At Long Last

I have become brave and posted SoD on the web. It has been HUGELY edited since that chapter I posted forever ago. I suppose I must let you read it, on the terms that you leave feedback, either in the comments here, or as a review on Writer’s Cafe, where it’s posted.

Mhm. That is all.

Oh, and my little “About” page, titled “Sword of Demetri info” has been changed again. I suggest you take a look, once you’ve read the novel.

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Crafton Wood

Remember the Sci Fi stories I post each year? The ones for my school’s Sci Fi Short Story Writing Contest? You may recall how they were mentioned among the finalists for the past two years.  After writing “The Globe” my freshman year, I made it my goal to write a placing story. I wanted not only to make it to the finalists, but to win the legendary Third, Second, or First.

Stuffs happened the year. I became the Historian of the Sci Fi club; I took Calculus, which drains life; and more calculus; lots and lots of calculus; and the musical had very difficult pit music. You get the idea. I didn’t write the story until the night before the deadline, and completed it somewhere around 3:00 a.m. I tried to get some friends to read it the next morning, but none of them did. I still don’t remember why, for I was still in zombie mode then.

At a meeting later that week, as the Sci Fi presidency discussed how to award the finalists and winners, I volunteered to make custom trophies for the winners. This was shortly after the badger’s creation, and I was on a roll. The next day I remembered that I had indeed submitted a story, and began to wish fervently that I would not win the contest and therefore avoid the awkward situation of making an award for myself. :/

The illustrious Author Friend and his Official Editor were called upon to anonymously judge the eight finalists, once the presidency picked them out. At the start of this week, I forced Author Friend to tell me the winners so I could make the awards before the Christmas assembly.

Aaaaaaaaaaand I got first place.

But he didn’t know it was me.

Immediately, I thought, Oh crap.

But I did make a trophy for myself.

And I put the story right here.

Underneath these words.

No, under these ones.

No, these.

These ones.

Just kidding. These.

Guess what.

FOUR HOURS OF SLEEP A NIGHT. 🙂

Okay. It’s right here.

Crafton Wood

Against the clear night sky, the trees were nothing but a blackish mass blotting out the stars. Not a breath of wind stirred the darkness, not a breeze rustled the branches of the kings of flora. The distant stars grinned coldly at the earth from the heavens, as if in anticipation.

A blaze of light exploded through the sky, basking the grove in brilliant rays. A white fire from some distance universe had found the blue planet and rushed eagerly to its rocky surface. The meteor plunged into the grove, not explosively as it would seem, but winking out the second the broad branches swallowed it in. But the meteorite’s work was not through yet: first arose a terrific howling. The otherworldly bawling reached a little village only eight miles from the site, waking every citizen therein and drawing them to their windows. Though the sound only lasted a few seconds, it was followed immediately by a second explosive burst of light, blazing out of the grove itself. The quiet, simple villagers averted their eyes and muttered prayers to themselves.

The whole spectacle lasted barely half a minute before all signs and inexplicable happenings ceased entirely. The only testament to the fallen star were the trees. Though the air remained as still and crisp as ever, the trees now swayed earnestly, branches straining forward to every point on the compass, clawing at the empty sky.

***

  Three years later, a man by the name of Howard Gray fled his home in Kingsport, Massachusetts, and headed west to preserve himself from justice. A late night at a bar, high tempers and clouded reasoning, a stained blade… Gray hated himself for it, but even more he feared his demise should he be caught for his crime. Therefore, he fled into the wilderness hoping to disappear. But before he could erase himself from the world completely, he stumbled across Crafton, a little forgotten village in the peaceful valley. It was there he met Richard Payne.

Stopping for a rest in little Crafton’s tavern, Gray accidentally introduced himself to Payne when he stumbled over the villager’s outstretched feet upon entering the musty bar. Amidst Payne’s apologies, the two fell to talking. When Gray mentioned that he was heading further into the valley the next morning, Payne offered to accompany him. “I’ve wandered all over this valley,” he told the refugee. “I can take you as far as the end of the valley and back again faster than anyone in Crafton.”

Gray could hardly turn down his offer, though how he could convince Payne to leave him in the mountains alone once they got there had him worried. “I’d be glad of your company,” his mouth told the villager. Payne smiled and offered Gray a room at his house for the night.

Though an entire week had past since the incident in the Kingsport, Gray found the memory determined to haunt him through the night. Images of the bar fight screwed themselves into his brain like barbed torture devices, robbing him of sleep and waking him several times in a cold sweat. When he awoke for the fourth time with his left arm throbbing, and noticed early sun streaming in through the window, he rose from his bed rather than submitting to his mental agony again. Wandering out into the living area of Payne’s house, he seated himself by the wide front window and rolled up his sleeve to better examine his arm.

In his wild night thrashings, the improvised bandage had proved too inferior to keep the cut from reopening. A four-inch gash diagonally marred the flesh of his upper arm, cleanly slashed by a razor edge. Gray shuddered at the memory of the blade biting into his skin, leading to his own leaping up in retaliation, and… He shook his head to clear away the thought. A soft sound from the other room interrupted his musings, so he hastily tied the dirty cloth over the wound with his teeth and tugged his shirt sleeve down as Payne entered the room, dressed for the day’s journey.

“You’re an early riser,” he noted.

Gray merely shrugged uneasily.

“I heard you tossing about last night. Didn’t sleep well?”

Gray shook his head. Payne raised his eyebrows, but didn’t press the matter.

They were off within the hour, at first taking a winding dirt path out of Crafton, but that soon dwindled away to nothing. Gray relied completely on Payne’s knowledge of the land as they trekked through the valley. The sun shone brightly, and birdsong occasionally punctuated the pleasant morning air. They made good progress over the easy terrain, and Gray began to relax and forget his troubles. Then, in the early afternoon, Payne spoke up.

“Where’re you from?” he queried. “You never did say much about yourself last night. What brings you away from home to a little place like Crafton?” There was an odd note in his voice, and Gray got the feeling he was missing something.

“East coast,” he replied vaguely. “I needed some clean air for a change, so I came here.”

Payne went a long time without uttering a word, before finally saying, “Is your arm all right?”

Gray jumped. “It- it’s fine.”

Payne spun around and seized Gray by his shirt collar. “You lie!” he accused sharply. “Something happened to you, something happened at a bar fight. And you’re hiding it from me.”

“How…?” Gray croaked, sweat beading on his brow. One hand gripped Payne’s wrist, the other felt for the knife strapped to his thigh.

“I didn’t sleep well last night either,” Payne replied. “You were screaming. It wasn’t that hard to piece most of it together. Start talking.”

Gray let go of his knife and broke down completely. “I didn’t mean for any of it to happen. It was just another night in the Kingsport tavern, like every night I’d spent there in the past. But he was stone drunk, I was tense, we both were armed. He cut me, and–” His words stumbled to a halt. He tried desperately to say the rest of it, but his voice wouldn’t come. After gesturing helplessly, he wrenched out his weapon and showed the sanguine blade to Payne. “I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he forced out hoarsely.

“So you ran,” Payne stated flatly, face expressionless.

“I was afraid,” Gray whispered.

The guide stood unreadable as a condemning judge, his eyes punishing. Each second under his glare further crushed Gray’s soul. At last he delivered his verdict: “We go on.”

“You-”

“We go on,” Payne repeated, more forcefully. “I’m not going to pretend my slate is completely clean, although you are the more tarnished of the pair of us. I refuse to be your executioner. I need time to think. But for now, we will go on. There’s a grove of trees a few miles from here where we can spend the night.”

Gray thought it best to remain silent for the rest of the expedition. The silence gave him time alone with his thoughts, and found himself in a heated argument with himself.

  He knows. He could turn you in. He can’t know, he’ll tell, they’ll find out, they’ll catch up, you’ll be taken back!

  …He could die too.

  No! What are you thinking?! Payne is a friend. He has not harmed you.

  Yet. Think. He is dangerous. He will not leave you in the mountains, not for long. He will bring others to find you.

Gray could not argue with that.

By late evening, they came within sight of the grove Payne had mentioned as they crested a small hill. The guide paused and said to Gray, “Those trees mark the last stretch of flat land before we hit the mountains. We call it Crafton Wood. Something in the soil down there causes the air in the thicket to be unusually warm. I’ve found it welcoming when the nights get cold.”

They hiked down to the dark grove. The trees appeared to be even darker than they had form the hill, and seemed abnormally large up close. Twisted branches grew at crazy angles to each other, patched over with mangy leaves, and weird fungi melded with the bark, creating unpleasant shapes and protrusions. The knotted branches clumped together in some places, as if clutching treasured objects.

Payne led Gray into the unwholesome grove without hesitation, though Gray paused to assess the trees cautiously. As he passed into the small wood, a violent smell assailed his nostrils, the stink of a bog, of decaying wood, the steamy and oppressive stench of death. Gray felt as if he had just stepped inside a long-sealed burial vault, and subconsciously looked about in fear of potential threats. “What’s wrong with this place?”

“A few years ago, a meteor struck down here,” Payne explained. “The whole village saw it and marked it as black magic. I’m the only one who dared investigate. I can only guess that the  meteor leeched some alien substance into the soil and bothered the trees.”

Gray only nodded, still searching the trees with his eyes. Above them, the branches seemed to be hung with some sort of parasitic creeping vine. The musty leaves combined with the deformed limbs and net of creeping stems blotted out the sun quite effectively and placed the grove in a state of eternal twilight.

Payne halted at the foot of a massive beech. Black moss and gray lichens scabbed its convoluted trunk, and branches twice the breadth of any man stretched out from the wooden tower. Overall, the beech struck an imposing and somewhat frightening figure. Gray eyed it contemptuously as his guide spread a bedroll by the trunk. The tree leaned slightly to one side, which happened to be the side Payne had picked to sleep on, therefore looking ready to pounce on them. All the same, Gray was tired and his arm stung, so he spread out his borrowed blanket and bedded down for the night.

He lay awake for the longest time as the gray light faded to midnight black, fingering his bloodied knife. Once again, he fought aggressively with himself over whether or not to kill Payne. Here, in the pitch blackness and a sharp weapon in his hands, it was much harder to push away the notion. Finally, he made the decision and rolled upright, knife grasped tightly in his fist. He leaned over and felt for the edge of Payne’s blankets, finding the soft flannel with his fingertips. Gray then rose into a crouch and reached out to locate Payne himself.

The blankets were empty.

It was then that Gray felt something brush his ankle. He lurched away wildly, but it was if an iron bar held his foot in place. Tossing away all caution, Gray slashed at the unseen attacker mercilessly with his blade, striking what felt suspiciously like wood. After several strikes, the hold loosened and the grasping object vanished. He ran his hands over the soil multiple times, but found no trace of the thing.

  I don’t care where Payne is, Gray told himself frantically as he scrambled to his feet. I don’t care if I’m caught. I must only get out of this grove!

