A short and spooky tale

This past month I participated in a Twitter writing challenge. There were daily word prompts, but other than that each person could write whatever he or she wanted.

I wrote a short story using the prompts. While I've been posting it daily on Twitter, I thought it would be fun to post the whole story here. The prompt words I used are in red.

*****

Carnival. From the Latin “carne vale,” or farewell to meat. A word that rose from the penitential practice of giving up meat for Lent. Written in human blood on the wall of the dingy apartment, it took on a much more sinister meaning.

I glanced at my partner out of the eye above my ear; one of six total, though the two on the back of my head were covered by my hair. “Well?"

My partner, Sol Brisham, is human. Mostly. He lacks extra eyes or retractable appendages. I’m told human girls find this attractive. “Nothing, Cy,” he replies.

I raised an eyebrow. “Nothing?”

“The place is more butcher shop than cemetery. You can see that for yourself.”

I nodded. “Except that in butcher shops the bones still have meat on them. These are stripped clean, just like the last three cases.”

“Right. Which means we’re dealing with a flesh-eater. But which one? The M.O. is new to me.”

“I’ve processed millions of records, and--same. Something is killing and eating humans, but there’s no record of anything that does it this way. At least, no record we’ve found yet.”

Sol shook his head. “No. And if this was a simple case of human sacrifice, the bodies wouldn't be reduced to skeletons. We need to figure out what this is, and fast.”

“We do, but it will be daylight in an hour. You need to get home. I’m fully charged, so I will head to the Central Library.”

“Like a moth to a flame,” Sol teased me. He yawned, and I caught a glimpse of his fangs. “Okay. See you at sunset.”

Inside the library, I settled down in front of a convenient data port and plugged in. The organic part of me was bored, but the computer half felt the exhilaration of reading through massive amounts of data pertaining to flesh-eating creatures in mere seconds. Finding nothing, I broadened my search.

One word. Jester. It appeared and disappeared so fast I had to engage my human brain and slow down. I read carefully, making note of all the details.

When Sol finally joined me at headquarters, I started to tell him what I’d found. He frowned. “Seriously? Murderous clowns?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “They were aliens. They arrived on Earth during the second half of the twenty-first century. They had a taste for human flesh. The human authorities were out of their league; they thought it was a serial killer. They even used the nickname ‘Memento Mori’ to refer to the alleged killer’s habit of leaving skulls around.”

“But if they were here that long ago, why are they still around?” Sol asked. “Didn’t Grimoire get rid of them? It’s what we do, and I’m a little disappointed in our predecessors.”

“We weren’t even around back then,” I reminded him. “Humans had created ‘Operation Coven’ to deal with supernatural and alien presences, but it was a while before the Grimoire agency became a reality.”

“I see,” Sol said. “So they let these aliens escape? But then why have they been dormant so long?”

“Not these aliens. Just one,” I said. “It took me a while to find and read through all the reports. These aliens were code-named ‘Jester’ because of their strange coloration. As it turned out, there were only sixteen of them who survived the journey to Earth. When the fifteenth was caught, he taunted the investigators; said they’d never capture the queen. Our predecessors nicknamed her ‘the Witch.’”

“Let me guess. They didn’t.”

“Nope. And what’s worse--they changed the records. Officially, only fifteen Jesters set foot on Planet Earth. The Witch became a mere legend.”

“And she went dormant, but now she’s awake and feasting again?” Sol scratched his nose. “So how do we catch her? Ouija board? Tarot cards?”

I gave him a look; that joke was getting old. “Even if she was a supernatural force, that stuff is garbage. You know that.”

“I do. And I also know which rituals work. If our quarry was a supernatural being, which she isn’t. Just good old-fashioned blood-sucking alien. Which I hate. We domestic types don’t need the competition.”

“Considering that you are only one-quarter vampire…” I began.

Sol’s eyes darkened. “It’s enough to get me classified as a monster. Which is why I work here, instead of aboard an alpha probe ship headed to one of the inhabitable exoplanets. Monsters don’t get to leave Earth.”

“Shall I break out the tiny violin, whatever that is?” I asked. “Plenty of normal humans choose to stay on the home world. And plenty of normal human girls think your bloodline is cool. It’s not like you’re a ghost-hybrid. You get plenty of dates.”

“Sure, until I explain that natural sunlight gives me crippling migraines and I have to live a nocturnal life. Fine for dating, but not fine for settling down and raising a family, which...oh, skip it, Cy.”

“I’ll have to. I have to go see the team necromancer. It’s a long shot, but if he can contact any of the recently deceased we may get a description of our killer.”

