Life Among the Gearwheels – a steampunk noire

An Offer of Employment

The cat had fleas like the city had people – numerous, tenacious, and irritating. Talia could hear the fleas on Dagger just like she could hear the people crawling across the docks above and streaming through Rubble Town hundreds of feet below. She loved the cat enough to put up with the noise of the fleas and of her scratching. Rubble Town she just avoided.

The man at the door of her office had a weak knock that didn’t match the sharp tap of his military boots on the iron walkway.

“Come in,” she shouted, loud enough to make herself wince.

The door opened to reveal a pale, rotund figure in a surprisingly well-cut bottle green jacket, its waist trimmed back to make space for a weapon belt he didn’t wear.

“Lady Talia Ravenswing?” he asked as he took the seat opposite her.

“I lost that title,” she replied.

“Ms Ravenswing, then,” he said. “My name is Umberto Pollyglog. I’m the-”

“Accountant for Foil Military Services,” she said, pointing at the badge on his jacket and the ink stains on his fingers. “Go on.”

“Your office unit is missing seventeen structural rivets,” he said, glancing around the room. “Is it stable?”

“Of course it is,” she snapped. She knew a few were missing, but seventeen? She should talk to the landlord about repairs before the whole thing fell off the side the tower.

“Then we can talk,” Pollyglog said. “My employers have a job for you.”

“That’s what employers do.”

“They want you to bring in Jan Shofflekrep.”

“The political agitator?”

“He used to be a slave in the engine room of one of our airships. Punishment for debts. He escaped before completing his term. We can’t have him in the public eye. It’s a stain on our reputation.”

“I don’t work for military contractors,” she said. “They never pay on time.”Pollyglog drew a banker’s draft from his pocket and slid it across her desk. It was clean, white, and filled out for a larger sum than she’d earned all month.

Pollyglog drew a banker’s draft from his pocket and slid it across her desk. It was clean, white, and filled out for a larger sum than she’d earned all month.

“That’s the down payment,” he said. “It triples on delivery.”

She hesitated. She could have a lot of fun with that money. But…

“Shofflekrep is based in Rubble Town,” she said. “I don’t go into Rubble Town.”

Just the thought of the place made her wince. Her hearing was her greatest asset but it was also her greatest weakness. She could hear a woman creeping barefoot five hundred yards away. Put her in a place like Rubble Town, filled with the constant sound of pistons and hammering, and she’d have a headache for a month.

“We feared you might say that,” Pollyglog said. “But we also know what really happened on the Bodlingthwaite case. If you don’t cooperate, we will share that information with a Justice of the Peace.”

Furious, Talia leapt to her feet. Pollyglog’s eyes went wide with shock as she lifted him out of the chair, flung open the window, and swung him out by the scruff of his neck. He gasped in terror as she held him out by one arm, hundreds of feet above the mass of broken machinery and lost lives that was Rubble Town.

“Bodlingthwaite’s son was a rapist and a sadist,” she growled. “He got what was coming to him.”

“Not in the eyes of the law,” Pollyglog said, his voice steady despite the terror twitching in his eyes. “Or his father, should the truth emerge.”

“I should drop you just for mentioning that sick beast,” she said.

“If you did, I would fall eight hundred and thirty-two feet to my death,” Pollyglog said. “And my employers would still release the information.”

In that moment, Talia hated him. Hated the world. Hated herself for being so foolish as to threaten one tiny cog in the machine of Foil Military Services.

But most of all, she hated that someone was forcing her to do what she didn’t want. She had given up a title to avoid this. Yet here she was, facing a forced contract instead of a forced marriage.

Feeling like a traitor to herself, Talia hauled Pollyglog in through the window and flung him on the floor. Dagger, picking up on her mood, hissed and scratched at his cheek.

“Good kitty,” she said, tickling Dagger under the chin.

“Your cat has fleas,” Pollyglog said.

“We like the company,” Talia replied. “Though it has gone downhill in the past ten minutes.”

“Here’s everything we have on Shofflekrep,” Pollyglog said, pulling an envelope from his jacket. He held it out to Talia, but his eyes were on the cat.

She tipped the documents onto her desk and started leafing through them. She didn’t know much about Jan Shofflekrep, but one thing was for sure – if Pollyglog’s employers hated him then he must be a decent guy.

Shame she had to help them capture him.

“When do we set out?” Pollyglog asked, wobbling a little as he hauled himself to his feet.

“‘We’?” Talia asked.

“One of the conditions of your employment,” he said, straightening his jacket. “We don’t want another Bodlingthwaite.”

She considered protesting, but what was the point? They had her over a barrel.

“Give me an hour,” she said, sitting back in my chair. “Then we’re heading to Rubble Town.”


Friends in Low Places

Rubble Town was as awful as Talia remembered. She didn’t mind the heaps of gears and broken pistons, the crowded streets where scavengers traded their findings, or the smells of sweat and engine oil. But the sounds of hammering and scraping, along with voices loud enough to be heard over them, were driving her insane after just one afternoon.

At least they didn’t have to head into The Anvil, where the real industry was. That would make her head explode like a ripe corpse in the sunshine.

