Mon 1 Sep 2014
by Laura E. Price
Corwyn’s hair smelled of death. Again.
She smelled it–rot, blood, sweat, and mud–as she trudged through the back streets of San Xavier, out of Cobbler’s Hill toward Pallasgreen. After three washes with lye soap, she sat awake as her hair dried and wondered, if she cut it all off, would she still smell death whenever she moved.
Corwyn was awake, scrubbed, and drinking her third cup of coffee in their small kitchen when she heard Gwen getting up and moving about.
“Have you slept?” Gwen asked from behind her.
“A little.” Corwyn sipped her lukewarm drink and kept her eyes on the table.
“I’m trying to get tired enough so that I’ll sleep without dreaming.”
“Well, that ain’t going to help you, Wyn,” Gwen said, nodding at the cup and skirting around Corwyn toward the cupboards.
“We were out of milk to warm.”
Gwen pulled a glass jar full of beef jerky–sent over last month by a client as a thank you for a lesson in knifework–from the cabinet, unscrewed the top, and selected a piece as she asked, “Was it a bad one?”
Corwyn’s eyes felt grainy every time she blinked. “Not particularly. Not more so. Just … the same. Dead, probably only three or four days.” They’d had this conversation before, so she didn’t say maybe she’d be alive if they’d come to me sooner. The living folks she found–the runaways, the kidnapped, the lost–were fewer and fewer. The dead seemed to multiply.
“Time for a sign on the door that you’re not taking on any more cases,” Gwen said briskly, pushing herself away from the sideboard.
“We need the money!” Corwyn called after her.
“Ain’t like we’ve never been broke before, Corwyn!”
“Ain’t like I want to live on the damn street again, Gwendolyn!”
“Ain’t like I want you to run yourself to death–”
Someone knocked on their flimsy front door, and Gwen answered it. Corwyn shoved herself up from the table, arriving at the door in time to see a face from their not-so-distant past in the outside hallway and hear Gwen, voice studiously cheerful, greeting her with, “Why, Mattie Singh, you do clean up nice.”
“I’m here to see if Corwyn wants a job,” Mattie said.
Gwen leaned across the doorway, arms crossed, effectively trapping Corwyn inside the apartment. Corwyn, too tired to be irritated at her sister’s protective streak, stepped up behind Gwen and peered over her shoulder at Mattie Singh.
“You sure you ain’t here spying for the old lady?” she asked.
“I don’t–I ain’t living at Mrs. Simcote’s anymore.” Mattie looked from Corwyn to Gwen and quickly back again, uncertain. “I left not too much longer after you did. A bunch of us left, point of fact. All of us as liked Gwen, anyway. Wasn’t right, what she did to you.”
Nobody but Corwyn would have seen how Gwen’s jaw went tight even as Gwen’s body visibly relaxed. Corwyn looked away from Gwen and said, “All right, then, Mattie, what’s this job?”
Mattie glanced around herself and spread her arms a little, smiling just slightly. “You really want me to do this in the hall?”
Corwyn tapped Gwen on the shoulder; Gwen stepped back grudgingly to wave Mattie through the door.
Mattie perched on one of their two kitchen chairs. She did look nice in her dress and jacket, with combed hair and a clean face. Corwyn remembered her as a kid, running round Mrs. Simcote’s with her hair smoldering and her face sooty–Mattie Singh’s knack was such that she could mix salt with water and likely make it explode.
“So. I work at the museum now,” Mattie began.
San Xavier was home to a number of museums: it boasted a natural history museum, a respectable art museum, the not-so-respectable Rausch Gallery, and even a children’s museum full of dusty paintings of saucer-eyed kids and downright disturbing toy displays. But when the residents of San Xavier mentioned the museum, they referred to the Methyl R. Crookston Museum of Classical Rarities. Not that its collection was all that rare. Or classical. The name of the place was in the old lady’s will, and Corwyn always imagined she’d have been irritated that no one used it.
“The curator I’m ‘prenticed to, he’s lost something–”
“I can’t find things,” Corwyn interrupted. “Just the living. Or the used-to-be-living.”
Mattie’s eyes were lit up like she had a secret to spill. “I remember. I remember lots of things about you, Miss Corwyn. Like how excited you got whenever Mrs. Simcote gave you something new to do with your knack. And you know how to keep your mouth shut.” Corwyn shifted her weight back on one foot, uneasy, as Mattie went on. “This thing he’s missing, it ain’t quite a person, and it ain’t quite a thing, neither. You want to see if you can find a golem?”
Corwyn couldn’t rightly say she had that much intellectual curiosity, but Gwen had let out an enthusiastic “Yes!” and shoved Corwyn out the door. Now they sat in the office of one Jarvis Eggleston, curator, waiting on Mattie to unearth the man from whatever dusty room of the museum he might be working in.
“I’m still not sure why we’re here, Gwen.”
“Well, Corwyn, headcracking jobs are scarce on the ground at the moment, which means I ain’t bringing much money in–so I’m bored and you’re worried about money, and I know how you’re fixing to get, with your coffee and your not sleeping. Even if this golem’s dead, you likely won’t find it lying in a pool of blood. So why not?”
