Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the August 2006 issue

A Hard-boiled Story

He'd loused it up, that was for sure! As head of security he'd been in charge of the deal. The fact that the Russians' lead containers held not plutonium but a scribbled note saying, "Kiss my ass! You Nazi Hitlers are all as dumb as shit!" along with two chopped-off pig's balls was neither here nor there. After all, his own men's cases had contained toilet paper instead of cash. The entire deal had been a joke, although a joke with a deadly punchline for two of the Russians and one of his own men. A moment's inattention, and suddenly that bowlegged little Ivan had a gun in his hand. Where had it come from? The exchange had taken place beside the lake, and they'd all come in swimming trunks. His own idea. A great idea! The boss had praised him for it before the event. And then that . . . There's only one place where a man in swimming trunks can hide a pistol, and in retrospect Harry remembered that he'd just been thinking: those Crimean bastards! Horny as hell the whole time! And that had also been the moment when he glanced briefly across the lake and thought of Jessica. His Jessica, who was treating him like dirt these days. So then the shoot-out began. Of course his own men had plenty of weapons tucked away in hollow trees and behind bushes, and they'd soon have had the better of it in the shoot-out, only Ralle wouldn't trust him on that one-and Ralle was the boss's nephew.

The door opened, and Harry was summoned from the corridor into the holy of holies. A large, light room with parquet flooring and a stucco ceiling. Genuine Warhols hung on the walls, and all the furnishings had won prizes at the latest Milan Design Fair. André von Ammersfeld sat behind the chrome and slate desk, practicing smoking a pipe. His real name was Horst Ruttke, and until four years ago he had hardly known that a pipe was anything but something that burst when it froze. Even today he was awkward with the thing, which regularly left burn marks on the fine parquet flooring, and as soon as foreign business partners or important customers were out of the door again he abandoned his pipe-smoking paraphernalia and lit a nice Lord Extra.

Yes, a lot had changed in these last few years after the Wall came down. Ruttke Real Estate of Steglitz was now Ammersfeld International Cooperation and Management on the Kurfürstendamm. The houses in which the company dealt, once just dilapidated buildings ripe for demolition in the outer suburbs, had turned overnight into desirable properties near the city center. Before long Ruttke was rolling in money. After that, everything followed almost of itself. As the borders with eastern Europe progressively opened up, Ruttke's speculations in real estate were joined by other kinds of business. Meanwhile Ruttke bought penthouse after penthouse for girlfriend after girlfriend, not to mention enough jeeps and convertibles to cover a football field, he had liposuction on his paunch and a hair implant for his balding head, and became an established member of Berlin society. Today the Senate's cultural department automatically sent him tickets for premières at the opera house, and no one minded if he sent one of his bodyguards out for beer and curry during the performance. That was "Hotte" all over! Even the mayor called him by his nickname, and Horst Ruttke rewarded him with invitations to champagne picnics and private shows of ladies' swimwear fashions. He was known as von Ammersfeld only to outside business contacts and new employees in his offices.

Ruttke scrutinized Harry over his cold pipe. Istvan, who had called Harry in and was deputy boss of Ruttke's security outfit, perched casually on the arm of a chair constructed from copper wire and silk flowers, and began unwrapping a piece of bubble gum extra slowly. For one or two minutes the tearing and crackle of the paper was the only sound in the room. The windows looking out on the Ku'damm were bulletproof glass, and not even a firefighters' siren sounding out in the street could have been heard here. "Well then, Harry . . .," said Ruttke in a tight voice. "I guess there was nothing." And after a pause, "Is that so, or am I right?"

Harry stared fixedly at a spot on the wall just above Ruttke's head. How long had this trick question been around? And how much longer would it be around too? And had anyone ever thought it funny except the sort of people who asked it? Ruttke was asking it all the time.

"That's so," replied Harry, without taking his eyes off the wall. With Ruttke, it was better to say only what was absolutely necessary in such situations. Even that was usually the wrong thing.

"You mean I'm wrong?"

Harry gritted his teeth slightly. So he was really going to be bawled out. If only His Nibs Istvan there wasn't listening in!

"It's so, and you are right. But I'd like to explain . . . "

He got no further.

"Like to explain!" snorted Ruttke. "Yes, so would I! To my sister. I'd like to explain how her son came to get shot at some stupid meeting with a bunch of Chechen jokers."

