Mining Justice – Excerpt
1 – Saturday, November 17, 1888
The bell summons me to fight the most horrific beast, this time in an upper-class neighborhood of Boston—Chester Square. Fear eats at my middle. As a professional hellfighter and with the title of Mistress Earth Witch, I’ve faced fearsome demons. My team, the Dos Campanas, or Two Bells, have faced down dozens of hellspawn. I personally have sent a reigning prince back to hell when he tried to eat my soul. But my palms are sweaty and my belly is threatening to lose its lunch into the adjacent rose bushes. What possessed me to come and confront this monster?
The beautiful green door with a gilt knocker opens, and I’m face-to-face with my worst nightmare. Doesn’t the Bible say something about bearding a lion in its own den?
“Good morning, Mother,” I say. “Ozias finally see sense and run off?”
My mother is an elegant woman and one of the most desirable catches in the monarchy. She is also my personal boogeyman. Absently, I finger the disfiguring scars at my neck. As proctor to my practical witching exam, my mother, bless her, allowed me as an inexperienced teenager to summon a demonic royalty of hell. That beast burned forty percent of my body before she sent him back. It is just the most visible scar from her lack of maternal compassion.
“Ah, daughter. I see you got my cable. Even the most dedicated butlers get a day off. I believe Ozias mentioned something about seeing the bullfight at the arena. Please, come in.”
“Thank you,” I say perfunctorily as I step in out of the late fall wind. “Why did you want to see me?”
“Good to see you too, Stella. You are looking well.”
“And isn’t that The Blind Guitarist by Goya? That wasn’t here last time. You must be doing well yourself.” Our conversation doesn’t mesh. I’m trying to riposte the emotions that her presence wells up within me.
“I do what I can,” she replies, holding her arms out to emphasize the new designer gown she is wearing and its matching silk shawl.
I’m still quite sick to my stomach, so I decide to press the point. “You didn’t bring me here to show off your new pretties, Mother.”
“Oh, come now, daughter. Can’t we have a little civility between us? I know what you think of me. I try to abide by your wishes to stay out of your life, especially that old derelict factory you insist on living in with all of the vermin you chose to live with.” She refers to the fact that I have taken an unused portion of my home and dedicated it to the homeless girls in Boston.
I put my hands on my hips, feeling the iron corset underneath my skirts. I don’t mean the iron of my corset but rather a corset made of iron. Even with my would-be-assassin, Heinrick Meier, and his employer and my ex-boss, Mark Carlton, sentenced harshly, there are others who might do me harm.
They were members of Non Patiatur Phythonissam, or the NPP, which hates all witches. Translated from Latin, the name means “Suffer not a witch,” a bastardization of Exodus 22:18—”Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” They are all nasty customers, which is why I tolerate the weight around my middle, as it will turn away bullets, and most often a knife.
It will protect me physically, but the armor, won’t deflect the arrows of misfortune that have recently pierced my heart. I’ve lost my precious husband, Aaron, to the Irish War of Independence, and now Adrianna Helms is lost to me because of God. That the Church ripped Viscountess Helms from my life still tears at my emotions. Love is painful.
At least I could properly mourn Aaron’s loss. But the viscountess I see in town from time to time. She is like a recurring ghost that shreds off any scab I developed since the last time I saw her. Almost worse, I get weekly tea invitations from her. There is no way I can possibly bear her radiant presence knowing it is forbidden to me. Instead, I find myself absentmindedly remembering her delicate wrist and fingers, her curvy frame, her flashing green eyes, and the pale skin of her ankles. Even after six months of our enforced separation, my tears still leak down my face when I fail to corral the emotions that still bubble in my heart.
This is not the time to have water dripping down my cheeks. “Now, Mother—”
“Don’t ‘Now, Mother’ me, young woman. It’s disgraceful for someone of your stature to be running a flophouse.”
“The Brick Factory is not a flophouse. I have eight boarders and a cook. All of them are above reproach.”
“But that doesn’t count all of those street urchins you let sleep under your roof.”
I scowl. “And doing good for those less fortunate isn’t worthy?”
She crosses her arms and gives me that Mom-is-right face. “Take care of yourself first, daughter, then donate to a charity. You are living like the lower classes. Remember, I only have your best interests at heart, my love.”
Sure you do,madre. She is much more interested in my lack of societal stature impacting her own social standing. Damn her to hell, anyway. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and count. Uno. Dos. Tres. Cuatro. Cinco. Seis. Siete. Ocho. Nueve. Diez. I let it out. “Mother, you brought me here for a reason other than to argue about my living arrangements.”
“This is true, daughter. If you will come with me to the parlor,” she says, unnecessarily pointing the way.
