Over on www.wethearmed.com I’ve been getting bugged to put up some more snippits. The official, fully edited, and prettified snippets for my next novel, Monster Hunter Vendetta, will be posted over at the offical publisher’s webpage soon (and an advanced E-copy will be availalbe too, yay!) so I figured I would post up some sample chapters of what is coming after that. Baen normally posts about a quarter of the book for free, so that’s what I will do here, only early, and not edited/cleaned up, so keep my relative illiteracy in mind. I will post one chapter of Hard Magic here a day for the next week. Except I won’t really have internet access over the weekend, so I’ll wrap this up next week some time.
So here you go. The Grimnoir Chronicles: Hard Magic will come out from Baen in 2011.
The Grimnoir Chronicles:
One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. The appearance of esoteric and etheral abiliites, magical fires and feats of strength, in recent decades are the purest demonstration of natural selection. Surely, in time, that general law will require the extinction of traditional man.
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Man and Selection of Human Magical Abilities, 1879
El Nido, California
“Okies.” The Portuguese farmer spat on the ground, giving the evil eye to the passing automobiles weighed down with baskets, bushels, and crates. The cars just kept coming up the dusty San Joaquin Valley road like some kind of Okie wagon train. He left to make sure all his valuables were locked up and his Sears & Roebuck single-shot 12 gauge was loaded.
The tool shed was locked and the shotgun was in his hands when the short little farmer returned to watch.
One of the Ford Model Ts rattled to a stop in front of the farmhouse fence. The old farmer leaned on his shotgun and waited. His son would talk to the visitors. The boy spoke English. So did he, but not as well, just good enough to take the Dodge truck into Merced to buy supplies, and it wasn’t like the mangled inbred garbage dialect the Okies spoke was English anyway.
The farmer watched the transients carefully as his son approached the automobile. They were asking for work. They were always asking for work. Ever since the dusts had blown up and cursed their stupid land, they’d all driven west in some Okie exodus until they ran out of farmland and stopped to harass the Portuguese, who had gotten here first.
Of course they’d been here first. Like he gave a shit if these people were homeless or hungry. He’d been born in a hut on the tiny island of Terceira and had milked cows every single day of his life until his hands were leather bags so strong he could bend pipe. The San Joaquin valley had been a hole until his people had shown up, covered the place in Holsteins, and put the Mexicans to work. Now these Okies show up, build tent cities, bitch about how the government should save them, and sneak out at night to rob the Catholics. It really pissed him off.
It always amazed him how much the Okies could fit onto an old Model T. He’d come from Terceira on a steamship, spending weeks in a steel hole between hot steam pipes. He’d owned a blanket, one pair of pants, a hat, and a pair of shoes with holes in them. He’d worked his ass off in a Portuguese town in Rhode Island, neck deep in fish guts, married a nice Portuguese girl, even if she was from the screwed up island of St. George, which everybody from Terceira knew was the ass crack of the Azores, and saved up enough money doing odd jobs to come out here to another Portuguese town and buy some scrawny Holsteins. Five cows, a bull, and twenty years of back breaking labor had turned into a hundred and twenty cows, fifty acres, a Ford tractor, a Dodge pickup, a good milk barn, and a house with six whole rooms. By Portuguese standards, he was living like a king.
So he wasn’t going to give these Okies shit. They weren’t even Catholic. They should have to work like he did. He watched the Okie father talking to his son as his son patiently explained for the hundredth time that there wasn’t any work, and that they needed to head toward Los Banos or maybe Chowchilla, not that they were going to work anyway when they could just break into his milk barn and steal his tools to sell for rotgut moonshine again. His grandkids were poking their heads around the house, checking out the Model T, but he’d warned them enough times about the dangers of outsiders, and they stayed safely away. He wasn’t about to have his family corrupted from their good Catholic work ethic by being exposed to bums.
Then he noticed the girl.
She was just another scrawny Okie kid. Barely even a woman yet, so it was surprising that she hadn’t already had three kids from her brothers. But there was something strange about this one… Something he’d seen before.
The girl glanced his way, and he knew then what had set him off. She had grey eyes.
“Mary mother of God,” the old farmer muttered, fingering the crucifix at his neck. “Not this shit again…” His first reaction was to walk away, leave it alone. It wasn’t any of his business, and the girl would probably be dead soon enough, impaled through her guts by some random tree branch or a flying bug stuck in an artery. And he didn’t even know if the grey eyes meant the same thing to an Okie as it did to the Portuguese. For all he knew she was a normal girl who just looked funny, and she’d go have a long and stupid life in an Okie tent city popping out fifteen kids who’d also break into his milk barn and steal his tools.
The girl was studying him, dirty hair whipping in the wind, and he could just tell…
“Fooking shit damn,” he said in English, which was the first English any immigrant who worked with cows learned. He’d seen what happened to the grey eyes when they weren’t taught correctly, and as much as he despised Okies, he didn’t want to see one of their kids with their brains spread all over the road because they’d magically appeared in front of a speeding truck.
Leaning the shotgun against the tractor tire, he approached the Model T. The Okie parents looked at him with mild belligerence as he approached their daughter. The old farmer stopped next to the girl’s window. There were half a dozen other kids crammed in there, but they were just regular desperate and starving Okies. This one was special.
He lifted his hat so she could see that his eyes were the same color as hers. He tried his best English. “You… girl. Grey eyes.” She pointed at herself, curious, but didn’t speak. He nodded. “You… Jump? Travel?” She didn’t understand, and now her idiot parents were staring at him in slack jawed ignorance. The old farmer took one hand and held it out in a fist. He suddenly opened it. “Poof!” Then he raised his other hand as far away as possible, “Poof!” and made a fist.
She smiled and nodded her head vigorously. He grinned. She was a Traveler all right.
“You know about what she does?” the Okie father asked.
The old farmer nodded, finding his own magic inside and poking it to wake it up. Then he was gone, and instantly he was on the other side of the Model T. He tapped the Okie mother on the arm through the open window and she shrieked. All his grandkids cheered. They loved when he did that. His son just rolled his eyes.
The Okie father looked at the Portuguese farmer, back at his daughter, and then back to the farmer. The grey eyed girl was happy as could be that she’d found somebody just like her. The father scowled for a long time, glancing again at his strange child that had caused them so much grief, and then at all the other starving mouths he had to find a way to feed. Finally he spoke. “I’ll sell you her for twenty dollars.”
The old farmer thought about it. He didn’t need any more people eating up his food, but his brother and sisters had all ended up dead before they had mastered Traveling, and this was the first other person like him he’d seen in twenty years, but he also hadn’t gotten where he was by getting robbed by Okies. “Make it ten.”
The girl giggled and clapped.
New York City, New York
The richest man in the world stepped into the elevator lift and looked in distaste at the gleaming silver buttons. The message had said to come alone, so he did not even have one of his usual functionaries to perform the service of requesting the correct floor. Rather than soiling his hands or a perfectly good handkerchief, he sighed, tapped into the lowest level of his Power, and pushed the button for the penthouse suite with his mind. Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, billionaire industrialist, could not tolerate filth. A man of his stature simply did not get his hands dirty.
He had people for that.
The steel doors closed. They were carved with golden figures of muscular workers creating the American dream through their sweat and industry under a rising sun emitting rays as straight as a Tesla cannon. He sniffed the air. The elevator car seemed clean. The hotel was considered a five-star luxury establishment, but Cornelius just knew that there were germs everywhere, disgusting, diseased, tiny plague nodules just itching to get on his skin. Cornelius understood the true nature of the man that was staying in this hotel, and he must have ridden in this very car. Cornelius shuddered as he squeezed his arms and briefcase closer to his sides, careful not to touch the walls.
He could afford the finest Healers. In fact, he was one of the only men in the world that had an actual Mender on his personal staff, but nothing could stop the blight of a Pale Horse, and it was that foul Power that brought him here today, reduced to a mere caller. Cornelius had tried to seek out others, once under a gypsy tent on Coney Island, again in a tiny shack in the Louisiana Bayou, but those had been frauds, charlatans, wastes of his valuable time. He tapped his foot impatiently. After what seemed like an eternity, the doors whisked open.
A tuxedoed servant was waiting for him, an older negro with stark white hair. The servant bowed his head. “Good evening, Mr. Stuyvesant. Mr. Harkeness is waiting on the balcony. May I take your coat, sir?”
“Not necessary. My business will not take long.”
The servant studied him with cunning eyes. “Of course, sir. Would you care for a drink? Mr. Harkeness has a selection of the finest.”
“As if I would drink anything here,” Cornelius sputtered. The notion of ingesting something from the household of a Pale Horse was madness. “Take me to him immediately.”
“Of course, sir.” The servant led the way down the marble hall. Carved busts of long-dead Greeks watched him from pedestals, judging. Cornelius hated statues. Statues made him prickly. Even the giant idolized bronze of himself at the new super-dirigible dock bearing his name atop the new Empire State Building bothered him.
Lots of things made Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant uncomfortable, including this servant. He did not like the way he had examined him, like he was being sized up. The information he’d gathered on Harkeness indicated that the man surrounded himself with other like-minded Actives. There were many who would kill a Pale Horse on basic principle, so it made sense to have loyal staff with Power for security. He idly wondered what kind of Active the old servant was. Probably something barbaric, like a Brute, or even worse, a Torch. That would seem to suit a race that was so easily inflamed by their passions.
“Mr. Harkeness is through here, sir.” The servant paused at the fine wood and thick glass door leading to the balcony. He turned the knob and opened it. “He prefers the fresh air. Will there be anything else?”
Cornelius did not bother to respond as he stepped onto the balcony. His time was valuable, more valuable than any man in the world, more valuable than emperors, kings, tsars, kaisers, and especially that imbecile, Herbert Hoover, and the very idea that he was reduced to having to take time from his busy schedule to meet someone on their terms rather than his was blatantly offensive.
To further the sleight, Harkeness was leaning on the balcony, overlooking the city, placing his back toward the richest man in the world, as if Manhattan were somehow more important than Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, himself. The balcony lights had been extinguished, so as not to hamper the view. The city was illuminated forty stories below by electric lights and flashing marquees. Thousands of automobiles filled the streets, bustling even at this hour, and overhead a passing dirigible train floated in the amber spotlights like a herd of sea cows. Cornelius snorted in greeting.
“Mr. Stuyvesant.” The Pale Horse didn’t bother to turn around. His voice was neutral, flat. “I was just admiring your marvelous city. Have a seat.”
Cornelius felt a single drop of sweat roll down his neck. It was shameful, but he found that he was actually frightened. He glanced at the pair of chairs, fine, stuffed leather things that in any other scenario would be inviting to rest his ponderous bulk, but at that moment, all he could imagine was the horrible diseases crawling on the cushions.
“I said have a seat,” Harkeness repeated, still not turning around. His accent was indeterminate, his pronunciation awkward. “You are a guest of mine. I would not harm a guest. I am a civilized man, Mr. Stuyvesant.”
Cornelius sat, vowing that he would throw this suit into the fireplace as soon as he got home, then he would have his personal Healer expend a month’s worth of Power checking his health. He would probably burn the Cadillac car he had traveled in, maybe the driver too, just to be on the safe side.
Harkeness left the railing and took the other seat. He did not offer his hand. He was older than Cornelius had expected, tall and thin, face lined with creases, and blue eyes that sparked with an unnerving energy. His hair was receding, and what remained was artificially blackened. His tailored suit was as fine as could be had, and his tie was made of silk as red as fresh blood. He smiled, and his teeth were slightly yellow in the dim city light. “Smoke?”
Cornelius looked down at the wooden humidor on the table between them. The cigars were sorely tempting, but the very thought of touching his lips with an item tainted by Harkeness’ evil made his stomach roil. “No, thank you.”
Harkeness nodded in understanding as he puffed on his own Cuban. “Straight to the chase then. I was informed that you were looking for me.”
“Nobody can ever know we spoke,” Cornelius insisted. He was the founder and owner of United Blimp & Freight, the primary shareholder in Federal Steel, and the man that bankrolled the development of the Peace Ray. He’d sired children who had gone on to be ambassadors to powerful nations, senators, congressmen, and even a governor. A Stuyvesant could not be seen consorting with such sordid types.
“I assure you, I am a man of discretion.” Harkeness exhaled a pungent tobacco cloud, not seeming to notice his guest’s discomfort.
Cornelius cringed, trying not to inhale smoke that had actually been inside the very lungs of such a pestilent creature. “You are a hard man to find, Mr. Harkeness,” the billionaire said, aware that he had to tread carefully. Even with eight decades of mankind dealing with the presence of Powers, of actual magic, to the point that it was just an accepted part of life in most of the world, the Pale Horse was such a rarity that most still considered them to be a myth, crude anti-magic propaganda created to sow fear and distrust in the hearts of the masses. “Men of your… skills… are especially rare.”
“Yes… What is it you were told I am?” Harkeness asked rhetorically, examining the ash on the end of his cigar.
Cornelius hesitated, not sure if he should answer, but growing tired off the awkward silence, he finally spoke. “I was told you are a Pale Horse.”
Harkeness laughed hard, slapping his knee. “I like that. So… biblical! So much nicer than plague bearer, or grim reaper, or angel of death. That title has gravitas. Pale Horse! You, sir, have made my day. Perhaps I shall add that to my business cards.” His pronunciation was stilted, with pauses between random words. Cornelius found it almost hypnotic, and realized he was nervously smiling along with the other man’s mirth. Then Harkeness abruptly quit laughing and his voice turned deadly serious. “So, who must die?”
“You presume much,” Cornelius said defensively.
“If you just wanted to merely curse someone and make their hair fall out, or to give them boils, fits, or incontinence, there are far easier Actives to reach than I.” Harkeness’ smile was unnerving. “People come to me when they desire something… epic.”
The industrialist swallowed and placed his briefcase on the table. He unlocked it, then turned it so that Harkeness could see inside. It was filled with neatly stacked and meticulously counted bank notes and a single newspaper clipping. Cornelius quickly snatched his hand away before the Pale Horse could touch the contents, as if his Power might somehow be transmitted through the leather.
The Pale Horse did not seem to notice the money. He gently removed the yellowed clipping, took a pair of spectacles from his breast pocket, set them atop his hawk-like nose and began reading. After a moment he removed the glasses and returned them and the clipping to his pocket. “An important man. Very well… What will it be? Bone rot? Consumption? Cancers of the brain or bowel? Syphilis? Leprosy? I can do anything from a minor vapor to turn his joints to sand while his skin boils off in a cancerous sludge. I am an encyclopedia of affliction, sir.”
Cornelius bobbed his head in time with the litany of diseases. “All of them.”
“I see…” Harkeness seemed to approve. “Very well, but first, I must know…”
“Yes,” Cornelius answered hesitantly. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up.
“Why? A man such as you has no shortage of killers to choose from. Why not a knife in the back? A bullet in the head? You yourself are a Mover, why not just invite him to a balcony such as this and shove him off? It would even look like a suicide, which would be particularly scandalous in the papers.”
“How—“ Cornelius sputtered. His Power was a secret. “Me? A magical? Who told you such slanderous lies?”
Harkeness shrugged. “I have a trained eye, Mr. Stuyvesant. Now answer my question. Why do you need me to curse this man?”
Cornelius felt his face flush with anger. No matter how dangerous Harkeness was, Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant was not about to have his motives questioned by a mere hireling. He pushed himself away from the table and rose, bellowing, “Why you? I do not want him dead. That is far too good a fate for one such as he! I want him to suffer first. I want him to know he’s dying and I want him to pray to his ineffectual God to save him as his body rots and stinks and melts to the blackest filth. I want it to hurt and I want it to be embarrassing. I want his lungs to fill with pus. I want his balls to fall off and I want him to piss fire! I want his loved ones to look away in disgust, and I want it to take a very, very long time.”
Harkeness nodded, his face now an emotionless mask. “I can do this thing for you, but first, I must ask, what terrible thing did this man do to deserve such a fate?”
The billionaire paused, pudgy hands curled into fists. He lowered his voice before continuing. He had planned this revenge for years. It was only the purity of the hate for his enemy that drove him to this place. “He took something… someone… from me. Leave it at that.” Cornelius tried to calm himself. He was not a man given to such unseemly outbursts. “Will that do?”
“It is enough.”
Cornelius realized he was standing, but it did make him feel more in control, more in his element. He gestured at the open briefcase. “I was given your name by an associate. I believe that this is the same amount that he paid for your services.” Rockefeller had warned Cornelius about how expensive the Pale Horse would be, but it would be so very worth the money. “Take it.”
The other man shook his head. “No. I don’t think so.”
“What!” Cornelius sputtered. Was he going to try and shake him down for more money than Rockefeller? The nerve. “How dare you!”
Harkeness leaned back in his chair, puffing on the cigar. He took it away from his mouth and smiled without any joy. “I don’t want your money, Mr. Stuyvesant. I want something else.”
Cornelius trembled. Of course, he’d heard the odder stories about the Pale Horses, the rarest of the Actives, but he had paid them no heed. He was a man of science, not superstition. Sure, he had magic himself, nowadays one in a hundred Americans had some small measure, but it didn’t mean he understood how it actually worked. One in a thousand had access to greater Power, being actual Actives, but men like Harkeness were something different, something rare and strange, themselves oddities in an odd bunch. Hesitantly he spoke. “Do… do you want… my soul?”
This time Harkeness really did laugh, almost choking on his cigar. “Now that’s funny! Do I look like a spiritualist? I’m certainly not the devil, Mr. Stuyvesant. I do not even know if I believe in such preposterous things. What would I even do with your soul if I had it?”
That was a relief, even if Cornelius wasn’t particularly sure if he had a soul, he didn’t want to deed it over to a man like Harkeness. “I don’t know,” Cornelius shrugged. “I just thought…”
Harkeness was still chuckling. “No, nothing so mysterious. All I want is a favor.”
That caused Cornelius to pause. “A favor?”
Harkeness was done laughing. “Yes, a favor. Not today. But someday in the future I will call and ask for a favor. You will remember this service performed, and you will grant me that favor without hesitation or question. Is that understood?”
“What manner of favor?”
The Pale Horse shrugged. “I do not yet know this thing. But I do know that if you fail to honor our bargain at that particular time, I will be greatly displeased.”
He was not, by nature, a man who intimidated easily, but Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant was truly unnerved. The threat went unsaid, but who would want to cross such a man? The industrialist almost walked out on the absurd and frightening proposal, but he had been planning his revenge for far too long to turn back now. If the favor was too large, Cornelius knew he always had other options. Harkeness was deadly, but he wasn’t immortal. It would not be the first time he had used murder to get out of an inequitable contract.
“Very well,” Cornelius said. “You have a deal. When will he get sick?”
Harkeness closed his eyes for a few seconds, as if pondering a difficult question. “It is already done,” the Pale Horse said, opening his eyes. “Isaiah will see you out.”
Isaiah joined his employer on the balcony a few minutes later. Harkeness had gone back to admiring the view. “Could you Read him?”
“He’s very intelligent. I had to be gentle or he would’ve known. He’s got a bad tendency to shout his thoughts when he gets riled up.” The servant leaned against the concrete wall and folded his arms. “He even thought I might be a Torch. Can you believe that?”
Harkeness chuckled, knowing that Isaiah was far more dangerous than some mere human flame hurler. “Was he truthful?”
“Mostly. He absolutely despises this man.”
“For what he did to him? Wouldn’t you?”
Isaiah sounded disgusted. “Stuyvesant is utterly ruthless.”
So am I, Harkeness thought, knowing full well that Isaiah would pick that up as clearly as a high strength radio broadcast. “You don’t get to such lofty positions without being dangerous. I’ll have to curse him quickly. Arranging a meeting should be easy enough. Stuyvesant will be expecting immediate results now.”
Isaiah left the wall and took one of the cigars from the table. “I liked your little show, with closing the eyes and just wishing for somebody to die and all that. That’s good theater.”
Of course, even he had his limits. He would actually have to touch the victim, and it took constant Power thereafter to keep up the onslaught against the ministrations of Menders, which he already knew this man would have. This would be an extremely draining assignment. “Whatever keeps Stuyvesant nervous,” Harkeness shrugged. “I do like the new term though. It suits me.”
Isaiah quoted from memory as he clipped the end from the Cuban. “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, and I looked and beheld a pale horse, and the name that sat upon him was death…”
“And hell followed with him,” Harkeness finished, smiling. “Appropriate…”
“If the favor you ask of him is too difficult, he’ll have you killed.”
Harkeness had suspected as much. “He could try. Wouldn’t be the first.”
“The man’s got a phobia about sickness. The Spanish Flu near did him when it came through, been worrying him ever since.” Isaiah said as he lit the cigar. “He’s scared of you.”
“Good,” the Pale Horse muttered, watching the people moving below, scuttling about like ants, ignorant little creatures, unaware of the truth of the world in which they lived. The Chairman was about to change the world, whether any of the ants liked it or not, and that meant war. Many ants would be stepped on, but that was just too bad. It was unfortunate to be born an ant. “He should be…”
Every day was the same. Every prisoner in the Special Prisoner’s Wing of the Rockville State Penitentiary had the exact same schedule. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. You slept. You worked. You got put back in your cage. Repeat until time served.
Working meant breaking rocks. Normal prisoners were put on work crews to be used by mayors trying to keep budgets low. They got to go outside. The convicts in Special Wing got to break rocks in a giant stone pit. Some of them were even issued tools. The name of the facility was just a coincidence.
One particular convict excelled at breaking rocks. He did a good job at it because he did a good job at everything he set his mind to. First he’d been good at war and now he was good at breaking rocks. It was just his nature. The convict had single-minded determination, and once he got to pushing something, he just couldn’t find it in himself to stop. He was as constant as gravity. After a year, he was the finest rock breaker and mover in the history of Rockville State Penitentiary.
Occasionally some other convict would try to start trouble because he thought the convict was making the rest of them look bad, but even in a place dedicated to holding felons who could tap into all manner of magical affinities, most were smart enough not to cross this particular convict. After the first few left in bags, the rest understood that he just wanted to be left alone to do his time. Occasionally some new man, eager to show off his Power, would step up and challenge the convict, and they too would leave in a bag.
The warden did not blame the convict for the violence. He understood the type of men he had under his care, and knew that the convict was just defending himself. Between helping meet the quota for the gravel quarry that padded the warden’s salary under the table, and for ridding the Special Wing of its most dangerous and troublesome men, the warden took a liking to the convict. He read the convict’s records, and came to respect the convict as a man for the deeds he’d done before committing his crime. He was the first Special Prisoner ever granted access to the extremely well-stocked, but very dusty prison library.
So the convict’s schedule changed. Sleep. Work. Read. Sleep. Work. Read. So now the time passed faster. The convict read books by the greatest minds of the day. He read the classics. He began to question his Power. Why did his Power work the way it did? What separated him from normal men? Why could he do the things he could do? Because of its relation to his own specific gifts, he started with Newton, then Einstein, finally Bohrs and Heisenberg, and then every other mind that had pontificated on the science related to his magic. And when he had exhausted the books on science, he turned to the philosophers’ musings on the nature of magic and the mystery of where it had suddenly come from and all of its short history. He read Darwin. He read Schuman, and Kelser, Reed, and Spengler. When that was done, he read everything that was left.
The convict began to experiment with his Power. He would sneak bits of rock back into his cell to toy with. Reaching deep inside himself, twisting, testing, always pushing with that same dogged determination that had made him the best rock breaker, and when he got tired experimenting with rocks, he started to experiment on his own body. Eventually all those hours of testing and introspection enabled him to discover things about magic that very few other people would ever understand.
But he kept that to himself.
Then one day the warden offered the convict a deal…
We now have over a thousand confirmed cases of individuals with these so-called magical abilities on the continent alone. The faculty has descended into a terrible uproar over the proper nomenclature for such specimens. All manner of Latin phrases have been bandied about. Professor Gerard even suggested Grimnoir, a combination of the old French Grimoire, or book of spells, with Noir, for Black, in the sense of the mysterious, for at this juncture the origin of said Powers remains unknown. He was laughed down. Personally, I’ve taken to calling them wizards, for the very idea of there being actual magic beyond the bounds of science causes my esteemed colleagues to sputter and choke.
Dr. L. Fulci, Professor of Natural Science, University of Bern, Personal Journal 1852
THREE YEARS LATER
There were twenty local bulls, ten state coppers, and half a dozen agents from the Bureau of Investigation, and every one of them was packing serious heat. Jake Sullivan approved. Purvis wasn’t screwing around this time. Delilah Jones was going down.
The lead government man was pacing back and forth in front of the crew assembled in the warehouse. “You don’t hesitate. None of you hesitate even for a second. She’s a woman, but don’t you dare underestimate her. She’s robbed twenty banks in four states, and killed five people.” He paused long enough to jerk a thumb at his men. “When you see her, nobody makes a move until me or Agent Cowley says the word.”
A second government man raised his hand. Sam Cowley’s suit was cheap, but his 1928 Thompson was meticulously maintained. Sullivan knew he was a man who kept his priorities in order, so at least he’d been roped into working with an experienced crew this time.
There was a wanted poster stuck to the wall. Sullivan had known Delilah back in New Orleans. She was a dish, a real looker. He had to admit that the ink drawing was actually realistic, unlike his old wanted poster, where they had uglied him up for dramatic effect, but in the sketch artists’ defense somebody that could crush every bone in your body should look scary.
“How many men in the gang?” one of the locals asked.
Melvin Purvis paused. “I’m not expecting a gang. Just her.”
The room got quiet. It normally didn’t take 37 men with rifles and shotguns to take down a lone woman, bank robber or not. They all realized what that meant about the same time, but nobody wanted to say it. Finally the same local slowly raised his hand. “She got big Powers then?”
“Yes, McKee. She does,” Purvis responded. “She’s a Brute, and she’s Active. Probably the toughest I’ve heard of.” McKee lowered his hand. The sea of blue and brown uniforms all looked at each other, grumbling and swearing. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Listen, boys, when I got here, I asked your chiefs for hard men. I know you’re all up to it, but if any of you want out, there’s no shame in leaving.”
“Is that why he’s here?” McKee asked, since he’d somehow become the leader of the uniforms, gesturing to where Sullivan had been trying to remain unnoticed in the back of the room.
“He’s with me,” Purvis said. “We let Sullivan do his job, and none of you have to worry about dealing with a little lady who can toss automobiles at you. You got a problem with that?”
“He’s a murderer,” McKee pointed out.
“Manslaughter,” Sullivan corrected, speaking for the first time. “And I done served my time. J. Edgar Hoover says I’m reformed.”
There were no more questions forthcoming. Somebody coughed. Purvis folded his arms and waited until the count of ten. Nobody stood up to leave. “Good. We try to take her alive. My men go in first with Sullivan. The rest hang back outside and get the bystanders out of the way. Nobody shoots unless she goes Active.”
“Then don’t miss,” Agent Cowley suggested.
They’d be moving out in a matter of minutes and Sullivan sensed the room was nervous, kind of bouncy and tense. It reminded him a little of the Great War, in those few awful seconds before the whistle blew and they’d jump out of the relative safety of their muddy trenches and run screaming into Maxim-gun fire, barbed wire, and the Kaiser’s zombies.
Jake Sullivan had gotten the call from Washington two weeks before, telling him to report to Special Agent Melvin Purvis in Chicago. The assignment came at a good time. His regular business as a private dick was floundering, and he had been reduced to pulling the occasional security gig, standing in as muscle during some of the labor strikes. He didn’t like it, but just being special didn’t pay the bills. At least he hadn’t had to hurt anyone. Just his reputation kept the strikers peaceful. Nobody wanted to cross a Heavy, especially one that had served time in Rockville.
The government jobs barely paid a decent wage, but more importantly, this was the last of the five assignments he had agreed to upon his early release. The warden had appealed to his patriotism when they had made the offer, telling Sullivan that it would be a chance to serve his country again. He had found that amusing, since his only desire at that point was to get out of that hell hole. He’d already served his country once, and had the scars to show for it.
As had been agreed upon, every single other Magical he had assisted in capturing had been a murderer. Jake still had some principles left.
And this one was no different, though he had been surprised to find out that he had known her once. Hearing the name of the target, and then the terrible crimes she’d committed had left him stunned. Sullivan still couldn’t picture Delilah as a cold-blooded killer, but people could change a lot in six years. He certainly had.
Sullivan sat uncomfortably in the backseat of the Ford as they watched yet another dirigible drift into the station. Purvis and Cowley were in the front seat. It was raining hard, pounding mist from the pavement and creating halos around every street lamp.
“This should be it,” Cowley said from behind the steering wheel. His Thompson was on the seat next to him and he rhythmically tapped his fingers on the wooden stock.
“The informant said she would be on the eight-fifteen,” Purvis said, checking his pocket watch. “Must be running late ‘cause of the weather.”
An informant? “So that’s how you found her.” Sullivan wasn’t surprised. He’d been ratted out himself all those years ago. “Figures.”
“I don’t like this,” Cowley said. “There’s too many people around if she goes Active. It’d be safer to tail her to someplace quiet.”
“We already talked about this. We can’t risk losing her. She’s supposed to be coming here to do a job for the Torrios. You want somebody like her working for Crazy Lenny?”
Sullivan just listened. Strategy wasn’t his area. He just did what he was told. Nobody expected a Heavy to be smart, so Jake found life went easier if he just kept his mouth shut, but if it were up to him, he would have to go with Cowley’s plan. It wasn’t like Magicals didn’t catch enough heat from a few bad apples as it was. The last thing they needed was stories in the papers about a Brute taking the heads off some G-Men in public.
