The Mystery of the Missing Woodcutter

Now the village is living in fear, he can walk the roads at night, carrying his gruesome possession, without fear of discovery.

Having lived most of my life in one small village, perhaps it was inevitable that travelling around Europe would seem to be a constant succession of mysteries and strange affairs. Most of them were trivial and easily forgotten, but sometimes I was faced with confusion and danger, that I survived only by good fortune, and I was left only with the hope that I might stumble upon an explanation some day. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if some mischievous imp followed me as I went. But in May of 1933, not long after I had spent two weeks in Budapest, I was privileged to make the acquaintance of a man blessed with an unusually sharp intellect, who seemed to defeat the riddles of life with an uncommon mastery. In time, he came to be one of my closest friends.

At Budapest Keleti Station I chose a Bavarian train, not paying much attention to where it might go. The compartment I chose had one other passenger - a well dressed man in middle age. His eyes were sharp, almost intimidating, but he had a disarming smile. I greeted him in an indifferent manner, and he said,

"Do you need some help with your bags, my friend?"

"No, I'm fine," I replied. "But thank you. Where are you travelling to today?"

"The Bamberg district. I have some consulting work to do in a small village there."

"Oh? What sort of consultation?"

"Well, I'm an investigator for a large Dutch underwriting firm, but I'm occasionally asked to give advice on matters of a more outré nature. In this case I've been hired by the local police to investigate the disappearance of a woodcutter."

"Are the local police not up to their job, then?"

"Sometimes a greater perspicacity is required," he said. "I've acquired some small reputation for seeing the truth where others have not been able to."

"Is that so? How interesting! How do you do that?"

"Well, for instance, take yourself. I perceive that you're an English tourist. You're widowed, yes? And have decided to see the world and its wonders for the first time, but without any plan, I think. You're frightened, but exhilarated by your adventures."

"I say, you seem to guess very accurately."

"Well, no, not really. You have an English accent, and wear an English fashion of dress. That much is obvious. You still wear your wedding ring, but your wife isn't with you. You could be travelling to meet her, but I think it is unlikely - your baggage is new, and it has the labels of many countries on it. You look about with wonder, absorbing every new sight and savouring it. And here we are, on a train to nowhere important - you're floating through the continent. And a man who travels alone, in his later years, surely he will feel as I describe."

"Yes, you're quite correct. Splendid! You've read the stories of Conan Doyle, then?"

"Oh yes. But our friend Sherlock Holmes seemed to always insist that only one conclusion could be deduced from the evidence. He would probably not fare quite so well in the real world. I prefer to gain some insight as to where the probabilities lie. Any fact can support a number of deductions, it is only when we find the majority of interpretations pointing in a similar direction that we can gain confidence in our theories."

"Yes I must say that does sound sensible. Albert Butler is my name!"

"Pieter Lindenbaum. It's very nice to meet you!"

So we shook hands, and fostered our acquaintance as the train rolled along. He had an extensive knowledge of literature, so we had no shortage of conversational topics. I told him of some of my adventures while travelling, and he often made some comment that would explain things that had puzzled me. He in turn told me of some of his experiences as a fraud investigator. After a while he asked if I would like to join him during his current case, as an independent witness, and a source of impartial advice. Once again my journeys were taking me in fascinating directions! We had plenty of time before we reached the stop, and he gave me the basics of the story.

"Our destination is a forest that is said to be the domain of a ghost of the type known as a Waldgeist, who catches and eats unwary trespassers, an unfortunate event which the locals insisted was something that occurred regularly, and had done so for as long as anyone could remember. Three weeks ago, two woodsmen drove their truck deep into the forest, looking back and forth for old fallen trees to chop up for firewood. After some time they found a tree, and set to work. It took them some hours to do the job, so that when they'd finally chopped the wood and loaded it onto the truck, the shadows were long on the ground. They climbed back onto the truck, but found that they couldn't get it started, no matter how hard they tried. This worried the men, as they didn't want to be caught in the forest after dark, as it was Walpurgisnacht, the night of the year when the spirits of the dead roam forth, and the Waldgeist would have especially strong power. They thought a bit about their predicament, and decided to part ways - Ossie would return down the road on foot, and Herb would stay and keep trying to start the truck. In this way if the truck could not be started, eventually Ossie would find his way back to the village for help, and if Herb could start the truck he would pick up Ossie as he was returning.

"A little while after Ossie left, Herb managed to start the truck, so he drove back toward the village, keeping a look out for his friend. As the sun set, Herb began to slow down, hoping to see Ossie in the glow of the headlights. Eventually Herb decided that he'd gone way past the point where Ossie could possibly have gotten on foot, and that Herb must have missed him. He'd seen no other vehicles on the road that day, although he realised that it was possible that Ossie had been picked up by a car or a truck that had then gone back to the village. To be safe, Herb went back and forth along the road for many miles, without seeing anyone, then he returned to the village. Herb made enquiries in the tavern, but the inn-keeper and his customers assured Herb that no vehicles of any kind had passed, and nobody had stopped in to ask for assistance.

"Herb told the local policeman of the state of affairs, and requested that he begin some type of search. The prospect of such an overwhelming task dismayed the officer, yet he knew it was his duty, so the next day the search was begun. The number of people asked to help grew, throughout the day, and the next day, and the next. Bloodhounds were then brought in, and they worked deep into the woods for many miles along the road. Herb was entreated to try to remember anything that might help. After thinking hard, all he could tell the officer was that as they were driving along, perhaps half an hour before they had stopped, he'd noticed Ossie staring intently at something deep within the woods. Herb, not crediting his friend with overly much brains, hadn't thought to ask him about it.

"The policeman spoke at some length to Ossie's wife, but it seemed that she too wasn't particularly bright, and could offer no reason why he might plan a disappearance. Ossie was a hard working husband and father of six children, and he had no enemies. It truly seemed as if Ossie had been taken by the Waldgeist. The villagers, who had held the belief of their superstition rather casually, were now faced with seemingly incontrovertible evidence that it was based in fact, and so a sense of fear gripped the town, and nobody would venture out of doors after dark under any circumstances. For this reason, the local authorities decided they couldn't merely leave the case as an unexplained disappearance, but had to find a way to investigate further. After some consultation with law enforcement agencies in Munich, they were directed to ask me for my assistance."

"Hmmm... it seems to be an impossible problem," I said.

"Perhaps," replied Lindenbaum. "It's certainly one where a peasant would find it easier to believe the disappearance to be the work of witchcraft. People will mostly believe what they want to believe, and ignore evidence to the contrary. They're convinced that the disappearance of Ossie is the work of this evil ghost, and have essentially hired me to hunt it down, and presumably kill it in some way. Now, in my work as an investigator of fraud, I'm inevitably dealing with criminal intent, and have been lucky to have met with success by imagining what the criminal is thinking, and what he might do to achieve his fraudulent goals. But I cannot read the mind of goblins and ghouls. Perhaps I may have no success here... but we'll see!"

As we drew into the station we were surrounded by thick forest and steep hills. The sky was hung with grey, the air was damp and chilly, and shreds of mist flew across the tops of the trees. We were met at the station by Officer Halke, the policeman stationed at the village. He was young, and his uniform was neatly pressed and spotless. He wore his moustache in the handlebar style which was in fashion. It seemed he was the only one in the village who cared to groom himself, as all the other villagers struck me as rather grubby. We climbed into his car and drove toward the village. It seemed as if every man we passed was armed with a rifle or shotgun.

"Well, it seems the war isn't over after all," said Lindenbaum. "Tell me, Officer Halke, have you formed any ideas as to what might have occurred? Is there anybody who you suspect might be involved?"

"No. I don't want to say it is the ghost - I have to be sensible. But I don't know."

"How long have you been stationed here?"

"Six years."

"And do you like it here?"

"Well enough, I suppose."

"Do you know Ossie well?"

"Of course. He is a good man, hard working."

"I understand. Now I would first like to speak to Ossie's wife. Does she speak English?"

"Yes, a little."

"Good. I can speak German, but I'll try to speak English wherever possible - a person who isn't speaking their own language will often find it harder to lie."

We arrived at Ossie's house, and his wife showed us in, and directed us to sit and feel at home. We were surrounded by children, and the mess that comes with the raising of them. Lindenbaum seemed to watch the woman intently, almost as if he were trying to hypnotize her.

"Tell me, did Ossie ever travel away?"

"No, he never left the village, except to work in the forest. He and Herb have been friends since they were small boys."

"Did he grow up here?"

"Yes, as I did myself. We married when we were young, and very soon had our children. It was very hard work to raise them, Ossie would not have had the time to do anything else, even if he had wanted to."

"He had no enemies? Never got into arguments?"

"No, everybody likes Ossie. Everybody."

The woman began to cry, and the policeman frowned at Lindenbaum.

"I assure you I've asked her these questions already. Do we have to keep harassing the poor woman?"

"You've done a good job, I've no doubt. But sometimes it's not the words we need to hear. We need to see the averted glance, the tremor of the hand. But I believe the fear and the words of this woman are real. Tell her I'll do everything in my power to find her husband. Now I'd like to talk to the woodcutter's friend."

Officer Halke had arranged to meet Herb at the police office, and we were introduced. Lindenbaum shook his hand, and looked him straight in the eye, for perhaps a moment or two longer than was polite. The woodsman stared back with a blank look. Lindenbaum nodded.

"Herb, may I ask you, when was the last time you had an argument with Ossie?"

The woodsman chuckled.

"Argued with Ossie? Why, it was just last week! That silly person, he said vodka was made with onions! I told him it was made with turnips - read a dictionary! He said, no, you read a dictionary! Ach, what a dummkopf. Then, before that-"

"Ah, yes. Indeed. But now let me ask you, as you drove into the forest that afternoon, did Ossie talk about anything, perhaps something unusual, something he had never talked about before?"

The woodsman's face screwed up as he tried to remember. We waited for a minute or two, then Lindenbaum raised his hand.

"Perhaps not. But you say he saw something as you drove along?"

"Yes. But I did not see. I was driving."

"Did Ossie look startled? Frightened perhaps?"

"He just stared. At first I thought his back was giving him pain again."

"Had you ever seen anything in the forest before?"

"Deer. But only at sundown."

"What about wolves?"

"I saw a timber wolf once. About three years ago."

"Do you ever hear them?"

"No. It is the Waldgeist that keeps us out of the forest at night."

"Indeed. And this Waldgeist, when was the last time it stole someone away?"

"Oh, when I was a little boy. I don't remember it very well. Magda Kartoffel vanished the day before her wedding. Father said she had cold feet, and went to start a new life somewhere, but everyone else said she was taken by the ghost."

"I understand. Well, I'm very sorry, but I have to tell you that I have grave fears for the safety of your friend. I'll do all I can to clear up this mystery, but I do not advise you to hope for the best. May I examine your truck?"

The truck was parked outside, and Lindenbaum walked around it, looking at the flatbed, looking underneath. Then he asked Herb to lift the bonnet. He took a brief look at the filthy engine, and grunted.

"There's no mystery as to why this was difficult to start. Now, I must ask you to accompany us as we look in the forest."

To begin with, we were taken to the place where the men had cut their tree. It was densely wooded, but the undergrowth had been churned up by the activities of the search parties. Lindenbaum wandered around the area for quite some time.

"It's unlikely that there was any foul play done here," he said to the policeman, "although it's best to be thorough. Tell me Herb, is all the forest as dense as this?"

"Oh, more dense. It is always easier to find and remove wood when we don't have to look too hard."

Lindenbaum turned to Officer Halke.

"The search parties have stirred up the ground everywhere. How could the hounds have done their work?"

"This is nothing new to them. They know their job."

"Yet it can't have been easy. What were the hounds given to establish Ossie's scent?"

"He left a kerchief in the truck."

Lindenbaum stood for a while in thought.

"Tell me about the search activity."

