Keys to the Murder Castle

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

It was hardly the first time Irene Aguilar had seen disassembled people, and her lack of squeamishness seemed to amuse the man, who called himself Henry, as he paced the length of his dungeon, his shoes echoing on the cobblestones.

So this was what happened to them, she mused, all those women who had slipped away into the chaos of Chicago and never resurfaced. Reduced to bones and jars of organs in the basement of a hotel.

How could they be so foolish?

Then again, the city was cruel and his eyes were kind, and he said all the right things in all the right ways, just with all the wrong intentions. What young woman who was even slightly attracted to men wouldn’t be pulled in like her heart was made of iron and he was an electromagnet?

“Are you going to murder me now?” Irene asked, struggling with the ropes binding her wrists. “Because if not, I would really like to get to the Exposition on time.”

He stopped pacing. Though lighting in the basement left much to the imagination, aether-powered sconces on the far wall cast him in perfect silhouette. He turned slowly toward her.

“Clever,” he murmured, and she could not see his face but she imagined him smiling that sly smile beneath his beard that matched his blue eyes. That same smile that had made her believe everything would be all right.

“What is clever?” she asked, though she knew the answer. She opened her eyes wide, made her mouth small, played the part of the princess with more curiosity than common sense.

“Reminding me that you are expected somewhere. That people will miss you, will come looking for you. You’re a very clever girl, aren’t you?” He took a step closer. “But there are so many exhibiting at the Women’s Building. Do you truly think anyone will miss your art?”

Women’s Building? It took all her good sense not to laugh. How had he managed to snare as many women as he had, paying so little attention to them?

“I’m not an artist, Henry,” she told him, feigning confusion. “And I’m not showing in the Women’s Building. Much as I admire needlepoint and the more typically feminine skills, they are not my forte.”

If the man who called himself Henry Holmes noticed her subtle shift in vocabulary and accent, and if we are being honest he probably did not, he made no mention of it. Just lifted a long blade from a nearby table, twirling it in his hand.

He did have skilled hands, Irene admitted. Not like that butcher she and Mary Jane took down in London a few years back.

“Rest in peace,” Irene said under her breath. “But not for much longer.” With her fingernail, she extended the tiny, folding knife installed in her ring, and began slowly sawing away at the ropes.

“What’s that you say?” Henry asked, undoubtedly expecting the desperate pleas of a woman facing certain death.

She smiled, blew a lock of hair out of her eye. “I simply said that I’m showing at the Electrical Building. And it is not art, though I suppose there is a certain elegance to the machinery. The cogs and gears, the bubbling liquid and arcing electricity–”

Without warning, Henry closed the distance between them. The blade was cold on her skin, the minuscule bead of blood warm as it traced its way down her neck.

Irene blinked once and looked up at him in irritation. “If you’re trying to scare me, you’re going to have to try harder.” At his look of confusion, she smirked. “Oh, did you think you were the first man to ever hold a knife to my throat?”

The rope holding her wrists fell away with a final slice, and she wasted no time swinging her hand up to grab his forearm. Not expecting a struggle, it took Henry a second to react, and in that second Irene Aguilar had removed her fascinator and jabbed him in the neck with her hatpin.

When the poison wore off, it was Henry tied to the chair while Irene paced the cobblestones.

“Good, you’re awake,” she said sharply, twirling the knife–her own personal blade–with far more skill than he had. “Now we can get down to business.”

He said nothing for a long moment, the fear in his eyes turning into a doomed sort of resignation. “Are you going to murder me now?” he asked quietly, his words echoing hers minus the attitude. “Because if not–”

“No,” Irene interrupted. “I have no intention of murdering you at the moment, Mr. Holmes. If that is your real name.”

“It’s not.”

She paused briefly in her pacing, amused at how quickly he had dropped the façade. Men.

“Well, if it’s all right with you, I shall continue to call you Henry Holmes. It will be less confusing when I transcribe my notes in my eventual memoir.”

Irene whirled on him, her simple skirt twirling about her ankles, and with the flick of her electromagnetic rod she remotely manipulated the aether in the lamp, making it glow brighter. She needed to see his face, to see every microexpression, in order to properly read him.

