Impasse – Chapter Three

Detective Farva yanked his face out of the pillow, the moist cough overtaking him and forcing him awake. He arched his back and forced himself up, rolling his legs about to find the edge of the bed and the floor beneath it, all while the phlegmy hacking continued to attack his lungs. The lights from the parking lot on the other side of the window crept through the crack in the curtains, just enough to illuminate the room and allow the detective to find his pants on the floor and shirt slung on the edge of the table.

The blonde sat up and watched as Farva’s back moved with his strained breaths. “You okay, hun?”

“I just need a… cigarette,” the detective breathing heavily, the cough abating. The pack was in his jacket hanging by the door.

“Don’t you think… taking it easy with them would help?”

“That’s the last thing I want to hear from you, woman,” Farva huffed, fumbling out a cigarette to place between his lips. Before he could find the lighter hidden in one of the other deep pockets, the nightstand erupted with the buzz and jingle of the phone. “Damn it, at a time like this? What time, anyway…?”

The woman tilted her head back to the alarm on her side of the motel bed. “Almost three. Time’s not up, but… nothing good ever comes of a call this late at night.”

Farva flipped open and answered the phone with a huff. “Hello? Chief? The tracks, second avenue, yeah? Give me a bit, I’ll be there.”

The clouds, unsure of whether to offer up rain or not that night, blocked out most of the moonlight. The only other thing to light up the tracks were Farva’s headlights and the strobing red and blue of the parked patrol cars. The fine painted paneling of the train cars there on location glowed in the passing bursts of color.

The detective found the police chief at the edge of the tracks just past the guard rails, staring up at the unmoving vehicle. “Someone end up on the tracks again? Accident, or on purpose?”

Schultz pulled his attention away and turned back. “Well, finding that information would be your job, wouldn’t it, Detective?” he sneered, adding emphasis on the tiresome title. “But no, not this time. The train here just stopped on the rails.”

Farva glanced at the stretch of train in either direction, a fresh cigarette managing to sneak in between his lips in the meantime. “Are trains known for breaking down?”

“They might, if they end up with nobody at the controls.”

“The engineer fall asleep, then?”

“No engineer, conductor. No service staff. No passengers. Nobody.”

Farva shook his head. “Bullshit.”

“It don’t make sense, I know, Farve. But I’ve had Jackson up and down the tracks, shining lights inside, knocking on the windows. Not a single soul.”

The cigarette was lit by then and slowly turning to ember. “Maybe someone hijacked it and jumped off when they decided they were far enough along.”

Schultz shrugged. “You know what train this is?”

“A fancy one, by the looks of it.”

“A touring company runs it. The wife has been holding onto a neat little brochure for their packaged deal, says she wants to go, all four of us. The kid loves trains, after all.”

“Your point?”

“I woke up the wife to get their number from her little brochure and managed to get a hold of them. This train is right on track, right on time. Should be full of passengers. Should have a full staff tending to their needs. Should have a driver keeping it moving. None of those.”

“That’s something,” Farva breathed out slowly, releasing the last bit of chemical reassurance from the cigarette.

“Something my ass. It’s something that’ll give the whole town a headache if we don’t find out what’s going on. Listen, I’m filling out a report to the best of my ability, but I need someone to check out the interior. See if anything went down inside.”

“Fine,” Farva sighed, catching sight of the chief’s expectant eyes.

Schultz fiddled with his belt, unbuckling the heavy flashlight by his hip. “I take it you don’t have any of your gear? Here, take this. We dunno if the electricity is working.”

Farva felt the weight of the flashlight in his hand, the criss-cross pattern of the knurling against the skin of his palm, the cold metal. He took in a gasp, chest suddenly tight and hot.

“What’s with you?” Schultz offered a puzzled look.

Farva smacked at his sternum with his free hand, allowing his breath to return. “Nothing. I’m fine. I guess… I’ll start from the end.”

