The Wages of Sin – A Steampunk Horror Story
I originally wrote this for Tonia Brown’s Railroad Anniversary celebrations earlier this year. I figured that it was time I shared it with the rest of you. Enjoy!
The Wages of Sin
by Graeme Reynolds
Joseph wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and watched the seconds tick by on the grandfather clock, as if he could somehow slow time by concentrating on the smooth mechanical swing of the pendulum. The clock dominated his workshop; an exquisite example of the finest craftsmanship London had to offer, according to the salesman. Joseph had sneered at that remark, but his wife insisted upon the purchase and so here it sat, ticking away the seconds until his appointment, until the chimes rang out like a death knell.
He waited for the clock to fall silent, then exhaled a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding and got up from his chair. There was no use in putting matters off any longer. He’d promised to deliver the devices today, and if nothing else, he was a man of his word. Besides, he needed the money. His financial situation was precarious at best. The new factories to the north of the city were mass producing mechanicals at such high volumes and low prices that it was impossible to compete. No one cared about whether an item had been individually designed and hand crafted, or whether it would last a lifetime with careful use. All that mattered these days was the cost. Quality had become a distant consideration, and that meant new commissions were few and far between.
Of course, he couldn’t tell his wife any of this.
She fancied herself of noble stock, but in reality was descended from farmers in Wiltshire. That didn’t prevent her from doing her utmost to maintain the illusion of wealth, however. Their home was filled with tasteful and expensive items. Even something as simple as Joseph’s workbench had been carefully selected to ensure that it matched the decor of the room, and that it was from a well known furniture maker. Truth be told, Joseph would have preferred a simple wooden table. Once his wife had caught him using a steam-saw on it and his ears had rung for a fortnight afterwards. She’d asked if he had any idea of what the bench cost? Of course he had. He’d paid for the damnable thing, and what was the point of having a work bench if it was considered to be too expensive for him to work on? He’d not said any of this of course, but he’d been proud of the snappy retort, even if it had remained unspoken.
He buttoned his heavy overcoat, then retrieved his top hat and cane from the stand. Anticipation grew within his chest, mingled with a sense of uncertainty. The commission was like nothing that he’d ever done before. The individual devices had been built to the exact specification provided by his secretive client, and Joseph was still not entirely sure what they did. The possibilities had swirled through his mind, keeping him awake night after night, but he’d been unable to come to any firm conclusions. However the devices exuded a vague menace that made him feel uneasy in their presence. It was absurd, of course. They were just a complex set of clockwork gears, switches and steam valves. It was ridiculous to think that they could be anything other than that, and yet the uncomfortable feeling persisted. Truth be told, he would be glad to see the back of the things, even if they were, quite possibly the best pieces of work that he’d ever done.
He opened the door of his workshop and stepped out into the hallway, hoping that he could slip out of the house without anyone noticing his departure. Those hopes were crushed a second later, when his wife’s voice rang out from the parlour.
“Joseph? Is that you?”
He sighed. Joanna been a beautiful woman in her youth, but the years of excess had taken their toll. The lavender scented behemoth that shambled into the hallway bore little resemblance to the young girl that he’d courted.
“Yes, dear,” he said. “I’m just going to see a client.”
Joanna’s piggy eyes squinted at him through her red, sweating jowls, as if weighing up the truth of his words. After a moment, she gave a small, satisfied nod that made the rolls of fat under her chin oscillate. “Good. Make sure that they pay you in cash this time. Mr McGregor is coming around in the morning to take the first down payment for the new chandeliers.”
Joseph’s shoulders sagged. He’d forgotten about the new chandeliers. If he was completely honest, he didn’t think there was anything wrong with the old ones. He was about to say something to that effect, then thought better of it. He would just end up embroiled in another blazing row that he would inevitably lose. It was easier to avoid the confrontation . He let out a resigned sigh. “Yes, dear. I’ll make sure they pay in cash.”
Joanna started to say something else, but he was no longer listening. He muttered a goodbye, then hurried out into the cold night air.
