He had left his papers and notes in the café.

It was a thick folder of the things with a book placed atop them. The book was a dry looking academic tome about the lives of a variety of artists engaged in the career of creating mechanical pieces of various kinds, clockmakers, designers of fantastical automata and the like. The history of their craft and noteworthy details about the lives and times of some of the more talented and well known of them.

I assumed from glancing at the papers and the book that this was an academic of some kind. He had that intensity about him, that almost manic energy. I’d noticed him as I sat at my solitary little table and sipped my coffee. He’d been hunched over, scribbling and doodling upon his papers and occasionally mumbling to himself. It was clear whatever he was entranced with that it was of the utmost importance to him but also something he was guarded about. This too made me think he might be an academic…from my own college days I could remember the almost comical level of paranoia some of my fellow students possessed when it came to their work.

He certainly had the look of an academic physically as well. He looked underfed and like he hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in some time. Bags under his eyes and an unhealthy sheen to his skin. The look of a man who had been surviving on ramen noodles and desperation. The fact he’d been sat nursing a small cup of coffee for almost an hour certainly suggested he lived on an academics frugal budget.

Normally I wouldn’t intrude but the fact that if I didn’t the papers would likely be tossed in a bin by one of the coffee shops baristas made me decide to look through them to see if there was any information by which I might contact him. I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of what was contained in the papers I found that they did have a name put to them: Harold Reed.

Sweeping the papers and book into my bag I returned home and after a short time typing up and then printing out a makeshift flyer of sorts I returned to the coffee shop and asked if it would be alright to post the flyer up. It briefly explained how I had found the papers there, gave my number and explained that if the owner of the papers would like them back they should contact me. I didn’t think there was much chance it would do any good but I thought that if there was a slim chance that the owner of the papers might return and want them back I should do what I could to see they wound up back in his possession.

It would be only a day or so later that I would get a call. The frantic voice on the other end explained how they had been deeply upset when they realised the papers had been so carelessly misplaced and that they were desperate to get them back. Now I was no idiot. I asked them a few questions about the papers and the book, just little things to confirm that this was the rightful owner. And likewise I arranged to meet at that same coffee shop in broad daylight at a time I knew plenty of people would be around as I had no intention to go to the middle of nowhere with a stranger.

They answered my questions correctly and were perfectly amicable to meeting at the time and place of my choosing. We agreed to meet there in a few days’ time, though I got the impression it wasn’t soon enough for his liking. It was clear that he was extremely eager to have the papers safely back in his possession again.

When we met I saw right away that it was indeed the man I’d seen in the coffee shop a few days prior. I called out across the coffee shop: “Harold? Harold Reed?”

He stood up straight almost comically quickly. He grinned nervously and as I approached extended a hand that was almost trembling.

“Hailey Brown,” I introduced myself as I shook his hand. It was damp and shaky. He withdrew it awkwardly and sat down and, clearly being aware of the unusual first (Or if you wanted to be technical, second) impression he was making he offered his apologies if he seemed a little nervous or on edge.

“Those papers are…they’re the product of many years of work, you see. Some of it irreplaceable. When I thought I’d lost them….”

“It’s fine, really. I’m just glad to get them back to you.”

He nodded and as I handed the papers over he began frantically leafing through them. I was a little offended that he seemed to think I might have stolen some of them. If I wanted to rob him I’d have just taken the papers and then never bothered to go to all this trouble to get them back to their rightful owner. And besides I thought, why would I want to? What need would I have for them? It wasn’t like they seemed to be worth any money.

Glancing up at me his clownish grin was replaced with a more natural smile, a more genuine one.

“I really do have to thank you for this. If I’d lost these…”

He trailed off. It was obvious all of this was of huge importance to him and I was getting curious. I’d not really given them more than a passing look. They seemed to be an essay or manuscript about some kind of historical curiosity of some kind but I’d not made any kind of detailed study of what it all was. I asked him if the papers were really that valuable and he nodded, his head bobbing up and down like one of those little drinking birds after you’d furiously shaken it.

“Oh yes. If I can authenticate it I mean…it’s worth a fortune. Millions.”

I must have made my surprise at this reaction very obvious because he chuckled at whatever expression he saw upon my face.

“I don’t look like the millionaire type?” he asked. Embarrassed I began to apologise but he waved it away. He was obviously not offended. He seemed amused more than anything else.

“It’s fine. You’d be right! I’m far from a millionaire at present…but all that could change very very soon. If what I’ve found is what I believe it is. And if I can prove it to the gentleman who wishes to purchase it”

“What have you found?” I asked him. I’d intended to just hand over the papers and leave but seeing him here, that intensity I’d noted a few days before seeming to have tripled in the time between then and now, hearing that earnestness and excitement in his voice and the strange but genuine possessive quality he had toward these papers all combined to make me wonder just what it was he found so important about them and whatever they pertained to.

And this comment about how whatever was detailed in these papers could bring him a massive influx of wealth like this….I wanted to know just what could possibly be so important about them. In fact part of me wished that I’d read the papers more thoroughly before returning them. What I had read hardly seemed like it would bring anyone any great amount of money, let alone millions…I’d assumed he only wanted the papers back because they were part of a book or something like that he was working on, similar to the book he’d also left behind….how their contents could be so priceless was baffling to me.

“You read the papers?” he asked me.

“I skimmed them,” I admitted. He nodded and tucked them into the little shoulder bag he had with him.

“I doubt you’d have heard of it even if you had. Few have…except those interested in such things.”

I wasn’t sure that I liked the implication that I gave off some kind of…aura of ignorance. I don’t know if he intended to be condescending but I didn’t like the way he just casually said “Oh I doubt you’d know about it anyway” or rather words to those effect. But I bit my tongue and instead just asked what exactly it was that he was so fixated upon and why it would be worth so much.

“The Mechanical Cassandra”

That had been the title of the paper but it provided little in the way of illumination. My lack of comprehension must have been clear and he nodded, giving a little shrug.

“You have no idea what it is,” he said.

“Are you going to tell me what it is?” I asked and as the words left my mouth I could hear that I’d made more of my irritation evident than I wanted to. It would be obvious to anyone who heard how I said the words just how pissed off I was becoming with the way this man seemed to almost revel in how little I knew about something he was apparently well educated in. But if it bothered him he didn’t show it. In fact he barely seemed to register anything other than the flat nature of the words.

“A curiosity. A myth. An urban legend….a ghost story. At least that’s what most people think. Look…I have to meet with someone in a little while but if you’re interested I’d be happy to discuss this more. And….I’d like to offer you something for going to all this trouble. You really have helped me out.”

I began to say that I didn’t want any kind of reward…the notion of getting a reward for returning someone’s lost papers seemed ridiculous to me…but he cut me off.

“Look I insist. I stand to make a lot of money from the sale of the…item in question. And I need these to do it.”

He held the papers aloft.

“How does…5% of whatever I end up arguing the client up to sound?”

I was stupefied. I had come here expecting to just hand the papers over and be done with it. Instead I’d been treated to a very quick emotional whiplash…I’d gone from a contented feeling of happiness, to confusion, to irritation and now I was just unsure of how to react at all at the fact that I was being offered a cut of a potentially million dollar deal. I tried to think of a way to respond and it seemed that my silence made as little an impression as my words did as Harold was already speaking before I’d said a thing.

“And I’d be happy to go into more detail about what I found as well. It would be nice to have someone else to talk to about it.”

I ended up agreeing to meeting up with him the next evening. We agreed to meet at a little bar not far from the coffee shop we were in now and he said he’d call me if anything came up that meant he couldn’t make it. He also scribbled his own number down as well. He thanked me once again and just like that he was off and out the door and into the street.

I wondered just what on earth could be in those papers that was so important. If I knew nothing at all about them I might have been worried that I’d gotten myself involved in some kind of blackmail or entrapment scheme or something equally shady and extremely illegal. But I’d looked them over and they had seemed to just be a series of academic notes and e-mails regarding some kind of clockwork antique and the details of its history and that of its inventors.

I wondered if the antique in question was whatever Harold was looking to sell. Perhaps he’d inherited something rare and priceless and he now stood to make a fortune off of it. But then why would he need the papers for that? And just what could he have inherited or found or purchased that was worth millions of dollars? I wanted to know more.

And Harold certainly seemed harmless enough. I was no fool….I knew that appearances could be deceiving. But it was impossible to imagine the frazzled and scatter-brained and dishevelled man I’d observed once and then met formally today being capable of harming anyone except perhaps himself if he ran into a wall in a desperate eagerness to get from one place to another without taking note of what was wall and what was door.

I ordered myself a glass of wine when I got to the bar we’d agreed to meet at and sat myself down and waited. Regardless of how harmless I might think Harold seemed I wasn’t going to allow a man I’d known for less than half a day to be alone with my drink. I sat and waited; glad I’d chosen a seat by the crackling fire. Harold showed up just as I was about to give up on him actually making it, bustling in and apologising in a rapid outpouring of words that was a badly coordinated as the way he moved his body.

I told him it was fine and after he got himself a drink and settled himself down across from me I was about to ask about just what it was he wanted to tell me about when he beat me to the punch by launching into it, obviously having no interest in making any kind of small talk or pleasantries beforehand.

“So! The Mechanical Cassandra!” he said.

“It’s some kind of…antique you’ve found?” I asked him. He shook his head and took a hearty gulp from the pint of beer he’d ordered before speaking.

“Far more than that. Far more. She was created sometime in the nineteen twenties by a fellow named Phillip Dremmel. A genius at his craft. One of the finest makers of automatons to ever live. Some call him a mere inventor but that’s like calling Michelangelo a builder or Davinci a…a doodler… The man was an artist. An artist.”

“Automatons? In 1920?” I asked and by disbelief was clear.

“Yes yes I’m sure you’re thinking of…of a ROBOT or something…automata are something quite different. The tradition of the crafting, design and building of automata dates back to ancient Greece …and beautifully made and highly complex creations made by skilled craftsmen still exist which can be dated back hundreds of years.”

He embarked on a brief diversion in which he gave me what could be called a breathless crash course in what an automaton was and the history of them in myth, legend and reality. The creation of clockwork novelties and even lifelike human dolls powered by a series of gears and switches that could mimic the actions of living beings. The fact that such things had existed so many years ago honestly came as a surprise to me at the time. It wasn’t something I’d ever really spent any great amount of time studying or even taking much of a casual interest in but it was clear that Harold was passionate about it.

He rattled off names at me like Theophilus, Al-Jazari, Giovanni Fontana and Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Names that meant nothing to me but which inspired in him a kind of manic passion as if he was a preacher reciting the names of saints from a pulpit. It was obvious to even a casual observer that this was a man who had devoted his life to the study of this facet of human history, of the creation of these strange artificial marvels.

Despite the fact that the subject wasn’t one that held any real interest to me I found myself listening intently as he talked about the first mention of automata in ancient myths, of the delicate and ground-breaking and miraculous work that had been undertaken to create some of the most amazing examples of the craft….the way he linked it to the scientific advancements of the modern age, speaking of these artisans as pioneers….he would have made one hell of a lecturer. He could probably have gotten even the most unenthused student to pay attention.

All of which was just the prologue to the subject at hand: The Mechanical Cassandra.

She’d toured America and then Europe from the 20’s through to the late 30’s as “The Marvellous Mechanical Maiden.”

"Gathered no small amount of attention, acclaim," and…here he dropped his voice to a low and ominous tone… "Rumour and scandal…”

"And then in 1937 she’d vanished. That’s the dry facts of the matter. The stories are far far more…peculiar.”

“And why she’s worth so much money?”

“If they can be proved to be true? Oh yes.”

I invited him to continue and he did with gusto.

“So the stories go, the Mechanical Cassandra gained her name through her powers of divination. Of prophecy. Of…of KNOWING things. Secrets that no one could know. Things it would be impossible for anyone to divine much less some mechanical being.

Volunteers from the audience would ask the Mechanical Cassandra questions and she would write the answer out on a sheet of paper provided. That mechanical arm moving with a…a delicacy that made it hard to believe it could be a simple mechanical thing…and the answers she would give….”

“Plants in the audience. The thing would have to be…programmed…or whatever the right term is…with pre-determined responses. It couldn’t just make up an answer on the spot. The “Volunteers” were friends of this guy this…Dremmel? Just showmanship. Just…what’s that thing P.T Barnum called it? Humbug."

“You’re interested in the history of circuses, carnivals…freak shows? That kind of thing?” Harold asked me. With a somewhat embarrassed smile I admitted that actually I’d learned the term from the X-files. He smiled warmly and chuckled with genuine humour.

“Well in any case it’s interesting you should mention it…the Mechanical Cassandra did tour with a…”Freak Show” of sorts…before leaving for Europe.”

I had noticed this quirk of the way Harold spoke of the thing. Like it was a person. “Her” not it. And it wasn’t just the choice of pronoun either. It was the way he said it, the way he talked about this invention. I had noticed it before and would more and more as he continued his tale. He spoke about this creation as if he was discussing a living breathing person and not something that had been put together out of leather and fabric and wood and metal and glass in someone’s workshop long ago.

“The origins of the Mechanical Cassandra are difficult to pin down. The stories about why Dremmel made her are more fiction than fact, most likely. The most common and probably the most wholesome one is that Dremmel was desperate for a child. He was a widower…and the manner in which his wife vanished certainly lead to no shortage of rumour and innuendo about the man, especially later on when his invention had caused such a stir…and was childless.

"So one of the stories go he dropped down to his knees begging and praying for the heavens to give him a child and so was he…enchanted? Inspired? Something like that.”

“By god?” I asked, incredulously. I was no atheist….but at the same time my faith in a higher power didn’t extend to them inspiring the invention of clockwork fortune tellers. Harold chuckled again and took a sip of his beer.

“By something. Not many of the stories I’ve heard credit God though. Usually…quite the opposite.”

I was intrigued by that remark. Harold continued.

“Some of the prophecies the Mechanical Cassandra made, some of the secrets she knew…they weren’t what you’d call cheerful. Or pleasant. She knew…horrible things, so the stories go. She predicted monstrous deeds. There are even accounts that she predicted the second world war. That she spoke of a madman rising to power, millions dying, cities rendered to smoke and flame…”

“Bullshit,” I interrupted, not bothering to hide my disbelief now.

