The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Nightmare on the Neckar – Chapter 12
1:30 am, Monday 3rd November 1997
The atmosphere in the cable car station can be cut with a knife. Iain, as calmly as he is able, starts trying to make sense of the controls.
"We have too much information to risk by a return to the Schloss," says Greg firmly. "We have to get out while we still can."
"Wot?" exclaims Charlie in disbelief. "You mean let 'em get away wiv it? Bleedin' 'eck – pardon me French – we gotta finish 'em off!"
"No, we're living on borrowed time already," says Ella, attempting to interpose herself between the glaring Greg and Charlie. "I vote we scarper. James'll just have to take his chances."
Charlie turns away in disgust, clearly considering whether to go back into the Schloss by himself. "Well, orl righ' then," he says, calming down slightly. "But orl goin dahn in this fing is crazy. Eggs in one basket or wot! Iain and Ella should climb dahn, split the risk."
There may well be a certain amount of sense in this suggestion, but once again Charlie is in a minority of one as neither Iain or Ella are keen to negotiate the mountainside again. Charlie curses in disgust and stomps off to sit in one corner of the shack, sulking, while Iain opens a channel to Nora down below.
"How are things going up there?" She sounds tense but excited.
"Not too bad – we're on our way out. How are things down there?"
"Fuchs and Probst have just turned up, they went into the Kristall."
"Good, they might be able to help us get away," says Ella.
"Keep an eye on them," says Iain. He goes on to describe the operation of the cable-car controls, which are fairly simple if you speak German. He makes Nora repeat his instructions until he is sure she has them right.
"Ella, why don't you use this time to search that helicopter?" suggests Greg. He has been squinting up at the castle's skyline to try and discern the observatory, but it is not visible from his present position. Ella is pretty sure it was pointing at the sky in the approximate vicinity of Pegasus, although as the roof was closed there may well have been quite different stars in that part of the sky last time it was used.
Ella looks at him with some slight doubt but agrees to scuttle out into the courtyard once more, as Iain sets about trying to disable the upper set of controls. The danger is that if he does so too vigorously he may render the whole system inoperative, as the lower controls are effectively slaved to this set.
Ella flings open the near door of the helicopter, and roots about hurriedly for documents – she finds a logbook and service record, and with the other hand grabs up a set of maps that is tucked under the pilot's seat. She notes that the helicopter will seat four in comfort, with probably room for another couple strapped to the walls.
As she scurries back to the cable-car shed, alarm breaks loose at the Schloss – the great double doors that lead off the courtyard are flung open, light pours out, and the sound of excited German voices saying things to the effect of "Over there, look!"
Iain gives a last desperate whack to the controls – he thinks he has done enough to disable them – and yells into the walkie-talkie "Nora, start the car up!"
Charlie, scenting action, rises up, smashes the window of the cable-car station with the barrel of his gun, and fires both barrels in the general direction of the castle doors.
Greg, leaning out of the door, grabs Ella and scoops her into the housing, then he and she leap into the cable car itself as it jerkily starts into motion.
Iain clambers in alongside them, but Charlie is reloading the shotgun, keen to take another pot-shot at the figures now scurrying across the courtyard towards him. One tall, gangly shape is out in front, running purposefully if uncoordinatedly – Uriah.
The cable car starts to edge out of the doorway towards the first pylon. Iain cries "Charlie, jump!"
Charlie, cursing as he fumbles loading the gun, flings it bodily at Uriah and jumps for the door of the swaying car as it parts company from the shed. He lands half-in, half-out of the doorway, and Greg with a hand on his waistband hauls him in.
The car starts to descend steeply, and there is a brief moment of relative silence as the four operatives look at each other, pale, relief struggling to break through on each of their faces.
Then there is a terrific whump on the roof of the car, which sways violently, almost tipping Charlie out of the doorway. A large, heavy body has struck the car. "T-tie yourselves down," says Ella, her voice thin with dread.
"Hold on a minute," comes Nora's voice from down below. "Otto and Heidi are heading this way – and they've got Anna with them. They look pretty serious – what should I do?"
Any reply Iain might have wanted to make, though, is drowned in the smash of glass as a fist punches in the cable car's front window, spattering everyone with shards, and Uriah's face appears, upside down, in the hole.
Then, louder yet, from above comes the sound of a helicopter taking off.
