The large cities in Germany are as culturally and ethnically diverse as those in America. If you believe Germany to be a country of blue eyes and blonde hair, get over it. That fantasy exists only in tourist brochures.
Jesse raised his gaze to the ornate stonework of the building across the street, to the gargoyles perched under the eves as though about to leap upon passersby. Those stone creatures made him think of his own monsters: the men hunting him.
They could be right outside with backs pressed against the wall, weapons poised, waiting to burst through the door. As always he tried to push the fear away with exercise. Faster and faster he jumped. The rope sang as it sliced through the air.
When the door burst open the jump rope flew out of his hand and he ran a few steps. But then he saw who it was and relaxed.
"You alone?" Bartholomew said with a Jamaican accent, rushing inside with a bundle of bamboo under his arm. He stood like a prize fighter with wide shoulders and trim waist and a smile that made everyone like him, the perfect smile for a ladies’ man. The colored beads in his dreadlocks clicked together as he turned right and left.
"Yeah, I’m alone."
"Okay, okay. Now listen here," he said, dumping the bundle on the couch. "Mahn, I have something to show you."
Jesse walked across the empty hall of an apartment. "Did you look at that car I told you about?"
Bartholomew turned from the question and opened the door, waving into the hallway. "Come, come, come," he said, stepping back as a woman led some African children into the room.
Jesse thought she might be Greek or Egyptian. As he nodded hello he pulled Bartholomew toward the corner kitchen of white press board cabinets. He felt a burning sensation in his face and leaned close. "You bring strangers here? Are you stupid? Our records are here. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Listen, mahn—" Bartholomew knocked his hands away and stepped back. "Those children were smuggled here for the sex trade. They need help. This is not selling our wrecked cars. This is serious. Besides, you been running around with those street kids all week. I thought you had the great escape plan."
"The police won’t find any records if the plan goes well." He wanted to strike Bartholomew, but instead whispered: "You gave me your word you’d finish our car deal." Then he lowered his head and walked toward the huge industrial window of a hundred panes in cold metal frames. He felt disappointed and alone, wondered if the gargoyles on the building across the street were watching him.
The old floor boards groaned as Jesse walked, stepping on thick dark lines that marked where walls had once stood. "Maybe it's time for me to leave. I’m sick of Germany anyway … cold feet, months without the sun. I could go to Mexico and soak up the sun like a lizard. Yeah, I’ll build a palapa with a palm leaf roof, and stretch out in a hammock—just leave the rat race behind." He stared across the room where the projector of his mind was playing a movie about Mexico.
Bartholomew walked over. "We can still sell the cars. I just have to help these kids. You understand, don’t ya?"
At the window Jesse placed his hands on the sill as though to jump up, looked down at his swollen fingers, then glanced to the street below. On the sidewalk he saw a Turkish kid with curly hair trying to juggle a couple of apples. Fear jolted him upright as if he had seen a car about to run him over. "Bart, it’s the signal! One of the street kids is juggling. Something’s about to hit the fan. Shit. We got trouble!" He ran across the room.
"What trouble?" Bartholomew leaned over and put his arms around the children, then rushed to the door and peeked through the spy hole.
"It's Rashnew, down on the sidewalk. There’s police on the street. They must think you’re dealing hash again. From the rack beside the door Jesse lifted his jacket, fumbled with the buttons, then cursed and gave up when his fingers wouldn’t respond. "Come on!"
A faint knock sounded through the apartment.
Jesse pressed his shoulder against the door and whispered, "Rashnew?"
"Yeah. Open up."
He opened the door a crack.
"There's a cop watching your building. He's dressed like a bum, but it's a cop." Rashnew shuffled his feet and looked right and left. His fingers raced over the buttons of his wrinkled, plaid shirt. Every few seconds the teenager jerked his hand up and flicked a strand of curly hair from his eyes.
"Are you sure he's a cop?"
"Jesse!" A loud noise, like someone moving a sofa in another apartment, reverberated along the corridor and the adolescent jumped like a cat startled into full alert, poised to attack or flee. "He's a cop. When I was six I could spot one in a crowd. You have to believe me."
"Okay. Make the call and get your friends in place, just the way we practiced. Here's fifty Euros."
"Fifty? You think we’ll risk jail for fifty lousy Euros?"
"All right. Here! Remember the signal." He shoved several notes into Rashnew’s shirt pocket, closed the door and turned the dead bolt with a shaking hand.
"Bart! Someone's watching the building. I have to get the records out of here." He raced across the room to the desk and shoved a stack of papers inside, then pulled an ice pick from the wall. The calendar it supported dropped to the floor.
"Oh no! What about the children? We got big trouble, brudder." Bartholomew ran from the door to the window, gripped the sill and stared at the street below.
"Erase the bulletin board. Burn the answering machine. Follow the plan. Go!" Jesse swung the pack over a shoulder, pulled his collar tight around his neck and flipped the dead bolt.
"I’m trying to tell you something!" Bartholomew fired a volley of punches into the air.
