of dresses and dames
by
david england

Following on from Devil's Due, this is the second tale in the series, The Hard Streets of Aphrodite... set in the same NHOSS universe as the author's other adventures, in particular the saga of agent-Baroness Lady Penelope Botelier.


Part I

A Client and a Case

 

“What I’m not exactly understanding, Madame Deschamps,” I say carefully as my fingers drum slow and steady on the uncharacteristically clean surface of my desk, “is why you have come to me.”

Actually, there are a whole host of things I’m not understanding as I quietly consider the impressive volume of my prospective client.  Like how she made it up the stairs to my second-floor office, for example.  Or how those stairs survived the encounter.  Or how the structure of the wooden chair she’s sitting on is managing to support her considerable weight.  Beneath the fashionable folds of brightly-colored cloth, I can see ample flesh spilling over the sides of the simple square seat.  The chair may not be padded, but her backside most certainly is.

She fans herself vigorously, still sweating from her effort to reach my office.  The garish crimson of the folding fan, embroidered with a design of fashionable chinoise, clashes with the swirling oranges and yellows of her dress.  Not my style, but then I’m a meat-and-potato kind of prole.  It's always seemed to me that popular style is little more than a pathetic and pointless scream of defiance flung in the face of the dreary grey-greens and mud-browns that covered this God-forsaken planet.  In any event, the fashion lords of Aphrodite’s trendy set move according to secret ways well beyond my ken. 

The flush of the woman’s cheeks is only now beginning to fade and she flashes what I assume she intends to be a coquettish smile.  Her long, dark brown hair is coiled atop her head in some kind of artistic monstrosity and her slender batonette--that feminine variation on the gentleman’s walking cane which has taken the place of a woman’s parasol here on Venus--leans against the front edge of my desk.  It seems that frail and delicate accessories are all the rage these days, even if the ladies being accessorized by them are anything but.

“Monsieur Philips,” she replies in that liltingly-accented English common across the francophone world.  “I have heard on good account that you are a man who is most accomplished in finding things.”  The bright red fan finally stills and collapses with a flick of her wrist before being nestled into the folds of her considerable lap.  “And I have something that simply must be found.”

The dull tapping of the day’s downpour sounds against the windowpane behind me as I lean back in my desk chair and mentally review my circumstances.  On the one hand, I still have some of that hundred-quid windfall left from my encounter with the late Shadow, a fact which gives me some choice when taking a case or not.  On the other hand, that slush-fund ain’t gonna be around forever and I need to start bringing in the d’argent again if I want to keep eating on a regular basis.  On the other, other hand, I’m no socialite’s lapdog either.  I have a certain amount of pride, you know.  Somewhere.

“Very well, madame,” I reply and put on my better manners.  “Why don’t you explain exactly what it is you’d like me to find for you.”  Practicality wins out over pride at the end of the day.  I’ve gone far too many lean and hungry nights to turn down a paycheck out of some misplaced sense of my own self-dignity.  A fresh cigarillo sits unlit in the ashtray at the corner of my desk.  I resist the urge to reach for it and instead focus my attention on the substantial specimen of womanhood sitting before me.

“I have little understanding of such things, of course,” Madame Deschamps is saying demurely, “but my very good friend Marguerite has spoken of how you were the détective who located her jeune cousine when the girl ran away with that scoundrel.”

“Marguerite?” I echo, unsure of the reference.

The woman nods with some exuberance, her ample bosom swaying provocatively within the frame of bright cloth of her décolletage.  The oscillating flesh is more than enough to seize a man’s attention.  I give my head a shake and try to focus.  Too many lonely nights.  “Marguerite des Jardins,” she explains.  “I understand that the girl’s father owns a tavern or some such establishment.  A third or fourth cousin, I believe.”  She gives a look.  “Not from the monied side of the family, you understand.”

 I give a noncommittal shrug as if to say “but of course,” but keep my opinions to myself.  Telling a prospective client exactly where to shove her class pretensions doesn’t exactly pay the bills.  It’s a good thing, I think with a wry amusement, that the cluck of snobbish hens didn’t inquire into the state of that scoundrel’s manhood.  On the other hand, as I think on it, they’d probably find that little story delightfully scandalous. 

“And your lost item?” I prod, trying to move her explanation along without being too obvious about it.  It’s my luck to be blessed with long-winded clients who take forever to get to the point.

The expression on her face shifts.  “My husband,” she says with a fleshy frown, “is a fool.”  Her sudden change in demeanor catches me a bit off-guard, but I keep my own face studiously blank.  It is my experience that it is best to say and show nothing when a potential client raises the subject of the spouse.  I gesture for her to continue, which she does with great energy.  “He is a centime-pinching fool who has no proper understanding of the value of things.”

