scifi.com navigation

As of Friday, June 15, 2007, SCI FICTION will no longer be availabe on SCIFI.COM.
SCIFI.COM would like to thank all those who contributed
and those who read the short stories over the past few years.

 
 
 
     
 
Almost every day a girl, of maybe sixteen years, would lean out dangerously far and wave to someone in the street below.
 
     
 
Molly was reminded of the false smile on her father's face just before he would twist her ear, hard, for singing off-key.
 
1
The Anatomist's Apprentice
by Matthew Claxton

The window was caked with soot, but unevenly. Molly knew all the cleanest panes, the places she could set her eyes and see something of the world outside the laboratory.

There was the top left edge, where the bent gutter caught most of the city grime and left a clean strip. Molly could see half a dozen tenement chimneys, which smoked faintly when the inhabitants could afford coal or sat cold when they could not. Once she had seen an owl fly over the rooftops. The poor creature must have wandered in from the farms beyond the city. It had been mobbed by a murder of crows, and Molly had seen spots of red on its fawn-colored wings.

Just off the center of the window, she could look into the window of an apartment across the street. Almost every day a girl, of maybe sixteen years, would lean out dangerously far and wave to someone in the street below. Then she turned and vanished with great speed. Molly had no idea if she was meeting friends, a suitor, or clients. She couldn't twist her neck far enough to see the apartment door.

Molly's favorite spot to look was near the bottom of the window, and it gave a view of the alley that led up to the laboratory's door. One story below her, costermongers gathered their wagons after nightfall, and played music on accordions and guitars. She could faintly hear their music and laughter through the thick glass.

She tried not to look at the alley on the first morning of the month and always failed. That was when the anatomist opened his doors to new supplicants. It was the first morning of the month when she saw the boy. He was first in line, and had arrived before the early summer dawn, while Molly was still fitfully sleeping.

He was a typical young man of New Amsterdam's poor neighborhoods. He wore a jacket with faintly frayed cuffs, no coat or hat, and his pants were an inch too short, revealing sagging wool socks and oversized shoes. He was thin, but not so thin and hollow-eyed as the street sweepers or sewer hunters Molly had known before she came to the laboratory. She would have guessed him for a messenger boy or horse holder, perhaps an unsuccessful pickpocket. He was holding one hand over his stomach. His hand was balled into a fist and he was stooped slightly, his whole body bent around a pain.

On the floor above the laboratory, the anatomist's alarm clock rang. Molly silently counted to three before it was shut off. Her owner was as mechanical as his clock, taking just this much time to rise to wakefulness. It would be another three seconds before Molly heard his feet pad across the creaking floor to the chamber pot, then the count of two hundred and thirty while he pissed and then washed at his basin.

All this was inferred. Molly had never been upstairs and had no expectation of ever seeing the anatomist's private quarters.

He came downstairs slowly, and Molly knew he would be holding the banister with one hand, moving stiffly because of the steel frame that braced his spine. Molly would have liked to see this every morning, for the chance that he might stumble and dash his brains out. But she was seldom turned away from the window at night.

The anatomist's reflection grew in the window before Molly, looming against the black smudges. With precision, he turned her to face the laboratory. He always moved her carefully, so as not to suddenly strain her neck where her sixth cervical vertebra was anchored to her jar. She could feel the liquid in the jar swirl around the set of small organs that comprised what remained of her body.

There was an itch on her scalp, where her ragged half-inch of hair was still growing back from the last time it had been shaved. She knew better than to ask him to scratch it; he would simply ignore her.

"Are there many today?" he asked. He used no more volume than was necessary to be heard and understood. Even in the breath expended on speech, he was parsimonious.

"At least a dozen, sir," she said. "Three groups of two or more that I could see, and four individuals."

He put a small glass under a spigot at the side of her jar and removed a teaspoon of clear urine. He emptied the glass down the drain.

Someone knocked at the door, rapidly. There was a sign posted in writing and street glyph indicating that no one would be admitted before eight bells. It was barely ten of six.

The anatomist scowled. He ignored the repeated knocking. It stopped while he completed some notes begun the night before.

He buttoned his gray lab coat to its high collar and drank a glass of distilled water from a cistern at the room's back wall while the knocking continued. Smoothing his collar with a finger, he opened the door.

The boy was leaning against the jamb but quickly straightened as he was waved in. Under his fist, the uneven bulge in his stomach was obvious. He looked a little less than twenty, with straw-colored hair that could benefit from a cutting. Except for his distended stomach, he was scarecrow gaunt.

Like most supplicants, he kept his attention on the anatomist. He didn't notice Molly in the clutter of the laboratory.

"How long have you had the pains?" the anatomist said.

The boy looked confused by the absence of any preamble.

"Two months, I suppose. It came on sort of gradual."

"Any other symptoms?"

"I can't shi … I mean, I have trouble going, you know? And when I do…"

"Your excrement is black and ropy."

"Yeah."

"Have you had trouble keeping food down?"

"For the last couple days, I can't keep nothing in my stomach but water and a little beer. I just puke right away."

"Have you been bitten in the last three years by any ticks, particularly one of those with a yellow-and-brown-striped abdomen?"

"Uh, no."

"Have you worked in a tannery?"

"No."

"Have you worked in a mandrake parlor?"

The boy seemed ready to deny it. The screaming plants were illegal, and the narcotic drawn from the eyes of the root was more so.

"I … yes. For seven months, until they got raided this last winter. I was filling pipes."

"You ate there?"

"Yes."

"There you will find the source of the growth. The local pharmacopoeists mix mandrake with a number of industrial chemicals. The smoke coats everything in their little warrens, and it is only too easy to ingest a large quantity of these substances in a short time. Yours is not the first case I have seen. If you do not receive surgery within a fortnight you will be dead."

The boy nodded, no surprise in his features.

"Now, as regards payment. You will require a physical examination, but I can estimate now that your surgery will cost you at least two hundred thalers. You cannot pay this amount."

The boy shook his head. It was more money than a city factory drudge was likely to see in two years. A street boy might not see it in a lifetime.

His face fell. Despair ran through his features on trackways already worn deep and true.

Molly twisted her neck to the left then to see him better as he stammered about paying the anatomist back. He noticed her and froze, his jaw hanging open.

Molly didn't want to say anything. She hadn't felt a thing for a client in more than a year. Twenty-six months of seeing the deathly ill and grieving turned away had left a thick sheet of ice across her compassion. And this boy was not likely to cut through that glacier. She had grown up with city boys like him. She had seen the way the fights, the rough living, the desperation could hollow out a person and leave nothing but an amoral automaton.

She felt her mouth forming silent words regardless.

Can you read? Molly mouthed.

He just stared. Molly thought he was probably looking at the jar under her neck.

Can … you … read?

He understood this time, and nodded. The anatomist turned his stiff torso to glance at Molly. She looked up, trying to tilt her head back and see if any new spiders had spun webs between the oak beams. If the boy couldn't take a hint, she wouldn't give him any more help. She had done more than she intended already.

"Ah, I can read and write pretty good sir," the boy said. "My ma taught me and my brothers before she caught the red cough."

