When a 9th century woman’s husband is killed her mind turns to vengeance, but the authorities have other ideas…
- Tag Archives crime
The cat had fleas like the city had people – numerous, tenacious, and irritating. I could hear the fleas on Dagger just like I could hear the people crawling across the docks above and streaming through Rubble Town hundreds of feet below. I loved the cat enough to put up with the noise of the fleas and of her scratching. Rubble Town I just avoided.
The man at the door of my office had a weak knock that didn’t match the sharp tap of his military boots on the iron walkway.
“Come in,” I shouted, loud enough to make myself 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 me.
“I lost that title,” I replied.
“Ms Ravenswing, then,” he said. “My name is Umberto Pollyglog. I’m the-”
“Accountant for Foil Military Services,” I 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,” I snapped. I knew a few were missing, but seventeen? I 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,” I said. “They never pay on time.”
Pollyglog drew a banker’s draft from his pocket and slid it across my desk. It was clean, white, and filled out for a larger sum than I’d earned all month.
“That’s the down payment,” he said. “It triples on delivery.”
I hesitated. I could have a lot of fun with that money. But…
“Shofflekrep is based in Rubble Town,” I said. “I don’t go into Rubble Town.”
Just the thought of the place made me wince. My hearing was my greatest asset but it was also my greatest weakness. I could hear a woman creeping barefoot five hundred yards away. Put me in a place like Rubble Town, filled with the constant sound of pistons and hammering, and I’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, I leapt to my feet. Pollyglog’s eyes went wide with shock as I 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 I 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,” I 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,” I 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, I hated him. Hated the world. Hated myself for being so foolish as to threaten one tiny cog in the machine of Foil Military Services.
But most of all, I hated that someone was forcing me to do what I didn’t want. I had given up a title to avoid this. Yet here I was, facing a forced contract instead of a forced marriage.
Feeling like a traitor to myself, I hauled Pollyglog in through the window and flung him on the floor. Dagger, picking up on my mood, hissed and scratched at his cheek.
“Good kitty,” I said, tickling her under the chin.
“Your cat has fleas,” Pollyglog said.
“We like the company,” I 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 me, but his eyes were on the cat.
I tipped the documents onto my desk and started leafing through them. I 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 I had to help them capture him.
“When do we set out?” Pollyglog asked, wobbling a little as he hauled himself to his feet.
“‘We’?” I asked.
“One of the conditions of your employment,” he said, straightening his jacket. “We don’t want another Bodlingthwaite.”
I considered protesting, but what was the point? They had me over a barrel.
“Give me an hour,” I said, sitting back in my chair. “Then we’re heading to Rubble Town.”
* * *
And so we begin another story. Regular readers will notice that this isn’t the historical fiction I talked about last week. I’ve had to delay that, as the book release I’m tying it to has also been delayed. In the meantime, it’s time for some steampunk noire.
Next week, Ravenswing and Pollyglog head into the seedy underbelly of the city. What will they find there? Can they work together? And will the fleas come with them?
Come back in seven days to find out.
In 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.
William McKenzie sighed as he stared out the window of his father’s print shop. Once again, Alexander Davies was leading a small gang up the street, some in kilts and some in britches, mud and filth spattering their stockings. Davies’s daughter Mary had been William’s friend since their fathers shared their printing business, back when presses first reached the city and everyone was printing Bibles. He missed her more than he could say.
“Charles McKenzie, you wretch, I want my books back!” Davies yelled as he approached the shop. He had a cudgel in his hand. The men behind him carried torches and clubs.
“My books, more like!” William’s father leaned out of the window next to him, screaming for all the gathered crowds to hear. “I’ve the only licence to print that almanac in Edinburgh. Filling it with side notes and spelling errors doesn’t make your printing legal.”
The books lay in a heap at the back of the store, where they’d been hastily dumped after the midnight raid on Davies’s print shop. Filled with curiosity, William picked one up and started leafing through. Mary did most of Davies’s type-setting, and it wasn’t like her to make mistakes. Was something amiss?
“I’ll call out the justices on you!” Davies yelled.
“I’ll call the sheriff on you!” the elder McKenzie responded.
“I’ll sue you flat broke!”
“I’ll chase you out of town!”
