Authors: AJ Sikes
Brand went to his desk and rifled through the drawers before remembering Wynes had nabbed his bottle of hooch. He slumped into his chair and let his eyes roam the familiar cabin space. The wood panels, the brass and copper hand rails. All tarnished and scuffed. Brand put the pistol on his desk. Al Conroy eyed it and his wife gave him a look that put him of a better mind. Brand chuckled at their routine.
“You know, I wouldn’t be here without the help of people like those two men in the back. A negro soldier covered me when I was over there. In the Great War. He took the shrapnel that would’ve put me in the ground.”
“That’s. . .that’s terrible,” Mrs. Conroy said. “I’m sorry.” The woman didn’t seem to know what else to say and her husband stuck to speaking with his eyes, flicking between Brand and the pistol.
Brand didn’t feel up to arguing. If the guy wanted the gun, let him have it. Brand stood to go to the cockpit. He took one step from his desk and stopped mid-stride as the air beside him shook and a Bicycle Man stepped through the curtain into the space of the cabin. His rusty bike clattered to the floor. Emma spun around and shrieked, her face frantic with worry and fear. The Conroys shrank into the corner, the father covering his wife and son as best he could.
“It’s okay,” Brand said, putting a palm out in either direction and letting his face do the rest. “He’s just here to deliver the mail. Ain’t that right, pal?”
“I’m not your pal, Brand.”
Feeling the cabin spin around him, Brand took a short step back. His heart hammered and his fists clenched and opened, clenched and opened. Brand’s spine worked a dance number that put his whole body into contortions. Then he felt the god leave him.
A swirling mist flew from Brand’s eyes and mouth, formed a glowing orb that hung there in front of him and sank away, out of sight and behind the curtain once more.
Brand regained his sense in time to see the tramp advancing on the Conroys. Brand dodged in front of the man, but the tramp matched his movement, orienting on him now. Brand recognized the bird, or thought he did. The last time he’d seen him was outside an abandoned machine shop, the night Frank Nitti—
“So you’d be him then. The ratter.”
The tramp nodded. Emma got into the act then. “Who is he, Brand? Why is he here and how—” The tramp cut her off.
“Ain’t got time to tell the whole story, Miss Emma. Your daddy said farewell, I can tell you that. But that’s all. I gotta make this quick, and I gotta say my piece first so Brand here knows I’m only doing this because I got no choice.”
put you up to this,” Brand said. “Or was it the other one?”
You spun his game every way from perfect and now he’s gotta work double hard to have it come out how he wants. So this is payback. Shame, on account of you being kinda like a hero to me and some of the other fellas.”
“How’s that?” Brand put it together fast enough, but the tramp was already spilling it in his own way.
“Over there. The trenches. Like I told you back on Valentine’s Day. That’s my story, Brand. One I been wanting to tell you all along. Them trees at Argonne. Three of us came out the other side. You, me, and that English fella, Lionel Stamp. Maybe with all our pieces on but something inside us dead and gone and never coming back on account of what we did in that forest.” The tramp shook as he spoke, his thick lips blubbering around his words.
“What we did to them Germans and what we saw done to them. What we did and the friends we lost from our boys what didn’t make it out with us. You told ‘em about us, the people back home. You told ‘em and they stopped the war. Didn’t stop it soon enough for me and them others riding these bikes around this city, but you stopped it.”
Brand stared at the tramp’s grimy cheeks and huge bulb of a nose. The heavy eyebrows and scraggly beard, like rodent pelts pasted all over his face. The hairs moved and twisted, growing slowly in a thin coat to cover the tramp’s neck and collar.
“Didn’t want to do it like this, Brand. I liked my life okay as a Bicycle Man. But I messed up one time too much and they made me this. Sent me after my brothers. Now after you.”
Brand stepped back, came up against the wall of the cabin and moved to the side, circling the center of the space. He kept moving so the tramp wouldn’t take his attention off him.
“What’s in it for you? Why not just call it a day? You did it once, so I don’t see what’s stopping you a second time.”
