Aphelion Issue 218, Volume 21
June 2017
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
   

The Hot Bolt Kids

by Cody L. Stanford


I dubbed the orphans "The Hot Bolt Kids" because that's how I found them, all scruffy and smirchy and working in dangerous places where cowards feared to go. Not that the kids had a choice. One of their main jobs was getting buckets full of hot bolts up to where burly men slammed steel beams together and made a building. No one gave a damn about workhouse orphans like them. I sure as hell didn't. I stumbled on these kids at the same time a savage protector showed up who evened the score with their oppressors in a horrifying way.

I'm a reporter; name's Rawson Rix. I scuffed along the sidewalk that cloudy afternoon with my head down, as if my next story might hop out of a sidewalk crack. I felt sorry for myself because my girlfriend Felicity Stair had just told me to go jump in the harbor. I'm not too bad-looking; a bantamweight sort of guy with a natty secondhand suit. Felicity was the kind of girl a guy like me couldn't hope to find twice in his life. I was too bummed out about losing her to even read my book, the book that caused Felicity to abstain herself from me forever. Cute pun; if I could write a story for the paper about my despair, I'd use it.

I walked past the clangorous, smoky, steely mess of a site where big sweaty men with big knots of muscles were hammering together Port Cedryssene's glamorous new train station. Across the street I saw a bench in a little park and a tree in which sat one of those sissy bird-people, this one a kid. He watched the construction site with a look of forlorn sadness, pretty much the normal emotional state of our winged neighbors in Port Cedryssene. I heard a crash from the site and turned to look. Lots of kids were screaming, some were crying, and a couple of burly workers puked when they saw what had happened.

How the hell did alla those brats wind up working on a huge steel building, anyway?

Three kids had been hoisting a bucketful of hot bolts with a rope-and-pulley when something gave way and buried one of the kids under the red hot bits of metal. Turned out he was only eight years old. I got a look at him. His skin was all blistered and was starting to peel off. He called for his mommy, wherever the hell she was. Not that I cared; I could have jumped for joy. Hot damn! I had a story!

There are nights when I still dream about the werewolf's sharp teeth and the hot blood and all of that infernal screaming, high-pitched like you can't imagine while someone gets their flesh ripped right from their bones, and I wish I'd never met those goddamn kids in the first place.

####

See, nobody hands an ink-finger like me anything. You wanna report for a paper better than the Loch Chicago Beanbag Gazette, you gotta grab hold of your story and throttle lies out of it if you need to. But be careful where you wander. Reporter friend of mine named Otto Page got killed a coupla weeks before I met the kids. He tried to sneak into the Gryphon Lairs north of town to interview them. What the gryphons left of Otto wouldn't have fit on a sandwich roll.

Damn it, why'd I have to say it that way, like a human being was just a piece of meat or something?

I write for Northern Amer's best newspaper, The Port Cedryssene Herald and Modern. Big name for a paper but Port Cedryssene is a big city, with towers ten stories tall and mansions and hotels and ballrooms alongside shadows concealing nasty secrets. I'm twenty-five and I used to write for The New-York Daily Times. Not long ago they chopped that name down to The New York Times. Trust me, a paper with a name that short ain't goin' anywhere. Port Cedryssene straddled a harbor, which made it an important shipping town, and you had your smugglers and pirates and what-not. But the city was also the center of finance and the arts and the tux-and-gown set and everything else that mattered in Northern Amer. When you have this much money and this many people, you have all sorts of delicious corruption and abuses and back-door deals. That's why I left New York and came north to Port Cedryssene, where the action is.

I never before noticed workhouse orphans slaving away on construction projects, probably because I hate kids. I walked onto the site to examine the accident. The construction foreman stopped talking to me when he realized I was a reporter, and the dirty kids got hustled somewhere outta my view. I looked back across the street. The sissy bird-kid was still sitting in his tree, and I think he was crying. I walked over to talk to him.

Down in Southern Amer where birdie-boy's type evolved, they call them P'jarin'te. This one had gold skin and medium-blue feathers bordered by white feathers on his wings, and feathers of both colors that ran down the outside of his arms and legs. I introduced myself to him and wished for the thousandth time that the P'jarin'te would put on some goddamned clothes. His name was Njyrrak. That's another thing about the P'jarin'te; the weird names. What the hell was wrong with naming your kid "Henry"?

I said to the kid, "Why do you sit up there watching?"

Njyrrak had at least stopped his girly crying. "I keep waiting for someone to do something; to help them," he said.

Did I mention the P'jarin'te are all a buncha pacifists and social reformers? The last time the king of Boston Town went to war with Port Cedryssene, the bird-people tried to fly in between the archers and cannon fire and compressed coal flame-spitters until they realized all they were doing was getting shot faster than the soldiers.

I waved my hand at the construction site and said, "Who are all these kids, anyway?"

"Orphans," Njyrrak said. "From the big Catholic orphanage on the east bank."

Ah, religious corruption; the best kind. The east bank was the other side of Cedryssene Harbor, the bad part of town. Where else would you stick a place where you could work and beat kids 'til your heart's content, knowing no one gave a damn about them? That's right, tenements and factories; areas where bad men made the lives of poor people even worse. And to think it had been waiting over there for me all this time! I felt stupid realizing this story had to kick me in the rear before I paid attention.

I watched while men set the burned kid, wrapped in blankets, into the back of a horse-carriage ambulance. Orphans. Poor, pitiful orphans. Big headlines in the Herald and Modern. Our new king, András Katona, bestowing a gold medal on the brave young reporter who saved their snotty little orphan asses.

I snapped back to reality with a laugh and asked Njyrrak, "Who got hit with the hot bolts?"

"New kid," Njyrrak said. "Marc Germer. Arrived about the same time as Faolán Key, one of my friends. That hot bolt kid, he probably was underfed like the rest of them. Didn't have the strength to help hoist the bolt bucket."

I made some notes. Yeah, yeah; I never said I invented that catchy name for the orphans, did I?

"Can you get me in?" I said. "Get some of these kids to talk to me?"

Njyrrak looked down at me suspiciously with his spooky red-gold eyes. "They trust me," he said. "I'll do it, but you'd better be on the level."

"Whoa, tough talk for a little bit of feather fl-- " I coughed. "I mean, uh, yeah, it's really rotten the way they treat those poor kids, huh?"

Pretty sincere sounding for a guy who hadn't even known the hot bolt kids even existed ten minutes ago.

####

The first guy got torn to bits at the orphanage that very night.

I was at the paper late, rummaging around the morgue for old dirt on the Catholic orphanage, when my editor got the word. So he sent me.

I didn't want to wait for a trolley to go over the rickety old wooden railroad bridge, so I hired a ferryman to take me across the harbor. A misty, light fog crawled in on the October chill, and gave the city on either bank a weird glow from yellow gas lamps and the newfangled bluish alchemical lights. Everything's up to date in Port Cedryssene, or will be soon: new train station, new iron railroad bridge, new Dragondanz stadium. Above the fog I saw dragons drifting around their Dragon Trees and greeting each other with friendly little firebursts. Friendly, my ass. Maybe none of the rest of you mind sharing your city with dragons, but I think they're about as trustworthy as gryphons, and look how gryphons tore up stupid ol' Otto. Gryphons hate humans. I think dragons just pretend to like us because our greed makes their gold hoards more valuable.

On my back I carried a big box with an alchemical camera in it, the newfangled kind that didn't use silverplates. We had our own wizard in the basement of the Herald and Modern who developed the pictures. I don't much trust wizards either, do you? Anyway, I trudged my tired legs and my giant camera up the front steps of the brick orphanage building. "Sisters of Mercy Little Angels Orphanage." The kids inside were gonna be angels all right, once they got worked to death. That's a damned fine line! I jotted it down to use later in my story.

I knocked on the door and the overseer answered, a big stone wall of a man named Erwin Jenny. He told me to ditch the camera and I showed him a finger-gesture I learned in the Bronx. I had my press card, so Erwin could glower at me all he wanted. Anyway, his orphan warehouse was lousy with curious constables and even a couple of soldiers from the castle. I entered the place. It gave me the creeps, all dark and cold and damp inside like the bricks were sweating ice cubes. Maybe the creeps came from seeing hard, hateful men like Jenny in charge of a buncha helpless kids.

Jeez, Rawson; buck up. You're gonna actually start feeling sorry for the little twerps if you aren't careful.

I hauled my camera up the steps to the second floor, where the dead man lay in a storeroom. Staff quarters were up there, and by god, it was heated. Bastards. I saw the body: Halford Fleming, forty-three, a crew boss for the orphans. Poor fellow'd been ripped apart, literally. Disjointed. Flayed. The constable in the storeroom passed me a handkerchief soaked in camphor, and I breathed it in gratefully. What a mess. Even a big man like Erwin Jenny would have a tough time ripping apart a man like a Sunday chicken. See, goddamn it, I'm comparing the mess to food again, like Otto on a sandwich roll. I shook my head and set up my camera. The alchemical light whined up to a bright pop and I heard the shutter snap. At least, I think I did. I might have broken something inside. You can never be sure with these half-magic alchemical gizmos. Push a button on one of these contraptions the wrong way and you're liable to wind up on the other side of the planet, so go the rumors.

"Well," I said to the constable, "you can rule out that one of the kids did it."

Boy, was I ever wrong. See, it was one of the kids. But it turned out he wasn't a kid, not all of the time.

