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The Devil's in the Details · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Torre Vieja
Today might have been my last day as a free man. Tomorrow, the trial will begin, and I am certain he will be attending, and in his own good time he will stand up, scan the bemused audience with a triumphant smile and bellow “I, I and only I know the true culprit!” And name me.

The pale disc of the moon emerges from behind the dark clouds, casting a gentle glow on the marble grave I stand on. All around me, ninety headstones, regularly spaced. Ninety graves from which ghosts of men, women and children slowly rise and point their forefingers straight at me. I hunch until my forehead rests on my knees. I have no more tears to shed. I wish I could just forget.

I put the scissors down and pick up the phone.

“Stephen Roc—”

“Stephen!” the voice of my cousin Rob cuts in before I finish saying my name. “How are you buddy?”

“Fine! Still busy working on your suit, though. I’m not sure it’ll be ready before next Monday. I hope—”

“No worries, mate!” Rob cuts in again, as he’s used to doing. “Say, it’s nearly six o'clock. Why don’t you knock off a bit early and come with us to catch butterflies around the Torre Vieja? I’m going there with the girls and professor Spencer.”

I can’t help but wincing when I hear that name. The professor Spencer, a retired entomologist, formerly professor at the university of Nottingham, is a good friend of Rob, though I keep wondering why my cousin is so fond of him. The guy is snooty, and when he deigns to talk to me, it’s always with a note of condescension, reminding me I am the tailor, and he is the professor. But I’m so fond of my cousin and his daughter that I am willing to put up with this insufferable companion.

“The Torre Vieja?” I ask. The idea sounds creepy to me.

“Yeah, it’s surrounded by a big wild meadow. Doctor Spencer told me that at this time of the year we can catch swanky butterflies you can’t find anywhere else. The girls are really excited!”

Maybe they are, but I’m not sold on it, to say the least. The Torre Vieja is an old, isolated building which, as far as I know, has been built in the 16th century by a now extinct order of Spanish monks, thus its foreign name. The monks gone, the building passed on to the military who used it as watch tower and barracks. After WW2, it was left unoccupied. A handful of homeless people then moved in, quickly joined by poor families and immigrants.

Along the years, the building had turned squalid and ramshackle. At the turn of the century, the municipality took over and carried out the most urgent repair work. It also booked the occupants and expelled the shadiest ones. And that’s now how it stands. The Torre Vieja is home to a lot of people of dodgy pedigrees, and the continuous trickle of reports about thefts and assaults committed in its vicinity doesn’t help improving its sketchy reputation. Most people steer clear of the area, especially by night.

But we’re at the height of summer, and over here, in northernmost part of England, the sun does not set before at least 10 pm, so I think we’re good to go. “All right,” I say. “Give me a jiffy to clean everything up, and I’ll be right there.”

It’s about eight o’clock now. I’m sat in the lush grass while the others have drifted away looking for those smashing butterflies. We have chosen to comb the part of the meadow at the rear of the building, when one looks from town. The wall on this side is impressive, a massive stack of yellowish limestones, about twenty-five metre high, with nary an opening save here and there a few slits that look more medieval than modern in style. From a distance, it seems the wall is slightly aslant. But I know this is only an illusion, caused by its great height.

At its foot, an expanse of low grass has been transformed into a makeshift football pitch, with half-rotten wooden stakes acting as goal posts. Surprisingly, no kids are currently playing. I assume they all must be dining. All is quiet, except for occasional muffled shouts coming from inside the building and the distant cheering of my cousin’s daughters each time they ensnare a new lepidopteran.

Somehow I find myself fascinated by that wall. Since my teens, alpinism has been one of my favourite past-times. I’ve travelled to Switzerland, Italy and France to try my luck against Western Europe’s highest summits. I’m not a professional – far from it – but I’m reasonably competent, especially in free solo style. Unfortunately, as my business picked up momentum, the opportunities to practice dwindled, and I sorely miss it. That’s probably why the idea of crawling up that wall pops up in my mind. Nothing more than the need to stretch muscles that have been kept dormant for too long. Maybe also the thrill of discovering the view from the roof, which, I guess, must be stupendous. In hindsight, somewhat childish urges, I confess.

I stand up and look around. My cousin and his party of three have strolled far away into the meadow, and they obviously don’t care about me anymore. I stride across the cheap football pitch towards the wall. Now that I can give it a close look, it is as I expected: steep but not smooth. The old, misaligned stones offer a variety of easy purchases. I decide it is reasonably safe to climb, wedge my foot in a crack a few centimetres above the ground and begin my ascent. Within seconds, I’m already a couple of meters up.

