Egotistical idiots. Jerry Anderson loitered on the sidewalk while a passel of socialites hobnobbed inside The Steel Works Saloon, a trendy club opening that night near the Hot Metal Bridge. The chic bar featured found art relics from the Age of Steel. Four booths were even made from quarter sections of old Bessemer converters. Little black dresses brushed against expensive tuxes as important elbows were rubbed. Jerry should have been covering the event, but his request for press access was met with a wink of understanding and a refusal coated in the thinnest veneer of politeness. He hoped all the highbrow assholes inside caught food poisoning from the pâté.
Something enormous flashed through the night and across the avenue, lights glinting on its reflective form. Jerry’s eyes couldn’t catch up with the speed of its movement, but his ears picked up the whir of gears and the crunch of asphalt grinding into rubble. The club’s facade exploded, propelling glass shrapnel in every direction, peppering the bluebloods and one-percenters inside. Jerry threw his arms up in front of his face, but the blast knocked him flat. The chalkboard sound of scraping metal reached his ears, mingled with confusion and panic from inside the building. Screams rang out, but before anyone could collect themselves, the giant was among them, rending flesh and pounding meat into the floor.
Jerry’s heart thumped a rapid drumbeat against his chest, and he gulped down a few panicked breaths before he came back to his senses and regained his feet. His newshound instinct kicked in as he pulled out his smart phone and began filming, unsure of what else he could do.
A giant, misshapen monster was wreaking unspeakable carnage inside. It was roughly humanoid in shape, but towered at least eight feet high, ripping through the lights on the ceiling. Jerry’s mind fought to encompass the metal behemoth. One arm, burnished to a sheen, ended in a crude claw made from rusty railroad spikes, which raked at the panicked partiers. The other arm was a huge piston capped with a flat face moving in and out, pulping flesh. Its torso was a mishmash of plates, rods, and sheets, some dull and some shiny. Ball bearings and wiring served as joints, connecting everything. Its head was a chunk of raw ore holding two bulbous, burning coals, acting as eyes, seeking out more victims. His mind was hard-pressed to process what he was seeing; it was some kind of vengeful construct, like a steel golem.
Within moments, Jerry’s video stopped, coinciding with the end of the slaughter. He lowered the phone with a sense of impending doom, afraid of what would happen next. Everyone inside had been mangled beyond recognition. Male and female bodies were indistinguishable from each other–a mass of death. Standing in the middle of the butcher’s work was the juggernaut, coated in blood, viscera, and fragments of bone. And it was staring right at him.
It rocked free from the pile of corpses, and a ponderous stride carried it clear of the building. The Golem towered over him, blazing eyes staring down into his face. Jerry knew it was about to rip him apart like it had just done to everyone else. Metal creaked as it leaned down, coals boring straight into his being. A low growl rumbled from deep within the Golem’s torso, gears grinding as it mulled over his fate. The head cocked to the side, looking at him with curiosity.
Sirens blared in the night, heralding the arrival of the cops. The Golem disappeared into the blackness of an alley, leaving Jerry standing alone at the scene of a mass murder. He looked down at his shaking hands, and noticed his uncovered arms were crisscrossed with lines of blood. Shards of glass laced his clothing, falling free with every movement.
The cops arrived and started cordoning off a scene. Uniforms ran around putting up a perimeter. A black sedan nudged its way through the cordon, disgorging a team of suited detectives. Forensics was sure to follow. In the midst of this chaos, an EMT corralled Jerry first, checking to ensure he didn’t have any major wounds. The young woman guided him to a stretcher, then cleaned and bandaged his arms, working with professional ease.
“You can talk to him for a few minutes, officer,” the EMT said to a loitering cop. “He might have a concussion, however, and needs to go to the hospital for observation, so don’t push it.” She closed her kit and walked away.
The cop stepped forward. “I’m Officer Branislav, but you can call me Joe.” He was a young man with affable features, projecting warmth.
“J-Jerry. Jerry Anderson.”
“Mind if I call you Jerry?”
“You clearly didn’t kill everyone, but I can tell from your clothing you weren’t invited to the party.” The cop was sharp. “Why were you hanging around outside?”
“Oh,” Jerry managed, fumbling for his credentials. “I’m a reporter.”
Branislav peered at the badge. “Jerry Anderson, reporter for Happenings in the ‘Burgh. So, what did you see?”
