Rubies of Master Lo

Rubies of Master Lo

Chapter 4 of my dystopian/steampunk/urban fantasy/horror adventure is online over at Wattpad. Check it out for free!

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First chapter of my weird fiction novel “City of Shadows”

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Chapter 1

 

Shadows stalked him through the narrow alleys of Upper Lavorgna.

Stevrin hadn’t noticed at first, but the little noises he’d been detecting at the edge of his hearing had been growing steadily louder, closer, and there was no one else around. Something was following him.

There! A scrape behind him.

He whirled. Nothing —

No. A glimpse of shadow slipping away into the fog. Everything was fog and shadows. Clouds masked the stars overhead, and only one of the two moons peeked out, and that just a sliver.

Stevrin narrowed his eyes, trying to peer through the veil, but whoever or whatever was following him remained hidden.

Fuck this. Wrapping his hand around the knife he carried in his jacket pocket, he hurried on, down one alley, then another. Lit a cigarette to steady his nerves. He would lose whoever was after him soon enough. No one knew these streets better than he did.

Who could be after him? What? A fifteen-year-old orphan was easy pickings in this city, of course, but he wondered if it could be . . .

Forget it, Stev. Gotta get to the Warren. Lives depend on it.

The fog thickened, curling around red-brick buildings, dark mountains in the mist. Broken windows glared at Stevrin hungrily. Bomb craters rent the road in places, and several of the buildings showed long scars patched up by mortar or different-colored brick. The war had ended five years ago, but its memory lingered in every slab and fissure. Ahead, the three tall towers of the Ungrid Factory belched thick columns of filth into the sky. The fog massed around Stevrin, foul and cloying, and he spat out the acrid taste. He could feel every pebble through the thin soles of his shoes.

Skritch.

He spun. At first he saw nothing, just roils of slowly-churning vapor. He started to breathe a sigh of relief, then —

A shape.

It glided closer, tall and indistinct, stepping toward him out of the fog.

“Gave me a start,” Stevrin said, experimentally.

The figure stepped closer.

Stevrin ran. Leapt a fallen trashcan, whipped around a turn. Barreled into another figure coming the other way. Gasping, he stumbled back.

“Hey, bub, watch – ”

It grabbed at him.

He threw himself aside, slammed up against a wall. Rebounded quick as a cat and swiveled about, just in time to see the first one catching up to him.

He slipped under grasping arms, slashed out with his knife and bolted up the alley. Two sets of footsteps pattered after him. He sprinted hard and fast, ducked down a street, then an alley, then up another street.

“I don’t have any money!” he shouted over his shoulder.

They kept coming.

Stevrin rounded the final bend and the Warren reared out of the fog like some mythical castle. Once it had been a block of brownstones, but Urzbein bombs had gutted the interior and killed or driven off most of the residents during the war. None lived there now but Dr. Reynalt and his more successful experiments. This part of town had yet to receive electric light-posts, and ghostly-white gas lamps lit Dreb Street at irregular intervals, mere blotches of paleness in the gloom.

Stevrin bounded up the short flight of stairs and pounded the thick metal door, grabbing the big brass knocker and smashing for all he was worth.

“Let me in, you bastards!”

Noises behind him.

Three dark shapes half materialized out of the fog, coming closer.

“Come on!” he said, kicking the door. “Open!”

Closer . . .

The small metal panel in the door slid away and a pair of mismatched eyes glared out. One was red and one was blue.

“You again.” The voice was brusque and rasping.

“Open up you cocksucker!”

The eyes narrowed.

The shapes were almost on him.

There was a pop, a scrape, and the door swung open with a squeal. Gasping, Stevrin lunged through and shouldered the door shut behind him. With shaking fingers, he shot the bolts home, and as each one locked it issued a satisfying bang.

He half expected the door to burst open and the pursuers to flood in after him, but when nothing happened he slumped against the wall, panting. Sweat streamed down his face and soaked his hair. Shivers coursed up and down his spine. His legs shook. His chest rose and fell. His heart beat crazily. He stood in a dark, musty hall.

“What is it, lad?”

