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 Joseph 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.


Part II

A Dame and Her Story

 

“Hey,” I call out as I cross the empty street.  “Why don’t you leave the dame alone?”

The bruiser looks up, startled at the interruption, then his face folds into a scowl.  “Why don’t you mind your own business, mac?”  He cocks his head toward the woman.  “We’s jus’ havin’ a nice conversation.”  His smile is predatory as he looks at her.  “Ain’t we, tootes?”

The woman opens her mouth to reply, but I cut her off.  “I got no beef with you, buddy.  Just go on your way and let the dame go hers.”

“What’s this chica to you?”

“Nobody,” I shrug.  “Call me a good samaritan.”

His attention is fully back on me now.  “You got a big mouth, mac.  And you’s stickin’ your big nose where it ain’t wanted.”  A contemptuous snarl.  “Mebbe someone needs to do somethin’ about that.”  His grip on the woman’s upper arm remains, but his other hand reaches to his waistband and pulls out a Bowie knife.  The wide blade glints in the lamplight.

The woman’s eyes get wide, but I stand my ground.  “If that’s how you feel about it, bud.”  I reach inside my coat and bring out my M1892 .38 Colt.  “Seems you’ve brought a knife to a gun-fight.”  I gesture with the muzzle.  “Now be a good gent and let go of the lady’s arm, why don’t you.”  I see him calculating and a moment later he reaches a decision.

“The slut ain’t worth it.”  He shoves her away and turns to me.  “You best be watchin’ your back, mister.”

“Have a pleasant evening,” I smile back coldly.  The man glares at me a moment longer, then disappears down the street.  I wait until he’s gone and turn to the woman. 

She’s young.  Black hair hangs straight, well past her shoulders, and gleams in the lamplight with a healthy sheen.  Her eyes are dark fire, the cast of her skin olive or tanned, I can’t tell which.  A well-worn overcoat covers a simple dress of homespun, the cloth varying shades of buff and light brown.  I don’t even have a chance to open my mouth before she speaks.

“Idiota!  Pendejo!”  She hurls the words at me.  I admit that I’m a bit perplexed.  Not like I was expecting a crown of laurel or anything, but certainly not to be insulted.  My Spanish is weak, but I don’t need help translating in this case.

“Excuse me?” I reply.  “Did you not want help?”  I pause as her dark eyes flash.  “It certainly looked like you did.”

Her back straightens.  “I can handle myself.”

“That isn’t what I saw.”

“You didn’t see mi amigas, either,” she responds haughtily.  Her right hand reaches into the valley of her bosom and pulls out a short blade. 

Well, then.  Not exactly a damsel in distress.

“You said ‘amigas’,” I point out.  “Where’s the other one?”

She snorts.  “Nowhere you’re going to see if you wish to remain a man.”

So this kitten has claws.  I bring my hands up in an open gesture.  “My apologies, miss.  I was just trying to help.”  I kick myself mentally.  Should’ve known better.  This is a good reminder to keep my nose out of business that doesn’t belong to me.  Brings nothing but trouble.  Here I am thinking that I’m saving this dame from being raped and turns out I probably just saved the bruiser from getting knifed in the ribs.  Or worse.  “If you don’t care for my company, fine,” I say.  “But at least let me walk with you to your destination.”  I wave in the direction the bruiser had gone.  “These streets aren’t exactly safe this time of night.”

She considers me for a moment, then nods.  “Very well,” she replies flatly.

“Where are you heading?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she admits, quieter now.  “I only just arrived.”

“To Aphrodite?”

“To Vénus,” she replies.

Should’ve known that, too.  She has that lost look about her.

“Have you eaten?” I ask.

“No.”  Her expression softens just a little.  “I am a bit hungry.”

I glance at my pocket watch.  “I know a good diner,” I say.  “Tell you what.  I’ll treat you to a meal and you can entertain me with your story.”  I sigh inwardly: I’ll have to explain it all to Flo later.  Not that she and I are exclusive or anything--far from it.  But bringing in a young dame like this might be taken the wrong way. 

The girl nods.  “Thank you, señor.”

It takes a bit to get to Flo’s.  I introduce myself as we walk and the girl--woman, I should say--nods wordlessly but says nothing.  The diner is still open when we get there, though we’ve less than an hour before closing.  I wave to a booth and we get settled, hot tea arriving a short time later.  After our orders are taken by a waitress whose gaze lingers on my companion for a pointed instant before sliding over to me, I settle back.  “So, it’s been a long day.  Let’s hear your story.”  The young woman considers me for a moment, then begins.

“My name,” she says carefully, “is Melina Teresa Constanza Juarez.”  The night-dark flame of her eyes surges with a pulse of anger.  “And I have come to Vénus to kill a man.”

 

###

 

“My family were poor but honest sheep ranchers in the northern part of Nueva España called Santa Fé de Nuevo México.  We never had much, but mi bisabuelo--my great-grandfather, you would say--had managed to save enough to purchase our lands as a small freehold.  We were still required to pay taxes to the marqués, but the ranch was otherwise our own.”

“Marqués?” I ask.

She nods.  “The Marqués de Santa Fé de Guardiola.  He is the overlord for the entire region.  One either works on his plantations, ranches or farms as a tenant of his lands, or else pays taxes on a freehold within his realm.”

I gesture for her to continue.

“It happened when I was very little.  Our ranch is somewhat set apart, away from the main trade routes, which was one reason the marqués’ grandfather had been willing to part with it, though he demanded a high price nonetheless.

“I was the youngest of four children: Andrés, Sébastian, Bario, and me.  Three strong boys and a beautiful little girl.  My parents felt blessed and were content with their lot.  We asked nothing more than to live our lives in peace.  But that was not to be.

“As I said, I was very young--only four years old.  By then, Andrés was becoming a man, already fifteen, and our parents were beginning to talk with other families who had daughters of marriageable age.  Sébastian was eleven and Bario eight; both had begun working on the ranch to some degree.  Only I remained in the freedom of childhood.

“Within the year, my brothers would all be dead, my mother to follow them to the grave in her grief, and I would be the only child left.  Bario caught a wasting sickness that winter and never saw the spring.  Sébastian was killed by poachers, it was said, while watching over one of our flocks early that next summer.”

“What about the oldest?” I ask.

“Andrés.”  She says his name emphatically, as though daring me to forget it.  “Andrés is the reason I am here.

“Mamá had been very cross with me that day because I had torn the arm off my doll.  She had set it aside to mend it after the wash was done and had sent me to my nursery at the back of the ranch house.  I had slipped out the window and hidden myself in the hayloft of our stables instead.

“It was my secret hiding place, that corner of the loft, tucked behind the furthest bales of hay.  I had made a small hollow and secreted an old blanket, a broken saucer and a chipped teacup.  It was my sanctuary.

“I had only just settled myself when I heard someone enter the stables below.  I kept very still and very quiet, for I was afraid that Mamá had seen me and that my secret place might not be secret too much longer.  But the noises never got any closer and no one came into the loft, so I relaxed and wondered who it might be.

“My answer came a short time later, when I heard a voice speaking softly to one of the horses and I knew who the visitor was.  Andrés had a beautiful mare named Mariela that he had raised from a colt and I knew that he often visited her, sometimes sneaking her treats that Papá might not have approved of.  She was his precious child, his most dearest possession. 

“The low, affectionate murmuring was suddenly interrupted by a commotion outside.  I heard the sound of hooves and voices of a different kind.  Andrés must have stepped outside the stables, as his voice was muffled, though I could tell his tone was respectful.  There was more murmuring and the voices became clearer as the speakers entered the stable.

“‘Water for our horses,’ one imperious voice commanded, ‘and be quick about it.’

“Andrés said something I could not hear, but it seemed to satisfy the speaker.  I turned and lay over the low wall of hay that separated my sanctuary from the stables, carefully observing the unfolding scene below me.

“There were three men, all dressed quite smartly in the fashion of the day.  I remember all too well how they held themselves, their backs straight, their noses lifted ever so slightly.

“‘We will have a look at your stables in the meantime,’ one of them said.  “Perhaps one of your nags will amuse us.’  There was some mocking laughter among the gentlemen and they moved further into the stables and along the few stalls.

“Even at my young age, I recall recognizing the speaker as the youngest son of the marqués--Miguel, as I would later come to understand.  One of his companions I knew was a friend of his, a son of another local noble.  Both were in their mid-twenties.  The third man, who seemed slightly older, I did not know.  As Andrés tended to the nobles’ mounts, the gentlemen made numerous unflattering comments about the layout of our stables and the state of our horses.  It was nothing that my family hadn’t heard before.

