THE STORY OF MR FRANK KRACHELBERG

It was a November evening when Mr Krachelberg found comfort in a lonely resting home but 100 kilometres of the main highway. Tired, he flopped out of his carriage and sought the glowing company of the master of the house, Mr Van Kunis. Mr Kunis wore a trench coat and held an oil lamp in a shaking hand.

'Hello, sir, welcome to the Wolff Inn.' he nodded his head in welcome.

Although tired, I felt a slick smile spread across my face. 'Good evening, I hope I haven't woken you.'

The man laughed and scratched some stubble on his neck wearily as if it had been causing him much trouble. 'Insomnia but keeps me up these days. Now, now, give me your baggage - oof! Where are you off to with such a heavy thing?'

'A conference.'

I received but a raised eyebrow and I continued by telling Mr Kunis I was a surgeon.

'That's very good. Very good. Now, come this way, and what was your name? Mr Krachelberg? Well, again I bid you welcome.' He pulled me inside and heaved the leather bag up the stairs. I did not think it that heavy but his muscles were shaking.

'Are you ill?'

I stared at the rich carpet which draped the stairs - seeing a few bits of fabric leave its roots.

'Insomnia.' the master grunted dismissively and showed me my room.

It was cosy and I smiled at the warmth of the dark oak cupboards and furniture.

'Is it expensive to stay here?' I tugged off my jacket and threw it over a chair.

Fortunately it was quite cheap, the reason as to why I never properly found out. Maybe these people were just extremely kind. I flumped onto the bed and slept in my clothes, not bothering to change into something more comfortable. I was exhausted.

I awoke to the sound of shouting. Angry voices rose through the open window and I went downstairs to figure out what the commotion was about. I trudged towards the barnyard where the noise was reverberating.

'How am I supposed to leave today, then?' a lady cried shrilly wearing naught but a nightgown.

'What seems to the problem?' I dared to interrupt.

A plump woman with matted blonde hair turned to look at me with bulging, bloodshot eyes. 'It is but the horses.'

'BUT THE HORSES?' screeched the lady, her hair curlers threatening to fly into the mud. 'My horses are all gone!'

'They ran away.' offered the plump woman as if this solved every problem.

The young woman crossed her arms and looked angrily at me as if I had done something to the horses. 'How am I supposed to get to my sister's wedding tomorrow if I can't get into town by this evening!'

I but stared at her. 'I don't know.'

For some reason this statement earned me a slap across the cheek.

'We will have some more horses this evening, ma'am.'

The woman fumed and stormed back into the Inn. I was left with the chubby woman.

'Is my horse still here?' I asked, my voice hopeful. She didn't look at me.

'Was yours the black one with the white blotch on it's hind?'

'So is it still here then?'

'No.'

I toddled away and I peered at the barnyard's doors; a massive hole in the middle of it with splinters and fragments of wood left dangling over hay. Perhaps the horses had escaped after all. But I turned. Although the debris of the wood had been cleared up, the door hadn't. The splinters and breaks were facing inside of the barn instead of outside. This meant that the entry had been forced from the outside.

I spun around and yelled. 'Somebody has broken into this barn! The horses haven't escaped! They've been stolen!'

It appeared that nobody had heard me. I left to breakfast to explain the problem. Breakfast was bread and cheese and I nibbled on some bread and spoke up for the weighty maid had entered the room.

'Did you know that the horses were stolen?'

She yawned and rubbed her eyes. 'The horses weren't stolen.'

Why did she not even consider the possibility that they were stolen?

'The damage on the barn suggests otherwise. How can you be sure they weren't stolen?'

She peered at me. 'I was awake all night and I didn't hear any people come and steal the horses.'

'Perhaps it wasn't a human who stole them, perhaps it was a...' I tried to think of something which could do such damage to a barn but I had not seen any sort of animal out here. 'A large animal. Maybe a hippo?'

The maid cackled derisively. 'What would a hippo want with horses, sir?'

I was at a loss. 'How could horses have escaped if the damage suggests it was a forced entry from the outside and not the inside?'

'Termites.' shrugged the maid before I heard a shout and winced. The lady who had slapped me was sitting a few seats away and she was still angry.

'Who bloody cares? The horses are coming later so you'd better shut up and eat your cheese before I force you to eat it!'

The conference was a few days away so I was not in so much of a hurry. Either way, I continued to eat the cheese and pondered upon the loss of the horses.

Around 6 o'clock I entered the dining room and peered curiously at the chains in the open cupboard along with the bolts and hammer which went with it when the maid walked in.

