Friends in Low Places – a flash steampunk story

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.

* * *


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An Offer of Employment – a flash steampunk story

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.

All’s Fair in Hell – a #FlashFriday story

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionDetective Shadowvalt curled his tail up beneath him and pulled the hood of his jacket forward, covering his horns. He didn’t like to leave his trenchcoat behind, but at least he could still smoke while undercover. Lighting a cigarette, he enjoyed the smooth, sulphurous taste. He was sure the cigarettes tasted better in Hell.

Shoulders hunched, he stayed with the dozen lost souls walking through the barbed gates of the warehouse, past the watch demons guarding the place. Even before they crossed the yard, he could tell by the smell that this was it, the centre of the supposed people smuggling ring. There was an acrid tinge in the air, the smell of fallen spirits being consumed for others’ purposes.

Still following the damned, he walked through the double doors of the warehouse proper. At the far end a yellow demon with six tentacles stood by a stone gate. The air in the portal glowed blue with arcane power as a soul stepped in and vanished.

Seeing what was really happening made this all the more sickening. There were scores of mortals here, and they probably all thought they’d bought a way to freedom.

That was it. Probable cause to raid the place. He needed to fetch backup.

Shadowvalt turned and bumped into one of the watch demons.

“Not this way.” The demon blinked six of its eyes. Others emerged on writhing stalks, peering under Shadowvalt’s hood. “Hey, you’re not a mortal. You’re a-”

Shadowvalt flicked his cigarette into the demon’s face. It yelped and jumped back as he flung back his hood and pulled out his badge. “Police. Nobody move.”

The watch demon grabbed at Shadowvalt. He punched it in its sensitive, eye-covered head, sending it slumping to the ground in shock and pain.

“You want out of here?” the yellow demon bellowed, gesturing toward the portal. “Kill him!”

The lost souls, still bearing the marks of their deaths as well as their eternal torments, looked at each other in confusion. They’d probably never been told to attack a demon before. But they were desperate, and Shadowvalt new all too well what desperation could achieve.

They advanced toward him, fists clenched, eyes wide.

“Stop!” he bellowed. “You’ve been tricked. That’s not a portal out of Hell. It’s a construct to turn souls into power. They’re going to kill you.”

“Why should we believe you?” The soul who spoke had burns across half her face.

“Because this is a battery factory.” Shadowvalt pointed to the wires leading away from the portal, ending in a charger against the far wall. “What do you think we use down here, Duracell?”

They looked back toward the yellow demon. Clearly a specialist in technical arcana rather than convincing lies, it hesitated too long. Some of the souls sank to the floor in despair, while others rushed at the demon in rage.

They’d never win the fight, but it was enough. With everybody distracted, Shadowvalt stepped outside and over to the gates. He waved down the road, toward the abandoned building where his backup was waiting. Uniformed constables poured down the street toward him, horn tips gleaming, as the burned woman came up beside him.

“It’s not fair.” She spat the words. “All we wanted was to escape torment.”

“If you’d acted fairly you wouldn’t be here.” Shadowvalt lit a cigarette. After a moment’s hesitation he offered her one. “Just be glad I didn’t leave you to walk through the portal. I’d say justice has been served.”

* * *

You can read two more of demon detective Shadowvalt’s cases in my fantasy anthology By Sword, Stave or Stylus, which is free as an ebook on Amazon until Tuesday. You can also read another flash story about him here.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it – the more people read it the better. And feel to share your opinions below, as well as any ideas for future flash Friday stories.