Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The More Things Change: A Tale of the Aether Age by Grant Gardiner

The 1920s. A new town full of gambling saloons, far from the nearest zeppelin freight way. In the region that was once known as ‘Nevada’.
The thundering beat of hooves broke into messy disarray as he hauled up in front of the State of the Union saloon. By the time Shotgun had cantered to a halt the sheriff was out of the saddle, on the ground and tying the colt off on the veranda handrail. “This had better be good, Mister Burnham.” He swept around the black sedan his depu... associates used to get around town, then he started taking the steps two at a time. “It’s the Lord’s Day. And my little girl’s fifteenth birthday. If this ain’t worthy of the sheriff’s presence I’ll be mighty unhappy.”

Standing at the saloon’s front door was ‘Mister Burnham’ and his offsider ‘Mister Cerano’. Both were built like brick outhouses but clad in pinstriped black with matching gray fedoras. Apparently because that’s how Chicago manufactured its ‘accountancy officials’.

“Yeah, sheriff,” replied Burnham as the Texan reached the top of the stairs. “It’s a proper mess in there. And you told us we weren’t supposed to, you know, take things into our own hands no more, so...”

The sheriff halted just outside the doorway to look at the gangster. The shrug the hulking mobster gave was pitiful but the Tommy guns both ‘accountancy officials’ carried were anything but. “You did the right thing, Mister Burnham.” He took one more worried look at the submachine gun in the huge catcher’s mitt Burnham called his hand. “You did the right thing.”

There was a riot of yelling, crashing and cussing pouring out of the saloon. It was punctuated with a steady beat of smashing bottles. But no firearm discharges. Which meant, by city law, they couldn’t just haul them down to lockup for the night.

The sheriff growled as he looked in on the carnage. It didn’t make things any better that he was actually needed this time. “Is Mister Wong safe?”

The gangster nodded.

“Is he pressing charges?”

There was a pause and the sheriff tore his eyes away from the still developing crime scene. Burnham was looking at him, one eyebrow cocked high. “What you reckon Mister Wong is doing?”

The sheriff grunted. Of course Mister Wong was pressing charges. Not pressing charges would only save the sheriff’s time. And who cared about the sheriff’s time?

The middle aged Texan nodded and dragged his open duster back from the vintage Peacemakers holstered at his waist. Behind him the two gangsters cocked their Thompsons then followed in his wake as he pushed through the swinging doors and into the saloon...

•••

“You’re a damn liar, you Hollywoodland stooge. From a nation of liars.” The diminutive little flapper in the tassled dress stood to her feet. “A no good phony- -“ She heaved a bottle the length of the saloon. “From amongst a herd of no good phonies!”

The bottle shattered against the piano, spraying gin and glass everywhere. “Ha hah!” cried the ruffled but sharply dressed gent taking shelter behind it. He straightened in triumph, reefing his now ruined green cravat from his once expensive gray suit to hold it high in victory. “So you admit that the great nation of CaliModerna is, indeed, a nation.”

He ducked with a squawk as several more bottle rained down upon his position.

“It’s sarcasm, you ninny!” yelled the infuriated flapper as she picked up another bottle. “California isn’t a country. No matter what you name it.” She threw the tiny gin bottle with next to no accuracy. “Just cause a propaganda film says you’re a country, don’t make it so!”

A tall but paunchy gentleman was sheltering behind some tables in another quarter of the saloon. He was dressed like a southern landowner, his crushed top hat in one hand and monocle hanging from his waistcoat. But he too picked up a bottle and launched it in the direction of the bar the flapper ducked behind. “My de’ar, your hypocrisy is unbecoming.” The bottle shattered across the bar to get a squeal from the flapper. He smiled wickedly. “If anyone should be silent about propaganda it’s residents of the state that claims to rule the so-called U-nited States of A-meri-ca.” He cackled with delight. “Even an unso-phis-ticated New Yor’k hussey like you should know that recent history proves thinking you run the continent don’t make it so.”

A chair leg rotored past the startled southerner, sending him back behind cover. “Better them then you,” called a French voice. It’s owner stood up from behind a beer barrel in the corner. He was dressed in cowboy denims and boots but wore a leather flight jacket, flying cap tucked into his back pocket. “New York is better than New Confederacy any day.” And the cowboy launched another chair leg.

“Yeah!” agreed the flapper, standing as the dark-skinned cowboy launched his last chair leg and a bottle at the Confederate. “He’s right. You could do a lot worse than us. If you’d only- -”

She ducked just in time to avoid a new delivery from the Californian, but in the background the cowboy began laughing uproariously. His latest bottle had caught the southerner’s top hat and sent it skittling. It’s owner, now covered in gin, retreated to a better defensive position while the cowboy cackled and slapped his knee. Then he stopped, spying someone cowering under a table on the other side of the room.

He pointed out the stranger as the latest salvo from the bar sailed past towards the piano. “Hey you. You never declared yourself. Where you from, son?”

Wide-eyed, the stranger held his hands up. “You can leave me out of this. I’m not American, I’m Canadian.”

Canadian!?!” A stocky, older woman in a weathered poncho stood up behind the flapper’s bar. Her face was a picture of rage. “You said you were from Seattle.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. I’m Canadian.”

The old woman swept back her wide brimmed hat to let it dangle by the cord around her neck. She completely ignored the bottle that sailed past her head to smash on the wall behind the bar. Instead, she only had dagger-eyes for the neutral-wannabe from Seattle.

A pointed finger slowly rose towards him with the gravitas of an oracle’s threat. “You... are American.”

The ‘American’ cringed as another bottle landed in his general vicinity. “No I’m not. I’m a citizen of the British Empire. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The old woman’s face went a deep crimson. “No. You’re. Not!” She turned to grab several bottles from the back of the bar. Then, with no regard to her own safety, she stood free of all protection, laying down glassware cover-fire on the hapless British-American. “You are American!” she bellowed. “You. Are. American!”

Seeing the American/Canadian suffering under the withering fire, the cowboy started laughing again in deep guffaws. He slapped his thigh several times, really getting into the comedy- -

Then stopped. The bottles were no longer flying...

His eyes panned right to see the old woman now pointing at him.

“You’re just as bad,” scowled the stocky, hard faced poncho wearer. “You’re worse, you so-called Mississippian.” She pointed again. “You think you’re French!”

The cowboy dived back behind cover as a chorus of ‘hear hears’ from across the room preceded a fresh storm of weaponised alcohol vessels, even the Canadian/American getting in on the act...

•••

From his viewing platform two steps above the carnage the goatee-stroking sheriff shook his head. He drew a Peacemaker and pointed it at the ceiling.

BLAM!BLAM!

•••

Silence reigned over the bar.

The sheriff stepped forward, spurs clinking loudly in the silence. “For the sake of full disclosure,” he drawled, “my associates here are from Chicago. That means they’re nationals of the MidWest Commonwealth.” He gestured behind to Burnham and Cerano who stepped forward, Tommy guns raised from their hips. “Y’all have a problem with them?”

The room was transfixed by the stubby submachine guns.

The sheriff left the gangsters near the doorway, slowly stepping down onto the landing that ran around the main room of the saloon. “What about me then? Anyone offended by my nationality? Cause I ain’t from around here either.”

There was silence as the sheriff pulled up at the top of the two steps leading down to the saloon floor. He scowled at the sea of broken furniture and the glass carnage that spread across the trashed establishment. He reached down to his belt, unclipped his star and held it up for all to see. “This here makes me the Law in these parts. And the Law is from Texas.” He lowered the star and glared at his scattered, bashful audience.

“Any objections to the Lone Star republic?”

There was utter silence.

“Good. Now let’s find out how this whole mess got started, shall we?”

•••

The sheriff had long since resigned himself to the idea that his duty in this town was not to its people. He was hired to protect the businesses of this quickly sprawling warren of saloons and gambling dens and anything else was his own side project. However, only being held to ‘commercial realities’ didn’t make his job any easier.

It took a good quarter hour to calm Mister Wong enough to get his version of the story. A full fifteen minutes. And in the end it wasn’t much of a story anyway: the details were missing but everyone was playing cards, someone apparently went in big – or lost the pot or their shirt or something – and the result was bad tempers and hurt feelings. Enough bad tempers and feelings to re-enact the Great War in the middle of the saloon.

