Elizabeth and her fiancé Peter Kingsman travel to his father's cider mill to investigate a series of bloody murders in a town populated by hideously deformed descendants of the Kingsman line; by Timothy DeLizza.
His hands gripped her waist tightly, and she allowed him to guide her back into the carriage safely.
"I was fine," she said. "Look." She showed him her prize, a freshly picked red apple, still wet with dew from the branches of the trees outside. Peter smiled, making his face look more human.
Elizabeth bit into her apple and offered him a bite.
He shook his head. "I was raised here, remember?"
"I dreamt," he said. "You were a vampire queen and I was human king. My hands' touch burned vampires. You and I fell in love, but of course we could never trust each other. I wore gloves when we made love, and it scared me to let your teeth near my neck, but I let you anyway. What does it mean?"
"It means," Elizabeth said, "you have intimacy issues due to a distant father and an overbearing mother." She spoke with a straight face, but then they both laughed. The carriage stopped abruptly, and there was shouting from outside. Elizabeth peered out into the muddy world to see a small carriage lying sideways behind a dead horse. Soon, a finely dressed man holding a briefcase joined them. Peter moved next to Elizabeth so the man could sit across from them.
"The Devil!" the man said when he saw Peter. "I'm sorry, I just - it's been a long day and I didn't expect... That's all, a long day."
"It's okay," Peter said. "We're quite harmless. Peter Kingsman. This is Beth. Do you need anything from your ride?"
"No, no, I have everything for tonight." He tapped his briefcase. "Stanley Powers, from Boston Brewery."
Mr. Powers leaned back, but did not take his eyes from Peter's face. "May I ask about your face?" Mr. Powers asked.
"A birth defect," Peter said.
"It looks like - like tree bark; may I? May I touch it?"
"May I touch yours?" asked Peter.
Mr. Powers settled back into his seat uncomfortably. Elizabeth put her hand on Peter's knee.
"Would you like to know why we're coming to Cider?" Peter asked.
"I suppose, yes," Mr. Powers said.
"My father, who owns the Cider Mill, telegrammed regarding several murders in the past few weeks in which the victims' hearts had been ripped out cleanly." Peter gripped his fingers as if they surrounded a heart, then jolted them back. "He wants Beth and I to investigate before Halloween, because he fears that night the killer will strike again."
Elizabeth stifled a half-smile. She knew Peter was frightening Mr. Powers in retaliation for that question about his face. Still, Elizabeth thought, better he be frightened and cautious than careless and dead.
Looking absently out the window, Elizabeth saw, smelled and heard the giant waterwheel of the Cider Mill in the distance. Vile-smelling black smoke seemed to come from the wood itself, rather than some fire inside.
"Looks like it'll fall apart any moment," Mr. Powers said. "But it's liquid gold, that stuff."
Around the Cider Mill, the mountain was thick with apple trees, their leaves yellow, brown and earthy-red.
As they entered the town of Cider, torches were lit along the streets, and townspeople were out in large numbers. Driving through Cider strained Elizabeth's power to find beauty in the grotesque. Almost every townsman had a deformity. Some were merely missing an eye or ear, but most were far more striking. Several had an affliction causing constant tears. These fell without emotion, since the afflicted were so accustomed to the habit.
Mr. Powers looked increasingly uncomfortable with every townsperson they passed, but did not comment. Elizabeth guessed that his silence was due to Peter's presence. "These are not the worst," Peter said to Mr. Powers. "There are over twenty parents who are known never to let their children into public, and probably more exist that no one knows about."
Elizabeth finally understood Peter's preoccupation with hands. Many townsmen had hands that were too thin and claw-like. They seemed to Elizabeth to all possess menace - perhaps because Elizabeth knew at least one of them was capable of ripping out women's hearts.
"Ah," Peter said. "The inn. Mr. Powers, I imagine you're staying here as well?"
"Yes, I'm sure we'll have the pleasure of each other's company soon." Mr. Powers tipped his hat. "Thank you for the kindness of the ride."