####

The next day, back at the construction site, Njyrrak took me to an alley a block behind the future main terminal of the Cedryssene Central Station, at present still just an iron frame. The banging and hammering and other racket from the workers was a bit quieter back here. The terminal was going to be girders and glass, paved inside with marble and lit by crystal chandeliers with the latest alchemical light bulbs. Biggest train station in Northern Amer. They were even going to hoist a silver zeppelin needle to dock airships, which was pretty hopeful since no one yet knew if those clattering canvas-bag monstrosities were even safe enough to carry passengers. I bet they had a wizard somewhere working on that problem.

In the alley I met two boys from the orphanage: Luc Mollard, a short and skinny blond twelve-year-old (same age as Njyrrak), and Faolán Key, thirteen, who had pale skin and thatches of long black hair and weird green eyes. Goddamn crafty Irish kid; probably wasn't even really an orphan. I listened to their tales of woe; parents dead, relatives too poor to take them in. The blond kid had been friends with that hot bolt kid, Marc Germer; fellow Frenchies, I imagine. Luc sniffled, and Faolán gave him a sweet look. Faolán was new, arrived at the orphanage just two weeks ago. Njyrrak told me Faolán and Luc hit it right off. I felt like warning Luc not to trust new kids who wanna be friends so fast; but hell, they were making puppy eyes at each other, the kind that might get a pansy boy beat up by his orphanage mates. Faolán looked tough; mean; untrustworthy. Stupid French kid was gonna get what he deserved. Aw crap, here we go; the French kid started getting all blubbery about the injured kid from yesterday.

"Happens all the time, Mr. Rix," Luc stammered. "Kids lose hands and legs...and their lives..."

At least Luc's teary face would make a good picture for the paper. Had to remember to bring the damned camera next time. Faolán put his arm around Luc's shoulders while the blond boy tried to tell me something else; something about the priest who ran the orphanage.

Corrupt priests! I tried not to sound too enthusiastic. "What is it, son?" I said. "You can tell me. Come on..."

"He beats us," Luc said. "Father Mahon. He has a sp-special room in his office. Every night he p-picks two of the b-b-boys and we can hear the screaming all down the d-d-dorm."

Yeah, that was pretty bad; but the way I see it, you take your lumps as a kid without sniveling. I ran away from home down in Charles II Towne ("Two-Towne," they're starting to call it) when I was fifteen, and the overseer on my first dock job wielded a pretty mean whip. And I didn't have any tough friend to protect me like blubber-puss here did.

But nobody cared what I thought, so I said to the boys, "What happened to Mr. Fleming?"

Faolán's eyes were set deep under a sharp brow, and his look pierced like an awl. He had kind of a low voice for a kid.

"Fleming was the collector," Faolán said. "Fr. Mahon sent him out about nine each evening to pick the laziest two boys from that day's work. Those boys got a beating. 'N, well, maybe one of us boys'd just had enough."

Punk. If Fleming hadn't been yanked apart like a roast pig, I probably woulda called the constables on Faolán myself. But no way could a boy do that kind of killing.

Njyrrak touched Luc's knee gently. "Tell him," Njyrrak said to him. "Go ahead."

Luc sniffled. I supposed I should have offered him my handkerchief, but who knows what diseases these dirty kids carried?

"Mr. Fleming," Luc said. "He was coming for me...last night. I'd just b-been b-beaten...two nights before...Faolán here...helped me hide..."

Aw gawd, again with the blubbering. Lazy French kid probably deserved it. I started thinking maybe a gold medal from the King wasn't worth alla this crybaby crap.

"Fleming picked two other boys instead," Faolán said to me. "They wound up looking like this."

Faolán had Luc turn sideways on the crate they say on, and then pulled Luc's shirt down from his shoulders. The blond kid's back was covered in bruises and welts, many of the marks clearly made by a man's belt. Some of the welts had bled but were healing over now. Okay, I'd let Luc have a few tears for that beating. Must have stung like hell.

I said to him, "Fr. Mahon did this to you?"

Luc nodded, afraid to speak for fear he'd start blubbering again. Good kid. But though the day was sunny, I shivered thinking of those brutal dockworker types running that orphanage. No wonder bad people like that are drawn to kids. Easy pickin's.

I chuckled, but only because of my nerves. The kid's injuries bothered me. "That old turd Fleming got what he deserved, eh?" I said.

Faolán glowered at my seeming humor and rolled his eyes at me, the stupid old man saying the obvious. He pulled Luc's shirt back onto the blond kid's shoulders and then, fer cryin' out loud, he gave the kid a hug.

"You'd better watch it," I said to Faolán, "or someone's gonna think you're a couple of pansies."

Faolán's eyes met mine again. Jesus flipping Mike. I swear my blood turned to ice on seeing those savage and relentless eyes. Faolán would have killed me that very moment if he could. I never wanna see that look again.