Thick smog, stained a dirty yellow under the glare of the gas lights, swirled around him as he made his way through the streets of London, and the oily stench of pollution assaulted his nostrils. Overhead, the dark shapes of dirigibles glided through the air above him, their vast bulk a mere shadow against the rolling blanket of smog, while carriages rattled through the streets, pulled by teams of gleaming, metallic horse constructs. He could not help but laugh at the limited imagination behind the devices. Science opened up a new world with countless possibilities, yet the best that these people could come up with were clockwork facsimiles of how things used to be, as if they clung to some romantic, idealised version of the past. At least, he conceded, the metallic horses didn’t leave piles of excrement in the street for the unwary pedestrian to discover, although the numerous lubricant leaks were often even more hazardous.
A gust of frigid wind whipped down the street, making the tips of his ears and nose sting. Joseph pulled his coat tight around him, hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to keep warm and hurried towards the small warehouse that he rented by the docks. He removed a brass key from his pocket, using it to unlock a small metal box inset into the wall, to reveal an array of brass levers within. Casting nervous glances over his shoulders, he quickly entered the sequence that would unlock the doors. After a few seconds, a cloud of steam escaped from the reinforced doors, and they slid open, while gas lanterns flickered on, illuminating the interior of the warehouse. Heavy crates were stacked across one wall, while an array of gears and salvaged metal were piled in the far corner. In the centre of the warehouse stood his own carriage. Joanna had refused to ride in it when he’d shown it to her. She said that she couldn’t have stood the embarrassment of riding in a carriage without horses, and so he’d modified the vehicle to carry cargo instead of passengers. Even now, he felt a surge of pride when he looked at its sleek lines, and the polished steel pipes that transmitted power from the steam plant. He’d loaded the devices into the back the previous evening, so all he needed to do was deliver them. He climbed into the glass cockpit and drove his carriage out into the fog, while the warehouse doors swung closed behind him.
The carriage moved through the dark streets of London, past drunken oafs with whores hanging from their arms. As he stopped at a junction, a haggard prostitute hammered on the window.
“Want some company tonight, Sir?” she said through rotten teeth and thick garish make up.
Joseph could almost smell the stench of her fetid breath through the glass. He muttered a polite refusal, and fixed his gaze straight ahead while he waited for the road to become clear. The murders two years ago had been appalling, of course, but every once in a while, when confronted by such a wretch, he wondered if perhaps the Ripper had a point.
The crowded tenements thinned until he left the city behind and headed off along a westerly road into the countryside. Stars glimmered in the sky above and, glancing backwards, Joseph saw the city encased in a thick roiling blanket of pollution. Eventually the carriage turned off from the road and passed through a set of heavy wrought iron gates into a walled country estate. He journeyed for another few minutes along a tree lined road before an imposing dwelling appeared at the end of the lane. Gas lanterns illuminated the front door, but the rest of the house remained in darkness, save for a single light burning in a first floor window.
Joseph stopped his carriage at the front of the house and opened the rear hatch of his carriage. Three crates sat on hydraulic trolleys, which hissed into life as he activated each one in turn. He retrieved a beacon from the interior of the carriage, and then walked towards the ornate oak doors while the hydraulic platforms followed on spider-like legs.
He fetched the key from behind an overgrown laurel bush and unlocked the heavy wooden door, which groaned in protest as it swung open on rusted hinges. The hallway of the house would once have been grand, however years of neglect had taken their toll on the once fine building. Faded paintings hung on the walls and everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. Footprints marked a path across the dirty floor, leading up the rotting staircase. The smell of damp and mildew filled his nostrils as he ascended the worm eaten stairs, which creaked underfoot, barely supporting his weight. Joseph could not help but sigh with relief as he reached the first floor with both himself and the devices still intact. A faint light shone from under one of the doors. He rapped on it three times, then opened the door and stepped inside.
The stench hit him like a physical force. Stale urine combined with the unmistakable odour of sickness and death permeated the air. He retrieved his handkerchief from his coat, and held it up to his nose. The stink emanated from a four-post bed at the far end of the room. Like the rest of the house, it had once been grand. Now, the drapes were stained a dirty yellow beneath the thick layers of dust and the damp atmosphere had warped the wooden frame into a twisted caricature of itself. On filth encrusted sheets, in the centre of the ruined bed, lay a thin, grey-haired man. The man’s eyes were little more than sunken sockets with yellow, cataract ridden orbs peering out of the darkness. His skin was stretched across his bones to the extent that it appeared almost translucent and when the man breathed, his chest rattled with the unmistakable song of tuberculosis. The man seemed to notice Joseph for the first time and raised a stick-thin arm to beckon him forward. Joseph fought his revulsion and, with his handkerchief firmly in place, stepped forward to meet his client.
