(How the Malandanti rebuilt a coven)
A human life contained on a single piece of technology no bigger than a cheap cigarette lighter. Ancestry to birth to schooling to adult life, every detail up to the moment Sabrina von Katzenberg kissed Raul Mazzoni and began a five year love affair. The affair cost him his business, his house, his marriage, his children and when it was all done Mazzoni stood outside the court house in Verona, hollowed out with only the loose change in his pocket.
His wife owned everything he once owned, everything except the publishing rights to the catalogue of educational textbooks; that 200 million euro asset belonged to Sabrina von Katzenberg, bought in a deal he thought made sense. The link between deal and affair only presented itself on the steps of the court house.
If Mazzoni learned one thing from his ordeal it was that he still had a flair for revenge. A talent honed over fifteen years of belonging to the Verona coven. But before he met Sabrina von Katzenberg one last time he faced an added distraction.
“Do you like going to the theatre, Raul?”
Mazzoni was startled by Ruby Summer’s presence in the drawing room of his temporary home.
“What are you doing here?”
“Chill out, we’re very good at being in two places at once.”
“There are three of us remember.”
“So where are the other two?” When he looked through the door he saw one of the other two sat on his staircase typing on her mobile phone.
“Just ignore her,” said Ruby who called out, “she’s working on her latest shit novel.”
The other woman raised a middle finger.
“Well, you can’t stay here. You’re not part of the ritual.”
She knew her place. Ruby stepped aside as twelve members of the main coven emerged from rooms, black hooded spectres, whispering, continuing their conspiracies. They sidestepped the woman on the stairs who refused to budge.
Mazzoni closed the door when the initiates had gathered and saw Ruby’s grinning expression, a malevolent look of demented potential. ‘You’ll like this,’ she mouthed before the door clicked shut.
“Are they ready?” said Eleanor.
“Yes. They say they are.”
“Okay. Before we begin we need to discuss Bamberg.”
“House big enough for you, Paulo?” Hans-Peter from Wurzburg had to shove his question in. Eleanor rolled her eyes.
“Superb, Hans, thank you.”
Eleanor silenced them by removing her hood. “Can we stick to the reason for being here? Thank you.”
Mazzoni prepared the ritual water as the coven around him discussed Bamberg.
“We can’t just move everyone up by one level.”
“Why do we need a replacement?” said the man from Warsaw.
“Lena’s coven was special. The second group in Bamberg have no connections to Bavarian police, they’re not in the right places. Lena’s coven has a network set up.”
The woman from Vienna, helping Paulo with salt and spices and the honey mixed with arsenic asked about Toten Herzen. “Should we worry about them? They could be a potent adversary if we don’t take them seriously.”
“They’re only a problem if they’re real.”
“Vampires. And even then,” Eleanor glanced at the door and paused, “and even then we can draw on forces to match them. Lena shouldn’t have acted alone the way she did.”
“If you’re looking for a new leader in Bamberg can I suggest a colleague of mine in Wurzburg? She’s a skilful adept, very well acquainted-”
“No.” Eleanor put her hood back on. “I know who you’re talking about.”
“But she’s as well versed as me, Eleanor, give her a chance.”
“Virginia Bruck is a secularist. An opportunist scientist and married to that insane hedge witch who calls himself an artist, we can only guess what his influences would be on her.”
“But Eleanor. . . .”
Mazzoni’s preparations complete, he signalled to Eleanor and the subject of Virginia Bruck was closed. “The matter in hand, Eleanor.”
“We’ll continue later. Is she there?”
The coven closed in on the water bowl, stepping inside the circle, releasing a chant at each concentric circle until thirteen hooded faces watched the bowl and its all-seeing vision. In the water, an inverted image of a woman many kilometres away. She rode a horse, a late afternoon dressage competition, the horse pulling and resisting, the woman upright and unmoved. Discreet signals led the horse across the arena, bobbing footsteps, rider in top hat, black tail coat, white breeches, long black riding boots, a near-vertical line of influence bisecting a chestnut beast under total control.
Eleanor led a second chant, concocted from entries in Book 2 of Trithemius’s Steganographia. She cast a skin of salt and powdered onion across the water. “Dehydration and added heat,” the water clouded, the rider lost her stiff verticality, “Intrusion of calming sweetness,” she poured honey into the foggy mixture, the others placed an index finger on the rim of the bowl. The candles faltered, a meagre orange light illuminated the bowl and the face of the rider, gulping for air. She grabbed her throat with one hand and struggled to contain the horse aware of the distress visiting its rider who slipped out of the saddle.
Helpers rushed to her, loosened her collar. Top hat rolled away following the horse being chased by a stable girl. The rider’s body stiffened horizontally and convulsed with such violence she kicked one of the helpers who collapsed in equal pain. Her left hand gripped a helper’s shoulder until he was dragged into a knot on the ground, her right hand clawing at her throat, mouth gaping, eyes bulging. Eleanor placed her hands against the side of the bowl.