####

Halford Fleming saw that look, just before he died. I wonder if it made him scream, seeing that look and the teeth and the claws coming at him out of the dark corner of the overheated storeroom where Faolán had lured him.

####

I spent the rest of the afternoon on the bench below that tree in the little park. Njyrrak sat on a branch above me, and a downy feather or two drifted down from his body a couple of times. We watched orphan boys and girls at the construction site while they dodged sparks from steel and blows from the foreman and overseers. I pretended to read Charlie Darwin's new book, the one where he shows how this thing called "evolution" occurred among the pygmy dragons on the Galapagos Islands. Charlie's the real reason Felicity Stair dumped me. She was one of those who knew Charlie's book was the final nail in the coffin of those bygone beliefs. I mean, who could keep believing in all that sacrifice and salvation crap after you see dragons soaring majestically through a sunny sky in between the newfangled zeppelin-bags, or watched a wizard heat up hot bolts for the kids to haul up to the workers atop the steel beams of the Cedryssene Central Station terminal? Look at Njyrrak up there; you think the P'jarin'te are going to start wearing clothes just because sky-daddy tells them to? And whatever you think about wizards, you gotta love how they put an end to the Inquisition and hanged that Pope, huh? Felicity saw Charlie's book in my hand that day and shoved me off her stoop in the direction of the harbor. And I wound up here.

That goddamned day, with little Marc Germer buried under a bucketful of hot bolts. He died that night. And I wasn't upset because I didn't get to interview him. No, I was actually starting to give a shit about the little snots across the street.

I saw burly Erwin Jenny over there hollering at a sniveling little kid. A fat guy named Wendell Spruce, the foreman for the orphans, came up and smacked the kid hard on the back of the head. Behind the men, about twenty yards away, I saw Faolán watching them with his weird look that once again made my short hairs do the prickly dance.

####

It was almost nine p.m. when I banged on the door of the orphanage. A lady with a tea cozy on her head answered the door. Sister Gwendolyn. She saw Charlie's book under my arm and tried to convert me before I even said hello. Sr. Gwendolyn didn't wanna let me in, but a few words from me about how hard it must be for them to take care of all these ungrateful little brats softened Sr. Gwen's face. I told her, "I'm only reading Charlie here because I wanna see what sort of poison is infecting these children's poor little minds."

Damn, sometimes my lies amaze even me. Sr. Gwen let me in and took me to see Fr. Mahon. I stuffed Charlie in my haversack along the way.

Fr. Mahon was another big bruiser. I troweled sympathy on him about the sniveling little orphan brats. Yeah, he said, keepin' the little buggers in line was tough work, but by God he knew how to do it. He even showed me his special room off the side of his regular office, with two beds for the boys to lie in and get tied down. I had to turn away. Last time I saw a get-up like that, I had to pay the madam extra for one of her girls to tie my hands and take a strap to my seat.

Did I just write that? Hell, I'll tell you worse facts about me by the end, friend. Just keep on reading.

I asked Fr. Mahon what kept the kids from simply running away from the factories and docks and construction sites. He laughed and told me that any constable who returned one of his runaways got a reward. So did the boy, he added, and he tugged up his belt when he said it. I recognized the belt's silver buckle. I had seen a purple imprint of it on Luc's back that afternoon.

I told Fr. Mahon I'd show myself out, but first I tiptoed around the corner and stood by the doorway of the boys' dorm. I shivered from the cold and listened to the kids' stuffy noses and coughs and fitful sleep-breathing. A couple of the boys were crying softly, trying not to be heard.

"I know it's one of you," I whispered. "I just don't know how."

####

I wish whoever was doing the killing at the orphanage could have done the next one before I got all the way back across the harbor that night and had to hire the ferryman to take me back to the east bank again.

This time the body was down in the cellar, in the boiler room. A constable tried to stop me from going in. I pushed past him and shouted, "Press," and he called out, "That's not why I said to stop," just before I saw why. I ran back out to go puke in a trash bin. The constable told me the dead man was Erwin Jenny, but how he could tell with the guy's face ripped off and his guts flung all over the boiler room, I'll never know.

I took some paregoric and went back in to see the body. I'm no coroner, but even I could see the tooth and claw marks on Erwin Jenny's flesh. Those marks weren't human; no, sir. I shivered and sniffed the copper-thick smell of blood in the air, and swallowed the rush of saliva in my mouth.

I went back up to the boys' dorm. Sr. Gwen had roused the tired boys and made them all kneel beside their beds to say a prayer for Erwin Jenny's soul. I bet most of those boys prayed to send that mythical soul straight to hell. I also knew one of these boys started that soul on its way, along with Halford Fleming's.

I brushed past the nun, who gave me a decidedly un-Christian glare but kept on going with her juju song. I found Luc and Faolán kneeling together beside the same bed. They weren't even bothering to pretend to pray.

