(Fiction) A Cackle of Murderlings [NSFW]

Erasmus stuck Zen-ji at the top of the grand staircase for good reason. A ten-foot samurai in full armor, meditating cross-legged on a large dais: that sent a clear message—that, and the man-sized sword that lay in front of him.

Jack had never seen Zen-ji speak, and in all his comings and goings through the years, Jack never saw him turn his head, or cough, or go to the bathroom. But Jack had seen him move, three times in fact.

The first had been for Johnny Two-Brain, so named because of some fantastically poor decisions he’d made with his penis, the last of which was to screw Jenny Diamond, whom Erasmus was sweet on. Not that anyone knew. Zen-ji separated the two brains, along with the right and left halves of Johnny’s body, in what had to be the fastest surgical transection in history.

Jack and Johnny had come up together, back in the cowboy days when Freecity was a lot smaller and the Empire a lot further away and everything was up for grabs. They weren’t friends, but they were friendly. Still, all Jack could think about as he watched the two halves of Johnny’s surprised face fall in opposite directions to the floor was how sharp that massive sword must be, and how strong its wielder, to make a cut like that.

Jack technically didn’t see Zen-ji’s second move. The lights were out. But he saw Mortimer Pendergast sitting in a high-backed chair in the boss’s office, smiling at Erasmus. Morty ran the Dark Red, Erasmus’s secret of secrets: an underage brothel, mostly teenage boys from the streets or local orphanages that Pimpernel patronized through his various philanthropic organizations.

The boss had caught Morty fronting on the side, but Morty wasn’t pimping. He was extorting. He had been blackmailing a famous artist who frequented the club. Morty had pictures of her in bed with two and three teenage boys at a time. She was famous and married and in good with the Imperial crowd. She was only too happy to produce high quality forgeries of some of the lost greats. Her crown jewel was a replica of Waldorff’s Seventh View of the Falls from the Great Sewer, which Morty sold to an aminal collector for a few hundred thousand.

Morty claimed he had inherited the art collection from his great uncle, who had been a rogue cartographer and frontier trader back before the Empire shut the border. But Erasmus was the king of liars, and he wasn’t having any of it. He pretended to laugh at Morty’s ingenuity, and Morty knew it. He must have had a hunch what was coming because, even as he laughed at the absurdity of it all, the carpet under his seat grew dark with his own urine.

The two were yukking it up good when Erasmus switched out the lights. Jack heard the sound of movement through air and the crack of wood. When the lights came back on, it looked like someone had shoved a log through Morty’s chest. There was a foot-wide hole in the back of the big chair. Zen-ji had focused on the man’s heartbeat in the dark and had speared him clean through, furniture and all.

The third move came on a rare occasion when the samurai’s dais was inside Erasmus’s office. The boss had wanted to get a picture of the Doutee Gang—Chester and his cousins—who’d come over from the other side. They’d been running some two-bit protection gigs out in the hills surrounding the city. Stupid hicks milking poor dairy farmers. Erasmus had them line up in front of an old beast of a camera, tripod-mounted like a machine gun. Of course Erasmus fucked with them first, moving them around, changing their order, asking one person to sit, one to stand, and finally all to stand in a row, some on boxes to even their heights “for the picture.” And all the while their faces were beaming, drinks in hand. “Fancy liquor,” they said. They probably drank moonshine.

It was a test. Erasmus wanted to challenge the samurai, to see if Zen-ji was faster than the camera. And it was a daredevil’s gambit. Five heads in one blow. One of them rolled near Jack’s feet. “Fancy-drinks” Chester was so tense for the picture, his body stood headless for two minutes, clutching that highball like it was the last he’d ever have. Jack stood in the corner as the rest of the crew bet on how long it would take to fall.

That was the last time anyone came over from the other side. After that, everyone knew. You either worked for Erasmus Pimpernel, or he’d fucking kill you.

Erasmus couldn’t wait for the film to be developed. It was all he talked about for days. Jack never asked which was faster, shutter or samurai. Jack may have been the most prolific of Erasmus’s Murderlings, but Zen-ji was the most efficient. Three moves. Seven kills.

Jack stood in front of the giant with his hands in his coat pockets. It was impossible to tell if Zen-ji’s eyes were open under the large, curved helm. It shrouded all his features. Not that it mattered. A trained Japanaman could spear your heart just by fixing on the sound of it beating. Jack had seen it.

Not that Jack had a heart to spear, but there was plenty clicking in his chest.

