Authors: AJ Sikes
“It’s none of your business, but I’ll tell you that every man and woman in this room has sat down with Madame Tibor. Now what was that crack about my father? The plant’s doing fine. Sure, Dad’s not in the game like he used to be. But if anyone goes down first, it’ll be Lane-Hartley. Gas it out. It’s all wind, water, and radio-electricity from Mr. Tesla’s operation now.”
“Okay, that’s a safe bet. But then why go after your old man? Why not try for the big fish, like Tesla? If it’s protection they’re running.”
Emma seemed to size him up, as if gauging his worth and debating whether to end the conversation or not. Her face went slack and she sent her eyes off to the side before replying. “You think it’s protection?” she said, turning to look him in the eye again. “I don’t know about that, but I know they wanted something from Dad. Nitti’s been coming by the plant since Christmas, first with a basket of sausages, then a new coat. This morning somebody brought him a bottle of Capone’s favorite hooch. They wanted him to do something, but I don’t know what.”
Brand connected the dots for her. “Sounds like a patsy play. It’s a cinch Capone ordered the hit this morning and Nitti’s been coming by to set your old man up as the fall guy in case the coppers got wise. Maybe they were working the competition angle. Brauerschift hasn’t made things easy for the Farnsworth operation, and the hit was in one of their repair shops.”
Emma put her head to one side and cocked an eyebrow. “Dad would never do something like that, not just because of competition.” She righted her head and stuck her chin out at Brand, defying his suggestion. “Besides, he’d bought some new turbine fittings and handed out bonuses for Christmas, and he ordered a new set of regulators last week. He’s been talking about getting some of the new Brackston auto-tools even, so he could save on labor. He’d be laying off a few guys, but he was going to pay the others better and still—” She cut herself off and sent her eyes off to the side.
“Don’t worry, Miss Farnsworth. I won’t be printing any of this in the paper.”
“Oh really? I should have known better,” she said, her brow crinkling up with regret.
“Hey, I mean it. You might not have the highest opinion of me, and I don’t know why that’s the case. But I’m good for my word to people. Unless I can prove any of this, we’re just blowing smoke in each other’s eyes.”
“Okay, Brand. But. . .” She let her words fall to the table and followed them with her eyes.
“You’re not happy about what I’ve suggested, I can see that. Maybe you know it’s true though. Those tools and plant fittings sound expensive. Your old man has that kind of money?”
“I don’t know. It was all supposed to happen after next season was in. Dad doesn’t tell me about the money side of things, just how the plant works, the machines, that kind of thing. We were supposed to go over the books this morning.”
“And he called it off.”
Emma’s face went dark, and even though he didn’t have any experience with them, Brand could tell he was looking at a woman scorned.
“You and your old man don’t see eye to eye. Half of Chicago City knows it. What’s the story there?”
“He isn’t happy that his only surviving child is a girl. He’s giving the plant to the foreman after he dies. He says he wants me to know how things work, but this girl’s not dumb enough to believe she’ll be the one to run the show.”
“Well if Nitti was looking to make your old man the fall guy, there has to be something connecting him to The Outfit. Is he at home now?”
“I doubt it. He’s probably passed out on his desk. He had half that bottle in him when I left this afternoon.”
Brand let it go at that. They were getting close to what he’d learned from the old man earlier, and he had to keep that conversation on the QT. Unless he wanted to end up back in Miss Farnsworth’s not-so-good graces again. They said their goodbyes and Brand put a few notes down in his pad while Emma walked over to the bandstand. A pretty-looking rich boy, a young fair investor, snatched Emma’s hand as she walked by. Brand wasn’t sure, but he thought Emma and the horn player exchanged a look as she followed Mr. Moneybags around the dance floor. Brand spun it around in his mind as he moved to the entrance. The girl at the door helped him back into his coat. He turned to leave and drew up short, face to face with the gypsy couple.
“Madame Tibor, at your service. Mitchell Brand,” the woman said, holding her hand out as though she expected him to kiss her fingers. He gave them a gentle tug, like he would a lamp cord.
“A pleasure, Madam,” Brand said, lifting his hat as he stepped to leave.
“You wait!” Madame Tibor said, her eyes rounding to wide-open white orbs with pinpoints of black in the middle. “You wait and you see now.” She pulled her stack of cards from the folds of her dark shawl. She slid cards over and under the stack in a practiced shuffle, and Brand had to force his eyes away. He ended up staring at the husband.
“You’d be Monsieur Tibor, then? Is that right? Look, I’m a little busy right now. So maybe you and the missus here. . .”
“He does not speak,” Madame Tibor told Brand while she kept up her shuffle, looking him in the eyes. Her hands and fingers danced a cat’s cradle around the deck of cards as she spoke.
“Men from hills and men from towns. You say. . .feuding, yes? They are feuding when my András was boy. He tells his father where town men are hiding. They are all killed. Then town men capture my András. He is only boy, so they let him live. Take his tongue.”
The gypsy woman finished and pulled a card. She gave it to Brand. He lets it rest on his palm, looking from the husband, András, to Madame Tibor.
“You are important, Mitchell Brand. This card. Pantheon Tower. House of Gods. See?”
Brand flicked his eyes at the card in his hand and felt his gaze trapped by the picture. A black pillar stood over a cityscape against two skies. To one side of the pillar, the city sat beneath a golden sun and a sickle moon, both orbs casting a glow onto the buildings below. On the other side, the image of the city flickered in and out of focus on the card. Buildings grew and shrank in place, as if the city were being constructed and demolished on the surface of the card in Brand’s palm.
“Where gods live, power lives. You are powerful man, Mitchell Brand. Very powerful.”
Brand smirked, trying to keep his head. But the dancing image on the card spun his eyes into orbit. He felt like his mind might follow and he pried his gaze out of the card, giving himself a moment of clarity. Around him, the room swelled with laughter and conversation. He stared at the gypsy woman and her silent husband. Madame Tibor drew a second card and gasped as she saw it. András changed his expression, too, widening his eyes in shock. This made his gaunt face look even more skeletal as the skin stretched over his high cheekbones. Madame Tibor placed the card face up in Brand’s palm, laying it crossways over the first card.
“Changeling,” she breathed out in a hush. Brand’s eyes went to the card and he saw a creature of every imaginable type all stitched together. It had a man’s hands, with extra long fingers ending in claws and talons. These were attached to a feathered arm on one side and a bear’s furry arm on the other. The torso was lengthened, with a ribcage like a great cat. The thing had the haunches and legs of a goat on one side and a horse on the other. The head was a real winner though, with the beak and eyes of a raven, the ears of a rodent, and a snake-like neck.
Brand felt himself falling into the card, but Madame Tibor’s voice anchored him in the room. “This is problem. This card never good, but especially not good for you, Mitchell Brand. Man of power crossed by Changeling is man under threat.”
“Threat of what?” He hadn’t meant to say anything, but his tongue had different ideas about who was in charge.
“We see,” Madame Tibor said and drew a third card. When she saw the card, the gypsy threw her head back and bunched her face up in a spasm of agony. András reacted with a speed and strength Brand hardly expected from the man. Madame Tibor slumped to one side and her husband had his arms around her before she dropped to the floor. He held her upright until she was steady and kept one arm wrapped around her as she placed the third card on Brand’s palm. He relaxed when his eyes took in the image. Whatever spell the gypsy had cast on him was broken. On the card was a simple image, one that Brand was more than familiar with. He’d seen enough death in his life to know it on sight, even in an archaic and fanciful illustration like the one he held in his palm.
“Like I thought,” he let himself say between worried lips. Then he broke out laughing and slid the cards together and pitched them back into Madame Tibor’s hands.
“That’s a good act, sister,” Brand said as he turned away. Looking over his shoulder he smiled and waved, then let his face go stony. “Keep it. I’m not buying any.”
With that, Brand left the room, letting the crowd’s laughter and the sound of clinking glass usher him outside into the frigid night. Outside, the doorman returned Brand’s wave with a nod and went back to holding down the concrete patio. Snow flurries kicked up in a sudden gust and Brand lost his footing. He skipped down the steps in a quick shuffle, only just saving himself from falling on his nose.
At the street, he hailed a waiting cab, a sedan that had just dropped off another of Chicago City’s wealthy drunkards. Brand stepped up to the car and noticed a shifty movement in the corner of his eye. He turned to see the gypsy woman and her husband descending the stairs. Halfway down, they drew up short and the air around them fluttered and shook. The fabric of the night whipped aside and a shivering tramp stood astride a rickety rusty bicycle, an old Boneshaker with metal wheels. The tramp flickered in and out of Brand’s vision, like a candle flame in a draft. He seemed hollow beneath his skin, but gradually filled in as he stood on the steps, like he was the bottom bell of an hourglass. Brand’s feet carried him up to the scene before he knew what was happening. He stopped a few steps below the trio. The tramp pulled a satchel up from inside his loose overcoat and reached into it. He drew out a metal tube and held it out for the gypsy woman.
