Berlin Is Never Berlin
by Marko Kloos
The plane was only three hours into its flight when Khan was entertaining the thought of a massacre for the first time.
The surroundings were posh, and it was easily the most comfortable air travel he had ever enjoyed. Sal Scuderi’s private jet had the full executive luxury package, and the club seating in the Lear was so roomy that even Khan, all six foot three and three hundred pounds, could stretch his legs a little. There was a bar stocked with premium liquor, and he didn’t even have to pour his own drinks because they had a flight attendant on staff. The surroundings were more than fine. It was the company that triggered homicidal thoughts in Khan before they had even made it out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Natalie Scuderi, Sal’s daughter and Khan’s protectee for the week, traveled with an entourage. There were only four, but Khan suspected that she had picked her friends after a long and thorough vetting process to find the vapidest rich kids in the country. They had started with the champagne right before takeoff. Five minutes after wheels-up, they had commandeered the impressively loud luxury entertainment system in the cabin and started listening to Top 40 shit at high volume. It was a seven-hour flight to Iceland and then another three-hour hop to Berlin from there, and Natalie’s entourage seemed determined to party all the way through the trip.
A simple job, Khan thought as he watched the scene from the front of the plane, where he had a spot to himself next to the bar. Babysitting a bunch of spoiled kids. Easy money.
The center of the cabin had a four-seat club arrangement and a leather couch, and Natalie’s friends were all piled on the couch, glasses in their hands, talking loudly over the music and giving Khan a headache. Natalie herself was sitting in the back of the plane, in the single seat next to the bathroom. She was wearing headphones the size of canned hams on her head, and she was typing away on the computer she had propped on the little tray table in front of her.
Sal Scuderi was a high-risk insurance salesman and one of the main money-laundering outlets for the Chicago mob. His daughter dabbled in acting and singing, but as far as Khan could tell, she was mostly famous for being famous. They were on the way to Berlin, where Natalie was booked for introducing a new fashion line and opening a nightclub. Having a joker-ace as a bodyguard conveyed a certain image, and plenty of entertainment industry celebrities were willing to shell out money just to rent that image for a night or a long weekend out on the club circuit. Khan didn’t mind those jobs—they were easy money, just hanging out in clubs and looking mean for the cameras. But even milk run jobs had their hazards, and one of them was a migraine headache. He spent some time extending and retracting the claws of his tiger hand a few times while looking pointedly at the big-screen TV on the bulkhead above the couch, and someone turned down the volume a little. Just to make sure it stuck, he got out of his seat and walked to the bathroom at the back of the cabin. When he was between the couch and the giant TV, he took the remote and clicked the volume down a few more notches for good measure.
When he emerged from the bathroom, Natalie Scuderi had taken off her headphones and closed the lid on her laptop.
“How do you like the ride?”
Khan closed the door behind him and shrugged. “Beats the hell out of flying coach,” he replied.
“I’ve never flown coach.” The way she said it wasn’t boastful, just a statement of fact.
“Count yourself blessed.”
Khan noticed that Natalie’s gaze flicked from one side of his face to the other, and he knew that she was looking at the tiger half without being too obvious about it. Khan’s left body half was that of a Bengal tiger, and the demarcation line between man and cat went right down the centerline of his body. For a mob bodyguard, the tiger half paid many dividends. It gave him the strength, reflexes, senses, teeth, and claws of a tiger, and it made him look dangerous and imposing. Not even the roughest or most drunken blockheads wanted to test their mettle against a guy who was half apex predator. Claws and teeth had a way of triggering people’s primal fears.
Travis, Eli, and Melissa—Natalie’s friends—had been in such awe of Khan that none of them had even tried to make small talk with him. Now that he was standing next to Natalie and talking to her, someone had decided that he wasn’t going to tear off any heads on the spot. Melissa got up from the couch and sauntered over, champagne glass in hand.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Khan said.
She gestured at the line that bisected his face, fur on one side and skin on the other. He had grown out a beard to match the fur fringe on the tiger half of his jaw, to keep his looks symmetrical.
“Does that go, like, all the way down your body? Right down the middle?”
She tried to make it sound light and casual, but he knew what she was trying to ask because he had gotten the same question hundreds of times. Under normal circumstances, he would have given her a clever or flirty reply, like You’ll have to buy me drinks first to find out. But she wasn’t a paying client, and her gaggle of friends had been annoying Khan too much for him to tolerate a personal question like that.
“That’s none of your business,” he said. “Buzz off.”
The girl beat a hasty retreat to the lounge area. Next to Khan, Natalie chuckled and opened her laptop again.
“Now she won’t talk to you again for the rest of the trip.”
“That is fine with me,” Khan replied. “She doesn’t have to talk to me. She just needs to listen when I tell her to do stuff.”
Back on the couch, Natalie’s chastened friend shot Khan a glare. Then she picked up the TV remote and turned the volume up again.
This is going to be a long fucking week, Khan thought.
There was always some security bullshit involved when a joker-ace like Khan traveled by air, but it was increased by a few orders of magnitude when international borders were involved. Scuderi’s private plane meant that Khan hadn’t had to suffer the enhanced screening before their departure in Chicago, but the Germans weren’t going to let him skip a damned thing. He’d had to file his plans in advance, and when the Lear stopped at the private terminal at Berlin’s shiny new Brandenburg Airport, there was a welcoming committee waiting for him at customs and immigration.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” the customs officer asked when he checked Khan’s passport.
“Business,” Khan said. “I’m a bodyguard. My client is going through your no-hassle line over there right now.”
“Are you bringing any weapons into the country at this time?”
“No weapons,” Khan replied. He knew they’d go through his luggage anyway and check thoroughly. He carried a gun back home when he was working—no point disadvantaging yourself in a fight—but when he traveled out of the country, he didn’t pack so much as a nail file. Foreign cops got twitchy enough when they saw the teeth and claws, and if they hadn’t been firmly attached to him, he was sure they’d have made him leave those at home as well…