Little Anne Exely pulled herself onto the ragged parapet, powdery stone sprinkling her bare knees, dabbling a dozen existing scabs. She looked out with an inhalation of wonder. There, the city vast, brown clouds pumping from the steam stacks over the stone lowlands. The sun ducked low, still a few dwindling minutes until it bid farewell. Frowning, she cocked her head, leaning out over green copper gutters.
Where was the golem? Her climb had been matched with the steady squeak, squeal, stomp of its progress to the smelting yard. Grandpa Finn would be upset if she lost Model Eight on its primary test run, given the finely tuned brass internals. She imagined him shaking his bony finger, flinging black grease in every direction.
“There he is…” Anne muttered, wiping a grimy strand of pink from her eyes, craning her neck to eyeball the hunched contraption. Taller than a man, it loped with a heavy step, each brass-clad boot yanked upwards by the tension of a dozen strong springs, fastened to a rotating steel cog. It’s head was fitted with ground lenses and mirror, filtering sight into a deductive prism. Beyond that only Grandpa Finn knew.
A warm breeze kicked up, propelling with it the scent of the kilns and factories, coal soot and roast meat, and a shower of pebbles rained down onto the courtyard cobblestones. Model Eight rotated with a long groan, directing the lenses in her direction. She waved with a sheepish smile. The golem appeared to nod, turned and resumed its march.
Above the empty courtyard, Anne vaulted the gap to an adjacent rooftop, cleanly sailing over the Model Eight, it’s helm gleaming gold. With a roll, she slowed herself, arching back around.
“Come on big guy! The exchange is just a few more blocks.”
After sunset the golem would be little more than a simple windup – unable to navigate with any sense of sight. Grandpa Finn had ratcheted in a rudimentary map, but Anne was afraid it wouldn’t to be enough.
Just then the flutter of red cloth broke into view. Around the bend marched a small procession of long cloaked men, at the lead a golden haired youth with a tight beard and sad eyes. Behind, a parade of fops and escorts, rapiers and boomsticks bobbing on their belts.
Upon spotting the golem, the blonde man stopped short, arms folded, his long red-lined cloak billowing in the courtyard breeze.
“What have we here, gentlemen?”
“Looks to be some tecknologikal monstrosity, sir.”
“Indeed, Jakobs.” The man unfolded his arms, reaching into a leather satchel along his belt. He withdrew a number of small implements.
“Jakobs,” the man replied, gesturing to Model Eight. “It’s an interesting contraption – but I’d prefer it gone. You know I prefer privacy.”
The underlings began to move, rough men anxious for violence. They prodded Model Eighth with jabs and pokes, gestures that appeared only to confuse and annoy the golem. Then one of them pulled out a set of brass knuckles.
“Grandpa Finn ain’t gonna like this,” the girl muttered, licking her lips.
Sparks flew where the knuckles contacted Eight’s exoskeleton, but the aggressor only yelped and jumped back, nursing his bruised hand.
“Leo – perhaps a more private location…”
The blonde man raised a hand, ignoring the plea. Anne recognized him now – Leopold Ostinous Birmingham the IV – heir to the Metalurgikal Guild. It was no surprise he was waltzing through these districts – his father owned the depot after all. But why were they stopping here?
Anne leaned closer out over the courtyard, withdrawing her own implement, a collapsing telescope fitted with the very same polished lens as Model Eight. With a twist of the chrome ring, she brought Leopold’s hands into focus.
In the rounded lens, Leopold held an elaborate chrome lighter, emblazoned with the sigil of the Metalurgikal Guild. The small flame roared in the looking glass, gifting a small vial with enough heat to boil the amber liquid within.
The sun was now nearly gone, the last beams draining to a simmering red about the silhouetted smokestacks of Low Town.
Leopold knelt, resting the vial on his knee, rolling the silk sleeves to his elbow. Something fine and sharp gleamed in the dying light. A needle.
It was then the assault on Model Eight rose to such a din that Anne was ready to jump down and fend off the thugs herself. But before she could gather the courage to shoot them with her crankshot, Leopold fell, rolling back first to his haunches, then his shoulder blades. The red of his cloak spread beneath him on the cobblestones.