"It was done by the locals to begin with, in a haphazard manner," said the policeman. "Then the search was stepped up. Each party took a two mile stretch of road, and went five miles into the forest, all along the road until it turns into farmland, twenty miles or so further on. It was very hard work, and took time, for the trees grow so densely. Then more police were brought in."

"And the bloodhounds?"

"There were four Munich policemen with their hounds involved, all with admirable service records."

"I've no doubt," said Lindenbaum. "Was anything found? A mineshaft, for instance?"

"They found nothing."

"Nothing at all? A scrap of cloth, perhaps?"


"May I ask if, at any time during the search, any of the hounds acted in any way unusual?"

"I'm not sure that I understand you."

"Well, I don't know what I'm asking exactly... I'm casting a wide net - was there nothing in any way slightly different about their behaviour at any time?"

"Well, perhaps Otto's hound Kaiser seemed to be a little confused, and to pause at times..."

"Had he ever acted in this way before?"

"Well, each search is different... It is hard to say..."

"Could you show me the place where this happened?"

Some miles back toward the village, Officer Halke led us to a place in the forest, far from the road. It was also densely wooded, with disturbed undergrowth. Lindenbaum wandered around the area for some time, looking everywhere, looking up, examining trees, looking back toward the road, sometimes pausing and closing his eyes to think. Then he knelt down to scrutinise and smell some bracken. He rose and held it out to me.

"What do you smell?"

There was the aroma of crushed plant material, but there was also a faint, strange smell.

"Yes, there's something there. But I don't know what it is."

Again Lindenbaum stood there, deep in thought, for quite some time. It seemed wisest for us to remain silent - the only sound was a light wind, whispering in the trees, as if somewhere not far away the Waldgeist was watching us. What could Lindenbaum possibly be thinking? Officer Halke looked away, as if he had given up.

Eventually Lindenbaum shook his head.

"I'm sorry, I think there is little hope," he said. "I believe that a terrible tragedy has occurred."

"What can you see? What is it?" demanded the policeman.

"Officer Halke, let me suggest something to you. If we notice something out of the corner of our eye, it's most often that it is movement of some kind. If I were to keep perfectly still, you may not notice me if you weren't looking in my direction, would that be a fair statement?"

The policeman thought for a moment.

"Well I suppose so, but there were many men and bloodhounds searching. Ossie could not have escaped notice merely by keeping still..."

"Not by merely keeping still, no. But let me tell you a story. During the war, I served in the Belgian Army. The war was still in its infancy, and the Allied forces were being forced to retreat to Paris after suffering heavy casualties. Some of us had been forced from the main battalion when we reached the forests to the south of the city. We could hear the advance of the Germans, we knew they'd soon find us. We were exhausted, and could barely stagger, let alone fight. But I looked at the trees, and I had an idea, a memory from childhood. I thought that if I climbed a tree as high as I possibly could, and kept still, there would be no reason to look up. I chose my tree, and with my last reserves of strength managed to scale it in time, then held myself perfectly still. I kept waiting for the rifle bullet to blow a hole in me, but it never came. I escaped the attention of the soldiers... and watched from above as they shot my comrades."

"But... are you saying that Ossie climbed a tree and simply waited out the search? Surely the bloodhounds would still have picked up his scent?"

"There we encounter our next difficulty. Perhaps he took camphor, or pepper, or something similar, to confound the dogs. Or perhaps he was placed in a tree by something else, that also found some way to neutralize them. The hounds had to work hard in dense woodlands, that had been trampled by three days of searching, perhaps it was easier for them to be distracted. Now, Ossie was none too bright, he had no need to engineer an escape from his life, and every reason to bear his responsibilities. No, I believe Ossie met his end, and was hidden high in a tree, before the search was even begun. And if my chain of supposition holds true, there was someone or something of great strength and malevolence who murdered Ossie. Our next question is why?

