Monday, July 11, 2011

The Wolf of Albright: Part Three

Warning: this story contains some disturbing language.
A considerable amount of time passed since Mina Cardiff last saw Aaron Harfelt.  In spite of the frustrations of the department's number one case – dead ends, no leads to speak of – she had regained much of her old composure.  She felt strong again: the specter of the Wolf seemed to fade in her mind's eye, faded by the mists of distance.  She had felt hunted, but as the time passed and additional victims failed to appear, she allowed a measure of detachment to retake its place in her mind.  The only thing to do was to endure, knowing the monster was somewhere out there, out of sight and increasingly out of mind.

It was a foggy Sunday morning beneath her window, and the sounds of the street came in soft and muffled.  It was unseasonably cool and damp, but a warm cup of dark red tea and a down blanket offered some relief.  There was security in the stone walls of her living room, and they seemed impenetrable.  For a brief time, she thought, she might live entirely within them.  She was previously scheduled some time off, and it happily coincided with a slight illness.  It was a mental malady, not debilitatingly physical, and a quick break was what she needed.

“Go ahead, take some time off,” Lieutenant Bayern had told her, “I've got a hunch I want followed up on, but you don't have to worry about it for a bit.  Might even take care of it myself.”  He wouldn't say what he really meant, and she wondered if he wasn't speaking idly.  She didn't ask.

The phone rang insistently, breaking the peace of a calm, cool morning.  She turned off the television morning news and climbed unsteadily to her feet, with an ache already swelling in her forehead.  The man to disturb the peace was Alex Smials, an unassuming department clerk with too much time on his hands.  They talked for a moment about trivial matters; he inquiring about her health, and she replying that she felt mostly well as she settled back into her stiff easy chair.  As usual, he did not seem at first to have anything especially substantial on his mind.

“It's really kind of strange how little work there is, with such a big case still open.”

“Incongruous.”  She scratched a few markings on her notepad, of no particular significance.

“Yeah, incongruous.  Inconsistent.  After I saw the Harfelt house, I could have sworn it was the end of the world, but my in-box just isn't showing it.”

“Maybe that's what the end of the world is like: everything just comes to a stop.”

“Yeah, maybe.  Say, speaking of the Harfelt house, did the Chief tell you what he was up to?”

“No, it's my day off.  He never tells me anything when I go off duty.”

“Well, that's not exactly true.  But anyway, he's back there, right now.  Said he wanted to have a look around, see if we missed something.”

“But that scene is months old now.”

“I know, right?”

“And the clean up is already finished.  There's nothing left to find, at all.”

“Yeah. He said he had a feeling, a feeling he'd find something, someone to give a new lead.  Just a hunch.”

“There's still someone there?”

“That guy Henry, Aaron's brother.  He's still living in there, you know?”

She didn't.  It hadn't occurred to her where Henry might have gone since the profile had been submitted , but she could hardly imagine anyone choosing to stay in a house like that.  “I suppose so.  But I don't think he'll tell him anything new."

“No kidding, the kid's whacko.  But don't tell Aaron I said that, he gets a little crazy about it.”

“I've noticed.”  She glanced through the window to the foggy world outside.  “Have you seen Aaron lately?”

“No, he's still on leave.  And between you and me, I'm not absolutely positive he's coming back.”

Stories have a way of traveling, even when nobody particularly wants to tell them.  Mina hadn't told anyone about the way Aaron Harfelt had behaved the last time she'd seen him, but the danger hinting from his eyes spoke for itself.  The truth was that he was not quite as welcome in the department as he had been before, and his resignation was hopefully anticipated by many.

It was natural to feel sympathetic for him, only human.  Mina felt terribly for his loss, and for his injuries; the mental injuries that must have sunk as deeply as the wounds carved in the bodies of his mother and father.  She was sure that Alex did too.  But in the last analysis, a man as deeply scourged as Aaron had been was not an asset to a police department.  Not if he couldn't overcome his trauma, or exorcize the demons that bred in his thoughts.

“Do you think he's left town?” she asked.

“I really don't know.  No one's reached him at his apartment.  Actually, rumor is he's moved back into the old house with his brother.”

Her heart felt cold and dark at the suggestion: that house was no place for a man like him, with the scent of blood still so fresh.  “Is that true?  Is that why Michael went there?”

“I don't think so.  No one's reached him there either, and the Chief says he isn't one to chase rumors.”
“No,” she sighed, “only bad hunches."

