Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Their biker gang space witch novels, “Hunger Makes the Wolf “(winner of the Kitschies 2017 Golden Tentacle Award for best debut) and “Blood Binds the Pack,” were published by Angry Robot Books under the pen name Alex Wells. Under their own name, they’ve published “Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures” and “Wireless and More Steam-Powered Adventures” with Queen of Swords Press. They’ve had short fiction in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, and more, and written for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout Game and Racelink.
The following is an excerpt from “Murder on the Titania and other Steam-Powered Adventures.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit
2019 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Science Fiction/Fantasy
It was a perfectly ordinary parlor, nicely decorated, pale lace doilies sitting atop furniture done in heavy brown and gold brocade. The general color scheme was maroon and brown, with enough pink and yellow accents to keep it all from seeming too heavy or dark. While many such parlors were given to clutter as the wealthy owners attempted to display both their taste and overflow of cash with countless bits of frilly golden bric-a-brac, this one was neat and carefully tended, enough empty space around objects to draw the eye and invite inspection without being overwhelming. It was austere and quietly dignified.
The careful effect of the decorating was, quite unfortunately, spoiled by the body majestically putrefying in the center of the rich carpet, a petite pistol with a mother-of-pearl grip still sitting in its lax hand. Even more disturbing to the serenity of the parlor was the shockingly tiny dog that stood next to the body, the white fur of its muzzle rusty with old blood. The little animal growled in what was presumably a threatening manner, though it sounded more like a teakettle burbling than anything else.
“You didn’t expect this, did you, Captain?” asked Meriwether Octavian Simms, known by preference as simply “Simms” to friend and foe alike. He did his best to take only shallow breaths, one hand meditatively smoothing down his generous ginger muttonchops.
“There were many possibilities I considered for this particular break-in,” Captain Marta Ramos replied in a thoughtful drawl. As they were in the city, she dressed as a common workman: dark, sober clothes and her masses of curly brown hair hidden under an utterly disreputable hat. Her normal, far more flamboyant, and classically piratical scarlet frock coat tended to draw too much attention from the Grand Duchy of Denver’s police and security forces alike. “I am utterly unashamed to admit this was not one of them.”
Simms cleared his throat. “Did the dog…?”
“Yes, so it would seem.”
“Ah…well…hah. I suppose we can’t blame the little fellow if it’s been days and no one to feed him, can we?”
“Hm. Well. Yes, I concur.”
“I would have thought if the old girl were planning to off herself, she might have sent her dog out for a walk.” Well, it could have been worse. If she hadn’t been kind enough to shoot herself in the head, they would have been confronting a much different scene with a much different source of growling. The tiny dog would have been eaten rather than eater after Infection had seen to the resurrection of its mistress, mindless and ravenous.
Ugh, what a thought that was. Simms sometimes wished his imagination weren’t so finely tuned.
“Mmm.” Captain Ramos rasped at her chin with fingers covered in rough leather. “Well, might as well carry on. We needn’t even be quiet now.” She gave the dog a long, assessing look, as if gauging just how much damage its small teeth, driven by an obviously outsized ego, would be able to cause. Then she gave Simms a long, equally assessing look. A faint shrug of one shoulder and she dug around in her pockets to disgorge a twist of string, a bird’s nest of a fake beard, and then a packet of jerky wrapped in newspaper.
The burbling growl abruptly stopped, the tiny plumed tail beginning to wag with canine hope.
Captain Ramos snorted, untying the twine that held the packet closed. “Mercenary little thing, isn’t it?”
“From what I’ve seen, most of ’em are,” Simms observed mournfully. And indeed, the little animal fell eagerly on the leathery strips of venison the Captain tossed onto the carpet nearby, completely forgetting their presence in the bliss of chewing.
“All right.” Captain Ramos nodded, folded the half-full packet neatly, and tucked it back into her pocket. “I’ll unlock the wall safe. See to the unfortunate Miss Nimowitz, Simms. There’s a good chap.”
He eyed the body doubtfully. “Are you certain that’s who it is?” Clementine Nimowitz was a somewhat eccentric but still highly respected lady of great society, the owner of the well-appointed townhouse, and the intended victim of their robbery. Simms knew that much. Or perhaps had been would be a more accurate way to consider all of those qualities. “She doesn’t have much of a face left.” He grimaced. “Or much of a throat.”
“I almost hope she isn’t. My life would be so much more interesting then.”
“I vote for boring, if it’s all the same to you.” Simms sighed. Somehow, the moment the dank and earthy scent of decay had hit his nose, he’d known he’d end up dealing with the body. Unfortunately, as he lacked the Captain’s skill with safes, he could hardly argue that they should trade jobs. He looked down sadly at his gloves. “I only just got these.”
“You can have a pair of Miss Nimowitz’s to replace them,” Captain Ramos suggested in an overly sweet tone, before heading for the safe.
