“You want me to do what!”
It was not an unfamiliar sound to hear inside Etheric Delights, even from the professional girls of Madame Ether’s employ. But this was no dulcet tone or scream of high-pitched indignation. There were two-dollar banjos that had less twang than the drawl dripping off that shout.
Jac Lightning had never been cleaner, or more uncomfortable in her life. The bath had smelled funny, the scrubbing brushes stung like hell, there were at least three layers of clothing that, to the Lightning Marshal’s reckoning, all did the same blasted thing; which was cover up the unmentionables and seek to confound her at every step. The hat was so small it had to be pinned in place and there was nowhere she could find that would give her quick access to her gun.
Then Wilhemina Ether had showed her the boots.
Jac Lightning had worn riding boots for about as long as she’d been able to walk, so the notion of a heel wasn’t strange to her. Why, though, somebody would want to walk on such an uneven and tiny scrap of leather, balanced on point sharper than some knives she owned, for any length of time beggared belief. She’d have just as soon have Thunder’s horseshoes nailed to her feet.
Madame Ether was both unperturbed and undaunted. All three of the Marshals had explained the vital importance of her tutelage, and the proprietor of Etheric Delights owed her business and her life to the actions of these lawmen.
Jac Lightning squeezed her foot into the boot, lost her grip and skewered through the plush velvet settee nearby.
Madame Ether figured this would make them about even.
With as much grace as a newborn foal, the Lightning Marshal descended the stairs of Etheric Delights, feet arched like never before, breaths coming in short gasps and sweat beading on her forehead. Off the stairs and sighing as much as her garments allowed, Jac peered around the lobby and saw the other girls in the whorehouse had been busy.
There was a long table laid out and covered in a shining white tablecloth. Motes of silver danced off fine polished cutlery from the candlelight arrayed between delicate crockery. It was the most crowded Jac Lightning had seen a table that didn’t have any food on it.
Adjusting the silverware with fastidious attention was Hans Octavius Wilhem, who had, along with Wendell Caine, decided discretion to be the better part of valour and had returned to the office. The Iron Marshal had divested himself of his armour and was wearing a tightly pressed dinner suit.
It was possible that Wendell Caine had combed his beard but none were eager to study close enough to prove it.
“Holl-y… She really is a woman!” Caine exclaimed under his breath. Wilhem, for his part, demonstrated diplomacy by not showing amusement at Jac’s discomfort.
There would be plenty of time for that over dinner.
Jac Lightning approached the table, watching the candlesticks and collection of utensils with a wary gaze in case she were to stumble over them. To the assembled crowd of lawmen and prostitutes though, the steps came more confident, more balanced. The Lightning Marshal was making a case for being the fastest student in the west.
It didn’t stop her complaining.
“These things pinch my feet like the deepest darkest circles of Hell! Why would you wear ‘em at all?”
“It adds a wonderful swish to your hips though,” Madam Ether offered. Jac looked down.
“Hey look at that!” Jac exclaimed.
“Yeah, you got ‘em!” Caine said equally shocked.
Wilhem took out Jac’s chair, which earned him a severe frown but she took her seat at the table, shifting about as she tried to arrange the countless folds in her dress so that she wouldn’t put her heel through them. Wilhem then did the same for Madame Ether, noticing that she had watched with a forlorn stare as Wendell Caine had marched straight to his chair and slumped into it. The Iron Marshal sat last.
“Vhile ve vait for dinner, zhere is zhe matter of your diction,” he said.
“What’s wrong with my fuckin’ diction!” Jac snapped.
“Do you even know what ‘diction’ is?” Ether asked.
Jac thought about it for a moment, “nope.”
“Let’s begin there. It is what makes up your speech and pronunciation as to how easily you are understood.”
Jac Lightning already looked lost.
“How Marshal Wilhem talks,” Ether continued. “I believe the more familiar vernacular is ‘Hoighty-Toighty’?”
Wilhem interjected. “If you’re going to look like you’re rich, you need to sound like it too.”
Having looked like she’d caught up with the idea, Jac listened as Madam Ether continued.
“Try saying this: The rain, in Spain, falls mainly on the plain.”
Madame Ether’s eardrums hummed like a plucked guitar string as Jac repeated the exercise.
“Why would it just fall in the fuckin’ plain! It would fall everywhere else in Spain too! This is fuckin’ stupid!” she said almost before she finished up.
“…okay.” Madame Ether looked helpless.
“Try zhis instead,” Wilhem suggested. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
“Zhee zells zhee zhells by zhe zhee zzzzzzssshore.” Jac attempted. Wilhem pinched his brow.
“Let me try that again,” and then all traces of weariness and accent were lost as Wilhem repeated the phrase like he’d been schooled in Oxford. The German Marshal had always been gifted in languages, speaking more than either of his partners reckoned, though it was only in English Wilhem maintained his German affectation.
“She sells sea shells by the sea shore.” Jac repeated. Madame Ether’s eardrums hummed less that time.
“Shore,” she corrected.
“Sure,” Jac parroted.
“No. Shore!” Ether repeated.
“Sho-reee,” Jac apologised. Ether sighed.
“I got one!” Caine called out. “Moses supposes his toeses are roses.” And then everyone’s jaw dropped as he continued. “But Moses supposes erroneously.”
Wilhem nearly fell of his chair while Wilhemina Ether raised her fan above her nose to hide her blushing cheeks.
“That ain’t bad!” Jac said, lessons already gone like water of a duck’s back.
“Just somethin’ I heard once,” Caine shrugged.
The lessons continued until the first course of dinner arrived, and the curriculum changed to topics ranging from ‘What Utensil Gets Used for What Dish’, ‘Yes, There Will Be More Food, Just Not in This Course’, and ‘It’s Not Water, It’s Gin!’ Resorting to his upbringing, Wilhem would admonish the Lightning Marshal with a smack on the wrist each time she did something ‘unladylike’ and the lessons were obviously taking because Jac didn’t respond by decking the German Marshal.
There followed a number of simple dances and it was here that Jac Lightning stunned everyone gathered as she swayed, turned and stepped in both perfect time and perfect poise, the shoes no longer appearing to hobble her; and as the evening drew to its close, Madame Ether bad the marshals farewell, confident that Jac Lightning would be seen as ladylike or, at the very worse, eccentric.
Pinkerton Detective, James Lovelace, had not had the most pleasant of evenings.
It was bad enough that there was all manner of ungodly cursing taking place in the House of Etheric Delights, which was interrupting what had started out as a relaxing day. Madame Ether had made the Pinkerton swear by everything he held dear that he not enter the lobby, no matter what he heard. In return, a girl had been given to him, free of charge, to attend any of his needs beyond the room. This had been pleasant enough that was until his client and partner of Ithaca Rifling Company, William Henry Baker had summoned him into the ostentatious bedroom.
The corpulent businessman was huffing and puffing as he moved from cupboard to suitcase and back again. The day had seen the most exercise Baker had ever undertaken, making laps between Etheric Delights and the telegraph office.
“Where you are going, Mr Baker?” Lovelace asked, catching him mid-stride.
“I think you mean ‘where are we going’,” Baker said over his shoulder, retrieving a tent-like dinner jacket and pushing it into the overflowing suitcase. “We got an appointment with a number of very wealthy folk attending the Aces High Poker Tournament.”
Lovelace, having been in the country for some years, as well as being a keen poker player himself, had heard of the grand game and the type of wealth or skill it took to enter. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had made him further familiar with the event as a number of agents had been hired to provide security. Unfortunately his employment, or his skill, had seen him attend until now.
Playing down his excitement with the very same card skill-set, Lovelace calmly said “I didn’t know you played poker.”
“I don’t. Well not really. I know how to play the game but I make my money using my head, not throwing it away to luck.” Lovelace frowned at the obvious scorn his client held.
Baker continued. “But there are a number of industry representatives in attendance who would be of great assistance to the company and the Space Gun project. So much so it demands a face-to-face meeting and so long as they don’t care what happens to their money, it might as well benefit me some.”
Baker froze, then spun on his heel toward his safe, spun the combination and produced a sturdy, reinforced, and locked leather bag. Approaching the Pinkerton, Baker ignored propriety by cuffing the bag to Lovelace’s wrist.
“Entry fee,” was all he offered by way of explanation.
Lovelace looked down his nose at the latest attachment and his treatment. Baker had no regard for anyone in his employ. The Pinkerton bit his tongue though as that same assignment might get him a seat at the tournament if he, to use the phrase, played his cards right.
“We got an early start tomorrow. Aces High picks up the contestants in Phoenix and we need to be there in less than two days,” Baker finished, and then continued to pack, having all but politely dismissed Lovelace for the evening.
Left holding a bag with what would be a vast sum, James Lovelace fought down the urge to start fresh and returned to his room where a bed and a very large scotch was waiting.
Breakfast had turned into another opportunity to continue Jac Lightning’s lessons in etiquette, with Wilhem having prepared a four-course repast and cutlery for each meal.
“Which one’s the bean-fork?” Jac asked, still struggling to get comfortable in her new clothes.
“Zhere is no bean fork. Vone vould eat beans vith a spoon.” Wilhem replied.
“Okay, which one is the bean-spoon?” Jac asked.
“Zhere is no beans!” Wilhem said, making his point with another smack to her wrist.
With Jac was sullen and Wilhem annoyed, only Wendell Caine looked to be enjoying breakfast. So was Smokey, who had been given all four courses Wilhem had painstakingly prepared while the Mountain Marshal had made himself to chilli.
“Mighty fine, this,” Caine beamed around each overflowing spoonful.
Jac glared across her pitifully small plate.
“Reckon there might be some cornbread left too,” Caine grinned.
Under the reproachful glare of Wilhem, Jac bit back her first response and negotiated her way around something more civilised.
“Wouldn’t that be… delightful,” she replied tight-lipped. Smokey’s ears went flat at that as he looked to the door.
Wilhem’s gaze left Jac and focused on Caine. “Zhere remains the detail ov vhat your role in zhis vill be.”
“Simple,” Caine shrugged. “I’ll be goin’ as one of them fellas which carry all the baggage.”
“Vell, zhat shall require a bath, a suit and a trim of both beard und hair.”
Chilli spilled off the spoon as Caine froze. “I meant one of them whatchamacallits. A porter.”
“So did I,” Wilhem replied.
“I ain’t doin’ all that just to haul luggage” Caine growled.
“You vouldn’t pass as vone othervise,” Wilhem growled back.
Smokey picked up her bucket of very delicious breakfast and carried it to the porch as each of the lawmen started shouting at one another.
“At zhe very least, you vill have to wear pants, shirt und jacket. Not ‘overalls und pie’!” Wilhem ordered.
“But pumpkin’s my favourite!” Caine protested, fishing errant chunk and popping it into his mouth.
“How could you tell?” Wilhem yelled, disgusted.
“It was orange!” Caine shouted back. “If it were apple, it would be brown!”
For a brief moment, Jac Lightning was the most civilised person at the table. In the end, a grudging truce was reached where Caine would dress to the role and at least comb his hair and beard.
Breakfast finished, the lawmen set out to the stagecoach Wilhem had arranged to convey them across the half-day desert journey to the train to Phoenix. The boxes of counterfeit cash had been transported from the Cartwright house and were loaded, along with Jac’s new parade of luggage, Wilhem’s suitcases – as he would also masquerade as somebody rich enough to participate in the tournament and keep a watch for anything suspicious – and Annie, who Madame Ether had been gracious enough to assign to the Lightning Marshal as a maid and clothes assistant.
Ready to depart, they saw both William Henry Baker and James Lovelace making the same arrangements.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Jac said in a voice much smoothed by the diction lessons.
James Lovelace turned and beheld a vision of white silk and lavender, a coiffed and refined lady who peered through her lashes at him.
“Well, well,” Lovelace began. “I don’t believe we’ve been intro-erk!”
His throat seized up as he deduced who stood behind the parasol and petticoats.
“What on earth…” Lovelace asked or at least tried to before he was cut off.
“Why, I don’t believe we’ve met, young lady,” Baker interrupted.
Both Lovelace and Lightning repressed a shudder as the otherwise reprehensible industrialist attempted to be charming.
It was going to be an even longer journey.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 3
Posted by Wordmobi