“Their laughter quieted, however, when they reached Mariela.  The third man, who had remained mostly silent, looked over the mare with a concentrated expression.  ‘Bring this one out,’ he said.  The tone of his voice indicated that he was used to being obeyed.  Andrés’ features clouded, but he bowed his head and did as he was commanded.

“The man waited as Mariela was brought into the open.  Without a word, he walked around her, all the while examining her with a critical eye.  He ran his hand along her side, carefully and with a quiet intensity.  He felt along her neck, her jaw, examined her eyes and her teeth.  Then he stepped back again.

“‘Fine horseflesh,’ he announced.  ‘Wasted in a hovel such as this.  She will breed well.’  He tossed a small pouch at Andrés’ feet.  ‘Two hundred francs, for your trouble.’

“I may have been young, but my eyes went wide at the amount of money.  I saw Andrés’ gaze drop to the leather pouch that lay on the dirt floor of the stable and then return to meet that of the man.

“‘Excelentisimo Señor,’ he said carefully.  ‘I am humbled by your offer.’  He straightened his shoulders.  ‘But she is not for sale.’

  Most Excellent Lord, I translate in my head.  “Your brother had spine.  These were not just any nobles.”

She nods again.  “Andrés may have been a peasant’s son, but he knew when something was right or not.”  Her features cloud over.  “Served him ill, that sense did.  God in heaven seems to care little for such things.”

God cares little for anyone or anything, I respond silently.  “Please,” I say.  “Continue.”

“The third man’s expression twisted, as though he had bitten into something unpleasantly sour.  ‘Consider yourself fortunate,’ he said to my brother slowly, ‘that I offer you such recompense as this.’  A casual sweep of his hand indicated the pouch.  ‘This horse belongs in a noble’s stable, not a peasant’s hovel.’

“Andrés stood very still for what seemed forever.  Then he bowed his head.  ‘I understand, Excelentisimo Señor, but she is still not for sale.’

“Miguel, the marqués’ son, stepped forward with his arm raised to backhand my brother, but that third man waved him back.  ‘This horse is returning with me to my family’s estate on Vénus,’ he said to Andrés.  ‘Your sole choice in the matter is whether or not to accept the compensation I have so generously offered.’

“‘Excelentisimo Señor,’ Andrés replied, ‘my answer stands.’

“I saw the man’s jaw tighten, though the expression on his face did not change.  ‘I am of a forgiving nature,’ he responded, ‘and so I will allow you to keep the payment.’  He turned to his companions.  ‘Let us ride, Miguel.  I grow weary of this place.’  And he reached for Mariela’s reins.

“Something snapped within Andrés.  With a wordless cry, he lunged at the man.  A look of surprise flashed across the man’s features, but he sidestepped Andrés’ attack gracefully and my brother collided with the stable wall.  There was frenzy in his eyes when he turned around and I fought down a cry of my own when I saw his hand close around the haft of the pitchfork next to him.

“‘Your blade!’ Miguel shouted and tossed the man his sword, drawn from the scabbard that hung from his nearby mount.  The man caught it with a casualness that made my blood chill.  Andrés was far out of his depth.

“‘You have made a poor decision, my young friend,’ he stated calmly as the two of them circled one another.  My brother gripped the pitchfork in two hands now, testing the man with short, feinting thrusts.  The man, for his part, kept his eyes squarely on Andrés, the tip of his sabre making small, careful circles in the air.  Then Andrés flung himself forward, attempting to skewer the man, but his opponent swept the tines aside with the flat of his blade and in a fluid motion buried his sword in my brother’s chest.  Andrés let out a small cry and his eyes went wide before he slumped to the floor in death.

“The man gave a soft grunt as he pulled his blade free and wiped the blood from it on my brother’s body.  He picked up the pouch, gave it a glance, and tossed it on top of Andrés.  ‘I am far too generous,’ he said.  Without another word, the three of them left, taking Mariela with them.  I did not leave my hiding place for many hours, long after Andrés had been found.”

She falls silent.  I allow the quiet to sit, taking the opportunity to examine her face again.  Her dark eyes are resolute, her jaw set.  This dame means business, I think to myself.  Out loud, I reply casually, “An interesting story.  And now I presume you have come to Venus in order to find this man?”

“Yes.”

“And kill him?”

“Yes.”

“Regardless of the consequences?”

“Vengeance,” she says, her voice low, “is mine.”

“Saith the LORD,” I quote.

She gives a curt, unpleasant laugh.  “He didn’t care when Andrés died.  I have no time for Him now.”

“Your father cannot approve of this,” I observe.

“My father wanted to shut me up in a convent,” she rejoins.  “For my own safety.  I discovered he had been communicating with the Mother Superior of the Cloister of La Merced.”  She looked at me evenly.  “The sisters there take a vow of silence.”  A toss of her head.  “I took the money I had been saving and fled, first to Las Cruces, then to Hermosillo where I used most of the money I had left to buy passage to Vénus.”  She paused.  “And here I am.”

“Here you are,” I agree.

“You are un detective privado,” she says.  “I want to hire you to help me.”

“You have no money,” I point out.  “You just said you were down to your last coins.”

Her back straightens and she looks at me almost haughtily.  “I can pay you in other ways.”

I shake my head.  “You’re barely a woman.  What seventeen, eighteen years standard?”

“Nineteen,” she replies.  “My body is my own.”

I wave that away.  “Let’s just say that you and I are having a friendly conversation right now.”  I sit back.  “Aside from your intended revenge, which depends very much on you, one, finding this man and, two, being able to get close enough to him to carry out the deed, have you given any thought to, shall we say, more practical matters.  Like where you plan to sleep tonight or how you plan to eat?”

She considers me for a long moment before replying.  “My plans have been focused on escaping my fate in the cloister and getting to Vénus.”  She shrugs slim shoulders.  “I haven’t thought beyond that.”

“But now you’re on Venus,” I point out.  “And it’s late and you’re in a bitch of a city with little money and no friends and no place to stay.”

“I have you, señor.”

I snort.  “I’m no friend worth having.  Besides,” I give her a level look, “did you not threaten to castrate me less than an hour ago?”

“Perhaps I have changed my mind,” she replies.

“Perhaps I don’t care to take the chance you won’t change it again,” I counter.  She says nothing.  My gut gives another nudge.  I grimace inwardly.  My gut talks too much sometimes.  “Tell you what,” I say, the words coming out of my mouth before I have time to think about them.  “My place ain’t much, a hole-in-the-wall, actually, but I can put you up for the night if you don’t mind not having much in the way of privacy.  Then we can get you situated more permanent-like tomorrow, after I meet with my client.” 

She appears to think my proposition over, though it’s really that or the street.  She gives a small nod.  “Thank you, señor.  I am grateful for your kindness.” 

I mentally shake my head.  Sister, I tell her silently, you don’t know me from Adam.  “I must be getting soft in my old age,” I reply, which earns a smile.  I throw some coins on the table and stand.  “Come on.  It’s late and I need to sleep.”

 

###

 

We walk the handful of blocks back to my building and I let us in the front door with my key.  “I need to stop by my office first,” I explain.  Melina nods in understanding, but doesn’t reply.

We climb the stairs and go down the hall to my office door.  The lone gaslight in the hallway glows dully.  Parts of Aphrodite have been fit with electric lights, but that hasn’t come ‘round to my side of town yet.  Hell, my converted-attic apartment doesn’t even have a gas-line running to it.

I turn up the back office light so that I can see and sit at my desk without bothering to take my coat off.  The girl stands in the doorway, looking around, saying nothing.  I pull out my notebook and jot down my findings so far.  My calendar sits on my desk and I glance at it: my appointment with Madame Deschamps is at nine o’clock tomorrow morning and it’s past one already.  I need to get to sleep.

I flip my notebook closed and toss it in the desk drawer.  “Alright,” I say as I stand.  “It’s late and I’m tired.  My place is just upstairs.”

There’s a gaslight at the second-story landing of the back stairs, but nothing above that.  I make my way up the steps, more by feel and familiarity than sight, and reach the door.  A jumble of keys later, it’s open.  “Welcome to my humble digs,” I say as I reach for the box of matches I keep on the small table just inside the door.  A flame spurts to life at the end of a splinter of wood and I light the oil lamp that sits on that same table.  “Ain’t much, as I said, but it’s better than the street.”

The yellow light spills over the sparse space.  Melina looks around and sets her travel bag down on the floor.  She looks pointedly at my bed and then at me.

“No,” I reply and move to that storage closet full of crap.  “There’s an old cot in here,” I say as I open the door and pull that object out after a moment of fumbling.  “And I think we can rig you up something that you give you at least a sense of privacy.”  I pull out one of those old sheets piled on top of everything else.  “Just give me a minute.”

I manage to secure a line across the far corner of my apartment and hang the sheet from that line like a curtain.  The cot gets set up behind it, along with a narrow end table.  I light the small, spare lamp I have and give it to her.  “There you go.  Get yourself settled and we’ll deal with the rest tomorrow.  I need to get to sleep.”

She takes the lamp and goes behind the sheet.  I move the main lamp to my bedside, strip down to my skivvies, then crawl under the covers.  I blow out the light and thank whatever gods may or may not care about my existence for getting me through another day.

And then some of the consequences of this little arrangement suddenly have my undivided attention.  Melina’s lamp is still lit and she’s set it on the table nestled in the corner of that corner-space.  The cot is set against that table, angling between the two walls, leaving a small space between it and the hanging sheet where she moves about, readying for sleep.  Perfectly backlit by said lamp on said table.

She straightens, standing right in front of the sheet, her shadow crisp and clear.  Then a hand goes to her breast and I see thin shadows of drawstrings as the ties of her bodice are loosened.

She’s undressing.

I don’t need this, my brain tells me.  The dress falls to the floor, followed by another garment beneath.  She stills, her curves plainly visible.  She turns slowly and I stifle a low groan.  Oh, I most certainly need this, another part of my body answers.  She bends at the waist, into the light, allowing me an agonizingly-long moment to observe the silhouette of rounded hips before a puff of breath extinguishes the lamp.

Idiot, I tell myself.  I roll toward the wall behind me and try to erase that vision from my memory.

 

###

 

I wake into the dull light of Venusian morning and the familiar ache of living.  As I roll over onto my side, I’m momentarily confused by the hanging sheet shielding the far corner of my apartment before I remember my houseguest.  “Miss?” I call out as I sit up.  “You might want to remain behind the sheet for a moment while I dress.”  I’m half expecting a biting remark, but she says nothing.  I get out of my bed and go about my morning routine.

It takes me a few minutes to shave and dress.  I refrain from rushing, but I don’t dawdle either.  I mentally review my morning schedule.  After I deal with my rather robust client, it will be time to find a certain wayward young woman proper lodgings.  How those lodging would be paid for, I haven’t figured out just yet.  There’s a hostel run by the Sisters of Divine Grace in this part of Aphrodite.  The girl will probably balk at nuns, given what she was running from, but pickins are slim and beggars can’t be choosers, as they say.

“Miss,” I call out again as I glance at my pocket watch.  Crap.  It’s just past nine o’clock now.  How had I slept so late?  Must be old age getting to me.  “You can come out now.”  She still says nothing.  I’m getting fed up with her attitude already and so I step over to the hanging sheet, propriety be damned.

She’s not there.

The cot is neatly made and her bag lay beneath it.  A few personal items--a hairbrush, a hand mirror, an embroidery kit, and a small notebook--are arranged neatly on the pillow.  Her overcoat is absent, however.

I glance over to my bureau and curse.  My keys and my billfold are gone.  You gullible sap, my brain snaps at me.  Look what you let yourself open to.

Glaring at her belongings as though this were their fault, I puzzle through the possibilities.  If she’d meant to rob me, leaving her things behind made no sense.  But in that case, why run off with my d’argent?  And my keys...of what use could they be to her?  I reach for the notebook, presuming it to be a diary of some kind, but stop as my fingers touch the binding.  No--there are places I’m willing to go and places I’m not.  And something tells me to not go here.

Since she’s left her things, I can only presume she’ll be returning.  Fine.  But we’re going to have a little chat when she does.  In the meantime, I’ve got to face Madame Deschamps and give her an update on the hunt for her family heirloom.

I reach into the cabinet above the sink in my kitchenette and pull out a small tin, which I tip to one side to allow my spare keys to tumble into my open palm.  Not going to leave my door unlocked, in any event.  And I need to get into my office after all.

I mutter under my breath as I head down the steps to the second floor, wondering how much of a monkey wrench this girl is going to throw into my plans to catch a mid-morning train to Adonopolis so that I can follow up on that lead from the auction house before that other party can get into the act.  I reach the landing and step into the hall, locking the door behind me by reflex before I stop short.

The door to my office is ajar.  I see shadows on the sliver of wall beyond and hear the low murmur of conversation.

I set my jaw and slide my hand toward my piece as I nudge the door open with my foot, preparing for a rumble with whoever it is on the other side.  The door swings open.

The escritoire in the vestibule has a notepad sitting on it, loose, flowing script covering perhaps half the page.  Off to one side, a small burner with a low flame sits beneath a ceramic support holding a metal coffee pot.  The aroma of fresh roast fills the air.

The inner door to my main office is open as usual.  The voluptuous volume of Madame Deschamps, garbed in different but equally-garish fabric shifts in the chair and her rounded features turn toward me.  The chair creaks and strains, but withstands the assault on its structure.  A cup of steaming liquid, dark and rich, is held in her hand.

“Monsieur Phillips,” she smiles brightly.  “Your new secretary was just saying that you were delayed slightly this morning and bid me to wait.”  The woman lifts her cup.  “She prepares excellent chikrey, I must confess.”

New secretary?  I step through the inner door and look about.  My eyes come to rest on the far side of my office and I see Melina standing there.  She looks at me squarely.  “Señor,” she says, “I saw that some of your office supplies were running low, so I took the liberty of replenishing your stocks.  You will find the balance of the funds and receipts of the purchases I made in your top drawer.”  She nods to my client.  “I will leave you to your business now.”  With that, she steps past me and shuts the door, leaving me with Madame Deschamps.

“A most efficient young woman,” my client observes, taking a sip from her cup.  “Wherever did you find her?”

“You’d be surprised,” I comment, then to myself: “I certainly have been.”  I gather scattered wits and step around to the far side of my desk, settling myself into the desk chair.  Very quietly, I slid the top drawer of my desk open: sitting there, plain as day, are my billfold, keys, and a small collection of receipts.  I slid the drawer closed again and look up at the woman sitting across from me.  “I have some news to report, Madame Deschamps, and also a few follow-up questions.”

Flesh wobbles with a nod.  “Of course.”

“First, the updates,” I begin.  “I have traced your dress to an auction house here in Aphrodite.”  The woman’s face begins to light up, but I shake my head.  “However, it appears that your grandmother’s dress has already been bought at auction and possession taken by the new owner.”

Disappointment clouds the fleshy features, but I hold my hand up.  “But,” I say, “I have ascertained the identity of the new owner and will be travelling to Adonopolis to make contact with him in an effort to reacquire the dress, as you have requested.”

“Adonopolis?”

“Yes,” I say.  “It seems that the purchaser is associated with a certain museum.”

“Fascinating.”  She takes another drink from her cup.  “I do hope that you will be able to persuade this establishment to part with my family heirloom.  As I indicated, I am willing to pay a good amount of my husband’s money.”

“I will make every effort,” I assure her.  “However, there is one other matter which has come to my attention.”

“Yes?”

“There appears to be another party also interested in your grandmother’s dress,” I say carefully.  “Can you tell me anything about that?”

“Another party?”  She looks flustered.  “I’m sure I don’t know.  Why would anyone else wish to acquire that dress?”

“That is my question exactly, madame,” I reply.  “Yet the proprietor of the auction house told me quite plainly that another person had been there not long before me, asking of the whereabouts of the same item.”

“Astonishing,” she responds.  “I cannot imagine why.”

“Can you think of anything at all?” I ask.  “Any occasion where another person might have shown an interest?”

Madame Deschamps frowns in concentration, then her eyes widen.  “Oh dear,” she says with a look of surprise.  “I do believe there once one such instance.”

I nod for her to continue.  “It was the day after I’d returned from visiting ma cousine and discovered my husband’s foolishness,” she explains.  “I was distraught and my friends suggested we have tea and brunch so that I might get out of the house.  As I was telling my lady friends about my misfortune, a man who had been sitting at a nearby table approached us.”

Interesting, I think to myself.  Likely overheard something, but what interest could there be in an old dress?

