Pay the Piper
Disclaimer: All characters are copyright Mike Mignola and Dark Horse Comics.
Summary: There are stories man wants to believe are nothing more than moralistic fairytales. When those morals are ignored, the consequences can be devastating. Liz, Ben, and Johann are sent to Hameln, Germany to keep its citizens from paying the price.
Author's Notes: Based on the Comic Universe. I apologize for any grammatical errors. Thank you to all whom reviewed and/or favorited my last story.
At first the problem seemed so insignificant. No one even paid much attention to the signs. Their cats and dogs sensed the blitz, scratching nervously at the biting knits in their fur, trying to drive the fleas out. Their punishment for hunting the ever-mounting rat population. The rodents were silent kings of the town. During their nighttime escapades, they snuck into pantries, nibbled the food, and tainted the household rations before biting on the toes of any children that might have been asleep in their beds.
Some placed traps, some poison, and others called exterminators to handle the pest problem. This was affective for many months, and the minor nuisances didn't disrupt everyday life in the slightest. A resident or two would even mark on the humor, rats scampering the streets of Hameln. What a funny coincidence, especially with the tale festivals occurring at the same time.
Few paid attention to the rats as the parties and tourism began to flourish as they did every summer. With music and food abound, they preoccupied their minds and relished in what made the city of Hameln famous and fruitful. The traps lay bare, cats cowered at their sight, and flyers for an exterminator lined the bottom of trashcans. Every town had rodent problems, after all.
The nights were busy with noise and fun, and no one noticed young Norbert and his little sister, Irma, dancing down the streets. Mesmerized by the tune playing melodically in their ears, they skipped happily down the roads after the source. The thin figure pressed the instrument against his lips and played louder, merrily lifting his feet in step to the rhythm. He beckoned the children to copy, and the pair followed him away from the parties and glamour of the city.
A fisherman found their bodies on the shore of the river Weser, six days later. That night, rats of incalculable tally scurried through the city, spreading havoc and disease in their path.
At first, Director Manning refused to send agents to investigate. "That's why the European branch receives funding," he had told the German director with impatient vigor. "We need our strongest agents over here. The very most I could do is send backup." Even that was coddling too much, in his opinion. The deaths of the children were unfortunate, but if the European B.P.R.D. couldn't even handle a group of possessed rats, what were they good for?
Three weeks passed, and he'd forgotten all about the phone call. Then reports of twenty-three more child fatalities made way overseas. The spirits of the children were restless, moving from the river Weser back to their homes to haunt the parents who'd let them sneak out at night. The German director pleaded with Manning again, pressing the anguish the citizens of Hameln were experiencing.
The psychics on the European team couldn't do it all single-handedly. At the most, three children were finally put to rest, and they did not even know where the threat was coming from. No one made mention of anyone odd, and some mothers and fathers had even put locks on their doors to keep their children inside. They filled holes, stopped up any opening the rats could possibly scuttle through.
Yet, it wasn't enough. Every morning, the body of at least one boy or girl was found floating at the riverbank.
"What, can't those wimps stand on their own feet?" Ben Daimio crossed his arms over his chest, unimpressed with Director Manning's orders to gather the team up for a mission in Germany. "Sir, there are others that are better for this type of mission. Leach's back from Indiana. Send him."
Tom sank into his leather chair. His face was somber with exhaustion. Everything happening with the Bureau was driving him to accelerate in age, and now he had the higher ups pressuring his movements. "We don't have a choice, Captain Daimio. They're trying to improve our relationship with Germany, and they're still not quite over what happened in 2002…Ah, that's right…That's right, you weren't here for the Lorelei incident. Nevertheless, they're threatening to cut our funding if we don't help."
A scowl crossed Ben's scarred lips, and Manning tried hard to remember not to stare at his exposed teeth. "I know the frog nasties have disappeared, for now anyways, but I don't really think this mission calls for three top agents, Sir."
"It's not your decision to think on, Captain." A beat of silence followed. Buried brows and hard faces expressed outwardly the inescapable tension between the two; the tension that had never settled since Manning had refused Daimio's resignation. "Gather your team; your plane leaves tonight."
Ben took his time, standing very slowly, before leaving the Director's office, eyes narrowed and mood befallen. "Friggin' waste of time."
Across from the Captain, Liz rolled her eyes and rested her chin into her palm against the armrest. A plane ride with Captain Daimio hadn't been the highlight of her day. She didn't mind so much getting away from the Bureau. At least this mission wouldn't involve frogs; Liz Sherman was sick of frogs. And giant gods bent on bring hell to earth. Rats wouldn't be so bad. At least it would be a change of scenery, in nothing else.