The one called Jakobs rushed to the side of his master, shaking the blonde young aristocrat. Leopold released a final shiver, the vial and thin device rolling out of his fingers and into a shadowed corner. Jakobs felt the pulse, bit his lip and rose. The rest of the escort wavered in confusion.
“Hold it right there,” he said, stepping to a pile of rusted crates stacked against the masonry. Bending down, he ripped a long strip from a box cover, rapping it loudly against the brick to test its strength.
“There’s been a murder,” he announced, returning to Leopold’s side. Then he lifted his arm, extending the rusted spike at Model Eight. “And that thing is the killer!”
With that, Jakobs began to pound the metal into the limp body, tearing the fine woolen cloak, soaking the crimson with sluggish blood. Jakobs ripped a few gashes along Leopold’s handsome face for effect.
It was not until they began to rip out Model Eight’s finely calibrated springs that Anne turned away. She had to tell Grandpa Finn. As the night soaked into the dusty red stone, blanketing the rooftops, she could still hear the echoing screech of metal on metal, the death of Model Eight.
She wiped away tears as she ran, vaulting the dark alleys of the city.
Inspektor Augustine Lowe crouched, planting his weight on the tips of his extended fingers. He trailed them through the courtyard dust, feeling the particulate grit and grime, thinking. It felt as though he was missing something.
Days ago he came across the murder – the aristocrat on his back, bathed in a red halo, the big mechanikal draped over like some strange metal coffin. The polished brass fingers were still wrapped around Leopold’s throat, affixed in the solid blue flesh as rigor mortis set in. One of the Guild lackeys had buzzed about, rambling on about the magnificent bravery his master had displayed, tearing out the tension springs single-handedly.
The Inspektor had frowned, turning over Leopold’s soft hands. There were a few rough gashes along the palm, but the fingernails remained pristine and manicured, and there was no engine grease. Something didn’t fit.
But the Inspektor could find no other explanation, and acceded to cries for swift justice. Lord Birmingham was a powerful man, master of the Metalurgikal guild – he would not allow a low ranked investigator to bumble around while the killer of his son went unpunished. If anything, the man could incite a riot among his lowlings, and the last thing Augustine wanted was a mob of torch-carrying metal-workers knocking down the gate of the eccentric Rumbolt Finnerty Exely.
Exely was the only suspect – the one man brilliant and mad enough to construct the tecknologikal beasts. Golems, he called them.
Augustine frowned again as he remembered the scene. The wiry old man stooped but unashamed, his white whiskers wisping in the breeze of his laboratory machinery. The spunky pink-haired girl, rolling down from the rafters with cries of protest, kicking at Augustine’s shins. “Grandpa didn’t do it,” she yelped as he gently pushed her away. “It was that rich guy. He offed himself! Model Eight is innocent!”
“I’m sorry miss. I’m just doing my job,” Augustine had whispered hoarsely. He caught a final glance of her as he manacled Exely’s thin wrists. Through the frosted glass window, pouting, mouth pursed in a tight knot of vengeance.
And now here he was. Back at the scene of the crime. As though something was missing. He stood, smoothed his moustache and looked out over Low Town. Breathing deep, the warm air smelled of smelted iron and charcoal. He mentally reviewed the facts.
There wasn’t reason to frame Exely. Although the old man was a tertiary member of the rival Tinkerer’s Guild, he was a prime consumer of Birmingham’s quality brass fittings and steel springs. Lord Birmingham was jealous, but he was foremost a businessman, and sacrificing his own son to settle a squabble was out of character.
But what of Jakobs, young Leopold’s caretaker? A Lieutenant in the Metalurgikal Guild, Jakobs had risen quickly to prominence, second only to Lord Birmingham’s son, who was now dead…
A bit of moisture on his cheek broke his musings, and he looked to the skies. They were mottled dark and roiling, but did not look to hold rain. Curious, he wiped the water away, but not before touching it to his tongue. Salty.
Movement up on the gutters, a spike of pink against the brown stone.
“Hello?” said the Inspektor. “Show yourself.”
A rounded face peered over the ledge, followed by a set of tiny hands grasping some form of crank-powered slingshot.
“You? You’re Finnerty Exely’s young charge. What are you doing here?”
“Tell me why I shouldn’t put your eye out right now,” returned the cry.
The Inspektor frowned. “Why, young lady, I’ve done nothing to warrant such aggression. If anything you should be pummeling your father’s golems to scrap…”
“Grandfather. He’s my Grandfather Finn.”
“Well, yes. Right.”
“Why did you take him away?”
Lowe paused for a moment, squinting up at young girl on the rooftop.
“I’d be happy to share with you the intricacies of the justice system if you’ll only put away that dangerous weapon and climb down here.”
“Why? So you can haul me away on trumped up charges? That man killed himself. Leopold.”
The Inspektor frowned, letting his dusty fingers dwindle into his coat pocket for a handkerchief.
“You may think so, young lady. But its pure speculation. No proof, and therefore not admissible in the court of law…”
“There is proof,” the girl replied, swinging her legs out over the copper gutter. “And if you’d been doing your job, you’d know that.”
She jumped down with a thump, rolling to break her momentum. She came to stop in front of the Inspektor, running grimy hands through her pink strands. She barely came up to his waist.
“Why are you here?” Lowe asked, rubbing his hands with his kerchief. “Have you been following me?”
The girl looked away, shuffling to the edge of the courtyard, to the low wall that looked out over sprawling Low Town. She pulled herself up and sat, back to the Inspektor, feet dangling dangerously over the edge.
After a pause the Inspektor moved closer, watching the girl. Her mouth was tightly closed, eyes squinted against the gritty updrafts, and there was a twinkle of moisture at the corners. He frowned.
“I apologize. I didn’t introduce myself earlier, and that was very rude. My name is Augustine Lowe, Inspektor of the High Court of Up Town and the Tradinghouse Guilds.”
The girl cocked her head, lip curled in a bored snarl. “I’m Anne. Anne Exely.”
The Inspektor stepped forward and held out his hand, palm up. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Anne. You’re quite the climber.”
Her mouth morphed into a rough smirk and she accepted his hand. “Thanks Mr. Aug…Augusticene.”
“Yea,” she murmured, rotating her feet back onto the cobblestone and standing.
“Right,” the Inspektor said, nodding. “If you have information to share, by all means, now would be the time.”
And so Anne recalled the events as she had seen them, acting them out in exaggerated leaps and bounds across the courtyard. The Inspektor remained silent, nodding slowly, pensively stroking his moustache during moments of tension. He smiled when Anne attempted the massive stride of Model Eight, or the glaze-eyed chemical addiction of Leopold. But when the villainous Jakobs took charge, Augustine clenched his jaw.
When she was done he said nothing, still surveying the courtyard. “Your story is logically consistent with the scene of the crime. Leopold’s injuries were certainly grave, but the bloodstains were cold, sluggish, as though they had been inflicted after his heart had ceased.”
“Model Eight would never hurt anyone,” Anne chimed in. “My Grandpa Finn made sure of that.”
“You say Leopold had a vial and needle before he died. Did Jakobs take those things with him?”
Anne shook her head, bending down in a grungy garbage-strewn corner of the alleyway. Then she rose, holding them in her hands.
Augustine strode forward, unfolding his handkerchief. “Don’t touch those. You saw what they did to a fully-grown man. Place them here.”
The girl complied, slowly, fixing the strange implements with a sad menacing glare. The Inspektor spread the kerchief flat on the cobblestones, cradling the needle and vial in the center. The vial was nearly empty, and only a thin coating of amber fluid remained. The needle, along with its glass syringe, still contained a small reservoir, and the point itself was painted in a rusty brown.
“Bloodfyre,” Augustine said. “Usually the vice of lowlife fiends, sometimes even persons of quality. But I wonder…” He picked up the needle and squeezed a miniscule drop onto the tip of his finger. Slowly, he brought it to his nose, sniffing. Anne watched, wide eyed. The Inspektor touched his tongue to the amber drop, closing his mouth contemplatively. Moments later he spat violently into the dust, wiping his finger on the kerchief.
