It was three o’clock in the morning when Elsabeth realised she wasn’t alone.
Elsabeth frowned at the photograph the agent had slid across the table.
“I don’t understand,” she told Harding. She hadn’t warmed to him, despite having seen his face every month for the past three years. Elsabeth had liked the previous agent better. But, as with all good things, Rowan’s tenure ended. Retired. Still, he deserved such peace, after having kept an eye out for her for over five years. He’d made the witness protection program that bit nicer.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Elsabeth. Or maybe you don’t care. Either way, your father, Odo Lorenz, is dead.”
The words should have hit her hard. Thudded down on her like a stone coffin lid. Instead, they breezed past her. “Oh, okay.”
Harding nodded as if he’d expected this response. “The reason I’m telling you this is because he’s left something for you in his will.” The agent tapped the photograph of the castle. Black and white. It looked like something from an old Hammer flick. Hell, it was. “Kaltsteinburg,” he said. His pronunciation was bad. He vocalised it like ‘Kalt-steen-burg’.
Elsabeth hummed. “I don’t want it.”
Harding raised his eyebrow. “I can’t imagine that you would. But it’s worth a lot of money.”
“I don’t care about money,” she said.
“Maybe not. But the government agency that keeps you safe does. We don’t run on good thoughts and fresh air, y’know.”
“Okay, so sell it and keep the change. Knock yourself out, I don’t care.”
“Well, that’s the thing.” Harding cleared his throat. “It’s outside our jurisdiction. And there was a clause in the will that we were unable to dispute.” He ran a hand through his hair. “God knows we tried.”
“What is it?”
Harding grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. “It’s almost a cliche, really. Like something out of an old vampire movie. Or haunted house flick.”
“Will you stop jumping around and tell me?” Rowan wouldn’t have played it like this. He’d have laid out all the facts for her. Clean and clear.
“In order for you to gain the property rights to Kaltsteinburg, you have to spend a night there.”
Elsabeth frowned at the agent. “What?”
Harding — to his credit — held his hands up. “I know, I know! It’s ridiculous. But the law is the law.”
“And I haven’t got a choice about this?”
“You’ve always got a choice, Elsa.”
She winced. She hated when he called her that. It reminded her of that dreadful Disney movie.
“But, let’s just say… it’d make everyone at the agency that bit more eager to help you out. You understand?”
Elsabeth nodded. “All right, then. One night.” Her even tone belied the way her stomach churned. The acid taste of vomit stung the back of her throat.
Harding perked up. “Great! And, hey, it’s not like you’ll be going alone. We’ll be coming along with you, but we’re not allowed onto the property. We’ll be stationed nearby, just in case—“
“I said I’d do it.” Elsabeth pushed her chair back and stood up. “When do we leave?”
Elsabeth fell out of the bed at a roll.
She landed on the cold floor on her hands and knees. Pain flared up in her abused joints, but Elsabeth bit down on her tongue. She silenced the yell that rose in her throat.
She remained there on the floor at the side of the bed, alert. Catlike.
Elsabeth felt nothing when she arrived back in her home country.
She wasn’t sure if anxiety would gnaw at her nerves. Or if her stomach would plunge through the ground. But no, nothing. After all, the airport was a far cry from Kaltstein and the old family home. The clean glass reflected the runways. White metal structures curved and bent — very space age.
But as they drove closer and closer towards that odd little village, the worry in her gut began to churn. As the modern-day metropolises gave way to smaller towns. As those bubbles of civilisation grew further apart, defined by the space between. As the liberal, open faces became closed-off frowns — distrustful. Angry. Resentful. Open fields full of rotted crops and rusted farming machinery. Blades jutted, this way and that. Spikes pierced the sky as if to shishkebab the heavens. The open maws of the mechanical goliaths grinned at Elsabeth. Come on in, they seemed to say. We don’t bite. But when we do, we make sure we only need one chomp.
“I’m coming home,” said Elsabeth to the countryside outside the SUV’s window.
“Hm?” asked Harding, from the front passenger seat. Some agent with black shades and an earpiece that coiled around the back of his head drove.
Elsabeth’s heart smashed its face against the wall of her ribcage.
It came away battered and bloody, but the organ did not stop. And her breaths drowned her mouth in a waterfall. Elsabeth gasped for air as her body suffocated itself in terror.
The sound was subtle. As if its maker knew she’d awoken.
A scrape against the stone. A shuffle. A slide. The whisper of cloth. The silence of suppressed breaths.
“Who’s there?” she asked the darkness.
And to her dismay, the darkness answered.
When the police stopped the SUV, they all did as instructed.
“Gotta play game with these backwoods cops,” said Harding over his shoulder. He offered her a smirk. “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure this doesn’t go all Deliverance.” His words didn’t soothe her.
But all the while, at the back of her mind, Elsabeth repeated her mantra. Over and over and over.
He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.
If only she could make herself believe it.
