A Patrick Midnight Tale
A cranky Patrick Midnight showed his identification card to the nervous private. Midnight read the nametag aloud.
“Where are you from, Private Miller?”
“Ah, a fellow New Englander. And don’t call me ‘sir.’ I was just a corporal for the old eagle.” Midnight told a truth and a lie. He was indeed from New England, but he had spent over a year in France as a second lieutenant. The point was to relax the private, and grunts only relaxed around NCOs.
“Yes, corporal. Your credentials are good, but I would not go in there if I were you.” Miller’s rustic Maine accent shown through. The elongated As could have stretched from Koblenz to Berlin.
“And why’s that, private?”
“The scene is a mess. A total mess. The C.O. has been squabbling with the Krauts and Frenchies for over an hour now. Nothing but shouting in three languages. I would not want to walk into that.”
“Well, private,” Midnight said with a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “I must go. It’s my job.” With that, Midnight entered a mess, just like Private Miller had said. Three men, all middle aged and sporting thick, well-maintained mustaches, were practically spitting in each other’s face. The tallest of the lot was the American, Major General Joseph F. Brown. The Society of Gentlemen Geographers had provided Midnight with several documents about Major General Brown. Midnight knew that he was a career officer with former postings in the untamed West and the Philippines. Midnight also knew that the general had a well-publicized conflict with President Harding and his administration’s decision to remove all American doughboys from the Rhineland. For this, President Harding put the haughty and obstreperous officer in charge of evacuating the American headquarters at Koblenz. It was a cheeky ploy, Midnight admitted to himself.
The other two men in the room were not known to Midnight, but he could tell by their uniforms that one represented the French Army and the other the Prussian Police. All three were so animated and angry with each other that none noticed that Midnight had walked in.
“Who is in charge here?” Midnight’s question was greeted with hateful silence. The first to speak up was the French officer, who pointed at his own chest and said, “Moi.”
“No, no, no. This is an American garrison, and thus belongs to American soil. I am in charge. And who the devil are you?” General Brown said with a sharp tongue.
“Patrick Midnight. I am here representing the Post Office Department of the United States.” Midnight handed the general his ID. Like the other IDs in his wallet, it was something between a forgery and the real McCoy. Thanks to their generous financial support for the Republican Party, the Society of Gentlemen Geographers enjoyed certain privileges, chief among them was the privilege of asserting their men into positions of power, even into positions that did not technically exist. For instance, Midnight, the top-secret agent for the Society, was an Inspector for the Post Office Department’s Mortuary Affairs Division. The division only existed on paper.
“This is an Army matter, Inspector,” General Brown growled. “We are handling it just fine, thank you.”
“Of that I have no doubt, general. However, the Army still works for the American Republic, and as a representative of said republic, you and I are equals.”
“No, we are not,” General Brown barked. Before he could continue however, the Prussian and the Frenchman began barking in their own tongues. General Brown harangued them with repetitive statements about his authority and the seniority of the U.S. Army in the matter. Midnight interrupted them.
“Gentlemen, I have no idea what you are squabbling about, but I can assure you that I have work to do. Now, please show me to the scene.”
“And what work is that?” General Brown demanded.
“I have to measure and prepare the body for transportation back to the States. Show me where he is, please.” A new pall of silence dropped over the room. The still-annoyed General Brown extended his arm and pointed towards the right. Midnight followed the directions until he came to an empty barracks room. The interconnected beds were all made up nice and neat, with even the dead man’s bunk tucked tight according to Army regulations. There, in the middle of the room, lay the body of Private Albert G. Kline, former member of the Third U.S. Army and the American Forces in Germany. Kline’s stiff legs were crooked underneath him. His arms were likewise shot out at awkward angles. His brown hair was disheveled, with parts of it concealing the large and still very red hole beside his eye. His one intact eye was green. A service .45 was within easy reach of his left hand—his shooting hand. Midnight recognized that no one save the initial eyewitness had examined the body.
Midnight took in the entire scene. Except for the body of Private Kline, everything was nice and clean. There was nothing to indicate anything other than a suicide. Midnight bent down on his knees, grimaced when they made an audible pop, and then began searching through Kline’s uniform. A search of his pockets did not uncover a single clue. Midnight even removed the man’s spotlessly polished boots. Once again, there was nothing. On his final pass through the body, Midnight unbuttoned the dead man’s tunic and began searching the skin. There, near Kline’s still-warm armpit, was a letter. Midnight removed it, envelope and all. The outside was splattered with blood that had seeped into the interior. Fortunately, enough of Kline’s final letter to the world remained readable.
I have no other choice but to end my own life. I am only twenty-two, and yet I know that there can be no more happiness in this life for me. I have been humiliated beyond measure by the woman I love, and since she refuses to have me, then maybe my creator will…
Rather than strain his eyes to decipher the rest of the missive, Midnight stowed the note away in his overcoat and left the room. He returned to the three men and their continued argument.
