Redcliff (A Story Told by Three Strangers): A Chuck Wendig Challenge

Posted: September 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

This week’s challenge, to finish a story that someone started, and someone else wrote the middle part two. I didn’t know either of the people before this, but damn if this couldn’t have been about 1000 words longer. As it is, I’m over my limit by 120 words and I still don’t feel as if it ended conclusively enough. Any fault with the ending is mine and mine alone. The first part was written by Sam Phillips, and the second part by Christopher. The *** breaks up the parts, and I thought I’d put the whole shebang up for convenience sake.

Redcliff

They call me Voltaire. I saw this coming. I may have even started it, but it isn’t for me to finish…

…”Hey buddy” croaked the bum by my side. I turned slowly to face him. The rain ran off his greased hair making an oily puddle on the floor.  As our eyes met he began to whine like a hound. His mottled eyes couldn’t hold my gaze. They’d seen too much of this for his ruined mind to take. He turned back to the photograph in his hands and spat on the floor, another yellow stain on this yellow world. “Fuuuuck buddy… I neeeed to get movin’. Theeey’lll be baack…..”

I looked up through the rain. He was right. The dark wet afternoon was beginning to curdle into evening. Soon it’d be dark. Soon they’d be coming.

I tried to shut out the bum’s keening and knelt to adjust the tarpaulin. Beneath it she looked the same as she always did. Bright red lipstick, curled blond ringlets. A real throwback to the Hollywood starlets of the old days. The only thing which spoilt the look was the dogtag I’d given her to wear and the gaping hole in her stomach. Last time it’d been a bullet wound. This time was more messy.  With the raindrops hammering unforgivingly on her shelter no matter how I arranged the sheet, a steady red stream ran from underneath.

Lifting the photo out of the bum’s hands I stood and glanced up to the junction. She was hidden for the moment. The downpour acted as a fog, numbing the streets to a monochrome. All white static and blurred edges as if the world wasn’t quite real.

I touched the brim of my hat muttering a quick Hail Mary, turned up the stiff collar of my coat and gave the bum a head start with my boot.  Pressing on, through the discontent of our winter, I headed back towards the smudged lights of Redcliff.

My office was on the third floor of an old abandoned shoe factory. I set it up here half in the hope that no-one would find me, but somehow they still managed to seek me out. The door was already ajar when I reached it, the worn gold lettering of the legend “Voltaire. Finder of Lost Things” lit in silhouette from inside. I didn’t need to open it to work out who’d be waiting for me on the other side but I went ahead in anyway. There’s little point trying to avoid life happening to you.

“Mr Voltaire” she crooned from behind my desk. “You found me again didn’t you?” She brushed the blond ringlets behind her ear on the left hand side, her dogtag catching the light from the desk lamp.

I gulped and stared at the figure behind my desk, shocked as ever to see her again and gave a small nod.

“…and have you found the people responsible?”

The scar on my neck began itching like it always did when I was on a case – a reminder of how close things had been to being different.  I threw the picture on the desk in front of her.  “Mean anything to you?”

***

She calls herself Paula, and she didn’t start it, either.  But, she is working her damndest to finish it.

Paula studies the photo and I study the dog tags.  Only a few left, I can’t be sure.  I’m distracted by her body.

It’s great, for sure.  Bombshell curves, pinup face. You name it.  But, it isn’t hers.  A little gift.  Thanks to an arcane trinket I found once, now dangling around her flawless neck.

Paula looks up, holding up the photo of the lurking man, and starts talking.

But she only gets out one word.  One name, before the cuckoo clock beside the desk goes crazy, shaking itself off the wall.

I barely manage, “Get down!” as I’m diving for the bar, before the patio window – three stories up – explodes in a shower of wood and glass and rain.  And, something else.

The impact knocks me down, not before I see the leather wings and the steal-fused talons flashing in the lamplight.

It’s done with Paula by the time I sit up, rag-dolling her like a massive, winged pitbull.  Then it’s back out the window, Paula’s limp and ruined body dangling from it’s jaws.

A second later, the room’s empty, except for the shattered desk, the trail of blood, and the pouring rain.

I’m so stunned I almost miss the cuckoo the second time, the little wooden bird fluttering and broken on the floor.  I blink.  I’m ready.

