In the small community of Sehlingen was a villa.
To the utter amazement of all those visitors who had strayed there, this villa was the eyesore of the farming village. The mighty building had been abandoned for many years and was decaying in the shadow of the market square. Like a compost heap, the building was rotting inside and out and was shunned by all its inhabitants.
It had stood empty for over fifty years. The people of Sehlingen did not talk about it, it was like a thorn stuck in their village. It could not be removed. It was like a deadly disease or a leper, it was shunned and ignored. But it was part of the village and therefore part of the community. The grounds of the mansion were closed off, letting nature do its work there in silence.
Over the course of time, the hedges around it had developed into an untamed monster. Ivy grew over partly withered leaves, spiders and insects inhabited the many brittle holes in the low entrance wall. The wall crumbled everywhere, the left statue of the column was missing from the entrance gate, while the right one lay broken on the ground. A thick branch of the oak tree that stood next to the entrance had smashed a granite swan into its component parts. The storm that was responsible had scattered the tiles of the roof in the front garden.
Anyone standing in front of the entrance and inspecting the mansion could not help but notice that the windows were almost broken everywhere. Shards lay inside and outside. The entrance door was smashed, torn curtains blowing in the wind and the draught turned them into ghosts. Squeaking doors and creaking wooden boards foreshadowed disaster for whoever heard them in the night.
The splendour that this property once enjoyed when it was built within two years was long forgotten. The eleven or twelve rooms were dirty, the damp upholstery and furniture were mouldy, the interior furnishings lay scattered from the entrance to the attic. The filthy, rape-yellow exterior was already blended into a cinnamon-coloured, disgusting tone.
Today, the mansion is no longer entered by anyone. Fearing to be cursed or even killed by a supernatural power, the old people used it to scare the children.
The storm could not have done it all on its own. The people of Sehlingen are guilty of one thing. They were not responsible for building it, but they were responsible for its decay and wanton destruction.
After all these years of decay, only recently did a young man named Léonard appeared who intended to call the villa his own.
Léonard slowly got closer to his goal.
He had been working towards this for a long time. As part of the renovation to put everything in order, he managed to reap the fruits of his labour, at least on this day. The last cobwebs were removed as he stowed a sack of yellowed leaves, punctured blankets, and broken roof tiles in a corner. The broom, all grey and damp from the leaking roof had served its purpose and was to be disposed of as well. He knelt for a while beside the old, reddish-brown cherry wood cupboard. He read the partly torn and mouldy notice that someone had stuck on the still intact door. Apart from the numerous dead spiders, it was the only interesting thing in the attic.
It didn't really look any cleaner. But at least it now looked as if someone lived here. Léonard inspected the holes in the ceiling and felt the support wood. He had no desire to have the roof repaired and considered not abandoning the attic altogether.
His tidying up had no particular reason. Maybe he just wanted to take his mind off things a bit. In any case, his arrival in the village was not the best. Everyone immediately looked at him when he drove his car into the front garden of the mansion and suffered a flat tyre.
He had only been there for a day, but the people of Sehlingen already knew that Léonard was a young man looking for a quick buck. They immediately avoided him, not without letting him in on it by standing in front of the property and letting their curiosity play with them. Who would want to enter this disgraceful place?
The rain had eased in the morning. The sun cleared the clouds and the temperature rose.
Léonard strolled downstairs after closing the chamber door. The past that lurked within these walls was still alive. Arriving in the foyer, he was startled at the sight of the rubble and the missing furniture. He thought he was seeing boyish pranks when he visited the rest of the rooms, but after a while he gradually realised that all the residents had taken part in destroying the mansion internally. The façade smelled of charred paper, romantic landscape paintings became cruel acts of war and the destroyed cupboards and tables were victims of an insatiable beast. The buffet lacked plates and cutlery, the divan in the reception room lacked loins.
It gave him an ounce of motivation after the inspection. He had started with the attic, as there was the least to do there.
