Lost in the Crowd — A short serial (Part 1)

In the run up to the release of Crosswind on Nov. 1, I’ve embarked on a short serial that will fill in some of the background for the story. The events take place the day before the prologue of Crosswind and follow one Troy Keysor as he uncovers a dangerous truth about the plans Trestleway–southern neighbor to the city-state of Perch–has for expanding its reach.  I’ll post a new part each Friday, up until and including the last couple weeks of October.

Enjoy!

* * * *

Lost in the Crowd

by Steve Rzasa

Part 1 …

The morning dawned cold and damp. Smog from the forest of house chimneys and factory smokestacks blanketed the streets of Trestleway. Troy Keysor wrinkled his nose at the smell—as if an actual blanket had been left out in the rain for days, and placed in the sun to dry. Musty. It happened often enough to be a nuisances, although in these tenement buildings on Trestleway’s west half, one could not expect much relief from the stench even indoors.

His building was slightly newer than the other four-story, red brick tenements on this block. That is to say, the brick was a brighter shade of scarlet, fewer gaps were present in the mortar, and only a half dozen broken windows remained unrepaired. Troy locked his door as securely as possible when he left. He automatically shut out the crying and arguing coming from the other apartments on his floor.

Outside he was free of his charming neighbors, at least. The sun would burn the fog off soon enough. Troy put on his bowler and immediately made himself less conspicuous. Red hair was a liability, especially here.

It was a short walk down Straight Street to the bridge across the Cobalt River Canal to the city center. Troy had on a charcoal gray jacket, trousers and navy blue vest. He fit well with the other businessmen walking the street, mingled with the workmen in coveralls or work trousers. The only way into the city center from this part of Trestleway was through a tall wooden gate, set between two weathered stone gatehouses.

Militia checked folios for everyone who wanted through the gate—well, almost everyone. Troy was well aware the motor-wagons with the shiniest coats of paint and the best-dressed occupants were waved through with barely a pause. The guards did not seem to be at their utmost—their uniforms were tan and rumpled, about as pleasant looking as their expressions. Train whistles hooted in the distance. A steam engine dragged its passenger across rattling across a trestle of wood beams and metal fasteners not a block away, spewing steam across the neighborhood.

Troy presented his billfold when it was his turn. “Good morning, sir.”

The militiaman stood a head shorter, and had twice the girth. Brass buttons strained under pressure fit for a steam boiler. His face, already a study in surliness, screwed tighter. He spat on Troy’s shoes—now that was a blamed shame, as they were worth a fair pile of coin. “Your folio best be in order, Crims.”

Even with the hat in place, there was no hiding Troy’s freckles. He tipped his hat. “I certainly hope so.”

The guard scowled. He took his dandy time perusing the document in the billfold before shoving back at Troy. “Move along.”

“Enjoy your post.”

Despite  his outward cheer, Troy did not breathe easy until he was well past the gates. This neighborhood of the Old City was a far cry from the tenements—a far cry in that it was far easier on the eyes. The buildings were, if not all new, kept in the best condition. The streets were cleaned, and every so often Troy caught a glimpse of militia tan on patrol amongst the pedestrians.

He paid little heed to the rumble of carts drawn by diprotodon. The massive, furry beasts caterwailed as they trod the streets. Motor-wagons, all clanking and spindly-wheeled, did not faze them with the incessant honking of their horns. Troy nodded politely at passers-by—reserving his brightest smile for the womenfolk, naturally—but did not his attention drift from the street signs at the corner ahead.

Right to Haupt Avenue and Hospitality Row. One block south. Left to Joyce Lane. Number 77.

It didn’t take long to find. And there were few people on this street, by far. Most conducted their business on Hospitality Row. There it was—a building painted green, wedged between an ice cream parlor and haberdasher. Lock’s Book & Print.

Chimes rang overhead when he opened the door. The man behind the counter—behemoth would have been a more fitting appellation—glanced up from his register. “Morning.”

“Good morning.” Troy wandered to the nearest bookshelf. There was no shortage of titles here—every shelf space was occupied by books, some with shiny new bindings and others that appeared to have survived since the fall of the Commonwealth.

“Can I be of assistance?” The man’s skin was bronze, and he had Black hair that was secured in a ponytail. He wore a dark blue shirt under an black vest, and his sleeves were rolled up to the elbows.

“Yes, please. There’s a certain volume I need.” Troy selected a work at random—Bennington’s Charting the Wild. He thumbed through the pages. “It’s ‘The Staubach Guide to Model Rail Transport,’ the second edition.”

“Well, luck is with you, friend.” The shopkeeper wended his way around the counter. Troy noticed ink smudged both arms. The muscles were as thick as tree trunks. He gave the overall impression of a man better suited to tend bar at a railroaders’ tavern than stock shelves in this establishment. But his fingers plucked the exact volume Troy needed from between its brethren with deft sureness. “This would be it.”

“Oh, well done. I can see why your services come highly recommended, Mister…”

“Hines. Oneyear Hines.” He smirked. “Glad to hear my reputation’s appreciated.”

“Greatly.” Troy opened the book. Here was the crux. “Do you have any advice for one such as I, just starting this hobby?”

“Page three-eleven has a fine index. A gent such as you shouldn’t have any trouble spiking down rails there.”

“Fine, yes, thank you.” Troy turned the pages. Oneyear’s footsteps told him the clerk was back behind the counter. There is was. Several letters throughout the index pages were circled in blue ink. Troy scanned the entire index. He dug for the notebook, bound in brown leather, that he always carried.

“There’s a table in the gardening section, should you need it.” Oneyear did not look up from his register.”

“Yes, thanks.” Troy set the book down. The chair, cane backed and rickety, wobbled when he sat. He spread out the notebook and scrawled furiously. It was all there:

OVMF SV JKTMNKPQAUJ VAGP JCZ.

Troy’s heart thudded. Sweat beaded on his brow. Jesca had information for him. He must decode it immediately.

“Find it alright?” Oneyear leaned over the counter. Troy could just see him beyond the low bookshelf at his back.

“Yes. Yes indeed.” Troy flipped to the back of his notebook. Which cipher was it for this week? Aha.

“Don’t mind my saying, but this store ain’t always the most private of places for work such as that.” Oneyear jerked his chin.

Troy glanced as nonchalantly as he could manage to the front of the store. A man in a black suit and hat walked away, down the sidewalk. Troy did not see his face well enough to recognize detail, but saw the only things that mattered—a bright red tie, and the glint of a silver badge.

Fear gripped him. Rusted spikes! Peace Branch was tailing him. He should have known it had been far too easy.

Troy gathered up the book and his notebook. He deposited coin on the counter. “This should cover the cost.”

And a great deal more. Oneyear looked him square in the eye and nodded. “Should be just fine.” He swept the bulk of the coins into his pocket, and the small amount needed for the book went into the register. “You take care of yourself.”

“I will. Good day.”

He had to get out of here.

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