A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Five

As it turns out, a goat has enough of a life to make a golem’s body twitch, but not enough to make it live. Warren considered that perhaps it wasn’t the size of the animal, but the intelligence. It was easy enough to catch a stray cat, even though Ben protested and threatened to keep it. When that produced a small result, Warren was kind enough to kill the dog while Ben was away and to have it cleaned up before he returned. The dog actually burned away a fair bit of the circle. It could be done, he was sure of it.

Cam was a great help to him, scrubbing the floor clean and drawing the chalk circles over and over much more precisely than Warren could have done himself. It also didn’t complain about the poor animals and give them precious names right before they died.

Ben drew the line when Warren asked if he knew where they might acquire a monkey.

“That’s enough,” he said over supper. “There isn’t no other way, love. Life takes life. We got Cam, but he took Sir Ed. Unless you’re standin’ in that circle yourself, you’ll never make another one like him.”

“That can’t be,” Warren insisted. “There has to be a way.”

“Why? What makes you think there should be? Something doesn’t have to exist just because you want it to.”

“No. I’ll figure it out. I just need more time. I need more tests.”

“You’re out of tests, love. You’re done. Your gentleman is comin’ in two days’ time. You have to call and tell him it can’t be done.”

“I won’t,” Warren snapped. “I’m not giving up on us.”

“Us?” Ben leaned forward in his seat and put a hand on Warren’s clenched fist. “This isn’t about us, love. Us will be here no matter what.”

Warren sighed, rubbing at his baggy eyes. He was exhausted. His hands were still scraped and bruised from building the machine itself. The brass had to be shaped, pieces connected, insides forged and put in place, joints oiled, surface polished. The final product looked infinitely more professional the the job he’d done on Cam, but it was still a hasty production, and he’d spent every spare minute poring over the books in Sir Bennett’s workshop looking for a solution to the magic problem. He hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since Mr. Wakefield came to call, excepting when Ben had put him into bed against his will.

“I need to do this,” he said finally, turning his hand to lightly grip Ben’s fingers.

“And what if you can’t?”

Warren couldn’t look him in the eye. “I have to,” he whispered. He squeezed the other man’s hand. “Will you stay tonight?”

“If you want me to.”

“I do.” He rose from his half-eaten meal and pulled Ben along behind him by the hand into the master bedroom. It already didn’t feel like Sir Bennett’s room to him anymore. This was his house now. He was going to stay here as long as he could, and he would do whatever it took to make certain that was a very long time.

He shut the door behind them to keep Cam’s questions away and tugged on Ben’s hand so hard that he stumbled. He pushed him onto the bed on his back and crawled up to straddle his knees, hands deftly working on the other man’s belt buckle.

“Oi, I thought you’d be too tired for this sort of thing,” Ben protested with a laugh. “You should rest, Warren. You look a fright.”

Warren ignored him, tugging his trousers down his hips and bending to kiss the skin of his stomach. Ben’s telltale shudder and sharp breath were sweeter to him than a whole day’s worth of sleep. He wouldn’t let the other man turn him over, keeping him pinned by the hips during his hands-free maneuvers, but he gave in when strong fingers twisted in his hair and pulled him up for breath and into a crushing kiss. He let Ben over top of him then, clutching at his shoulders and biting at his neck as they moved together with familiar ease. Ben’s quiet sighs and panting groans filled Warren’s ears, making him smile into his lover’s chest despite the deadline looming before them.

He had to shove Ben’s heavy body away when they finished, and for a while they lay silently, nose to nose, with Warren’s fingers combing gently though Ben’s hair. The larger man’s breathing slowed into a pattern of sleep, and Warren closed his eyes under the weight of Ben’s arm. This was what he wanted. This warmth. This comfort. This safety. What wouldn’t he do to protect it?