“Bullshit or coincidence. It wouldn’t be long after the first world war this thing was being toured, right? Just…drawing on the horrors of that without realising that we were all going to start killing each other again.”

Harold himself didn’t seem entirely credulous of the whole thing either. He smiled and nodded.

“I don’t really credit that claim much either. It seems…unlikely.”

“It seems impossible. Clockwork wind up toys can’t predict the future or read minds.”

“But there are other, more verifiable accounts. While touring with the “Freak Show” of sorts, there was…an incident. There had been some friction between some of the performers. A past affair, missing money, a death…a very sordid bit of business. Well during one of its final performances with the show one of the performers in question…the circus strongman I believe…asked the Mechanical Cassandra about the whole affair. It wrote an answer…and whatever it wrote, the man went into a frenzy. He attacked one of his fellow performers…with such a savagery, such a brutality…that the audience actually thought the whole thing must all be part of the show.

"At first…

"At first….

"When he was done, the poor man was in such a state that I understand it was very difficult to identify him. The whole thing closed down in disgrace. The owner was sued, the strong man in question arrested and given the death penalty…and while there may have been no legal repercussions for Dremmel it all left a cloud of infamy over him and his invention.

"Hence why he started to tour it in Europe,”

I asked what had become of Dremmel. It wasn’t a name I’d come across before and I was pretty curious at this point. The whole thing was ghoulish and absurd but I wanted to know where this man’s strange life with his strange mechanical child took him next.

Harold however could only sigh and shake his head before explaining that no one really knew. Dremmel had vanished toward the end of the thirties, as had his invention. Creator and creation had disappeared and, given that the last known location of both was Germany in the late thirties, most people assumed that they hadn’t met with a particularly happy ending.

“Everyone assumed one way or another Dremmel had wound up dead. His creation destroyed in the chaos of war and Germany’s brutal descent into all too human evil

It became just another odd little footnote in history to most”

“But not all?” I asked remembering what Harold had said about how much money he stood to make from all of this. He nodded, smiling at me as he did so.

“A gentleman named Leland Smythe is willing to offer me a small fortune, it would seem.”

The name rang a distant bell. I racked my brain for a few moments attempting to place where I had heard it before.

“Leland Smythe…wait…as in Smythe Cosmetics?” I asked

Harold nodded. My confusion had doubled at this. Of all the people I might have imagined might be offering Harold this windfall I wouldn’t have guessed this would be the one. I would have assumed that if anyone was going to be offering a truckload of cash based on some curious historical find it would be a museum or private collection of some kind.

“Isn’t he based in like…Sweden or something?”

“Apparently he’s been looking all over the world for this. For what I’ve found.”

I took a moment to properly digest what I had heard. Harold answered my unasked question once again.

“Yes. I’ve found her. The Mechanical Cassandra.”

He drained the last of his beer and beamed at me.

“Would you like to see her?”

I boggled at the casually worded request that had just been extended toward me. I was sure that Harold must have simply worded it oddly and that he couldn’t really mean what I believed he did. The idea that the thing in question the “Mechanical Cassandra” could still exist all these years later and that he had just…stumbled upon it was completely ludicrous. And yet he was quick to make it clear that this was exactly what he had meant.

He explained how he had long been fascinated by such strange historical brick-a-brack as the Mechanical Cassandra. How he’d long made a career/hobby out of the study of things like this…the odd little corners of human history where fact and fiction, truth and myth…all seemed to blend together. Become indistinguishable in some cases. The scandalous tales of Aleister Crowley, the strange and horrifying rumours that circled around Heinrich Himmler and the infamous Thule Society, the stories of cryptids and monsters and “Fair Folk” throughout America and Europe…and of course he’d also studied the history and legends alike that swirled around the Mechanical Cassandra and her creator.

And that was how he came to recognise exactly what he’d stumbled upon when he “Found her”.

He wouldn’t go into any great detail about how, when or where he had discovered her. He was even more reticent about how she’d come to be in his possession. He simply said that it had been a serious of “Unlikely but fortuitous strokes of luck” and the pedant in me almost wanted to add “As opposed to those unlucky strokes of luck…” but I was too busy being just…dumbstruck by the fact that he was claiming he’d just happened to come into the possession of a fortune telling clockwork marvel from the 1920’s.

He said that he’d been “Contacted by representatives” of Leland Smythe who were apparently very eager to discuss her being purchased by him not long after he made the discovery. Like with the matter of how he’d come to find her in the first place he seemed in no great hurry to share how Smythe had learned he was in possession of this invention. Merely that they had hammered out terms under which Smythe would be extremely eager to purchase her from him, provided he could prove what he had was the genuine article.

“Hence the papers importance,” he said.

He went on to explain that the papers he had left behind and which I had helped him reacquire included instructions for how to operate the “Mechanical Cassandra”. Without them all he’d be left with was something that might as well be a useless waxwork. And with Smythe due to arrive in the country shortly to see the proof of what he had found then it was obviously imperative that he have access to them.

There had been what looked like a series of technical specifications amongst the notes, all scribbled over in what looked like it could be Japanese mixed with Latin. I’d not even attempted to figure out what they meant but if what Harold was saying was indeed true it certainly explained their significance and why he’d been in such a frenzy over losing and then regaining them. But that was assuming his story was true…and at that moment I was extremely reluctant to do that.

“I mean, assuming this is true…how? How could she have just…lasted until now?”

“Dremmel made her well, it would seem. I couldn’t believe it either when I found her…it seemed…impossible. A miracle. But there she was.”

I finished my wine. I took a deep breath. I couldn’t really believe I was about to say what I was going to say. But my curiosity had won out over all common sense and self preservation.

“Alright. Show me her. Tomorrow.”

He gave me his address and we set a time. And with a friendly goodnight we parted ways and I was left to ponder over whether I’d really just agreed to go to a strangers house because he promised to show me a miraculous fortune telling robot that he claimed he’d discovered god knows where, built by some long dead lunatic who claimed that God gave him a magical robot daughter.

The whole thing was insane.

And that was certainly the way my girlfriend Sadie felt about it when I told her what I’d agreed to do on Skype later that night.

“Hailey. Babe. You are going. TO GET MURDERED.”

“He’s harmless okay,” I told her and she rolled her eyes with the maximum amount of drama she could put into such a simple motion.

“You know those people you see in true crime shows? The ones who hitch a lift from like…Ted Bundy or get John Wayne Gacy to do their kids birthday party and you think “How could anyone be this stupid? How could they miss the red flags here?”

"You.

"You are that person.

"Right now.”

“He’s like fifty and five foot one. I could kick his ass. Hell, YOU could kick his ass and you don’t even have…”

“If you’re about to say “And you don’t even have legs” I am going to kill you before he does,” she said but her tone was amused more than anything else. I flopped upon the bed, tension momentarily exiting my body as I lay there upon the sheets, smiling at her beautiful face. I genuinely didn’t know how I deserved her and often I doubted I did…but at moments like this I was so glad that she was in my life, even when she was being a pain in the ass.

“Look, I’ll go with a friend and I’ll make sure people know where I’m going. How about that?”

She still looked less than happy about it. I knew she’d have preferred that either I wasn’t going at all or that she could be there with me. But with her job putting her about two hundred miles away at present that was obviously not going to be happening right now. And so she relented and instead just made me promise that in addition to bringing a friend I’d bring my pepper spray and that I’d be careful.

I gave her my solemn vow that I would take absolutely zero risks and that I’d call her as soon as possible after I’d seen whatever it was that Harold seemed to think he’d found.

“The whole thing’s harmless, babe. He’s just…he’s just a sad, lonely old dude. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

At the time I had no idea that I would be both right and terribly wrong in my estimation of the situation.

I got my friend Thomas to come with me at the agreed upon time. He found the whole thing bizarre and I couldn’t really blame him. I did my best to explain the situation but as I tried to put it into words I realised just how odd what had happened over the course of the last couple days was and how strange what I’d agreed to do was…going to this perfect strangers house to see some magical invention he claimed to have found. But he agreed to come with me, I think mainly more out of concern for my safety than any real desire or willingness to do so.

He, like Sadie, thought that Harold sounded like a creep at best and a lunatic at worst. And that the story I’d told about this bizarre thing he’d unearthed sounded like it was the ravings of a madman. Thomas said that he had heard of Dremmel before but that the man was, in his words, just a hustler and a crook who’d run a bunch of scams, bamboozled a bunch of people out of their money and been his own biggest self-publicist before “Probably ending up dead in a ditch somewhere.”

He thought that the Mechanical Cassandra was about as real as a four dollar bill and that if it ever had existed it definitely wasn’t currently “Rusting in some old weirdoes garage”.

The drive over to Harold’s place was brief and uneventful and on the way I was curious and so asked Thomas what he knew about Dremmel. He said that the only things he’d ever heard about the guy were urban legends and folk stories. How apparently there was some folktale about how he’d been a failure at his craft until the day that he’d sold his wife’s soul to the devil in return for hands of inhuman skill and artistry and that after that he’d become a master of his chosen profession.

“But…believe it or not…with horrible ironic consequences” Thomas finished

“So not one of those deals with the devil where everything works out great, then,” I replied my voice dripping with sarcasm.

“No smart-ass, not one of those deals.”

I was surprised that Thomas had heard of Dremmel and even more surprised to learn that he’d apparently done much of his work back in the twenties not far from this very town. He’d apparently been fairly well known here in Bakersfield and in the nearby town of Havenfield as well. What he’d become particularly well known for apparently was skipping out on gambling debts and sleeping with other men’s wives however and that was, in Thomas’s opinion, the real reason why he’d decided to first go on his little cross country tour and then flee to Europe.

We arrived at Harold’s place around two and the home was a fairly ordinary looking affair. Thomas looked almost disappointed as we pulled up…I think perhaps he’d been hoping to find some Addams Family-style gothic pile with looming gargoyles and a sinister aura of impending doom about the place. Likewise he seemed surprised at how genuinely ordinary Harold was when he answered the door and ushered us in.

I mad introductions and asked if it was alright if Thomas watched the “Demonstration” with me to which Harold readily agreed.

“Of course! Of course! She’s hardly shy.”

Thomas shot me a look and I mouthed the words “Be nice” at him as Harold lead us through the house and finally to a sturdy wooden door which, as he produced a key from his pocket, I realised he was keeping locked. I can’t put my finger on just why that struck me as slightly odd at the time. After all he believed he had something of great value here…why not keep it under lock and key?

And yet something about seeing him fumble with the key as he unlocked that heavy looking door struck me as strangely off-putting. There was a nervousness about his movements that I suppose could have been put down to excitement or nerves but it felt like something else. Or maybe I reasoned, I was just reading too much into it given the strange reason for our visit here today putting me in that frame of mind where I wanted to suspect something strange and sinister where it wasn’t there.

He pushed the door open with a dramatic flourish and declared: “Here she is. Lady and gentleman…the Mechanical Cassandra!”

I stared.

Within the sparse but tastefully furnished room, sat upon a wooden chair, was what at first you could easily mistake for an actual woman until you looked closer. Until you noticed the little tell tale details that identified it as something artificial. I’ve never much liked dolls, entirely because of the uncanny valley-like way some of them can look close to people but just ever so slightly off and that effect was magnified a thousand fold here.

If she wasn’t so still and if it wasn’t for the fact she clearly wasn’t breathing I could easily have come to the conclusion that this was a performer, like those “Living statues” that are common on the streets of London and other cities in England. She was dressed in a beautiful white gown. Her hair was a vibrant red and her skin a deathly pale. And her eyes…those glass eyes set into her head were a blood red that instantly drew my attention as I came closer to the thing where it sat.

To say she was in good condition would be an understatement. In fact she looked like she could have been finished only yesterday. Despite Harold’s claim that the thing was ancient and had last been seen in a country engulfed in the horrors of fascism and the flames of war she didn’t seem to have been so much as scuffed or dented. As I walked toward her I couldn’t shake the strange and ridiculous feeling that she was looking directly at me, taking the measure of me just as I was taking the measure of her.

That she was examining me, studying me…making a judgement of some kind. It was an intensely uncomfortable feeling and that lifeless glass gaze gave me a chill. Glancing over at Thomas I could see that he was similarly spooked by the thing…he was giving me a look that seemed to say “What the hell have you brought me into here” but Harold was still buzzing with excitement. He walked rapidly over to the thing, papers in hand.

“One moment please!” he called out to us and as I watched he began fidgeting with the thing. He would consult the papers and then move his hands over the thing, some of the places his hands wandered verging on the lewd if this had been a real woman and not a machine. Finally he did something that was especially peculiar. He looked down at the papers and then moved his lips to the things ear and, as I watched, whispered something to it.

I stared in confusion. It was surely impossible that the thing was voice activated, wasn’t it? Could that have been remotely possible back in the 20’s? It seemed unlikely to me to put it mildly. But whatever it was he was doing, Harold did it with the utmost sense of importance and almost reverence in his actions.

Then he retreated back towards us and proceeded to bow before the “Mechanical Cassandra” as he called her. I waited for a few moments and was about to ask just what happened next and then, as I watched…the thing stood.

There was the ticking and clicking of gears as slowly, jerkily, the machine stood up and bowed before the three of us. The movements were stiff and artificial but all the same I marvelled at what I was seeing. The thing stood back up and then sat herself down upon the chair. I took a few steps towards it, Harold keeping pace with me.

“So what now?” I asked.

“Ask her something. Go on…anything.”

I asked the clockwork thing sat on the chair what my name was. I figured I’d start small. Harold brought a table over and placed a pen in her hand and a sheet of paper on the table. As I watched the things arm extended, with that same awkward movement that put me in mind of badly done stop motion. But her motions became a good deal more delicate when she began to write upon the paper.

Fetching it Harold presented it to me.

“Hailey Brown” was written upon it.

“Cute trick. You programmed in my name before I got here in case I asked that, right?” I asked him. Harold shook his head but didn’t seem offended by my scepticism.

“I did nothing. Obviously she knows who you are.”