“For you, um, I guess. . .Ma’am. Is that—”
“Yes, is correct. For me. Ma’am,” the gypsy said, letting a bright tinkling laugh follow her words into the night air. “Is okay. Ma’am or mother. I am called both.” Madame Tibor took the tube from the tramp’s outstretched hand and replaced it with two coins.
“What’re. . .I get paid for this job?”
“Is for passage. You are messenger now; immortal. Still may need passage in future,” she said. Brand caught a gleam in her eye as she spoke. “Coins are for that.”
“But I—” the tramp spotted Brand and skittered down the steps, dragging his heavy bicycle as he came. “Mitchell Brand, I know you.”
Brand’s eyes rounded at the tramp. It was Old Man Farnsworth. No question. Same beaky nose. Same squinty eyes and tousled thinning hair like the man had been running his fingers through it non-stop for days on end. Brand staggered away, down the steps, nearly tripping over his feet. The tramp, Farnsworth, followed until they stood a few feet apart by the curbside.
The cab waited behind Brand, the door still open. Snow flitted down around the men and they stared at each other. Brand took in the old man’s features more carefully. He’d filled in now, no longer a shell of his former self. But he looked a damn sight worse than the last time Brand had set eyes on the man. Farnsworth the Tramp stared back with a look of shock and wonderment. His eyes welled and his lip blubbered.
“It’s me, Brand. It’s Josiah Farnsworth.” The voice cracked and rattled in Brand’s ears, but it was the old man’s all right.
“What the blazes gives with this?” Brand said.
“I— I didn’t know it’d come to this, Brand. I just wanted to protect my little girl. She won’t have to worry about Nitti or the Mayor or anyone coming now. It’s all gone. I made sure of it. It’s all gone and done without her. She won’t have as much as if I’d been alive to give it to her, but she’ll be okay. You’ll tell her, won’t you? Tell her for me?”
Madame Tibor’s voice came down to them. “Messengers should not spend time talking to mortals.”
Brand flicked his eyes her way. Her face seemed to glow a burnt orange against the darkness of the wintery night and her scarves had caught the draft to form a swirling aurora around her head. Brand had a reply on his tongue when the air shook around him. Farnsworth straddled his bike again and pulled the city aside. Like outside the Brauerschift garage that morning, Brand saw the twinkling of a city skyline appear as if behind a curtain. Then Farnsworth winked out of sight and the city draped back into place. Brand staggered another step back and fell against the cab. He searched the area, glancing in every direction, landing his eyes on the steps leading into the gala. Madame Tibor and her husband had vanished.
The cabbie’s voice shook Brand from his vigil.
“You getting in, buddy? I can get another fare—”
“Yeah,” Brand cut him off and slid into the rear seat. He gave the cabbie the address to his rooms and closed the door. Outside, the snow stopped falling and the wind died down. The car sluggishly pulled away from the curb. Brand thought about what he’d seen on the steps and what he’d seen on Valentine’s morning. Something bigger than The Outfit and the Mayor combined had come to Chicago City. Maybe it had been here all along, and this was Brand’s first glimpse of it. Maybe he was finally cracking up, the shell shock catching up to him like it had so many other men. He couldn’t shake the images from his mind. The tramp in the empty lot outside the Brauerschift building. Old Man Farnsworth dressed in rags. The twinkling landscape behind a curtain of. . .of what? The city itself? Brand closed his eyes on the night and its mysteries and settled back, letting the cabbie carry him off to whatever was coming next.
Emma pulled her car up outside the plant offices. She turned to her passenger and kissed him. He returned the kiss with hesitation, finally pulling away to look Emma in the eye.
“Lovebird, you took some kind of risk putting me in this car with you tonight. Front seat, too. What’s got you so crazy you’re breaking all the rules now?”
“It’s nothing, Eddie. Just dad again. He’s drunk and probably needs me to clean up after him, like always. I’ll just be a minute in there. Lay low, okay? I’ll be back and then we can get out of here and back to your place.”
Eddie’s dark skin reflected the light from a lamp hanging over the office entrance. Emma saw the worry in his eyes.
“Don’t, Eddie Boy. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll be all right. You just be quick in there like you say. Coppers don’t come around here at night, but just the same. Be easier to smile when I don’t have to worry about a hangman’s noose coming up behind me.”
Emma got out and held her coat tight as she walked to the entrance. It was after two in the morning but sure enough, the light was still on in her father’s office. Kicking snow off her shoes as she went, Emma wondered if this was the time to spill everything. She thought she’d made up her mind after talking with Brand, but standing in the snow outside the plant, her gut twisted and her tongue felt like it would do the same.
Eddie and his band were there at the gala, just like she’d asked. If the Mayor hadn’t known before, he was suspicious for sure now. And that investor who pulled her onto the floor after she spoke with Brand. The man caught on when Emma couldn’t stop looking at Eddie as they danced. After the dance, the young man snarled something about dark meat and the smell of smoke before he disappeared into the crowd, leaving Emma standing alone in front of the bandstand.
She shook off the memory and the fear it inspired as she unlocked the office door and stepped inside. Even with all the foyer lights off, Emma knew something wasn’t right.
The secretary’s desk was a mess, like she’d closed up shop and left in a rush. A waste bin dripped with water, lying on its side in front of her father’s office.
Emma could hear Eddie’s voice in her mind, warning her to watch her step. She had different ideas about what it meant to be careful though. She stepped over the waste bin and pushed the door open. Her shriek came fast like a razor through the curtain of the night.
Eddie was there in a flash, but to Emma it seemed like everything happened in slow motion. She stepped into the middle of the room, tears falling in sheets from her eyes. Her father’s right hand cradled the gun in his lap, pushing the muzzle against his belly. Eddie came in behind her. The door creaked slowly open. Eddie let his shock out in a whispered exhale. Emma stepped forward. She stepped to the desk, putting her fingertips in front of the brass nameplate that read
Josiah Farnsworth, Owner
. Emma stepped to one side, moving carefully to avoid brushing against the broken picture frames and scattered papers. She kept her eyes off the blood and focused on the gun instead. She gingerly lifted it from her dead father’s fingers.
“What in blazes are you doing, Emma Girl?” Eddie gasped, looking more haunted and harried than she’d ever seen him. Emma didn’t respond at first. Then time snapped back to normal for her. She took careful steps to avoid the debris around the desk, and marched for the door when she was clear of disturbing anything. Eddie followed close, ducking to hide behind her. They got back to the car and Eddie slouched in the front seat to completely hide from view.
“Nitti did it. So I’m going to do Nitti.”
Eddie stayed down on the drive over to his place. Crossing the Chicago River, they could both hear the hum of the police airships overhead. Emma drove a steady course through the city, weaving a path away from her father’s plant and into the South Loop neighborhoods where Eddie lived. Airships circled the central districts and over the waterfront. Their searchlights cut through the small hours, slicing the darkness into curtains of night and shadow that threatened to peel back and release every one of their worst nightmares.
Brand settled himself back at his rooms. He kicked his shoes off by the door and enjoyed a few deep breaths in his favorite chair with his feet aimed at the radiator. The warm air just filled that corner and then dissipated into the surrounding cold of the room. He hunkered into the cushions, wrapping an old afghan around his shoulders and neck. As the first nods of sleep came on, he heard footsteps echoing in his mind as if in a half-dream, and then something heavy dropping to a wooden floor. Voices argued in Brand’s drowsy thoughts. A frantic hammering on his door startled him awake and sent him lurching up from the chair.
Foosteps, real ones, retreated down the hall. Somewhere outside, Brand heard a car engine revving against the cold. He went to the window. Outside two men in dark coats got into a long sedan. The door snapped shut and the car pulled away from the curb pretty as you please, like nothing in the world could be wrong. Brand watched it go, reminded of how Frank Nitti’s sedan had rumbled away from him in the yard outside of the Farnsworth plant. Was it Nitti’s car? He couldn’t tell for sure through the gathering snowfall.
The car slunk down the street, rounded a corner and was gone. Brand shivered as he stood by the window and moved to his chair. He’d lifted the afghan over his chest and then remembered the sound of something heavy falling to the floor. Muffled voices arguing, the pounding on his door. A body lay on the floor outside his door, wrapped in an old threadbare coat. Peeling back the blood soaked fabric, Brand saw a young face bruised so badly it was almost unrecognizable. But Brand knew it, he knew the boy it had belonged to before The Outfit took it from him and made it into a message. Brand learned to shut himself off in the trenches. Too many times he’d been forced to look into the dead faces of young men only moments after they’d told him about the girl waiting for them back home, or the baby brother or sister they hadn’t met yet. Just before they climbed over the trench wall and threw themselves into the arms of death. But they’d known what they’d signed up for. They knew the job could be deadly. Probably would be.
A newsboy’s gig wasn’t supposed to get him killed. It wasn’t supposed to end with him being taken apart by the mob just for shipping papers around the street. Brand felt the tears start quickly, in a flood, and he felt them end quickly as he stood and went to the phone. He stared at the body in the hall while the operator connected him.
“I’m sorry, Jenkins. I should have given you the mic this morning after all.”