"Deadly Encounters" is an extraodinarily chilling thriller where a tragedy from the past redefines love and hate, providing a perverse rationale for a series of unexplained murders.
Based on his deadly encounters, the local newspapers dub him the Prince of Darkness, an evil person on a rampage of death. His victims are mostly female tourists, and most attacks occur in the hills overlooking Heidelberg, except the last one. Inspector Stefan Krupp is baffled when another body is found. It appears to be mutilated in the same way as the others, but there are inconsistencies. Krupp is faced with a new dilemma. Is a cleverly insane killer trying to confuse the police, or are there two vicious killers on the loose with different motives? When another body is found, Krupp must finally face up to what his honed instincts have been trying to tell him. The killer is someone he knows. Now, he must prove what his gut tells him before someone else is killed, or he is.
He was stark naked, and he was falling from the sky.
The earth was little more than a blur now, veiled in mist and sheen. He cocked his head as the wind smashed his face, its roar vivid in his ears. It burned his eyes and puffed his cheeks. Suddenly, his mouth felt dry like a horrific morning-after hangover.
His stomach revolted and he gagged.
He began to tumble. Upside down, he saw patches of green, gray puffs of clouds and streaks of blue. He felt cold. Somehow, he managed to pull his chin to his chest. He looked down the length of his long, muscular body.
But how could that be? he wondered. Falling from the sky with no clothes to cover his skin, protecting it from the blistering wind? Like a newborn ice cube, quickly dying in the brisk air, falling from somewhere; but from where and why and how?
It had to be a nightmare. Nothing more. And if not?
He twisted, turned, and tumbled more. The wind was icy, watering his eyes, his nose, flapping loudly in his ears. He looked down. The earth looked hard and cold. He suddenly realized he was about to die. He had to do something; but what and how? He was falling too fast for his confused brain to think of anything but death. He stared at the earth as it rushed at his face, reminding him of its power to smash, to maim, and kill.
His skin tingled as a new image flashed, showing him mangled at the bottom of the deadly fall.
He had to force his brain to think, make it save him somehow.
There had to be a way to control the fall. He remembered seeing a skydiver on TV once. He’d controlled his descent using his own body, before he’d managed to open his chute. Could he, too? Maybe, but not today. He had no chute, front or back, only his skin and bones to break the fall. Then how could he slow his plunge, after all? Not die. How?
The wind whipped his face, flipping him over.
Straight side up, he tried to figure this thing out. He would do as the skydiver had done to slow his fall, at least try to control it more, stopping the sickening twisting and tumbling.
Struggling against the wind, he cocked his legs upward at the knees and held out his arms like a bird, extending his fingers to catch the wind. It began to work. Almost immediately he felt like he was in a steep glide, something like a stone skipping across water, but still going down, down, down, sinking to the earth, and its jagged rocks and stones. Hard and cold. Death waited at the end like always, its arms wide, but not with compassion or mercy. He was sure of that much.
He hit the clouds headfirst and broke through them, his body rushing for the crash, face-on. He tried not to think about it. It had to be a nightmare. What else? No one fell from the sky for long and lived, not even in a dream without an end. Death was about to touch him like before. He could feel it in the wind. He felt scared.
A new blast of coldness smothered his arms, his legs, and his groin.
Suddenly, everything grew larger in his bulging eyes. He saw rolling hills, forests, a river, and steep roofs huddled close in a city. Then, he saw a castle snuggled against a mountain slope that was covered with fresh, green grass. Oak, pine and birch trees competed for more space, and everything advanced rapidly toward his face. His life was a mess, but not for much longer. He was flying, straight down.
He adjusted the position of his body in the wind, felt its awesome power surround him, rippling his skin. It was obvious he could not stop the fall. Not now, not ever. He was but a mortal after all, possessed only with puny power. Even kings could not stop a free-falling person without a chute, nor make a waterfall flow backwards, or change the course of the sea by the flick of the wrist; so how could he?
