If you like steam-punk, turn-of-the-20th-century era history, bloody horror, and/or detective stories, there’s something in this tale for you. If you like stories crafted in the vein of Frankenstein’s monster, atypical vampire tales, mad scientists, and serial killers, there’s something here for you as well. Cast in the mold of a penny dreadful, “The Moribund Maiden” could very well be a true tale that was never told, the details of which were lost to the ravages of time and tide … until now. – DT
Act I: The Bloody Fog
San Francisco Herald – April 17, 1906
EXSANGUINIST STRIKES AGAIN!
Concerned citizenry crowded the entrance to the operating theatre of SFPD’s Hall of Justice this morning in an attempt to witness the latest victim of the Bloody Fog. The third body in as many weeks once again washed ashore in the early morning hours, drained of blood through twin puncture wounds in the neck. Dr. Richard Stroud, the SFPD’s resident surgeon, appears capable, but the demanding public grows restless.
“Is it the Ripper?” called out one gentleman, recalling the horrific murders across the pond not two decades ago.
“It’s Dracula, I tell you!” exclaimed a hysterical woman, moments before fainting. Whether the Bloody Fog is merely a sadist or something supernatural, the SFPD aren’t telling. Before a riot could break out, officers cleared the room to allow Dr. Stroud to finish his examination behind closed doors.
One fact remains: no one is safe as long as this maniac still roams our shores.
Dr. Stroud pulled the cover from the body on the table. The room had been cleared of gawkers and rabblerousers and was now quiet enough for him to think. He resumed his examination and voiced his observations while two of his assistants jotted them down.
“The victim is a young woman, approximately 20, wearing shabby clothes. She is unnaturally pale and her abdomen appears distended. Two puncture wounds, each approximately one half-inch in diameter and one inch apart, have pierced the jugular vein.” Stroud palpated the victim’s neck with his fingertips. “The tissue around the wound is rather swollen with lymph, and the body, once again, appears to have been drained of blood.” Dr. Stroud worked his way down the body. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a grey suit hovered nearby. Salt spray had dried on his weatherbeaten overcoat and the cuffs of his pant legs. When he spoke, the years on the job putting gravel in his voice, he was terse but courteous.
“Any help you can provide us would be most timely, Dr. Stroud.” The doctor continued his examination without looking up.
“Well, Inspector Washburne, the only things linking the three victims thus far are the apparent manner of their death and the way in which we discover them. The first two victims died before being tossed out to sea, as there was no water in their lungs; I fully expect to find that the pattern holds true with our most recent victim here.”
“Any idea as to what killed them, Doctor?” asked Washburne. He stayed back a few paces from the body as if it might reach up and strangle him at any moment.
“The manner of their death is near total hypovolemia,” said Stroud, who was attempting to draw fluid from the corpse’s arm with a needle. “Massive blood loss on the order of four or more liters, in this case. As to what, or who, was responsible for it, that I cannot say.” Dr. Stroud studied the young woman’s face for a moment, curious as to her frozen expression of terror. “What a dreadful shock it must have been. Do you have any idea who she is?”
“Not as of yet,” replied Washburne. “Though from the look of her clothes, I’d say she resided in one of the poorhouses. Same as the others, wouldn’t you say, Buchanan?”
The stout, barrel-chested officer smoothed his thick black mustache as he thought. He nodded at Washburne in agreement. “Seems that way, Inspector.”
“People like her go missing and no one tries too hard to find out why. Perhaps someone was counting on that,” Washburne continued. “Dr. Stroud, might you have in your possession a monochrome of the other victims that I could borrow?”
“I do, indeed, Inspector, and you may have them,” answered Dr. Stroud. “However, this victim is rather too…freshly arrived, as it were. I won’t have a suitable image for you until tomorrow.”
A commotion broke out behind the door to the operating theatre. Sgt. Buchanan opened it to see what the ruckus was about. He held a brief conversation with an agitated officer. Whatever the young man had said set Buchanan’s mustache bristling. He whispered in Washburne’s ear.
“It seems as if your time table has been advanced, Dr. Stroud,” said Washburne as he gathered his coat and hat from a nearby banister.
“Why’s that, Inspector?”
“They’ve just found another victim.”
Sergeant Buchanan pulled the horse cart over to a hitching post on the side of the path. Their travel had brought them west on Geary, away from the heart of the city and toward the cliff-edged shores of Point Lobos. Buchanan secured the reins to the post while Washburne took in their surroundings. The surf pounded relentlessly at the coastline, slowly eating away at the rock, turning it to sand, and washing it back out to sea, a little more every year. In a hundred lifetimes, perhaps the very spot in which Washburne stood would be under six feet of water. As it was, he enjoyed a panoramic vantage point high above the sea, the beach, and the Sutro Baths.
On a Sunday, the public water park and its surrounding attractions were swarming with upwards of 10,000 visitors; on this Tuesday morning, with a vicious serial murderer prowling the city’s shores, the crowds were decidedly lighter. A few beach-goers combed the sand for shells, or attempted to capture the Seal Rock inhabitants with their cameras, or marveled at the sight of the late mayor’s altruistic contributions. On a normal day, the bulk of the crowd would be in the Baths themselves, either in the water or watching from the grandstands. Instead, on the grassy hillside above the cliffs, hundreds of San Franciscans stood about in their rented Sutro Baths swimsuits. The Baths had been shut down in rather a hurry, and the rumor of another victim of the Bloody Fog had quickly spread through the anxious crowd.
“This way, Inspector,” called out another officer already on the scene. He led Buchanan and Washburne across the grounds. A fresh wave of anxiety and speculation spread amongst the crowd as the lawmen pushed their way through.
“Apparently the body is in rough shape,” the officer said once they’d distanced themselves from the onlookers. “One of their mechanics found it when the pump stopped working. You’ll see what I mean.”
The officer led them through a side entrance of the Baths. It cut through the late Mayor Sutro’s museum, which showcased exotic specimens from his travels. Clothes and coins from the Far East, oddities of legend and lore collected from all across Europe, and in the centerpiece of the Ancient Egypt exhibit, an honest-to-God mummy was on display. The officer then entered another door to a back room, where the pleasant aroma of the saltwater sea and the slightly musty smell of old artifacts gave way to dank mildew and rotting hide.
Taxidermy of all manner of creatures watched Buchanan and Washburne with dead, foreign eyes as they squeezed through the narrow aisles of the museum’s storage room. A hulking white bear with long black claws towered over the men, raised higher than God intended by a pedestal bearing the informative sign, “Polar Bear – Alaska.” Serpents great and small lay coiled at their feet, waiting for the right moment to break free from their sawdust stillness to strike. Washburne was so busy keeping an eye on the snakes that he bumped his bowler on a stuffed hawk hanging from the ceiling. The spread-winged bird of prey swayed back and forth, casting eerie shadows about the room and preparing to descend upon the Inspector. He steadied it, sparing a quick glance to the smirking Buchanan, and followed the officer to the exit. A worker waited for them by an Employees Only door at the far end of the museum’s warehouse.
“This way, sirs,” he said. He led the three officers across a catwalk that passed over the baths. Washburne noted how strange the place felt with all the customers outside instead of splashing about in one of the seven great pools. It was still and unnaturally quiet, hauntingly so, as if a cohort of ghosts had been granted admission. For a brief moment, Washburne saw a vision of the vast glass, steel, and concrete structure in ruins, the spirits of long-dead visitors still attending the bone-dry and forgotten pools. Buchanan’s heavy footsteps clanging across the walk brought Washburne back around. He caught up to the others as they began to descend a spiral metal staircase.
“How far down are we going?” he asked the worker as they ventured lower and lower, descending beneath the floor of the bathhouse.
“’bout as far down as we can, sirs. The water pump is down here in a cave access that draws the sea water in at low tide. The pump wasn’t workin’, folks got mad and started complainin’ and that’s when they called me down. That’s when I found ‘im,” the worker said. It could have been the chilly air whipping in from the oceanfront caves that caused the man to shudder just then, but Washburne intuited that it was something else entirely.
The men approached a great behemoth of oxide-tinged brass and iron. In motion, it must have been a wondrous sight to behold, though producing a cataclysmic amount of noise. At the moment, it was a still and silent hulk.
A great inlet cut into the cave floor allowed the sea to flow in where it was then funneled toward the massive pump, like a captive giant waiting to quench its thirst. The giant was sleeping now, but when functional, its mouth lapped up the sea water, swallowed it into its deep belly, and finally expelled the water topside to fill the baths. One section of the pump’s waterway had been opened and drained, like a vein bled out to purge a sickness or balance the humors. A heavy iron hatch lay on the cave floor just to the side of a circle of men. They gathered around a bloated, misshapen mass lying in a shallow pool just inside the pipe.
“I was just starting to inspect the number nine line,” said the worker, “and I found this. Figured I’d call you sirs before I did anything with it.” The man shouted as if the machinery were still on, conditioned by years of deafening noise. Washburne smirked as he thought about the old laborer’s wife and what she must think of his conversational volume at dinner parties. What he saw next wiped the smile off of his face.
A section of the steel tube had been removed on the number nine pump to reveal a chute bisected by a filter grate. As the Baths pumped sea water in, Washburne surmised that they only wanted the water in while everything else stayed out. The grate had done its job all too well, as a man’s body had been turned into two-hundred pounds of pulp by the force of the suction.
“Pull him away from there,” Washburne ordered. “Lay him down here on the platform.”
Two workers and the third officer grabbed the man and heaved him out of the chute. The dead man’s hand came away in the officer’s grip. The young man found himself holding nothing but dead, bloated flesh that resembled an over-sized glove. The officer went pale and vomited across the platform.
“Easy there, men,” Washburne warned. Whether to settle their stomachs or their vigor in extricating the dead man, Washburne didn’t care; either would suffice.
With another, gentler heave, the two workers pulled what was left of the victim onto the flat platform. His body flopped like a jellyfish, as if all the bones had gone to pulp against the powerful force of the number nine pump. One of the men quickly excused himself and could be heard vomiting elsewhere in the cave. Washburne heard Buchanan swallow hard.