Sol sighed. “And I’ll follow the blood trail, as usual. Who knows? It may get us somewhere.”

I watched him leave through the eyes in the back of my head. He thought he had dating problems. Try being a cyborg, I thought--not for the first time.

As the days passed, we settled into the usual routine. Sol chased blood droplets from the various crime scenes--he’s skilled that way--while I kept researching the Jesters and the Witch. I’m about as fond of alien perps as Sol is. Give me a good old fashioned paranormal, who can be banished with a splash of holy water or locked up in a cursed object. All we knew about the Witch was that she ate people, apparently with great gusto; we didn’t know where she came from, or why her kind found humans delicious. How we were supposed to stop her was a mystery.

Sol and I were both feeling the stress. Our bosses at Grimoire wanted results and kept the pressure on. The media was keeping quiet--for now. But then came murder number five, and it was a doozy. The first four victims had been solitary types. Different ages, different genders, but living similar lives, just scraping by with dead-end jobs and crappy apartments. Victim number five was Helena Anston, the internationally famous writer. To our murderous alien she was just another lady living alone in a run-down building; Helena was eccentric that way. Everybody knew about Helena’s apartment (dating from the Golden Age of 2034), Helena’s pets (one parrot, one snake, and one black cat), and Helena’s odd habits. Everybody except the Witch, who probably saw an elderly woman in a tattered coat headed to an ancient apartment and figured she was easy prey.

The crime scene was a mess, as usual. But a few things struck me right away. “Notice anything?”

“You mean, the killer spared the animals?”

I nodded. “Locked them up in the bathroom. Before or after the murder?”

Sol focused intently. “Before,” he said. “No trace of blood, not even blood mist, on the animals at all. Which is really…”

“Look!” I cried, pointing at something.

“What is it?”

“That light…” I began. But the light I’d seen outside the window of the apartment faded away like a will-o-the-wisp over a windswept moor.

“You saw a light?”

“Yes. Greenish. Purple edges.”

Sol met my eyes--the ones on the front of my face. “It’s the right coloration. But we’re twelve stories up.” He went to the window, and then to a sliding door that led out to a patio.

I followed. “Careful,” I warned.

His dark eyes were already scanning the cityscape below us, the buildings dark and eerie like ancient trees in a haunted forest. “Blood residue. And nothing else. She went out this way. Might have been watching us. But she’s gone now.”

“So she can fly. Terrific,” I muttered as we reentered the apartment.

One of the team’s low-level mages cleared her throat. “Excuse me,” she said.

“Go ahead, Pam.”

“There’s a doll here on the sofa. Bloodsoaked. But there’s a hologram recording.” She pressed the doll’s midsection and the recording played.

“If you can see this, I’m dead,” the hologram of Helena Anston said. “I had some qualms about inviting my guest here tonight. She’s a fascinating woman. Not human, though I never mind that.”

Sol and I exchanged glances. “Foolish of her,” he said.

The recording continued. “She claims to be an ancient spirit with great knowledge of demonology, the subject of my next book. I am almost sure she is what she claims to be. Almost. But she asked me to put my pets in another room while she visits. Just in case she has evil designs, I’m leaving this message, along with the address of the place where we met.”

The hologram showed letters floating in the air. Carousel Club, they read; an address followed. My link to the datasphere told us the place was a dive, frequented by the downtrodden. Sol and I exchanged glances; it was all too likely the Witch was using this place to mark and stalk her victims. She may even have talked more than one of them to inviting her into their homes.

Our stakeout location was less than ideal: a dusty window across the street belonging to an erstwhile undertaker who’d been arrested for fraud. A grandiose coffin and some decrepit silk flowers still occupied the space behind the window. My joke to Sol about a place for him to nap fell flat; he called me a racist.

We took up our positions every night for a week, not knowing how soon the creature would need to eat again or how long it would take her to mark down a victim. There were cameras trained on the front of the Carousel Club as well, but cameras can be misleading when it comes to aliens (and they’re useless for most supernaturals). A few times we saw odd-looking women enter and leave the place alone, but each of them turned out to be depressingly human (except for one werewolf, but she was a depressingly normal werewolf).

“I wonder if she’s given up the place,” Sol said one night, peering out into the darkness.

“Shh.” I said.

“What?”

“That woman. The one who just left. I didn’t see her enter. And she’s not so much walking as she is slithering.”

Sol focused. “I think she may be our girl. But let’s wait until she’s well out of sight and examine the alley for traces of her.”

