That Keynish Helg was several days dead was perfectly obvious to Constable Abney up until the moment the doktor started talking.
It was a few things gave the doktor’s state away to Abney: the smell, first off. The honey-wine scent of decay, wafting from the man’s yellow skin, waxen and hard-looking. One short, assertive sniff over the corpse told him that much, just like the commandant showed them in the surgeon’s cutting room, one sniff to get the dead man’s stink in your nose. You’ll know it by the smell, he said. Then there was the stillness: the body was stuck hard, not moving, plastered to that contraption of a chair like moss on a rock. Men were like to move, in sleep; to snore and murmur. Abney was certain in any case that all men breathed of a night, no matter how deep their slumbers. Helg didn’t. His sunken chest was still as a statue. He didn’t know what to make of the thing on his face, but seeing as it covered most of it he could only presume it had something to do with what killed him.
So it was troubling when the doktor’s cadaver started speaking, though he only ever said one word: Seffa. A girl’s name, that—though what use a dead man would have for it, Constable Abney didn’t know. But seeing as how dead men rarely spoke, that Abney knew, he felt himself behooved to reconsider his earlier judgment.
* * *
“Make yourself useful, Abney, and get the fuck out of my way,” said Thijis, scraping crabscum out of the bowl of his pipe with a pocketknife and flicking it onto the floor with a wet smack. He didn’t need to look up to see the gape-mouthed expression on the boy’s face. Abney was new, and had the wits of a swamp ox: steady enough under the yoke, but liable to drown himself eating breakfast if left to his own devices. Taking another crabling from his pouch, its tiny legs scrabbling at his callused fingertips, Thijis pinched its carapace until it popped with a wet hiss. Stuffing it into his pipe, he sealed the bowl, relit the boiler, and puffed furiously until he had it bubbling again. “And bring in my case. It’s in the carriage boot.”
Abney opened his mouth to say something, apparently thought better of it, and ducked out of the doktor’s laboratory, passing Krizner on the way. The older man looked pale with exertion—either hung over or simply done in by the dozen or so steps from the street to the house’s grand entrance hall. Or both.
“They’re getting smarter every year, I see,” Thijis said around his pipe stem.
“Who, Abney?” asked Krizner, leaning a hand on the bronze doorframe to catch his breath. “He’s not a bad sort. Just needs direction, that’s all.”
“Why know how to button your trousers, when your commanding officer’s there to tell you, eh?”
“Fuck off, Irik.” Krizner stood next to him. “So he’s not dead after all?”
“Who in God’s name said he was dead?”
Thijis choked with laughter, coughing wetly around his pipe. Krizner cut off, glowering. After giving himself a few moments to clear his throat with some phlegmy laughter, Thijis gestured to Helg’s half-naked form. The lips worked slightly, as if the man were whispering to himself, just out of hearing.
“I think even Abney must be working it out, right about now, that corpses don’t talk,” he said. “But it takes a truly shrewd mind to observe that dead men don’t drool.” He pointed at the glistening trail of saliva flowing from the doktor’s mouth with his pipe stem.
“He doesn’t even look like he’s breathing,” said Krizner.
“That’s because he’s not.”
“And what the hell is on his face?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Then what the—” Thijis shushed him with a curt gesture and gently felt at Helg’s wrist.
“His heartbeat’s faint, but it’s there,” he said.
“Live men tend to do some breathing, in my experience,” growled Krizner.
“That,” replied Thijis, “is where this comes in, I think.”
The arcane device strapped to the doktor’s head was a metal framework of gleaming brass, constructed of rods and screws and molded plates. It covered everything but his mouth and some of his nose. Copper wiring ran in precise channels around the mechanism, some of it routed up his nostrils. His mouth was slack, lips cracked and skinned back from crooked yellow teeth. The partial cowling was shaped to fit snugly against his temples, its structure supporting two rings orbiting the eyes. Where one might expect to find lenses, four shiny set screws each supported a pair of domed brass plates over his eyes.
Krizner was on the verge of asking another stupid question when Abney returned, lugging the brown leather case into the vaulted laboratory and depositing it at Thijis’ feet with a clunk. He grinned as if expecting a treat.
