A/N: As will soon become apparent, this is another "Masque of the Red Death" story, set on Gothic Earth rather than in Ravenloft proper.
~X X X~
Flakes of snow swirled and danced in the bitter wind as they fell in ever-increasing number. The storm was fierce enough and the hour so late that the stationmaster at Vaseria had feared for the Goldstadt train, but at last the engine and its carriages had rattled into the small station, an hour late but safe and sound.
Only two passengers had disembarked, a gentleman wearing English country tweeds beneath his greatcoat and a tall woman whose form was muffled beneath a rich wool traveling cloak. At first the stationmaster took them for a father and daughter, but as they approached he realized the man was no older than his early thirties. It was his stooped posture, the way he leaned on his gold-capped stick, and the shakiness of his limbs that had fooled the trainman, but on closer examination it was clear from the haggard though youthful features and sunken eyes that it was illness, not age that caused the man's infirmity.
"Pardon me, sir," the traveler said in heavily accented but fluent German, "has the express passed through already?"
"It has, twenty minutes ago and on schedule."
The ill man sighed heavily.
"I was afraid of that. I'm sorry, Eve; we've missed our connection."
"We cannot help the weather," she replied. She had no accent, and the stationmaster wondered if her companion—husband?—spoke German to her so as not to be rude to the third party or because it was her native tongue. "And it is not as if anyone is waiting for our arrival."
"There will be another express tomorrow," the stationmaster supplied helpfully.
"Well, then, we shall simply have to stay the night," the man concluded. "Can you suggest an inn?"
"The Crown, I think, would be best suited."
"Thank you. I suppose that—" He broke off suddenly, interrupted by a spasm of coughing that wracked his frame. He clutched a handkerchief to his lips while he fought off the bout, and when he brought it away the stationmaster could see blood. Probably the man was consumptive, the trainman decided with a pang of sympathy.
"Charles, why don't you go inside?" Eve suggested, laying a hand lightly on his arm. "I'll see to the offloading of our baggage; you need to be out of this cold and wind."
"I'll get you a cup of coffee," offered the stationmaster. "I always keep a pot ready on nights like this."
"Thank you; I'd be very grateful," Charles replied. "I hate to be such a bother to you both—"
"Nonsense," Eve and the stationmaster said at once, then glanced at each other with smiles at the unintended humor. She was not beautiful, he decided, but handsome—a woman of character. A gust of wind lifted her brown curls away from her neck, and he caught sight of a long, angry red scar curling around from her throat nearly to the base of her ear. Small wonder, then, that she so easily sympathized with her Charles's pain.
"I can see there's no getting around it, then," the Englishman gave in with good grace, and followed the stationmaster off the platform and into Vaseria's little station.
Only then did three additional travelers descend from the train's last carriage. The lead man smiled with satisfaction, nodded towards Eve, and said something to his companions. Both were broad-faced men in shabby caps and overcoats, not at all the kind of person who usually associated with well-dressed gentlemen. They nodded, and from capacious pockets one produced a wicked knife and the other a sap. They advanced towards the woman purposefully while their leader proceeded to the station.
Inside the station, the Englishman had seated himself and was warming his hands gratefully before a pot-bellied stove while the stationmaster was out arranging for someone to take the travelers and their luggage to the Crown. Charles had already taken his first sips from the tin cup of coffee he'd been given and found the strong beverage to warm him agreeably from within as the stove did from without. It was with some irritation, then, that he looked up when the platform door opened to let in a cold draft.
"Dr. Charles Franks?" the newcomer addressed him in English. Franks observed a tall man in a dark suit and coat with a lean, patrician face beneath a high hat.
"You have the advantage of me, sir."
The gentleman removed his hat to show thinning white hair and swept Franks a Continental bow.
"Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Professor Gustav Klein, of Zurich. The hour is late and my business pressing, so I shall be direct and to the point. You have something I want, Dr. Franks."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Come now, no dissembling. You flinched most tellingly before your offended response; you know what I mean."
"I assure you that I do not."
Professor Klein tsked as if at an erring student.
"Must I speak openly of it? Ah, but by your so-stubborn expression I see that I must. You recently journeyed to Goldstadt, where your family originally hails from. You spent nearly two months at your family's schloss. A man suffering from tuberculosis does not undertake such a journey for any but the most serious reasons, particularly during the winter months. But then, you had good reason."
Franks glared angrily at the professor.
"And what reason would that be?"
"Why, a cure for your otherwise incurable condition, of course. Your grandfather was brilliant, beyond brilliant. His research into the fundamental energies of life transcended disease theory to the extent that, turned to the proper ends, his theories might at least offer hope towards sustaining life in even the most ravaged body."
"You weave a most intriguing tale." Franks's hands worked convulsively, rubbing over the handle of his stick.
"Spare me these games!" Klein barked. "I want your grandfather's records! I permitted you to retrieve them because they were well-hidden and I could hardly conduct a proper search through burglary. You have them with you—journals, records, experimental notes. The details of a genius so elevated that it became infamy, an infamy that prompted your father to Anglicize his name upon emigration so he would not carry the ill-repute of being the son of Victor Frankenstein."
Franks cringed as if a blow had been struck and glared up at Professor Klein with a burning hatred.
"You have been spying on me!"
"Hardly that, Doctor. Research, if you will."
"You poked and pried into my movements, my family background, and you expect me to share my grandfather's research with you?"
"You will do so."
"I will not."
"You will." Klein held up a hand to forestall further argument. "I expected your reaction, of course, and took precautions. Threats of bodily harm would be pointless against a dying man—"
"You are correct," Franks said grimly. "I am well-accustomed to torture already."
"—but what of your sweet wife? She cares for you deeply, and you her, else she would not have accompanied you on such a grim journey. I have two associates who are most familiar with personal violence. Even now they have arranged for your wife's...accommodations...until you are in a more cooperative frame of mind."
"You have kidnapped her?"
"To use a crude term, yes."
Franks did not respond as the professor was expecting. Anger, fear, denial, these would all have been reasonable reactions. By no means, however, did Klein anticipate laughter. Franks chuckled, then gave way to hysterical cackling that made his whole body shake convulsively.
"What is this?" Klein demanded. "What are you doing?"
"Your threat is an empty shell, Professor," said the Englishman between gasps for breath. "That woman is not my wife!"
"Do not try such a pathetic trick. You and she were observed arriving together in Goldstadt."
"Oh, my wife arrived with me, Professor. She would not have let me undertake such a journey alone in my state of health." He laughed again, this time with bitterness. "But it was her health she should have been concerned for, Professor Klein. A flight of half-rotted stairs collapsed beneath her, and she died. My...current companion has my wife's face. Indeed, she has my wife's entire head! And if I try hard enough, I can sometimes imagine that it is my wife's soul that looks out of Eve's eyes."
Reflexively, Klein took a step backwards. Even without Franks's words, the expression on the man's face would have instilled fear. It was the expression of a madman.
The door to the platform swung open.
"Charles, are you all right?" Eve cried frantically.
Smears of red stained her pale kid gloves.
Klein backed away again.
"Yes," Franks said quietly. "Professor Klein was just leaving."
The professor took the implied offer at once, bolting through the door and vanishing into the swirling snow.
Eve came and sat down next to Franks.
"There were two men on the platform. They thought that I was..."
"I know. They worked for Klein."
She reached for his hand, laced her fingers together with his.
"I wish they had been right."