The sky had turned a dull orange as the sun set, and the rain had worsened. I practically leapt into the car to escape it. The rain didn't bother me normally, but the intensity of it made me think of bad omens. As we dried off Petyr had listened to my theory quietly and intently, and had driven me over to the police station. The two police officers listened as well as I added to my statement, smirking at the English teacher with ideas above his station at first. Around halfway through, they called their superior: a stern and powerful blonde woman, and one began taking notes.
Petyr was translating for me. "I believe Dalma was kept prisoner in that house. She was taken by the couple and brought here, or maybe taken from the town."
One of the officers shook his head, grumbling in Hungarian. "He says that someone would have recognised her," said Petyr. "She had been seen by parents and older children for nearly two months, someone would have recognised her."
"Okay, she was brought here then," I said. "The point is, they were keeping her in the house. There must be some secret place, a hidden room or something, and if she sees that place as home she may have gone back there."
The superior nodded thoughtfully at the translation. She was in her mid thirties, and her intensity was distracting me from seeing how pretty she actually was. She was almost as tall as her two subordinates. One of them was about as old as me, with neatly trimmed black hair and a goatee. The other was in his late forties, and seemed to have a permanent frown. From their conversation I had picked up the superior's name: Christina. She spoke to Petyr at length, then everyone stood up. I followed suit as the three police officers left the room.
"What's going on?"
"They are preparing to go over to the house now. The detective asked me how well you knew Dalma."
Knew. "Barely. She would recognise me, at least I guess she would."
"They have asked us to accompany them to the house. If Dalma is there, perhaps she will respond to you."
I heard the heavy slap of Mira's body on concrete, but nothing in the room could have made the sound. I swallowed.
"What about the father who brought her to school?"
"He's coming as well."
The noise outside the room had increased. Christina appeared at the door and said a few terse words. Petyr grew pale.
"When we leave, keep your head down and walk quickly. They have found Mira."
The police station bustled with frantic activity. Reporters from both local and national news channels were crowded around the superintendent, who was reading a statement. The crowd surged, shouting questions over each other, trying to make their voices heard. The sheer number of bodies was turning the hallway into a sweat box. I did as I was told, I kept my head down. We avoided the cacophony, leaving the building through the back exit.
I looked up as the cold air hit my face. My hair was soaked through in seconds, the rain punching me with droplets as big as coins. We crossed the car park, headed for a police van. another gaggle of reporters was huddled together under umbrellas, but they paid us little notice. However, a shrill cry rose, cutting through their murmured questions, and a bottle blonde woman shoved her way through them, storming towards us. I recognised that hair instantly. She was Mira's mother.
The two police officers with us restrained her as she spat at me. Unfortunately, she spoke English. "You bastard!" she screamed. "She'll never be the same again! What were you doing!? It's your fault! You should have done something! You should have stopped that girl!"
Something inside me snapped. I don't know what it was. I remembered every bad student I had ever had. I remembered the bullies, the kids who chatted through lessons, the kids that weren't used to being told 'no', the ones that were always out of their seats, the ones that had been coddled too much. The old saying went, 'there is no such thing as bad student, only a bad teacher.' It was a statement that I agreed with completely. I had bad teachers at school and at university, watched them lose control of classes and stop people learning. Only, people didn't seem to realise that parents were teachers too, at the most important time in their development. I looked at Mira's mother and her fury, and spoke before I could stop myself.
"I wasn't her first teacher, you were. You should have raised her better."
Petyr looked around at me, alarmed. Mira's mother looked like she had just been slapped. Reporters had gathered around us, but I didn't know if they had heard my words. I hoped they hadn't. I felt sick. She may have been an obnoxious, rich brat, but she was still a grieving mother. I walked away towards the van, ashamed of myself. I got in the back with Petyr, and Christina. The van pulled out and drove slowly through the crowd.
Petyr was sat uncomfortably beside me. I didn't want to look at him. Christina pushed a wet strand of hair back from her face and drew her handgun from the holster on her hip, inspecting it. Her features were sharpened by her work, her make up was minimal, but this close I could really see a softer edge to her. She muttered to the two officers in the front in a voice that was high and clipped, but had a sultry edge to it. I tried to focus on her instead of the stricken face of Mira's mother. I heard the body hit the concrete again, and winced. The van turned left into Dalma's neighbourhood.
I half turned to Petyr. "Is she alive?"
