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The Course of Winter

©1996 John Tynes

Alex Abel was crazy, or at least that's what I liked to think. I'd been part of his new inquisition for maybe six months, and while I'd seen things I would never had believed existed before I met him, that didn't mean the guy I was working for wasn't certified bonkers.

At present, I was out searching for the tape of the Naked Goddess. She was this porn star who ascended right in front of the camera, in between going down on a couple of jocks. One minute she's on them, the next she goes all insubstantial and there's this flash of light, then she's gone. No, I haven't seen the tape, but that's what people say is on it. There are a few copies floating around, none of which is the original. Alex wanted the original. It's the only time an ascension has been caught on tape, almost the only time one has been witnessed. This girl up and joined the Invisible Clergy just out of the blue--she sure as hell wasn't studying to get in--and Alex hoped that the original recording of her ascension might provide clues to what the Clergy were all about. He wanted to know crazy stuff: did they exist in measurable form, were they souls, or aliens, or what? He was going to have his white-coat geniuses crawl over every inch of tape on that recording and see if they could pull any hard data out of it.

Alex has a real hard-on for the Invisible Clergy. Don't ask me why. All I can guess is that they keep screwing up the plans of his glorious, privately-funded inquisition. Me, I could give a damn. But I do what the man tells me to do. I owe him.

He'd erased my life for me, you see. That's how you join his inquisition. You've done something stupid, fucked up your life, whatever. It's like the foreign legion, except it's run by this nutzo millionaire instead of France. He wipes out your whole history, your records, the works--does a clean wipe on everything you've ever done. Of course, he keeps copies of it all. You go to work for him, do what he tells you, and you get paid really well. There's maybe fifty of us, I guess, but he's never really given me the big picture. Most of us are independent operators. We've got specialized talents useful to his inquisition: we've been burglars, murderers, computer hackers, legbreakers, you name it. He doesn't just pull every Joe Blow off the street; he looks for a certain type of person, and when he finds them he makes them an offer. That's how I got into this racket, at any rate.

He called me in about a week ago. Did some funky divination shit right there in his office, bones and stuff, and then said the signs were still strong. There was this Clockworker I was supposed to go lean on; the guy had been making these freakish magical automatons for some weirdo colleague of Alex's who died recently. How'd he die? Don't ask. It wasn't me. Anyway, Alex was working an angle: he thought this dead guy had owned the Naked Goddess tape, and that he was just crazy enough for this clockwork magic crap that he might have left the tape to the Clockworker when he shuffled off this mortal coil. According to Alex's divinations, the tape was still with this loser. So that's where I came in.

This Clockworker was named Josef. Some crusty old eastern European freak. Probably been making his magic cog-and-gear critters since before I was born. He lived in a big old house in Saginaw, Michigan. I spent three days sitting in my rented car, freezing in the February cold, watching his house. Every now and then I'd crack my door open and walk up the street to a podunk stop n' shop for hot coffee and cigarettes. I changed cars each day, parked in different places, all the usual surveillance stuff. It didn't matter. The old freak only came out once a day, to take his mail from the mailbox on the front porch. Excitement city.

So finally I figured I'd seen enough. I'd wanted to know if there were other people at the house, if he had visitors, that kinda thing. No dice. On the third evening, then, I got out of my car and broke in through the back door.

It wasn't tough. The guy was weird, but he must not have been very paranoid. The door came open easily. I pulled the talisman Alex gave me a while back out of my pocket and put the leather string around my neck, like a good boy. Alex told me to always put it on before I went into a serious situation. He said it was like a good luck charm. I was ready to enter the house and put some hurt on the Clockworker when I heard a voice behind me. It was a woman, singing softly. I turned around, looking into the dark back yard through the falling snow.

She wasn't real. I could see right through her. She was maybe in her thirties, in a dark gown, dancing around in the snow. She didn't leave tracks. I couldn't make out her words. I went cold, and not from the snow. I fingered the talisman and walked down the steps towards her.

She stopped dancing and her eyes got big as I approached. She had a grim smile on her face. I moved closer, then stopped and stared. She started singing again, softly:

I was a planet when I was smaller
I circled rings around your daughter
She threw the keys to the strand
Into the pocket of a dead man
I recognized the lines; they were from a song I'd heard on the radio in Memphis a few weeks back while I was there on a job. The woman wasn't the slightest bit familiar, but I knew what she was: one of the Snowfallen. Typical occult stuff, the kind of thing I'd gotten a crash course in during my work for Alex. They were the spirits of murdered young mothers of lost children. Tragic shit. They materialized in snow, following the course of winter across the world. They made prophecies, said cryptic things, crap like that. This one was operating true to form. She sang again:

She cried every night by the door
Said prayers to him and asked for more
Went down and down to the hole
Where dancers gathered to grow old
This part wasn't familiar. I had a sneaking suspicion that she'd pulled the first part out of my mind, from that recent memory. This second bit, though, was probably something important. Some prophecy shit. Too bad I wasn't taking notes.

