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Cliffhanger Castle: Chapter One

He was being followed. Austen picked up the pace, but the footsteps behind him sped up too. He could cross to the other side of the street, but in this abandoned, tumbleweed town, there was no doubt who they were after. The Zombie Slingers wanted him dead. Running ahead, looking for cover, Austen searched for a barrel, or a storefront, anything to hide behind. Slipping behind an oak tree, he set his rifle to his shoulder.

 

‘Beep. Beep. Proximity alert!’

 

The bad guys were coming from all sides. He was going to die for sure! He smiled.

 

Austen loved this type of computer game, where the story is so compelling, and the surprises so creepy, you can’t help but turn just one more corner. He hit ‘save,’ automatically checking the time as he did so.

 

Crap! He should’ve picked up Rhea hours ago. His little sister was at a neighbour’s house, letting their lively Havanese, Cigarro, play with their schnauzer puppy. He logged off and went to bring her home.

 

Tiffany lived on the same street, three doors down. Their pool had been the envy of the neighbourhood when Austen was a kid. Going there still evoked memories of splashing, heard from the wrong side of the fence, and Tiffany laughing at him for being left out.

 

Austen banged the door.

 

When there was no answer, He went around the side and opened the gate to the backyard. He never enjoyed seeing Tiffany, but her puppy was a magnet for Cigarro, and seven-year-old Rhea. He walked in, looking into the windows for a glimpse of Rhea or the dog.

 

He was halfway to the pool when Tiffany shouted: “Hey!”
Austen jumped back like he’d almost stepped on a rattlesnake. Tiffany was laid out on a towel, wearing a thong bikini. He couldn’t help but envy the water drops, racing down her chocolate brown shoulders as she sat up, hugging her legs.

 

“Idiot! What are you doing, almost stepping on me like that?”

 

“I came to get Rhea.”

 

“She walked home an hour ago.”

 

“You let her go alone?”

 

“It takes thirty seconds.”

 

“She never made it.”

 

In a panic, Austen phoned everyone, but none of the neighbours had seen her. He was about to phone the police when Tiffany said: “Wait, I’ll call Dad.”

 

It was awkward, listening to Tiffany’s half of the conversation as she begged her policeman father to look ‘without making a fuss.’ “Please,” she said, “her dog probably chased a squirrel into a backyard or something.”

 

Austen felt like grabbing the phone and shouting: ‘send the SWAT team!’ But Tiffany was a year older, in university, and her Dad was a cop. Maybe they knew what they were doing.

 

When she got off the phone Austen said: “You’re the worst babysitter ever.”

 

“And you still panic over nothing.” She slipped a t-shirt over her head and stepped into a pair of shorts. “You were in charge of Rhea, not me,” she said.

 

“I’m going to look for her.” Austen left, calling out his sister’s name and looking up and down the sidewalk. He had to find Rhea before Tiffany’s Dad drove up in a cruiser. This was the first time his parents had left him in charge for the weekend. If he didn’t find Rhea soon, they would never forgive him. He pictured his sister’s crying face. She could be lost, alone. Cigarro could have dragged her into the park. He started running in that direction.

 

“Wait up!” Tiffany shouted.

 

Why should he? When they were kids, Tiffany used to belittle him as they walked to and from school.

 

At one point it got so bad he told his Dad, who laughed at Austen for getting bullied by a girl. Nice. Of course, it didn’t help that her Dad and his golfed together. For years they expected him to walk Tiffany to school, so he could protect her. What a joke.

 

In running shoes, he easily outdistanced Tiffany in her flip-flops. Austen darted across the quiet, residential street, racing through the gates and along the roadway into Cliff Castle Park. It was a cool, treed place to go in the summer, where they regularly walked Cigarro. The calm, green of the extensive grounds was lost on him today, however, as the sky grew overcast, and the wind off the lake gusted through the trees. How could Rhea run off like that?

 

All he could think of was the condemned Cliff Castle hotel behind its chain-link fence. Rhea was fascinated by it, and Cigarro loved to sniff around the cut in the fence where the high school kids broke in at night. That was fine for teens who could look after themselves, but Austen was afraid of his sister stepping through a rotten floorboard, or running into the transients who were rumoured to crash there.

 

He rushed along the roadway into the park, past a row of abandoned artist studios, to the point where the pavement ended and a dirt path led through the trees. Running and shouting his sister’s name, he emerged from the woods into sunlight again. Here there were flowerbeds, occasionally tended by neighborhood volunteers. He scanned the grounds for any sign of gardeners, but it was deserted so he headed for the hotel.

 

Along the way, he passed several of the salvaged bank fa├žades which littered the grounds. On a normal day, he and his sister might play hide and seek among these ornamental ruins, letting Cigarro find them, but not today. He stopped to scan the grounds. Dark clouds were turning the hot day muggy, and he worried Rhea might play in the old fountain, which filled with rainwater.

 

Running steps slapped packed dirt on the path behind him. Tiffany drew even with him, panting. “I can’t believe you let her come here.”

 

“Not by herself.”

 

“What if she went to the cliff?

 

He was small when they moved in across from Cliff Castle Park, and his flower-crazy mother had joined the Park Preservation Society, frequently dragging him with her.

 

“Mom taught her to be careful. She knows not to go near the Bluffs.” An ornamental gate led to an unfenced lookout, perched high above Lake Ontario.

 

“Do you think she’d go in the buildings?” Tiffany asked.

 

“I hope not, but Cigarro always wants into the hotel.”