“Be careful, you idiot,” said Thijis, taking the case and bringing it over to one of the doktor’s worktables.
It was no simple matter to clear a space on the table, but most of the glassware and metalwork on top of it was scrap, and long untouched besides. A thick layer of dust lay over everything. After a moment’s consideration Thijis swept a bunch of it off with a loud crash and set the case up in the resulting clearing. He heard Abney mutter something in the background and fought the urge to retort. They’d undoubtedly make the boy Chief Inspector in a few years—he had the bovine charm the job required. Then Thijis would be faced with the choice of losing a lucrative consulting arrangement to his short temper or convincing the boy that “moron” was Ancient Eliman for “strapping chevalier of justice.” He could probably get him to engrave the title on a coat of arms, now that he thought about it.
He opened the case, arraying the tiered system of extending trays, and fished in the center compartment for his medium pliers. The screw heads looked custom, but he thought he had a screwdriver he could jury-rig to do the job.
Helg started mumbling again, drool still running down his neck, as Thijis approached.
“Gebbing’s boy said his housekeeper called it in,” Thijis said.
Chief Inspector Gebbing, Director of Inspection and second only to the Sheriff of Oridos himself, was not in the habit of making house calls on men such as Irik Thijis. Nor was he in the habit of being seen to ask for advice, however badly he needed it. His intelligence extended to the edge of self-preservation, and no further. As Thijis was likewise not in the habit of pandering to fuckwits like Gebbing who’d need a signed confession to uncover the stick up his own ass, the two men had come to an unspoken arrangement over the years.
When Gebbing’s inspectors required assistance, which was frequently, the Chief Inspector would send one or another of his pages to Thijis’s door, to rap on the plaque that read “Consulting Detective.” Thijis would receive payment for his services at an increased rate, conditional on his maintaining a low profile and giving all of the credit for his findings to Inspection Service.
“Aye, and you ask me, I don’t even know why we’re here,” growled Krizner. “Some aristo mollygobber locks himself in a room and his bloody maid gets worried when she don’t hear from him for a few days. You ask me, we’re dealing with a sauma fiend, nothing more. Since when’s a dozy old puff knocked off on his own supply a problem for Inspection, anyway?”
“My dear Krizner,” said Thijis, “the fact that I’m here means that no one, particularly your superiors, had any interest at all in asking you.” Krizner, standing at the head of the contoured chair in which the old man sprawled, spat. “In any case, I see no evidence of burns or needle marks. And my understanding was that the good doktor here hadn’t been seen in over a week when the woman called in the sheriffs. Nor do I see what his sexual preferences have to do with anything. Incidentally.”
He was taunting him now, of course, but that was part of the fun. Time and a half wasn’t a good enough rate to refrain from enjoying himself. They’d have to pay extra, for that.
“They keep their freaks behind closed doors up here, in the nice neighborhoods,” Krizner said, apparently by way of explanation. “Not like in the Undercity.”
“Hand me the sampling needle, will you?”
Krizner stumped over to the open case and poked around tentatively before holding up a large bore syringe.
“No, no, the smaller sharp. Steel. Right-hand side.” When the inspector finally handed over the right one, Thijis pricked Helg’s fingertip and smeared a droplet of blood—dark, he noted, and quite viscous—onto one of his tincture plates.
“To answer your previous question,” Thijis said, waiting for the plate to cure, “we’re here because Keynish Helg is something of a valuable commodity at the moment, and he has friends in high places.”
“He’s in demand. Wanted. Worth money, like. Doktor Helg here does a lot of tinkering with phirotics for the university, and a certain someone—a very rich, very important someone, before you ask—wants to make sure he sticks around for the time being.”
Krizner grunted. It wasn’t that he was useless, or stupid, precisely, it was just that there was a certain level above which the abilities of men like Krizner, adept as he no doubt was at shaking down sauma traffickers and tomcapping thugs in the Warrens, ceased to be useful. Which Thijis was only too happy to see, as it was how he made his not-insignificant living.
