“The Articles of Redemption”

It’s always with mixed feelings that I put a cap on a short story, and this one is no exception. (It’s actually not that short.) I’ve worked on this so long that I’ve grown fond of the characters, and I don’t want to let them go. Other works demand my attention, however, so it’s time to put them on the shelf and see if I can find anyone interested in publishing them.

Here’s the set up: Imagine that you’re journalist in a quiet mountain town and your editor sends you to cover a story where something strange has happened during a local baptism. With your favourite photographer, you go to what you think will be a public interest story, but instead you become entangled in an escalating series of bizarre crimes that force you to question your perception of reality.

Genre: Horror, mystery.

Length: forty-seven pages (double spaced) and 16,500 words.

Sample Text: “The Articles of Redemption”

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Pablo asked and leaned forward in the driver’s seat. He had turned off the road and was approaching the Bow River along a bumpy, makeshift driveway. He parked in a small gravel patch by the river, then he and his partner, Tammy Fischer, climbed out of the SUV. He walked a few feet toward the bank and then stopped. He glanced back at Fischer who was coming around the front of the vehicle, tying her strawberry blonde hair into a ponytail. Her camera hung on a guitar strap and was slung low over her shoulder. When she finished with her hair, she brought that camera up with her left hand, resting it against her shoulder as she surveyed the scene. That action, so familiar to Pablo, always reminded him of a soldier hoisting a rifle in preparation for combat. Her desert camo pants and black T-shirt strengthened the impression.

“Just what am I seeing?” she asked.

It was a valid question. They were standing in a clearing on the bank of the river. The clear, cold mountain water flowed before them, filling the air with a background whisper. On the opposite bank, trees thrust up from the water’s edge, and the not-so-distant skyline was dominated by the Rocky Mountains. Lines of stratus clouds passed quickly overhead, driven by high winds, but when the sun shone through, the mountain peaks looked close enough to touch.

The river setting was visually stunning—as always, but what they saw that morning seemed unnatural. The vegetation on their side of the river gleamed a vibrant green, nearing jade in its intensity, and it was overgrown, almost rank, if such a comment could be made of a natural setting. A spindly, yellow flower speckled the nearby landscape.

Fischer framed and captured images. “This is crazy. It looks like someone spread some kind of super fertilizer.” She waved her hand down and up the river. “And it’s just here. It fades either way. Are you sure this is the place?”

“They’ve been doing baptisms here for years.”

“And the priest tried to drown a guy?”

“Well, supposedly he didn’t try to drown him, not exactly. Just tried to hold his head under the water.”

“Oh yeah, definite difference.”

“Anyway, the police weren’t involved.”

“Huh, death by baptism. What’s your Bible say about that, Pabbs? That’s gotta be a direct conduit to Heaven.”

Pablo gave a crooked grin. “I’ll have to check the rulebook, Fish, but the guy broke free before he drowned. Apparently he threw the priest on the riverbank.”

“Can’t blame him for that.”

A sandbank split the river into halves, one swift and deep, the other mired in waist-deep eddies that would challenge one’s balance but never threaten to drag a body down—a reasonable place for a baptism. Between the gravel lot and the river, there was a small clearing without trees or bushes. The remnant of a dirt path led to the water’s edge, but it was almost lost in the tangled grasses. It looked like months has passed since the last baptism, but from the report, a service had been held there that morning.

They walked toward the water, but where the wild grass deepened to jade, the two of them hesitated. Beginning at their toes, a roughly circular area of some thirty metres had been transformed. The grass there was taller than anything beyond the circle, and the trees in the affected area bent toward the river, their rich green leaves, a mass of thick fingers, reached for the water.

“It’s surreal.” Pablo looked at Fischer and asked, “What do you think could cause this, Fish?”

She shook her head. “Some kind of spill? Chemicals? But that wouldn’t explain the flowers.” There was an abundance of the yellow flower spotting both the wild grass and the trees.

“What kind of flower is that? And it’s the same everywhere.”

“Hell if I know.” She knelt down to take a closeup. “It’s strange.” She touched one of the yellow blossoms. “Like it’s going to bite me.” Then she documented the image. She pulled the viewfinder from her eyes and looked downriver. She pointed. “What do you make of that?”

“What do I make of any of it?” Pablo looked and swore under his breath. Perhaps a dozen fish—dead and white, spotted the opposite bank. He assumed they’d been pushed there by the current.

