Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, lives in Rapid City in the late 19th century—when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront.
Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Elizabeth Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper-type story of the old west with the light touch of Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science. Karen Memory is available February 3rd from Tor Books!
You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like “memory” only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. “Hôtel” has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.
Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning.
Which ain’t to say we ain’t got a sewing machine. We’ve got two, an old-style one with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel, and one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.
Them two machines sit out in a corner of the parlor as kind of a joke.
I can use the old-fashioned one—I learned to sew, I mean really sew—pretty good after Mama died—and Miss Francina is teaching me to use the new one to do fancywork, though it kind of scares me. And it fits her, so it’s big as your grandpa’s trousers on me. But the thing is, nobody in Rapid City sells the kind of dresses we parlor girls need, so it’s make our own patterned after fashion dolls from Paris and London and New York or it’s pay a ladies’ tailor two-thirds your wage for something you don’t like as well.
But as you can imagine, a house full of ladies like this goes through a lot of frocks and a lot of mending. So it pays to know how to sew both ways, so to speak.
Really pays. Miss Francina and me, we charge less than the ladies’ tailors. And it’s easier to do fittings when you live with the girls. And every penny I make goes into the knotted sock in my room for when I get too old for sewing. I have a plan, see.
The richest bit is that the city and the tailors can’t complain, can they, when we’re paying our sewing machine tax and our guild and union dues, too. Sure, fifty dollar’d be a year’s wages back in Hay Camp for a real seamstress and here in Rapid City it’ll barely buy you a dozen of eggs, a shot of whiskey, and a couple pair of those new blue jeans that Mr. Strauss is manufacturing. But here in Rapid City a girl can pay fifty dollar a week and still have enough left over to live on and put a little away besides, even after the house’s cut.
You want to work for a house, if you’re working. I mean… working “sewing.” Because Madam Damnable is a battleship and she runs the Hôtel Mon Cherie tight, but nobody hits her girls, and we’ve got an Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses and nobody’s going to make us do anything we really don’t want to unless it’s by paying us so much we’ll consider it in spite of. Not like in the cheap cribs down in the mud beside the pier with the locked doors and no fireplaces, where they keep the Chinese and the Indian girls the sailors use. Those girls, if they’re lucky, they work two to a room so they can keep an eye on each other for safety and they got a slicker to throw over the bottom sheet so the tricks’ spurs and mud don’t ruin it.
I’ve never been down there, but I’ve been up along the pier, and you can’t hear the girls except once in a while when one goes crazy, crying and screaming. All you can hear up there is the sailors cursing and the dog teams barking in the kennels like they know they’re going to be loaded on those deep-keel ships and sent up north to Alaska to probably freeze in the snow and die along with some eastern idiot who’s heard there’s gold. Sometimes girls go north, too—there’s supposed to be good money from the men in the gold camps—but I ain’t known but one who made it away again ever.
That was Madame Damnable, and when she came back she had enough to set herself up in business and keep her seamstresses dry and clean. She was also missing half her right foot from gangrene, and five or six teeth from scurvy, so I guess it’s up to you to decide if you think that was worth it to her.
She seems pretty happy, and she walks all right with a cane, but it ain’t half-hard for her to get up and down the ladders to street level.
So anyway, about them ladders. Madame Damnable’s is in the deep part of town, and they ain’t yet finished raising the streets here. What I mean is when they started building up the roads a while back so the sea wouldn’t flood the downtown every spring tide they couldn’t very well close down all the shopping—and all the sewing—so they built these big old masonry walls and started filling in the streets between them up to the top level with just any old thing they had to throw in there. There’s dead horses down there, dead men for all I know. Street signs and old couches and broke-up wagons and such.
They left the sidewalks down here where they had been, and the front doors to the shops and such, so on each block there’s this passage between the walls of the street and the walls of the buildings. And since horses can’t climb ladders and wagons can’t fly, they didn’t connect the blocks. Well, I guess they could of built tunnels, but it’s bad enough down there on the walkways at night as it is now and worth your life to go out without a couple of good big lantern bearers with a stout cudgel apiece.
At Madame Damnable’s, we’ve got Crispin, who’s our doorman and a freed or maybe a runaway slave and about as big as a house. He’s the only man allowed to live in the hotel, as he doesn’t care for humping with women. He hardly talks and he’s real calm and quiet, but you never feel not safe with him standing right behind you, even when you’re strong-arming out a drunk or a deadbeat. Especially if Miss Francina is standing on the other side.
