Dark design

Dark, isn’t it? Hello, old friend. Now, there’s no use asking who I am, but you know me. Oh yes, and I know you. We’ve got a little time at this point, so I’d like to tell you a story.. unless you’d rather go? – ha! ha! Excuse my mirth… I am just imagining how it must be for you. I think you’ll find that your restraints are quite adequate, though hopefully not too uncomfortable. I designed them myself, and I do have some talent in… fabrication. In fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

You’re probably wondering where you are. In fact I’ll bet you have lots of questions. All in good time. I would imagine the last thing you remember is being seized roughly in some dark alley near that old tavern where you like to hold court. I’ll bet you thought: “These fools! Don’t they know better? Don’t they know who I am?” Certainly they did. That’s why you’re here.

Yes, everyone fears you in this town, and for good reason. Quite a brutal grip you’ve kept on it all these years. Now you’re probably thinking, what rival cutthroat is attempting some desperate ploy? You’ve certainly reduced most of them in one way or another, and very effectively I must admit. But you forgot your Machiavelli: “The injury that you do to a man should be such that you need not fear his revenge.”

Thinking of cajoling, bribing, begging? I’m afraid it’s too late for all that. It was too late long ago, actually. But more importantly, and perhaps you have noticed, I am not here. This is merely a replica of my voice, cut into wax and played back by an ingenious mechanism that is the only one here not of my devising.

You’ll notice I did not have you gagged. You are very deep in the earth now. No passerby will hear your shout. I suspect even a nervous rabbit would not bother to prick its ears up. I’ll let you try. Now, if you’ve finished, I’d like to tell you a story.

I was born in this town, on what was then the edge of it. How it has grown since then! My father was a soldier, and died in battle while my mother carried me, leaving us a little pension. I had no brothers or sisters – it was just mother and me. I won’t bore you with the prosaic hardships and happiness of that period…

I believe I was five years old when she left one day and never returned. As I recall she told me she was going to walk to the mill for some flour stopping in town to drop off the mending she did at odd hours. She had been doing more piece work lately, I remember.

I waited and waited… being young, and an only child besides, I was used to being taken care of. We had few friends in town and no one came to check on me. I ate the food we had, and drank from the stream… That was before it was — redirected.

I began to starve, and then after perhaps a week, finally a man came — for the rent. Pitiless beast! We were behind to begin with, I suppose, and he threw me out like a spoiled pumpkin, as hard and as far as he could, and beat me when I tried to come back. And said there’s me more of it if he saw me in town.

There was nothing for me to do but die in a ditch or go on the tramp. Those were hard times for everyone, though, and it was the rare cottage or inn that would spare even a starving child a crust of bread or a bit of old cheese.

In time I made it to the outskirts of the city, which in my innocence I thought were the city itself. Here there was nothing to spare at all, unless you had something to give in return. And I found that I did.

Not having any friends, I was not a sociable or precocious child, but I had a fondness and a talent for the mechanical. My mother found I could be entertained for days with any old knick knack she might find in a bin for a penny. I remember taking apart these broken things, figuring out how they worked, and reassembling them or making something new.

One evening as I tried to scrape together enough crumbs and apple cores to make a supper, I knocked on the back door of a small inn and was surprised to see it open at my touch — the lock was clearly stuck open. Before I could make sense of this a brawny cook threw the door wide and, poker in hand, was about to thrash me for a thief. In desperation I cried out, “The lock! I can fix it!” and he hesitated, then laughed. He told me either I fixed the broken lock or I’d have to fix ten broken fingers. I remember that distinctly.

I remember that lock as well — such a simple thing! I had it working as smooth as you like in five minutes and I could tell the cook was trying not to look impressed. He marched me over to the oven and pointed out a troublesome hinge — a bit of wire, shim work and wax and it was better than new.

The man sat me on a stool and handed me a few scraps to eat while he went out front and talked with someone. When he returned, he said he’d give me a meal a day if I fixed whatever I was told, and could even sleep in a sort of hutch out back, though he’d lock me in every night.

