The Complications of Avery Vane

Avery Vane, Avery Vane

Wicked, twisted, and insane

Killed his wife and ate her brain

Then killed his son and did the same

Avery Vane was seated comfortably on the divan, puffing white rings of smoke from his cigarette, when the knock came at the door. He dashed out the butt of his smoke, and wiping his hands on his handkerchief, got out of his seat. He moved over to the door, and waited there for his butler to announce who was calling. To his surprise, it was not his butler that he met in the den, but the doctor.

Avery visibly flinched and stumbled away from his uninvited guest. Avery’s butler trailed behind the doctor, spewing apologies. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid he rather insisted.”

Avery’s hands tightened into fists, barely suppressed rage threatening to bubble and spill over. The doctor carried with him a sea of uncomfortable memories. A wave of them flooded Avery’s mind, memories he’d tried desperately to rid himself of. The doctor was a reminder of wicked deeds, of the monster within Avery that threatened to claw its way to the surface and take over once more.

Avery was a different man now. He was reformed. The monster was under control, and the doctor was nothing more than a reminder of the man he’d once been. It bothered him that the man had something to hold over him, that he owed him anything. Avery should have dealt with this problem long ago. He was tired of letting the doctor push him around.

“That’s fine, Mr. Duncan, I’ll see the doctor in the den. If you could start a fire, it would be much appreciated. I felt a cold breeze sweep into the room when the door opened.” He probably sounded more at ease than he felt. The cigarette might have helped with that. He turned to his uninvited guest, determined to be civil, even if it killed him. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Dr. Jekyll?”

“Pleasure?” Dr. Jekyll repeated. “I must say, you don’t appear pleased to see me.”

The doctor, according to habit, wore a black leather mask, in the old-fashioned style of plague doctors. Mr. Vane had yet to ascertain the reason for the strange accoutrement, but frankly, he found the mask unsettling. Not once had he seen the doctor’s face. The doctor’s voice was muffled, almost to the point of being incomprehensible. Avery had once noticed a small vent on the underside of the mask, through which he could hear the doctor’s ragged breath.

“This is my apprentice,” he said.

Avery blinked. Apprentice? He hadn’t noticed the young boy, who now stepped out from behind the doctor. The boy, although unmasked, was equally frightening to look at. His skin was so pale, it was practically translucent. His hair was white. Not blonde, but white, as stark as snow. His eyes were a soft pink, his lashes as pale as his hair. Avery had never seen anyone like him, in all his years.

“How do you do?” he managed.

He hoped he sounded polite. It wasn’t like Avery to stare. He’d been raised according to a strict set of manners. His mother would have rapped his knuckles with an ash branch for how he was staring at the little albino.

It wasn’t just the boy’s pale complexion that disturbed Avery. There was something in his expression. Something unsettling. Perhaps it was just the boy’s pink eyes that prejudiced Vane against the unfortunate youth, but Avery imagined he saw hatred in those eyes. Cold, calculating hatred.

Avery forced a smile. He realized that the doctor had not yet answered his question. Sitting back down on the divan, he fished out another cigarette and lit it nervously. He gestured to the empty chairs.

“Can I offer you anything, doctor? Tea? Perhaps something stronger?”

“We won’t be staying long,” the doctor answered.

Neither he, nor the boy, had taken a seat. Instead, they stood at the threshold of the den. Strangely, Avery felt cornered, like a caged animal. It was ridiculous of him to be so intimidated by the old doctor and the young boy who trailed behind him. Surely if they wanted to hurt him, he could fight them off. The boy looked as frail as a ghost, and he had always assumed that the doctor was well past his prime. Avery, meanwhile, was in his twenties, tall, and athletic. If need be, he could call for help, and a dozen servants would be with him in a minute. He was dangerous. Even years after what had happened, people feared him, rumors continued to circulate around him. Women crossed the street when passing his house and grown men avoided looking in his eyes when they saw him about town.

He was Avery Goddamn Vane. Children sang rhymes about him. They whispered his name into the mirror on dares, fearing he would suddenly manifest behind them.

