Recently, I was asked by an old friend if I had any short stories I’d like him to produce for his YouTube channel. First, let me tell you that you should definitely check out Aural Stimulation for some great stories, amazing voice work, and spectacular sound design. What follows is what I’ve been working on. Hope you enjoy!
An immense, coiling beast, with blue and white scales, scraping claw-like hands, and a massive dragonic face thrust from the temple’s wall. Yesterday, Austin would have found the image ridiculous. His world had always been one of tactile things, facts he could put his hands on. But Austin’s yesterday seemed a thousand years away, and there in the ancient pagoda, it seemed to him a thousand years in the future. He could only stand there, his trench coat dripping rainwater onto the stone floor, and try to process all the things that had happened. A small group of monks droned a prayer to the idol on the wall, and the air was smelled of flowery incense. That this place still existed, so close to the Cleft, was nothing short of remarkable.
The monks had left Austin to his contemplations for a time, but as the puddle at his feet grew around him, etiquette demanded they take action. A genial young man, his head shaven like all his brother-monks, came up to Austin. “Greetings and good day to you, sir.” he said, “Welcome to the temple of Denlong Gau.”
“Denlong Gau?” Austin asked, “That’s the river, pal.”
“Indeed it is. But a river is never just a river. It inspires us with its might. It nourishes us with its bounty. And its waters slake our thirst. But philosophy aside, you seem to have been caught in the rain. Might I take your coat and hat? It is one way in which we demonstrate respect, and, uh, preserve the integrity of our temple against,” he gestured to the pool at Austin’s feet, “water damage, sir.”
Austin gave a chagrined smirk as he took the fedora from his head, “Sorry pally. I’m in this get up so much, it’s like a second skin.” He took the trench coat from his shoulders gingerly, trying to contain the rivulets running across the water-resistant surface. He handed them to the monk, who smiled then hung them on a peg on the wall. “Some place you got here.” Austin noted.
“Thank you, sir. We are proud of this temple, and prouder still that we have maintained our traditions while the world below has chosen a different path.” The slender monk gave Austin a bow as he returned to his side, “I am Feng, and it is my honour to greet you, sir. Might I have your name?”
“Austin. Austin Green.”
The monk smiled, “An honour and a privilege to make your acquaintance, Austin Green. I take it you have come from the city below. It is uncommon for us to receive visitors these days.”
“It’s been an uncommon couple of days for me, Feng. But the kid told me to come here, so I came.”
“The kid? A child told you to come here? It sounds to me as if you have a story to tell.” Feng gestured to an alcove in the pagoda wall, leading Austin there and sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Austin winced in the stretch, but found a position which seemed comfortable enough. “I got a story for you, Feng my friend,” Austin said, “but you ain’t going to believe me.”
“Austin,” Feng chastised gently, “our work is faith. Tell me your story. I am eager to know what brought you here.”
“Well,” Austin began, “The story starts two days ago. Damn.” he said to himself, contemplating his perception. “Seems like a lifetime ago now. That morning was like any other morning. I was at Charli’s.”
. . . . . . . . . . .
Charli’s Pub and Coffee House wasn’t a distinctive place for the Cleft. The morning was filled with the whistle of the espresso machine, its puffs of steam chirping alongside the baritone drone of massive steam supply pipe which ran underneath the floorboards. A handful of customers shuffled in and out the door, each bright and chipper and on their way to the industrious labors which defined life in the Cleft. Charli’s radio warbled a static-laced jazz melody. It’s slow melancholy gave Austin a perfect accompaniment to his introspective mood. He stared into the cooling black liquid in his mug, trying to suppress the litany of greed, mistrust, and damaged lives which had become the wake of his existence.
A whirling hiss drew Austin’s attention to the front door. It was the unmistakable sign of Gustav Grendelson’s arrival. His powered wheelchair bounced over the threshold with a mechanical clunk. Charli turned to greet his favorite customer, a show Austin had watched a thousand times before, “Mister Grendelson! A very fine morning to you, sir!”
“Oh, Charli! Yes, ve gates. All is good, ya?” Gustav’s Bohemian accent was unmistakable, and instantly suggested warmth and friendliness. Unless you happened to be a rival engineer. Then, you might consider leaving the Cleft when you heard his tenor voice.
“Very well indeed, sir, yes!” Charli wrung his hands unconsciously every time he spoke to Gustav. His sycophantic tendencies around the lauded engineer were typical of most people in the Cleft. Grendelson was a legend, and his work surrounded them to attest to it.
“I see you have gone ahead mit the installation of the new electric lights, ya?” Gustav commented, “They work well for you?”
“Impeccably so, sir, yes. Surprisingly perhaps, your nose will be the first to notice the difference. My coffees fill the air with their aroma, no longer competing with the gas of my old lamps.” Charli said.
Austin saw an opportunity in Charli’s distraction, and snagged the whisky bottle from the bar rail. He downed a swallow of the hot coffee, burning the roof of his mouth. His eyes bulged as he gulped down both the beverage and his pain, but Austin was satisfied that he’d made room in the mug. He splashed a liberal shot of the amber liquor into his drink, and deftly set the bottle back in the rail. He leaned against the short back of the bar stool, and took a slow sip from the mug. His mild hangover was massaged by the combination of alcohol and caffeine, but his real satisfaction was in remaining unnoticed.
“So, Mister Grendelson, what can I get for you this morning?” Charli asked.
“Mine usual will do, Charli. A black coffee to go, und one of your lovely croissants.” Gustav replied.
“Right away, Mister Grendelson!” Charli bustled behind the counter, assembling the order.
