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.
* * * * *
Frame #.05 (October 21, 1913, time unknown): I woke gasping from a dream. Silent and black. I’m outside, why? The rain has stopped. I’m in an alley looking up at rusting, moss-covered fire escapes. Once, they’d been painted black by a prouder people. They rise infinitely high toward the dark sky reflecting back the dim sallow hue of the city.
“Roseland,” my name whispered, almost hissed, by someone behind me. I turn, momentarily losing my balance. It’s Chalk.
“Hey Roseland,” he says. “How you been sleeping lately?”
He smiles. His hair’s cut in a spiked Mohawk and dyed a plastic black, held in place by volumes of varnish. His teeth have been filed into points. He runs his perpetually bloodied tongue with its unhealed lesions across them, leaving behind a rusty film. Chalk, the current leader of the Terminus Boy Punks – street gang deluxe. They claim no territory in Aftertown. Turf wars don’t pay.
Chalk wears all black. His leather jacket is studded. His face is wet from recent rain and pale with the white lead he and the Boy Punks smear on their faces. He holds a massive revolver in his right hand, holds it like an Upper Guild Lady holds her purse. It’s a high velocity .50 calibre Crossly Autofield. For anyone other than Chalk, it’s an impractical weapon in the city. It’s too powerful and loud, has too potent a recoil and lacks accuracy. It’s a collector’s weapon. Chalk isn’t a collector. He behaves like a clown, but he’s cunning, deadly. In his hand, the Autofield is precise and fatal. The sound it makes is his anthem. It’s recoil familiar and welcome. Now he twirls it on his index finger like he’s a gunslinger.
“Wanna play, Roseland?” he says. “We’ll give ya a count of thirty before we come to getcha.”
Chalk appears to be alone, but I know better. The Terminus Boy Punks are expert at staying out of sight, white faces or no. There’re likely twenty of them in Chalk’s exulted entourage, each well within lethal striking distance.
I stand my ground and say, “What’s the furore, Chalk?”
“I just wanna see you bleed one day, Roseland.”
“That will do, Mr Chalk.” It’s the disembodied voice. The invisible man again.
“You!” I say, looking up and around at nothing.
“You remember me, Matthew?” the invisible man says. “That’s unexpected. But that’s how Aftertown is, isn’t it? I swear I sometimes feel quite overwhelmed by the unpredictability of all of your vicious personalities. But I am a creative soul, and must carry on.”
“No,” I say. “Not necessarily.”
“What’s this shite?” Chalk says. He’s still pointing the Autofield at me, frantically looking round for the source of the mysterious unseen voice.
“Calm yourself, Mr Chalk.”
“You don’t calm me,” Chalk yells. “I do the calmin’ and agitatin’ round here. Show yerself sos I can blast ya.”
“None of that, now,” the voice says. “I just wanted to bring you two together for a brief meeting. If all goes according to plan, you’ll be the greatest of allies by the time I’m done with you. You will try to stick to the plot won’t you, Roseland. I spend endless hours developing plots for you. But you always seem to deviate somehow.”
“Come out and fight, ya coward,” Chalk yells.
“Maybe you began something you can’t control or put away,” I say to the voice. “Maybe Aftertown doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
“Maybe,” the voice says. “But I really must go now. Enjoy each other’s company.”
“Wait,” I say. But there’s only the sound of dripping ironwork and Chalk’s heavy breathing.
Chalk says, “What the fuck was that, Roseland? Tell me, or I’m gonna blow a hole in ya the size of me mather’s lactatin’ left teat.”
“Fire away,” I say. “I don’t know who that is. He just makes his presence known every now and then, makes like he’s clarifying points. Mostly only muddies the water.” I fail to mention the feeling I have that I know the man attached to the voice better than I know myself.
Then I hear the blunt thud of the Autofield’s hammer coming down. I see that Chalk has drawn a bead on me and is pulling the trigger. But the gun doesn’t fire.
“Fuck,” he yells. “I loaded this bitch ten minutes ago.” Thud, thud, thud, “Fuuuck.”
It begins to rain again.