He began walking shakily in no particular direction, hands held out in front of him lest he should run into trees in the blind nighttime. He periodically shouted Payne’s name, but received no response, only adding to his building anxiety. Several times he heard some nearly inaudible thumps, as if something were dropping from the trees.

Only a few minutes had passed since the first encounter with the unseen before he paused to get his bearings. A little moonlight somehow filtered into the grove here, and he could make out the vague outlines of trees. He was about to start walking once more when he felt something snaking around his torso and tighten like a noose.

The blade flashed maniacally in the moonlight, slashing at everything in his near vicinity. The ropey appendage squeezed a little harder and began dragging him away. Then the knife connected with something, a pliant piece of thick twine by the feel of it, and severed it. The hold on him slackened. There came the rustle of branches, a low, subtle hiss, and nothing more. Gray grasped the rough, flexible object wrapped around him and pulled it away. His eyes widened as he brought it into the light. The object was not twine, but a branch.

  The  meteor leeched some alien substance into the soil and bothered the trees, Payne had said. Bothered the trees. “Curse him!” Gray spat savagely. Got to keep moving, he told himself, breaking into a jog. Payne has a funny way of taking matters into his own hands. “Won’t be the executioner, eh?” He began speaking aloud between clenched teeth and heavy breaths. “Needs time to think? Ha!”

A terrific creaking and groaning stopped him in his tracks. Glancing ahead, nameless terror seized his wracked soul in a vice-like grip. A live oak tree, split branches splayed like tentacles, moved to intercept his path. Its roots churned through the soil like snakes, and its innumerable branches pounded the ground in a series of dull thuds.

Gray stood frozen, his heart pounding so heavily he was sure it would draw the live oak to him. He tried desperately to control his gasping breath, but to no avail. The tree paused in its march and slowly twisted around just a bit. Then every branch strained in one direction, struggling to grab Gray as he stood paralyzed. The roots churned on the double, moving the behemoth tree towards him. Unable to think of a better option, Gray turned on his heel and ran.

Spindly wooden fingers whipped at his face and clawed at his clothes as he fled. His arm burned and bled freely, blood tracing down to his hand and wetting his palm. The trees seemed to be moving in on every side, and he felt as if he were staring down a long, moonlit corridor. A root writhed out of the earth and grabbed at his legs, tripping him. The moment he hit the ground, more roots swarmed up to seize him. The crimson knife rent splintered furrows in the wooden serpents, and a few retreated long enough for him to jump up and fly. However, he could not help but notice the things the roots had tossed up as they sprang from the soil. Pale, gleaming white things, bright under the moon.

“You cast me into this hell-hole, Payne!” Gray screamed as he hacked through the fibrous branches of a weeping willow attempting to engulf him. “But I will get out!” His knife cut into one of the dense snarls common in the devil-trees’ branches, and it burst apart, releasing a shower of bones. I am not the first here, he thought grimly.

Once free of the clinging willow, Gray continued on his way to freedom, unhindered for an unnatural extent of time. His step became lighter and quicker, his heart raced with excitement. can make it out of here, he thought with vicious triumph. will!

He thought too soon. When he least expected it, the root of a nearby rowan leapt up and wound about his ankle. As he hit the ground, the knife, his only mean of protection, flew from his grasp. Gray looked at the rowan. The rowan looked at him. They both turned to the knife, and pounced.

The rowan cheated. Still grasping him by the ankle, it yanked him backward so his fingers fell short of his reward. More roots locked over his wrists like manacles as wooden limbs shot down and snatched the blade. Gray thrashed most piteously, but the rowan held like iron. Several more branches snaked down and curled around his arms, his legs, his torso. The roots snapped away, and he was whisked into the air. Still he fought like a madman, tearing at leaves and boughs with his teeth where he could, twisting rolling to break free. Other sinister trees moved in around the rowan, crowding it, branches grasping at their hard-won prize.

***

  Richard Payne sat at the crown of the hill, staring down into the grove. Below, Crafton Wood heaved like the sea during a squall. Howard Gray could be heard above the rustling branches and rumbling roots, his shrieks increasingly panicked and terrified as the trees clumped together near a place at the northern edge of the wood.

“You are not the first, Gray,” Payne said aloud. “Others have come this way, running to escape justice. You nearly beat the wood, Gray, nearly escaped. But the trees never allow it.”

He rose slowly to his feet, the screams diminishing with the coming dawn. “Just is your reward, Gray. Just is your reward.”

And he walked away.

Hands Off

Y’all remember Demetri, right? Sorry that you won’t get to read the whole story until I publish it. Which I will. (If I don’t ever, then I’ll post it here.) This short little splurp of a story, entitled “Hands Off,” is mostly between Demetri and a character you haven’t met yet, a girl named Alla. It does contain some things which are spoilers if you haven’t read the whole thing of SoD, but since you haven’t, none of them will make sense anyway and it won’t matter.

Hands Off

A short story of Demetri attempt to get Alla’s attention and failing.

“Hey, Alla,” Demetri called hesitantly. Big chance, bozo, the happy half of his mind said. Don’t blow it again.

Alla wandered over, a bored expression on her face to mask her suspicion. “Yes?”

“Do you believe in angels?” he blurted, smiling mischievously. “Because I think I just saw one.” He hoped he looked and sounded as suave as he felt. It had taken him a month to come up with that line.

Alla’s expression changed almost indiscernibly to her you’re-a-psycho-why-do-I-even-talk-to-you face. “Say what?” Obviously not suave enough.

Demetri felt grateful for the darkness and the firelight as his face flushed red. “Um, forget it,” he mumbled. He scooched over on his log bench. “Come sit?”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “Talk.”

“Why?” Alla could be impossible sometimes.

“Well… we haven’t really talked in a while. And they’re talking.” Demetri gestured at Paul and the three elves on the other side of the fire, laughing and sharing stories.

Alla glanced over at the others, then began nodding. “Okay,” she complied, sitting on the bench, but being sure to leave twelve inches of space between them. “Let’s talk.”

Demetri found himself at a loss here. He’d only planned the one line, nothing after it. So he spit out the first thing that came to mind, which probably wasn’t the smartest move. “So… do you think of Jink often?”

To his credit, he immediately regretted his words. From the way her face hardened, he could tell he’d reopened that wound most unfeelingly. “Yes,” she replied shortly. “Every day. Every minute.” She paused and sighed. “I know it wasn’t my fault, but every day I have this new wave of guilt when I think of every little thing we could have done differently that night, or that I could have done, in the past.” She began talking faster and more frantically. “What if I’d tried to change his mind those four years ago? What if I’d forgiven him earlier? What if I had woken sooner and stopped Arran? What if-”

Demetri cut the distance between them in half and put a hand on her shoulder. “Stop,” he told her. “It is how it is. No matter how much you tell yourself that you could have changed things, you couldn’t have. None of us could. I’m sorry.” This is good, he told himself.

Alla buried her face in her hands. “No, it’s all right. I needed to get that off my chest.” For the first time since they’d begun their talk, she turned to look at him. “Every once in a while I have to vent. I don’t realize I need to until someone says something like you just did. It kind of… opens a door.”

“Or a floodgate,” Demetri added. Alla half smiled and huffed a passable laugh.

“Thanks for opening the floodgate,” she said.

“You can vent to me any time you feel like it,” Demetri told her. He remembered what had happened the first time he’d let her off on a tangeant about Jink. This time seemed to be going the same direction.

Alla rested her chin in her hand and gazed intently into the fire. The flames danced a little lower than before, but they had a whole stack of ruined wood from the shelter project to last them as far into the night as they wanted.

His hand still rested on her shoulder. Thinking of the first moment he’d been close to Alla, Demetri made up his mind. As subtly as he could, he shaved inches off the distance between them from six to five, then to four, then three, two, one… none. He and Alla now sat side by side, just as close as they’d been that night long ago, back in Dreemon.

He waited for a moment to see how she’d react, but she made move to show she’d even noticed. He glanced over at Paul and the elves to see if they noticed anything, but Darr had just finished an account of a prank he’d played on Lianeot years ago, and the four laughed raucously. Paul launched abruptly into the tale of when Demetri had caught his pants on a pot hook while jumping out the inn window in Mahzi.

Though somewhat irritated that Paul had decided to make that particular incident known to the elves, Demetri did his best to ignore them. Slowly and carefully, he eased his arm around Alla’s shoulders without actually touching her. She still made no move. Demetri got the sneaking suspicion that she was listening to Paul’s story. Throwing all caution to the wind, he dropped his arm across her shoulders in a one armed hug.

Alla tensed under his hand. All he thought was, Uh-oh.

Her right hand slapped on top of his, pinning him to her shoulder. Then her left elbow slammed into his gut like a ballistic missile. As he struggled for breath, her fist crashed into his thigh with the force of a hammer. As a finale, her elbow immediately jumped up to his face, bashing him on the chin. She released his hand at the same moment, and he tumbled backward off the log. As he lay on his back and gasped for breath in the cold darkness out of the firelight, the point of a sword materialized in front of his face. He followed the sword up with his eyes until he looked Alla in the face. He gave her his best please-don’t-impale-me look.

“You forgot, Demetri,” she smiled at him, “that I can beat you. Do. Not. Touch. Me.” She shoved her short sword back into its scabbard and returned to her original seat on the log beside Paul and the elves in time to hear the end of the Demetri’s Pants story, where Demetri fell from the pot hook to get a mouthful of dirt. The whole party, minus Demetri, exploded into uncontrollable laughter.

Demetri just sulked behind the log. Another time, he told himself. An idea struck him, and he immediately started planning how many times he could bring up Jink in the next week. After all, he reasoned. I get closer every time.

Dragonfly

I said this was coming, didn’t I? This story pleases me much more than the last one. It received the best “Dun DUN DUN!!!” Award in my school’s 3rd annual Sci Fi Short Story contest. Thank you to Ki for making this story possible. 🙂

I sat back on my heels and rubbed my eyes, stiff from kneeling over my  desk for the last three hours. On the low table in front of me lay the disassembled remains of a ray gun. Scattered about the weapon were a screwdriver, a wrench, a file, a small knife, fine threads, wires, and a belt clasp. Still, I allowed myself some satisfaction that my precious time had not been wasted.

I’m Stock Jeidon, the Engineer aboard the ship Dragonfly. My job is to build and take apart various objects. I get my own deck with a desk and computer monitor to work with, although the deck only has enough space to crawl and sit up in, not stand. There are eleven in the crew, counting Captain Ray Vesemark. We have one person over each area of work, including Communication, Navigation, Sensors and Scanners, Tactical, Maintenance, and Medical. There are two over Security. Each crew member wears a gray uniform with the ship’s insignia, a green dragonfly in a yellow triangle, emblazoned boldly across the front, and carries a ray gun.

We’d been attacked by pirates the day before. The pirate ship’s turrets had damaged our shield and electricity generator before they boarded us. They’d only outnumbered us by four, and we killed more than half of them. Kate Statch, a Security Officer, locked the remaining six in the jail cell next to the Captain’s quarters on the upper level. The six had mysteriously escaped during the night, recovered their weapons, and surprised us in our sleep. We had no choice but to kill them all that time. Before dumping the bodies in deep space, we stripped them of their equipment, which was handed over to me to study. Did I feel any regret for the possibly avoidable deaths of the pirates? No, not really. Pirates are pirates.