“Mine thanks, Charli. Und Austin, don’t think that I have not seen you in the shadows here.” Gustav rolled toward him, the elaborate gears of his conveyance clinking in staccato. “I trust” he said in a low voice, “that you have the documents we discussed.”
“Of course I do, Gustav.” Austin replied acerbically. He slurped his coffee loudly.
“Austin, manners!” Gustav said.
“Gustav, I’ll have Antoinette send the stuff over to your office as soon as I get in this morning.”
“Und that will be this morning, Austin? You won’t be spending the day in some booze-soaked hole again, will you?” Gustav said, his tone somewhere between a question and an accusation.
Austin didn’t get a chance to reply as Charli came over to them, “Mister Grendelson, here you are sir.”
“Ah, mine thanks again Charli!” Gustav took the cardboard box from Charli’s counter and placed it on the shelf of his chair. “I must be off! Tschüss, Charli! Austin.” The chair wheeled around, offering them a puff of steam as Gustav rolled out the door.
Charli rounded on Austin, whacking him in the arm with his bar towel. “Why must you always be so rude to Mister Grendelson, Austin? The man practically built this city!”
Austin leaned back against the blows, balancing his mug carefully in his right hand as he defended with his left, “Come on, Charli! Knock it off, would ya? Old Gustav and I have a unique relationship is all.”
“Unique or not, you’ll show him respect when you’re in my place, got it?” Charli said.
Austin was once again interrupted before he could respond. The whooshing clunk of the pneumatic tubes forecasted the arrival of a message in Charli’s bin. The brass cylinder plunked from the tube and into a receiving basket. Charli went over and unscrewed the cap, pulling out the note within. He read it quickly, then looked to Austin, “It’s for you, from Antoinette. She says you need to get to the office, and that you have a visitor.” Charli frowned at Austin, “I’m not your mailbox, you know that, right Austin?”
“No, you’re no mailbox, Charli. You’re the only friend I got in the world.” He downed the alcohol-laced coffee in his ceramic mug, then held it out, “One for the road?”
Charli sighed as he took a pot from a burner and refilled the mug, “I must be a friend. You never pay me!”
“End of the week, Charli. I promise this time.” Austin took a sip from the mug as he stood up and headed for the door. He’d need to stop off at Sal’s to get a little more irish for his morning.
“That’s what you said last week!” Charli yelled at him as he pushed the door open and stepped into the streaming morning light.
The sun burned against his retinas, reminding him of the abuses of his drinking. Austin sneered against the ache in his skull as he shuffled up the gangplank. The Cleft was a tiered expanse of ironwork paths mounted to the cliff faces. Eons of the Denlong Gau’s plummeting torrent had carved the mountains into the Cleft. Denlong Falls had plowed through the stone a mile deep into the surrounding mountains. So it was from above and below, ahead and behind, that the sunshine glinted off brass and chrome, punching into the Austin’s eyes. He took another medicinal pull off his coffee and flipped up his collar to shield his eyes from the glare.
Every sort of person, from every corner the world, gathered to work in the Cleft. Some said this was part of Gustav Grendelson’s design; a harmonious blend of humanity, conjoined by the sweat and rewards of honest labour. But from Austin’s perspective, it just meant that money was blind to colour. Men like Gustav would exploit whomever they could to achieve their goals. As a private eye, Austin had a unique view behind the curtain of success. He got to see the ugliness it brought, while everyone else saw only the material glory.
But regardless of where they’d come from, they all aspired to be engineers. There were dozens of private stores and workshops lining the walkway between Charli’s place and Austin’s office. Brass pipes bounced haphazardly in resonate gongs, release values whistled pressure into the atmosphere, and everywhere men and women made measurement, cut pieces, and crafted what they believed to be the shape of the world to come. So far, none had proven Gustav’s equal, and so the man remained the toast of the city.
Austin ducked into Sal’s shop across the way from his office. The tiny corner store was really more Sal’s personal project than an actual business. He kept a decent stock of spices, canned goods, and day-old bread which the bakers’ up on the fourth tier up wouldn’t sell. A full third of the store was Sal’s counter, behind which he’d built his still, fastening it to one of the many steam supply vents running through the level. The real purpose of the store had always been Sal’s still, which he insisted would one day produce a fuel to replace coal in the city. It made the most repulsive whisky Austin had ever tasted, but it definitely got a man where he wanted to be. Sal simply nodded to Austin and pulled out a bottle for him. Austin dropped a few nickel pieces onto the counter, and splashing the volatile fluid into his mug, headed for the office.
Austin rounded the corner of his office’s building, expecting to find the rust-stained door of the stairwell greeting him as usual. He was taken aback by a young boy snooping through the little used alley. By the look of him, the boy couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. He wore a pair of goggles which whirred and clicked as he scanned the space. They looked both unique and well-crafted; they must have been expensive. His blonde locks poked out of a black cap he wore on his head, and his narrow frame was clad in a blue workman’s shirt which seemed too big, and baggy black trousers. The boy’s boots clomped as he walked, suggesting they too were oversized. The entire scene seemed bizarre to Austin. He took a long pull on the now lukewarm coffee, forcing Sal’s whisky done his gullet in a raw gulp. The drink splashed cruelly in his gut, but the last vestiges of his headache were clearing. He heard the boy say, “Nope, not here.” and he spun around, facing Austin, staggering backward in surprise. The green lenses of the goggles dilated and constricted in quick succession, mimicking the shock of the youngster. The boy gathered himself and offered a friendly, “Hello!” before scampering back out into the main walk.