Stevrin sucked in a deep breath, looked at Maynard and grimaced. One of Dr. Reynalt’s highest assistants, Maynard was a sour-faced man, seemingly of middle years, in out-of-date formal attire. Long, stringy hair fringed his bald dome, which was composed of grayish, unhealthy skin, like that of his face. Dead skin. It looked to have been fashioned from at least three different sheets of slightly different colored flesh, and at each joining ran a line of neat stitches. Maynard’s right hand and left hand were slightly different sizes, and colors.

“Shit,” said Stevrin, “I never thought I’d look forward to seeing your ugly mug, Maynard, you bastard.”

Concern touched the manservant’s mismatched eyes. “It was them, wasn’t it? Did you see ‘em, lad? Tell me!” As he spoke, he looked through the eye-hole.

“They stayed in the shadows. Never got a clean look at ‘em.”

Maynard swore. Evidently the pursuers had gone. Turning back to Stevrin, he said, “Think it’s them — whoever’s been taking people?”

Stevrin hesitated, then nodded. “Has to be. They weren’t after money, and if they were rapists I don’t think they’d be so . . . organized. It was them. Hell, I almost got to find out what they were up to first-hand.”

“I’ll send some of the boys after ‘em. Scare ‘em off if they’re still around. Maybe catch ‘em and put the screws to ‘em.”

“I’d like to watch the screws part.” Stevrin took a breath, forced himself to straighten. “I need to see the doc.”

“Yar, I guess ya do, laddie. Ya wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“This shit’s got to end. If it doesn’t, the Div — ”

“Yar. Come on.”

Maynard led Stevrin down the hall. Two homunculi, tall and gangly, listed from opposite walls, their mouths agape, hands closing and unclosing. Like all homuncs, they looked like blackened human corpses. Centuries ago alchemists had built the creatures in miniature, but over time they’d mushroomed until now they were as large or larger than those they served. The chemical-and-herb reek of the beings filled the hall.

“Git!” Maynard told them sharply. Collars about the two homunculi’s necks sprouted chains that connected with bolts in the walls.

Feeling his skin crawl, Stevrin sidled his way past them, looking with dread into their lifeless, waxen faces. He couldn’t tell if there was any real soul behind their eyes, but he doubted it. The Guild of Alchemists made them from earth and herbs and gods-knew-what-else. The homunculi were thus the black of rich earth and utterly alien. Like the bodies, the faces had been carved to resemble men’s, but the carving had been rudimentary and more for form than function. They didn’t need to eat, or breathe, or smell, and yet they possessed the required apparatuses. Their eyes were the only things truly organic on them — human eyes, rolling in black sockets — eyes taken, Stevrin had always been told, from unclaimed corpses. Gods knew there were enough of them in Lavorgna.

The stolen eyes watched him, unblinking.

“Magnar on a stick,” he grumbled. “I hate those things. Why does the doc even use ‘em, anyway? He’s got the likes of you, doesn’t he? No offense.”

The likes of me aren’t to be used as guard dogs,” Maynard said. “And trust me, laddie, there’s nothin’ you could do to offend me.”

“I’ll work on that.” With nervous hands, Stevrin lit another cigarette.

Maynard met up with a fellow Returner and whispered in his ear, Stevrin supposed about scaring off the bastards that had chased him. That done, Maynard showed Stevrin down one hall, then another. The Warren did not disappoint in being twisting and labyrinthine. Doctor Reynalt occupied the portions of the block that were still livable, and he’d had his people clear the sections out and even use the detritus to shore up and rebuild part of the structures that had been ruined by Urzbein bombs. He’d designed elaborate staircases and galleys and large open ballroom-type areas that resembled something more out of a palace than a brownstone.

Maynard didn’t take Stevrin through these more posh areas at the moment, though, to Stevrin’s disappointment. The manservant led in one main, regrettable direction: down.

“Hells,” Stevrin said. The doc was at work again.  .

An oil lantern hung on a wall near a spiraling stairway. Maynard plucked it from the wall in one hand, snatched Stevrin’s smoke out of his mouth — “Hey!” — with the other, and pressed it to the wick. Light flared. Shadows retreated.

“Son of a bitch,” said Stevrin.

Maynard grinned maliciously and shoved the smoke back into Stevrin’s fingers. There were still a few drags left, but the cigarette was crumpled and stained by Maynard’s dirty, oily fingers.

“Thanks for nothing,” Stevrin said, and flicked it away.