So all over downtown, from one block to the next you’ve got to climb a ladder—in your hoopskirts and corset and bustle that ain’t no small thing even if you’ve got two good feet in your boots to stand on—and in our part of town that’s thirtytwo feet from down on the walk up to street level.
When the water table’s high, the walks still flood out, of course. Bet you guessed that without me.
They filled up the streets at the top of town first, because the rich folk live there, Colonel Marsh who owns the lumber mill and Dyer Stone—that’s Obadiah, but nobody call him that—who’s the mayor, and such. And Skid Road they didn’t fill in at all, because they needed it steep on account of the logs, so there’s staircases up from it to the new streets, where the new streets are finished and sometimes where they ain’t. The better neighborhoods got steam lifts, too, all brass and shiny, so the rich ladies ain’t got to show their bloomers to the whole world climbing ladders. Nobody cares if a soiled dove shows off her underthings, I guess, as long as the underthings are clean.
Up there some places the fill was only eight feet and they’ve got the new sidewalks finished over top of the old already. What they did there was use deck prisms meant for ships, green and blue from the glass factory up by the river as gives Rapid City its name, set in metal gratings so that when there’s light the light can shine on down.
Down here we’ll get wood plank, I expect, and like it. And then Madame Damnable will just keep those ruby lamps by the front door burning all the time.
The red light looks nice on the gilt, anyway.
Our business mostly ain’t sailors but gold camp men coming or going to Anchorage, which is about the stupidest thing you ever could get to naming a harbor. I mean, why not just call it Harbor, like it was the only one ever? So we get late nights, sure, but our trade’s more late afternoon to say two or four, more like a saloon than like those poor girls down under the docks who work all night, five dollar a poke, when the neap tide keeps the ships locked in. Which means most nights ’cept Fridays and Saturdays by 3:00 A.M. we’re down in the dining room while Miss Bethel and Connie serves us supper. They’re the barkeep and the cook. They don’t work the parlor, but Connie feeds us better than we’d get at home and Miss Bethel, she keeps a sharp eye on the patrons.
Sundays, we close down for the Sabbath and such girls as like can get their churching in.
So I don’t remember which day it was exactly that Merry Lee and Priya came staggering into the parlor a little before three in the morning, but I can tell you it wasn’t a Friday or Saturday, because all the punters had gone home except one who’d paid Pollywog for an all-night alteration session and was up in the Chinese Room with her getting his seams ripped, if you take my meaning. The Professor—he plays the piano in the parlor for Effie and Pollywog and Beatrice to sing to—had gone home for the night already, it was that slow. The rest of us—just the girls and Crispin, not Madame Damnable—were in our robes and slippers, faces scrubbed and hair down, sitting in the library when it happened. We don’t use the parlor except for working.
Beatrice, who’s the only one at the hotel younger than me, was practicing reading out loud to the rest of us, her slim, dark fingers bent back holding the big ivory-bound book of Grimm’s fairy tales. She’s a tiny bit of a thing, is Bea, and has all the manners I don’t. Her mother was a courtesan—what they call a placée—down in New Orleans, and Bea speaks French better than English and has a long, straight nose, a good high forehead, and lips like a bee-stung rose.
We’d just settled in with after-dinner tea and biscuits when there was a crash down the ladder out front and the sound of somebody crying like her leg was broke. Given the loudness of the thump, I reckoned that might not be too far from the truth of it.
Crispin and Miss Francina gave each other The Look, and while Beatrice put the ribbon in her book they both got up and moved toward the front door. Crispin I already said about, and the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer besides.
I followed along just behind them, and so did Effie. We’re the sturdiest girls, and Effie can shoot well enough that Madame Damnable lets her keep a gun in her room. Miss Bethel hides a pump shotgun under the bar, too, but she was upstairs in bed already, so while Crispin was unlocking the door I went over and got it, working the breech to make sure it was loaded. Beatrice grabbed Signor, the deaf white cat who lives in the parlor—he’s got one blue eye and one yellow and he’s loud as an Ozark howler when he wants something—and pulled him back into the library with the rest of the girls.
When I got up behind Crispin, it was all silence outside except the patting of the rain dripping down into the well and splashing in the puddles. Not even any more crying, though we all stood with our ears straining. Crispin pulled open the door and Miss Francina went striding out into that burning cold in her negligee and marabou slippers like she owned the night and the rest of us was just paying rent on it. I skin-flinched, just from nerves, but it was all right because I’d had the sense to keep my finger off the shotgun trigger.