“Poison?” Anne asked.
“Yes. This is evidence,” Augustine replied. “And very important evidence at that, because it tells us two things. One – Leopold was a user of bloodfyre. And two – the substance itself. Leopold was intentionally poisoned, the incident conveniently blamed on your Grandfather’s tecknologikal creation.”
The Inspektor rose, gathering the evidence in the cloth and tucking it into his coat.
“But why are you crying, little one? With these things we can exonerate Finnerty.”
“It’s too late. Today is the fifth of the month, nearly the sixth bell.”
“And what happens, my dear, at the sixth bell?”
“Grandpa Finn will be sent to the gallows.”
The Inspektor smoothed his moustache, staring at the orange mottled horizon. “Right,” he said. “Then we must hurry. Quickly, to the vacuum trains.”
“This way!” the girl shouted. She began to jog, bouncing between the cracks of the cobblestones, a lilting hop that flipped about her makeshift ponytail. Augustine Lowe merely took long strides, his cloak furling behind in the summer heat.
At the scene of the hanging, fat zeppelins puttered through a copper sky, props gleaming behind taught rawhide skins. Hordes of spectators had come to watch justice doled out for the murdered young heir.
The gallows itself was tall, almost stately, but constructed with the rough materials of necessity. The post of splintered wood, looking newly shorn from the western forests, was in reality decades old, dipped the day it was cut in a vat of blistering tar.
Anne clenched her jaw and fists when she saw Grandpa Finn, but did not slow her pace. Augustine Lowe struggled to keep up, apologizing as he knocked the top hat from a crippled aristocrat.
Finnerty Exely stood proud, hands loose at his sides, the massive links of rusting manacles dangling low, nearly to his knees.
“Grandpa!” Anne shouted, shouldering through a thick mass of Meckanikal Guildies. A blue-suited constable reached for her but she kicked him in the shins, rolling into the no-man’s land at the perimeter of the gallows.
“Anne” the old man gasped, his hard eyes suddenly weak. “You shouldn’t be here. Go back to the lab, look after Model Nine.”
“Grandpa,” she said again, drawing closer, climbing the wooden platform. “You’re innocent.”
Exely nodded but said nothing, his mouth tightly shut.
“We have the proof! The Inspektor does. Leopold was poisoned!”
Those nearest the platform – Lord Birmingham and his entourage – let out small gasps. The constable, finally recovered from his bruised shin, moved to intercept Anne, Augustine a step behind.
“It’s true,” she shouted, positioning herself between the solemn hooded executioner and her pursuers. “Inspektor Aug…August…”
“Augustine,” whispered the Inspektor, folding his arms at the base of the gallows.
“Yea!” cried Anne. “He found the poison. It carries the seal of Leopold’s man. Model Eight did nothing. I saw it!”
Ripples of confusion and amusement began to arc through the crowd, murmurs and whispers, brash cries, most to remove the girl and start the hanging, a few to hear her out. The constable was nearly on her, both at the top of the platform, Anne with one hand on the noose, prepared to swing out and away.
Then Lord Birmingham stepped forward, bellowing, “Stop! This is foolish.” The murmurs ceased. “We shall hear the girl and the Inspektor out.”
Frowning, a hand smoothing his moustache, Augustine Lowe stepped to the platform. Taking a deep breath and a glance to Anne and Finnerty, he began.
“Five days ago I came across the scene of a murder. Leopold Birmingham the IV, heir to the Metalurgikal Guild, was lying under a large humanoid construction – a golem – build by Rumbolt Finnerty Exely. Leopold was covered in bruises and gashes, the result of wounds sustained in battle with this monstrosity.” The Inspektor slipped a hand into his coat pocket.
“Or so we were led to believe. Young Anne here witnessed the event and saw young Leopold succumb to the bloodfyre – an injection!” Augustine pulled out his hand, lifting the gleaming needle high. The crowd was whipped into a chaotic froth.
