The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 11
12:10 am, Monday 3rd November 1997
Ella is hunched over her palmtop computer, its backlight glowing feebly, as the cables thrum. "That confirms it!" she mutter. "Reuter is a vampire, there may be others, damn, looks like we should have followed that Klein und Klein lead!"
Greg's jaw has tightened at the sound of the approaching cable car. Having to face the people in the castle was dangerous enough, without the added hazard of unknown potential reinforcements. "Let's form into two pairs and try entering the Schloss from slightly different places," he says. "With the cable car coming up, some of the attention inside the castle which otherwise might be watching back here might be focused on the cable car, so we should move quickly. Question is, where do we go once we get inside? I'm sure that we need to look for James, but who knows where he might be kept?"
"Good thinking," says Iain, who is examining the courtyard for suitable points of descent and entry. "Once we're in, Ella and Greg go one way and I'll go with Charlie the other. Meet up at the cable car station in one hour? If things go completely pear-shaped, then head for the station or the first rally point. Whichever's easiest."
"Perhaps I should go with Charlie," says Ella, looking at Greg slightly apprehensively.
"OK then," says Iain, turning to Charlie. "Charlie, can you speak any German?"
"Yeah, I can get me message across all right."
"Great. My plan is if we bump into anyone I'll try to make out we've been invited here by Molnar - you do the same for you and Ella. If that doesn't look like it's working we take 'em out. Quietly if poss."
Charlie pulls out a wicked, much-used-looking knife. "Come on sweet'art, time to go to work," he croons to it.
Ella looks through the scrubby bushes and comes up with a few sticks, which she trims with her hunting knife to use as stakes. She muses that if all else fails, her ice axe has a sturdy wooden shaft.
While Iain and Charlie plan, she draws Greg aside and speaks to him firmly. "This is an extremely dangerous mission - our lives depend on calm and quick thinking. Pull yourself together!"
Greg seems to have pulled himself together a little bit. He's still somewhat tense, but he doesn't appear to be ready to explode at the slightest prompting. He quietly replies, "I've been too much on edge, you're right. I think that I have myself under better control now, but I could become a liability to the party if I keep on this way. The best way that you can help me here is to keep safe yourself, you and Iain. You two have been the real bricks through this whole thing. I don't want to see either one of you getting hurt." He pauses. "And I'm glad that Nora is safe down below. If we don't get out, at least she might be able to."
Charlie takes Iain by the arm, breathing heavily into his face, wearing a wide and distinctly disturbing grin. "Come on - let's go in!" he whispers. "You fink we should do some damage to their choppa? Then they won't be able to escape!"
"I'll take care of that," says Iain confidently.
Down at the lower cable-car station, Nora whispers into Richard's ear: "Darn it! The guy in the long coat and hat is one of my main photography rivals: looks like he got the drop on me with the castle owners and will get the chance to photograph in the castle grounds. Bah!"
Richard tuts sympathetically, so Nora presses her advantage. She slips an arm around Richard's waist and pulls him closer. "Could you do me a big favour honey? Take Anna back to her hotel room and sit with her for a while - she needs someone with her, and I've got a few things to do. Then I'll be back to make your efforts worth your while! Maybe you know of a nice little out-of-the-way log cabin we could huddle up in: maybe later on tonight?"
Richard looks considerably disappointed. Presumably babysitting Anna is not his idea of a wild fun-packed evening. "I will stay with her, of course. She should not be alone. But I think later this night I will be busy with friends."
Nora is slightly astounded and attempts to sway him with a kiss, but he holds her gently at a slight distance. "You have your important work to look after, yes? I will take Anna home to her room now."
Iain and Greg descend in the shadow of a buttress, and Iain at once makes his way over to the helicopter. He finds and opens a service panel and, fiddling around inside, loosens a couple of fluid pipes - hopefully, enough so that they will give way when put under more pressure. The two then scurry towards a door which looks as though it might lead down towards a basement.