His ego prodded. Survival lingered, boiling his brain to think harder, to do something now. He would not die without a fight. He would try to live somehow.
He guessed at how much longer it would take to get to the bottom of the fall, down to the end of the god-awful scheme; make it down to where an untimely death waited in the shadows, like when it had snagged his woman and daughter that time, three years ago to the day.
But there was no time left for grief. He was falling from the sky, about to die from the look of things. Why? It had been the same with them: a mystery on a string, him in the sky with no clothes on, them in a car burning. Another deceit taunting him. Life as delicate as an autumn leaf, crisp and crumbling beneath angry, dancing feet.
The wind continued to smash his face, watering his eyes, puffing his cheeks. His body felt unnaturally cold, like a beer bottle buried deeply inside an ice chest that was covered with heavy snow. An image of goose flesh, its pores popping, flashed.
Closing his eyes, he began to count out loud, estimating the distance remaining to the final crash: ten thousand feet, five, four, three, eternity.
It was hard to breathe but he tried. At least he was still alive. His body told him so. But for how much longer he did not know. A deceit on the move; his very own.
He twisted his neck, and saw the earth reaching for his face, an elusive destiny skimming past his steaming eyes. His brain flashed: one thousand feet left to go, eight hundred, five. There was no stopping the fall: four hundred, three, two. Almost down, the earth waiting, a gruesome fate sneering in the shadows.
He covered his face with trembling hands to protect it the best he could, but deep down he knew he could not win. Puny skin and bones were no matches for rocks and stones.
Almost there, a new fear overwhelmed him. He shouted two names, “Petra, Katja.” How he loved them and missed them so, but now it was his time to go, maybe join them somewhere, if he were good, and died unafraid of the future.
His ribs crushed his breath.
He blinked to keep out the cascading air that felt like sanded salt mixed with tears, trying to blind him.
He was almost there. Fifty feet, forty, thirty, twenty to go. A nanosecond, meters left, centimeters. Not far at all. A time to die, a time to go, but to where, and why now?
He kicked and shouted, flapped his arms, but it did no good. The earth and its powerful pull would not get out of his way.
He lost control. A new scream tortured his tongue and throat.
It startled him. Then, like some ancient prophecy had caught up with him, he felt terror and gloominess enrage his skin, just before the earth reached his chin, smashing it and him to pieces, blood everywhere. He did not hear a madman’s laughter in the distance as it bounced from hill to hill, seemingly rejoicing at the new kill.
He suddenly felt empty and frightened, and a little ashamed
Somehow he opened what was left of his mouth to scream, but no sounds came. A new darkness engulfed his soul. He was suddenly afraid of the future; but he was still alive from the feel of things; but why and how?
Sweat poured from his naked body as he raised his head from the ground beneath the bush where he lay. He looked to the east and west, up and down. He rubbed his chest and then his face. He pulled an ear. He jumped up and down. Clearly, he was alive.
He laughed long and loud, his tattered nerves untangling a strand at a time.
It had been a nightmare, after all? One like he’d suspected even when he’d been high in the sky above the fluffy clouds, the earth waiting for him to return to face an ultimate fate at the hands of fickle spirits that hid in crimson shadows where only closed eyes could see.
Another thought nudged him. There was no time for such nonsense now. He still had too much to do, alone in the darkness.
Suddenly, his taut body sprang upright like a too-tightly wound spring that had just been chopped free from its nighttime hoax with a hatchet. His head smashed into moist leaves, just missing a crooked branch. Memories flashed blood red and cold.
It was time.
He glanced both ways into the shadows. He saw he was not alone. There was a body, and she was naked, too. He glanced at his stained hands, then wiped what sleep was left from his dark eyes, red-rimmed, his brain somehow provoked into madness.
Impatient, he rolled to his knees effortlessly and placed his large hands on his thighs. He prodded his brain into early morning action: thinking, thinking, thinking; trying to recall the events from the night before when he’d lain there with her in the darkness, their bodies pressed tightly together, their breaths deep and quick, at least at first.