“Who was the first to discover the body?”
“Walters. Private Walters,” General Brown shouted.
“And where can I find Private Walters?” Midnight asked.
“He’s with the others doing their morning physical training. Now will you tell these impossible men that this investigation is an American matter!”
“I thought it was an Army affair,” Midnight said over his shoulder as he walked away. He could hear the argument all down the hallway. A new sound, the sound of running feet and cadences, came to Midnight’s ears the closer he got to the fortress’s main square. There, underneath the cold and indifferent sunshine of a December morning, several men ran in formation. Midnight watched them complete the square several times over before he decided to intervene.
“Is there a Private Walters here?” An obvious company sergeant came to a stop and approached Midnight. He inspected Midnight’s proffered credentials before turning on his heels and bellowing “Walters!” A small, rat-faced boy no older than nineteen approached the men.
“Yes, sergeant?” Walters’s voice was timid and shy. Midnight suspected that the meek private was not a good soldier, and more importantly, was likely suffering terribly inside owing to the suicide of Private Kline.
“This is Mr. Midnight. He’s an Inspector with the government. Go with him and answer all of his questions.”
“Know anywhere on base where we can enjoy some privacy?” Midnight asked once the sergeant was out of earshot.
“Sure. The chow hall should be empty except for the coffee machines.”
“I could use some coffee. Lead the way.” Midnight followed Walters down several long and straight corridors until they came to the fortress’s mess hall. Walters was right; it was devoid of soldiers. Even the cooks were gone. However, besides the brass coffee machines, Midnight noticed several Christmas decorations throughout the room, even including a small tree already strewn with glossy paper and a few ornaments.
“How can a fellow do something like that so close to Christmas?” Midnight turned as Walters handed him coffee from a tin cup.
“You’re talking about Kline, right? Are you some kind of detective?”
“Something like that. And yes, I was told that you were the one who found Kline.”
A heavy shadow fell over Walters’s face. “Yes, I found him. Kline was my friend. My only friend in the whole company.”
“Tell me about him.” Midnight pulled up a seat next to Walters, who was visibly shaking.
“A lot of the guys in the company, even a lot of the privates, fought in France. They run the show around here. Always using their status to get out of details, especially night watch. That leaves us, the buck privates still wet from bootcamp, to do all the nasty stuff. That’s how it is around here, and the fact that everyone knows we’re leaving the Krauts to the French just makes things worse. Nobody wants to work, so they spend their time torturing guys like me.”
“Yeah, and Kline. He missed the Great War too. But Kline was a tough guy. Raised in New York City. A kid gangster, he told me. Nobody could push Kline around.”
“And yet they did, right?” Walters refused to answer Midnight’s question, but the refusal was answer enough. “Tell me why he did it. What caused such a tough city boy to kill himself?”
“I don’t know. It surprised me too. I mean, like you said, it’s almost Christmas. Everyone is supposed to be joyous. We are going home soon too. Army life stateside has got to be better than this, right?”
“Sure, it is,” Midnight said. “But I know you’re lying to me.”
Walters pushed back his chair and threw his hands up. “I’m telling the truth. Honest.”
“No, you’re not. Sure, every word you’ve said so far may be true. But I think you’re lying all the same. You’re lying by not telling me something.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You have no future as a spy, Walters. I’m talking about the girl. Who was the girl that Kline was seeing?”
“How…how did you know that? Nobody knew that but me and Kline. You’re with the Post Office, right? Are you reading our mail?”
“No. Put your mind at ease. Your letters are safe. But I do have one of Kline’s letters.” Midnight reached into his overcoat and held up the bloody suicide note. “Your pal Kline died with this close to his heart. It says that he killed himself because of a girl. I want to know who the girl is.”
Walters eyed Midnight up and down. He then looked down at his feet for a long time. Midnight recognized it as the actions of a scared boy rather than a battle-hardened soldier.
“Look,” Midnight said in a way that he hoped sounded comforting “you’re not going to get in trouble. Just tell me about the girl and everything will be taken care of.”
Walters let out a large sigh before starting his account. “General Brown likes to act like he’s in charge of this place. As far as the Army knows, he is. But the truth is that we never see Brown. I don’t even think he stays on base. Probably has an apartment in town or lives with the French officers.”
“I’ve seen Brown interact with the French. I doubt very much that he would cohabitate with them.”
“Ok. The point is that Brown does not know a damn thing about this place. It’s not well run at all. It’s controlled by the sergeant mob. If the sergeants don’t like you, then you can forget about leave. None of the sergeants liked me, but one liked Kline. Sergeant Hoover. He’s gone now. But when he was around, he treated Kline well. That means that I was treated well, too, because Kline was the type of guy who cared for his friends.”
“And he will be missed,” Midnight said while raising his coffee.
