Odd Men Out

Odd Men Out

by Matt Betts

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Overview

"It’s impossible to say this too strongly: this steampunk-horror-historical-thriller crossbreed is an amazing book."—Booklist (starred review)

The Civil War has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it's on hold while both sides face a new enemy-the chewers, dead men who've come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn't fight in the war and couldn't care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he's forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.'s peace-keeping force. It's soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.

“The stakes are high and the action and surprises are nonstop as Betts skillfully mixes elements of steampunk, alternate history, science fiction, and horror.”—Publishers Weekly

“A compelling story line, light humor, and a steampunk vibe make this an interesting and fun read.”­—Library Journal

“Let the situations wash over you–in the first few pages of this book, I went from feeling like I was inside Serenity or Firefly to experiencing echoes of BioShock. It’s awesome and fun.”—A Geography of Reading

“Betts has built a vivid steampunk history of the Reconstruction, one where giant lizards and zombies roam a desolate United Nations of America.”

—Paul Melko, Award-Winning Author of The Walls of the Universe and The Broken Universe

“Matt Betts is a god of pop culture. His debut novel, Odd Men Out, is a glorious blend of everything that is right with the sci-fi genre. He manages to put together a book with shades of Firefly, Miyazaki, and Godzilla while keeping it fresh and true to his own deliciously askew voice.”

-Mercedes M. Yardley, author of Beautiful Sorrows

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935738466
Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
Publication date: 07/19/2013
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.52(d)

Read an Excerpt

ODD MEN OUT


By Matt Betts

DOG STAR BOOKS

Copyright © 2013 Matt Betts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935738-46-6


CHAPTER 1

Cyrus Joseph Spencer spied another insect on a pile of crumbs near the edge of the table and ground it beneath his palm. "Lester," he mumbled. He braced himself against the bulkhead as the Turtle lurched with another giant step.

"Lester!" He enjoyed the way his voice echoed in the tight halls.

Lucinda stood in the center of the washroom as he walked past. Without a word she used a soapy hand to point farther down the hall toward the outer hatch.

Cyrus grunted and continued stomping down the rattling metal deck.

He shoved the rusty hatch open and stepped out into the bright sunshine of the observation deck. "Lester! What in hell did I say about eating in the goddamn navigation room?" He shaded his eyes and scanned the deck, seeing Lester Lomak with his face pressed against the telescope. "Lester, I've half a—" The ship lurched again and he grabbed the rail. Cyrus looked down at the land far below them. He could see one of the massive legs bow out as it went back down to the ground with a rumble and crunch. "I've half a mind to toss you over the side and let things happen as they will." He was perturbed that the boy wouldn't even look at him. "I'm talking—"

Lester interrupted. "There's an airship."

"What?" Cyrus moved toward the kid.

"On the horizon. An airship."

Cyrus nudged Lester out of the way and looked through the telescope. "How long's it been there?" Cyrus turned to look at the boy. He'd finally gotten to the point where the teen's face didn't make him cringe. His cheek and jaw on the left side were a dark scarred mess—the victim of an exploding boiler when he was younger. It hadn't healed well.

"Noticed it a few minutes back," Lester said.

"Any idea what it's doing?"

"Sittin' there. Far as I can tell." The boy shrugged.

"That's almost due north?"

Lester nodded. "That would probably mean they're over Sacramento."

"Mmm." Cyrus put his eye back to the scope. "They can have it. That town's a hole anyway. It ain't nothing but another zombie lounge now. If they think they can salvage something there, good luck to 'em." Cyrus gave the dot on the horizon another hard look. He envied whoever was onboard for their freedom. An airship could go places that the five-story six-legged Turtle couldn't. "Any markings?"

"Not that I can tell."

The hatch opened and Lucinda stepped out onto the deck. "Crew meeting I wasn't informed of?"

Cyrus hiked his thumb at the boy. "Our lookout actually saw something. Tell 'er what you found, kid." He started walking toward the hatch.

Lester put his hands on the telescope and looked down at his feet. The high-pitched sound of one of the Turtle's massive iron legs rising and then plunging to the ground invaded the silence.

The boy had a crush on Lucinda, it was plain to see. Cyrus did nothing to discourage it, and completely understood the power she had over any number of men they'd encountered. He himself had let his mind drift to thoughts of her long legs and dark hair. She'd made it clear that none of the crew was on her agenda, but it never stopped them from considering it. "Found himself an airship."

"Whose?" Lucinda asked.

"Don't know," Cyrus said. "Keep watching, Lester. Let me know if anything changes." He opened the hatch and held it for Lucinda. His hand came away with flakes of rust, and he wiped the red-orange residue onto his vest.

As Lucinda entered, she spoke up a little to be heard over the vibration and rattle of the Turtle's movements. "Gibson says the passengers in the cargo hold are bitching," she said.

It was dark in the hall, with only the sunlight streaming through the occasional porthole to guide them. Still, Cyrus made a show of looking at his watch. "Six days already? Right on time. Let me guess. They're hot and hungry and want fresh air? Did anyone mention to these people before they got aboard that they'd be traveling cross country in a giant, slow-moving metal box in the middle of summer?"

