The Private Ambitions of Arthur Hemming
“I was truly frightened, chilled—enthralled—by these stories. One tale about the karma-like link between a junkie and his drug; one about a fearsome zombie killer; some tales about the keen desire to know what awaits us after death. The prose passes by the reader as living, solid images, made … vividly real by splendid word choices that flow by in unimpeachable sentences. Mr. Mesling even included a story that reads just like Stoker’s Dracula. I was amazed by this horrific excursion.”—Mark Powers, author of “Mr. Handlebar”
The troubled Arthur Hemming of our story came about as the result of a call for submissions to a themed anthology from April Moon Books. Spawn of the Ripper, as the anthology came to be called, was to be a tribute to the Hammer horror films of yesteryear. How could I resist dipping into that rich vein? I can be heard reading this one in episode 28 of my Bare Knuckle Podcast, should your curiosity lead you in that direction.
I arrived in Teufelsgarten a weary, depressed and hopeless wreck. My bags had been stolen by highwaymen not five miles from the edge of town; the baying of wolves had kept me from catching so much as a wink of sleep on the interminable journey from Welchenberg; and the weather upon my arrival was as welcoming as a cliff’s edge to a blind adventurer. But as I stepped from the coach and paid the driver for his troubles—thank God the brigands had left me the coins in my pockets!—a brilliant flash of lightning momentarily illuminated the rain-lashed village, and the castle that loomed above it from its perch higher up the mountain. My spirits were restored instantly, for I knew that in that castle dwelt a man who might hold the answers to questions that most men feared to ask.
Teufelsgarten would have felt more like a graveyard than a town had the coachman deposited me anywhere other than at the steps of the Hook and Dagger. A gaslit streetlamp showed enough of the sign that swung on two creaking chains above the entrance to reveal the name of the establishment, as well as part of a criss-cross blade-and-baling-hook engraving beneath the words. Thunder pealed overhead, and a chill passed through me. In Munich I would have pulled my cloak tighter against the wind and rain as I moved on in search of a more inviting inn, but in the mountain villages, one took what one could find.
I pushed open the door and acquainted myself with the barkeep straightaway, dashing my waterlogged hat against my knee before setting it on the bar. The barkeep’s round, warm face, though unsmiling, was a comfort, and I very purposely avoided eye contact with anyone else, though the place was clearly doing a brisk trade. More laughter and chatter filled the room than any reasonable soul could have guessed possible from outside. I ordered a mug of whatever courage flowed from the Hook and Dagger’s tap, then turned around to face the madding crowd. They would, after all, have questions for me, and I wasn’t without my own curiosities.
The room was split into two levels. The upper level, where the bar was located, gave way to a kind of sunken fire pit. The latter is where most of the activity was centered, as people there enjoyed the warmth of a happily glowing hearth, in addition to whatever was in their steins or in their bellies. Some of the laughter was clearly the result of jokes told at my expense. To be expected from people as cut off from the world as these. I took it all in good humor. Besides, of far more interest to me than the drunken louts in the fire pit was the voluptuous young woman clearing off one of the nearby tables.
Taking my tankard of ale with me, I approached and stood across from her, not because of the enhanced view it afforded me of her already impressive décolletage, but not unaware of her considerable charms, either.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said. “Do you know the way to Castle Lebenmort?”
She finished making a circle with a wet cloth on the tabletop and then held it in place, her entire body suddenly motionless. In the same instant, a hush fell over the room, as if she had conducted the revelers into silence with the circular gesture of her delicate hand. At length she ventured a slight movement of the head, which allowed her to look me dead in the eye. But before she could speak, a man’s voice boomed across the room from the pit.
“Who is it wants to know the way to Castle Doom?”
“The name is Hemming,” I said to the broad-shouldered villager who emerged from the sunken area by the fire. “May I ask who it is that I address?”
“Now you get around to it. Maybe you should have aimed your question at the men folk to begin with, instead of putting the red-hot irons to Miss Geldhaber here.” The man’s voice was as large as the rest of him. Had to be a farmer from the back slopes.