Avery Vane, Avery Vane, Wicked, twisted, and insane. And yet…

“What do you want?” he sneered.

“Come with us,” the doctor replied. “We have something to discuss.” “Whatever it is, we can discuss it here,” said Avery. He was disappointed with himself. He’d meant to sound forceful, determined. Instead, his voice trembled and cracked.

“This will all go much more smoothly if you do as I say, Mr. Vane.”

“No,” he said again. His voice was softer this time, barely more than a whisper. His lips trembled. He cursed himself for being so weak.

“Mr. Vane, it is really not my style to adopt such an unsavory practice as blackmail, but I’m afraid I really must insist that you come with me at once. Otherwise…”

The doctor didn’t need to finish that sentence. Avery knew exactly what the doctor held over him. If his secret got out, Avery would be ruined. Sure, there were rumors, but the doctor had more than that. He had proof. He wouldn’t just be ruined—he’d be utterly destroyed.

The way Avery saw it, he had only two options. He could go along with the doctor. Or he could put a bullet in the doctor’s chest. He’d have to kill the child too. He didn’t like the idea of killing another child, especially now that he was reformed. But he was tired of letting the doctor intimidate him. Wasn’t it time to let the monster out?

He drew his pistol. He wished he could see the look on the doctor’s face. The sudden transition from arrogance to fear. The doctor raised his arms as if to plead for his life, and took a step back. Avery readied the pistol, aimed it at the doctor’s chest.

“Hyde,” said the doctor.

Avery blinked. What?

Then he felt an enormous hand engulfing his skull. He felt himself being whirled around like a rag doll. The pistol fell to the floor with a clatter, and Avery found himself face to face with Death.

The man—if he was a man at all—wore a weathered black plague mask, like the doctor’s, only much larger. He was dressed in a black cowl. He was also the biggest man Avery had seen in his life. Giant bastard must have come in through the back door. Without a word, he lifted Avery off his feet with one hand, by his hair. Avery felt strands of hair rip from his scalp. He screamed.

Then, with what seemed like no effort at all, the giant flung Avery across the room. He crashed into the settee, landed hard on the floor, and lay there. Unable to move, he stared at the ceiling.

No one had come to his rescue. Avery began to wonder if his servants were even still alive.

“Well done, Mr. Hyde,” said the doctor.

The albino child hunched over Avery. His pale white face was all Avery could see.

“Help me,” he pleaded. Surely he’d only imagined the hatred in the boy’s eyes. He was just a child, after all. “Please. Run and call for help.”

The boy smiled. For a moment, Avery thought that the boy was going to do as he asked. Then the boy opened his mouth and let a big ball of spit spill out onto Avery’s forehead. Avery groaned.

The boy smiled at his handiwork. Then he began to kick Avery. He wasn’t terribly strong, but Avery couldn’t move at all. His ribs had probably been broken in the fall, and each kick made him wince with pain. Eventually, he lost consciousness.

Avery Vane awoke with a sudden fluttering of his eyelids. The harsh light made him squint. As his eyes began to adjust, he discovered that the room was actually dimly lit by a single oil lamp, which had been thrust into his face. He turned away from the harshness of the light, and took a look around the room.

It was a laboratory. This, he could surmise from the test tubes, beakers, and other scientific equipment that lined the shelves, and from the preparations on the tables. Dissections of animals, as well as human organs, were preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

“So glad you’re awake,” said the doctor, still with his mask on. “My apologies. Mr. Hyde often forgets his own strength.”

The giant grunted and shuffled awkwardly on his feet. It might actually have been a genuine apology. Not that Avery could say the same for the doctor’s feigned civility.

The doctor set the oil lamp on the table, giving Avery the chance to look at him without staring directly into the harsh light. He noticed that the albino was no longer with them.

“So,” the doctor continued. “I regret Mr Hyde’s roughness, Mr. Vane, but I do hope that it has given you an appreciation for how serious I am about the boy’s welfare.”

