Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ewan Turns 2!

Wright Fam, assemble!
"Lemme test your reflexes, Gran'pa!"
Classin' up the joint!
"I'm gonna start hammering everything in the house, mm'k?"
Young Children's Presents, Rule #1: Playing with the wrapping paper is always more fun than playing with the thing that was in the wrapping paper.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Mister Polk Edgewater and The Miracle of His Soiled-Breath Solvaway"

Here's the opening scene to chapter 2 in our upcoming Pure Steam tie-in novella, The Alchemist's Gambit. Get book 1 here!

* * * * *

Felicia Dolloway sat comfortably across from her short wavy-haired companion on the opposing divan, purple trails of smoke crisscrossing her painted face as she removed the hookah stem from her pert pink mouth.

“So, tell me, Mister Edgewater,” Felicia purred, fingering the hookah stem like a flute. “What manner of throat-sweet cure-all would you have in mind for my so dearly afflicted?”

“Dearly afflicted?” Edgewater said, smiling. “If I’m not a two-bit horse salesman, you led me to believe this was nothing other than a personal call!”

“Why, it is, Mister E! But you wouldn’t have thought such a thing as that was needed on me, now, would you?” Felicia punctuated her playfulness by blowing a line of her purple-smoke-tainted-breath into Edgewater’s face.

The pneumatic water pipe gurgled as Mr. E hiccoughed and licked his lips dry of the sickly-sweet flavored tobacco that nested in the basin of the communal smoking apparatus. The public parlor in the one flophouse in Rooter’s Station that attracted all manner of customers was particularly busy today. More than ten percent of the trading and supply depot’s population, numbering in the low hundreds, could easily be found here on any given occasion, day or night, and at least twice that number were in attendance. A bed of dry goods and Ulleran sundries had just come in on the 2:05 out of Camp Destiny, and the parlor attendants were foppishly decked in some of the finest fashions out of Esteem, while supping on sumptuous Venuvian hand pastries. Each couple and small group kept to their own whispered-nothings and private intrigues by the curtained booths that ringed the parlor floor.

“Hardly, madame,” Edgewater replied at length, scratching his head. “Your sugary vapors shame even the most haughty women of Keystone.”

Felicia beamed. “How you talk!”

“It’s true,” he said. “And, if you have serious need of my services, true, too, are the claims that I make.”

“And when can you deliver, my smart little hairfoot?” Felicia reached across the hookah stand between them and rustled his hair.

“Posthaste!” Edgewater’s eyes fluttered at the rake of her fingers on his scalp. “Course, I’ve been called worse, madame. And better besides.”

“Oh, beg my pardons!” Felicia fumbled her words and her hookah stem. “I … me … well, you must be one o’ them Folks, now, ain’t ya!”

The Folk,” Edgewater corrected. “But gnomes and halflings, we must all look alike.” A glass bottle broke somewhere to Edgewater’s left, and he was reminded just how careless and provincial the folk—his race aside—around here were. Careless was fitting here in the Disputed Lands, even if this territory belonged to no province or state in particular, but Rooter’s Station still catered to “back east” sensibilities, and this particular gnome bargained that a name like Edgewater, “Professional Hygienist and Traveling Amateur Genealogist,” would go unnoticed in a place like this. Careless and provincial enough, at least, he hoped.

“Next you’re gonna tell me your name’s not even Edgewater,” Felicia joked.

He laughed nervously. Maybe he shouldn’t have corrected her, after all. Better to leave lying dogs to rest.

Edgewater rose from his seat. “Shall we?” he indicated, lifting a doctor’s folding medicine case at his feet.

“Most certainly, Mr. E!”

Edgewater bowed as she left their smoky corner behind, taking a moment to surreptitiously spy the room for hidden dangers. Following in Felicia’s wake, he was content that everything was safe for the moment.

