It’s been a busy week around here. A last minute reprieve in the form of money for my birthday kept me out of the pawn shops for a few more weeks. The March bills are paid and the fridge and pantry are full of food. Life is doable (is too a word) once more. Not to mention the fact that I had a job interview (at last!) yesterday that has left me feeling hopeful.
In other news, my publishers’ pitch for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award apparently wasn’t up to scratch. I didn’t make the cut into the second round. It didn’t help that I was probably in the wrong category. I always thought of A City of Wood as a mystery novel with steam punk elements, but others seem to view it as urban fantasy. I’ll know better next time.
I also have another excerpt from that novel that I’d like to show you. I haven’t mentioned Gideon Harper yet. He forms the third POV character in the book. In some ways, he’s the second lead. Gideon is a Civil War veteran and Bertram’s secret lover.
The scene below is unfolding at the same time that Kasimir and his friends are trying to track down Dick Fletcher in the previous excerpt, and also has an appearance by the mysterious Mr. Smith. Gideon has spent the morning puzzling over a series of thefts that have been taking place at the warehouse where he works, when something else catches his attention..
THE MORNING PASSED quickly on the docks. Cooler weather did indeed seem to invigorate everyone and kept tempers in check. Crates and kegs were unloaded from both steamers and schooners smoothly and on schedule. Thankfully, there were no repeats of yesterday’s disasters.
Gideon could find no further discrepancies in his ledger. He began to wonder if the heat and frenzied pace of the past few days had simply softened his brain, and he really had miscounted the silk . People did make mistakes, and he was certainly not immune. Neither was Jameson, for all of his obsessive checking and double-checking.
Noon saw him sitting on an empty keg, eating an apple that he’d purchased from one of the vendors who catered to the waterfront. Somehow in all of his distraction that morning, he’d forgotten his lunch.
“That all you got to eat?” Krakowski asked. “You want to maybe share some of mine?” He held out a tin pail and lifted the lid. The smell of cabbage wafted out. “I got plenty.”
Gideon shook his head. He hated cabbage. “No thank you. This is plenty for me.” He took another bite of the apple.
“Well, I guess you’re little enough you don’t need much. Me, I couldn’t last an hour on what you eat in a day. Isn’t that right, Jameson?”
Jameson was perched on his own keg, nibbling at some sort of pastry. He slanted a sideways look at the big man and said, “You certainly eat enough for three. Though how you can stomach that mess you bring every day, I don’t know. It smells like something’s died.”
“Ho, you just don’t understand good hearty food, that’s all. This stuff my mama makes, that her mama taught her, all the way back in Bialystok…it makes you big and strong. That’s why you’re so skinny, maybe.”
“I tell you, I can smell something putrid every time the wind shifts,” Jameson retorted.
Gideon chewed slowly, ignoring their bickering. He really could’ve used something else to eat, but decided it would cause too much trouble to ask for it now. He took another bite, savoring the tart sweetness, and gazed at the sunlit waters of the harbor.
A tall ship slowly turned into the mouth of the river. As he watched, men scrambled to turn the gears that swung the ninety-degree bridge to one side—pedestrians be damned—in order to give the ship passage. It was a tight fit.
The wind shifted, bringing with it something else under the smell of sweat and tar and fish. Gideon paused in the act of taking another bite. He knew that odor. It choked his memories and haunted his dreams, a ghost of old battlefields.
All of his senses suddenly alert, he scanned the docks, looking for the source. His eye fell upon a huddle of dark blue. Cyrus was curled up in his usual place, his head on his chest. It didn’t look as if he had moved all morning. Gideon’s heart, which had been in his throat, fell down to his feet as his body went cold with dread.
“Has either of you seen Cyrus move, or talk to anyone today?” he said. His tone caused Krakowski and Jameson to look up.
“No,” Krakowski said.
Jameson shook his head. “I wasn’t watching him,” he said, “I couldn’t tell you if he has or not.”
Gideon tossed aside the apple and hopped down off the keg. He walked rapidly toward the dock, his heart racing. The other two men followed. The putrid smell grew stronger as they came closer.
The old man was leaning against a pier, his head bent toward his chest. His hands were curled in his lap. He might’ve just dozed off, were it not for the livid color of his skin and the flies crawling around his collar. His eyes were closed. Jameson made an inarticulate noise and covered his mouth with his hand. Krakowski looked green.
Gideon crouched down beside the body. Something wasn’t right, apart from the obvious. He had seen enough dead bodies over the course of the war, their mouths agape and their eyes…when they still had eyes…fixed in a glassy stare. Untidy heaps of humanity, without grace or dignity.