The tincture cured, blue as a dandy’s frock. He’d been under a long time then; at least the week the housekeeper had reported. Taking his pliers, Thijis gripped the rim of one of the brass bezels suspended over Helg’s eyes and held it while he carefully turned the screws. The thing was well constructed and far cleaner than its wearer; it released smoothly with a well-oiled click as the last screw came loose. Flipping it around in his palm, he showed Krizner the other side. Wrapped copper wiring ran from connectors on the inside of the bezel into the headpiece.
The amber crystal, faceted and polished by an expert hand, stared up at them much like the revealed eye of Keynish Helg, which gazed now through an empty ring of brass into the high, dimly lit atrium of his laboratory with all the frozen intent of a dead man.
“This, Inspector Krizner, is why we’re here.”
* * *
He watched the bug climb the lip of the cistern and considered capturing it in one of his sample jars, but she was watching. She was watching and she wouldn’t want him to, would make him let it go. She wouldn’t want him to dissect it. She would anthropomorphize it, he knew, give it the properties of a being of a higher order than it was, claim that it had feelings and deserved pity.
“Don’t you dare,” she said. She’d seen him looking.
“I wasn’t going to,” he said.
“Were too,” she said. The dress she wore was fraying badly about the hem and soiled black on the buttocks with the dark grime that coated the Undercity. It was also too small for her: a girl’s dress, really, and she was becoming more than that. He looked away uncomfortably.
“Let’s go watch the sunners,” she said, skipping down off of the lip of the cistern—it was uncovered, apparently bottomless, and the fall would certainly kill her. She walked toward the wrong tunnel mouth.
“It’s this way,” he said, standing. His long fingers fidgeted nervously in his trouser pockets, as they always did, weighing down the sagging braces he wore to keep them from falling off his skinny body. He pointed, and started walking.
“You always know the way, don’t you, Key?” she asked. Rhetorically, he supposed; she didn’t wait for an answer, but took his right hand out of his pocket, bold as you like, and held it in her own.
“To the Inner Sea!” she cried, her best stage voice echoing dramatically in the broad chambers of the ancient sewers.
Key led her to her favorite spot, winding through the dank cylinders of the outflow pipes, squinting at the first dim glow of daylight as they neared the outer wall long minutes later.
It wasn’t a wall, precisely, not like the one surrounding the city to the north. It was the natural cliff face dropping from the southern promontory of the Oridosi peninsula into the Inner Sea below. But everyone just called it the wall.
“There,” she pointed, kneeling uncomfortably close to the edge. At some point in the distant past a metal grate had covered the pipe’s exit; only a twisted set of rusty teeth remained to tell of it. She clung to one of them and leaned out.
“Don’t,” he said, raising one hand toward her.
“So nervous, Key,” she chided, smiling. “See? Just there.”
The creatures were indeed sunning themselves on the large rocks at the base of the cliff. Their sluice gate was at least fifty hands above them—low on the wall, but high enough to not pose a security risk to the city. At least, not if the grate were still there.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
She loved them, he knew, with a strange fierceness. He saw only ungainly, if sleek bodies, long snouts, the flippers that were so awkward on land. A form of cetacean, native to the warm waters of the inland ocean the Oridosi called the Inner Sea. And the noises they made—undignified honks that made them seem like mutated geese. Her hair hung in her face as she bent over the edge, the curve of her shoulder white and close.
“Yes,” he said. “Beautiful.”
Her other hand was still in his, their palms moist and warm. Without thinking he brought it to his lips and kissed the back of it, not caring about the grime on her fingers. She looked back at him, startled, the light of the afternoon suns catching her eyes.
* * *
Two strata in, the tiered amber planes of the reticulum glowing above him. Feedback thrumming through his jaw. It had been building for some time now—how long? How many times had he run it? He was back at the first position. Too many nodes, starting to slide through them, too fluid. Needed a punctuated focus on each to travel the array. The static glistened, rushed; garbled noise.
Then a sharp spike of pain. What could—? The link was compromised. How could—the headpiece. He’d calibrated it precisely, strapped it tight. Knocked out of alignment? Shouldn’t be possible. Not to be disturbed. Doors locked…how long? He’d allowed for the time dilation. Had he miscalculated? Had they come looking?
