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Iron Quill - Identity - Choices


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“No, no, please, no,” The man’s distant voice was desperate, “Please, you don’t understand.”


There was a brief cacophony of rending metal, crashing, and screaming.  Then silence.


Callie tried to quicken her pace, heels clicking on the brickwork.  Her companion’s easy gait didn’t change at all so she slowed again. 


“Oggie?  Shouldn’t we do something?” Her eyes were wide.


“Guessin there ain’t much left to be done.” He drawled, scratching his close cropped beard, “An quit callin me that.”


They rounded the corner of the last warehouse at the end of the dockyard.  At the far end of the dock was a scene of grisly destruction.  A burly bald man hung limply on the warehouse wall, held in place by the lamp post protruding from his shattered chest.  Another smaller man was entangled in a snarl of fence railing so twisted it looked like a briar patch, his head bent backwards at an unnatural angle.  A third lay in a pool of blood, his body perforated by a score of small objects like scattergun shot. 


In the middle of it all a man knelt in a heap, staring at his limp hands in his lap.  He was well dressed if rather disheveled, and had a face that could easily be called handsome.  He kept muttering “I tried to tell them… I tried to tell them…”


At the clicking approach of heels he looked up blearily.  He looked vaguely in their direction and mumbled a warning, “Stay back.  I’m n… It’s not safe.”


 When the footsteps did not slow he looked again, this time focusing on the coiffed blonde woman and rough clad man beside her.  His look was somewhere between baffled and incredulous as they continued toward him unfazed. 


“Hey! What’s wrong with you people?  Can’t you see it’s not safe here?!”  His tone changed from self-pitying to annoyance.  He looked around with red-rimmed eyes at the carnage.  “You shouldn’t be here, it’s not safe to be here.”  The momentary ire in his voice faded back to self-pity, “I’m not safe…  I tried to tell them…”  His gaze fell again.


Callie took a few more tentative steps toward him.  Her companion stopped and slid aside his worn poncho to rest a hand on the ornate custom revolver on his hip.  The crumpled man appeared to ignore them both.

She stopped a short distance from him, working hard to ignore the battered corpse not five feet from her.  Keeping her voice calm and matter-of-fact she said, “Mr. Webb?  David Webb?”


He looked up, seeming to shake off the fog a little, “How… how do you know my name?  Who are you people?”


“My name’s Calliope Doucette.  The tall gentleman in the hat is Ogden Cross.  We’re here to help you.”


David peered at her face in the pre-dawn half-light.  “Do I know you?”


Callie smiled nonchalantly, “I believe we may have met at the Landy’s faro game.”  The truth was that she had been there expressly to spy on him, but it hardly seemed the time to quibble with such small facts. 


He nodded slowly, sharp recollection cutting through the sludge of his mind.  “Pink dress.  You were drinking pinot.  You take your cards very seriously.”


“Guilty on all counts,” she replied, unconsciously smoothing the pleats of her dress, “You have a gift for remembering details, Mr. Webb.  You are a man of many… gifts.”


David looked around bleakly, “This isn’t a gift.  It’s a curse.  They say bad things happen here, but I never thought I’d be one of them.  I never wanted…”


 “I understand,” Callie said, uncharacteristically earnest, “Truly I do.  You didn’t ask for what you got, but you got it anyhow so now you’ve got a choice: what are you going to do with it?”


“Do with it?” he asked incredulously, “Look around you Miss Doucette.  I can’t do anything with it.  I can’t control it, I can’t stop it, I can’t do a goddamn thing about it!  People are dead because of me.  I’m just lucky it hasn’t happened at home or at work.  I’m not safe to be around like this.”


“Your work?  It’s for the Guild, isn’t it Mr. Webb?” Callie asked, already knowing the answer.  A night of faro was time enough for her to have read many secrets in the cards.  David Webb was not the only one with strange and unsought gifts.


“Yes,” As his shock wore off he became increasingly wary, “Anthropology division.  What of it?”


“They don’t know, do they?” Her question was obviously leading.


“No, of course not,” he replied, “I’d be put to the torch.”


“And yet here you are up before the sun, lurking around the docks, being accosted by thugs all to protect their interests.”  Callie hoped she wasn’t over-playing her hand, “That’s some kind of loyalty.”


David eyed her suspiciously, “How do you know what I’m doing here?  Who are you people?”


She answered the first to duck the second, “You’re looking for the artifacts that disappeared from Lucas McCabe’s last expedition.  You found a discrepancy in the manifests and you came to check it out.  These three upstanding gentlemen are associates of his who came to discourage you from pursuing this curiosity.  How am I doing so far?”


“You’ve been watching me.” It wasn’t a question.  “Fine.  Uncannily accurate, Miss Doucette.  Now, who are you and what do you want from me?”


She mustered as much gravitas as she could, “I already told you, we want to help you.”


The gunslinger interjected from behind them, “Less dancin Belle.  It ain’t safe.  Snufflers won’t be long in comin.”


“Thanks mama bear,” she tossed over her shoulder.