"The silly meeting was all about plutonium."

"Ah yes, plutonium!" Ruttke flung up his hands. "As far as I'm aware those containers had pig's balls in them, correct?"

Harry did not reply. There wasn't any point.

Ruttke sat back in his chair and made a face, looking as if his Armani suit had shrunk when he had it cleaned.

"Not that I was too fond of my fat monstrosity of a nephew. You might've thought my sister had been screwing with an elephant, she's capable of it. But whether Ralle was the result of a night of wild passion with Dumbo, or it was the thirty Big Macs a day pumped him up like that-which I doubt because they put sesame seeds on them, makes you shit all the time, so I hear . . ." Ruttke glanced up, and Istvan chuckled appreciatively. Harry forced a smile. Ruttke had a high opinion of his own sense of humor, and his employees had to be amused. "Well, he was my nephew, anyway. And I'm not bothered about all that Eyetie stuff, the hell with the family, my trouble is my sister's been calling nonstop for four days, sometimes howling her eyes out down the line, other times threatening to bust some kind of criminal outfit she claims her son was drawn into, don't ask me what she means. Right!" He brought the flat of his hand down on the desk. "So I hope you understand now why I'm not too pleased. Though who could have expected anything else of you guys? I mean except for you personally, of course."

Harry shifted his weight from one leg to the other and waited. The sound of Istvan masticating bubble gum reached his left ear. Ruttke lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up to the ceiling like the last remains of his anger.

"Oh well," he then said, shrugging. "What's done is done-and if ever there's a time when what's done can't be helped, it's when there's a dead man involved. Is that so, or am I right?"

Harry felt Istvan watching him sideways with his little brown eyes as he took this new humiliation. It was an open secret that the two of them didn't get on. Istvan had a practical reason for it: he wanted to be sole boss of Ruttke's security outfit. As for Harry, he just disliked Istvan intensely: his colored silk shirts, his greasy hair combed back, his dyed mustache, the diamond in his ear and that velvety pop-singer's voice! Istvan had only to open his mouth and Harry's shoulders, the shoulders of a boxer, tensed for the first round.

Harry cleared his throat. "That's so, and you're right."

Ruttke grunted, satisfied. Then he turned practical. He gave instructions for the way everyone had to act during police investigations in the building here, told Istvan to drop in on his sister accompanied by two large thugs, express the heartfelt sympathy of the Ammersfeld staff, hold out the prospect of generous compensation, and mention in passing that having a death in the family didn't serve as some kind of sacrifice to God which kept other family members from dying in mysterious circumstances.

"There, I think that ought to fix everything. Now let's have a drink and forget it. Istvan, fetch the grappa! And make sure the glasses are clean! Ever since we've had that Polish cleaning lady . . . you'd better wash them again, and take your time."

When Istvan was out of the room Ruttke put his elbows on the table, rested his chin on his hand, and looked thoughtfully, almost affectionately, at Harry for a moment.

"What's up, kid? You've been looking so kind of . . . well, so washed-out recently. Like you'd started reading poetry."

Harry acted as if he were fully occupied in putting away his notebook.

"I mean, everyone has times when he doesn't feel too good," Ruttke went on. "The weather, his digestion, an ingrown toenail, or something on his mind, of course. I'm not made of stone. I get moments myself when I wonder what it's all in aid of: money, women, fame. And then I think things like: where do I come from, where am I going, what's the point, what happens after death? Am I me, are you you? That kind of stuff. But it'll pass over, that's all I can say . . . is it something to do with Jessica?"

Perhaps that was the whole secret of Ruttke's success: he could lull people, even those who knew him well, into a sense of total security, or maybe just bore them rigid, and then come out suddenly with the crucial question, the crucial offer, the crucial threat. Then you were taken by surprise, the truth would show in your face, at least for a moment, and from that moment on there was no going back.

Harry's mouth opened briefly, then he lowered his eyes and shook his head. "We're OK." He fidgeted with the zipper of his sports jacket. "Had a bit of trouble with the workmen these last two weeks. You know, for this pool we're having built. And Jessica's mother keeps calling, her short-term memory's on the blink, understand? She says to herself: I'll call my daughter today. So she calls, Jessica talks to her, everything's fine, they hang up, five minutes later the phone rings again. 'Darling Jessi! There you are at last!' And she does it twenty times a day. If this goes on we'll have to get another phone line. . . . well, it's just a few annoying little things, nothing serious."