The man lay face-down. His back and side were covered in a checkerboard pattern from having been pressed up against the grate. His legs and arms were bent at awkward angles, devoid of skeletal structure. Washburne half-hoped the man had died before being sucked into the pump, though if he had, it meant more paperwork and more panic in the streets of San Francisco. He toed the dead man’s head over to one side.
“Well, that seals it,” said Washburne. Buchanan grunted. Washburne returned the dead man’s head to its previous position in order to hide the two puncture wounds on his neck. “I’ll have some of our men come down to package up this poor soul,” he said to the workers who gratefully left the officers with the bloated corpse. When they were gone, Washburne spoke openly to Buchanan.
“Seems to me that our gelatinous friend here wasn’t caught in some unhappy swimming accident,” he started. Buchanan nodded. “I’d wager he was dumped at a different time from the other bodies, around low tide, when the pumps could pull him in.” Buchanan nodded again, keeping pace with the Inspector’s train of thought. “Perhaps our culprit was forced to change his schedule for some reason. Or perhaps it’s not one, but two perpetrators. Maybe more.”
Buchanan shrugged and pulled on his mustache some more. Washburne continued unperturbed.
“Tell me, Sergeant, who owns these baths?” Buchanan opened his mouth to answer, but Washburne cut him off. “The Sutro family, precisely. And who has been the Overseer of the Poor for the last decade or so and, as such, has sufficient knowledge of and access to the numerous poorhouses of San Francisco?” The sergeant again moved to respond but was not fast enough. “Exactly, the Sutro family. Now, who has private, secluded ocean-front property from which to do whatever nefarious deeds they dare desire?” Buchanan pulled on his mustache with one hand and extended a palm out towards Washburne, as if to say the answer was all too obvious without him needing to express it.
“Quite right, Buchanan. Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Washburne said, eying the dead man once more. “Now, if you would get the men to wrap up our good fellow here. I’m sure Dr. Stroud would be quite keen to compare him to our other recent victims.” Buchanan raised an eyebrow at him. “Me?” Washburne looked out of the oceanside entrance of the cave. The high tide was rolling in. Beyond the pulsing waves, not too far from the Baths themselves, another even more grandiose structure cantilevered out from the cliff face. Washburne drew his overcoat closed against the chill. “Well, I think I’ll pay a visit to Cliff House and see what young Master Sutro makes of these recent atrocities.”
Act II: Cliff House
The late Mayor Adolph Sutro left a good deal to the city of San Francisco, but only one male heir to inherit it all. Inspector Washburne stood in the cathedral-like foyer of the monumental Cliff House waiting for the current master of the estate to make his appearance. An old butler had shuffled off to find Master Alvin Sutro some minutes ago, but Washburne surmised that a combination of the servant’s aged limbs and the sprawling acreage of the manor would delay the meeting for some minutes more.
Washburne used the time to make himself familiar with the surroundings. The space on the grand floor of Cliff House was airy and sunlit, owing to dozens of arched passageways that opened onto a wraparound balustrade. A salty breeze drifted through the open spaces and ruffled Washburne’s coat. Outside, leaning against the rail, he could see the Sutro Baths a hearty stone’s throw to the north, while the rest of the city lay but a steam train ride to the east. To the west lay nothing but open ocean, a perfect place to hide your secrets.
If the exsanguinated bodies had been showing up on San Franciscan shores while Mayor Sutro was still alive, Washburne wouldn’t have even considered setting foot on this property, even if his instincts had begged him to. But the heir to Sutro’s fortune was rumored to be a bit of a strange character at best, a rotten apple that fell far from the family tree at worst. Washburne had seen plenty of people do plenty of strange things; the poor did what they had to in order to survive, the rich did what they did to see what they could get away with. The latter cases were usually the more disturbing.
“Inspector Washburne, is it?” a smooth, political voice asked. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Washburne turned back to see Alvin Sutro extending a gloved hand toward him. He took it and shook it once, noting the sure, measured grip the young millionaire possessed. He had the face of a politician and the cunning eyes of thief; professions that were one and the same in Washburne’s opinion. Sutro struck Washburne as the type to charm the pocket watch right off your chain and make you thank him for it.
“Sorry to be an inconvenience, Mr. Sutro,” Washburne started, feigning embarrassment. “As you may have heard, there has been a rash of rather gruesome murders lately.”
“Yes, dreadful, dreadful,” Sutro replied. “Ghastly business. I do hope you catch the persons responsible, Inspector.”
“Well that is partially why I’m here, Mr. Sutro. You see, just this morning another victim was discovered at your public bathhouse,” Washburne informed him. “That is to say, under your bathhouse. Poor chap was stuck fast to the grate of one of the pumps, unlucky fellow.”
“Good heavens,” replied Sutro.
“Yes, smashed to bits, I’m afraid.” Sutro reeled a bit on the spot and caught himself with a hand on the banister. Washburne noted genuine surprise and a bit of disgust on the part of the young man. It lessened the likelihood of his hunch that Sutro could be a serial murderer who specialized in draining a victim’s blood for kicks.
“If there’s anything I can do to help,” Sutro continued, swallowing down a bit of bile and touching a silk handkerchief to his lips. “This will be just awful for business,” he said, mostly to himself.
“I’m sorry, sir. Business? Begging your pardon, but what business does a wealthy man such as yourself have to worry about?”
“Oh, I’m afraid the Sutro family fortune is not what it used to be, Inspector,” Sutro said. “Between you and me, my mother took the old man for rather an expensive ride in his last years. When they passed, not much was left to me but this house and the land it resides on. Keeping up appearances is much more expensive than you would believe, Inspector.”
“Indeed, I imagine it would be,” Washburne replied. “Are you not still Overseer of the Poor, then, Mr. Sutro?” Perhaps here, hoped Washburne, the façade of the woeful millionaire would slip away. Otherwise he would be very much at a loss.
“Oh, gracious yes,” replied Sutro. “All of the responsibility with none of the resources. That’s my great legacy to inherit, Inspector. Though, I must admit, I proudly accept that bit of my father in me that takes a moral stand at great financial cost. As an acting representative for the Sutro family, it’s my duty to see that the less fortunate are properly cared for.”
“Then it would pain you to learn that the recent victims were, most likely, residents of poorhouses, Mr. Sutro. Poorhouses that you oversee,” said Washburne.
“Well that is a blow, indeed, Inspector,” Sutro replied. Then something dawned upon the young man, as if finally piecing the reason for Washburne’s visit. “Inspector, you couldn’t think that I had anything to do with these…these, abominations?” Washburne only shrugged.
“The victims belong under your care, one of which was found in your facility. It would be quite easy to dispose of a body along the shoreline,” mused Washburne.
“Inspector, while I appreciate the strain you must be under from your superiors, I cannot abide these accusations. Although you lack any sufficient proof to the contrary, I will vehemently deny any such attacks upon my person,” Sutro said heatedly. Washburne raised his hands in mock self defense.
“My apologies, Mr. Sutro. I’m only trying to get to the bottom of this and this was the closest lead I had, thin as it may be.”
“Thin, indeed,” said Sutro, still breathing heavily. “To think, that I could even be capable of doing such evil. And to the poor, no less! The poor that I spend my last coins to assist. Why, Inspector, I may soon be in the poorhouse myself if these horrid crimes continue. Business is slow enough as it is.”
“You were saying something about your business before, Mr. Sutro. Might I impress upon you to tell me more?” Sutro eyed Washburne angrily for a minute before conceding.
“Tourism,” Sutro sighed. “The Baths, the museum, the restaurants in this very house. Tourism is all we have left to support the family. The fortune was built upon my father’s genius, but his legacy outpaced the funds. Now I rent his spare rooms to the occasional curious traveler,” Sutro said. “Though we have but one resident at the moment.”
Something tugged at Washburne’s mind and prodded him into continuing this line of thought. Perhaps it was due to his failed assumption of Sutro as the murderer and now his pride was seeking retribution, no matter how fragile the connection might be.
“You say you have one tenant currently residing here, Mr. Sutro?” Washburne asked. Sutro nodded. “Might you tell me about him?”
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t know much,” Sutro replied. He relaxed a bit as the Pacific breeze blew over them. “He’s an older man, in rather poor health. He has an accent I couldn’t quite place; somewhere in Eastern Europe, I believe. Vozlov, Dr. Vozlov. Came to Cliff House this past winter and has stayed ever since. It’s a terrible shame about his daughter.”
“What about his daughter, Mr. Sutro?”
“Pardon me, sirs, but there is an urgent telegram for Inspector Washburne,” the butler called from just inside. Sutro took the teletype page and handed it to Washburne. It read: Fifth victim stop suspect apprehended stop held at Hall of Justice stop arrive immediately stop.
“Thank you for all your help, Mr. Sutro. You’ve been most accommodating,” Washburne said as he tucked the message into his coat pocket. “But might I trouble you for a carriage ride to the station? It seems as if this whole messy ordeal may be at an end.” Sutro smiled.
“I’d be happy to hear that, Inspector. And if it would help speed the clearing of my name, you may take my automobile. Herman here will drive you and I daresay you will get there much more expeditiously.”
To say the Hall of Justice was the sight of much excitement that day would be a severe understatement. It was a testament to the day’s events that even the appearance of Inspector Washburne in an obscenely expensive French-import Peugeot did not turn so many heads as the earlier arrivals had. Washburne waved to Herman as he throttled the beautiful machine back to Cliff House.
Inside the Hall of Justice, a group of officers was clamoring outside the operating room door. They were all shouting a mixture of congratulations and interrogations at a young, very pale, very distressed patrol officer. Washburne pivoted the young man by his elbow, walked him into a secure room, and sat him down at a table. Seconds later, Buchanan came in to stand guard against the door.
“Are you the one who brought our suspect in?” Washburne asked, piecing together the unspoken facts. The young man nodded. “What’s your name, son?”
“Timothy Reynolds, sir,” he said.
“Very good, Officer Reynolds. I’d like you to start from the beginning, if you would,” said Washburne. He took out a pad of paper and licked the tip of his pen to begin taking notes. The young officer looked as if he were about to keel over in his chair. Washburne nodded to Buchanan and the big man stepped out of the room. Neither man spoke a word until Buchanan returned with three cups of strong black coffee, one for Washburne and two for the patrolman.
