The city of Veridon used Jacob Burn horribly. The Council, the Church, even his family betrayed his trust, and still Burn risked everything to save their lives. For his sacrifice, he lost his tenuous ties to lawful society, his place in the criminal underworld, and the only woman he ever loved. Now, to survive, Burn runs small-time jobs, like his latest gig, delivering a seemingly innocuous package to the Fehn.
The Fehn are a symbiotic race that dwell peacefully under the murky Reine River, colonizing any body that slips beneath its dark waters. But moments after Burn makes his delivery, swarms of dead Fehn clog the Reine. More terrifying are the horde of pearl-white cogdead Fehn who still walk, crawling out of the river to violently ransack the city.
Once again, Burn is responsible for Veridon’s survival, and the Fehn are just one of many threats the city suddenly faces. Burn thought he had nothing to lose, but protecting Veridon could cost him the one thing he has left . . . his life.
“Very fast-moving, full of action, color, and invention . . . It is fun, and it is interesting, and it sets a template for what could be an ongoing series in the noir detective/action fashion.” —SF Site
“Just when you think you know what’s going on, suddenly you’re not so sure. Akers writes a mean action sequence as well which stirs things up beautifully.” —Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
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HE WAS A CROW, HE WAS A CRANE
There are people you should shoot the first time you meet them. Just to keep it simple. And you usually don't know it until it's well too late, and well more complicated than you ever wanted it to be. Ezekiel Crane is a man I should have shot, first time I laid eyes on him. Pound of trouble that would have saved.
Gray Anderson and I had been working odd jobs for the past year. We were never going to get above petty criminal, and while I was okay with never drawing the kind of attention my past had afforded me, Gray had ambition. Nice word for 'recklessness,' and Gray wasn't the kind of guy who could get himself cleanly out of trouble. It was why he brought me along, honestly. I had a way of getting into trouble, and eventually that gives you a way of getting out of trouble. Certain skills you acquire.
Trouble was, getting out of all that trouble had given Gray the idea that he was getting good at it. That he could take the big risks, the bad deals, and old Jacob would get him clear of it when the walls caught on fire and the guns were drawn. Kept taking worse jobs, for better money, and we were getting a reputation as a reckless crew. A wrecking crew. It was going nowhere good.
And that's how we met Mr. Crane. Worst job Gray ever took. Worst trouble I ever got us out of.
It was a Tuesday. Pissing rain. Kind of night I liked to hunker down in some familiar pub and stare into the fire until they made me buy a beer. I could usually afford a couple. Point was, I didn't like standing in the rain, or even under an eave in the wet street while the rain hammered the cobbles and drenched my boots. Basically, I didn't like everything that I'd been doing all night, running from shelter to shelter as Gray led me across the city to some meeting.
Worse, he was in a great mood. Gray Anderson has earned his first name, mostly by moping about the weather or mourning the loss of the love of some great lady he's never actually met. That's how I like the man. Sullen. Morbid. Levity sat awkwardly on his frame. But here he was, ducking his head before dashing across the street, cackling with glee as he splashed through the sheets of runoff. It was miserable.
"Grand night, Jacob! Glorious night! A night we'll remember, I dare say."
"For the pneumonia that killed us?" I asked. No matter how high I shrugged my overcoat over my shoulders, an icy spike of water ran down my back with each sprint into the rain. I was beginning to doubt the coat's willingness to perform its duty. "Or for a more general misery that ruins our happiness, but fails to kill us?"
"For the fortune that we'll be packing away, Jacob!" Gray stopped in the middle of the road and raised his arms, as though he was greeting the sun. "The fortune!"
"That's our job tonight? Packing away fortune?" I smirked. "That's a pretty good job. Surprised they're just giving that one away to anyone."
"Don't be a glum bastard, Burnie. This is just a step to the fortune. But gods, such a step it is." He poked me in the shoulder as I hurried past him into the next bit of shelter. "Though to be honest, hardly any fortune in this particular job. You understand. It's a step. But there's fortune behind it. This fellow, this Crane chap, he has the money."
