The Company Man
|Author:||Robert Jackson Bennett
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|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate History (SF)|
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The year is 1919.
The McNaughton Corporation is the pinnacle of American industry. They built the guns that won the Great War before it even began. They built the airships that tie the world together. And, above all, they built Evesden-a shining metropolis, the best that the world has to offer.
But something is rotten at the heart of the city. Deep underground, a trolley car pulls into a station with eleven dead bodies inside. Four minutes before, the victims were seen boarding at the previous station. Eleven men butchered by hand in the blink of an eye. All are dead. And all are union.
Now, one man, Cyril Hayes, must fix this. There is a dark secret behind the inventions of McNaughton and with a war brewing between the executives and the workers, the truth must be discovered before the whole city burns. Caught between the union and the company, between the police and the victims, Hayes must uncover the mystery before it kills him.
The canal was a gray, rotting thing, so polluted and turgid that what it contained could hardly be called water at all. It wound below the stone arches and the spiderweb trusses of its many bridges, and at each bend it gained yet more refuse. At one turning enough sediment and muck had happened to gather and dry to become something like soil. There small, mousy reeds grew and clutched at the passing garbage, forming a staggered little delta that curved out across the canal.
Hayes looked at the little nest and saw something shining on the edge. He examined the sludge around the channel and frowned at his shoes, then sighed and found the best purchase and leaned forward. He scooped up the prize and took out his handkerchief and cleaned off the mud. It was a coin, underneath it all. A politician's stern face glared back, on the other side a state bird or some creed. He smiled and laughed and held it up to the sky, trying to find a rare stream of sunlight falling through the towering buildings of the surrounding neighborhood. Finding none, he gave up.
"Hey!" called a voice.
He turned and saw Garvey looking down at him from the top of the hill.
"Yes?" said Hayes.
"We hooked him," Garvey said.
"Good for you," said Hayes.
"Come on over."
"Come on over," said Garvey again.
"I don't particularly want to. I'm enjoying myself here," Hayes said, gesturing to the river. "Look, I found a quarter."
"You don't want to see him?" Garvey asked.
"I don't need to see him. You're not going to file it just by seeing him."
"That's not the point. Come on, get over here."
Hayes walked to Garvey at the top of the hill, Garvey glaring at him all the while, and then they both descended into the other side of the canal. It was an immense construction, a blank gray canyon with shanties and tumbling lean-tos grouped down closer to the water. All of them had been abandoned as the police first invaded. Garvey and Hayes picked their way down around soiled vagrant beddings and miles of graffiti. On one spot there were the faded bones of a hopscotch game.
Hayes tried to imagine children playing next to this reeking Styx and abandoned it.
The morning mist was lifting and Hayes could just make out the other officers milling away down on the bank. Something white and smooth floated out on the waters ahead. The air was so cold and wet it stung and Hayes pulled his scarf tight. On cold mornings like this he ached for the sour honey warmth of bourbon in his belly, but he steeled himself and tried to push those thoughts from his mind.
"Say, who is this on this quarter?" he said. He held it out. "I can never keep track of your politicians."
"He was spotted a ways down the canal," said Garvey, ignoring him. "Head down, drifting our way. Looks like someone sent him on a swim."
"Doesn't seem to be a very good swimmer," said Hayes.
"No. No, he doesn't."
They both approached the bank slowly. Garvey moved with the practiced plod of a harassed policeman, already resigned to face the terrible day. A uniform scurried up to match his pace and Garvey nodded absently as he rattled off a few facts and details about the sight ahead, none of which amounted to anything. The uniform waited expectantly, hoping for some commendation or at least acknowledgment from the big detective, but Garvey's face betrayed nothing. He just sniffed and put his hands in his pockets as though enjoying any pleasant stroll. Crestfallen, the uniform departed, and Hayes resumed his place at Garvey's side. The other officers watched him curiously. He was short and wispy and overdressed, and seemed queerly aristocratic with his long blond hair and expensive coat, which was several sizes too large for him. And whereas Garvey made a straight, slow trudge to the river, Hayes wound and wove aimlessly, distracted by odd things found on the ground, or perhaps lost in his own thoughts. To anyone's eyes the two of them seemed no more right for each other than they were for the neighborhood, yet when Hayes asked for a cigarette Garvey fished a tin from his pocket with his thick boxer's hands and lifted one out without a word. Hayes took it, murmuring a thanks through a small smile, and then passed his free hand over the cigarette in a quick flourish. It vanished, his fingers left holding nothing at all. With another flourish it had returned again, and Hayes planted it in his mouth, smiling cleverly. Garvey barely seemed to notice. His eyes stayed fixed on the river in the mist. Hayes sighed and stuffed himself farther into his coat and continued on.
