Friday, November 23, 2012

Frankfurt and the dark forest

The actual travel part of travel brings out the worst in people. They picture pristine beaches or winding cobblestone streets but seem surprised they have to actually leave the house to get there. It’s as if buying a ticket is the only required step and travel is an automat pastry to be devoured immediately upon purchase. These are the kind of people who, before you realize you’re up to your knees in conversational quicksand, bore into you with stories about their latest vacation that even they don’t find interesting. The two hour drive to Aunt Eunice’s cabin where the car started making a funny sound. The harrowing ordeal when light rain caused a missed flight so some unfortunate stiff had to while away two hours at the terminal bar getting buzzed on eight dollar beer so thin that the aspiring actress with the bony knees behind the counter offers to buy it a sandwich. 

Even less sufferable are people who travel solely to impress their equally uninspired and uninteresting friends.  For them each destination is nothing but a notch carved in their suitcase and an excuse to draw in the edges of the map and make the world one degree smaller and one shade paler. If you give them an opening they’ll tell you that they’ve visited every corner of the planet and usually add adjectives like dark, far flung, and God forsaken.  Yet somehow, despite their extensive travel, they’ve never ventured outside the walls of their resort or carefully selected “travel experiences” as chosen for them by the hotel staff. A two day visit to a five star hunting lodge suddenly becomes a wilderness trek and a stopover in Cairo’s Garden City a romantically brave sojourn into the darkest jungles of Africa.  Nothing but tall tales told by small people. If there is one thing that my life has taught me it’s that the English aren’t to be trusted. The second would be that real adventurers are rarer than hen’s teeth or Boone Helm’s dinner.

For some reason, perhaps to provide material for God’s cosmic gag real or just old fashioned bad luck, I seem to always end up wedged between these types on long trips where your only choices for escape involve brutal violence, heavy alcohol consumption, or both. Preferably both, matter of fact. Thankfully my new German friend Oskar Henning provided a rail pass to Jersey and a plane ticket to Frankfurt in better company than I normally travel.

It was a bit of a strange experience for me to be sitting in a seat with no unidentifiable stains or so many tears that it looked like Jack the Ripper went on a bit of a bender. Still, I tried to enjoy my unaccustomed level of accommodation and remember not to spit on the floor any more than necessary. In my latest attempt to play the role of responsible professional I had laid out all of the maps and reports on the table in front of me hoping that they would form some kind of meaningful collage. After a certain point I realized that all I had really done for the past half an hour was move paper from one spot to another and back again while intermittently staring out the window as Midwestern fields and the occasional small town bled into one unidentifiable swirling pool. It was like staring at the floor of Kate’s bar after a busy Friday night filled with power drinkers, up and comers, factory cogs, and local color. I finally yielded to the thought and packed up my papers, stored them safely in my luggage, and headed to the booze car.

After that fateful decision the next day and a half are a bit…indistinct. My memories start off clear with the clean lines and bold colors of a master draftsman producing a new set of panels for the latest edition of Action Comics. But quicker than a barker’s tongue everything becomes less defined with features blurring, walls breaking, and me unable to force things back inside their neat little boxes. The clearest memory I have is ending up in the kitchen car of the train wearing nothing but a chef’s hat and apron while educating the cigarette girl on the differences between Whiskey and Scotch. At some point I apparently convinced one of the porters that I was the mayor of Indianapolis and for the rest of the trip he would solemnly tip his cap and address me as “your honor”. Oddly enough I also ended up finding a pair of teeth in my pocket without the slightest idea to whom they belonged or how they got separated from their prior owner.

In what remains a mystery to all involved I managed to get from the train station in Newark to the airport and onto the correct plane. Having been to Newark once previously, sober, I highly recommend the second option. It’s far more pleasant. You don’t focus much on the smell which can best be described as a mix of strong cheese and industrial solvent, and if you squint hard enough you might trick yourself into thinking that you’re in New York. Granted that would come with its own set of problems in my case, but as Father O’Byrne once told me “My boy, the only people who don’t lie to themselves on a regular basis are lying to themselves right then and there…so don’t be too worried about the facts so long as you get the job done.” 

I landed in Frankfurt early in the morning, at an hour well before decent people are awake and just after the rest of us have left the bar and headed home, whether ours or someone else’s. Being in the terminal at that hour felt like stepping inside a giant geode. It was cavernous, cold, and blindingly bright with every jutting angle refracting light in a hundred different directions. Every sound was magnified by hard surfaces and the lack of soft bodies.  As I started working my way to the door I noticed a short, slightly heavyset man holding a sign with my last name on it. Or at least it was a close approximation of my last name and I’m not generally one to quibble over details. As I drew closer I saw him readjust his hat, one of those stereotypically “Alpine” hats made with the rope banding and multi-colored partridge feather, and then immediately check his watch twice in short succession as if he was dissatisfied with the first answer. Each movement was carried out with enough nervous energy to keep the Vegas strip lit for a year. He was looking down at his watch yet again as I drew within close range and then suddenly jerked his head up as his eyes momentarily widened and his chin dropped to his chest.

