Novel Excerpt: Deus Ex Machina
The ghost of Addie Fletcher warned her though; home was only what you could fit in your pockets.
By Camille Smaby
August 3, 2021
The glass slid into her hand, filled to the brim. For half a second, Addie thought about offering to buy the Firebox a new counter, one less worn than the current sticky mess, but scoffed just as quickly. No matter how one dressed the gambling houses, The Court of Deceit would always be worn down; the epitome of wanderers and money-hungry scavengers dumped in Los Angeles’ train and airship depot.
“This came for you,” the tender said, sliding a small calling card next to the glass, the envelope ivory with no address on it.
The man turned, attending other patrons that demanded their drinks with shrilling whistles. With one hand, Addie broke the seal and flicked the card out before her heart started beating faster. It was not the normal handwriting, the one passed between beggars, handed off discreetly in back alleys or passing bumps. This one was pristine, on someone’s personal calling card. Not the ones Levi stole from the local store.
Addie tucked the card into her pocket quickly, casually glancing around. Clarence grumbled as a commotion happened by the curtains for the Tinker Ring. Addie’s opponent was being escorted by two attendants, past the curtains and tossed out the door gruffly. Still, her heart picked up speed.
She’d received odd or vague threats over the years, had her fair share of outright violent threats too, straight to her face or an anonymously lit match in an alcohol-soaked rag outside her porch. But this was different. Addie Fletcher was a name best kept in dark corners and under floorboards. Hells, even just the name Fletcher could bring the house down around her head if she wasn’t careful.
Taking a sip from her glass, Addie’s gaze slowly panned the room. The gold and red tables at some point had been made to mimic a train’s firebox for the namesake, charcoal plush chairs lingered in odd places where patrons left them, but nothing was out of the ordinary. The patrons all had the same airs about them, either rich and bored or poor and hungry.
Addie paused for a second on the darkened corner booth. A man, long and lanky like a coyote, with tousled and unkept blond hair was smoking a cigar, the butt a bright orange as he exhaled a long drag of smoke. But it wasn’t that, wasn’t him per se, it was the monocle he had over one eye: Ironclad, a new model. Despite his appearances, he had wealth. Or he stole it. Those were the only two options for a brand-new Ironclad Monocle to be found here.
Before he noticed her staring, Addie dug out a dollar bill, stood and downed the rest of her drink in a gulp, slipping the tip beneath her glass. Thinking better of it, she put a second bill under it as well. It paid to be generous in the gambling house. There was always an uncounted debit to be paid, for both parties involved.
Though many eyes followed her to the door, no one stepped into Addie’s path. Some nights, it was a bombardment of fans, or people eager to say they met the one and only Addison Fleets, maybe even shook her hand. Now, Addie just had to get out. It was overwhelming her, threatening to crush the life out of her façade. Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she was met by a final attendant who offered her frock coat to her. She shrugged it on and left without a word.
Pushing past the door, the night air brushed against her face, a reprieve from the sweltering Firebox. The September heat had passed through earlier in the afternoon, leaving the chilly night breeze with a faint smell of oranges. Something tangible and distinctly here. Nothing to do with Addie Fletcher.
The twilight had glimmered iridescent pearl when she’d been walking to the Court of Deceit, eager to blow off some steam and have a good time. The moon had been a set gem in swirls of lilac, orange, and pink before the sky dropped off into deeper shades of blue to the east.
Now, as Addie looked up, sucking down a shaking breath, the night sky cast every shade of bluish black smattered with the silvery twinkle of stars. It was neither late, nor early, neither evening nor morning, but some indiscriminate in-between. Just how she liked it. The quiet that allowed her to feel peace. Peace wasn’t in sight though with the name Fletcher burning in her pocket.
A chatter of voices nearby softened to whispers, prompting Addie to tug her frock coat a bit closer against the chill, or so it appeared. The men gathered outside one of the adjacent gambling houses stared at her passing figure, unrecognizable in the dark. Snaking her fingers into the brass knuckles she carried in her breast pocket, Addie tensed. This wasn’t the best part of Los Angeles, and anyone walking about at this hour was a target for thieves and robbers. Legends weren’t immune. Clarence grumbled on her shoulder, noting the shift in her presence. He would always fight for her, the protective little beast he was, but even he had his limitations.
