Back at ya!

The response to Chapter One has been so positive and supportive, I decided not to wait a whole week to release Chapter 2 of the novel. Here you’ll meet the second main character CRAG and discover the bizarre (and often terrifying) city known as The Urbille. I’m thinking I might release Chapter Three a bit early as well, since I want readers to meet all three main characters as soon as possible. Special Thanks to everyone who shared my announcement about Chapter One. In the words of Ozzy Osbourne: “I love you all!”

Let’s rock…



Chapter 2.
Blood in the Rust


It was raining in the Urbille. The gutters sparkled with tiny rivers of black foam. Usually the Rusted Zone was a maze of red fogs and clouds of metallic grit, but the rain had cooled the streets and cleared the air. Heat rose from the pavement in curtains of steam. The stars were lost behind a canopy of curling smokes.

Crag walked through a slurry of rust and mud between the husks of ancient foundries. Most of the factories in this precinct were abandoned long ago. The broken bones of the buildings lay in the shadow of crumbling smokestacks. This was the ass-end of the Zone, a place even the Clatterpox avoided. A perfect place for murder.

The wind kicked up and Crag almost lost his top hat. He pulled the lapels of his waistcoat tight across his chest. He was following a hunch. The first six bodies had all been found within a two-kilometer radius of this place. Old Brickyard Avenue wound through the southwestern corner of the Zone. The victims, each one mutilated and headless, must have been killed here before being dumped into seven different rubbish bins. Nobody would hear children screaming in these decayed lots. Crag had studied a map of the Zone until a spark of inspiration ignited in the back of his skull. The spark led him here.

His opticals scanned the sodden pavement, looking for footprints in the shifting layers of sludge. The rain actually helped his search. Not even a lumbering Clatterpox would leave tracks for long on a dry street. The wind would blow any such marks to oblivion in seconds. But wet mud held prints intact for awhile, especially the rust-enriched ooze of the Zone.

Crag walked for an hour through the slurry as the downpour lessened to a steady drizzle. He had almost given up finding anything when he spotted the tiny trail of crimson rushing along a gutter to swirl down a drainage grill. He followed the gutter to its source at the curb of a derelict foundry, and a puddle of red at least a meter in diameter. It lay directly in front of a sliding iron door built high enough to admit a cargo lorry.

A smudge of red blood along the edge of the door almost resembled a handprint. It stood slightly ajar, and Crag felt the spark in his brain again.

The tiny gears in the fingers of his right hand clicked as he pulled the pistol from its shoulder holster. The door’s lock had been lost long ago, and the killer hadn’t bothered to replace it. Inside was a vast chamber of darkness, but a few stray beams of moonlight fell through the corroded ceiling. A tangle of rusted metal shards, iron vats, and  hanging chains filled the dark. Two sets of stairs led toward a gallery level above what was once a busy factory floor.

Crag stepped across the scattered debris. The trail of blood drops led deeper into the darkness. Nobody bled in the Urbille except children. Crag had found what he was looking for here. A muffled cry resounded from the walls as he reached the foot of the left stairwell. The red droplets led upward. The killer’s seventh victim was already dying.

Crag climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, hoping the killer was too busy with his prize, too secure in his privacy, to be alert. The next cry wasn’t so much muffled as torn from a tender throat. The stairwell vibrated with minute reverberations as the scream’s echoes died away. One more step and Crag’s head broke the plane of the gallery level. Deep within the shadows a flame flickered orange and golden, surrounded by the remains of extinct machinery.

Crag didn’t need to follow the drops any longer to know they led directly to the flame. A third scream, raw and animalistic, rang through the rafters. Crag moved forward, arms extended at chest level, pistol gripped in both hands. Finger light against the trigger.

There he was. The killer with his seventh victim. The smiling porcelain face confirmed what Crag had suspected: the killer was a Beatific. The lips of the alabaster face were painted blood red, and its opticals gleamed with emerald light, focused entirely on the young, bleeding Organic. The kid was probably twelve years old, four years from Conversion and adulthood. The killer kneeled before his victim at the center of a spreading circle of crimson.

Of course it was a Beatific. No Clatterpox could ever be this insane. Forty years of hunting his own kind had convinced Crag that the worst crimes were always committed by Beatifics. In all that time, he hadn’t established a theory as to why that was true. It was just something he knew deep in his coils. His heart-cogs increased their speed as the killer’s face lifted to regard him.

