Thursday, June 30, 2005

Intangible Assets, Chapter One

My senses came back to me in bits and pieces, and I didn’t like the picture they were giving me. I could hear a truck driving away on the far side of the thin warehouse wall. I tried to get a whiff of either low tide at the docks or of the coal soot of the rail yards. A dull ache where my nose should have been spelled out the futility of that effort. The coarse bite of hemp rope pinned my arms behind the chair in which I found myself.

I risked opening my eyes, only to find the left one swollen shut and to have light stab through the right all the way to the back of my skull. When my eye finally managed to adjust itself, I was treated to the lop-sided visage of Carlo “The Tusk” Tusconi. Carlo was ugly, even by ork standards. To say that he had a face only a mother would love would have implied that there was a woman out there willing to take that rap. No one was so far as I knew.

Carlo saw me open my eye. He smiled, showing the eponymous tusk all the way down to its yellow root. He raised a fist the size of a baron’s Easter ham, and suddenly the ache in my nose was no longer dull.

“That is enough for now, Carlo.”

The voice was smooth. Some Old World gent, I thought, probably Italian if Carlo’s working for him. The voice started behind me. I heard the click of his shoes on the concrete as he walked around his display. He walked the circle cast by the light of the hooded thirty-watt bulb over my head. When he came into sight on my right side (walking widdershins, noted my wizard training) only his pant cuffs and shoes were in the light. The pants were gray pinstriped blue, and the shoes were leather wingtips polished enough to kick a glare back into my face. Whoever he was, he had money. The suit would have set me back close to a year in fees, and you sure as hell couldn’t buy a shine that good at Grand Central or Midtown.

The Voice came a little farther into the light when he stopped to look me over. The light only came up a little above his waist, but that was enough to tell he was about five foot eight and in pretty good shape. He moved in that way that told me he could handle himself in a fight. If I had been fresh and not tied, I might have been able to take him. After the tenderizing job Carlo had done, old Mrs. Kranski on the ground level of my office building could have wiped the floor with me.

Mr. Dapper Suit took his time looking me over, almost as if Carlo was his favorite artist and I was the Tusk’s latest masterpiece. I looked up at the guy’s hands. As I figured, they were scarred across some of his knuckles like a fighter, but the scars were old, so he must have been out of the game for a while. Both pinkies bore rings with enough stones on them to make an heiress green. More important, though, was that he didn’t have a ring on his right ring finger where an Order of Illumination magus would wear one. That was the first piece of good news I had had all night. It meant that the worst these guys could do was kill me.

“Hello again, Mr. Watson,” said the Voice. “I would greatly appreciate your attention during the course of our conversation. Now, where were we?”

“I don’ know, last thing I recall is the side of beef you call an ork introducing me to his fist.”

You had to give it to the Tusk. He really knew how to fold a guy up like an old newspaper. I figure Mr. Dapper Suit must have had some words with Carlo while I was out about my needing my face to speak the words he wanted to hear. Carlo put this punch right in the breadbasket.
The Suit was examining his nails while Carlo was applying his trade.

“Where is Miss Tierney, Mr. Watson? Where is the comb?” The Voice didn’t bother to hide his boredom over this fourth asking of the same questions.

It took almost a minute to gather the necessary breath to answer. Such precious air needed to be used on a proper answer.

“Right where your boss left her. Plot eighteen, row twenty-two, St. Catherine’s Cemetery. And as to the comb, don’t bother, it won’t match your suit.”

The Voice didn’t like that answer. He didn’t like it the first three times either. Carlo certainly did not like the answer, and he proceeded to demonstrate that ribs don’t like it when angry orks pound on them.

Just great, I thought, a lot of guys end up worked over for a dame. I just get to do it for a dead one.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

From an Old Soldier

I don’t know how you found me, kid, but you should know that it is not exactly healthy to go looking for history lessons in dives like this. And it is doubly not smart to be walking into any old place and start asking about the Resistance. Let me guess, you heard down in your coalmine town that New York was a hotbed of the Resistance, and you decided that you wouldn’t mind dying a hero. Don’t sneer, kid, I’ve seen smarter than you get disappeared into the Hudson, and that was even before they saw an Imperial.

So you’ve heard that Old Joe might clue you in on how things got this way and how things might go later. The first is easy enough. If you are smart enough to find a Liberty Press, then you should probably know most of this already. The second part? If you are smarter than you look, you’ll head back to the mine and forget all about the glory you think you’ll find.

Might as well start at the start. Great War, trenches, gas attacks, that I’m sure you already know. Here’s where things start heading off the textbooks. The Germans had been working on all sorts of different toys to give our boys a shellacking. Turned out, bigger guns were the least of our concerns. Seems that a chap by the name of Manfred von Schwarzaugen, you might know him better as Emperor, was working on stuff that no one really thought would work, stuff that used old books, odd candles, eye of newt and the rest. He was pulling in funding from the war department for his little freak show. Remember, the difference between eccentric and insane is how much money and how much pull you have. In Schwarzaugen’s case, it was a membership in the Kaiser’s family that got him in.

Nobody thought it would work except for a few close associates, assistants, and some things not from around here. What? Yeah, you could call them Demons if you don’t mind having an arm ripped off and shoved so far down your throat that you could shake hands with your appendix. That or having one of the brainy types talk you into doing that to yourself. And don’t even get me started on the Succubi. Anyway, don’t interrupt me.

Come the Winter Solstice of ‘16, Old Manfred is tossing around fireballs and whatnot and pulling over Destroyers, Plotters, and Tempters over by the boatload. That was the 22nd of December if you haven’t learned your astrology yet. Anyhow, Manfred and a company of Destroyers crash the Kaiser’s Christmas Ball. With no one left to say Boo, Manfred claims the title of Kaiser and completes his little putsch. Not many people know what happened to Wilhelm, and most of those who don’t are smart enough not to ask.

It don’t matter where you’re at, everyone likes the winner. Unless he’s fixing to make you the loser, that is. The parts of the German aristocracy that pledged to him got big promotions in title and land, largely from those who chose the other option. Salt in some Plotters working the other nations, and suddenly you have a lot of other people craving their own little slice of monarchy, or at least keeping what they had. Case in point, the Russian Czar was having a little problem beating down a revolution while his army was scrapping with the Kaiser’s boys. Schwarzaugen trained up a couple of wizards for him and sent over a regiment of Destroyers and a battalion of orcs. Where the hell those came from is anyone’s guess, but they made good muscle and bullet catchers. Bing, bang, boom, revolution’s over and Nicholas is now sending his forces to fight alongside the Germans.

That was a nasty little surprise, let me tell you. Spring of ’17 we’re suddenly facing not only Germans, Russians, Destroyers, orcs and wizards, but some of the most God-damned contraptions anyone’s ever laid eyes on. Tanks the size of a row house, men flying with rockets strapped to their backs, and gas that ate through masks like a starving man at a free buffet. Seemed that some of the Emperor’s brain cases had figured out how to condense magic into a liquid fuel. Suddenly, the laws of thermodynamics go out the window, and nothing we had could stand up to them.

Not that our boys were complete pushovers. Some of them showed some talent at spells, and others could do things like knockdown an infantry charge but just thinking hard at them. The Ordo Neo Imperialis as Emperor Manfred I had taken to calling it anticipated that, and those boys were the first ones target. Not many Americans or Canadians made it home by the time the Order has sown up Europe that fall.

It was only a matter of time before the Order made its move on the Americas. You’d figure that the whole idea of successfully rebellious colonies was something that had to be handled. The US worked like sixty to catch up in the magic race. The first step was to duplicate and advance the weird science the Empire had developed. The second was to train up some of our own wizards. They called them the Army Corps of Sorcerors and placed the whole of the War Department’s sorcery under their command.

You’ve heard the expression “Pride goeth before the fall”? Well, it was the Corp's pride and our fall. When the Imperials made their move, the whole of the Order either stabbed their units in the back or went up like Roman Candles. The landing, and gating as I understand, went off entirely too smoothly in the end.

So there you have it up to today. The New Imperial Order has the US up to the Mississippi, although I hear that Detroit is putting up one hell of a fight. At least we aren’t fighting alone. Dwarves have come out of the mountains like they were there all along, and the Seelie elves are fighting along side us. Be careful with them though, you can’t tell by looking whether he’s Seelie or Unseelie. Or course, being careful is good advice in any case.

If you are looking for heroics, kid, forget about New York. If you are looking for the Resistance, the Resistance don’t want you. Go west, young man, the Free States are always looking for help.
I’d wish you luck, kid, but I’m fixing to keep all I’ve got.