Giving us gothic vibes in early 1900s Boston, Relentless Melt follows Artie Quick, a crossdressing young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to further her education, and her friend Theodore, an up-and-coming high society magician, as they investigate claims of abductions on the Boston Common. As Artie works to keep her double life disguised, Theodore must explore the darker side of his upper-crust upbringing.
Described as H.P. Lovecraft meets Agatha Christie, Relentless Melt is a supernatural crime thriller with a terrifying secret at the heart of an American institution. Bushnell weaves together a story of gender identity, adventure, and the things that go bump in the dark. It will release on June 6.
The excerpt starts below the cover for Jeremy P. Bushnell’s Relentless Melt.
So this is where the string of clues has led: the plaza in front of City Hall. Theodore glances at Artie, and in that glance she can read an implicit dare: Go in. Follow the wiry man. See what he’s doing in there. And she gives him a look back, with its own implicit dare: You first.
But they both hesitate. They stand there in the courtyard, at the foot of the edifice, hands thrust in their pockets, feeling thwarted and cold, hoping that their quarry will come back out so they can resume the chase, in the hopes that it will lead somewhere, anywhere, other than here. Looking for a criminal at the dodgy end of the Long Wharf is one thing, following a criminal directly in through the front door of City Hall is another thing entirely. The windows of the building are mostly dark, it’s after hours, all legitimate city business should have concluded for the day. And yet the wiry man just walked straight in. Like he owned the place.
“I’ll go,” Theodore says finally. “I’ll follow him.” And instantly Artie regrets that she wasn’t the one who offered first. You’re not a person who isn’t brave, says a voice inside her, a reminder.
“We’ll go together,” Artie says. “We’ve been investigating this together—”
“It’s safer for just me to go,” Theodore says. He looks at the door doubtfully. “I’m a—I’m a young gentleman, if I encounter
anyone in there, even at this hour, they will simply see me as an ordinary citizen who perhaps wandered in mistakenly, disoriented but posing no threat—”
This gives Artie a moment of pause. On the one hand, the idea that you could just wander into a place where you weren’t sup- posed to be, and that, if confronted, you could just feign that you didn’t know any better, that you’d just gotten turned around—? It’s a new idea to her, a strategy she wouldn’t have attempted on her own: she can barely believe that it would work, regardless of whether you were a young gentleman or not. At the same time— assuming it would work at all—Artie takes a certain amount of umbrage at Theodore’s not-so-subtle insinuation that he’s the only one of them who could come across as an upstanding member of the public who has lost their way. So she scoffs. “Come on,” she says. “Your family may be wealthy, mine isn’t, but we’re not destitute either. I don’t look like some dangerous street urchin.”
Theodore gives her an assessing look. She’s used to him looking at her with open affection, and when it pivots to this other type of look, which it does on occasion, she always finds it dis- comfiting. She’s not really sure she wants to know what lies on the far end of his assessment; if she looks like an urchin in his eyes, she’d rather never find out. Or at least she’d rather not find out right now—there are more important things going on right now.
“Look,” Artie says. “We don’t know who that guy is. We just know that an encounter with him could be dangerous. Remember the first time we ran into Spivey. He came at us with a knife. We only got away from him safely because there were two of us, di- viding his attention.”
“That’s true,” Theodore says thoughtfully. But Artie isn’t waiting for him to weigh the decision any further. She’s making her way to the door, leaving it for him to follow.
It’s dark inside City Hall. The building has been outfitted with electrical lights, but they’re all turned out at this hour. One neglected lantern, burning low, hangs on a peg near a grand central stair: the thin rind of sputtering blue light enables them to perceive the basic geography of the entry hall, but its range is feeble: the ceiling overhead is lost in gloom.
Artie suspects that there’s a switch somewhere that she could flip, that she could fill this space with cold illumination, but feel- ing her way along the wall turns up nothing, and she’s not sure that she’d flip it if she even found it—she’s fully aware of how much attention that would draw. Doing it would probably be in line with Theodore’s strategy—flipping a light on might make it easier to nonchalantly feign that you are just undertaking normal business in a place; creeping around in the dark certainly doesn’t— but she also notices that Theodore, behind her, doesn’t seem to be searching for a light switch either.
Instead the two of them listen. It’s been a few moments since the wiry man came into the building; maybe they’ll hear footsteps, if he’s moving around. He might even be close by. Artie’s skin crawls at the thought. But they hear nothing.
They cross the entry hall, peer down the hallways that flank the central staircase. Nothing much to note: no sound, no light.
“Upstairs?” Theodore says. He’s whispering, but his voice sounds loud in the silence. Artie replies with a curt nod only.
They climb the stairs, find themselves deposited in a wide second-floor hallway lined with doors. Each door is inset with a panel of frosted glass. Most are dark, but three doors down, on the right, one of the panels glows, lit from behind. An electric light is on, in someone’s office.
Could the wiry man be there, behind that door? They creep up. Artie peers at the glass, her heart pounding in her chest. Nothing can be seen through the frosting, but painted on this side of the door, in stately letters, there is a name, and a title: Jameson A. Briggs, Commissioner of Police.
Artie shoots a glance at Theodore, nods at the text. Theodore, looking nervous, nods back.
On its own, though, it means nothing. It’s just a light on, in a building, at an hour when a light maybe shouldn’t be on. Neither of them know whether this is where the wiry man went, or whether there’s even anyone behind this door. And Artie has to know.
She reaches out, takes the doorknob in her hand, and turns it, as slowly and quietly as she can. The door isn’t locked. She opens it a crack, looks through.
There’s someone in there. It’s him. Standing in the center of the room. It’s the wiry man. She doesn’t have time to notice any- thing else, for he looks up immediately, looks right through the narrow opening. His eyes fix on her, a predatory alertness in them. Artie lurches backward, away from the door.
“Hello?” she can hear the man call.
“Run,” Artie blurts.
“Hey!” shouts the man.
She runs. Theodore runs. They hit the stairs at top speed, urgently praying that their footing is true. She can hear the man in the hallway behind them, shouting again: “Hey!”
They don’t stumble. They make it down the stairs and they sprint across the entry hall; they slam through the door and spill out into the plaza. They turn a corner, and another, trying to create an untraceable path through Boston’s convoluted streets. They finally stop to catch their breath when they’re at the populated downtown corner where Artie normally catches her streetcar home; not far from the Pickle. They look up and down the street, trying to be sure they haven’t been followed.
“So,” Artie says, wiping sweat from her brow, her heart still beating fast in her chest. “So that’s it, then.”
“That’s something,” Theodore says, bent over, panting.
“Spivey is right,” Artie says. “They’re all in on it.”
“They,” Theodore says. He pauses, sucks a whooping intake of breath, gathers himself, stands upright. “Fill me in. Who is they again?”
“The police,” Artie says, quietly, so she won’t be overheard by passersby. “Spivey said he would grab women and drop them off with a policeman.”
“For money,” Theodore says.
“And we went to the place he said and we saw a policeman there.”
“Yes,” Theodore says. “And a woman. Though—an old woman. Not who we’re looking for.”
Excerpt from Relentless Melt by Jeremy P. Bushnell reprinted by permission of Melville House.
Relentless Melt by Jeremy P. Bushnell will be released on June 6. You can preorder a copy here.
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