On Wednesday, a girl walked into the south-eastern station of the Ith Tol City Watch and exploded. This was odd. Passing strange. Weird, even. This had not, even in Ith Tol, been known to be something children did. Certainly some walking had been noted, even remarked upon, but combustion was a new and not altogether adorable turn of events. People died. They were watchmen (and women), granted, but people all the same. In certain circles, and these were predominantly dark, hidden, lofty, whispered circles, questions were asked.
Q: What happened this time?
A: A girl exploded in a Watch station, my lord.
Q: You don’t say?
A: I’m afraid so, sir.
Q: Was it those Unionists?
A: Unclear at this point, sir.
Q: Was anybody hurt?
A: Nobody that you knew, sir.
Q: Thank the Light for that.
A: Indeed, sir.
Q: What are we doing about it?
A: You have requested the local magistrate take the matter in hand, sir.
Q: Did I now? Yes, yes, that does sound like something I would say. And what is, ah...
A: He, sir.
Q: And what is he doing about it?
A: I believe he’s commissioned a case, sir.
Q: A case?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: A case. Yes. Well, of course. A case. Naturally. What’s a case?
Undoubtedly, it went something like this, and Justice Samuel Latch was handed the case. He’d never had a case quite like this because Justices weren’t really given cases—they were given names by their magistrate, who, in his or her not insignificant (but certainly not infinite... at least, not in Latch’s experience) wisdom, decided where and how justice was to be meted out. Monday and Tuesday had been something of a blur for Latch, and now Wednesday was shaping up to be a real inconvenience.
Latch stared at an ear and sipped his coffee. He grimaced. It was burnt. The coffee, and the ear, and together they weren’t doing much to brighten his mood. Standing amongst the rubble of the Watch Station, Latch tried to imagine what it had looked like before. He couldn’t. Not really. Not ever having set foot inside the building. He pictured stout wooden beams, squat brick walls, cheap desks with cheaper chairs tucked beneath them, men and women arriving for the day shift, leaving for home after night shifts, both camps blinking at the clock, wishing it wasn’t the time that it was. A blasted clock face read 7:43am. It all checked out. Everything, but the ear. That wasn’t standard issue.
“You were... chuckling.” A note of warning there, determined to make itself heard. Sunlight, in dribbles through cotton clouds and chilly air. Latch turned to his partner and frowned at her frowning at him. “Might want to chuck that.”
Around them, some of the locals were picking through the wreckage, identifying the dead while traffic backed up down the street. Others gawped, half-eaten pieces of toast and bowls of porridge in their hands, the blast having wrenched them from breakfast. A few of those were staring at him and the stares weren’t altogether convivial, more like suspicious and bristly. He couldn’t really blame them. Nobody liked being interrupted during breakfast. He certainly didn’t.
“Latch? You’re doing it again.”
He threw away his coffee. “Just a joke, Elles.”
Sergeant Elles, his Watch liaison, was the sort of woman Latch’s father used to call a “Good sort!” and his mother would have labeled “Woman shouldn’t flounce about in trousers like that! Men could get ideas!”. Latch just called her Elles, Elles just called him Latch, together they called the magistrate a pain in the balls, and got on with the job.
She glanced at him, popped the collar of her coat against the chill. “A joke? After that that shit on Monday. And Tuesday. Thought you were suspended.”
She was right. He had been. But he was also the only Justice not currently hip-deep in the city’s business. Ironic, given the circumstances. He knelt in front of the ear and studied the curve of the auricle, how the lobe was pink and plump. A perfect child’s ear. “On us.”
“Haven’t come to it yet, Elles.” Where the ear should’ve had a head, it sprouted wires. A whole tangled mess of them. The magistrate hadn’t mentioned wires. Latch picked it up. “But if you get there first, I’m all fucking ears.”
She snorted, toed at the bricks. “You’re wrong, Latch.”
“Not when I’m right, though.”
She sighed and held out her hand. Latch gave her the ear and wandered a little further into what was left of the building, poking at pieces with his sword. Splatters of blood, and scorch marks. Voices carried over the destruction, calling out names and crying. Watchmen from the northern station kept arriving, formed lines to clear the rubble. Bodies, in rows and covered with sheets.
Elles teased out one of the wires, twisting it about her finger. “You think the magistrate knew about this?”
“I think the magistrate, like an iceberg, enjoys screwing anybody in his path with just the tip.”