“You are Herr Chuddlewit, yes?” he asked while failing to actually make eye contact at any point of his question. Instead his eyes flickered over my shoulder and roved up and down the expanses of the terminal.

“Mister Chuzzlewit if you really want to be formal but let’s not get caught up in all that. Call me Arch.” I replied while noticing his reticence to get any closer than absolutely necessary. I paused long enough for him to fill in the blank and when he didn’t I pressed forward on my own. “So, you’re Herr Henning’s man. Can I call you Hans?”

A look of confusion formed on his face and as he started to talk I interrupted his response; far too tired, hungover, and irritated to worry about the feelings of my German companion I addressed needs more pressing than the observation of social niceties “That’s great Hans, I assume you’re taking me to the hotel and then later on this evening to see Henning?”

“Ja, if you are ready we can proceed. My name, actually, is…”

“Hans. Got it. Don’t worry, I’m good with names.”

With a smile and a clap on the shoulder I motioned to Hans to lead the way and after overcoming his initial nervous fluster he turned on his heels and started to walk towards the door. His left leg trailed a half-step behind the rest of his body and seemed to perpetually be in a state of catch up. We worked our way to the exit of the terminal, me carrying my bag and Hans carrying his gimpy leg and the occasional sideways stare of a passerby. Walking out of the artificial cave and into the early German morning was like diving into the ocean on a summer day and feeling a leaden weight wash out of your body as your senses snap, tingle, and burst back into life. Breaking through the water and drawing a breath of air I noticed something drifting past on the cool morning breeze. First, the unmistakable smell of roasting hops and barley that could only mean one thing; Frankfurt had proudly clung to its tradition as the home of heavenly beer breweries and that some religions still attract a devoted congregation at Sunday services. Second was the aroma of the nearby pretzel stand shaped like a hollowed out beer barrel with a similarly shaped owner setting out the morning’s fresh harvest. The final part of the mix was the distinct tang of excitement and danger, the kind of thing that climbs its way through your nostrils, into the back of your throat, and sets up permanent base camp.

I remember the first time I inhaled that heady concoction. I was 11 and had stumbled across a recruiting poster for the merchant marines in Mr. Salerno’s barbershop window. It was like seeing my daydreams illustrated in vivid, living, color. Uncle Sam sat, bowlegged and virile, next to a huge globe with exotic ports of call dressed out in bright colors. It was the kind of globe you only saw in libraries that I never went to and probably wouldn’t have been allowed to enter anyway.  Next to Sam was a pair of sailors in full uniform, faces plastered with the kind of smiles that even my pre-teenage brain knew only came from having adventures. Specifically, the kind of adventures that were best retold after several drinks and without any women, or clergy, within earshot. Stories that, even if repeated only in scant detail, would make you as a legend on any school playground in the city. The backdrop of the poster was a gorgeous rainbow sherbet colored sunset in some tropical paradise that I was dying to see and a semi-clad native girl that I was dying to meet. It didn’t matter to me at all that I had no idea what the merchant marines were, what they did, or how you joined. All I knew was that wherever they were going and whatever they were doing, it had to be a hell of a lot better than where I was stuck, sitting and counting the seconds until school was done each day, each week, each month and so on.

I climbed into Hans’ car after loading my luggage in the trunk, marveling at the beautifully crafted jet black body with huge arcing fenders that swooped down within inches of the ground and three headlights sitting in front of a vertical grill of perfectly polished chrome.

“Nice cars Hans, I’ll bet you run the table with the frauleins in this beauty.” I said with a knowing arch in my eyebrows.

Hans looked over at me with a confused look before the gears started turning, both literately and figuratively “Oh, nein, this car is…”

“It’s fantastic, I agree. Once I get this Krampus business wrapped up you and I are going to do some serious damage around here. You and me Hans…SERIOUS damage. We’ll leave the Sachsenhausen a smoking shell with all its delicious marrow sucked out. I knew it as soon as I saw you, Hans. I can spot a wolf a mile away even through a thick forest.”

Hans started to say something and then paused, gave a befuddled smile, and turned his attention to driving. As the car pulled smoothly away from the curb I closed my eyes and listened to the engine pluck out chords of perfect harmony, working up and down the scale as the needle rose and fell bar after bar, street after street. Five minutes into our trip I picked up the faint sound of Hans softly talking to himself. I couldn’t be sure what language he was speaking but there were far too many rolling letters to be German. A few minutes later the car was slowing to a stop in front of a three story building located down a side street from a large city square filled with classic Bavarian architecture that you would normally see out in the country instead of the heart of a major metropolitan area.