Austin shook his head at the strange encounter as he slid his key into the lock on the door. It pulled open with a grinding creak, and the scent of mildew rushed to greet him. The stairwell was stained with water damage from the leaking pipes running through it, and the concrete was starting to chip. Austin sighed at the neglected space as he ascended the stairs. He’d often wished he could move out of here, but his ends had a hard enough time being met as things were. He downed the last of his morning drink, now more booze than coffee, and went down the hallway to his office.
Antoinette sat there filing her nails and smacking a wad of bubblegum in a staccato rhythm. She remained focused on her labours as Austin came in. “About time you got here, Austin.” She said as she held her hand out and examined her fingers.
“Antoinette, I’ve told you. In the office, call me Mister Green.” Austin sighed.
“That’s rich. You’ll get a “mister” outta me the day you manage to pay me on time!”
“This again, Antoinette?”
“This always, Austin! I’ve got needs too, you know. Bills to pay.”
“I know. So how about you make sure our friend gets his package,” he nodded at the thick envelope with Gustav’s name scrawled across it on her desk, “and tell me about the lady waiting in my office so I can make us some money.” Austin shot back.
“One of my sister’s boys will run that down for our friend before lunch.” Antoinette said, “And her? I ain’t really sure who she is, but she smells like a big fish to me.”
“Really?” Austin’s spirits brightened at the prospect of a payday.
“Hair’s done up right, makeup is flawless, and her shoes ain’t cheap, I can tell ya that much. Says she needs help to find her sister, and that she’d only discuss the matter with you.” Antoinette pulled open the drawer of her desk and produced a bottle of red nail polish. She began meticulously painting the ends of her fingers.
“Insightful, Doll. Thanks a lot. What would I ever do without you?” Austin asked sardonically as he crossed to his office door. He could make out the silhouette of his mysterious guest through the frosted glass.
“Someday I’d like to let you find out.” Antoinette smacked a bubble to punctuate her point.
The woman’s attention was drawn to the door as Austin turned the knob to his office. He was instantly struck by her gaze; almond shaped eyes, so dark in their brown shade as to be almost black. Her expression of surprised mirrored Austin’s own, though hers was more innocent than his. There was a melancholy about her, a sense of loss which she tried to hide. It was the sort of look that made men want to bend over backwards to help her; alluring and tragic, in need of hero. Austin swallowed hard against the desire her beauty stirred in his animal brain. He forced his face into a stoney regard, “Always a dame, huh?” He walked across the room and sat behind his desk. “So,” he started, “what’s your name, sweetheart?”
The young woman’s blush gave a slight pink colour to her pale skin, which was punctuated by her short, dark hair. Her embarrassment at Austin’s familiarity brought her fingertips to her full lips as she tried to disguise her shy nature. She was conservatively dressed in a well-tailored tan suit and skirt. A polished violin case was conspicuous as it rested against the chair by her right foot. “Mister Green, I was warned you are a forward person. I am afraid I am unaccustomed to such intimacy between strangers.”
Austin leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up on his desk, “This is the Cleft, Sweet Cakes. Folks from every place come here to make their lives. Bound to come across a custom or two you’re not used to. Think nothin’’ of my jawin’. It’s just my way.”
She smiled at him, though her eyes remained sad, “As you say, Mister Green. My name is Amaya.”
“I would say it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, but since you’re here, I gather the feeling’s not mutual.” Austin rocked in his chair, then let his feet fall back to the floor. He reached into desk draw and produced a carton of cigarettes. He flipped open the pack, and held it out to Amaya, “Smoke?”
“Thank you, no.” She answered.
“Suit yourself.” Austin drew out one of the slender sticks, “Filthy habit, to be sure, but you get used to filthy things in my business.” He couldn’t hide the hints of regret and resignation in his tone. He lit the mechanically cut end and drew tails of tobacco smoke into his lungs. “But,” he said as he eased the blue-grey cloud through his nostrils, “enough about me. I hear you’re having a hard time reaching your sister.”
“Yes, that’s correct Mister Green. My sister, Sakura, she has not been home in three days. Lately, she’s been associating with some unsavory types.” Amaya said.
“Heard this story before, darlin’. Sometimes a young person’s just got a rebellious streak they just need to run out.” Austin suggested.
“My family cannot allow such a dishonour, sir.” Amaya stated flatly.
Pieces fell together in Austin’s head when she said that. He looked to Amaya, then down to the violin case, then back to Amaya. Something in the way she’d said ‘dishonour’ had punched through the 10 am buzz in Austin’s head. “Amaya and Sakura? I’ll be dipped, you’re Amaya Jintao, aren’t you?” The Jintao family were royalty along the banks of the Denlong Gau, and had been for centuries before the engineers that made the Cleft. The sisters were renown for their beauty, like the daughters of all noble families were. In Amaya’s case, it wasn’t just a story. But she’d carved out her own fame as the star of the Cleft’s symphony. “What are you coming to me for? Don’t you have a thousand servants, not to mention the city’s police, who’d be chomping at the bit to please your family, Princess?”
Amaya’s regard became icy, “As I said, Mister Green, my family’s honour is at stake. With my noble father out of the city, it has been left to me to address this situation. I require a measure of discretion, a commodity which Mister Grendelson assured me you can provide.”
Austin slumped at Gustav’s name, “He’ll never let me off the hook, will he?” he mumbled under his breath.
“I am sorry, but I do not know what you mean by that, Mister Green.” Amaya said.
