Authors: JL Merrow
No woman is an island; a writer probably fails to be an entire archipelago. I’d like to thank all the people who helped me bring this story to completion: Sumisu, for local knowledge re Berlin; Stefanie for ensuring my Germans don’t act out of national character or mangle their native tongue; Verulam Writers’ Circle for general critique and good-natured ribbing; PD Singer and Lou Harper, for helping me to curb my natural tendency to ham up US dialect.
And as always, my wonderful friends and fellow authors, Josephine Myles and Penelope Friday. I couldn’t have done it without you.
All remaining errors are, of course, mine alone.
It was midnight in Berlin, and I was soaking wet and covered in feathers.
Seemed like as good a time as any to go hitchhiking.
See, I’d met these guys at a bar, and they said they were heading on down to the Tiergarten for some festival or other, did I want to come along? So I said yeah, because you know, why not? Plus I figured the best-looking one was kind of into me.
So I ended up in this massive tent on the Straße des 17. Juni, soaked to the skin—did I mention it was raining like the second coming of the fucking Flood? I kept looking around for some weird guy in a dress to come sailing up in a boat the size of Kansas and scoop up two of each animal, one male and one female, which is pretty damn heteronormative, if you ask me. The air was ripe with the odor of hot, wet bodies and alcohol.
We were drinking vodka straight out of the bottle and listening to—hell, I don’t know what you’d describe them as. A percussion band, I guess, except with a band, you’d expect some sort of musical instruments, you know? These guys had a car. Yeah, that’s right—a car. Which they were ripping to pieces and banging the shit out of with hammers and God knows what.
It was actually pretty good. Heavy. The kind of music you don’t hear so much as feel, deep in your sternum and in your soul. That makes your whole body vibrate, different parts to different notes, until you feel like some Stone Age tribesman banging rocks together. Like an artificial heart; as though if you got it just right, you could cheat death itself. It was…real, somehow. Intense.
Then some guy with a pillow climbed up on what was left of the hood. As he ripped the pillow in half, scattering feathers all over the crowd, we all jumped up to catch them, high on booze and that crashing beat. Though we didn’t catch many, we didn’t have to, because they fell right on down anyhow. And feathers? They meet wet clothes, they stick like shit to a blanket.
So there I was, covered in feathers, watching the hot guy and hoping… Well, hoping for a lot of things, but one of them sure as hell wasn’t what actually happened. Which was that he started sticking his tongue down the throat of some anorexic Goth chick. Despite the fact anyone could tell just by looking at her she wouldn’t blow him without a condom in case she accidentally swallowed some and put on an ounce.
It kind of put a dampener on the whole thing, though I’m damned if I know why I let it get to me like that—hell, it wasn’t like I’d been looking for a relationship or anything. What’s the point? Everybody leaves you in the end. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was seventeen, and it hasn’t gotten any less true over the dozen or so years since then.
So anyway, that’s about when I started thinking it was time to head on home. Well, home for the duration, which was actually some bargain-basement hostel on the wrong side of Charlottenburg. It seemed a hell of a lot farther away than it had on the way over, and the rain hadn’t stopped any, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll stick out my thumb, see what happens. Did I mention the drinking vodka out of the bottle part?
What happened was, a Porsche pulled up. Which kinda surprised me, because weather like this, it’s usually cheaper cars that stop. Your Porsche drivers tend not to empathize a whole lot with guys who have to walk home in the rain. Plus they tend to get pissy when you drip on the leather upholstery. “You want a ride?” the driver asked in German.
I was thinking
, but I didn’t say that, obviously, because for one thing, he was doing me a favor, and for another, he was kind of hot. More than kind of, I decided as I got a closer look. He was tall, at least as far as I could tell while he was sitting down. Lean and sort of wiry. Light brown hair, pulled back into a ponytail, like he’d been growing it since the Wall came down. Looked better on him than you’d think—he had the type of face you associate more with crew cuts, dueling scars and maybe a monocle, probably going by the name of von-something-or-other. Like in
The Prisoner of Zenda
—not the Stewart Granger movie, that was just a rip-off. The other one. The one with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert von Hentzau, throwing a knife at Ronald Colman. Damn, I love that scene. Good-looking and dangerous. Just how I like them.
