read part 2 here
The characters in the story of Aftertown don’t know that they’re characters at all. Their lives are real to them and unfold in an unfailingly ordinary fashion. Time is marked according to a calendar of days, but no day can exist outside of a numbered graphic novel frame. And no none can escape form the sequence of frames, drawn by an unknowable hand, and sometimes narrated by an equally unknowable voice.
There are, however, individuals like Matthew Roseland, Shamus Guild member. He’s a private detective able to move from frame to frame with a freedom other characters in the story do not possess. This freedom to move back and forth, from one moment to the next, makes him an outcast, but also provides him with unique insights into the criminal intrigues of the smoky dark distopic urban landscape of Aftertown.
* * * * *
Runic on the clouds. Cryptic in the sky. Dissecting a piece of evidence is a process of increasing its surface area, exposing more of it to the light. But where was there light significant enough? Where and when did the day arrive? Where was light something more than a yellow incandescence swaying at the end of a brittle wire?
Frame #3 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.)
Another bad news day. The papers didn’t show up at the news-stands this morning. Aftertown newsies and their families go hungry again. Sometimes even misinformation is just too difficult to deliver, better to just shut the presses down and stay home.
News of this dead girl in the street will never make the papers, except as a celebration. One more lost soul finally found, her suffering ended, Aftertown rid of another undesirable.
A silver blimp flies over the city, slow and menacing. Its crew shines a beam of arc light down on the scene. Cops on the ground look up into the blinding radiance and wave. The dirigible gunners have everyone in their sights, that’s certain. The squinting cops waving like school children.
The rain continues to wash away blood and evidence. No one cares to secure the scene. It’s just a dead castaway. What’s for certain is that she’s not connected to the any of the Imperial Guilds, at least not directly, not in any way that would earn her a more private dignified death.
“You shouldn’t be here, Roseland.” It’s McDermott talking, standing a little behind me and to my left. He’s hankering for me to turn around, to meet him face to face. It’s a control exercise that’s never worked on me. It’s pure Deterrent Guild conduct, though. Practised school-yard bullying behaviour the Deterrent Guild refers to as street delicacy, believing its practice requires artfulness and intellect. Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. Maybe he’s waiting for me to turn around one day and slap him one. That’ll never happen, though. McDermott is always surrounded by backup. He’s a coward playing a brave man’s game. He’s a dead man waiting for his own moment to lie in the rain.
“It’s my town too, McDermott,” I say. “Where else should I be?”
“It’s a Deterrent Guild crime scene. Besides, you shouldn’t show up until frame #85.”
“This stopped being a crime scene the moment you clowns appeared,” I say lighting a hero with a soggy match. “And I checked out frame #85 before I arrived. It makes more sense for me to appear here first.”
“You don’t decide that, Roseland.”
“Show me who does, and I’ll have it out with him. ‘Til then, you know anything about the girl?”
“Don’t know shit about the girl, ‘cept she’s dead. But I knew a guy once…”
“Spare me. We all knew a guy once.”
“He skipped frames and appeared where he wasn’t supposed to, where he wasn’t welcome.”
“Yeah, and he fell under a truck one day. Just like that. Got caught under the differential. Got dragged down the street for blocks. Screamed like a little girl with her hair on fire most of the way. So much of him got left behind on the pavement, it was like the truck had just spit him out from behind. Pretty gruesome, had to bring in the Fire Brigade to hose things down so the upper guild ladies wouldn’t swoon. But that son of a bitch never jumped a frame again.”
“A lesson for us all.”
“You think you’re smart, Roseland. But there’re rooms at the Deterrent Bureau where smart guys like you go in and never come out, not intact anyway.”
“Thought we fell under trucks, just like that.”
Then there’s just the sound of the rain and the dirigible engines receding. McDermott is gone, along with the sound of his laboured breathing.
A shabby hearse drawn by a single slope backed, matted mare pulls up. No black prancing geldings dispatched for this pick-up. The two man Mortician Labourer Guild crew roll the soaked corpse into a stained canvass blanket and heft it into the back of the wagon.
Frame #47 (October 30, 1912, 6:35 a.m.)
The Sceptic Guild Optimist’s News Paper headline reads
Act of War: Titanic Sunk on Maiden Voyage by Chan Cult Torpedo –
More Than 1,500 Perish.
The Titanic left on its maiden voyage in May of this year and never arrived at The Port of Montreal. No explanation was given. The massive steamship was swallowed up by a passive sea of denial. Now this.
The Optimist, the first newspaper to be printed in days, insists the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago. Readers believe every word. The violent and mystifying Chan Cult has struck again. It will not declare war, will not make demands; it only wants to kill and destroy. The Imperial Guild System is in peril. Every able bodied male must present himself for enlistment to fight against Chan.
The Anti-Chan League marches through the dark, rain soaked streets. Theirs is a slow, righteous, rhythmic stride. They’re so young, so willing to believe, so prepared to sacrifice everything to their sponsor guilds. There’s a blue poppy tattooed upon each of their left temples, and, though they’re dressed like everyone else, they each have a red silk sash tied round one of their wrists; the right wrists of the males, the left wrists of the females.
