an excerpt from “In Wolf’s Clothing”
by James Chambers
From Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Diana Bastine, now funding on Kickstarter.
“I appreciate your indulgence. Tradition must be observed when dealing with my grandmother.” Despite all the time Madame Marceline Rene spent in New Alexandria, her Parisian accent remained strong.
“I have no quarrel with tradition,” Morris Garvey said, “only with cold mornings on rough seas.”
“You think a coach would’ve been faster, smoother, and warmer,” Marceline said. “But a journey across water clears the mind and cleanses the soul.”
“I suppose there are worse places to be than on Paumanok Sound in January.”
Morris shivered and rubbed his gloved hands together. He eyed the whitecaps biting the Sound like gnashing teeth on which the modest ship heaved and rocked. Far beyond the craft’s wake stood the New Alexandria skyline and the Middle Borough Bridge slowly fading into clarity as the rising sun burned away the morning fog. Seagulls hung aloft on the wind. A whistle blew. The ship jolted against the edge of a dock, and then the engines in its belly grumbled and hissed, working to steady it while two crewmembers leapt off with ropes to tie it in place. Once the ship was secure, Morris offered Marceline his hand as she stood; it was a gesture of etiquette rather than necessity because Morris could not think of a time he had ever seen her even a hair off-balance.
“Was the journey so bad you would prefer to have shortened our time together?” she said.
“Spending less time with you is never my preference. But if you want time together we could’ve simply spent the day in my labs.”
“Leaving my poor, sick grandmother all alone in the woods.” Marceline shifted the satchel slung from her shoulder; she had not removed it all morning.
“If by ‘all alone’ you mean tended by a staff of thirty-five and by ‘woods’ you mean her twenty-six room summer mansion, well, then, yes, I guess that’s true.”
All mirth fled Marceline’s expression. “There will be plenty of time in the lab on other days, but I’m afraid time is no longer bountiful for my grandmother.” She descended a gangplank dropped in place by the crew and stepped onto the dock.
Chagrined, Morris hesitated, watching the crew unload crates of supplies bound for the estate and then joined Marceline. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t make jibes when your grandmother is ill. I’m completely at your service. Anything I can do to help you and your family, all you have to do is ask. I have all the time in the world for you.”
“Do you really mean that?” Marceline asked.
“Of course I do.” In light of all he and Marceline had done for each other over the last few years, the question surprised Morris. Marceline’s expression hinted, though, that there was something deeper in the asking than a need for mere reassurance.
“Thank you,” Marceline said. “My grandmother must meet you under the proper circumstances. Lifting her spirits will help her condition. Perhaps even buy her a few more days or weeks. Our family’s ways may be odd, but I won’t be the one to cast them aside.”
“What ways are those?”
“Some things must be experienced rather than explained.” Marceline smiled and held Morris’s arm. “You and I don’t know how things might one day work out between us, but I wouldn’t want us to wind up together without my grandmother’s blessing, and she won’t give that unless we show her it’s deserved.”
Morris raised an eyebrow. “Ah, that sounds perhaps a bit… premature.”
“Don’t be frightened,” Marceline said. “I know all too well I’ve got competition for your heart. But losing Michel taught me there are things in this world you must not wait to do if you’re ever to do them. Michel and I put off far too much in the life we were to have together—and when he died, it all perished unrealized. During the other night’s incident at the opera, we both brushed with death—and I won’t learn that lesson twice. I’m not asking you for a commitment, but if we are to have a future together, it must be with my grandmother’s approval and so I must do this now. If one day we go our separate ways then this will have been only time spent between lovers. Besides, it’s good for you to get out of that witch-infested enclave of city once in awhile.”
“That’s my city you’re perjorating,” Morris said.
“Oh, yes, forgive me, I know.” In a taunting singsong voice, Marceline said, “Morris Garvey, inventor of steam-powered chimney sweeps, founder of Machinations Sundry, technological genius and New Alexandria’s favorite son. The man is the city, the city is the man.”