Corwyn couldn’t decide what to say to all that, so she ignored it to look around herself. The room was full of things, made mundane by wooden shelves and layers of dust until she peered more closely: paintings, what looked like musical instruments, and more books than Corwyn had ever seen in one place. There were tiny stoppered bottles; odds and ends of clockwork; skulls that might be from animals (though Corwyn had very little experience with animals, alive or dead, and so couldn’t be sure); stones covered in runes; jars filled with specimens that had too many eyes, or limbs.
You’ll see the world, she remembered Mrs. Simcote telling them, and maybe they would have, but now they’d burned that bridge, she supposed museums were the closest she’d get to seeing anywhere besides San Xavier.
Mattie’s return with the curator, a middling-tall man with round glasses, graying hair, and a slouch, pulled Corwyn out of her woolgathering. “Dr. Eggleston, these are the young ladies I spoke to you about–Corwyn and Gwen Teachout.” Mattie’s accent had gone all schoolteacherish; Corwyn resisted the urge to sit up straighter and pull her feet in under her chair.
Dr. Eggleston smiled at them. He needed a good night’s sleep: his eyes were heavy-lidded, dark all around, and his skin sagged.
“Miss Singh says you have a knack for finding people, Miss Teachout,” he said, leaning back against the front of his desk. His accent was cultured but not fancy. Genteel poor.
She matched it as she answered. “Yes. But not for finding objects, I’m afraid.”
“My sister is selling herself a trifle short,” Gwen cut in, ignoring the what in nine hells are you up to smile Corwyn sent her way. “Her knack is only for finding people, but she’s quite the detective without it.”
“Are you her business manager?” Dr. Eggleston asked, tiredly amused.
Gwen dimpled and sat back in her chair, crossing her legs demurely–or as demurely as one could when wearing trousers. “I’m the muscle.”
The curator’s smile grew broader at that–he thought she was adorable, good grief–and turned back to Corwyn. “Miss Singh told you we’re looking for a golem, yes? So I’m not certain what category he falls into. He is, of course, made of usually inanimate material, but he is also clearly alive … ”
“How exactly did you lose it?” Corwyn asked. “I imagine a giant clay man would be difficult to misplace.”
“He’s not that big,” Dr. Eggleston said. “He’s really more an homunculus. A miniature man. ”
“Not in the strictest sense,” Mattie said to him.
“He’s self-aware and self-willed,” said Dr. Eggleston crisply, “which is not much like a golem.”
This was clearly an old argument. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, and the two of them looked at Mattie, bored. Which, to anyone who knew them, was almost as good as a threat.
“So it, what? Ran off? Was stolen?” Corwyn asked.
“Kidnapped,” Dr. Eggleston corrected.
“Did you receive a ransom note?” Corwyn asked.
“No, no–someone saw it being snatched,” Mattie said.
“From the museum?” Gwen asked.
Dr. Eggleston shifted his weight back and forth, looking toward the shelves. “Orson came to us with the odds and ends of the estate of Virgil Fairchilde. His only son took everything of value, and anything he didn’t want or didn’t know what to do with, he gave to us. Orson was in a sealed box–I doubt the son even tried to open it–along with some of Fairchilde’s notes. Orson was de-animated, and I … well, eventually I managed to bring him back.” He stopped again and looked at them, seemingly expecting Corwyn and Gwen to make some sort of disapproving protest; when they didn’t, he shook his head slightly and started the story again. This time he managed to look directly at them as he spoke. “I thought he’d be a golem. Small, certainly, but mindless, mute. Orson was aware, though, and after a day he was able to speak.”
“Likely why Fairchilde locked it in the box to begin with,” Mattie said.
“Had he been merely a golem, we would have exhibited him, or put him to work, but he isn’t–he has a personality. He’s polite, well-spoken–”
“Sarcastic as anything,” Mattie put in.
“I imagine,” Dr. Eggleston said mildly, “that you might be inclined toward sarcasm, yourself, Miss Singh, had you spent most of your life having parts of you cut off.”
Corwyn sat up slowly, her wooden chair suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean by that, Doctor?” she asked.
Dr. Eggleston spoke carefully. “I thought Miss Singh had told you? Virgil Fairchilde did most of his work with clockwork limbs. Orson was his test subject–he’s more than half clockwork. One arm, both legs.”
“Its heart ticks,” Mattie added.
“That is, of course, part of the issue,” the curator went on. “He’s quite a valuable piece, a tiny, half-clockwork man. Collectors, alchemical engineers–some legitimate, some not–hells, even one or two of my own colleagues here … well. None of them would see Orson as anything but a commodity.”
“You took him home,” Corwyn said. “And he got snatched from under your nose.”
Dr. Eggleston took off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. “More or less. He was out walking with my husband, Gerard.” Gerard was, no doubt, as academically built as the curator, Corwyn thought, and likely not much of a threat. “Miss Teachout, Orson is very much like family to us, now. I don’t know who might have him, but there is no outcome to this that I can imagine he would deserve. Bad enough that I’ll have to bring him back to the museum, since he’s clearly not safe outside … ”
“How much are you willing to pay?” Corwyn asked, impatient at how the obvious care the curator had for his charge made her chest twist like someone had a hand inside it. She didn’t have time to waste like that. “For us to find him, and to keep our mouths shut about your stealing and losing him in the first place?”