Nora peers up out of the booth, using her night-sight binoculars, and sees Uriah take a running leap from the housing, which terminates on top of the cable car. She momentarily considers deliberately wobbling the car about to try and shake him off, but given that he is a professional climber it would be more likely to shake the others out. She bites her lip, jigging up and down with suppressed nervous energy, unable to help.
Then Otto Fuchs calls to her out of the darkness. "Miss McShane? Are you there?" He, Heidi Probst and Anna are walking together towards the cable-car station. There is no sign of Richard.
Nora quickly checks that the unfortunate Rudi is still concealed in his cosy cupboard, then waves cheerily to the approaching police. "What are you two doing here?"
"Professor Keizinger called us from the guest-house just after leaving you," Otto says shortly. He looks dead tired.
Nora glances casually back over her shoulder at the cable car's unsteady progress, and is alarmed to see that a helicopter has now taken off from the castle. "Has Anna told you what's happening here?"
"Pretty much." They have reached her now. "She says Herr Bowater is in the castle, and your friends are rescuing him. That Baron von Kleider-Wollenstein is in league with Molnar and so on."
"That's right," says Nora with some relief. At least she will not have to lie too much. "That should be them coming back now." She points up the mountain, just as the sound of gunfire echoes across the valley. Otto, Heidi and Anna look.
Charlie reacts first, letting out a roar of inarticulate fury and springing up to punch Uriah firmly in the face. Uriah reels backwards, his legs lose their grip on the roof of the car, and he falls downwards, swinging by his hands from the broken-glass-strewn rim of the window. But before Charlie can smash his boot downwards on Uriah's fingers, the American has recovered and hand-over-handed sideways around outside to the back of the car.
The helicopter, its rotors straining, comes into view down the side of the mountain, the wind from its blades forcing into the cable car. A colourless fluid is gushing from the point where Iain sabotaged it, but this does not seem to be preventing its flight. The door is open, and leaning out of it, clinging by one hand, a pistol in the other, is Ferenc Molnar. As the helicopter comes down to the level of the cable car he takes aim, from a distance of twenty yards or so, and fires.
Ella, Iain and Greg instinctively fling themselves flat, although it would require a better marksman than Molnar has so far shown himself to hit a moving human-sized target from a moving platform at this distance. But there is another crash of glass as the bullet passes through the cable car at about head height, shattering the back window and embedding itself in the wall by the door.
The pilot jockeys the helicopter gently nearer – it is now causing the cable car to sway vigorously. Uriah pops his head up at the freshly-broken window, and Charlie takes another swing at him, but he ducks out of the way. Molnar fires another shot, which Charlie feels pluck at the sleeve of his leather jacket, opening up a long rent. Rather than cowing him, though, this indignity merely enrages him further. He snatches up the other shotgun and blazes both barrels at the helicopter, but to little effect.
The helicopter edges closer still, and Molnar holds himself poised in the doorway. The operatives can now see that the pilot is Reuter – there is no-one else in the cabin. Just before the cable car is about to reach a pylon, Molnar jumps, and he seems to soar through the air, landing gracefully on top of the car with scarcely a bump.
As the car rattles through the pylon there is a 'chonk' noise and a bullet punches downwards through the roof, hitting Greg in the left leg. He cries out in pain and horror, bright blood gushing out, and Molnar's manic answering laughter can be heard even over the noise of the helicopter.
The scene inside the cable car is frozen for a split second, then Ella, her face pale with fury, unties herself from the stanchion and snatches up her knife. "Iain, you take care of Greg – I'm going out there. I'm going to take a chunk out of him."
Greg's vision is blackening around the edges, the shock of the heavy-calibre bullet and the blood loss telling quickly. Iain swiftly cuts away his trouser leg and applies a tourniquet. "The bone's not broken, Greg – just a flesh wound. You should be OK – we'll have to get you seen to as soon as we hit ground." His voice does not sound at all comforting, despite his best efforts, and blood continues to well from Greg's thigh, steaming in the cold air.
Ella leans out of the doorway and listens carefully. As Molnar moves across towards Charlie's position, she flings herself outward and upward, scrambling up onto the roof of the cable car.
She is no more than halfway on when Molnar, who is looking keenly down the other side, becomes aware of her presence and spins round. He raises his gun, smiling mockingly.
