From Supernatural Stories 39 - 1961
THE DEATHLESS WINGS
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“It struck from the high darkness, an evil fury as old as Time . . .”
The ‘Daily Globe’ was one of those fantastically over-worked national dailies, which rejoiced in a typically dour Scots editor. He was known as ‘Mac’ to everybody from the lowest office boy up to the senior political columnist. He was feared, revered, loved and hated, in equal proportions by every member of the staff, but whatever their attitude towards him, they all knew that no ‘Mac’ would mean no paper. ‘Mac’ just didn’t run the ‘Globe’. ‘Mac’ was the ‘Globe’! He was a kind of Fleet Street god. One of an old breed. One of a fantastic race.
About the only man on the paper whose attitude to Mac was not tinged with fear or resentment was the roving reporter Val Stearman. There were two reasons for this. The first was that Stearman was a giant of a man, who feared, physically, no creature living or dead. A man who had rough housed his way around nine-tenths of the world and who had met far bigger ogres than the Scots editor. The second was, that he was financially independent, and that helped.
He was sitting at a desk, sorting through a pile of rather uncompromising copy when a junior cub dashed in, waving a telegram.
“Foreign telegram for you, sir.”
Val Stearman stretched out his hand and took it.
“What blows now,” he muttered; and tore open the envelope, extracting the form inside. It bore one word, a signature and an address. The one word was ‘Come’, the signature was Otto Krugenstein, the address was Gurk, Karten, Austria. Val Stearman sat looking at it in puzzled bewilderment. Who the devil was Otto Krugenstein, he wondered, then suddenly he remembered. And as he remembered, he knew that the one word summons on the telegram could not be ignored.
‘Daily Globe’ or no ‘Daily Globe’. ‘Mac’ or no ‘Mac’.
For in the hectic days towards the end of the ‘45 war, Krugenstein had been instrumental in saving not only Stearman’s life but that small detachment of airborne commandos who had been taking part with Val in a desperate and vitally important Allied mission. Krugenstein could not be denied. Otto had risked his very life to save them then. And Val was not the kind of man to allow a debt of that calibre to go unpaid. The very monosyllabic character of the message itself, added to its urgency, rather than detracted from it.
He picked up the phone on his desk and called La Noire. “Get packed, honey, we’re going to Austria.”
She didn’t sound particularly surprised. Life for the Stearman’s was like that.
“Today,” he confirmed. “You can get the reservations while I get through to Mac!”
“O.K.” she said. He hung up.
Mac was in conference with two sub-editors and a director. Val barged in with cheerful indifference.
“What the divil d’ye want now, Stearman?” grunted the editor.
“I’m going to Austria for a few days,” said Val bluntly.
“If you walk out on me now when I’m in desperate need of your services, there’ll be no job for ye when ye come back!”
“Very well,” rejoined Val. “It’ll be a nice way for somebody else to get stomach ulcers, won’t it?”
“Stearman, ye’re incorrigible!”
“I’m also irreplaceable,” said Val, “Cheerio!”
“Who on earth was that character,” enquired the director
“That was the one and only Val Stearman”thank God,” grunted Mac after the reporter’s broad back.
“What do you mean, the one and only?”
“Exactly what I say,” grated the editor. “If there were two like him, I’d be dead. Died o’ worry! On the other hand, he’s given us some of the finest scoops and some of the most important circulation arising from exclusives, that any man has ever produced. Hoots mon any paper with Val Stearman, can add half a million to its sales overnight. He’s the man who did that Loch Ness Monster business. He’s the bloke who brought in the story of the vampire and a werewolf — authentic cases. He’s the fellow who went up Everest after the Yeti. He’s the man who —”
“All right,” broke in the director. “I remember now! I haven’t met him before. I haven’t been with the company very long. Why did you threaten to sack him?”
“Because if I didna say something to him he’d wonder what was the matter wi’ me,” returned Mac.
“You didn’t mean it?” said the director.
“If you were an editor, instead of one of the chaps who try to tell editors what to do, ye’re know more about running a paper!” snapped Mac.
“Dear me!” said the director. “It seems I have quite a lot to learn about Fleet Street!”
“Aye,” said Mac. “It seems!”