“The heat of poison travels throughout the body of our subject Sabrina von Katzenberg, travels to the spleen, to the bile duct, to the adrenal gland, to the liver, to the bladder, through the blood and through the oxygen.” The bowl shook, the water churning, Sabrina von Katzenberg’s distant image convulsing, showering blood across the helpless aides joined by two uniformed paramedics frantic and confused. The body settled, limp and lifeless. She was taken by stretcher to a waiting ambulance and driven away.
The post-ritual calm gave everyone a moment to reset, to let the heart beats settle. In the silence they heard a buzz from the other side of the door. Mazzoni dragged it open and found the woman with the phone hurrying away down the corridor. She heard Mazzoni and looked over her shoulder. “Gotta go. Work to do.” She waved her phone and sprinted out of the house.
Once they had the body inside the ambulance, Gregor and Shalini knew the difficult bit of the job was done. Gregor lit a cigarette and studied Sabrina von Katzenberg’s corpse. “It’s all military, you know.”
“What is?” Shalini hit quiet traffic and turned off the ambulance siren.
“Horse riding. Equestrianism. What they wear, what the horses do, even how you get on and off a horse. Always the same side, you know, so you don’t stab the horse with your sword.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The fancy movements in dressage were used on the battlefield, kicking out to scatter troops surrounding you. And all this fancy get up, the frock coats, the boots, all military.”
“She didn’t put up much of a fight.”
“Lovers’ tiff. Not sure why we should be involved. What’s Ruby got planned for her?”
The journey continued south until Shalini parked the ambulance on an autobahn service station where they transferred Sabrina von Katzenberg’s body to an unmarked van. Ruby and Jenzo sat in the cab.
“Did you remember to bring the horse?” Jenzo said through the passenger window.
“Horse? The horse didn’t die,” said Gregor. “That wasn’t the plan, was it?”
“Thanks Gregor.” Ruby jumped out of the van. “You can go home to your succubus now. Keep your eye on the news.”
Ruby and Shalini chattered in Hindi leaving Jenzo to open up the van and prepare the space for the body, carried by the arms and legs, stiffened by agony, the astonished face heavily made up, hair scraped back into a tight bun leaving the wild expression to exhibit the effects of the spell.
From the service station they continued to the Stadttheater Ingolstadt, a modernist lump abandoned to the heavy darkness. Ruby opened the rear doors of the van, checked on the lifeless occupant and whistled. And waited.
Whistled . . . and waited. They stepped away from the van when they heard a flutter of wings and the formless draught of a presence arriving, perching on the roof, deep scratches carving through the outer metal skin.
“Amitroth,” Ruby said, “Take it, hang it. I’ll leave your reward out here.” A gargled response echoed off the walls of the theatre delivery bay. A pungent smell of sulphur poured out of the van and through the hanging yellow mist Shalini peeked inside. “We’re done.”
“Has she gone?” said Jenzo.
“Yeah.” Ruby shut the doors. “Let them get on with it. And we can go and get pissed.”
Public spaces, busy spaces, crowd and bustle, it all equated to background noise, confusion. Karin Vogts hurried from Munich’s Luisenstrasse through the Botanic Gardens knowing she was being led into a corner, a prearranged meeting point. At any stage in the chase, and it was a chase even at pedestrian pace, she could have taken the U-Bahn, jumped on the tram, headed back to the car park, but instead she followed her instinct.
She rushed past a bookshop on Kaufingerstrasse and then stopped, took three steps backwards and saw the mark on the pavement next to the litter bin.
A pentagram. An inverted pentagram.
The bookshop was open but empty. She stepped inside and waited for a sign, reassured now that she was being guided not followed. Through to the back of the shop a doorway rested open. Inside Marja Demeustelen sat alone.
“Marja? A surprise.”
“Hi, Karin. Close the door. Sit down. No . . . wait.” Marja re-entered the shop and sniffed the air. “You’ve been followed.” She crept round the shelves, checked the ceiling, glanced up the steps to the mezzanine floor. “You know, I wish they’d just make themselves apparent instead of creeping about like this.”
Back in the room Marja left the door wide open and kept an eye on the shop for visitors. “Eleanor wants you to move across from Munich, take on the new coven in Bamberg.”
“I see. That’s good. Is that good?”
“Yes. It would be yours. Bring it together yourself, choose the initiates.”
“Yeah.” The challenge appealed to her. The license. “I’ve never brought a coven together before. How do I find initiates?”
“They come to you. Not literally, you know when you meet them, but I think Eleanor wants to keep it local. Select people from Bavaria, no farther than that.”