The curator straightened, put his glasses back on, and named a sum. Corwyn glanced at Gwen, who raised an eyebrow and her right shoulder, putting her left palm face up on the arm of her chair to signal her approval.
It was a solid chunk of change.
“All right,” Corwyn said. “I’ll take the case. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find Orson–”
“You’ll be required to pay us either way, but we’ll only charge half if we can’t track him down,” Gwen put in quickly.
“–but I’ll try my best,” Corwyn finished.
Sometimes, too many times, merely hearing a name would set Corwyn running after her knack as it dragged her to whoever it was or whatever was left of them. On more occasions than she cared to remember, her knack didn’t need a name or a request, just up and yanked her wherever it felt she ought to go like she wore a leash. But there were times it stayed quiet, and those times she could, maybe, coax it along. Not by touch–what a fresh hell that would be–but with smell. Bring something he wore, she told the frantic relatives. Bring what she slept in, she told the abandoned lovers. The kids at Mrs. Simcote’s used to make bloodhound jokes when a shirt or a blanket set Corwyn running. Gwen cracked their ribs for it.
“How tall is he?” Corwyn asked as Dr. Eggleston rummaged in his bag for the pillow Mattie had told him to bring. Mattie did remember quite a lot about Corwyn’s knack, as it turned out.
“About a foot or so. Thirteen inches, I think?” Mattie replied.
“Here you are,” said Dr. Eggleston, straightening and passing the pillow over the top of the desk.
“Did Gerard get a good look at the person who took him?” Corwyn turned the small pillow in her hands, wondering briefly if the bedclothes were borrowed from the children’s museum.
“Gerard said he was a tall man, maybe six feet, with blond hair,” Dr. Eggleston said.
“Well, that rules out part of the city, anyway,” said Gwen, more cheerfully than Corwyn felt was strictly warranted, as Corwyn lifted the pillow to her nose.
It smelled like clay, like dirt and clean river water. And mint? That was unexpected.
Corwyn’s knack didn’t so much as twitch. It felt odd to coax it and feel nothing. Even when it decided to lay low, there was usually a thrumming: a yes feeling, a confirmation. This was like, well, a pillow.
Mattie stood across the room, likely remembering some of Corwyn’s more dramatic exits from Mrs. Simcote’s office. Gwen, who had more arm strength and very little fear, as a rule, crouched next to Corwyn’s chair.
“Nothing?” she asked quietly. Corwyn shook her head. “You got ideas?” Gwen asked.
Corwyn didn’t respond, just thought. It didn’t seem like someone planned to snatch Orson, doing it out in the street like that–too many people might see, and in Pallasgreen someone might actually call the police; on the other hand, it wasn’t showy enough to be someone trying to make a point or send a message. This looked more like some magpie-brained lug saw something shiny and thought to make a quick buck with it.
That meant either selling him to a gang that knew how to fence a thing like Orson, or going direct to Chaffins Grove to offer him to the alchemical engineers, likely door-to-door. Corwyn knew which route she’d take.
“Arthur Goldberg’s the only one I remember as dealing in this kind of thing,” she finally said, trying to sound confident. “Billy Hayden’s still one of the Goldberg crew, ain’t he? Maybe he’s heard something.”
Gwen, either actually fooled by her tone or also putting on a good show for the client, bounced up and clapped her hands. “We’re going to Cobbler’s Hill!” she sang.
It was early in the day by Cobbler’s Hill standards, so the brothels were closed and whatever thieves and morphine addicts were awake were blinded enough by the sun to be discreet. The air still smelled of home: piss, vomit, and the occasional tinge of blood. There were new potholes in the streets; the buildings were falling down even more. Decay was the constant in the Hill.
Gwen moved, watchful and gleefully so, past the other people on the sidewalk–this was much more her element than Pallasgreen and their apartment there. Truth be told, while there was no way in nine hells she’d ever live here again, Cobbler’s Hill was the only place Corwyn ever felt right.
She and Gwen turned as one to glare at a skinny man with the wrong sort of expression on his face. He smiled, gap-toothed, and put his hands up as he backed away from them. “Sorry girls. Sorry sorry. Didn’t recognize you in your nice new clothes.”
Corwyn turned around, as they’d come to 43rd Street and the tiny gentlemen’s club that the Goldberg gang used as their home base. Gwen stared a while longer; she had a reputation to tend.
Corwyn thought it had been long enough since Gwen’s unfortunate incident with Art Goldberg’s nephew that the bouncer might be new and not know their faces; she was right. He went and got Billy, who came out the door wearing the same wide confidence man’s grin he’d had when they were kids. Back then he’d also been a skinny Haitian kid with close-cropped hair. Now his hair and his frame were both filled out, and the smile dropped from his face as soon as he saw them.
“Goddammit, get round the corner before someone sees you,” he said, grabbing Corwyn by the elbow and dragging. Gwen followed, fast and tense. “What do you want?” he asked once they were out of sight of the club’s door.
Corwyn, tired, got right to it. “You heard anything about someone wanting to sell a little clockwork man? Only it ain’t all clockwork, and it can talk on its own?”
