I posted the first draft of this story in 2013. Then I walked away. Now Aftertown has caught on. So, I’ve polished off some of the rough edges of the original draft.
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 sufficient enough? Where and when did the day arrive? Where was it that light was something more than a yellow incandescence thing, swaying at the end of a brittle wire?
Frame #3 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.)
It was another bad news day. The papers didn’t show up at the news-stands. Aftertown newsies and their families will go hungry again. Sometimes even misinformation is just too difficult to deliver, better to shut the presses down and stay home.
News of the 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 and 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, pure Deterrent Guild conduct. School-yard bullying the Deterrent Guild refers to as street delicacy, believing its practice requires artfulness and subtly.
Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. Maybe he’s waiting for me to turn around one day and slap him. It’ll never happen. McDermott’s surrounded by backup. He’s a coward playing a brave man’s game, 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,” McDermott says. “‘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. Didn’t want the Upper Guild ladies to 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 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 onto 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.
That’s what the newspapers say.
In fact, 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 headline.
The Optimist, the first newspaper to be printed in days, insists the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago, not in May at all. 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.
Frame #49 (October 30, 1912, 7:17 a.m.)
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’re to believe, is Chan.
The image depicts him as wicked and cunning. He has effeminate features; his fingernails and eyelashes are too long, his lips too full. 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 shytube 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. On the floor is a pair of shoe prints, painted, 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. Whoever was on the side saying, no, has just been physically reprimanded.
“Roseland?” a woman’s voice says over the speaker. “Please run a sleeve over the shytube, will you?”
I pull my handkerchief out of my breast pocket and do my best to polish the shy.
“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. He salutes, clicks his heels and exits.
“You know,” I say. “I can get in easier through the back with the judicious distribution of cigarettes.”
“Perhaps,” says Melville, sighing. “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.”
“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 basement of the Deterrent Bureau.
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 sometime after frame #85.”
“My appearance in frame #85,” I say. “It’s 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?” Melville says. “There’s consequences to that.”
“We’re hip deep in consequence,” I say. “We’re fuelled by it, you and I. 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. There’s a small crowd of morgue technicians nervously present.
“Number 11,” she says 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 rolls in, there’s the smell of death and decay. Each smell separate in its implications, but joined irrevocably.
There’s a shytube in each corner of the room. 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’s naked, and has no sheet covering it. A sheet would be an extra expense, and its use might provide the corpse a dignity the Deterrent Guild and Intel Sect believe it doesn’t deserve.
I look the corpse over, head to toe. It was once the supple, strong body of an aware young woman. Now it’s a broken, mute proprietary emblem of the Guilds.
“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 the spine. I won’t guess at the exact vertebrae involved here. That’s for a ME, but they’ve been pulverised. I will mention, however, that the wound was caused by a .50 calibre bullet fired from a medium distance. Nothing smaller could have caused this.”
“Disappeared,” Melville says. “A sniper. Heavy weapons are used for insurance in such cases.”
“Yes,” I agree, 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 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 shytube.
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.
“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice says over a speaker. It’s The Voice. “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.”
Now the crashes open, and McDermott strolls in with his overly armed retinue.
“Not now, McDermott,” says The Voice.
McDermott waves his people out of the room, as he sits on a counter-top.
“It seems impossible,” The Voice continues, “to simply eliminate an inconvenience in this dystopia of mine.“
“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 the frames of this story? Sticking his nose where it shouldn’t be stuck?”
“Never gave it much thought,” I say.
“And therein lies the rub, eh?” says The Voice. “Not thinking. Plague of the 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, pointing at the dead woman.
“Just something I manufactured, 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. I’m only the Artist and Author. Once brought into 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 in Aftertown, not in 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 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,” The Voice says. “She was a drawing.”
“It’s 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,” says The Voice. “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.”
I look across at Melville. Her eyes are bright and defiant, and I’m glad I’m on her side.
Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.)
I walk up the stairs from the underground.
McDermott’s body has been found in the 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. He didn’t see it coming.
A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult is said to have partnered with The Ulster Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic for Imperial Guild merchant vessels. There’s further curtailment of rights and freedoms.
Melville vanished for several months, and has reappeared bizarrely promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. Likely an attempt by The Voice to control her with commendation.
She’s 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. I’m untouchable except by her.
The Deterrent Guild has agents walking all over the crime scene, like it’s a fair ground. All evidence will be compromised, soon. Nothing will be left but cold dead McDermott, beneath a sheet.
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.