Of Demons and Coal

 

1—Friday, February 3, 1888

“‘Electric Light Fraud!'” yells a bundled-up huckster waving the newspaper’s late edition. The Boston Herald never publishes positively about Edison. No great loss. I think the idea of lightning running through my house, no matter how chained, is rather disturbing.

The snow piles up in drifts gray with soot between the ruts of the cobblestone streets and against the red brick buildings. The chill of the light wind cuts through my long cloak, even with the rabbit fur around the high collar. My shiver stifles the yawn that had been poised on my lips. I pull the cape closer. With a long, metal pole bearing a slow wick, an enterprising young girl in dirty overalls lights the gas streetlight in front of me. As she turns to race to the next lamp, she nearly runs me over.

“‘Scuse me, Widow Ochoa.”

“Out of here, scamp,” I say, swatting at her playfully. The little ones can’t know how much I hate the moniker, “widow.” I always associate it with someone old. At twenty-three I’m not even a spinster. Oh, I’m not young, and definitely not beautiful.

Ten hours of spelling coal byproducts from the gritty Boston skies has me wanting nothing more than to stoke the fire in my room, climb into my nightdress, and bury myself under six layers of blankets for some well-deserved sleep. My pay and the widow’s pension from the Royal Treasury of King Frederick II gives me barely enough to live at Chapman’s Boarding House. With a two-hole privy and accommodations that boast just enough room to change my petticoats, it borders on livable. On good days, the North End stench of the fish offal and rancid whale oil from the docks doesn’t cover up the smell of Mrs. Chapman’s pickled-cabbage stew, a taste treat at which even pigs turn up their noses.

The tinny sound of bells pierces the evening air. I wince. Only the Mission Church bells carry that thin tone. Three quick strikes on the higher-pitched bell indicate an alarm meant for my team of hell-fighters and me. This is the second time this month they have called me out. The two-tone bells call out a Morse message. Low tone pause—T. High tone low tone high tone pause—R. High pause—E and more before the dispatch repeats itself. Tremont Street about a mile out. Rich neighborhood.

Walking all that way in store-bought shoes doesn’t appeal. Corns have already formed on the tops of my feet. My savings would more than cover new shoes or a cobbler to fix them, but if I dip into them every time I am uncomfortable, I’d never be able to support myself in old age.

Hacks don’t come down here this time of the night, although I might find one cruising the bars along Prince Street. Stretching my coin is another story.

As fate has it, a streetcar meanders down to the corner at the end of the street. I run over, being extra careful not to turn my ankle on the cobblestones or slip on the ice.

Raising my skirts and undergarments, I climb onto the running board. The vomit and muck on the trolley’s floor makes me rethink my decision, but the damage is already done. I envision the scrubbing time it’s going to take me to clean some previous drunk’s evening from the hems of my dress and undergarments and frown.

The driverless transport waits its prescribed thirty seconds before trundling off again. I don’t quite understand all the reasons we don’t need a driver. Something about a pair of bumpy cylinders the trolley men call cams that allow the cars to follow set paths. I understand the missing horses. The earth witch in me can feel the energy stored in the massive metal springs in the thick ceiling above me.

The trams are free if a bit finicky. Sometimes they stop and never restart. Once I saw one turn in a circle and keep turning. It took three engineers to get that one stopped and back on track.

The only other passenger, a bookkeeper from his looks, sits across from me. He wears the bare minimum society requires of his station. His black breeches have seen too much lye soap. He wears a leather coat patched eight times more than a stumblebum might wear, and a dress shirt fraying at the cuffs and collar. Turning toward me, he says, “Them bells sound’n’ off ‘gain. Must be mean’n’ ‘nother demon on the loose.” He runs a finger inside the stiff collar of a shirt that may have at one time been fashionable in England, but nowhere else.

I try and stay out of conversations with men as a general rule, but especially on a tram. Besides, I have my work cut out for me as the person who left the glorious trail of after-excessive-drinking seems to have doused the entire floor. I lift my hem from the mess, knowing the cause is lost already.