“You are downright terrible at this, Corwyn,” Gwen said.
“It ain’t like I’ve got practice at it, Gwen.”
Billy looked simultaneously disdainful, wary, and confused. “Why would I tell you? That sounds right valuable. And in our scope of interest.”
Corwyn narrowed her eyes and poked at his chest with a finger. “You owe me, Billy Hayden–a couple times over. And at least one of those debts ain’t the sort you can repay.”
“Only you, Corwyn Teachout, can make me regret getting pulled out of a damn fire.” He blew his breath out his mouth and rubbed a hand over his hair before saying, “I ain’t heard about nothing like that. Mr. Goldberg would have us all over it if we did–and he will, soon as I go in and tell him about it.”
Corwyn groaned, silently. Of course he’d tell–why wouldn’t he? “You wouldn’t be willing to give us a day before you say anything?” she asked without much hope.
Billy laughed. “Maybe an hour. But, hey, you find it first, bring it to me–we can work out a good price.”
Corwyn watched him head back around the corner; she could tell Gwen was watching her but didn’t want to return the look. “I really am downright terrible at this,” she said, aiming to sound like she thought it all a lark.
Corwyn could hear the shrug in Gwen’s voice. “Ain’t like it wasn’t bound to happen, what with Orson being paraded round Pallasgreen. It’s inconvenient, but it ain’t worth brooding over.”
Corwyn wasn’t comforted; there wasn’t much Gwen found to be worth brooding over. “How many men you think Art Goldberg has round the Hill?” she finally asked Gwen.
“Not enough to stop us.”
Corwyn took a breath, hoping Gwen’s desire to head off her brooding would outweigh that time Corwyn came home covered in fine green fur, because she surely did not have time to argue her into this. “I have one more idea,” she said.
“And what is it?”
“We go see Miss Vadoma.”
Vadoma Hildago’s house was never defaced; the people who’d tried sported visible scars. Its paint was relatively fresh, its windows were whole, and its small porch was covered with live plants. Corwyn led the way up the stoop and into the shade.
The witch of Cobbler’s Hill opened her door and, after a long look at each of them, slipped out onto the porch along with a smell of roses and … was that fish? Miss Vadoma was darker than both Corwyn and Gwen; taller, too, as she stared down her crooked nose at them.
“And what are you two doing here?”
“Ain’t a person in the Hill that’s happy to see us anymore,” Gwen observed.
Corwyn ignored her. “I need to ask you something.” She wasn’t entirely happy about it–for years she and Miss Vadoma had worked a push and pull of debts and evens; Corwyn was loathe to upset the balance back into the witch’s favor.
Still, it was a good amount of money.
Miss Vadoma’s long, knobby fingers pulled her door shut with a solid thud. The story went that nobody ever went in the witch’s house, but Corwyn and Gwen had been inside as kids. It looked like an everyday house inside, breathlessly exotic and entirely fearsome because of it.
“Ask, then,” Miss Vadoma said, drawing herself up even taller.
“We’re looking for a golem,” Corwyn said. “Little thing, maybe a foot tall.”
Miss Vadoma shook her head. “You know I don’t mess with alchemy.”
“I ain’t saying you have it–but you hear about everything,” Corwyn said, trying to smile winningly. Judging by Miss Vadoma’s expression, she did not entirely succeed.
“Why are you girls looking for it?”
“Because someone’s paying us to,” Gwen drawled from where she leaned on the porch rail, out of reach.
“So, a foot tall man? Any distinguishing features?”
“From the hundreds of other foot-tall men running round San Xavier?” Gwen asked.
“Exactly that, yes.”
Corwyn crossed her arms over her chest. “He’s made of quite a lot of clockwork,” she said.
“Lars Hallstrom,” Miss Vadoma replied with hardly a pause. “Last little girl he shacked up with got him good and drunk and took off when he passed out. Saw him … day before yesterday? Prowling about. Today I hear he’s got a kid with clockwork legs. Or maybe it’s not a kid.”
Corwyn exchanged a long look with Gwen. Every kid in Cobbler’s Hill had identical grudges against Lars Hallstrom, and though neither of his encounters with the Teachouts had ended particularly well for him, neither Corwyn nor Gwen had come out of them entirely unbruised, either.
Corwyn turned toward the porch steps, not saying anything because you didn’t thank the Cobbler’s Hill witch if you valued your skin. She already felt her knack waking up, stretching toward the front of her head, ready to start pulling her to go find Lars Hallstrom, whether or not she was happy to go.
“I’ve seen you, Corwyn Teachout,” said Miss Vadoma, and Corwyn turned despite the protest of her knack, because the voice was the witchy one Miss Vadoma saved for intimidating kids and actual magic. She’d slid partway into her house but held the door open with one hand. “You follow your knack in and out of the Hill, looking darker and bloodier every time.”
Gwen went still before drawing herself up off the rail slowly. Corwyn, trying to make it sound offhanded, asked, “You talking about my soul, Miss Vadoma?”
