a story of the Old Races
“Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was and is an experiment in direct-market story sales and sustainable income models for writers. Commissioned in June 2009 by some fifty contributors, the planned 7500 word short story grew to a 23,000 word novella centered around Janx and Daisani, two of the most popular characters from my Negotiator Trilogy. It’s also a sequel to the online short story Five Card Draw, and part of a longer sequence of planned short stories and novellas.
For a minimum $10 buy-in, patrons received exclusive access to the novella in September 2009. A second opportunity to become a patron for the same minimum $10 buy-in is now available through the month of February, 2010. At the end of February, “Hot Time” will be off the market until such a time as it finds a traditional publisher.
Cover art by Lanny Liu.
an excerpt from “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”:
She was too young, even for a man with no age, but she caught his eye. Slim, dark-haired, with long fingers caught in the skirt of a shapeless dress, she was clearly not a child of wealth. She no doubt belonged to the riverboat upon which she stood, a shabby thing that had seen better days. Even so, in the fire’s light they both bent toward beauty.
It was her gaze, fixed on the sky, which arrested him. Others watched the fire, drawn in by its glow and movement, but she looked upward as though she could see what soared above the smoke. That was quite impossible: even knowing who danced there, Daisani could barely see them himself, but the girl watched as if she knew. Such seeing eyes were enough that he might have gone to her then, despite her youth, but tonight; tonight Chicago was burning.
New York, 1923
Flame trembled, danced, then fell into darkness. Vanessa murmured a sound of impatience and rose to find matches. Her lush speakeasy refuge had electric lighting, but she preferred the warmth of fire. She had since childhood, though there’d been no electricity then to weigh it against. Then, she had loved its power, even when it destroyed, even when it haunted her dreams; now, she loved its gentleness on her eyes, on the lines of her face, though she, of all women, had little cause to worry in that regard. Still, she read and played chess and cards by candle-light, and the flame that had died left the room just that much too dim.
A spark; a scent of sulfur; and an idle thought that the guttering candle would have been better served with the living flame from another rather than the recalcitrant matches. A second strike woke a second spark, but no blaze caught. “For pity’s sake.”
“Allow me.” A man’s voice where there’d been no one a moment before, first startling and then waking a whole new level of impatience. He stood behind her, close enough to be a lover, and folded long cool fingers over hers, as though he’d strike a new match himself. He didn’t: a scrape of his thumbnail against his fingerpad brought flame to life, and the candle’s glow warmed the cup of her palm as he guided her hand to light it. “There,” he said with evident satisfaction. “Much better, isn’t it?”
“It might have been, if your arrival hadn’t blown it out in the first place.” Vanessa turned in his arms and put her fingertips against his chest, pushing him away. He fell back one step, expression all jade-eyed injury, and was obliged to step backward again as Vanessa returned to her chair.
Well: not obliged, perhaps. She had known the red-haired man more than thirty years, and if obligation had ever sat on his shoulders at all, it had done so lightly indeed. Book in hand, seat re-taken, she turned a deliberately piqued gaze on him. “What on earth do you want, Janx? Eliseo isn’t here.”
“My dear Miss Grey.” Janx cut a more extravagant bow than usual, then fell into the chaise lounge across from her and cocked a knee up, fingers spread wide in supplication. “It’s not Eliseo I want at all. Surely you know that by now.”
It wouldn’t do to laugh; it would never do to laugh at Janx’s theatrics. He had everything Eliseo Daisani lacked: fire, vitality, humor; a face which would see him beloved in the moving pictures, if he were fool enough to take vanity that far. He was not, though, a fool. A fop, yes; a showman, without question. But never a fool, and Vanessa dragged her gaze from him to the surrounding walls, the better to remind herself of who and what else he was.
No one else–no one else human, at least–had ever seen the tapestries from whence the speakeasy’s abstract glass windows came. Curved to fit into subway walls, as they stood they were beautiful rushes of color, lit from behind because this room was buried, a secret meeting place for a handful of men who were not human at all.
Men who had, as it happened, lost its ownership to Vanessa herself, and who now came and went from it only at her whim. Largely, at least; Janx was ever disinclined to follow someone else’s strictures. Truthfully, she was surprised any of them obliged her winnings and her privacy as much as they did. She was only human, and a clever bit of card-play could hardly stop them if they chose to make this place their own again. But Eliseo and Janx admired cleverness, and what they deigned to accept, the others tended to follow.
Unless the chosen object was a thing one of them had chosen to accept, and by doing so left the other to want it. “You don’t want me, Janx. You only want what Eliseo has.”
“And are the two not one and the same?”
“Not,” Vanessa said with a faint smile, “from where I’m sitting. I doubt you came down here alone to try to seduce me. Half your entertainment comes from doing that in front of Eliseo. So what do you want?”
“I want to know how you won this place.” Janx spread his arms, encompassing the room’s curved walls, the rich carpets and heavy, warm furnishings. “I want to know how you managed to cheat us. Oh, I don’t care, I’m not going to eat you.” Fluttering hands made light of the way her heart lurched. “It’s simply curiosity, my dear, and I’m so much like a cat. My curiosity shall kill me.”
“My concern is that it shan’t kill me.”
He gave her a smile, candle-light never dim enough to hide the too-long curvature of his canines, or their too-sharp points. “Of course not. Not if it finds an answer.”
She doubted he would do it. Not for any love he had for her, but because of the delicate dance between himself and Eliseo. If she were to die here, in the speakeasy she’d won as her own, Eliseo would have no doubt as to her murderer. It would lack subtlety, and Janx was too much a master of their game for that.
And yet it wasn’t a bluff to call. Not so obviously, at least, as by refusing him. Vanessa set her book aside, studying the lanky red-head across from her. The firelight was good to him, making his skin gold, bringing life to his reposed form. Living shadow danced where light would not fall and brought with it memories so long occluded she could only half believe they were real. No: more than half, now, and for a long time since, but there were questions she had never dared lay at the feet of the men she’d come to know.
Questions which now, unexpectedly, had an opportunity to be asked. “A curiosity for a curiosity, Janx. I’ll tell you for a price.”
He sat up in an explosion of movement, interest brightening his jade eyes. “You surprise me, my dear. Name your price, and we shall see if I’ll play your game.”
“No.” She knew better: neither Janx nor Daisani, nor any of the others she’d met, were men with whom to settle the details of a bet after the fact. “This is the game. One of your curiosities satisfied in exchange for one of mine, or we both go away unsatisfied.”
The impulse for low-brow humor scampered across his face, but she’d been right, before: it was only in Eliseo’s presence that Janx truly enjoyed flirting with her. His humor was replaced by petulance and he waved a hand sullenly. “Oh, very well. What do you want to know?”
Triumph spattered through her. “Tell me what happened in Chicago.”
Janx’s silence was so complete, so still, that it seemed the candle-light had died. That Vanessa was alone in the dark, with no companion but her heartbeat, and then he said, oh so softly, “Her name was Susannah, and like the best of you, she was only human.”