He didn't need to ask who I meant. He spoke to Christina for a brief moment, and her voice was dulled and unemotional as she replied. Petyr grew more and more horrified as he listened. When she was finished, he gulped and turned to me.
"She is alive, but she is starved. She has pneumonia, and has been put into a coma." He swallowed again. "Her arm is... There is a good chance she will lose her arm, and maybe a leg. They have been... Eaten. The wounds are infected and..."
I held up a hand to stop him, bile rising in my throat. "How could she..." I trailed off. Mira didn't deserve this. No one did. In front of me, Christina loaded her gun and cocked it, flicking on the safety. I began to question the presence of that gun. It seemed that our priorities had changed. The detective looked up at me and said something. Here eyes were as intense as Dalma's.
"She says not to worry."
"Her eyes aren't saying that."
The van pulled up outside the house. We walked up the driveway to the two officers guarding the door. Milan was there already, waiting under an umbrella. Christina spoke to the two officers for a few moments, and I looked up at the house. On the outside it looked completely normal. The windows were dark and in most the curtains were drawn, the shutters closed. Private people indeed. The detective turned to us and beckoned us in.
The lights were dim inside, heavy shades obstructed a lot of the light. The shadows only made the room more sinister. The first thing I saw across the threshold was a crucifix on the wall, the effigy of Christ nailed to it in twisted agony. An old method of punishment, a man left to die. The symbol of a whole religion. Never seemed right to me. Christinaedged forward into the living room. More crucifixes emblazoned the walls inside. The chairs were hard and wooden. There was no television, no radio. A huge, ornate bible took pride of place on a table in the centre of the room.
"Pious people, weren't they."
Petyr nodded. The detective murmured to one of her subordinates, the older man, and he backed out of the room, motioning for Petyr and I to follow him. We walked up the stairs as quietly as we could. The walls were bare and immaculate. No family pictures, no paintings, only crosses. The master bedroom was as empty as the rest of the house. Only a bed, a bedside table, a bible, and another crucifix directly over the bed. So they never forget.
One of the spare rooms was converted into a library, another into a storage room. The corridor bent around to the right, and at the end was a door. Two crosses were hung on either side. Slowly we approached. The door was ajar, and as the policeman pushed the door open I noticed the deadbolt lock on the outside. Petyr and I exchanged glances. Inside, the room was as bare as the rest of the house, but there were bars on the window. Crosses were placed and painted all over the room. The bed was a single, and it's frame had been reinforced heavily. There were pale squares on the headboard and footboard. I peered at them closely, noting four small holes in each. Something had been screwed in. I shuddered.
"What kind of parents could do something like this?" Petyr said, horrified. "She is just a child."
"It could be worse than you think,"I said, pointing at the holes. Dust had settled on the bed and across the room. A lot of dust. "This room hasn't been used in a while," I said. "Let's go back downstairs."
Christina had finished her search as well, and was waiting with Milan by another door under the stairs. This door also had a deadbolt.
"What's in there?" I asked. The detective replied in Hungarian.
"The cellar," said Petyr.
A chill crept up my spine. Milan looked terrified. Christina unlocked the deadbolt, and opened the heavy door. A chill crept up from the room, and a cold, metallic smell drifted into my nostrils. She snapped on the light. Unlike the rest of the house it was bright and clinical. Our officer was muttering to her, relaying our findings as we descended the stairs.
My eyes were drawn immediately to the blood on the floor, then to the wicked looking cutting tools hung on the wall. Hooks were set into the ceiling, half a dozen of them. All of it was coated in dried blood. The detective noted my look and addressed me directly.
"She says that the blood has been tested. It is from deer."
I didn't feel any better about it. I gave the stains a wide berth as I walked the perimeter of the room. It was cold in here, sterile. I scanned the walls, looking of a crack or seam. There was nothing. My footsteps echoed around the room, clicking on the cold linoleum floor. I reached a work surface along the north wall. The legs had rubber tips on the bottom, and it wasn't fixed to the wall. I gripped the edge and tried to lift it. It gave a little, but it was too heavy to lift by myself. Christina gripped a part of it and lifted with me. We moved the work surface aside, revealing a heavy looking trap door set into the floor. A Hungarian word was emblazoned in ornate lettering on it. The colour had drained out of Christina's face, and it drained out of Petyr's as he read the word aloud. He looked at me.
"It means 'Penance'."
