In a gritty, tech-noir version of 1930s Manhattan, an ex-cop and his robot partner must stop a killer who’s sending the city into chaos.
December, 1933. The city that cannot sleep, where cartels and mobsters go bump in the night. Manhattan’s delicate peace is broken when four politicians in the pocket of America’s reigning megacorporation are murdered at the Edison Hotel, dispatched by an unknown assassin wielding a rare and unique weapon. The NYPD calls upon the only man for the job: Elias Roche, the Nightcaller.
With Upper City bigwigs in a panic and the shadowy Iron Hands poised to make a grab for the Lower City, Roche is having doubts about his role in the complex power structure as a former cop and current Mob enforcer. But he sets out to investigate, now under more scrutiny than ever before: a new radio show based on his escapades thrusts unwanted fame upon him, the FBI are breathing down his neck, and a relentless journalist is dogging his every move. Meanwhile, an awakening cynicism in his Automatic partner, Allen Erzly, is turning their already bleak world upside down. As the pressure mounts, it’s a race to find the killer before the eve of the New Year.
About the author
Brenden Carlson is a chemist and freelance writer. His debut novel and the first in the Walking Shadows Series, Night Call, released in 2020. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.
Excerpt: Midnight: The Walking Shadows (by (author) Brenden Carlson)
Goddamn it. Not again.
I was outside the warehouse in the Meatpacking District. A bunch of boys in blue were stacked up beside the main entrance. Paddy Sinclair, my first partner, my old war buddy, the closest thing I’ve got to a best friend, led the pack with rifle in hand. Even before a raid he had to side-sweep his hair.
I groaned. “No.”
“All right, moving in on your go.”
I shut my eyes, trying with all my might to melt the scene, willing something else to appear instead.
Opening the metal double doors onto the warehouse floor revealed a battlefield of mud and blood and shit. Hell on earth, eliciting whistles from NCOs and artillery alike.
No. Something else, anything else. A change for once.
Then I saw my old police cruiser and the Lower East Side Diner behind me.
Yeah, this one will do. Better times. Well, as good as they’ll get.
I had just popped into the diner to grab a Stuffed Pig: a breakfast sausage wrapped in a pancake, a new favourite snack of mine after seeing Commissioner Robins order one a few weeks back. An hour after the six o’clock shut-off, the Plate above me was calm, with the last rays of daylight gleaming off its eastern towers. The diner was just at the edge of the Plate, which granted some of the buildings here a few hundred yards of sunlight and fresh air without the monolithic turd looming over them. A penny slammed against the hood of my cruiser, leaving a dent as large as my thumb and reminding me of the assholes living up top. Goddamn Upper City folk.
As I got behind the wheel of my police cruiser, the motion shook a glob of syrup loose from my treat, flinging it onto the seat.
“Ah, shit.” I grabbed a napkin out of my glovebox, moving the spare .38 in there, to clean the stain.
“Really?” the rusty Automatic next to me remarked. Glowing blue eyes, a gutted, wire-filled left arm, and shaggy plain clothes. My last partner.
“Hey, if you were human, you’d love eating these.” I bit into the Stuffed Pig, looking at the machine as it groaned.
“If I were human, I would enjoy much better things than eating one of those.”
“Oh yeah?” I swallowed the mouthful of dough and pork, feeling my energy shoot through the roof. “What would you rather do?”
“Honestly?” My partner looked out the window and smirked, at least as much as a machine could. “I’d want to ride around in a Manual. Give me a big ol’ robot, some 20mm ammunition, and let me have a day of it. The Lower City would be clean in a few hours.”
I laughed as I bit into the snack again. “You sound like a friend of mine.”
“A pretty sensible friend, sounds like. Who is he?”
“Paddy’s brother, Eddy. He’s not around anymore.”
“What was he like?”
“He was a man who liked his cars and his giant fucking robots.”
“No wonder me and Paddy get along so well. And me and you. I must be a half-decent replacement.”
Finished my snack, I got the car started up. “Don’t tell him that, he might get upset.”
“And why aren’t you upset?”
“Because, like you said, you’re a half-decent replacement.” I smirked. “It’s like I get to ride with Paddy’s brother every day.”
“Har har. Let’s get a move on. Don’t want to be late for the car show. I heard they’ve got some of those European models” — the Blue-eye raised its rudimentary eyebrows suggestively — “if you get what I’m saying.”