“Forget about it, Sweetness. If Mister Grendelson sent you, then I’ll take your case. I’ll need ten dollars a day, plus expenses. I’m sure you can manage that.”
Amaya blew out a sigh of relief, “Thank you, Mister Green. Yes, that will be fine. Where will you start?”
“Well, you tell me. Where was your sister last seen?” Austin asked.
“She snuck out to the Giggling Coy three days past. We have not seen nor heard from her since.” Amaya said.
“The Giggling Coy! Well you Jintao girls don’t play around, do you?” Austin exclaimed.
“What is the significance of the Giggling Coy?”
Austin rolled an ironic laugh from his chest, “You do lead a bit of a sheltered life, don’t you? Everyone on the walks knows that the Giggling Coy is owned by Xiao Pei, but good luck proving that. Xiao Pei is a mobster. Well, more like the mobster in the Cleft. But I think I’ve got a favor or two I can call in down there. I’ll see what I can shake from that tree tonight. What’s the best way to get in contact with you, Miss Jintao?”
“I have rehearsals in the afternoons at Grendelson Hall. It would be best if you found me there.” Amaya answered.
Austin stood and opened the door, holding it for Amaya, “I’ll be there tomorrow to let you know what I’ve found.” he said.
Amaya picked up her violin case and went to exit, “I will see you then, Mister Green. Thank you.” Her steps were pindrops as she left.
Austin looked at Antoinette, who observed him over her fingernails as she blew them dry. “So?” she asked.
“You’re going to want a drink for this one, Toni.” Austin answered.
“Not if it’s that nighttrain swill you get from Sal I ain’t.” She snarked back.
“That was Amaya Jintao.” Austin said.
Antoinette gaped at Austin for a moment, then calmly put the tools of her nailcraft away in the drawer of her desk. She stood up, adjusted her skirt and preceded Austin into his office. Pulling the bottle from the drawer she knew he kept it in, she pulled the stopper from the neck with an audible pop and guzzled a large mouthful down. Her face contorted against the taste, and she handed the bottle to Austin, “Where do we begin?” she asked.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Rain had moved in over the Cleft late that afternoon and hung around like an unwanted houseguest. Drops pinged off the brass pipes creating a steady ring resonating up the gangplanks of the city. Where the rain missed the sturdy pipes, it sizzled and gave a low hum against the hydro-electric lines. Every drop which fell was pushed back up by the city’s industrial heat, shrouding the night in a warm mist. As he headed down the walkways, Austin lamented that there was just no staying dry on nights like this in the Cleft. He took a long draft from a mickey of brown liquor to compensate for the weather.
Few people were out in the miserable sodden darkness, though the calls of the night markets could still be heard echoing through the walkways. Austin’s heels clicking on the iron gangplanks gave a rhythm to the droning, pinging night. The whole city felt empty, like set pieces in the most elaborate play imaginable. As he descended the stairs to the next level, Austin caught a flash of movement above. He could see a green glow silhouetting a short human form. There was a rawkus clangor of boots on steel; it was that weird kid who’d been snooping around by his office earlier that day. Tipping his bottle upside down and claiming its dregs, Austin shrugged off the coincidence. Kids were a mystery he was disinclined to solve.
The buzzing glow of electric light diffused through the mist, but the sign of the Giggling Coy was still unmistakable. It was the classiest club in low society, and its air of danger drew the socialite risk-takers whose dollars filled the registers. It was frequented by the outrageous, the larcenous, and not just a few of the outright murderous. Needless to say, Austin was well acquainted with the joint. The sign resolved as he drew nearer, the sound of the club filtering through the door in a muted tone. The gorilla they had for a bouncer sucked on the cherry of a cigarette, which he pitched at Austin’s feet as he approached. It gave a loud hiss as it drown in the evening’s damp. Austin’s eyes drew up from the goon’s shoes slowly to his cro magnon face. “Evenin’, handsome.” Austin said. The ape grunted and they shared a terse moment before he stood aside and let Austin push the door open.
A jazzy bass greeted him as he entered, accompanied by the high-pitched shriek of escaping steam. The burgundy papered walls were once lit by gas-lamp sconces, but Austin noted the blue flickering flames had been replaced by the yellow hue of new electric bulbs since he’d last been in. But the rich wallpaper was still trimmed with polished brass, imitating the pipes of the city. Austin stepped down the mirrored stairs to the sunken main floor, and paused to take in the elaborately ornamented bar. The crystal clear glass of its facade kept the clockwork mosaic it displayed from the rawkus party-goers that populated the club. Within, gears turned, springs whirred, and fine glass tubes ran colourful liquids up and down in a kaleidoscopic display. Pristine brass taps ran out from the bar top; the entire arrangement was used to help Jimmy Six, the bar’s tender and a long-time friend of Austin’s. Jimmy nodded at Austin, urging him forward, as he dialed in a pressure gauge and released a valve which frothed a concoction in his hand.
“Hey, Gumshoe.” Jimmy shot Austin his usual greeting, “What brings you down here tonight? You’re usually the drinks alone type, ain’t ya?”
“A man can’t find a little sociability in this world, Six?” Austin asked.
Jimmy slid the tiered colours of a Cleft Sunset down the bar, then smiled back at Austin, “Most men can, sure. But you? I ain’t believin’ it.” He flipped a bar towel over his shoulder for punctuation.
“Caught me again, Six.” Austin smiled back with a hint of regret to complement the perpetual bags under his eyes, “Start us off with a scotch and soda.” He palmed a fifty dollar note from his pocket, sliding it deftly into Jimmy’s hand. Service workers never made what they felt they were worth, and everyone spilled their guts to the bartender. Austin knew that story stayed the same, no matter where you went. Jimmy’s professional genial regard became conspiratorial; the kid just loved being in on the clandestine stuff.