“Okay. I’ve heard rumours of some good people in Bayreuth and Ingolstadt.”
“I can contact their leaders for you, compile a list.” Marja heard a noise. “What is going on?”
The shop had a visitor. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“No.” The visitor, a young woman with a studious approach to the books paced around, arms behind her back, long black hair falling across her face. “I was looking for something on witchcraft.”
“Yeah. After what happened at that theatre the other night I thought, oh, fuck me, I’ll have some of that.”
“Did you? And what precisely is some of that?”
“A bit of the old hocus pocus, hubble bubble toil and trouble et cetera.” The woman’s face was hard to read through the strands of hair hanging vertically across her features. She craned her neck, challenging Marja to suggest a few titles.
“I don’t really stock anything like that.”
“Oh come on. You should take advantage of trending events like that. Have you not had a rush of people coming in here asking about witchcraft and Wicca and black magic.” She stepped forward leaning slightly towards Marja’s face. “Satanism.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m one of Santa’s little helpers. A bit of this, a bit of that. Look. let me show you something.” Her phone was gorged on news reports of the murder victim found at the Stadttheater. The opening night ruined by a corpse hung from the lighting by equestrian tack and straps, a bridle in her mouth, top hat still on her head. The audience set eyes on it when the stage curtains drew back and a descending layer of scenery hovered above the actors delivering the body into a line of dialogue about small packages containing big surprises.
“Even though I hate her with a passion, I have to give Ruby credit for doing her homework.” The woman tapped her phone. “I would never have thought of that, made the connection between the dialogue. Big surprises. Clever isn’t it?”
“Feel free to browse the books, but I’m in the middle of a conversation at the moment, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind.” She waved them back towards the room. “You get on with your witch’s conference. I’ll entertain myself out here.”
Sitting down, away from their peculiar associate, Karin said “Do you know her?”
Marja nodded. “When you, if you choose to take on Bamberg, you’ll meet her again. Her name’s Jennifer Enzo. Jenzo, her colleagues call her. I would say friends, but she doesn’t have any.”
She was visible, mooching amongst the displays, a black form stalking the books like a shadow that had lost its human. “Is she dangerous?”
Marja breathed in. “You have no idea. Don’t get on the wrong side of them. But let’s get back to Bamberg.”
“Yeah, there is talk of someone else, someone unusual.” Karin glanced over her shoulder to see if Jenzo was still browsing. “She’s a business woman, has a lot of connections and a curiosity.”
Jenzo stood at the door. “I thought you lot didn’t know each others’ names.”
Marja was about to stand, but Karin stopped her. “Everyone in Bamberg knows her. I think. That’s what I’m told. Frieda Schoenhofer.”
Jenzo produced a book. “I found something.”
“Take it,” said Marja. “It’s on me.”
The surprises didn’t end when the curtains were drawn back and Sabrina von Katzenberg’s unscripted entrance startled an unsuspecting audience. Local police decided the method of killing was too peculiar to be classed a murder investigation. Descriptions of the killing travelled up the Federal police hierarchy, passing through the BND and across borders to Leonard Thwaite’s desk at Interpol in Lyon.
His journey to the Stadttheater Ingolstadt brought him to an area of the stage directly below the body. He only moved aside when the woman’s face was almost level with his own. “Hold it there.” The bridle bit had been fastened without any incision or puncturing of the skin as if Sabrina von Katzenberg had been born with it.
And the rest of the display was the same. The straps, the belts, the buckles and loops, all of it fused to the flesh. Thwaite deliberately stepped in front of a forensics officer with a camera. “No photographs yet,” he said. Kriminalkommissar Moeller asked the forensics team to leave the theatre for a moment.
Moeller looked tired, his shoulders hunched, wearily rubbing his eyes and dragging his cheeks down towards his chin. When he spoke, the corpse literally hung around as if eavesdropping on the private conversation. “I don’t know why they left her here. She has no connection to the theatre.”
“No.” Thwaite sucked on a boiled sweet. “Dramatic effect. They’re starting to show off.”
“I don’t know. Because they can, I suppose. Jesus knows how they do it.” Thwaite wanted to feel the join between bridle bit and skin, but he’d leave his DNA on the corpse and then he’d be inside the maelstrom of Malandanti technique, the sadistic exuberance, a flamboyant desire to push the boundaries of what was physically possible in the art of murder. Except this wasn’t physically possible. No human being could organically attach a body to pieces of metal and leather.
“We’ve tried to trace the paramedics who took her from the riding event, but gone. Nothing.”
“No, you won’t find them, you won’t trace them like that. We can speak to her business associates. She was mixed up with a messy divorce and a two hundred million euro takeover. Raul Mazzoni. The publisher. Lost everything to his ex-wife and what was left to her.”
“Is his wife still alive?”
