A Dieselpunk Pulp Fiction Mystery: “Firewater!”

The following is an excerpt from the novelette “Firewater”, number ten in the “Futurist Manifesto” series, to be included in the forthcoming collection “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow” Volume Two! 

This was the time of day that Brandon Stone loved.

He stood at the huge windows taking up most of the space of the west wall, looking down at the street grid of Salt Lake City stretching out beneath him. The building’s address was the corner of South Temple and Main Street, Blocks 72 and 73, but it was unofficially known as the Stone Tower, 422 feet high and occupying 26 floors. It was also the headquarters of Stone Industries, the weapons and ammunition manufacturers that Stone and his father had built up together. As President, it was his firm, his building … and he often thought of Salt Lake City as his city.

The view around him took in the other skyscrapers that formed the skyline of downtown Salt Lake City; the Regent Street Hotel, the Templeton Hotel, and the Deseret News Tower with the brand-new radio station perched atop it. At this time of day, when the sun sank beyond the Wasach range, the skyscrapers turned to mountains themselves and the streets into valleys. Neon lights, crackling with warmth, burst forth from the advertising hoardings, making them float above the dusk like lightships. The electric trams turned into lantern-eyed sharks and the sedans and jalopies into darting, luminous fish in a waterless deep sea, while in the complex grid of streets the partygoers walked shoulder to shoulder to each other, showing off their finest ties, furs, hats and pearls. The Zeplin cargo airships floated serenely in the twilight distance, two of them moored to the docking towers at the edge of the city, bathed in the glaring cross-fire of the searchlights that swept the sky in silently swinging circles, casting yet more advertising slogans upon the clouds.

In the midst of it all, taking pride of place in the downtown grid beneath the Stone Tower, graced with the twin symbols of the All-Seeing Eye and the Angel Moroni, lay the gray granite steeples of Temple Square in all their New Gothic glory, the Tabernacle and the Brigham Young Monument, the pale and ghostlike gardens, fountains and statues, their magical shimmer keeping the evening shadows at bay.

In the huge window running the height and length of the west wall, Brandon Stone studied his own reflection. He was a large but compact man, the sharp angles of his square face accentuated by dark hair in an army cut. His eyebrows were also dark and straight, and tucked in below them were two extremely sharp and steady green eyes, a classical nose, and lips in a thin, wide line. He was dressed in a roomy, black, single-breasted suit, a white boiled shirt and an almost bootlace-thin black tie, held in place by a gold tie clip in the shape of a sword.

“Mr. Stone? Excuse me, Mr. Stone? Your guest has arrived.”

“Yes! Dammit, Brandon, when are you going to stop admiring yourself?”

Emerging from his reverie, Stone turned to give his full attention to the restaurant and ballroom that took up the entire top floor of the Stone Tower. The Maitre D’ was approaching him with tonight’s guest, Police Chief Walter Joseph Reddick, right behind him.

“Brandon, so good to see you again, old man!” The police chief shook Stone’s hand with a fierce intensity.

Reddick looked pink and well scrubbed. The lined face, with gray mustache and eyebrows above the stiff white collar and loosely knotted spotted bow tie, was brisk and business-like. He was tall with a thin bony frame and his lightweight, tan-colored suit hung loosely from his shoulders.

The waiter seated them both at a table close to the panoramic window, away from the other diners so obviously watching them from the corner of their eyes, and gossiping over the coffee.

“We’ve got a new singer tonight,” said Stone, carefully arranging the napkin over his lap. “Her name’s Jenny Miller, from New York. She’s doing a tour of the Southwest – here tonight, and the Alta Club tomorrow.”

Reddick’s eyebrows went up. “New York, you say?”

“She’s got a regular gig at the Chatham Club on the lower east side. They say Irving Berlin himself worked there too!”

“You sure get some mighty fine talent at your club, Brandon, much better than the usual stand-up comics and leg shows. I had a ball at the Ipana Troubadours last month. Have you ever thought about getting Red Godfrey?”

“Red Godfrey?”

“Sure. The Warbling Banjoman himself.”

The Maitre D’ returned to carefully set plates of tiny discs of seafood before them. “Maine scallops, gentlemen,” he announced, “with pickled mustard seed and pistachio.”

“Maine? All the way from Maine?” Reddick said, frowning at the plate. “You’re kidding. How on earth did you – oh, well, I might have guessed.”

“The pleasures of Zeplin distribution, Walter!”

Reddick carefully squeezed a slice of lemon over the first scallop and took his time over chewing it, nodding to Stone in appreciation.

“The guys at the downtown station have been sharing the latest scuttlebutt about your bodyguard the Pendulum,” he said quietly, sipping at his mineral water.

Stone busied himself with knife and fork. “Really?” he said distractedly.

“Oh yes. Apparently some hoods made the mistake of driving out near the Flats to collect protection money from a nearby town. The Pendulum raised up a cloud of salt and sent it at the hoods like a sandstorm. It took all the paint off the car. The hoods got out with their guns but they were shooting blind, of course, there was nothing to see but a big cloud of white. The Pendulum took ’em out with a few punches and left them gift-wrapped for the cops.”

