The City of Tomorrow, Chapter 1

writing_iconI’ve got the first chapter of my novel here to tempt people into reading the entire thing and sending me feedback. It’s an urban fantasy, about a detective investigating the murder of a city. The entire MS is about 120K words. If that sounds like your cup of tea, please let me know!

CHAPTER 1 – THE JOB

I’d like to say that I stopped a family from getting murdered in the street because that was just the kind of man I was. In truth, I wanted to sleep in, and if a shooting happened right outside my front door, I’d never go back to sleep. And the smell from the dead bodies would get into the apartment’s air filters and take forever to leave. Stony was big on shooting intruders, and not much on keeping the neighbourhood clean.

From my window, I could see that the family was chaff – farmers from the West Barrens, where there’s more rocks than growing things. They wore rough denim trousers and coats, flat-caps sprinkled with dust and simple rags across their faces to serve as smog masks. Behind them was a battered old jalopy. It looked like someone had chopped into a 1922 Iron President sedan and tried to turn it into a flatbed truck. The top of the car and the back was piled high with an entire farm’s worth of junk, all roped-together. There were chickens in cages, even a half-starved dog; hoes, shovels, picks, axes, trunks, boxes and barrels.

The head of the family was facing off against Stony, who was the second banana for my local protection gang, the Blood Scorpions. Stony and his gang wore piece-meal armour, and gas-masks painted with red blobs that were supposed to be scorpions. Stony was twitching, which he did when he was agitated, and raising his shotgun, which meant that a complete massacre wasn’t too far off. I saw that the chaff family only had knives, although the older woman was waving a skillet at Stony. A lot of Stony’s gang were Volvek; mean and ferocious dog-like folk who hadn’t quite got the message that we were all living in a civilised age.

I pulled my mask and dustcoat on, and jogged downstairs and went through the front door, past the moist canvas sheets we had hanging down to keep the filtered air inside the building.

“…if you can’t pay for going through my territory, then you get wasted,” Stony said, his voice muffled through his gas mask.

“But we can pay,” the older farmer was saying, holding up a handful of banknotes.

“That’s worthless junk,” Stony snapped. “You either cough up some gold or gems for trespassing, or you pay with your lives.

“We were told that everyone in the big city was using this,” the woman with the skillet said. In her other hand, she held a length of frayed rope with the other end tied around a child’s waist. This little girl’s eyes were distant and wandering; she wasn’t ‘all there’, as my father used to say.

“Well, you were told wrong,” Stony said. A dread eagerness had crept into his voice. “Maybe it’s time you learned…”

“Morning, folks,” I said, stepping out between the chaff and the Blood Scorpions.

“Stay out of this,” a Blood Scorpion snarled in a voice that was cracking with puberty.

One of the Volvek Scorpions growled from behind his gas mask. “It’s Flint Fetch.”

“Who? Flint Fletch?” the kid Blood Scorpion asked.

“Fetch,” I said.

“He’s a bounty hunter for the Black Widow,” the helpful Scorpion said.

“Detective,” I said.

The kid went stiff. “The Black Widow,” he muttered.

I sighed inwardly. One of these days I’d have my own reputation, rather than having one that was attached to Ruby’s.

“Beat it, Fetch,” Stony scowled.

“Do you want your money or not?” I asked him.

“Stinking chaff got nothing,” he said.

“Well, let’s find out,” I said. I walked up to the head farmer and stuck my hand out. “Fetch,” I said.

He shook it with nervous relief. “I’m Tuck Furrow,” he said. “And that’s my wife Fieldie, and our daughter Bloom, our son Tack and Granny Furrow.” His words matched what I saw. The family all had the same chalky stonemark patterns across their flint-coloured faces.

“Well, Mr Furrow, you got any metal? Any gold dust? Gems? Metalwork stamped by a Numbered Bank?”

“Had some gold dust,” Furrow said. He looked a trifle agitated. “But we traded it for this stuff.” He shook the banknotes in my face. “The trader said that this was what they took in the big city.”

I glanced at the polymer banknotes. I didn’t even recognise their bank stamp. There was some shyster out west with his own roll of sheet plastic and a press and was making a fine profit looting from chaff.

“See, no money,” Stony said, waving his shotgun.

“I’m afraid you got shystered, Mr Furrow,” I said, ignoring Stony. “Keep an eye out for bad folk like that. Only thing that’s worth anything these days is gems and metal, like I said, or food.” I gestured at his jalopy. “You got any rice there?”