He turned his back and slipped the fifty into his pocket, then fixed Austin’s drink. Leaning on the counter as he set down the thick highball glass, he asked, “So what’s the job?”
“I’m looking for a girl.” Austin replied, then took a slow sip of the drink. He smacked his lips as he set the glass down, “Best damned drink I’ve had all day, Jimmy.”
“Well, we’re all lookin’ for somebody to love.” Jimmy laughed, “And you know I only give you the top shelf stuff.”
“Much appreciated, kid. But this ain’t just any girl I’m lookin’ for. You seen Sakura Jintao lately?” Austin asked. His fingers caressed the smooth glass as he watched Jimmy’s reaction.
His smile fell like a rock, and Jimmy got a wary look in his eye, “Austin, you don’t want to be messing with this. That’s the boss’s girl.” he cautioned.
Austin leaned back, easing down the rest of his drink before speaking, “I ain’t got much choice in the matter, Jimmy. Can you help me or not?”
“Look, I can’t say much. I don’t know much, really. I saw her in here, sure. Everyone did. She strolled in and just took to the stage one night a few weeks back. Voice like a nightingale, beautiful, but in a sad way. Boss took a shine to her, and the two of them disappeared. Ain’t seen either of ‘em in the last few days.” Jimmy said. His usual enthusiasm for Austin’s work had completely dried up.
“That all you know, kid?” Austin asked.
Jimmy looked down the bar and across the dance floor to the plush booths against the wall. Only one was occupied; a pair of tall, hard looking men in sharp suits nursed beers there. Jimmy nodded at them, “Those two been in and out of the club a lot since then. Like they’re checking up on the place. Never got their names, but my manager says to just keep ‘em happy. I’d guess they’re reporting directly to Xiao Pei.”
Austin took a casual pass of the room, nonchalantly drinking in the details of the pair. They were like ethnically-based mirrors of one another. In a black pinstripe suit, the Caucasian had a shaved head, a wide flat nose, and a scar running across his right eye. Opposite him, an Asian man, maybe an inch shorter but just as powerfully built, kept a permanent sneer on his lips. A ponytail of gleaming black shot out from under his hat, and his left eye was conspicuously scarred, echoing his partner. Austin looked back to Jimmy, “They in here every night?”
“Pretty well, yeah. What are you going to do?” Jimmy asked.
“Well,” Austin answered, standing from his stool, “I’ve had my drink and settled my tab. Think I’ll go home and ruminate a little while. Thanks again, kid. We’ll be seeing you.” Austin waved over his shoulder as he headed for the door, and back into the saturated night. He had enough information to report back to Amaya the next day; her sister was likely safe if she was Xiao Pei’s girl now. And he couldn’t afford to drink his fears away at the Giggling Coy anyway. Flipping up his collar against the damp, Austin headed back to his apartment for a bottle of Sal’s gutrot, and sleep.
. . . . . . . . . .
The morning had been uneventful, but his hangover had left Austin sour as three-day old milk. Antoinette had kept mercifully silent when he rolled into the office. His head had been pounding; Sal’s was always best as a morning drink, when you might use the good stuff in the evening to push it off. He’d put his feet up and tried to sleep through the worst of it, but the engineer next door was testing a new pressure valve that morning. It’s repeated clang and explosive whistle of steam kept Austin awake. At least the streams of obscenities from the frustrated engineer were amusing.
Stepping into the Charli’s for a bite had been a smart move. A piping serving of stone bowl soup quelled the riot his stomach had been rumbling at him, and that in turn quieted his headache, mostly. A slight throb remained as Austin drained the last of his meal. While he slurped his relief down, Gustav Grendelson’s chair signaled his arrival in a whirl of smoothly clicking gears. Austin pulled his fedora down tight, hoping to remain unnoticed by his frequent client. He was not so lucky.
“Oh, Austin, is zat you? Yes, yes, mit ze soup for your hangover, no doubt.” Gustav rolled to a smart stop beside Austin, “I got ze package yesterday. Zer good, zer good. You feel better, ya Austin, mit ze lunch?”
Austin let his spoon rattle as he dropped it in the bowl, “Much, thanks for the concern, Gustav.”
“You should show Mister Grendelson more respect, Austin!” Charli snapped at him from behind the counter.
“It’s alright, Charli, mein friend! Austin and I, we know each other well, ya? I am quite accustomed to his, well let’s call it charm, ya?” Gustav’s mustachioed cheeks bounced with a genial smile. Every time Austin saw that look, his skin crawled. It was a mask, hiding a cunning mind and relentless determination, but everyone else bought it.
“As you say, Mister Grendelson.” Charli offered with a laugh, then turned to inspect his glassware.
Austin stood up and pulled his trench coat over his shoulders, “Love to stay and chat, Gustav, but I’ve got a meeting.”
“Ah, of course,” the engineer said knowingly, “Mit ze Fraulein Jintao, ya?”
Austin allowed himself a sardonic smile, “I thought you had something to do with this, Gustav. She mentioned you.”
“I certainly hope she did!” he replied, “When I heard about this business mit her sister, I thought mein friend Austin can help. Und I thought you would appreciate ze work, ya?”
Austin looked down at Gustav, “So it’s all just coincidence then, huh? Just happenstance that the people around you fit together like so many of your cogs and wheels?”
“Austin, please.” Gustav started, but the piercing cry of Charli’s steam clock interrupted the moment.
