Prologue | THE INVISIBLE MAN
AT TEN O’CLOCK on a moonless September evening, Chris Schneider slipped toward a long-abandoned building on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, his mind whirling with dark images and old vows.
Late thirties, and dressed in dark clothes, Schneider drew out a .40 Glock pistol and eased forward, alert to the dry rustle of the thorn bushes and goldenrod and the vines that engulfed the place.
He hesitated, staring at the silhouette of the building, recalling some of the horror that he’d felt coming here for the first time, and realizing that he’d been waiting almost three decades for this moment.
Indeed, for ten years he’d trained his mind and body.
For ten years after that he’d actively sought revenge, but to no avail.
In the past decade, Schneider had come to believe it might never happen, that his past had not only disappeared, it had died, and with it the chance to exact true payback for himself and the others.
But here was his chance to be the avenging angel they’d all believed in.
Schneider heard voices in his mind, all shrieking at him to go forward and put a just ending to their story.
At their calling, Schneider felt himself harden inside. They deserved a just ending. He intended to give it to them.
By now he’d reached the steps of the building. The chain hung from the barn doors, which stood ajar. He stared at the darkness, feeling his gut hollow and his knees weaken.
You’ve waited a lifetime, Schneider told himself. Finish it. Now.
For all of us.
Schneider toed open the door. He stepped inside, smelling traces of stale urine, burnt copper, and something dead.
His mind flashed with the image of a door swinging shut and locking, and for a moment that alone threatened to cripple him completely.
But then Schneider felt righteous vengeance ignite inside him. He pressed the safety lever on the trigger, readying it to fire. He flicked on the flashlight taped to the gun, giving him a soft red beam with which to dissect the place.
Boot prints marred the dust.
Schneider’s heart pounded as he followed them. Cement rooms, more like stalls really, stood to either side of the passage. Even though the footprints went straight ahead, he searched the rooms one by one. In the last, he stopped and stared, seeing a horror film playing behind his eyes.
He tore his attention away, but noticed his gun hand was trembling.
The hallway met a second set of barn doors. The lock hung loose in the hasp. The doors were parted a foot, leading into a cavernous space.
He heard fluttering, stepped inside, and aimed his light and pistol into the rafters, seeing pigeons blinking in their roost.
The smell of death was worse here. Schneider swung his light all around, looking for the source. Large rusted bolts jutted from the floor. Girders and trusses overhead supported a track that ran the length of the space.
Corroded hooks hung on chains from the track.
The footprints cut diagonally left, away from the doorway. He followed, aware of those bolts in the floor and not wanting to trip.
Schneider meant to look into the girders again, but was distracted by something scampering ahead of him. He crouched, aiming the gun and light at the noise.
A line of rats scurried toward a gaping hole in the floor on the far side of the room. The boot prints went straight to the hole and disappeared. He heard rats squealing and hissing as he got closer.
To the left of the hole stood a metal tube of a slightly smaller diameter than the hole. Atop it lay a sewer grate. To the right of the hole was a small gas blower, the kind used to get clippings off walkways.
Schneider stepped to the hole and shined the light into a shaft of corrugated steel. Ten feet down, the shaft ended in space. Four feet below that lay a gravel floor.
A female corpse was sprawled on the gravel. Rats were swarming her.
Schneider knew her nonetheless.
He’d been searching for her all over Berlin and Germany, hoping against hope that she was alive.
But he was far, far too late.
The desire for vengeance that had been a low flame inside Schneider fueled and exploded through him now. He wanted to shoot at anything that moved. He wanted to scream into the hole and call out her killer to receive his just due.
But then Schneider’s colder, rational side took over.
This was bigger than him now, bigger than all of us. It wasn’t about revenge anymore. It was about bringing someone heinous into the harsh light, exposing him for what he was and what he had been.
Go outside, he thought. Call the Kripo. Get them involved. Now.
Schneider turned and, sweeping the room behind him with the light, started back toward the hallway. He had taken six or seven steps when he heard what sounded like a very large bird fluttering.