The caboose was decorative, at least only slightly more so than the rest of the train. It’s one of those steam trains, powered with coal… right? Did the chief say that? The door to the rearmost door of the train was open. Did Schultz open it? They call a blacksmith out? No, they never respond this quickly, especially in the middle of the night. I should take a note from them. If the train isn’t moving until the afternoon at the earliest, why should I be here at this hour? I forgot to call the wife…

The interior of the car contained various boxes and luggage. The wall shelves held a couple fancy rolling ones, likely for the passengers when they reached the resort at the end of the train journey. Other boxes and shelves were things for the crew to handle- spare parts, dry food, entertainment supplies. The center of the floor held a wide, stout wooden crate. The straps that would have held it in place were slipped off like it had been opened at some point. Farva ran his hands around the edge of the lid, but it gave no signs of budging. The flashing patrol car lights in the narrow windows near the ceiling reminded him to keep moving.

The next car was reachable across a short platform, bordering a gap that revealed the latching mechanism below. The detective crossed it without looking down. The long stride caused the old injury in his leg to complain, but nothing he wasn’t used to. The following door was unlocked like the first. Guess it doesn’t matter if they’re locked on not, on a moving train with plenty of staff anyways.

The interior was made up of cheap bunks with little privacy, intended for the staff that worked the train and entertained the money-flaunting guests. The upholstery smelled of smoke, which could have been from cigarettes or the train itself. If there were people on this train, most of them might have been sleeping in this very place at this very moment. But that was part of the problem that the chief explained, wasn’t it?

Beyond that car, the kitchen. A galley. Cramped, with ovens and counters and burners taking up most of the width. The faint smell of excess butter and meat lingered. The space was too cramped to feel comfortable in. Beyond, a dining car. Further beyond that, guest rooms, with locking doors, albeit unlocked and uninhabited. Smells of people- rich perfumes and shoe polish- but no belongings. The next car, the same.

The following rail car had wide windows and benches for watching the landscape pass by, but the night and condensation on the glass blocked out everything besides the strobing police lights. Schultz is going to throw a fit if I come back saying there is nothing… but I suppose he might not expect any more.

The following cars were catered to less spendy folks, with more compact rooms, tighter seats, and fewer dining options. Still out of my range or desire. The locomotive is just beyond here, if I had to guess.

The tall coal bins left only a slight space to pass between, leading finally to the main powerhouse of the train. Farva felt his chest suddenly heavy, struggling to take in air. He touched the handle of the door to the engineer’s compartment, expecting it to be warm, hot even, but the metal handle was no warmer than any other fixture he had made contact with. The heavier door swung open effortlessly. Inside, pipes and dials and a neat compartment for the coal to be inserted revealed themselves in the glow of the flashlight. In the wavering beam, all surfaces seemed to be immaculate, save a streak of old coal dust on the floor near the furnace door. It may or may not have been used, but… that’s not enough for the chief. One last look, just to make sure. Go back the way I came. Burn as much time not having to chat nicely with him.

Farva passed the bar and the cheap accommodations, the viewing deck, the fancy rooms, the dining car, the galley, and stopped, breath heavy, leg aching, at the crew beds. A smell crept up, one which he hadn’t smelled before. He tugged at the curtains, the narrow door to the latrine, and the tall storage closets. The smell wasn’t from any source in there. The doors between there and the caboose were extruding it. I thought I closed these. Was someone else here? He looked back, making sure the ones he had passed were secured as he thought.

The crate was there in that final car- the short, stout one- the one that looked as if it had been tinkered with. On his second pass, the detective saw the cracks where the nails had been pried up, the lid removed, and whatever inside seen, likely messed with. Was it the chief, maybe Travis?

The flashlight under his arm, Farva pulled at the lid, taking in the smell, sickly and sweet and something he now recognized, something he had smelled plenty before but couldn’t place. The contents weren’t packed neatly, nor with any extra material, an oiled-brown cloth resembling his jacket. There was hair, human, underneath it, a head, the same cut as his own— A body? — against his better judgment he yanked at the back of the material, pulled it up, the heavy, unwieldy mass, with limp arms and legs, and a face that slumped out of view but was somehow familiar.

