Author’s note: this short story appears in my anthology The Tree at World’s End, also on Inkitt.
The train from Udine pulled into North Terminus with a strident squeal of brakes and billowing steam. The whole platform and most of the crowd waiting upon it were engulfed and momentarily hidden from view as the locomotive huffed to a halt.
I waited at the end of the platform, for I had little hope of finding my two passengers in the throng of people that spewed out from the carriages. The new arrivals mingled with the waiting crowd amidst cries of recognition, laughter and emotional embraces as mothers, wives and lovers welcomed the uniformed young men back home, on leave from their military service.
I continued to wait and eventually the crowd thinned and the platform cleared, luggage was wheeled away by porters, and reunited loved ones left the station in pairs, arms intertwined.
Then they stood out, the two whom I sought. A mother and her daughter, standing together, alone, both dressed in white and looking quite lost.
“Signora Doreglia?” I asked, as I neared the pair.
The woman who looked back into my eyes was very handsome, but her eyes were lined with exhaustion, the particular kind of weariness that comes from prolonged worry and sleepless nights. Her daughter, however, was nothing less than stunning, a rare beauty who did not meet my eye at all but preferred instead to stare down at the platform.
“Mr Kladnig?” the woman asked.
“Yes, it is I,” I acknowledged, picking up her single suitcase. “Mr E sends his apologies. As per our arrangement, he has sent me to fetch you in his stead.”
The mistress nodded.
“Vieni Rosa, andiamo,” she said, turning to the girl, but received no response until she actually took Rosa’s hand and tugged her in the direction she wanted to go.
“I have a carriage waiting,” I informed her. “Your accommodation has been reserved... it’s not far from here. Just a room, mind you, but with a very well-to-do family who has fallen upon difficult times. You should be quite comfortable for the duration of your stay.”
I glanced at the girl, trying to gauge her state of mind.
Mr. E had spoken to me about her, of course: the girl who rarely spoke any more, the girl who lived in a world of her own where no one else could enter. The girl who believed she had murdered her mother’s husband-to-be, even though the man was patently very much alive and well.
It was she who was the real reason for this journey and for their visit to the clinic of my eccentric employer.
Who am I, you ask?
My name is Franz Kladnig, but let me assure you that I am of no consequence in this tale. I am merely the one who was present at its unlikely unfolding, the one who had occasion to witness first hand the events that ensued.
I am not from Wien, myself. My ancestors originated in Prague, but that was long ago. So long, in fact, that I have no ties left with that city other than the unfortunate link between my surname and the town of Kladno, long since swallowed up by Prague’s sprawling tentacles and now nothing more than a suburb of that metropolis.
I am also relatively new here in Wien, having lived most of my life in Schaffhausen, one of the German-speaking cantons in Switzerland.
The reason Mr E sent me instead of someone else to meet Signora Doreglia is really quite simple: I am the only one of his employees who speaks passable Italian and the lady speaks no German at all.
So here I am.
What is the nature of my employment with Mr E, you want to know?
Well, that is a much longer story – and not really under scrutiny here … suffice it to say that I am a student and that I am learning. I watch, I listen and I learn. I might add that I am not doing this for the money, for believe me, Mr E’s wages would barely cover the rent of the pension where I am staying.
Luckily, my financial situation remains comfortable - as long as I refrain from extravagance - and this allows me the luxury of pursuing my consuming interest in the matters that Mr E delves in – namely, the arcane.
I dropped the mother and daughter off at the address I had been given, saw them safely to the door and left them in the hands of a gaunt butler, with the reassurance that I would be back to pick them up the following morning at nine. After that I paid the driver, shooed him off and walked towards Herrengasse and the café that Mr E favours there.
It had rained earlier in the day and the roads were still wet. A blanket of pale grey cloud had been thrown across the sky, but it was not the kind that threatened more rain, so it did not concern me. I walked briskly, mainly to keep myself warm, for the day had grown colder than had been anticipated.
The café is situated at the narrow end of an intersection where the apartment block juts out like the prow of a ship, parting the metal waves of traffic in twain. It is a busy crossing, but once inside the café, the noise of the automobiles recedes and fades until it soon becomes quite forgotten.