“Oh, Günther. Leave him alone,” the buxom wench replied, sweeping a lock of yellow hair behind one ear. “He only asked a simple question.”
“You want to visit the castle?” Günther asked me. “I’ll take you there myself.”
“Don’t be a fool!” cried Miss Geldhaber.
“Silence, Katharina! He has business with the doctor, and he sure as hell won’t find him on his own. Hemming, I cordially invite you.” He gave a mocking bow. “Follow me to Castle Doom, if you can keep up. And if you dare.”
Turning to a nearby table, he hoisted someone’s half-drained tankard.
“To the doctor!” he roared before finishing off the borrowed ale and slamming the tankard back down. Foam leapt into the air and fell to the table in emphatic puddles.
I didn’t bother mentioning that I was a doctor myself. He might have been toasting me.
The pretty barmaid and I watched him stride purposefully out the door, into the cold, dark streets of Teufelsgarten. Half smiling, I wondered if Günther the Loud would hike all the way to the castle before noticing that I hadn’t budged from my place at Katharina Geldhaber’s side. I imagined him huffing and puffing his way up a particularly steep piece of the climb, while I made time with the beautiful woman who was obviously the apple of his eye. But in the end I had no choice but to follow, for it was likely to be my only chance at finding someone brave enough to guide me to the castle. I had hoped for more rest before resuming my journey, but again, this wasn’t Munich. If I wanted to reach Dr. Lebenmort in his mountain retreat, I would take what guidance and help I could find, regardless of its source or motivation.
Outside, the wind and wet had softened to a thick mist that floated at the level of the streetlamps flickering here and there. As I struggled to keep pace with my athletic guide, I grew disoriented by an illusion whereby the houses and shops seemed to be approaching me out of the veiling mist, rather than the other way around. The optical trick had a vertiginous effect on me that I was happy to leave behind when Günther led me past the town’s boundary and into the deep of the woods beyond.
We weren’t far from the outskirts of Teufelsgarten, however, when we found our way obstructed by a rather disquieting scene. A small carriage appeared to have struck a tree root that arced up out of the rough trail we were on, for the conveyance lay crosswise on its side just ahead of the root. The whole tableau was odd, though, for no body was present, and there were no horses. Only a carpet bag near the trail’s edge.
On the one hand, it was good to have caught up to Günther, and to catch my breath, but the flesh at the nape of my neck crawled. Something wasn’t right. Still, I didn’t stop my guide when he headed in the direction of the bag, or when he squatted down to pry it open and examine its contents. And by the time he realized it was empty and stood up again, it was too late. A small, wiry man darted out of the woods at him, armed with a thick wooden cudgel. Did the quick little man really leap into the air as he swung the weapon against Günther’s head? It seems unlikely, but I swear it was so. Ach, who can trust his own memory in times of sudden violence? It was all over terribly fast, and now the accident scene had its body. Günther’s body.
The wiry fellow stood over his bloody handiwork, breathing heavily, the cudgel swinging lazily at his side. We were above the mist now. The moon was high and mostly full, and while it spared me the horror of complete darkness, it also lent Günther’s attacker an eldritch cast. I don’t remember seeing him turn away from Günther’s body, but I remember that suddenly his wide eyes were on me, his drawn features pallid in the soft light of the moon.
“What have I done?” he asked, his voice ragged and hoarse.
“What have you done?” I repeated, stunned by the simple naïveté of the question. “I should think that was fairly obvious. You’ve killed a man in cold blood, you blackguard!”
“Have I?” He leaned down and touched the corpse’s neck. “Oh, dear. Not another one.” He stood up again. “I was only supposed to knock him out.”
“At whose request?”
“The doctor’s, that’s who! Oh, I’ve made a mess of things. He’ll have my skin for this.”
“You’re not making any sense, sir. What’s going on?” I asked the question, though I had my suspicions.
“What’s it to you, eh? Maybe you’d like to meet the same fate as your friend here.”
I elected not to respond, hoping he might calm himself, or at least change the topic. Instead he heaved the cudgel into the very woods he’d sprung from only moments before.
“Now there’s a thing,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The weapon. Who do you suppose tossed it into them bushes?”
