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Incident Set In Stone

 

Incident Set in Stone

By James Hold

 

[Copyright 2016 James Roy Hold
Shakespir Edition]

This ebook is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Shakespir.com where they can discover more work by this author. Thank you for your support.

 

About the Author

 

Mr Hold is a regular contributor to many online publications. He used to be an irregular contributor, but a visit to the doctor straightened out his dietary regimen and he is all right now.

 

He is the former director of the Simonton Ostrich Wildlife Habitat and Taqueria (SOWHAT) and is considered by many to be a leading authority on the subject.

 

“I consider him a leading authority on the subject.” — Minnie Tooby

 

INCIDENTAL CONTACT 6

 

 

INCIDENT SET IN STONE

 

 

Chapter 1

Incident in the Park

 

The flightless ostrich, despite its awkward appearance, is one of the most graceful runners in the animal kingdom. Its long powerful legs move in perfectly balanced strides that cover great stretches of ground in short spaces of time. The round, aerodynamically designed body floats in a direct path while the head, held back in a symmetrical “S” shape, looks straight ahead with a concentrated, unwavering gaze. To witness an ostrich run is to see poetry in motion, as a Johnny Tillotson song goes. Of course, Mr T was singing about a girl walking at his side, and not a large flightless bird. Especially not an ostrich scurrying through City Park holding a spool of string in its beak as it sought to fly a kite. Still beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to one particular beholder, O’Ryan by name, the bird’s “lovely locomotion” was a source of incomparable pleasure. A shame then that others did not feel as he did about it.

Officer Muldoon approached the bench where O’Ryan sat feeding squirrels and pigeons from a bag of trail mix. O’Ryan pretended not to notice him. Muldoon rocked on his heels, hands clasped behind his beck. O’Ryan continued to ignore him. Muldoon tapped his truncheon on the backrest and asked, “You got a license for that?”

“Since when do you need a license to feed squirrels?” O’Ryan inquired back.

“I was referring to the bird.”

O’Ryan glanced at his feet. “They’re not my pigeons. They live here.”

Muldoon saw this was going to be difficult. “I’m talking,” he pointed with his truncheon, “about the ratite with the kite.”

“Don’t call my bird a rat!” O’Ryan rose halfway.

“A ratite,” Officer Muldoon clarified, “is any large flightless bird.”

“Oh?” O’Ryan backed down. “I didn’t know that.”

“Then you admit it’s your bird.”

O’Ryan admitted nothing, other than to say, “Cute isn’t she?”

Why, Muldoon wondered, did City Park attract all the nut cases? “Look, fellah, don’t be difficult, okay? A dozen people saw you bring an ostrich in here, hand it a kite, and then sit on this bench to watch.”

“And what if I did?” O’Ryan’s voice rose irritably. “It’s a public park, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s true, only—”

“It isn’t fair, I tell you.” O’Ryan waved his arms wildly, spilling bits of trail mix on the cop. “The place could be overrun with dogs and nobody would say a word, but let a man bring one ostrich—”

“Calm down; calm down.”

“What’s so special about dogs anyway? What makes them better than ostriches? Or any other animal for that matter? Heck, even the Old Testament’s Joseph had a goat of many colors.”

“It was a coat of many colors.” Muldoon brushed a pigeon from his shoulder.

“Whatever.” O’Ryan shrugged. “So long as he was happy.”

“The goat—I mean coat—led to his being sold into slavery.”

“That never would’ve happened if he’d had an ostrich.”

Muldoon was growing tired of this—birds flocked to his shoulders while still more circled his head—and said as much. “Look, buster, I’m growing tired of this. Now do you have a license for that bird or not?”

“Don’t ‘buster’ me, officer. I’m trying to help you here.”

“And how’s that?”

“Okay.” O’Ryan looked carefully from side to side. “You’re forcing me to break my cover, but if you must know, I’m an undercover narc and the bird is my drug-sniffing ostrich. We’re on a stakeout here”

“A drug sniffing ostrich?” Officer Muldoon pushed back his cap, scratching his head in perplexity. “That’s a new one.” Feeling a peck on his exposed scalp, he jammed his cap back down and shooed the hungry horde.

“Yes, officer,” O’Ryan went on. “Now please move on before you draw attention to us.”

“I read somewhere that ostriches smell awful.”

“Not if you bathe them regularly.”

“I mean their sense of smell is weak.”

“It is, but they compensate by having a long neck. It allows them to sniff places where dogs cannot.”

Muldoon’s long face sagged as he brought out a pair of handcuffs and ordered O’Ryan to place his hands behind his back. Fortunately, Julie, his newly christened ostrich, had kept an eye on the conversation. Though she could not hear what they were saying, she could tell from their body language that O’Ryan had dug a hole he was not going to get out of. So O’Ryan’s ostrich, unlike Joseph’s goat, came to the rescue.

Acting with supreme stealth, the crafty bird snatched the tote bag from the shoulder of a passing woman and flung it into a clump of bushes. The startled female, not suspecting the ostrich, called for help. Officer Muldoon, hearing her cries, dropped everything and raced to her aid.

In the confusion that followed, O’Ryan and Julie beat a hasty exit.

Chapter 2

Incident at the Corner Diner

 

It was closing in on noon when the two ducked into a corner diner for lunch. All of the stools facing the counter were taken so they settled for a booth by the window. O’Ryan slid in on his side of the U-shaped bench while Julie backed lengthwise into hers. He was studying the menu when an attractive waitress in a tight uniform brought two glasses of water.

“Welcome to Renny’s. Food just like your Mom used to make.”

“My Mom was a terrible cook.”

“Then you won’t be disappointed. Our special today is chicken salad sandwiches, if you’d care to try one.”

“Umm.” O’Ryan licked his lips. “That sounds good. We’ll have—”

Julie clacked her beak and gave him a warning look. She did not condone eating fowl of any kind.

“We’ll have cheeseburgers instead.”

The waitress looked at O’Ryan. Then at the ostrich. Then back at O’Ryan. Her eyes asked a question.

“I’m guessing scrambled eggs would be out of the question?”

O’Ryan nodded.

“Two cheeseburgers it is.”

She turned about to go, then stopped.

“I don’t really know if we should be serving ostriches in here. I’m not sure what the health inspector would say.”

“I’ll have you know,” O’Ryan replied haughtily, “only last night Julie and I dined in one of the finest restaurants in town.”

“And no one noticed she was an ostrich?” the server asked.

“She wore a fake moustache.” O’Ryan smiled. “It’s quite all right, though. She’s my service animal. You know, like some people have seeing-eye dogs.”

“If you’re blind then how did you read the menu?”

“No, not blind. But I’m subject to seizures and research shows ostriches are very keen at anticipating such things.”

None of this was true, but O’Ryan had told it so many times he had become very convincing at it. In any event, the waitress decided a sale was a sale—and tips were tips—and went to place the order. O’Ryan watched as she walked away, admiring how the tight uniform hugged her backside. He rested an elbow on the table and propped his chin with his hand. Without realizing it, he let out a longing sigh.

For which a jealous Julie butted his elbow, making O’Ryan’s jaw smack the tabletop.

#

O’Ryan wiled the time reading the newspaper that the Spooky Librarian gave him the day before during his “Incident at the Houston Public Library.” He was engrossed in an article titled “Bellville Woman Confesses to Murder of Husband” when the ostrich raised a ruckus. “Gee,” he told her, “I guess she was guilty after all.”

Julie was not interested in Bellville widows. She clacked her beak and tapped it against the back of the paper. O’Ryan flipped it over and read.

“Let’s see. Culture and Entertainment section. North African ballet troupe signs American to headline tour. The act will be billed as ‘Tunisia Company and Theresa Crowd’.”

The ostrich taped her beak several times on the tabletop.

“Not it, eh? How about this: New one-man show debuts at civic center. Action consists of actor reading the dictionary. Critics dub it a play on words.”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

“That’s not it either. You know, it’d be easier if you’d tap once for yes and twice for no.”

O’Ryan continued reading.

“Eighth-Day Apostolic Church of Formosa announces the appointment of their new choir director, Singapore Lee—”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

Thunderous cheers for Chinese physicist Hip-Hip-Hoo following his discovery of a new form of radiant energy, appropriately called the—

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap! Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap! Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

“Well,” O’Ryan complained, growing increasingly irritated, “the only thing left is this article about the Fredericksburg International Poetry Festival.”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

“Yes?” He inquired. “Is that it?”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

“Yes? Yes? Yes?”

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!

“Yes! Yes!” He responded by rapping two sets of knuckles on table. “That’s it!”

Their combined tapping and rapping did not go unnoticed. “Ahem.” The attractive waitress in the tight uniform looked down sternly on them. “Whenever you’re done playing telegraph operator I have your food ready.”

O’Ryan, embarrassed, smiled sheepishly and Julie, chastised, blinked a couple of times.

“Sorry. It’s not like we do this every day.”

The waitress set two cheeseburgers, a plate of fries, and some catsup packets on the table. “Hip-hip-hooray for that,” she muttered and turned away.

O’Ryan watched her go. “That’s odd,” he told Julie. “She doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who’d be interested in physics.”

Chapter 3

Incident at the Fredericksburg International Poetry Festival

 

O’Ryan gave his attention back to the newspaper. It was a lengthy article about a weird occurrence at the International Poetry Festival held every year in the town of Fredericksburg. The gist of the article was this:

Mid-way through the contest, a newcomer, a slightly built, sandy-haired man around forty, with a medical card identifying himself as NC Dent, took charge of the stage, pulling from his pocket a folded piece of paper, and read aloud the following poem:

 

if I believed in deities

you would seem like one to me

a choice of gods, i’d opt for one

soft and golden like the sun

but gods get followers thru fear

respect and love that’s commandeered

and i’m not one who wants to go

and rise so high, or sink so low

 

i saw your face by candlelight

and swear no god could smile so bright

i saw your face one early morn

and swear no god could be as warm

 

The poem was an immediate hit and Frau Schloss, the surviving widow of Herr Wilhelm Schloss, founder of the poetry society, applauded it greatly. In response to this, Mr Dent shrugged off the praise and replied, “It was fair. Only now let me read one I wrote. I call it ‘Dehydrated Kahuna Mama’:

 

drums-a-go-go

cayenne spaghetti beach

tramp beyond wipeout

fugitive loophole ram charger

big noise from waimea

hot cinders boss machine

repeating wildfire pressure

clam digger penetration,

pray for surf mr moto…”

 

This convoluted piece stretched on for ten minutes, with the line, “Pray for surf Mr Moto,” repeated at the end of each stanza. The power of the poet’s delivery held the audience entranced. At the same time, he distracted them with bits of sleight-of-hand; producing small objects from empty fingers and making them disappear again. His performance so entranced the judges they were ready to pronounce him the winner without hearing the rest of the entrants. Only the spell was broken when a local rock’n‘roll DJ hopped onto the stage and exposed Dent as a fraud, revealing he was not reciting a poetry composition at all but merely reading song titles off the covers of a handful of surf music CDs. After which the judges summarily disqualified him.

Dent was infuriated at this, claiming he could as easily have picked random words from the dictionary and that his art came from the assemblage of words and rhythms and not from their source of origin. It was no different, he argued, from a carpenter putting together a house from preexisting boards and brick, or Andy Warhol using soup cans.

That was where he blew his case, with the Andy Warhol reference, for Herr Schloss had been a staunch classicist, and the society he founded maintained his stance. Hence, an angered Dent stormed off stage, vowing to return on the final day of the competition with a poem that would leave no doubt as to his genius.

O’Ryan read this aloud while Julie nibbled her cheeseburger. Preoccupied to the point of oblivion, he reached for a French fry, picked up a catsup packet instead, and popped it into his mouth.

“My gosh.” He looked to Julie in astonishment. “That has to be him! The real NC Dent! The description and the medical ID card confirm it!” He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed with difficulty, and looked down at the food. “I don’t know about your burger, but these are the toughest fries I’ve ever eaten.”

#

NC Dent was an earthbound genie. He had been earthbound since the days of “Incident in the Guadalupe Mountains.” Months before that, O’Ryan found and freed the genie, in return for which he was given three wishes. O’Ryan requested (one) that he should always have sufficient money to meet his needs, and (two) a tall, long-legged chick who would love him forever. The genie gave him a bottomless pocket of cash and an ostrich—and promptly disappeared. O’Ryan had sought ever since to find the genie and have him change Julie into a woman. Several times, he came close; but never as close as today.

It was late afternoon when they arrived in Fredericksburg. They spent the three-hour drive discussing what to do. The best plan was the simplest: go where Dent was staying and demand he honor O’Ryan’s third wish, even if that meant camping out all night on the genie’s doorstep.

Only to do this O’Ryan first needed to find out where that doorstep was.

Chapter 4

Incident Upon Arriving At Castle Wilhelm

 

Fredericksburg is a prosperous German settlement seventy miles west of Austin near the Pedernales and Guadalupe Rivers. Established in 1846 it has held onto its Teutonic roots with iron determination, and from its long, wide main street one can inhale the aroma of bock beer, sausage, streusel, and other traditional cuisine. At the same time, it has added many modern features, among them its acclaimed vineyards producing an abundance of award-winning wines. Nor has it suffered in the area of education, being home to the University of Fredericksburg, a small but acclaimed academic college rivaling those of any other Texas town. Athletically the university is famous for its football program’s long-standing rivalry with Kansas City. Faculty and staff of both schools throughout the years have commented that the annual KC-UF game perfectly reflects what is foremost in the minds of college kids today.

It was early summer when budding hopefuls from across the globe took possession of the grounds around Castle Wilhelm on the outskirts of Fredericksburg proper. A four-day qualifying competition narrowed the field to ten finalists. Those lucky ten gained admittance to the castle where they received free rooms with meals thrown in.

“Sounds rather messy to me,” O’Ryan told Julie.

In some way, NC Dent landed on the list of finalists. No one could explain how it got there, especially since Frau Schloss disqualified him in the opening round. Yet as if by magic, the genie’s name made the roll while another qualifying hopeful found his name left off. Immediately upon being admitted, Dent took to his room, barred the door, and had not been seen since.

This much O’Ryan learned from speaking with the locals.

Now he stood on the property outlying the city, gazing on the castle ruins with respectful curiosity. The weathered face of the ancient building was of grand design, although a rear corner section was unusable, for the wall had crumbled and large gaps opened in the foundation. The outer surfaces were discolored with grayish-green mildew and the turrets had long-ago tumbled inward leaving a jagged roofline that resembled a fossilized jaw with most of its teeth missing. Still the overall impression was one of old-world charm with a touch of sinister decay.