Finally they came to the water's edge and looked. Had it not been for the hands you could never have told what it was. Facedown in the water it looked like some floating pile of rags, wet white towels twisted up and drifting alone. But the hands were visible down in the waters below, ghostly white and perfect, gesturing this way and that as they were buffeted by the currents. It looked like he was conducting some underwater orchestra, a soiled water nymph toiling through the runoff.
Hayes watched the officers struggle with the thing in the water, tugging it ever closer. "And he's a company man, I assume," he said.
"Don't know," said Garvey.
"What? You don't?"
"No. That's why I called you."
"You called me down here at seven in the morning on a body that might not even be one of mine?" said Hayes. "Good God, Garvey. I won't forgive you for that. I won't. I simply can't.
One of the uniforms reached out with a hooked cane and caught him on his side and pulled him close. They gathered around the bank with sticks and nets and Garvey helped them ease the dripping wreck ashore.
Hayes watched as they hauled him out and half-sang to himself, "Here comes another stray from my accursed flock, perhaps. My wandering lambs, my lost little babes. Where did you run to, little lamb? What trouble did you get yourself mixed up in? And to where can I lead you next?"
"Jesus Christ," said Garvey. He shook his head at Hayes, disgusted.
Once they had the body steady they laid him out on the ground. His face was waterlogged and almost formless, his eyes little swollen slits and his lips dumbly twisted. A ragged gash ran zigzag from one corner of his jaw to the top of the opposite collarbone. The injury was colorless, the flesh like custard or curd. No fish had been at him for no fish would live in the Construct canals.
"One of yours?" asked Garvey.
Hayes peered at him. "I can't say."
Garvey sighed and leaned on one of the nets. "Not familiar? Nothing?"
"No, I'm afraid not, Garv. McNaughton pays me for a great deal of things, but they don't pay me to keep a mental registry of every factory groundling they have." He coughed. "Anything in his pockets?"
Garvey reached in, fumbled around, then pulled his hands out and dried them off. "No."
"So just a man in his skivvies and an undershirt working part time as a buoy."
"Seems like it."
"Well. That's all I know, too."
They stood up and looked at the dead man. Thunderclouds of bruises lined his ribs and legs. The other officers clambered ashore and the gray river water from their waders left strata of silt across the dead man's heels.
"Four hundred and eighty-six," said Hayes.
"What?" said Garvey.
"This is Mr. Four Hundred and Eighty-six. Murder of this year."
"Oh. That's right, I guess. How'd you know that?"
"A rumor," said Hayes.
"That the only good rumor you know about this?"
"Oh, perhaps, Garv. Perhaps." He knelt and looked at the dead man's fingers. They were yellowed with nicotine and the nails were ragged. Several small pink cuts dotted the webbing of his hands and orange calluses floated in his palms below each finger. Hayes touched them, felt their firmness. Factory worker. Maybe a loader of some kind. Or perhaps he had been, once.
"I think he's one of mine, yes," said Hayes softly.
"Is he a unioner?" Garvey asked.
"Oh, I've no idea there." He gently placed the hand back on the cement and patted its back, as though reassuring the dead man everything would be all right. Several of the uniforms pulled faces as they watched the gesture, but Hayes was so used to the presence of the dead that he barely gave it thought. "But I'd certainly guess so."
"Are we good to take this, Detective?" asked one of the uniforms.
"Yeah," Garvey said, and sighed again. "Yeah, go ahead and pack him up."
They watched as the uniforms unloaded the corpse slickerbag and tucked him in and tied it up. Then they placed him on a canvas stretcher and began carrying him up the hill as a thin rain started. Garvey and Hayes followed.
"What I would give," said Garvey, "for something simple. A wife that shot a husband in front of the butcher. Two thugs getting into a tussle at a bar and one getting three inches of knife for his passion. Something nice, you know?"
"That's a rather morbid thought. But then, you have made a rather morbid career choice, Garv."
They began to crest the canal, the tops of distant buildings just
peeking over the edge. "We're going to pass five hundred this year," said Garvey.
"Yes," said Hayes.
