Gods_of_chicago_cover_final

Like most of the careers I've held, writing and freelance editing showed up as an opportunity that I dove into headfirst. I'm impetuous that way, and also grateful that I get to do what I love. In my writing, I aim to tell stories about people who should get more airtime but don't, the under-privileged, unheard, and unacknowledged. Often as not, that means I'm writing noir.

I started my adult life behind an M16-A2 with eighty pounds on my back and a kevlar pot strapped onto my head. Between then and now, I've worn aprons and hairnets, tried on an apprentice chef's coat, counted widgets, taught English (and failed to teach English), danced naked in the rain, and made art (some of it good, most of it consigned to the bin of 'lessons learned'). These days I help raise a family and make sure the cats are fed and watered.

Gods of Chicago by AJ Sikes

If truth is the first casualty of war, who do you look to for answers when the bullets fly and the bombs begin to drop?

Gods of Chicago is an alternate-history spin on the classic hero-journalist tale. It all starts with the hit of the century, the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, and Chicago City's top newshawk, Mitchell Brand, has the scoop. But he'll have to dodge more than bullets when the gods and monsters behind Gangland hit the stage and start calling for Brand's head.

 

REVIEWS

  • "I could parallel the plot of Gods of Chicago to a stick of dynamite about to blow up. The first half of the book is the fuse that gradually burns down, and when it expires we're exposed to the second half of the book. The plot explodes into a war that envelops the whole of Chicago, and the residents are forced into a desperate struggle for survival."

    – Amazon Review
  • "Sort of a 20s gangster story with holocaust overtones, set in a really cool magical world that had me wanting more, more, more. Reminded me a little bit like American Gods, but wholly original unto itself."

    – Amazon Review
  • "The author does a nice job of blending the historical with the new technological and mechanical enhancements of the alternate history. The right kinds of questions were raised for me in the early pages, ones that kept me reading."

    – Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

"This is WCDR 1430, broadcasting on this fine morning, the fourteenth day of February, 1929. Happy Valentines's Day to everyone out there in Chicago City. We'll have the morning stock report for you in a minute, but first a word from our sponsor, Brackston Manufacturing, the leader in automated manufacturing and production today ….

Mitchell Brand lowered the volume on the squawk box and shook his head. It should have been his voice coming over the airwaves, but he had to be at the Early Bird Diner this morning. So he gave the mic to a new guy and told him to run as many ads as he could so Chief wouldn't catch him out.

So far, so good. Brand just got his cup of coffee and Chief hadn't come busting through the door yet. Across the table, Brand's pal, Skip, sipped his own cup of joe and flipped through yesterday's paper. Brand lifted his coffee just as a metallic clattering filled the diner. The mug flew out of Brand's grip and cracked on the table top, spraying Skip's paper.

"Knew I brought this old sheet for a reason," Skip said, closing the soggy paper and setting it aside.

The radio kept up its squawking from the speaker box on the table top, but Brand could ignore it now. He had more to worry about than what his boss would say when he heard a rookie newsie giving the morning stock update. Coffee dripped into Brand's lap and the remains of the mug he'd dropped sat on the table like halves of an eggshell. Skip let a smirk stretch his face sideways and clicked his tongue at Brand.

"That's one way to get a girl's eyes on you, I guess."

"Save it, Skip. You know what's what."

"Yeah, and I know you got a girl's eye on you anyway," Skip said, flicking his eyes up to Brand's left.

The coffee girl marched their way, weaving her legs between chairs and tables and bringing a storm with her. Brand let his eyes meet hers when she stopped at his side and threw down a towel. He winced and nodded his thanks for her not pitching the towel at his head.

"Buster, that makes five weeks in a row. Every Friday, like you're getting paid to do it. They pay me to clean, sure, but can't a girl get a break?"

"Sorry, sister. I—"

"Look, all I'm asking for's a fair shake. Or is this your way of wishing a girl a Happy Valentine's?"

"Told you, Brand," Skip said, chasing his words with a laugh.

The girl gave them both a set of stink eyes. Brand figured he should cool things down. "My friend here was just saying how he's looking at a lonely night tonight, and he figured I could maybe get your attention for him. Since he's such a shy guy. Ain't that right, Skip?"

Skip dropped his joker face, but Brand caught him tucking his left hand out of sight. Before he could get a word out the girl had her teeth in them again.