“Mr Wilson?” The man’s voice cracked as he spoke, and the effort brought on a savage fit of coughing. When the fit subsided, he looked at the blood-stained mucus on his hand, then wiped it onto the bed sheet. “Did you bring them? The devices?”
Joseph nodded. “I did. They have all been constructed to your exact specification.” He turned to the hydraulic spiders that had followed him into the room and opened the first crate for inspection.
The device within almost resembled a strange, metallic shell. Both halves were constructed of solid iron with a number of tubes and pipes joining the two halves on the exterior. Within the shell’s hard armoured exterior, a complex clockwork mechanism operated a series of pumps, air-valves and filters. However, the parts that Joseph found disconcerting were the spikes. Dozens of razor sharp needles and blades filled the interior of the shell. It reminded him of the inside of an Iron Maiden that he’d once seen in a museum.
The old man rolled over onto his side and, with some effort and another prolonged bout of coughing, managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed and get to his feet. Joseph felt a momentary urge to help him but changed his mind when he caught another waft of the man’s vinegary stink. Eventually, with the aid of an ornate cane, Joseph’s client made his way to the crates to inspect his purchase.
“Mr Wilson, you are a true artist. There are so few left that would be capable of producing something of this quality.” The old man ran a withered finger across the smooth iron surface. “Very fine work, my friend. Very fine work indeed.”
Joseph opened the two remaining crates, which contained a number of smaller devices, then turned back to his client. “I thank you for your kind words. I do have a question, however, if it’s not presumptuous. I built the items to your designs, but their purpose eludes me. I was wondering – what exactly are they for?”
The man’s face cracked into a hideous grin, displaying rows of rotted teeth. “What are they for? You are about to find out. Here, help me with the breastplate.”
As the meaning of the words sunk in, Joseph’s mouth fell open in shock. “Breastplate? You can’t mean to wear it? For God’s sake, man, it would kill you in an instant.”
A thin, bony hand shot out with surprising speed and grasped Joseph by the collar. The old man pulled him closer with a strength that Joseph would not have believed possible, until they were almost face to face.
“Mr Wilson,” the man growled, “I hope that you are not about to renege on our agreement. I am one of the foremost experts on human anatomy in this country, and as you can see, I am not a well man. Those devices have been designed to save my life, so that I can carry on my work. If you do not assist me, not only will you have signed my death warrant, but you will also receive no payment. Am I making myself clear?”
“But, what if you’re wrong?”
“Then, there is a letter lodged with my solicitor, absolving you of any culpability and assuring your payment, on the provision that the items match my designs to the smallest detail. Now, will you help me or not?”
Joseph sighed. He’d spent most of his available cash in the construction of the devices, and there was not enough left in his account to pay for the new chandeliers. He really didn’t have a choice in the matter. “Alright, I think that you are insane, but I’ll help you. May God forgive me.”
Joseph removed the rear of the breastplate and stood it upright on the bed while the old man manoeuvred himself into position. Then he grasped the front half and carried it forward so that the needles rested against the old man’s skin.
“Now, ” the man said, “start the mechanism. Hurry.”
Joseph depressed a small button and could not help but feel a small sense of satisfaction as the clockwork gears sprang to life. He could visualise each part, moving in concert with the others beneath the hard, iron exterior. Then, without warning the heavy plate flew out of his hands and slammed into the other half, impaling the old man on the vicious spikes while scalpel-sharp blades whirred and sliced through flesh.
The old man’s tortured scream seemed to last for minutes. Blood oozed from the base of the chest piece, and thick, viscous, scarlet fluid bubbled within the transparent tubes. Joseph backed away in horror as his client’s eyes rolled up and he fell to the floor with a heavy metallic clang.
A bomb-burst of panic erupted in Joseph’s stomach. He had no guarantee that any letter had been written. He was an accomplice to a suicide, although the police would no doubt see it as a clear case of murder. His mind buzzed with different solutions to the problem, and he stepped away from the terrible scene. Perhaps he could set fire to the house to hide any evidence, or dispose of the corpse by dropping it down a disused mine shaft?
