Writer In Progress: Gods of Chicago, written by A. J. Sikes
April 30, 2015 Leave a comment
This month I bring you an excerpt from A.J. Sikes Urban Fantasy Noir Gods of Chicago. This is a grisly scene from near the end of the story, and he chose it because…
….it stands out to me as one of the strongest moments in the story. Two of the main characters, who’ve been at odds since the beginning, finally face off and let out everything that’s been bottled up between them. It isn’t pretty, but this is a noir novel, so it isn’t mean to be. And, trigger warning: contains racial slurs, racist violence, and violence directed at a woman. The scene was thoroughly uncomfortable to write. But after reading it over and over, questioning whether it was right to include in the book, I began to see how strong the moment was. Emma Farnsworth is my favorite character from Gods of Chicago, and Tom Wynes my least favorite, so I could put a lot of emotional content into their dialogue through this scene. While this moment is the pinnacle of their rivalry, the dialogue and tone are representative of both characters. The scene also presents a few story world details that should help readers imagine my alternate history 1929 Chicago.
Two soldiers came into the shed, one with a pistol that he kept trained on Emma. The other went to the prisoners and menaced them with his rifle before ordering them outside. The Conroys went first, hustling out ahead of the wounded negro. When the shed was empty, Wynes came in with the Tommy gun. He tucked it under his arm and undid Emma’s cuffs from around the pipe, then closed them again and led her out to join the others.
Outside, the prisoners had stayed apart. The ironwork hound stood in front of them, its bulky torso a tangle of tubes and pipes racing around the machine’s core. Emma had only seen one this close at her father’s plant, when he’d brought it in to watch the yard at night. She’d feared the thing then and felt no different now. Emma gave a sudden start when a jet of flame licked out of the hound’s snout like a tongue tasting the night.
“He’ll leave you be, Miss Farsnworth,” Wynes said with a sneer. “Unless I tell him different.”
She glanced at Wynes. In one hand he held a small box that he waggled in the air before pocketing it. Behind Wynes, Eddie stood in the open space before the shed, his hands raised to his shoulders and his right arm tucked in tight against his side where he’d been hit before. The soldier with the rifle looked at Wynes. Emma saw him jerk his chin up and down. The soldier swung his rifle around and hit Eddie in the back.
Eddie let out a deep angry groan and dropped to his knees, holding his injured side. Emma screamed when she saw him slump forward, collapsing into the dirt like he’d passed out from the pain. The soldier grinned and lifted a foot to kick Eddie. Emma flew forward past Wynes and knocked the man down, slamming her balled up fists onto his chest and arms. She caught him a good one on his chin and he reacted by bringing his rifle around to crack her in the side. Emma cried out and rolled off the man, curling up around her sore hip.
Wynes came over, followed by the ominous step of the ironwork hound. Emma tried to stay curled up, but a soldier grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. The other one came over and kept his rifle trained on her. She eyed her captors through a glare, curling her lips back and then bringing them together tight over her teeth. Her bitterness and rage roiled within Emma’s chest until she felt her gaze drop on its own, down to Eddie. His breathing was shallow and slow. Emma felt her guilt burning her cheeks crimson and for a moment she thought about trying to run. She lifted her eyes to look out into the yard. The lakeshore was only a short distance away. The line of airships hung above the water, tethered on stout chains. Back to her left, past the Vigilance and behind the shed, a large tree offered shadows to hide in and protection from the bullets she knew would follow her.
She wouldn’t make it. They’d shoot her, and then they’d shoot Eddie and probably the rest of these poor people around her. The couple here, the other negro. The people in the tents.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Wynes spoke up from behind her. “Miss Farnsworth? I think we’ve had enough run around tonight, don’t you?”
“Go to hell.”
“With such a charming tongue, I don’t know how you escaped attention on the dance floor all these years. Or maybe I do. Maybe it’s because you were sloppy for a smoke.”
Emma turned around and stared hard at Wynes. He’d slung the Tommy gun over his shoulder and was holding a coil of rope now. She let her eyes bore into his with all the rage she’d ever felt at how Chicago City had forced her to live.
“You think you know about me, Wynes? You’ll never understand the real difference between Eddie and the guys I let take me onto the dance floor. The only reason I let them even touch me was because I had to. I played hard to get like any girl should, but I never played too hard. If I did, I knew someone would get their nose out of joint and start saying they smelled smoke. So I let them spin me around the floor because they thought it was their right to hold my hand. Just because I was a Farnsworth. Because I was from their set. Only they didn’t know I’d given up on that set the minute I laid eyes on it.
