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This novella was written for the Halloween Story Contest 2023.
Fair warning, especially to readers who are accustomed to my other stories - this one is quite a departure from what I normally write. It is a dark gothic fantasy that touches on rather macabre themes. Erotic scenes (of the lesbian variety) exist but are sparse. If you are expecting smut scenes or a focus on erotica within the plot, then this may not be the story for you. If you enjoy Lovecraftian fantasies with a few twists and turns, then I hope you give this one a try!
This story is a work of fiction, and the characters are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Heidelberg, West Germany. 1955.
Gouache water stains crawled down the starkly romantic architecture of Heidelberg like the shades of dark memories. The people here walked as if in a waking dream, a dead, grey stillness affecting them all. The only break in the stillness, like a single stone cast into a glass pond, was a woman with auburn hair in a bright blue suit who walked with a cane that clacked against the wet cobblestone.
The woman was Rachel Blake, and, at the moment, she was doing everything she could to keep a bout of insomnia and its wrathful swirling of thick fog at bay. She sought a cafe, and, desperately, a cigarette.
"Doctor Blake, over here," called out a German man's voice sharpened by the morning's peace.
She turned her head and spotted the owner of the voice. A man sitting at the café across the empty cobblestone avenue. He looked like he could be one of the many worn-away academic men found sitting in such a café. She knew he was rather a police detective in the West German Bundeskriminalamt -- the Federal Criminal Agency.
With his unblinking grey eyes and a stern hand, he directed Rachel to the vacant chair on the other side of the table. She stuck out a hand to shake the detective's. He didn't take it. So, she dropped her hand and dropped into the seat across from him. She slid her walking cane into the handle of her leather field case and placed that in her lap.
"Do you have a cigarette?" Rachel said. The detective pulled a pack from his coat which hung on the back of his chair and gave it to her. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, handed the pack back to the prim man, and leaned in for a light. He took out a lighter and lit it. At least he communicated well without talking. To Rachel, that was a good sign.
The café was quaint and sat cozily at the corner of a medieval bridge and had a cozy view of the gentle hills of the other side of the Neckar River. It was late October, so the leaves on the trees painted the hillside with their brilliant red, yellow, and brown like the exuberant smatterings of a painter's hurried strokes. If her business here was not macabre then she might have thought of relishing the morning at this café. To let it be her place of languishing while she nursed a terrible fatigue. But she was here for macabre business, so she could not afford to enjoy a bit of languishing.
The waiter came. Rachel first shook her head and held her hand up in polite refusal, but the detective said,
"It is cold this morning. How about something to warm yourself? Coffee? Tea, perhaps?"
Though he spoke politely, Rachel took it as a demand. So, she looked up at the waiter and said,
"Darjeeling tea, if you have it. Milk on the side."
The waiter nodded and was on his way. Rachel returned her eyes to her contact. He studied her warily, and perhaps an inkling of contempt. She'd seen this face before -- she could see that it irked him that someone like her would be put on the case. An American. A woman. A witch.
Finally, he said, "Doctor Blake, before we get started, I must tell you that complete discretion is of utmost importance to this investigation. Agreeing to join this investigation means anything and everything that you do can only be done with my explicit permission."
Rachel took a long drag on her cigarette and took her time to tap the ash in the ashtray and to blow the smoke off to the side before she said,
"I didn't catch your name."
The man kept his face blank as a stone wall. In response, he gave her not his name, but "I need an affirmative response from you first, Doctor Blake. A verbal response."
"Yes, of course. Can't embarrass the hand that feeds me, can I?"
He sat back in his chair and smirked.
"Indeed, Doctor Blake. Then I am Investigator Heinrich Schmidt."
Rachel nodded, and replied, "Pleasure to meet you, Herr Investigator Schmidt."
Schmidt was a cold man. A man in his forties most likely, grey and white striating his well-kempt hair in far greater quantity than should be there. He was a man who exuded the confident primness of refined social standing and a sizeable inheritance, yet the worn depths of his eyes exhibited a man who had not escaped the cruel machinations of the war. He was a weary soul.