I intensely disliked the way he said that. Almost as much as I disliked the way that dolls red glass eyes felt like they were looking at me, the way that faint smile curling her lips was conveying an amusement at my discomfort. But if Harold wanted to play this game I decided I would rise to the occasion.

“Okay, let’s ask it a harder one. Let’s get a prophecy out of it, shall we?” I suggested. Harold looked somewhat uncomfortable at that suggestion and fidgeted on the spot but I took a few steps forward and decided to ask it if I would ever be rich. The figure was still for a few moments and then her hand once more twitched to life. When her reply was finished Harold fetched the paper and handed it over toward me.

It read:

“While wealth and fame shall not come to you
A greater treasure found
It’s true”

I stared at this and then glanced over at Harold.

“Her prophecies aren’t…exact. You can’t just ask for the winning lottery numbers and get them. But I mean it would seem to say…”

“That I’ll never get rich but that some kind of good fortune is coming my way? Yeah I got that. Okay I’ll admit it’s a cute trick,” I said, though in truth “Cute” was not the word I would choose to describe this thing or what it had just done. The odd little sing-song reply to my question and the fact that it had been able to respond to my question this way was making me feel a little more unnerved than I’d like to admit.

I told myself that it must have a sensible and logical explanation. I wished that I knew more about the construction and design of devices like this…maybe then it would be easier for me to find a rational explanation for how this un-living lump of metal and glass and leather had been able to give me my very own little prophecy like that. I told myself it must just be a more elaborate version of those fortune telling machines you saw at theme parks.

“Why not ask it a secret. Something you’ve never told me…something there’s no logical way for it to know,” Harold suggested.

I decided that despite my unease I would roll the dice and see just how much this thing could do. And so I decided to ask it where I’d been the day after my mother’s funeral. This was something I was confident that there was no way it would know. This was a story I’d never shared with anyone in my social circle, one I’d never talked about anywhere online or off and something that there was no possible way Harold could have known…and therefore no way the doll could know either.

The thing wrote out its response and I took a few steps toward the table to look down at it.

My jaw dropped.

Written on the paper were the words “Sally Beck’s house”.

I rounded on Harold.

“How the hell does that thing know that?” I asked.

“Know what?” Harold began, taking a few steps as I advanced on him. I could feel a mixture of queasy anxiety and anger building in me. My earlier genial feelings I had toward Harold, that he was an odd but ultimately harmless eccentric were gone and replaced by a kind of rage and fear that I hadn’t felt in a very long time indeed.

“How the hell does it know that? How do you know that? What are you a stalker or something? Some kind of…some kind of perverted little creep, prying into people’s lives for this freakshow attraction?” I asked him. Thomas stepped in-between us and it was clear that he was shocked at the rage in my voice, the sheer level of anger and malice that filled my words. It wasn’t surprising…I couldn’t remember having gotten this worked up before in a very long time. But the rage just kept building despite Thomas physically holding me back from the anxious looking form of Harold Reed.

“Hailey, Jesus! Just…calm down okay. What the hell did that thing say?” he asked and I rounded on him in a way that actually made him jump back. Perhaps it was seeing that reaction…seeing that I’d so startled and maybe even frightened such a good friend…that snapped me out of my anger. My expression softened, I unclenched my fists and I exhaled loudly. I was not exactly calm but I was calmer than I had been.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt such directed rage at someone. I was sure that if Thomas hadn’t been there I might actually have struck Harold…or at the very least taken a heavy object to that precious doll of his and smashed the thing to pieces, money be damned. But I was calmer now, less full of that fury that had almost claimed me.

“Forget it…let’s just go.”

“Wait! Look I am sorry…whatever offence has been caused, whatever insult…I’m very…” Harold began but I was already storming out of there. Thomas followed close behind and as I got into the car I cast a final look at the house. Harold was stood in the doorway looking crestfallen. But his hurt feelings were the least of my concern right now.

Sally Beck.

How the hell had it known that name?

I’d never told anyone about that day. The day when, full of equal parts misery and whiskey I’d done the one and only thing in my life I was truly genuinely ashamed of. When I’d cheated on my then-girlfriend with a co-worker. It had been a drunken, stupid sloppy mistake that we’d both hated ourselves for. That we’d both agreed to never speak of again.

But even if Sally had gossiped about it despite that promise…how would Harold have heard of any of it? We’d only met properly a few days ago. I hadn’t spoken with Sally in years, didn’t have her on my Facebook friends list and hadn’t once mentioned her even in passing to Harold when we’d spoken. There was…there was no way for that doll to have known her name. No way for that thing to have known what I’d done.

And that’s how it felt. That’s why it unsettled me so. It felt like that thing had KNOWN me. Known my secret. That it could just look at me and know things that I hadn’t even shared with the love of my life or my closest friends…it felt like a horrific violation. This plastic abomination being able to violate the privacy of my most shameful and disgraceful secrets.

Sadie called me before I got the chance to call her. I guessed that Thomas must have texted her…he was obviously rattled by how I’d reacted. And Sadie likewise seemed extremely worried about me. The concern in her voice as she asked me what had happened, what the thing had done to make me lose it like that…she sounded like she was a minute away from hopping on a plane and coming back home to look after me.

I assured her that it was fine. I promised her I would be alright, that I’d just been taken off guard. That Harold was obviously just a creep like she had thought and that his creepy doll had freaked me out, made me agitated. She didn’t seem to entirely believe me. But all the same she seemed a little more at ease. I didn’t tell her what the doll had written and she didn’t push…just that it had written something very personal to me.

I poured myself some wine and put the television on. I wanted to take my mind off what had happened. Wanted to think about something other than the strange experience at Harold’s home. It was as I sat there, barely paying attention to the sitcom playing on the television and utterly failing to keep my mind off the events of that day that I heard it.

It was soft. Quiet. So quiet I had to mute the TV to be sure I’d heard it.

A soft tick tick tick. The sound of clockwork. The sound of gears clicking against each other.

I glanced around. I stood and paced about the room. I couldn’t place where the sound had come from. I shook my head as if the physical act would clear away whatever mental cobwebs had made me “Hear” that. My imagination running away with me. Nothing more than that. I flicked off the television and started where I stood.

There reflected upon its blank black screen was the figure of a woman. A very familiar looking woman.

I whirled around.

Nothing there.

Of course there was nothing there. How could there have been?

I told myself I needed sleep. A good night’s sleep to just put the strange events of the day out of my mind.

Any hope of forgetting the day’s events however would be ruined with the phone call I would receive the next morning.

The call came at about eight in the morning. I was just getting out of the shower when I heard the familiar sound of my phone’s ringtone. I’d slept poorly the night before and had hoped that the shower would make me feel less groggy. The entire night I’d found myself straining my ears, expecting to hear that clockwork ticking from somewhere in the house. Expecting to open my eyes and see that familiar figure framed in the doorway. Those red glass eyes fixed upon me. That awful knowing smile.

What little sleep I’d managed had been fraught with odd dreams that I couldn’t clearly recall when I woke. A queasy knot had formed in my stomach and the mugginess of the evening didn’t exactly help me relax either. But fresh out of the shower and with some coffee inside me I was beginning to feel a bit more alert and less frazzled. I’d almost begun to feel like my usual self. All of that would be ruined when I answered the phone.

It was Thomas. And I could tell right away that he was anxious about something.

Something he didn’t want to talk about over the phone. He asked if I had work today or if I’d be able to meet up with him. Luckily I had the day free and so we arranged to meet up at a coffee shop…ironically the very coffee shop where all of this had started when my attempt to be a good Samaritan and return Harold’s papers to him had led to the strangeness that followed.

As I got dressed I wondered what it was that could have gotten Thomas so bothered. I hoped that it was nothing too serious…that it was just him making a big deal out of nothing. I would find out just how wrong I was when I arrived at the coffee shop, finding Thomas waiting for me.

It was obvious he’d had even less sleep than I had. And more than tired he looked…exhausted. As if he’d spent the evening running a marathon. As I sat down across from him I immediately asked what on earth had happened and why he’d been so desperate to talk. I asked if he was alright and he shook his head, eagerly grabbing the coffee I offered and gulping at it before replying that alright was the absolute opposite of what he was right now.

“I went back there last night. I went back to Reed’s house.”

“You did what?” I asked, not believing my own two ears. Why on earth would he do that? What possible good did he think could come from it?

“I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, okay? I could see whatever…trick he’d done with that doll of his it had spooked you.”

“Oh, my hero,” I replied sarcastically.

“Yeah yeah, I know it was stupid okay? Believe me I know. Listen…Sadie was wrong about that guy. He’s not a creep. He’s dangerous.”

I asked him what the hell he meant by that. I was genuinely afraid now about what might have happened last night, what Thomas might have been through. He was clearly genuinely shaken by the events that had transpired and as his trembling hands clutched the coffee cup I became worried that something terrible could have happened to him. I couldn’t exactly imagine Reed hurting anyone but at the same time it was obvious that something had happened that had left Thomas terrified.

He began to recount the events of the previous night.

It had been about seven when he’d returned to Harold’s house. As he’d pulled up he’d immediately seen that he wasn’t the only person there. There had been about half a dozen cars, dark black with tinted windows. He said that they put him in mind of the cars you saw secret agents and gangsters driving around in in the movies. He described them as having a “Real secret service vibe” and that none of them seemed to have licence plates.

The lights in the house had all been on but he said that the lights looked strange. He said it was like they had an odd red tint to them. He thought perhaps it was just some effect of the curtains being drawn across the windows that produced it but that the closer he got the more he realised it was something other than that. And he said that as he’d gotten closer he’d heard the music coming from inside.

He described it as sounding “Old fashioned” and he hummed a bit of it for me…the “Da da da da da duh da da da” tune he hummed out making me think that it was the Charleston that had been playing from the house and playing loudly. He said it sounded like someone had put a bunch of speakers right up against the windows and then cranked the volume as high as it would go, the music blaring out in a deafening cacophony.

He hadn’t known what to make of it. He figured that Harold, against the odds given his awkward manner, must be entertaining guests. Having a party of some kind. He’d been about to head off…he wasn’t about to start a fight with the man when he had people over, he wanted to talk to him in private to chew him out for how things had gone down earlier that day…but he’d stopped dead in his tracks when he’d heard something louder than the music.

He’d heard what sounded like screaming.

He’d gone up to the front door and knocked on it. Well his exact words were that he “Hammered on it” but knowing Thomas like I did I doubted that even in this kind of situation he could bring himself to do more than give the politest of knocks. There had been no response and none when he tried the bell either. He’d fished his phone out of his pocket to call the police. I suggested this might be an overreaction but he shook his head at that.

“You didn’t hear those screams. They were….it was horrible. It was someone screaming in agony. In absolute agony. And it was nonstop. Just constant howling and screeching coming from somewhere in the house. And it was so….real”

“Not fake screams then?” I asked and he scowled.

“Don’t. I mean…not like in a horror movie. Not like some actress pretending she’s frightened of Michael Myers or whoever. Real, genuine howls of pain. It made me feel sick to my stomach.”

The shaking of his hands had trebled and he looked on the verge of a panic attack as he recalled the experience. I leaned forward and gently placed my hands around his and guided them down to the table. I apologised for poking fun at him and assured him that if he didn’t want to continue telling me what had happened he didn’t have to. But he shook his head. He said that he needed to tell me and he needed to know what I thought we should do.

I might have bristled at the “We” there. That I was all of a sudden being included in whatever he was dealing with, without even knowing what it was. But it was clear that whatever he’d been through was serious. That this wasn’t something he was making up to mess with me or to play some kind of strange and unusual practical joke on me. I told him that he could take his time and he nodded. Took a few deep breaths.

He’d been heading back toward the car, planning to drive back towards town until he got signal again and could call the cops when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. It had been something darting away from the house and when he turned to see it properly he’d been baffled by what he was seeing. It was a woman, running from the house. She was dressed in a white dress that looked as if it was streaked with red and from the way she was moving and what he could make out from that many feet away he said that she looked terrified.

“So you ran after her,” I said, flatly

“Of course,” he replied.

Of course he had. A complete strangers weird house in the middle of nowhere, no way to call for help and no one even knowing that he was there. Of course he had run after her.

He explained how he’d called out to her to ask if she was alright or if she needed help as she’d run but that she hadn’t responded, simply continued running. I might have pointed out that if she was in danger it was unlikely she’d want to stop and respond to a complete stranger chasing after her at night but now didn’t seem like the right time for such comments.

It hadn’t taken him long to realise that they were both being pursued. He’d thrown a look back at the house and seen them immediately, a group of about a dozen women all dressed in black suits and top hats. He said that they’d reminded him of a funeral procession with the way they were dressed and with the slow and deliberate way they moved after them. They were coming out of the house and headed after either the woman or him or both of them. And even at that distance he said that he could tell there was something off about them beyond their morbid clothing. Something was off about their faces.

As they moved across the field towards them he turned and took off running faster than ever, calling out even louder to the woman. His foot had caught on something, a branch or root. He’d tumbled hard and twisted his ankle and he’d been struggling to get back up when the women closed the gap between them. He didn’t understand how they could have caught up with them so quickly, they didn’t seem like they’d been moving quickly enough to reach them so fast.

As they walked past him he saw what it was that had struck him as so strange. Each and every one of them had…scarring about their faces. Their mouths had been slashed open from ear to ear and the wounds looked raw and ugly as if they had never been allowed to heal or as if the wounds had recently been reopened. Each of them glanced at him as he lay there. There was something wrong with their eyes as well. Something he couldn’t put his finger on but that made their gaze even more unnerving than it would be already.

He lay there, heart pounding in his chest as they went into the woods after the woman. He had no idea what to do. To go after them or to run and call the authorities and hope that they could get there in time, before any harm had come to the woman who’d been running into the woods. And it was as he lay there trying to decide what to do that the screaming started up again. But the screaming was coming from the woods now. He stood and glanced back at the house one final time.

Stood just outside the side entrance the woman had fled from was Harold and beside him another man. The man was dressed smartly, in an expensive looking suit. And the two of them were stood on either side of something else. They were stood on either side of the Mechanical Cassandra, the clockwork thing stood on the lawn between them, posed as if she too was looking toward him or toward the woods where the woman had been chased.