“For now. She’s in a protection programme. I’m not even going to tell you which country because I don’t trust you.”
“That’s the way it is. Sorry. They’re everywhere. Malandanti. It can only be them. This kind of killing can only be them.”
“I wasn’t aware of a coven operating in this area.”
“There isn’t. Let’s sit down and I’ll explain it to you.” Part of Thwaite wondered if Moeller already knew the Malandanti structure, or was even part of the network himself. Forensics were ordered to leave the body in situ, do what they can, but leave it there for now until Thwaite made a phone call.
They settled in the restaurant of the theatre, Moeller keeping himself awake with espresso served in a mug. He watched Thwaite draw a diagram on a serviette. The man still used pen and paper. “Imagine a triangle. At the top, the main coven. Each member of the coven is the head of another coven, second level or second degree. Most members of the second degree covens lead their own third degree covens and so on and so on. The Bamberg coven wiped out last November was third degree.” He scratched a heavy blue line across the triangle and jabbed it with his pen. “They’re going to rebuild that coven.”
“How do you know?”
“Because Bamberg is where it all started. It’s symbolic. Four hundred years there’s been a coven in Bamberg. If they’re rebuilding it we can get someone on the inside. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around that often. Probably not in my lifetime.”
Thwaite left Moeller to study the serviette. Wandering away from the table he made a phone call after being connected to a secure line. “Simon. What’s on your workload at the moment?”
Moeller had more questions when Thwaite was finished. “Whoever does this is a brave woman.”
“Or man. Men are witches too, you know.”
“Sure. I can see if we can-”
“No, no one local. No one from Bavaria. We need to put someone in there they won’t have met. If they pass you on the pavement they’ll remember your face.”
The theatre manager prefaced his concern for the theatre with token concern for the body hovering over his stage. Thwaite suggested twenty-four hours. He wanted to come back with a colleague and an unholy row broke out between theatre manager, Thwaite and Moeller who wasn’t too pleased to have his investigation hijacked by Interpol.
“It’s only twenty-four hours and then I’ll be out of your hair. You can do what you want, but I want someone to see this first and then talk to them about Bamberg.”
The following day Thwaite was back. Moeller had left a squad of uniformed officers at every entrance to the theatre and two marksmen on the roof. Inside the auditorium the stage curtains were pulled across. Thwaite led his colleague up the steps and pushed through the curtain.
“There she is.” Thwaite stood back from Sabrina von Katzenberg to allow his colleague a closer look. Dangling like a museum exhibit, discoloured by gravity and post-mortem dynamics, she offered an easy subject to examine. “What do you think? Am I right?”
“No doubt about it, Leonard. Has all the hallmarks. Last December they fused the body of Daniel Sauber to a tree in St. Sebastian’s Cemetery in Salzburg. It was there two days before anyone noticed.”
“At least they killed her first.”
“Yeah. I take it they haven’t done a post-mortem for the original killing?”
“Some swabs from the mouth. They found trace elements, arsenic, honey, spices. Police in Ingolstadt asked around. She hadn’t eaten any of that shit before the riding event. So, that’s another one for your scrapbook. It must be getting quite thick now.”
“So, what do you want me to do now, Leonard.”
“Yes. I had a proposal for you, Simon. How would you like to be a witch in Bamberg?”
Simon Frenzel choked.
The uniformity of business made life difficult for Eleanor and Karin; they stood in the conference suite of the RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne, faced with a grey mass of men and women, identical tailoring, identical body language, identical conversations.
“Numbers, yields, margins. What a way to live,” said Karin.
“A necessary evil. Sit through one of my board meetings and you’d understand the meaning of the phrase soul-destroying.”
“Which one do you think she is?”
The moments passed and the conversations shifted, a subtle distraction from numbers, yields and margins to questions about apples and who was surreptitiously adding them to people’s plates. Eleanor grinned and whispered to Karin, “Follow the apples. I think we have our initiate.”
They found one delegate, one attendee, dressed like the others, grey business suit, but with one significant detail: “Would you like me to get you an apple,” Eleanor studied the delegate’s name badge, “Christine?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” She grinned. “The conversations were starting to bore me. You should hear them now. I don’t like apples, do you want my apple, where the fuck did this apple come from?”
“Why apples?” Karin said.
“Why?” Christine held her coffee cup on upturned fingertips. “One of my earliest memories is my mother telling me the story of Snow White. I thought, wouldn’t that be great to be able to control people with apples. They’re easy to come by, cheap to buy, no one ever looked at an apple with suspicion . . . well, not until now. It’s not like trying to give someone an atom bomb or a strange looking vial full of nerve agent. It’s an apple. A disorientation, sorry for using that word. Something so simple and yet so unsettling when you least expect it. Think what you can do with one. Poison it, make it stick in the throat, increase its density so that it weighs the victim down in water, choke them with a single length of peel, hold it in the gut until it grows into another tree. The possibilities are endless.”
