FINALIST FOR THE 2021 RAKUTEN KOBO EMERGING WRITER PRIZE
A rogue robot is terrorizing the dark underbelly of 1930s Manhattan. Can detective Elias Roche and his new Automatic partner track it down?
The year is 1933. Even in a world with free energy, robot labour, and megacorporations, nothing could stop the collapse of the American Dream. As the world-spanning Great Depression rages on, the remaining New York–based mafias clash with police for control of the broken city. Elias Roche, former police officer turned Mafia enforcer, works to maintain a tenuous peace between the two parties.
Accustomed to settling disputes with the business end of a gun, Roche must expand his repertoire after a violent murder is covered up by the FBI. With the Mafia insisting they’re innocent of the crime and the police powerless to help, Roche and his new Automatic partner, Allen, must root out those responsible before the situation sparks a war in the city streets.
A notorious woman with whom I am well acquainted once told me, “Always strike a man when he is down. Give him no reason to think that he may stand and reciprocate. ”
As I lay on the asphalt, I considered myself lucky that no one was nearby, and luckier still that few people shared that principle.
What should have been a simple drop down a garbage chute had ended badly. I’d been expecting to land in a pile of garbage — I didn’t mind what was in the bags, so long as it was soft — but instead, the curved handle of the trash bin had hit the right side of my spine, colliding with my ribs. Momentum had carried me farther, and I’d rolled to the left and tumbled out of the bin onto the asphalt.
The sight of the Plate to the east, beyond the alleyway, indicated to me that I was still alive. There were worse things in this life, I supposed. The drop into the bin might have killed me, had the garbage chute not curved and subsequently slowed my fall.
Something crashed and banged down the chute after me. My Diamondback revolver bounced off the overturned rubbish bin and landed square on my chest, reminding me to breathe as daggers of pain shot through my body.
A few wheezy breaths later, oxygen filled my lungs once more. I forced my aching body to roll away from the building, away from the shouts of the men rushing down to find me. I wished there was time to relax, to look up at the night sky and the cathartic sight of the stars. That was the only good thing about being in Jersey.
“He’s down there! Fuckin’ get him!”
The screams brought my mind back to the now and my right hand to my revolver. An Automatic landed on the ground a stone’s throw from me, its legs screeching from the impact of the three-storey jump. It was a little over six feet in height, with gangly arms stronger than a man’s, a smooth humanoid body, and glowing red eyes that told me this wasn’t a factory-floor model. It was programmed to search and destroy. The Automatic straightened and ran toward me. Two pulls of my trigger made two fist-sized holes in the machine. Neural-Interface and servos fell out of its seared chassis.
If these boys had one Red-eye, there was no doubt they had plenty more. I needed to get out of there. Fast.
Even with my back in shambles, I found I could still walk. The passing cars didn’t quite drown out the sound of leather soles ringing against iron walkways: the hunters were on the move. I headed away from the sounds, down the alley to a small side street. I hoped it would prove to be a straight shot to the main street, where I’d parked my car. I needed a speedy getaway.
I turned the corner and pressed my back against the wall, inching my way to the corner of the building. I allowed my head to leave the safety of cover for just a moment to scan the street. My senses immediately exploded: a car screeching, men screaming, and a cacophony of gunfire as . 45-calibre rounds skipped across the concrete.
“There’s the roach, get him!”
I opened the chamber. Four rounds left and only God knew how many targets. I closed it and readied myself, puffing out my chest to try to crack my back. That fall had really affected my breathing. No using garbage chutes anymore.
“You’re gunna pay for killin’ the boss, roach! Your little lady is next!”
They wouldn’t expect me to start running across the road, I thought. They’d figure I would wait patiently for them to fill me with lead, perhaps.
Switching the gun to my left hand and firing perpendicular to my path, I tried to lay down some covering fire for myself. The heated rounds were designed to kill Automatics, so they were overkill for flesh and bone.
The traitorous mobsters were spreading out on the street; I had little time to aim. One round took out a leg, two hit the screeching car behind them, and the final bullet cut through a Tommy gun into an assailant’s chest. The others fired after me, unable to get a bead on me after I slipped into a nearby alley that ran between two apartment complexes. It was long enough to be a no man’s land between me and my pursuers.
