Boston 1890: Without a thought about the stories in the newspapers or the whispers in the streets, Mary O’Mallory waved goodbye to her friends and watched as they faded into the night. The mixture of soot, moisture and cold air had blanketed South Boston in a thick fog that made the days feel like twilight and the nights like a damp, dark cellar. The light from gas lamps and the newer electrics struggled to pierce the veil. She could hear horse-drawn carriages just a few yards away but only infer their passing from the sound of the hooves and the dim light their gas lamps made as they passed.
On any other night, she would have taken the streetcar back to Dover House with her friends, but tonight she was waiting for Albert to walk her home. His ship had ported three days prior, and he’d promised to spend his time ashore wining and dining her and reminding her why she liked the lovable rogue.
She straightened the folds on the dress from home that she had changed into in the washroom. Working in Edwin’s Abattoir was a dirty job, and she wanted to look her best for Albert. Not that he would have cared if she had specks of cow blood or pig fat in her hair or on her clothes. He’d spent the last three months on a whaling ship that reeked of rendered whale parts, which covered ship and crew alike in a thick black burnt whale oil that never washed off. Try as Albert did to look his best, his clothes and hair were always permeated with the stench. She’d grown to miss that smell in his absence. She’d even taken to using one of his pajama tops she’d promised to wash for him as a pillow case. (Which was as close as they had come to sharing a bed so far.) One more whaling run and he’d have saved enough for the two to marry, he’d promised.
She pulled her coat closer as a light rain began to fall. The damp collar tickled her neck. In the distance she could hear a train pulling out of South Station. The sound of carriages began to fade into the distance. With the exception of Edwin’s, most of the other businesses had closed up for the night. She could hear hurried footsteps on cobblestones across the street as someone ran home to get out of the rain.
“Oh, Albert,” she said into the dark. She worried that he might not even see her on the corner in the thick fog. Or worse, that he’d run into one of his friends and lost track of time at some saloon by the wharf.
She’d walked home lots of times that late at night. But never when it was so dark out. It was an hour trip, twenty minutes if she caught the electric streetcar that ran up Arlington. But she’d waited too long and missed the last car. She decided to give Albert a little more time before she walked back home. This late and dark, it didn’t make a difference, she thought.
She heard the sound of a mewling cat down an alley and then screeching as two cats got into a fight or got on with their lovemaking. Not a cat person, Mary could never tell the difference. Maybe both. She imagined for a moment that the female cat was chewing out the tomcat for leaving her by herself for so long in the dark. When he tried to make an amorous advance, she nipped him in the ear and let him have a piece of her mind.
Maybe she should nip Albert in the ear. She put the thought out of her mind. She’d spent enough time worrying late at night that he’d never make it back from the sea. She didn’t want to push away something she wanted so much.
She heard the sound of a cat behind her, a long mewling sound that grew deeper. It was unsettling. Mary backed away from the street corner and stepped farther back on the sidewalk near the side of the building. She heard the cat again. This time the sound was closer and deeper.
She’d grown up with the usual superstitions about cats, taught by her grandmother who grew up in the hills of Ireland. Nonsense, she knew. But they still seemed like quasi-mystical animals to her. The cat’s meow turned into a growl. It was close by, but she couldn’t tell what direction it came from.
The sound came again. This time it changed pitch and was coming straight toward her. She thought she could hear faint footsteps.
“Mmmmmmmary,” called out the sound.
Mary’s breath came out in stunted gasps. She was about to run when she noticed a familiar smell.
“Marrrrrrry O’Mmmmalllorrrrryyyy, ohhh how I love theeeee.”
Mary swung her purse into the fog and felt it connect. There was a thud followed by a cackle.
“You horrible man!” she shouted through laughter.
“Oh don’t you know it,” said Albert’s familiar voice with his impish lilt. “Still see you have no love for cats.”
“Or you either!” she said as she gently pushed him away.
Albert stepped into view from the shadows with his broad grin and locks of dark hair poking out from under his cap. He kissed her on the cheek.
“Oh my,” said Mary. “You’re late.”
“A thousand pardons, Miss O’Mallory. One of our mates didn’t make it home last night, and we were checking the saloons to see if he’d been waylaid.” He took her hand in his and began to walk down the street.
“I bet you did,” she said as she placed her other hand on top of their joined pair. “Had a pint or two, I’m sure.”
Albert slapped his pocket. “Only drank what I sang for. Saving my money for you.”
