, I figured. But you’re not a cop.”
“Good guess. Who has them now?”
“I gave the books to my friend, Peter Schulz. Told him if he helped me sell them we could share the profit.”
“How charitable of you.” I asked Dirk several questions regarding his friend, and once satisfied with the answers, I choked him.
I paged Karl with the code to send in the clean-up crew. When they were done it would appear as though Dirk had skipped town.
Now I just had to find a way to convince Andreas to bring me to the third man: Peter Schulz.
As I sipped the last of the black coffee made by Andreas, I jumped my knight to f4. “Checkmate.”
Andreas wrinkled his forehead, doublechecking the chessboard. He shook his head. “You’re good.”
I leaned over and kissed him. As our kisses deepened, he pulled me closer, and pawns fell to the floor.
The telephone rang. After ignoring it for ten rings, Andreas groaned and picked it up. “Ja? Oh, hallo.” I lay back on his couch. He spoke quickly, but I could understand most of his prattle. When the call ended, he turned back to me, his face ashen.
I sat up. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know.” He switched back to English. “That was my friend, Peter. Another pal of ours, Dirk , is gone. Peter just rode over to his place. Since there was no answer, he used the key given him, figuring he would wait for Dirk. Went into the bedroom where Dirk keeps his stash, and found the closets half-empty.”
“Maybe he went on a trip?”
“We’re his best friends. He wouldn’t just take off on a vacation without telling us. And no way would he pack that much. He’s a guy.”
“Any chance he decided to leave town for good?”
“It looks like that. But we can’t understand what would make him do that. Especially now-“
“Nothing.” Andreas sat back down next to me but didn’t look in my direction. “I just have some things on my mind.”
” I’m a good listener.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re in Berlin to have fun. We should take a stroll through the Tiergarten . Go clubbing.”
“I can down a beer anytime,” I said.
Andreas ran his hands through his hair. “Have you ever gotten in over your head?”
“Story of my life.”
“I don’t believe that. You’re the kind of woman who has everything figured out before it happens.”
“So do you want my expertise or not?”
Andreas lit a cigarette. “I didn’t like it from the beginning. But I really need the money. Dirk and I do odd jobs on the side. Couple of weeks ago, we got a job painting this guy’s house, Frank Klein. Old money. Lives in a mansion. He’d heard of us from word of mouth. And since we’re not legit he could pay less. Rich people are always the cheapest bastards.
“So we get there, and the place is amazing. Like living in the Castle Charlottenburg. It has a library bigger than my entire apartment. I made a remark to Dirk regarding the books’ great worth and he suggested that we take some. I thought he was joking but then he pointed out there were so many books…how could Herr Klein notice a few missing? So I looked around and saw this set of eight books that belonged to the Russian Imperial family.
“Each day, Dirk slipped one into his bag. I sweated like crazy but he got a kick from it. We researched online and discovered they sold for approximately $75,000. We became damn nervous, realizing they wouldn’t be easy to sell. Any day cops would be banging at our door. So we told Peter if he held them for us we would cut him in.”
“No, you don’t.” Andreas stubbed out his cigarette and lit another. “How come Herr Klein hasn’t gone to the cops? Would he really not notice something of that worth missing? And why would Dirk now take off when he had all that money coming to him?”
“Maybe he became too afraid. I only know you have two options. The first one is to go to the police. Turn in your friends and cut a deal-“
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Then the only other option is to get rid of the books as quickly as possible. If you trust me, I will help you. “
Andreas leaned away, raising an eyebrow. “How could you possibly help?”
“I’ve been to Berlin several times in the past and have made a few friends who might come in handy. Remember, I am a bibliophile. Although, I could never afford anything like that.“
“So you want in?”
“Seventy five thousand dollars cut three ways? I could use some easy money.”
“You should see some of the clients I have had the displeasure of working for.”
“I’m not sure how Peter will take this.”
“Let’s try him,” I said.
“You told her?” Peter groaned as Andreas and I sat in his living room.
“I trust her.” Andreas put his arm around me.