“A few bags,” Furrow said.

“Right, rice is worth around fifty cents per kilo at the Ratmarket at the moment. Don’t take anything less. So you head there, and sell one of those big bags, and you have enough money to get yourself set up in the city, and also to pay the fee for crossing the Blood Scorpion’s territory, which is 5 cents.”

“Ten,” Stony said. “It’s gone up.”

“And because Mr Stony wants his money, he’ll even ensure that you’re escorted nice and safe to the Ratmarket without being shot on the way.”

“Escort fee’s fifteen,” Stony said.

“Wouldn’t five be more neighbourly?” I asked.

“Ten,” Stony muttered.

“Seven,” I said.

“Fine,” Stony said. “Auric, Silver – you take the chaff to the Ratmarket and make sure that they get top price for that rice.”

Two Blood Scorpions lifted their weapons into the air in acknowledgement.

“Look, thank you, sir,” Furrow said.

“No problem,” I said.

Furrow then went to the back of the car and pulled out a small bag of something and pushed it into my hands.

“Something for your broking,” he said in a quiet voice.

I had a look at the tobacco. Good stuff fresh from the country. “You be careful. Each gang has its own rules and prices for crossing their turf.”

Furrow looked even more dejected.

“Ratmarket’s neutral territory,” I went on. “Talk to a man called Dusty Tiler at the Halfprice House. Tell him Fetch sent you. He should explain how it all works. But listen, if you want my advice, you should think about heading back west. It’s hard to get work around here.”

“We didn’t want to leave,” Furrow said. “But the land’s all dead. She won’t take crop no more. We think it’s the poison rain from the city that blows out over the Barrens. It’s making the water all bad. You plant something and it just goes bad a few weeks later. We’re all starving. But there’s jobs in the city. Real big factory jobs. That’s why we came.”

“There’s no big factory jobs,” I said. “All the big industrialists crashed and pulled out a few years ago. There’s little jobs, here and there but you’ve got to hustle to find them, and for every job there’s about twenty to work it who’ll all take less pay than you.”

Furrow shook his head. “That’s not what we heard. There’s big factories still opening up and they’re looking for honest workers. And that’s all we got to give right now. Honest work.”

“Well, good luck,” I said, shrugging, sticking my ‘broking fee’ in my coat pocket before Stony noticed. Furrow waved at me, a resigned look coming over his face. He gestured at the old jalopy. He son got inside, started it up and it began to move down the street, flanked by several Blood Scorpions.

I watched the Furrows leave and then I turned to go back inside my apartment. There was still some sleep to sort out.

“Your rent’s overdue, Fetch,” Stony said behind me.

“Now Stony, if I was punching clock I’d get regular pay and could pay you regular rent,” I said, as pleasant as I could. “But you know I work contract and I’m just waiting for a good one to come in. The private security business isn’t what it used to be. Besides, I just got you some cash from that chaff you were about to shoot.”

“Not enough for your back-rent,” Story said, crunching through the broken road gravel towards me. “And I heard you had a falling out with the Black Widow. Heard you were trying to get contracts from the Beach Dogs.”

“Rumours,” I said, spreading my hands wide.

“They only got whackjob contracts,” Stony said. “And I know you’d rather shoot your mouth off than a rifle.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“You won’t a get a contract. Your time’s running out. You can’t pay your rent and then you don’t get Scorpion protection.” He ran his finger under his neck, no doubt grinning under his gas mask. “Unless you want to sell me your Fairlight.”

“It’d be the end of the world before that happened,” I told Stony.

Stony gave a high-pitched laugh and pointed around him. “What do you think’s happening around here, old man? It’s the last days of the world, just like how the Book says it was before we rose up and killed the gods. Now there’s no gods left so we’re going to starve first. But I aim to drive your sweet Fairlight before that happens.” He started to laugh. I said good morning and went back to my apartment.

#

I tried to get back to sleep, but it was no good. The image of Stony driving Lady Fairlight made me sick; it was like some some creepy thug wanting to take my daughter and be alone with her in a room for an hour.

That got me thinking about how my real daughter was doing. She’d be about ten years old now. I wonder if her mother had told her anything about me at all.

I managed to get my mind settled down, and dozed off, only to be woken up by the telephone. I would have let it ring out and gone back to sleep, but as Stony had reminded me, I needed some work.

I got up, and made my way to the lounge room where I picked up the telephone.

