The following is a short story I recently submitted to Iron Cauldron Books for their upcoming La Machine de Mort. You can find their call for submissions here. I’m also working on a short story for their collection of carnival-themed horror stories, Le Carnaval Grotesque. I first posted this as a note on my personal Facebook page, largely because it really toes a line and I wanted to get some feedback from friends before I put it out into the world at large. While my longer fiction shies from the darker ends of the human spectrum, my shorter work can get very creepy. I find it easier to maintain in short fiction and much more difficult to do in longer fiction.
Fair warning: the content following is not to everyone’s tastes. It comes in around 4,000 words, so it will take longer than the average blog post.
For what seemed like the hundredth time, the doctor paused to let the swinging electrical bulb slow its pendulous motion. It seemed nearly every time he bent forward, his head struck the thing and sent it into wild gyrations that cast the narrow space in dancing shadows. Not ideal lighting for delicate work, to say the least. The bare bulb was too hot to touch, so he was forced to wait patiently for it to cease its relentless spirals. Even as he cursed himself for leaving the damned thing hanging so low, he congratulated himself on the forethought to wear the leather skullcap while he worked. It was soaked with sweat and a few ringlets of damp, dark hair had escaped the tight band, but he’d gained no new blisters to match those healing beneath the cap now.
When finally the bulb slowed to something close enough to still, the doctor leaned forward again and brought his tools to the ready. The body laid out on the table before him was narrow and pale and split open wide at the chest. The dark contrast of the internal organs against the alabaster of the skin was unfortunate in its eroticism. Another time he might have taken a moment to enjoy the scents of flesh and freshly sawn bone. He might have pulled off his cumbersome rubber gloves and touched the razor-straight lines that opened the flesh to reveal the treasures beneath. Even in a hurry, his cuts were always precise. Always delicate.
The doctor shook his head to clear his thoughts and struck the bulb yet again. The light swung away and angled back toward him, just missing his brow as he stepped backward and sighed heavily. Waiting again for the light to find a state of rest, he set a gleaming scalpel down on the tray beside him and pressed against the growing stiffness in his groin. Pushing one way and another until he’d managed to force his inconvenient arousal into a position of less discomfort, he peered again at the internal terrain of the expired young man before him. The yellow sphere of light cast by the dancing bulb illuminated the mounds of precious organs.
The moisture was dissipating. Too little time was left to preserve the vital structures before the body was too far gone. Damning the swinging bulb quietly in his head, he moved forward anyway and set the honed tools to connective tissues. Fighting to work despite the restless light and blood surging to his groin, the doctor began the process of removing each major organ with a quick and delicate efficiency. His own frustration at hurrying through a process that should have given him hours of carnal pleasure ruined his swelling stimulation and returned his typically wilted member to the sad state it occupied most times.
All in all, in the hour he had before the body had dried too completely to leave him anything useable, he managed to extricate the heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys. The rest lost their gleam, and with it, the last breath of life in them. It was not a sloppy job, but it was a rushed and incomplete one. He was rewarded with none of the satisfaction and accomplishment he felt after a wholly successful operation. He found himself grinding his teeth as he stowed his tools into the small leather murderbag and the extricated organs into the canvas sack of coarse salt. A glance at his shining brass pocket watch showed little more than ten minutes to make his way out of the chilly basement and into the thick heat of outdoors.
The narrow basement room had no immediate street access and the main floor was peopled with the bereaved in their black finery and mourning veils. Street access, however, was neither means of ingress nor egress for the doctor. This house, like so many in St. Louis, was built with sewer access set in the concrete basement floor. Just as easily as he’d entered the home, he took his leave, climbing down the iron-runged ladder into the narrow sewage pipes below and pulling the round grate back into place behind him. In moments he was through the pipe and climbing out of a nearby culvert and into the oppressive sunlight.
It was late August and the summer was so fierce this year that it had burned away memories of a cooler spring or hopes for a chillier autumn. Beneath his long black frock coat, the doctor began to sweat through his linen shirt, his fine triple-breasted and double-pointed vest, and into his expensive waistcoat. Sighing at the torture of it all, he replaced his sweat-soaked skullcap with a dark bowler. He slipped from the culvert and onto Magnolia Avenue, easily blending into the crowd of similarly dressed and overheated pedestrians. Salted as they were, he no longer feared for the viability of those organs he had managed to pilfer, so he matched the leisurely pace of those around him, tipping his hat to the occasional familiar face and nodding a few quiet hellos.
Despite the harsh heat and unwieldy load he carried, the doctor took the more circuitous route through Tower Grove Park toward his home. Though hardly satiated by the half-slap job, an excess of adrenaline still coursed through his body. It was nothing a slow stroll through the park couldn’t relieve and he required considerable dexterity and patience for what awaited him in his home laboratory. Neither of which would come easily if the excitement of organ theft still flooded his veins.