She didn't sing anymore, but kept on humming the tune. I caught sight of glistening tears on her face. She swirled around, dancing faster, and then she was gone.

Okay. Whatever. I had a job to do, so I turned back to the steps.

Josef was standing there, staring at me. He was older than god, from the look of him. He had these cold blue eyes you could barely make out, because his eyelids were squeezed almost shut, squinting. He was wearing a big red terrycloth robe, dirty with bits of food and cigarette ash. The guy was tall and gaunt, and he didn't seem to like me very much.

The feeling was mutual. I bounded up the steps, pulling out my Browning with one already in the chamber and flicking off the safety, hoping he hadn't had time to unleash some lumbering clockwork nightmare inside the house to skin me alive and pluck out my eyes. He didn't move. I got right up next to him, holding the gun close to my coat, pointing at his chest.

"I'm here for the videotape your patron left you. Just hand it over and we'll call it a night."

He looked at me for a long moment, with no expression on his face other than contempt.

"Okay," I said. "Like they say at Burger King: have it your way." I jerked the gun down and shot him in the knee. He sort of staggered and leaned against the door frame. His face didn't change.

I lost my temper. "Listen, you stupid old freak. I'm here for the tape, and I'll keep fucking you up until you pull the lever on the clue dispenser and give me one. What's the story?"

He just stared. One hand crept down and clutched his shattered knee. His face showed no signs of pain.

I glared and kicked him right in the knee where I'd shot him. He went down then, collapsing in the doorway. I leaned over and grabbed one of his hands, pulled it up, and blew off his little finger with another slug from the Browning. I leaned down close to him. "Give it up, asshole, before you've got no more fingers."

He didn't say a thing, didn't react, just turned his head to look up at me. I looked at his hand and cursed.

Where the finger had been, there were just bits of metal and wire.

I dropped his hand and stood up, disgusted with myself for being an idiot. I brought one big booted foot up, then down, and caved his head in. Sparks flew and little flywheels went everywhere.

He was a fucking clockwork. The real Josef was inside the house somewhere, getting something really nasty ready for me while I was out here playing with this replica. Christ. I'd blown it, but big time. Thank you, Miss Snowfallen Dancing Bitch. You probably just cost me my life.

I stepped over the spasming, clicking automaton and into the house. I was in the kitchen. It was neat as a pin. There were little clockwork things all over the place: small creatures of metal and fabric, sitting on the counters. None of them looked active; I figured these were the playthings he cobbled together to cook him food and keep things neat. Of course, one of them might launch off the formica and drive a spike through my face, too; who freaking knew? So I wasted no time and booked through the kitchen into a dining room.

Or what used to be a dining room. It was full of people--clockwork ones, clearly--dancing. There was no music. Many were naked, sexless, ready to be fixed up for whatever the job needed. Some were pure fancy: angels with big wings, hulking demons with horns and purple skin, you name it. Josef was a prolific old bastard. All of his creations in this room were doing a slow waltz in silence, the only noise coming from the low whirring inside each one and the shuffle of their soft feet on the carpeted floor.

I took a breath and dashed into the room, running along the walls so I could stay out of their way. It didn't matter. I hadn't gotten even a quarter of the way through the room before they closed in. The freak thing was--and there's always a freak thing it seems like--they kept on dancing. They were waltzing around, in great swirling circles, but they were moving right for me.

Twelve bullets still in the gun. Enough to part the crowd. Make way for progress.

Four dancers right in front of me. I was sloppy: 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, and all four went down, stumbling if not falling while I chanted the number of shots left under my breath. I stepped over and through them. Three more between me and the doorway. 5, 4, 3, 2, and I was through them and past the doorway. In the foyer I spun around the end of a big staircase to the second floor and took a quick second to size up the situation.

There had been maybe twenty clockworks in the dining room; I'd knocked four down for the count, three more were getting back up slowly. All but two of the rest had returned to their dancing. Hell, maybe they were just built to pull new 'dancers' into the routine, and nothing more sinister than that.

But the remaining two were bad news.

They were a couple, a man and a woman, dressed in formal wear six decades out of date and covered in dust. The pair were striding through the crowd, pushing their fellow clockworks aside with grim determination. Short knife blades slid from their fingertips and locked into place. They were out for blood.

I hesitated, pulled the twenty-shot magazine out of my coat all psyched to take these two out, then changed my mind when I saw how fast they were coming and fled up the stairs. The staircase was big, with lush red carpet. I took the steps three at a time, knowing those two were coming fast. On the way up I dropped the almost-empty mag and slipped the twenty in; with that plus one still in the chamber I should have enough to get by, I figured. At the top of the stairs was a landing. I threw open the first door I found, ran in, and slammed it shut. There was a latch; I turned it to shut the two dancers out, then scoped out the dark room.

A light came on. Though the floor beneath my feet was bare, I was still standing in deep shit.