* * *
La Noire had made the reservations by the time Val got home. Half-an-hour later the cases were packed, and they were speeding towards Victoria. They picked up the boat train to Folkestone, made an uneventful crossing, and took the Basle express. They sped through Abbeville, Amiens, Lyons, Rheims, Chalons-sur-Marne, Chaumont and Mulhause, before the powerful diesel-electric deposited them on the bustling Basle station in the small hours of the morning. They made a quick, but delicious breakfast, then joined the Zurich train. In Zurich they crossed the remainder of Switzerland. The tiny principality of Liechtenstein, where a rather bored looking official in a resplendent uniform popped his head into the compartment, said: “You haven’t anything to declare have you?” and popped it out, again, before they had time to reply.
Then Liechtenstein was behind them, and they were in Austria itself.
“These trains are fast and these trains are comfortable,” said Val, “but I wish there was another way of getting here all the same.”
“We could have flown,” said La Noire.
“We could if we were multi-millionaires,” he rejoined. “Although Otto’s message sounded pretty urgent, I don’t think he wanted us to break the bank to get there! The monosyllable on his telegram may only have reflected his rather impecunious state.”
La Noire smiled. She was beautiful when she smiled. She was equally beautiful when she was perplexed or angry or anything else. She was one of the most singularly attractive women that Val Stearman had ever seen. Her youth and her beauty never seemed to diminish. The more he knew of her the more he loved and admired her. It was strange he thought, how they had met in the first place, when he as a rather materialistic columnist had been taking the gentle mickey out of spiritualism and the occult, taking up her challenge, he had found himself involved with a coven of black magicians, wizards and witches; and in the subsequent running fights, which he had had with that coven, over the years, they had faced danger in a hundred horrible shapes, and a thousand insidious forms. But the coven had finally been destroyed by the power of Stearman’s fists and the speed of Stearman’s gun. He was that kind of man. A man born out of his century, a buccaneer, a Robin Hood, a Hereward the Wake. He was a Lancelot, a Galahad, an adventurer, a swashbuckler; and his only compensation for the urbane monotonies of the 20th century was his ability to do wild impulsive things in wild, impulsive places . . .
The train roared on from Bregenz through Dalaas, Stuben, St. Antoine, Innsbruck, Schwaz, Genbach, Kitsbuhel, Zell am Bruck, to Schwarzach. They changed trains there, and moved south-east down to Bad Gastein. From Bad Gastein they travelled swiftly as far as Villach; and from there Val hired a powerful self-drive, ninety-miles an hour bus, a Citroen, and drove along the treacherous, twisting mountain roads, past Ossiach, into Feldkirchen, up past the Hochrindt turn, and east into Gurk, a picturesque little village situated on the river Gurk.
“Well, we’re here. The next job is to find friend Krugenstein!”
“How do you propose to set about that?” asked La Noire. “There was no other address, was there?”
“If I know Otto and Otto hasn’t forgotten the way that he used to run things, I expect he’ll find us,” said Val.
As they parked the car he picked up an evening paper. Among his other attributes was a considerable linguistic ability. La Noire glanced over his shoulder. The first word that hit her in the headlines was the name Otto Krugenstein. And a photograph. Val passed the paper across to her soundlessly and bit his lip savagely. He crashed one great fist into the palm of the other . . .
“Blast,” he said, “What a way to repay a friend! Too damned late!”
La Noire read slowly translating as she went: “The body of Herr Otto Krugenstein was recovered from the Gurk today. Herr Krugenstein, who was in his late sixties, was well known for his opposition to the Nazi regime during the war. No marks of violence have been found upon the body, and it is believed that death is due to natural causes. However, the police are making investigations, due to Herr Krugenstein’s political background and the possibility that he may have enemies.”
She handed the paper back to Val.
“Do you think that was why he sent for you? Political assassination?”
“I don’t ruddy well know what to think at the moment, honey,” said Val. “I wish now we’d taken the blasted plane. Poor old Otto. He looks just the same as he always did. It’s probably an old photograph. He was always so alive, so vital, so virile. It doesn’t seem possible that they could just drag him out of the Gurk. I don’t believe it. It’s not right. It isn’t the sort of thing that should have happened to a man like that. Well, I suppose we’d better see about getting some accommodation. If it was murder, if there was any foul play, I’m going to hang on here till it’s cleared up. It’s the least I can do for him. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Of course I’ll stay,” said La Noire. “I knew you’d want to.”
“Thanks honey.” He squeezed her hand. “There’s something else I’m going to do as well. I’m not over enamoured of these Austrian police.”
“Going to call in someone else?” It was a statement rather than a question.
“I’m going to give Jacques a ring,” he said.
“Officially or otherwise?” she asked. For Jacques Bonhomme was an Interpol Inspector.