“He was very apologetic for interrupting, but explained that he was a scholar who specialized in the era of the Empire’s formation and was he correct in understanding that my grandmother was the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes?  I confirmed that was indeed so and one reason why the loss of my family heirloom was so terribly vexing.  He was most sympathetic to my plight and wished for my success in its recovery.  Then he departed the cafe.  I had never given the incident further thought until now.”

“Thank you, madame,” I tell her.  “That is something, at least.”

I stand as my client heaves herself to her feet and I silently admire the robust construction of the delicate-looking batonette she uses to assist her in that effort.  As if I need a reminder that appearances can be deceiving.

Stepping around my desk, I escort Madame Deschamps to through the vestibule to the outer office door.  “I will be in contact with you,” I tell her.  “Once I’ve returned from Adonopolis, I can update you on the situation and what arrangements I’ve been able to make, if any.”

The woman nods fleshily.  “I must say, Monsieur Phillips, that you have surprised me.”  My eyebrows rise in an unspoken question and she answers candidly.  “Marguerite painted you as something of a callous ruffian--uncouth but effective, I believe were her words.  I cannot say that I agree.”

“You have found my services less than effective?” I ask.

She shakes her head, her jowls wobbling.  “You are most effective, monsieur.  But you are not the cad you pretend to be.”  With that enigmatic observation, she leaves.

The door clicks shut.  I stare at it for several minutes as the slow creaking of hallway floorboards recedes, followed by a more distant creaking of stairs.  I turn abruptly.

Melina flinches, as if bracing for the onslaught.  That onslaught doesn’t come.  I look at her levelly.  She looks back at me, her dark eyes defiant.

“What the hell,” I say slowly, “is this about a new secretary?”

 Her spine straightens.  “You did not take me last night.”  I frown in confusion, not connecting the dots.  “I displayed myself for you and still you did not take me to your bed.”

The pieces click.  The lamp.  The shadow-play on the sheet.  She had done that on purpose.  I wave the point aside impatiently.

“Not my style, doll.”  I don’t make the observation about being unsure of retaining my manhood--this dame blows hot and cold damn quick.  “But what, exactly, does that have to do with anything?”

“The señora is not wrong.”  She nods toward the door behind me.  “You are a better man than you show.”

“That’s not an answer to my question.”

Melina holds her hands in an open gesture.  “I have no money, no place to stay.  I need someone to find this man so that I may kill him and avenge my brother.  You will not take my body as payment, even though I offer it to you.”

“So?” Impatience bleeds into my voice.

“So I work for you.”  She shakes her head slowly.  “You are a good man, Señor Phillips, but your life is a mess.  You can use a secretary.”  A dry chuckle.  “And a housekeeper.”  She looks at me, her gaze even.  “My family had me educated at the mission school.  I can write letters, run errands, keep books.  I help you.  You help me.”

I let out a long, slow breath.  This dame has serious brass.  Another minute passes and we just stare at one another.  Saying nothing, I walk back into my office, retrieving my billfold and keys from the desk drawer.   I return to the office door, open it, and gesture into the hallway.  “Come on,” I tell her.  “Let’s go pack.”

For the first time since I’d met her, I see apprehension in her eyes.  “You are telling me to leave?” she asks.

“No,” I correct her.  “Not that.  We’ve a train to Adonopolis to catch.”

Her fear vanishes.  “So you accept the bargain?  You will help me?”

“I will think about it,” I counter.  “But I obviously cannot leave you here or kick you out on the street.  Who knows what sort of trouble you’d get into.  Or what you might do to my office while I’m gone.”  I give a small smile.  “If you cleaned it all up, how would I find anything?”

Her eyes drop, but only for a moment before finding mine again.  “Thank you, Señor Phillips,” she says quietly.

I point my finger at her.  “And that’s another thing--we drop this ‘Señor Phillips’ shtick when we’re alone.  I’m Nick and you’re Mel.  Got it?”

A smile touches her determined mouth.  “Yes...Nick.”

 

###

 

Dames mean trouble, my brain reminds me.  Nothin’ but misery and trouble.

Don’t get me wrong.  A sweet lookin’ dame is a treat for the eyes.  And as for the other part...well, Flo and me, we’ve got ourselves an arrangement that gets us each what we need to fight our respective demons.  But it’s just that--an arrangement.  Arm’s length.  No strings.

Let a dame close, that’s bad business.  Let a dame into your heart, that just askin’ for pain.  I’ve done that once too often, had to pick up the shattered bits and try to put something that resembled a life back together.  Never again.

Never.  Again.

Mel is quiet during our short cab ride to the train station, probably not wanting to jinx any chance that I’d be fool enough to follow up on this cockamamie idea.  A secretary?  Nuts.  Perfectly good with my life as it is, thank you.

We reach the station and I purchase our tickets at the counter.  The train pulls in two minutes ahead of schedule, so we go ahead and board.  I pick an empty passenger cabin at random and we settle ourselves in facing seats, my valise and Mel’s travel bag going on the rack overhead.  I had packed a change of clothes and my toilet kit, just in case.  And I’d asked Mel to bring her bag, leaving most of her possessions behind in my apartment, on the off chance we were able to secure possession of the dress.  From Madame Deschamps’ description, the size looked about right.  Plus, I had a feeling that we might need alternatives.  Not sure why--there was nothing definite.  Only that same sixth or seventh sense that had kept me alive on more than one occasion.

I hear the conductor’s cry and a moment later, the train begins to move.  No other passengers have intruded on our cabin, so Mel and I have the space to ourselves.  I’m not displeased by this, as I have some questions to ask.

“So, tell me about this man you seek,” I say, breaking the silence between us.  The steady clacking of the train wheels forms a rhythmic backdrop.  Mel’s eyebrows rise sharply.

“You will help me find him then?”

“As I said,” I reply, “I am considering the arrangement you proposed.  Before I decide to take on a case, I like to get as much background information as possible.”  Not to mention, I think quietly, if I can redirect her energies elsewhere, perhaps I can save her from this path of revenge.  A mocking voice in the back of my brain chides: Save?  You’re losing your grip, old man.  What’s this chica to you?  Shut up, I tell the voice, and mind your own damn business.

“I’ve told you the story,” she replies.  “There’s not much more to say.”

“You seem to have a good recollection of those events,” I point out.  “Can you describe this man at all?”  It has been a good fifteen years or so, from Mel’s chronology, but certain aspects of a person don’t change. 

She nods slowly.  “I can see him even now.”  She closes her eyes and speaks in a low voice, intensely calm.  “He has intelligent, green eyes, like the fresh shoots of spring grass.  His hair is dark as night, like the black of his soul.”  I don’t interrupt and bite off a comment that the nature of his soul is hardly relevant.  “He has sharp features, high cheekbones, and a handsome nose.  His face is well-formed, his jaw strong, and he has a lean build.”  Not a whole lot to work with here.  I’m about to point out that such a description could be any of a considerable number of gentlemen of the Franco-Spanish nobility when she continues.  “And the upper portion of his left ear is missing.”

The expression on my face freezes and a surge of memory nearly a quarter-century old shoots through my body like an electric current.  I’m on my back in the grass, staring up into an unusually clear Philadelphia sky.  My left shoulder is on fire, the pain following in the wake of the bullet’s passage through muscle and sinew cresting over my awareness in unforgiving waves, but that agony paling in comparison to the shattering of my heart.  The narrow face, with intelligent, green eyes and sharp, aristocratic features leaning over me as he holds a cloth bandage to the side of his head where my own bullet had just taken the tip of his left ear.  The look of supreme satisfaction in his expression as the woman I had loved cried out his name and ran to his side.  

I manage to regain my composure, settling a mask of bland curiosity into place just before she opens her eyes again.  “Does that help?” she asks.  “Do you know of such a man?”

“No one I can think of at the moment,” I reply.


Part III

A Dress and Its Secret

 

We reach Adonopolis several hours later, pulling into the station shortly after half-past two o’clock.  I take the valise down from the luggage rack, hand Mel her traveling-bag and let her precede me from the passenger cabin.  A few shuffling steps later, we disembark the train and find ourselves standing on the platform amid the flowing throngs of people coming and going beneath the arch of the station’s pavilion high overhead.

“What now?” Mel asks as she glances around.

“There’s an information booth down the way,” I reply.  “Adonopolis is the primary gateway into the British Concession from Aphrodite and this region of Venus generally, so there’s a good amount of tourist and business traffic because of that.”

Mel points past the flow of pedestrians toward a knot of people standing before a counter further along the back of the platform.  “Would that be the booth you are talking about over there?”

“Yes,” I nod approvingly.  “You have sharp eyes.”  I start walking.  “Let’s see if someone can tell us where this museum is.”

We thread our way, angling toward the counter Mel had indicated.  The cluster of people clears before we reach it, which is just fine by me.

“May I help you?” the woman behind the counter inquires as we approach.  She’s somewhat older than Mel, perhaps in her later twenties, pretty in a plain kind of way.

“We have only just arrived,” I answer, stating the obvious like any tourist would, “and I would like to use our time here to further the education of my young charge.”  I make a brief gesture toward Mel with my free hand.  “Would there be any particular cultural or educational venues that might be appropriate for a young lady?”  I hope that last bit does the trick.  It’s always better to have information offered to you than to ask for it outright.  Among other things, people tend to remember occurrences of the latter much better than the former.  And in my business, the less remembered you are, the more likely you are to stay alive.

The woman’s gaze flickers over to Mel momentarily before coming back to me.  “I can most certainly help you, sir,” she responds.  “There are any number of suitable exhibits which might address your needs.”  She pulls a piece of stationary from below the counter and takes a pen in hand.  Then as she begins to write, she rattles off a list of several establishments, but none of which are the one we are looking for.  I nod along, feigning interest and trying to decide how to get our target on that list.  Her pen hesitates for just a moment and she adds, almost as an afterthought, “-- and oh, yes, there’s the Worthington Museum of Culture and Vestments, a peculiar but delightful exhibit which your charge might enjoy.”

She hands the paper to me and I take it with an affirmative nod.  Glancing over it quickly, I see the list she had mentioned along with the address of each establishment, all given in neat, concise script.  I nod again and look back at the clerk.

“I am grateful for your assistance, miss,” I say respectfully.  “This is precisely what I needed.”

“You are most welcome, sir,” she replies and shifts her attention to someone else approaching the counter.  Mel and I step aside to make room and look over the list once again.

“There’s a city map here at the station,” I tell her.  “Let’s get oriented.”

We step through the archway leading from the platform into the station proper.  In the center of the open hall stands a large display board, with a map of the city affixed to each side.  Various people gather, in small clusters or solo, peruse the map briefly, then drift away again.  Mel and I come up to one of the maps and after a few minutes of examination, we locate our intended destination.

“Let’s take a cab,” I suggest.  Judging from the map, the museum is on the edge of walking distance, but I’m wanting to make the best use of our time and I also don’t know what time-schedule that other party is working on.  The sooner we make contact with the museum’s management, the better our chances will be.  Besides, Madame Deschamps has made her willingness to pay out her husband’s funds quite clear and I have no reason to skimp on that expense report.

Mel nods in agreement and a short time later, we find ourselves outside the station entrance, streetside with the flow of cabs depositing and picking up passengers.  I flag one down and hold the door open for Mel, before giving the driver an intersection one block away from the museum and settling myself in the cab seat.  The driver nudges the four-legged orla forward and we slide into the wheeled traffic of Adonopolis.

“Do you have a plan?” Mel asks once we’re underway.

 I shrug my shoulders.  “A general one,” I reply.  “I’ve found that in this business, it’s usually better to keep your options open rather than stick to a rigid plan.”  I give Mel a knowing look.  “Tends to keep a body alive longer.”

Mel says nothing, but nods slowly.

The orla clicks along the pavement and a few minutes of silence pass.  For some reason, I open my mouth again.  “Madame Deschamps has authorized me to act as her agent in reacquiring her grandmother’s dress,” I explain.  “My plan, such as it is, is to approach the museum’s management in that capacity and see what arrangement I might be able to make.”

Mel considers that for a moment.  “What if the museum won’t sell?” she asks.  “Regardless of the price?”

“In that case,” I reply, “we’ll have to consider alternative methods.”

I don’t explain that any further.  Mel doesn’t reply and we ride in silence for another quarter hour or so before I feel the cab begin to slow and drift over to the edge of the street.  The driver brings us to a halt and announces, “Her’ y’go, good sir.”

I step from the cab, holding the door for Mel again, and pay the driver.  He takes the coins, nods in thanks for the tip, and pulls back into traffic, leaving Mel and I on the walk.  Without being too obvious about it, I quickly take in the scene and assess our surroundings.  We’re somewhere near the business district, that much is apparent, but certainly nowhere near its heart.  There are some very modest shops lining both sides of the street, reasonably well-kept though not terribly prosperous-looking.  Further down the block, on the far corner of the next intersection, I can make out a sign boldly proclaiming “The Worthington Museum of Culture & Vestments” in overly-ornate lettering.  The remaining corners of that intersection are occupied by a small cafe, an inn, and a collection of business offices of some kind.

Mel gives me a questioning look and I nod in reply.  “Let’s go see if Mr. Worthington is willing to deal,” I say as the two of us start down the walk.

Both foot and vehicle traffic are light, though neither is entirely absent and the foot traffic is perhaps the more substantial of the two.  Other pedestrians pass us, or move in parallel on the other side of the street, periodically entering or exiting from one shop or another.  Occasionally, a cab rolls past, the claws of the orla clicking on the roadway. 

We just reach the intersection and are about to step into the street-crossing that led to the museum when I suddenly halt and abruptly turn back toward the way we’d come.

“What’s the matter?” Mel asks, obviously puzzled.

I don’t look at her as I reply, but pretend to examine the display window of the shop next to us.  “That man coming up the walk to the museum,” I say quietly.  “He’s the representative of that other party who’s been inquiring about the dress.”

Mel looks past my shoulder briefly to take the man in but doesn’t allow her gaze to linger.  “What now?” she asks.  “He’s reached the museum entrance.”

Damn.  “He knows me,” I tell her, “which rather complicates things.  If we end up using alternative methods to retrieve the dress, I need to not be remembered.”

“Let me go in” Mel replies.  Her eyes shift to mine.  “He may know you, but he doesn’t know me.  Perhaps I can overhear something useful.”  She smiles innocently.  “I can be just another wandering tourist.”

I give her plan a quick once-over and find no obvious flaws.  “Go,” I reply.  “I’ll wait for you at the cafe on the other corner.  Come there when you’re done and we’ll talk.”

Mel nods and steps past me into the crosswalk.  I cross the other street, making my way toward the cafe.  When I reach the cafe entrance, I give a quick glance over my shoulder to see Mel stepping into the museum and its door closing behind her.  I grunt to myself.  Despite my reservations, I observe silently, if that girl is trying to prove her worth to me, she’s doing a damn good job of it.

I find a table by a window that looks toward the museum, order some tea, and settle in to wait.  My thoughts immediately go to the puppeteer whose hands hold the strings directing my counterpart who’s already beat me to the punch with Worthington.

Why? I ask myself.  Why such a focused interest in this dress?  A dozen ideas present themselves, each less plausible than its predecessor, and I shake my head.  This effort makes no sense for a politico like that.  But if I know anything about the man, it’s that nothing is done without a potential for pay-off, either in terms of wealth or power, preferably both.  The fact that he’s expending this much effort says that he believes there to be such a reward in the offing. 

I review what I know of the goings-on in the political scene these days, but nothing jumps out at me as a likely candidate.  With the exhibition done and the shiny new twentieth century now underway, the only other major event on the horizon is Fat King Louis’ ruby jubilee coming up in another year, celebrating forty years of his pompous ass on the Franco-Spanish throne.  At seventy-one years standard, his health was still decent, though no one expects him to outlive the decade.  The eldest son, Juan-François, was in his mid-forties and perfectly capable of taking over as king once Louis keeled over.  Of course, when that did occur, it would mark the first true transfer of the united Franco-Spanish throne.  Louis’ ascension had to be orchestrated still, as his parents had each been rulers of separate kingdoms in their own right.  When Alphonse had died back in 1861, the young man had inherited the Spanish throne, but not the French, which was still held by his mother.  Louise had chosen to abdicate in favor of her son so that rule of the new empire might pass to Louis-Antonio intact.  From what I understand, she’d spent her remaining days in seclusion at a convent in the north of France.

All very interesting, if one happens to be a four-eyed bookworm or a snooty courtier, but nothing relevant to a wayward dress that I can see.  So what am I missing?     