He adjusted his vector, inverted. The damage spike thrummed, branching off. His mobility was affected, slowed, but he could still go on. No fighting it, he was too close. Not enough time. Perhaps just a fluke, a stutter in the link feed. He reached toward the next node, feeling its soft light, sunk his will into it, felt the world open.
* * *
“It’s rarer now,” said Thijis, loosening the last screw in the left lens socket of Helg’s strange helmet. He carefully removed the amber gem from its setting and held it up for Krizner to see. As it broke contact with the brass set screws, the center of the crystal seemed to dim. “It used to be everywhere. Before they figured out how to make it last, tap the crystalline matrix itself, siphon power with phiromancy…”
Thijis glanced at Krizner. He’d lost him, he could see. The inspector was scratching his head and beginning to look hunted.
“Elekstone, Krizner. The stuff the engineers use to power the generators.”
“Glowcoal?” asked Krizner.
“Yes, glowcoal. So named because they used to shovel it into crude furnaces like coal. Centuries ago you could find the stuff in creek beds and rockslides all over Westalen. Not today.”
“So what does that have to do with—”
“Nothing,” said Thijis. “Never mind. The point is, whatever this mechanism is, it’s powered by elekstone. Which wouldn’t be very interesting, aside from the insane expense of it, but for the fact that this thing seems to be feeding its own power back into it.”
“That isn’t supposed to be possible.”
“He’s a professor at the University, isn’t he?” asked Krizner. “Don’t they know how to….” Krizner waggled his fingers in the air in a strange gesture.
“What, tickle virgins?” snapped Thijis. “They’re not fucking sorcerers, Krizner. The only thing magical here is the fact that Abney hasn’t choked to death on his own saliva yet.” Krizner had wisely put the boy on the door to make sure they weren’t disturbed. Thijis fought down his annoyance. Not useless at all, Krizner, not when he played to his strengths.
Krizner only frowned, apparently at a loss.
Thijis considered the flat jewel in his hand with pursed lips.
“I’ll have to take this slowly. I’m working backwards, here, and I don’t want to kill him by accident.”
“Stumped, are we?” He could feel Krizner’s grin. He ignored him.
“Send a runner, will you? Abney, if there’s no one else. I want to see Helg’s file.”
It was an open secret that the Sheriff kept detailed files on most—if not all—persons of note in the city. What had begun as a purportedly public method of keeping track of the criminal histories of Oridos’ less desirable elements had quickly become a vast repository of blackmail material focused primarily on the malfeasances of bored aristocrats. It had become something of a party game among the nobility, trading rumors about the comparative sizes of their files and which of their more hedonistic exploits might have merited inclusion.
While Krizner shuffled off, Thijis pulled a rolling metal cart over to Helg’s waxen body and put down the amber jewel and the various components he had removed from the headgear. The doktor’s chair was custom, it seemed, a heavy, built-in contraption made of metal and tufted leather. Two long levers at the doktor’s right hand appeared to control the recline and spin. Helg himself was almost naked, but for a loose pair of trousers that had seen better days. The entire laboratory, which appeared to have originally been a library, seemed designed around the chair itself. Its base was secured to the floor, and the way the worktables were arranged around the circumference of the room spoke to its importance. Whatever Helg was up to, it was a plan long in the making.
So why had they been called in now? Helg’s equipment alone was unlike anything Thijis had ever seen. It looked like the work of years, and from the state of the laboratory, he’d been deep into it for quite some time.
Contrary to what he’d told Krizner, he was far from certain about what, precisely, any of them were doing here. He had deduced from the urgency of Gebbings summons that the case was a sensitive one, and Doktor Keynish Helg was something of a celebrity academician of late. His name had been mentioned with some regularity in the science pages of the Oridos Tribune in connection with the University. Thijis kept the major newspapers on file in his apartment office, along with a variety of other publications of interest. A few minutes of research before departing for the scene had given him a rough sketch of Keynish Helg.
