Ethics / Morality / Short Story

The Unwelcomed Host

There are certain things a person has to be aware of when living alone in Pragnanz. This might be a lesson that comes natural to some, but for others will be quite an awakening – at least until their heads have greyed. Unfortunate for me, I’m now in that grey category.

For many, many decades, I’ve lived in Pragnanz, a region comprised of many diverse cities in wildly different geographical ranges. Within the cold heart of the artic zone is a small town surrounded by three huge cities that never sleep. Cities that are truly restless. You can tell where the borders are because that is where the night sky is oversaturated by overworked saps in skyscrapers, endless streetlamps flooding every corner, and those tawdry “OPEN” signs above every respectable storefront. The cities are so polluted the light blurs out any faraway beacons the cosmos attempt to offer. To add to the distraction, sounds of an undying freeway are continuously heard shaking the leaves and ground on the outskirts of my small town of Hope. Unlike my neighbors, the town I call home can see the stars at night. Probably due to the lack of income from its citizens. That is because the second most profitable profession in Pragnanz is the police department, the most profitable is theft.

Like every region, we have long struggled with various forms of crime, robberies, batteries, even murders; although we have recently seen a dramatic upsurge this past year. Never in my 34 years on the police force have I seen some of the sadistic acts these recent months have brought. Vile deeds that could only be culminated into a person’s pleasure through a strenuous torture of the soul. It pains me to consider the strife that has gone rampant in this once placid area, especially since I am no longer on duty to fully aid in its recovery. My retirement – though great for its ample free time – often haunted me when I realized I could not continue bringing order and valor through traditional tactics. The methods I used to practice served the scum that plague this beautiful land with their just desserts. But overall, there is always a bright side to living in Pragnanz, and that’s the weather of predictability.

 

Today, I’ll be heading to my local market for some necessities. Most merchants and misers hang around the cusp of town, near rusty, abandoned lumber yards and docks. This market is right off the edge of Laeve, one of the giant steel jungles that overshadows my little wooden domain. All of the surrounding cities – Laeve, Feorgt, and Egnior – are usually the boundaries for citizens in this area because the people become much colder once they exit the warmth of Hope. Understandably enough, who would want to leave this town.

 

“How’s it going, Sheriff?!”

“Good afternoon, Bill, how’s life treating ya?

“Eh, she’s been a bit of a frosty love lately. Staying on leveled ground is difficult these days, you know? But hey, that’s life!”

“Well, you look good anyway. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looks like you finally gave up the barley and grain.”

HAHA HA HAH, you could say that. Though you could also say they left me. Either or. It has been a good while since I left Hope to grab a bottle or two in the city. Never mind that though, we can talk about it later. What is it you’re looking for today?”

“Hey, regardless of how it happened, I am glad to hear the result. And I’ll take you up on that talk later. Let’s see, I’m just in need of some peppers. I been craving some chili for a while now.”

“You’re too kind. Y’know what, here! I’ve got some green and red ones in this bag with your name on it. Take the bag.”

“Now Bill—.”

“Nope, don’t worry about it.”

“You know I can’t just take that without giving you something in return.”

“Take it! It’s the least I can do for one of the guardians of Hope. All those years you took care of this town, and in the face of the rising craziness. From the wild, new psychotics and obsessed, lusting psychopaths to the cultish ghost followers that travel through here, you faced them all. I always tell these young folks around here that only one man could take ‘em all on. For the sake of Hope, I owe you some gratitude.”

“Bill, you’re too much, my friend. Too much. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

As I walked away, I remembered to ask, “By the way, have you heard of any suspicious activity, any weird things going on around in the area? Any thefts…robberies?”

“Um, no…not that I can think of. You know I’ll let you know if I hear anything, at all,” Bill responded. If ever a secret needed a home, setting a lease with Bill would be the best bet.

“Alright, just thought I would ask. Ha, the badge might be off but I’m never off duty.”

“Ha, I like the sound of that, Sheriff. I’ll be on the lookout too. You know I’m a sponge for information.”

“Great, I’ll see you later.”

