Aftertown Graphic Novel #2 .1

by dm gillis

Part 1 here  —  Part 2 here  —  Part 2.2 here  —  Part 3 here

Frame #137 (October 22, 1911, 8:25 p.m.) Imperial Penny Odeon Movie Theatre, Newsreel: Grainy black and white movie images flicker across the screen, an organist accompanies the silent film. The Blue Star Liner Pythagoras sinks in the North Atlantic. As its desperate last moments unfold, only the bow remains above the water. Then a massive primary hatch gives way under the extreme pressure. There’s an explosion of ballistic steel, steam and ocean spray, as what is left of the grand, recently launched, testament to the technological and industrial prowess of the Imperial Guild Establishment disappears below the surface.

Cut to scene of a child’s toy bobbing on the water, then to a drowned child half submerged – a little girl, her lifeless eyes open wide, once searching, now seeing nothing.

There is no explanation as to how such expert cinematography is possible, under the conditions.

A text tablet appears, black with white lettering and filigree, as the organ music intensifies: The notoriously cruel and cunning Chan Cult strikes again on the high seas. Its pitiless torpedo boats attack the unarmed Pythagoras on only its second voyage, leaving 1,353 innocents to perish in icy North Atlantic waters.

Cut to scene of dead woman nearly face down, grasping a floating deck chair. Only a portion of her face can be seen beneath her shabby hair and overturned hat. Visible is a corner of her forehead and a lean cheek coated in a thin layer of ice. The volume of the organ music decreases, becoming poignant. From her attire, it is obvious that she was poor, an immigrant or refugee.

The next text tablet appears, organ music becomes ominous: Striking at those least able to defend themselves, the Chan Cult continues its mindless and inexplicable violence against the very people it claims to represent and defend. Chan makes no demands, ignores all request to negotiate, appearing to murder and destroy for the degenerate love of doing so.

Look to your right; will that person in the seat next to you, or someone he or she loves, be the next victim of Chan Cult violence?

Cut to scene of Blue Star Line Ensign cap floating in water. Organ music becomes militaristic, then mockingly oriental as the scene fades, replaced by a static image, the caricature of an obese Asian man with an evil grin. Chan. He’s wicked and cunning, and has effeminate features; his fingernails are too long, lips too full. He holds a smoking opium pipe in one hand, the severed head of a causation woman in the other.

The audience begins to boo and hiss. They throw objects at the screen.

Another text tablet appears: Have you seen this man? Before you leave this theatre tonight, be certain you donate what you can to the Anti-Chan League. If you’re between the ages of fifteen and thirty years, and of sound physicality, sign-up for active military duty. Do your part against those who are against you.

The organ music reaches its climactic end as the word ‘Intermission’ appears across the screen. The lights come up and the curtain falls. The audience instinctively stands in applause. Roseland stands as well, but uses the moment to exit the theatre.

In the lobby, a young woman is selling cigarettes from a tray strapped around her neck. Roseland approaches her.

“Are those legal again?” he says, pointing to the cigarettes.

“Ain’t they always been?” says the woman.

“Sure, I guess,” Roseland says. “You Gwendolyn?”

“I am if you’re Matthew Roseland.”

“Then you’re Gwendolyn,” Roseland says, choosing a deck of Heroes.

“Not that one,” Gwendolyn says. “Here, take these. And there’s something else you should see in these here matches. Powerful stuff, huh? The newsreel, I mean.”

“Makes you think,” Roseland says, unfolding the matchbook and reading a name – Pixie – then placing it back in Gwendolyn’s tray.

“I had to watch it through the doors,” she says. “I ain’t allowed to leave the lobby in case someone needs smokes. I saw the feature the other night, though, after my shift. It was sure swell. You stayin’ for it? That Marshall Mitchum sure makes a girl weak, I’ll say.”

“No,” Roseland says, lighting a Hero. “I ain’t staying.”

“You kinda look like Mitchum, you know,” Gwendolyn says. “A girl ever tell you that?”

“Never,” Roseland says.

“Well maybe if you got time later, you might like to treat a potential fan to a drink.”

“That’s very forward of you,” Roseland says.

“Golly! A girl’s gotta be forward in Aftertown, or she stays home alone an awful lot.”

“I’ve gotta date,” Roseland says.