He tried to react, tried to get his gun moving up toward the sound.
But the dark figure was already dropping from his hiding spot in the deep shadows above the rusted overhead track.
Boots struck Schneider’s collarbones. He collapsed backward and landed on one of those bolts sticking up from the floor.
The bolt impaled him, broke his spine, and paralyzed him.
The Glock clattered away.
There was so much fiery pain Schneider could not speak, let alone scream. The silhouette of a man appeared above him. The man aimed his flashlight at his own upper body, revealing a black mask that covered his nose, cheeks, and forehead.
The masked man began to speak, and Schneider knew him instantly, as if three decades had passed in a day.
“You thought you were prepared for this, Chris, hmmm?” the masked man asked, amused. He made a clicking noise in his throat. “You were never prepared for this, no matter what you may have told yourself all those years ago.”
A knife appeared in the masked man’s other hand. He squatted by Schneider, and touched the blade to his throat.
“My friends will come quicker if I bleed you,” he said. “A few hours in their care, and your mask will be gone, Chris. No one would ever recognize you then, not even your own dear, sweet mother, hmmm?”
AT A QUARTER to four the following Sunday morning, Mathilde “Mattie” Engel wove through the crowd jammed into Tresor, a legendary underground nightclub set inside an old power plant in the hip Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
In her thirties, strong and attractive, Mattie reached a series of industrial passageways that linked the club’s two huge dance floors. She yawned and ran her fingers through her short, spiked blond hair as electronic music throbbed and echoed all around her.
Mattie’s roving sapphire eyes took in the graffiti-lined walls, the smoky air, and all the hard-core partiers trying to make their Saturday night last until midmorning at least.
A stocky Eurasian man appeared in the hallway ahead of Mattie. He had a tattoo of a spiderweb beneath his left eye.
“The countess still here, Axel?” Mattie asked, loud enough to be heard.
The man with the spiderweb tattoo jerked his head back in the direction he’d come from. “She’s with the Argentine. They’re on something stronger than booze, weed, or blow. I’m guessing ecstasy.”
“Just as long as it’s not crystal,” Mattie replied. “I hate tweakers.”
“You’re on your own in any case,” Axel warned. “I can’t have your back on a gig like this.”
“Think it will ruin your image as a creature of the night?” Mattie said.
“Private will send you a finder’s fee.”
Axel grinned. “Even better. Thanks, Mattie.”
She nodded. “Do I have a clean way out of there?”
“Fire exits at both ends of the floor.”
Axel thought about that. “I’ll make a call. The bar. You’ll have to dance.”
Mattie slapped Axel’s big palm and moved by him toward the entrance to the dance floor. She got out her cell phone as she walked, flipped it open, and called up a school picture of a brunette teenager.
The Countess Sophia von Mühlen of Austria was seventeen. A week ago she ran off with her father’s polo instructor, a thirty-three-year-old Argentine scoundrel and fortune hunter named Raul Montenegro.
In exactly four days, the countess would turn eighteen and of age to wed.
Which is what the countess’s family was desperately trying to avoid, and why Private Berlin had been hired to track her down and return her to Vienna.
Sophia’s mother had died three years before of a drug overdose. Her grandmother, the formidable Sarah von Mühlen, did not want the family name or fortune tarnished by further scandal, especially when Sophia’s father, Peter, a prominent politician in the Tyrol, was preparing to run for higher office.
“Spare no expense,” the grandmother had told Mattie. “Find her.”
Mattie had done just that, tracking the young countess via credit card charges and GPS data from her cell phone to the nightclub. Luckily she’d known Axel, the head of security at Tresor, since her days as a Kripo investigator with the Berlin Kriminalpolizei.
Mattie put away her cell phone and moved onto a dance floor packed with writhing, sweating bodies dancing to a convulsive mix laid down by a DJ named The Mover.
She angled toward the bar, nodding to the bartender, who was snapping shut his cell phone. She climbed up at the waitress’s station and began to dance her way down the bar in time with The Mover’s beat and riffs.