No answers come to me and I sit staring at nothing in particular, keeping tabs on the museum entrance with my peripheral vision.   The server returns and I tell him I’m still waiting for another to join me, but order an appetizer of croissants and a spicy spread to keep him happy.  Across the street, I see the door open and the man emerge.  He looks neither right nor left, but immediately makes his way down the walk, in the direction from which he’d come.  More time passes, perhaps another fifteen minutes, and the door opens again.  Mel steps into the frame of the doorway, accompanied by an older gentleman I take to be Mr. Worthington.  They say a few words and part, Mel crossing the street towards the cafe and the man disappearing back into the museum.

Minutes later, Mel reaches the cafe, finds me, and takes a seat at the table.  The server materializes immediately and Mel opts for a glass of water.  I wait until the server delivered her request and stepped away again, then raise an eyebrow.  “Well?”

“Mr. Worthington is a sweet man who loves the past,” she replies as she reaches for the small basket of croissants.  “His museum is small but very informative.”

I say nothing but give her a look that plainly expresses my desire for her to get on with it.  She smiles in response.  “When I entered, the man was already in Mr. Worthington’s office, so I sat in the chair just outside the closed door and waited.  The entrance hall is a very small lobby and there’s a low gate separating it from the main part of the museum.”

“Were you able to hear anything?”

Mel nods.  “A bit.  From the sound of it, the man was negotiating for the purchase of something--the dress, I would suppose--though Mr. Worthington seemed most reluctant.  I couldn’t make out the figure that was agreed to, but from Mr. Worthington’s expression when they emerged, the final price must have been a good amount.”

She pauses and takes a bite, obviously savoring both the flaky bread and the moment.  “The other left right away--I don’t think either of them noticed me sitting there.  M. Worthington started a bit when he turned around after closing the front door.”

Now we’re getting to it.  I lean forward.  “And then?”

“After he recovered from his surprise, he naturally inquired who I might be and if he could be of assistance.  I explained that I was visiting the city and, having some spare time before meeting a friend for lunch, noticed the museum and was curious about its collection.  His response was most enthusiastic, particularly when I produced the shilling to cover my admission fee, and he offered a guided tour.”

Okay, so I’d spoken a bit too soon.  We weren’t quite there yet.  I motion for Mel to continue.

“The tour didn’t take very long.  The museum is pleasant, but quite small.  There was a nice collection of ladies’ gowns from various periods of history.  I was able to use that.”

“How?” I ask.

“As we moved through the exhibits, I mentioned that I’d always loved pictures I’d seen of the gowns from Queen Louise’s court.

“‘Oh my dear,’ Mr. Worthington said.  “I have only recently acquired a gown of that very vintage, though I am afraid that I shall never exhibit it.’

“‘Why ever not?’ I asked him

“Mr. Worthington wrung his hands agitatedly.  ‘A private collector has offered me a princely sum for that gown and I cannot in good faith turn down such an incredible offer that would provide this museum with much-needed funds.’   He frowned.  ‘The collector’s agent will be taking possession of the gown tomorrow.’”

Mel takes another bite of her croissant and I reflect on this bit of information while she chews.  A princely sum.  Again, what am I missing here?  There’s something about this dress that just doesn’t smell right.

“I asked if I might be able to view the gown and Mr. Worthington agreed.  ‘Absolutely, my dear!’ he said.  ‘Come into my office.’  And that’s where we went.  The dress was there, partially unpacked from its storage box and carefully draped over a small table.  I made a show of examining it and expressed my gratitude for his kindness.  He then escorted me from the office to the front door and I came here.”

Well, I think to myself, this doesn’t leave much in the way of options  “It appears,” I say carefully, “that we are going to have to employ alternative means after all.”

Mel surprises me by nodding.  “I thought so.  In the office, there is a main window facing the main street that seems very well-secured.  However, high up on an adjacent wall is a much smaller window which overlooks the side street.  I noticed that window would shift when the office door was opened or shut.  A broken latch, I think.  It would be a tight fit, but perhaps large enough for a man to squeeze through.”

My eyebrows rise of their own accord and I consider the young woman sitting across from me for a long moment.  In spite of things, I keep finding myself considerably impressed.

“Good work,” I reply with an appreciative nod and lift an arm to summon our server.  “Let’s have dinner.  Then we can plan our next steps.”

 

###

 

The meal is good and I give a mental nod of thanks to Monsieur Deschamps for providing the funds for it.  We leave the cafe and head to the inn I’d spotted earlier.  I’m already working through how I might be able to use the information Mel had gathered from her casing of the museum.  We need to get our hands on that dress tonight.

The front door of the inn opens into a small lobby with a tired atmosphere.  The carpet and sitting chairs are worn but presentable and a bored-looking man of some indeterminate middle-age sits behind the counter.  He looks up as we approach.

“Can I help you?” he asks, the politeness of the words somewhat offset by the disinterest evident in his tone.

I straighten my spine and put on my best bourgeois snob expression.  “We require a room for the night,” I say.

The man’s eyes slide from me to Mel and back to me, his eyebrows lifting slightly and his mouth curving into a suggestive smirk.  I make an effort to appear affronted and glare at the little snot.  It seems effective, as he glances away and pulls out a ledger.

“A room is eight shillings, ten for double occupancy,” he says in that bland tone.  “Sign here.”  The open ledger slides at me.

“Outrageous,” I mutter, still putting on a show, but I sign in a hasty--and conveniently illegible--scrawl.  “I expect a city view in that case.”

“Room 306,” the man replies.  “With a nice street view across the way.”  He pulls the ledger back and places a brass key on the counter.  “Checkout is ten o’clock in the morning.”

“We’ll be departing well before then,” I respond as I pick up the key and place the required coins on the counter.

“Then place the key in the deposit here,” the clerk responds, indicating a small box with a narrow slot in the top.  “There’s no desk service before eight o’clock in the mornin’ or after nine in the evenin’ and the doors get locked then.  Your key will open the front door, should you be out.”

I nod and turn, heading toward the stairwell at the far end of the lobby with Mel trailing behind.  We climb to the third and topmost floor and find our room.  As I open the door and glance around inside, I give a grunt of satisfaction.  The window on the far wall provides a nice view of the street and the museum.  Exactly what we need. 

The door clicks shut behind me and I glance back toward the sound.  Mel stands just inside the entrance, her travel bag held before her.  Almost demurely, if a person didn’t know better.  I gesture toward the double bed set against the left-hand wall as I move to the far corner and pull a tired-looking armchair closer to the window.  “Have a seat and get comfortable,” I tell her.  “We’re going to be waiting for a bit.”

She does as I suggest, sitting against the headboard on the near side of the bed, her bag finding a place on the floor.  The only other furniture in the small room is a two-drawer bureau and a narrow bedside table.  I settle myself in the armchair and pull aside a thinning drape to afford a better view.  Neither of us says anything for a good while.

No one has turned on the one electric light that hangs from the ceiling and as dusk gathers over the streetscape outside, our room slowly sinks into shadow.  After a time, the streetlights come on and the faint edge of their efforts reach through the window, offering a ghostly illumination.  I can see the museum office window across the street, a bright yellow rectangle against shadowed brick.

“What would you be doing with your life,” I ask, keeping my eyes on the museum, “if you were not hunting your brother’s killer?”

There’s no answer.  I wait for a minute longer, allowing the silence to sit, before I turn my head.  Mel’s dark eyes examine me intently.

“What do you mean by that, Nick?” she asks quietly.

“Exactly what it sounds like I mean,” I reply.  “If Andrés were still alive--perhaps your other two brothers, too--where would you be now?”  I pause for a moment.  “Surely, that thought has crossed your mind?”

Mel doesn’t reply.  Her eyes slide from me to the deepening darkness beyond the window.  “I do not waste time on that which cannot be.”

Hard to argue.  “Fair enough,” I say.  “But humor me, in this case.”

She inhales a full breath, then exhales slowly.  “I suppose that by now, I’d be married to a son of one of the local ranching families, with at least one little niño or niña and more on the way.”

I nod at that.  “And what do you expect to do when you’ve finished this task you’ve set for yourself?”

Mel’s gaze comes back to me.  “Once I have completed my task,” she replies, “I expect to die.  One does not slay a noble and walk away unscathed.”

She has a clear understanding of the stakes, at least.  “You know this and yet persist.”

“My life,” she says carefully, “is my own, for me to do with as I see fit.”

I don’t have an answer to that and turn my attention back to the streetscape below.  A shadow moves in the bright yellow rectangle of the museum office window, then the light winks out.  I nod toward the glass pane.  “It appears that Mr. Worthington is finally closing up shop for the night,” I observe.  “We’ll give him a few minutes to clear out before I go.”