“It’s Lane,” the voice on the phone said over the crackling line. “It’s about a contract.”

Cradling the phone between my neck and shoulder, I cranked open the heavy iron shutter and peered out my window. Half the lights in the city were out, and a light acid rain was falling from the sky. Thick smog hung low over the rows of dilapidated old buildings, fuelled by the chemical fires from the industrial sector that had been burning for years, and from ether leaking in from Rocket Park.

Maybe Stony was right and it was the end of the world.

“So there’s this guy, Mr Fetch. He just needs to be taught a lesson,” Lane was saying over the phone, snapping my attention back to the here and now.

“I don’t do whackjobs,” I told him. “Mr Lane, we’ve had this conversation too many times. I can do missing persons, homicide investigation, divorce investigations, insurance claims, you name it, but I don’t do whackjobs.”

“All you got to do is find the guy,” Lane pleaded. “My man will take care of the rest.”

“Nope,” I said.

“Mr Fetch, you gotta take a reality check,” Lane said. “It’s not the old day with Numbered Banks and insurance and everyone playing nice. It’s a real frontier now. Call me back when you want to see reason.”

“Call me back when you have a decent contract,” I retorted.

I hung up. I was going to go back to bed, but Lane’s voice kept echoing in my mind. Reality check? Sounded like a good time for a cigarette.

I got my case and lit a cigarette, rolled using Furrow’s tobacco, and sat down in my thinking chair. I would have played some records, but I had to sell my gramophone for food last month. I still missed it and just hummed some music instead. At least Furrow’s tobacco was good stuff.

Maybe I was being delusional, hoping that I would wake up one day and everything would be like it was ten years ago, before the Big Crash. Back then, Raker Bay had been the City of Tomorrow. They had been making new diesel cars, airships and etherships. At the World’s Fair, they’d promised us flying cars and trains that could cut through the Barrens on magnetic rails. Back then, the city had a living, crackling energy to it.

Now I was lucky to find parts for my car and enough work to get by. The big businesses of Raker Bay City had all closed down. Still, they had to come back, right? The great industrialists had to be out there, working, doing something to patch up the busted tyre of our economy?

I thought about my empty safe downstairs, well, just about empty except for that damn pistol. I thought about how I was running low on my medicine and my sandbag full of rice under the sink was getting kind of light.

Maybe I should take a whackjob contract. It was hard to be high and mighty in an economy like this. I just kept thinking everything would get better.

I got up and tried to shower, but the water was coming out brown. I jiggled with my homemade filter for a bit, and eventually got clean. Then, I picked up the telephone. If I was going to do a whackjob, I’d bring my partner along, not some two-bit hitman that Lane had bribed with a bottle of whiskey.

“Operator,” a woman’s voice said.

“Southside Gas Station,” I said.

It took a while for the telephone to connect.

“Yeah?” a voice said. “Gas Station.”

“Tell Bull it’s Fetch,” I said and hung up.

I got a call back after fifteen minutes. The Southside Gas Station had the only phone in Bull’s area, which meant that a runner would have to go to his junkyard and get him to come down to the gas station.

Bull answered the phone with a grunt. The line was bad and crackled like you wouldn’t believe.

“Lane’s only offering whackjobs,” I said. “Maybe we should take it.”

“You know what this means?” Bull grunted over the phone in his rumbling, guttural voice.

“Bull, Lane is the only contract broker this side of town that’s got any pull left,” I told him. “We need to take one of his contracts before he stops offering them.”

“Lane’s a shit broker, and you know it,” Bull said. “I mean it’s time that you talk to Ruby again.”

“No,” I said.

Bull snorted. “This is where I remind you of your high-and-mighty speech you gave when you crawled out of Raker Bay. A new life. No hit jobs, no more crazy industrialists, just sensible and routine detective work where we would be in charge of all the facts.”

“Uh…” I said, because I’d also told Bull to remind me if I ever forgot.

He went on: “Was your argument with her that bad you can’t even make up? I thought she was your girlfriend.”

“Huh! Me and ten other guys. I’ve got nothing left to say to her.”

“But she pays well,” Bull said. “And her club has much better beer than the Beach House. Her Luckspiders would make mincemeat of Lane’s Beach Dogs. I’m not taking a whackjob contract until you’ve at least approached Ruby again.”

I pressed my head against the wall. The thought of talking to Ruby, of begging her for a contract, made my stomach churn. “Let’s give Lane one more chance to turn up a decent contract,” I told him. “Then I’ll speak to her.”