Simms scowled at her, which was no doubt precisely what she wanted, and moved toward the remains. While the unfortunate Miss Clementine Nimowitz might have been a grand lady of impeccable taste in life, death had done her no favors. In the darker, more proletarian depths of Simms’s heart, he found that obliquely comforting.
Her dress, heavy blue silk with cream lace, was curiously undisturbed by blood but for the areas—neck, face, forearms, calves—that the dog had felt free to nibble. Simms cautiously moved his hands over the fabric, trying to breathe shallowly through his mouth. A crackle caught his attention at her breast. He dug for it gingerly, face turned away, and came out with a sheaf of messily folded papers, one corner stiff and gluey with a stray red rivulet.
Something tugged at his trouser leg. He glanced down to see the tiny dog. At his attention, it tugged again, tail wagging.
“Toss the jerky over here, if you please.” He caught the packet, tucked the papers under his arm so he could open it, and pulled out a few more bits of dried meat. The dog gleefully snatched up the venison, which had the side benefit of forcing it to release his trouser cuff. It was probably a good sign it preferred that to a fresh round of human flesh.
The unpleasant task of rifling a corpse’s pockets was thankfully abbreviated by the fact that Miss Nimowitz, as a refined, nearly cloistered lady, didn’t have any. Simms took from her a bracelet, black with dried blood; a cloisonné pin; and a set of earrings. Feeling strangely guilty, he picked a series of gold hairpins from her blood-stiffened coiffure, finishing the destruction that bullet and dog had begun. He nearly discarded her fan, but the ribs and guard sticks seemed to be made of delicately carved ivory even if the cloth sail was ruined.
He retreated from the dizzying stink of the corpse and laid out the few items on a nearby end table, next to a small china tea set. At first he thought the teapot, single cup, and tray upon which they sat were a display piece, but when he tapped the side of the pot it proved to not be empty. Simms peered under the lid to find the pot half-full of brown liquid. “Huh. Guess she had a cuppa before shooting herself. Civilized, I suppose.” Bemused, he turned his attention to the papers he’d retrieved.
“Captain?” he asked after a moment, “I seem to have found Miss Nimowitz’s… er… last will and testament. Shall I put it back?”
“Curious, Simms, since I seem to have found it too.”
He eyed the document with a new sort of dubiousness. “Right.”
“Let me have a look.” Captain Ramos walked over and tossed him an empty jewelry box lined with black velvet. “See if the spaces in this match the jewelry you removed from her. That box is for the most expensive pieces of her collection, so I can only hope she was wearing those pieces at the time of her death. Going out in style and all that.”
Simms handed over the stained sheaf of papers, and then cracked open the box. The earrings did indeed fit perfectly, as did the bracelet, but the box still had more space, another neat slot. The pin definitely wasn’t part of the set. “Should there be a necklace?”
“Hm? Wasn’t there one on her?” Captain Ramos glanced up from the papers in her hands.
“Not that I saw. But…” Simms grimaced. “I’ll have another look.” Wincing all the while, despite the fact the lady was long beyond all pain or caring, he drew out his pocket knife and began to poke around the blackened mess that marked all that was left of her neck.
“Simms, the will you found on Miss Nimowitz is two and a half weeks old, which puts it as relatively new at the time of her departure from the mortal coil. And approximately one year newer than the one I found in the safe.” There was a pause, the sound of papers shuffling. “They’re nearly identical, but for the fact that Miss Nimowitz is now legally leaving the bulk of her estate to a fellow by the name of Mister Morris Emmett Nimowitz, rather than…” Another crackle of paper. “Deliah, of the same last name.”
“Hm.” All the digging had unearthed nothing. “Not really our problem, is it?”
“Hm?” Oh, he didn’t like the sound of her tone at all.
“Well, not our problem, yes. But concern…”
“No,” he said firmly. “Not our concern either. Unless we’re named in the bloody will—and you already said we’re not, which I’m actually quite glad for since I don’t think I want to live in a world where suicidal elderly ladies are gifted with precognition—then the disposition of her estate isn’t our concern at all, except for the more portable bits.” Frustrated, he prodded the corpse’s head aside and spotted a delicate metallic glitter, amidst a sea of not quite dry enough blood.
“It could be interesting, Simms.”
“The affairs of the rich are ghastly and boring to anyone but themselves,” he said stiffly as he bent to pry the bit of metal from the carpet.
“Your delight in boredom is something I will never understand, Simms. And—”
“—Captain, is this…” He interrupted the all-too-familiar speech by straightening, the metal bit in his fingers.
She leaned forward and eyed it. “The clasp of a necklace? Yes.”
“Broken off, then.” Simms frowned. “But how…”
As one, they turned to look at the tiny dog and its bloody muzzle, which had no doubt all too recently been in the vicinity of Miss Clementine Nimowitz’s neck.
“…oh,” Simms finished in a faint tone.
The dog, canine instincts addressing what to do precisely in this situation, wagged its tail, and lifted one little paw adorably, asking for a shake.