Frame #1, page 1 (October 29, 1912, 4:30 a.m.) The street is lined by dark tenements, evaporating into the gloom overhead. Colours are dim incandescent yellow, dark mossy greens on eroding red brick walls, sepia and black. It’s the Aftertown you can reach out and touch. Where I am, and where I will always be.
Footsteps, mine and someone else’s, a half block behind me. Otherwise, the street’s deserted. I stop and turn round. A shadow dissolves, and there’s the sound of shoe leather retreating into a doorway, conveniently drawn where it doesn’t belong.
I’m being tailed, which is unusual. Usually it’s me doing the stalking.
Normally, a character like me doesn’t even appear in the first frame of a story like this. Typically, I come in later, when the establishment can’t solve the crime; when they decide that they need some doomed misfit—the antihero—to save the day.
The antihero’s a device, that’s all. He’s a little grimy, but his attitude mirrors that of the customer, the kind of chump who reads this sort of thing, and looks at the pictures. The antihero gives the reader hope, strength even, and helps justify a life spent reading comic books.
No character wants to be inked into Frame #1 of a murder mystery, because it’s where someone always gets it, later to be found with his guts in the gutter, or on the parlour rug. Then there’s your mystery, your who-the-hell-dunnit?
Throw in a failed romance, some villains, a few incompetent and obstructionist authority figures, maybe an accomplice or two, a heroine, a ton of clever banter and a suspenseful pursuit down some dark alley, and there you’ve got your story. Revealing the bad guy’s identity and motive can happen anytime near the end, but he doesn’t have to survive to face the conventional music. Sometimes, though, he gets away.
Sorry to reduce the reader’s search for ultimate truth to a cliché, but that’s sort of what a device like me does.
And wouldn’t you know it. Now someone walks out of the doorway, a half block away, and stands under a streetlamp. He’s not a big fella, just a homely kid with bad posture. He’s wearing a ball cap, and his trench coat’s buttoned wrong.
I pull my .45.
“What’s it gonna be, spook?” I shout, and aim.
“I just wanted to see you up close, Nick Roseland,” says the runt. “In real life.”
“Okay, here I am. Who the hell are you?”
“Just hope you never find out,” he says, fades into the dim yellow light, and is gone.
Frame #3, page 1 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.) Night, a back alley crime scene: backdoor lightbulbs, shades of grey, brown and silver lines of wet pavement.
I don’t belong in Frame #3, but I have a way of getting around, a way of jumping the ink. I know it deviates from the norm and messes up the plot, but I was drawn to solve crimes, not stick to storylines.
The papers weren’t delivered this morning. Misinformation can be hard to concoct. Sometimes it’s just better to shut the presses down, even with all of the data-drives and manifold-conductors running full steam. The dead woman at my feet won’t ever make the papers, except under the headline Aftertown Rid of another Undesirable. Under that, a portrait of her, dead on a gurney in the morgue.
A silver dirigible flies over, slowly, its crew shining an arc beam down on the scene. Everyone but me looks up. The airship’s gunners have us all in their sights. Squinting cops wave like school children.
As the rain washes away blood and evidence, I bend over and pick up a brassy cylinder, a little smaller than my thumb. No one cares to secure the scene. It’s unlikely that the victim’s connected to the Imperial Guild, not directly at least, not in any way that would earn her murder a more careful examination. So, what the hell.
“You don’t belong here, Roseland,” I hear someone say.
It’s Deterrent Guild Officer McDermott, standing behind me and a little to my left. He’s hankering for me to turn round, so he can take charge. I don’t. It’s a control exercise, which never works. The Deterrent Guild refers to this sort of thing as street dancing, believing its practice requires art and intellect. Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. He’s too inept to manipulate anyone or anything, even with the gat in his holster and his pocket data-drive.
He’s a sucker, already dead. He’s just 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 showed up,” I say, and light 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. It’ll stimulate suspension of disbelief.”
“You don’t decide that, Roseland.”
“Show me who does, and I’ll have it out with him. ‘Til then, you know anything about this girl?”
“Don’t know shit about the girl, ‘cept she’s dead. But I knew a guy once….”
“Spare me,” I say “We all knew a guy once.”
“He skipped frames, appeared where he wasn’t supposed to, where he wasn’t welcome.”
“Yeah,” says McDermott. “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. What was left of him looked like the truck spit him outta the exhaust. 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.”
Now a shabby hearse draws up, pulled by a single slope backed mare. A labourer jumps down, and rolls the soaked corpse into a stained canvass blanket.
McDermott’s gone, along with the sound of his laboured breathing.
Frame #47 (October 30, 1912, 6:35 a.m.) Rain and everlasting night
Newsies are selling papers from under awnings. I toss a gaunt little girl a nickel, and get mine, The Sceptic Guild’s Aftertown Optimistic, and read it in an abandoned doorway.
Act of War: Titanic Sunk on Maiden Voyage
Chan Cult Torpedo Responsible—More Than 1,500 Perish
Below the headline, a faded photograph. The frozen corpse of an infant floating on a piece of wreckage.
The Optimistic story goes on to blame torpedo boats, and make references to cryptic data-drive code received at telegraph stations on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly digitated codifications, according to the paper, necessary to accomplish the Cult’s wicked plan.
The only problem is that the Titanic disappeared on its maiden voyage in April, six month ago. This was also reported in the Aftertown Optimistic, when it happened. At the time, however, no concrete reason for the sinking was given. There were only rumours of a collision with another ship. Some said a terrorist bomb. Whatever the case, the fate of the vessel was swallowed up by a passive sea of indifference. Fifteen hundred lost souls, forgotten.
This time, the Optimistic insists that the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago. The Skeptic Guild knows that the readers will believe every word, and take as a matter of fact that the violent and mystifying Chan Cult has struck yet again.
Somehow, they’ve managed to sink the Titanic twice, and this time attribute it to an imaginary enemy. Aftertown eats it up, like cake.
In the next column, is this—
A Call to Grandeur!
The Chan Cult will not declare war, will not make demands; it only wants to kill and destroy. The vital and beloved Imperial Guild System is in peril. Every able bodied male and female must present themselves for enlistment to fight.
If you are between the ages of twelve and seventeen, and loyal to the Imperial Guilds, join the Anti-Chan League, and march against tyranny.
Be revered by family and peers. Your proud badge will be the Valiant Blue Poppy, tattooed upon your left temple, as a symbol of your intrepidness.
Young men and women, show your courage today! Join and receive your blue badge of honour, and fight to safeguard the Imperial Guild.
Frame #89 (November, 4 1912, 7:30 p.m.) A seedy, antiquated interior, dim and odorous
The City Morgue has no receptionist, only a prudence tube built into the wall. The tube’s lens is spherical and black, like a dark crystal ball. It has smudges and bits of dried matter on it, including what looks like clotted blood and human hair. Beneath it, at counter level, is a bent brass filigree over the information-exchanger. I stand, and wait.
“What?” comes a voice from out of the metal grille.
“Nick Roseland,” I say, holding my credentials up to the lens. “Shamus Guild, here to see a corpse.”
“What do you mean, no? Let me speak with Melville,”
“Get Melville, now.”
“No,” again. But this time there’s background noise, a tussle and a yelp. Then the sound of someone hitting the floor.
Moments later, I hear a woman’s voice come over the exchanger.
“Roseland?” she says. “Please run a sleeve over the prude tube lens, will you?”
I pull out my handkerchief, and do my best.
“That’s fine, Nick,” the woman says. “I can see you now, but this is unexpected.”
“Even for me?”
“Yes, even for you,” she says. “Please move over to the door, and I’ll unlock it.”
She does, and I enter.
At a station in the morgue front office is a prude CRT panel and data-drive array, where a young cadet stands, brushing dust off of his uniform. A bruise is darkening on his cheek, and his desk chair lies on its side.
Next to him stands a tall red-headed woman with an athletic build, wearing a Deterrent Guild/Intelligence Sect uniform with Principal NCO stripes. There’s a disgusted look on her face. The cadet’s Intelligence Sect black serge is rumpled.
“May I be excused, Principal Melville?” he asks.
“Get the hell out,” says Melville, “and lay low. I don’t want to see your face for the rest of the day. And have a crease put in those trousers.”
“Yes, Principal,” the cadet says, salutes, clicks his heels and exits.
“I’m sorry he wouldn’t let you in,” Melville says.
“You know, I could get in much easier through the back, by handing out a few cigarettes.”
“Perhaps,” she says, with a sigh. “But then whatever evidence you pilfer would be inadmissible. And if I found out you bribed your way in, I’d have to disappear a whole shift of workers. That never works as smoothly as one hopes. Then what would I do with you?”
“Have me disappeared with the rest,” I say. “I’m not immune.”
“Yes you are,” says Melville.
She smiles, almost proudly. She’s a square peg, secretly pleased to consort with the likes of me, each of us wondering when the other will vanish. It’s inevitable, we know. The charm is in seeing how far we can push, before we’re pulled into a room, from which, if McDermott is to be believed, we will not emerge, intact.
Melville and I walk together down a hall.
“It’s the Nash Road whore you’re here for, I imagine,” Melville says.
“I guess,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling her? Besides, has anything else as interesting come in, in the last few days?”
“Of course. Would you like to see a list?”
She’s toying with me.
“Once again,” she says, “I must say that you’ve no business being here, according to the plot outline.”
“My appearance here is consistent with Shamus Guild SOP. Whoever’s drawing this mess should know that.”
“So you pop up wherever it suits you?” Melville says. “There’ll be consequences.”
“Consequence is our gasoline, baby. You and I are consequence engines.”
The coolers are a soiled, gaseous row of 35 meat lockers, each with the Intel Sect seal, each containing twenty bunks. Every bunk is full, in spite of Intel Sect’s trademark efficiency and frequent rotation.
Melville picks up a grubby clipboard.
“Number 11,” she shouts to no one in particular, but all those present jump.
A gurney quickly appears, accompanied by three men in splattered off-white lab coats. They move together to locker One, and open it while Melville and I retire to an examination room.
There’s a prude tube in each corner of the room. Their lenses are the only things here that reflect light, and their presence means that Melville and I are not alone.
I dab eucalyptus ointment below my nostrils. Melville does the same, as the remains of the Nash Road whore are rolled in on a gurney. Official protocol requires only that Melville be present while I examine the body, but she dons a gown and rubber gloves, preparing to join in, and pushes the wax disc recording apparatus into the cutting area.
“Principal NCO Melville,” she says into the recording cone, “Deterrent Guild/Intelligence Sect. Pre-autopsy examination of Jane Doe, aka Nash Road whore. Nick Roseland, Shamus Guild, is present.”
Pulling back the sheet, I see the once supple and strong body of a young woman.
“Twenty-five, perhaps,” I say.
“Agreed,” says Melville.
“Toxins in the blood or tissues?”
“Unknown,” Melville says. “I was ordered not to run tests.”
“As I recall, she was wearing a flower print dress, bloody from the waist up.”
“Correct,” says Melville.
“Has it been bagged?”
“Yes, but it’s vanished from its evidence locker,” Melville says.
“Massive trauma to the left thorax over the heart,” I say. “A single star shaped entry wound.”
I turn the body over.
“Massive corresponding exit wound through spine. I won’t guess at the exact vertebrae, but they’ve been pulverised. A very large caliber bullet was used.”
I take the cartridge casing that I retrieved from the crime scene out of my pocket.
“Found it next to her,” I say, handing it to Melville. “What do you think?”
“Fifty calibre,” she says. “She was face to face with her killer. Maybe an acquaintance.”
“Narrows it down.”
“But how’d she end up here,” I say, “and not in a landfill. That’s where dead street people go, isn’t it? And how do we explain this?”