“You don’t even know what you’re insinuating,” I responded, pulling the car out of the parking spot. “You just like giving the eyebrows because Paddy taught you that.”
“Yeah, fair, I got no idea what it means.” My partner laughed and shrugged. “Anyway, get a move on, Roche! I’ll kill you if I miss this.”
I turned the car over and did as he said. “No problem, James. Fucking Blue-eyes …”
Back to the land of the living. I woke up in a city that can’t sleep. On a Tuesday.
It was definitely past shut-off time; the regular lamp-based Platelight had been replaced by blinking warning lights, indicating that the turbines above were open, revealing starlight and the full moon through their semicircular openings. A warm draft drifted down into the Lower City, and the lights reflected off my window, alerting me to my own tardiness. My watch told me it was nine at night. Staying under the Plate mixed up night and day too much. A Rotorbird screamed past my apartment, the noise rattling the walls and windows enough to fully shake the sleep off of me. Sleep was a commodity I enjoyed in short bursts, so I’d forced the habit of taking every moment I could in my bed.
As I sat up, my body went through its automatic motions: I grasped a cigarette and clenched it between my lips. I looked at the lighter in my hands as I lit the dart. My last one had broken, but thankfully my “employer” had gotten me a new one, no charge. The engraved eye on the base of the lighter looked right through me. I placed it face down on the table. I didn’t need to be more creeped out than I already was.
Outside my bedroom window the Plate was hanging low, the snow that drifted through the turbines caressing the buildings and street below. My building creaked, bearing the weight of the world on its shoulders as one of the Control Points leading right up to the Upper City above. Down below, traffic was congested all over, judging by the horns and sirens, but otherwise it was a night like any other in the Lower City. I stood, put on some slacks, and walked to the bathroom to begin my ritual: I shaved as best I could, splashed water on my face, then went to the kitchen for coffee.
The calendar on the wall said December 6, 1933. A month before my birthday. And nearly a month after the Cop Killer case, with nothing to show for it besides the Lower City precincts being hounded daily for any information on the person responsible for cracking FBI Agent Edgar Masters’s head in. Who knows whether they were actually in the dark or if they were trying to give off false ignorance. If it was the latter, they must have been as pissed as they were scared after Masters showed up as a bloody smear. That was what you got for trying to muscle in on the Iron Hands.
With the coffee done, I got the rest of my outfit on, along with my coat, and went downstairs to get some breakfast. The elevator, I was surprised to see, was manned by a Blue-eye liftbot in a red bellboy outfit. I snickered, leaned against the back wall, and called for the ground floor. The machine unenthusiastically depressed the bottom-left button.
I cleared my throat. “So, they’re hiring Blue-eyes again, huh? I thought with Second Prohibition …”
“Last Greenie kept breaking the buttons. After all, not like they can think for themselves,” it said in a flanging voice, shifting uncomfortably in its restrictive and, quite frankly, ridiculous clothing. “Seems people are starting to remember that there’s a reason Blue-eyes are Blue-eyed: they can actually do their jobs.”
“Ah, you must be happy, then.” I gave a stiff smile. “More job opportunities than just GE or garbage collection, eh? Do you get to press the buttons in the executive elevator to the Upper City?”
The machine gave a deadpan stare, as only a mouthless, seemingly emotionless machine could. “Any more questions?”
“‘Sir’?” I finished for it.
“Don’t push me.”
I exited the elevator and went through the lobby. Outside, the old Cossack Yuri was at his cart plopping new hot dogs on the grill for the nightshift crews as they came by for their hand-held dinners. He broke into a little dance when he saw me approach.
“Detective!” he said, getting a dog ready for me. “Another late night?”
“Yeah, I run best at this time.”
“Ah, and you need fuel for adventures!” He handed me the dog, and I dropped him a tip.
“Do you have anywhere warm to go to, Yuri? I hope you’re not out here all night.” He was a short, chubby man, but I thought maybe his cheeks looked a little less full than usual.
“Nyet, I stay in lobby of building at night. Security guard is nice, let me rest on couches. Good people. Like you!”
“I’m not good people,” I chuckled. “You ever need a place to stay, let me know. I owe you that much.”