Deadbolts and padlocks were set into the door, but they were all unlocked. It looked like there was a seal around the seams, but a smell was floating up, sickly sweet. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I didn't want to know what was down there, and I wasn't alone. The police officers were on edge, and all of them had drawn their weapons. Christina gave a curt order to her men, who took a hold of the trap door and lifted it easily. The smell that billowed up made me gag. It was the smell of a sewer, and of death. The detective had covered her mouth, and I did the same, but it didn't help. The stench felt like barbed wire as it tore into my throat and filled my lungs. My eyes were watering as she shone her torch down into the opening. The walls were lined with wood like a mineshaft, and the floor was stone. A ladder led down into the darkness. Hesitantly, she took a hold of the rungs and climbed down. Milan, Petyr and I followed.
"Dalma!" Milan whispered into the void as he crept forward. Every time I tried to speak I fought back a tide of vomit, the smell unbearable down in the depths. There was a faint buzzing somewhere up ahead. The shaft beyond the ladder opened up into a room, and Christina's powerful torch illuminated the enclosed space. Shackles were nailed to the wall on one side. Opposite them was a shelf full of bottles of varying sizes, like a chemistry set. There were candles and incense, none of them lit, strewn in the corners. The smell of sewage was emanating from a bucket in the corner, flies hovering around it. The rest was coming from the bodies.
They had been down there for a while. Their skin had turned a faint shade of green. Their blood had pooled and dried around them long ago, long after their death throes. Dalma's father had been a large, powerful man. He may have been six and a half feet tall in his prime. His arms, his hands, even his fingers had been broken and twisted. The remnants of a bottle were in one of his hands, smashed, the glass sticking out of his palm. What had been in it was a mystery, but how he died was not. His neck and throat were ripped and torn open. Flies were still swarming in the open wound. Bile rose in my throat again, and I swallowed it down. Dalma's mother was clutching a large, leather bound book, the pages had turned a dark shade of red, soaked in her blood. The attack on her had been even more vicious. A wooden, handheld crucifix was splintered and cracked beside her, and judging by the way her skull was caved in it wasn't much of a mystery how it came to be there. Both of them were missing chunks of flesh, bite marks were clear across whatever bare patch of skin that showed.
A crucifix and a bible, and a bottle that had contained... something. Some long evaporated liquid. Holy water? A girl shackled to the wall, breaking out and wreaking havoc.
"This was an exorcism."
Petyr nodded slowly. "It failed."
Demons aren't real. I remembered how fast Dalma was, how strong. The scene before me certainly leant some credibility to that. Her father was a giant, used to hunting and death, and yet...
Christina was stammering into a radio. We were all backing up towards the ladder. Milan was already scrambling up it, and I wasn't far behind him, coughing and retching. I didn't stop at the cellar, my legs wouldn't let me. I stumbled out of the front door into the cold and dropped into the driveway, everything I had eaten that day reappearing and running down onto the street with the rain. The smell of death had settled into my nostrils and taken up residence. I rolled over and let the rain soak my face. I don't know how long I stayed there, but eventually Petyr's hand reached down to help me up. I swayed when I was on my feet, disoriented.
"We have to find her Petyr. We have to."
"I know my friend. Leave it to the police."
I wasn't about to argue with him. Christina was more intense than before, speaking quickly into the radio. I could see fear underneath her all business masquerade. The fear was growing in her, I could tell. Her eyes flicked to me and Milan, who was leaning on the wall of the house. She spoke to him first, and he groaned, stammering frantically at her. He was protesting, I didn't need Petyr to tell me that. He was shaking his head, but she had beaten him down. He trudged to the van, and the detective approached Petyr and I. She spoke to Petyr, who ran a hand through his wet hair, worried. He turned to me.
"She wants to take us to the woods. People are disappearing from the search parties, and the police are taking over directly."
If it was possible to get colder in this weather, I felt it. The smell was still lingering around me. So was the sound of Mira hitting the floor, but now she had been joined by two others, screaming as they fell.
"What does she want us to do?"
"What we were supposed to do here. She says it is clear how dangerous Dalma is, and the smoother it could be bringing her in the better."
"What happens after they bring her in?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
I shivered as Christina spoke again. The urgency in her voice spoke volumes. I patted Petyr on the shoulder.
"Petyr, you should go home."
"You'll need me there."
"I'll manage. If she's as dangerous as she seems... I'd rather you were safe at home that out there in the firing line."
He sighed and shook my hand. "Are you sure?"
I wasn't. "I'm sure."
I got in the van, head down. Milan was sat beside me, fidgeting. Christina was in front of me, re-checking her gun.
You're going to need it.