Edition 27: The Wrangler by Austin Hackney
Those on top have always used their big, fancy boots to stamp downwards. No change to the status quo is bloodless and the Bollingers have landed right in the middle of the trouble. Austin Hackney’s bloody steampunk will have anyone looking over their shoulder. SY
The noise of galvanized horses and the stink of engine oil had stuffed Sam Garrick’s ears and nostrils since as long as he could remember. His uncle had taught him wrangling. But his uncle was bone-rot now and the work was his.
He grinned. Saliva glistened on his rotting teeth. He spat tar-black tobacco spit onto the engine, watching it sizzle.
“A bit o’ flesh-slicing an’ death-dealing,” he said, relishing the words. “That’s what it’s time for. Engine’s good, horses are hot and it’s time.”
Sam’s calloused hands hovered over a rack of blades. The pain in his swollen knuckles bothered him and he cursed to make a whore blush. He selected a thin blade, testing it on his tongue, lightly, and tasting blood. Satisfied, he slipped the blade into its sheath.
He opened the steam valve, cranked back the release lever and let out a manic cry. The fly-wheel screamed into action. The horses clanked and clattered into mechanical life, hot steam spurting from their nostrils.
The kittens were funny and sweet and should be allowed to stay, Elizabeth decided. “You must be good,” she said to the children. “I’ll speak with Daddy. I’m sure the little fluff-balls will still be here in the morning.”
Alice and Daniel looked up with grave faces. “We’ll be good,” they said. “And then the kitties can stay?”
“Then the kitties can stay. Now, go along with Sarah.” She kissed them on their noses and they left in the care of the maid.
Elizabeth went to the bay window overlooking the street. It was still snowing. Electrostatic street lamps popped and fizzed, dripping urine-coloured light onto the snow; a whining dog slouched by. A Clockwork Conveyancer clattered past, leaving slushy tracks; the driver hunched in his thick coat. Elizabeth shivered and closed the curtains. The clock chimed eight. Henry would be back soon.
She did not like to be alone. Not since the letter.
Henry had thrown it on the fire. “An empty threat, Lizzie,” he’d said. “These things happen to a man of my station. I shall report the matter but I dare say we’ll hear no more about it.”
She had never received a death threat before. She would sit and read to take her mind off things until Henry returned. She prayed he would never discover the truth.
She heard boots crunching through the snow towards the house. The doorbell jangled in the hall. She turned back from the window as the maid came in.
“A runner come, ma’am. He said…”
“Well?” said Elizabeth.
“It’s the Master, ma’am. He’s…he’s had an accident.”
Sir Henry Bollinger left the government offices with his usual, clockwork punctuality and waited for the steam-horses to arrive. He would have been happy to take a Conveyancer—or even walk—but given the recent unrest and the increasing number of rebel incidents, the office had insisted that it would be safer.
Sir Henry was content enough with the decision when he saw the weather. He pulled up the collar of his cape.
He had just left a meeting during which the unsettling events in Europe had been under discussion. The Prussian Empire had fallen to a People’s Revolution. There were murmurings of revolt as close as France. Looking out on the snow-filled streets of London, it seemed hard to imagine such things here. England was an island nation, insulated from the rest of Europe by a giant moat; a sea-bound fortress.
And yet the intelligence received was most disturbing. It appeared that there was a cabal of anarchist cells in London itself. And their spies might even have infiltrated the civil service.
At that moment, Sir Henry saw the steam-horses turn the corner of Parliament Square, the engine’s furnace glowing dull red in the darkness, steam rising from the hot metallic hooves as they clanked down the street. The carriage trundled behind, slipping a little in the slush trail. The driver sat atop—as ugly a cove as ever he’d seen, thought Sir Henry—emaciated, hunched over the valves and levers, grinning through rotting teeth.
Her voice was not sweet but she sang heartily.
“O he’s my sweetheart, smart and wild
And I shall share the Wrangler’s child…”
“Will ye stup yer caterwauling, Masie Hunke. Sumunus a’ tryin’ta sleep!” snarled a voice from the bunk above.
Masie heard a fist thumping a pillow. Not fancying the same happening to her face, she canned it.
Her lips were sealed, but her mind ran on. She hummed softly, stubby fingers groping under dirty blankets.
“Tonight by blood and candlelight
Our tryst we’ll keep in gloomy night…”
She rubbed hard for a few minutes, and then shuddered, smiling. She rolled over and tested the pin she’d pressed into her smoking candle.
Just a few hours, my love, she thought. And fell asleep, contented.
Elizabeth dismissed the maid and took the note.
Her eyes scanned the words scratched across the paper.
The price of betrayal is high.
Her hand fell to the back of an armchair, nails pressing into velvet. She walked unsteadily to the fireplace and threw the note onto the flames.
She called the maid.
“Sarah, get the children dressed quickly. We’re leaving.”
“Now, ma’am? But I’ve only just…”
A few minutes later, Alice and Daniel were huddled in the hall with the maid and Elizabeth, dressed and ready.
“What about the kitties, mummy?” asked Alice.
“Go and fetch them, please, Sarah. And hurry.
Sarah hurried away to the end of the hall and through the door into the kitchen and scullery.
“Where’s Daddy?” asked Daniel. “Where are we going?”
Before Elizabeth could answer, there was a scream from back of the house. An instant later, Sarah came running, her face bloodless and her lips trembling.
“Pull yourself together, girl,” warned Elizabeth. “Stay with the children.”
Elizabeth walked down the corridor and into the kitchen. Hanging from the meat-hooks above the long chopping table were the three kittens. One of them was still wriggling, mouthing silent meows, blood dripping from its wounds. The others were dead.