Elizabeth left the inn early the next day for the Kingsman estate.
The town was alive in preparation of the next day's Halloween festivities. Jack-o-lanterns were lit on every porch, although the practice here was to cover the pumpkin with a particular syrup, then light the pumpkin itself on fire and watch as it blazed and melted out of its original macabre shape over the next several hours. Children painted the cats of the town with clay from the riverbed, transforming them into strange, earthy-orange creatures that stalked through town, their fur standing up in clumps and their movements unnaturally slow.
A small, elderly woman answered the door. "Hello, dear," the woman said. "You must be Elizabeth. Hello."
"Hello. Mrs. Kingsman?" Elizabeth asked.
"Of course, dear. But call me Dawn."
Dawn motioned for Elizabeth to enter. Stepping in, Elizabeth saw the house was full of chandeliers, marble staircases and portraits of family members. Dawn led her up the largest staircase. The old lady walked as if struggling through cobwebs, both because she moved with a jerking slowness, and because she sometimes seemed to be swiping at the air in front of her.
Dawn led Elizabeth onto the house's balcony, where the view was dominated by the ancient Cider Mill, its creaking waterwheel nearly four times the size of the house.
"One year during a terrible drought the wheel didn't move at all. My husband hired the whole town to come grind apples by hand. Amazing how useful the river is. Samson and I sit out here whenever he doesn't have pressing business."
From there, they moved into the kitchen to begin preparing a dinner of mutton, potatoes and apple pie. They worked side by side, Elizabeth peeling potatoes and seasoning the mutton.
"Samson tried to get me to go to school for literature because I love poetry so. But I'm too old for that, now. We have a cook but I still prepare meals on special occasions," Dawn said as they worked. "Samson's brother is here often enough, but you and Mr. Powers. It's almost..." She wiggled her fingers above her head. "Let's have fancy napkins tonight. Do you know how to fold cranes?"
Elizabeth nodded and smiled.
Dinner in the main dining room afforded another generous view of the waterwheel. "You never have to take your eyes from the mill, Mr. Kingsman," Elizabeth said.
"Indeed," Samson said. He was tall, thin and reserved, like Peter.
"Did you hurt yourself?" Mr. Powers asked. Samson's left hand was wrapped in a cloth.
"A long time ago. It was caught in the apple presser when I was young - awkward thing. My brother tried to help, and his hand was crushed completely. I keep the cloth as a courtesy."
Dr. Alec Metelski lowered the stump that had been his left hand beneath the table and out of sight.
"Tell me, Dr. Metelski, why did you change your name?" Elizabeth asked.
Dr. Metelski looked at her. His head was bald except for a patch of hair that grew from the left side. His face was narrow, his nose and ears pointed. He lowered his head again before speaking.
"The people of the town have certain associations with the surname 'Kingsman' that I wished to disassociate myself from as a doctor," Dr. Metelski said. "The Kingsmans are viewed with a kind of awe that makes one unapproachable. You'd be amazed what taking a new name and moving into a simple dwelling in town has done for my practice."
"Don't let my brother's cold exterior fool you," Samson said. "His fame as a surgeon brings European nobles for operations, but Cider's citizens receive his services for free."
"Tell me, Mrs. Kingsman," Dr. Metelski said to Elizabeth, "do you believe you will find the killer, given the local police have found nothing?"
"Please call me Elizabeth, or Beth if you prefer." Elizabeth had never been called Mrs. Kingsman before, and she was surprised how it affected her.
"She'll find the killer," Peter said. "Tomorrow I'm dusting for fingerprints. A technique that actually comes from a rather beautiful discovery. Apparently, whenever someone touches something, we leave an imprint of oil. Everyone's imprint is unique. If the murderer is local he will not know this. Within a few days we will match any imprints that are common to the rooms of all the victims."
"Fascinating," Dawn said.
"That is interesting," Dr. Metelski said, "but how will you find out the person they match? Do the imprints also leave a name?"
"I admit they'll become more useful once Beth narrows down the search to a smaller number of suspects," Peter said.