“I’ll leave it to Jacques when he gets here whether he makes it official or otherwise,” said Val. “I’m going to ring him up unofficially at the moment. I don’t want to tread on the corns of the local gendarmerie, or Surete, or whatever they like to call themselves.”
He lit a cigarette and drew on it savagely. They walked back from the car park to the main street of the village. A pension with the familiar Zimmer frei sign in the window caught their eyes. “Rooms vacant,” interpreted Val. “O.K., let’s see what they can offer in the way of Austrian hospitality. I hope it’s a bit better than the last lot we had here!”
“Well, we were officially at war with them last time we were here,” said La Noire sweetly. “It does make a difference you know.’
“We shall ruddy well be at war with them again pretty soon if there was any dirty work about Otto’s death.”
Val withdrew the paper from his pocket and studied the dead man’s facsimile. “I can’t get over it. Poor old Otto. Why?”
“Perhaps it was an accident?” said La Noire.
“You and I know better than that,” said Val. “A man doesn’t send me a desperate telegram, all the way to England . . .”
“Why you?” said La Noire. “If he had political enemies, he must also have had political friends. Surely he could have got police protection. If he was free enough to go and send a telegram, couldn’t he have got away . . .?”
“Yes — the more I think about this the happier I am that I put the phone call through to Jacques Bonhomme. I think he’s going to be a good man to have around.”
“I’m getting one of those strange psychic feelings again,” said La Noire. “I can sense it in my very bones.” She looked at her husband anxiously, intensely. “There’s something out of this world about this, Val.” Her voice was husky, exciting, scarcely above a whisper. “There’s something that doesn’t add up, not in the physical material sense. There’s something here that,” — she paused. “I think I know now why he sent for you, Val. I’ve been able to answer my own question. I couldn’t do it rhetorically, or reasonably but —”
“I know,” said Val. “You relied on that mysterious feminine intuition, which is an integral part of your armoury. All right, wise one, tell me — why?”
La Noire moved her head slowly, until she was looking up at him. The graceful movement sent beautiful blue-black ripples through long dark tresses.
“I’m sure he sent for you, Val, because there is something occult, something supernatural about this.”
“I don’t know,” said Stearman, “It did cross my mind, “but when I knew Otto Krugenstein I wasn’t by any means the man I am to-day. I was much younger then, a rash young materialist in fact. I believed with a kind of apostolic zeal in reverse that things that couldn’t be touched and tasted and measured and handled, just weren’t.”
“Weren’t what?” she asked.
“Weren’t anything! Were not in existence.”
She nodded thoughtfully, then intuition came to her aid again. “But if Krugenstein had read of some of your exploits and seen the syndicated accounts that some of the European papers have run, of your articles, in their translations, seen your name, realised that it was the same man, whom he had known and befriended during the war.”
“Yes, yes, that’s a point,” agreed Val. “Strange how we change, and grow older and more mature, our out-looks broaden and widen. That of course is the real explanation. He sent for me because this thing had another worldly flavour. Because it had an occult tinge to it. Additionally as you said before, the fact that I wasn’t connected with the occult in the old days, the fact that I hadn’t made my name in this particular field, is really beside the point, because if Krugenstein’s the man he always was, he never lets a thing miss him. He was always on the ball. If its new, Otto Krugenstein knows about it. It’s his business to know. He has to know — at least” — he corrected himself rather sadly — “he had to know!”
Let’s go in and see what they’ve got for supper,”
They made their way to the dining room of the pension. It was furnished in typically Austrian style. The room was panelled with polished spruce. Tables were set between wooden partitions, rather like seats in a train. Austrian eating houses very often made Val Stearman feel that he was in church. There was something very ecclesiastical about this little Catholic country. This pear-shaped bulge of Western democracy. Surrounded on three sides by satellites and iron curtain States. Stearman looked at the wine waiter. He was a thin dreamy-looking individual who appeared to have seen better days.
“Bitte, mein herr,” he called across.
The wine waiter raised an eyebrow and moved in a desultory manner towards the Stearmans’ table. Val asked for the wine list. It appeared. He ordered a gentian brandy for himself and an aperitif for La Noire. When the brandy appeared he downed it at a single gulp.
“I hope the soup is good tonight, mein herr?”
“Zer goot, zer goot,” said the wine waiter with a smile and pattered away. The food waiter hove in sight around the corner of the wooden partition looking like a Christmas tree that had been badly, clumsily decorated with food trays, and plates of soup. He set two empty plates in front of the Stearmans and poured soup into them from two small jugs which he carried on the tray. Deftly replacing the empty jugs he moved away to the next table before either Val or La Noire could examine the contents of their dishes very carefully.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” commented Stearman. “I’ve seen worse, I must say. When all’s said and done its better soup than poor old Otto Krugenstein is eating!”