“I thought you’d have a lead by now,” Umberto Pollyglog said. The fat accountant’s face was running with sweat, the collar of the cloak that hid his uniform dark with it.

“I thought you’d drop dead with all your wheezing,” Talia said. “We’ve both been disappointed.”

They approached a tavern made out of old airship gondolas. Gas lamps glowed in the twilight gloom.

“This is where the Scrappers’ Union recruits,” Talia said. “It’s a good place to meet radicals.”

“You think Shofflekrep is here?” Pollyglog asked.

“That would be too easy,” she replied. “But maybe we can get invited to a rally.”

Heads turned as the door swung open. Two dozen pairs of eyes surveyed them with suspicion.

Talia pulled a fistful of worn copper coins from her pocket and dropped them on the bar.

“Two ales,” she said, doing her best to mask her aristocratic accent.

The barmaid, a square-jawed woman with pox scars, started pouring.

“Ain’t seen you here before,” she said.

“We come over special,” Talia said. “From a factory in Haxling. Want to learn to better our lot.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” the barmaid said. “But I hear Tolliver there’s thirsty.”

She nodded at a lean-faced man in the corner.

“Make it three ales,” Talia said, handing over more coins.

A minute later, she was sitting at Tolliver’s table, sliding a tankard across to him.

“I hear you’re the working man to talk to,” she said. “About improving our lot.”

“Could be,” Tolliver said. “Could be.”

“We want to learn.” Talia gestured at Pollyglog, who was stifling a grimace at his drink.

“I only teach serious people,” Tolliver said. “Union people.”

“We want to be Union people.”

“Even though it’s illegal?”


“Well then.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Fees are up front. Action ain’t cheap and we need to know you’re serious.”

Talia placed a jangling pouch on the table.

“Fees for our whole factory,” she said.

Tolliver weighed it in his hand.

“Seems serious,” he said. “We need someone more senior to take your oath. Wait here a minute.”

He pocketed the pouch and slid out the door.

Half an hour later, they were still waiting.

“He’s not coming back, is he?” Pollyglog said.

“No,” Talia said, grinding her teeth in annoyance.

“We’ve been conned, haven’t we?”


“They knew we weren’t factory workers.”


“So what do we-”

She squeezed his arm so hard he whimpered.

“We listen,” she hissed. “Like I’ve been doing this whole time. Because if we can’t blend in then I need to follow someone.”

As if on queue, a man at a far table made for the door.

“Stay here,” she whispered. “Try not to get killed.”

Staying as far back as she could, she followed the man out. He and his friends had been talking about an upcoming rally. They’d talked quietly enough that no normal person could have heard, but Talia was no normal person.

Now he was going to a planning meeting.

She followed him down narrow alleys, sliding into the shadows whenever he glanced back, careful to cover the glint of sword and revolver with her cloak. At last he came to a ramshackle building between heaps of old girders. He gave a rhythmic knock, the door swung open, and he went in.

Talia clambered up one of the piles of girders and ran along the top until she was level with the building. Then she leapt the gap, landing deftly on the roof. From there, she lowered herself to a walkway running around the upper storey of the building.

“Is that you, Jo?” someone said.

Talia tensed. A woman stood a dozen paces away, a battered rifle in her hands.

There was no time for bluffing. Talia lunged forward, getting her hand over the woman’s mouth before she could call out. As the rifle swung around, Talia snatched the pistol from her belt and slammed it against the lookout’s head. The woman’s eyes rolled and she slumped in Talia’s arms.

Talia lowered her to the ground, bound her hands and feet, and gagged her. Then she found the nearest window and sat, listening to the conversation inside.


“Well?” Pollyglog asked as she sat down opposite him. “This had better be good. I’ve had to buy four awful drinks just to keep my seat.”

“Shofflekrep’s living in The Anvil,” Talia said. “Tomorrow he’s coming out to speak to a rally of the Social Levelling League. We’ll grab him near the rally.”

“What do we do until then?” Pollyglog asked.

The tavern door opened. A woman walked in with a bruise on her face and a battered rifle in her hand.

“Now we get out of here,” Talia answered. “Fast.”

Pollyglog had never climbed out of a privy window before. It was a good thing she was there to show him how.


The Sanity of Crowds

The space holding the Social Levelling League rally was something like a town square. A broad, open space, it was flanked on three sides by the ramshackle buildings of Rubble Town and on the fourth by one of the massive pillars holding up the sky docks. Somewhere up there were the comforts of Talia’s office and her cat. Down here, where she waited impatiently to do her job, there were only noisy crowds and her employer.

At least she’d managed to find Umberto Pollyglog some working class clothes. A collarless shirt and frayed waistcoat couldn’t hide a waistline made by fine living, but even the poor included some fat people, so there was a chance they would blend in. She’d even left her rapier behind, a revolver and a sturdy knife providing more discrete armament under long leather coat.

The crowd grew louder as a man stepped onto a stage made of old ceiling beams. Jan Shofflekrep looked just like his wanted leaflets and pamphlet etchings. Long, thinning hair fell across his shoulders like a tangle of old string. His eyes were dark and narrow.