“Thanks. That’s an image I’ll never unsee.”
“Sir! I...” A grey-faced watchman stumbled towards them, glazed cast to his eyes, something in his hand held as far away from his body as possible. “Sir, we found... this.”
Held by its blonde hair, a small girl’s head rotated slowly back and forth in the watchman’s hand. Latch and Elles looked at the head, at each other, at the ear, then back to the head. About three or four, and smiling a wide, toothy smile. Half of her face was missing. Where it was missing, a chrome skull gleamed. A tuft of wire, where one of her ears should have been. Every now and then, a bluish spark in her nose and a lingering hint of burning carpet. The rest looked like flesh and blood.
Latch took the head and held it up eye to eye. “What was that you were saying about unseeing, Elles?”
But Elles was doubled over, vomiting, one arm braced against the rubble, the other outstretched, giving him the finger.
People didn’t like justice. They always wanted it, but nobody really liked it. Latch didn’t see this as ironic. More like typical. Typical in a “Yeah, you’re nice and all, but what have you done for me lately?” kind of way. And then, if they actually got it, they were cut up about how reactionary, slow, cautious, and ultimately unsatisfactory it was. When the law failed, justice had to be done. An eye for an eye. Why eyes? Probably because justice was meant to be blind, and if you took enough eyes, from enough lawbreakers, it’d be able to see a little better. Not that he had any right to talk.
Sitting in his apartment’s solitary armchair, sweat prickling his forehead, Latch stared out the window, at the lights of the city. He’d been dreaming, and the ticking had followed him. In the dream, he was holding her hand, walking towards the station. Her hand was cold, the grip painfully firm. They paused just before the station’s door and looked at one another. He knew what she was going to do. She didn’t have any thoughts beyond a tick, tick, tick, tick. She opened the door and stepped inside.
Standing before a tall desk, she was ignored. Nobody stopped to ask her if she was ok, where her parents might be, what she was doing there, or why she was a tick, tick, tick, tick? They didn’t pause. Didn’t spare a glance. Like she didn’t exist. Like she was a hole in the ground they’d learned to avoid. Because they had a job to do and were doing it. She sat down on a bench against the wall, beside a drunk who swore and wavered and fell asleep and bled from a shallow gash above his eye that dripped on the armrest tick, tick, tick, tick. Latch sat down next to her, and she exploded.
Still half-asleep, he’d stumbled about the apartment, rifling drawers, opening the cupboards in his tiny kitchen. Ticking from somewhere. He pressed his ear to the floor. He opened the door and searched the landing. Ticking everywhere. He looked under the bed and in the toilet’s cracked cistern, and where he looked the ticking was always and never there. Then he remembered he’d never owned a clock and the tick, tick, tick, tick was just the beating of his heart. Now the apartment was cold and dark and, from five storeys up, the sodium streetlamps were like rows of dying suns. On a small round table beside the chair, the girl’s head stared with him. He’d reattached her ear. Given what she’d been through, it seemed like the least he could do.
Three of the eastside courthouse’s basement walls held recessed alcoves filled with bodies, their chests laced by an autopsy’s Y, blue lips and toe-tags. Solid granite breathed frigid air. The girl had been arranged on the steel table before them, the salvageable pieces positioned anatomically, one bright light leaving her pale and stark. It flickered. The medical examiner, a wheezing young man called Davet, looked over his notes, with an assortment of scalpels and saws and retractors shining on a gurney behind him.
“She was never alive. The skeleton is stainless steel,” Davet said, halting breaths between clauses, “and the skin isn’t hers.”
“That’s a lot to take in a single sentence,” said Latch. “She was never alive. The skin isn’t hers.”
Sergeant Elles grinned. “Buy a girl some dinner first, doc.”
“Whose skin, then?” asked Latch.
Davet shrugged, carefully placed his notes on the table near one of the girl’s fingers. “Underdetermined. Single source, though. And the skill required to attach it to the skeleton beneath. Then there’s the transfusive layer needed to keep the cells...”
Davet had a tendency to lose himself in the details. Cooped up down here, absorbed in the how of corpses—Latch couldn’t blame him. Details needed you to be close, close enough to lose focus. So close that a bludgeoned body became ruptured capillaries, deepening bruise patterns, and the onset of rigor mortis. It meant he could give you a precise time and cause of death, but when you couldn’t see the human for the murder, some people took that the wrong way.