"Now, let us exhaust the avenues of rational explanation before we admit of any agent of the supernatural, some evil spirit abroad on Walpurgisnacht. No, let us assume this was a man. A huge, strong man, who could climb a tree while hauling a great weight, but a man, flesh and blood. Now, Ossie seemed to have no enemies - the sincere affection for him from everybody I've talked to is quite plain. And there are generally three reasons why a man is murdered by a stranger - the first two are drunken rage and robbery, and we may easily dismiss them. Anyone who has committed murder under the effects of alcohol in a small village won't escape detection for long. And the prospect of wandering through a lonely, haunted forest on Walpurgis eve with the intent to rob a victim and haul the body up a tree seems so unlikely that it's not worth consideration. There are any number of simpler opportunities for a successful ambush, and history has shown that the intelligence of the most ambitious robber has rarely risen to the level of mediocrity. Perhaps a man may be lost in the forest, but he would be more likely to welcome company than wish to commit murder.

"The third reason why random murder is committed is insanity - some disease of the mind that gives rise to blind violence. But although this man has lost his sense of right and wrong, he may still understand the need to make a plan to escape the consequences of this horrific act. It's quicker to flee along the road than through the forest, and he wants to get as far away as he can. And if he should go in the direction of the village? He passes through, and keeps going. Don't forget that it was Walpurgisnacht. If he had walked right through the village square, it would have been in the very small hours of the morning, and everyone would have been either asleep, or too afraid to look out their windows.

"So let us suppose a story. We have a large, muscular man, who is so consumed by the injustices of the world that he loses his own sense of justice. He is in the forest... Why? Who knows, perhaps he has been wandering far from home for some time. He comes to the road, and sees Ossie walking quickly, trying to reach the village before nightfall. Perhaps their eyes had met earlier, as the truck drove past... Was he angered by Ossie's curiosity? Or was he blinded with hatred of the world, and it was only Ossie's bad luck that they met? He kills the hapless woodcutter, but the enormity of this deed shocks him to his senses, and he realises he must cover the crime. He can't carry the body away, the forest is too thick, and he might be discovered on the road. He thinks of the shallow grave, but then has another idea. He hauls the body of poor Ossie up a tall tree. By this time, Herb has given up his search until morning. Our murderer then flees. But! He thinks more of his crime and decides he must not leave the body there. He returns, the next night, or the night after that, before the the bloodhounds are called in. The body hasn't been discovered by the locals, as it is high in the tree. He drags the corpse down. Now the village is living in fear, he can walk the roads at night, carrying his gruesome possession, without fear of discovery. And here we see the dreadful evidence of a man who is not in his right mind, yet can still plan the way to cover his tracks - he foresees the use of the hounds, and brings some substance to confuse them."

Lindenbaum walked to a tall, thick tree whose uppermost branches merged with the other trees in a dark canopy. He gestured at us to examine the trunk - it bore slight traces of abrasion to the bark. Immediately, Officer Halke took off his jacket and cap, and rolled up his sleeves. Before too long he had scaled the tree to the highest point he could reach, and after a moment or two he yelled,


Lindenbaum did not smile, but nodded his head slightly. The policeman descended and joined us, covered in twigs and leaves.

"Just so," Lindenbaum said. "As always, we may not be entirely sure of any one piece of evidence, but when considered altogether, we may read a story. Such a large, homicidally insane man cannot escape unnoticed forever. It may be that right now, or perhaps quite soon, he'll be arrested for other criminal acts. I may not be entirely accurate in one or two particulars, but I think the nature of your police work is clear for the present. Please contact me if the case needs to be reassessed at any time."

* * * * * *

Several weeks later, an inmate of a Munich asylum for the criminally insane was interviewed by police, and gave them evidence which led them to the decomposed body of the unfortunate woodcutter, forced into a storm drain. His throat was frightfully crushed and his neck was broken, evidence of assault by hands of great strength. As Lindenbaum had conjectured, the man had been arrested for committing other atrocities - upon his arrest, it had taken four policemen to subdue him. The murderer was a tanner by trade, and had easy access to the substances he had used to confuse the hounds. His workmates had taken to calling him 'dog' for his growling voice - this had angered him and irritated his underlying insanity to the point that he had cut one's throat and fled.

Yet the townsfolk refused to relinquish their superstitions. The story was soon told that it was the Waldgeist that had driven the man from his senses, and sent him on an errand of murder.

July, 2012

 the next chapter » 
 « contents