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From the Deep of the Dark

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘You said you thought the board was involved in this. What makes you say the board’s involved?’

Sadly tried to point back at one of the tables, his walking cane twisting in his hand. ‘One of my regulars is a news sheet man for the Garrotter’s Gazette – says the board has served his paper at least three times recently with a section thirteen notice gagging the paper. All for stories about royalists fished out of the river. He didn’t complain as much as he should’ve done; not now there’s a public disorder gag on the vampire slayings too. Nearly got hanged by a mob down the road myself yesterday.’

‘I told you, you’re too thin and pale by half.’ Dick opened his coat and hung the two silver candlesticks up on the hooks. ‘I want a good price for that pair. I can’t use the pawnshop because they’re on the constables’ watch list. When a squat little thug with a board corporal’s badge comes to ask where I am, tell him I paid for a couple of flagons of beer and stumbled out to sleep it off before he arrived.’

‘And where would you be going, Mister Tull?’

‘Fishing,’ said Dick. ‘I’m off to land me a nice fat fish.’ A duplicitous fish by the name of Commodore Black.

Charlotte Shades stepped out of the palatial expanse of Middlesteel Museum. Her mind spun with the architect’s plans for Parliament she’d been consulting, the great House of Guardians nestling in the shadows of the bell tower of Brute Julius. Of course, none of the plans detailed the security measures and mechanisms defending the crown jewels, the last sceptre of the last absolute monarch. But there was a lot you could infer from the spaces that had been left blank on the layouts. And in those voids, you just knew there was going to be trouble. Why had she ever agreed to go along with the mysterious Mister Twist? Well, there was the obscenely large amount of money being offered. And the implicit threat of violence if she didn’t acquiesce. But it was more than that. The challenge of it. Something she couldn’t take; something far beyond her station. There was probably a breed of mouse in the world, the sort of mouse that saw a mousetrap baited with cheese, the sort of mouse that tingled with the sight of what was forbidden and dangerous. That mouse never lived too long, but there were things far worse than dying. Like boredom, being really poor and looked down upon.

And then the mouse saw the cat.

Charlotte started as the steamman lumbered up in front of her, her mind instantly clearing of Parliament’s plans and levels and scales of distance. But this isn’t a steamman, isit? None of the organic, smooth movements of the people of the metal down from the Steamman Free State. This was one of the clumsy, hulking, man-milled mechanical servants surely? But it had the head of a steamman, polished and out of place on the rest of the body, and its voicebox vibrated with the words of something clearly sentient.

‘Damson Shades? Charlotte Shades? Known by the stage name of the Mistress of Mesmerism?’

Should I deny it? Nobody knows that I’m here. Not the flash mob, not even that devil Twist.

She nodded.

‘I have been sent for you, Damson Shades. My name is Boxiron.’

‘I’m as curious to understand how you knew where to find me as to know who sent you, old steamer.’

‘Your name is being whispered by demons, Damson Shades,’ said the hulking creature. ‘You are marked for death.’ Then, as if it had just occurred to him that she might find this ever so slightly alarming, he added. ‘And I have been sent to protect you as we travel.’

‘Travel?’

‘Travel to church, the man I work with must speak with you. He has a warning for you …’

A warning of a psychotic metallic servant on the loose, perhaps?

‘Church? Is your friend a vicar?’

‘He used to be a parson,’ said Boxiron. ‘But he was thrown out by the rational synod when he started believing in gods.’

‘I can see how that would be a problem.’

The Circlist order and their atheist church had no room for heretics behind the pulpit.

‘And let us say I don’t care for a sermon today?’

‘Then regretfully,’ said Boxiron, a wild clicking coming from the rotating calculation drum in his chest, ‘I shall carry you the distance.’

‘How delightfully direct. Then by all means, let us attend church this afternoon.’

Following the lumbering curiosity, she walked in the dust raised off the road by his two clanking claw-like foot plates and a distant memory began to rise through her mind, something told to her by one of the Cat-gibbon’s enforcers, eager to impress her with his knowledge of the capital’s criminal underworld.

‘I seem to recall there were tales of a steamman knight whose head was transplanted onto the body of a human-milled mechanical by grave robbers after a battle. And that this steamman later worked as an enforcer for the flash mob, cracking skulls and suchlike.’

‘And where did you hear that story, Damson Shades?’

‘I believe it was a penny-dreadful,’ Charlotte lied. ‘Mayhew’s Tales of Mechanical Mayhem.’

‘I can see how that would make a good story,’ said Boxiron. ‘But my body is that of an old butler unit – a family heirloom.’

And haven’t all the bullet holes and axe dents been neatly hammered out of it.

It was an old city church that the clanking creature led her to, walls, roof and chimneys wedged between two modern buildings. So ancient that its lines appeared organic; flats and verticals given life by so many sags, curves and tilts. Charlotte almost expected to see the building breathe. Inside, round glass windows in the ceiling brought coloured light down like pillars, the formula of the church’s mathematics mottling the humble olive-wood pews below. There was a middle-aged man standing in the illumination of one of the lights, a female figure hovering nervously at his side.

Charlotte indicated the metal creature pulling up behind her. ‘You have a novel way of filling your congregation.’

‘My apologies, Damson Shades,’ said the man. ‘I have found time can often be of the essence in these matters. Do you object if I use your stage name?’

‘It’s the only one I have, honey,’ said Charlotte. ‘And yours is?’