Eleanor was struck by the softness of Christine’s voice, as light as an autumn leaf floating away from the branch. But Frieda’s voice disguised a malevolence present in her eyes; an unnerving intensity in the way she looked at Eleanor as if trying to imprint the words permanently onto the brain. “You have a vivid imagination, Christine.”
“Mankind was cursed by an apple. We’re still paying the price.”
“I don’t like talking here,” said Karin, but it was too late. Another delegate approached them.
“Sorry for the delay, Christine. We had to go to teleconferencing to get a decision from St. Petersburg, but,” he noticed Eleanor and Karin. “Is this a bad time?”
“These are terrible times, Ivan, but go on. These are business associates of mine.”
Ivan paused, checked Eleanor and Karin’s badges before continuing. “St. Petersburg isn’t sure. Can we step outside a moment, Christine?”
“Of course.” She handed Eleanor an apple. “Don’t lose this,” she said.
Out they went, Christine and Ivan, through the sliding doors onto the balcony of the conference suite where they stood against a backdrop of sprinklers watering the football pitch. Eleanor was about to find a spare plate for the apple when it spoke.
‘The problem is the Siebert-Neved brand and its association with the events in November. Investors are split between the events being good publicity and bad publicity.
‘Good publicity. The brand is forward thinking, modern, bad publicity is a point of view, one person’s bad publicity is another person’s compulsive conversation topic.’
‘Well, the people in St. Petersburg fall into the former group. . . .’
“She’s clever.” Eleanor held the apple at arm’s length and stared at it.
‘There’s another difficult point. The investors will only negotiate the final buyout with Frieda Schoenhofer.’
‘I’m her sole agent. Everything comes through me.’
‘That will be a deal breaker.’
‘There are two hundred other delegates in there. She’s in no hurry to sell.’
‘But Dmitri Neved is in a hurry to sell.’
‘You don’t need to worry about Herr Neved.’
Ivan leaned on the balcony rail. A groundsman shuffled along the football pitch, right to left on his mower. Ivan followed him.
‘No. I’m sorry, Christine. If we can meet Frieda, maybe then we can continue, but there’s nothing else I can do at the moment.’
And in they came. Ivan shook hands, looked twice at Eleanor’s apple and re-entered the crowd of the conference suite. When he was gone Eleanor said, “You know the Rahnsalhof, Frieda?”
“Let’s continue this conversation there.” Unable to find a place to offload the apple Eleanor held out her palm and the apple, tempted by the open sliding doors, transformed into a butterfly and flickered away towards the sparkling grass below.
“You could have just left it on someone’s plate,” said Frieda. Eleanor’s car stopped at the rusting gates blocking the entrance to an overgrown driveway.
“Call it a message.”
“Them.” Behind the gates three women strolled out of the vegetation. One, tall and languid, leaned against the gates with her arms hanging between the bars. Eleanor sighed. “She does try my patience at times.”
“We’re closed,” the woman shouted. “Come back on Saturday. It’s half price.”
“Just open the gates, Jennifer.”
The woman recoiled from a surge of electricity through the bars.
“Who is that?” said Frieda.
“A pest.” The pest jumped on the boot of the car and rode shotgun to the base of the Rahnsalhof’s rotting tower. The driveway’s surface disintegrated until the ride became too bumpy and she fell off. Eleanor watched her tumbling across the cobbles.
The pest was still rubbing the dust off her clothes when her colleagues arrived and greeted Eleanor.
“Karin, Frieda, this is Ruby, Shalini and Jennifer. . . .”
“Call me Jenzo.”
“This is Karin Vogts and Frieda Schoenhofer.”
No hands were offered, no air kisses, no semblance of warmth or cordiality. Ruby, Shalini and Jenzo propped themselves up around a black Mercedes SUV and waited for the formalities to end.
“This the new coven?” said Ruby. “Thought you needed thirteen.”
“This is the start, Ruby. Karin has been invited to be the new coven leader. She has the task of bringing it together. It will take time obviously, but I think we should use that time to consider the network.”
“In what way?” Ruby tried to grab Jenzo’s phone, but the pest circled away around the SUV.
“Let her go,” Eleanor said. “The structure, it’s unwieldy. Cellular organisations have never worked.”
“You’re questioning four hundred years of success.”
“I know, but maybe we should use Lena’s death as a wake up call. We didn’t know what she was doing until it was too late to help. And thanks to her and that band-”
Jenzo called out. “Everyone calls them that band. You’re not talking about some gynecological condition. Their name isn’t thrush, call them what they are. Toten . . . What the fuck?” She hurried from behind the SUV carrying an apple. “Can I have my fucking phone back, witch?”
“When you’re concentrating on what we’re discussing,” said Frieda.
Ruby laughed. “You couldn’t make that permanent, could you?”
Jenzo met Frieda eye to eye. “My phone please.”
“You already have it.”
Jenzo held up her phone. “Thank you.”
“You had it all the time.”
“I know, but it was apple-shaped and I prefer my Samsung.”
“Maybe we should reconsider the Wishlist,” said Eleanor.
“Hang on, no, wait, that’s the highlight of our year.” Ruby shoved Shalini. “Say something you.”
“Like what? When they speak they’ve usually made their minds up.” Shalini’s interest was in the peeling brickwork of the tower.
“They haven’t made their mind up, there’s only two of them.”
“We haven’t made our minds up, Shalini. But the construction of a new coven in Bamberg gives us an opportunity for change. To improve the network. Improve its structure, improve communication.”
“So what we doing here?” said Ruby.
Eleanor shared Shalini’s concern for the state of the Rahnsalhof. Eight hundred years of neglect, even when the Rothe family occupied the house attached to the tower. “Come inside. But not too far.”
“I thought you were in agriculture,” said Jenzo.
“Branching out into real estate, are you? I’d love to know euphemisms estate agents would use for a shit hole like this. Historic character, in need of modernisation, shabby chic, great portfolio investment opportunity after some minor structural improvements.”
Eleanor pushed the door open and stepped into the stench of damp timber and centuries of mould. She wasn’t the only one coughing for air. “This is our network,” she said from the centre of the entrance hall. “Old, on the verge of collapse, unmanaged.”
Frieda’s phone rustled. “Excuse me,” she returned to the fresh air outside, her conversation unheard.
“Not exactly the Villa D’Enzo is it?” said Ruby.
“There was an uncle in Maggiore town whose house was in a state like this. He was another one who missed out on the family fortune.”
“She’s bitter,” Shalini said to Karin and put her arm round Jenzo’s shoulders. “Could have been a millionaire now, but for your father.”
“I’m happy as I am.”
Frieda came back. She was about to speak when Eleanor continued her planning. “This would have been the ritual centre for the new coven, but it’s a deathtrap. I want to see Bamberg set a new pattern of activity, of behaviour, of operation.”
“I think you’re wrong,” said Frieda waving her phone. “New business contact. He approached the company last Friday, a speculative enquiry about buying Dmitri Neved’s business. I passed him over saying I had a conditional buyer, call me back today.”
“And how does this affect us?”
“He doesn’t want to buy the business, he wants to set up a link, a way in to the coven.”
“A new member?”
“No.” Frieda searched the phone for images. “His name is Theo Wenders. He comes from Erfurt.” She found another photograph. “And this is his friend, they like to watch motor racing together.” The others gathered for the presentation. “His friend’s name is Simon Frenzel and he is a police detective from Wuppertal. I bet Interpol are looking for a way into the new coven, undercover.”
“You like a bet do you?” Ruby grinned at Jenzo.
“Oh yes. But I like the odds to be in my favour. Frenzel is a Catholic and according to his internet browsing, has an interest in exorcism.”
“Brave man,” said Eleanor. “Keep in touch with him.”
“I’ve already arranged to meet him.”
Ruby took hold of Frieda’s phone and scrolled back to the images of Theo Wenders. “He’s the weak link. We keep tabs on him and we’ll know everything the other one gets up to.”
“Leave it to me,” said Frieda, but Eleanor disagreed.
“That’s not our role.”
“Thought you said you wanted to change things,” said Jenzo.
“Some things don’t need to change.”
“Oh, like keeping your hands clean while we get stuck up to our arses in filth.”
“It’s effective. What you do is the one aspect of the network that delivers.”
“How convenient,” said Shalini.
“Chipped a nail she did doing your dirty work.” Jenzo held Shalini’s hand. “That one there.”
“Keep the structure intact,” said Frieda, “until Frenzel is compromised and then introduce changes. He’s expecting to walk into the current structure, they’ll have planned for it.”
“Girl’s got a point,” said Jenzo.
“I’m not a girl,” said Frieda.
Frieda followed Jenzo outside the Rahnsalhof. “Here’s our handiwork.” Jenzo’s phone had images of Sabrina von Katzenberg. “Clever, isn’t it? It’s all her idea. Morgana.”
“Ruby. She’s from Cornwall.”
“Centre of the known universe,” said Ruby.
“Pretty easy though, when you know how.” Frieda waited for Ruby’s response.
“Yes. Close the doors behind you and you have all night. Where’s the risk?”
“You like a bet,” said Ruby. “Go on, name your odds.”
“When the time comes,” Frieda found the image of Theo Wenders, “do something public, audacious, something in broad daylight. A thousand euros says you can’t hang him from the north portal of Bamberg Cathedral during the morning rush hour.”