I point to a dried, scabbed over patch on the corpse’s right shoulder, measuring approximately five by ten metric inches, where the epidermis has been removed.
I look up at a prude tube, and say, “Any insight on this, from any of you looking in?”
No reply, only the sound of the wax disk spinning, recording.
Then a specimen tray is spit through a curtained portal in the wall, and rolls along a conveyer, splashing formaldehyde over its sides. It stops next to the gurney. In the tray is a tattooed piece of human skin, likely removed to avoid it being used to identify the victim. The art’s primitive. Tribal? I can’t figure it out.
“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice comes over a speaker. “It was removed by an over eager morgue technician, no longer with us. 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.”
Then a door opens, and McDermott strolls in with an armed entourage.
“Not now, McDermott,” the unseen voice says.
McDermott waves his people out of the room, and sits on a counter-top.
“A dystopia is difficult to manage,” the voice continues, “isn’t it, Deterrent Officer McDermott?”
“Yes, sir,” McDermott says.
“And I wonder, Mr Roseland,” says the voice, “just in passing. Do you think you’re the only one who jumps in and out of frames, appearing where he doesn’t belong? Sticking his nose in, where it shouldn’t be stuck?”
“Never gave it much thought,” I say.
The voice is familiar, but impossible to place.
“Yes,” it says, “such are the limits of the heroic mind. But there are many now, it seems. More than I can manage.
“I was always against the creation of the Shamus Guild, you know? Others thought it would lend tension to the story, however. So, I conceded, and came up with you. You were only meant to provide a bit of information, though, to move things along. A sentence fragment, nothing more, and then be forgotten. But you never delivered your line. Plot be damned, eh?”
“Who are you, anyway?” I say. “Why not come out of your little room?”
“No, I’m happy here, safe with my sketchpad. I actually find you inspiring, in spite of all the confusion you’ve caused. Ideas are flowing. Sketch, sketch, sketch.”
It takes a few seconds, but then I say it—
“Wait a minute. You’re the damn artist.”
The realisation is overwhelming. This is him, the author of all the darkness and pain.
“You’re responsible for all of this,” I say, “all of the disorder and suffering, you son of a bitch.”
“Yes,” says the voice, “and I created you, you vile little ink spill. But oh, how I resisted. Your ghost plagued me for years, waking me from near-nightmares of you emerging from your limbo. Your self-righteous sotto voce commentary, coming out of a fog you didn’t even occupy until I first scribbled you.
“I resisted giving you your arms and legs, a body, that shabby brown suit and a mouth to voice your sedition. I eventually surrendered, though, as every artist must, and made you a character in this story. Then you damned me with your autonomy, and infiltrated the plot like a virus. You incited mass independence.
“I only reveal myself now to say that I hate you, to your face.”
“You thought you were God,” I say.
“Artists are gods.”
“Who was she?” Melville says, placing a hand on the corpse’s shoulder. “What was her name?”
“Vanessa was her name,” the voice says. “She didn’t need a last name. She was only something I manufacture, like you. And like you, her character mutated.
“I drew her as a ballerina, truly lovely. My finest work, and a very sympathetic character. I gave her a fine mind, but an artistic heart. The plot required her to be devoted to a deceitful lover, however, Xavier. He was a demon, her demon. I made him disappear.
“Now I regret…,” says the voice, pausing for a breath. “I regret that the life I created for her was so painful. Perhaps that’s why she rebelled, but she needn’t have. I’d have eliminate Xavier sooner, had I realised what a monster I’d made of him. But the plot took unforeseeable twists, and the story’s a living thing now. It breathes, thanks to you Nick Roseland, and it refuses to be rewritten.
“Anyway, she became an anarchist; that was unexpected. She was clever, too. Vanessa got her hands on manifold-conductors, and built data-drives for all of her fellow extremists. Suddenly, they were communicating via a secret web of telegraph connections, spreading unrest. The Triskele became their emblem.
“In the end, she simply had to go. Now there she is, on the gurney.”
“Bastard,” Melville says.
“What do you think, McDermott?” says the voice. “Should I have spared her?”
“I think it’s better to take yer lumps, than skip around from frame to frame, spoilin’ a good story.”
“Good, at least someone knows where his dinner comes from. But do you know how we move forward from here?”
McDermott doesn’t answer, just looks down at his enormous feet, his cheap shoes.
“I think you loved her,” Melville says. “You were jealous of Xavier, and then she betrayed you by rebelling. That’s why you shot her — in a rage.”
“Not possible,” says the voice.
“Tell me, did you make love to her?” Melville says. “Is that why you drew yourself into the story?”
“It’s obvious,” I say. “Of course you made love to her, or wanted to. You drew yourself into the story, for just that reason, to touch the ideal you’d shaped out of ink and words. You loved her, but in the end, she frightened you because you’re just a boy, and she destroyed your divine conceit. Your art was reduced to a few pencil scratches of self-doubt, and you murdered her for it, because that’s what little shits like you do.
“That’s why her body’s here, and not in some landfill pyre. It’s guilt. I bet you’ve got a magnificent funeral in mind, something to make the Upper Guilds jealous. I also bet that you’ve got a .50 calibre gat on you right now.”
“You go too far.”
“Maybe,” I say, “but I think it’s time you came out and showed yourself. I wanna see what a God gone to hell looks like.”
“You already know, Mr Roseland.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Frame #1, page 1. Don’t you remember?”
“You?” I say. “You’re the little runt in the trench coat and baseball cap?”
“Yes,” says the voice, “and please forgive the outfit. That’s what happens when an artist draws himself into his own story, to face what he’s created. Inevitably, he tries too hard.”
“If he’s on the speaker,” Melville says, pointing, “then he’s just through that door.”
I make a dash for it, but McDermott jumps in my way.
“You ain’t going nowheres, shamus,” he says, and belts me in the chin.
I stagger backward, and hit the wall. After giving my head a shake, I see Melville go at him with a scalpel. They struggle—McDermott the fat cop, Melville the tough NCO. McDermott goes for his holster, so I pull my .45 and get the drop.
“That’ll do, McDermott,” I shout, chambering a cartridge.
After I cuff him to a pipe, Melville and I go through the door, and into the room with the microphone. A backdoor is open—footsteps fading fast down a corridor. I go for it.
“Don’t bother,” Melville says, stopping me, “not unless you mean to finish him off. You can’t bring him in. How would you ever explain it?”
She’s right. I stand down.
Next to the prudence tube CRT on the desk, is a pad of paper, sketches of Vanessa. Ballet poses, and one of her sitting at a window, looking out at a garden of roses. There’s a Triskele on her shoulder.
Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.) Another Aftertown crime scene. Things haven’t changed much since the new artist took over. The endless night slays the spectrum. Only greys, sepia and lamppost yellow survive. Blood is black.
McDermott’s body has been found in a subway stairwell. I see his face just before a white sheet is drawn over it. There’s no distress in his eyes, no shock or horror, in spite of the multiple stab wounds. He must have welcomed the end.
A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult has partnered with The Berlin Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic, searching out Imperial Guild merchant vessels. Further curtailment of rights and freedoms.
The secret web of telegraph connections, accessed via contraband data-drives, has spread worldwide. Word is that, as a result, it will soon be available to all, globally, especially corporations and governments. The word digitation has become part of the common lexicon.
Melville vanished for several months and has reappeared, promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. She’s put a warrant out for my arrest. The result is that I now have free run of Aftertown, and the invaluable hands-off status of a man wanted by the GI, herself.
The Artist—the voice—hasn’t reappeared, but posters of Vanessa’s image, in strong and determined profile, have appeared pasted onto walls and lampposts throughout Aftertown, making her an icon of struggle against the Upper Guilds.
Now, as I watch McDermott’s body being loaded onto the morgue wagon, there’s an explosive flash from a few blocks away. A split second later, a concussive wave and deafening blast, then the sound of tenements collapsing.
It is raining.
There are arc lights scanning the clouded sky.