‘Jethro Daunt,’ he replied, then indicated the female figure. ‘And my friend here is Fidelia, the Reverend Felknor, the vicar of this parish.’

Charlotte felt the pit of her stomach tighten. Jethro Daunt. That was a name she had heard far too many times. ‘You’re the consulting detective who recovered the Twelve Works of Charity when the painting was stolen from Middlesteel Museum?’

He seemed pleased at being recognized. ‘The same. Although of course, the painting never physically left the museum. The reverse of its canvas was painted over with a new work, and then it was turned around and rehung for removal later. Are you interested in art, Damson Shades?’

She smiled. ‘I can take it or leave it.’ Normally the former. ‘Your old steamer said something about my life being in danger, and some craziness about demons …?’

At those words, the female vicar made the sign of the circle and wrinkled her nose in distaste. ‘The demons of ignorance are the ones we battle.’

Daunt rested his hand reassuringly on the cleric’s shoulder. ‘Boxiron still sees things through the eyes of a steamman, the ancestral spirits of his people.’

‘Then how would you explain what is happening in the back room, Jethro softbody?’ Boxiron asked.

‘Let’s start with the rational and work our way out from there,’ said Daunt. He looked at Charlotte. ‘It will be easier to show you, Damson Shades. If you would be so good as to accompany us to the infirmary.’

Charlotte followed the vicar and the consulting detective through a narrow brick-lined corridor, Boxiron’s weight thumping behind them. Daunt talked as he went. ‘I used to be a parson, Damson Shades. In fact, I studied at the seminary with Fidelia here. Knowing my esoteric interests, she asked me to help with a little problem she’s having with a family here in the parish. Her problem seems to coincide with a case I am currently engaged upon.’

Charlotte’s heart jumped. Damn my luck. Not only a consulting detective, but an ex-churchman.And would your case have anything to do with the Lords Commercial I’ve been working this year, notorious Mister Daunt? She had to be careful around the man. He would have been well-trained in synthetic morality by the church, equipped with a mind like a steel trap. The atheist church of Circlism venerated science and learning. Its parsons, priests and vicars were trained as scientists and philosophers, as doctors of the flesh, mind and spirit. It was said a Circlist priest could read the soul of a person as if it was a map. Healing minds wracked by faith in false gods as proficiently as they healed sick flesh. Their insights could be preternatural, almost telepathic. And mine is one soul that I don’t want read by any consulting detective. How many cases has he taken where my dirty mitts were the real hands behind the job?

‘A problem?’ Charlotte said it nervously, as if just speaking would be enough for the man to pounce on her, pronounce her body language that of a criminal, and drag her to the nearest police station.

‘The unknown, Damson Shades. The uncomfortably unexplainable, a walk through the darkness.’ He dragged a paper bag out of his jacket pocket, rustled it and proffered it in Charlotte’s direction. ‘Would you care for a Bunter and Benger’s aniseed drop, my dear?’

‘Put those filthy opiate-riddled things back in your pocket,’ complained the vicar. ‘You are standing on rational grounds.’

‘Scurrilous scare stories manufactured by their competitors, my precious Fidelia,’ said Daunt. ‘Weights and Measures would have banned the sweets long ago, if there was any truth to that title tattle. Besides, they help my mind come to clarity.’

‘They have been banned,’ the vicar muttered as the private investigator rustled the bag back out of sight. They started to climb up, an enclosed spiral staircase twisting around to the church’s upper level.

‘Your case, Mister Daunt?’

‘The mayor and the city elders have engaged my services. The current plenitude of bodies being discovered around the capital with an absence of bodily fluids is not good for trade, and it is all about trade these days, isn’t it?’

Thank the Circle for that! So you’re not onto me after all. Charlotte breathed a silent sigh of relief, confusion about her role in his affairs replacing the blade of fear that had been sliding into her side. ‘You don’t believe in that nonsense the newssheets are printing do you? Vampires stalking the Kingdom?’

‘I have little choice but to believe in the corpses being found,’ said Daunt. ‘Boxiron and I have become quite the regular visitors at the public mortuary, have we not? As to the cause of the deaths, well, we shall see.’

Charlotte stepped into the church’s infirmary, a number of clean white-sheeted beds lying empty apart from three occupied cots at the end of the hall, a little cluster of old but functional-looking medical equipment arranged in an arc around the bunks. As she got closer, Charlotte saw each bed held an identical-seeming girl a couple of years younger than Charlotte herself, their pretty brows soaked with sweat under long flaming red curls of hair.

Triplets?

She noticed they were tied to the bedposts, hands and legs restrained by leather straps, and they seemed to be mumbling in a unison so synchronized it was uncanny.

‘Who are they? What is it that they’re saying?’

Daunt bent forward and wiped the sheen off the nearest girl’s forehead. ‘Meet the sisters Lammeter, daughters of this parish’s undertaker. When they got sick, a doctor was consulted who was left quite baffled by their condition. Supernatural forces were suspected, religious infection, so their girls’ parents brought them to the church to see if it could help. And as to what it is they are saying, that is rather the nub of the issue.’

‘They are possessed,’ said Boxiron, his metal bulk swaying slightly at rest. ‘They are talking in tongues. It is as if Radius Patternkeeper is riding them, Lord of the Ravenous Fire himself.’

‘Watch your words, steamman,’ snapped the vicar. ‘As a believer, I’m tolerating your presence here on sufferance.’
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