“We’ll take her from here,” said one of the cops. He had a thick walrus moustache, and he’d hidden his eyes behind reflective aviators. That should have been Elsabeth’s first warning sign — there was never any sun in Kaltstein. But the perpetual high-alert threw her instincts off.
“Right you are,” said Harding. A bit too cheerful. Almost as if he wanted to get rid of her. She knew that to be a lie — she was necessary for the agency. If only as a source of funds. “Good luck in there, champ.” He mimicked dialling a phone. “You know the number. We’ll be staying at a little cottage in—” he opened his map and traced the road with his finger “—Grauwasser.”
Elsabeth once more cringed at his butchering of the language. She unclipped her belt and slid out the door, which another village cop held open. This one wore a cowboy hunting hat. His eyes were the dead glass of a butchered fish’s. As was his scent. He said nothing as she nodded at him and offered a meek smile.
“This way, if you’ll please, Miss Lorenz.”
A slight hiccough in the rhythmic thump-thump-thump of her heart. “Scarborough,” she said. “Mrs Scarborough.”
“Like the Simon & Garfunkel song?” asked Walrus with a lopsided smile. His teeth were yellow wonky.
“That’s not where—”
But the car door had already shut.
Elsabeth recognised the voice.
She’d heard it not 12 hours ago. Although this time, it sang.
“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” There was a roundness to the words. As if the singer grinned from ear to ear.
Gooseflesh rippled up all over her skin. She wanted to move — needed to move. But her body remained frozen, a statue.
And closer: “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” This line the voice was different. And now a pungent aroma stung her nostrils and the back of her throat. Sweat — stale and salty. Along with the mildewed blackness of dead fish.
“Remember me to one who lives there.” Walrus, off to her left. Beyond the bed.
By the door.
Trapped. They’d trapped her. Only the window remained, and that was too high from the ground t—
“She once was a true love of mine.” The words came an inch away from the back of her neck.
Elsabeth sucked in a breath to scream. The decay of fish hit her like a wall.
Before the shriek could escape her parted lips, hands were on her.
They clamped her mouth shut.
“Mighty shame about your dad,” said Walrus as they drove.
“How did you—” started Elsabeth. They shouldn’t have known who she was. She’d been living under a fake identity for almost a decade.
“Us backwood cops never forget a face, Miss Lorenz.” The aviators stared at her via the rearview mirror.
Elsabeth nodded. Her mouth was dry. She tried to swallow, but the saliva caught at the back of her throat.
“A good man, he was,” continued Walrus. He was either oblivious to her bewilderment, or he didn’t care. It only later occurred to her that he revelled in it.
Fish Smell, who drove the beat-to-hell squad car, nodded along. As if Walrus was a preacher who gave an inspirational sermon.
“We loved Odo around here. He was like a father to us. Mighty sad at his passing, we are. We’d have given anything to have kept him around that bit longer. ‘Course, I know you weren’t that big a fan of the family history!” Walrus chortled. “But, eh, what the heck? We won’t hold that against ya.” Although she couldn’t make out his eyes, Elsabeth would’ve sworn that Walrus winked. “Those fancy agents you came with don’t quite get it. But we do.”
Present tense. Not past tense. Not ‘we did’.
“Odo was the most eligible bachelor of Kaltstein! And Clothilde was the prettiest girl ever. Only natural that they should end up together.”
Elsabeth rose to the bait. “Only nat—” She had to suppress the urge to vomit. She retreated into the backseat of the car. The cushions could swallow her up. “She was his twin sister.”
“That’s why we’re so glad to see you return. The place belongs to you, after all.” Walrus glanced up into the mirror.
“Belongs to your blood.”
The sack over her head had been unnecessary.
Elsabeth couldn’t remember the layout of Kaltsteinburg. Even if she had, what use was she against both Walrus and Fish Smell at the same time? They outnumbered her. And overpowered her. It was simple math.
Before they removed the bag, they seated her. Tied her legs to those of the chair — cold, metallic. And then bound her arms to the rests. At least Fish Smell was gentle when he took the blindfolds away. She knew it was him because of the taste of the air.
Elsabeth blinked in the brightness of the room. Stone floor, stone walls, stone ceiling. Cold. Damp. The aroma of water damage. Somewhere, something dripped. A naked bulb hung in the middle of the room.
They’d bundled her down into the basement.
Off in the corner hung a silhouette with shiny eyes. It took her a moment to recognise Walrus, still with his shades on even down in the cellar. In the middle of the night. He grinned at her and rolled the toothpick in his mouth from one corner to the other.
Movement above and behind her. The stench of dead fish faded. Fish Smell had moved off to the side. No doubt ready to spring to action should the events need his services.
And in front of her, sat in a wheelchair, was a corpse.
At least, that was what it looked like.
They pulled up to Kaltsteinburg and Fish Smell killed the engine.