“Comrades!” he called out.

The crowd fell silent.

“Comrades, can you feel the change blowing through this country?” Shofflekrep talked with the practised pattern of a man who had given his speech a hundred times. As he got into the rhythm, Talia stopped listening to the details and focused instead on the people around the stage. Many of them were tough looking. Most had weapons poorly concealed beneath their coats.

Grabbing Shofflekrep wouldn’t be easy.

Someone shoved between her and Pollyglog.

“Frightfully sorry,” Pollyglog said. “Didn’t mean to jog your elbow with my belly.”

The woman turned to stare at the man with the cut crystal accent. Instinctively, Talia reached for the handle of her knife.
Others were turning to look as well.

“Ain’t he funny?” Talia said, linking her arm through Pollyglog’s. “Playin’ at bein’ one of them.”

She gestured upward with her head.

“Funny,” the woman’s lip curled like there was a spring winding it. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Ooh, this is one of the best bits,” Talia said, nodding toward the stage.

On cue, Shofflekrep’s voice rose, drawing attention away from them.

Talia dragged Pollyglog off through the crowd, away from the woman and closer to the stage, trying not to jostle people as she passed. The two of them couldn’t pass for locals much longer. That left two options. Either she gave up on grabbing Shofflekrep here and followed him back into the noise and chaos of The Anvil, or she grabbed him soon and counted on surprise to carry the day.

The sound of the crowd cheering was making her ears ring. There was no way she could face The Anvil.

The crowd went wild as Shofflekrep finished his speech. Their cheering made Talia feel dizzy, but she kept her feet, kept her focus, and extracted her arm from Pollyglog’s.

“Follow me,” she hissed.

She reached the bottom of the rickety steps as Shofflekrep descended from the stage. She slid her knife into her right hand, just the tip of the blade protruding from her baggy sleeve.

“Ooh, Comrade Shofflekrep!” she exclaimed, sliding her arm through his. “You were magnificent!”

Shofflekrep’s smile affirmed everything she’d expected. This was a man whose position had an allure his looks didn’t, and he wasn’t averse to making the most of it.

“I try,” he said.

“You succeed!” She did her best to look bashful. “Could I buy you a gin and hear more about the revolution?”

“Of course.” Shofflekrep said. “But I have business first.”

“Ooh, go on, have a drink now,” Talia said. She slid her other hand across so that the tip of the blade, hidden by their interlinked arms, pressed against his ribs. “I insist.”

Shofflekrep’s eyes widened. He had the good sense not to say anything but to fall into step with her, though she could practically hear his eyes shifting as he looked for a way out.

“You ain’t no factory man!” a voice called out behind them.

Talia turned to see Pollyglog, his face red, being harangued by an old woman in a shawl.

“You’re some sort of spy,” the woman exclaimed. “Here, everyone, they’ve sent spies!”

Talia hesitated. If she was going to get paid then she needed Pollyglog as well as Shofflekrep.

The crowd shifted, closing in toward the disturbance. Someone barged against her. As she turned, Shofflekrep twisted clear of her grasp.

“Spy!” he yelled, pointing at her. “There’s two of ‘em!”

Angry glares turned on Talia. She flashed her blade and drew her revolver. But now what? Pursue Shofflekrep or rescue Pollyglog?

She hated the answer. She might find Shofflekrep again, but there was no way Pollyglog got out of this alive on his own.

“Everybody back.” She raised the gun. A clear space opened up between her and her employer. “Here, now.”

Pollyglog hurried over. Together, they inched toward the edge of the square, people parting to let them through.

Everyone looked furious. Many had pulled out knives and clubs. The only thing holding them back was her gun. But if these people did the maths, if they realised that she had six shots and there were hundreds of them, if some were willing to risk themselves for the greater good…

They reached the edge of the square.

“Run,” she hissed.

That, at least, Pollyglog could do.

She fired a shot just above the heads of the crowd. As they backed off in panic, she turned and ran too.

She was around two corners and almost caught up with Pollyglog before she even heard pursuit coming. They were going to get away.

What came next, though – that she wasn’t happy about.


Stay Back

“Stay back,” Talia snapped as she strode deeper into the alleys of The Anvil.

“I might lose track of you,” Pollyglog replied, panting as he tried to keep up.


The noise was getting to Talia already. The Anvil might look like the rubbish tip of some angry machine god, the place where heaps of old machinery went to die. But it was also a place where the rejected and the lost found new life. Where skilled artisans who had rejected factory routines built their own manufacturing shops. Improvised pistons and blackened furnaces powered a thriving industry, creating goods for those who lived down below, repairing and recycling the objects others abandoned.

To Talia’s sensitive ears, the noise was like a steam hammer pounding at her brain.

“I need to witness the retrieval,” Pollyglog shouted, struggling to be heard.

“Without you, I’d have captured Shofflekrep already,” Talia said. “Go back to your barracks and wait.”