"With three hundred other people ..."

He'd heard the same complaints on every trip he'd captained for the last two years. A three-week journey from one civilized and safe coast to the next and less than a third of the way through, everyone wants to go home. They hate the food, can't stand the smell of their fellow human beings and the metallic grey and green walls are nothing to look at. "Is this meant to be your daily report?"

"No. Gibson was getting shit. I thought I'd pass it along."

Cyrus opened the hatch to his quarters. "I'll make a note."

"Oh, there is something else. I hate to mention it," Lucinda said.

Cyrus turned back and raised his eyebrow. She never mentioned anything unless it was important.

"Gibson got a note from the administrator down in the hold." Her face was hard to read as it fluctuated from skeptical to grim. "Probably nothing."

"Go on."

"She seems to think one of the passengers is infected."

CHAPTER 2

The crowds moved along at a pace just slow enough to take in all the sights and sounds of the boardwalk, but just fast enough not to be drawn in by the barkers trying to take their money at the games of chance or freak shows. Colorful balloons and streamers waved from the booths, nudged aloft by the breeze coming off the Pacific. The breeze also carried the underlying oaky aroma of smoke from the vendors that made foodstuffs—gingerbread cookies, bread and other overpriced treats.

Thomas Preston moved easily through the people, not allowing himself to be slowed or blocked by the looky-loos. He'd stopped staring at the sights years ago, and the barkers knew they had no chance to gain his interest. From the day Tom had gone to work for Umberto Cantolione, everything had changed. People started treating him differently. They knew the influence and power that Cantolione held and by extension, they gave it to Tom. They assumed that a pillar of the community such as Cantolione would only surround himself with like-minded people.

Tom was fine with that.

At first it seemed logical to Tom that Cantolione had to be a criminal mastermind, but it became obvious in the early days that he was just a good guy that made his name and his money by hard work. While Tom admired the ethic, it certainly wasn't his own style. Cantolione was naïve and trusting and took Tom at his word on every matter from his work experience to his family name. It was easy to insinuate himself into the business.

He rounded the corner of the last block to the familiar sounds of the steam organ belting out "The Frog in the Well" as it did with infuriating frequency during the day. It was at this corner that the stench of the main boulevard hit Tom every day. The heavy fragrance of the sea air mixed with the accumulated history of the bodily odors of thousands of visitors to the area. Even when there was almost no one there, it seemed the street remembered and spat their smells back out. It was almost as bad as the fragrant dung of the animals that populated Tom's workplace.

The sounds of a barker were louder here, amplified by a megaphone to make them heard above everything else on the boardwalk. Tom stopped to take in the spectacle of the business that his boss had constructed here. It wasn't a pathetic wooden stall like everyone else's property—it was an experience.

While he wasn't the brightest when it came to human nature, Cantolione was a natural showman and promoter. He had put together a destination for the people of the West to flock to for entertainment, and he'd named it after himself: The Cantolione Family Hall of Amazement. He had constructed a small zoo, complete with an elephant, bear, alligator. The other animals were ones anyone could encounter in the nearby woods and trails. There was a fox, some raccoons, common birds and even a dog that one of the workers had picked up as a stray. Cantolione posted a sign on its cage claiming it was a highly sought-after European breed. When people got to the elephant and the major attractions, they generally forgot about their disappointment at the other animals.

The sprawling compound included a circus-like big top in the middle of the buildings. Here, his boss acted as ringmaster, introducing acts from clowns and acrobats to dancing cats and trick-shot gunmen.

Just a block away from the Hall of Amazement, casting a shadow over the rest of the boardwalk, was the airship tower called Cantolione's Launch. He charged passengers a minor pittance for one of his pilots to fly them down the coast for an hour and serve them stale cheese and watered-down drinks. The tower was also the departure point for Cantolione's cross-country flights. Pilgrims who wanted to head for the East in comfort sat in the spacious lobby and waited in style. That morning, the dirigible Pride and Joy sat moored and ready for the influx of tourists. They could get from point A to point B in almost a month via a Turtle and its squalor, or take an airship and get there comfortably in a week. Luxury cost a bit more though.

At the steps to the Hall of Amazement, Tom looked up to the barker's stand. The man hawking the zoo and the tours was his boss, dressed in a colorful topcoat and matching red top hat. It didn't surprise him—it happened a couple of times a week. Cantolione liked to be involved in all areas of his company. Tom nodded and waved, but Cantolione didn't even slow his pitch to acknowledge Tom's existence. Not that Tom minded—he was a little embarrassed by the atmosphere and the day-to-day antics of the company's public persona.

