"A Fancy Dinner Party" CoverThis story was originally written for inclusion in the horror short story collection A Fancy Dinner Party, with 9 of my fellow Grey Gecko authors, including Leo King, George Wright Padgett, Lee Lackey, and Wayne Basta, among others. I’m presenting it here in full for you, my fans and readers, in case you haven’t had a chance to pick up the delectable, delightful, and deliciously deviant book, which even has a foreword by the noted horror author Jonathan Maberry!

Bon appétit!

 

The Art of Steaming

by Jason Kristopher

 

“Blast that prig, Fontague,” Daniel muttered as he stood staring at the tunnel grate. The gas streetlamps barely threw any light his way; the cold London fog shrouded them in mist and a halo of light. “Blast him and Victoria, all of ‘em. Let ‘em come down here and fix these damnable pipes themselves. Wouldn’t do for them to get their hands a bit dirty, though, would it?”

He kept muttering as he pulled the grate up, scraping it across the cobblestones of the street. He gathered up his bag and lantern and climbed down the ladder into the tunnels. Daniel hated the steam tunnels. He hated everything about London, though, so that was hardly a surprise. What he hated most was the insufferable gentry, and especially Lord Fontague, who had him down here tonight fixing some old pipe or another when it would just break again in two or three days.

He lifted the lantern a little higher, trying to see down the tunnel, but couldn’t make out where the leak was coming from. There’s nothing for it, Danny boy, he thought. You’re going to have to go see for yourself.

He shivered, despite the heat, and crept forward along the cobblestones, trying to whistle but only producing a strange, diseased sort of warble that he quickly put out of its misery. Left in the quiet, with only the hissing of the steam and the drip of the water, he resolved never to come back down here, Lord Fontague be damned.

Ah, there’s the beastly leak, he thought, spying a steady stream of water spilling to the ground from a rusted-out pipe. He dropped his bag and pulled out a spanner and clamp, laying them next to the bag. Finding a convenient hook near another poorly-maintained pipe, he took advantage of it for the lantern. The light barely reached the ladder, giving him just enough light to know his way out was still there. He had just picked up the spanner to get to work when he heard the noise.

Click, click, click.

He spun around, spanner in hand and ready to be used against whatever phantoms might be down here, but he saw nothing. Just as he had convinced himself it was, in fact, nothing, and merely the vagaries of the steam tunnels, he heard it again.

Click, click, click.

The steam was loud in his ears, but the blood pumping through his now-racing heart far exceeded that simple noise. He felt as though he were in the middle of a race; his vision narrowed, he smelled more of the awful detritus and noxious fumes that inhabited these tunnels… he could even hear the pings and creaks of the tunnel’s metal access grate cooling in the frigid night air.

Click, click, click.

It was closer now, he was sure. Danny boy, now is not the time to be a hero.

He spun around, grabbing the clamp and bag, moving fast back toward the ladder to fresh air and freedom. Just as he noticed that he could barely see the ladder in the darkness, he realized he’d left the lantern behind on its hook.

Click, click, click.

He turned around, fearful to his core at what he’d see. At first, there was too much steam for him to see anything, but then the clouds of vapor parted slightly, and he saw a shadow cast by the lantern behind it.

Meaning, of course, that whatever was casting the shadow was now between him and the lantern.

It was a shadow unlike anything he’d ever seen. The creature clearly had two arms, two legs, what might’ve been a head… but the arms were far too long, nearly dragging on the ground, and the head was misshapen, elongated and nearly pointed.

Click, click, click.

He saw the long finger of the shadow’s right hand tapping on the stones as it moved forward, tapping as if eager to reach its destination, impatient to slice and cut. Dropping all pretense, as well as his bag, Daniel ran for and scrambled up the ladder, reaching the refreshing London air and rolling to one side of the hole in the street. He quickly shoved and pushed the heavy metal grate back into place, and it thudded down into position just in time.

Click, click, click.

This time, the sound was muted, though it had a curious ringing quality to it, and it took only a moment for Daniel to realize that it was tapping on the ladder, now, rather than the stones. He moved back into the light of a streetlamp, carefully keeping an eye on the grate. When it remained undisturbed, he leaned against the wall behind him, catching his breath.

