“He won’t tell us what he knows,” said Helga as the unmarked duty car rattled past stubbly fields. The dark road was deserted. When rain thudded the windshield, her young partner flicked on the wipers, which squeaked.

“Herr Ozal was upset, who lost his kiosk,” said Selim. “He would have trusted me; you should have let me ask questions.”

“I’m the senior officer,” she said primly, smoothing her bleached blond hair.

“Don’t I know, Kommissarin ‘Battleship.’”

“Don’t take that tone with me, Selim. Please slow down.”

He did as they veered past a ruined barn. “Another candidate for arson.”

“That reminds me, I want you to make a list of abandoned buildings and plot them on a map of Stammheim. You’re good at computer chores.”

He snorted. Helga stared out at the harvested fields. Here and there a bale of straw loomed up, encased in plastic to survive the German winter. The radio was quiet.

“Why don’t you trust me?” Selim appealed. “That’s the question; not who’s setting these fires. We’ve been partners for six months.”

“The longest of my life.”

“Tell you what: you don’t trust me ‘cause my family’s Kurdish.”

“It’s not your background, Selim. It’s your impatience, your temper—” (He swerved to miss a leaping rabbit.) “And the way you drive—like a maniac.”

“That’s just what my mother says.” He chuckled. “I learned to drive in Istanbul, but I passed my German test.”

“Your inspector must have been drunk.”

He laughed out loud—a merry sound—revealing his fine, even teeth; and the corners of her stiff mouth twitched.

“Peace, partner,” he offered.

“I’m too tired to bicker. My roof’s leaking, and I spent hours on the phone fighting with the insurance.”

“If fire doesn’t get you, the water does.”

“Is that a Kurdish proverb?”

“No, I made it up.” Veering around a curve he picked up speed. Helga sighed and adjusted her seatbelt around her ample hips.

“Turks owned the kiosks that burned,” he mused. “Maybe, thugs from the National Party—”

“Nobody has mentioned neo-Nazis.”

“But you said Herr Ozal won’t tell us what he knows.”

“Maybe he’s afraid of organized crime.”

“The fact is, Germans hate immigrants.” Selim cast her a sly look; he’d say anything to get a rise out of her. “Even those who’ve lived here forty years.”

“Selim, you exaggerate everything,” she scolded. “Nobody I know hates foreigners. Without them this country would break down.”

“No more cheap gyros,” he teased. “No more juicy shishkebobs.” Their wrappings littered the car.

The radio crackled: “Car 22, assist at a fire in Heinrich Heine Street—at Peking Gardens. A family lives upstairs.” Selim whooped and pulled an illegal U-turn. Scowling, Helga tightened her seatbelt.

“I love this job,” he sang, swerving around a curve.

Flames rippled from the old brick-and-beam farmhouse holding “Peking Gardens.” A woman in a bathrobe stood in the street, clutching a bundle and screaming in Chinese. Red-overalled firemen hosed the flames. Valves flickered on their gleaming pumper-truck, its steel shutters rolled up high.

“What’s the matter?” Helga grabbed the woman’s arm—her bundle a baby—and steered her to the far curb, near where Selim was directing traffic.

“My husband, my little daughter—inside.” Through the smoke they glimpsed a man balancing a child in pink pajamas on an upstairs sill. Flames roared behind them.

“Mommy!” The girl reached out to her, as firemen spread a net.

“Can’t wait for the ladder-truck—toss her down!” their burly captain shouted. Her father held her dangling, let her fall. She shrieked as she bounced on the net—and Selim groaned, his handsome face twisting.

“What’s the matter, man?” Helga demanded.

“I had to jump like that, once.”

“Well pull yourself together.” She turned to the shivering woman: “Don’t be afraid; more help’s on the way.” But her husband had disappeared. As the roof collapsed, he leaped out a different window, landing in a hedge on his back.

“Lee, Lee,” the woman sobbed, and her baby started to wail. Firemen slid a stretcher under the man, who raised one scorched hand and let it fall. He wore blue jeans and one slipper. His wife ran to him, almost dropping the baby.

“Hateful people do this,” spat Selim.

“Wait, it could be insurance fraud,” said Helga. “I live around the corner, and this Peking Garden never bloomed. The food’s lousy, and they let litter pile up outside in the beer garden.”

“This was no accident. It’s burning too fast.”

“Let’s see what our experts say.”

Herr Dackel was short, with a bristly grey moustache and oval glasses. His pointed shoes shone like mirrors.

“Thanks for assisting us.” Helga leaned forward at her desk in the old brick station house, where computer screens peeked from partitioned cubicles. In a corner two uniformed officers were arguing about a soccer game.

“My pleasure, Kommissarin Schneider,” replied the insurance adjustor. “I’m always pleased to help our police.”

“Your conclusions?”

“Suspicion of arson, in all three incidents.”

Perched on a chair, Selim blew out his breath.

“First, the most recent, at Peking Gardens. The polyurethane foam in booths and chairs provided ample fuel. The blaze started in or near a wall downstairs, so I thought first of an electrical fire. I also considered whether a smouldering butt could have started it, hours after closing. But our lab found distinct traces of gas in the dining room floor.”

“There was no sign of a break-in,” Helga observed.

“More reason to suspect an inside job.”

“Why would the owner endanger his family?” Selim broke in, getting up. “He has a baby and a little girl, too.”

“Maybe he didn’t mean to,” said Herr Dackel. “Gas is a treacherous accelerant; it can lead to explosions, or to fires rapidly sweeping out of control. Pros rarely use it.”

“The owner’s wife told us her husband was depressed,” said Helga. “Last month he took out two policies: one on the restaurant, the other on his life.”

“What about our Turk-owned kiosks?” Selim asked impatiently.

“A similar modus,” said Herr Dackel dryly, crossing his stubby legs. “Our lab found traces of gas inside the bundles of scorched newspapers. A pro knows to moisten just the outside, so no traces remain.”

“I can’t believe people would risk their families—even for pots of insurance money.”

“What about organized crime?” asked Helga. “Maybe these jobs aren’t masterpieces, but can’t they be the work of a single band of thugs?”

“Extortionists?” Herr Dackel studied the stains in the old-fashioned plaster ceiling. “Some have been known to prey on foreigners. Last year, there was a case in Hamburg…”

“Neo-Nazis prey on immigrants,” Selim interrupted. “Who want to drive non-Germans out of town, and label Stammheim ‘Foreigner-Free.’” Herr Dackel squinted up at the swarthy officer pacing the cubicle like a caged tiger. “I wouldn’t know about that. We’ve never had such a case.”

After tanking up his battered, blue Honda, Selim strode towards the station’s store. On second thought, he turned back and stuffed his service revolver into the glove compartment.

After paying the pretty cashier, he asked, “By the way, is Rolf Messer around?”

“Whaddya want with him?” she sneered.

“To talk about a matter of common interest.”

“What can we have in common?” a deep voice boomed, and the cashier tittered. A muscle-bound skinhead stepped in from a storeroom, carrying a metal rack.

“It’s no secret you head the National Party’s local chapter.”

“Anyone can read that in the internet,” Rolf retorted, whose initials were tattooed on the back of his hands in Gothic letters.

“Know anything about the fires in immigrant-owned businesses.”

“If I did, I sure wouldn’t tell you.” Rolf filled maps into his revolving tower, crowned with the sign: “Be prepared: Buy Meyer Maps.”

“If I were a cop, would you respect me?” hissed Selim.

“Shit foreigner.”

Selim punched him in the mouth, and the cashier screamed. Rebounding, Rolf bashed him over the head with the tower, and maps flew around like playing cards. Selim crumpled sideways against a shelf of snacks, which collapsed; he landed on the floor.

Rolf wiped his mouth with his hand, and stared at the blood: “Better call the police; he started it. You saw.”

“Selim, I’ll do what I can for your hearing,” Helga told him glumly on the phone. Her colleagues had gathered around her cubicle, and grizzled Detective Schmidt was grinning with Schadenfreude. “Plainly you were at fault.”

“I shouldn’t have hit him,” her partner mourned.

“Better still, you never should have questioned him without consulting me. There’s no evidence linking the National Party—”

“But you always say I need to develop my own sources for information—”

“Selim, only you would try to question a rancid Nazi, who isn’t even a suspect. Your stupid brawl made the Picture News. Our chief is furious, and embarrassed.”

“I’m sorry, Helga.”

“Too late, you’re sorry,” she scolded.

Iwo Schmidt made a throat-slitting gesture and winked.

“I want you to know something,” said Selim sadly.

“Make it snappy. I’ve got a ton of work.”

“Not that it excuses what I did…When I was a child, in Kurdistan, the Turkish army burned our village. I had to jump out a window, just like that girl. Helga, I started flashing back…”

“So, you’re claiming you’re a victim, man? You’re not responsible for picking that fight?”

“Never mind,” he groaned. “I should’ve known I’d get no sympathy from my partner.”

“Selim, like I said, I’ll do what I can,” she said in a gentler tone. “They’re probably going to suspend you though. And make you take anger management training.”

Cursing in Kurdish, he hung up, and Helga shook her head. Iwo—who’d never liked her noisy partner—flashed her a thumbs-down.

“Oh, come on, guys,” she appealed to her colleagues, all of them men. “Don’t wish the youngster in a bigger pot of grease.”

“They should shove him back where he comes from,” said Iwo.

Glaring, she almost called him an old donkey; but her phone burbled and she picked it up:

“Kommissarin Schneider,” growled the clerk downstairs who sorted members of the public like parcels, “Mehmet Ozal wants to see you, whose kiosk burned. He doesn’t have an appointment, he says.”

“Send him up.”

“He seems upset.”

“So’s everybody.” She smoothed her freshly bleached hair, which fell like a curtain to her shoulders exactly. (Longer’s not allowed).

Soon her frail visitor stepped from the elevator, his shoulders bowed and his eyes darting nervously. She shook his gnarled hand in her big, fleshy one and felt his hesitation. When she led him to her cubicle, he stared at the clutter of files on her desk.

“Mr. Ozal, may I take your overcoat?” He shook his head no, and her heart sank. “Well, please sit down.” She pointed at the plain metal chair next to her desk. “What brings you to me?”

The wizened old man sat down, but did not lean back. “Kommissarin, I read about your partner in the Picture News.”

“Bad news travels fast.”

“I just wanted you to know that he’s an upstanding and good-hearted young man. Such a comfort to my family after the fire.”

“Would you dictate a testimonial?” she queried. “His disciplinary hearing’s coming up on Friday.”

“Of course, of course…There’s something else. Are we private here?”

“Not exactly. Shall we go to the conference room?”

“Never mind.” He hesitated, wringing his hands. She rolled her chair closer; he flinched away. Drumming with her feet, she tried to smile, and he suddenly bent his head and muttered: “Selim thinks that the National Party’s behind our fires. He’s wrong.”

“And how do you know?” she asked with interest.

“The men who—threatened me were Russians. My second cousin owned the other kiosk, and they broke his finger.”

“Are we talking about extortion?”

“I can’t tell you more,” he whispered. “I worry about my sons and their children. We’re a big family—with many targets. You check out the Russians in Leinau Street. Ask about Ivan the Chopper. “ He stood up.

“Wait, Herr Ozal. What about your testimonial?”

The old man retreated, casting anxious glances, and scuttled down the stairs.

She parked the duty car across from the rain-stained warehouse in Leinau Street, which sported a crudely-lettered sign, “Pavlova’s Second Hand Paradise.” There was some neater Cyrillic writing underneath. Many Russians in Stammheim speak little German.

“What a dump,” grumbled Detective Schmidt, unfolding his long, bony legs from the passenger side.

The main door stood agape, despite the cold, and they stepped into a long and low-ceilinged room lit by bulbs in sockets and crowded with old wardrobes. Just like Grandma’s, Helga thought. Who’d want them now? Foreign families counting their pennies? Paradise: your choice of fifty, missing their knobs.

“Can I help you,” asked a middle-aged man with a heavy Russian accent. One eye drooped, and the knees of his pants were shiny.

Iwo flashed his police ID. “We’d like to speak with your proprietor.”

“Got a warrant?”

“We don’t need one for a friendly conversation,” Helga pointed out.

The Russian hesitated, scowling. “Frau Pavlova’s in her office. This way.” They trailed him through a warren of musty rooms crammed with third-hand furniture. Ghostly congregations of ill-matched chairs waited wistfully. Cracked mirrors in ornate frames hung crooked, or lay stacked in heaps. Who’d want all this junk? thought Helga. Maybe people burn it in their stoves.

Rain rattled on the roof as they followed the droop-eyed man up rickety stairs. On the top floor, behind a partition of sawed-off doors, an elderly woman sat clicking away at an abacus. When he said something in Russian she turned her papers over, and peered up at her visitors through thick, rectangular glasses.

“Frau Pavlova?” Helga asked politely.

“Nadia Pavlova, that’s me.” She stood up, a trim figure barely reaching Helga’s shoulder. “Welcome to my paradise, officers. Of anything you want, we’ve got one hundred.” She wore a high-buttoned blouse and an apricot cardigan. Fashionable earrings glinted on her ears.

“Detectives Schmidt and Schneider, of Stammheim-North,” Helga said pleasantly. “We’d like to ask you a few friendly questions.” Nadia nodded to her assistant, who plodded back down the stairs.

“Please sit down,” she urged, fussily arranging three straight-backed chairs from her stock. She chose the one with the ungashed seat, and the detectives sat down facing her.

“We’ve received an anonymous tip,” Helga began, “linking some recent fires with a Russian gang.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Nadia flatly. The pupils of her heavy-lidded eyes contracted.

“Ever heard of Ivan the Chopper?” Iwo got to the point.

“Sounds like a Russian fairy tale.”

“We’ve reason to believe a gang headed by this Ivan is extorting money from immigrants,” he said, and Helga studied the old woman’s face. Nobody you’d pick out of a crowd—or a line-up. Still, the coldness of her gaze, the stony set of her jaw suggested a harsh will. And big criminals come in the smallest packages.

“What has any of this to do with me, or my business?” asked Nadia airily. “I never heard of such a person.”

“Are you quite sure?” Iwo demanded.

“Do give me your card, officer,” she replied coquettishly. “I’ll be sure to call you if I hear anything.” Helga flinched as he handed Nadia his card and wished her a pleasant evening.

She felt the old woman’s steely eyes in her back as she retreated with Iwo. Out of earshot, Helga complained: “I would have liked to ask more questions.”

“It’s late, and I’m dying for a gyro.”

A sleek black Mercedes had parked behind their unmarked car. With a nod to them, the droop-eyed man got in and drove away.

“Maybe it’s second hand, too,” said Helga.

Late that evening she paid a visit to Otto’s Cosy Bar. She found Hans Warner, her favorite informant, alone at the back of the smoke-laden room. He smiled at her almost shyly, then stood up and pumped her hand. His pale blue eyes looked bloodshot, and his breath smelled like an ashtray rinsed with schnapps.

Sitting down, she told the bored-looking waiter, “I’d like an alcohol-free beer.”

“Always so careful,” Hans rasped in his chain-smoked voice.

“I still have to drive home. Got anything for me on a Russian gang in Leinau Street?”

“That depends.” He tossed off his schnapps and set the shot glass down.

“I’ve got fifty euros that I don’t need.”

“Always such a tight-wad. Even as a kid you’d hoard all your pennies in a piggy bank.”

She rolled her eyes. “Out with it, Hans. You do know something.” She slid a folded banknote under his coaster, which he palmed off the table with a practiced swipe.

“There’s a gang alright, and that junk store’s their front. The Russians are so bloody our skinheads fear them. Helga, this country’s going to the dogs.”

She smiled patiently and drummed her feet. “What lines of business are our Russians in?”

“Gun-running from the Wild East…And strong-arming foreign businesses, I guess. Maybe some drug sales, too. They’ve always got a couple of trucks driving around, picking up furniture.”

“They’ve got a Mercedes with custom leather.”

“Russkies are crazy about fast cars. Hear about the sailors who drove off the pier in Hamburg? They both drowned.”

“I read about that in the Picture News…Have you heard anything about an ‘Ivan the Chopper?’” Frowning, he held his empty glass up to the light. “I may have another twenty Euros here.”

When the waiter brought her beer, Hans ordered another schnapps. It came at once, and he tossed it off.

“Well?” she prodded. “You know it’s not polite to keep a lady waiting.”

“The Chopper rules his gang with a cleaver. Chops fingers off when the guys disobey.”

She took a sip of beer and shook her head. “Sounds like one of your underworld legends.”

“No, it’s true. Helga, we never should have let those gangsters come into the country. They’re spoiling everything.” His voice rose, and she peered around the room. Quite drunk, he might be making up stories. Two black men in suits at the bar studied him; she waited till they turned back to their drinks before slipping him another banknote.

“Germany’s going to the dogs,” Hans lamented, sliding it into his breast pocket.

Dark smoke rose like a mushroom cloud from the hovel in the woods. Three ragged squatters wandered away, muttering in Polish. Several locals stood watching the team of firemen hose the blackened walls. Their fire truck had backed down a bicycle path and barely fit between two mossy oaks.

“Nobody’ll miss those bums,” announced an elderly lady in a red fox hat.

“I’m glad they burned their old place down,” retorted a plump teen with silver studs in her nose.

Iwo Schmidt stood next to Helga. Both wore trench coats, their collars turned up high. “We can assume right-wingers are behind this.” His breath puffed out in clouds. “Anyone who tosses a Molotov cocktail in broad daylight wants publicity.”

“I don’t believe it,” she said calmly. “Our skins have other things in their empty skulls. Tomorrow’s the big soccer game with Italy.”

“Then what’s the point of this fire?” he asked condescendingly, as they strolled back to the duty car.

“Maybe it’s an effort to draw us off the scent.”

“You’ve got a wild imagination. I learned long ago to keep things simple.” She smoothed her wind-mussed hair. “Some things are simple, after all,” he leered, folding himself into the driver’s seat. “Cat and mouse. Man and woman.”

She turned her head and stared out at the golden sunset between the trees. Twice divorced, this rack of bones had been chasing her ever since her own marriage died…He never trimmed his nose hairs. Like her ex.

Later, speeding through the night alone, she made an illegal call on her cell phone:

“Selim, I’m sorry,” she told his voice-mail. “You were right about bias in the precinct. I’m on my way to a tipster, with more on the Russians. Talk to you soon.”

Rain fell in torrents as she swung into a deserted street behind Stammheim’s freight railroad station. Why had she called him? She felt a wave of lonely yearning, and blinked her eyes. She didn’t trust him? She didn’t trust herself. She needed to control everything. This had wrecked her marriage.

She parked in a closed Thai restaurant’s lot, next to the cavernous underpass. Hans would wait on the walkway, on the downtown side. A train rumbled overhead as she splashed through puddles, and her heart skipped a beat. She’d left her revolver in the car, but she trusted Uncle Hans.

Halfway through the underpass a man was kneeling on a piece of cardboard. Now why would Hans play a homeless man? He loved warmth and comfort.

“Hey Uncle,” she cried, and her voice echoed weirdly. “There must be a warm bar open somewhere.” She stepped closer. “What, are you drunk?” She patted his head and he lolled back—the fingers of one hand just stumps.

As she lurched backwards, strong arms grabbed her, and a foul-smelling wad slapped over her face. Chloroform…Her legs sagged under her, even as her mind blazed. Tricked.

Rotten straw smell…Cold air gusted, and tiny frozen kisses stung her face. Her wrist ached, fastened overhead; and something clanked. She opened her eyes to darkness, and drew a deep breath that chilled her lungs. Thin light was seeping down; slowly, her eyes adjusted.

She lay on a pile of sodden straw next to a crumbling wall. A few snowflakes drifted down like dust from the gap in the ruined barn’s roof. She was handcuffed to the bracket of a manger, her ankles securely strapped with duct tape.

Stains on the straw…A severed thumb poked out. She shuddered; they’d tortured poor Hans. And nobody in Stammheim knew where she was. Nobody but them.

A car door slammed; Russian voices were quarrelling. Shutting her eyes, she willed herself limp and waited, breathing slow.

A light dazzled her as a hard foot nudged her side. Framed by the doorless stall, Nadia Pavlova grinned down, pointing a flashlight. The old woman wore a stylish, long wool coat, trimmed with sleek black fur.

“You’re Ivan, aren’t you?” Helga exclaimed, and Nadia laughed derisively:

“Don’t ask me more questions, Kommissarin. I’ll tell you something: your Hans wanted money, to tell what he told you. That’s all you Germans care about—money.”

“Don’t you understand, if you kill me too, the police will come swooping down. You’ll rot in prison, Nadia; you’ll die there.” Helga clanked her cuff against the bracket.

“Who are you to tell my future?” Nadia shone the light in her eyes. “I survived Communism in Kazakhstan. I survived immigration with my four stupid sons.”

“This is a country with rules and laws. You’ll pay for your crimes, I promise you.”

“There’s only one law on earth: survival. And you’re going to die, Kommissarin—roasted like a piggy in a pit.” Over her shoulder Nadia spoke sharply in Russian.

Into the barn stepped the droop-eyed man, carrying a black canister. He was missing a pinky. Quickly he shook gasoline along the walls, almost stumbling over a rusty axe.

Nadia lit a cigarette, took one puff and blew the smoke in Helga’s face. Then she tossed the cigarette into a puddle, clapped her son on the back and hurried away.

“We have laws in this country!” Helga shouted, tugging at the sturdy bracket. By the time the wall around it burned…

She started to cough from the heaving smoke. Overhead she heard a scrabbling. Selim hung from the gap, dropped to the straw:

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Help me—we need to break this. Over there, that axe!” Helga pointed. When he grabbed it the rotten handle fell off. Cursing in Kurdish, he gripped the head with both hands and smashed it on the manger; then grimaced.

“Wrap your hands in your jacket,” she pleaded, as the flames blazed hot and high. Sweat pearled on his face, and with a heavy thud he struck again. Something pinged off the axe head. “Hurry!”

He struck a third time, and the manger broke away. She yanked her arm free and hopped two steps, hobbled by the tape. Grabbing her he hefted her over his back and staggered towards the open door, as more bullets pinged overhead.

Safe outside they heard shouting in Russian, and a motor roared.

“We’ll tail them!” Helga cried.

“Wait here.” He ran off, and she ripped frantically at the tape on her ankles. Then his headlights came probing, his door flung open, and she tumbled gratefully into the passenger seat. He handed her his gun, and rushed the Honda forward, bumping over a weedy track that led to a country road.

Far ahead glowed the rear lights of the Mercedes; they vanished, then lit at another curve. Cursing, Selim gained, speeding like a racer. Biting her lips Helga wrestled with her too-small harness, clicked it shut.

“Shoot out the tires,” he urged, and she leaned out the window and fired wide. The Mercedes wobbled, accelerated.

She fired again and missed, but it swerved into an S-turn and skidded out, crashing through the barrier. Down a steep slope the Mercedes hurtled, side over side, smashing to a halt upside down. A fireball flared, reddening the darkness.

Selim screeched to a stop on the narrow shoulder. Lodged at the bottom of a ravine, the Mercedes was burning like a giant torch. Its doors didn’t open. They stood side by side and watched it burn.

“Live by the sword,” muttered Helga. “Die by the sword.”

“Is that some German proverb?”

“I guess. Selim, you’re the best partner in the world.” She wrapped him in a bear hug and crushed him to her breast.

He started to laugh. “Let me go, please, Helga. I can’t breathe.”

“How did you ever find me, man?” She gave him a little shake.

“I couldn’t give up our investigation. I was shadowing the Russians when they brought you in.”

“We’d better call headquarters, and tell everybody how you saved my life.”

Gazing down at the furious pyre he shivered. “The worst has been flashing back to my childhood.”

“This is Germany. We’ve got rules and laws,” Helga declared. “You’re safe.”

# # #

A Burning Question by Anna Sykora
originally published June 14, 2010



Anna Sykora is an attorney in New York and teacher of English. To date she has placed 65 tales in the small press or on the web by editorial selection, most recently with New Myths, Twisted Dreams, House of Horror, Golden Visions, Midnight in Hell, Piker Press, The Lorelei Signal, A Fly in Amber, Everyday Fiction, Ethereal Tales, the Cynic, Strange, Weird and Wonderful (where she was the Featured Writer for Winter 2010) and Rosebud. She also has placed 119 poems, and was Green Rock's Featured Lyric Poet for June 2009. One of her poems was nominated for the Rhysling Award.

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visit her Big Pulp author page


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