“That’s my cue, Gustav. I’ve got an appointment.” Austin swept out of Charli’s, and into the afternoon.
The walkways were crowded with commerce. They always were in the afternoon, as engineers turned from their experiments to the needs of their pockets. Thousands of voices reverberated off brass and stone; the Cleft was always speaking, just that the language changed. Austin pushed his way into the flow of human traffic, which then propelled him forward, toward Grendelson Hall and Amaya Jintao.
Grendelson. Austin’s hangover had subsided, but his mood was as black as ever. He was a constant presence in the Cleft. Where the ubiquitous stamp of Gustav Grendelson’s manufacturing was not immediately visible, flocks of engineers filled the view. They all raced to catch up with the legend, the grand engineer himself. Austin laughed inside at their efforts. Gustav Grendelson wasn’t a runner; he was the track.
Austin felt a tuck on his sleeve. Looking down, he found that same strange kid he’d seen yesterday. His green-lensed goggles were pushed up on his forehead, and he beamed up at Austin, “Hiya, Mister!” he chirped enthusiastically.
“Uh, hey, kid.” Austin spurted out, completely disarmed by the boy’s sudden appearance. He took a good look at him as they moved together in the flow of pedestrians. He saw that one of the boy’s arms was dressed in copper and brass tubing, and that he wore some sort of protective leather under his loose-fitting clothes. “Was there something you wanted?”
“You’re interesting!” He chirped in response.
“Thanks, I guess. I’ve got a meeting I need to get to, kid.”
“Oh, I bet you do!” He laughed.
“Look kid, I do have somewhere to be. If you want, go down to my office and make an appointment with my secretary. Maybe she’ll have a lollipop for you or something.” He pulled his sleeve from the boy’s grip.
The boy’s smile grew wider, “No need for that. I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon. Have fun, Mister!” The boy ducked around a nearby woman laden with shopping bags, and disappeared from sight. Austin scratched his head, lamented that he didn’t bring a bottle with him that afternoon, and turned back toward his meeting with Amaya Jintao.
Grendelson Hall was a massive, squat structure on the upper tiers of the Cleft. It was a disc which jutted out from the stone. The outer walls were made of brass and copper pipes with whistling releases in them. At all times, Grendelson Hall made a soft sort of music with its walls. During festivals, the entire building would be played like a pipe organ, roaring celebratory tones throughout the city. But as Austin approached the construct, its tone struck him as atypically despondent. He sighed in commiseration with the building as he pushed through the glass doors.
The interior was lavish; rich purple carpet covered the floors, gold-embossed paper coated the walls, and the archways were trimmed with walnut from the far side of the globe. But despite the impressive decor, Austin’s attention was instantly drawn by the softly muted dulcet strains of a violin. They carried him across the lobby against the protestations of the box office clerk in her booth. He pushed back the velvet curtain, to reveal Amaya Jintao.
The performance space was black, except for the twin spotlights trained on Amaya’s seat on the stage. Austin stared down the aisle at her. Her fingers played deft and delicate across the rosewood instrument. Though sheet music stood opposite her, Amaya’s eyes remained closed as she progressed through the chords of the piece. It haunted Austin, speaking to feelings which he’d long ignored, trying to deny their influence on his life. As he listened, a tear formed in his right eye, and rolled unbidden down his cheek. As the final chord resonated through the hall, Austin was at once regretful the moment had passed, and relieved to return to his repressed nature. He wiped the moisture from his eyes, snuffed his sinuses clear, and approached the stage, “That’s one hell of a talent you’ve got there, Miss Jintao.”
Amaya opened her eyes at Austin’s voice, giving a small start of surprise, “I am glad you enjoyed it, Mister Green. Music reveals our natures to us. It is both a comfort, and a disturbance, all at the same time.”
“I can’t argue with that, but it’s all a little, how would you say it? Esoteric, for me.” Austin replied.
“If you say so, Mister Green. But you are not here to serve as a music critic. What news do you have for me?” She asked.
“Your sister, Sakura, she was at the Giggling Coy, but she’s not hanging around there now.” Austin said.
“Do you know where she is?”
“You and your sister, do you perform together? I understand she’s got quite a set of pipes on her.” Austin asked.
“In better times, for our father, we would perform together. Sakura was never interested in the discipline of musicianship, but her talent is undeniable. I have never seen our father happier than when we would make music together.” Amaya said.
“Well, Miss Jintao, the good news is that I believe your sister to be safe, at least for the time being. The bad news is that her voice got her the attention of Xiao Pei. I’ve got reason to believe he’s keeping her as arm-candy for now.” Austin said.
Amaya pressed her fingers to her lips in shock, “How can she be safe with that villain?” she asked.
“Easy now.” Austin urged composure, “He likes her, so she’ll be alright, at least for now. But this is a delicate situation. Sakura is a grown woman, and seems to have made a choice for herself. That said, sooner or later, Xiao Pei’s going to put her in a dangerous situation. It’s just the nature of his business.”
“So what do you purpose to do, Mister Green?” Amaya asked.
“There are two things to be done, as I see it. “ he leaned up against the stage as he spoke, “The first thing is to find out where Xiao Pei’s got your sister staying. The best thing would be to get you two to sit down and have a good conversation. I won’t try and bring her home against her will.”
Amaya’s gaze narrowed, “That is a circumstance we should like to avoid. What is the second thing, Mister Green?”
