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Excerpt from Strike Price

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By L. A. Starks



In the last weekend warm enough for sunbathing, throngs of men and a few women lay face down in Berlin's vast Tiergarten Park. Fair-skinned sunbathers prided themselves on their deliberate recklessness of exposing skin to sun naked of sun block, or anything else. The air was crystalline, the blue of the sky infinite.

A cell phone rang and one of the bodies rolled over, wrapped a bath towel around his waist, and answered. Gernot Insel's chest was smooth-shaven and glistening. Hair dark, green eyes close-set, his features showed his Austrian heritage.

His clients were legitimate business people representing governments, organizations, funds, or companies who wanted information not easily found on the Internet or through normal channels. Often, they wanted more.

The rows of slick bodies around him increased the risk he would be overheard. The park was too quiet for this conversation. He told the client he would return the call.

Insel dressed, carefully wiped the phone, strode a kilometer to Strasse Des 17 Juni, and hailed a taxi. He bent as if to tie his shoe and slid the phone in front of one of the taxi's rear tires. He listened as they pulled away and was satisfied to hear the crunch.

Insel's driver sailed east, staying away from the bicycle lane with its beautiful young women pedaling clunky commuter bicycles. He turned past crowds of tourists and buses at the Brandenburg gate. Berlin was changing—change was its essence—yet the blocky, preserved buildings and museums of East Berlin remained, dour impediments. All capitals were the same anachronistic tributes to the past, full of museums and little else, Insel thought.

He wondered if the foreigners pouring money into Berlin had seen the city beyond its government-funded Potsdamer Platz vibrancy. Brash but sophisticated, Berlin was rebuilding itself, starting with its well-supported government center. Sponsors' names were omnipresent—DeutscheBank, DeuscheBahn, Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts. But the city, like the country, struggled to combine its long-separated east and west halves. Berlin officials were reluctant to cut subsidies to the three opera houses, two zoos, and six housing authorities.

So the city strained financially. Reunification costs had been followed by the burden of supporting entire other countries in the European Union. Thus, the massive Sony Center and film museum were the exception; graffiti marked walls in the rest of the city. Even Sony had sold off ownership of its center, though it kept the name.

Nominally Insel was Austrian, but he traveled around the world. His office and favorite house were in Vienna; here he kept a suite reserved at the Mandala Hotel. His irrational attachment to Vienna aside, the glittering condo he owned on Canada's Vancouver waterfront was a better investment. Indeed, the client who had just phoned had leased it a few days last week for a substantial sum.

The driver maneuvered south on Ebertstrasse, slowing for more tourists—these shaken and grim—leaving the undulating maze of crypts that was the Monument to the Murdered Jews. One of the older American tourists Insel had met insisted the monument belonged a few blocks over, on the front lawn of the Reichstag, as a reminder to German lawmakers. In America, he'd said, every president and congressman in the nation's capital could see headstones of the thousands buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Insel had shrugged. Guilt, piles of it, was everywhere. Though some of his best friends were Americans, in the eyes of many of them, Germans should be swallowing guilt mit alle mahlzeit, with every meal.

Near Potsdamer Platz, foreigners stepped back and forth across the double row of cobblestones striping the wall's former location, saying, "East, West, East, West."

It was a good story, happier than the war, the horror of which had left a fifty-year hole in Germany's history. He-who-could-not-be-named became it-that-could-not-be-named. The practical side of the eraser taken to history was to avoid marking places where today's neo-Nazis could create shrines.

In the current cultural mythology, tearing down the wall brought the Germans more benefit and security than when the wall meandered through the city. Even Checkpoint Charlie was as commercialized as a Bavarian castle.

Gernot assessed the bicycle lane as he exited the cab, stepping back when a velotaxi charged past, its driver pedaling hard while the young girl and older man he carried sat forward, looking around eagerly. He heard the girl say in English, "Berlin will be something to tell my classmates about. They've all been to New York, Paris, Rome, and London, but not here."

She seemed too earnest to dismiss as yet another spoiled, over-traveled child. Yet at her pace, she'd be seeking more dangerous experience within a few years.

Neither Interpol nor any other European, American, or Asian security agency had evidence against him. As a precaution, though, he'd started charging more for London assignments—too many security cameras. And, most of his assignments were legitimate.

The angular, urban design of the Mandala Hotel was the perfection Berlin could be—hip, restless, urban, compact, and well-engineered.

Only a few groceries remained in the suite's refrigerator. He'd asked the staff to get wine and a few of the thousand types of sausage sold at eight-story KaDeWe.

In the suite's bedroom he switched the television channel to the music video station Viva in time to hear a replay of the song Emanuela by the band, Fettes Brot. He hummed the refrain, "lass die finger von Emanuela"—"keep your hands off Emanuela"—and relished the soft warmth of the goose-down duvet he pulled over his feet. He picked up another cell phone and returned his client's call.

The client had a new project. Although he would not be given much time, it was sufficiently intriguing. His fee was non-negotiable. Those who couldn't afford his multi-million-euro retainer didn't telephone.

At the end of the conversation, he called to cancel his KaDeWe grocery order, called another contact about certain supplies he would need shipped, and began to pack.