The women in black were exiting the woods now. Dragging the woman in the white dress between them. Her wrists were bound and he could see clearly now that she was bruised and bloodied. Her dress was streaked with what were unmistakably blood stains. And as surreal and horrifying as what he was seeing was it had made him take a few steps forward. Outnumbered, unarmed and alone but he’d walked towards, them, called out to the women. One of them had turned toward him and he said the motion was unnatural. It was as if her bodies movements were those of someone unused to using their own body or suffering from some kind of injury.

Or maybe it was something else. He said that they weren’t just stiff and awkward he said that there was something artificial about the way the woman moved. Something that reminded him of the thing that was now stood in the field. Something almost mechanical.

The woman had moved towards him with a deceptive quickness and before he could do anything her hands were upon his arms. She’d squeezed with a grip that made agony explode through his body, a terrible pain that was worse than anything he could remember feeling before. It felt as if she was going to squeeze until the bones in his arm were shattered, as if she was going to keep digging her gloved fingers into his flesh until it was pulped in her hands.

He’d dropped to the ground in pain and she’d released her grip only to bring the back of her hand down across his skull. It had felt, he said, not like taking a punch but like being struck by a baseball bat or a wine bottle. He’d felt hot blood trickling down his forehead as he lay there, head swimming. He’d tried to get back up but his strength had abandoned him.

He could just lay there and watch.

Watch as the twelve women in black approached the Mechanical Cassandra and the men who stood near her.

Music blaring from the house and lights shining so brightly from the windows and doorway of the house, four of the women on each side had knelt as if bowing in reverence to the Mechanical Cassandra. The remaining two remained standing, holding the woman in the white dress in place. He could hear them speaking but whether it was the blow to the head or the loud music or the distance between them he couldn’t make out what was being said. But he could see the woman in white fighting against her bonds as her captors held her in place. And he could hear her repeatedly screaming the word “No” as she was dragged back into the house.

And then as he watched the Mechanical Cassandra raised a hand. And pointed in his direction.

The remaining ten women in black turned and began walking towards him. He could see something gleaming in their hands. Something that looked like wickedly sharp straight razors. And the sight of that was what he’d needed to spur him on. To force him back to his feet and to take off running once more. It was more like a limp than a run. But the women seemed to almost be moving at a leisurely pace as they pursued him, never catching up but never lagging too far behind either. He’d run until his leg felt like they were on fire and then halfway through the woods he’d doubled back.

Ran back towards the house, to where his car was parked. The women had kept pace the entire time. They never stumbled, never tripped. His car had come into view. The house was dark and silent now, lights off and music no longer playing. He made it to his car and as he fumbled for the keys the women had hung back. They’d watched as the engine started up and he’d floored the accelerator, tearing out of their like a madman.

“Did you call the cops?” I asked. He gave me a look.

“No, I called you first. Of course I called the damn cops! I went back there with them a few hours later.”

“And?”

“And…nothing.”

“Nothing? What do you mean nothing?”

“I mean that guy, Reed…he opened the door. He let them in. Let them look around even. There were no women in black, no woman in white. He said he’d been entertaining some guests earlier and that perhaps I’d seen one of their party games and gotten the wrong idea.

The cops actually asked him if he wanted to press charges against me for being on his property. Me!”

I worded my reply carefully. I didn’t want to offend him especially since it seemed like he’d had a genuinely abysmal night and was still extremely on edge. The last thing I wanted was to make things worse for him. But I had to ask it.

“Is it possible that’s what it was? That it was all just…some weird roleplaying thing?”

He yanked his sleeves up and I saw the bruises across his arms. Deep purple bruises that looked as if they’d come from his arms being crushed in a vice or struck by an oncoming car. I winced at the sight of them, amazed that the bones had remained unbroken.

“Does this look like a game to you?” he snapped at me. I asked him if he’d shown those to the police and he nodded.

“Sure. But there’s nothing to prove I got them from those freaks in black at Reed’s house last night.”

“Maybe they were…security or something?”

“Security? Armed with straight razors?”

“Look I’m just trying to make sense of what you’re telling me here okay. What you described…it sounds like some kind of…of…”

“Ritual?”

I really didn’t want to use the word.

Especially given what had happened the day before. I’ve always been I suppose…open to the paranormal? But I’ve always erred more on the side of it probably all being made up. Show me a photograph of a ghost or a UFO or a cryptid and I’m the kind of person whose mind immediately goes to the rational, sensible explanation for it. Tell me you’ve seen a phantom or heard messages from the other side and I’ll more likely put it down to hallucination or trickery than anything genuinely supernatural.

But the way that doll had somehow known about Sally Beck had spooked me. The way the “Mechanical Cassandra” had known something that I’d never even told my family or friends or my girlfriend had left me with questions and no answers. And then what had happened the previous evening where for that one terrifying moment I’d been sure that I’d seen the thing in my house, as impossible as that was…

“And the police really found nothing?”

“The place was spotless. No blood, no dead bodies…they gave me a warning for wasting police time. I think they thought I was on drugs or making it up for attention.”

“So what do you want to do?” I asked.

His response was not one I expected.

“I want to break in there.”

I laughed out loud when he said it. Just a short little bark of laughter. Of all the ways I’d thought he might reply to my question, this hadn’t been one of them. Thomas was the kind of person who panicked over an overdue library book. Hearing him announce his intention to break into someone’s house would have, until now, been something I’d have considered about as likely as the Jonas Brothers covering an N.W.A song.

But he was clearly dead serious. He genuinely wanted to go through with this.

“Listen. He’s not going to know I’ve talked to you, right? Here’s my idea. You call him up, tell him you’re sorry about the other day. Keep him distracted getting him to show off some more of those weird parlour tricks the Mechanical Cassandra does. While he’s distracted I look around…”

“I thought you said the cops already did that and they didn’t find anything?”

“Okay but they must have missed something.”

“And you’ll find it, With your bookstore cashier skills you’ll find the crucial evidence that the cops somehow overlooked.”

“Will you take this seriously?” he hissed at me. I apologised. I told him that I didn’t mean to offend him but that in all honesty I thought his plan sounded insane.

The likelihood of him finding anything, if there was even anything to find was pretty much zero. What was more likely to happen was that he’d get caught and that this time around Harold Reed wouldn’t be so benevolent about not pressing charges.

“So you want to do nothing? That guy is…”

“Look I’m trying to be nice about this. But from what you just told me there’s no evidence that this man is anything other than a weirdo who throws odd parties and gets overexcited about clockwork

I’m not exactly planning to invite him to my nephews bar mitzvah or anything but I’m not quite so gung ho about breaking into his house.”

“He’s a murderer!” Thomas hissed, lowering his voice so as to not attract any more stares than we already were.

“You think he might be a murderer. You didn’t see anyone die.”

“I saw those freaks chase me through the woods. I felt them attack me, strike me. Or do you think I’m making all that up too?”

I couldn’t explain that. In all honesty I couldn’t explain any of it and I think that was why I was so desperate to embrace the simple and easy answer that all of this had been some strange roleplay that a bunch of weirdoes with too much time on their hands had been doing. Something odd and maybe a little creepy but ultimately harmless. I wanted the answer to be benign for the same reason that I had wanted Harold to just be a conman and a creep. Because the only other explanations were ones that were far outside my comfort zone.

I relented in the end. It was clear that Thomas was going to embark on this insane plan no matter what I said and that short of physically restraining him there was no way I’d be able to convince him not to do so. So I agreed to help him with what I saw as his ridiculous goal of wanting to snoop around Harold’s house in search of some kind of evidence that something terrible had happened there the night before.

It would be impossible to put the plan into action immediately for any number of reasons but I told him that I would get in touch with Harold and bring up the possibility of my returning to his house for one last look at the Mechanical Cassandra before it was sold off. If he agreed to it the two of us would drive out there as soon as feasible, Thomas hidden away. I could scarcely believe what I was agreeing to. But Thomas would obviously not be put at ease unless I did.

And maybe part of me felt like I wouldn’t either.

I didn’t know what to make of Thomas’s account of what had happened. It was clear that something had happened that night and that it was something that was far from normal. It was clear that he’d stumbled on something taking place at Harold’s house that was dangerous, secret and very possibly illegal. But none of that meant that I wanted to get involved.

Likewise it was difficult to reconcile the events that Thomas had described with the man we’d met. I certainly didn’t trust Harold or even much like him after what had occurred the day before but I had a difficult time imagining the awkward, fidgety mess of a man being mixed up in what sounded like ritualised murder from the picture that Thomas had painted of the way things had played out. And the women in black, who were they? And the older man in the suit that Thomas had seen?

Harold didn’t strike me as someone who socialised much. The breathless way he’d rattled off facts and trivia about his beloved Mechanical Cassandra, the way that he’d had such a bookish and nervous energy about him. Who were these people he’d had at his house that evening? Why had they been there? Who had the woman been? An idea came to me and I pulled out my phone. Googling a name I clicked on one of the pictures that came up.

“Is this the guy you saw there that night?” I asked.

Thomas nodded. It certainly answered one question at least.

It seemed the man who had been there had been Leland Smythe. The man that Harold said was eager to purchase the Mechanical Cassandra from him.

It answered one question but raised even more.

I got in touch with Harold later that day.

I explained that I felt bad about the way we had left things off, at the way I had lost my temper with him. I said that the “Performance” the Mechanical Cassandra had given, the answer it had scrawled out on that sheet of paper had hit a nerve. It was true enough though my apology was a good deal less genuine. Even if Thomas hadn’t told me his bizarre story I’d be in no great hurry to make amends with Harold if it wasn’t the only way to make Thomas’s plan work.

Harold for his part seemed perfectly happy to let bygones be bygones. He said that he was profoundly sorry if whatever Cassandra had written…he called her that now…not the “Mechanical Cassandra” but just Cassandra….had caused me any upset or fear and offered his assurances that it hadn’t been his intent. That he’d had nothing to do with whatever it had written on the paper and that the last thing he’d wanted was to frighten me.

He certainly sounded genuine enough but after what Thomas had told me I found myself studying each word he spoke, the inflection he put on every word searching for something else. Some sign that he was being disingenuous, that he was putting on an act. But his apology certainly sounded like it was a heartfelt one and that there was no agenda at work beyond a slightly awkward old man who felt terrible about the way things had gone.

I asked if it would be possible for me to see another “Demonstration” of the Mechanical Cassandra before he sold it. I promised that I wouldn’t “Lose my cool” the way I had the day before. And he certainly seemed amenable to that idea, saying that the Mechanical Cassandra would still be in his possession for the next few weeks.

We arranged for me to come and see it the coming Saturday for another “Demonstration”. And that was when he said something that made me freeze.

“And your friend…Thomas, wasn’t it? Will he be coming with you?”

It was phrased innocently enough but…almost too innocently. He brought him up with a kind of forced casualness. The way you bring someone’s name up when you’re fishing for something. I replied as quickly and I hoped as sincerely as I could with the claim that actually I hadn’t seen Thomas since we’d left his house the other day and that he and I “Weren’t all that close” so I doubted I’d be able to talk him into a return trip.

“Ah that is a shame. I’m sure he’d have been astounded to see a more complete demonstration of what Cassandra can do.”

And there again was that tone. A tone I didn’t at all like. A knowing, almost mocking energy had crept into Harold’s voice with that otherwise innocent statement.

We arranged a time for Saturday and I hung up, feeling less and less sure of the course of action I’d set out on.

I didn’t bring up the plan to Sadie. She could obviously tell that I was keeping something from her and I could sense the frustration and worry coming off her when we spoke that night. But I knew that if I told her what Thomas and I were planning to do it would only make her anxious. And with good reason, I suppose. What we were planning to do was illegal for one thing and downright idiotic for another.

Part of me wanted to tell her just so she could talk me out of it. So she could be the voice of reason that I needed right now. But at the same time I didn’t want to be talked out of doing this. I wanted answers. I wanted to know what the hell Thomas had seen, what had happened that night. And I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I did

And, I told myself, I still had a couple of days to think it over.

A few days for common sense to win out over morbid curiosity. A few days to do the sensible thing and abandon Thomas’s ridiculous plan. I would sleep on it and see how the whole thing felt to me in the morning. Sadie kept asking if I was sure I was alright. She always knew when there was something I was very purposefully trying not to talk about.

“I’m fine, really. I guess I’m still just a little freaked out from that creepy doll of Reed’s,” I said.

“Oh…by the way I googled that thing. I guess I was curious about it after what you said…there’s some wild rumours out there about it.”

“Reed said there were a bunch of urban legends and…ghost stories I suppose about it” I replied and she nodded.

“That’s one way to put it. You know its inventor was a full on occultist, right?”

I tried not to let the way this made me feel show on my face. But my mind went back to what Thomas had described the precious night. The scarred and strange women in black, the woman they’d dragged to the house, the bowing to that clockwork thing as if it was some kind of altar.

“There’s even rumours that’s why he was in Germany before he died. That he was connected to this bunch of psychopaths and weirdoes over there called the Thule society…serious freaks…most of them were all Nazis for gods sake”

“I never knew you had such morbid interests,” I replied, trying to laugh it off. She smirked at me over the webcam.

“Don’t be an ass. I just wanted to read up on what the hell this guy had shown you. I didn’t know what kind of rabbit hole you’d send me tumbling down.”

“So he was what, a Nazi Satanist or something?” I asked.

“Well I don’t know if he was a Nazi or a Satanist but he was deeply into some weird shit. And supposedly he genuinely thought that his thing he built, his weird little wind up doll…it could really see the future, peer “Into the shadows of peoples hearts and souls” and yadda yadda yadda….long story short he genuinely thought that it was magical. That it was blessed or enchanted or maybe cursed.”

“So he was a CRAZY Nazi Satanist,” I replied.

“Hey I’m just telling you what I read about the guy.”

“Just what I want to hear before I go to sleep,” I replied teasingly. We shared a little laugh and changed the subject to just general small talk. And then a little while later I was curled up in bed, in the dark, trying hard to drift off to sleep.

My eyes were firmly closed. My head resting back on the pillow. And I heard it.

Tick tick tick.

