The rain was still pouring outside, but the heat of the fireplace and the chaotic chatter of the customers dispelled it from Theodore's mind. One of Rumporth's more questionably decent taverns, The Handsome Devil was cramped this hour of the day. The owner of the place, always sitting behind the bar was definitely not handsome, but he did possess some undefined devilish quality.
“Five duchettes a night and only if you're quiet. The room has a bed and a bucket, for anything more go elsewhere. We like to keep it simple here” he had said and inspected Theodore with a wry smile. He had grown every possible hair on his face, effectively concealing most of his expressions and the granted look seemed to lure individuals of similar shady features to his shop. Toothless sailors, spies and rooks, wretched fences and drunks, all were being served by voluptuous waitresses, while arguing loudly emitting an air of danger and unpredictability. You get your money's worth. It's the way it's always been.
None of it though, mattered to Theodore as he was sitting beside the fire. He was eating what he had ordered as just soup, but was obviously bat-meat soup and he was almost excited about it. The envelope was on the table in front of him. He paused his dinner and opened it once again. The paper was thick and the ink in stylishly calligraphic letters wrote:
“Mr Theodore Hold
I used to be Audacious Sage's lawyer. I would like to request of you that you meet me at the manor of Cliffhanger's Cliff on Friday. It's a matter concerning your uncle's bequeathment.” Signed Jebediah Code.
Despite the lack of further information, the message gave hope to Theodore that his journey was not in vain. In fact, he had already started speculating on what exactly it was that he inherited and how would he spent it. “Bequeathment! Coins, coins, coins! It surely had an awesome ring to it. About time for a change of luck.” he thought and laughed at his unintentional mental pun.
With that in mind he finished the last of his soup and signaled for the waitress. A formerly semi-attractive woman, now with shaggy flesh unavoidably pouring out of her revelatory outfit, came to his table.
“What is it that you want darling?” she asked with a nasal voice coming out of her excessively red lips.
“I need to go to Cliffhanger's Cliff. Do you know someone who could take me there?” said Theodore.
“I've no idea where that is honey, but you could ask the fellows over there” she said and pointed at a bunch sitting at the opposite side of the room. “They're delivery men. If you're lucky, your place is close to someone's route. Just ask.”
They reminded gloomy, worn out men. The perils of the long journeys and the unsavory traveling conditions had left a mark on them. But that was on second sight. Now, when highly intoxicated they cheered and laughed and looked much less like their more intimidating daily selves. Theodore paid for the soup and gathered his courage to go meet them.
The four of them sitting around the table had open shirts and spilled beer on their square bearded chins. They banged cups and toasted shouting: “To Efflorescence!”
“Pardon me sirs, could I have a moment of your time?” said Theodore and immediately regretted his interruption. Four heads turned to him and gave him an instinctual angry look. He held his breath while one of them moved his arm in a circle for what seemed like forever and rested it on Theodore's shoulder.
“But of course lad.” said the delivery man and his face lightened up. “Join our celebration. Sally! Get the gentleman a beer. It's an important day today.” He put a beer in Theodore's hand, raised his and along with the rest shouted once more: “To Efflorescence!”
Theodore mumbled the same and after he had the first sip, succumbed to the curiosity.
“Sorry for my ignorance but I'm not from around here. What is Efflorescence?”
“Not what. It's a she.” said the first “She's our cat.”
“We openly share her. I mean, the four of us.”
“She has no problem with it either”
“It's her birthday today.” continued the other three in a clockwise succession.
Their reply hit Theodore unexpectedly and all he could muster of a reaction was a strained:
The beers kept coming and so did the toasts.
Their tight grip on the occasion dragged Theodore along and after the alcohol loosened his initial restrains, he decided the fellows probably had a head start in drinking and a peculiar taste in humor. At least, after their accelerated bonding they seemed friendly enough, so he decided to finally release the question.
“Ahem. I was wondering, if anyone of you fellows is passing anywhere near Cliffhanger's Cliff tomorrow. I would really appreciate the ride and of course I can pay for the trouble.”
“By the beard of the Duchess, why would you want to go up there?” exclaimed a delivery man. “The place is abandoned for as long as I can remember. The spooky kind too. Oh, don't tell me you're one those big headed ghost investigators. Careful there, that place is haunted alright.” Everyone started laughing, fisting the table and falling off chairs as a delivery man put his shirt over his head and mockingly imitated eerie ghost sounds. At this point of intoxication Theodore found it pretty funny too.
“Well, each man with his vice, I suppose.” answered Theodore, adapting to the situation in an attempt to avoid further questions.
“Sure, sure I can take you there for a few duchettes and another round for the boys.” He put his arm around Theodore, swallowed a big gulp of beer and burped, before adding at a gradually decelerating rate: “I'm not going up the cliff though, it's too rough a road for my wagon. I'll leave you at base and you continue on foot. It's not far. We leave. First thing. Morni... ” His head banging against the table didn't prevent the immediate snore out of his mouth, although it clearly marked the end of the conversation.
He finished his beer and left, saying goodnight to the semi-conscious bunch. He was quite heavily boozed himself and discreetly grabbed the bar for support as he made his way across the tavern towards the staircase to the rooms. His heedless pace, was suddenly interrupted when he bumped onto someone sitting at the bar and he jumped at the collision.
“Excuse me sir. I didn't see you.” rushed Theodore to apologize.
The stranger - another delivery man by the looks, had remained unmoved, hunched above an empty beer. Many things moved in unlikely speeds around Theodore at the time, but he tried to focus.
Then, the man turned to him with an agitated face and a goggle-eyed glance full of worry.
“You shouldn't go to Cliffhanger's Cliff.” he said in a very serious tone.
“What? Who are you?” answered Theodore still trying to find his balance.
“The rats! I was bringing him rats, rats for his cats. He told me it was a secret. And then I found him dead and lying down and his face, oh my God the terror in his face. You shouldn't go up there, you hear me?” That he said and stood up, put his hat on his head and hurried to move his bleary image away. “I'm going far from here. This place is tainted.”
“Wha-- Wait. I didn't--” But pacing was too fast for Theodore to follow and the stranger vanished just as fast as he had appeared.
He turned his gaze to the empty space where the man was sitting just now and looking at the empty beer, wondered if he had just hallucinated the whole thing.
“Tomorrow I have to be somewhere.” was his only graspable thought.