 

It’s always refreshing to visit the marketplace. When passing by all of the vendors, you get a chance to meet many of the best people Hope has to offer. There’s Bill, one of the kindest salesmen Hope has had in the past couple of decades. Of course, there are many other merchants here that I hold the upmost respect for, such as Simone, the jovial, quick-witted butcher that collects the finest meats for most of Hope, and Frederick, the savvy, young fisherman that moved here a few years back. I haven’t bought from Simone in years, but just like the rest she continues to be a respectable, hardworking storeowner who only wants to complete an honest day’s labor and support her family. Even though I am no longer the sheriff of Hope, I have an incessant obligation to continue sheltering as if it was a child of my own.

As I was leaving the agora, I heard Bill introducing himself to someone. An act like that might seem minute, but in a close town, such as Hope, introductions have almost cease to occur. Unless it’s a child, of course, being introduced by their parent. I made a point to take a long look at the stranger while walking away. It was a tall middle-aged gentleman in a dark navy-colored suit with a jet black coat that seemed to suck the brightness out of everything near it. I could tell he was well-established by his expensive tie and leather shoes. Clearly a visitor to Hope.

There are certain events of which an old, lonely person like myself must pay close attention, especially when living in Pragnanz. I’ve been alone in Hope for the past eight years, supposing my visitors factor into that equation. My wife hasn’t been able to enjoy the simplicity that Hope brings since I was in my early 30’s. Before all of the outlandish activities started occurring.

Just this past month, I even heard of one piece of scum taking it upon himself to get revenge against me for locking away his murderous, deviant brother. Honestly, to stick up for such a bottom feeder they might as well share a cot with their sibling. The fools.

Without the wife around, our children started to visit more often – a true highlight of each month. Great kids I was not even worthy to have. They were always attracted to the fast-paced lifestyle of the cities around my little town. Both, my daughter and son, ended up working in Feorgt as a lawyer and architect, respectively, at equally nice firms. Both lived above decent lives – no, exceptional lives in the ‘big city’ – until eight years ago.

It was eight years ago from around this time that everything changed. A car collision on one of Pragnanz’s biggest highways removed my only two children from my life forever. The person that initiated the accident nearly had alcohol poisoning and had several unidentifiable pills pouring from their pockets. That night they didn’t care what happened to anyone as long as they fulfilled their hope of unconditional pleasure. Never mind whether it interfered with another, their goal of unexpected fun was all that grabbed their attention. Perhaps, the worst part of my children’s death is that they were not joined by the fool that crossed the lane and collided with them head-on.

The following week I immediately retired from the police force, unable to deal with the surplus of death and disgust that is sure to come with the job. It took me quite a long time to be able to face the repulsive acts that plague Hope and help investigate the crime that looms through this region. Just discussing it makes my stomach perform barrel rolls. I think I’ll go make my dinner now and take a nap to calm the nerves.

 

The chili I had last night was so amazing I think I’ll try it again today. Hopefully, Bill has the same peppers he had yesterday. I wouldn’t mind paying double for them this time. They’re well worth the money and more.

 

“Hey Bill, how’s it going?”

As he slowly turned around, he said, “Oh…hey, sheriff.”

It seemed like all of his usual peppiness had faded away.

“I’ve came back for more of those peppers, and this time I’ve got money for you!”

“Ok, no problem. Let me just find a bag. Here ya go.”

“Yeah. You alright, Bill? You seem kind of out-of-it.”

“Huh? No, I just…need to rest for a bit, that’s all. I was up late last night with the family. Nothing serious.”

“Ok, just let me know if anything is wrong. You’re a good man and I don’t want to see you any trouble, not as long as I can help.”

“No, I understand. I appreciate it, sheriff. Take care.”

 

Something was deeply troubling Bill, it was clear from the moment he spoke. Today he presented himself as a gritty grisaille painting unlike his typically vibrant, romanticist self. Since he was completely hesitant to let me in on anything, I’m not sure how I could have helped. The only clue I can puzzle-piece together is that whoever talked to him yesterday must have rattled him pretty well. Although I planned on visiting Simone’s shop later today, I think I’ll just wait. It’s strangely funny that whatever was plaguing Bill has now become the thorn in my side.

