Thirteen hours later he was in Austria, the head of the tadpole part, bussing into Innsbruck on a hunch.
A book he’d read said there was a cabinet in the castle there and nearby was a room with a bath dug into the floor and a painting of a wolfman at the entrance, and that was exactly the kind of detail that Professors of Dark Light wrote poems about, or he thought they would, mainly cos of the note he’d been left in Kagoshima, the story of the woman at Uji Bridge, with the bold underlines of
‘she bathed in the Uji river for 21 days, divided her hair into five horns, painted her body red with vermilion, and went on a legendary killing spree.’
He still didn’t know what vermilion was but he understood the weirdness of it and why Professors of Dark Light would be drawn towards the ‘five horn, paint your body red, 21 days’ part.
The castle was covered in snow when he got there because it was November 28th and the wolfman painting was exactly where the book had promised it would be, so the only thing left to do was find the cabinet and ditch the Chinese murderer, Joanna, who’d been walking fifteen yards behind him ever since he’d boarded the train from Ljubljana station.
It was weird, no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t shake her, not even when the train got into Salzburg and he’d sprinted out of the station and kept going for twenty minutes down side roads and alleys, then looped back and into the same station and onto the platform to wait for the next train to Innsbruck, it was no good cos somehow she’d known his plan and was sitting on a bench on the same platform waiting for the same train, her line being: if he were really staying in Salzburg, he wouldn’t have sprinted out of the station.
It was dubious logic, but it worked then and it worked in Innsbruck station too as, somehow, she knew it was the castle he was aiming for, which meant they’d ended up on the same bus, bought the same ticket and were now looking at the same row of paintings.
‘He looks like you,’ she whispered, pointing at the wolfman portrait nearby.
‘A bit less hirsute maybe.’
‘I’m not a wolfman.’
‘But the eyes are similar.’
‘And why is your English so advanced? How do you know how to say things like a bit less hirsute?’
‘Is that wrong?’
‘Other people say not too many hairs, or not too hairy, not hirsute. How the hell do you know hirsute?’
‘You ask strange questions.’
‘You’re lucky I’m asking any. This is my castle, my idea to come here. You didn’t even know it existed before this morning.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘Don’t mind? Ha, I’m not forcing you to stand here. You can leave anytime.’
‘Not until you know what that fucker’s favourite colour was, right?’
‘Krsnik don’t recognise colour.’
‘To them, the world is monochrome. Like Hongxian steals the chest.’
‘Monochrome…’ muttered Sila, pulling out his green knife, spotting a fat security guy and quickly slipping it back inside his jacket. ‘Hong Shan what?’
‘Actually, I don’t know if they can talk.’
‘Krsnik. I don’t even know if they have a tongue. Maybe you could tell me.’
‘Right, that’s it. I’m going this way. You can go that way.’
It didn’t take long to find the cabinet.
There was a courtyard and seven rows of dead flowers and a door nearby that led to a huge, cold room full of medieval-era weapons, most of them behind glass, a Vlad the Impaler portrait too, an ugly-looking man with soldier-fish eyes, brutal, methodical, though the blurb said that was probably just Saxon propaganda.
At the end of the weapons room was a staircase that led up to the room with the bath dug into the floor and next to that room, in the corridor outside was a plaque and a cabinet.
On the plaque, a biography, one paragraph only:
Kurszan was born a Hungarian peasant but, due to his military brilliance, soon rose up the ranks and at the age of thirty two became the youngest duke in Austria. He stayed in this castle as a guest, but grew so attached to it that he refused to leave. Despairing like all weak old nobles tended to do back in the day when confronted with younger, stronger, nastier men, Count Roethe tried to have Kurszan murdered in the bath, but the attempt failed and Kurszan took his revenge, not by killing the Count, but by marrying his wife, taking his daughter as a mistress, mutilating his sons, and locking the old man in the cabinet you see standing before you in this very corridor. It is said that on some nights you can hear the old Count moaning from inside, begging for death.
‘What are you going to do?’ asked Joanna, popping up behind him.
‘I told you.’
‘Get out of the way.’
‘Every cabinet in the whole world?’