The guys at The Dive said the same as LaMana—Jack was still alive because Pimpernel couldn’t convince anyone to take the hit. But Jack knew better. He was looking right at him. Erasmus was patient when he wanted to be. He had his own reasons for leaving Jack alive.

“Jack!”

The gunslinger turned and walked toward Zeek, who stood outside the doors to Erasmus’s chambers. Zeek had switched sides. She’d been born a man, but she now enjoyed life the other way. Her make-up clung like a mask to her face, plastered thick to hide the five-o-clock shadow. Her dress was dark and matronly and covered everything up to her neck. She kept everything running. She held a leather-bound book in one hand and thrust the other out.

Jack clenched it in greeting.

“Good to see ya, Jack. Been a while.” Her words were thick with meaning.

Zen-ji, on his dais, didn’t move.

“Jack!”

Jack turned to see Ruud sitting on a couch inside the plush waiting room, wood-paneled and window-less. Art hung from gold frames. An inverted glass dome bulged overhead, revealing the large aquarium above. Jack knew it was rigged to explode and flood the place if the building were ever raided. Somewhere up there was a sixty-five-foot squid, the main attraction of the carnival that fronted most of Pimpernel’s illegal activities and under which he had built his subterranean headquarters.

Jack shook Ruud’s hand. He was an effete man with slick hair and a pencil-thin mustache, good with a stiletto, and Erasmus’s go-to society assassin. Jack could never blend with socialites. The boss always sent him to the gutter.

Ruud didn’t get up. “Long time, no see.” He nodded to the next set of double doors. “He’s with the girls, but we’re supposed to send you right in.”

“You sure?” Jack looked at Zeek. He knew what happened to guys who interrupted Erasmus’s private time.

Zeek shrugged. “That’s what the man said.” After Jack started walking Zeek added, “But I wouldn’t go in there.”

Ruud chuckled.

Jack nodded and opened the double doors.

Erasmus Pimpernel was out of his mechanical spider. The glass capsule that held most of him rested in a solid gold dish designed to dangle his spinal cord over the gilded tub. A young girl, wet and naked, sat in the tub sucking on the stubby end of his cord, which hung like a limp dick out of the last of his broken vertebra.

“Oh fuck . . .” Erasmus moaned. “Oh, Jack. Oh Jack, just a minute. Oh . . .”

Most men would have been dead if they’d walked in at that moment. But then Jack wasn’t a threat. He stood motionless. There were two more girls in the tub, also naked, and they smiled at him. Jack figured they couldn’t be older than nineteen or twenty, and all flesh and blood. The boss left the mechanoids for the club.

The working girl held Erasmus’s rubbery cord with one hand and diddled the frayed ends of his spinal nerves with the other, running it up and down the vertebra like she was petting a cat. The glass helmet that held the brain clinked rhythmically against the gold dish as she sucked, and the motion caused the two eyeballs in the tank to sway back and forth. Both were lidless and round and attached to spinal nerves that disappeared into the brain. The left eye was frosted and gray.

“Damn Jack, you see this?”

Jack just nodded. Girls number four and five were clothed and sitting at the bar on the left. They must have the night off, he thought.

“Stop. Stop.” Erasmus called. “That’s enough. Fuck. Put me back.”

The girls in the tub stood up. Jack saw the water run in rivulets down their bare skin. Each girl was a different complexion. The boss liked variety.

“Hurry up,” he chided.

The girls lifted the little glass-helmed brain out of the dish and fed the loose spinal cord into the middle socket of the spidery contraption. The metal collar around the base of the brain, which held the voice box, clicked into place and the mechanical spider’s legs wiggled to life. With the capsule attached, it looked like a virus.

“Jack!” Erasmus exclaimed. “Goyen in heaven, Jack. It’s been forever. How you been? You want a girl?” Erasmus laughed. It was a rhetorical question. “You and me, Jack, you know, we have a lot in common. Always did.”

“Oh?”

“Two things, Jack.” The mechanical walker moved across the room, past the chairs, toward the desk on the far side. “There are two things that will ruin a man. Know what they are?”

“Nope.”

“A dick and a heart. Ain’t that right?”

“I suppose so.”

“You and me, we got neither.” Erasmus moved behind the desk and settled into place. “Nothing’ll get your ass into trouble faster than a fat prick hanging between your legs. Guys with small dicks, they don’t like whipping it out. Don’t want people to see, ya know? They’re ashamed. So they’re always real careful because they’re always worried.”