Frame #16 (October 23, 1911, 10:15 p.m.): My flat is in a rundown working class area of Aftertown. It’s cold and dark outside. It never stops raining.
Dates and times repeat or arrive out of sequence here. I pour a glass of Roaring Girl. It’s florescent green. I down it fast and pour another. It usually takes two shots of the Girl before I can tolerate going out.
Artistic types have shaped rituals to which they hold when drinking the Girl. But even if I had the time, I couldn’t be bothered. It’s the numbing and stabilising effects I care about. And it suppresses the appetite. A forty Imperial Guild Unit bottle of the Girl and a deck of contraband Heroes can be had for seventy-five cents. A plate of ham and eggs and a cup of coffee are two dollars. Since there never seems to be more than seventy-five cents in my pocket, the choice is easy.
I light a Hero and inhale every molecule, hold it down for as long as I can, then exhale. This places a layer over the numbing green Girl. I wonder if others think as much about their excesses. Then the thought is gone.
Frame #83 (October 18, 1911, 11:43 p.m.): I’m standing on a wharf looking out onto Aftertown Harbour. Puzzling, I don’t recall there ever being a harbour. It’s raining, no shelter. It’s impossible to smoke. My twenty year old Aquascutum is soaked through. An oily, unwholesome smell comes off the water. There’s someone standing next to me.
“Hello, Roseland. Glad you could make it.”
It’s McDermott. I’m surprised and turn to face him. He’s pale and paunchy. “You’re dead,” I say. “I saw you stabbed in the subway stairwell, bled out. You’re deceased.”
“Well,” McDermott says, “life’s a mystery, eh? Hell, you of all people should know that, being of the Shamus Guild and all, eh? Don’t sweat it though, boyo. Everything’s Canada Dry on my side of the fence. But that memory of yours, it’s a dangerous thing here in Aftertown. You need to turn it down, keep it to yourself, eh? Need to learn to forget. Dying is like that. Forgetting, I mean. It’s peaceful, kinda.”
McDermott’s dry and has a well lit Hero in his gob, in spite of the rain. He’s smoking lustily, but his eyes are dead and without colour. The Hero’s amber end moves up and down in his lips as he talks. The smoke makes him squint. He’s smiling. McDermott never smiled in life. There’s something else. Now I can see the bloody tears where his killer’s knife pierced his raincoat. There’s a slow, thick, black drip of blood coming from the hem of his coat. The drops fall onto the saturated wharf and sit there like lumps of dark mercury.
“Good to see you finally showed up in a frame of the story where you belong,” he says.
“I belong here?”
“Been into the Roaring Girl, eh? Bet you’d like a swallow right now.”
McDermott finishes many of his sentences with ‘eh’, making questions out of statements. It’s a cop habit. He can’t help it. Everything’s a question with a cop. He’s Deterrent Guild, after all – or was.
“Fuck off,” I say. “I don’t talk to corpses.”
“You’ll talk to this one,” McDermott says, taking the half gone Hero from his mouth and tossing it with a weird, uncharacteristic authority. Another one magically appears between his lips. “Pirate steamer docked illegally last night, had some strange cargo aboard. No surprise, eh, strange cargo in Aftertown?”
“Can’t say, I didn’t even know there was a harbour.”
“Hmm, well do yourself a favour; remember the ship’s name, Zephyr Queen. She’ll return for her cargo, and then some. Now get out of here. Find a circus tent and warm yerself up.”
“Why you telling me this? You never shared so much in life.”
“The dead make choices they couldn’t in life.”
Then McDermott’s gone, just the smell of tobacco smoke lingering.
Frame #97 (October 19, 1911, 1:47 a.m.): The moment Melville reappeared in the story, promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect, she put an Executive Warrant out for my arrest. It provides me with an unusual form of free status. Because of it, I’m untouchable. I’m her property now. Only she, or an executive member of the Deterrent Guild Intel Sect, can arrest or detain me. Beat cops in Aftertown know it, hate it. I can spit in their eye with impunity, and regularly do.
