The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 10
8:30pm, Sunday 2nd November 1997
"Hi Charlie," says Iain. "Iain Blayne. Good to meet you." He turns to the barman and says in German "A black coffee with lots of sugar please,", but the barman is already making it in response to Charlie's request.
"Shall we take a seat over there?" Iain says to Charlie.
"Suits me," says Charlie, the coffee cup looking small and fragile in his vast paw.
"I think we should all go and talk to this Charlie guy, not just Iain," says Ella. "I think all the cloak and dagger stuff is a bit much, and we've wasted valuable time chasing after him."
She, Nora and Greg head out into the streets to join Iain and Charlie at the Treffpunkt, leaving Anna to get some rest.
The sight of their new colleague is a disappointing one, for Greg at least. He can scarcely credit that Charlie Harper is their backup. In something approaching unbelief, he murmurs to Nora, "This lumbering load of lard is supposed to help save the day here? Maybe he can fall on Molnar and break his back that way."
"Right. Have SITU given you the gen on what's going on?" asks Iain.
"Not as it 'appens, no, they ain't. I was told what you lot all came out here for, and that you was all ''ere now. That's it." Charlie looks attentive.
"Right then, I'd better fill you in." Iain introduces the rest of the group and explains their roles. "We found out in Heidelberg that down-and-outs were being taken off the streets by this guy Ferenc Molnar and his accomplices. They're tied in deep with the city government, especially the police - it seems like the Commissioner, Klaus Nomi, and the guy who runs the morgue, Hans Reuter, at least are in the conspiracy. And the police were having us watched... and put Anna under suspicion of terrorism. And they tried to arrest Nora, just before we left - that's why we went in such a hurry."
Charlie looks appreciatively at Nora, then sniffs. "Bleedin' filth - pigs, that is - police - they're always on the take, my experience. Don't surprise me a bit. This Molnar - ''is name rings a bell. Just as I was ''eadin' out I got word from another SITU team, out in Transylvania somewhere. They'd said that a Molnar ''d been busy out there a while back, doin' some minin' work for some crazy Baron and a load of vampires!" He chuckles, and fishes in his pocket. "They give me a contact number for ''em - the other lot - well, not a number properly, one o' them Interweb fing, addresses."
The piece of paper reads "unexp @ vanyel.herald.co.uk".
[GM note: this is a genuine address, if you want to get in touch with the other group concerned]
Greg looks on, openly scowling, as Iain's conference with the newcomer progresses. Nora occasionally looks at him slightly nervously, and notices that his right eye is twitching now and then.
"Anyway," continues Iain, "we think we gave them the slip to get out here to Badgastein. But this castle here is where Molnar seems to be based, and we think he may have fled here - and there's a Baron here, too, apparently, Baron von Kleider-Wollenstein."
"Collider what? Never mind, I'll get the ''ang of it. You ain't told me what this Molnar geezer was doin' with these tramps."
"We think he was turning them into Frankenstein's monsters - it happened to one of our team, Uriah Sutherland, and now James Bowater's gone missing too."
Charlie laughs loudly. "Frankenstein's...? Well, that is good - that beats all, that does. I've ''eard it all now!" He shakes his head, grinning. "Well, wha'ever, we goin' inta this castle then, or wot? I mean there's free ways ain't there - all sneaky like, up the cliff; in the front door, up the, y'know, wozzername, cable car; or SAS-style: ''ire an ''elicopter an drop in on ''em unexpected-like!"
The SITU operatives enter 'planning mode', huddling around the small table.
"I think that we should wait before going into the Schloss until we can observe it for 24 hours," says Iain. "We haven't a clue about who or what's in there, and it'd be bloody mad to just rush in."
"I don't agree," says Greg firmly. "We need to get up that mountain as soon as possible. With or without James, with Charlie. Anna might be smarter staying behind. We should go up tonight."
Ella nods. "We don't know how much time we've got. What about if Anna and Nora stay here in the village to look for James, and the rest of us, including Charlie, head up? And we should climb up: I don't think we should advertise ourselves, we still have the element of surprise."
"Suits me fine," says Nora brightly. I'll keep watch down here for a turn, and act as contact between you lot and SITU."
Charlie shakes his head disparagingly. "Nah, nah, the cable car's safest, love. Climbin's too risky in the dark. No point losin' people! I don't reckon it can be too tricky to work, that fing - or I could 'persuade' the guy on it to show me which bu'ons to push."
Iain looks concerned, as his counsel of caution and preparation appears to be in a minority of one. "My idea was to have a couple of us, probably me and Ella, go up to one of the OPs tonight and get relieved tomorrow sometime before we all go in tomorrow night."
But no-one is interested, and Charlie too is overruled: climbing, and tonight, is the decision. The operatives return to the Kristall to prepare.
"Doesn't look like we was followed back," says Charlie, who has decided to keep on his room at the biker hotel rather than associate too closely with the others.
"I did some shopping this afternoon," says Nora, unveiling a small box of distress flares. "I have a theory that the bad guys might be sensitive to bright light - that's why I got these." She indicates her shades. "And here's two walkie-talkies - I'll keep the third one, and I'll turn it on to listen in every hour."
"I got this," says Iain, pulling out a crossbow and quarrels.
Greg wordlessly tosses a small water-pistol onto the bed. He has spent some time practising and finding its range (which is not more than six feet or so for any accuracy, although you could expect to hit a human-size target at ten feet). He also has a bottle of ammonia.
"What good's water gonna do?" demands Charlie.
Greg's face goes red. "It's not just water, you moron!" he snarls. "It's holy water from the font of the church."
"Jeez, sorry I breathed," mutters Charlie as everyone else looks at Greg in surprise. He is breathing heavily and awkwardly tugs his jacket back down his shoulders from where it has ridden up.