“You will find the man I seek?”  Mel’s voice is an intense kind of soft, like a velvet fire.  “You will help me, Nick?”

I stand.  Time to get to work.  “Yes,” I reply as I pull my fedora down low over my eyes.  “I’ll help you.”

 

###

 

I descend the tired stairs to the lobby.  The desk clerk has already disappeared for the night, apparently, even though the clock on the wall shows a quarter to nine yet.  Hard to blame a body for padding the time-card when no one’s looking.  Not like I haven’t done it.

The room key is nestled in my pocket and I pull it out to check it in the front door, just to be certain.  The clerk hadn’t lied--the key worked--but it’s always good to be sure.  Especially since I’m heading out for a grab-job.  A man does what he needs to do and having a clear path of retreat is just good planning.

The night is still wet as I step from the inn, but no rainfall sounds on the arched roadway covering.  I was ready to get a bit damp tonight, but if it isn’t necessary then I ain’t gonna complain, either.  I cross the intersection and move down the side street past the museum, glancing back toward the inn and scanning the rows of windows as I do so.  All are dark--either the inn isn’t doing much business or else everyone’s to bed, though I suspect the first.  A movement of curtain in the top row catches my eye.  I’d told Mel to stay put, which she’d not been happy about.  Looks like she’s taken my seat at the window, though, which gives her a good view of the streets below.  Keeping watch.  I’m really starting to like this girl.

The side of the museum is guarded by a brick wall maybe ten feet high, set just a bit back from the public walk.  A dense row of shrubbery provides some ornamentation.  The brickwork is clean, regular, and in good repair, so I move around to the alley running along the back.

The natural vanity of human nature doesn’t disappoint.  As I suspect, while the more visible faces of the building had been kept up, the hidden side is far less so.  The featureless brick wall at the rear of the museum is in rather poor repair, the brickwork here pitted and crumbling in many places.  A narrow alley separates that building from an office next door.  The rough wall offers hand and toe holds and neighboring wall is close enough that I can brace myself against it with a little bit of work.  I stuff the pillowcase I’d taken from our room into my coat pocket, pull my fedora so that it’s snug on my head, and start up the wall.

I’m no young buck anymore, that’s for damn sure.  The evening’s rain has settled into a fine mist, so I’m only slightly damp rather than soaked by the time I reach the rooftop.  I’m far more winded than I would have been not too many years ago.  Got to wonder how much longer I can keep this crap up.

It seems that the museum has a second floor, most likely for storage, as no windows show that I have seen.  Given that the small window I was hoping to use to gain entry services a first floor office, this extra story might present some difficulties, but I decide to cross that bridge when I get to it.  Crouching low on the level rooftop, I scan my surroundings for any immediate obstacles, but only the shadowed slate shows itself and I move cautiously to the edge overlooking the side street.

Peering over while keeping my profile low, I can just make out the frame of that window Mel had spotted from inside the office.  Set high in the wall, as she’d mentioned, it was nonetheless a good story below me.  A narrow ledge of decorative brick runs along that side of the museum, however, a short distance below that window.  With a bit of luck, I might be able to drop to it without breaking my fool neck.  Of course, getting back to the roof so as to descend into the alley again is not going to be an option, so I consider my alternatives.

That brick wall running along the side street is about five feet or so from the building, carving off what looks like a small courtyard.  The gap is jumpable, I think, from that ledge by the window.  If I can get to the top of that brick wall, then I can drop down to the walk below and get back to the inn before anyone’s the wiser.  That’s the theory, anyway.  I look up and down the streets, but the coast is clear.

Well, my fool neck remains unbroken and I drop to that ledge after hanging myself from the eave.  The window is loose--a broken latch, as Mel had suspected.  It’s just large enough for me to squirm through with a small amount of effort and a few moments later, I find myself standing in Mr. Worthington’s office, the pale light of the street lamps offering the only illumination.

The dress is where Mel described it to be and I waste no time in admiration.  The pillowcase comes out of my coat pocket and the dress is folded and stuffed into it.  I take a few moments to trash the place, pulling out drawers and dumping contents onto the floor, taking a few things here and there.  It would be best if the loss of the dress were folded into the story of an ordinary robbery.  I feel a small pang of pity for Mr. Worthington but shove it aside.  Business is business and it’s my neck at the end of the day.  The fewer links there are back to any case I’m working on, the better.  

A few minutes later, I’m back outside that window and manage to jump to the top of the brick wall.  Quickly, I drop from the top of the wall to the ground just behind the low shrubbery, the dress bundled within the pillowcase like a sack.  Once I’m across the street, I’m home-free.  My own damn fault, I guess, anticipating that particular chick before the egg is hatched.  Because I no sooner begin to step from the cover of the shrubs when I hear soft whistling coming from down the block to my left.

I freeze, then slowly pull my foot back into shadow.  Through the low foliage, I see a British bobby making his way along the walk, heading right toward my location.  Of all the crap luck.  Another five minutes in either direction and I’d have been scot-free.  As it is, there’s no way he isn’t going to spot me in the bushes once he gets close and I’ve got nowhere to go, with the wall to my back.  My mind races, trying to find a way to explain the dress bundled up in the pillowcase on the ground next to me.  The bobby’s only a few paces away.

I open my mouth, having decided that my only recourse was to bluff my way through and that taking the initiative by revealing my presence was better than having him discover me.  My hail dies in my throat, though, when I hear a cry from across the street.

“Policía!”

My eyes cut to movement in the doorway of the inn where Mel had apparently been hiding and my heart skips a beat as I see her dart from the shadows toward the constable.  The man stops in his tracks, his attention fully on the young woman.  I give a small sigh of relief at my reprieve, but watch with growing wariness as she reaches the bobby, whose expression is clearly one of concern.

“Miss!” the constable says, “Wha’ are you doin’ out in these streets this time o’ night?”

Mel's hands clutch one another nervously and she begins to babble a stream of broken English.  “Oh, Señor, I lost myself.  My guardián, he be so upset!”  She looks around nervously, then to the man, her eyes pleading.  “Can help find me home?”

The constable’s frown melts away and the places a reassuring hand on Mel's arm.  “I can do that, miss.  You jus’ come with me down to the station and we’ll see if we canno’ find your guardian.”

Mel looks at the man for a moment, as if she’s trying to translate what he said, then her face breaks into a grateful smile.  “Yes,” she nods vigorously.  “Gracias!  Gracias!”  The two of them begin to move back down the lane, away from my location in the bushes.  I wait until they’re a fair ways down the block before I emerge onto the walk and stroll casually across the street.  I glance at the pair of figures and judge their pace as moderate.  Once I’m on the other street corner, I pick up my own pace and get to the door of our inn a few moments later.  The door is locked, as expected, so I let myself in.  The absent desk clerk makes explaining the bundle in my hands unnecessary.  I take the stairs two at a time, move quickly down the hall to our room, and unlock the door with my key.  The dress-bundle gets tossed in and the door shut and locked behind a moment later.  Another two minutes and I’m back down the stairs and into the street.

Rounding the corner, I can still see Mel and the constable about a block and a half on.  I stride purposefully so that I gain on them without running.  I close to within a half block before I call out in a loud voice, grabbing the first Spanish-sounding name I could think of: “Concepción!”

The two of them halt and turn toward me, the constable stepping half in front of Mel and placing a hand on his nightstick.  I move more quickly toward them now, fixing my expression in a stern frown.

I ignore the bobby at first and focus my attention on Mel.  “¿Donde está la biblioteca?” I demand in a forceful tone.  “¿Qué hore es la cena?  El perro ladra ruidosamente!”  Her eyes go very wide for a moment before her expression collapses into a convincing mixture of relief and contrition.

“Perdóname,” she replies.  “Me perdí.  Lo siento.”

I scowl at her and wave one hand dismissively.  “Palillo de dientes,” I say gruffly before turning to the bobby, whose expression had only gotten more confused as the exchange between Mel and I had continued.  “Pardon my young charge, constable,” I say layering in a subtle accent to my English.  “She is a wayward child and takes to her own fancies at the most inappropriate times.  Thank you for your assistance, but I will take her back to our lodgings now.”  I had taken something of a gamble that the man had heard much more Spanish than he actually knew, a guess which proves itself out with the man’s response.