'Dinner's not ready for another half an hour. We have a collection of books in the room across the hall if you'd like a bed-time story.' she chuckled mirthlessly and scratched at her forearm with a bandage on it.

Again, my curiosity was shot like a silver bullet. 'What happened to your arm?'

She glanced down at it and picked at a scab on her arm. 'I cut myself while cutting the bread and cheese last night.'

'That was awfully clumsy.' I said blankly. Maybe she let the horses free and got the cut as they ran out. I furrowed my eyebrows. But that wouldn't work at all. Why let them loose?

She sneered. 'People become clumsy when they don't sleep all night.'

'Why on earth would you do that?' I asked suspiciously.

She busied herself with plates in a draw. 'I had to keep Mr Kunis company. He has insomnia you know.'

'You do too by the looks of it. Will you sleep tonight?'

'It's none of your business what I do or don't do during my sleeping time, Mr...'

'Mr Krachelberg.' I stated. She nodded firmly and left the room.

By the time dinner was ready, I was already seated and somebody new enjoyed our company tonight. A young, attractive woman by the name of Mary. She had a pleasant face and brown locks of hair which lay over her shoulders gracefully.

'Where are you off to, Mary?' I asked her, cutting into a roast potato.

She smiled. 'New Hampshire. I've got a new job there. Well, two. I like to keep myself busy.'

'What do you do?' I asked politely.

Mary shrugged. 'Small jobs. Helping at the library, helping at the restaurant.'

'You cook?'

She chuckled. 'No. Serve. And, I'm sorry but I never caught your name?'

'It's Krachelberg.' I explained and she nodded.

'Can I have a first name?'

'Oh yes, do give us a first name.' cried the curly haired woman who had slapped me earlier. The maid snorted at this and I glared at where she was standing in the corner of the room.

'It's Frank.'

'Well, it's lovely to meet you, Frank.' Mary's teeth shone in the candlelight. We continued our meal in silence but then I remembered something I wanted to ask of the maid.

'Excuse me, Miss... um. Miss Maid?'

She plodded over and looked at me with incredulity.

'Do you get foxes or wolfs around here by any chance?'

'Argh.' groaned the maid. 'Give it up will you?'

'No.' I said defensively. 'You're lying to me.'

'About what?'

'About the horses being stolen. I think you stole them.'

The maid snorted again and I felt a surge of hatred flow towards her (if only she could feel it). 'What would I do with horses?'

'I don't know...' This was where my story got sketchy and I suppose where my imagination took a hold of me. 'Perhaps you wanted to make it seem like they escaped when in reality you wanted to sell them to get some money and get you out of this place.'

I forgot that everybody was listening. I avoided Mary's eye desperately. She must think me a lunatic.

'You are a fool.' said the maid and she returned to her corner.

The curly haired lady spoke up. 'May I have some more wine, please?'

It was then I caught Mary's frightful eye and felt the embarrassed flush of heat meet my face. She really was a nice girl.

Despite the ordeal at dinner I decided to go out looking for evidence that night. I thought it was possible that the maid was keeping the horses in a place for safekeeping or maybe there might be a large pack of foxes which barged into the barn. Either way, I was going out for a walk.

When it was about 2 o'clock in the morning I pulled on my boots and a jacket. Since the lady who had hit me left later that evening there was only Mr Van Kunis, Mary and the maid who might be awake to hear me so it wouldn't be so difficult.

It was chilly outside and my boots crunched against the grass as I made my way through to the woods opposite the Inn. The sound of owls hooting, crickets chirping and somewhere, a dog howling eased my senses rather than irked them. It assured me that the forest was very much alive and there wasn't a hunter or large deadly creature around. I was just about to turn around when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Through the branches the shadow I thought I had seen was gone but on the ground (I peered down) was a spot of red.

I pulled off a glove and touched it with a finger. I sniffed it. It was definitely blood. It was slightly warm however which made me think whatever was bleeding hadn't been bleeding that long. My mind jumped. The horses? Were the horses bleeding? Perhaps some of the wood had gotten stuck in one of them and - no. I shook these thoughts out of my head and rested for a moment. I was about to gather my thoughts and of what I was actually looking for when I felt something hot on the back of my neck. Breath? Had the maid followed me outside?

But before I knew it I felt a searing pain in my side as knives tore at my vital organs. My heart raced and my head pounded and I saw spots of black. The pain came again and I heard a snapping noise. My ribs had broken. I turned to look at my attacker and I only caught a glimpse of his face before I blacked out.