Short Stories

This blog is the home of some old short stories I'd written five or six years ago for "challenges" (contests) at the Writers BBS. In such challenges, someone else sets the topic, genre, word length limit, and time in which to complete the story.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Temporality

This story was written for a science fiction challenge, the topic chosen was time travel - 2682 words

*

Rick Logan sat slumped on the couch in his shabby apartment, staring with amused disbelief at the flickering screen of the TV.

"Physicists like Stephen Hawking have theorized the existence of wormholes and closed time loops, actual portals through which matter can travel backward through time. Although, phenomena like extreme heat and gravity would render the trip lethal for any organism," commented Special Agent Fox Mulder to his car's passenger as they drove through the rainy night.

Rick loved old episodes of the X-Files and this, Synchrony, was one of his favorites. Ironic that a re-run on time travel was playing the very night he planned to travel back in time himself.

He glanced at his watch. Switching off the set, he picked up his prosthesis, attaching it firmly to the stump of his right knee. He then retrieved his Glock and checked the clip ... fourteen rounds plus one in the chamber. That should be sufficient to save Phillip's life. And, Rick added grimly, to end the life of the man responsible for his partner's death. He reached a shaking hand for the half empty bottle of vodka, hesitated, let his hand fall away. He'd wait.

Rick pushed open the glass door of Stanford University's Physics Research Center and walked toward the elevators, waving to the security guard stationed behind the lobby's desk.

"Hey, Mr. Logan. Why're you here so late?" The guard, more interested in the sports page's box scores than in a member of one of the research teams dropping by unexpectedly, hardly listened to Rick's reply.

"Left something in the lab. I'll be out of your hair in a couple of minutes." As Rick entered an elevator, he smiled - the guard had already forgotten him. In moments he was in the lab, opening the locked door with his ID card. He deftly pushed a number of buttons on a computer console and the room began to hum as machinery awoke. While he waited impatiently for the time travel module to open, he thought about how this had all come to pass.

Nearly a year ago, he and his partner, San Francisco homicide inspector Phillip Crane, had been ambushed at the ruins of the Sutro Baths while following up a lead on a case. He'd lost his leg, Phillip lost his life. Rick had been taken off the case, put on disability, and that's when the bottle had become his new best friend. Survivor's guilt, the department shrink had called it.

The one bright spot in his personal vortex of doom had been Barry. A friend since college, Barry had dragged him back from the brink with an offer of a new job, one Rick instantly recognized as giving him a chance to rewrite history - his and Phillip's.

Barry belonged to a research group at Stanford that had managed to take time travel from theory to actuality. Barry spoke of wormholes, closed timelike curves, four dimensional space-time ... none of it had made sense to Rick, but he could see that Barry believed in it and he believed in Barry. He had to.

The research group was ready to send a human subject back in time. Only two problems remained - choosing an historical event to observe and finding the right observer. The field of events had been narrowed down to three - the shooting of JFK, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the accidental death of Princess Diana. The big money in the lab's pool had been on the grassy knoll but against all odds, Jesus had won.

Rick's reminiscing was interrupted as the heavy stainless steel door of the time travel module slowly hissed open. He entered. As he checked flickering instrument panels, he saw that the readouts of the digital displays showed the module was already programmed with the date and place of Christ's resurrection. He opened the notebook he'd brought along and scanned the instructions. He'd have to reprogram ... enter the time and place of Phillip's death. As he flipped the pages of the notebook, his mind drifted back once more.

It had been Barry's idea to hire Rick as the research group's observer. Barry argued that the ex-cop had the necessary intelligence and knew how to take care of himself. Rick believed they'd finally chosen him, however, because of his drinking problem - they felt they could control him, discredit him, if necessary. And if things went completely south and he didn't return from the trip alive, he had no one who'd miss him enough to ask troublesome questions. Plausible deniability was the bottom line in a place with government contracts.

"What the hell are you doing with my notebook?" Rick was jerked back to the present, his head snapping up, as Dr. Mary Brooks, the group's multi-degreed researcher, snatched back the notebook. "And why have you turned on the module?"

Rick didn't bother to answer the professor but simply decked her with a punch. Catching her limp body, he lifted her out of the module and recovered the notebook, returning to his task. The group had scheduled the trip back to Christ's resurrection for a month from today, giving Rick time to learn how to use the remote navigational device and to absorb cultural and language skills sufficient to matriculate in first century Jerusalem. But Rick had never planned to follow through. Now that he understood the module's workings, he was ready to pursue his own agenda. He wouldn't need Aramaic to save Phillip's life and he had no use for the remote nav device because he had no plans to come back.

Just as he reached out to reprogram the module, a shadow fell over him and he turned to see an outraged Dr. Brooks swinging a computer keyboard at his head. He grabbed for Brooks, but didn't duck quickly enough and the two of them, tangled together, fell heavily against the programming panel. The last things Rick heard as he lost consciousness were the sounds of the module's door clanging shut and of Dr. Brooks swearing.

###

Rick waited. He didn't wait well. It gave him too much time to think. His thoughts, now, were of how terribly wrong his plan had gone. He took a deep breath of the cool morning air and struggled into a more comfortable seated position against the rough stone of the city's well. Pulling the fabric of his stolen robe into place, he glared at Dr. Mary Brooks.

He hadn't had a chance to reprogram the module before she'd accosted him. The place and date originally laid in - the tomb of Christ and the time of his resurrection - had been skewed when he and Brooks fell against the instrument panel. They'd ended up in Magdala, a city on the sea of Galilee, and they were years too early for the resurrection.

A local woman stopped at the well, filling a large ceramic jar, and gave them a suspicious glance. Brooks said something in fluent Aramaic and the woman, reassured, left them in peace. "He should be here any time now!" said the professor. Not sharing her enthusiasm, Rick merely grunted and went back to his thoughts.

The first thing he'd done when they'd recovered from their arrival, stunned and retching from the enormous speed and gravitational forces to which they'd been subjected, was to check his prosthesis and his weapon. Next he'd scanned the remaote navigational device Dr. Brooks clutched in one hand - she'd had the presence of mind to snatch the device as they began the transition - it appeared to be functioning properly. The device could envelope them in a temporal field, no matter what their distance in time or space from the time travel module in the lab. He'd then tried to convince Dr. Brooks to use the device to send him back to the where and when of his original destination - the moment of Phillip's death - but she'd refused.