“That’s the fifth time you’ve-”

“Enough with the counting!” She spun around and waved a fist in his face. “If I hear one more number out of your mouth, I swear I’ll…”

Her words trailed up as she looked past him. Half a dozen burly men and women were approaching, each one carrying a cudgel, an axe handle, or some other primitive weapon. She glanced around and saw more coming, closing in on them from every direction.

She knew some of the faces, guards from Jan Shofflekrep’s rally. They clearly also knew her.

“Reactionary pigs,” the leader bellowed, waving a length of pipe above her head. “It’s time for you to see some justice.”

Talia drew her sword but left her pistol holstered. She didn’t want to kill these people. She’d seen the way they lived. They had a right to be angry at the way the world treated them.

But she didn’t want to get killed either. As Pollyglog drew a pristine gentleman’s rapier, clearly never used in anger, she groaned inside. She was going to have to save him again.

As the toughs advanced, Pollyglog lunged. It was like watching a hot air balloon caught in a storm, a rippling blob that threatened to collapse at any moment. His thrust was easily parried by a length of pipe and Talia had to leap in to stop him being battered around the head.

“Back against the wall,” she said as she stabbed one attacker’s shoulder and slashed another across the forearm, making both drop their weapons.

“I can do this!” Pollyglog exclaimed. “I don’t care what the others say. I’m not just a bean counter.”

He tried another attack. The target brought a sledgehammer down, smashing the top six inches off Pollyglog’s beautiful blade.

“I said get back.” Talia darted low, cutting the back of the man’s legs. He fell to the ground, dropping his sledgehammer and clutching at the wounds.

She slammed Pollyglog back against the wall then spun to deflect another attack. The machines in the nearest building had got louder. She almost lost her balance as a wave of nausea made the world spin.

“Your whole job stinks,” she said, lunging twice and then parrying a length of plank. “Going after a reformer for a bunch of mercenaries. Fighting poor people who want change.”

“You didn’t mind when I showed you the pay,” Pollyglog said. He stabbed at someone with his broken sword, leaving himself exposed to another attack.

“Maybe I should have.” As a woman lunged at Pollyglog, Talia smashed her in the back of the head with her sword guard, knocking her out. “Instead of helping people who kill for money.”

Pollyglog laughed. It was a shrill, hysterical sound, the laughter of a desperate and sweat-soaked man.

“You think Shofflekrep’s any better?” he asked. “How do you think he wound up in prison?”

“Debt. The plague of the poor.”

There were three opponents left. Talia was exhausted, her head aching, but if she could keep herself together they might get through this.

“Debts from gambling on illegal cage fights,” Pollyglog said. “Shofflekrep likes watching tramps beat each other to death.”

At last he landed a blow, slicing the shoulder of a man attacking Talia.

“And these people?” Pollyglog just parried an attack by the man he’d injured. “Did he send them for a revolution or to protect his hide?”

With a low kick, Talia swept the legs from under a woman in an ironmonger’s apron. A second swift kick knocked the woman out.

Only Pollyglog’s attacker remained. He stood uncertainly, blood running down his arm, a cudgel in his hand.

“She beat thirteen of your compatriots in one hundred and ninety-three seconds,” Pollyglog said. “Do you think you can beat her now?”

Despite the ringing in her head, Talia grinned. It wasn’t often that her achievements were acknowledged.

The man dropped his weapon and ran.

At last, Talia sank to the ground. She clutched her head. The noise was killing her.

Pollyglog tore a strip of soft lining from inside his scabbard.

“For your ears,” he said. “The sword’s broken anyway.”

“Thanks.” She tore the material in half and started balling it up.

“I’m not saying I’m a good man,” Pollyglog said. “But neither is Shofflekrep.”

Talia stuffed the material into her ears. It didn’t blot out all the noise, but it did make things better.

“Let’s talk to these people,” she said, gesturing at the injured and unconscious bodies around them. “Someone must know how we can find their boss.”

“We?” Pollyglog asked, the word just audible through her improvised earplugs.

“We,” she said. “You and me.”


Across the Factory Floor

Talia didn’t have to creep to pass unseen across the factory floor. The machines were hammering away, steam blasting from ramshackle and rusted pistons in long, roaring gouts, gears clattering, hammers smashing against plates. Even with her ears filled with cotton, the noise was so intense she felt like needles were being stabbed through her ears.

Despite the pain, this noise was for the best. She could be stealthy when needed, but Umberto Pollyglog, wobbling along behind her in his working class disguise and with a length of pipe dangling from his hand, was as light on his feet as a hungry elephant.

Raising one hand, she held Pollyglog back while she peered out between the machines.

On a pedestal above the ship floor was the overseer’s stand, where the men who had attacked her said Jan Shofflekrep was meeting them. No-one was there yet, which wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was that there was literally no-one in the factory, even though the machines were running.

Hairs on the back of Talia’s neck twitched.

Turning to Pollyglog, she pointed at him and then at the spot where they stood, indicating that he should stay there. He nodded his understanding.

She drew her sword with one hand and pistol with the other, then stepped out into the open space, that roiling maelstrom of noise. As she cautiously approached the pedestal, she saw brief twitches of movement between the machines.

They weren’t alone.

She turned to see half a dozen men and women emerging from between the machines.