“What the hell?” The flashlight fell from his hand and the mass of the corpse fell and slumped back into the crate, and before he could find the handle of the light there was a shrill sound that pierced the night air, a sound which he had heard plenty from his bed, half asleep.

Farva ran for the rear door, its frosted glass window glaring with a light brighter than the sun, the horn of the freight train on that same sole line bearing towards them, unaware of the stopped tourist trap. The caboose was decorative, certainly not heavy enough to take the impact of a much larger, more powerful train making contact. The car shook violently, causing Farva’s feet to slip out from underneath him. As the passenger separated itself from the rails and toppled sideways, both the wooden crate and the loose baggage toppled forward, heading towards him in the corner of the caboose.

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From End to Start

Impasse – Chapter Two

Farva and the chief marched the lengths of three train cars to the caboose at the very end of the line, climbing its thin stairs one by one to the rear platform and the door. “Thing like this, decorative, you know,” the chief said absentmindedly, glancing around at the red paint and round lights on the car.

“What now?”

“A caboose doesn’t really serve a purpose anymore on these modern trains.”

Farva shook his head. “That from your son as well?” he asked, holding his hand back for the long, metal flashlight the chief was holding.

“You know it. Here.”

The detective found a good grip on the knurled surface and clicked the rubber button to turn on the beam. He shined it to the handle of the rear door and gave it a twist. It opened with little force. Schultz shrugged and hummed. “Unlocked, good. At least we won’t have to call a blacksmith, wake up another poor dolt.”

“And here I was hoping I wouldn’t have to head on in.”

The chief took Farva by the shoulder and shook him. “I’ll be just below, getting some sort of detour signs up for the morning traffic.”

“Lucky you.”

“Don’t go freaking out and pissing your pants off any scary shadows, Farve. Look, just take a mental note if you see anything fishy, and I’ll have one of the boys take care of the paperwork. Get a move on now.”

Farva sighed and pulled the door open with a click as the chief clopped back down to the ground. The beam of the light found the specs of dust hovering in the still air like miniature stars in the black sky. The detective pulled on his sleeve, wiggling his wristwatch out beyond the cuff. Still three more hours until the sun comes up.

The floor and simple metal shelves inside, battered from many journeys, held wooden crates and a meager selection of well-used luggage, placed with just enough care to not move around with the starting and stopping of the train. Farva scanned the boxes and belongings for any sign of names; a shipping label or tag that denoted the owner or destination. Does commercial postage still travel on trains? At the very least, knowing the type of passengers on a train like this, this probably belongs to the crew.

More dust was kicked up, swirling in the light as the detective slid his feet closer to the opposite end of the train car. If there is anything to take notice of, it would be further down the line. The door handle was cold, almost painfully so. Farva pulled away out of reflex and shined the light at his hand, then at the shiny metal. Swallowing hard, he wrenched it again, the sensation more bearable the second time. The cold air at the junction of the two cars hit him, as well as the distant flashing of police lights.

The ledge at the end of the rail car was just wide enough for his feet. Beneath was the hitch connecting the individual cars, a mass of contorting metal parts shoved together in the dark. A wide step was all that it took to reach the next car ahead. It pained his bad leg to stretch that far, but hardly an unbearable sensation, and one that disappeared as soon as it came. Upon the next platform was yet another door, unlocked to allow him inside.

The galley was made up of two wide counters, put together with white-painted fixtures and well-used stainless steel, on either side of a central aisle just big enough for a single person to walk, two if they turned sideways. Nearest to the rear entrance were two wide compartments, blocked off by heavy metal doors. The smooth material was cold to the touch— the icebox or freezer, for any fancy meal that the guests were entitled to. On the stove were pots and pans, holding signs of being used not long before, albeit absent of the foodstuffs themselves.

Farva’s stomach rumbled. If he could finish with the investigation before the sun rose, he would be home for a proper breakfast. He marched forward, aiming for the next door. As the staff likely intended, moving from car to car was simple enough, as long as one did not look down while passing above the couplings.