The elastic skin of the killer’s hands was drenched with the kid’s blood. A hooked knife gleamed dripping in each of those hands. Flames danced in a tin bucket nearby, the only source of illumination besides the killer’s green opticals.

“Don’t move,” Crag said. He aimed the pistol at the sweet spot just between the killer’s opticals.

“Inspector Crag,” said the killer. The child lying before him whimpered. Its small body was criss-crossed with a dozen preliminary wounds. Crag may have saved his life, but the boy would bear the scars of these wounds until his Conversion Day.

“You know me?” Crag said, stepping closer. Another two meters and there was no way he’d miss the head shot. Keep the creep talking.

“Of course,” said the killer. His fixed porcelain smile flashed in the gloom. “You’ve been in the papers. Chasing me down. I’ve been reading about you.” His dark waistcoat bore a white rose on its lapel. Strangely, it bore no sign of the blood that stained his coat and trousers.

Crag couldn’t see the kid’s face, but he could tell the boy was only half-conscious. The pain had been too much for him. Crag could almost remember what that particular sensation was like. It had been too many centuries. He barely remembered physical pain, but he knew the other kind well. The kind of pain that eats you up from the inside, the kind that started in the heart-cogs and travelled straight to the brain in its silvery casement. The pain of loss and loneliness and bitterness. He’d gladly trade that for some simply physical agony. But that was not how the world worked.

“Why’d you do it?” Crag asked, taking another step closer. Almost there.

The killer laughed, brandishing his bloody knives like conductors’ batons.

“I assume you mean the killing not the reading,” he said. “Do you really want to know, Inspector?”

“Tell me,” Crag said.”Why children?” One more step.

The green opticals glowed at him. The killer looked down at the kid’s body.

“They’re so young and pure,” the killer said. “So sweet and tender. I would call them innocent, but there’s no one innocent in the Urbille. I’m saving them, Inspector.”

“Saving them from what?” Crag was in range now. One pull on the trigger.

Something stalled him. Morbid curiosity.

“From becoming like us,” said the killer. His porcelain cheeks gleamed orange in the flamelight. “From losing everything that makes them human. Instead of dooming them to live forever inside a mechanized constructs–prisons!–I set them free. That’s all these clever bodies are, Inspector. Prisons. Surely you know that.”

“Drop the knives,” Crag said.

The killer’s left hand obeyed. Its knife clanged on the foundry floor, but the right hand retained its weapon. The killer’s left hand reached up to caress his own porcelain chin. With a deft movement he detached the Beatific mask and pulled it away, revealing the bare surface of his silver skull. His green opticals gleamed brighter.

“This is what we truly are,” the killer said. “Machines built from silver and tin, aluminum and copper, iron and steel. These faces we wear, they’re lies. Each one of us dies on the day of our Conversion. You don’t really think the brains inside our skulls are still alive do you? We’re all damned souls, trapped in our personal hells. So I free the little ones before they walk into the same prison that holds us for eternity.”

The spark jumped again at the back of Crag’s skull.

“It doesn’t matter whether you wear a porcelain visage like mine, or a bronze face like yours, we are all the same beneath the veneer of society’s masks,” said the killer. “We can’t even show our true faces in public. We are masked prisoners, spirits locked inside clockwork engines. I’m sparing the little ones this awful fate. Do you understand? Tell me you do.”

“Why torture them?” Crag said. He didn’t move at all. Kept the pistol trained on the sweet spot. The kill shot. Any second now. Why hadn’t he already pulled the trigger? Maybe he simply had to know what drove a Beatific to such horrible acts of violence.

“Torture?” the killer said. “No, I’m preparing them for the journey. Unlike us, their umblemished souls get to leave the Urbille. They travel who knows where–into the next universe or the next life. Suffering is good for the soul, so I prepare them for the journey by making their flesh suffer. I set them free.”

“What about the heads?” Crag asked.

The killer motioned to a point beyond the fire’s glow. A row of rusted spikes rose from the debris, each one topped by the severed head of a young victim. Six heads, and a dozen more empty spikes waiting. The colorless faces stared at Crag with slack jaws, most of them already gone to rot. This kid’s head would sit on the seventh spike soon, if Crag hadn’t discovered the killer’s private shrine.

“They speak to me. Remind me of how important my work is,” said the killer. “And they’re so beautiful.” He turned to look at the dead faces. The bleeding kid stirred and moaned. The killer turned back to him and lifted the red knife high.