“The second thing, is to get something on Xiao Pei. It’s wrong to force a young woman to be somewhere she doesn’t want to be, but it’s not so wrong to twist the arm of a gangster. I’m going to be tailing a couple of Xiao Pei’s men tonight. Hopefully, I’ll find both Sakura and something you can hold over Xiao Pei. If Sakura won’t come home, then maybe we can persuade her new beau to lose interest.”
Amaya looked Austin up and down, “I can see why Mister Grendelson recommended you now, Mister Green. You have more cunning than I gave you credit for. Please, continue your investigation. There is much I do not like in this situation, but I agree with your assesment. I expect to see you here again tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps your news will inspire me to play something happier then.” She took the violin from her lap and placed it back into its case. The locks whirred shut of their own accord, and Austin couldn’t help but notice Gustav Grendelson’s stamp in their brass casings.
“Until tomorrow afternoon then, Miss Jintao.” He tipped his fedora to her, and headed back toward the daylight.
. . . . . . . . . . .
The evening was dry at least, and that was the most that Austin could say about it. His skin crawled as he stood in the shadows of the buildings opposite the Giggling Coy. Being in the neighborhood two nights in a row was an invitation to be recognized. Austin had long held that when people knew your face, they started asking questions. He was much more comfortable when the only questions where his. But the gorilla at the door hadn’t so much as looked his way in an hour. He figured that meant he’d found a good spot to wait out Xiao Pei’s goons. He’d even been sure to bring himself a flask of the good single malt scotch he kept squirreled away; it felt like a special occasion.
As the night grew late, Austin watched the parade of wannabe’s and floozies stumble drunkenly from the Giggling Coy’s doors. Seemed there was a party going that night, but when Xiao Pei’s pair of thugs came out, they were sober as Sunday morning. They looked fully alert, eager even, as they nodded to the doorman and headed down the iron walkway. Austin could hear the rumbling laughter they shared as he slipped around the building and into their wake.
He pursued them as they went deeper and deeper into the Cleft. While most of the city had workshops intermingled with offices and residences, only the massive industrial machines of Gustav Grendelson’s steam power supply occupied these levels. The walkways here were cramped, and catwalks dipped from the tier above for maintenance work on all the valves and gears of the massive boiler plants. They moved like spiders along the industrial web of the place. Austin watched as the pair climbed down a ladder to the lowest levels of the city. Only the newly built hydroelectric plant was this close to the cascading power of the waterfall.
Austin let the goons get ahead of him, putting distance between them. He waited at the top of the ladder, and looked down at the Denlong Gau as it sent rippled reflections of the city’s light back up the walls of the chasm. There was a wooden pier along the near bank with a steamer ship pulled up to it. The ships were familiar to the Cleft, as they brought Grendelson’s building supplies to the construction site over the past three years. But the crew running material down the pier were out of place at the late hour. If Xiao Pei’s henchmen hadn’t been indication enough, this proved something was up. He stole his way down the ladder, and inched toward the floodlights of the damn’s receiving dock. Stacks of pallets were piled neatly around Gustav’s concrete bay, providing Austin with cover as he slipped closer to the action.
He heard the gangsters talking before he saw them, “That’s it. That’s the last of it. You men go on back to your ship and set sail, now.” The accent suggested the Caucasian brawler was speaking to the sailors.
“We are supposed to get paid.” a cyrillic reply came back.
“You take that up with your Captain.” The tone was acidic and contemptuous. There was a grumble from the sailors, and the scuffle of boots on the concrete, but these were drowned by a long, loud hiss and the heavy clomp of a metallic foot. Austin peeked from his hiding spot to see a massive exoskeletal loader shining in the floodlights. Even in the Cleft, these behemoths were not common, but their strength was legendary. They were one of Gustav Grendelson’s signature designs. The sailors backed down quickly and returned to their ship to have words with their captain. Austin finished off his flask, and felt the burning liquid buttress his courage. He slipped into the receiving door and continued his pursuit.
The thunder of the waterfall was everywhere around them, and growing louder as they moved into the plant. The scent of damp stone filled the space, but as Austin slunk through the shadows of gauges and giant conductors, he noticed a sulphuric, burning smell. The pair he’d followed from the club were joined only by the loader. Whatever Xiao Pei was doing here, he didn’t need a lot of men to do it.
The smell of sulphur got stronger and the air grew hot. Austin drew out a hancheroff, and tied it around his face, trying to ward off the stench. He drew up between a pair of massive pressure tanks, and peered out. He couldn’t explain what he saw. A turbine had been removed, presumably why they’d needed the loader. A cascade of the river’s might poured through a sluice and down into a black hole in the floor. Around this, Xiao Pei had four small fires, burning with green flames. They seemed the source of both the heat and the smell. The mobster himself stood before this arrangement, not moving. But most horrifying and baffling of all, Sakura Jintao was tied in the air above the abyss. She was gagged and could not hope to overwhelm the sound of the torrent, but Austin could see the tears rolling down her cheeks and the terror in her eyes. The trio of goons came up behind Xiao Pei, but Austin had an unobstructed line at him. He reached into his pocket, and slipped the brass knuckles he’d left there over his hand. “Damnit.” He cursed to himself, then rushed out from hiding.
He grabbed Xiao Pei’s slender shoulders, spinning him around in a twirl of ritual silks. Xiao Pei’s large, dark eyes widened in surprise as Austin reared back, “Nice to meet you, Xiao Pei!” He quipped, and drove a vicious right cross into the mob boss’s face. The brass connected squarely with the mobster’s jaw. Xiao Pei’s head snapped back sickly, but part of the crunch had been a few of Austin’s fingers breaking. There was a stunned moment of silence.