“What do you mean, who? You did. I watched you.”
“Did you? I say maybe you’re the one who tossed it and I’m the one did the watching. And if you’re the one who disposed of the weapon, by God, maybe you’re the villain who laid this man out with it.”
“Me? A murderer? You must be mad. Besides, I have no motive.” But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew them to be untrue, for jealousy was the oldest motive of them all. It would be a simple matter to convince the regulars at the Hook and Dagger that I was the guilty party in this crime. Maybe Katharina herself would suspect the worst of me, a complete stranger to these parts.
That was before I got to know her. I could almost laugh at the notion of her disloyalty now.
The man before me saw the dawning of truth on my face, and he smiled like the very devil.
“Well, what have you got to be so proud of?” I pressed. “It doesn’t sound as though your hand in this would be a hard tablet for someone to swallow… This doctor you mentioned, for instance.” The smile fell from his face. “It isn’t Dr. Lebenmort, by chance, is it? He and I have enjoyed a lengthy correspondence, you know. In fact, he’s what brings me to this dreary mountain. He and his work.”
“What do you know of the doctor’s work?”
“You tell me what you were hoping to accomplish out here tonight when you inadvertently dispatched my companion, and maybe I can satisfy your curiosity on a point or two. Perhaps we can even have the bulk of this conversation on our way to Castle Lebenmort. You do have another carriage secreted away in these woods, don’t you?”
He did, as it happened. In fact, when he wasn’t needed at the castle, he hid himself away in a ramshackle hut less than a mile from the trail where Günther breathed his last. In an attached lean-to, he kept a pair of horses that were as wiry as their owner, probably living off the same rough food as he did most of the time. And out back there stood his horse-drawn conveyance.
“The name is Kreutz,” he had informed me as I followed him along a narrow path through the trees to his humble domicile.
“Hemming,” I said. “Dr. Arthur Hemming.”
“I don’t mean to give insult, but the doctor hasn’t mentioned you that I recall.”
“Does he confide in you when it comes to matters of personal business? You are merely his servant, are you not?”
Not another word was spoken until he had hitched up his team to the rickety wagon and we were once again on the move.
When he turned from the main trail onto a somewhat more punishing one, I asked, “Will there be many more turnoffs? It seems a rather circuitous business getting to your master’s castle.”
“Nah, that was the last one. This road here will take us straight to the main gate.”
Hardly straight, I thought as I reached into my waistcoat pocket and felt for what was concealed there—a little precaution against thievery that I was very glad I had taken. I doubt there’s a single straight road in the entire Black Forest. But I was relieved to know that the time had come to act.
I’ve often marveled at how odd it is that the most momentous turning points in life can be among the simplest to execute. That’s what it was like as I withdrew the small metal case from my pocket and flipped open the lid. If the metallic sound it made caught Kreutz’s attention he didn’t let on. I slid the syringe from its cylindrical chamber and unscrewed the cap from an adjacent reservoir filled with a viscous green fluid. I deftly drew a quantity of the solution up into the syringe and, without any fanfare, pushed the needle deep into my driver’s neck and depressed the plunger.
He looked over at me suddenly, like a hurt child. His eyes filled with tears. Of shock? Pain? I didn’t have time to quiz him, for he quickly slumped in his seat, his eyes closed in a state of semi-consciousness. I screwed the cap back onto the reservoir and returned the syringe to its case, which I pocketed before taking up the reins and issuing a loud, hopeful, “Giddup!” to the horses.
They obeyed, whether out of a misplaced sense of loyalty or blind fear, and soon I was racing along the ledge of a dizzying drop-off, en route to Castle Lebenmort. Its window eyes and battlement brow watched over my approach, as a father would who expected his young gentleman son to arrive at any moment for a visit, or his young daughter’s suitor.
In due course I arrived at my destination.