“You ready, Sullivan?” Purvis asked as he opened his door into the downpour.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “This is the last time, you know. That was the deal. After this, I’m a free man. I ain’t beholden to nobody.”
“Over my pay-grade,” the senior agent responded before stepping out. He slammed the door behind him. All down the street other cops saw Purvis appear and the lawmen began to exit their cars as well.
“He better keep a leash on those bulls or this could get ugly.” Sullivan said as he pulled a pack of smokes out of his coat. “Got a light, Sam?”
“You know I always do, Sully.” Cowley turned around and snapped his fingers. A flame appeared from the end of his thumb. “Figures God would bless me with a little tiny Power, and he gives a magic lighter to somebody who doesn’t smoke.” He chuckled. Cowley was some religion that forbade smoking, a strange combination for a Torch.
Sullivan lit the fag. “Ironic.” He took a long drag. Sullivan liked the agent. Cowley was homely and avoided the spotlight as much as Purvis sought it. They’d worked together before and Sullivan knew the agent was competent. “You know, you best not let your boss see you do that. I hear J. Edgar don’t like magic.”
“Lots of folks don’t.” Cowley turned around and opened his door. “We better go.” He got out, pulling the Thompson with him.
Sullivan sighed. Cowley was the weakest kind of Magical, with just a flicker of natural Power, but even that could ruin a man’s career in some circles. He tugged his hat down low and got ready, feeling the Power stored inside his chest. It took a lot of practice to build up that much and still keep it under control. He activated a small part and felt his body shift. For a brief moment the world around him seemed to flex. The springs on the Ford creaked. He cracked his knuckles, feeling the Spike, gently testing the tug of gravity around him.
Cigarette dangling from his lower lip, he opened the door and slowly unfolded himself from the backseat. Jake Sullivan was a big man, and he used a big gun. He reached back inside and maneuvered the long case from the backseat. The black canvas bag was enormous and he let it dangle from one hand.
Cowley looked over, rain running off his fedora, and pointed at the case. “I don’t see how you can carry that thing around.”
Sullivan took one last drag before tossing his smoke into a puddle. “Saved your life in Detroit, if I remember right.”
“True, but it has to weigh a ton.”
“Not to me,” Sullivan said as he reached into the bag, grabbed the Lewis gun by its stock and withdrew it. Even twenty-six pounds empty didn’t really concern somebody who could alter gravity. To him it was light as a feather and swung like a bird gun.
“Damn, is that a fence post?” Purvis asked, cradling a short barreled Browning Auto-5. “Put that thing back. This is an arrest, not a war.”
“You don’t know Delilah.” Sullivan threw the sling over his shoulder and head so the massive machinegun could hang at his side. It wasn’t exactly concealable, but his parole deal had specified he would help take down Active murderers, not that he had to be tactful about it. “You know, Purvis, I’ve never got in a gunfight and said afterwards, damn, I wish I hadn’t brought all that extra ammo.”
“Put it away, Sullivan. That’s an order. I got lots of men who can shoot, and I’ve only got one that can do…” he waved his hands like a bad stage magician, “whatever it is you do.”
“Where’d you get that monster anyway?” Cowley asked.
“Flea market,” Sullivan answered as he unslung the mighty Lewis and put it back into its case. All the Spikers had been issued heavy weapons in Roosevelt’s 1st Volunteer. He’d brought quite a few souvenirs back from France besides the shrapnel still lodged in his body. He might not be able to take the Lewis, but he still had a .45 auto riding his hip. Magic was great and all, but a lot of problems could still be solved faster the old fashioned way, and Jake considered himself a practical man.
“Just do your job, and we’ll keep you safe,” Purvis promised. “I want this to go nice and clean. You just wrap her up.”
At least Purvis seemed like the kind of agent that cared more about being effective than being popular in the papers, unlike the fiasco in Detroit six months ago. “Yeah, fine,” he said, shoving the canvas case back into the Ford. He closed the door too hard. “You know, Agent Purvis, I know Delilah pretty good. The dame’s had a tough run. She’s not the kind that’ll go down easy, and she ain’t going quiet, that’s for damn sure. She’s a fighter, but I never knew her to be the murdering kind.”
“You saw the same file I did. I’ve got five dead men that say different. Necks snapped, one arm torn clean off.” Purvis scowled. “I’ve got my orders. We take her alive… But I’m more worried about the safety of these boys than I am about orders, you getting me, Heavy?”
Sullivan preferred the more dignified term Gravity Spiker. Heavy was what you called the Passives who were employed in factories as human forklifts. Cold water was slipping inside his trench coat as he shrugged. He just wanted to get this last job over with and finally get the Man off his back. “I get you, Agent Purvis.” The street was clear of oncoming headlights, so he started across, big boots splashing through the puddles. The six G-Men followed.
The wedge-shaped dirigible was gradually slowing between the towers, and when it came to a rest, the passengers would begin to debark. It was slow going in bad weather, and this particular balloon was just a little two hundred footer hybrid machine, so it was getting kicked around quite a bit by the wind. The Springfield dirigible station was relatively small, nothing like the enclosed behemoth just constructed in Chicago.
Ground crews were braving the rain and catching the security lines. One man was ordering them with a bullhorn from the tower, probably a Crackler, redirecting lightning and static electricity to keep the airfield’s workers safe at the ends of those cables, but it wasn’t like Magicals like that got any credit in the press. No, everybody knew Hearst didn’t care about working stiffs with Powers. He only wasted ink on people like Delilah. And me… Sullivan thought, trouble makers, but then shook his head, getting back to business.
He and the Bureau of Investigation men took cover beneath the overhang at the entrance to the waiting room. Through the glass he could see the room was nice, mosaic tile floor, all brass and glass on the walls, with lots of wood and iron benches for the commuters. There were a handful of people waiting. Purvis left two men outside, and the rest got out of the rain and entered the dry comfort of the lounge.