I knelt next to Faolán and said to him, "Sorry 'bout what I said before." He just looked at me but he was only annoyed, not filled with that otherworldly rage I saw before.

I whispered to Faolán, "So how do you do it? You gotta big dog hidden somewhere?"

Crap; now I got that look again, and I swear on a stack of Darwins that Faolán's eyes glowed like hot bolts when he gave it to me. Both boys stood up -- holding hands, mind you -- and crawled into the bed. Together. And then...well, they were scared, I bet. Scared kids, they need someone to cuddle with, even if it's just each other, right?

Still, someone really is gonna kick crap outta them for being pansies if they don't watch themselves.

####

I wasn't ready to go public with my orphanage abuse and reform stories yet, but with two murders we had to do something before the other papers in town beat us to the punch. So on the front page of the next morning's Herald and Modern, the good people of Port Cedryssene were jolted awake with this headline:

ORPHANAGE HORROR!

Two Men Killed In Grisly Slayings!

The Acts Committed On Consecutive Nights

King András Promises Justice

The Orphans Cower In Fear!

(Yeah, I bet; but I didn't write the headline.)

Orphanage Chief, Fr. Mahon, Tightens Security

The Police Are At A Loss

Bloody Horror At Murder Scenes!

Despite Terror, Orphans Continue To Work

Reported by Rawson Rix

Damn, took them long enough to get to the point, didn't it? My story was filled with hints of lurid orphanage secrets and shady, monstrous characters and sweet, innocent kids. "This reporter," I wrote, "personally pledges to expose the identity of the brutal, murdering madman should the local constabulary consider themselves unfit to do so!" Good line; it'll get the readers all outraged. Yup, King András; you can mint that gold medal for me any time.

That day I was back at the construction site park bench with Charlie's pygmy dragons and Njyrrak's naked body for company. The fat foreman Wendell Spruce waddled about bonking kids hard on the back of the head. Bye-bye, Mr. Spruce; I'll be seeing your ripped-up remains tonight. That's gonna be a lotta guts for Faolán's dog to fling about. Wasn't such a bad idea, really -- adopt a big, mean dog and let it feed on your enemies. I might try that myself sometime; ha-ha.

By lunchtime I could barely hear anymore from all the metal banging on metal at the site, so I walked to a nearby café for lunch. I saw him sitting at the bar, all in black with his black cape and neatly trimmed grey hair and beard, and his silver-blue eyes. He could have passed for a barrister in London-on-the-Thames, but instead he was a wizard, Txanton Oria. He performed the necessary alchemy at the construction site, which meant he was responsible for heating the hot bolts and using juju of his own to increase the load-test of the steel beams and what-not. Pretty average stuff, which meant Oria probably had only medium-grade wizard powers.

I sat next to him and we talked. Txanton was all right for a wizard. I mean, he wasn't a bad magic-man like that bastard Kauldi Azarola all alone in his twisted tree-tower north of town on the east bank. Azarola once sparked off the desert dragons of the Sahara so much he almost destroyed the peace between humans and dragons that had existed since the Ottoman-Dragon Empire. Bad news if he had, since these days dragons pretty much run the world's financial markets, with a specialty in gold speculation. I once interviewed Wizard Azarola for The New-York Daily Times, and he hardly gave a damn that he'd almost started another dragon-human war. But Wizard Oria, he liked the orphans on the construction site and did tricks for them to make them smile whenever they were sad and upset, which was pretty much all the time. He told me he felt pretty bad about little Marc Germer. That got us talking about the murders. Oria had nothing to do with the orphanage, of course, but his opinion about the killer startled the hell out of me.

"It's a werewolf doing it," Oria said.

"You're kidding," I said, thinking maybe the construction noises had rendered me deaf.

"No, I mean it. Surprised you haven't felt it."

I gripped the edge of the bar, wondering how much he'd seen. Sometimes, they say, it shows in the eyes.

"You mean," I said, "there's a werewolf stalking the orphanage?"

"Not stalking." Oria took a bite of his pastrami-on-rye and chewed it before going on. "Living in it. I don't know who it is, but it's one of the kids. I can feel it. Can't tell because whoever it is keeps avoiding me. Not that I care. I know what goes on in those filthy orphanages, Mr. Rix. Far as I'm concerned, the people who run the place? Little wolfie there can gobble up every last one of 'em."

####

A werewolf. Good lord, so to speak.

Of course I hadn't thought of it. Do you think I like being reminded?

Nothing scared people more than weres, not even gryphons. I mean, gryphons are gryphons, but they always stay gryphons. They don't turn into some sweet little kid with a pretty face after they kill. Weres are rare and people believe all sorts of crap about them, like how weres are only able to change at the full moon. That's horse dung; weres can change at will. I ought to know. Were blood runs in my family.

Show in the eyes sometimes. So I hear.