Sergeant Elles stared at Davet blankly. “Are you telling us there’s a little girl out there walking around without her skin?”
“Thank fuck for that!”
“A woman like yourself, Sergeant, let alone a child, wouldn’t survive the flaying.”
Before the sergeant could regret something, Latch stepped between them and picked up the head, his fingers brushing a slight indentation under the jaw.
“This mark under the chin. What is it?” he asked.
Davet squinted at the head, then retrieved his notes and flicked through. “A hallmark. Out of production.”
Sergeant Elles leant against the wall, careful to avoid the dead feet. “A hallmark?”
“Most common to silver and goldsmiths. Jewelers, too,” replied Davet, turning to the gurney. He picked a magnifying glass and handed it to Latch. “Functionally equivalent to a signature.”
“Looks like one of those artists’ dummies with the articulated joints,” said Latch. It was squatting, knees up to its chin, the narrow bulb of its head canted to the side, considering the large cog held between its hands. “Anybody we know?”
Davet nodded. “According to the assayer’s office, this particular hallmark was used by a little known toymaker. Mr. Tock.”
“You’re joking, right?” Sergeant Elles snatched the notes. “A psycho bomber called Mr. Tock.”
She held out the notes to Latch like they were evidence of the world gone mad, like the name was more ludicrous than a clockwork, explosive girl. It wasn’t the strangest thing he’d heard. A touch pithy, perhaps, but Ith Tol’s university attracted more than its share of clever, and the one thing that clever enjoyed more than doing clever was showing clever.
Davet cleared his throat, Sergeant Elles rolled her eyes and handed the notes back. Smoothing them out against his chest, the young man wheezed contentedly.
“Davet,” said Latch. “You said ‘little known’?”
He looked up. “Yes.”
“What was our Mr. Tock known for?”
“Toys. Figures. Animals.” He looked at the girl’s remains. “Anatomically correct and, primarily, fully functional automata. Very intricate designs. Perfect systems.”
With her skin on, Latch figured, and all her bits unexploded, there’d be nothing to distinguish her from any other living, breathing, blonde-haired girl. Yeah, whoever this Mr. Tock was, he’d taken his time and invested it.
“Seems like he’s moved up in the world,” he said.
“Are we seriously going to search for a guy called Mr. Tock?” groaned Sergeant Elles.
“We seriously are.”
“All Gelb wants is a report to satisfy those from up on high. Broad strokes, Latch. You heard him. I know, because I was in the room with you. Right?”
“Right.” Latch nodded. The magistrate had impressed upon them his desire for brevity. Justices, after all, didn’t investigate. They dispensed. They did what they were told. “But you know how much I’m a stickler with paperwork.”
“Paperwork.” She threw up her hands, and wrenched open the door. “What the fuck is the world coming to?”
Latch moved to follow her.
“Justice?” said Davet, pointing to the girl’s head still Latch’s hands. “The head.”
Latch smiled apologetically. “She’s my only material witness, and I’ve got a few more questions.”
When Latch kicks the door in, the painful vibration up his leg feels right. The hinges rip straight out of the pulpy timber. He doesn’t care if the rest of the building hears this or what’s about to happen. Latch wants them to hear. The dead weight of his sword, its thick, blunted edges scored with use, hangs at his side. This feels right, too.
Carver is standing in his kitchen, behind the counter, holding a bowl of boiled potatoes. He stares at Latch, mouth wide, waving a spoon like an admonishing finger. Carver has just come home from the courthouse. Carver isn’t expecting him, because Carver thinks he’s done with justice. Carver is wrong.
“My door!” he says around a mouthful of potato. The kitchen is surprisingly clean. There are a pair of silver candlesticks on the mantelpiece. These are equally clean, which is equally surprising. “You’ll pay for that.”
“Not today,” says Latch, stepping into the apartment. He can smell fresh bleach. “Not to you.”
Carver, reading Latch’s eyes, drops the bowl and takes a step back. “You’ve got nothing on me! I’m a free man.”
A Justice’s sword isn’t like other swords. It looks like other swords—a hand-and-a-half hilt, spherical pommel, short quillons worked into the two pans of a balance scale, a long blade with a narrow fuller—but possesses important differences: a narrow slot cut out of the blade’s last thirty centimeters, to catch an opponent’s sword; the blade thicker and heavier than is common; no point, and all its edges are rounded off. These design principles suggest that justice disarms, that justice is not to be swung lightly, and that justice is a blunt yet considerate force. Practically speaking, this tells the wielding Justice that bruises and broken bones are not a choice.