There was a pause. Ruttke's gaze rested on Harry's face. Harry tried to look as if he didn't know what Ruttke wanted.

Finally Ruttke nodded slightly. "If you say so. But let me tell you something: Jessica's a fine woman. Real class. You won't find another girl like her in a hurry. So don't louse it up."

"What, me?" cried Harry, and regretted it even as he spoke.

A smile flitted over Ruttke's lips. "So that's it. Well, then I can think of only one thing; maybe you're not taking enough notice of her. I mean . . ." He grinned. "Well, you know. She loves you, anyway, she's told me so often enough, and nobody lies to me.'

"How . . . how did she come to be telling you? Why you?"

"You think we don't phone each other now and then? When she's married to my right-hand man?"

Harry's eyebrows had come together, and for a moment he looked at Ruttke with unconcealed skepticism. These last few weeks with Jessica had been so dreadful that where she was concerned he couldn't even think clearly. He saw a rival in every man who came into contact with her, even her gay interior designer. It was getting so bad that when he went to work in the morning, he stopped the car whenever he saw a man on his own walking or standing about anywhere near their bungalow, and glared at him through the window, wondering if he could be chasing Jessica. He'd always loved her, but only these last few weeks had he realized just how painfully.

Before Harry could say anything else the door opened, and Istvan came in with the grappa and the glasses.

As Istvan and Harry were going down the corridor afterward Istvan murmured, patting his greasy black hair into shape, "I was thinking of taking you with me to see the boss's sister."

Harry lost his temper. He couldn't help it: he spun around, grabbed the little man by the collar of his jacket, lifted him and pushed him up against the wall, leaving Istvan breathless, and hissed, "Nobody takes me anywhere with him! Certainly not a failed ballerina like you!"

At that moment Ruttke came into the corridor and stopped, taken aback. Then he raised his arms, saying, "Boys, boys! We have work to do!"

That afternoon Harry did routine jobs: collecting money from a few bar owners who were late paying up, visiting Ammersfeld International Cooperation and Management's main coke distributor in the hospital, discussing ways of managing a deal with an Afghan arms buyer. He finally got away around six, and ran through the rain to the dark blue Jaguar he had bought secondhand. It was the end of May and had been raining buckets for the last week. Harry had been born in Berlin, brought up in Berlin, all that-but he'd never get used to the Berlin weather.

The Jag purred down the Ku'damm toward Zehlendorf. Three years ago he and Jessica had moved from a three-room apartment in Neu-Westend to their lakeside bungalow on the Schlachtensee. Back then the world had still been all right. Harry had climbed the ladder of success rung by rung at Ruttke's side, believing the ascent would never stop: higher and higher, further and further, better and better. But at last the ladder came to an end; Harry had gone as far as a regional gangster boss's chief security man could go, and success was the norm. Either Harry stayed at that level or he went down. There was no more for him to gain-at least, not with Ammersfeld International Cooperation and Management. A year ago Ruttke had hired Istvan to join him. Istvan spoke Russian and Hungarian, knew his way around the international taxation laws, and as a former brothel manager he had links with all the East European people-trafficking organizations. In short, he was highly qualified. By comparison Harry's karate black belt, his brief career as a kick-boxer, and his training in marksmanship suddenly seemed uncomfortably modest achievements. Before the Wall came down his abilities had been enough for him to make his way up in the Berlin underworld, but now he had to be almost glad that Ruttke was keeping him on. For how much longer, though?

He turned into the Avus, one of the small sections of West Berlin autobahn left over from the past, from the times when everything was clear-cut.

And then all of a sudden his life with Jessica had come unstuck too. Yet their big row four weeks ago, the row which had changed everything, started in such a ridiculous way. Jessica wanted to go dancing.

"OK, darling, have fun, I'll wait up for you."

"Why don't you come too?"

"You know why: I can't dance. And I broke the Vogue boss's arm for him a few months back. If I turn up barging my way around the dance floor of his club like any ordinary weekend nobody he'll think he needn't pay up next time."

"Oh, so I'm some ordinary weekend nobody?"

"You're my princess! Even if you had a dog called Happy I'd still love you!"

"Do you realize we don't do anything these days except sit at home talking about the weather or watching TV?"