Where was he anyway? he wondered. Of course, he recalled, he was beneath a bush along Philosophers’ Way, high above the city of Heidelberg in Germany. And she was still there with him: one dead, one alive while life passed them by like a dream.
He pinched his chin and moaned deeply like an animal in need. It was good to feel pain, good to be alive, good to think.
He sighed deeply.
A thin sliver of sunshine jabbed at his tired-looking eyes as he jumped to the left like a newly born athlete. There was a tree nearby. He reached for its jagged bark as he moved cautiously away from the spot where he’d spent the night in the darkness with her.
Hesitantly, he looked over his shoulder. He saw a pair of naked feet partially hidden in the shadows. His eyes focused a moment on the petite toes, grayish pale now, the toenails blue. He remembered how much she’d tried to struggle last night when the time had come. But who could fight for long, or scream much, once duct tape covered lips and wrists and arms and legs, part of a pair of skinny feet? He remembered her vain attempts to escape the pain, its brutal justice that was based on a new rampage filled with hungry rage.
He recalled that she had tried to cry; but even that had been a useless gesture once he’d begun his work.
He looked at her mutilated body again, and then glanced through the leaves and bushes down the slope toward the NeckarRiver. A thin mist covered its surface and its edges. He was glad to see that there were no dredges, ferries or tugs in sight. He was alone, high above the river, where no one could see him or what he’d done.
For a moment longer, he watched the early morning mist spread itself silently up the river’s banks toward the narrow streets of the OldCity. The mist moved quietly like the subdued moans of grieving people at the end of a funeral possession.
Ignoring the dark thoughts, he allowed his brain to embrace the beauty sprawled across the river. It was an ancient city naturally filled with Germans, and not so naturally American soldiers and their civilian counterparts left over from the war that had ended fifty years ago in 1945, when he’d not even been alive, born in the late fifties.
At least the Americans had not bombarded the city at war’s end, although the Nazis had destroyed the bridges, including the Alt Brucke, which had long since been repaired. It provided another span across the river, a path for tourists, a place to hide in the rolling hills, where one could contemplate the contradictions of life and death, the beauty and horrors of each, a brain in flux.
Suddenly, he felt a chill at his neck. He rubbed the spot as he continued to survey the scene from his lofty position on Philosophers’ Way. “But life was a contradiction, too,” he whispered. “So am I. So let it be.”
His eyes began to roam downwards and across the steep roofs of the city and its high steeples, the Church of the Holy Ghost being the most impressive among them, and the highest, reaching with a pointed finger toward the sky.
He watched the thin mist rise, veiling the early sun and its rays. Then, up the side of the mountain across the way, his eyes rested a moment on the battered castle, its remaining walls sandstone-colored, red and majestic still, even now centuries after it had been built, later destroyed by the French General Melac, out on his own kind of kill.
He remembered that kill was celebrated by many people every year, more often in summer. Rockets lit up the sky like on New Year’s Eve, and boats with colorful lanterns ran the river, while cheering people roamed the bridges and the wide stone lanes nearby.
Later, when the breath-taking spectacle had concluded, many of them wandered off to local gasthauses to quench their thirsts and fill their bellies, excite their brains. Images burning with foot-loose tourists on the roam, some of them killing in their own selfish ways, arrogantly indifferent to anyone who got in the way of their rented automobiles and boats and things, along with their boundless greed and lust for self-gratification.
In his mind, the simulated burning of the castle each year was little more than a stupid attraction. What good did it do to celebrate violence and death, fire and explosions in the night while life itself was left wounded at the side of the trail? Wounded, then dead, never to celebrate anything ever again. No births, no marriages, nothing much at all. Only death remained it seemed, an event he had to celebrate like the rest whenever and wherever he could, especially since he was now at the helm himself, in total control. A new god, an old king, a Prince of Darkness on the roam.