Those first few months they’d bring me things from around the neighborhood, and later I’d learn they were charging quite a bit for this work without letting on it was being done by a child whom they paid in stale bread. When it got out — as all things do in time, my friend — people found a way to circumvent my “benefactors” and would pay me a penny or two for work that would cost them a shilling at the cobbler, if it could be done at all.

Excuse my prolixity… you must be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Or perhaps you have some idea already.

I have no intention of subjecting you to my entire life story. Let me sum up the next few years in a word: growth. I saved up enough to find a place in a boarding house, then eventually to open my own little shop, where I fixed and built things, and eventually did a bit of work for the local garrison, as it turned out I had a talent for bridges, fortifications, and earthworks as well. This little grotto we’re in, for instance, isn’t natural.

It was on one of these trips to survey an area for a guard post or granary or some such that I passed so close to my old hometown that I took leave to visit. I walked those old streets a bit, and made the trip out to the house I’d been born in.

It had been spruced up, to be sure, though it was the same old house. One thing was very different, though. The stream that used to run by the place had run dry. I don’t know what it was that made me walk up the trail that used to run alongside it, perhaps just a distant memory of doing so with my little hand in hers.

Easy to miss, that trail, once it gets into the woods. I doubt anyone walked on it who hadn’t taken a wrong turn off to the east where the real byways are. So it had been our little path, wild and unfrequented. My steps traced the old bed and before long I heard again the babble of the rivulet. It had not run dry after all, it had merely taken another path one day.

I reached the point of divergence, a little glen where the stream slows and spreads a bit as it winds between several large rocks I used to climb on. But now there was something of an elbow in its path, you might say; it had deflected off to the east a bit, the rocky hillside decisively guiding it away.

Something blocked the way between the rocks I once watched it rush between: a clump of old leaves, branches, silt and other detritus that had built up over the hears. A mischievous mood took me and I thought perhaps a few minutes work with a sturdy stick might send the water down the way I remembered, setting right a tiny part of what had gone awry since my childhood here.

It only took a minute or two of scraping at the accumulated debris to see that there was something larger and more solid forming the bulk of the barrier. And as I levered away one rotten bough thick with decaying matter, I saw what that object was. For around its wrist was a little bracelet of gears fastened together with wire that I had made one summer evening two decades gone.

Just wait a little longer, my friend, and I will shine a light upon your purpose here.

“That’s it? It ends there?”

“Yes, sir. You can see the wax cylinder for yourself, that’s all of it.”

“Good lord. Left outside our door, eh? Bold one, isn’t he? You were right to bring this to me. I suppose it amounts to a confession of sorts, but more importantly, I know the place he’s speaking of. Not an hour away from here. If this isn’t some sort of joke, it may well describe more than one crime. Let’s lose no time — call the buggy round.”

“Well, he’s certainly made it easy on us.”

“Just so, sir. A rather rude cross, but a clearly visible one. Exactly where the voice on the recording described it.”

“And the fellow who discovered it, he also found… yes?”

“Indeed, sir. Also as described.”

“Well, let’s give the poor thing a proper burial. If the rest of it is as he said, it should be easy enough to find her name in the church register or rent rolls.”

“Yes, sir. All right, you lot — lift her up, gentle now, and get that tarp round her. Oh, good heavens, the stream — look out, sir, it’s coming your way!”

“Well, that’s according to this fellow’s plan as well, I suppose. Nearly wet my boots. What’s that parcel up on the rock, now?”

“Oh, it was hanging from the cross, sir. We didn’t open it out of… respect.”

“Then open it, you bungler! Blast you! Respect is finding out what the deuce happened here. Have you no brains? You there! Unwrap it! There now, what is it?”

“Sir, it looks like some sort of… a cylinder. Brass and wax, I think.”

He awoke to a sound he could not quite place. The darkness had not abated and he still reclined partially upright, as if leaning back in relaxation, upon a surface of what felt like rough wood; his fetters were still in place, and as invincible to removal as they had been before he’d slept. The air, already thick with the smell of earth, oil, and decay, had grown fouler. What had caused him to stir? In the deadened quiet of the room or cavity in which he was imprisoned, every sound was both amplified and immediately snuffed out.