“I was up north at O’Flaherty’s farm,” the man started, wrapping both of his hands around the tin cup. “Mr. O’Flaherty had reported some pretty strange goings on up there. Livestock disappearing and the like.” He took a deep breath, followed by a swig of coffee and continued. “Then he found some of his cows freshly killed in the field, with bite marks in their necks, entirely drained of blood. Well, I thought that a bit funny so I followed up with a visit to his property.”
“Go on, you’re doing fine,” said Washburne, taking a sip of coffee himself. “What happened then?”
“Well, Mr. O’Flaherty took me out to where he found the cows. It took us a while due to a heavy fog rolling in. But sure enough, there they were, dead as can be. So O’Flaherty and I start to walk his property line to see if we can find any tracks…” The officer stopped. Whatever color had come back into his cheeks quickly faded again.
“It’s all right, son,” Washburne said.
“This guy came out of nowhere, knocked me to the ground. O’Flaherty ran off, said something about going to get help or fetch his rifle, I don’t really recall. I managed to roll the man off of me just for a second, just long enough to draw my revolver.
I put five slugs into him and he kept coming like they were mosquito bites. Then the strangest thing happened. I put one more into him and I could swear I heard the sound of glass breaking.” He stopped there and waited for Washburne to call him crazy. Washburne looked to Buchanan who just shrugged.
“You heard glass breaking,” Washburne said, undeterred. He made a note of it, and continued as if the officer had reported nothing more interesting than a comment on the weather. “Then what happened?”
“Well, the guy lunged for me and…well, the smell of brimstone filled my nose, made my head swim a bit. He was incredibly strong and I had spent all my rounds. There was blood everywhere and I thought I was done for, until I realized it was his blood. A big pool of blood poured from his chest, all at once, like I’d struck oil.” Reynolds stopped again and turned green, looking about ready to vomit his coffee back up. He composed himself and finished his report.
“After I managed to get myself out from under him, I had O’Flaherty phone in to the station to get a wagon up here for the body,” he said. “It wasn’t until I actually looked at the dead man that I realized there was something very, very wrong with him.”
“And what was that?” Washburne asked. He followed up with another question that Reynolds hadn’t managed to answer yet. “And what makes you think he’s our man?” Reynolds gulped and cleared his throat.
“Inspector, I think it would be easier on the both of us if you just took a look at the body,” he said. Washburne nodded to the man and left him there in the privacy of the interrogation room. He and Buchanan took a short walk down the hall and joined Dr. Stroud in the operating theatre.
“Dr. Stroud, Officer Reynolds tells us you have reason to believe…Good heavens, Doctor!”
Washburne staggered a step or two as he entered the room. Although he had seen autopsies before, and more than a few in the last number of weeks, the creature that was laid out on the table before him was stranger than anything he’d seen in all his experience. Not in his feverish nightmares could he have devised such a sight.
“Believe me, Inspector, there’s much more to this man than you can see at the moment,” said Dr. Stroud, in blood up to his elbows. “Join me over here and I’ll walk you through this as best I can.” Washburne took timid steps to the doctor’s side as if the monster on the table might spring up at any moment and resume his hunt.
He was once a man, there was no doubt about that. But in place of a heart there was a dizzying contraption that took up a good portion of his chest cavity. Indeed, one entire lung had been removed to accommodate the mechanism. Though it was relatively new, as the brass plating still held its luster, the whole contraption was coated in gore.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it, Inspector?” Stroud asked. “I have never, nor have any other minds the world round, so far as I know, seen its equal. If this man had not attacked one of our own officers just a few hours ago, I never would have believed this to be an intact, living specimen of a human being. I would have counted it a hoax, a misguided and morbid prank. But this, Inspector…”
“What exactly are we looking at, Doctor?” Washburne asked. His eyes moved over the brass plating held together against a rubber gasket by brass fasteners. He traced the coils of piping down to two separate crystal cylinders that were fixed in place where the man’s left lung should have been, anchored to the rib cage with brass and solder. One of the cylinders seemed empty. The other was shattered; drops of blood still clung to its jagged edges.
“This,” Stroud said, tapping the brass mechanism with his forceps, “appears to be a pump. So what I believe we’re looking at, Inspector, is an attempt at an artificial heart. You see here where the brass tubing connects into the vial, the one that’s shattered?” Washburne nodded along with Stroud’s presentation.
“I believe the blood was stored here momentarily while the pump was active, much like the function of the chambers in our organic hearts, Inspector. There is an intricate system of valves and stops throughout, though I have yet to disassemble them. A marvelous machine, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Go on, Doctor,” said Washburne. “You can fawn over this monstrosity once you’ve sufficiently explained it to me.
“Very well, very well. Assuming this pump acts as the heart, we can trace the tubing here,” again Dr. Stroud pointed with his forceps, “to each of the main arteries of the body. Here, the tubing is fused with the very tissue itself, in what must have been a most expert, and painful, of surgeries. The circulatory system is, presumably, untouched other than this central area here. Further examination is necessary.”
“What about that other vial then, the empty one?” Washburne asked.
“Ah, it may appear empty, but I assure you it is not.” Dr. Stroud leaned forward into the man’s exposed chest cavity and twisted gently on the lid of the clear crystal chamber. A hiss of gas escaped into the air and Dr. Stroud quickly closed it again. “Do you smell that, Inspector?”
“Sulfur,” said Washburne. “Reynolds did say something about the smell of brimstone about the man.”
“Hydrogen sulfide, or perhaps a mercaptan. Odorants added to natural gas either by natural or artificial means, Inspector.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I believe it’s the means of operating the pump,” replied Dr. Stroud. “Here, help me lift him, won’t you?” Washburne nodded to Buchanan, who stepped forward to help Dr. Stroud heave the body forward. The dead man’s exposed chest cavity flapped open like a pair of grotesque wings; the shattered crystal vial clanged against his ribcage like a reaper’s bell. “Here, round the back.”
“What in God’s name is that?” asked Washburne. Stroud was pointing at a series of coils sprouting from the man’s shoulders that spiraled down along his spine and entered his body again near the middle of his back. Stroud and Buchanan lowered the dead man to the operating table with a final shriek of metal on metal.
“I believe it’s a rudimentary condenser for whatever gas was trapped in the crystal chamber,” Stroud continued. “If it were a low-boiling solvent that is liquid at room temperature, here,” Stroud tapped the coils of exposed metal, “but a vapor at or above body temperature, here,” he pointed to the intact chamber in the dead man’s chest cavity, “it could have served as the power source for the pump. Quite ingenious, actually.”
“This is rather too much, Doctor,” intoned Washburne. “If you expect me to believe this … automaton has been responsible for the rash of bloodlettings and deaths, well then I might as well have you locked up for fear you’ve taken leave of your senses.”
Dr. Stroud smiled at the Inspector as if he had one last trick up his blood-spattered sleeves. As Buchanan held the body up, Stroud grasped the dead man’s head with both hands and straightened it so that the lifeless eyes were staring up at him. Stroud pulled the mouth open with a sucking sound.
“Had to sever the jaw muscles to get the mouth open due to rigor mortis setting in. What I found should interest you, Inspector.”
Washburne took a step closer. Dr. Stroud pressed his forceps against the upper teeth of the dead man. With an audible click, two brass fangs descended over the canine teeth. The metal sheaths ended in wicked points, more than sharp enough to pierce a man’s flesh.
“Does that change your mind about our suspect, Inspector?” Dr. Stroud asked with a smile. He removed the forceps from the man’s teeth and the fangs retracted above the gum line. “Pressure-sensitive trigger for the fangs, which are connected to tubing that runs the length of the esophageal passage and ends in the … what was once presumably whole, collection vessel. Quite conducive for puncturing a jugular vein and restoring one’s blood supply, wouldn’t you agree, Inspector?” Washburne merely grunted, unable to process everything the good doctor was saying.
“I would surely like to meet this genius,” Stroud sighed, “mad, though he may be.”
“As would I, Doctor,” said Washburne. “As would I.”
Act III: Crucible
Washburne retired to his office while Dr. Stroud continued his examination. He didn’t want to be far away if the surgeon were to discover another item of importance, something that could provide a lead in the case. The dead man on the table was very much a person of interest, most likely their murderer, but no man could have outfitted himself in such a manner. The mere notion of trussing up another human being like that, as if they were nothing more than a machine… To Washburne, it was akin to spitting in the face of the Creator.
He rocked back on his desk chair and propped his feet up. There was something missing, yet at the same time, staring him in the face. He ran the facts through his head again: the poor victims, the exsanguinations, the bodies washing up on shore, one caught in the suction of the Sutro Bath pumps, and now this mechanical man outfitted as an apparent blood-drinking hunter. Abomination or not, this man had been a danger to society, and the madman that created him, even more so.
Washburne suddenly rocked forward on his chair and brought his feet to the ground with a stomp. He reached across the desk for the telephone and had the switchboard operator connect him to the Cliff House. As Washburne waited for one Master Alvin Sutro, he prayed his hunch was right.
“Inspector Washburne, is everything all right?” asked Sutro on the other end of the line.
“In a manner of speaking, Mr. Sutro,” Washburne answered. “I’m sorry to be bothering you again so soon, but I was wondering if we could continue the conversation we started earlier today.”
“I would be happy to help, Inspector, but you’ll have to refresh my memory. We did talk about a number of things.”
“It is your chief tenant that concerns me at the moment. What was his name again? Dr. Vozlov, did you say?” Washburne waited while there was momentary silence and a muttering of voices on the other end.
“Yes, Dr. Konstantine Vozlov. Was that all you required of me, Inspector?”
“What was his specialty, Mr. Sutro? His area of study, if you recall,” asked Washburne impatiently.
“As I remember it,” said Sutro, “he mentioned something about studying blood diseases of the tropics. I’m not entirely sure what brought him to San Francisco, although I’m sure it has to do with his daughter’s ill health.”
“You mentioned his daughter once before, Mr. Sutro. What’s the nature of her disorder, if I might ask?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, but the dear thing looks dreadful,” Sutro said. He paused a moment as if considering something. “Inspector, it’s curious that you’re asking about Dr. Vozlov today.”
“Curious, how?” Washburne asked.