“Now, Henry. You, to use a very technical law-enforcement term, have been a naughty boy, haven’t you? Preying on the girls who come to Chicago for the fair. Oh, there are so many of them. Who can keep track? Who would notice if a few just… never returned home?”

She kept her voice steady, but her blood boiled with empathy for the poor women whose organs and partially articulated skeletons surrounded them. Had he given them the keys to the murder castle as well? Had their curiosity won out over their desire to trust the man who had pretended to love them?

“I don’t know why you do this,” Irene said, stepping closer to the chair. “You certainly don’t need the money that comes from selling them to medical students. Maybe it’s all just a sick game to you.”

She placed her hands on the arms of the chair, confident that he could not get loose the way she had, for she had removed his clothes and jewelry before tying him up. Just inches from his face, she looked for any signs of darkness in his eyes and found none.

Those were the worst kind of monsters: the ones that didn’t even know they were monsters.

“I don’t care why you do it, Mr. Holmes. I truly don’t. But unless you want yours to be the next bloodstains on this floor, you’re going to stop.” He opened his mouth; she held up a finger.

“I was not done talking.”

Terrified as he was, she thought she saw a flicker of something else cross his face. He was impressed, intrigued at the way she had duped him, acting the part of a naive girl lost in the big city when she was anything but.

“You’re going to stop,” she repeated. “Stop luring any old girl who will fall for your routine, stop making them fall in love with you, stop giving them the keys and telling them not to go in Room Three just so you have a so-called reason to punish them.”

He looked almost guilty at that. Yes, she’d suspected as much but it was nice to have confirmation.

“Stop killing,” Henry said.

“No,” Irene corrected. “Stop killing your way. If you want to stay alive, we’re doing it my way from now on.” She gave him a smile before leaving him tied to the chair. “Think it over, Love. I’ll be back this evening.”

The Electrical Building was, for lack of a better term, buzzing. In the grand neoclassical hall, people crowded in to see the latest and greatest technological offerings from all the up-and-coming companies.

Ford displayed their new model of steam powered horseless carriage, while another company demonstrated electric incubators with animatronic arms designed to rotate and brood chicken eggs. And in the center, a colossal tower of light donated by General Electric and He Who Must Not Be Named.

Irene saw it for what it was: a last-ditch, desperate, phallic attempt at winning over the country’s electrical grid. Oh, it was shiny, and it was big, but it was impractical, outshined tenfold by the hundred thousand bulbs illuminating the entire city, all powered by Tesla’s Aether Current.

Elsewhere in the fair, ice cream cones and bubblegum sated the public’s taste buds, but it was here in the Electrical Building that their true hunger, the hunger for innovation, was sated. And Irene was all too happy to serve them, drawing in the desperate and the lost with her displays of reanimation.

Was this the way Henry felt, prowling the streets for his next target? She hated it, and hated how much she could learn to love it.

A woman approached the table. Curious green eyes in a cruel white city.

She was beautiful, the shape of her face almost reminding Irene of Mary Jane. But the outside didn’t matter; outsides were easy, like building the housing of a robot. The difficult part came in giving them life. Blood, organs, viscera. It all looked the same, one person to the next, but it wasn’t a matter of fitting everything together like sprockets and flipping a switch. No, every organ and blood cell had their own… something… that determined whether it would fit together at the microscopic level.

“No need to be afraid,” Irene told the woman, dropping her voice from her booming showwoman patter to a more personal, more intimate tone. The bustle of the Exposition faded away until it was just the two of them and the clockwork creatures on the table.

Irene scooped up a robotic mouse, shiny brass and hard angles but as lively as anything found scurrying underfoot near the food stalls. It twitched and sniffed, its movement limited only by the difficulty of creating joints at such a small scale.

“It looks…”

“Real?” Irene asked, and the woman nodded in wonder. “That’s because he is. On the inside, anyway. A couple gears and pumps, and his left femur is iron, but aside from that, he’s all mouse. Brain, nervous system, heart.”

She raised her eyes from the mouse, letting them linger on the woman’s chest, on the square neckline edged with lace. When the woman noticed, Irene feigned embarrassment, pretended she had been admiring her curves instead of imagining the heart that beat beneath them.

