This is a little piece that I’m writing for Chuck Wendig’s most recent challenge, an X meets Y horror story. I, of course, got Psycho meets The Muppets. We’ll see. I wanted to get some of it done for you today, which is why there’s any post at all, but now I need to go back to doing my actual homework. You might recognize the setting from Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse. Enjoy!
It was the fourth murder in as many weeks. The victim, Bourjain Halliday, sprawled on the ground like a puppet with no strings. Lenora swallowed back the taste of bile and defeat. She was supposed to be the one stopping these killings, whatever was causing them, and she still had no idea what was killing her townsfolk. She fingered her pearlescent badge while Gerry the surgeon checked Bourjain’s body for wounds.
“Ma’am, I haven’t the faintest.” Gerry squatted by the corpse, shaking his head. “You remember the stippling? Looks like it might, and I stress might, have come from a powder burn? Like you see with a firecracker.” His finger traced the faint black burns that etched the back of Bourjain’s neck. “But I’d expect to see more tissue damage. And here,” he tugged the back Bourjain’s shirt collar down, “there’s nothing of the sort. Just that odd stippling.” He shrugged, then looked up at Lenora and squinted in the sunlight. “Same as with the last three. High time someone put an end to that, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”
Lenora bit her lip, staring at Bourjain. They’d grown up together. Seeing him lying there on the ground like that was as unnatural as anything she could think of. She knew she had to put herself together, pick up the trail of whoever or whatever was doing this, but… it felt all but impossible. The first three had been bad enough, but with Bourjain…
“Ma’am?” Gerry looked concerned.
“Yes, Gerry. It’s high time.” Lenora rolled her shoulders, setting her fingertips lightly on the grip of her shooting iron. She’d best not dwell on the body that lay by her feet. She turned around, to look up and down the alleyway that had hidden the body.
“You think he died here? Or did someone move him?”
Gerry shrugged. “I’m no tracker, ma’am. Might have been any number of folks around. But he’s got the lividity to match his position here.” He pointed to the bruising where blood had settled in the skin, “So I’m inclined to say he died here, or was here real soon after dying.”
Lenora nodded, still not looking at the body of her friend. “Alright. Thanks Gerry. Give Yenly his measurements, would you?” Gerry stood up and nodded, dusting off his hands. The carpenter would appreciate the advance notice.
Lenora stalked out of the alley, out onto the biggest street of Buite’s Heights. She could feel the sour tension of others’ expectations knotting in her stomach.
The town’s main windmill creaked slowly in the wind, towering above the central tavern. The tavern’s owner, Burroughs, offered charging services for anyone that needed them, and she did a good side business in recharging cylinders for people’s shooting irons and house battery packs. She’d done well for herself over the years. She also made the best beer in town.
There were more folk gathered at Burroughs’ Burrow than usual on that particular day. The news of what had happened to Bourjain had spread, morphing in the telling but always coming back to that last bit: dead in an alley, just like the last three. Lenora was in no mood to deal with all the folk who’d come in to gossip and reassure themselves that there was safety in numbers, but she knew it was part of her job. Some days, she wished she’d never accepted the badge in the first place.
The first bit of it went fairly well, all things considered, as they listened to her without interrupting. She told them the basic facts, that Bourjain had joined Nerobia, Michael, and old Suss Renshaw. And then the questions started. They were basic at first, not confrontational at all, but she could feel their sting. Worse yet, she could feel the doubt leaching into her bones as it suckled power from her badge.
“So, Protector, when are we going to know who did it?”
“Why haven’t you found them yet?”
“Wouldn’t you say four murders in four weeks is a bit unusual?”
“Shouldn’t we—” and this one was the worst, “—be able to expect some results from you?”
She weathered them as best she could, reeling like she was staggering into a gale. She kept herself standing with one firm hand on the bar behind her. Her answers barely fended off the questions, like a drunkard blocking a knife with her forearms. Finally, when she felt she couldn’t take it any longer, she lifted her free hand and held it up for silence. The questions died off slowly, people watching her from around the packed room.
“I want to see this cleared up just as much as you do, and,” she held up a finger to shush Ezra Nomes, who was already loudly drunk, “I’m going to need another helping hand for this task. If this is the work of darkness,” she raised both hands to quash the rising hubbub. “I said if this is the work of darkness, it’s not a form I’ve seen before. And! It’s not a form I’ve heard tell of from any of my fellow protectors within a hundred miles of here.” She kept her hands held high for attention, and the crowd murmured its concern. “That means that it might be a person doing this killing, not the shadows nor a husk,” the murmuring got louder, “and that means we’ve got to do things a bit differently!” She waited for things to quiet down before she continued. “I want all of you to keep an eye on each other. Don’t go places alone, don’t go places without telling folk where you’ve gone. It’s annoying, I know, but it’ll keep you lots safer.”
The room was full of grumbling, and nodding heads.
“Good.” And with that, Lenora lurched forward from her position at the bar and pushed her way through the crowd. She could feel a tiny bit of her badge’s strength returning, but it still felt dull and dark. It had little of the glimmer that she had long been used to, and its dimness scared her deep in her core. She pulled her jacket further closed despite the warm fall day, covering up the badge, and she tried to force herself to saunter as she approached Ezra. He watched her with beady eyes as she stepped forward.