“Yeah,” Walters raised his coffee in salute as well.
“But about this girl?”
“Ok. Sergeant Hoover used to feed Kline weekend passes like crazy. Since me and Kline got along the best, he’d take me out with him. Our first couple of times we stayed in Koblenz. It’s a nice enough burg, but kinda old. Not much to do for young bucks, you know? Hey, at least we could drink.” Walters finished his coffee in a single swallow.
“One of the bar hoppers in Koblenz cornered Kline and me one night. Short fat guy. Bald and with a walrus-like mustache. I expected him to speak Kraut, but he was pure John Bull. An Englishman from London, he told us. Bought us a round of the local brew. Talked our ears off about the war. We couldn’t even tell him that he had missed out. Anyway, the guy came around to telling us about Schloss Schadel.”
“What?” Midnight interjected.
“A castle on the Rhine River. Quite old too. Medieval. Our English friend said it got its name because it looks like a skull from a distance. ‘Skull Castle’ is what it translates to in English.”
“That’s what I thought. Kline, however, was all in. He wanted to know more. The Englishman told us many tall tales. I cannot recall them all, but I remember one about this knight that came home from the Holy Land to find that his bride had cheated on him with a local nobleman. Enraged, the knight slaughtered both as they slept in the same bedchamber. The nobleman’s family swore revenge and branded the knight a public outlaw. The knight had to flee into the forests, where, in desperation, he sought refuge with a witch. The witch promised the knight that she could save him from his enemies. All he had to do was read a certain spell from a certain book, and then rub an ointment on his skin. The knight figured he had no other choice, so he did what the witch told him. Pretty soon the knight started to change. He grew hungry for raw meat. His hair and fingernails grew long, and his teeth became like tusks. He started sleeping during the day and traveling at night. On full moons he satiated his hunger first with livestock, then with the shepherds. He killed hundreds—men and women, adults and children. It took the might of the Imperial army to put him down. One officer, a certain Baron von Hatzfeld, claimed that he killed the werewolf by running him through with a silver blade. Although nobody discovered the body, everyone in the Rhineland took the Baron at his word. He built his skull castle on the Rhine to celebrate his victory over death.”
Midnight finished his coffee and poured himself a second cup. “So why did your English friend tell you this wild tale?”
“Partially to get a rise out of us. But what he really wanted to do was intrigue us. You see, he claimed to be an insider at the castle. Went to all the parties. The castle is infamous for throwing the most debauched parties on the Rhine, and he wanted to invite us to one. He handed Kline a card emblazoned with a green skull on the front and the words, ‘For Private Eyes Only’ on the back.”
“And that’s all the man said?”
“Yes. Well, that and the fact he invited us to a party the following weekend. It was a costume party.”
“And did you and Kline go?”
“Yes, we did. We didn’t have costumes, so we went wearing our dress uniforms. Nobody seemed to care. They were all deep into their cups. And other things,” Walters said in a hushed tone.
“Almost certainly. I didn’t see anything mind you, but I saw a lot.”
“What did you see?” Midnight leaned in close to put a little pressure on the small man. He did not want his subject to weasel out of the all-important (and juicy) details.
“I saw lots of men dressed in black hoods, and I saw a lot of women dressed in not much at all. They were beautiful women. The most beautiful women that I have ever seen in my life.” Walters’s eyes glazed over. Midnight had to bring him back down to Earth.
“The party was sordid, to be sure, but nothing too awful,” Walters continued. “Mostly they got drunk and fell into each other’s arms. I did not think too much of it.”
“Was the same true for Kline?” Midnight asked.
“Quite the opposite. He became infatuated with the whole scene. ‘I think I shall join this club,’ is what he said to me. He went off by himself with this one shapely blonde for hours. When I saw him again, he looked drained.”
“And the girl he mentioned in his suicide note, did he meet her at the party?”
“What’s her name?”
Walters looked over his shoulder twice. Midnight saw real fear in his eyes. It was the look of a hunted animal. “I don’t know. Kline never said her name. Frankly, after that first night, I wanted little to do with the castle and the people there. I saw how they changed Kline, and I wanted no part of it.”
“What do you mean ‘changed’ Kline?”
“I mean exactly that. After that first party, Kline began to change. All he cared about was the girl at the castle. He became obsessed with her. He would stay up late at night writing love notes to her. He started pestering Sergeant Hoover more and more for passes, and when the sarge finally had enough, Kline began sneaking out after dark. Only I knew where he went.”
“To the castle.”
“Yes, to that damned castle.”
“So, what you are telling me is that Kline became obsessed with a girl at the costume party. Eventually, for some reason, the girl rejected him, and thus Kline took his own life.” Midnight put the question in the form of a statement.
“It sounds very plain and simple when you say it that way,” Walters said.
“Is there something more?”