It was not entirely untrue, and that fact completed the flustered act, adding color to Irene’s cheeks as she fumbled for another experiment. No one feared people who fumbled.

“This one, she… ah. My cat brought her in. That’s how I get all of my subjects; I could never bring myself to harm an animal. This bird was beyond saving, even by me. There was just too much damage to most of the organs. The brain was all right, though, and that is the only part that matters. So the next time Princess brought me home a dead bird, I used its parts to fix this one.”

With a raise of her eyebrows and a slight gesture, Irene made the unspoken offer: do you want to hold her?

The woman–Irene did not want to know her name–cautiously held out her hand, and the little metal songbird eagerly perched on her outstretched finger. A moment passed, and the woman recoiled, hissing in pain as the bird flitted to Irene’s shoulder.

“Oh dear, let me see that.” Irene took the woman’s hand, muttering something about needing to file the bird’s metal foot, and wiped away the drop of blood. She let her fingers linger, let the moment last until it bordered on scandalous, charming the woman almost like Henry would.

Almost. She promised nothing. Not love, not fortune, not even a safe harbor in the chaotic storm that was 1893 Chicago. But she smiled, and she flirted–oh, how she flirted–and by the time the little mouse automaton had brought the bloody handkerchief to the analyzer under the table that soon confirmed compatibility with a cheerful ding, the woman had agreed to pay Irene a visit the following day.

“Your husband?” the woman asked, indicating Henry.

“My assistant,” Irene answered without missing a beat, and she resisted the temptation to look at him, to see the insult on his face as she took credit for his masterpiece of a hotel.

And it was a lovely hotel, aside from the trap doors and gas chambers and vats of acid. No, Irene reconsidered. It was lovely even with all of that, possibly because of it. It was easy to be beautiful and charming when the interior matched the exterior façade; to do the same when the interior held nothing but darkness and misery was quite a feat indeed.

Irene gave the woman permission to go clean up in the master bedroom–a necessity, as Irene had made a point of accidentally smearing her makeup when kissing her on the cheek–and she turned to Henry.

“She’s mine?” he asked under his breath. He had seen to the soundproofing himself, but that was mostly for the screaming. He’d never had reason to fear the victim overhearing anything before.

Irene nodded sharply. “But you mustn’t play with her. The death is to be quick and painless, don’t damage the heart, and after she’s dead you may do what you like.” She saw him open his mouth, and shut down his protest with a stern look. “I realize my method is less enjoyable than yours, but you have three options at the moment: my way, arrested for murder, or we skip the middleman and I take your heart.”

With narrowed eyes, he called her bluff. “You haven’t tested me. I may not be compatible.”

“Are you sure about that?” She had, first thing after tying him up, and he was not in fact compatible, but he didn’t need to know that.

Henry glanced at the stairway, then back at Irene. “I will get the keys.”


The sharp word stopped him in his tracks halfway out of the room.

“We will not be testing her the way you tested me and the others. We will not punish her for having curiosity deemed unbefitting a woman.” Irene’s tone left no room for discussion.

“Then how do you know she deserves it?”

As the woman walked down the stairs, makeup retouched and face beaming once again, Irene whispered to Henry, “Nobody ever deserves it.”

With that, she whirled about and went to talk to the woman, but Henry caught her by the arm. “I understand your reluctance to test her, but I would hate for your experiment to be ruined because her heart is less than pure. Or will you not mind, her having a heart incapable of returning your love?”

Irene frowned at him. Oh, how she hated when he was right.

Annie. Her name was Annie, and Irene wished she didn’t know that. She wanted the woman to be anonymous, just another girl lost in the chaos of Chicago like all of Henry’s other girls, but every morsel of information she learned only served to humanize Annie.

Her heart was good. It was sweet and honest and trusting, so trusting, and Irene wanted nothing more than to carve it from her tan chest and use it to fill the last empty space of her biggest automaton yet.

Yes, her heart was good. Too good. She loved and was loved, talking about her family and her ex-girlfriends and her cat. She was somebody, and Irene couldn’t bring herself to turn Annie into somebody else’s Mary Jane. That would make her no different than the Ripper, than the conman who called himself HH Holmes.

