The Slasher

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Monday, June 24, 1635

 

I stopped at The Striped Cat at the end of the first day’s ride. The inn’s namesake—or perhaps a descendant—was sunning herself on the steps. The building was new, less than twenty years old. Most of Tangermünde had burned in the Fire of 1617. When I pulled the door open, the cat followed me inside.

TS-strpdctThe common room was small enough that the modest number of patrons made it feel crowded. I found a seat in the far corner, both to be out of the way and to observe. The stew was decent and the beer average, but the bread was quite good. I was mopping up the last of my stew when the door swung open.

A man and a woman entered. She was holding his left hand as they threaded their way around occupied tables.

“Are these seats taken?” the man asked me.

Nein. Please, sit,” I said.

He was a lanky, weather-beaten man who obviously worked outdoors. He wore workman’s clothes and heavy gloves. His face was lined but his hair was still dark, so I put that down to pain rather than age. The woman sat to his left and scooted her chair closer to his. She was attractive enough but for the pallor of someone who never saw the sun.

Ich bin Wilhelm Reuber.”

“Pleased to meet you, Herr Reuber. How is the stew? What is in it?”

“Lamb. It is okay. But the bread is good.”

He sighed. “That will be a treat.” He extricated his hand from his wife’s grip and waved for the innkeeper. After pointing at my stew bowl, he held up two fingers.

The man studied me for a while. Finally he said, “You are not from here, either, are you?”

Nein, I am from Havelburg, but I am returning to the University of Jena.”

“A university student.” He nodded, evidently in satisfaction. “That explains it. You are dressed almost as well as a burgher. What do you study?”

“I am in the arts program. Logic. Rhetoric.” Honesty compelled me to add, “I have taken up writing stories to pay for my education.”

The innkeeper set down bowls of stew, a loaf of bread, and mugs of small beer.

“Let me hear a story while we eat,” the man requested.

I narrated The Haunted Schloss. The man paid attention but did not seem all that impressed. I hoped I proved to be a better writer than a storyteller.

“I suppose stories about nobles’ problems are lost on me,” he said. “I have worked outside, alone, for some years with only the tales I could remember to keep me company. Some of them are quite grim, meant to caution children.”

I was quite sure his wife squeezing his hand was not just my imagination.

TS-frs“I know the stories you mean,” I told him. “The faeries who live in the forest and so on.”

He nodded.

“One of them actually happened to me,” I began. “I was small, about ten years old. I was supposed to be in bed, but I was looking out the window, watching the snow fall.

“And then I saw two red spots. They came closer and closer to the window, and I realized they were eyes. They were moving up and down through the air, and I thought it was a demon.”

The man was smiling. His wife seemed a bit tense but reassured by his presence.

“Just as I was getting really scared, a second set of red eyes appeared. I wanted to scream, to wake up everyone else, but I could not make a sound. Then the red eyes darted to one side, and I saw a white rabbit hopping across a snowdrift.”

He nodded approvingly. “I like that one. Another, please. You study in Jena, near those up-timers, ja? Do they have stories like this?”

“Stories to scare children with?” I thought. “Ja, I know one but it was intended to scare young men and women from going off together.”

The man motioned for me to get on with it.

“A boy and a girl went for a drive in one of those cars—the enclosed wagons with engines?”

He nodded.

“They parked in the woods, to kiss and . . . other things.” I didn’t see any need for the details. “They heard a scratch, scratch, scratch on the roof of the car. Then on one of the windows. The boy looked up just in time to see something vanish. So he told the girl to lock the door behind him and got out of the car. She waited and waited for him to come back, but he did not. Then she heard a noise—a drip, drip, drip against the roof of the car. The boy had told her not to get out of the car, so she did not. She stayed there all night, hearing the drip, drip, drip. Finally when the sun came up, she got out of the car. And the boy’s body was hanging from a tree branch above the car. His throat was slashed, and the dripping she heard was his blood. The watch found her there still screaming hours later. They say there was a man who lived in those woods with a hook for a hand, and that he was the one who had killed the boy.”

I happened to glance at his wife. She was even paler and trembling.

“My apologies, mein Herr. I have frightened your wife.”

He put his arm around her.

“I know a story somewhat like this,” she said. Looking at her husband, she asked, “Do you think it was told over and over again?”

“Until it changed into this up-time tale? It is possible, mein Schatz.” Turning back to me, he said, “I will tell it. You are a university student—you judge.

“The boy and the girl lived in a small village. The armies marched through—Mansfeld, Wallenstein, the Danes—it does not matter which—and brought plague, and the girl’s parents died. The freiherr who owned the village became her guardian. He was a harsh and evil man. Everyone knew that her parents and the boy’s parents had an understanding. But she was beautiful, and the freiherr‘s son wanted her.

“The girl did not want him. She snuck out with the boy, but the freiherr‘s son followed them. He and his retainers seized them. The freiherr and his wife were furious. She claimed the boy had stolen the girl’s virtue and demanded severe punishment. The freiherr said that was theft, and he held the power of neck and hand. So at his wife’s urging, he took the boy’s hand and drove him out of the village.

“He would have died, but a charcoal burner found him and took him in. It took him months to recover. Once he was stronger, he tried to help the charcoal burner but with only one hand, there was not much he could do. The charcoal burner carved him a wooden hand, and that helped some. Sometimes he would strap a blade to his arm instead, to cut the small branches.

Since he was determined to stay on, the kindly charcoal burner made him an apprentice.”

“The charcoal burner grew sick a few years later but before he did, he promoted the boy to journeyman. Merchants would buy from him a few times a year, and sometimes travelers would see a man with a scythe for a hand working in the woods.”

I waited for more. Finally I had to ask, “What happened to the girl?”

