The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 5
11.45 pm, Friday 31 October 1997
As Nora and Hans Reuter head across the bridge, the crowds thin. Nora cuddles up close to the egregious mortician, stumbling occasionally so as to ensure that his pace does not allow him to outdistance pursuit. He is all to keen to dally, occasionally breaking into what sounds like rather sentimental German poetry.
Back at the end of the bridge, James grabs Anna by the hand, whispering in her ear "I'm tired of these crowds... shall we walk?" He leads her to the side of the bridge where Greg is glancing impatiently after Nora.
James takes Greg a step to two to one side and says "It's best if we keep Anna safe – perhaps you should follow Nora and her boyfriend. We can meet later at the old theatre."
Greg nods. "Yes, Anna's probably the most endangered of us. You go with her and get the others, I'll try and figure out the best way to rescue Nora." He turns back to Anna. "Can you tell where they might be going?"
She frowns. "They went over the bridge? To Neukirchen I suppose, that is all there is on that side of the river. Your friend must have strange tastes if she has agreed to go home with Hans Reuter!"
"Does he live there, then?"
"I believe so - he and I shared a taxi from the police station once, and when I got out at my house he ordered it on to Danzigstrasse, in Neukirchen."
"Watch your back," says James as Greg strides off towards the bridge. Then he takes Anna by the hand and leads her down to the promenade which looks along the river, lit by moonlight and the flash of fireworks.
"Bei mir bist du schön, bei mir bist du schön..." warbles Reuter, swinging by his free arm from a lamp-post as he and Nora amble slowly towards Neukirchen.
Nora laughs gaily, although secretly she is making a careful assessment of his physical capability, putting her martial arts training to good use. His body weight is not that much greater than hers, but he seems to have a certain wiriness about him. He does indeed appear to be rather drunk, though, and his balance and timing are poor.
"So, liebchen, you are happy to come along with me, yes?"
"Like I told you, I find mortuaries a real turn-on - that's why I took this job with the Journal of Morticians..."
"Well, tonight you will see something that will really 'turn you on', yes!" He laughs rather too loudly.
Greg, as he passes by the café at the end of the bridge, glances in through the door, in the vague hope of seeing Heidi Probst. There is no sign of her, though: if this is indeed one of her haunts, as her meeting with Ella suggested, she is elsewhere at the moment.
In the devastated theatre, the accordion music is taking on a curious melancholy, repetitive tone: the tramp has found a sequence of chords he likes, and varies them only slightly.
Iain bends close across the chessboard. "What do you mean by you, the people of the bloody mark getting your power here? What can Johan have gotten himself into? We thought he'd just decided to drop out of things until he felt ready to return home. You have me worried my German friend. Johan coming to some miserable end through his own stupidity is hard enough to bear. But if someone else is responsible..."
"The bloody mark is the curse that we all bear, we of the line of Ahasuerus, of Ishmael, of Vanderdecken. It is how we know each other as we wander from place to place. You cannot see it, only we can see it. I do not think your cousin can have been one of us, or I would remember him. Not all of these are of us: some are just humans." He gestures at the people gathered about them, and shudders, drinking deeply from the bottle of schnapps.
Iain continues to sip from his own bottle of watered gin, so as not to seem unwilling to get into the spirit of things. "Do you know who it is that is preying upon you? If so, why do you not stop them? Can this power of yours be worth so much?"
The chief tramp laughs. "I said, it sustains us: here in this place of power it is strongest, and we who are weakest need it most. Take me a mile from this city, Swedish man, and you would see me dry up and crumble on the breeze. Those who prey on us also serve a power, but a dark one: they are the lions, we are the wildebeest, caught at the watering-hole." He seems pleased with this image. "Yes, we are the wildebeest. And you are - what? The camera crew who sit in their Landrover and film us being torn apart?"
Iain, frowning, presses on. "My poor aunt is starting to become sick with worry over Johan. After that body was found recently in the Neckar she asked me to come down here to try and find him. This one turned out to be a Helmut Konig. Did any of you know him?"
"I knew him," says a new voice, a woman's but very deep and cracked. She shuffles into the circle of light: an unprepossessing sight, swathed in several layers of torn overcoat held together around her with string. Her face is a mass of broken veins. "He was my man, and he was taken."