“Oh?” I reply casually, my eyebrows lifting upward just a fraction.  I’m in the middle of trying to guess which well-trod path of infidelity this case is going to take me on--snooping on unfaithful janes and johns at the behest of their spouses is bread and butter in my trade--when Madame Deschamps goes down a completely different road altogether.

“My grandmother,” the lady explains, “was the Comtesse d’Ivoire and served Queen Louise as Surintendante de la Maison da la Reine.”

Only the highest office a woman can attain, aside from being queen herself.  I find myself suitably impressed and my eyes widen a bit.  “Your grandmother was Mistress of the Robes?” I ask.  And that of one of the founding monarchs of the Franco-Spanish Empire, no less.

Like its Austro-German counterpart, the Franco-Spanish Empire is less than a hundred years old, having been formed during that turbulent third decade of the 19th century following the launching of the space age by the American inventor James Henry with his epic flight in 1821.  Unlike the German alliance, however, Franco-Spanish origins lay in the passions of the human heart rather than the calculations of the intellect.  Typical, one might say, of the natures of the nations involved.

In the aftermath of a heated exchange at the wedding of Prince Alberto of Italy earlier that summer, the details of which are now obscured by variations of retelling, Louis XIX of France and Ferdinand VII of Spain met on the field of honor between two cities at the border of their nations on the first of August, 1825.  The scene was captured years afterward by the young painter Eugene Delcroix in his work titled simply Le Duel.  The original hangs in the Louvre.  I’ve only seen printings of it.

That contest of gentlemen claimed the lives of both monarchs and the rule of two kingdoms fell to young heirs within the space of heartbeats.  The Spanish crown went to Ferdinand’s twenty-one year old son Alphonse, while the French throne went to Louis’ twenty-four year old daughter Louise.  It was a time of great shock and anger, but also one of those moments in history when the unimaginable can occur. 

Madame Deschamps nods, her jowls wobbling.  “Yes,” she said.  “It was a great honor and she spoke of her days in service to the Queen with great affection.”  My client’s features cloud and she frowns.  “But that friendship soured--she would never speak of the matter in any detail--and in January of 1829, only months before the Dauphin was born, she left court, never to return.”

“And she never said why?” I ask.

“No.”

I pause for a moment and consider what I can recall of the story.  After an incredible display of mercy that involved each ruler traveling to the other’s kingdom to pray for the soul of his and her father’s killer and understanding the challenges and opportunities presented by the birth of the new age of space exploration that had been launched only five years prior,  the young monarchs were wed on Christmas Day, 1826, and declared that a new capital city would be built on the site of their fathers’ deadly contest as a symbol of the union of the two kingdoms.  This city was to be called Bittersweet Field--Champs Aigre-doux in the French and Campo Agridulce in the Spanish--but the people of the  two lands quickly harmonized and truncated the  names to Agridoux.  As construction began in the spring of 1827, the two monarchs continued to reign from their respective capitals of Paris and Madrid, visiting one another’s courts regularly both out of genuine affection as well as for the other major project of their daring political endeavor, the begetting of an heir to each of their kingdoms.

Unlike the construction of the new capital, which proceeded briskly, no new heir was forthcoming in the first year of marriage.  As the rush of euphoria of the romance began to wear off within the populace, some began to wonder at the wisdom of joining the kingdoms.  And as the following year turned from winter to spring to summer with still no sign of an heir, the whispers became more dangerous mutterings.

Then, as if by miracle, Louise conceived and by late summer 1828 it was confirmed that she was indeed with child.  There was a great relief within both courts and a renewed enthusiasm swept through the populace.  As the initial royal residence, core administrative buildings, and necessary military defense works of the new palace began to near completion with the dawn of 1829, plans were made for the monarchs to take residence following the anticipated birth of their heir.

Louis Antonio was duly born that spring, to much fanfare and rejoicing.  It was decided, as a further symbol of the merging of the two households, that with the royals taking residence at Agridoux, each would grant a legacy to one personal servant and fill the vacancy created with a person from the other’s kingdom.  Louise granted a legacy and a small landholding in French North Africa to one of her footmen, citing his loyal service to the throne, while Alphonse chose to pension his elderly valet, providing the man and his wife a homestead in northern Spain and an annuity for the remainder of their lives.

“You said she left court,” I observe and Madame Deschamps nods.  “Do you know whether she left of her own accord or if she was sent away by the Queen?”

