Book excerpt

The Executioner's Heart

Newbury & Hobbes

George Mann

Tor/Forge

 

CHAPTER 1

LONDON, MARCH 1903

 

The ticking was all she could hear.

Like the ominous beating of a hundred mechanised hearts—syncopated, chaotic—it filled the small room, counting away the seconds, measuring her every breath. A carnival of clockwork, a riot of cogs.

She realised she was holding her breath and let it out. She peered further into the dim room from the doorway, clutching the wooden frame. The paintwork was smooth and cold beneath her fingers.

The room was lit only by the flickering light of a gas lamp on a round table in the centre of the space. A warm orange glow seeped from beneath the half-open lamp shutters, casting long shadows that seemed to carouse and dance of their own volition.

The air was thick with a dank, musty odour. She wrinkled her nose in distaste. The room probably hadn’t been aired for years, perhaps even decades. Most of the windows had long ago been boarded over or bricked up, hidden away to keep the outside world at bay. Or, she mused, to prevent whoever lived inside from looking out. Clearly, the hotel had fallen on hard times long before the accident had put it out of business.

The décor reflected the fashions of the previous century, an echo of life from fifty or a hundred years earlier. Now the once-elegant sideboard, the gilt-framed mirror, the sumptuous chaise longue, were all covered in a thick layer of powdery dust, which bloomed in little puffs as she crept into the room, particles swirling in the air around her. There was evidence that rodents had nested in the soft furnishings, pulling the downy innards from the cushions and leaving their spoor scattered like seeds across the floorboards. There was a sense of abandonment about the place, as if whoever had once lived here had up and left, leaving everything in situ for her to find years later. She could almost believe the place had remained like that, untouched until now, if it hadn’t been for the clocks.

All around her the walls were adorned with them. More clocks than she had ever seen, crowding every inch of space, their ivory faces looming down at her from wherever she looked. There were small clocks and large clocks, fine antiques and dirty, broken remnants. Spectacular, gilded creations from the finest workshops of Paris and St. Petersburg, discarded junk from the rubbish tips of London, each of them slowly meting out the seconds like chattering gatekeepers, each in disagreement with the others. To her there was something ominous about them, something wrong.

She crossed to the table in the centre of the room. The sounds of her movements were muffled by the constant, oppressive ticking, which threatened to overwhelm her, making her feel dizzy and unsure of herself. The noise rung in her ears, drowning out everything, even her thoughts. She fought the urge to flee, reaching instead for the gas lamp and flipping up the shutters.

Light erupted from the lamp in a bright halo, flooding the room. Everything became indistinct, hazy, as she waited for her gloom-adjusted eyes to grow accustomed to the light, and at first she had to squint to see. Ghostly shapes and hulking shadows took on new forms now that the darkness was dispelled: a dresser where a lurking presence had been, a chair where previously some nightmarish creature had crouched in wait. The light gave her strength. She absorbed it.

She sensed sudden movement behind her and spun around, but there was only a wide fan of dust drifting in the still air, most likely disturbed by her own frantic movements. Nevertheless, she felt uneasy. Was someone in the room with her? Were they skulking somewhere in the shadows, watching even now?

She hefted the lamp from the table and turned in a slow circle, considering the room. There was evidence that someone had slept there recently: a heap of scarlet cushions on the floorboards in the far left corner, the faint impression of a human body still evident upon them. Beside these lay a number of discarded food wrappers, cast aside and left for the rodents to nose through at their leisure. Whoever it was, they were clearly accustomed to sleeping rough, although how anyone could sleep at all with the constant chattering of the clocks, she did not know.

She was beginning to wish that she hadn’t come alone. This was not, she told herself, an admission of weakness, but simply a matter of practicality. If anything happened to her here, no one would come looking. Or rather, they would have no notion of where to find her. She might end up like one of those missing young women reported with alarming regularity in The Times, nothing but a brief description and a desperate plea for information, for witnesses, for hope. Or worse, like one of those artefacts announced in the columns of the lost and found, misplaced and much-lamented, but lost forever to the annals of time. She was adamant that this would not be her fate. She should have left word of her intentions and her whereabouts, but she no longer trusted the men she had once confided in. The men she had once considered incorruptible. Their duplicity had confounded her, had left her with few options of how to proceed. She no longer understood their motivations. There was an irony to be found in that, but she took no comfort from it.

Movement again. This time she was sure it was more than just the hands of the clocks describing their ceaseless, monotonous circles; there was another presence in the room. She twisted around sharply, the gas lamp still clutched in her left hand so that her sudden movement set it rocking wildly back and forth in her grip. One of the shutters snapped closed. Strobing columns of light flickered to and fro as she searched the room, creating stuttering snatches of light and dark, a series of jaunty stills that flashed before her eyes.

Her heart was in her mouth. She glanced nervously from side to side. And then she saw it. A glimpse of something half-expected, frozen for the briefest of moments as the lamp swung around, framing it, capturing it for a second in its shimmering rays.

