This was a moment he had always feared.
On every job he’d ever taken, he knew that he stared Death in the face. One misstep, one single error; all it would take was one mistake to see him killed.
And now, as he found himself running for his life, with the sound of gunshots and the shouting of his pursuers ringing in his ears, he knew he wouldn’t make it home tonight.
He thought this would be an easy job. Go in, take out the target, and get out. Nothing he hadn’t done before.
But now his target would take him out. He had gone from being the hunter to being the hunted.
He could hear his own footsteps on the pavement, his ragged breath loud in his ears. He didn’t know how much longer he could run. He hoped that the police would intervene. Even being arrested would be better than dying.
But there was no law enforcement to be seen. Nobody to stop his would-be killers. He was completely on his own.
He heard the rush of air as a shot whistled past his ear. It startled him and he stumbled, nearly falling face first to the concrete. As he fought to get his feet back under him, he heard one more gunshot.
He had never been shot before. The pain was unlike anything he had ever felt. It was absolutely insane. It felt like getting hit with a sledgehammer.
He cried out as he lost his footing and fell to the pavement. He rolled over and saw that his attacker, his killer, was towering over him now. He found himself staring down the barrel of the other’s gun, and he knew what was coming even as he saw the blinding flash of light, heard the explosion…
…and Ludwig awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright, one hand clutching his chest as he looked around wildly. A flash of agony ripped across his torso, and with a pained howl he collapsed back onto the bed, trying to fight the intense pain, trying to drive the nightmare from his head. More than anything, he was trying to remember why he felt like he’d been hit by a truck.
Right, he thought, after the memories of last night’s fighting came back to him. Of course. Why else do I always feel half-dead on Saturday mornings?
He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this bad after a night of fighting. He had known for a long time that he would always feel rough after a fight. After almost twenty years in the ring, it was old news. One couldn’t get in a fight without feeling like they had been dropped from twenty stories up, and he had featured in three last night. He won them all, but he knew that he should have stopped after the first one.
You’re not in your twenties anymore. Outside, the early morning sounds of Rostock reached his ears, reminding him that he had a long drive home. It was a day’s trip to get here, but this was a competition he couldn’t pass up. Three fights were too much, especially after what happened in Kharkiv.
He couldn’t argue against the prize money, though. He pocketed almost fifteen thousand Euros last night; almost five thousand a match. That was more than he usually made in a month.
He really did feel terrible, though. His left eye had been blackened, but worse was the sneaking suspicion that a few ribs on his left side were broken. Again.
Probably didn’t heal right from the last time it happened.
He knew he had to make his way home, but he didn’t even want to move. He had no energy to do anything, and every movement sent a flash of pain across his upper torso. He knew he had to get checked out. If his ribs were broken again, he couldn’t let that go ignored.
The sound of footsteps startled him. Nobody was supposed to be here at this time of the day. The building was seldom used; the only people who should have been here at all were the maintenance staff, and they weren’t due for another few hours. If someone was here, it could be bad news for him. This place was known to be frequently inhabited by the types of people he wouldn’t be caught dead associating with.
He didn’t know what to do. There was only one way out of this part of the building, and he would easily be spotted by whoever was coming down the corridor. He couldn’t be seen here; he had to get out. But he knew that even a man of his size, in his current state, could be easily overpowered if the person didn’t have his best interests in mind.
The footsteps stopped right outside the door. His heart was pounding and his hands were shaking. He was about to be caught, he knew it. The door swung open and a familiar voice spoke.
“You’re a long way from Stuttgart, Ludwig.”
As he recognized the voice, equal parts relief and confusion overtook him. What would this man, of all people, be doing here now?
“Emerick, it’s you. What are you doing here?”
“I saw your car outside,” said Emerick Bergmann, as he leaned against the door frame, arms crossed over his chest. “I knew you had to be in here.”
“How did you know it was my car?”
“A big black BMW with Stuttgart registration, parked outside of a known fight club in Rostock,” Emerick replied, one eyebrow quirked. “Who else would that be?” A beat. “That, and I ran the license plate and your name came up. Hard to miss that.”