The job had called for only one corpse; the gunmen didn’t need to die, too. But neither did I need them following me around after tonight. I cracked the cylinder open and dropped the empties onto the concrete as I slammed myself into the wall for cover. The scattering shells sounded like wind chimes, though it was hard to hear with my deafened ears.
The extra bullets were in my left pocket. Thankfully, I hadn’t landed on them during my fall — that would’ve hurt like hell. The Brunos’ footsteps got louder as I fed each round into the revolver. They were advancing slowly, firing into the alley now and then to see where I was, or maybe to intimidate me. But unlike them, I’d been in the War; being surrounded by machine gun fire was my bread and butter.
Looking back over to the street, through the buildings, I caught a glimpse of the Upper City. Its brightness was blinding even from here. Rotorbirds flew all around the mile-high buildings. The fluorescent and neon lights of the Plate glimmered above in contrast to the pitch black of the Lower City beneath. Jersey was a cesspit, but at least its sky hadn’t been stolen.
The only illumination in the alleyway came from a lamppost a few yards away from me, directly in front of the building I had my back to. I pushed myself up tighter to the wall, hoping my body would disappear into the darkness and give me some edge in this fight. The single yellow bulb lit the frosted street and splayed light against the wall opposite me, guiding my eyes to where the Brunos would be coming from. A gust of cold wind hit my face and bare arms. I’d left my jacket at home … or maybe in the car? I wasn’t sure where I left things anymore. But adrenalin kept me warm.
I carried my weapon in my right hand now, and I lifted it as I braced myself against the cool brick. All seven . 38 rounds were ready to find places to park themselves. I pulled the hammer back, hearing the mechanisms inside switch. Just like a cowboy gun: single-action, built for speed.
The three Brunos were well equipped, but stupid and blinded by rage as they appeared at the mouth of the alleyway. Maybe they were expecting to see me running farther down the alley, making it easy for them. They caught a glimpse of my gleaming steel a moment too late; my finger was faster than their arms. Moments later, they were lying on the bloody street, and another seven rounds were gone from my weapon.
My head was rocking with the blasts, which had been amplified in the enclosed space.
I walked up to the trio of corpses and reached down to grab the leader’s Tommy gun. The M1929 was a good advancement on the classic design of the submachine gun. Unfortunately for these boys, weapons had no loyalty. The gunman who’d been spitting out insults earlier was at my feet now. He looked like any Mafia Bruno — pale skin, thick beard, short hair, dark coat. His guts were spilling out, but he was still kicking.
“You should be dead … asshole. You’re a roach, a bug to her. She don’t give a … shit about you. You killed your best chance … of getting out of this game …”
“It’s Roche, you fuck. ” I took the magazine out and used the last round to end his story with a period. Roach. The bastards were brave to be calling me that.
I headed north to find my car. The sudden silence, calming and eerie, helped me to think as I walked.
My burgundy Talbot was a bit scuffed up from the salt on the roads, but it still looked finer than any other car in this part of town. I opened the trunk, loaded my last seven rounds into my revolver, and threw it inside. I’d felt my trigger finger taking over, and I wanted to leave it to cool for a while.
I got in the car, letting my body melt into the leather upholstery. Laying my head against the steering wheel, I felt the adrenalin pouring out of me, the heat radiating off my face. Pain came soon after, from the pulsing lump on my forehead. I heard a faint knocking on the hood of my car. Two knocks. Twice.
I looked up, but there was no one there. Someone, however, had left me a gift in the form of a small envelope under the windshield wiper. It was unsealed, unsigned, and had some green sticking out of the flap. The street was well lit, but I didn’t bother looking around for the boys who’d dropped it; I knew that I wouldn’t see them. I reached out my open window and grasped the envelope tightly, then opened it to reveal a wad of cash: three thousand, as promised.
“Damn, you’re fast,” I said to no one in particular.
The Iron Hands had faith in me; that was why she was willing to pay big rainy day funds like this — or maybe she just didn’t mind paying extra to get traitors dealt with fast. Either way, job done, money paid. Since I was in Jersey, I had a friend to visit. Plus, I had to get far away from the Heights, else it wouldn’t be just the cops who would make my night hell.