I don't have the power, or I don't think I do. When I was ten, I heard about a cousin of mine in Carolina who did. Once his parents found out, he didn't live long.

I've never tried to change. I don't wanna know if I can. Heard it's hard to control, though; so I should know by now if I can, right?

The eyes; those glowing eyes. I bet Faolán Key knew who the werewolf was. I'd bet a bag of gold crowns he knew exactly who.

####

Someday they're gonna make a camera that a man can put in his pocket. Until then we gotta lug these big boxes for the alchemical cameras. It's hard to sneak around when you're schlepping one of them through the city's poorest neighborhoods. I was responsible for the damned device even if it did belong to the newspaper. I ruffled up my hair, put on a rugged old set of work clothes from my pre-reporter days, and hid the bulky camera in a canvas bag. Maybe put on an eye-patch to dissuade thugs? Naw; too melodramatic.

An alley ran behind the orphanage with a street slanting away from it and a couple of smaller alleys set off from that, where I hid until nightfall. The buildings around me were warehouses, and it got pretty quiet after sundown. The air stank of factory smoke and sulphur, and I wondered why someone didn't set a wizard onto solving that problem. Finally I heard the kids marching back from the harbor where their ferry docked, passing the factories where they worked when there weren't any of the more lucrative construction jobs around for them to get killed doing. The kids marched into the orphanage, and after that all I heard were a couple of horse carriages making deliveries a few blocks over.

I found a cellar door for the orphanage in the alley, sealed with a cheap lock. Who wants to break in to an orphanage, right? I did. Maybe King András would give me two medals, one for reforming the orphanage and another for uncovering the werewolf menace that lurked within. My angle? Saving sweet little Luc Mollard from his hell-hound "friend" Faolán. Hell, Felicity Stair might even take me back for that.

The boiler room was open, with two arched entryways at either end. A corner packed with old crates and other cast-off orphanage junk provided the cover I needed. I set up the camera on its tripod and made the instrument blend in with the junk pile. I aimed the lens toward the spot where Erwin Jenny had been found, and hid myself in the junk pile, too. I could only hope that the werewolf would attack in here again, but most of the other areas in the orphanage where someone could rip apart a man in private had been locked shut.

Two large boilers sat at the far end of the room on either side of the entryway. Both were coal-fired, but only one was in use; the boiler for the second floor, no doubt. I guess Fr. Mahon liked his kids to shiver when he stripped them for their beatings. The room's only light was the glow from the running boiler through its grated iron door. I hoped the alchemical flash worked on the camera or this was gonna be one crappy werewolf picture.

About nine-thirty, Wendell Spruce waddled into the room. He huffed and puffed while he shoveled more coal on the boiler for the night. He waddled away unharmed. I waited for a scream. None came. Either I or my werewolf had missed his chance.

At ten p.m., Faolán crept in through the far entryway, carrying a bucket of water. He opened the boiler door and tossed the water onto the hot coals. The boiler hissed and the room filled with steam, not that I could see the steam with the light now gone.

When the steam quieted, I heard him. I heard the boy turn into a werewolf.

The sounds came from behind the unused boiler, next to the entryway. Faolán moaned a bit, and then I heard noises of rustling and squirming and that sort of way you can hear someone's muscles when they stretch. My skin got all spiky like a cactus. I was grateful for the burnt-metal stink of the steam; otherwise Faolán-the-werewolf might have sniffed me out.

I heard heavy footsteps on the wooden staircase leading into the cellar, followed by curses, and then light. In the far entryway the blubbery Wendell Spruce stood, filling the wide hole with his mere presence. He shone his alchemical torchlight onto the cooling boiler.

Faolán's voice had a deep growl to it: "Getting cold up there, fatso?"

I saw a dark, blurry shadow jump toward the light. Wendell screamed and dropped the torch. And he kept on screaming in the dark.

The torch landed close to me but pointed the wrong way. I grabbed hold of it, stood up, and shone the light on the far entryway with only great pictures and royal medals on my mind until I saw...

Oh god. Aw, god. Have you ever...no, you haven't. You've never seen a man get torn up, of course; why would you? A fat man, torn up by a kid covered in black fur; a kid one-quarter his size. Aw god. Faolán clawed Wendell's flesh right off his arms and face and chest, Wendell's guts were ripped open and flung around the room, gouts of creamy yellow fat splattered the walls and ceiling, and dear lord the blood, the blood, all that blood. Wendell staggered and screamed, and in the tight-for-him space between the two large boilers, he couldn't fall down. Faolán took a chunk of Wendell's flesh, don't ask me where from because I won't tell you, and the kid bit a meaty wad out of it right in front of Wendell's goggling eyes, right before Faolán gouged out those eyes and finished him off.

I totally forgot about taking my picture. I thought I was gonna cry like some frightened orphan kid.

Faolán turned his head slowly toward the light, and looked at me.