Parking his jeep in the shade of a large cottonwood tree at the east side of the gravel drive, O’Ryan and Julie crawled out to stretch their legs. A car pulled away as they did so. The driver had the look of a respectable elderly gentleman while the passenger wore a nurse’s uniform. O’Ryan concluded the driver to be a doctor of some sort.

From what he could see of it, Castle Wilhelm did not look like a healthy place in which to stay. Old-word charm only went so far and O’Ryan was quite sure the insides were damp and drafty and its rooms probably contained enormous amounts of dust and mold. All the same, he was not there to conduct a health inspection.

O’Ryan walked up the driveway to the door and knocked. A thin Nordic girl with straight blonde hair answered. This was not surprising in a predominantly German community. She looked to be college age and wore short denim cutoffs. Her face was country-girl pretty, but she had a solemn air that gave one the impression she did not smile much. O’Ryan decided he would break the ice with a joke. A German one.

“Take me to your lederhosen.”

The stoic cast of the girl’s features did not alter. Doubtless she had heard the joke a thousand times before. Nor did she react to the sight of a wild haired, five-nine man with scraggly whiskers and a five-foot-eleven-inch ratite by his side.

“Name?” she asked, consulting a clipboard.

“O’Ryan. Like the constellation.”

“Nope,” she shook her head, “not on the list,” and started to close the door.

“Wait!” O’Ryan stuck his foot into the doorway. The girl closed it anyway. It was a thick oak door, very heavy, and both O’Ryan and the ostrich had to push hard against it to keep from getting his toes crushed. “I’m not on the list but a friend of mine is. I wanted to wish him luck.”

“Sorry.” The girl backed off from the door. “We have to be careful about gatecrashers and curiosity seekers. What’s your friend’s name?”

“Dent.” O’Ryan rested one hand against the jamb while he massaged his sore foot with the other. “NC Dent.”

Again the girl checked her clipboard. And once again she shook her head. “Mr Dent left strict orders he is not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

“Well, darn. Do you think you could slip a note under his door?”

The girl scrunched her face, thinking. It was the most emotion she had shone so far.

“I suppose that’d be okay; as long as we do it quietly.”

“I’ll use a soft pencil,” O’Ryan told her, and the girl almost smiled.

O’Ryan wrote his note—

 

Dent, I need to see you. O’Ryan.

 

—handed it to her, and waited for her to come back.

Julie showed signs of impatience. O’Ryan did not blame her. The genie had escaped them once before and neither wanted it to happen again. O’Ryan desperately sought a way of getting inside and cornering Dent. The opportunity presented itself when a tour bus pulled up the driveway. It was disgorging passengers when the girl reappeared.

Chapter 5

Incident During the Guided Tour

 

“Okay,” the thin Nordic girl told him. “I slipped your message under his door. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a tour to conduct.”

The passengers, having debussed, waited outside the door, a motley crowd of grandparents and spoiled grandkids. The German girl greeted them indifferently and she was collecting their fees when a loud bell sounded from an upper floor. The bell had a distinctly impatient sound to it, causing the blonde girl to sigh.

“Oh, great. I see Her Majesty has finally awakened.”

“I say,” one grandmother asked. “Do you have royalty staying over?”

“No.” The girl frowned. “Just someone who thinks very highly of herself.” She went to the kitchen stair and called up, “Ingoushka? Can you see what Ms Edna wants? I’m busy with a tour at the moment.”

A thirtyish woman in a cook’s apron came down. She was in a visibly grumpy mood. If her name really was Ingoushka, then O’Ryan could understand why.

“Dat vooman,” the cook grumbled in a bewildering accent. “Who she tink she is? Not gettink up till zun is down. Okay. I zee vhat she vant. But I take wit me cross unt garlic.”

“Not a popular guest, I take it?” O’Ryan whispered in the girl’s ear.

“One of the judges,” she explained. “Edna St Vincent Milady. The only one allowed to stay here with the other finalists. Between you and me, she’s a pain in the a—”

“Will we be starting the tour soon?” somebody asked, saving all an embarrassment.

#

O’Ryan and Julie began to tag along; only the German girl told them they had to pay first. He slipped her a twenty. She told him it would be another twenty for the ostrich. O’Ryan trotted out his story about Julie being a service animal. The girl said fine, but it would still cost another twenty. O’Ryan produced a Jackson and the tour got underway.

“The American branch of the Wilhelm family died out in the early 1700s.” The girl led the group through the foyer, delivering her speech with mechanical precision. “Originally from Austria they settled here when Texas was under Spain.”

O’Ryan turned his head to the ostrich and said, “It still is.” He said it loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Excuse me,” the girl stopped. “Are you saying Texas is under Spain?”

“Certainly,” O’Ryan nodded. “Alphabetically.”

Several tourists chuckled as the girl let out a deep sigh.

“I was referring,” she explained patiently, “to the early days when Texas was under Spanish rule. Anyway,” she resumed her recitation, “much of the history for that era is lost so we have no record for when they first arrived or when Castle Wilhelm, aka Der Wilhelmschloss, was constructed. Surviving tax records in the Spanish archive suggest a date around 1685. Further information is difficult to come by, as it appears those in authority made a deliberate effort to obliterate them from history.

“The Wilhelm’s did not leave a reputable name, if rumor speaks true. It was a family to which many black deeds were credited. They become extinct suddenly. Some say it was at the hands of the Spanish peasants, others say it was Indians, but those events happened too many generations ago for anyone to be certain.

“Several attempts were made over the next hundred years at reoccupying the stronghold but those families met with many misfortunes and from 1821 on it lay abandoned. Finally, a descendent of the Wilhelm’s, a Herr Wilhelm Schloss, showed up after World War II and laid claim to it. The coincidence of his name to that of the castle inspired him to investigate the property and eventually settle here. Otherwise, it would have rotted to pieces. It was he who restored the ruins and started the poetry festival.”

“What prompted Mr Schloss’s interest in poetry?” someone asked.

“Herr Schloss was a lover of language and a respected grammarian. To his great dismay, however, the leaders of the Third Reich drafted him to their service and assigned him the task of proofreading and editing Der Fuehrer’s speeches. It greatly upset him to see the power of language perverted to immoral purposes and he swore, should he survive, to do all he could to promote language for its grace and beauty and to see it was used to move people in a positive way.”

It was a touching speech and everyone took a moment to commend his noble objectives. O’Ryan however had a question.

“You say Herr Schloss edited Der Fuehrer’s speeches to make sure they were technically correct?”

“That’s right,” the girl nodded.

“Well, then,” O’Ryan smiled, “that would make him the world’s first grammar Nazi.”

All of the brat grandkids laughed at O’Ryan’s joke. None of the grandparents did. Nor did the girl guide giving the tour. O’Ryan glanced over to get Julie’s reaction and saw her shake her head in disapproval.

“Sorry,” he apologized meekly. “I thought maybe a little humor—”

“We are Germans,” the girl told him coldly. “We have no sense of humor.”

#

The tour, restricted to the ground floor, lasted a short thirty minutes. The excuse given was that the upper floor was undergoing renovations. O’Ryan greatly doubted it. From the signs of decay evident in dark corners of the ground floor, he judged Castle Wilhelm was as renovated as it ever going to be.

Many in the tour group voiced their displeasure over this. O’Ryan in particular felt he had been greatly overcharged. He kept quiet, though, hoping to stay in the girl’s good graces. Or any sort of graces for that matter, as he clearly had not made a good impression. With the tourists gone, he informed her of his intent to hang out in the parking lot—the enormous cottonwood tree would provide a comfortable rest area—and wait until Dent either responded to his note or showed his face outside the door.

“Unless you’d like to break a rule and let me see him now,” he hinted. “I’d gladly slip you another twenty to look the other way. Heck, a fifty even if that’d do the trick.”

The girl shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mr O’Ryan, but I’m employed here as both hostess and tour guide. In exchange for this, I receive a small salary and year-round lodging. That employment is based on trust. The trust of the Wilhelm Schloss family estate that hired me, and the trust of the contest finalists who expect me to see to their needs. In the case of Mr Dent, that means his request for privacy. As such, I cannot accept a bribe. In fact, I find it insulting that you would think me the sort of person who would stoop to accepting one.”

“Gee,” O’Ryan faltered. “I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s refreshing to meet someone who values other things besides money.”

“However, seeing as you intend to maintain a one-man vigil outside our walls, the least I could do is provide you with meals and coffee so you do not have to abandon your post.”

“Wow. That’s very kind of you. It gives me a whole new faith in—”

“That’ll be fifty bucks.”

“Fifty bucks!”

“Per meal. Take it or leave it.”

Feeling like a total fool—so much for having other values besides money—O’Ryan capitulated to her demands. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Fifty bucks. Per meal. But you have to include something for my ostrich.”

“No problem. Have her drop by anytime and Cook will fix her whatever she wants.” Seeing the wound was open she tossed in an extra dash of salt, adding, “For free.”

#

It was very cold within those palace walls. O’Ryan was not sure if this was due to the damp mildewed stones, or lack of warmth in the German girl’s heart. Granted they had gotten off on the wrong foot, but it seemed to him she was carrying things a bit far.

The awkward silence was interrupted by a scream, a cat-like screech that echoed down the walls and through the corridors. It was followed by another scream, a human voice this time. Close behind, came a third sound, a sort of bouncy, squishy thudding from a set of stone utility stairs off to one side. Onward and downward the plodding sound continued. Thud! Squish! Thud! Squish! Until, a round object came into view, and with a final squishy, splattering thud came to rest at O’Ryan’s feet.

There O’Ryan froze in his tracks, looking down upon a freshly severed head.

Chapter 6

Incident After the Fall

 

Of cabbage.

It was a head of cabbage that plopped itself down at O’Ryan’s feet. O’Ryan felt his knees go weak and he reached out to the wall for support. This was not easily done since Julie, also startled at the initial sight, had jumped into his arms in fright. He set her down, embarrassed at the spectacle they had made of themselves.

“Really, girl,” O’Ryan scolded her. “This isn’t Scooby Doo.”

In quick order, the woman in the cook’s outfit came down, preceded by a small cat of many colors. O’Ryan feared the woman intended to harm the cat, as she clutched a cleaver in her hand, but when he stepped forward to intercept her, the woman turned to the German girl and shouted.

“Mizz Renée. How many time I tell you feex dat crooked table leg?”

The cook, for what it was worth, bore a striking resemblance to Ingrid Pitt. Her appearance had nothing to do with anything to follow, other than, if you had to have Ingrid Pitt in a castle, cook was as good a position as any.

“How I make meal if tings vroll off table?”

“Fine, fine.” The girl threw her hands in the air. “I’ll have someone look at it tomorrow.”

“Joo bettah.” Cook went back to her kitchen. “Joo chure bettah.”

With that bit of excitement out of the way, O’Ryan resumed his attention on the German girl who was walking toward the door, intent on showing O’Ryan and Julie out.

“Excuse me, Miss… Miss…?”

“Renwick,” she provided. “Renée Renwick.”

“Miss Renwick, you must forgive my behavior during your tour. I haven’t had much sleep the last few days and I’m not myself. Please accept my apologies. And those of my ostrich.” Julie had not done anything but he reckoned he should include her just in case. “It was a fascinating tour and I would enjoy doing it again sometime.”

“Fine.” She regarded him skeptically. “Apology accepted. But I’m still not letting you see Mr Dent.”

O’Ryan made an irritated face, realizing that not worked. He would try another approach. The old William Powell routine, suave and witty, with the charm dial set to eleven.

“Renwick. Renwick. Haven’t we met before? Of course, it was at a banquet at the university. We had soup. In fact, I believe I have a picture in my wallet. Here, take a look. You recognize that fellow in the tuxedo?” Renée looked at the foto and shook her head, no. “That’s too bad. He owes me five dollars.”

“The answer,” Renée looked him in the eye, “is still no.”

“Well, darn.” Apparently he had stumbled across the only woman in the civilized world who was not a William Powell fan. “Could you at least give me Dent’s room number?”

“I’m afraid not.” She paused. “The committee assigns those.”

It took a moment for it to sink in that she had actually told a joke.

“All right, have it your way.” He turned to go. “One last thing. Do you have any brochures I could read while I’m outside waiting?”

“I’m sure we do.” She eyed him suspiciously. “Somewhere.”

“Would you mind getting one for me?”

“Fine.”

The instant she left the room, O’Ryan told Julie, “Keep an eye out for her while I look around,” and tiptoed to the stairwell. Julie, still smarting from his having likened her to a cartoon dog, pushed an ottoman in his path and he tripped over it, knocking down a suit of armor in the process.

“Mr O’Ryan!” Renée scolded as she reentered the room.

“Don’t tell me,” O’Ryan looked about dazedly. “I know that voice.”

“Out!” She pointed to the door. “Get out and stay out!”

“But…but…”

“Out, I say. And take your lousy Bill Powell impression with you.”

Chapter 7

Incident of the Disappearing Poets

 

Returning to his jeep, O’Ryan encountered two women coming up the gravel drive. “Hello.” The pale one greeted him timidly. “Are you one of the finalists? I don’t believe we’ve met. My name’s Emily. Emily Dixon. And this is my friend Liz Portugal.”

Liz shook his hand. “Glad to meet you.” Her complexion was darker than Emily’s and her smile was brighter. Nestled in the crook of her arm was a cat of many colors—the one that had fled Cook’s kitchen. The motley creature’s fur bore every color a cat could possibly possess.

“Yours?” O’Ryan asked.

Liz shook her head. “She wandered in one day. Cook feeds her.”

“She’s a nice cat,” Emily added. “And good to have around. She keeps the mice away.”

Hearing this, O’Ryan shook his head. Damp, chills, dust, mold, and now mice. Castle Wilhelm did not need renovation. It needed to be condemned.

He looked up from his distraction, saw both girls cast inquiring looks at Julie. “Oh, sorry,” he apologized. “This is my friend Julie. And my name’s O’Ryan.”

“How wonderful,” Emily gushed. “Like the constellation.”

“Exactly.” O’Ryan smiled, happy to meet someone who understood him. “Only I’m not a poet. I’m just looking up an acquaintance.”

“Well,” Emily beamed, “anyone who befriends an ostrich can’t be all bad,” and both Liz Portugal and the cat of many colors smiled back.

Exchanging small talk, the girls explained they were out walking, doctor’s orders as the musty atmosphere inside the citadel was unhealthy for them. (That explained the doctor he saw drive off when he first arrived.) O’Ryan told them briefly the reason he was there. Both thought him noble and admirable.

“So,” said Emily after a while, “what do you think of our Disappearing Poets Festival?”

“I haven’t seen much yet,” O’Ryan answered. “I’ve only arrived a short time ago.”

The ostrich nudged O’Ryan in a curious manner and he caught on.

“What do you mean by ‘Disappearing Poets’?”