He’d just reached the doorway when the old man’s voice rang out. “Are you leaving so soon, Mr Wilson?”
He heart lurched, and he turned around, hardly daring to breathe. The old man sat in a spreading pool of dark blood, but was supporting himself and was actually smiling. “You see, Mr Wilson. The device pumps my blood around my body, oxygenating and filtering it in the process. I no longer need my failing heart or rotten lungs. This device will keep me alive for many long years. Long enough to finish my work.”
He stepped forward. The old man’s condition was noticeably improved already. His skin had a rosy pink glow to it, instead of its previous jaundiced, yellow parchment appearance, and the tubercular rattle in his breathing was hardly noticeable. “My Lord, that’s remarkable. The lives that this machine could save…”
The old man laughed at this. “Save lives? Well, I suppose that it could, but that’s not why I designed it. These devices are tailored to my own anatomy. Now, enough idle chatter. Pass me the devices in that crate to your left, and be quick about it.”
Joseph reached into the crate and withdrew one of four cylinders that rested in the straw. He passed it to his client, just as his mind made the connection. “This is for your legs? But that means…” He thought about the devices, and some of the things that he’d built into them.
The client only smiled at this. “Yes, of course. What is the point of living forever if my withered limbs are unable support me? How can I continue my work when my hands shake and the mere act of holding a blade is an effort?”
The man opened the cylinder that Joseph had handed him to reveal an interior bristling with hidden motorised blades and dozens of needles. He placed the device around his left thigh, then screamed in agony as the magnetic seal slammed the cylinder closed around his leg. “Quickly…pass me the right thigh piece.”
Joseph pushed his mounting horror aside and followed his client’s instructions, passing one device after another to the old man, then turning aside so that he would not have to witness the agonising fusion of flesh and metal. After what seemed like hours, but was in reality a matter of minutes, all of the crates were empty. Barely darting to breathe, Joseph turned to face the thing that he’d helped create.
The old man was barely visible beneath the metallic shell, with only half of his face remaining exposed. Blood frothed and gushed through translucent tubes and an array of blades slid from their housings to gleam in the candlelight, before disappearing beneath the iron and brass exterior. It (for Joseph could not bring himself to think of this monstrous creation as HIM any longer) clambered to its feet and stretched. It reached out and grasped a brass jug with a metallic fist, crushing it with ease. Then it turned to Joseph.
“Your craftsmanship is without peer, Mr Wilson. The devices are working perfectly. Even better than I’d hoped. Now, there is the matter of your payment to discuss.”
Joseph bumped into the far wall, startling him. He’d not realised that he’d been backing away. “Oh, yes. Of course. The money. Erm, I don’t suppose that you would be able to pay cash? It’s just that I have some overdue bills that need to be paid.”
The creature took a step forward, causing the rotten floor to creak under its weight. “Ah, unfortunately I don’t seem to have my wallet with me. Otherwise I would have been happy to oblige you for a job well done. Rest assured that everything that I owe you will be paid into your bank account in the morning.”
He would have been happy to accept this, get away from the terrible old man and try to forget what he’d seen, but there was the matter of Joanna. The looming spectre of her displeasure almost counteracted the terror and revulsion that he felt toward his client. “Is there no way that you can give me at least a part payment now? You see, my wife…”
The creature’s face broke into a hideous, blood-stained smile. “Ah, yes. Your wife. Joanna, isn’t it? What? Do you not think that I would look into the background of the man I commissioned to do such important work? I will give you some advice, Mr Wilson. Not all whores walk the streets. The worst of them hide in plain sight, leeching the lifeblood from those who fall under their influence. I, unfortunately, am unable to pay in cash, but I will try to assist you with your current financial predicament in my own way. You can call it a bonus, for a job well done.”
Joseph could not meet its gaze. He had no idea what the creature was talking about, but his momentary burst of courage evaporated with its refusal, replaced by a sickening fear that if he did not get away from this monstrous thing, then money would be the least of his worries. “Thank you. That’s very generous. Now, if there’s nothing else, I really should be going.”
The thing that had once been a dying old man stepped back and performed an elaborate bow. “Of course. Thank you once more. I shall make sure that you are properly rewarded for your efforts.”
