They say it is rare to have good reason to leave Berlin.
In the summer you have Wannsee, where the beaches are
powdered and cool, and where for a few pfennigs even a clerk and his
girl can manage a cabana for the day. The cold months bring the Ice
Palast up near the Oranienburger Gate, or a quick trip out to Luna
Park for the rides and amusements, where a bit of cocoa and schnapps
can keep a family warm for the duration. And always there is that
thickness of life in the east, where whiskey (if you're lucky) and flesh
(if not too old) play back and forth in a careless game of half-conscious
decay. No reason, then, to leave the city with so much to
keep a hand occupied.
And yet she was emptynot truly empty, of course, but thin to the
point of concern. A phenomenon had descended on Berlin in early
February, something no one could control or predict. Naturally they
could explain it, but only in the language of high science and complexity.
For the rest, it was simply Weisserhimmelwhite skydays on
end of a too-bright sun without the sense to generate a trace of heat.
Every forty years or so, it came as a faint reminder of the city's Nordic
past, but history was not what Berliners chose to see. They were
unnerved, their world made too clear, and so they left: businesses took
unexpected holidays, schools indefinite recesses. It would all pass in a
few days' time, but in the meanwhile, only the stalwarts were keeping
the city alive.
Still, a few hours on the outskirts of town could do wonders. The
sun might have been no less forgiving, but at least the surroundings
were unfamiliar for a reason. Nonetheless, Nikolai Hoffner continued
to glance into his rearview mirror as he drove. The Berlin he saw
seemed compressed, small, her reflection strangely misleading. Even
distance was doing little to help. He knew it best not to stare.
Instead, he opened his mouth wide and chanced a look at his teeth;
they seemed to shake with the car's motion. The tooth, he had been
told, would have to come out. Funny, but it didn't look all that different
from the others, a bit thick, crooked, yellowed by tobacco. Hoffner had little faith in doctors, but he believed in pain, and that
was enough. He was meant to rub some sort of ointment on his gums
every few hours, at least until he could make time for an appointment.
He was finding a brandy worked just as well.
The road to Neubabelsbergthe new road to Neubabelsbergwas
straight and smooth, and for the price of a few pfennigs had you out
to the film studios in less than half an hour. Someone had had the
brilliant idea that Berlin needed a racing circuit, an asphalt totem
to Mercedes and Daimler and Cadillacalthough no one spoke of
Cadillacthat ripped through the satiny pine needles and heavenly
green leaves of the Grunwald. There had always been something of
an escape when it came to the woods and lakes and beaches of the
great, untamed forest. Now even that was gone, or going, eighteen
kilometers uninterrupted. It seemed to dull everything.
With a quick press of the accelerator, Hoffner decided to test the
old car. The exhaust roared and a hum rose as the rubber tires heated
on the road. That was always the trick: to smell when they had
reached their limit. These had the tang of disarmament surplus, the
good military stuff that appeared now and then from some unknown
warehouse. Everyone knew not to ask.
A big Buick hooted angrily from behind, and Hoffner checked his
mirror again: the car had come from nowhere. He waved the driver
on and watched as first the radiator, then the cabin, raced by. The
Kriminalpolizei had yet to invest in speed. It would take something
else to catch the criminals.
There was a sudden thud to his undercarriagea parting gift from
the Buickand Hoffner waited for the agonizing scrape of metal on
asphalt, but none came. Still, there might have been a puncture, or
something wedged in where it wasn't meant to be. Not that Hoffner
knew anything about a car's tending-to, but he reckoned he should
take a look. After all, he would need a bit of grease on his face and
hands to show at least some effort to the boy they would be sending
out to tow him.
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