The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 9
11.15am, Monday 2nd November 1997
"Anyone fancy some lunch?" says Iain. He has spotted a pasta eatery across the square, and heads towards it. Everyone else tails along: they had not realized quite how hungry they were until it was suggested.
"I'm still tired," says James. "I'll join you in an hour or so - if I wake up." He heads back to the Kristall guesthouse [which was picked out by Iain, rather than the taxi-driver - ed.]
Iain bags a decent-sized table and says "Ella, I think we could go out walking this afternoon and do a quick recce of the berg and Schloss. Let's have a look over the maps and see if we can sort out a good route or two. Once we've done it on paper we can go out and look over the ground before it gets too dark?"
"Good idea," says Ella, and together they start to pore over the maps, as food starts to arrive.
"I'm all in favour of a bit of good old detective work in the village," says Nora, "but not too keen on a mountain ascent until weather conditions have been checked. After all, haven't any of you seen those Dracula films where the weather suddenly turns nasty as the good guys near the evil castle? Maybe a bit of discreet digging in the village will yield more information: the residents have been living near the castle for generations so they probably know more than the mountainside is going to tell us."
Greg nods. "I'm going to try and find a reliable weather forecast."
Eventually James reappears, yawning. He nods as the plan so far is outlined to him. "Anna and I'll find a cafe somewhere near the cable car, see if anyone goes up or down," he says. "Should make a pleasant afternoon. Greg and Nora, do you want to take turns on that? Who wants to go first?"
"We'd better watch from a distance, or the attendant will recognize me. It's a pity we can't see it from the windows of the hotel," says Greg. "I've got some items to buy first - is your plan to make the assault on the Schloss tonight?"
"Maybe," says Iain, "but we won't know what's practical until Ella and I have scoped it out."
"I'll take first watch then!" says Nora.
Back at the guesthouse, after lunch, Iain and Ella kit up in preparation for heading for the slopes. Iain has identified from the maps a handful of places which look as though they should command a decent view of the Schloss: Ella has been working out routes up to them.
Before leaving Iain dashes off another e-mail and sends it. He is rather looking forward to the hike, and is treating it like a military exercise. "Haven't had the chance to train like this in ages!" he thinks to himself.
Greg makes a short tour of the rooms the operatives occupy at the Kristall. Each has his or her own bedroom, and there is one bathroom on each floor to share. James, Anna and Iain are on the second (in American terms) floor, the others on the third and highest. All the rooms look out down the valley away from the castle. Anna's and Iain's rooms could be left by the window at a pinch, it would mean leaping into a flowerbed: the others are less suitable. There are no communicating doors between any of the rooms. There are no other guests staying in the hotel at all.
He establishes that there are two churches in town, one Catholic and one Lutheran. He pays a swift visit to the Catholic church and fills two small bottles from its font, without being observed.
Greg then heads off to another sporting goods store, not the one patronized by Ella and Iain. He invests in a pair of top-notch climbing boots and some good gloves, and also buys a bow and arrow, with a quiver, knuckleguards, and all the appropriate paraphernalia. The proprietor tells him that he can buy a hunting license on a daily or weekly basis from the post office in the village, with some appropriate ID. Apparently various wildfowl are in season, as are deer "not that you will find any here! These mountains are very quiet. You will be lucky to shoot anything more exciting than rabbit, my American friend."
Greg finds that the post office is also the home of a daily weather forecast, which the outdoors shop man praises as highly reliable. He gets a local map, guessing that it might be more reliable than those the others bought in Heidelberg. It seems that the valley has been under high pressure for the last few days: the sky is clear and the weather cold and still. New moon was on the 31st, two days ago, so tonight is likely to be dark.
Finally he phones SITU, from a payphone. He tells the receptionist (a man this time) that the group has relocated to Badgastein. "Do you have someone in Milan who can look into the matter of the European Molecular Letters journal? And have you had any results on the matters we've asked you to look into?"
The receptionist is rather terse. "Senator, you appreciate the manpower constraints we're under here. With respect, I don't think that these rather complex and detailed research projects you've suggested are likely to bear fruit in just a matter of a few days. There are literally thousands of businesses in Europe who trade in rare earth compounds, for example: and to narrow that down to the ones we're interested in is a sizeable task. We'll get our Italian branch to look into this journal - what is it you want to know? Research and funding backgrounds of the authors and editors? Senator Wentworth, there must be hundreds of them! Even if we could present you this information as quickly as you would like, how much use would a long list of names and facts be? Leave it with us, and we'll analyse the whole thing properly."
