The Kerala Princess
by Ian Roumain
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Jean-Paul only sees it for a split-second before it roars. Is it in pain? Is it light sensitive? It lifts its mighty hands to shield its hideous face and vanishes into the swirling snow. The Chief Inspector is thrown backwards by the surprise and lands roughly on his backside but somehow manages to hold the lantern high and prevent it from shattering against the floorboards. Outside, the sound of glass breaking. The Citroën is parked near the window. Did the intruder collide with it?
Grenier scrambles to his feet and backs away from the window, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on it. His left hand searches the desktop for his pistol, knocks the wine bottle to the ground. He finally wraps his fingers around the grip, but nothing reappears in the window.
Jean-Paul’s mind races. What was it? A figure, tall and wide and powerful. Another long-forgotten word from his childhood comes to mind: Woodwose. Primitive wild men that live in the mountains, according to medieval Europeans. A lost branch of humanity that only occasionally comes into contact with the fringes of civilization. Fringes, he realizes, like a remote gendarmerie.
Whatever is trying to gain entrance, it can only be doing so for one reason. It is after the emeralds. Maybe it’s the hermit himself, having come to regret his earlier decision and returned to reclaim them. Jean-Paul has only seen the man a few times, and always from afar, so the American could be whom he saw in the window. The shock of the encounter could have caused Grenier to incorrectly perceive him as monstrous.
But still... the American had never been violent.
Maybe, Grenier thinks, he’s had too much wine.
Another loud bang, from the front door. That’s when Jean-Paul realizes the radiator is still making its odious noise. Gun in one hand and lamp in the other, he braves the window, kicks the radiator (it falls silent). Seized by a burst of valor, he charges into the front office, races straight to the front door, and it occurs to him, in a remote corner of his mind, that he is behaving recklessly. But you must defend the emeralds! another part of his mind roars back.
Flush with adrenaline, Jean-Paul undoes the lock and flings the door open, gun at the ready.
Outside, in the lamp’s limited light, he sees only the snow covered ground, enormous flakes dancing through the cold air.
“You can’t have them!” he roars, and wonders what language an unseen monster might be fluent in, if any.
Leading with his gun, Jean-Paul exits the gendarmerie. Aside from the wind, there is no sound. The tree line begins about six meters from the front door. A bench, covered in snow, flanks the door he’s just emerged from. Around the corner of the building to his right is where the Citroën is parked and the long, tree-lined driveway that leads back to town.
Around the corner of the building to his left there is nothing but the generator — useful only if his idiot minions ever remember to get diesel! – and more of the pine forest that blankets this side of Mont Blanc.
The Chief Inspector suddenly knows what he has to do. He will get the emeralds and drive the Citroën back to town. Whatever it is, out there in the dark, won’t dare follow him back.
Jean-Paul ducks back inside, locks the door behind him, and goes straight to the safe. He pulls the gemstones from their pouch. He stares at the enormous one for a second and stuffs them all into his uniform jacket’s inside pocket. They’ll be safe there. He can feel the big one against his chest, its girth bulking his jacket awkwardly. Its size really is obscene.
Still holding the lamp, he stops himself on the way to the front door. He needs the damn car keys! He quickly finds them in his desk drawer, takes a second to pull himself together, unlocks the front door, flings it open, and steps back into the snow.
He fires his pistol skyward, a warning shot. Seven bullets remain. There’s no movement aside from his own breadth pluming before him, and swirling snowflakes. He pulls the door shut after him, locks it, and cautiously heads around the corner.
The Citroën is there, as expected. The lurker is nowhere to be seen. He gingerly approaches the car and again toys with the idea that he has somehow imagined this entire incident. But then he sees that the front passenger side window, nearest to his office window, is shattered, glass littering the seat inside. In fact, the entire front passenger side door is indented, as if something of great mass and weight has crashed into it.
He raises his gun, does his best to ignore the fact that the barrel is trembling. Just the cold, he tells himself, which is real enough. Worse, in fact, than he guessed before leaving the gendarmerie. The wind is piercing. Why didn’t he grab his winter jacket off the wall before exiting?
He makes for the driver’s side door, suddenly spots a figure out of the corner of his eye, approaching fast from the tree line at the edge of the driveway. His reflexes are on hair-trigger, and he fires twice in rapid succession. Five bullets left!
It is with great relief that he sees the figure collapse into the snow, but when he runs over to it, his triumph evaporates. He’s shot the hermit, the rifle the man had been carrying now in its own indentation in the snow. It’s the first time he’s seen the American up close; he’s tall and lean and weathered like a lighthouse that has spent decades guarding a remote shore. He is dressed in a hodgepodge of coats and furs and what appears to be the remnants of a G.I. uniform.