His mind raced up the side of the mountain, explosions in the night, people screaming, images from the past.
He visualized the castle walls that became engulfed in red and yellow and blue flames each year: a simulated deceit like all the rest. Nothing was real anymore, only hate and revenge.
During the celebrations, the streets overflowed with people, too, mainly tourists seeking thrills and photographs of what they’d seen, keeping a record of their pride, their joy, a beginning, and an ending. A vacation on cobblestone streets, thrills of a lifetime, death’s claws poised for a new opportunity.
Unexpectedly, a wisp of wind touched his cheek. He remembered the fall and the dream. He reached to rub his square jaw and the stiff stubble growing there. His back and shoulders prickled at the touch of the early morning air that was cool on his bare skin. Then, like from nowhere, he felt icy fingers clutch his spine.
His body trembled and his fingers felt bloodless, like they weredead or numb from a deep sleep or guilt. He waved his arms and twisted his wrists to get the blood flowing better.
Finally in control again, he ran his hands over his disheveled hair, and then squeezed his head tightly, trying to clear his brain of its thoughts from the past, and its misery. 1992. A time when he’d had a beautiful child, four at the time of her death. And his wife? Not much younger than him at the time. She’d been thirty-two. Early dead. He alone for a short time more; a lifetime.
Both the wife and daughter had been killed by an automobile that had been speeding along the stretch of autobahn between Mannheim and Heidelberg, near the town of Seckenheim. It had happened on a straightaway where there was no limit as to how fast a car could go, even those driven by a drunken tourist, high on crack or worse, out for a thrill like she’d been running an Indy-five-hundred back in the states. Death had been a new kick for her, including her fellow passengers.
And his family? What of them? Innocent bystanders caught up in a tourist show. Innocent, yet dead. Brutally and painfully, flames lapping at their faces. His sorrow without end.
Hearing the terrible echoes from the past, he held his hands to his ears. He thought of how the crash had sounded: tires squealing, metal grinding against metal, a bumper striking their car from behind, a guardrail giving, the screams, and then the flames, snarling throughout the car, melting skin, burning hair, pain. Death no longer waiting, suddenly there, ravenous at the pit, taking life away in a flash.
Gone. Both of them gone, and the tourists. But he’d been left alive, a survivor with a purpose and a rage that tore at his soul at every turn.
He’d been sitting in the backseat with Katja that day, playing with a funny-faced doll. Petra had been driving, all heading home after a Sunday outing. Somehow, he’d been thrown clear as the flames had engulfed the car. He wished many times since then that he’d gone with them. It would have been so much easier on his brain. And them, the ones he blamed, boisterous tourists without shame then or now.
Suddenly, he jerked his hands in front of his face. He studied them a moment before he gulped more air. Lovely Petra’s and sweet Katja’s lives had ended without warning, much like each of the selected tourists would, too someday, until it was time for him to face his own destiny, a destiny which would take him away to a place of no return as was the custom of life and death set free, each seemingly endless in the beginning. A stupid mystery. A minor pause. Then all gone for good. A hoax after all? Another deceit to contemplate along the way to nowhere. Garbage!
His eyes began to burn. He shrugged the old feelings away as he wrapped his muscular arms tightly across his chest. He inhaled deeply. Set, he threw back his head and opened his mouth wide. He screamed like a vicious animal on the verge of death, his own or someone else’s.
The hollow echo reverberated over the OldCity down below, and then rushed up the sides of the rolling hills until it reached the castle, which sat quiet as the morning. There, along the remaining ramparts, the sound lingered but a second, almost like life itself, cherishing the early morning sun and its pleasures.
Then, it was gone, with only the taunting silence remaining.