Earlier that morning, their editor, Grizwold—they called him Grizzly—had sent them to cover what he thought would be an interesting story about a priest who had lost his marbles. Since Pablo was Catholic, Grizwold thought he might have some insight that the rest of the crew at the local newspaper would lack. Fischer, the paper’s photographer, went along to get a shot that would establish the setting of the article.

Fischer and Pablo made an effective team. Even when they weren’t assigned to a specific story, they spent most of their time together ranging around the town and countryside searching for anything of interest. Now that winter had ended, the yearly influx of tourists—hikers and climbers—would provide them with a steady source of material. After the river, they planned to speak to the priest and track down some of the witnesses.

Pablo bent down and used the tip of his pencil to poke at one of the flowers. “I’d sure like to know what type of flower this is.”

“And why it’s growing on the grass and the trees? It’s growing on the freakin’ trees, Pabbs.” Fischer stopped to consider. “What’s that called? An epilet?”

“A what?”

“A plant that grows on other plants.”

“No idea, but I’ve never seen any of these before.”

“Me neither.”

Pablo straightened, shook his head and looked around. “Sweet Jesus. What is going on here?”

“Hey,” Fischer said, “we’re being watched.”

Pablo followed her gaze and saw three women sitting on the bank of the river. They were side to side with their backs pressed against a large boulder, only a short distance from the water’s edge. The forest was thick behind them. All three were staring at the two journalists. “I didn’t notice them from the parking lot,” Pablo said. “I should interview them.”

Fischer nodded. “Alright, I’m coming with.”

They were halfway to the women when something on the opposite side of the river caught Pablo’s attention. He looked across the water and stopped walking, startled. He reached out a hand to grab Fischer. “Would you look at that?”

There was a large, black dog half-hidden in the foliage on the far bank. Its head and shoulders thrust out from between two bushes. The rest of it was hidden by leaves. It was looking in their direction. Although it was a fair distance away, its size startled them.

“Holy shit,” Fischer muttered, “is that a dog or a bear?”

“Is it a wolf?”

“There are no wolves around here.” Fischer swung up her camera and captured an picture just before the dog pulled back out of sight. Shaking her head, she checked the image on small LCD screen.

Pablo glanced back at the SUV, gaging how long the run would take. He muttered, “I hope to God it can’t swim.”

“It’s probably still watching us from the trees. Holy Christ, Pabbs, what has Grizzly gotten us into?”

It took a moment for the rush of adrenaline to pass, then they turned their attention back to the women. They anticipated some kind of reaction from the three as they drew near, but the expressions of the women remained unchanged—passive and seemingly uninterested, except that they continued to stare. Still disturbed by what he’d just seen across the river, the hairs on Pablo’s forearm prickled, and the unusual behaviour of the women only added to his unease. He glanced over at Fischer, but she just raised her eyebrows.

The women all shared similar facial features, and by their ages, Pablo thought they might represent three generations of one family. He introduced himself. “Good morning, ladies, I’m Pablo Ward from the Outlook. Do you mind if I ask you some questions? You were here earlier today?” Fischer faded off to the side, alternately snapping photographs of the woman and casting apprehensive glances across the river.

The youngest of the three, an anemic looking redhead, ignored his question and asked, “Have you come for his return?” The middle-aged woman scowled at Fischer.

The question was such a non-sequitur that Pablo’s crazy meter immediately swung to red, and he paused to consider his response. Playing along could either encourage further details or just as likely provoke an outburst. The three were odd, no doubt, but they didn’t seem dangerous. He decided to play along, but he needed to direct their attention to the baptism. “We tried to come this morning, but we couldn’t get here on time. Can you tell me what happened?” The scowling woman continued to stare and said nothing. Good God, he grimaced, I hope her face doesn’t always looks like that. The oldest woman, small and white-haired, with puckered, wrinkled lips, ignored him entirely. He smiled at the redhead, hoping to elicit a response.

At first, her expression seemed angelic. “It was beautiful,” she began, “until, until.” Her face clouded. She looked at her companions. “Until something happened.”

“Were you here for that?”

The middle-aged woman spat out, “Of course we were here,” then she intoned, “‘I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful will come to baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.’”