"If you've got something against this place, fine. But maybe stop taking it out on my shifts."

"It's not you, sister. And it's not this place. I said I was sorry, but I can say it again if it'll help."

Up at the grill, the cookie banged his spatula on a bell. "Order!" he said, shooting a look in the girl's direction. She wrinkled her nose at Brand and stalked off to grab the platter of hash. The snapping of metal on metal came to Brand's ears again and his heart jumped into his throat. Without any coffee to spill this time, he held onto the table until his nerves ratcheted back down. While the machine shop next door built up speed, Brand scooped the pieces of his mug together and wiped the table. Skip leaned over a bit to whisper at him.

"You've got it bad and gettin' worse, Brand."

"You're right, Skip, and I sure appreciate you filling me in. Now how about you ask the girl for a new cup so I can get my wake up juice?"

Skip swatted it aside. "Ain't it been ten years gone since the Kaiser's guns stopped firing? Me and the other fellas, you know, we just keep on doing what we're doing, hey? Maybe you should try a new gig, something that don't remind you so much about the war."

"Tried it," Brand said, putting the towel aside and looking Skip in the eye. "Desks don't agree with me. They all seem to have a bottle in the bottom drawer, and you know where that story ends."

"So why not get into the manufacturing business? Chicago City's where it's at for making anything and everything, hey? From the Eastern Seaboard, down to the Southern Territory, all around the Great Lakes up here. If it's something you can sell, you can bet it was made in Chicago City."

Brand had to chuckle at that. "Factory work. Like you and the other boys do… well wouldn't that be rich, hey? Me in there when the auto-hammers start up and I'm diving under a table so you can all share a laugh. Be a real fun time, I'm sure. Thanks, but no thanks."

"Hey, Mitch. I don't mean it like that, you know. I'm just sayin' maybe something like what you didn't used to do over there. It's not like me and the fellas are out shootin' at everybody with a German name. We just… well, I guess we just left the war where it was, you know? You should do the same is all I'm sayin'. Stop reporting about murders and gunfights. Maybe ask Chief if he can give you the sporting page or something else?"

Brand sniffed and went back to wiping the table.

"Hey, I know!" Skip said, slapping a hand on the table, just missing Brand's fingers. "What about the World's Fair they're building? Century of Progress, right? You can interview all them guys and dolls behind it, get the real nitty gritty. Remember there was that bird murdered all them people last time they had a fair here? He was in the papers and—"

Brand figured Skip got the message from the look on his face, but it wouldn't hurt to add a few licks.

"So I'll report about murders I think might be happening? Skippy, sometimes I don't know if I should kiss you or sock you in the jaw."

"Well, I'd take the second one, Mitch. Just between you and me. Hey, here's your joe. And I didn't even have to ask for it."

The coffee girl came back with a fresh cup and set it down with an exaggerated curtsey. Brand thanked her and didn't say anything about how she'd brought him a straw along with it.

"So, Brand," Skip said. "You sure you want to do this? Today I mean. What if it does go down like the guy says? Could be real ugly. And that bit with the coffee just now. You gonna be okay?"

"Yeah, I think so. Or maybe not. But how else is Chicago City gonna get back on top again? Capone owns the place. Lock, stock, and barrel. That's not gonna change until the people see what he really gets up to behind those closed doors of his."

Brand pushed the sodden towel to the table edge and turned his attention to the street, lifting his steno pad off the seat beside him. Outside a light mist fell on the people of Chicago City as they strolled, pedaled, and clip-clopped around patches of ice and low-lying snow drifts along Clark Street. For all the world they looked like free men and women going about their business. But everyone from the tramps to the World's Fair investors knew that Chicago City was Capone's town.

Across the street the Brauerschift garage waited like a reluctant dance partner, a plain brick building sandwiched between a fenced-in empty lot and a grocer's storefront. Brand's contact said the hit would be on a Friday, sometime after the New Year. So here he sat in a greasy diner on Clark Street, just like he had for the past month. The neighboring machine shop sent another series of rat-a-tats his way and Brand fought down the urge to duck under the table, keeping his eyes fixed on the garage across the way.

"Well, I can see you're serious," Skip said. "Go on and take this then."

Skip held a case out, a square of brown leather about the size of a camera, but it didn't have a lens that Brand could see. He took it from Skip and turned it around in his hands.