"I have so much work just now."

"So I'm supposed to stay at home the whole time?"

"No, of course not. Like I said, have fun. And when you come back we'll be nice and cozy together."

"Cozy! I don't want to be cozy, I want to see a bit of life!"

"And so you shall! But you try going around with me for a week, blackmailing people, beating them up, ripping them off-after that, talking about the weather is like Paradise."

"Want me to tell you something? You make me sick. And the way you sit about with your legs apart, like the latest thing in macho man!"

"Macho is the word for people who have dogs called Happy, but like I said-"

"Oh, shut up! You think you know so much! So do you know you're not the only man in the world?"

And then it was all go. The new Italian china, the Art Deco standard lamp, the video recorder with the cassette of the basketball final in it, the photos of their last vacation in Florida-torn up, smashed to smithereens. Before that evening the possibility that Jessica might start something with another man, even the faintest threat of it, had been unimaginable to Harry. Up to then they'd loved each other like Romeo and Juliet, or that was how Harry saw it. Since then life had been full of suspicion and dark hints.

Harry turned the Jaguar into the small street. It was paved with cobblestones, and the bungalow stood at the end of it. He automatically looked around for men, and then, leaving the car in the entrance, went into the house. There was music playing in the basement. Harry glanced into the living room and was going toward the steps to the floor below when he saw the air mattress beside the couch, and stopped. A purple monster, the size of a double bed and half a yard thick. The golden Chanel logo glittered in the middle of it, gold and silver chains and tassels hung from the sides. Harry frowned. Where did that come from? What was it for?

Down in the basement Jessica and her gay interior designer were choosing silk fabrics to be painted and dyed. When Harry came into the room they fell silent.

"Hi," said Harry. "Cat got your tongues?"

The interior designer looked at the floor with interest. Jessica's expression hardened.

"We're picking the new décor for the living room."

Harry looked at his wife. How beautiful she always was! At the sight of her pale, delicate face, framed by red ringlets, his heart always turned over. Even when they were quarreling bitterly there were moments when he thought: my God, am I ever lucky to have this woman! But by now he knew how to deal with that feeling.

"Great. Is that lousy air mattress in the living room part of the new decor?"

Jessica lowered her hands and the roll of sky-blue silk that they were holding. "'Lousy?'"

"If we all say what we think then we'll all know where we stand. Where does that thing come from?"

"It's a present from Ruttke."

Harry looked blank. "Ruttke's given us an air mattress?"

"Don't I make myself clear?"

"I saw Ruttke at midday. He didn't say anything about a present."

"Ever heard of a surprise?"

"Did he bring it himself?"


"This afternoon?"


"I haven't heard you answer questions so quickly for a long time."

"Well, if the questions are as silly as that . . ."

"Why would he give us an air mattress?"

Jessica put one hand on her hip. "Maybe he wanted to do something nice for us! Do you get that? SOMETHING NICE!"

Harry's muscles tensed. "Why an air mattress? Why did he bring it when I wasn't here?"

"Oh, my God!" Jessica flung the roll of silk on the floor and turned to her interior designer. "See that? He's crazy!" And she added, over her shoulder. "You hear me? You're crazy!"

Harry repeated evenly, "Why did he come when I wasn't here?"

Jessica slowly turned, scorn in her eyes. "Ruttke's like a father to you! You ought to be glad to have him! You of all people! He gives us a present and you start reading something into it."

"The hell with fathers, it's my wife I'm interested in."

"Oh yes? You'd think I might have noticed!"

Harry briefly looked away, then scrutinized both the others, unmoved, and turned to the interior designer. "Listen, my fairy friend, could it be you're not otherwise inclined after all, you've just found a good way to get around bored ladies who fancy something out of the ordinary?"

After the interior designer had swept out in high dudgeon, after much more fury, quarreling, and any amount of smashed household furnishings, Harry found himself with his legs dangling over the side of the living-room couch at about two in the morning. The monstrous air mattress lay in front of him. For the hundredth time that evening he wondered what the bloody thing was doing here. Ruttke didn't give presents, except to beauty queens in the Sunrise club when he wanted to screw them. In the course of the evening it had emerged that the mattress had a motor inside it. The motor moved a roller up and down and was claimed to give you a massage. What that told Harry was that you could screw on it without going to the trouble of moving. Jessica had dismissed this as the fantasy of a man who couldn't get it up.