It was the size of a horse, I guess. There's no point in trying to describe it, because it wasn't meant to look like anything in particular. It was a big--big--clockwork, all gears and legs and sharp pointy things. The light was from its heart: a big plastic Jesus christmas decoration, two feet high, illuminated from within. It lumbered towards me, leaving big gouges in the wood. The floor was riddled with them, and something else: bloodstains, and plenty of them. The walls and ceilings were covered in streaks of blood, of many vintages. This thing had ripped apart god knows how many people in here. It stank of oil and rot and old-world magic.

I still had my piece out, and without hesitating any further I leveled it at the innards of the clockwork and fired--once, then nothing. Shit. I hadn't slammed the 20-mag home. I did so, worked the action, brought the Browning up to bear, then ran like crazy because the sucker was right on me. It punched a big metal shaft through the door where I'd been standing; I had just barely ducked and started to run. I scurried to the far wall, spun around, and fired: 19, 18, 17, 16, and it was almost on me again. I moved as quick as I could, still firing: 15, 14, 13, 12, sidling along at a near-run.

It kept coming. Bits of cogs and fragmented metal littered the floor but it would not stop.

11, 10, 9, I shot Jesus right in the face, 8, 7, and I was at another door. I threw it open with my free hand and stepped through, pulling it behind me, and swung around to aim at whatever nightmare was waiting for me there.

Freaky old Josef, take two, sitting in a smoking jacket and slacks in an armchair by a lit oil lamp, a book in his lap. Behind me, that big steel shaft punched through the door making a hole to match the other one across the room.

I kept my gun on Josef, hearing clanking arms and gears on the other side of the door behind me. It couldn't fit through the door, no way, it was too big, but then my eyes hit the floor by my feet and there were gouges all over the place and I knew that thing could come through the door, easy, folding itself up and sliding through to take me out.

It was doing just that. Chunks of wood were flying.

I walked forward, fast, the Browning leveled at Josef in the chair. He was smiling.

"Call it off! Call it the fuck off right now!"

He kept grinning. The door blew apart and the thing started to come through.

6. I tagged the wall above his head, plaster spitting out like the inside of a sucking wound. "Now, motherfucker! Shut that thing down now!"

He shrugged. Behind me, the clockwork stopped cold.

I took a deep breath and walked forward some more.

"Okay, pops. We're gonna make this real quick and then I'm leaving your little freak show. I'm here for the video, the Naked Goddess, and I want satisfaction real quick as in right now."

He stood slowly, setting the book aside on the table by the armchair.

"You're a very noisy man," the Clockworker said.

"I haven't even raised my voice. Now come on, make me happy and we'll both get a good night's sleep."

Josef sighed. "The tape. Of course. It's yours. It's in the cabinet." He gestured to a big Chinese lacquer cabinet nearby.

"Open it," I said.

He shrugged again. "As you wish." He walked over to the cabinet.

I heard the cogs spin up a split second before it happened. The clockwork behind me launched a metal javelin from its innards straight at my back. I ducked and ate floor, rolled onto my back and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the clockwork wasn't moving any more.

I jumped up and spun back to the Clockworker.

Josef was done for. The javelin meant for me had entered his chest and came out the other side, pinning him to the cabinet. His face worked furiously in confusion as blood dripped from the exposed shaft. He put his hands to the metal and tugged at it hopelessly. He looked up at me, his face blank with horror.

Not one to stand on ceremony, I strode over and yanked at the right-hand cabinet door next to where Josef was stuck and bleeding. It was locked. Keeping an eye on the old man and his last moments on earth, I stuck my hand in his pocket and found a set of keys. Josef gave me this weird look, like he didn't know they were there. Moments later I had the lock open and the door followed.

There was all kinds of weird crap inside. Files, photographs, children's toys, you name it. In there with the rest was the videotape: 3/4", broadcast quality. I yanked it out and stepped away.

Josef was groaning, as his torn heart twitched in his chest. He looked at me one last time.

"You won't leave this house alive," he whispered, short of breath. "You'll die here."

"That may be," I said as I pocketed the tape. "But you'll die first."

Zero. My last bullet put a hole right through his forehead. He gaped, dead.

Tick tock. The thing in the doorway started moving again. I thought I'd killed it, but I was wrong--Josef was just in too much pain to control it. Now it was running on its own, maybe driven by Josef's dying fury or his freed soul. Who knows. What I did know was that it was blocking the only door out of the room, and I was out of bullets--not that they'd stopped the thing so far.

So I did the only sane thing I could. I ran across the room and dove through a window. I hit the roof over the front porch, tumbled and rolled, fell off and hit the ground--snow, six inches deep. My ankle hurt, but it wasn't anything to cry over.

As I stumbled back to my car with the tape and an empty gun, I heard singing from somewhere behind me:

I was a planet when I was smaller
I circled rings around your daughter
She threw the keys to the strand
Into the pocket of a dead man
I opened the door and climbed in behind the steering wheel. Through the windshield, I could see a figure in black dancing, twirling, footloose in the falling snow. Snowfallen.

I cursed a final time and drove towards Alex, and the dawn.


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