And he was gazing at me like he’d been starving for a month and I was an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seemed like the night was looking up. I gave him my best smile as I climbed into the Porsche, where I buckled up and started shedding feathers. “Thanks. I’m Leon,” I told the guy. He nodded, and we shook hands briefly like we were in a business meeting or something. I didn’t snicker. Sometimes your good-looking guys can be touchy.
“Christoph.” His sleeves were rolled up, letting me admire the flexing of his tanned forearms as he turned the steering wheel with a firm grip, pulling away from the curb. “Had a good night in the park?” He sounded a lot more sympathetic than you’d expect, given what I was doing to his upholstery.
“It wasn’t so bad.” I let a little extra warmth seep into my voice. “Getting better all the time, I’d say.”
“Oh?” Christoph asked. He gave me a look slanting down across one sculptured cheekbone, like he knew what I’d been implying and he didn’t mind one bit.
I met that look and held it. “Oh, yeah,” I said, my voice deep with promise. “I’d say things are definitely looking up.”
A teasing smile hovered on his lips as he nodded. “It’s good to finally meet…someone like me.”
He’d been finding it hard to meet guys? I guess Christoph had never tried hanging around the Siegesäule on a summer evening. With his looks, he’d have been beating them off with a stick. He had to take his eyes off me to watch the road, but his gaze kept creeping back in my direction every time it got a chance. There was kind of a buzz about him, like suppressed excitement. Damn, this guy was seriously into me. I could live with that.
“What did you get, anyhow?” His eyes narrowed just a little. “Looks like duck.”
Which, when you think about it, is a weird thing to say, but right then I wasn’t listening to his words so much as his dialect. I’d lived in Germany before, and though I’d spent a couple years not speaking the language a whole lot, damn if it didn’t come right back the minute I set foot over the border. Well, most of it, anyhow. Enough so I was pretty good at recognizing accents. East German, this guy was. Ossie. He had that clipped way of speaking, kind of old-fashioned. Like the difference between a British accent and a US one, you know? I’d spent the last year in Britain ’til the weather got me down, so I knew what I was talking about. It was kind of attractive. Suited him.
“Or goose, perhaps?” Christoph was saying. “I can’t tell right now.” He shot me a disapproving look. “You reek of alcohol and cigarettes.”
Way to bust my bubble. I’d been wondering why a guy this hot was all on his own on a Saturday night in Berlin. “You always tell guys they stink five minutes after you’ve met them?”
Christoph laughed, which punched the guts out of my irritation with him. He had a whole different look when he laughed. Less Rupert von Hentzau, more Dan Brewster in
Joy of Living
. I liked it. I liked it a lot. “Only when it’s true,” he said. “You’re American?”
The last bit was in English, so I answered in kind, giving it my best corn-fed drawl. “Aw, shucks, what gave me away?”
He laughed again and switched back to German, which I appreciated. It pisses me the hell off when guys insist on using me to brush up their grade-school English. “Your accent is very good. It’s more a look you have about you.”
“Yeah? Most guys say I look Italian.” I’ve got dark eyes and curly dark hair, with the kind of beard that sprouts five o’clock shadow around thirty minutes after I finish shaving. Which has always been my excuse for leaving it a day or three.
Christoph shrugged. “Superficially, perhaps. But you don’t dress like an Italian, and the body language is all wrong. The way you move your hands when you talk, and the way you sit, even.” Christoph’s gaze flickered over me again. Oh, yeah. This guy was all over me—or at least, he was damn sure he wanted to be.
I gave him a long, slow look so he’d know the feeling was mutual. “Uh-huh? Anything else you can tell by the way I sit?” I asked, letting a hint of suggestion sidle into my tone.