"So, will these murders, which I must say are very tragic and all, but will it impact the auction?" Mr. Powers asked.
"You won't be talking business, I hope," Dawn said. "I will start reading my poetry aloud so the rest of our guests will not have to listen to you." She smiled at Elizabeth. Elizabeth smiled back.
"Mr. Powers and I are done with our business," Samson said. "The auction has been cancelled. The mill isn't for sale. Unfortunately, his horse died on the way over and I'm afraid there's no - what did you call it - subway in Cider, so Mr. Powers is leaving with the next shipment next Tuesday."
After the dinner Elizabeth retreated to the balcony to smoke. Mr. Powers joined her moments later.
"I can smell the business is in trouble. This town could be - it could make this town - they just need to double, no, quadruple production - the market is itching for it - but it can't compete. Do you know their output has been the same to the bottle for the past hundred years - and they're so stubborn we've offered to make three more of these - rickety contraptions if that what it takes - with the same wood from whatever forest their grandfathers came from. Good marketing for us anyway, all the better for us when the sale does inevitably happen if it's true."
"Does it actually taste good to you, the cider?"
"Yes. I'll say that. It's - it's the best tasting brew in the country. Heaven, in a word - and it just doesn't - it makes you feel - alive."
"But the smell," she asked, "doesn't it bother you? When the smoke comes from the mill?"
"No. Just the sweetness of the liquor, I guess. Maybe you dislike sweet things?"
Beth gazed into the middle distance.
Peter stepped onto the balcony. "Beth, my father wants to take you on a tour of the mill."
Mr. Powers retreated into the house. Elizabeth moved close to her fiancé.
"Must I go? I've already played the housewife with your mother," she said. "I just want to return to the inn."
He started to pull her close. "Oh," she said and pushed away to put out her cigarette, then let herself be pulled.
"I believe father wants to talk about the murders," Peter said, "away from mom and Mr. Powers."
"Okay, okay," Elizabeth said. "Fine, I'll take the tour."
After desert, Samson gave Elizabeth a tour of the Cider Mill. Inside the mill was as ancient and rickety as the outside appeared from town. She could not believe that such a place existed in the twentieth century. The machinery was complex and largely wooden. The exterior waterwheel turned many interior wheels in which apples were swallowed and crushed by gears. The process appeared to her - unhygienic. Everywhere were spiral wooden staircases and a moist chill. He led her to an empty room.
"Elizabeth," he announced to the empty room. He turned to her and unwrapped the cloth that surrounded his hand. His fingers were long sharp wooden daggers, the same ruddy color as wood of the mill. "The murderer has a hand like this. Now I will show you how he takes the hearts out. Come."
Samson opened the door to another spiral wooden staircase. This one led through the inner workings of the apple presses. Elizabeth was reminded of a complex timepiece. Red apples, like the one she had grabbed from the carriage, were moving down rows and rows of wooden gears. The gears dropped them into giant wooden buckets below, where the brew boiled and was ground by something beneath the surface of the liquid. The apples were covered with a red syrupy liquid, and commingled with still-beating hearts.
"Don't worry about the harvesting. They're not human hearts," Samson said in a low voice.
He continued up the staircase away from the main floor. He opened a door, which led to a long hallway. The hallway was lined with narrow prison cells. In each was a creature, taller and broader than a human, with oddly flowing skin the color of volcanic lava. Their bodies were pushed against the bars and their arms chained tightly to the walls behind them. They had no nose, hair or ears. Their numerous eyes, placed everywhere on the creatures' bodies, stared at Elizabeth. To the extent the chains allowed, their bodies shifted and the halls rattled. Something in these actions gave her an unexpected sensation that they recognized her.
Samson reached his clawed hand into the flesh of the nearest creature.
"It cannot hurt them so much," he said. "They have seven hearts, and they regenerate over several days. They need no food or drink. No one remembers the name of the creatures. They were the enemies of the Kingsmans' ancestors. At first we drank their blood to celebrate our victory, now we sell it to others as cider."
"Peter," Elizabeth said.
"Peter's mother is human. Most of the town has some Kingsman blood, but my brother and I are the last pure Kingsman."
"Peter," Elizabeth said again.
"I wanted you to understand. I suspect that the killer is one of the children hidden from the public. Oddly, most of the world sees our gifts as deformities. The rest of the village has forgotten our gifts, so he or she is likely frightened and dangerous. Defend yourself appropriately, of course, but if you have time to contact me, I will see if I can resolve this peacefully. If they are as young as I suspect we may be able to save their souls. You are Christian, aren't you, Elizabeth?"
"I'll have a carriage take you home."
Elizabeth barely noticed herself as the carriage returned her to the inn. She knew Peter would be awake in their room. His habit was to remain awake for six days straight - then sleep the entire seventh day. Most of Cider's population had trained their bodies to follow this practice. Peter had attempted to train Elizabeth, but was unsuccessful.
As she entered the room, she could barely look at him. Her eyes felt dry and tight. Her pulse fluttered. "Do you know?" she murmured. "In the mill - your father - do you know?"
He looked up from his book, alarmed, and crossed to her. Her words tumbled out brokenly, then became flat and cold as she tried to describe what she had seen. At the end, there was silence, and she raised her eyes to his slowly - terrified for herself, if she could not trust his face.
His eyes were troubled, and she breathed out slowly as she saw him wrestling with the news. His face - his dear, rough face! - looked pained as he took it all in. She felt pity that he had to learn this way, overpowering for a moment her outrage and disgust. Peter's father must have known that she would tell him, and so a touch of new anger at Samson blended with all her competing emotions. She shut her eyes and shook her head.
"It's too horrible," he said.
She felt flooded with relief. "I want to free them, whatever they are," she said.
Peter silently put his fingers to his lips and turned away, thinking. "Let's back up a second," he said. "If they've been there as long as you say - as long as my father says - and he and his ancestors have been harvesting hearts all this time then - well, they must have gone completely insane. If you let them go, they're likely to take vengeance not just on my father but the whole town. The country. Maybe even you."
"Peter, there's more. I feel - I think I'm one of them, I think I'm one of those creatures - there's a kinship, and I - I can see smoke coming from that place and it smells - the liquid smells vile to me. Does it not bother you? The taste of the cider, and the smoke? I think there's something about - I think it's me - and your father and uncle, they frighten me. And then, there with your father - it recognized me - the creature he took the heart from - it knew me."
Peter sat back down in the chair and took her in his lap. "I don't know what we do, Beth."
She fell asleep there, with him holding her.
When she woke Peter was looking over the fingerprints from the victims' rooms. He had collected them while she slept.
Elizabeth visited with families on the list of children hidden from the public. The parents, when asked, were suspicious. First she tried explaining that she was a doctor from New York, here to do a study, but she learned quickly that saying her fiancé's name was more effective.
The first child had skin pulled taut to his face and wooden, shark-like teeth. Elizabeth saw a cloud of foul black smoke coming constantly from his mouth and nose. By now, she understood that the parents could not see this smoke. He had no claw. The other children had similar disfigurations - including a boy with four arms and another with what appeared to be a small tree growing from his cheek. Each had unnaturally pointed fingers, but none had claws.
She decided to see if Peter was having more luck. Outside the inn, an elderly man had set a table with candied skulls and wooden skeleton trinkets. Next to him were two other stands - one with caramel apples and hot cider, and the other with small pumpkins and pastries. Other stalls would open as Halloween progressed.
Peter looked up from the table in the middle of their room.
"Beth," Peter said when he saw her walk in. "I found the killer's fingerprints. Here, they were in the rooms of every victim."
"These are adult prints," she said, and looked at him. "How does your uncle perform his surgeries?"
"With a scalpel?"
"No. The fingerprints are an adult's and you said no other adult has the trait. And he performs surgery with a precision that New York hospitals can't. The killer is Dr. Metelski. The stump must be a fake, hiding a claw. Your father is going to be sleeping all day. Right?"
"He's asleep already."
