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Nightmare City: Part One: A Post-Steampunk Lovecraft Adventure
 

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Nightmare City: Part One: A Post-Steampunk Lovecraft Adventure


  NIGHTMARE CITY

  PART ONE

  Jack Conner

  Copyright 2014

  All rights reserved

  Cover image used with permission

  AUTHOR’S NOTE:

  To receive a free novella (and to hear about my next discount or free promotion), sign up for my newsletter here: http://forms.aweber.com/form/42/1144971442.htm

  Chapter 1

  Katya fled through the streets of Upper Lavorgna, her heart pounding wildly.

  Faster, she told herself. Faster.

  Shadows and fog swirled around her, and one of the two moons glared down from above. She was more terrified than she could ever remember being.

  He was after her.

  She’d lost sight of him some time back, but she knew he was there, somewhere. Hunting.

  Lightning blasted overhead, startling her, and a deluge began to pound down. Great, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

  She had no place to go, not even a damned umbrella. Rain plastered her hair against her scalp, but she pulled her black leather jacket tighter about her, feeling her jagged rings against her fingers, and pushed on, choosing alleys and main roads, never any one for very long. Sedic had an auto.

  “Got you, bitch.”

  A hand reached from the shadows and grabbed Katya’s shoulder, spinning her around. A thin, tattooed face peered out at her from the darkness, eyes bloodshot and lips blistered by some social disease.

  “Thought you could filch and flee, eh?” he said. “Sedic’ll pay good money to see you get yours, girl. Where’s the loot?”

  “Had to ditch it.” Damnit.

  He smiled. “Guess I’ll have to search you to find out for sure. Thoroughly—”

  Katya punched him in the throat. Her jagged silver rings bit into his flesh, and he gagged and reeled backward, eyes wide. Before he could recover, she turned and ran. Her heart nearly exploded out of her chest. Dear gods. Lucky that idiot had been high and stupid. He’d be after her soon enough, though.

  Autos rattled past, then a horse-drawn carriage. A few homunculi stalked the shadows, blackened things in the shapes of men. A great steam-man stomped by, vapor squirting from his upper reaches, but those were relics from another age and there was only the one, dented and rusty though it was.

  Bombs dropped during the war had cratered some of the roads and collapsed a few of the buildings, largely unrepaired. This was the Uppers, after all. Support the Brotherhood, one scuffed poster read. Good luck, she thought.

  Wet and exhausted, she found Aggie at the corner of Navvers and Trilston.

  “Thank Magnar!” Katya panted. “I was afraid you’d be out on a date.”

  “Damn, look at you, hon.”

  Aggie pulled her under the overhang, where several other prostitutes lounged, stinking of cheap perfume.

  The corner they’d picked was one of the busiest in the Fifth Ward, but at this time of day and in this weather only a trickle of traffic rumbled by. Two homunculi listed against the wall, seemingly lifeless. Only their eyes moved, rolling in their black sockets. Their eyes were the only things human on them, and they creeped Kat out. Still, she knew the creatures provided protection for the girls. And me, hopefully. They were one of the reasons she’d come here.

  “H-have a cigarette?” she asked, teeth chattering.

  Aggie unslung her tiny purse with the red frills and dug out a pack of smokes. Menthols, but Katya didn’t complain as Aggie put one to her lips and sparked it for her.

  “What happened?” Aggie said. “Don’t tell me you got the law after you.”

  “Worse. Sedic.”

  “The loan shark? He’s bad news. Hear he crippled Cinda last week.”

  “Paralyzed her. Thought I’d get him back. Use the loot to pay her bills. Didn’t work out so well, though. He got sick at dinner—bad clams or something—and doubled back. Caught me right in the act of finding his stash.”

  “Rotten luck, girl.”

  “Now I’ve got him and his pack on my trail.”

  “He’s killed, like, nine people this year that I know of. And what he does to girls like me ...” Aggie shook her head. “How can I help?”

  “Just give me cover till I can think my way out of this.”

  The other prostitutes glared at Katya. Likely they didn’t appreciate the thought of more competition. As if.

  “More bad news,” Aggie said. “Mala saw a haunt earlier.”

  “Not another one,” Katya said.

  “She was goin’ down an alley after a job and saw this--well, shadow, I guess--fly up into the sky. She heard a scream and went ahead. Found an old lady kneeling over some bodies. Mala said their skulls were smoking.”

  “Shit.”

  The haunts had been terrorizing Lavorgna for months, and no one even had a guess at what they were.

  “Just be careful out there,” Aggie said.

  Katya sucked in a hit and shivered as the nicotine fired her bloodstream. The menthol tasted terrible, but it was worth it. She blew out the smoke and stared up into the storm-tossed night. Here and there between the clouds scudded the two moons, one pale and white, one greenish and misshapen.

  “Hey, look what crawled in,” Aggie said.

  A long black limo squealed up to the corner, sloughing water. A dirty spray splashed Katya’s legs.

  “Watch it!” Aggie called, approaching the vehicle. “Look where you’re goin’. Can’t you see it’s rainin’ out here?”

  Sudden fear for Aggie made Katya call out, but the redhead ignored her. Four homunculi stood on the limo’s running boards, two on each side, chains linked to spiked collars around their necks. The creatures’ gangly black frames glistened in the rain. Like guard dogs, Katya thought. Except that they looked like blackened human corpses, only their eyes undamaged.

  The limo’s chrome grill shone like silver teeth, and its bulbous headlights stabbed into the darkness like swords. A Boss’s car, or one of his lieutenant’s.

  As Aggie sashayed toward the limo like she was the Empress of Qar, Kat felt a swell of admiration for her. She should’ve been a thief like me, not a whore.

  “What the fuck do you think you’re doin’?” Aggie asked whoever was in the limo. “Sprayin’ water all over my girls? We ain’t made of sugar but that don’t mean we like gettin’ gutter water hosed all over us.”

  The back window rolled down. Darkness gaped.

  Aggie ducked her head into the interior, and Katya half expected black hands to grab her and haul her inside, for the auto to roar off and vanish into the night, Aggie’s screams on the air. Instead Aggie laughed and fingered her wet clothes.

  “Naw, it’s slower than a Returner’s come,” she said, and continued talking to the occupant of the limo’s cabin in low tones. Her pimp?

  Sudden movement down the street. Katya snapped her head to see the low, curving lines of Sedic’s auto, prowling like a tiger in the shadows. One of his goons drove, and she thought she saw Sedic himself in the passenger seat, a terrifying waste of a man whose addiction to alchemical substances had turned his veins yellow and caused most of his hair to fall out. A chill swept her. She looked back to the limo.

  This my chance. She moved toward the vehicle.

  “I think I’d like an introduction,” she said.

  Aggie looked surprised. “Alright, then. Jack, Katya Ivreski. Katya, meet Death’s Head Jack.”

  “Come in if you want to talk,” said a dry, crackly voice from the car. “I always have time for pretty young women in need. But I’m kind of in a hurry and don’t have time to sit here and c
hat all night.”

  With a rueful smile, Aggie opened the limo door for Katya. The darkness inside looked very dark.

  Katya hesitated as her eyes fell on the homunculi. Suck it up, Kat.

  She cringed at the proximity of the creatures, which leered down at her from either side (Aggie patted her on the back and said “Good luck”) and ducked into the interior of the limousine. It smelled of incense smoke and chemicals and was so dark she couldn’t see. A hand guided her, and she fell back into plush leather. It was more comfortable than anything she’d ever known. She hoped she didn’t ruin it with her wet clothes.

  The car doors slammed shut, locking her in darkness. Tires squealed, and the limo shot off.

  Someone lit a match, and light flared across the face of the only other occupant of the cab, the man who must be Death’s Head Jack.

  Katya opened her mouth and screamed.

  When the thing sitting across from her didn’t lunge for her and tear out her throat, Kat forced herself to stop screaming. Courage, girl.

  It wasn’t easy. The thing was quite literally named. Death-black eyes glittered out of a decayed, withered face. The head had to belong to a corpse—yet when he spoke the flesh bunched and moved, surprisingly mobile.

  At her fear and fascination, Jack laughed.

  She tucked her legs under her and crawled as far away from him as she could get. She understood what the smoke was for now—to hide the stench of rot. And the chemicals must issue from Jack himself.