"Well, can you screw on it without moving or not?"

"As it happens, I'm used to the man moving. Or at least, I kind of dream of being used to the man moving!"

"I'm asking from the purely technical point of view!"

"And from the purely technical point of view you're right! From the purely technical point of view, I could do it to myself while you snooze in front of the TV!"

The whole evening had passed with these and similar exchanges. Harry looked away from the air mattress and up to the ceiling. The funny thing was that Jessica bombarded him with the same scornful accusation day in, day out, but when he tried getting close to her she gave him the brush-off. Was it the general shape he was in? Did his problems at work simply make him not . . . not sexy any more? The quarrel had started because, apparently, he wasn't doing it with her enough these days, but now a mere "How about it?" was too much. Didn't it all suggest that she had staged the whole thing just so as to find another man without feeling guilty, so to speak? . . . If he could do something spectacular, he'd retrieve his position at once! A coup! Something he'd be admired for, something that would bring him fame and recognition! Ruttke liked Jessica. Jessica liked Ruttke. "You won't find another girl like her in a hurry . . ."-"Ruttke's like a father to you . . . ." Harry didn't really think Jessica was cheating on him with Ruttke. That was only one of his many suspicions. A particularly painful one, especially hurtful, the kind of idea you come up with when you've set out along a certain path. In fact Harry wanted nothing more than to please both of them. His friend and employer, and the love of his life! Please them once and for all. Yes, he must think of some way to retrieve his standing. Something to make Jessica's eyes light up again when they looked at him!

Next morning Harry tackled Ruttke about the air mattress.

"Hot stuff, eh? After our little talk I thought a symbolic springtime present like that wouldn't be a bad way of helping you two to loosen up a bit. The very latest thing in poolside equipment." Ruttke leaned forward, grinning. "And they say you can screw on it without moving!"

"Hmm. Yes. Why didn't you tell me you were driving out to see Jessica?"

"Well, so that it would be a surprise! Didn't she tell you?"

"Yes, but-"

"I thought of you getting home in the evening, lying down on the mattress, switching on the motor, and then . . . " Ruttke made a graphic gesture. "Really, Harry, I'm seriously beginning to wonder what's the matter with you. First you let my nephew croak, then you pin Istvan up against the wall, now you're asking questions about my well-intentioned gift as if I'd been trying to poison you . . . maybe you need a few days' vacation? A little trip to Florida. To cool off."

Of course Harry didn't take any vacation. Leaving the field clear for Istvan, if only for a week, was out of the question just now.

June came, and it was still raining. Harry got through the day's work, quarreled with Jessica, and hoped for better times to come. It worked after a fashion-not very well, but it worked. His idea of a great coup that would change everything was soon forgotten in the course of the daily grind.

Until he made another mistake: a journalist had tricked him with a story of former Stasi buildings for sale cheap, and made his way to the managerial floor of Ammersfeld International Cooperation and Management. Before the hoax was discovered the journalist had secretly taken photos of all the staff, and two days later they were printed in a daily paper along with a sensational article about the dubious wheeling and dealing of a certain real estate dealer who was on friendly terms with the Mayor of Berlin. The fuzzy black and white photographs looked like something out of criminal records.

Ruttke's bawling-out was phenomenal. He could be heard bellowing right out on the stairs. Then he told Harry to take two weeks off and threw him out of the office.

Harry spent the lunch hour sitting in a roofed garden restaurant, drinking tequilas, and making a plan. He and Jessica went to the steakhouse for dinner. They talked about Jessica's mother and other innocuous topics, and both of them tried to make it seem like a normal evening. Harry didn't mention being thrown out that morning. When he had paid, giving a princely tip in his delight at finding in Jessica in such an amenable mood, he said suddenly, "I'll soon be head of security on my own, by the way."

"Oh yes? Is Istvan leaving?"

"Who knows? Maybe." Harry grinned mischievously. "Anyway, I'm planning something really big, and after that I'll be Number One with Ruttke again. But don't tell anyone. Including Ruttke. I want it to be a . . . a surprise!"

Harry was so enthusiastic about his plan, and felt so strong, that he insisted on having his own way that night, and after a long time Jessica finally let him make love to her again. Harry enjoyed it, even if he felt now and then that Jessica's thoughts were elsewhere.