"Are you implying you can improve your station in life and so pay me back? I very much doubt it."

"I could work for you, sir, to pay off my debt. Do you need an assistant?"

"Not at present. And certainly not you. My previous assistant was a student of medicine, and you are clearly not."

"And all Orrin did was read labels and fetch and carry," Molly said. "If this one can read well enough and has hands and feet, why not?"

Her master grunted and glided across the room to a rack of chemicals. He picked out a jar and carried it back in both hands to hold up in front of the boy. Lumps like boiled egg whites floated in yellow oil.

"Read the label."

"Uh, puh, I mean, phlogiston: eighty-five percent purity. Do not expose to air and keep away from open flame or heat in storage."

The jar was returned to its place, and the anatomist stood silently for several minutes. As he rocked stiffly from side to side, his back brace creaked.

"I will take you on as my assistant," he said. "You will work for me until I calculate your debt has been paid. I will supply you with meals, a half-salary, and you can sleep on a cot here in the laboratory.

"And you will not run away because I will not be removing the whole of the growth. I will remove all but a speck, and it will take several months to grow large enough to threaten your health again. But it will return. I will only completely remove the growth when your time of service is up."

"Thank you, sir."

"What am I to call you, now that you are my employee?"

"Jack, sir. Jack Van Kroll. What should I call you, sir?"

"I am called Achard, but sir or doctor will suffice for your purposes. You may begin your employ by sweeping the floor, Jack. I trust the pain is not unbearable at present. I will perform your surgery tonight."

While the anatomist let in the next supplicant, Jack turned to Molly. He stared for a moment, then turned away with a jerk.

While Jack swept and cleaned glassware and ground herbs to powder, the anatomist saw two dozen more supplicants. Most were turned away as they had not sufficient money or because they asked for the impossible. Five could pay, and appointments were made for surgery. Another had an unusual condition that Achard had never seen; an anemic child with what appeared to be gills on his lower chest. An appointment was made to see him again, for the anatomist valued knowledge above all other things.

At noon a runner from Montmorency's brought the usual dinner, including half a cup of beef broth that was set before Molly by her owner. She drank it through a lacquered bamboo tube thinner than her lost fingers. The anatomist ate duck breast and roast potatoes standing at a desk while he drew a sketch of the child's gills from memory. He did not offer any food to Jack, informing him that he must wait for his operation.

As dusk gathered its sooty folds around the city and lamplighters began their rounds, the anatomist cleared his surgical table and had Jack scrub it before removing his jacket and shirt and lying down. The anatomist washed his hands with distilled water and gray soap. He drew a small amount of blood from Jack's arm and mixed it in a pestle with a thick translucent grease. Then he wrote Jack's name on a piece of rice paper and began asking the boy questions about the year, month, day, and hour of his birth. As answers were received, symbols surrounded the name. Molly had seen her owner perform this procedure more than a dozen times, often lecturing absently as he did so.

Finally the paper was burned to ash in a black jade tray. The ash was mixed with the paste, and Achard dipped a badger-hair brush into the pestle. He drew a line diagonally across Jack's stomach.

"There will be some pain, but not much if you have been accurate in your birth information," the anatomist said. Then he gripped the skin to either side of the line with spidery hands and pulled. The skin parted bloodlessly, with a sound like tearing silk. Jack grunted but didn't move.

The anatomist took up the brush again and made another line on the revealed layer of muscle.

"Separate the obliquus abdominis externus and internus," he said, pulling the muscles apart and bracing them with steel separators. "Then, avoiding the rectus abdominis, separate the transversalis." Another layer of muscle was pulled apart, and the separators repositioned.

Achard talked out loud as he worked, a habit Molly guessed was left from the days when he had lectured at the University surgery.

Jack was sweating, but Molly guessed he was reacting more to the sounds of his body being pulled apart than the discomfort. She knew the sounds and feelings well herself.

"The growth occupies the transverse portion of the colon," Achard said. He applied another line of the grease, then used a paper-thin scalpel to slice the organ open cleanly. "The large intestine is almost completely blocked.

"If you feel any pain at this point, please let me know. You should feel nothing from the growth, as it has become parasitic." He picked up a larger scalpel in one hand and began dabbing the grease inside Jack's gut.

It took the anatomist almost an hour to separate the growth from the folds of Jack's intestine. He pulled out the slick, black thing by one of its six-toed feet and held it close to his hard gaze for a moment. The head was larger than a blacksmith's fist. The lopsided body was stunted in comparison, smaller than a newborn. One of its mouths opened and closed weakly, showing teeth like rose thorns.

"Parthenogenetic sport, derived from polluted mandrake," he said, before he lowered it into a jar of alcohol, twisting on the tin lid. "Quite the largest I have ever removed, although I have seen reports of larger." The creature struggled briefly and expired.

The anatomist stitched Jack up with a spool of fish's breath line, almost invisible in the lamp light.

"You can sit up now. Is there any pain?"

"A little sore in the muscles," Jack said.

"To be expected. I will give you nothing to eat tomorrow besides broth and water, and light meals for the next week. Inform me when you feel a recurrence of the pain or swelling."

He washed his hands again and then turned Molly to face the window. The costermongers had not yet come back to the alley, and nothing stirred anywhere she could see.

Molly heard the anatomist walk back upstairs and the sounds of Jack folding sheets and blankets out on his cot.

Just before she drifted off the sleep, she heard him stir.

"You there," he said. "What are you … What's your name?"

What are you, indeed, she thought. What am I but the one who saved you? She could imagine his stare of mingled horror and open fascination; she could feel it through the dark of the lab. She had seen it often enough on the face of clients.

"Molly," she said.

"Thank you, Molly."

"You should sleep," she said sharply. "You'll need your strength; he is not an easy master."


· · · · · 


Jack began his work the next morning with memorization. He was set to learn the names of every piece of glassware, every surgical tool, and the position of every chemical and medication on the laboratory shelves. Molly thought he was a quick study, but he earned several sharp blows to the ears from the anatomist. By noon's bells, he was acquainted with all the commonly needed chemicals and could tell apart the twelve common types of scalpel and eight types of bone saw.

That afternoon, Jack helped with the dissection of a cadaver's thumb, plucked from the jars of preserved digits that lined one laboratory shelf. The anatomist selectively sliced away or dissolved parts of the thumb's skin and muscles, mapping the fine lacework of nerves. Jack handed him tools and brought him chemicals.

Molly watched the day's activities with the same detached interest she usually felt. When she had first been set on the shelf, she had watched the dissection activities with disgust, then a slowly flowering fascination. With nothing to do all day and nowhere else to turn, she had put all her attention into her owner's work. If asked, she knew she could name all the primary veins and arteries of the leg and describe the layers of the muscles of the shoulder. She could list the chemicals used to prevent cadavers from decaying and the steps needed to reanimate snakes, rats, hogs, or men.

But after the first several months, she had seen almost everything, heard almost everything. The anatomist was a perfectionist, drawing new anatomic charts in ever greater detail. His researches switchbacked over the same terrain repeatedly, exhausting every possibility before he would move on. Although he lectured as he worked, he did not talk to her unless necessary.