After investigating the alley, we went into the Carousel Club ourselves, posing as a slightly-intoxicated and nearly-broke couple. We managed to talk to several of the regular patrons, all of whom had noticed our mystery woman at one time or another. One of them had seen her with a woman matching Helena Anston’s description.

Outside, we compared notes. “Of the seven people who remembered her, three just thought she was a normal human,” Sol said.

“People aren’t observant. It’s nothing new. But the other four said something was definitely off.”

“The sailor thought she was a Huli Jung.”

“He just wanted to impress us with his knowledge of nine-tailed fox women. I was more interested in the girl who thought she was a Gorgon. She’s not, but I think she probably does radiate power and cause fear.”

“Except in her victims. She must charm them somehow. Or perhaps mesmerize is a better word.”

“Probably.”

Back at Grimoire, Sol and I spent some time visiting with Helena Anston’s pets, who were being looked after by an excitable group of interns. Then we sat down to hash out a plan. “I don’t like it,” I said at last.

“Which part?”

“You know which part.”

Sol raised one sharp eyebrow at me. “Just because you’re the one who usually ends up alone with the creature…”

“You’re seventy-five percent human,” I reminded him. “What if she ignores the other twenty-five percent?”

Sol shrugged. “Then I’ll give her indigestion.”

“Sol…”

“It’s not like you to be this jumpy. This is way less risky than taking down that tribe of sorcerers who used Old Magick last spring. What’s eating you?”

I winced at the expression. “There’s still too much we don’t know.”

“Do we have a choice?”

I thought for a microsecond while my processors whirred. “No. But even my system doesn’t like our odds.”

I crouched in the shadows beside Sol’s refrigerator. Its humming unnerved me. The fact that it was full of vials of human blood did not; Sol only needed it once a week as a tonic, and his supply was contributed by kind-hearted volunteers.

I’d been in communication with our team throughout the night. Everything was going according to plan. Sol had met our mysterious woman--she called herself Violet--and had fallen into conversation with her. He made up a story of hardship, and it wasn’t too surprising when she invited herself back to his place. This was her method, it seemed.

Sol’s electric lock beeped and the door opened. “...being evicted at the end of the month,” I heard Sol say. “I’m looking for a cheaper place.”

In the shadows I saw him press a button, and a bank of artificial candles illuminated the room with dim light.

“I can barely see.” Violet’s voice set my teeth on edge. “Can’t we turn on more lights?”

“I’m a nocturnal kind of guy,” Sol said with a laugh.

“I know,” Violet said. The door slammed behind her. “You’re not entirely my type. But you may be edible. Your friend in the shadows isn’t." She pressed a switch, and the apartment flooded with light. “Let’s stop this charade,” she said, gesturing to me. I came forward, noting carefully her false hair, her thick makeup, and the other tricks she’d used to make herself appear human. “Beings here haven’t changed much, in the centuries I was asleep in our last pod,” she said. “You think you can stop me?”

“We’ll try, anyway,” Sol said.

“Sure you will.” Her mouth stretched into a terrifying facsimile of a smile. “A couple of misfits, thinking they’ve figured things out. But I’m rather certain you’ve guessed wrong.”

I pushed a button; a small cage door behind me in the kitchen opened. There was a rustle of wings as Helena’s pet parrot flew out.

Violet laughed; it was a horrible gurgle. “Wrong! Oh, wrong. I knew it.”

She stepped backward. From the back of the tall chair just behind her Helena Anston’s black cat leaped to her shoulder, snarling and scratching and biting at her face.

Violet could not be said to have screamed; the sound coming out of her was nothing like a human scream. But she toppled to the ground as the little black cat leapt backward, still arched into a battle pose, still growling. Violet twitched and was still.

“Disposal team!” I cried, my voice sharp. I wasn’t sure she was dead.

The team rushed in and took care of things. Absently I caught the parrot and restored it to the cage, but Sol held the little cat tightly, nuzzling the top of its head with his chin. “Good girl, Midnight,” he cooed at her.

Much later, over drinks at our favorite bar, I quizzed him. “Midnight?”

“It was on her tag. I’m keeping her; Helena didn’t have family. The other two pets have found homes too.” He took a drink. “You were quick to figure out it was the cat she was afraid of.”

“She’s not the first alien to find cats toxic,” I reminded him. “Most planets have snakes and birds, so it was a logical guess. Of course, we had all three there in the apartment just in case.”

“A successful mission. Cheers,” he said, raising his glass and clinking mine. Then he smiled. It was the particular lopsided grin, showing just one fang, that he usually displayed when he was really happy about something. Human girls love it. To tell you the truth--I do, too.




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