“Well, after your visit this morning, I had a chance encounter with the doctor. We discussed the weather, his daughter’s health, small talk you know. Then the conversation turned to the matter of your visit and the recent deaths.”
“Go on, Mr. Sutro.”
“Well, and in retrospect it did seem rather odd, but not an hour went by before my manservant Herman came to tell me that Dr. Vozlov had decided to leave Cliff House and would be doing so immediately.”
“Is he still there? Dr. Vozlov?” Washburne asked hurriedly.
“Yes, I believe so. But I doubt for very much longer, Inspector.”
“Mr. Sutro, do everything you can to hold that man where he is,” Washburne ordered, already halfway out the door. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Washburne arrived at Cliff House just as Herman and another servant were heaving a large steamer trunk into a carriage. Washburne eyed the belongings and noted a monogram insignia with the letters “K.V.” etched into the central clasp of the trunk. He hoped he wasn’t too late.
“Dr. Vozlov, has he left yet?” Washburne asked. Herman shook his head, still struggling with the large trunk.
“No, sir. Though I daresay he is quite anxious to do so.”
“Where can I find him?” asked Washburne, this time helping the two men shove the trunk into the carriage hold.
“Last I saw, sir, the doctor was pacing the lobby floor in an effort to hurry us along,” said Herman with a weary laugh. “If he’s not there, his room is … or rather, was, the first door on the second floor, at the top of the eastern staircase.”
Washburne hurried off to the house and found the front doors propped open. More servants were hauling wooden boxes of all shapes and sizes out towards the carriage. Washburne pushed against the flow and fought his way inside. No one was pacing the floor. The only people present were wearing the uniforms of the servants of Cliff House and were moving quite briskly.
Washburne hurried up the eastern staircase and found the door at the top standing wide open. Inside, a stooped man flitted hurriedly back and forth across the room, coordinating his possessions and giving out orders to the waiting staff.
“You there,” he called to Washburne, “this item is extremely fragile. Do be careful with it.” Washburne noticed a hint of an accent from somewhere beyond his reckoning, but otherwise the doctor spoke very good English. When Washburne didn’t move, the doctor became agitated.
“Right here,” he shouted, pointing to a box containing an immaculate collection of laboratory glassware, and ceramic crucibles. “I do not have time to tell you again.” Washburne swept one side of his coat back, revealing the M&P revolver stowed at his hip. The doctor started at the sight of it. A look of confusion passed over his face, followed by a dawning realization and, perhaps, a hint of resignation.
“Everyone out, out, please,” said Dr. Vozlov. He shooed the rest of the staff out of the room and waved the Inspector in. The doctor took a seat in a desk chair in the far corner of the room. He offered a seat to Washburne by way of a velvet-cushioned bench, which the Inspector took.
“How can I help you officer?” Dr. Vozlov asked. He folded his hands together and rested them on his knee, far calmer than he had been when Washburne had first entered.
“Inspector, actually,” Washburne countered. “If you don’t mind, Doctor.”
“Of course, Inspector. How can I help you?” Washburne feigned confusion at the doctor’s frenzy in packing up his possessions.
“It seems you’re leaving our fair city rather in a hurry, Doctor. Might I inquire as to why?”
“Oh, I’ve been offered a position at a medical college on the eastern coast,” answered Vozlov, waving the comment away as if it were insignificant. “Unfortunately it requires that I move right away, so as you can see, I’m a bit flustered at the moment.”
“As I understand it, you’ve done a great deal of research into blood disorders, is that right?”
A hoarse cough racked Vozlov’s body. He doubled over at the waist and fought to control the spasms coursing through his body. Vozlov reached into his pocket. Washburne tensed and let his fingers stray to the hilt of his pistol, but relaxed them once more when the doctor withdrew a square of blood-stained silk. Vozlov pressed it to his lips and struggled through the last heaves of his coughing fit. The silk came away coated in a fresh pink froth.
“Yes,” Vozlov answered, having recovered his composure. “The research, I have done. The discoveries, however, they continue to … what is the word?”
“Escape? Evade? Elude?”
“Yes, elude. The secrets of the world have eluded my careful study, at least as far as cures are concerned.” Vozlov coughed forcefully once more into his handkerchief. “Diseases, however, I have a rather more intimate understanding of.”
Washburne slid himself toward the far end of the bench, away from Vozlov and his exotic affliction. Vozlov smiled, his teeth pink with his own blood.
“I assure you, Inspector, my troubles are no cause for concern. It is mine own blood that’s spoiled. No one under my care or in my service has suffered a similar fate.”
“Except your daughter, of course.”
Vozlov’s eyes widened for a moment, caught off guard, but when the Inspector’s accusation fully registered, he narrowed them once more in malice.
“How dare you speak of her, of things that don’t concern you?” Vozlov rose to his full height; Washburne did the same, though the doctor had the better of that measure. Washburne drew his pistol to fill the space between them, just in case Vozlov’s temper took the better of him.
“Six rounds of copper jackets, Doctor. Do you know the damage these bullets can do at such close range?” The doctor came up short. He coughed once into his handkerchief. “Though for someone as skilled in metallurgy as yourself, I’d wager you know quite well. Do sit, Doctor.” Washburne gestured back to the desk chair with the barrel of his gun. Vozlov sat while Washburne remained standing.
“Now that we’re fully acquainted, I’m going to tell you a little story,” said Washburne. “And you’re going to fill in the gaps, from the recent spate of vampiric deaths, to the capture of a cattle-killing mechanical monstrosity that bears your influence. By the time we’ve had our fill of each other, I’ll have a detailed order of events for my captain, and you’ll be fitted for a pair of irons. How does that sound to you, Doctor?”
Before Vozlov could answer, a piercing scream cut through the air. A commotion broke out on the floor below. Women cried out in horror, men shouted in disbelief. Washburne was caught between keeping his suspect at gunpoint and investigating this new disturbance. While the chaos continued downstairs, a new wave of spasms took Doctor Vozlov. He forced out a few words between his coughs.
“Leave,” he wheezed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Washburne, pistol aloft, sprinted from the room and down the staircase. Vozlov’s possessions had been dropped and scattered haphazardly across the floor. A large steamer trunk lay on its side, its lid ripped free from its hinges and flung to the far corner of the lobby. A trail of blood led outside, interrupted by arcs of arterial sprays coloring the arches and columns like a mad painter’s brush strokes.
Washburne followed the path of destruction outside. Three of Sutro’s servants, bloody and savaged, had dragged themselves to the porch rail in an attempt to escape their assailant. In the open, four more were engaged in combat with the very creature itself. He stood a full head and a half taller than Washburne, and was stripped bare to the waist. His arms were mismatched; one pale and sinewy, the other dark and muscular. A long, ragged scar ran from his right shoulder, across his chest, to his left hip; the flesh on either side of the mark was held fast with brass plates and bone screws. In his muscular hand, he held a manservant two feet off the ground by his throat, while swiping aside two more with an arc of his pale arm.
While Washburne tried to take in the scene, the evening fog began to drift in as the sun set over the water, and the chill April wind cut through the Inspector’s coat to his very bones. The mad monster turned towards his captive and opened his mouth wide, revealing two razor sharp, blood-red fangs, dazzling in the dying light. Washburne had not quite leveled his pistol when the creature sank his fangs into the man’s neck, draining his blood in fitful gushes.
Two shots rang out. The third caused the monster to drop his meal and come for Washburne instead.
Vozlov appeared in the doorway behind the Inspector and surveyed the scene. Upon laying eyes on the approaching monstrosity, the doctor cried out, “Igor, no!”
The monster hesitated just long enough for Washburne to fire another round. As the gunshot echoed, the muffled crack of shattering glass sounded beneath it. A whiff of sulfur filled the air. The monster turned away from the men and ran instead toward the carriage. Washburne took aim once more in an effort to finish it off, but Vozlov interfered. While the two men wrestled, the doctor’s creation scooped up the monogrammed steamer trunk from the carriage with one hand, hefted it onto his back, and ran straight for the cliff’s edge.
“No! Stop him! Stop him!”
It was once again Vozlov who cried out, but this time he pleaded with Washburne to take down the monstrosity. The Inspector leveled his gun a second time and fired. The fiend’s leg buckled, but too late. Its momentum carried his body and the steamer trunk over the ledge and down to the thrashing waves far below.
Vozlov ran to the edge of the cliff. Washburne caught up to him and pulled him back before the distraught doctor could conceive of any foolhardy notions of following his trunk into the depths.
“Let it go, Vozlov. It’s not worth your life.”
The doctor collapsed to his knees, sobbing between body-racking coughs.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “He took her. He took Katrina. She is my life!”
The fog rolled in, obscuring the waves below and the Cliff House behind, until all that Washburne could see was the broken man before him, and the endless bloody tide surrounding them both.
Act IV: The Heart of Vozlov
The night was full dark by the time Washburne’s reinforcements arrived on the scene. Buchanan was chief among them and, once informed of the strange events by Washburne, tasked his subordinates with establishing a perimeter and securing the entrances should the monstrosity return. The officers deployed mercury lamps to drive away the foggy darkness and hopefully keep any unnatural denizens of the night at bay. Another carriage arrived soon after, carrying Dr. Stroud and his medical team to see to the surviving victims. Wearing their white aprons and adorned with sharp, gleaming edges of metal, they approached the house, cutting through the swirling blue mist like spectral travelers of ill portent come to claim their promised souls. The sight did little to quell the fears of the fidgety officers on guard duty, though Stroud’s arrival put Washburne’s anxiety slightly more at ease.
The lobby of Cliff House had been turned into a triage unit. Of the seven servants of Mr. Sutro, three had succumbed to their wounds, including the carriage driver drained of blood by the doctor’s creation. Three were gravely injured; these were seen to immediately by Stroud’s assistants after Stroud himself had given orders as to their care. The remaining survivor, Stroud’s manservant Herman, was badly shaken up and had taken a knock to the head in a fall, but was otherwise unharmed. He had removed himself from the bloody scene to the relative comfort of Sutro’s study. It was on his account of the night’s events that the attention of the gathered men now fell.