“Yes, but don’t ask me to elaborate because I don’t know. It’s just a feeling about that place. It’s unhealthy. Evil, even. I think Kline got sucked up into it and it killed him.”
Midnight leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Ok. That sounds like a real mystery. Fortunately, the government pays me to solve these kinds of things.”
“But I thought you were with the Post Office?” Walters raised an eyebrow at the man seated across from him.
“That’s right. Just a guy from the Post Office. Private Walters, do you think you could take me to the castle?”
“You want to go there?”
“I have to.”
Walters looked down at his shoes and then at his shaking hands. “I would rather not have anything to do with that place.”
“Helping me helps Kline, or rather his memory.”
Walters hesitated a while longer. “The man is dead, and he’s never coming back.”
“Yes, but maybe we can get revenge for him. Teach that young flapper that she should have never broken the good man’s heart.” Midnight patted the young private’s shoulder and smiled. It had the effect of weakening Walters’s tension, but only a little.
“Alright. I’ll show you how to get to the castle. I can’t guarantee that I can come with you. No one is getting leave again until after Christmas, and even then, they might cancel it so we can get out of Germany faster. But, if you can find a map, I’ll show you where the castle is. It’s high atop the cliffs over Remagen. It overlooks the Rhine from a northwesterly angle. All you must do is follow this one road, which then splits off into a private trail that leads directly to the castle.”
“Nuts to that,” Midnight said. “Leave it to me. I’ll get you out of this place tonight without breaking a sweat. A government badge works wonders, private.” With that, Midnight left the chow hall. Walters sat by lonesome for a spell just to collect his thoughts and say a prayer. After several moments, he too left the empty mess to its hungry ghosts.
Several hours later, just after nightfall, Midnight escorted Walters out of the barracks. A few of the NCOs loudly grumbled, for Walters had been scheduled for watch that night.
“Sorry, boys. I am here on President Harding’s orders,” Midnight told one particularly aggrieved corporal.
“But what does Walters have to do with President Harding?” The corporal, whose name was O’Meara, asked. Rather than answer, Midnight just smiled and nudged Walters forward.
“A nosey bunch,” Midnight said once the pair were beyond the gates.
“Can’t blame them. All those intelligence briefings have turned most of us a little paranoid.” Walters lit a cigarette and watched the smoke billow in the cold night air.
“Intelligence briefings on what?” Midnight asked.
“This whole area is crawling with intrigue. I figured you government agents would know that. The Army certainly does. They tell us all the time about the Bolsheviks who want to turn Germany red. Koblenz is also some kind of headquarters for a murder cult of monarchists dead-set on bringing back the Kaiser from Holland. As if that weren’t bad enough, there’s separatists too. They want to rile up the Bolos and the monarchists so that they can swoop in to restore order amid the chaos. Once done, this whole region will be free and independent, they hope.”
“And of course, there’s the French,” Midnight added. “They want badly to take the Rhine and keep it under permanent occupation.”
“Sure,” Walters said. “This whole damn place is crazy.” Midnight nodded. He hailed a taxicab and made Walters provide the driver with instructions. The blank expression on the cabbie’s face indicated that the English language was a mystery to him. Midnight, who spoke no German, repeated “Remagen” over and over again until the driver nodded.
“I could have used your help,” Midnight said to himself. Unbeknownst to Walters and the German driver, Midnight and Reverend Blackstone were in the middle of a quarrel. The spirit that had possessed Midnight for over a year vehemently disliked Christmas and the entire season. He called the holiday “heathenish” and “popish,” and furthermore he had scolded Midnight for his love of the holiday. Their argument on the ship over to Europe had devolved into a shouting match, which the other passengers had seen and commented on amongst themselves.
“A right lunatic that one,” said one elderly Londoner.
“Better watch him to make sure he doesn’t throw himself into the drink,” said one of the ship’s engineers.
Midnight put all of the comments out of his mind and focused on bringing Blackstone back from whatever plane of existence he retreated to when not engaged directly with Midnight’s affairs. By the time he reached Koblenz, Midnight had not seen nor heard the ghost in several days. Traffic delayed them for several minutes, but eventually the driver dropped them off in Remagen. The lights of the ancient city could still be seen but were muted by distance. Remagen lived a twilight existence—well within sight and sound of Koblenz, but desolate and green. Town and country at the same time.
“Well, can you find the castle from here?” Midnight asked. Walters looked around and nodded his head.
“I think so.”
“Famous last words,” Midnight joked. Walters found the nearest road and began walking. He told Midnight to keep a lookout for the chemist shop. Walters said that that was the landmark he remembered the best from the journey to the costume party.
“The sign is a mortar and pestle. That I remember.”
“Ok. Can’t be too many chemist shops in Remagen, right?” Midnight said.
