Note: the following story contains disturbing language.
"It's all rotting, like the stench of sweet gasoline, mingled with acid rain and slimy grey sludge. In a decade, or a thousand years, the whole Earth will rot: a crumbing house on a corrupted foundation." Mina Cardiff was moved to dark poetry by the ugliness of the stately front drive; all the better to stall her entry into that house.
The house was not crumbling, but it was soaked with the rain and looked ready to melt under the slightest pressure into a great pulpy puddle. The reflections in the windows, flashing lights of candy-red and blue, were the only sign of life. The mansion was dead from the inside and out, or close enough.
Mina did not want to go inside. As far as she was concerned, there was enough death to be seen and smelt in the gutters and the siding and the shingles, and whatever was inside was only worse. The best thing would be to walk away and never return, but the yellow crime-scene tape had fenced her in, and would probably never let her go. The tape left the inspector with two options: to stand outside forever, risking hypothermia and death, or to seek refuge behind the ghastly blue and red glass. Duty compelled her against her better judgment, and as she usually did she would regret it soon enough.
Keeping clear of the deeper streams of water, she approached the great front doors, which were not marked by violence but showed their age nonetheless. Mina was not intimately familiar with the local lore, but it was otherwise widely known that the doors had held the threshold for over a century, since 1887. The house itself was older still, a relic of the days of Hawthorne and Poe (and still it predated them both). She did know that in all its days the house had not fallen, and thought it strange that an old house should have such an improbable, futile, and perverse will to live.
An officer met her at those great front doors with a disciplined salute and an utterly nauseated face; he had just come from inside. "Good evening, Inspector Cardiff."
"Good evening, Officer."
Just inside, a cheery sign was posted on the left hand wall, kindly asking that houseguests place their footwear in the small cubby, for the sake of the carpet. Mina gave the sign no more than half a thought and trudged forward with muddy boots, broad leaves clinging stubbornly to their sides. The state of the carpets was the least of anyone's worries, as they were already soaked with crusting blood, along with the walls, furniture, and the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Harfelt. Their bodies were tucked away in a dark corner of the foyer, hidden from sight by shadow and a white sheet, itself stained through with muddy patches of crimson.
Mina Cardiff removed the hood of her trench coat, and long tresses of dark blonde hair curled around her shoulders. As she surveyed the room, her slender, pale face was wrenched by the highest and lowest disgust. She had never been called a shrinking violet, nor squeamish at the sight of blood. In her line of work it was not exceptionally uncommon to see so much, under the most tragic circumstances. But all that blood - the bodies, and the sweltering, dimly-lit room - it was the very definition of disgust.
She covered her nose with her fingers to block the all-encompassing reek and cast her eyes about for a master light switch. When she found it, she realized why none of the officers present had touched it: it was still painted with the victim's gore.
Uniformed policemen and analysts busily measured spots of filth and sketched out notes for their reports. Near the bodies a window was smashed from the inside, and Mina believed that this was obviously the perpetrator's mode of escape. He would have fled through the East Wing Garden, and as Mina peered over the crystal shard of glass she saw more men outside, searching vainly amid the flowers for tracks, or blood, or perhaps a shred of clothing. They were bound to be empty handed, as the rain mixed all incriminating evidence into the stinking mess of mud and topsoil. This smell Mina also found unbearable: she retreated discreetly to the great hall.
Her job was simple, and it was horrible. If she had lacked the stomach for it, she wouldn't have made it through an eighth of what she had; sulfur, putrefaction, and the evidence of every form of evil and inhumanity. Indeed, through her career she had arrived at the belief that she could endure anything, all it would cost her was her sanity. She had never felt sane in her life, anyway; would a sane person be so resigned to a bargain like that?
At the end of the hall were a pair of opened double doors, modest imitations of their more celebrated antecedents. From a distance she looked inside, and presently a man stepped under the lintel. He was large and looked even larger in his padded, rain-soaked overcoat, but his posture was diminished and his face hidden behind clutching fingers. Nevertheless, Mina recognized him instantly by the gritty, strangled strands of auburn hair that drooped across his forehead.
"Inspector Harfelt..." she said, unsure if he was aware of her approach.