“Give Lane one more day,” Bull said. “He’s not worth that, but it’ll give you time to figure out what to say to Ruby.” He hung up.

I sighed and went back to my thinking chair. I tried to figure out how to talk to Ruby again. It wasn’t easy. “‘You know when I called you a snake-blooded, ice-hearted ice-bitch?'” I told the empty air. “‘Well, I didn’t mean it…’, shit, well I did. How about ‘You know what I said. But I need a job. What do you have for me?’ Man, this will take forever…”

A few hours passed. I was nowhere near to figuring out what to say to Ruby.

The phone rang. I answered it.

Lane.

“Mr Fetch, I got a real contract for you,” he breathed, sounding excited. “A real, proper one, like you wanted.”

#

I scrubbed up, put on my best, worn suit and headed out to the Beach House to meet with the client. Bull had left me to suss her out; saying that he couldn’t make it due to family issues. I guess he didn’t have a lot of faith in Lane’s ‘proper’ client.

Once the bar had been the talk-of-town, a place where anonymous business men would meet their mistresses, or a neutral territory where the local gang leaders would come and sort out the patchwork quilt of territories that formed the Hock’s outlying suburbs. Now, ten years after the Big Crash, it had the air of a place winding down, like everything these days. The club’s exterior brickwork was slowly crumbling from the constant splatter of the acid rains, and the old neon sign was dead, the empty tubes hanging above us like ghosts. A spray-painted sign, hung from a nearby lamppost, flapped in the breeze.

The Beach Dogs, the local protection gang for this area, lounged around, in their patchwork biker leathers and gas masks that were painted to look like snarling dogs’s heads.

They weren’t a bad bunch of kids, but I couldn’t help but compare them to Ruby’s Luckspiders, who were all ex-corporate military professionals. Or even Stony’s Blood Scorpions, who were desperate killers.

I gritted my teeth. I hoped this client would work out. The god-kings would rule Cheskeval once more before I saw Ruby again.

After about a ten minute wait, I got waved in with a bunch of other desperate guests by a Beach Dog and we stood in the rusted reality lock. The outer door ground shut and then we were in complete darkness. Someone coughed.

At last, the inner door eased open, letting in light and warmth.

We pulled off our jackets, coats, caps, gas masks and smogcoats as we stepped into the Beach House proper. The air was as clean as a knife, and cool, unlike the muggy heat in the streets outside. And it was bright, like it was a summer’s day at the beach, something I remembered from being a kid long ago.

The huge, muscular doorman spun the wheel lock on our side, closing the inner door, keeping the fake reality of the Beach House intact. As a place where the laws of reality were different, the Beach House’s paradigm was simple. Clean air, natural-seeming light and a gentle chill. The room inside was designed to look like a beach pavilion. There was a proper dance floor, scrubby plants in tubs, a claptrap piano with a cloth over it and waitresses wearing blue swimsuits that came up to show us where to hang our gear. But you could see that the zone was close to expiring. Lines of rust were snaking along the metal walls and ceiling, even though someone had gone to a great effort to arrange pot plants and furniture to try and disguise the rust.

The place that made the Beach House was the large panel of timeglass set against the far wall. It showed a clear honey sky in late afternoon, and a brown ocean choked with minerals raging and pounding against a soft-sand shore. Black-winged birds wheeled overhead against the vaultless sky. You could almost breathe that clear, salty air; fresh, without any mask to keep out the fumes and ethereal smog that filled the city these days.

I went up to the bar. “Evening, Lane. Give me two glasses of that river mud that passes for beer.”

Lane was a little Long Bay man, the pale skin of his face freckled with dark, stonemark spots, just like the markings on Long Bay marble where his folk were from. He didn’t look much like one of the ganglords struggling to maintain order and discipline in the face of the city’s recession. He looked like an accountant who hadn’t slept for several days. His suit was rumpled and his eyes were all bloodshot.

Lane gave a professional smile and poured the drinks. “Glad you could meet with this client, Mr Fetch,” he said, smiling, like a dog that had just returned a ball to its master. He leaned forward. “My sources said she was chasing all of the brokers, just looking for the right investigator for her contract.” He thumped his chest. “But I was able to put you forward, yessirree.”

“Hold on, Mr Lane,” I said. “We haven’t even made the contract yet.”

Lane shrugged, like this was a forgone conclusion. “She’s in the Back Room. Mrs Stone.”