Above my right elbow I grasp a rusty grating closing what should have been a nook protecting a small figure, maybe that of a saint or something. Unfortunately, the pull proves to be too harsh for the decrepit iron object. The hinges on which it rests snap and disintegrate into ochre powder. My arm, now without hold, drops downwards. Reflexively I let go of the grating, but it’s too late. The tiny ledge on which the tips of my shoes lean is too small for me to keep my balance. I feel myself falling backwards. Quickly, I decide to spring backwards neatly and try to control my trajectory. Fortunately, I’m not that high up and I have learnt how to land properly so when I hit the ground, I let myself tumble backwards to gracefully absorb the kinetic energy. I’m almost immediately back on my feet, a bit shaken and grimy, but unscathed.

Yet, I am not the only victim of the grating’s breakdown. Stuck through the mesh of the grating stood a large, L-shaped metallic rod reaching above. It fell with me and now lies on the ground a few feet away. I shudder as I see it because its remote end is attached to a huge flat metallic piece, and I imagine what could have happened if I had landed on it.

But this rod and the piece tied to it should have served a purpose, shouldn’t they? Overwhelmed by a feeling of doom, I look up. About three metres above the nook, protruding from the wall, I see a stone slab, on which the end of a big vertical beam leans. The beam reaches higher up to a square-shaped protuberance in the wall – probably old, now bricked up latrines – which it somehow props. Only now do I notice how the façade, apparently nondescript from afar, is in fact riddled with those jury-rigged fixtures.

As I watch, amidst specks of broken mortar, the stone slab, that the fallen rod probably shored up, slowly caves in under the weight. The wooden beam slips over the now sloping surface and dives down, crashing only a couple of metres from me. Rousing myself up and twigging that loitering any longer could become dangerous or even lethal, I turn round and run away, chased by ominous cracking sounds and thuds.

It doesn’t take long before I spot my cousin, his daughters and the professor. They stand still, and seem to be looking in my direction. I turn aside to join them, but freeze after a few metres, when I realise they are not looking at me. No, they are looking over and beyond me. First I read puzzlement, then astonishment on their faces, which then twist into a sinister mask of fear and horror.

“My God! MY GOD!” my cousin shouts, pointing at the building behind my back. “Look! LOOK!”

I turn round to face the building. The part of the wall where the former latrines stood is no more. Instead, a giant hole gapes open. Through it, I have time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a young girl, sat in shock on the edge of her bed, her phone in hand. But it’s not what my cousin is showing. Above the hole, all the wall is setting itself in motion. It is, at first, only a slight, almost imperceptible tremor through the stones, like wavelets running up a curtain. It gains strength. A bulge forms, swells. The stones, that the worn-out brittle mortar cannot bind together anymore, burst apart. Almost in slow motion and with an ominous rumble, the whole wall crumbles, dragging down roof and floorings with it. The three remaining walls stand swaying for an instant, then collapse in turn. A sickly yellow dust cloud billows out, reaches and engulfs us, and I see no more.

When it dissipates, all that is left is a huge stack of rubble. We remain rooted to the spot for God knows how long, until my cousin shakes off his paralysis and realises his daughters are standing at his side. He spins them around, takes their hand and strides away. As if released from a spell, I blink and prepare to follow suit, when I notice professor Spencer’s intent gaze aimed directly at me. I walk past him and we all shuffle home in silence, jostling our way through the oncoming throng which scrutinises us with awe as if we had freshly returned from hell. Although I lead the group, I can feel the eyes of the other four locked on me.

I spend the next days shut in at home, shutters closed, refusing to watch the TV or listen to the radio, or even to read the newspapers. Everyone understands the shock I’m in and leaves me alone, except my parents who call me twice a day to inquire and my cousin who kindly brings me food and carries the bin bags away. Inadvertently, I think – but how to be certain of it? – he once forgets a magazine, and, while I trash it, I briefly see on the cover page the picture of an unending procession of hearses, flanked by a terse headline: “90”.

After that week of seclusion, I reluctantly convince myself that I should resume work, if only to try and stop brooding over the incident all day long. And now? There has been an inquiry, of course. But there was no witnesses, and no one has been clever enough to unravel the devilish thread leading from the fall of the rusty grating to the ruin of the whole building. Unable to retrace these steps, justice has turned its wrath on to the public servants: the mayor and the head of the social housing service. But the former has committed suicide one year ago, and the latter had only been in office for a month when the incident happened, after his predecessor died from cancer. How could he possibly be found guilty?

