Authors: Jordan Reece
by Jordan Reece
Copyright 2015 Jordan Reece
Cover photo courtesy of Can Stock Photo and taden
Cover by Joleene Naylor
Jesco was out on the grounds with the children when the police carriage turned down the flowered lane of the asylum. Errant branches scraped along the bright black sides as the autohorse drew it on, shoes making merry clips on the cobbles.
They had been watching the aviators, the handful of othelin children who were recovered enough from spot-flu to be outside in the garden. The pale blue sky was full of bulbous shapes in every color, and they were sketching what hung suspended high above while Jesco minded them. The arrival of the carriage took their attention away from paper and pencil. No face could be seen within the carriage, as the glass was darkened. One could look out, but not in, which Jesco had explained to them many times from personal experience.
“Is it a body, Mr. Currane, sir?” asked a girl.
“It may be,” Jesco replied as the carriage rolled past them to the main building. The scratching of the branches gave off as the autohorse pulled into the driveway circle. The grounds always had a riotous look despite the dedicated ministrations of wizened Phipps and his assistant. Vine roses crept up the windows by night to shine their blushing faces into the rooms at morning, and cheery purple holidays took frequent rambles over the stepping-stones. The lane was ever in danger of being crowded out by the lines of shaggy trees stooping over it, the petals of their white flowers drifting down all summer to swathe the cobbles in snow. The happy disorder of it all had been Jesco’s first impression of Cantercaster Asylum when he was delivered to it at the age of eight, and though he had been beaten in body, tormented in spirit, and terrified from skin to marrow in the back of the wagon, his heart was kindled at the mutiny of form and explosion of color. He had never seen such a thing in all his life, and surely it could not be such a bad place when it was so lovely. It was a child’s logic, but it proved true.
Soon a nurse was stepping quickly down the path and calling for Jesco, who excused himself from his small company of artists. They whispered in his wake as the nurse took over his duty. His excursions from the asylum fascinated them one and all, and often the evening-time stories they requested were not The Bolging Hare or Tales of a Girl Pirate but of his participation in the mysteries of murder. The cases in which it was not a mystery had no need of his involvement.
Ideally, he would have had more time to recuperate since the last case. He was up and walking, but he was well aware that if he pushed too hard, he would land himself back in his wheelchair in short order. Yet he would not dream of sending the police carriage away without him. Jesco was very limited in the work he could do, and to be part of investigations out in the world excited him. In one way, and one way only, was his seer skill valuable. In every other way, it was a detriment that constricted his life to these grounds where his environment could be controlled.
The carriage had stopped at the entryway to the asylum. It was Sinclair who had come for him, a junior detective to whom the ignominious tasks of an investigation fell. A nervous fellow with flapping cheeks, he was holding open the door of the carriage so that Jesco’s chair could be pushed inside. The new attendant had brought it out. Pawing at the ground, the bay autohorse settled and stilled. They were in almost every fashion a real horse, from appearance to mannerisms, and only by looking directly into the eyes was the truth revealed in the faint glimmer of tiny springs and gears and circuitry, which extended into a whirring, revolving infinity.
“Greetings,” Jesco said as he came to the carriage. He liked Sinclair, who had always treated him politely though some others at the station did not. The chair was now inside, and the attendant as well to engage the brakes. After a click-clack, he ducked out, inclined his head to Sinclair and Jesco, and retreated to the entryway.
At first glance, Sinclair did not seem suited to investigating homicides. He was too much of a gentleman. In all the cases that Jesco had worked with him, the man was as wide-eyed and aghast as an innocent to have happened upon the scene of a crime. Better suited to robbery, perhaps, or simply filing papers at the Fourth Street Station, yet despite his shock he worked hard and no one had transferred him. He looked down to Jesco’s hands and said, “Good, good, you’ve got the gloves on already. Then we shall go.”
Jesco entered the carriage and took a seat. Sitting down across from him, Sinclair called, “Second destination, ho!” From the bowels of the autohorse came a symphony of metallic sounds, which muted when Sinclair shut the door. The carriage lurched and curled gracefully around the driveway, returning to the lane and the scratching of branches as they passed down it to the road.
