The Prize Part 3
The staff car's headlamps, hooded so as to be undetectable from the sky, illuminated
only a few feet of rocky roadway. As the heavy automobile twisted and climbed,
Mel, seated in the rear between Janice and Grube, thought they must soon reach
the mountain's peak and tip over the other
side. The driver turned sharply left, and the front of the car tilted up even more radically.
"It's not far now," Grube commented.
"Good," Janice replied sourly. "I would like to get settled in our quarters before midnight. That is, if no more social obligations intrude."
"I had your case returned to the boot," Grube placated, "so that we could take you to your accommodations on the way back to headquarters."
"I don't see why we're staying at some village hostelry."
"Except for the room assigned to myself and my officers, we have only rough barracks in the compound. Nothing suitable for you and your companion," he explained. "You will be comfortable in the village. I'll leave guards and a car at your disposal, Fraulein. Everything will be as the Fuhrer would want it."
The car leveled and halted. Mel pictured them teetering on the mountain's peak, just before the driver opened the door beside the commander. Grube slid out and offered a hand to Mel, who accepted it, and then to Janice, who slid out unaided and stepped between Grube and her friend.
"Follow me," he said and abruptly set off through the dark.
Mel looked at Janice, who shrugged and, taking the taller woman's arm, hurried after the commander. After a few steps, they could see a large mass ahead, turrets and towers darker than the surrounding night sky.
"Castle Klaj-meinke," Grube confirmed, "home of Count Tavel Pitesti."
The driver, who had been walking behind them, stepped to the door and used the iron knocker to announce their arrival. Immediately the door opened to reveal a great hall alight with torches. Banners and insignia of chivalry and military campaigns decorated the stone walls and the distant arch of the ceiling. A double stone stairway led from the center of the far wall to a second level gallery that completely surrounded the great hall. Above the second level could be seen arches and staircases that indicated the great size of the castle.
Their eyes drawn to the height of this indoor space, Janice and Mel didn't see the person who had admitted them until he spoke. "I am Alasandre, the Count's manservant. Frauleins, please accompany the Reichskommander to the dining room. The Count awaits you there."
The man who spoke these words was the most extraordinary looking human being the women had ever seen. Dressed in a formal coat with black tie, shoes polished to gleaming, he could have been the most correct of serving men. However, he was nearly seven feet tall and weighed not much more than a hundred pounds. His hair was white; his skin was white; his eyes, having no color themselves, reflected back the torchlight, seeming to glow pink to red and back again. His veins showed blue under his poor, pale allotment of skin and, as he talked, moved as if they were crawling for cover. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to come from inside some more corpulent man.
"Frauleins?" he asked patiently, as Grube walked in the indicated direction, and the women did not.
Janice nodded, and she and Mel followed Grube, with Alasandre walking behind.
Grube stepped through a high archway, and they were in another grand room, this
one dominated by a dining table large enough to accommodate over forty people,
ten on each side. Large, high-back chairs,
carved with scenes of medieval revelry formed a line along each side of the massive square of wood. Janice realized that the table appeared to be one piece and wondered from what tree so large a log could have been hewn.
"The table and chairs were carved in 1680." The speaker had risen from the nearest chair. "The table from an oak that was over 200 years old at the time. Each chair was also carved from a log, all in one piece." Janice's expression one of surprise, he hastened to explain, "The first thing any visitor asks about is this table. Let me introduce myself. I am Tavel Pitesti. I hope you do not mind my speaking English. My German is execrable, and I assume you do not speak Rumanian?"
"English is fine," Janice agreed, careful to inject a slight German accent. "My companion does not understand German, but she has some English."
The speaker was taller than Janice, but had to look up slightly to meet Mel's eyes, which he did, his own blue eyes engaging hers before drifting back to her companion. "You are Fraulein Berndt? And this is?"
"Maria." She appraised him coolly before adding, "My secretary."