I stood like a mannequin, stupidly holding the torch. Faolán had the head and face of a wolf, with a long muzzle and triangular ears atop his head. He may have had lupine markings in the fur on his face and body, but I couldn't tell because that fur was soaked in blood. Bits of pale yellow fat clung to the matted mess like tarnished pearls in gutter muck.

Faolán and I stared at each other for what felt like eternity but was probably only a few seconds. Then he flinched toward me.

I dropped the torch and fell over cellar junk twice in my haste to crawl, claw, run to the entryway near me. When I reached it, I ran.

####

I can admit it. I was so terrified, I pissed my pants.

The shock of it hit me when I got home. I couldn't stop vomiting. My rooming house had no plumbing, so I had to fling the up-chucked contents of my chamber pot out onto the street four times. Then I got the shivers and crawled into bed, and buried my body beneath the blankets.

I wept; I bawled; I blubbered like that little French kid. You know why?

You really wanna know why?

I told you I have werewolf blood.

While I watched Faolán tear apart the fat man?

I wanted to join him.

####

They even call it the wolf's hour, don't they? That time just before dawn begins to break. During that time, I tried. I willed it, over and over. But no matter how much I earnestly wanted to, I never changed. I remained human.

When I realized how desperately I desired to be like Faolán, I threw up again.

I used to wonder why my young werewolf cousin had been so cruelly killed by his parents. Now I knew. They couldn't let a monster like him live.

I felt the appetite inside me. If I could change, I would. And then...I'd kill. And eat.

I made up my mind. Faolán Key had to die.

####

In the morning I sent Fr. Mahon a letter via one of those new steam-powered delivery robots. They were kind of slow and chuggy on the streets, but once they reached the trolley line they hopped on the track and zipped along to wherever they needed to go. I wrote Fr. Mahon that I had seen Faolán sneaking away from the construction site and loafing off. I'm a reporter; I lie well. I added to the note that I would very much enjoy seeing the ruffian get his comeuppance that evening, a bit of the leather-strap gospel applied to the little snot's backside. While I waited for a reply, I pulled out my old pistol and oiled it.

The delivery robot rattled back with a reply. Fr. Mahon would be happy to receive me at nine p.m. to fulfill my request.

Legend or not, I went out and bought a box of silver bullets. You can never be too sure, right?

####

I arrived at the orphanage. Fr. Mahon called Faolán into his office. The boy didn't even flinch when he saw me, and here I was thinking he'd be surprised I had the guts to betray him. My pistol was hidden in the haversack at my side. Faolán said nothing in reply when Fr. Mahon laid out my fabulous charges against him. Not even one of those evil werewolf glowers. I was starting to get disappointed. Fr. Mahon led Faolán around his desk and through the door into the priest's special room. I knew there was no way Faolán would allow himself to be beaten, and that his final revenge on Fr. Mahon was about to happen. I planned to wait until the boy began his werewolf transformation so Fr. Mahon would see just why I had to shoot Faolán. Kings and medals; I'd be a hero. And I'd finally be able to forget why I was too much like this kid.

It might have worked. If it hadn't been for the blood, it might have worked. If Fr. Mahon hadn't gone too far, it certainly would have worked. But I saw the blood, small spots of it, not fresh but in dried brown crusts on the rumpled sheets of the two beds in Fr. Mahon's little room. The spots looked almost black in the wan light of the oil lamp on the little table between the beds. I remembered the wounds on Luc's thin shoulders, and it was at that moment that Fr. Mahon went too far. He called for Luc to come in, too. Luc entered the little torture chamber. Fr. Mahon put a thick pink hand like a boiled ham on the small boy's shoulder. The sight made me ill.

The priest smiled at me. "These two boys are sweet on each other, Mr. Rix. That's why the first part of Master Key's punishment will be to watch his little friend here take a whipping of his own." The burly priest shoved the blond French kid onto one of the beds.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I was supposed to be rescuing these kids, not hurting them; not getting Luc strapped again for the second time in a week. He was a good kid, too; didn't snivel or simper or whine at all when the priest threatened him. He just waited. He knew he would be saved.

Fr. Mahon turned his back on Faolán's dour face and began to undo his belt. That weird light finally entered Faolán's eyes. I fumbled at the clasp on my haversack with my back pressed against the wall, not certain if I was more scared of the werewolf or of the priest hovering like an ogre over little Luc. I could run away. But I couldn't.

Fr. Mahon's belt snapped like a whip when he yanked it free of his trousers. Behind him, Faolán kicked off his shoes and began to change. I watch fur crawl over Faolán's hands and neck and face; saw his ears rise and turn lupine; cringed to see his face elongate into a wolf's muzzle while I heard the soft crackle of his bones and teeth repositioning; changing; growing. I think I stopped breathing or I moaned or something, because Fr. Mahon looked at me oddly, and then looked behind him.