Ella and Charlie clamber down the opposite side of the wall and make for a likely-looking doorway at the other end of the castle complex. The hope is that between the two groups the whole area will have been quartered by the time they meet.
Nora watches Richard and Anna traipse off into the night, and shrugs. She will have to make the best of the situation. She heads over to the bright lights of the cable-car station, as the car starts to climb the mountain, and greets Rudi once more. "Are these the buttons that make it go up and down?" she says ingenuously.
Rudi looks at her a little nervously. "Er, I do not think you should be here now - while I am on duty." He appears pale and cowed: Nora guesses that he has been given a telling-off by Molnar or Reuter.
"I won't do any harm - and you need some company, don't you?" says Nora.
"Really, I am sorry, you must go now." He start to usher her towards the door.
Nora, grimacing in annoyance, sidesteps him smartly, picks up a wrench that is lying on the desk and clocks him around the back of the head. With a muffled sigh he slumps to the ground.
Nora quickly ties him up and shoves him under the desk, then starts to rather worriedly study the various buttons and levers. If only she knew more German! She hopes that the car will at least stop by itself when it reaches the top.
Glancing through the window of the booth, she studies the villains' BMW parked outside: the blinking red light atop its dashboard suggests that it is alarmed, so attempting to hot-wire it would best be kept for emergency.
Iain and Greg make their way silently through a darkened suite of utility rooms. From further into the castle there is light and the sound of people moving about - there is also music.
Greg is pleased to find some cleaning equipment lying on a table in the second room they enter, and carefully transfers the liquid from his water-pistols into squeezy bottles. He hopes that the ability to stream or mist will be useful for the holy water. He also takes up a stair-rod that is lying alongside: it will make a good weapon.
Peering through the part-open door of a kitchen, Iain sees two livery-clad and bewigged servants preparing food - they talk to each other in undertones, and their demeanour is nervous. A third emerges from a trapdoor in the floor, bearing a dusty bottle of wine, and the three, their goodies piled onto silver trays, head off in procession together through a heavy oaken doorway. Waiting until they close the door behind them, Iain and Greg scurry through the kitchen and down through the hatchway.
Charlie is eager for action and keeps glinting light from the blade of his knife, making Ella even more nervous than she was already. "Remember," she whispers to him, "our priorities are to find James, to rescue Uriah and to get information - we're not looking to start a bloodbath."
Charlie nods, but it is evident that his mind is elsewhere (quite possibly a very long way elsewhere). He coolly tries the door and walks in, Ella hurrying behind him.
They find themselves in what looks like a gamekeeper's room, with various stuffed wild beasts of unusual size hanging around the walls. Also hanging there are two shotguns, beautifully made and chased with silver, at the sight of which Charlie's eyes light up. He takes one himself and hands the other to Ella, who accepts it gingerly. He then walks out into a narrow hallway, and finds a flight of stairs ascending into one of the castle's many towers.
Nora examines the control board, on which various lights have now started flashing. The note of the cables changes, and more in hope than expectation she pulls the largest lever downwards. The chugging of the engine slows and the cables stop moving.
Up at the castle Ella, peering out of a window, sees the cable car enter the housing rather faster than it probably should. Both groups hear a screech of tortured metal, and the cables stop. After a couple of minutes, Molnar, Reuter and Uriah [so called for ease of reference for the time being - ed] emerge from the building, Molnar and Reuter looking a little shaken and puzzled. As they cross the courtyard they are greeted by a liveried and bewigged servant, who escorts them into the main building. Uriah shambles along in the rear.
Charlie is ahead up the stairs, and he snarls with disappointment to find that it terminates not in a garret prison but in a small astronomical observatory. There is a modern reflecting telescope plus a rather older refracting model, and the roof of the turret appears to hinge back to allow access to the stars.