His prior assistants had been no better company. Thurstan had worked for the doctor when she arrived, and he had been almost as much of an automaton as the old man. He had been fired when the anatomist discovered him copying newly made diagrams to sell to other doctors.

Orrin had been worse. The son of a doctor, he was disgusted by Molly and avoided even glancing at her. He had done his duties well enough, but had fled the laboratory after just eight months. Molly suspected he would never become a surgeon. He had hated pulling apart flesh, living or dead.

Then there had been three months in which the anatomist had simply not bothered to find a new assistant. He was engrossed in research that did not require much in the way of heavy equipment or extra hands, and he was satisfied to work on his own. But Molly had seen several times a look of consternation cross his face when he had been forced to clean his own glassware or grind his own powders again when his supply ran low.

She knew he would find a new assistant, but she had no longer hoped it would be someone who would have a kind word for a girl, even if that girl had lost her body.

She was already feeling vindicated in her cynicism. All day Jack kept his head down and said little except in answer to his master's questions and commands. He drank his broth at dinner and again at supper without speaking, sitting on his cot. His only expression apart from attentive listening was a wince of pain when he bent over or moved too quickly.

From the sound of his breathing, he was asleep almost before their master had made his way up the stairs that evening.

The next two days were much the same.

On the fourth day since Jack's arrival, Molly woke early when a bright light turned the inside of her eyelids red.

The early summer sun was rising above the tenement roofs, and she could see the street outside in bright detail. Jack was outside, rubbing the last smudges of soot away from the window panes. He gave Molly a brief glance, no expression she could read in his features, then climbed down his ladder with his rag and bucket. The ladder vanished from the edge of the window, and she saw him a moment later walking up the alley toward the back of the laboratory building.

When Achard came down the stairs, he noticed the change, squinting his eyes into the unaccustomed brightness. All six windows had been cleaned of grime. When he turned Molly, she noticed how shoddy everything in the lab looked under the bright light. The examining tables were old and battered, and the floor was scabbed with acid burns and stains.

When Jack came in through the back, Achard asked why he had done it.

"It was so dim in here, sir, you've been using the gaslights when it's barely mid-afternoon. I thought this would save you a few thalers."

"Very good, then. Have you cleaned the separators that were used last night?"

"Not yet, sir."

Achard swung his arm like a scythe and punched a knuckle into Jack's left ear.

"Do it now, then. You should have finished them before I came down."

"Yes, sir."

While Jack laboured with the fine scrub brushes, Achard came to Molly's shelf.

"I am finished my other work for the time being," he said. "We shall recommence our researches after dinner."

Molly nodded, thought of spitting at his chest, and then imagined his arm sweeping her off the table onto the hard floor. If her jar shattered, she would die again and be nothing but a new stain on the floor and a sheaf of notes in his journals. The muscles in her jaw tensed involuntarily; she could feel their tightness pulling at her scalp.

She saw that Jack was staring at her, and she gave him a glare so hot he jerked his head away and avoided looking at her for the rest of the morning.

After Achard's usual lunch, he pulled out a set of special probes and glass electrical batteries. He laid out the equipment next to Molly's head with the care of a priest setting candles and incense on an altar. Jack was called to bring hot water and shaving soap and then ordered to keep his hands still.

Achard clipped Molly's short, scruffy hair with surgical scissors, then scraped off the black stubble with a straight razor. He swept the hair to the floor and set the bowl of soapy water out of the way.

Even with no reflection at hand, Molly could picture the tattooed lines now exposed. She imagined she could feel them, a fine grid of squares smaller than a child's fingernail. The numbers at the edge of the grid were strongly impressed in her memory. Molly recalled the needle scratching the tight loops of the sixes and eights, the quick slashes of ones and sevens.

Achard connected his finest probe to the batteries with a length of rubber-coated wire. He snapped down a switch and watched a blue spark arc from the end of the probe to a copper quarter-thaler on the bench. Satisfied, he coated the probe in a layer of his gray surgical grease from a jar clearly labeled with Molly's name.

"Do not move," he told Molly. She gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. When they had first started, he had used a modified scold's bridle to hold her head immobile. It had gouged her face so painfully she had begged him to stop using it. She could hold herself as still as a statue now.

He pushed the probe against a grid, and she felt it pass through her skin with only a soft noise like a cat's footfall. The skull resisted, but the anatomist increased his pressure slightly, and Molly felt and heard a fizzing sound as the bone rippled and parted to make way for the metal. Then it was in her brain, and her awareness of the point vanished. The first time he had probed her skull, she had imagined the brain would feel pain unendurable. But there was nothing, until he turned on the current.

She heard the switch snap, and felt a burning ache in her long-lost leg. It was a pulled muscle pain, as though someone had grabbed her calf and wrenched hard to the right.

"What do you feel?" Achard asked.

"Pain, in my left lower leg. Mostly in the soleus muscle, I think," she said.

He grunted and switched off the power. He made a note, pushed the probe a fraction of an inch deeper, and hit the switch again.

An entirely different sensation struck her. This time it was hard to identify.

"What now?"

"I … Water, I think," she said. "It feels like the back of my legs are in warm water."

"How far does the sensation extend?"

"From my upper thighs to just above my ankles." Another grunt, and the electricity was shut off, followed by the scratching of his pen. The probe was moved deeper.

The anatomist changed the depth of the probe a dozen times before withdrawing it and moving on to another grid. Many of the sensations were of pain or discomfort in her legs. In the next grid, it was sensations of heat and then strange and almost indefinable shiftings in her bowels. Achard questioned her repeatedly about them, attempting to define them exactly. He scowled when she was unable to put the sensations into words.

It was after three bells when he withdrew the probe for the final time and wiped the grease off with a linen rag. He carefully replaced his instruments in their cabinet and called for Jack to clean the table.

Molly hadn't seen or heard Jack during the procedure. She knew he must have been somewhere in the lab, outside of her peripheral vision, watching. He had been too quiet to have been working. She was exhausted from the procedure and barely heard him as he worked around her.

After he had swept the hair from the floor and wiped the shelf clean of grease, he refilled the shaving bowl with water.

She was almost asleep as he began to wipe her head with a cool cloth.

"You were sweating," he said. She didn't reply. As soon as he was finished, she fell asleep. She dreamed of limbs and organs spread out around her like a red, organic snowflake. Something was poking and prodding among them, but when she tried to turn and look, she only caught a glimpse of metal fingers in the shadows. The cold touch retreated, and someone stroked her head, running fingers through her waist-length hair.

"Shh," she heard. "If you cry out any louder, you'll wake him." After that, she drifted into a deeper, dreamless sleep. She woke as a midsummer night was falling and the sky beyond her window had turned a deep indigo. For the first time in two years, she saw the last fading colors of a city sunset. Across the street, a young woman with blond curls was escorted to the door of a tenement by a young man. They kissed quickly, and the girl glanced up at her window, watchful for parents. She disappeared inside, and her suitor waited below until she poked her head out of a third story window and waved. He blew her a kiss and walked away toward Archer Avenue. As she drifted off to sleep again, she realized the girl was the one whom she had seen through the window, waving to someone below for months.