"Taken by these 'lions'? Who are they?"
The woman takes up the last bottle of schnapps from in front of Iain. "Oh, I don't know who they are, what does it matter? They move among us like ghosts, when they wish to, and they take whom they please. They use our bodies to serve their master, whoever he is."
The leader, scowling, waves her into silence. "This is not knowledge for you, Death in human form, you did not win enough games of chess for that. Actually, you are not as good a player as I thought you would be! Anyway, if you knew, what would you do – go and tell the police?" At this sally everyone in earshot starts laughing.
Ella, meanwhile, who has only understood this conversation sketchily as Iain bothers to translate parts for her, has got up and started to wander about the auditorium. The stench is terrible, and she wishes she had a clothes peg.
There are bodies of tramps, some moving, some still, scattered randomly across the floor, in small knots or alone. She ambles about them, not sure of quite what she is looking for. She sees that there are several other doors leading out of the auditorium, as well as the remains of the stage, partly collapsed. She climbs up onto this and from its vantage sees a glint of something shiny over by the far wall.
Going over to investigate, she finds a used syringe, and next to it a stripped-off pair of thin latex gloves. She carefully wraps the whole lot up in a sheet of paper and places it in her belt pouch for further investigation, before returning to Iain to prompt him with some more questions.
Greg is moving with a good deal of caution, bearing in mind that Uriah was following Reuter as he is now when he (presumably) disappeared. His feeling of unease about the laconic climber have intensified. His quarry is going slowly, so he has to take no significant risks of being seen by Reuter. He wonders about Reuter's vision: do those dark glasses conceal some sort of impairment? If so, it cannot be a debilitating one, for the mortician seems as able as any drunken man.
As the crowds thin on the far side of the bridge, Greg starts to keep to the plentiful shadows, aware that his costume and build make him rather conspicuous. He is particularly wary of policemen: fortunately, he sees none after crossing the bridge. And Reuter seems to have his mind on other things than looking out for pursuit.
Nora and Reuter have by now progressed well into Neukirchen, becoming gradually better and better acquainted (at least, he is becoming more and more familiar with those parts of her body that lie within easy reach), and they turn into a street she notes as Danzigstrasse. It is a residential street, lined with a terrace of eighteenth-century townhouses to either side, and it is rather quiet, although the sounds of the carnival can still be heard in the distance. Reuter approaches number 23, and there is a moment of brief comedy as he and Nora negotiate the steps. There are lights on in the downstairs window, and rather than using a key he knocks for admittance: one long and two short.
There is a moment's pause, and he and Nora regard each other silently, his eyes still unreadable behind the thick, dark glasses. Then the door is opened.
The figure revealed within it is a curious one - dressed as a butler, he is strangely misshapen, as though his body is made up of ill-matched parts, Nora cannot help thinking. He lists to one side, one arm is considerably longer than the other, and his head gives the impression of being slightly crooked. He says nothing but stands aside to allow Reuter to enter.
Nora at this point starts to get nervous. While she was happy to deal with Reuter alone, if he has friends on the spot the proposition becomes a good deal more challenging.
Through the door is a well-lit hallway, tiled with white and black diamonds, with two Pre-Raphaelite prints flanking the far end. Standing there is another man, wearing evening dress, with long, dark hair cascading over his shoulders and a pronounced widow's peak. He is around fifty, she guesses, but slim, and probably fit, from the way he holds himself, poised almost on the balls of his feet as though to spring.
His handsome face is creased with annoyance, and he snaps "Reuter! What do you think you're doing, you fool?" His English is strongly accented of Eastern Europe.
Reuter releases Nora, still standing on the outside doorstep, and extends his hands beseechingly. The other man, the butler, is still standing impassively holding the door open. Reuter seems meek, for the first time since she has known him. "Herr Molnar, please, I thought it would do no harm: she is so pretty, look!"
"Reuter, have you been drinking?" His tone is furious. "You know what the Master's views are on that weakness of yours! We already have one, and that is all we need... oh, kolnari masza, why am I wasting my breath on you! Now you've brought her, we may as well use her."