The dining car was next in line, dressed like a fancy restaurant that had been squeezed inside of a vice. Two lines of tables and chairs and white tablecloths and candles waiting to be lit on either side of the car, with a narrow walkway between. If it had been used earlier that night, the staff had been quick to return it to a pristine state. That, or the supposed passengers had not even reached the dining hour that night before…

The red and blue lights flashed in the window, through the condensation that had gathered on the panes of the single-hung windows. Farva continued, hoping to find what would be passenger cars further ahead. He didn’t look at the gap between the cars this time, thinking over what he had seen thus far, and what made sense to make note of.

The present train car had a curving path, with private rooms on one side, the aisle and rooms trading sides halfway down. With the head of the heavy flashlight, Farva knocked on the first door, then slid it open, shining the light first, then daring to look with his own eyes. By the window was a bench and storage shelf, a pair of bunks behind, both areas pristine, despite a meager spray of dust.

Each proceeding door and room shared the same layout and immaculate nature, for the entire length of the rail car and the following. Shaking his head, the detective continued. The next car was made up with seating only, facing wider than normal windows. The strobing of the police lights were barely out of sight. Ahead, another car of private rooms, less fancy but likely still pricey, certainly more than he would have liked to pay.

The next room, a bar and more seats. At least, it looked like a bar, with a sleek, dark wood-grained counter, but behind where a worker would have been stationed were baskets of snacks. From the side, he shined the light under the counter, but nothing that looked like alcohol could be found. No wonder all these people wanted off.

The next car across the platform and coupling was labeled with a sign reading ‘no guests beyond this point.’ I’m neither a guest, nor the staff here, but the chief would moan and wail if I didn’t comb over this place all the way up to the front.

There were more bunks in this car, the only privacy provided by simple curtains. The beds were made without great attention to detail, but showed no signs of being slept upon, nor were there remains of any inhabitants at all. If this were anything close to a real job, these bunks would have working folks snoring away in them, a deserved rest after being bossed around by needy and cooped-up upper-middle class folks.

There was no roof over Farva’s head on the next car over, at least the little platform at the rear of that car. Instead, on either side, were tall bins with just enough space to slide between. Farva sucked in his stomach and pushed through, the smooth black-painted metal on either side of him, daring to hold him back. The bins held coal which tumbled down into lower troughs that could be shoveled from, just before the last destination on the length of train; the locomotive.

Somehow, the train got there… powered and pushed along the tracks until it inevitably stopped for whatever reason… on purpose, or the simple lack of busy back-broken workers to load coal into the furnace. Funnily enough, it’s the same type of person to complain about the ozone layer or global warming while riding smoke-coughing little trains like this very one.

Farva tugged on the final handle and yanked the door open. The beam of the light danced around the inside of the control room, finding all the little dials and handles and gages on the control panel, seemingly untouched by working hands.

What would the Chief and his son say about this little room? It’s hot… The little door at the base of the control panel is for the coal, burned to heat water, and… pressurize steam to… do something and drive the wheels…

The heat inside was too much, especially with the door having closed on its own behind him. The flashlight reflected in the glass window of a gage, reading red. Pressure. Farva leaned in and tapped at it with the nail of his finger. A crack sounded, sending a crooked line through the glass of the little window. What the living…?


The steam began to whistle out of the crack, screaming like something from hell, filling the room and shooting hot vapors to the detective, who jumped back but found the edge of an old pipe with his temple and sent himself to his knees and the flashlight to the ground. Scrambling for the source of the light, his eyes were blurry and tight and the handle was suddenly hot in his grasp, forcing him to drop it once more. The pipes squeaked and squealed and cracked and finally burst, filling the room with hot vapor and making the direction to the door impossible to determine. The backs of the detective’s hands felt clammy and cold as the steam ate away at his skin, but his lungs were already in a worse state, filling with liquid. He found what felt to be the door handle, tight and unturning as the whistling grew louder and the heat grew worse and more humid, finally causing him to collapse to the ground.

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Wake-Up Call

Impasse – Chapter One

It was just past two in the morning when the passenger train of the Foothill Express pulled through the town, not a single blow of its horn or light in its windows as it crawled to a stop on the tracks of the little community.