Mystery solved, she thought. A familiar pang of envy and self-pity rose in her throat, but she choked it back. It was harder to swallow than it had been for months and left a bitter taste in her mouth.

The next night, Jack spoke to her.

It was an hour after Molly had been turned to the window and the laboratory gaslights had been doused that he spoke.

"Molly?" he said from out of the dark behind her.

"Yes?"

"Are you all right? From yesterday, I mean."

She took as deep a breath as her four small lungs would allow. She wanted to cry suddenly. She sucked in a few more breaths, and the urge passed.

"I'm well enough. I guess I'm used to it."

"He does that a lot?"

"Sometimes every day for a week. More likely six or seven times a month. I'm glad he didn't try again today; he didn't much like some of my answers yesterday."

"It's pretty awful."

"Yes."

He was silent then for a while, and she heard him get up from bed and pull one of the laboratory stools up close behind her. He turned her around, as carefully as though she were a jeweled egg. The sharp planes of his face, still not filled in from months of sickness and little food, were cast into light and shadow by the street lamps. He still wore the same shirt, now untucked, and the trousers he had worn during the day.

"I've never seen anything like you before. And I've been through the Sport Hall at Farforth's Museum twice. Were you born like that, like those babies with three legs in the jars?"

She didn't want to talk about her life and death. But she had had her fill of silence.

"No," she said. "I was born with all my arms and legs and fingers and toes. I was made this way."

"Why?"

Molly had never told anyone her story before. "We should talk quietly so he can't hear us," she said. "He sleeps light, some nights."

She found she didn't know where to begin, and paused.

"I got sick," she said. "Like you. It was a little more than two years ago. I was selling songs for a penny by the docks with my sisters, and we were walking home when I stepped on a nail that went clean through my shoe and stocking, stabbed me good in the left foot. I cleaned it out when I got home, but it hurt for days and days. Then my skin started to go all black around the place.

"My papa took me to the communards' free hospital in Woodchurch, and all the church hospitals except the Jew ones. But they couldn't do anything, said maybe I got a foreign disease off one of the ships. All sorts of stuff gets washed up or dropped down there."

"I tried the hospitals too," Jack said. "They told me to come here. I think they were just hoping I'd go away."

Molly nodded, careful not to tap her chin on her jar's edge.

"I was limping before we'd even tried half the hospitals, and the black spot spread over my foot and up my leg. And it started to hurt all the time.

"About that time my youngest sister got the red cough and died, and my other sister ran off with some half-Cathayan gambler from Vancouver's Island, but Violet was always flighty like that. I didn't blame her. But Papa did. He never had much work, and he'd been living off what we could make singing. And now he had one of us run off, one of us dead and one dying.

"It wasn't two months after that that Papa took me to Woodchurch and left me in the pauper's ward. And he never came back."

"How did he get his hands on you?" Jack whispered, jerking his head up toward the second floor.

"He goes to the hospitals a few times a month. Looking for strange cases, sports especially. He's not much for treating diseases, but he was interested in me. I was really dying then. It had spread to both legs, and my stomach, and there were black spots on my arms. My feet just dried up and fell off, looked like little pieces of burnt wood. That's when he said he could save me, but I'd have to …"

"What?"

"You ever seen any reanimated?"

Jack nodded. "They had a shambler guarding the door at the mandrake parlor where I worked. Big fellow, and stupid as a rock, just did what the owner said and never talked."

"Most of them are like that. Even he'll make one every now and then, when the money is right. But most of them are really stupid, because the brain starts to rot a few minutes after you die. You come back a few hours later and you're no smarter than a clever dog, or maybe an ape.

"He couldn't cure me, and the only way to save me was to cut off my head and reanimate me. So I'm dead, as far as the law's concerned. I'm his property. But I wasn't gone any longer than a few minutes. So I remember everything, as far as anyone can."

"You don't look dead. And you've got a heart in that jar, I've seen it beating."

"It's not mine. That's a dog's heart and a piece of pig's liver and the kidney from a black bear.

"And I know you're thinking, or you will soon enough, why didn't he just stitch me back on to a shambler body?"

Jack nodded. "He's a genius, isn't he? Just what he's done to me, and you already …"

"He says he can't put my head on a different person's body. Something about how I need chemicals to keep me alive and keep all these different parts working together. If he put me on another body, its blood would poison me. Or he'd have to hook me up to a bunch of tubes and wires, and I'd be no better off than I am now."

"That's terrible."

"I don't suppose it's that bad. The church says my soul is already crossed over, since I've been dead once. It's just my memories left."

"I don't believe that," Jack said. "How could you … Look, when you helped me the first day I came here, he was just about to push me back out onto the street. But you got me in here. I've got a chance to live, and I've got a job and a place to stay, which is three more things than I had a week ago.

"I just don't think you would have done any of that if you didn't have a soul. Maybe it doesn't go away if you're only dead for a minute."

"Maybe."

Jack glanced out the window as eleven bells sounded. In the alley, the costermongers had long since wandered to their homes.

"I should get some sleep," he said, turning her back to face the window. "I've got my half day tomorrow."

"You wouldn't want to miss getting away from here," Molly said.

"Lord, no," he said with feeling. After a moment, she heard him shift on his cot.

"Do you sing, ever?" Jack asked.

"Not since I died."

"Could you sing something now? Something soft?"

"No!" Molly hissed. Her cheeks were as hot as when boys had asked for a kiss, years ago.

"Not even to lull a poor boy to sleep?" Jack said in a cheerful, wheedling tone.

"I don't know if I even can," Molly said.

"Call it an experiment, then."

She pulled in a breath and held it, frustrated. She knew his tone from a dozen other boys. He would keep at her until she gave in, if not this night, then the next or the one after that.

"Very well," she said. "But if I croak like a toad, I'm going to stop."

She took a few practice breaths. With small lungs, she would not be able to keep any long-sustained notes. She decided to sing something simple, an old country song that her father had never liked. It had drawn tears from poor old men's eyes, but few coins from their pockets.

Molly sang it soft and low, a song of lament for a cold-hearted lover. Her own hurts flowed over the notes like the tides over the sand. She let every note brim with ache and sorrow, her voice almost breaking with the pain. She knew as she finished that she was out of practice, that she had lost some of the fine control over her voice. But never had she felt the song so strongly.

She gasped, out of breath at the end. "Well?" she asked.

Jack was silent. For a long moment, Molly was not sure if he was asleep, then she heard him settle back on his cot from what must have been almost perfect stillness. He let out a long ragged breath, and sniffed quietly, as if he had been crying. Without a word, he lay down.

Molly thought he did not fall asleep for a long time. He was so still it was hard to tell.


· · · · · 


Achard let Jack leave the next day at noon, grudgingly. The boy bolted from the laboratory like a deer from hounds. Molly watched him as he passed the end of the alley and vanished into the warren of alleys around Seven Points. She wondered if he had family in the city. His mother was dead, but did he have brothers remaining? She resolved to ask him that evening.