"I see." He looked back and forth between the two women before turning to Grube. "Reichskommander. Welcome. Thank you for bringing two such beautiful women to share my dinner."
"My pleasure, Count Pitesti." Janice thought Grube was going to bow, but he simply nodded his head. She noticed that his English was nearly unaccented. "Your young servant told me you wished my visitors and myself to join you."
"It's so rare that our little village gets visitors that I didn't want to miss the opportunity," the Count said smoothly. "Frauleins, if you'll be seated, please; here, one on either side." He directed the women to their seats and pulled out Mel's chair as his manservant seated Janice. Grube seated himself to Janice's left, just around the corner of the table. "Alasandre, please bring the wine and the first course."
The first course was a thick, brown soup served with red wine. "A game soup," the nobleman explained, "a specialty of our region. The wine, of course, is French, as you probably recognize, Fraulein Berndt."
Janice was surprised that he knew his guest's history, but said only, "In France, I had little time for wine tasting."
"Of course." Pitesti turned to his right. "Maria, were you in France, also? And too busy to taste the wine?"
Mel spoke slowly, as if unused to English. Janice was surprised that she was able to suppress her Southern drawl. "I am Greek. This is my first time away from my country."
"Ah," the Count said, "practically a neighbor. I traveled in Greece before the war. I've always had a great interest in ruins. Are you from Athens or from one of the provinces?"
"Amphipolis," Mel answered, choosing to name her ancestral home.
"A Thracian?" Pitesti smiled. "That IS interesting. I have some fascinating books about that region, especially about its legends and traditions. Perhaps you could help me by translating a couple of passages that have puzzled me."
"I'm sorry, but Maria will be far too busy with my correspondence to do anything else," Janice cut in, her tone making it clear she was not sorry at all.
Alasandre cleared the soup and brought a fish and vegetable course. The fish
was lightly browned and fragrant with fresh herbs. The second wine glass at
each place was filled, this time with a white wine, which Pitesti described
as "fruit of the Fatherland." Janice noticed that their host had
eaten and drunk little during the first course, and that he only cut and moved the fish around his plate.
The Reichskommander drew in the aroma of the fish and ate and drank with appreciation.
Alasandre stood at the Count's elbow, always ready to refill a wine glass that
had been emptied. Janice soon found herself on her third glass of the dry wine.
Mel, as usual, ate and drank sparingly and lifted
an eyebrow when Alasandre opened a second bottle and tilted it above her friend's glass.
The third course was pheasant, served on a silver platter with a cover that
perfectly mimicked the shape of that bird. With the bird, Alasandre provided
a dish that seemed to be either thick noodles or some sort of stuffed dumplings.
"This is a traditional dish of the people," said Pitesti. "Some
consider it a dish fit only for the village, not for the castle, but most Transylvanians
enjoy it, I find. It brings back to me memories of the nursery when this was
the usual dinner for my brother and
Janice tasted it and found it more to her liking than the rich gamebird. "It reminds me of a pierogie," she commented, "but the filling is not as bland."
Alasandre offered more wine, a blushing variety to complement the pheasant, but only Grube accepted. Mel smiled at Janice, who briefly smiled back. This exchange was lost on the soldier, but not on their host.
At his employer's gesture, the manservant brought out the last course, a solid,
dark cake soaked with brandy. The Count did not partake of this dessert, but
the other three found that they were able to do it justice. Having completed
his meal, the Reichskommander leaned back and finally
spoke, using the English preferred by his host. "Sir, this was a meal to be remembered by someone more used to the soldier's mess. Now it's late, and I have duties in the morning. Would you excuse us for leaving so soon after eating?"
"Are you sure you want to go down the mountain at this hour?" the Count asked.
"I need to drop Fraulein Berndt and her secretary in the village before returning to my own headquarters, Count Pitesti." The Reichskommander rose. "So, if you will excuse us. . . ."
The Count rose as well. "The frauleins are staying in the village? At
that disgrace of an inn?" He shook his head apologetically. "Excuse
my bluntness, Reichskommander, but that is a place for peasants going from farm
to market or home again. Fumigation would be in order before ladies
The soldier seemed to take no offense. "I have no better option to offer. There are no suitable rooms in the barracks."
The Count seemed struck by inspiration. He turned to Janice. "Why don't you and your delightful companion stay here at the castle?" As she opened her mouth to protest, he continued, "It isn't much further from the SS headquarters than is the village. And, during the daylight hours, the journey is no more difficult for an automobile. Or I can put my carriage at your disposal."
The Reichskommander spoke eagerly. "This is a wonderful idea. Here security will be no problem, as it would be in the village. You can stay here without guards, freeing my men for other duties. You will be safe and comfortable, as the Fuhrer would desire."
Janice calculated rapidly. Staying in the castle would have the advantage of
freeing her from close scrutiny by men reporting every move to Grube. She might
have a better chance of contacting the local resistance cell if not constantly
surrounded by SS Waffen. "Thank you, Count Pitesti," she
said. "We'll stay here."
Alasandre having carried their luggage, including Fraulein Berndt's large case, up the winding staircase to the third level, Janice and Mel found themselves settled in a high-ceilinged bed chamber. Janice looked doubtfully at the ornate bed, its dark headboard towering above the mattress, itself two feet off the floor. Like the dining room chairs, the headboard was intricately carved, in this case with what looked like scenes of medieval debauchery.
"If I fall out of that in the middle of the night, I'll kill myself."
"Then don't fall," Mel said shortly. She turned her back to slip off her blouse and replace it with a modest cotton gown.
Janice sighed. "What did I do now?"
"You might have considered whether I would want to stay here. You might even have consulted me."
"I couldn't." Melinda had slipped under the covers and turned her
back. Janice walked around to the other side of the bed and, still dressed in
the black uniform of the enemy, climbed onto the high bed. "Mel, you know
I've been trying to change my ways where it comes to you. I try to show you
respect you're due. I try not to be so selfish and headstrong." When her friend didn't respond, she moved closer and placed a hand on a soft cheek. "Mel? Please don't shut me out."
Blue eyes opened, and Janice realized they were brilliant with tears. Mel whispered, "I know you're trying. That's why this hurt tonight."
"Please don't cry." Janice found a white handkerchief in a uniform
pocket and awkwardly offered it. "Here. Blow." She laughed as Mel
obeyed, then became serious again. "Janice can ask Melinda what she thinks
and include her in decisions, but that's not who we are. Right now I'm Margethe,
you're Maria. And what I say goes. Do you understand?"
Mel had stopped crying, but she didn't answer.
"Mel, what's wrong? Why don't you want to stay here?" Janice gestured
to the luxurious room. "This has to be better than some flea-infested room
in a village inn. And how about that dinner? Do you suppose the Count feasts
like that every night? You'll have to let this uniform out." Her friend
was still silent. "Mel?"
"I don't want to stay here."
"It isn't safe." When Janice stared at her, she continued. "There's something wrong with this place and with the Count. Did you notice how Grube changed when he entered the castle? It was as if he were under some sort of spell."
Janice sat up on the bed and considered. "Grube is under the spell of the Count's title and wealth. I've seen this kind of thing before. Grube lives for power over other people, and he's fascinated by someone who was born to that kind of power."
"Well, did you notice that Pitesti hardly ate or drank anything? Not the soup, not the fish, not the..."
"Partridge in a pear tree," Janice finished. "Probably had the
same thing for lunch." She quickly saw that her flippant attitude wasn't
"And that Alasandre. Gives me the creeps." Mel shuddered.
"He's an albino. It isn't like you to be against someone because of how they look."
"He. . . ."
"He kept watching me," Mel finished. "Whenever I looked up during dinner, his eyes, those strange glowing eyes, were on me. It was as if. . . .as if he were trying to figure something out. Like he knew me from somewhere and was trying to remember."
"Do you know any albinos?" Janice asked.
