Magic & Steam: Book Two
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January 12, 2021
Cover art: Reese Dante
Genre: Steampunk, historical, romance
December 31, 1881
“Stop!” I shouted as I gave chase to Fat Frank Fishback through the chaotic fray of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Fishback—who was, in actuality, all arms and legs—skidded and slipped on the frozen cobblestones, righted himself, and made a sharp left toward a dilapidated tenement listing hard to one side. He shoved a big-boned woman from the open doorway and disappeared into the unsound structure.
“Sonofa—” I raced in the same direction, moved past the startled woman, and called a curt apology over my shoulder as I barged unwelcomed and unannounced through someone else’s home.
The interior was dark, and despite the night of winter already upon us, no lamps had been powered on. Steam piping had been installed throughout the Five Points earlier in the year, but it was obvious these people were too poor even for steam energy to light their home. The odds of finding an illegal syphon installed somewhere on the property in order to suck the teat of the city’s steam grid were quite good. The installation in the slums had created a point of serious contention with government officials and the Old Money of New York City. Strongly worded letters had been published in the newspapers proclaiming it a waste of taxpayer dollars to light the streets of the wretched. As if these folks chose to live in squalor.
But despite the opposition, City Hall went forward with the investment. Funding had passed in January, and it became a matter of New York wishing to assert its dominance over other major metropolitans in the United States. The desire to proclaim itself superior to the likes of Boston or D.C. was a hell of a driving force. The mayor had used Grand Central Depot as his selling point—if tourists felt like they’d entered the city through the doors of a palace, then even the most unfortunate among us must have access to the latest advances in steam technology.
Access and means being two entirely different points, of course.
But I digress.
I wasn’t here to chastise a too-full tenement of occupants barely earning enough to keep bread on the dinner table. I was here for Fishback. Nothing more.
I dodged the shadow of a resident coming out of a room, his curses now joining with the woman’s—a symphony of fury and protests left unanswered in my wake. I raced along an extended narrow hall, shoved off the far wall in order to make the tight turn down a second dark passage, shot up a short flight of stairs, and finally caught sight of Fishback when he opened a door exiting onto a side alley, his rail-thin body briefly illuminated by the kaleidoscope of urban nightlights.
“Stop right now!” I hollered.
Fishback gave me a triumphant expression, stepped outside, and slammed the door shut.
I didn’t slow my run, merely held an arm out, palm forward, and dipped into the ever-present elemental magic that encompassed Earth. The stream of raw energy churned and whipped at my request for its power, filled my body, and then erupted in a gale of wind. The whoosh of bitterly cold air blew the door off one rusted hinge and left it sagging like a broken wing. I ran outside, onto a set of rickety wooden stairs, hoisted myself over the banister, and jumped to the alley below.
I landed on the balls of my feet, shoes barely scratching a whisper from the cobblestones as magic aided me safely to the ground. But the door’s now-unfortunate state had been what startled Fishback. He straightened from the bent-over position he’d been in and spun around to face me. His chest heaved as he fought for breath the winter air had stolen. Fishback’s gaze flicked to the door and staircase behind me, and then his face blanched. His eyes grew wide. Panicked. Like a cornered animal ready to bite and scratch and claw until one of us was dead.
I had no illusions about my person. A man just shy of thirty, brown hair mottled with gray, a height and build hardly bigger than most women’s, and no weapon on hand. So no, it wasn’t my appearance that scared Fishback, a gangster known for squeezing the life out of coppers with his bare hands.
It was the technicality that I was not a copper. Special Agent Gillian Hamilton, active caster with the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, thank you very much. And it was my magic that had put the fear of God into Fishback.
“Fishback—” I started.
He turned on one heel and ran for the mouth of the alley.