As they walked through the Exposition, sharing ice cream in a cone and marveling at the trio of zeppelins bobbing over the midway plaisance, an idea found its way into Irene’s mind. An idea even more dangerous than the ones her subconscious conjured as she watched Annie skillfully catching every drop of ice cream with her tongue.

“What do you know about Jack the Ripper?”

Annie thought for a moment. “Serial killer, wasn’t he, in London a few years back?”

Irene nodded, taking the ice cream cone, the better to occupy her mouth while she debated the wisdom of what she was about to say.

“He killed prostitutes,” she said finally. “And he got away with it.”

If she admitted to it, and if Annie threatened to turn her in, well. Then it would be self-defense, wouldn’t it? It would be justified.

“He got away with it because we helped him.”

Annie went utterly silent, her steps more rigid then the first mice Irene made for practice.

“Me and my girl. Mary Jane Kelly. Mostly her, but there will always be blood on my hands no matter what I do.” She paused, waited until they reached a bandstand so the music and the crowd could wash away her confession. “We never told him to kill anyone. He was a man with murder in his soul; we just directed him.”

Finally, Annie spoke, with more curiosity than anything else: “Why?”

“It was dangerous for girls like us long before he started killing. We thought maybe we could sensationalize it, draw attention. Change things.” And they had, but at a cost. “He was one of Mary Jane’s former lovers. She never thought he would turn on her, but she underestimated him.”

Irene’s hand curled around an imaginary knife, the memory of it still too fresh.

“And then he underestimated me.”

She chanced a glance at Annie, the woman with the too-good heart. Though clearly disturbed, she made no indication that she feared Irene. “Are you rebuilding her? Like the mouse and the bird?”

“I’m trying, but I need a heart.” She still held out hope that Annie would try to run, call for help, anything to justify using the chloroform stashed in Irene’s bodice.

Annie was silent for a moment. She took back the ice cream. “That’s why you’re with Henry. He’s the one who’s been making girls disappear, isn’t he? Girls like my sister?”

Ah. Then she, too, was no fool. “Yes.”

“Then what makes him any different than the Ripper?”

Irene had many answers, none of them good.

This was the first time Annie had seen a disassembled person, and Irene Aguilar envied her squeamishness. Oh, to go back to a time when the sight of blood and bones was still novel and disturbing.

The flames of the furnace danced, casting hungry shadows on the wall of the dungeon, waiting to consume the last body that would disappear from the World’s Fair Hotel. Irene closed her eyes for a moment, let the suffocating heat wash over her.

She couldn’t do it.

Henry had been easy. After luring him to Room Three to assist her with the trap door, Irene had poisoned him and shoved him unceremoniously into the fire. She took no delight in the process, and felt only relief when it was over.

But this was Mary Jane. Or the metal housing that would have been Mary Jane, had she found a compatible heart that was not being used by such a lovely woman.

The bits and pieces on the inside… how many killers had she worked with to get them? How many innocent lives lost that could have been saved, had she only stopped the murders instead of orchestrating them first?

The brain was Mary Jane. Funny and caring and selfless Mary Jane, who would take one look at her new organs and slap Irene for doing this.

“You don’t have to save me anymore,” she would say. “Save yourself, stop living in the past, and start saving people.”

Annie gently interwove her fingers with Irene’s. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. There will be other hearts that match, people you couldn’t have saved.” She hesitated, looked down at her own chest. “This is probably dangerous work. If the worst should happen, if my heart is intact–”

“I’m not playing that game.” Pulling her hand free, Irene pushed the lifeless automaton into the furnace, blew one final kiss to Mary Jane, and headed for the stairs. She paused, waiting. “Are you coming? There are plenty more twisted people in the world, Annie, but I figure we would start with Chicago and work our way out.”

Jennifer Lee Rossman (she/they) was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her first appearance in HyphenPunk. She is the author of Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, and one of the editors of Space Opera Libretti. Find more of her work (most of it gay, disabled, and autistic like her) on her website and follow her on Twitter @JenLRossman.



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