“I wonder if they have soup in heaven,” said La Noire.
“I wonder if Otto’s gone to heaven,” said Val. “Still, taking the rough with the smooth he wasn’t a bad sort of fella. I certainly owe him plenty. I don’t know what the rest of his private life was like though. Most of these secret agents and espionage chaps are a bit wild as a rule. There are exceptions of course. Maybe Otto was one. Maybe he led the local Band of Hope in his spare time.”
“Do they have Bands of Hope in Austria,” asked La Noire with a smile.
“I don’t think much of their gentian brandy,” complained Val, “it’s like meths and petrol with a dash of benzedrine . . . Hey, Napoleon!” Again he called the wine waiter. Again the laconically raised eyebrows, and the Austrian returned.
“Voos ist los?” demanded Val angrily, pointing to the gentian brandy.
“Das ist gentian brandy, mein herr.”
“Das ist more like methylated spirit,” commented Val.
“Nein, nein, nein,” protested the wine waiter with a look of hurt innocence on his emaciated face.
“Jah, jah, jah,” mocked Stearman. “Anyway, I’m not having any more of that. Bring me something with a red colour and the smell of cherries, will you.”
“Jarwohl, mein herr, dast ist gut!” Again the wine waiter disappeared.
Val began to tackle the soup. “What are these horrible things that look like stalks of grass in here, La Noire?” he asked.
“Probably it is grass,” she said with a smile.
“Not on your life,” said Val. “It’s supposed to be chives, or something similar — some horrible local herb!”
Most of these horrible local herbs as you call them so disparagingly,” said La Noire with a twinkle, “are supposed to be highly nutritious.”
“I’d rather be without their highly nutritious benefits then,” said Val darkly. “I still think it’s — oh, I dunno. Just looks suspicious the way they’s chopped it up so small, as if they were afraid we’d recognise the pieces! Like the way a murderer gets rid of his victim’s body.”
“Can’t you think of something else to discuss at mealtimes,” said La Noire daintily.
“After what we’ve been through — no,” said Val. “I should have thought our tum-tums were sufficiently toughened by this time.” He finished his soup with noisy relish and the dexterous jug-juggling gentleman who had brought it dashed in and removed it again, with equal dexterity.
The next course was an extremely odd conglomeration. A small saucer-like receptacle filled with wilting lettuce leaves, dressed in a horrible thin sauce, that owed most of its piquancy to vinegar and salt, garnished the centre of the table.
“It does look appetising, I must say. I should have remembered this from our previous visits. Even during the war they served nothing but wet lettuce leaves.”
“I know,” said La Noire, “isn’t it terrible!” She picked up one of the mildewed leaves and let it drop back into the enveloping liquid. The rest of the main course arrived. In one section of the triangularly divided plate reclined a soft boiled egg with a green yolk.
“Phah!” said Val. “I shouldn’t like to meet the bird that laid it — not on a dark night at any rate! Next to the egg were half a dozen leathery looking potato crisps. Beyond the potato crisps were some things that might have been sausages had they been younger. As it was, they stunk to high heaven. It was Val Stearman’s turn to raise an eyebrow, for on the other side was a slice of fat pork meat soused in a kind of beer and fruit sauce. The potatoes seemed to be about the only item on the dish that had been well cooked. And as though the cook had suddenly realised his mistake in presenting something palatable they had been garnished again with the same kind of grass-like herb that had embellished the soup.
“In the name of the great purple unicorn,” said Stearman. “Isn’t this revolting!”
“Worse than revolting,” said La Noire. “Courage, mon brave!”
“I shall deserve the Legion d’Honeur after we’ve got through this,” said Val.
“I don’t think they bother to decorate anybody,” replied La Noire. “If they all feed on this they must all be heroes. It goes without saying.”
“If we hadn’t got some business to conduct in this town,” said Val grimly, “and I mean business!” — his jaw set in a determined line — “then I would take this revolting plate of pig’s food and break it over the head of our friendly waiter.”
“Then you would be arrested by the gendarmerie and incarcerated for hours and hours and hours — if not weeks and weeks and weeks, and months,” she said.
“Yes, I hadn’t thought about that,” said Val. “But this ‘food’ — Ugh! In the words of the immortal Victoria: ‘I’m afraid we are not amused’!” He pushed the plate of mess away and beckoned to the waiter.