He starts to step down the hallway just as Reuter makes to grab for Nora's arm, but with a speed born of terror she sways aside, takes his wrist as it comes past her, and with a sharp tug sends him sprawling across the threshold, his head bouncing off the door.
All is confusion, and the man Reuter addressed as Herr Molnar cries sharply "After her!" There is the patter of footsteps as he comes down the hall, but Nora is no longer there: gathering up her skirt, she jumps down the remaining steps and breaks into a run along Danzigstrasse.
Halfway along she glances over her shoulder to see the butler lumbering along after her, but his run is more of a hobble and she knows he will not be able to catch her. But her breath catches as she sees Molnar, standing in the doorway, extend his left arm, elbow bent, and lay across its forearm the long barrel of a pistol.
Nora starts desperately weaving from side to side, as from behind her comes a soft 'phut' noise, immediately followed by the 'whee' of a ricochet from the railings to her left. Molnar curses, and as Nora turns the corner out of the street, skidding on the wet pavement in her bare feet - heels long since cast off - she feels a plucking and a stinging sensation on her shoulder, as though someone has laid a red-hot brand across it.
She collides full face with Greg, who sweeps her up in his arms, pressing her relievedly to his chest.
Ella and Iain between them have established that the tramps have little to worry about here in Heidelberg, apart from their mysterious foes. Free food is provided by the city, and there are a number of homeless hostels, although most prefer to stay here in the theatre. It seems that when people 'disappear', some are just not seen one day, or others are actually taken away - by who or what is still not clear, although there is some talk of 'angels of the night', 'dark visitations' and the like. Quite how seriously the tramps take their curious mystical beliefs is difficult to say, partly because of the language barrier. It might be that if they were speaking English the investigators would merely think them mad rather than knowledgeable.
The leader, whose name it appears is Udo, snorts contemptuously when Iain refers to his youth. "How old was your cousin? We all are the same age we are born with, it's not something you can help, is it? I shall be older soon enough." In general, the tramps are quite a mix of ages: in fact, they have little in common, apart from extreme squalor. Not all smell of alcohol, and not all are malnourished-looking, or even thin.
James and Anna are wandering dreamily around Heidelberg, with little thought for anything but their conversation - or so it seems, but in fact James is directing their footsteps towards the district that contains the Unter den Linden. As they pass by the burnt-out theatre, he tells her that he happened by here the other night and that there seemed to be a number of poor homeless souls hanging around. "I wouldn't be surprised if the murder victim lived here."
"Helmut Konig? Yes, probably. I think it is a centre for them." She wrinkles her nose.
James, thinking furiously, says tentatively, "Err, would you care to join me for a drink?" He indicates a nearby bar.
Anna smiles delightedly. "Why, James, I would love to."
They enter the damp, bright, steamy bar, and James installs Anna at a table in the corner with a couple of drinks. He glances round quickly to make sure no-one suspicious is in here. "I'll just be a moment."
Greg, seeing the blood pouring from Nora's shoulder, thinks only of bearing her to safety at top speed. Two streets away, with no sign of pursuit, he stops, by a large Catholic church. Panting slightly, he lays her down under the board of service times and starts to bandage her wound with a strip ripped from his shirt, all the while silently and angrily cursing himself for not having been closer. "How are you feeling?"
"It stings, but it doesn't really hurt - just a bit numb."
"It will soon! You were lucky; it missed the bone and the big muscle. It's just a skin wound really, but you'll want stitches in it if you're not to have a nasty scar." He ties the bandage off, and crouches down next to her. "I was looking at the backs of the houses: there's an alley there, with gardens, so it should be possible to approach the back of that place unobserved."
"There's steps down to the basement, as well," says Nora, "although that's in view of the front of the house."
" The houses to either side join right on, so you could perhaps get across the roof and in through a skylight - if there is one. What about the sewers?"
Nora makes a moue of distaste and shrugs - wincing and wishing she had not.
"Probably too dangerous with all this rain, anyway," muses Greg. "Did you see enough of Reuter to provide clues to his thinking? I have a feeling he's a man of method, and that might mean he's predictable."
"He was drunk pretty much the whole time," says Nora, whose wound is now rather painful.
