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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 18

The inn was not as much an inn as it was a farmhouse where travellers could pay to get food and drinks. It was owned by a family who had one rentable guest room. Hector and Tomas sat down on the floor of that room with a cup of strong tea and spread out the papers that they had been given by the clergywoman.

“So,” Tomas said. “I suppose we talk to the friends and family of the victims?”

Hector nodded. No hunter liked that part of the job, but it was necessary in a situation like this.

“And the neighbours of course. The first victim …” Tomas put his index finger on one of the papers. “The first victim, Adam, didn’t live here. He was only here to visit his cousin.”

“So one of us will talk to the cousin and the other with the second victim’s wife and her neighbours.”

Tomas nodded. “Yes, that would be Patrick. Want to toss a coin? We also have the people who didn’t appear in church. Nothing to do with it if you ask me, but …”

“But we need to clear their names. Including the outcast,” Hector added and pointed to a name on the list.

“Oh yes. The village idiot,” Tomas sighed. “Why is there always one of those?”

Hector couldn’t help laughing. Tomas was right. When no one knew what had happened, the people in villages and small towns did tend to find a scapegoat, and that scapegoat was almost always a hermit or a strange fellow who lived somewhat secluded. Some poor devil who for one reason or another was an outcast or didn’t quite follow the norms of other people. Hector could not remember such a person ever turning out to be a werewolf, but nevertheless people would insist when they talked to them. The clergywoman had already hinted at it.

They tossed a coin. Hector got the cousin and offered to talk to the outcast too since his job would be the easiest.

The cousin, Hans Junghoff, and his wife Elise lived in the middle of the village in a modest, but very nice, house. Hector explained his errand and was shown into a small living room with too much knickknack and a low ceiling by the wife. The husband rose from his chair when the hunter entered and greeted him solemnly.

“My condolences,” Hector begun. “And I am sorry to have to intrude on you now.”

Hans Junghoff shook his head. “Of course. If there is a werewolf around, it needs to be captured and shot.” He explained that one late night, a pale, young man had knocked on their door door and stammered out that Hans’ cousin had been found dead in a ditch just outside town.

“Do you know why he was there?”

Hans shrugged heavily. “No. No, he was visiting us, but had to run an errand, he said. We were in the field together. He was helping me now that he was here. But I went straight home, and he … If I hadn’t gone home that night …”

Elise put her arms around her husband’s shoulders. “Then it might have taken you too,” she said.

“What errand?” Hector asked.

“I think … he may have been heading to the tavern. My cousin … liked drinking. But we don’t have much of that in this house.”

“I understand,” Hector said. So the guzzler cousin visits the teetotaller. “And when he did drink, did he usually stay away for a long time, or ..?”

“He could very well have wandered the wrong way. It was late, but we thought he was probably talking to someone in the tavern.”

Hector nodded. “How long would you think that he was dead before he was found?”

Elise shook her head. She was still embracing her husband. “I couldn’t look at him. He was … There was so much blood.”

“Half an hour. Maybe an hour,” Hans muttered.

“Did anyone find traces of the one who attacked him?” Hector asked.

Hans shook his head. “The claw marks … All over his body. But he was in a ditch, and it rained …”

There was not much else for him to ask. The couple was upset, and there was no body to inspect. The crime scene was so old now that there would not be any clear traces.

Hector left the house and shot a glance at the sky. It would be light for another few hours. That was enough time to visit the outcast and determine that he was not a werewolf, hiding a werewolf, or whatever people were thinking. The street was almost empty. Either people were being very careful indeed, or else it was an extremely quiet village. Hector quickly spotted the house he must be heading for. There was something queer about it. The garden was a little too overgrown. The window frames and the woodwork a little too shabby. There were a few too many piles of things that didn’t seem to belong there by the door. And werewolves, Hector thought and tried to keep himself from rolling his eyes, obviously had a tendency to keep hoes and broken rakes in front of their houses.

He stopped at the door and knocked. There was a sound inside, a chair scraping across a wooden floor. Then footsteps. But nobody opened. “Hello? My name is Hector Rothenberg,” called Hector. “There have been some assaults, and I am here to make certain that you are all right.”

Still no answer.

“I know you’re in there.”

“Go away, hunter!” came an angry bark.

Hector sighed. “I would like to talk to you first.”

“I’m not a werewolf!”

Hector cleared his throat. “I see. Why are you telling me this?”

“Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“I don’t think you’re a werewolf,” Hector said with enormous patience. “I just want to talk to you. I have talked to other folks around here too.”

After another few moments, the door opened slightly and an elderly man looked out through the crack. “Are you armed?”

Hector patted his revolver and smiled reassuringly. “Yes. I always am. So that I can protect people like you.”

Then the door was opened enough to let Hector in. Or so he thought. Instead the man stepped outside. A straggly, flustered and slightly underweight man. Not surprising. And not threatening.

“Hello,” Hector said and reached out his hand. It was easy to make certain that the man was not a werewolf.

The hermit took his hand and shook it a few times. He didn’t react at all to the silver bracelet that Hector was wearing. If a werewolf touched it, it would have shrunk back in pain.

“Have you seen anything strange recently? People sneaking around in the dark?” Hector asked.

The man considered it. Then he began to tell Hector about the little people who sometimes wandered around. They were good spirits who helped people, but no one else could see them. There weren’t any around right now, but he had seen them now and then for years. Since that was not the kind of information Hector was looking for, he thanked the man for his time, gave him a coin for his trouble and went back the way he had come to meet Tomas.

“That took you a while,” Tomas said. He was lying on the bed with a pipe in his mouth when Hector entered.