If he would talk to her again. She thought he might have sated his curiosity, and would now ignore her. The freak talks, the freak sings … and those are all her tricks, she thought.

The anatomist did not stop his work because his assistant had left. City law gave employees a half day every week, but Achard gave himself no holidays or respite from his labours. He was deep in the diagram of the gilled boy's pulmonary system when the ring came at the front bell.

The door opened before Achard had half-crossed the room, and a fat, tall man with thick mutton-chop sideburns walked in and swept off his bowler for a bow. His wine red coat flapped as he bobbed, and the gold buttons on his vest gleamed with a new polish.

"In the future, do not feel free to enter without an invitation," Achard said, shaking the man's hand for no longer than was strictly necessary. "This is a private dwelling as well as my laboratory."

The fat man gave a chuckle and waved his hands in a vaguely apologetic manner.

"I thought you were expecting me," he said.

"I was expecting a runner. You have not seen fit to arrive in person for the last three years."

"I heard you've got a really spectacular item this time." He walked over to the drawing table and began examining the sketches of the gilled boy. Achard followed as swiftly as his stiff gait allowed and flipped a piece of blank paper over the drawings.

"Is he available?" the man asked.

"He is a consulting client. Your merchandise is here."

Achard picked up a heavy jar from the back shelves. Jack's growth turned slowly inside the jar.

"By my sweet mother's patience, I've never seen anything like that!" He took the jar and held it a finger's breadth from his eyes. His mouth was open and his lips glistened slightly. "How much?"

Achard showed no distaste in discussing price so quickly, although Molly suspected he was one of the few gentlemen in the city who would not have been offended by the stranger's manner.

"Sixty thalers."

"Don't be absurd! You can't ask so much for something you have no use for!"

"It is unique on this continent. Only two larger have ever been described as being removed, and both were found in Cathay. It weighs fully seven pounds, six ounces. Larger than the average child's birth weight in this city. It's hands and feet are fully developed, and it has two mouths, which I have never seen before. I have removed more than a dozen of these growths in my practice, and most are the shape and size of an orange, or smaller, with flippers for limbs.

"I would also be remiss not to mention that the recent raids on the mandrake parlors and the treaty with the Dowager Empress means that the likelihood of another such sport being gestated for the next few years are slim. Sixty thalers."

The stranger scowled.

"You've seen the reports on how much the museum made last year, haven't you? Everyone thinks I'm made of money since the World printed those lies."

"Sixty thalers," Achard said, his voice as unyielding as a dissecting blade.

The stranger grinned as though it was the price he had set his eye on from the start. Molly was reminded of the false smile on her father's face just before he would twist her ear, hard, for singing off-key.

The stranger produced a thick fold of cash from an inner coat pocket and pulled three red bills free from a gold money clip. Achard wrote him a receipt on the back of a piece of scrap paper and handed over the jar.

"And her?" the man said, inclining his head toward Molly. "You haven't changed your mind about her?"

"My researches with her are not finished yet, and I do not expect them to be so for some several years. Consult with me again another time."

"I certainly shall. I can already think of a dozen good slogans for her poster … What do you call her?"

Achard told him Molly's name dryly.

The man gave Molly a leer that had nothing of lust in it, but that left her with a clammy feeling on her scalp. He turned on the heel of a well-polished shoe and left with the jar tucked under his arm.

"Who was that?" Molly asked when the door shut. Achard gave no impression of having heard her; he was putting the money in his wall safe at the back of the laboratory.

"Doctor, who was that?"

"No one to concern yourself with."

"You're going to sell me to him; that's none of my concern?" Molly could barely keep a rising anger in check. Her voice was growing louder. She had never been brave enough to shout at Achard before.

"I have no intention of selling you in the near future. Do not concern yourself."

"Who is he?" she said coldly. "If you don't …"

Achard's lips twitched up in a mocking smile, briefly.

"I can lie," she said quietly. "I can lie."

"What?" he said.

"I can lie. I can give you the wrong answers when you ask what I feel or what I remember under the probe. If I feel an ache in one arm, I'll say I felt a tickle in my leg. If it's a taste, I'll say it's a smell. All your research will go wrong."

The anatomist's face was the color of sea salt. "No," he said. "Never. You never have."

"Not yet. And I don't suppose I'll have to. I just want you to tell me who that man was. Not too much to ask."

"He … he is called Farforth. I am told he runs a museum of sorts at North Point. Sports and crude entertainments and the like."

"How did he hear about me?"

"His runners have been buying sports from me, miscarried fetuses mostly, for some years. They reported your creation to him."

"Thank you, Doctor."

Achard began a stiff bow, then seemed to remember himself and turned away quickly. He went back to his drawing table and resumed his sketches. His hands, Molly could see, were still shaking slightly, and he had to pause a few times before continuing with a line or note.

Molly understood her owner for the first time, then. She had known he loved nothing more than knowledge, but she had never guessed how much he relied on her to simply tell the truth. She realized he had never lied to her, simply not speaking if he did not want to tell her something. A simple threat to speak an untruth had almost crushed him like a hollow eggshell.

When Jack returned that night, she told him, whispering, about her triumph. He grinned along with her, until she explained about Farforth.

"He could sell you?" Jack said, with a bleak look on his face.

"He says not for years," she said, sorry to be brought back down to earth. "I don't suppose it matters who owns me; it won't change much. I'll still just stare out a window."

"I don't know," Jack said. "I've heard things about the way Farforth treats some of his sports … and there are no windows in the museum. Hey, are you all right? I didn't mean to scare you, I'm sorry. Molly?"

"No, I'm fine. I'll be fine wherever I get sent. I don't suppose I need a window all that much."

Jack gave her a sad smile.

"My uncle the priest was a better liar than you," he said. "Promise you'll never take up poker. You'd gamble away all your lungs if you tried to bluff."

She laughed, but finished with a choking sob. Molly clamped her mouth shut and held back tears.

"Molly," he said. "Look, I know this isn't the best place for you. We're both stuck here. So I promise I won't let you go to Farforth's place, all right? As long as I'm around, you won't have to worry about him."

"You're a bad liar too," she said, sniffing.

"I'm not lying. I swear to the Lord, you won't have to go in there. You'll always be able to see sunshine. See? I crossed my heart. You can't go back once you've done that." He smiled and pulled from his pocket a cheap cotton handkerchief to wipe her watery eyes. "Why don't you tell me again about how he stuttered when you told him you'd just lie?"

She laughed and told him again, and he told her about his afternoon off. He told her about a Prester John Society parade that ended in a fistfight with communard missionaries. He told her about the nobleman from Andalusia who had walked down Wall Street with a jeweled Damascus blade at his hip. About buying apples fresh from the boats that steamed in from Long Island. About the new city hall being built, with its two wings finished and only awaiting the completion of its vast central dome.

In exchange for his stories, Jack asked for another song. He was quiet afterward, again.

That night, she dreamed of the city outside the confines of the laboratory. In the morning, she tried to remember how long it had been since she had dreamed of anywhere else, and failed.


