Read Until the Debt Is Paid Online

Authors: Alexander Hartung

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #World Literature, #European, #German, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #International Mystery & Crime, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Thrillers

Until the Debt Is Paid

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Text copyright © 2013 Alexander Hartung

Translation copyright © 2014 by Steve Anderson


All rights reserved.


No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.


Previously published as
Bis alle Schuld beglichen
by the author in Germany. Translated from German by Steve Anderson.


Published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle


Amazon, the Amazon logo, and AmazonCrossing are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.


ISBN-13: 9781477826072

ISBN-10: 1477826076


Cover design by Marc Cohen


Library of Congress Control Number: 2014909557

For my son, Philipp. I didn’t know what happiness was until I got to hold you in my arms the first time.


Pain jolted George out of unconsciousness. He glanced down at his lower leg and whimpered at the sight of his own shattered, exposed bone. A dark, sticky pool of blood had collected beneath him. His cheek pressed against the cold tiles of his living-room floor.

He had arrived home that night in the usual way, hanging his overcoat on the rack before going into the living room to pour himself a scotch. All he’d wanted was a strong drink and the sports channel’s late-night show, nothing more.

The last thing he remembered was reaching for a glass. Then nothing. Until now.

George turned his head and looked at the clock on the bookshelf. Just before midnight. He had been passed out for an hour. Disoriented, he tried to make sense of the situation. Perhaps he’d managed to slip and fall on his leg in this horrible way. Or perhaps someone had robbed him? His eyes darted to the huge flat-screen, still in its spot, and the two valuable paintings on the opposite wall. None of it made sense. But one thing was certain: he needed help.

He patted his suit pants for his cell phone and noticed its absence. He always kept it in his right pocket. Maybe he’d lost it as he’d fallen. Or had he left it up on the counter? He shut his eyes and cursed. Today was not his day.

Then he heard music. Soft, barely audible strings accompanied by a baritone’s sad song. George turned his head to look at the stereo. White pillar candles had been placed on the speakers. They lit the room with a hazy glow and gave off a subtle vanilla scent.

George gathered the fabric of his pant leg in one hand and tried to move his broken leg. The pain brought tears to his eyes, but he managed to turn onto his back.

The house was dark except for the living room. He could have sworn that he’d turned on the lights in the hallway.

“Hello?” he shouted into the darkness.

It was silent. For a moment more.

Then the sound of heavy boots began to echo off the tiles. Slowly at first, then faster. A moment later, a figure loomed over him, wearing black pants, a leather jacket, and a stocking mask.

“What the hel
l . . .
” George began. Then the figure lunged and brought down a hammer with brute force onto his arm. Bones cracked with a loud crunch.

George screamed. The pain almost robbed him of his senses. Stars danced before his eyes. He bit his lower lip and felt blood flowing into his mouth.

When he dared open his eyes again, he was alone. He cursed the vast, manicured grounds around his house. The walls surrounding his elegant garden stopped sound from traveling beyond them. No one would hear him screaming. And the cleaning woman wouldn’t be coming until early the next morning.

The steps sounded again. A moment later, George saw military boots shining in the hazy candlelight. He began to cry.

“Please,” he begged, raising his good arm over his head in defense. “I’ll give you everything I have. Money, my little stash of gold, the car. I have a numbered account in Switzerland. There’s a hundred thousand euros in it.”

The figure didn’t move. George lowered his arm and stared at the boots.

At that moment, he knew that he was going to die. His attacker only wanted to see him suffer before beating in his skull. With his shattered arm and broken leg, he had no chance of defending himself. His only hope was the alarm button near the entry.

It was the type of system that banks and businesses installed. After a colleague’s home had been violently broken into, he’d equipped his place with the alarm as protection. If there were ever trouble, a push of the button was all it would take to immediately inform the police of an intruder. There were two spots in the house where he could trigger the alarm. One in the bedroom. The other in the hallway.

George pictured the button in the hallway. To anyone else’s eyes it would look inconspicuous, almost like a light switch. He estimated it would take three big steps to get there. The intruder stood next to him, to the right. The path was to his left and clear. If his leg weren’t broken he might make it, but the pain was unbearable. Moving quickly was out of the question.

“What did I do?” George said, hoping to distract the intruder by talking. He pulled himself to a sitting position. “If I’ve given too harsh of a verdict, I’ll help you get out of it. I’ll talk to the state prosecutor or your parole officer. I have connections in politics. I’ll make this right again.”