“We’ve arrived I take it?” I asked casually and without waiting for an answer got out of the car and retrieved my luggage from the trunk.

“Ja, I will return at seven and take you to Herr Henning for dinner.” Hans said and suddenly stood up straight as a steal beam and stuck his hand out as if fired by a piston. I smiled and bowed my head slightly as I shook his hand and then watched him stiffly climb back into the car and wind his way back up the street we had just come down.

As I turned towards the hotel I stopped just short of running over a smiling bellhop holding my bag in one hand and holding out the other towards the front door. He was a young man with the kind of half grown mustache that just makes you sad. It looked like someone had taken an eyeliner pencil and drawn in some extra color in the hope of disguising the extent of the travesty. It was one of those times in your life when you come across a young man in desperate need of guidance, usually the kind that came from being slapped in the back of the head. I could feel my hand start to instinctively twitch before I took a deep breath and decided it would be best to just avert my eyes until I could gain a safe distance.

I walked into the hotel and straight up to my room, following the bellhop on his path to the brass adorned elevator and thickly carpeted hallway.  Once inside I made it a point not to look him too closely in the face. In the deepest recesses of my heart I prayed that the money I had just handed him would go to a good cause like hair tonic or a trip to the barber to raze that sad thing to the ground and start the rebuilding process. After the door had safely closed I hid all the important documents under my dirty socks and headed back down the stairs and out the front door to have a look around and get a feel for the local sights, sounds, and company.

After walking a short distance I found myself in what looked like a central plaza. There were rows of gingerbread buildings with trim painted in bright hues of green and red and blue. An official looking plaque near a large door identified the building as Frankfurt’s city hall, as did the mass of men in dark suits who steadily streamed in and out. The square itself was paved in brick and at its center was a large fountain where a woman holding the scales of justice was confined inside a wrought iron fence with each post topped by intricate metal decoration.

Just as I started to wonder if the fence was to keep the crowds out or the metal lady in, a man in his twenties rode past on a rickety bicycle weaving in-between people at a high speed and shouting something in slurred German that I couldn’t make out. He was wearing a tattered red and green scarf around his neck that continually flitted near the spokes and threatened to upset his already shaky hold on remaining upright. A pair of threadbare jeans with a new bottle of Rye barely tucked inside one of the back pockets matched the bike’s general state of disrepair. My attention had started to wander again to the fountain when he rode back through the square from the opposite direction still shouting and nearly running down entire families. During this pass I was able to pick up the general theme of his diatribe in between his guttural exclamations and extended profanity. He was repeatedly shouting at kids and women to not travel after dark or they might be stolen away by a Dämon and never return. With half the crowd staring at him and the other half ignoring him completely I quietly made my way towards the dark arched passage that he used as the exit on his first pass. 
As he cleared the heart of the square he picked up speed and suddenly found his balance much improved, pedaling free and easy. Just as he rolled past my concealed spot I reached out and grabbed the trailing end of his scarf and pulled. Hard. There was a momentary disconnect while his bicycle continued on without him like a racehorse at the Hawthorne after it had ditched its jockey. His legs kicked out forward, pointing towards his intended path before his entire body jerked to a stop and came slamming down on the pavement below and made a commingled sound of breaking glass and a sack of potatoes being dropped on a ship’s deck.   
He coughed violently and groaned, writhing on the ground and clutching the back of his head and neck. I picked him up by the jacket and propped him up against the wall just out of view of the main square while brushing off the dirt.
“Those old bicycles can be tricky to stay on, can’t they?” I said with a smile never looking away from his face. He paused for a moment before responding in between pained gasps of breath.
“Ich spreche kein Englisch” he wheezed and looked away.
I nodded understandingly and then hit him flush in the stomach with my fist and felt him double over and begin a new round of sputtering and coughing. Straightening him up again I held him in my place with my forearm across his upper chest, just inches from his throat, and forcing him up on to his tiptoes.
“Let’s try this again, but now do me the favor of not lying. I know you speak English, I know you’re not drunk, and I know you have a low threshold for pain. Unless you want to test that last assumption further you should answer my questions. What gives with the bad theater piece back there?”
“Nothing” he quickly spit out in excellent English “Just a bit of fun with the tourists, that’s all!”
I slid my forearm up his chest and across his windpipe, and applied more and more pressure until his face started to turn a cheery shade of deep red as he frantically motioned with his hands. I eased off just a bit and looked at him again.
“Yes?” I asked “Something else to add?”
After fits of drooling like a St. Bernard and trying to catch his breath he finally responded. “Some guy came up to me outside the library…said he wanted me to put a little charge into the crowd…talk up the old stories. That’s it I swear!”
“So some guy you don’t know pays you to ride around the city and shout at random people and you don’t ask any questions. That’s your story. It’s funny because you don’t seem like an idiot but the more I hear the less sure I am. The bottle in your back pocket was a nice touch, by the way, but you forgot to crack the seal and that brand of Rye is a little upscale for someone riding such an old bike.”
He had mostly regained his breath by now and after a pause he rolled his eyes and held his hands up like a ten year old boy caught in what my childhood caseworker used to call a fabrication of events, and what I remember the nuns at St. Michael’s calling a venial sin.   
“Look, I didn’t ask for a lot of detail. He told me to come down here, stir up the crowd, and leave. I got the money, and the Rye, and that was it. The only other thing I can tell you is the guy was tall, fit, and from money.”