The expansive lab beneath the doctor’s home smelled of chloroform and opium. Leaving behind the well-appointed trappings of his home to descend into the only place he felt he could truly work was a euphoric experience heightened by the lingering scents and the metallic taste of blood still haunting the air. He dragged one hand along the cement wall as he took the steps deeper into the laboratory. The cold, coarse surface was electric under his fingers. Here, he was finally home.
Through a couple doors and past a long line of metal cabinets filled with the tools of his trade, the doctor made his way into the inner sanctum of his laboratory. There, atop a long metal table, awaited his mistress. A shiver danced up his spine as he saw her, sending electrical pulses throughout his body and snapping the hair on his arms to attention. He placed the sack of salted organs on the floor next to his abandoned murderbag and crept closer to the table, marveling at her and, through her, himself.
Virginia Joy had been a lovely woman in life, but all that had been transcended the moment the Veiled Prophet had selected her. This year’s Prophet was a reckless man, overflowing with terrestrial passion and lust, and he’d broken her neck after he’d taken her. When her cold, translucent body had been delivered to him, blue veins had stood out against the skin and the head had lolled at an impossible angle. Her thighs and buttocks were covered in blood and bruises. To the doctor, she had attained perfection.
Her neck pressed against her thin flesh at the break, showing the bone where it had forced itself between the thin muscles. The blood spilled during her rape had painted her thighs in artful strokes that curled around the purple bruises and skipped along her backside. Every injury was more beautiful than the last and showed perfectly against her nearly colorless skin. She lay on the table with her legs spread wide to reveal the darkness of dried blood, even if the doctor found her genitals vulgar and unappealing. He left her neck tilted at an angle, but covered her face with a wash of her pale hair.
Her chest and gut had been cleanly split and opened to reveal the yawning emptiness of her body. Her own frail and insipid organs had been removed as carefully and precisely as any other, but they had been tossed aside to be made into sausage or melted for candles. There was no point in salting organs never intended for reuse. No, if she were to be the perfect Queen of Love and Beauty for the Veiled Prophet, she needed to be made of stronger stuff. And, though he would be required to repair and clean her, the doctor found it far more enjoyable to look on her in her current state while he worked.
His fingers itched to reach inside of her and trace lines along the pale white bones of her ribs.
Instead, he breathed deeply of her scent and switched off the electric lights. He carried himself back up to the main floor of his home, feeling each ascending step dig at him and beg for his return to the cool cleanliness of the basement laboratory. Closing the door atop the staircase was an effort of will that left him feeling empty and limp.
The overlarge grandfather clock in the foyer was poised to ring 3 o’clock. He moved into the sitting room and made an effort to relax himself on an antique divan of carved wood and plush fabric. It was no easy motion with the lovely Virginia Joy lying in wait for his ministrations below, but the Veiled Prophet would not appreciate his excitement showing in his trousers. Deep breaths that tasted like furniture polish were all that kept him company in those few tortured minutes before the clock sounded its call.
At exactly the moment that the chimes ended their reverberating song, the knocker on the front door clanged loudly. His breath caught and his fingers itched to fidget with his clothing, but he forced himself to remain still and composed as he could. Letting a long minute pass, the doctor reached for the ancient bell at the end table beside him. The old brass instrument was tarnished and scored with old scratches unlike anything else in his pristinely appointed home, but there was nothing to do about its appearance. Artifacts such as these were not to be touched by harsh cleansers.
He shook the bell once, letting the clapper resonate against the sound ring. A single, clear note rose into the rafters and danced around the heavy crystal chandelier. In response, a voice sounded from the hall, mimicking the bell note with uncanny precision. The doctor heard the paneled door just beyond the foyer slide open and the shuffling of feet move to the front door. The smell of opium wafted into the room and tickled his nose. The visceral response in his loins was impossible to suppress, but easy enough to hide by crossing one leg over the other and folding his hands into his lap.
The doctor’s valet shuffled slowly into the room with the Veiled Prophet and his men following behind at a careful distance.
In life, young Walter Breedlove had been slight and delicate before, but the doctor’s attentions had accentuated those qualities to a degree nature failed to achieve. The boy’s blue-black skin was pulled tight over his tiny frame and offset by the expensive cream-colored suit that clung to him, emphasizing the angular curves of his elbows and shoulders. The glass eyes set in his skull were exceptional in jade green and highly polished to give the illusion of moisture. The boy was a living doll if living required no beating heart.
“I do not know why you insist on keeping this little Negro simulacrum around. It’s distasteful,” the Veiled Prophet spoke from beneath his pointed white hood. The blank features painted across the mask were vague and unmoving. The doctor might have pointed out that taste is subjective. He might have pointed out that his Walter was more lovely than any living boy. Instead, he merely offered a polite nod.