“They’re staring at us,” Sinclair said about the children, who watched unabashedly from the garden with their sketches forgotten. “Always, always, they stare at us. Do they know what you do, the little ones, or do they think that I am arresting you once or twice a month?”
“They are well aware of what I do. It is the one-way glass that draws their eyes,” Jesco said. “They’re from farm country, many of them, and a glass of this kind is beyond their kenning.” He had once lived in a place such as that, where advancement did not penetrate and the tales of it were deemed nonsense or devilry.
“And are they all othelin like you?” Sinclair queried.
“Othelin, yes, but not all like me. I was the only seer in that party.”
“What are the rest?”
“Kineticists, manipulators, and telescopics.”
The horse turned smoothly at the corner and merged into the traffic there. “I hope this day has found you well,” Sinclair said formally.
“It has,” Jesco said. “But not so well for another, I presume.”
Sinclair blanched at even such an oblique reference to the deceased. “No, not so well. Not so well at all.”
It was best to approach the issue gently, which Jesco had learned over time would win him the most information from the junior detective. Theolodus Sinclair did like to chat, if one only found the right route to encourage his words to flow. “When did this case come to the attention of the force?”
“At dawn,” Sinclair answered readily. “A tramp made the discovery in an alley and came to the station, where he caused quite a commotion. It was first assumed to be ravings induced by alcohol, but he was so specific and insistent that two patrolmen were dispatched to investigate. One stayed there when it proved truth; the second hurried back to the station to alert the detectives.”
“Has the scene been disturbed?”
“Fortunately, no. For love or money, few but a drunken tramp will trespass into Poisoners’ Lane in Wattling.”
Poisoners’ Lane! Along the riverside in Wattling had long been a site of great industry and crushing poverty entwined, but the factories and tenements alike were now silent. The water was beginning to clear years later without fresh deposits of chemical waste dumped into it, but people had not returned to live there. The ground was poisoned, the bricks and wood and metal of the buildings, with kolymbium. Alchemy was the science of weak minds, resting upon its dubious laurels with phrenology and astrology and homeopathy, but likewise so powerful that it had arrested several city blocks in the matters of life entirely. The greatest devastation had been on Poisoners’ Lane itself. The half-life of kolymbium was very long indeed, and no one in Jesco’s lifetime would ever be able to dwell there.
“Is it safe for us to investigate?” Jesco asked in concern.
“Yes, not to worry,” Sinclair said. “We consulted the chemist on retainer as soon as we learned that it was not a tramp’s morbid fantasies. Safe to study the . . . scene, safe to take what evidence we may find, so long as it has not been there long.” His hanging cheeks drained of what little color they had regained. “As to the body, should it appear to have been there for some period of time, she suggested that we not let it linger overlong with the coroner. It should be examined and removed to the facility at Pine Cross post-haste. They have the means to deal with it there.”
“Did you see the tramp yourself?” Jesco asked. “Did you find him suspicious?”
“I spoke with him for more information immediately upon the return of the patrolman. I do not think he would report a man in whose departure from this world he was responsible.”
“Ah, but he wouldn’t be the first, would he? The Praying Mantis was such a sort: killing his victims, and then reporting the remains so that he might win accolades for finding them. That was before I began to assist, but I have heard of him in the station.”
Sinclair considered this as he glanced out the window to the shops. “The Mantis Man, yes, he had cold eyes. So cold, cold and flat, like twin lakes of ice beneath an overcast sky. I remember him well. His last strike happened in my third year at the station. His lips all a’tremble, he wrung his kerchief and looked like he was in the straits of utter misery as he relayed to us what he had found. But his eyes caught me again and again, those icy eyes that all his distress did not touch.”
