. The Menagerie
Donovan Shaw tugged at the sleeves of his jacket. One would think that after almost a year in the service he would have been issued a uniform with a proper fit. For months he’d been meaning to ask his mother to tailor it for him; make him look smart for the those nights on the town—but that was not going to happen. The past three days had been like a nightmare. His mother was dead— killed in the fire. It still didn’t seem real. His home was just another unidentifiable pile of charred rubble enshrouded in a cloud of ash. On top of his grief he had to stand up to those who pointed to him and said it was his uncle’s cable ferry at the Telford Crossing that started the fire— as if he bore some familial share in the blame.
“Builder bugger that Captain Digby for assigning me to guard that sack of midden, Thomas Chandler!” Donovan instantly regretted the curse—or at least the volume with which it reverberated around the kitchen and out into the main hall of the Dunsany Institution. The upper floors were filled with sick children. Rumour was those kids upstairs all came from the school run by the church. Donovan held his breath, listening for signs of wakeful movement. After several moments of silence had elapsed he breathed a little easier; even the nurses and matrons appeared to be dozing.
Donovan returned his focus to task at hand, examining the yellow gobs he prodded with the end of his knife. After three days without ice the butter was starting to smell a little rank but Donovan was not one to eat his bread dry so he took it anyway. There will never be another McNettle’s biscuit he lamented as he mashed the oily lumps against the bread and wrapped it all in a cheesecloth. That wonderful, family run bakery had burned to the ground. Word was the entire family was killed, along with a couple that were trying to rescue them, when the building collapsed.
Donovan had just left the kitchen when he heard a lady call out in distress. The call had come from the cellar. He hastened his step, making his way down the stairs as best he could with a lantern in one hand and a half loaf of bread in the other.
As soon as Donovan entered the the laboratory he felt the shiver of adrenaline flow to his extremities. The girl, Nelly Faulkner, who had confessed to most gruesomely murdering her father and his lady friend was freely standing in the open. Inside the cell where the girl should have been was Martha Foehammer and a brother from the church named Kadmus.
“Watch yourself!” Brother Kadmus shouted in warning. “There is a monstrosity lurking about. Mrs. Foehammer and I took refuge in this cell but the door’s locking mechanism fell into place when I pulled it shut behind us.”
“Please be careful, the creature seems most terrifying,” Martha sounded anxious. “You must find my husband Joseph and warn him.”
While Donovan had been distracted by the warnings from Brother Kadmus and Martha Foehammer the girl, Nelly Faulkner, had taken the opportunity to approach until she was a mere inches in front of him. Despite the fact that this was just a teenage girl, Donovan felt a wave of intimidation.
“Watch that one!” Kadmus shouted from his cell. “She conceals a knife behind her back.”
“Miss Faulkner,” Donovan put on an air of bravado he did not feel. “I want you to go into that middle cell. Drop your knife on the—” a blur of motion— so fast he hadn’t even realized he’d seen it until it was too late. Something knocked him to the ground. He heard Nelly Faulkner call out “STOP! Hold him but don’t kill him.”
A foul, pale creature hovered above Donovan. It seemed to be abiding the girl’s wishes. It held its place, above him; so close that strands of grime encrusted hair fell against the young man’s cheek.
Donovan turned his head in a vain effort to shield his face should the creature decide to attack. How the girl entranced the beast he had no idea. There was movement behind the monster; a man had entered the laboratory; Joseph Foehammer. From Donovan’s perspective it appeared the doctor was aiming a gun straight at him.
A bullet would be preferable to facing this creature unrestrained, thought the young militiaman. When the shot finally sounded, Donovan’s immediate thought was it hadn’t hurt. It was a brief but indelible moment before he fully sensed he had survived.
The creature had fallen next to him with a hole the size of a cue ball in the back of her head. Donovan was dizzy with adrenalin as he rolled to the side. With the creature dead, however, there was now no question as to who Dr. Foehammer was targeting. Donovan raised his hands.
“Look at her,” Nelly approached the crumpled body. “She’s covered in old blood stains. This is the one that killed Mrs. Chandler.”
“WHAT?” Thomas shouted from his cell. The injuries he’d suffered appeared healed but for some scaring about his face. “My mother is DEAD?”
Donovan felt a sudden surge of both kinship and compassion toward his prisoner.
“Dead,” Nelly confirmed.
“Oh, my dear Thomas,” Martha Foehammer spoke through the bars of her cell, her voice laden with a natural and soothing empathy. “I am so sorry.”
“My mother is dead!” Thomas’s voice rose. “My mother is DEAD!”
“Thomas, calm yourself,” Joseph said to the boy. Without another word, Thomas sat back down on the cot though his face remained anguished.
Nelly, turned to face Donovan Shaw, “You are lucky.” She waved her knife in a very taunting fashion. “My sister would have killed you. It would have hurt. But now you are not dead and not hurt. I’ll bet you thought you were going to die. Everybody else did.”
“Nelly, hold your tongue,” said Joseph. He turned to the militiaman. “Walk backwards into that middle cell, Mr. Shaw,” Joseph instructed. “Close the door firmly behind you until it clicks.”
“Joseph!” demanded Martha. “What are you saying? Why are you not letting us all out of these cells immediately?”
Joseph did not waver, remaining focused on the soldier. “Mr. Shaw, patience is not a virtue of mine.”
Donovan could see little option but to comply. He backed into the cell and pulled the door until the lock clicked into place.
“Nelly!” Joseph spoke once the militiaman had been secured. “Put your knife on the counter and step back.”
“Yes Father,” Nelly responded, putting the knife down and stepping away as requested.
“Joseph!” Everyone took note as Martha spoke. ”Why did that girl just call you father?”
The tension that grew in the silence following Martha’s question was like a blister in need of lancing that no one was brave enough to poke. Everyone stood within their cells facing Joseph Foehammer.
“Blessed Builder!” Kadmus exclaimed. “You created these damned abominations.”
“No sir I did not.” Joseph replied. “Responsible for them ‘yes’ but I did not devise the means to create them. That glory falls to another man?”
“Another man?” Kadmus did nothing to disguise the loathing he felt for Joseph Foehammer. “Who other than you could be so demented as to play with lives like that?”
Rancid butter!? Oh, poor Mr. Shaw!
*shudders, and then ponders who “another man” could be