Since he was insufficiently trained for the job, she'd decided to complete the mission herself - meet Jesus, become a disciple, be there when the moment in question occurred. The fact that this would take years didn't faze her - no matter how long they stayed, they'd still return to the lab only moments after they'd left. If Rick had understood how to work the remote nav device, he would have taken it from Brooks then and abandoned her. But he didn't. So he waited ...

"Rick."

Blinking in confusion, Rick realized that he'd fallen asleep. Standing over him were Brooks and a stranger. Struggling awkwardly to his feet, his gaze was caught by her expression. The Brooks he'd come to know was cold and driven, but now she glowed. Her smile was filled with something he'd never seen in her before - hope. She reached out a hand and squeezed his arm in a friendly and uncharacteristic manner.

Puzzled, Rick turned to the man at her side. Was this really Jesus? Rick tried to wrap his mind around the idea that this man was supposedly the Son of God. He was having a hard time with it ... he'd expected someone more imposing, taller maybe. What he saw instead was a man not unlike himself ... no stranger to suffering. But there was a difference between the two of them, Rick acknowledged. This man had a vulnerability and warmth that issued a gently compelling invitation. And those eyes, the mystery that lay within them ...

"Rick, I'm not going back."

Startled, it took Rick a moment to process what Brooks had said. "You're not going back - ever? But, what about ..."

Before Rick could finish, the stranger reached out to him, spoke quietly. Rick didn't understand Aramaic but he got the gist of it. The man was asking Rick to remain with them and there was something more intended - perhaps an offer of healing. Rick gazed into those strange eyes and then stumbled backwards, shaking his head. He didn't realize how much he'd wanted this until it was proffered. But he couldn't accept. If he remained here, Phillip would never get the second chance he deserved. Blinded by bitter tears, Rick lurched away from Brooks and the stranger.

As he tried to regain his composure, he felt a hand rest on his shoulder. Then he heard Brooks say, "I've reprogrammed the remote nav device according to your specifications." He turned to see her holding it out to him. "Good luck, Rick."

###

Rick stood on the dark shore of Ocean Beach in San Francisco, rain splashing against his face. It was 3:00 am. He scanned the distant ruins of the Sutro Baths. A Victorian bathing palace built into the cave-riddled ocean cliffs in 1896, it had once served 24,000 swimmers as well as housing restaurants and museums. It had burned in 1966 and now only the remnants survived - deep sea-water filled pits and skeletal concrete beams. This was where Phillip had died.

Rick approached the ruins and then ducked into the mouth of a nearby cave as he spotted a car - Phillip's car. That night almost a year ago, Rick had been on the way to Phiilip's home to fill him in on some late-breaking developments in their case. As he'd approached, he'd seen Phillip drive from his garage with a screech and tear off down the quiet street like a bat out of hell. Filled with foreboding, Rick had followed. By the time he'd reached the ruins, Phillip was already dead. As he'd bent, desolate, over his partner's body, he'd also been shot.

Rick shook the memory from his mind and stared in wonder from the cave - he saw not only his partner but his very own past self exit Phillip's car. But how ... ? Then he remembered, Brooks had warned him about this - that because of her remaining in the past, in the first century, the present/future time-line was likely to be corrupted or changed in some ways.

Rick gasped as a gunshot rang out and he saw Phillip fall, saw his past self duck. A dark ski-masked figure advanced on the inspectors, still shooting, and Rick saw his other self pull Phillip behind a concrete beam just before he too was shot. Cursing himself for hanging back, Rick raced toward the ruins, unholstering his weapon. The shooter saw him and faded into another cave but Rick had eyes only for his partner. Phillip lay unmoving but as Rick reached him and put a hand to his neck, he was rewarded with a pulse.

But where was the other Rick? Crouching low, he searched the immediate area and then froze. When shot, his past self must have fallen into one of the deep watery pits connected to the ocean, for he saw his doppelganger floating face down there in the surf-filled ruins. Rick watched as the body was swiftly sucked out to sea. He shuddered - this part of the Pacific Ocean, known as the red triangle, was a hunting ground for great white sharks - he doubted the body would ever be found.

Pushing wet hair back from his face, he returned to Phillip. His original plan had been to save his partner and destroy his would-be murderer but now that he was reliving the moment, Rick no longer felt the need for revenge - all that mattered was helping his partner. As he began to lift Phillip in his arms, something hard and cold was pressed into his spine.

"Get up, Rick."

Rick slowly rose, a sick feeling in his stomach. He recognized the voice. The shooter, his gun held on Rick, pulled off the ski mask. All Rick could think of to say was, "Why, Barry?"

"First, your gun." Rick handed over the Glock and Barry began to explain. "Science ... I did it all for science." Rick shook his head, not understanding. Barry continued, "The research group was so close to finishing the time travel module. I won't go into the details - the very fact that you're here now means you must know about the experiment. All we needed was a source of energy roughly as powerful as a planetary body. A scientist at Berkeley found a way to harness Strange Matter and I believed that would do the trick."

Rick realized Barry was talking about the murder case he and Phillip had investigated a year ago - Dr. Grimes, a Berkeley physicist, and his wife, had been killed in their home. Rick had pegged the wife's lover as the murderer but Phillip hadn't been convinced.

"I see you understand. I didn't mean to kill Grimes - he and his wife came home before I found his research journal. It would've been fine but for your partner who figured the whole thing out. I was arrested. While out on bail, I broke into the lab, made the necessary modifications to the module based on Grimes journal, and went back in time to before my arrest. I called Phillip, told him to meet me here, that I had information about his case. I killed him, wounded you. Feeling guilty about crippling you, I helped you get a job with the research group. But eventually, you figured out the truth as well. So I decided to come back in time once more and kill the both of you."

Numbed by this callous confession, Rick analyzed his chances of overpowering Barry. Suddenly, he was thrown backwards with the impact of Barry's body, a gunshot ringing in his ears. He struggled out from under the dead weight of his former friend while a couple of plainclothes cops ran towards them. As one of them radioed for the paramedics, Rick realized that in this time-line, Phillip must have had the presence of mind to call for backup.