Still, hours on a plane with Captain Daimio…. It wasn't a secret in their group that Liz didn't care for the company of their leader, no matter how many missions she'd accompanied with the guy. He'd usually say something that scabbed her nerves, and it didn't take much to set them off against one another.
Her dirty look hadn't passed unnoticed, and Ben glared disapprovingly at her lack of respect. Whether she liked him or not, he was her superior. He couldn't admit to having much admiration of the agent, a woman who'd quit the Bureau more times than any other. Quitting during the line of duty was unacceptable, and downright pathetic. Benjamin Daimio didn't have the time or patience to deal with pity.
The Captain's head snapped at the baggy figure sitting by his side. Johann Kraus' bulky gloves were bending the folder as he tried to flip through the information Kate Corrigan had tirelessly prepared for them. "Yeah," Ben grunted, pulling a cigar box from his pocket. "'Surely.'"
Johann's expressionless face raised, and he responded in a matter-of-fact manner, "Actually, Captain, Hameln's a town that has experienced more than its fair share of mystic activities. When I was studying with Anneliese Steiner, we discovered many turbulent spirits. I imagine many still linger there to this day. It can be a very active place for much disorder in the sacred realm."
"If you say so, Kraut."
Huffing, Liz looked away to admire the shapeless clouds from the window. "What kind of spirits, Johann?" she asked, knowing her friend was too serene to allow Daimio's insensitive comment to bother him. Or at the very least, he didn't get angry easily. "Are we talking demonic possession, or those one-in-a-million ghosts that are more harmless than annoying?"
"I would need an opportunity to see this for myself. I can say for certain the last time I was in Hameln, one particularly restless spirit, a boy killed before the World War, labored enough on one unfortunate woman until she leapt from her balcony. These spirits can be quite persistent, and some ruthless."
That figured. "I guess that's our luck."
"There were indistinguishable reports of rodent infestations before that regrettable event," added Kraus, handing Liz the folder with as blank an expression as ever. Watching her casually flip through the pages without much attention to the words, he said, "Not as wide-spread as this, but people nevertheless reported of seeing more of these pests than usual. Cats and dogs would not chase them. It is an intriguing coincidence."
Striking a match in his hand and raising it to light a cigar, Ben glared at the agent from the corners of his eyes. "Yeah? Just what's so intriguing about it? Maybe you got a copycat going around stirring up the same crap."
"Not a coincidence in that manner, Captain," Johann corrected, politely. "When I was a boy in Stuttgart, every parent would tell their children of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Mostly as a lesson to be learned, yes, a stern lecture about accepting responsibility and avoiding strangers. Yet, these reports do share a common theme…."
"Yeah, I think I remember that story." Liz lifted her head from her palm, and leaned forward to face Johann more closely. "That's the one where that town had the rat problem, and they asked this guy to come and play his flute to drive them away, right? Only the people didn't keep their promise to pay them, so he took the children, too?"
Johann nodded, but Captain Daimio scoffed against the cigar between his teeth. "Now you're gonna try and tell me we've got some freak with a flute commanding an army of rats? This ain't a fairy tale."
"Christ, Daimio, you think that's so much more unbelievable than half of what we've seen at the Bureau?" asked the agitated woman across from him.
"I must agree with Elizabeth," Johann agreed. "I have been an agent for only a few more years than yourself, Captain, and I have seen what I once considered impossible. Goddesses, demons. Now I question very little, and accept that what we consider kinder stories must have had root in truer origins."
The smoke hovered around the lit cigar, and Daimio leaned back in his chair to contemplate on what was undeniably true. For a man who was considered a zombie by any who heard of his story, the idea of a real Pied Piper didn't seem so farfetched. Still. "So, say this really involves a Piper. Are you telling me your countrymen can't handle one guy with a freaking clarinet without asking for the big guns? I'm telling you, Kraus, something bigger's going on here."
"It's possible. In the original story, I do not recall any children being drowned. I was told the Piper only led them away to a cave, to punish the parents. But I'm certain these men have called for us only because it has become out of hand. Many great psychics are born in Germany, Captain, but everyone knows his limits."
The right side of Ben's mouth curved in a smile. "Keep making those excuses, huh?"
"It's okay, Johann," Liz assured, wishing for the tenth time Abe hadn't left with another team for Nevada just before Manning had presented the case. "Daimio's just upset because he can't speak German, and has to take backseat to you."
The agitated captain chewed harder on the cigar, the scarred half of his face gritting in flexed irritation. "The trip's only going to be that much longer if you keep up that attitude, Sherman."