“I have no idea,” Jerry replied with perfect honesty. “The window exploded, and–” He stopped, not wanting to lie any more than he had to. He didn’t figure Branislav would swallow any tall tales. “And I was hit. I went woozy, and heard a lot of screaming. I knew people were being hurt, but I couldn’t come to myself in time to help them, or see what was going on.” Jerry rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to massage the visions of death away.
“Hmm.” The cop gave Jerry a quizzical glance before shaking his head. “You’ve been through quite an ordeal. I’m sure the detectives will have a lot of questions. I’ll tell them to catch up with you at the hospital.”
“Sure,” Jerry said. “I hope you get whoever did this.” He hoped the Golem didn’t get Branislav instead.
Joe gave him a long look. “Here’s my card. Call me if you need someone to talk to. Take care of yourself, Jerry.”
Jerry turned and melted into the crowd, avoiding the ambulance. Guilt warred with pragmatism inside him. He felt awful for not sharing the video, but who would believe it anyway? Plus, Jerry could have implicated himself in the crime by handing his evidence over. Joe Branislav seemed like a decent cop, but he was still a cop. They tended to be rigid in their thinking, and took a caustic view of anyone acting out of the ordinary. As a reporter, Jerry had been harassed by cops before, so he didn’t altogether trust the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.
Jerry saw the Golem when he closed his eyes later, trying to sleep, and he couldn’t shake the memory of people being ripped apart like rag dolls. His boss insisted he take a few days off to recover from the ordeal, but his reporter’s instincts were screaming at him to act. Branislav’s card become worn from the number of times he took it out, considering whether or not he should share the video. Eventually, with guilt and ambition threatening to drown him, Jerry slipped Joe’s crinkled card out of his pocket, its print faded and barely visible, and punched the numbers into his phone. A quick exchange set up an immediate meeting at Don’s Diner.
Jerry walked in and scanned the sparsely populated greasy spoon. A young couple in love held hands over a table for two, and a few drunk frat boys scarfed down loaded omelets in the far corner. A battered old juke box whined out old rock tunes. Branislav sat in a booth, drinking a cup of coffee. A second cup rested on the table opposite the policeman. Jerry slid into the booth and gently cradled the steaming mug.
“You sounded like roasted shit on the phone, Jerry,” Branislav said affably, his smile cushioning his concern.
“I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff, Joe,” Jerry said. He knew he needed to get it out in the open, but still he hesitated to confide.
“This is about what you didn’t tell me before, right? Before you ducked out on going to the hospital?”
“No sweat,” Branislav said with a shrug. “So what is it?”
The reporter grunted. “Hell, you’re probably going to arrest me, or have me committed, but I can’t hide this any more.”
Jerry pulled out his phone, tapped a few buttons, and held it up to play for the policeman. He didn’t have the volume up very high, but the clash of metal and the victims’ death screams reached his ears as Branislav’s countenance became incredulous. The video played out, showing the Golem tearing people limb from limb and pulverizing humans into corpses, leaving the policeman in gaping shock. Jerry clicked his phone off when the video ended and tucked it back in his pocket, giving Branislav time to collect himself. It was several minutes before the man
snapped his mouth shut, getting over what he had watched.
The policeman shook his head and blinked slowly, regarding Jerry in a different light altogether. “So. So either you were in on it with whoever perpetrated this multiple homicide, or there’s a giant metal monster running loose in the city.”
“I think of it as a steel construct: the Golem,” Jerry said.
“This isn’t Prague, and I doubt there’s a scroll tucked away in this thing’s tooth either.” Branislav grinned.
Jerry was flabbergasted. “I figured you’d flip out, Joe, not crack jokes.”
“Well, I was suspicious before you showed me this. Something was off about the scene,” Branislav explained. “The official story was a gas explosion, but the evidence didn’t support that. It did keep our detectives from breathing down your neck, though.”
“A gas explosion’s the most hackneyed cover-up ever invented.”
“No kidding,” Branislav replied with a snort. “The wounds were inconsistent with a gas explosion, and there were no signs of that kind of blast. I knew it had to be something else.” He shrugged. “Now I know what that something else was.”
“That’s…you have to be the most open-minded law enforcement officer in the world,” Jerry said, in complete awe of Branislav and his credulousness.
“Hey man, the ghost of my bubbie haunted our house when I was a kid, and my mother told me all about Baba Yaga,” Branislav rejoined. “Now I always sleep with one eye open, and my mind is pretty flexible when it comes to the supernatural.”
Jerry gave out a huge sigh of relief. “I feel like a thousand pounds was just lifted off my chest.”
