A little short something I wrote for this month’s Reddit /r/fantasywriter contest.
It wasn’t a normal smash and grab; I could see that from the moment I arrived in the late hours of a cold night, Yuletide only a few days gone. The motif usually began with a brick through a shop window, a quick in and out, some jewelry stolen, a register emptied. Small pickings of men with little to lose, the type who lurked in the shadows far from the gas lamps and crowded streets, living on the margins. Or the whore desperate for something more than to spread her legs for a grunting man in a dark alley for a few pennies.
But those pock marked scoundrels don’t smash the brick façade of a bank and clean the vault out, all in less time than it takes for a man to enjoy a morning piss. Witnesses nearby stated they heard a huge crashing noise and a series of thumps that shook the ground upon which they stood.
I nodded at the four officers who were guarding the scene from the crowd of late night revelers who had heard the noise. Half the watchers stank of spirits, the rest of desperation, but none of them gave off that odor of fear, concern, even pride in a job well done that makes a thief stand out in a crowd, like a ship flying a brightly colored pennant as it glides into harbor. So the thief wasn’t a lingerer, the type who takes such joy in their work that they hang around with a smug smirk as detectives search for them.
I walked to the hole in the wall and sniffed. There was no scent of black powder or the rotting banana smell of nitroglycerin, no scorch marks on the debris. The bricks were pushed inward, so whatever broke through the wall came from the outside. In the gloom beyond I could see broken desks, smashed chairs, and at the opposite end of the room a circular steel door that was twisted and mangled, leaning crookedly against the wall. Beyond it lay a pitch black room which I assumed was the vault.
“Damned peculiar,” said one of the officers as he walked up beside me, a man named Farley with a fat walrus moustache. He offered me a cigar and I took it, waited for him to strike a match to light it, and then took a puff as we stared into the destruction.
“What do you see, Farley?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Bank robbery, nothing more.”
“Yes, but how was it accomplished.”
“They blew the wall, blew the vault, took the gold.”
I gave him a look, and he blanched, turned away. “That’s why you never make detective. There are no scorch marks on the wall or safe, no explosion reported, so we rule that out. The vault door has been wrenched open. How did they break in, load up, and scamper off with all that gold before anyone saw them?”
“I don’t know, Detective,” he said, sounding contrite. Sounding a little scared. A good man, maybe I shouldn’t have put the fear of God in him like I did, but I was tired and hadn’t eaten all night. I gave him a pat on the shoulder to tell him we were alright, and he gave back a sickly smile. They don’t like when I touch them.
“Wait here,” I said and went inside. I move silent and fast when needed, but there was no need, and Farley was edgy, probably close to pissing with fear, so I took my time, made a little ruckus. Nothing to see anyway, other than ruined furniture and the empty vault. Nothing but a small puddle next to the broken vault door. I squatted, my coat flaring around me on the ground like the wings of a bird, and touched it with my finger, sniffed it. Tasted it.
“What is it?” Farley asked from the doorway.
“Oil,” I said, and then I did move fast, the wind of my passing knocking his hat off his head. He urinated as expected, but I left his sweat and ammonia stink behind as I found the scent and followed it.
Once I had the trail, following it was simple. Along dark streets where gas lamps weren’t yet installed, down into the yawning mouth of a sewer tunnel off Bolton Street that dumped the city’s effluent into the river. I had to contend with the noisome smells of garbage and shit now, but I was used to those, could block them out and find the one scent I needed. Steel and oil, mixed with the smell of wood smoke, which gave it a woodsy tang.
The tunnel ran straight to the main junction buried far below the city streets above my head. Four brick tunnels in, four out, but he hadn’t left this area. I could see in stygian darkness if needed, but I didn’t need to, the room was lit up with a red light.
The man I hunted was standing on a metal platform leaning over the rail, holding an oil can in long gnarled fingers. Strands of greasy white hair lay across his pink scalp, and his dirty face was weathered like the crags of an old mountain, with his wrinkles like ravines that crisscrossed his brow and cheeks. But those eyes were as blue as ice on frozen lake, as blue as I remembered them.
“Hello Henry,” I said. No need to hide, he knew I was there.
“John,” he said. “I knew someone would come. Glad it’s you.”
“What have you done?” I looked at the thing next to him, which towered over both of us, perhaps twelve feet tall. The thing with the glowing red eyes that lit up the chamber.
He ignored my question. “She’s dead, John. Passed away last summer. Took a fever and didn’t pull through.”
Tilda. I should have guessed, but I’d been hurrying, rushing through the hunt, not paying attention once I knew who I was trailing. “I’m sorry Henry. She was a good woman, took good care of you and the kids.”
“Kids are dead, too,” he said, raising the oil can and applying the long goose neck of it to the shoulders of the man standing beside him. “You’d know that if you ever came by like you used to. Everyone’s gone now but me. Me and the Lord. God and I, we make quite a pair. Two old pricks taking bites out of the world.”
“Henry, where’s the money from the bank?” I asked, moving towards the platform, watching the creature.
“God creates life. He made me and Tilda. Made you I suppose, though I’m not sure if you’re really what could be called alive or not. Not since we were young men. Best friends, but you wouldn’t give me your gift.”
“It’s a curse what I have.” I reached the steps that led up to him. “If you return the money, I can work out a deal for you, old friend. An easy sentence. Two squares and a mattress.”
“I used to fix steam engines for the B and O. Now I create life. Like God.” He touched the shoulder of the creature, and I heard the ring of metal. I knew what he’d done, knew it as surely as I saw the flicker of flames behind the empty eyes of the golem. He’d brought the ancient and evil back to life, fitted the dead metal monster with a steam engine, gears, cogs. He’d raised his own Lazarus.
“What’s his name, Henry?” I asked, stalling as I slipped closer to him.
“I call him Magnus,” he said. “My last child.”
I lunged. I’m fast, a blur in the eyes of mankind, a ghost of a shadow that they barely see before my teeth rend their flesh as I celebrate their life with death. But Magnus was faster still, his metal hand reaching out to catch me in midair, the screech of metal echoing through the tunnels.
Then I screamed. I felt the holy symbols worked into the metal skin, the sigils of the trinity, the symbols of the saints. I screamed as the pain wracked my cold dead flesh, and screamed again as Magnus began to crush me.
Henry watched, his face impassive, his eyes as dead as mine, his voice a cracked sneer. “Knew you would come,” he said, nodding at me. I felt and heard my ribs snap. “Knew it would be you, god’s hunter, the immortal killer. You, detective, who let my family die when he could have made them as immortal as God himself.”
My vision flickered as he stepped closer. “Please,” I croaked as my chest collapsed.
“You could have saved her,” he whispered hoarsely as he kissed my cheek. “You could have kept her alive for me if you had a mind to help any but yourself. If you’d been there, old friend.”
Then I felt no more.