“I was cleared of all...”
When Latch swings his sword into Carver’s jaw, the wet crunch of it drops the man to the floor. Blood spatters on the wall. The man gurgles and moans, hauling himself across the room, leaving more blood smeared in a slick trail. Stepping around the counter, Latch presses the end of the blade against the back of Carver’s head. The man whimpers.
It might not be justice, but it feels right.
“It’s downstairs, Latch.”
Latch examined a clockwork frog, spring legs articulated, a diamond key hole on its back for winding. Overnight, Sergeant Elles had enlisted a handful of her fellow watchmen and found Mr. Tock’s toyshop. It had been locked and shuttered. They’d busted down the door and searched it. Abandoned, but far from empty.
“It?” he asked, replacing the frog on a glass shelf bracketed to the wall, in a frog-shaped hole in the thick layer of dust. The room was dominated by cabinets and display benches, all packed with silver and bronze toys, finely tooled, impeccably worked. Miniscule horses and tigers and swans and dogs stared at him though grimy cataracts. “Sounds ominous.”
Elles beckoned from an open trapdoor nestled in a corner. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”
Beneath the shop, Latch had to fight his way through a forest of dangling limbs. Hundreds of wooden arms and legs hung from the ceiling, fingers and toes low enough to brush Latch’s face as he pried his way through like some jungle explorer, all reaching out, grasping for him. Hints of solvent and cedar. Against the wall, beastly maquettes reared in the shadows, their rough, hastily sculpted forms freezing them between inanimate clay and his throat. At the far end of the room, Elles stood with a light—a standard-issue induction lamp, its wound-up charge fading.
On a wooden desk sat a clock. Latch had seen such clocks before, built without a case, the intricacies of their function proudly exposed. Skeleton clocks. In front of this clock, strapped onto a metal chair, was half a man—the left half—focused on the time, dried blood in a pool around him. The clock was ticking softly.
Latch squatted beside the dead man. The flat, cut side of him had been capped in steel and covered with an intaglio of dense script. 1. Wash the bones in a solution of... “What are we looking at, Elles?”
She blinked, gave her lamp a few cranks. The light bloomed a fraction. “Like I’d know.”
“Okay.” Latch kept reading the instructions, made it through to 6. before deciding there were things he didn’t need to know. The diagrams under the instruction were particularly perfect to forget. Carefully, he stepped over the blood and regarded the clock. “But what does it look like to you?”
“Looks like half a dead guy in front of a clock made from the other half of him!”
The clock’s face plate had been taken from the skull or a flatter section of the hip, the numeric hours and minute lines burnt on; thinly braided hair, coated in resin, for its three hands. The movement’s wheels punched out of the shoulder blade, each with six narrow spokes of shaved down fingers and toes and ribs, every curve straightened by rasp, lathe, chisel, and sandpaper. Filed teeth formed the serrated grooves of the escapement. Driving this was a large balance wheel of thinly cross-sectioned vertebrae, its oscillating rotation turning the reconstituted spine into an ouroboros. This was regulated by a balance spring of tightly spiraled tendons. Stamped on every single part: an articulated dummy holding a cog.
“Do we have a name for the victim?”
Latch stood. “Anything more helpful?”
“Not yet.” Elles stepped closer and held the lamp towards the clock. The shadows crept over the man’s body. Footsteps in the shop above caused the hanging arms and legs to sway and clonk together. “I’ve got people on it.”
“He left instructions.”
Latch nodded. “As though this was a kit model. Something you can do at home with numbered parts and their numbered steps.”
Elles bent forward, painting new shadows onto the clock, splashing strange, distended silhouettes on the wall behind it. The clock, the body, Latch, and Elles fused in a single, black impression. “With numbered parts and their numbered steps... and half a body.”
“And half a body.”
“Wouldn’t want to see what he’d make of the bloody magistrates.”
The light moved over the individual parts. Latch frowned. The time was correct. Set and left to tick in the darkness beneath a toyshop. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was looking over his shoulder, watching him, setting another clock to his movements, adding a minute here, a second there, adjusting the pendulum while he ran about the city. Like a fifth figure in their silhouette.
“So, what does it actually look like?” he asked.
Elles sucked her teeth. “Like the mess we were told not to find.”