My eyes shot open. I glanced around the darkened room. Nothing. Just me. Of course it was just me. I closed my eyes.

Tick tick tick.

I opened them again.

I froze where I lay, paralysed by terror.

Someone was stood at the foot of my bed.

In fact three someone’s.

Two women clad in dark black suits and black gloves. Even in the dim light of the room, with only the streetlamp outside for illumination I could see that there was something horribly wrong with their faces. That their mouths had been mutilated.

And between the two women she stood.

She was clad in her beautiful white gown. Her red glass eyes glittered in the dim light. And she was slowly and jerkily turning and twisting in place like the awkward mechanical motions of a figurine in a music box. The Mechanical Cassandra was posed at the end of my bed with the two women beside her like surreal attendants to royalty or a holy man.

The clockwork ticking and tocking of gears clicking against each other was so loud so terribly loud. It filled the room, filled my ears. It was all I could hear, all I could focus on. The Mechanical Cassandra completed her awkward rotation and her head twisted to one side and then to another. As I watched that small, thin lipped smile split apart. She was opening her mouth. The clockwork woman at the end of my bed was opening her mouth wide.

And something was coming out.

Something squirming and coiled and slick was trying to free itself through this opening.

Her eyes seemed to shine with a terrible internal light.

Someone said my name.

My eyes snapped open.

I was drenched in sweat that had nothing to do with the humidity of the evening. I sat bolt upright in bed but of course there was no one stood at the foot of the bed. No clockwork woman. No women in dark suits with scarred faces. No terrible clockwork ticking.

I told myself that I’d imagined it.

That Thomas’s story and then Sadie sharing the weird little trivia she’d dug up about Phillip Dremmel being some kind of devil worshipping lunatic had combined with the anxiety and stress that was already present in my mind in abundance. Of course I’d had a dream like that. Of course the combination of factors had produced a nightmare.

I almost believed it.

I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

It was after work the next day that I decided to do something I was far from convinced was a wise decision. I decided to start looking into Phillip Dremmel himself. Everything I knew about the man who had invented this thing that seemed to somehow be at the centre of all the strangeness that had occurred in my life recently was from what I’d been told by others. Harold Reed, Thomas and even Sadie had all shared little bits and pieces of information about him a lot of it what I would call of dubious authenticity at best.

I wanted to see what I could dig up on my own.

The first few results as I searched for any mention of him on the World Wide Web were fairly ordinary in all honesty. I found mention of his history as a clockmaker and builder of “Clockwork novelties” which had apparently been a job he inherited from his father, along with a small shop that operated in the nearby town of Havenfield. There he’d made a modest but successful living and had apparently even had some of his work displayed for the public to some small local acclaim.

Pieces designed by him had apparently found their way into a number of museums and private collections. It all seemed rather wholesome in all honesty. Despite my dislike for dolls I had to admit that the pieces I saw featured in the black and white photographs that accompanied these articles were certainly well made and that for people who liked this sort of thing, this would be the sort of thing they’d like.

The only thing that struck me as being noteworthy as I scrolled through what was a fairly positive article about his work, how he’d learned his craft and the influence his creations had had on those who came after was a couple of sentences that struck me as curious. It simply read “Despite the strange direction his work took later in life, Dremmel’s skill was such that his creations still draw grounds from far and wide. In 1927 he was even personally invited to the home of the wealthy Herbert Smythe to demonstrate one of his most recent pieces.”

Herbert Smythe…Leland’s father?

I looked it up and sure enough Leland Smythe’s father had indeed been named Herbert. And given the timing of this “Demonstration” it was entirely likely that the piece he’d been invited to demonstrate for him was the Mechanical Cassandra. It would certainly go some way to explaining why a wealthy businessman from Sweden had come all the way to the states to purchase an obscure clockwork doll…perhaps he’d grown up hearing stories of it from his father and grandfather and it had left an impression on him.

Though none of that explained why he was meeting in secret with Harold at strange gatherings in the middle of the night. Or what exactly they had been doing in that house that Thomas had stumbled upon.

I decided to refine my search a little and so I specifically looked up the words Phillip Dremmel and “Occult” to see if that would bring up anything regarding the strange rumours that both Thomas and Sadie said they’d heard about the man. This time I got some results more connected to what I was specifically after but I certainly hadn’t been prepared for just how surreal some of what popped up truly was.

The article title of “Phillip Dremmel: Artist, Inventor, Serial Killer?” was more than a little lurid and the contents of the article fit the sensational tone to a tee. It recounted how in his home town of Havenfield Dremmel’s reputation had apparently been far from the rosy picture that the other articles I had read had painted. He’d been known for his spectacular creations to be sure but he’d also gained a far darker reputation around town following the disappearance of his wife.

Her body had never been found and despite his claims that she’d simply left him, stories had swirled around town that Dremmel had murdered her.

And as if the accusation of murder wasn’t bad enough before too long people started adding embellishments to that. They claimed that Dremmel had sacrificed his wife to the Devil as part of some demonic pact to be granted greater skill and inspiration at his craft. Supposedly Dremmel was known to have in his possession some tomes relating to magic and the occult. This had led to the town seeing him as some kind of practitioner of black magic.

The article also mentioned that “Dremmel’s reputation was only further dragged down by his association with The Collective, a loose association of writers, artists, poets and filmmakers who had earned a sinister reputation within the town” but it didn’t go into any greater detail about just what that reputation was or who might have been a part of this group.

It did however bring up that Dremmel’s wife was not the only disappearance that Dremmel was blamed for. In the years immediately following her disappearance there were four other unexplained and unsolved missing persons cases, one involving a child and three involving young women who lived in the town. There had never been anything to directly tie Dremmel to any of it beyond the fact that he was a little bit strange and lived in the town but this being a relatively small town in 20’s America that was all the “Proof” that the townspeople needed. By the mid-twenties he had closed up his families shop and begun touring his Mechanical Cassandra around America. And the article admitted that this could easily have been a case of an innocent man driven from his home by small town prejudices and paranoia were it not for the fact that the unusual occurrences seemed to follow Dremmel and his invention as they began their tour of the country.

For a start the “Performances” that the Mechanical Cassandra gave were apparently fraught with no small amount of controversy. On at least three occasions besides the one that Harold had shared with me she had caused audience members to become enraged, even violent with what she had written. The article spoke of how on one occasion an audience member had challenged the machine to tell him “His deepest secret”.

The machine had regarded him for a few moments before its hand had sprung to life and begun writing something on the paper. Dremmel had snatched the paper up, handed it to the man and invited him to read what was written upon it. The man had apparently stared at the paper for a few moments and then, turning red as a brick, had “Sprung at Dremmel” and begun violently assaulting the man, his hands wrapped around his neck as if he was trying to choke the life out of him all while screaming the words “Who told you that? Who told you that?” over and over again.

It had taken three men to drag the man away, still raving in a fury that was unlike anything they’d seen from a sane man before in their lives. Whatever had been written on the paper was unknown. What was known was that some of the secrets the machine revealed…stolen money, affairs, addiction….caused the freak show it was touring with to be threatened with legal action on more than one occasion. And threatened with violence even more frequently.

But Dremmel’s attraction brought in customers and so despite the controversy the freak show was hesitant to be rid of him.

It wasn’t simply controversy that followed him and his mechanical creation around however.

In every town the freak show came to, a pattern emerged. Wherever it would end up, disappearances would follow. Never more than two or three in any given location. Entirely possible to be written off as a coincidence. But an unsettling one all the same…every town and city that Dremmel brought his Mechanical Cassandra to had a number of unsolved disappearances occur that directly coincided with when Dremmel was in town and that ended immediately after he departed.

As a result a number of people had drawn the connection between that and the disappearances in Havenfield and had come to the conclusion that Dremmel’s extravagant showmanship was merely a cover for his true purpose, a convenient way to give himself a showy and distracting excuse for why he was travelling across the country like this. One that both put money in his pocket and ensured that he wouldn’t need to stick around long enough to be questioned by local police about what had occurred.

And so the rumours that Dremmel was a serial murderer began. One who, having fallen under suspicion in his home town, had decided to travel from place to place, never claiming more than a few victims in each town before it was time to move on, his role as travelling showman with a roving freak show troupe giving him a neat and tidy reason to explain his presence in each town without attracting too much attention.

However for some, the rumours didn’t stop there.

Two accounts stood out at this point.

The first was from the granddaughter of someone who had worked in the freak show. She said that her grandfather had “Always loved to share stories of his life as the Ferocious Wolf Man of the Black Forest”, a title that was more than a little fanciful given that he was neither an actual wolf man nor from anywhere near the Black Forest of Germany…he’d been born in Jersey. His stories were always full of life and colour and humour as he shared tales of the bonds of friendship and family he’d forged with his fellow performers, of the scandalous, silly and strange antics that had occurred, of pranks pulled and customers delighted.

And one night as they’d sat together sharing some whiskey out on the porch of her grandfather’s home; she’d asked him if he had any stories that were frightening.

Anything that had happened that had been strange or mysterious or even ghostly from his time travelling all over the country. Had he ever seen anything he couldn’t explain?

She said that her grandfather got extremely quiet after that for a while, which was unlike the man. He had a blunt and no nonsense way about him and was rarely at a loss for words. But the question seemed to have given him pause and left him a little bit uncertain. Finally however he began to speak, saying that he didn’t believe in ghosts or ghouls himself…but that if it was a story about something bizarre she wanted to hear he did have one of those in him.

“We had someone touring with us for a while. Fella by the name of…Drammel? Daniels? Something like that…Dremmel. That was it. He was an inventor or something like that. Didn’t take to him right from the first time I met the man. Some people, you just get a feeling from right away. A sense of them. And the sense I got of him stank. He was all smiles and charm to be sure but there was something about him I didn’t much like.

Something behind that smile. You could tell he was putting it on. Man’s face might as well have been a mask, for all the real emotion he ever showed.

Anyway he was touring this contraption he’d made. He called it the Marvellous Mechanical Maiden. Was this clockwork doll he’d made, this strange looking thing. A wind-up toy that looked like a pretty lady, dressed up all fine with these eerie red eyes. Didn’t like the thing any more than I liked him. Damn things have always made my skin crawl and this one was worse.

Can’t put my finger on what it was but you got this feeling when you were around it. Those damn glass eyes and that smile…you got the sense it was looking at you. Smirkin’ at you. That it knew something you didn’t want it to know. Weren’t just me either…no one liked being around the thing for long other than Dremmel. Gave us all the willies.

People even used to say that they’d see it looking at them. See it moving when it wasn’t supposed to. Watching them…spying on them. The thing made peoples skin crawl to be honest. It looked just human enough that you could mistake it for a person but off in all the worst ways…hell I wouldn’t even be in a room alone with it toward the end and I wasn’t the only one either.

Dremmel adored the thing though. Was protective of it, obsessed with it if you ask me. Something about the way he doted on it just weren’t healthy, in my opinion. Sometimes I’d see him stroking its hair, rubbing its shoulders. Only made me dislike the man even more. And if anyone so much as bumped or jostled the thing he’d lose his damn mind over it…if he weren’t bringing in so much money the boss would have thrown him out on his ass…

Anyway one night, the boss asks me to find Dremmel, says he wants to talk to him. I figure he might be over at the tent where that thing was being kept. I go over to check and I hear voices. One of them is Dremmel’s and he sounds upset. Now I ain’t normally one to snoop you know…but the man was so damn odd that I guess I was just plain curious…I wanted to know who he was talkin’ to and what he was so upset about.

So I peek my head in just a ways, so’s I can see him and he can’t see me. And I swear the man is down on his knees in front of that wind up girl of his and he’s bawling his eyes out. Sobbing to it. Sobbin’ that he won’t do it no more, that it can’t make him. Sobbin’ that he’s sorry and that he “Wants out”. Sobbin’ about how “She” can’t force him to “Do this any longer”. He’s practically in hysterics, blubbering away….whole body shaking…he don’t just sound upset either

He sounds scared. He sounds like a man with the devil chasing him.

He starts clasping his hands together like he’s prayin’ to the damn thing. Begging that he can’t do what it wants, can’t give it what it needs anymore. I don’t rightly know what to make of any of this…never seen anything like it before in my damn life. But then and I swear to god I’m not making this up….the damn thing stands up. Stands up and puts its hands on his shoulders and looks down at him with those red glass eyes.

And then its head turns.

And it’s like it’s looking right at me.

I lit out of there. Ran to one of the other tents. Never mentioned what I saw to anyone, never brought it up to Dremmel either.

But the thing that I remember most about that day was what I’d heard.

I’d heard two voices coming from that tent. One had been Dremmel’s sure enough. But I swear to god, the other voice…the other voice had sounded like a woman’s”

The other account related to one of the disappearances that had occurred, in a town where the freak show had been touring. It wasn’t an account that had been believed at the time any more than it was treated as credible by most people now. The sister of one of the victims had repeatedly made the claim that on the night her sister had vanished she’d seen “Women dressed in black” that had “Disfigured faces” lurking outside the house. That she’d seen them in the front and back yard repeatedly but each time she’d tried to alert their parents to this fact that the women had vanished from view.

And the account she gave of what became of her sister was even stranger.

She claimed that she had woken at around three in the morning to the sound of her sister screaming. She’d glanced over at the bed beside hers to find it empty and had run through the house, calling for her sister and her parents. Her parents at no point woke during any of this. She had run through the halls of the house, finally seeing her sister being dragged down the stairs.

She was clinging onto the banisters, screaming for help.

And clutching onto her sisters ankles was one of the women in black, dragging her down the stairs. She had had run to the staircase and there at the bottom of the stairs she said that there were two more women dressed like the first and that stood between them was “The mechanical lady from the carnival”

She said that it had looked up at her and that there had been “Lights on behind her eyes” and that the thing had smiled up at her and bowed to her. The women in black at the bottom of the stairs had joined the third on the staircase. She’d wanted to run to help her sister, wanted to grab hold of her and pull her from the woman’s grasp. But she’d been unable to move. Her whole body had gone rigid and stiff, completely non responsive to what her brain wanted it to do.

