Authors: AJ Sikes
Table of Contents
Gods of Chicago
All Rights Reserved
This edition published in 2014 by Anachron Press
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this work are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. The rights of the authors of this work has been asserted by him/her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
To Dad, who gave me the love of stories, and to Belinda, whose love helped me believe I could write one.
Flashes of light played across Mitchell Brand’s eyes as he shook his head and forced a deep breath into his lungs. After another breath he climbed out of his memory, leaving the trenches of No-Man’s Land and settling back into his seat in the Early Bird Diner. Coffee dripped onto his slacks and the remains of the mug he’d dropped sat on the table like halves of an eggshell. The coffee girl marched his way, weaving her legs between chairs and tables and bringing a storm in his direction. Brand flicked his eyes up to meet hers when she stopped at his side and threw down a towel. He let his eyes thank her for not actually pitching it at his head.
“Buster, that makes three times since Tuesday. They pay me to clean, but can’t a girl get a break?”
She didn’t like his brevity.
Wouldn’t make it as an editor, this kid
“Look, all I’m asking for’s a fair shake. If you’ve got something against this place, fine. But maybe stop taking it out on my shifts. Or is this your way of wishing a girl a Happy Valentine’s?”
“It’s not you, sister. And it’s not this place.”
The neighbors were another story.
“I said I was sorry.”
Up at the grill, the cookie banged his spatula on a bell. “Order!” he said, shooting a look in the girl’s direction. She wrinkled her nose at Brand and stalked off to grab the platter of hash. The snapping of metal on metal came to Brand’s ears again and his heart jumped into his throat. Without any coffee to spill this time, he held onto the table until his nerves ratcheted back down. While the machine shop next door built up speed, Brand scooped the pieces of his mug together and wiped the table dry.
He pushed the sodden towel off to the other side of the table and turned his attention to the street again, lifting his steno pad off the seat beside him. Outside a light mist fell on the people of Chicago City as they strolled, pedaled, and clip-clopped around patches of ice and low-lying snow drifts along Clark Street. For all the world they looked like free men and women going about their business. But everyone from the tramps to the World’s Fair investors knew that Chicago City was Capone’s town. What you did and what you earned were gifts from the man who ran The Outfit. If the rumors were true, some people nearby had forgotten this fact. And that just might give Brand the story he needed. Somebody had to get the people playing for the home team again. With the Mayor in Capone’s corner, maybe a newshawk with his nose on straight could be the one to do it.
Across the street the Brauerschift garage waited for Brand like a reluctant dance partner, a plain brick building sandwiched between a fenced in empty lot and a grocer’s storefront. Brand’s contact said the hit was this week. So here he sat in a dingy diner on Clark Street. The machine shop sent another series of
his way and Brand fought the urge to duck under the table. The war was over, well behind him by ten years. Still those sounds brought memories to the surface that couldn’t be escaped. As Brand worried his lip another series of pattering taps came to his ears, but lower than before.
He noted the time as he yanked a dollar from his pocket and tossed it on the table, grabbing his camera bag with the other hand. He turned to the window.
People strolled by. Cyclists trundled along. A wagon came to a stop by the diner.
Another series of taps like before. Soft, like muffled gunshots. Brand stood.
And now a faint screaming.
In a flash, Brand snatched up his steno pad and made for the door. He dodged out past a beefy farmer type who’d just hitched his wagon outside. The horse seemed to know something was up. Its whinnies and stamping drew the farmer back outside to calm the beast. Brand skipped around the nag’s muzzle and flew across the pavement in five long strides, aiming for a patch of ice by the curbside. He just missed colliding with a cyclist who had some choice words as he put out a foot to stop himself from falling. But the screams soon overpowered every other sound on the street. Traffic stopped outside the Brauerschift building. Cyclists and pedestrians froze in place, wincing and cringing at the sounds of violence coming from the garage. Slow as can be, a few crept forward, encircling the entrance.
Howls of agony and horror came to everyone’s ears in the chill early February air. A clanging. More screams. Gunshots now. Brand scribbled as fast as he could, getting every bit of detail his mind could capture. Just like he’d done in the trenches.
The gunfire ceased. Another scream. One final blast from. . .a shotgun. Yeah. Shotgun. Now silence. A deathly, funereal silence. For the first time in all his years, Brand stood on a street in Chicago City listening to nothing happening.
A few whispers sliced into the icy air around the crowd. Mentions of the police. A shout from down the street, followed by a siren and the clacking feet of the law man’s crabs. All through the crowd, streaming out of their nooks and niches in the storefronts came an army of the tiny automatons, clicky-clacking like typewriters in a secretary pool. With the murder rate beating the birth rate ten to one, the people of Chicago City knew the drill better than anybody. As the little machines approached, people stood still and looked down into the single camera eye mounted on each crab’s body. A shutter opened and closed and the crab moved away, back to its hiding place to wait for the coppers’ airships.