Gebbing’s file would be far more useful, however, and as eager as he was to explore the strange device Helg had connected himself to, he knew from experience how dangerous it could be to delve into the unknown without proper preparation. You could always prepare, no matter how mysterious or intimidating your objective: logical investigation inevitably resulted in some amount of useful knowledge. He’d disturbed the scene of Helg’s self-induced catatonia enough. Further examination would wait until he knew more.
Inspection headquarters was halfway across the city, and Abney would dawdle. In the meantime, Helg had an entire townhouse that needed investigating.
He found Krizner on the mansion’s steps, smoking a cigarette.
“Solved it already, have you?” he asked, exhaling yellow smoke into the morning fog.
“Solved what?” asked Thijis, puffing at his pipe until it was warm again. “There’s no crime here that I can see. So far we’ve got an aristocratic bookworm who gets his kicks burning his eyes out with glowcoal. If I were you I’d be asking myself who put us up to this, and what they want.”
“Thought you had that all figured out already,” said Krizner, looking straight ahead.
“I said he’s got friends in high places, which is true enough. I didn’t say I knew who they were.” This was why you couldn’t underestimate Krizner. Thijis was half-convinced the man intentionally played stupid when it suited his mood.
“So I’ll go with it as a well-being check, then,” Krizner said. “If a damned expensive one.” He looked at Thijis then and winked, inhaling deeply.
“You’ve sent Abney downtown?” he asked. A nod. “And you kept your men out of the rest of the house?”
“Other than the initial sweep they did to make sure there wasn’t anybody else inside, they didn’t touch nothing. Most of them are around the corner on standby. These two’ll mind the door.” He nodded at the two beat constables on opposites sides of the staircase below. They were doughy and rough: skullcrackers. Tavern bouncers given a Sheriff’s armband. They watched the occasional passersby—foot traffic was rare enough in this neighborhood at any hour, and almost non-existent this early in the morning—with a mixture of suspicion and boredom. There weren’t any carriages on the street yet. The people who lived in Kammerend didn’t get up this early.
“Then I’ll be going over the upper floors. Come get me when Abney gets back.” Krizner grunted, flicked his cigarette, and continued staring down into the charcoal gray morning light of Kammerend Boulevard.
Stepping back into the vaulted foyer of Helg’s house, Thijis puffed at his pipe and sighed. The entranceway and the main staircase, a broad sweeping thing that dominated the front hall, were impeccably clean. Apparently the doktor’s lab was no indication of his cleaning lady’s abilities. Told to keep out, then. Another indication that the doktor had been planning whatever jaunt into the drugged unknown he was currently enjoying. Whatever Krizner thought, this wasn’t a simple case of a sauma overdose. There was no indication the drug had been used here, none of the blackened veins or burnt eyes. But that didn’t mean chemistry had nothing to do with it. Whatever Helg had done to himself, there was a reason a substantial portion of his workspace was dedicated to chemical equipment. The collection of bottles and flasks he had knocked over to put down his case was larger than most apothecaries’.
Thijis had done enough personal investigation into the spectrum of mind-altering substances available in the Undercity to know that the potential of chemistry to change one’s mental perspective was vast. The uses a man like Helg might put it to, given his level of education and propensity for creative technical thought…well, they seemed almost limitless.
He was halfway up the first flight of stairs when it occurred to him that he’d better check the kitchens. The fact that most residents of Kammerend Boulevard would rarely have laid eyes on service areas of their homes didn’t mean he could ignore them. Servants were often treasure troves of useful information in any case, and inspecting their places of work and life was just as enlightening as that of their masters—often more so. Though in this case, he didn’t think Helg kept much of a staff beyond the one maid.
The entire back of the first level was dedicated to the kitchen and related service areas. Thijis found the entrance to the servants’ hallway behind the main staircase. It was narrow and led directly into the main kitchen, a wide, high-ceilinged room tiled in black and white and lined with counters and prep tables. The far end was dominated by an impressive set of ovens, the center by a massive worktable overhung by dozens of pots and pans.
Like the front hall, the room was clean—too clean, in fact. The surfaces looked untouched. The arched hutch beside the main oven was well-stocked with split wood, but the iron was cold, the firebox empty and swept clean when he opened the door. It was a kitchen designed to feed an aristocratic family and a household full of servants, but it clearly hadn’t been used in some time.