The light was already fading by the time I arrived. As the glass doors closed behind me I was enveloped in the establishment’s warm golden glow and by a fair rendition of a fantasy by Schumann, performed by the usual pianist who played and languished, tucked away in a corner of the establishment.
I traversed the floor, manoeuvring through arrangements of tables and chairs, negotiating my way past the splendid marble pillars that supported the arched ceiling. I was making for the customary table tucked away at the rear, where I knew I would find him, my employer, Mr E.
He did not look up from the paper he was reading and I knew better than to interrupt him. I caught the eye of a passing waiter and ordered coffee and pastries, which would no doubt spoil my dinner, but I didn’t really care.
When he was finally done, he folded the paper neatly away and shook his head in a resigned fashion.
“Well, he’s gone. They hanged him. I suppose it was inevitable…”
I must have looked blank.
“You know,” he said, impatiently. “Higgins. The Scotsman who murdered his sons … it was you who drove me to the railway station, for goodness sake!”
Here he was, more concerned about the fate of some Scottish nobody, while the rest of Europe was fretting over the outbreak of a second Balkan war, amidst rumours of an escalation into a much more widespread conflict.
Welcome to Mr E’s world.
And of course I remembered Patrick Higgins; I just needed more information than a laconic ’they hanged him’.
His sons’ bodies had been discovered in May, about one and a half years after their actual murder. When Mr E had caught wind of the case, he had immediately dropped everything and insisted that he had to go.
I remember being surprised by this sudden determination, for it seemed like a pointless exercise to me. Why go across Europe to … do what exactly? Witness a trial? The whole thing seemed preposterous to me, but who was I to say?
I remembered that Higgins had pleaded guilty at the trial but that his lawyer had attempted a defence by arguing for mitigated culpability on the grounds of ‘insanity caused by epilepsy’. The jury had been sympathetic, but the judge had not, hence the news that Higgins had gone to the gallows did not surprise me at all.
Upon his return from Inverness, Mr E had not spoken a word to me about the case, but I could tell that something had affected him, and quite deeply at that. He had been preoccupied for weeks afterwards, hardly surfacing from his apartment, except to retrieve the bundle of newspapers that I collected daily for him.
Mr E frowned at me now and his dark, foreboding eyes lanced mine while he worried the end of his moustache between his thumb and forefinger.
“So, how did it go with the Signora?” he asked, half absently.
“I met them. I took them to the address you gave me. I will bring them back here in the morning.”
“Not to the café, you understand?” he qualified.
“Naturally,” I replied, a tad defensively. “Take them straight upstairs, to the clinic.” Sometimes I felt that he must think of me as lacking any common sense.
Mr E’s ‘clinic’ was upstairs, on the first floor, directly above the Café. For all intents and purposes, it was really just a room in an apartment... I think he called it a clinic to lend his practice more credibility, but it was not officially sanctioned. And what he did there was not regulated by any authority that I knew of.
“How did she seem to you?”
He was referring to the girl, of course. I shrugged non-committally.
“Withdrawn, shut down, not much more to say, really. She’s very beautiful.”
He didn’t even nod, just raised an eyebrow and pulled a dubious face.
Suddenly he seemed to come to a decision.
“Very well,” he said, and there was nothing absent about the awareness that now bore from his eyes into mine. “You have been with me for, what is it… almost a year?”
I nodded, although the comment didn’t seem to require any actual response.
“And you are familiar by now with the sort of matters that I delve into...”
Of course I knew, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there. I didn’t say so, of course.
He accepted my nod with a few nods of his own.
“Things to do with the spirit are always intangible,” he noted, “though no less real for being so.”
It was as though he was thinking out loud and no input was required on my part. I remained silent and waited.
“There is a term that I have not spoken to you about, the Schatten der Seele. Have you heard of it?”
“The … shadow of the soul? No, I can’t say that I have.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t have; it is not something to be found in mainstream literature. It has to do with a recent discovery that has expanded on the body of work by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, known as the Hermetica, largely responsible for the theurgic philosophy of hermeticism....”
Mr E peered into my eyes past a scowl.
“You are familiar with Hermes Trismegistus, at least…?”
“I have ... heard the name,” I fumbled, feeling inadequate and out of my depth.
