Damp darkness surrounded the back door of the Aldwich Row Community Center. It was colder by the door, with a mist rising up from somewhere to the right of the entrance. The only light was a faint glow from a second-floor window of the building on the other side of the alley. Someone up there was enjoying the warmth of a fire.
Then a second light appeared at the end of the alley. A hooded figure carried a small oil lamp, drying not to stumble on the broken cobblestones or accidentally fall down a bottomless trash bin.
The figure approached the back door and shivered noticeably, then lifted the lamp up higher to be able to read the number, 666, burned into the heavy wood door, just above a giant iron knocker shaped like the head of a gargoyle.
The visitor pulled a flyer out from underneath a long, dark cloak and fumbled as it tried to unfold the paper with one hand.
“Aldwich Row, 666.”
The visitor reached for the knocker, hesitated, took a deep breath, then lifted it and slammed it against the door.
The clang echoed somewhere inside the building.
After an interminable wait there was a squeak and a small opening appeared in the door, roughly at eye level. An eye peered out.
“Who disturbs the sacred sanctum of the Aldwich Row Community Center?”
“It is I, Brother Sigmund. I’ve come to learn the arcane secrets.”
“Wither doest the walrus catch but a wink at night?”
Brother Sigmund consulted the paper.
“Fardelay, bodkin and undiscornes of regardels.” He stumbled over the words.
“And the password of the day?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“That’s what the flyer says.”
The eyeball disappeared and then the door swung open with metallic groan.
The doorman, also wearing a hooded cloak, reached for the visitor’s flyer.
“Hmmm…. you’ve got right place…” He turned the paper over and back again. “But that’s not this week’s password. I mean, today’s password. We totally change the password every day. Give me some more light…”
Brother Sigmund held out his oil lamp.
“Ah, I see what the problem is. You’re looking for the Sacred Cult of Qualdir, God of the Underworld, right?”
Brother Sigmund nodded.
“They meet on Tuesdays. This is Wednesday.”
The doorman returned the flyer, retreated back into the community center, and slammed the door shut.
“Noobs,” he mumbled to himself as he walked back down the dimly lit hallway to the central community room, where a dozen hooded figures stood in the center of a large pentagram drawn on the stone floor, lit only by the dim flickers of candlelight.
“Is that Brother Fulke?” asked a female voice.
“No, Brother Linota, just someone looking for the sex cult.”
“Damn it, Sam,” said Brother Linota, tapping her foot. “Fulke’s half an hour late. He’s never been late before.”
“Might as well start without him,” said one of the other brothers. “It’s getting late, and we’ve got the minutes of the last meeting to get through, then the fundraising report.”
“Who’s got the staff of brotherhood?” said Brother Linota.
“Brother Fulke normally brings it,” said Brother Sam.
“Maybe we can start the meeting without it,” someone said.
“Fine,” said Brother Linota. She moved a little closer to the center of the pentagram and the rest of the brotherhood stood in a half-circle in front of her.
Then another clang came from the knocker on the back door.
“Wait, that might be him,” said Sam, and went to see. A couple of minute later he returned, followed by a hooded figure carrying a cardboard box.
“It’s Brother Porthos,” said Sam. “He’s got the refreshments.”
Brother Porthos walked to the back of the room, narrowly avoided topping a row of folded chairs, and put the box down on a long table.
“Did you get the good donuts this time?” asked one of the brothers.
“No, they were out,” said Brother Porthos. “I had to get the plain ones.”
Brother Linota stamped her foot. “The donuts are for after we finish with brotherhood business,” she said. “Gather around.” She took a deep breath and waited for the brothers shuffled back into place.
“If there are no objections, I hereby call to order this meeting of the Brotherhood of the Round Krim Society,” she said.
“Wait,” said Brother Sam. “It doesn’t sound right without the staff of brotherhood.”
“Well, if Brother Fulke brings it, and Brother Fulke isn’t here…” Brother Linota began.
“I don’t think Brother Fulke takes it home with him,” said Sam. “He might keep it in the office upstairs.” He glanced at the narrow staircase at the far end of the room, opposite the donuts.
“Wasn’t he supposed to be there today, working on brotherhood business?” asked Brother Porthos.
One of the other brothers snickered.
“He was supposed to be drafting some new fundraising flyers,” said Brother Porthos. “He told me he was going to get some work done this afternoon, while the minstrels were having their rehearsals.”
“Maybe the lute music put him to sleep,” said Sam. “He might be up there now. I’ll go check.”
“Be quick,” said Brother Linota.
Sam hurried up the stairs and vanished around the corner. Then they heard him knocking and yelling Brother Fulke’s name.
Finally, Sam reappeared at the top of the stairs. “The door is locked!” he yelled down. “Does anyone have a key?”
“I have the only other key,” said Brother Linota. “Good thing I’m here.”
She went up the stairs, as the rest of the brothers edged towards the table with the donuts.
A few second later, she was back.
“Brothers,” she announced at the top of the stairs. “We have a problem.”
“What is it?” Brother Porthos yelled back, spraying donut crumbs.
“Our leader has been kidnapped.”
Brother Porthos swallowed the rest of his donut and walked to the stairs, reluctantly followed by the others.
By the time all the brothers made it up the stairs, Sam had lit the lights in Fulke’s office.
“Try not to disturb the crime scene,” Linota told him as he stood in the middle of the room, looking around.
She and the other brothers peered in. There were clear signs of a struggle. A chair was on its side, one of its legs broken. Papers were strewn on the floor. The desk was pushed out of its normal position and a heavy candlestick was lying in the corner.
Sam walked over to the candlestick, trying not to step on anything else, and picked it up using the hem of his cloak. He sniffed it.
“I think there’s blood here.” He gingerly touched it with a finger. “It’s still a little tacky.”
Then he turned around and gasped.
The brothers craned their heads to see what he was looking at.
Sam stepped to the other side of the room and picked up a wooden stick with one jagged end.
“They broke the staff of brotherhood,” he said. “Who could have done this?”
“What’s that?” Linora pointed to the desk, where the edge of something glittered beneath it.
Sam used the tip of the staff to pry a small metal shield out from under the desk. He bent down and gingerly picked it up by the edges.
“It’s a badge,” he said. “An admin badge.”
The brothers gasped.
“They got him,” said Linora. “The bastards finally got him.”