He cleared his throat, freeing it of any sounds, and then glanced at the bush where he’d spent the night with her. His skin tingled. It had all been so easy: the pick up at the restaurant, the walk across the bridge, the stroll up the long, winding path, watching the sun fade quietly into evening shades. Hand-in-hand like lovers in the spring; a poet on a walk with his lover. Cozy, warm, at least at first. And in the end? A farce from the beginning. He had a mission. He did it.
She’d been his first but not his last, he thought, moving back toward the spot where she still lay on her spine in the shadows. There would be more like her in the future, he was certain of that. He’d tasted blood and it had tasted good, warm on his hands and arms, and his tongue. Of course there would be more.
He’d make sure they all paid before he’d finished with them and theirs whenever they visited. With the first behind him, he would make it an annual event. Yes, like a ceremony even, much like the annual castle light show and its regal celebration down below. Or, more likely, he expected, as the opportunities presented themselves, maybe more frequently throughout the year.
Although he could not predict the future, at least not yet, he could at least follow his instincts like a hunter from the past, and then do what had to be done. One by one in the darkness, they would pay. He was certain of that. His rage would guide him to the end.
He reached for his wrinkled khaki trousers and dark shirt, hidden partially beneath the bush near her naked feet, and then began to dress hurriedly, putting on new walking shoes last just before his zippered jacket. Finished, he reached into the shadows of the bush for his knife and ancient horn. His hand touched a naked thigh.
He did not recoil from its familiar coldness nor its stains, its silent cries for help, mercy. It was much too late for any of that. His heart was cold.
Standing, he shoved an old paratrooper’s knife that he’d retrieved from the ground into his trouser pocket. Then, he raised the curved animal horn to his lips. Taking on air, he expanded his lungs fully, and then blew on the horn several times like an ancient hunter who’d lost his way, or like one who was calling in his dogs for the day.
It was time to flee.
The horn’s hollow voice hung low in the quiet air, clinging for life, like it did not want to fade away so soon. Listening, he moved along Philosophers’ Way toward the NeckarRiver and the OldBridge that loomed in the distance. Soon, he would cross the cobblestones of the bridge and disappear in the old part of the city. He would be safe there, later milling with the tourists and their cameras, an old hate pounding at his chest, demanding to be freed.
He left the girl’s body where it lay, along with her clothing and what was left of her blood and hair and skin.
He was confident that walkers, both local and tourist, would soon be roaming the high trail, marveling at the beauty of a new spring. They would be smiling, taking photographs of the awesome scenes, enthralled with the picture-postcard beauty of the trail and its surrounding slopes and rolling hills, blanketed in thickly rich green, spotted with springtime colors like almond blooms and more.
Almond colors. Eyes like blooms, Those things.
He touched the pocket of his shirt and gently squeezed. They were still there, both of them. His prize from last night. Trinkets to help him keep track of each of the ones he met in the night and did his thing. Eyes that could no longer see. Souvenirs from a journey into darkness. A vision of hell. The sweet smell of death.
He quickened his pace, wondering how long before one of the tourists would find her, at least what was left. At the bush, one of them would surely scream, maybe even faint after seeing his nighttime work. Before he was through, there would be plenty of screams: before, during and after. He’d make sure. Let them all scream. Who cared anymore? His brain screamed constantly for revenge. He would have it.
Stepping off briskly into the mist, he let his long arms swing like on parade. He let the horn hang loose around his neck, dangling freely from a leather strap over his chest. He was happy. It would soon be time for church.
He hurried more, almost jogging. He had to shower and shave and change clothes before he faced the truth this morning. It was the least he could do: offer a confession, but to whom? Did it really matter anymore? A man with a new deceit, a burning lie. Would God ever forgive him?
He hated to lie. Lies were dirty and cheap. But how else could he have gotten her up the hill last night? Too soon it was over, the pleasure, the pain but not the hate. It would last forever like his fate, a man without a soul.
Later, someday, he would blow his horn again, summoning dark spirits to his side to guide him to another beauty like the one he’d picked up at the Student Prince the evening before. He wondered who she’d been, really.