Ella desperately flings the clumsy skinning knife, which turns end over end and strikes Molnar in the chest, but hard enough to make him lose his footing on the icy roof of the cable car – he is only wearing evening pumps. He sits down heavily, grabbing for the cable stay, and cries out in rage as his gun goes skidding over the edge of the roof.
Ella leaps forward, taking her ice axe from her belt, and swishes wildly at Molnar. The axe strikes the stay, which twangs ominously.
"Charlie, give me a hand here," snaps Iain tensely. He is not able to hold the wound shut, and Greg has now lapsed into unconsciousness.
"Can't – I gotta keep old zombie-mush down," retorts Charlie, attempting to batter Uriah's fingers once more.
"I'm not joking! We're going to lose him!"
Ella steps in to swing again, but Molnar has stayed sitting down and with a well-placed kick sweeps her legs out from under her. She tips sideways as the cable car swings, landing on the very edge of the roof, the wind knocked out of her, clinging with one hand, her ice axe swinging from the wrist of the other, which is clutching at air. Reflexively she brings the axe up, striking it hard into the roof, where it digs in firmly. As she starts to haul herself painfully back up, Molnar advances on her, his foot poised to tread on her numbing fingers.
Ella freezes, her strength ebbing from her, at Molnar's mercy. He crouches down to gaze into her eyes. "So, Miss Wallace, this is how it ends, eh? First for you, then for your friends. You should have stayed at home in Edinburgh, not tried to interfere in matters you did not understand – like the foolish children that you are. Foolish, foolish." He shakes his head thoughtfully.
Ella's grip starts to slip, her bright fingernails splitting as they try vainly to dig into score across the metal roof.
"So now it ends," says Molnar sadly, standing up again and poising his toe.
Then, almost quicker than she can see, he is flying out over her head, down into the darkness, uttering a terrible cry of horror and dread. Behind where Molnar was, on the roof, stands Uriah, who has just flung him off.
Ella's grip finally gives, and she feels her weight draw her downwards over the edge, gathering speed. But there is a sudden intense pain in her wrist, as though it were encased in a band of iron. Uriah, his face still impassive, with one hand lifts her bodily upwards, back onto the roof of the cable car, and lowers her gently to lie gasping on it.
The helicopter, which swerved sharply away when Molnar fell to the rocks below, comes cautiously back in, Reuter peering out at the cable-car, trying to see who remains on top.
Ella, her breath tight in her, can just about say "Uriah?"
He stands upright, the starlight silvering his face, and smiles, almost wistfully. Then he shakes his head. He takes two steps backwards, then smoothly runs forward and leaps from the roof of the cable car, flying through the air and smashing into the doorway of the helicopter, which at once swerves sharply.
Iain and Charlie look at each other. "You hold this, I'm going up for her," says Iain. Charlie, uncomplaining for once, continues to squeeze the unconscious Greg's leg together while Iain starts to climb up the outside of the cable car.
"Mein Gott!" mutters Otto, who together with Anna, Heidi and Nora is watching spellbound. The cable-car is now only two hundred feet or so above its terminus.
Nora through her binoculars sees Uriah haul himself into the cabin of the helicopter, despite frantic attempts by Reuter to kick him out. Then the machine seems to dart sharply downwards, its rotors screaming, its tail spiralling wildly. There is a woof of flame as it strikes the mountainside, followed by the noise of the crash – at once the entire helicopter is engulfed in a ball of fire.
As the cable car coasts down the final stretch of its run, Iain on the roof hunched protectively over the prone Ella, Nora smoothly disengages the clutch and allows it to come to a gentle halt inside the housing.
There is silence.
Some time later
Iain Blayne places the six large, heavy brown envelopes carefully into the Fredrikshavn letter box – one copy for SITU in London, the others all addressed to himself care of various friends. He still has the originals of all the documents found at the Schloss, inside his jacket.
Looking carefully about him, he walks towards the ferry departure gate headed 'Göteborg'.
Charlie Harper is an accelerating black speck, on his way from Osnabrück to Hanover. Another road, another town, another scruffy boarding house and greasy café await him. He shakes his head crossly: all he knows of the future is that he has to pick up a package from a post-office box in Berlin the day after tomorrow, which will contain his next instructions from SITU.