“I said stop,” I yelled. I tugged the brim of my bowler down and started running again. “Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, Fishback. You’re under—”
A glass bottle whizzed in front of me from the tenement on the left. I stumbled back a step to avoid being knocked out and turned my face away as it shattered against the outer wall of the building I’d just exited. Above me, the thrower shouted from an open window in a gravelly voice, “Magic pig in the alley!”
I broke into another sprint before a second bottle could hit its mark and slammed into the congested traffic of Baxter Street. All around me were unsupervised packs of children, stray dogs, wagons coming and going in either direction, and pushcarts everywhere, laws be damned, hawking the last of their oysters, knishes, and pickles before crowds dispersed for the evening. There were steam pipes crisscrossing building facades, rattling and pinging as residents powered on lamps and radiators. More metal tubing ran along the gutters of the streets, supplying steam energy to the yellow, red, and green streetlamps.
The voice from the window was still crying, “Magic pig! Right there.”
There’d been such volatile magic employed throughout the Great Rebellion that by the end of the war, Congress had enacted the Caster Regulation Act of 1865. On the surface, it aimed to bring the magic community out of hiding and make our intrinsic abilities legal to perform without fear of violence or jail time. But the finer details of the law required that every scholar—those who studied raw magic and documented the manmade spells—architect—the ones who fabricated the spells—and caster—those who performed the magic, such as myself—undergo mandatory documentation with the federal government. Keen and critical oversight of magic usage would protect soldiers and civilians alike from what happened during the war.
That’s how the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam was founded.
I’d come forward when I was eighteen and applied to the regulation, but due to my atypical caster level, the Bureau jumped to offer me a job, a badge, and perhaps most importantly, respect. For the last decade, I had been doing my damnedest to represent the magic community, to educate citizens and eradicate detrimental old wives’ tales, all while upholding law and order in the city.
It was, to say the least, an ongoing campaign.
I dodged between two pushcarts and stepped onto the road, only to be abruptly cut off as three men moved to stand in front of me. Fishback disappeared into the throng of people.
“Step aside,” I ordered, pulling back the open lapels of my coats to show my badge.
They were all taller than me. Bulkier than me. With the sort of wicked smiles seen on men who used their fists to demand respect. The one on the left had his arms crossed over his barrel chest, with the stub of a smoking cigar clenched between his teeth. On the right was a man with a handlebar mustache and a badly set nose from a long-ago fight. In the middle was Tommy McCarthy, a known member of the Whyo gang that ran this neighborhood. He wore mechanical fighting gloves, the cogs spinning and pressure gauges releasing steam as he flexed his fingers.
“Look what we got here, boys,” McCarthy said. He smiled widely, showing off a broken canine. “A copper on our streets.”
“I’m not here for you, McCarthy.”
“Know who I am, do you?” The steam whistled as he made a fist with one glove. “Scared, ain’t ya?”
McCarthy blinked almost comically, glanced at Cigar Stub and Broken Nose, then tried to regain his footing by saying, “You ought to be.”
“You’re interfering with official matters pertaining to the Federal Bureau of Magic and Steam, and I will arrest you if you don’t—”
“Arrest me?” McCarthy echoed with a bark of a laugh. “You ain’t even tall enough to suck my cock,” he replied, reaching down with one mechanical hand to cup himself through his trousers.
“I have no tolerance for your crude behavior. Step aside.”
Broken Nose pushed back the folds of his coat and unholstered a Waterbury pistol. He pointed the three-barreled weapon at my head and cocked the hammer. “How about I put a few bullets through your brain instead?”
As the aether was galvanized, manufactured magic snapped and crackled in the air around me. A strong jolt shot up my spine and I shook it off. It was merely a physical response to the illegal spell reaching out to interact with my own magic. But seeing that Waterbury—
An unkillable, deadeye marksman.
His finger pulling the trigger.
And blowing Milo Ferguson’s head off.
Those same fingers had held my chin just hours before while he whispered words that were seared into my bones like a cattle brand: It’ll remind me of you—
Thunder rumbled from overhead.