His eyes jerked up suddenly, and they smiled in anguish. "Mina! he said, with a voice of paper and glue, "...it's you!" She wished she could not see his eyes. The irises were not their usual shade of blue, not as blue they ought to have been: they were parched and cracked, longing for desperately needed tears. His mouth opened slightly and he looked as if he had more to say, but his throat failed him.
Mina glanced down to avoid his eyes, unwilling to contemplate them, and unsure whether it was better to speak or be silent. Tonight she could do neither well.
"Aaron, are you alright?"
"It's - huh, it's been a bit much," he conceded, as he probed his scalp with his fingers, perhaps digging for the words he needed to set himself straight. "All of this, a bit too much. Too much, too much for the senses." He also averted his eyes, and was lost for a moment in the black wood grain that wormed across the walls. "I'd trade my senses for, for, some sense. Do you know?" The question was more vain than rhetorical; she didn't really know, but he wished to hear her answer.
"Yeah." Aaron indicated over his left shoulder into the next room, where Mina finally spied Lieutenant Bayern sitting on the port side of an elongated dining room table. As he usually was, he was busy making notes in some illegible shorthand on his beaten clipboard. She knew nothing in her boss's job description that warranted such activity, but it was beside the point: he seemed incapable of lucid conversation if his hands were not busily engaged in scribbling something or other. If the scribbles were English, or even if they were words, she could never tell.
Aaron Harfelt left and slipped quietly down the hallway as Mina took her seat across from the Lieutenant. She watched Aaron go with great concern, and it showed upon her face, but the Lieutenant made no show of any kind, only scribbling more, in perfect concentration.
"Michael," Mina began, still watching her colleague's receding back, "why is he here?"
"He insisted." Lieutenant Bayern's hand slowed as he made eye contact with her, but it could not be entirely stilled. "Besides, the house is his now: the Harfelts' will makes that plain. Well, his and his brother's, anyway."
"This is no place for him to be. He's walking right into the worst of it as we speak -"
"It'll be the third time for him. You can hardly get him to leave." His hands were pacing up, independently of any obvious intention of their owner's. "You wondered what that nasty smell coming from the west windows was didn't you?"
"I honestly didn't notice." She hadn't: her attention was decidedly focused on the eastern end of the foyer.
"Now I know that's not true."
Mina shifted in the antique wooden chair, uncomfortably elegant in its construction. The dining room was slightly younger than the rest of the house, and less conscious of age or legacy; it had merely been a place for eating. Now it was another part of history.
"I must have been distracted by the rest of the room."
"Easy mistake to make."
"Michael, what do we know?"
"We don't know anything," he replied, "except that Mr. and Mrs. Harfelt were attacked and mutilated, and bled to death where they're lying now."
"Judging by the shape of the wounds," he said, scribbling faster and faster, "forensics believes it to have been done with fingers. Bare fingers."
"You're not serious..."
"I am always serious, Inspector Cardiff. Particularly in matters of men and women being torn to shreds by the hands of serial killers." Michael Bayern was not a man without emotion, but he had a way of concealing his real feelings. He always showed less than he truly felt, or might have been expected to. At the moment he appeared to be annoyed, and he might have been, but Mina knew that he could easily have boiled with rage.
"...then you think it was the Wolf." He made no reply to this inquiry, except to look back down at his clipboard. Mina increasingly regretted answering the call of duty, regretted not calling in sick; the department's investigation was clearly operating outside of her area of expertise, right from the outset. She could endure anything, she thought, any mind-curdling monstrosity of human nature, but as a matter of principle she preferred to limit her exposure to a necessary minimum. "You realize it makes no sense."
"The first Wolf attack was in the hills, less than ten miles from here. The wounds and cause of death are identical to that poor hiker's."
"That poor hiker was an isolated young woman in the wilderness," she retorted. "These victims are middle-aged, old money, community pillars who were attacked in their own home."
"You couldn't make sense of the first attack, so don't tell me what does or doesn't make sense!" He paused to collect his breath, and then, "Mina, people do not kill other people by grabbing chunks of flesh and stripping them clean from bone." That much was true, but the Lieutenant could not help but betray his own uncertainty. "We don't have any clues to work with. There's too much contamination to retrieve anything even remotely useful. We can only assume the two cases are related. We can only assume it's the Wolf. Do you hear me?"