The witch snorted, apparently not one to bother with souls. “All round you, girl. And I remember you, little and willing to eat or drink whatever I handed you without asking what it was. Not like that one–” She tilted her chin at Gwen, who didn’t move, still ready to spring. “–she was always smarter than that. I like you. Find this thing you’re looking for. Maybe it helps you, clears some of that blood away.”
And then she shut the door in their faces, so they went down the front steps to the sidewalk. It was a relief, giving into the pulling; it left no room to wonder about some bloody, dark cloud hovering round her head. “Come on,” she said, grabbing Gwen’s arm.
“Here we go,” Gwen said with a slanted grin. “Good thing these boots are comfortable.”
Corwyn’s muscles wanted her to run, follow her knack along as fast as she could, and her thinking self didn’t want to dawdle, either. The docks were a long ways away, though, and Corwyn knew she couldn’t keep up a run that long, so she settled into a fast walk.
“Why did you always eat all the stuff Miss Vadoma gave you?” Gwen asked.
“I was hungry,” Corwyn said. “And I remember thinking if she owed me enough, she’d have to do what I said.”
Gwen chuckled. “And she calls me the smart one.”
By the time they got to the docks, it was mid-afternoon slanting toward evening. Salt and fish and tar mingled with the regular smell of the Hill. “This place ain’t changed much,” Gwen said as they paused on Selwin Avenue to get their bearings. She sounded disgusted and pleased in equal measure. “Orson got a lot more than a walk around Pallasgreen,” she continued, musingly.
“Think he’ll ever get to venture outdoors again?” Corwyn asked, nudging Gwen toward Portcullis Boulevard, headed south.
“He can’t stay inside forever,” Gwen said. “Unless they lock him up.”
The uneven skyline of Cobbler’s Hill was streaking black as the sun sank lower; Corwyn could feel the buildings looming all round the two of them. “There’s all sorts of cages in the world, ain’t there?”
“And they all have keys,” Gwen replied equably, jabbing an elbow into Corwyn’s arm. “Quit brooding so damn much. If Orson wants to see the world, the curator can hire me as his bodyguard and I’ll tour him all over.”
Corwyn snorted. “You’ll end up fighting off the whole Goldberg gang every time you venture out.”
Gwen grinned, pleased. “A girl can but dream, Wyn.”
It took longer than Corwyn would have liked to get down among the docks to Lars Hallstrom’s boat, but running made people chase you, and they didn’t have time nor patience for that. He’d hauled in his gangplank and let the run-down trawler drift a bit from the dock, but Gwen jumped the gap easily and caught Corwyn’s arms when she landed short. The knack eased off as soon as she stood up on the deck and brushed off her knees.
They found Hallstrom drunk and in his bunk, which was no surprise, alone save for the company of a half-full bottle of something brown and a mighty assortment of bruises. He eyed them blearily from swollen slits in a resplendently purple face.
“That you, Corwyn Teachout? The hell you want?”
“Aw, Wyn, between the bruises and the drink, he’s not going to notice if I bang his head off a wall.”
“That Simcote bitch send you?” he asked, hauling himself to sit up, the bottle spilling behind him and filling the room with the smell of alcohol. “I ain’t got it now, they took it.”
“Who took what, Lars?” Corwyn asked evenly.
“I ain’t telling you nothing.” He stood up, swaying, for a moment looking huge and broad and dangerous like he had when they were kids and he’d had Corwyn cornered, seven years old and casting about for a weapon. She’d found one, and used it, but her stomach still dropped a little as she shifted her weight to fight.
Gwen had never been scared of Lars Hallstrom, even when they were kids, and he gave her no pause. She took a step to meet him, planted four fingers in the worse of his two black eyes, then shoved him backwards onto his bunk again. He hissed as he went, his eye watering, the bunk squelching. “I will dump all your booze overboard before I start breaking your bones. Just for funsies, and because you got no more room for bruises,” she told him, her voice careless.
“The Goldberg crew,” he said. “They took it. Waste of a beating, anyway, I didn’t want it no more. It’s tiny, but it’s a grown man.”
Billy hadn’t even given them a damn hour, and the Goldbergs knew how to move merchandise quick. Corwyn thought fast, rummaged through facts she hadn’t thought of in years–
“They still keep their junk in the factory on Button Street?” Corwyn asked.
Lars nodded. Gwen punched him in the side of the head. He howled, wincing as he brought a hand up to it. They’d jumped back to the dock before Gwen asked, “Why don’t we just kill him again?”
“Because–” Corwyn stopped. “Because we had other concerns to tend to. And then because Mrs. Simcote always said not to kill a source.” Lars Hallstrom was a source of many things to the old lady: Information. Kids. But they didn’t live with Mrs. Simcote anymore. Nine hells, look at that. There were advantages to all this poverty and isolation.
Gwen’s eyes were wide, almost shining in the twilight. Every kid in the Hill had grudges against Lars Hallstrom, but Gwen held them tighter than most.
Corwyn pointed at her. “Now, hang on, we have a job right now, and it’s got a deadline.”
Gwen nodded. “Yes, we do. Once we get paid for this,” she said, turning to look back at the boat, “I am finally going to burn that trawler down to the water line.”