“Helps to have a friend believe you, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does.” Jerry rubbed the bridge of his nose and blinked hard once. The reporter in him took over. “So tell me, Joe,” he began. “Have there been any other mysterious killings?”
“Just one. Two nights ago, several teenaged boys broke into an abandoned steel mill to scavenge for metal. They were ripped apart and torn to shreds, just like before.”
“Damn,” Jerry muttered. “That’s it?” Branislav nodded.
A somber silence descended over the booth. “Steel Monkey” started playing on the juke box. Jerry finally took a sip of coffee, relishing the bite of caffeine while ignoring how cold it had turned.
“Okay, I’m heading home to do a little research.” Jerry stood up and tossed a few crinkled bills on the table. “I’ll get a hold of you if I turn anything up.”
Branislav rose from the booth. “Don’t show the video to anyone else, Jerry. I don’t think my superiors would be as open minded as I am.”
“I won’t, believe me.”
The policeman offered his hand. “Good luck.”
Jerry spent all night parked in front of his computer, scouring the archives of the local papers. Nothing. He hadn’t found anything even remotely suspicious. He was a reporter, used to digging up the background dirt on a subject, and should have found something. Frustration and fatigue engulfed him. He crawled into bed to crash, crinkling his nose at the stench of his sheets. Exhaustion took over, though, and he drifted into a fitful slumber.
When he woke up, Jerry stumbled into the living room and parked in front of the TV. He knew he should eat, but his stomach rebelled at the threat of food. Jerry clicked the TV on to the early news.
He almost had a heart attack at the story they were running, a double homicide at a private residence in posh Mt. Lebanon. He heard the on-scene reporter tell how the front door and the wall surrounding it had been destroyed, but Jerry only had eyes for the room the camera was filming. A collection of old steel industry objects, carefully restored and presented, hung on the wall behind the reporter, and an antique steam-driven rolling mill blotted out one of the palatial room’s mammoth walls.
He dialed Joe’s number before they had finished the story.
“You saw the news?” Branislav answered the phone.
“Yeah, and my instincts are starting to buzz,” Jerry replied.
“Your research paid off?”
Jerry snorted. “I found zilch, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I think the Golem is targeting people that repurpose old steel industry junk. Turning industrial objects into art, stealing scrap metal–“
“And furnishing bars,” the policeman finished. “Oh sweet Jesus!” Branislav cried into the phone. “Get your ass over to the Wellford-Carnegie Gallery, Jerry.” He barked out the address, which Jerry scribbled on a notepad.
“What’s happening over there?”
“They’re opening an exhibit called ‘Pittsburgh’s Steel Industry Reimagined’. Tonight.”
“Jesus!” Jerry echoed the other’s epithet. “I’ll be there in ten!”
Jerry paused at the door, remembering a large book an old girlfriend had bought him at a yard sale. It might come in handy, so he pulled it down from his bookshelf. He rushed to his car and hit the road, driving aggressively, bobbing and weaving through traffic at well over the speed limit. Luckily he lived in Lawrenceville, a stone’s throw from Bloomfield, and arrived almost before he could blink.
He brought his car to a screeching halt along the curb behind a police cruiser, across the street from a busy gallery. The words ‘Wellford-Carnegie’ topped the gallery’s door, and a sandwich board on the sidewalk had ‘Pittsburgh’s Steel Industry Reimagined’ scrawled across it in an artistic font. He slammed the car into park and burst out onto the sidewalk, lugging the book with him. Jerry almost ran Branislav over.
“I’m going to call in a bomb threat,” Joe said. “We have to get those people out.”
“Hang on,” Jerry told him. “I think I can stop it without you risking your job, but I have to find it first.” Jerry slid his eyes over every possible approach, trying to spot the Golem. The vengeful thing hadn’t struck yet, so they still had time. He turned back to Branislav. “I’m going to reason with it.”
“Uh, you sure that’s wise?”
“It didn’t kill me before.”
“So you want to give it another chance?” Branislav asked. “What should–“
Out of the corner of his eye, Jerry noticed the light of the nearest street lamp reflect on something deep in an alley. He didn’t pause to take a closer look, or to let Branislav finish his sentence.
“Get those people out if this doesn’t work,” he cried over his shoulder, going into an immediate sprint for the mouth of the alley, praying he could put himself between the Golem and the gallery before it was too late.
The hulk stood amongst detritus deep within the darkness between two buildings. Its coal eyes smoldered directly at him. It was only fifteen feet away, but before he could speak, it took two swift steps forward, and loomed over him much as it had before. Jerry was dead certain he had figured out what was causing the Golem to kill, but he felt profound doubt in that moment. It was time to put his theory to the test.