What about me? I haven’t been bothered, so far. My cousin? I haven’t been seeing him for months now. I suppose something broke that day between us. But I still trust him with my life: I know he will never give my name away, unless I turn myself in spontaneously.

His boffin friend however…

The professor Spencer had never been a patron of mine before the incident, but, since that day, he has taken to dropping in at least once a week. He always has a good reason to: order a new suit, a new tie, or some fancy shirt. Nor is he ever satisfied: the fabric is too rough, the dying has discoloured, the shirt doesn’t suit him properly, he has lost a button…

“Do you remember?” he sometimes asks me as I take measurements.

“Remember what?” I say, feigning to ignore the subject he’s trying to broach.

“I mean, that day at the Torre Vieja,” he replies.

“Oh… that day? How could I forget?”

“Of course,” he says, in a stagy concerned tone. “How could you…”

I overprice his clothes, charge him with astronomical bills, but he always turns back. “You’re a pretty expensive tailor,” he complains, “but it’s well worth it…” And he puts on his trademark smarmy smile.

Today, he pays me one of his unexpected visits.

“Tomorrow, the whole affair will come to an end”, he says.

“What are you talking about?” I reply, putting up my tired act once again.

“What?” he protests. “You don’t know? The trial, of course, the trial of the Torre Vieja incident.”

“Ah, yes,” I say, pretending to be unconcerned. “What of it?”

“Maybe at last we will discover who the real culprit is,” he answers. “After all these years, the victims need to know…”

“Maybe,” I say, “but I doubt it, unless someone has a sensational announcement to make.”

“Who knows?” he replies. “Who knows?…” And a smile plays on the corners of his lips.

I’m done with him for now. He reaches out a limp, tacky hand to me.

“Thank you. Then… see you tomorrow… I mean, next week!” he promptly corrects.

“See you next week, sir,” I reply, as I see him off.

He’s gone now. I close the door of my shop.

I’m terrified.
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#1 · 2
· · >>Monokeras
I’m sat in the lush grass while the others have drifted away looking for those smashing butterflies.


So, I’m going to start this off by saying that I am not a fan of the prose here. Its not clunky for me in its presentation, but in its poshness. The wording weighs it down in some parts, but not all, I have to admit. In the parts where it describes the tower/castle it flourishes, but when the speaker is speaking, he sounds like the queen of England. Yes, I know you’re in northern England, but I think it could flow better with different wording. I don’t know if everyone else thinks this too, its just my observation.

Next, to me there’s a glaring hole in the plot. It would have made sense if he was being trialed for the death of them when he didn’t have four alive witnesses, but he does, and I would think that they would testify in for him that he didn’t do it, so he shouldn’t be that worried. Also, wouldn’t it be the people who take care of the tower’s fault? It shouldn’t be able to collapse entirely just by one tailor accidentally losing his grip.

I do appreciate that Spencer keeps coming back to the tailor, even when he keeps raising his prices to mock him. I mean, I don’t like him, but it adds a certain maliciousness. Also, I don’t understand why spencer is just that bad of a person and stupid that he would testify against the main character and could easily be caught in his lie by the other three. I probably just don’t get it, and that’s my fault.
#2 · 2
· · >>Monokeras
I really like your narration, and how it gives the whole story a kind of dark fairy tale vibe. Combining first-person perspective with a pretty distant-level narration voice is a really interesting choice, and it immediately lends this piece a lot of unique character.

Now, I'll have to admit, the overall conflict and payoff of the story didn't quite land for me because of a fridge logic issue. I'm just having a hard time being convinced that the main character is at fault for the building's collapse. I mean, if all it took for the whole thing to come down was the weight of one person hanging off of some grating, then that building was going to come down no matter what. And I really can't see how anyone can be at fault other than those who failed to maintain or condemn the building.

My personal disbelief at the set-up aside, I really like what you're doing with the climax, with intermingling guilt and suspense. It kind of reminds me of Tell-tale Heart, where the character's simultaneous desire to know the outcome and fear of the consequences come into conflict with one another.

So I guess I wish this story did a better job of selling me the idea that the main character is truly guilty. I mentioned in the chat how I'd be happier with this entry if the main character had instead done something overtly negligent, like crashing his car into the building, or something. The fact that my disbelief wasn't suspended is a significant issue, but I really do still like the idea that you're aiming for, here.

