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Aconitum

By mhowalt All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

Chapter 20

Elise Junghoff opened the door when the two hunters came to visit Hans once more. Tomas had the rake in a sack so that only the handle was visible. He held it in one hand and the other was resting on his revolver.

“We would like to talk to Hans,” Hector said. “We have a few questions about his cousin.”

She nodded and showed them inside. “You haven’t found the werewolf yet, have you?” she asked once they were back in the cozy living room. She put three teacups on the low table. “Tea? Do you have any suspects?”

“Thank you very much. Well, we are almost certain, but we can’t say more at this point,” Hector explained. He moved uncomfortably in the soft chair with the flowery upholstery. “But perhaps Hans can help us.”

“I hope he can,” she said and poured milk into her own and Tomas’ tea. Hector put sugar in his and stirred.

“Do you know anything about Adam’s financial troubles?” Tomas asked.

The wife nodded. She fiddled with the lace on the tablecloth for a moment. “Now that Hans is out, I don’t mind telling you. His cousin drank too much. He did for years. He lived above his means too. Hans wanted to help him. He was family, after all, but …”

“But what?” Hector pressed.

“It was hard for him to pay his debts. Hans didn’t mind waiting a little, but it was … Adam spent all this money when he had some. This time he was visiting us to ask for help. Again … But,” she added, “What does that have to do with the werewolf?”

“It’s … a little complicated,” Hector said. “Does anyone else owe you or your husband anything?”

She thought for a moment. “No,” she then said, “Well, our neighbours borrowed some sugar last week, but the week before that, they lent us a few eggs …”

A sound came from the front door. Hector and Tomas exchanged glances.

“That’s Hans now,” said the wife, relieved. “He can probably tell you more.”

The husband stepped into the living room and when he spotted the two hunters, colour drained from his face. “Well, hello. That was unexpected. What brings you back here?” he asked in what Hector could only describe as fake cheerfulness.

What now? Were they going to confront him here? Should they ask him to come outside with them? Tomas made the decision before Hector could reach a conclusion. “Hello, Hans,” he said. “We had a few more questions about your late cousin, but your wife was very helpful.” He stood up and smiled at the wife. “Thanks a lot for the tea.” Then, as an afterthought, he turned to Hans and asked, “Oh, by the way … You haven’t lost a rake, have you?”

The wife began to stammer out a reply, but none of them heard it because in that moment, Hans turned on his heel and dashed out of the living room. He slammed the door shut, and before the hunters could take hold of him, he was already outside the house.

Tomas threw the door open and drew his revolver.

“Tomas!” Hector shouted. This was no werewolf. If they shot a man on purpose, it was murder. They were not authorised to kill people.

They both chased Hans. Tomas still had the gun in his hand, but he was also the faster runner of the three. He caught up with the older man and tossed him to the ground effortlessly. “Stay there!” he commanded and pointed the revolver at him.

“I didn’t mean to!” Hans yelled. “Please don’t shoot. Don’t shoot me. I didn’t mean to kill them! It was an accident!”

Hector trotted up to them and crossed his arms over his chest. “We would like to hear how you accidentally marred two men with a rake and killed them,” he said. “And Tomas …”

“I was only going to shoot him in the leg,” Tomas sighed. “Take it easy, Hector.”

“It was an accident!” repeated Hans. He had begun to sob uncontrollably now.

Hector pulled him to his feet. “Come on. We will go back now, and then you’ll explain the accident.”

They returned to the shocked Elise, and Hans began his explanation. He had argued with his cousin. Adam was supposed to have brought part of his payment with him when he came to town, but he was intoxicated and had no money. Hans had threatened him and asked for his money once more. The discussion had turned into a scuffle. None of them meant to hurt the other seriously, but they had pushed and poked at each other and in the end, Hans gave his cousin a hard shove. Then the man staggered backwards and fell. The back of his head hit a rock on the ground, and he was instantly dead.

At this point of the story, Elise’s hands flew to her mouth. She was staring at her husband in disbelief as he continued. He had panicked. He had killed a human being, and his own relative at that. But then he had an idea. He could make it look like a werewolf attack. He dragged the body away from the village, took a knife and slashed him as if claws had torn him apart. Then he tossed the knife into the river.

But on his way to the river, he had seen another man in the road. The man stopped and waved at him. And that man was the Patrick Braun. Hans had not been able to stop thinking about it. How much had Patrick seen? He was certain the man had noticed that something was going on. At first he had told himself that he was only imagining it. But then the doubt grew and grew and after a couple of days, he had not been able to take it anymore. He had taken the rake, stalked Patrick when he was seeing to his chickens in the dark, and then he had struck.