Having performed his commercial duty – reassuring Mister Wong that compensation was forthcoming – the sheriff hurried out of the Union’s back room to get back to the saloon floor. He had been occupied for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes in which his associates were left to their own mob-sourced devices. With nothing more than the vague, ill-conceived and now deeply regretted instructions to “Sort out this lot and... Tarnation, I don’t know. Get these fools squared away. Take their statements or something.”

Bursting through the swinging doors the sheriff stopped to find... a quiet and orderly crime scene. All of the suspects were tied to chairs that had been arrayed in a big circle covering the main floor. Most of the wrecked furniture and glass had been swept over to the piano while Mister Cerano held point in the middle of the circle with his Tommy gun, casually scanning each of his wards like a well practised jail warden. Mister Burnham walked towards the sheriff with a pencil in one hand, notepad in the other. Tongue between his teeth, he made a final note and nodded with satisfaction. Then he flipped over the pages and handed the pad to the sheriff.

The sheriff took the notepad and examined the top, scrawl-covered page. “What’s this?”

“Their statements,” replied Burnham. “One page per perp. Dunno what usually goes into a statement so’s I figured I’d just ask ‘em what I thought would be, you know... relevant.”

The sheriff looked at the blank faced mobster and blinked twice. Then he had a closer look at the collection of documents.

Running his finger down the first rap sheet he grunted his surprise. The report was not what he expected. It was actually quite good. Very good. A thorough run down of every suspect, a brief description of what they looked like, their occupation, what they were doing when the brawl erupted and their personal details. He nodded slowly as he continued his perusal. “This is quite the report, Mister Burnham. Quite the report indeed.”

The big brute sniffed and looked at his feet. “Ain’t no need to pay your respects.” He stuck the pencil behind his ear, then reached over to a table to pick up his Tommy gun. “It’s a new fangled scientific world,” he shrugged as he hefted the submachine gun onto his shoulder. “Even an everyday mug like meself has to know his letters these days.” There was a shy pause. “But you can pay respects if you want.”

The sheriff continued skimming the document taking in all the details. “I can be quick to step forward, Mister Burnham. So I’m gonna be just as quick to step back. I apologise for lettin’ your other employment make me overlook your skillset and promise that in future- -” The sheriff’s finger reached the bottom of the page and the entry for ‘Nationality.’ It was heavily underlined. He flipped through a few pages and noted the entry for each suspect. The sheriff swore, let the notepad drop back and began rubbing his eyes. “What was Wong thinking? He should have known this was going to happen.”

“You saw the nationality thing?” asked proud Burnham, the useful gangster. “I thought you might wanna see that.  I thought it explained a few things.”

The sheriff nodded drily at the lettered gangster then threw the notepad onto the counter beside him. “Indeed,” he grumbled, then looked over the circle of former fellow citizens and shook his head. “Damn bless-ed politics is gonna be the end o’ me...”

The weathered Texan dug his thumbs into his gun holsters, chewed his bottom lip for a few seconds, then paced slowly towards the silent circle. He nodded at Mister Cereno who nodded back and stepped away to give him the floor.

The sheriff reached the middle of the circle and stopped. He began to turn, idly staring down anyone game enough to meet his eyes. He twitched his big moustache back and forth as he considered every one of them in turn.

Tying them to chairs was a bit extreme, but he had to admit it did engender a conducive interrogation environment. No doubt a trick his associates picked up back in Chicago...

His eyes came to rest on the sharply dressed man in the expensive but torn gray suit. He was the one Mister Burnham’s report had dubbed ‘Tuxedo Stooge’. The one from California. The sheriff knew enough about the picture business to recognise the man’s face. Couldn’t tell you who he was, but there was a good chance his little girl had an irrational crush on the quivering mess that cowered before him. Him and his ridiculously thin moustache.

“Well?” the sheriff demanded, scratching at the thick goatee that squared off his own chin. “The saloon you people have been destroying is an institution in these here parts. That makes it expensive. Worth a lot to a lot of people.” He stepped forward to look down at the quickly wilting thespian. “So the question I want answered is this: Who’s responsible for this mess?”