Sila pushed Joanna to one side, checked for fat security guards then grabbed the handle and pulled open the cabinet door.
The same as fifty six other times, it was empty, except for a small tape recorder sitting on the wood partition at the bottom.
Sila bent down and pressed play.
There was a moaning sound, universal.
‘That’s a cheap trick,’ said Joanna.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It’s easy, it’s supposed to be the old Count moaning. They probably press play when journalists or bloggers come here, scare them enough so they’ll write about it.’
‘I really thought this would be the one.’
‘When I saw the tape recorder, I thought, maybe it’s a message. Maybe a clue. But it’s nothing. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘Why don’t we go and get a drink?’
‘Jezus, to je izguba časa…‘
‘Some German wine…’
‘Three years. Three fucking years.’
‘I don’t have any, but we could go to a supermarket, I’m sure they have lots.’
Sila turned and looked at her about the same time she said supermarket. He said where in a whisper then faced the cabinet again and added, ‘what am I doing here?’
‘I asked myself the same thing many times, back in Ljubljana. Each time I walked up that hill. I thought, if only I were a man, it would take me and I could move on. But even then I would’ve died. You’re the only one to survive it. You’re the only one who got taken back to its lair. I don’t know. You never did tell me where it took you…’
Sila closed the cabinet door, took out his green knife, lined it up with the crack between the two doors and then thrusted forward as fast and hard as he could, which wasn’t that fast or hard as he hadn’t slept well the previous night, mostly cos of the murderer and her constant massage and questions and
‘Was it in the forest? A cave, maybe?’
‘Why do you still care?’ he asked, pulling the green knife back out and putting it inside his pocket. ‘What’s the point of all this?’
‘It’s important to me.’
‘Just go back to China, leave me alone.’
‘I just can’t.’
Sila shook his head. ‘By myself.’
‘I will be quiet.’
‘Don’t follow me.’
‘Like a fieldmouse.’
‘… … … …’
Outside the less tourist-ridden part of the castle, on a slope of snow covered only in dog prints, with the same dog pissing on a tree four metres ahead, Sila sat and told himself a cold ass was what he deserved for feeling this way
for letting her trail him like she had.
If he had to guess a percentage as to how hard he’d tried to get rid of her, he’d say 40%
nowhere near enough
though he still didn’t understand how she’d managed to get a room at the same hostel as him. Had he shown her his booking reference at some point?
Or did she just follow him in, ask at the desk and get lucky?
He picked up snow with an ungloved hand and threw it at the dog, raising the other hand in apology when it connected.
Fuck, I don’t mind if you piss there
it’s not my tree, or snow, and thinking about it, that kind of luck she had, that had to have an opposite, a curse on the guy next to her, which possibly just fucked up the cabinet search he’d done, got him abducted and slashed by that lurching thing, but then there was the opposite side, that he’d survived the attack, healed his wounds
come out the other side.
Cos she wasn’t close by at that point?
He took out the paper map of Innsbruck he’d taken from the train station and looked for the next target.
There’s a cable car going up the mountain, and a path snaking up another way, could be something in that? Inspiration at least, or peace away from that-…
A blur of colour pulled him back up, but it wasn’t the dog he was expecting to see, it was a man in a ridiculously old fashioned jacket, a cosplayer, leaning with his back against the same tree the dog had pissed on, observing him.
Sila observed back
tilting his head when the other man did
scratching his neck the same way
until finally the stranger pulled his Styrian-era jacket tight and moved along a curved arc up to the castle.
Sila watched him all the way to a side door that couldn’t possibly be a way in, but then it was, acceding to the man’s push and sucking him inside.
Waiting ten seconds, Sila got up and stamped over, each step eating up half his calf, which was odd as the other guy had walked over like he was on normal ground, but
Sila got to the side door eventually,
pawed at it with a cautious hand
and then pushed harder when it didn’t open.
He’d locked it behind him?
Or it just needed a firmer push?
Probably the former, which meant there was no illicit fuck against a suit of armour waiting for him behind this barrier, just a creepy member of staff, and the map was the key anyway, the map and the path he’d seen, up to the mountain but not the regular way
that’s where the action would be.