“The boy?” Avery repeated. “What does this have to do with him?”

“Mr. Vane, I need not remind you—and don’t believe for a moment that I’m merely pandering to your ego—that you are by far the best clockmaker in the country. I might even go so far as to say you are the best in the world.”

“Your point, Dr. Jekyll?” Avery asked, impatiently.

Pandering to his ego, indeed! Avery snorted with distaste. He looked straight into the doctor’s face. It was unnerving that he couldn’t see the man’s eyes, as they were hidden behind the mask’s tinted lenses. Nor could he recognize his voice, as it was distorted by the mask, which meant that there was no way of determining who the doctor really was. Jekyll was almost certainly an alias, borrowed from Robert Louis Stevenson’s story. Avery read the penny dreadfuls.

“My point, Mr. Vane, is that I’ve been taking on the responsibility of educating the boy. He’s very bright, you see, and very keen, and his father wants to provide him with the very best opportunities. I have an obligation which requires me to be away for a couple of months—”

“No,” Avery said. He could see perfectly well where this was going.

“He’ll be an excellent student,” the doctor continued, heedless of the interruption, “although he bores easily. Did you know, I left for several months not too long ago; I arranged for young Jack to sit in at the university. He grew so bored he decided to open his own surgical practice, and when I returned from my business, I learned that Jack had been cutting classes every day and operating a rather successful business as a surgeon. He wore a mask, like mine, so that no one would realize he was only a thirteen, but his expertise as a surgeon is quite remarkable. Not just for a boy his age, but for any surgeon. I’m sure he’ll be quick to pick up the fine art of clockmaking, especially with you to—”

“No,” Avery said again.

“No?” the doctor repeated. He stood over Avery, who was seated on the floor, with his back against the wall. The effect was that the doctor seemed to tower over him. “Do you not see the position you’re in, Mr. Vane? Did you not see how easy it was for my associate and I to invite ourselves into your home?”

Avery refused to be intimidated. He spat. A great gob of spit landed square on the doctor’s right lens. Calmly, almost as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, the doctor withdrew a handkerchief. He wiped the spit from his lens.

“Need I remind you about that unfortunate bit of bad business I helped you with a year ago? A little thing like that can come back to bite you. It was only lucky that you had such a dear friend as me to help you out. You might want to consider how you treat such friends.”

“Friends? You’re a tyrant. A bully. We’re not friends, Doctor. Do what you must. Tell the police if you must, but I won’t work for you.”

“Come now, be reasonable. Do you need to be reminded of what you did, V ane?”

“I’m well aware of what I did. There isn’t a day that goes by that it doesn’t haunt me.”

“And you’ll really let me tell the police?” asked Dr. Jekyll.

“I won’t let you intimidate me.”

“There is one other thing,” said the doctor. “If blackmail doesn’t frighten you, if the threat of violence doesn’t intimidate you, there is still one more thing.” “What?”

“Your disease,” Jekyll said. His words oozed out of his mouth, slimy and foul.

Avery felt his heart stop, like a train that had run out of coal. Dead on its tracks. “What about it?”

“What would happen to you if your access to your medicine was suddenly cut off?” asked the doctor.

A lump formed in Avery’s throat. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry as ash.

“I keep a personal supply in a number of locations, known only to me,” Avery said. “Just in case.”

The doctor barked out a single, cold laugh, a harsh and metallic sound as it was filtered through the mask’s tubes and vents.

“Very enterprising of you, Mr. Vane. But let’s suppose that somebody discovered the locations of your secret supplies. What would become of you then?”

Avery swallowed. He stared back at the doctor, his jaw set.

Jekyll stood. He beckoned to Mr. Hyde, and with the giant at his side, he headed into the corner of the room. A big steel cage stood there, atop a wheeled cart. Together, Jekyll and Hyde wheeled the cart into the center of the room. It was clear that Hyde was doing most of the work. As the cart drew closer, Avery began to make out what was inside the cage.