Well, that clarifies everything, Pablo thought. Fucking wackos. He detested people who quoted scripture for their own purpose, and he hated the crazies who made all other Christians look bad. This must have hit the Web. Were they really even here, or are they just media groupies?

The woman continued, “‘You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.’”

The oldest one snapped out an “Amen.”

Pablo flashed a thin smile. “Thank you. Thank you for that. It’s a great help.” He stepped directly in front of the redhead and knelt down on one knee, his foot almost in the river. That close, the faint smell of sweat tainted the air. “Did you see the priest? Can you tell me what happened?”

The girl glanced at her companions, hesitated a moment, then said, “When he went into the water, it began to breathe.”

Pablo thought back to the phone call that had prompted Griswold to assign them the story. “We were told,” he said, “that the water boiled.”

She shook her head. Wisps of thin hair fell over her eyes. “No, it came alive. It was breathing, and the trees leaned forward to touch him.” Her gaze seemed to look beyond. “It was beautiful.”

The scowler nodded, “His flower grows where he walks.”

His flower? Pablo was about to ask what that meant, when Fischer called his name. He looked to see her standing above a rough patch in the ground, poking at it with her foot. He excused himself and walked over to see what she’d found. “What’ve you got?”

She crouched down and began wiping dirt off the surface of a stone that looked like it had been buried a few inches underground. She’d cleared half the surface when she suddenly stopped and backed away. She looked at Pablo, her blue eyes flashing, “This is witchcraft shit.”

“What?” Pablo moved closer to get a better look. The stone was a rough circle, a little over a foot in diameter. Three unusual designs, arranged in a triangle, had been painted on its flat surface. The stone had been broken with a crack cutting through each of the designs. “Why would a priest…?” He looked up to Fischer. “Do you recognize this writing? Greek, maybe?”

“Not Greek. Not Russian either.” She composed a picture. “It doesn’t look Arabic, and it’s obviously not Chinese.”

“They look like runes. Gaelic?”

She nodded, “Maybe, but why would a priest bury this by the river?”

“You’re assuming he did. This could have been here from before.”

“Could be. The paint looks pretty worn.”

Pablo dug at it the earth around its edge.

Fischer snapped, “Don’t touch it!”

“Relax, Fish. I’m not going to bring down a mummy’s curse.” He thought it an irony that she refused to believe in God but got squirrely at any hint of the supernatural. “It’s thick.” He stood back from the stone. “Maybe those women know something about this.”

He looked to where they’d been sitting on the riverbank and saw that all three now stood, and the oldest had walked a dozen paces toward them. She wore a soiled black dress that contrasted with her white hair. Small and wizened, she had a presence that exceeded her stature.

Fischer swore under her breath, “What’s her fucking problem?”

The old woman spoke, her hollow voice hardly audible beside the rustle of the river. “This ground had been sanctified.”

Pablo glanced down at the broken stone and thought, Maybe not so much anymore. He asked, “Who are you waiting for? Will the priest come back here?”

The woman laughed, a sound like rats’ claws scratching wood.

“This is crazy town, Pabbs,” Fischer said. “Get me out of here.”

He nodded, “Yeah. I’ve got what I need. I think. If anyone’ll believe it.” He gave their surroundings another look. A momentary patch of sunlight was occulted by the rapidly moving shadow of a cloud. “Sure, I’m good to go.”

The three women watched the journalists walk back to Pablo’s SUV, then the redhead helped her grandmother wade into the river. The gentle current almost dragged the old woman down.

Back at the vehicle, Fischer walked to the passenger side, but before she got in, she leaned against the roof and looked at Pablo. “I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’ve never seen any of those three.”

He considered, “No. Me neither.”

“Do you think they came here just for the baptism?”

“I don’t know what to think, Fish.” Pablo looked at the river to see that all three woman were now in the water. “But it kinda looks that way.” He hesitated. “Unless they heard about it and came later. But why bother? What were they hoping for?”

Fischer shook her head, opened the passenger door and climbed into the SUV.

Pablo got in.

“Okay then, what now?” Fischer asked as she fastened her seatbelt.

“Talk to the priest?”

“Sounds good.”

Pablo checked his notes. “Grizzly said his name is Father Wallace. The Light of God Church.” He gave the scene a once over. “You got everything you need?”

Fischer glanced back to where they’d seen the dog. “Yeah,” she said, “let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps.”

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