“We should have gotten coffee with the falafel,” Corwyn said, trying not to yawn as she and Gwen peered down at the factory floor of the Goldbergs’ warehouse. Cobbler’s Hill was the only part of San Xavier where a body could get falafel, and even detectives needed to eat, but they’d done it on the move.
The gang looked to be planning something: a main group gathered around a table, the rest scattered through the shadows on the floor and occupying themselves with cutting their nails or glowering at each other.
“Nobody ever looks up,” Gwen observed.
“Judging by the climb up the building, ain’t none of them can get up here, anyway.” Corwyn scanned the room; looking for a foot-tall golem by the light of hanging oil lamps was a chore.
Gwen had the better eyes. “There,” she said, nodding toward a spot just below and to the left of the observation platform where they crouched. Corwyn could make out a form inside a cage, suspended underneath the balcony, but couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was doing.
Corwyn was pulled out of her spying by the platform shuddering as Gwen threw a leg over the railing.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going down there to cause a ruckus so you can climb down and get Orson.”
“I do believe we could both climb down there and get him without getting caught.”
Gwen gave her a wicked grin. “But I’m bored. Come on, I distract them, you grab him, we meet up at home. Easy.” She threw her other leg over the rail and dropped, quiet, to the floor.
Corwyn waited until the fight started before following Gwen down.
The drawback to staying in the shadows was that a lot of folk knew it was a good idea. On the other hand, a good portion of Goldberg’s boys were bored, too, and rushed to join the fight. The one left in the shadows — smarter, scared, or shorter than the others, anyway — had his back to her, so she looked around, came up with a broken-off piece of wood, and slammed it into the side of his head.
The thud of his body hitting the floor was covered by Gwen catcalling. It didn’t do her any good in a fight, but even though Corwyn’s knack always knew where Gwen was, hearing her let Corwyn know she was still up and moving without having to pay strict attention.
The cage hung from a hook screwed into one of the pillars supporting the observation platform; it swayed and shook over a pile of stacked boxes and leaning sacks full of whatever the hell the Goldbergs were selling now. Opium. Whiskey. Hard to find elements for alchemical engineers. Maybe weapons.
It wasn’t the sturdiest of foundations for a rescue. The pile wobbled underneath her as she climbed, and once or twice she lost her footing and held her breath, expecting the deafening crash of contraband goods smashing all over the warehouse floor.
Corwyn reached the top. The stack gave another ominous shudder. She grabbed the cage to try and steady herself. The golem started, then slid until his feet slammed into the cage bars, his eyes wide and alarmed. She recoiled, just a touch; his eyes were all black, no iris, like a bird’s; he had no hair; and even though she had expected it, he was tiny–no man should be that small and look so real.
“Who are you?” he asked. His voice was tiny, too, and pitched higher than a full-grown man; still, he didn’t sound like a kid.
“I’m a friend,” she said. “Dr. Eggleston sent me.”
“Oh thank god,” he said, all in a rush.
Corwyn turned her attention to the lock on the cage door. She’d learned to pick on locks like these. No magic, just tumblers. “All right,” she said. “I can do this fast, or I can do it without jostling you around. So hold on.” Orson grabbed the bars to either side of him and braced his feet as Corwyn pulled a pin from her hair. “Look out at the fight; tell me how it’s going?”
“Depends on what side you’re on,” Orson said. “I assume we’re rooting for the girl?”
“Yup.” Corwyn never thought she’d be grateful that Mrs. Simcote made her practice picking locks blindfolded, but the shadows were deep.
“She is carving a swath of bloody destruction through the thugs,” Orson said, adjusting his grip as Corwyn tilted the cage to one side for a better angle. “And some of the drunker ones are fighting each other, I presume for the fun of it. Still, there are far more of them than there are of her.”
“Well, that is how she prefers it,” Corwyn said absently. The lock opened with a click she felt more than heard. “All right,” she said, “Should I … it’d be easier if I carried you?”
Orson scrambled out of the cage, over her shoulder, and down the back of her shirt. His brass legs and arm were cold; their charms pricked against her skin as he dug his feet into the waistband of her trousers. He was heavy, but she’d expected that–clay and metal, of course he’d be heavier than he looked–and adjusted for it as she cautiously slid one foot down the pile, looking for a hold to start their descent.
In retrospect, it wasn’t so surprising that the stack collapsed under them–there was the deafening crash of contraband on the floor, and a rank cloud of alcohol–what was surprising was that Corwyn managed to land on her side and not on Orson, who clung stubbornly to her back the whole way down.
She lost her breath with the pain of the impact, felt Orson scrambling out of her shirt, and heard Gwen’s voice in her head telling her, Get up, Corwyn, so much for easy.
She hauled herself to her feet in time to see one of Goldberg’s boys headed her way. “Mr. Orson, I advise you to run,” she said, though she didn’t have time to see if he was anywhere around to hear her.
There wasn’t much help to be found in the debris: broken bottles of whiskey; wet, fleshy things she had no desire to look at more closely; an astounding number of cigars; no weapons. Fate was not on her side today. Corwyn reached down and grabbed a broken bottle, then straightened to face the skinny young lug coming at her.