"There. You see? You don't know him; he can't know you." Janice sprang
off the bed, landing with a thud on the distant floor. She pulled a man's shirt
from her--or, rather Margethe's knapsack--and began to undress. Ready for bed
after these simple preparations, she sprang back up to land
beside Mel. Mel, who was silent. Janice lay for some minutes thinking, then she grinned. Then she chuckled. And finally laughed. Mel punched her in the arm, which set her off even more. "You think..." She had to catch her breath. "You've read too many books or seen too many movies."
"Have not." But some embarrassment had crept into Mel's voice.
"Have, too," Janice corrected. "One too many Bela Lugosi movie, if I don't miss my bet. Yeah, that's it. We're in the castle of a Transylvanian count, and you think he's a vampire."
"Okay, it might have crossed my mind." Now Mel chuckled, too. "Dracula."
"Dracula Meets the Werewolf."
"Missed that one," Janice said.
"I made it up," Mel admitted. Only half-kidding, she added, "Well, I don't suppose one night in the castle will hurt us, and tomorrow we can tell whether Pitesti is one of the undead or not."
"We are NOT going to drive a stake through his heart," Janice objected.
"No, but tomorrow is another day, and, if the Count is a real live human, he'll be up and about."
"And if he isn't?"
"If we don't see Pitesti during daylight hours, we move to the village and take our chance on the fleas." Mel held out her hand. "Agreed?"
Resting on one elbow, Janice took the offered hand and, after holding it for a few seconds, delivered a firm shake.
When Mel awakened, it was to see Janice sitting at a window seat that overlooked the castle garden. Turning from the view of the garden and what looked like a stone monument below, the small woman smiled. "We have our answer."
"What?" The dark-haired beauty stretched and sleepily rubbed her eyes. She reached for the table beside the bed and found her glasses.
Mel slid out of the bed and padded barefoot to the window. She blinked at the brightness of the morning sun. Then she saw. Coming across the garden, walking toward the castle, was none other than Count Tavel Pitesti. "It seems silly in the daylight anyway. You know, what I thought."
Janice nodded. "You had me half-convinced. More than half, I guess."
"Too many vampire movies," Mel reminded her.
"Want to go get some breakfast? I'm starving."
"You always are!"
Janice reached for the black uniform she had shed the night before. "This thing is going to stand on its own pretty soon."
"Isn't there another uniform or something in that big case?" Mel asked.
Janice shrugged. "I haven't looked." She walked to the case and jiggled the latch. "Locked."
Without being asked, Mel pulled a hairpin from the single braid in which she wore her hair. Biting her lip in concentration, Janice worked the small piece of metal in the lock. There was a click, and Janice grunted in satisfaction. "Got it." She swung open the lid. Mel leaned over her shoulder and gasped.
On top of the case was a large tray that was separated into compartments. And inside each compartment was one or more sharp instruments, including wicked-looking knives and scalpels, a straight razor, and other objects not so easily identified. Janice and Mel's eyes met, and Janice gingerly lifted the tray out and placed it on the bed. Immediately beneath the tray was another black uniform, this one with red piping and two small golden swastikas on a high jacket collar. Janice removed the jacket and then the blouse and trousers and saw what was beneath. She tried to block her friend's view, but Mel had already seen what lay below. There was a set of manacles, not ordinary handcuffs, but heavy metal bands linked with strong chains and with longer chains attached to heavy padlocks. And beneath the manacles were a variety of whips, from a simple long braid of leather, to a cat-o-nine-tails, to whips tipped with sharp glass or metal barbs.
There was a light tap on the door, and Janice closed the case.
"Frauleins?" The voice was that of a girl or young woman.
After pulling on the uniform trousers under the man's shirt, Janice opened
the door. The young woman outside was dressed in a dark blue maid's uniform
over which was a snowy white apron. She was looking down as if looking at the
"Fraulein" might turn her to stone--or, at least, to salt.