“Oh, this here trolley is going right up where the hellfighters is gonna be.”

“How do you know about that?” I ask. “I mean, I know, but—”

“I be reckoning that if’n one building in fifty be powered by hellspawn, I gotta learn about them bells. They’s installing them right after the Demon Fire of ’72. I hears them so much I figures out right quick what they means. That there low bell is a T,” he says, making out the bells that continued to ring until all my fellow hellfighters arrive. “And that there is an R. Puts ’em all together an’ you got Tremont.”

His statement requires no response, so I try to ignore the man so I might get a nap on the way out. I lean back and close my eyes.

“Maybes you lookin’ fer a man?”

“What?” I ask, bolting up with a start. I don’t need a bookkeeper or anyone else pawing at me if that is what he has in mind.

“Thems hellfighters makes a good livin’. Not like no hack driver or no bookkeeper, neither. I hears some of the high-born ladies say they’s mighty fine lookin’, too.”

“No. I assure you I am not looking for a husband. As a widow, I’ve had quite enough men for this lifetime and probably the next.”

“Youse don’t look old enough to be no widow woman. But then the Irish Liberation did chew up lots o’ men. Is that where you lost yourn?”

I try not to think about my husband, Aaron, dead only five years. It seems like he just stepped out for a pint, yet five long years separated us. “Yes. He died at Termonbarry.”

“Lots of good men went to St. Peter at that place. Did they ever find out who summoned that demon? Survivors tell stories that don’t match. English, Irish, American. Me, I think us Americans and the Irish gave them bloody Brits just a bit too much lead to—”

“Will you please be quiet?” I ask, giving just a little too much snap to my voice.

“Sorry, mum.”

Aaron, my massive Moor. Had I loved him for even a hundred years, it wouldn’t have been enough. My husband’s loss in that cauldron of death, Ireland, left a charred spot in my soul bigger than their entire accursed country.

Growing up, neither men nor boys ever held any fascination. Girls around me, especially Karie, giggled and wondered what matching their parents might make for them. At the time, I found the male of our species beastly at best and demonic at worst. I would go a long way around the carriage house to avoid talking to one. My mother, the reigning goddess of all knowledge about the stronger sex, still despairs at my lack of interest. While not part of royalty, my mother always adopts an air eight stages better than her station in life. Back in my youth, she insisted I have a coming-out party and engage with the Boston socialites. Never had so much money been spent on so little outcome. By the end of my fifteenth year, I’d danced with ten young gentlemen, received one young man (who got his instep spiked by my heel when he attempted to put his arm around me in the buggy), and, shockingly, no proposals.

I see the red of fires glowing to the northwest, but still, no definitive location as the tram rolls up the empty street of Tremont past Dartmouth.

A green delivery trailer with gold stencil proclaiming “Dunne’s Butchers” flies across the street. I mean flies, not just moving swiftly. It smashes against the side of a brownstone like a china cup dropped on the floor. Splinters of wood and gobs of meat rain down. This is the sign I’ve been waiting for and pull the trolley’s exit cord. The tram rattles to a stop.

“Youse sure you be wantin’ to get out here, widow woman?” the bookkeeper says from his hunched-over perch beneath the edge of the tram’s window.

“Yes. Thank you for your concern. This is definitely my stop,” I say as a horse, minus its head, follows the delivery trailer against the wall with a gory sound of a wet slip slammed against a washboard.

“Go with God then, Miss Widow.” Ignoring the simpering fool, I manage to exit the tram without further damage to my skirts.

A steam-wheezing, brass-and-steel, self-propelled monstrosity misses running me over by a whisker. Its wide broom sweeps up the snow and horse apples in front of it. The simpleminded machine puffs and scrubs down the lane. It is oblivious to the chaos it travels toward.

