Big Stick

In 1897, Beverly Haddad is well aware that her sex and race will keep her from investigating the deadly and mysterious lightning strikes that have plagued New York. She seeks help from Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, and soon the two find themselves hunted by a vast conspiracy known as Gideon’s Trumpet which has access to amazing new scientific devices never before seen. With the help of Mark Twain and others, they launch an attack, aided by Teddy’s new massive lightning gun, which he lovingly calls BIG STICK.”Full steam ahead!

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With Big Stick, Michael Ventrella gives us a wild and thoroughly entertaining steampunk adventure featuring an improbable cast of historical figures, plenty of action, and lots of fun! Highly recommended!” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Deep Silence and V-Wars

“Memorable characters, snappy dialogue and plenty of action and adventure. Big Stick has it all. One of the best books I’ve read in a long while!” — Gail Z. Martin, author of Vengeance: A Novel of Darkhurst

“Full of the best kind of steampunk adventure with one of the biggest personalities in American history. A great fun ride!” – Philippa Ballantine, co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series

“Big Stick doesn’t have everything. It has more than everything! A dynamic PoC secret agent! Teddy Roosevelt! Steampunk inventions! Real dirty politics in a fantastic might-have-been world! Rayguns! Airships! Assassinations! Teddy Roosevelt with a raygun! And a cover by Phil Foglio! What the heck are you doing looking at this stupid blurb? Buy this book and read it!” – Ryk Spoor, author of Grand Central Arena and Princess Holy Aura

“God has no need for dynamite!”

Beverly Haddad paused, her fist inches from the door. She leaned forward and tilted her head. Another voice responded, but the words were muffled through the thick wooden panels. She frowned.

She tried peering through the smoked glass, past the painted block letters that read “New York City Commissioner of Police Theodore Roosevelt.” Nothing but vague shadows.

The first voice boomed back. “What do you mean, no dynamite? There has to be! Look again! You’re a detective—detect something!”

Beverly jumped back as the door swung open before her. A red-faced man with a bulbous nose pushed past her as if she were invisible, then stormed down the hallway. She took the opportunity to slip into the room.

Roosevelt stood with his hands resting on a cluttered desk, his face glaring down. Pigeons flew outside the large window, briefly blocking the cloudy morning view of lower Manhattan. The sunlight glistened off his pince-nez glasses.

Beverly took a deep breath. This was the man she had come to see. She summoned up all her courage.

Roosevelt looked up with an angry face, his mustache bristling over pouted lips, but then immediately calmed upon seeing her.

“Ah, sorry, but this is a bad time,” he said. “Please come back later, and don’t miss the wastepaper basket under the table by the window. Also, there is a slight coffee stain on the floor—sorry, but you know how that can happen.”

Beverly stood tall and took in a breath. “I am sorry, Commissioner, but I am not the cleaning lady.” Her slight British accent rolled off her tongue.

Roosevelt raised an eyebrow for a split second and then immediately changed his demeanor. He gave a nod of the head and smiled broadly, showing off his large white teeth. “I apologize. How may I be of service?”

Beverly strode over to the desk, pulled out a chair, and made herself comfortable, placing her purse and coat on her lap. She noted approvingly that the Commissioner showed only the slightest annoyance. “My name is Beverly Haddad, and I am with the United States Department of Justice.”

“What? You? The DOJ?” He paused, staring for long seconds. He then composed himself, brushed some non-existent lint off his jacket, and sat down in his padded leather chair. “Yes, of course. My apologies again. Are you . . . a messenger?”

“No.”

She was used to people looking at her unbelievingly when she announced herself. A proud, educated Negro woman in white society was, indeed, unusual.

Another few seconds went by. She took him in, recalling the information she had compiled on the man. Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, 38 years old. Called “TR” by his friends, and sometimes “Teddy.” Degree from Harvard. New York assemblyman for twelve years. Lost a bid for mayor, later appointed to current post. Fierce reformer, anti-corruption, cleaned up the force. Angers Tammany Hall often. Apparently has no fear whatsoever.