Maynard showed the way down a flight of steps to another metal doorway. Not for the first time, Stevrin found himself amazed by Dr. Reynalt’s security measures. He must fear the Guild of Alchemists a great deal, even more so than most people. After rapping on the door and being admitted, Maynard ushered Stevrin into the chamber beyond.

Though he’d seen it before, Stevrin felt his eyes widen, his breath quicken. The doctor’s laboratory occupied a large, domed room, stuffed with vast machines and equipment too complicated for Stevrin to take in all at once, or even several times. Toward the center of the chaos two great, bulky towers crackled with sparks high up top. A long, tubular construct snaked along the wall, making coughing, chugging noises. One wall was enclosed behind glass and featured a great mound of corpses and body parts kept cool by jetting gasses that made the wall look frosted. From a series of consoles, smoke belched up. It all stank of lightning, death, and grease.

A corpse lay on a slab between the sparking towers, strapped down and covered in nodes with wires sprouting from what looked like every inch of its body.

Dr. Reynalt stood over the slab, fastening on nodes, while a team of servants aided him. Some spun dials or punched buttons. Many looked hunched and misshapen. One had three arms. One had no lower jaw but a tube jutting up from its throat and sticking out past its upper jaw. A steel plate covered half of another’s head.

But of them all, though he was truly alive, the doctor stood out most – tall, proud, with dark hair and thick eyebrows, possessed of intense dark eyes lit by feverish energy, agleam by the light of spitting electrodes. He smiled savagely as he stared down at the thing on the slab: the corpse of a stocky, swarthy man — a corpse unmade and then remade, but not with all the same parts.

Drawing close, Stevrin nearly gagged at the stench of all the dead ones, or the near-dead ones, combined in this tight space, and he coughed against his hand.

Alerted by the sound, Dr. Reynalt wheeled on him.

“You!” A lock of sweaty hair fell over his high brow. “You’d better not be checking up on me, boy. I don’t appreciate being checked up on.”

“Not why I’m here. There’s — ”

“Good! Then you’ve arrived most propitiously. It’s almost ready.” He gestured Stevrin forward. “Just look! In moments I will prevail over the death-bitch once again.”

Stevrin blew a cloud of smoke into his face. Maynard chuckled.

“We’ll see,” Stevrin said. “The last ones didn’t work out so well, did they?”

Dr. Reynalt scowled, looking momentarily troubled. “This one will be different,” he said, softly, emphatically, as if to convince himself.

Stevrin shrugged. “Not why I’m here.”

The doctor was hardly listening. He turned back to the thing on the slab, and the procedure resumed. Electricity crackled from the towering machines, and Stevrin’s hair stood on end from all the static in the air. He sucked on his cigarette as Reynalt ordered the slab raised, and Stevrin stared in fascination as the body ascended directly into the vortex of energy crackling and hissing and sparking between the great nodes of the towers. He could imagine the energy channeling into the gleaming silver mechanism installed in the corpse’s chest, the mechanism that served as engine and heart for the being.

As if on cue, the body arched, and a piercing scream echoed off the stone walls of the laboratory. The various servants of Reynalt hooted and cried out.

“Get him down!” Dr. Reynalt said, and his servants obeyed. Gears banged, chains rattled, and the metal bed lowered creaking back into place, but now the body strapped to it moved. Stevrin had seen the procedure a handful of times, but it never failed to unnerve him. What had been a cold piece of meat just moments before now stirred with life. Its eyes rolled frantically in their sockets, and a low moan escaped its lips.

Dr. Reynalt bent over the figure, which strained at its straps, and patted it on the head. “Welcome back to the world, my friend.”

The thing growled at him, there was no other word for it. There was little human in the creature’s eyes, only pain, and hate, and anger.

“Doctor — ” Stevrin started.

Dr. Reynalt saw it too. Just as the thing that had recently been a corpse lunged up and snapped at the doctor’s face, he jerked backward. Sweat flew from his brow, and his eyes went wide.

Maynard put a hand on his shoulder. “You okay, Doc?”

Reynalt nodded shakily and regained his composure. Stevrin saw there was sadness in his eyes, not fear or anger. “Damn.” He wiped sweat from his forehead. “I thought we might have saved this one.” In a lower tone of voice, almost a whisper, he added, “Why do they keep fighting me? All the procedures were correct . . .”