One of them stood behind Pollyglog, a knife pressed against the side of the accountant’s neck.

Talia tensed. It wasn’t the first ambush she had walked into, or the stupidest one to get caught out by. But moments like this were hardly a source of pride for a private detective.

Now came the tough choice. Fight back and risk Pollyglog getting skewered or give in and risk that they would both be murdered out of hand. After all, Jan Shofflekrep’s freedom was at stake and the bankrupt agitator was a big deal for there people.

To her surprise, Pollyglog made the decision for her. Somewhere in their time together he’d clearly grown a backbone. He slammed his elbow into the man behind him and lurched to the left, away from the knife.

The blade nicked Pollyglog’s neck. He clutched one hand to the wound even as he used the other to swing his pipe.

Talia leapt into action. With a single shot she shattered one man’s shin, the roar of the gun lost amid the factory noise. She parried an attack from the next thug and punched him in the face so hard his head bounced of a pillar and he slumped to the floor.

Every second counted. Neck wounds were serious business. She needed to deal with their attackers and get to Pollyglog before-

He slumped to the ground. His face was pale. Fingers slid away as blood streamed from the wound.

Everyone else stood still, looking from him to Talia. Their expressions were smug and expectant. None of them moved to finish off Pollyglog but no-one went to save him either.

Umberto Pollyglog was an arse and an annoyance. The people he worked for were scum. But still, Talia reluctantly admitted, he didn’t deserve to die.

Certainly not while his company was paying her bills.

Moving slowly enough to avoid alarm, she laid her weapons on the floor. Still no-one moved. She walked over to Pollyglog, squeezed the wound shut as tight as she could with one hand, and tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt with the other. As she struggled to bandage him while still staunching the flow of blood, their attackers closed in.

Here was hoping that the two of them wouldn’t just be murdered.


Faces of the Dead

When Talia saw what Jan Shofflekrep had chosen for his lair, a shiver ran up her spine.

The mausoleum was older than the rest of Rubble Town, probably older than the docking towers holding the city above. It was a thing of old, cold stone, mottled with lichen and blackened with soot. Winged figures of chipped marble perched above the doorway, judging those who entered. Above and around it all lay heaps of the rusted gears and broken machinery that were the raw materials of Rubble Town.

Their captors led her and Pollyglog inside. She had stopped the bleeding from her companion’s neck, binding it with scraps of his shirt, but he was pale and his footsteps uncertain.

Inside the mausoleum, oil lanterns burned in recessed niches. Soot from their flames left dark trails up the walls.

Yet despite their desperate circumstances and the aura of gloom, she felt quietly confident. If the radicals wanted them dead, they wouldn’t have brought them here. Something more was at stake.

A tall figure turned to face them. Jan Shofflekrep brushed strands of greasy hair from his eyes.

Here was Talia’s target at last. All she had to do was work out how to take him.

“Let’s have proper introductions this time,” Shofflekrep said loudly. “Who are you?”

“Talia Ravenswing,” Talia said. “Private detective.”

“Speak up,” Shofflekrep said, tapping at his ear. “Too long working around machines.”

Talia could understand that. She still had cotton in her own ears, protection against the noise of The Anvil. Protected by the walls of the mausoleum, she took out the earplugs.

“I’m a detective,” she said, raising her voice.

“And him?” Shofflekrep asked.

“My employer,” she said. “From Foil Military Services.”

“A dirt digger and her mercenary boss. How disappointing.” Shofflekrep looked to his armed men. “Kill them.”

“Wait!” Panic grabbed Talia.

The thugs hesitated. Shofflekrep raised an eyebrow.

“Why?” he asked.

Talia’s heart raced. She had miscalculated, and badly. But there had to be a way out. There always was.

“I could work for you,” she said. “Gather information. I’m good at it. I know all sorts of dirty secrets that politicians and manufacturers don’t want getting out.”

“And why would I trust you?” Shofflekrep asked. “After all, you’d be betraying your current employers.”

“I despise my employers,” Talia said with all honesty. “Killers for cash. These days, the mercenary companies spend as much time oppressing the city as protecting it.”

“Spoken like a true revolutionary.” Shofflekrep’s dark eyes narrowed. “Or someone who wants to sound like one.”

“Put me to the test,” Talia said. “Let me share what I know with you. Or send me to find out something new.”

“A test.” Shofflekrep nodded. “Good idea.”

Talia relaxed. The thugs had taken a step back. She shook out her arms and legs, trying to lose the tension of the past few hours. It had been a tough time and she was full of aches, but soon it would be over. She’d leave Pollyglog with Shofflekrep as a hostage against her good behaviour, then come back when she’d had time to prepare. Soon, she would retrieve them both and earn her bounty.

“Here.” Shofflekrep drew a thin knife from his pocket, the sort she’d seen leather workers for precise cuts. He cast the knife at her feet. “I’ve got your test – kill your boss. Set yourself free, like a good worker should.”

Talia stiffened. She might not like what Pollyglog stood for, but she’d grown fond of him over the past few days. He didn’t deserve to die.

Then again, neither did she.