She dropped to the wet floor as he reached out to grab her, glass crunching under her boots and whiskey dampening her knees as she swiped his shin with the bottle and jammed it into his stomach as she came back up. There was another guy coming behind him; she turned this one roughly and shoved him, howling like a baby and the bottle still stuck in him, at his buddy before turning and bolting for the back wall. Gwen had taught her a lot over the years, but Corwyn didn’t have a knack that would help her thrash an entire gang at once.
Her side hurt, her hip clawed at her, and the window directly in front of her was boarded over. Wait, there was one, farther down on the right and broken; lantern light glinted off the shards, and it wasn’t that far away. If she could get out and catch her breath she could try and figure out where Orson might–
A hand twisted into her hair and yanked her backwards off her feet. It felt like she slammed back-first into the walls of St. Philomena’s cathedral; the voice in her ear was about as rough as one of those walls, too. “You think she’ll slow down, she sees I got you?”
Corwyn squirmed as he wrapped an arm around her and tightened his grip to keep her arms pinned. She heard Gwen laughing over someone cursing at her.
“I think if you want to see her stop playing and kill you all like it’s a job, you take me out there,” Corwyn said with a grunt, then brought her boot down, hard, into his foot. She dropped to her knees when his grip loosened, scrambling away on her hands and knees toward the inside of the warehouse. Maybe she could get lost in the bigger fight–some more of Goldberg’s boys were fighting with each other now, and she caught a glimpse of Gwen, grinning, arms held behind her back by one lug, shifting up fast and smashing both feet into the face of another one.
Corwyn got a hard kick in the ribs as she started to get up onto her feet, but her new friend skipped back and away, grunting and favoring the foot she’d stomped. She got up to her own feet, slowly, both sides hurting like seven kinds of hell, and turned her head to look at him, then past him.
Time to do something blindingly stupid, she thought. She grinned at Broken Foot, hoping it looked cocky, and took off toward him at as much of a sprint as she could muster.
He looked surprised, which Corwyn felt was highly flattering; she veered around him and managed to skim past his grasping hand. He couldn’t run after her very well–frankly, Corwyn couldn’t run away from him very well, either–but she could hear him thumping along as she reached the boarded window and put a foot on its sill. She heaved herself up, off-balance, to grab the bottom of the hanging lantern, burning her fingers as she yanked it off the hook. Then she hit the ground, turned, and threw it at Broken Foot.
It went wide. His surprise was turning into a sly grin, but then the lamp shattered in the pool of whiskey on the floor, and the surprise came back again. It turned to downright panicked when the cuff of his pants caught fire.
That was all Corwyn paused to see, though she could hear him fumbling to put it out and yelling like hell for his friends. She ran–awkwardly, but at a good clip–to the broken window, knocked out the last of the glass, and climbed through.
Corwyn hung off the outside window ledge and gave a quick whistle to let Gwen know she was leaving. The drop wasn’t far, but it was enough to send a jolt all up her sides and make her hiss when she landed.
“Miss?” she heard, from near to the ground.
He shifted so that the firelight reflected off his brass bits. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to get back to Pallasgreen from here. Would you be kind enough to escort me?”
Corwyn hadn’t even begun to think about where to look for him once she got out of the warehouse, but relief that she wouldn’t have to washed through her like water through a pump. She matched his highbrow accent when she replied, “Certainly, Mr. Orson.” She kneeled carefully next to him. “Climb aboard, but mind my ribs, please.”
Gwen arrived at their apartment later smelling like smoke, with a bloody lip, skinned knuckles, scorched trousers, and shining eyes starting to blacken from her broken nose. It was downright miraculous Gwen had any nose left, as many times as it’d been broken.
“I will undoubtedly be an entire gang of enormous lugs tomorrow,” she told Corwyn as she strapped Corwyn’s ribs. “But someday, Wyn, someday, those men will proudly tell their grandchildren of the time Gwen Teachout knocked their teeth loose.”
“And a glorious day that will be, indeed,” Corwyn replied easily. Gwen enjoyed knocking heads and tossing drunks too much to make it steady work; those that hired her got nervous after a while. Corwyn, however, had lived with Gwen her whole life, and knew to treat it like a bender.
Gwen tied off the strapping, leaned back on their sagging couch, and shut her eyes, fingers lightly exploring her re-set nose. “So how is our treasure?” she finally asked.
“Asleep.” Corwyn shifted in their only armchair, stiff and trying to find a comfortable position in which to rest her abused bones.
“I’m not, actually.” Orson stood in the doorway to their bedroom. “Your bed is too big, Miss Corwyn.”
“You want me to make you one in a dresser drawer?” Gwen asked, sounding still mildly drunk on violence.
He was very cunningly made, Corwyn thought; the look of disgust was as clear as if he’d been made of skin and muscle rather than clay. She guessed he had a right to be tetchy, considering.
He climbed up onto the couch next to Gwen, though he sat a good distance away from her. Corwyn got comfortable–turned and leaning more on the kicked side, strangely enough–and let out a long breath. The tips of her right-hand fingers were sensitive, but no longer hurt whenever she touched something. Her ribs felt better. Her scalp had stopped stinging. She could hear, between her breaths, the faintest tick and tock of Orson’s heart. It was approaching cozy, sitting in the lamplight with her battered sister and the clockwork homunculus. “I’m sorry about the bed, Mr. Orson.”