###

Rick closed the door to Phillip's room and walked down the hospital corridor, holding the remote navigational device. It was now defunct. He supposed this was because Barry had died in this time-line before finishing the module. Rick's mind spun with the various temporal paradoxes of time travel, not to mention the problem of how to explain to his partner why he now had only one leg. He shrugged. All he cared about was that, in this particular present, Phillip was alive. He passed by the door of the hospital chapel and paused, remembering the invitation given him by the man he'd met in Magdala. Maybe it wasn't too late to accept. He opened the door.

#

Resurrexit

This story was written for a Murder Mystery Challenge ... the story sentences had to start with the letter A and proceed through the alphabet, omitting X and Z.

*

4:00 am
As San Francisco PD Homicide Inspector Dane Ramsey parked his Ford in a spot between a patrol car and the large forensics van, he tried to forget his disturbing lunch date with his partner, Inspector Samantha Green, and focus instead on the task at hand ... a murder in Golden Gate Park. Barring the entrance to the Steinhart Aquarium, yellow police-issue boundary tape fluttered gently in the late-night ocean breeze. Catching the tape in one hand, the Inspector ducked beneath it and walked through the open glass doors, giving his name to the uniformed officer who stood just within.

Dane strolled through the aquarium's foyer, glancing down into the swampy habitat of the crocodile pit that graced that room, before turning into one of the darkened hallways lined with fish tanks. Everywhere he looked, brilliantly hued denizens of the deep, both large and small, traversed their tanks with frictionless ease or simply hung, motionless, returning his stare with bug-eyed indifference. Fishsticks ... memories of the lunch-gone-wrong with Samantha at Neptune's Restaurant, once again drifted through Dane's mind, unbidden.

Glad enough to have another loner like Samantha as a partner, Dane had found it easy to keep an emotional distance from her, just as he had with everyone since his wife's death. He hadn't expected Samantha's lunch invitation and was even less prepared for the way she acted during their meal ... it was as though she needed to tell him something very important yet feared to do so ... she seemed to crave an intimacy he'd worked so hard to avoid. Ill at ease, he'd let her see his dismayed resistance and she'd left in the middle of the lunch, upset. Jarred, Dane felt the first of a series of cracks in his emotional defenses ... he didn't like the feeling.

Knitting his brows, Dane pushed these useless thoughts aside and noticed that the fish tank-studded corridor through which he walked was exiting into a large circular room holding a beautifully engineered rendition of a coastal tide pool. Left and right, around the room, forensic investigators crouched, collecting trace evidence, dusting for prints, snapping documentation photos ... Mark Douglas, a beat cop with whom Dane was acquainted, came forward upon seeing him, notebook in hand.

"Mark, what have we got?" Dane asked as he stepped over to the tide pool, glancing down. Numerous layers of kelp fronds swirled underwater, set in motion by the skittering of tiny hermit crabs ... barnacles and delicate sea stars clung to rocky outcropping. On the edge of one of those outcropping, half submerged in the tide pool, what looked like a ragged piece of scalp with short blond hair attached, lay bobbing in a diluted wash of blood.

"Pearson and I arrived here around 3:30 am," began Officer Douglas, flipping through his notes, "and found signs of a struggle in the tide pool and a DB in a tank in another part of the aquarium."

Quickly locating a forensic kit, Dane took out a pair of latex gloves and snapped them on before picking up the scalp fragment for examination. Repressing a sigh, he wondered if he'd ever become inured to such sights. Swallowing dryly, he carefully set the macabre particle back where he'd found it and turned to Douglas.

Tempering the desire to wipe the blood from his gloved hands, Dane said, "Let's see the body."

"Um, you here on your own?" Douglas asked, as he lead Dane through more labyrinthian tank-lined corridors to the location of the corpse.

Vague feelings of foreboding, roused by the mention of Samantha's absence, tugged at Dane's consciousness but he simply shrugged. "Well, I believe she had some personal business to attend to. You know how it is when ... "

As they approached a huge tank built into one wall, Dane's voice died away, his sentence unfinished, as he tried to make sense of the tableau before him.

Brown colored fish with red underbellies floated, torpid, in murky blood-tinged water, their half-foot long bodies bloated and engorged. Countless sea weeds near the bottom of the tank gently swayed and Dane caught a glimpse of a diver engrossed in some task. Digging down, the wet-suited figure grasped something and then rose above the sea weeds, dragging a skeletonized corpse along with him to the surface.

Eyeing the diver's grotesque burden, Officer Douglas shook his head, visibly disturbed. "For what it's worth, contrary to popular belief, it's not blood in the water that sends piranha into a feeding frenzy but the prey item's frantic efforts to escape ... when the killer threw our vic in that tank, he or she was still alive."

7:00 am
Graced with a smear of peppermint oil on his upper lip, Dane was still stunned by the pungent odor of the bony corpse on the autopsy table. He tore his eyes from the remains, focusing on the ME instead, as he asked, "Have you made a positive identification yet, Doc?"

Ignatius Morgan, pathologist and medical examiner for the city of San Francisco, shook his head as he bent over the body. "Just need some more time ... not a lot to work with here and it takes a while to match up dental records," he muttered, shaking his head.

Knuckling his eyes tiredly, Dane asked, "What dowe know?"

"Less than I'd like but, keeping in mind that some of this is guesswork, the bones of the skeleton tell me that this is a woman between the ages of twenty-one and forty, sixty-five inches in height and, thanks to the fragment of scalp recovered, Caucasian with blond hair."

Making a vain attempt to escape the body's stench by breathing through his mouth, Dane frowned, disappointed.

"Nancy Logan is coming in from the LAPD crime lab in a few days ... she's a forensic anthropologist," Morgan offered. "Once we apply the new computer program she's bringing along, we'll have a facsimile of our vic's face ... the program can reconstruct 3D facial images from lasar-scanned skulls."

Peering down at the ravaged corpse, Dane used his imagination to drape it in female flesh ... young, pale skin, short blond hair ... perhaps blue eyes like Samantha's. Queasy, he broke off that line of thought.

Reading something odd in Dane's mood, Morgan asked, "This is the second body from Golden Gate Park, isn't it?"

"Second ... yes. The first was found garroted and floating under the Moon bridge in the Japanese Tea Garden just a couple of weeks ago. Under questioning, I found one guy, Ed Hirsh, who looked good for the murder ... a groundskeeper at the park. ... but Samantha had mixed feelings about his guilt"

Vastly intrigued by this, the medical examiner peeled off his latex gloves and motioned to his assistant to prepare the skeletonized remains for refrigeration before he turned back to Dane. "Well, did you arrest him despite Samantha's misgivings, and if so, how could he have done this latest murder while incarcerated?"

Yawning, Dane rubbed a hand over his face and then apologized, saying, "Sorry, I've been up since 4:00 am. As it turned out, we didn't arrest the guy because he had an alibi for the time of the murder ... but Samantha was going over to the park late yesterday afternoon to try to shake him out of it." Capturing a tissue from a nearby box, Dane wiped the peppermint oil from his lip as he headed for the door.

"Dane, I meant to ask ... where isSamantha? Even when the going here gets as gruesome, she's usually the first to show up for an autopsy."

Frowning as he walked out the door, Dane said, "That's a very good question, Doc."

4:00 pm
Glancing around, Dane walked through the brick and wrought iron gates at the entrance to the Garden of Shakespeare's Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Here grew many of the flowers mentioned in the works of Shakespeare and Dane was aware of the irony of seeking a killer in this place of beauty and peace. Impatient, he strode down the brick walkway, past the large sundial, towards the back of the garden where he'd been told Hirsh was working, all the while worrying about Samantha ... she'd never turned up at work and her apartment had been empty. Just at the edge of a circular brick-paved area, he saw the man he sought, Ed Hirsh, shoveling earth around a newly planted rose bush.

Knocking damp dirt from his shovel, Hirsh looked up with a smile as Dane approached, asking, "What can I do for you, Inspector?"

Leaning against a tree in a forced effort at calmness, Dane crossed his arms over his chest and said, "I want to hear about your interview with my partner yesterday ... that, and where you were last night at about 3:00 am."

"Mind if I smoke?" asked the tall young groundskeeper as he took out a cigarette and lit up, inhaling deeply. "Nice looking woman, your partner, but I'm sure you don't need me to remind you of that fact ... big blue eyes, blonde hair and breasts that ... "

Ominous in his expression, Dane uncrossed his arms and stepped forward, effectively ending Hirsh's colorful description of Samantha.

Pausing to crush out his cigarette, Hirsh cut to the chase under Dane's cold stare, saying, "Yeah, she was here asking about my alibi for that killing in the Japanese Tea Garden."

Quietly, Dane prodded, "And ...?"

Raising nonchalant brows, Hirsh said, "I told her that my wife was my alibi ... that I was home at that time, in bed with her. Same thing's true for last night at 3:00 am."

"Tell me, did Inspector Green say where she was going when she left you?"

"Uh, let me think ..." began Hirsh, his smile back as he leaned on the shovel's handle.

Vague feelings of unease crystallized in a micro-second as Dane suddenly recognized the ring on on Hirsh's little finger ... it was Samantha's. With a curse muttered under his breath, the Inspector lunged at the groundskeeper, but the other man lashed out with his shovel and brought Dane to his knees. A second blow rendered the Inspector unconscious.

9:00 pm
Breathing irregular, heart thumping, Dane sat in his car, parked at the edge of Ocean Beach on San Francisco's west shore, afraid. Carried to the emergency room after Hirsh's attack, he'd spent wasted futile hours there, trying to find Samantha or Hirsh through others. Dane had then spent more hours, once released from the hospital, looking up Hirsh's cronies, hoping to find information leading to his whereabouts ... and had learned of this bolt hole Hirsh and his wife kept in the cliff caves near the ruins of the Sutro Baths.

Every beat of his wild heart caused a corresponding throb at the wound in his temple, but he didn't mind the pain. Focusing on that pain helped to dull the fear that kept him seated in the car when he should be searching the caves.
Grimly, he acknowledged that it wasn't a showdown with Hirsh he so feared, nor even the confirmation of his dread that Samantha was now lying, a corpse, in the morgue. He feared most of all that despite Samantha's interest in him, despite her death by murder, he'd remain unchanged ... that the numbness he'd so carefully nurtured since his wife's death would defy and outlast everything.

Impatient, finally, at his reluctance, he left the car. Just a few feet away, waves crashed against sand as the Inspector stalked the beach. Knowing he should hurry, Dane peered towards his goal through the gloom of a night fitfully illuminated by the moon ... the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Lauded in 1896 as the premier Victorian bathing palace, it had been built into the ocean cliffs, later to burn to ruins in 1966... now only the remnants survived ... deep sea-water filled pits and skeletal metal concrete beams.

Moving down the beach towards the ruins and the caves behind them, Dane unholstered his weapon, checking the magazine, moving a round into the chamber and snicking off the safety ... he wanted to be prepared. Nearing the ruins, he began to move behind them in an effort to skirt the rain-slicked treacherous pylons and deep water-filled trenches, but he'd barely made headway before he heard the soft spit of a silenced shot, watched a puff of sand explode at his feet ... Hirsh must have been watching for him.

Over the dunes, from the direction of the caves, a dark figure advanced on the inspector, still shooting his silenced weapon and, not trusting his aim in the dimness, Dane moved toward the ruins for cover. Positioned behind a concrete strut that jutted up from one of the watery trenches, he crouched low, holding on against the spray of the breaking waves, scanning the immediate area for Hirsh. Queerly, what met his gaze was not the figure of an armed man but that of a woman, sitting on one of the metal pylons, facing away from him ... Hirsh's wife ... or? Ruthlessly, Dane crushed the hope that it could somehow be Samantha.

Startled by the whine of a ricocheting bullet, the Inspector peered through the night until he saw another muzzle flash and took aim himself, popping off a few rounds. Then, not bothering to calculate the odds that the woman on the pylon was Hirsh's wife, set to trap him, Dane made a scuttling run for her position. Under the feeble light of the moon, Dane grabbed the woman and turning her, stared into a face he hadn't dared hope to ever see again ... Samantha's.

Very carefully, he pulled her to her feet on the slippery length of metal, keeping a concrete strut between them and Hirsh's position. When he'd finally finished just looking at her and opened his mouth to ask all his myriad questions, declare all his reborn passions, he felt the cold pressure of a pistol muzzle pressed into the back of his neck.

"You step away from her," Hirsh demanded from behind the Inspector, pulling Dane's weapon from his nerveless hand.

Acquiessing reluctantly, Dane cast a worried glance at Samantha and was stunned to see her approach Hirsh, to be enfolded in a rough one-armed embrace.

Before the Inspector could comment, Hirsh let go of Samantha and began pushing Dane backwards towards the end of the pylon where one of the deepest watery pits surged ferociously with the ocean's waves. Carefully balancing on the slimy narrow metal surface, Dane retreated step by step, all the while his mind spinning out one flawed plan after another, until he had nowhere left to go. Determined to at least die with his questions answered, he turned to Samantha as Hirsh raised his pistol.

"Evidently, I seriously misjudged the situation," Dane began, raising his voice to be heard above the pounding of the surf, "for I thought you and I ..."

Grim faced, Samantha just shook her head, dropped her eyes, clung closer to Hirsh.

Hirsh smiled nastily, apparently mollified by the woman's show of affection, and deigned to answer the Inspector's unasked questions. "It was I who killed that woman in the Japanese Tea Garden ... my wife lied for me about my presence at home."

"Just her ... was she your only victim?" Dane asked.

"Keeping honest, I'd have to say no. Last one was my wife ... banged her head against a rock in that tide pool and tossed her in the piranha tank ... the bitch had decided to turn me in when she found out about me and Samantha."

Making a last attempt with his partner, Dane said, "I'm sorry I wouldn't listen ... the other day at lunch ... I didn't realize ..."

"No more talk," Hirsh shouted, as he cocked his pistol, aimed at Dane and began to squeeze the trigger.

Observing events that seemed to flow in a kind of surreal slow motion, Dane stood breathless as Samantha hugged Hirsh close, coming away with Dane's captured pistol in her hand ... watched himself reach out and easily catch the pistol she threw to him ... watched Hirsh spin ever so slowly to Samantha and blow a hole through her midsection ... watched her fall gracefully into the surging ocean-filled trench. Painful as a slap in the face, time then seemed to snap back to normal and in a matter of seconds, Dane had shot Hirsh and dived into the trench after Samantha.

4:00 am
Quietus ... death. Recumbant on the sands of North Beach, Dane stared out into what was known of as the Red Triangle ... an area of the Pacific Ocean hunted by the great white shark ... and knew the search team would never find Samantha's body. Sadly, he wondered at a world where a murderer like Hirsh would live to stand trial, probably spending a long life in prison, while a victim of loneliness like his former partner would pay full price for one mistake. Then he sighed as words vaguely remembered floated through of his mind, brought forth by the turbulence of the last day ... wake up, arise from the dead... he promised himself and Samantha that somehow he'd do just that.




#

The Cult of Dionysos

This story was written for a Murder Mystery Challenge ... 1822 words.

*

Mark Delaney stared out the window of his Napa Valley home at leafless tress and a leaden sky. Winter. Hard to believe that those trees would ever sprout new green foliage, that the sun's warmth would ever again touch him. Winter to spring ... death and rebirth ... it was the rule for nature, but sadly, not for human beings. His gaze turned from the window to an art print that hung on the wall nearby ... Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus by JW Waterhouse. It was a gift from his sister, sent to him in San Francisco just a few days before her death.

Once again he reviewed the Greek myth referred to in the Waterhouse print ... the tearing to pieces of the musician Orpheus by the devotees of the god Dionysos, the musician's still-living head later found by nymphs. Mark scanned the macabre image, trying for the hundredth time to find some clue to his sister's death in them, for surely she'd meant this gift as a message. Although why she hadn't simply told him ... oh, to hell with it!

Mark reached for the bottle to pour himself another whiskey, then noticed it was empty. Sighing, he drained the dregs of his glass. The thing was, his sister probably had tried, countless times, to tell him something was wrong, but he'd been too busy to listen ... too busy with his new career as a cop in the big city. He'd failed her ... failed to save her life. And after her death, when he'd moved back here to help the local cops get it right, he'd failed her again ... failed to make a case against her killer that the DA could prosecute. With an oath, he swept the empty bottle and glass from the table, the sound of their shattering almost drowning out the telephone's sudden ring.

"Delaney here."

"I need your help ... my life's in danger."

Mark felt his stomach clench as he recognized the voice on the line ... that of his brother-in-law, Doug Simpson. He quelled the urge to hang up and forced himself to respond. "Do you honestly believe I care? You killed my sister, you son of a bitch. Without a body, I wasn't able to prove it, but I know ..."

"You're right, I killed Alice. I'll confess, turn myself in, but only to you. Even life in prison's better than than what Amarantos has planned for me. Just get over here before it's too late."

Stunned, Mark listened to the desperation in Doug's voice and his heart began to thump painfully against his ribs. For the first time since his sister's disappearance, he allowed himself to feel something other than despair.

"I'm on my way."

* * * * *
Mark stood in the living room of Doug's home on the outskirts of Calistoga. He'd let himself in when he'd found the front door ajar but Doug was absent. Mark paced the room, mind in turmoil ... had Doug merely been yanking his chain? As he paced, his eyes roamed the chamber, seeking some remnant of his sister but there was nothing to prove she'd ever lived here. He wasn't surprised ... the marriage which had begun so well had taken a turn for the worse about a year ago. Alice had told him of Doug's womanizing as well as his sudden and questionable financial success, but Mark had been too absorbed in his own life to do more than offer distracted, conventional advice.

Mark's gaze slipped over and then came back to the fireplace mantel. A photograph there caught his eye. He examined the the framed rectangle of paper ... Doug and an unknown man stood before a mansion, green vineyards stretching out on either side of them. The stranger's features were blurred but Doug realized who he must be - the owner of the Labyrinth Winery - the man Doug had just accused of wanting him dead. Amarantos, a wealthy Greek national, had purchased the failing winery about a year ago and had miraculously turned it into one of Napa Valley's most successful. About a year ago, Mark mused. Unwilling to let die the grim hope of vengeance Doug's phone call had resurrected, Mark chose to believe his brother-in-law's story - he would check out the winery.

* * * * *
Mark gazed out over row upon row of mist-shrouded vines, fighting off a bitter resignation. He'd found Amarantos' mansion as empty as Doug's house. Had he let his need for closure cloud his judgment? Perhaps Doug was just spinning out a cruel joke. A faint whispery thread of music interrupted his line of thought and he held his breath, listening. It seemed to be coming from a forested area to one side of the mansion. Out of other options, he headed that way.

Mark followed the hollow piping of what sounded like a flute, walking under the boughs of oaks and pines until the daylight dimmed to a green duskiness. After a few minutes, he came to a high stone wall. The flute was louder here and now Mark could discern the light tympany of a drum accompanying the haunting melody. He walked along the wall and eventually came to a wooden door set into it. He tried the door's handle. Locked. Mark eyed the smoothness of the twelve foot wall, wondering if there was any point in trying to scale it ... for all he knew, he was wasting his time here.