The American died instantly, blue eyes staring skyward, mouth agape. Grenier instantly comprehends two things; first, the American is not the figure he saw through the window, and second, that he has killed an ally who had come to help him.
Jean-Paul flees back towards the car, still clutching the oil lamp. He places the pistol on its roof, uses that hand to dig the key out of his pocket and unlock the car. He climbs in, slams and locks the door behind him. Paranoia makes him check the backseat - it’s empty. Relieved, he carefully places the lit oil lamp in the passenger seat amidst the shattered glass. He puts the key in the ignition, turns it, and nothing happens.
He grabs the lamp once again and exits the car, runs to the front, sees that the hood is slightly open. He lifts it and confirms his worry - the engine has been smashed beyond repair. It’s destruction, he realizes, must have been the sound whose origins he couldn’t pinpoint earlier. Damn!
Suddenly a fear more terrible than anything he has ever experienced seizes him. He can scarcely breathe. His heart struggles to beat. He’s experiencing the terror the hermit described. And then the stench hits, infesting his lungs, making him gasp. If he survives the night, he’ll never get the smell out of his uniform.
It’s standing directly behind him.
And he left his pistol on the roof of the car.
Grenier drops the hood and runs. Behind him the lurker brings a fist down so hard that the car hood crunches inwards like tissue paper.
Still clutching the lamp in his right hand, he reaches for the pistol with his left - but fails to grab it, instead sends it sliding across the roof of the car, down the rear windshield, across the trunk, and into the snow.
It hits the ground and fires, the bullet embedding itself in the gendarmerie’s wall. Jean-Paul bends over and snatches the gun without breaking his run. He rounds the gendarmerie, unlocks the door in record time, flies inside, and kicks it shut behind him so hard President Auriol falls off the wall and shatters his frame. He locks the door and an instant later it buckles inwards under the lurker’s renewed assault, but it somehow holds.
Panic envelopes Jean-Paul. He’s made it back inside without actually putting eyes on the lurker, and now his imagination is filling in the blanks left by his brief glimpse of it earlier: slavering fangs, bristling hairs, bloodshot eyes.
The door buckles again and the lurker emits a bone-chilling roar. Grenier has never heard a sound like it before.
And then the power returns and all the lights blink on, including those on the gendarmerie’s exterior. The lurker makes a defeated snarl and Jean-Paul hears it retreating toward the forest. It must be light-sensitive.
Jean-Paul races to Yves’ desk, sets down the no-longer-needed oil lamp, and lifts the telephone receiver, hoping against hope that there will be a dial tone. No dice. Disgusted, he flings the telephone across the room.
He races back into his office, arrives just as the radiator begins making a racket again. This time he doesn’t bother to silence it. He is trying to formulate a course of action that might, no matter how remote the possibility, result in his survival.
He spots the hermit’s wine-stained papers on his desk. The American, faced with a similar predicament, had found a solution. All he has to do is implement it.
Jean-Paul races back to the front office, goes straight to the window by the front door, and opens it, admitting a wave of frigid air. He pulls the massive emerald from his pocket.
“You, out there!” he yells, hoping the damn thing is still within earshot. “Here’s what you want! You can have it!” He flings the huge gemstone towards the trees with all of his strength, watches it disappear into the snow. He then throws the lesser stones after it, but they bounce off Yves’ chest.
“What the hell are you doing?” the incredulous younger officer asks.
Jean-Paul unlocks the front door and opens it, gingerly steps outside, gun drawn. But he stays close, like a rabbit ready to rush back into its hole. “What are you doing here, lieutenant?”
“I heard gunshots.” Yves looks confused, like always. “What happened to the car?”
Jean-Paul’s attention is focused on trees. “You didn’t see anyone?”
“Just the American. Somebody shot him.” Yves notices the persistent banging coming from the gendarmerie. “You’re supposed to kick that.”
“Never mind the radiator.” Jean-Paul stares at Yves a moment before remembering he killed the hermit. “I’ll explain about the American in a minute. We need to get back inside.”
“Wait a minute,” Yves objects. He bends over, starts picking the smaller emeralds from the snow. “What were you thinking throwing these away?”-
The lights suddenly go out, plunging them back into darkness. Jean-Paul realizes he left the oil lamp on Yves’ desk, looks inside, and sees that it’s gone out. Must have been the wind when he opened the window. “Forget those stones. We have to get back inside. Right now.”
“I am not leaving these out here,” Yves says, an icy glint in his eye. Jean-Paul suddenly understands that his lieutenant has also fallen under the gemstone’s spell.
“Listen to me, Dabain. Get in here right now. The lights are out.”
“Power’s been coming and going all night.” The younger man stops speaking abruptly.
“What’s the matter?” Jean-Paul can only make out the other man’s vague outline. He really wants to get back inside and lock the door.
“Do you smell that?”
Of course he does. And the terror returns, like an icy blade thrust into the Chief Inspector’s heart.
Grenier hears the lurker lift Yves off the ground. It roars and he screams and Jean-Paul fires (four bullets left) and scrambles backwards into the gendarmerie without waiting to see if his bullet has found its target. He slams the door, locks it. He gropes his way through the dark, collides with the side of Yves’ desk. The extinguished oil lamp falls to the floor and shatters.
It feels like the loss of a loved one.
Outside, Yves’ screaming recedes into the distance. Hopefully, the lurker is carrying him back up the mountain. With any luck it also found the big emerald and will be satisfied with its recovery and the kidnapping of his subordinate. How, he wonders fleetingly, will he report Dabain’s disappearance?
Jean-Paul strikes a match, uses it to return to his office. He only has a half-dozen of them left. He takes a moment to kick the radiator and it falls silent, allows him to hear Yves’ now distant cries more clearly.
And then they cease.
Jean-Paul discards his spent match, strikes a fresh one, uses it to navigate his way back to the front door. A quick glance out the window reveals nothing. This is his chance to escape. He quickly unlocks the door and exits back into the falling snow. The world around him is silent, all blacks and grays. The stars above are hidden behind the clouds.
He rounds the corner and goes back to the ruined car, crosses himself as he passes the dead American. He eyes the driveway. Long and dark, it’s the only way back into town. Pistol in hand, he starts jogging in that direction.
He can’t go very fast since he isn’t wearing snow boots, occasionally slips on an ice patch. He goes some distance, but his energy flags. Something makes him stop, listen.
There’s only snow falling. No radiator, no Yves screaming. No smell. No fear. Just his own panting as he puffs like a dragon.
That fist-sized emerald is probably still back there, in the snow. He can find it in a minute, given the chance. Then he can run back to town with it, safe as houses. He can be in Chamonix tomorrow, Paris the next day. He’ll be rich. He’ll never have to come back to his backwater hometown.
Ignoring the part of his brain frantically warning him against this course of action, Jean-Paul doubles back, passes the dead American and the smashed Citroën again, circles the gendarmerie, and crosses the few meters of snow to the tree line. He finds the massive emerald almost immediately. It’s impossible to miss. He strikes another match, examines it by the flame. The light dances across its facets. He really is going to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
“Inspector Grenier?” Yves’ voice is weak. Jean-Paul drops the match, quickly stuffs the emerald into his uniform jacket. He can see Yves just enough to know he’s injured, his face lacerated, his uniform torn and bloodied.
“I can see it bulging through your uniform,” Yves speaks with uncharacteristic steel in his voice. “Thief.”
“What did you call me?” Jean-Paul is an Inspector, and this kid is just a lieutenant. A lousy one he would have fired a long time ago if he’d had more than two subordinates. How dare he?
Yves growls, “Give me the emerald, Inspector.”
Jean-Paul is genuinely surprised when he hears his gun fire three times in rapid succession (only one bullet left!), and watches Yves hit the snow, dead as Caesar. The Chief Inspector has a momentary twinge of regret about murdering his dim-witted subordinate. Why did the imbecile challenge him? But that regret vanishes quickly. Yves had been trying to deprive him of his emeralds. No one in his right mind would tolerate that.
But that thing, the lurker, is probably somewhere nearby. In fact, Grenier realizes, it’s probably followed idiotic Yves back to the gendarmerie.
He hears the radiator start to bang again. Could that thing be more annoying?
Jean-Paul runs back into the gendarmerie, slams the door and locks it behind him. He needs to figure out his next step. He needs to get back to town, but that thing is out there, just waiting for a chance to get at him. And the emeralds. The emerald. His emerald. He takes it out of his pocket and eyes it again in the dim light.
And then he smells it.
A stench so foul he can taste it. Sweet, like decay.
Grenier’s breadth catches in his throat. He knows the lurker is behind him. It must have slipped into the gendarmerie while he was wasting time killing Yves. Making matters worse, the infernal clanging of the radiator is giving him a migraine.
Somehow, Grenier manages to turn around. The dark figure towers over him, hunched so that it can fit inside the low-ceilinged room. The Chief Inspector struggles through the terror gripping him, raises his pistol, and fires.
His gun clicks, the clip empty.
But that’s impossible! He’s kept meticulous count... He forgot the bullet that fired when the pistol fell off the back of the Citroën.
Grenier opens his mouth to scream.
Copyright © 2016 by Ian Roumain