She took him to the carriage. Once inside, Elizabeth told the driver that they were going to Dr. Metelski's office.
"We'll get his medical supplies," Elizabeth said, "enough to kill all the creatures in the mill if we need to."
The drive went quickly. Once at the doctor's office, they found it unlocked. She collected supplies. Not knowing the nameless creatures' biology, she took as many sedatives as she could find.
"This isn't enough. Peter, is there some kind of medical storehouse or hospital?"
"There's no hospital, but there are other practitioners in town."
"Okay, I'll walk up to the mill and start. Collect all the barbiturates and sedatives that you can and meet me there."
"Peter, I need to know you're on my side."
Peter nodded and kissed her. He never seemed more beautiful.
No smoke was coming from the mill as she approached, and the air smelled like burnt pumpkin rather than the vileness of the two previous nights. Children's shouts were ever-present, even once she reached the hay field and she saw the shadows of children and teenagers running through the hay. The walk from the town center went faster than she expected, although the bag of medical supplies became heavier as she progressed.
The mill's lock was rusted, and gave with one blow from a rock. The machinery inside was not moving. The still-beating hearts and apples waited in the gears to be crushed. She climbed the staircase Samson had led her up the day before, and entered the cell-lined hallway. The creatures were awake and aware of her presence. As she went along, she felt the creatures' collective thoughts pressing in on her mind. She let the link she had sensed before connect. As Peter had guessed, they had become insane. Their thoughts were only fragmentary, and flowed between a desire to kill and a longing to die. The stark imagery of their anger threatened to overwhelm her task when the collective body linked with her mind long enough to discover her love for Peter.
"I don't want to murder you," she said to the first creature that she came to, unsure if the creature heard sounds. "But I can't free you if you're going to harm me. I can make it painless if you wish to die. Can you give me a signal?"
The creature she was closest to pressed itself towards her so that its head was just against the bars. She had no trouble reaching it with a needle, but quickly realized the creature's lava-like skin was too tough to pierce. The creature closed all its eyes except one in its head. Elizabeth understood the message, and pushed the needle through this eye, deep into the creature's skull, and pumped the sedative. After a minute, all the creature's eyes opened at once and let out a small cloud of black smoke. The creature went limp. The others in the hall rattled their chains violently. Elizabeth cursed herself for using so much sedative, as she knew she would not have enough.
She progressed swiftly after this, with each creature pressing itself towards her as she approached them.
"Shh, shh," she said soothingly to each creature as it died, understanding it would tear her to pieces for loving a Kingsman if freed but desired an end above all else.
When she had finished with the first hallway of cells, she saw that some of the hearts among the apples had turned a burned black and were no longer beating, but rather smoking. The vile smell grew stronger.
The second and third hallways went quicker still. Halfway through the fourth she ran out of supplies and - looking around - found a fireplace stoker with a pointed tip. The first creature she killed in this fashion took considerably longer to die. She leaned against the stone wall at the hallway entrance to rest and to try to think of a better way to proceed. She closed her eyes momentarily. When they opened again she saw a hand within her chest, and she could feel its fingers inside her gripping around her heart.
"Mrs. Kingsman," a voice said as she passed out.
She woke in a narrow cell. Blood flowed down her stomach, soaking her ripped dress. Dr. Metelski was in front of her pacing around the room. A portion of his bald scalp was bleeding freely. She saw her own heart beating on a stone table in the center of the room.
"It's not what you think. It's not a matter of emotion or any pleasure in murder." Dr. Metelski said, removing a sleeve of skin from his stump like a nurse might test a syringe - revealing a blackened, constantly bleeding claw. "When I was performing surgery last month I found someone in town with three hearts. The hearts still beat when they were removed from the body. This meant the bloodline of our enemy was still alive. Still not captured. I was looking for more - so the harvesting could expand - so we could increase cider production."
He looked to her as if expecting a response. Her mind scrambled to think of something that would convince him to free her, or at least give time to Peter to find her, but she could think of nothing.