“The freiherr‘s son would not have her, so she was sent as a servant to another noble and closely guarded. The freiherr threatened to bring charges of witchcraft unless she went quietly.”

I sensed he was too polite to spit inside the tavern, but wanted to. After an uncomfortably long silence, I acknowledged, “That is a creepy story.”

He nodded.

“I wonder how that freiherr would fare in this Krystalnacht,” I ventured.

“I wonder, too.” He glanced at his wife. “It has been a long day, mein Schatz.” They rose. “Thank you for trading stories,” he told me. He started to bow but then shook my hand instead.

I went to bed still thinking about that story and watching the shadows very carefully. It was not easy to sleep. I awoke at dawn, dressed, and went down to the common room in search of a large breakfast on the theory that one should not be short of both sleep and food.

“You are up early,” the innkeeper noted, “for a well-to-do young man.”

I was amused. “I have another two days’ ride to Magdeburg. Then I can sleep on the train. I am only well-off enough to write to pay for my classes.”

He laughed. “Get up as early as that thin man and his pretty wife, and you will have time to make yourself richer.”

I glanced around the room. “They are already up?”

“They rode out before dawn.”

I remembered his wooden handshake and wondered if his story were also true.

****

I arrived in Magdeburg two days later and went straight to the train station.

The next passenger train going as far as Jena was a local to Schwarza Junction listed for 8:30 AM, Thursday, June 27—the next morning. Next I went to a bookstore that carries all the new genres. It is west of the Big Ditch, the moat around the old city. One of my reasons was simple vanity—I wanted to see my books for sale. But I also wanted to check out the competition. Sadly, I had to be frugal until my two manuscripts sold, so I limited myself to one book and a newspaper. I did pay a little more for an inn known for clean beds and simple but good food.

TS-gstrwThe Times-Journal was full of articles about Krystalnacht—the battle of Güstrow, Air Force involvement, skirmishes along the Rhine, and several about dead noblemen in Mecklenburg. One caught his eye because the dead noble was a freifrau rather than a freiherr.

A source said that the murder was anonymously reported to an investigative judge for the Duke of Mecklenburg. Dan Frost, Grantville’s former police chief, accompanied him to the scene. The source reported that the woman’s throat was cut, and the freiherr returned that evening, claiming to have unsuccessfully pursued the killer. “He was babbling about a man with a blade for a hand. Dan Frost said, “Your wife was killed by a one-armed man? Do you expect me to believe that?” He advised the investigative judge, “Book him, Otto. Murder one.”

A man with a blade for a hand? What had the tall, thin man said? The freifrau had been the one to demand severe punishment. And the girl had been sent to a schloss . . .

I nearly dropped my beer mug. I’d just seen it. It took me a few minutes to find it, even in a paper the size of the Times-Journal. But on the previous page, I finally located the small notice of an attack on a schloss. A guard decoyed, a locked door smashed, and one woman missing. Not all that far from where the freifrau was killed.

Why had no one else made the connection? After a couple minutes, I realized no one else had heard the man’s story. It seemed to me that a great injustice had been done to the couple I met. But he had killed the freifrau . . . If I said nothing, not only would the man get away with it, but the freiherr also might well be executed for his wife’s murder.

I sat at the table for a long time before going up to my room and spent another night tossing and turning. In the morning, I caught my train.

****

That evening in my quarters in Jena, I wrote out what I knew and enclosed the articles from the Times-Journal. On Friday morning I mailed my letter to the judge in Mecklenburg. I’d given them a few more days’ head start.

****

Late in August I returned from my classes to find a sealed letter waiting for me. It bore a Province of Mecklenburg seal. I slit it open.

 

Herr Rauber,

You have my thanks and gratitude for bringing these articles to my attention. Further investigation confirmed the freiherr‘s claim that his wife was killed by a one-armed man.

A man from the Committees of Correspondence accosted my assistant. Identifying himself only as Eleazar, he gave the following account:

Our column was the second to reach the field at Güstrow. We were hard-pressed by the nobles and their retainers. About mid-afternoon, a tall, thin man rode up, dismounted, tied his horse to a fence, and fell in beside us, loading and firing. But when the nobles were about to charge, he dropped his rifle and pulled off his glove. Under it he had a wooden hand! He took that off, too, and tucked it in his haversack. He strapped on a short sickle blade and drew a short sword with his left hand. He fought until blood ran down both blades. We broke that charge, and when more CoC columns arrived, we counterattacked. He was at the front of our charge, slashing through retainers and calling out a certain freiherr. But the freiherr fled the field.

The nobles broke at dusk. I lost track of him during the pursuit in the dark. But when we returned to the field, his horse was gone. One of my men heard him say he had other business. We have not seen him since.

The freifrau was killed two days after Güstrow. Two days after that, the magdalene vanished. The particulars of her situation match your account. The freiherr has vanished, and I fear the one-armed man has caught up to him. If you should see him, please notify the town watch—or better, the State of Thuringia-Franconia marshals. A reliable report places him in the recent action at Weissenfels.

 

I reread the letter. Every point confirmed the man’s story. Weissenfels—was he planning to come to Jena and tell me the rest of his story?  Then I made the connection and dashed out the door in search of my publisher. As soon as I found him, I blurted out, “I have the next Heroes of Germany book!” I showed him the judge’s letter. “We can call it The Slasher. And if he was at Weissenfels, that means he’s joined forces with the Saxon Ghost.”

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One thought on “The Slasher

  1. wiley coyote

    Well Now! Better than Usual Brit Detective Stories! AND some lovely place settings and use of Drive-In Theatre Monster Movies to make “The Slasher” a REAL STORY within a Story! URBAN NIGHTMARE in 1635 Backwoods? Well Done!!!

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