Before I step into the City Morgue, a fresh faced young woman hands me a pamphlet. She curtseys but doesn’t smile before she moves on. On the cover of the pamphlet is the caricature of an obese Asian man with an evil grin. This, we are supposed to believe, is Chan. The image depicts him as wicked and cunning. He has effeminate features; his fingernails are too long. He holds an opium pipe in one hand, the severed head of a causation woman in the other. Turning the document over, I see that the pamphlet’s production was paid for by the Munitions Guild. I drop it onto the wet pavement. Mine is the only one that’s been discarded. It floats away on a rivulet of oily rain water.
In the City Morgue reception area there is no receptionist, only a shy tube built into the wall. It’s spherical, reflective and black like a dark crystal ball. There are smudges and bits of dried matter on it, including what looks like clotted blood and human hair. Beneath it is a dented metal grill like you’d see on a radio. On the floor in front of the shy tube is a pair of painted shoe prints indicating where one is to stand in order for the shy to have full audio visual advantage. I step up and wait.
“What?” a voice from the metal grill says.
“Matthew Roseland,” I say holding my credentials next to my face. “Shamus Guild, here to see a corpse.”
“Let me speak with Melville,” I say.
“No,” again. But this time there’s background noise, a tussle and a yelp, then what sounds like a body hitting the floor.
“Roseland?” a woman’s voice says over the speaker. “Please run a sleeve over the shy, will you?” I pull my handkerchief out of my breast pocket and do my best to polish the shy tube. “That’s fine, Roseland. Please move over to the door, and I’ll buzz you in.”
The door buzzes and I enter. On a desk immediately inside the morgue is a shy CRT panel. Behind it, a young cadet is just standing to his feet and brushing dust off of his uniform. A desk chair lies on its side. A tall red-headed woman with an athletic build stands next to the young man. She’s wearing a Deterrent Guild Intelligence Sect uniform with Principal NCO stripes. There’s a disgusted look on her face. The cadet looks up at her. He’s wearing rumpled Intelligence Sect black serge. He recognises something in the Principal NCO’s expression. He comes to attention.
“May I be excused, Principal?” he asks.
“Get the hell out,” Melville says. “Don’t let me see your filthy, overfed snake face for at least an hour. And have a crease put into those trousers, you disgraceful little slob.”
“Yes, Principal,” the cadet says, clicks his heels and exits.
“You know I can get in easier through the back with the judicious distribution of cigarettes,” I say to Melville.
“Perhaps,” Melville says, then sighs, “but then your evidence would be inadmissible. Besides, if I found out you bribed your way in I’d have to disappear a whole shift of workers. That never works out as smoothly as one wishes. And then there’s the question of the instigator, Roseland. What would I do with you if I caught you sneaking in the back?”
“Have me disappeared with the rest. I’m not too good to be erased along with them.”
“Yes you are,” Melville says. She smiles almost proudly. She’s a square peg, secretly proud to consort with the likes of me. We each wonder to ourselves when the other will be disappeared. It’s inevitable; the charm is in seeing how far we can push before we’re erased. Before we are invited by Special Courier’s Note to attend the offices of the Deterrent Bureau from which we will never leave, if McDermott is correct, intact.
Melville and I walk together down a hall.
“It’s the Nash Way whore, I imagine,” Melville says.
“I guess,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling her? Anything else as interesting come in during the last 7 hours?”
“Of course,” Melville says. “Would you like to see a list?” She’s toying with me. “You’re not even supposed to show up until some time after frame #85.”
“My appearance in frame #85 is inconsistent with Shamus Guild SOP. Whoever’s creating this mess should know that. He or she wrote the book, after all.”
“So you pop up wherever it suits you? There’ll be consequences.”
“Just doing what I can for the cause. Besides, we’re all hip deep in consequence. We’re fuelled by it. We’re consequence engines.”
We arrive at the coolers. They’re a soiled, gaseous row of 35 meat lockers, each with the Intel Sect seal, each containing twenty bunks. Even with Intel Sect’s trademark efficiency and frequent rotation, every bunk is usually full. The number of occupants is always high, but these aren’t the disappeared. The disappeared aren’t processed through the morgue. The disappeared never existed.
Melville picks up a grubby clipboard. “Number 11,” she shouts to no one in particular, but all those present jump. A gurney appears accompanied by three men in splattered off-white lab coats. They move together officiously to Locker One and open it while Melville and I retire to an examination room.
In the examination room, even before the Nash Way corpse is rolled in, there is the smell of death and decay. Each smell separate in its implications, but joined irrevocably. There is a shy tube in each corner. Their black spherical surfaces are the only things that shine here. Melville and I will not be the only ones present. I dab eucalyptus ointment below my nostrils. Melville does the same. Official protocol requires her to be present while I examine the body.