"So this is how it'll happen," Dr. Metelski continued. "We'll find another one of you - we'll mate you, and start a new line - in twenty or thirty years I can get us back to full capacity. You only have three hearts, and you do need to eat, so there are expenses - but at least we can expand capacity."
Elizabeth screamed. Dr. Metelski walked to her exposed heart and jutted his fingers into it. She understood then that the creatures could feel their body parts long after they had left their body - they could feel their hearts being crushed and drunken.
A shot rang out. Dr. Metelski fell and began crawling in circles, his claw clicking against the stone floor. Peter walked into the room and fired again, as he shot his uncle cleanly in the head.
Peter knocked open the chains of her cage and pulled her tightly to him. She hadn't realized how frozen her body had become, and her limbs began shaking in his arms.
"We have to kill your father, too. We have to kill your father or he'll try to do this all again."
"Shh, shh," he said. "I'll talk to my father. He'll be reasonable. I've about eight hours left to finish the job. Our carriage is outside. I'm going to carry you there and you can go back to our apartment to rest."
She reached to the table where her beating heart lay, lifting it and placing it back into her body instinctually. She breathed heavily and then coughed blood as it reabsorbed. Peter looked on, concerned.
"It's fine. I can just... tell," she said. She looked at him. "I'm fine." She collapsed weakly to the floor.
He carried her to the carriage but did not ask the driver to move. He stayed with her in the back until she had recovered enough to stop shivering.
"Okay, finish it." She pushed her hand against the roughness of his face, and felt him nod against her hand. "Love," she said. He nodded against her hand again. "It's half a shot of sedative applied through the eye into the brain. And, leave me the gun."
The carriage driver took her to the apartment. She asked him to wait. She quickly cleaned herself up, put on a fancy dress, then returned to the carriage. With the gun hidden in the folds of her dress, she asked the driver to take her to the Kingsman's as the day began to break. For the first time since she had arrived, there was no rain or fog. The town itself was asleep; no children's voices could be heard, and the mill had stopped its creaking.
Thinking of no better approach, she rang the doorbell and curtsied when the eyehole opened.
Dawn opened the door with candies in her hands.
"Oh, hello, I was expecting trick-or-treaters. Come in, come in."
Dawn's mouth was twitching as though she were trying to hold together her smile. "Come to the balcony, dear, I have a poem to read to you."
Dawn led Elizabeth to the balcony.
"Dawn rose like a fire," Dawn said, "and like a ball of fire, Dawn struck her husband down. That's the poem. You see, it's a play on words, because my name is Dawn."
"Where's your husband?" Elizabeth asked, her eyes alert.
Dawn opened her hand. There lay a bone dagger. It was covered with blood.
"Just think," she murmured, staring at her hand. "Just think. All those nights, he would come home to me, lie in my bed at night, and during the day he had - he had been - Is there anything more evil? And then last night he came to me, covered in blood and he told me everything - about the ha - the harvesting."
She looked up at Beth. "You know, then?"
Beth gave a slow, wary nod.
"All that he could hide from me. I'll never - oh, it's no use. But last night he got into a fight with his brother - because Alec wanted to start harvesting from the town, and Samson thought that was unchristian. Immoral! So even he had a line he could not cross.
So I covered his wounds and just watched him as he slept during the night, and then I sat right there where you're sitting now and I smelled the most wretched - the mill started to - ugh! And the cider in our cabinets began to burst from its bottles into this - bloody sludge. And I could only think - All these years he's been ripping out hearts during the night and then coming home and making love to me, or not making love to me. I just sat where you are now - thinking of the sun." Dawn looked at Elizabeth with a manic smile and gripped Elizabeth's arm. "Shall we go and kill the doctor?"
"No need. Peter already killed him."
"Oh, good. Do we need to kill Peter?"
"No. Peter we keep. Peter we keep."
Dawn and Elizabeth sat silently then, drinking lemonade, looking out over the calm river. After a few minutes the Cider Mill went up in flames, and the waterwheel broke off and splintered. Elizabeth watched as inhuman bodies, apples and planks of cherry oak flowed silently down the river.