After urging the team through the open gate of the castle wall, I pulled them to a stop not far from the interior entrance and disembarked. Kreutz was surprisingly heavy for his size, but I managed to drape him over my shoulder and carry him to the castle entrance. There I deposited him unceremoniously and slammed a brass knocker—an angel with its head thrown back and its eyes closed—against one of the twin oaken doors. Only then did I allow my gaze to wander up past the huge arched doorway and scale the great gray walls to assess the enormousness of the castle itself. It was everywhere, its own mountain atop a mountain. Higher still, a thin strip of cloud sliced the moon in half. I nearly jumped out of my boots when one of the doors lurched inward with the screech of heavy wood scraping across stone.
The figure who stood before me in the entryway was close to seven feet tall. His brown hair curled at the shoulders, hints of white glinting in it here and there. A mustache, similarly salted, ran down each side of his mouth. His dress was plain but tidy.
“Yes?” He asked in a sonorous baritone, glancing at Kreutz’s limp body.
“Dr. Lebenmort, I presume?”
He only stared more intently.
“My name is Arthur Hemming, sir. Dr. Arthur Hemming. You’ll remember our correspondence concerning—”
“What is this? Why have you come? And what’s the matter with him?” Stiff-backed, he shook a long, bony finger in Kreutz’s direction.
“He’ll be fine. I can explain everything, I assure you. I wish our introduction could have been more dignified, but if you’ll just let me in…”
“Him too. I’ll carry him.”
“Very well.” His posture slackened somewhat. “I suppose I can’t leave my henchman and my fondest admirer on the doorstep to catch their death, now can I?”
I might have laughed, but the doctor beat me to it, and if there’s a soul alive who could have returned his joyless, guttural laughter, I like to think I’ve never met the lunatic. It was the laughter of a man very unused to the activity.
Dinner was cold sausages and thin soup, elevated some by the Italian vino with which we washed it down. Kreutz lay sprawled across a sofa to one side of the dining hall, while the doctor and I dined across from each other, a candelabra blazing between us on a long table.
“I’m afraid you’ve caught me unprepared for company,” Dr. Lebenmort said. “With a little notice I could have readied a room for you and—”
“Nonsense, doctor. I require very little. In fact, I offer my assistance, and if it isn’t wanted, you need not put up with me for an hour longer.”
He silently stirred his soup, so I went on.
“Your man there, Kreutz, has killed someone in the woods.” I took a nonchalant spoonful of soup. “He was deeply concerned about what your reaction might be, as you had only wanted him to knock the man unconscious.”
Again I gave my host a chance to have his say, but he only stared into his bowl and continued to stir, happy to give me plenty of rope with which to hang myself. I obliged, as is my nature.
“Might I suppose that this violence has something to do with your… metaphysical experiments?”
Now he set his spoon down and looked me in the eye. I likewise returned my spoon to the table.
“You understand a great deal,” said the doctor, “but you don’t see the whole picture. You have no idea how far I’ve come since my last correspondence with you. Bungling of this nature could ruin everything at this late date. I should rip the scoundrel’s throat out while he sleeps!”
“But then he’d be of no use to you,” I quickly put in.
“Oh, there are other servants to be had. He’s not indispensable.”
“I don’t mean as a manservant. I mean as a conduit.”
“Eh? Oh! You mean… Well…”
“Think about it, Dr. Lebenmort. It’s perfect. I may need to be brought up to speed on the progress of your experiments, but I can’t imagine that the crux of your intentions has changed. You wish to follow someone—a dying someone—into the next reality. But that someone has to die at just the right time and at just the right pace. You can’t leave that kind of precision to the fumblings of a man like Kreutz. And unless you’ve made significant progress on ascertaining whether a man’s soul is destined for heaven or hell, he’s as good a conduit for your purposes as any man on earth.”
After a thoughtful pause, Dr. Lebenmort replied, “You’ve not only studied the letters I sent you, you’ve laid your hands on some of my published papers. Papers I regret ever having published, by and large. I have not made much headway in discerning the fate of a man’s soul, you’re right. But it’s the only variable that still causes me concern, and I can’t wait around forever for an answer that may never come. I’ve decided to take my chances. I’ll arrive, whether at the pearly gates or the vestibule of hell, as a visitor, a tourist. It will be a round trip, after all—and short lived. It’s bound to work this time. I know it is.”
“Then there’s no reason to wait another instant,” I said, standing excitedly. “Show me your laboratory, doctor.”