“I appreciate the bed,” he said, his voice delicate and barely disturbing the stillness of the room. He blinked his black eyes, and Corwyn felt a ghost of that first startled sight of him, tiny and bird-eyed, not quite human. “I prefer feeling slightly more … contained. And really, I’m not quite ready to let go of the day.”
Gwen turned her head on the back of the couch and grinned at him. “It was quite the adventure, wasn’t it?”
“It was terrifying,” he said, meeting her grin with a smile. “And yes.”
“How’d you get out of the warehouse?” Corwyn asked.
“There are some quite enormous rats in there, to judge by the holes. I barely had to crouch.” He fell silent for a while, the smile playing on his face before gradually fading. “I suppose Jarvis will have to move me to the museum. I suppose I belong there.” He looked down at his clockwork hand and flexed his fist open and shut, the lamplight flowing over and catching against the tiny fittings. “Had Mr. Fairchilde not died, I’d likely be all clockwork by now.”
“There’s worse places for you than the museum,” Corwyn offered.
“They’ll never let me out again. Nor should they.” It came out on a breath, the merest wisp of a sigh. Well, nobody liked a cage, especially when they’d thought they’d found a way out of it. Corwyn knew that more than most.
She glanced at Gwen, whose eyes were shut. “You’re very solid,” she said to Orson.
“How solid?” Gwen opened one eye to peer at her.
“My back says pretty damn solid–he’s made of brass and clay.”
Gwen opened her other eye and, without lifting her head from the back of the sofa, appraised Orson like he was a new and interesting weapon. Or something she could use as one. “So if you knew what to do, you get grabbed, you could maybe fight off one or two guys.”
“Do you think so?” Orson asked. “I’m so small.”
“You ain’t going to roundhouse punch a grown man, but there’s things you can do, nonetheless. And they’d underestimate you,” Gwen said.
Corwyn snorted. “‘Til word got round, anyway.” The two of them hadn’t had the element of surprise on their side in years.
“And then they might leave you alone,” Gwen said, unperturbed.
“Could you … teach me that? What to do?” Orson asked.
“For a nominal fee,” Gwen replied. She was fading fast, but as she hauled herself off the couch she said, “You tell Dr. Eggleston. You’re a valuable commodity, you know. You ought to be able to defend yourself.”
Gwen shut the bedroom door behind her, and Corwyn sat with the golem without speaking. She could feel the long day on not enough sleep seeping into her bones as she listened to Orson’s ticking heart and the sounds of Pallasgreen settling down for the night. She dozed and only half-remembered Orson prodding her to her own bed, whispering, “Thank you for finding me,” before she fell completely asleep.
The next day they went to the museum, Gwen still cheerful despite the bruises and the nose. She didn’t heal any faster than other people, and she felt pain, she just didn’t much care about it. Orson rode on her back today to spare Corwyn’s ribs, with his head above her shoulder, while Corwyn did her grim best to keep up.
“At least they won’t cut me into pieces here,” Orson said as the black stone turrets of the museum appeared at the end of the street. Corwyn’s lips quirked at that; every cage had silver gilding. Or some such.
Mattie, at the front desk, ran to get the curator as soon as they walked through the museum’s enormous front doors. Dr. Eggleston’s sagging face lit up when he saw them; he seemed thrilled and relieved to see his treasure once more and willing to engage Gwen to teach Orson ways to fight. “You should get out in the world, and if you can defend yourself, then I can try and make a case for it,” he told the golem as he kneeled before him. “Though perhaps not another trip down to the docks.”
“Surely some sea captain would hire a thirteen-inch half-clockwork sailor,” said Orson; they both laughed, but it echoed oddly in the hallway, flattened out and thin.
“Thank you, ladies,” Dr. Eggleston said, standing to pull his billfold from his jacket pocket and count out their fee. “I will be sure to recommend you to my colleagues when we have things that need finding.”
They watched the curator and Orson walk away down the hall. “He means it,” said Mattie. “They’re always losing junk. Or hearing about weird things they simply must have.”
Corwyn nodded, unwilling to think too much about a future possibility when she had so much present to stare in the face. At least her present currently included a large sum of cash, which she and Gwen divided between them for the walk home before following Mattie to the front doors.
Gwen grinned to split her face as she bounced down the front steps of the museum. “We retrieved a lost treasure. And I got a job!” she said, smug or gleeful. Likely both. “And nobody died‑‑just some maiming! But I’m still putting a sign on the door. No missing people cases for a while.”
“All right,” Corwyn allowed. “I guess I could do with more sleep.”
“And baths for us both,” Gwen said, nose wrinkled as she sniffed at herself.
Corwyn smelled sweat. A bit of whiskey. Some clay, probably from Orson. Food from a restaurant. She took a deep breath and let it out, forgetting Gwen next to her, the museum behind her, and the only slightly rundown buildings of Pallasgreen surrounding her in the sudden awareness of the clean scent of her hair.
Copyright 2014 Laura E. Price
Laura E. Price lives in Florida with her husband and son. Her stories have appeared in Cicada, On Spec, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her blog at seldnei.wordpress.com