The pair wandered for over an hour. Midnight grumbled to himself that Walters had not learned land navigation, as the young private led them in circle after circle. Midnight hoped that his kvetching would awaken Reverend Blackstone, but the ghost stayed quiet. Eventually, the exasperated Midnight stopped a pedestrian. The elderly woman, who seemed to be strolling through the dark night for her health, showed confusion whenever the American tried to talk to her.
“Schloss Schadel,” Walters asked. The words struck the woman like lightning. His owl-like eyes grew to the size of potatoes. Her right hand made the sign of the cross. She whispered a reply that neither man could understand.
“Where is Schloss Schadel?” Midnight asked. The woman remained in shock but understood him. She turned her body slightly and pointed to the west. She dropped her arm a little and then pointed up. With that, she turned away from both Americans and continued her walk, albeit at a noticeably quicker pace.
“Well, now we know where to go,” Midnight said. This time he led the hesitating Walters. The chemist shop was found, and from there Walters discovered the private trail leading to the castle.
“It’s up there. Just follow that trail until you reach the top,” he said.
“Easy enough,” Midnight said. “Are you ready?” Walters did not answer. Even in the darkness, Midnight could see his fear.
“Just stick close to me,” Midnight said. “I have a little secret.” From his breast pocket, Midnight produced a .25 automatic. The sight of the gun initially startled Walters before it put him at ease.
“Any silver bullets in that thing?” Walters asked with a smile.
“They were all out at the hardware store,” Midnight responded.
The trail was a rough one composed of cold stone and branches. Remnants of snow clung to the hillside as the two men continued to climb in elevation. The temperature dropped so far that Midnight and Walters produced vapor from their lungs and lips.
“It can’t be much further,” Walters said. The trail continued on its upward path until, at a ridgeline, it bent slightly to the right. Walters indicated that the bend meant that the castle’s gate was closed. Midnight motioned for Walters to keep his voice down and pay attention to his footfalls.
“We don’t have invitations,” Midnight said. “They will not be happy to see us.” Walters understood and did as he was told. When the castle’s gate came into view, the wisdom of Midnight’s precautions was confirmed. Two men armed with rifles stood watch at the castle’s gate. Both were tall and square-shouldered. One stood still, while the other moved back and forth. Neither man looked too excited, but Midnight could tell both were alert.
Midnight got into a crouch and picked up several rocks from the trail. “Hope this works,” he whispered to Walters before throwing the rocks as hard and as far as he could. Fortunately, the rocks crashed off to one side. However, neither guard paid attention to the noise.
“Well, that sure fizzled out,” Midnight said to himself.
“Any other ideas?” Walters asked.
“You stay here and keep a watch on the entrance,” Midnight said. “I’m going to go and see if there’s any other way into this pile of stone.”
“Wait! Don’t leave me here,” Walters begged. Midnight handed him the .25 automatic.
“Use this if things go south. Otherwise just stay put and wait for me.” Midnight did not wait for Walters’s reply. He slunk off into the woods and began to flank the castle. The castle was built near the top of a peak but was tucked close enough to the hill that portions of the castle were overshadowed by the hill’s top crest. Off in the distance, Midnight could hear the Rhine. Midnight walked until he found a portion of the stonework free from the sightline of the entrance. He dropped down into the slight depression and began sticking close to the wall. He hoped to find something—some kind of window or break in the masonry that would grant him access inside. What he found instead was a modern wooden door hastily built into the castle’s rear. Miraculously, the door was ajar. Midnight entered and found a room dimly lit with electric lights. In the gloom he recognized the outline of several familiar objects. Mostly he saw stacks and stacks of wooden shipping crates, but there was also a French-made truck and several engines. The room gave the impression of a transportation hub, and yet Midnight could find no other signs of life.
He moved deeper into the interior until a strange noise made him stop. The noise was indistinct and came from below. Midnight searched in the darkness for its origin. An errant kick connected with a metal handle, which sent a shockwave of pain up Midnight’s legs. Through misty eyes, Midnight reached down and pulled the handle up. It was connected to a trapdoor of sorts connected to a metal ladder. Midnight climbed down and found even more wooden crates—hundreds stacked upon each other. The crates were devoid of markings, and Midnight could not see what was inside of them.
However, a small aperture between one of the stacks allowed Midnight a glimpse beyond. More electric lights illuminated a gigantic room surrounded by earthen walls. It was clear that the room was located somewhere inside of the mountain, with access to the Rhine available via some kind of passageway. Midnight had discovered a private manufacturing center that included several men hard at work. From a dark yacht, which lazily bounced back and forth in a small cove, men unloaded several objects and placed them into crates. Midnight could not discern all the objects, but he did see weapons and foodstuffs. Military-grade weapons, too, including machine guns, rifles, and hand grenades. It did not take a genius detective to know that the castle and its inhabitants were involved in illegal activities. But for whom?
Using the stacks as cover, Midnight attempted to get closer. He saw that the unloading crews were protected by armed guards just like the castle itself. The lightness of his jacket made Midnight remember that Walters had his .25 automatic.