Then Mark cocked his head ... silence ... the music had ceased. As he stood undecided, the hair on his neck was raised by a hoarse ragged scream originating from within the walls. Pulling his pistol from its holster, Mark kicked open the door, sending splinters of wood flying. The path leading from the door was narrow, bordered on each side by tall, densely thorny hedges ... some sort of maze, he realized. The screams continued unabated and Mark chose a leg of the path that seemed to lead in their direction, only to have it suddenly curve into a dead end. Retracing his steps, he took an intersecting path and made progress until it ended unexpectedly in a cul-de-sac. Cursing, Mark holstered the Colt and began to force his way through the thinnest areas of the hedges, thorns tearing through clothes and exposed flesh. As he headed toward the sounds of anguish, they lessened and then ended. An eerie silence descended, broken only by the rustle of the hedges as Mark passed through them.

He burst through the vegetation into the center of the maze, a large grassy circle. A number of women in stained white gowns stood in varying states of disarray, red bits of flesh in their hands and mouths. Flutes and drums lay discarded on the blood-flecked grass. The women seemed dazed, oblivious to his presence. Mark turned his shocked gaze to an object in the middle of the circle ... something lying in a widening pool of blood. Stepping forward, he saw that the object was a human body - Doug, or what was left of him. The image of Waterhouse's nymphs bent over Orpheus' severed head drifted up from his memory and, succumbing to a wave of nausea, Mark fell to one knee, retching. A crippling dizziness took him and darkness followed.

* * * * *
Dusk. The first pale stars were just visible in a lavender sky ... beautiful, Mark thought, laying on his back in the soft grass. He frowned slightly, a remote corner of his mind whispering that something was very wrong. He decided to ignore the whisper but his emotional dislocation was obliterated when he lazily turned his head and saw a male figure seated next to him on the grass. Mark lurched to his feet, breath coming in gasps, memory suddenly intact. He groped for his weapon ... gone. He frantically scanned the grassy circle but the women and Doug's body had vanished, not even a trace remaining of the dark blood that had been spilled.

Finally, feeling the other's gaze on him, Mark forced himself to return that look. He found eyes of a hyacinth blue surrounded by thick dark lashes. Mark almost lost himself in those eyes ... they seemed to dissect his very soul while themselves revealing nothing. The other smiled, breaking the spell, and gestured for him to sit. Mark did so reluctantly, questions on his lips.

"Who are you? What happened to ..."

"Your brother-in-law knew me as Amarantos but I have other names. I'm nature's advocate ... the dying and resurrecting god of fertility."

While Mark's mind refused this explanation, he felt his body accepting it ... this person, if he could be called such, attracted him with such an ambiguous sensuality, such an amoral prescience, that he did seem more than human. Mark rubbed a shaking hand over his face. "I don't understand."

The stranger nodded. "You weren't prepared, should not have seen this ... the ecstasy."

"The ecstasy? A man was murdered!"

"Not so. His death was just ... the result of a bargain he entered into freely. For one full year, nature granted his every desire. At the end of that time, he was to repay nature with the nourishment of his life's blood. Surely you don't regret his passing?"

Momentarily putting aside his doubts that Doug had made any such bargain, Mark searched within and was forced to admit the other was right. "No, I'm not sorry he's gone. He killed my sister and ..."

"Your sister lives."

Mark's head snapped up, his eyes locking with the other's. "No. She disappeared six months ago. Doug admitted he killed her."

"He brought her here to dispatch her and I allowed it, as he protested that her presence, his marriage, was hindering our bargain. But he was mistaken in thinking her dead."

Mark held his breath as the other paused, afraid to hope but unable to stop himself. "What do you mean, he was mistaken?"

"Doug left her corpse with me and as I gazed upon her, I was struck by her resemblance to someone ... someone I once loved. I brought her back and kept her safe and unknowing until Doug had paid his price."

Mark shook his head. "Brought her back? To life? That's not possible." But even as he spoke these words, his heart leapt. Not possible ... he knew that ... he lifted a hand to brush away tears he couldn't restrain.

"See for yourself."

Mark looked to where the other pointed and saw something emerge from one path of the maze ... a fawn. She wobbled towards them, unafraid. Mark tried to stand but the dizziness returned, striking him down. As his vision faded, he was sure he heard Alice's voice.

* * * * *
Mark stared out the window of his Napa Valley home at leafless tress and a leaden sky. Winter. But soon spring would follow ... death and rebirth. Mark smiled, his gaze turning from the window to a print that hung on the wall nearby ... Ariadne by JW Waterhouse. A gift from his sister. He idly wondered why she'd chosen this particular print. He knew the story of Ariadne from Greek mythology ... the daughter of King Minos of Crete, she was abandoned by her lover Theseus and the God Dionysos rescued her, having fallen in love with her. But why ...

"Hey, big brother. Are you taking me to lunch, or what?"

Mark turned and gave Alice a hug, all thoughts of Greek mythology banished.

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Best of Both Worlds

This story was written for a science fiction challenge, the topic chosen was that of a kidnapped king - 2980 words

*

I was rudely dredged from the depths of sleep by the shrill repetitive wail of an alarm. The acrid tang of smoke seeped through the cracked canopy of my bio-bed as I tried to bring my groggy mind to bear on an obviously acute situation. There was a shuddering thump and the screech of tortured metal ... the floor abruptly tilted to a 45 degree angle, sending my bio-bed over on its side. I scrambled out, tearing away the tubes connecting me to it. The room in which I crouched, naked and trembling, was dim and filled with overturned medical equipment. A viewing port graced one wall and I laboriously made my way to it, still weak from my confinement. What I saw from that port rendered me speechless. I was in an orbiting object ... likely, a space station ... which was screaming down towards a huge ocean planet at terminal velocity.

The crump of a muffled explosion threw me to the floor and the hatch of the room was blown in, hurtling through the air to crash only inches from my position. Shaken but determined to survive, I ran from the room and into a hallway. The smoke was thicker here, the alarm louder, and the red-tinged lighting blinked off and on, creating a disconcerting strobe-like affect. I forced myself onward, knowing my only chance lay in finding an escape pod. I discovered the first of many corpses moments later. The shock of seeing that alien body ... Ennedi ... was like a slap in the face, instantaneously restoring my memory.