“Sweet?” he asked. It was as such a threat as a question but it seemed to glance off the waiter’s rhino like hide.
“Have you been serving food like this for long?” asked La Noire quietly.
“I’ll bet he’s heard all the insults in every flipping language that the tourists could command. No wonder they’ve got that sign up ‘Zimmer frei.’ I reckon they’ll ruddy well remain ‘frei’ if they keep dishing up this filth!”
The next course was a delightful surprise! Stearman was even more flabbergasted than he had been by the previous mess of pottage. The sweet consisted of two raw plums — one of which had suffered externally, due to the ravages of a hungry bird. The other was decidedly over-ripe, the skin had puckered and wrinkled until it was difficult to tell whether it was a plum or a prune, or some strange hybrid mixture of the two. Val held it up experimentally between finger and thumb. Looked at it against the light, turned it over, and laid it carefully back in its place with an air of reverence such as a great scientist reserves for a rare and beautiful specimen.
“And what,” he said, in impeccable German, in a voice that echoed from one end of the cafe to the other, “am I supposed to do with this! Reject from the pig bin . . .”
Several German and Austrian guests turned their heads and looked in evident disgust. They were very correct. They were proud of their correctness.
One did not complain at meal times. Certainly one did not complain of the beautiful Austrian food. It was not done, it was — as the English would say — infra dig!
Stearman called the waiter and waved the plate away with unutterable contempt.
The waiter raised the inevitable eyebrow.
Val had an almost irrepressible urge to blacken the eye beneath it. He wondered whether the waiter had a wife and child, or perhaps many! Decided that the answer would probably be in the affirmative, and tried very hard to practice a little Christian charity.
The waiter appeared to be so frail that one crack from the Stearman fist would probably have removed his head from his shoulders. Val contented himself with lighting a pungent cigar and watching German noses wrinkle up as the acrid fume met them in the middle of their ‘main course’. He felt that he was having at least a little revenge upon the proprietors of the pension.
“If I can’t eat anything solid I shall have to live on liquid refreshment until we get this whole sordid business cleared up,” he muttered.
He called the wine waiter over again. “Bring me a lager, a big one,” he ordered.
Under the influence of the delicious lager he mellowed a little. It was he reflected a libel on Austria, this hotel, this pension, this house-of-all-trades and certainly master of none! Had been a singular misfortune gastronomically. He knew that many Austrian catering establishments deserved their high reputation for good food and perfect service, why, he wondered, had he had to pick this one! Laziness perhaps, on his part? The fact that it had displayed a sign saying ‘Zimmer frei’ when most of the others were justifiably full, should have been warning enough. Places are not empty at a busy season without good reason. Obviously seasoned tourists knew better. Not that many people had travelled more widely than Stearman. But he didn’t often travel as a tourist. He was a professional traveller. He made his living as a trouble shooter in many odd corners of the globe, sometimes in realms that could hardly be described as purely terrestrial. He finished the beer as La Noire finished her fruit. He noticed they had brought her two decent plums. “Favouritism,” he said. “Just because you smiled at that horrible, emasculated waiter.”
“No dear, just tact.” She smiled disarmingly. “Where are we going now?”
“I’m not quite sure,” said Val. “I think for a start I’ll see if I can find poor old Otto’s residence and see if I can pick up some clue from that.”
They found it without much difficulty by the simple expedient of enquiring from a postal official.
Yes, he had known Herr Krugenstein. Yes, he agreed with the English visitor, it was a great pity about Herr Krugenstein. Where had Herr Krugenstein lived? Just along the road, he would be pleased to show them.
It was an old house when they finally visited it. A black-garbed housekeeper showed them around. For Herr Krugenstein’s many nefarious practices had prevented him from entering into the joyful bliss of Holy Matrimony. Yes, Herr Krugenstein had spoken of the English friend. He had said that he had hoped he was coming soon. He had seemed very worried. He had not been himself of late. What had worried him? Herr Krugenstein had not said. It was unfortunate. The housekeeper did not think it was possible that Herr Krugenstein had taken his own life. He had not been that kind of man, she explained.
That one simple statement carried a wealth of meaning for Val Stearman. From his own experience of Otto Krugenstein he knew that, barring some kind of mental illness, nothing would have persuaded the espionage agent to take his own life. No ordinary threat, no ordinary danger . . . It must have been something which he felt it was beyond his power to deal with. Something beyond his ability to control. Something he couldn’t handle. But what?