  “Are you a Returner?” she asked.

  Amused, he shook his head. He put his cigarette to his lips, and as he did she saw—her eyes adjusting to the dimness—that his hand was normal. That is, he had the hands of a living man, while his head was undeniably that of a dead one. And that just couldn’t be, not if he was a Returner. Returners were all corpse—in fact, they were usually composed of pieces of several. Besides, Returners were normally just mindless slaves. Reanimating the dead was a tricky process and mostly the brain was too far gone by the time it was brought back to life. It was said that only the mysterious and reclusive Dr. Reynalt could perform the procedure successfully.

  “No,” Jack said, his withered lips curling around his cigarette. “I’m not a Returner, not precisely. But let’s leave that for now. I know my story. I don’t know yours. Do you want to join our little family—start working for me?”

  Katya stared at his rotting head. She knew Jack could, if he wanted, slit her throat and throw her corpse from the car, and even if it landed at the feet of the most honest cop in Upper Lavorgna no one would lay a hand on him. Bosses’ men, especially the high ones, could get away with anything.

  “We’ll see,” Katya said.

  Smoke curled up from his cigarette. “You are pretty, I’ll give you that—wet and bedraggled and all.”

  “I don’t need to be pretty.”

  “No?”

  She bit the inside of her cheek. “Listen, Jack. It’s been a rough night. It’s just, that’s not why I’m here. I didn’t want to meet with you to become, you know, a working girl.”

  “Why then?”

  She made herself sit up straight. “I want to meet with Boss Ravic.”

  His eyebrows, what he had of them, shot up. “Oh?”

  “Yep.”

  “Well, as it happens, I was just on the way to the Factory to pay him a visit.”

  She kept quiet for the rest of the trip. Soon enough, lightning flickered across the night, silhouetting the three thick towers of the Factory that jutted up proudly, belching smoke into the black sky. Katya knew the smoke was red, not black, and that it was just for looks, a constant symbol of Ravic’s power.

  “Ever been inside?” Jack said.

  She shook her head.

  It wasn’t a real factory, of course, she knew, not since the war. A great hulking monstrosity, the building stood in a wasteland surrounded on all sides by bombed-out buildings. It too had been bombed, reduced to rubble, but Ravic had taken it over and rebuilt it to his own specifications. Now it was more castle than anything else, a huge mountain of metal and stone, and the hairs prickled on the nape of her neck as she approached it.

  Ravic’s lair. She’d grown up in the Fifth Ward, the underworld of which he ruled with an iron fist, and all her life she’d heard stories of him and his barbaric ways. Now she was going to meet him.

  Jack’s limo threaded through the bombed-out ruins. Bonfires blazed under jagged overhangs, and gangs of disreputable-looking people gathered around them for warmth, swapping bottles. They eyed the limo admiringly.

  It pulled into the wide parking lot that surrounded the Factory. The only windows that looked out from the building were on its top floor; red light flooded out from them. A thousand autos and carriages cluttered the parking lot, and drunken rabble drifted to and from the Factory’s great hangar doors.

  “We’re really going in?” Katya said, staring at that huge, red-lit doorway, like a portal to the hells.

  Rough-looking people walked past the limo, some staggering drunkenly. They glanced at the homunculi and gave the vehicle a wide berth.

  Jack smiled. “Scared?”

  Katya hadn’t been aware of it, but the front compartment of the limo was equally as large as the rear, and four large bodyguards occupied it. One stayed behind the wheel, but three others emerged, one opening the door for Death’s Head Jack.

  Jack wore a fine suit marred by a garish teal tie, and a black sable robe cascaded from his shoulders. He gathered it about him, placed a fedora on his head—it had a matching teal band around it—and left the cab. As he did, one of his bodyguards snapped a black umbrella open, and Jack stepped right under it just in time, as if by clockwork. Not a drop of rain hit him that Katya could see.

  He turned back to her. “Well?” He stretched out a hand—a perfect, living hand, well-formed and long-fingered.

