It’s on … Rik and Joe have delivered a pair of short stories that have rattled the cage in a big way. Congratulations, and best of luck to both combatants.
Please read the following pair of stories then cast a vote for your favorite. The stories are shown without writer attribution to keep this competition as fair and unbiased as possible. The poll will be open until 6 PM on Wednesday, February 29th; a winner will be announced at that time. The winner will be featured in an interview on this blog, Monday, March 5th.
I’ve included the prompt below, with the stories to follow. The poll is located at the end of the second story. Thank you in advance for reading and voting for your favorite.
* * * * *
Lincoln Towers, a steel-framed, residential high-rise development under construction along the lakefront of Chicago’s North Side, has a growing problem. Built atop land once occupied by a relocated, nineteenth century burial ground, the project has recently been fraught with danger. A total of three night watchmen have fallen to their deaths within a six week time frame, strongly suggesting that these incidents were more than just accidental in nature.
* * * * *
It was two in the morning and they were almost out of eggs.
The back alley of Lincoln Towers was just as clean and sterile as the inside. There were recycling bins, and dumpsters neatly packed with trash. The walls of the complex were washed three times a week, and an outside company had been hired to sweep up any leaves or refuse near the parking garage.
No winos living in cardboard boxes.
No urine stains on the walls.
Josh and Eddie were about to change that.
“I told you we should have bought another dozen.” Josh said as he cranked his arm back.
Eddie opened the plastic bag from the grocery store, and shoved his hand inside.
“You sure man? Because I could have sworn we picked up enough.” He replied.
A car was heading in their direction, they both quickly hid behind a dumpster. The last thing either one of them needed was someone calling the cops. Eddie had just gotten out of Juvie Hall last summer, and was on probation for at least six more months.
Eddie’s dad left shortly after that.
When the trouble with Eddie had first surfaced his mom tried a soft touch. She assumed all of the bad behavior had been Eddie dealing with all the arguing and abuse.
His dad had been a military man, strict, no bullshit.
During a routine patrol he was shot in the back. Somehow, during the firefight that had taken place afterwards—he managed to save three of his fellow soldiers. Coming home to Chicago decorated made him a legend.
So did the black eyes on his wife’s face.
Eddie started small at first. He lit alley cats on fire, stole comic books and candy from grocery stores. It wasn’t long before he was getting into fist fights at school and pocketing money out of his mom’s purse. He had gone from being a straight laced seventh grader with a promising athletic career to a teenager that just did not give a shit anymore.
His mom had problems coping and turned to the bottle, his dad who held a very lucrative job with a private security firm started missing work. His dad disciplined Eddie the only way he knew how; and when Eddie would go swimming inside their apartment complex his back would often be decorated with a patchwork of bruises. Everyone on their floor knew what a monster his dad could be, and once someone had even called Child Protective Services. Afterwards, nothing happened. His dad simply explained Eddie’s injuries as “rough-housing” and made sure that Eddie’s mom put on her best Donna Reed smile.
“I really wish this was Clancy’s door. Gawd damn does that old man give me the creeps.” Eddie threw his egg against the cement wall of the high rise.
Edgar Clancy was one of the first tenants of Lincoln Towers.
Confined to a wheel chair and his age hovering right around ninety he ruled their floor with fear. Anything that happened inside Lincoln Towers he didn’t approve of was consistently reported, and there had been instances of the watchmen on duty having to call the police per his request. Nobody on Josh and Eddie’s floor liked the guy, and avoided contact with Clancy at all costs. When Josh and his family first moved into the Towers, he had had the misfortune of riding down in the elevator with Clancy.
Clancy had looked him over as entered the elevator, his wrinkled forehead almost consumed by some of the whitest and out of control eyebrows he had ever seen. The electric motor on his wheel chair had been humming slightly as Josh slinked inside, and the blanket covering his legs had been faded and covered in pet hair.