“Huh, shoulda known. That’s some lucky girl, I’ll say.”

Roseland drops a fifty cent tip into Gwendolyn’s tray. “Buy a copy of Heartthrob to keep yourself company tonight.”

“Gee, that’s awful generous. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Outside of the theatre, the streets are slick with rain. There’s a combination of horse-drawn and motorised vehicle traffic. Pedestrians dash in and out and walk with their heads down into the rain and wind.

A man with no legs is positioned under a battered umbrella, in the glow of the theatre marquee. A sign strung around his neck reads Chan War Veteran. There’s a nearly empty saucer in front of him containing a few pennies. Roseland tips his hat and carries on without donating. Above it all, a Deterrent Guild dirigible hovers, its arc lights scanning the streets, its machine gunners at the ready, its engines nearly inaudible.

Roseland walks along West Hastings Street as a silver Mountbank Touring Limousine pulls up alongside, and stops. A woman with an automatic machine pistol steps out.

“Don’t even think about it, shamus,” the woman says, as she frisks Roseland’s sides for a yank. “I ain’t no lonesome cigarette girl. Now, get in the car.”

Roseland assesses the situation and agrees. She’s plain clothes Intel Sect, might as well be wearing a sign. He bows slightly, removes his hat and gets into the limousine, taking an empty bench seat across from a balding fat man in a fawn coloured suit and matching spats. It’s Simon Synge, self-proclaimed provocateur. Known to be an Intel Sect double agent. Synge is a major pain in the ass. He should have been disappeared a decade ago, but has an uncanny survivability.

The woman with the machine pistol sits next to Roseland.

“You didn’t stay for the feature, Rosy,” Synge says.

“Don’t call me Rosy,” says Roseland.

“Now, now,” says Synge, as he makes at choosing a chocolate from a box on his lap. “It’s a term of endearment, Old Boy. Besides, it is my car you’re riding in. Haven’t I the advantage at the moment? Daphne’s a crack shot, you know – especially at this range. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to have the interior redone after she’s fired out of turn.”

“Swell, but can she keep a guy warm at night?”

“Oh, I imagine she can,” Synge says, selecting and inspecting a bonbon. “Trouble is, she’d probably eat the poor, unsuspecting fellow or breakfast. Wouldn’t you, my dear?”

“With gravy,” says Daphne.

“Okay,” Roseland says. “So what’s the furore?”

“Some place you gotta be?” Daphne says. “The circus, maybe?”

“Daphne,” Synge says. “Please relent. Our associate, Rosy, is a busy chap, after all. Aren’t you, Mr Roseland? What with your moving, uninvited and without leave, from one frame of this story to the next? All very disrupting and displeasing to the gentleman who speaks from on high.”

Roseland leans forward, “He’s spoken to you?”

Daphne pushes Roseland back into his seat. “No sudden moves, buster. I’ll blast you into tomorrow.”

“Please do be careful, Rosy,” Synge says. “Daphne’s a sensitive girl. And yes, I do have some dealings with The Voice, as I’ve come to refer to him. A very disconcerting experience each and every time, I must say. He does, however, seem to have some sway over the events here in Aftertown, and I always endeavour maintain and enhance my social and business networks.”

“Swell. So, what’s this about?”

“Well,” Synge says, finally approving of his choice, and popping a chocolate into his mouth. “He, The Voice I mean, asks me to do two things. First obtain whatever information you acquired from that little quail of yours, Gwendolyn. I have a man dismantling her, even as we speak. But knowing her type as I do, I doubt she’ll spill before her silence becomes eternal. Really Rosy, you should be ashamed. After all, one marries a steady, loyal girl like Gwendolyn; one doesn’t use her for one’s own private gains, then cast her into the pit with Intel Sect cutthroats.

“Ah, well,” Synge continued, with a shrug. “The second item on tonight’s agenda is for me, with Daphne’s help, to impress upon you the need to stick to plot. Your abnormal sovereignty of movement really does throw things off kilter. Specifically, The Voice is bothered by the existence of a current rumour that has you trying to connect with this Brother Amos Borgiasangelo fellow at that ridiculous sideshow that’s materialized at Main and Gloucester. That’s what your little meeting with Gwendolyn was all, about wasn’t it, getting some tidbit of information that would place you closer to this deplorable Brother Amos fellow? The thing of it is, it’s not part of the story, Rosy Old Man. It’s just not part of the story.”

“What is the story?” Roseland says, lighting a hero.

“Who’s to know?” Synge says. “We play the hand we’re dealt. Isn’t that right, Daphne dear?”

“Right, boss.”

“Who’s doing the dealing?” Roseland says.

“Look,” Synge says, annoyed, looking up from his box of chocolates. “That’s really quite besides the point, and you’re starting to bore me. Why don’t you share with me all of what transpired between you and Gwendolyn, and then we’ll drop you off at your flat? You can take this and make an evening of it.” Synge holds out a bottle of leaf green Roaring Girl. “I can even arrange for you to have some company. Maybe a strapping young redhead, like that Intel Sect person. What is her name? Ah, Melville, that’s it. You seem mighty smitten with her. Way above your station in her current placement, of course. But one must admire your pluck, Rosy. Yes, indeed.”

“She’s General Invisible of Intel Sect,” Roseland says. “That makes her your boss. And you play at having difficulty remembering her name? That’s rich. You’re just a clown, aren’t you, Simon?

“General Invisible is no place for a common rank and file trollop like her, anyway,” Synge says. “It’s all just some Imperial Guild sport. She’s really quite an embarrassment. Her days are numbered, just as are yours.”

The limousine slows for a controlled intersection. Roseland flexes his right forearm, engaging a mechanism held in place by slender leather straps. A dagger drops from his sleeve, into the palm of his hand. In a second, he’s reached round and stabbed Daphne in the heart. He lifts his foot, placing it hard against Synge’s throat, pinning the fat man against the wall between the passenger and driver’s compartments. Daphne slides off of her seat and slumps onto the floor, amongst fallen chocolates.

Synge gasps and claws at Roseland’s shoe. From the corner of his eye, Roseland sees a flash. The chauffeur has come round to the passenger door, firing a revolver. Roseland grabs Daphne’s machine pistol and fires full-auto through the window glass, hitting the chauffeur between the eyes. But the chauffeur’s aim was true.  A bullet is lodged in Roseland’s arm, beneath the shoulder, where it burns like a hot coal.

“Never underestimate the street,” Roseland says, increasing the pressure against Synge’s throat, in spite of the pain. Synge’s lips are turning blue. In disgust, Roseland removes his foot and Synge sags in his seat.

“Ah, you see,” Synge says, coughing. “Plot is very powerful. There’s no place for my demise in this story. The Voice has assured me of it. You could never have followed through, and choked me to death.”

“A little odd having faith in what you hear, but can’t see.”

“Is it?”

Now Roseland aims Daphne’s yank at Synge. Synge makes a dismissive noise, and smiles. Roseland checks his aim, and fires. The bullets goes through Synge’s shoulder, and exits messily. Synge’s eyes bulge, as he starts to shriek.

“What you’re presently experiencing,” Roseland says. “Is the pain of misplaced faith.” Then after a bitter pause, “Now for the real test of your beliefs. Don’t worry, maybe The Voice will bring you back as a chorus girl.” Roseland changes aim again and fires, taking out Synge’s Left eye. Synge slides dead onto the floor with Daphne and his uneaten candy.

Roseland goes through Synge’s pockets, and attaché case. Then he slips the bottle of Roaring Girl into his trench coat pocket before exiting the car.

Frame #152 (October 22, 1911, 10:12 p.m.) The Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ Circus: Roseland emerges from the doorway of a derelict tenement, next to where circus tents have been erected. It’s a party atmosphere, rare in Aftertown. Crowds and hawkers swarm the midway. In the tents there are tigers, lions, girls in tights and high wire acts. There’s a loud explosion as a man is blown out of a cannon. The audiences cheers.

In the centre of it all, a pyre is being prepared for the climax of the night, the burning of a hobo recruited from beyond the Guild Boundary. He’ll be brought out raving and drugged to add to the drama, before he is tied to the post and the firewood ignited.

A woman strolls toward Roseland. “Welcome to the circus, sailor,” she says. “Got a smoke?”

“Ain’t no sailor,” Roseland says, offering the woman a hero.

“And I ain’t no schoolgirl,” the woman says. “But I can pretend like one. You wanna help a workin’ girl make her nightly quota?”

“There someone named Pixie round here?”

“Oh it’s like that, is it?” the woman says, exhaling smoke through her nose.

“Depends,” says Roseland.

“Well, if you like that sort of thing…. He sticks pretty close to Brother Amos in Circustown, at the end of the midway.”

“He?”

“Yeah,” the woman says. “Though he does all he can to doll himself up for the boys. I would’ve thought different from a bruiser like you, but I never learn.”

“Circustown, that the only address?”

“It’s all you’ll need, brother.”

“Thanks,” says Roseland.

“Don’t break a nail, sugar,” the woman says. “Oh, and ah, you’re trailing blood. Just sos you knows.”

Roseland carries on down the midway, past the wheels of fortune, cardsharps, shills and a man who cracks a whip to remove an ember from the cigarette in the mouth of a scantly clad woman. Lights start to get low and the mood becomes menacing.

“Pixie,” Roseland says to a one legged boy, sitting in a doorway. The boy points down a line of caravans.

“Follow the music,” he says.

“Thanks,” Roseland says, and flips the boy a dime.

At the end of a line of drab wagons is a larger, more colourful, brightly lit affair with loud Victrola music playing. A young man with a white face and a Mohawk stands in the doorway, toying with a switchblade. He’s wearing black studded leathers.

“Hey citizen,” the young man says. “You shopping?”

“Looking,” Roseland says.

“Fuck off then. This is the financial district. Zoo’s back that way.”

“Looking for someone named Pixie,” Roseland says.

“She’s busy.”

“She?”

“That’s right, she.” A familiar voice comes from out of the dark. It’s Chalk, emerging into the light. “What of it, Roseland you shamus wanker? You want to quibble over a lady’s genitalia?”

“I just want to talk with Brother Amos.”

“Then what you want Pixie for, eh?” says Chalk.

“Word says I have to go through Pixie.”

“Well word’s wrong,” Chalk says, pulling a straight razor out of his jacket pocket. “That’s what word is. You wanna converse with Brother Amos, you gotta go through me. Pixie’s just a rentboy in a skirt, hanging onto the Brother Amos like a fucking disease.”

“Bight your tongue, Mr Chalk,” says a young woman who stands in the caravan doorway. She has a pleasant face, and a deep voice. “You Terminus Boy Punks are just the hired help.”

Turning her attention toward Roseland, she says, “I’m Pixie Amore, if that’s who you want.” She steps down from the caravan doorway, holding out her hand as if to be kissed. “And you must be Matthew Roseland. I heard you were coming.”

Roseland ignores Pixie’s outstretched hand.

“Bloody hell,” Chalk says.

“The Boy Punks may go,” Pixie says, with a glib wave. “If you’re needed, you’ll be sent for.”

“Bloody fuckin’ hell,” Chalk says, before he disappears.

“You’re bleeding, Mr Roseland,” Pixie says.

“A bullet.” He winces. “I have some pressing business with Brother Amos.”

“No,” Pixie says. “You only think you have business with Brother Amos. That’s an entirely different thing. It’s my full-time job to protect Brother Amos from risky characters, Mr Roseland. And at the moment, you simply ooze risky. I’ll have to deny you an audience with the Arch Spectre.”

Roseland pulls Daphne’s machine pistol, and points it at Pixie. “What makes you so smart,” he says.

“I’m not so smart,” Pixie says. “But I’m not bleeding like a stuck pig, either. You’re white as a sheet. I’m surprised you can even hold a yank. I see a slight tremor in your hand. You’re just not fit for gunplay at the moment. Please put it away.”

“And who,” someone else says, “would point a weapon at an unarmed circus crossdresser, Mr Roseland?”

A tramp clown with a sad painted face and an orange daisy in his tattered bowler hat, stands in a pool of yellow light beneath a lamppost between the wagons. His eyes have an impassive yet imploring quality. His posture is stooped but forceful.

“Arch Spectre,” Pixie gasps, as she kneels. “It’s not safe. He’s armed.”

“This is obvious, Pixie. But Mr Roseland has come to talk, not shoot. That’s correct isn’t it, Matthew?”

“I, I….” Roseland staggers. He’s lost too much blood. “I….” He tries to speak, and then falls to the ground. The machine pistol makes a rattling sound as it skids across the pavement.

“Have the punks bring him in, Pixie. For the moment, he’s no risk to any of us.

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