The women in black had dragged her sister, screaming and crying down the stairs. The Mechanical Cassandra had opened her arms wide and embraced the girl as she was brought before her. And then it was as if the world had gone out of focus for a moment. The girl’s sister had woken in her bed, screaming her lungs out. Her parents had come running to find her sister gone from her bed and her carrying on about how “The mechanical lady” had taken her.

Naturally the police had looked into this. No one believed the girls account of things in any seriousness but Dremmel had briefly been questioned. He’d had an alibi for the night in question though and at his invitation the police had examined the “Marvellous Mechanical Maiden” and concluded that she was a perfectly ordinary if advanced clockwork doll.

No trace of the women in black was ever found. The description she gave matched no one who lived in the town or was employed at the freak show and despite the police making inquiries around the town no one but the girl seemed to have seen them. Her account was written off as her traumatised mind creating a fantasy because the truth of what she’d seen was too terrible for her to properly process.

No trace of her sister was ever found.

I poured myself some wine.

I told myself it was just coincidence. Women in black. Women in black with disfigured faces. They couldn’t be the same women. This account was from the 1920’s for gods sake…they’d be about a hundred years old by now at the least…there was no way that the women that Thomas claimed to have seen that night could be the same women that were mentioned here.

But then who were they? And who had the women back then been?

And how did it all tie in with Dremmel and his invention?

Was any of if true to begin with?

I could hardly believe that I was actually considering the possibility any of this could be. I believed Thomas when he said he’d seen something strange…I’d known him long enough to know that he wasn’t the kind of person who’d mess with me like that. But the rest of this, the idea that Dremmel had been some kind of mass murderer and that his invention had been…cursed? Possessed?

The idea that there was some shadowy group of women in black kidnapping people to sacrifice to it?

And even if…even if all those years ago Dremmel had really had some kind of cult spring up around him and his invention, some insane group of maniacs that had abducted and killed innocent people all of that would be long over now. Dremmel was dead. His invention had spent decades gathering dust somewhere and anyone who had been involved in the killings with him would likely be LONG dead at this point.

But then what had Thomas seen that night…

Driven on by a ghoulish need to know more I looked through some of the results that had popped up. A lot of them were along the same lines…lurid rumours that Dremmel had been involved in devil worship and black magic in his home town, claims that he had played a part in a number of disappearances. But on the third or fourth site I clicked on I did learn a few things that the other sites hadn’t touched upon.

The first was that the disappearances that happened during his time in America seemed to continue as he made his way to Europe. They were less frequent and in many of the cities he toured his invention in it was difficult to say that there was any connection between him and them…these were large cities at a fairly chaotic time in history, a time when fascism was on the rise, the countries’ economies were in turmoil and violence was distressingly common…if it hadn’t been for the fact that some of the disappearances fit the pattern of Dremmel’s time in America…girls and young women, vanished from places that Dremmel happened to be staying in while he toured his invention…it would be easy to write them off as completely unconnected to him.

What was curious was some of the people who Dremmel seemed to be associating with while in Europe. He’d gone from the company of a down at its heels freak show to rubbing elbows with some extremely influential and highly dangerous people. Herbert Smythe was one of them and there were numerous black and white photographs of Dremmel with Smythe and a number of others…men and women in expensive looking clothing smiling, drinking, shaking hands.

There was even a shot of Smythe and Dremmel posed together beside the Mechanical Cassandra. In addition to Smythe who was himself a man with a somewhat shady and unwholesome reputation even by the standards of billionaires in general, Dremmel had also begun to rub elbows with some far darker figures. While in Germany he had apparently kept company with among others Heinrich Himmler and Josef Goebbels, and the site went into the rumours of him having been part of the Thule Society…a gathering of weirdoes and sociopaths many of whom were part of the Nazi party and who were obsessed with a mostly made up hodge-podge of quasi mystical ideas produced from the surplus of insanity they had in their own warped brains.

In addition to this there were reports of him having associated with a rather infamous occultist in Paris by the name of Adrien Dubois. Dubois was apparently well known for throwing some truly spectacular parties where the drink flowed freely and it wasn’t uncommon for orgies to take place. But there was a darker side to the atmosphere of free love and celebration that Dubois encouraged at his estate…there had been multiple allegations made against him by any number of women and claims that at one of his parties two murders had been committed during a “Frenzy of ritualistic violence and depravity”.

Dubois was infamous for his interest in the occult and many claimed that he had performed ceremonies where he had actually summoned and spoke with demons. That he could speak with the dead and bargain with entities from hell itself. Dubois had apparently been fascinated by the Mechanical Cassandra’s seemingly magical ability to know the secrets of those who asked questions of it and to even predict the future.

He invited Dremmel to show the thing off at some of his get togethers, curious to see if it lived up to its reputation. And it was not long after this initial meeting that Dremmel seemed to make connections among other figures in the world of the occult who were all associates of Dubois…so whatever it was the thing had done during this presentation it had clearly impressed Dubois and his strange circle of friends.

Dubois has supposedly personally described the Mechanical Cassandra as “A thing of wicked construction and monstrous appetite” and personally described Dremmel as “Without a doubt one of the most evil men I have ever made the acquaintance of…possessed of less soul and humanity than the mechanical tinker toys he constructed”

It was difficult to tell if Dubois meant this as an insult or a compliment given what the man himself was like.

Dubois had supposedly claimed to have spoken at length with Dremmel about the secrets of the Mechanical Cassandra’s construction and more. He would often hint at having learned terrible things “At the feet of that clockwork prophet of suffering”. He would never share whatever Dremmel had told him in its entirety but he did once claim that the nature of Dremmel’s work was “Too awful for most minds to even conceive of…requiring greater sacrifice than many would be willing to make”

The rumours that Dremmel was not merely a killer but a man who was sacrificing his victims seems to have gained additional fuel from these events. Stories abounded of how the Mechanical Cassandra could even “Speak with the voice of the Devil” if offered human sacrifice started to swirl around these strange parties that Dremmel and Dubois were involved with. And despite the infamy and scandal that surrounded some of his associates Dremmel himself seemed to never be without an entourage now, people desperate to beg an audience of the Mechanical Cassandra.

And then he vanished.

Gone from the earth as if it had opened up and swallowed him whole.

There were any number of theories that ranged from him having made enemies of some particularly bloodthirsty, vicious and brutal individuals during his time in Berlin to him having dropped out of sight to assume a false identity as a way to avoid justice for any of the wide variety of depraved crimes he was suggested of having been responsible for.

And then of course there were the people who claimed that his own invention had dragged him into the pits of hell with it. That he’d been pulled kicking and screaming into the inferno as payment for whatever monstrous bargain he’d struck with things that dwelt beyond the veil.

I poured myself another glass of wine.

None of this was likely to improve my mental state, I knew.

I was due to meet up with Thomas later that day to try and hammer out the details of his “Plan” for lack of a better word but every attempt I’d made to call him or text him had been met without success. In the end I decided to drive over to his apartment but when I arrived no amount of knocking upon his door produced a response.

I tried not to worry about that.

He was probably working a late shift and his phone was out of power, is what I told myself. That was why he wasn’t home and also wasn’t responding to my calls or texts.

He would be fine.

Even at the time I didn’t truly believe that.

The next day came with no word from Thomas. No reply to my texts. No response when I called him on his phone. I checked social media to see if anything might have happened, fearing that maybe he’d been in an accident or something like that and assuming that even if I hadn’t heard anything yet one of his friends or family on there would have posted something. There was nothing in the way of such news but there was also no sign he’d posted anything since we’d spoken earlier yesterday and, as someone who knew Thomas, I knew this was unusual.

I started calling around among mutual friends of ours. None of them had heard from him in at least the last day or so but none of them seemed to think anything was wrong either. More than a few asked if something was the matter, obviously hearing the apprehension in my voice but I tried to reassure them that everything was fine as convincingly as I could. I told myself that for all I knew everything was fine. That there was no reason to think he was in any trouble.

Minutes passed like hours and I spent my shift at work distracted and in a fog of anxiety. I repeatedly checked my phone whenever I was able to do so just to see if there had been any texts from Thomas or any of our friends. My fear was rising to a crescendo at this point and I was seriously considering calling the police to report him missing. So you can imagine the mixture of relieve and irritation when I arrived home to find Thomas waiting outside my door, seemingly none the worse for wear.

“Where the hell were you?” I asked him. He held his hands up in a disarming gesture and apologised profusely for having been out of touch. He explained that his phone’s battery had died and that he’d only just been able to charge it a little while ago and seen the various texts and phone calls I’d sent to him. He said he was sorry if he’d worried me and now it was my turn to feel foolish.

Of course there was a perfectly simple explanation like that. I felt like a fool for letting myself become so worked up over the fact I hadn’t heard from him. It had only been a day after all. But between Thomas’s own account of what had happened at Harold Reed’s house and then filling my head with all those bizarre and unsettling tales about Phillip Dremmel’s strange past I had let my imagination run away with me and filled my thoughts with images of scarred women in black dragging Thomas off to who knows where.

I let Thomas in and poured us both a drink and we began to go over the plan. My first worry was how he would stay in touch with one another, given that he’d said he had no signal while he’d been at Reed’s house a few nights previously. However Thomas revealed that he’d been back to the grounds to, in his own words “Case the joint” and that his phone had seemed to be working fine on this return trip.

“You went back there? Alone?” I asked him.

“Just to the grounds…I didn’t go inside the house or anything.”

“Also, “Case the joint”? Who are you now, Raffles the Gentleman Thief?”

“Look, my point is that my phone worked fine.”

“That time,” I pointed out and he agreed that it was always possible the signal would drop away. So he suggested that as a backup plan he would set a timer on his watch for twenty minutes. He said that it should be easy for me to keep Harold talking for that long given how much he loved to gush about his bizarre clockwork find and that he would snoop around for that long and no longer.

I asked what he expected to find and he admitted that he didn’t really know. Bloodstains perhaps, a weapon? Evidence that the girl he’d seen that night had been held against her will? Something he could either bring to the cops or tip them off about to hopefully put a stop to whatever it was that Harold Reed was doing up at that house.

I told him straight out that I thought his chances were slim. And in all fairness he admitted that his plan was as desperate as it was hastily thrown together. But he couldn’t let this go.

“I keep…I keep remembering that night. Those screams…”

He drifted off into silence and I didn’t press the subject further. Whatever my scepticism it was clear that whatever he’d seen had hit him hard and that he wouldn’t be able to even consider letting this go until we at least tried his plan. He revealed that he’d checked the side and back doors to the house and found that Harold kept the backdoor unlocked…not entirely surprising given that his house was in a fairly remote area, unlikely to be troubled by thieves. He’d go around the back while I kept Harold distracted and take a look around.

“And if the door’s locked?” I asked.

“I’ll jimmy it open.”

“Jimmy it open….first casing the joint now “Jimmy it open”…did you spend yesterday watching a bunch of old heist movies to prepare for this?” I asked

He laughed and I joined in and it felt very good indeed to be able to laugh again. After how stressed I’d been that day and the night before…and in all honesty the day before that as well…it felt good to be able to share a drink and a laugh with a good friend. I wish that this could have lasted. I wish that I’d treasured that moment more at the time instead of just assuming that there would always be more moments like this to come in the future.

Thomas asked if I’d told Sadie our plan and I admitted I hadn’t. We both agreed that was for the best because I think even Thomas realised deep down just how foolhardy the plan was. But foolhardy or not he was committed to it and he didn’t want the risk of Sadie talking me out of going along with it. And I suppose I didn’t want to run that risk either. Though my reasons were different. Thomas was hell-bent on finding evidence of some kind of misdeeds. While I was hoping that he would find nothing.

That his search would be fruitless and I’d be able to convince myself that there really was nothing going on up at Harold Reed’s house. That what he’d seen hadn’t been what it looked like and that it had nothing to do with the strange and horrible tales of what Phillip Dremmel had been involved with.

Thomas headed home and I headed to bed. I hoped that I’d be able to enjoy a more restful nights sleep now that I knew he was safe and that one way or another all of this would soon be settled.

I woke at three in the morning. I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt the way I did when I awoke but I was instantly gripped with that sensation of something being askew. A sense that something was wrong in the house, my brain just screaming the word “DANGER” at me as loudly as it could. Desperately trying to warn me of something that I couldn’t see, smell, hear or touch but that was there all the same.

From somewhere in the apartment I heard it.

A voice. A soft, feminine voice whispering my name.

“Hailey.”

For a moment I wondered if Sadie had gotten home early from her work trip and was trying to check if I was awake without risking waking me if I was sleeping. But the voice didn’t sound like hers. In fact I couldn’t place the voice at all. It came again, a soft whisper from somewhere in the lounge. Reaching under the bed I fumbled around until my fingers closed upon the handle of the baseball bat I kept there in case the worst came to the worst. Lifting the heavy chunk of wood up I began to walk towards the bedroom door.

The door was open and through it I could see the lounge beyond. There was a faint light source just out of sight. Had I left a lamp on? Or the television? I didn’t think that I had but all the same something was casting a faint reddish light upon the wall, the couch and the little glass table. And again came that soft whisper.

Somehow both gentle and threatening all at once. Each time I heard that whisper it felt as if a fist had clenched tightly around my guts.

“Hailey”

I rounded the corner and froze.

Unable to properly take in what I was seeing.

Two women in black stood near the couch, their backs to me. Though I had no doubt of the grisly ruin I would see upon their faces if they turned around. They were dressed in the funeral garb that I’d heard and read described before. They towered over a man who sat hunched over on the ground dressed in filthy and tattered clothing, his shirt an off-grey that seemed to be the result of years of grime and dirt.

The man likewise had his back to me. He was sobbing.

In front of him she stood. The Mechanical Cassandra. Dressed in her fine white gown, an eerie red light spilling from her glittering glass eyes. She stood over the man seemingly looking down upon him, watching his work. His work…

The man was hunched over a sheet or tarp. His hands were wearily and arthritically working at something that lay stretched out across the tarp. Something wet and red. Something that pulsed and dripped and quivered. His hands were caked in a thick red and black mess. The red light gleamed against needles and scissors and scalpels laid out next to the white and red mess that was splayed out across the tarp.