Eleanor waited to leave. Ruby found an image of the north portal, deep and shadowy in the right light, topped with a straight flat cornice. “Morning rush hour.”
“We could be weeks away from the coven coming together. Can we go now.” Eleanor climbed into the car.
“You shouldn’t question her authority,” Jenzo muttered. “She likes people to know their place. She threw back Virginia Bruck again.”
“How do you know that?” said Shalini.
“I listened to them, at Schneider’s house. He recommended Ginny for taking over this new Bamberg coven, but she brushed him off. Not a scientist are you, Frieda?”
“No. Good. Best avoiding any of that test tube and Bunsen burner bollocks. Eleanor doesn’t like anything like that.” Jenzo walked around the SUV to a motorbike previously hidden by the vehicle’s bulk. Shalini joined her, firing up the bike and waiting for Jenzo to climb onto the pillion seat. “Thousand euros. Fucking easy money. They said you were a millionaire. Too much money if you ask me.”
“Who said that?” Frieda had to shout over the noise of the bike.
“Our contacts,” said Jenzo. “You lot are not the only ones with an all-seeing network. Forward, Passepartout.” She drummed Shalini’s helmet and the bike took off with no consideration for the roughness of the driveway’s cobbles.
Ruby watched them go and when Karin was out of earshot stood alongside Frieda. “She’s a royal pain in the arse and a shit novelist, but she knows more than she lets on. She’s right about Eleanor. Millionaire like you only ever has her eyes on the top table, right? Don’t let Eleanor find out. She believes in hierarchy, in people knowing their place.” The window slid down on Eleanor’s car door.
“Thanks for the advice.” Frieda climbed inside the car. “And the bet’s still on. Whenever you’re ready.”
“We’ll be in touch.”
The pain in Frenzel’s arm continued, a slow sorrowful throb below the fleshy roll of his shoulder. He tried to avoid rubbing it, preferring to clasp his shoulder with self-pitying reassurance.
“Do you think you can do this?” said Wenders. “My youngest screamed the clinic down when she had her inoculations. Look at you.”
“It’s symptomatic. It’s not the pain, it’s what the pain is reminding me of. I don’t want to be reminded of it.”
“Too late now. Why did you agree to do it?”
“Someone has to.”
“No, you don’t Simon. You could pull out at any time before first contact.”
Frenzel would have liked to have more time to visit the chess club. At a nearby table Wender’s son, ten years old, sat opposite a man five times his age with half his chess pieces taken. If Frenzel spent as much time here as Wenders Junior he’d be twice the player.
“Have you made first contact, Simon?”
Frenzel lifted his new phone off the table.
“What did they say?” Wenders leaned over his king.
“Very little. It was cordial, but. . . . “
“The pessimist in me says they already have me worked out. The coven leader, Heidi, was nice enough. Asked me about my experiences. It checked out. Asked me what I wanted from the coven and that was pretty much it.”
Wenders held his king by the crown. “I don’t know what to say. Well, yes, I do know what to say. The GPS in you arm will tell your bosses where you are.”
Frenzel gripped his shoulder again and the studious hush of the chess club delayed its next move when his phone hummed. “She told me to expect this.”
“Check,” Wenders said.
“I’ll respond when I come back. Give me a moment, Theo.”
Frenzel kept his distance from the door to the chess hall and answered the call. “Simon.”
“Hello, Simon. Heidi. Sorry for the delay. We need you now at the Rahnsalhof.”
“Okay.” He waited for more information, for instructions, but the phone held its tongue. “Hello, Heidi, are you still there?”
“Yes. Come now. One of our own needs help.”
Back in the hall, Frenzel studied his position on the board.
“Was that them?”
“Simon, should you be here?”
Wenders would have to wait for his checkmate. “Sorry, you’re right.”
He left Wenders, the only member of the club not concerned with the match, with positions and prospects on the board. Tomorrow he would be back at his workshop, boat building. Frenzel had no idea where he’d be in twenty-four hours, or twenty-four minutes.
The gates to the Rahnsalhof were gaping at Frenzel’s arrival. Katya met him at the entrance to the tower. “Hello, Heidi. What’s the problem?”
“Come with me, Simon. One of our initiates has brought some baggage with him.”
Katya didn’t speak again. Frenzel chose not to repeat his question and concentrated on avoiding the slime on the Rahnsalhof’s rancid walls, the deadly gaps in the flooring and the splintered handrails of an endless flight of steps descending, descending, the dry atmosphere darkening until they were forced to follow the forward echo of their footsteps. Katya strode along the stone floor with all the purpose of a woman who had discovered the way out of this blackened labyrinth.
“We think he’s possessed,” she said.