The tea came, accompanied by a small ceramic jar of milk. She added a small pour of milk to the tea and stirred until the tea had turned to a shade of grey then took a sip. It was a good Darjeeling, and like all good Darjeeling, it reminded her of her time studying in England, where she developed a taste for it.
Schmidt waited while she conducted what he might have considered to be an inviolable ritual by the precise way with which she drank. When she finally finished her sip, he said,
"There's been another murder."
Rachel froze with the brim of the teacup on her lips momentarily before putting the teacup down. "Is that so?" she said, raising an eyebrow. Schmidt nodded. "His name is Doctor Albert Schulz. His maid found him in his garden just this morning."
"Any relationship with the first victim?"
"Colleagues. He's the director of the pharmacology department."
"The manner of death?"
"In what way?"
"Frau Doktor, it would be better for you to see yourself. Once you finish your tea, we'll visit the crime scene where the body remains."
"Wonderful," Rachel said, and she meant it. The fresher the body, the more effective her methods.
"I must forewarn you. What you are about to see is quite disturbing," Schmidt said.
To which Rachel replied, "If there's one thing you should know about me, Investigator Schmidt, it's that I'm perfectly fine with disturbing."
After Rachel finished her tea, Schmidt took her to the house of the recent victim's house. Long before Schmidt could open the front gate, Rachel caught the mineral-rich scent of fresh death. It was a wet smell, like that of a butcher's shop.
Schmidt fumbled with a keyring full of keys. When he finally found the right one, the padlock popped open, and the gate swung freely on its hinge with a metallic creaking. The smell grew stronger.
Dark red blood splotches the gravel path like copious amounts of paint spilled from a bucket. Rachel followed Schmidt along the red trail toward an old oak tree situated in the center of the garden. The tree appeared skeletal, having already lost all its leaves save for the sporadic few that had died where they stubbornly clung. Beneath the tree, lay the naked, blood-stained body of Doctor Albert Schulz, his skin as waxy and pallid as a winter moon, his arms and legs stretched out in a manner reminiscent of Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. His throat had been slashed open, not with a knife, but as if by the teeth or claws of a ferocious beast. Blood had sprayed out far from the wound. He had been attacked and killed right where he lay. Most apparent about the corpse, more so than the ripped throat, was the jagged, bloody swastika carved into his torso, stretching across the entire width of his torso. Again, carved not with the precision of a knife, but with a cruder tool. His rib cage and sternum splintered out from the skin where the lacerations were made in a manner to suggest a beast had made them, though the wound's deliberate design ruled that out.
"Doctor Albert Schulz. A long time protégé of the Rector," Schmidt said with the clinical detachment of a man long who had seen death in many forms.
Rachel stood still over the corpse, studying it. The doctor's eyes were wide with frozen shock. His mouth gaped as if he had been screaming the moment he died. Quite certainly he had been. The frothing pattern and the light color of blood around his mouth indicated that he had been alive when his lungs were lacerated.
"What are your initial suspicions, Frau Doktor?" Schmidt asked.
"It is not in my nature to produce initial suspicions, Investigator Schmidt."
She hunched down for a closer inspection and, despite what she had just said, if only to gratify the investigator's hasty need for a prognosis, she spoke aloud what she observed, at least the things that were readily observable: "Punctures to the throat, straight through the esophagus. The spinal column... severed. Decapitated. An incredibly powerful blow. Like nothing I have ever seen. Like he had been mauled by a grizzly bear, only..."
"We are far from Montana," Schmidt completed.
Rachel smirked. "Indeed. And a grizzly would not care if a man was a Nazi."
She stared at the swastika on the man's chest. Clearly, it was meant to be a message.
"Was Doctor Schulz a member of the party?" Rachel asked.
"Of course he was," Schmidt replied curtly.
"I meant to say..."
"Was he an important one?"
"He was an SS medical researcher of fair repute, or notoriety depending on your point of view. Important enough to be put in front of a tribunal."
"What are the relevant facts?"
"They had accused him of testing novel pharmaceuticals on the mentally ill at the Odenwald Sanatorium."
"Hardly the purpose of a sanatorium. The veracity of those accusations?"
"Unfounded. No records and no witness testimonies."