What I remembered only spurred me on in my search for a way off this death trap. As I tripped over bodies and peered into hatchways, I thought of Jenna, my wife, my Queen. How long since my capture, how long had I been missing ... days, weeks? My chest tightened painfully as I considered what she must be going through. Her love was true but perhaps even she had given up on me by now, thinking me dead by Ennedi treachery. I passed a transparent wall panel and noticed movement from the corner of my eye. Snapping my head around, I glimpsed a monster. Too terrified to run, I stared at the apparition, only slowly coming to realized that what I beheld was my own reflection.

I began to laugh. Days or weeks? No, it seemed I'd been missing for much longer. And apparently, the Ennedi scientists had made serious use of that time, for what looked back at me was no longer human in even the most flexible use of the term. My gales of laughter became sobs and I watched as human tears rolled down from eyes now an alien color ... watched those tears paint a face as pale as any Ennedi's ... watched them flow past the new gills at my neckline. I gathered my courage and glanced down at the naked body I'd not thought to scrutinize before. Nausea took me and I crawled away to retch in a corner.

I'm not sure how long I lay there, despairing. I finally beat back the hopelessness and self-loathing with one thought ... Harrath. I didn't know what the Ennedi's purpose had been in forcing this dreadful metamorphosis upon me, but I was still human enough to want to go home ... if only just to die. And Jenna ... she deserved to know the truth before I ended the vile experiment the Ennedi had begun. With renewed purpose, I eventually found the space station's docking bay. With only moment's to spare, I launched a shuttle and watched as the station began to burn in the Ennedi home world's atmosphere.

* * * * *

I sat in the info-tech's office on Harrath, impatiently awaiting his presence. Pulling close the hood of my robe to obscure my features, I thanked the paranoid impulse that had inspired me years ago to place money, a blaster and an alternate ID in a public locker at the spaceport. Without that precaution, I'd never have been able to afford the information I needed but had been unable to procure on my own.

"May I help you?"

I looked up to see the info-tech taking a seat across the table from me. He was elderly, but had an erect bearing and an air of competence. Placing his com-interface on the table, he awaited my response.

"I need information on the Queen ... her location, her political standing and anything you might have on her personal life."

He raised a gray brow. "I assume you're an off-worlder, as some of this is common knowledge. Will this information be used to harm anyone?"

I suppressed a sigh of relief. The laws regarding info-techs seemed not to have changed in the twenty years of my absence. For the right amount of money, one could find out almost anything about anyone. The only restriction lay in the buyer's intent ... they must mean no harm. And the info-tech would know, for they were not only learned in information retrieval but also empathic. "It's not my intent to harm any with this information," I replied.

The other closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them, seeming both surprised and sad. "Very well."

After fifteen minutes of intensive comp time, he had the answers I desired. "The Queen is naught but a figurehead since the disappearance of King Garron, twenty years ago. The country is truly ruled by Minister Jossa, whose time is mostly spent in defusing civil unrest. The Queen now resides in his custody in the castle of Elsinore on the northern continent. As to her personal life ... are you sure you want that information?"

I nodded.

"Her life has been shrouded in mystery since her husband vanished. Some say Minister Jossa wishes to wed her and that she chastely refuses, but all is conjecture."

I put aside my heartache at these words and concentrated on the concrete. "The castle is guarded by the Minister's men?"

"Assuredly."

"Then I need all the information you have on Elsinore Castle ... I must find an undetectable way inside."

The old man's eyes rested on me for a moment, as if weighing a decision. Finally, he spoke. "I believe I have just what you need."

* * * * *

I stood on a precipice overlooking the northern sea and Elsinore Castle. Rain spattered against my alien face and dark clouds obscured the moon, making it difficult to see. The castle itself stood upon a chunk of rock some thirty feet out into the sea and savage waves crashed against its foundations, creating a phosphorescent display. There was no room within the castle walls for a shuttle to land and the only means of egress was a bridge that connected the castle to the mainland. Guard posts stood at both ends of the bridge to ensure no unauthorized visitation. With a last lingering look, I turned away and began to carefully descend the side of the cliff.

As I slid and stumbled down a steep rain-drenched path barely wide enough for a goat, I went over what I knew of the castle's history. It had been the dwelling of the first monarch of Harrath a thousand years ago, though now it was rarely used due to its remoteness and primitive accouterments. Before that, legend says, it had been the home of a mythical race of beings that came out of the sea. Our primordial ancestors had worshipped these water-beings as gods in that dark time before the advent of reason. According to the info-tech, there existed a series of caves created by these ancient beings which connected the mainland to the foundations of the castle. It was through these caves that I hoped to gain access to Jenna.

After moments of silent searching, painfully aware of the guard post 100 feet above my head, I found the vegetation-covered cave mouth at the base of the cliff. I made my way within, the drop in temperature and the darkness daunting. After several minutes of tentative walking, I felt it safe to snap on a small light stick. What I saw nearly took my breath away ... the tunnel in which I stood opened up a few feet ahead into a huge area the size of a cathedral. From ceiling and floor, hundreds of varicolored stalactites and stalagmites reached toward each other with frozen fingers of stone. My path led me through this petrified wonderland and into a damp narrow tunnel whose inclination was downward ... with some trepidation, I realized that I was beginning to cross under the sea.

I followed this tunnel for some time, as the dampness increased and rivulets of sea water began to sluice down the walls from above. Soon I was wading in water ankle deep, then knee deep, and a distant roar from ahead hinted at worse. Before I could decide whether to continue, a sudden rush of water from behind swept me off my feet and down the tunnel at a dizzying speed. Barely keeping my head above the torrent, I saw that the tunnel widened before me, concluding in a whirlpool that sucked the sea water down through a large hole in the floor. Spinning out of control like a dead leaf in a storm, I circled the chamber in a rush of foam, then was pulled under into darkness.

Panic surged through me as I struggled in the blackness, my light stick lost. I knew not which way was up, was unable to keep myself from being pulled ever faster, ever deeper. Lungs burning, I held my breath until stars danced in the void before me ... then, to my horror, my body broke my will and sucked cold sea water with a passion. And I didn't drown. Stunned, I felt my Ennedi gills swell and shrink, separating oxygen and hydrogen. I was suddenly spit up to the water's surface and came to rest at the edge of a pool. I pulled myself exhausted from the water and it dawned on me that my vision was improving ... my Ennedi eyes, I supposed ... the darkness had paled to a shadowy dimness. This cave was different from the others ... crude paintings lined the walls and though primitive in technique, the story they told amazed me.