The men turned their attention back to each other, talking about a company that had just bought the orange grove to build a warehouse and how they promised more jobs. Addie loosened her shoulders and released her knuckles. Fletcher still lingered, whispered in her ears as the breeze came by.
It wasn’t a long walk from the rail yard and Firebox to her house across town on Bunker Hill. The brisk air helped clear away the smoke and liquor from her head, the scent that lingered on everyone who passed through the Court. One square block with every gambling house in Los Angeles crammed next to each other, nestled in the shadows of the train and airship depot, called like a siren to the misfortunate. While the Court of Deceit bred violence and gluttony, false hopes and despair, it also had allowed her to survive, and even thrive. But that was not without hard work, grease, and a certain amount of ingenuity. Maybe a gift as well. And a forgotten name.
The gas lamps cast sharp, flickering shadows in their glow as she walked. It really was a pretty city at night, thought Addie. People didn’t give Los Angeles enough credit.
The thrum of men’s voices echoed out the saloon door and into the streets as she passed. It gathered the loudest, rowdiest group of men who seemed to celebrate the worst of society and the misfortunes of others. Though she’d gotten use to how they talked about ladies, how they hollered after a few drinks and slapped each other on the back calling each other pals, Addie never wasted a breath, or dime, on them. In some odd way, the Firebox was better.
The jostling inside the saloon reached new heights behind her as she crossed the street. New batches of hungry and hopeful migrants arrived every day, inundating the workforce with more than it could bear. All the advertisements said, “come to sunny, wonderful California—It’s almost paradise!” but then it dumped desperate people into the dusty streets of the American West. If the trains didn’t bring people, the airships did under the lure of sunshine, palm trees, and balmy weather. It wasn’t all a lie, but life certainly wasn’t paradise out here.
But it was home, a place Addie had settled her roots, for now. As she climbed the hill, one step at a time with her chameleon settled against her neck, warm and smelling faintly of scorched metal, she finally felt her pulse slow to a gentle patter. The ghost of Addie Fletcher warned her though; home was only what you could fit in your pockets.
Ahead, the cherry red house with white shutters crept nearer. It may be a building, something more than a house and less of a home, but it was hers.
Addie Fletcher couldn’t have purchased it, a young girl of 14, but the legendary Addison Fleets, now that was another matter. No one cast young Addison a second glance as he bought supplies, no one questioned him as he signed a lease to rent, no one said it was disrespectful for him to work; they would have said such things to Addie. Not now, though. At least not to her face.
Her foot landed lightly on the step as she climbed the stairs to the porch, pausing to look down on the city below. It was beautiful at night. It was her city, not Fletcher’s. And yet the name following her, found her here.
Someone had tracked her here, had dug up the name and set the mythical shadow of her father over her. She wished him dead, and it wasn’t the first time.
Clarence chirped on her shoulder, not an alarm, but attentive to something nearby.
“What?” she cooed at him, bopping his snout, “Something got you spook—”
As she turned, she saw it: stuck between the screen door and the front door was a slip of paper.
Crossing the distance, she unlatched the door and snatched the paper before it fell, already knowing by the feeling and weight that this one was from Levi. Tearing the envelope, Addie slid the card out and stood under the gas lamp on her porch.
Taking the 4:10. Don’t be late.
Addie held the card up to Clarence. With a whirl and a click, he spit fire at the corner, the paper catching and slowly smoldering as Addie stomped it under her boot. One on one’s were avoided at all costs. Levi had to be spooked to even suggest a meeting. He was the only other person to know her true name, the name every Gifted-driven industry kept trying to hunt down: Fletcher. All because of her father’s research. A curse formed on Addie’s lips that she let the wind take away. He wasn’t worth her breath.
With a final glance down at the city, Addie turned the knob, knowing that she wouldn’t sleep tonight.
Camille Brea is an MFA graduate from The New School in Writing for Children and Young Adults and lives in southern California with her cats, Meira and Tiberius. Most of the time, she can be found chasing down plot bunnies and writing the stories that she wished she’d had as a teen. She loves to chat about writing and its craft on social at @cbsmaby.