Severville was a town neither here nor there, simply a name on a map, a place to stop for gas, a blur of meager colorless buildings passed by on the highway on the way to somewhere else. Most drivers refused to slow for the local speed limit on the thoroughfare passed through the meager city limits, unconcerned with whatever sort called the town their home.

The other sets of eyes that fell upon Severville were from the conductors and riders of passing trains, similarly moving through without pause. The Rail Tours of the Foothill Express made sure that their weekly journeys would meet with the town while all of the well-paying passengers were sound asleep. When they awoke, they would find themselves in surroundings certainly more charming and fair. By all accounts, the stopping of the train that night should have never happened.

The lights began to flash at the crossing on Second Avenue, followed by the guardrails descending, but the regular, shrill call from the locomotive failed to pierce the night as it would usually. The sloppy drivers returning home from bars hoping to avoid DUI charges waited patiently, holding their eyes open, but the lethargic crawl of the neatly decorated passenger cars gave the impression that they would have to wait. The train eventually stopped completely, the foggy headlights of the idling vehicles painting orange spots on the dim train like the running lights on the floor of a dark theater.

Despite the late hour, the impasse on the two-lane road caused a backup long enough to reach the next block down. Those with waning patience backed out and u-turned the best they could in hopes that they would find the next crossing down on eighth free for passage. Out of the small collection of sober drivers, at least one called the local emergency number to complain to the police about the injustice of the gaudy train blocking their way through town.

Robert Farva rubbed his eyes open to the sight of the brunette on the other half of the bed, her bare back facing him uncovered. He had drifted off, but certainly not for too long. Something had awoken him, it was the trilling of his cell phone’s ringer. The tone was muffled inside of the pocket of his slacks, strewn on the motel floor hastily. It grew louder as he extracted it from the clothes and flipped it open. “Hello?”

“Detective, sorry about calling at a time like this,” Schultz grumbled at him through the speaker.

Farva turned back and glanced at the red digital clock face on the alarm at the opposite side of the bed. “No, no. Not at all. Something come up?”

“Come down to the rail crossing at second. There’s something you should see.”

“Got it, I’m on my way,” Farva said, clapping the phone back closed. Still holding it in one hand, he felt around for his boxers on the cheap, scratchy bedspread. He finally set down the phone to slide them on, then find his feet through the holes of the previously discarded slacks.

The brunette sat up as Farva flicked on the bathroom light in preparation to relieve himself. “Work?”

He answered after the flush of the toilet and a quick wash of his hands and face, a stroking back of his dark hair. “I guess. The chief needs me for something.”

Pulling her knees up and tugging on the bedspread, she looked up at him with eyes that lit up the room. “Well, you still have twenty minutes left. I can let those roll over if there happens to be a next time.”

Farva looked at himself in the dim mirror by the door one last time, pulling on his jacket and then patting himself down to make sure his wallet, keys, and phone were still firmly in his pockets. “Yeah, maybe. You better remember because I won’t.”

By the time the door clicked behind him, he had the phone out again to speed dial the first of a handful of numbers. The answering machine picked up after several rings as expected, and played his own voice back at him. “…say what you want to say after the tone… beep.”

“I won’t be home tonight, babe, after all,” he said, knowing the wife would just be able to hear the speaker sounding off his voice from the living room. “Something came up, the chief is having me come downtown. Maybe I’ll be back for breakfast before you leave for work. Love you. Bye.”

The detective had burned through two cigarettes by the time he had reached downtown, allowing the smoke out through the window and into the chilly night air. Detective was little more than a decorative title. The job description was given to him after an early retirement from what Severville deemed to be its police force, a total of eight employees. Nine, officially, when he had served, but the pocket knife wound to the thigh by one of the local junkies had been enough to leave him ‘disabled’— a label made by the state, not himself, surely. Unwilling to begin sucking up government handouts at the age of thirty, he opted for the long-unfilled position of Severville’s detective, a job that had since mostly involved paperwork, to his chagrin.

The callout to the tracks had probably some paperwork to go with it as well— an accident with the train, such as a stuck car, even a suicide. It wouldn’t have been the first time. The flashing red and blue lights were his sign to slow and creep his old Lincoln down the side of the crumbling road. With one last suck on the dying cigarette, he exited the car, flicking the butt down and scanning the dim area for the silhouettes of other officers.