“I’ll tell you what would become of you,” said the doctor. “First, your skin would begin to die. It would peel off in strips and flake away like it does after a sunburn. Then you would begin to rot. Then, finally, when your body has all but died, your mind would be surrendered to the disease. An insatiable hunger would come over you. The urge to hunt for prey, to kill, and to eat. I mentioned at your home, I had something to show you.”

He gestured to the cage. It held a monster within its bars. It was a monster that Avery recognized. This thing was human once, its skin torn and peeling, its putrid flesh grey with rot, its eyes emotionless and predatory. It snarled, baring yellow teeth and a blackened tongue. It banged its maggot-ridden hands against the iron bars of its cage. There was no indication of intelligence in its eyes, just raw aggression and hunger. This was the monster within Avery. This was what would become of him if Jekyll were to cut off his supply of medication.

“Can’t you do anything to help it?” he asked, “Like you helped me?”

“Unfortunately, no. The disease is too far gone. This poor wretch is beyond saving. And if you were to stop taking your medicine for too long…” The doctor trailed off, letting the thought sink in. At a certain point, even his medication wouldn’t be enough to keep Avery’s monster at bay. He needed regular doses of his medicine just to remain human.

At last, Avery let out a breath of air through his nostrils, a sigh of distress. He could see no way out of this.

“What, specifically, do you want me to teach this boy of yours?”

The doctor didn’t relish in his victory. He answered calmly as ever, as if he’d been entirely confident of the outcome of the conversation. “I’ve prepared an itinerary. So long as you follow it, and the boy comes to no harm while I’m away, I will ensure that your medicine continues to arrive on schedule,” he said. “Oh, and there’s one more thing.”

“Which is?”

“Should his father come to inquire after his well being, you are to telegraph me straight-away. Tell the father that I’ve gone away on urgent business, and that I’ll be back shortly. Do not, under any circumstances, allow the father to learn that I am away long-term, or that you’ve been instructing the boy.”

It was strange. For all the doctor’s bravado, his intimidation, his posturing, his threats—if Avery didn’t know better, he would have guessed that Dr. Jekyll was afraid. It was impossible to say for certain. He could hardly judge by the man’s face, nor even by the cadence of his voice, but there was a tightness in the way he held his posture, when he spoke of the boy’s father.

Avery nodded, and the tension seemed to melt away.

“Good,” said the doctor. “Very good. I’ll have Mr. Hyde return you to your home. I hope you don’t mind wearing a blindfold. I’d prefer to keep my whereabouts a private matter, for now. You understand, don’t you?”

Again, Avery nodded. “Good,” said the doctor.

As it turned out, Avery’s ribs were not broken, although they were bruised badly enough that he winced in pain whenever he stooped over or stood up too quickly. His household staff hadn’t been murdered, as he’d feared. They’d been rendered unconscious by the doctor’s brutish accomplice, but they had recovered well enough. Soon, the doctor’s visit was little more than a bad memory, and Avery was back to his usual routine, with one singular exception. Much as he resented the doctor for burdening him with the responsibility of tutoring Jack, he could not fault the boy.

In fact, his young apprentice was an admirable student, with a tireless work ethic and the keen interest that only a child can have. He had spat on Avery’s face, but he had since apologized, and the act had been encouraged by Dr. Jekyll. Once away from the doctor’s influence, the boy’s behavior was considerably different.

He was quiet, patient, and intelligent. Avery soon came to feel that he had misjudged Jack. That cruel look he thought he’d seen in Jack’s eyes was imagined, more likely a result of Avery’s prejudice against the boy’s strange looks than anything else.

Jack was an avid reader, as Avery came to find out. He devoured Avery’s texts on clockmaking, but on more than one occasion, he had caught the boy reading penny dreadfuls. The Mysteries of London was his favorite—and he enjoyed pretending that he was Anthony Tidkins, the grave-robber from the stories. The Resurrection Man.