“A tourist,” she’d said. “From across the channel.” England, or was it Ireland? Somewhere. Elaine something or the other. With a nice voice and smile, and an evening kiss. Deceitful. And, in the end, a squirming body hopelessly struggling for an unscheduled escape from him. But nothing was ever simple, not even a fable with a knight in shiny armor, sitting proudly atop a white charger, galloping gallantly to a rescue. Only in a stupid fairy tale. Not here. Not now. Not ever.
So what’s in a name? he wondered, hurrying along the high trail, toward the bridge. What did it really matter? Dead was dead. Only the living required names. Not the ones whose blood had turned cold in the evening air, wetting dead leaves, silent screams, hope for an impossible escape to nowhere. But no one could get away from him. He was too good, too powerful, a god, a king; a prince of darkness; a man in pain, alone to rampage, seek revenge.
He would take an eye for an eye until it was done, and he could no longer hear the endless screams of Petra and Katja, tormenting him with their pleas for help. The anguish in their voices had faded quickly from the scene, but not from his brain or heart. He would never forget their screams until his mission had been completed, and the streets were cleared of tourists.
Almost to the OldBridge this side of the city, he stopped to look up the slope of the trail. The mist was thinning more, and the sun looked like it was about to jump a tree. It was going to be a fine day, he knew. April, almost May, a time when blossoms bloomed and buds burst and children clad in springtime clothing chanted, “Schtri, schtra, schtroh” as they paraded through the streets beside floats made of “straw.” They’d be carrying pine branches and pretzels on sticks, which they would joyfully gnaw on at parade’s end, signaling a change of seasons. New life for the living, a dark grave for the dead, if he had his way.
It was a stupid time in his view. A time when people flocked to the grove of rhododendrons near the log house on the path leading to the koenigstuhl, the King’s Seat, like new buds and blooms were what life was all about. The valley east of the castle would be filled with blossoming magnolias, azaleas and other flowers opening to the stupid songs of spring, too. New life. Old death, false hope.People dancing in the streets like anything meant anything to anybody anymore.
Only dead poets knew the truth and their lips were sealed forever, like the girl’s from last night. A stupid tourist on the make, intoxicated by the city’s charm and beauty, his own persistence at getting her up the hill where it was quiet. A slow death in the night, no more mysteries. A record to keep until the mission had been completed. Revenge set loose with a vengeance. Him the judge, jury, executioner. A man with a knife. And a memory.
He wondered what she’d really felt last night, had thought before he’d finally revealed the truth to her. What did it really matter? Regardless of who thought what or why, only violent death meant anything anymore. To him, it meant power. Total control. No one telling you what to do, or how to do it, like when he’d been locked away in that padded room without windows or song. And for what? For being a man in mourning. But he was free now and would stay that way. No one would ever lock him away again. Not German, not American, no one, not if he could help it. Not ever. He would make sure.
He patted his knife as new images flashed.
Duct tape, a sharp knife, a horn. The only tools he needed to remain the prince of the throne, a man to be reckoned with. He could hardly wait to blow his horn again. Hear its voice echo through the hills, announcing a new kill, a new thrill. The world afraid of him. Tourists gone away for good. Heidelberg quiet like it had been before, before so many tourists had come with their stupid cameras and trash and songs, bringing an untimely death to his family.
At the river, he scrambled down a bank of stone, red sandstone-colored like the castle and OldBridge, and some local churches. He washed his arms, hands and face; cleared them of stains the best he could. Soon, washing would be a useless routine. The stains would be burned into his skin forever, clear and strong, serving as proud reminders of his ventures.
Finished washing, he hurried over the bridge toward the city. Halfway across, he raised his face in the quiet air. He sniffed. His skin prickled. There were stupid tourists somewhere, even this early on a Sunday morning. He could tell. He would find one. A female of the species. Right after church. He would show her his exalted courage before the city’s tower clock had stuck again, or his name wasn’t the prince of darkness on a mission.