“I’ll…” The back and forth continued with all the agile wit of two unimaginative elders, while William peered at the pages of the book. There were letters in the wrong places, but something about them seemed odd. There was only ever one to a page, and near the top, where they would be easy to find.
Grabbing a scrap of paper and a quill, William started noting them down. This looked like a code, and he could only think of one person who would put it there. If something was the matter with Mary then he desperately wanted to know.
“That’s it!” Davies screamed. “If you won’t come out then I’ll burn you out!”
A flaming torch sailed through the window and a junior printer rushed to douse the flames. Another landed on a heap of loose papers, which immediately ignited, sending men scurrying to beat out the fire. Smoke clouded the air, and there were sounds of violence from the direction of the front door.
Reaching a page without errors, William set the book aside and stared at the long string of letters in front of him: iloveyouwilliammckenziewillyourunawaywithmemary.
A quick slash of the pen divided them into words. His heart raced as the meaning sank in.
“What are you grinning for?” his father growled. “Grab a cudgel – our business is at stake!”
“Sorry, Pa.” Paper still in hand, William unbolted the shutters at the back of the shop and leapt out into an alley that stank of piss and pigs. He had never been happier in his life. “I’m off to business of my own.”
* * *
Copyright claims in 17th-century Scotland genuinely turned to violence at times, as well as many contentious legal disputes. Costs, profits and pride made for high stakes in the early days of print. Next time you see a video taken off YouTube for copyright infringement, be glad no-one got beaten up over it.
“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.”
“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.”
* * *
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.
Grabbing hold of the sill, I heaved myself through an upper window in Lord Stavernley’s tower. It was a warm night, and Old Grob, the librarian, had left the shutters open to air the books. He was good at his job, but not as good as I was at mine.
Grob looked up as I emerged between the stacks.
“Hello, Alina.” His smile buried his eyes in wrinkles. “Did the guards let you in?”
“Not exactly.” Whispering a charm, I flung a handful of grave dust in his face. The air sparkled for a moment, and then he slumped across his desk. When he woke he wouldn’t even remember that I had been here. My debt to Mad Sal would be paid, my cover still intact, and I could finally settle down.
I left Grob’s lamp on the table. I knew the layout of the room blindfold, had practised crossing it that way while re-shelving tomes for him. I might not be a writer or engraver, but I was still an artist of sorts, plying my trade within the world of books.
“Who’s that?” One of the portraits of past librarians blinked, staring through the gloom at me. “What are you doing?”
His voice was rising, and if he kept talking the guards would hear. Around him, the other portraits were waking – every librarian in the history of the castle, except for those who had failed their lords. Those ones did not keep their heads, never mind being immortalised on canvas.
I pinned a small square of banshee skin to the frame. The incantation on it was crudely sketched, but good enough for now. The painted face froze. I pinned charms to the others for good measure, and then returned to the shelves.
Creeping to the back of the room, I approached the cage housing Stavernley’s special collection. The lock was simplicity itself to pick, and I knew exactly which tome I needed. It was heavy, the iron binding cold as I carried it back to the desk.
Grob snoring beside me, I slid a long knife from my sleeve, along with a bundle of papers to replace those Mad Sal wanted. If Grob was lucky then the difference might not be spotted until after he was gone, though the odds weren’t good.
Opening the book to the gathering I was after, I laid my knife carefully against the threads binding it in place. The art on the pages was beautiful. Even without the spells recorded there it would have been worth a fortune. No wonder both Sal and Lord Stavernley prized it enough to threaten violence over its possession.
I hesitated, glancing from mild mannered Old Grob to the book and then back again. One of the portraits twitched as my charms started to wear off.
Still I hesitated, looking from Grob to the book and then to that line of portraits, the absent faces as significant as the present ones. I took my knife from the binding, placed it there again, drew it back once more. At last I pressed against the strings until one of them gave way.
The snap of the string was like hearing a tiny heart break. Something inside me snapped in response.
I put away my knife, closed the book and returned it to its cage. As I reached the window I hesitated once more, contemplating the terrible things Sal did to those who failed her.
Never mind. I always left town in the end. This time it would just be a little sooner.
I took a moment to memorise Grob’s wrinkled and genial face, the replacement pages lying beside him – a memento of a close call he would never know he had. Then I slid from the window and out into the night.
