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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 15

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Thursday 11 August 1983 – 9:30 p.m.

Maria woke up in the dark, sticky-mouthed and a little cold.  As she turned onto her side and pulled the blanket around herself, she felt the slight tug of the band-aid on her left arm, and recalled the events of the previous night.  Oskar and Eli had drunk from her, and later had fallen asleep with her.  She opened her eyes--where were they now? She was alone on her mattress, but--

. . . she was not alone.  What was that sound?

Sucking, swallowing noises, subtle and soft, very near.  She frowned--what on earth?  She groped in the darkness for a table lamp that they had put on the floor an arm’s length away, found it and clicked it on; then sat up. 

The children were lying together on the carpeted floor, very close to the end of the mattress.  Oskar was on his back, and Eli was lying across him, but more on his left side.  They were embracing each other, and when Maria saw the juxtaposition of their heads, she thought that they were


. . . but then she realized that Oskar’s mouth was open upon Eli’s exposed neck, and that there was blood trickling thickly from its corner; and when she saw the movement of his throat, and heard Eli’s, too, she understood that they were biting one other; that they were . . . swallowing.  The sucking sound was—

Oh my God.

She gasped and recoiled backwards toward the wall, pulling the blanket up as she stared at them in mute horror.  They gave no sign that they were aware of her or the light from the lamp. 

After a few seconds she relaxed her grip on the blanket, and her horror slowly evolved into fascination.  She sat up straighter and tilted her head this way and that to see more.  Their eyes were closed and their bodies were completely still, not moving at all; as if they were in some kind of trance. 

Their embrace brought to mind what she had seen yesterday morning, when Eli had crawled into her arms, calling for her mama: that Eli was sexless.  And Oskar?—she didn’t know, but whatever he had, he wasn’t using it right now.  Could he ever, she wondered, now that he was a vampire?  He was still a little boy, and she assumed that like Eli, he would remain so forever.  Then she felt ashamed for even thinking about the two of them having sex.  After all, they were children, for Heaven’s sake.  And whatever she was seeing, it wasn’t sex.  But if it wasn’t sex, what was it?

The longer she watched them, the more she realized that they were sharing the most vital and precious thing that they had; the thing that kept them alive.

They’re sharing their blood.  My blood.

In a way that Maria could not understand, she was no longer disgusted by what she saw.  Somehow, it now appeared . . . beautiful.  It was, she thought, something that perhaps no other person in the history of the world had ever been privileged to see.  And it was so private--so intimate--that she suddenly felt ashamed to be watching; as if she were a voyeur peeping through a window to watch two people making love.  She no longer wanted to be in their presence; to continue staring at them just felt wrong.

As quietly as she could, she got up.  Then she thought about how cool Eli’s body had been the night before, so she took the blanket and carefully laid it on top of them.  After it had settled over them, there was a soft sound like a departing kiss.  Oskar’s mouth broke free of Eli’s neck, and then Eli’s did the same.  Oskar’s head lolled limply to one side; he sighed and closed his mouth.  Blood oozed from two small wounds on Eli’s neck, and a wavelet of her blood escaped from between his closing lips. 

He opened his eyes and saw Maria.  She caught his gaze and froze.  He clearly recognized her, but she sensed no surprise, consternation, anger, hostility nor any other emotion in his eyes.  Maria hastened to leave.  As quickly as possible she turned out the light, stepped out of the room, and carefully shut the door. 

She stood in the hallway, staring at the door, and thought once again about how strange, yet beautiful, the children were.  What had they found in each other?  She knew she did not fully understand it, but whatever it was, Maria wanted to protect it at all cost.  And with this thought, she felt the impulse to eat something to build up her strength, and turned toward the kitchen.  They would be hungry again soon, and she would need to be ready for them.

Eli and Oskar lay on their sides, facing one another in the dark under the blanket. 

“Eli . . . that didn’t work the way you wanted, did it?”

“I guess not.  I wanted it to be like last time, but I just . . . fell asleep.  What happened to you?”

He touched Eli’s face; gently stroked her cheek.  “You took me back again to a time when you were just a boy—a kid, really.  And I met your brother, Jakob.  And the two of you said bedtime prayers with your mom, and then . . . well, we went on a little adventure.  Some kind of a dare to ride some guy’s horse.  Only . . . you picked the wrong horse.  And you got hurt, and then that man came—the one who did everything to you—and Eli, I got so scared, just looking at him.  And you were scared, too.  But then--”

“I remember.  You don’t need to say more.  I’m—”  She paused, and then her tone grew frustrated.  “. . . and here I thought it was something you could control, somehow . . . that maybe you could pick a place, a memory, to go to.  To share.” Eli looked down, crestfallen; then said in a small voice, “But I guess that’s not how it works, is it?” 

“No.  I guess not.  I’m not really sure how it works.  But still . . . it wasn’t all bad.  Because . . . .”  He paused.

Eli looked at him, her dark eyes searching his face.  “Because?”

“. . . because I saw a side of you that I didn’t know real well, I guess.  You know--you were happy; just having fun.  Like the night we told stories in my bed and played bulleriblock and Rocks, Paper, Scissors.  Fooling around together.  And I’m glad that I got to—” he paused, searching for the right words. “I’m happy that I got to spend time with you just having fun, before you were bitten.  I think it made me realize what kind of person you are—you know, deep down inside.”  He touched her chest with his finger, then laughed a little.  “Even though I was kinda mad at you while everything was happening.”

Eli laughed.  “You just aren’t used to living in the country, are you?”  Then she rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling, the memories coming back with greater force.  “Yeah, we did some pretty stupid things back then, I guess.  That was just the tip of the iceberg.”  She looked at him and smiled.  “But you know what?  My brother was an even bigger prankster than me.  Seriously.  He got into trouble with Papa all the time.”

 “But about what you were saying . . .”  She rolled back over to face him; gently ran a hand down his slender arm.  “You make me feel the same way.  I always have fun when we’re together, just doing little stuff.  You know, ordinary stuff.  That’s one of the things that make me happy being with you, almost more than anything else.  And I’m happier, too, now that you were there that night—I mean, up here, at least.”  She pointed to her head.  “It makes it . . .  very special, somehow.  Just something between you and me.  And you know, we really will be together through thick and thin.  Always.”

Oskar smiled, then touched Eli’s neck where he had bitten her; felt the smooth, healed skin with his fingertips.  Then he scooted closer and kissed  her softly on the cheek.  “Maybe someday we won’t have to hurt anyone anymore, Eli, but we’ll still have all of our memories together.  If we could just find more grown-ups like Maria who could help us.  Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Eli nodded reluctantly—not because she didn’t want to stop killing, but because she was scared to hope that it might be possible.  She was afraid that even daring to think it would destroy the possibility.  She kissed Oskar back.  “Yes—maybe.  And I’ve changed my mind about Maria.  I guess I was wrong about her.”

Oskar gave her a small smile.  “She really cares about us, Eli.  To do that for us, without looking for anything in return.  I think maybe that--”

Eli finished his sentence.  “--she’s starting to love us.”  Then she nodded solemnly. “I know.  And it’s . . . well, I can’t really say how it makes me feel.  Just—amazing.  But I’m still afraid that we’ll need more than she can give.”

“Maybe, but we need to try—at least for now, like she said.  And I’m not really very hungry.  Are you?”

“No; I’ll be okay for awhile, I think.  But I’ve been feeling a little . . . run down lately.”

His voice dropped a little; became confidential.  “I think she saw us.”

Eli’s eyes widened.  “Really?”

“Uh huh.  I woke up and she was  standing there.  I think maybe we freaked her out a little.”  He gave her an embarrassed little grin.

Eli giggled.  “She’s probably wondering what the heck we were doing.”

“Well, we can tell  her, can’t we?  Would there be any harm in that?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Well, come’on, then.  Let’s see what she’s up to.”  He started to get up.

She grabbed his arm.  “Just a minute, Oskar.” 


She pointed to her mouth and smiled.  “Your face.  You know—you look a little . . . you should probably go to the bathroom before we go out to see her.”

Oskar felt around his lips, then grinned.  “Oh yeah—I forgot.  But maybe you should go look in the mirror, too.”

Maria was steaming some broccoli when they came into the kitchen and sat across from each other at the little table.  She turned from the stove to look at them.

“So, how are you two?”

“We’re good,” they both replied.  Then Eli spoke.  “And we want to thank you again, for what you did last night.  Both of us were just saying how lucky we are to have you.  And I think I owe you an apology for the way I acted.”

“You don’t need to apologize, Eli.  I knew you’d probably get upset if I told you, but I felt that the only way I could earn your trust was to be completely open about how all of this was affecting me.  And still is affecting me.”

Oskar studied her face, trying to discern the context of her last statement.  “You weren’t upset about what we were doing in the bedroom, were you?”

Maria didn’t answer right away.  She took the pot off the stove, drained the water into the sink, got a plastic bowl and put the broccoli into it.  Then she sat down at the table between them.

“Well, to be honest, Oskar, I’m really not sure I know what I saw.  But it looked like something that was kind of private, so I thought maybe the two of you wanted to be alone.”

Oskar smiled broadly.  “We were . . . sharing memories.”

Maria’s fork stopped halfway to her lips.  “Sharing memories—what do you mean?  It looked to me like you were sharing blood.”

Eli spoke.  “That’s right—we were.  We found out that when we do that, we can go back into each other’s memories.  The first time, I went back to Oskar’s eleventh birthday party.  And then tonight, I took Oskar back to something that happened when I was a kid.  Before I became what I am now.”