"I've had some thoughts about how to look for James," says Greg a little later. "We should try to find out if anyone in Badgastein has seen him - check the hospital and other locations, including the police. Charlie, perhaps you could watch if I go in - alone - to consult the police. It's not unlikely that James is under arrest, and that I might be myself as soon as I appears at the constabulary."
Charlie scratches his head, with a noise like small wild boar foraging through dense undergrowth. "I don't see how this James geezer can just ''ve gone like that, ''specially after you lost this other Uriah bloke - wasn't you lot keepin' an eye on each other?"
Greg explodes with rage. His face darkens to a dangerous-looking puce, veins stand out on his neck, and his eye twitches furiously. "No, we planned it this way! We meant for Uriah to fall into Reuter's hands, and James was only a liability anyway! We like Nomi and his goons, and hope that they get to go on running Heidelberg indefinitely. And Anna's house was insured against fire, right? Are the good burghers of Heidelberg insured against totalitarian government? What does any of it all matter, anyway? Bah!" He stomps off to the far corner of the room, flopping himself down into a chair and swiftly emptying his glass of scotch. A black scowl seems fixed to his face, and he does not meet the eyes of the other operatives...
...who look at each other with a variety of emotions: concern for Ella, puzzlement for Charlie, resignation for Iain and Nora.
It is some time after dark by the time the mountain group are ready to set off.
"I'll distract the lift attendant guy while you set off," says Nora, brandishing a bottle of Chianti. She sashays off into the village.
"That Nora's a bit of orright, eh?" comments Charlie appreciatively.
Greg glares at him.
As they start to walk up the lower slopes of the Kleiderhorn, Ella and Iain confer. "We can try and descend into the castle from above, where there's no wall, or we could approach from below and try and scale the wall," says Ella.
"I guess which is best will depend on what sort of lighting they've got up there at night."
It is very cold, but the footing is secure and the party's kit and equipment is excellent. Once they have got above the level of the top of the village, torches come on to reveal the inky darkness. A billion stars gleam faintly overhead, and the snowfield has an eerie luminescent appearance.
"Keep well together, and try not to stray to either side of the path," advises Ella. "We won't get to the difficult bits for a couple of hours yet."
Around the shoulder of the mountain they can see the pylons of the cable car, stretching spiderlike up towards their target.
Nora has dragged Anna out into the night to help look for James. First, though, she visits the station at the foot of the cable car, where the attendant is still on duty. "You work very long hours," she calls out cheerily.
"The Baron is expecting visitors tonight," comes the tired response. "I have to stay here until they arrive."
"Well, in that case you could probably use a drop of this inside you - won't you join us?" Nora offers the bottle, and the attendant's eyes light up.
Over wine they chat. Nora learns that his name is Rudi and that he has been working for the Baron for twelve years. The visitors are not expected until midnight, although they might be early: he does not know who or how many.
"Right, we're going to rope up now," says Iain. "I'll take the top, Ella'll be at the back. If anyone falls, the rest of you, try and hang on - get down flat if you're on a ledge." He does not relish the prospect of anchoring a dangling Charlie.
The ascent is slow but not too tricky. Greg has little aptitude but is willing to do as he is told and learns quickly. Charlie is able to haul his bulk around with comparative ease, although clumsy. At one point Iain goes on ahead to the first observation point, and sees that the castle courtyard is lit with floodlights that cover most of its area.
"I suppose we'd better go in round the back, then," he says on his return. He does not rate Charlie's or Greg's chances of scaling the courtyard wall swiftly and silently.
They press on up the ridge, Ella pointing out the two rallying points she and Iain identified earlier in the day. In this darkness they will be difficult to spot, though.
As they approach the castle all douse their torches and the climbs at once becomes somewhat more chaotic and bumpy. Fortunately a certain amount of light spills out from the castle complex.
Nora has dug out her friendly tour guide Richard, and together with Anna they have been trailing round the local doctors, pharmacy and police (Nora approaching these last with a degree of trepidation). No-one answering James's description has appeared, although the policewoman on duty says cheerfully that sometimes people fall down chasms and aren't found until the following summer. Anna's lip grows decidedly wobbly at this point.
Nora has also eyed up the village pharmacy with a view to a potential break-in. She does not think it would be too difficult, provided that there is no alarm system.
Fortunately it does not seem that the police here have been briefed to arrest Nora on sight: she experiences quite a sense of relief at being able to treat them as a helpful public service rather than a sinister enemy as in Heidelberg.
She has just checked in on her walkie-talkie to learn that all is under control up above when she sees a large dark blue BMW draw up outside the cable-car station. She remains in the shadows, holding Anna and a puzzled Richard back, as three men get out - Molnar, Reuter and - she gasps involuntarily - the shambling man-thing with Uriah's face, which is wearing a long coat and hat pulled well down, presumably so as not to alarm Rudi.
They enter the building, and there is a cough, roar and prolonged thumping hum as the cable car engine warms to operation.
The descent down into the courtyard is about eighty feet, steep but straightforward. There are a number of lights on in the castle, with no particular pattern noticeable, although the courtyard is well lit. On the helipad is a small, black helicopter, its rotors drooping.
"If we get caught," whispers Ella, "we should make a run for it, or fight our way out." She taps the handle of her ice axe meaningly. "Remember what happened to Uriah!"
There is a hiss and hum, and the cable-car cables start to vibrate. A light comes on in the upper station, which is on the other side of the complex from the group's current position. More lights start to come on, on the ground floor of the main castle building.
12:10 am, Monday 3rd November 1997
Nora: with Anna and Richard near the cable-car lower station
The others: perched, hidden, above Schloss Kleider-Wollenstein