I’ve come this far, I think. What are a few more steps?
My mother’s parlor could have paid for my entire home, even as expensive as the Brick Factory has been for me to purchase and renovate. Her walls are decorated in Cadiz-imported burnout velvet wallpaper bearing repeats of the Crusader’s cross. The furniture was designed and crafted by the famous artisan Robert J. Horner. Lead crystal chandeliers have been rewired for Edison’s new electric lights. I’d hazard a guess that nothing in the room cost less than ten dollars, except for what her guest is wearing.
There’s a woman sitting in front of the tea service. She is worn beyond her years. My first conjecture, because of callouses on her hands and crow’s-feet around her eyes, puts her in her forties. But seeing her smooth lips and shiny hair, I revise my estimate down to her late twenties with a hard life.
I hazard another speculation that the simple sheath dress, in calico print, is her best dress. There is a very skillful patch over her right knee. I’d not have noticed if the light hadn’t caught the slightly shinier thread. The woman perches at the edge of Mother’s opulent chenille couch as if her very presence might sully it. I wonder why my social-climber mother would allow someone of this woman’s lesser station into her home.
As I enter the room, I can feel my skin crawl, but not in a bad way that you might want to run from. It’s rather something more akin to what I feel through my untrained talent as a white witch whenever I enter a church.
“Mrs. Ochoa, my daughter,” my mother begins formally, “please meet Luciana Riley.”
The woman, with just the hint of cinnamon in her brown hair, stands. She’s skinny as a rail, and her dress hangs on her as if she’s lost a hundred weight. With my robust figure, I’d have made four of her, maybe six. Not that I’m fat, but let’s just say the artist Rubens would have enjoyed my shape. The hand she extends in greeting shakes with tremors.
“A pleasure, Mrs. Ochoa.”
“And you, Miss Riley.”
“Mrs. Riley is married,” my mother says, correcting me.
“My apology. Mrs. Riley.”
The woman frowns but nods in absolution of my faux pas.
“Coffee, daughter?” my mother asks.
“Yes, thank you,” I say, sitting in an armchair across from Mrs. Riley. Dark circles like you might get in a week without sleeping are the only things holding up her eyes. The intelligence behind them is obvious. Mrs. Riley inspects my person as much as I’m investigating hers. I do wonder when my dearest mother will get to the point. But, as always with Josephine Romero, Senior Mistress Witch and social climber extraordinaire, proprieties must come first. Only after she has served me with a cup from her second-best china set does she get to the point.
“Mrs. Riley has sought out my expertise as an earth witch because her husband, and potentially two hundred of his colleagues, have been trapped in a mining cave-in. She would like me to go down and rescue the lot of them.”
“The Centralia, Pennsylvania, cave-in?” I ask. “The one I’ve read about in the paper?”
“Yes, Mrs. Ochoa,” the guest says. The single tear I see in Mrs. Riley’s eye and the rest of her physical demeanor are indicative of someone who is numb and hasn’t any more grief to give. She nods while muscles at her neck tighten into vertical bands to her chest.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mrs. Riley. But if you don’t mind an indelicate question, why do you think your husband isn’t dead?”
The woman takes a deep breath. “As I told your mother, I have very weak white talents. I’ve never been trained, so I won’t say that I am a witch. But when I’m near the mine, I can feel his presence and that of at least some of his coworkers.”
That explains the hairs rising on my arms when I came into the room. Witchcraft can sense like witchcraft. “Well, that is something, at least,” I say. “What is the mining company doing? Or maybe the rest of the miners?”
“Oh, the miners are digging but without great coordination. The Coal Syndicate claims they are doing everything in its power.”
The mention of the company raises hackles on my neck. I still believe that the owner, Bruce Jasperson, was behind the release of excessive numbers of demons earlier this year. I believe he did it to discredit the demon power industry. But I’ve never been able to get evidence of it. He remains an elusive splinter under my skin that I can’t seem to rid myself of.
“That will be the day,” I mutter over my coffee cup.
“I have to agree with you, Mrs. Ochoa,” Mother’s guest says. “If Adam had any choice of profession, I’d have encouraged him to leave the coal mines long ago. The company doesn’t care about him or any of the rest of them. He’s a replaceable commodity.”
I want to say that everyone has choices, but intruding on a woman’s grief and worry with trivialities isn’t in me. My mother, bitch that she is, did manage to instill at least a few manners.
“I can’t disagree with you, Mrs. Riley. But can you tell me what you hoped Mother could do for you, and more to the point, why I’m here?”
“Honestly, I wasn’t sure what could be done, even by a senior witch. I’ll be honest and say it is likely that nothing will be done to save my husband and those miners if we don’t do it.”