· · · · · 


For the next two months, Molly found herself in a new routine. During the days, she was turned back and forth by Achard as usual. In the nights, she and Jack held whispered conversations. Molly found in herself a treasure cave of stories, laid open for her new confederate. Achard's supplicants and work with physical sports brought many strange people into the laboratory. She found she had a gift for describing the people she had seen, imitating their voices and facial expressions to make Jack laugh. After her songs, he frequently wiped a tear from one eye, turning his head in an attempt to hide the fact.

He brought her descriptions of his afternoons off and told her stories of his own life. His grandparents had been of a well-to-do old city family, but his father had squandered the fortune before he was carried to his reward by food poisoning at a political rally. His mother had died of the red cough, and her relatives would have nothing to do with Jack. He had worked as a groom for some of the wealthy families that had once been connected to his father, until they bought the auto-steamers coming into fashion and sold their horses.

Then there had been a year of desperate attempts to find work, punctuated by petty thefts and a month as an apprentice safebreaker and lockpicker. When his master was arrested, he found himself working in the mandrake den, and then washing glasses in a dance hall, for barely enough money to eat one meal a day.

Jack and Molly's nighttime exchanges kept her existence bright, and she thought she might have even brought a little light into his eyes. But several times during the day, she would catch him staring at her from a far corner of the lab. His face was blank, but she imagined the disgust that must lie under his features. He never showed any reluctance to talk to her, and she decided she would accept it if he thought of her as both a freak and a friend. The former was worth the latter.

The only flaw in her new existence—she still refused to think of it as a life—was the increase in the number of procedures the doctor carried out on her.

Achard probed her brain every day for two weeks that July, and six days in the first two weeks of August. He also replaced several of her attached organs, leaving her for several minutes with a feeling of suffocation while he exchanged two of her lungs for fresh specimens.

Jack watched intently each time the anatomist activated her memories and sensations, and his presence left Molly ashamed.

It was the night after one of those sessions that she noticed Jack give a wince of pain when he sat on a stool in front of her shelf.

"What's wrong?"

"Ah, nothing." He shook his head, and the pain seemed to have passed.

"It's coming back, isn't it? Quicker than he thought, I guess. Does it show yet, like the horrible bulge you had when you came here?"

"No, not at all. And it's just a twinge now and then. Achard will pluck it out for me again when it gets too bad."

"He'll wait until you've such a pain you can barely walk," Molly said. "He doesn't care what kind of hurt you've got as long as you're of use to him. Even better if he can wait till you're half dead, and he can sell another of your sports to Farforth."

"Well, half dead and recovered is better than all dead," Jack said.

"And when will he stop?" she asked. "He's the one accounting for when you've paid off your debt. Will you be here ten years, with surgery thirty or forty times?"

Jack lowered his head, his mouth a thin line. Without money for a complete surgery—assuming he could find another brilliant physician—he was trapped.

Molly bit her lip. She didn't want to see him suffer.

"Jack, how steady are your hands?"

He held one up horizontally before her, still as a stone. "I've got a good touch, or that's what Mackie said before he got pinched," Jack said. "He was teaching me to pick locks, and you've got to have steady hands, and a feather touch, for that. Why?"

"I don't think I should say. It's crazy."

Jack's eyes widened. "You think I could cut it out of myself?"

Molly shook her head. "I don't know what I was thinking. It's idiotic."

"There's still some of that flesh-separating compound left from my first surgery," Jack said. "I could open myself up and use the mirror above the surgical table to see what I was doing. Hell, yes! We can do it!"

"No, you can't."

"I can't, because I'd just slice through the wrong place. You'll need to help me, talk to me and let me know what to do."

"No!"

"You can! You know more than most doctors in this city, just from watching him for two years."

"It's too dangerous. You might die."

He grinned. "You won't let me."

Without warning, he leaned down close and kissed her, quickly. He smiled once more, then turned her around as gently as ever. Molly watched him return to his bed in the reflection of the window. Her own reflection was open-mouthed and wide-eyed. She could still feel the dry pressure of his lips on hers until she fell asleep, not long before dawn.


· · · · · 


It took Jack three more nights to convince her to help him in his scheme. She only relented when she saw that once the idea was planted, he would never let it go. Jack would try it alone regardless, and she was sure he would hurt or kill himself without her help.

They decided on a night just before Jack's half day, so he would have some time to recover from the procedure.

After Achard had retired to his room, they waited until they could hear his quiet snoring. With the velvet-footed care of a stalking cat, Jack lit two lanterns and positioned the tilting mirror above the surgery table.

He set out all the necessary instruments, sometimes prodded by Molly when he couldn't remember the exact procedure. She had him lay everything out by his right hand in the order in which he would need it.

"Will you give me a beginning?" he asked.

"Draw a curved line across your abdomen, beginning two inches below your sternum and terminating three inches above and to the left of your right hip." She had kept the tremor out of her voice. She knew it was irrational, but she imagined a quiver in her voice transmitted across the room to his hand, leaving gouged, bloody flesh.

Jack drew the line, not with Achard's calligraphic hand, but cleanly enough. He pulled the distended skin apart with a wince, and inserted the separator carefully, one handed.

He reached for the brush again, and looked at Molly. She took a breath, and another, and was surprised at how steady her voice seemed.

"Separate the obliquus abdominis externus and internus …"

The operation did not go as well as it had the first time. On the jejunum, Jack used too much of the surgical grease and left himself with a longer than necessary gash to sew shut. But he exposed the thing inside his gut.

Molly, with her superior view of it from the tilted mirror, helped guide Jack to find every fold of intestine where some of the oily skinned creature had adhered. When it writhed under Jack's hand, he tensed and groped wildly for a scalpel. Molly sharply told him to put it down, then spoke softly, almost singing.

After two hours, she found she was telling him to pull it out of the cavity, and he put it on the table next to him. It waved four stubby flippers to an ugly internal rhythm.

Every bit of it had been removed. Molly felt as though some hard and hidden fear had been cut free from her own guts.

Jack could use only clumsy stitches to suture himself, but Molly knew the fish's breath line would tighten itself after a few hours. When he sat up, a little blood leaked from around the new scar, but Molly was confident it would scab over by morning. She had seen worse after some of Achard's more strenuous surgeries.

Favouring his side, Jack dropped the sport into the waste flume that led to the basement incinerator. He moved everything in the lab back to it's proper place, quietly cleaning the surgical instruments. It took until dawn, and Jack had barely slipped back into bed when the anatomist's clock rang and the old man made his stiff way downstairs.

Jack begged that he was sick from a bad piece of fruit, too sick to work. Achard eyed him for a long, cold minute and then turned to his work without a word.

Later, while he was about to slide the probe into Molly's skull, he leaned close to her ear. His breath smelled of salt and electricity.

"You think I am such a fool," he whispered. "Such a deaf old fool. But not so much a fool as you. What will keep your lover here now that my tether is broken?"

She held herself still while the metal broke the surface of her skin and skull, but she couldn't speak after he turned on the electricity.

He got nothing from her that day, not a word. She held every jolt of pain and sensation locked inside and kept her face immobile through his sharp words. Finally he stalked away, his back brace creaking.