“I’m setting them free…”

Crag pulled the trigger. A tiny hole blossomed in the forehead of the killer’s silver skull. Bits of grey-green brain matter spewed from the larger hole in its back end. The echoes of the shot rebounded again and again from the rust-eaten walls. The killer fell backwards, never losing his grip on the knife in his right hand. The gears and cogs inside his body shuddered, his frame convulsed, and his inner works stilled themselves.

Crag holstered the gun and examined the kid. The boy stared at Crag through bleary, tear-filled opticals. His soft skin was drenched in his own blood, but he was alive. Crag picked him up and carried him down the stairs, away from the madman’s grisly trophies. He set the kid down on a dusty tarp that was better than the cold floor. He knew how sensitive Organics were to cold and damp, two more sensations he couldn’t quite recall. Probably for the best.

Fifteen minutes later a lorry full of gendarmes responded to his transistor signal. They leaped from the vehicle and rushed into the ruin with loaded rifles, as if there were an army of child-killers about to rush from the shadows. Their faces were clusters of nine blue-green opticals arranged in rows of three. The lenses swivelled in all directions at once beneath the brims of stovepipe hats.

“Relax, boys,” Crag told them. “Killer’s already dead.”

“Nice work,” the captain told Crag. The rain was still falling outside. A few Clatterpox had wandered down the avenue from the Street of Ancillary Tongs, drawn by the sirens and lights of the gendarmes. A medical lorry arrived from the Minstere de Science to haul the kid away for surgery. They’d fix him up and return him to his Clatterpox parents. Crag wondered if the kid would be better off dying at the killer’s hands than having to live three more years in the Rusted Zone. He considered the killer’s mad logic and decided to forget all about it.

Crag declined the captain’s offer of a ride back to the station. He needed to walk after a killing, feel the solid ground beneath his heels, clear his mind of whatever detritius was left floating there after a case was closed. Time enough later for paperwork, and plenty of it.

He wandered into the populous regions of the Rusted Zone, where Clatterpox ambled about in steaming crowds. Their bulbous iron bodies resembled barrels with segmented legs and arms attached, their heads little more than ovals set with low-grade opticals. They recognized his bronze face, a signal of his rank, and made way for him as he passed. The neon glow of night club signs flickered and buzzed, turning the rain into gleaming curtains of pink and purple and scarlet. The sounds of Clatterpox revelry and blaring night-music swelled from the doorways. Gangs of Clatterpox youth, fresh from Conversion, filled the alleyways rolling dice or playing inscrutable games.

These were the poor of the Urbille, the working class. Crag knew their subculture better than most, but he would never understand it completely. He’d never know what it felt like to have your entire existence depend on a tiny furnace inside your chest burning chunks of anthracite, or to have his mind and thoughts encased in a clumsy body of rude metal without nuance or aesthetic value. As a Beatific, he was a breed apart from these people. Yet he knew the dark side of Beatific life, and the secret crimes that set them apart from those they considered inferior.

There were no Organics on the streets this time of night, none of the dirty-faced children being raised by Clatterpox parents. City law demanded that Clatterpox keep their charges indoors after dark. Organics were so easily injured or sickened, they needed the bright order of daytime to protect their delicate bodies. When they turned fifteen the Mechanics would perform their Conversions. They’d give up their frail flesh for a coal-burning heart and a sturdy body of iron and lead. They’d spew steam and smoke like the rest of their kind, and never look back at their fragile, disease-prone childhoods. Never again would they need food, water, or medicine. They’d be set for eternity, just like the Beatifics. And yet nothing like them at all.

Every Clatterpox seemed identical to Crag, but he knew they had ways of telling each other apart. A nick or dent here or there, a subtle shade of rust around the joints, a thousand other telltale signs that one was not the other. He’d known a few Clatterpox, even called them friends, but it was still sometimes hard to tell them apart without the insignia they wore when interacting with Beatifics.

Beatifics underwent Conversion at the same age as Clatterpox, but not at the hands of Mechanics. Highly skilled Surgeons transferred young Organic brains into silvery skeletons full of clockwork guts, covered them with elastic skin, and made them invulnerable to the weaknesses of the flesh. While Clatterpox bodies were functional and utilitarian, Beatific bodies were created for beauty, grace, and subtlety of movement. Crag considered his own feet inside their leather boots as he walked among the Clatterpox crowds. What marvels of engineering this Beatific body was, what miracles of science and creative design. Such thoughts always ran through his mind after putting down a rogue Beatific.

He found himself pitying the child he’d saved tonight. The boy would become just another Clatterpox, working in the factories of the Rusted Zone all day and wandering its  neon labyrinths all night.