Maria put her fork down and looked back and forth at both of them.  “That’s—I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Are you asleep?  Just dreaming?  Or—I mean, how does it work?

Oskar looked earnestly at Maria.  “It’s not a dream, it’s real.  I mean, it was like I was actually there, with Eli.  Back when there was no city here—just fields and farms.  And then when we wake up, our memories are different.  I can’t remember my birthday party anymore without Eli being there.  Even though I know she wasn’t, since I didn’t even know her then.  And now, I can remember clearly being with Eli a long time ago.  But we can’t choose the memory—it just happens.”

Maria just shook her head.  Then she took each of their hands into both of hers and squeezed them gently.  “You two are the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.  Maybe the most extraordinary people in the history of the world.  Do you understand that?”

Neither of them knew what to say; they just looked at her with little smiles.  Then Oskar said with a note of excitement, “Actually, there’s more.”


“Well . . . we can make you see things, just by kissing.”

“See things?”

Eli joined in.  “Uh huh.  Thoughts and memories.  And we can pick what we want you to see.”

“You can do that, even though I’m not a—even though I’m not like you?”

“Yup.  It doesn’t matter.”

Maria looked very puzzled and uncertain.  Then she said softly, “I’d like to see that.”

Oskar and Eli looked at each other; then Eli said in a low voice, “Something nice, Oskar.”  He smiled and nodded in reply; then he rubbed his chin, thinking.  “I’ve actually never done it before, so I’m probably not as good at it as Eli.  You want me to try?”

“Mmm . . . it doesn’t hurt, does it?”


“I’m not going to get . . . you know, infected or something, am I?”


Maria glanced at Eli.  “Do you mind?  Or maybe you’d feel more comfortable if—”

“It’s okay--go ahead.”

Oskar stood and came to Maria’s side.  He was a little taller than her while she was sitting.  She looked up at him nervously.

He looked at her, then back at Eli.  “This is a little weird.  Do we have to kiss on the mouth, Eli?”

Eli nodded.  “Mmm hmm.”

“Okay.”  He looked back at Maria.  “I’m kinda nervous, but . . .”

Maria chuckled softly.  “Not as nervous as me.”

Oskar grinned. “No, I guess not.  Don’t worry.”  Then he took her head into her hands; lowered his face to hers.  She relaxed at his touch and closed her eyes.  Then he closed his, too, and kissed her, pressing his lips softly against hers.  They remained that way for about half a minute as Eli came around to Maria’s other side to help if she needed it.  Then Oskar withdrew.

Maria grabbed for the edge of the table and slumped sideways in her chair.  Her face was slack, and her eyes flitted around the kitchen wall before her in a daze, seeming not to recognize what they saw.  Oskar and Eli each took an arm to keep her from sliding onto the floor.  Then she came to her senses and looked first at Oskar, then at Eli.

“So that’s when the two of you first began to fall in love--on a jungle gym, playing with a Rubik’s Cube.”  She shook her head in disbelief.  “It’s as if I was there.”  She squeezed Oskar’s hand.  “As if I was you.”  She looked at Eli, her face blankly astonished.  “This is probably a dumb question, but . . . do you know how much he loves you?”

Eli gave her a warm smile.  “Yes—of course I do.  Good choice, Oskar.”  Oskar beamed.

Maria gave Eli a puzzled look.  “What did you mean when you asked him, “Do I smell better?”

Oskar blushed; then Eli explained how he had told her that she “smelled funny” the second time they’d met.  All of them laughed.

“Eli . . . you don’t remember when your birthday is?”  Eli shook her head.

“I know this may be kind of a sensitive topic, but would you like to celebrate your birthday?  You know . . . maybe we could have a little party for you.  Do something fun.”

“I don’t even know what day to pick.”

Oskar spoke.  “You can share mine, if you’d like.  It’s May 30th.”

Eli brightened.  “Then maybe we could celebrate them together?”

“That’d be fine with me!”

“You know, there’s something else you two might want to consider.  How about an anniversary?”

Oskar looked confused.  “Isn’t that just for people who’re married?”

“You can celebrate an anniversary for anything you want.  Maybe the day that you first met.  Or the day that Oskar just showed me.  Or some other point in your relationship that’s important to you.”

The children thought it over, and decided that they wanted their anniversary to be the day that Eli had rescued Oskar from the Blackeberg pool: November 12.  “That’s the day that we really decided that we were going to be together.”

Maria smiled.  “Good!—it’s settled.  So now you have two dates to celebrate.  But November is a long ways away.   Maybe we can do something fun tonight—the three of us.  I bought a deck of cards and some games we can play.  Because I still don’t think it’s safe for you to go out.  And maybe we can take a look at the map, and try to figure out where it is that you want to go.”

Maria unfolded the map of Östergötland and opened up the visitor’s guidebook.  They had stopped playing Skitgubbe a little earlier, after it had become clear that the two of them were not above using their ability to project thoughts to one other to gain an advantage over Maria.  She had realized something odd was going on when she had been told she smelled like a goat four games in a row. 

In their defense, when she had challenged them they had readily confessed to their crimes.  Once the cat was out of the bag, she had realized how, the first time they’d met, Oskar had manipulated her sympathies to get himself into her apartment. 

They had quickly lost interest in card games as Eli and Oskar explained how they were able to project thoughts and ideas.  Then they had practiced a few on Maria, and had described some strategies she could use to block them.  The children had been intrigued when Maria had told them that they ought to meet her old Psychology professor at Stockholm University, and that maybe their powers could be used to help people suffering from depression; but of course, this possibility seemed farfetched since publication of the Expressen article. 

After an hour or so of receiving their mental suggestions, Maria had developed a headache, and so she had gently suggested that they work on the castle.  She had felt lightheaded a few times anyway when standing up or sitting down, although she did not tell either one of them about it.

“There are many castles in this book,” she said as she flipped through the small, thick traveler’s guide.  Löfstad Castle is here in Norrköping.  It was built in 1630.”  She showed a picture of the castle to Eli.  “Was that it?”

Eli peered curiously at the photograph.  “No.”

“Hmm.  Okay.”  She looked some more.  “Here’s Ållonö castle; it’s nearby, too.  How about that one?”

Eli looked again.  “I don’t remember it looking like that.  That’s more of a palace, like Löfstad.”

“Okay . . . Well, Stegeborg Castle is only about 17 kilometers southeast of Norrköping.  It’s actually on an island near Söderköping.”  She showed Eli a picture.  “It looks more like a traditional castle, and it’s got a big tower on one side.  Is that it?”

 “Mmm . . . I don’t think so.”

“All right.  Let’s see . . . there’s several castles around Linköping, which is a ways further, actually northeast of Norrköping.  How about this one—Ekenäs?”

Eli looked and then shook her head.


“Huh uh.  It wasn’t like a big house.”

“Okay.”  Maria was beginning to get a bit frustrated.  Oskar watched quietly, not saying much.  She flipped the page.  “Bjärka-Säby?”

Eli looked.  “No.”

“I  guess that one was built too late, anyways.”  She looked further.  “How about this?  There’s some ruins of what once was called Stjärnorps castle.  See it?  There’s a church next to it.”

“That doesn't look like it either.”

 “Here’s one: Finspång, which is northwest of here, has a castle.  Is that it?”

“No way.  It didn’t look like that.”

“There’s one called Vadstena, further away to the southwest.”  Maria looked at the map for a moment, then back to the book.  “Wait a minute.”  She picked up another book and looked through it.  “Here’s a good picture.  It was a royal castle built by King Gustav, so it’s probably not it either, but . . .”

“I don’t remember it having a moat, or whatever that is, like that.  There was a big wall around the outside, with a gate.  And the castle was inside.”

“Well, according to this book, there was a fortress called Johannisborg right here in Norrköping that was built back in the early 1600s north of the Motala River.  This picture shows that it had a big, star-shaped wall back then.  But maybe this won’t work, because it says that it was burned by the Russians in 1719 and later torn down.  Now all that’s left is a rebuilt gate tower.”

Eli studied the engraved picture.  “The walls didn’t look like that.  They were more square, not pointy.”

Maria sighed.  “Are you sure it was in Östergötland?  ’Cause that’s about it, from what I’ve got here.”

Eli nodded, feeling bad that she couldn’t be more helpful.  She wanted to help find the place, but none of what she’d seen so far looked like what she remembered.

Oskar spoke up.  “Maybe the castle is gone now.”

Maria brightened.  “That would explain things, wouldn’t it?  Maybe we’re doing this the wrong way.  Eli, do you think you could remember where the castle was by looking at our map?”  She handed it to her.

Eli’s dark eyes slowly scanned over their map from west to east; she talked as she looked.  “Now that I think about it, it was near a lake or a big thing of water.  Like it stuck out into the water, or something.”  She focused on a bay east of Norrköping called Bråviken.  Then she picked up the map and brought it closer to her face, scanning the shores of the bay carefully.  Her eyes settled on a promontory on its southern shore, due south of a small island.  She put it down and pointed at the small piece of land jutting into the bay.  “I think it may have been here, but I’m not sure.  There are a couple of others that sorta look the same.”

Maria and Oskar looked at each other, then at Eli.  Maria picked up the map and studied it for a minute; then she flipped through the guidebook.  “That land is not identified in this book.  But that little island is a nature preserve called Södra Lunda.”

Oskar looked at the map for a moment.  “I wonder what’s there now?”

Maria scrutinized the map.  “I don’t know—it just says ‘Djurön.’  I could take a cab out there in the morning and take a look around.”