The stench surrounding Clancy was an odd mix of medicated gels and full adult diapers. Josh had to breathe through his mouth the whole way down.
The only verbal exchange that took place was Clancy asking in a very hoarse voice,
“How old are you?”
And Josh replying,
Luckily Clancy exited before the lobby.
“Clancy’s only pissed off because he can’t get it up anymore.” Josh threw his egg against the wall.
“Hey man, aren’t there cameras?” He asked.
“Who gives a shit? I’m sure Clancy has the new watchman running all over the place. We’ve been out here for the last hour pasting the wall—and not a peep.” Eddie replied.
Of course there were cameras.
Using the cameras, they kept a very close eye on all activities that occurred within Lincoln Towers. Portions of the Towers were still under construction, and the owners wanted to make sure that their tenants felt secure. The watchmen were hired through the same company that Eddie’s dad had worked for, and became a constant reminder for Eddie’s mom of what once was.
Too bad the cameras had malfunctioned during the “accidents”.
Over the last few months three night watchmen had plummeted to their deaths. All had apparently leapt through windows on the twenty-third floor, which was still under construction—and collided with the pavement below. When the security company went back to look over what they had digitally recorded, the only thing they knew for sure was that all three employees could be seen getting off the elevator—but then anything after that was lost.
“My dad said that all three of those guys that jumped out of the window were high.” Josh said as he grabbed the last of the eggs.
“Bullshit man, they were suicidal. I mean have you seen these guys? They are overweight, balding, and can barely walk around this place without dying of a heart attack. They probably had a huge life insurance policy and figured this way it’ll pay double if they died on the job.”
Another car made its way up the alley, and they ducked behind the dumpster again.
“You know what I think?” Eddie said.
The headlights of the car skated past them and bounced off the side of the Tower building.
“I say we go mess with Clancy anyways.”
Sure enough as they walked back inside the complex they watched the new night watchmen scramble in their direction. He was talking on his phone and had a very frantic look on his face.
“See? I told you. Clancy has this guy running. We could have pissed all over the recycle bins and nobody would have been the wiser.” Eddie said.
“Plus, with the Gawd damn cameras malfunctioning, we could have really done some damage.”
Eddie reached inside his pocket for the card to the elevator.
“So what I’m thinking is this, you and I are going to break into Clancy’s apartment and scare the shit out of him. I know for a fact that old bastard leaves later on tonight and heads for the track. We get in, mess his place up, maybe shit in his sink—and then for the topper? We head down to the basement. The exterminators haven’t emptied the rat traps yet.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Josh was a little concerned. If for any reason this could be traced back to himself or Eddie?
They would be screwed.
Josh’s mom thought Eddie was a bad influence to begin with. This little adventure would probably cause them to move.
“So how in the hell do you plan on getting into Clancy’s apartment anyways? Everything is electronically locked.” He said, his voice cracking from being nervous.
“Let’s worry about that after we pick-up a few friends. I think it’s about time somebody gave that sumbitch a message.”
The elevator opened and they stepped inside.
The basement of the Towers held tenant personal possessions that were tightly locked away in separate rooms. The majority of the holiday decor that would be used for the building and lobby were also stored here. As clean as the majority of the building was, for some reason the basement would always be an issue.
Rats had made their home in the basement and the last thing the owners of Lincoln Towers needed was a tenant getting bit, and there were small children everywhere.
“Hey Eddie, did you ever hear the rumor that this place was built on top of some cemetery?”
Eddie looked over at Josh, a grin spread across his face.
“Give me a fucking break man.” He replied.
“No seriously! I heard my parents talking about it when we first moved in here.”
“I never heard anything like that. Your parents were jerking your chain.”
The elevator finally stopped and the doors slid open.
As soon as they stepped out the automatic lights clicked on to reveal storage rooms and plastic reindeer. Josh noticed that the path they were standing on seemed to stretch a considerable distance before finally veering off to the left. There were no windows to the outside, and the lack of any real natural light made Josh a little uncomfortable.