Elizabeth ran back to the hall.
“Quickly,” she said. “We must leave now. We’ll take the first Conveyancer we see.”
She urged everyone to the door. Then she stopped dead.
A silhouette appeared; a dark, twisted figure looming ever larger against the stained glass.
And the handle began to turn.
Sir Henry hailed the driver, shouting up and bidding the wrangler to make all haste. Then he opened the door and pulled himself up into the warmth of the carriage, glad to be out of the snow.
The carriage jolted and clanked forward. He sat back against the plum velvet upholstery and considered the grave news of the anarchist infiltration.
The carriage had not gone far when it squealed unexpectedly to a halt.
Now what? thought Sir Henry.
He heard the sound of the driver stepping down the iron ladder at the side of the engine and dropping the last foot or so onto the road. A moment later and the door to the carriage swung open. The wrangler leaped up and sat opposite Sir Henry, slamming the door closed behind him.
“Bleedin’ cold outside, Guv’nor,” he said.
“What is the meaning of this?” said Sir Henry. “Get out of here.”
“No,” said the wrangler simply. “I got some information for you.”
Sir Henry narrowed his eyes. “Information?”
“Yeah. Information about them anarchists and how they got to know so much as they could even get their spies into the office. They had an informer, see.”
“Do you propose to tell me who that informer is?”
“I do and I will.” But he said no more. He grinned his rotten-toothed grin and scratched his stubbled chin with cracked, tobacco-stained fingers.
“I understand,” said Sir Henry, reaching for his wallet. “How much do you want?”
“Oh don’t you worry, I’ll get what I want. I’ll tell you what I know, first. The woman who passed on information was your Lizzie, that’s who.”
“God damn you man!” said Sir Henry. “Get out of this carriage before I call the police!”
“She had access to your papers, didn’t she?” continued the wrangler, unperturbed by this threat. “And she felt pity, you know, for the poor and the miserable and the suffering of this world. She felt pity and shame for she knew that the opulence of ‘er life and the security she enjoyed came at too ‘igh a price—the forced labor and poverty of millions to support the few in luxurious style. She ‘ad a sense of justice, did your Lizzie.”
Sir Henry reached out to grab the door handle but the wrangler was too quick. The wicked looking blade flashed like an evil smile—and touched Sir Henry’s throat with its treacherous kiss. Sticky blood pulsed from his carotid artery as his body slumped onto the carriage floor.
Sam Garrick wiped the knife on the upholstery and slipped it back into its sheath. His calloused hand reached out and grabbed a fistful of Sir Henry’s hair, yanking his head up and looking for signs of life in his eyes.
“But she got chicken,” he said. “She didn’t like the violence an’ all that in Europe, she said. She wanted a peaceful revolution, she said. So she let us down, didn’t she? She promised to keep quiet but you just can’t take risks.”
He let Sir Henry’s head fall back to the floor.
Maisie Hunke waddled through the snow, tugging her dirty woolen shawl about her shoulders. In her hands she had a scrap of paper on which the directions she was to follow had been written. Just a few words and a rough drawing but she understood it plain enough.
She turned down the alleyway at the side of the avenue of elegant townhouses, following the scrawled instructions, and stopped by the back gate of number thirteen. Unlucky, she thought. The gate was a tall, cast iron affair. Maisie chuckled. She slipped a wire into the lock with practiced ease. It clicked open.
A gravel path led through a tidy backyard. Lamps were burning in the kitchen. The back door was open. It led into the scullery.
Closing the door behind her, she looked at the balls of fluff cuddled together on a blanket in the corner of the room.
She grinned. “Kitties!”
Elizabeth turned to Alice and Daniel. “Quickly! Out the back.”
But there was no going out the back. She turned just in time to see Sarah’s body slump to the floor. Maisie Hunke wiped the meat-cleaver on her skirt, laughing.
There’s a cupboard under the stairs, thought Elizabeth. She opened the door, pushing the children inside. “It’ll be alright,” she whispered. “Stay quiet.” She pressed her back against the door.
“’Ello, Lizzie,” said Maisie. “Sorry about them kitties.”
Elizabeth turned the other way. There was a man standing in the hall. He was grinning, too.
“Naughty girl, Lizzie. Naughty girl.”
Then she saw the knife.
The parlor was warm and cozy. Fire blazed in the hearth.
The kettle whistled on the irons.
Maisie sat on a stool by the fire, cleaning knives in a bucket of water. She grinned as the door opened and Sam came in with Alice and Daniel.
“Maisie, my sweetheart—here we are!”
He had the children stand side by side in front of Maisie. She clapped in delight.
Sam leaned over and their lips met in a salivating kiss. He swiped his face on his sleeve. “Well?” he said.
“Oh Sam,” said Maisie. “We’re a proper little family now, ain’t we? Make ’em dance!”
“Now then,” said Sam. “Alice. Daniel. Dance for yer mammy.”
He took a key from his pocket. Lifting Alice’s hair away from the stitching along the back of her neck, he inserted it into a brass slot, turning it several times. He did the same with Daniel.
He stepped back. Nothing happened. He kicked their shins lightly. A whirring sound started up.
Maisie clapped again. Sam smiled.
And the clockwork children danced.
Austin worked for two decades in theatre and television before becoming a full time writer.
His short fiction is often published in print and online ‘zines.
Austin writes articles, blog posts and web content to commission, frequently published without a by-line in magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. Beyond the Starline, the first volume in his steampunk trilogy, The Dark Sea, was released in March 2016 by Clockwork Press and is available everywhere books are sold. For a free ebook edition, sign up to the Clockwork Press mailing list here: http://clockworkpress.co.uk
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