James bursts into the theatre, scattering tramps, surprising the group around the fire.
"James! What is it?" calls Ella.
"Reuter's gone off with Nora - Greg's gone after them, but I think we need to be together. They were heading over the bridge." With that he is gone as swiftly as he arrived, back to rejoin Anna before she realizes he was not just in the Gents.
Iain and Ella look at each other with a mixture of bemusement and concern. "I had a feeling something like this was going to happen," says Ella. They bid their new acquaintances farewell and go out into the night, heading towards the Potsdamer bridge.
James and Anna swiftly polish off another two rounds of drinks, but even though James is enjoying the occasion tremendously he cannot but be slightly concerned about the fate of his fellows. Anna lays her head on his shoulder. "Could we go back to your room, James? I'm tired of all these people."
Never one to disappoint a lady, James hoists her upright and they make their way down to the Unter den Linden. As they reach the guesthouse he glances into the shadows across the street: two policemen are there, slouching against the wall.
There is no sign of either Braun, so James unhooks his own key from the board and helps Anna upstairs. Unfortunately, whatever she may have had in mind for when they reached James's room, all she is capable of doing when they get there is taking two short steps before collapsing on the bed, snoring slightly.
James, sighing, arranges her comfortably and goes into his bathroom to splash his face with water. Something catches his eye, and he frowns. His badger-hair shaving brush is laid on its side - yet he always makes a point of standing it on end, so as not to warp the bristles. Looking round, he sees that his dressing-gown is hanging with its back to the door, although he is sure he left it facing inwards this morning.
Seized with concern, he steps swiftly through into the main room and opens his briefcase and clothes drawers. The unmistakable signs are there - someone has carefully been through his possessions. But not quite carefully enough.
Iain and Ella meet Greg and Nora just by the bridge, Greg still carrying Nora. This is not too unusual a sight now that the carnival is sinking into its aftermath - dazed revellers with no shoes on are strewn about the streets.
Filling each other in on recent events, they return to the guesthouse through Heidelberg's dark streets, which seem all the darker for tonight's turn of fortune.
Nora suggests that Heidi Probst might be able to help find who is following them, and that if Iain and Ella have made a hit with the tramps they might be sworn in as a sort of Baker Street Irregulars. She also says that from now on she will only use public telephones, a different one each time, and suggests that the others do likewise. She plans to meet with Paul Schmidt, one of the policemen who were following Anna, tomorrow, possibly for dinner: it seems that the injury she has sustained has not fazed her at all.
Greg warns that Nora should see a doctor before more than a few hours are up, to get the wound cleaned and stitched. Fortunately it is not obviously a bullet wound, so a hospital would probably treat it without asking too many questions.
Iain says that he wants to speak with Heidi, in case he proves better able to get information from her: why the investigation was stopped, whether anyone else took it over. Ella is happy to introduce them.
Ella herself has some leads to follow up in the field of duelling, including her student friend Hans, assuming that Commissioner Nomi and he are both members of one of the clubs: she thinks, though, that these clubs are male-only preserves, so she is unlikely to be admitted as anything more than perhaps a spectator. And she reminds the others that Anna was going to look into tissue-rejection research for them.
Greg tells Ella, as an aside, that he was glad to replace her whisky, and in the circumstances he would never have done otherwise. "We should try and speak to Reuter's assistant, the one who examined Konig. Anna can help us look at back copies of the journal, in case a list of authors is suggestive. And we should find out from the Department of Inorganic Chemistry precisely what tests they used on the sample: what properties might mixed halides of ytterbium have, what sort of equipment would be needed to produce them, who supplies such equipment here in Germany... grant proposals for the research groups involved, suppliers of ytterbium itself... SITU can probably take care of those inquiries for us. They have staff for this sort of desk-bound investigation, I imagine."
As the four reach the guesthouse they are greeted by James, an expression of disquiet on his face. He tells them what he found in his room, and the party separates, each to check his or her own quarters.
It is swiftly apparent that all six rooms have been thoroughly searched - and all documentation linking the investigators with the University of Central London has been taken.
4.30 am, Saturday 1 November 1997
The Unter den Linden