She decided she would think of him as “Teddy.” It would make him less intimidating.

Teddy finally spoke. “Of course, of course. What can I do for you?”

“As it turns out, Mr. Roosevelt, I was ordered to speak to you. I’m on assignment on the very matter about which you were yelling at your associate. I take it from your very loud conversation that evidence of dynamite may have been discovered at the scene of at least one of the lightning strikes?”

“No,” Teddy said. “It has not. I was certain it would be, though. We have no idea how these explosions happen. We have found no—”

A small metal object slapped him across his face. He fell to one side, yelping incoherently.

Beverly jumped up, and her purse fell from her lap. She ran around the desk.

Teddy lay sprawled on the polished wooden floor. He blinked slowly and squeezed his eyes shut as if to deaden the pain. His hand was held against his cheek.

“You’re bleeding.”

“It’s nothing,” Teddy said. He waved off her attempts to help him rise but sat up on the floor with some difficulty. “Madam, why did you hit me?”

“I did no such thing,” Beverly replied. She looked around for a second and then picked up a long piece of triangular metal from the floor. “This is what hit you. I have no idea where it came from.” She held it before him. A nameplate, the kind that sits on the desk of an important person.

Teddy squinted at it, as if his eyes were not yet ready to focus. “William Stephen Devery?”

Beverly sniffed. Her body stiffened. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She grabbed Teddy and pulled him to his feet. “We have to go. Now!”

She sprinted for the door. She could hear Teddy pause and then follow, yelling, “Wait!”

She didn’t wait.

A low-pitched hum grew louder.

Dashing from the Commissioner’s office led her into the main large room, where a dozen or so officers lounged around, talking and drinking coffee. “Everyone out now!” Beverly screamed as she ran toward the exit.

A few racist comments and laughs were her response, but she ignored them and dashed toward the two large glass doors which led to Mulberry Street.

Teddy’s voice, much louder than hers, echoed through the large room. “Listen to her!”

A few uneasy men began to move as the hum grew louder. She pushed her way through the front door just as the explosion hit. Hot flames singed her back as she flew forward and landed, face down, in the street.

As the sounds of sirens and screams filled the air, Beverly forced her eyes open and tried to focus. Smoke mixed with an acrid electrical smell that made her wince.

A young boy leaned over her. “Are you all right, lady?”

Beverly nodded and gladly accepted the lad’s assistance. She took his hand and unsteadily got to her feet while shielding her eyes from the light. The entire block was aflame. Gears spun on fire trucks as they poured water onto the lower level of the building. Police tried to calm the situation and lead people to safety while nurses in Red Cross uniforms tended to the wounded.

“What happened?” Beverly mumbled.

“God struck down the police station,” the boy replied, and then, seeing her skeptical expression, said, “No, really! Clear blue sky, just like always and then, boom! Lightning strike out of nowhere. Crack, pow!”  He continued to demonstrate by waving his arms around and providing the necessary sounds to act out all the drama of the explosion.

“Goodness gracious, son. Why would God be mad at the police?”

“Crackle crackle crackle,” he replied, still performing his little play. Distracted by a dog, he took off in pursuit, his oversized cap bobbing on his head as he ran.

Beverly winced at the pain as she dusted herself off. Her finest dress was ruined, ripped and sooty. She thanked the Lord—and Dr. Bouchet—for giving her that advance warning and said a quick, silent prayer for those who may not have survived the explosion.

The pendant! Where was it? She panicked for a few seconds before spotting it on the pavement. The thick, red, ribbon-like string that held it in place had broken. She quickly snapped it up, tied the string back together, and placed it around her neck. After tucking it safely away under her tight jacket, she scanned the crowd for Teddy.

Firefighters and volunteers ran back and forth, helping the injured and looking for survivors in the rubble. The building still stood, but the windows had all been shattered, leaving shards of glass covering the street.

Beverly coughed and reached for her purse to get her kerchief then realized she had left it in the Commissioner’s office, along with her coat and guns. She looked around for Teddy and hoped he had made it out safely. She didn’t have to look long.