And then Miss Francina said, “Sweet child Christ!” in that breathy voice of hers and Crispin was through the door with his truncheon, the bald center of his pate shining in the red lantern light. I heard him curse, too, but it sounded worried rather than angry or fearful, so I let the shotgun muzzle droop and walked up to the doorway just in time to grab the arm of a pretty little Indian girl—Eastern Indian, not American Indian— who was half-naked and in hysterics. Her clothes had never been good, or warm enough for the night, though somewhere she’d gotten some lace-up boots and a man’s coat too big for her, and now they was wet through and shredded. All she had on else was a ripped-up shift all stained across the bosom, and I could tell she weren’t wearing nothing under it.
She was turned around, tugging something—another girl’s arm, poking out frontward between Crispin and Miss Francina where they were half-dragging her. She had a fine hand, which was all I could see of her, and the rain dripped pink off her sallow fingers. Once they got both girls inside in the light, Effie lunged forward and slammed the door. I handed her the shotgun and went to see to the girls.
“Here, Karen,” Crispin said in his big slow-molasses voice. “You take this little one. Bring her after. I’ll get Miss Merry here upstairs to the sickroom.”
Miss Francina stepped back and I could see that the girl between them was somebody I knowed, at least by reputation. Not a girl, really. A woman, a Chinese woman.
“Aw, shit,” Effie said. Not only can she shoot, but Effie’s not real well-spoken. “That’s Merry Lee.”
Merry Lee, which was as close as most American tongues could get to her real name, I guess, was half-conscious and halffighting, batting at Crispin’s hands while he swung her up into his arms. Miss Francina stuck her own hands in there to try to hold her still, where they looked very white against all the red on Merry Lee’s face and arms.
Effie said, “She’s gun shot. I guess all that running around busting out Chinatown crib whores finally done caught up with her. You know’d it was sooner or later going to.”
“You hush about things you know nothing about,” Miss Francina said, so Effie drew back, chastened like, and said, “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Go and watch the door, Effie,” Miss Francina said. Effie hefted that shotgun and did, not sulking at all. Effie talks without thinking sometimes, but she’s a good girl. Madame Damnable don’t tolerate them what ain’t.
The girl in my arms was as cold skinned as she was slick with rain, and all she wanted was to twist loose of me. She pulled away once and threw herself at Crispin, but Miss Francina caught her and gave her back, and honest, she was mostly too light and skinny to put up a good fight once I had a grip on her. I tried to talk to her, tell her she was safe and we were going to take care of her and Merry Lee both. I could hear her teeth chatter when I got close. I didn’t think then she understood a word of it, but I found out later her English was better’n mine, so I think it was mostly that she couldn’t hardly of been more upset. But something got through to her, because after a minute of twisting her wrists and getting blood all over my good pink flannel she stood still, shivering and dripping, her long face sad as a wet filly’s. She let me bundle her up the stairs after Crispin and Merry Lee while Miss Francina went to fetch Miss Lizzie.
We followed them down the long rose-painted hall to the sickroom door. Crispin wanted to take Merry Lee in without the Indian girl, but the girl weren’t having none of it. She leaned against my arms and keened through the doorway, and finally Crispin just looked at me helplessly and said, “Karen honey, you better bring that child in here before she cries down the roof.”
She was better inside, sitting in a chair beside the bed with wool blankets wrapped around her, though it were another fight to get her to cut loose of that soaking old coat. She leaned forward—again I thought filly, starved and leaning on her plow collar—while Crispin checked over Merry Lee for where she was hurt worst. Effie was right about her being gun shot, too— she had a graze through her long black hair showing bone, and that was where most of the blood was from, but there was a bullet in her back, too, and Crispin couldn’t tell from looking if it had gone through to a lung. It weren’t in the spine, he said, or she wouldn’t of been walking.
Just as he was stoking up the surgery machine—it hissed and clanked like a steam engine, which was never too reassuring when you just needed a boil lanced or something—Miss Lizzie came barreling up the stairs with an armload of towels and a bottle of clear corn liquor. She must of had her arm off for sleeping, because it was bundled up with the linens, but when she strapped it over her stump and started to turn the crank to wind up the spring I knowed it was time for me to be leaving. Miss Lizzie’s narrow and sharp as one of her scalpels, and nothing shakes her: not even lockjaw, which is the scariest thing I can think of, just about, ’cepting maybe the hydrophobia. The girl weren’t going nowhere, but she didn’t look like interfering anymore—she just leaned forward moaning in her throat like a hurt kitten, both hands clenched on the blankets over the cane arms of the bedside chair.
Crispin could handle her if she did anything. And he could hold down Merry Lee if she woke up that much.