"There's no need to shout."
"Just don't tell me that it doesn't make any sense. It's the only thing that makes the slightest bit of sense. The whole department's on pins because they expect him to strike again, and there's no way of telling when. We'd probably be lucky if he did: at least he might leave behind some decent clue. That's how little any of this makes sense."
Mina smiled. "I didn't mean anything by it, Michael. I stopped expecting these cases to make sense a long time ago."
"Is that right? I thought pulling those sorts of things together was your job, Inspector."
"The world only makes 'sense' when reality backs off long enough to enjoy ourselves. If we should ever become fully aware of the inhumanity of man, in all of its manifestations, we'd all be caught weeping like children."
"You should have been a poet, Cardiff." The Lieutenant's hands, for once, were perfectly still.
"I could say the same for you, sir." She winked, and rose from her seat with every intention of leaving the Harfelt house and never returning.
"It's good to keep a sense of humor, Mina. But you've got a job to do here." Lieutenant Bayern now looked painfully serious, and his pen-fingers twitched with anxious purpose.
"If we don't have a suspect, then there's no one for me to interview."
"There is one. Inspector Harfelt has a brother, who lives in a room in the East Wing of the house. He's an odd one, and seldom leaves his room for anything but food; seldom even food. That's what Aaron said, anyway."
"Does he have an alibi?"
"Says he didn't hear a thing. But it's certain he was in the house at the time of the attack, and a person like him wouldn't have to break in."
The implication was utterly cold, and Mina's heart shook at the notion. Imagine poor Aaron, she thought, darkly projecting his nightmare onto herself. She turned her head to look down the hallway, but he was nowhere to be seen. She couldn't find him anywhere.
"There's still too much we don't know. This is a big house, and there's zero physical evidence against the guy. I just want you to find out as much about him as you can."
"That's my job, isn't it?" She turned and left as the Lieutenant's hand came at last to rest, his mind a refreshing blank. Thinking under such conditions would be no pleasure.
To be utterly without thought would have been a welcome blessing for Mina Cardiff, whose only notions were unpleasant and self-defeating. More than most people, she pitied the universe for having to put up with the human race, however briefly. And yet, she believed the universe must find her and all the rest of humanity to be terribly funny, "to get all distraught, all warped and weepy and inconsolable, at the thought of death: the universe is determined to kill them all anyway." What a perfectly horrible point of view, she thought.
Mina found Aaron Harfelt at the west end of the foyer, heaving his shoulders and clutching at his right arm. The limb hung from his shoulder as though it had been disconnected, but it ended in a tightly clenched fist, the hungriest fist that had ever been made. It had no target, and he was hardly even seeking one; his eyes were so perfectly lank, unfocused. For a moment, he may have been truly blind, but he saw her approach and returned, for a moment, to himself.
"Aaron," she began, unsure of the proper tone in handling such an unstable situation, "we should go upstairs."
"I'm alright. I'm alright. I'm all...right." He let go of his fist and his arm sprung back to life, but his fingers were white as bones and tingled fiercely. "I'm alright, Mina. I'm a forensic scientist. This is my job, it's just like all the rest."
Only fouler and closer, thought Mina, once again unable to look him in the eye. "Aaron, please, I need your help. Let's go upstairs."
"Right. Of course. Let's go. Now." He meant "in a moment," because his eyes were fixed on the unspeakable eastern corner and his feet could hardly move. But Mina took hold of his elbow and led him insistently upstairs, as eager to finish her task and leave as she was to rescue him from his perverse fascination.
Whatever the spell that afflicted him, it seemed to pass as they reached the second floor. He shuddered and took back his arm, and said "I'm sorry. God help me, I can't stand it. I really should do better."
"Nobody expects any more of you," she replied.
"I expect it from myself. They'd expect it. They -" and he stopped, his hand twitching with an attempted gesticulation, which he prudently kept from realizing. His breath came a little easier, and he said "I'm sorry. You need to talk to Henry now, right?"
"Alright, he's down this way."
