Because the week just isn’t complete without a teaser for another novel, Night Shade Books was happy to grant me permission to post the first chapter of Dennis O’Flaherty’s debut novel, King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment.
How far will the luck of the Irish stretch?
The year is 1877. Automatons and steam-powered dirigible gunships have transformed the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. All of the country’s land west of the Mississippi was sold to Russia nearly fifty years earlier, and “Little Russia,” as it’s now called, is ruled by the son of Tsar Alexander II. Lincoln is still president, having never been assassinated, but he’s not been seen for six months, and rumors are flying about his disappearance. The country is being run as a police state by his former secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a power-hungry criminal who rules with an iron fist.
Liam McCool is an outlaw, known among other crooks as “King of the Cracksmen.” But his glory days as a safecracker and the head of a powerful New York gang end when he’s caught red-handed. Threatened with prison unless he informs on his own brethren fighting a guerilla war against Stanton’s tyranny, McCool’s been biding his time, trying to keeping the heat off him long enough to escape to San Francisco with his sweetheart Maggie. But when she turns up murdered, McCool discovers a trail of breadcrumbs that look to lead all the way up to the top of Stanton’s criminal organization. Joining forces with world-famed lady reporter Becky Fox, he plunges deep into the underground war, racing to find Maggie’s killer and stop Stanton once and for all.
King of the Cracksmen is an explosive, action-packed look at a Victorian empire that never was, part To Catch a Thief, part Little Big Man, steampunk as you’ve never seen it before.
The three men were moving fast, in single file, dashing across the patches of stark moonlight and into the safety of the shadows like night creatures with an owl at their backs.
“Jasus, Mary and Joseph!” grunted the tail-ender, a fire-plug of a man clutching a sawed-off shotgun. “If I stub me toe on one more rock I’ll blow the bastard thing to smithereens!”
“Shut yer gob, Bertie,” hissed the man in the middle, “and mind McCool’s satchel or it’s us ye’ll be blowing to smithereens.”
The man in front paused for a moment, shifting a heavy carpetbag from one hand to the other before he turned to look at them. Despite a bushy walrus moustache and a black slouch hat pulled down nearly to his eyebrows, his face looked disarmingly boyish, but the other two seemed to know better. They fell silent instantly, trading uneasy looks.
“You’d best save the gassing for Maloney’s,” he whispered, so softly he could barely be heard over the rustle of the breeze in the trees and the busy hum of the cicadas. “Remember, there’s supposed to be a new watchman and he may not be a rumdum like Timmy was.” He motioned to them to follow and slipped away into the darkness.
Meanwhile, in a brightly gaslit parlor on the other side of town a pair of onetime lovers stood glaring daggers at each other, teetering on the edge of violence.
“I told you before,” the woman hissed, “you and me are through. You have a hell of a nerve sneaking up the back stairs in the night like a dog in heat. If it’s deaf you are now, I’ll say it again louder: I don’t want you here no more!”
The big man gave her what he hoped was a winsome smile: “You know you don’t really mean that, angel cakes, you always say things you’re sorry for later when you get mad.”
Mad hell, she thought, she was just getting warmed up. She caught his eyes fixing on her breasts where they showed in the V of her negligée and pulled the gown together with a disgusted growl. There had been a time when she’d found that little-kid grin of his endearing, just like that touch of an accent that he’d never quite managed to lose. Now either one was enough to make her want to twist his nose.
The big man could see her expression hardening and he felt his own anger breaking through despite his determination to sweet-talk her.
“I expect you’d rather be billing and cooing with your pretty little boyfriend, is that it?” He sneered, biting the words off and spitting them at her: “You and him all loveydovey, and no more thought of our good times than the man in the moon!”
She rolled her eyes scornfully: “Pretty? That pretty little boy could cut your gizzard out as soon as look at you, and don’t you forget it!”
The big man felt the blood rising in his face; he knew he was skating too close to the edge, but he couldn’t keep back his hand as it flew up to strike her.
“Go on,” she screamed, “hit a woman like the big ugly coward you are. But you’d best kill me when you do or you’ll rue the day!”
He froze, stopping himself by a tremendous effort of the will and letting his hand fall back slowly to his side. “Damn it, woman, I’ve always loved you,” he said thickly. “You know that.”
She folded her arms on her chest and gave him a flat stare. “You love sticking your peter in me, that’s what I know,” she said in a voice cold enough to crack granite. “The only person in this world you love is the one whose nasty mug you shave every morning, and I gave up hoping I could change that a long time ago.”
His thoughts felt heavy and sluggish with rage: should he have one last go at loving her up and bringing her around, or should he just say to hell with it and give her the beating she had coming? He rolled his shoulders ominously, lowered his head and moved towards her . . .
The man with the carpetbag held up his hand for the other two to stop. For some minutes they had been moving along a white picket fence that bordered the road until finally they came in sight of a large, rambling Victorian house set back from the fence by a hundred yards or so of flower-bordered flagstone path.
The moonlight bathed the white shingles of the house so that it glowed like an apparition, but the windows of the upper stories showed a murky gloom that made all three men uneasy. To make it worse, a long verandah ran along the front of the house, its roof interrupting the moonlight so that it cast everything below it into inky darkness and made it seem as if the whole house was settling slowly into a black sinkhole.
“There’s niver a copper up there,” quavered the man with the shotgun, “the useless shite’s ta home in . . .”
The leader turned on him angrily and cut him off with a hand over his mouth. He waited a second to make sure the message had been received, then he squatted down and opened his bag, taking out three calico flour sacks with holes cut for their eyes. He tugged his over his head, handed out the other two, then bent over the bag again and took out three bundles of dynamite, each with a long spool of wire attached to it. Finally he took a blasting machine out of the bag, attached the wires from all three bundles to it, and set it down carefully at the bottom of a drainage ditch that ran along the fence.
Now he beckoned to the other two, handing each of them a bundle of dynamite and a spool of wire. He bent towards the one with the shotgun and put his mouth directly to his ear as he whispered:
“Be a good lad and leave the blunderbuss here, will you, Bertie? And don’t be stubbing your toe and falling down on that dynamite or we’ll be meeting next in Hell.”
The other man frowned sulkily and laid his shotgun against the carpetbag. The leader picked up his own bundle of dynamite and started towards the front door, unspooling the wire as he went. The other two were fanning out to either side, following a plan they had rehearsed till they could do it in their sleep. Even so they walked on tiptoe, sticking to the grass for silence and jumping at every little nighttime noise.
For a few moments, everything went as smooth as butter. Then, someone stepped on a windfallen branch that broke the hush with a crack like a pistol shot. The three men froze, staring towards the darkness at the front of the house like mice watching for a cat. One heartbeat, another . . . then there was a sharp, ringing metallic CLICK! and a pair of glowing red eyes pierced the gloom and swiveled slowly towards the noise of the snapping branch, whirring loudly as they moved.
“Aw, shite!” wailed Bertie. “A fookin’ Acme!”
The leader’s voice snapped at them like a whip: “Bertie, Fergus, don’t budge—those things follow movement!”
“To hell with that and you too, Liam McCool,” yelled Fergus, “I’m hooking it!” Throwing down his bundle of dynamite, he took off wildly across the lawn, his arms pumping like pistons, and as he did heavy footsteps slammed across the verandah until a hulking figure appeared at the top of the stairs.
Seven feet tall, unnaturally precise in its movements, dressed in the blue serge uniform of the Coal and Iron Police and bald as an egg, the creature’s glowing red eyes stared out of a shiny pink porcelain face as expressionless as a chunk of pig iron. Slowly its head swiveled to follow the hysterically fleeing man and its eyes glowed an even more intense red as it whirred and clicked into a crouching position.
“Aw, hell!” muttered McCool, reaching for his pocket.
In the same moment, the creature sprang upwards, leaping through the air for a good fifty feet and landing with an appalling thud not far behind his prey:
“HEEEEEEEEEEELP!” screeched Fergus.