The crowd noticed and began to hoot and cry for her. Mat-tie smiled, playing the drunken chick. But her eyes moved everywhere until she spotted Sophia von Mühlen and her Latin lover on the other side of the room.
The countess’s arms hung around Montenegro’s neck. She was kissing his chest. His hands were roaming all over her.
Mattie looked beyond them for the fire escape doors.
But then the countess suddenly pushed away from the polo instructor, and wove unsteadily toward the hallway, a lucky break for Mattie, who jumped off the bar and caught up to her in the tunnel where she’d left Axel.
“Sophia?” she said and flashed her badge. “My name is Mattie Engel. I’m with Private Berlin. I’m here to take you home.”
Sophia laughed scornfully. “I’m eighteen. I can do what I want.”
“You’re not eighteen for another four days,” Mattie shot back in a no-nonsense voice. “Let’s go. And try not to make a scene.”
Sophia smiled. “I’m good at making scenes. Big ones. The kind that attract reporters.”
“Not on my watch,” Mattie said, grabbing the countess by the back of her elbow, and applying force to pressure points there.
“Owww,” Sophia whined, “you’re hurting me.”
“You’ll hurt more if you don’t move,” Mattie replied and began hustling the countess down the hallway, heading toward the main entrance to the club.
“Sophia! Hey! What do you do there?”
Mattie glanced over her shoulder to see the polo instructor, whacked on drugs and booze, angry, and storming after them.
Mattie held on to Sophia and flashed her badge at Montenegro. “Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be, Raul. She’s going home.”
Montenegro glowered. “She consents to be with me. She’s eighteen.”
“She might have consented to sex. But she’s not eighteen.”
The polo instructor’s shoulders dropped as if in submission. But then he rushed right at her.
Mattie let go of the countess and raised her hands to defend herself.
Montenegro tried to bat her hands away.
Mattie snatched his right hand and twisted it sharply toward the floor.
Montenegro grunted in pain and went to his knees, shouting, “Run, Sophia! Run!”
THE COUNTESS VON Mühlen was off like a shot.
She dodged by a girl with shocking pink hair, and started accelerating.
Mattie cursed, released Montenegro, and took off after the countess.
But it was almost impossible to keep up with her. Despite the drugs and alcohol in her system, Sophia proved nimble as she twisted and spun her way through the crowd.
“Stop that girl!” Mattie shouted, holding up her badge.
Instead, one wasted guy in his early twenties tried to block Mattie’s way. But she slid her right foot behind his leg, popped him in the chest, and sent him sprawling on his back.
Other people started yelling after Mattie just as she spotted Sophia running past Axel, who stood at the doors to the
The countess disappeared outside.
Somebody grabbed Mattie’s jean jacket from behind.
She twisted. It was Montenegro. She let her arms go limp and let the jacket slip off her. Then she kicked the polo player in the shin.
He screamed and fell.
Mattie scrambled after the countess, snapping at Axel, who watched in amusement, “You could have grabbed her or something.”
“And miss this fun?”
“Stop the crazy lover for me at least!” Mattie shouted over her shoulder.
She ran out onto the street without listening for the bouncer’s reply.
The sidewalk was lined with people still waiting to get into the club.
Mattie flashed her badge at them. “A girl just came out a minute ago. Where’d she go?”
The guy closest to her was sucking on a joint. He shrugged.
The girl behind him said, “I didn’t see her.”
Oh, for Christ’s sake, I lost her, Mattie groaned to herself. Damn it! She could just hear Sophia’s imperious grandmother ripping her apart for the blunder.
But then Mattie heard a groan and violent retching coming from behind a large Dumpster parked across the street.
“There goes the hundred euros she promised us,” the joint smoker said, sighing.
Mattie flipped him the finger and crossed the street. She looked behind the Dumpster, finding the Countess von Mühlen hunched over, and vomiting everything she’d churned up making her escape.
“C’mon now, Sophia,” Mattie said, helping her to stand after she’d finished and was just panting. “Let’s get you somewhere I can wash you up.”