"Then why haven't I heard of him, Gray?" I paused under our most recent shelter and fixed my usually sullen compatriot with an unhappy glare. "I know a lot of rich people in this town. You might say I know all of them. By name. None of them go by Erat-a-tat Crane."
"Ezekiel. Ezekiel Crane. Jacob, you need to learn to show some respect. He's an out-of-town interest. And wherever he's from, it is lined in vaults of money and style and class." He broke into an ugly grin that revealed a youth spent in direct rebellion to all forms of oral surgery. "Our man Crane has it dripping it off him."
"Well. I can't imagine how this could go wrong, Gray. Mysterious out of town richie reaches out to the criminal underclass for the sole purpose of making them filthy rich." I clapped Gray on the shoulder. "Your plan is impeccable, my man Gray. Without flaw."
"You're such a shit. But I'm not going to let it get to me, Jacob. Not tonight. And he didn't just reach out to the criminal underclass. He reached out to you, my boy. Jacob Burn."
"Asked for you by name. Well, good as. Heard who I was working with, and his man came to me. Sought me out, you understand." Gray poked me solidly in the chest and laughed. "Always knew that sticking with you was the right move."
I didn't like this. I didn't like people who wanted to know me. Never had a good reason for it. Never had a reason that agreed with me.
"Gray, I want you to listen to me very closely. This is a bad thing. The people in this city who want to work with me, they usually want to kill me while they're at it. Do you understand? I can't imagine why someone from out of town would be any better."
"Leave it alone, Jacob. You scare easy. And I understand that, what with your ..." – he waved one hand – "your history. But this is going to work out. It's a good job. It's a good step for us to take. Stop worrying about everything."
"It's what I do, Gray. It's why we're not dead. I worry about these things." I pulled him away from the road, staring unhappily down toward our eventual destination. Our meeting with this Mr. Crane. "And I'm telling you, this is not a good thing for us."
"Jacob," Gray said sternly, his fractured smile slipping for just a second. "Listen to me. We're getting nowhere. The jobs we do, the people we work for ... they're shit. The pay's terrible, the work's terrible. Everything about them is just terrible. And someday, probably soon, they're going to get us killed."
"Working for a rich man doesn't make that any less likely," I muttered.
"No. But I'd rather die in clean clothes, with my belly fully of meat, than in some damn ditch." He pulled himself free of my grasp and adjusted his natty brown suit. "Now come on."
The place didn't look like much from the outside. A wooden house, planking old and black and stained, dark red curtains drawn. No sign of light on the inside. No guard at the front, no knocker on the door. Gray shuffled through the mud and banged on the door with his meaty fist, and the door opened to a thin gentleman in spectacles, his face curiously smooth. We went inside.
"You're Mister Crane, then?" Gray asked the thin gentleman. The guy didn't say anything, didn't answer, just walked out of the room. I was about to follow him when he closed the door behind him.
"You've not met the guy?" I asked, looking around. Small foyer, the walls bare wood, two empty bookshelves that could have been there for a hundred years, sagging under their own weight. The door we had come in, the door Mr. Thin had gone out. One light: an old fashioned oil lamp that flickered and danced in the drafts. The rain outside was hammering on windows in other rooms, and under that harsh background noise I could hear movement. Bodies moving across floors, joists creaking, doors opening and conversations being had. It was hard to get my bearings in this place. Could have been mostly empty. Could have been packed with people. Hard to say.
"Met him? No. Met with an associate, who had met with this Crane guy's associate. Roundabout." Gray shook the rain off his coat and shrugged. "You know how business gets done."
Gray and I stood in opposite corners of the little room, generally being unhappy with each other. A lot of the jobs Gray got, he got because he knew me. I was his ticket up. The fact that I didn't want to go up, had been up and was finished with it, presented a lot of problems in our relationship. That wasn't my problem, but it made things awkward sometimes.