There was a face in the darkness. It was ghostly white, stark in the orange lamplight, with terrifying black eyes that seemed to bore directly into her. There was accusation in that stare. Envy, even. As if the woman hated her simply for being alive.

The woman’s brown hair had been roughly hacked off, short and unkempt, and every inch of her exposed skin had been tattooed with elaborate whorls and eddies, with runic symbols and arcane pictograms. Thin traceries of precious metals had been inlaid in the soft flesh of her cheeks, glinting with reflected light.

One moment the face was there, the next it had gone, swallowed by the gloom as the lamp continued its pendulous motion, swinging back and forth, back and forth.

She braced herself, fighting panic, and raised the lamp in the vague hope that she might catch another glimpse of her quarry. She had come here in search of answers, but instead she had happened upon this murderess, the woman they had hunted through the mist-shrouded alleyways of London, from crime scene to exhibition hall, from the revenant-infested slums to the splendour of Buckingham Palace itself. But now, somehow, she felt like she was the prey. It was as if their roles had been reversed, as if by coming here to this half-ruined hotel with its ticking, clockwork heart, she had altered the relationship between hunter and hunted.

She felt the ghost of movement to her left, of disturbed air currents brushing past her cheek. She turned, swinging the lantern around, but there was nothing to see, only darkness and clocks. The woman was toying with her.

A shiver passed unbidden down her spine. She felt for the grip of the pistol tucked in her belt. Her fingers closed around it and she tugged it free. The wooden butt was smooth and worn, the metal cold against her palm. She hated the thing, hated that she’d used it to kill people, harnessed its violence to snuff lives out of existence. No matter that she had done so to protect herself and others; it was still an odious tool for an odious job, a constant reminder of the terrible things she had done. Was she really any better than the woman who was lurking in the darkness? Did the fact that she had acted in pursuit of a just cause make any difference whatsoever?

She heard the scuff of a boot against the dusty floorboards behind her and knew it was time. She would bring an end to this now. She raised the pistol and swung around, launching the lamp in the direction of the sound, then snapping out two brisk shots. The lamp clattered noisily against the wall, missing its target and dislodging a cluster of timepieces, which skittered across the floorboards in a chaotic jumble. The light guttered and blinked out, shrouding the room in a heavy cloak of darkness.

She clutched the pistol, her hand trembling. Had she hit her mark? She didn’t think so. She couldn’t hear anything other than the strangely symphonic chattering of the clocks and the thumping of her own heartbeat, pounding relentlessly in her ears.

She twisted from side to side, drawing the nose of the pistol through the musty air as if it could somehow cleave a path through the darkness or divine the location of her adversary.

For a moment she did nothing, standing alert and still, waiting to see if the woman would make a move. There was nothing else she could do. She’d lost all sense of her bearings in the immaculate darkness. She had no idea of where the doorway might be or which direction she was facing.

She started as she felt something touch her cheek: the cool, almost gentle caress of a metal blade. Involuntarily her arm came up in defence, knocking the other woman’s hand aside. She aimed a kick in the same direction, hoping to take the woman’s legs out from beneath her, but her enemy was still toying with her and had already danced off, melting away into the darkness.

She grunted in frustration. She had almost overbalanced with the momentum of her kick, and had to throw her arms out wide to stop herself from falling.

She righted herself a moment later, feeling a strange tightness in her chest. Was she having trouble breathing? It was as if she suddenly had a heavy weight bearing down on her, preventing her from drawing breath.

She gasped for air ineffectually and felt panic beginning to well up inside her. Her left hand went to her chest, exploring, as if drawn there, and she realised with dawning horror that something was protruding from it, right above her heart. With realisation came pain, a sharp, excruciating pain the like of which she had never experienced before. Her head swam, and she thought she was going to swoon. Her world began to close in around her. All she could think about was the blossoming pain and the long metal blade buried deep in her rib cage.

She screamed, a deep, guttural scream of horror and frustration and shock. She screamed so loudly that her throat felt raw and hot and bloody, so loudly that it drowned out even the noise of the clocks and the pain in her chest and the pounding in her head.

She toppled, falling backwards into the darkness, barely aware of the ground coming up to meet her.

There was no sign of the woman, but she imagined those black eyes watching her, boring into her, standing over her.

“Veronica?”

Veronica Hobbes heard her name being called, but the frantic voice sounded distant, and the pain in her chest had bloomed in intensity until it was all she could see; a bright, white light of pain, blotting out everything else.

“Veronica?”

Somehow, Newbury had found her. Somehow, remarkably, he had known she was there. But her last thought before the white light swallowed her was that he was far too late.

Veronica was already dead.

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by George Mann

  GEORGE MANN is the author of the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations, beginning with The Affinity Bridge, and other works of fiction including Ghosts of Manhattan and official Doctor Who tie-in material. He edited the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction anthology series and The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.