The figure still did not move.

George shifted his weight onto his healthy leg. His eyes went to the alarm button. Two leaps, on one leg. Then he could let himself fall forward on the third leap and trigger the alarm. Ignore the pain. Keep going. No matter what happens. Just one chance.

George heaved himself up. Excruciating pain tore through his right side. He cried out in distress but hopped forward, flailing with his good arm to keep his balance. He mustered all his strength and landed a second leap, although the shock of impact made him gasp. One more.

And then the hammer came down on his good leg. His knee broke with a loud crack. George fell to the floor and his head hit the tiles. His shrieking became an inhuman squeal.

The figure lowered its masked face until they were separated by only a few inches.

“How does it feel?” the figure said softly. “Lying helpless on the floor while getting all beat up? Is that fun?”

George squinted, surprised. He knew the voice. For a moment, memories blocked out his pain. Could it be? After all these years?

He opened his mouth. “Is it really you?” he wanted to ask, but the hammer came cracking down on his forehead. Then he slid into darkness, never again to waken.

Chapter 1

Jan instantly regretted opening his eyes. His skull throbbed, and his lips were sticky. His mouth was dry, and the glare of the morning light stung his eyes. He lay naked in a large bed. A thin linen sheet covered his legs. Betty’s head lay on his chest, her arms wrapped around a pillow. He wished he were still sleeping. Then he wouldn’t be worrying about the bitter taste in his mouth or that horrible, thudding pain in his head.

As he lay there feeling miserable, the intoxicatingly fresh smell of Betty’s hair filled his nostrils. He gazed at her delicate nose and the gentle curve of her lips. From the first moment, he had fallen for the easy way her grown-up cleverness paired with her little-girl smile. Even asleep she was smiling.

Betty’s doorbell rang and sent flashes of pain through Jan’s skull. He turned to her alarm clock, which read 9:23 a.m. It was before ten on a Saturday morning in Berlin, a city where weekend carousing was normally respected. Who was dragging him out of bed at a time like this?

Jan gently nudged Betty’s head to the side, and she rolled over sleepily, clutching the pillow more tightly. He sat up and put his feet on the cold tiles, but he had trouble trying to stand. The room spun around him, making him brace himself on the nightstand. He grabbed his pants from a chair. Standing on one leg while trying to put them on proved to be a struggle.

“Damn cocktails,” he muttered, shaking his head. The second ring made him groan.

“I’m coming already!” he shouted. He dared a brief look in the mirror on his way to the door. The reflection did not help his mood: tired eyes, hair askew, bulging spare tire around his middle from too much good living. He unlocked the door and yanked it open. Someone this pushy better have a real good reason.

“Pat?” Jan asked in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

His fellow officer Patrick Stein stood in the hallway in a dark suit, with two uniformed cops behind him. He was the last person Jan would’ve expected. Patrick’s hair was combed to the side with pomade, and his dark, tailored suit featured an old-fashioned pocket square. His look reminded Jan of the Berlin Comedian Harmonists, the all-male singing group that did tunes from the 1930s and was so inexplicably popular.

Pat had joined Jan’s homicide squad a few years back. They worked well enough together, but it was obvious they didn’t especially like each other. Jan thought Patrick was a smug busybody, and Patrick in turn viewed Jan as an undisciplined thug more suited to a SWAT team than a police investigation. Plus, he didn’t like being called Pat.

“We have a new murder case,” Patrick told him. Jan could have sworn he sensed a little schadenfreude showing through Patrick’s normally contained expression as he raked his gaze over Jan’s disheveled state.

“And we got nine homicide squads on the force,” Jan grumbled. “Couldn’t an on-call team fill in? It’s Saturday morning. Can’t you leave a guy in peace with his girl?”

“It’s Sunday morning,” Patrick noted, smiling. “Perhaps you should lay off the alcohol?” His amusement was real this time.

“What?” Jan groaned.

So what had he been doing yesterday? He and Betty had gone to Newton Bar on Friday and gotten drunk on raspberry coladas. There were none better in Berlin. He remembered calling for a taxi and staggering up the stairs to Betty’s apartment. He had his share of mental lapses, but he had never lost a whole day.

“Why didn’t you guys call me on my cell?”

“It’s off.”

“So how did you find me?”

“We put out a search on your car.”