“Yes, well, I’ll keep matters simple then. In 1899 a newly decoded work was brought to my attention. In HT’s Hermetica he explored at length several techniques to be used in the evocation and the summoning of demons. But in this latest work he speaks of the ways in which higher demons can insinuate themselves within an unsuspecting human soul. In other words, here he talks of possession. Do you follow?”
I did not, not completely, but his stare made it seem prudent to not admit so. I nodded my lie.
“Well, I have been on the trail of one such Schatten der Seele for the last eight years. I had lost the trail for a time, but when I heard of the Higgins case I knew that it was the same demon; that was why I had to go and verify that this was indeed the case … and so it was. The demon’s sygil was unmistakeable! Unfortunately the Schatten which had possessed Higgins had, once again, long since left him by the time I went and saw the man. By hanging him they have only succeeded in killing the demon’s vessel, but not the true culprit.”
I licked my lips.
“So now you think that this girl…”
“Yes, I do. But I do not just think it, I know it.”
Now here was something I could get my teeth into.
“But why this girl? What makes you so sure that she is infested by the same Schatten? What can possibly be the link between this Scottish murderer and a young girl in Verona?”
“This is where it gets interesting, you see. When the boys disappeared, Higgins explained their absence by spreading the rumour that he had placed them in the care of two young ladies in Edinburgh. He had not, of course, yet the two young ladies were not a figment of Higgins’ deranged imagination, nor a creation of the Schatten who possessed him. On my way back from Inverness I contacted the ladies in question and one of them told me an instructive tale. She had gone to Italy two years earlier to complete her studies. At the station, she had been accosted by a man who offered her a tidy sum of money simply to deliver a ladies’ mirror to a certain young woman in Italy – do I need to tell you who the recipient was?”
I shook my head.
“The young woman accepted because, being a student, the sum offered was a welcome windfall. She gave no further thought to the matter and delivered the item as Higgins had requested…”
“But still I do not understand. This Rosa has not done anything to mark her as possessed. I mean, she claims to have killed someone who is patently still alive…”
“She has not done anything yet,” Mr E remarked. “The girl is merely referring to what the Schatten will make her do, if things are allowed to move ahead unchecked. To her mind, it is already done – that is why she is suffering the consequences. Yet tomorrow is the day when we can finally catch up with the Schatten and meet it, face to face.”
I considered all that I had heard. I cleared my throat.
“Is that wise?”
Mr E shrugged indifferently.
“We will need to put a few safeguards in place, of course; which is why there are several items that I’ll need you to fetch for me before the morning.”
Soon afterwards I left the café with his list and a great deal more concern than I had arrived with. It was far too late to procure most of the items on his list, so I just rummaged around and obtained what I could before returning to the pension that I called home... to a heavy dinner and a restless night’s sleep.
The next morning I went by motorcar to collect the two women and found them both ready and waiting at the appointed hour.
We drove the short distance to the clinic and I ushered them up the broad staircase to Mr E’s rooms. Here I left them in the waiting room with Marlene, another one of Mr E’s acolytes, and made my way to the consultation room.
Mr E was already there with Hank and Siegfried, preparing the space around an old ottoman that had seen better days. They had sprinkled a circle of salt on the floorboards around the entire room. Following his instructions, I opened the packages containing the resins of copal, frankincense and some particularly rare dragon’s blood, and placed them into some waiting braziers.
I handed him the jar of holy water that I had stolen from the baptistery of a nearby church. He opened it without comment and, using an artist’s brush, proceeded to trace a number of sygils and symbols on the floor within the circle of salt. The symbols dried quickly, leaving no mark at all upon the wooden floorboards.
When I pointed out that they were evaporating without leaving a trace he looked at me with irritation.
“Does that mean that there are no sygils present? Is there no air because you cannot see it?” He turned back to his work. “Agua de Florida would have been much better,” he muttered. “But that’s a bit hard to come by in this country.”
I cleared my throat and handed him one final package.
“The only thing I was not able to get was the black tourmaline. Herman gave me this instead.”
He opened it and frowned.
“Obsidian?” he asked.
“Well, let’s hope it works…”
With that less-than-reassuring comment, Mr E resumed his preparations. He instructed Hank to light the candles and got Siegfried to fetch Rosa.
“Just the girl, not the mother; this might turn out to be more than she can bear.”