“Don’t believe the hype. I don’t,” Morris said. “Besides, only downtown is infested with witches. Really it’s only one neighborhood—and they’re not all bad once you get to know them.”
“As you’ve come to know their queen?”
Morris tensed. He was tempted to tell Marceline that Anna Rigel, the Queen of New Alexandria’s witches, had not spoken to him for three weeks after his latest failure to live up to her expectations, but he knew no reply was best whenever it came to women Marceline perceived as her rivals. Awkward silence hung between them until one of the attendants, Mr. Bucheron—a mute, hulking man nearly seven feet tall—brought their overnight bags and ushered them along the dock.
“In Paris, at least, people once knew that the best way to deal with witches was at the stake,” Marceline said.
“If I didn’t know you well enough to recognize your sarcasm I’d be horrified,” Morris said.
Marceline cast Morris a simmering look over her shoulder. “Perhaps you overestimate how well you know me.”
Morris laughed, but his voice transformed into a cry of alarm as Marceline took the first step down from the dock and the plank twisted beneath her foot. She stumbled and thrust out a hand to steady herself. Morris latched onto it, stopping her fall and tugging her back onto solid wood. In the process, though, she yanked him off balance and forced him to jump from the side of the dock to avoid falling off face first. He landed up to his chest in frigid water, stumbled on slippery rocks, and went under. The cold shocked him. He gasped by reflex, and the taste of sea salt flooded his mouth. He burst to the surface, coughing and pushing water from his face. A pounding wave broke against his back and shoved him under a second time him as the powerful undertow clutched his feet from beneath him. He stayed under for several seconds before he regained his footing and surfaced. The wind howled around him, and his ears rang. Marceline shouted orders. Mr. Bucheron and the crew scrambled down from the dock to help Morris onto the rocky beach.
He knelt there, arms wrapped across his chest, a trembling, an icy mass of needling aches.
“Listen… to that…. My teeth… are actually… chattering…,” he managed to say.
“Take him to the huntsman’s shack. Hurry!” said Marceline.
James Chambers writes tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. He is the author ofThe Engines of Sacrifice, a collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas published by Dark Regions Press which Publisher’s Weekly described in a starred-review as “…chillingly evocative….” He is also the author of the short fiction collections Resurrection House (Dark Regions Press) and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales, in collaboration with illustrator Jason Whitley as well as the dark, urban fantasy novella, Three Chords of Chaos andThe Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, volume one and two in his Corpse Fauna novella series. His short stories have been published in the anthologies The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible, Bad-Ass Faeries, Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad, Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory, Bad-Ass Faeries 4: It’s Elemental, Bad Cop No Donut, Barbarians at the Jumpgate, Breach the Hull, By Other Means, Chiral Mad 2, Clockwork Chaos, Crypto-Critters (Volume 1 and 2), Dark Furies, The Dead Walk, The Dead Walk Again, Deep Cuts, The Domino Lady: Sex as a Weapon, Dragon’s Lure, Fantastic Futures 13, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Hear Them Roar, Hellfire Lounge, In An Iron Cage, Lost Worlds of Space and Time (Volume 1), Mermaids 13, New Blood, No Longer Dreams, Shadows Over Main Street, Sick: An Anthology of Illness, So It Begins, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, Qualia Nous, To Hell in a Fast Car, Truth or Dare, TV Gods, Walrus Tales, Weird Trails, Warfear, and With Great Power; the chapbook Mooncat Jack; and the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Allen K’s Inhuman.
His tale “A Wandering Blackness,” one of two published in Lin Carter’s Doctor Anton Zarnak, Occult Detective, received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Sixteenth Annual Collection. He has also edited and written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House, and the Midnight Hour in the anthology Negative Burn. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association, the current chair of its membership committee, and recipient of the 2012 Richard Laymon Award. He lives in New York.