Nominated for "Best Short Story" at this year's Pulp Ark
August, 1903. Red Hook.
It was hot in New York City, and a woman was dead.
Her name had been Marietta Conklin. A forgettable, plain woman who spent five years of her life practicing to be that way. She was a Pinkerton, an agent of the United States government, and she was dead.
The heat was an ugly, muddy thing that rose from secret places and stalked upwards, strangling the weak breeze that blew in off the river. The city was quiet, all sound and movement muffled by the heat.
It was an odd sort of quiet. A hush of sorts, the way silence falls before a storm. The absence of life. But still, the breeze blew.
Mister Brass could feel neither the breeze nor the heat and so moved without lethargy or discomfort down the city streets, clad in his black pin-stripe suit and his black derby hat. Window dressing for a clockwork man.
Marietta Conklin had not been a friend, for Brass had no friends. Not these days. But she had been a Pinkerton, and he was a Pinkerton, and so he was in New York. Hunting.
He moved down Martense Street, towards the East River, looking for one particular tenement among those that lined the street on either side. The tenement that Marietta Conklin had died in; been murdered in.
People watched from the alleyways and stoops,faces somber, eyes half-shut against the heat. They had the look of wary animals, waiting to see which way the forest fire was going to roll.
Brass’ gears and copper tubes click-clicked softly, muffled by the clothes he wore. He was well-educated in the art of hiding his inhuman musculature from the curious or the repulsed among the citizenry. Most of the country knew him by sight now, at any rate. He was a minor celebrity since the Martian War, and his inhuman, artificially perfect features were emblazoned on news rags the country-round, thanks to the efforts of Fort, Clemens and other members of the Fourth Estate. These people didn’t seem to care, not that he blamed them. There were worse places than Red Hook, but Brass was hard-pressed to think of them.
Edisonade lamps sparked and squawked, blue lightning jumping between metal posts, throwing false light through the gloom caused by the skyway raillines that blocked out the sun. Brainerd bullet-trains squealed across the rails, casting down irregular rains of sparks that sent the inhabitants running for cover. Cut-rate Tesla generators growled audibly beneath buildings, adding to the ever-present tremor to the street. In this industrial hell, Brass was simply one more devil.
He was accompanied by four other men – Pinkerton men. All dressed the same as he; black on black, their plain dark neckties knotted at their throats, even as Mr. Brass’ own was. His, however, was arranged so as to hide the coiling parcel of tubes and connections that made up his throat.
His hands, skeleton-things of wire and brass plates, clenched and released, clenched and released, the only obvious sign of the agitation that gripped him.
He should have paid closer attention to the reports. He should have…
“Sir?” one of the agents behind him asked. Brass slowed and turned his head. His face was a mask made up of interlocking brass discs of alien smoothness. They were connected together in the shape of a human face, beautiful and cold, moving and flexing when he spoke. In the darkness, it looked almost natural. It was not dark now, and the agent, a young man, newly recruited to the Pinkerton Investigative Agency, flinched.
“Yes, Coppstone?” Brass asked, his voice a wasp’s rasp, mechanical and buzzing. There was a human voice lost in the noise somewhere, but it was a faint thing. An echo of a memory of a ghost of a man whose name hadn’t been Brass. “What is it?”
“Sir, is it true?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sir?” Coppstone sounded confused. Brass turned back and began walking again.
“I don’t know, Coppstone. Which is why we are here, yes?”
“Coppstone, shut up,” one of the other agents, Harris, snapped. Tension added edge to his words. He was new as well. They all were. Coppstone opened his mouth, but closed it without releasing a retort. Brass glanced at them.
“Quiet. All of you.”
“But sir-” Coppstone began. Brass held up a hand.
Coppstone closed his mouth. Brass nodded.
“Good. Now, I know little more than any of you. Despite my…” Brass gestured at himself, almost helplessly. “Despite my situation, I am not privy to the inner workings of the agency.” Which was a lie, of course. Brass knew many secrets, had analyzed many of the agency’s so-called ‘black dossiers’ with cold calculation and been in many sour places. From the canals of Mars to the shores of Sicily, like the song said. All at Allan Pinkerton’s - the Director’s - behest.
Today was no different; would be no different.
A bottle shattered against his shoulder. His men spun, hands diving beneath their coats for weapons. Brass held up a hand.
“Halt.” He surveyed the stoops and alleys, now conspicuously empty. He absently brushed glass from his coat, eyes clicking.
The forest-fire feeling was stronger now. Brass could see it on his men’s faces. Like animals aware of the presence of a predator. Something hung over Red Hook like the flag of an invading army. A name.
He had read Conklin’s reports. Including her last, just before her death. About who she’d seen in the dark between buildings, stalking the night streets. Which was impossible, because he was reputed to be in Paris. Brass had been preparing to board an airship for the City of Lights when he’d been diverted to New York.
The Director had told him that it was impossible, when Conklin’s reports first came in. Brass had allowed himself to be swayed. But now, well, now he was here anyway.
His eyes swept over the men who’d come with him, analyzing and memorizing each face. Just in case. New men, new faces. On the Director’s orders. How many faces had he seen since he had first opened his mirror-eyes and seen the world reflected back at him? How many of those faces were still around?
No more bottles came their way. They moved on through the silent neighborhood.
“They said it was the Director that murdered her.” It was one of the others, his voice thick with the sound of Rhode Island. “Said he cut her like a-”
“What ‘they’ said is irrelevant.” Brass could not snap, no matter how much a part of him longed to. His world was soft at the edges, his emotions, if he’d ever had any, dull and stunted things, and growing smaller the longer his brain floated in its preserving solution. It made lying so much easier, subterfuge as slick as pie.
He fixed his eyes on the speaker, a lantern-jaw named Lovecraft. Lovecraft had a wife and child, he remembered, in Providence, whom he rarely visited.
“It is irrelevant because the Director is in Chicago today, as he was yesterday and the day before, Lovecraft,” he continued, raising a finger as if to pin the point to Lovecraft’s chest. “Inspecting the stratoship- yards in Chicago.”
“But you don’t-” Lovecraft couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Brass held a cold finger to the man’s lips.