The Notorious Doctor Cleghorn

A penny-dreadful
transmitted by Ætherweb

29 December 2009

Part Five

Isabel’s shot made a dull sound as it struck the black-clad apparition in the side. It collided with the doctor, propelling them both to the ground. Cleghorn struggled with it for a second, throwing it off sideways; he seemed unhurt. As the figure struggled to stand, Isabel saw Cleghorn draw something, a brass thing – key? – from his pocket. The figure lunged at the doctor again. Isabel fired, and Cleghorn struck, driving the brass thing into its chest.

There was a shower of sparks. The Ministry man dropped lifeless to the ground.

Isabel kept the pistol trained on the body. After a few moments, she gave it a tentative kick. It remained motionless.

Cleghorn bent down and pulled back the cowl, revealing a crude sewn-together mask. He looked up at Isabel. ‘Automaton.’ He moved to the shattered window, looking out. ‘Its controller can’t be far away.’

Isabel bent over the creature, and began to slowly pull away more of the robe. The neck was covered with the same flesh-coloured stuff as the death-mask face, but from the shoulders down the skin was polished brass. She looked up at Cleghorn. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’

‘You should make enemies of the Royal Institute more often.’ Cleghorn shivered at the cold, peering into the gloom outside. A reddish light reflected off the settled snow, and the whole garden glowed with an eerie luminescence.

‘Is Cottar still at the door?’

Isabel crossed the hallway and listened at the front door. No voices were audible; just the rattle of a steam-carriage, and some footsteps hurrying through the snow, far in the distance.

Cleghorn, meanwhile, lit one of the lamps in the kitchen. The flickering light caught the broken shards of the window-pane, scattering around the room. He kept a watchful eye on the automaton, reassuring himself it wasn’t moving. An involuntary shiver of revulsion coursed through him as he remembered the rotting Oberland edifice in which he’d first seen such a creature, strapped to an oaken bench, electrodes protruding from the skull, groaning in agony.

They’d certainly improved on the prototypes.

‘We need to leave.’ Isabel was behind him, reloading her pistol.

‘Do you know somewhere?’

She nodded. ‘A few places. There were always some bolt-holes we kept from them.’

Cleghorn hesitated. ‘Miss Constance, if you know where Professor Belmont is – I should very much like to speak to him. There are vital matters he and I must discuss.’

‘I thought as much.’

‘Can we keep out of the Ministry’s reach?’

‘It’s possible.’ She looked down at the automaton in disgust. ‘I expect they might come back for this.’

Cleghorn shook his head. ‘It’s dead.’

‘It’s still evidence.’ Isabel steadied herself against the table. ‘They might be blunt,but they aren’t entirely witless. They’ll try to clean up what they’ve left.’

‘Would that include fixing the window?’

She laughed, bitterly.

Back in the night air, the cold, and their shared anxiety over who might be listening, kept the conversation terse. Cleghorn, not knowing the route, found himself confounded by Isabel’s habit of doubling back, or taking circuitous routes around what were, to him, familiar locales. He suspected it was a simple scheme for throwing off pursuers – were the Ministry really so unsophisticated?

At length, they stopped outside an unassuming door in Soho, one he’d passed hundreds of times. Isabel unlocked it. Inside was a dusty, wooden-floored room, furnished with a single chair and a desk supporting a stack of documents. Once they were inside, she shut the door against the bitter wind, and leant on it.

‘I must excuse the frugality of the arrangements, doctor.’

‘Quite alright.’ Cleghorn searched the desk drawer for a candle. ‘I take it we aren’t stopping here long?’

‘A few hours, at most.’ She moved to look out of the grimy window as Cleghorn lit a match. A warm glow filled the room, spattering shadows against the rough plaster.

‘And then?’

‘According to my sources, Professor Belmont is still in Paris. He can’t return to Geneva; his rivals will be waiting.’

‘I take it their antagonism extends beyond the ordinary sort of academic in-fighting?’

She turned to face Cleghorn. ‘They’ll kill him.’

He nodded.

‘And you have some interest in ensuring that they don’t?’

For a moment he thought he detected annoyance cross her face; attributed it to the a flicker of the candlelight. ‘I’m concerned, Doctor. It’s taken time for the key players to understand the implications of the Professor’s work, but now I believe they’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on it. In a few days, he’ll have half of Europe banging on his front door. ‘

‘Ah.’ Cleghorn smiled conspiratorially. ‘You intend to be the first.’

She sighed. ‘Sometimes you can be dreadfully facetious, Doctor. My – sponsors – are trying to prevent a serious crime being committed.’

There was a silence.

‘I shall forgo the obvious question, Miss Constance, but only so as to more fully experience the surprise later.’

‘Good.’ Isabel yawned, delicately. ‘There should be an airship leaving tomorrow morning. I can send a telegram ahead to get us on board.’

‘Can we be sure to stay ahead of the Ministry?’

‘No.’ She sniffed. ‘That’s a risk we shall have to take. Will you be able to find him?’

‘I maintain contact with some old colleagues in Paris. They may be able to help.’

‘That would be useful.’ Isabel looked relieved.

‘As long as he hasn’t departed this world entirely.’

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