“You’re shitting me, right?” Jan flared up. “What case would make you guys come looking for me? This has got to be a joke.”

“Do I look like I’d be making jokes?”

“Hmm,” Jan muttered. “You have a point.” Patrick had the same pinched face and tense attitude as usual. Thinking back, Jan could not remember his colleague ever making a joke. Probably even ironed his underwear.

“I’ll get dressed real quick and come in to the office. When’s the team meeting?”

“Had it an hour ago. Everyone assigned to the homicide squad is on the case. I’m only here because your car was spotted at the scene of the crime, yesterday.”

“My car?” Jan was dumbfounded.

Patrick nodded.

Jan rubbed his temple. If they gave trophies for the shittiest morning, he’d be winning in all categories today.

“Who the hell was murdered? And where? And what does my car have to do with it? It’s been parked out front since Friday morning.”

“Can’t say.”

“There a hidden camera around here somewhere?”

“As you yourself noted, I don’t really do jokes.”

Jan’s brain was slowly waking up. “So, if there was a search put out for my car and you can’t tell me anything, that mean
s . . .

“That you are one of the suspects.”

Jan leaned on the doorframe. The throbbing pain in his head had teamed up with a horrible twisting in his stomach.

“Officers will take you down to the station. Herr Bergman wants a few words with you.”

Jan raised his hands. “Okay, guys. I know you’re not supposed to let me out of your sight, but please wait here a second. I’m leaving the door open, grabbing my cell, and getting dressed.”

The uniformed cops hesitated. Then Patrick gave a slight nod.

“Thanks.” Jan hurried inside. He pulled on his shirt. It smelled of smoke and sweat, but he had nothing else to put on. He sat on the bed and slipped into his Bikkembergs.

A sigh sounded from under Betty’s blonde mane of hair.

“Jan?” she said wearily. “What is it? Who you talking to?”

“Nothing, honey,” he said, playing it down. “Just an urgent case. I have to go, but I’ll call you tonight and tell you all about it.”

“Don’t go yet,” she said, laying her head on his arm. Feeling the warmth of her cheek, he was tempted just to lie back down again. He wanted to watch her fall back asleep, gaze at her chest as it swelled, and adore her beauty. It made his body ache to resist the urge, but he had to sort out this allegation and investigate what his car had to do with it. He caressed her back, kissed her on the forehead, and pulled himself away from her.

“Till tonight,” he whispered. Then he grabbed his cell and stood.

Patrick and the two uniformed cops were waiting at the door. The pain in Jan’s head had not gotten any better, but the weariness had gone away. He was a suspect in a murder case. It couldn’t get any worse than that.

Jan got some coffee from the machine and added four packets of fake sugar. He took a big gulp and pulled a face in disgust. What was so hard about making coffee that didn’t taste like metal and peat moss? He tossed most of it down the drain and set the cup in the dishwasher. He couldn’t remember the Criminal Investigations Division offices ever having been so quiet. His colleagues in the newly created homicide squad—Team Judge—were still at the crime scene, while the on-call guys were doing time in their offices. Jan pulled down a glass, filled it with water, and took a swig. The strange taste in his mouth remained. He still felt wiped out, as if he’d slept only a couple of hours. He had no memory of the previous day—everything from dawn to dusk had been erased. If only he could catch up on his sleep. Then he’d be his good old self again.

His stomach made a desperate noise. He’d give a month’s salary for a decent breakfast.

“Jan.” His boss’s voice echoed down the hallway. That one word told Jan the man’s mood. He turned around and looked into the scowling face of Klaus Bergman. He was chief of detectives, had a law degree, and usually wore the surly expression of a man who had no use for laughter. His tense, lined face looked even more indignant than usual. As always, he wore a dark suit, laced-up wingtips, and a blue tie a bit loose at the neck. His dark hair was in messy tufts, as if he hadn’t gotten enough time for his morning grooming ritual. A rare spectacle, Jan thought, given his boss’s meticulous habits.

“Interrogation room,” Bergman barked at him. Jan fought an urge to salute and followed. He hated the interrogation room. It had no windows and only one table, with four chairs that had seen better days. The air conditioning squeaked, and that glaring fluorescent lighting made his eyes water. Bergman plunked his notebook on the table and pulled a golden fountain pen from his jacket as Jan sat down across from him. It was an odd feeling to be on the other side. He was supposed to be the one doing the questioning.