Greg is a little perturbed at being spoken to in such a fashion. "You have to appreciate that we're under a lot of strain out here, and any scrap of information might be useful."
The man's tone softens. "I know that, and that's why I'm saying this - leave the analysis of data to us, you just get on with the uncovering side of things - that's what you field operatives are good at! And we're sending you out a new man, to replace Sutherland. His name's Charlie Harper. Fine fellow - salt of the earth, you know? He'll be with you later in the day."
Nora has a quiet time of it at the café before being relieved by Greg. She does not see the cable car being used at all. The attendant does not move from his hut at the bottom. Presumably the Baron does not receive many visitors.
She heads for another climbing shop, and kits herself out with breathable, but warm, mountain clothing - fashionable, of course. She also buys a pair of dark shades, with a cord to hold them in place, a concealable but nasty-looking knife, some strong binoculars, and a camera with long-range zoom lens, image intensifier and several rolls of film. She does all this shopping dressed in heavily padded mountain clothing and shades, claiming to be a photo-journalist, looking to take pictures of the lovely scenery, whose luggage was lost in transit.
Nora then goes to visit the local chemist and gets some ibuprofen tablets for her shoulder pain (claiming it is for 'woman's pain'). She takes two tablets straight away.
James and Anna are making themselves busy about the town. Fortunately, this being a touristy area, most of the locals speak English to a reasonable degree, so James is not quite the spare wheel he feared. They manage to find out that Baron von Kleider-Wollenstein is a rather reclusive character, who is never seen in the village. He comes and goes from the castle by helicopter. The cable car is for the use of his staff, visitors and suppliers. Although the German nobility was abolished after the First World War, the use of titles as a courtesy is still common: the Baron's family have owned the castle since it was built, in 1868. Before that a medieval fort stood on the same site, which was in the hands of a different noble family. None of the handful of villagers they speak to know in what circumstances the present Baron's family came into possession of the fief. It seems he is something like the fifth generation of Kleider-Wollenstein in the castle, although no-one seems quite sure about this as the family has always been highly secretive. It is not thought that anyone apart from the Baron lives there now (and his staff of course).
Careful questioning does eventually elicit recognition of people fitting Molnar's and Reuter's descriptions. It seems that both of them are reasonably frequent visitors to the castle (every few months or so).
James buys a Swiss Army knife, and a number of other outdoors accessories: he and Anna are both rather clueless about what might be useful. He sees a beautiful Tyrolean hat, jacket and lederhosen ensemble for sale, but has insufficient cash to cover it. "You pick some clothes out for yourself," he says to Anna, "I'll nip back and get my travellers' cheques. My treat!" He gives her a quick peck on the cheek and heads back quickly to the Kristall.
Iain and Ella have an excellent afternoon on the slopes of the Kleiderhorn. The enjoyment of physical exertion, the testing of skill, the fine, crisp weather, all combine to bring them close, at times, to forgetting the grim purpose of their mission here in the beautiful Gastein valley. They establish two vantage points from which the castle can be overlooked: there are others, but only these two are readily accessible to non-climbers. Staring down into the castle with her binoculars, Ella sees that it is grouped around a courtyard which contains a helicopter landing pad. The cable car station is just below the main double doors of the courtyard - doors whose size can serve no useful function, as nothing larger than the interior of the cable car could conceivably approach them. The courtyard wall encloses three sides of the complex, but it would be possible to climb straight down into it from the fourth side. There is no sign of life.
On the way back down Iain identifies two potential rallying points - a twisted juniper bush, four hundred yards below the castle, and a small canyon a similar distance to the east. These will be useful if the party get separated at any point.
Nora, who has been busily trying out her camera taking pictures of the spectacular scenery, finds the missing ingredient to make the shots even more memorable - a hunky climbing guide, whom she recruits from the post office. His name is Richard, and he seems keen to feature prominently in her photo-story (or anywhere else, probably). He tells her that in the off season life here is very boring. "All we can do is drink, and then curl up in front of the fire - yes?"
It is late afternoon, and Greg is wondering when James and Anna are going to relieve him at his post observing the cable car (which has still not moved). Suddenly Anna rushes up, her hair all over the place and her face tear-stained. "James is gone!" She is frantic with distress.
Greg leaps to his feet, taking her elbows in his hands. "Calm down, Anna, please, and tell me what's happened. Gone where?"