Somewhere in the Imperial Guild machine, Melville sits back and watches. I hope she gets a laugh now and then.
Maria owns Bridgette’s, a bar on the Guild Boundary. I’m laying in her bed in her room above the bar. I entered through the backdoor from a previous frame, one in which the plot didn’t provide for my exit.
People on the street refer to the Guild Boundary as the G-line. This side of the G-line, the average Aftertowner is safe from the assassins that patrol the Upper Guild sections of the city. Across the street, they get their throat cut.
Maria has secretly plugged into a string of shytubes placed throughout the known execution sites this side of the G-line. The sites are in back alleys, derelict buildings and vacant lots, mostly.
A small circular shytube CRT sits at the end of Maria’s bed, usually hidden behind ornate bronze cast cabinet doors. Only a few members of a highly organised group of Guild resisters get to view the carnage the CRT reveals. I’m no resister, though. I don’t have the stomach for it. Maria lets me see, anyway.
Tonight she’s invited me in because she says she’s cold and lonely. I’ve accepted because she’s warm and exquisite. Aftertown hasn’t aged her the way it has everyone else. She also wants me to see what a certain shytube has to reveal about a vacant lot at the corner of Main and Gloucester. Massive tents have been erected there. They’re surrounded by caged and roaming animals, sequinned acrobats and clowns. There’s calliope music and strings of bright lights shine over everything. Rain hasn’t discouraged the activity. I’m aware that the CRT’s low resolution doesn’t do the scene justice.
A disinterested, monotone barker on stilts, wearing a top hat and sandwich board strides the corner announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ Circus has arrived in Aftertown. Come see the most amazing extravaganza of this or any other century. This exclusive engagement ends the circus’ highly acclaimed extended world tour. Bring the spouse, bring the children, bring the belligerent in-laws to the Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ big top tents filled to the brimming with oddities and wonders. Come witness the Firefly, the only tightrope walker in history to walk the flaming high wire. See the melancholy Lady Imelda, Elephant Woman of Borneo. Meet the Cockamamie Brother Amos Borgiasangelo, world famous clown – he’ll make you laugh while he makes you cry.”
The Barker continues but the name stands out, Borgiasangelo. Brother Amos Borgiasangelo? There can only be one. Travelling with a circus, but no attempt made to conceal his identity behind a false name. He’s returned for vengeance. Amos Borgiasangelo, excommunicated Arch Spectre of the Imperial Fetish Guild and infamous defector to the Chan Cult. McDermott’s ghost was right. This is strange cargo, indeed.
“When did this start,” I say to Maria.
“Today, a few hours ago. They just showed up out of nowhere. People are getting excited in a very un-Aftertown sort of way. The circus is in town, even if Amos Borgiasangelo is its star.”
“What’s the news on Borgiasangelo?” I say. “Anything?”
“Nothing,” Maria says. “The Guilds still claim that he goes in for little boys, that he’s a Chan Cult climber and that he embezzled millions from the Fetish Guild Reserve.”
“None,” Maria says.
“Fine, I’m heading out.” I grab my coat.
“Where?” Maria says. “You’re going to her, right?”
“Yes ,” I say. “And I have my reasons. She’s had the answers in the past. If she shares a few with me now, I might be able to help avoid a lot of grief. Amos isn’t here to take the waters. He’s here to raise hell. He’s got violence on his mind. My guess is that he’s got the Fetish Guild hierarchy in his sights.”
“Yeah, the Primates. They won’t go down without a fight, and they don’t care if they take all of Aftertown with them.”
“Well I ain’t some dime a dance dame, Roseland. You can’t kiss me off the moment you think of dropping in on Melville.”
“It’s not like that,” I say. “Anyway, there’re enough bad guys to fight. We don’t need to fight each other.”
“I ain’t fighting you, Roseland. I’m fighting an Upper Guild Lady.”
Anymore talk is wasted energy. I tip my hat and leave The Bridgette Club by the backdoor. I want to remind Maria that Melville isn’t an Upper Guild Lady. She’s from the streets like the both of us. But it’s the Guild machine at work. It’s designed to confuse and set allies against each other. By the looks of things, it’s working.