On leaving the marketplace, I bumped into a younger man pacing behind me at an exaggerated tempo. Without a proper notice of his presence or an apology for nudging me out of the way, the young man raced by in an obvious hurry. I like to believe the accident could have been avoided if he were moving a just tad slower. While walking down the streets, I like to stop and observe the vendors and their goods. I don’t buy any of the goods I watch, I just like to pause and take notice of the sell. As the vendors have become accustomed to their customers, so has everyone that views me observing their table or shop. Everyone except for this one, too much in a rush to show some consideration for others. I didn’t get a close enough look at his face, but I hope I remember him the next time he pushes his way through this marketplace.

The monotonous lifestyle of Hope is such a staple to its people that a deviation from expectations is nearly supernatural. As such, I always walk slowly on my way home to notice any small or new developments that may have risen. With this growing wave of crime, I can always bet on there being at least one difference during my walk.

Today, it was the bushes in my front yard. The one under the window was parted, as if someone pushed the miniature branches inward. It takes nearly 34 years of being on the force to notice something as subtle as that, but it happens. Even though I’m retired, I find red flags like these everywhere around the town. It’s about time that I found one of these dark clues at my cabin. Though it’s not typical, it does happen enough for me to expect it. I’ll probably take a nap in my chair and think about it later.

On the arm of my old leather chair is the best combination of metals assembled, attached to a wooden handle. Any tough guy that might be able to survive a shot of lead through some connection with Lady Luck is sure to meet an idle fate due to the double barrel on the Judge. To add to the arsenal, the Judge is sawed short to match the hardness of its unforgiving lead. The Judge had been the arbiter of many crimes when I was on the force, so I naturally had an attachment to it. Granted I have many weapons from my days as an authority of Hope – not to mention some swords and special blades as well – I typically leaned on the Judge. With it by my side my nerves are usually at ease.

 

Upon opening my eyes, I saw something that nearly escaped my glance. It was a bit of a shock, I’ll admit. Though it was incredibly illusive, it left an immediate imprint on my brain. A wide shadow staring at me from my window. The dusky figure’s head stood only midway from the top of the window, while encompassing the entire bottom half of the window. The silhouette quickly bounced out of sight as my eyes adjusted to the light, which made me wonder then as I do now. How long had that figure been watching from that position? Since the Judge was still nestled at the arm of my recliner, my nervousness was capped at a reasonable point.  But questions still remained for that shadowy figure, such as ‘When will it come back?’ and ‘Was that a dwarf or a squatting giant?’

The log house I’ve lived in for years is an almost-impenetrable base. The back door is barred with thick steel locks that complement the thick glass windows all across the cabin. The rust stained locks on the front door are pretty standard, yet the Judge makes up for the entire front section of the cabin with its lackluster locks.

I suppose I can excuse this incident for now, primarily since I recognized the act while waking up from a tiresome nap. Though I should remain vigilant, I am aware that there are certain things a person of Hope should just become accustomed with. For now, these blinds will make do to keep out any unwanted glances. Perhaps tomorrow I will have a reason to visit Simone.

 

As I walk to the marketplace, I cannot help but wonder how Bill is doing today. Of course, it is reasonable to hope he is back to himself but —as life teaches us— there is not much use in wishing for something unless you have the power to change it yourself. All-the-same, I hope to see my old friend, Bill, back to normal.

 

“Good morning, how are you doing today?”

“Hey, Sheriff. I- I’m doing alright, how about you?”

“Listen Bill, I realize something happened over the past few days. You’ve known me for longer than most of these people in this marketplace have even been alive. You know you can trust me. What has been going on with you?”

“I know, it’s just…” he looked at me with quivering eyes that darted to the side as his head faced me.

Through my periphery I can see the stranger from earlier. Even now, his long dark coat appeared to be a vacuum of all expression as it consumed every bit of attention around the mystery man.

“That guy, I saw him talking to you the other day. He’s clearly not from here. What did he say to you?”

Good ole Bill. You’d have thought he made his rounds back in the day with detective work. While gathering spices, onions, and peppers he tells me, “He came asking about you, Sheriff. He said he has some business with you that is long overdue,” all while focusing his eyes on his work at hand. The slick one.

“Hm, did you tell him where I live?”

Unbelievably, he started to tear up. Bill always put on a strong front, even at his lowest times. I could not tell if this was true melancholy or fear on his behalf. Whatever the source he fully embraced it.