Although I lost a good chunk of the hearing in my left ear during a fight in the heart of a Rio favella, as I recall the fight started over three girls and two slots on my dance card before things really got out of hand, I still have a talent for knowing the truth when I hear it. I handed him a couple of bills from my pocket and told him “Sorry about your Rye.” He nodded and quickly, but gingerly, walked towards his bike before getting on and riding out of sight.

After a brief stop at a walk up bar in the town square I headed back to my room and immediately cleared a space on the bed by sweeping everything to the floor and laid down. Most people would have found this trip strange already; for me it was like walking in familiar fields of high corn where you can’t see anything but the forest of green stalks and the path carved out in front of you. It becomes a simple choice of either pushing forward or turning back with no guarantee that either decision is correct, wise, or safe.
Before I knew it time had come to get up, put on my one clean shirt, and head downstairs with my satchel to catch a ride to Mr. Henning courtesy of Hans and his borrowed set of wheels. Just as I hit the lobby I could hear the bells of St. Bartholomeus ringing out seven chimes.  A minute or two later the distinctive outline of the car rolled past the hotel’s front door. Stepping outside I saw Hans climbing out and checking his watch, a battered number with a band more frayed than the nerves of a sorority house mother when Texas Tom and I use to wander into campus on a Saturday night looking for cheap thrills with rich girls.
“Haven’t kept you waiting, have I Hans?” I asked with a wink as he turned towards me.
“Nein, if you are ready we can proceed to Herr Henning’s residence for dinner” he said while motioning to the car. I had been to Germany often enough to know that something didn’t fit, like trying to force a three hundred pound man into a size 34 trouser while the poor salesman peddles the notion that they are cut far narrower than in previous years. All the Germans I had ever met considered being five minutes early to an appointment being late, especially when it concerned work.
Hans steered the car towards the outskirts of the city and I quickly found myself on a large highway with skyscrapers exchanged for mountain ranges in the distance and sweeping fields just outside the window.