The soles of Frenzel’s feet stung from the exertion of walking so quickly in the wrong shoes. His heart raced and the throb in his shoulder had abandoned him somewhere between the chess club and the Rahnsalhof’s wheezing gates. He heard a shriek and marched into an overwhelming stench of sulphur.
“In here. He’s in here.”
The frantic journey stopped at the rim of a deep pit. Below them three hooded figures, women, struggled to hold down a man writhing and twisting, yelling, screaming, his fingernails bloodied from clawing at the rough stone floor. He shouted words in a strained unknown language. Frenzel struggled to identify the man’s features; the only light, held by six arms detached from their bodies by the gloom, penetrated the pit with just enough energy to illuminate the top of the man’s head.
Katya’s voice said, “We don’t know what he’s saying, Simon. Can you translate?”
“I don’t recognise the language, Heidi. Demons . . . you say he’s possessed, demons have so many languages. In cases like this,” the smell of sulphur tightened Frenzel’s throat. “Ask it to identify itself.”
“Do what?” A voice called up from one of the hoods.
“Ask the demon to identify itself.”
“What, just ask? Hello, I’m Simon, what’s your name?”
“No, command it.”
“Command it? That’s easier said than done, sunshine. This fucker weighs as much as a gorilla.” The hooded figure shifted in the pit followed by the thud of a boot against ribs. The man rolled over. “Tell us your name.” She kicked him again.
“No, no.” Frenzel groped his way along the rim until he felt a narrow, precarious flight of steps. A hand grabbed his ankles and Frenzel saw the man’s face for the first time. The torment he could understand, the unbearable desire to be somewhere else, to have problems no greater than Wender’s chess board ambush. But Frenzel didn’t share the man’s malevolence screwing his features into a knot, flaring his nostrils like a wild dog.
“Demon, I command you reveal yourself. I call upon Gabriel and Michael and Uriel and Raphael to come forth and leave this man.” The man growled and pulled away from his hooded captors dragging them to their knees.
“I command thee, demon, reveal yourself and abandon the body of this man who is made in God’s image. . . .” The man screamed.
“In the name of-” A terrible crack halted Frenzel’s command, a disturbing snap so loud he thought the man’s spine had fractured.
The candlelight around the rim of the pit scattered along with the arms and bodies, leaving a dreadful darkness and a sudden silence. One flame continue to burn, a candle dislodged from its holder, burning at ground level, illuminating the lower legs of a new visitor, legs that clip-clopped around the pit on cloven hooves, a heavy tail flicking playfully. In front of Frenzel, the man lay on his side resting, regaining his breath.
His tormentor squatted down and revealed its head, features hidden behind course strands of matted hair. Frenzel waited for his heart to explode and release him from the pit, the Rahnsalhof, the beast’s predatory curiosity watching him back away around the circular confines of the pit.
“I command you to reveal your name. In the name of Jesus Christ, you will tell us now who you are.”
The beast answered, but with a voice as strangled as Frenzel’s. He didn’t want to ask again, but the process couldn’t work without completion. The demon had to reveal its name.
“Say it again. I command you to say your name again.”
The sound bounced of the walls of the pit, the tower and off along the hidden corridors and voids and spaces of the Rahnsalhof.
“Ystirria.” She leapt into the pit, launching herself at Frenzel, her enormous weight crushing his thighs and chest. Her face swooped close to his and he recognised again pain in the features of an individual; pleading eyes, a tilt of the head searching for understanding, recognition. Before he could complete the process she rasped. “I follow you. . . .”
“Follow Simon. . . .”
“No, you will not follow me, you can’t follow me.”
“Like Simon. . . .” She grabbed his jaw, dropped her head to kiss or bite, but the man pulled her away.
“Enough of that, you belong to me, girl.” He dragged Ystirria’s blistered and scorched body across the pit, caressing her with a deranged fondness, kissing her face like a protective lover would.
“What are you doing?”
“This specimen is mine,” said the man.
“You did well, Simon,” said Heidi, candle in hand. “I wouldn’t have been so eager to climb down there.”
“It had to be done, or I thought it had to be done. What is all this, who’s she?”
“She’s my girl,” said the man. “Don’t go getting any ideas.”
The four of them left Frenzel alone in the pit, their footsteps trudging away until his only companion, the only evidence of life was the throbbing in his shoulder. “Is anyone there?”
One figure came back.
“You look like you’ve done that before?” Frieda stood on the rim with her arms folded.
“I’ve come across all sorts of things.”
“Aha. Well, I’m sure your expertise will be useful if we ever do have a real emergency.”
“Who were they?”
“Associates. I suppose that’s the technical term for them. They work alongside us when we need help.”
“Does she always look that?”
“The woman playing the demon.”
Frieda found a discarded candle and held it out to light up the pit. “You can’t stay down there all day, Simon. Come on. Stay close to me. I’ll take care of you from here.”