“Or we could go tonight.  What do you think, Eli?”

Eli sighed.  “I really don’t want to go out there at all.  But I made you a promise, Oskar, and I’m going to keep it, so I know we’re going to end up there sooner or later.  If Maria wants to do some scouting first while things out there settle down, that’s fine with me, although you and I are pretty good at moving in the dark without being seen.  And of course, we can see very well in the dark, so that’s not an issue.”

Maria broke in.  “If it’s all the same to the two of you, why don’t you let me go out first, just to take a look around.  Maybe I could even talk to some folks who live around there now about the history of the place, and get some useful information that way.  Or if there’s nothing obvious to be seen, I could ask about it at the library—see if anyone knows about there having been a castle there in the past.  That might make things easier for you later.”

Eli and Oskar agreed.  Then Maria looked at Eli and spoke gently.  “Eli . . . I know you’re not looking forward to this.  Would you like to talk about what’s going on with you?  I mean, about your feelings?”

Eli was sitting cross-legged on the floor; she put her head in her hands, looked down, and was silent for a moment.  “I don’t know.  I guess Oskar already knows some of this anyways . . . I’ve shown him my memories of what happened, and other stuff.  But we’ve never really talked about it much, and I—it’s just . . . I don’t even really know where to begin on this.”

Oskar tilted his head to see Eli’s face.  “Eli, would it be easier if I told Maria a little bit about it?  And you can . . . you know, jump in when you want to?”

Eli looked at him.  She trusted him implicitly, and so, slowly nodded yes.

“You see, Maria . . .”  Oskar paused.  “Eli used to be a boy.  His real name is Elias.”
He expected Maria to react, but she didn’t; she only nodded slightly.

“And back when all of this happened to him, the vampire who did it to him, I mean, he . . . well, he—”

Eli interrupted; Maria could already see how wet her eyes were.  “He cut off everything down there.  He made me into a, a . . .”

“A eunuch.”  Maria finished Eli’s statement, trying to keep her voice level.  She blinked the tears out of her eyes.

“Yes.  A eunuch.”  Eli bit her lower lip, looked down, and started to sob.  “Oh, God.  Why, why did he, why did this . . .”  But she couldn’t finish her sentence.

“Eli.  Look at me, honey.”

Eli sniffed and wiped her nose; then she looked up at Maria.

“You’re still a person, even though that happened to you.  There was a point before you were born where you were neither a boy nor a girl, too, and you were a person then.  You’re still a person now. 

“Not every person out there is a perfect man or woman.  Some men have penises, but they can’t use them.  They can’t make love to a woman and get her pregnant--they’re impotent.  Other men might be born with only one testicle, or maybe even no testicles at all.  But they’re still people who are able to love, and worthy of being loved.  And you know, there are some women who have vaginas, but they can never get pregnant.  Or maybe for them, having sex is very painful, so they can’t do it.  But again, they’re still people.  Now I know that’s not quite as bad as what happened to you, but the point is that at some juncture, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, even though I’ve been terribly damaged, I’m still worth something.  I still have dignity.  And if other people can’t see that, then you tell them to go to hell--and that’s all there is to it.

“And I have to tell you personally, that although I was pretty darn scared of you when we first met, and I’m still not sure I understand everything about you, I know one thing:  you’re a very beautiful person.  And there’s someone sitting beside you who loves you very much, just the way you are.  I think, actually, that there’s two people sitting beside you who love you very much.”  She wiped her tears away.  “So, I know this has caused you enormous pain and distress, but just don’t ever think you’re not worth something because of what was done to you.  That would be a horrible lie.  This man, this creature, who did this to you, has done his damage.  Don’t let him keep damaging you with a lot of negative feelings about who you are.

“And I already know what you look like, down there.  I saw it when you were crawling around the other morning.  I didn’t understand it at first, but now I do.  And it’s not going to stop me from hugging you, or kissing you, or telling you how wonderful you are.  Ever.  Okay?”

Eli wiped her eyes and tried to smile.  “Okay.  And . . . thanks.”

Oskar put his arm around Eli and spoke in a low voice.  “You know I don’t care about it either, right?”

She looked at him and gave him a small, trembling smile.  “Yeah.  Thanks, Oskar.”  They kissed; then Eli looked at Maria once more.

“I know I’m lucky I found Oskar, especially since he doesn’t care whether I’m a boy or a girl.  And I realize now how much you’ve come to care for us, Maria . . . all because Oskar decided not to hurt you.  But what happened to me goes deeper than just . . . that.”  She nodded downwards.  “It’s . . . everything.  It’s the whole ball of wax . . . my whole life.   Everything was changed.  And I’m not sure that I can explain it.”

Maria was quiet for a moment.  “I don’t know either, Eli.  But if you want to try, I’m willing to listen.  If you think it would help you.”

“Okay—I’ll try.”  She sniffed and dried her eyes.  “You talked a bit ago about having dignity.  About looking in the mirror and liking what you see.  Let me tell you why I’m afraid of this man, even now.  I was just as old as I am right now—living with my family on a farm not too far from here.  Papa was a farmer.  We were poor.  We had nothing, didn’t even own the land we were farming. 

“This guy, he owned the land.  And he took me away from my mama one night after we were invited to come to his castle.  Other families came, too, all of them with boys like me.  He lined us up and rolled some dice, and at first it wasn’t me who came up.  But somehow he changed the dice from six to seven, and then it was me.  I don’t know how he did it—it was like magic--but it happened.  I think maybe he wanted me from the start.  I don’t know, but I think that’s what happened.”

Maria frowned and shook her head a little.  Oskar began to fidget as he stared at Eli, growing uncomfortable because he had experienced directly what Eli was describing.

“He had me dragged away into this little room—Mama was screaming but she couldn’t do anything--and they tied me to this table.  Tied me up with rope in my mouth so I couldn’t talk.  And then he—there was this fat little helper guy—he told his helper to go under the table.  The guy had a bowl and a knife, and he went to where I was hanging out, like there was a hole in the table down there.”  He pointed to his groin.  “And while he watched, the little fat guy, he . . .” the tears started again and her voice grew hoarse, but Eli angrily brushed them away with a trembling hand, and continued.  “. . . cut everything off, and he, he caught my blood in a bowl, and he gave it to the lord, and he drank it right in front of me.”

Maria sat completely still, galvanized, and listened with rapt attention.  She felt her heart beating faster in her chest as Eli talked.  If she had not offered to listen, she would have asked her to stop, so she wouldn’t have to hear any more.  But that was not possible.

“And then he bit me.  And bit me again . . . and again.  Over and over.  It hurt so much, I wanted to die.  Just die.  But I didn’t, so when all of that happened, I disappeared.  I went away, somewhere . . . away.  I was—all I could think about was my mama.  And the other night, when I was up crawling, I was having a nightmare about being back there.  And I was trying to get away, get away from him, to find Mama.

“But that was just the beginning.  He kept me in that place a long time—I really don’t know how long because I lost track of time.  Most of the time I was kept locked up in a hole about the size of that mattress in there, maybe a little bigger.” 

Maria swallowed, looked away and said, “Oh my God.”  All of the color had drained from her face.  Oskar, who had been listening to Eli with his mouth open, said very softly, “Oh Eli, why didn’t you tell me?  I never would’ve wanted to—”

“It doesn’t matter, Oskar.  It’s over, it’s done with.  I’ll . . . I’ll be all right.” 

She continued.  “So then I got hungry, only I didn’t understand why, or what I needed.”  And he starved me, made me really hungry, and then started bringing people for me.  People for me to eat and kill.  At first, they were cut and made to bleed for me, so it was something that was irresistible.  I couldn’t . . . not attack them, not suck them dry.  Even though it made me sick inside to do it.  You know, emotionally.  I started going away when I’d do it.  I’d go away, and something else inside me would be doing  the bad stuff, would change into this thing that was like me, only with claws and fangs.  I tried to resist at first, but this just kept going on and on.  Until I started to get used to it, basically.  Until I was numb, until it didn’t bother me anymore, or at least it didn’t bother me like it had at first.  I stopped thinking about it.  And that’s when I started to realize that I wasn’t really a person anymore.  Because the ‘Elias’ inside me had shrunk down into this little tiny—like a little tiny ball.  Hidden away, far away deep inside behind lots of walls where it couldn’t be touched.  I wasn’t human . . . I was a monster.

“But I wasn’t just a monster--I was his monster.  His pet.  Because after I’d eat, he’d take me out of my hole for awhile.  To be with him, in his bed.  So he could touch me, and do things to me that I didn’t like.  Horrible, disgusting things.  All the sick bastards who’ve touched me since then, they’re nothing compared to him.  But again, I guess if you’re made to do things often enough, you can get used to just about anything. 

“But I . . . I basically died in that place.  The part of me that was me, I mean—died.  So that—” she paused, looked down, and started to cry again—“when Oskar, or you, or someone says I’m beautiful, I hear the words, and I understand what they mean, but I . . . I never really feel that I can agree, can just say ‘yes.’  Because I don’t feel beautiful—I feel ugly.  Ugly and worthless.  Worse than worthless—cursed.  It makes me think that you must be stupid to love me, because I know I’m not something that should be loved.”

Oskar stood up. breathing rapidly.  He exhaled heavily and began to pace around the room, clenching and unclenching his hands.  Then he stopped and stared at Eli, who remained sitting on the floor, and began to make a whining sound.  He bit the back of his hand and the anger in his face dissolved into tears.  Maria motioned for him to come sit with her, and when he saw the pleading look in Eli’s eyes, he did.  He sat close beside Maria, and she put an arm around him and stroked his hair.  “It’s all right, Oskar; it’ll be okay.  I know this is hard, but let her continue.”  With a weak, mournful ‘okay,’ he agreed.