Eventually the signs told me we were approaching Kronberg im Taunus, but experience told me that what we were really approaching was money. Lots and lots of money, and not the kind recently acquired. The car navigated its way from the highway to local roads to private drives that led us deeper into woods that seemed to swallow the remaining sunlight like a conifer sponge. The car eventually stopped in front of a massive house, the kind that rich people refer to as a “summer villa” and the rest of us don’t refer to at all. I slung the satchel over my shoulder and followed Hans up to the front door where it was promptly opened by a severe looking man who immediately looked at Hans with an expression of poorly disguised irritation before turning to me and making an attempt at a smile.
“Welcome Mr. Chuzzlewit, please follow me. Herr Henning is waiting.”
I followed him into a large circular room with doors and staircases leading off to various parts of the house, all closed, with the exception of one to the left. I passed through and entered into a two story room with bookcases on each level filling the walls from top to bottom. Standing at a large carved mahogany desk was a middle aged man dressed in a pair of expensive looking wool pants and a dark green tweed hunting jacket that had large brown suede patches on the elbows and right shoulder. I knew this was my man, not just from the clothes, but also the way that the three other men standing in the room were doing nothing but waiting for direction. Two of the three were fairly nondescript but athletic looking young men with smooth, blank, faces and short orderly haircuts. The third was standing near Herr Henning and pointing to something spread out across the desk and speaking in low tones. He had a face built almost entirely of sharp angles with each feature ending in a fine point like the tip of a fountain pen. At the sound of the door closing behind me Henning paused and looked up from the desk. He didn’t speak at first, instead running his grey eyes over me with the kind of silent weighing of qualities that I remembered well from my boyhood days working in the boatyards. Yacht owners would come in to have their nautical trophies polished before taking them out on the water once or twice a year and I didn’t make much better of an impression at that time than I do now.
“Mister Chuzzlewit, thank you for coming. May I call you Archibald?” he asked with little variation in his voice as he turned his attention back to whatever document was now being folded up by his assistant.
“Please do” I responded quickly and walked closer to the desk, noting the young men standing to the side stir to action as they also closed the distance. “I understand you gentlemen are having a bit of a problem that I might be able to help with?”
Henning looked up at me again with a hard to read expression before he buttoned his jacket and straightened the cuffs on his shirt. “Yes, fair enough to say so. Herr Falke could you give Archibald a recitation on the current status of events?” With this he picked up a map from the desk and walked over to a drafting table in the corner to make some further annotation while his assistant stepped slightly to his right, blocking the sightline to him.
“A few weeks ago there was an attack here at the house” Falke started.
“On whom?” Though I already knew the bones of the story I always found it fascinating how much stories changed depending on the audience and teller. 
“Herr Henning’s son Erich.” Falke continued in a slow and steady gait.
“Was the boy hurt?” I asked while noticing a stifled smirk on the face of one of the young men standing off to the side who quickly tried to hide it behind an enthusiastic scratching of his nose.
“He is healing. The mental and emotional toll was severe. Fortunately he escaped with his life and will, hopefully, recover. Whether or not there will be lasting damage…who can say?” Falke shrugged gravely.
“Nobody else was hurt?” I continued on.
“No one of consequence. One of Erich’s tutors was present and sustained some slight injuries I believe. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to provide much in the way of protection, or information for that matter. The attack happened in the back garden while he and Erich wandered near the forest edge.” The last sentence came with a shake of his head and narrowing of eyes that drew his features into an even more rigid state. 
“Something about the forest worries you?” I asked with what I hoped sounded like genuine concern.
“Not the forest as a concept, no” he answered quickly “but the mountains and forests of Germany hide dark things in its deep, quiet places. It is not an area you wander into unprepared and certainly not with a child.” 
I nodded and paused for a moment before I set my satchel on top of a chair, opened it, and pulled out the crude drawing done in blood on the back of an old map. “I take it this was the attacker?” I asked as I held the map up towards Falke.
This drew a snort from the shorter of the two young men, the same one who covered his amusement so gracefully moments before.  He caught himself almost immediately but not before Falke’s head turned towards him briefly, with a look that could curdle fresh buttermilk. Suitably chastised the young man now held the most serious look he could muster as proof of how closely he was paying attention. At the same time he carefully avoided eye contact at all costs with both Falke and his compatriot standing next to him. As someone with a lifetime’s experience in saying, doing, or drinking, the wrong thing at the wrong time I understood his reaction. I also knew by heart the angry lecture sure to come once “company” had left the room.
“Yes, or at least something close to it.” Falke continued, turning his attention back to me. “That…drawing…also matches the limited description we received from the tutor.”
“The historical sources as well, yes?” I responded while folding the drawing and placing it back in the satchel.
“Historical?” Herr Henning suddenly asked from the corner of the room “An interesting word to use Archibald. While I grant some myths have a basis in historical fact I’m not sure that we can consider a collection of scary folktales and crude monster drawings to hold much historical value. Regardless of what some would want us to believe, this isn’t the dark ages. The old stories and the fears that created them have faded out, swept aside by new fears for a new age. Yesterday’s fables have been replaced by today’s newspaper.”
“I imagine so, though every time I read the newspaper” meaning about once a year in my case outside of the comics page “I still see monsters. They just dress better and blend into the crowd easier.” Something in my brain told me to immediately stop talking before Herr Henning decided to take his ball and go home, leaving me out a considerable amount of money. For a moment he looked at me thoughtfully before bowing slightly as if conceding a point in a sporting event. He then continued.