She stooped and picked up the knife. The handle was well worn, smooth against her fingers. If she didn’t do this, the radicals would just kill them both. That was what she told herself as she rose and turned to face Umberto Pollyglog.

“I’d do it,” he admitted. “If I was you.”

The words were like a blessing, a confirmation that this would be alright. That she was just doing what she had to do.

From plaques on the walls around them, the carved faces of long dead nobles watched the confrontation play out. Witnesses to a crime in progress.

Talia had investigated hundreds of crimes. She had heard the words “I had to” too often for them to ever hold true.

“I won’t do it,” she said, turning to face Shofflekrep. “Foil Services are brutal, deceptive shits, but so are you. It’s one thing to arrest someone for a bounty, but I won’t murder for you.”

“Shame,” Shofflekrep said.

His men grabbed her from behind. She didn’t try to hang onto the knife. There wasn’t any point, not trapped in here, outnumbered and with no other weapons on her side.

“Take them to one of the factories,” Shofflekrep said. “Stick them under a steam hammer and let it do its work.”


Hammer and Anvil

Talia had come down to Rubble Town to earn a bounty. Now some goon might get paid for killing her. She didn’t enjoy the irony much, but she had to admit, it was better than nothing.

The radicals dragged her and Pollyglog through the door of a factory. It was one of the improvised places that people built down in The Anvil, abandoned machines and rusted gears brought back from the dead by poor but ingenious engineers. Perhaps the men and women who assembled these machines were among her captors, using their own handiwork to finish her off. Poor engineers were just the sort to listen to a demagogue, honest or not.

Whether they built the place or not, the radicals were known here. No-one asked questions as they led in their two prisoners, one with bandages around his neck. When the motley group approached a pair of giant steam-powered hammers, the crews backed away.

The noise was intense. It set her ears ringing, then that ringing became a pain, like nails driven into her skull. She wished she hadn’t taken out her earplugs.

She wished she’d never come here. That she’d followed her instincts and said no to Pollyglog’s job. But it was too late for regrets now. Or perhaps too late for anything else.

Someone knocked Talia’s legs out from under her. She thudded to her knees, shock and pain jolting through the noise. Then they pressed her face against the cold metal of an anvil.

One of the hammers hung above her, steam pouring from the piston that drove it.

She wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. She tensed herself ready for action.

On the next anvil over, tears were running from Pollyglog’s eyes. The poor useless accountant had pissed himself too, a dark stain spreading across his crotch.

The sight made her angry. Angry at his employers for sending him where he didn’t belong. Angry at Jan Shofflekrep, a man who preached equality just to make himself powerful. Angry at the idiots who listened to him and who were going to kill her and Pollyglog.

The anger gave her strength. She lashed out with her leg, even as she pushed herself off from the anvil. Her heel slammed into someone’s shin and she felt rather than heard his bone snap.

She whirled around and punched a woman grabbing at her. Blood sprayed from her target’s broken nose as Talia darted past her.
Halfway to the door, she remembered Pollyglog. Common sense told her to keep running, that it was too late to save them both.

It wasn’t a day for common sense.

Factory noise ringing in her ears, Talia turned. Someone was swinging a wrench at her. She grabbed their wrist, twisted, and tore the wrench from their hands. Then she hit them with it, doubling them over.

The hammer was rising above Pollyglog. It was about to smash his head like a ripe fruit.

Ignoring the radicals, she leapt at the machine. She grabbed hold of a pipe, red hot metal scalding her hands, and yanked it free. Steam sprayed the women holding Pollyglog down. They lurched back, mouths wide in screams. Talia’s ears didn’t register the sound.

The steam hammer’s arm sagged and then went still.

The last couple of thugs were coming for her. She stopped to pick up the wrench again, but the pipe had burnt her hands too badly. Just touching the handle made her scream with pain.

The men grabbed hold of her. They laid her head back under the other hammer. Cold metal pressed against her cheek. Hands held her in place with a strength born of fury.

It was a shitty way to go, but at least she had tried.

One of the men released her. Talia turned and saw a wrench collide with the other one’s face. She rolled off the anvil a second before the hammer slammed down.

Umberto Pollyglog stood over her, the wrench in his hand. He was grinning and saying something. She wished she could hear his words.

Or hear anything. Because then and there, the ringing and the pain in her ears passed some critical point and the world went silent.


Talia couldn’t hear what Jan Shofflekrep said when he saw her waiting outside his lair. But she could see the desperation in his face.

“Got you,” she said.

“How?” She didn’t need to hear the word. He was looking at her hands, swathed in bandages and empty of weapons, and he wore a triumphant grin.

She pointed past him, to where Pollyglog stood, pistol trained on Shofflekrep’s head.

“That’s how,” she said, wishing she could hear her own words.


The cat had fleas like the city had people – numerous, tenacious, and irritating. But Talia didn’t mind. Because when the cat sat in her lap and she laid her hand on its chest, she could feel it purring.

The doctor said that her hearing should return. Not perfect, but enough to get by. Until then, at least she had the purring.

She looked at the door of her office. A client could be knocking right now and she wouldn’t know.