“Right.”

“But a fat prick? That’s a beauty. You got something like that, you wanna show it off. Know what I mean?”

“Not really.” Jack stood in front of the guest chairs. They were new, or at least Jack hadn’t seen them before. He wondered who had died in the old ones and how many sets Erasmus had gone through in his absence.

“I used to have a big dick, Jack. A fuckin’ monster. You know that?”

“Nope.”

“Took three or four women to tame that dragon. Shit, these days I can’t handle more than a few minutes with Cyndi before I turn to jelly. Ain’t that right, baby?” Erasmus called.

She smiled from the bar. The girls were drying themselves and whispering, probably about Jack. The Jackrabbit. Black Jack the traitor.

“But look at me now,” Erasmus went on. “What’s a guy gonna do?”

Jack looked around. Other than the two up front, the entire compound was empty. It was surreal. Erasmus’s offices were usually bustling. “Where is everyone?”

“Shoveling LaMana’s shit.”

“What happened?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?”

“Have a seat, Jack. We need to talk.”

Jack stepped backwards to a chair.

“LaMana’s dead.”

Jack paused for a moment before lowering himself into the finely upholstered seat. It creaked under his weight.

“Shit, don’t sit there, you asshole. That chair’s an antique. You weigh like eight hundred pounds. You’ll break it.”

Jack decided to stand.

Erasmus watched him. Every one of Jack’s movements was slow. “How you movin’ these days?”

Jack couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the floor-to-ceiling painting of Riming Temple hanging to his right opposite the bar. Erasmus’s vault was behind it. Jack glanced and looked back in an instant. “Oh, you know . . . winding down.”

“I bet.”

There were a few moments of silence. Erasmus was making it clear he wasn’t going to get the key.

“Damn, it’s good to see you, Jack.”

“Was it a hit?”

“What?”

“LaMana. Was it a hit?”

“It was a fuckin’ Fury.”

Jack scowled. It didn’t make any sense.

“Zeek will tell you all about it. I need you to take her to see Pugs.”

“You collecting the books?”

“You’re damned right I’m collecting the books. That little two-faced aminal works for me now, whether he likes it or not.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “Does he know that?”

“You’re gonna tell him.”

Jack raised both eyebrows. “He might take exception.”

“Who the fuck cares?” Erasmus screamed from his voice box. “That little rat-dog is a venereal stain, a shit streak on the underpants of the world! You hear me? You get Zeek, you go to that herpes pit Pugs calls a club, and you tell him. You don’t ask. You tell him. Erasmus Pimpernel owns him. I own him and his goddamned books. You get those books, do you hear? You don’t walk out of there without them.”

Jack nodded.

“Do you understand what I’m saying? You don’t come back without them.”

“It ain’t my first rodeo, boss.”

“Yeah, well I know what happened on your last rodeo, don’t I?”

Jack didn’t flinch.

“Don’t I?”

Jack nodded.

“Goyen-damned fucking right, I do. But that isn’t going to happen again, is it?”

Jack turned to leave.

“And then we use the key, Jack. After.”

Jack stopped. He nodded.

“And I want Rosa.”

“Don’t have her.” Jack shrugged.

“Don’t give me that bullshit.”

Jack stood straight and silent. He looked right at Pimpernel.

“Well, where the fuck is she?”

Jack shrugged. “Gone.”

“Whaddya mean gone?

“Just gone. Been gone, ever since that night.”

Erasmus thought for a moment. “That’s a damn shame. A real damn shame. You were a wizard with her. Unstoppable. A regular one-man army.”

Jack didn’t say anything.

“I mean it.” Erasmus’s voice was softer now. “You were something else, Jack. A fucking god.”

“Don’t believe in gods.”

“Who? You or me?”

Jack scowled and started to walk out.

“Jack?”

He stopped.

“We missed you, Jack. I missed you.” The little voice box let out a mechanical sigh. “I miss the old days, Jack. I miss whiskey and fucking and the feel of a man’s throat in my hands.”

Jack gave a nod. “Good to be back.” He walked out of Erasmus’s office and back into the gilded hall without saying a word. He nodded at Zeek and the pair walked down the grand staircase. Jack didn’t speak and he didn’t look back, but he felt the samurai’s eyes follow him out the door.


Selection from my first novel, a deliberate study in jumping the shark, in which I tried to offend literally everyone.

image by Adrian Bobb