“True as that might be, whether you wish to consider the Krampus historical fact, dismiss it as a fable, or believe the truth sits somewhere in between this much remains incontrovertible. First, there was a violent assault. Here, in my home!” his voice rose for the first time and his eyes came alive as he stepped around the desk. “Second, the first group sent to handle this problem left nothing behind but the documents and map you have in your satchel. They ventured South, deep into the forest and then, suddenly, the trail leads to a pool of blood and broken branches and nothing else. Actually, my apologies, there was one other thing that remained.”
“And what was that?” I asked after allowing a pause long enough to achieve Herr Henning’s desired level of tension.
“A pair of frozen boots, laced, with the owner’s feet still in them. They had been snapped off at mid shin.” Henning paused here and looked around the room, making sure everyone present understood how seriously he was. Just as quickly as he had lost an inch of composure he had now regained it. He retreated back behind the desk and spoke quietly to Falke before addressing me again.
“Mister Chuzzlewit, I’m assuming you still want the job. Find this….thing, whatever it is, and deal with it. I do not care, in the least, how you do it only that it is done. Whether it’s a wild animal, a deranged man in a costume or something else is irrelevant. You will have access to whatever supplies, resources, and information you require as well as the assistance of Algis and Ehren. Come and call on me again once you have finished your task to collect the rest of your money” With that final statement Herr Henning smoothed down his hair and strode out of the room leaving me with the remaining three.
“They have experience in dealing with this kind of adventure?” I asked Falke and then turned to face the two young men. I could tell I had hit a sore spot with at least one of them when Algis’ chest swelled out like a rooster patrolling the fenced in confines of his coop.
“I know the woods, mountains, and rivers of this country.” He rattled off quickly as if running down a checklist on his resume. “I served in the army. I can hunt, fish, hike, and track any man or animal walking the face of the earth. Ehren and I are more than capable of fixing this Riesendurcheinander ourselves.”
“Is that right? Then why did Henning bring me all the way from America to come and do a job the two of you are so qualified for?” I asked him while making little attempt to hide my amusement. “And those boys he sent out, the ones who have gone missing, were they capable of fixing this Riesendurcheinander too? I find it hard to believe Henning would have hired a bunch of fools to search for his son’s attacker when the trail was still fresh. Tell me, what do you think happened to them? Got lost on their way to the campsite? Decided to try their luck pulling local girls in town and forgot to come back? Turned tail and ran at the sight of their shadow?”
Algis looked to Ehren for some kind of direction only to find him staring in the other direction and pretending not to follow the conversation.
“I don’t know what happened, but they didn’t run.” He finally answered, more quietly than before.
“I take it you knew some of those boys and now you’re embarrassed about what you think happened out there. Because they failed to get the job done, is that it?” I stepped close to him, just to his left and in between him and Ehren, so my mouth was close to his ear.
“I’m going to let you in on a secret that cost me liters of blood, multiple broken bones, and enough pain to keep a Chinese Opium den in business for a decade to learn, so listen closely. You wouldn’t believe what people are capable of under pressure. I’ve seen soldiers, fighters, and hardmen of every shape, color, and stripe, break. About a year ago I was chasing a Sasquatch through the fields of Iowa and came across a man sitting on his front lawn, wearing his brother’s head as a hat and rocking back and forth. The beast had come through and ripped the poor guy in half, and I mean that literally, and followed by separating his head from his body all while the brother stood frozen nearby, loaded shotgun in hand. Another time I was working down in Patagonia as a trek guide and my travelling group, all experienced and seasoned military men, was attacked by an Iemisch after we stopped near a stream to rest. Once the panic set in the group scattered. They were all screaming, crying, and running in different directions with no thought other than finding a path to safety even if it meant running right over the top of a comrade’s broken body. These were men who had seen war, and everything it brings with it, but completely fell apart in the span of thirty seconds. Do you know why? Why otherwise brave and stout hearted men crumbled and fled?”
By this point both Algis and Ehren had turned their head slightly towards me to listen and Falke was hovering just past Algis’ shoulder and paying close attention.
“Fear. Real, primal, fear. The fear of things you don’t understand and can’t explain. It’s easy to feel brave about familiar things you can measure and weigh and tag with expectations. The biggest and meanest bear roaming the Harz mountains is still just a bear. Scary sure but you know how they move, where they like to sleep, what they like to eat, and what to do when you find one. You might get the bear, it might get you, but you know what you’re dealing with. Well this isn’t a bear, boys. This is something much older, much smarter, much more dangerous, and sure as hell not some fool running around in a fur suit. Whatever you did in the army, whatever animals you’ve hunted, and whatever experiences you’ve had in the past from this point on mean absolutely nothing. So here’s the deal I’m offering. I’ll take you along on this little pleasure cruise on one simple condition. Accept, wholeheartedly, that you have no idea what to expect and if we find what we’re looking for you might not be up to the challenge. You could end up nothing but some pretty girl’s distant memory of a young man whose name she can’t quite remember who went out looking for danger and never came home. You might leave no trace but one echoing, shrieking, cry bouncing off the tall trees deep in the forest or the brick walls of a dark alleyway. Maybe your family is lucky and I find enough of you to carry back for burial in a shoebox. Worse yet, you might simply turn to stone on the spot or drop your weapon and wet yourself when faced, for the first time in your life, with something truly terrifying.”