When they had died to a reasonable level, the Inspektor continued, yelling over the din. “Ask yourself why his men did not leap to defend him from the golem. Why poor Leopold’s wounds only bled with the cold blood of a stilled heart. Why the golem was inflicted with wounds and damage mere fists could not administer. When you ask these questions – logic will point the way to another explanation. Finnerty Exely is innocent!”
Lord Birmingham was about to speak but a dark haired man stepped forward.
“This man has corrupted the pure inquisition of truth for the tears of a child! Above that, he has defiled the name of a great and noble line with accusations of vile addictions. My Lord, give me the word and I will strike him down and silence his belligerence.”
“I’ve spoken my piece, Mr. Jakobs,” the Inspektor shot back. “Now it is Lord Birmingham’s decision how justice shall play out.”
The Lord of the Metalurgikal Guild stared straight ahead, his green eyes fixed on the hoop of the noose, stark against the orange sky. For a moment, no one moved, transfixed as they waited, coiled like a tensed spring, a cog awaiting the pull of its mated gear.
Then he nodded, short and curt, licking his lips. “The inventor shall go free. Even if my son was slain by one of his robotic creations, I see no malice in his act of creation. But you – Inspektor. You were charged with uncovering the truth the first time around, not after justice had been administered. Because of your lax duty, I’m recommending twenty lashes and reduced pay for a month.”
If the Inspektor registered the punishment, Anne did not notice. He merely maintained his frown, continuing to smooth his moustache with thumb and forefinger.
The crowd shuddered, annoyed their lust for death would not be satiated. Anne could see Jakobs slink away, cowardly, arms folded into his black coat.
“And you, Jakobs,” continued Lord Birmingham, turning to face his second. “The Inspektor raises a very important point. If your story is consistent – and the golem was to blame – you should have died in the place of my son. And if the Inspektor is correct, then you are lying. Either way, you are unworthy as my second, and are hereby banished from the Metalurgikal Guild. If I had my way with you, I’d place the noose around your neck myself. Now begone!”
Very few registered this exchange, for it was quick and dirty, uttered with harsh whispers and gleaming darts of venomous spittle. The Lord of the Metalurgikal Guild turned to go, his horde of escorts and handlers following in sync like some segmented beast.
Augustine Lowe’s back was bare beneath the late afternoon glare, raw and red. With each snap of the lash, the Inspektor clenched his mouth, the taught muscle behind his moustache flexing. Anne watched and counted the blows, eyes wet and puffy. The crowd had recently disappeared, but a few jeering miscreants remained, including Jakobs.
When the punishment was done, Augustine slumped, leaning hard against the whipping post. Anne rushed to his side, Grandpa Finn a few timid steps behind.
“Augustine,” the Inspektor said tiredly.
“Thank you so very much for what you did.”
Finnerty bowed, his white beard a few inches from the platform. “I owe you a great debt.”
“As do I,” said another. Jakobs. The dark haired man had ascended the platform, hands behind his back, black coat tightly buttoned despite the heat. “Well done Inspektor. You’ve uncovered the conspiracy, demoted the villain and suffered nobly. I do say you’ve earn a medal, or at least some form of public recognition.”
Augustine Lowe fixed Jakobs with a blank stare, slowing inhaling and straightening himself. Anne draped the Inspektor’s coat loosely over his torn back.
Jakobs smiled and extended his palm, cradling a tiny metallic seed. It was the size and shape of a pea, or a beetle, and an opaque liquid glistened within. Before either of the three could say a word, Jakobs flung the seed at their feet.
A cloud a green mist exploded around them. Augustine immediately shut his mouth and eyes and reached for the girl. He found her by touch, covering her nose and mouth with his large hands, pulling her out of the emerald haze. He could hear Grandpa Finn coughing violently.
When the smoke was sucked away by the evening wind, Anne was kneeling beside her grandfather, the Inspektor stoic, hand on her shoulder. The old man did not move, his eyes closed to the setting sun.
“He can’t get away,” Anne pleaded, her small voice cracking. “Not again. Not for this.”
