A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Ten

Warren didn’t actually see much of Ben for the next few weeks. Cam was handling the production of the husks quite handily, but every golem that Warren sold meant at least one more dinner invitation. He’d had cards made up after enough people had asked for them, and the telephone at the house rarely stopped ringing. The Travers never missed an appointment; Ben was guaranteed to be at work on Tuesday nights, so Warren conducted his business with them then. He found out over the course of their brief conversations that only Simon was actually sensitive—Owen could to no magic at all, despite the two of them being identical twins. This interested Warren to no end, but the brothers were not keen to be experimented on, so he let the matter go.

He purchased two TXM devices—one for him, and one for the brothers to keep. The TXM was palm-sized, round, and made of shiny brass, with a small screen stretched across the center. Tiny screws dotted the surface below it, separating it from the alphabet keys that covered the bottom half of the device. They were simple enough machines designed for the sending and receiving of short messages by text. As long as you knew someone’s Telex number, you could send them a message from anywhere—completely wireless. Sometimes Warren was astonished at what had been accomplished in the mundane world without the help of magic.

The only drawback was that the messages were limited to 140 characters, which severely reduced the complexity of ideas that could be exchanged. It seemed quite an arbitrary number to him, and a frustrating one, but it did allow him to be in closer contact with the Travers. He knew that they had rooms at The Green Man, but Warren definitely had very little business on the Heolstran road these days. He hardly had any clothes left that wouldn’t draw far too much attention in that part of town. He even asked the Travers to pick up his supplies when they ran low and compensated them for their troubles. They had managed to find him a good deal on some higher-end parts for Ben’s arm, and he decided right away not to ask how they had obtained such a discount.

He went to more than one dinner at Mr. Wakefield’s house, where he was introduced to a number of gentlemen who expressed interest in his machines. He may have encouraged this by traveling to every event in his new autocar, driven by Cam. The golem had been an unsteady driver at first, but now went along quite well, and it attracted attention wherever they went. Everyone who spoke to it was immediately convinced of the genius of Warren’s machines—it was polite and inquisitive without being intrusive and clearly had the potential for intelligence, though it displayed a level of naive ignorance that Warren assured them could only be expected from the kind of learning-capable tabula rasa he was creating. This was the kind of product he could promise, he told them. And they believed.

It seemed natural to him. By the time he’d given his fifth or sixth speech extolling the virtues of his automatons, the promises and the lies slid so easily off his tongue that he wondered why he’d ever been nervous at all. He collected cards casually, and he almost felt offended when presented with someone who had no interest in his product. He accepted orders on credit, like a proper gentleman, rather than receiving checks immediately. All accounts could be settled at the end of the month.

At the parties, he drank to excess, he danced with flirtatious women and let them sit and giggle in his lap while he leaned around them to listen to Wakefield try to convince him to chase the dragon. Eventually he gave in, and that night he didn’t go home at all.

Wakefield was an interesting cheerleader, frequently using his own golem—Beckford—as a shining example of Warren’s work. He was definitely considered eccentric by some of the others. He laughed just a little too loudly and he stood just a little too close. When the parties were elsewhere and Wakefield was simply invited, he occasionally earned himself a few scornful glances. On those occasions, he and Warren exchanged small shrugs, and Wakefield swore not to invite anyone so dull to any of his own evenings.

In the interest of keeping his dinners exciting, Wakefield periodically arranged for entertainment beyond liquor and dancing. It might be a burlesque dancer, or a fire eater, or a dog that walked on two legs—anything that Wakefield thought was amusing.

***

One particular evening, he insisted that a few of them who remained toward the end of the evening gathered in his games room to sit at the card table while the party wore itself out in the ballroom. He sent Beckford into the hall, and the golem returned leading a man in a worn brown suit.

“Gentlemen,” Wakefield said as he stood to address the newcomer, “I have the pleasure of introducing you to Madoc Vaughan, medium and spirit guide.”

“For Heaven’s sake, Wakefield, you’re not into all of this nonsense, are you?” Davies spoke up, exhaling smoke over his brandy glass. “I took you for a smarter sort.”