They left the canal and came back up to civilization, to the winding cement streets and electric lamps and the distant putter of cars. The scent of burning coal laced the morning wind and cries and shouts echoed from the tenements. Rag-wrapped beggars lay in doorways like sodden mummies, by all appearances dead except for the breath pluming from their hoods. And far beyond the rambling skyline the downtown towers of Evesden overtook the horizon, their windows and lights shining bright, jealously guarding their modernity. Every once in a while a spotlight stabbed up, calling out to some airship hidden in the clouds. The future was only a mile or two away but would come no closer to places such as these.
"You should have looked at him," said Garvey as they entered the warren of tiny lanes.
"I did look at him," Hayes said.
"Yeah. But you didn't want to."
"It's not part of my job. Or yours."
"You get too wrapped up in these things. It'll ruin your morning."
"He's a victim. A real victim, I think. I've got a feeling about him. Someone has to look, for things like that."
"Maybe. Do you think it'll file?"
"I think it might."
"Oh," said Hayes. He thought for a moment and said, "I don't."
"Hm. No," agreed Garvey after a while. "No, it probably won't."
He sighed. "I hate Novembers. At least in December you know it's fucking done, or near enough."
As they left the canal behind, the neighborhood grew cleaner and the streets grew wider. even though the dawn was lost behind the overcast the city was coming to life. Halfway up the side of a tenement a fat woman warbled something in Italian and draped patched sheets along a clothesline, her enormous white breasts almost spilling out of her nightshirt as she moved. A slaughterhouse ice cart rattled around to the back of a butcher's, and though its back was stained rose-pink from old blood there was no threat of any viscera spilling, not on a frosty day such as this. At Milligan's the barkeep opened the door and began kicking at three souses who'd slept hunched and penitent on the sidewalk, and the men moaned and scrambled away, cursing. Down at the corner four Chinamen sat on a wooden cage of geese, stoic and regal in their robes and caps as though they were foreign emissaries, and they watched Garvey as he walked by, sensing police. Garvey studiously ignored them, but Hayes gave them a sharp salute, and one of them favored him with a raised eyebrow. Across the street what had to be the world's oldest newsie peeled back his ancient lips to reveal a toothless mouth and bawled out the latest trumped-up outrage, something about how President Ballinger was once again sending the nation to hell in a handbasket. Three old men strode over, puffing in indignation, and paid for three papers and read them and shook their heads.
All in all, it was a morning like any other. It was hard to believe that somewhere in all this were rivers where the dead dreamily swam through the waters, or slept under upraised houses, or perhaps waited for the morning in an alley next to the previous day's trash. And yet Hayes knew it happened with regularity. They were simply another kind of citizen in these neighborhoods, a kind that waited to be dealt with by whoever had the time.
They found Garvey's car, a spindly affair that looked as if it should fall apart after four miles, and they both grunted as they climbed in. Garvey primed the car's cradle and listened to it whine as it fed into the engine. Then he eased up on the drive handle. The engine buzzed and sang its clockwork song, and he released the brake and they started off, down through the wandering alleys and out onto the trolley path and into the auto lane. Hayes leaned his head against the glass and massaged his temples and pinched his nose. He moaned a little as a trolley roared past and sank down into the underground. Then he took out a pair of spectacles with blue-tinted lenses, which he delicately referred to as his "morning glasses," and fixed them on his nose and stared out at the street.
"Late night?" asked Garvey.
"You know the answer to that," he said.
"Hah. Yeah. Why did you help today, anyways?"
"Why did you agree to come at all? If you'd been up so late, I mean."
Hayes didn't answer at first. They moved onto Michigan Avenue and started across town. The Nail rose in the distance, dwarfing the other buildings. It was at least twenty blocks north, but even from here every line of its architecture could be seen by the naked eye. Its ash-gray shaft stabbed into the sky, windows lining its castellations. At the top its jade steeple glittered with promise. They called it the Nail because to many it looked like one, with a fat head and a long sharp tooth, waiting to be hammered into something. Hayes had always disagreed. To him it looked like a finger, gray and thick, and at the top was its green fingernail, scratching at the sky. It was still a nail, but to him it was alive. Maybe growing.
Unlike many, Hayes was familiar with the inner workings of the building. He usually went there at least ten times a month. At its top silver letters spelled out the word MCNAUGHTON. His eyes traced over the letters and he sourly reflected that the same people who owned that marvelous piece of architecture also owned him, in a way.
"Well?" said Garvey.
"Mmm? What?" asked Hayes.
"Why'd you help?"
"Oh. I suppose just to have something to do," he said, and rolled to his side and tried to sleep.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Jackson Bennett
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