Talia didn’t mind. She sat back, closed her eyes, and didn’t listen to the sounds of Rubble Town far below.

In her lap, the cat purred.

* * *


When I first published this story in parts earlier in the year, I made a mistake. Somewhere between the first and second episodes, I forgot my plan to write it in first person and so the point of view changed. So this compilation was as much about fixing that as about having the whole story in one place.

And if you’d like more steampunk, the latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverwear, is out on Friday:

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

So if you enjoyed “Life Among the Gearwheels”, then check out Sieges and Silverware, available to preorder now through Amazon and Smashwords.

Heresy by S. J. Parris – The Past is a Hazardous Country

heresyI’m currently a little obsessed with 16th-century history and in particular Tudor England. It was a time and place of transformation. Religion and politics were closely tied together and both going through upheavals. Saying the wrong thing could get you executed. Deviance from acceptable doctrine – religious heresy or a lack of patriotic loyalty to your country – was a recipe for exclusion, deprivation, and death.

I’m therefore loving reading Heresy by S. J Parris. It’s a well-written historical murder mystery in the style of such predecessors as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books. Like any good historical fiction, it makes use of what’s distinctive about that time. Intense allegiances and prejudices come into play. Structures of religion, gender and social standing all provide potential motives. The criminal investigation becomes compromised by the secret agendas of espionage and underground religion.

Like the best sci-fi and fantasy, it creates another world in the mind of the reader, and helps you to understand that world’s values. If you enjoy historical fiction then it’s totally worth a read.



And if you’re looking for something briefer, my collection of historical and alternate history stories, From a Foreign Shore, is available as a Kindle e-book for 99c.

Crime and Fantasy

Edge-Lit_LOGOIn fiction, fantasy opens up a world of endless possibilities, while crime narratives constrain story into a specific structure.

That was the main insight I gained from the crime and fantasy panel at Edge-Lit this year. As someone who doesn’t generally write crime, I hadn’t thought to compare the two genres before. This point particularly grabbed my attention. Like any generality, I’m sure there are ways in which it’s untrue, but there’s also a lot of truth to it. And it shows how different genres, when brought together, can create interesting contrasts as well as bringing different strengths to the mix.

Maybe there’ll be more crime in my fantasy in future. I certainly like to write with constraints.

Policemen with Six Legs – a flash science fiction story

Lies - High Resolution“Why would the native police search you?” Ambassador Canning’s face was rigid with fury. “And why in God’s name would you let them touch your diplomatic tablet?”

“I don’t know.” Thompson, the newly arrived trade attaché, quivered in fear before our boss. He waved a hand towards the wild mishmash of alien architecture outside the window – woven skyscrapers, nesting mounds, levitating shops. To a newcomer, however well prepared, Herrje was equal parts dazzling and bewildering. “I’m new on planet. I’ve never met policemen with six legs before, and I…”

His mouth kept flapping like a landed fish. I was tempted to leave him floundering. He was exactly the sort of private school idiot they gave the best embassy jobs to – daddy probably bought him his posting along with a yacht for his twenty-first birthday. Probably thought himself better than a lowly public relations officer like me.

But I respected the ambassador too much to waste her time.

Plus her anger made me nervous.

“It was a data theft.” I placed the tablet on Canning’s desk, glowing screen open to a page showing recent activity. “Clumsy but effective. They must have got hold of a human manufactured memory stick loaded with hacking software. Slid it in the back while they were frisking him.”

“This idiot was carrying the briefs for the asteroid mining negotiations.” Canning rubbed her temples. “Billions of pounds are at stake. This was meant to be a safer option than transmitting anything. Can they decrypt it?”

“You’ll have to ask security,” I said. “Shall I fetch Warren?”

“Wait.” Canning’s eyes glazed over as she read a message on her contact lenses. She blinked, focus returning and with it her frown. “They’ve decrypted it. Sent a few lines as sample along with a ransom demand.”

“What do they want?” I’d translated enough k’kiri to know that they had some strange political factions, not to mention philosophical extremists.

“Just money,” Canning said with relief. “A lot of it, but less then we’d lose if these negotiations go sideways. They’ve set up a meeting.”

“I’ll fetch Warren.” I reached for the door again.

“No, Atticus.” Canning fixed me with her firmest stare. “Warren doesn’t speak k’kiri, and time’s short. This one’s on you.”


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“This isn’t fair,” I said into the microphone on my lapel. “Thompson messes up, and now I have to wade through slime.”

The hive was a temporary one, the walls still oozing construction fluids that looked like honey but smelled like rotten eggs. I was trudging through the stuff up to my ankles, and my suit was stained all over.

“Life isn’t fair,” Canning replied through the bud in my ear. “Cope.”

A door-sized valve opened ahead of me and I stepped into a storage chamber. Immediately a gun was pressed into my side. The valve sealed shut behind me.

“Take a seat,” my captor said in k’kiri.

I settled onto one of the lumps protruding from the floor and looked around at my captors. There were three of them, their antennae twitching, mandibles opening and closing beneath bulbous eyes. The one with the gun wore combat fatigues, the other two labourers’ outfits. Their chitinous plates had the wrong caste markings for professional thugs. That made them wannabes, and all the more unpredictable for it.