This was one of the reasons that Sinclair had gotten the promotion. For all his delicate nature, he was keenly attuned to subtle incongruence, and that was a necessity in a homicide detective. The Praying Mantis had created his first discovery in his boyhood years and basked in the newspaper articles about his bravery. A cry! A most terrible cry he had heard in the night, but where others shrank in their beds, this brave son of a railroad engineer girded himself with blade and boots and sought it out in his nightdress. But too late, too late had he come to save the woman in the woods, whose body was blackening within a fire.
This had happened in the small town of Switch, and the unsolved murder obsessed all of western Ainscote for months. Then it faded, pushed into the background behind fresher crimes. The Praying Mantis moved far away from Switch, supplied himself with a new identity, and let Time carve him into a man. It was not until he was well into his thirties that he did it again, murdering a woman and dumping her body into a lake just before it froze over. In the spring, this clerk of haberdashery was in the news for spying something curious in the water and paddling a boat over to see what it was. A torso! That was all that remained. Once again, he basked in the attention of his gruesome find, and nobody connected the balding man who sold pins and bobbins to the son of the railroad engineer two decades in the past and hundreds of miles away.
Yet again he moved, changed his identity, and waited for Time to transform him. Sinclair had encountered him in his elder years, enormously fat and reeking of cigars, a respectable man of business with a wife and a son at university. Without the junior detective’s diffident assertions that all was not as it appeared, the murderer might have gotten away with it for a third time. Now the Praying Mantis in his dotage resided in a cell within Crofthollow Prison, and guards regularly relieved him of contraband in the form of articles about his crimes. The murders he had committed had only been a means to experience his true thrill of gaining attention, and that was the greatest atrocity of all.
Sinclair was also remembering the crimes of the cold-hearted murderer, and murmured, “Thrice! Thrice it turned out that he had done this. I cannot fathom it.” The carriage slowed, stopped, and picked up speed. He returned to the case at hand. “The tramp’s eyes were clear. A fallen man, a despairing man, but I believe him to be an honest man. He was much too intoxicated to be cunning. He was taking Poisoners’ Lane as a shortcut to reach the Archangel Micalo Indigent Home on Selbie Road. His aim was only for a cot to sleep the sunlight hours away. It’s a penny for a cot by night and a half-penny by day. If he had aught to do with this, it would be to my astonishment.”
Jesco trusted the detective’s instincts and they fell into silence. The scenery out the glass grew grimmer as the carriage came to Wattling, which was the poorest area in all of Cantercaster. Children in rags played in the lanes, wet from a recent rain, and drunks sagged against walls with bottles pinched between their thighs. A fellow in dirty but fine clothing came in ecstatic paroxysms to the carriage, where he pounded on the sides and ran alongside it with his feet kicking up the water from puddles. He shouted incoherently. Jesco caught a glimpse of his maddened eyes, which could not see in but that did not matter. The man was clearly soaring high upon the wings of rucaline, and he was seeing what was not there. Recoiling from the window, Sinclair said, “It cannot be weeded out, the twists and turns that bring that damned hallucinogenic here.”
“I know very little about rucaline. But they are brought to the asylum now and again, people ruined by it,” Jesco said. “They’re placed in another ward, so I do not often have dealings with them.” Sometimes he saw them strapped into wheelchairs, ostensibly being taken out for a pleasant stroll through the garden, but they were drooling, slant-eyed, and unaware of their surroundings.
Less shrinking in the matter of drug trafficking than he was with murder, Sinclair said, “Once, just once, can hook a soul upon rucaline forever. It is an evil made manifest. Grown in Brozzo to the south, and in the Sarasasta Islands, those lace flowers. The growers take care to keep their farms well hidden in the forests. The properties of the drug are in the seedpods, like opiates, but the effect is not at all similar. Picked, treated, and smuggled here in small cakes, they are shattered and sold and snorted. One small cake is worth many thousands of dollars since each individual dose is so miniscule. And never the same, its strength, and the strongest can relieve a person of all sensibilities permanently. The body lives on but the mind has vacated. The Drug Administration does what it can to staunch the flow of rucaline into the country. But where one head is cut off, three more sprout in its place.”