“You give me business. I owe you much more! Good evening, Mr. Roche!”
I concluded our interaction with a wave and was soon leaning against the black Packard, a rental from a friend of mine who was looking after my car. I didn’t want to be spotted driving a vehicle with a broken window and dozens of bullet holes in it. Plus, I still needed to lie low after my last endeavour, and my Talbot wasn’t exactly subtle.
I lit a fresh cigarette and gazed up at the Plate, the enormous steel slab separating the elites of the Upper City from the rest of us down below. It blocked out natural light twenty-two hours a day and literally sat on the Lower City — on top of the all-powerful and well-protected Control Point buildings, of which my apartment building was one — a constant reminder that we were the have-nots. For now the plate’s borders ended at the edge of Midtown, but expansion plans would have it stretch from Battery Park to Yorkville. That was the plan, anyway. The prospect of covering Central Park would probably ruffle too many feathers.
I spotted an Automatic clad in black approaching, looking quite chipper despite the horrible temperature. I couldn’t believe it still walked here every night from Stuyvesant, crazy bastard. I needed to get it a car.
“Detective,” my partner, Allen Erzly, greeted me.
“Constable.” I grinned saying that. “Looking sharp, as always.”
“I do try, Detective.”
Hard to believe it had caught on so quickly to idioms and metaphors and slang. A month ago, when we’d first met, it had been serious as hell and had a head as thick as concrete. Now it’d smartened up. I still got goosebumps sometimes, seeing its realistic facial movements.
“You haven’t come by the precinct in a while,” Allen noted.
“No, I have not.” Oh boy, it’s started.
“I suspect that is because you’ve been busy screening the many calls you’ve been receiving. You screen them every night we’re together. And you always hang up unless it’s Sergeant Sinclair or Commissioner Robins.”
Perceptive as ever, Al. “Well, some of the cops who can’t be bothered to do their jobs have been giving away my phone number to civilians, expecting me to be their magic cure-all.”
“Have they done this before?”
“It happens every few months, until I tell them to cut it out. Then it starts back up again.”
“That does explain your terse tone when answering the phone …” It was getting more observant, and snarkier. “Nevertheless, the 5th Precinct hasn’t asked for your assistance with anything for the past month or so now, yes?”
“Therefore, you should be free tonight to fulfill a civilian Night Call. Seeing as the other precincts currently have no need for you.”
I groaned. “Allen …”
“I believe you need to work on your people skills.”
I tried to keep my focus on the Plate above me. “Is that a fact?”
“And it might help you feel you’re making a difference in this city.”
“I am making a difference,” I snapped back. “And saving a kitten out of a tree isn’t going to help save this city.”
“But it could instill hope.”
“People don’t need hope, people need a solution.”
Allen paused for a moment before responding. “People need hope to inspire them to find solutions of their own. And they won’t feel hopeful if the only thing they get from your end of the line is a dial tone.”
Dealing with this machine would be the end of me. How many nights had I been parading around with Allen, zooming to different bars under the guise of doing work? No doubt it had caught on by now … which left me in a bind. What other work could I do that didn’t relate to making bodies? The Eye had been uncharacteristically quiet recently. Then again, that might have something to do with my not returning her calls.
“Fine.” Hearing me say this, Allen perked up, no doubt thinking it had broken through my tough exterior. “One.”
“One call, and then another if you’re feeling it.”
“One call. I choose which.”
It looked at me doubtfully. “I hope this isn’t an excuse for you to screen calls and run out my clock. You know I don’t tire easily.”
Smart bastard. Too smart for its own good. That would get it killed one day. Or me. Or the both of us.
I snickered. “You said it yourself, you ain’t a regular Automatic. You’ll get tired eventually.”
Carlson does a good job populating his gritty, split-level world with dodgy mobsters, deadly dames, and killer machines
Publishers Weekly, for Night Call
Brenden Carlson's noir masterwork, Midnight, brings Depression-era New York City to life in this brilliant follow-up to Night Call. With future tech. And robots. I like noir. And robots.
David Clink, Aurora Award-winning author and co-host of the Two Old Farts Talk Sci-Fi podcast
Carlson wonderfully creates a world that is instantly recognizable but is still populated with a new landscape filled with people we recognize and understand. This writer is definitely one to watch.
Globe and Mail, for Night Call