“Oh, gosh.” Emily put a hand to her lips, coloring slightly. “Did I say that? I’m sorry. It just slipped.”

O’Ryan motioned her to continue. She seemed unable so Liz took up the pace.

“That’s what the locals call it,” the darker girl explained. “Because…well, that’s what they do.”

“Oh.” O’Ryan looked at Julie to see if she had understood any of that. “I see.” Julie shook her head, indicating Liz’s statement made no sense to her either. “I think.”

Sensing his confusion, Liz clarified her poorly stated sentence. “It’s like this. Everyplace has its disappearances. The area around Fredericksburg is no exception. You have deep dense woods, and dozens of caves, many of which are undeveloped and on private property. Plus creeks and rivers, some of which connect with these underground caverns, so it’s easy enough for trespassers and snoopers to wander off and get lost.”

O’Ryan granted her that. “But why did you specifically mention poets?”

Liz bit her lip, hesitant to answer, so Emily took over. “Every year since the festival began, at least one of the finalists admitted into the castle has fallen victim to this string of disappearances. The authorities attribute it to mostly the reasons Liz mentioned. And too, you have that one section of the castle which is in a terrible state of ruin where it would be easy for a section of rubble to topple down on someone. That part is supposedly off limits, but there’s nothing to stop you going there and exploring it if you put your mind to it.”

“No one tries to dig them out?”

“How could you? Pieces of that section crumble all the time on their own so first you’d have to differentiate recent piles of rubble from the older chunks. Then you’d have to get digging equipment down the slope and into the back. Everyone says it’s not cost effective considering you don’t know for sure if anything’s there or not.”

O’Ryan rubbed his whiskered chin. Irresponsible persons foolishly trespassing and coming to a bad end. A city with a tight budget unwilling to take on the cost of an at-best iffy rescue effort. It made sense in a way.

“Also,” Emily went on, “you must take into account that some people deliberately choose to disappear. A good number who enter the contest are unknowns who compete under phony names.”

“And who,” Liz threw in, “purposefully wander off to assume new identities as their artistic muse directs them. There’s no way to know for certain.”

O’Ryan and Julie watched the girls as they talked. The whole time they were speaking they spent twisting their fingers in tiny, nervous knots, as though they were trying to convince themselves of something they really did not believe.

“But that’s not what you think,” O’Ryan observed gently. “Is it?”

“No.” Emily Dixon replied truthfully. “I don’t. The place has a…reputation. The Wilhelms, the ancient branch…there were always…rumors. Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just creeped out at having to stay in a stone palace without electric lights or modern facilities. The rooms are so damp, and dark, and silent…”

“Frankly,” Liz Portugal completed the thought, “the place scares the crap out of me.”

With that unpoetic utterance, the two girls, along with the cat of many colors, went inside, biding O’Ryan and Julie a pleasant good evening.

Chapter 8

Incident on the Morning of the Fourth Day

 

Back in 1968, four Angelinos, collectively known as the Doors, were “Waiting For The Sun.” In present-day Fredericksburg, one man, singularly known as O’Ryan, was also waiting. Waiting for a SOB named Dent to show himself outside Castle Wilhelm’s door. So far, the quartet from California chalked up a better success than the guy from Texas. Four days passed since his arrival and the elusive genie had yet to step foot outside the fortification.

The orange half morning sun was peeking over the horizon when Renée Renwick emerged from the building, bringing O’Ryan a thermos of coffee. She did this early mornings and late afternoons, avoiding direct sunlight as much as possible. Avoiding sunlight was not difficult thanks to the enormous cottonwood tree beneath which O’Ryan parked his jeep. The tree, situated close to the manor, was centuries old and from the looks of it had never been trimmed or cultivated. In a fit of boredom, O’Ryan made a half-circle of the trunk, estimating its diameter at approximately fifteen feet. The thick lower limbs, which he paced off, were about fifty-three feet long. This, according to his high school math, made about a quarter acre of shade at high noon. If one wished to avoid the sun, this was a good place to do it.

O’Ryan greeted Renée with a smile. Her response was impassive.

“It beats me how you can sit here twenty-four/seven without sleeping.”

“The coffee helps,” he replied. He did not bother to mention he had scored a batch of little white pills from the community of campers outside the castle and in his present state could not have closed his eyes if he tried. He and the girl had struck an uneasy truce since that first day and he did not see any sense in doing anything to antagonize her again. The coffee was part of the deal. She charged exorbitant prices for it, perhaps hoping to discourage him into leaving, but O’Ryan could afford it and so he stayed put.

“By the way,” she asked, presently, “you didn’t happen to hear any strange noises last night, or see anything out of the ordinary?” This to a man with an ostrich for a companion.

O’Ryan confessed he had not. “Why?”

“Oh, it’s nothing I guess. Emily Dixon says she saw a stranger standing by her bedside. She woke up screaming, but when I checked I didn’t see anybody.”

“Hmm.” O’Ryan thought it would not be out of place for a genie with Dent’s warped sense of humor to engage in a bit of voyeurism. “Did you check Dent’s room?”

“He hasn’t been out.” Her flat reply indicated she did not wish to pursue the subject. Still the situation did appear to upset her, so O’Ryan promised to keep his eyes and ears open.

Along with the thermos of coffee, Renée had brought a galvanized watering can. At the base of the cottonwood trunk was a circle of wildflowers. They were ugly plants with dark stems and misshaped leaves. Still it was a miracle to see anything growing there. The ground was hard as rock, and the canopy so wide, rain would have to come down horizontal to reach them. O’Ryan commented on the flowers and Renée told him she came out every few days to tend them. It allowed O’Ryan to see an entirely different side of her.

That would be her backside, as she bent at the waist to water the flowers. After all, O’Ryan was a normal, red-blooded guy, and despite his vow of fidelity to Julie, he could not help but appreciate her long slim legs and the rounded buns poking from the bottom of her denim short-shorts. O’Ryan took in the slender waist and the long straight blonde hair hanging downward and thought, “Yes sir, that’s the sort of girl I could really go for.”

Meanwhile, what of O’Ryan’s ostrich? Where was she? Well, she had been in a nearby field playing tag with a jackrabbit. However, glancing up and catching O’Ryan ogling the girl’s captivating caboose, she promptly high-tailed it over and smacked him on the head with her beak.

“Ow!” he cried.

At which Renée, guessing the situation, straightened and said, “Were you staring at my tush?”

“No!” O’Ryan denied hurriedly.

Julie regarded him threateningly, as though she might smack him again if he failed to tell the truth.

“I mean, yes, sort of. I was admiring your can. My grandma had one just like it.”

“Your grandmother!” Renée blanched. “Heilige Kuh! What kind of a sick freak are you?”

“I mean your watering can. The aluminum thing with the nozzle. She used to do a lot of gardening.”

It was clear the girl was not buying it. Turning on her heel, she marched back to the castle, leaving her can behind. The galvanized one with the nozzle, that is. The other can, the one attached to her backside, she took with her.

O’Ryan, sighing, eyed Julie. “Now what did you have to do that for? You know I’ll always be true to you.”

She regarded him with a look that seemed to say: Just so don’t you forget it.

Chapter 9

Incident of the Missing College Professor

 

Over the course of those first four days, O’Ryan had many visitors. Most of them were females wanting to know the story behind him and the ostrich.

Julie had no problem with this. Inwardly she was no different from any other woman when it came to having a jealous side. Still she knew the way O’Ryan’s mind operated, which is to say the sight of practically any smoking hot babe could steam his eyeballs. Emily and Liz did not fall into that category. The Lord blessed them with beautiful souls and inner loveliness. After which He stopped. Not that they were unattractive. Their innermost qualities flowed to the surface, making them pleasant to look at. But they were not hot enough to make a man’s brain sizzle.

On O’Ryan’s scale, Julie would always be a ten. That was a given. He could look beyond the feathers and see the hubba-hubba hottie behind them.

Renée and Cook scored nines. But Renée and Cook did not like O’Ryan, so they posed no threat to Julie’s peace of mind.

The remaining female finalists were sixes and sevens at best. They were friendly and engaging and their wholesome faces were worth a second look. But it was not the kind of second look that would ignite a Roman candle in O’Ryan’s trousers. Therefore, Julie did not interfere in their conversations.

O’Ryan happily obliged his visitors, explaining how he wished for a tall chick with long legs and large, beautiful eyes, and how a genie presented him with an ostrich and then disappeared. He told too how he wandered the waterless waste of the Kalahari. Trekked the steaming swamplands of the Amazon. Scaled the snowy peaks of Mount Everest. Shot white water rapids in rickety rough-hewn rafts. And blazed trails through winding jungles filled with poisonous snakes and hungry crocodiles. All the while battling hunger, thirst, and fever in his effort to track down the elusive genie. All for the sake of undying love.

It was very impressive and the women lapped it up. Too bad not a word of it was true. He had yet to venture outside Texas, he traveled by rental car, and he stayed in motels whenever possible. It was just that tales of deserts, mountains, and rivers drew a more sympathetic response from his listeners.

It bothered him, however, to see a gradual change come over his friends Emily and Liz. Emily showed increasing signs of nervous strain while Liz lost much of her color.

“I’ll be glad when the contest is over and I can return home,” Emily told him. “My room is so cold and damp.”

“I see,” O’Ryan sympathized.

“No,” Emily smiled weakly. “Just damp.”

#

Each day brought fresh rumors of disturbances in and around the manor walls. Already stories circulated of campers gone missing. Authorities investigated, only without an accurate head count, it was impossible to verify these accounts. O’Ryan strongly wished he could visit the campground but doing so would mean abandoning his vigil at the entrance.

One story was of particular interest since it involved a pair of PhDs from the University of Fredericksburg. Dr Maynard was an economics instructor, while his fiancée Dr Lloyd taught architecture. It was between semesters, as Dr Maynard told it, when…

“Our engagement hit a rough spot and we decided a long drive to visit our families in north Texas would not be a good idea. The weary hours of confinement within our car could prove grating. We opted instead to join the campers outside Castle Wilhelm; hoping the festive atmosphere would help us work out our issues.”

(Along with the usual contest entrants, the Fredericksburg International Poetry Festival drew many other revelers. Some were students from the university, some were tourists and vacationers, and others were itinerant musicians who gave nightly performances on acoustic instruments.)

“We pitched our tent amid a circle of others and that first day all was well. The old castle immediately piqued Dr Lloyd’s architectural interests and we hiked along the creekside, our ramble bringing us to the back of the structure in the precinct of the damaged east wall. She made several sketches of this, and at times seemed to be in rapt contemplation of the dark recess exposed to us. Several times, I had to stop her from trying to enter the depression. In each instance, her actions resembled those of a somnambulist.

“That night, back at camp, I drank a little more than was prudent and passed out premature to my usual bedtime. I awakened in the early hours to the sound of Dr Lloyd stumbling into our tent. At first, I thought she had gone to answer the call of nature when I was arrested by the suspicion of something on her neck.

“‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘Did you cut yourself?’

“Dr Lloyd put her hand to her throat. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she replied, in a surly fashion.

“This caused new friction between us as the mark looked very much like a hickey. However I did not pursue the issue at that time. The next day passed as did the others with her again visiting the ruined section of outer wall. That night we joined with the rest of the campers in listening to musical performances. I looked to see if Dr Lloyd was enjoying a particular song and saw she was no longer there. More frustrated than hurt, I went to search for her, all the while suspecting she had misgivings about our upcoming marriage and wished to experience one last fling before settling down.

“I made my way across the grassy area between the campground and the west wall of the keep when a sharp cry ensued, and without hesitation, I plunged through the thicket in the direction of the disturbance. Two figures stood outlined against the bushes, in an attitude of struggle. I recognized one as Dr Lloyd. The other was a hooded figure, about the same height as her, but considerably stronger. I dashed up to them and, in a second, seized the attacker by the arm, and flung him violently to the ground. Dr Lloyd fell with him, and as I picked her up the man rose and made his getaway.

“I held Dr Lloyd at my side. Her heart beat hard against me. As I did this, a bat swept by me and circled for an instant above my head. I paid it no mind as I carried Dr Lloyd back to our tent where I tended to the scratches on her neck and shoulders. Later that night, we settled our differences. The reconciliation meant more to us than did the attack and we resolved to say nothing of it to others.

“I was to regret that decision. All the next day we spent together in happy contemplation of days to come. That night we celebrated and once again I drank more than was necessary. The next morning I woke to find Dr Lloyd missing. I searched everywhere. I sought help from others. We notified the sheriff, formed search parties, found nothing.

“Since then there has been no sign of her.”

#

All this happened during the opening days of the festival and O’Ryan was not aware of it.

Then came the morning of his second day there. The early birds had not yet begun to stir, and vast silence brooded over the dew-drenched fields surrounding the residence. Looking out the windshield of his jeep, O’Ryan caught sight of a dark figure stealing cautiously round the far corner of the ruined outer wall. The furtive gait, as well as the appearance of a man at that early hour, struck him with surprise; and hastily pulling on his shoes, he went to investigate. It was only natural he suspect the lurker to be Dent, as he could see no reason for anyone else to wander about at that time.

When he descended the slope to the bushes bordering the creek that ran past the building, O’Ryan stopped suddenly. There among the tall grasses on the opposite bank, with her head down, and her bare feet dangling in the water, was the architecture professor previously thought to be missing. O’Ryan dashed to her side, simultaneously calling aloud for help. Dr Lloyd was a mess. Her blouse was in shreds, the dawning light revealing dark bruises and deep cuts on her neck, breasts, and shoulders. Julie responded to his call and he sent her to pound the palace door, figuring Cook would be up. As he waited, he consoled Dr Lloyd as best he could. Her only response was to mumble in a faint and distant voice:

Here lyeth the body of Lady Medina Wilhelm. Born 1692. Died…

It sounded like she was reading a tombstone. O’Ryan made a mental note of the name and date as Julie returned, Cook following close behind to aid them.

#

Professor Isaac Hugo, head of the psychology department at the University of Fredericksburg, put forth a rational explanation of events. He ascribed it to propinquity, the idea that physical proximity can influence people to act in certain ways. Simply put, the reputation of Castle Wilhelm, combined with Dr Lloyd’s professional interest in architecture to work on her susceptible nature to a point where she, the professor, in a state of self-hypnosis, entered the aperture at the rear of the castle and became lost. Then, after wandering in the dark for several days, she found her way back outside to be discovered by O’Ryan. Her torn clothing and skin abrasions he attributed to brushing against rocky debris and sharp projections. Dr Maynard’s story of an attacker he dismissed as a figment of the man’s excessive drinking; while bats flying overhead were natural to old buildings.

It was a neat and tidy explanation. It ignored the fact that a rescue team had searched the ruins, venturing as far as possible into the Stygian interior. But perhaps Professor Hugo was not aware of that. In any case, it was neat. And tidy. And the people in charge preferred it to the alternative.