He had a lovely voice and sang with a cheerfulness that could brighten a dark tavern or make even the most solemn choir song sound like a celebration. She’d met him at St. Anthony’s, where he would sing at the occasional Mass. Although the congregation was a little more upscale than a shanty whaler like Albert was used to, the older ladies had welcomed his charm and voice and seemed not to mind his sooty clothes or slightly off-color sense of humor. He had a good heart, a big smile and sang like a devilish angel, which was most welcome in the predominately Irish church.
He whistled as they walked along the sidewalk. He brought them to a stop on the corner and listened for carriages. There was no way to see one coming in the mist. She held his arm and leaned into his shoulder. She smelled his coat and smiled.
When they reached Flaherty Street, the whistling stopped.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Albert.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I could swear ....” His voice trailed off.
“God damn!” he screamed as he was yanked sideways and fell to the ground.
Mary kept hold of his hand. She looked down and saw his face look up at her from the fog. He’d gone completely pale. Paralyzed with panic, she didn’t know what to do.
“Albert?” she screamed.
“Not here! Not here!” he shouted.
Albert’s body was dragged away from her and into the fog. Mary tried to keep a tight grip on his hand.
“Albert! Albert! What’s going on?” She pulled on his hand, trying to keep him from whatever was tearing him away.
Suddenly he was lifted to the height of Mary’s shoulders. His eyes looked into hers, scared and desperate.
“Run Mary! RUN!” he screamed as his body was jerked into the darkness.
Mary’s grip wasn’t strong enough. His fingers slipped from her grasp, and he vanished into the fog.
From out in the darkness she heard him call out again, “Run away!”
Mary’s legs didn’t want to budge. She was still holding her hand into the darkness, staring at her white fingertips, trying to understand what had just happened.
“Albert!” she screamed. “Albert!”
Despite his warning, Mary refused to run away. Instead, she ran toward where he’d been pulled. She called out after him again. “Albert!”
All she could hear was the sound of her voice echoing. She reached the sidewalk across the street and tripped on the curb. Mary fell to the ground and stretched her arms out to try to find some sign of him. Her fingers only found moist brick.
“Albert!” she shouted between tear-filled sobs. “Albert!”
April Malone pulled the set of brass keys from her coat pocket and unlocked the door to the building with no name. Same as she had done six days a week for the past two years.
The streets were covered in a thick fog and she felt uncomfortable being out there in it with all the strange stories about people missing. When she’d got off the trolley car a few blocks back, a withered old woman dressed in black had tried to offer her a protective amulet. The crone said it was a gift, but April had read enough to know how gypsies operated their scams. She’d politely declined and kept walking. Young paperboys approached her with sensational headlines, each one more sinister than the last, about people missing in the fog.
She shut the door behind her, bolted the three locks on the door and placed her coat on the rack. As per the instructions given to her by the previous woman who held the job, she started brewing a pot of coffee that would never get touched, placed next to the pot a paper bakery sack that would get thrown out, too, and made sure that fresh copies of the London Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle as well as various mail-order catalogs and scientific journals were placed on the desk that sat at the opposite end of the room from hers.
In the pneumatic mail slot that mysteriously delivered things during the night, she found a thick envelope filled with long pieces of cardstock with various notches in them. These cards were blue colored. Interesting. She didn’t get as many of them as the red, yellow or greens ones.
She sat at her desk and turned a crank on the side as she fed the blue cards into the card slot. A minute after she entered the last card, she heard a bell ring, telling her she could stop turning the crank.
It was just one more mystery. On her desk sat a mechanical calendar reminding her when to go to the back end of the building and have the coal man pour coal down the shoot or when to have the man with the oil cans refill a tank built into the back wall.
Periodically, a letter written on a typewriter would arrive with new instructions. They would be simply signed Mr. S.
She looked forward to these letters. They were deviations from the normal routine. They might have instruction like, “Pick five of the New York Times fiction best sellers and read them,” or they might ask her to attend a public lecture at Boston College or MIT.
Although she didn’t have a formal education, April had a quick mind and loved to read. The frustration with the secrecy and mysteries was offset by the unpredictable nature of the job and the opportunities to spend long hours reading or meeting interesting people at lectures. She’d attended lectures on topics as varied as Egyptology and human anatomy. When she asked her predecessor the purpose of the reading and the lectures, she simply shrugged and said you never know when you might get quizzed. Quizzed by whom, she’d wondered?
On more than one occasion she’d been instructed to tell lecturers that she was there as a guest of Mr. S. The lecturers, usually professors or other scholars, sometimes had special manuscripts or in some cases envelopes of punch cards for April to feed into her desk. Some gave her chemical samples to be deposited into a safe.
When family and friends asked her about her job, she just told them that she worked for a private actuary. If they pressed on, she described her job as doing “actuarial things” and left it at that.