McCool pulled a Colt Peacemaker out of his pocket, aimed it carefully and fired towards the “Acme.” The heavy slug struck it square in the back and it stopped running abruptly and turned its glowing eyes towards McCool as Fergus, momentarily reprieved, disappeared into the night howling like a banshee.
“Fook me!” groaned Bertie through chattering teeth, “I ain’t stickin’ around for no . . .”
“Yes you are,” said McCool flatly. “I need you. Give me your dynamite and don’t move an inch or I’ll put the next bullet between your deadlights.”
The creature started stalking back towards McCool, picking up speed with each step as Bertie moaned with terror.
“Shut up,” McCool said. “I’m going to run towards the house and get the thing to follow me. As soon as you see I’ve got its attention you get down in that ditch with the blasting machine and when I sing out ‘NOW!’ you push that plunger home! Got it?”
“Aw, shite!” Bertie sobbed.
“Good,” McCool said and took off at a run towards the house, pistol in hand and both bundles of dynamite stuffed in his jacket pockets.
For a moment, the “Acme” came to a full stop, its head swiveling and whirring as it looked back and forth between the two men; then it turned and loped after McCool in great, thudding bounds.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” muttered Bertie as he crossed himself. Then he turned and sprinted like a racehorse for the drainage ditch . . .
“You remember?” the big man asked hoarsely. “You remember how it was with us?” He was holding her close, his hands under her gown, running up and down her back and cupping her buttocks as he buried his face in her breasts. Thinking at the same moment: By God, she knows how crazy I am about her, how could she let herself be bedded by that young whelp? I swear I’ll kill the both of them before I let him have her again . . .
At the same time she was thinking: I remember how it was, all right, in another second I’ll be lying down on the floor for him, right here on my own carpet in my own sitting room. I was stupid to let him put his hands on me, he can fire me up as easy as starting coals with a bellows . . .
“There, now,” he muttered through the thickness in his throat, “there now, little girl . . .” He pulled her gown up around her waist and then let go for a moment to fumble for his buttons. But it was a fatal delay, just long enough to let her self-control flood back. She pushed him away sharply:
“Get away from me, I mean it!”
He stood there stunned. “What the hell are you saying, woman?”
“I’m saying I’m not handing over my diary and you’re not getting anything else either,” she rasped. “Now sling your hook and get to hell on out of here. My true sweetheart treats me like I’m somebody, and if you studied on it from here to the Last Trump you wouldn’t have no idea what that means.”
“You’re somebody are you, you brainless cow?,” he roared, grabbing her and pulling her close again. This time, though, she had crossed from passion into fury and she punched him in the ear hard enough to make him howl with pain and let her go. In an instant she was across the room at her desk, jerking open a drawer and pulling out a stubby, nickel-plated revolver.
“Get out,” she shrieked, “get out before I shoot you right in your dirty bollocks!”
He moved heavily towards her, barely registering her words, not even caring about the shiny little gun as the fury rose in his head and flooded his brain. . . .
McCool leapt up the front steps two at a time, trying to stay calm as the thudding steps of the “Acme” got close enough to shake the ground under his feet. God knows how much those things weighed, but he had just seen that their steel skins were thick enough to stop a slug from a .45 Colt. As for their power . . . he tried not to shudder, remembering an “Acme” he’d run into one night on a Wall Street bank job. He’d tied up a horse and buggy in a back alley for his getaway but before he’d gone a hundred yards the filthy thing had caught up with them and torn the screaming horse to pieces like you’d unjoint a chicken.
McCool spun around on one foot and drove the other into the front door, so hard that it came off its hinges, flew into the vestibule and slid across the floor. Without a pause, he followed it inside and dropped his bundles of dynamite into an elephant’s-foot umbrella stand as he tore on through the house to the kitchen and out the back door. A moment later, he heard the crashing footsteps of the “Acme” as it followed him inside.
Continuing his mad dash, around the house now and back towards where he’d left Bertie, Liam crossed his fingers mentally. Henry Royce was a first-rate mechanic and his Manchester factory had made the Acme line the top automatons on the market for durability and effectiveness; Liam just had to hope the limey still hadn’t figured out how to make them smart.