Unless someone came along to tidy them up. From the look of it, someone had taken the time to close Cyrus’s eyes and arrange his body. Even his collar was pulled up tight around his neck. That collar drew his attention. He watched for several heartbeats as flies crawled in and out of it in some profusion.
Swallowing hard, heart pounding in anticipation of what he knew must be there, he held his breath and gently pulled it back to expose what was underneath. A swarm of flies buzzed around the old man’s neck like a necklace, feasting on the dried blood of the gash that neatly split his throat in two.
A retching sound pulled Gideon’s attention away from the grisly sight. He looked around and saw Krakowski kneeling on the edge of the dock, spewing his lunch into the water. Jameson had retreated several feet away, staring at the murdered man. He looked pale.
“Go and fetch the harbor master,” Gideon said to him, rising to his feet. “I’ll wait here with the body.”
Jameson met his eyes, shock and growing horror in his gaze. Gideon waited, letting his words sink in.
Comprehension finally dawned in the other man’s face. He nodded, apparently still unable to speak. Gideon watched him sprint across the docks, and then turned to Krakowski, who had subsided to dry heaves.
“You going to be all right?” he said. Krakowski nodded.
Jameson was gone for what seemed an eternity. Gideon was beginning to wonder if he should go in search of help himself, when Jameson came back with the harbor master and a couple of policemen in tow. Gideon stepped back, giving way to the newcomers.
The harbor master did not look happy. Gideon didn’t blame him. It was not the first dead body to fetch up there by any means, but they were such a damned nuisance to the men who ran the place. The last thing a busy port needed was a major distraction and a mountain of paperwork.
The harbor master, whose name escaped Gideon for a moment, frowned down at the buzzing flies. He cleared his throat and spat upon the ground.
“Who found the body?” he said.
“We all did,” Jameson said, before Gideon could answer, “but Mr. Harper here was the first one to notice something amiss.”
The other man looked a question at Gideon and waited.
“There was a bad smell,” Gideon said, “It was noticeable when the wind shifted. I looked around to see where it was coming from, and saw that Cyrus hadn’t moved since I saw him early this morning.”
“Cyrus? That his name? He got a last name?” He was addressing Gideon now.
“I’m sure he must have, but I’m sorry to say that I never knew it.”
“Looks like he’s been dead awhile by the sight and smell of him. When was the last time you saw him alive? That you’re sure of.”
“Yesterday afternoon. He was sitting in this spot telling stories to anyone who would listen. He did that most days.”
Gideon wondered if the policemen were going to do anything but gawk at the body. So far the harbor master—Martin, that was his name, Gideon suddenly remembered—was the only one asking questions.
“What kind of stories?” Martin was speaking again. Gideon hoped the police were at least taking notes.
“About the war, mostly,” Gideon said, “He was in quite a few major battles. You might be able to check army records for the rest of his information. I think there’s a division badge sewn on his coat. You may be able to trace any family he might’ve had.”
Martin grunted, whether in agreement or dismissal, Gideon couldn’t tell. “I’ll have the police look into it. Did he have any enemies?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I don’t suppose he had anything valuable either. Do any of you gentlemen notice anything that might be missing?”
Gideon stepped closer. Jameson hung back a bit, then followed, holding his hand over his nose and mouth. Krakowski didn’t move from his spot on the edge of the dock.
“No,” Gideon said, after a few minutes of scrutiny.
Jameson shook his head.
“But I don’t know exactly what he had,” Gideon added. “There wasn’t anything obviously valuable that he carried. He did sometimes collect coins from passersby in exchange for his stories. For all I know he may have had a cache of them somewhere.”
Martin nodded. “That’s likely what happened,” he said. “Robbery gone bad, probably after sundown. Old story.” He scratched the back of his neck reflectively. “Well, I guess you gentlemen can get back to work now. I won’t keep you any longer. We’ll let you know if we need anything else.”
Jameson nodded and turned to go. Krakowski got to his feet at last and shuffled off, not looking up. Gideon hesitated. It was more than likely that Martin was right in his assessment of how Cyrus met his end, but something about the scene still bothered him.
“Yes?” Martin said. “Was there something else?”
“When we found him he was sitting up just like you see him now, eyes closed, and his collar pulled up over his throat. It looks to me as if someone took the time to arrange it that way.”
“So? Just means that the robber wanted to cover his tracks long enough to get away. The night watch was on duty last night. The police can question them to see if they saw anything. Let them take over and don’t worry about it. It’s not your concern anymore.” He gave Gideon a shrewd look. “Unless you know something you’re not telling.”
For some reason the image of the man with the wolf-gray eyes rose unbidden in Gideon’s mind. He shook his head.
“No,” he said, “I just thought I would mention it.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s anything but what I said. No need to make a mystery where there is none. I’ll check for the army badge and see if the army can track down any people he might’ve had who want to claim the body. Thank you for your help.”
This was clearly a dismissal. Gideon took his leave and went back to the lengthening shade of the warehouse. McCreery was there, screaming abuse at his other two clerks.
“—I’m not paying you to stand around the docks all day gawking! Ships are out there waiting to be unloaded, and every minute they spend idling is money lost! If you can’t—”
“Then it would be better if you allowed them to get back to work,” Gideon cut in coldly. He’d had enough of the man. “Time being so valuable, and all.”
McCreery wheeled around, purple-faced. He lifted his hand as if to strike.
“Don’t touch me,” Gideon said, his voice deadly quiet.
McCreery paused only a second, then turned his hand to wave them all away.
“Go on, then,” he said, “Don’t let me keep you. Except you, Harper. I got something to say to you.”
“Yes?” Gideon was suddenly very tired.
“I know it’s you,” McCreery said in a vicious tone.
“Things taken out of the warehouse at night. Stokes’s stuff wasn’t the only things gone missing. Don’t think I ain’t noticed. You’re the only other one with a key. Now a dead man on the dock that you just happened to find? What happened, did he see you? You decide to keep him quiet for good?”
Gideon stared at him, stunned, his theory about McCreery’s involvement in the thefts crumbling around him. Then the full import of his words sank in, and he felt cold.
“If you truly believe that,” he said, “then why don’t you go to the police?”
“Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll just tell them all about it right now.”
McCreery shot him a malicious look and scuttled off, heading to the growing crowd of onlookers that was gathering at the dock.
“You probably shouldn’t have given him the idea,” a voice said behind Gideon. He wheeled around to face it.
It was Smith, leaning against the side of the building. His gray coat nearly blended into the shadow. “It’s going to make things even more difficult for you,” he said.
“Jesus Christ,” Gideon said.
“Blaspheming won’t help your cause, I’m afraid. Unless, of course you were simply praying for divine guidance. In that case, carry on. You’ll need all the help you can get from here on.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Long enough. I understand the old soldier yonder has met his maker, and not in a peaceful fashion. It’s a hazard of living out in the open, I suppose.”
“What are you doing here?”
Smith shrugged. “I came to finish our conversation from yesterday, of course. And here I find all sorts of drama. I was wondering when anyone would notice the body. It’s too bad that it had to be you.”
Gideon rubbed his face with his hands. “You don’t really think I killed him, do you?” he said.
“No, of course not,” Smith said. “You went straight home from here yesterday evening and didn’t leave your room until morning. It did give me pause to learn that you had a late night visitor, but as he didn’t leave until after you did, my fears of conspiracy were put to rest.”
“You were spying on me?”
Gideon remembered the kiss by lamplight. In front of an open window, no less. His stomach tightened.
“My dear fellow,” Smith said, “you needn’t look like that. You didn’t strike me as the sort to steal from your employer—and certainly not in such a stupidly obvious way. But as Mr. McCreery pointed out just now, you are the only other one who has a key to the warehouse. I had to be sure. It’s lucky for you that I did, since it enables me to provide an alibi for you should the need arise. I hope it won’t come to that, of course, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to let you hang for a crime you didn’t commit.”
“That’s very good of you.”
“Indeed it is. I am not a bad man, whatever you may think of me. I am simply careful. My hope is that one day you might come to realize that. It would make our interactions so much easier.”
“What makes you think I want to have anything else to do with you?”
Smith studied him for a moment.
“My informant didn’t peer into your window, you know,” he said, “Whatever intimacies you may have shared with young St. Denis have had no witnesses so far. I was only interested in your movements from one place to another. Nothing more.”
Gideon flushed, angry at himself for being so transparent. “You haven’t answered my question,” he said. “Why should I involve myself in all of this?”
“You’re already involved, Mr. Harper. You are in it up to your neck. I just overheard a man accuse you of murder and theft. If that isn’t involved, then I don’t know what is.”
He looked over Gideon’s right shoulder, and Gideon turned around. McCreery was having an animated conversation with the harbormaster while both policemen listened intently. McCreery pointed and they turned as one to look in his direction.
“While he has no real evidence against you,” Smith continued, “There is enough of circumstance and proximity to cast suspicion in your direction. That would be extremely uncomfortable for you, however it turns out. And the authorities are not always fastidious when it comes to hard evidence if they can close an investigation quickly.”
Gideon swallowed hard, his throat gone dry.