“Listen, if you don’t trust me, you can hold onto my passport and credit cards until the deal goes through,” I said.
Peter stared at me. “And what if there have been alerts sent to antique shops around here?”
“Then why haven’t either of you been questioned by the police? Your safest bet is to get rid of the books now, before Herr Klein notices they are gone and does alert the authorities. You’re the first guys they’ll come to. They’ll rip your apartments to shreds. This friend of mine deals in rare and antique books. He has private customers who don’t ask questions if they don’t want to know the answers.”
“How does an American woman working in advertisement know about black markets in Berlin?” Peter opened a Kindl Pils Bier, but didn’t offer one to us.
“I get around. But if you don’t want my help, that’s fine. I’m going home in two days. It’s your life behind bars.”
“All right.” Peter turned to Andreas. “Let’s do it tomorrow morning. You two sleep here tonight. I want Lissa where I can keep an eye on her.”
“Not a problem.” I yawned. “But I’m awfully tired. Mind throwing me a blanket and pillow? I could really use a cat nap.”
The next morning we got into Andreas’s car and I directed them to Mark Hildebrandt’s antiquarian bookshop in the East part. The 65-year-old gentleman hugged me when I entered. “It has been a long time, Lissa.”
“It is good to see you as well.”
“How long are you in Berlin for?”
“I had a two-week vacation. I fly back on Thursday.”
“Can we get on with this?” Peter shifted the weight on his legs.
Herr Hilderbrandt walked passed him and placed the closed sign in his window. After he had done so, Andreas and Peter opened up their canvas bags and handed him the books.
“Ah…the library of the Russian Imperial family. Books from the Empress Maria to Alexandra of the Winter Palace to the Grand Duchess Olga.” Mark gently leafed through them. “They each have a Super Ex Libris on the leather crosses of the cover. Exquisite condition. Yes, I am sure I will be able to find a buyer for these. Not that they were bought from me, of course.”
“Just as we did not sell them to you,” I said.
“So do we get the money now?” Peter cracked his knuckles.
The door burst open and three men rushed inside. Mark started to tell them the shop was closed when three guns aimed at us.
“Shit.” Andreas trembled.
“She talked,” Peter said.
I shook my head.
“Get on the floor!” The guy closest to me yelled in German. “Not you, old man. Hand over the books.”
Mark obeyed. The same guy thanked him by smashing his gun against the left side of Mark’s head, knocking him out. I started to rise to go to him but Andreas grabbed my arm and kept me down.
“Put your heads in your arms. Face down,” another gunman ordered.
“Mein Gott.” Peter cried.
Cold steel slammed into my head and gray faded to black.
When I awoke, Andreas and Peter were gone. Mark still lay unconscious. I stumbled over to him and massaged his temples until he awakened. “Are you okay?”
“I have felt better after a vodka marathon.”
Although my own head pounded, I managed to get up, grab a bottle of water from the backroom, which I handed to Mark as I slumped down next to him.
Mark took a few sips.
“My dear Melusina, next time you are in Berlin, you must allow me to take you out for dinner and a night at the opera.”
“Only if Zeppo is invited.”
Mark laughed and then winced as the pain hit again. “On second thought, maybe next time you’ll travel to a different country.”
It was not easy telling Frank Klein that Andreas and Peter had taken off with his books. In the end, I was glad to board the airplane back home.
Karl welcomed me into his study when I arrived. “Ah, Melusina. Magnificent as usual. ” He gestured for me to join him on the black leather couch, and poured me a glass of scotch.
“It got a little complicated when it turned out Dirk Braun had given the books to a third party. Otherwise, I would have returned sooner.”
“Yes, but you followed my instructions afterwards, perfectly.”
“I had help from Herr Hilderbrandt. “
“Mark loves it. He’s Al Capone underneath the literature professor exterior.”
“Good thing we have such able clean-up crews. I wouldn’t want to be around if Herr Klein found out what really happened to Andreas and Peter.”
“Not a trace will ever be found of them.” Karl smiled as he studied the Russian imperial gold eagles on the book covers.