Chapter 10

Incident Involving Several Nice People and a Couple of Jerks

 

Emily and Liz hung out with O’Ryan all that fourth day, preferring the sunny outdoors and shaded cottonwood to the depressing dampness of their assigned rooms. While O’Ryan kept watch on the entrance, the girls amused themselves playing with Julie and the cat of many colors.

At half past three, another finalist joined them. He introduced himself as Dylan Lightfoot, one of the front-runners in the competition. Dylan received an Honorable Mention at last year’s contest for his stirring epic, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Cruise On The Edmund Fitzgerald” and he was back again, hoping to do better. He had a simple request that O’Ryan allow him to audition his entry and then give feedback. Since listening would not interfere with his watching, O’Ryan agreed to do so.

Twenty minutes later, O’Ryan regretted his decision. The entry proved an interminable bore. A straight-on narrative, without variation in meter, performed to the accompaniment of a guitar strumming a D chord in a one-down two-up pattern. The first verse went like this:

 

A tale that is told in old Mexicali

of a dusty cowpoke and the beautiful gal he

stole from the baddest bad man in the valley

and all of them wound up dead in an alley.

 

It never got better. Forty verses later, the narrative-song-poem finally over, Dylan Lightfoot asked O’Ryan’s honest opinion of it. As politely as he could, O’Ryan told him he should tune his guitar to an open chord and strum it with his foot. Doing this would at least make it interesting.

Dylan Lightfoot left, saying he should have known better than to seek the opinion of a stringy-haired weirdo who hung out with an ostrich.

#

When the clock struck five, Liz Portugal excused herself saying she wanted to practice her presentation. She took the cat with her, leaving Emily Dixon alone with the ostrich. The outdoor air had worked wonders on her and she was in a far happier frame of mind. All of which evaporated when a new voice called out:

“Heeeey Emmm-milly.”

O’Ryan shifted his attention from the manor entrance to the outer wall where two people approached his cottonwood tree from the shady side of the building. Both looked like they stepped out of a 1950 beatnik movie. The man, dressed in black dungarees and a gray sweatshirt, sported a dark goatee and sunglasses. The woman wore leotards, sweatshirt, and sandals; only hers were pink. The man tried to affect a look of class but it was marred by an unfiltered cigarette dangling from his lip. The woman was pale, as were most of the women staying at the castle, but she carried herself in a puffed-up manner that radiated a better-than-you attitude that could be felt for miles.

O’Ryan had not met them until now, but he knew who they were. The guy was Fredmann Fred, a modern-age beat poet and author of the Gaelic inspired (so he claimed) piece, “Yddid Haw Od.” The woman was none other than the famous Edna St Vincent Milady, celebrity judge and all around pain in the…assembly. Ms Milady was famous for her poem:

 

Candles burning in the middle

Not much light, just one big piddle.

 

In some circles, it was the only thing she was known for. Still she carried herself like a celebrity, fragile, delicate, and brittle, as though she lacked the strength to lift a glass of water, or a tiny puff of wind might scatter her like a thistle. If that was a saving grace, then at least she had one. Her companion displayed no graces, saving or otherwise.

“Oh, Em-mill-leee!” Fredmann called again. “How’s the cider business. Everyone says your family makes the best cider in all the world. I hear women for miles around want some Dixon cider. They say even little Emily loves to have some Dixon cider. In fact, they say the more Dixon cider, the better she likes it.”

“That’s enough,” O’Ryan cautioned him, quietly but firmly.

“Are you kidding?” Fredmann continued. “I hear Emily and Liz can never get enough Dixon cider.”

The taunts were too much for the shaken Emily to endure. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she turned on the reprehensible oaf. “Stop it. Please. Stop it. You are a crude and vulgar man and the wicked things you say about me and my family are not true.” Turning her back to him, she ran for the castle, tripping and stumbling in her haste to get away.

O’Ryan had heard enough. He turned on the laughing jackass and slapped his face, knocking him to the ground. He wanted to assist Emily, but at the same time loathed to abandon his surveillance.

“Ow, man.” Fredmann Fred rubbed his tender jaw. “What was that about? I was only psyching the girl out so she wouldn’t do well in the final judging.”

“Oh, hush, Fred,” Edna spoke for the first time. Her voice dripped snobbiness. “You got what you deserved.” A barely concealed chuckle behind her words told O’Ryan she felt no sympathy for Emily and was putting on an act.

“Fine, fine, my little flamingo,” Fredmann grumbled as he got to his feet. “I’ll apologize next time I see her.” He turned his attention to O’Ryan. “You know, Professor—”

O’Ryan wore his hair in a brushed back style suggestive of an old-time scholar. To counter a receding hairline he grew a beard. The beard came out sparse and scraggly. In some ways he resembled Robby Krieger circa 1971. Other times he looked like Larry Fine in the Three Stooges short Back from the Front. These things caused people to regard him as something of an eccentric. The presence of an ostrich did nothing to make them think otherwise. That was the reason Fredmann addressed him this way.

“—if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a man of peace, I’d feel inclined to strike back.”

“Anytime you’d like to try,” O’Ryan invited, “be my guest.”

“Aw, don’t get your whiskers in a dither. I don’t know where you get off acting so upright. I saw you this morning when Renée was watering her flowers. You spent your sweet time admiring her virginal charms.”

Edna cut in with a horse-like snort. “Come now, Fred. I sincerely doubt our sweet hostess is a vir—”

“Edna!” Fredmann cut her off.

“—ginian,” she finished; then walked away, sticking to the shadows on her way back to the castle.

Some people can talk hours on end and at the close of the day you have no idea what they are about. Others need utter but a single word to tell you everything you will ever need to know. The only thing O’Ryan knew of Edna Milady was that he despised her. From her stuck-up nose to her patrician toes, he detested every inch of her.

“You must make allowances for her.” Fredmann made a weak attempt to excuse her behavior. “Her aristocratic roots go way back.”

Chapter 11

Incident of the Stone Slab

 

With Edna gone, Fredmann morphed into something more human. He lingered awhile, speaking of idle things, finally saying, “There’s no need to watch that front door day and night. I met Mr Dent the day he arrived and he assured me he wasn’t budging from his quarters until the final day of the contest.”

The sun sank below the horizon, a blue-gray curtain smothering the surviving streaks of campfire orange. Julie joined them, her rabbit friend having retired for the evening. She spied something near the base of the cottonwood and poked at it with her beak. Fredmann watched her for a short time before resuming his conversation.

“You know, Professor,” he proceeded cautiously, “you may not want to hear this, but I’m going to say it anyway. There’s a rumor that Wilhelmschloss is haunted and supernatural spirits wander its halls. I’m not one to believe that sort of thing. The only ‘boos’ I believe in come from bottles.” He paused for a brief laugh. “Still, it’s clear something’s going on.

“I’ve been teasing Emily for a while now, trying to psyche her out so she flubs the competition. And, yes, I’m an ass for doing it. But consider this: Emily took residence here before I did. She was the first finalist to settle in. And she’s been sick since day one, complaining of bad dreams and listlessness. So you can’t accuse me of starting it. Admittedly, I did nothing to make it better, but I didn’t start it.

“But there’s one person who has been here the entire time. Lives here year-round. That person is Renée Renwick. She’s also the one who’s been caring for Emily, supposedly following doctor’s instructions. Yet Emily is no better now than the day it began.”

O’Ryan wanted to say something but Fredmann plowed on.

“Then Liz Portugal took sick. Same symptoms. Poor sleep, lack of energy, no appetite. Lately Louisa’s been showing signs as well. Now you can call me a hedonistic fool if you want—which is exactly what Sheriff Elliot did when I told him my suspicions—but somebody needs to take a good look at Renée and find out exactly what’s going on.”

“Are you telling me Renée is some sort of supernatural entity preying on young girls?” O’Ryan asked.

“Of course not.” Fredmann scoffed at the idea. “I told you I don’t believe such nonsense.” O’Ryan wondered if Fredmann Fred would change his tune if he knew the truth about Dent and Julie. “But who’s to say,” the babbling beatnik went on, “she couldn’t be a psychopath of some sort? A serial killer even, racking up a body count and disposing of them in the ruins of the castle or in some nearby cavern. I’d be more willing to believe that than I would in ghosts or spirits.”

#

O’Ryan kept silent once Fredmann finished. Much of what the man said made sense. Only he could not rule out the paranormal side of things. It was something with which he had hands-on experience. The outré, the uncanny, the unusual were not strangers to him. His first-hand view of Dr Lloyd told him he was dealing with something not quite human. But what? And more importantly, who?

Always, in answer to these questions, the face of a pretty blonde German girl popped up. Was this blue-eyed babe a psychopath as Fredmann suggested? O’Ryan had encountered dangerous beauty before, the seductive siren on Pluto Beach, and the weeping widow in Bellville. They had been human. Could Renée be something more?

Renée, after all, was unusually pale complexioned with a heart cold as ice. He had never seen her in direct sunlight. And as any schoolchild can tell you, evil always shuns the light. Every time she ventured out after sunrise, she stuck to the shadows between the outer wall and the cottonwood tree.

So many indicators suggested she could be the one behind it. There was one problem however. Namely O’Ryan did not want to believe it. Evil should not wear such a pretty face. There was noting written in stone to say otherwise, still O’Ryan felt—

Whatever he felt ceased abruptly at the sound of Julie tapping her beak on a slab of stone at the base of the tree. It was a long flat rock, most of it buried by centuries of tree growth.

“Looks like a marker of some kind.” Fredmann pointed to a faint line of characters still visible through the dirt, slime, and moss.

O’Ryan looked around and found the galvanized can Renée left behind earlier that morning. A small amount of water remained in it. This he poured on the slab and together he and Fredmann worked with twigs and sticks to loosen the caked-in debris from the characters engraved beneath.

What they saw shocked them to silence.

 

Wenn ich glaubte an andere Götter…

 

“Oh…My…God.” Fredmann spoke in hushed reverence. “If I believed in deities…” The same words, loosely translated, NC Dent read to the contest judges his first day there. “Jinkies, Professor, this is fantastic!”

“Stop calling me ‘professor.’ My name’s O’Ryan.”

“I know, I know; like the constellation. Seriously, do you realize what we’ve found here?”

“Actually, my ostrich found it.”

“Well, like the French say, thank heaven for little ostriches.”

“They say that?”

“How would I know? Do I look like Maurice Chevalier? Seriously, since the day I first heard Dent recite that poem I’ve wanted to find the source so I could do a monograph on it. Imagine that: If I believed in deities. What a powerful love the author must have had for that woman.”

O’Ryan was not so sure. “It sounds blasphemous to me. ‘If I believed’.”

“No-no-no. It’s not that way at all. You see, all German nouns are capitalized, so strictly translated it does say ‘Deities,’ or ‘Gods,’ with a capital ‘G.’ Only suppose the author meant it in the lower case. Then he’s not referring to ‘Gods’ as in Supreme Beings, but ‘gods’ in the sense of lower tier, angelic entities. He’s saying that, if he believed in angels, then she would be like an angel to him.”

O’Ryan was willing to buy that. Interpretative literature was not his forte. “Only what’s this stuff about commandeering love and having to stoop low?”

“I believe he’s addressing a woman who was at one time good, but turned bad as a dark hunger for power consumed her. In the end, he remembers the days before that when she was still sweet and pure.”

O’Ryan had no problem buying that as well. “In other words, it’s a eulogy for a lost love.” Which meant: “We’re standing on somebody’s grave.”

“Yes,” Fredmann agreed. “Perhaps it’s from this very spot that the idea of supernatural forces haunting Wilhelmschloss originated.”

“You know, Fred,” O’Ryan gave the devil his due, “if you could stay sober and stop being a jerk; you might not be such a bad guy after all.”

Still, a singular thought burned a hole in O’Ryan’s head. The line about “soft and golden like the sun,” and how it perfectly described Renée Renwick—so much that she could be the subject of that poem written so long ago.

Chapter 12

Incident of the Diamond Hubcap

 

It would help if they installed a knocker, thought O’Ryan, rubbing his tender knuckles as he waited for someone to answer the door. He had done a good deal of thinking after Fred left—about Emily and Liz, the stone slab beneath the cottonwood—and felt more questions were in order. Those were his intentions on the surface. He also had another reason in mind. Leaving Julie behind to guard the jeep, he approached Wilhelmschloss once again and…

“Yes?” Renée Renwick, dressed for early bed, poked her head out an inch. In her hand, she held a large mug of chocolate. “Heilige Kuh! You again?”

O’Ryan, still looking down at his sore hand, said, “You could use some knockers.”

Renée, taken aback, clutched her night robe closer to her throat. “You could do with a shave and haircut yourself,” was her icy reply. O’Ryan, struck by stupid, stared idiotically, unaware of his unintended insult. “Is there anything else, or did you just drop by to insult my cup size?”

“Huh?” O’Ryan in his confusion stared at her chocolate mug. “Heck, it don’t make no difference to me. Some people like a small sip, others prefer a big gulp.”

Renée’s naturally pale features went bright crimson as she tried to slam the heavy door in O’Ryan’s face. Only that was hard to do with one hand holding a mug of chocolate.

“Wait! Wait!” O’Ryan wedged a shoulder in the doorpost. “I want to ask a question.”

Renée Renwick was mad as all get out. Still she saw no reason to pass up a buck. She stuck out her hand and told him to pay up. O’Ryan dug into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of bills. Without bothering to count, he handed them over.

“It’s about the other girls in the castle.”

“You think you can bribe one of them into letting you see Dent’s room?”

“Ms Renwick,” O’Ryan assumed a hurt expression. “Now it’s my turn to be insulted.” Actually, that had been his plan all along; only with the cat out of the bag he had to try another tactic. “Perhaps, if I knew who-all was here, I could prevent some of these attacks.” He paused. “Seeing as I’m up all night anyway.”

“Why should you want to help all of a sudden?”

“Honestly, Renée…Is it okay if I call you Renée? I’ve grown fond of Liz and Emily and I’m worried for their safety. I see them getting worse every day. Now I hear a third girl is showing symptoms. Louise somebody.”

“Louisa Cottal. Sweet. Rather plain. About twenty-five. Complains of nightmares, lethargy, and has no appetite. The doctor says it’s simply a case of nerves brought on by what’s happening with the other two.”

O’Ryan made a face. It seemed everyone had an explanation for what was going on. None of which did a thing to improve the situation.

“Who else?”

“Rose Chrisetti. Italian. Writes erotic Christian sonnets about goblins.”

“And?” He prodded.

“Patti Redondo. Skinny equestrian with a slight stutter.”

This girl missed her calling, O’Ryan told himself. She should have been a telegraph operator.

