Currently very busy on three different things, one of which is a book, one of which is the regular freelance stuff, and one of which is Another Thing which will see the light of day very soon once I’ve finished its final polishing. (Only newsworthy aside, on a tangential subject that’ll see a related post in the near future, VDZ is currently #13 in Amazon US’s free SF chart, #34 in SF/F.)

So in order to blow some of the cobwebs out of here, apropos of nothing better than being reminded of it last night, here’s a chapter from THE LEVELS (with UK spellings, having a Brit publisher and all). This is the story’s big infodump at Chap 7, and I still like it. It was the mid-point line that jumped to mind last night, and I’m damned if I remember why. Bonus points for knowing which real-life city the stats came from at time of writing. Anyway…

Harry’s car turned out to be a BMW, two years from new. It smelled of disinfectant and Turner made sure he wore gloves to drive it. Taking it easy on the orange-lit sweep from the harbour inland, he wondered why Harry needed to dispose of it. One eye open for the cops at all times in case he was about to find out for himself. Onto the Wilder Turnpike and he could see the Levels in the distance, a dimly-lit hole in Newport City’s shining midnight webwork, an open, embarrassing sore the outside world would sooner forget than cure.

The city was only the fifth largest urban sprawl in the US, running on tourism, old money and new finance in shiny offices. Property prices were so high that its population was falling, middle class kids leaving because they couldn’t afford to live in the city where they were born. Rich kids didn’t need to leave and the poor didn’t have the money to. The divide was widening all the time and those who couldn’t escape it fell into the gap. Four of the top ten worst housing projects in the country, more than LA, New York or any other city in America. Turner knew them, had spent time in several of those places, as well as the gated ghettos and penthouse-level subculture of the over-rich. He didn’t know which depressed him more.

The top ten list didn’t include Keating Levels, never had. It was Newport’s dirty little secret. A nightmare spawned by a 1950s urban planning dream. A square mile of land reclaimed from the swamps from which most of the city had arisen in the early days, built, occupied and left to rot as soon as its problems began. Thousands of poor families crammed into high-rise hovels poured from substandard concrete, cut off from the rest of the city by the Tissky and Murdoch rivers. Many of the amenities – schools, a hospital, stores and parks – promised in the original plans had never been built and those that were had quickly fallen into disrepair; no local politician would give the area a slice of ever-tightening budgets when there was no one there but junkies, criminals and the mentally-ill, all of whom had notoriously poor voting records and no lobby to speak of. The worse the place had become, the more of a waste of money trying to fix it was.

Turner remembered seeing footage of the Sharp Riots on TV a little over ten years ago; since then, every election had brought fresh promises of investment and urban renewal for the Levels. All of them were quietly dropped by the time budgets were announced. No one wanted to take on a project so large, so long term or so doomed to failure. The promises showed the politicians cared, and that was enough. Crime figures per capita were lower there than districts like Craybank or West Broadwell, but only because hardly anyone in the Levels bothered to report crime any more. The police, assuming they could agree on whose jurisdiction the place was – regular boundary disputes with neighbouring Tawmouth meant that at times neither police department claimed it as their own – regarded the area as hostile territory. Case clearance was nigh-on impossible on the rare occasions someone did make the effort. Public health was a mess. Last time Turner had spoken to Charlie, his friend had talked about three people he’d heard had died in the past year from bubonic plague. The goddamn Black Death. A disease otherwise consigned, Charlie had pointed out, to the Third World or the history books, right there in America.

Still no sign of the cops by the time Turner made the turn over the Murdoch, and now he knew he wouldn’t see them at all. The bridge was flat and grey, looked only half-finished and probably was. There were so many suicides from the four crossings between the Levels and the rest of the city they’d installed nets half a mile downstream from the confluence of the two rivers just to collect the bodies.

No one did jack shit to stop people throwing themselves off.

A subtle shift in the atmosphere as he reached the far bank. The air coming through the open window was damper, tasted of dirt and rust. He could smell woodsmoke spiked with long-chain hydrocarbons. A dog’s eyes flashed at him from the depths of an alley, hungry, as he cruised down the street, following Harry’s map. The area was sparsely-lit and dead quiet. The four high-rise blocks at the Levels’ core were dwarfed by the half-glimpsed mass of Sanctuary Tower at the project’s river-bound foot, a rotten black tooth against the night with orange balefire flickering in its upper windows like blazing eyes. He could feel movement in the streets he passed, sensed unseen gazes in the darkness turning to watch him, desperate and predatory.

The address Harry had given him turned out to be an apartment in a four storey building within spitting distance of the Broad Street Canal. It had a peeling ‘CONDEMNED’ notice plastered to the front door. It was the sort of building where people wouldn’t move out; they’d overdose or die in a fight with a neighbour over whose turn it was to fuck whose dog. Bad neon spilled out of an open bar a block away. In a lone pool of light across the street, a figure in smeared clown makeup and a rubber SS uniform was sitting on the kerb, unmoving, eyes fixed on Turner’s new home. Only two of the buzzers by the front door had names next to them. ‘Bray’ could have been anyone and he guessed ‘Krystal’ was a hooker. Bare wiring hung from the intercom unit, buzzing in the damp air.

Harry had been right; his car would be gone, vanished into the jungle, in under thirty minutes. Turner glanced over his shoulder, saw that Nazi Clown hadn’t moved a muscle, then turned his key in the lock and stepped inside.

The hallway was bare concrete carpeted in ancient newsprint chewed to shreds by rats, walls plastered with old graffiti. There was a row of old-style post boxes, all wrecked. One of them had a syringe in it. The only working light was right at the top of the stairwell and only thin yellow streamers filtered down to Turner. His new place was at the end of the second floor corridor. Late-night television warbled from behind the door opposite and he thought he could hear crying.

The apartment was half-stripped and looked almost derelict. The sink in the tiny kitchenette was a mess of old stains and the ceiling was spotted with damp. When Turner looked out the window overlooking the street, the BMW was still there but the clown had gone. Someone had scratched ‘DON’T LOOK’ on the glass. The bedroom was small but could have been in worse shape. He doubted he’d catch something horrible just by sleeping there. He didn’t know what he’d expected Harry’s idea of a safehouse in the Levels to be, but it was a lot better than what Turner probably would’ve come up with on his own.

It was when he checked out the bathroom that Turner found the girl.