So why did I hang out with him? He's curious. Story on the street is that Gray used to be a Wright of the Holy Algorithm, and had quit. And that's not something people do. I had probed this little bit of history, but it's not something he talks about. He had the hands for it, though. Big meaty hands, eternally lined in grease, and he was more than comfortable around machines. Had that divine touch about him, when it came to cogwork. But still. The Church of the Algorithm didn't just let their people go. A Wright stayed in the Church, or died in its service. Only other way free was to take the pump implant in your head, and since Gray could still talk and didn't soil himself too regularly, I didn't think that had been his path. So. He makes me curious.
We stood around awkwardly until the door opened again, and Mr. Thin came through. For all the movement I heard in the house, I swear I didn't hear him walk away from the door, or approach it again. But here he was. He nodded to us, then disappeared into the hallway. We waited for a second, then followed.
The hallway beyond was narrow and low, like a long wooden tunnel dug in a hill. Doors led off, but none of the rooms seemed to be lit. Occupied, though. That's for sure. People moved in those rooms, light or no light. I had a bad moment about what we were getting into, whether anyone would hear from us again, but none of the doors seemed to have locks. I kept my hand near the revolver, just in case.
Mr. Thin led us to the center of the house, near as I could tell. I had yet to see a stairway, but there was definitely an upper level to this place. It actually sounded like someone was walking the hallway above us, keeping pace. We got to a door that was bigger than the rest, its wide face varnished red, with brass fittings. Light under the sill. Our quiet friend opened the door, bowed, and didn't move. Gray winked at me, then went inside.
The room was warm. Tropical, almost. There was a fireplace on the opposite wall, its roaring light drowning out much of the detail in the rest of the room. Nice furniture, turn-of-the-era stuff. Might be original to the house. This district had been nice, once. Like much of Veridon. Once.
At the center of the room was a table, papers spread out all over it, their curling edges held in place by bottles and candlesticks, and a forest of waxy candles that had melted in place. They were all lit, although the light and heat of the fireplace was a sun to their stars. Facing us was our man, our Mister Crane. He stood hunched over the table, his long arms spread wide across its surface. He had a soft face, the skin white and smooth, his features rather bookish. Neatly trimmed black hair, wire rim glasses that were spotted with the reflections of the sea of candles on the table. He looked lost in thought. Gray Anderson stepped forward and cleared his throat.
"Mr. Crane, is it? We've ..."
"I heard you enter, you know." His voice was soft and precise, much older than his face would claim. He reminded me of a schoolmaster I had in the country, back when the Burn family fortune was enough to afford semesters away. "I've just been following a particularly elusive thought, and I didn't want to lose it." He straightened and removed his glasses, folding them in his large hands with a creak. "Which, sadly, I have."
He watched us with clinical interest for a dozen breaths, his soft eyes narrowed slightly, as if in concentration. Finally he tapped the table with his glasses, then set them down and straightened even more, standing when he had apparently be sitting on a bench. I leaned back, startled at how tall and how gaunt he was. His neat hair nearly touched the ceiling.
"Bloody hell," Gray muttered. "See how you got your name, friend."
Crane smiled patiently. "It's quite an old family name, actually. But yes. I do seem to have grown into it."
He came around the table and motioned to a set of chairs near the fire. Folded himself into one of them. We arranged ourselves opposite.
"So," Crane said, "Jacob Burn, yes?"
"And Gray Anderson, sir. Gray's not my given name, of course, but it's what everyone calls me."
"I was terribly sorry to hear about the decline of your family, Jacob. Politics in Veridon can be a cruel joke, sometimes."
"Sorry," I said, arranging myself in the chair so that the revolver wasn't too obvious. "Gray said that you were from out of town."