Long after she had fallen asleep he was still mentally putting the finishing touches to his plan. It was a brilliant idea! He was going to organize an assassination attempt on Ruttke and then rescue him-at a time and place where security was Istvan's responsibility. All he needed was some fool who'd like to earn twenty thousand marks in a hurry. He'd go and look for one in the east of the city tomorrow.

He kissed Jessica on the forehead and whispered, "Sleep well, my angel. Harry's back!"

Next day Harry bought a false mustache, a pair of glasses with plain lenses, a shabby gray suit, and several packs of Reval cigarettes. Since he didn't normally smoke he regarded them as the best part of his disguise. Then he hired a white Golf and drove into the east of Berlin. He spent the day in small, dark, out-of-the-way bars which he knew were frequented by former Stasi officers, drank beer, smoked Revals, and invited men of depressed appearance to drink schnapps. He made his offer three times: twenty thousand for a murder, the perfect getaway, no risk involved. It was refused three times. When he drove home in the evening he thought: no wonder the GDR collapsed, with such spineless security men!

But he tried again, and two days later a character who introduced himself as Ludwig spoke to him at the bar and said he'd heard Harry was looking for a man to "take someone out." Harry suggested a breath of fresh air, and explained the details under the roof of a bus stop. The man wanted two days to think it over. At the end of the week he agreed. Harry left him the first ten thousand in a locker, along with further instructions, and took the key of the locker to the place appointed. They'd agreed not to meet again.

On Sunday the sun was shining again at last, and Harry persuaded Jessica to go on an outing to Potsdam. They looked around the palace, ate at the Cäcilienhof that evening, and Harry was in such a good mood all day that in the end it infected Jessica too. Back home they sat on the terrace by candlelight for a while, drinking cognac, looked at the pit already dug in the garden for the swimming pool, and discussed the lighting effects they might choose for it. Jessica was fascinated by the idea of having water that glowed blood-red by night.

"By the way, you didn't tell me you were on vacation last week."

"Have you been talking to Ruttke?"

"Yes, he called and asked how you were."

"And what else?"

"Nothing else."

"Well, he'd call it a vacation to you. The fact is, I'm working on a special job."

"Aha." And suddenly she was smiling at him with the loving, intimate expression he hadn't seen on her face in a long time. "Seems to do you good, darling, working on something different for a change."

Much moved, Harry sat there. He saw her blue eyes shining over the cognac decanter in the candlelight. How he loved this woman.

"Yes," he said huskily. "It does do me good."

Two weeks later his moment came. That evening Ruttke was opening a holiday home that he had funded for child cancer victims from Chernobyl, and there was to be a barbecue attended by the high society of Berlin. The holiday home was beside the lake, where the temperatures had been around eighty degrees even at night for some time, and many of the guests stripped off their cocktail dresses and suits in the course of the evening and splashed about in the water. Ruttke made a short speech from the balcony, appealing for further donations, and the mayor then described Ruttke as "a founding father among our citizens, a man with a ready tongue and a big heart, and an all-embracing social conscience that helps out with deeds, not just words, where help is needed." The holiday home was christened the Ammersfeld Lakeside House, and there was much applause. Then a band played, and well-known stage and TV actors sang songs from the twenties. When the music began, Ruttke sat down at the table of honor on the bank of the lake. Security for the evening had been carefully organized, not least because only two days ago a fax had arrived from the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. They were threatening to blow up the whole of Berlin, with Ruttke in it, because the hand grenades recently delivered to them didn't ignite.

Istvan was responsible for the right-hand side of the bank as far as the street. Harry was looking after the left-hand side. While Ruttke sat at the table eating, they both stood about five yards away from him with their backs to the lake, their feet almost in the water, watching the terrain and the guests. At eleven Ludwig was to appear on the right-hand side of the roof of the house and try to shoot Ruttke. The roof sloped, which meant, as Harry had truthfully told the killer, that a man could easily jump down from it straight into a convertible parked on the street and drive away. But of course that part of it wasn't going to happen.

At quarter to eleven Harry unobtrusively took his pistol out of his shoulder holster and put it in his outside jacket pocket. At ten to eleven he took the safety catch off. A surreptitious glance showed him that Istvan was devoting all his attention to the closely entwined couples in the water. At five to eleven Harry looked at his watch for the last time. She was arriving at midnight, and she'd find a hero! A man in full control of his job who shot killers off rooftops while his colleagues were trying to catch a glimpse of naked tits in the water! Her husband! Her Harry! The savior of Ruttke! Ruttke, who was like a father to him . . .