The Inspektor nodded. “I know. He won’t.”
So they ran, coattails billowing, monochromatic in the stretching streetlamp shadows. Jakobs was easy to follow at first; hounded by a few witnesses of the cruel act, they pointed the way with angry shouts. After he slunk into the vacuum tubes his trail had gone cold. But luck was with them, and Anne spotted his sullen face in the fogged viewport of a loading tube train.
They hopped a car as close as they could, barely squeezing through the closing portcullis. The sirens blared and steam began to fill the chamber, vented from the firing tube behind. In a minute, they’d be rocketed down the track, almost too quickly to move.
But before that happened, the girl and the Inspektor waded through the packed train, little Anne’s pink fronds just visible between legs and coattails.
She was nearly upon her grandfather’s murderer before Jakobs noticed her. Arms wide, Anne dove for his legs, locking his ankles. The Inspektor was already priming his boomstick, holding it high as he packed the powder.
Jakobs began to squeal. A sharp bell rang out – last signal to fasten safety belts and prepare for launch. Augustine lowered his boomstick. Anne tightened her grip.
And then the gates were let loose, the compressed steam squealing through the expanding crack. Violently, the tube train shot forth, and all who weren’t seated and buckled were thrown to the ground.
The Inspektor found himself looking up in the central aisle, the boomstick knocked from his hands, a black-cloaked body sprawled awkwardly across his chest. Blinking, he pushed up and out, catching the dark eyes of their quarry.
But Jakobs was feisty, kneeing Augustine in the groin, reaching for the boomstick. Anne screamed and dove for the weapon. Around them the passengers pointed and hooted but remained seated, the portholes a blur of metal and pitch.
In a mindless chaos they scratched, punched and rolled to the back of the train, crunched in awkward positions between the seats, jarred loose as a rough patch of track was traversed. For a moment it appeared Anne and Augustine had the upper hand, nearly pinning Jakobs against the velvet leggings of a fat aristocrat.
But then Jakobs broke free, scooping the boomstick up with his feet, rolling backwards to stand at the back of the train. Quickly he rammed the powder home and pulled a lighter from his belt pouch. Behind him, white steam filled the porthole of the rear door.
“Quite the reversal,” he whispered, eyes darting between the girl and the Inspektor. “But sorry to say, I win again. You’re a fool, Inspektor. You should have kept your mouth shut, maintained the respect of Lord Birmingham. You’ll only end up a night watchman now, a lowly street constable.”
“At least he’s not a coward,” Anne spoke up. “You’re a craven poisoner.”
Jakobs sneered. “I’d very much like to blow that pink top of yours to smithereens, young miss. But that would be too easy. It’ll be much more satisfying to see you eke it out on the streets, fatherless.”
Anne stepped forward, defiantly. “I have been fatherless. And motherless. But I still had someone who loved me.”
And with that, she stepped on the emergency release hatch and ducked. The rear door yawned open on oiled hinges.
White hot air enveloped Jakobs, swallowing his scream as he tumbled off the back. The boomstick fired, orange backblast startling the passengers, and stale moisture suddenly filled the car.
The train slowed, the noise of metal on metal screaming mindless.
As they exited onto the platform, Augustine Lowe placed his hand on the girl’s shoulder, giving it a short squeeze.
“That was very brave back there,” he said. “How’d you know that trick with the emergency release?”
Anne blinked, sucking a short sniffle through her nose. “It’s how my Mother and Father died. Off the back of a vacuum train.”
Augustine frowned, lower lip gracing the bristles of his moustache. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about your Grandfather.”
“I know you are,” Anne said. “But don’t say I’m brave. I owed you one.” The girl folded her arms into herself, hunching lower to the ground, moving into the crowd of top hats and long coats. She turned for a moment, pink hair flaring in the fading gust of a vacuum train. “See you around.”
“Wait,” said the Inspektor, taking a step after her. “It’s this way.”
Anne turned halfway, one eye on the man. She squinted to hold in the moisture. “Are you sure? Aug…August…?”
“Call me Gus,” he said, holding out his hand.
She took it.