Stone gave Reddick a broad smile. “Now that would have been something to see,” he said. “Shame we didn’t get a ringside seat.”

“And it’s a darn shame you were nowhere near the scene of the crime,” Reddick said, with a knowing gleam in his eyes.

Stone nodded to the stage. “Looks like Jenny’s ready to start.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the M. C. over the loudspeakers, “Miss Jennifer Miller, and the Meyer Lopez Sextet!”

The stage lights darkened and the spotlight fell on a tall, highly attractive woman, wearing a powder blue sequin lattice dress with three tiers of fringe. Her pearl choker set off her dimpled throat and full, gorgeous lips, and her hair – held in place by tiara – had that soft, fluffy, clean look of the movie starlets. Her blue eyes twinkled as she shot a look directly at Stone’s table.

“There’s a saying old says that love is blind

Still we’re often told, seek and ye shall find

So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind

Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet …”

The waiters brought the baked ham and stuffed celery, and as they dined Reddick was highly appreciative of the quality not only of the food, but also Jenny’s singing. She gave an encore of “I Love My Baby” and “Where’s That Rainbow?” before leaving the stage in a flurry and applause and sequins.

At length the waiters carried away the empty plates and brought coffee in delicate china cups. Stone sipped his, and then peered at his guest thoughtfully.

“Well, Arthur, you’re a busy man. You didn’t just drop in here to swap true crime stories or admire the girls?”

There was the rasp of a match against a box and Stone watched Reddick tamp down the burning tobacco in the bowl of his pipe, then tilt back in the chair, in his favorite attitude of reflection.

“We’ve had a number of mysterious fires starting up recently. Mostly at the Indian reservations out east.”

Stone frowned. “You suspect arson?”

“We did at first. Arson mixed with sheer carelessness, Indians drunk on bad home-made hooch and falling asleep with their damned peace pipes still alight and burning down the hut, that kind of thing.”

Reddick took the pipe out of his mouth. “The truth is much more awkward and … difficult to discuss. A number of people have been killed by fires that started in extremely strange circumstances. Our Medical Examiner has called it …” He lowered his voice. “SDC. Spontaneous Human Combustion.”

Stone raised his eyebrows. “I’ve heard of SDC, but it’s never been scientifically proven to exist.”

“No it hasn’t. According to the ME, it’s incredibly rare. But now we’ve got what could be … what should I call it …”

“An epidemic?”

“No, of course not, man,” Reddick snapped. “Keep your voice down!”

Reddick leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table. “We had another … incident, last night, but this time it broke the pattern. It was the first case off the reservations … and the first victims who weren’t Indian.”

“Who were the victims?”

“Two small-time criminals. A bag-man for the Utah mob and a rum-runner.”

“Does that mean that Alex Carver is involved?”

Reddick sighed. “Well, we can’t answer that with any certainty. One thing we do know is that the two victims have worked for him before, and our informers tell us ‘Meat’ Carver is shifting a lot of moonshine at the moment – but we don’t know where it’s being brewed. Apparently he’s got a new cookhouse, and new routes for moving it. Oh, yes – this is probably nothing to do with anything, but he’s frequenting the Alta Club a lot more, recently. He’s even booked the place out for a private party the night after tomorrow. Whoever the guests are, it’s a mighty big secret, because nobody on the street wants to talk about it. At all. Dollars or threats won’t loosen their tongues.”

Stone arched an eyebrow. “The Alta Club. I wonder …”

The police chief reached down, took a slim cardboard file from his briefcase, and slid it across the table. “This file has the two gangsters’ names … their addresses … and their known underworld contacts.”

“You know,” said Stone, “it looks a little embarrassing that you’re only talking to me after the first white men have been killed. I presume that’s due to some kind of … miscommunication.”

“Yes,” said Reddick, his face flushing. “The police department didn’t know about the cases on the reservation until a couple of days ago. The Indians tend to keep things to themselves, and they’re very reluctant to get the white cops involved.”

“Well, who can blame them?” Stone winked and reached out to take the folder. “I’ll ask the Pendulum to look into it,” he said quietly.

Reddick’s eyes glittered across the table.

“I’m afraid that’s not all, Brandon. Apparently there are rumors on the reservations. The Indians are saying that the fires were caused by evil spirits. Spirits raised by a powerful sorcerer, and sent out to slay their enemies. They call them … Skinwalkers.”

Stone’s fingers curled softly around the arms of the chair.


“But then, you know what a superstitious lot these Indians are,” Reddick added. He forced a smile, but at the same time, raised his handkerchief to wipe sweat from his brow.

“Please … pass the message on to your, er … bodyguard. And tell him to be careful.”


About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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2 Responses to A Dieselpunk Pulp Fiction Mystery: “Firewater!”

  1. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Atmospheric and intriguing. The description of the view of Salt Lake City from the Stone Tower is particularly strong. Then Stone turns his attention to himself, and then to his guest. A good start. Spontaneous Human Combustion? Yikes! I would read on.

  2. Pingback: Cover Reveal: Dieselpunk Crime & Mystery | Excalibur Books

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