The men around the table chuckled, but Warren’s eyes were on the stranger near the door. He stood with a small attaché case in one hand and his hat in the other, held humbly to his chest. He might have been called handsome, with his fashionably cut blonde hair and deep brown eyes, but he had an air of sickness about him that Warren couldn’t quite put a finger on. His cheeks looked just a bit sunken, his hands just a bit frail—and his fingers seemed to be trembling slightly as they kept their grip on his bowler.

“Now don’t insult my guest, Davies,” Wakefield scolded, and he held out a hand to Vaughan to invite him to sit. “I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the questions of the universe, and if you do, then I suspect you’re an even bigger fool than I’d previously imagined. Who’s to say there isn’t something after this—some poor souls lingering between here and Heaven?”

Davies scoffed, and Wakefield shushed him while the stranger approached the empty chair.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said in a soft voice, his accent thickly Welsh. “I understand your skepticism. I hope I will be able to convince you of the truth before the night is through.” He took his place at the table, hanging his hat on the back of his chair and setting his case on the table in front of him. He removed a small collection of items—candles, incense, a small vial of dark liquid, and a small wooden board on rollers with a pencil stuck through a hole in one end.

“What’s that then?” Wakefield asked as the man set his case on the floor, and he leaned over the table to get a better look. “That device.”

“It is called a planchette,” Vaughan explained. “They are used to expedite psychography—that is, automatic writing.” He allowed Wakefield to inspect it while he arranged his candles in the center of the table and lit them with a set of matches from his pocket. He set about clicking off the electric lights in the room, so that only the faint glimmer of candlelight illuminated the men’s faces as he returned to the table.

He paused behind Warren and placed a warm hand on his shoulder, but his attention was on the other men even as Warren looked up at him with a dubious frown. “We are ready to begin, Mr. Wakefield, with your permission,” the man murmured.

“Of course, of course.”

Warren recognized the incense as sandalwood as soon as it was lit—it was commonly used in actual divination spells, but he had no idea if the numerous “spirit mediums” of the day had adopted it as well, or if this stranger had a secret. Vaughan took his place and removed the stopper from the small vial, pouring a bit of the liquid onto his fingertips and drawing a pattern onto the wood of the table.

“Great Scott!” the man beside him cried, peering down at the wet markings through his monocle. “Is that blood?”

“Pig’s blood,” Vaughan answered easily. “Do not be alarmed. It is only a conduit.”

“A conduit, he says,” the other man grumped. “Do you see what paganism you’re allowing to go on in your house, Wakefield?”

“Oh, shut up, Higgins,” Wakefield sighed, “or else get on with your evening elsewhere.”

Warren watched Vaughan with a wary eye while the men argued. No charlatan spirit medium for hire would use blood in his rituals. Wherever Wakefield had found this man, it didn’t seem likely that he was a pretender. Vaughan held out his hands, nodding to encourage the rest of them to join him. His hand felt cold in Warren’s grip, which further inclined him to believe the Welshman was not a man of mundane upbringing.

Welshman—Warren paused, feeling the slight tremble in Vaughan’s hand and the sunken nature of his eyes. It was impossible that he was one of the Llewan. They never ventured out for more than scavenging in the dark.

“Who shall I attempt to contact, Mr. Wakefield?” Vaughan asked softly.

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Someone good and properly famous, I should think. Anyone have any questions for da Vinci?”

“I don’t think I’m smart enough to ask anything of da Vinci,” Davies quipped, bringing a quiet chuckle from the table. “It should be someone fun. Dick Turpin.”

“Ah, excellent!” Wakefield laughed. “Yes, Mr. Vaughan, let’s hear from Dick Turpin.”

In the flickering candlelight, Vaughan asked for silence from the other men at the table and closed his eyes. His lips moved, but only soft whispering hisses came from him as he squeezed Warren’s hand in his clammy palm. The temperature in the room seemed to drop a degree or two, and Warren could feel the faint vibration from the blood on the table, though he wasn’t sure his fellows could. There wasn’t a chance that was only pig’s blood. There was a steady heat coming from it that he knew. The other men wouldn’t know real magic when they saw it, but Warren did.

Vaughan’s grip went slack after a few moments, and his head fell back with a rasping hiss that made Higgins jump. As the Welshman raised his head, Warren could hear him faintly whispering, and he stood and leaned his ear against the man’s lips to listen. The words were barely audible, but they were clearly an incantation. He knew the words but had never seen them used before. This man really was calling the dead. It was dangerous magic to be performing for pay.