Xiao Pei’s face was hidden from Austin as he began, “Austin Green, you fool.” Austin stepped back as Xiao Pei turned back to face him. The man’s flesh was torn open along the jaw from the ear to the chin. The opening revealed a gleaming black mass. Xiao Pei smiled, “You have no idea the powers you are tampering with!” He roared at Austin with a force that blew his fedora into the distance and ripped at his trench coat. Xiao Pei stretched tall as four limbs, two on either side of his body, punched from his ribs. All his extremities grew black, then spindly and jagged. The human face ripped off along the tear Austin had made, and a massive arachnid horror leered its compound eyes into the room. Austin staggered at the sight, falling at the feet of Xiao Pei’s henchmen. They laughed down at him, giving this unreal nightmare an edge of humiliation. Austin’s heart gave a single, thudding beat in his chest.
“He may not know, Xiao Pei,” a voice pierced the moment. The pubescent soprano pitched around the concrete chamber, seeming to come from everywhere at once, “but I know exactly what you are!” There was the sound of steel meeting brass in a pair of neat metallic rings, then a whoosh as the loader’s pressure supply vented into the room. The space became obscured in plumes of steam. Austin lost track of everyone; even Xiao Pei’s gigantic spidery body became little more than a dark blur in the mist. There was the sound of fists meeting flesh, and deep groans of pain. Austin got to his feet as the steam thinned out. The henchmen resolved first, doubled over in agony and retching their stomachs out in response. Standing amidst their fallen forms, was that same young boy, the one who’d called him interesting. He was standing in a fencing form, a slender golden blade in his hand, “Hey Mister!” he beamed at Austin, who could only blink in response.
A clatter of limbs preceded Xiao Pei’s rushing assault. The boy swept around Austin, twirling him backward as the golden blade met the spear-like limbs. “I know you’re confused,” the boy said as he parried the monster’s attacks, “but I don’t have time to explain things to you. Sorry for that.” The boy slashed across the beast’s mid-section, causing the thing to leap back. He flashed that smile at Austin again as he balled up his fist. A golden light grew around his curled fingers. The boy loosed a yawl and flung the light at the creature, who jumped from its path. The luminous bolt scored a black streak against the concrete.
“What the hell?” Austin exclaimed.
“No time!” The boy replied, “Look, Xiao Pei is a demon. This place transforms the river’s power. He plans on sacrificing the Jintao princess here, and using this plant to replace Denlong Gau, the river spirit.” He said all this matter of factly, turning dials on the brass and leather arrangement on his arm. “I’m almost ready.” He continued, “When I throw the sword, catch the princess.”
Austin was stupefied, “What?”
“Catch her! Get her out of here!” The boy yelled, then with a grunt, sent his blade spinning for the ropes which bound Sakura Jintao. Austin’s body responded, dashing across the space and leaping over the void. The golden sword sliced through the ropes, dropping Sakura into Austin’s arms. He rolled with her in a graceless landing. Sakura clutched onto Austin. He pulled them upright, and they held one another against their well justified fears.
The boy dashed between the detective and the monster, “Good job! Get her out of here, and when you need to, go to the temple above the falls.” He turned and smiled once more at Austin, and for the first time he noticed a sadness in the boy’s eyes, “You won’t see me again.” He said, then turned to the demonic creature.
Austin didn’t need to be told twice. His legs pumped furiously down the length of the plant. He ran from the sounds of monumental battle as a child defended him from something so horrific his mind still reeled. The sounds grew muted as Austin carried them out into the predawn light. He kept his pace until he saw the pier. People were gathered there, and as he got close, Austin could see they were the police, being led by the distinctive chair of Gustav Grendelson. His feet dragged heavily as he came to a stop before them.
Gustav’s chair spun in a mechanical whirl, “Ah, Austin! Zer good, zer good! Just in time, ya? Officers, if you would please.” A pair of uniformed female officers gently took Sakura from his arms. Austin just stared at Gustav. “Ya, ya, good! I know zat Miss Amaya is looking forward to seeing her again. Don’t worry, Austin. You have done a good job!” He patted the detective on the arm gently.
“All part of your plan, Gustav?” Austin asked, then shook his head, “No. No, this was something even bigger than you.” The distinctive ping of rain coming down on the Cleft preceded the drops reaching them on the pier. A gust of wind blew across the empty industrial void, carrying Austin’s hat to his feet. He picked up it, staring at it dumbfounded.
“Something to tell me, Austin?” the engineer asked, his chair unfurling an umbrella with the twist of a knob.
“Not yet, Gustav.” Austin replied. He brushed off his fedora and slipped it onto his head as he made for the stairways, “But I’ll let you know when I do.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“And that’s when I came up here, padre.” Austin finished his story.
“A remarkable tale, my friend.” the monk said, “I’m sure my entire order thanks you for it.”
“He told me to come here.” Austin insisted, “Why? Who was he?”
The monk smiled warmly, “I don’t know. But we believe that the river has a soul, and a will. That will unites and protects us, and that we are grateful to any who would offer the same protection in return.” He took Austin’s hand gently in his, “I believe you, Austin Green.”
Austin blew out slowly, and felt the weight of his questions lifting from him. He had no sense of what the answer were, or even if there were answers to be had, but the questions left his mind, carried away by the might of the river. He smiled back at his new friend, “They’re still going to have a lot of questions for me when I get back. What should I tell them?”
“Tell them that you have good news. Tell them that you have learned that the world is even bigger, even more fantastic than you knew. And that no matter where we travel, or how much we know, we will always have further to go on this journey we share.”