I took a few startled steps backwards as I heard everyone around me gasp in horror. The man in the casket began to sit up, causing everyone to scatter.
He was in his mid-thirties, significantly younger than my grandfather. He had black, shoulder-length hair and skin so pale he could have passed for dead if he had kept his eyes closed.
The moment his dark eyes locked on mine, I felt a hard body run into the back of me and I fell into someone who was running past me.
I looked over my shoulder to see the men I had previously noticed fighting against the crowd to get closer to the casket. Their haste meant they knew something about it, and it was because of that that I watched them intently as the room around us panicked.
One of them, an Eastern Asian guy with dark, coiffed hair and black stud earrings, pushed his way to the front.
I saw a momentary flash of fear in the beady eyes of the man in the casket before he swung his legs over the side and tried to run.
The Asian man, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, reached his arm out and grabbed him by the collar of his jacket. They fought against one another for a moment as everyone around them struggled to get away. The younger guy finally got his hands around the other's neck and he snapped it.
I gasped and fell backwards against someone running away behind me.
The others in the group of men in suits finally pushed their way forward and they all hovered together as they too began to exit the house, taking the corpse with them. I watched in annoyance as I stood on the other side of the room from the front door, a panicking crowd of people were now in between me and the unknown man.
I needed to know what was going on and where my grandfather was.
Looking around the room quickly, I noticed the window behind the dining room table was big enough for my body to slip through.
Using the commotion as cover, I moved quickly through the crowd and ducked around the furniture. I made it to the window and slid it up. With the noise in the room, no one noticed the squeaking of the old window and I jumped out inconspicuously.
It was about three feet from the window to the snow-covered ground and I landed hard, but on my feet.
I turned to close the window behind me, knowing someone would notice the cold breeze coming in, when I saw Zak standing there looking down on me.I could tell he didn't approve, but he made no effort to stop me.
''Don't tell Mom,'' I signed. "I'll be back."
"Be careful,'' was all he signed before he threw me his jacket and closed the window.
I stomped through several inches of snow before I rounded the corner of the cottage and saw the men stuffing the now-actually dead man into the back of a black SUV.
Seeing the SUV, I immediately began to assume they were government workers. Although, even with this assumption nothing else made sense.
I opened the car door of my grandfather's truck and pulled down the visor as I hopped into the seat. The keys fell into my lap and I prayed the truck would start as I slid them into the ignition. I turned the key and nothing happened. That's when I saw the stick shift.
Welcome to Europe, I thought.
I couldn't remember the last time I had driven a car with a manual transmission, so this was bound to be a disaster. I panicked seeing the SUV pull out of the driveway and onto the road and I hit the clutch as I turned the key.
The car stalled out and I groaned.
Trying one more time, I restarted the truck and it roared to life I sighed in relief as I saw the indicator that the tank had plenty of gas.
I pulled out onto the driveway and down the road, following the SUV from a distance.
You're an idiot, I thought to myself. You don't know where they're going and you don't know how to get back here once you get there.
I shoved reasoning to the back of my brain as I changed gears. The sun began to set, worrying me slightly. I followed the car from a distance for a while until it was dark. I almost turned around, giving up, until the SUV turned down a long path.
About half a mile from the road was the tree line into a forest, which was the direction the SUV was heading. This night could not get any creepier.
There was no one else on the road, so I drove past the pathway and did a U-turn, turning off my headlights.
I inched forward on the road, watching as the SUV's taillights disappeared into the thick trees. I turned onto the path, my anxiety shooting through the roof.
What are you thinking?
I shook the thoughts away. I knew I needed answers and this was the only way I saw myself getting them.
About halfway down the path, I found a small clearing big enough to park the truck where no one would see it. I didn't know what was on the other side of that path and I didn't want to literally drive straight into it.
I parked the truck and got out, wrapping Zak's jacket around me tighter. I walked along the path, hidden by the trees. The sun had set and I was trying to walk quickly, hoping there wasn't too much farther to go.
I wasn't afraid of the dark, but I hated nature.
I took a deep breath and huffed as I nearly tripped over a fallen limb.
There were lights that I saw ahead of me and I slowed my pace as I noticed the large cabin with several SUVs like the one I'd followed that were parked outside.
I hid behind a large tree trunk as I watched the men in suits walking around, joined by a few men that had come out of the cabin.
There was no sign of the body of the man who had been in my grandfather's casket.
I watched with frozen toes and fingers as everyone went inside the cabin. Once I was sure that everyone was inside. I came out of my hiding place. I walked up to the cabin slowly, weaving in between vehicles.
Every time I walked, I heard the crunch of snow under my boots. I was scared someone else would hear it.
I got up to the cabin and I went to the closest window I could find.
I peeked inside to see a lit fireplace, which was the only source of light in the empty room. Suddenly, a shadow passed by the window and I dropped to myknees.
"Shit," I muttered.
A few long moments went by and I felt my heart pounding in my chest. This was a stupid idea, go back home, I told myself. This time I didn't push the thought away. I used it to motivate me to move.
I stood up and moved away from the window slowly.
"What are you doing?"
The deep voice cut through the silence, nearly stopping my heart. I turned around so quickly that my foot slid out from under me and I fell back into a bush that was behind me. I felt a spider web fall into my face and I began to spit and sputter as I swatted it out of my face.
Arachnophobia didn't even begin to explain how I felt about spiders.
I stood up quickly, all thought of a spider disappearing when I remembered the man standing in front of me. I looked at him, my eyebrows immediately furrowing I couldn't see him, only a large, shadowy outline standing a few feet away from the light the window provided. I knew he was waiting for an answer, but I was too shocked to give one. I was half astonished at his German and half astonished that I'd been snuck up on so easily.
I fumbled over my words for a moment before he sighed.
"What are you doing here?"
I took a deep breath, feeling my hands shaking. "That man was in my grandfather's casket," I said, speaking in English.
He was silent for a few moments before replying in English as well.
"You're the granddaughter of Otto Müller."
It sounded more like a statement than it did a question, but I nodded nonetheless.
We were quiet for a few moments before I finally got up the courage to ask a question.
"Where is he?"
He didn't answer me and I began to feel like it wasn't such a bad idea to run away.
"Come inside, I'm sure you're cold."
I was freezing, but I wasn't sure I wanted to go inside the cabin. I didn't know whether I would come back out. There was a piece of me that wanted to trust him, oddly enough, and I couldn't shake it.
I followed him around the house, staring at his back as he led me up the stairs to the side door. He was almost a foot taller than me and I guessed almost ahundred pounds heavier unless he had several layers under his coat.
I turned to look at him as he did so. I gulped.
He was a lot better looking in the light than I had expected him to be. As he took off his coat I came to the conclusion he hadn't layered and he was indeed built like a brick house. I could see the outline of his chest and arm muscles under the gray, form-fitting Henley he wore.
He brushed the snow flurries from his short, chestnut-colored hair and I let out a long breath.
We looked at each other and the world stopped for a moment. He had the oddest eyes I'd ever looked into. They were a bluish-purple and they were beautiful.I felt my breath caught in the back of my throat as we both fought to look away.
Someone walked into the room and I backed away from the towering, handsome man.
I looked over and froze as I recognized the man who walked in. He was the one from the funeral, the one who had snapped the neck of the man in the casket.
He clearly recognized me, as he stopped in his tracks too.
"What are you doing here?"
I looked to the handsome stranger for some kind of help.
"Granddaughter of Otto Müller," he explained shortly.
"I know that," the guy sassed. "I mean how did you find us?"
I shifted nervously on my feet.
"I followed you," I admitted sheepishly. I saw the two men exchange looks and I was convinced in thatmoment that they were about to kill me.
"I just wanted to find out what happened to my grandfather." I added quickly.
"We're trying to figure that out, too" the Asian one added. He walked over to me, extending his hand. I noticed the sleeve of tattoos on his arm as he did.
"I'm Jai," he said, shaking my hand.
"Ella," I replied.
I turned to look at the handsome stranger but he walked past me, neglecting to introduce himself.