“Then I guess he got bored with me, because he turned me loose.  I never knew what happened to my family—they were gone, wiped out, I guess.  I ran around in the woods, scared to death, and lived in caves.  Trying to avoid doing what I knew I’d have to do.  But it was impossible to avoid.  Because you see, we need blood the way you gave it to us last night.  I can’t have the kind that’s been donated by some nice person and is sitting in a hospital somewhere—that would just make me sick.  It’s like, if I told you that to get a drink of water, you have to go out and catch raindrops on your tongue--you can’t just get it out of a faucet.  So if that’s what you had to do, how would you spend all your time?  Chasing after thunderstorms, trying to find some rain.  Only, it’s rain that people would kill you to stop you from taking.

“But that’s not the end of it, either.  Because we’re not awake all of the time.  Oskar hasn’t been through this yet, but I’ve told him about it.  About half the time that I’ve been alive, I’ve been asleep.  Asleep for months at a time.  And when I wake up, I’m weak and I’m . . . little again.  It’s like moths who’ve eaten a shirt, only it’s my memory they’ve eaten--little holes everywhere in my memory.  So I’ve needed help over the years to survive.  And what kind of people do you think would want to help something like me?  Men who like pretty little boys.  Or I guess I should say, men who like to touch pretty little boys.”

“So now you know why I have a hard time looking in the mirror and saying, ‘You are a beautiful person . . . even though you were stripped away from your family.  Even though you were made into something that’s neither a boy nor a girl.  Even though a single ray of sunlight would burn you to a cinder.  Even though you thirst for blood the way normal people thirst for water.  Even though you’ve killed over thirty-six hundred people to stay alive.”

Maria and Oskar both gaped at her.  “Yes, I know how many—3,654—no, fifty-five, counting Miguel.

“You said a minute ago that you love me, and that nothing will ever stop you from telling me I’m wonderful.  Are you so sure about that now, Maria?”

Maria stopped comforting Oskar.  It was time to be brave.  “I love the person in you that was Elias before all of this was done to you.”

Eli got up; stood before Maria in her washed-out pink p.j.’s.  “The problem is, though, that that’s not the only thing that I am any more.  And that’s not the person who makes the most important decisions in my life.  This is.”

The changes occurred silently and in the space of a few seconds.

Oskar ceased crying.  “Eli, stop it—you’re going to scare her.”

Eli took a step toward Maria, who stared up at her with huge eyes and her mouth hanging open.  “Do you still think I’m wonderful?”

Maria began to scoot backwards on the floor. “Yes—yes, I do.”

Eli took another step; opened her ghastly mouth and smiled.  Maria scrabbled backwards until she bumped into the back of the couch, then pushed herself up onto it and began sliding sideways down its length, away from her. “You don’t sound so sure, Maria.”

“Eli!  Cut it out!  Why are you doing this?”

Eli ignored Oskar and continued to advance.  Maria slid down to the far end of the couch.  When she bumped into the armrest, she dragged her eyes away from Eli’s, looked down and away, and then closed them.  Then she pulled her legs up and clasped them defensively in front of herself, and spoke in a small, trembling voice.  “Yes . . . I do love you, Eli.”

Eli stood directly in front of Maria, who was now curled up into a ball, trapped and shivering, her blond hair hanging in her face.  “If you love me, why can’t you look at me?”  I thought you said I was beautiful.  Don’t you want to be my mirror?”

Oskar spoke again, his voice pleading.  “Eli, please stop.  This isn’t right.”

Maria opened her fear-filled eyes and like a rabbit cornered by a fox, glanced fleetingly up at Eli.  Then, haltingly, she stretched out a shaking hand and touched one of Eli’s claws.  With eyes closed, she felt their hardness with her fingers; ran them over their sharp tips.  Then she took it into hers, and forced herself to look at Eli; made herself look into her reptilian eyes.

“I do love you, Eli.”  She gently squeezed her hand.  “And you’re wrong about what you said.  Because the real you is what chose to love Oskar—not the thing you are right now.  And that was the most important decision you’ve ever made.”

Eli’s eyes returned to normal; Maria felt the hand change like putty in hers, losing its hardness and becoming smaller.  Then, suddenly, the small child’s body was in her arms, weeping silently on her shoulder.  A voice whispered in her ear through the tears.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Maria.”

Maria let out a long, ragged sigh and embraced Eli.  “It’s all right; it’s all right.”  But she knew that it was not all right; that the cruelties inflicted upon Eli were well beyond her capabilities, were perhaps beyond anyone’s capacity to repair or make right. She was so terribly damaged; even if she could be cured, she would need years of therapy.  It was almost beyond hope.

Oskar came over and sat beside them on the couch.  He was extremely upset by what Eli had said.  She had revealed things tonight that she’d never shared with him before, had kept from him because it was just too painful to discuss.  He was especially angry and upset about how she had been abused by the vampire lord and other men, and how she now felt worthless.  That she’d been so crippled that she couldn’t accept the fact that he loved her so much; that all those times he’d told her that he loved her, it hadn’t really sunk in.  That was really the bitterest news of all. 

He stared at the wall and spoke in a halting voice, choked with emotion.  “If this is how it’s going to be, I don’t want to go to that stupid old castle.  It’s not worth it.  It’s probably gone now anyways . . . what’s the point?  It was a dumb idea from the start.”

Eli pulled herself up from Maria’s embrace.  “No, no, Oskar—it wasn’t a bad idea.  Please don’t say that.  We’re going to go.”

Maria spoke to both of them, her voice still unsteady.  “Oskar, if Eli is willing to go, then I think you should.  Maybe there is something there that could help you.  And you know what?  Even if there isn’t, I think this is helping Eli.  Because the only way she’s going to get over all of this is to start talking about it.  And I can’t think of a better person to talk to than the one person who loves her so much—you.”

“I know.”  He took Eli’s hand into his and pulled her into his arms.  “But it’s not fair to Eli, to have to go through all of this again . . . to have to think about all the pain and everything.  I don’t want that for you, Eli.”

Eli hugged Oskar tightly.  “It’s all right, Oskar.  I’m okay.  Maria’s right—I do feel better, talking about it.”

“But Eli . . . I don’t understand.  When I tell you I love you, it doesn’t mean anything?  You don’t really—”

“No no, Oskar.  No.  It does mean something to me.  It means everything.  I know that you love me; I understand it.  And I’m so happy that you do.  I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life.  It’s just that . . . it’s hard for me to love myself, that’s all.”

Oskar nodded.  “I know how you feel.  Actually, I felt the same way sometimes, before I met you.”

“Because of those boys, right?  Picking on you all the time?”


Maria broke in gently.  “Being able to love yourself is really important.  It’s clear to me that both of you have alot to talk about, especially Eli.  And if you want to tell me about anything, I’m here to listen . . . you know that.  Just don’t scare me half to death, please.”

“But I have a feeling that things aren’t going to change much for either of you until we solve your main problem; that’s really the first step.  So if both of you are in agreement about the castle, we’ll do it.  And if there’s nothing there, then we’ll talk about doing something else.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Friday 12 August 1983 – 8:52 a.m.

Kurt and Flora headed east on Vendevägen in their Peugeot.  It was a beautiful, crisp and clear August morning in Stockholm.  The rising sun shone down from a cloudless sky through their windshield, and it was warm enough for their lightest jackets.  They had their side windows cracked open, and as the beautiful homes and green trees rolled past, the cool air slipped in, bringing with it the occasional sound of birds calling to each other.

Britta had just called to tell them that Gabe had died overnight.  She and Jon were going home, and they had accepted Flora’s suggestion that she and Kurt come over to be with them.

They had spoken very little during the trip.  Flora’s crying, which had begun in earnest as soon as she had hung up the phone, had settled down into steady sniffles.  She had brought along a box of tissues, and had used one after another as they headed toward Djursholm; the pockets of her coat now fairly bulged with them. 

Kurt had cried, too, just before they left, when he’d gone upstairs to get his wallet.  Flora had a picture of Brit and Jon holding Gabe on her dresser, and it had caught his eye as he turned to leave the room.  He had been trying to prepare himself for the phone call, and had thought he’d had himself fairly well under control, but the close-up of their smiling faces did it.  The strain of the last few weeks--of Gabe’s unexpected illness, plus the shitstorm going on at work--suddenly caught up with him, and as he felt the familiar weight of his wallet slide comfortably down into his back pocket, he saw Gabe’s little happy face and lost control. 

But even in the depth of his grief, he managed to cry as quietly as possible, and was able to get a handkerchief out of his dresser drawer to blow his nose.  He sat down on the bed, hoping that Flora would not wonder what was taking him so long, took off his glasses, and let go.  It lasted about a minute, and then he felt better.  He was able to begin thinking about what would need to be done: what he would do for Flora; how he could support Brit and Jon.  He had stepped into the master bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face, imagining that maybe Flora wouldn’t notice his breakdown.  Then he went downstairs and they headed out.

It wasn’t fair, he thought; Brit and Jon’s first child being taken away like this.  They’d wanted a baby so much--Brit had taken all the classes for first-time mothers, and Jon had attended most of them with her.  They’d converted their guest bedroom into a nursery; Britta had picked out the wallpaper, and Jon had hung it and done the painting.  And of course, they’d bought the crib and everything else that was needed nowadays to take care of a newborn.  Gabe had decided to enter the world butt first, so they’d elected to do a Cesarean rather than attempt a vaginal delivery.  Other than that, things had gone smoothly, and until he’d developed meningitis, Gabe had been a happy, healthy little fella.  And now this.