In his spare time, Jack began to apply Avery’s lessons and those gleaned from the pages of his books to tinkering with little gadgets and inventions of his own devising. Avery saw no harm in letting him borrow scraps from his pile to devote to these side projects. Jack’s surgical knowledge, and his small, steady hands, proved useful in clockmaking, and Avery felt certain that given enough time, Jack would eventually surpass even him.

He showed him how to make a simple pocket watch, and Jack replicated it perfectly. He presented Jack with a broken clock and asked him to repair it. It was ticking away within half an hour.

After a while, Avery actually came to enjoy having the boy around, even if he was only there because of the doctor’s threats. In a way, Jack reminded Avery of the son he’d once had. He often caught himself staring at Jack, wondering what his son would be like now, if he were still alive. He would have been about Jack’s age.

As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, the doctor’s return loomed ominously on the calendar. Avery was saddened to think that he would lose his student.

Eventually, he decided to broach the subject with Jack. “Perhaps when the doctor returns, you could continue to study with me,” he said, “If you like.”

Avery wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Gratitude, perhaps? Eagerness? Instead, he received a cold look, the same deadpan stare that he’d first seen upon meeting Jack. He hadn’t imagined it, after all.

“I see little need for that,” Jack replied. “I’m beginning to feel I’ve already learned everything you can possibly teach me.”

Avery clenched his fist, his hand shaking violently. He reminded himself that Jack was just a boy, and that he’d had a rather queer upbringing. Perhaps with the right mentor, Jack could still learn to refine his behavior, his manners.

“I find that clockmaking has a great deal in common with surgery, but it is much simpler, by comparison. After all, what are human beings if not incredibly complicated machines?” Jack continued. “Having mastered surgery, clockmaking seems beneath my skill. Any child could do it.”

Avery snorted. “You are a child,” he reminded Jack.

He would not stand here and have his trade so crudely insulted. Any hint of the patient, passionate boy Avery had come to know and love was gone, replaced with the cruel, arrogant brat who’d spat on his face. There was a duality in Jack, a duality Avery had once seen in himself when the disease had taken hold of him. Avery was not the man he’d once been—there was a monster within him, just beneath the surface. So long as he took his medicine, he could keep the monster at bay. And Jack was not the same boy who’d spat on his face and who stood before him now. This version of Jack was someone different, a second personality that lay dormant within him. This was Jack’s monster.

All this time that Avery had been teaching Jack the art of clockmaking, the other Jack had been there, somewhere distant in the dark recesses of Jack’s mind. It wasn’t sickness that brought him forth, at least not a physical sickness. Perhaps a mental illness, or perhaps it was just that duality that exists in all men.

Avery took a deep breath. “You overestimate your own skill as a clockmaker,” he said, “And you underestimate the complexity of clocks. Your analogy is apt; people are indeed like complicated machines, but the tools used in clockmaking are vastly different from those used by a surgeon. We use calipers and die plates, rivet pliers, and turns, where surgeons use scalpels, bone saws, and forceps. We work with metal, where surgeons deal in flesh. What makes a clock tick is not the same as what makes a man tick.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. At least, Avery had his attention.

“Do you know what it’s called when a timepiece includes a feature that goes beyond simply displaying hours and minutes?”

“Complications,” he answered.

Avery was hardly surprised that Jack already knew the answer. He would have read a dozen books on the subject by now.

“So far, I’ve only taught you simple movements. Perhaps that was my mistake. I’m not accustomed to having a student. No wonder you’re beginning to tire of horology. Why don’t we try something with complications?”

Jack smiled, and nodded enthusiastically. The other Jack was gone again. Like a leech sucking the bad blood out of an infected wound, it was boredom that drew out the other Jack. The doctor had warned him that Jack was easily susceptible to boredom. Only now did Avery grasp what that meant.

“It is my firm belief that clocks can be just as complicated as people, depending on the skill of the clockmaker,” Avery told him. “If man is made by god, and machine is made by man, suppose you could build a machine as complex as man. What would that make you?”

“God,” Jack answered.

Avery nodded. “Now, tell me. Are you still bored?”