He just didn't expect to have to clean up so much. Léonard knew about the resentment of the locals and the resentment towards the mansion. He couldn't resist going to the market that morning to buy some fruits. By then he had already noticed the washerwomen on the wall, staring at him suspiciously. Some gossiped in a loud tone that he could overhear.
Léonard liked this attention and couldn't help smiling as he lit a cigarette and wished the group of gossips a good day.
The village pub was always well filled. The cheerful music of the accordion, the shouting of card players and the clinking of glass amidst the ceiling fogged with cigarette smoke was the everyday situation in this dimly lit room.
When Léonard entered the pub that evening, it was silent for a brief moment. Motionless, the musician stared at him while one of the card players tried to make one of his cards disappear under the table. Léonard grinned and greeted every single table he passed before coming to the counters. At first he stared at the painting of a hunter hanging behind the liquors before whistling confidently to call the host to him.
The music of the accordion began anew as the innkeeper glared at Léonard, talking to a man who, with his bowler hat and suit, didn't really fit into this pub.
Léonard whistled a second time when the man in the bowler hat came up to him and introduced himself as Mayor Krautmann. The young man was surprised but very pleased that no one less than the head of the village came to him.
"I suppose you don't take orders."
With a wave of his hand, he called the innkeeper over.
"Two wheat," the mayor demanded in his gruff voice.
"And a match." Léonard grinned and tried to hand the innkeeper a cigarette, which he refused to accept.
"Come with me," the mayor ordered when they had their glasses and a pack of matches.
Léonard followed him into a gloomy corner opposite the card players. For a moment, Léonard remained silent. He watched the scene while the mayor looked at him, hoping he would say a word.
"You moved into the villa," he said after the silent seconds.
Léonard raised his glass and wanted to toast. Krautmann didn't seem to want to understand his humour.
Krautmann squeezed his eyes tightly shut and eyed Léonard's clothes while he lit a cigarette. He finished it with relish before continuing. The mayor had not yet taken a sip of his beer but was waiting to hear more than this word in reply.
"It's my villa. I inherited it."
Léonard clearly recognised how the mayor shuddered at these words and the bowler hat almost fell off his head. The moustache vibrated even seconds after Léonard's revelation. Krautmann tried to grab his glass, succeeding only after several attempts.
"I don't suppose you know what this mark of shame is all about," he tried to explain calmly. "If you have indeed inherited this monstrosity, it means you are related to this de Waarfay guy."
"It's nice to know he's still remembered. That de Waarfay guy was my grandfather," Léonard smiled, "That's why I love these small villages. Everyone knows everyone."
With a mock manner, he tossed a cigarette to the mayor. He took it and put it in his pocket with his tissue.
"I don't suppose you know that your grandfather is wanted."
"He's dead," returned Léonard curtly, "Shall I give you the address of the cemetery?"
Krautmann slammed his fist on the table. Before he could shout anything, Léonard continued.
"Now that this matter has been cleared up, why don't I ask about the people responsible for putting the villa in this mess?"
Léonard blew smoke in the mayor's face. Krautmann turned all red. Even his moustache and bowler hat seemed to turn red. For a moment he stood in front of the table, about to throw his beer glass at Léonard when cheering rang out from the table of card players. The cheater seemed to have won and shouted into the room that he was paying for all the drinks. Léonard kept his eyes on the mayor and counted to ten with him in his mind to get down a bit.
With a fake smile, he tried to turn the situation in his favour.
"When you leave the village, I am willing to speak to the priest to have your sins forgiven."
Léonard laughed out loud.
"Doesn't he already have enough to do with the sinners in this village?" he asked, coughing. "I just want to play a little detective and do some investigating of my own."
He stood beside the mayor and tossed him some coins.
"I thank you for the invitation. Help yourself to some liquor before you go to sleep. And don't worry, I won't accuse anyone of emptying the safe in my library."
Léonard strolled through the pub and went to the card players, where he introduced himself with an elegant bow and placed the cheater´s card on the table.
"You seem to have lost something earlier."
Léonard laughed and made his way out of the pub before he could witness the coming minutes.
"Have a good evening, gentlemen," he said with a wave.
To the next part: Chapter I.2.