“You bring the money?” the leader asked.

I pulled a data crystal from my pocket and let one of them scan it with his tablet.

“All there,” he confirmed.

I put the crystal away in my left-hand pocket. “As soon as I’ve seen the data, and confirmed that it hasn’t been copied, I’ll transfer the funds to wherever you want.”

“Why not just kill you and take it?” The lead k’kiri brandished his gun.

I swallowed. His finger was as twitchy as his antennae. Clearly an amateur at this business, nerves were getting on top of him. As an amateur myself, I knew just how tense he must be.

“Authorised transfer,” I said. “The money’s locked until I approve release.”

“Fine.” The k’kiri pulled a thumb drive from his pocket and handed it to me. “Your data.”

I pulled a metal box from my right pocket and inserted the drive.

“What’s that?” the k’kiri raised the gun.

“Yes, Atticus,” Canning whispered in my ear. “What the hell is that?”

“For checking if it’s been copied.” I held the simple box out for the k’kiri to see, then flipped a switch on its side. “You’re the one who knows human tech, right? You’ve seen these?”

The k’kiri glanced nervously at his colleagues, then nodded his head a little too firmly.

“Yes, know this,” he said. “Only copy, as promised. Device tell you this, yes?”

I took out the drive and handed it back.

“I need to check the results.” I stood, made sure to switch the device off, and slid it into my right-hand pocket, away from the valuable data crystal. “Send the ambassador details for the final meeting.”

“Final…” The k’kiri raised his mandibles in something akin to a frown. “But money now!”

I shook my head and tapped the device in my pocket. “Not until I’ve checked this. And before you try to take the crystal, remember, secured funds.”

The valve opened and I stepped through, leaving the k’kiri to be berated by his co-conspirators.

“That’s an electromagnet in your pocket, isn’t it?” Canning said in my ear. She almost sounded impressed. “What if they’d realised you were wiping the drive?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “But I doubt they’ve ever met a con-man with two legs before.”

* * *

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There’s more of Julian Atticus, cynical diplomat and professional liar, in my collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves and my previous flash story ‘Divided by a Shared Language‘. This time, his adventure was inspired by a far more creative real life crime that my friend Dan pointed out to me. I didn’t have space in a flash story to do justice to the fake interrogation chamber scam, but I daresay I’ll find a use for it in future.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to receive more like it straight to your inbox, along with a free e-book, then please consider signing up to my mailing list.

Fun Pulp Action: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

I like a deep, solid book. The twisted literary architecture of Gormenghast. The brief, stunning beauty of The Great Gatsby. But sometimes I want something pacey and enjoyable, something that provides the sort of accessible action long associated with pulp fiction. And that’s what drew me into the second of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, Fool Moon.

Urban Fantasy Chicago Style

Fool Moon is a product of a very modern genre – urban fantasy. The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a wizard for hire in modern Chicago, balancing his struggling finances with his noble instincts through work for the police force. When a series of brutal murders show every sign of being committed by werewolves, Dresden becomes part of the investigation. Soon there are monsters, gangsters and even the police on his tale, and all he has to save him is a gun, a magic amulet and his trusty posing coat.

OK, he doesn’t call it a posing coat, but we all know that’s what long coats are for. Sherlock doesn’t have his because it’s practical, he has it because it looks damn cool.

I haven’t read much urban fantasy, but to me Butcher seems to do a good job of combining the elements of modern life and fantasy adventure. The workings of the police, criminals and local politics aren’t just background, they’re integral to the plot. The monsters and magic aren’t just added colour for a detective story, they’re also central. Together, these make a fascinating mix.

The Unchanging Adventurer

Fool Moon also dips into an older literary tradition – that of the pulp serials, escapist fiction in which action is prioritised over character progress.

I wrote a while back about how you might structure such a serial, and it’s reassuring to find that Butcher, one of the most successful writers in this style, uses many of those tricks. The illusion of progress is created by setting Harry Dresden back at the start of the story, so that when things come good at the end it seems like a step forward, even though he’s essentially where he was at the start of the last book. There’s a romance that similarly jumps through positive and negative hoops before ending up back where it was. There’s an ongoing villain in the form of gangster Johnny Marconi, as well as immediate menaces who appear and are dealt with within this one book.

Harry Dresden’s life doesn’t need to change for his adventures to be entertaining. Which is a good thing, because Dresden as a character seems as resistant to change as his world. Butcher has done a great job of creating a character whose looping life makes sense.

All the Clichés!

Lets be clear – none of the elements in this book are terribly original in and of themselves. From the noire-style succession of hot ladies in Harry’s life, to the gangster the law can’t touch, to the eventual solution hung in pride of place like Chekhov’s Gun at the start of the story.

To me, this isn’t a story with a deep message or something new to say. But it’s a lot of fun, and worth it for that.

Bonus points go to the audiobook of it I listened to, which had James Marsters doing the reading. He suits the story very well, and mercifully doesn’t have to revive his British accent from his days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.