“But why are you here?” Ludwig asked again, before noticing his friend was wearing his police uniform. “Wait, you’re not really here to-”
“No, I’m not here to arrest you. Nobody knows you’re here but me.” The other stepped into the room. “I was staking this place out.”
“Do I want to know why?”
“We’re preparing to raid the entire building. You’re lucky I found you before someone else did. The rest of the squad will be here within minutes and you can’t be seen here.” Emerick walked over to the bed. He was silent a moment. “You look like you got hit by a train. How badly did you get beaten last night?”
“As a matter of fact, I won all my matches last night.”
“Really. Because I haven’t seen you look this bad since our fight back in Two-thousand and Two.”
“You had to bring that up, didn’t you?”
“Just making a point,” said Emerick as he extended his hand. “But we really do need to get you out of here.”
Ludwig took the offered hand, and with some effort pulled himself to his feet. Together the two walked out of the building.
“I have to stay here and assist with the raid,” Emerick said, as they reached the parking lot. “If you want to lie over at my house for a few hours, I get off for lunch around thirteen-hundred hours, and I could probably find someone to check you out without asking questions.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“It’s no problem. You look like you really need it,” was the reply. “The door should be unlocked. If it’s not, the spare key should be hidden under a big black rock near the front door. I’ll see you in about two hours.”
As Emerick headed back towards the building, Ludwig started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. He couldn’t believe his luck. It could have been anyone in the world who found him. A different cop, or someone more dangerous.
I would say someone was looking out for me for a change, if I believed in such things.
A short while later he reached the house, only to find that the door was locked. He looked under the rock near the door, but the key wasn’t there. He growled in frustration and walked back to his car to wait.
He hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep until he was awoken two hours later by the sound of someone tapping on his car window. He opened his eyes to find Emerick standing outside his car.
“Sorry, I thought the key would be there,” he said as Ludwig got out of the car. “The boyfriend must have misplaced his keys again and taken the spare.” He gestured towards the door. “Come on, let’s take a look at you.”
As they made their way up the stairs, Ludwig asked, “Did you find someone, then?”
“No. I called around, and the only guy I could ask is out doing something. I can do it, myself.” He opened the door to the apartment. “Don’t forget, I was a fighter, too. I know how to deal with these injuries.” He gestured towards the couch. “Go ahead and take a seat. I’ll put on a pot of coffee. You look like you could some.”
As he took a seat on the couch, he could hear Emerick moving about in the kitchen. “So, who’d you fight last night, and how did you end up looking like that?”
“Old Baumgartner was first, took him down in the fourth round. Then there was this kid, I don’t remember his name, fighting out of Gelsenkirchen. He didn’t make it past the second round.” He winced as a flash of pain hit him. “The third was Westerberg. You remember him?”
“Is that guy still around? I thought he stopped fighting years ago.”
“He’s still around. He’s the one who did most of this damage.”
“That’s surprising. He was noticeably slowing down near the end of his professional career,” Emerick said as he walked back into the living room and took a seat beside him. “I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him anymore.”
“Neither did I, and I paid for underestimating him.” He shook his head. “I still won the fight, though. Dropped him in the fifth round with a right to the body. He didn't get up from that.”
“You always did have a devastating right hand.” A beat. “O.K, so, while the coffee’s brewing, how about we take a look at you?”
“I’m almost positive I know what you’ll find,” Ludwig said as he pulled his shirt off and dropped it on the coffee table. “I’ve been in this situation before; I know what it feels like.”
“Unfortunately that’s just an occupational hazard,” Emerick replied as he carefully ran his fingers down his side, checking for breaks. “How many times has it been, now?”
“Twice. Maybe three.”
“Yes, well, I don’t think anything is broken this time. I don’t feel anything, at any rate.” Emerick pulled his hand away and said, “I obviously can’t rule out any kind of hairline fracture, but I think you’re fine.”
“I don’t feel fine.”