And suddenly he thought of the air mattress again. It was a peculiar present. After all this, once he was a hero, he'd ask Ruttke in a firm but friendly way if it had really been just a surprise. Alone with Jessica in the bungalow that afternoon . . . a surprise, perhaps, but who for? And why?

Harry's gaze was fixed on the roof. Any moment now Ludwig ought to appear against the skyline and aim his gun at Ruttke. Harry's hand on his own pistol was sweating. Where the hell was the fool? He dared not look at his watch again. And then something strange happened: out of the corner of his eye Harry saw Ruttke laughing as he pushed the mayor down under the table.

At that moment something struck Harry hard in the back. Three shots from the opposite bank, all hitting their mark. Harry's legs gave way, he fell backward and splashed into the lake. The water around him turned red. He tried to work it out, but gave up when he realized that he had no time left, and the last thing he wanted to think about was Jessica's pale, delicate face, and how she really had been the love of his life.

That night Istvan met the man who had called himself Ludwig at an agreed place and gave him the other ten thousand marks.

To the press and the public, the case was clear: Harry had foiled an attempt to assassinate André von Ammersfeld at the cost of his own life. No one was contradicting that.

The funeral was at the end of June, and a week later Ruttke and Jessica met in the park one afternoon. They went for a walk. The sun shone and people were playing badminton on the grass. Jessica wore a little black dress.

" . . . But what I just don't understand is why he wanted to have you killed."

"Hm . . . " Ruttke drew on his Lord Extra. "You know what I think? I think it was on account of the air mattress."

"The air mattress?"

"He'd spun himself some story, don't ask me how, that you and I had something going."

"But that's total nonsense. I mean, sorry, but . . . "

Jessica glanced down at Ruttke, briefly but with unmistakable meaning. Ruttke laughed.

"Yes, I think it's ridiculous too. But he was asking me about the mattress in such a strange way, and . . . well, he did seem rather confused recently."

"My God, we had a perfectly ordinary quarrel! These things happen in the happiest marriages! And we were well on the way to making things up again . . ." Ruttke noticed her slightly reproachful undertone.

"My dear Jessica, there was nothing else for it! When you asked me on the phone if Istvan was really going to leave and Harry would be Number One on his own, I had Harry watched. I'd have had anyone watched. Don't you think it was a shock to hear he was going around the bars in the east of the city recruiting a killer for me? There was no turning back then. You think I ought to have gone to him saying, 'Dear Harry, please don't kill me'? Apart from which, Harry knew all about me, and if he was actually planning to dispose of me he'd certainly have talked about me to someone, some time, without hesitation. A man with a position like Harry's in my business is either loyal or dead."

"But you could at least have talked to him again!"

"What about? Pointing out what a loss I'd be to the world?"

They walked on in silence for a while.

". . . And why didn't you just get rid of him quietly instead of holding a public execution?"

"Well, I have to think of the rest of the staff and morale in the firm. A lot of people knew that Harry hadn't been happy recently, and it might have struck someone that a man who isn't happy with Ammersfeld International Cooperation and Management won't be laughing for long. Even if there was anything in that, I don't feel such assumptions are helpful to anyone. This way they all think he died doing his job. And not least, I was thinking of Harry himself: he'll be remembered as a hero. Though what good will do him . . . ah, well. By the way, it occurs to me, Harry is sure to have told you a few things about his work . . . I was thinking that a monthly pension of six thousand ought to help you get by. Get by well enough not to start thinking up anything stupid, anyway . . ."

Later, as they made their way to the park gates, Ruttke asked, "So apart from that, how are you doing? Managing reasonably well?"

"I'm just trying to keep busy so as not to brood over it. Istvan's been looking in now and then since the funeral. I didn't know he and Harry were such good friends. A nice guy. He goes dancing with me and so on . . . just to take my mind off things."

Translated from "Schwarze Serie," in Jacob Arjouni, Ein Freund (Zurich: Diogenes Verlag AG, 1998.) Copyright © 1998 by Diogenes Verlag AG. Translation copyright © 2006 by Anthea Bell. All rights reserved.

Read more from the August 2006 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.