“I’m in no mood right now for creating a nice vibe, making a connection with the person questioned, or any of that bullshit,” Bergman began. “I have the video camera off, so if you don’t tell me everything—”

Jan cut him off. “Why in the hell am I here?”

“What did Stein tell you?”

“Only that my vehicle was spotted at the crime scene and I’m a suspect.”

“Where were you yesterday evening?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I don’t know,” Jan replied, irritated now.

“This is starting off real well,” Bergman grumbled.

“What’s the gist of it?”

“George Holoch was discovered dead this morning. Cleaning woman found him.”

“George Holoch the judge?”

“The same judge who ruled against you for assault on duty and screwed your chances of advancing a pay grade.”

“I haven’t even seen him for over two years.”

“So why did they identify your car at his house?”

“My car?”

“Holoch’s neighbor called the police because your BMW was blocking his driveway and he was barely able to get into his garage. When the tow truck got there around midnight, the car was gone again. Which brings me back to my first question: Where were you yesterday evening?”

Jan, weary, rubbed his face. “I don’t know. Friday night I went to my girlfriend’s in Charlottenburg. Then we went to Newton Bar and drank to her passing her medical exams. I do know we took a taxi home. The next thing I remember was this morning.”

“You had a mental blackout lasting thirty-six hours? What the hell were you taking?”

“I wasn’t taking anything,” Jan replied. “Okay, I may have one too many sometimes, but I’m clean otherwise.”

“You seen yourself in the mirror? Look me in the eyes and tell me that again.”

“Damn it.” Jan pounded on the table. “What am I supposed to do now?”

“Homicide squad is still at Holoch’s house. They found blood. Probably from the murderer. We’ll get a DNA sample from you, then compare it with what we found. That way we’ll keep you out of the woods. Once the crime scene is secure, KT will examine your car.”

KT was the
Kompetenzzentrum Kriminaltechnik
. The department’s crime-scene investigators. Real clever people who knew their way around securing evidence, analyzing DNA, and investigating ballistics, among other things. If someone else had used his car, they would find out.

Bergman stood and opened the door. “Ricky,” he shouted into the hallway and slammed the door shut again. He wrote something in his notebook without sitting back down. A moment later Richard Matiak entered the room. One of the best crime-scene tech guys in KT. His graying hair and beard made him look ten years older than he really was. For no apparent reason he always wore a white lab coat, giving him that mad-scientist look. He had an IQ of 150 but no friends apart from his computer. Today, as usual, he had his briefcase with him, which he cherished like his only child. The big silver block probably didn’t even leave his side while he was sleeping.

“DNA profile, full blood work,” Bergman ordered.

“Why blood work?” Jan asked. “Isn’t it enough that—”

“I’m done discussing it,” Bergman interrupted. “If you can’t remember anything, we’ll have to know what got you there.”

Jan sighed. He was no wimp, but he hated having a syringe stuck in his arm and the thought of blood leaving his body in a tube. Having blood taken always made him shudder.

Richard smiled and unwrapped a syringe. Jan looked away, trying to act detached as the blood drew out into the tube. Richard pulled out the needle and stuck a little teddy-bear Band-Aid on Jan’s arm.

“Should I analyze the shirt too?” Richard asked.

Bergman raised his head. “Why the shirt?”

“For blood traces.” Richard pointed at a sleeve. Jan had pulled on his blue shirt in a hurry. He hadn’t noticed the spot, but now he saw it too. Blood. No doubt about it.

“Jan,” Bergman said, shutting his eyes a moment. He was obviously struggling to control himself. “I hope for your sake that’s just the result of some jostling around in the pub.”

Jan pulled off his shirt and stuffed it into the sterile plastic bag Richard had conjured up from his case.

“I want to see something by this evening, Ricky,” Bergman said.

The crime-scene tech nodded, packed up his stuff, and left.

Jan shivered. He had on only pants and a pair of sneakers. He didn’t want to think about that weird taste in his mouth, which was still there. Something that not even metallic vending-machine coffee could wash away? This had to be the nastiest hangover of his life.

“Go into my office and get my overcoat,” Bergman ordered without lifting his head. “It better not pick up that smell you have. The thing is made of cashmere, so be careful. Then take a taxi home, shower, and get dressed. Be back here in an hour. If you are even one minute late, I’ll call Special Ops and have you picked up by armored car. You do know that I’m supposed to be keeping you here.”

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