“I would think that the traps would be near the back. Let’s do this shit, Clancy is about to leave soon, and I want as much time as possible in that assholes apartment.”
They walked the length of the path and then turned.
“Clancy was the reason my dad hit me the first time, did I ever tell you that?”
“Get out of here! What did you do?” Josh replied.
“He said I was playing my music to loud. My dad didn’t even bother to take a moment and consider who was doing the bitching—just started swinging.”
They came to the first trap. Eddie reached down and shook it.
“Thing’s empty.” He said puzzled.
Josh looked to his right towards the wall and noticed something hanging. It was a very large piece of tarp and it covered what looked like a hole in the wall.
“Eddie.” He pointed over in the tarp’s direction.
“Maybe that’s where their coming in from.”
Eddie shrugged his shoulders and replied,
“Let’s check it out.”
They pulled the tarp back and disappeared inside.
What they witnessed next was a surprise to everyone.
Edgar Clancy was standing in an open grave.
Edgar Clancy was walking.
Edgar Clancy was also eating what looked like a corpse.
“What…the…fuck?” Was all Eddie managed to get out before two hands grabbed both of their shoulders. They were spun around, and came face to face with the new night watchman.
“Good, good.” Edgar said as he wiped his blood soaked mouth with the sleeve of his coat.
“I wasn’t sure if I needed to send another idiot out tonight or not.”
“Let go asshole!” Josh tried to free himself, it was no use.
They noticed that the night watchmen had a very vacant look in his eyes, and his grip was incredibly strong. They were spun back in Edgar’s direction, and both could see him waving his arms and signing with his hands. Then he spoke in a language that either Eddie or Josh could understand.
“There. Now, that takes care of our friend. The incantation also binds you in place so I won’t have to worry about you moving.”
The night watchman released his grip and started the long walk back towards the elevator.
“Good, good. He’s on his way.” Edgar said.
“I don’t mind digging up all these graves, aged meat is divine.” He licked his lips.
“Clancy I’m not buying this shit for a minute!” Eddie screamed.
Josh tried to move but for some reason was anchored in place. He noticed Eddie was struggling.
“Josh, do you remember what I asked you the first time we met?” He watched as Edgar’s fingernails stretched, became elongated—changing his hands into claws.
“How old I was?” Josh looked around the room and counted twenty open graves. He noticed a very large wet spot on the crotch of his jeans.
“Sixteen is a very good year.”
* * * * *
AN OLDER, GREATER POWER
The chipboard hoarding of the building site keeps the worst of the wind off you, in exchange for leaving you in the harsh-edged shadow of the February twilight. Above, the sky is shading past royal blue to purple, the blinking lights of distant planes shepherding a half-moon already bright and clear. Not the best time to find your phone battery dead when you need a lift home.
A sharp bang and rattle of wood on wood jerks your head up, thoughts of muggers and street gangs tightening your chest. The reality is less dramatic; an elderly man is leaning against the boards ahead of you, short of breath and patting his pockets. He’s wearing an actual bowler hat to match his absurdly old-fashioned suit – complete with waistcoat and cravat! – and the tails of his coat are worn ragged.
Nothing to worry about. Just a weird hobo having an episode. You hunch forward, trying not to make eye contact in case he wants to tell you about whatever it is the ‘Guv’mint’ have been putting in all our food or beaming into our minds. It’s too damn cold to stop and listen, and the old guy will probably follow you down the street shouting if you don’t.
He really does sound like he’s struggling, though. His breath rasps too loud to ignore as you walk past, so you stop on reflex when he says, “Excuse me, kid. Could you lend me a hand?” He doesn’t sound like a hobo so much as a kindly grandpa. His voice is a little unsteady, but a far cry from the tobacco-ravaged croak of the average street crazy.