He smiled wickedly.
Like the first one, he would make the next one feel life fully before he killed her seriously. Soon, with more practice, he would become an expert at the job, then famous. He would be a bold prince on the roam, something like a sane Jack the Ripper.
But unlike Jack, he would use a paratrooper’s combat knife and a bit of duct tape to bind and hold, and carry a curved horn that would sound in the night, announcing his arrival and departure. The world would wish he were dead before he’d finished with his work.
Hurrying across the bridge, he glanced at the gate towers. He recalled that Palatine soldiers had once guarded the entrance to the city as well as the nearby dungeons where tramps and derelicts were imprisoned. And, perhaps, a tourist or two, he hoped.
He turned right, and walked quickly to the Steingasse where the Zum Goldenen Hecht (To the Golden Pike) Inn stood. Even Goethe had visited this famous inn, maybe even had eaten some of its long-snouted fish, pike caught from a fresh-water pond. Another tourist at the feast before he’d died after his daily visits to the castle and crumbling walls, “reaching out to touch the past,” his brain aflame with ancient deceits, blinding him like others of his day, like some of them even now.
The Steingasse would lead him to the Church of the Holy Ghost. It no longer held regular services, but he’d “talk” to a priest there, after he’d visited a weekend apartment.
As he rushed, he strained his eyes. As far as he could see, there was not a living soul in the narrow street or hanging from the tall windows above him, open wide to the morning smells, which were always exciting and fresh even to the most prudish nose.
Some of the windows were already filled with fluffy feather pillows being aired just like in bygone days. Some things never changed. Life and death were no exceptions, nor sorrow and pain; pillows airing after a good night’s sleep, indifferent to a dark death that hid in the shadows behind the rays of a new day’s sunshine that had come to brighten the streets.
The sun blinded him. He lowered his head. He liked the night better. There, the darkness was gentler to his eyes and to his soul. He wondered if he still had a soul.
He hurried more.
At Market Square, in the huge cobblestone space behind the Holy Ghost Church that he had to pass by to get to his apartment off the Hauptstrasse, he pressed his cherished animal horn close to his chest. He recalled that there once had been a rotatable pillory there. A place of disgrace and humiliation for the prisoner, a place of laughter and joy to the passers-by, who felt obliged to spin the victim until he’d covered the street, and sometimes his own chin, with stringy spit and bits of vomit. Endless shame.
Tourists today would feel the same obligation, he was certain, if the pillory and a new victim were placed there for their primeval sounds and pleasures. Beastly, crude and vicious like always. Until it had become their own time to pay, time to face a cruel justice without a conscience. A man without a soul, a man filled with hate on a new rampage.
There would be little laughter coming from their lips once the word had been passed that a man with a horn and knife and duct tape had come to pay his respects to those he’d found loitering in his territory of death, especially at night. They would sing a different tune then when justice had finally come their way.
He scurried past the images of the pillory, and the ghostly prisoner rigorously being twirled as people teased his face and tortured body with garbage and rotten meat. He could almost hear their shrill voices even now: loud and boisterous, cheap. Vulgar in the narrow streets, topped with cobblestone for keeps. History. Events. An end. Time ticking like a bomb. Him the keeper of secrets.
Grimacing, he hurried past the memories to a place where it would be safe, at least for now.
He was suddenly surprised when he heard activity behind him. Heavy breathing, flopping sneakers on the narrow street of stone, much like those on Steingasse (Stone Lane). Probably someone on an early morning jog. A tourist, a local. German, American? Did it really matter?
He did not look back. He was in a hurry to visit the church and he still had to prepare himself. No time left to explore what was behind him. He quickened his pace.
The sounds at his back grew stronger.
He began to run, slowly at first, then faster.
The sounds followed, louder: flop, flop; flop, flop. Flop, flop; flop, flop. Rubber soles slapping cobblestone. The sounds would not let him get away so easily no matter how hard he tried to flee. Like a shadow of glue they stayed with him, clutching for his throat. Slimy wet, sticky, something like blood and gore.