The crab at Brand’s feet kept skittering left and right on the ice and aiming its cyclopean eye upwards. Brand had his hands cupped around a cigarette he had no intention of lighting. Not yet anyway. He had one eye on the door to the Brauerschift garage and the other on the traffic cops pushing their way through the crowd from the next block down. Finally he spied his chance and spun to his left, letting his hands drop just as his foot kicked out and spun the little crab on the ice. His picture would be taken, sure. But it’d be a blurry mess at best.
Fishing into his camera bag, Brand aimed himself at the garage and pushed through the crowd ahead of the coppers. They’d be here in no time, but he had at least a minute to conduct his business unmolested. While Brand was ice-skating with the crab, another one had worked its way into the garage. Now it was coming out. Sidling up to it, Brand fiddled with the dials on the image viewer he’d taken from his bag. When he got the crab’s signal, he snapped a lever and waited while the viewer drew in the photograph stored in the crab’s circuitry. It took a half-second longer than he had to spare. The coppers brushed past and Brand ducked behind a pair of kids who’d been playing stickball in the fenced in empty lot next door. They’d forgotten their game and come to ogle along with the rest of Clark Street.
“Go on, you two,” one of the coppers said to the youths. “Police business here. Unless you saw something, beat it, and fast.” Brand watched the kids scamper off. Then the copper’s words hit him in the back. “And you. Hey you!”
Brand fiddled with his viewer. He wasn’t sure he’d picked up a good photograph and kept dialing the image into focus. The copper’s hand on his shoulder nearly made him lose his grip on the little box. He pressed it against his belly as he turned around.
“Yeah, yeah. What gives, officer? Can’t the press get a few pictures?”
The copper looked him up and down, his eyes sliding over the viewer Brand held tight to his shirt.
“Press, huh? Which outfit?”
“Chicago Daily Record. I’m—“
“Oh, yeah. I know who you are. Go on, Brand. Stand over there and keep out of the way. You’ll get your pictures.”
Brand obeyed, bending and scraping like it was second nature. And truth be told it was. His pal over in Mr. Tesla’s factory had helped him rig up the photo viewer to capture the crabs’ signals, and nobody else knew about it except Brand’s boss and war buddy, Chief. To keep it that way, Brand had worked up a habit of kowtowing every chance he got. He stood off to the side, against the fence, while the coppers went in to investigate.
Brand jerked away from the fence when two of the three coppers came tearing out of the garage. Their faces were a mix of ash and snow. One doubled over and spilled his breakfast into the street. The other stood in front of the door, staring blankly at the crowd. People began to draw nearer now that the police were present. That usually meant the danger had passed. As the second cop followed the first and vomited into the street, people backed away again.
“What is it? What happened in there?” someone yelled.
“Are they okay? What’s going on?”
“Is it contagious?”
The questions kept coming until the third copper came out. His face had the same look as the other two except for his eyes. Brand recognized the look right away. He and Chief had reported for the Observation Corps, and they’d both seen plenty of blood over there. The copper that came out and stayed upright carried himself like an old soldier who’d just been taken back to the battlefield to refresh his memory. He addressed the other two bulls when they stood up straight and had wiped their mouths.
“Nobody’s going in there until the gurneymen get here. Get a cordon set up on this side of the street. No traffic along here. You two, split off. Each end of the block. Redirect traffic one street over.”
The two junior officers nodded and set out to complete their tasks. Brand watched in amazement.
What was inside?
The sounds of it happening were enough to go on, but the coppers had seen the aftermath. It didn’t take a genius to tell they wished they hadn’t. The third copper had his hands in the air, waving like a signal man on an airfield. He shouted for people to stay back and move away from the area unless they’d seen something. Plenty stayed nearby, standing off across the street by the Early Bird. While the copper had his attention on the dispersing crowd, Brand took the chance to see what his viewer had collected.
When the image came into focus he quickly shut the machine off and stowed it in his bag. Then he lit the cigarette from earlier, finishing it in a series of fast drags. He pulled out his pouch and rolled up a second one. Brand raised the cigarette with a shaking hand. He flinched his head back when the strings of tobacco tickled his lips. After a deep breath, he lit up and pulled the smoke in deep. He’d nearly finished the cigarette when he heard grunting and moaning from behind the fence. Brand peered over the top of the fence and into the yard. The two boys had lit out of the area when the coppers hollered at them. Their stick and ball sat on a crate in the far corner, mixed in with a few old cans. Next to the crate, a rusty bicycle leaned against the far fence. Springs stuck up through the bicycle’s tattered saddle. Brand heard a scratching and scraping down by his feet, then a heavy impact, like someone had kicked the corner fence post.