On a table behind the door he’d come in through, Thijis found a covered platter. Lifting the silver lid revealed a rich man’s meal gone cold: roasted lamb encrusted with herbs; new potatoes swimming in butter, now clotted; a wilted selection of steamed greens. A small loaf of bread and a stoppered pitcher of what smelled like a very fine vintage of Oridosi red completed the repast. The food was no more than a day old. Just the one servant, then. Cleans the place and makes him dinner, then leaves him to his own devices. Thijis was sampling the wine—hearty, from one of the large southern estates, most likely—when it occurred to him that a bottle of wine in a house like this meant a wine cellar.
Of course it has a wine cellar, you idiot. It’s Kammerend Boulevard.
He found the door at the back of a pantry on the right side of the kitchen. He opened it to the smell of must and moisture and knew he had the right place. The staircase was rough cut stone, leading down into darkness. A lantern hung conveniently just inside the doorway, which Thijis lit by shaking a coal out of his pipe’s boiler. The pipe went out, but he was already thinking of other indulgences. As interesting as Doktor Keynish Helg’s case may have seemed at first, it was beginning to look fairly straightforward. Hardly the first time some University academic’s gotten carried away with his research. Why, just last year that engineer had almost blown up half the Forge district, and succeeded in setting fire to three separate refineries. All in pursuit of a supposedly superior steel-smelting technique.
This would end up the same. Helg was undoubtedly researching the potential use of elekstone as a curative of some kind, which would net serious apothecary investment, or perhaps studying its use as some kind of electrical battery. The idea had been proposed before. Either way, Thijis would walk away with a boring answer to an interesting question, a few thousand marks richer. Which was nothing to complain about. But there was also no reason not to enjoy the few perks that came with the job, first.
The stairway let out into a granite cellar made up of thick square columns supporting broad, low arches. Within the arches along the walls were nested bottles, most of which were laced with old cobwebs, mildew, and the occasional scurrying eight-legged guardian. The collection was impressive, though much of it looked old enough that it might not be drinkable; likely laid down by Helg’s father or grandfather. The doktor’s work seemed to keep him too busy for such fripperies, though a slightly less musty shelf of pear-shaped bottles with several empty spaces suggested he had a taste for Deschiaran apple brandy.
It was laid out with scientific precision, however: Thijis stood in a section of full-bodied whites from the lowlands. Most of the reds seemed to be further back. Trailing a hand along the bottle tops jutting horizontally out of their scalloped shelves, he made his way deeper into the cellar. The lantern, when fully opened, cast a decent circle of golden light, giving the wine bottles a shadowed cast and illuminating their dark contents. He imagined something devilish swimming within in them and smiled. I’m the devil they’ll be swimming in.
He could smell something sharp and acrid behind the general musty odor of the cellar; like strong vinegar, but more chemical. Perhaps some bottles had fallen over, broken. Some brandies in particular could produce quite a powerful aroma if left to evaporate.
He reached the rear wall of the basement only to discover a larger archway leading into another chamber. The archway was entirely blocked by iron bars, a single, locked door barring further progress.
A few moments work with one of his custom pocket tools and the lock sprung open. Someone had kept the door oiled: it swung open easily and silently, as if beckoning him inside.
Keeping his best bottles behind lock and key. Thijis approved. The vinegar smell grew stronger, wafting into his face as if blown. It would be a shame to find the most elite of Helg’s spirits spoiled.
Putting his handkerchief over his mouth and nose, he raised the lantern high and stepped through the bars.
The bodies were stacked as neatly as the wine bottles without, head to toe in several layers, neatly squared against the back wall. They were nude, men and women both, in various states of decay but somehow not stinking the way a room full of corpses ought to. They smelled only of whatever concoction Helg had brewed up to conceal their stench. There were more than a dozen within the lantern’s light alone, and another archway to the left suggested another chamber beyond.
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Irik Thijis was well and truly surprised. The case of Doktor Keynish Helg might turn out to be an interesting one yet.