Acrid smoke obscured the room. Burnt oak lingered on Gretel's tongue, as she and Hansel stood behind Van Helsing's desk. The outline of a potential client shifted behind the frosted glass door - edgy after ten minutes of hovering. Only the desperate ventured into the L-shaped apartment complex with its flaking green exterior and shady tenants.
The doorknob turned and a red shoe slid in before the rest of her body followed. A sodden mink-fur coat saved her floral dress from the torrential rain, leaving puddles on the scuffed floorboards. "H-Hello?" She coughed, fluttering a hand in front of her face. "Hello? Is anyone there?"
"You have two minutes to explain why you're here and how much you're paying," Van Helsing demanded, her voice cutting through the haze. Wild auburn hair draped over her shoulders, as she reclined in her chair, boot-clad feet resting on the desktop and her crossbow cradled in her lap. Her Like a porcelain marionette torn from its strings, her eastern beauty and slight stature held a razor edge most disregarded - at their own expense.
"My name is Irene Bettehild. O-Officer Hannard said you could help me." She fumbled in her jacket pockets and waved an envelope spilling notes. "I-I need you to find my late brother's remains."
Van Helsing planted her feet on the floor and pressed a button on the underside of her desk. Ghostly fingers plucked at Gretel's hair and blouse, as the smoke was sucked from the room, revealing faded cream walls and the chairs opposite her. "I'm listening," she said.
Gretel shared a look with her brother, as Ms. Bettehild sank into one of the proffered seats and begun her plea. The more she discussed the situation with the detective the more their interest was roused.
Van Helsing didn't have time for this. It was past the hour and the doctor was still studying the twins' file. The theatrical flair of hiding behind their paperwork in his wing-backed chair lost its touch twenty minutes in; the forgeries were perfect.
A chandelier above their heads illuminated the room; throwing shadows onto the assortment of dried herbs, pickling pots and jars stacked on the bookcases. Alcohol warred with wood-smoke on every breath and the more she looked the more certain she was that a bugbear's head was amongst the macabre collection. Checklists of outlandish ingredients were scattered across his desk: boggart urine, wormwood, stag antler, putrefied wyvern eggs and many more. His business in cosmetics was spotless at face-value - but the Undercity told a different story.
Helsing caught the twins' reflection in his brass name plaque mounted behind the desk; tall for their age and thin, both sported a mop of tawny curls and nymphish sun-kissed skin. If it weren't for Gretel's eyes, such an eerie ice-blue, then they would have been identical.
Dr. Franken hummed between spindly fingers pressed against his lips. "The Gingerbread Orphans I presume?" Owlish eyes like polished obsidian peered over their file. "The Greenhill Witch is still at large, isn't she?"
"Four years too long if you ask me," Hansel remarked, as he toyed with the cuff of his white shirt. He went to say more, but a warning look from Helsing held his tongue. Sure the kid was right, but that sort of thing didn't get done in a day - the witch had wealthy connections after all.
He finally set the file on his desk, exposing his face. Brown hair was swept back at the temples, mutton chops framed the corners of his square jawline and a light peppering of stubble covered his gaunt cheeks. The white shirt and grey waistcoat draped over his lanky frame were as featureless as his expression; even his spidery fingers were unblemished.
"I hope their past doesn't deter you," Helsing intoned. His eyes lingered on her tailored blouse and skirt ensemble pressed tight on her hips and chest; crooks were driven by the basic sins, how typical the doctor was stirred by more than Greed. "It's been difficult to find an orphanage that wouldn't exploit it, yet with the recent robberies in this area…"
"Have no fear, detective." Dr. Franken rose to his feet and clasped his hands behind his back. "The children are quite safe here until suitable parents are found. After all, what would a grave robber want with the living?"
"A rational point," she replied. "Now I must dash, is there anything else I need to sign?"
"All is in order. Come, I'll see you out." He sidled around his desk and gestured at the door behind her. "My servant boy, Igor, will show Hansel and Gretel their rooms."
"Children?" The twins twisted around in their chairs, meeting the detective's ebony gaze. "Behave. I don't want to traipse all over the city again to find another roof over your heads." They nodded dutifully, as masks of innocence slipped into place; satisfied, she ignored the doctor's proffered elbow and stalked out of his study.
It was beginning to grate on Gretel's nerves. They had traipsed the green and redwood halls, scoured the house from kitchen and pantry to the unlocked doors of the second floor, from midnight until dawn. They poked at the steps of the grand staircase in the lobby and choked on dust in every room of the orphan's wing.
Not a lick of evidence.
Even Igor was useless - resistant to her voice like none before. He never spoke; written chores and gestures were the sole communication between them, with a mongrel as his constant companion. Sometimes Gretel found his dark eyes following her when they prepared dinner, shadowed by his broad brow covered in a nest of black ringlets. Hansel kept a wide birth, disliking the skin-crawling sensation every time he loomed too close.