Another frown.  “Why would anyone willingly given up such a position at court?” she asks.  “Especially then, with the prince’s birth so close?”

I shrug.  “I don’t know.  I’m just asking the question.”  I gesture for her to continue.  “How do these events relate to your missing item?”

   “There was a dress,” my client replies, “that Gandmere loved above all others, one of her favorites from her time at court.  After she left, she placed that dress in a storage box and never wore it again.”

I nod carefully to show that I’m following along.  “And?”

“That dress became something of a family heirloom,” Madame Deschamps explains.  “Though she never wore it again, she often spoke of it to my mother, who was her third child and only daughter.  When I was very little, she would often speak of her time at court to me and my cousines.  I was the eldest of her female grandchildren, though, and when she passed on, the dress in the box was bequeathed to my mother, who having little need for such a thing, passed it on to me as soon as I became of age.  I still have the letter my grandmother had written, telling us to always keep this dress close and guard it well, for it was far more precious than she could say.”  She reaches into her diminutive purse and withdraws an envelope.  “I have it here.”

I take the envelope from her hand, noting the age of the paper.  Carefully, I open the flap and withdraw the folded letter contained within.  The writing is elegant and well-formed, the kind one would expect of a lady of the court, and the ink is only now beginning to fade.

 

My dearest Marie-Claire—

It is my wish that you take this keepsake of my time at court.  Keep it well and within the family always, for it is far more valuable than you can possibly know.  The truth lay nearest the heart.  Pass it down to your children, along with these instructions I have given you.

In God’s Truth and Love,

Mama

 

“Marie-Claire?” I ask.

“My mother,” Madame Deschamps replies.

“I see.”  The case is starting to take shape.  “And it is this dress that has gone missing?”

The woman’s expression clouds again.  “It has.  My fool of a husband,” she gives a derisive snort, “saw fit to divest our household of ‘extraneous baggage,’ as he called it, while I was away visiting a distant cousin.  Among the items he sold off to a clearinghouse dealing in such things was my grandmother’s dress.  I’ve already spoken with the management of that establishment, but was told that there was little that could be done: several lots had already been sold, including the one to which the dress had belonged.”

I nod.  “And what exactly would you like me to do?”

“Locate the dress, of course,” Madame Deschamps gestures with mild agitation.  “Once you have found it and its present owner, act as my agent to reacquire it.”  She gives me an even look.  “I am willing to pay handsomely for its return.”  She gives a surprisingly feral smile.  “And your commission in that transaction would be well worth your while.  My husband’s foolishness will cost his accounts rather dearly, I fear.”

  My estimation of Madame Deschamps rises several notches.  I would not care to be her husband, I decide, and push the fate of the man from my mind.  “Very well, madame,” I say.  “I will take your case.”  I lean forward a bit.  “I cannot guarantee success, you understand.”  She nods.  “My fees are straightforward: ten francs per day, plus reasonable expenses.”

She does not hesitate.  “I agree to those terms.”  I am beginning to like this client.

“That is for the search,” I point out.  “Should I locate the item and succeed in negotiating its purchase, what commission are you willing to offer?”

“I expect a twenty-percent commission would be satisfactory to you, sir.”

My eyebrows rise. “Quite so.”

She gives another unpleasant smile.  “My husband will not do so foolish a thing again, I can assure you of that.”

I nod.  It is always easier to spend someone else’s d’argent, but even more so when there’s a vendetta involved.  Despite myself, I feel a small amount of pity for the man.  But business is business and I’ve got to eat at the end of the day.

 

###

 

It is late in the afternoon when Madame Deschamps departs.  I tell her I need a day to do some preliminary work, but if she would like to return the day following, I can give her a better estimate of what may be involved.  She agrees to this and wobbles out of my office.

Better than a stick in the eye, I tell myself as the door shuts.  Or a bullet through the shoulder.

I take dinner downstairs at Kim Soo’s place before flopping into the narrow bed in my small third-story apartment.  It’s a cramped space, but functional, with a kitchenette in the main room that also serves as my bedroom and living space.  There’s a closet of a bathroom and another door that leads to a modest storage room crammed full of leftovers from a previous tenant: bundles of clothes, an old cot, and several trunks of random junk.  One of these days I plan to clean it out--Kim Soo has told me I can have the stuff--but I’ve never gotten around to it.

The next morning comes and I make myself go through the motions of caring.  A cold shower and shave later, I’m taking the two flights of back stairs down to street-level.  The day is surprisingly bright for Venus--meaning that the all-pervasive grey-green sky is only somewhat soul-crushing and the rain is light--and I make my way down the block to catch some breakfast at Flo’s diner before I get to work.