Val scratched his head thoughtfully. Ran a hand through those short dark curls beginning to tinge with grey at the temples. Maybe La Noire was right. Maybe there was an occult influence here somewhere. This was Austria, of course. This was Gurk on the Gurk. This was a pretty out-flung province. It was wild, rugged, lonely country, beyond the gaiety and the touristism of the village itself. He knew that on the far side of it was hungry Czechoslovakia — he knew central Europe from many occult investigations. He recalled with a grim smile how difficult it had been to persuade a Russian Embassy official to permit him to have a visa to investigate vampirism but he had got round that by calling it folklore research.
Folklore research! He laughed grimly. The tools of his research had been a heavy Browning automatic, with a clip of silver bullets of high velocity calibre. No, he didn’t care very much for the occult traditions of central Europe. He remembered some that he had investigated at first hand. There had been that hideous creature in the Voskaag valley. It had almost cost him his life. There were things about here that he didn’t like contemplating too hard, and yet he knew that he perhaps, more than any other living man, was most singularly equipped to deal with them. Because he knew that vampires existed. He had fought them. He had destroyed them in the past. He knew the Central European tradition only too well. It was a strong tradition and there was no smoke without fire. The thicker the smoke the hotter the fire burned beneath it. When one had penetrated the smoke and got down to the incineration itself . . . but why should Otto Krugenstein get involved with a vampire.
Val began putting things together in his mind as he went through the house. It was furnished in period. Heavy medieval furniture. Val also noticed that Krugenstein had fitted steel shutters to the windows. Quite a wise precaution for a man who might have snipers among his many enemies. There were other things. He also noticed about the house a faint smell of garlic. On Krugenstein’s bedroom door he found a faded wreath of garlic flowers. That made sense. So it was something supernatural that Otto had feared? Vampire or werewolf, wondered Val? He had a strange kind of feeling — the same that La Noire often had — that it was probably the former. A werewolf somehow, was too blatant, too crude. Too physical to have bothered Otto Krugenstein. He was a man who could face physical danger. A werewolf was strong and direct and forthright. But a vampire was an insidious evil. A thing that was far more difficult to track down . . .
If a vampire had come after Krugenstein, what could the reason be? Why hadn’t it chosen someone else? Was it just coincidence? Again Val wondered . . . Then another thought crossed his mind. Had Krugenstein been the only victim? He went through the house room by room. Beside Otto’s bed he found a large Silver Cross and a flask of Holy Water. That clinched it. It was definitely something supernatural, that his late friend had feared. But with all these precautions how had he been tricked? What had got him? Something must have persuaded him to leave his protections behind . . .
The vampire had obviously got him somewhere near the river. That was another point, the hideous creatures of the night, were unable to cross running water, which had a powerful, protecting influence. La Noire was subconsciously following his train of thought, for she broke in upon it in such an uncanny way that he realised she must must have been in telepathic communication with him.
“Do you think he was trying to escape from it, into the water?” she asked suddenly.
“Very likely,” said Val, and then realised she had been following his thoughts. “One of these days you will read this horrible mind of mine when I’m going over some of my past misdeeds, and youthful philanderings.” He grinned. “And then you’ll get a horrible surprise.”
“No I won’t.” She smiled sweetly. “I’ve been over most of those already!” How can a man have secrets from a telepathic wife? Wondered Val.
“He can’t,” she answered.
His attention was suddenly taken by marks on the window-sill, “What’s this?” It was the kind of scratch that would have been made by a claw. The claw of a big cat? Or the claw of something worse.
“I think we ought to go and have a look down by the river,” said Val.
“I was thinking the same thing,” agreed La Noire.
He patted the pocket where the heavy automatic lay snugly against his hip. They thanked the doleful looking housekeeper and made their way out.
“If Otto was afraid of the vampire,” said Val, as they walked along in the gathering dusk, “then it’s pretty certain it lured him away from the house on some pretext or other. It knew that he was too well protected where he was. It must have been after him before . . .”
“That in itself seems rather strange,” said La Noire. “They wouldn’t usually go after a man who knew how to protect himself.”
“Unless —” said Val, “there was more than a casual motive. “Perhaps it had some kind of vendetta against him.”
“But how could it have?”
“I was thinking of the vendettas we used to have with Dr. Jules, and that horrible little hunchback and the rest of ‘em. Once we’d kill one it made the others a thousand times worse. They were out for us then with a vengeance!”
“I see what you mean,” said La Noire. “You’re thinking in terms of Otto having destroyed one of them . . .”
They reached the river and stood on the picturesque old bridge, looking down.
“How deep would you say it was?” asked La Noire.