I dropped the bat to the ground. The wood clattered against the floor. The Mechanical Cassandra’s head twitched up and those gleaming red eyes were fixed upon me now. The two women in black turned to look directly at me and even in the poor light the scars across their mouths were visible. The scars were raw and bleeding as if they’d only just been made. Those awful Glasgow smiles slashed into those pale faces.

“Hailey.”

The voice was not coming from either of the women in black.

The voice was coming from the Mechanical Cassandra.

“You are expected. Don’t keep me waiting.”

The sobbing man turned to look at me.

His face was a mess of cuts and bruises. But beneath the violent purple marks and the old dried blood that marked and obscured his face I could recognise him well enough. The man who sat hunched there was one I’d seen multiple photographs of only recently after all. The man who sat hunched there was Phillip Dremmel.

Tears poured down his cheeks, mingling with the dirt and the blood. As he wept he gurgled out two simple words. Two words that sounded like they came through a mouth full of broken glass.

“Help…me…”

I opened my mouth to scream and no sound came out.

In an instant the Mechanical Cassandra was beside me.

I don’t mean that she crossed the room quickly. I mean that she went from being stood a good ten feet away to being directly beside me without seeming to move an inch. I stood there, unable to move and unable to even blink. I heard the clanking and ticking of the internal mechanisms of the Mechanical Cassandra as her hand moved to my lips, placing a finger against them.

“Shhhhhhhhhhh.”

I woke screaming.

I went around the house and turned every light on. I checked and double checked the doors and windows which remained locked. I examined every inch of the area that I’d seen the monstrous thing that Dremmel had been cutting and stitching at. No trace of blood. Nothing to suggest anyone had ever been there at all.

And of course there wasn’t, I told myself. It was a nightmare. Just another nightmare like the one I’d had before. Just a little more…vivid than that one had been. No matter how often I told myself this it did nothing to quell the hammering in my chest.

But the worst part was when I saw what was laying on the ground in the lounge.

The baseball bat from under my bed.

To say that I didn’t want to go through with Thomas’s plan after that night would be an understatement. But I had no idea how to explain my reluctance without sounding insane. What would I tell him? That I believed that I was being haunted by a clockwork doll and some kind of cult dressed in black? That I’d had a dream or a vision or…or I didn’t truly know what…happen to me the night before?

No…there was no way to explain why I didn’t want to go back to Harold Reed’s house rationally. No way to put into words just why the thought of being in the same room as that mechanical thing filled me with terror without coming across like a complete madwoman. So I said nothing when I went to his home that day to pick him up.

He looked like he’d slept even worse than I had. When I asked him if he was alright he’d simply answered that he’d had “Weird dreams” last night. I so badly wanted to ask about those dreams and yet at the same time I was terrified of what the answers might have been. Because if they were anything like what I had experienced I would no longer be able to try and delude myself into thinking they were just the product of an overactive imagination.

Thomas hid in the backseat of the car as we arrived at Reed’s house. The second I saw the place I could feel anxiety gripping me…the knowledge of what was contained in that house, that I would soon again be face to face with that mechanical thing. Be forced to look at that frozen smile, those gleaming red eyes.

The car came to a stop and I hissed at Thomas to keep his head down while I went inside. I strolled toward the house and knocked upon the door, not having to wait long until it was opened and I was greeted by the familiar face of Harold Reed. Or rather mostly familiar. He was somewhat more smartly dressed and clean shaven than when I’d seen him and there was…something about him that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Something that hadn’t been there before. He seemed more alert, more focused than the man I’d met with before. He smiled genially at me as he invited me inside, asking how I’d been and once again apologising for how things had gone when I’d last been here.

I tried to sound sincere when I told him that it was fine. Apologised and told him that it had been my fault for “Letting the thing upset me so much”.

“She can have that effect on people” Harold replied and I nodded mentioning that I’d gathered that. His expression twisted into a smile I really didn’t much care for.

“Oh? Been reading up on her? Have I infected you with my curiosity for the subject of our honoured guest?”

I tried to laugh it off as I said that I’d just been interested to learn a little bit more about the thing. But the way he continued to refer to it as if it was a living, breathing human being and the way he spoke…the tone of his voice…it made my skin crawl. That intensity he had toward the “Mechanical Cassandra” seemed to have only grown since our last meeting and more than that it felt less like the eccentricity of a harmless academic now.

It felt more sinister.

“I can understand why. There’s certainly no shortage of tales out there about her…she’s captured the imaginations of many.”

“Hence why she’s worth such a fortune I assume,” I said as we walked through the building towards the room where she was kept.

“Ah, Mr Smythe’s offer…yes well his interests are rather more base than that, I suppose”

“In what way?” I asked as we reached the door.

“Imagine the use a man in the world of business would have for such an invention. A being that can predict the future…a being that can know any secret…imagine the fortune that such a man could make through the careful and judicious use of such a thing.

To always know every move a rival might make. To know the correct decisions to make that would bring you greater wealth, greater power. Small wonder that Dremmel drew such powerful and dangerous men to his side when he toured her through Europe…the power that she possessed…the knowledge she could grant…”

“If her powers are real of course,” I interjected.

Harold’s smile vanished for a moment, replaced briefly with a far angrier look. However it returned in short order as he unlocked the door.

“You still doubt what she can do?” he asked me.

“I suppose I’m just a born sceptic…I guess that’s why I wanted to come back. For more proof” I lied. He grinned widely at me and I think on the whole I had preferred the scowl.

“Well I certainly think we shall be able to provide that.”

I didn’t comment on that.

The door was pushed open and there I was, face to face with the Mechanical Cassandra once again.

If I thought that I’d prepared myself for the way the thing was going to make me feel I was wrong. Instantly the urge to turn and run became almost overwhelming. As I forced myself to walk towards it my motions were almost as jerky and awkward as the mechanical movements I’d seen the thing make during that demonstration. It felt like its eyes were fixed on me like laser sights. And that smile…I told myself it was impossible but it was as if the smile had changed.

Had become crueller. Mocking me…laughing at some private joke. And I was the punchline.

As we walked across the room I saw her stand and bow. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“She remembers you,” Harold said. I’d stopped breathing. Inside I was screaming.

“You didn’t tell me you’d…activated it already,” I said.

“Oh yes. She’s awake now,” Harold replied. He spoke the words as if he was in the midst of some private rapture.

He asked me what I would like to ask it. In all honesty I didn’t want to ask it anything. I wanted to get as far from it as I could. But I had promised Thomas I would buy him at least twenty minutes and I meant to keep my promise. So I took a few steps forward and decided to ask it something innocuous, something harmless.

Something that wouldn’t produce a result that had left me so shaken as the earlier attempt had.

I asked it my girlfriends middle name. And as it had done before the things arm sprung to life, its hand scrawling out the answer upon one of the sheets of paper that rested on the table beside its chair. Harold looked from it to me and then asked if I wanted to see if it had answered correctly. I desperately did not want to approach the thing.

But I forced myself to do it. Walking towards it where it sat and trying not to meet its “Gaze”. Trying not to look at those awful red eyes and that fixed expression on its face. I reached down and snatched up the paper. Written on the sheet of paper was the name “Joan”. The right answer. Of course it was the right answer. Because the Mechanical Cassandra was supposed to know everything after all.

“Why don’t you ask it something?” I asked Harold. I tried to phrase it jovially. My voice came out as barely a croak. Harold didn’t seem to notice or if he did he didn’t seem to much care about the effect the thing was having upon me. He shook his head as he took a few steps toward it.

“Oh, I think I’ve already gotten the answers I wanted from her…”

I didn’t know what he meant by that and by the way he said it I wasn’t sure I wanted to know either. I turned back towards the thing that sat there and blurted a question out…I asked it who I’d shared my first ever kiss with. Once again the hand came to life. Once again I saw it writing out a name that I recognised. Harold cocked his head to the side, his smile widening.

“Another correct answer?” he asked.

I snatched the paper up. I swallowed hard.

“Why not ask it something you REALLY want to know. The question that’s really on your mind?” Harold suggested. I told him that I had no idea what he meant. He chuckled to himself as he took a few steps toward the thing and I.

“I think you do, Ms Brown. But since you want it to be my turn, I suppose I’ll ask my question.”

He turned toward the thing and as I watched he knelt before her reverently. Looked up into that lifeless face.

“Did Ms Brown really come here just for a demonstration?”

The things hand moved smoothly across the paper as it wrote the word “No” upon it. Harold nodded to himself and stood, turning towards me. And asked if perhaps now I’d like to ask it the question that was really on my mind right now.

“Were you in my home last night?” I asked it.

Its head turned slowly to look directly at me. It stood. I backed away from it as quickly as I could. The thing cocked its head to the side. From somewhere behind those awful glass eyes something spun into motion and a faint red glow began to emanate from them from something fixed behind them. I had backed up against the wall.

Nowhere to run. Nowhere else to turn.

“What is this?” I asked. Harold once again made that soft chuckling sound.

“This is about what it has always been about. Phillip Dremmel’s greatest masterpiece. His legacy. His triumph.

Life out of death. Creation out of destruction.

Something ageless and forever. Something beyond humanity. His child. His gift to the world…his Mechanical Cassandra. Foreteller of misery. Reliquary of secrets…such secrets. All the things you wish she could never know. And oh what she’s told me about you, Ms Brown. You and your friend who I assume is still skulking around here somewhere?”

“You knew?” I asked and he grinned, the chuckle becoming a throaty laugh now.

“Of course I knew my dear. I wanted you both here. It took some convincing to get Smythe on board with it but I persuaded him that you should both be here for the denouement as it were…”

“What the hell is that thing?” I asked, pointing at the Mechanical Cassandra. I felt paralysed beneath its gaze. Unable to will my legs to obey me. Even the act of raising my arm to point felt like a test of endurance. My limbs were heavy, leaden.

“She is exactly what I told you she was. Phillip Dremmel’s final and greatest piece. And I am humbled to be her humble servant” Harold said. He spoke of her with a longing, a devotion that I would have expected to hear someone use when talking of their great love or describing their pious devotion to a deity. He looked toward the clockwork thing that stood there as if she was his entire world. As if nothing else mattered.

“You said…you said you found her…” I wheezed out, finding it harder and harder to breathe.

“I found her where she has always waited. Where she took them all. Where she took Phillip Dremmel all those many years ago and where she will take us all one day…all of those blessed by her monstrous touch, fortunate enough to wallow in the blood and filth of her greatness…”

“You’re…insane…” I managed to gasp out as I dropped to my knees. The Mechanical Cassandra towered above me, looking down upon my helpless form as the terrible red light poured from her eyes.

“People have always confused genius with madness. They called Dremmel mad. They’d have called him madder still if they knew what it took to create his eternal child. What had been needed to be done as part of his bargain. Life out of death. Creation out of destruction. The stories of Dremmel’s deeds. His demon worship."

“My god…” I managed to croak out weakly. Reed shook his head as he knelt down, bringing his face level with mine.

“There is no god. Dremmel learned that as well. No God above and no Devil below. But there are far far older things than that….things that can be found, if you know where to look. Or that might find you if you go looking, come to that. Things that want. Things that need. Things that could give Dremmel what he most craved. Of course as anyone can tell you….it takes two people to make a child.”

Harold looked up at the Mechanical Cassandra.

Two people. My head was swimming. My body felt like it was burning up from the inside. Sweat trickling down my face. Two people. Dremmel’s wife’s disappearance. The strange, lifelike texture to the Mechanical Cassandra’s skin. Two people….

“Dremmel supplied the artistry…the craft…and Dremmel’s wife supplied some…raw materials.

Harold Reed stood and placed a hand upon the Mechanical Cassandra’s shoulder.

“I think she’d be proud of what she helped create. Don’t you?”

I felt sick. The room was spinning. Harold turned towards the doorway.

“I believe she’s ready now. I will allow you to take things from here.”

Stood in the doorway were three women dressed in identical black suits and top hats. Each of them resembled each other. The same pale, almost bloodless looking skin. The same terrible jagged scars carved across their mouths. The same glittering eyes. Glittering glass eyes.

The sound of clockwork filled my ears.

The room went black.

When consciousness returned the first thing I became aware of was the sound of music. As my eyes opened I tried to pull myself into a sitting position. I’d been laid out on a couch but the fact that I was in a different room of Reed’s house was among the least of my worries at present. More pressing was the fact that I was clearly no longer alone in the house as I could hear the sound of voices around me. Many voices in fact…the background chatter of a building full of people like at a part or in a packed bar or club. I pulled myself to a sitting positon as I looked around, utterly baffled by what was going on around me.

There were dozens of people milling about the house. The lights had been dimmed and beyond that they appeared to have acquired a strange reddish tint to them. The men and women were dressed in fine suits and gowns, the clothes they wore looking like they cost more than anything I could ever hope to wear…or so I would have thought were it not for the fact that a glance down revealed that someone had changed my clothes. The T-shirt and jeans I had come here in had been replaced by a beautiful red dress. And the feeling of violation I felt at knowing someone had changed my clothes while I slept was matched by the feeling of confusion and mounting fear as I properly took in my surroundings.

The crowd laughed and drank together. Loud raucous laughs, shrill cackling. Glasses clinked together. The babble that filled the air was loud to the point of deafening. But it was easy to see that there was something not altogether…right…about the people in the house. The glasses they drank from were overflowing with some that was a dark crimson. Long black lines trailed from the corners of their eyes and mouths.

Gleaming eyes that had an unnatural wideness and shine to them seemed to flick towards me.

I staggered through the room. My head was still hazy. My thoughts still hard to focus on. I could remember what had happened but had no idea how much time had passed while I was out. What had happened. How these people had wound up here. In the corner of the room I could see two of the women in black stood by a door like guards or perhaps jailers.

I saw two more by the door to the far right and another of them stalking about the room, the guests barely seeming to acknowledge her presence. I saw her tap one of the “Guests” upon the shoulder and motion for them to come with her.

How long had I been unconscious?

Who were these people?

And then my mind focused on a more immediate worry: Thomas

Where was Thomas?

“Hailey.”