"Not even from the sanatorium patients?"
"All charges dropped?"
"A result someone might've found distasteful. The other victim. Also a senior party official?"
"Yes. Otto Rauschenberg was a surgeon in the SS medical corps. He had worked at the sanatorium as well."
The rainfall strengthened. Schmidt slid an umbrella out from between the handles of his briefcase and opened it. He raised it above Rachel to shield her from the rain as she continued studying the body.
With his free hand, Schmidt fished a cigarette pack out of his coat pocket. He popped a cigarette out of the pack with a flick of his wrist and offered it to her. She took it. He offered a light. With the cigarette in her mouth, she leaned up to take the light.
She scanned the body methodically, left to right, from the top of the head down to the bottom, and when she was done, and there was nothing else useful that she could ascertain from the body, she set her tool case on the gravel and clicked it open.
Schmidt watched attentively and curiously, frowning when he saw the many vials contained within. Vials containing unascertainable powders of many colors. Powders that looked like an array of spices from a Middle Eastern medina.
Rachel looked up at him as she plucked out a vial containing a lime green powder and said, "You might have heard of my eccentricities, Herr Investigator. This is where you get to witness them firsthand."
Schmidt pursed his lips. He kept his eyes steady and narrow on her, the cynicism written on his face letting her know that he knew all about her eccentricities and that even if he didn't want to entertain them, he had no choice. She was here on account of someone with a higher pay grade than him. He was merely the babysitter.
She turned her attention back to the vial and untwisted the cap. An immediate, sharp, foul whiff of the chemicals contained within invaded her nostrils. The scent pierced her brain like an ice pick. A sensation that pleased her. That meant it was still very potent.
She took from the tool case a long thin silver spoon with a head not much larger than pumpkin seed and used it to scoop out the powder from the vial. She held the spoon to her nose and inhaled sharply.
Lightning snapped through her brain. A powerful wind howled like she was in the middle of a hurricane. The world turned dark like a torrential downpour had just come crashing down all around her. Schmidt vanished into the blackness. The only thing in this tempestuous world that remained within view was the corpse of Doctor Albert Schulz. Arcanic energy derived from her own soul's reaction to her magical concoction coursed powerfully through her body and, on its own accord, sensed the presence of Schulz's corpse and reached out to weave itself with his soul still contained within.
Schulz's soul responded. His eyes began to glow as white as bleached sunlight. His corpse began to spasm intensely. He wanted out of his corpse but did not know yet how to dislodge himself from his corpse, an experience Rachel imagined not unlike how one feels during sleep paralysis. It is, in fact, quite possible for a soul to dislodge itself from a body, as all souls eventually do depart, but the fresher the corpse, the harder it is to do so. Only after the corpse had decayed adequately, much like rust on the hinges of the door to a prison cell, could a soul break free on its own accord.
"Herr Doktor Schulz?"
His body shook. He tried retreating into his corpse, but Rachel strengthened her arcanic grip on him. A painful, biting chill seized her body like electricity as she did this. A cold shock that no matter how often she experienced, she never quite gotten used to. Spirits were often very unwilling to be interrogated by the living. Particularly recently murdered spirits. The pain she felt reflected their fear galvanized by the arcanic connection. The pain was metaphysical in nature but had a debilitating effect on her. If she's not too careful, it can leave a permanent scar on her own soul, or worse. Channeling the energy too long, and her soul can corrode into nothing.
"Albert, I won't hurt you," Rachel said, as calmly as she could manage.
"Who are you? Let me go at once!" spoke the spirit frantically. His voice was a tinny echo as if coming from an old phonograph speaker. He was lost, and perhaps still oblivious of his own demise. Or he was in denial. A common trait among the newly deceased.
"My name is Doctor Rachel Blake," Rachel responded. "I'm here to help you."
"Help me?Help me?! How can you possibly," the spirit sobbed.
"I am working with the polizei to discover the identity of your murderer. But to do that, I need your cooperation."