“Sheriff, I’m sorry. I had to tell him what he wanted. He threatened my whole family. He said he would pick them off one by one until I gave him info about you.”

“Don’t worry about it, Bill. I understand.”

“I would never intend for you to be put in danger. I had no other choice.”

“It’s okay Bill. Please…you don’t want our friend to hear you.”

“How can I help? How can I fix this?”

“Leave it to me. I know how to handle people like him. What you can do is prepare a bag similar to the one you just filled, and give it to me tomorrow for a… generous price. Hah ha

“Yes of course, Sheriff. You’re more than welcome to it.”

“Perfect. Thank you, Bill. I’ll see ya later.”

“Never a problem.”

 

While walking away from Bill’s vending area, I could still feel that stranger’s eyes burning a hole through the back of my shirt. He watched from about twenty paces behind, yet he was close enough to feel the displaced heat from my footprints. I’m not sure whether he was mistakenly confident in his lurking abilities or wanting to make himself known to me, but his intentions could not have been misconstrued. At a moderate pace, I continued to drudge back to my safe haven. Since this mysterious figure had been given my address from Bill I felt it was safe to assume he would be visiting me once I returned home.

As soon as I entered the front door, I reached for my lawful iron tool resting on the recliner’s arm rest, and I sat, waiting for my expected guest to arrive as furiously as he followed me through the marketplace. As a welcoming gift, I will deliver to my friend an ounce of the most refined steel in Hope. Maybe even two. Straight to the heart.

HAHAHA

 —

 

“Well, it’s gotten dark now. I hope my visitor hasn’t gotten cold feet. He certainly can’t back down now, he’s come too far. He wanted my attention and now he has it, in full. It is time for him to come and fulfill his destiny— The blinds! Don’t think you can sneak up on me. I know your game by this point.”

“Such bold words. I’d expect nothing less from the ever-so-tough sheriff of Hope.”

HM! So apparently you can talk. Too bad it’s too late. Listen up, I know you’ve been lurking around my home and it is time I set the record straight. Anyone that resorts to crawling amongst shadows not only lacks the courage to stand face-to-face with his enemy, but doesn’t even deserve the verdict of the Judge.”

“…What?”

Sigh

“Go ahead, enter. The door is unlocked.”

“Alright. We really need to get things straight, so I’m coming in.”

 

In a few swift movements, I had walked out the back door without a sound. As I crept around the cabin I could hear the stranger patiently creep into the common area, careful not to surprise the resident – though he couldn’t surprise this one no matter how hard he tried.

“Hey, where’d you go?! I’m inside. Hello? Listen, I’ve been trying to connect the dots since my brother’s death. I realize what my brother did was horrific, just terrible, but I can’t let this go unchecked as well. I need to hear the truth about what happened to him once you took him into custody. Not another police rep-”

I’m quick in my old age. Immediately, I could see the life in his hard amber eyes vanish as he glanced back at me one last time. It seemed like a foreign notion that he was actually surprised by the steel blade in his side. His eyebrows were suspended so high I almost thought they had been taped.

“There, I’ve said my peace” I whispered before placing him down on the floor. His body slipped from my arms as if gravity had just gained a better grip on the failed vessel, though I could not release his identity entirely for the leaking hot plasma clung tight to my hands.

For a vaguely short moment I felt remorse for this poor dimwitted chap. He ended a situation spurred by his revolting, dishonorable brother. This one had no idea what he sought but he found it. After all, I am the authority in Hope. No one gets by my judgement. Not even the vilest could escape the justice of Hope.

“It’s time I close this door; I am beyond tired. I suppose after I take a nap I’ll take care of this visitor.”

 

I’m up early today so that I can head to the market to pick up a few things. I’m excited to prepare some gourmet chili once again. I’ll need to pay Bill a visit to grab some peppers, onions, and garlic, possibly some other spices of that sort. But first I mean to reacquaint myself with Simone’s face.

It has been much too long since I have done business with her. She’ll be glad to see the fresh product I have for sale. I used to be Simone’s favorite food provider, initially boosting her business. Because of this, I’m happy to say her business sales the finest foreign meats in all of Hope, probably even all of Pragnanz. This is just one of those things a person has to be aware of when living alone in Pragnanz.

END

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