Faolán's clothes hung off his furry shoulders and hips like the rags they almost were, no longer quite fitting his slightly larger werewolf body. His chest and shoulders moved slowly and deliberately with controlled anger in his breathing. Fr. Mahon flinched and then nodded as he recognized what had been going on in his orphanage. Faolán, the new arrival, was doing what every kid in that miserable place wanted to do: fight back.

My hand was halfway into my sack on the way to grip my gun. For a moment nobody moved, including me. Then Fr. Mahon looped the belt in his right hand, snapped it threateningly in the air, and prepared to strike Faolán with it.

It was either the priest or the boys; the beast or the human inside me. I couldn't watch another attack, not with that beast inside my body urging me to join in and eat human flesh and drink hot blood. My stomach already ached with hunger at what was about to happen. Goddamn it, I'm not a monster! And god or Darwin or whoever the hell forgive me, because in that moment I decided I was totally human, and I had to fight on the human side.

I pulled out my gun. Fr. Mahon struck Faolán across the muzzle with his belt, and the snap of the leather sounded like a gunshot in the small room. Faolán growled, reared back, and prepared to lunge at the priest.

Forgive me, Faolán. I'm human.

I fired my gun once, twice, three times. Fr. Mahon looked at me with the pain of my betrayal in his eyes, and fell to the floor dead.

Luc sat calmly on the bed and watched Faolán with big, adoring eyes. I told you I'm human -- the same side the boys are on.

I lowered the gun and said to Faolán, "I'm sorry. I know...I truly know how much you wanted...that...to kill..."

Faolán stepped over the priest's body and came up to me on huge, silent wolf feet. He lifted his wet, black nose and sniffed around my neck. I thought he was looking for the best place to tear into my flesh.

Finally he said, "You're like me."

"No," I said. "Just the strain. A touch of the blood. I can't...change...like this."

"You want to."

"Not before...I met you. I didn't, before."

Faolán's eyes shone like those of a deadly canine angel. "I want to. I like killing."

I shivered hard, once, while Faolán took the gun from my hands.

"Bullets," he said. I handed them over. Faolán chuckled when he saw the word "silver" on the box. He handed the pistol and ammo to Luc. I realized what the boys were doing, and I gave them all the money in my pocket. Faolán let me stroke the fur on the side of his face, and he called me, "Cousin."

I bit back tears. "I'll make sure things get better for the kids here," I said.

Faolán nodded. "You'd better. Luc and I will be watching." Then he grinned at me.

You've probably never had a wolf grin at you, right? You're lucky.

####

The constables saw the belt beside the body. They knew all about Fr. Mahon's belt, but they still returned his orphans and pocketed his money. That was the last time I ever trusted the cops. At least they bought my tale about saving the lives of two boys that Fr. Mahon threatened to brutally beat.

One of the constables asked me, "Where are these boys now?"

"They ran away," I said. "And if you ever bring them back, the whole goddamn tale goes up on the front page of the Herald and Modern. With your picture next to it."

In the paper I called the workhouse orphans "The Hot Bolt Kids," and gave a nod to Njyrrak for coming up with the name. King András ordered reforms but I never got any medals. I found another girl, and this one likes Charlie's book. Better people took over the orphanage but they didn't like my idea for a new name: "Charlie Darwin's Monkey House." Some people just have no sense of humor. The kids are sent to school now instead of being worked to death. Njyrrak adores me, and he keeps his eyes open for good tips I can turn into stories for the paper. I still want one of those kingly gold medals, y'know.

In the post the next Valentine's Day came a photograph of Luc and Faolán holding hands. Wherever they are, I'm absolutely positive no one calls them a couple of pansies and lives to tell about it. Luc wrote a note thanking me for leaving the camera in the boiler room; they pawned it after taking the picture. My editor still doesn't know it's missing.

It's a happy ending, all right. I only wish I could stop waking up from the dreams in a cold sweat with hunger like a knife cutting at my stomach. I want it. I want so very badly to taste the hot, sweet streams of fresh human blood.

THE END


© 2010 Cody L. Stanford

Bio: Cody L. Stanford lives in Overland Park, Kansas. He attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is fascinated by history, politics, religion, mythology, and the other forces that shape who we are. When not writing, he occasionally spends time working with tigers and other exotic cats at a nearby feline conservation park. His publishing credits include "Wolf Dreams" at Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, "White Fire" at Gypsy Shadow Publishing, "Gryphonwind" at The Piker Press, "Alexandra’s Cat" and "Reedman" in The New Orphic Review, "But a Toy" in The Circle, "Blindsight Eclipse" in The Rejected Quarterly, and "The Magician" in Eyes magazine. Upcoming stories include "Flying Fox" and "Freedom" at The Piker Press

E-mail: Cody L. Stanford

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.