“Hey, somebody’s gotta be your mother.  Just hurry it up.” He scanned the darkness in the direction they had come from.  Fighting it out with a squad of witch hunters was not how he wanted his night to go.


“Oggie’s got a point,” Callie said, drawing a frustrated grunt from her companion, “This is not the ideal place for a long conversation so here’s the short of it.  You’re an unregistered, and thus far dangerously untrained, magical talent.  Your employer isn’t going to blink when they burn you inside out.  Even if they don’t, you’ve crossed McCabe and that man’s almost as snaky as the Secretary himself.  You’re blown and you need to make some new friends fast.”


“And that would be you.” David’s lack of enthusiasm was palpable.


“It could be worse,” She quipped, batting her eyelashes, “At least I’m pretty.  Look, eight months ago I got a similar offer, and here I am making one to you now.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a True Believer fighting for The Cause, but I’m safer than I was and I’m learning to use my talent.  Looking around, those are two things you could sorely use right about now.”


“Arcanists.” The word was almost acidic, “What will I tell my wife?”


“Nothin.”  Ogden spoke up again, “This is your shot.  Right now.  You’re all in - you disappear and start over, or you take your chips and go home.”


David slumped again, looking like he might be sick.  He closed his eyes.  After a long moment he sighed, “Okay.”


Callie nodded, looking slightly relieved.  If the answer was no, Plan B was significantly less peaceful.  She fished a deck of playing cards from her purse and handed them to David.  “Here, hold these for a moment, would you?”


He complied, looking slightly baffled but too broken to question her.  Callie walked to the corner of the dock and peered into the darkness.  She struck a match, letting the initial flare light up her face for a brief second before dropping it into the water.


There was a hollow wooden clunk and slosh of water as a small rowboat eased out of hiding and pulled towards them.


Callie returned to the still bereft David and crouched in front of him.  He held the cards in both hands, staring at them unseeing.  She cupped her hands around his around the deck and focused her will the way she had been taught.  Reading people’s pasts wasn’t the only card trick she knew anymore.  The cards grew warm in their hands and a hint of wispy blue light slipped between their fingers.  After a moment her face relaxed and the light faded.


From a few warehouses away there was the brief sound of a children’s toy playing an automated tune before it was cut short.  Ogden drew his elaborately tooled pistol and stared hard down the row of warehouses.  


“They tripped the bear.  Time’s up Belle.  They’re here.”  He was already back-stepping toward the edge of the dock with his eyes scanning the gloom of the warehouses behind them.  The rowboat pulled alongside the dock with a scrape.


Callie reached into her purse once more and pulled out an intricate mechanical brass dove.  She wound up the key on its back, and set the deck of cards in its clutches.  “Fly little birdy.”


With a whirring of gears and slight squeaking of metal joints it launched into the air and flew off down the alley between two warehouses.


“That should give the stalkers something to sniff after for a while.” Callie said with a smile, “They’ll be following your scent around in circles till noon.”


“Less gloatin, more floatin.” Ogden barked from the rowboat, “C’mon now.  Time’s up.”


Callie looked seriously into David’s eyes one last time, “You sure about this hun?  Last chance.  There’s no going back from here.”


His despair was clear when he matched her gaze, “Doesn’t seem that I have a choice.  Let’s go.”


The rowboat was already obscured in shadows when the torch-bearing witch hunters arrived on the scene.  The trio watched in silence as three robed witchling stalkers snuffled around, then loped off in the direction the dove had flown with their handlers in tow.


Ogden flicked a match with his thumb nail and lit a cigarillo.  David sat low in the prow with his shoulders slumped and eyes downcast.  Callie watched him, idly shuffling and reshuffling another deck of cards.   The boatman worked the oars with even steadiness, silently pulling them through the murky waters. 

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I really like it, right up until the last line. I think there's a way you can show us that thought process without saying it out loud, as-is it feels really awkward. I would probably change it to something like, "David sat low in the prow watching his broken reflection in the water. Callie kept one eye on him as she shuffled and reshuffled another deck of cards." Except of course your voice and your ideas. You just have this great ambiguity built up and the last paragraph kind of kills it.


Other than that? Great characterizations, good concept. It's a really fun read.

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Edited.  Thanks for the suggestion Admiralvorkraft.  I loved the shuffling and reshuffling or cards - it really fit the image of Callie in my head.  Does this final paragraph read better to you?


It's interesting/validating to get feedback like that because I had struggled with how to end it and wasn't 100% sure what I settled on was particularly strong.  It's encouraging to feel like I am seeing weak spots where there are weak spots, rather than just being scathingly self-critical about things that are actually fine.


Wasn't sure if the Bourne references were too self-indulgent, but I like trying to throw in little nerd eggs.


It was fun to revisit a character from a previous story - Callie was the protagonist in my first Iron Quill entry, and Oggie showed up at the end of that one to help recruit her.  I knew I wanted to revisit her, but didn't plan on doing it so soon.  After my first attempt with this set of ingredients failed so horribly I figured I'd go with someone I already knew and was excited about.

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