Walrus got out and rushed around the vehicle to open the car door for her. Whether it was an act of chivalry or to ensure she couldn’t escape, Elsabeth couldn’t decide. Fish Smell grabbed her bag — a lonely rucksack — from the boot.
Elsabeth gazed up at the profile of the family home. The sky behind was grey, like the castle. All her memories of Kaltsteinburg had a nebulous fog around them — it was never sunny here. It gave the stone building the impression of camouflaging in with its environment.
Kaltsteinburg jutted up from the earth like a misshapen tooth. Face-on, it looked top-heavy. The uppermost part was almost one-and-a-half times as wide as the foundations. Spires and turrets spiked off, here and there. Staircases wound around towers, ascending from places obscured to destinations obfuscated. Balconies and doors poked out around the building at almost random. It was impossible to guess the number of floors the place had.
And the windows looked down upon the courtyard, black and somehow matte. As if there were no panes of glass to separate the interior from the exterior. Instead of jeopardised home security, the absence implied a creeping sensation of spreading. As if the darkness from within spilled out into the world. A steady trickle of gloom.
“Home sweet home, eh?” said Walrus. “Come on in. I won’t bother givin’ you the tour, as I’m sure you still remember it like your inner thigh.”
Walrus led the way up the steps. At the top, two grey gargoyles looked out across the grounds. The incessant weather had rubbed off their faces. Into miserable oblivion.
Fish Smell came up the rear. Elsabeth had to shake off the notion that he did so to ensure she didn’t try and break for it. Why, oh why hadn’t Harding and the other guy come with her? They could have at least seen her into the place, to make sure all was on the level.
Unless they were all in on it together.
Elsabeth shoved this thought away. It had taken her so long to shrug off the conspiratorial mindset. The overwhelming sense that all and everyone was against her. Plotting to sabotage and to maim.
She followed Walrus up the steps and into Kaltsteinburg.
It was fortunate that they’d not gagged her, otherwise, she’d have been unable to scream.
It wasn’t one of those eighties slasher flick screams, where the heroine looses a wail every ten seconds. This was the short, sharp yelp of one who has had an unpleasant surprise.
The corpse moved.
The skin was grey and taut. The membrane pulled itself across the skeleton, to expose every rib, bone, and organ. The solid bits protruded beneath, rigid and pointed. The soft bits throbbed and pulsed — at alarming intervals. The sunken eyes were a jaundiced yellow, with angry blood vessels bursting at the surface. Veins crawled over the skull, thrombotic and clustered like grapes. A cannula drooped from the nose. Orange. Crusted. The wheeze and hiss of oxygen — pumped in, pumped out.
The person — impossible to guess the gender — grinned at her. Grinned like an empty skull, empty of humanity.
“Well, aren’t you going to say hello?” Walrus stepped from the shadows. The singular light glinted in his aviators. “Daddy’s been waiting a long time for this reunion. Daddy’s tried so many alternatives and discovered that none of them worked. None of them had your blessed genetics. Your mother, may God rest her soul—” both Walrus and Fish Smell crossed themselves “—was half successful in her murder-suicide pact.”
Elsabeth tried to raise her hands to the burn scar on her left cheek. But, of course, she couldn’t. The sharpness of the handcuffs bit into the flesh of her arms.
“W-why? What—” Elsabeth rocked herself back and forth and found they’d bolted the chair to the floor.
“We are all blessed with the blood of our father—”
“—blood of our father,” said Fish Smell. An echo of Walrus.
“But not all of us possess the wondrous blood of the mother, too. In fact, none of us do.”
“Y-you all?” Her eyes darted to the emaciated body that stank a metre away. Back to Walrus. Over to Fish Smell. Back to Walrus.
Walrus nodded. “All of us.” His grin widened. “Even the one you call Harding. Honestly, if it weren’t for your superior blood, I’d have called you stupid for falling for such a ruse. As we speak, I bet those protectors of yours are scrambling to figure out where you are and what happened. They’ll find out too late. If they find out at all. So, you see, father’s reach is wide and vast. Which is why we need you.” He placed a hand on Odo’s shoulder, the skin paper-thin. “We cannot allow the father’s consciousness to depart this mortal realm.”
Elsabeth shook her head. “I don’t— I don’t under—”
Walrus whipped the shades off and stared at her with his crimson eyes. “The vessel needs to be perfect. As close to the original as possible. We tried — and failed — with the half matches.” He tutted. “And, as of yet, our attempts to clone Odo have failed.” Walrus stroked the fine dander on the top of the man’s head as he said this.
A squall of metal from behind. Fish Smell entered her field of vision. He pushed a stainless steel hospital gurney. He eyed her as he walked past, gaze still dead and glassy.
“You’ve spent your whole life running from something, Elsa. But that’s the beauty of this operation.” Walrus picked up a knife from the gurney. It glinted in the light and reflected his blood-red eyes.
The wheeze of Odo’s oxygen grew more rapid, more desperate.
“You can’t run from what’s inside.”