A knowing pair of eyes or two followed the stunning Felicia Dolloway, aka “Felly Doll,” semi-secret confidant and plaything of the notorious gang boss Rooter Baud, local smuggler and part-time railway saboteur—privately wanted on bounty boards posted up and down the border by companies B&S and South Settler both. She led her gnome companion behind a standing partition, etched in Elven designs, and through a sliding wall behind it. Problem was, poor Mr. Edgewater, while he knew of Rooter Baud’s reputation as a dangerous heavy and Miss Dolloway’s as a flowering socialite, hadn’t put the two of them together, as judging by her genteel nature, but was willing to risk being seen with her for the knowledge she was rumored to have.

The grand hoax of “Mr. Edgewater’s Soiled-Breath Solvaway” had taken Bigby Dolan little more than a day to propagate, which he was thankful for, given that Marlby, long his best friend and now trusted guide across the Disputed, had given them until sundown to rest up before the next leg of their cross-country dodge commenced. The three of them, Poppy included, had resolved that local authorities back in Harmonia were still tongue-tied and hand-tied, if not outright hog-tied, over how to figure out what had happened on the banks of the Heartwater that fateful afternoon more than ten days ago. The day he and Poppy, aided and abetted by Marlby, had left a dead federal agent, dubbed “widowmen” by those outside the government—of which Poppy was a rogue sort—burnt to a crisp in the bottom of their ditched getaway boat. It had been a week and then some of hard trekking and sleeping in empty logs and badger dens. Rooter’s Station was the first real taste of back-home they had afforded themselves, having skipped other easier-to-get-at forts, ranches, and fuel depots, since.

The lights went out as the sliding wall closed behind them.

“Take my hand, now, Mr. Edgewater,” Felicia said. “Where we’re going, there be no lights to see by.”

Mr. Edgewater—Bigby—did as he was bid, and felt his way up the unseen stairs as she led them on.

“I say, Ms. Dolloway?” Bigby whispered.

“Call me, ‘Felly’,” she said.

“Uh, yes. Felly. Felly? I seem to be short on memory, as it serves, but did we discuss my payment at all?”

“Why, no, Mr. E. We did not. In most dealings round these parts, though, payment isn’t rendered or even bandied about until a taste of the services to be bought are full and well proved authentic.”

“Naturally, Ms., err, Felloooo,” he stumbled, toe catching a step, “but … I, er, we ought to have some idea, hadn’t we?”

“We, Mr. E? Why, I thought t’was just you and I.”

"It is!" Bigby said a bit too lively, his accent dropping. "Of course, it is."

“Well, what did you have in mind, Mr. Edgewater?” Felly asked. “Or, was the hookah I treated you to not to your liking?”

“Not at all,” he said, regaining his composure as they reached the landing and a sliver of outdoor light beamed from beneath the door up ahead. “I’s just keen on hearing what you might know about local legends and such. I’m a collector as it were; fancy myself a raconteur of odd stories and personas. I’s curious, is all, what you’d be willing to share about a man called Merylki Bindealer?”

“The Warlock In The Warrens?” Felly said, as if for the first time. “I ain’t ever heard of no ‘Bindealer,’ but I heard a thing or two about Merylki and his last resting place.” She opened the door at the top of the landing to reveal an open-air rooftop patio ringed by a trellis crawling in ivy. A man in loose fitting overalls, his back to the opening door, swept at the patio deck with a long-handled, straw-bottom broom.

“He’s dead?” Bigby said, trying not to sound shocked. “I thought—”

“Last known resting place,” Felly corrected. “They say he’s bewitched and all. Some kind of haunt or spook. Been dead or kilt a dozen times or more, they say.”

“They do now, do they?” Bigby said, feigning disinterest.

Felly paused to regard the groundskeeper, then turned to Bigby, still holding his hand. “Now then, you can lay out your wares over yonder on that bench, and I can send this here feller to fetch your client, my boyfriend.”

Bigby and the groundskeeper both sounded in unison. “Boyfriend?”

Felly and Bigby looked to the groundskeeper as he faced them. The man with the broom wore a twisted grin like the cruel cut left by a vengeful knife, and Bigby saw trouble in his eyes.

“Whutchu doin’ here?” Felly said, mildly surprised, and cocked her body just so as she placed the back of her other hand on her hip.

“Cleanin’ house,” the broom man said.

Bigby stared at the man’s crooked grin and held his breath. Then someone kicked the patio door shut behind them.