Warren worked even harder in the morning, abandoning the warmth of Ben’s arms before the sun even rose. He thanked Cam for the tea and biscuits it brought to the workshop, but he didn’t stop to eat or drink. The golem lingered in the hall, watching him with curious eyes while he scribbled in books and marked pages and sketched circle after circle in his notes. Nothing he tried gave even the slightest indication of life from the machine on the table. Not without blood.

Ben appeared in the doorway and told him that he had to work, but Warren only waved him away in his distraction.

The room was almost cloudy with chalk dust by the afternoon. It wasn’t going to work. The animals weren’t going to work. Mr. Wakefield was coming tomorrow. If he didn’t have a solution tonight, that would be the end of it. He sat in a smeared circle of dust on the floor and felt hopeless.

Cam knocked on the door and offered him tea, so he patted the chalk from his shirt and went downstairs to eat at least. Maybe a warm cup of tea would help him think. Before he could make it to the dining room table, a knock at the front door stopped him, and he paused to sigh before turning to answer it.

He actually took a step back as he saw Mrs. Burnham on the front step, which caused her to bustle her way inside without so much as a how-do-you-do.

“Where is Sir Bennett?” she asked, calling out his name a few times before whirling on Warren with a disgusted frown. Mrs. Antonia Burnham was a skinny, rickety old woman who had been wearing nothing but black dresses since her husband died in 1874. She lived with her son’s family in the house next door to Sir Bennett’s, and she spent the majority of her time with her watery eyes stuck to her bedroom window so that she could more easily keep an eye on the goings-on of the neighborhood. Warren had seen her more than once as he tried to sneak Ben in or out of the garden at night. She didn’t seem to sleep.

“I’ve kept quiet for long enough, you filthy creature,” she spat, coming up close to Warren’s face with an accusing finger, “but I won’t have this brazen debauchery going on any longer!”

“Debau—Mrs. Burnham—” Warren tried, but the woman turned away from him again and continued calling out for Sir Bennett.

“He isn’t in!” Warren said at last, leaning back instinctively when she turned on him. “Sir Bennett is on holiday. Please, is there something I can help you with?”

“You’ve done quite enough. You think I don’t see you, sneaking that man in at night, right under poor Sir Bennett’s nose. You ought to be ashamed.”

“Mrs. Burnham, I assure you, there isn’t anything—”

“Don’t you tell me a lie!” she snapped. “I’ve seen your kind before. It’s an abomination is what it is, and it’s a disgrace. I had hoped to tell Sir Bennett directly and have you sacked, but I suppose it’s his absence that’s made you so shameless, hasn’t it? And that man dares wear a constable’s uniform, as though someone with his proclivities could be trusted! I didn’t want to get the authorities involved—I must think of the reputation of the neighborhood and of Sir Bennett. Doubtless he has no idea of the detestable crime being committed under his own roof.”

Warren could barely breathe. They’d been sloppy. Ben had been coming and going much more regularly since Sir Bennett’s unfortunate passing, and he’d been seen. Warren tried to say something, to deny, defend himself, make excuses, but he’d lost his voice. This woman could destroy him.

“With Sir Bennett away, I’ve no choice,” she continued, turning away from Warren to shuffle back to the front door. “This can’t be allowed to carry on any longer. The constabulary will deal with you and your abhorrent pastimes.”

Warren was in a panic. He could see everything crumbling in front of him—living in this house, seeing Ben whenever he pleased, being responsible to no one but himself—all because this woman had nothing better to do than eyeball people from her bedroom. She seemed to reach for the front door knob in slow motion. She would ruin him.

His hand found the silver candlestick almost of its own volition, and he flinched at the dull thud it made when the heavy base connected with the back of her skull. She cried out so loudly he was certain someone would hear, and she collapsed to the floor and began scrambling weakly away from him. He lifted the candlestick to hit her again, and a wicked thought flashed through his mind as he watched her raise her bony hands in defense against him. A waste. This would be a waste.