“He is exceptionally well-formed and better able to accomplish complicated tasks than some of my earlier simulacra.” The doctor maintained a placating voice that came close to, but did not reach, lecture. “As you know, the science is inexact and the complexity and rarity of ancient Jewish artifacts in St. Louis has as much to do with success as my own skill in reanimation.” It was not necessary to share that his Walter wore a glass aperture beneath his fine suit that allowed the doctor to watch the stolen organs twitch and shiver in parody of life. When no visitors were expected, only the finely pressed trousers were required wear for the valet. The doctor preferred to watch him in full motion. The thought of it pushed heat into his groin again and threatened to raise a sweat on his forehead.
“You are reminded that no Negro organs are to be used on the Lady Joy,” spoke one of the Veiled Prophet’s men. If the Prophet’s conical hood and mask and crisp white robes were unusual, they were made even more so by the somber attire of his henchmen. Nearly indiscernible in whatever differences their mother’s would have recognized, they were little more than hulking brutes in dull black dusters and bowlers better suited to men of proper station.
The doctor favored the man with a half-lidded smile.
“Of course. The arrangements were very specific and are well on the way to completion,” he lied. “All materials have been acquired and incorporation into the shell will commence forthwith.”
“The Lady Joy, if you please. I would not have her thought of as a shell,” the Veiled Prophet said in a low voice from beneath his mask. For all the power the man would wield for the year, the doctor knew he was a rapist and a murderer. The doctor knew that his grip on power within the city hinged on the reappearance of his Queen of Love and Beauty, the very woman he had deflowered, befouled, and dispatched. The man’s voice was thick with desperation and guilt. And it was sublime.
“As you will, Master.” The doctor made no move to stand for the men or offer them refreshment. It would have been amusing to see if they would drink from anything he provided or that Walter offered, but he had no time for such games. He needed the men to leave and he felt confident enough in their agitation that they would make their excuses and leave soon enough.
“You have a deadline, doctor.” The Veiled Prophet hefted his ceremonial shotgun to his shoulder and spun on his heels. In a moment he was gone and the doctor was left alone with Walter.
Though he still required a new brain to complete Virginia Joy’s transformation, he spent the remainder of the evening incorporating the stolen organs into her perfect frame. The stomach and lungs of the young boy he’d pilfered earlier while the family grieved above, the kidneys of a soldier the Sisters were unable to save from incurable madness, and the heart of a young girl that would never make it home from work at the seamstress shop in North City. Her body he had kept in a bath of poppy and ammonium nitrate and would revisit when his paid work was completed.
Once he had sewn in the pilfered parts with silver wire, he filled her abdomen and chest cavity with a solution of sodium carbonate and Black Anther Flax Lily. Mixing a careful tincture of mercurochrome and quicksilver, he set it to boil in a cucurbit and placed an alembic atop it. With nothing left to do until he had found her a brain, the doctor reluctantly left her to steep for the evening and retired to bed.
The doctor lay restlessly in his opulent four-poster bed, peering through a crack in the heavy drapes and out the window beyond. Tire though he should be, gears and pistons turned endlessly in his head.
The Prophet had come to him because, frankly, he was the best of the few reanimators in the city. The small voice at the base of the doctor’s skull warned him against his unspoken plans, but opportunity too rarely arises with such kismet. He silently cursed the fool for his pride and conceit. His year of control among the city elite would likely fare no better than his chance encounter with his would-be Queen of Love and Beauty. And her broken body resting below was testament to the man’s self-control. It would tax him to put her to such use, but the artistry of her brutal death begged to be given over to something greater.
Thinking again of the delicate and shattered Virginia Joy gave him the peace he needed to sleep. He huffed greedily at a mask from his bedside table. Steeped in red seaweed chloroform, the sickly sweet inhalant ushered him quickly into a stupor.
The doctor dreamt that he stalked down the stairs to his basement laboratory wearing a robe of fine pink flesh and trimmed with golden hair. He passed Walter on the way. The boy looked at him with the same, never changing look of absence that maintained his beautiful features so perfectly. Love and pride swelled inside the doctor as he clutched his skin robe closer to his chest and hurried down the stairs.
Passing the long line of shelves, he saw the mutated specimens and unborn creatures were moving within their glass prisons. Twitching or undulating as their form would allow, they danced a rhythmic gambol that roiled the glycerol and arsenic humectant they bathed in. The movement syncopated to match the beating of his heart which grew louder and louder as he moved toward his sactum.