I followed Siegfried out of the room.
“No! Ma neanche per sogno, siete pazzi?”
Signora Doreglia would not hear of leaving Rosa alone with a group of men. Even my assurances that Marlene would be in the room with the rest of us did nothing to reassure her. In the end we were forced to agree that she could come. It was either that or cancel the meeting altogether.
We escorted them back and I opened the door for them.
“Si accomodi,” I said, inviting them to step inside.
Mr E looked at us with disapproval.
“She would not hear of it,” I tried to explain.
He shook his head dismissively.
“No matter, I was just trying to spare her from some unnecessary suffering. Please make sure that she understands that she must not interfere, no matter what appears to be happening.”
I passed the message on.
Signora Doreglia nodded, but her face blanched.
I looked at Mr E questioningly but he just shrugged my concerns away.
“Very well, everyone,” he intoned. “Time to step inside the circle and make sure you do not leave it under any circumstances until this whole thing is over. Understood?”
“Entri, signora,” I encouraged the mother, guiding her by the arm and relating Mr E’s instructions to her. “Non deve uscire per nessuna ragione, finché non é tutto finito. Siamo daccordo?”
She and Rosa stepped into the circle and Mr E directed the girl to lie down on the ottoman.
“Tell her that we’ll have to tie the girl down,” he instructed. “For her own safety.”
I translated and the Signora nodded, although she seemed increasingly unconvinced.
That was my job, to tie her down. Rosa offered no resistance at all as I bound her, wrists and ankles, to the divan.
“Tie one around the waist,” Mr E instructed, “or the Schatten could break her back.”
When I was done Mr E looked at each of us.
We all signalled our readiness.
“Puo’ osservare ma non deve parlare, ha capito?” I cautioned the signora to observe but not speak, and for the last time she nodded her assent.
Mr E took the jar of holy water and sipped a little.
Lifting his face up he sprayed the water forcibly out, into a cloud of vapour. He walked around the ottoman and repeated this process four times, spraying away from the girl, towards the four quarters.
That done he went around to Rosa’s head, and laying his hands upon the girl’s forehead, began to chant. The words were in no language that I knew or could even recognise. As he chanted, Rosa began to writhe and squirm against her bindings. The skin of her face suddenly became sallow and the sockets around both eyes darkened dramatically.
I glanced over at Rosa’s mother to see how she was faring and I wished I hadn’t. The poor woman was crying, silently, so as not to disturb the proceedings, or undermine this one chance of getting her daughter back.
Mr E continued his incomprehensible chant. His eyes were closed tight and his hands moved to rest against the girl’s temples. This went on for some time, and all the while Rosa’s eye sockets became darker and more sunken, her lips became dry and lost all colour, while her teeth seemed to become visibly more yellow. I realised that I was starting to see her skull showing through both skin and flesh.
Rosa began to moan, but her voice did not sound to me like a young girl’s voice should. It was coarse and gravelly, angry and insane. The volume of her moaning grew louder and more forceful, and all the while her efforts against her restraints increased.
“Who are you?” Mr E asked.
There was no response, just more moaning.
“Who are you?” he insisted.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
The writhing increased, her moaning grew louder.
Rosa’s eyes opened and I must confessed being riven with horror for her corneas had turned the colour of fresh blood. She snarled at Mr E.
But Mr E, unperturbed, snarled straight back.
“Labal … shedim foraii belial …” he hissed at her, his tone full of accusation and loathing.
Startled by the strange words that he spoke, I shifted my eyes from Rosa to look up at his face. His eyes were firmly shut. As I watched him, he lowered his face until his lips were level with the girl’s ears.
“Lembo, malphas,” he continued. “Astaroth shaitan mammon!” he screamed. “Retro me! Retro me!”
At last, something that I understood. That last had been spoken in Latin: go away, be gone.
Rosa screamed back at him. Even though he held her head she still managed to turn around to face him.
“Rofocale lucifuge orobas,” he pressed right on. “Samael sitri!
Rosa started laughing.
Through all the screams and growls and curses and blasphemies that poured from her mouth, she laughed at him, at us, at the futility and pointlessness of all our efforts.
I just know this: that I did not want the thing that Rosa had become to look at me, and I was actually incredibly grateful to Mr E for attracting all of her attention.