Hans hid his face in his hands and sobbed. He had hoped it looked like a werewolf attack too.

“Not well enough,” Tomas snorted.

“There are never any hunters here … I didn’t think …”

“Where did you put the rake after that?” Hector interrupted him. They needed to get the last bit of the story sorted out.

Hans told them that he put it with a bunch of other garden tools in a garden in the outskirts of the village where a peculiar fellow lived. He would never notice the extra rake, and if he did, no one would care or believe him.

Hector almost sighed with relief. They had a confession, they had the murder weapon, and they had a crying killer and a shocked wife. The two hunters stepped outside. They needed to inform the doctor, and then the people of the village would have to deal with turning Hans in to the authorities. But this whole case had left Hector with a bad taste in his mouth. How would Patrick’s family victim react? Being killed by a werewolf was a meaningless death, but this was almost worse. Would the townspeople take revenge somehow? Would Hans’ wife be able to get by while he was in prison? There were too many questions, and it was not up to Hector to deal with any of them. The matter was out of their hands now. He looked at Tomas. There was no doubt that his partner was as eager to get out of here as he was.

***

There was still blood on the ground. It was dry now, but it was undoubtedly blood. Hector knelt on the crime scene, carefully. It would not do to ruin the traces that could still be there despite the fact that people had done nothing to preserve the place. Of course. It was silly to get surprised or offended. When people found a bloody corpse, there was always panic.

Hector studied the surrounding area. No one had seen the wolf. Some of the people in Eberfeld claimed that they had heard it howl and told him which direction the sound came from. The grass was downtrodden by the side of the road, and the gravel had been kicked in all directions. Hector stood up and stepped over the pool of blood. It was not big enough for the werewolf to have waded around in it. The body had not been torn enough apart or eaten enough for the wolf to leave red traces on the ground. But it would have left paw prints. The hunter balanced on one leg for a moment, then put down the other foot too and bent over. There. A clear paw print that fit the profile perfectly. And there would be more somewhere.

He stepped a few paces away from the crime scene, constantly surveying the ground. He circled the place and finally spotted a couple of clear paw prints. They led towards the town, towards the pool of blood. Now he knew where the werewolf had come from, at least. He moved a little further away, carefully as not to destroy potential clues. Occasionally, he would crouch to make certain that he was following the right trail. Yes, four claws and a hint of the fifth one just touching the ground. And now he saw the direction in which it had run away from the scene.

Hector picked up his rifle and followed the paw prints. There was one in the gravel on the road, and then in the soil next to it. It was so dry that the paws hadn’t sunk into the ground and left clear traces, but the grass was scorched by the summer heat and made it possible to see the ground.

While he was following the trail, darkness began to fall. Now and then he lost the paw prints and had to go back, turn back and forth and find them again in a direction that he had not expected. The wolf had not gone in a straight line, but had zigzagged on its way north-west. How far had it gone? Hector’s map was folded up in the small bag attached to his revolver belt, but if he remembered correctly from his studies prior to going out here, it was not that far until it would reach a couple of farmsteads that way. Was that where it was going? Or did it have a den in the forest? Hector was going to reach a dark mass of trees very soon.

The moon was slowly climbing the sky. Hector gave it a displeased glance. It would not be long now. Not more than a day until Peter would turn into a ferocious beast back in Frankfurt. And when exactly would Royer turn? The hunter was getting increasingly convinced that they would not get back home in time. And he was getting even more worried that he would not be able to find this werewolf and deal with it before full moon. That would be a mess. The hours were ticking by, and it was getting so late that he needed to go back to the town in order to get a few hours’ sleep.

He was not happy to return empty handed, but there was no choice. So he turned around and marched back to Eberfeld. Tomorrow he would ride. Clearly he needed to go further than he had expected to find this werewolf. But now he knew the direction. Tomorrow he could put some distance between himself and the town quickly and continue until he found the culprit. He would leave early, and with a little luck he could take care of the problem so that he and Royer could move on the same day. It would be better to sleep on the road with Royer than being trapped at the inn of a town like this. It would be too hard to explain to anyone in Eberfeld that he was travelling with a man who just so happened to turn into a wolf at full moon. Losing his credibility as a hunter was the least harmful thing that could happen as a result.

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