“Gentlemen, my apologies for the delay,” Stroud offered, wiping the blood from his hands and taking a seat upon the supple, shiny arm of a leather sofa. “I’m afraid I’m at a loss as to what exactly happened to these men and women here tonight, but I’m hoping you might enlighten me.” Stroud, unperturbed by the gory theater on display in the adjoining room, took in the grim expressions of his present company, but made no attempt to change his own demeanor. “With the exception of Inspector Washburne, here, and our host Mr. Sutro, I am unacquainted with our other guests.”
“I thank you for your prompt arrival, Dr. Stroud, and welcome you to Cliff House, though I daresay I would prefer it be under more pleasant circumstances,” said Alvin Sutro. He stood behind an overstuffed armchair, his arms draped over the chipped gold paint of its ornate frame, his hands resting reassuredly upon the shoulders of his servant. Logs crackled in the fireplace behind him. “This is Herman, a servant long in my family’s employ, and as courageous a soul as you’ll ever meet.”
A hacking cough interrupted Sutro. Their attention turned to the man sitting at the cracked and faded end of the long leather sofa, opposite Dr. Stroud. He raised his shackled hands to his mouth and dabbed a bloody froth from his lips.
“This,” said Inspector Washburne, sitting in a straight-backed and rather plain-looking chair, “is Dr. Vozlov, the very disease at the heart of our city’s recent troubles.” The doctor wheezed in response to Washburne’s description. “And he’ll get his say after Herman here relates his own recollection of tonight’s events.”
Herman glanced up at Sutro, who nodded and encouraged the old man with a squeeze of his shoulders.
“I’ll be brief, sirs. My health has been poor as of late and tonight’s dreadful occurrence has done little to improve my constitution. The staff and I were assisting Dr. Vozlov in transporting his belongings to a waiting carriage. Edward and Percy,” Herman muttered inaudibly for a moment, “God rest their souls, Edward and Percy were tasked with carrying a very large steamer trunk from the doctor’s room. They had managed to wrestle the burden down the stairs and as far as the lobby when something happened that made Percy drop his end of the load.”
“What was that?” Washburne asked. “What happened?”
“I’m not entirely sure, sir,” Herman answered. “But I overheard Edward ask a similar question, to which Percy responded, ‘Something moved.’ Edward was either frightened by Percy’s answer or startled by the sudden movement of the trunk itself, because he dropped his end a moment later without grace. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t tolerate such rough handling of our guests’ belongings, though in retrospect I wish I hadn’t been quite so harsh on the young men.”
“It’s alright, Herman,” said Sutro with a pat on the shoulder. “Go on.”
“Well, sirs, the commotion brought good Master Sutro into the lobby to see what the fuss was all about. Before I could explain the situation, that … that monstrosity tore the very lid from the trunk; lock, hinges, and all!”
“You’re saying the creature was in the lobby and tore open the trunk?” Dr. Stroud asked.
“No, sir, I’m afraid I wasn’t quite clear. The abomination was inside the trunk and forced its way out! As you can plainly imagine, the four of us were in such a state of shock at having witnessed such an unnatural event that we could hardly move for the fright of it.” Herman let out a low moan. “Oh, how I wish I could go back to that moment with the knowledge of what was to come next. I would have done rather a good bit more, I should think.”
Herman rocked gently in the chair and Sutro steadied him.
“There, there, my good fellow,” he said. “I’ll pick up from here, if you don’t mind. You’ve said enough.
“When the beast broke free from its improvised prison, it did not hesitate to lash out at the closest things to it, namely Percy and Edward. In the space of a breath, the monster had slashed open their throats with its bare hands, spraying their life’s blood across the walls and leaving them to bleed out on the lobby floor.
“It next turned its attention to me, and if not for Herman’s intervention, I surely would not be standing before you gentlemen right now,” he squeezed Herman’s shoulders once more. “Though Herman took a great cuff from the monster’s backhand, as you can see, he survived the attack. Luckily for me, his sacrifice gave me a moment to retreat and barricade myself behind the kitchen door. I had no idea what the creature was or what it would do next. If only I had had an ounce of Herman’s bravery, perhaps I could have prevented the savagery that the doctor’s creation unleashed upon the rest of my staff. Their screams…” Sutro began to waver.
“That’s plenty good enough for me, Herman, Mr. Sutro,” Washburne said. “You two have been through quite an ordeal. If you would like to retire for the evening, I have no objections.”
Sutro steadied himself.
“Thank you, Inspector, but if the foul doctor here intends to shed some light on these inconceivable happenings, then I will steel myself for his lurid tale.”
“I think that would prove quite too much for me this evening,” Herman said. “With your leave, sir, I’d like to turn in for the night.”
“Of course, Herman,” Sutro said. “Take a nightcap to steady your nerves and calm your mind. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
The aging manservant bid goodnight to his guests and Sutro took his seat. All eyes turned to the mad doctor.
“Now it’s your turn, Vozlov,” Washburne said, straightening up and putting a harsh edge on his tone. “Your story might not commute your sentence, but it will go a long way towards cleansing your soul. Let’s have it.”
Vozlov purged his lungs of bloody foam once more. The fog pressed in thickly upon the windows of the study, crackling blue in the lamplight. The fire sputtered and choked. A cold draft curled through the room. Vozlov dabbed his lips, and then waited for the rattling of his chains to settle before starting his tale.
“My soul is clean, Inspector. And when I have told you of my efforts, perhaps you will understand why that is so.
“I come from a land you do not know, from a country whose name you would not recognize, and yet we live our lives not so different from how you live your own. We are born, we grow up, we make mistakes and learn from them, we fall in love, and if we’re lucky, we bring children into this world before we die.
“For a time, my wife Maria and I were unlucky. We were young, we were amorous, we were devoted to each other and to starting a family, but we were denied that opportunity for many years. Those years, those fruitless years, could have made us bitter and resentful toward each other, but our love was too strong. So strong, in fact, that twelve years ago it was finally manifested in the form of a baby girl, my Katrina.”
He coughed again as he fought down the urge to sob. His iron cuffs rattled with each spasm, but were soon stilled when he rested his hands in his lap.
“Perhaps our love was too strong after all, because though Katrina came into this world, Maria left it at the same time. I felt that to be an unfair cost, taking a mother from her daughter; I gladly would have taken her place. Little did I know that the full cost of our child’s existence was yet to be revealed to me.
“I worked as an assistant at the city’s medical college, and was forced to take a second job there as a night guard and custodian. While Maria’s sister cared for Katrina during the long days and nights, I worked to provide for them both, and to educate myself with the aim of finding a way to prevent such a tragic loss of life as befell my sweet Maria.
“It was then that I learned of Katrina’s condition. The doctors had no name for it except for labeling her with a failure to thrive. I did not accept this. Taking matters into my own hands, I soon deduced that Katrina’s condition was a previously unseen blood disease in which her cells appeared misshapen and sickly. Seeking a temporary reprieve for her condition, I began giving her transfusions of my own blood, despite the objections of my peers.
For a time, it worked. Katrina was vivacious and energetic for a period of a week or two after each transfusion. But soon, the melancholy would settle in and the disease would sap her of her strength once again. Dr. Stroud, have you heard of such an affliction?”
The surgeon, finding himself leaning towards the doctor as he told his tale, straightened up before answering his question. “No, Dr. Vozlov, I have not. It doesn’t sound like haemophilia, but perhaps it’s somehow related?”
“Dr. Stroud, your query is already more interest than that which was shown by my co-workers and medical professionals. With the exception of myself and Igor – my dear friend, my closest companion – everyone else had written off my Katrina as a lost cause.”
“A moment, doctor,” Washburne interjected. “Is this the same Igor who, not hours ago, savagely attacked Mr. Sutro’s employees? Is this ‘dear friend,’ as you call him, not the same mechanical monstrosity that plunged into the rocky shore with your daughter in tow?”
“The very same,” replied Vozlov.
“Perhaps Igor’s murder of Katrina was in repayment of the inhuman treatment he received at your hands, Dr. Vozlov,” Sutro offered. “It seems he would rather have thrown himself off a cliff than live another moment in this life of metallic madness you had so diabolically thrust upon him.”
“I can assure you of two things, Mr. Sutro,” Vozlov said, his assurance punctuated with a hacking cough. “One, that Igor’s drive to protect Katrina was second only to mine. And two, that whatever Igor had become was at his own request. He was not the smartest of individuals, but a man with stronger will I’ve never met.”
Mr. Sutro scoffed and shook his head, but ceased his chastisement. Dr. Stroud picked up the thread of the conversation.
“So how did Igor come to be this way, Dr. Vozlov?”
“I’m coming to it, in short order. Igor was never destined for the cerebral demands of academia, but he was quite capable of mopping floors and scrubbing out commodes. Common ground is quite simple to find when you’re on your knees in the muck alongside another, despite whatever differences you might have. So it was with Igor and myself.
As I said, he lacked common sense and even the most basic education of schoolchildren, but was possessed of skilled and steady hands. He was also gifted with a compassionate soul, which was his curse. He had become entangled in the despair that had wrapped itself around me and my dear Katrina, and was determined to help bring us all out of it together. If not for Igor, Katrina would have succumbed to her disease long ago, and I would have lost myself without her.
“When it became apparent that her condition would not be improved through my limited resources, the three of us began traveling in search of a cure. We investigated every strange story that caught our attention: the blood-drinking immortals of the Carpathian mountains, the mythological godly ichor from the ancient Greeks, and the historical truths of Hungary’s blood-bathing countess. We went in search of the Japanese kappa, the Mexican chupacabra, and the African ramanga. It was this last ill-fated trip that would cause my research to take a turn.
“While in Madagascar, a converted Christian villager named Asan helped acclimate us to village life. One evening, he happened to witness the life-giving blood transfusion that kept my daughter’s condition manageable. After I explained the procedure and its benefits to him, he practically dragged me back to his village. His people, the Betsileo, were suffering from a wasting disease not all that dissimilar from that which afflicted my dear Katrina. Without delay, I had Asan explain to his fellow villagers that I was a doctor and could cure their illness. It took some doing to convince them that it was not my blood that would save them, but the blood of their own healthy relatives, though in the end the results spoke for themselves. Many who surely would have died managed to not only cling to life, but to thrive.