“You said it, not me.  Oh, that reminds me. Alice just handed me a note, says here 'Lieutenant Bayern wants you to call him as soon as possible.'”

“I'm off duty...”

“Yeah, but it's only a phone call.  I'm sure he just wants to pick your brain.  Lord knows he can use the help.  On such a tough case, I mean.”

“Is that why you called, Alex?”

“Huh?  Oh yeah, I guess it was.  I guess I'd better get back to work.”

He got back to work and she went back to sleep, in a manner of speaking.  Her eyes were open, but for a few long seconds she perceived nothing through them.  She felt momentarily like a child obliged to do homework on a Sunday afternoon: utterly unwilling, and only half resigned to the inevitability and necessity of it.  But she was not a child, and her work was not a childish thing.  She felt that to be true now, more than she'd ever felt it before.

So she called Michael Bayern on his cellular phone.  She called him a second time ten minutes later, because he did not pick up.  Her third call went out two minutes after that.  She didn't leave a message, because she knew from experience that they'd never be heard.  In fact, experience quietly assured her that he was not likely to answer the phone at all; he was much more likely to call her.

Working with the Lieutenant as long as she had, she felt qualified to make judgments about his personality.  She knew that it was more than a “hunch” that took him back to the Harfelt house, because he was a very serious policeman: he held no stock in unsubstantiated rumors.  Of course, he trusted in his instincts; they were vindicated by many long and largely successful years of work.  But his instincts were chiefly to verify and to prove, rather than to speculate.  He had been unusually impassioned by this case: the lack of evidence, the lack of plausible explanations, the lack of anything that carried the potential for proof had upset him greatly.  But he was still not inclined to take time from his busy schedule to pursue a hunch.  If he had, it would have had to have been a very good one.

That was why, when he failed to pick up in response to her fourth phone call, she began searching for her car keys.

As she drove down the old highway toward the mansion, she took notice of the improving weather.  The sun was shining through now, but it did not bring any warmth with it.  It was a cold light, peaking through clouds that looked too light for rain, but too grey to disperse.  It was the clouds, she thought, that had sucked all of the warmth from the air, holding it within tortuous shapes.  Between the spikes and spires of the clouds, the sun light found its way to Earth, bereft of heat.  She wondered, “this is an improvement?”  The skies grew brighter, but no warmer, as she drove on.  “Why is it an improvement just because the sun's come out?  The whole world feels the same as it did before.”

The house felt very similar as well, standing apart from the sparse land that surrounded it.  It had been hard to make out the details of its appearance under the storm of rain and horror that enveloped it during her previous visit, but in the cool light of the sun new features were apparent.  Her memory was of a dark, saturated building, melting steadily under the pressure of the water.  Now it was dry and grey, and looked as fragile as aged papier-mâché.  The lights of the patrol car's sirens were no longer reflected in the windows: there was only a pale, wintery glare on the panes.  It looked like it might splinter under the force of one swift kick.

The old Harfelt house, which had been home to generations of vital, eminent citizens of the town of Albright, was no longer worthy of the name, except for the word old.  It was desiccated, peeling, and coming apart at the hinges.  There was no life left in the structure.  The view from the old highway was not of a venerable landmark, and hardly even that of a tombstone.  Landmarks and tombstones inspire instincts of preservation: even if they are forgotten for great stretches of time, their end is regarded as a silent tragedy.  But the present view inspired exactly the opposite feeling.  Mina felt no pity for the building.  She actively wished for its demise, and she would never mourn its passing.

Michael's  pale green Ford was parked in the semi-circular driveway, looking old and sick, but still healthier than the building.  Yet against all odds and against all rights, the house still stood.  Mina found herself faced with the same dilemma as before: her irresistible desire to flee, matched against her undeniable professional obligation.  No one had ordered her to set foot inside, but she had no choice.  Michael was inside, and he needed her.  She braced the collar of her coat against the chill, and went inside.

The first thing she saw was the Lieutenant, sprawled against the wall under the banister of the central staircase.  She went to him immediately; although the action began without thought, her mind raced through several hundred unpleasant possibilities before she reached him.  She saw the marks on his forehead, as though a great hand had gripped his scalp from behind, squeezing the flesh white and red.  As she felt quickly along the back of his head for signs of trauma, she found a large swelling; she could see in her minds eye how the assailant had seized the policeman's head and smashed it against the wood.  She wished that she could not.

She felt distinctly the eyes of the monster on her from the shadows: eyes out of nowhere, hungry wolf's eyes.  It was vaguely apparent on the night of the murder, but it was obvious now, that this place was the Wolf's true lair.  The eyes of the house had seen violence that no scrubbing or disinfectant could undo, because the violence was native to the house.  And yet, as Mina allowed herself to perceive the situation more clearly, she saw that the light in those eyes was dimming.  They faded back into darkness almost as soon as they emerged, watching more and seeing less.

Michael was still alive, but she could not call him back to consciousness; she dreaded the consequences of those injuries to the poor man's mind.  She imposed a state of calm on herself as she grabbed her phone.  Her fingers hardly trembled as she dialed the emergency number.  Awaiting the arrival of the ambulance and backup patrol officers, she slowly allowed herself to perceive more of the room.  It struck her that she had been careless, dangerously so.  She was unarmed, had entered a crime scene without first determining its security.  The killer was probably still in the house, or somewhere near.  And from where she now stood, she saw a series of rough, muddy boot prints leading up the central staircase.

“I should stay here,” she whispered, “I should stay here.”  Michael was alone, and in a vulnerable condition.  The persistent stench of death emanated from above, pressing down on every sense without reprieve.  To follow this trail would lead her to destruction's doorway, and there was no guarantee of survival.  Mina knew all of this, and she told herself again and again as she took those slow steps up the central staircase.  “I should stay here,” she whispered.  But she would have to endure the alternative.

The unnaturally warm smell grew stronger with every step.  It grew hotter, sticking to the skin of her face and obscuring the musty air.  It coated the walls, shading the yellow paper with an unpleasantly orange tint, strangling the life from its floral pattern.  It slowed her natural movements, and kept her steps slow and regular.  The stench was familiar and terrible, the physical embodiment of all her life's worst memories.  Her footsteps were muffled by the silence.

“Aaron?” she said out loud, calling for the house's newest master.  “Aaron?” she called out, expecting and receiving no response.  An empty certainty had asserted itself in her mind, and she knew what she was bound to find as she retraced her fateful path through the East Wing.  Her steps were lighter now, unencumbered by doubt, but her gut was strained.  She found it difficult to speak, but she called out again: “Henry?”

There was no reply from Henry, either.  His eerie, idiosyncratic music no longer wafted through the hallways, and to her surprise she found that she missed it.  She hadn't particularly enjoyed the sound, but it had been a reassurance to her all the same.  The resonant echo had filled the narrow passages as effortlessly as the ambient sound of any natural place.  It had deeply annoyed Aaron; but Aaron seemed ill at ease at every point in the house.  The silence would hardly have met his approval any more than the music.

She reached Henry's door, that otherwise unremarkable door.  At the bottom, a small paper poked out from the other room.  Slowly, Mina took the paper in her hands and drew it out.  It was a sketch of Henry's: not a finished work, but a template for a more complete product.  Mina knew very little about the formal aspects of art, but she recognized the picture as a very skillful, and very disturbing, work.  It was the form of a feminine angel, a subtle study in contradiction.  The angel possessed lush feathered wings; dark, gently curled hair; a small, pleasingly curved body.  But she also had eyes like deadly fire, intensely searing and cruel.  They were like the eyes of a murderous fox.

In the upper right hand corner, the paper was stained with fresh blood.

It took Mina a long time to open the door, although she knew what she would find on the other side.  It was not a matter of courage, because she knew there was no danger.  It was only a matter of will, a desire to disbelieve in the most gruesome result.  There was no changing reality, but the moment could be postponed.

Aaron and Henry Harfelt, the last generation of a very old family, were dead.  In a violent struggle they had torn one another apart with their bare hands, fingers wrenching flesh from bone.  In the process they had damaged or discolored many odd and tragic works of art by the younger brother's hand.  The Wurlitzer piano stood smeared in gore, alone and untouchable in the sea of madness.  The music, composed and performed by Henry, drowned in his dead memories.  Details of the brother's final moments will likely never be known: whether they spoke, and what they might have spoken of, will remain unanswered questions.  The mysterious forces that destroyed the Harfelts faded from life, and the eyes that peered from the shadows at last went out.

Mina stood silently at the threshold, the first witness of the final end of a troubled family.  In spite of the heat and her heavy grey coat, she shivered with cold.  She stood, fragile and short of breath, but she stood, chilled by the pale light of the sun.  Against all odds, she continued to stand as the sirens rose in the near distance, and flashing lights danced once again in the glass windows of the old house.

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