There he was, pushing fallen lumber out of the way, dragging survivors from the wreckage, and directing the firemen where to aim the hoses. He had taken charge of the rescue operation while limping from spot to spot, with embers glowing from his smoldering clothes.

“Thank God you’re here to help, Mr. Roosevelt,” said a young fireman with enormous sideburns.

“God was surely on our side, since you brave firemen were driving by just as this occurred!” he replied. “I had nothing to do with that fortuitous happenstance.”

Beverly ran up to him the best she could, given the pain in her knee. “Commissioner! We must leave!”

Teddy grabbed a fire hose and pointed it toward the second-floor window, where thick smoke still poured out through broken glass. “Nonsense!” he said, without looking at her. “I’m needed here.”

She tried to meet his eyes but he refused. “You were the one they were after. While you remain here, others are in danger. They may try again.”

“Poppycock. What possible reason do you . . .”

“Mr. Roosevelt, please. You have made many enemies during your crusade against police corruption. You embarrassed the Governor by investigating his staff. You angered many working-class people by shutting down their taverns on Sunday. Someone was surely annoyed at your recent investigation into the mysterious lightning strikes. Your political enemies want to stop you from possibly running for governor next year. Should I continue?”

Teddy frowned but refused to look at her.

“They wanted to quiet you permanently and used the lightning strike as an excuse. They will continue. You must come with me and hide so we can make our plans.”

Teddy handed the hose to a surprised fireman, who immediately took control. Then the Commissioner turned to face her directly. “Sorry, Miss Haddad,” he said, “but that is not going to happen. I never run. I never hide. That’s what my enemies do.” Despite the drying blood stain on his pants leg, he began walking briskly toward an alleyway where the nurses had set up a makeshift treatment center.

Beverly limped after him. “The longer you stay, the more likely there will be another attack, and then more lives will be in jeopardy.”

Teddy slowed his pace and looked around cautiously. He stopped and crossed his arms, never meeting her gaze. “You suddenly show up and warn me out of the building just as it explodes and then beg me to come with you. That was an amazing coincidence, don’t you think? Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not the one who caused the explosion?”

Despite his oversized manner, Teddy was not a tall man. She stood in front of him and met his eyes easily. “Then you have even more of a reason to talk to me.”

He raised an eyebrow, clearly not expecting such an answer.

“Commissioner, I assure you that we’re on the same side. We need to stop these explosions. They targeted you because you’re the only man who has even tried to figure this out. You’re the only man who can stop them. And they know that.”

“Who is ‘they’?”

Beverly shook her head. “That’s what we need to find out, although I think you and I have the same suspect in mind.”

Teddy pursed his lips, and his moustache rose to tickle his nose. “No. I cannot leave while people need my help.”

Beverly let out a heavy sigh. “Think of your wife and children, Mr. Roosevelt. You need to get to them before they do.”

He snapped his head to her. “You think they’ll come for Edith?”

Beverly nodded, eyes imploring him to agree. She could see the concern on his face.

“Perhaps you are right, at least for the moment.” He looked around. “I suppose these people can manage this.” He called over a heavy man in a ragged, still-smoldering police uniform and gave him a list of instructions. As the man ran off to comply, Teddy leaned forward, pointed a finger at Beverly’s face, and said, “You and I need to talk.”

Teddy trotted down Mulberry Street toward an alley next to the police station. A steam-powered horseless carriage sat, covered in dust from the explosion. Bright yellow paint decorated its large wheels and side panels, and through the dust Beverly could barely read block letters announcing that it belonged to the “New York City Police Department.”

He bounded into the driver’s seat, and a cloud of dust rose into the air. Beverly walked around to the passenger side. She paused for a second as she observed the dirt but quickly decided that given her current condition, a bit more dirt wouldn’t matter. She slid into the seat.