“We don’t need anything more than a cursory investigation with the semblance of diligence, Justice.”
The chambers of Magistrate Gelb were a pretty solid reflection of who the man thought he was. It was green leather chairs and mahogany shelves, a desk the size and weight of a small elephant, and polished hardwood floorboards softened by pelts. It was a third-floor view from the eastside courthouse, overlooking the river. It was dark, heavy, infused with sandalwood and peated whiskey. It was trying too hard to be somebody with power.
Standing before the magistrate’s desk, Latch picked a spot through the window and stared. “I think, sir, that I...”
The magistrate sat forward. “Resist the temptation, Justice. Just do your job.”
Latch kept his expression blank. “I serve justice in all things, sir.”
“Incorrect,” snapped Gelb. His desk was meticulously ordered: a stack of papers aligned beside two tomes of precedent; decanter of red wine in one corner, a set of scales in the other; and an ornate letter opener. Arrayed beneath all that, carved into the wood itself, stretched a map of the city. “You serve me. Your access to justice is mediated by my remit. You would do well to remember that, as far as you are concerned, I am justice.”
Standing with her back to the chamber’s door, Sergeant Elles cleared her throat. “Sir, I don’t think that you can blame the Justice for what happened yesterday.”
“When I ask for your opinion, Sergeant, remind me to schedule a lobotomy.” The magistrate stared at Latch. “If it wasn’t for the current situation, Justice, I’d be considering your execution, over that Carver business,. Not how the system works. Messy. Very messy. As it stands, however, expediency must overcome propriety.”
Latch blinked. “You were saying something about semblance, sir?”
“Indeed.” The magistrate lifted the top page from his stack of notes and placed it on the desk. “As you’ve no doubt heard, the south-eastern Watch Station was the target of a... criminal action. The city’s current difficulties with the Unionists could easily see this regrettable incident become the catalyst for an untenable situation. The Governor’s Seat desires, in all things, a harmonious existence for its citizens, and a certain alacrity in the exteriority of the law.”
Elles snorted. “In other words, they don’t want to hear about bombings and how they might have fucking happened?”
Latch stared out the window a little harder.
Magistrate Gelb leant back in his chair and crossed his arms. “The sergeant is as succinct as ever. Unofficially, your investigation is to find no further evidence of continuing criminal activity. If it suggests the Unionists were involved, they will be dealt with accordingly. If it suggests the involvement of another party, the Unionists will be dealt with accordingly. There will be no loose ends. There will be no surprises. You will remain firmly sealed in the narrow confines of this envelope. Do I make myself clear?”
Clearly, politics was involved, and Magistrate Gelb was nothing if not a politician. Magistrates, their appointments dispensed by the aristocratic assemblies of the Governor’s Seat, were, by nature, equal parts unassumingly cunning and viciously accommodating. It wasn’t a matter of bending laws, reconsidering statutes, or ignoring precedent. In the end, it was about instrumentality.
Latch nodded slowly. “The semblance of diligence, sir.”
“No messes and don’t fuck it up,” said Elles.
Gelb smiled tightly. “I could not have put it any better myself.”
When Latch opens the door, the officers from the Watch look at him grimly. The Carver apartment is splashed with blood, handprints smeared across the walls and on the countertop in the kitchen, drops in a snaking path around the floor. Two feet stick out around the counter. More blood. People mill in the hallways, voices hushed. Two of the officers are taking notes, walking gingerly through the apartment while they scribble. Three others stand in a loose triangle in front of Carver. The man is sitting, staring through them. He, like the apartment, is covered in blood. None of it his.
“She came at me with a knife,” he says, voice oddly monotone. Like he is reading the words for the first time. Like he’s heard other people say them before and he is trying them out. “There was nothing I could do. She was crazy. It happened so fast.”
Latch walks across the room and around the counter. One of the note-takers, a young woman, fresh, is leaning over the body of Carver’s sister, peering at what’s left of her face. It doesn’t take her long.
She looks up. “Justice? Didn’t know you’d been called in.”
Latch waves this off. “I live here. A few floors up.”
“Oh.” She looks back at the body, scratching her head with a pencil. Uncomfortable with the silence death emits. “Did you know her, sir?”
“We met. Sort of,” says Latch, squatting. She’s on her back, arms and legs splayed, shirt and trousers creased, torn. Blood like a halo around her head. A kitchen knife beside her left hand. Unbloodied. Two bloodied silver candlesticks, on their sides, to either side of her shoulders. Extended jets of spatter. “Once.”