"We've been here a week and got nothing," Hans said. He scratched behind his ear, as Gretel wandered ahead of him on yet another inspection of the house.
"We use what we have, Hans." She looked up from adjusting the stiletto knotted in her hair, smoothing her hands down the front of her blouse and shoddy trousers - courtesy of Franken's hand-me-down wardrobe.
He scowled, as she stalked further along the hallway. "Walter Bettehild was Franken's friend. That's it." The tips of his ears protruded from his golden curls, catching even the tiny beat of a mouse's heart. "The sister won't pay out."
"There's three weeks left, have a little faith," Gretel retorted. In her mind, she mapped out the entirety of the mansion - omitting the bookcases of body parts. Where were the trip-wire walls and paintings? The diabolical lair? Villains were usually predictable.
"So we're going over what we've already searched." Hansel ran his fingers across the first floor walls, the knobbly green plaster catching on his nails.
"Hardly. Rumpel Stiltskin is holding a soiree tonight and Franken is hawking more of his magical cosmetics to the aristocrats," she replied. "We're going to use the hour Igor takes driving back to search his private quarters."
Gretel led their way past Franken's study and through the stairwells to the forbidden third floor, the resonance of their footsteps echoed in the dank air. She tried not to breathe too deeply; the macabre collection teetered on bookshelves and stacked on the floor, alcohol stinging their nostrils and jars of eyeballs watched their every move.
Hansel ran his fingers over Franken's bedroom door, sensing nothing of consequence beyond the wood and moved on. He repeated the act three times until he stopped alongside a bookcase opposite the bathroom. His fingernails danced across the warped oak, bowed beneath the weight of over three dozen jars, and closed his eyes.
The wall was hollow.
"Remind me again, why we're here, Labyrinth," Helsing murmured. A bone-deep moistness had settled beneath her leather trench coat an hour into their vigil.
Sweetworth Cemetery was tucked away behind its church and three blocks of flats; light from the windows distinguished knolls and tombstones in the fenced off green. Midnight came and went whilst the boy remained in the depths of the mausoleum opposite. It was a simple affair, Franken had funded the stonemasonry and the four tombs within after a burst gas-pipe took his fellow Grimm University alumni's life and family.
"You believed the car would be too conspicuous," Helsing's partner responded. The creaks and groans of his body emphasised his displeasure. "Why must we intrude on the children's investigation? There are more savoury things we could be doing."
"The sooner Ms. Bettehild pays us, the sooner we'll continue with the Stiltskin fraud case." Van Helsing shifted beneath the entablature of the Goldschmidt tomb, running her fingers over its rough stone. They'd tailed Franken's Benz Cabriolet from Stiltskin's penthouse, and hadn't moved since Igor vanished inside the Bettehild's crypt.
Mr. Labyrinth's earthy scent clung to her nostrils, mixed with smoke protruding from his wide-brimmed hat. "So we're taking over the grave robber case," he stated dryly. The red tip of his cigar illuminated mossy brown hair surrounding his lips.
"We're helping the twins along," Helsing said. Why was Franken's boy here at midnight? Surely he wouldn't stoop so low as to rob his friend's remains?
Igor finally appeared from the shadowy depths with a weighted canvas sack over his shoulder, disappearing off into the night. Helsing loitered a moment longer, making sure he had truly gone, before stepping out into the rain.
"Shall I call in a favour with the Tooth Clan?"
Her eyes narrowed, studying the mausoleum. "No," she finally said, "we'll have the fairies tail him another time. There's someone else we need to speak to."
Gretel stared at the journal draped across Hansel's lap. They'd found evidence alright, bloody and burnt pages full of it. The laboratory hadn't given much else, ivory-tiled walls and silver apparatus were uncannily clean and so full of bleach fumes that bile still bit the back of her throat.
Hansel flipped through the book, diagrams and words jumped out on every turn. "Electrical stimulation… Living erythrocytes…" He returned to the cover page and stabbed his finger at the faded ink. "Don't have a clue what it all says but its Franken and Bettehild's."
Wind rattled the windows, as they huddled close on his bed. Since three nights prior, they had kept the book on their persons at all times, whilst Franken remained unaware and Igor kept as broody and miserable as ever - maybe even more so.
"Well, we knew they graduated together, could've got interested in the dead and tried to mess around with it?" Gretel suggested, rising from the bed. Igor's shuffling gait filtered through the floorboards, as he prepared dinner in the kitchen below.
Hansel scratched behind his ear. "Necromancy…it's not something to play about with, Gret." His voice dropped into a growl, his eyes gleamed honeycomb gold. His feral behaviour once unnerved the police department, but after three years in Helsing's service he was no longer feared - unlike Gretel. "Nothing but the nasty's come of it. You know that."