Everyone on the patio looked up to see a pudgy, long-tongued brute covered in brown scales, leg a-dangling down from atop the stairwell’s roof against the closed door, and his two companions—one a wily looking young human and the other a barechested, ink-skinned half-elf, equal shares of sinister looks about them—lazing on the prowl.

“Cleaning? Shoot!” Felly said. “Get your sorry butts downstairs and fetch my beau!”

“Fetch fetches,” Crooked Grin said. “Boss keeps me around just for the kill.”

“There ain’t nothing here for you to kill,” Felly said matter-of-factly. “Now, git!”

Crooked looked at Bigby and sneered. “Who’s hand you holdin’, runt?”

Bigby looked at his own hand in Felly’s and tried to let go, but she held on.

“Don’t you go lookin’ at him, you jumpin’ fresh tumbleweed!” Felly leaned into her words. “D’you hear me! Go get, Rooter. I got a present for him.”

Crooked scoffed. “What, this?” he indicated Bigby with his broom. “What piece o’ tard he gonna give you for what, Felly Doll?”

“Just you nev-uh-mind,” she said saucily. “I’s gonna send him to Standing Elk when he’s a-finished.”

“Ho! Ain’t that right?” Crooked looked taken aback. “To do what?”

“He’s looking for somebody!” Felly said.

Bigby felt increasingly alarmed, and began to plot an escape route over the nearby trellis.

Crooked sensed the tension and reached out to grab Bigby by the shirt sleeve. “Who you looking for, stranger?”

Bigby jerked back, more in response to the stink of Crooked Grin’s breath, and felt his jaw tighten. “Why … you, good sir!” He gingerly opened the medicine case and slipped his fingers inside. “I have just the tonic for you! An oral treatment, really. If it serves to prove my claims to our lady here, I’d like you to test some!” Bigby finished with a wave of his hand as it emerged from the case and dashed a bottle of fizzy green liquid in the crook’s open mouth and eyes.

Crooked let out an awful yell as he reared back, dropped the broom, and clawed his face with one hand while reaching into his overalls with the other.

Felly yelped, too, surprised by Edgewater’s sudden move, and weakly leapt between them, flagging both hands, to halt any further aggression.

At their backs, Fat Snout and the other two hopped up ready to pounce.

Crooked was faster than anyone else, however, and ripped a knife from inside his clothes before plunging it blindly, aiming low at Bigby’s neck or face level, into the air ahead of him. Felly’s body verily moved into Crooked’s thrust as the knife buried itself into her loins. He growled triumphantly, and a choked gasp escaped her throat and her features strained.

Everyone except Crooked froze, and as he wiped his vision clear, blinking through a red haze, he, too, saw what he had done. Felly’s blood ran warm over his fist.

Bigby grimaced horribly, but bolted an instant later and scrambled up the trellis to his right after launching his now closed folding case over the side ahead of him.

Felly slumped to the floor with a quiet whimper, and Bigby looked back a second too long to watch her fall.

Fat Snout launched himself off the ledge above the stairwell and tackled Bigby bodily against the trellis, which promptly gave way and folded outward around the rooftop patio’s perimeter like a row of dominoes. The two of them rolled in each other arms, sliding along the rooftop’s tiled awning, as clay tiles spat loose from the weight and shattered on the ground two flights below. Streetside pedestrians gawked in stunned wonder at the fray.

Crooked’s other two henchmen lowered themselves down as Crooked himself stepped over to wrangle the dangling duo, slapping a bloody hand over Bigby’s gripping the rooftop’s edge.

“MURDERER!” Crooked Grin cried. He dragged Bigby to safety and held him in close. “We’ll get you to Standing Elk, murderer,” he spoke harshly into Bigby’s ear. “There ain’t nothing there to find what’s already been done! ‘Cept your bones come t'morrow mornin’!” Crooked turned to look at Tattoo. “Juice this rat!”

The half-elf produced a rusty syringe filled with a bluish liquid and jabbed it into Bigby’s arm before depressing the plunger.

Bigby’s mouth fell open as the patio swallowed him.