A Fistful of Mummies
Three minutes after midnight, two things happened: my automaton companion spilled his wine all over my green calico dress, and the Crimson Scarab made his move.
“Oh, look what you’ve done, you clumsy contraption!” I wailed and shook ruby droplets off my bodice. Chastised, the automaton hung its head, gears clinking in a discordant melody. Our quarry, the master criminal, glanced at us as he passed, his fashionable frock coat brushing against my shoulder. Any doubts concerning the man’s identity now evaporated as I spied the golden beetle on his tiepin. It was he. I stood, accepting the arm of my automaton, his pristine black velvet coat cushioning the smooth brass underneath, and we set off after the Scarab and followed at a discreet distance.
I had been after the man for six months now, but always he had eluded me, leaving a trail of empty safes and smashed museum display cases in his wake. But not this time. This time he would fall into my trap. It had been easy to convince Professor Hartington to provide the bait; he would have moved his prized collection of antiquities to San Francisco in any event, and he was relieved to accept any additional measures to insure its safe arrival, even the help of a peculiar private investigator and her pet automaton.
As anticipated, the man made his way through the two passenger carriages towards the last car, where the antiquities waited in their crates. The professor had hired five men to guard his treasure, and they had been awake and alert when I checked on them an hour ago. I wondered how the Scarab planned to overcome that particular obstacle.
The door between carriages slammed shut. I glanced into the impassive, polished-brass face of the automaton, looking for some reaction, a habit I had yet to break. I had seen many strange things in my years at the circus, but I was still unused to having the soulless thing as my partner. I found it difficult to trust the machine, but it had saved my life half-a-dozen times now. I should give it? him? a name soon. Perhaps that would make me more comfortable.
“The roof, I think,” I said and proceeded to struggle out of the ridiculous green dress, revealing my customary grey pinstriped trousers and waistcoat, and checked that my clockwork twelve-shooter was loaded. “You make certain he doesn’t escape.” The automaton bobbed his chin up and down in a stiff nod. I pulled on my goggles and stepped into the space between cars. Wind roared and tugged at my hair, and motes of soot and grit assaulted my cheeks. The noise of the train was deafening. As fortune would have it, the access ladder was on the other side of the car, but I had no trouble pulling myself up. I had, after all, engaged in rather more challenging acrobatics as one of the Flying Aeronauts for Carr’s Clockwork Carnivale.
The wind was stronger on top of the car, and I crawled ahead with great caution, pressing myself flat against the carriage roof. On either side of me, the prairie rushed past, the grass undulating like the coat of a great cat in the wind. The moon hung in the sky, a Chinese lantern, huge and red. I had never seen a moon like that before. Blood on the moon, something whispered in my head, and I shivered.
The ventilation hatch was open, which didn’t surprise me as the day had been sweltering hot. As I inched closer, I could see a man, lying spread-eagled on the floor of the carriage. It was Whitman, the leader of the guards. No one else would have worn those garish, red boots. Something glinted on his neck. The flickering light of a lantern passed over him, and I saw what it was, a golden scarab beetle, about the size of my fist. I wormed to one side to get a better view. I could make out three men, all apparently unconscious, and then I spotted the Scarab, rummaging through a crate. Muttering to himself, he threw a turquoise figurine on the floor and the statue broke with a clatter. Packing material, small trinkets, and statues littered the dusty floorboards. The professor would have my hide if I didn’t stop this.
Taking a deep breath, I tugged the hatch open and dropped down. I landed on my feet and drew my weapon in one smooth motion, silently blessing the elderly acrobat who had instructed me so many years ago.
“Drop it, ” I said, and aimed the twelve-shooter at the Scarab.
The man turned, grinning. His pale, puffy skin drooped like a bulldog’s, and his teeth were yellow and large, too large to be contained by the rubbery lips that framed them. In his right hand, he held an enormous ruby, with the symbol of the ankh carved on it. “Ahh. Miss Audra Dare, I presume?”
I held the gun steady. “You presume correctly. Put the rock down, Scarab. Your accommodations at Greenstown Penitentiary are ready and waiting.” I raised my voice a bit. “Come in, Automaton!”
The man laughed. “Miss Dare, I’m afraid I must refuse your offer of hospitality.” He shouted out a word I didn’t understand and the gem pulsed with an internal light that caused a wave of nausea to run through me. I swayed and closed my eyes. When I opened them the Scarab was gone.
“Where did he go?” I asked the automaton, and he pointed to a pile of rectangular, coffin-like boxes at the other end of the carriage. As we watched the boxes stirred. A lid popped off, then another, and fingers like dead branches scraped the wooden side of the crate. Then the first of them sat up, a mummy, perfectly preserved, almost alive. Slowly, it turned to face us and gave a rasping scream.
So many of them, they all stumbled forward. I didn’t want to find out what would happen when they reached us, so I fired. The bullets hit, but they didn’t stop the creatures. After all, can you kill what’s already dead? The automaton fought them with his brass fists, pushed them back, snapped their limbs, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to hold them off for long. I lifted a golden statue of a woman with the head of a cat, Sekhmet, perhaps, and swung it at the mummy closest to me. The creature’s head flew off and bones rattled to the floor.
The Scarab emerged from behind the crates, cackling. He held the stone up. “I’m afraid this is goodbye, Miss Dare. Oh yes, one more thing.” He spoke another word in his strange speech. At first I didn’t notice any change, but then I saw that the automaton had stopped fighting. It turned to me and lifted its arm to strike.
“No!” I lifted the statue to shield my head. “You’re my partner, my … friend!”
The automaton froze, cogs straining. The inner battle went on for seconds that seemed like hours. Then it turned and strode towards the Scarab, pushing mummies out of its way. When it reached him it grabbed his wrist in and forced the stone out of his grasp. The man screamed and fell, cradling his broken arm, and the mummies stopped, confused.
The automaton walked over to me. For once I saw something in its face, an emotion I couldn’t quite grasp. Gently, it traced the line of my jaw with its finger and then leaned in. For a moment, I felt its cool brass lips on mine. Then it turned and smashed the red stone on the floor, and my automaton, dead, soulless, stood in front of me once again.
After I finished tying the whimpering Scarab up, I turned to the automaton, who stood, quiet, at my side.
“I think I’ll call you Anthony. Anthony the Automaton.”
He looked at me, impassive, but I think he approved, deep down in his clockwork heart.