Joseph backed away through the bedroom door, then hurried down the stairs and out to his waiting vehicle. He realised that he’d forgotten to retrieve his hydraulic platforms, but couldn’t bring himself to care. He threw himself into his motorised carriage and accelerated away from the decrepit old house as quickly as he could.
Once his heart stopped racing, he thought about the consequences of what he’d done. That thing that he’d helped create was an abomination. To create something to support his client’s failing body was one thing, but the construct had possessed incredible strength, not to mention the array of lethal weaponry housed within its cold, iron shell. Once completed, Joseph was under no illusions that the devices were designed not only to sustain life, but to take it. People were going to die because of what he’d done and, if the client had paid in cash, Joseph would have pulled over to the side of the road and burned it. How could he use that money to buy new chandeliers? Every time he looked at them, he’d imagine the blood running from the polished crystal, dripping onto his wife’s expensive carpets and polished wooden floors.
He spent most of the night driving around the deserted streets of London, mulling over his decision. There would be an argument, of course, when he returned the money, but for once in his life he knew that he would stand his ground. The money was tainted, and he wanted no part of it. Joanna could either learn to live with it, or she could leave. Despite his mood, the thought made him smile. After everything he’d witnessed tonight, his wife no longer held any terror for him. It was like a huge, lavender scented weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Perhaps they might even find a way to love each other again, once the balance of the relationship had been restored. As the first orange glow of the approaching dawn illuminated the swirling, smog-filled sky, Joseph returned his vehicle to the warehouse and began the short walk home.
He knew that something was amiss as he approached the front door. The heavy wooden door swung open in the breeze and around the lock the wood was splintered. A wave of vertigo struck him as nausea welled up from his stomach, and he had to grasp the black metal railings to steady himself. He forced down the feeling of sickness, then pushed the door open with his cane.
“Joanna?” he called from the threshold, his legs unwilling to take that first step into the darkness. “Joanna, are you alright?”
There was no response, but then he’d not really expected one. He thought about heading off into the night to find a policeman, but if Joanna was lying injured somewhere in the dark house, then the delay in administering medical assistance could be fatal. Steeling his resolve, he grasped his cane in a white knuckled grip, holding it aloft like a club, then stepped forward into his house.
“Joanna? Joanna, can you hear me?”
The walls were spattered with a dark, viscous liquid all the way along the hall. It dripped from oil paintings and the expensive wallpaper, running down to form black pools on the polished hardwood floor. Momentarily, he found himself worrying about how Joanna would respond to seeing the mess before he pushed the thought away.
There were more black pools further along the corridor, with drag marks coming from the largest one, leading into his workshop. Despite his mounting terror, Joseph felt a sharp pang of grief blossom in his chest. He knew that he should leave and find the police. He could be disturbing evidence, and the chances that his wife was still alive after losing so much blood was remote. He didn’t want to look at whatever lay in his workshop. His mind already had conjured up numerous scenarios of what those vicious motorised blades could do to a human body, and he had no desire to see the reality of it. Nevertheless, he knew that he had no choice. He had to see it for himself. He reached out with a shaking hand, and pushed open the door to his workshop.
It was as bad as he’d feared. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he saw that his workshop had been demolished. Pieces of metal lay strewn across the floor, and the expensive grandfather clock had been smashed in half. Blood covered every surface, and, across the room on his expensive workbench lay the dark, motionless form of a corpse.
“Oh God, Joanna, ” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
“I should bloody well think so. Have you seen the state of my walls? And that mess will never come out of the carpets. We’re going to need a complete redecoration.”
Joseph let out an involuntary shriek and spun around to face the source of the voice. A dark mass loomed from the shadows, and he took a step back in horror. He focused his attention on the prone form on his workbench and could now see the hard metal lines of the monster that he’d helped create. The tubes on the constructs back had been severed, leaking black ichor onto the floor and the old man’s skull had been split in half, pulped brain matter oozed from the terrible wound across the expensive wooden table.
He turned back to the corner of the room and watched in horror as Joanna, still wearing her voluminous nightgown, covered head to toe in gore and holding an axe, stepped from the shadows.
Her lips curled up into a sneer. “You did remember to ask for cash didn’t you, dear?”