“Come on, Hayward, what’s he saying?” Wakefield hissed without taking his eyes from the medium.

“It’s gibberish,” he lied, but he kept his ear close to Vaughan’s lips.

“It’s a show,” Davies muttered, and Warren shushed him.

Vaughan opened his eyes to show only the whites, and he began to sway slightly in his seat, his fingertips twitching as his open hands lay on the table. His whispering changed into a guttural noise at the back of his throat, and he softly said, “You may not,” into Warren’s ear.

The medium’s hand moved to the planchette in front of him, his empty gaze still staring straight ahead, and he moved the board over the page with ease, leaving neat lines of text behind as he went. The lettering spelled simply the words “You may not,” over and over again with steadily declining penmanship, eventually running off the end of the paper.

A gurgle bubbled out of Vaughan’s throat, and he pushed the planchette to the floor, his fingernails digging into the wood of the table hard enough to leave marks. The other men around the table leaned away warily, but Warren stayed near, his eyes on Vaughan’s gaunt face as he twisted and shook. Then he went so still Warren couldn’t be sure he was still breathing, but he dared not touch him.

“Ask,” Vaughan said in a voice distinctly not his own.

“Ask?” Wakefield murmured, his brow furrowed as he watched the Welshman curiously. “What shall we ask?” he whispered around the table.

“I don’t like this at all,” Higgins whimpered, and Wakefield swatted him in the arm.

“Grow a spine, man. Hello there,” he said to Vaughan, “who are you, please?”

“Richard Turpin,” the voice said.

“Of course he’d say that, wouldn’t he?” Davies grumbled.

“It should have been Essex,” Vaughan spoke with another man’s voice. “I was told it would be Essex. I was not prepared. They did not come.”

“Who didn’t come?” Wakefield asked. “What should have been Essex?”

“I strangled for five minutes,” he said. “I was left to hang and rot all afternoon long. I was told it would be Essex.”

“Wait, I know about this,” Wakefield said in a hushed voice. “I think he means to say his trial. Tried in London, wasn’t he?”

“They did not come,” Vaughan said again, and Warren bent to look him in the face. He held his hand under the Welshman’s nose and felt no breath, and he shook his head at Wakefield’s questioning look.

“Is that really you buried at York?” Wakefield asked as he pushed Higgins’s clutching hand away from his sleeve.

“I was stolen,” the voice said, and Vaughan’s shoulder gave one sudden twitch. “I was stolen.” Vaughan began to tremble, and a terrible groan sounded from his throat as his head fell forward. Warren took a step back, and the Welshman lifted his head as a sudden pressure moved them all away from the table. Higgins toppled over and cried out as he hit the floor. A wind circled the room, and only Vaughan seemed unaffected. The other men held up their arms to protect against the wind, and Wakefield shouted something that was drowned out by the roar.

Warren pushed close to the table, hesitating when Vaughan turned to look at him with white eyes, but he reached out and put his hand in the blood, disrupting the marks. The air stilled immediately, and Vaughan went limp in his seat, his eyes closed and ragged breaths lifting his shoulders.

“Christ Almighty,” Wakefield said with a laugh. His humor clearly wasn’t shared by Higgins or Davies, who kept to the far end of the room once they regained their composure. “Believers yet, are you lads?”

Warren wiped the blood from his hand with his handkerchief and put a hand on Vaughan’s shoulder to sit him up properly. The man opened his eyes after a moment and seemed to catch his breath.

“Wes hal,” Warren offered softly. “Out the other side now?”

Vaughan paused in acknowledgment of the greeting, and he nodded. “Yes, thank you, Mr. Hayward.”

“I’ll walk your guest out if you’re finished with him, Wakefield,” Warren said, and Wakefield waved him away, too busy gloating at Davies to pay him much notice. Warren waited while the Welshman packed away his things and fastened his case shut, and they walked together through the long corridor to the entrance. Warren shooed Beckford away while Vaughan settled his hat atop his head.

“I should have more practice before I attempt to summon anymore highwaymen, I think,” Vaughan said with his gaze on the floor. “Dead grandmothers and husbands are not usually so…energetic.” He peeked up at Warren from under his hat with eyes so dark they almost seemed black. “The elder told me about you.”

“The elder?” Warren voice dropped to a whisper and he took a step closer. “You are Llewan, then. What are you doing out and about?”