Apprehensive, he stopped in the middle of the street and turned abruptly about. He would stop the annoying sounds himself, this very instant, right now...with his knife.
Facing back down the narrow street, he blinked at what he saw. He contorted his body, jerked his eyes right, left, up, down. Nothing in sight, or the sounds. Not anymore. Deadly silence in the street. He sighed. Once more, it was time to contemplate a familiar horror, shame and humiliation competing with his fears, a new guilt whispering at his ears. A clear warning from somewhere. God?
He shook his head to clear it as he shoved his knife into a trouser pocket. Reluctantly, he continued to march, slightly confused, light headed. Again, afraid of the future and what it might bring, just for him.
Almost immediately, the flopping sounds returned. Flop, flop; flop, flop. Persistent, indifferent. A reminder of time fleeing beneath his feet. A clock ticking: flop, flop; tick tock; flop, flop; tick tock.
Suddenly, he felt something cold reaching for his back: groping, groping, groping. Long fingers from the past, the present, the future. Obligations. Darkness waiting.
A scream gurgled in his throat. It gagged him.
The sounds followed: flop, flop; tick tock.
Soon, heavy breathing at his back again: closer, closer, hot, cold; terrifying, grotesque. Deformed fingers of evil air, reaching for his neck, making him think.
Then, with more than ample warning given, the fingers were there on his skin.
Bony fingers clutched his throat, squeezing mightily to liberate whatever soul was left, leaving his heaving chest completely empty, void of any guilt. A heart smashed to pieces. Him free at last to do his thing, over and over again. No strings to an old-time faith, or a conscience.
Nervously, he looked over his left shoulder and saw the face behind the ominous hands. A mask looked back, eyes dark, silent, unfeeling, a conscience missing. Perhaps, a soul fleeing to a place of darkness from where there was absolutely no return, ever.
He heard church bells fill the air, like a last-ditch warning just for him. He punched a fist at the sky and shouted, “Do not stand in my way. I will not stop now!”
Stark reality smashed his brain. His neck tingled.
An image flashed. He saw himself in a mirror: the hands, the eyes, the mask. Then, the church bells rang again, roaring in his ears, desperately trying to call him back before it was too late. He clamped his ears shut to drown out the awesome sounds.
Suddenly, a black cloud covered his eyes, blinding him. He could no longer see. Cold fingers nudged his neck. Somehow, he had to get away. But to where?
Still running, he glanced into a windowpane along the street. For a fleeting second, he saw his newborn face: huge orbs of fire for eyes, sizzling, and evil looking. And the mask like before, hiding the rest; old and new deceits clashing. Could he ever rest?
Stopping, he crushed his hands to his head, one on either side. Fire raged free in his brain, crackling hot.
Then, unexpectedly, a smile split his face. He ran.
He quickly regained speed, felt a new hand nudging him from behind, an ominous voice hissing a message into his waiting ear.
“Beware the world; the Prince of Darkness has been reborn, his mission clear. He comes with gifts as well: a horn to greet you, a knife to pleasure you, a roll of duct tape to bind your tears.”
He could no longer hold it back. He laughed hysterically as he disappeared into the early morning shadows that lingered in the doorways and along the narrow cobblestone street. Steingasse was behind him, across the Hauptstrasse, but he knew that it, like the one he was on now in the Jesuit Quarter, ran two ways however narrow or crooked it might be: forward and back. Always the damnable choices on every street.
In control again, he felt his body relax. He sighed thoughtfully. He was no longer fearful of the future or his part in it. He knew exactly what he had to do and how to do it.
He increased speed. He’d made a choice. Death waited, after church.
Reborn, he was no longer ashamed or empty. Fire burned inside.
Extracted from "Deadly Encounters." Copyrighted Dec 20, 2001 by Robert A. Gallinger.