I slipped through the door while Miss Lizzie was cutting the dress off Merry Lee’s back. I’d seen her and that machine pull a bullet before, and I didn’t feel like puking.
I got downstairs just as somebody started trying to kick in the front doors.
In the fuss Effie hadn’t thrown the bolt, which should be second nature, but you’d be surprised what you can forget when there’s blood and rain all over everywhere and people are handing you guns. The good thing was that I had handed her the gun and when the front doors busted in on their hinges she had the presence of mind to raise up that gun and yell at the top of her little lungs, “Stop!”
They didn’t, though. There was four of them, and they came boiling through the door like a confusion of scalded weasels, shouting and swearing. Hair dripped down over their eyes— two of ’em had lost their hats—and their boots were mud caked to the ankles. And by “mud” I mean whatever’s out in the roads, which ain’t really mud except by courtesy. They checked and drew up just inside, staring from side to side and trading glances, and from halfway up the stairs I got a real fine look at all of them. It was Peter Bantle and three of his bully boys, all of them tricked out in gold watch chains and brocade and carrying truncheons and chains along with their lanterns, and you never saw a crew more looking for a fight.
The edges of the big doors were splintered where they’d busted out the latch. So maybe they’d of broken out the bolt trying to get in even if it had been locked.
“I said fucking stop,” said Effie, all alone in her nightgown in the middle of the floor, that big gun on her shoulder looking like to tip her over.
Miss Francina weren’t anywhere to be seen, and I could tell from the sounds through the sickroom door that Crispin had his hands full of Merry Lee. Madame Damnable, bless her heart, was half-deaf from working in dance halls. She might of gone up to bed and even if Miss Francina had headed up to fetch her it would take her a minute to find her cane and glasses, which meant a minute in which somebody had to do something.
I didn’t think on it. I just jumped over the banister, flannel gown and quilted robe and slippers and all, exactly the way Miss Bethel was always after me about for it not being ladylike, and thumped down on the curvy striped silk divan below the staircase.
I stepped off the couch, swept my robe up like skirts, and stuck my chin out. “Peter Bantle,” I said, real loud, hoping wherever Miss Francina had got off to, that she would hear me and come running. “You wipe your damn muddy feet before you come in my parlor.”
Now I ain’t one of the smaller girls—like I said, I’m sturdy— and Peter Bantle is like his name: a banty, and a peckerwood, which is probably why he struts so much. I’m plump, too— the men like that—and I’m broad across the shoulders and hips, and when I came marching up beside Effie he had to pick his chin up to meet my eyes. He wore a silk hat over a greasy slick of hair. His cravat was pinned right up under his chin, fresh pressed, and he reeked of violets and lime. Maybe the fug was what made his eyes so squinty.
He frowned a little at the size I had on him.
The three in front of him were plenty big, however, and they didn’t look impressed by two girls in their nighties with a single pump shotgun between them. Bantle’s men had all kinds of gear hung on them I didn’t even recognize, technologics and contrivances with lenses and brass tubes and glossy black enamel. The one in the very front had a bottle-green velvet coat and a bottle-blue stovepipe hat, and the patterned waistcoat to tie it together. He had the looks to pull those bright colors off—strong features and good skin. He was the only one of the three who was anything close to the usual size for human beings, being merely strapping as opposed to monstrous. I knowed him, too—Horaz Standish, who all the girls liked despite of who he worked for.
For whom he worked, Miss Bethel would tell me.
In fact, Horaz—that’s short for Horatio—looked a bit apologetic at me now.
Bantle his own self had a kind of gauntlet on his left hand, stiff boiled leather segmented so the rubber underneath showed through, copper coils on each segment connected by bare wires.
I’d heard about that thing. I talked to a girl once he made piss herself with it. She had burns all up her arm where he grabbed her. But I didn’t look at it, and I didn’t let him see me shudder. You get to know a lot about men in my work, and men like Peter Bantle? They’re all over seeing a woman shudder.
I don’t take to men who like to hit. If he reached out at me with that gadget, I was afraid I’d like to kill him.
He didn’t, though. He just ignored me and looked past Horaz’s shoulder at Effie, who he could get eye to eye with if he stood up straight. He sneered at her and through a curled lip said, “Where’s the Damnable bitch?”
“Madame is busy,” I said. Only reason I didn’t step in front of Effie was on account of she had the gun, but the urge to was that strong. “I’m Miss Memery. Me and Miss Sims here can help you. Or escort you out, if you’d rather.”