Over the top of the machine, I see the flaming visage of a demon’s face, twisted and contorted in rage. With skin the texture and color of a pig roasted overlong on a spit, and beady crimson eyes set deep in its skull, it masses the same as thirty stout men. Its great ram-like horns reach the middle of the nearby building’s second floor. I can feel the waves of anger and fury boiling off the hellspawn as bursts of heat.

At least it is a massive beast. That means a short night. The larger the demon, the easier to manipulate with its stupid mind. Those brutes have to put a show on about how impressive they are in muscles rather than what damage they can cause by being smart. The ones you fear are those the size of a child—tricky and powerful enough to melt your flesh from your bones at forty paces.

The vaguely human-shaped, horned monster holds a pram like a child might hold a marble. I whisper a prayer to Saint Nicholas that no babe is inside as the evil creature crushes the stroller between its forefinger and thumb. Like all demons, it rejoices in the death and destruction torn from our world. It laughs in a low tone that sends shivers down the spine.

But I am its antithesis.

I bend over and pick up a small bit of cobblestone that has withstood the street sweeper. Popping it into my mouth, I march toward the maelstrom. The earth witch in me feels the orderly structure of the stonework. I taste gritty, acrid clay interspersed with the minute flavors of pig offal, spilled flour, slivers of rust, fragments of store candy, and remnants of manure.

Every time I attempt to describe the symbiosis of witchcraft, I fail. I don’t steal another’s power. I don’t get filled with its essence. Instead, I feel the living entity of the street below me. Its energy and mine merge together in a swirl like that of a baker creating a cinnamon roll. It doesn’t fill me, but we share a portion of our spirit. And like that sweet treat, we become more than our components. No longer am I just sugar, cinnamon, or dough. I am more.

A whistle of agony breaks my communion. Two great fists crush down the top of the mindless cleaning machine. Its pressure vessel, dark with tarnish, spews its power into sound and a jet of steam. The evil beast throws his head back from the superheated water with a bellow even though it can’t possibly hurt him. After the flinch, it tears the street sweeper into two uneven pieces, stopping the device’s death throes. It picks up the smaller piece, only the size of an oxen team, and looks around for a target. Its fiery eyes lock onto mine.

It is now time for me to get into the action, if only in self-preservation. I mentally reach down into the cobblestones and flip them up like snapping a sheet at the end of the bed. A giant groundswell of stone forms a wave thirty feet high. I freeze it in place as it reaches the intersection as a stationary wall. I hear a metallic crash against the rocks and smile at my handiwork.

A loud roar punctuates another crack against the rocks. Bits of brass and wood fountain over the top. I rush up toward my woman-made hill, sneaking through a crack between it and the building, almost knocking over my team lead. Missing him is quite a feat as he is broad as a hogshead.

“Sorry, Carlos. I didn’t see you there.”

Carlos de Aldana, leader of the Dos Campanas, and direct descendant of Martin de Aldana, ex-Duke of Rutland, isn’t a man that people flock to. With his acne-pocked face, short stature, and dark skin, many overlook him. His natural charisma isn’t in drawing people in. Where he shines is that once you’ve shed blood with him, you know he will back you with magic, guns, or even politics in even the darkest place of hell itself. He leads. We follow. Even with my superior skills, there is no way I can ever take his place.

Carlos breaks into a rare smile through the heavy pockmarking of his face. “No worries, Stella,” he says. “We are almost assembled. We’re just missing—”

“I’ll bet three pesetas that it’s Don Alberto,” I shout over the beast’s bellows.

“No bet. We just need to hold this monster until he gets here.” A jet of flame splatters the building next to Carlos, melting some of his salt and pepper hair. Belatedly ducking down, he looks back. “You probably know the drill better than me. I’ll have Maxwell set off the signal.” Carlos dashes out to take up his position.

On the surface, interning a loose demon is simplicity itself—tease it back to where it doesn’t want to go and then imprison it. Two witches take turns baiting the fiend with mild damage spells, getting it to chase them. Three others block the demon’s view and access to anything but its tormenters. The last witch heals any of our team who is damaged in the process. In the end, he is also often the one that seals the beast in place. But for all that, every hell-fighter has to be on their toes as something always goes wrong.

I get the dirt in the cracks of the cobblestones to take to the sky in a thick cloud. My task as one of the herders is to give the beast nothing but the baiters to see. My work is like putting blinkers on a horse.

The night briefly turns to day when a brilliant white flash appears above the beast like that bloody flash powder used for photographs. The light is the signal that the team is assembled and time to move the critter. Carlos, an air witch, forms a tornado-like vortex behind the beast. Working with earth isn’t like air. The components of the ground are almost lazy in their power. They don’t want to move. Air, on the other hand, needs to move, and the faster, the better.

I urge my formerly frozen wave forward enough so that I can slide it in front of the buildings and down the street. I am one side of the box and will travel horizontally.

Now I can see the briar hedge forming opposite of me by the nature warlock Raquel Ruiz. We call her Menagerie, or just Menaj, as she always seems to have a group of critters around her. I must be too much of a city girl because embracing nature the way she does seems foreign.

Donny O’Sullivan, one of our two baiters, stings the beast with a small jet of water right in the face. The heat of the creature causes it to erupt into a cloud of steam as the demon bellows. The horned beast lunges for its red-haired antagonist. Donny’s slight form easily dodges out of the way. But come to think of it, I’ve never known a fat hell-fighter. I guess that would be just a good way to commit suicide.

Carlos pushes up his vortex into the space vacated by our quarry. Raquel and I slide our walls a couple dozen feet down the avenue. Now, all we have to do is repeat this a couple hundred times.

Massive fists come down on either side of Donny, threatening to roast him between the two sheets of flame. Time for our other baiter to swing into action and draw attention away. Unfortunately, our other baiter, Mateo, had died three weeks past in a bar brawl, of all things.

A new member fills his shoes—Don Alberto Diaz y Serrano de Salamanca. In my book, this prissy warlock knows about as much about demons as a virgin has experience with sex. But, as Carlos says, we all have to start somewhere. Carlos has been training him hard on our methods.

Alberto etcetera, etcetera, also a water witch, forces a bubble of wastewater up from the sewer through the rock. I feel the pressure and pain of the earth being rent apart, so I coax the soil and rock apart like a loosening sphincter. It allows the foul water an easier passage. The bolt of sewage hits the demon from the side. The creature, now ignoring Donny, ineffectively bats at the stream while screaming in rage.

So far, so good, I think.

The hellspawn lurches forward. In the space of a heartbeat, it takes four giant strides toward our backpedaling virgin. A vine snakes out from the hedge and wraps itself around Alberto’s ankle. With a jerk, it yanks our new teammate to one side and indecorously dumps him on his arse. The demon’s jaw snaps down on naught but air.

“Side to side, you idiot,” calls Maxwell Parker, our dedicated healer and white witch. “They are much faster than you are but about as maneuverable as a train.”

De Salamanca’s copper-brown face turns the shade of new snow. It shows no acknowledgment of anything but the grinding teeth that had just missed him and the beast’s screams of fury.

“Shit,” I say. I can see what’s coming. Just like any military plan, ours is likely to fall apart at the first contact with the enemy.

Donny sends another horse trough full of water spraying the demon’s way all in one glob. It turns on its renewing tormenter, forgetting the sewage and the warlock that sent it his way. Most demons, especially the large ones, have little to no memory and zero follow-through. This is why it is so easy to manipulate them.

It runs forward, banging into the side of a building in a desperate attempt to get O’Sullivan. The side of the edifice crumbles. People fall out, screaming. Debris flies everywhere. I manage to land the six civilians safely in a deep sandpit I form from within the earth and place beneath them. But with too many things to pay attention to, a broken bedstead glances off my right shoulder. Nothing serious, but the bruising and maybe a greenstick fracture will slow me down.

As if summoned, Maxwell Parker shows up at my side. His hands reach down my dress to press on my bare skin. Had anyone else done this, I would give them a brick enema. Max is professional, and it isn’t the first time he’s touched or seen my skin. I feel the bruises “evaporate”…the only word that ever comes to mind. My bone beneath itches slightly, and the ache disappears.

“Thanks, Max,” I say before returning my attention to the fight.

De nada.”

Donny has found himself in a ring of debris with no quick way out. The fiery beast is likely to turn him into pâté if it isn’t distracted. Don Alberto seems not to have done anything but sink to the ground and cower under one of the streetlamps.

“Saints preserve fools and children,” I say. As I had before, by putting the stone in my mouth, I sample the power around me. I feel the goodness of God Almighty as it flows everywhere. It warms my spirit. God himself seemingly offers a portion of his omnipotence to my command.

“‘John saw it rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and up on his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy,'” I say, pointing directly at the creature’s head. A bolt of distilled goodness lances forward. Where it strikes, it knocks the demon backward onto its fundamentals.

Yes, I am one of the oddities of the witchcraft world. I have more than one talent. While magic is rare, only one person in a handful of hundreds manifests any gift. Then only one in twenty or fifty of those can use it for anything more than parlor tricks. To make me even more different, only one or two witches in a generation can manipulate more than one kind of magic. I don’t share the knowledge of my extra skills with many. And while I know white witchcraft, I can’t control it with the fine sense that I can use my capabilities with the earth. Instead of merely stinging the beast, I hit him with a massive uppercut. I use white only for emergencies.

Before the beast can recover, Carlos calls out from the back, “Max, take Alberto’s place.” He knows my white powers can’t be trusted for the delicate work of taunting.

The demon shakes his head, glares at me, and leaps to its feet, intent on rending my flesh to goo. Instead, Donny draws its attention with another shot of water. Max gets into position, and our work goes on.

I catch one glimpse of Don Alberto as we move the monster toward its home. The ex-member of our team hides down the stairwell of a brownstone, white as a bleached sheet and eyes the size of dinner plates. No longer a member of our team, he becomes a civilian—someone to protect, but just as likely to get in the way.

Maxwell’s brilliant flares of God’s gift and the much dimmer streetlamps are the only thing that pierce the night. Grunts and snarls vie with the occasional civilian’s scream to rob the night of its silence. Also, without a dedicated healer, we all take some bumps and bruises that we live with. Worse, in a rare slipup, Menaj takes the demon’s barbed tail to her chest. I wince, thinking of those spines in her breasts. It will need attention after we are done, but she seals the bleeding with a poultice and a writhing band of vining plant.

A gaping hole blown out from the side of a rowhouse denotes the building the demon escaped from. The orifice is like no other damage. Even a civilian can tell the difference. The brick and lumber have been exploded from within like a boiler with a frozen safety valve.

As we ease the hellspawn into the basement, I break off from the wall team. The baiters stop taunting and form a corral. I go in first to set up the imprisonment. I see a vast rent in the side of the original chalk pentagram, which had held the otherworldly beast, that speaks for itself. With no time to investigate, I brush the dirt floor smooth with a handy broom.

Closing my eyes, I feel the ground. We become one. All enchantments have gone, and the blank canvas is at my disposal. Unlike when first summoned, we don’t need all the pomp and circumstance. We merely need to hold the beast until a licensed demon installer can show up and perform the appropriate rituals.

Without opening my eyes, I draw a massive pentagram in the dirt with my right index finger while chanting, “We know that God’s children do not make a practice of sinning, for God’s Son holds them securely, and the evil one cannot touch them.” I pull the stone, the metals, and even the very fabric of the earth itself to my trace in the dirt.

Once the four-foot-wide, five-point star is complete, I call out, “Bring him in.”

Snarling and spitting, the demon no longer lashes out at tormenters but claws at the barriers formed by the team. It knows what awaits it now and only wants to escape. It is also our most dangerous time. Those in front are just to keep it trapped while those in back push with their physical and magical strength. No matter how good we are, gaps are always forming between the magicks.

I get smacked by one of the beast’s massive fists. A jet of flame starts Carlos’s blouse on fire, which Donny puts out with drenching rain he conjures out of the atmosphere itself.

A sound as if a giant child sucked on a sour candy sees the massive creature reduce in size to that of a normal person. I feel the pentagram solidify into an invisible steel prison. The fury of the demon’s scream drops in volume to barely be heard.

“In,” I say.

“We got it,” Carlos announces.

As always at the conclusion of a demon reinternment, we stand there looking at one another in desperate silence. Our blood is up, but the need for activity is gone. And, as always, the building we end up in looks like a massive cannon blew a hole through it.

Stepping outside, we look back at the swath of destruction caused by the beast. Even our skills couldn’t block all the damage. A mule lies disemboweled, bleeding out on the street. Corners of buildings have bricks and chunks missing out of them like some child’s toys after a tantrum. A barber’s pole lies shattered in red, white, and blue glass. A pram is flattened as if the earth goddess herself chose to sit upon it. I emotionally take in the scattering of metal, wood, and stone pieces. The aftermath reminds me of the hurricane of ’78.

I turn my attention to the team. The right leg of Maxwell Parker’s breeches is burned away, exposing blisters and blackened skin. Carlos’s left index finger sticks out at the wrong angle. Each of us is darkened in ash and smoke. I shake like a dog, causing a small cloud.

Cacafuego,” Menagerie finally says, breaking the silence.

“You can say that again,” Donny agrees.

Cacafuego,” Raquel repeats.

Maxwell tends the wounds about the group with his white magic.

“We’ll meet up at the Bell-in-Hand tomorrow night to split the take,” Carlos says.

I am too tired to be excited about another reward this month. After a long day of spelling soot and then a demon alarm on top of it, all I want is a meat pie, a pint of ale, and bed. But if I go home, I’ll be lucky to get even a bed. I don’t remember hearing the seven bells during the fight, but I had other more important things to worry about if I wanted to keep my precious skin intact.

Alice Chapman, my landlady, runs her boardinghouse like something out of the King’s Own American Regiment. The doors are closed and locked precisely at eight. Dinners are put on the table precisely at seven and removed at eight after the doors have been locked.

Widow Chapman will not open the doors after eight, nor will she provide any exceptions to the meal schedule. “They promote sloth and loose morals,” she says to everything she doesn’t personally approve.

The eight o’clock bells from the Mission Church choose that moment to peel off, sealing my hopes and dreams of a meal, a bath, and a bed at home. My waist would thank me for skipping a meal, and my head probably would thank me for skipping the pint. That only leaves lodging. I have my pride. I won’t take bed-space.

I remember my best friend, Karie Taylor, and her standing offer of a bed in her apartment. “Gents, I’m going to leave now. I’ll meet you at the Bell-in-Hand tomorrow night.”

“Good work, Stella.” As an afterthought, I release the spring-loaded earthen wall I’d moved around with my magic. I can feel it sigh as it slumps back to its original shape.

“Thanks, boss.”

Now, Karie Taylor’s name, otherwise known as Daring Karie, evokes reactions from everyone who hears it. To the upper-crust ladies of town, she is the epitome of all that is rank and disgusting in our world. Other women spurn her, even those in her own profession. To children, she is a horror that mothers invoke to frighten them into behaving. To every man over the age of thirteen, she embodies all that is sensual and sexual. Karie is one of the highest-paid, ahem, ladies of the evening in Boston, and perhaps the whole of the Kingdom of America.

As my friend, I love her to death. She is funny, irreverent, and all that is genuinely charitable and good. She practically pays for the running of the Boston Orphanage by herself and contributes to at least six other organizations for philanthropic works that I know of.

Karie and I went to Harbor Primary School together. We made an odd pairing, but once we compared lives—her the daughter of an absentee fisherman whose wife died in childbirth and my mother being the highfalutin’ bitch that she is—we became inseparable.