Rude, I thought. But not as rude as killing me would have been, so I’ll let it slide.
"When did you fly into Germany?" Jai asked.
"Uh, two days ago," I said.
"When was the last time you saw your grandfather alive?" He asked.
I shrugged, trying to recall. "A few years at least."
"You didn't know him well," the handsome stranger assumed aloud.
"I knew him well enough."
"Did you ever see the body?" Jai asked.
I stopped myself from replying and looked at the two of them suspiciously.
"You're not implying he might still be alive." I said.
I took their silence as affirmation of this statement.I shook my head, stumbling over the words I spoke next.
"He had a heart condition," I informed them.
"His neighbor found him passed out in the yard and he died on the way to the hospital due to heart failure."
"But you never saw the body?" Jai asked.
I huffed "No, I never saw it. I didn't need to."
They didn't say anything.
Jai had his arms crossed as he stood in front of me and stared at the floor in thought. The other man was on the other side of the room with his back towards us, staring into the fire.
"When was the last time you spoke to your grandfather?" The other man asked.
I thought for a moment. "About a month ago.""Did anything seem off to you?"
I shook my head. "No, should something have?" I asked.
The other man turned his attention from the fire place to look at me. His intense stare caught me off guard.
"This isn't the first time this has happened," he said, walking toward me.
Jai looked startled that he was sharing this information with me and he looked at him warily.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Other members of this community and those surrounding men, in particular-have been reported dead by hospitals and morgues but haven't shown up for their own funerals," he explained.
I looked between them incredulously.
"Are you police?" I asked.
"Are you private investigators?"
"You could say that," he replied, crossing his arms.
That's not very specific, I thought.They saw my hesitation to believe them.
"The last man this happened to we found alive." Jai said.
My eyes widened. "You really think my grandfather could be alive?" I asked.
Jai shrugged and the other man stared at me straight-faced.
"If that's the case, I want to help you find him," I said.
"I don't think so," Jai replied, suppressing a smile. "We're returning to Hechingen tomorrow morning."
"Come on," I said.
"I knew him better than you. If something was up, I would be able to tell. I can help."
"No" Jai said firmly. "The most you can do is tell us everything you know about your grandfather and let us handle things from here."
I looked to the other man, who was still looking at me in deep thought. The eye contact that I made with him was intense, so I looked away quickly.
"Take me with you," I demanded.
"I can help you find him."
Jai shook his head. "I think it's time for you to leave."
I huffed and planted my feet firmly. "Listen, if you didn't want me to come with you, you shouldn'thave told me where you were going."
Jai struggled over what to say next.
"If you come, you have to help us find him and anyone else that happens to go missing in the meantime." the other man bartered.
"Deal," I answered immediately, sighing in relief.Jai looked at him in disbelief.
"And we'll need all your grandfather's financial and health records from the past few years." the purple-eyed man added.
I nodded. "I’ll get them."
"We'll pick you up at five in the morning tomorrow then."
"Okay," I said slowly.
I looked at the two men as I backed towards the door and opened it. They watched as I went back out into the night air, in total disbelief of what had just occurred. I walked quickly from the cabin into the darkness of the forest. I found the truck a few minutes later and I drove away quickly.
Fortunately, there were never many turns made on the trip to the cabin, so I easily remembered my way back home.
I pulled into the empty driveway of my grandfather's cottage and it hit me for the first time that he might not actually be dead.
There was a chance that I could find him, alive.
I got out of the truck, fiddling with the keys as I walked up to the door. I thought I saw something move in the corner of my eye and I looked to see nothing but an empty lawn.
I looked around for a moment before going inside. Waiting for me in my room was Zak. He was the only one in the house.
"Where are Mom and Dad?'' I asked.
''Police station,'' he signed. "Where have you been?''
I sighed as he raised an eyebrow. "I did something stupid.''
"What were you thinking?" Jai seethed.
Cain stepped back into the room and brushed the snow from his hair that had fallen in it during his run. "I don't recall giving you the authority to question me," Cain said calmly.
Jai took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. "She's a human," he reasoned.
Cain turned to look at Jai as he took of his coat.