The creature on the slab mewled and groaned, struggling against his leather restraints, but they were too strong.

“Power them down,” Reynalt ordered, indicating the machines that still crackled overhead, and in moments the roar and spark faded. Stevrin’s hair still stood on end, and he attempted to slick the curly, beer-colored tangle back into place, but it didn’t want to stay down  He sighed.

The doctor issued a few more orders, then stood staring dejectedly at the Returner.

Stevrin vaguely remembered the man — Tollie, he thought his name was. Stevrin knew Dr. Reynalt made a fortune out of returning the loved ones of the rich and mighty to consciousness, but Tollie was not such a case. Would that he were. No, there was a much different and far less wholesome reason that Reynalt had been hired to bring Tollie back.

Dr. Reynalt glanced at Stevrin, as if just remembering he was there, and grunted. “Well, I suppose you can tell your mistress I failed once again. I’ve never run into such a streak of luck.”

“Your new pet ain’t why I’m here.”

A look of comprehension came over Dr. Reynalt’s face. “Don’t tell me . . . ”

Stevrin nodded. He flicked his gaze to the body on the slab, then looked back at the doctor. “There’s been another one. If we hurry, we can still get to it in time.”

 

 

 

They arrived at the Divinity through the Below. Melias, pretty and seventeen, met them in the sub-basements, then showed them through the much-brighter halls of the temple proper. Stevrin had to blink his eyes at the brilliance after so long in the tunnels.

“Good job bringing the doctor in a timely fashion, by the way,” she told Stevrin over her shoulder.

“Yeah, well,” he said. “Nearly got killed an’ all.”
“Really?” Stevrin relished the trace (only a trace) of worry that edged into her voice. “Be more careful next time, Stevvie.”

Stevvie. He cringed. He succumbed to an embarrassing crush on Melias years ago, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“Anyway, why can’t you just send me in a car?” he said.

“If we could use a car we wouldn’t need you, would we?” she said. “The whole idea is not to attract attention. That’s why you had to come here through the Below. No one must know what we’re doing.”

“We’re not going to the bedrooms this time,” Dr. Reynalt noted.

“The client apparently didn’t want to do it there,” Melias said. “We’re still trying to work out which Sister he was the guest of. Anyway, the body’s this way.”

The Grand Temple of the Most Divine Hyalith was, of course, a whorehouse. Once, Stevrin knew, it had been the main temple of the Hyalithins, a peaceful people that had apparently made the mistake of speaking out against the Order of Yreg-ngad, a rival cult. Long after the Hyalithins had been killed off, Agatha and the whores had taken over. They’d done a hell of a job restoring the place in the fifty years since. The halls were high and white, with intricate scrollwork, and the newly-installed electricity boasted of brisk business. Silken swatches of fabric overhung the electric lamps so that the light they cast was soft and colored — sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes green. It was like walking through a dream.

“Ah, look, it’s little Dottie,” Melias said, bending down to pet a ginger cat, and Stevrin admired the way she did so. He didn’t miss the look of interest in Dr. Reynalt’s eyes, either. Melias had become quite the star of the Divinity recently, and it was easy to see why. Stevrin had to check himself from snapping at the doctor to put his eyes back in his head.

They moved on, cats prowling the hallways around them, slinking around the corners. The so-called Sisters of the Divinity fed the local strays, and the pests were always lurking about, tripping Stevrin up.

In the distance, jazzy music played, and girlish laughter tinkled. The noise came from the parlor, where the Sisters entertained johns.

“Almost puts one in the mood for dancing,” Dr. Reynalt said, nodding his head in time to the beat.

“Yar, shoulda brought me dancing shoes,” said Maynard, shoving the Returner before him — Tollie. Stevrin wasn’t sure why Reynalt had wanted the creature brought along, but he was glad it was hooded and bound, and that several of Reynalt’s servants had accompanied them . . . and that they’d brought guns. A collar around Tollie’s neck connected to a rod, and Maynard gripped it tightly with both mismatched hands.

“Here we are,” said Melias, leading them into the solarium.

Had this been daytime, sunlight would have shone down through the arching glass canopy, but now only the stars and one moon wheeled overhead, and they were mostly hidden behind the creeping black smog. Melias showed Stevrin and Dr. Reynalt’s company past the throng of Sisters (there must have been thirty) that had gathered, Stevrin supposed out of morbid curiosity, to a certain stretch of marble floor.

There the dead man sprawled surrounded by winter-blooming plants, red and gold and pink. The solarium had been converted into a sort of greenhouse, and it was warm and fragrant. The dead man was, or had been, or would be (if Dr. Reynalt could get him going again) tall, wiry, with a receding hairline and a plum-colored birthmark on his right cheek. As there was no electricity in the solarium, torch-light and lamp-light threw a hellish glow on the corpse and made fire seem to dance in its glassy, staring eyes.

Immediately, Stevrin could tell this one was different from the others.

“He’s got his guts out,” he said, to no one in particular.

Dr. Reynalt harrumphed. “Indeed he does.”

Like the previous victims, the dead man had been slit like a fish from his crotch to his sternum, but unlike them his intestines lay on the floor, arrayed about him like a halo. They almost looked like nightmarish wings fanning the air, as though he were some angel winging through the night. He didn’t smell like an angel, though. He smelled like shit. A few flies buzzed about him, lighting on his still-glistening guts. Several scented candles jutted from the bloody floor, surely placed there by the Sisters to mask the stench.

They didn’t work very well. Melias wrinkled her nose and waved a fan before her face, and Stevrin longed for a cigarette to drive away the odor. He’d been tasked with carrying a lantern and a satchel of alchemical ice, and he sat his burdens down and eagerly fired up a smoke. Dr. Reynalt showed no reaction, but he was probably used to such smells.

Maynard leered down at the spread-eagled, gut-encircled corpse. “Some choice parts in there, I reckon,” he said, “if’n he don’t wake up properly. Hear that?” he said to Tollie, giving the creature a good shake. “You don’t behave we’ll take ya apart for spares.” He started to chuckle, but a sharp look from Melias shut him up.

“He was a client of mine,” she reminded him. “Even if he was a gangster and a son of a bitch.”

“You found him like this?” Reynalt asked her, indicating the body on the floor.

She nodded hesitantly. “He was found like this, but it wasn’t me. Vallie?”

Even more hesitatingly, a girl about Stevrin’s age or younger stepped out from the gathering of Sisters. Pretty but pale, with long curly black hair, she had huge dark eyes rimmed with redness, as though she’d been crying recently. Stevrin recognized her as a runaway who’d been adopted by the Sisters last year. Until recently she’d lived in the Roost, like Stevrin and the rest of the orphans.

Nervously, obviously afraid of Dr. Reynalt, she edged over to Melias, who wrapped a protective arm around her.

“Tell him what happened, dear,” Melias said.

Nodding, Vallie — Vallissa, Stevrin had heard was her full name — said, “I was just comin’ out from a . . . a date, you know, and wanted a little privacy.” To cry, Stevrin heard, though she didn’t say it. He knew the life of a prostitute was a difficult adjustment for most girls, especially the young. He hadn’t been aware Vallie had even started yet. Most girls didn’t start so early, not here. “I was taking a look at the stars, what you can see of them. That’s when I tripped over something. ” She nodded to a footprint in the tangled mess of the dead man’s intestines. “I must have screamed loud enough to wake half the Sisterhood.”

Reynalt nodded understandingly, and Melias patted the girl’s head. “Thank you, dear,” she said. “You can go.”

Vallissa withdrew, but not before throwing Stevrin a sidelong glance — and, to his surprise, a small smile. Then she was gone. She wasn’t bad-looking, he supposed, but compared with the voluptuous Melias . . .

The doctor knelt beside the corpse and inspected a tattoo on its forearm — a stylized shark. When Stevrin saw it, he swore.

“That’s one of Boss Sorris’s men,” he said.

Dr. Reynalt arched his eyebrows. “So it is.”

“What?” Melias said. “What am I missing?”

When her eyes fell on Stevrin, inviting him to explain, he looked down at his battered shoes and said, “Well, so far all four bodies’ve been from different Bosses. You gotta figure they’re used to losin’ a man here or there, but they start to lose more’n one, well, they’re gonna start lookin’ around. And the first body found was a Sorris man. This one makes two.”

“Oh.” Melias looked pale. “I see.”