The lift was clearly visible. Sullivan noted that they’d be able to see the passengers before the passengers could see them, which was convenient for once. A United Blimp & Freight worker spotted the guns but Purvis flashed his badge and waved the man away. The Gs started ushering people out into the rain as fast as they could, and Purvis sent one to make sure nobody was loitering on the stairs. The uniformed bulls were out on the dark perimeter if Delilah somehow made it past or drew on her Power and turned it into a fight.
Most of the UBF employees didn’t know what was going down, but word would spread quickly now. He stood with his back to the mirrored wall. The tower was four stories tall, and that was a lot of stairs, which meant that Delilah would probably come down in the elevator, especially if she had luggage. Either way, from this position he could watch both.
Everything in this place was mirrored and shiny– even the ceiling had mirrors– but the mighty UBF budget had been cut because of the recent downturns, and the place felt kind of grimy. The 20s had been a huge economic boom time, but Sullivan had spent most of those happy years doing hard time. The papers were calling it a depression, but compared to Rockville, Jake thought the whole outside world seemed pretty damn nice.
The dirigible’s cabin made a strange clanking noise as it mated with the docking platform through the roof above. Sullivan closed his eyes and used a little more of his Power to feel the world around him. The giant reserve of helium felt unnatural, being lighter than air, and that always made accurate Spiking a little difficult. He’d have to compensate for it. He was supposed to capture Delilah, not splatter her into red mush.
It wasn’t even five minutes after the dirigible had docked that the elevator came down with its first load of passengers. UBF was the model of efficiency. Like the ads said, they were the Convenient Way to Travel. The agents tensed up, but there were only a few passengers, none of whom were Delilah Jones, and a young UBF employee pushing a cart full of suitcases. The passengers looked a little wobbly, which was understandable since blimping wasn’t exactly a joyride during a storm. Two of the Gs flashed badges and converged on the car before the employee had even had a chance to raise the gate. They started herding the passengers outside while Cowley grabbed the UBF and showed him the wanted poster. The kid nodded his head vigorously and Purvis smiled. “Got her.”
Cowley came back. “She’s in a red dress, black hat, black furs, and she’s in line for the next ride.”
The gate scissored closed, the elevator lift clanked back up, and it was just then Sullivan noticed a shadow moving on the stairs above. The grey shape was there for a second, but when he looked harder, it was gone. “I think we got somebody up there,” he said, pointing.
“Hollis, Michaels, check the stairs,” Purvis ordered and his two men immediately tromped up the brass capped steps, guns in hand. They were out of sight in a few seconds but their footfalls could still be heard. The agent in charge turned back to the elevator doors, nervously bouncing his shotgun. “I thought they’d already cleared those,” he muttered.
“There’s nobody up here,” one of the G-Men called from the stairs.
The elevator was coming down. Sullivan got ready. He had to be careful. He didn’t want to damage any of the other passengers, so he would have to be very selective. If there was anyone in there with bad tickers or delicate constitutions it was far too easy to hurt them on accident, and that still mattered to him. The safest thing to do for the bystanders would be to get nice and close, but getting close to a Brute was a game for suckers.
Guess I’m a sucker. He tilted his fedora down, stuck his hands in his suit pockets, and strolled to the elevator. When the doors opened, he’d just be loafing around, as if he were waiting for the next one up. Hopefully she wouldn’t recognize him until it was too late. His best bet was to overwhelm her before she could use her Power. Cowley and Purvis let him go. They’d worked together enough times before that they knew Sullivan was a pro.
The elevator appeared, and Sullivan scanned the passenger’s through the gate as they descended. Four more people and another cart full of suitcases, and there she was. Delilah Jones was in the front of the car, borderline petite, delicate hands planted on lovely hips, tapping one high-heeled shoe impatiently. Jake had a moment to admire her legs before he was forced to lower his head. The girl still has nice gams.
They’d met in New Orleans not too long after the war, only a few years before he’d gone up the river. Back then she’d just been a petty crook at worst, using her Power like a can opener to rip open cheap safes, and Jake had been an idealistic idiot, thinking that people like them could make the world a better place. They’d been tight once, maybe even something special, but Jake Sullivan didn’t have friends anymore. A stint in the Special Prisoners wing of Rockville State Penitentiary had seen to that. Now he just had jobs.
One of the male passengers lifted the gate and the others began to file out. Jake reached inside himself and felt the Power. Reality faded into its component bits. His surroundings now consisted of matter, density, and forces. The Power began to drain as he willed the pull of the Earth to multiply over the form that was Delilah Jones. Selectively increasing gravity was one of the more challenging things he could accomplish. It took a lot of effort and Power, but it was darn effective. It was a lot less draining to just Spike something hard, whereas this was more like delicate surgery. She wouldn’t be able to move, no matter how strong she could make herself, and after a few seconds he’d manage to cut off the blood flow and knock her out. Go too soft and she’d Power out of it, go too hard and he’d kill her, but Sullivan was the best Spiker in the business. She would never know what hit her.
There was a shout and a gunshot. Sullivan’s concentration slipped, just a bit, and the real world came suddenly flooding back. The Power he’d gathered slipped from his control and the elevator gate was sheared from its bolts and slammed flat into the floor under the added pressure of ten gravities. A passenger screamed as his foot was crushed flat and blood came squirting out the top of his shoe. “Sorry, bud.” Sullivan turned in time to see one of the G-Men tumbling down the stairwell, a grey shape leaping behind, colliding with Cowley and Purvis and taking them all down, “Aw hell,” he muttered, then spun back in time to see Delilah’s lovely green eyes locked on his.
“You were trying to smoosh me, Heavy!” she exclaimed, eyes twinkling as she ignited her own Power. She grabbed the big man by the tie and hoisted him effortlessly off the floor, even though he was almost a foot taller. The tie tightened, choking him as he dangled, and she finally got a good look at her assailant. “You! Well, if it isn’t Jake Sullivan. Been a long time.”
Then she hurled him. Suddenly airborne, he flew across the waiting area. Instinctively, his Power flared, and he bounced softly off the far wall with the force of a pillow. Jake returned to his normal weight as his boots hit the floor. He loosened his cheap tie so he could breathe again. “Hey, Delilah.”