Trembling, Anna explains that James left her just for a minute to get his travellers' cheques. When he did not return, she went back to the guesthouse herself to look for him. She found his room unlocked and the door swinging, but no sign of him.
Greg grits his teeth and walks Anna back to the Kristall. He gets her a brandy and asks the receptionist whether she has seen James. It seems that he came back for his travellers' cheques, as Anna described, but since then he has not been seen.
Running up the stairs two at a time, Greg enters James's room. There is luggage scattered about it, which all seems to be James's own. There is no sign of Uriah's luggage, which James had brought with him from Heidelberg. As far as Greg can tell the things James has bought recently, including the Molotov cocktails, are all still here.
Ella and Iain return to a scene of some confusion. Anna has drunk herself into near-insensibility, Greg and Nora are deeply worried.
Iain showers and changes, while Ella reports the latest news to SITU. She also chases up Broomwood Hospital, who have an analysis of the mysterious pharmaceutical found in the syringe. "It's very interesting stuff - we'd like to get some more, if you have access to it. Some carefully-tailored biochemicals which aren't in the literature at all. Whoever developed this stuff didn't report their test results, which is extremely naughty. We'd need more to test it properly ourselves, but the best guess we can make is that it might induce some sort of state of suspended animation in the patient. There's a psycho-active element as well, which would probably have the effect of suppressing memories - it's related to a drug used in the treatment of paranoid schizophrenia. And there are some drugs present which are used to prevent tissue rejection in transplants. What the whole cocktail would do is anybody's guess - and, frankly, I'm not about to volunteer to have it injected into me!" Ella thanks her and hangs up.
"Look, let's leave James aside for a moment and talk about what we're going to do about the Schloss," says Nora firmly. "I've picked up some kit which will be ideal for observing at night."
"It'll take about four hours to get up to the castle," says Ella, "if the weather holds and we can cover the ground reasonably quickly. We can expect something like twelve hours of darkness at this time of year in these latitudes."
Making sure that no locals are in earshot, Greg says "Badgastein is a pretty small town, and there aren't many tourists here in the off-season. The hotel night porter might talk to the cable car operator or to one of the shopkeepers, and somebody might just phone up to the Schloss to let the Baron know about us, and then we could be in really hot water. That's one reason that we need to make that climb as soon as we possibly can. But we should try and get some sleep first."
A waiter come over and summons Iain to the phone. Puzzled, he cautiously approaches it and picks up the receiver. "There's a caff over the road," says a thick, London-accented voice in his ear. "You might wan' a cup of coffee in a few minutes. Back Street Heroes. 4 across, 12 down, 15 down."
After a brief, panicky discussion, it is decided that Iain should go to the café, watched by Greg and Nora from nearby.
The café is deserted, but he finds a copy of a tatty magazine lying on one of the tables, open at the crossword. Most of the lights have been filled in with nonsense, but in the indicated positions are the words 'Bar Treffpunkt', '8:30', and 'ALONE'. In the margin is a doodle that looks very like the SITU logo.
At the appointed time a nervous Iain heads for the Treffpunkt, one of the village's seedier bars. Greg and Nora are again standing by watching him. He stands at the bar, ordering a beer. After a minute a bulky shape eases itself onto the stool next to him. It is a large man, wearing a holey T-shirt and oily, battered jeans, between which a sizeable acreage of belly protrudes. The ensemble is completed with a leather jacket with battered denim cut-down, a large patch of which is a darker shade than the remainder. He is well into his thirties, Iain estimates, and has startling, piercing blue eyes above a bulbous nose, about three days' worth of beard matched by a similar amount of hair atop his head. From under his cuffs can be seen crawling the ends of intricate tattoos. He exudes an air of strength and menace.
"That's a very black coffee - five sugars," he says to the barman. Then he turns to face Iain. "Charlie Harper. SITU sent me. I 'ear you've run into a bit o' bovver, need a bit of an 'elpin' 'and? What's the story then mate? 'Oo do I have to 'it?"
8:30pm, Monday 2nd November 1997
Everybody else: in Badgastein
James: you first prepare, then abstract Uriah's valuables as planned, covering your trail in a fashion redolent of mystery. You then steam out of Badgastein on the first available train, looking forward to a life of luxury and happiness...
Charlie: you find a ratty roadhouse at the edge of town, whose proprietor seems none too fussy. You leave the note for Iain at the café as planned. You see no tail on any of the party.
Nora: you document the party's activities as planned, and mail copies to your brothers in Australia.