From his cot, Jack turned a wan face toward her. He raised his eyebrows to ask what had happened, but she just shook her head. That night, she told him it was nothing, she was just too exhausted from the surgery.

Molly was certain Jack would stay, until the day a month later when he walked in from the crisp autumn street, back from his half day off with a tattered carpet bag.

He gave a wink to Molly and set the bag on the table next to Achard. The old man looked up from a series of calculations as Jack popped the clasp open. Achard reached inside and pulled out a bundle of bills tied with an India rubber strap. They were old and tattered for the most part, and the yellow color indicated they were two-thaler bills. But there were a lot of them, and more inside the satchel.

"Two hundred thalers," Jack said. "To the penny. I want to buy myself out of my contract."

"No."

"Why not?"

"I see no reason to let a reasonably well-trained assistant depart, even one who uses my surgical tools without permission. Money does not interest me."

"It ought to, sir," Jack said. "You can take this money now, and that will leave you with a considerable profit. You'll have the whole cost of my operation, the cash you made from selling my first sport, and three and a half months of my labour.

"Or you can have me run off in the middle of the night, leaving you with a lot less than this. And you know you can't stop me. Not now." There was ice in his voice that Molly had never heard before.

"If you breach a contract, you can have the law set on you …"

"And if you ever left your box here, you'd know the police have more important things to do than chase runaway apprentices. Take the money and let me leave as honest as I came."

Achard scowled and peered back into the bag again. Molly knew if he accepted, he would count every bill.

The anatomist gave Jack his stiff equivalent of a nod and began separating the money into piles.

"One more condition. Just a small one, but there's an extra hundred thalers in there for you if you keep to it."

"Name your condition, and I shall consider it."

"You must promise not to sell Molly to Farforth, for any amount."

"Very well."

Jack seemed taken aback briefly at the easy acceptance of the last term. He left Achard counting the money and leaned on Molly's shelf, close to her ear.

"I'll be back for you soon, I promise," he said.

"Jack, for Christ's sake, where did you get all the money?"

"Never you mind, yet. I'll tell you all about it in a few days."

"Days! Where are you going?"

"I've got to see some people. It's all part of my plan for us. We're going to be pretty well-off, I think."

"This is criminal, this plan of yours."

"Not as much as you probably think."

He kissed her again, ignoring the gray stare of Achard. Then he was out the door, swinging the empty carpet bag.

Achard finished counting the money, setting aside two blue bills. He set a paperweight, a bezoar in glass, on the money.

"He put in two thalers too many," he said. "If he comes back, he can have them. I doubt we shall ever see him again."

"You are going to die alone and unloved and rot for a month before anyone notices."

"Perhaps," Achard said. "But if I die, you will surely follow me by no more than a week. By dehydration rather than starvation, I expect."

"I'll be gone from here before long."

"Perhaps," Achard said again. "We shall have to see whether there is any truth to the letter I received yesterday."

Achard always received a significant amount of mail; most of it was begging letters from the desperately ill or deformed, or professional correspondence. He burnt most of the letters unanswered.

"What letter?"

But Achard would say nothing else. He returned to his calculations, and then to annotating a text on disorders of the lungs. Molly was left shaken by the afternoon's events and shouted at him for half an hour to tell her what he was talking about. Then she resorted to singing loudly, starting with the popular songs she and her sisters had performed and finally sinking to the bawdiest sailors' rhymes she knew. She gave up after more than an hour, her lungs burning. Achard turned her back to face the window an hour after dark.

Without Jack to talk with, Molly felt the empty darkness of the laboratory as she hadn't since her first days there. If she had had a proper stomach anymore, she knew it would have been in knots all night. As it was, she snatched only a few hours of rest that night, and was still asleep when the anatomist turned her to face the laboratory in the morning.

He already had guests. Farforth was leaning on a cane and observing her with his head cocked slightly to one side. His blue suit and vermilion waistcoat caught her eye first, before she saw the other visitor, standing between the museum operator and Achard.

He wore a suit that still had the new-from-the-shop creases in the pants and sleeves. His hat was also new and didn't suit his low forehead and bushy sideburns. His cheeks had sunk since Molly had last seen him, but they were still covered with the familiar stubble that seemed to spring up an hour after he shaved. She could smell the alcohol on his breath from six feet away.

"Papa?" she said.

"That's her," her father said, averting his eyes from hers quickly. "That was my daughter."

Achard's face furrowed with distaste.

"I suppose she has just confirmed your claim," he said. "If you will be so good as to wait, I shall prepare a list of instructions on her care and feeding. If any serious problems with her organs arise, you will have to consult with me. I am not boasting when I say there is no other in the city who can repair her."

"Take all the time you need, my good sir," Farforth said. He had the sleek, amoral smile of a well-satisfied cat.

"Papa, what's going on? My God, you're selling me to this son of a bitch, aren't you? It wasn't enough to leave me to rot in the pauper's ward... You didn't want to see that, did you, see the rats nibble at the bits of my fingers as they dried up, didn't come and get me when the orderlies discussed whether I was worth raping before I died …"

"Can't you make it stop talking?" her father said, turning his back on her.

"Oh, the fact that she can talk is what makes her so valuable, Mr. Breen. Any old anatomist could make me an insensate, living shambler head. I've exhibited a few. But they make inferior sports compared to one such as this. I've never seen one so fully animated, so intelligent."

"Just make it shut up, for now."

"I'll shut up when you're burning in Hell, you old bastard! And you, Farforth, you pig fucker!"

"Not exactly ladylike behaviour," Farforth said. "We'll have to break you of that type of language before we put you on display. The doctor assures me you are familiar with some of the uses of electricity, but I have a few specialties with it myself. Now, sir, why don't we step outside, and I can write you a check for the other half of your payment."

Molly chased her father and Farforth from the room with a stream of curses. The anatomist was still scratching away with his pen when she broke down in sobs.

"You promised not to sell me to him," she said quietly. "You just promised him, he paid you, it's a contract. You wouldn't break a contract, it's not what you do."

"It is not in my nature, no," he said. "But I promised not to sell you to Farforth. I am not, in fact, selling you at all. As a reanimated, you are the legal property of your next of kin. He is taking you from me, legally, and without any payment to myself. I suppose he made his own contract with Farforth some days ago."

"Bastard," she said weakly.

"Do not blame me," he said. "I certainly did not inform your father that you were here. I imagine he thought you dead until recently."

"Well, who told him, then?"

"To whom have you confided the details of your family situation to, and who has recently come into a large sum of money? It seems obvious to me."

She bit her lip and held back the tears. When Farforth returned, she could barely see him as a dandyish blur through the film of water.

Farforth collected her with the help of two assistants, who placed her inside a cushioned and felt-lined box with air holes in the lid. She could tell they were being careful with her, but Molly still imagined a sudden drop, a broken jar.

The trip across the city was remarkably smooth, and she had the impression that she was being moved fairly quickly. She could hear a chuffing sound like a small railway engine, and wondered if she was being moved in one of the new steam cars. She had never seen one.

The vehicle stopped, and she was lifted again, carried up a set of steps and into a darker building.

"Take her to the second floor. Is it ready? Good." Farforth's footsteps retreated, and she was set on an elevator. A few turns down some halls and she was pulled carefully out of the box by gloved assistants.

She was set on a three-foot dais, with rubber-coated clamps screwed tight to the side of her jar to hold her in place. The floor, she noticed, had been padded. She assumed it was in case of a sudden fall, but it reminded her of dime-novel descriptions of madhouse cells.

In front of Molly was a pane of glass, but it was no window. It faced out onto a hallway lit with gaslights, and another glassed-in compartment across from her. There was nothing but an oversized chesterfield in the other room. A grate was set in the glass near the floor. Molly thought of the mannequin heads in shop window displays for ladies' hats and wigs.

She had been left alone for half an hour before Farforth appeared in front of the glass.

"All right then? No trouble from the attendants?" The glass and the grate reduced the volume of his voice but could not wipe clean the oily tone.

She resisted the urge to swear at him. She had decided to say nothing, to remain mute as long as she was locked up in this new prison.

"James?" Farforth gestured to someone behind Molly. She heard a few light footsteps and then felt a searing pain in her left ear.

"Not too much James. We don't want to leave a burn we can't cover up. Now, why don't you say something Molly?"

She was silent. She was shocked again. It took eight more shocks before Farforth, increasingly red-faced, ordered an end to the attacks.

"I used to break horses," he said. "Sometimes you can't do it all in one day. We'll start again in the morning."

She was stoic through nearly an hour of the shocks, which began with one to wake her at five in the morning. Farforth had brought a chair to watch the proceedings and was served coffee and toast while he waited for results.

By six o'clock, Molly broke down in tears. She would not speak; she held tight to her tongue. She suspected she could not have spoken even if she had given in then.

One after another, every misery in her life swept through her memory like crows taking it in turns to worry a wounded owl. She remembered the cuffs and curses of her father, the long nights without supper when he had taken his daughter's earnings. The pauper's hospital, with its smells of vinegar and gangrene and claustrophobic despair. The immobile days of the past two years, when she would have given her life for the chance to wiggle a toe or tug the lobe of her ear. The memories cut her with their cruel beaks and clung with scrabbling black claws.

Farforth and his man continued shocking her for a few minutes, then gave up in disgust.

When she came back to herself slightly some hours later, she noticed a card had been set up near the front of her dais. Molly read it backward in the glass.

The Weeping Maiden of Eire, it said. There were people on the other side of the glass, peering at her with the hungry gaze of dogs. A barker was talking, gesturing at her with a pointer.

"… scorned by her former suitor. She threw herself from a cliff into the wine-dark sea, and was torn to pieces by the furious waves and cruel cliffs. Only her head was found, washed ashore in England. A sorcerer of that land has brought her back to this semblance of life to learn her sad tale, but she only weeps or stares silently.

"If the ladies and gentlemen will turn their attention across the way, they will see the Human Mountain in all his horrifying bulk."

The Human Mountain, a man of at least seven feet in height and almost as many in width, met her eyes briefly, then looked away. He gave a cheerful wave to the customers.

The same expression had crossed the face of the mountain that Molly had seen on those of the customers. Disgust, mixed with wonder. Jack had never looked at her like that, even when she had caught him staring at her.

That thought brought another round of tears. He might have looked on her as more than a freak.

He saw thalers when he saw me, she thought. Bastard won my confidences and used them to find my papa. Wonderful how the two of them worked together to sell me.

The gaslights were extinguished after eight o'clock, and the human mountain maneuvered himself out of his chamber with the help of crutches and two attendants. Another museum worker absentmindedly dropped a cup of thin broth and a straw in front of Molly and emptied her waste spigot into a tin cup. No one spoke to her.

She expected to see Farforth and his torturer again that night, but they did not appear. Perhaps she was worth enough as the Weeping Maiden. Or perhaps they would try again in a week, or a fortnight. They had time, and she would certainly not escape.

They would have to make up a new card and story for their shill soon, though. Molly's tears were finite, and she knew it would only take time to build the layer of ice around her heart again.

It was well after midnight when Molly heard a footfall behind her, soft as a hunting cat's. The light of a slitted lantern played over the back of her head and reflected off the glass.

She flinched as she imagined the coming shock.

"What's this? No hello for your gentleman caller?"

"Jack!"

He knelt next to her and began pulling the clamps away from her jar. He was wearing dusty workman's clothing. "I'm sorry I broke my promise," he said. "You haven't had a window to look out of all day."

"Kiss me," she said.

He did, and took longer than was prudent for a man burgling the business of a villain.

Jack had brought another man, with a thick moustache between grinning mouth and eyes.

"My old teacher of lockpicking," he said. "Cracksmen turn out to be hard to keep in prison."

They set Molly's jar inside a special sling and hooked it to the inside of a round wooden box. They set the box inside a dustbin on wheels and covered the box with some loose papers. Molly didn't see anything more but heard a few brief exchanges with men who must have been museum guards.

It was less than ten minutes before they were outside and Molly was under a city night, in open air for the first time since being carried into the pauper's hospital.

They were several blocks from the museum and kept to the darker side streets. Jack carried her in a sling across his chest. One ear was pressed to his chest, and she could hear his heart beat.

"Achard said you must have sold me out—to my father or Farforth, or both—to get all that money," she said.

"That could never happen," Jack said. "I love you, Molly. Oh, haven't you done enough crying today already? I saw that ridiculous sign, you know. Mackie here—" He jerked a thumb at his friend. "He even went in and saw the show twice."

"I shouldn't have told him about it," Mackie said. "The lad wanted to smash in there and grab you then and there."

"Would have been stupid of you," Molly said.

"That's what I told him," Mackie said. "I can see he's picked a sensible girl."

"He's barely picked a girl at all," she said. "Just a part of one."

Jack looked down, solemn-faced.

"Don't talk like that," he said. "I know we're a strange pair, maybe the strangest in the city. But we've both scraped and scratched through life enough to know a good thing when it shows itself. You're my one and true, Molly. Say I'm yours?"

"You are."

"I thought I might be."

"Save your cooing, we're almost there," Mackie said.

"Where are we going?" Molly asked.

"Our new place. I was getting things arranged as a surprise from you. You see, I've already gotten a few advances from some people I used to know, from the mandrake parlor. Most of it went to paying for my contract. The rest …"

"You've set up a surgery, haven't you?" she said. "There must be dozens of people in the city with growths like yours; you think we can go into business removing them."

He nodded.

"I've got the hands, and you're the doc. It's a bit specific, as far as businesses go."

"It doesn't have to be," she said. "Jack, you have no idea how much I know; Achard talked all the time, and I've had nothing to do but listen for two years. And what I don't know, we can learn from books."

"Brilliant," he said. "This is it here."

They stood before a three-story building of tan brick. The lower floors were covered with painted advertisements for patent medicines, but the top floor was ringed with windows.

"We're up there," Jack said. "There's a skylight too. You'll have a lovely view every day of your life. I promise."

The End

 
 
 
1
 

© 2004 Matthew Claxton and SCIFI.COM.