The Clockworks (fiction fragment from 2009)


SOMEHOW, the press had gotten notified that the Paranormal Investigative Agency was involved, and so the Agency sent Fitzhugh out to handle it. Fitzhugh was now being photographed and having questions shouted at him in three languages. He handled this adroitly, as usual. His thick red hair glinted in the sun and his smile beamed calm reassurance as he stood on the steps of the Vatican in his gray trenchcoat and serious suit, denying everything.

Corcoran watched the press conference on the van’s TV while Li looked out the window. “Guy’s got a line of bullshit a mile long,” Corcoran said admiringly. “Best thing the agency did was hire him. You know he has a comic book about him now?”

“Yeah,” Li said uninterestedly. “Can I have that rubber band on your wrist?” Corcoran looked at his wrist. “Oh sure,” he said, as if he wasn’t sure how the rubber band got there. He took it off and gave it to Li. She took her unruly hair in one hand and pulled it back behind her head, doing that mysterious thing that women with long unruly hair do with rubber bands to make their hair behave. The van drove past the Vatican and to the back of an anonymous building, where they drove down an offloading ramp into a garage. Corcoran switched off the TV, and they got out of the van.

“Father Mahan,” said the man who came up to them as they looked around. “You are…?” he asked.

“Liora Bader, PIA,” she replied. “Dave Corcoran, same,” Corcoran said.

“Come this way, please,” Father Mahan said, and walked away. They followed. “Not one of your friendly priests,” Corcoran muttered under his breath. “Shush,” Li whispered back.

The waiting room they eventually came to was very dull indeed. Father Mahan knocked on the door of an adjoining room, which opened. Whispering went back and forth in Latin.

“You may go in,” Father Mahan said, and promptly left. Corcoran and Li went into the adjoining room. Another man in a long leather apron and gloves was in the room. There were red stains on the gloves and on the apron.

“Agent Corcoran, Agent Bader,” he said. “I’m Father Pontedra. I’d shake your hand, but…”

“Yeah,” Corcoran said.

“I’m the coroner for the Vatican,” Father Pontedra said. “So I gathered,” Li said. “I’m not sure I knew there was a Vatican coroner.”

“We have one of everything in our little alternate universe,” Father Pontedra replied. “Legally speaking I’m a Swiss Guard as well. Would you like to see what we asked you to come in for?”

Corcoran still had enough Catholic left in him to feel a little weird as they looked at the table. Here he was, Pope Gregory XVII, servus servorum Dei, dead as a doorknob after being shot three times by an unknown assailant as he appeared to speak to the crowds on Easter. Outside the religious world was in upheaval; in here everything was quiet except for the sound of Begin the Beguine, playing very low from a CD player on a desk across the room.

The Father led them across the room to stand by the autopsy table as he pulled the sheet down to the corpse’s waist. Corcoran flinched. Li’s eyes widened but she didn’t flinch; Corcoran envied her for her freedom from the emotional baggage for a second and then forgot about everything but Pope Gregory XVII.

The familiar Y-shaped incision was open. The ribcage had been removed. Underneath the layers of bright red blood and between the flaps of skin there was a gleam of metal, plates of metal interrupted here and there by an intricate, lacy meshwork of cogs and gears. One of the plates was perforated by three bullet holes in the area where the Pope’s heart would have been if he had one, because as Corcoran looked deeper, it became evident that he did not.

The pope, in fact, appeared to be entirely…

“Clockwork?” Li said wonderingly. “Then that’s not blood, is it?”

“No,” Father Pontedra said. “Not at all. Our analysis shows that it’s a silicon lubrication material, a variation on silicate ester MLO-71-45. The composition is different, but only enough to make it appear to be blood. The whole body cavity appears to be filled with it.”

“But look here, I want you to see this,” the Father said as he picked up a small screwdriver from a tray. Corcoran thought again that Father Pontedra’s enthusiasm was just a bit unnerving. Pontedra reached into the chest cavity, pulling a flap of the skin further aside, and pressed on something that they couldn’t see in the metal plate with the three bulletholes in it. There was a click, and the metal plate came ajar. Father Pontedra pulled it back with a forceps. The panel had hinges, which were bent from the force of the bullets, and complained as the Father opened it wider.