Inside the pristine surgery, he found Virginia Joy not lying in wait on the shining operation table, but instead sitting on its edge, perched like a delicate and disemboweled bird. Though her abdomen remained open, the organs within it pulsed and moved as they might have in life. The silver wire that kept them in place was tied with dainty bows and the crust of salt encasing them cracked apart to fall to the floor in a shower of shimmering glass.
Virginia Joy, would-be Queen of Beauty and Love, wore a robe of sallow skin covered in coarse dark hairs and bearing wide, brown nipples as epaulets. He recognized the pallid garment with derision and repulsion. It was his own flesh she wore just as he wore hers. It was abhorrent that she bear the ugliness of his body. The imperfections and aberrations of his flesh stood out too clear beneath the electrical lights, glaring at him in defiance for their persistent life. His own robe, the skin of the beautiful Virginia Joy, bore none of the pimples and errant hairs of living tissue. It was immaculate.
Devastated at the loss, but unable to bear the image of her in his skin, the doctor slipped the perfect robe from his body and held it to her, proffering it as you might a crown to a queen. She turned her perfectly still and emotionless face to him and stared, uncomprehending of his need. So he moved to her and tugged at the soft and disgusting flesh she wore, pulling at it in desperation. The simulacra would not move or help as he yanked harder and harder at the vile robe, tearing at it as he tried desperately to remove it from her body. Each piece that ripped free from her garment appeared on his own body, a free-floating portion of the mantle he was fated to wear in life.
When the last piece of his defective flesh had been torn from her body, he collapsed to the floor in exhaustion. He lay panting on the floor as he lay panting in his sheets, soaked in sweat and naked of anything but his own flesh. Virginia Joy slipped from the edge of the surgery table wearing now her own flawless skin with its painted stains of blood and bruise. She stood over him, naked and broken and whole. Even as he mourned the return of his living flesh, he celebrated the beauty of hers. His breath calmed and his pulse quickened, surging blood to his ugly, living genitals.
Virginia Joy lay back on the table, her features never changing and her head bending to rest against her shoulder, pushing the broken bone of her neck against her translucent skin. The doctor climbed to his feet, on top of the table, and on top of Virginia Joy. He nestled his head against the openness of her chest, slick with alchemical compounds and solutions, and he forgot the revulsion of living flesh and reveled in the cold excellence of the dead.
He spent the morning going over his client list, calling the hospitals, and browsing the paper for large, crowded events. If he were to have a brain, he would have to find it quickly while the other organs steeped. The alchemical still had distilled the precious liquids he’d left in it overnight and he’d drain the existing bath from her cavity and replace it with the new one after breakfast. This would give him twelve hours to pilfer a brain before he must return to rinse away the new solution before it did irreparable damage to the organs.
In the meantime, he set about the ugly work of adapting her for his own needs. He cut carefully into her forearms, slicing deep through the flesh and into the muscle until he found bone and sinew. From beneath a canvas tarp, he produced twin implements of precision steel and carefully screwed them to the ulna in each limb. He pressed gently on the scissoring blades, compressing the springs and setting a latch that he carefully sewed to various ligaments with delicate silver wire. Molding her sundered muscle to cover the narrow riggings, he stitched the flesh atop them closed with a fine catgut that left little evidence of its existence.
Second, he placed tiny glass baubles filled with a finely powdered calcium oxide into her eye sockets. The exposed side was so precisely painted by an unknowing co-conspirator that it marveled him to look upon them. The sclera shone beneath the hanging electrical lights and the iris, an incandescent blue, was so carefully detailed as to show streaks of cerulean and violet accenting it. As fine as ice, once ruptured the baubles would release their blinding powder in a suffocating fog.
Finally, he cut her open at her most intimate of apertures. Pressing otherwise inconsequential organs aside, he pushed through to her tailbone and placed a fist-sized contrivance upon the last of her spine, fitting it neatly over her coccyx. Bolting it into place was a task made more complicated by a general lack of visibility and severely limited mobility. Added to that was the sensitive trigger he avoided out of both necessity and self-preservation, making for a long and careful procedure. At completion, he mopped sweat from his brow and carefully sealed her incisions. The last device was a compromise that galled the doctor. Poetry would have allowed the spring-loaded stinger with its scissor blades to burst forth from the very breach that had been her undoing. As it was, the cruel thing was more likely to thrust from her anus than her virtue, but the result should be no less satisfying.
Once he procured a suitable brain, he would complete his most beautiful automaton and Virginia Joy would be returned to the Veiled Prophet. It was inevitable that the subsequent mutilation of the city’s annual elite would be traced back to him. Perhaps even the organ theft would be traced back to his laboratory. When the constabulary did come knocking, however, they would find little more than a tired old doctor, dead from an excess of opium. And by his side, perfect and attentive, would be Walter Breedlove, the young Negro boy that last year’s Veiled Prophet had hung from a tree until his feet kicked free his soul.