You turn to face him, because walking on now would just be rude. Actually, you might have overestimated his age a bit; his face is lined, certainly not young, but his eyebrows are dark, his eyes piercing and alert despite the fading panic. You ask what the matter is.
“I was just cutting through the site,” he nods towards the panel beside him; a gate, you realise, “but there was a dog. Probably a stray, I suppose. Went right for me. Gave me quite a fright, I’ll tell you!”
There’s cheer in the old guy’s eyes now, some colour in his cheeks. More out of politeness than concern, you ask if he’s alright.
“Apart from being old, you mean?” He laughs, a wheezing, irresistible chuckle. “I’ll live. But I think my wallet must have fallen out of my pocket while I was running away.”
Ah, here it comes. You get ready to tell him sorry, you’ve no cash on you-
He holds up a hand, “Don’t worry, I’m not asking for money. I can get back home well enough. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind going to speak to the security guard for me.”
Confused, you ask what he means.
“You know, to ask him to let the builders know to look out for it. How to get in touch with me, and so forth. I’d do it myself, but I’m not sure my heart’s up to another fright like that, not with the weather so cold.” He smiles, “Some brave veteran I make, huh? Do you mind?”
You eye the door warily. There’s enough daylight left to see by, but not for much longer. Still, it doesn’t look like a big site. At most, you’re only a few hundred feet from the lakeshore. You agree. He tells you where the site office is, fumbles a pen and a scrap of paper out of a hidden coat pocket and writes down his address. As you step from the sidewalk into the churned-up dirt round the edges of the scaffold, you hear him whistling an old jazz tune.
The steel frame of the building welcomes you with silence, its shapes too regular to be really spooky. A little part of you is secretly sort of disappointed. The rickety site office is right on the far side, almost hidden by the jungle of girders poking up from the flat concrete of the floor. You hop over the low first courses of bricks, wondering if the dog is still around.
There’s a light in the poky, plexiglass window of the office shed. You knock on the door, only to have it spring open under the contact. Somehow, the wind manages to catch it, and you get a sharp rap across the back of your hand. Cold makes it sting like a salted wound, and you curse, but there’s no response from inside.
There’s no-one inside at all. A thermos stands on the table next to its cup, empty but for coffee dregs. There’s a paper on the floor, flopped half-open as if dropped in a hurry. A mostly-empty pin-board opposite the window stares down at the old-school landline phone. Maybe the guard went out to chase off the dog?
You scribble ‘Lost wallet on-site, please contact:’ above the address on the old man’s piece of paper and pin it to the board. Turning, you walk out of the office, careful to push the flimsy door shut behind you, and that’s when you see the body. It lies close to the beginnings of the outer wall, a beer-bellied man in a brown shirt, dark thermal vest and pants; it has to be the security guard. Even at this distance, the way he’s lying tells you he’s not in a good way.
Something uncomfortable shifts in your gut as you walk over to the guy. Your coat doesn’t feel terribly warm anymore. The guard looks as if he’s fallen from somewhere up in the scaffold nearby, his limbs splayed at all kinds of uncomfortable angles, his neck obviously broken. Your throat tightens with a hint of nausea at the sight.
There’s no blood. While your shoulders tense and a prickle runs down your spine, your brain seems to detach from the physical sensations, unable to turn away from the unsettling logic. The ground here is concrete. Any fall high enough to break a man’s neck should also have smashed his skull. But there’s no blood to be seen. The Guard’s clothes aren’t even scuffed.
And there was that story, half-remembered from a paper last week, about an apartment block they were building where there’d been a bunch of deaths.
The wind chooses that moment to slam the gate that you were just about to run for. The blood pounding in your ears drowns out the thought that this has to be a prank or something. There’s nothing fake about the corpse at your feet. You turn to make for the phone in the office, and stop dead.