“I was regarded as their savior, and in thanks, they offered me anything I asked for. Like a heathen king, I asked them for their blood, in the name of finding a permanent cure for both the Betsileo and my daughter. They were only too happy to oblige. Just when it looked like my research might finally bear fruit, God struck us another blow.”
Vozlov’s eyes lost their focus as he gazed into the center of the room. It was as if he had become trapped somewhere in memory, somewhere between remembering or forgetting it all. He remembered, of course. His was a story Vozlov had told many times, though only in recollection within his own mind, and the rare conversation with his dear Katrina.
“It was around this time that more Betsileo began arriving in the village. Families doubled in size and the population swelled as more and more of them crowded into their homes and walked with them in the streets. In my hubris, I thought word of my medical advancements had brought them here, but it was something much more arcane.
“Every seven years, the Betsileo gather at the burial sites of departed family members to participate in the famadihana, or ‘turning of the bones.’ You see, they believe that a soul’s transition to the afterlife is only complete when the physical body has completely decayed. To assist in this process, they bring up the bodies of their dead, wrap them in new silken shrouds, and carry them aloft as they dance through the streets. As a man of high standing within the village, I was offered the place of honor in holding up the body of a former village leader along with his son – the current leader – and his grandson, who was next in line. It is a request I could not turn down, no matter my distaste for the ceremony. If only I had, perhaps none of us would be here in this room right now.”
A wave of spasms racked Vozlov’s body once more. He doubled over until his head was nearly between his knees. He pressed the blood-spattered square of fabric to his mouth. It came away sticky with gore.
“As you can see, my time is short, and has been getting shorter all the while. Whether it was from some dread disease in the crypts of the Betsileo, or some parasite brought in by the visiting relatives, I do not know. Whatever it was … whatever it is is still with me to this day, and is taking me apart by pieces. If it were not for Asan’s insight and Igor’s particular genius, I would have joined those bodies in the crypts years ago, with Katrina beside me. As it happened, we were able to buy more time together, at a very steep cost.”
“It sounds as if you’re buying quite a bit of time now, Doctor,” said Sutro with a cold stare. “While your exotic travels and dances with savages would no doubt delight readers of a pulp rag, I daresay that the Inspector here, and the good doctor, might be more inclined to hear about the recent murders at the hands of your mechanical men!”
Vozlov looked in danger of collapsing inward upon himself. Though his condition by no means excused the man’s evils, Washburne couldn’t help but feel just the slightest bit of pity for him.
“Go on, Vozlov,” he nudged. “Let’s hear it all.”
Vozlov dabbed at the dry corners of his cracked lips, wheezed once, and carried on.
“After it became clear that my tropical malady had no cure to be found beyond the reach of civilized medicine, I redoubled my efforts to save Katrina before my own body failed me. Igor tended to the needs of both my daughter and myself, while Asan provided an herbal remedy that kept the pain at bay and allowed me to continue on with my work. The way in which Asan was repaid for this kindness shall haunt my soul for eternity…
“It was the realization that my blood was now tainted, meaning it was no longer prudent to treat Katrina with it, that cast me into a deeper despair. Having no other recourse, Igor offered to be Katrina’s blood donor, and against all odds, it worked. His transfusion brought new life to my little girl and allowed me to continue seeking a cure. But Katrina was not so little anymore, and her condition required more frequent transfusions of higher volumes than ever before. Igor was rapidly becoming depleted and exhausted, and I was a poisoned well. If we were to keep up the treatment, a new source of blood was absolutely vital.
“I don’t know how the American medical system treats its poorest citizens, its mentally ill, its criminals, but their lives come cheap in the dark corners of the world. When weighed against the cost of my innocent daughter’s life, I’d happily pay the Reaper his token again and again. Though Asan was not comfortable with strapping these fellows down against their will in order to drain their blood, I fully convinced him that it was for the greater good – for Katrina, for his people – so that he assisted me without protest. Igor needed no convincing and never once questioned my methods.
“One evening as the three of us sat together, passing a drinking tin of fermented rice, Asan inquired about Igor’s latest creation, a breathing machine that supplied fresh air to Katrina while she slept. ‘It’s a good machine for her?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘A good machine to help her breathe.’ He pondered this idea of a ‘good machine’ for a moment, then said, ‘Can you not take the bad machine out, and put a good machine inside?’ He tapped his own ribs with his fingertips. I admit, I had a bit of a chuckle at imagining what Asan must have seen in his mind, that the flesh and blood lungs of a human were in fact metal and glass machine parts that had become faulty.
“And then, admittedly before my head had a chance to clear, I took his suggestion more seriously. What are the lungs but biological blacksmith’s bellows? What are bones but structured mineral deposits? What is the heart but an electro-mechanical pump? These mechanisms could all be replicated artificially, and then, if successful, could theoretically be placed in a human body. Swap out the bad machine with a good one … but would it work?
“The greatest advancements in human history are not without sacrifices, and I won’t bore you with the details of my failures, but there were a great number of them. I was gifted in understanding the functions of the human body, Igor was a mechanical savant, and Asan had an encyclopedic knowledge of herbal concoctions that would serve as the narcotics and healing remedies essential to our work. And still, with all our gathered expertise, our eventual successes were birthed in blood.
“Igor’s early attempts at building small pumps to replace the human heart were remarkably successful, after a short period of trial and error, but were far too large for my little Katrina. And even with the pump working properly outside the body for hours on end, the question of successful implantation remained.
“The first attempts were incredibly bloody, and literally short-lived. Thanks to Asan’s remedies, the men died peacefully and without the cries of mortal terror that surely would have terrified the rest of the village into banishing us from their midst, despite my reputation. Though Igor’s strength helped us in disposing of the failed experiments, it was his unyielding will that pushed us onward in our quest to discover a cure. That quest took an invaluable leap forward one day, and on that same night, a crushing step back.
“The first successful transplant took place in the body of a man by the name of Boko. An absolute bear of a man, Boko was a rapist and child murderer who had prowled the jungles for years, becoming the stuff of cautionary tales and fireside scares for young and old villagers alike. When they finally captured him, at the cost of three men’s lives, Asan convinced the villagers to turn him over to our care in hopes of purging a violent demon from his body.
“It took the combined physical strength of Igor and Asan to hold Boko down, at which point I applied a dose of triple-strength narcotic to the brute. By this point, I’d had enough experience in the early stages of the experiment that the process had become mundane. After securing a forced air breather, of Igor’s design, to the subject’s nose and mouth, I diverted his blood flow to an external pump. Igor assisted me in sawing open the man’s chest cavity. It was an enormous task to say the least since the man’s torso was expansive enough to envelope the whole of Katrina’s body. As Boko’s ribs lay exposed, open and waiting like empty hands, I had a momentary vision of Katrina nesting inside them, and then pulling the protective cage of bone and blood around her once more. Perhaps it was the fever speaking, but I knew that this time we’d be successful, and that it meant new life for my dear Katrina.
“Boko’s size made for a difficult management of his blood flow and oxygen levels, but a relatively simple extraction of organs. Where previous patients had to suffer losses of a lung, partial removal of the liver, and excised rib bones, Boko was left nearly completely intact, save for his heart. The successful transplant of that remarkable contraption, designed by Igor, implanted by my own two hands, and made possible through Asan’s medicine, was the nearest I’d ever come to experiencing the miracle of birth firsthand. It ran like a dream, like an impossible vision that had somehow leaped off the pages of blueprints and scribbled calculations and wild thoughts noted in the margins to become a moving, pumping, humming, rattling, autonomous thing. This was artificial life after natural death; this was Creation!”
“Blasphemy!” shouted Sutro, pounding a fist against the arm of his chair.
“Fascinating!” Dr. Stroud exclaimed. Vozlov continued without delay, his brow beaded with sweat, his face pallid with exertion.
“The true test came later, after Boko’s blood vessels were properly cuffed, his breast plate was riveted back together, the muscles and skin of his chest sewn back into rough assembly of where they had been in life. Aesthetics had no merit in this endeavor. In fact, the hideous appearance of the man now came that much closer to approximating the heinous soul within him. If he lived only for a moment more, with the mechanical heart pumping away in his chest, that would be a moment more than he deserved, but I’d count my efforts successful nonetheless.”
Vozlov drew a rattling breath and exhaled with a wheeze.
“Boko lived. Boko thrived, after the first few minutes of initial shock and agony, anyway. Asan had concocted a powerful pain-killer that allowed the mind to remain clear, a draft known in the local translation as the ‘walking death.’ The big man strained against the straps that held him fast to the operating table while I took his vitals. Except for the strange mechanical clacking and rhythmic bubbling that sounded within his chest cavity, Boko was as healthy as an ox.
“Later that night, after lying nearly motionless all day, Boko had calmed down to the point that I considered loosening his restraints to improve his circulation and to allow some freedom of movement that would better test a load on the artificial heart. No sooner had I relaxed one of the straps than Boko ripped free of it completely with one powerful thrust of his arm. The force of it sent me reeling into a medical cart, which crashed to the floor along with me. The sound of it alerted Igor and Asan, who soon rushed to my aid. Asan hesitated, not knowing whether to subdue the beast physically or to help me from the floor. Igor showed no such pause and instead leaped on top of Boko in an attempt to keep the monster from freeing his other arm.
“While Igor grappled with our creation, Asan helped me to my feet. I was too feeble to assist in the fight in any way, but ordered Asan to administer a sedative to Boko as soon as possible. He was too slow. Though Igor was nearly a match for Boko while most of the brute’s body was still restricted, a savage backhand sent Igor to the ground. At the same moment, Asan attempted to inject the hastily made sedative into Boko’s neck, but found his own throat grasped in the madman’s hand. A flick of the thumb ended Asan’s life in a blink, nearly severing my friend’s head from his neck entirely. The syringe dropped to the floor along with Asan’s corpse.
“I remember with utmost clarity the chaos of those next few moments. Asan’s body lay crumpled on the floor while Igor staggered back to his feet. I stood in dumbstruck impotence as Boko wrenched free of his other restraints. As the specter of death loomed large in the room, I turned to see Katrina in her nightgown, standing in the doorway. How long she was there and what horror she had already seen, I do not know; what I do know is what she saw next.