The second purger bird slams through the broken frame, shrieking outrage from its lion-sized bat mouth, red eyes boring into my own.

The small green bottle is already in the air.  It shatters on the creature’s face.  Blue flame fills the room.  It screams and tumbles back out the window, graceless as a winged cow.

No more come.  I’m still for a long time, my heart matching the hammering staccato of the rain on the roof.

The purgers: night time carrion birds of the city.  They only eat the dead.  They must have felt betrayed by Paula.  But me?

I scoop the picture from the blood-stained and scorched floor.  She’d given me one name, but it was enough.

Manny “Hook” Brisceno.  A bishop in the Order.  A trainer in the Aviary.  Paula must have pissed off somebody really high up.

Two problems loom in my mind.  First, I’m a living man, and they sent a night vulture to collect me.  Why? I wanted an answer.

Second, I haven’t been paid.

I grab my case of surprises, special ones I’d found over the years, and head for the door.  I don’t know much, but I’ve got a name, and a place to look.  That’s enough.

I’m Voltaire, and I find lots of things, and most of its trouble.  Soon, though, I’m gonna find this guy Manny.  We’ll talk.

As the scar on my neck starts itching again – a reminder of how things never change – I wonder how many tags Paula has left.

***

I’m standing across the street from the Aviary, a church, long since deconsecrated and converted to public use. Only now it belongs to the Order, a Death-cult with a hard-on for nihilism. Purgers circle and whirl overhead, calling to each other. Somewhere inside is Manny, and I find him, I’ll find Paula. My mouth is dry but my hand are wet. Same as always.

In the shelter of the doorway, out of the rain, I open my case. My fingers linger over the glass vials, the potions and the poisons. That would be the easy way out, wouldn’t it? Instead I pull out a death shroud, close the case, loop its strap over my shoulder. I wrap the shroud around my head, the world going hazy through the cloth.

My tongue twists torturously over words of power and I step out from the doorway, the rain falling through my ghostly form. Staring up into the sky, the purgers glow a sickly green against the purple sky. Bright lights flicker here and there in the distance, a reminder that the living still dwell in this pit of a city. I ghost step up the side of the building, my insubstantial form climbing the side like a shadow.

A purger spots me, calls out in confusion. I look like a ghost, but I smelly like I’m alive. Purgers aren’t all that intelligent, and it goes back to looping around. I don’t fit either of its definitions for what it’s supposed to be looking for.

I slip into the belfry, pull the shroud from around my head, and stash it back in my case. The cold slaps me in the face, the wind whipping my coat around my legs. I find the trap door, sigils glowing silver in the dark around its edges. My lip curls up in a sneer of contempt. I’d expected something more complicated from the order. A few drops from a vial and the ward is dissolved and I’m slipping down a ladder. I hear chanting from below, something ominous I’m sure though I don’t understand the words. German, maybe.

I find them in the nave. Manny is there, stripped to the waist, symbols painted on his arms and chest, an eye drawn onto his forehead. My eyes don’t want to stay on him, he’s so full of power. Two acolytes stand nearby. Paula is chained down to the altar, her dress ripped open. Manny’s drawn symbols on her too, and he’s got his hook hand hovering over her sternum.

I don’t have time to do something smart, so I do something stupid instead. I fling a vial at Manny’s head. It’s like everything is moving through molasses. He raises his hook, shatters the vial long before it hits him.

“Voltaire, is it?” His voice has the guttural grind of a long time drinker. “Too late. This one belongs to Her.” He gestures up to the crucifix looming over the scene. A skeleton’s been nailed in place on to it.

I smile back at him. “Tell it to her.”

Manny looks confused long enough for Paula to grab him by the neck. She pulls him down close, kissing him full on the mouth. He tries to struggle, but limbs gone decrepit with age can’t pull him free. He ages fifty years before my eyes, before grabbing his chest and collapsing. The acolytes take one look and decide to abandon their leader.

Paula steps over the body, reaches out to touch my face. To my credit, I don’t flinch when her corpse cold fingers brush my cheek. She takes my hand, places two heavy coins and the dogtags in it.

“Thank you.” Then she’s gone, off to a better place than Redcliff.

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