Teddy pulled a lever and the engine sputtered. Frowning, he turned several dials and spun a device, and a puff of steam shot into his face. As he coughed, the vehicle rumbled and started emitting a loud, grinding noise which leveled into a constant hiss. “Bully!” he said as he reached down into the floorboards and retrieved a pair of goggles. He slapped them on. “Try to keep your eyes covered, and hold on tight,” he said. “This thing can reach speeds of up to twenty-five miles an hour!”

The automobile emitted a loud bang and began moving. People jumped out of the way as Teddy steered down the cobblestone road. Many pointed at him in recognition and he waved back with a bright smile.

Beverly had never been in an automobile before. It was fascinating. The bouncing action felt similar to being in a traditional carriage but it felt strange to not see a horse’s posterior before her. “Interesting machine,” she said loudly over the motor, her hands shielding her eyes. “I wish it had doors and a roof like a standard hansom.”

“Couldn’t afford it,” Teddy replied. “We spent most of our budget on bicycles for the patrolmen. Much more efficient, too. Easier to chase down villains.”

Beverly had much to discuss with the colorful Commissioner but didn’t want to shout such sensitive material over the din of the engine, so she remained silent as Teddy hit Broadway and headed uptown. He glanced at her a few times, and it was clear that he had many questions he was refraining from asking, probably for the same reason. Finally, he spoke.

“How long have you been with the DOJ?”

Beverly gave him a glance. “Not long.”

“You’re the first Negro and the first woman I’ve ever seen working for them,” Teddy said, matter-of-factly.

“Come now, Mr. Roosevelt. It’s 1897. Times are changing.”

“Suppose so. And next you’ll be wanting to vote, too.”

“Of course. Surely you are not opposed to women voting, are you, Mr. Roosevelt?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure why they need to. After all, their husbands can represent their interests.”

Beverly frowned, but before she could respond, Teddy asked, “So the DOJ is also concerned about these lightning strikes, are they?”

“I do not believe that Mr. Comstock has the ability to call upon God’s anger like that,” Beverly said. “And I don’t think you do, either.” She gave him a glance and noted that he didn’t react to the mention of the name. Good.

Teddy said nothing else as they arrived at his townhouse near Union Square. He turned off the engine, ripped off his goggles, and bounded up the stairs to the front door. Beverly followed behind and wondered if “bounded” would be a word she would constantly associate with the Commissioner.

Pulling open the door, Teddy ran inside, calling out for Edith. Beverly took the stairs at a more careful pace but found her way blocked by a large, white woman wearing an apron.

“Yes, Miss?” the woman said, while looking down her nose at Beverly, still a step below.

Beverly assumed a calm expression and tried to look professional. She could only imagine what the woman thought upon seeing a young black woman in a ripped dress, covered with soot and bruises, asking to be let into the home of a Roosevelt. “I came here with the Commissioner,” she said. “There was an explosion at the police station.”

The woman’s expression showed a bit of concern and she looked inside the house for a moment. In the background, Teddy’s booming voice could be heard, calling out for his wife and children. The woman turned back to Beverly and appeared to suddenly notice her injuries. She motioned her in with a rapid movement of her hand. “Come on in, dear.”

Beverly smiled with appreciation as the woman led her into the hallway and shut the door. “Just stand here for right now,” she said. “Don’t touch anything. I’ll be right back.”

Beverly looked around. Gaslight gave the foyer a warm, pleasant glow. Small, framed pictures of Teddy with various politicians and dignitaries were arranged in an attractive pattern along one wall. She took a few steps to get closer and tried to identify them. There he was with Mayor Strong. And was that President-elect McKinley?

She turned as the woman came back into the room carrying an armful of cloth. “Come with me,” the woman said, and she led Beverly through a pair of ornate glass doors and into a waiting room with large windows overlooking the street. She placed a cloth on one of the fancy chairs to protect it from the dirt and soot covering Beverly and motioned her to sit.

Beverly sat, pleased to be able to relax without shaking all over the place, both from nerves and a rather bumpy ride in the automobile.

The woman handed her another cloth to place on her lap. “Do you need any medicine or bandages?” When Beverly shook her head no, the woman said, “I’ll be right back with a damp towel.”

