The Golden Spine sat in a prominent location in a strip-mall on the outskirts of Downtown Cannonville. It was one of the finest bookstores in town, and a pleasant place to unwind after a long day. Most of the store was full of books on a wide variety of subjects – and if the book you wanted wasn’t there, there was a good chance they could order it for you.
Visible from the entrance, there was a section of the store, though, that was set apart for a purpose other than selling books. This was the coffee shop, where patrons could sit and read their books while sipping coffee – or, if they preferred, tea, or even hot cocoa. There were several tables for people to sit at all over the coffee shop section of the store – as well as six barstools up against the serving bar, exactly where you would want to sit if you had the mind to engage the barista in conversation as you drink. These seats were usually occupied by regular patrons of the establishment, such as Cliff Marcus. Cliff would arrive every day at exactly eight o’clock with such precision that one could set the time on a watch by it. Within five minutes, he’d be seated, in the stool closest to the wall if available, with an atlas from the World Travel section of the bookstore.
Maps were Cliff’s passion. He studied them whenever he could. Occasionally he would go on vacation and visit one of the places who’s map he had committed to memory – but ordinarily, there was no apparent utilitarian purpose for his passion. He studied maps because the very act of studying them brought him pleasure.
Another regular patron of the Golden Spine was Alexander Corban – a fairly large-built man with extremely effeminate mannerisms. His presence was less predictable than Cliff’s – sometimes showing up earlier, sometimes later, other days not at all. He wore large, prominent, yet tasteful glasses over a face that was made-up very carefully so that some people were unaware that he even wore make-up at all. There were people with whom he didn’t get along, but he counted Cliff as one of his friends. Occasionally, he would show a passing interest in Cliff’s geographical studies – but usually, that amounted to nothing more than a friendly interest.
One day, however, Alexander – or “Alex” as he was called for short – took an interest in a particular map Cliff was studying – an interest that exceeded his usual friendly gesture. He walked in at eight-seventeen – by which time Cliff was, naturally, already there, well engrossed in his studies. He took a seat in the bar-stool right next to him and shot a casual glance at today’s atlas. It was a local atlas of Cannonville and the surrounding area. But when he saw what page it was opened to, and what areas of that page Cliff seemed most focused on – his gaze froze in a way it never had before.
The map depicted an uninhabited, undeveloped area on the outskirts of town – an area not considered by most people to be of much importance at all. Granted, lack of any lofty importance to a place was in and of itself no reason for Cliff to overlook its study – but not only was the place seen as unimportant. There was nothing in common knowledge that would make it even remotely interesting.
“What is it?” asked Cliff, showing for the first time ever an unease with Alex’s behavior.
“That map you’re studying,” he replied. “Isn’t that where the Cyborg King has his nest?”
Of late, there had been rumors of some entity of unknown origin that was supposedly exercising some kind of mind-control over some of Cannonville’s residents. Most considered this entity, known as the Cyborg King, to be nothing more than an urban myth – but apparently Alex didn’t feel that way.
“I suppose it could be,” conceded Cliff, “if he’s real.”
“So you don’t think he is?”
“Who knows,” mused Cliff. “Some pretty strange things have been going on – but it could be anything.”
Alex said nothing, but got up and headed to the register to order his Extreme Mocha Blizzard. He didn’t share Cliff’s consistency with regards to when, or even if he showed up – but he was very reliable in his preference for this particular beverage.
“So,” thought Cliff, as he returned his attention to the map. “If the Cyborg King really does exist, and this is where he operates from, that explains a lot.” After all, a good few people in town had been acting strangely – and a few had even disappeared. One of those who had disappeared was his sister, Jennifer – and Cliff was convinced that this supposedly unimportant area in the woods held answers as to what had become of her.
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