I noted the color waver in Algis’ face, while Ehren stood just as resolutely stoic as he had from the beginning.
“Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom! If we succeed we’ll get paid and have some fun stories to tell at the bar while we waste away the big payoff. Maybe we even manage to impress a couple girls with tales of your adventures.” I said loudly and with an oversized smile before stepping in even closer to the two young men and continued at a volume so that only they could hear the rest. “Plus, you’ll make people like Henning and Falke jealous as hell that while they were sitting around in some dusty manor house leading their dusty lives you were out being real men. Nobody wants to read about the people who financed the exploration, gents. No little boy or girl sits around the radio desperately waiting to hear the next thrilling chapter in the epic saga of Jorg the accountant or Grettel the procurement officer.  They want to know about the people crazy enough to plunge into the black night knowing only that they were walking far off the map and into the vast uncharted edges of the world. That they were promised nothing except mystery, adventure, danger, and a chance at immortality.”
I took a step back from the two young men and again raised the volume of my voice while keeping Falke in the corner of my eye.
“So that’s my offer and my condition. You can come with me for as long as you keep a clear mind about what you’re signing up for. As long as you do that I can live, or die, with whatever else happens. But the minute you pretend to have any idea what you’re doing, or what you’re going to find, is the minute I leave you behind. What state I leave you behind in, is another question entirely.” At this I nodded to all three men and walked past Falke towards the large doors leading outside.
Walking out into the backyard was a strange experience, like looking at a half decent copy of a famous painting hanging in a dive bar. You can respect the skill it took to make but the context is all wrong. The garden Herr Henning spoke of was a perfectly manicured large expanse of grass bounded by a chest high stone wall. A large ornate metal gate enclosed by a high arch sat at the far end of the garden and was curiously welcoming despite the circumstances. I walked to the wall and admired the rustic stonework and the skill it took to build it in such a meticulous way; at the same time finding its perfectness just a little disquieting. Every inch was polished and perfect except for one section that had two groupings of gouges, several inches long, carved deep into the top. I stepped closer and ran my finger over the marks and came away with a handful of loose stone and dust that tumbled out.
Looking more closely at the nearby gate revealed that the wrought iron had been twisted and worked into the shape of a family crest. I recognized elements of it, including the Eagle and its claws, in this case clutching an orb of some kind in one and a sword in the other. Along with the original lock, a thick metal brace had been added recently, judging by the metal shavings on the ground, and locked with a padlock bigger than a Harvard legacy’s sense of entitlement. I tried the gate and found it firmly entrenched with not even a quarter of an inch movement possible.
“This gate, is it normally locked?” I asked without turning in place. Although I had walked out alone I quickly become aware of Ehren’s company as a lanky shadow.
“Always. Herr Henning is very clear on that point.” He replied.
“Except for the night of the attack, yes?” I took a step back at this point and found Ehren standing nearby with his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his jacket and hunting for a way to answer the question without revealing something he felt he shouldn’t. “Erich has a key to the gate I’m guessing, or at least he did before this new lock was added.”
“Yes, at least that’s my suspicion. I made the mistake of asking a similar question to Herr Falke and he became very…terse. He insisted that it was the tutor who opened the gate and that corrective steps were to be taken.”
“With the gate or the tutor?” I inquired.
“Both from what I gathered.” He answered with a slightly resentful sound in his voice.
“So then, however it happened, Erich and the tutor are out in the back garden, go through the gate and up near the forest line, is that the idea?”
“That’s right. We found three sets of tracks, those of Erich and the tutor walking out the gate and then near the trees before there was a muddle of footprints and steps leading in all different directions as they tried to run. Then Erich’s footprints disappear just outside the wall.”
I walked to one side of the gate and pulled myself up on top of the wall and dropped on the other side, joined by Ehren just a moment later.
“Tracks came from the forest, stopped near that copse of trees” he pointed towards an area of thick cover and brush “and then resumed towards the garden with the steps spaced further apart.”
“Because the Krampus was running; chasing to put it more correctly.” I said to myself. “I’m guessing that at some point the tracks then head back into the forest, and that is where the first team of boys started their hunt.”
“Exactly. When they didn’t come back, Algis and I, along with a couple others, went out looking for them. We tracked the group South, it seemed to follow a trail of larger cities as if a pathway. Eventually the trail went…dead. You know what we eventually found and, more importantly, what we didn’t. We then returned here to wait for further orders.”
I nodded and took a long look into the border fence of tall trees and wild undergrowth that would make tracking anything difficult, especially when that anything had a solid two weeks head start. The groundskeepers obviously didn’t pay much attention to anything outside the rear garden walls since the grass on this side came up to the mid thigh, much like my favorite kind of skirt on a leggy girl. I hiked out to the first set of trees and leaned against one while looking back at the manor. It had enough spotlights to make a Broadway theater jealous. Every inch, every corner, every nook, and every cranny was flooded so intensely with beams of light that I was amazed no holes had been punched straight through the side of the building. 