She waved the leather-bound journal in the air, as she headed for their bedroom door. "Then we'd best get answers, hadn't we?" He had no choice but to follow, as she strode out of their room.
Yet with all her cool veneer, Gretel's heart thundered in her chest. What if Franken was immune to her siren lure? Once she dropped into that tone of voice and held eye contact, there was no escape for anyone - not even Grimm City's cops. The lead-weight journal hung in her grip, as she burst into the doctor's study unannounced.
"Ah, children, what can I do for you?" He set his paperwork aside, as he smiled - devoid of any semblance of welcome.
"We came across an interesting…book in the library," Gretel said. "It's written by you and Walter Bettehild."
Dr. Franken's face remained immovable as stone. "Ah, that book."
"What business do you have looking into necromancy?" Hans demanded, whilst puffing out his chest.
"What business do you have snooping through my belongings?"
Gretel wrapped her fingers around Hans's wrist. "I'm sorry, the subject greatly disturbs my brother," she murmured, as her voice dropped into an alluring purr. "We merely wondered why you were exploring the subject. It isn't something many would dare to do; it's very brave of you to try."
He hummed and sunk back into his chair. "Walter and I hypothesised that reanimating the dead to their former self was a capable feat," he admitted; lulled by Gretel's voice. "We were fools."
"Why?" She settled into one of the chairs opposite him, as Hansel blocked the door.
"It's a dangerous path with many enemies…Ut Immortalem, for one," he answered, as claws scrabbled along the corridor. "I convinced him to let it go, for his family's safety, but it took years. His yearning for necromantic knowledge was as powerful as his son's."
Gretel studied his expression, pupils dilated and facial muscles lax - she had him. "His son's thirst for knowledge?" She heard Hans leave to confront the terrier mix whining at the door, her eyes locked on the doctor. "Was it as great as Walter's?"
"No," Dr. Franken whispered. "Igorim's thirst was far worse; ever since he was a little boy he dissected the dead. Crows, frogs and then the neighbours' pets, there was no stopping him."
Gretel's stomach twisted, as a heady flush dyed her skin pink. "Igorim, is that your servant boy?" Her voice trembled; sweat prickling her palms. "D-Did he have the book?"
A nostalgic smile stretched across Franken's lips. "Yes…" The officer tilted around her. "I gave him a safe haven. I gave him all that he needed."
She leapt to her feet, as the front door slammed. Ice speared her heart, fluttering wildly in her chest. Then, without a backwards glance, she tore out of the study. How could they be so blind? The silence and orderly fashion of his life - all clues they had missed.
Her socks lost traction, slipping across the floorboards, as her hip thumped into the windowsill at the end of the hall. She gripped it in trembling hands and glimpsed Helsing crest the top of the grand staircase, just as Franken stepped out of his room.
Then she was gone. Up. Up. Up. Her thighs burned, the stairs taken two at a time, pounding along the hallways with three sets of footsteps echoing in her wake. He'd been so quiet, barely there like a ghost - the perfect cover.
Her throat ignited, lungs burning on every breath.
Gretel finally reached the third floor. His lair was ajar, glass scattered across the floorboards and the musk of a pickled cat foetus hung in the air. It lay sprawled by her feet, glistening, sodden. She slid her stiletto free from her hair and peered into the eclipsed tunnel.
Fear lurked low in her belly, tightening with every clatter and yelp in the bowels of the passage. Hans keep fighting, she prayed as she lunged into the darkness.
Silhouettes wrapped around her throat and cheeks, poking at her eyes. She swallowed thickly, stumbling along the tunnel, as it spiralled down, down, down. Long bottled nightmares uncorked spilled burnt chocolate and gingerbread, cackling ovens through her mind - the Greenhill Witch tormented her.
Silence rang in her ears.
The air pressure shifted as smooth plaster and brick beneath her fingertips became rough stone - slick and moss laden. The next turn brought a wedge of light, banishing the shadows wrapped around her throat, drawing Gretel through the doorway and into the laboratory.
Chaos reigned. The steel table lay buckled against one wall, as cupboards and countertops gaped like silent onlookers. Pus-yellow liquid, mingled with blood sprayed across tiles and flooring. Hansel remained poised in the carnage with his hands clawed, eyes trained on the figure at his feet.
An arm was shorn from Igorim's body, trails of muscle and skin escaping his shoulder. The back of his head was caved in like a cracked egg, brain matter and shards of bone poised in a pool of blood spreading like a rose unfurling.
Gretel slipped her arms around Hansel's waist, his damp breath billowing against her neck. "It's over," she murmured, as raised voices and footsteps thundered down the passageway. "Case closed."
He shifted in her arms and raised his head, one eye already swollen. "No," he said. "Igorim wasn't working alone. And it wasn't Franken." He produced a chain from his pocket, as Helsing appeared in the doorway. The Ut Immortalemmedallion glittered crimson and gold in the light of sputtering gas-lamps.