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It's 1895. Business is good.
Out in the wild part of the country; where the wave of post-war prosperity washes up on the dust of the Old West; a million dollars worth of silver has gone missing. It's a routine case for Marshal Dante Blackmore. But there's nothing routine about Perdition, nor the mine, nor especially about Inferno, a mystical club that rises like a shining idol into the bloody sky. Blackmore will have to risk all the humanity he has left to unravel the case, find out the truth behind the Doppelgänger war, and his own dark secrets.
I've been saying for a long time that my short story Brass and Steel, originally published in Science Fiction Trails magazine had enough implicit story to be an entire novel, perhaps a trilogy. This is that novel. My first novel-length foray into Steampunk, it tells the story of a town locked in the final conflict of a long-dead war; of the man whose job it is to solve a crime there; and the hornet's nest he kicks over in the process. Very, very little is as it seems, not least of which Dante Blackmore, the hero of the story. It's finally in print, wrapped in cover art by the always awesome Richard Bartrop.
My little room at the Babylon smells like whiskey and sex, the sharp sweetness of the one wrapping around the musky, sweatiness of the other. One incandescent light bulb serves to light the whole thing. It’s brighter than the room warrants. A worn schoolteacher desk and a battered chair huddle against the wall under the lamp. Rose-and-trellis wallpaper is peeling, stained brown in spots, and faded, and the legs of the bed stand in pools of their own scuff marks. Tattered quilt on the bed, sewn together from a wild collection of leftover bits of material, embroidered around the edges in the girlish hand of someone far younger and more hopeful than ever belonged here.
“They call me Three-Fingers Jane.” A woman’s voice from next door. “Know why they call me that?”
“Ooo,” comes a man’s voice, after a pause. “I’ll buy that.” Apparently he does. Wet, body sounds. A man and a woman. The bed creaks, goes on creaking. Someone’s biscuit is getting buttered.
Unbutton my shirt. Bloody grease is leaking around the stitches in my belly where Ned’s shot tried and failed to do for me. Dab at it with my handkerchief. Anoint the stitches with bourbon. The sting is like a thousand little needles being driven into my skin, a cold fire at such a ludicrous distance from my brain that I’m surprised to feel it at all. Stand and look at myself in the mirror until it passes, this stretched out, distant feeling, until the stinging draws close to me where it belongs. I don’t know if germ theory applies to me. I’d rather not find out. Button myself into a clean shirt.
Birds sing. Crickets chirp. Jane grunts softly, her bed creaks, and the boy with her whoops and hollers, and their bodies slap together. There should be softness. I remember that much. Should be. But there isn’t. Life goes on and on, just next door. I stand and listen, like a worn out machine with no special impetus to move. “Eleven years,” I say to Death. “Almost twelve,” I tell her. “And I’m still here.”
I imagine I can hear Jack Williams’s voice. “You keep telling yourself that, Tin Soldier,” he says.
Death looks at me impassively and blinks. She lifts her hind leg and slowly, deliberately, licks her arse.
There comes a knock at my door. “Marshal Blackmore?” It’s the girl with the eyes. The card sharp from the Strand, back in Cody.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Shake off the curious wistfulness that had come over me.
“Lookin’ for you,” she says simply. She’s tiny, not more than five foot tall, with perfect skin the color of alabaster, but the gold undertone of it, the folds under her eyelids, the tilt of the corners of her eyes, and the broadness of her nose tell me other stories. She’s wearing a dress that’s a little too tight, patched a few too many times, shows too much ankle. Place like the Babylon, they’d be asking how much her favor costs, and whether it’s negotiable for cash.
I’m so lost in the dark pools of her eyes that I’ve forgotten to speak. I probably need to get out more. “You found me.” I finally say. “For what that’s worth.”
She stares back at me, and the muscles around her mouth twitch. “Got any whiskey?”
I go to the drawer and get out my bottle and a pair of cleanish three-finger whiskey glasses. Pour her a couple fingers in one. Pour a finger for myself in the other.
She turns away from me and tosses her drink back with nary a breath, then brings the glass down hard on the table. “More, please.”
Fill her glass. Put the cork in the bottle, and put it away in the drawer.
She’s careful not to touch me even slightly. She watches me out of the corner of her eyes. Draws her glass to her lips with both hands to breathe in the vapors, to sip it.
It’s decent bourbon, I decide as I sip it.“You got a name? Or shall I make one up?”
“Jo,” She’s quiet otherwise, focused on her whiskey. “Josephine Li.” A tremor begins at her hands and slides down her spine, shaking like mercury, until her hands are wet with whiskey. She flinches when I reach out to her. Presses herself back against the desk.
I go on reaching, until I cup both her hands in one of mine. She looks up at me. She is short, and I am tall. Her hands are small and delicate, like holding a baby squirrel. There’s a vibration of energy, stringy elastic durability. If you let go, it’ll explode into motion and be gone faster than you can see. Before or after it takes a piece out of your finger.