“I wonder why. You’ve been fighting for almost twenty years. You ever think about giving it up?” He stood up and walked into the kitchen, returning a minute later with two mugs of coffee. He handed one to Ludwig and went on, “I mean, what you’re doing now isn’t even legal. That’s why you have to call on someone that you can only hope knows what they’re doing, because any hospital staff would see right through whatever story you come up with. That’s not doing you any good.”
“I know it’s not, but I don’t know what else to do,” Ludwig said. He took a long pull off his coffee, before continuing. “I don’t really have any set of skills that could land me a good job. Fighting is something I know I can do.”
“You know this is going to destroy you, right?”
“Probably,” he admitted. “But it’s no different than fighting professionally.”
“It’s entirely different, and you know it. There’s no regulation in this underground crap you’re doing,” Emerick pointed out. “You get hurt in the ring as a pro and you can actually get the proper medical attention. You get hurt doing this illegal club fighting and you’re on your own. It’s going to kill you.”
“At least I’ll literally go out swinging, right?”
“I’m serious, Ludwig. You’re going to end up killing yourself doing this.” He sighed. “Look, I’m just concerned. I know what happened to you back in Twenty-thirteen. I can’t believe you’re still doing this after what happened.”
“Wait, how did you-” He was caught off-guard by what his friend had just revealed. “I never told anybody about that. How did you know?”
“I’m a cop. Police throughout the entire country were ordered to keep a lookout for you,” Emerick answered, one eyebrow raised. “And when news came in that you’d been found all the way in Kharkiv, supposedly hospitalized and in critical condition, you think that’s not going to make its way around the police force?”
“I didn’t really want anybody knowing about that.” His voice turned quiet, and he found himself unable to look his friend in the eyes. “I didn’t tell anybody what happened for a reason. If news of that makes it back to my family-”
“I haven’t told anybody else about it. But why would you not want them to know?” His friend appeared to be absolutely dumbfounded. “That’s serious business you went through.”
“How would I explain to my family why I was there? How could I ever explain why that incident happened?”
“So you’re fine with your family never knowing that you almost died thousands of miles from home?” He shook his head. “They ought to know. They should be concerned. You’re gambling with your life by continuing to do this.”
“I can’t tell them. They can’t know.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to keep risking your life just to make a few hundred Euros.”
“I made about fifteen thousand last night!” he protested. “Emerick, I need the money. It’s easy for you to judge; you were able to go back to university after retiring and make something of yourself. I never had that chance.”
“I know you’ve got some kind of skill that could get you out of this. You’re not a stupid man. I know you can think of something. Money isn’t worth dying over.”
“No, but being able to support my family is.”
“Then find some other way to make the money!” Emerick said, throwing his hands up in frustration. “I’m not trying to scold you; I’m trying to reason with you as a friend. Do you think I want to wake up one morning to learn that an old friend dropped dead of a heart attack in some illegal, rundown club in Heilbronn or something? Damn it, Ludwig, you were dead when they found you. Whatever they did to you in Kharkiv, it broke you. If this was still your professional career we were talking about, no boxing commission would ever let you step foot in the ring again!”
“If I was still a professional, I wouldn’t even be in the position of having to do this, would I?” He could feel himself starting to get angry, and he had to take a moment to calm himself before he continued, “I’m trying to find something else. I know that what I’m doing is insane. If I thought I had a choice, I wouldn’t be doing this.” He finally looked his friend in the eyes and said, “Do you think I like going into the ring knowing that if I pushed myself too hard I could just drop dead? Knowing that if I were to overdo it my heart could just give out and that would be it?” He had to hold back a shudder as he said, “No, I hate knowing that. The possibility terrifies me. But this is what I know how to do and it’s all I’ve got right now.”
“You do know I could put a stop to this right now if I wanted to?” Emerick was silent a moment before he went on. “I could get in contact with the Baden-Württemberg police and could tip them off to what’s going on down there. You know I could. All it would take is one phone call. This, none of this is legal, and I could easily bring an end to it.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
“It hasn’t been my problem up until now,” was the reply. “But knowing you’re down there doing what you’re doing and endangering your life every weekend? This is… it’s idiotic. I can’t let you keep doing this.”