I gathered up the five belts and ray guns from under the desk and swung down onto the ladder from my small deck. I jumped to the floor, squeezed past Chip Renold’s swivel chair at the Navigation desk, and started for the Captain’s platform.

Perhaps I should describe the ship some before I continue. The Dragonfly has two levels. The bottom level has the airlock and switch box at one end, storage rooms at the other, and the bunks, sick bay, and dining area in between. The lower level is also quite narrow, as the Dragonfly’s huge engines rest on either side of it. Currently, most of the Dragonfly’s lighting does not work, since everything is running off our backup battery until Mechanic Marc Merlin gets the generator fixed.

A staircase next to the bunks leads up through a corner of the top level. The top level is a large room divided into different stations with computers, a platform raised on metal legs for the Captain to oversee all activity, and a raised deck at similar height for me to work on. Unlike the Captain’s open platform with only a rail around the perimeter, my deck is almost completely enclosed. The prominent feature of the upper level is the wall screen above the Communications station. All of the computers are connected to this screen, allowing anything to be displayed at any time to everyone. It usually shows the space map, the ship’s symbol against a black screen, projected from one of the Security monitors. This screen displays us and anything else near the ship.

There are some steps to the Captain’s platform on the side facing the stairs to the lower level. I walked around the platform’s legs and mounted the stairs. The platform has a chair for the First Officer Vyland Cabral and a larger one for the Captain.

First Officer Cabral nodded to me at the top of the stairs. I returned the greeting, then turned and saluted to Captain Vesemark until he turned to me. The Captain’s uniform is the same as the rest of ours, but with a blue band about the shoulders to signify his position. Seeing the ray gun and belt in my hand, he rose from his chair and stated, “Ah, you’ve figured them out, then?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, dropping my hand. I held up one of the ray guns. “These have a very small stun ray built into them, right next to the kill ray. The two can be toggled back and forth by pressing this switch on the side. Judging by Dawson’s recovery, I believe the stun wears off after several hours.” I set the gun down and displayed one of the belts. “The belts have fine wires woven into them, running from a battery hidden in the left side of the clasp to the right. When the two sides of the clasp meet, which would be when one dons the belt, the wires plug into a second device built next to the battery pack. I am not sure exactly what the device is, but I know that it can temporarily shut off the electromagnets in a force shield, causing the shield to waver. A person could easily pass through the shield when it wavers so.”

“So that’s how those pirates managed to get out again,” Captain Vesemark mused. “These belts and stunners are valuable equipment. Put the stun guns on the weapons rack, and the belts on the shelf.”

I left the platform, descended the stairs, and moved to the cabinets above the bunks. The first one on the right side had a rack of spare ray guns in it. As the Captain ordered, I placed the pistols on the rack, and the belts on the shelf above. Having done so, I went up the stairs, crossed the top floor, and hauled myself into my small station, and scooted over to my desk. There I began reassembling the stun gun and jailbreak belt in the blue glow of my monitor screen.

I’d gotten about halfway finished weaving the wires and threads of the belt back together when a familiar sound reached my ears: the grinding, clunking groan of the airlock rotating. The airlock consists of two chambers, one within the other. The larger chamber has two doors, the smaller only one. If you want to exit the ship, open the door, get in the small chamber, and pull the handle. The small chamber will rotate and seal off, then you can open the door and get out. It works the same way for entering.

Hearing the airlock now, I shrugged it off. I knew Marc had been out working on the generators. Perhaps he’d finished and we’d have power again. All he had to do after repairing the generators was press the button in the switch box that would set them working again. I waited for the lights above my head to come on.

They never did.

I continued working all the same, completing the belt and just starting on the stun gun when the first scream reached my ears.

I jumped, banging my head on the ceiling and stabbing my hand with the screwdriver at the same time. Shaking my hand frantically and blinking to clear the spots from my vision, I slowly crawled to the ladder and climbed down to have a look around. The first thing I noticed was the wall screen with the space map; it now showed a white skull symbol next to our dragonfly. Something’s here…. The crew ran around desperately, scrambling back as fast as they could from the stairs; I counted only eight of them.

A figure dressed completely in black, looking for all the world like the void of space, stood not far from the top of the stairs; he seemed to suck away all the light in the room. A uniform, like ours, but in black; tall, shiny black boots, black gloves with iron spikes on the knuckles; a voluminous black hooded cape, the hood hiding this entity’s face from view. One hand stretched out before him, fingertips gently brushing the face of David Sanson, who runs the scanners. David stood frozen, one hand on his ray gun and his face a picture of terror. The gloved hand withdrew and David collapsed, a wordless cry on his lips. Now we numbered seven.

The figure swung his head around, searching for his next victim. The crew members cowered in the shadows under desks, in corners, behind chairs, praying not to be seen. I pressed against the wall as he turned to me, and suppressed a shriek myself as I caught a glimpse of the shadowed face. A bleached white skull grinned from the darkness under the hood, like a full moon in a midnight sky. The black holes of his eye sockets fixated on me, he took one slow, deliberate step forward. Locked in his empty gaze, fear paralyzed me completely.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Kate emerge from behind the Security desk and draw her pistol. Leveling the weapon with the entity’s head, she squeezed the trigger. A white flash exploded from the muzzle and struck right on target. But the second it hit, Kate crumpled to the floor behind the desk again, the pistol slipping from her limp hand to slid several inches away. The ghastly apparition then spun on his heel and vanished, his very being melting into the dark spaces of the ship. Second later, he reappeared next to Steven Arch, the Head of Communications. The black hand seized his face, and he fell across his desk. Five.

This resulted once more in pandemonium, though the effect wasn’t quite so overwhelming as there were only four other people scurrying for cover. Recovering from my shock, I dashed for the Captain’s platform, thinking to hide on top of it. Climbing the stairs, I found the Captain already on the floor looking over the edge.  I dropped to the floor next to him without a word. Below, our other Security Officer Dawson Warden hefted a chair and threw it at the phantom figure. The projectile passed harmlessly through him to crash against the far wall, and Dawson collapsed beneath the Navigation desk. Four.

I turned to Captain Vesemark and asked, “Where are Marc and Josef?” Josef Cambrin was the Dragonfly’s Medic.

“Marc never came back in,” Captain Vesemark explained. “When he stopped answering his radio, David scanned the ship’s exterior, but found nothing. Josef was downstairs when that- that creature entered. We heard him scream, and moments later our visitor came upstairs.”

“Who – or what – is our visitor, exactly?”

“I- I don’t know,” the Captain admitted. “We cannot hurt him without hurting ourselves, our weapons have no effect, and we die at his touch. He vanishes at will. There is no logical explanation. I fear he is a supernatural being, come to ensure our destruction.” His face twisted into a humorless smile. “Perhaps he was friends with the pirates. For now, I shall – aptly – call him Death.”

I nodded, finding this a fitting name. “What should we do, sir?”

“We’ll make for my quarters when he’s not looking,” Captain Vesemark stated. “We’ll gather as many of the crew as we can and barricade ourselves in. He’ll have to leave eventually; maybe another ship will come across us and drive him off. Either way, he can’t stay forever. Once he’s gone, we’ll make straight for the nearest space station.”

I nodded again, smiling grimly. Captain Vesemark always had a plan.

“Go!” he whispered violently, jumping to his feet and racing down the stairs. I stood quickly and chased after them. He made straight for the steps on the other side of the room, pausing to whisper instructions to Tactician Tess Liam and First Officer Cabral crouched in the shadows. I started to follow, but Death turned from the still form of Dawson, searching for the last of us. I ducked under the stairs to the platform I had just left, hidden in the shadows, and waited for my chance.

But even as I watched, Death vanished on the spot. I tensed, heart racing. He could appear anywhere. I pressed harder against the wall, listening intently but hearing only my own gasping breath. Then I thought I heard a footstep on the stairs I hid beneath. I took a chance and looked around. Nothing. I sighed in relief and turned my head back…

…to find myself staring Death in the face. Literally.

The world seemed suddenly to go in slow motion, as if we were underwater. My breath caught in my throat and my heart started racing in panic. A spiked, black-gloved hand slowly rose into my field of vision. A touch colder than ice, cold as the emptiness of space, lightly brushed my cheek. My senses fled, and I fell as darkness closed in, the image of that terrible grinning skull burned into my mind as my last vision of this world.

>†<

“I don’t understand it,” Captain Jason Terrace of the Stargazer muttered. “The whole crew of eleven dead, and not any sign of violence whatsoever?”

First Officer Victor Stanwell, to whom he spoke, nodded in affirmation. “Several of them appear to have been injured after they died, probably as they fell. The ship had some damages to the shield and power generators, but whether that was related to the sudden death of the crew is a complete mystery.” He paused, then continued, “There was one strange thing, though. Their space map showed a white skull symbol stamped over their own insignia. That would imply something is on top of them. We scanned the whole area, but there’s nothing.”

Captain Terrace sighed deeply and rubbed his temples. “Let’s tow the Dragonfly to the Eridanus Space Station, where we can deal with the bodies of the crew and possibly repair the ship,” he suggested. “Perhaps we can also get this mystery solved. Eridanus has the best equipment and investigators.”

Victor nodded and turned to go find someone to secure the Dragonfly in their tractor beam so they could tow it behind them. On his way, he nearly ran into the Navigator Owen Hardin coming in the opposite direction. Muttering an apology, Victor hurried past. Glancing up at their wall screen, a familiar skull symbol next to their blue star startled him. Odd….

Then Victor’s heart skipped a beat as he heard Owen’s words to the Captain:

“Sir, an unidentified person is entering through the airlock.”

The Epic Fail

Remember the story I said I was going to write? For NaNoWriMo? Well, a problem happened. It turned out I had no motivation to write that particular story, nor did the plot have any depth. The best part was the ending, which I had all planned out from the beginning. It was going to be awesome, but I couldn’t write the end until I’d gotten there, catch my drift?

On November the 29th, I caved in, left the plot hanging, drew a line beneath my last paragraph, wrote a brief explanation for the skip, and wrote the ending. And it didn’t turn out as great as I’d planned, because I rushed it over the last two days and smushed it and condensed it and used a lot of passive verbs and summarized it and it lost its awesome. So because I have an incomplete sort-of novel that cuts off in the middle of a sentence and skips to the end without warning, I will not be posting it. Be happy. None of you would actually want to read it.

The good news is I will be posting another story soon. Very soon. Another Sci-Fi one. It is better than the NaNo. Expect it some time after Dec. 7th.

The Sandrock Mystery

My “short” mystery. Um… it is twenty pages. Single spaced, Times New Roman, 12 font.