“There remains the matter of timing the death, of course.”
“Do you suppose I’ve come to you unprepared? How do you think Kreutz came to be in the state you see him in? An agent of my own making courses through his veins. It works similarly to morphine, but it’s much stronger and more easily controlled. He’s putty in my hands while under its influence. His moment of expiration is utterly bound to my will. With access to your laboratory, I can easily make more of the stuff.”
“By God, maybe you’re right, Hemming. Perhaps it is time at last.” Dr. Lebenmort also stood, ostensibly gazing upward at the high ceiling of the castle dining room, but he was clearly looking with his mind’s eye at some distant, hopeful point of revelation and discovery. He wore an agitated look of bewildered delight. It was a look of madness, in fact, but even as I recognized it for what it was, my enthusiasm for the venture grew. Such is the effect of the unknown on the heart of a scientist.
I felt honored to be in the presence of the great Dr. Lebenmort, so near to his hour of victory, but I was also proud that my own expertise in the field of psychiatry had brought me to such a promontory. It was an earned honor, in my estimation.
“There is the matter of this man who Kreutz killed in the woods,” Lebenmort said, hell bent on finding a loophole in all of this optimism. “That could give us some trouble.”
“I don’t think so. The wolves will take care of him by and by, and to give Kreutz his due, it wasn’t a completely careless operation, aside from his overlooking my presence at first. He’d staged a bogus carriage accident as a trap. Could have saved himself the trouble with us, since we were already on foot, but that’s beside the point. To anyone coming upon the scene, it will look as though Günther’s wagon hit a tree root and he fell from the carriage, suffering a fatal blow to the head. The horses freed themselves and ran to safety.”
“Günther, you say? The farmer? He’ll be missed.”
“Yes, and people know he was showing me the way to your castle, but lies can be told. What people see with their own eyes is almost impossible to overturn. Despite the illogic of it, they will contend that Günther suffered a terrible accident and I made it the rest of the way on my own. Maybe he and I hired the carriage. Maybe he found it after we’d parted company. You and I can work out the details and agree upon a story. The weapon is out there somewhere, too, but what of it? It’s easily recovered and dealt with.”
“You’re a convincing speaker, Dr. Hemming. A very convincing speaker.”
“What do you say?”
“I say… allow me to show you to my laboratory.”
I grinned and lifted my glass in a silent toast before draining it. He returned the gesture, and I eagerly followed him out of the room.
We passed through an immense library with only the doctor’s taper for a guiding light. On any other occasion I would have yearned for a tour of that room as well, but the situation being what it was, all my attention was focused on the matter of witnessing a successful trip to, and back from, the great unknown.
Beyond the library, a short study ended in a staircase, which we carefully descended. And then we stood in what at first I took to be the infamous doctor’s laboratory, but as he crept about, lighting candle after candle, I soon realized that this must be little more than a room used to conceal the truth of what really went on at Castle Lebenmort. I could use it to produce more of my injectant, perhaps, but surely it wasn’t the space he used to conduct his experiments in metaphysics.
Lebenmort suddenly stopped lighting candles and spun around to face me.
“Kreutz!” he fairly shouted.
“He’ll be out for a good while yet. Not to worry. Lead on, sir.”
“Oh, very good. Yes, yes. Of course. Come along here.”
He led me past the main scientific apparatus of the room to a row of shelves along the rear wall. Jars of things, mostly. Some arcane tomes lying on their sides. Tools, loose handwritten pages, shipping cartons. He laid his hand on a large glass jar with a specimen of tissue floating within and slid it to one side. An entire section of shelves clicked free and he pulled it wide to reveal a passageway. He lit first one wall-mounted torch, then another, and continued in this fashion as I followed him ever deeper into the bowels of the castle.
At last we came to a door that only could have led to one place. It opened onto the most splendid sight my eyes have ever seen: the pulsating heart of Castle Doom.