“Well it isn’t me,” whined the Californian. Without taking his eyes off the sheriff he tried to point, only to realise his hands were tied behind his back. There was a wide-eyed pause, then he pecked his nose in the direction of the flapper on the opposite side of the circle. “Ask her. She’s the one doing all the screaming.”

Screaming!?! Why you no good, lyin- -”

The sheriff turned with a glare. The New Yorker’s mouth quickly snapped shut and she looked away.
The sheriff straightened and paced toward her. “From what my associate has noted, you were winning the pot, so you had the most to lose after a bad hand. Did you start the fight?”

“It wasn’t me,” she whined as he drew close. “Talk to the people who were leaving. I was winning and then they all started to leave.” Now she began pecking her nose back at the Californian. “He’s the suspicious one. He was leaving the game. Saying I was rigging the game and everything. Why dontcha go back to being in his grill?”

The sheriff turned back to look at the actor. He was vigorously shaking his head. “I may have been suggesting that I was going to leave but that doesn’t mean I was actually going to. Doesn’t mean anything of the sort. I was staying in the game. Until that crazy dame had lost every single dime.” He tried to lean out around the sheriff to get a line of sight on the flapper. “Then I’d be making you admit the greatness of- -“ He paused, as if waiting for a camera to dolly in for his close-up. “The continent’s Premier RepublicCaliModerna!”

“Oooooo,” wound up the flapper. “I’m gonna snot you, ya- -“

“Silence,” growled the sheriff. He turned back to the actor. “My notes say you were almost out of chips. You were about to be kicked out of the game and lose your only chance for revenge.”

The actor shook his head furiously. “Oh no. I have a line of credit. Just ask Mister Cerano. I have a line of credit from... some people in Chicago. They pay my way here. You just ask.”

The sheriff glanced over at Cerano who shrugged then nodded. “He’s got credit.”

The sheriff sighed. “Then who else was about to lose their shirt? How about you?” He looked at the short stocky woman who was still glaring at the American/Canadian. “You seem to have an axe to grind. You decide to start a fight? My associate believes that you happen to be a zeppelin pilot of some infamy.” He raised his eyebrows. “That was him being polite. In Texas we call you people skypirates. An’ that title carries with it a certain brand of behaviour.”

The stocky skypirate glared back as good as she got. “I answer to the Law the same as you.” She drew to her full, stumpy height. “I answer to the almighty Constitution of the United States of America, the once and future Law of this wayward nation. And it states that I’m well within my rights to protect my interests in my own way, whether on the ground or in the sky.” She scowled. “And I didn’t start no fight. Didn’t start no fight at all. I was the only one hell bent on staying in the game.” She crooked her head in the direction of the flapper. “Me and Miss No Self Respect here.”

“Heeey!” scowled the flapper.

“I wanted to play on. But these here cowards started retreating. Giving up ground. They gave up they did. Threw in the towel and let the ridiculous sequined monster here- -“

“Heeey!”

“- - take all the money. I was staying in and taking what was rightfully mine. Why don’t you ask the cowards? Ask him!” She practically jerked herself out of her seat, pecking at the American/Canadian. “He was the first one to quit. Ask him!”

The sheriff crossed his arms and looked in ‘his’ direction.

“Wasn’t me,” retorted the subject of the old woman’s scorn.

“Sure it was you,” the skypirate replied. “You’ve got no spine, retreating like that. And it makes perfect sense now. It’s the sort of behaviour I’d expect from someone who crawled back into the enslavement and interference of the King of England. You’re a coward and I’m ashamed to have sat at the same table as ya.”

The proud citizen of the Empire sneered back. “Tell me this, American. Who’s been interfering with your drinking habits – the King of England or American politicians and your beloved and now defunct constitution?” He turned to the sheriff. “I peacefully quit the game because the stakes were no longer friendly.” He looked back at the proud American. “Then I enjoyed a custom legally available to citizens of the civilised world – a drink of beer from the bar!” Once more he turned back to the sheriff. “Just ask the barman.”