Of course, Kurt knew better than most people that life wasn’t fair.  During his career in law enforcement, he’d seen terrible tragedies befall the nicest people, usually acts of violence committed by family members, or sometimes by strangers.  But still, there was a part of him, a part that was admittedly irrational, that had always thought that these things happened to other people, not to him or his family.  As a husband and a parent, he had done everything he could to take care of Flora and Britta, to protect them from the world and the bad things in it.  But this . . . there was no protecting against something like this.  It just happened, like a divine judgment.  Inscrutable and incomprehensible, leaving the heartbroken mortals like Brit and Jon behind to pick up the pieces as best they could.

As he drove up the sunlit avenue, his thoughts wandered to work.  He knew they shouldn’t, felt guilty that they did, but he let them wander just the same. 

He was still working on cases, but things downtown had definitely changed.  No one said anything, but he saw it in their glances, in the way they interacted with him.  He was tainted; damaged goods.  No one wanted to work with him lest they invite career death by association.  Even his relationship with Martin had been affected.  It was infuriating, but he didn’t let it show—what good would that do?  So he simply kept his head down, tried to ignore everything, and plugged away on what was on his plate.

It wasn’t just at work, either.  People on the street looked at him, too.  Gave him funny looks and sideways glances.  Of course, being the trained observer that he was, none of it escaped him.  A few strangers had even come up and started asking questions, which he’d brushed off with his usual brusqueness.

His relationships outside of work had also suffered.  Flora and he had enjoyed an active social life before all of this had come along.  But since his report had been leaked, they hadn’t been invited to a single evening with any of their friends.  Frankly, Kurt had not been eager to spend much time socializing, anyway; he imagined the Expressen article hanging like an invisible cloud over the dinner table, making everyone uncomfortable.  Flora hadn’t said much; was suffering in silence, he supposed. 

But at night, as he lay in his bed trying to fall asleep, he kept thinking about the most important case he’d ever had.  About her.

He was convinced now that Flora was right: this was a person, not an ‘it.’  And it was a her. If he was right about how often she needed to feed, she would have to kill about 26 times a year.  That meant, depending on how old she really was, that she’d killed a staggering number of people.  Even if she had only lived for a single year as a vampire, she would be the worst murderer in Swedish history, far surpassing Tore Hedin’s killing spree back in the ’50’s.  And if she’d been a vampire for even five or ten years, she’d surpass most of those serial killers in the U.S.

She wasn’t some kind of a maniac, though; he’d figured that much out.  If he was right about Lind, and if the vampire lore really did apply, that meant that the girl herself had been bitten at some point, God only knew when.  So it was possible that she didn’t really want to be what she was.  Maybe she just killed out of necessity. 

It had not escaped his notice that she had spared Siskov during the pool massacre.  Why?  He had read over that case file with a fine-toothed comb to try and understand.  By his own account, the only thing that was different for him was that when all hell had broken loose, he’d been sitting with his head in his hands a few feet from where the Forsberg brothers were trying to drown Eriksson.  Perhaps to the girl it didn’t appear as if he’d been actively participating, so she had spared him.  If she’d had any brains, she would’ve killed him, too, so there wouldn’t have been any witnesses.  But she hadn’t.  Was this just a mistake, or did she discriminate between people who were good and bad?

Flora believed that she’d attacked those boys to save Eriksson’s life because she had fallen in love with him.  As difficult as it was to believe, her intuition made sense.  After all, she hadn’t fed on the Forsbergs or Ahlstedt; she’d just killed them as quickly as possible with, he supposed, the only means at her disposal: her hands and her mouth.  Just thinking about it made him pause.  To have been there and witnessed that being done to those boys . . . Christ.  No wonder Siskov had offed himself.  But the point was, she’d gone out on a limb for the Eriksson boy: entered a public building and left a witness behind.  Not the smartest thing to do, when you thought about it.  From a stone-hearted, ruthless point of view, one might even call it a mistake.  But in his experience, people in love often displayed poor judgment, especially young people.  What would be her next mistake?

He wished mightily that he knew more about the Fransson case.  The piece of information from Larson had certainly been tantalizing.  Could his suspect have been responsible for her death, too?  And if so, what had been going on immediately before Fransson had been slammed against the side of that apartment tower?  God damn--he couldn’t understand the attitude of his superiors, to be turning a blind eye to all of this.  To be making no effort to tie it all together in a way that made sense.

He hadn’t been at Jon and Brit’s ten minutes before the phone rang.  Jon called him to the phone by the breakfast nook with a questioning look on his face that said, it must be important if they’re calling you at our house.  After she’d heard that he got a call, Flora left Brit’s side on the couch in the family room and came into the kitchen, ostensibly to get a glass of water; in truth, to be nearby when Kurt got off the phone.  It didn’t take long.

He hung up the receiver and gave her a long, knowing look.  “They just fished a body out of Lake Mälaren--same deal as the others.  They want me back on the case.  I’ve been told to report downtown in 30 minutes.”

“Did you tell them that your grandson just died?”



Jon came in, hovering in the doorway to the kitchen, his eyes wet and red.

“They understand my situation, but said this can’t wait.  They want me to be there when they do the autopsy.”

“What’s going on?”  Jon looked from Kurt to Flora and back again.

“I have to go.  Can you take Flora home when she’s ready?”

“Yes, sure.  Is it--”

“Jon, someone else has been killed.  Please keep quiet about this.”  He turned to Flora and took her into his arms.  She was stiff and unyielding for a few seconds, then relaxed and put her arms around him.  She began to cry again and spoke, her voice muffled against his chest.  “Those bastards down there expect you to go back, after the way they’ve treated you?  And now, of all times?  Oh, Kurt; please.  Please don’t.”

“Flora, I know, I know.”  He hugged his wife’s small, thin body to his and kissed her tenderly on the top of her head before speaking further, his voice low and soft.  “It’ll be all right.  I’ll be all right.  And I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

The bus wheezed to a stop, its big diesel clattering loudly and forcing Maria to raise her voice to say thanks to the driver.  She stepped off and down onto the street as it pulled away, looking around at what, until now, she’d only known as a name on a map: Djurön.

At least the weather was nice for her little adventure, she thought.  It felt good to be out of the apartment and getting some fresh air and exercise, particularly on a sunny day like today.  And this place—from what she’d seen so far riding out, it was lovely, with modest, well-kept houses on big, wooded lots; the kind of place where she had sometimes imagined herself living, if she ever had the resources to buy her own home, or married someone who could afford one.

Her stop at the library in Hageby had been disappointing, and had heightened the sense of mystery about Eli’s story.  There were a couple of shelves of books and other materials devoted to local history, but none of it mentioned there having been a castle at one time in Djurön, or anywhere else along Bråviken Bay.  Nor had the librarian, a helpful, soft-spoken woman in her mid-sixties, heard of it either.  She had confessed that she was not the most knowledgeable person to ask, and had gotten on the telephone with someone at another branch while Maria looked through what was there, but after a short time had reported that she had been unable to learn anything further.

Maria had studied her map, and figured that if someone had built a castle in Djurön, they would’ve put it at the far end, closest to the water.  She really didn’t know why she thought this would be the case, but it just seemed logical.  So she walked up Djurövägen toward the tip of the little promotory, headed toward what she’d already seen from the bus, and could now see looming over the tops of the trees on her left—a gigantic grainery complex, its twin columns of huge, white and silver silos gleaming in the sunshine.  A pulsing, humming sound rose from it and could easily be heard where she was, some four blocks away.  Maybe someone there would know.

A couple of heavily laden grain trucks rumbled by as she walked, stirring up the dust on the road.  Other than their drivers, the only other person she saw along the way was an elderly woman tending to some flowers in her front yard. 

She reached a turnabout where the main road veered off to her left, and an access road situated along the enormous, cylindrical silos ran straight ahead.  An administrative office lay just beyond the turnabout with a couple of pickup trucks parked out front.  She went up the steps as another grain truck, this one empty, rattled past.

Once inside she was greeted by a dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties who was sitting hunched on a stool behind a long counter painted gray that ran almost the entire length of the wood-paneled room.  She smiled at Maria blandly and spoke with a nasal twang.  “May I help you?”

“Hi.  I’m a student from Stockholm University.  I’m doing a research project on the castles of Östergötland County.  I have reason to believe that there used to be castle here in Djurön, maybe even on the spot of this grain mill.  I’m wondering whether anyone here might know something about it.”

The woman raised an eyebrow and without taking her eyes off Maria, called over her shoulder for someone named Isak.  Maria heard the sound of a chair scraping on linoleum, and after a second or two a thin, wiry man in his early seventies with close-cropped, steel-gray hair emerged from the back office.  He smelled like oats, and wore dusty jeans and a faded blue shirt with “Lantmannen Cooperative” embroidered on the front pocket.  He had the hardened, lined, wind-beaten face of a lifelong farmer, and looked Maria over with unconcealed skepticism; clearly, she was not their typical customer.  Then he spoke with a courteous drawl.  “I’m Isak Karlsson, the general manager of the mill.  What can I do for you, ma’am?”

Maria explained once again why she was there.

“What’d you say your name was?”

“Maria.  Maria Fridell.”

“I see you have your camera and notepad.  Got any I.D.?”