“I’m a grown man, Emerick. I can make my own decisions.”
“I know that. But so far the decisions you’ve been making all suck. You’re destroying yourself and you know it.”
The room fell silent for a long moment. Neither man seemed to know what to say. Finally Emerick spoke.
“I don’t know what you’re going through, and I know that. You said it yourself: I was able to go back to university after retiring and find another career. I know I’ve had it easier.” A beat. “And I’m not trying to intrude in your life. I just don’t want to watch you do this to yourself. I had no idea you were still doing this until today.”
“I don’t want to be doing it,” Ludwig replied. “I’d much rather be doing something else, anything else. I don’t want to keep doing something that I know can kill me. I just don’t know what else to do.”
“You’ve got to figure out something,” Emerick said as he looked over at the clock. “Hey, I’ve got to be back to the station in twenty minutes. I know you’ve got a long drive back, so do you, I don’t know, want something to eat before you go? I’m sure we’ve got something around here…”
“No, thank you, I’m good,” Ludwig replied. “I’m not really hungry and I just want to go home.”
He got to his feet, unable to hold back a wince as another flash of pain crossed his chest. He hoped his friend hadn’t noticed his reaction.
“I’ve got to insist you get that checked out when you get back.” No luck. He obviously noticed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not at least a hairline fracture or two.”
“How would I explain how I got it?”
“And that, again, is why you need to stop this underground crap.” He nodded towards the door. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Be sure to keep in touch more, will you?” Emerick said as they reached the outside. “It’s been a while since we talked before now.”
“Sorry, I’ve just had a lot to deal with lately,” Ludwig said as he reached into his pocket to grab his keys. “I’ll be sure to call soon.”
“Please do. I want to be sure you’re actually alive six months from now,” Emerick said. He made like he was going to playfully punch Ludwig in the shoulder but thought better of it, instead reaching over to ruffle his hair instead. “You know, it’s funny; as big a man as you are, and yet I can look down at the top of your head.”
“That’s only because you’re a giant,” Ludwig retorted, unable to keep the half-smile off his face.
“True enough.” A beat. “I’ve got to get going, so I’ll see you some other time, then. Maybe I’ll come down there and we could go out and get a beer or something.”
He turned and walked towards his car. Ludwig stood there a moment before getting into his and starting down the road.
I can’t believe he knows about what happened. The thought genuinely dismayed him. The only people who were supposed to know what happened were those who were directly involved in the Kharkiv incident, and he only had contact to this day with one of them. He had specifically kept that information to himself so that people wouldn’t have a reason to be concerned about him. He didn’t want their concern; didn’t want people fussing over his health or lecturing him about it.
He’s right, though. I’m going to end up killing myself doing this. What good would I be to anybody, then?
The only reason he still did this was because of the sense of responsibility he felt towards both himself and to his aging parents who had been struggling for years to keep themselves afloat. They both worked and still it wasn’t enough.
They’re getting too old to work themselves to death and still not make enough to pay the bills.
He knew that he had to find another line of work, though, or he would be the one to work himself to death. He had been working in one dangerous line of work or another since he was seventeen. He went from a career as a professional boxer, to a high-risk international hitman, and now had to resort to underground club fighting, because violence was what he knew how to do, and do well. Every career he had ever had could kill him in one way or another, whether it was on the end of a hard right hand, or at the business end of a mobster’s gun.
I’ve got to find something else. l certainly have plenty of time to think about what that something else could be. It’ll be a while before I can get back in the ring again, if I ever do. I can’t keep pushing myself like this. Three fights in a row were definitely too much. It’s a wonder I didn’t drop dead last night.
He pushed the thought from his head. Now wasn’t the time to think about it. Not while going one-hundred thirty kilometers an hour down the Autobahn. He kept his eyes on the road and his mind on getting himself home, knowing this was going to be a long drive.