The main laboratory was grand, both in scale and conception. Gaslit torches blazed from all corners as machinery hummed along throughout practically every inch of the place. Cables, hoses and tubes connected unlikely mechanisms to one another, and great iron pipes spanned the room near the vaulted ceiling. Some even ran vertically up into the ceiling, presumably expelling a kind of exhaust into the atmosphere without. Although we looked down into the main area from the landing we occupied, the space between us and the ceiling was greater still.
“Well,” said the doctor, unable to conceal his pride, “what do you think?”
“Words defy me,” I said, and my awe was genuine. “This… Well, again, this is simply beyond words. I knew the work you were engaged in must require space and great mechanical achievement, but this…”
“Come, let’s have a closer look.”
Much of what my gaze met with on our descent was beyond my immediate understanding, but there were two stations across the chamber whose purpose couldn’t have been more obvious. Surely those two vertical glass tubes, with their wooden backs where they met the wall, were the encasements used for the actual experiments. A shudder snaked through me. Suddenly it all felt very real.
“There will be plenty of time to go over everything,” Dr. Lebenmort went on as he conducted me through the maze of equipment, “but there are several key components to all this wizardry that you really should be made aware of straightaway, if you truly are committed to helping me with my research.”
“Oh, I’m committed,” I replied. “You may definitely rely on me.”
“Very well. This,” he said, gesturing toward a large metal drum that sat in a dark corner, “is the ionic transference inducer. It is the key to the entire operation. Without it, there is no contact made between my subject and me. And without that contact, I have no hope of piggybacking into the afterlife as my subject sheds his mortal coil.”
“Yes, perhaps. Well, at any rate, this over here is the galvanic inhibitor.” This contraption—a low-profile metal cube with dials and switches all over its surface—sat on the opposite side of the tubular glass enclosures. “Its primary function is to ensure that the transference does not exceed acceptable levels. See, an exact balance must be met. The current running between our subject and myself will be part electricity, part life force. It needs to be sufficient to allow my crossing over with the subject, yet not so strong as to bring about my actual demise. The inducer steadily ratchets up the current; the inhibitor keeps it in check. Now, both are controlled by the conversion switch.”
“Ah, yes. In good time. Back this way, if you will. These glass tubes, of course, are the enclosures my subject and I step into for the procedure. After strapping us in and locking the enclosures, you will lower the head pieces into place.” Here he demonstrated by sliding a brass knob down the length of a faceplate in the stone wall. The dome-shaped metal head piece in the left tube descended to where a man’s head would be. He slid an adjacent knob, and the head piece in the tube on the right was similarly lowered into place.
“Well, it’s not advisable to handle the head pieces directly. They seem to retain a bit of residual charge. They’re partially insulated on the inside, you see, so no current travels to the subject until it’s forced through the gaps in the insulation. That’s where the conversion switch comes in.” He gestured to a long lever set into the floor between the tubes. “Once the headgear is in place, it’s time to throw the switch. That begins the process. Now, the only other piece of equipment I’d like to make sure you’re aware of right away is this panel over here.” A flat metal sheet full of gauges, levers and bulbs was set into the wall nearby. “This tells you what the inducer and the inhibitor are up to. When this bulb begins flashing red, you have exactly one minute to terminate our subject and cut the switch. Any longer than that and the galvanic inhibitor will grow increasingly unstable, putting me at risk for a permanent journey. Besides, once the subject is deceased, my own life force will drain much more rapidly. I do need some current, or life force, to ride back on, but not nearly as much as I do going out. So cut that switch as soon as Kreutz is dead! Now, if he were to die before the bulb begins to flash—”
“There wouldn’t be enough current to effect the send-off in the first place.”
“Precisely. And this bulb over here needs to be solid green from the time you throw the conversion switch. That tells you that the inhibitor is functioning properly and will give me that full minute from the time the red bulb begins to flash. If you see so much as a flicker of the green bulb before the red bulb starts up, the current needs to be switched off immediately.”
“Why, it’s as dangerous as it is elaborate. How do you power all of this?”
“With a very large battery cell that collects and stores energy from the lightning storms we see with such regularity in these parts. You’ll see it in due course, but there’s time for all that. What about Kreutz? Surely he needs tending to by now.”
“Yes, of course. Let’s see to him.”