“They’d never understand why I love Eddie, just like you’ll never understand, and it’s not my damn job to teach you anyway. I did what I was told when I had to. I did my best to keep my nose above the stink in this town. I lived the way I wanted to, and loved the man I wanted to. If that means I have to die tonight, I don’t care. Just get on with it.”
Wynes slapped her once, turning her face to the side. He lifted his other hand and Emma’s eyes rounded in terror when she saw the coil of rope with a noose tied at one end. “Oh, I’ll be getting on with it, Miss Farnsworth.”
Wynes frog-marched her around the shed, calling for the soldiers to bring the others along. Emma felt numb as she let him lead her to stand in a clearing around the tree. She turned to watch over her shoulder as the others followed. The Conroys stayed to the side. They stuck close together, and moved quick when commanded. Behind them, the soldier with the pistol threatened the injured negro and ordered him to get Eddie on his feet.
Emma’s heart broke watching the two men staggering along, both upright but leaning on each other for support. Eddie held his side and grunted with each step. The man with the ball and chain on his ankle dragged his burden through the dirt and snowmelt. Emma could feel his bare feet chafing and freezing against the ground as he stepped a halting haggard path to his own execution. Wynes cursed under his breath and ordered the soldiers to hurry Eddie and the other man along.
“Get ‘em over here already. We don’t have all night to wait on a couple of dumb niggers.”
Emma spun to holler at the man, but she still felt the sting of his hand on her cheek. The look in Wynes’ eyes told her she’d be better off keeping quiet. So she pressed her lips together and bit her teeth down on the anger she felt. Wynes stepped over to the shed and lifted a post away from the wall and came to stand beside her. Emma brought her hands to her face when she realized it wasn’t a post he held but a wooden cross.
“Hold this for me, will you, Miss Farnsworth?”
“Not on your life,” she said, shaking her head and backing away. She came up against a soldier who shoved her to the side and went to assist Wynes in his grisly preparation. The soldier went to the shed and picked up a coil of wire and some stakes and a mallet.
“See, Miss Farnsworth? There are still men in Chicago City who know what’s what. Guys like these two here. They remember the town that my father and his father made safe for the good people until the Dagos and Rigos and Jews and niggers moved in and turned it into a pit. That’s what this city is now,” he said, leaving the task of erecting the grim totem to the soldier.
Wynes stepped close to Emma, his breath reeking of drink and tobacco smoke and forcing her nose to the side. “This city, the place where men with the name of Wynes have walked a beat for nearly seventy years. Where the streets used to be safe and clean. It’s nothing but a pit with greased walls, and all the good people are stuck fighting each other to get to the top. You want to hear about stink? It’s gotten so bad you have to stick it to your neighbor if you want a chance to breathe good air again.
“I remember when Chicago City was a place a man could be proud of, a place you didn’t mind hearing about in the news. Before Capone. Before the Micks came out of the Eastern Seaboard. Before the Chinamen rolled in on the rails from out west and the niggers came up river from New Orleans. That’s the city I remember, Miss Farnsworth. And if I can’t have it back the way it was, then I’ll give my worst to the people to blame. People like your Eddie Boy here,” he said, grabbing Eddie by the shoulder and hauling him to the tree.
One of the soldiers grabbed the other negro and ordered him to stay still while they unlocked the shackle on his leg. Then they shoved him forward to join Eddie under the tree.
Emma screamed at the soldiers and roared her hatred at Wynes. The cross was in flames and the whole night seemed ablaze with angry firelight. Emma kept screaming, letting her rage tear at her throat. She whipped her head left and right as she shrieked, begging the night for help. She only saw the Conroys, who stayed against the shed, mute and still.
The ironwork hound marched a path in front of Emma, the spurt of flame licking from its snout. Emma shot her eyes back to the scene below the tree. A soldier held Eddie’s arms behind his back and tied his wrists together before doing the same to the other man. He then moved to stand beside the metal dog and covered Emma with Wynes’ chopper.
Emma shuddered as she watched Wynes lift the noose and toss it over a tree branch. He caught the menacing loop in his hands and passed it to the soldier beside him. The man stood in front of Eddie and draped the rope over his head. Emma shook with sobs. She felt so numb inside that she barely flinched when she heard a shot ring out from her right just before the night exploded in fire and pain.
All merchants are linked from his webpage: http://www.ajsikes.com/aaron-s-writing