One officer was guiding impatient drivers back in the direction they came. Schultz was awaiting the detective at the crossing while at least one other squad car’s worth of officers was scanning the long length of the train from the outside. The chief’s eyes remained closed for longer than they were open, but the mustached man was quick to shake his head to attention as Farva stepped up, hands in his jacket pockets.

“Who offed themselves this time, Hank?”

The chief didn’t expose his usual distanced remorse, neither a half-hearted shrug nor stroking of his whiskered chin. “Wish it were that easy this time, Farve. If the coroner just had to peel someone off the tracks, I wouldn’t have to be out of bed at a time like this.” He glanced back to the train, its rearmost car not too far from being able to pass the crossing.

One of the electrical boxes usually locked up by the crossing guards had been left open, wires yanked free from whatever panel usually controlled the flashing red lights and piercing chimes that warded off ill-attentive drivers.

“Did it break down, then?” Farva asked, gazing down the line to the locomotive barely visible in the weak moonlight. “All the passengers must be happily asleep. Gonna be mad when they wake up behind schedule, though.”

Not a light was lit in the cabins of the passenger cars. The strobing of the patrol car lights lit up the foggy windows in alternating flashes of red and blue. “Not a one from what we can see,” Schultz huffed, turning back to the train. “Side doors stuck closed, so no one in or out. But the kicker is that it looks like there wasn’t even anyone at the controls, either.”

“No driver?” Farva hummed.

“The engineer,” Schultz corrected. “There’s a conductor, too. Normally, at least. My son is in love with trains at the moment, he’d have a cow if you called it a train driver.”

“Whatever the hell they’re called. So, someone stole the train and they ran off when it ran out of fuel?”

Schultz shook his head. “I managed to get the number for their home agency from the 411. Phone rang for a hell of a long time, though.”


The chief clicked his tongue and rolled his head. “Yeah, well, this is one such scheduled trip. Meaning, this train was supposed to be full up with people. And they’re all gone. Not a single one seen about here, shined lights in enough windows— not much to see.”

The detective dragged his feet about the paved area of road leading up to the tracks. “I don’t suppose we can get it moved, at least?”

“They’ll have a technician or whatever out tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Says they might be able to move it if everything is working as it should, and that’s if. But the shit we’ll see if these missing folk… all them and their families and their money… what sort of story are we supposed to make up?” he trailed off, grumbling.

Farva ducked under the guard rail and stepped onto the gravel, the loose material crunching under his loafers. The line that constituted the edge of the town was not too far in the direction that the train had come. If they bailed somewhere before here, Severville would be off the hook. He stared at the ground and his feet, thinking, when the chief finally caught up after him.

“Look, Farve, we’ve had a look now all up and down the train, nothing but hobo shit-piles and used needles. We’ll leave it to you to head up inside and give it a once-over. Just to make sure there’s no foul play.”

The detective stared up at the windows, as dark as the station’s coffee, and shrugged. “You got a flashlight?”

Next Chapter –>

Man of the Mask

The Sickest Time – Chapter Four

Despite all efforts of both spiritual and administrative natures, it seemed nothing would stop the sickness in Villearrièr. The priests and coroners were soon overwhelmed by the influx of bodies, more so when they themselves succumbed to the sickness. The darkest day came when governor Bouchepourri’s own messenger fell ill, just the same as those outside the fine walls of the castle. Of course, it was not the sickness that eventually ended the good scribe, but rather the punishment for allowing himself to catch it; a swift guillotine blade to the neck.

With the remaining scribes too afraid to exit the castle and the townsfolk still locked down, many found their only course of action for the disposal of bodies was to leave them in the streets. As more piled up among the refuse that already ordained the town, the miasma set in. While a perfect habitat for flies and rats, the air hanging low in the streets was even more potent than the most aged of Roqueforts.

One day, a stranger arrived in Villearrièr, desiring to sew hope for a change for the better. Unfortunately, any words from the stranger— calling himself Dr. Malbec— were ignored in favor of the criticisms of his garb.