The other Sisters muttered among themselves, and Stevrin noted fearful tones, and for good reason. Madam Agatha was independent, unaffiliated with any Boss. That was the whole purpose of the Divinity, that the girls were free. And since this was the Commons, an area where several Bosses’ territories met, it had been constantly warred over for many years and no one Boss had ever successfully been able to lay claim to it — thus strengthening Agatha’s position. She and her original crew of prostitutes had vowed never to serve under a Boss again.

It also meant that they didn’t have a Boss to protect them.

“The Bosses don’t talk much with each other, of course,” Dr. Reynalt added, “otherwise they’d have already realized something was amiss. But now all it will take is for Boss Sorris to ask his boys where this one went off to tonight, and if it’s the same answer he got when he asked where the first one went off to . . .”

The fearful murmuring among the gathering intensified. Stevrin felt sickly.

It was in this attitude of apprehension that a loud throat cleared imperiously, and the gathering quieted on the instant. Immediately a path formed through the prostitutes, and all turned to regard the august presence of the leader of the Sisterhood, Madam Agatha de Mar.

“Good evening, Doctor,” she said. Tall and thin, draped in black mink, she was ancient, but her emerald green eyes still radiated fire and power. Her makeup was heavily but artfully applied, and her expensive perfume had been laden copiously. She smoked a cigarette, a dark, fragrant affair perched on a long-stemmed cigarette holder, and she tapped its ash onto the floor with regal ease. In her other hand she gripped an iron-tipped cane.

“Good evening,” Dr. Reynalt returned, smooth as ice, even as flies attended their gory feast below him.

“I see you’ve found Jaek there.”

“Was that his name?”

She inclined her head. “Jaek Colter, a high man on the Sorris ladder. Been comin’ round here for the last few years. Though not happily.”

“He liked to use his fists as much as his cock,” Melias said. “We banned him once for six months. We only let him back so as not to anger Boss Sorris.”

“Then I won’t feel too badly for him,” Reynalt said.

“Nor should you.” Agatha blew a dramatic cloud of smoke at the ceiling. Everyone watched her, awed by her sheer presence. Stevrin was impressed by how she could command a scene with such a simple prop. He renewed smoking with a new outlook.

Agatha’s eyes flicked to Tollie. “More money down the drain, I see. That’s the fourth one that hasn’t Awakened properly.”

Reynalt winced. “Not my best streak of luck, I admit. Hopefully this one will be different.” He patted Jaek’s chest, then gestured to Maynard, who seamlessly passed him a saw. With no further ado, Reynalt started sawing away at the corpse’s neck without a thought to any onlookers. Some of the Sisters gasped. One retched. Madam Agatha looked cool as could be.

A bit of blood spattered the doctor’s face and ran down his lips. He actually licked some off. “Interesting arrangement,” he continued conversationally, as his arm moved back and forth. He indicated the spread-out intestines with his chin. “The others were gutted, too, but their guts had been folded neatly, stuffed back in and their bodies rolled over by the time they were found — to conceal this macabre detail, I imagine.”

“Indeed,” said Agatha. The two spoke as if there were no one else in the room.

“The murderess must have been disturbed before she could finish — by Vallie, I imagine — or at least before she could hide what she’d been doing to the body,” he went on. “But why spread out the intestines in such a manner? It seems not only ghoulish but somehow . . . ritualistic.”

Agatha raised her eyebrows, simultaneously blowing out another fragrant cloud. “Any thoughts?” There was an unusual edge to her voice.

He stared at her for a moment, then: “No. As a matter of fact.”

That seemed to gratify her. “Typical. Well, you’d better hope that one wakes up better than the others. I really don’t know what we’re paying you for. If you can’t wake one of these bastards up and get him to tell you who killed him, I simply must rethink this whole arrangement. I’m not made of money, you know, much as the tabloids would have you believe otherwise.”

“Come now, Agatha. You know I don’t charge full price when my labors aren’t met with success — unlike yourself,” he added with a small smile.

She returned the smile, just as small. “My customers are never unsatisfied.”

He chuckled.

“The killer must be outed,” Agatha went on. “Even now one of the Bosses might be getting suspicious.”

“Quite,” Reynalt agreed, with just the hint of a grunt. Sweat streamed down his brow. “A renegade prostitute killing johns is bad enough, but when the johns are powerful Bosses’ men — ah!”