Miss Bethel would of cringed at my grammar, too. But right then I couldn’t afford to stammer over it to make it pretty.
Effie settled that gun on her shoulder a little better and lowered her eye to sight down the barrel. Bantle’s men looked unimpressed so hard I could tell they was a little nervous. One hefted his black rubber truncheon.
“You got one of my whores in here, you little chit, and that thieving outlaw Merry Lee.” Bantle’s voice was all out of proportion with the weedy little body under his oilcloth coat. Maybe he was wearing some kind of amplifier in that high flounced collar of his. “I aim to have them with me when I go. And if you’re lucky and give them over nice and easy, my boys here won’t bust up your face or your parlor.”
Rightly, I didn’t know what to say. It weren’t my house, after all, and Madame Damnable gives us a lot of liberty, but setting the rules of her parlor and offering sanctuary to someone else’s girls ain’t in it. But I knowed she didn’t like Peter Bantle, with his bruised-up, hungry crib whores and his saddle shoes, and since he had come crashing through the front door with three armed men and a world of insolence, I figured I had a little more scope than usual.
“You’re going to leave this parlor now,” I said. “And shut the door behind you. And Madame Damnable will send somebody around in the morning so you can settle up for the lock you busted.”
“I know they came in here,” Bantle said. “There’s Chink whore blood all over your hands and the floor here.”
Oh, I knowed the answer to that one. I’d heard Madame Damnable say it often enough. “It’s not the house’s policy to discuss anyone whom we may or may not be entertaining.”
“Mr. Bantle,” that Horaz Standish said, “if you give these ladies a little room to negotiate, you know they might be reasonable. Nobody’s at her best when her back’s up against the wall.” He turned his attention to me. “Miss Memery, was it? Of course we’ll pay for the door—”
Bantle snorted. Then the thing happened that I ain’t been able to make head nor tail of. My head went all sort of sticky fuzzy, like your mouth when you wake up, and I started feeling like maybe Bantle had a point. That was one of his girls upstairs, and Merry Lee had brought her here—or vice versa maybe—without asking. And didn’t she owe him, that girl, for paying to have her brought over from India? And there was Effie pointing a gun at him.
And that Horaz was being right reasonable about affairs, the whole thing considered.
Bantle pointed that glove at me, finger and thumb cocked like he was making a “gun.” I had another skin flinch, this time as I wondered if Bantle could shoot electricity out of that thing. And if it were healthy for him or anyone else for him to do so when he was dripping on the rug. His eyes sort of… glittered, with the reflections moving across them. It was like what they say Mesmeric—I think Mr. Mesmer was the fellow’s name?
“Do it,” Bantle said, and God help me if I didn’t think it seemed a fine idea.
I was just about reaching over to grab the barrel of Effie’s shotgun when the library door eased open off to my left. Through the crack I could see Beatrice’s bright eyes peeping. Bantle saw her, too, because he snarled, “Get that Negra whore out here,” and one of his stand-over men started toward her.
I had just enough warning to snatch back my reaching hand and slap my palms over my ears before Effie jerked the gun up and sent a load of buckshot through the stained glass over the door panels that didn’t never get too much sun no more anyhow. The window burst out like a spray of glory and Bantle and his men all ducked and cringed like quirted hounds.
I just stood there, dumbfounded, useless, as full of shame for what I’d been thinking about doing to Effie and Madame Damnable as some folk think I ought to be for whoring.
I wondered what the trick up with Pollywog thought was going on down here, and if he’d hightailed it out the window yet. We’re not supposed to know, but one of Pollywog’s regulars is Dyer Stone, and he’s the mayor of Rapid City. He sneaks in the back and never sits in the parlor, of course.
“I got four more fucking shells,” Effie said. “Go on and get her.”
The bully who’d started moving couldn’t seem to make his feet work all of a sudden, like the floor’d gotten as sticky as my head had been. Without looking over at Beatrice, I said, “Bea sweetie, you go run get the constable. It seems these gentlemen have lost their way and need directions.”
It’d be better if we could call for help on that handsome mother-of-pearl example of Mr. Bell’s telephone sitting on the table beside the striped divan. But the city council hadn’t voted the constabulary money to install a set of their own, and honestly there was almost nobody in Rapid City we could even call, as yet. But we did have a line to the switchboard, and you could talk to the operator any time you liked.
When it was coming out of my mouth, I couldn’t believe it. The words sounded calm and smooth, the opposite of the sticky fuzz I’d been feeling a moment before. I even saw one of the bully boys take a half step back. It didn’t impress Peter Bantle, though, because while the library door was closing across Beatrice’s face he started forward. Effie worked the pump on the shotgun, but he looked right at her and sneered, “You don’t have the balls,” and then he was reaching for me with that awful glove.