The slats rattled and shook as another blow followed the first, and another after that. The grunts and moans kept up. Brand tried to get an eye on who was making all the racket, but he couldn’t get a better look into the yard without making an obvious move to the gate, and he needed to keep attention well away from himself. He turned and saw that no one else had heard the noise. The crowd’s attention was on the coppers and the garage. A patrol boat had come down to a nearby municipal mooring deck. It’s sleek gunmetal envelope glinted in the weak sunlight that pierced the clouds in places. Teams of uniformed men raced out of the gondola and down the gangplank to street level. The officers made their way around the area, collecting witnesses and gawkers into groups, clearing the roadway. Brand’s attention wandered back to the noise behind the fence just as he spied the G-man.
Men from the Governor’s office stood out like white elephants whenever they showed up. Nothing said
out of place
like the hats those birds wore. A thin visor hung down from the brim, leaving only the G-man’s mouth visible. Brand had run into them at crime scenes before, but never this soon after the action. Somebody in a fancy house up in Detroit got word about the hit, too.
A dull impact on the fence snapped Brand’s head around. He peered into the lot between the fence slats. A tramp stood in the corner, leaning heavily on the post; his stench came to Brand’s nose on a zephyr. The man staggered a few steps from the fence until his feet took hold of the earth. He wore a long leather duster, burnt along the backside and ripped on almost every seam. The tramp limped and hobbled over to the bicycle. Another patrol boat came in overhead and cast a shadow over the lot. The tramp looked up at the ship and Brand saw the man’s face. Thick, bushy eyebrows shrouded dark recessed orbits beside a bulbous schnozz that seemed almost too big to be real. A matted clump of hair hung off his chin, looking like an animal pelt that he’d tacked on with glue.
The tramp reached the rusty bicycle and lifted it off the fence. He straddled the seat and let the bike take all of his weight. Brand winced and gave a cry as the rusted barbs of the saddle springs pushed into the man’s groin. The tramp glanced up and his eyes met Brand’s. He pushed the bicycle along with his feet, coming up to the fence, close enough for Brand to smell him again.
“Hey there, Mr. Brand. How’s things?” the tramp said, chuckling. He coughed a deep throaty rattle from his chest and spit in the dirt of the yard. His rheumatic eyes glowed like coals from between the fence slats. Grime coated his leathery skin. He wasn’t anyone Brand had seen before.
“Not sure how you know me, pal, but I know I don’t know you.”
“Oh, c’mon Brand. That any way to treat a fella’ what used to shovel chow for the boys over there? Before they put me in the lines with the rest of them muckers, that was. Then. . .” The tramp coughed again and spit. “Well, I guess you know what happened next, don’t you?” He looked at Brand as if waiting for a reply. But Brand’s tongue couldn’t figure any path to an answer, so he stuck with his original statement.
“Like I said, pal. I don’t know you. And if you were over there, I’d remember you.”
“You sure about that, Brand? Weren’t but three of us come out of them trees at Argonne.”
Brand’s head spun at the mention of the battle that ended the war for him and then ended the war entirely. He’d been sent with the soldiers who were told to flush the Germans out of the trees, send them running. And they did run. After what the boys brought down on them, those Germans ran and wouldn’t have stopped until they got back to the Kaiser’s palace. But not a single one got a chance to get any farther than the next tree. They gave as good as they got, too. Brand had followed behind the onrushing soldiers, camera at the ready, note pad tucked into his pocket. After it was over, when only he and two other men stood in the smoke, smelling death all around them, Brand had gone back into the trees following the wailing and the tears. He’d come across a dying German, a kid no older than one of Brand’s newsboys now. The kid was trying to hold his life in with both hands over a hole in his chest. Brand added his own hands to the effort, looking the kid in the eyes and willing him to hold on. Brand cried with him and babbled English at him, telling him help was coming. But the corpsmen who came through only had bandages and morphine for the American and English and French boys. One of them had walked right by Brand and the dying German kid without batting an eye.
“If you were in those trees, you’ll know what I did when it was over.”
“Yeah, I would. That’s true.”
“So what about it?”
The tramp hesitated and his eyes flashed crimson behind the fence. He looked away, over Brand’s shoulder. Brand turned around and saw a copper heading his way. He turned back and saw the tramp backing away from the fence. He lifted his feet to the pedals on his bicycle and the air around him shook and fluttered like cloth. “Got a story you’ll want to hear, Brand. But it’ll have to wait,” the tramp said. Then he reached behind him and lifted the air aside like a curtain, revealing a city skyline glittering in the night. He ducked under the drape and vanished leaving only dust and snowmelt in his wake.