The head popped free, and he held it up by the hair, grinning. Only a few droplets of blood fell from the ragged neck wound.

“Stevrin,” he called.

“What? Oh.” Stevrin shook himself. He’d been hypnotized by staring into the eyes of the dead man. Self-consciously, aware of many living eyes on him, he shoved the ice-filled satchel toward Reynalt, and Reynalt stuffed the head inside.

“That should do for the brain. Now for the rest.” Reynalt stood, wiped his sweat-soaked brow, and handed the bloody saw to Maynard. “Do for the arms and legs, would you?”

“If I must.” Grumbling, Maynard bent over the corpse and continued what the doctor had begun. Stevrin knew they would whittle the body down into easily transportable and concealable pieces.

Tollie growled and shook his head, as if to rid himself of the hood. Dr. Reynalt’s gaze swung from Agatha to the huddled group of Sisters. Then he stared at Tollie. “I think now might be the opportune moment.”

“For what?” Agatha said.

Reynalt ripped off Tollie’s hood. As Tollie blinked his eyes, Reynalt swept a hand toward the prostitutes.

“Does anyone look familiar?”

Tollie stared eagerly around the room, fixing the women with his horrid gaze. Slaver bubbled on his lips and ran down over his chin. A growl worked its way up from deep in his chest.

“That’s right,” Reynalt said. “Do you see anyone that you might hold a grudge against? Someone, perhaps, that stabbed you to death a few nights ago?”

He growled louder, drooling.

The prostitutes cursed and backed up.

Agatha stomped a high-heeled foot. “Really, Doctor, this is quite obscene. Dare you sic that thing on my girls?”

“It’s what you hired me for, isn’t it? To have one of the victims identify its killer. Perhaps even a poorly Awakened one will serve the purpose. It has eyes, does it not, and a brain, however addled?”

While Maynard had gone to carve up the fresh corpse, the custody of Tollie had been relinquished to one of the gun-toting subordinates. The subordinate, however, insisted on retaining hold of his gun and thus only held the rod that bound Tollie with one hand. When Tollie’s eyes suddenly bulged and it lunged forward with reckless energy, the rod jerked free of the subordinate’s hand, pulling the man off balance so that he flopped flat on his face.

The creature rushed the Sisters. Screaming, they fell back.

Its hands were tied behind its back, but its mouth was free, and it snapped its teeth lustily. Incongruously adroit for a corpse, it leapt the headless body on the floor and alit on the other side, slipping for a moment in the guts, then righting itself and lurching onward. Whether it wanted to eat the girls or rape them remained unclear.

The doctor’s servants leveled their guns, but Reynalt shouted, “No! You’ll hit the girls!”

The doctor himself lunged at Tollie’s feet, but it was too fast, and he struck the floor skidding in the tacky blood.

Stevrin, with speed that impressed even himself, whipped out his knife and flung it at the creature’s back. The blade struck the thing and embedded to the hilt near the creature’s spine. The blow would have stopped an ordinary man. The creature, however, continued rushing the Sisters.

Thinking fast, Stevrin jumped at the discarded hood and snatched it up.

The women shifted and surged backward, nearly stampeding. Their screams filled the chamber. Tollie was almost on them.

A lone figure rose before the creature, brandishing a cane. Madam Agatha gave an enraged bellow and brought her cane down hard on Tollie’s forehead. Crack! Even before the blow landed, the creature had slowed, recoiling at her sudden presence.

Simultaneously, Reynalt and Stevrin grabbed its collar-rod. With one hand, Stevrin tugged the hood over Tollie’s head. Quickly the Returner quieted.

“Mad bugger,” Maynard said, and cuffed Tollie on the head.

The girls collected themselves and edged back toward Agatha, taking refuge behind her as if this old woman were the Divinity itself. Eyes flashing, Agatha said, “I think you should pack your bags and go now, Doctor — with all due haste.”

Reynalt, his face pale and slicked with sweat, nodded wordlessly. He glanced at Maynard, who returned to the fresh corpse. The manservant swore but resumed sawing.

“In just a moment, Madam,” Reynalt assured her. “In just a moment.”

Stevrin frowned, still puzzling over Tollie’s charge. He looked from the doctor to Tollie, then from Tollie to Agatha, and his frown deepened.