Tom walked through the always-open doors of the lobby, winking as he passed Janine, the ticket seller, and continued down the hall plastered with bright posters announcing past and upcoming exhibits—the Ying Sisters of China, the two-headed giraffe, the Belgian plate spinners. In the lobby proper, he strode past the permanent oddities behind the glass: jars with strange fetuses, shrunken heads. There were the innards of strange animals, malformed skeletons and an enlarged brain preserved in a green fluid. He had gotten over their novelty and grotesqueness quickly after he'd begun to work for Cantolione—especially when he'd found out they were fake.

The door to the main office was blocked by the shabby figure of Kendal Liddy, the company book keeper, fumbling with his keys while trying to keep his briefcase under his arm. His shirt was half-tucked in and his tie hung loose at his neck.

"Can I get that door for you?" Tom asked.

Kendal was startled, but managed to end up with a smile. "Thanks, I'm trying to do too much today, I think." As Kendal stepped back, he dropped the briefcase and a small stack of papers slid out. "Dang. Just isn't my morning."

Tom shook his head and unlocked the door. Kendal was a buffoon, but he knew his numbers and that made him useful in so many ways. "Brother, you just can't win, can you?"

Kendal looked up and flashed a wicked smile. "No, brother, I just can't." He returned to gathering his files. The man hid a secret like a child—the smile on his face gave away too much. Tom was beginning to think the idiot would spill his guts if only someone asked him the right questions.

The two of them had something in common, which was the only reason why Kendal was still around. "How are we doing on that front?"

Kendal looked to make sure they were alone, and then whispered his response. "Close."

"Excellent, let me help you up." Tom extended his hand and pulled.

Cantolione came through the hall just as Kendal was back on his feet. "Good to see everyone working so well together." Cantolione twirled his top hat on his index finger as he went. He passed it off to Tom as he moved into the office. "But I don't pay you people to stand around holding hands. Let's get to business."

They followed their boss and dropped their things in their respective areas. It was a tight room that housed the small desks of Tom and Kendal. The walls were barren and the single window was dirty and didn't close all the way. Opposite Tom's desk was a door that led to Cantolione's private office, which was adorned much more brightly, with colorful posters of acrobats and a window that extended the length of the wall and offered a view of both the crowds on the boardwalk and the line-up to the air tower.

Tom trailed his boss into the inner room to join him for their morning meeting. It was these gatherings that Tom enjoyed. Here they talked about real business matters, leaving things like lions and snakes for another time. They ran over the finances, reviewed the previous day's take and looked at the rest of Cantolione's massive empire.

"I think I'm going to have to let Cappy Marks go. He's a horrible barker," Cantolione said.

Tom hung the boss's hat on its standard hook by the door. "Aw, that's too bad. He's an excellent clown—a crowd favorite." A shiver ran up Tom's spine as he thought about what he'd just said. Even the real meat of the business often involved clowns and wild animals. He watched as his boss hastily moved over to the window and opened it.

"Listen," Cantolione said.

There was a faint shouting that Tom couldn't distinguish from the rest of the noise.

"He's terrible. He's got no banter, no ..."

"Repoire?"

"Exactly."

The image of the lanky man in his full clown makeup and clothes brought a smile to Tom's face. "So find someone else. Let Cappy do what he does best."

The room was filled with the sounds of crowds and popping balloons, and the faint staccato sound of Cappy trying to draw in the early morning drifters.

"I don't know who else to get." Cantolione rubbed his chin.

"We'll work on it. We'll find someone," Tom said. He sat at the small table in the corner and took out his notebook. He made a note that was barely legible about Cappy. He never intended to follow up on it, so it didn't matter what he put, as long as it looked good if Cantolione glanced over. He watched his boss fiddle with his jacket as he sat behind the oversized mahogany desk.

"I got a wire that some of our equipment up north got damaged in a pretty bad rainstorm yesterday. The air tower up there got some lightning strikes that knocked out the guidance lights. They're expecting more weather today."

Tom was aware of the situation. He'd had someone send the message. "Will they be able to continue the crossings on schedule?" Tom knew very well what sort of condition the airships were in—he'd had one of his best people oversee the maintenance. He wanted them in top shape when his own men took them.

"Nothing launching for the next couple of days up there, but one of our others should be landing this afternoon, hopefully. It may've been set back by the storms, too. We'll see what we get today."

"If it becomes a problem, maybe I should go up there and help out," Tom said.

"Not a bad idea, I'd say. Maybe someone needs to get up there and remind our contingent who they work for." Cantolione stopped as voices came from the outer room. Someone was talking to Kendal and after a moment there was a knock at the door.

"Mr. Cantolione? There's a man here says you'll want to talk," Kendal said.

Tom and his boss exchanged a glance. "Were we meeting with someone today?" Tom asked.

Cantolione shook his head no.

"Well, then. I guess you should tell him he's wrong," Tom said.

"He's very insistent." Kendal lowered his voice. "And large."

"Good God, Liddy. Show some backbone and toss him out." Tom saw the reluctance in the accountant's face. "What's his name?" he asked.

"He claims his name is Moose," Kendal said.
(Continues...)


Excerpted from ODD MEN OUT by Matt Betts. Copyright © 2013 Matt Betts. Excerpted by permission of DOG STAR BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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