“You resemble a bird, my friend,” said a villager on the edge of town not long after his arrival.

“Your town here is suffering under the throes of this plague,” he said in response. “I’d love if you could direct me to your governor, so that I may offer him words of advice.”

“Caw! Caw!” The villager teased, flapping his arms like a bird.

Under the pointed mask, Malbec was able to smile and nod, but he knew that wasting the energy on any such thing was pointless. “Oh, well, I suppose that is where your governor resides, up there in the big stone building on the hill.”

“Fly away now, bird man! Caw!”

And so did the fair doctor continue on his way, albeit on foot as always. Upon his terrestrial journey, he saw what had come over the town; human refuse on the streets, those seeming to be homeless passed out among it, others clearly disfigured by the sickness walking freely as if they weren’t a few steps from death. Somehow, though, they acted as if their oozing boils and bleeding gums, and uncontrolled bowel movements were nothing but an everyday occurrence.

“Excuse me sir, but has your governor not imposed a lockdown? It may be healthier for the others to stay at home.”

“Shut your beak, bird man,” came the response. “I need ale.”

“I see.”

“What do you know? Go to hell.”

“I think I may just be there, don’t you worry.”

The smell of the streets had wormed its way into the slits in the pointed mask, but the fine graces of the herbs that inhabited the tip continued to work against the sick air. Even the front of the castle smelled of death and sickness, but the guards blocking the way seemed to not care either way.

“What’s your business?” Asked the man lazily standing at the entrance, closed tight.

“I am a doctor.”

“We don’t need one here, nobody’s sick beyond these gates… or else.”

“Well, I’d very much like to talk to the governor about your situation here in this town.”

“Normally the scribes would see to someone reaching out to the governor, but they are piss-babies that don’t want to work anymore, despite every last bit of recognition and exposure they’ve received as payment.”

“Ah, yes, exposure. So what are my options?” Malbec asked, trying to glance around for any possible way past.

The guard crossed his arms and shifted in the way. “So… your option is to screw off. Isn’t that mask uncomfortable? It is the freakiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes upon.”

“It keeps me safe.”

“Safe from the sickness? Don’t you have an immune system?”

“Yes, same as all the others laying face-down in your streets.”

“Those are just the transients.”

“No, the ones with the boils.”

“I don’t know anything about anything of that sort.”

Malbec nodded. “What do you know, then?”

“I know that I can’t let you through.”

“Hold now, good guardsman,” a new voice came from behind the wooden gate. Malbec spotted a pair of eyes through a port hole that had slid open. “This man speaks in ways that the governor warned us to keep an eye out for.”

Malbec smirked, the sentiment carried by his face luckily hidden away from both parties of the castle. “You can perhaps get me to the governor, good sir?”

“We’ll see,” said the pair of eyes. “Let him through.”

The guard stepped aside, allowing space for the smaller portal of the gate to open for the first proper visitor in some time. The pair of eyes were attached to a man who led Malbec to the courtyard, not quite yet to the interior of the castle and the court of the governor. The doctor looked up at the open sky above, then to the eyed man. “No further, I assume? I see you understand distancing here, at least.”

“Do not move. Someone will be here shortly.”

Shortly turned to longly, but someone did come to replace the eyed man to meet with Malbec finally. “Are you the governor?” he asked, releasing his anticipation like pus from a boil.

“His greatness can not possibly meet directly with outsiders, obviously,” said the red-haired foxy man. “You may call me Renard, I am Bouchepourri’s adviser. If your words are deemed worthy, I shall reach him through me.”

“I see-“

“But first,” the foxy man interrupted, “I ask that you remove that mask.”

“You can hear me properly, though?”

“Not to hear your words, but to see your face. In case you are secretly a man from the east.”

“I can show you my proficiency with a fork and knife, if that would suffice.”

The foxy man snapped his fingers. “Off with it.”

Malbec straightened his face and fiddled with the strings at the back of his head to relinquish the mask from his head and face. “Please do not judge my mask hair,” he said, taking in a worried breath.