“She was screaming,” says Carver, still rehearsing his lines. The watchmen around him nod along. They know the script, too. Who didn’t in this city? “I don’t know what happened. I was scared. I just grabbed whatever I could and...”
The young officer sighs. “Seems pretty straightforward.”
“Why use two candlesticks, then?” asks Latch, almost to himself, gauging how gone the world really is, if it’s just him that’s crazy.
There are dents in the floorboards around her head. There’s no blood on her knife. There’s nothing under her fingernails. Latch stands and traces the drops, the footprints.
“I’m in the kitchen and my sister grabs a knife,” he says, throat taut like he’s shouting. “She’s screaming. I back away, trying to calm her down, out of the kitchen, into the lounge room. She’s waving the knife around, stabbing the air. I back into the mantel and reach for something. Anything. A hand closing around the candlestick, I swing. She goes down.”
“Sounds about right.” The young officer writes as Latch speaks, nodding along. “We see it all the time.”
Latch blinks away the scene where Carver is waiting in the kitchen with a candlestick for his sister to come home. Smashes her in the face. Follows her around the apartment as she staggers, confused, terrified, screaming. When she gets to the kitchen, he knocks her to the floor. Straddling her, he lifts the candlestick and brings it down. He repeats this, sometimes finding face, sometimes finding floor, again and again until the blood makes it slippery. He stands, gets the second candlestick, and starts again.
“Then why all the blood on the walls, the floor?” asks Latch. “Why is she in the kitchen? Why two candlesticks?”
“Are you saying he murdered her, sir? Sir?”
Carver is crying, the watchmen shaking their heads sadly, consolatory hands patting the man’s shoulders. It feels like fever dream. Outside, the neighbors slowly return to their homes. Like Latch, they know what happened, and the separation between what they’ve seen and what’ll be claimed is a jagged crevasse. They stand on one side, the other side seems far away, and the question of what happens when you leap across that bottomless gap is too hard to contemplate. Contained in this apartment, what happened has nothing to do with them, is not their problem, doesn’t touch their day beyond the transmission of a story to their tea merchant and their butcher.
“Probably not.” Latch heads for the door. He can’t be here, can’t listen to Carver anymore, can’t stand to see their brand of justice play out. “Don’t you know a good Justice is deaf, blind, and dumb?”
Every day, hundreds of boats congregated on the calm waters of the River Ith and roped themselves together to form the Floating Market. Rafts built a patchwork quilt of courtyards and walkways, barges linked in loud lines of fruit and vegetables, and swarms of coracles, sloops, barques, tugs, and dinghies tied one deck to the next, selling everything from bronzeware to boiled sweets. At the end of the day, the boats dispersed and the river was given back to reflections of rippling moonlight. And somewhere between this routine, Mr. Tock had had another bout of creativity.
“Are we sure this is nothing to do with the Unionists?” asked Sergeant Elles, hunched forward on the steps leading into the market comptroller’s cabin. The small boat rocked. The cabin reeked of cheap tobacco and sweat. “I mean, this feels like some shit they’d be happy with.”
Latch considered the question. Their skeleton clock had been identified as a notoriously mercenary factory owner, Mr. Charles Rudveld, with a penchant for underpaying workers using a rigged punch card machine. Davet had reported that the clock had been keeping perfect time. Not a second lost. Sure, the Unionists railed against Ith Tol’s historically poor industrial relations, but their protests and strikes had, so far, been largely peaceful affairs. This was something else entirely.
“You’re thinking that Mr. Tock is all about workers’ rights in the coming utopia, Elles?” he said, hefting a coin he’d found on the cabin’s floor. “That explains all this?”
“Like I fucking know.”
Just after lunch, a milliner had come to the comptroller’s boat to pay the monthly fees on her steamer. She’d called from outside and received no response. This wasn’t remarkable. The comptroller, a studious man, was known to retreat into his cabin during inclement weather and it had been raining during the morning. The milliner, not wanting to return the next day—the man, however studious, was, as she put it, rather an objectionable fellow—clambered aboard and ducked into his cabin. Here, the comptroller was sitting behind his fold-out table, pen in hand, at work on his ledger. Only there were two ledgers, which was odd, and the man didn’t seem to be moving, which was odder. Odder still, there was a narrow, rectangular hole in his head. It was at this point that the milliner disembarked, started screaming—death, as she put it again, being known to give her a terrible turn—and the Watch was called in.