* * * * *

I paced in the hallway outside Jenna's chamber, my heart thumping, my stomach doing a queasy roll. It hadn't taken long to make my way from the cave of paintings to the bowels of the castle. All the guards seemed to be without the castle walls and I'd found only a young chambermaid outside Jenna's door. When the girl had seen me coming in my dripping robe, my face once more hidden within its cowl, she'd passed into Jenna's chamber to announce me. As I paced, I glanced at my chronometer, thankfully waterproof ... what was taking Jenna so long?

After my meeting with the info-tech, I'd had another reason to get to Jenna besides merely letting her know what had become of me ... it seemed obvious that both she and Harrath itself needed rescuing from Jossa. But as I strode back and forth outside her door, I acknowledged that I really had only one purpose for being here ... to discover whether the one I loved still loved me. A bitter smile touched my lips. How foolish. For me it seemed mere weeks since I'd last been with my wife ... she, on the other hand, must have come to terms with my death many years ago. It would be selfish to let her know I still lived, especially in my present form. Best to find another way to help her and Harrath through a third party, keeping my existence a secret. I turned to go, chagrined to feel the warmth of tears on my face. But after I'd taken only a few steps, Jenna's door opened.

"Sir, you wished to see me?"

I didn't turn, kept walking. "Sorry. A mistake."

I heard light footfalls and then a hand gripped my shoulder, causing me to halt. She walked around to stand before me and my eyes drank in her presence. She hadn't changed much at all ... still lovely. And even had her appearance altered, I doubt I would have noticed, for her spirit still shone, bright and true. Sadly, the same could not be said of me. I pulled the hood closer over my face and side-stepped her. "I must go. Excuse me, Lady."

Wide eyes widened further and she whispered, "Garron?"

My voice ... why hadn't I sought to disguise it? I ran from her down the hall but she caught up to me, pulling the robe's cowl from my head. I cringed, barely able to meet her gaze. But when I did, it wasn't fear or disgust I saw in her eyes but a wondering love. I'm not sure how long we lingered there, caught in an embrace, for time did seem to stand still. Eventually, though, we spoke, sharing what had transpired with each of us since our parting. Finally Jenna took my hand and pulled me toward her chamber saying there was someone within I needed to meet ... one of the mythical sea-folk of ancient Harrath.

* * * * *

As I crested the last rugged stretch of rocky outcropping, I could see the ruined temple glowing in the pink-gold rays of the rising sun. Beyond the sheer side of the peak I'd just climbed, the ocean lay 200 feet below, twinkling in the sunlight. And there sat Jossa, nonchalantly dangling his feet over the edge.

"You asked to meet ... I'm here," he said, not looking at me but staring out at the ocean.

"When I said you could pick the spot for the meeting, I didn't expect this. How long has it been?"

"We last were here together the day you were made king. As I recall, we fought." Still he wouldn't meet my gaze.

Climbing the steps of the ancient temple, one that had been built to the sea people so long ago, I ran a hand idly over the smooth marble of a broken pillar. "We fought about a lot of things in our youth ... it didn't keep us from being the best of friends. Until I was chosen by our father to rule after him. Then, you turned your face from me ... why?"

Finally, Jossa got to his feet and turned towards me. And he stared. All that I had feared to find in Jenna's eyes welled up now in my brother's. With what seemed like a mighty effort, he tore his gaze away,shaken. He seemed to have forgotten my question, caught up as he was by the change in my appearance.

"So it's true ... the Ennedi have made you one of their own. Is it also true that you've turned traitor and wish to offer Harrath to the enemy as a way of buying back your power here?"

I came down from the temple steps and stood as close to Jossa as he would permit. "No. You don't understand, of course, and that's why I asked to meet. The truth is stranger than you could imagine."

"Or believe?" he murmured.

"Just listen. In the far distant past, an alien race seeded the planets of a number of systems with genetic material. Only two planets proved fertile enough to nurture this material ... Ennedi and Harrath. The beings that evolved were of the sea and, as Ennedi is an ocean world, they changed little on that planet. Here, however, most of them evolved, adapting to life on land. We and the Ennedi have a common ancestor and ..."

"Enough!" Jossa pulled his dirk from its sheath. "I'm not interested in a history lesson, brother. I guess if you want something done right, you really do have to do it yourself."

I stared at him uncomprehendingly and then saw the truth in his eyes. "You ... you set up my capture by the Ennedi all those years ago. Why?"

He advanced on me with his dagger held before him, herding me towards the cliff's edge and the sheer drop to the ocean. "It's simple ... I wanted what you had ... the kingship, of course, and Jenna." He laughed bitterly. "Who knew that the Ennedi wouldn't kill you but would surgically alter you, brainwash you, and send you back here as their minion."

Slowly I gave ground, backing towards the cliff's edge, pulling out my own dagger. "You don't understand. I wasn't altered. Strangely, being in their presence reawakened in me some latent genetic material. I somehow de-evolved over that twenty year period of my captivity. When they realized what was happening, they consulted their gods, the aliens who first gave us all life, and those aliens commanded that a peace be made between our peoples. If a rebel Ennedi faction hadn't attacked the space station on which I ..."

"I said, I've heard enough! I don't know who, what, you are anymore but you're mad if you expect me to believe this fantasy. Come closer, brother ... give me the chance to end this farce."

Jossa leapt at me, his dirk nearly disemboweling me as I scrambled backwards. I regained my feet and we circled each other, stiff-legged, mere inches from the crumbling edge of a drop to certain death. His anger made him incautious and as he lunged again, I caught his wrist, twisting it and disarming him. Before he could retrieve his weapon, I kicked it over the cliff's edge. We stood, panting, staring at each other.

"Jossa, what I'm asking of you, of Harrath, is the best alternative for all ... an end to the war with the Ennedi ... peace."

He seemed to slump and the anger drained from his face. "If all you've said is indeed true, the world you propose is not one in which I'm fitted to live."

Before I could formulate a reply, Jossa turned and calmly stepped off the edge of the cliff. Feeling no pleasure in my triumph, I threw down my dagger and wept.


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