“You lousy bastard.” She stepped out of the elevator and cracked her knuckles in a very unladylike manner. The other passengers had no idea what was going on, but they knew that this was not where they wanted to be. They took off at a run and one limping hobble. Every normal had the sense to stay out of this kind of fight. “I’d heard you’d gone all Johnny Law now,” Delilah said.
“Something like that,” he replied slowly. “Bounty hunter.”
There was the sound of several quick blows. Off to the side, the grey shape rose and took on the form of a man in a long coat with a nightstick in hand. The G-Men were down. Purvis moaned. The man in grey stepped off the fallen agents and took a wary step away from Sullivan. He was short and tanned, with a pointy blond goatee and nearly shaved head. He picked his hat up and carefully returned it to his head. “Delilah Jones?” he asked quickly. Cowley started to rise and the stranger kicked him in the ribs, sending the agent back down.
“I’m here to rescue you,” he stated with a German accent, “from him.” He nodded in Sullivan’s direction. “No offense, Mein Herr.”
“None taken, but I’m gonna give you an ass whoopin’, you realize that, right, Fritz?” Jake stated calmly. He checked. The majority of his Power was still in reserve and he began to gather it.
“I can take care of myself, buddy,” Delilah told the stranger. “Were you planning on arresting me, Jake?”
“If I don’t want to go back to prison, yeah,” Sullivan answered, glancing back and forth between Delilah and the new threat. Delilah was a known quantity, the other guy, not so much. “That’s kinda the plan.”
“Too bad,” she answered as she grabbed the heavy metal luggage cart, picked it up as if it weighed nothing and threw it at him.
Sullivan reached out and increased the pull on the cart. It slammed into the floor, digging a divot through the tiles and coming to rest at his feet. At the same time the stranger hooked his shoe under Purvis’ shotgun and kicked it into the air, smoothly caught it, and turned it toward Jake’s head. Sullivan barely had time to Spike, gravity’s pull changed direction, and the stranger was jerked off balance to the left. A round of buckshot harmlessly shattered a window. The Power twisted him again, pulling the German in the opposite direction, as if he were in sideways freefall.
But rather than collide with the wall, the stranger turned blurry and passed through the concrete as if it were water and was gone. “Damn, Fades,” Sullivan muttered, turning his attention back to Delilah, just in time to see that she had crossed the room and her fist was flying at his face. He ducked and the concrete wall exploded into dust overhead.
Delilah had gotten faster over the years. Sullivan leapt back as she just kept swinging. He’d boxed in the service, but nothing like this. He went between her fists and slugged her in the face with a brutal hook. Pain crackled through his knuckles, down his bones, and through his torso as he drove all his considerable weight forward. The blow was hard enough to topple a gorilla.
She blinked. “I think you smeared my makeup.”
He barely had time to Spike himself dense before she hit him in the chest. Mass increased, his boots cracked into the floor, and she still managed to shove him back ten feet in a cloud of broken tiles. His back hit the wall and shattered a mirror, leaving a cracked indentation of his shoulders in the concrete. He stepped out, shrugging off the broken glass.
It was not something that a normal Heavy could do, but apparently Delilah didn’t have the time to think through the philosophical implications. “I’ve punched trains that were softer.” The Brute paused and shook her aching hand. “You’ve learned some new tricks!”
“You too,” he answered, breathing hard. “Too bad you took to murdering innocent people.”
“Innocent?” she sputtered, reaching down and grasping a wrought-iron bench and ripping its bolts out of the floor. “You’ve got a weird take on innocent.” She swung the bench like a baseball bat and Sullivan barely had time to throw himself to the ground as it whistled past.
Sullivan rolled aside, finding himself staring up Delilah’s dress as she brought one foot down to stamp him through the floor. Distracting as that was, he managed to focus, Spike, and Delilah suddenly fell up. “Son of a b—“ she shouted before crashing into the glass ceiling, twenty feet above. Sullivan held the pull for a moment, but he’d burned through too much of his reserve, too fast, and lost control. Gravity returned to normal, and Delilah fell in a cloud of broken glass, screaming to the ground.
She must have used her own Power, as she slammed into the floor hard enough to shatter the tiles in a six-foot circle, but immediately rose, unharmed but angry, and dusting off her dress. She’d lost the fur stole and the fancy hat was stuck in the ceiling. Delilah picked at the shredded red dress in disgust. “You know how much I paid for this thing? It’s French!”
Sullivan was still on the floor. “I hate France,” he said as he drew his Colt .45 from his belt.
“That’s because last time you were there you were running alongside a tank,” Delilah said, slowly raising her hands. “It isn’t polite to shoot a lady.”
He snorted. “You’re no lady, and you’re mostly bulletproof, but this place is surrounded by thirty bulls with choppers, and you ain’t that bulletproof.” He swiped the thumb-safety off and aimed at Delilah’s chest. He could feel his Power scattered. He’d pushed too hard, too fast, and it was going to take a moment to gather enough to use it again. Good thing he always packed a heater. “So I guess you’re coming with me.”
She tried to look innocent, and failed miserably. “Come on, Jake, let me go, for old time’s sake. I’ll make it worth your trouble.”
“Tempting, but I’ve got the law outside. It’s over.” For both of us.
“Yes, it is over,” the German stranger said, materializing as he placed the muzzle of a pistol against the back of Sullivan’s head. “The policemen will not be a problem. My crew made sure of that. Don’t try anything stupid, Heavy. Magic is always slower than a bullet.”
The Spiker calmly raised his big .45, put the safety back on, and let it dangle from his trigger finger. “I never did like you guys that could walk through walls. That don’t hardly seem fair.”
“Life isn’t fair, friend,” the stranger said. A wooden nightstick slammed brutally into Jake’s skull, hard enough to knock any normal man senseless, and he flopped to the floor.
“Hit him again. He’s got a real thick head,” Delilah suggested. The stranger complied. The last thing Sullivan saw was a torn red dress towering over him and a finger shaking disapprovingly.