The sheriff’s crossed arms clenched tighter. This was getting ridiculous.

A polite but officious cough from behind drew his attention. It was the Confederate. “Excuse me, sah. Like all Confederate gentlemen,” he gave the sheriff a conspiratorial wink, “I appreciate the need to maintain these he’re appearances,” he looked at his bound arms. “But now the preliminaries have been processed I do believe we are avoiding the, uh, elephant in our midst. Forgetting the... other element in the roo’m.” With this he began to not-so-subtly crook his balding head in the direction of the cowboy to his distant right.
The cowboy glared back at him. “Oh, so now you’re being subtle about it, are you?”

The proud Imperial across the circle nodded his head slowly, eyes screwed up in suspicion. “He is French...”
The Confederate, ignoring the cowboy altogether, frowned at the Canadian. “Not exactly the thrust of my argument, sah. There are... other- -“

“What’s wrong with the French?” squawked the flapper.

“They’re French!” cried both the skypirate and Canadian in unison.

The Californian shrugged and nodded, as if conceding the point. “They have a point- -”

“It’s really not what I was saying- -“

“Well I know what you’re saying about me and if there weren’t no sheriff here- -“

“If you hate the French you hate Paris and there ain’t nothing wrong with anything from Paris- -“

“You are all completely missing my point- -“

“Oh, I’m gettin’ your point loud and clear, you- -“

BLAM!BLAM!

In the renewed silence the sheriff glared at as many people as he possibly could. “Silence.” He holstered the Peacemaker again and pointed to the Confederate. “Were you playing cards?”

The Confederate smiled. “Indeed I was, sah. And losing the shirt off my back.” He feigned laughter. “Figuratively speaking, of course.”

The sheriff nodded and pointed to the cowboy. “Well that makes him innocent, then.”

The Confederate scoffed. “What do you mean, ‘It makes him innocent’? How is that a deduction of the... suspects innocence?”

The sheriff folded his arms again. “Cause I know that the fight was started by someone playing cards.” He leaned in closer. “You wouldn’t be playing cards if he was playing cards. So if you were playing, he wasn’t, which makes him innocent.” The sheriff looked to Burnham. “I’m assuming you came to the same conclusion Mister Burnham. That would be why you didn’t tie him up..?”

The Confederate’s neck snapped around to see the cowboy smiling at him with delight, reaching his arms forward to reveal that he was not, in fact, tied to his chair. He was only spectating.

Meanwhile, Burnham nodded his head with pride. So vigorously it almost became a curtsy. “I figured he weren’t responsible. But he was participatin’ so I told him he had to wait around.”

The sheriff nodded his agreement and Burnham practically blushed from the complement. The sheriff turned to the now outraged southerner. “Our mutual friend from Louisiana didn’t start this fight. His participation was just... self defense. Although he certainly didn’t help matters and will be paying his fair share of damages.”

The Confederate couldn’t help taking another look at the cowboy who just grinned back at his still gin-soaked accuser, giving a hopeless shrug. “What else could I do? You were charging right at me.” Then he snorted and guffawed as the southerner went red with rage.

The sheriff growled with impatience. “That still leaves you, sir. And my pool of suspects is getting shallow.”

The Confederate spluttered with rage. “Me? Me!? How dare you, sah. How dare you? Why, if you weren’t a member of law enforcement it would be my place to duel you, sah. How dare you besmirch my honour as a gentleman.”

“That’s right,” chimed in the Californian. “You realise how damaging these baseless accusations can be to someone’s reputation? And some of us have more to lose than others. Some of us are beholden to our reputation.”

“And not much more,” scowled the skypirate.

The Confederate, not hearing, nodded profusely with his newfound ally. “Indeed. At least there is one other gentlemen of honour among this den of scallywags.”

The Californian nodded with finality. “There’s careers at stake and I don’t like the tone of this investigation. Especially without my lawyers present.”

The sheriff tried to control himself in the face of the vigorously nodding Confederate and the defiant poise of the stupidly moustached Californian. But he was very near his limit- -

“Yeees,” scowled the skypirate. “Now I see.” She was looking at the now worried Californian. “You’re avoiding the subject. Diverting, you are. Exactly the sort of behaviour I’d expect from someone so casually flippant with someone elses money. Your use of debt as a crutch should have been my first clue...”

“There is nothing wrong with living in debt. It’s a fundamental plank of the capitalist system and one which the Republic of CaliModerna whole heartedly embraces and- -“

He ground to a halt as his eyes met the horrified visage of his once strong ally, the Confederate.

The Confederate sputtered until he could find his voice. “But, but... That means you’re a...” He shook off his confusion, his face now a picture of affronted indignation. “You, sah, are a Democrat!”

The Californian smiled. “Of course I am.” His face suddenly dropped. “You’re not?”

“No!” was the indignant response.

“Ah-hah!” cried the skypirate. “We have you now. You are guilty! You are the one who has caused this mess!”

“Waitaminute!” exclaimed the flapper. “Bein’ a Democrat don’t make you guilty. In fact it’s the opposite. Only a Republican would have the audacity to illegally rig the game when they were about to lose everything.”

Suddenly the room was filled with indignant voices as everyone argued back and forth. The sheriff began to furiously rub his eyes as the noise rose to a cacophony.

The Confederate began to shunt his chair across the floor in a bid to get as far away from the Californian as he possibly could. “I will not associate,” he grunted, “With the likes of you- -“ grunt, “My good sah- -“ grunt.

As his chair squeaked and squawked its way across the room and people continued to shout, the flapper noted the Confederate’s progress toward her position and began to shunt her own chair forward. “Well if you’re comin’ over here then I’m goin’ over there cause I don’t want nothin’ to do with- -“

As the two chair tied objectors passed each other crossing the floor the skypirate shuffled closer to the bar in order to make sure she wasn’t further to the other side while the cowboy saw what was happening and presently stood up and wandered over to the bar behind the skypirate.

“What are you doing?” exclaimed the flapper, barely able to look back at him.

He relaxed back against the bar. “I’m a big believer in a government’s responsibility to  stay out of the way of its citizens.”

The flapper gasped in amazement and continued her dog shuffle across to the Californian who was still yelling abuse at the skypirate while the Confederate finally made his way to where the flapper had previously been and began to shuffle around to face the right way. The two gangsters looked at each other then... went in opposite directions, both in shock that the other had not followed their lead. They took their place on either side of the circle and eyed each other suspiciously as everyone began arguing about which side of the room the confused Canadian should cross to- -

“I’ve had enough!” bellowed the sheriff. He stalked across the circle, up the stairs and towards the front door of the saloon.

Burnham looked at him in shock, as the room’s arguments came to an uneven halt. “Where are you goin’, sheriff?”

“I’m going home!”

“But...” The gangster indicated the confused circle of armchair politics-afficiandos staring after the sheriff. “What do we do with them?”

“I’m from Texas,” the sheriff bellowed over his shoulder in the renewed silence. “Do whatever you want to do. I don’t care!” He pushed on the swinging doors. “I really don’t care any more!”

•••

In the following silence the gangsters both looked at each other. Then, along with everyone else in the room, stared at the swinging doors the sheriff had disappeared through. In the distance was the retreating sound of hoof beats.

Burnham looked at Cerano. Cerano shrugged. He nodded and looked around at the circle of people tied to their chairs. His eyes came to rest on the flapper – the one who had been winning the card game. He raised his Tommy gun. “Gimme your wallet.”

To a soundtrack of helpess protests, Burnham moved across the room to rifle through the Confederate’s jacket and ‘politely’ ask for the cowboys ‘spare change’.

* * *

Grant Gardiner is a new author fascinated with the pulp-ier side of life. He writes adventure and gangster noir stories set in an alternate timeline 1920s America of his own creation, one in which the United States is not so united any more. This alternate world he has dubbed The Aether Age and it has allowed him to indulge his obsession with all things pulp, Dieselpunk, superhero, action/adventure, and anything to do with pop culture in the 20s and 30s.

1 comment:

  1. That was a fun read with some great character interactions. I read "The Aether Age" in the Dieselpunk anthology that I found on Google Play Books and followed the link here. I was not disappointed :-) I am really hoping to reat more of your work

    ReplyDelete