Horaz Standish had his hand stretched out like he might try to stop Bantle, but also like he hadn’t made up his mind to do it yet. I didn’t know yet if I was going to scream or run or try to hit him, or if Effie was really going to have to learn to shoot a man dead that night.
But a big voice arrested him before I had to decide. “Peter goddamn Bantle, just what the pig-shitting hell do you think you’re doing in my house?”
Madame is quick to correct Effie’s mouth when it gets coarse. But I know where Effie done learned it.
Peter Bantle didn’t have the sense to turn around and run when he heard the ferrule of Madame Damnable’s cane clicking on the marble tile at the top of the stair, even though Horaz’s hand finally reached his sleeve and tugged him backward. He did let his hand fall, though, and stepped back smartly. Effie’s breath went out with a sound like surprise. I looked over at her pale, sweaty face and saw her move her finger off the trigger.
She really had been gonna shoot him.
I stepped back and half-turned so I could watch Madame Damnable coming down the stairs, her cane in one hand, the other clenching on the banister with each step.
She was a great battleship of a woman, her black hair gone all steel color at the temples. Her eyes hadn’t had to go steel color; they had started off that way. Miss Francina was behind her on the one side and Miss Bethel on the other, and they didn’t look like they was in any hurry, nor in any mood for conversation. “You got one of my girls in here, Alice,” Peter Bantle said.
She reached the bottom of the stairs and Miss Bethel fanned off left to come take the shotgun from Effie. “You speak with respect to Madame,” Miss Francina said.
Bantle turned his head and spat on the fireplace rug. “I’ll give a tart what respect she deserves. Now, you’re going to give me my whore back. Aren’t you.”
Madame Damnable kept coming, inexorable as a steam locomotive rolling through the yard. She was in her robe and slippers, like the rest of us, and it didn’t one whit make her less imposing. “I’ll give you your head back if you don’t step outside my parlor. You may think you can own folks, Peter Bantle, but this here Rapid City is a free city, where no letter of indenture signed overseas is going to hold water. The constable’s on his way, and if you’re not gone when he gets here I’m going to have him arrest you and your boys for trespass, breaking and entering, and malicious mischief. I pay more in taxes than you do, and most of the law would rather be with my happy girls than your broke-down sad and terrified ones. So you know how that’s going to end.”
That, I thought, and the mayor just slid out an upstairs window. Unless he’s still in bed with the covers over his head.
Well, I hadn’t seen Polly. Maybe the covers was over her head, instead.
Madame gestured to the broken door and the busted-out window. “The evidence is right there.”
“Your own girl shot out that window!” Outrage made his voice squeak.
I had to hide my laugh behind my hand. Effie squeezed the other one. She was shaking, but it was all right. Madame Damnable was here now and she was going to take care of everything.
Peter Bantle knowed it, too. He had already given way a step, and when you were faced with Madame Damnable there was no coming back from that. He drew himself up in the doorway as his bully boys collapsed around him. Madame Damnable kept walking forward, and all four of those thugs slid out the door like water running out a drain.
Their boots crunched in the glass outside. He couldn’t resist a parting shot, but he called it over his shoulder, and it didn’t so much as shift Madame Damnable’s nighttime braid against her shoulder. “You ain’t heard the last of this, Alice.”
“For tonight, I damn well think I have.”
He took two more steps away. “And it’s Hôtel Ma Cherie, you stupid slag!”
I wrote down in my journal that the big grandfather clock in the parlor chimed three as he slammed the doors behind him, but I don’t remember now what it did that particular night. The clock is a particular project of Miss Lizzie’s. She’s clockworked the thing up so it has about a hundred different mechanicals and figurines and cuckoos in it and near as many chimes and bells. The gears have some kind of offset that makes ’em perform different combinations of actions and sounds every time. Miss Lizzie says it ain’t really random, but it sure seems that way. I do remember that one time she had it playing “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted” off a piano roll, so if you like, that’s what you can imagine.
She probably ought to get her inventor’s license and pay the city its Mad Science Tax—which is less than the sewing machine tax, actually—but that’s a hard life for a woman, too. And I’d hate to see her leave Madame’s house.