For a moment the countess seemed not to know where she was, or who Mattie was, but then she started crying, “Where’s Raul?”
“He’s going to be lying low for a while,” Mattie said, taking gentler hold of her arm and steering her away from the club toward her car.
“I’ll get away,” Sophia vowed. “I’ll find him. We’ll be married.”
“When you’re eighteen you can do what you want. Until then there is someone who wants to talk some sense into you.”
“My father?” the countess replied with open contempt. “All he cares about is himself and his career.”
“Actually, it’s your grandmother who hired us.”
Mattie saw fear surface in Sophia, who said, “But I want to see my father.”
“I bet you do, but Oma’s calling the shots now.”
Something seemed to go out of the countess right then, all the hostility and fight certainly. She trudged along in a submissive posture until they reached the car, a BMW 335i from the Private Berlin pool.
When Mattie went to open the passenger side door, Sophia fell into her arms, blubbering, “I just wanted someone for myself. What’s so wrong with that?”
Mattie’s heart melted. “Nothing, Sophia, but...”
Mattie’s cell phone rang. She couldn’t do a thing about it. She held on to the young countess and let her sob her heart out.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, Mattie was driving the young countess through the streets of Berlin toward Tegel Airport. She checked her phone at last, seeing that the call had come from Katharina Doruk, her best friend as well as the managing investigator at Private Berlin.
At four in the morning?
She got Katharina’s voice mail and left a message: “Kat, it’s Mattie. Don’t worry. Got the package. Heading to the jet. Get some sleep.”
When Mattie hung up she heard snoring. Sophia was lights-out, face against the window, drooling from the corner of her mouth. Mattie prayed she wouldn’t get sick in the brand-new car. It still had that sweet leather smell.
Fortunately she reached the private air terminal at Tegel International without another accident. She roused Sophia, who looked around blearily, got out, and followed her as if in a trance.
The pilot was inside, filing his flight plan, and told Mattie to get Sophia aboard the jet.
They were entering the jet’s cabin when Mattie’s cell phone rang again.
“Mattie Engel,” she answered.
Mattie heard weight in her friend’s voice. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
There was a long hesitation before Katharina replied, “Chris is missing.”
Sophia went to a high-backed leather chair and plopped into it. “I need a Coke or something,” she said. “Maybe some rum in it.”
But Mattie ignored her and listened intently to her phone.
“He took personal leave early last week,” Katharina was saying. “He was supposed to be back the day before yesterday, but he never checked in. He still hasn’t. I’ve tried his cell, the house, e-mail, text. Nothing.”
This wasn’t like Chris Schneider at all, Mattie agreed. He was a careful, methodical detective, and a stickler for following the agency’s rules and procedures, which included checking in when you were supposed to.
“You try the chip?” Mattie asked at last.
The year before, Private employees around the world had been offered a small locator chip that could be embedded under the skin of the upper back so they could be found in case of emergencies. Mattie had balked at the idea, thinking that if it was misused it could turn totalitarian in nature.
But to her surprise, Schneider had agreed to the procedure.
“That’s why I was calling,” Katharina replied before hesitating again. “I’m lying in bed, couldn’t sleep after some voodoo tea my mother made me drink. And I was thinking that you could authorize it.”
“I don’t have that authority, Kat,” Mattie said.
“You’re the closest to it, Mattie.”
“Not anymore I’m not. Are you ready to report Chris missing to Kripo?”
“I don’t know. I’m confused. You know...he could be off with someone.”
Mattie hesitated, and then sighed. “I can’t control that.”
“I’d hate to send in a rescue team in that sort of situation.”
“I can see your dilemma, but I can’t help you. Look, you’re going to have to call Jack Morgan to get authorization.”
Morgan owned Private and ran its famous Los Angeles office.
“I put in a call to him an hour ago. He hasn’t gotten back to me.”
Mattie chewed on her lip, then said, “I’m sure he’s okay. But if he hasn’t checked in by noon, say, or if Jack hasn’t called in, we’ll activate the chip.”
“Unless you hear from me, I’ll be at the office at noon,” Katharina said.
“I’ll be there too,” Mattie promised, and hung up.
Outside, thunder boomed and through a porthole window she saw lightning split the sky. Rain began to drum on the roof of the aircraft. Mattie looked over at Sophia, who was watching her with genuine concern.
“Who’s Chris?” Sophia asked softly.
Mattie swallowed at a sick taste seeping into her throat, and then replied, “Until six weeks ago, countess, he was my fiancé.”
AS DAWN APPROACHES, I find myself standing in a room with mirrors for walls and ceiling, and a big round bed with red sheets.
I am naked in this room of mirrors, stripped of all disguises save one—the reconstructed face a surgeon in the Ivory Coast gave me twenty-three years ago.
I look at my face, this ultimate mask, and smile because no one would ever know that behind it is me, and because a rare beauty has agreed to join me here in this room of reflection and pleasure.
Except for the snakeskin stiletto heels, the stunning brown woman shutting the door is naked too. She’s from Guadeloupe, or so she says. Her name is Genevieve. Or so she says.
Whoever she really is, she smiles weakly as I set the canvas bag I carry on the bed.
“I have seen you around before,” she says in an uncertain French accent.
I don’t even blink. “Have you now?”
“I think.” She looks at my case and tenses. “What’s in there?”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It’s something rare and beautiful.”
She nods, but there’s no conviction in the gesture.
“You seem concerned,” I say.
She rubs her hands together. “Just nerves. One of my friends here, Ilse? She disappeared last week. You might have seen her. A spinner? German?”
I wave my hand dismissively. “I don’t remember names, my dear. They’re artificial. Made up. I mean, do you use your real name here, Genevieve?”
She hesitates, but then shakes her head.
“There you go now,” I say in a teasing, friendly manner. “It’s all a fantasy. You can be whatever person you want to be. Or anything you want to be. I am comfortable with that. Are you?”
Her eyes shift, pause, and then she nods the tiniest of nods.
“Good,” I say, but part of me feels a twinge of anxiety. Did she see me with Ilse? No. That’s impossible. I’m certain we were alone at all times.
And so I open the bag, revealing a primitive ivory and black leather mask crafted as a leering monster. The stain and lacquer finish is cracked with time, and burnished in places. But the lips have retained their deep henna color.
So have the areas around the slits cut for the wearer’s eyes.
“A Chokwe tribesman in the Congo made it a hundred years ago,” I tell Genevieve. “It’s very rare. It cost me a small fortune.”
I put the mask on, hooking the hemp straps that hold it to my face so I can see clearly through the eye slits.
The mask smells of Africa, of moldering wood and nutmeg and roasting peppers. My breath echoes inside the mask, slow and languid, like a leopard contemplating prey.
I gesture for Genevieve to lie down on her back on the bed. She’s staring at me, and at my mask, and there’s enough fear in her eyes that I feel myself stir and harden.
That, my friends, is just perfect. Her mind is playing games, inventing scenarios far worse than what I have in mind for a late, late-night delight.
Isn’t it interesting how that works, that the mere suggestion of threat stirs the darkest regions of the mind?
Sensing her fear, indeed feeding on it, I kneel next to Genevieve, caressing her soft cocoa breasts, and then slide my fingers into her bare mystery, all the time glancing around at the mirrors that surround me, admiring my newest mask from an array of perspectives.
I am not a young man, but I tell you one and all that my manhood stands like a spear when Genevieve begins to writhe under my insistent touch. It’s an anxious writhing, and that only fuels me more until it’s simply impossible to keep my desires at bay any longer.
Pulling her around and throwing back her legs, I poise to enter her, my hips cocked. The breath of the beast I’m becoming rasps from my throat in sharp, cutting bursts.
Genevieve looks up, clearly frightened by the monster crouched above her, which only excites me more.
“What is your name, chéri?” she asks in a quivering voice. “What should I call you while we have sex?”
“Me?” I say, and then thrust savagely into her. “I am the Invisible Man.”
Copyright © 2013 by James Patterson