"Oh shit! Bart, why are you wearing that jacket?" Jesse turned from the door and closed it. His mouth hung open and the pack fell to the floor.
"I be talkin’ big here. I have children to protect. And you’re asking about my jacket?"
"You have three jackets: Your strutting ladies’ man tuxedo you cut the tails off with my scissors, your Texas blazer, and that one, your bad-ass dealing jacket." Jesse marched across the room and snapped an open hand chop to Bartholomew’s throat that stopped just short. His hand and face contorted and painful sounds emanated from his throat as he fought for self restraint, anger and sorrow screaming inside him for violence. "How could you?" he whispered, lowering his gaze.
"I been trying to tell you." Bartholomew shook his hands in the air.
"Listen," shouted the woman, unlocking the door. "I have to take these children away from here. Call me later."
Jesse couldn’t think about her or the children. Right now his life depended on getting the records away from the police and staying free. "Why didn’t you tell me? The police could crash through the door any second."
"We had a deal! We sell some cars. Maybe we don’t pay tax, but it’s not dope."
"This is hash, ganja mahn. It makes you laugh and happy. No one dies from the ganja, brudder. Besides, it’s not yours."
"Tell that to the police when they break down our door." Jesse lowered his head, feeling sad and tired.
"Look, the money from the hash is for those children. That’s the only thing that could make me sell again."
"They touched my heart, brudder." Bartholomew patted his chest with a forceful blow. "I know this is a good thing."
"What about our business? The money from the cars keeps me alive! People are hunting me. If I don’t get out of Germany soon they’re going to crack my skull like a melon." He moaned and rubbed his face as if waking up. "Damn, how could you put me in this spot? You know I don’t touch that stuff."
He ripped open Bartholomew’s jacket. Buttons fell to the floor and rolled about as he pulled a block of hashish from the inside pocket. "Either I get this out of here or I go to prison. Don’t ever put me in this position again, you understand?"
He put the hash into the pack, shoved it against Bartholomew’s abdomen and ran to the door. "Wait for the signal. Tomorrow we’ll talk, if we’re not in jail."
Jesse descended the stairs in huge leaps and bumped several people as he burst out the front door. The smell of lamb kebobs and falafels filled the air. Bars and cafés lined the narrow, one-way streets. Turkish markets added color with pyramids of apples and persimmons on sidewalk tables. The sidewalks were full of hungry students being called to the Mensa, the university cafeteria. Twice a day it called its faithful home for a cheap, balanced meal. And every student, every street person, knew the schedule.
He walked on tiptoes, peering over the heads of people around him, searching for movement in shadowy doorways, among groups of loitering students, between parked cars, but saw nothing unusual. Just as he exhaled a sigh of relief, he noticed a man standing in a doorway across the street.
"You see him?" Rashnew bumped his arm.
Jesse looked at the stranger once more, the dirty, torn overcoat, bits of leaves in his hair, and the hat held out to pedestrians. "Look at his shoes."
"You always go for the easy stuff first." Rashnew laughed.
"Easy stuff? Okay, Mister Street Smart, let me hear your deductions."
The adolescent cleared his throat, stretched his arms out before him and wiggled his fingers like a circus magician.
"Listen to a master at work: First of all, his hands and nails are clean."
"How the heck can you see his nails?" Jesse leaned forward and squinted.
"Second, not taking into account the black leather shoes that every cop in Germany wears, how many winos have a gold chain around their neck?" Rashnew nodded and held out his hand. "Five Euros!"
"Five Euros? For what?"
"But you missed something." Jesse held up a finger to make a point, and glanced across the street. Instead of holding the hat before him, as he had a moment earlier, the man stood shouting into a cell phone.
"Shit. Go Rashnew, go!" He pushed the boy away and watched him run along the sidewalk. Now he knew the threat was real. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, accepting his fear and letting it flow through him. If the police found his business records it no longer meant a simple tax violation. The hashish in the bag meant prison time. That he could not risk. He would sacrifice his own life before getting captured. In his mind he saw the escape plan: get the records out of the apartment, carry them to the Nippes strassenbahn stop, and let the street kids do their magic.
When he opened his eyes he counted, five, four, three, took out the ice pick, twisted the handle into the palm of his hand, which caused a searing pain to burn up his arm. Anger rose inside him with the pain, making him anxious and alert. And standing on the corner, surrounded by pedestrians, he saw no one. He was alone, free, not part of any person’s life, and he loved it that way. His hand burned as he lowered the weapon and waited for the traffic light to turn red. When the signal changed and several cars stopped before him, he stepped into the street and placed the tip of the shaft against the lead car’s tire. In the sidewall, he knew, there could be no patch, and by puncturing two tires, a spare would not solve the problem. New tires would be needed, and that meant no movement along the street. Leaning forward, he pushed the ice pick until a burst of air touched his hand, and then moved to the next tire, the next car.