“And finally, Yokiko Asano. Despite not speaking a word of English, my money’s on her to walk away with everything.”

“And why’s that?

“Three reasons. First, she lends the contest a much-needed international credibility. Two, although not pretty in the conventional sense, she has the kind of exotic looks that suggest she stepped off a watercolor painting. And three, she has no qualms about getting friendly with the judges if it works to her advantage.” Renée let that sink in. “Anything else?”

“Ms Edna?”

Renée looked as though she wanted to spit.

“Showed up one day claiming to be a distant relative of the Wilhelm family. Backed it up with knowledge not known to the public. Only non-contestant, other than Cook and myself, to live in the castle. Total snob. Keeps odd hours. Insensitive bit—”

“Now, now,” O’Ryan cautioned.

“I was going to say ‘bitter.’ Anyhow, I consider her a freeloader and a fake.”

O’Ryan nodded, agreeing with every word.

“Anything else?” she prodded again.

“What about the men?”

“Four guys. Stay in the opposite wing. Can’t hear a thing that happens on the girl’s side. They’d have to pass my room on the ground floor to reach the stairs leading to the girl’s quarters.” She pointed to a small chamber, its old door of black oak slightly ajar. It sat at an exact center point between the two staircases. “It serves as both my office and bed chamber and I keep it open at night.”

O’Ryan scratched his bewhiskered chin, wondering if that last bit was an invitation. On second thought, it sounded more in the nature of a warning. The heavy walls of stone were too thick for sound to penetrate, and leaving her door open would be the only way she could hear the activity without.

“One last thing,” he ventured. “About Dent and the fellow he replaced. I know they disqualified Dent at his try-out, yet somehow his name wound up on the list of finalists. Has anyone looked into that?”

Renée shook her head. “None of the judges will own up to it. And they’re all fairly well off so I doubt they’d take a bribe. Not the money kind anyway. As for Ms Asano…”

“Right, right, whatever. But back to the original question. Someone else initially drew up that list, and this other person’s name was later removed from it.”

Renée felt O’Ryan had gotten his money’s worth. She held out her hand for more. O’Ryan obliged with another fistful.

“The fellow you’re talking about is Bo Marclan. He was last year’s returning champion. Wrote a sonnet about diamond hubcaps with blue stockings. At least I think that’s what it was about. Bo had been the winner three times in a row. It got to where we practically keep a room reserved for him. You can imagine my surprise after we got him settled in—remember, his name was on that first list—to have Dent show up and say there was a new list with his name on it. And if you can imagine my surprise, then you can only guess as to my embarrassment at telling Bo he had to surrender his room to Mr Dent.”

“Didn’t take it well?” O’Ryan understated the case.

“Furious would be putting it mildly. I told him I’d get to the bottom of it but he stormed off, saying we hadn’t heard the last of it.”

O’Ryan went “Hmm.”

“Hmm what?” Renée asked.

“Hmm this: How do we know Bo Lanmarc—?”

“Marc-lan.”

“How do we know Bo Marclan isn’t behind this spate of disturbances? He’s understandably upset. He’s been inside the place enough times to be familiar with the layout. Maybe even stumbled across a hidden passage or two. All castles have them. Moreover, he swore to get even with everyone. You should tell the sheriff and—”

“Bo was the first person Sheriff Elliot investigated. He has solid alibies for each occasion.”

“Somebody could be covering for him.”

“I suppose, only— Do you really think my boobs are small?”

“Oh, no, I—Huh? When did I say anything about your breasts?”

“When I first opened the door. You were looking right down at them.”

“I was? Oh, no. I was examining my knuckles. Heck, I didn’t even notice your—”

There is an old saying about quitting while you are ahead. It does not specify if that is before or after the woman pours her mug of chocolate on it. And it was highly unlikely she would open the door one last time and explain it.

#

O’Ryan made straight for the running stream by the rear wall of the stronghold, there to wash the sticky chocolate from his hair and face. Julie slipped behind him, quiet as an evening shadow, and regarded him with dark soft eyes, suspecting he had gotten into trouble again.

Looking from side to side to see no one was watching, she raised a two-toed foot and bumped him so he took a nosedive into the water. O’Ryan came up sputtering, but when he looked about, Julie was several yards away.

Ostriches can move very fast when they want to.

Chapter 13

Incident Featuring an Overabundance of Naked Women

 

It started with a scream. Only before the scream, this happened:

That evening, around nine-thirty, someone—it looked like a girl—opened the front door a slight crack, just enough to see out. A fiery torch hanging from a bracket in the hall spilled light across the yard. Julie jumped from her nesting spot and raced across the lawn, stopping where the edge of light touched her toes.

The person inside, satisfied it was safe, opened the door enough to slink out. Castle residents were free to come and go as they pleased, provided they were back for morning rollcall. The hall light spread outward and upward, illuming Julie from toes to drumsticks. Julie stayed put as the resident closed the door and cut across the pasture toward town. Once the figure was out of sight, she looked back at O’Ryan and clacked her beak, hoping he had taken notice.

He had. Though his muscles ached from buildups of lactic acid, and his brain burned from constant wakefulness, this time he was not struck by stupid. Julie showed herself to be the smarter of the two, but O’Ryan was not far behind.

“I swear, girl,” he walked over and rubbed her neck, “not a day goes by that you don’t show me up in the brains department. If only you could talk like Mr Ed; think of of all the time we’d save.”

Julie had discovered that the light at night from the palace’s torch-lit hallway splayed across the lawn whenever the door opened. The wider it opened, the bigger the splotch of light that spilled out. Maybe they should have figured it out sooner, but both were tired and distracted. The point was, now they knew.

“Stay there.”

O’Ryan returned to the jeep and came back with a lawn chair. On an impulse, he brought Renée’s galvanized watering can. Inside it, he stashed an orange soda and a package of crackers.

Now he no longer needed to strain his eyes watching the entrance. He could sit back in the lawn chair enjoying the sky and stars, fields and night noises, knowing if anybody exited the building, light from the hallway, falling across his face, would alert him immediately.

Julie waited until O’Ryan had everything in place before moving. O’Ryan walked her back to the jeep, gave her beak a goodnight kiss, and returned to his new post to see what the night had to offer.

#

Midnight came and went as O’Ryan kept silent vigil on the castle’s front lawn. Julie, bedded in the back of the jeep, slept soundly. The campground was still as well. Save for an occasional frog or night bird, all was quiet.

Relaxing in his lawn chair, snacking on saltine crackers and orange soda, he passed the hours composing a poem of his own. He had completed the opening lines…

 

met a ginger lass in ireland

she was hoeing taters and perspirin’

 

…when a horrified scream rang out near the castle entrance. No light fell on his face, meaning the person must have been approaching the door when the attack occurred. O’Ryan recognized the owner of the scream as Emily Dixon. It was she then who snuck out earlier. Why she would risk going out alone was anybody’s guess, unless she felt safer on her own than with others. Perhaps she had gone to town to do research. Whatever the case, something was after her, and it was up to O’Ryan to save her.

Seeking some sort of weapon, he grabbed Renée’s watering can and dashed to the palace portico. Despite the darkness, he saw a hooded figure force the weaker girl to her knees. O’Ryan ran up behind the attacker, hefted the watering can overhead, and brought it down against the attacker’s shoulders. The assailant let go Emily’s throat and spun about to face O’Ryan.

O’Ryan was not a fighter, but he knew a few things about protecting himself. He caught the attacker by the folds of its robe and hurled it against the wall. The fiend slumped to the ground, briefly stunned. O’Ryan bent down to check on Emily, who screamed at his touch. Meanwhile the attacker fled the porch. O’Ryan tried to follow, but tripped over the watering can, lying in the way.

When he regained his feet, the hooded figure was gone, and Emily had slipped inside, bolting the door behind her.

O’Ryan was breathing hard, visibly shaken as Julie joined him. “I almost had him,” he told her. “Dammit, I almost had him!”

Julie, seeing her man was okay, went to the door, and pounded with her beak. No one answered so she kicked it with her feet. Ostriches have powerful leg muscles and had it been an ordinary door she might have smashed it in. As it was, the only thing she did was make a lot of noise, most of which went unheard inside the thick stone structure.

Then commenced the strangest night of O’Ryan and Julie’s existence to date.

Scant minutes after bolting the huge castle door, Emily, clad only in a tiny slip, ran back out, screaming for her very life as she knocked Julie aside and fled into the woods. O’Ryan helped Julie to her feet and was about to give chase when Renée Renwick, herself wearing a brief nightie, dashed out.

“Quick,” she commanded them. “Get up to Emily’s room. Something there has frightened her to death.”

“What about—?”

“I’ll get her. She’s too weak to go far. Just check her room. Please!”

#

As O’Ryan and Julie ascended the staircase, other women, in varying modes of sleepwear, descended, making for the downstairs foyer. (As mentioned, Castle Wilhelm had two wings, with the men and women segregated, so the men had no idea what was going on.) The fleeing finalists left their rooms open. O’Ryan and Julie checked each one, attempting to locate Emily’s. This they finally did, identifying her quarters by the presence of the cat of many colors standing with its back arched, hissing at a half-closed closet. O’Ryan signaled Julie to hang back.

The near-stygian darkness could not mask the room’s indescribable dinginess. Stark bare walls stank of mold and rot, while the crude window carved into the wall was too high and narrow to allow proper ventilation. No wonder these poor girls fell sick, the accommodations striking O’Ryan more akin to prison cells than living quarters.

Amid this atmosphere of decay, he sensed an additional presence. The defensive attitude of the cat told him there was something in the closet.

Taking two pewter candleholders from the dresser and holding them before him in the shape of a cross, he stepped inside. There his blood froze at the sight of Fredmann Fred hanging from an iron peg in the closet wall. The beatnik’s bloodied head slumped forward on his chest in an attitude of death.

O’Ryan closed his eyes, uttering a silent prayer. Then as he drew closer to examine the corpse, Fredmann’s eyes flicked open, and in a sodden voice, he said, “I say, Professor, could you help me down? The catsup is getting in my eyes.”

O’Ryan could not contain his rage. “What the hell?” he demanded. It was all he could do not to pulverize the plastered poet to a pewter pulp.

“Now, now, don’t get riled.” Fredmann slurred his words. “It was only a prank; nothing to get worked up about. It isn’t like she’s in any real danger.”

“No real danger?” O’Ryan repeated the thoughtless words. “You idiot! Don’t you realize the girl’s on the verge of a breakdown?” Without waiting for an answer, O’Ryan jerked Fredmann down from the closet peg, after which he served up a punch to the snoot that bounced him across the room.

With that small token of satisfaction, he resumed his search for Emily.

#

Reentering the hallway, O’Ryan saw one room remained closed. Dispensing with formality, he burst in.

Before a dark mirror, sat Edna Milady, a soft negligee draping her elegant body. The brittle delicacy of earlier was gone, replaced by a voluptuous display of rounded thighs and swelling breasts. The baggy sweatshirt that afternoon had done a magnificent job of disguising her alluring charms. As she turned to gaze upon her intruder, a single strap of her garment slipped from her shoulder, exposing an inviting mound of ivory perfection.

“Why, Mr O,” she greeted him, her eyes mockingly seductive. “If I’d known you were coming I’d‘ve slipped into something more comfortable.”

Everything about her was a turn-on. Her warm flesh a temptation. Her lush curves a promise. She was everything a man could want.

O’Ryan would not have touched her with a ten-foot pole.

“Perhaps next time, you’ll bring a big sausage. That and the famous cider Fred talks about. I too am a woman who loves some Dixon cider.”

O’Ryan walked out in scorn, as storms of callous laughter echoed down the hallway.

#

The search for Emily continued throughout the night. Cook roused the men to help. Fredmann was already looking. Dylan joined him while a third contestant, Mojo, went to fetch the sheriff. NC Dent refused to leave his room. Receiving no response to her repeated knockings, Cook slipped a note under his door begging him to aid them. His scribbled reply was a firm “No.” It was within his rights to do so, as nothing in the rules compelled him to help. But while it earned him no Brownie Points, it did, if nothing else, confirm his whereabouts.

Shortly before three AM, Fredmann Fred, contrite, shaken, teary-eyed, staggered into the foyer, carrying a nude woman in his arms. The woman was not Emily. Emily was fair-haired.

“I found her wandering by the creek,” Fredmann managed between sobs.

It was dark-haired Liz Portugal, bleeding from numerous wounds on her arms, legs, and torso. Against the wishes of the others, she had gone to look for Emily, saying she would go around back to where Renée was searching.

Fredmann laid her out on a settee where Cook and and other girls (still in various states of undress) attended to her.

“You’ve got to believe me,” Fredmann pleaded, as O’Ryan, hearing the commotion, reentered the room. “I never believed any of this was real. I never would have played that trick on Emily had I known.”

“Where’s Renée?” O’Ryan demanded.

“She still out,” Cook informed him.

Not wasting another word, O’Ryan tramped out, turning his steps toward the rear of the castle and the sloping banks of the creek where the missing Dr Lloyd had turned up. At this point, he did not know if Renée was in danger, or if she were, as Fredmann suggested, the person, supernatural or otherwise, behind it all. In any event, the events surrounding Dr Lloyd, and now Liz, hinted this was where the menace originated.

#

Descending the slope, O’Ryan fought his way through a maze thick bush. A faint noise reached his ears, like that of of dripping water. He pushed through the densely entwined brush, and stopped…spellbound…as his eyes beheld the sight of another thick bush.

A human one this time.

Before him, in the middle of the stream, stood Edna, completely nude this time, bathing in the cold waters of the shallow creek.

The ten-foot pole with which O’Ryan earlier swore he would not touch Edna Milady bent dangerously near its breaking point as his captive eyes drank in the sight of her perfectly formed thighs and jutting breasts.

She was in the act of scrubbing her hands when she looked up and saw O’Ryan there. “Goodness, Mr O, but you seem to be making a habit of playing Peeping Tom on me. If this continues I shall have to inform the police.” Despite this her hands remained at her sides and she made no attempt at covering her charms.

“What makes you suddenly want to go skinny-dipping in the middle of the night?”

“I always enjoy a midnight dip,” she replied, unperturbed.

“It’s long past midnight,” O’Ryan pointed out.

“Yes, but as you can clearly see, I’m not wearing a watch.” She smiled wickedly, then calmly walked onto the bank where she bent to retrieve her clothing. “If you must know, I was assisting with the search for poor Emily when I slipped and fell. You chanced upon me as I was washing the mud from my legs and clothing.” She held one exquisitely shaped leg straight out for him to inspect. “You can see for yourself if you like.”

O’Ryan of course did not believe a word of it. Still he found no reason to suspect her of any wrongdoing. Naked women can be quite distracting that way.

“Aren’t you going to escort me back inside?” she asked.