Maria dug in her purse and dutifully produced her student identification card.  He looked it over, looked at her face, and then handed the card back.

“Well, Ms. Fridell, I’ve lived in Norrköping all my life, and I’ve been running this grainery for 14 years.  No one’s ever told me there was a castle around here.”  He paused.  “But maybe there’s something you should see, if you’re interested.”

Maria immediately agreed.  Isak took a hand-held radio out of a rack behind the counter, and then flipped open a hinged portion of the countertop and emerged from behind the front desk.  He told someone that he’d be on the “southeast gantry,” put the radio into a pouch on his belt, and then motioned Maria toward the back door.

They walked across a short stretch of grass toward the grainery.  As they got closer, the noise of the machinery grew increasingly louder.  They went around one end of the grain silos to the other side of the facility, then walked down a path of crushed oyster shells to a central elevator tucked behind some kind of equipment shed.  Isak stopped before they got on. He shouted, “You afraid of heights?  ’Cause we’re going up about ten stories!”

She yelled back that she was not, upon which they boarded the elevator, a steel cage that was open to the air.  Within a few seconds, they rose with a steady electric hum.

The noise abated as they reached to top and was replaced by the sound of the wind blowing in off the bay.  Isak got a cap out of his back pocket and put it on as he unlocked the door.  Then he glanced at her fair-skinned forearms and face.  “It’s very bright up here.  Get a sunburn quicker than you can spit.  Gotta hat?”


“Well here—wear mine, then.”  He took it off and handed it to her.  She thought about politely refusing, but decided it would be better to accept his offer and put it on.  “Thanks.” 


They descended a short flight of stairs, and then headed down a covered metal walkway with a grate floor and metal railings.  When they reached the end, they turned right and walked a little further.  The overhead cover ended at the turn, so when Isak stopped they were about 25 meters above the ground on an exposed metal catwalk that was a little more than a meter wide.  Immediately below them, extending to their left and right in a straight line, were ten silver grain silos that matched the taller, white ones behind them.

Maria was immediately taken in by the beautiful, panoramic view of Bråviken Bay.  “Wow!  It’s gorgeous up here, Mr. Karlsson.  You can see for long, long way.”

“Yes.  Always enjoyed the view—one of the nicer perks of working here, you could say.  Ships from all over the world come in here from the Baltic to load up our grain.  There’ll be one coming in this afternoon from Ethiopia.  Along with a storm, if the weatherman is right.”

“Mmm.”  Maria closed her eyes for a moment and lifted her smiling face to the sun.  Then she looked at Isak.  “So what is it that you wanted to show me, Mr. Karlsson?”

He came and stood beside her.  “I noticed this one day when I was supervising a crew of guys who were repainting these silos.”  He motioned below them.  “I was eating my lunch, just standing here looking out over this little patch of forest down here below us, and I saw it.  Can you see it?”

Maria looked at the wedge-shaped little forest that began on the far side of the access road running along their side of the grainery.  At first she saw nothing remarkable.  Then she noticed something unusual about the trees; or perhaps more accurately, about the spaces between the trees.  The more she looked, the more she discerned that there was a straight line running across the middle of the forest.  It began near the access road to her right, and to her far left, it made a right angle and ran back into the end of the grainery farthest from where they were.  The vegetation along the line was different from the rest of the forest; it was less dense, and the trees weren’t as tall.

She frowned and looked at Isak.  “What is that?”

He smiled.  “I’m not sure, but I think it’s a foundation line for a wall that’s no longer there.  And a mighty big one, too.  Might be that’s the castle you’re looking for.”

The shock of seeing it made her pause; made everything sink in. It’s all true.  Everything Eli said—the bowl, the knife, the cutting--it really happened.  She shuddered despite the warm sunshine.

“Would it be alright with you if I walked that line through the forest?  I’d like to take a closer look at it.”

“Sure.  All the land down at this end is owned by the co-op.  I’ve never spent much time traipsing through those woods, but I can’t see any harm if you just wanna take a look.  Now, if you’re going to start digging something up, that’s a different matter.  You’ll need to get permission.  But I can give you the name and number of the fella on the Board to talk to if you want.”
Maria gave him a small smile.  “That would be lovely.  Thank you so much.”  She handed him her notepad, and he rested it on the railing, took a pen out of his breast pocket, and jotted down the information.  Then he handed it back to her before gazing back out over the trees.

“If I’m right and that’s the outer wall, then it would mean that we’re probably standing right on top of where the main keep would’ve been.  This grainery was constructed in the mid-sixties.  I wasn’t working here when they put it up, but I began within a year of them opening the place.  And I never heard anyone say there was anything here before but forest and some pasture land.  Where’d you hear that there might’ve been a castle?”

“I have a source, Mr. Karlsson, but I’d prefer to keep that confidential, if it’s all the same to you.”

There was a pause, and for a moment a perverse part of her mind mused about what would happen if she told him about her “source.”  Well you see, Mr. Karlsson, I know someone who was alive back then.  And she—I mean, he—was made a  prisoner in the castle, sexually mutilated, and then turned into a vampire.  And now he wants to come back here and check things out.  How would that little disclosure sit with Isak?

“I understand, miss.  I suppose you can’t be too careful, doing all this research and everything.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate your understanding.”  After Maria snapped some pictures and made a sketch and some notes, the two of them returned to the ground and she set off to explore the forest.

Dr. Persson stripped the latex gloves off into the waste container and began to scrub his big hands in the sink.  “Well, Kurt, it’s just as we suspected when they wheeled this guy in here: he died the same way as the others.  That’s what I’m going to say in my report.”

They had spent the last 1-1/2 hours together at the stainless steel table as Persson had carefully labored over the pale, wrinkled lump of flesh that was once a human being.  The body had been remarkably well-preserved in the chilly waters of Riddarfjärden, the easternmost bay of Mälaren.

For Kurt, the key things were the bite wound on the neck and the severe traction injury to the cervical spine; similar, if not identical, findings to Bengtsson, Sorrensen, and Christensen.  The rest of the autopsy had confirmed what they already knew.  The man had not died from drowning; he’d been weighted down with rocks tied to both ankles, one of which had slipped loose, causing the body to rise up and drift downstream before it got hung up on a support column for the bridge south of Gamla Stan.  Also, there was no hemorrhaging in the ears, and the lungs were relatively dry.  It was hard to determine how long he’d been dead, but according to Persson, it had been a week or less because the fatty layer beneath the skin had not yet broken down.  They had been able to get fingerprints, and the NLFS was running them for a match.

As Persson’s assistant wheeled the body out to the freezer, the two of them took the elevator up to the main floor and entered Persson’s small, overcrowded office.  Kurt transferred an untidy stack of files off the single chair and to the floor and sat down as Persson slumped into his desk chair.  He picked up a styrofoam cup half-filled with cold coffee, swirled it around a little, and then took a drink.  “Mmm--my morning coffee.  Still pretty good.”  Then he looked at Kurt and sighed.

“Kurt, I know I owe you an apology about the thing with Christensen.  I told you that while it could have been  bite wound, it was hard to tell because of all the other damage.  When the Chief called me on it, I had to tell him that I couldn’t say it was a bite to a reasonable degree of professional certainty.  So he asked me to clarify my report.  What else could I do?”

Kurt waved his hand.  “It doesn’t matter now, Jan.  Let’s just forget about it—I understand why you did what you did.”

“You know, I wish I had had some other options, Kurt.  But there just weren’t any.  Now, this guy—the bite wound is clear.  I measured 24 millimeters between the punctures.  And I have the autopsy file for TRK right here.  He’s the only one who had a good, clean wound.”  He opened the file, pulled out the sheet with the diagram of the external exam, and handed it to Kurt. “You see the measurement?”

“Mmm hmm.  It matches exactly.  24.”

Persson swiveled in his chair and pulled a thick, imposing textbook from a low shelf to the right of his desk and dropped it onto his blotter with a heavy thump.  “Sopher’s Forensic Dentistry.  It’s considered authoritative by everyone in the business.”

“You don’t need to show it to me, Jan—I know this is a child’s mouth we’ve got here.”

Persson shook his head.  “That’s not the point.”  He opened the book to where he’d marked it with a slip of paper.  “With most bite wounds from humans, the depth of the wound is the same for the canines and the incisors.  Dog bites are different.  Yeah, they’re wider than a human’s, usually like 40 millimeters versus 30, but the canines leave deeper wounds, too, because the teeth are longer and more dagger-like.”

Kurt straightened in his chair.  “Uh huh.”

“Now here’s what I didn’t put in my report for TRK, but I want to tell you now: unless the assailant was using a dental prosthesis, the puncture wounds for the canines were too deep to be made by a normal human--they were more like an animal’s.  Yet the other aspects of the bite pattern in his case, and in the guy downstairs, all point to a pre-adolescent human about ten or eleven years old.”

Kurt said nothing at first; just stared at him.  Finally he looked away, shook his head, and let the cold hardness pass through his body.  When he finally spoke, his voice was harsh despite his best effort to keep an even tone.  “You know, Jan, it would’ve been nice to know that little piece of evidence three days ago when I signed a report that put my career on the line.”

“Kurt, try to understand.  I did the post on TRK last year.  No  one had any idea back then what would happen over the last month, with the Tyresta thing, and now this.  I thought it was a fluke, and it wasn’t ’til I read your report that I began to realize its importance.”

“Oh bullshit.”  He shook his hand at the small sheaf of papers that was now mostly hidden under Sopher’s treatise.  “It was a highly unusual finding that related directly to how the guy died.  Especially with the blood loss.  It should’ve been in there—that’s Pathology 101.  I could’ve used a little support this week when my ass was handed to me.  Do you know where I was when I got called to come down here this morning?”