“Got to play it cool,” Midnight said to himself. A slight shift in his weight caused Midnight to lean forward a bit, which in turn caused him to accidentally nudge one of the crates. The nudge sent one stack careening over with a loud thud. Rather than wait for the eventual shooting to start, Midnight broke off at a frenzied run. He did not look where he was going; he just ran. He ran until a deep bellow, something between a growl and a shout, stopped him in his tracks.
There, in a shadowy corner, Midnight saw a dark figure grow until it stood as tall as one of the crate stacks. The dark shadow came into the half-light. Sweat and terror flooded Midnight as he saw the beast rear back and attempt to swipe at him. The first blow missed, but not by much. Midnight rolled over his shoulder and took up a fighting stance. The beast, which wore several pieces of armor over top of extremely hairy arms and legs, threw out a sharp jab followed by a reverse that clipped Midnight on the jaw. The creature hit hard, but, despite its wolfshead and unnaturally large body, the beast hit like a man, albeit a strong and well-trained man. Midnight scrambled and closed the distance. He let loose a swift kick to the beast’s shin, which buckled the monster for a second. Midnight doubled the kick and added a hook to the stomach, which produced an audible gasp from the creature. Midnight felt that he had the beast on the ropes. However, the others were unaccounted for, so when the cold steel of a Mauser pistol was pressed to his temple, Midnight instinctively threw up his hands.
Several words were barked in German. Hands reached out and grasped Midnight. He was held in place, which allowed the beast-man to hit him directly in the nose. The instant taste of copper and feeling of water in his eyes let Midnight know that the blow had broken his nose. A second, much quicker blow, rendered Midnight unconscious.
The muffled sounds of someone praying was the first thing that Midnight heard when he awoke. The first turn of his head sent shooting pain throughout his body, but Midnight swallowed the pain. He learned that the praying man was a weeping Private Walters, who was on his knees with his hands in front of his face.
“What’s going on?” Midnight asked.
“They’re going to kill us.”
Rather than answer, Walters continued with his prayers, which were a mixture of English and Sunday school Latin. Midnight raised himself on his elbows and took in his surroundings. The room had such a high ceiling that its apex was shrouded in total blackness. Portraits of noblemen decorated the stone walls, while well-produced and ancient tapestries were interspersed between narrow windows. Midnight noticed that it was still dark outside.
In the center of the room, surrounded by a small army of candles, were several men dressed in black robes. Midnight could hear them chanting to one another, but it sounded decidedly un-Christian. A few of the robbed men wielded small swords. Midnight groaned when he noticed that the beast-man who had slugged him earlier was in the small circle, as well. Rather than a wolfshead, which proved to be part of an elaborate costume, Midnight saw a plug-ugly man with two cauliflower ears and multiple face scars.
“He looked better with the mask,” Midnight said to no one in particular.
“Silence!” One of the robbed men stepped forward with a thin finger outstretched. On the end of the finger was a long and very pointed nail that gave the appearance of a talon.
“You are not permitted to speak, dogs,” the man said. The figure spoke with an accent, but it was not a distinctly German one. Midnight could not place it, but it sounded cultured and worldly.
“He didn’t mean to offend you,” Walters cried. “We don’t want to be here anyway.”
“You have seen too much to be permitted to live.” The figure stepped forward. The others followed in a show of submission. Clearly, the speaker was the group’s leader.
“He hasn’t seen anything,” Midnight said.
“Maybe, but he is your friend, and we found you down in the below-cellar.”
“That’s right. I saw your nice, little operation. Guns and food. I’m sure there’s other items—the kind of items that are popular post-war. What I’m wondering about is where you keep the girls. You know, the prostitutes? The pretty ones with the poverty stomachs and needle arms. I’m particularly interested in the really pretty ones—the ones that you use to gather information from the police, the French, and…”
“And stupid American doughboys who fall in love so easily? Let me guess: you are his friends? He sent you here to steal one of our best girls away from us.”
“Something like that,” Midnight said after spitting out a wad of blood, “but also something different.”
“A real hard egg, eh? We will see about that.” The man snapped his fingers. The brute in the werewolf costume ran over to Midnight, picked him up by his throat, and punched him in the forehead and ears. He then flung Midnight down, causing the smaller man to land on his back and shoulders.
“Max here used to be one of the best wrestlers in Europe. A strongman before that. Now he’s with us.”
“What’s with the costume?” Midnight spat again.
“So insolent. Typical American.” Instead of punching Midnight for his comment, Max kicked him in the stomach.
“If you must know,” the leader said, “Rhineland peasants are a superstitious lot. Having the legendary werewolf of this castle show up every now and then keeps the locals, even the local police, away. Quite clever, I think.”