Nora McShane is on the phone to her editor in Australia. "Listen to me, Matthew, I'm not fooling with you. It all comes straight from the horse's mouth." She looks across the desk at the person seated there, who nods in affirmation. "I've had two death threats already, so we must be getting somewhere."
Ella Wallace and Greg Wentworth sit opposite each other as the TGV speeds northwards through France. Greg has been walking with a heavy limp, but his injuries should heal in time. Ella looks pale, as though she has not been sleeping well – the look in Uriah's eyes as he turned away from her on the roof of the cable car still haunts her.
Greg looks at his watch. "Only eight hours till London. Let's hope the others can make it to the debrief."
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99
To Operatives: Iain Blayne, Charlie Harper, Nora McShane, Ellen Wallace, Senator Gregory Wentworth
Subject: Heidelberg identity puzzle
Achievement of aims: all Operatives are to be commended for their resourcefulness and bravery during what was a far more hazardous operation than anticipated. The extermination of Ferenc Molnar and the putative vampire Hans Reuter, although not part of your original mission, was extremely valuable to SITU's long-term aims, as it is clear these were highly-placed servants of one of our and humanity's significant enemies.
As regards the aims you were initially given, we consider these concluded to our satisfaction. You established beyond doubt that Professor Keizinger's results had been covered up, we assume by the corrupt political nexus operating out of the Heidelberg Police Department and Schloss Kleider-Wollenstein.
You further established that Helmut Schreik and the other disappeared down-and-outs had been abducted by Molnar and Reuter and made the subjects of bizarre surgical techniques, presumably to render them pliable as workers in the mines controlled by the conspiracy. We have reason to believe that these mines are located in Transylvania and that ores of ytterbium are recovered from them and processed there: one of the derivatives must have been the substance present in Schreik's blood and in the syringe Operative Wallace found, which must be a drug instrumental in the golemification process (if so it may be termed).
It is, of course, unlikely that ytterbium is being mined merely to create the drug that allows more miners to be made: no doubt it is also used for other purposes by our enemies. You may rest assured that SITU is turning its research might firmly behind this question.
Heidelberg: the depth, scale and far-reachingness of this conspiracy tend to suggest that resistance to it on the part of such as Inspector Fuchs and Sergeant Probst is doomed to failure. We have already safely relocated Professor Keizinger to a secret destination and provided her with a new identity, and will offer to do likewise for Fuchs and Probst should their lives appear under threat.
Professor Anna Keizinger: her mental state has not yet responded well to treatment. Her doctors are hopeful that in the long run she will be able to lead a relatively normal life, although it seems unlikely that she will ever be able to return to her former responsibilities.
Operative Uriah Sutherland: in a way it was rather fortunate that Operative Sutherland died in the helicopter crash. It seems to us extremely unlikely that he could be reliably restored to normal function, given the doubtless extremely traumatic nature of the process he underwent.
Operative James Bowater: we can only assume the worst about Operative Bowater. Your communal lack of will to make serious efforts to find and recover him is understandable if far from commendable: it certainly contributed heavily to Professor Keizinger's mental decline.
Schloss Kleider-Wollenstein: a follow-up team found the castle abandoned and empty, its occupants having clearly left hurriedly. With the destruction of another such castle by another team of SITU operatives in Transylvania, we can be confident that we have dealt a severe blow to this individual's operations.
The artworks and wines found in the castle: identifications by Operatives Wentworth and Wallace indicate that many of these items were acquired at auction at various places in Europe throughout the last century by an assortment of purchasers of doubtful authenticity. The two works by Bosch are most interesting: we have tentatively identified them as items known of only from the artist's own records, never having been seen since the time of their painting in the late fifteenth century. The then purchaser was listed as a Count Caradul, of Rumania.
The star-charts and maps: CENSORED
Klein und Klein GmbH, of Heidelberg: investigation of this company has revealed that the entirety of its shares are held in a private trust, which we have traced back to Baron von Kleider-Wollenstein. Although he is not their only customer, or anything like their largest, having merely purchased two generators from them, it appears that the company was set up solely for this purpose.
Cooperation with other Operative group: the sharing of information between this Operative group and the group currently active in Transylvania has been extremely beneficial. SITU have been able to piece both accounts into a larger whole. Members of this group will be copied the results of the Transylvanian team's investigations in due course, with some of SITU's conclusions.