“Three or four feet at most, except when it’s in spate, and that will only be when the late Spring floods bring the water down from the mountains.”
Val lit another cigar and leaned over the parapet of the bridge watching the dark waters beneath him.
“If Otto jumped into a stream to protect himself from whatever was after him how did he manage to drown when that same stream isn’t very deep? In the morning we’ll make a test of the depth.”
“The local police chief would know — that would save us a lot of trouble.”
“I think it would be a good plan to walk up there now. If the police chief can’t give us a bit of help, nobody can! I shan’t be sorry when Jacques gets here.”
They left the bridge and walked up to the police station. The police chief was helpful and friendly, and insisted in speaking in rather reticent Austro-English.
“Yes, he knew Herr Krugenstein well, he had been a great friend, they had worked together in the war.” He looked at Stearman closely. “I have seen you before, you were one of the British Commandos dropped by parachute behind der line, is it not so? I and Herr Krugenstein help you with your mission. You remember?”
“I should remember you if you had a code name. I knew the code names of those men . . .”
“Stompf,” said the Austrian.
“That’s it,” Val snapped his fingers. He looked at the other closely. “Yes, I do remember you now.” He shook the police chief’s hand warmly. “It’s a sad business about Otto.”
“Ver’ bad indeed!” He bit his lip. “To anyone but you Herr Stearman I would not tell this, but I know my secret will be safe. There are things about this case that we would not have publicised at any cost, even though you are a professional journalist. Otto had not been himself for some time, I thought perhaps the years of the war had begun to catch up. I suppose even der Wilder Kaiser themselves would crack if enough explosives were thrown into them. I thought even my friend Otto Krugenstein was beginning to crack. Then I wonder if he is under great pressure, something he is trying to keep to himself . . . so I say to him, Otto what is wrong, and he say Franz, I am afraid to tell even my closest friends — you will laugh at me.”
“He was afraid of vampires, wasn’t he,” said Val.
“How do you know this?”
“I have been to his house. There is a garlic wreath on a door. There is a big Silver Cross beside the bed, and some scratch marks on the window-sill . . .”
“You believe in these things?”
“I’m afraid I do! I have fought with them and killed them.”
“This is incredible.”
“I came to see you because I want your help on several points — what is the depth of the river?”
“I, too, had thought of that — not more than three feet, maybe ten when she floods.”
“Now, another point. Apart from the obvious political enemies do you know anybody who would have any reason to go after Otto?”
“No, I do not think so. Politically yes, but nothing else.”
“Has anybody died in mysterious circumstances?” asked La Noire.
“Jah, there was a very strange case. You think perhaps these two are connected?” He paused, deep in thought.
“No, this was rather a horrible looking thing. We found a very old body up in the disused chateau, way up the mountain there.”
“A body that appeared to be five or six years dead?” asked Val. “Lying in a disused castle?”
“Jah, dat ist so? Why do you ask?” He sounded puzzled.
“Because this supplies the missing piece of puzzle I have been unable to get hold of! I was trying to think of a reason why any particular vampire should have hunted out Krugenstein and you have just supplied those motives.”
“How?” Frank sat bolt upright.
“That apparent five or six year old body was the remains of a vampire. When the metabolism of a vampire is destroyed by coming into contact with silver the body assumes that state of corruption which it would normally assume had there been no vampiric influence,” explained Stearman.
“Otto must have discovered vampire activity, and there must have been more than one of them. He destroyed one vampire, and the other would be out to revenge itself on the man who had destroyed its companion. And it would also be seeking to remove a potential source of danger. If Otto was brave enough to tackle one vampire he would certainly go out and tackle another. The creature was not safe while Krugenstein lived. But it did not want to kill Krugenstein in the vampiric method, because Krugenstein in turn would become a vampire . . . and the creature did not wish to have so formidable a man as its living-dead companion. In case he took over the leadership. I suggest he stunned him, and left him to drown, hence the natural causes verdict! No teeth marks on the body?”
“Jah, that is so!”
“This castle, where is it?”
“But you would not go there at night?”
“Oh yes, I would,” said Stearman. “I have ways of dealing with them by night or day or any other time!”
“Ver’ well, I myself will come with you!”
“Don’t come unprepared Franz — bring that with you!”
“Oh, but why?”
“Because it is a silver paper-knife,” said Val, picking it up and handing it to him. “Have you a Cross anywhere?”
“I have one at home.”
“We’ll pick it up — I want to go back to my hotel, to get ours.”
They drove the police chief back to his home to get the Cross and another silver paper-knife. They drove back to the pension, put on their own crosses. Val checked the loading of the big Browning.