Persson shook his head.

“I was at my daughter’s house.  My first and only grandson just died from meningitis.  Hardly a month old.”

“Oh.  Jesus.  Sorry, Kurt.  Sorry to hear that.”  His voice was small and apologetic.

“Yeah, me too.  It’s been pretty rocky lately, know what I mean?  People startin’ to think there’s something wrong with me.  Shit.”

“Kurt, I just couldn’t . . .  You know, it was just too strange to draw any huge conclusions.  I really did think it was artifactual.”

“Did you think it was an artifact when you examined Jimmy Forsberg’s severed arm?”

Persson didn’t answer.

“It matched, didn’t it?”

Persson slowly nodded yes.

“You old fuck.  I want this specifically mentioned in your post on John Doe down there: TRK, the Forsberg bite wound—everything.  Don’t mess with me any more, Jan, do you understand?  Or I’ll personally see to it that your next job is studying reindeer shit in Kiruna.”

Maria trudged back down Djurövägen toward the bus stop under a cloudy sky.  It was late afternoon, and she was tired and dirty.  She had followed the line Isak had shown her through the forest from one end to the other.

She was now certain that a wall had stood where she’d been.  Not too far from the corner they had seen from the gantry, a stream running northeast toward the bay had eroded some of the ground.  It was only about two or three meters wide where it ran across the strip of altered foliage, and the streambed was a little less than two meters below ground level.  As she crossed the water, which was very shallow, she realized that the substrate was too firm and flat to simply be mud.  She paused, frowning, and looked down at the water gurgling playfully past her submerged sneakers.  Then she pressed one foot down hard and twisted it from side to side, exploring the streambed with the bottom of her foot; but no matter what she did, the substance underneath felt flat and hard.  Like rock.

Her frown deepened.  She reached down and plunged her hand into the chilly water, forcing her fingers through the soft layer of mud.  It was rock, all right.  She took a step and felt the same thing.  Further effort revealed that she was standing on rock all the way across.  It was smooth and finished, not natural.  She slogged upstream and downstream a few steps until she had the thickness: about four-and-a-half meters.  She stopped, turned, and tried to imagine a wall as wide as a car, and God knew how tall—seven meters?  Eight meters?--running all the way back from where she’d started, then turning and continuing toward the granary.

It must’ve been huge.

Her mind had been filled with all sorts of new thoughts as she climbed up out of the stream and continued on.  A huge castle that had been standing here in the late 1700’s, but was now completely gone.  Why?  How?  She really didn’t know much about castles, but everyone knew that they took a great deal of effort and wealth to construct, and most importantly, tons and tons of finished stone.  Demolishing one was no simple task.  If there had been a big castle here, where on earth had all of the rock gone when it was torn down?  And why would anyone bother to clear the space and then leave it undeveloped?  Wouldn’t they just leave the rubble, like countless other sites strewn across Europe?  Or if it had been razed in a battle, wouldn’t there be some mention of it in the history books?

She supposed that maybe they had torn it down to build the granary, but that didn’t make sense, either.  Isak had said there was only forest and pasture when they came in the sixties.  Surely if there had still been the ruins of a castle, he would’ve heard about it.  And could they even have built the granary on an historic site like that?  She didn’t know.

She arrived at the bus stop and began waiting.  While she waited, wrapped in thought, a couple of red-headed kids—a boy and a girl—rode up the sidewalk on bicycles toward her, both of them pedaling furiously.  The boy careened by her, perilously close, and slewed into the yard of the house on the corner by the bus stop, causing her to gasp in surprise and jump back.  The girl followed her brother off the sidewalk and into the grass, laughing. 

“Hey!   Watch it!”  She glowered at them, but they continued to giggle.  The boy, who looked to be about nine years old, had on a dirt-smeared, green t-shirt that matched the color of his eyes; the girl, who looked a couple of years younger, wore a light-blue dress with food stains down the front.  Then their laughter tapered off, and the boy offered a small apology.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to scare ya.”  But he looked like he did.

“You should learn to be more careful,” she said crossly.  “You could hurt someone.”  But it was hard to remain angry with them, with their mischievous grins and freckles.  Inwardly she smiled at their appearance.  They looked like quintessential kids, and she wondered what their mother must be like—either at her wit’s end, or completely happy.  Or perhaps a little of both.

The girl spoke.  “He didn’t mean it.  He always rides that way.”  Then she turned around so that she was facing Maria and pulled a little closer, still sitting on her pink, mud-stained bike, her hands on the white grips with their silver tassels.  “You’re pretty.”

Maria was taken aback by this unabashed compliment, and at first she didn’t know what to say.  She certainly didn’t feel pretty, standing there, sweaty and tired, in her soggy sneakers.  Finally she just said, “Thank you, honey.  You’re pretty, too.”

The boy wheeled his bike around next to his sister’s and stared at Maria.  “Whatcha doin’ in our woods?”

“Yeah.  We saw you walking around out there.”

Your woods?”  She smiled.  “I was told they belong to the grain mill over there.”  She nodded toward the silos.

“Aww . . . they don’t know nothing.  We play there--that makes it ours.”

“Well, I . . .”  Maria hesitated to disclose what she was really doing.  But after thinking about it, she decided there would be no harm in telling them.  “I’m actually looking for a castle.  One that used to be out here a long time ago.  But now it’s gone.”

The girl looked puzzled.  “How’re you going to find it if it’s gone?”

Maria chuckled.  “Well, I don’t know.  It’s kind of a mystery, actually.  But I thought there might be something left behind, I guess.”

“We built a fort,” said the boy.  “Want to see it?”

“A fort?  Oh, I don’t know.  It’s been a long day, and I’m waiting for my bus to come and take me home.”

“It’s not just any old fort,” he replied.  “It’s really cool.  When we’re in it, no one can beat us.”

“Oh yeah?  Hmm.  Well . . .” she looked down Djurövägen, but saw no sign of the bus.  Somewhere behind her, to the north, she heard the distant sound of thunder.  It was 4:33 p.m. according to her watch, and the bus wasn’t supposed to arrive for a little while longer.  And if she missed it, she could always catch the next one and still be home in plenty of time for Oskar and Eli, since it wouldn’t be dark for several more hours.  She imagined that the two of them might enjoy a playfort when they came out here together; if everything else proved fruitless, it could take the edge off things.  So she agreed.

She followed the kids on their bikes back up to the turnabout, where they turned right down a road that led in a northeasterly direction to the water.  They passed some homes, and then the two of them pulled their bikes off and laid them down in a ditch.  At the end of the road, between the trees and above the greenish-blue waters of the bay, Maria saw slate-gray clouds building, and heard another rumble.  An image of Nick’s umbrella flashed through her head.

The three of them went into the woods, following a little trail through the underbrush.  Soon they came to a small, meandering stream and began to follow it.  Maria wasn’t sure, but she thought they were still headed in a northwesterly direction toward the granary, which could be heard somewhere off in to her left through the still, August air.  They went a little further, and then Maria realized that they were approaching the spot where she had discovered the blocks under the streambed.  But the children didn’t stop there; didn’t even pay the area any attention.

They went another 50 meters or so; then the kids scrambled down the shallow sides of the stream, splashed across the middle, and began to climb up the other side, angling toward a depressed area, overgrown with a cluster of trees, on the opposite side.  The boy said, “There it is,” without pausing or looking back at her.  Maria stopped and looked at the little spot.  She could see where they had used logs and tree branches to make some walls facing out, away from the stream.  The girl turned her head.  “Aren’t you coming?”  Maria sighed.  Oh well . . . her shoes were already wet; a little more wouldn’t matter.  So she clambered down into the streambed.

As she was sloshing across to the other side, she looked up the stream and saw part of a large drainpipe around a bend, a fair distance away.  Then she climbed up the opposite side with the help of some exposed roots, and joined the children in their fort.

“Isn’t it neat?” the boy asked.  Then the girl added, “Yeah.  Don’t you think it’s awesome?”

Maria nodded.  It was a pretty cool fort, at that.  A couple of big, shady trees stood at either end, and she was surprised at how well they had used the fallen logs and tree branches to create the walls, left gaps to serve as embrasures, and camouflaged the whole thing with small, leafy branches.  The depression in the middle gave the defenders a natural advantage, and Maria only had to stoop a little to peer out through the walls.  They’d even erected a flag using a pillowcase, on which they’d drawn or painted a skull and crossbones, tied onto a sagging stick that jutted up from one wall.

The boy grabbed a chipped and faded toy gun out of a corner, laid down in front of an opening, and began to make shooting and explosion sounds as he snapped its bolt open and shut, firing on unseen enemies.  “Yah!  The Germans are coming!  Defend the fort, Elsie!”  She shouted “okay!” and began hurtling rocks from a small pile over the walls.  Their shouts and war sounds, which now included the wailing of falling artillery shells, rose up over the still, darkening forest.  Then, after another boom of thunder, the boy announced that the walls had been breached, and ordered Elsie to fall back.  They moved to a spot near Maria and lifted up a rotting piece of plywood that she hadn’t noticed, revealing a hole underneath.  Then the two of them climbed in and disappeared from view, Elsie lowering the plywood back down on top of the opening with one hand.

Maria was surprised.  She stepped over and lifted the plywood.  “Where’d you guys go?”