Renard squinted at him and nodded, a smile creeping across his face as he stepped back. “So you are not a bird, after all. But we can fix that,” he concluded, clapping his hands loudly.

In a sudden deluge, a wave of tar fell from the wall of the castle above, coating Malbec in its warm, sticky essence. A wash of feathers descended next while he flailed, attempting to free his eyes and nose from the sickening coating.

“Doctors in masks?” Renard huffed. “Such nonsense, the sickness will solve itself. The governor bids you adieu, Mr. Bird.”

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Man of the Castle

The Sickest Time – Chapter Three

If anything good was to be said about Governor Bouchepourri of Villearrièr, it would be that he was well-known. So well-loved he was that many came to the doors of the castle to call out to him in hopes he would offer a solution to the spreading illness. As more and more people got sick, he decided and decreed, with utmost certainty, that nobody would be able to leave their homes and keep the sickness within the confines of their own walls. To the old tallow-faced governor, living in the castle at the edge of town, it was perfect.

“But what of food? Water?” His trusted aides asked.

“Do they not have vast pantries and livestock and barrels of their own? As we do here?”

“No, sir.”

“Fine, I suppose we can have shops still open. The merchants would throw a fit if they couldn’t work eighteen hours a day, anyways. But make sure we are still taking the proper tariffs from them.”

“Of course. But what of the people’s business amongst each other? Or of receiving of complaints and praises from them when they cannot come to the castle here?”

“Complaints? What sort of things might they complain about?” Bouchepourri huffed from his wide seat in the empty hall. “If they desire to wish us well… once more, have them write their messages to us.”

“Monsieur Governor, it seems that many do not know even how to read or write, sir.”

“That is their fault for being lazy, then,” the powerful and humble man leaned on his knees. “Fine, then we may send a scribe or two about to listen to and write down their messages.”

And so did the scribes zoom about Villearrièr, collecting all sorts of messages to trade with other townsfolk, the merchants and finally bring those left unanswered tiredly back to the castle.

“Tell me, what are the people saying?” Bouchepourri sat up, intent to hear the words taken down.

“Ahem,” the scribe began with the first. “Governor, I find it regrettable that the bakery near my home has stopped making and selling gluten-free loaves, citing that the clay and chalk used to make them has been made contraband as it is from the east. Please allow at least some of these ingredients, properly sourced, of course, be able to return to our local bakers. That is all.”

“I see. And what pray tell is gluten?”

“I have no idea, Monsieur Governor.”


“Indeed,” the scribe said, shuffling the papers. “Governor Bouchepourri… I am contacting you about your carriage insurance… perhaps we forgo this one. Hum… Good Governor, I can no longer stomach the confinement with my wife after all this time. Our marriage has been quite pleasant, as long as I was able to be at the forge for most hours of the day. But with my business being shut down, I have had to listen to her desires and stories that are better met by the ears of other housewives. I believe my only way out is to have it appear as if I had died in an accident while out of the house. I ask of you to arrange this for me, and in exchange, I will work inside the castle, free of charge until my body can no longer.”

The governor stood and paced, taking in the request. “I believe I understand the trouble of this man. Make it so.”

“I shall find the right folk to undertake it. Care to hear the final message?”

“Fine,” Bouchepourri sighed, sliding back to his seat.

“Let’s see… Monsieur Governor, the number of rats that roam the street and invade our homes has become unbearable. Any food we bring inside is gnawed at by them, and when they become bored of that, they strike at us with their sharp teeth when we are not looking. I am sure I saw one rat with the same particular boils that the sick carry. Our neighbor has even succumbed to the sickness, and not soon after being bitten. I am afraid there may be some sort of connection.”

The Governor held his chin in his hands, waiting for the message to reach its end. “Rats?” He wrinkled his nose.

“So it says here, Governor.”

Bouchepourri glanced about, along the edges and into the deep corners of the stone chamber. “I see no rats here.”

“Not a one, sir.”

“And on the streets?”

“Some, sir, but no different from any other time.”

“These people know nothing. That is the last one? You may be excused.”

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