He felt as though he’d been stuck in those damned tunnels for hours and was only now able to breathe. The cold brick and marble wall at his back felt solid, real, as though it was the only real thing left. Taking deep draughts of the cold night air, he finally gathered his wits and stood, absent-mindedly brushing non-existent lint and dirt off of his clothes. Glancing around, he noticed that the street was empty.

Good job there’s no one to see you, Danny boy, he thought. No one to know how you ran. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and stepped away from the wall, toward the street. Maybe I can find a copper. There was definitely something down there.

Sure enough, as he moved away from the grate and down the street toward the High Street intersection, he saw a bobby twirling his baton as he walked his beat. Even coming my way, he thought. Fancy that. This’ll be alright, after all.

He flagged down the officer, who eyed him, staring down the beak of a nose Cyrano de Bergerac would’ve been proud of. Daniel hesitated for a moment.

He looks familiar, somehow, thought Daniel. I know him from somewhere, but that’s impossible. I don’t know any bobbies. With a mental shrug, Daniel let it go. Who knows where I know him from? I just need him to listen.

“What can I do for you, my son?” asked the officer, staring at him like the loon he felt he was. What’s all this, then?”

“It’s… well, there’s something in the steam tunnel, sir.” Daniel was nervous, trying to figure out how to explain what was going on without confirming that he was, in fact, a loon.

“Oh?”

“Yes, sir. Something nasty.”

The officer snorted, crossing his arms. “Let me guess, it’s a big lizard, right? ‘Teeth the size of me arm’ sort of ‘fing?”

“Actually, no. Two arms, two legs, all the usual bits, but the arms are too long and the head is the wrong shape and…”

The officer held up a hand, stopping the tide of information pouring from Daniel. “Having me on, are you, sir? Monster in the tunnel? How much have you had to drink tonight, sir?”

“I’m not having you on, officer. I promise what I say is true; there is something down there, and it is not right!”

“I’ll be the judge of that, my lad. Very well, show me this tunnel, then.”

Daniel took the bobby over to the tunnel grate, and told him the story all over again, including how he’d leaned against the wall after climbing out. The officer’s face was unreadable as he looked at the tunnel grate and glanced around.

“This wall over here?” the officer asked, pointing toward Daniel’s resting place. When Daniel nodded, the officer moved to the wall, examining it closely while Daniel waited next to him.

Click, click, click. Click, click, click.

Daniel spun around, staring in horror at the tunnel grate as it began to turn in place, then to rise slowly.

“See, officer? What’d I tell yer? That noise…”

“That noise, sir, you never should have heard.”

With what seemed to be a helplessly infinite slowness, Daniel turned back to the bobby, who had stepped back into the shadows of the alley next to the building. The officer seemed to be… changing, his arms lengthening, the outline of his head becoming more pointed as the bobby’s helmet fell off.

“You’re… you’re…” Daniel couldn’t speak, only stand there stunned as the transformation of the officer continued. He barely heard the scrape of the metal on cobbles as the steam tunnel grate slid aside.  He was mesmerized, trying to see more and at the same time less of the creature he had thought was a policeman.

Even in his disbelief, Daniel finally recognized the man by virtue of the features he was rapidly losing.  Put him in a tie and tails, and I’d have picked him out right away, Daniel thought. It’s Lord Fontague’s butler!

It was only when he finally heard the snuffling behind him, and felt the long, thin blade of the creature’s finger tapping on his shoulder, that he thought of screaming.

#

The next evening, Lord Fontague sat back from the table in his well-appointed dining room, tossing his linen napkin negligently onto his now-empty plate before his manservant took the finished dish and headed for the kitchen.

“Well done, Nigel,” he said, as he picked up his glass and drained the last of the delectable Spanish wine. “An excellent pairing.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“That was a very unusual cut of meat. How did Chef prepare it?”

Nigel turned back, the light from the large fireplace sharply outlining his face, including his overly large nose and long, thin features.

“It was steamed, sir.”

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