“Why?” Jerry wanted to know, boldly demanding a reply. It did not speak. “Why are you killing so many people?”
Still, the construct did not answer. Jerry returned its gaze without flinching, though his mind was gibbering in panic. After long moments of silence, a low keen began within the Golem’s breast. The sound was unnerving, because metal parts and machinery could not possibly have made it. The keen gained volume, quickly becoming a wail, then a series of wails, pouring out of every crack and crevice. A soft blue light shimmered from the Golem’s joints, pulsing in rhythm with the incorporeal cries. It raised its piston arm and placed the flat face against Jerry’s forehead, the steel cold and electric against his skin.
Then Jerry’s vision was no longer his own. Images poured through his mind, faster than he could possibly comprehend. Jerry tried to interrupt them, to cry out for mercy, but the memories pummeled his psyche. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a few of the scenes he was being exposed to. He saw miners toiling within the earth, wresting ore from the ground. He walked with rugged men who pitted their muscles against mountainous slag heaps. He was there to witness gruesome accidents, flesh sloughing from bone under flows of molten steel.
“This city was built not just with steel, but with the labor of sturdy men,” he began.
“They dishonor our memory,” its voice grated, rusty with disuse.
Again it barraged his mind with the torturous stream of images, causing a headache which was like to split his skull open. Jerry watched men give the balance of their strength to the mills, leaving nothing but exhaustion for their loved ones. He felt frustration along with the workers as conditions grew worse as their wages were lowered.
“They celebrate your memory,” Jerry yelled, trying to stem the assault on his mind, which was teetering on the edge of a break.
The scenes flickered on. Men stood up for their rights, so they could care for their families. They were rewarded with death as Frick’s bullies broke the suffering masses at the Homestead Steel Works, crushing their strike under the heel of martial law.
Jerry tried to steady his wits. “They don’t seek to belittle your history, nor do they make less of your struggles, of the pain you endured to help make Pittsburgh the great city it is today.”
The Golem, and the steel workers’ spirits that animated it, continued to flood his consciousness with their history. Jerry knew no words could be sufficient to make it understand, and he was fading fast.
“Look,” Jerry insisted, raising his book, a pictorial history of Pittsburgh’s steel industry. He began to flip slowly through the pages, holding the book up high. The Golem’s fiery orbs were riveted to the book, scrutinizing each page. “We have museums dedicated to the evolution of the industry, and how it changed the world. Your sons and daughters live here today, and they are as strong and honest as their forbears. Pittsburgh remains the Steel City to this day, and that isn’t just a label. It’s a way of life.” He kept turning pages until he had shown them all, one by one.
The Golem seized the book out of Jerry’s hands. Jerry stood frozen, glad the spikes hadn’t gouged through his flesh, panting in relief as the flow of images ceased. He waited nervously to see if his gambit had paid off. He had meant every word of what he had said, but wasn’t sure if it would make a difference to the Golem.
The iridescent lights darkened to a deep hue, receded back to light cerulean, and finally dispersed in the darkness. The wails began to abate in volume, shifting into a chorus of forlorn sighs. The sighs faded slowly, until they were little more than a whisper, then fell silent. Jerry was left to regard the steel construct in silence, all tension between them drained away. Its eyes stoked into deep embers, flaming away with savage pleasure before burning out. The steel creature remained standing in the alley for a few moments further before falling with a thunderous clatter to the asphalt, nothing more than a pile of component metal parts.
Branislav joined him in the alley, looking down at what used to be an animated metal killer.
“You pulled it off.” His relief was palpable. “God damn, Jerry, but you pulled it off.”
“Thank goodness,” Jerry said, weariness seeping through his limbs.
“What should we do with it?” Branislav wondered.
Jerry looked down at the metal leftovers. “Nobody will think twice about finding a pile of scrap in some alley in Bloomfield, will they, Joe?”
“Then to hell with it.” He retrieved his book and kicked a large ball bearing deeper in the darkness. “I don’t care how tortured their spirits were. It didn’t give them the right to kill. Leave it to rust.”
They turned and walked from the alley.
Brandon Ketchum is a speculative fiction writer of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His stories include dark and weird horror and fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, tech noir, high and urban fantasy, and pulp. He attended the 2013 and 2015 Cascade Writers Workshops, the 2015 In Your Write Mind Workshop, and has been published with Daily Science Fiction, Nocturnal Press Publication’s Torched anthology, Mad Scientist Journal, and other publications.