            Mr. Richard Guymond dutifully smiled and bid the last herd of tourists farewell as they marched out the door, clutching their cameras and information pamphlets tightly. The last one of the season… A feeling of relief settled over Guymond at the thought. True, giving tours of his somewhat exorbitantly restored and renovated castle brought in a fair profit and at times actually seemed enjoyable, but it always had to be so hectic! Wide-eyed tourists milling about, wanting to touch the antiques, asking if the weapons on display were real, or where they were going next, or where the bathroom might be at, and trying to read their tour maps upside-down. Absolutely maddening at times.

Guymond shut the door with a sigh before trudging through the castle himself, heading for his room upstairs. His servants gradually emerged from various rooms, having shed their medieval costume and donned their regular work attire. Guymond paused and turned to address them.

“Well, that’s another season well finished,” he stated, clapping his hands together for emphasis. “As I am sure you all do, I look forward to a quiet winter in Castle Sandrock. Let us celebrate the end of the season with a grand banquet. Martha, Lee, can you manage?”

The stout, ruddy-faced cook beamed at him and replied, “Of course, Master Guymond!” Her assistant, Lee, shrugged and nodded. Lee never spoke much.

The servants’ demeanor seemed to have brightened at the mention of a feast. If there was one thing they enjoyed about their employer, it was his fondness for extravagant meals. They cheerfully began the long task of boxing up many of the props and antiques from the tours, and the gray-haired eccentric retired upstairs.

Guymond had been a financially successful mortician, until he decided to retire and pass Guymond Mortuary on to his son. His obsession for mythology had caused some people to label him as an oddity, though he never took it personally. This obsession, people believed, was the reason he’d spent a fortune on the castle and the land in the first place. Others thought it was because he was another relic-hunter drawn to the “buried treasure” stories attached to Castle Sandrock, though no one knew for sure.

Castle Sandrock sat on a little hill above a lake surrounded by sparse woodland, and was named for the sand-colored stones of its walls. Guymond saw it as his dream residence. He had several modern conveniences added, like a telephone line, indoor plumbing, and electricity, but Guymond had done his best to keep the castle as genuine as possible. After making the small estate livable, he’d spent another fortune on medieval weapons, armor, tapestries, and furniture. He then opened Castle Sandrock to tourists who wanted a glimpse of history, but only ever in the fall. He spent the rest of the year shut up in his room or traipsing all over the countryside.

Out of all the rooms in the castle, Guymond’s was by far the most richly decorated. Tapestries depicting knights battling monsters adorned the walls, between which hung ornate, decorative swords. The four-poster bed supported a red velvet canopy that matched the bedspread. A scarlet rug carpeted most of the room, and velvet drapes hung at the vast window, supported by a curtain rod carved to look like the tangled roots of an ancient tree. Each end of the rod branched into four winding “roots,” which twisted around polished globes of red glass.

Upstairs in this room, Guymond changed out of the castle livery dress he wore for tours, and into his richly decorated, but equally historical, suit. Guymond quickly checked his appearance in the full-length mirror next to his wardrobe while donning his finest blue cape. He then plucked a book from the shelf at his bedside, sank into the armchair by the window, and began to read.

Martha and Lee finished their preparations in a little over two hours. With the help of Versis and Teresa, they had the long table in the dining hall spread with exquisite dishes within minutes, and started a merry fire blazing in the hearth. Lee then ran for strong old Jefferson, the groundskeeper, who was readying the castle gardens for winter, and Teresa marched upstairs to fetch Master Guymond.

The banquet put everyone in the brightest mood they’d been in all week. The six of them barely took up a fourth of the long table, but what with their talking and laughing, it seemed a great crowd dined in the castle that night. The merriment only increased after the meal had been finished and cleared away. When Guymond ordered Martha to fetch several bottles of red wine from the cellar, even stony Jefferson and silent Lee had silly grins plastered on their faces after consuming copious amounts of spirits.

At one a.m. Versis, the butler, said he’d had enough. He bid everyone a good night, and stumbled out of the dining hall.

At three a.m. Guymond stood. “I fear I too must retire,” he began, his words slurring together slightly. He raised his hand to halt the protestations. “Really, I must. But the rest of you are free to continue in festivity as long as you wish, so long as the dining hall is clean when I come down for breakfast-” he glanced at his watch, “- in four hours.” Teresa, her eyes bright and her cheeks red, raised her glass drunkenly and exclaimed, “Hear, hear!” Guymond smiled and left.

The lights did not go off that night.

Daylight found Lee, Martha, Teresa, and Jefferson sprawled on the benches and floor. The dining hall had obviously not been tidied up at all. Empty wine bottles littered the table and floor, one of the benches had been tipped on its side, and the empty glasses still lay strewn over the table. Going by the red stains on the flagstones, they’d spilled just as much wine as they’d drunk.

Lee, draped over the upturned bench, shifted in his sleep. The bench moved over the floor as he did so, and Lee slid off. His head knocked painfully against the edge of the bench, waking him rather sharply. He pushed himself into a sitting position and rubbed a hand across his eyes, blinking in the sunlight filtering in through the windows. He took in the mess around him, then something clicked in his head.

“Hey!” he shouted. Teresa scrambled awake, scared by the yell. Martha and Jefferson slowly came to, and looked quizzically at Lee.

“Look at this mess,” Lee said frantically. “Guymond will be up any minute, and if he finds us in this state, he’ll be mad!”

“Oh,” Martha groaned, getting up off the floor. “Oh no, no, no.”

The four of them began clearing up the dining hall as fast as they could. Several minutes passed, and Jefferson noticed something. Gathering up the empty bottles with Teresa, he asked, “What time did Guymond say he’d be down?”

Brow furrowing, Teresa thought for a moment before replying, “He said, ‘in four hours,’ which would be at seven. He’s down every morning at seven.”

“Lee, what time is it?” Jefferson asked.

Lee paused and looked at his watch. “Eight-thirty.”

Jefferson looked at Teresa meaningfully. The housekeeper simply shrugged. “He drank along with the rest of us last night. I wouldn’t blame him for sleeping late. He’ll be down soon, I’m sure.”

They finished cleaning, and Jefferson went out to finish his work in the gardens. Martha and Lee began making breakfast, and Teresa went up to wake Guymond. She knocked briskly on his door and waited. Guymond’s room remained silent. She knocked again and called, “Sir, it’s nearly nine, and Martha’s got breakfast on.”

She went back downstairs without waiting for an answer, and began tidying up the rest of Castle Sandrock. The tourists had left muddy footprints in the halls that had since turned to dust and needed sweeping up.

Half an hour later, when Martha and Lee set breakfast on the table, Guymond still hadn’t appeared. Teresa marched back upstairs and pounded on the door. “Breakfast is waiting, Master Guymond,” she shouted.

No answer. She tried the door. As usual, it was locked. No matter how long or hard she knocked, Guymond refused to answer. Finally starting to feel concerned, Teresa went down to breakfast. The meal progressed in absolute silence.

As Lee began clearing away the dishes, Martha said, “Save a plate out for Master Guymond.”

Teresa spoke up. “I think something’s happened to him.”

Versis looked up, mildly curious. “Oh? What causes you to think so?”

“He’s never been so late before, and he won’t answer when I call.” She stood up and began helping Martha gather up the dirty plates.

“Let’s finish cleaning up,” Versis suggested, “then see what we can do about it.”

They cleared away all but one plate of food, washed the dishes, and straightened the kitchen. Then they all trooped up the stairs to gather in the hall outside Guymond’s door. As Teresa had explained, Guymond did not respond to their insistent pounding and yelling. Jefferson seized the door handle and rattled it furiously. “Curse him, he’s got the only key,” the groundskeeper grumbled. He fished through his pocket until he came up with a screwdriver. The groundskeeper started taking out the screws that held the handle to the door and handing them to Versis. “Don’t lose these,” he said gruffly.

When he handed the last screw to the butler, Jefferson jiggled the door handle until it came out of the door. As the handle on the other side fell to the floor with a metallic thud, Jefferson pushed the door open so sharply it banged against the wall.

Teresa pressed a hand to her mouth to muffle her short scream and jumped back.

Lee swore prolifically.

Richard Guymond lay on the floor near the window, still in his medieval suit, his face frozen in a furious expression. The rug beneath him seemed slightly discolored, but the sand-colored flagstones at the edge of the rug were stained bright, sickening red. The hilt of one of the ornamental swords from the wall kept him from lying flat on his face. The blade of the sword disappeared through the right side of Guymond’s chest and reappeared at a slant under his left shoulder blade. The fingers of his right hand clenched the hilt, as if to pull it from his body. Nearby, the velvet curtains lay on a heap on the floor, and sun streamed into the room

Jefferson was the first to recover from the shock. “Someone call the police.”

Martha started for the stairs, but Lee stopped him, a strange look on his face. “No, don’t,” he said. “Haven’t any of you read Sherlock Holmes?”

There was a collective shaking of heads. Lee sighed and cautiously entered the room. He skirted Guymond’s body to reach the bookshelf. Scanning it quickly, he reached to the top shelf and pulled down a hefty volume, the title The Complete Sherlock Holmes embossed in gold letters across the front, muttering, “Best book ever.” He flipped it open page thirty-three, returned to the open doorway, and handed the book to Teresa. “There! See for yourself. In nearly every case, police inspectors are baffled and Holmes solves it in five minutes.”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at,” Teresa admitted after reading the page.

“Let’s call a detective first,” Lee explained, taking the book and replacing it on the shelf. “Once he figures out who killed Master Guymond, we can get the police. Then we can avoid an investigation lasting for months.”

For a moment, there was silence. Partially because they’d never heard Lee say so much in the span of two minutes.

“Lee, Sherlock Holmes is fiction,” Jefferson pointed out finally.

“I kind of like the idea,” Teresa said.

“As do I,” Martha agreed.

“I’ll go look for a detective in the directory,” Versis volunteered. The butler went down to the foyer to make the call. Jefferson reached for the door. “Well, if that’s how we’re going to do things, let’s not disturb this room.”

“At least let me close his eyes,” Martha insisted, a little tearfully. “I can’t stand to have him staring at us like that.” Jefferson agreed.

The staff went downstairs to the dining hall to wait. The plate of breakfast Martha had saved sat completely forgotten at the far end of the table.

Versis returned from the foyer. “A Detrimus Tason will be here shortly,” he announced.

“What do you suppose he’ll be like?” Teresa wondered.

“Judging by the way he sounded,” Versis said, hiding an amused smile, “I’d say he’s a rather overeager young man who doesn’t work very often, and has far too much time on his hands. I daresay he’s not the most punctual type, either.”

“Ohhh,” Martha sighed. “This will be most interesting.”

They waited for an hour in complete silence, trying to think of anything besides what occupied the upstairs bedroom. Lee shifted slightly, causing the bench to creak. The sound seemed to break the spell. Jefferson grunted and questioned, “He lives in town?”

“Indeed,” Versis answered.

“What’s taking the fellow so long then? It only takes about forty-five minutes to get here.”

“Like I said, he’s probably not the most punctual type.”