Poking quickly around the room, Ella finds a sheaf of notes - star charts and observation tables. They are written in a script she does not recognize - even what are presumably the numerals. Puzzled, she stuffs them into her jacket and she and Charlie head onwards.
Greg and Iain pass through the wine cellar, which is absolutely stuffed with what look like 19th century, pre-phylloxera vintages, and on into a small complex of white-tiled rooms reminiscent of those under the house in Danzigstrasse. In one room, done out a an operating theatre, Iain thinks he sees someone, but he relaxes when he realizes it is a corpse, laid out on a trolley, its chest cavity pegged wide open. A set of bloodstained latex gloves lying on the floor, and a discarded green gown suggests that the surgeon was interrupted.
Iain and Greg cross the room quietly and exit through the door at the other side. As he passes through, something prompts Greg to glance back. The corpse has turned its head and is gazing sightlessly after them.
Ella and Charlie, heading along an elevated picture gallery whose walls are lined with Old Masters - Ella recognizes two unmistakable Hieronymus Bosch canvases, and a section of fresco that looks like Giotto - hear voices coming towards them. They both duck into a side room, as Reuter and Molnar turn the corner ahead of them, Reuter scampering to keep up with the swift-striding Hungarian. Molnar has taken off his white travelling gloves, and is striking them into the palm of one hand as he walks. He is speaking in German, which Charlie understands: "...the Master will be very disappointed with you, Hansl. Very disappointed."
"With me?" expostulates Reuter. "It was not me who decided to use the golems for my own private project, Ferenc. It was not me who attracted the attention of those foolish detectives."
"I do not like you to use that word! You should call them 'creatures', not 'golems'. A golem is something quite different. Anyway, it was you who was foolishly absent from your post when the creature was pulled out of the river."
"But if you had not been using it to enrich yourself, in contravention of the Master's distinct orders, it would never have been in the river - it would have gone straight to work in the mine as it was supposed to, as the others did. And it was you who missed the reporter when you fired at her. Oh yes, Ferenc, you'll catch it hot all right..."
Their unseemly bickering fades out of hearing as they turn another corner.
The lower levels of the castle are distinctly cool and musty. Iain and Greg have the eerie and unshakeable feeling that, although they have seen no-one, their every move is being observed. It is a though they are passing through the bowels of some great living thing, waiting only for it to become impatient with their intrusion.
The cellars, basements and dungeons seem to have been laid out and extended on a purely whimsical basis. There are a number of ascents and descents which seem quite unnecessary. They find what looks like a medieval torture chamber, with rack, iron maiden and razor-edged pendulum, but all the fittings are clean and unused. Off the side are a set of small cells, well equipped with gyves, manacles and hobbles, but these again are fresh and new-looking. Even the straw on the floor is fresh.
Iain looks at Greg in puzzlement. "I don't really see how we're going to find James, unless we ask someone. We could wander around this place for hours."
"Let's see when we meet up with the others: they might have had more luck."
To mount the largest of the towers, Ella and Charlie have to descend to the ground floor level, passing through a lit hallway. Ella is mid-scurry when a door opens behind her, and a voice calls out in German "What are you doing here?" It is a servant.
Ella freezes, but just as she is opening her mouth Charlie, who has not yet been seen, steps in behind the servant and puts his arm around the man's throat and squeezes firmly. The servant turns red, wheezes and chokes, his tongue sticking out and his eyes rolling up, before dropping to the floor. Charlie gives him a couple of kicks for good measure.
Ella stares at Charlie in horror, her hands to her mouth, but he simply says "'E didn't look like 'e'd buy any excuse, did 'e?" and stuffs the servant into a small armoire.
They press on warily, and are just starting to mount the next stairs when Ella sees a still form on the landing above. It is Uriah, his coat and hat now off and his true mismatched horror clearly visible, a patchwork of scars and ill-fitting limbs. "Good Gawd!" whistles Charlie. "Wot 'appened to that poor bugger?"