The pair proceeded down the hall into the East Wing, Mina Cardiff following her colleague a few steps behind. She was glad to be leaving the deathly odors behind, but she found little in the air to relieve her uneasiness. The walls were narrow, the ceiling disconcertingly low, and each surface was plastered with positively unearthly wallpaper. In the decent light of day it might have been attractive enough, but in the inevitable evening's gloom it was extremely disconcerting. Pale flowers crept on pale, thornless vines, wound in parallel lines across a sickly yellow field. The flowers seemed to emit a hateful fragrance of their own: the stench of dry wood and sawdust, a smell to stifle breath.
The scent hung in the air as the two inspectors turned a corner, and grew only more oppressive as Mina's mind dwelt more and more upon it; how desperately she wanted out of that house! And then, something else was suddenly filling the air: a string of halting, harrowing chords in frightful syncopation. It was the resonating sound of an electric piano, growing louder and more distinct with every step. Mina was entranced, but Aaron stopped abruptly as the tune began to take shape.
"He's playing the Gnomus again," he said in a deadened tone of disapprobation.
"Is something wrong with that?"
"Nothing," he said as he resumed walking. "Nothing, except that he always plays it in A minor."
The significance of this heresy remained lost on her: in any event the music was odd, grotesque, and increasingly fascinating as she drew closer to its source. Aaron's words, however, had rendered it less mystical, less menacing, as her untrained ears strained to find fault in it if she could. She could find no flaw, except that the music was frightening, but this she could certainly deal with. She could survive the sound, and the smell, and all the dreadful colors: every last bit of it.
They reached at last a brown door, undecorated and unremarkable apart from the notes that emanated from behind it, because it was the entrance to Henry Harfelt's bedroom. Mina expected Aaron to open it, or knock; it was his brother after all, and she would not want to be presumptuous. But he only stood off to one side, head cocked and appearing to listen intently.
"He prefers not to be interrupted while he's playing," he explained, "but don't worry, he's nearly at the end."
Mina nodded, and listened closely to the music, as much out of admiration as for her desire to forget the rest of the hallway's hateful stimuli. She absent-mindedly curled the end of her hair with her fingers, until she was shocked out complacency by Aaron's sudden burst of irritation.
"Oh, Christ," he mumbled, "he's started it all over again!" Aaron pounded the door with his fist, shouting out "Henry! Knock it off! We need to talk!"
The music halted suddenly, cruelly unresolved, at the sound of the older brother's harsh knocking. Silence prevailed, and the walls echoed nothingness. A few seconds later, Aaron Harfelt opened the door to his brother's room, and invited Mina to enter first.
Mina Cardiff could hardly have been astonished by what she found in that room; she'd seen all types of the surreal and the grotesque already. But for all that experience, she wondered at the scene before her. It could not have been a bedroom originally; more likely it was a gallery, as it extended a long way in one direction, with windows along the outer wall to allow the starlight in (if there had been any starlight, and not just storm and clouds). The furniture was sparse and stashed along the most distant wall, an unexceptional assembly of cabinets, bureaus, and a spartan bed. The room was blindingly well lit, leaving little of its disheveled eccentricity to the imagination.
More than anything, she noticed the pictures, because there were hundreds of them, hanging on the walls and scattered across the hard wood floor. Many were brightly colored, others merely half-sketched, and appeared in every conceivable medium. They tended to depict fantastic scenes of angels, elves, naiads, dryads, and ugly, misshapen dwarves; most were dressed in contemporary clothing, though many wore nothing at all. Some of them held harps and flutes, while others hoisted rusted chains and other unflattering props. No reason governed their arrangement about the room: they seemed to wander about the space without boundary or ense.
In the center of this sea of perfect madness stood an antique wood-paneled Wurlitzer piano, draped in wired and surrounded by speakers and other devices. In front of the piano, wearing knee-length denim shorts and an off-white polo shirt, stood Henry Harfelt. He was bent slightly over the keyboard, seemingly lost in the impenetrable thoughts that had rendered the wondrous scenery around him. Mina struggled to form an impression of him, but for his part, he hardly seemed to notice her at all.
"Henry!" called his brother, and Henry turned his head in quick response. "This is Inspector Cardiff. She needs to talk to you."
"You said we were done last time." Henry's hands still clutched the sides of his Wurlitzer, his fingers white from the pressure. He looked reluctant to let it go, lest it should wander off on its own; or worse, some one should take it away.