“Huh,” Jefferson grunted again.

Another hour passed before there came a knock at the door. The staff of Castle Sandrock jumped frightfully, nearly tipping the benches over in their haste to get to the door. They crowded into the foyer, standing out of the way for Versis to let the detective in. The butler undid the latch and opened the heavy wood door.

“Detrimus Tason, I presume?” Versis put on his best “welcoming manservant” expression and bowed ever so slightly to the figure in the door. “Do come in.”

“Oh, yes, that’s me,” Detrimus Tason confirmed, stepping inside and shutting the door behind him before Versis could get it. He really wasn’t anything like the staff expected. Black hair, narrow face, bright eyes. His whole frame seemed on the small side. He held out his hand. “And you are…?”

Versis glanced between the dark-haired detective’s broad smile and his outstretched hand before realizing he was supposed to shake it. He did so a little cautiously; after all, the servants never shook hands with anyone. “Versis Attaca, butler,” he said by way of introduction. “May I take your coat and hat, Mr. Tason?”

“You may take my hat,” Detrimus said, removing his fedora and handing it to Versis, “but there are several important items in my coat pockets, so I’ll keep it, if you don’t mind.” He patted the numerous pockets of his black trench coat. “And please just call me Detrimus. Everyone does.” He seemed to suddenly notice the other servants standing around him. “Ah! Introduce yourselves.”

“I’m Teresa Hilman, the housekeeper. Or castlekeeper, if you want to be specific,” she added as an after thought. “Then there is Jefferson Niel, the groundskeeper; Martha Stewart, the cook; and her assistant, Lee Jacobson.” Each individual nodded their head in turn, and Detrimus insisted in shaking hands with all of them.

“If you will just follow me upstairs, M- er, Detrimus,” Versis hinted.

“Right. Of course. Lead the way.” The excitable detective trailed the butler up the stairs, with everyone else behind him. They all wanted to see exactly what he would do first.

Detrimus got to work right away. “What is the doorknob doing on the floor?” he asked.

“That’s how we got into the room,” Martha explained. “The door was locked.”

“Is it unusual for the door to be locked?”

“No, Master Guymond always locks his door, and there’s only one set of keys for the whole castle. He keeps them in his room.”

“Before we go in, perhaps you can relate to me what transpired last night?”

“Well,” Versis began, “we’d just finished up the last tour of the season, and Master Guymond decided to have a celebration banquet. We all drank considerably, and I went to bed some time after midnight.”

“You left at about one in the morning,” Teresa supplied. “Master Guymond didn’t turn in for another two hours. But the rest of us stayed up drinking. I don’t know what time it was when we passed out on the floor, but we didn’t get up until after eight.”

“Master Guymond always comes down for breakfast at exactly seven each morning,” Martha continued. “That’s how we realized something was wrong.”

“Such a fascinating narrative,” Detrimus commented, smiling brightly. “Let’s take a look inside.” He pushed the door open, then whistled. “How ghastly.”

He entered the room and began looking around, muttering to himself, “Why was Guymond killed? How did the killer get in? Did they make copies of the keys? So many questions and so many answers,” he mused. “The real puzzle is figuring which answer goes with which question. You know, I always meant to come here for a tour some time. Never got around to it, and now it’s far too late.” Detrimus seemed to be in the habit of rambling.

“There’s so much evidence in here, I just don’t know where to begin,” the detective continued. “How about these curtains. Did any of you, by chance, notice that the curtain rod is missing?”

“Why, no,” Versis said. “I just assumed they’d fallen in the struggle when- that- ” He couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“The curtain rod is indeed missing. Perhaps our unknown murderer was in fact a thief. But why the curtain rod?” Detrimus wandered from the curtains to Guymond’s bedside table and absentmindedly riffled the pages of a leather-bound book entitled Private that rested atop it. “Did it have sentimental value to the robber? Was it in fact valuable? What’s this, by the way?” This last statement referred to the book he was toying with.

Versis came over to see. “I believe that is Master Guymond’s journal. I knew he did keep one, though I never came in here enough to know what it looked like.”

“Mmm,” Detrimus nodded, and idly pulled out the top drawer. “Ah! Keys. These will be handy.” He picked them up and examined them closely.

“What are you looking for?” Versis wondered.

“Do you know how keys are copied?” Detrimus countered. “By pressing the key into a piece of soap or other such soft material, then either taking the imprint to a hardware store or carving a key yourself from a stick. Soap is bound to leave some sort of residue on the key, but on these, there is nothing. That eliminates the possibility the killer made copies to get into the room. Describe to me the curtain rod that once held up the curtains here.”

“It was a wooden rod with convoluted roots or branches on each end that wrapped around two red glass spheres,” Teresa related. “Nothing that would especially catch the eye.”

“The length of the window?”

“Longer, closer to five feet. About this big around.” She held her thumb and forefinger together with the tips together.

“That must have been some curtain rod,” Detrimus exclaimed. “More like a pikestaff. Now for the dirty work. I really hate to do this, but I must have a closer look at that sword.” He pulled a handkerchief from one of his pockets and stooped down to Guymond’s stiff form and carefully pried his rigid fingers from the hilt of the sword. “Strange,” he muttered. “His grip is strong.” Detrimus wrapped the handkerchief around the hilt of the sword, grasped it firmly, braced his foot against Guymond’s side, and heaved.

Teresa, who had grown paler and paler this entire time, clapped both hands over her mouth and raced down the hall in the direction of the bathroom when she saw the gore-stained blade slide inch by inch from Guymond.

Detrimus, ignoring the retching sounds echoing down the hall, rested the point of the sword on the floor, unwrapped his handkerchief and dropped it to the floor. Holding the weapon upright by the guard, he reached into another pocket to find a paper packet of whitish powder. Tearing the packet open with his teeth, he emptied the contents over the wood hilt and blew gently. White lines showing finger- and handprints gradually took form as the excess powder blew off, stark against the dark wood. Detrimus held the sword near Guymond’s right hand and compared the prints.

“Strange,” he said again. “The only fingerprints on this sword are Guymond’s own. The blade never left his hands.”

Martha frowned. “Then he killed himself?”

“I highly doubt it,” the detective snorted. “If that were the case, the curtain rod must have taken itself down and left.” He knelt and began searching around on the floor near Guymond’s feet. “Nothing he could have tripped over that would cause him to fall in that position,” he muttered. “But if he were pushed…” He trailed off, struck with a sudden inspiration, then quickly turned Guymond’s head over. “Aha!” he shouted.

Two short, bruise lines marked the right side of the jaw of the slain man, and another longer, thicker line ran behind them to vanish into his beneath his ear. Detrimus brushed aside the thin gray hair to reveal that the bruise continued several inches across his head.

“A powerful blow,” Detrimus said unnecessarily. “Probably struck with a long, stout object, like a cudgel… or a curtain rod. He fell after being bludgeoned in the head, probably onto the point of his own sword. Watch.” The detective took another sword off the wall and held it in front of him, as about to attack someone. He pretended to fall, and as his arms flew out to catch himself, the pommel of the sword hit the floor and the blade tilted inward. The sharp point pressed against his chest.

“You see? The force of the fall drove the blade through him. He would have hit the floor face first, but the hilt caught him, and he fell on his side instead.” Detrimus reenacted this scene as well, sliding the blade of the sword under his arm rather than impaling himself on it. The staff watched curiously.

“You certainly solved that quickly,” Jefferson complimented grudgingly.

“Solved?” Detrimus cried. “Heavens no, this is far from solved. All I’ve proved is how poor Guymond died in the first place. I have yet to find out who the actual perpetrator is, how they got into the room, what motives they had in robbing Guymond of his curtain rod, and where they went with it.” He put the sword back on the wall. “I have some more investigating to do, outside. I’ll not be back until late. Jefferson, would it be too much to ask for you to stand guard at this door? I’d prefer everyone to be kept out.”

“Of course, Detrimus, sir,” Jefferson agreed stonily. “I’d prefer to ‘sit’ guard, though.”

A hearty laugh burst from the detective’s throat. “Good one!” he exclaimed. “Find yourself a chair. I’ll be back tonight.” Halfway through the door, he paused and asked, “Would it trouble you if I stayed the night?” Without waiting for an answer, he left Guymond’s room. Minutes later, the staff heard the front door slam shut.

“Right, out you go,” Jefferson ordered in his rough voice. “You’d best be getting dinner started, Martha. We’ve missed lunch altogether, and it’s nearly four o’clock.” The staff exited the room slowly. With a furtive glance over the room, Jefferson pulled the door shut, then went to find himself a chair.

Lee stoked the fire in the dining hall as Martha went into the kitchen to prepare dinner for six. The daylit windows gradually dimmed as the evening sky darkened with clouds. Then the soft pattering of raindrops striking glass reached their ears as they worked, providing pleasant white noise. The detective did not reappear for another three hours.

Detrimus charged back inside in the middle of dinner, sopping wet. He marched straight to the dining hall without removing his coat or hat, and announced, “Did you know it’s raining out there?”

“I gathered as much,” Versis observed dryly, watching the prodigious amounts of water rolling off the detective form the sixth Great Lake at his feet.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” Teresa inquired hopefully.

“I found exactly what I was looking for,” Detrimus confirmed, removing his coat and handing both it and his hat unceremoniously to Versis before seating himself at the table next to Jefferson. “Nothing.”

As the butler, looking slightly disgruntled, went to hang the detective’s wet things in front of the dining hall fire, Lee shot Detrimus a questioning look. “You- weren’t looking for anything?”

“Ah, no,” Detrimus explained. “I was looking for nothing, or the absence of evidence. I circled the castle several times, moving farther and farther out until I was at the lake’s edge. Then I wandered a bit in the woods, but still I found no tracks, traces of tracks, traces of brushed-over tracks,rocks out of place, bent grass blades, or broken twigs. It didn’t begin to rain until after I started back, but if I missed anything, it’s long gone now.” He paused to mop rain off his face with his sleeve. “Is there anyone living nearby? Perhaps in the woods?”

Everyone shook their heads, and Jefferson even added a firm, “No.”

“Pity,” Detrimus lamented. “It would make everything so much simpler. Anyway, after finding nothing outside the castle, I could only come to one conclusion: the culprit did not leave the castle. And why did he not leave the castle? He could not get very far. He had no where else to go.” He paused and looked at each of the servants in turn. “He could even have worked in the castle, as a member of the Sandrock Staff.”

Sandrock Staff at once erupted with protestations, as Detrimus expected.

“Preposterous!” bellowed Jefferson. “Where do you get the gall-”

“-door was locked!” Versis objected loudly. “How could you-”

“-know who it is, then!” Teresa gasped.

“-ourselves think- we know-” Martha tried to say.

“I didn’t do it,” Lee stated so quietly, everybody missed it under the shouting contest. Finally, Detrimus held up his hand for silence, which he achieved by degrees.

“I’m not pointing any fingers,” he said mildly. “I am simply stating the possibilities.”