Beverly smiled. Many white people at the time would have never considered offering her such hospitality. She had heard of Mr. Roosevelt, read his books on American history, and knew that he was a good man who supported racial equality. It was reassuring to see this confirmed by his household.

It almost made her feel guilty for not telling him the truth.

“Nothing’s unusual, Professor,” said Declan. “I didn’t find nothing that fits your standards, unless you count this.”

Professor Phineas Grimsby stepped over the rubble and coughed from the smoke still pouring from the building. He pulled his tattered cloak tightly around his neck, tugging the brim of his cap lower over his forehead. He blinked through teary eyes as he peered out at the scene.

The strike happened a half an hour previously. The fire was controlled, and the injuries were mercifully limited. The smell of the fire permeated all of midtown, but at least it helped to cover up the constant stench of horse manure on the streets. The crowd lingered, interested, as usual after a fire. The professor hoped that the reporters gathered would not recognize him and would simply assume he was another local, come to gawk at the action. He held out his hand to accept Declan’s offer.

“This is a telephone.” Phineas sneered. “The police have had those for over five years now. And it hardly has any metal in it.” He tossed it aside. “That’s all you could find?”

Declan shrugged. “For a place that’s been exploded and everything, it was in pretty good shape. Nothing else stood out.”

“Look again. There’s always something. You just missed it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Phineas stared down his nose at Declan, whose ill-fitting firefighter’s uniform looked comically tight on his frame. Still, it was all Phineas could scrounge up on short notice. “And on top of it, the Commissioner wasn’t harmed at all.”

“It’s Roosevelt. Don’t think anything hurts him.” Declan’s smile faded as he saw the angry look on the Professor’s face.

“And the woman? Did you see her at all?”

Declan took a step back. “Forgot to look for her. Sorry, I ran away before the lightning hit. Didn’t want to be too close or nothing.”

Phineas frowned. That damned woman had been asking too many questions. It was pure coincidence that she happened to show up just at this time, which caused Phineas to rush the operation to include her. He waved Declan away. “Go back and see what else you can find. And don’t be stupid about it.”

Declan nodded and ran back to the building.

Phineas scratched at his long, graying beard. Once, a beard like that meant dignity and prominence. All of the Presidents and men of means sported magnificent beards after the War of Northern Aggression. However, fashion now dictated a more closely-trimmed variety or even no facial hair whatsoever.

Phineas shook his head at the direction the country was heading, especially now with McKinley’s election. McKinley! What a sorry choice to lead the United States. That clean-shaven moron and his reformer friends.

He stared up at the police station. This had not gone according to plan. There wasn’t even a finding to compensate him for the failure. His target had escaped unharmed. Not only that, Roosevelt was not the sort of man who would be intimidated by this attack. If anything, he would renew the investigation with even more vigor.

As Phineas stood fuming, Declan ran back. “Found this,” he said.

“A purse?” Phineas wrinkled his nose. “Why would I be interested in that?”

” ‘Cause of this.” Declan reached in and pulled out a shining pistol of a make Phineas did not recognize. A weird, glowing tube ran along its side. There was a distinctive bright green light on the handle, with an arrow indicating that it was “charged.”

Phineas reached for it and gently held it, turning it over and over again to examine it from all angles, while being extremely careful not to set it off. “And . . . this was in that bag?” he asked.

Declan nodded and held out the purse.

Phineas let him hold it open as he stuck his fingers inside to inspect the contents. Another smaller pistol of a normal variety. A small map of the city. Typical women’s things. And some papers.

He placed the gun back into the purse and took out the papers. Government papers identifying a woman investigator. A short bio of Teddy Roosevelt from the Times. And a strange document clearly in some sort of code—with an unusual logo at the top featuring a woman’s face.

He placed the papers back into the purse and then took it from Declan. “Thank you, boy.” He nodded his head politely. “I appreciate this very much. It was not what I was looking for, but it should prove to be interesting. Very interesting indeed.”