Schulz sobbed louder. His white-glowing eyes pulsed with fear. Death was always hard on the spirits. It was always a lonely proposition. Despite the claims, no one ever accompanied the dead on their journey beyond the mortal plane. They were always on their own. It is always a distressing experience, but particularly so when their deaths are premature. As terrible as such circumstances were, Rachel long ago had stopped feeling sorry for them. Her time was limited. The longer she traversed beyond the mortal coil, the more her own soul eroded. Her time was limited not only by how long she could bear the pain but by how much of her own soul she had left to spare.
"Albert, get a hold of yourself and help me bring your killer to justice. Who did it?" She said more curtly.
"Doctor Schulz, tell me, now."
"She's after me! She'll find me. It's too much. Please. Let me go! Mein Gott, I see her! She's coming. She's coming!"
The response took Rachel by surprise. So, it was a woman, but the surprise was his claim that he could see her. Rachel looked around but could only see the grey-black storm that had always engulfed this plane.
"She can't hurt you, Albert. What is her name? Please. I don't have much time with you."
"Oh no, she sees me! She's after me. No, no, no, no, no, NO!"
Heinrich shrieked. Rachel felt her soul flicker like a flame in a sudden breeze. She could only watch in mesmerized horror as Heinrich's soul darted away at an incredible speed, disappearing into the darkness.
Alarmed by his disappearance, and sensing he would not be returning anytime soon, she relaxed her hold on her arcana. As it faded away, the world returned. The ground came up to meet her. Her cheek smacked against the gravel. Schmidt dropped his umbrella and hoisted her to a sitting position.
Overwhelming nausea overtook her. She vomited. Schmidt pulled back, repulsed. He took out a handkerchief and handed it to her immediately. Rachel took it and wiped her mouth. She offered it back to Schmidt when she felt she had nothing left to vomit up.
"You may keep it," Schmidt responded.
She crumbled the handkerchief into a ball and pocketed it. She grabbed her tool kit and her walking cane, then tried to get to her feet. Schmidt helped her up by the elbow and when she was on her feet, he took out another cigarette lit it, and handed it to her. She took it gratefully and took a long drag while she put her attention to Schulz's body. She had seen enough bodies to know when its soul had vacated. Albert Schulz's body looked this way now. His soul had been ripped from his corpse too soon. Ripped away by a malevolent spirit that haunted the proximate afterlife called Limbo. A 'she' evidently.
An eternity of a rainfall quietude seemed to pass before Schmidt finally said, "Are you going to tell me what the hell that was all about?"
Rachel shook away her pensive stupor and gave him a blank stare. A question that always came, and always was accompanied by shock, disgust, or fear, despite the advisory she always gave. He would not have seen anything that had just transpired in limbo. Limbo is unseen by the living. It exists only for the soul. A transitory plane to whatever comes next, like an airport or a train station. A miserable, hellish terminal to heaven or hell. The place was not meant for mortals, and few can traverse it. Rachel was one of those few, with the help of her henbane potion.
She always gave a truthful answer to the question. Lying, as it turned out, was harder. Even with the eye rolls, the head shakes, and anger (most often, anger), she found that most cops only cared about the results in the end. Corroborative evidence, which she always managed to get, was what mattered most to her success, and their acceptance of her methods. Most murder victims, as it turned out, were often able and more than willing to lead her to such evidence. That is to say, except when they were kidnapped by a mysterious entity before she had the chance to speak to them.
In any case, she gave Schulz the truthful answer.
"The powder I used is an ancient alchemical formulation principally derived from the noxious plant called henbane. I use it to talk to the dead. Or, more specifically, to deceased souls that have not yet departed the transcendental plane called 'Limbo'. In this case, I was interrogating Doktor Schulz. Or attempting to, anyway. Someone prevented me from doing so."
Schmidt responded in a way she did not anticipate. Not an eye roll, not a disbelieving headshake. Only a single nod and a follow-up question.
"What did you find out?"
The question caught her off guard. She pulled her gaze from the corpse to look into his eyes. Stone-gray eyes. Aloof, yet not an ounce of the typical intense judgment she often found in her minders. Not that they contained any warmth in them at all, but it was still comforting to her to know that she was at least taken seriously.
"Nothing particularly of value. Well, except that the killer may be a woman."
"Is he married?" Rachel asked.