When it arrives, the body rolls in on a conveyor through a curtained portal in the wall. It is naked and has no sheet covering it. A sheet would be superfluous and its use might risk providing the corpse a dignity the Deterrent Guild and Intel Sect believe it doesn’t deserve. The corpse, once the supple, strong body of an aware young woman, is now the broken, mute proprietary emblem of the Guild and Sect.
“Twenty-five, perhaps,” I say.
“Agreed,” Melville says.
“Toxins in the blood or tissues?”
“Unknown,” Melville says. “No tests ordered.”
“Does she have a name?”
“Massive trauma to the left thorax over the heart,” I say for the wax disc recording being made in an adjoining room. “Star shaped entry wound and,” I turn the body over. “Corresponding exit wound through spine. I won’t guess at what exact vertebrae are involved here, that’s for a ME, but they’ve been pulverised. I will mention, though, that the wound was caused by a .50 calibre bullet fired from a medium distance.”
“Disappeared,” Melville says.
“Yes, with extreme prejudice. But if so, how’d she end up here and not in a landfill. And how do we explain this?” I point to a dried, scabbed over patch on the back of the right shoulder measuring approximately seven metric inches by ten where the epidermis has been removed. “Any insight on this from any of you looking in?” I say this without looking up at a shy tube.
A specimen tray is spit through the curtained portal and rolls along until it bumps the feet of the corpse and splashes formaldehyde over its sides. Now I do look up at a shy. In the tray is a tattooed piece of apparently human skin, likely removed to avoid use as an identifier. The art is primitive and obviously tribal, but I can determine no more.
“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice says over a speaker. “Three S’s in a circle. It’s Celtic in origin and is representative of the Triple Goddess and the Three Ages of Womanhood. And much more, of course.”
The door opens and McDermott strolls in with his overly armed retinue.
“Not now, McDermott,” the unseen voice says. McDermott waves his people out of the room as he sits on a counter-top. “It seems impossible to simply eliminate an inconvenience in this dystopia of ours, doesn’t it McDermott?” the voice continues. “
“Yes, sir,” McDermott says.
“I wonder, Roseland,” the voice says, “just in passing. Do you think you’re the only one who jumps in and out of frames where he doesn’t belong? Sticking his nose where it shouldn’t be stuck?”
“Never gave it much thought,” I say.
“And therein lies the rub, eh? Not thinking. Plague of the deficient, heroic mind, hmm. I was always against the creation of the Shamus Guild, you know. Others thought it would provide a modest level of tension, but I knew it would only lead to inconvenience and extra effort. You see, you were only supposed to appear in frame #85 in order to drop an important bit of information, Roseland. Nothing more. Then you were to be run over by a Deterrent Guild anti-personnel vehicle. Your role in all of this was meant to be nothing more than a sentence fragment.”
“Who was she?” Melville says.
“Just something I manufacture, my dear. Like you. And like you, she took on an overly developed character. Prohibited, of course. But who can stop it? Not me, that’s obvious. Once brought in to being, all of you seem to proceed along your own track, quite against all plot and logic. As a result, she became involved in two movements that hitherto never even existed, not to my mind at least. She became a feminist and an anarchist. Where, one wonders, could that have come from? I’d meant for her to be a ballerina, a fine mind but an artistic heart, tragic and destined for an early death at the hands of a deceitful lover. Sordid, trite, but necessary to the narrative. I wonder if she somehow caught wind of it all, and that’s why she rebelled so. What do you think, McDermott?”
“I think it’s better to take yer lumps than skip around from frame to frame,” McDermott says.
“Ah,” the speaker voice says. “Spoken like a character who truly knows from which direction his dinner is served. But I say, McDermott. How do we move forward from here? I am surrounded by rebellion, and only have incompetents like you to protect me from rogue characters.”
McDermott doesn’t answer, just looks down at his enormous feet, his shabby shoes.
“You loved her,” Melville says.
“Not possible,” says the speaker voice.
“Obvious,” I say. “But you didn’t love her enough to protect her. She frightened you.”
“You go too far.”
“Maybe,” I say. “But you’ve proven yourself fallible. You’d have done better to remain shrouded and had her properly erased, delivered to a municipal pyre.”
“Perhaps, but we’ll never know now. I have begun manufacturing a glorious funeral for her. She will rest in Guild Field. She will sleep with giants. You’ll both attend, of course.”
Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.)
McDermott’s body has been found in a subway stairwell. I see his face just before a white sheet is drawn over it. He seems not to have been in any distress when he died, in spite of the multiple stab wounds.
A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult has partnered with The Ulster Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic for Imperial Guild merchant vessels. There is further curtailment of rights and privileges.
Melville vanished for several months and has reappeared promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. She has put a warrant out for my arrest. As a result, I now have free run of Aftertown and the valuable, hands-off status of a man wanted by the GI, herself.
Several blocks away there’s an explosive flash. A split second later, a concussive wave and deafening blast. It is raining. There are arc lights scanning the clouded sky.