“Of course,” I said, because ‘Stone’ is what you call yourself when you don’t want people to know who you are.

I took the drinks and went off to the Back Room. A Beach Dog was standing in front of the door, holding a rifle. His painted gas mask hung from his belt. The Long Bay kid called himself ‘Darkwolf’, which he thought was a pretty swell handle, being no more than seventeen years old and with a scruffy rat’s nest of a beard on his face. I thought he was one of Lane’s many bastards, but didn’t want to inquire too deeply. Besides, Darkwolf was pretty switched on, a good head for business.

“Evening, Mr Fetch,” Darkwolf said, standing aside and unlocking the secure door for me.

Inside was a small table and four chairs. A green, alchemical lantern flickered overhead. Mrs Stone was the only occupant of the room. She looked up as I entered. She was an attractive West Coast woman, with sandy-coloured skin and dark hair. Her stonemark, a striated band of red and yellow ochre, covered her eyes and forehead, making her look like a bandit. She had an air of faded elegance to her, a look of confidence that suggested she was Old Money. Her dark blue suit was crisp and her fingernails were polished to perfection.

“Mrs Stone?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything for a few moments, and gave me a long, cold stare.

I smiled and sat down.

“I understand that you used to work for Mr Ironside, Mr Fetch,” she said. Her voice was clear and enunciated, with no trace of a regional accent. A lot of lessons had gone into making that voice.

“Mind if I smoke?” I said.

She shrugged. I got out my case and pulled out my slender, handrolled cigarettes and lit up. I offered the case to Mrs Stone, but she shook her head. It was a dodge to give me a few seconds of more thinking time.

My resume, at least the one I’d left with Lane, mentioned all sorts of nice things about me for a fake history that was still on par with my real experience. Apprenticeship with one of the leading security companies, a few post-war investigation contracts, work with Old Money contracts.

There had been no mention of Mr Ironside at all.

“Not many folk know that,” I said, tilting my head to one side. “It’s not something that I like to advertise.” I could smell a trap; worse, I could smell a Numbered Bank closing in on me and the Demon Eater. But I kept cool.

“If you used to work for Mr Ironside, you would know something of his peculiar interests,” Mrs Stone went on. Her tone indicated that she wasn’t into revealing her sources.

“Which ones?” I said. “Building etherships? Collecting penny dreadfuls?”

Mrs Stone stared at me like I was a complete idiot.

“The occult,” she said.

I shrugged. “I wasn’t really privy to all of his interests.” I drummed my fingers on the table. After what went down in ’29, I really didn’t want to have anything more to do with stories of long dead god-kings or sorcerer-kings, magical weapons and other craziness. Mind you, I’d almost been ready to kill someone this morning, rather than apologise to Ruby. Now I was ready to hear out someone who knew about my connection to Sterling Ironside, something that should have already had me running out the door.

“You must have some idea,” Mrs Stone said. Just matter-of-factly.

“Who do you think you’re trying to hire here?” I said, somewhat uneasily. The person I’d been ten years ago was legally dead, or at least as dead as I could make her.

Mrs Stone said, “I don’t mean to pry, but this is important. I’m at my wit’s end here. I know nothing of the occult and all I know about the gods is what the Light of Reason says.” She slid a slick, plastic envelope across the table towards me. “This is to show I mean business and have money,” she said.

I opened the envelope.

Inside were three small diamonds.

I stared. Not only could I pay Stony rent, I could buy out my entire neighbourhood. I could get enough gas to drive aƒway from Raker Bay City and find a place that wasn’t hurting so much by the recession. Maybe some quiet seaside town on the coast, where I could do some fishing and retire.

“I’ll double that if you listen take the case,” Mrs Stone said.

“How do I know you’re not a Bank agent?” I asked her.

“If the Banks actually cared about Raker Bay City, it wouldn’t be sliding into oblivion,” Mrs Stone said. “Mr Fetch, let’s be honest here. I know that isn’t likely your real name, and I can tell you’ve had surgery on your face. I also know that I don’t represent a Bank. I’m a private citizen, I need you for an important job that involves your former employer.”

I scratched at my beard.

“What’s the case?” I said.

“Mr Ironside has committed numerous crimes,” she said. Her eyes flashed. “There are many but the one that concerns me is murder.”

“Who’s been murdered?”

Mrs Stone made a sweeping gesture around her. “The city. Your former employer, Sterling Ironside, is the murderer of Raker Bay City.”