* * *
This story was inspired by a recent post by A C Macklin on the challenge of trying to show rather than tell moral dilemmas in stories, and by an article on 19th century book thief and con artist Guglielmo Libri.* Libri’s crimes included stealing sections of priceless and unique books from French archives, which he added to his collection or sold for vast sums.
If you liked this story then you might also enjoy By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories, which is only $2.99 on Amazon. But don’t even think about cutting pages out of it – it’s an ebook, you’ll ruin your Kindle.
* Anthony Hobson (2004), ‘Guglielmo Libri’, in Against the Law: Crime, Sharp Practice and the Control of Print, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote.
A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.
Wind in the Willows But With Murder
Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.
One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.
Tying the Strands Together
As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.
Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.
The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.
Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.
Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?
I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.
This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.
Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.
Demon detective Shadowvalt goes undercover hunting for soul smugglers. Can he bring justice to the damned?
The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me.
I’ve written before about the value of a great opening line, and it was one of the things that drew me into King’s The Dark Tower. A great opening line grabs your attention while getting across something of the tone of the character and book. It’s one of the things that David Tallerman absolutely nails with Giant Thief, the first of his Easie Damasco novels, with the great opening line turning into a great opening page turning into a very enjoyable story.
A thief and not a gentleman
Giant Thief is the tale of Easie Damasco, a thief living in a classic Eurpoean-influenced fantasy setting. As Tallerman made clear in the FantasyCon panel on rogues, Easie isn’t meant to be a nice character. He’s just as selfish as any real thief, constantly trying to get out of helping the book’s better intentioned characters. He could easily have been completely unlikeable, but Tallerman does a great job of balancing Easie’s realistic selfishness with a more exaggerated witty detachment. Combined with Easie’s willingness to apply his ingenuity to try to solve the problems he ends up in, that makes him great company for 360 pages of adventure.
This creates a challenge that Tallerman artfully dances around. We normally like our protagonists to have a great deal of agency, to be able to make decisions about how they want to live their lives. Sure, Frodo Baggins might face insurmountable odds, but from early on it is his decision to do the right thing that keeps him on the quest to destroy the one ring.
But if Easie could do that then he would just run away as soon as the going gets tough, leaving behind any hope that he’ll ever be heroic or do the right thing for those around him. And lets face it, as readers that’s something we want from a character like Easie – we want to live in hope that, eventually, he’ll be a good guy. Or at least that he won’t screw things up for the real good guys.
So for the story to work Easie spends lots of time at the whim of the characters around him, like the heroic Mayor Estrada or the valiant guard captain Alvantes. He still gets to apply his wits and his wit, just not in the way he would like. This is where the delicate balance comes in – give Easie too much control and the story stops working, give him too little and he’s no longer the protagonist of his own story. But Tallerman gets this just right.
Keeping up the tension
The last novel I read before this was The Name of the Wind, and it’s hard to think of a more contrasting pair of books, even though they’re both set within very familiar fantasy worlds. Whereas Rothfuss’s protagonist is righteous and multi-skilled, Easie Damasco is a greedy prick who’s only just above useless in the chases and fights he finds himself flung into. Those fights and chases are the backbone of the book, in which the action is interspersed with preparations for the next challenge, as opposed to the long stretches of slow, gradual growth in The Name of the Wind.
This is not a book to sit back and soak up the atmosphere. It’s one of action, excitement and adventure, making Easie Damasco a fun character to be around despite his many flaws.
Is it me, or is this a western?
That isn’t to say that Giant Thief doesn’t have its own distinct atmosphere. Despite lacking any of the props of the genre it reminded me of a spaghetti western, with its horseback pursuits, gritty characters, craggy scenery and deadpan delivery. If there were some way to make this into a film featuring a young Clint Eastwood I’d be a happy viewer.
That shouldn’t put you off if you don’t like westerns. There are no shoot-outs, no sheriffs and very few broad brimmed hats. But with a setting that’s also reminiscent of medieval Spain, there’s a sense of a rugged land full of rugged people, some fighting for survival, some for what they believe is right.
All this and a giant
I can’t finish this post without mentioning Saltlick, the giant that Easie steals. Saltlick is a wonderful character, coming across as a classic well-intentioned simpleton, and a good foil for Easie.
I’m already onto the second Easie Damasco book, Crown Thief, and will doubtless get the third one after that. If you’re looking for a fun adventure story then you should give this one a go.