“Boko’s eyes found Katrina in the same instant that mine had, and while my own were filled with fright, his were bright with hunger. I dashed in front of him as he rolled off the operating table and stomped towards Katrina, but he threw me aside again with ease. When I had regained my balance a moment later, I turned to see Boko just a hair’s breadth away from my daughter. It was then that the savagery of Igor was unleashed upon the hulking monster.
“Boko was driven back into the open space of the operating room, shoved back further with Igor’s relentless momentum until the two crashed through the wall of the hut. Thinking only of Katrina’s safety, I scooped her up in my arms and spirited her from that place of madness to the only spot I knew she felt safe and secure: a heavy wooden steamer trunk that had accompanied us on all our travels, a place she hid when the outside world became too overwhelming for her. While hushing her questions and doing my best to reassure her that everything was fine, the sounds of bloody combat echoed through the night.
“With Katrina secured, I returned to assist Igor in whatever way I could. I came upon a scene of carnage: Blood decorated the floors, walls, and ceilings, and was spattered across overturned tables. Through the dust, I spied Boko lying face up on the ground, halfway through the hole in the wall, and yet his body seemed wrong. It wasn’t until I crept nearer to the unmoving mass that I realized that while his hideous face was staring up at me, his body was lying chest down.
“Boko moved, unnaturally, a shifting of sorts that seemed to come not from his own muscles, but from a puppet’s string somewhere above him. In fact, it was Igor’s movement below Boko that gave this impression. I helped to heave the bulky corpse – for Boko was quite dead at this point – off of my dearest companion.
“Igor was very near death himself. Though he somehow managed to twist Boko’s neck to the point of breaking, he had paid for this sacrifice dearly. Igor’s shirt was torn away, revealing a ragged hole in his chest where Boko had presumably ripped his flesh and bones free from Igor’s torso with his bare hands. I helped my friend to his feet, but he instantly collapsed. Pale and exhausted, Igor’s eyes rolled back into his head. I pulled him free of the rubble and laid him on a clear space upon the floor. Asan’s syringe rolled away from me as I inadvertently kicked it. I stared at it a moment, and in that instant knew what was to be done.
“It took the better part of the night, along with every node of concentration I could muster and every ounce of will that Igor could summon forth. Asan’s syringe had put Igor into a deep coma state, but that only kept him stable for the first part of the operation. By the time I had managed to attach Igor to the breathing machine and stopped his bleeding long enough to connect him to the exterior circulation, he was showing the barest signs of vitality, which was a miracle in and of itself. Unfortunately, it had taken quite some time to extricate the artificial pump, only slightly damaged in the melee, from Boko’s chest. By this point, Igor was wavering in and out of consciousness.
“I hesitated, I swear upon this fact. Would it not be better to let this man, this dear friend, drift off into a painless eternal sleep? Was his sacrifice not worth at least that? But then I thought of Katrina, of my work, of how close we’d gotten together, of how lost we’d be without Igor, then and now. In my moment of doubt, Igor opened his eyes, grasped my forearm, and nodded just once before passing back into that abyss between sleep and death. I took it to mean one thing: Igor’s will to live on was stronger than death, and he knew that we had conquered it once, and would do so again.”
A silence seemed to fill the room like the creeping fog. No man there dared break it for fear of his words summoning one of the horrors from Vozlov’s tale. Had they not seen the monstrous creation themselves, they never would have believed his dark fantasy. None of them could deny its truth, but all of them hoped in secret that this was the end of the mad doctor’s tale. They all knew it was not.
“As you gentlemen have surely gleaned, Igor survived the ordeal, though not without some drawbacks. He was forever disfigured, mismatched in appearance as if cobbled together from spare parts of unrelated bodies. Three of Igor’s limbs had been damaged in the fight against Boko and so it came to be that the dead man’s extremities replaced Igor’s withered appendages. He also required quite a bit more time to recover than Boko had, and that without the assistance of Asan’s medicinal poultices. I prepared them as best I could, but admit that in my ignorance I may have unintentionally introduced some impurities into the mixtures. I’m not sure if it was those toxins that caused Igor to develop his particular form of madness or if it was simply a psychological result of the trauma he’d endured, all I know is that he remained devoted to Katrina and beholden to my whims.
“We spirited away from the Betsileo as quickly as Igor’s condition would allow. Luckily, the villagers had been afraid enough of Boko in life that they gave us a wide berth. As Igor regained his strength, even surpassing his previous limits, we traveled on steamer ships and cargo vessels from port to port to port until we reached San Francisco. Few gave us any trouble along the way, thanks in part to Igor’s offensive appearance; those who did soon found themselves under my blade.
“The experiments continued and my skills improved. The same could not be said for either my condition or Katrina’s, however, though stowaways and homeless dock dwellers did keep us in a fresh blood supply for the long journey. After a few more successful transformations, I turned next to the problem of self-sustaining transfusions. As it was, my creations were subsisting off of their own blood, pumped through their veins by Igor’s masterpieces, but this only solved half of Katrina’s riddle. I would not be around forever, and despite my best efforts neither would Igor, so Katrina must be able to survive on her own. Though for a time he struggled to make his warring hands work in concert, Igor managed to make his finest metal craft to date. So beautiful; so delicate.”
“The teeth,” said Dr. Stroud. “They’re hypodermic needles that siphon blood from others in order to replenish your creations’ supply. Ingenious, doctor. Monstrous of course, but ingenious.” Vozlov bowed his head.
“I daresay, Dr. Stroud, it sounds almost as if you admire this lunatic!” Sutro interjected. “Untold victims lie awash in blood at this man’s feet!” Stroud merely shrugged.
“I am able to separate Dr. Vozlov’s medical achievements from his inhuman acts of cruelty, Mr. Sutro.”
“I, however, am not,” said Washburne. “I think it’s about time to orient Dr. Vozlov with San Francisco’s finest facility for the criminally insane.”
“Oh, I think not, Inspector,” Vozlov said, sputtering through a wet cough. “My creations are no more, and my story is at its end. My lungs fill with fluid, lymph leaks into my tissues, my gums wither and my teeth rot away. Very soon now I will be merely a loose assemblage of faulty parts resembling what appears to be a man. A sad irony, don’t you think? That while I was able to rebuild and replace the evanescent tissues crafted by God’s own hand, I was unable to cease my own march to expiry.”
“Ironic, no,” said Sutro. “Fitting? Yes.”
“You can match wits with God soon enough, Vozlov,” said Washburne. “But until then -”
Vozlov collapsed to the floor with a violent spasm that jerked his entire body into unnatural contortions. It lasted only a moment before his body ceased to move completely. His hand relaxed. His blood-soaked handkerchief unfurled and a small glass vial rolled out onto the carpet. Dr. Stroud stooped to retrieve it.
“Asan’s final gift to his old master,” he said, inspecting a small amount of clear liquid that remained at the bottom of the vessel. “A shame to lose such a brilliant mind. He could have advanced the field of medicine by decades.”
“A blessing, you mean,” Sutro said. “Any advancements bought through the torture of innocents and the lowest among us come at too steep a price.”
“He was trying to save his daughter, Sutro,” Stroud returned. “He paid with his life.”
“And the lives of many others!” Sutro exclaimed. “Not to mention his own soul!”
Before the bleeding-heart philanthropist and the pragmatic man of science could get into a row over the dead man’s corpse, Washburne intervened.
“Dr. Stroud, please attend to Dr. Vozlov and retire his body to the Hall of Justice. Perhaps there is something yet you can learn from the man.” Stroud, having regained his composure, nodded, smiled weakly at Sutro, and turned to gather his medical team.
“Mr. Sutro,” Washburne continued, “You have my deepest condolences for your losses here tonight and these last few weeks. I thank you for your wholehearted assistance in this gruesome investigation, and hope that your life and your business soon return to normal.”
Mr. Sutro wiped a sheen of sweat from his brow.
“Thank you, Inspector. I think it’s safe to say that this nightmare is over and we can put these horrors behind us.”
Inspector Washburne was not so sure.
Act V: Katrina
The body of Dr. Vozlov had been loaded onto the carriage bound for the Hall of Justice with Stroud’s medical team and the other officers in tow. The lamps were gone, unnecessary now that Vozlov’s terror had died with him. Sutro, Herman, and the surviving servants had turned in for a restless night. Cliff House was quiet but for the relentless crash of surf hundreds of feet below. The only things that remained were the darkness, the thinning fog, and Inspector Washburne.
Something nagged at his instincts. Something pulled his attention to the closed case when he would have given anything to direct it elsewhere. He could not ignore it. Listening to his gut had not only been vital to solving crimes in the past, it had saved his very life on more than one occasion. So why was there a sense of mortal dread competing with this urgency to continue the pursuit?
Washburne flicked on a hand-held mercury lamp. It warmed in his hand as its blue glow carved a path in front of him. A path to the Sutro Baths, a path which, at its end, he prayed to find nothing but shadow and memory.
Before he turned in for the night, Washburne had asked Sutro for his keys to the bathhouse. Sutro, who had been calmed by the passing of Dr. Vozlov, looked unsteady in that moment, as if his imagination could see what Washburne’s instincts were driving toward. Sutro handed over the keys after a slight hesitation, relaxing only a fraction when Washburne assured him it was, “Probably nothing. Merely procedure, you know.”
As soon as Washburne had turned the key in the lock to Sutro’s museum of oddities, he regretted his decision. The hour was late, the trials of the day had been exhausting, and his nerves had been frayed to breaking. Now, as his thin blue light passed over the dead faces of wild cats, savage bears, and keen-eyed birds of prey, he felt a fresh wave of horror begin to overtake him.
Two thoughts competed for purchase in Washburne’s mind. The first, that his beam of light merely froze in place whatever creature it happened to touch, while those secure in darkness were free to roam around, hunting him. The second, that these were merely pitiful creatures long dead, stuffed and mounted for amusement or education, and no more dangerous than lamplight itself. It was this latter rational thought that Washburne clung to as he made his way through the exhibit, though his more primal fear lurked at the margins of his awareness.