The chimes died down, and over the last echo we finally heard the boots on the broken ladder. Madame Damnable breathed out and let herself look around at us. “Well,” she said cheerfully, “what a mess. Effie, fetch a bucket. Miss Bethel, put that gun away and find the broom, honey. Karen, you go tell Crispin when they’re done with the Chinese girl he’s to come down here and board up this window and sweep up the glass. He’ll just have to sit by the door until we can get in a locksmith. Miss Francina, you go after Beatrice and tell her we won’t need the constable.”
Miss Francina bit her lip. “Are you sure, ma’am?”
Madame Damnable’s hand glittered with diamonds and rubies when she flipped it. “I’m sure. Go on, sweeties, scoot.” She paused. “Oh, and ladies? That was quick thinking. Well done.”
When I came back up the grand stair with coffee in the china company service, the sickroom door was still closed, but I didn’t hear any screaming, or any steam engine chugging through it, which could only be a good sign. If Merry Lee was still under the knife, she would of been screaming and the machine would of been whining and wheezing away, and if she had died of it I thought the girl would be screaming instead. So I rapped kind of light on the frame, on account of if Crispin or Miss Lizzie was busy in there I didn’t want to startle them. It took me two tries to make my hand move, I was still that ashamed of myself from downstairs.
Crispin’s voice floated back. “It’s safe to come through.” So I set the tray on my hip and turned the knob left-handed, slow in case there was somebody behind the door. The sickroom’s different from our company bedrooms. There’s no wallpaper and the sheets ain’t fancy, and the bedstead and floor and all is just painted white. It makes it easy to bleach or paint over again if there’s a bad mess, and you’d rather paint stained wood than throw out carpets with puke or pus or crusted blood in them any day.
The knife machine kind of hangs in one corner on a frame, like a shiny spider with all black rubber belts between the gears to make the limbs dance. It’s one of only three or four in the city, and it needs somebody skilled as Miss Lizzie to run it, but it don’t hesitate—which when you’re cutting flesh is a blessing— and it don’t balk at some operations like other doctors might. And you always know its arms and tools is clean, because Crispin boils ’em after every use.
When I stepped inside, that whole white room looked like it had been splashed about with red paint, and none too carefully. Crispin looked up from washing his hands in a pink-tinged basin with clotted blood floating like strings of tide-pool slime around the edges. Merry Lee was laid sleeping or insensible in the bed—on her side, clean sheets tucked around her waist and a man’s white button shirt on her backward so you could get to the dressings on her back. There was a mask over her face, and Crispin’s other big enamel-knobbed brass machine that handles all those sickbed things that the steam-powered knife machine doesn’t was kind of wheezing and whirring around her, its clockworks all wound up fresh and humming. The bloody sheets were heaped up in the basket and the Indian girl was perched on the chair by the head of the bed, holding Merry’s sallow hand clutched between her olive ones and rocking back and forth just a tiny bit, like she was trying with all her might to hold herself still.
I picked my way between smears of blood. Crispin looked up, grinning instead of grim, so I knowed Merry Lee was going to be just fine unless the blood poisoning or the gas gangrene got her. “Karen honey, you are a delivering angel.” He nodded to the tray. “This here is Priya. She helped me change the sheets.”
I got a good look at her and at Merry Lee while I set the coffee on the cleanest bureau. Merry was a lot younger than I would of expected from the stories, fresh faced and sweet as a babe in her sleep and maybe seventeen, eighteen—not more than a year or two older than me.
Given she’s been a thorn in the side of Peter Bantle and the rest of those cribhouse pimps for longer than I’ve been working, she must of started pretty young. Which ain’t no surprise, given some of Peter Bantle’s girls—and boys, too—ain’t no older than your sister, and given that before she got away from him Merry Lee is supposed to have been one of them.
The Indian girl had dried her hair and Crispin or somebody must of given her a clean shift. She must of warmed up some, because she was sitting in the blankets like a nest instead of wrapped up in them.
Now I could see her arms and legs and neck, she was skinnier than anybody ought to be who wasn’t starved to death. I sat there watching the knobs of her wrists and elbows stick out and the tendon strings move in the backs of her hands. I guess sailors and merchantmen don’t care so much if the slatterns and stargazers they visit are pretty so long as they’re cheap, and it’s dark in a whore’s crib anyway; plus, I guess if Peter Bantle underfeeds his girls they’re easy keepers.
Still, as I sat there looking at her, her tangled hair with the blood drying in it and her long face and her cheekbones all sharp under skin the color of an old, old brass statue’s, it more and more griped me thinking on it. And it more and more griped me that I’d been going to let Bantle have her.
That weren’t like me at all.
Unless it was, I thought, sickened, and I was just making comforting noises at myself now.
There was plenty coffee in the pot, cream and sugar, too, and I’d brought up cups for everybody. But it didn’t look like the Indian girl—Priya—was going to let go of Merry Lee’s hand and pour herself a cup.
So I did it for her, loaded it up with cream and sugar, and balanced all but one of the biscuits I’d brought along on the saucer when I carried it to her.
She looked up surprised when I touched her hand to put the saucer in it, like she might of pulled away. She weren’t any older than me, either, and this close I could see all the bruises on her under the brown of her skin. Layers of them. There was red fresh scrapes that would blossom into something spectacular. That might of been from dragging Merry Lee bleeding across half of Rapid City. There was black-purple ones with red mottles like pansy blossoms. And there was every shade of green and yellow, and you could pick out the handand fingerprints among ’em. And the red skinned-off slick-looking burns from Peter Bantle’s electric glove, and some white scars, too, which made me angry and sick in all sorts of ways I couldn’t even find half the words to tell you.
She was a fighter, and it had cost her. My daddy was a horse tamer, and he taught me. Some men don’t know how to manage a woman or a horse or a dog. Where a good master earns trust and makes a partner of a smart wife or a beast, acts the protector, and gets all the benefit of those brains and that spirit, all the bad ones know is how to crush it out and make them cringing meek. There’s a reason they call it breaking.
The more spirit, the longer it takes to break them. And the strongest ones you can’t break at all. They die of it, and my daddy used to say it was a damned tragic bloody loss.
He probably wouldn’t think much of me working on my back, but what he taught me kept me safe anyway, and it wasn’t like either of us asked him to get thrown by a horse and go dying. Which just goes to prove it can happen to anyone, no matter how good and how careful they are.
Priya looked up at me through all those bruises, and I thought filly a third time. I could see in her eyes what I saw in some of my daddy’s Spanish mustang ponies. You’d never break this one. You’d never even bend her. She’d die like Joan of Arc first, and spit blood on you through a smile.
My hand shook when I pushed the coffee at her. “I can’t take that,” she said, and that was my second surprise. Her English weren’t no worse than mine, and maybe a little better. “You can’t wait on me. You’re a white lady.” “I’m a white tart,” I said, and let her see me grin. “And you need it if you’re going to sit up with Miss Lee here. You’re skin over bones, and how far did you carry her tonight?”
I thought she’d look down, but she didn’t. Her eyes—you’d call ’em black, but that was only if you didn’t look too closely. Like people call coffee black. And her hair was the same; it wasn’t not-black, if you take my meaning, but the highlights in it were chestnut-red. I knowed I weren’t supposed to think so, but she was beautiful. “She got shot coming out from under the pier,” she said. “She told me where to run to.”
Madame Damnable’s. Which were near on a half mile off, and uphill the whole way. I poked the coffee at her again, and this time she let go of Merry Lee’s hand with one of hers and lifted the cup off the saucer, which seemed like meeting me halfway. I leaned around her to put the saucer and the biscuits on the bedside stand. I could still hear Crispin moving around behind me and I was sure he was listening, but that was fine. I’d trust Crispin to birth my babies.
She swallowed. “I heard Mr. Bantle shouting downstairs.”
There was more she meant to say, but it wouldn’t come out. Like it won’t sometimes. I knowed what she wanted to ask anyway, because it was the same I would of wanted if I was her. “Priya—did I say that right?”
She sipped the coffee and then looked at it funny, like she’d never tasted such a thing. “Priyadarshini,” she said. “Priya is fine. This is sweet.”
“I put sugar in it,” I said. “You need it. In a minute here I’m going to head down to the kitchen and see if Connie or Miss Bethel can rustle up a plate of supper for you. But what I’m trying to say is Madame Damnable—this is Madame Damnable’s house you brought Merry Lee to—she’s not going to give you back to Bantle for him to starve and beat on no more.”
I’m not sure she believed me. But she looked down at her coffee and she nodded. I patted her shoulder where the shift covered it. “You eat your biscuits. I’ll be back up with some food.”
“And a bucket,” Crispin said. When I turned, he was waving around at all that blood on rags and his forceps and on the floor.
“And a bucket,” I agreed, making sure not to look where he pointed.
I took one glance back at Priya before I went, cup up over her face hiding her frown, eyes back on Merry. And then and there I swore an oath that Peter Bantle was damned sure going to know what hit him.
On récolte ce que l’on sème.
That’s French. It means, “What goes around comes around.” So Beatrice tells me.
Excerpted from Karen Memory © Elizabeth Bear, 2015