  She mustered what threads of her courage remained and stepped outside. She wasn’t as smooth as Jack, or maybe the bodyguards didn’t care to accommodate her, and rain hit her. She hadn’t realized how much she had appreciated the warmth and dryness of the cab until it was gone. She shivered and huddled close to Jack.

  He placed a hand around her shoulders, and for a moment she wondered if she should play the helpless maiden, but then she shrugged him off.

  He marched toward the great gaping hanger doors, and Katya hastened to keep step with him, and his umbrella. More rough-looking people passed them, and some gave her interested glances.

  At the doors, people paid the tattooed doormen and -women cover charges to get in. One man tried to sneak past, and a doorwoman unleashed one of her pet homunculi on him. It tackled the man to the ground, and screams filled the air. A handful of patrons gathered around to watch, screening the victim from Katya’s view—a blessing as far as she was concerned.

  The doorpeople waved Death’s Head Jack in with a respectful nod, not asking for a cover charge, and his company, Kat included, passed through and into the Factory. Instantly heat enveloped Katya, and she shuddered in release. How long had it been since she’d felt warm? She couldn’t remember. Her crappy apartment, back when she’d had one, had never really kept away the chill, and she relished the Factory’s heat.

  People pressed tight all around, and the bodyguards made way for Jack. What was more, once people saw who he was, they gave him space. Many nodded to him, almost bowing. Despite herself, Katya stood straighter at his side. If nothing else, she would be safer from Sedic now.

  Around her people talked and laughed, and vendors circulated, selling peanuts and trinkets. One vendor claimed that the strange-looking objects he sold hailed from the Below, that great system of caverns that honeycombed the ground beneath Lavorgna.

  “Genuine artifacts from the Elders!” the vendor said. “Get your Elder artifacts here! No one knows where they came from or where they went, but you can own a piece of them for a copper!”

  Katya ignored the man. Real artifacts from the Elders would be
ridiculously expensive.

  It smelled like food in here, of roasting peanuts, dripping meat on sticks, peppers stuffed with spices and beef, and suddenly Katya realized she hadn’t eaten in hours. Her mouth watered, and her belly rumbled.

  She bought a hotdog off a vendor and lathered it with relish and mustard. Without a moment’s hesitation, she bit into it eagerly, and the flavors burst in her mouth. Hot. Delicious. She gulped it down, bite after greasy bite, then licked her fingers and scoured her lips for errant mustard. When she finished, she caught Jack staring at her.

  “See anything you like?”

  He didn’t answer. By this time they’d reached the lip of the Pit, and she gazed down into it, fascinated and repulsed. The Pit Room was a vast chamber, encompassing the whole ground level of the Factory, with a high, lofty ceiling wreathed in smoke. The smoke drifted around large electric lights far overhead, sometimes obscuring their illumination, sometimes diffusing the light into a golden glow. The great furnace blazed in a corner, and Ravic’s men threw alchemically treated rectangular objects that looked like blocks of crimson concrete into its gaping mouth. Kat didn’t know why they bothered; it was night and no one could see the red columns of smoke anyway. She supposed it was just tradition. Those red fires had been burning since before she was born. Some of the fire-tenders were steam-men, clanking and issuing vapor. Katya didn’t see many of those around anymore; they were relics from the Age of Steam, which had ended some years ago, but of course this was Upper Lavorgna, where everything old and broken down ended up eventually.

  Thousands of people in the room pressed around the lip of the Pit, and many more sat in the seats below. The Pit was a great arena carved out of the earth in the center of the massive chamber. Tiered seats encircled the earthen floor, and Kat had heard that twenty thousand people could sit in those seats, with more standing above.

  As she watched from the edge of the bowl, people down below swept aside body parts from a recent fight, clearing the arena for another round. In the intermission, swarms of spectators placed bets, ordered drinks, and engaged in criminal dealings. Katya knew the Pit was in some ways the heart of the Fifth Ward—black and bloody, corrupt and brutal. In the floors above, more entertainments and services could be enjoyed, or so she’d been told. A casino vied for business with a brothel, contract killers could be bargained with at the bar, loans could be taken out (with steep interest and harsh penalties for non-payment), and more. Ravic’s own private apartments could be found at the very top. It was his chambers that blazed with the red light Katya had seen from outside.

 
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