Kreutz was in an almost constant state of torpor from that day forward, and when he wasn’t, he yearned for an injection so badly that he was equally pliable. Not only was I able to reproduce my narcotic agent in the ante-laboratory that Dr. Lebenmort gave me unfettered access to, but I greatly refined it. During that time, Lebenmort had a number of calculations to perform, based on data from his last attempted journey, as well as mechanical maintenance to tend to. I helped him with some of his work, but we left each other alone a good deal.
I admired Lebenmort. It was impossible not to. He had an extraordinary mind in many ways, but I came to see that he limited his vision unnecessarily. Where he saw only the potential for one great step forward in mankind’s understanding of what awaits us in death, I began to sense that it might be possible to alter the course of our travels after we pass on.
I was careful never to share this idea with the doctor, of course.
Weeks passed, owing to his irritating perfectionism, but at last the day arrived. Finally I would witness what I had imagined a thousand times, or at least a full-fledged attempt would be made.
“Now, you’re sure you have the proper dosage in the syringe?” the doctor wanted to know.
I did. Of course I did. He had helped me run an intravenous line into the glass enclosure that Kreutz now occupied. I would be able to deliver the fatal injection within seconds of observing the flashing red bulb on the wall panel.
“What about you, doctor?” I asked in return. “Are you sure you’re prepared for the possibility that Kreutz’s soul is bound for the pit rather than paradise?”
I don’t think I smiled as I said it, but I smile now. Surely Kreutz, the murdering lackey, was as damned as ever a man could be, and that meant the good doctor was in for one hell of a ride.
“What choice do we have? We must focus on the scientific value of the endeavor, and that is the same regardless of his destination. I am prepared.”
Maybe he was, but he certainly wasn’t prepared for what awaited him upon his return.
Everything came together like a dream. I suppose some of the credit does have to go to Dr. Lebenmort and his obsessive attention to minutiae. He helped me prop Kreutz up against the board at the back of his glass tube and strap him in. I quickly connected the intravenous tubing at both ends as the doctor entered his own enclosure and began strapping himself in. I helped him finish when I was through with Kreutz and then closed the curved glass door on each encasement, locking them both tight. Down came the headgear, and we were ready to commence.
My only moment of hesitation came when my hand touched the lever of the conversion switch. I glanced over at the doctor, whose head was turned so he could also see me. The connection between us was stronger than I had realized. His trust in me was complete, though he was afraid. I could see it in his wide, unblinking eyes. He smiled faintly and turned his head away again. I stared at the lever for a few seconds, gritted my teeth and gave it a tug with all my strength.
Sounds erupted all over the room, some small, others echoing in the cavernous laboratory. Lights began to blink. Dials whirred in response to the call of the energy driving the place.
Remembering the indicator panel, I rushed to the wall and kept watch over the steady glow of the green bulb. I have no idea how many minutes passed, but it felt like forever before the small red bulb took up its rhythmic pulse. My heart knocked against my chest as I rushed over to Kreutz and plunged the lethal dose of poison into his bloodstream. The enclosures had to remain closed during the process, but there was a small mirror attached to Kreutz’s head piece, positioned directly in front of his mouth. By pressing my back against the wall I was able to peer over his shoulder and see whether his breath was fogging the mirror. For several seconds it was, at slowing intervals. Then, it was not. I waited a moment longer, wanting to be absolutely sure.
Kreutz was dead.
Just like Günther.
And that made me a murderer at last. For a moment it was as if the possibility of my own damnation hadn’t crossed my mind until then—but of course it had, many times.
I reached for the conversion switch.
“No, damn it!”
Then I remembered the lock release on the handle. Lebenmort had reminded me repeatedly. I flipped it, and the lever slid easily back to the off position. The room quieted, except for the rapid singing of my pulse in my ears. It would have been easy enough to pass out if I wasn’t careful.
But I had to keep moving. This wasn’t over yet.
I unlocked Dr. Lebenmort’s glass tube and threw open the door. He hadn’t returned, but he would soon. His eyes wandered back and forth behind closed lids. His slack facial expression held no clue as to the nature of the experience he was having. Digging into my waistcoat pocket—the one opposite where I kept the metal syringe case—I produced another item I’d managed to keep hidden from the highwaymen outside of Teufelsgarten: a gold watch my father had given me as a gift before sending me off to medical school.
He would have demanded its return if he’d known what I was about to use it for.
Lebenmort’s eyelids fluttered open, and the first thing his eyes locked onto was my watch as it swung before him at the end of its chain.
“You’re very tired, Dr. Lebenmort,” I said in the most soothing voice I could manage under the circumstances. “So very tired after your travels. All you want to do is sleep. You’re falling backwards now. Falling… falling.”
His eyes never left the watch.
“You would have hit the ground by now, but there is no ground. You are floating in blackness, so you continue to fall. Spiraling. Tumbling. Down, down, down. Can you hear me?”
“I… hear you.”
“Good. You’ve been on a journey. When I count to three, I want you to wake from this trance and remember that journey in all of its particulars. But I also want you to be aware of something else. You have returned with an infestation. There are tiny, biting demons, hundreds of them, crawling throughout your body, just under your skin. They want out, Dr. Lebenmort, but they can’t find the way. I can help you. I can make them retreat. Whenever you hear me say ‘retreat,’ you’ll feel relief as the horde does in fact withdraw deeper inside of you, though you will know that they are only waiting for their next opportunity to dig and chew their way to the surface in search of an exit. I will be your only source of comfort whenever that happens.
“One. Two. Three.”
His eyes flashed open and I quickly pocketed the watch.
I watched as he struggled against his restraints, hands balled into fists, chest heaving.
“Shall I undo the straps, doctor?”
“Oh, my God!” he screamed.
“Retreat!” I hollered back, and little by little, his rigid body relaxed.
And as easy as that, the castle became mine. It was a sad business, the doctor going out of his mind as he did. The villagers of Teufelsgarten pretended to mourn the passing of his quiet rule over the mountain, but in truth, they were—to a man, woman and child—elated that Castle Doom had a new master.
That is, until whispers concerning my own mad experiments began to circulate… and the odd traveler to Teufelsgarten started vanishing into the mountain mists, never long after arriving. The fewer attachments that are allowed to take hold, after all, the better. The practice of relying on visitors for my experimentation has had the added benefit of lulling the locals into a feeling of relative safety from harm, which has kept me in their good graces, more or less. Perhaps it is only fear.
Now, however, even my reign at Castle Lebenmort has reached the end of its rope, for I am prepared at last to engage in one final experiment. I’m afraid that Dr. Lebenmort will have to pay the ultimate price, but if he were still of sound mind I’m sure he’d throw his full support behind my attempt to guide my posthumous destiny to a place in the clouds rather than to the lake of fire. Besides, he’ll have good company: my own. For my experiment requires the death of not just one participant, but both. I expect my soul to ricochet, if you like, off the doctor’s departing spirit, sending him in one direction and me in another. The operating of the laboratory equipment will be left to Katharina, who has been an extraordinary helpmate these long, arduous months of research and dry runs, each of which has necessitated the sacrificing of a single subject. Thanks to those trials, and the numerous papers left behind by the doctor, I feel confident in my conclusions now. I’ve also spent countless hours interviewing Dr. Lebenmort about his brief experience on the other side. Some of those interviews have been conducted under hypnosis. Many have not. All have been revelatory.
So, call this my confession if you like. No one will ever read the words I’ve laid down here as long as I still draw breath. Presently I will lock these pages away in a chest, along with my copious notes and diagrams. I vow to carry the key to that chest about my neck until the end of my days—an end that creeps ever nearer. But then, isn’t that true for us all? Katharina will likely discover the chest before long, and then she’ll know why I wear this key.
What began as an insane quest to conquer the afterlife and claim the castle as my own has continued out of love and admiration for Katharina. If I can know that she and I will share the same eternal fate, every strain on my living soul will have been worth it. Her place among the angels is guaranteed, of course. If someone is reading this now, I hope that I’ve won the same prize for myself.
Please don’t be in any hurry to join me, Katharina. Live a full, rich life. We’ll have all the time we could possibly hope for when you arrive in my arms again.