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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 17

The doctor’s house was in the middle of Eberfeld. When Hector stepped in, he was met with the unmistakable smell of antiseptic solutions and cleanliness mixed with a faint odour of illness. The assistant with whom he had talked was sitting behind a desk in the waiting room. A white apron was draped over her dress now. She smiled and was about to greet him when the door to the consultation room opened and an elderly, stocky man emerged.

“Thank you for coming so quickly.” The man approached Hector with his hand held out. “I am doctor Gerhardt Fetterlein.”

“Hector Rothenberg,” said Hector.

The doctor’s eyebrows rose at the name, but he was well-mannered enough to refrain from making a comment about it. “The body is in here,” he said and gestured towards the door. The assistant rose and followed them.

There was an examination table in the middle of the room. The corpse was covered by a sheet that was not entirely white anymore. It would have been more practical to use a dark red or a black blanket. The room smelled of blood and death. Hector pulled away the sheet. The victim was a middle aged woman who looked very ordinary. Her eyes had been closed, but otherwise nothing had been done to the body. Good. It was easier to examine what he needed in this way.

“How long has she been dead?”

“Since last night. Around midnight, I’d say,” the doctor replied.

Hector looked over his shoulder. The doctor was not too far away, and the assistant was right next to him. The hunter bent over the dead body. What would Royer have made of this? Had he ever seen a corpse? He probably had, but very likely not of this kind. The dead could look very different. If they had been trampled to death by a horse, it was one thing. Had they died in their sleep, it was another. Hector was only an expert in one kind, of course. He was trained to tell how a victim of a werewolf looked. And by now he had seen quite a few.

There was no doubt about this one. Hector found dried saliva, a few hairs, and bite marks that fit the size of a large wolf’s jaws. The claw marks on the woman’s body were easy to identify because the fifth claw of the front paw was evident.

“Yes,” he said, “it was a werewolf.”

“We thought so.” The doctor sounded pleased with himself.

Hector suppressed a sigh. For once he would have liked it not to be. How long would this job take? One day? Two? Sometimes it took longer. And in the meantime, they were getting closer and closer to full moon. No matter how he looked at it, he would have to take care of this. It was his duty. “I need to see where she was found and talk to the person who found her,” he stated.

“Of course. Do you need anything else?”

Hector shot the body another glance. “No. Cremate the body. She certainly seems dead, but that is the safest.”

The doctor nodded. “I understand. I will talk to the family and ask them to contact the undertaker if they haven’t already.”

Hector smiled. “Thank you.”

“It’s a werewolf,” Hector said and tossed his hat onto the chair in the corner of the room where he had left Royer.

The young man was sitting with his legs crossed on the bed. He had an open newspaper in front of him. Hector knew that he could read a little, but wasn’t used to it. It was probably a good thing that he was practising, however.

“Where did you find that?” Hector asked and began to undress.

Royer looked up at Hector and smiled. “It was under the bed. It’s old, but there is something in it about Frankfurt. About a new church being built.” He cocked his head. “Why are you taking your clothes off?”

Hector threw his shirt over the back of the chair. “I smell,” he said.

“Yes,” Royer agreed.

Hector glanced at him. His travelling companion did not seem to be joking, but it didn’t sound like an accusation either. It was merely an observation. Well, so was Hector’s own statement. “And since you can smell it, so can the werewolf out there,” he continued. “I can hide better if I’m clean.”

Royer was watching his every move. “How do you know it was a werewolf?” he said.

“From the way the victim was killed,” Hector replied. Should he go into details? Royer was not a hunter. He didn’t need to know all kinds of things about the horrible ways in which people could get slaughtered by werewolves. And it may hurt the young man. After all, he was part wolf himself. It could not possibly be nice to hear how werewolves ripped apart regular human beings without thoughts or conscience and killed them. No, he’d better keep a low profile until he could gauge Royer’s reaction better. It probably was not a good idea to elaborate on his own methods of killing werewolves, either. He had said a little bit already, and that must be enough.

On the other hand, it must be odd for Royer to see him set out to hunt werewolves, perhaps even frighten him to know that Hector killed them without really knowing the difference between them and himself. “It was very clear,” he continued. “I have been a hunter for a while, so I can tell the difference between a regular wolf and a werewolf from the injuries.”

Royer cocked his head. “What are you going to do now, then?”

Hector pulled off his trousers and began to search for a towel before he left the room. “I’ll find it,” he replied. “It’s not full moon, so if it killed last night, it is roaming the area. There is no hope for it. It doesn’t have human thoughts at all if it is a wolf now. It’s just a wild animal.” It almost felt as if he were making excuses now. But Royer must know that there was a difference. He had saved Royer, after all. And he had told him about Peter.

“Can I go with you?” Royer’s glance was expectant.

The hunter opened his mouth, but didn’t really know what to say. How could Royer ask that? He had already told him to stay put.

“To take a bath,” Royer added and smiled in a way that suggested that he realised what Hector had thought.

“Oh … Yes.” Hector cleared his throat. “Take off your clothes and come with me.”

They found the bath in the other end of the corridor. No one else was using it, and they quickly soaked themselves. It was nice to wash dust and dirt away. Wonderful to feel his muscles relax in the warm water. He shot Royer a glance. Would the wolf get clean when the man washed? Hector supposed he would, but it was still a mystery to him. And it was strange, he thought as he handed the young man a bar of soap, to be this close to anyone before a hunt. He and Tomas would sometimes bathe together, but apart from that, Hector had always preferred to be alone.

“Well, then,” Hector said once they were back in their room and dressing. “You will stay here as we agreed, yes?”

“Where else would I go?” Royer asked.

Hector shrugged. “I don’t know … I just don’t want …”

“What?”

“I don’t want anything to happen to you. And I don’t want people to start asking unpleasant questions. I thought we could just travel through Eberfeld and get back to Frankfurt,” Hector explained.

“I know,” Royer said, calmly. “It’s your job. I will stay here.” His eyes followed Hector’s every movement as he put on his revolver belt and swung the rifle over his shoulder.

“Goodbye. I will see you later. Hopefully not much later,” Hector said. “But go ahead and sleep. You don’t have to wait up for me.”

Royer nodded. “I understand. Have a good hunt.”

Hector pressed his hat onto his head and touched the brim. “Thank you,” he said.

At least he was certain that it was a werewolf, he thought as he made his way through Eberfeld. If the victim was too mangled, it could be hard to tell. And now he really should be experienced enough to get an uncomplicated job like this one over with quickly. He sighed to himself. It was not as simple as that. No matter how good a hunter was, he could still be taken by surprise. Some surprises proved dangerous, some just annoying … He and Tomas had certainly had their fair share of both … Hector took a deep breath and pushed away the memories. This really was no time to be reminiscing. He needed to find the werewolf as soon as he could.

***

It was so late in the summer that here and there, the colours of the leaves were beginning to fade into autumn. It was warm, but not hot, and generally the weather was perfect for a long journey. Yet Hector and Tomas were not particularly content. They were patrolling an area northwest of Frankfurt and had not seen any signs of werewolves for two weeks. Even full moon brought them nothing. It was the first time any of them had experienced that. It was a good thing, of course, for regular people. But they were hunters, and they were getting impatient. The hunt was not always clean and simple, but it was, after all, the core of their calling. It wasn’t as if they had eradicated every werewolf in Germany. Hector had a feeling that if they had just turned left instead of right somewhere, they would have ended up in a town where they could be of use.

But now things were finally beginning to look up. They had arrived in a village where the welcoming committee had consisted of scared inhabitants. People had been killed, torn apart, they explained. It had started a little while ago, during full moon. The two hunters exchanged glances. Tomas could not hide a smile, but he made it look like a comforting one instead of an expression of the relief that Hector knew he was feeling. They both were. It wasn’t particularly nice, but work was work. It must be the same for law enforcers. Without crime and felons there would be no work. It was their livelihood.

The first step was to look at the bodies. One had been cremated already, but the other was still in the mortuary. The village counted a handful of houses on each side of a winding road and a church on a small hill. There was a grocery shop, a midwife and a doctor, but the doctor had been called away to a farm somewhere.

The mortuary was under the church. The two hunters followed the clergywoman downstairs. The werewolf’s victim was already in a casket, but it was locked. One could not be too careful in a situation like this. Hector appreciated her integrity.

“Patrick Braun,” their guide introduced the victim to them.

“He looks pretty dead to me,” Tomas commented when they opened the casket.

Hector nodded. Occasionally werewolf victims seemed to be dead and then woke up as werewolves after a day or two, but it was rare, and none of them had ever seen it happen. The theory was that the victim would be so badly injured that he or she was believed dead and then woke up at full moon.

The dead man had been cleaned and was covered by a blanket. Hector pulled it back. There were long, deep gashes on the body. Something must have put its claws into the victim and pulled.

“What did the doctor say?” Hector asked.

The clergywoman met his glance. “Werewolf. Or so he theorised. No one has seen injuries like this before. Not before the last victim. And then him.”

Hector nodded and touched the cold skin next to one of the gashes. It was like touching a dead, plucked turkey. But it was hard to catch any of the usual signs now that the body had been moved and cleaned.

Tomas walked to the other side of the casket. “Where was he found?” he asked.

“On his own land. He went out to lock the chickens up for the night. His wife began to look for him after half an hour or so. The neighbours heard her call his name and came to help looking, and they found him like this.”

“Any … suspects?” Tomas asked. Hector knew how little he cared for that word. They looked for werewolves, not suspects. It was a loaded word, and it brought with it an avalanche of mistrust and speculation that the general population should not have to deal with.

“There are a few,” she replied. “No one feels safe anymore …”

“We need a list. It won’t take us very long to find out if someone is a werewolf,” Tomas said and patted his hip. That was where he kept his hunting badge. It was made of silver.

“Has no one tested it?” Hector asked.

“We don’t have much silver here. The chalice and the cups are made of silver,” the clergywoman replied.

Tomas nodded. Hector saw him bite back a reply. Good. Tomas’ opinions on wrong prioritising were not relevant right now.

“Most of the villagers go to mass and take communion, but I recall a few not being there for a while. You passed the house of one of them on your way here, I think,” she added. “He … doesn’t have much to do with other people.”

“That’s a starting point,” Hector said. If they took communion, they would have touched a silver cup, and that would have been a problem for a werewolf. “But the werewolf may live outside the village or be moving through the area as well. We would like a list of the friends and family of the victims and the people you think we should talk to. We’ll begin with them and talk to the doctor when he returns.”

“And what then?” asked the clergywoman.

“We can’t turn water into wine or wine into blood, but we can turn living werewolves into dead ones,” Tomas said. “We’ll patrol the area tonight, but until we get any results, we only need everyone to be careful.”

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