Straining his ears, he made out the sound of a tiny impact, a droplet of water falling from a good distance onto a flat surface. Ten or fifteen seconds later, another — in front of him, in the darkness somewhere. Then, just as he began counting for the second time, there was a harsh snapping sound, and now the drops were joined by a quiet buzz, and then a series of clicks and metallic sounds as something moved, perhaps an arm’s length or so in front of him. An abrupt sort of mechanical cough, then a familiar hiss, and the voice began again.

“I have to assume that events are progressing according to my design. I have no other choice… after all, I can no more stop them than I could stop a stone from flying through the air after it left my hand. Yes — I must assume this cylinder will be played,” the voice said, sounding uncertain for the first time.

The drips of water were coming more frequently now, like heartbeats, pattering onto or into something he couldn’t see.

“I mentioned earlier that I have some skill in artifice. I must say I’m quite proud of this one. The mechanism producing my voice involves a needle moving along a track. This means the words that I’m saying correspond to an actual physical place. Allow me to demonstrate. When the metal arm reaches a certain position, it will disturb a bit of metal I’ve placed very, very carefully, causing a spark to ignite in an oil lamp… therefore I say, fiat lux!”

As if by magic, as the voice pronounced those words, there was light scraping sound and in a moment a small oil lamp flickered to life. To eyes accustomed to total darkness this feeble light was like a blazing sun, and he winced — but soon he was able to discern his surroundings, in fact but dimly and incompletely lit by the tiny flame.

The room he was in seemed to be hewn out of the solid earth from what he could see of the walls. He was attached by iron bands around his limbs and trunk to a large, sturdy panel of wood, unable to move more than an inch or two. In front of him and a little to the right, on a wooden table, was a curious looking little box with several wires or thin arms extending outward from it in various directions, and a large horn-like structure that he recognized as the place from which sound was emanated. A second such box, apparently the one that had spoken earlier, sat nearby.

But it was what he saw directly in front of him that caused his heart to race, almost matching the accelerating pace of the water dripping from above. He could only make out the barest outline, but the drops were falling onto some sort of water wheel, and as he watched the paddle or catch moved just perceptibly downward, impelled by the weight of the liquid falling on it. It housed a family of gears in its center, one shaft projecting outwards to a third mechanism, which he stared at in horror.

It was nothing less than an enormous stake of wood, cut to a rough point and directed at his heart.

The voice recommenced its narration, having left the hiss and pop that served for silence for some time, no doubt to allow the effect to set in.

“I wanted to explain this so you understand that all this is happening as if it were the hands of a clock. Indeed I used the mainspring from a large one to drive the device I am speaking from! But I fear you may not be equipped to appreciate the ingenuity of this machine, there is certainly nothing else like it. And of course I had to build it all myself. I wonder if you can figure out how it works? I’ll continue my story and let you draw your own conclusions for now.

“I had long given my mother up for lost, and I think that even had I received word of her demise I would have sighed and mourned and moved on. But finding her like that… knowing that this violence was perpetrated so near our home, while I waited innocently, and then drank the water tainted with her murder… I had to know. Being a tinker by trade I didn’t know where to begin, and a secret crime 20 years gone is no easy thing to illuminate.”

Suddenly there was a clank, and, though it was hard to tell in the uncertain light, it seemed as though the stake receded slightly. The water was now a steady dribble and the wheel was visibly, though quite slowly, revolving. The smell of wet earth had intensified and he saw that the packed-earth floor was wet, with pools growing in declivities.

“I began to ask about in my tentative way, and had little success until I had the idea of asking who had bought the house. The old timers I talked to looked askance and said it had gone to a ‘rough sort’ who had come into some money. This was promising, and I managed to pull the thread, finding that this ‘rough’ fellow was in the employ of another man known and feared throughout the county. I suppose under the circumstances I need not enumerate his many crimes and illicit schemes, hm?