Ella goes up towards her former comrade, keeping cautiously back from his reach just in case, and says gently "Uriah? It's Ella. Do you remember me?"
A spark of - something? - seems to glimmer in Uriah's eyes. He takes half a lurching step towards her, raising his arms as though to embrace her. Then drool appears at the corner of his mouth and the light seems to fade again. He moves forwards at a quick shamble, his hands clasping.
Charlie, panicked, snatches Ella out of the way as Uriah snatches at her position. He emits an inarticulate, strahgled howl as he reaches the top step and seems unable to stop, his legs folding and unfolding rapidly beneath him in a rapid stagger downstairs, past Ella and Charlie and through another door out of the hallway they have just left. The sound of string quartet music swells as he pushes through the door, then fades again as it swings shut behind him.
Charlie and Ella look at each other. "That's Sutherland, eh? Wot 'choo wanna do if we run across 'im again?"
"I... I'm really not sure. I thought he recognized me for a moment there, but... I really don't know whether anything can be done for him."
As far as they can tell, Iain and Greg have exhausted the below-ground part of the castle. It is approaching time to make for the rendezvous, so they head for the surface.
The room from which they ascend houses a large furnace, pipes leading from which channel hot water into the upper castle. It is oil-fuelled, and there is a large steel tank of oil in the same room. Iain makes a mental note: could be useful later.
Ella realizes it is time to head for the rendezvous. She and Charlie have not searched more than about half of the upper part of the castle: it is a big and complicated job. The architecture seems designed to be as tortuous and indirect as possible. Every aspect of the decoration and furnishing is of the finest, but it draws eclectically from the whole range of European history rather than sticking to a particular theme. The overall impression is of being inside a vast collection rather than a residence.
By design or mischance, their route to the courtyard takes them through a lit part of the castle. Through a stained-glass panel, they can see into a small study-room, with a blazing fire to one side. At the far side of the room, facing the door, his gaze fortunately downcast, is Molnar. Between him and the door is a large wing-backed leather armchair, in which someone is presumably sitting. From the expression on Molnar's face it looks like he is getting a severe lecture. Try as they may Ella and Charlie can hear nothing of the conversation and see nothing of the occupant of the chair. The room, though, is full of papers, books, charts and so forth.
When Ella and Charlie reach the cable-car station they find Iain and Greg already there. The two teams swiftly share their information, while Iain fiddles with the controls. He thinks he can jam them so that the cable car can only be controlled by Nora down below.
"We ought to tell Nora's what's happened so far," says Ella. "And what our plans are."
Greg sighs. "Well, let's see: we've found no sign of James, but there's still more castle to search. If we keep searching we're bound to be caught sooner or later - by servants or by the bad guys. And they'll find the servant you laid out, Charlie, or else Uriah might tell them we're here - if he still can. Do we think he - Uriah - should be rescued, or not? Maybe if he was immobilized, or rendered unconscious, he could be treated. But trying to catch him would be very risky. And I guess if we can get into that study room we could probably find out a good deal more information - like who Mr Big actually is. But that could be very risky unless we wait for it to be vacant. SITU may be able to make something of that material you found, Ella, but I certainly can't."
Charlie sniffs marshily. "So we jus' plannin' to grab the info and scarper? Seems a bit wuss to me. What about these bad guys? We jus' gonna leave 'em to it? Seems to me we should be makin' sure to finish 'em off - Molnar, Reuter, the Baron, the lot of 'em!"
Nora is hunched as inconspicuously as she can be by the controls of the cable car, waiting with her radio channel open for instructions from the others, when she hears another car approaching. She peers cautiously over the windowsill to see a battered grey Ford Taunus draw up outside the Kristall guesthouse. Out of it get a desperately tired-looking Otto Fuchs and Heidi Probst, both in plain clothes. They head purposefully into the guesthouse.
1:30 am, Monday 3rd November 1997
Nora: at the lower cable-car station
Everyone else: at the upper cable-car station