The Broken Lands, a First Look: Introducing High Walker

Have fun, kids. Draw me something cool.

From The Broken Lands, Chapter One: CHARACTER, CHANCE, AND CHEATING

Coney Island, August, 1877

The arrival of the four o’clock train at the terminus of the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad line announced itself with a squeal of brakes battling the forward momentum of two hundred tons of iron. The freckled man in the white linen suit scowled as a fine dust fell onto his cuffs. He looked up at the luggage rack, malevolence in his red-rimmed black eyes, and stared at the carpetbag that had fallen over onto its side.

He brushed the dust from his sleeve with fingers tipped with nails that had been filed to points. It had been about a week since the man had last used those nails to mark a hand of cards, though, so the points were dulling a bit.

With the handle of the bag in one fist and his slim wooden gambler’s case under his other arm, he joined the stream of holidaymakers spilling onto the platform and surveyed his surroundings. To the west, he knew, were the streets of Norton’s Point, all full of thieves and gamblers and criminals in hiding from the law. A few miles to the east, wealthy guests lounged in grand hotels where piers stretched like manicured fingers into the water. The expanse in between, the bright festal wilderness of West Brighton, was given over to bathers, garish painted banners, grifters, mugs of lager that were two-thirds froth, questionable intentions, and carousels.

Taken all together, this jumble of folks, rich and poor and working and thieving, was Coney Island, the notorious seaside town just south of Gravesend, Long Island.

The black-eyed man leaned on the rail watching, listening, and acclimating while he inhaled the brew of sea air and coal smoke. There was something else in the air, too; a deep note, buried far below the scents and sounds that stirred on the summer breeze. It would’ve been nearly impossible for anyone else to detect. Humans were notoriously blind to the simmer of violence—which always amused him, considering how like a drug it was to them.

The freckled and black-eyed man, not being human, could smell it as sharply as cologne. It was everywhere here, just like it was everywhere he’d been in this country in the last twenty years, at least. Maybe more. It was easy to lose track of the passing years. He was far older than the flashy young fellow he appeared to be.

This year, though . . . this year it was strong. It had been building through the long years of Reconstruction; it had kept on building during the years of depression; and this summer it was as if it had been incorporated into the very molecules of the air. In the rebuilding South, in the growing West, even here in the North where folks claimed to be so very civilized. Silty, flinty, stony, metallic, the scent was edged with the smell of human sweat . . . and yet sweet, like the perfume of overripe fruit just before it turned and began to rot.

He stood there until the platform cleared, and then he remained a few minutes longer. At last he sighed, picked up the carpetbag and the wooden case, and started in the direction of the beach.

There was still plenty of daylight left, but long shadows were stretching across the sand as he trudged toward the relative dark below the ferry pier, rolling his eyes at the squeals of girls in their woolen bathing costumes and little boys chasing each other through the surf.

In the gloom beside the pilings, the man dropped the carpetbag. He peeled off his suit jacket, draped it carefully over the bag, sat and leaned back against it as if it was a pillow.  He removed glittering cuff links and rolled up his sleeves, folded freckled arms across his chest, and closed his eyes.

Then he winced and swore as a blow caught him between the shoulder blades. He sat up straight and punched the bag with his elbow. “Patience, you moldy old bastard,” he hissed. Then he sat back against the bag again, harder this time.

Nothing to be done until sunset.

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