 

The Group of Seven had once come here for inspiration. Much later, when the artist’s colony died, the Cliff Castle hotel had been built onto the old manor house. The place had been popular in the 1960’s, according to his Mother.

 

“I’m in deep, if they went in. The hotel’s full of mould, and there are always weirdos breaking in, looking for ghosts or stealing copper wiring,” said Austen.

 

“Relax. You should go back. Rhea’s probably at your door right now, waiting for you.”

 

“You go back.” Austen didn’t trust Tiffany to find his sister. The park was safe, but he smelled ozone in the air. If it started to rain, she might shelter in the building.

 

“My Dad would tell you to wait at home. Does she know your mobile number?”

 

“No, besides, I didn’t bring it. We’d better find her soon.”

 

“Hope so.” Tiffany bent to pick something up. “Isn’t this Cigarro’s leash?”

 

Austen recognized the blue paw print design. They were nearby! He started shouting: “Rhea! Cigarro!”

 

Tiffany shouted too. If Cigarro were close, by now he should be barrelling across the grass to Austen, who was his favorite.

 

“Why isn’t your Dad here yet?” Austen tried to keep his voice steady.

 

Tiffany shrugged. “He’s probably coming from downtown. Where does Rhea like to go?”

 

“The woods, the old pioneer cabin. Sometimes the Bluffs.” Unlike Austen, Rhea wasn’t afraid of heights.

 

They looked everywhere, crisscrossing the grounds, and calling. When they had tried all Rhea’s favorite places, and Austen had shouted himself nearly hoarse, he walked through the wrought-iron gates in the red brick wall. Austen edged up to the drop. On the beach below the Bluffs, driftwood trees looked like branches with twigs. His head spun a little from the eagle’s eye view.

 

Someone shoved him from behind.

 

“Ahhhhh!” The horizon spun and he windmilled frantically to regain his balance. He turned to see Tiffany smirking.

 

“What’s wrong with you?” he shouted. She had pushed him

 

“You weren’t even near the edge.”

 

“It’s not funny.”

 

“It is a little bit.” When he didn’t say anything she added: “Sorry. Afraid of heights?”

 

As if she didn’t know. “Let’s just find Rhea.” He stalked back into the gardens, hoping his sister was hiding behind a monument somewhere. She knew better than to go into an abandoned building, didn’t she?

 

“I see her!” Tiffany pointed up the path that led to the old mansion. “There.”

 

He didn’t see anything, until he looked up. Waving out of a broken second-storey window was Rhea, the playful mop of a Havanese bobbing beside her, too distant for Austen to hear the barking.

 

“Stay there!” He ran up the path, around the fountain, and across the gardens to the hotel. Ducking, he went through a hole cut in the chain link fence, and waded through weeds and debris to the manor house, which had been renovated into a hotel lobby. Not bothering to see if Tiffany were behind him, he swung open the boarded-up door.

 

Inside, everything was dark, but he had visited years ago, when it was still open. He knew there should be stairs behind the registration desk. Carefully, he groped his way along the powdery walls to the wooden counter, and then felt his way around that, stepping out into the darkness and feeling around with his feet.

 

“Rhea, stay put! We’re coming!” Just as his foot felt the bottom step, Tiffany bumped into him from behind. He put his hand out and groped for a banister, then hurried upstairs into a lightening gloom.

 

Through open doors and broken windows, the second floor had a little natural light. It was enough for Austen to figure out which room Rhea had looked down from. He rushed in, but she wasn’t there.

 

Tiffany called in from the hallway. “Did you find her?”

 

On the floor, Austen saw the bag of ketchup-flavoured chips his sister took to Tiffany’s house.

 

“Rhea!” He shouted. He picked up the chip bag and showed Tiffany. “Why would she leave this behind?”

 

“We should call the police,” said Tiffany.

 

“You already called your Dad.”

 

Tiffany looked down at the moth-eaten carpet. “I pretended to, okay? Honestly, I thought it was no big deal. Rhea’s a smart girl. I figured we’d go back to your house and she’d be waiting there.”

 

A wavering scream sounded through heavy plaster walls.

 

“Call 911,” Austen shouted. He ran toward the sound, seeing little in the dim corridor. Odours of damp and stale wood smoke wafted from open rooms as he passed. He reached the end of the hallway and stopped. All was silent. He tried around the corner. Too far? He started opening doors and calling “Rhea! Rhea!” Some swung open easily, while others screeched on their hinges. Some doors wouldn’t open because the damp wood was swollen shut. In a couple of places he noticed a fresh padlock and hardware, presumably installed to prevent theft. If the place had squatters, where were they when he needed them?

 

“Help! If anybody’s here, come out and help,” he shouted.

 

“A little girl is missing, please!” Tiffany shouted.

 

“I hear something.” Tiffany squeezed his arm and yanked him back along the corridor. He stumbled in the gloaming. Ahead, Austen heard another scream, and a bark which ended in a yelp. He pushed past Tiffany. The sound was close. He wrenched open the door he guessed it came from.

 

Inside, the windows were boarded over and he couldn’t see much, a few shadowy shapes in the corners, round lumpish things. He shouted Rhea’s name and Cigarro’s, but there was no answer. Someone moved behind him in the dark.

 

“Tiffany?”

 

He heard the door slam and a ‘click.’ He rushed to open it but the handle wouldn’t turn. He beat the door with his fists. “That’s not funny, Tiffany! Let me out!”

 

“I’m right here,” her subdued voice came from right beside him. “No need to shout.”

 

Austen disagreed. Locked in and unable to get to his sister, he felt ready to explode.

 

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