Her most recent letter from Mr. S was to learn how to use a velocipede. That had been an interesting experience. It sat in the corner waiting for her next practice session.
The office, as she referred to it, had a front door, several bookcases filled with reference materials she kept updated, a closet, two desks and three doors at the back. One door led to the water closet. Another to a storeroom, and the third, a large metal door with three incandescent lights above it, led to where god only knows. She half suspected it was a vault of some kind. Her predecessor only told her that she’d be told if she needed to worry about it. Told by whom?
Unbeknownst to April, twenty feet below her desk the punch cards worked their way through a machine half the size of the city block the building was built on top of. Gears turned, pins found the holes in the cards, levers clicked and tumblers began to rotate. The cards became mathematical problems. A large brass sphere with a series of notches on it, unlike any difference engine cylinder ever seen, began to spin. A calculation was made.
April flipped through a script to a play. She felt a rumbling as a streetcar passed by. She looked up from her desk when she realized that the electric car didn’t go down this street. She walked over to the small window that looked out on the street and peered past the blinds and metal bars securely fashioned to the wall. The street was empty.
That was odd, she thought. Maybe they were working on the subway line or the sewer tunnel? She sat down and went back to her reading. Although she took her job seriously, she’d developed the rather unladylike habit of taking her boots off and sitting with her feet up on the desk. If her mother saw her doing that, she would have cupped her in the ear.
Although she was an attractive woman of twenty, there was still a bit of the tomboy in her. She licked a finger and turned the page. She almost didn’t notice when the first light above the metal door turned red.
Somewhere beneath her, valves turned. Pressurized steam powered a turbine that began to pump gas into a large glass chamber.
April set her book down and looked at the light. She’d never seen that before. She unlocked the drawer in the desk where the manual was located. She pulled it free and thumbed through to the section that explained what that meant. Her desk had various incandescent filaments and metal cylinders that had different instructions. The light above the door was one she’d forgotten.
Did that mean she’d forgotten a delivery in the back? She scanned the yellowed page that described the door. It said to make sure that there was a fresh pot of coffee ready and to see to it that all the other things she’d done when she arrived had been done.
The second light turned red. She almost jumped out of her chair when she felt an even louder rumbling from under the floor and heard something hiss. The manual didn’t have any further instructions.
April sat at her desk, transfixed by the door. What would happen when the last light came on? Beyond the door she could hear what sounded like a large mechanical leviathan coming to life.
Lately she’d taken to reading Shelley, Stevenson and Verne. Her mind raced with sensational possibilities. She’d always assumed the pot of coffee and pastries were for someone who would enter through the front door, not one who came through the metal door.
What could be behind there? An armor-clad dinosaur? A deranged lunatic serving off a prison sentence? A cursed Egyptian mummy? She thought of some of the more bizarre items from the penny dreadfuls on her reading list. Vampyre? Feast of Blood?
April looked toward the doorway. What if it all had been some kind of cruel trick? The money was more than fair; she was paid every other week via a check that came through the post from some law firm in New York. But was she actually being paid to be a victim? She really had no idea who she worked for. Whatever was behind that door had been there for the past two years. What kind of horrible creature had been trapped in there?
The third light came on. April calculated how many steps it would take for her to reach the front door, unlock it and run away. If she stayed at her desk, she would get trapped between there and whatever was behind the metal door.
She took her feet off the desk and decided on a compromise with slightly more composure. She would stand beside her desk and wait to see whomever or whatever came through the door. That probably wouldn’t give her enough time to unlock the front door, but it would give her the chance to make a start of it if she could fight off whatever was making the sound from behind the door.
April heard the sound of clicking wheels and sliding bolts. The door slowly swung open by itself. It was pitch black inside. The gas lamps from the office could barely penetrate the opening’s interior, revealing nothing to April.
From inside emanated the sound of footsteps running up stairs. April stepped backward and bumped into a row of encyclopedias. She reached back and grabbed one so she could have something to throw. She pulled it free and held it in her right hand, ready to be used as a weapon. By the weight of it, she could tell it was “M.” That was a good meaty one to use. Lot’s of useful things in “M,” she thought.
In her mind, she began to recite the first entries for “M,” verbatim.
Something moved in the darkness. April lost track of whether it was the Phrygians or the Cataonians who worshipped the goddess Ma first.
A figure leaped from the last step of the stairs and bolted into the middle of the room. April made a noise that sounded more like a hiccup then a scream. She dropped the encyclopedia.
The fair-haired man in slightly disheveled clothes turned his head toward her.
“Hello! Have we met?” he asked with a helpless smile.