O’Ryan shook his head as he overcame her spell, seeing her once again for the ugly person she truly was. Not in the physical sense, but in terms of her narcissism and callous indifference.

“No,” he told her, turning his back and leaving. “You seem to manage all right on your own.”

#

They never did find Emily that night. Or Renée for that matter. The darkness had swallowed them both.

Sometime before five, O’Ryan caught sight of Emily wandering the grounds near the front entrance. It was like a replay of the scene that started it all. O’Ryan called to her and she took off running, franticly racing for the door. O’Ryan did not pursue. He let her go inside on her own, hearing as the door closed a babble of voices rush to her aid.

The night began with a scream. It ended with one as well. In the opening moments before dawn, Emily Dixon attempted to flee the castle once more, lowering herself from a steel-barred second-floor window to the ground below. She lost her grip and fell, breaking both legs in the process. A returning Renée Renwick reported finding her naked body lying in the wet grass. Why she was naked, and why she once more attempted to flee, remained a mystery, as the circumstances of that night expunged themselves from her memory.

Chapter 14

Incident Over a Cold Breakfast,

Followed By a Visit from the Sheriff

 

“Holy cow!” Panty-clad Patti Redondo groaned over a slice of dry toast. “Is it never going to end?”

“This nightmare of tragedy and terror?” Rose Chrisetti, also in her nightclothes, asked.

“No,” Patti shook her head. “I mean this continuous parade of undressed women. I haven’t seen so much flesh on display since a late-night screening of the Karnstein Trilogy on Cinemax. The only one who didn’t put on a strip show last night was Cook.”

“I see what you mean.” Rose glanced at her own flimsy outfit. “And considering she’s the one who looks like Ingrid Pitt, you’d have thought that the direction this was heading.”

Patti nodded silently, took a bite of toast, then looked up. “Hello Baby Doll,” she greeted as Louisa Cottal entered the kitchen. “Baby Doll” was not a nickname. It was a reference to Louisa’s nightie. Close at her heels was Yokiko Asano in a micro-mini kimono. Unlike the others, the Asian woman was not in her nightclothes. Micro-minis were her everyday attire, meant to sway the contest judges. Still it did not stop Patti from commenting: “We’re certainly not doing anything to dispel the image of a 1970 Hammer film.”

“Well,” Rose replied defensively, “I’d go up and change only frankly I’m scared to be alone. Perhaps if one of you went with me…”

Patti: “Now we’re definitely not dispelling any images.”

“By the way,” Rose sought to change the subject, “I heard Emily and Liz are being sent home today.”

“Yes. Poor things.” Louisa Cottal traced circles on the rim of her empty cup. “Still, I hate to say but even though I didn’t get any sleep last night, I feel better this morning than I have in ages. I guess because the fiend that was plaguing me concentrated on Emily and Liz.” She suppressed a shudder. “Only now that they’re gone…”

“Don’t worry,” Rose laid a reassuring hand on Louisa’s forearm. “We’ll stick together.”

Patti: “And rename the place to Karnstein Castle while we’re at it.”

Rose ignored her, knowing she was speaking from fear. “We’ll even block the door so Yokiko doesn’t go out.”

That brought smiles from all; even the Asian, who surprised them by responding in English: “Kiko think it better if no let Renwick in.”

Which brought back the question on everyone’s mind: Exactly where was Renée Renwick last night when the men were searching?

#

At the same time the girls broke fast, a lean, grim-faced man in his fifties was having words with O’Ryan. Hat, gun, and badge identified him as the local law officer.

“Morning,” the man said brusquely.

“Morning,” O’Ryan returned. “You here to question the girl who was attacked last night?”

“I did.” Sheriff Elliot nodded. “All she remembers is a hairy face with big bloodshot eyes.”

“Really?” O’Ryan brushed his hair back absentmindedly. “That’s an interesting description. I—” That was when he caught his reflection in the jeep’s driver side mirror. The scholarly-length hair, medium-length whiskers, and wide red eyes. “Wait a minute. You don’t think—”

“I’m not sure what to think,” the sheriff spoke sternly. “Just for the record, where were you when the attack occurred?”

“I was right here. You can ask my ostrich.”

Elliot shook his head, sadly. Over the years, he met a lot of weirdos. This one topped the list.

“I would if I thought it’d help.” The lanky lawman rubbed his weary eyes. He never got much sleep during these festivals. Unlike O’Ryan however he did not resort to pharmaceutical methods to stay awake. “I’ve been a peace officer for thirty years, fifteen as a deputy and another fifteen as sheriff, during which I’ve had people go missing from every one of these festivals.” He paused reflectively, pulling his horseshoe moustache. “Thirty years of unsolved missing persons cases is a bad thing to have on one’s record. So if it’s all the same to you, I’d as soon you leave right now—just to help me narrow the field of suspects.”

“Gee, officer, I’d like to help you out but I need to stay put in case the genie tries to vamoose.”

Elliot eyed him crossways. He had heard the genie story from the women inside Castle Wilhelm.

“Besides,” O’Ryan went on, “you can’t order me to go. I’m not doing anything wrong.”

One thing a Texas lawman does not care for is people telling him what he can and cannot do. Sheriff Elliot straightway set O’Ryan straight on that.

“I could arrest you right now for loitering.”

“Loitering? There’s people camped all over the place. You can’t single me out.”

“Those people are in a designated camping area. You’re not. You’re parked under a tree on Wilhelm property. That means you’re loitering. So either you move in with the other campers, find a room someplace, or get out of town.”

O’Ryan saw he was serious. Still he could not give up his vigil. Not with two days to go before the contest finals. He had to stall until he could figure out what to do.

“Okay, sheriff, whatever you say. But I’ll need time to get my stuff together. You can’t just pack up an ostrich and go. You have to do it gradual so as not to traumatize them.”

To O’Ryan’s everlasting relief, Sheriff Elliot knew nothing about the care and handling of ostriches so he gave in to his request.

“All right,” he acquiesced. “I’ll give you the rest of the day. But if you’re still here by morning I’m locking you up.”

Chapter 15

Incident Concerning Renée’s Whereabouts the Night Before

 

Shortly after the sheriff drove off, Renée came out, walking the shady side of the castle with O’Ryan’s morning thermos of coffee. Her greeting was as cold as the coffee. “I thought you’d be incarcerated by now.”

O’Ryan shook his head. “After all the things that happened last night, I could use a drink.” He downed a few white pills with his coffee and let Julie sip the rest.

“I mean,” Renée clarified, “I hear you’ll be moving on soon.” She had a gotcha look from which O’Ryan inferred she was in cahoots with Elliot on getting rid of him. It made sense too if she were the fiend behind it all. The creature preying on Emily and Liz had finally succeeded in getting to them, but it had not been easy. With him gone, Louise Cottal and the other women would prove easier.

Nevertheless it was still a big if. He had no evidence with which to accuse her. Nothing but suspicion and conjecture.

Through with the thermos, O’Ryan dug out fifty bucks to pay her. She said, “You owe me for the watering can as well.”

“Oh, right. I did damage it, didn’t I? By the way, how’s your neck this morning?”

“Not bad,” she admitted. “A little sore but—” She caught the gotcha-back look in O’Ryan’s eye and swiftly added, “I bumped into a tree last night while searching the woods.”

Renée would have to go awful far to bump into another tree. Other than the cottonwood under which he parked, the next clump was at the opposite end of the pasture.

“I guess that’s why you didn’t come back till early morning, you wandering off so far.”

Renée glared at him, resenting the insinuation. “I cut across the field to take a shortcut to town. I thought Emily might have headed that way. I didn’t have a flashlight so my bumping into trees was nothing unusual.”

Again she had an excuse for everything. And while he was hard pressed to believe she would go into town wearing only her nightclothes O’Ryan saw nothing to be gained by pursuing the subject and dropped it.

#

“By the way, I hear Liz and Emily are leaving. I’d like to say goodbye before they go.”

“Oh? I wished I’d known. They’re already gone. Families picked them up after the sheriff questioned them. Took the cat with them. I’ll miss her. She was a good mouser.”

“When did that happen? I never saw anybody go.”

“They left by the back way.”

“Ah, I see. That explains— Wait! What back way? You never mentioned a rear entrance to this place.”

“That’s because there isn’t one.”

“But you just told me—”

Renée raised a hand, commanding silence. “The front door,” she explained simply, “is the entrance. The back way, at the northeast wall, would be an exit.”

The northeast side of Castle Wilhelm was not visible from O’Ryan’s vantage point beneath the cottonwood tree.

“Holy cow, woman!” O’Ryan was on the point of tearing his hair out. “Then for all you know Dent could have slipped out anytime.”

“Relax. Don’t get your feathers ruffled. He’s still in his room. I can assure you.”

“The same way you assured me there was no other way in.”

“LIke I said, the back way—”

“I know,” O’Ryan stewed. “The back way is an exit.”

#

O’Ryan felt defeated. In every way, he had failed. The entire time he thought he had Dent under surveillance the goofy genie could have come and gone as he pleased. Meanwhile, the person he felt sure was behind the attacks on the girls was too clever to be trapped. And his new friends, Liz and Emily, had fallen prey to the fiend despite his effort to watch out for them. To top it off, they had departed Fredericksburg before he had a chance to say farewell.

“So their families came and got them?”

“Who?”

“Liz and Emily! Who did you think I mean? The cat?”

“Oh, right. Liz’s family came last night. Took her home before Emily returned. Emily’s people came this morning. Some of her mother’s sisters. We put them up a few hours before the doctor released her.”

“Her mother’s sisters?” O’Ryan repeated. “Where did they stay?”

“In the anteroom.”

O’Ryan never did figure out if that was a deliberate joke on her part. It felt too well planned to be an accident. Only as Renée told him from the start, “We’re Germans; and we have no sense of humor.”

Chapter 16

Incident Regarding a Visit to the Mall

 

With Liz and Emily dropping out, eight poets remained in the competition. Fredmann, Dent, Dylan, and Mojo made up the men. Patti, Louisa, Rose, and Yokiko comprised the women. Along with Renée, Cook, and Edna, it left eleven people occupying the castle. Occupying it, but not necessarily inside it.

The four women, having summoned the courage to return to their rooms and dress, paid a call on O’Ryan and Julie. Patti suggested the others join Julie on a walk while she conferred with O’Ryan.

Patti Redondo was a skinny, plain-faced woman. She came across as a city urchin. Her looks that did not come from a lack of calories, but were a throwback to the pioneering women of old. Bony legs poked from a pair of knee-length cotton shorts and her black sneakers were not there to make a fashion statement. It was utilitarian. If the need came to run, she was prepared to do so.

She was also a sensible girl. Like Fredmann Fred, she did not want to credit the situation at Castle Wilhelm to supernormal forces. She believed it was an inside job, with someone deliberately attempting to reduce the field. What confused her was why they would target Emily.

“Emily’s a sweet thing, don’t get me wrong,” Patti explained. “But she’s flakier than a Martha White biscuit. The poem she was writing for the finals was about a bird scarfing down worms. I know because every night she asked me to check her spelling. I can’t imagine anything like that winning top prize.

“If it were me, I’d go after Yokiko. Given her…let’s call it ‘familiarity’…with the judging staff, she’s a sure bet to win. The rest of us are vying for second place.”

O’Ryan admired her refreshing honesty. It cast doubt on Renée as the culprit and pointed the finger back at Dent, using his powers to tilt the odds. Only Patti in a way was too level headed; she did not swallow his story about Dent being a genie and Julie a real woman. So in that way, her opinion did not contribute much one way or another. Nor did it help O’Ryan’s plight as far as the threat from the sheriff went. To put it plainly, she was no help at all.

Before leaving to join the other girls, Patti dug a slip of notepaper from her pocket. “Emily asked me to give this to you. Maybe it will help.”

O’Ryan waited until she left before opening Emily’s note. The unsigned scribble read:

 

Researching Schloss family history. Widow Schloss granted me access to documents late Herr Schloss brought from Europe.

Unknown date, 17th century. Friedrich Wilhelm marries Spanish noblewoman. Scandal of some sort follows. (Page torn from family record.) FW and wife flee to Spanish Texas. Contact ceases and Wilhelm branch believed to have died out. Herr Schloss claims possession after WWII.

FW wife’s name Lady Medina. Same as Dr Lloyd repeated when found.

 

O’Ryan read the note twice, all the while wondering if Lady Medina was “soft and golden like the sun.”

#

A “psst!” interrupted O’Ryan’s lunch. He set aside the packet of seeds he was feeding Julie and saw Dylan Lightfoot stick his head out from behind the tree. “Is the coast clear?” he asked. O’Ryan, unsure if he referred to Renée, the sheriff, or the four girls, said, “Yes.”

Dylan stepped out, acoustic guitar in had, and O’Ryan cringed, thinking he was going to be victim of another forty verses of “Mexicali Mama.” Such was not to be the case. Instead Dylan set his guitar flat on the ground and, using his right toe, strummed a one-up, two-down pattern on the open strings.

“Like that?” he asked. Dylan had taken O’Ryan’s advice and tuned the guitar strings to sound D-A-D-F#-A-D so an unfretted strum produced a D chord.

“Like that,” O’Ryan approved.

“I thought you’d like it,” Dylan continued strumming. “It took me half the night to get the G string to F-sharp.” He continued strumming. “I can play other chords by fretting with my left toe. I was thinking of adding an E to spice it.” A cough sounded from behind the tree. Dylan motioned the cougher to approach. A tall fellow with dark shoulder-length curls stepped out. “This is my friend, Mojo,” Dylan introduced him. It was O’Ryan’s first time to meet the young man, Mojo having gone to fetch Sheriff Elliot while the others were out searching the night before. “I told him how you critiqued me yesterday and he was hoping you’d do the same for him.”

O’Ryan looked at Julie and the bird nodded.

“Sure,” he told Mojo. “Why not?”

Mr Mojo, rising, then recited the most amazing thing O’Ryan and Julie ever heard:

 

the killer woke up on the lawn

he put some blues on

he took a plate of day-old celery and he went down to the mall

 

he paid a visit to the auto shop where his brother worked

and then he

paid a visit to the strip club where his sister worked

and then he

he walked into the mall

 

and he came to a store

and he looked all fried

 

hey buddy, you gonna buy anything or are you just gonna stand with your nose against the glass?

 

father?

i’m not your father. now what do you want?

i want to mildew. mother?

i’m not your mother either

oh? then i don’t suppose you’d let me…?

not on your life, you psycho!

oh well. it was only a fantasy. chiao.

 

It left O’Ryan and Julie speechless. Granted, Julie was always speechless, still both showed their appreciation with enthusiastic applause, assuring him the judges would be crazy not to award him first place. Mojo politely thanked them and he and Dylan prepared to leave. O’Ryan stopped them.

“By the way, what were you guys doing last night when all the commotion was going on?”

“Honestly,” Dylan confessed, “we weren’t aware anything was wrong until Cook roused us.”

“That’s true,” Mojo seconded. “You can’t tell from out here, but inside our rooms are practically soundproof. The walls are so thick and the oak doors so heavy nothing penetrates from the hallway. The only noise we hear is what comes through the window. Which is another odd thing. The windows are too high to look out of unless you stand on the dresser, and they all have vertical bars across them, fastened from outside.”

“That’s right,” Dylan agreed. “Like they’re there to keep you in rather than protect you from whatever’s lurking outside.”

“Lurking?” O’Ryan jumped on the word.

“Well…” Mojo stated hesitantly. “People are strange, you know.”

“And you can’t help but listen to what they say,” Dylan finished.

Chapter 17

Incident of the Dog in the Night

 

Dylan and Mojo left a short time after, having failed to convince O’Ryan to allow Julie to join their act. The visual part of the performance was as important as the vocal, and they felt Julie’s presence might counter the effect of Yokiko’s micro-mini kimonos. O’Ryan agreed with them in principal, but pointed out Julie’s large toes might break Dylan’s guitar strings. And then where would they be?

About an hour before sunset, Fredmann Fred dropped by. O’Ryan had been expecting him all day. The beatnik poet looked showered and fresh, and he had changed into a clean sweatshirt.

“All right if I sit down?” Fredmann asked.

O’Ryan said nothing, so the beatnik took it for a yes.

“As you may have noticed, Mr O, I have a drinking problem. It doesn’t excuse anything. It’s just what it is.

“I did intend to stay sober last night. Honestly I did. I wanted to keep an eye on Renée Renwick to see if she was up to anything. But then Edna invited me to her room and—well, can you blame me for going? Oh, I know you wouldn’t have gone, but I did.

“We had some drinks and talked. Just talked. You see, along with German beer, I have a fondness for the garlic bratwurst they manufacture here, and Edna won’t let me near her when I eat too much of it. So all we did was talk. And drink.

“Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned my suspicions about Emily and Renée. And God only knows how it came about or whose idea it was but somehow I got it in my head to play that stupid prank in Emily’s closet. I was supposed to scare her, then jump down and catch her, and show her how groundless her fears were. You have to believe me; I actually thought it’d shock her back to reality.”

“After which she’d show her gratitude by spending the night in your arms,” O’Ryan put in sarcastically.

“Okay, okay, I’m a dog.” Fredmann admitted. “Only I couldn’t work my way down off the peg in the wall and, well, then everything else happened.”

“It’s still not an excuse,” O’Ryan told him.

“I’m not saying it is!” Fredmann paused to calm down. “Look, O, fifty weeks a year I play piano in a beat joint. The patrons call it an up-scale jazz club, but it’s really a dive. Night after night, I play the same old songs, to the same bunch of self-centered snobs smelling of the same old tobacco and booze, and all of whom believe they’re somehow better than the person next to them.

“So given that, who wouldn’t drink, if only to blot out the endless parade of drunken women demanding I play a song they can sing? I tell them ‘scat’ and they do Ella Fitzgerald impressions. That’s my life.

“Except for two weeks every year when I visit Fredericksburg, breath some clean air, indulge in some Bavarian beer and sausage, and turn the tables on everyone, telling gullible chicks I’m a Gaelic poet. Gaelic my ass! It’s pure gibberish. Still I feed them a line and if I’m lucky manage to bed a few. After which it’s back to that hell-hole bar for another fifty weeks until the next festival rolls around.”

Fredmann looked at the ground, kicked a rock, and looked back up.

“Does that make any sense to you?” he asked.

O’Ryan picked up a pebble of his own, tossed it across the drive. Fredmann Fred’s story did make sense, of a sort. Not that he agreed with any of it.

“It’s the Alcatraz around your neck,” he spoke philosophically. “Still, you’re the one who chose to wear it.”

Fredmann nodded and got to his feet. “Thank you, Mr O. You are wise beyond your years.” He took a step, stopped, and said over his shoulder. “Oh, and so you know, I did apologize to Emily and Liz before they left. I can’t say either of them accepted it, but I did apologize.”

Chapter 18

Incident After Midnight

 

A ten o’clock crescent moon covered its ears as a miserable O’Ryan, red-eyed and disheveled, pounded a fist on the palace door. Julie, guarding his back, looked equally tired. Unable to sleep because of the little white pills he had taken, he passed the evening talking with Julie, trying to wrap his head around all that had happened. Connect the dots. Put two and two together. The more he talked however the less he found to wrap, while the dots rolled off the page, and the math refused to add up.

Then a glimmer of clarity came and pierced the murk, zeroing on the only person with means, motive, and opportunity to pull off such a stunt. Because the more he considered it, the less real it seemed. And it became something too fantastic to be anything other than a stunt. A sick prank engineered by none other than that goofy genie, NC Dent himself.

That Dent could conjure visions O’Ryan had no doubt. Or that he could plant ideas in weak minds like Fredmann Fred. Even his suspicions about Edna and Renée he now saw as a misdirected sleight-of-hand. Edna was simply a supercilious snob, while Renée an unsociable grump. No, it had to be Dent.

His were the hands pulling the strings. Not out of evil. Doubtless he did not realize the havoc he was wreaking. Nor could he have intended the injuries that befell Dr Lloyd, Liz, or Emily as they wandered in the dark. It was just his warped sense of humor running unchecked, reacting to new opportunities. Once he tried his hand at sculpting, causing chaos in Amarillo. Now he wanted to win a poetry contest in Fredericksburg. It was all the reckless behavior of an unleashed genie with no one to command him.

O’Ryan would not even put it past Dent to have planted that eulogy slab under the cottonwood tree for others to find, simply as another sick amusement. It was only now that O’Ryan finally saw through it. The whole thing made no sense. Which was precisely the point. It made no sense—because nothing Dent did ever made any sense.

Now, with the long arm (and short temper) of the law breathing down his neck, it was time for a final confrontation. Thus, he pounded the door, harder and harder with each blow, ready to waken the long-departed Wilhelm’s in their graves, if necessary, to gain entrance.

A weary Cook opened the door. “Kam vin,” she invited. O’Ryan stepped forward. “Not choo,” said Cook. “Only bird. Ms Renée say no let-a you in.”

Having worked himself into a hot, foaming lather, Cook’s simple words were like a bucket of cold water on a boiling stewpot.

Julie brushed past O’Ryan and went inside. Once there, she turned and winked. O’Ryan got it.

“Holy bottled spirits, Batman!” He pounded a fist into his palm. “Here I’ve been worried about my genie getting away when I’ve had him trapped the whole time! Julie,” he addressed the bird, “park outside Dent’s room and stay there. If he tries to leave, chase him back. Peck his head, kick his legs, sit on top of him if you have to until he gets it through his head that he’s not going anywhere without seeing me first.”

Julie did as told, heading up the stairs to the men’s section of the castle. Cook, indifferent to the whole thing, closed the door on O’Ryan, although not before he got in a departing “hmmf!” of which Oliver Hardy himself would have approved.

#

The wind slipped lazily through distant maples, while the moon resembled a broken pearl on a dark shirt sprinkled with dandruff. A beam of light spilled from the castle entry as O’Ryan, from the shadows, laid a hand on Dylan Lightfoot’s shoulder.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

Dylan nearly jumped out of his skin. “Aw, man, don’t do that. You scared the bejeezus out of me. I’m leaving to stay at the campground. It may not be safer, but there’s more room to run.”

“Why should you be worried? The fiend’s only attacked women so far.”

Dylan gave O’Ryan a queer look. “No offense, Mr O, but you’ve had your butt planted in that jeep all this time and don’t know the half of it. My first week here a couple of men—amateur spelunkers—vanished from their motel room. The manager reported them missing after a few days. Conjecture is they trespassed into a private cave and got into trouble, but who knows? Anyway, it ain’t just women disappearing.”

“Sorry,” O’Ryan apologized. “I didn’t know that.” Pause. “Do me a favor. Hold the door open while I get something to prop the latch.”

“What are you going to do?” Dylan asked.

“I’m going”—O’Ryan slipped a piece of leather between the the bolt and the latch—“to fix it so the door doesn’t lock itself. Then, when everyone’s asleep, I’ll break into Dent’s room, and have it out with him.”

#

A sliver of candlelight spilled from Renée’s partly open door. The floor, best he could see, looked uncharacteristically lumpy. There was a reason for this. The frightened female finalists had relocated to the foyer and were sleeping in a tight circle before Ms Renwick’s quarters.

O’Ryan had no way of knowing this. Just as he had no way of knowing whose foot he stepped on as he crossed the crowded floor. That foot owner shrieked and everybody freaked out, pelting him with whatever they could lay their hands on.

“Ow! Ow! Stop it, would you? It’s me!”

Renée’s door burst opened, the backlight exposing her body wrapped in a bath towel. She looked utterly charming. Looking charming was not her reason for stepping out though. Rather, she made a startled cry, not a scream, but something more like an “Eek!” The very softness of it made everyone stop. Renée pointed back to her room, then, looking at her feet, emitted another “Eek!”, and vanished down a hallway.

O’Ryan and the four women stared at each other. Somehow, “Eek!” seemed out of place given all that happened the night before. The understatement made it even more ominous.

O’Ryan debated what to do next. Now was his opportunity to tackle Dent’s room. He was not likely to get another. As O’Ryan headed for the stairs, four small voices stopped him, a pathetic “Mr O?” with a floating question mark the size of a blimp. O’Ryan could not see their eyes. He did not need to. He could hear their tears.

“Stay put,” he ordered. Then, steeling his shoulders, he entered Renée’s room, closing the door behind him.

Chapter 19

Incident of the Bottomless Pit

 

O’Ryan crossed Renée’s office, halting before a closed bedroom door. He called to see if anyone was inside. There was no answer. Thinking he heard noises, he put his shoulder to the door, forcing it open. The bed was empty. There was yet another door on the far side of the bedroom. It was ajar. O’Ryan took it to be a closet.

“Identify yourself!” He called again. “Who’s in there?”

Vaht?” A muffled voice called from behind the closet door.

Without answering, O’Ryan burst in—only to find it was not a closet. It was a bathroom. A bathroom where Cook sat soaking in the tub. A bar of soap flew from her hands and landed on the floor as she screamed for him to get out.

O’Ryan covered his eyes. “You must hurry,” he told her. “There’s been an emergency.” To speed her along, he grabbed her clothing from the counter top and tossed them to her. This proved to be a bad idea. Having gone through three rooms to get where he was, it meant he was against the back wall of the building. Moreover, because the bathtub sat by a ground-level open window, and because O’Ryan was not looking directly at her, his aim was off, resulting in Cook’s things flying out the window.

“You idjut!” Cook stood up in the tub. “Uf all zee—” She quickly sat down again, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. “Vood joo please get zout uf here?” she begged.

“I’ll get you a towel,” O’Ryan said.

“Nie! Joost go—”

O’Ryan advanced sideways, his eyes averted, holding the towel at arm’s length. Cook reached for it. O’Ryan’s foot came down on the bar of soap that had landed on the floor. His feet shot backward and he pitched forward, straight into the tub. Cook screamed and in struggling to free herself wrapped her legs around his torso.

Here Julie walked in, followed by the four finalists.

O’Ryan looked up from his compromising position. “It’s not what you think,” he managed feebly.

Whether it was or it was not, girls and ostrich walked out anyway. Cook meanwhile took a long-handled brush and beat O’Ryan blue about his shoulders, venting a torrid stream of mixed German-Polish invectives no one but she could have translated.

#

Someone had the foresight to light some candles. They illuminated the foyer sufficient for O’Ryan to see ten optic orbs regard him with disapproval. “Honestly,” he spread his palms helplessly. “I can explain everything.”

The girls crossed their arms as if to say, “Go ahead.”

O’Ryan thought a minute. “No,” he admitted. “On second thought, I can’t.”

Renée chose that moment to reappear. O’Ryan headed back to the office, preferring Cook’s hairbrush to the wrath of Renwick. “You can’t go in there.” Renée put herself between him and the door. “Ingoushka’s taking a bath.”

“Yes,” O’Ryan quietly replied. “I know.”

“Trust us,” Rose Chrisetti emphasized. “He definitely knows.”

“Now, Rose,” Patti pointed out, “it was only a matter of time, given you had an Ingrid Pitt lookalike in a castle, that sooner or later she’d appear naked in a bathtub.”

Chapter 20

Incident in the Downstairs Foyer

 

Minutes later, the palace tenants gathered in the foyer. Renée ordered a quick head count.

Jeden…dwa…trzy…

“Ingoushka! English please!”

“Wun…tuke…tree…”

It disclosed two things. First, that the angry Cook—wearing a soggy bathrobe that dripped large puddles onto the stone floor—was auditioning a new accent. Second, it showed that, of the eleven people authorized to be inside the stronghold, only eight were present. (For the sake of accuracy, there were seven of them in the foyer, Dent adamantly refusing to vacate his quarters.)

“I swear,” Renée snapped irritably. “That kook wouldn’t vacate his room if it were on fire.” She had swapped her bath towel for a mini-dress. It covered more skin, but she still looked charming.

“There’s an idea.” O’Ryan headed for the men’s wing. “I’ll blow smoke under his door and force him out.”

“No!” Renée grabbed his arm to stop him. “You mustn’t bother him!” She had a death’s grip on O’Ryan’s sleeve, and found herself pulled along the polished stone floor like a water skier on Lake Travis. “He left specific instructions that he’s not to be disturbed under any circumstances. If we intrude on his privacy he could sue the heck out of us.”

O’Ryan halted abruptly. “Then how”—he caught her as she pitched forward—“do you even know he’s in there?”

“Because,” she straightened herself with icy dignity, “unlike some people who think they need to stay awake day and night watching, I taped a small medicine vial filled with BB pellets to the top of his door. If Dent opens it from the inside, the tape will tear away and the BBs will spill to the floor, rattling onto a tin plate I set there. To date, the vial is still attached to the door, indicating it has not been opened since the time I closed him in there.”

“Oh?” O’Ryan blinked, looked up the stairwell, and saw it was as she had said. “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

“Could it be because you’re stupid?” Renée suggested.

“Possibly,” O’Ryan agreed, absently. “I mean, no. No! It’s just that I didn’t have any cellophane tape or BBs.”

He looked to Julie for support, but the bird lowered her head in embarrassment.

O’Ryan sighed, “Et tu, Bir-day?” He still wanted to break the door down, but seeing as Dent had tied his hands, he returned to where the others were gathered.

Cook chose that moment to point out that Edna Milady, Fredmann Fred, and Dylan Lightfoot were missing.