“I think by now you must have heard the ratchet gear advancing once or twice. The water wheel drives a gear that compresses a spring, which when it builds up enough force, it releases it via a sort of escapement to pull back the… action, let’s call it, storing that energy in another, larger spring. I confess this is one factor that I had to leave to… not chance, but the vagaries of nature. It’s the same when one cuts dikes or or shores up a seawall — you have to accept the limitations of your predictions and work around them.

“In this case the unknown variable is the flow of water, and how quickly it overcomes the resistance of the final spring. However, as this cylinder was activated by the first impulse of a single drop, I have at least a general idea of how long it will be until… but once again I anticipate myself.”

The mechanism clanked again and the point of the stake withdrew another finger’s width into the darkness.

“Through numerous conversations, I found that this much feared man had set his eyes on either my mother or her house. It says much of this man’s discretion that no one I spoke to could be sure either way. But it is certain that there was a period during which his considerable resources were bent on acquiring one or both, though as before, by underhanded and reprehensible means. A confiding fellow in the army showed me a document intended to disgrace my father’s reputation and revoke his pension.

“Whatever pressure he exerted came to a head that day when, I have ascertained, he undertook to make a final effort in person. Shortly afterwards the river flowed in a different direction and the house was claimed from the custody of starving and destitute child.”

The water poured down as if from a decanter now, driving the wheel steadily, its gears in constant motion. The ratchet mechanism sounded heavily at irregular intervals, and the stake had receded beyond the light of the lamp, showing only in the occasional flare. He had long since shouted himself hoarse and his wrists and ankles were bloodied by his attempts to free them. The floor was wet

“I mentioned that we are a considerable distance underground. But we are not wholly isolated from the surface. The way to the surface has been collapsed and sealed, but if you could climb out you would find yourself in a familiar location — directly underneath the creek bed near my old home. It was dry for many years, but as you can see it is slowly beginning to run once more along its original course. Through a series of hidden excavations and pipes, a portion of that restored flow is diverted here.

“I am not a vengeful man, fundamentally. A life for a life is not my credo. But as I came to understand what had happened it occurred to me to take certain precautions. The culprit of my mother’s murder I knew to be a cunning and resourceful man, and I had already received hints that my inquiries as to his activities in years past had not gone unnoticed. As I speak this, I am preparing a document with my findings to bring to those in a position to initiate some form of official justice. However, I am not naive. This man did not escape the gallows for all these years by politely declining prosecution. So I have prepared a contingency plan in case I myself should be incapacitated.

“In the event of my death some trusted confederates will be caused to perform three actions. One is to waylay the criminal discretely and convey him to this chamber. While ordinarily difficult, I predict that having eliminated a threat he will be less vigilant, and therefore vulnerable. The second is to place duplicates of these recordings I am making now — I’ve devised an elegant method of copying them — in two locations, such that one might lead to the other.”

The tone of the ratchet was changing, and it came less frequently now. It had progressed by degrees from a heavy clank to a quicker, tighter sound, and now once or twice a minute there shot from the darkness a piercing ping as of metal meeting metal with enormous force.

“You are hearing my voice because my design has taken place, and now the wheels of justice should be turning. Above, my mother will find a final resting place and these recordings will serve as my confession and your damnation. Down here a different wheel is turning as the river returns to the course it should never have been so loathsomely diverted from, and you receive retribution in direct consequence of your evil impulses. But what of myself? Ah, I never did mention the third action, did I? Allow me to demonstrate one last time the precision of my craft.”

Over the sound of the water rushing down from above he heard a scrape and a creak as the cylinder’s mechanism touched another projection, which deftly overturned the oil lamp on its table. The liquid spilled and caught flame, illuminating the room in sudden and horrifying brilliance. He could see the full machine, the stake on the last step of its toothed track and the gears straining to bring the ratchet to bear for its final action. And beyond that, upright in a wooden casket, was the corpse of a man, clothes darkened by blood where the dagger had done its grim work. Its staring face was a ghastly rictus of pride and satisfaction.

Deafened by his own screams, he did not hear the gears tick ahead or the creak of a relieved spring. But as the burning oil guttered in the quickening flood, he dimly saw a blur of motion in front of him — and then there was only darkness.