He took his eyes off the road long enough to give me a thorough once-over this time. “Should there be?” he asked, one eyebrow raised and that teasing smile back on his lips.
“Well, depends what you might want to know about me.” I let my legs fall open a little wider on the car seat.
That caught his attention all right. His eyes darkened, and he drew in a long breath as if he could smell my fledgling arousal—and he wanted more. “Where are you based?” he asked, like I was with the armed forces or something.
Hell, maybe he thought I was. Shit—if he was looking for the kind of guy who’d be into barking orders like a drill sergeant, he was out of luck. “I’m living in Charlottenburg at the moment. But I like to move around. Keep my options open, you know how it is.” That ought to take care of the GI Joe question without me having to admit I was just bumming around from one country to another, getting crappy jobs whenever I ran out of money.
Christoph frowned. “How many of you are there?”
I laughed. “What, you were hoping I come in six-packs? Sorry to disappoint, but you’re looking at the one and only.”
It was weird—one moment he was with me, and then all at once he wasn’t anymore. The light went out of his eyes, and Christoph just stared out the windshield at the road ahead, his smile gone like I’d only dreamed it. The warm flame that had been flickering in my belly stuttered and fizzled. Maybe he really had been looking for a guy who’d tell him to drop and give him twenty.
“You’re from the old East Germany, am I right?” I tried to put a little banter back in the conversation. “And I’m getting that from the accent. If there’s some special way you guys sit, I haven’t figured it out yet.”
It fell flat. Damn. “I have a house near the Wannsee,” Christoph said vaguely, like his mind wasn’t really on the question. Which wouldn’t have bothered me much, except I had a nasty feeling he wasn’t just distracted by my masculine charms.
“Yeah? Sounds like a classy piece of real estate.” I waited, but he didn’t take the chance to tell me all about the place, so I pressed on. “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an architect.” Shit. My mom would love him. I opened my mouth to make some crack or other, but Christoph spoke again. “So, you are alone?”
Which was…kind of a weird way of putting it. Hell, I wasn’t even sure
he was asking. Did he mean, was I unattached and maybe interested? In which case, where the hell had he been for the last fifteen minutes? But if it was more along the lines of, will anyone miss you when I dismember your body and bury it in several unmarked graves, then okay, I was thinking this might just be my stop. “I’m pretty good at making friends when I travel,” I hedged. “Hell, I was with some just now. Guys I met at a bar.”
” Christoph actually thumped the steering wheel as he said it. Hard.
It kind of focused my mind on what else might get hit around here, and I was starting to think maybe buttoning my lip might be a damn good survival tactic. I mean, sure, I figured our weight was around even, but he had the reach, and crazy people don’t care about getting hurt. “Hey, lighten up already! Jeez, touchy much?”
“You call them your friends, yet you’re willing to put them at risk—to put all of us at risk? You’ve been drinking, and you reek of people,” he snarled at me. I mean really, he snarled. His teeth were bared—and the thought hit my mind, obviously those Eastern bloc dentists weren’t as bad as they were made out to be, because those pearly whites were strong, even and just a little too pointy on the canines. It made me wonder how far we were from Transylvania, as the bat flies—then I gave myself a mental shake because seriously, vampires? What the hell had been in that vodka bottle?
“Uh, yeah, sorry, that was real thoughtless of me,” I said soothingly. “Say, you, uh, you wanna keep your eyes on the road? In fact, you know what? I can walk from here. You can set me down anywhere now.”
“I don’t think so,” Christoph told me, his voice so damn cold I started to shiver. I also started to pay a bit more attention to the road signs. I didn’t get any warmer when I realized we’d driven all through Charlottenburg while I was checking out his damn teeth. We were passing through Grunewald, heading toward the Wannsee. I’d been there in daylight, so I knew it was a beautiful place with an ugly history, but all I could see right then were the shadows of the trees closing in overhead as we headed farther and farther off the beaten track.