I’m setting them free…

He ignored the madman’s words ringing like low bells inside his skull. He took the Bridge of Unremembered Dreams and found himself in a much better neighborhood. The wheeled carriages of Beatific citizens sat parked along the curbs, guarded by Clatterpox servants. A few Beatifics strolled arm-in-arm from club to club, their canes and top hats gilded with splendor, jewels glinting about the slender wrists and necks of the women. The faces worn here were mostly porcelain and finely crafted, often designed for slightly wicked affect. This was the Sordid Arena, where the Doxies did their business. Beatifics came here to dabble in the baser pleasures of life, to imbibe lubricants, listen to Clatterpox music, to gamble and cavort with regulated abandon.

A trio of gendarmes on patrol nodded as Crag passed them. He ducked through a doorway and entered the front room of THE IRON HEART. A sea of Beatific faces swam among the smoke from flickering braziers. He headed to the long bar and ordered a scalding lubricant. Poured it down his throat and enjoyed the tingling sensation in his coils. A few more drinks and it travelled along his limbs to the tips of his fingers. A Doxie approached him wearing a face of lascivious beauty. He motioned her away with a wave of his badge. He wasn’t in the mood for company tonight.

Why did the killer take his face off? Why show his naked skull to Crag like that? A crudely intimate gesture to the man who had tracked him down and was about to destroy him. Sure, the killer was insane. But his warped reasoning wasn’t entirely removed from reality.

These faces we wear, they’re lies.

Everybody lies, Crag told himself. This is the Urbille.

Each one of us dies on the day of our Conversion. You don’t really think the brains inside our skulls are still alive do you?

Of course they are. Crag was alive. Every Beatific, every Clatterpox was alive. If not for Conversion their Organic lifespans would have been less than a century. Conversion was immortality, and every citizen of the Urbille was entitled to it.

We’re all damned souls here, trapped each in our personal hells.

The man was mad. He’d offered a demented rationale for the terrible things he did. He was sick, that’s all. It happened. Far too often, it happened. Usually it was Beatifics killing other Beatifics. Family members or spouses, or even random passers-by. Some people couldn’t stand the good life. Crag’s job wasn’t to analyze and undertand why Beatifics committed crimes. His job was to bring them to justice, and he did it well.

He downed another glass of lubricant and wished Caroline were here to talk about this. She always had a way of making him feel better, especially after a shooting. She took him out of his head in a way that no Doxie’s thought-melding tricks could rival. Even from the time they were Organics, promised to one another six years before Conversion, she had always made him stronger. Made him whole when he felt like falling to pieces. It had been twenty years.

Thirty more to go.

Three more decades until he would see her again. Hold her hand, take her in his arms. Thirty years until he could take off this bronze mask and show her his true self, silver to silver, optical to optical, blend heart to heart, mind to mind. Time had slowed to a crawl these past two decades.

Sometimes Crag thought about not winding his heart-key in the morning and just letting himself fade away. Those were the days when his job and his life seemed without purpose. A meaningless existence of perfectly preserved nonsense. But if he did that he would never see Caroline again.

That’s all these bodies are, Inspector. Prisons. Surely you know that.

Crag slammed his glass against the bartop and was about to order an electrode stimulation when a hand grabbed his shoulder. A gendarme stared at him with its triple row of shifting opticals.

“Inspector. The Tribune wants to see you.”

“I’m off-duty,” Crag said. “Tell His Eminence he can congratulate me in the morning.”

The gendarme didn’t move. “I was told to bring you in, sir.”

Crag sighed and slid off the barstool. He stretched out his arms and legs, the tiny gears inside popping and squeaking. A cog slipped somewhere in his lower back. He was overdue for a spinal adjustment.

“No rest for the wicked,” he muttered. The gendarme gave no response. None of them had any sense of humor, at least not that Crag had seen in his forty-plus years of working with them. He followed the soldier outside to a waiting lorry. Slid into the back seat, thinking of the face Caroline had worn the last time he’d seen her. Twenty years ago. Mother-of-pearl inlays set in almond patterns about her golden opticals, a delicate nose crafted to perfection, turquoise lips set into the spotless porcelain, broad and smiling with affection.

Crag fell asleep in the back seat of the lorry as it rumbled toward the Ministere de Justice. Caroline’s sweet face floated like a moon in the black sky of his dreams. It spoke to him in the voice of a dead madman.

That’s all these bodies are, Inspector.



NEXT WEEK: “HearthHome”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —