We’re pleased to be able to bring SF Signal readers this excerpt from the new book Hot Lead, Cold Iron by Ari Marmell, the first in an exciting new fantasy detective series.
Here’s how the book is described:
Hot Lead, Cold Iron is the first novel in a brand-new fantasy detective series that will appeal to fans of Rivers of London and The Dresden Files
Chicago, 1932. Mick Oberon may look like just another private detective, but beneath the fedora and the overcoat, he’s got pointy ears and he’s packing a wand.
Oberon’s used to solving supernatural crimes, but the latest one’s extra weird. A mobster’s daughter was kidnapped sixteen years ago, replaced with a changeling, and Mick’s been hired to find the real child. The trail’s gone cold, but what there is leads Sideways, to the world of the Fae, where the Seelie Court rules. And Mick’s not really welcome in the Seelie Court any more. He’ll have to wade through Fae politics and mob power struggles to find the kidnapper – and of course it’s the last person he expected.
Read on the for the excerpt…
I really feel that fewer of modern society’s bits and pieces are sadder-more banal, I guess-than a big office. It’s kinda like, once mankind perfected the assembly line, there was nothing left to do but live on it. Desk after bulky desk, endless rows reaching into the distance like railroad tracks to nowhere; constant monotonous clacks and dings of typewriters and adding machines; tacky marble floors-and maybe columns, in the swankier joints-trying to echo the glories of ancient temples and libraries, and miserably failing at it. Honestly, I dunno if it’s more depressing or more boring.
Unless someone’s trying to rub you out in one of ’em. Then I’m pretty damn confident in telling you it’s a lot more depressing than it is boring.
Right that minute, I wasn’t looking at the desks, or the typewriters, or the pillars, because I was staring blearily at the growing puddle of red soaking into the piss-yellow carpet between my scuffed Oxfords. (Yeah, carpet. This was the second story, so no marble flooring here.) It wasn’t a whole lot of leakage, not yet, but the brick-fisted galoots flocking around me seemed right eager to help me add to it. We were having a friendly little get-together, me and the four of them, wherein I was helping them to relax by massaging their knuckles with my cheeks and my gut. Repeatedly; they musta been really tense. But hey, at least the coppery scent in my nose kept me from gagging on the mixed bouquet of old sweat, typewriter oil, and carpet shampoo.
How the hell, I wondered, can people work in this kinda hole?
And then a refrigerator all dolled up as a fist tried to offer me a backrub through my navel, and I remembered that I had more important things to worry about.
They were pretty much all of a type: big fellas in cheap suits, breath reeking of bootleg eel juice and cheap cigarettes. It wasn’t too warm in there, but they were sweating from the exertion of working me over, so their jackets were draped over the backs of chairs or hanging limp over one shoulder. I think the fact that I wasn’t sweating was making them even more steamed.
Wonder what they’d have thought if I told them straight up that I don’t do that? Ever?
I hadn’t caught any of their names-if they’d been spoken at all, I’d had other things to worry about at the time-so as far as I was concerned, they were Mustache, Muscles, Edgy, and Egghead. Muscles was the guy who was doing most of the actual pounding on me (big surprise there, right?), with Mustache watching over his shoulder-maybe to see if Muscles was doing it wrong. Edgy kept a few steps away, fist wrapped around the only heater in sight-a Colt semi-, if it matters-though I knew the others were packing in their coat pockets. Egghead had also moved back a little, wiping the perspiration off his head with one hand; in the other, he was holding a length of polished whitewood, just a little curved, not quite twice the size of a fountain pen. He was noodling over it like it was the most confounding thing he’d ever seen.
Which maybe it was. He’d pulled it from the shoulder holster under my jacket, so I gotta imagine he was anticipating something else.
But ultimately, none of these fellas was my main problem. No, he was sitting way over at the front of the office, his keister planted on the manager’s desk. Tan slacks, navy sportcoat, and a pressed shirt with a collar big enough to serve as a parachute-spitting image of a rich man’s idea of “casual.”
His name I knew. He was part of the reason I was here. The other part was the big brown envelope currently in his hand, and that used to be in my coat pocket.
Floyd Winger, committeeman of Chicago’s 34th Ward, went red as a honeymooning bride and started spitting words he’d never let his constituents hear as he tore open the flap and looked inside.
Muscles-who, I guess, assumed that the parade of profanity was born of his boss’s frustration-knocked on my ribs again, maybe to see if anyone was home. I think I probably grunted, and struggled to keep my focus on Edgy and Egghead.
“Who sent ya?” Muscles demanded. “What’d ya break in for? I swear, Bo, you don’t start talking, we’re gonna-”
“It’s all right, Ronnie.” Committeeman Winger waved the envelope at me. “I know everything I need to know.”
Yeah, you keep right on thinking that, you dumb bastard…
Egghead, his curiosity piqued, turned to face his boss. Without even thinking about it, he slipped the length of wood into the pocket of his coat, which was hanging on the chair behind him.
Well, finally! The strings and strands of his thoughts had felt so greasy, I thought for a while there I was never gonna make him do that. I was disgustingly out of practice; no way that shoulda taken me more than a couple of minutes.
“So who is he, Mr. Winger?” Egghead asked, shoving a cigarette in his trap and digging in his pocket for matches. I struggled to pay attention to the conversation, all the while turning my focus back to Edgy’s Colt…
“Oh, I don’t know his name, Benny.” Of course he didn’t; I’d left the wallet back in my office. Didn’t want my name on me during a B-and-E job, did I? “But I know why he’s here.”
He aimed his narrow, lying peepers my way. “And we both know who sent you, don’t we?” Even here, with an audience of five-four on the payroll, and one that he was probably measuring for a pine overcoat-he couldn’t switch off the politician. His voice was sharp, clear, echoing in the massive room; he coulda been addressing a rally of hundreds.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told him, grinning around a mouthful of blood. “I’m just a janitor. Had to break in, ’cause I forgot my key. And my uniform.” I shrugged, as much as the rope binding my hands behind the back of the chair would let me. “What can I say? I’m new at this.”
Either I wasn’t nearly as funny as I thought I was, or Muscles laughs with his fists, not his mouth. I’ll let you decide which. Either way, I quit talking for a spell.
“Now, Ronnie,” Winger said, “that shouldn’t be necessary any longer.” Something in the committeeman’s voice made me look his way, almost losing my concentration on Edgy in the process. His tone hadn’t changed much, but his words tasted wrong. Angry. The lines around his eyes and mouth were sharp enough to shave with.
“So this is how Baskin wants to play it?” he asked me. “Send some sap to come and burgle my place? Fine. We’ll play. This is on his head, and yours.” Winger brushed a few strands of thin hair from his face with the back of his hand, shoved the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket, and reached for the office phone. He actually turned back toward me, as he lifted the receiver to his ear, so I could watch.
Louse. I hate politicians.
“Operator?” His lips were practically on the candlestick’s mouthpiece, making love to the thing. “Glenview 0898, please.”
I knew that exchange; he was calling Baskin at home. Nice guy.
He and the gang of four barely glanced my way as I paused long enough to spit out the last of the blood. “What was that?” Winger asked. I could faintly hear the sound of ringing on the other end of the line.
“You’ll wanna put down the blower,” I said. “Before you embarrass yourself.”
Three chuckles and two pairs of rolled blinkers were all I got from that pronouncement. And why not? Even if I hadn’t been tightly roped to a heavy wooden chair, I’d already taken a beating that’d keep a strong man down for hours, and put a weak one in the hospital.
Two things they mighta wanted to know right then. First, I heal fast. Damn fast; it takes a lot more than a beating to lay me up longer than a few minutes, no matter how bad. And second, I coulda been free of the ropes half a minute after they tied me in. Not only are my joints a lot more flexible than most, but Mustache left a lot of slack in the loops.
Why? Because it’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t know your knots, and I’d been concentrating real hard on how much I wanted him to make it, that’s why. All I’d been waiting for was…
(I felt the aura of luck around Edgy’s roscoe, the chains of cause and effect that had to go just right for the mechanism to function, finally deflate beneath the pressure I’d been willing into it on and off for the past ten minutes.)
I stood up-rope dangling loosely from around my left wrist-spun the chair around me like it was my partner on the dance floor at the Savoy, and used it to return some of the loving attention that Muscles had been giving me over the course of the evening. He doubled up around the wood and hit the carpet, puking up bloody chunks of what might once have been cheap sausage.
It still didn’t smell as bad as the rest of the damn office.
For a heartbeat or two, everyone just gaped at me as though I’d sprouted a zeppelin. The receiver fell from Winger’s fingers, a nervous, twitching tail dangling at his side. The cigarette tumbled from Egghead’s kisser and bounced across the carpet in a mini-Fourth of July; the room was so quiet, we could actually hear the embers sizzling as they scattered. It was just luck that they didn’t ignite anything.
Or maybe it’s because I didn’t want them to. I’m not always entirely sure, when it comes to little quirks of fortune like that.
Edgy was, well, on edge, and acted before any of the others. He raised the Colt in a trembling hand-but not trembling enough to throw off his aim at this range-and squeezed the trigger.
Something inside-probably the firing pin, by the sound of it-snapped with a dull twang, and Edgy found his fist wrapped around a Browning Colt M1911 doorstop.
I was off and running before any of ’em had quite doped out what was happening. I put a haymaker across Egghead’s chin hard enough that he wouldn’t have to shave for a week, and he collapsed in a heap that I mighta called boneless if my throbbing knuckles didn’t prove there was a pretty solid jawbone in there. I yanked his coat from the chair where he’d draped it and spun, beating feet toward my favorite public servant, Committeeman Winger.
Who was, himself, making a pretty convincing sprint for the closest door.
Mustache moved to intercept me, yanking a .38 special from his jacket. No way I could deal with that one the way I had Edgy’s; even if I’d had the time to focus on it, it’s a lot harder for me to disable a revolver than a semi-. Simpler mechanism, older technology. Maybe if I’d pulled my own piece from Egghead’s jacket, but I hadn’t had even a second to dig for it yet…
So I did what any normal Joe does when he’s got the pipe of a gun pointed his way: I ducked.
More accurately, I hurled myself frantically to the side, plowing into one of the desks so we went tumbling in a splayed mess of limbs both flesh and wood. (Bad enough that the corners of the damn thing dug into my ribs something fierce, but they managed to catch three different spots that Muscles had already tenderized like a cheap steak. Of course.)
It did the trick, though. I heard the boom of flying lead, and the softer crack as the slugs chewed through the far wall or into the wooden shield I was hunkering behind, but other than an ugly splinter across the back of my left hand, it didn’t cause me any pain.
I may heal fast, and I may die a lot harder than you mugs, but that don’t make getting shot any fun.
So, I couldn’t hide here forever. The desk was already about ready to disintegrate, I couldn’t be sure how long the other guys were out of the fight, and Winger was getting further away with every breath. I stood up from behind the broken heap, shoved the luck I’d pulled from Edgy’s Colt into the short length of rope still coiled around my wrist, and threw it.
Mustache tried to knock it aside so it didn’t hit him in the face, tried to shoot me at the same time-and the .38’s hammer came down and lodged in the hemp fibers.
You can do a lot with a little extra luck, if you know how.
But it was only a little. Mustache was frantically tugging at the loose strands, trying to clear the hammer, and it probably wouldn’t take him long to pull it off. Edgy was digging in Muscles’s coat over one of the other chairs, probably going for the larger man’s roscoe, and Muscles himself was groaning and starting to struggle upright.
On the other hand, I was packing now, too.
From Egghead’s jacket pocket, I slid the wand he’d found so damn peculiar: a Luchtaine & Goodfellow Model 1592. It sat in my hand like it was a part of me. No surprise there; considering how long I’ve had it, I’ve actually worn down the wood to fit my fist. The dvergar who sold it to me so long ago swore up and down that it actually contains a sliver of the raft that carried King Arthur to Avalon; I don’t know if I buy any of that, but on the square or not, the wand’s never let me down yet.
I raked the L&G across Winger’s goons, reaching through the mystic conduit to fiddle with the images behind their eyes. I gathered strands of shadow from the blind spots at the corners of their vision, smeared it across the rest of their sight; not as elegant as just painting myself out of the room, or making them see me somewhere I wasn’t, but even with the wand, this was a lot faster. For just a few moments, their worlds went dark as the inside of a gas tank.
“What the fuck?”
“Hey, who killed the lights?”
“Ronnie, that you? Where are you?”
“I’m over here!”
At which point, genius that he was, Edgy started squirting metal at every sound he didn’t immediately recognize. Powdered plaster and chipped marble fell from the walls and the columns, steel crumpled and typewriter keys flew free, and Mustache and Muscles dove blindly for cover. I heard a loud thunk, a pained squawk, and another of the desks collapsed, putting Muscles completely out of action for the second time.
Figuring that oughta keep them all busy for a few minutes, I snuffled once-the smell of burnt gunpowder always makes me wanna sneeze-and went hunting for Floyd Winger.
I practically skidded across the rough carpet, doors banging behind me, and slid into the brass railing on the balcony beyond. A quick peek down into the first-floor atrium didn’t show me much of anything useful: big honking secretary’s desk, bunch of potted ferns, marble flooring with swirls the color of watered-down Pepto-Bismol. Of course, I couldn’t see anything beneath the balcony, but at least the front door was firmly shut and there was no sight or sound of Winger anywhere near ’em.
The gink was probably hoping to stick around and make sure his boys took care of me. Good decision-for me.
I paused a minute, took a deep sniff. Winger had to have been sweating something fierce when he took the run-out; he’d be leaving a trail of stink better’n any roadmap. And yep, there it was. Hell, I didn’t even need the sweat; I could actually taste the lingering aura of his fear in the air.
L&G held straight and ready, I crept along the open hall on the balls of my feet; open atrium to the left of me, thick doors and dark windows to the right. And I guess he knew I was coming, cuz he bolted from his hiding hole and made a mad dash for the stairs.
He’d been skulking in the washroom. Of course. Where else would you find a Chicago politico, but with the rest of the shit?
I maybe coulda caught up with him, but why do things the hard way? I aimed the L&G and shouted, “That’s far enough, Mr. Winger.”
He froze, his hands high, and turned-at which point he saw just what it was I was pointing his way. If nothing else, at least I’d wiped the smug public-servant veneer off his mug. He gave me a sneer that woulda done any Mafioso proud. “You think you’re funny?” he demanded. “You think any of this is funny?!”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I think there’s maybe some funny to it.”
“Fine! I’ll send that stupid little stick to Baskin-along with a free copy of the headlines when the photos go public.” He was starting to step away again, ready to bolt. “I’m sure he’ll think the joke’s absolutely hysteri-”
The hallway shook with the cough of a .45-caliber slug, and my “stupid little stick” spit fire. It wasn’t any of it real, of course-just another illusion, sound and fury and all that-but it sure as shooting seemed real to him.
Uh, pun unintended.
Winger cried out, and before he could realize that he hadn’t actually been shot, I was on him like a troll on a wounded kid.
For a minute we rolled back and forth between the office walls and the half-wall that marked the balcony’s edge, fists flying, but I’m not being cocky when I say that he never had much of a chance. I got myself a nice, solid grip and started wailing on him.
I also got into the inside pocket of his coat-twice-and he never noticed. I wish I could pretend it’s because I’m just that keen, just that sneaky. But in this case, to be completely on the square about it, I think he was mostly distracted by the fact that I was slamming his head into the floor by his hair, and jamming my knee into his groin hard enough to flatten a tire.
I was about to stop anyway-no, really, I was!-when I learned that I’d badly underestimated at least one of the committeeman’s thugs.
Mustache flew from the office, one ace of a shiner decorating the left side of his face and a nasty little switchblade in his right hand. I really thought he shoulda been blind for another couple minutes. Maybe his loyalty to Winger was more than money, and hearing his boss yell out gave him the willpower to break my hold on him. Hell, maybe I just got careless, or I only winged him back in the office. Didn’t know then, don’t suppose I ever will. Can’t see how it matters much, either way. Whatever the reason, he was up and about.
I heard him coming, despite the muffling carpet and Winger’s groans; he musta still been disoriented from the magic I’d throw at him. Hell, I woulda been! He came at me and I stood, grabbed his arm, and spun him aside easy as duck soup.
He tottered, looking for all the world as though he was lit on cheap hooch-and went over the balcony railing with a girlish squeal.
Not my intention at all!
Winger and I just stared at each other, jaws hanging stupidly. It woulda been funny if, you know, it’d been funny. Then, reluctantly-not sure why; I’d seen, and done, a lot worse-I took a few steps and leaned over the edge.
You wouldn’t have believed it, but damn if Mustache wasn’t alive! He wouldn’t be jitterbugging any time soon, I could see that from the new and fascinating ways his drumsticks were bending, but one of those goofy potted ferns had broken the worst of his fall.
Sometimes, I can’t believe my luck.
I was still looking over the brass railing at the guy mangled and leaking right beneath me when the front door burst open like a belt at a banquet and a dozen coppers stormed the lobby. I actually felt more than twenty peepers focus on Mustache lying in the wreckage of the big terracotta pot, covered in blood and soil, and then rotate on up to focus on my gawping mug.
Sometimes, I can’t believe my luck.
At which point, Winger-clever weasel that he was-began screaming for help. And shouting his name. And claiming that I was holding a gun on him.
I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a lawman in the joint who didn’t know just how much of a highbinder the dirty bastard was. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t trying to kill him; hell, far as they were concerned, it probably made it more likely! Plus, there was no telling just how many of ’em might be on Winger’s payroll.
So it probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise to me that four of ’em drew heat and started shooting at me before I even had the chance to raise my hands.
I threw myself back from the railing hard enough to crack the office window behind me-thankfully, it wasn’t actually a mirror, despite the reflection; I normally carry enough salt on me to counter even that kinda bad luck, but right now it was sitting in the office, in my overcoat pocket-and I’m not sure the first of the slugs actually missed me by more than a mouse’s pecker. I let myself hit the floor as I rebounded off the glass, and started crawling. I heard feet pounding on stairs across the atrium, and I knew that if the wrong bull found me, I’d be sporting some extra holes before I had the chance to explain.
So I was going to have to do something-even if it meant making a bunch of policemen think I was attacking ’em. I couldn’t remember right at that point how many plans and contingencies I’d come up with, but the evening wasn’t going according to any of ’em.
I slipped my wand from my holster again and grabbed it in my teeth, crawled a few more yards, and-wincing in anticipation of another fusillade-peeked up between the wall and the railing.
Most of the bulls had spread out throughout the lobby, taking what cover they could around the desk or in various doorways; I assumed the ones I couldn’t see had already made it to the upper floor, and were somewhere close. I couldn’t help but notice that nobody was actually paying much attention to Mustache; they must have really believed someone was about to start sniping from up here.
I saw, also, that three plainclothes cops had come in behind them, weapons drawn-and thanks be to whatever gods are left in this day and age, I recognized one of them!
“Keenan!” I ducked as a shot careened off the railing inches from my nose. “Lieutenant Keenan!”
The man I’d called, a hawk-faced, dark-haired fella in a brown fedora and matching trench coat, aimed his stubble my way. “Oberon? That you?”
A second slug dug into the wall I was hiding behind, a third whined overhead and thunked into an office door. “Not for much longer!”
“Hold fire! Everyone hold fire!”
I didn’t actually know Keenan too well-mostly through a mutual friend on the force-but I coulda kissed him right about then.
It took a lot more yelling, and a few minutes of coppers running pell-mell through every room, accompanied by repeated shouts of “Police!” and “Get your hands up!” and “Grab some air!” but eventually, everyone was gathered downstairs around that humongous desk. Winger was smoothing his wrinkled coat and wiping the blood and sweat from his face with a handkerchief; Muscles and Mustache were receiving medical attention; Edgy was slouched over, his hands cuffed, since he’d taken a swing at the first lawman to come through the door; and Egghead was still snoozing.
For my part, I’d taken the opportunity for a quick, pinpoint illusion…
“Now,” Keenan said, moving my direction, pad, pencil, and unlit cigarette all dangling from his left hand. “Someone had damn well better start telling me what-”
“I can tell you everything you require, lieutenant,” the committeeman said, stepping forward to intercept. “This-this hooligan broke into the offices of my firm here and assaulted me and my employees! Why, there’s no telling what violence he might have inflicted on us if you hadn’t arrived when you did!”
“I attacked five guys?” I asked. I felt my lips curling despite my best efforts not to laugh in his face. “Alone? Unarmed?”
Keenan coughed and, transferring his cigarette to his right hand, used it to point at the obvious bulge in my coat. “Unarmed?” He stuck the butt in his mouth, looked around more or less aimlessly until one of the uniformed officers produced a lit match.
Being very careful to make every move slow and obvious, I pulled open my lapel and showed him the holster-and the wand.
“What the hell, Oberon?”
I smiled at him. “It’s intimidating; makes it look like I’m packing. But I don’t carry, lieutenant. Get Pete on the horn, if you don’t believe me; he’ll vouch.”
“I see. And Committeeman Winger’s claims?”
“Bunk from soup to nuts. Even for a politico, it’s one heck of a pack of lies.”
I always thought someone “puffing up” was just an expression until right then, but I swear Winger’s face actually inflated. “Now, see here-!”
“In fact,” I continued, “I’m here on official business. On behalf of ASA Daniel Baskin.”
That bought me a few raised eyebrows. But it was Winger who reacted first. “I think, lieutenant,” he said, speaking to Keenan even as he did his level best to stab me through the eyeballs with a vicious glare, “that there’s something you ought to know about Assistant State’s Attorney Baskin before you consider giving this matter any further credence.” And just as I knew he would, he stepped toward Keenan, hand reaching for the inside pocket of his sportcoat, greasy smile already oozing from his pores to cover the front of his head.
The same pocket I’d gotten into twice while we were tussling upstairs.
I’d been all set to give him a quick mental nudge, but it wasn’t needed. He was so anxious, so eager to bring the man down, I don’t think he realized until he’d already pulled it free that the paper in his hand was not the envelope he’d shoved in there earlier.
Floyd Winger could only stand there, paralyzed and perspiring, as Lieutenant Keenan leaned, squinting, to peruse the subpoena, inked beneath the formal seal of the Cook County courts.
“Looks like you’ve been served, Committeeman Winger,” Keenan told him. Was it my imagination, or was the flatfoot maybe gloating just a little bit? “I’m sure the court appreciates your willingness to testify.” He looked again. “March 28th? Okay. I appreciate you trusting us with this, committeeman. I’ll be sure to have officers ready to escort you. For your protection and comfort, of course.”
I think I’d have taken this job from Baskin for free, just for the chance to hear a Chicago committeeman stammering.
“We’ll have to take you in, too, Oberon,” Keenan said then. “I don’t buy that you attacked these men, but until we determine exactly what did happen-especially to that fellow there,” he added, jutting his chin so the smoldering butt pointed vaguely at Mustache, “-we’ve got to treat you as a suspect.”
Yeah, I’d expected as much. “Come on, lieutenant.” I made a show of rubbing my aching ribs, carefully slid my hand up in case I needed the L&G for a little extra wow. “I’ve got an appointment with my client.” I tilted my head toward the subpoena, as if he was somehow going to forget who I meant. “You know you can get everything from him during office hours tomorrow.”
No way he should have gone for it-but then, I wasn’t just asking. I’d been sending him waves of willpower the entire time we talked, softening him up; now I pushed at the membrane of will behind his eyes, blew on the embers of his thoughts, igniting what little trust he had for me-and, more importantly, his respect for Dan Baskin-into a raging fire.
Wound up that I didn’t need the wand. “All right,” he said finally, drawing a strangled gasp from Winger and a few puzzled looks from the other (thankfully lower-ranked) detectives. “But I’m still going to need you to come in some time soon and give your own statement about what happened. Just to keep things formal.”
“Understand completely, lieutenant. Much obliged.”
He nodded, then glanced down at the small bloodstains all over my shirt and suit. “You need to see a doc before you go?”
“Nah.” I pulled my collar aside, showed him just a few minor bruises and abrasions. “Just a good tailor. Guys aren’t as tough as they make out.”
Keenan smirked and wandered away.
I ambled up to the second floor, collected my overcoat, and was back downstairs and out the door before I let the illusion fade and the ugly contusions and lacerations reappear. I knew I’d be seeing Keenan again before too long-maybe when I next went to call on Pete, and if not, when I went to give my statement-and by then, the wounds actually would be gone. I didn’t want him noticing and asking questions.
Hmm. I guess, at this point, I really should put a few cards on the table. I’m a private investigator, licensed and accredited. My name is Mick Oberon, or at least it is now.
And like some of you have probably already figured, I’m not human.
[end of excerpt]
Read more in Ari Marmell’s new novel Hot Lead, Cold Iron!