Madame Deschamps’ information makes finding the clearinghouse simple enough.  Getting to speak to anyone of significance, on the other hand, takes me the better part of the morning.  The warehouse-like space is a maze of crates, stacked several high, and if there was a system to the arrangement, I couldn’t tell you what it might be.  I get handed off from one harried-looking assistant to the next until I’m finally able to corner the manager long enough to get a few answers.

The fussily-dressed little imp obviously has better things to do than to be bothered by a private dick and tries to put me off.  I manage to be annoying enough to get him to give me what I’m looking for just to make me go away.  I’m good at annoying, though sometimes my face pays a price for it.  With this priggish little man, however, this isn’t going to be one of those occasions.

“Debarge’s Auction House,” he says impatiently, stuffing the ledger back into its place on the shelf of his tiny office.  “Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do.”

“Thank you,” I reply with a sarcastic tip of my fedora.  “Your assistance has been appreciated.”

The day is well along now and I decide to take lunch before continuing.  There’s a sidewalk cafe down the block and I head over.  A small sandwich and a cup of tea later, I’m back on the street, making my way to the other side of the business district.

The auction house is a far more sedate operation than the clearinghouse was, though finding someone to speak with me is once again an issue.  I sit in a stuffily-appointed parlor, waiting.  The sounds of an auction filter through the wall behind me, the sharp crack of the auctioneer’s block punctuating the close of each sale.

After some time, the auction concludes and a well-dressed man appears in the doorway of the parlor.  “My I help you, sir?” he inquires politely.

I stand.  “Yes, though perhaps your office might be a better place to discuss my business.”  The man gestures toward a door further down the hall and I follow.  As we both take our seats, his behind a desk and mine in a comfortable guest chair, he looks at me.

“May I inquire as to the nature of this business?”

I decide that the truth might be a better angle than any story I could cook up, so I run with it.  “You came into possession of a certain garment, as I understand, though a wholesale purchase recently.  The original owner of this particular garment,” I explain, “was divested of it without her knowledge or permission.  I have been engaged to locate it and arrange for its return.”

“Our purchase of the lot is perfectly legitimate,” the man replies levelly.  I find it odd that he appears to know exactly what I’m talking about already.  “As are all of our purchases.  This establishment has no knowledge of nor responsibility for the manner in which the clearinghouse acquired the items in question.”  His face takes on a sour expression.  “We operate within the bounds of propriety here, monsieur.”

I wave his comment aside with a vague gesture.  “My client is not disputing the purchase you made nor the auction house’s acquisition.  The divestment of which I spoke is entirely a personal matter.”  I look at the man.  “Her sole interest, and the purpose for which I have been retained, is affecting the return of her family’s property to her possession.”

“I see.”  He shakes his head slowly.  “Fascinating, monsieur, I have to say.  I am amazed at the interest one dress, regardless of its provenance, has generated.”

I frown.  “What do you mean by that?” I ask.

“A gentleman came by earlier this morning, inquiring of the whereabouts of that same item.”

An unexpected wrinkle--and an unwelcome one.  Madame Deschamps hadn’t mentioned anyone else being involved.  I wipe the concern from my expression, though, and reply casually.  “And what did you tell this gentleman?”

“Exactly what I am going to tell you, sir.  That the item in question has been purchased and is no longer in my possession.  Any further inquiries should be directed to the current owner.”

“And that owner would be…?”

The man picks up a ledger from his desk and leafs back a few pages before stopping.  He places one finger on the right-hand page.  “Mr. Thomas Worthington, proprietor of the Worthington Museum of Culture and Vestments in Adonopolis.”

Well, that’s a lead, at the very least.  The problem is that I’m apparently in a competition and I don’t know what the rules of the contest are.  Stuff to be sorted out in due time, however.  I nod to the man.  “Thank you, sir.  That is helpful.  I stand.  “Good day.”

“Good day, sir.”  And he turns away as I depart, the door closing behind me with unspoken finality.  But my mind is already moving on to the newly-revealed issue of a competitor.  What the hell is going on here? I wonder.  What else do I not know?   

I’ve been in this business for a good while now.  And this case is starting to make my gut get that feeling that tells me to watch my back more carefully.  The presence of another party is a surprise, given the information I’d been provided.  And I hate surprises.