As I leave her bedroom, I spot the CRT connection disengage. From the corner of my eye I see the screen image shrink to a tiny glowing dot. The speaker crackles, hisses and is silent.
Frame #97 (October 19, 1911, 2:57 a.m.): Melville walks toward me wearing a beaded evening gown as I lean over a desk in the parlour of her West Agency Avenue penthouse. She’s sipping from a tall fluted glass in her left hand. The apartment is pure luxury. But it’s the colourful, glowing screen on the desk that’s caught my eye. There’s shytube footage of a riot showing. A massive crowd of protesters, some of them hooded or with crude respirators, is running toward a line of armoured riot police with shields and batons. Tear gas plumes are everywhere. The protestors throw homemade incendiary bombs. The police line is engulfed and begins to break up. Tanks roll in and fire heavy machine guns.
In front of the screen is what looks like a standard set of QWERTY typewriter keys. The keys are not connected to any elevated levers or springs but embedded in a flat laminated rectangular platter with small, mysterious green lights. Beside the keys is something egg-shaped, about the size of the palm of a hand. It gives off a blue glow.
“Of all the places you’re not supposed to appear, Matthew,” Melville says. “This must top the list.”
“Did you think I’d never come?” I say, still watching the screen.
“I hoped for it, of course; against it, as well.”
“What is this?” I say.
“A counting engine,” Melville says.
“What’s it count?”
“Zeros and ones, I’m told.”
“Just that?” I say.
“Just that, in the order they come,” Melville says. “It deciphers the code.”
“The code or a code. It’s a mystery to me. Layers of calculation taking place in that small box beneath the desk. Delivering data to my home, where I least want to see it.”
She points to where a small laminated box sits on a Persian carpet with nothing but a tiny green flashing light on its front. I crouch down to look closer. It makes a quiet humming sound. Placing my hand on the top I can feel its warmth and a smooth, almost imperceptible vibration. I look back at her, bemused.
“Don’t waste your time,” she says. “It’s inscrutable. Even to the engineers they send to maintain it.”
“The CRT is so clear and colourful,” I say, standing again.
“It’s not a CRT,” Melville says. “It’s liquid crystal.”
“What can you see with it?”
“Numbers, words, plots,” she says. “Death, mayhem, lies and misinformation. Broadcast from all over the planet. Would you like some Champagne?”
“Why not have some,” she says pouring a glass. “Then you tell me.”
I sniff the cool liquid in the glass. It’s strangely appealing. Then I sip it. It sparkles like charged water, but it’s really not like that at all.
“Will you have a cigarette?” she says.
“Yes, thank you.”
The cigarette she lights for me is nothing like a Hero.
“What is this?” I say.
“Tobacco, of course.”
I spend a moment enjoying the cigarette’s surprising flavour. Then I say, “Amos Borgiasangelo.”
And Melville says, “Yes. He seems to have finally arrived back. Intel Sect has sent agents, of course. We’ve been tracking him for close to three years.”
“So you knew he was coming.”
“And you did nothing?”
“I was only recently released from captivity myself,” Melville says. “But I’m not sure I would have done things any differently. If we can arrest him here, it makes for better optics.”
“Optics,” I say, placing the champagne glass on the desk and snuffing out the cigarette.
“Don’t be smug, Roseland,” Melville says. “I only want to arrest and detain him for questioning. Others in Intel Sect want him assassinated. That won’t happen if I can help it.”
“Thanks for the hospitality,” I say.
“You want at him before Intel Sect, is that it?”
“Because the Guilds have a way of washing the truth clean before releasing it to the masses,” I say. “I just want a word with him before you storm in.”
“He’s protected himself, you know.”
“The Terminus Boy Punks,” I say. “Yes, I know.”
“That Chalk fellow seems to have a well developed hate on for you.”
“Yes, he does.”
From an open window comes the sound of gunfire and manic laughter, punctuated by seconds of uncomfortable quiet. Then an explosion. There are ripples on the surface of the champagne in my glass.