“Dammit, Brand. Didn’t your old pal tell you? I run into him earlier. He said he gave you the skinny on us fellas. We can’t just take a powder. “
“What about Chief? Did you do him like the others. Dammit, if you—”
“He’s all right, Brand. For now anyway. They’ll send me after him before too long though.”
The tramp jerked and doubled over as hair spread and thickened across his chest and out his arms. He stood up and spoke through his puffy cracked lips as he walked a stumbling path toward Brand.
“It’s awful bad you being around these other folks, Brand. I’d leave ‘em be if I could, but once that thing takes over, I can’t but know anything about what I’m doing. I can’t stop it, Brand. I’m sorry—”
The tramps voice choked off as the greasy strings of hair spread over him completely, forming the beast that had haunted Brand’s life since Valentine’s Day. The monster twisted and stretched out of the tramp’s face into a grotesque mask of a rodent with blood red eyes the size of silver dollars. Its long snout opened and knife-like teeth dripped spittle as it hissed. The monster’s arms and chest rippled with sinew and it reared back on thickly muscled legs to let out an anguished squealing howl.
The Conroys screamed fright and terror in the corner. Brand heard Emma screaming from the cockpit. He stared at the beast until it had finished its display and settled onto its overly long hind feet. Its hands were held out to the sides, ready to grab at Brand if he moved in any direction. Behind the beast, Aiden Conroy twitched out from under his father’s arm and reached for the pistol on Brand’s desk. He raised it with a shaking hand.
“No, Conroy! Don’t!” The kid let go of the shooter, throwing it over by Brand’s feet.
Brand shook his head, stepping to the cabin door beside him. The monster followed his movement and rushed two steps closer before it drew up short and howled again. Brand took that moment to snatch up the pistol. Even though he’d been there when Nitti emptied a magazine into it, even though Brand had sent a burst of slugs from a Tommy gun into its hide, he had to try something. He had to protect the people around him somehow.
“Hey Larson,” he hollered, firing two slugs at the beast. It roared and leaped at him, swiping with a clawed hand and tearing into Brand’s heavy coat as he jumped backwards and turned into the strike. Shreds of wool hung from the thing’s fingers. It flicked the tatters aside and stalked Brand around the cabin again.
The monster gave Nitti a few spare moments before landing its final blows. Maybe Brand would have enough time, too. “Get us over the city, Emma,” he shouted as he circled around the cabin, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on the monster’s and holding the pistol up between them. He felt the airship turning its course and kept one hand behind him as he slid along the cabin wall to the door.
Outside the cockpit glass, Brand saw the lights of radio beacons across Chicago City. A peppering of red dots lit up the darkness below. Tesla’s radio towers sent signals through the night, no doubt still commanding the Governor’s army of auto-men.
Brand felt his heart hammering as he unlatched the cabin door behind him. He got the story to the people, and he helped save people who would have been killed. Even if the Governor kept it up all night, the city knew what he was up to now. If he wanted them to play along, the man would have to put them all in chains, and where would that get him but nowhere fast?
In the cabin, the beast roared and stepped forward. Brand raised the pistol and fired into its face as it charged.
“Let’s go, pal,” he said, falling backwards through the unlatched door and plummeting to the city below. As tears filled his eyes, a grin creased his mouth.
The monster leaped from the cabin to follow him and the Vigilance sailed on through the dark skies over the city.
Gods of Chicago would not exist without the help, support, and encouragement of these wonderful people:
Zoë Markham - proofreading
Horace Brickley - proofreading
Readers of the initial serial release - to you, my eternal gratitude.
Writing a book is a process. Completing it, an objective. Sharing it, a joy. Thank you, readers!
Colin F. Barnes - for believing in the story and for his valuable suggestions and improvements to the manuscript.
Not to mention cover design, formatting, and publication of the serial and omnibus/POD release through Anachron Press.
You’re a top man, Colin.
About The Author
I write and edit speculative fiction on the dark/weird side of the aisle. In addition to Gods of Chicago, I’ve published three stories with small presses in the UK and USA. When I’m not writing or editing (or picking up after the kids), I’m probably out in the woodshop making sawdust and chips with my grandfather’s hand tools.
Sign up to my newsletter for announcements of new releases: