|Tuberculosis Blue and the Mechanical Circus
Author: BithaBlu PM
Tuberculosis Blue only wanted to pay the rent but, as with much of her life, things get a little too complicated when she is hired to retrieve a young lady's pocketwatch lost during a trip to Louis Todd's Mechanical Circus. Fair Warning: History has been altered to fit the author's whims in this steampunk ish western set during the Civil War era.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Adventure - Words: 4,563 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 05-31-12 - id: 3027867
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Tuberculosis Blue and the Mechanical Circus
A Steampunkish Western Of Sorts
My granna had, what most people would call, a dark sense of humor. She was not the sort of woman to laugh at the jokes that other people found funny. Her loud cackle was heard, most often, after someone fell or got accidentally shot.
Funerals were a particular font of amusement for her.
Now, I don't want you to think that this is a criticism. It's just a fact that she had a particular case of gallows humor. Take my name for instance. She named me Tuberculosis Grace and my sister, Typhoid Anne after the diseases that killed our parents. When we were young, my sister and I thought it was hilarious when I would tell people that "Typhoid killed our ma." She would promptly reply that "Tuberculosis killed our pa."
It stopped being funny around the age of six when realized that not having parents wasn't really a laughing matter.
But granna would laugh at anything- from dead parents to darning socks. She led a hard life but most of her days were filled with her dark brand of amusement. Granna insisted that people did the most hilarious things if you only paid attention.
I find myself thinking of her unusual sense of humor at the oddest times. Right now, I should be a bit more concerned with the two pistols pointed in my directions by two men who both have their other guns pointed at each other. I rather wish that I could take out my two guns and look down their barrels at these two men just so it would be a bit more fair. Unfortunately, I left my sidearms at home because I only came here to find a young woman's pocket-watch. If only the giant mechanical elephant wasn't directly behind me, I might have a chance at running for the exit but, as is, I can't clamber over the damn thing without the two of them filling my backside full of lead. And, as I stand there trying to figure out how to extricate myself from the situation, I swear I could hear a whisper of granna's cackle on the wind.
It's a good thing she's already dead. Otherwise she'd probably die laughing if she saw me now.
One Week Previous
In the day light, the Madame Abby was as tired looking as the fancy ladies stumbling down the stairs for their morning coffee. At night, both the building and the women were glittering examples of beauty and seduction. Promises of lechery were poorly hidden behind fluttering eyelashes and half closed shutters. The Madame Abby and her girls glowed like a star in the evening. Few people ever saw either in the sunshine and it was for good reason.
Without the flickering gas lamps it was much easier to see the pock marked walls, scuffed up floor and the cheap curtains that looked luxurious only after a few shots of Zachariah's gin. The ten years of Santa Barbara's 'grandest' hotel had not been kind ones and, despite the relative youth of the building, things were getting a bit threadbare around the edges.
The ladies of the evening didn't fair much better.
They're a pretty bunch all right and a decent sort most days. A little cranky in the wee early hours of the afternoon but I can't fault them for that. It just that, for all the aggravation they give me for my choice of wardrobe, they're none too nice to look at before they've spent some time gussying up. Hair all tangled and eyes running dark with charcoal, the nine of them look like they were drudged up from underneath one of the boats in the harbor. The Madame Abby's own Abigail is the only one who looks decent most mornings but that's just because she doesn't spend her working hours on her back.
Beartrap, Doc, Zachariah and I have a way to deal with them though. We quietly hide behind newspapers and wait for them wake up enough to realize that there are menfolk around to see them without their lace and frillery. I used to wonder how they didn't realize that we would be there since we eat in the common room most days but then I realized they just like to prance around making noise and hoping that one of the boyos will tell them that they're pretty in the morning light.
On the bright side, this little theatrical show usually gives me a chance to read through a bit of the Harry before Doc commandeers it. He has a nasty tendency to keep ahold of it and the rest of us have learned to grab it before he wanders away to pour over it. I may not have his professional interest in what the Herald of Technology and Innovation prints but I do enjoy reading about all the modern wonders that the scientists in St. Louis see fit to write about. Most folks with a bit of literacy like to get their hands on the bi-monthly publications. Not all of the readers care for the technical jargon but everyone likes the pictures.
"Doc, could you stop fidgeting around and take a gander at this squeaky bit. TB'll hand over the paper when she's done and my foot's driving me mad with the noise." Beartrap hefted up his left foot and let it drop to the table top with a thump. He'd been bitching about some noise for the past week but I hadn't heard none until it was right up close. But he was right, there was wheezing squeak and a light tap.
Eek. Tap. Eeek. Tap. Eek. Tap
No wonder he'd been complaining. It's bad enough that he's got to wear that metal contraption over the stump where his foot used to be, but to have it make obnoxious noises to boot? That'd be downright annoying.
Doc grumbled a bit but pulled out his little kit as Beartrap carefully peeled his boot down. Quietly and all casual like, the rest of us in the room did our best not to appear as though we were staring. Beartrap did not enjoy having the Doc's handiwork on display and very few people had ever gotten a good look at it.
I have and it was still difficult for me to go back to the paper.
The accident that got Beartrap his nickname happened while he was a part of the posse going after Arturos Mifwic, Santa Barbara's former crime boss and a ruthless highwayman. There had been some tracks leading into some tall brush and Beartrap had volunteered to go in first seeing as he was one of the few men there who had been tall enough to see over the greenery. He had been so focused watching the grass move where Mifwic tried to sneak out that he had neglected to notice the rusted metal trap on the ground. The murdering bastard got away and people stopped calling Beartrap by his given name. He weren't too happy about the escaping but he didn't mind people not calling him Meriwether. The loss of his foot though...
It took Doc three long months to come up with the first prototype. There have been several versions over the past four years but Beartrap had done his damnedest to keep them all covered. For some reason, he doesn't mind sharing the story but he'll sleep with his boots on to keep others from seeing the stump.
Not that I know what he sleeps in.
The point is, most people ain't ever get the opportunity to see Doc's finest piece of gearwork. It's a shining mass of spinning gears and tiny pistons that you can watch move if the outer plates are taken off. He had said that any idiot could carve out a fake foot to keep a man from toppling over but it took true artistry and brilliance to create a foot from metal that worked like the real thing. I don't know if that's true or not but it was the only time I've ever heard Doc sing his own praises so I didn't make a peep. All I know is that all those moving parts allow Beartrap to wiggle his copper toes to keep his balance so he can walk without a limp. No one who hasn't heard the story knows that Beartrap is even missing the foot.
I have to admit, as I peek around the Harry to catch a glimpse of the proceedings, the Doc does some damn fine work. It's rather disturbing to watch him dismantle it right next to my coffee cup though.
"Does it make noise consistently or sporadically? If the latter, when specifically? Is it the same noise or does it change? If so, how so?" Doc shot out questions rapid fire as he removed the armored casing. He placed the nub end of one of his listening devices on the ankle bit and started tapping the heel. "Have you noticed any leaking? What color? Have you kicked anything recently? Do you remember what I told you about not kicking things that aggravate you?"
Beartrap sighed and waited. He'd known Doc for years and knew to wait for the impatient raised eyebrow that indicated that Doc was ready to listen. It took a another couple of questions before that bushy eyebrow finally shot up and Doc stared.
" I didn't kick anything. The noise only happens when I'm not standing on it and it's not leaking as far as I know. Oh, and as for that last question, I resent that. You should know me better than that." Beartrap was obviously uncomfortable with the quiet attention that he was receiving but there wasn't a person in the room that could look away.
It weren't really all our fault. Doc is known as the absolute top gearsmith for mechanized replacement limbs and he, himself, has stated loud and proud that Beartrap's foot is his greatest invention yet. And in a town where technological innovation is held in the highest esteem, that makes Beartrap's foot more than just a little noteworthy. There are wrenchers around here that would cut off their mother's foot if they thought the Doc would make 'em a new one so they could steal the design.
For the past ten years, Santa Barbara has been a haven for scientists and gearsmiths who didn't appreciate the finer points of the law or the altercation back east. Between the metals found in the near regions and the railroad that came through eight years ago, our fair city is bustling with the invention business. Even people who weren't particularly curious about the art of mechanization have managed to have a passing interest in the technological wonders produced here in Santa Barbara. So it's no surprise that even the lowliest whore in town, let's call her Lucy, can get a bit preoccupied by Doc's work.
"It seems as though you just slipped a gear." Doc tinkered around a bit with some of his tools and the noise finally stopped. He grabbed the tiniest wrench I'd ever seen and made a few twists to tighten things up before calling it fixed. Watching him reassemble Beartrap's foot was just as morbidly fascinating as the reverse. Not a person in the room was pretending that they weren't watching. I had even dropped the pretense of reading. "I'll have to replace the screw holding it in place with something sturdier but, for now, I've secured it better and hope that it'll last until I can figure out a decent replacement part."
Beartrap gave a huge sigh of relief when Doc was finally done tightening up the last screw. "A gracious thanks to you Doc. If I had to miss out on another night of sleep from that damned squeak, I'd be likely to go insane."
"Barring incident, it should remain quiet until I can create a better screw to keep it in place." Doc was already sketching in his notepad before he had even finished his sentence. Apparently, it wasn't just a sturdier bit he needed to keep Beartrap's sleeping schedule intact; Doc had to invent a whole new piece. From the looks of it, it was going to be a complicated.
We were all so engaged by trying to catch of glimpse of Doc's scribblings that not a one noticed the presence of a stranger until the man cleared his throat. We all turned towards the door and no one could do more than blink at the person standing there.
I blame the lack of time for our coffee to take hold for our befuddledness. Or the oddity of a man like him in a place like this. Either way, our vacant expressions and lack of hospitality did not seem to make a good impression on him.
He wasn't of the usual type of man to enter the Madame Abby. His suit was too nice for regular folk without being ostentatiousness enough for the gentry. His expression was more sneer than leer and only bit of wealth he showed was the gold chain to his pocket-watch.
Anyone with a lick of sense could see that he was from the highest order of the servant class and we don't get many of those type in here. Usually, they were more prim and proper than those they served. And if they did manage to choke back their revulsion to enter a whorehouse, it was usually only to retrieve their wayward masters.
"I don't mean to intrude on your establishment during, what are obviously, your off hours," the man said as he sniffed pretentiously. And, before he continued in his superious tone, he actually took the time to give each one of us a snotty look. "I have come here at the behest of my employers to request the services of a particular lady."
We all just stared at him blankly. From the tips of his polished shoes to the top of head, he seemed like the type of man who'd rather set the place on fire than admit that anyone would want the services offered. Even his mustache looked offended by being in a whore house- it twitched all over underneath that ratty looking nose of his and I swear it was trying to escape from the man's face to race back to civilization.
Finally Abigail snapped to her senses and said, "My apologies, sir, but we only offer our services at this time by appointment and I don't recall anyone being on this schedule for this afternoon."
The look of horror on his face when she said that was worth him sneering down at us like we were a bunch of polecats rolling in horse shit.
"I did not mean, that is to say, I did not intend," he stuttered. Abigail's inference as to his intention flustered the man beyond reason. I found it rather amusing that such an easy mistake to make was throwing him for such a loop. Taking a deep breath that didn't seem to calm him a bit, he tried again. "My employer's daughter, one Miss Vivian, had requested that I meet with a Miss Blue regarding her object retrieval specialty."
Now, once he said who he was looking for, all the girls had a quiet little chuckle but only Lucy was crass enough to say anything. For some reason, she doesn't like me much and the feeling has become quite mutual over the past four years.
"I thought you said you were looking for a lady." Lucy snorted as she tossed her curly red hair back and let her robe slip enough to show some leg. Despite the type of man he was, she couldn't resist showing off her wares. "She may be particular but a lady is the last thing TB is."
The man coughed discreetly and I couldn't tell if he agreed with her assessment of me or if he was perturbed that a lady of the evening so disagreed with my character. In any case, I found myself disapproving of him but, since he was just the middle man, I decided to talk to him anyways.
"I'm Tuberculosis Blue," I said as blandly as I could to hide my dislike, "and as long as it's my retrieval services you're after, I'll be glad to discuss the situation with your employer."
Once again, he looked aghast. Apparently, the thought of a rough sort like me meeting his precious Miss Vivian was unbearable. But, since I had taken an instant dislike to him, I was going to make that a sticking point to the deal. As a bonus, I knew that if he agreed to it, that my services were well and truly wanted.
He blinked several time as though he were trying to rectifying his world view with my request. "Obviously the meeting couldn't happen here. Miss Vivian doesn't know a place like this exists and I'd rather keep it that way."
In the background, a few of the girls cooed and fluffed their hair. Polly muttered something but I couldn't tell what it was. I couldn't even tell if it was in English or if she had reverted to Spanish in annoyance. Dotty just brayed with laughter.
Considering how many of the wealthy gents have crossed the Madame Abby's threshold, it always amuses us to hear about how the ladies don't know of such places. Personally, I think they just like to pretend whorehouses don't exist since they don't want to think about what their men are doing when they're not home.
Selective acceptance of truth does have it's uses but, since there aren't many places that would accommodate both myself and the mysterious Miss Vivian, it does leave me in a quandary as to where to meet. Most of the places that are used to me would probably shock my potential client senseless. And, sad to say, but the public areas in town that she'd be accustomed to would refuse my entry.
It's not like I'm some horrible beast dragging my knuckles while slouching through the streets eating any small child or animal that crosses my path. I was just raised without certain social conventions and I'm not particularly interested in taking them up. I don't see the point in all the frillery that women are expected to wear but most people don't agree with me so I'm regarded as somewhat of an unsavory oddity.
A woman can wear trousers and a woman can carry a gun but, apparently, to wear both is some sort of indignant extreme. I find the idea irksome to say the least. My work requires a certain freedom of movement and ability to defend one's self. I'd have never been able to recover Lester Yarinton's gold shipment from the rail pirates or little Nixia VanSeagan from that bastard Vigus Kierny without a bit of running and shooting.
Of course, it's possible that the town's elite simply remember the time I staggered through the Luxley's grounds covered in blood during one of their hoity-toity garden parties and they'd prefer it if they never saw me again.
Whichever it is, the fact remains that I'm not welcome where the fine folk frolic and the whole of the room knew it.
"Suppose," Abigail began. She hesitated and looked me over as though I were dirty apple at market. I could almost hear her making a list of everything it would take to polish me up, she was thinking it so hard. Her head wobbled back and forth as though she were weighing the pros and cons of it all before she gave a firm nod and continued. "I think, with a little help, we could get TB here propered up enough for the tea house."
The man gave an indiscreet snort and his lips twisted up into a mockery of a smile, "Unless you are talking about some seaside shanty of a tea house, I sincerely doubt that Miss Blue would be allowed through the door."
Those of us in the know shared a smirk or two as Abigail grinned, "The other customers might have a problem with TB strolling through the front door of the Duncanshire Respite but SueLeann wouldn't mind a bit if she slipped in through the back."
I'd have never thought a man could look so horrified. It was like Abigail had suggested that he go for a nice tar and feathering before serving dinner. Or that he use horse dung instead of pomade.
"My employers are regular patrons of Miss Duncan's tea house and, having met with that fine lady, I would be rather surprised if she were to allow anyone of Miss Blue's like to step foot in her establishment." That arrogant ass drew himself up and pointed his nose skywards. It was as though, somehow, knowing SueLeann raised him up from the rest of us and the common dirt that we all wallowed in. It'd be amusing if it weren't so insulting.
"Having met a few clients there, I can assure you that Miss Duncan won't take issue with my presence provided I keep quietly to the back rooms." Of course, I hadn't tried to use the tea house as a meeting place since I emphatically declined that job from Jacob Masters a few months back. SueLeann had been madder than a wet cat when she saw the mess we'd made of the place but she hadn't said anything about never coming back. Mostly, she had just yelled about her silver tea set being dented and the table being reduced to so many splinters. I'd replaced the table though and Doc had fixed the tea set so I'd think that she'd let me back in if I promised to behave this time. And, hell, it was looking like I was going to have dress accordingly so SueLeann didn't even have to bitch about serving tea to a woman in pants. I'd think she'd be happy to let me back in just for that.
Abigail's lips quirked and I couldn't tell if she disagreed with my assumption or if she was amused by the thought of me taking tea quietly under SueLeann's watchful eye. Whatever she thought, she kept it to herself and just said, "If your Miss Vivian would like to meet with TB today, I'm sure we could have her gussied up in two hours."
Across the table from me, Zachariah piped up with a wide smile on his face and a mischievous glint in his eyes, "You better make it three. TB will probably have to be dunked twice in the horse trough before she's clean enough to take a bath."
Zachariah's cheeky grin was the only thing that saved him from getting smacked. I swear, that boy lives to dodge the back of my hand. You'd think he'd have learned how to keep that mouth of his shut by now but he hasn't. It's a wonder that no one's shot his scrawny ass dead.
The man's eyebrow raised as he tried to figure out if Zachariah was joking. I thought it'd be obvious that he had been. It hadn't been a week since my last dip in the tub and I hadn't done anything that'd make me get all grubbed up. One sneering glare from Miss Vivian's man though and I felt like it'd been a year since I'd seen soap.
You know, for someone who seemed to think so rudely of me, you'd think he'd be polite enough to introduce himself. He'd been standing there for quite some time and I still didn't know his name.
"I believe that Miss Vivian will be able to make an appearance in three hours, if you find that to be an acceptable amount of time to prepare." The look on his face told me that he didn't think a whole day of preening and powdering would be enough. It took every ounce of will power to keep stone cold calm and I couldn't help my eye from twitching when he added, "If you are refused entry into the Duncanshire Respite, please see if Miss Duncan will let you leave an excuse for your absence. I would hate for Miss Vivian to have to witness any sort of altercation that come from your denial into decent society."
I didn't even get a chance to take a breath to retort before that pompous ass was through the door and gone.
"Well, then," Abigail said with a false cheeriness, "What say we show that jackass what we can do with three hours. He'll change his tune quick when he sees what TB can look like with a bit of effort."
There were a few snickers- mostly from Lucy and Dotty- but Winnie, Charity and Polly raced up the stairwell chattering about skirts, corsets, jackets and such. Betsy and Edwina scurried over to me talking of hair curlers and ribbons. The two of them untied the leather strap holding my hair back and yanked my hair off into all directions without a how-do-you-do. They didn't even ask me what I wanted and I don't suppose I blame them. I'd probably tell them just to pull it back into the leather strap and forget about all them fancy curls and dangles. In the background I could hear Abigail yelling for Almira to get a bath going and I wondered if the whole of the whorehouse had gone insane. I didn't need all this uproar to help me primp up for one little meeting over tea.
Beartrap leaned over and smirked at me from between Edwina and Betsy. He looked impish and I wondered if he'd been spending too much time with Zachariah when he asked, in a much louder tone than needed, "Do you even own a pair of shoes that ain't muddy boots?"
"Oh, good lord, she's gonna need shoes," Abigail squawked. I saw her throw her hands up in exasperation and I never wanted to throttle Beartrap so bad as I did right then and there. I couldn't even punch that smile of his down his throat without knocking down the two ladies twirling my hair every which way.
Worst thing was, I still hadn't finished my coffee and Doc had snuck off with the Harry.