"I know what I said. But Inspector Cardiff has some questions that she needs to ask you." He gestured to introduce her politely, but she recognized a look of distinct agitation in his eyes. Aaron's presence was not strictly necessary; she had only encouraged him to come for his own sake, to get him out of that stinking foyer and away from his grief. Now she began to believe she had miscalculated. For whatever reason, there was little affection to be observed between the brothers; not even the kind that could reveal itself in the shared agony of loss.
Henry sat cross-legged by the piano, the one region of the floor that was mostly uncovered by papers and canvasses. "He wants us to sit there with him," said Aaron dismissively. As the room was lacking in chairs, and a change of venue seemed unlikely, she obliged. The elder brother followed suit, barely containing his resentment; even so, he took pains to avoid stepping on the scattered pictures.
Mina found herself face to face with the great enigma, the man whose existence as a possible suspect in his own parents' murder had prevented her swift exit from the crime scene. She bore him no ill will for this, and actually wished that she could have met him under better circumstances. What circumstances those were, she could not imagine, but she disliked having to talk about the incident: she would rather have talked with him about his art, the art that surrounded his person in every sense. At first she could only consider the family resemblance between the Harfelt brothers. They looked very similar, with the same auburn hair, though the younger brother's blue eyes were paler, and less focused: Aaron's haggard blues were still cracking under the strain.
"Henry," she began, "I have a few questions I need to ask you, if you please."
"I know." He did not look straight back at her; his attention wandered periodically to the Wurlitzer piano.
"Henry, are you aware of what happened to your parents last night?"
"Yeah, they died."
The frankness was surprising, but Mina saw in his distracted manners an indication of her subject's nature. Was he capable of displaying such strong emotions, or was he truly as disinterested as he seemed? Would he display any emotions at all?
"Do you know how they died?"
"They died. They died. They died...he killed them," Henry added, seemingly in response to a sharp look from Aaron, a nasty look which said "hurry up and answer the question." Mina saw this and placed her hand on her colleague's arm, hoping to dissuade him from further interference. Aaron bristled in response, and his face blushed deeply red.
"He killed them," Henry continued, "the Wolf killed them. He killed them last night."
"How do you know it was the Wolf?" she inquired, keeping a neutral tone in spite of her amazement. "The Wolf" was not publicly know, merely a department name for the perpetrator of an unsolved case. Ordinary people shouldn't have known about him.
"I heard it. The police said it."
"When did they say that?"
"When they were searching my room."
"Henry, do you understand why they were searching your room today?"
Aaron shrugged with indifference, offering Mina no explanation for his brother's obliviousness, except to suggest that it was typical. Her expectation of gleaning useful information from Henry was dropping quickly. She would endure what she had to and leave, sticking to factual questions with straightforward answers.
"Henry, when did you find out about what happened to your parents?"
"Probably this morning," offered Aaron, who received a cold glance of reproach for his trouble.
"Henry, what were you doing all of last evening?"
"I was in here. I was painting. I was painting...I was composing."
"You were composing?"
"Yes, yes, I was composing. I was writing, I was writing a song. An elf song."
"Elf song?" Her eyes glanced upon a painting close at hand, and it happened to depict an elf: a sad, lonesome elf with pointed elf ears and a blue polo short, and a mournful disposition. She wondered what a song for these sad-eyed paper people might sound like, but brought herself to focus again as she sensed a restless energy from Aaron. He wanted to say something; that would not have been helpful.
"Henry, did you hear anything unusual last night?"
""No" was his answer, but he did not appear to be listening to her. The beginnings of a delirious smile were breaking out at the corners of his mouth, as though some private joke had suddenly occupied the whole of his thoughts.
"Did your parents have any guests last night? Any friends?"
"Do you know that for certain?"
Mina empathized with his lack of certainty, for she had little herself. But her instincts told her that the useful portion of the interview was over; there was no need to prolong it.
She rose to her feet, and the brothers did as well. "Thank you for speaking with me, Henry," she said. "I'm sorry for your loss. I'll leave you...to get back to your music now."
"Thank you," he said. It was not really a reply, but it was close enough to finish a conversation. His eyes drifted back to his keyboard.