Thank you for submitting!
#3 ·
· · >>Monokeras
This one's also got:

Language and usage problems throughout. "The professor Spencer" should be "Professor Spencer" without the article and with a capital P, for instance, "Along the years" should be "Over the years," and "I'm sat" should either be the perfect present "I sit" or the imperfect "I'm sitting."

Our narrator also says at the beginning, "I have no more tears to shed." But we don't see him showing any real remorse during the course of the story. No sleepless nights, no arguing with himself about whether he should go to the police, no haunted visions of the young girl's face when he looks at passers-by outside his shop. The passage of time also threw me in the middle where in one paragraph we seem to go from a week after the event to several months after it.

I was kind of expecting the story to go full-on Poe and end with our narrator in the dark outside Spencer's house with a knife in his hands or something, debating how to best kill the man. And I found myself wondering who the authorities are putting on trial. I would think that detail would interest our narrator quite a bit, thinking about who's sitting in the courtroom rather than him.

So it's a good start, but it needs a fair bit of tidying up.

#4 ·
· · >>Monokeras
A tightly wound little tragedy that does, admittedly, have me questioning the nature of said tragedy.

Opening paragraph is a little weird as it set me up for like, a fantasy or historical romp when, in fact, this story is very modern. Worth noting that you might want to contextualize that a bit more to better get your reader prepared for the story up ahead. Its mostly the tone of the language, which feels distinctly archaic.

I do agree with struggling a bit with the main conflict because the actions don't quite line up in a way. The narrator is definitely at fault for running away and guilt is natural (though really, all of them - including the professor) are kinda assholes for bailing. But yeah, the amount of negligance displayed our narrator seems to be pretty minor. Whoever made the entire building dependent on that one support is the one who needs to be strung. And while emotions are not always logical, there is a definite bit of painting that the narrator is the one at fault here, rather than the narrator JUST feels guilty for what they've done.

Which brings us the professor, whose smugness is... honestly pretty off-putting. Like, asshole, you were there. You had the ability to clear this up. You had the ability to help! So your kinda smarmy conversation there at the end feels super unwarranted. Just talk to the narrator. Or, I mean, be cheeky and give him a reason to consider you.

Honestly, if you wanted to aim at the personal failing level, that might be a bit tighter of a path. Have the narrator kill the professor to protect himself and realize that he really bore no fault for what happened. Then his feelings of guilt and cowardice have ACTUALLY compounded into something truly monstrous that has moved the narrator from rather guiltless to truly guilty. Or something like that.

Or just spend more time with the nature of his guilt in general. Still, all told, this was a nicely tight little tale (with a few tense mistakes).
#5 ·
· · >>Monokeras
I think this piece does a good job of building up personal guilt for our viewpoint character, even if there's the possibility that the full burden of blame is not with him. The sense of paranoia pointed at Professor Spencer, who may or may not really be out to get him, adds a lot to this, but I do think the guilt may need a bit more time to stew to give it some more impact.
#6 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Echoing what other commenters have said already. The whole going to court case problem didn't work for me, and it was a little difficult trying to remain invested in the narrator. I also think the interactions between the professor and the narrator were interesting, but could use a lot of improvement, because as it stands I really don't like reading the professor.

I think the character's inner thoughts could have used a little more expansion, and I think the setup for the conflict could have been presented a little better. Other than that, I think everyone else has already said pretty much what I've thought.

Regardless though, I enjoyed it better than I enjoyed my own :P Thanks for the entry anon!
#7 · 1
Grats to all people!

>>Anon Y Mous
>>Baal Bunny
The idea is not mine. I really had no idea for this prompt so I decided to go ahead and rewrite a short story from one of my favourite authors. I changed several things on the way, but it was mainly an exercise in prose writing, more than anything else. The story is… maybe an allegory on how a small thing, an uncontrollable factor opens up Pandora's box, and the consequences resound far and wide, out of proportion to the initial act. The Butterfly effect, and how one can react about it.

So the take-away is essentially stylistic and prosaic :p – Thanks Baal for pointing out "over the years" and "Professor X" instead of "The Professor X", which is carried over from French. On "I’m sat", I'd like to post reservations, though, because "I’m sat" is frequent in dialectal British English, the precise setup I'd wished to locate the story in.

Andrew if you could elaborate on the tense problems you found, I'd your forever beholden.

Once again, congratulation to all, even more to the winners. I feel bad about not having time and motivation to read any story this round. I apologise for that, and I promise I’ll do better for next Minific round!