From one to another the focus switched suddenly, and instead of the swift-moving clouds blotting out the sidewalk like a Rorschach test on dope, he was left contemplating his own grim reflection in the bar’s strip-lit window. His deep-sunk eyes stared back at him, and no matter how hard he tried, they wouldn’t convey more than mild reproach.
“Anuzzer Visky?” The voice came through clearly enough, but Ray, nonchalantly tipping and twisting his glass, took a moment to realise that the server was stood over him awaiting his order.
“No. Thank you,” Ray replied, turning back to the reflection in the glass. He knew that the drinking had to stop. Had known for years. But as hard as he tried, he couldn’t find a way out. Christ! Just look at yourself, he just about managed to think, rather than say. Scotch. Fedora. You’re a living cliché… No, worse. You’re the cliché that is a living cliché… He cursed all those detective stories he’d endured and downed the dregs of his drink; before the ice had rattled to its final resting place, he was out of the door. Next to his seat stood the empty glass and a dreary fedora – the remnants of nigh on twenty years of living by the book.
* * *
“Sternschanze.” The old man had either just sneezed, or was invoking some kind of ancient curse.
“Bless you?” ventured Candy. She figured it counted for either possibility.
Nachtigall’s face, distorted through the outside of his silvered magnifying glass, stared into the space just to the left of her shoulder. “They are being drawn zere.” Surveying her features, Nachtigall correctly surmised that this was Candy’s ‘did-I-just-miss-something?’ face. “These persons in ze first book. From all zose years ago. Symbols and signs to lead zem to ze Schanzenviertel – to Sternschanze.”
* * *
Half-hidden by the lengthening shadows, Ray’s fascination with the shapes and swirls of the mural adorning the wall across the street brought him suddenly shoulder to shoulder with another body and out of his strange reverie.
“Excu…” he began, spinning backward and around to his right, graffiti colours still spinning behind his eyes as his whole person seemed to switch into a perversely painful slow motion. But before he could reach the third syllable, he found himself locking onto a pair of strangely familiar eyes, swathed in folds of clothing which nonetheless drifted in and out of focus beneath the remnants of the mural which floated behind his eyes.
When he’d spun fully around, his body sped up once again, and he found himself stumbling into another passer-by and nearly knocking the young woman off of her feet. Apologising, and simultaneously turning back toward the familiar, but disappearing pair of eyes, he caught only a tail of black cloth turning a corner at the end of the street.
Even a fedora-less Ray Delaney hadn’t lost all of his detective instincts. The street sign on the corner read schulterblatt. Ray followed, and hung a left. He wouldn’t lose the same trail twice in one day.
* * *
A thin layer of icy snow covered the steps leading out of the tram station, and Candy shimmied carefully out onto the street, while Nachtigall followed with feet so light that he barely made a sound. “So how does it go again?” she asked.
“Stern…” enunciated Nachtigall slowly. “…schanze. It iss from a militäry term. A point in a bättle where one must face one’s enemy with courage. And, one hopes also, a plan.”
“Seems like a weird name for a train station.”
“Yes, yes. But we go here,” replied the old man, pointing to a street name on an equally ancient map which he withdrew from his inside pocket. Candy looked over his shoulder as he caught up with her, but couldn’t make out the word through the haze of calligraphic typeface. “Here iss their base – I know it from many yearss ago, when they wanted my help, and I sink I can find it once more. And now…” He paused for what seemed like a full minute, but really amounted to no more than a dramatic moment. “Now I know what zey want from zese persons. What zey want from Ray…”
“And that is…” began Candy’s red lips. But there was no way she was going to unwrap this particularly German enigma after years of the same mysterious persona.
“Komm, komm, mein Schatz. We must find Ray – and ze others – before zey are trapped forever.” On which, Joachim Nachtigall dropped his creased map in his re-energised hurry to get away.
Time elapsed. Light changed. And a bare hand reached out to grab the fluttering edge of the remnants where the two had stood. A figure, wrapped in black furls and folds of cloth, somehow managed to evade the eyes of passers-by as it read the single, circled word which signalled the end of a chapter for some rather reckless would-be heroes. The map dropped again, as though of its own accord, to the ground. The single, circled word read: schulterblatt.
* * *
It was cold. Cold and damp. And the throbbing in his temples, though seeming to subside, still felt like jackhammers on speed. Whatever the hell that feels like, thought Ray Delaney, as he lifted his head, then his upper body, from…from something. The pain spread across his forehead as he tried to remember what exactly had happened. The street sign. He remembered the street sign, then a left turn, then –
“Aaaghh,” came the guttural scream from the pit of some organ which was probably in the midst of stress-related failure, as Ray’s mind drew a black veil across whatever had happened after that left hand turn.
The cold, damp slab which he could feel through his trenchcoat and beneath his back and calves suddenly became the least of Ray’s brain’s concerns as he found himself sat up in the middle of a concrete, strip-lit room, bare but for a fading symbol – consisting of a cherubic figure bearing some kind of torch beneath a low-hanging cloud – painted on the wall. A concrete, strip-lit room, empty but for…
Ray swivelled around and away from the door. Empty but for a dozen or so other men and women stood near the far wall, and an accompanying, and rising, level of anxiety.