Having passed through without any incident but what his mind had thrust upon him, Washburne unlocked the Employees Only door and stepped through. Security lights cast a dim blue glow throughout the expansive bathhouse. Fog leaked in along the floor many feet below Washburne’s position on the catwalk. There, a steamer trunk lay open and unbroken along the water’s edge. Steam rose from the warm pools to mingle with the cool air, while the still water lay like a glass surface. The rattle and bang of Washburne’s solitary step onto the walkway would have shattered the silence of the cavernous space, so he remained motionless, just for a moment.
In that moment, a droplet fell from an unseen height and splashed into a still pool below. The sound was not deafening, the ripple was not immense, but in that still and quiet moment, the droplet was everything. Another followed. Then another. A rhythmic descent of evidence, a beacon to some important clue that Washburne had been looking for. The droplets did not come from the cavernous ceiling nor condensation formed along the facility’s many miles of piping. Their color was not that of clear water, or machine oil, but that of blood.
As a dim red ring began to spread outward in the still pool, Washburne traced its path of descent up to the very catwalk he was standing on. At the far end, an outstretched hand rested limply upon the metal floor, blood dripping slowly from its fingertips. The hand itself was connected to an arm that did not match the body it sprouted from, either in color or musculature, like a harlequin man sewn together from spares. Here lay Igor.
Washburne approached with gun drawn and lamp steady. His heavy steps rang out in the hollow space between himself and the dead monstrosity. The blood continued to drip as Washburne drew near. He was cautious; more than cautious. This man, this machine, had fallen hundreds of feet to the rocky shoreline and yet managed to drag himself to the top of a catwalk. How that came to be, Washburne had no answer.
Nearing the broken man, Washburne could see that Igor’s condition could not be called survivable by any other mortal creature. One leg appeared shattered and twisted beyond recognition, though the other looked intact. A great chunk of flesh and bone had been ripped out of his torso, exposing the shattered glass and twisted metal of the mechanical heart that had driven this madman on for so much longer than humanly possible. Washburne toed Igor’s head away from him, revealing one wide eye in a badly broken socket, a mangled lower jaw, and two puncture wounds along the side of his neck. From these, a slow rivulet of blood leaked out, flowing down his borrowed arm to drop from his fingers into the bathing pool below. A high-pitched scream shattered the silence.
“You don’t get to touch him!”
A shrill, girlish voice echoed all around him. The suddenness of it caused Washburne to start, dropping his lamp to the catwalk floor where it spun like a top. Mad shadows danced around him on the cavern walls, pagan gods leaping and laughing in the firelight, creatures of darkness scaling the walls to hide once more within their crevices. A flash of copper and lace caught his eye as the lamplight passed over it, but was gone again in an instant.
“Igor was my friend, not yours!”
Washburne retrieved the lamp from the floor and aimed it at the bathhouse walls in an attempt to locate the little girl. When he couldn’t find her, he found his voice instead.
“Katrina,” he started, his voice breaking. He tried again. “Katrina, my name is Inspector Washburne. Your father is worried about you and he wants me to bring you home safe and sound.”
“You killed my friend! I saw you! You’re a bad man!”
The voice was everywhere and yet nowhere. Washburne spun, searching with the limited reach of his light.
“That was an accident, Katrina. A misunderstanding. What matters now is that we get you home safe and warm. It’s cold here at night; don’t you want to want to come inside to warm blankets and some hot tea?”
Katrina giggled. On a bright summer day during a mid-afternoon picnic with a warm breeze ruffling your hair, a child’s laughter is the most pleasant sound on Earth. To Washburne, trapped on a treacherous walkway in an underground crypt with a reanimated corpse at his feet and shadowy claws pressing in around him from all angles, the sound was befitting of the Devil himself.
“No more games, Katrina,” Washburne said, trying a stern approach. “It’s time to come home. Now.”
“Igor used to play games with me,” Katrina said from somewhere behind Washburne. He spun to find nothing but cavern wall. “Now Igor’s gone.” Her voice came from his left side, but still no one came into view. “You killed him, so now you’ll play with me.”
The security lights went out, shutting down with a dull hum and casting Washburne into near total darkness. Katrina giggled again, this time disturbingly close to him. Her footsteps shook the catwalk as she ran. He spun the lamp up just in time to catch a shock of red, curly hair and the hem of a lace nightgown disappearing back into the museum’s exhibit before the door closed behind her.
Washburne gave chase, still armed with his lamp, and still with his gun drawn. If Vozlov’s story were the least bit true, Katrina should be little more than a frightened and sick little girl, though her current vitality put Washburne ill at ease. He had seen vampiric machines subsisting off of the blood of others, patchwork men who could survive multiple gunshots from point blank range and twenty-story falls into craggy surf. Child or not, he was taking no chances.
As Washburne entered into the exhibit once more, his fear surged to the surface. Now, in the voids where his lamplight couldn’t reach, real and mortal danger lurked. Would it come from behind him, like a panther stalking a deer? Would it come from all sides like a caribou torn down by a pack of wolves? Would it come from above like a hawk descending on fell wings to shred a field mouse with its talons?
“Let’s play ‘Hide-and-Seek’! Ready?”
Katrina’s giggle tormented Washburne nearly as much as the game itself. She dashed from darkened corner to darkened corner, moving just fast enough to keep out of full view of the light. More than once, Washburne spun to come face to face with some snarling beast with bared fangs and grasping claws only to realize too late that it was an animal’s stuffed corpse and not his query at all.
A terrible thought broke in on him at that moment: if Vozlov could reanimate the bodies of men to feed off the living, could he do the same with animals? Had he done so already?
The floor shook violently beneath his feet. He wielded his lamp and his gun in a wild arc while all around him the wild beasts were heaving and lunging at him. Katrina giggled. He spun to face her and fired his weapon, shattering the teeth of a hyena and punching a hole straight through its sawdust-filled head. The African beast toppled onto its side as the floor shuddered once more. A grizzly bear standing on its hind legs fell forward just as Washburne turned towards it, pinning the Inspector to the ground beneath its bulk and knocking both the lamp and the gun from his hands. The light came to rest on the bare feet of Katrina.
“Game over, Inspector,” she said, crouching down to bring her face level with that of Washburne’s. His arms were pinned, his face trapped inches from the bear’s fangs, and his legs caught under the heavy weight of the beast. In that moment, all he could do was look at Katrina and marvel in her existence.
She was a pretty thing, not still a child but not yet a woman. Rings of red curls fell on either side of her face, making her bright green eyes stand out sharply in contrast. She had a wildness to her expression that Washburne could not have explained. As she smiled, revealing copper fangs, he surmised that here was Vozlov’s greatest creation, a monster to some, a miracle to others. In either case, she would be Washburne’s end, and he would be sustenance.
“Time to find out how you taste,” Katrina teased with a giggle. “I do hope it’s sweet!”
As she closed in with fangs bared in the lamplight, the floor dropped out beneath them both. Katrina tumbled away from Washburne while the bear slipped off to the side. Washburne rolled to his feet, but the tilting, gyrating floor kept him from regaining his balance. His gun was gone, the lamp too, lost in the cracks that opened wide in the museum floor. Animals plummeted into the space, falling into the dark cavern below, their terrifying expressions frozen on their faces for eternity.
Electrical wires sparked, issuing brilliant flashes that illuminated the chaotic scene unfolding around Washburne. He scrambled for the museum’s exit, vaulting over display cases and shoving past fallen bodies of specimens. One by one they fell away into the maw of the Earth. It was everything he could do to keep his footing. When he was but an outstretched hand from the exit, he saw Katrina crouched atop a great tiger just moments before she sprang.
She landed on his back and clawed at his face. Her teeth found purchase in Washburne’s neck. He could feel the power of the mechanical pump drawing his lifeblood from his veins faster than he thought possible. He wrenched his arms around and tore Katrina away from him, flinging her to the ground. Another ground surge sent the floor upwelling between them. As she left his vision, Washburne heard her shrill scream swallowed up by the rumbling of the Earth as she slid into darkness. Washburne spared no action to save her in favor of getting out alive himself. Had he been cursed with a hero’s heart, he too would have fallen away into the ocean’s depths rather than crawl just far enough inland from the cliffs to find steady ground once more.
Washburne was beyond consolation at this point. He pressed one hand to his neck and made his way slowly back to Cliff House as the Sutro Baths collapsed inward on themselves. The ground still shook, making for an unsteady going on already unsteady legs. The lights were back on at Sutro’s manor home, owing, Washburne thought, to the quake ravaging the foundation. What he found was a different story indeed.
Alvin Sutro and Herman were standing on the front porch of Cliff House talking to Sergeant Buchanan. When they caught sight of him, the portly officer immediately rushed to Washburne’s aid. The Inspector waved him off.
“I’m fine,” he lied. “Is everyone else alright? Anyone hurt by the quake?”
“We’re all fine here, sir,” Herman answered. “But Sergeant Buchanan has brought us some rather distressing news.”
“Out with it, sergeant,” Washburne ordered. “What else could possibly go wrong tonight?”
“Dr. Stroud’s gone, sir,” Buchanan said, cryptically.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” he asked. “And why is that news? Especially news that would concern Mr. Sutro?”
Buchanan was pale, an unbecoming change to his normally ruddy complexion.
“Because, sir, Dr. Stroud has absconded with Dr. Vozlov.”
Washburne, who knew Buchanan to be a level-headed and reliable officer, now looked at the man, perplexed.
“Dr. Stroud took Vozlov’s body? Certainly that’s a bit strange, but is not out of the realm of Stroud’s normal responsibilities.”
Buchanan refused to clarify further, and Sutro looked nearly in as bad a state of shock as the officer himself, so it fell to Herman to put it plainly.
“Vozlov lives, Inspector Washburne,” he said. “Vozlov lives, and Dr. Stroud has gone with him.”
The news had yet to achieve comprehension in Washburne’s mind when a massive explosion tore through the air. Though its epicenter was some miles away, the force of the blast sent a wave of heat rushing up the coast to Cliff House.
“Gentlemen,” Washburne said, looking as defeated as ever a man could be, “we have much bigger problems at the moment.”
The men followed Washburne’s gaze to the southeast. Miles of darkness stretched in every direction, shadowy corners and pockets that could easily hide a pair of deranged doctors and a miniature mechanical monstrosity from police for quite some time. Better still for the fugitives, the authorities would have their hands full for days to come.
San Francisco was on fire.