Hector looked around. Tomas may pretend to have been there for a long time, but it looked like he only just had lit the pipe and thrown himself onto the bed. “How was it?” he asked and sat down on the windowsill.

Tomas made a ring of smoke. It hadn’t been pleasant, Hector knew. But Tomas was not the kind of person who let it disturb him too much. They weren’t the ones who killed people, he had once said. Yes, they did bring bad news sometimes and had to discuss unpleasant things, but they were there to help. “The wife was upset. The story matched what we already know. Patrick Braun went out, didn’t come back, the wife and the neighbours found his body in a ditch. It looked like he had been dragged there.” Tomas held out the pipe to Hector. “What did you learn?”

“Thanks.” Hector took the pipe and smoked. Then he told Tomas what the Junghoffs had said and how his visit to the outcast had worked out.

“So we aren’t much wiser,” Tomas concluded. “The victim’s wife isn’t a werewolf, and neither are the neighbours. So there must be a werewolf out there somewhere.”

“Why did it drag the Patrick Braun into the ditch?” Hector asked. He was looking out of the window at the exceptionally quiet village below.

“To eat him?”

“But it didn’t. Tear at him and bite him yes, but it didn’t eat him.” Hector handed the pipe back to Tomas and stretched.

“Maybe it wasn’t hungry.”

Hector raised an eyebrow.

“Alright, it was interrupted by the shouting of panicked people,” Tomas continued and shrugged. “I couldn’t find any traces. They’d all trampled the area. They really don’t think of us.”

When he said that sort of thing, it sounded like he meant it, and in a way he did. But they couldn’t blame people. Who would stand back and watch a dead or dying person from afar because they didn’t want to risk erasing the clues that the attacker had left behind?

The two hunters checked their weapons and put on their coats. It was not cold outside, but they provided a little protection. Then they left the village on foot and began searching by the ditch where Patrick Braun had been found. There was a gravel road close by. It led to the next town up north after winding through farmland and clusters of trees that could hardly be called forests. The ditch was a drain between two fields, and the farm where Patrick had lived was close enough for a werewolf to have dragged him from there very quickly.

“You’re invading my turf. You won’t find anything,” Tomas said. He had turned his back to Hector and was looking at the landscape around them.

“I’m just talking a little stroll on your turf, that’s all. Someone has to,” Hector replied. If they had been training at home in Frankfurt and not been out here, Tomas would probably have placed a foot in his back and tipped him over. But they were both concentrated and alert now and that sort of shenanigans could end badly. They had a silent, mutual agreement about when to fool around and when not to. Hector stood up again. “If it fled when the neighbours showed up, it must have run that way. To safety between the trees,” he said and pointed.

Tomas nodded. They made their way to the nearest clump of trees. No big animal seemed to have forced its way through the branches. A hare fled the scene, and both hunters raised their rifles before they saw what it was. No signs of a werewolf. No smell of it, no hairs from its coat, no paw marks.

They stopped looking an hour later and made their way back to the village. There simply were no traces of any wolf.

“We need to talk to the doctor when he returns,” Tomas said and kicked at a small stone on the ground. “Something’s not right. I can’t help feeling that we’ve overlooked something.”

Hector sighed. He had the same feeling. Was it only because they had to work a little harder to find this one than they were used to? “We’ll keep looking,” he said. “And talk to the doctor.”

The third day in the village was cool and foggy. Hector and Tomas went out at sunrise to look for fresh traces of a werewolf. If it was not a villager who had turned back into a man or a woman now, it was reasonable to assume that the wolf would stalk around out there, waiting for someone to attack and eat. But again they found nothing. If there had been a werewolf, it must have wings, Tomas noted dryly.

Finally the doctor returned to the town, and the two hunters immediately sought his counsel. His account matched what they had already heard.

“Adam liked drinking, didn’t he?” Tomas asked when the doctor was showing them Patrick Braun’s body again. There was no judgement in his voice. He was simply trying to get information that may help them understand what they were missing. A werewolf, that was what, Hector thought to himself.

“Yes. His cousin mentioned it a week or two ago. He came to me with an issue and he also mentioned that the victim, Adam, was coming for a visit. He hoped that he could pay back his dept to him, but doubted it because he always drank up his salary.”

Tomas nodded. “Right. And he was the first victim. How about this one?”

The doctor pointed out a couple of places on the body. “Clear lacerations here. The werewolf must have taken hold of his shoulders and dragged him …”

“Did the other body have the same kind of injuries?” Hector asked.

“He had not been dragged in the same fashion. He was attacked from the front and knocked his head on the ground when he fell.

Tomas frowned and rubbed his chin in a way that would have seemed a bit more natural if he’d had a beard, Hector thought. “So the werewolf jumped him, pushed him to the ground, clawed at him and then disappeared?”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “That’s how it looked.”

“Did he fight it?”

The doctor shook his head. “I don’t know … It was quite a gash in the back of his head …”

“So he could technically have died from that?” Tomas asked.

Hector leaned closer to the dead body on the table in front of them. He was beginning to see where Tomas was going with his questions. “This one fought back,” he said. The gashes were uneven and made during a struggle.

“What did he die from? Blood loss?” Tomas asked.

The doctor gestured at the body. “Yes, and this,” he pointed at the neck. A claw had thoroughly torn it open and hit the artery. The hunters had seen it before, but now they looked closer at the wound.

“Very precise, huh?” Tomas said.

Hector cleared his throat. “I think we have the information we need at the moment. Thank you, Doctor.”

They bid the doctor goodbye and made their way away from the mortuary once more.

Tomas face was set in a mask of disappointment and anger. “That,” he hissed between his teeth, “was no damn werewolf!”

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