“Look in there,” Father Pontedra said. He held out a small maglite. Li and Corcoran glanced at one another. After a bit of confusion Li gave it to Corcoran. He leaned over the dead pope’s chest and shined a light inside.

There was a small glass jar, about the side of a babyfood jar, which had one side broken out from the impact of a bullet. The remainder of the jar was surprisingly intact. From the top of the jar protruded a metal tube that looked as if, at one time, it had been attached to something else on the inside of the metal chest cavity, but that connection had been smashed to pieces by another bullet. Another bullet had gone beneath this whole arrangement and destroyed a good bit of the bottom of the cavity, and underneath the bullethole appeared to be more clockwork. A tiny spring protruded forlornly from the wreckage underneath.

Corcoran looked up and handed the maglite to Li. She was holding it in, but he knew her well enough to see that she was ready to pop from curiosity. She looked into the cavity for a while, and then straightened up and looked over at Corcoran and Father Pontalba in turn.

“OK,” she said. “This is new, and I don’t say that often.”

“Fascinating, isn’t it,” said Father Pontedra brightly. “The Holy Father, head of the church and heir of Peter’s throne, unhuman.” On the last word his voice cracked a bit, and Corcoran finally realized that Pontedra was holding on to himself by a thread. “You’ll excuse me while I sit down,” Father Pontedra said. He walked across the room and sat down heavily in a shabby chair in front of his desk. The CD player was now playing How High the Moon, the Les Paul and Mary Ford version.

“I’m sorry,” Li said. “This must be a terrible strain for you.”

Pontedra looked up at her. “Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do when I found this, and I called the Cardinal, and obviously they called you. We’ve been holding off the press for a while now and they’ve been pretty fierce. My housekeeper tells me they’ve been calling my house steadily, today and yesterday, and I don’t know how they got my number. I’ve been here since yesterday.”

“Maybe you should go to a hotel and get some sleep,” Corcoran said.

“No, ” Father Pontedra said. “I have to observe your examination. The Cardinal ordered it. After that I’ll go somewhere and sleep if I can.”

“We’ll have to finish the autopsy,” Li said gently. “Are you sure…”

“Yes,” the Father said.

Corcoran and Li put on coroner’s aprons and a pair of gloves and got to work.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Clockworks (fiction fragment from 2009)

  1. Meredith

    I don’t know anything about this genre, so I don’t know how helpful I can be. For instance, I don’t know if you included “Begin the Beguine” because you’re familiar with the song or if you were purposely referencing the Beguines, which were a lay order of women who didn’t follow the Benedictine rule, but acted like a conventual order of nuns patterned after the Franciscans. The articles I’ve read talk about how they weren’t nuns and were influenced by the dualist Albigensisans (sic?), but I thought the connection between the song and the Vatican was either purposeful or a happy coincidence. I was also wondering whether you named Corcoran after the California prison and if that’s why the character seems a little constricted and somewhat concerned with freedom.

    I’m assuming no one else was close enough to see that the [steampunk] Pope wasn’t human but made of gears and silicon and things resembling glass baby food jars so there’s no reason for everybody to get up in arms until Li and Corcoran show up, though if Fitzhugh is with the PIA rather than being a member of the Swiss Guard or a Vatican media rep, I’m wondering why he’s doing the talking. I don’t know what the protocol is for police involvement in Vatican City murders, either, but it would add some conflict to have to hold them off in addition to the newsies. (Oh, I just found something that might be interesting–a “turf battle” between the Swiss Guard and Vatican City police ( There’s a mention of the Swiss Guard murders, too. I had forgotten all about them.)

    Again, I don’t know anything about the genre, but I’m curious why the PIA is involved. Does the non-human pope meet the criteria for the paranormal? Not that I know if there are any criteria. But, you know … I thought I’d ask.

    I think my best suggestion would be to show the conflict rather than tell it. So I would say that maybe you could have Li and Corcoran push their way through a mob of news reporters, and maybe have a little territorial showdown between the Swiss Guard and the Vatican City Police that happens in front of Corcoran. It wouldn’t take that long / too many words. I like that the story happens from his point of view as well. I don’t know whether you want to insert more of his personality and experience in there or not. I do think that’s what made the superhero story so successful, though.

    I should probably stop rambling now. 😉

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