I walked back towards the wall and hopped up on top, crouched like a gargoyle, and looked towards the manor. Falke and Algis were still in the library with Falke seated at the desk flipping through a large portfolio, Algis walking around the room in laps first in one direction and then the other, with his arms folded tightly across his chest. Judging by the marks I had found on the wall earlier, I was sitting close to where the Krampus had briefly taken up residence and taken in the same view.
“Tell me something Ehren, just between you and me and the wall…the boy, Erich, wasn’t badly hurt, was he?” I asked as I turned my head towards his direction to find him sitting lightly on top of the wall nearby.
“No” Came the short and simple response that also struck me as one of the first honest things I had heard all night.
“No broken bones, massive blood loss, missing eye, chewed off nose?”
“Nothing like that. The boy was shaky, yes, but apart from a sore rear end he walked away without a scratch. His father was the one panicking and quaking like a Gefreiter at the first volley of fire.” Ehren shook his head and tossed a small pebble towards the manor, causing yet another light to suddenly spring to life and add another layer of blinding gleam to the manor.
“From everything I know” he continued, in a low volume “the Krampus comes forward from the forest, grabs Erich by the shoulder, switches him with the Virgacs and is getting ready to be on his way until the tutor starts shouting and waving his arms. The Krampus turns, not happy with the interference I guess, and at the first snarl the tutor turns and runs for the wall, scrambling up and over like he was diving into a trench.”
“He left Erich behind?” I asked with a laugh.
“Without a second thought.” He replied with a small chuckle of his own.
“So then we have the Krampus, this terrible thing that Herr Henning is so terrified of, alone near the safety of the forest with a naughty boy and yet…nothing else happens. The Krampus strolls to the wall as casual as you please, hops up to take a look into the yard maybe just for the laughs of watching our friend the tutor falling all over himself, and then what…he leaves? That’s it?”
“The tutor claims that the Krampus looked at him, and then up at the manor and Herr Henning who had come onto the back porch due to the commotion. The Krampus narrowed his eyes until they were open little more than a crack, ran his tongue over his teeth, and stayed perfectly still while staring right at Herr Henning who then retreated back inside the manor, locking the door behind him.”
“Once again our boy Erich left out in the cold. Heart warming. I’m assuming he made in back in the manor at some point. Key under the welcome mat maybe?”
Ehren laughed and hopped down off the wall and into the yard. “Sent off to Herr Henning’s city residence along with the boy’s Kindermadchen. Henning left the next morning himself after sending out the first search party and hadn’t returned until today for your arrival.”
I dropped myself onto the ground and started walking towards the manor realizing that I knew less about what was happening than I did before I left home. But, it seemed like a waste to come all the way to Germany and not get involved in something hare-brained and dangerous. Honestly, what’s the point in traveling if you don’t put your health and well-being at risk at least once? At that point, it’s better, cheaper, and smarter to stay at home wrapped inside your beige colored cocoon.
We reached the back entrance of the manor and as Ehren reached for the handle I put my hand against the door for a moment and looked over at him.
“You’re ready for this?” I asked him, feeling no need to elaborate any further with unnecessary detail on risks and potential complications that I knew he already grasped.
“After a couple of drinks, yes.” He responded.
“And your friend in there? He looks a little shaky.” I nodded towards Algis standing inside the library, with him looking somewhere between bored and apprehensive as he continued his laps around the room. “I may not have ever won any school honors but I’ve also never dragged along an anchor on dry land and I don’t intend on starting now.”
“He’ll be fine, he’s just taking it personally. He was familiar with a number of the missing crew. I know revenge is a dangerous thing…”
“Revenge is as good a motive as any other.” I interrupted “and usually an honest one as long as you can figure out what it is that you’re avenging, and why. No, revenge doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just a word people throw around as an explanation after the dust settles. I don’t really care much about motivation, or reflection, or whatever the educated class would call it these days. I’m interested in results. If we get the right result, and try to avoid hurting people that don’t need to be hurt on the way there, that’s good enough for me. Once it’s all done and paid for people can justify it however they want. Besides, sometimes having cannon fodder in your traveling party is worth the aggravation of their company. If that’s to be the story with Algis I’d prefer someone a little fatter and slower on his feet, but I suppose sometimes you have to work with what’s available.”
I opened the door with a smile and walked into the library as both Algis and Falke turned to look at me while I retrieved my satchel before meeting their gaze. I addressed Algis first.
“Pack your things and meet me at the hotel in the morning. American morning, not German morning.” At this he simply nodded and walked out of the room. I then went in the direction of Falke and handed him a list of supplies needed for the trip. He looked at the paper and pursed his lips as he worked his way down towards the bottom. It was like watching a Sunday school teacher read a list of dirty words found scrawled on the boy’s bathroom wall, some of which he had never heard before or at least never in that particular combination.
“Excuse me, Mr. Chuzzlewit, but I’m not quite sure what all of these items are, and I’m fairly certain most of them are illegal.”
“If you don’t know what something is ask Algis he should know. As for everything else I’d be willing to bet almost nothing I’m about to do at Herr Henning’s request is legal so let’s not get caught up in the details, yes? Good.”
I started towards the exit, making the internationally recognized sign for “let’s go and get drunk” to Ehren, who immediately turned on his heels and followed me out the door with a grin.   

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