“Ed and Fred went out after dinner for a stroll,” Louisa Cottal recalled. “They should have been back by now.”

Heilige Kuh!” Renée threw her arms in the air. “Here we go again!”

“Speaking of ‘going’,” Patti Redondo got into Renée’s face, “what was that business with you running out of your room earlier?”

Renée gave her a dismissive wave, indicating she was in no mood for questions.

“Well?” Rose and Louisa echoed, joining Patti to block her exit.

Renée sighed. “I was chasing a rat, okay? That is, I was until it turned and chased me. So I fled the room.” She smiled briefly, and added, “Guess it means I’m human after all.”

“And charming,” thought O’Ryan, until Julie pecked him on the head.

#

Someone asked about Dylan Lightfoot.

“I bumped into him outside,” O’Ryan told them. “He said he was staying with the campers.”

“That’s not what he told me,” Patti contradicted. “He had his gear packed and said he was going exploring in the morning.”

“Exploring?” O’Ryan questioned.

“Yes. He’s an amateur caver, you know.”

“No. I didn’t.” O’Ryan pulled at his chin whiskers. “Now why would he tell me one thing and you another?” Another glimmer of light pierced the murk and he ordered Renée to let him see her room again. Reluctantly she led him back. “Show me where you saw the rat.”

Renée had an overwhelming desire to hold a mirror up to his face. But fighting down the urge, she pointed to a shadowy spot under the washbasin. O’Ryan got on his knees. Poked around. Found a hole in the wall. One large enough for a medium sized person to squeeze through. There was enough debris on either side to conceal the opening.

“There you go.” He hunkered back and pointed. “See for yourself. That’s how our friend gets in and out. He… crawls into… your bathroom… from the ruins… outside… then… makes his… way to… the girls’ rooms.”

If O’Ryan sounded like a man experiencing an asthma attack, it was because Renée was seeing for herself. On her knees and elbows with her buns inches from his face. It was not until she got back to her feet that O’Ryan caught his breath and finished.

“It was only because a rat inadvertently used the same opening that we were able to find it.”

“Then the mystery fiend,” Renée gasped, “is—” She stopped, looked at him curiously. “Your face red. Are you all right?”

“Dylan Lightfoot,” O’Ryan finished with an awkward cough. “Conveniently leaving the castle, telling me he was going one place and Patti he was going another. It makes sense if you think about those missing spelunkers.”

#

O’Ryan glanced up and saw Ingoushka, Julie, Louisa, Mojo, Patti, Renée, Rose, and Yokiko all looking over his shoulder. O’Ryan figured they had only now arrived. Otherwise Julie would surely have bonked him with her beak.

“Oh, but not Dylan,” Rose began. “He’s—” She faltered. “I mean, he’s always been so—”

“The truth,” Patti stated the obvious, “is we know nothing about him. Even Mojo didn’t know he was a caver until now.”

“I roomed across the hall from him all week,” Mojo concurred, “and couldn’t tell you who he is or where he’s from.”

“Fine.” O’Ryan cut the jibber-jabber. They could speculate later. “Julie, you stay here with them—don’t argue”—he pinched her beak to stop any protest—“while I go for the sheriff.”

“But Mr O,” a worried Louisa piped up nervously, “what shall we do in the meantime while you’re gone?”

O’Ryan ran a frustrated hand through his thinning hair. “What the heck. You’re poets, right? Make like Bryan and Shelby vacationing in Sugar Land. Trade ghost stories till I get back.” Then, with a final goodbye, he shut the castle door behind him.

#

Once outside however O’Ryan circled back and made straight for the ruined section of Castle Wilhelm. Curiosity had the better of him and he would not rest easy until he uncovered all he could regarding Dylan Lightfoot’s movements in the underground mazes of the palace’s vaults and cellars. In fact, Dylan could still be under the castle, eavesdropping. It was best then that everyone think he had gone.

Chapter 21

Incident in the Castle Dungeon

 

The moonlight, although it was merely a sliver, at first proved sufficient for O’Ryan to negotiate the treacherous twists and turns of the creepy cellar ruins. The deeper he penetrated, though, the less light filtered in and soon it was pitch dark. Fortunately, O’Ryan had the foresight to snatch a couple of thick candles on his way out the door. Lighting both, he set one of them on the floor to guide his way back. The other one he held before him as he proceeded through an open chamber. Slowly and with great care he crossed the rock-strewn floor until he came to a foundation wall. The feel of the cool earth poking through the cracks, the smell of vegetation, and a careful sense of direction told O’Ryan exactly where he was: on the wall next to the old cottonwood where the carved slab lay. The gravestone of the “soft and golden” woman for whom the poem had been written.

Great, he told himself, the only thing missing is Dracula and his three brides. I expect any minute now they’ll swoop down and bite me.

Then something did bite him! Not on his neck though. It closed with a loud snap on the toe of his foot. O’Ryan leaped back with a startled yelp, only to have another attacker clamp down at his heel. Losing his balance, he fell to the floor, raising a thick cloud of dust while several more unseen assailants snapped at his fingers and forearms.

Panic set in. Instinctively O’Ryan raised his hand to his lips. In doing so he smacked himself on the nose with a block of wood. Pain and anger replaced panic as he gripped the piece of wood with his other hand and tore it from his mangled fingers. Retrieving the sputtering candle from where it had fallen, O’Ryan examined the object and saw it was a mousetrap.

A mousetrap of all things!

Someone long ago had set them out for the obvious purpose of getting rid of rats and they had been lying in wait ever since. That they were old was unmistakable as the metal was quite rusty, which may have lessened some of their impact. Still it seemed a miracle they had not cut his skin or broken any fingers.

O’Ryan shook his head, sighed, and pried the traps from his body. A quick search showed a dozen more lying about. These O’Ryan tripped and rendered harmless. A final trap though, refused to snap, its spring rusted shut. O’Ryan drew back his arm, about to toss it into a corner, only to remember how his luck had been going lately. Instead, he placed the unsnapped trap in his shirt pocket with the jaws facing outward. That way there would be less chance of his stepping on it and springing the mechanism on himself.

#

With candle once more in hand, and the feeling of reassurance light provides, O’Ryan got up and dusted himself off. A sudden wave of exhaustion overcame him. The little white pills were wearing off and he did not have any left. He would have to force himself onward. The eerie silence of the chamber weighed strong upon him. It was a silence he could not fathom. There should have been night sounds, crickets, cicadas, frogs, but there was nothing. Even the most silent places have an ambient feel to them. This had nothing. It was not just a feeling that nothing was there; it was a feeling that nothing wanted to be there.

As he shuffled forward in the candle-lit dark, his toe touched a piece of flooring, an edge of which protruded upward, not level with the rest of the tiles. Alone amid the surrounding floor stones, the thick layer of dust that should have settled on top of this one was absent. This could only happen if the piece had recently been disturbed.

Bending to inspect it, he traced a finger over a large square stone. It moved to his touch. Setting the candle beside him on the floor, O’Ryan placed the heels of his palms against one edge of the stone and pushed hard. The heavy stone slab slid away, revealing a gaping hole of intense blackness.

Examining this by means of the flickering candlelight, O’Ryan determined the hole was approximately one yard square with stone steps indicating a stairway that communicated with the depths. Could this be Dylan’s secret pathway to Renée’s washroom? Driven by a strange urgency, O’Ryan slipped his legs through the hole, and let himself down, descending some ten or twelve steps before reaching the floor of a narrow passage furred with cobwebs.

Common sense told him to turn back. Curiosity and testosterone made him go on.

Clammy and cold was the air in those musty confines, but he kept on along the stuffy corridor until the light of his candle fell on a stone coffin set in the middle of the passageway.

The light of revelation shone in his weary eyes, and he did not need a translator to tell him the weathered green lettering on the coffin said this was the resting place, final or otherwise, of Lady Medina Wilhelm. The consideration of this miserable spectacle held him motionless for some moments, as a dark array of thoughts filled his mind; questions of life and death, of substance and nothingness, of effort and futility.

As he did this, an outside force seemed to take control, causing him to stretch forth a hesitant hand and touch the coffin. With conscious, yet helpless eyes, he watched the lid rise slowly until before him stood the woman he had known as Edna Milady.

 

i saw your face by candlelight

 

And such a face it was. Not that of a goddess or an angel. Or even a person. Whatever Lady Medina Wilhelm may have been centuries before, she was no longer. Down here in her world of darkness and decay, illusions need not be maintained.

She descended on him with hungry lips and sharpened teeth, O’Ryan standing motionless as the grisly presence placed her arms around his neck and pressed her body to his. Her lips parted, O’Ryan felt a prickly sensation of skin about to break, and then—

Snap!

Ye-ouch!

—the hell spawn creature thrust O’Ryan aside, the unsnapped mousetrap in his shirt pocket having sprung itself on her breast.

O’Ryan gave a cry of alarm, coming to his senses as he fell to the floor. The guttering candle, torn from his hand, landed on the funeral raiment of the creature from the coffin. The next moment a sheet of flame lit the creature, its coffin, and everything around it. Jumping to his feet, O’Ryan rushed blindly in the direction of the stairway. As he did so, a horrible cry assailed his ears and, with a final parting glance, he saw the creature vanish amid the flames.

#

Julie was waiting for him at the top of the stair. “I thought I told you to stay inside,” he mumbled feebly as she pulled him through the square hole. With her help, he fled the ruins until, safely distant, he rested his back against the cottonwood tree and lapsed into a troubled slumber.

Chapter 22

Incident in the Aftermath of the Fire

 

As O’Ryan later found out, Fredmann Fred turned up the next morning, having gone on a drinking binge with some people he met downtown. He had no knowledge of the fire or the circumstances that preceded it.

Dylan Lightfoot told the truth as well about exploring a cave. He and some friends had received permission from the landowner and they set off early that morning on their excursion. Two hours in, the group stumbled across what remained of the missing spelunkers from the previous week. An error in judgement led both to drown in a deep pool connected to the stream running outside Castle Wilhelm. It was a sad discovery, but it allowed Sheriff Elliot to scratch two names off his missing persons list.

Edna Milady (an anagram for Lady Medina) did not return. But seeing as she was one to come and go as she pleased, people chalked it up to her eccentric nature and assured themselves she would be back again for next year’s festival. O’Ryan sincerely doubted it, but kept his opinion to himself.

#

O’Ryan opened his eyes to find he was in a soft comfortable bed. Bright sunshine streamed through a tall window. Julie was at his bedside. “Hey, girl,” he greeted, reaching out to rub the soft gray feathers of her neck. Looking around stone room, he realized he was inside the castle. “I see the place didn’t burn down after all.”

A gentle knock sounded at the door and pretty blonde Renée Renwick entered, carrying a breakfast tray. O’Ryan saw she was smiling. She looked much better that way. The short shorts did not hurt either.

Setting the tray on the bed stand, she rushed forward with arms outspread, saying, “And how is our hero this morning?”

O’Ryan felt flattered at this unexpected change of heart. Apparently, his heroic actions of the night before caused her to regard him with newfound respect. He held out his arms to receive her embrace.

Which led to his feeling extremely foolish when the girl raced up to Julie and buried her face in the bird’s feathers. A moment later, she noticed O’Ryan with his arms outstretched. “Surely,” she regarded him frigidly, “you didn’t think—?”

“Huh? What?” O’Ryan recovered himself. “Oh, goodness no. I was only stretching.” He raised his hands overhead with an exaggerated yawn. “See? Just stretching, that’s all.”

Renée Renwick rolled her eyes and sniffed. It was more a snort than a sniff and the condescension was obvious.

“And why shouldn’t I be grateful to my Guardian Ostrich? If not for her timely action in warning us of the fire in the basement, the eight of us might not have gotten out in time.”

O’Ryan had to agree Julie’s actions had been commendable. “She sort of saved me too,” he added.

“Yes,” Renée noted. “From the fire that you started.”

“All right, all right, I’ll pay for the damages.” He paused. “Still, it was as you say a timely rescue.”

“Yes,” Renée agreed. “Eight of us.”

“Don’t forget me. That makes nine.”

“Okay, nine.”

“So, in other words, you might say—”

“Oh God,” Renée put her hands to her ears, seeing where this was going. “Don’t say it. Please, don’t say it!”

Only it was too much for O’Ryan to resist.

“Ostrich in time saves nine.”

#

Renée, fighting an inclination to gag, rushed to the door. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She turned and came back. “The doctor says you’re well enough to leave now. He said you only needed a couple days rest but I went and gave you four.”

“What!” O’Ryan bolted upright. “How long have I been here?”

“You’ve been sleeping on and off for the past four days. The doctor said the effects of the fire and smoke were minimal, but it turns out you’d been taking these little white pills and the lack of slumber finally caught up with you.”

Four days!

Little white pills!

Four days!

Asleep!

Four days!

The contest!

Worse yet, the genie!

“Oh, no,” O’Ryan groaned. He looked at Julie, then groaned again. “That means the contest…”

“Is long over,” Renée finished.

“And NC Dent…”

“Is long gone.”

#

O’Ryan wanted to cry. So he did. Pulling a blanket over his head, he gave vent to uncontrolled tears. Why had he waited? Why had he not broken down Dent’s door down when he first got there? It was too much to bear, to be so close only to miss out once again. Such was his despair that even Renée found herself feeling sorry for him.

“Um… For what it’s worth…” She reached into a jean pocket and took out a folded slip of paper. “Mr Dent left a note. He asked me to give it to you when you were better.” She paused, feeling her eyes begin to water. “Only seeing as you’re… Well, here.” She dropped the paper on the bed and hurried out.

Julie came to O’Ryan’s side. He put his arms around her, apologizing repeatedly, and promising never to give up. The ostrich rubbed him with her neck and cheek; letting him know they were in it together. O’Ryan patted her neck once more, and then took up the folded note. It read:

 

Dear O,

I was told you wished to see me, only when I looked in, you were sleeping so peacefully I could not bring myself to disturb you.

Thank you for respecting my privacy earlier. I am pleased to report, although I did not win the competition, I received an honorable mention for my original haiku:

 

For a moment there

I was walking on air, then

the noose tightened and

 

I hope we will meet again sometime. If and when we do, please remember you have one wish left.

Sincerely,

D

 

O’Ryan shook his head, bewildered at the stupidity of it all. The stupid genie for not waking him, the equally stupid idea that he could forget he had a last wish coming, and the unfathomable stupidity of contest judges who could award him for anything so awful as that haiku.

“Frankly,” he told Julie, “I liked his surf poem much better.”

 

 

 

16255

 

 

James Hold

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Incident Set In Stone

  • ISBN: 9781370582372
  • Author: James Hold
  • Published: 2016-10-13 22:20:15
  • Words: 23502
Incident Set In Stone Incident Set In Stone