As Mina turned to leave the room, Aaron Harfelt could no longer control himself, and she heard him speak behind her. "It's just as well, you didn't hear a thing," he said with an unbecoming sneer. "Mom and dad never cared what you did, as long as you were in here, making noise."
"Dad likes my music," Henry said absently. "He told, he told, he told me..."
"Dad is dead, Henry," the older brother said, "Dead, dead, dead! I've told you a million times-" he was shouting now "- a million times today, this is real! It happened! Mom and dad, mom and dad are dead! Do you hear me, you miserable cretin!?"
But Henry was not listening. His smile had grown wild, and his eyes were might have been blind for all they saw. As Aaron's wrath grew hateful, and insults heaped on insults, Henry spun toward his instrument and let loose an awful sound: an egregious howling fifth, sustained so loud and long that both inspectors clutched at their ears in shock.
"Dead!" Henry called out, to no one in particular, his voice colored with emotions that knew no common description. "Dead! Awhooo, whoo-whoo-whoooo!" he howled, as the frightful chord at last began to waver.
Aaron took a menacing step toward Henry, but Mina snapped suddenly, "Inspector Harfelt!" He froze, and could not bring himself to look at her now: he was sweating and nearly in tears. Henry was silent, lost in faraway thoughts."
Mina's eyes fixed upon a huddled dwarf, a pitiful creature whose twisted misery seemed to cry out loud from the floor. "Aaron," she said, "I'm going now." He nodded dully in agreement.
No sooner had they left Henry in his bedroom than the piano began to play again; it was a proper tune now, but that no more comforting for his brother. It resounded in the upper registers and held to a repetitive melody:
Aaron Harfelt stood silently for a moment, evidently unwilling to listen, yet unable to help himself from doing so. Mina, for her part, was caught between compassion for one brother, and natural fascination with the other. but which was which? In the tumult that preceded she'd lost her purpose for being there, and she felt increasingly uncomfortable next to Aaron, wishing more than ever to leave the rotting house and set her thoughts in order from a distance.
"Listen, Mina," he said straining fitfully for the right words, lest he should appear even more monstrous, "Henry didn't kill...didn't kill our parents. I led the forensics investigation myself a few hours ago. There's no indication, there's no...physical evidence that he ever left his room last night. There's no blood... there's no blood, no mud, no sign he was involved in a struggle with anyone... he must have been up there, just like he said, with his pictures and his... and his damned piano." His face was ashamed of those words, but he continued, "Please keep this in mind when you submit your report to Michael."
"Aaron, you led the team yourself?"
"Yes, I did."
She sighed, not willing to imagine the the events of that afternoon. "Aaron, I don't think you should be working on this case. For your own sake..."
"Michael said the same thing."
"Please Aaron! You're too upset; any one in the world can see that! No one would think any less of you if you... took some time off."
"I know," he said, and his drying eyes were cast down. "I wasn't disagreeing with you. I, I...Michael's giving me a month, and Ray is taking over my section for the time being. I just really... I just really needed to be here tonight."
"I understand," she said. They were walking now, down the yellow hallway that set her so ill at ease, back to the unspeakable foyer. But she had endured it, just as she knew she would. At last, she could leave that house of death, decay, and God knows what horrors...
"Listen," she said, "we'll find the one who did this. Don't worry. I... we'll take care of it."
"I know you will. Soon."
He paused as they came to the top of the stairs, and the smell of weather and carnage was rank once more. Fewer policemen crowded the floor below than before, but the ones who remained were still hard at work collecting evidence and making reports. The bodies were gone now, off to the morgue (thank God). The rain was still coming down.
"Listen, Mina, are you busy tomorrow night?"
"I shouldn't be. Why?"
"Would you like to have dinner with me?"
It wasn't a very unreasonable request, but for half a second she struggled to think of a suitable excuse; he would only want to talk about the case.
"Excellent. I'll meet you at the Raven on Sea Street at eight. Sound good?"
"It's a date," she smiled.
Aaron did not smile, not perceptibly. He turned to descend the staircase, his shoulders slumped under the weight of disastrous defeat. As Mina followed him down, she thought she heard her colleague say something, a murmur she could barely make out. For all the torrent outside and the chattering men within, she thought she heard him say, "God damn that animal."