The sound of my name. Like a whisper in my ear. Like someone pressing their lips to it and softly purring it to me. I spun around. None of the partygoers seemed to be paying much attention to me. One or two glanced in my direction and flashed grins that were disquietingly predatory but it lasted only a moment before they were once again absorbed in conversation and gossip with whoever they were stood beside.

My gaze fell on the doorway closest to me.

She stood there.

Her mouth twisted in a mocking smile. Her eyes glowing…or was it just the lights above that produced that strange effect?

The Mechanical Cassandra.

One hand extended towards me.

One finger curled towards the clockwork entity that stood there.

Beckoning me. Calling to me.


The Mechanical Cassandra’s movements as she lead me through Harold Reed’s home and through the throng of partygoers were possessed of a strange awkward grace. Her limbs still had that familiar stiffness to them that came with the nature of her construction and yet each place she stepped and twirled artfully dodged those around her.

Her eyes appeared locked upon me each time she twirled to face me. Behind me six of the women in black had begun to follow a few feet behind. The attendees carefully avoided them, clearly eager not to earn their attentions for whatever reason. Given the straight razors each of them held in their hands it wasn’t difficult to see why. As I was lead through the “Party” I saw more of what was going on.

In one room a man had been strung up, ropes bound so tight around his wrists and ankles that his hands and feet were turning an unpleasant purple. The ropes were being used to force the man to dance a kind of frantic jig to the music that blared from the speakers, that Charleston music that Thomas had heard when he’d come here a few nights previously. The man seemed to be attempting to scream but his mouth had been sewn shut.

In another room a woman had been placed inside a wire frame of sorts and current was being run through it. I couldn’t tell if she was screaming or cackling as the voltage shot through the thing and in turn through her body. Those watching applauded each time the thing crackled to life.

Upon a large table in what I imagined had once been a dining hall something that resembled no animal I had seen before in my life was being devoured alive. Those carving into the thing and swallowing down bloody chunks of its form looked up at me as I passed, blood trickling down their faces and speckling their teeth, eyes wide and full of insanity.

And the music played on.

And that ghastly red light spilled from every lamp and from every window as if it was shining in from somewhere outside the house now. All around me laughter and sobbing and screams of both agony and ecstasy mingled with the music and the Mechanical Cassandra danced her way through the house as if it was all part of the tune. All part of another grand performance of hers.

As I was lead up the stairs I became aware of a sound all around me. A whispering voice. The same voice but multiplied over and over again as if a million different recordings of it were playing all at once. And the voice whispered things to me. It whispered of things I had done…things that I was ashamed to remember or that I had tried desperately to forget. Little things. Big things. Acts of greed and malice and ignorance, acts of cruel and petty bullying, acts of theft...and more than that it whispered of things I had wanted to do.

Every violent or cruel thought, every vile impulse that I had never acted upon. The voice was soft and loud at the same time. It shouldn’t be possible to have heard such a quiet voice over the sound of the music and the din of the crowd but I could hear every word and I felt tears wetting my cheeks. The Mechanical Cassandra smiled and danced ever onward, leading me further through the house, further into this insane maelstrom that had sprung up around it.

I could hear the footsteps of the women in black close behind. Her loyal servants.

I could hear screaming coming from behind the doors. Howls of agony. The sound of something mechanical buzzing and whirring away.

The door the Mechanical Cassandra was leading me towards was open however. And Harold Reed stood in the doorway, smiling at me as I was lead towards it like the children of Hamlin following the Piper to their doom. He clapped his hands together gleefully as he saw me, that manic grin once more plastered upon his face.

“I am so very glad you could be here for this, Ms Brown.

So very glad indeed”

No words would come out.

He knelt at the feet of the Mechanical Cassandra and she placed one hand upon his head like a queen knighting a loyal servant of her realm. And I supposed that was where we were now. Her domain. Here the Mechanical Cassandra was the final authority. The revellers below and Reed above all were here because of her.

“She has such beautiful knowledge to share with you…such wonderful, awful terrible things….

Things to come…things you’ve done…things you long to do

She knows it all, you see

She peers into the soul of us all and knows what we are, what we want to be…what we should be” Reed said.

“And those she favours she brings here.”

“To…to this house?” I managed to ask. Reed laughed. A laugh that started loud and became louder still, rising to an insane witches cackle. He threw his head back as he howled with laughter.

“You think we’re still in my home? No my dear…we’re in her home now.”

He stepped through the doorway, the Mechanical Cassandra following close behind. I felt the hands of the women in black pushing me forward. Their grip was like a vice, unnaturally strong and forceful. This close to them I could smell a pungent chemical aroma coming off of them. They smelt like a high school science class crossed with a public swimming pool and underneath that vile chemical tang there was something else as well. Something I got the impression the chemical scents were meant to cover up.

This close to them I could see that their eyes were no more real than the Mechanical Cassandra’s were. They too were glittering glass orbs set into their heads. And I was sure that if the noise around me was not so deafening I would hear the familiar clockwork sounds that I’d heard emanating from her when she’d “Performed” for myself and Harold earlier.

“Come to me.”

The voice was little more than a hiss.

“Come listen….”

I was marched towards the door. My stomach dropped when I saw what was inside. Thomas was strapped down to a table, a gag in his mouth. He was heavily restrained and his eyes had been forced open. He was screaming through the gag as he lay there, thrashing about upon the table. A workbench was directly beside him upon which a number of gleaming metal tools were arranged. A man had his back to us both and was hunched over the bench, sobbing to himself. From the ragged clothing and matted hair I recognised him as the man I had seen in my “Dream”.

Phillip Dremmel.

The man to thank for all of this.

“He ran from me.”

The voice was coming from the Mechanical Cassandra. Her head slowly rotated. Her glowing eyes fixed upon the hunched and broken figure. Through his torn clothes I could see numerous horrific scars upon his back. Some looked as if they had been caused by a lash while others appeared to be the result of blades or branding instruments.

“He will not run again.”

There was an injury around his ankles that had been crudely stitched up. She meant her words quite literally. Dremmel had been hobbled.

“Dremmel sadly came to fear his own artistry as time went on.

He came to shrink from the great duty before him. The responsibility he had undertaken. It is always a shame, when parents disappoint their children so…is it not?” Harold asked as he stood in this swelteringly hot room, this microcosm of hell.

“He thought he would have his creation and that would be the end of it. He did not truly understand the bargain he had made, I think. The terms of it. He had created life. And that life longed and wanted and desired as all living things do. She longed to spread her gift. And she longed for companionship. And so she set Dremmel to work crafting for her…her companions.”

The women in black walked to stand beside the Mechanical Cassandra. They knelt at either side of her.

“The missing women…the missing girls…” I managed to say. Harold nodded.

“Necessary sacrifices. Quite literally, one might say. Valuable raw materials for the creation of the little sisters of the cog and gear. Skin lovingly applied over metal. Hearts and lungs replaced by shiny brass. Taking something that would live but a few decades and making instead something that will be forever. In this world and in ours.”

“And what do you get out of this?” I asked. Harold chuckled, as if my question were patently absurd.

“Knowledge of course. It’s all I have ever craved. The things she has told me already. I know things…secrets of this world and hers and others still beyond. It is more than a fair price…her great wisdom in return for my service here… Here, where she takes all those who have asked questions of the great Mechanical Cassandra.”

The Mechanical Cassandra turned to look at me once more now. Those horrible red eyes blazing. She extended her arms towards me as if calling me into an embrace. As if inviting me into her arms to be held like a frightened child. The women in black all looked towards me as well following the gaze of the thing which had ordered their creation.

The mad children of Phillip Dremmel. His monstrous offspring, birthed into the world in the pain and blood of his victims. How many were there? How many had gone missing during his tour of America and then of Europe…how many young girls, how many young women snatched away in the night by Dremmel or his insane invention to be taken to his cutting table…to have their skin peeled from their bones, to have their body transformed into nothing but materials for the creation of one more clockwork abomination?

And what animated them now I wondered? What had given life to the Mechanical Cassandra…what thing had Dremmel found, lurking in some dark and terrible place not meant for man…what had he bartered with to give his “Daughter” this artificial existence and what now burned inside the things metal skull in place of a brain?

Did the women in black remember their old lives? Were they even now tormented and tortured, trapped in a metal prison…trapped forever like the lunatics below who the Mechanical Cassandra had somehow dragged and imprisoned to this place? Or did something else lurk inside them…the same terrible life force that powered their “Mother”?

“Why not ask her more? Think what she can tell you. Your future. Your purpose. What you were meant to be?” Harold asked. I looked him up and down, forcing myself to turn my gaze from the Mechanical Cassandra.

Dremmel turned. In his hands were something hooked and sharp. He moved to where Thomas was strapped down. I heard Thomas’s screams rising higher and higher even through the gag as Dremmel brought the bladed plier like instrument close to one of his eyes. That clockwork monstrosity seemed to give off a kind of insane glee as it watched what was about to occur.

“Your friend's purpose sadly is to be nothing but an entertainment for her guests. But they shall make fine sport of him I’m sure. They always do.”

“Get away from him!” I screamed at Dremmel but he barely seemed to hear me. I wondered if he could hear. He’d been so badly beaten and abused. Not that I felt an ounce of pity for him. This monster had somehow conjured this insanity into the world with his vile acts and now here Thomas and I were caught up in the maelstrom of it all. Reed clapped his hands together with glee.

“What fun we shall have.”

“Fun? You’re insane! You’re out of your goddamn mind!” I spat at him. He turned to me, the grin never leaving his face.

“If you’d heard the things she told me…the secrets she dripped into my ears…the things to come… You’d be mad too. It’s the only sane response.”

Dremmel brought the blades closer to Thomas’s eye. The music rose higher and higher. The women in black turned towards me. The Mechanical Cassandra watched me curiously, waiting for something. I could hear Thomas howling in agony, sobbing and screeching in fear and pain as Dremmel began to get to work upon his body with the sharp little tools that he had arranged around him.

I called out. I begged for him to stop. And then I turned toward the clockwork thing that stood her and begged her to make him stop. I offered her anything she wanted. She stood, silent and impassive not seeming to even acknowledge my words. As if she really was the lifeless lump of metal and leather that I had once believed her to be. The women in black continued to look on, like wolves scenting blood.

And then I realised what she was waiting for.

“How do I save him?”

The second the question was past my lips Dremmel stopped dead. The Mechanical Cassandra’s head slowly twisted to the right. She was regarding me carefully.

“You can answer any question, can’t you?

So answer that. How do I get myself and Thomas out of this godforsaken place safely?” I asked.

The reply came once again in the form of that strange whispering voice that seemed to travel straight to my ears.

“Replacement.”

I asked what that meant. The reply came immediately.

“Choose.”

I realised exactly what she was asking of me. Thomas and I could leave. But only if I selected someone to take Thomas’s place on that table. Someone else who would go through whatever the Mechanical Cassandra had in mind for him. Someone else who would spend an eternity in this place that she ruled over, forced to be an “Amusement” for the rest of her “Guests”.

And it would be nice to say that it was only fear or panic that lead me to do what I did next. That I made my choice based purely on some desperate need to save myself and my best friend. But the truth of the matter is that in that moment I made the choice I did out of far less noble or irrational emotions. I made my choice based on rage.

I made my choice based on hate.

I pointed towards Harold.

“Take him instead.”

And with that Harold burst into a final uncontrollable fit of laughter. The Mechanical Cassandra’s arms motioned to the women in black and they descended upon him with their straight razors. I watched as they hacked and sliced, silvery blades wickedly curving through the air. Jets of arterial blood spraying across their clothes and drenching the white gown their mistress wore, spraying across her serene features.

Reed laughed throughout the entire frenzy, laughed long after he should have become incapable of making noises.

Dremmel had undone the straps holding Thomas down but he could barely move. Whatever had been done to him before I arrived had left marks beyond the physical. I supported his weight as best as I could as the two of us made our way out of that room. I only looked back once. The women in black were dragging Harold’s body to the table. The Mechanical Cassandra watched on. Her head turned and she looked directly towards me.

We made our way through the house. The other people here parted to let us pass as if they knew of the Mechanical Cassandra’s bargain with me. Perhaps they did. Perhaps in this place they could just sense their rulers will. We made our way out through the door, out into the open air. I bundled Thomas into the car, trying my best to stay calm. Trying not to wonder just how badly he was hurt each time he made a soft noise of pain.

I drove as fast as I could to the nearest hospital, leaving that hellish place far behind me in the distance.

As to what came next….

Thomas lived. He still walks with a limp from where one leg was broken and the sight is gone in his left eye. But he lived.

I had plenty of time to think about what I would tell the police while the doctors worked on Thomas. The truth would have me consigned to a lunatic asylum. So instead I opted for as close to the truth as they would believe. I told them that we had been kidnapped and held hostage by Harold Reed and that the two of us had managed to free ourselves and get away from the house. This time the police had no choice but to take what we told them seriously…it was clear that what had happened to Thomas had been done by someone after all.

But I was unsurprised by what came after.

The police found Reed’s house abandoned. Not merely abandoned…it looked as if it had been empty for years. They couldn’t explain it, given that they’d been out there only a few nights before and seen the place in far better condition than it now was.

Likewise they couldn’t explain what had become of Reed himself, who had vanished. It was later found that he hadn’t even owned the house in question and had been squatting out there. In addition they uncovered numerous rather nasty rumours about Reed’s time working at the local college and just what had led to him leaving his job there…none of which came as any great shock to me.

They never found the Mechanical Cassandra at the house.

I imagine she sits even now in the penthouse of Leland Smythe. Unless she’s already moved on to her next victim. The next poor fool who thinks that her prophecies and secrets are worth the price that she exacts.

Physically I am fine.

Mentally…

Sadie can tell that something happened. She never presses the issue though she does sometimes suggest I see a therapist. But what would I tell them? What could I tell them that wouldn’t make me sound as mad as Harold Reed was, as mad as Dremmel was all those years ago? So I cope with the memories as best as I can. In truth it’s not the past that frightens me anymore but the future.

I remember what Harold said of the Mechanical Cassandra.

How she comes for EVERYONE who has asked questions of her.

Every so often I’ll see them, out of the corner of my eye.

Her women in black.

And I’ll wonder when the day will come that they come to take me back to that place.

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