"What is it?"

"Stuff that dreams are made of, what else? Nah, look, it's something special me and the fellas rigged up. Mr. Tesla has us all making these radio devices right now. All on the QT, so don't go telling nobody about this. But this one here—" Skip paused and sat back with a self-satisfied smile pasted on his mug.

"Yeah? You gonna tell me or do I have to spill my joe again? Maybe it'll end up in your lap this time."

"All right, Brand. Don't get heated about it," Skip said, and reached for the box. Brand handed it back to him.

Skip opened a flap on one side, revealing a set of three knobs and a lever, like a breaker switch. He pointed at the biggest knob. "This one sets your frequency. You wanna use that first to make sure you're in the right band. Then, when the static cuts, you flip the switch here." Skip worked the switch and Brand noticed how stiff it was.

"Looks like you really have to put some weight behind it, hey?"

"Yeah, it's like that on purpose, so it don't go off without you bein' ready. Now here," Skip said, pointing at the other two knobs. "These focus the picture. One's for vertical hold, the other's horizontal."

"Okay, and how do I get the picture into focus if I can't see it?"

"Oh, yeah," Skip said, turning the box over. He opened another flap to reveal a square panel of glass. "That's the viewscreen there. You gotta hold the box so you can see the screen and work the knobs. Best if you can sit down, but if you gotta stand up, just tuck it into your stomach with the screen on top and the knobs underneath. You gotta work 'em both at the same time, to sort of bring the picture around. Kinda like when you got water going down a drain, right? The picture's like … Geez, I never thought about how to explain this to a guy doesn't know radio."

"Just talk slow," Brand said, smiling. "And use small words. I'll be fine."

"Yeah, hey, I didn't— Right, so you work both knobs here, like you're trying to get the drain under the middle of the water. But it shouldn't take long. Once you get the center point of the picture fixed, the rest kinda falls into place around it. Does that make sense?"

"About as clear as mud, but I think I get it," Brand said, reaching for the box. Skip closed the flaps and handed it back to him.

Brand took it and remembered he had one more question. "Where's the lens go? How do I aim it?"

"Oh, yeah. You don't. You just gotta get next to a crab for it work."

"Eh? You never said anything about the crabs. How's this thing gonna get a picture from one of them? They're all wrapped up by the Governor's boys."

"Well sure, but who do you think makes it so the Governor's boys can do the wrapping up? It's all out of Mr. Tesla's factory, made by yours truly. And it's all on radio. The crab snaps a picture, right?"

"Yeah, and then it gets picked up and the film—"

"Nope, stop the presses, Brand."

"What—"

"There's no film in those things. It's like a little typewriter in there, all keys and punches on these chemical cards. That box there has the same thing in it. All's you gotta do is get the picture from the crab's frequency. They'll transmit to the Governor's ships lickety-split, so you gotta get close and get there fast. Dial in the crab's frequency, snap the lever, and the box'll make you a copy of the picture."

"A copy? But you said there wasn't any film."

"Nope, just a special photo card. Uses the same chemicals like film, but it's all inside the box, and you don't have to wait for the gel to set like with film. That box'll get you a crime scene photo, easy as pie. Someday soon we'll have it rigged up so you can send the pictures by radio, too, just like the Governor does. That's what the plug's for."

"Eh, plug?" Brand spun the box in his hands until he saw the port on the side. A black cylinder stuck out of the box just a bit, like it would take a thick needle.

"Sounds like hocus pocus, but I'll give it a whirl," Brand said, doubting he'd end up with more than an earful of static from the box, his boss, and any coppers who hassled him on the street. And that's if the hit went down today.

Could be next Friday, or could be never.

"Well let me know how it works, okay? I'm mostly working on something else, but ol' Nicky doesn't mind when me and the fellas make up our own ideas and see if they work. He kinda likes it when we bring him stuff, even if it doesn't work like we figured."

"Nicky?" Brand said, knowing the answer but not wanting to miss a chance at ribbing Skip a bit more.

"Yeah, you know. Nikola-Nicky. But we don't call him that. Not in person anyhow. But hey, Brand, I gotta go. Time for me to punch in over at the factory. Mr. Tesla's easy about what we do at work, but he's a hardnose about showing up on time."

"He should be with a bunch of jokers like you and the fellas on his payroll," Brand said, waving goodbye as Skip slid out of the booth.