He cleared the house and started back down the lawn towards the road, where he could just make out the top of Bertie’s hat sticking up out of the ditch. The sounds of wood smashing and glass breaking from the inside of the house seemed to point to the thing being convinced that Liam was still in there with him, but on the other hand why push it?
“NOW, BERTIE!” he bellowed, simultaneously bellyflopping on the grass and covering his head with his hands. An instant later there was a stupefying thunderclap and a flash as bright as day as the explosion picked Liam up and blew him across the road like a dry leaf . . .
The woman in the negligée was badly frightened now. She had known the big man back in the city before ever she came here, longer than any of the people in Henderson’s Patch had known him, and she had never seen him like this. Sure, he was excitable; maybe all the more so because he made such a fetish of being strong and steady and hard to rile. And all the while it made the pressure build, like a steam boiler with no relief valve, so when he finally blew he made one hell of a big noise. But not like this. This time he looked crazy.
“All right, then,” she said, angry that she couldn’t keep a tremor of fear out of her voice. “There’s no need for us to be enemies, why don’t we just have a glass of whiskey and talk things over . . .”
He grinned at that, but the look of his eyes made her blood run cold. Then he started towards her—calmly, purposefully, still grinning a little as he tore off his shirt, then the cotton singlet he wore under it. The thought flashed through her mind that he was going to rape her, and instinctively she pulled back the hammer of the little pistol. The big man paid no attention. As he threw his singlet to the floor he leapt towards her, grabbing for her gun hand and wrenching her arm aside.
For a moment she fought him hard, harder than any man had ever fought him, raking her nails across his chest till she drew blood, and then trying to force her arm around so that she could shoot him. But at the last moment, when she was within a hand’s breadth of putting the muzzle of the pistol into his armpit, his bulk and strength overcame her and a moment later there was a muffled thud as her eyes flew wide open and a strangled cry escaped her. Then her body went completely slack and the big man pushed her away from him in a spasm of horror and nausea.
“Ohmygod,” he muttered in near hysteria, “Ohmygod, ohmygod!”
As if in answer a stupendous explosion split the night, shaking the house like an earthquake, smashing the windows and knocking books and pictures to the floor. For a moment the big man just stood there with his jaw hanging open, struck to stone. Then he flew into action, the craziness melting away like wisps of smoke as his mind was seized by a single, burning thought: “escape!”
For a few moments Liam lay in the middle of a dense patch of bushes, stunned and deafened as bits of board, brick, upholstery and God knows what all rained down around him. Then he forced himself to his feet and looked for his men: there was Bertie, the eejit, cowering in the ditch like Judgment Day had come, while Fergus was God alone knew where—probably in Philadelphia by now.
“Stir your stumps, dammit!” Liam yelled, “five minutes and the coppers will be swarming us like flies!”
He ran back across the road, retrieved his satchel and opened it, beckoning to Bertie to join him as he pulled out a folded bed-sheet, a box of carpet tacks and a hammer. Then he crossed to the gate, reached up with one hem of the sheet and tacked it to the crosspost overhead, handed one of the dangling sides to Bertie and tacked it to an upright while he held it, drove a couple of tacks into the remaining side and stepped back to admire his handiwork.
The designs at the top were plain as day in the moonlight: a crudely drawn obvious coffin next to an equally simple revolver. Below the symbols, in six-inch-tall letters, were painted the words:
“NOW, MR. BLACK LEG HINDERSON WE WARRANTED YE BEFORE AND WE WILLNT WARIND YOU NO MORE. CLEAR OUT OF THE COALFIELDS RITE NOW OR NEXT TIME WE COME CALLING WHEN YER TA HOME.—M. M. 16 OF JUNE 1877.”
With a little nod of satisfaction, Liam stuck the hammer, the tacks, the loose wire and the blasting machine back into the satchel, then dusted off his hands and turned to Bertie:
“All right, then, me old son,” he said with a grin, “we’ve had our Fourth of July, now we’d best get home and get our beauty sleep.”
He slapped Bertie on the shoulder, grabbed his bag and melted way into the night.