In German mixed with a Slavic dialect, she explained, "You are invited to join Count Pitesti for breakfast. I was sent to make up your room and to see if you have any laundry."
"Come back in half an hour," Janice told her in German.
The girl nodded, still not looking up, and headed for the stairs. When Janice
turned around, Mel was pouring water from a large stone pitcher into a matching
bowl. She quickly washed her face and then took what had been called a "spit
bath" when she was growing up. She longed to be clean and
wondered when she would be able to take a real bath again. As she finished, Janice handed her a light blue dress from Mel's--or Maria's--pack. "Thanks."
"We'll leave the dirty clothes on the floor. I'm sure the maid will get the idea that it's laundry." Then Janice turned to finish putting on the uniform. "I hate this," she commented, and Mel didn't have to ask what.
By the time Janice was dressed, Mel had put on the blue dress, which was a little shorter than she usually wore, and was winding her braid around her head. She helped Janice pull her hair up and back in a severe fashion, and then they were ready to go downstairs. Before they left the room, Janice laid her hand on her friend's arm. "Mel, just a reminder." The tall woman looked at her seriously. "Whatever I say to you or what I do is as Margethe to Maria."
Janice smiled encouragingly, and they left the room and descended the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, they found Alasandre, who seemed to be waiting for them. "Count Pitesti is in the breakfast room," he explained in English. "Please to follow me."
The breakfast room was a small room, by castle standards, near the dining room. With an eastern exposure, it had long, uncovered windows that went almost from floor to ceiling, giving it a sunny aspect in the morning. The Count was seated alone at a table for eight, and two other places were set. He rose as his guests entered and quickly seated first Janice and then Mel.
Alasandre exited the room and soon re-entered bearing a silver tray holding three steaming glasses of dark liquid. The smell and the taste soon revealed this to be strong Turkish coffee. Mel sipped it gingerly, but Janice lost herself in the pleasure of this rare treat.
"Did you sleep well, Fraulein Berndt?" Pitesti asked, addressing himself to Janice. "And your companion?"
"Yes, Count," Janice answered. "My secretary and I slept well. Thank you for your hospitality."
Alasandre left and quickly returned with plates laden with sausages and what seemed to be a kind of thick, heavy pancake. Janice dug in, as did the Count.
"I am wondering. . . ." The Count seemed to hesitate. "I am wondering, since you and your secretary have agreed to be my guests, I wonder if a less formal mode of address would be appropriate?"
Janice looked up from her plate. "What do you mean, Count?"
"Perhaps here at the castle, you would do me the honor of addressing me as Tavel. And of allowing me to call you by your given name."
"I don't think that would be appropriate at all," Janice answered. "I am a representative of the Third Reich, and you are a member of . . . ."
"A subject people?" Pitesti suggested.
"To be blunt."
Janice finished her sausages and looked at Mel's. Before Mel could hand them over, Alasandre was there refilling the small woman's plate. After several more bites, Janice swallowed in order to speak. "Perhaps only in the castle, as you say, you could call me Margethe, and I'll call you Tavel. You would naturally call my secretary Maria, in any case."
Tavel Pitesti smiled, and Mel realized that, wealth and privilege aside, he
was a lonely young man. To want to make friends with Margethe Berndt, he would
have to be. She wondered what he would think if he knew the contents of the
case now lying in one of his guest rooms. Or if it would make no
difference to him, so long as peasants were the only recipients of its horrors.
"Do you have a question, Maria?" the Count asked.
"You'll call me Tavel, too, won't you?"
Mel started to answer, then, remembering, looked to Janice. "You may do so, Maria, but only here, and in front of no one from outside the castle. Do you understand?"
Pretending to be cowed by Janice's harsh tone, Mel nodded. At least she hoped she was pretending. "I understand."
Janice deliberately put out a hand and ran her index finger along the line of Mel's jaw. "I'm sure you do."
Tavel watched this exchange, only a flicker in his expression betraying any emotion.
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