“Sure,” Midnight said. “The only problem is your lunkhead Max hits like a child.” Max grabbed Midnight by his shirt and attempted to pull him up, but his efforts were thwarted when, with the quickness of a cat, Midnight brought his knee to the man’s groin. The wail of pain that exploded from Max’s lungs was both loud and high-pitched.
“Feuer!” The leader screamed. A fusillade of pistol and rifle bullets exploded in the room. Midnight kept low and moved at odd angles. Walters, on the other hand, panicked and stood still.
“Move you idiot!” Midnight yelled, but it was too late. A round pierced Walters’s chest and doubled him over. By all appearances, the young buck private was dead. Midnight’s attackers did not give him time to mourn, for one of the guards from outside, came close and swung at Midnight’s head with the bottom of his Mauser. Midnight dodged the blow and managed to trip the guard, which sent the rifle tumbling to the cold stone floor. Even with a broken nose, damaged ribs, and blurred vision, Midnight proved to be quicker than the guard. He grabbed the rifle and sent an M/88 round through the man’s shocked eyes. From a prone position, Midnight chambered another round and took aim at the leader, who stood in the center of the room. He waved his hands like an orchestral leader trying to help his seemingly untrained goons to try and hit Midnight. Midnight, the former soldier, needed only one shot to take out the leader. He only managed to see a portion of the sea of crimson flow from the man’s throat before he made his escape.
Midnight ran as hard as he could when he found the castle’s entrance again. Bullets continued to fly perilously close to him, but Midnight never slowed down. Eventually, once he reached the cold nighttime air, Midnight broke off from his path and began climbing the hillside in search of brush and cover. He found a medium-sized boulder that hugged a steep incline and took up his position behind it. Midnight leveled the rifle. Through his dominant eye, he saw several armed men spill out onto the trail. Midnight singled out the third man in the group and dropped him with a shot that split his jaw in two. The dead man’s compatriots fired wildly, indicating that they could not place Midnight. He fired another round, this one missing, but it served to further mystify the castle’s men. There were more shouts in German, some of which sounded far away. Midnight reloaded and fired once more and realized that the rifle was empty. His last round hit a man in the upper half of his leg, which caused him to collapse to the earth with a fistful of blood. Out of options, Midnight hugged the boulder and tried to make himself as small as possible.
A new series of shots rang out. From his perch, Midnight could tell that new men had entered the fray with various small arms—mostly pistols and rifles. From the sound of things, the castle’s guards were being outmatched. Midnight peaked his head over the rock, and, to his relief, he saw a small convoy of Prussian police officers disembark from an armored car. The green uniforms and shako helmets were to Midnight the blessings of a benevolent God. He cautiously stood up from his position with shouts of Amerikaner! Amierkaner! Several police officers aimed their rifles at him and ordered him to come down from the hill. Midnight did as he was told, and once on level ground, he felt the cold steel of police cuffs on his wrists. Through a mixture of English and German, Midnight tried to explain the situation to the police officers.
“What the hell are you doing here?” General Brown stepped up to Midnight and gave him a not-so-gentle shove. Midnight temporarily forgot his cover as a government agent and poured forth a series of “thank yous” to the irascible Army officer.
“Well, what are you doing here?” General Brown demanded.
“Finding out the truth about what happened to poor, unfortunate Private Kline,” Midnight answered.
“Is that so? And that mission required you to frighten an entire city into thinking that the war had started up again?!”
“I did not shoot first, sir. I swear.”
“Who did?” Midnight told General Brown about the castle and its black-market operations. General Brown relayed the information in German to a senior-looking police officer. Midnight’s handcuffs were promptly removed. Now, flanked by armed police officers and General Brown, Midnight re-entered the castle. The cloying smell of smoke and cordite covered the entire edifice. Several bloodied bodies littered the ground, including that of the leader. Midnight crouched down and removed the dead man’s hood. He saw a moon-shaped face with dueling scars and the tell-tale impressions of a frequent wearer of a monocle. The face meant nothing to Midnight, but several of the Prussian officers whispered among themselves. Clearly, in life he was someone important.
Midnight bent down again, this time over the limp body of Walters. The small private did not move. He had the frozen countenance of the dead, and yet, a small and delicate fluctuation of his stomach showed that he was still alive. Midnight screamed for help. He was answered by a pair of officers, who escorted Walters out with typical efficiency. Midnight made to follow his badly wounded companion, but Brown stopped him and demanded evidence of criminal activity.
“Unless you can prove that something big is going on here, you are in a lot of trouble. The kind of trouble that the Army cannot help you out of,” the general said.