When they returned to the powerful car, Val said: “How far can we get up the mountain in the car?”
“Most of the way.”
Val grinned. “It’s not my car. We can probably get up all the way! The longer this thing is at liberty the more dangerous it becomes! We may be on a wild goose chase, but return it must, if this is the scene of its activities . . .”
“The castle has not been used for a long time, there is an ancient burial ground attached to it.”
They made their way between trees, dark shadows moved among the branches. Val had one hand on the wheel and the other on the big Browning. They reached the lower end of the steep path leading up to the castle itself.
“Not even I can get a car up there,” conceded Val. Swiftly and carefully he turned the car round on the narrow road in the darkness. A hairsbreadth feat . . . The three of them made their way up the rocky winding path between tall, dark, pine trees. The ancient door hung on creaking hinges at a drunken angle. Val gave it a push with his foot and one of the ancient hinges gave way. With a creaking groan, as of a soul in agony, the door fell inwards. Stearman shone a powerful electric torch into the gloom beyond. Cobwebs and dust festooned the crumbling furniture. Overall there hung a smell of dank decay.
“Ugh! What a horrible place!” shuddered La Noire.
“Pretty grim,” agreed Val.
They made their way into the ancient courtyard, and then through another door into what had once been the central hall of the castle.
“Where do you think the thing would be?” asked the police chief. He had a silver paper-knife in each hand.
“Down there, I think,” said Val. His powerful shoulder dealt with yet another door, and below them wound a flight of crumbling stone stairs. Gun in one hand and torch in the other they went slowly down. The stairs were old and very treacherous, but they reached the bottom.
There on a stone dais stood an ancient lead-lined coffin. The lid was off. The coffin was empty.
Val sniffed at the air with obvious distaste.
“Smells like a charnel house! We’ve found it all right! This is the creature’s lair!”
The police chief, with his back to the wall, was looking anxiously in all directions.
“What if it takes us from the rear?”
“It can’t touch us while we wear the Crosses,” answered Val.
From the stairs above them came a hideous ringing laugh.
“That’s it,” said Val. “It knows we’re here. Come on down and fight,” he roared. Again no answer, just silence and the echoes of his own voice. The echoes died away leaving only the silence.
Val heaved the lid onto the coffin and sat on it with a cheerful grin. “If he’s not back in there by morning he’ll be dead, and to get in there he’ll have to get past us! And he will have to run the risk of a silver knife or a silver bullet!”
“What a horrible thing this vampire is,” said Franz. “The whole legends of them is so foul. They are things of darkness.”
“They strike from the high darkness. They are evil furies as old as Time. Which is why I devote so much of my time and resources to destroying them.”
The hours dragged slowly by and the light of the torch began to dim. Val switched it off.
“We shall need that later when we hear him coming.”
It was ghastly sitting there in the pitch black darkness waiting for the evil thing to come swinging down the stairs. Val looked at the luminous dial on his watch. “He’s got about another hour.”
He had hardly spoken when there was a flapping sound as the fury with leathery wings swept down on the crypt in a desperate attempt to sweep them aside and reach the safety of its coffin. Val snapped on the torch and in its gloomy half-light he saw it. A hideous reptilian face, a foul caricature of humanity with needle-sharp teeth and blood across the lips. A matted semblance of a beard. Claws that might have one time borne a resemblance to human hands, and those huge black wings. The raking talons swept the torch from his hands, and rolled him over as a terrier shakes a rat. He landed in a swearing heap. The light had gone out. That made things difficult.
He had to find La Noire and find her quickly. His memory told him where she had stood, her telepathic powers drew him towards her like a homing beam. He found her in the darkness and put one arm protectively around her. He made no sound. He knew the thing was about, he could see its eyes, eyes of red and green fire. He heard the sound of the coffin lid being raised. Still keeping one arm around her, he made stealthily towards the dais. A raking talon struck out of the darkness, and his powerful left seized the vampire’s wrist in a grip like a steel vice. He knew he could not hold the struggling creature for more than a few seconds. It had to be enough. He rammed the powerful Browning against its body and pulled the trigger twice.
There was a terrible gurgling, final scream.
The wrist that he was holding disintegrated into dust.
“Got him,” said Stearman. “Are you all right, Franz?”
“Jah, I’m all right, mein Gott, what an experience!”
They made their way up the stairs and out of the grim derelict chateau.
“Otto Krugenstein is avenged,” said Stearman.
“Gott rest his soul,” said the police chief.
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