The servants around him stared at each other with wide eyes, as if trying to see into one another’s thoughts.

“At any rate,” Detrimus concluded, “I’m starved. Martha, is there-?”

Still shaken, the cook nodded and quickly filled a plate for him. The rest of them gradually settled onto the benches and resumed eating, staring pointedly at their plates, determined not to make eye contact. Several minutes passed with no sound other than the scraping of utensils on plates.

Detrimus spoke up, “Tomorrow, I search the rest of the castle. I’m still curious as to where the curtain rod ended up. Please make yourselves readily available in case I have questions, and refrain from cleaning anything. Might there be an empty room where I can spend the night? Other than the late Mr. Guymond’s, that is.”

Versis nodded weakly, thrown a bit out of character by the accusations. “I’ll show you up,” he offered.

“Thank you,” Detrimus sighed, rising. “Jefferson, could you replace the doorknob in Mr. Guymond’s room, and make sure it is locked?” He reached into a pocket for a screwdriver and tossed it to Jefferson. “I would prefer to keep out potential sneaks.”

Jefferson snagged the screwdriver out of the air with his left hand. “Thank you for the implement, but I have my own,” he said, tossing the screwdriver back and showing the detective his tool. He then got up and went upstairs.

“A screwdriver as well?” Martha exclaimed. “Detrimus, you’re a regular human Swiss army knife.”

“I’ve never heard it put that way before,” Detrimus mused, smiling. “I do like to go prepared, though.” He and Versis went upstairs.

As the groundskeeper worked on the door handle, Versis showed Detrimus tot he room next to Guymond’s. It was still set up for the tour season, as Teresa hadn’t remembered to take the display items down in the excitement of that day. The detective seemed immensely delighted with everything, and immediately began familiarizing himself with a rather large battleaxe hanging on the wall across from the bed.

“I’ll leave your coat and hat outside your door when they’re dry,” Versis said, recovering his old self some. “Would you like to use some of Master Guymond’s nightclothes?”

“No, thanks. I’ll manage.” Detrimus smiled brightly in clear dismissal. Versis made a slight bow as he backed out of the room.

Before Detrimus could shut the door, Jefferson appeared. “Door is fixed and locked.”

“Very good.” Detrimus clapped him on the shoulder. “Do have a good night.”

“The same to you,” Jefferson returned emotionlessly, and walked down the hall to the stairs. Detrimus quickly shut his door and locked it with a key from the ring he’d taken from Guymond’s room. “I don’t think anyone will disturb that room tonight,” he chuckled to himself as he switched off the light, “as I’ve got the only key. Unless they take the door handle off…” Detrimus removed his shoes and lay down on the bed. His eyes suddenly widened. “Unless they… take… the door handle… off…”

***

            A loud banging on his door woke the detective bright and early the next morning. He was halfway across the room to the battleaxe on the wall when Teresa’s voice floated through the door, “Breakfast is ready!”

Smiling at his own paranoia, Detrimus called back, “I’ll be right down.”

He quickly put his shoes back on, smoothed his rumpled clothes, and tried to arrange his hair to look semi-decent. He unlocked the door and opened it slowly. His trench coat was folded and placed in front of the door with his hat on top. Detrimus smiled again and picked them up before heading for the stairs. He paused in front of Guymond’s door and tried the handle. Still locked. Detrimus nodded in an approving manner and went downstairs.

Midway through breakfast, Detrimus asked, “Is there a map of the castle?”

“There is, printed in the information brochures,” Versis provided. “They’re on the table by the front door.”

Detrimus jumped up and ran to get one. He returned glaring at the map in puzzled frustration.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” he complained.

“That’s because you’re holding it upside down” Lee observed.

Detrimus quickly flipped it around. “Oh, there’s a dungeon?”

“Indeed,” confirmed Jefferson. “But we only ever open it in the fall. It’s locked the rest of the year.

“I see…” Detrimus mused. “Well, if you’ll all excuse me, I am going to have a look around.” He pocketed his map and started up the stairs.

Detrimus reached into another of his coat pockets, removed the castle keys, and unlocked Guymond’s door. He saw at once that something was different. “Jefferson!” he shouted.

Jefferson came.

“As you stood- er, sat on guard yesterday, did anyone enter this room at all?

“Upon my honor nobody went in that room while I sat outside it,” Jefferson swore.

“Then whatever became of the journal? It sat upon the night stand last I saw it.”

“Search me. No one went in while I sat there.”

“And… you did sit there until dinner, didn’t you?”

“I did not move an inch away from the room.”

“Nobody excused themselves from the table to go upstairs?”

“No one.”

“Hmm… Very well, then. You may go. But I now feel there is more to this crime than I first suspected.”

“If it helps, sir,” Jefferson said, “I thought it rather suspicious that Versis turned in before anybody else the night Master Guymond died. Almost as if he had something planned.”

“A most interesting observation.” Detrimus nodded. “Thank you for your input.”

Jefferson went downstairs. Detrimus quickly searched the room for the journal, but failed to come up with it. Then he dragged a sheet off the bed and draped it over Guymond before locking the door carefully and beginning his inspection of the rest of the castle, careful to hold his tour map the right way up.

But his rounds proved to be frustratingly unfruitful. There was not even a hint of a trace of a clue that could get him anywhere. Finally, around about noon, Detrimus sat heavily at the table in the dining hall, breathing out a huge sigh and resting his chin in his hand. The servants were about in other areas of the castle, and the hall was completely silent. After stewing for a while, he made to get up and try again. As he did so, he felt something sticky on the floor as he lifted his foot. He eagerly dropped to the floor to examine it.

It was the sticky residue of a not-completely-cleaned-up wine spill, probably from the festivities on Guymond’s last night. It stained the sand-colored floor a pale pink under the table, right where Detrimus had placed his feet. On the other side of the bench were two more pink spots, considerably smaller than the first, as if someone had gotten some on their shoes and walked away…

Two particular memories resurfaced in his mind: “The dungeon is locked the rest of the year,” and “Can’t get in unless they take the door handle off.” In a flash, Detrimus was on his feet, running to examine all the door handles.

But his excitement quickly wore off upon finding no difference between Guymond’s doorknob and every other one he examined. Maybe there isn’t a way to tell if a doorknob had been removed, Detrimus thought unhappily, turning away from from the kitchen door. He left the dining hall and walked slowly down the hall until he came to some stairs at the far end of the castle. A quick glance at his map confirmed his thoughts that this was the way to the dungeon, so he descended into the dark, cool, and slightly damp stairwell.

A heavy oaken door blocked his path at the bottom of the stairs. The handle on this door was black iron, rather large and ugly, the plate that held it to the door fashioned to match the hinges. Detrimus looked very carefully at the screws drilled through the plate into the old wood. Four, two on top, two on bottom. No, only three. The fourth was really an empty hole. Detrimus knelt eagerly to get a closer look. As he did so, something sharp pressed into his knee. He jerked his leg up off the floor, biting back a curse. He reached down for the evil object, and found it to be a small screw. A screw that fit perfectly into the door handle plate.

Breath quickening in excitement, Detrimus retrieved the keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. It swung open inwardly on a short corridor, even colder and darker than the stairwell. He brushed his hand over the wall, but encountered no light switch. Agitated, he reached into yet another of his pockets for a small flashlight. He prayed the batteries would hold out; he hadn’t changed them for some time.

Walking after the yellow beam of his light, Detrimus followed the short passage until it turned sharply to the right. There it opened into a typical medieval dungeon, complete with bars and damp flagstones and mossy walls. The flashlight beam played over several cardboard boxes along the walls, containing all the props for tour season.

The dungeon turned out to be somewhat smaller than Detrimus had anticipated, which killed his enthusiasm altogether and added greatly to his pessimism. All the same, he carefully scrutinized every block in the wall, ignoring the fact that they all looked the same in the beam of his flashlight. The detective finally slammed the end of his flashlight against the wall in violent dismay, causing the beam to flicker. However, he perked his head up almost at once: the wall had echoed.

Detrimus quickly tapped the flashlight down the wall, producing the same hollow sound. But he could find no space or crack that might give him a hint as to what lay behind the wall. Then, the third block from the floor shifted ever so slightly when he hit it. His lately-killed enthusiasm revived so suddenly it nearly exploded out the top of his head, but instead he channeled the energy into the block. It shifted even further back. One more hard push got it all the way through, leaving a sizable hole in the middle of the water-blackened block wall. He reached in and turned the block sideways, pulled it out, and set it on the floor. Eying the hole, Detrimus reckoned he could probably squeeze his shoulders through with some effort.

He placed his little flashlight between his teeth and began fitting himself into the hole. The beam from his light illuminated a low tunnel through the earth, seeming endless. With a final tug, Detrimus got the rest of himself through and began crawling on his hands and knees into the darkness, pushing away the thought going out to the his poor trousers and the state they’d be in when he finally got out.

Though the tunnel felt like the dark of December, Detrimus began perspiring heavily after at least thirty minutes of inching along. He wished desperately for space to stand up and remove his hot trench coat. He must have gone nearly a mile or more by this time.

His journey came to a halt at what seemed to be the end of the tunnel. At least, there was a solid wall there. But it looked different… Detrimus put out his hand to touch it, and found that it was made of wood; a door, then. He crawled up as close as he could and gave the piece of wood a good shove with his shoulder, smiling grimly as he felt it give slightly. He continued to push against it until both the door and the detective tumbled out of the tunnel into a dark room. A strange rectangle of light glowed opposite him.

Detrimus realized he was in a basement, and the geometrical light shape was the doorway to the stairs. Waiting for his eyes to adjust, he could make out some folding chairs piled in a corner, an old rug partially covering the concrete floor, and a closed door near the stairs, most likely a closet. That left only the question of what basement he was in, which he decided to solve by going up the stairs to have a look around. He switched off his flashlight and pocketed it again, then ascended the stairs.

Late afternoon sun lit up the windows of a one-roomed cabin of sorts. Every flat surface in the place was cluttered with maps, old papers, drawings, pens, and books. But one table in the center of the room caught his attention particularly, for a leather-bound book marked Private lay on it, in the midst scribbled-in notebooks. Also, an unwieldy curtain rod leaned against the table, carved from wood with translucent red glass globes on either end. Guymond’s curtain rod, for sure.

“What on earth are they doing here?” Detrimus wondered aloud. “Who owns this place?” He picked up the curtain rod, noticing how light it was for its size. He set it back against the the table and picked up one of the notebooks. He felt a shock run through him like cold water as he realized the notebook was full of hastily scrawled plans. He quickly sat down on the nearest chair, turned to the first page, and began to read:

Lost Sandrock Gold

-hidden near Castle Sandrock

-in area where stone for castle mined?

-beneath castle?

-somewhere in woods?

-near lake?

How to Find

-search all areas

-eliminate impossibilities, then search remaining areas

-team with G, use map and notes

-take map and notes from G

Map Plan

1) not drink

2) wait for G to go to bed

3) wait for others to fall asleep(?)

4) sneak upstairs

5) remove doorknob

6) take curtain rod

7) replace doorknob

8 ) bring curtain rod here

Notes:

            Finished tunnel from basement to dungeon, no one ever suspected.

            Now have map and journal. Both written in code. Able to read both, but the map is a riddle. Detective makes everything harder, always snooping. Maybe lay false trail?

            Detrimus closed the notebook, thoughts whirling. He nearly had the culprit now. He had learned several new things about him, too. Detrimus knew that the Lost Sandrock Gold was a local legend of a great treasure hidden somewhere in the area, by the people who had built Castle Sandrock in the Dark Ages. Several archaeologists and treasure hunters had searched for it, but never even come close. This person seemed to be only a few steps away from uncovering the secret. By the looks of the notes, Guymond had as well. That was definitely something new.

Taking a deep breath, Detrimus tried to reorganize his thoughts. Guymond had owned a coded map and journal, which were key points to finding the gold. The perpetrator had formed a plan to get these from Guymond and succeeded, although with a few drawbacks. This person was now trying to break the code and seize the gold. Detrimus turned his eyes back to the writing, but was unable to discover if the person writing was right-handed or left-handed, male or female.

Detrimus set the notebook back on the table, picked up Guymond’s journal, and tucked it away in a large pocket inside his trench coat. He then turned to the stairs, thinking to leave by the tunnel, as he had no idea how to get to the castle from the cabin. It couldn’t be too far, though. His brain came to the conclusion that one of the servants had lied to him when he asked if anyone lived nearby.

Detrimus made it down one step when he heard from behind him the slam of the cabin door and a gasp of surprise. He jumped a foot, nearly losing his balance, and started to turn around. But all he saw was the fist of the newcomer speeding toward his face. A split second later, it collided with his jaw with more force than he would have thought possible. Then he hit the stairs, bouncing and rolling to the bottom. His head cracked painfully against the floor, and he tasted blood in his mouth. Detrimus lay on the cold floor for a moment, his reorganized thoughts sloshed into a swimming muddle all over again. Then he slowly sat up and looked to the stairs.

The silhouette of a man stood framed in the doorway, his features invisible against the light behind him. The man did not stay there long, though; in a single long stride he crossed over to Detrimus, wrenched open the closet door, seized the detective by his trench coat, and threw him bodily into the black closet. Before his mind could even begin to understand what had just happened, the closet door slammed shut, and a key clicked in a lock. The attacker’s footsteps then echoed up the stairs. The sound of a door slamming soon reached his ears.

Detrimus sat without moving for a long time. His head throbbed horrendously, a tender lump already forming where he’d hit it on the cement. His ran his hand gently over the right side of his face, wincing as he brushed the bruises on his jaw from the mystery man’s fist. Detrimus felt certain that the mystery man was the very person he was looking for.

Detrimus could not see his hand pressed against his face, so thick was the darkness. His arms could not quite extend fully in the cramped space. Almost cautiously, his hand slid over the door and tried the handle. Locked, of course.

Then he remembered the journal, and he quickly thrust his hand into his coat. The book was still secure in his pocket. He also remembered the flashlight. He took out both and flicked the light on. Opening the journal under the yellow beam, he saw first a line of symbols scrawled on the inside cover: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz*

The rest of the book was written in these same symbols. Detrimus counted the characters on the inside cover, totaling twenty-six. He got a feeling that this was the key to the code, and silently laughed at Guymond for making it so easy. The first page ran:

after much bribing i was able to get into castle sandrock under the pretense i was considering purchasing it. i found what i was looking for though. the map was in a wooden case disguised as part of the banister going upstairs but the whole thing is in code and i cant make sense of the drawing either. will need time to work on this.*

The next entry:

retired and bought castle sandrock and the surrounding lands. im quite sure the lost gold is hidden somewhere in the land i bought. started working out the code of the map. drawing can be seen right in a mirror. its just a map of sandrock estate with the woods quarry and lake. perhaps coded characters also written backwards.*

The next few pages were nothing but codes and ciphers, different from the one the journal was written in. Countless lines were scratched out and rewritten, sometimes arrows had been drawn in to rearrange orders. Then there came a break in the codes, several months after the first entry, stating:

groundskeeper jefferson niel suspicious. asked about my journal today. i let slip about lost gold and he pressed me for more info. i said no more. i think he may also be after lost gold so i hid map in curtain rod afterwards. maybe should fire jefferson.*

Following two more pages of foreign characters came:

broke the code finally but it is in riddle. runs like this

a thorn that grows by desert stone

points to a place where nothing has breath

a place where sun has never shone

a place as dark and bleak as death

take care searcher you keep in mind

as you journey to this realm of cold

use caution or not a thing you’ll find

instead go to rest with the lost gold.

cant make any sense of it. desert stone is probably castle sandrock but there are no thorns near the castle. tour season over thank goodness ill have more time to work on the puzzle.*

This was the last entry. Detrimus found a pen and some paper scraps in his coat, and he translated the whole book to read:

“after much bribing i was able to get into castle sandrock under the pretense i was considering purchasing it. i found what i was looking for though. the map was in a wooden case disguised as part of the banister going upstairs but the whole thing is in code and i cant make sense of the drawing either. will need time to work on this.

“retired and bought castle sandrock and the surrounding lands. im quite sure the lost gold is hidden somewhere in the land i bought. started working out the code of the map. drawing can be seen right in a mirror. its just a map of sandrock estate with the woods quarry and lake. perhaps coded characters also written backwards.

“groundskeeper jefferson niel suspicious. asked about my journal today. i let slip about lost gold and he pressed me for more info. i said no more. i think he may also be after lost gold so i hid map in curtain rod afterwards. maybe should fire jefferson.

“broke the code finally but it is in riddle. runs like this

a thorn that grows by desert stone

points to a place where nothing has breath

a place where sun has never shone

a place as dark and bleak as death

take care searcher you keep in mind

as you journey to this realm of cold

use caution or not a thing you’ll find

instead go to rest with the lost gold

cant make any sense of it. desert stone is probably castle sandrock but there are no thorns near the castle. tour season over thank goodness ill have more time to work on the puzzle.”

Detrimus excused Guymond his poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. After all, the thing had been written in code, for goodness’ sake.

So, the curtain rod had a map of the Sandrock Estate in it, along with a riddle revealing the location of the Lost Sandrock Gold. Guymond had either never figured out the riddle, or not gotten a chance to write down his thoughts if he had before he died. Suddenly, something clicked in his head, and he knew the identity of the man.

“I certainly got more than I bargained for out of this,” Detrimus muttered to himself. “Chap probably chucked me in here to die. Well, I suppose I can take a leaf out of his book.” He still had his screwdriver with him, and in the light of his dying flashlight, he removed all the screws from around the doorknob. When it fell from the door, the light flooding in through the small hole momentarily blinded him. Although when his eyes adjusted, he realized the sunlight had a darker, oranger tinge; the light of late evening, rather than of afternoon.

Detrimus pushed the door open and stumbled out into the basement again. He went upstairs for the curtain rod before heading down to the tunnel entrance. He noted that the panel of wood had been replaced in the wall, but he easily knocked it out again and crawled right in, not bothering to use his flashlight. He slid the curtain rod along the earthen floor of the tunnel with his hand, it being much too long for him to carry in his teeth as he’d done with his flashlight.

When the end of the curtain rod struck an obstacle, Detrimus knew he’d reached the dungeon. The culprit must have tried to cover up after Detrimus by replacing to prevent the staff from finding him should he be missed. He left the rod lying there, crawled to the stone wall, and pushed as hard as he could. The block grated out of place and fell with a sharp crack! to the dungeon floor. Detrimus winced at the noise. He’d hoped to make a quiet entrance. He could always hope no one had heard the block. He eased first himself, then the curtain rod out of the hole and waited several seconds. No running feet or excited shouts. The dungeon must be rather soundproof, he thought.

Detrimus trotted through the dungeon with the rod, shut and locked the door behind him, tramped up the stairs, down the corridor, and into the dining hall. He could hear Martha and Lee bustling about in the kitchen, making the beginnings of dinner. He walked to the table, laid the curtain rod down on it, and filled his lungs to their maximum capacity.

“Everybody!” he roared, expelling all the air in his chest. He winced, the bruises on his jaw aching terribly.

Martha and Lee raced out immediately, alarm showing clear on their faces. Teresa entered minutes later, followed by Versis. Detrimus waited, but the groundskeeper failed to appear. “Where’s Jefferson?” he demanded.

“Outside, I think,” Versis said.

“I’ll fetch him,” Lee volunteered, and dashed away.

“The curtain rod!” Teresa gasped. “Where-”

“All will be explained in good time,” Detrimus broke her off. “I’ll wait to begin until Lee and Jefferson are able to join us.”

The assistant cook walked in minutes later, flushed and winded, trailed by a impassive Jefferson. His face registered visible shock when he saw Detrimus standing there, but he did his best to hide it before too many people noticed.

“Thank you for coming quickly,” Detrimus smiled. “I called you all here to tell you I have solved your case, as well as several others.”

A babble of questions rose up, but he shook his head. “I will tell you everything. Save your questions until I’m finished.”

The staff silenced themselves.

“Let me start at the beginning: the night of Guymond’s death.” Detrimus sat down at the table and began, “It was the last night of the season, and Guymond held a celebration in honor of another good year. It was on this night that someone plotted to break into his room and steal something of importance. That someone waited until Guymond had retired to his bed, and laid off suspicions of others by pretending to drink vast amounts of wine, instead pouring their glass out on the floor. As the others dropped off to sleep, our man crept upstairs with a screwdriver, removed Guymond’s door handle, and stole into the room. He was in the act of removing the curtain rod when he made some slight sound, and awoke Guymond.

“Guymond jumped up, snatched a sword off the wall, and charged at the thief. The poor fellow defended himself with the only thing he had. He struck Guymond a vicious left-handed blow with the curtain rod. The attack either stunned or knocked Guymond out, and he fell onto his sword blade, as I demonstrated yesterday. The thief did not expect this, and realized he had to be even more careful. Instead of leaving the castle through the door, where he might leave traces on the ground, he replaced the doorknob, ran to the dungeon, took out his screwdriver, and repeated the process. However, he lost one of the screws in his haste.

“In the dungeon, he removed a block from the wall to reveal a tunnel through the earth, probably dug himself prior to that night. He took the curtain rod through the tunnel, ending up in a cabin in the woods not far from Castle Sandrock. There, he twisted the curtain rod until it came in half -” Detrimus replicated the motion, and the curtain rod fell asunder in his hands. A piece of yellowed parchment showed out of one half. “- and took out this.” He drew the old paper from its wooden casing and set it on the table. The staff gaped at him.

