Bewildering Stories

Change the color of the text to:

Change the color of the background to:

The Artificer

part 1

by Toby Wallis


The two prostitutes sat on the bed, undressed in faded grey Basques and drunk from the little brandy they had been given. Their hair, twisted and greasy, suited their tangled expressions. The two men, who referred to each other as Sigmund and Victor had escorted them to this room, bare, carpet-less and dusty. They had rented it cheaply from the owner of the establishment, a rather hopeless little inn with its name painted over the door, and then left again, promising to return soon, leaving these young helpless girls to giggle drunkenly, nervously.

Neither girl was experienced as a prostitute, for them, like a lot of the girls in this town, it was a readily available source of money, though it was not easy money, as some people mistakenly thought, for them all it was an act of grim, tainted necessity. Over the years the town's businesses had fallen apart, the land failed as season after season of crops refused to take hold. The buildings rotted and crumbled in disrepair. The children grew uncomfortably thin. Jealous anger towards the rich, thick with layers of fat, increased, but they remained tolerated as long as they paid for rooms and food whenever they were forced to stop for the night. It was a natural gravitation for women taken hold of by desperation. They capitalised on the town’s position on the edge of the trade routes from one city to another. The travelling merchants, tourists and business folk capitalised on them.

The girls' nervous giggling ceased, replaced with a nervous silence, when, eventually, the door handle rattled and turned loosely in the door. The one named Victor stepped through, smiling at the girls. His skin was the colour of sand and rough and tight to match. The features of his face were unusually pronounced and rounded, as though his face had been inflated a little too far. The rest of him was covered diligently by thick, tatty clothes. No other inch of skin was visible, his coat was buttoned right up to his chin, and gloves covered his fat fingers.

"Hello girls," he said cheerfully. He crossed the room and placed his bag on the floor, exploding a mushroom cloud of dust.

The one named Sigmund stepped through the door, closed it abruptly and turned the key in the lock. He turned to face the girls, looking at them hard. Sigmund’s skin was the colour of tarnished silver, dull grey and fading out into bruise coloured edges. His expression seemed to be set on a permanent, intimidating scowl. Each girl silently prayed that she would not be the one to have to work Sigmund.

"Are we ready?" Sigmund asked, his eyes darting over the two girls.

"Indeed we are," Victor said. He stepped towards the bed and reached his hand out towards the girl nearest him. Relief flashed across her eyes. He took her by the hand and she stepped away from the bed. The other girl stood also and moved towards Sigmund, her eyes affixed to the floor. Both girls moved to kiss the men tentatively and both were stopped. Victor held a single finger up to her mouth; a gentle smile crossed his lips, causing the skin around them to stretch and crack. Sigmund simply arced his head away from her lips; he was looking over at Victor.

Victor put his hands on the girl’s hips and motioned for her to turn away from him, which she did. Sigmund did the same, and now the two girls were standing facing each other, the two men holding them from behind. Sigmund and Victor each, quickly and silently, drew a knife out of a pocket. Each girl, seeing the blade behind the others back made move to cry out in warning but both girls were silenced by a hand grasping over their mouths. In a single fluid motion the knives cut their throats, the girls looking directly into each other’s eyes, wide with disbelief, panic, regret. Sigmund and Victor guided their collapsing bodies onto the bed and began the delicate task of opening the girls' bodies. Sigmund cut open the area above the heart. Victor, on the other girl, began the difficult task of removing the top of her skull, just above the eyes.

* * *

The smell of sulphur escaped the fireplace. Only Dot was in the room, and she was used to the smell. It would slowly spread out and have faded away before the early risers arrived looking for their particular hair of the dog or before the first of the guests rose from their rooms and came down looking for breakfast. She was cleaning furiously. Wiping down table tops, eternally sticky from years of spilt beer and cigarette ash, collecting glasses, arranging chairs.

Dot rose with the sun everyday in order to clean the inn. She had long ago taken down her curtains, sold the fabric and repositioned her bed so that the first delicate trickles of light would find its way to her eyelids, colouring the insides of them a glowing red and calling her out of her dreams. She would get dressed in one of her two worn dresses, tie an apron around her waist and walk through the silent, deserted streets, simultaneously serene and sinister in the misty half-light of dawn. Mr Ames would be waiting behind the locked door to let her in, bid her good morning and then leave for the market to buy vegetables and off-cuts of meat. Every morning she was greeted with the scent of stale beer, mixed with the emerging smell of sulphur from the fire that Mr Ames would have lit only minutes before.

She did it for the money, the little that she got. And Dot, like the other girls, needed every little bit that she could get. Her back and knees always ached after she had finished cleaning, and the walk to the inn seemed to be getting longer every day. But she forced a smile every time she saw Mr Ames. She felt obliged to. Recently though the smiles were harder to produce, and she knew they appeared dulled and lifeless on her face.