“Very good, sir,” he nods.  “It be no good for the likes of one such as this to be roamin’ the streets at night.  Ill-wishin’ folk lurk about these parts in the evenin’.  I’d keep a closer eye on this one, if I was you, sir.”

I give a perfunctory nod.  “As you say, constable.  My thanks again.”  I take Mel by the arm, firmly but not roughly.  “Come along, Concepción.”

Mel bows her head meekly and acquiesces.  A beautiful show, I have to say.  The girl is a natural.  The bobby watches us as we cross the street and head down the walk, but I see him turn and resume his beat a few minutes later.  I let out a long breath.

“Toothpick?” Mel asks in a low voice once we’re well out of earshot.

I shrug.  “I studied one year of Spanish in high school,” I reply with a wry smile.  “People respond more to tone than anything, particularly when they don’t know the language.”  I glance at her.  “Nice acting.”

“Thank you,” she responds.  “I have to say it took me a moment when you demanded to know where the library was and what time dinner was going to be.”  She chuckles.  “And ‘the dog barks loudly’?  It was everything I could do to not laugh.”

“I have to admit,” I say, “you handled yourself well.  That was an impressive performance.”  We near the door of the inn and I pull my key from my pocket.  “And thanks for saving my ass, by the way.”  I turn to her.  “You’ve got a lot of brass for a dame.”

She smiles tightly.  “As the man I seek will discover one day.”

 

###

 

We catch the first train back to Aphrodite the next morning, just before day-break.  I caught a few hours’ sleep in the chair.  I assume Mel slept, though she was already awake when I opened my eyes.  We grab a pair of muffins off a baker’s cart just outside the train station for breakfast.  I want us long gone before shops began opening for the day’s business and poor Mr. Worthington discovers the trashing of his office and the theft of the dress.

The trip back is quiet.  Mel’s travel bag holds the carefully-folded heirloom and she keeps that bag on her lap the whole way.  I stare out the window at the drab scenery rushing past, still trying to figure out the motivation behind our competitor.  No answers--yet--but I have an idea of where to look once we’re back in Aphrodite.  I try not to think of the looming problem of what to do about Mel.

A cab delivers us at my building a bit before ten-thirty.  My stomach grumbles, but we’ve got business to take care of first.  Food can wait until a few things have been clarified.  We climb the stairs and step into the office.  Mel seems a bit surprised when I lock the door behind us, but I motion for her to put her bag on my desk and open it.

I take the dress out gingerly.  It is a magnificent gown of an earlier time, rich reds and golds blending together in a majestic ensemble.  I can see a countess wearing such a garment with pride and certainly one who holds status as the closest confidante of the queen.  I go over the dress with a careful eye.  There’s something here.  There’s got to be. 

The seams appear to be solid and there’s nothing that I can find concealed in any of the many folds.  The bodice has staves sewn in and I turn my attention to these next.  What was it that Madame Deschamps’ grandmother had written in her letter?  

“Nearest the heart,” Mel says quietly.  Damn.  This girl is reading my thoughts now. 

I nod and open the bodice wide, examining the interior.  I give a grunt of satisfaction and Mel leans in to see.  In the front and on the left, just about where the heart would be: small stitches in the lining above one of the corset staves.  I take a penknife from the desk drawer.

The sharp blade cuts through the thread easily, opening a slit only large enough to remove the stay.  The penknife is put aside and the length of whalebone slides into view, a dull white in the light of morning.  I hold it close and run my fingers along its length.

There.  Almost impossible to see, but discernible to touch.  A fine break in the smooth surface.  I grip the stay just above and below where my fingers say this division lay and twist in opposite directions.

The stay separates into two pieces, a shorter segment perhaps three inches long and another segment the remaining eight inches.  In that longer length, a narrow hole had been drilled.

“Wire,” I say carefully.  “I need a piece of wire...or a pin.  Something small.”

Mel opens her purse and pulls out a piece of embroidery she’d been working on.  She plucks the needle from the cloth and hands it to me.  “Will this do?” she asks.

“Yes,” I reply and take it from her hand.  Carefully, I prod the opening with the tip of the needle.  There’s definitely something in there.

A small wax plug comes out first.  Then slowly, carefully, a tightly rolled piece of parchment, scraped incredibly thin and wound into a thin cylinder so as to fit within the narrow hollow drilled into the whalebone.

I let out a long breath and insert the needle along the edge of the miniature scroll, breaking the seal of wax and time.  If my guess is correct, this message--whatever it might reveal-- is some six or seven decades old.  I’m not wrong.

We clear a space on the desk and I carefully unroll the parchment.  Fluid writing of an earlier time greets us as Mel and I lean closer.  The penmanship elegant and elaborate, though the note itself is terse.  I recognize the handwriting instantly.  The faded ink is still legible, however, and  I hear Mel's sudden intake of breath.  French and Spanish are closely related and she’s able to glean enough to understand the gravity of the situation:

 

This night, on the Fourteenth of July, in the year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred Twenty-eight, be it known by the Light of God in Truth that I, Marie Christina Brodeur, Keeper of the Queen’s Robe, did witness the footman Jacque Panier entering the private bedchambers of Her Majesty, Queen Louise.

 

“His Majesty’s birthday is in April,” Mel whispers.

“April tenth,” I say quietly.  “1829.”  A long moment passes.  “Damn.” 

“What are you going to do?” she asks.

That is an excellent question.  What does one do when one is holding a live bomb in one’s hands?  No wonder certain powerful personages were involved. 

The union at the heart of the Franco-Spanish existed in the marriage of the two monarchs and in the joint heir that marriage produced.  If Fat King Louis was indeed the son of Jacque the footman and not Alphonse the king, then he might have a claim as heir to the French throne, albeit as a bastard son of an unfaithful queen, but most definitely not the Spanish crown.  The Franco-Spanish Empire would cease to exist.  How much would something like that be worth? 

Talk about blackmail material.

I shake my head.  There are risks I’m willing to take and risks I’m not.  In big explosions, lots of by-standers get killed--and the explosion this bomb would set off was far bigger than anything I cared to imagine.  And despite the crap state of the worlds, I preferred things to remain intact, thank you.

“What am I going to do?” I repeat her question.  “I’m going to do what any sane person would do in this situation.”  I pull my ashtray toward me from the corner of the desk and retrieve the box of matches from my pocket.  The curled note goes in the ashtray, a match is struck against the box, and a small flames hisses to life.  Mel's eyes get very wide as I hold the match to the paper and the evidence of the king’s paternity flares brightly for a moment before being reduced to ashes only seconds later.

“That,” I say, “takes care of that.”  I look at Mel carefully.  “I think we should return Madame Deschamps her grandmother’s dress.”

She nods.  “Yes,” she agrees.  “I believe you are right.”

And that is what we do.  Mel's tight stitching repairs the small slit I’d re-opened and the close match of the thread to the interior cloth made the repair nearly impossible to spot if you didn’t know to look for it.  Madame Descamps is very pleased to have the heirloom in her possession again and pays my bill without compunction.  As I’d negotiated no sale--I was light on the details as to how we’d reacquired the dress--I claim no commission, but my client insists on a two hundred franc bonus in lieu of that.  I have no problem taking her husband’s money, I can tell you, and that extra bit will keep me for a good while.  And I don’t know if it was a result of an offhand comment I made as my client left my office that last time, but I hear that a sizeable anonymous donation has found its way to a certain small museum in Adonopolis.

Mel and me, we come to something of an arrangement.  I take her on as my secretary and she stays with me in my hole in the wall.  We clear out that closet to make a small bedroom for her--it’s just big enough for that cot and one of the trunks, which makes for a storage space and a table of a sort.  I have to say that my office and apartment are much more organized than they’ve been in a long, long time.  I’m still trying to decide whether I like it or not. 

I make a good show of working on her case, which seems to satisfy her for now, though we have an understanding between us that the work for paying clients comes first.  Still need to bring in the d’argent and Mel likes eating as much as I do.  She’s got a practical head on her shoulders, that one, when it isn’t caught up in her fantasies of revenge.  Her fire burns low and hot, though, with a patient kind of fury that’s willing to wait until hell freezes over if that’s what it takes. 

My main problem is how to keep her waiting so that I have time to try to nudge her in a different direction without her getting wise to the scam.  She’s a good kid who deserves something better in life than the hanging that waits for her at the end of the road she’s traveling.  And among the decisions I made during that train ride back to Aphrodite is that I’m going to do whatever I can to keep her from that fate and away from that bastard, even if it kills me.