Elsie’s dirty face grinned up at her.  “It’s our secret hideout.  Nobody knows about it except us and our friends.”  Maria heard the boy’s voice.  “Yeah.  We told you it was cool.”

The patter of rain on leaves began with a soft sigh of wind, and Maria realized that it was now gloomier than it had been ten minutes ago.  She looked up at the sky and saw that it had begun to rain.  Then she looked down at the hole with curiosity.  “How big is it down there?”

“You’ll have to see for yourself!”  They giggled.

She unslung her camera from around her neck, grateful that she had had the foresight to bring it in its case now that it was raining, and put it with her notepad down on the plywood cover next to the hole.  Then she sat down on the damp earth next to the hole and slid down in.

She didn’t go far before she hit bottom, and she had to duck down to get all the way in.  When her eyes adjusted, she realized that she was in a space that was barely a meter and a half high; tall enough for the kids to move about without much difficulty, but definitely cramped for an adult.  She was standing on wet, uneven earth.  Above her she was startled to see, uncomfortably close to her head even while stooping, a ceiling constructed of dark, wooden beams that appeared very old and saturated with water.  The space was square and about six by three meters in size.  The children’s’ entry hole was in one corner where the floor was even higher.  When she turned and looked at the hole from underneath, she realized that the wooden beams in this area were uneven and had rotted away.  The children must have discovered a smaller hole and enlarged it sufficiently to create what she’d just passed through.

She was even more surprised to discover that the walls of the small room were constructed of finished stone.  They appeared intact, except the wall on the side nearest the hole, which had collapsed, causing the roof to sag and allowing water and earth to penetrate the room.

Elsie had circled around the room, and she came back to Maria’s side.  “Do you like it?”

“Uh huh,” Maria replied, a little uncertainly.  “How’d you find it?”

The boy piped up.  “We were playing out here one day and I fell down right up there.”  He pointed at the hole.  “That’s when I found a little hole and started digging.  And we found this cool little room, and turned it into our clubhouse.”

Maria peered around and then moved, hunched over, toward the far wall.  “It is pretty neat, all right.  What’s in here?  Is there a floor under the dirt?”

“I don’t know.  But there’s nothing in here, really.  Just that door down there.”  The boy was beside her, pointing.  Then he added, “Hey!  Could this be part of the castle you’re looking for?”

Maria shook her head distractedly; his remark about the door had seized her attention.  “I don’t know.  Where’s the door?”

“Right there.  Can’t you see it?”

At first, Maria couldn’t; but when she was only a few feet away, lightning flashed outside, for an instant providing additional light and allowing her to see a wooden door, banded with iron, inset into the wall.  Only the top half was visible; its bottom portion was covered by the dirt that she was now walking on.  A metal lock was visible just above the dirt floor, but she saw no handle.  The whole thing looked extremely old.

“Wow, look at that,” she exclaimed, touching it briefly.  “What’s behind it?”

Both of the children were now with her.  The boy spoke.  “We don’t know—it’s locked, and we’ve never been able to open it.”

There was another flash of lightning, followed almost immediately by thunder.  Maria turned back to the hole and saw raindrops coming down into the room.  “Gee, that was close.”

“It sure was,” Elsie replied anxiously.  She looked toward the hole and then asked, “Ma’am, do you know what time it is?”

Maria pushed a button on the side of her watch and reported that it was a little after five.

Elsie gave her brother an alarmed look.  “Frank--we gotta go home!  Momma’ll be mad if we’re late for dinner.” 

The boy rolled his eyes, but he followed Elsie when she went to the hole and scrambled up.  Maria came up behind them and climbed out, too.  She shouted thanks to them as they ran away through the forest, and their fading goodbyes drifted back to her.

Maria paused, crouched next to the hole.  The rain was coming down harder, and a chilly breeze made her shiver.  She looked up to study the sky, and debated whether to go back and wait at the bus stop in the pouring rain, or poke around a bit further until the thunderstorm passed.  She doubted that it would last very long, and although she was already a bedraggled mess, she finally decided to stay and wait it out.  So she flipped the plywood onto her camera and notepad to try and keep them as dry as possible, and slid down once again.

As she turned her back to the hole and headed toward the mysterious door, it began to rain harder, and the temperature in the little room noticeably dropped.  Water trickled in through the opening, and dripped here and there through the ancient wooden ceiling.

It was almost completely dark at the far end of the chamber.  She touched the door with her hands, running her fingers around its edges.  She felt no hinges, so she figured that it must swing away from her.  There were deep chips and gouges on the edge of the door above the lock, presumably where the kids had attempted to pry it open with something.

She pushed against the door.  There was a little give, but not much.  Too bad the kids aren’t here, she thought.  They’d make short work of it.  But they weren’t, so it was up to her.

When she pushed against the door, she realized the something was carved on its face.  It was too dark to see the pattern clearly, so she traced it with her fingers.

A cross.  Its lower arm disappeared into the dirt.

She decided to clear some of the dirt away from the door.  Once she’d hunkered down on all fours, she began to dig in front of the door like a dog, scooping away moist hunks of earth and pushing them to the side while she thought about how she was ruining her nails.  She dug in earnest for a few minutes, methodically scooping and clearing, until her arms began to ache; then she stopped for a moment.  She touched the face of the door again, this time in the area where she’d dug.  The wood was rotted and soft; in spots it almost felt as though she could punch through it with her fingers.

It occurred to her that what she was doing was amateurish.  She wasn’t equipped for her task; didn’t even have a flashlight.  Maybe it would be better to tackle the door later with Oskar and Eli and some tools.

As she crouched in front of the door debating what to do, she realized for the first time that she really didn’t like being where she was.  She had been so preoccupied with her desire to gather information for Oskar and Eli, and then distracted with the neighborhood kids, that she hadn’t really focused on what she was doing.  There was something vaguely sinister about the whole situation: the lack of any official information about the castle; the fact that there seemed to be no trace of it in Djurön, at least above ground; and now this weird room with its solitary door.

She frowned.  Where, exactly, did the door go?  And why wasn’t there . . .

She turned and looked back at the entry hole, where water was now coming in at a steady rate.  The hole was a fluke; it hadn’t been built that way.  If Frank hadn’t found it, the room would’ve just remained underground the whole time, unless there was another door on the opposite wall that she’d missed.

She loped, bent over, back down to the other end and studied the collapsed wall carefully.  Although it was a little hard to tell, she couldn’t see any sign that there had ever been a door there.  Which meant that . . .

. . . the door has to go outside.  Yes, that was the only explanation.  Probably the only thing behind the door was a flight of steps leading upwards.  Why anyone would construct such a room was beyond her, but that had to be the answer.

She crawled back up out of the hole, slipping a little because of the mud, and looked around at the fort.  She imagined where the door should be down below her, and climbed over the walls of the fort in that direction.  She paced out about six meters, stopped, and looked carefully over the ground for any sign of an entrance.  Then with small steps she began to walk slowly in the same direction, scrutinizing the ground carefully for any signs of a man-made structure.  But there was nothing but ordinary forest floor, seeming to mock her.

She stopped, sighed, and looked around the forest.  It continued to rain steadily, saturating her hair.  Irritated, she scratched her head.

The hell with it, she thought.  I’ll just go on home and tell them what I found; we can come back out later tonight, maybe, if I’m not too damned tired.  She turned around and headed in the direction of the bus stop.

Maria hadn’t gotten very far from the children’s playfort when she realized she had forgotten to get her camera and notepad.  She swore softly to herself, turned around, and headed back, crossed the stream yet again in the steady rain and scrambled up the bank to the fort.  She glanced at her watch: 5:39 p.m.  This was turning into a very long day.   There was no way she would have the energy to come back out here tonight.

She was lowering the plywood back over the hole when it occurred to her that it might be a good idea to take some pictures of the hole and the room, in case it took them awhile to come back out.  Maybe Eli had seen the door at some point, and could tell them about it.  And the camera had a flash, so she figured she could get a few snapshots.

She took a quick picture of the hole, and then carefully slid down in once again.  These pants are ruined, she thought.  The mudstains on her bottom would probably never come out.

She ducked down to clear her head, then crouched and pointed her camera at the far end.  She didn’t really have to aim because at this distance, it was impossible to avoid getting a picture of the door.  So she looked through the viewfinder into the blackness, held the button down halfway, and when the light turned green, snapped the picture.

In the bright flash of the camera she saw it: a dark gap on the lock side of the door.

Her breath caught in her throat.  Couldn’t be.

She froze, trembling, and thought about what Eli had said; the one thing, of all the unbelievable things, that Maria’s rational mind had quietly refused to accept, that she had thought, in her heart of hearts, had simply been Eli’s imagination: But somehow he changed the dice from six to seven, and then it was me.  I don’t know how he did it—it was like magic--but it happened.

Like magic.

Her previous unease blossomed and expanded in her chest into full-blown fear.  The door had been locked; she was sure of it. 

She waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Slowly, hesitantly, she felt herself drawn to the door.  In the light from the hole, she could see it, but not very well.  She stretched out a trembling hand and pushed.  Silently it swung further open, revealing . . .

A cool draft moved past her with a smell of ashes.  Something white, moving a little, beyond the door.  She strained to see what it was.  A large cobweb, fluttering in a shaft.  A shaft that sloped steeply down and away.

For the first time in her life, Maria felt that she was in mortal peril.  The urge to flee overcame her.  She turned toward the light, wanting to get away from the door at all costs.  And that was when she slipped, fell on her chest, and felt the black, moist earth give way beneath her.  In one, quick motion, she slid down the shaft into the darkness, her scream echoing behind her.

More next week

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