The years went by, and we each took different paths—me with my Aaron and her with every man who would pay. She took to her chosen profession like a duck to water. Karie isn’t a classic beauty like Lily Elsie or Maude Fealy, yet her clientele sings her praises almost in church mass itself. The reason they come back to her bed as often as they can afford it is simply because Karie likes sex in all of its infinite varieties. She loves men, women, thin, fat, and everywhere in between. My friend isn’t a nymphomaniac, in that it is not only her vocation but her deeply loved hobby as well. She enjoys everything about sex and passes that joy onto her customers.

I don’t look down on her profession. I often feel wives, in general, are whores that aren’t paid very well. So what is there to look down on?

Actually, because of the neighborhood, our demon hunt took us to, I am quite close to her home. If I have any difficulty in my decision, the thought of a two-hour walk back to the docks area and casting about for a hotel on a Friday night decides me.

Ten minutes later, I’m at Karie’s classy red door. She once confided in me her two-level joke in that color. Red is the color to show that you own your own home. Add to that the red-light-district method of paying for her house. She chuckles every time she leaves the house. A brass plate announcing, “Casa de Taylor,” and a large brass knocker adorn the door. I use the knocker twice, hoping I’m not interrupting.

The door opens to an older man in a butler suit with a lordly nose that has been broken probably more times than the number of demons I’ve interned. I understand he used to be a boxer before his hair turned gray. “Buenas noches, Vdo Ochoa,” Alejandro Sanchez says. “I’m very sorry, but Miss Taylor is engaged.”

“I was afraid of that, Alejandro. Is Miss Taylor’s offer to use the Blue Room still good? It appears I’ve been locked out of my boardinghouse.”

Absolutamente, señora. That has never been rescinded, and we keep the room fresh just for you. Please, let me take you there.”

“Thank you, Alejandro.”

“Will miss require a bath or a dresser?”

“Alejandro, how many times do I have to tell you that I am of common birth, no matter what airs my mother puts on. I’m just Stella.”

“Yes, Miss Stella,” he says, with a playful wink.

“And no, Alejandro, despite my disreputable state, I am exhausted. I’ll strip out of these things and be on my way in the morning.”

“Very good, Miss Stella.”

He leads through the foyer of what appears to be an upper-class home. It bears no resemblance to the velvet and gilt of the bordellos and cat-houses that Karie used to work and live in. A tasteful Monet, Spring, hangs at the landing of the stairs. I don’t think much of the frogs and their Emperor Vilhelm Bonaparte, but they always export the most wonderful artists.

“Here you are, Miss Stella. Will you want breakfast in the morning?”

“Oh, goodness, no. I have work in the morning. I should be out of here well before the staff is up.”

“Very good. Sleep well, miss.”

I douse the single candle in the room. The sliver of moon shining through the curtains gives plenty of light. I slip off my dress and hang it on the dresser’s chair, hoping the stench of brimstone would air out enough that I don’t have to make my way back to the boardinghouse in the morning. The soot marks I can live with as they happen to us filter girls all the time in spelling the filth from the air.

I begin to undo all of my female underpinnings. While my waist is far from thin, my barrel hips and beastly bosom allows me to skip wearing a corset. That doesn’t stop the need for a six-hook brassiere. I sigh as the heavy weight of my breasts come off my shoulders. Also, as a working woman, I am exempt from a bustle, so I just slip out of my bloomers.

A silk nightdress, a gag gift from Karie last Christmas, is the only nightclothing available. So slim and form-fitting, the fabric makes me feel even more naked than any time completely bare as with my own husband. Hobson’s choice, I think. Sleep in my clothes or the decadent nightshirt.

At least this way my clothes would get the chance of a good airing, I think, climbing under the covers in the filmy nothing from the Orient. I revel in the fresh sheets for about the length of a lightning bug flash before falling asleep.

Available Nov 2020