“Even we must eat, Mr. Hayward. I was deemed…healthy enough to be seen in daylight. I make money so that I might bring necessary supplies back home. Contacting the spirit world has been in vogue, so I have been able to support my family.”

“Family,” Warren echoed with a slightly skeptical frown. “What exactly has your elder been saying about me?”

“It’s not my place to discuss, Mr. Hayward. He—he regards you fondly.”

“I’m quite sure,” Warren murmured, and he tilted his head toward the door. “Perhaps I’ll see you again.”

“I don’t think so, Mr. Hayward.” Vaughan gave him a small nod and excused himself, shutting Wakefield’s from door behind him.

With a sigh, Warren returned to the ballroom, where Wakefield was telling anyone who would listen that he’d just had a conversation with Dick Turpin.

Late in the evening, when only the two of them remained conscious, they spoke quietly in the parlor while they drank their brandy, as a young woman of ambiguous reputation had become so drunk that she curled up on the chaise beside Warren, put her head in his lap, and fell dead asleep. Wakefield laughed at his look of panic and refilled his glass, leaving the bottle between them as he dropped back into his chair.

“Can you believe that Arville man, pestering you about Cam? What a toady,” Wakefield mumbled, chuckling into his glass.

“I don’t know why you keep inviting Davies,” Warren answered. “All he does is paw at the women all night. He ought to be ashamed of himself. I’m glad he almost soiled himself at Mr. Vaughan’s performance.”

Wakefield only shrugged, clearly too drunk to maintain his enthusiasm for the medium’s abilities, and for a while they sat in silence, listening to the tinny music coming through the speakers positioned carefully around Wakefield’s public rooms. Warren could hear the two golems chatting in the next room. He idly wondered what two golems could possibly have to talk about. History books and endless servitude, he supposed. Cam seemed satisfied enough with his lot, at least—he got to go out and meet people, and he helped around the house, but Warren liked to think he didn’t treat him very much like a servant. Beckford would have to be responsible for his own philosophical dilemmas.

“What do you do when you aren’t here, Hayward?” Wakefield asked, slouching in his chair and letting his arm dangle over the plush arm as he looked over at his companion. “I never see you at any plays, and you certainly don’t entertain yourself with any of the ladies who’ve been throwing themselves at you these past weeks.” He sat up suddenly and stared across the way at Warren, his glassy eyes narrowed. “Are you a eunuch?”

“Yes, Wakefield, I’m a eunuch,” Warren grumbled as he lowered his glass from his lips. “I’m just busy; that’s all.” He glanced sidelong at Wakefield as he settled back into his chair with a small laugh. For a brief moment, he considered telling him the truth. Wakefield didn’t seem the type to report someone for anything that polite society would call deviant behavior—he skirted the limits of propriety on a near daily basis himself. But no—enough people knew enough damning things about him as it was.

Warren looked down at the woman in his lap and gently brushed a bit of stray hair out of her eyes, pondering her smudged makeup and slightly parted lips. The skirt of her gown spilled off of the chaise and into a sea of lavender on the floor. It would be so much easier for him if he wanted her. He’d known since the first time a young girl passing through his father’s coaching house had urged him into the stable that he hadn’t any real interest in their delicate features and soft bodies. He had spent too long trying to convince himself that it was right, telling himself that he had better get used to it because his mother was as likely as not to marry him off to a local girl the first chance he got.

It wasn’t until a young gentleman stayed at the coaching house that he had realized the truth. He had asked Warren to stay with him after he dropped off his supper. The stranger had had his way with him, slipped him a crown for his trouble, and sent him on his way in the dark of night. He knew now that he had been thoroughly taken advantage of by someone much older, but he was grateful for it—he never would have known what it was he was truly aching for until someone had shown him.

He looked up to find Wakefield staring at him, and then the man thumped his fist on the arm of his chair as though he’d made an important decision.

“Come along; let’s to billiards. She’ll be fine,” he cut in when Warren began to protest about the unconscious girl in his lap. “Just pick her up and put her down.”

Warren did as he was told, carefully letting the girl’s head rest against one of the cushions, and he stifled a laugh as Wakefield threw an arm over his shoulder and lifted his empty glass.

“And more brandy! Beckford!” he called, pulling Warren with him out of the room and down the short corridor.

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