“Looks like our comptroller kept up the appearance of a public servant,” said Latch. Light squeezed into the cabin though narrow cracks in the walls, flicking scratches of grey across the floor and low-hanging hammock. A few books stood on simple shelves. The coin seemed heavier than it was, larger than it was. There were jars of them stacked behind the comptroller like a wall. “A true man of the people.”
Elles scoffed. “Yeah. A liar and a thief.”
“Pillar of the community.”
“A right crook.”
Like the milliner had reported, the comptroller had been positioned behind his table, pen held above an open ledger. Beside this, another ledger, its columns crowded with sums owed and paid. And they all worked out perfectly. The hole in his head was actually a rectangular slot just large enough to accommodate a coin. One of the jars had been opened and placed at the comptroller’s elbow.
Latch pushed the coin into the comptroller’s head and stepped back. “But a reformed one.”
Clicking and whirring, the comptroller’s arm moved in stutters, the pen slowly pressed to the ledger, and then he started to write. Tick, tick, tick. First, a name appeared, then what the name owed, and, finally, what the name had paid. The whirring faded and the clicking stopped. It was the third time Latch had used a coin and, comparing the two books, he quickly figured the discrepancy: the comptroller had been overcharging for market berths, reporting takings at uninflated prices and pocketing the profit.
“You reckon that’s what this is about, Latch?” asked Elles. She didn’t sound convinced. “That this Mr. Tock is reformer?”
Latch edged around the table. “No. Not really. Reform isn’t usually about murdering the recidivist.” He remembered Davet saying something about designs and systems. “Transformation might be on his mind, though.”
“You got that right.”
“And these... inventions themselves aren’t all that public, aren’t being held up for spectacle. A reformer exclaims and proclaims, identifies evils and lays a course for their correction. A reformer lectures. Whatever these murders are, they’re not lectures.”
Elles stood, loped over, grabbed a coin from the jar, and inserted it. “What are they, then?”
The comptroller’s back had been completely removed, the natural structure of the arms replaced. Unlike the factory owner, though, there was no steel cap obscuring Mr. Tock’s work. All the bones, the lungs, the heart, kidneys, liver, and intestines had been taken out, replaced with pneumatic automata. Pistons pulled and pushed the writing arm, wheezing air bags inflating and deflating, each minute adjustment of the fingers announced by a sharp click. The movements themselves were governed by a row of golden wheels positioned vertically over a revolving wax cylinder. The wheels were cut with hundreds of slim teeth that caught on equally tiny characters stamped into the wax. The input of each character opened or closed a constellation of switches, thousands of which sat in a block in the comptroller’s skull. An infinite assemblage of gears filled the rest of the chest cavity, whirring back and forth hypnotically, lifting and dropping into interlinking combinations. It completed the new line in the ledger and faltered into silence. At the end of every line: Mr. Tock’s hallmark of the dummy with its cog.
“They’re intimate,” said Latch. Dark, close rooms inhabited by corrupt bodies returned to a purity of purpose. They were parts of a system. Broken parts. It wasn’t that Mr. Tock was transforming them, he was clarifying them, stripping away the graft to expose better functioning selves. What they were and should have been. “They’re letters.”
“Letters?” said Elles. “We’re not his bloody pen pals!”
“And yet, here we read.”
“Fuck that, Latch.” She wrenched the pen from the comptroller’s fingers and snapped it in half. Ink splashed over the ledgers, blotting out the original and its correction. “He can kill people all he wants; it’s got nothing to do with us. You think he’s trying to reach out? Open up a dialogue? Forget it! What’s the point in talking to a psychopath, even in your imagination, when all they say it this?”
Usually, Latch might have agreed with her. Usually. But usual wasn’t going around lately, and his sleep had been infected by that one repeating dream and its little, ticking girl. The destruction of the Watch Station was specific in its outcome. Only a Justice would be called to deal with it. Again, that feeling of eyes over his shoulder, on his back, watching what he did and how he did it. The more Latch thought about it, the more he was convinced that these letters, these fatal articulations of Mr. Tock’s anger, had been composed for someone like him. This didn’t really bare thinking about, but what else could Latch do. One question manifested and, like the comptroller’s computational kaleidoscope, the turning of this question drove another.
What if these murders weren’t an attempt to open communication?
What if they were a reply?