There’s a girl in the middle of the site, tall and willowy, wearing gauzy hippie clothes that flutter in the wind and will probably leave her hypothermic in under an hour. If she’s been there all along, then you walked past her twice without noticing, and given the gruesome clash between her violet shirt and yellow pants, that seems unlikely. Her eyes are closed, her face peaceful, but she’s facing straight at you and the crawling sensation between your shoulder-blades tells you she knows exactly where you are.
“This is our land. You don’t belong here.” Her face doesn’t move, but the air itself seems to whisper to you. The last gold of daylight bathes her skin, showing off an enviable set of high, wide cheekbones. There’d been something in the news story about Native Americans, and the girl more or less fits the bill.
You swallow, opening your mouth to reply. A rattle from the gate distracts you; someone banging on the other side, as if it’s locked. The old man’s frail shout carries to you, too weak for you to make out the words. You understand all too well, though. Angry Indian ghost. Way out locked. It’s unlikely a 911 call is going to help.
The girl still hasn’t moved, but you can see a shadow over her shoulder, floating in mid-air. A shadow with glaring red eyes, the kind of thing that only escapes looking hokey because it’s not on a movie screen. You swallow again, and a shudder runs through you. Would it help to put on a brave face? Or is it better to act scared?
You realise you’re shuffling backwards. Your foot bumps against something that moves and for a moment your heart leaps into your throat. No, hang on, it’s just the guard’s body. Trying not to take your eyes off the ghost, you kneel down, scrabbling backwards towards the dead man’s belt. He must be carrying something you can use as a weapon. A gun’s too much to hope for – maybe a taser?
Maybe it’s a bad idea to reach for a taser without looking. If it would even hurt the girl. She looks solid enough, but… Your hand finds what feels like a nightstick. No, one of those long, heavy torches that are pretty much just as good. Reflexively, you glance down at it, and realise that you’re kneeling right over the guard’s hand.
There’s a small mark in the middle of his palm. It looks like a stylised animal, high pointed ears and round, staring cartoon eyes. You glance up and see the same face, rendered in shadow and fire, behind the girl’s shoulder. The fox-like shape goes some way to explaining the dog that the old guy saw. The torch feels thick and heavy in your grip, but there’s no way it’s going to hurt the spirit guide. Or whatever the hell it is.
Still, you’ve got to do something, before you go the way of the guard. It takes all the desperate strength you can muster to push to your feet, transfixed by the shadow’s glare. Walking towards it is like pushing against a gale blowing four centuries of hatred. You grit your teeth, eyes squeezed narrow and watering until you can barely see.
It takes a long time to reach the girl, but besides the vicious sting of the wind – your scraped hand throbs – she does nothing. Nor does the shadow behind her, but there’s only one way you’re getting out of here alive. Her hair, long and black and fine, floats in the air, flicking out almost close enough to brush your jaw and throat.
You lift the torch, bring it down hard across her face. There’s a sickly crunch as one of those perfect cheekbones gives way. She crumples to the floor. The wind dies, and the shadow behind her vanishes. As you sink to your knees, dropping the torch in relief, the gate bangs open. The old man steps into the site.
The girl’s face is a mess, bleeding blood that looks entirely human. With a trembling hand, you push sticky strands of black hair back behind her ear. She’s wearing a feather earring, its white down now flecked red.
“Fucking squaw.” The old man’s voice is richer and deeper than it sounded before. “I finally get this place away from the redskins, and they find her to keep me out.” His shoe, polished to a high shine, slides into your field of vision, poking the girl in the shoulder. Then a rough hand grabs your hair, pulls your head round to look at him. His face looks darker, somehow, as if it’s fading from reality now he doesn’t need it anymore.
Still, you can make out the surprise in his raised eyebrow. “What’s this? Might be you do have some use left in you.” He releases you. “Kill her.”
As your hands reach out to encircle the girl’s throat, you realise there’s a mark on the back of your hand, where you scraped it on the office door. Triangles for ears, circles for eyes, just like on the guard’s palm. The girl doesn’t struggle, makes no sound as you finish your new master’s bidding.