“This is a map of Sandrock Estate,” Detrimus gave in explanation to their shocked expressions. “It includes the castle, the lake, the woods, and the old quarry where the stone for the castle was mined hundreds of years ago.” He unfurled the map to show them. “But there’s writing here, in code. When the thief realized the map was useless to him, he returned to the castle and fell asleep on the floor with the other servants, to hide where he’d been. The next day, after I’d come and examined Guymond’s room, the perpetrator took the first chance he got to sneak into the room and take Guymond’s journal. Although Guymond had written the whole book in code, it was easily decipherable.”

Detrimus reached into his coat and drew out the journal, flipping it open to show them the flowing symbols. “Earlier today, I found the tunnel in the dungeon. I followed it to the cabin, where I found the journal and curtain rod. There were also many notebooks, maps, and diagrams. One of the notebooks listed careful plans to take the map from Guymond’s room the night of the celebration.”

“But why?” Martha broke out, unable to restrain herself any longer.

“Why?” Detrimus’ eyes glowed. “Why? My friends, the thief was competing with Guymond to find the Lost Sandrock Gold!”

“That’s an old myth,” Jefferson snorted.

“Let me finish! While I was in the cabin, I was attacked by an unknown person, as you may see from these bruises. This person locked me in a closet and left, thinking no one would find me and I’d eventually starve. But he forgot that I am a human Swiss army knife – I had a screwdriver in my pocket. I was able to translate nearly all of Guymond’s journal during my stay in the closet, and I learned some fascinating things.” The detective reached into his “Swiss army” coat and pulled out his written-on paper scraps.

“Here I must go back again. Guymond actually bought Sandrock Estate for the purpose of searching for the Lost Gold. He found the map and broke the code. All he needed to do was solve the riddle written on the map. But he died before he could get to that.

“The culprit did some careful planning, but left several clues I could use to find him out. He is a left-handed man, by the marks on the right side of Guymond’s face and the bruises on the right side of mine. He is a man who spends time outdoors, when he would be able to slip away to the cabin in the woods. He is a man who carries a screwdriver in his pocket. Friends,” Detrimus cried, jumping up in the spur of the moment, “I name you, Jefferson Niel, as our man!”

At the mention of his name, Jefferson’s face twisted into such a savage expression, he seemed for a moment more beast than human being. Then he spun on his heel and sprinted for the door.

“Catch him!” Detrimus shouted. Versis and Lee bolted after him. Jefferson was fast, but Lee was faster. The lean young man caught hold of the fleeing groundskeeper and held on for all he was worth. Jefferson slowed down enough for Versis to catch up to him, and together he and Lee dragged him back. He gazed furiously at Detrimus.

“Teresa, you may call the police now, if you like,” Detrimus said, ignoring the daggers shooting from Jefferson’s eyes. Lee grinned triumphantly, as if to say, “Didn’t I tell you a detective was a good idea?”

“Oh, Teresa,” Detrimus called. The housekeeper paused and turned. “If you can, find someone who has a trawler and get them up here as well. And if they have a crane, that would be also be nice.”

***

            By the time the police arrived, Detrimus had written them up a detailed report, similar to his recent account to the Sandrock Staff. After reading it over, the police chief shook his head in amazement. “You certainly do wonders, Tason,” he told Detrimus.

“Thank you,” Detrimus beamed. “I do try.”

Jefferson was being arrested on charges of second-degree murder and breaking and entering. Detrimus didn’t press charges against him for “punching me in the face and knocking me down the stairs and locking me in the closet,” because he thought court was too much of a hassle. He did insist upon the police and Jefferson remaining at Castle Sandrock until the guy with the trawl net arrived, for reasons he refused to explain.

Ten minutes later, a green pickup truck came rumbling up the long drive and parked in front of the house. A blue tarp was tied over something large and bulky in the bed. A middle-aged man jumped out of the driver’s seat and came over to shake hands with Detrimus. “Hi, I’m Devon Hilman, Teresa’s brother,” he introduced himself. “Got a call from her saying you needed a trawler, am I right?”

“You are,” Detrimus said. “It’s lucky she knew someone right off the bat.”

“Happy to be a help,” Devon smiled. “I only brought the net, since I didn’t have a way to get the whole boat up here.”

“The net will actually work perfectly. Someone else is bringing a crane to drag it with, if we can attach the net to the crane.”

“We should be able to. Let’s get the net down to the lake shore while we wait.”

The two men went over and began unloading the truck. Lee, Versis, and several officers joined them in dragging the yards of thick mesh to the water’s edge. As they were unfolding the huge net, a semi with a crawler crane on the trailer growled slowly up the road. The hydraulic brakes hissed and shrieked as it came to a halt next to Devon’s pickup. The grinding engine shut off suddenly, and a sloppy young man jumped down from the cab. His eyes popped when he caught sight of the trawl net.

“Now what -” he began, but Detrimus wouldn’t hear it.

“Kindly drive the crane over here so we can attach the net to it,” he cut him off. “I’d like to finish up here as quickly as possible.”

Wordlessly, the trucker returned to his semi and prepared to bring the crane over. The rest of them finished unfolding the net.

When the crane came rumbling over the turf, Devon fastened the net to the arm of the crane. With everyone’s help, they heaved the enormous net into the lake, the weights on the edge pulling it to the bottom.

“Now swing the arm over the lake and drive to the other end,” Detrimus shouted to the trucker over the grumbling of the crane’s engine. The trucker gave a thumbs-up to show he understood. The crane rotated on its treads until the arm extended to about the middle of the lake.  Then it slowly moved forward along the water’s edge, dragging the drawing net along the lake bottom. Detrimus watched it go, biting his lip in anticipation. No one shared his excitement; they still had no idea what was going on. When the crane could go no further without hauling the net onto dry land, it rumbled to a halt, waiting for instructions.

“Bring it up!” Detrimus screamed, motioning upward with his arms since the trucker probably couldn’t hear him. The arm slowly raised up and up and up, bringing with it the dripping trawl net. The detective was bouncing on the balls of his feet by this time, inviting many strange looks from the people around him.

Then came a collective gasp. There, piled in the bottom of the net, were at least six large, oaken crates bound with strips of corroded iron. Detrimus motioned for the trucker to bring the net and its contents back over to the castle, his face split by a wide grin.

“By golly, Tason,” the police chief exclaimed, “what have you done now?”

As the crane dropped the net and crates on the grass nearby, Detrimus began hunting through his pockets, emptying their contents onto the ground. A great pile of keys, toothpicks, coins, paperclips, scissors, magnifying glasses, pens, notepads, feathers, rocks, handkerchiefs, and switchblades came tumbling out of the trench coat into a great pile at his feet. The staff and police looked on with disbelief on their faces as the heap grew.

“Where does he keep all of it?” Devon hissed to Versis. The butler shrugged.

“Curses, no hammer,” Detrimus groaned, glaring down at the huge mound of things. “Can somebody loan me one?” Lee ran into the castle and returned with the desired tool. Detrimus thanked him and moved over to the crates. He pushed the net over top of them so it was bunched up in a big, sodden pile, and waved everyone closer.

“I’d like you all to get a good look at this,” he said, “particularly you, Jefferson.” The groundskeeper was handcuffed under the watchful eye of two police officers. At Detrimus’ word, they brought the former groundskeeper over to the scene. Detrimus scrutinized the bands around the crates, then put his hammer against the ancient wood, catching hold of a nail. He levered back, drawing the old iron spike from the wood. There were eight nails holding the lid down; Detrimus was careful to save all of them, handing them to Versis for safekeeping. When all the nails were in the butler’s possession, Detrimus set the hammer down, grabbed hold of the top of the crate, and pried it carefully off.

There came a second collective gasp, and Detrimus smiled even more brightly, if that were possible. Then Jefferson began screaming curses in a blind rage.

“Perhaps this is a little too much for him,” Detrimus suggested. “After all, he spent years trying to find the Lost Sandrock Gold, and it only took me a few hours.”

“How did you figure it out?” Jefferson raved. “The riddle, the riddle was gibberish!”

“Oh, the riddle,” Detrimus said thoughtfully.

“‘A thorn that grows by desert stone

Points to a place where nothing has breath

A place where sun has never shone

A place as dark and bleak as death.

Take care searcher you keep in mind

As you journey to this realm of cold

Use caution or not a thing you’ll find

Instead go to rest with the lost gold.’

            “Right away I noticed that ‘thorn’ was ‘north’ scrambled up. ‘Desert stone’ meant Castle Sandrock, easy enough. A dark, cold place where nothing can breath north of Castle Sandrock was the lake, of course. The second verse is only warning searchers to be careful. Since there were no such things as trawl nets and cranes in the Dark Ages, the people who wrote the riddle assumed searchers would be diving for the treasure, and therefore run the risk of drowning. So, you see, quite simple.”

No one could speak, or move. They were too shocked by the crate of coins and artifacts. Priceless pieces of history, right there in the box. Not to mention the fact that they were all made of solid gold. One by one, everyone turned their eyes to the other five crates.

“Anybody want some?” Detrimus asked.

***

            To make a long story short, the gold did not actually get divided up among all the people present. Detrimus Tason was given a large share of it, being the finder, and would have received all of it had he accepted. Instead, some of it was given to Versis Attaca, Teresa Hilman, Martha Stewart, and Lee Jacobson, and still more of it was donated to museums around the world. Jefferson Niel was also issued a share, but he was sentenced to prison for the next twenty years after his trial, and would not be seeing it for a long, long time.

Since Richard Guymond had never gotten around to writing a will, Castle Sandrock was turned into a historical museum, open year round, and the original staff was invited back to work there. It attracted even more people than Guymond’s original tours had. The most popular attraction was Guymond’s bedroom, where visitors could see where the eccentric treasure hunter met his end and hear about the Sandrock Mystery, as it came to be called.

Detrimus bought Jefferson’s cabin almost immediately after it went on the market. He continued his work as a private detective, and occasionally dropped in at Castle Sandrock to chat with the staff.

He has since added a hammer to his coat pockets.

*These were originally written in Bodoni Ornamental font, but it doesn’t show in this post. 😦

Don’t Write at Midnight When You’re Sleep Deprived

Seriously, don’t.

The following is an excerpt from a “short” mystery I am writing for my English class. I wrote it last night at midnight. And I was sleep deprived. (And yes, I’ll probably put up the whole thing when I finish it.)

{Midway through breakfast, Detrimus asked, “is there a map of the castle?”

“there are, printed int he information brochures,” Versis provided. “The’re ont hte table by the front door.”

Detrumus mumped up and ran to getone. He reutrned glaring at the map in puzzled frastaraton.

“This doesnt make any sense,” he complained.

“that’s because you’re holding upit opuside down” Lee obeserved.

Detrimus quickly filipped it arund. “Oh, therehs’ a dungewon.

“Inddeed,” confirmed Jefferson. “But we only ever open it in the fall. It’s lockedthe resto te ethe year.

“I se…” Detrimus mused. “well, if you’ll all excuse eme, “ iam going ot have a look around. He pocketed his ap and sared up the stairs.

Detrimus reache din to another of his cont pockets nd removed thecatllte ckes andnlunocked gumond’s door. He say at once hat soemthing was differne.t “hefferson!” he shouted.}