When Latch hears her knocking on his door, he walks over and clutches the doorknob in his hand. It’s Carver’s sister again. She’s sobbing. His knuckles are white.
Latch can’t speak. His knuckles creak. A Justice can only act after a magistrate has passed sentence, after a case has been brought before this magistrate, after the Watch has made an arrest, after a complaint has been filed with the Watch.
“Please, help me.”
The knocking is fainter now, but he feels their vibrations through the door. His hand aches. He rests his head against the door. He just can’t help her.
Hours after she’s gone, Latch is standing like this, like he is about to open the door but cannot because his hand is numb.
He was holding her hand, walking towards the station. Her hand was cold, the grip painfully firm. He knew what she was going to do. She didn’t have any thoughts at all, just a tick, tick, tick, tick as she stepped inside. The girl was ignored. Nobody stopped to ask her if she was ok. It was as if she didn’t exist. She sat down on a bench set against the wall. Latch sat next to her and she exploded.
Waking, Latch felt removed from his body. It was as if the dream had begun to dilate time, minutes passing between taking her hand and the blast, but when he opened his eyes the night was drained to dregs. Like the details of her face, the station, the swirling fires of the detonation, leached energy from the dull sluggish hours, rendering them into minutes of the highest clarity. His world, the world punctured by Mr. Tock’s designs, had become strange and frightening, its once familiar sights and sounds somehow refracted, askew. It was the same and not the same, and nothing felt as real as the dream.
The curtains were drawn. He frowned. He’d been sitting in this chair, staring across the city, when he’d nodded off. White-blue light boomed off the curtains, the radiance almost painful, whatever was generating it humming steadily. Tears gathered in Latch’s eyes, but he couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn his head, couldn’t stand. It was like his body wasn’t there. Like the little girl beside him on the table, Latch was just a head. Somewhere behind him, the light projected his shadow against the curtains. His shadow, and another that moved back and forth, attaching to and detaching from his silhouette with a scrunch of unrolling plastic. The tears rolled down his cheeks.
The second shadow enlarged, its head half-engulfing Latch’s. “What is it, I wonder, that you see when you look at what I’ve wrought, Justice?”
The words were close. Close enough to smell the heat of them, the electrical tang of air limned by fading lighting. There was a slight buzz in them, an overlapping chorus of voices, old and young, men and women, as if a busy street had been recorded, then each individual separated out and replayed in unison. It was like the words didn’t follow one another naturally, selected instead from an immense archive of potential expression.
“I see you,” said Latch.
“But I don’t exist.” The shadow dropped back and resumed moving behind Latch. The clink and thump of tools being removed from a bag. Silhouettes of hammers, saws, a long, slightly recurved beam. “You cannot see me, only the revelation of my design. I do not cause a man to become a clock or a calculator. He is those things already.”
Latch tried to catch a glimpse from the corner of his eye. No luck. “Clarity.”
“Just so, Justice. Just so.”
Keep him talking. “So what are you trying to say?”
“Say?” The shadow paused, a gaunt figure stretching up the curtain and onto the ceiling. “You mistake their function. Those models are pieces in a larger mechanism. This mechanism spans the entire city and regulates all of its many lives. Part of this mechanism is called justice.”
“Your particular brand of justice, to be specific.” The shadow lifted the recurved beam again and attached a length of chain to each of it upturned ends. The chains opened and spilt into three slimmer chains that crossed beneath two wide pans. The voice stepped closer. “I think you’ll be happy with your new arms, Justice. Very fine work, even if I say so.”
Latch blinked, willed his legs to move, to leap up, to turn and fight, to run, to jump out the window.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, Justice. The paralytic is quite effective. You didn’t feel a thing when I removed your old ones, so when I hollow out your chest and install these it will be a simple, painless affair. However, when I slice off your ears, out your eyes, tear out your tongue, cut open your skull and scoop out your brain, there may be some discomfort.”
The shadow put down the completed balance beam and picked up the u-shaped form of a manual hand drill. Its bit was abnormally wide and serrated. More like the sort of thing you’d see during a lobotomy, only larger.
The light was so bright. “What?”
“It is said, by some, that a good Justice is deaf, blind, and dumb,” said Mr. Tock as he started boring through Latch’s shoulder. Blood dripped with a tick, tick, tick and he didn’t feel a thing. “We’re going to weigh those words and see how they balance out.”
Return to Issue #213