"I am. Very much from out of town. Just came down the river last month. I was very fortunate to be able to secure these lodgings with so little hassle. But I keep track of the doings of decent folk." He scratched his head and peered pensively into the fire. "You could consider it something a hobby of mine."
"And what brings you to town?" I asked.
"Business. Family business. The Cranes have had very little to do with Veridon for years. Not very fond of this town," he held up a hand, "Nothing personal. Not fond of cities in general. Hopefully I won't be long at this."
"And that's where we come in," Gray said, trying to edge himself into the conversation. Mister Crane gave him a polite nod and turned his attention back to me.
"You'll forgive me for asking, I hope. Your friend Valentine? He is no longer your friend?"
"You know a lot about Veridon, for being here only a month."
"I do my research, Mr. Burn. I make a study of things, before I make a plan. So, you no longer work for Valentine. Have no contact with him."
He leaned back in his chair, looking at me very carefully. Weighing me.
"Fair enough. And your partner here?"
"Valentine doesn't know Gray exists. We're not big enough to draw his attention. Only thing that keeps me alive. Can I ask why that matters?"
"And would you say that you hate him?" Ignoring my question. "Or that he hates you?"
"There's no love in our dealings," I said. Not since he'd used me as bait in a bad bit of business, then cut me loose to save my own skin. Stepped back in when it had looked profitable to him, offered his help. I had declined. Violently. "What are you getting at?"
"I need something done, nothing drastic. But I need it done without Valentine's involvement, and without his knowledge. It's very difficult to find competent people in this town who aren't beholden to that clockwork abomination."
"He kills folks he doesn't agree with," I said. A little surprised at the way he'd said 'clockwork.' Like a curse.
"And yet he hasn't killed you," Crane said, quietly. "Hm. Well. His business, I suppose."
"Are you saying you would have, in his position?" I leaned forward in my chair. "Killed me?"
"My dear Jacob," Crane said as he folded his hands across his sharp knees. "I am not in the business of killing. But I find it useful to understand people who are in that business. And not killing you does not line up with what I know of that man. That is all." He stood and went to the table.
"So, this job ..." Gray said.
"This job," Crane fixed Gray with a narrow eye and picked up his glasses. "This job is fairly simple. But as I said, it needs to be done discreetly." He ran his hands over the table until he found an envelope, then turned and handed it to Gray. "This is the number that was discussed."
Gray opened the envelope and paled, then tucked it into his jacket. That was all the answer Crane needed. From the table he took another envelope and, once again ignoring Gray, handed it to me. It was waxy, like it had been waterproofed, and was sealed shut.
"Two things I need delivered to an address. This is the first. The second I will arrange for you to pick up, tomorrow morning."
"What sort of thing is it?" I asked.
"A complicated thing. It is still being built, according to my specifications. I have been assured that it will be finished tonight." He folded the glasses away and leaned against the table. He was still a good head taller than me. "Someone will come to you with directions. And you're going to need to make your own travel arrangements. I don't want my name involved in that."
"Travel? Are we leaving the city?"
"Hardly at all. But you are going to a somewhat difficult place. You will need to get your hands on the appropriate equipment. And soon. I need this delivery made the morning after next."
"What sort of equipment?" I asked. "Where are we going?"
In answer, Ezekiel Crane smiled the sharpest smile I had seen in quite a while.
"The river," he said. "You're going to be visiting the Fehn."
"Under the river, hm?" I said, sliding the envelope into my coat pocket. "Well. I have a friend who can help with that."
* * *
The river Reine shrugged dark shoulders under a coat of fog. Veridon was behind us, its constellation of lights dim through the mists, the sounds of the harbor muffled through the cold, wet air. I shivered and pulled the worn collar of my coat closer to my neck. I had one hand on the railing, the chill of the iron stinging the tips of my fingers. My other hand was resting on the revolver in my belt. This was a good place to drop a body, and I didn't know the crew. They were over my shoulder, talking quietly among themselves.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dead of Veridon"
Copyright © 2011 Tim Akers.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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