He snatched the old woman up by the back of her mourning dress and put a hand over her mouth to muffle her cries, the candlestick clunking noisily on the floor when he dropped it. She could only struggle feebly against him while he half carried her up the stairs, Cam watching silently from the barely open kitchen door, and he dropped her to the floor inside the workshop door. He moved away when he saw her lying there, curled up and whimpering, and he covered his own mouth to stifle his sob.

She looked so pitiful. Just an old woman, frail and thin, who couldn’t keep her nose out of other people’s business. She was begging him, quietly, pleading with him in between prayers. He almost left the room and ran from the house. He almost went to Ben and told him they had to leave the city, that they’d make do somewhere else. Why should this woman get to decide my fate? he asked himself. This pathetic, prying creature who had wormed her way into his life. She would take everything away from him if he gave her the chance. He couldn’t let her leave now.

His gaze moved to the knife on the small table, and then to the completed brass husk and the chalk circle on the floor. Don’t waste it. He pulled her by her arm over to the circle, snatching up the knife on his way, and she pulled away from him, calling out and struggling how she could. Don’t waste it. He pushed her down over the circle, and he shut his eyes and turned his face away as he pulled the knife swiftly across her neck. The blood poured from her, splattering hot against his hand. The blast knocked him back as the blood touched the circle, and he hid his face in his arms from the light. He laid like that until the room was silent, curled up on his side on the workshop floor and taking heaving breaths that came out as half sobs.

He heard the creak of metal and lifted his head. The woman’s body lay like a shrunken mummy where it fell into the circle, and on the table, the machine twitched to life and sat up. Its eyes were the same bright blue as Cam’s, matching the glowing ring on its brass chest where Warren had installed an imitation power source. He got to his feet while the thing stared at him, and he wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He took a deep breath and spoke before the golem could question him.

“You are zero-one,” he said, hoping that his voice sounded steady. He’d planned what he would say to the machine when it awoke, but he hadn’t anticipated it being predicated by murder. “You are an automaton that is to be presented to Mr. Charles Wakefield and to serve in his home. When he picks you up tomorrow, you will do anything that he asks of you without question. Do you understand?”

It blinked its aperture eyes at him, and after a moment said, “Yes.”

“You will stay in this room until morning, and you are not to touch anything. I will collect you when Mr. Wakefield arrives. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He wasn’t positive that the golem could be trusted to follow commands, but he hoped that it would be malleable as a blank slate if he started commanding it immediately. He looked down at the withered body on the floor and bent to drag it away by the legs, dropping it on the landing and bolting the workshop door. Once outside, he slid to the floor, hiding his face in his hands and weeping. This wasn’t what he had intended. Why hadn’t there been an easier way? Why did it have to come to this? Why couldn’t she have just kept to herself?

With a slow, shivering breath, he got to his feet, avoiding the sight of Mrs. Burnham’s bloodless face staring emptily up at him. He wiped at the tears on his face with the backs of his hands, and he let out his breath in a quick sigh. It was done. He had to get rid of the body before the younger Mr. Burnham came asking questions, before Ben came home. Home. He could still call this place home—Ben could still call it home—because of what he’d done. He hadn’t had a choice.

He enlisted Cam’s help getting the body into the coach, avoiding his questions and asking him to promise that this would be a secret from Ben, and he drove quickly to the riverside warehouse hiding the entrance to the home of the Llewan. He had to take the risk of being seen driving an empty carriage. He wasn’t about to call Ben or bring Cam along.

It was more difficult dragging the corpse through the tunnels without Ben’s strong shoulders, and the reopened wound on his hand didn’t make it any easier. He was a mess by the time he arrived at the archway leading into their den. He saw the old man he’d spoken to before, and he gave him a low bow as he gestured to the body before him. He kept his place despite the hissing growls that approached him, and a woman’s naked torso appeared out of the crawling dark, filthy arms snatching the old woman’s body by the feet and dragging it into the den. Warren made a hasty retreat, locking the warehouse chain behind him when he finally emerged into the humid London night.

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