When the light changed the cars rolled forward and stopped. Horns blared. A fat, balding driver jumped from his black sedan, looked at his flat tires and shouted into a cell phone. Jesse sprang forward, weaving among pedestrians as he ran. With traffic clogging the narrow street, it would be about an hour before a police car could get close.
He turned into one of the narrow driveway tunnels built for horse-drawn carriages, and sprinted to a brick wall behind his apartment building. There he leaped and climbed a bit before his muscles locked up, an arm and a leg on either side of the wall, sirens screaming in the distance. His heart pounded like a hammer on an oil drum, and he panted, wiped his face and looked at his shaking hand. Staring at the swollen, red fingers and knuckles, he remembered his four-year-old son holding that hand, singing as they walked from the Danish summer house to buy bread on a warm morning. He remembered the sky filled with singing birds. As love for his son filled him, his muscles unlocked and his breathing returned to normal. Jesse gulped in air, jumped to the wet concrete and ran across the parking lot. When he reached the rear of his apartment building, he tapped on a drainpipe until a window opened.
"Here, don’t miss it." Bartholomew dangled a red pack in the air.
Jesse caught it and shoved it beneath his coat. Over the screaming sirens he heard whistles and the shouts of police within the building. Inside his jacket he now carried a prison term, and doing time meant no more running, no more freedom. If arrested he would be locked in a cage, waiting to be butchered, unable to flee the men who had pursued him for so long.
"They're breaking down our door!" Bartholomew shouted.
Jesse hopped from one leg to the other and lunged forward, his feet barely touching the gravel as he ran, and jumped the wall. He remembered his son’s face, and felt rage tingle in every muscle. All he had to do was reach the strassenbahn and ride to the Nippes station, where the team was waiting. If he got that far the threat of prison would vanish.
"Get him!" someone screamed.
He landed on the far side of the wall, legs hurling him forward, pushing for greater speed, arms swinging high, scrapping the fabric of his jacket. At the end of the tunnel he stopped running and sauntered along with shoppers on the sidewalk, never looking back or wiping the sweat from his eyes. After several minutes, he pulled the pack from beneath his jacket and swung it over a shoulder. Everywhere he looked he saw students with back packs. Finding him would be a policeman’s nightmare.
Something struck his shoulder as he crossed the streetcar platform. He gasped, snapped his arm up for protection and spun around ready to scream and strike, to crush a windpipe or a man’s testicles, anything to escape.
"I'm sorry," a woman said. "You're just kicking everyone today." She tapped the foot of the child in her arms and cooed.
He felt his panic escape like air from a balloon, and waited among shoppers and students as the streetcar creaked and glided forward. People shuffled into the carriage ahead of him, stamped tickets at the machines and moved to seats. He dropped into a hard plastic bench, but felt too nervous and confined to sit and jumped up as an old man moved to sit beside him. Jesse said excuse me and moved past him, into the standing area of the car, pressed his back against the window. The doors closed with a burst of escaping air, but that noise seemed weak compared to the screech of brakes which shot through the carriage.
He bent down to get a better view of the intersection, and watched a green and white squad car skid to a halt in a cloud of burnt tires. A civilian car tried to avoid it, spun out of control and hopped up the curb. The police car doors burst open as four patrolmen jumped out. Two ran toward Jesse and pounded on the streetcar door. As the strassenbahn groaned and rolled forward, he blew them a kiss.
Three stops down the line, in the long underground station of Nippes, he left the streetcar with most of the shoppers and searched the station, knowing the police would soon arrive. When he couldn’t locate his helpers he panicked, jerked the pack from his shoulder, ran a few steps like a javelin thrower, and just before letting go, he saw a familiar face.
A bum in a filthy trench coat, lying at the end of the underground station,
six beer bottles beside him, climbed to his feet, pulled his shopping basket away from the wall and argued with himself as he lumbered toward the crowd. Suddenly the bum snapped to attention and looked beyond the passengers, toward four policemen running onto the platform."Go!" shouted the bum, shoved two fingers into his mouth and whistled. Before the whistle died, he pulled a blanket from his shopping basket, revealing two packs identical to Jesse's, and sent the cart speeding across the platform. With a quick movement he knocked the hat and wig from his head and dropped the trench coat, becoming a fit teenager in a jogging suit.
Jesse grabbed the cart, dumped his pack inside, and sent it speeding back.
Two adolescents joined the runner, making a trio of identical jogging suits. Each grabbed a bag, leaped onto the tracks and disappeared into the tunnels.
Whistles and shouts filled the station as Jesse ran up the stairs.
"Halt!" shouted a policeman. As Jesse passed the patrolman jumped over the center railing and hit him across the thigh with a night stick.
He dropped like a bag of cement and struck a step with his forehead. His vision turned black. A jolt of electricity shot through his brain and tingled in every nerve. Warm blood ran down his face. He struggled to open his eyes, felt his arms twisted behind him, and cold handcuffs clamped on his wrists. Someone patted him down. His feet struck each step as policemen dragged him along. When the movement stopped something warm and smooth pressed against his cheek, and Jesse managed to open one eye.
"The same damn shoes," he whispered.