I decide that I need a drink and a bit of time to think through my next steps, though a trip to Adonopolis is obviously in the works.   I have that appointment with Madame Deschamps set for the next morning, so I’d be able to brief her on this development before I caught the train west to the British Concession.  And perhaps she could tell me something about who this other party might be and why they might be pursuing her grandmother’s dress.

I step out of the auction house and onto the walk.  The day is getting far along and the gloom of evening is not too far away.  Drink and dinner, I decide--there’s the expense report I can put it on, so it’s not like it’s my dime--and consider my options.  I’m tempted to head back to my side of town and the familiar atmosphere of Perdidos, but something nudges me in a different direction and I glance about for more local fare.  A decent-looking pub a half a block down the way catches my eye, going by the name Les Trois Épées, and I figure it looks as good as anything else.

The door opens into a well-lit space and the babble of conversation hardly pauses before resuming again.  I figure that I’d start with a pint first and get to food in a bit, so I make my way over the far end of the bar.  The bartender comes over, nods at my request, and steps away to the taps, returning a few moments later with a local ale.  I start my tab and he moves off to take care of someone else. 

As I lean against the standing bar, puzzling over the strange steps of this little tango I’d gotten myself into, I feel a presence sidle up to the bar next to me.  I’ve been around the block a time or three, you see, and I know the difference between your average Joe Nobody and someone who’s not.  Call it a sixth sense, or a seventh.

“Monsieur Phillips,” the man says blandly.

I grunt noncommittally and wait, wanting to see how this détente plays out.  In my corner vision, I can see a hand wrapped around a glass, the amber liquid glistening in the light of the pub.

“Monsieur Phillips,” the man repeats.  “I have a message for you.”

“Okay,” I respond, “I’ll bite.  What’s the news?”

“It is something of a cautionary message.”  The man pauses.  “I am to tell you that His Grace does not take kindly to interference in his affairs.”

I turn at that.  The eyes that consider me casually, dismissively even, are a mottled grey-green.   I don’t know him, but I know his master.  The man continues.  “Consider this a courtesy warning.  There will not be another.”

I keep my voice low and my expression blank, but the snarl in my tone is unmistakable.  “You tell that crop-eared bastard,” I reply, “that he can go to hell.”

 

###

 

It’s getting late by the time I leave the pub.  I kept myself to two pints, though, well supplemented with grub.  I’ve learned a thing or two from my encounter with the Shadow, including the fact that I need to keep my wits about me on my rambles home.  Overdoing the drink doesn’t exactly aid in the quarter, so I moderate, even if it means drowning myself less often to escape the blighted fact of my existence.  Life is crap, but I don’t plan on goin’ before I’m damn well ready.

The night rain drums heavily on the low arch covering the walk and roadway, like pebbles on a sheet of tin.   The air is murky and thick with moisture.  My shoulder twinges, as it usually does when the weather’s this wet, and I ignore the pain, letting it blend in with the layers of ache that comprise my being.  A bit of salt for flavor, some might say.  I like variety in my pain.  The same old disappointments get boring after a while.

I pull my grey fedora down low over my eyes, hunch my shoulders a bit, and strike off for home.  My mind plucks at the threads of this case, trying to tease out that bit that I just can’t quite see.  My gut says something more’s going on than meets the eye.  And my gut has a good track record of keeping me breathing, so I tend to listen to it.  There’s a new player on the stage and I can’t think of any possible reason why he’d be involved.  That bothers me more than anything else, even more than my loathing of the man.  I don’t like not knowing why. 

The night doesn’t answer me and I walk on.  I’m a couple of blocks from the pub and heading along a lonely stretch of street when I hear something and look up, peering ahead though the wet night air.  About a half-block on, over on the other side of the street, a big bruiser of a man is standing on the street corner with a young woman.  Their body language tells me right away that something’s up.  He’s holding her upper arm with a firm grip, his expression intense and unpleasant.  The woman’s face is flushed, accented by her already olive coloring, and she is obviously trying to pull away, her other hand clutching what appears to be a traveling bag of some kind.  It’s the sort of scene one sees all too frequently on the streets in these parts of Aphrodite and this time of night.  My brain says keep walking.

My gut says otherwise.

I stop and let out a low curse.  Really? I ask myself.  Dime-a-dozen drama, I say.  None of my damn business, I say.  The two across the street haven’t noticed me yet.  I can just walk on, ignore the little episode going on over there, and get on with this case and my life.

My gut insists.

I exhale, long and slow.  Fine, I say.  But you’d better be right.  Getting mixed up in some else’s crap is a good way to get a body killed.

With that last bit of inner commentary, I change direction and cross the street, moving toward the couple with a determined stride.


TO BE CONTINUED