With that, Midnight got down to business. He took the general and a handful of police officers throughout the entire castle. In one room they found a small laboratory that included several vials of morphine and cocaine. In another, which was protected by a lock until one of the police officers blew it to smithereens with a pair of 9mm rounds, they found the assignation room. It was decorated with a mixture of floral prints and red velvet. Several women reclined on plush seats. Midnight noticed that all had bound feet or leg irons, and most had faces that were clouded by opium. Midnight looked them all in the eyes. Each had the beauty and charms needed to seduce someone like Kline. None looked especially guilty because they all were. One officer stayed behind in the room. Midnight lingered longer too. But instead of keeping an eye on the women, he picked up and put in his pocket a small black book that he found near a small alcove in the room. On the other side of the alcove, hidden behind velvet curtains, Midnight espied film camera.
“There’s some serious evidence for you,” Midnight said to the Prussian police officer, who did not understand a single word.
Twenty-four hours later, Midnight found himself back in the barracks. Across from him were General Brown and a man who introduced himself as Police Chief Inspector Hoffmann. Hoffmann spoke perfect English and conducted the debriefing.
“You were right, Herr Midnight. After you showed us that cellar with the cove, my men discovered a fortune in black market goods. Yes, there were guns and drugs, but mostly it was food and clothing. Our investigation is in the early stages, but it seems clear that the castle was being used as a nexus point for organized crime.”
“Who was the dead leader?”
“The man you shot was Graf von Schwarzenberg. Before the war, he was a burgomaster in Bohemia. His family is one of the wealthiest in Austria. He came here as a war refugee in 1918. Used his family’s unlimited wealth to buy the castle. We have already contacted our friends in Vienna. They are looking into the count’s dealings in their country.”
“A man doesn’t become a criminal overnight,” Midnight said.
“Our thoughts exactly, Herr Midnight.”
“And what about the women?”
“Prostitutes, naturally,” the police inspector said.
“What about the film camera? I have some thoughts about it.” Midnight was asked to explain himself, so he did.
“I think it is very likely that our friends at Skull Castle were involved in multiple scams. The film camera makes me think that they were blackmailing customers, plus I suspect that they preyed on guys like the late, unfortunate Kline in order to gather intel about the U.S. Army. I’m sure there are French equivalents to Kline, too. The question, of course, is what did the castle group hope to accomplish?”
“Or who were they working for?” General Brown added.
“All conjecture. As of right now, we have enough evidence for multiple convictions. We only have to find them all,” Hoffmann said.
“Get a little rough with Max,” Midnight suggested. Hoffmann laughed and said the old wrestler was a tough nut to crack.
“Dressing up like a monster to keep people away from the castle was quite ingenious though. Silly, as ghosts aren’t real.”
“Of course,” Midnight added.
“By the way, your friend, Walters, he is being taken care of in the finest hospital in the Rhineland. He is in bad shape, but he will live.” Midnight thanked Hoffmann for the good news. With that, he stood up and shook hands with both men. In Hoffman’s grip was the familiar steel of Midnight’s .25. Midnight thanked the German for returning his gun.
“One of the dead men had it in his waistband,” Hoffmann said.
“Thanks. And now I must get back to the States, and I do believe a taxi is waiting for me outside.”
“Just make sure you take the body with you,” General Brown added. Midnight overlooked the thoughtlessness of the remark. He smiled and promised to make Kline’s final trip home as pleasant as possible.
“Oh,” Midnight said over his shoulder as he neared the waiting taxi, “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” General Brown grumbled.
“Frohe Weihnachten,” added Hoffmann.
Once inside the warm taxi, Midnight said the name of a French-controlled airfield outside of the city. There, a large dirigible was waiting for him that contained the remains of Private Kline. Also onboard would be the purloined black book from Skull Castle, which Midnight removed from his coat and opened. After thumbing through a few of the pages, Midnight let out an audible sound of confusion.
“Not the tawdry item you expected, eh lad?” Rather than the cab driver, the voice belonged to Reverend Blackstone, who manifested as a semi-visible shadow next to Midnight in the backseat.
“What is it?” Midnight held the contents of the blood up to Blackstone. The ghost read it for a while before answering.
“An infernal book. The Devil’s Prayer Book.”
“The liturgy of devil worshipers, lad. We heard rumors about it in the old country and in Holland, but this is the first time mine eyes have seen the accursed volume. Looks ancient.”
Midnight returned to the flyleaf. He found several words in Latin which he could not translate, but he did find a series of Roman numerals. “1434,” he said. “That is old. Wonder how that castle lot found this.”
“The prince of the invisible world has followers in the thousands, maybe millions. They move and work in the shadows, so are not visible. But heed! They are legion and have tricks that never fail to surprise. I’m sure our friends in the Society will appreciate the book you stole for them.” Blackstone clasped his hands in prayer.
“Wait a minute,” Midnight blurted out. “Where were you when I was nearly killed at that blasted castle? I could have used your help, you know.”
“You should only rely on God, lad. Besides, can’t the dead rest?” Blackstone’s expected pique of humor sent Midnight into a fit. The bewildered cab driver could only look on in horror as the strange and bruised American in his backseat doubled over with laughter.
— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. He is the author of, most recently, The Shanghai Horror.