She whiled away her days dreaming of moving east and setting up home in the Glass City. The money that she could spare got placed inside a small tin, which was now just under half full and spent its days hidden under a loose floorboard. It had taken years to get that tin as full as it now was. She remembered placing the first coins in there, estimating how long it would take, and as it appeared now, those estimations were wildly inaccurate. The thought of now repeating those years with identical days to save up the minimum amount she needed had dawned on her heavily.

But still she dreamed. She imagined herself looking out of a plush curtained window at the centre of the city, the towers and walls of the palace rising abruptly, the very definition of rich. She knew that the city had grown and sprawled into an intricate lattice-work of buildings and streets that got poorer and poorer the further from the centre you travelled. The palace at the centre had instead expanded in her mind as being truly representative of the entire city, false though that was. And while she knew she could have left at any time, and made her money cleaning a different inn, living in a different setting of squalor, she could not allow that to happen.

Her mind would wander, the absolute necessity of money weighing heavily on her mind, and she would imagine the brothels. In those moments of dry realism Dot imagined herself lying on her back on a rented bed, doing what was needful with her body. With every thought of the brothels she felt her aspirations moving further away. The slow trickle of money landing in her little tin became a depressingly impossible countdown.

She dragged her cloth over the last of the tables absentmindedly, dispersing the dirt but not really cleaning it; the rag was as dirty as the tables. Every breath she took was laced with dust, which coughed up into her face as she cleaned and dusted. The table, balanced on only three of its four legs, shook as she wiped it down. A glass rattled towards the edge, and just as she noticed it, perching precariously, it fell, as if in slow motion, turning elegantly as it went. The sound of it hitting the ground, cracking, then exploding shattered the tranquillity of the bar momentarily, which then seemed louder in its wake. The sound of the fire spitting and the birds singing on the window ledge seemed to appear out of nowhere, crystalline and clear.

Dot got down on her knees and started to pick up the pieces of glass, starting with the largest and placing them on the table. Her forefinger snagged on a sharp edge, cutting it along the tip. Blood swelled in the gash, a ruby slice in her pale skin. She yelped and immediately put it in her mouth, sucking at the wound.

"Oh be careful." The voice appeared so suddenly Dot felt the blood in her veins jump and she wrenched her neck around instinctively. Two men stood at the base of the stairs. One had a round face in an unusual shade of dusty yellow. The other looked ill, his grey eyes set into deep, rust coloured sockets.

"I didn't hear you come down," She said, "Breakfast won’t be ready for a little while."

"Well I'm not really hungry. Are you hungry, Sigmund?"

"I'm not hungry." Sigmund's voice was cold and distant, almost distracted.

"My name is Victor," The man with the round face brought his hand up and tipped his hat without taking it off. "This is Sigmund." Sigmund stood watching Dot. She turned uncomfortably and continued tidying the broken glass.

"My name is Dot, I’m the cleaner. Mr Ames should be back soon."

"Very pleased to meet you, Dot," Victor said. "Aren't we, Sigmund?"


Victor walked behind the bar and poured two glasses of whiskey. Dot wasn't sure what to say to this, no one had ever done it before. It struck her as being a particularly audacious thing to do, and quite intimidating. She chose to ignore it. Victor and Sigmund sat down at a table, sipping at their drinks.

"Dot, my dear, I'm just going to come right out and ask," Victor said. "As I was coming down the stairs I was in a real quandary."

Dot turned to look at him.

"And when I saw you there, on the floor, so obviously a girl of the world, knowledgeable, capable, in charge of her own destiny, I figured it out. I thought to myself, Victor, I thought, here’s the answer. I bet she can give you what you need and you can give her what she needs. Now it might be rude of me to say, but you look like you could use an extra penny or two, and I'm almost certain that you can supply us with what we are requiring."

Dot could feel her cheeks flush, she turned her back to them so they wouldn't see and picked up another piece of glass. "I'm not a prostitute." she said.

"We are not looking for a prostitute." Sigmund said

"We had prostitutes last night," Victor added, "Quite unsatisfying."

"Very disappointing." Sigmund agreed with a nod of the head.

"No my dear we are not looking for that particular service, we need someone to show us the way to the City of Glass."

"And gems," Sigmund added.

It had been a long time since Dot had heard anyone refer to it as that, though that was its full name. Everyone truncated it down for ease, presumably in to much of a hurry for superfluous words.

"Do you know the way, dear?" Victor took a single golden coin out of his pocket and held it up between his thumb and forefinger. "We will pay you well for your time."

She looked over her shoulder and saw the coin. Coins like that didn't appear too often around here. Occasionally a rich merchant would try to pay with one, but Mr Ames didn't like to take them. Not many people in these parts had enough change to allow him to spend them. Dot's eyes grew large, thinking what to say, what to do. "In charge of her own destiny," that was what he had said; and here, she thought, mind racing, was a chance to do just that.

"I understand your silence." Victor said. He took out a second coin and placed them both on the table, pushing them towards Dot. A glint flicked across his dark eyes.

"I know the way." Dot said timidly.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2003 by Toby Wallis

Home Page