Rosa, or rather, the thing inside of her, continued to thrash and strain against her bindings. I looked worriedly at the knots and saw to my horror that one of them was unravelling.
I leapt up to repair the knot before it fell apart.
My movement must have been felt by Mr E, because I felt him open his eyes, I felt him staring at me.
And in that moment several things happened simultaneously.
The Signora screamed. Marlene cried out in a strangled, suddenly truncated sound. Mr E turned to look at Rosa and she spat full into his face.
“Do you think there is only one of us?” asked a voice that made me wish I was a thousand miles away.
It was a deep masculine voice, a voice that carried within it dozens of other, lesser, but just as terrifying sounds. It vibrated and resonated through the entire room.
This was the only time that I ever saw Mr E look surprised. His jaw dropped, his eyes bulged and he started to say something...
He was cut off by an explosion that sent everyone flying to lie sprawling outside the circle of salt. There was a momentary stillness, a calm that by no means fooled me, and a moment later this was followed by what I can only describe as an implosion, a sucking in of air, and of energy, and of life-force.
The floor heaved.
I swear that it felt as if the whole building had jumped upwards several feet. And then came a downward detonation, into the floor, into the earth. The silence that followed felt like the silence of death, and the air smelt musty and sickly sweet.
Mr E picked himself up off the floor and looked about at the mess of bodies and toppled objects. His face was chalk white.
Rosa lay on the Ottoman, mouth open, eyes glazed, looking quite dead.
Signora Doreglia began to wail.
I went to her side, attempting to comfort her. But she pushed me away and repeated her daughter’s name over and over.
“Cosa avete fatto?” she demanded. What have you done?
I looked at Mr E and then at Rosa, and I asked myself the same thing.
Later - after the police had interviewed everyone, after several ambulances had come and gone, when no charges had been laid because the police could not make any sense out of what had happened - after all that, I found a moment to talk to Mr E alone.
“What on earth happened?”
He shook his head, slowly.
“The unexpected,” he said, as though that explained everything. Even he was looking somewhat glassy-eyed. “The Schatten was more cunning than I had allowed. All along I was certain that I was dealing with a single energy, and maybe I was, until the very end that is; but then in the moment that it left Rosa it split into five different energies. They managed to break through all of my protections by going downwards - not upwards or outwards.”
He paused to look at me.
“Remind me to always do this work on the ground floor in future.”
He was silent for a moment. Thoughtful.
“The thing that puzzles me is that I feel like I have been duped. Like I have been used to serve the Schatten der Seele’s agenda…”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
He looked at me with a keen, disconcerting expression.
“There were not many people in the café downstairs, thank goodness, it being a working day and all. Yet five patrons were impacted by what happened when the Schatten left Rosa. Three of them, apparently, badly enough to require hospitalisation…”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
He looked at me wearily.
“Oh, nothing right now. I asked the owner for their names and I would like it if you could look in on them sometime, just to make sure that they are alright.”
“Of course,” I replied, and took the piece of paper that he was holding out for me.
Folding it, I placed it securely in my inside pocket.
The following morning I dropped the Signora and her daughter off at the station. The new Rosa – or should I say, the real Rosa – was a delightful girl and it was great to see the transformation that had claimed her.
Her mother was both grateful and embarrassed; she could not apologise enough for having thought that we had done something terrible and unforgivable to her child.
I watched the train pull away and waved until I could no longer see them. Then I turned and was walking back towards the platform when I remembered Mr E’s list.
Curiosity made me pull it out of my pocket and glance at the five names he had scrawled.
I was relieved to find that none of the names were familiar. They were strangers, nobody that I knew. Nevertheless I had promised Mr E that I would check in on them and so I would. I could even make my way to the hospital now and enquire about their condition. I looked at the list again, trying to memorise the names. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Josip Tito and Sigmund Freud.
I folded the list and tucked it back inside my jacket.
Maybe it was not a good idea to do anything right away. It had been a big day, I was tired and there was no real hurry.
I would leave the task for a week or so.
So instead of going to the hospital, I made my way back to the Café Central.
Hopefully the mess there had been cleared up and I could just sit for a while, read the paper, find out the latest happenings in the Balkans and enjoy a good cup of coffee.
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