“Stella, I’ve informed Mrs. Riley that we can’t just get the earth to vomit them forth,” my mother says. “Also, we are limited in our ability to manipulate the ground, especially to the depths she is claiming they are at. And as to your presence here, I hoped that maybe you, with your hellfighter associates, might be able to come up with something.”
I think this is one of the first times she’s mentioned the Dos Campanas without using her snobbish version of profanity. She feels they have stolen me away from her and society. Of course, she didn’t call them out individually or even use their name—a subtle dig to mask her mentioning them at all.
“Well, I’m having them to my home for dinner tonight. I can ask them and get back to you, Mrs. Riley. Where will you be staying?”
Her face goes slack. I read it as one more problem in a sea of the same. “I don’t rightly know—”
“I’m sure my mother can put you up,” I offer.
“Actually, I can’t, dear,” Mother says. “I have a visitor coming over who is somewhat secretive about his business.”
I wonder if that business has anything to do with my mother’s bloomers. I’ve never caught her in anything untoward, but lately, I’ve been wondering.
“Well, then, Mrs. Riley, if you don’t mind sharing, I can put you up at my home. It is quite spacious,” I offer.
“That is most thoughtful, Mrs. Ochoa.”
“No trouble. Now, Mrs. Riley, if you might forgive me while I am discourteous to my mother for just a moment.”
“Why would you be discourteous?” the auburn-haired woman asks. “She has been nothing but a gracious hostess.”
My mother sits there as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. The look on her face is as if she were being defended by the entirety of Boston against a false accusation.
“Mother is always courteous and amiable to guests. However, she never does anything without recompense. I just want to find out where the body is buried. So, Mother, while Mrs. Riley is quite charming, that isn’t enough to get you to let her in your home, much less go to some lengths for her. Confess.” Both she and Mrs. Riley look at one another silently. So, they both know. “I’m not leaving without an answer, Mother. While Mrs. Riley also seems to know, she doesn’t owe me anything.”
“And you think raising an ungrateful girl to be a pernicious woman doesn’t entitle me?” Mother fires back.
“Maybe if you had given me half the maternal care you seem to believe you have, I would give you that credit. Now cough it up.”
Mrs. Riley shrugs at Mother.
“Alright. You win this round, daughter. You know I feel strongly about family—”
I cough to show my scorn for the entire notion.
“Whether you think so or not. I’m doing this for my niece, Luciana Riley.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or scoff. “You have no brothers or sisters, Mother. So don’t feed me this cock-and-bull story about a niece.”
“No, it’s true, Mrs. Ochoa. I’m the daughter of your father’s sister.”
I’m sure I’d make a good flytrap as I sit there with my mouth open. My mother has only ever told me that my father left her, not the circumstances or anything else substantive about their relationship. I’ve never even known his name, and now I find I have relatives. “So, you know who my father is?” I ask Mrs. Riley.
She looks hesitantly at my mother, and then some unasked question and answer pass between them. “Yes, I do,” she replies.
“What is the big secret?” I ask.
“Well, we should probably leave that for him to answer since it was his hostia idea,” my mother says.
“Mother?” I’ve never heard her curse, much less make the vile implication she voiced.
“Oh, se folla un pez,” my madre curses again, storming out of the room. Mrs. Riley is blushing, but I suspect she’s heard much worse living in a mining community.
“Mrs. Riley … Cousin, I guess,” I say.
“Yes, Mrs. Ochoa?”
“Now that my mother is gone, I think we can drop the formality, Luciana.”
“That’s probably a good thing, Stella. I’m not used to all these etiquette rules. We live much simpler in Centralia. And it’s Lucy to my friends. Only my mother and husband call me Luciana.”
“Lucy. Got it. But I will warn you, my mother leaving you deprives you of your ally. I intend to get everything from you about my father that I haven’t gotten from my mother in twenty-four years as her daughter.”
Lucy looks unconcerned. “Wouldn’t you rather have the information from the horse’s mouth?”
“Whose horse?” I ask, wary of a potential avoidance.
“How about I arrange a meeting between you and your father.”
I smell a rat. “When? Where?”
“How about tomorrow afternoon, after church services?”
“Won’t that delay our saving your husband and the other miners?”
“Even if you come up with a brilliant idea to save them, the dirigibles won’t leave until Monday morning.”
“What about the train?”
“Wouldn’t help us. There is only one set of tracks that is used by the coal trains exclusively. It measures a special narrow gauge to get through the mountain passes, so no other locomotive can use it.”
“Well, how about by carriage?”
“Four hundred miles of twisty mountain passes? It would take weeks. Dirigible is the only practical transport to get there in good time.”
“Good enough. And I’ll be more than happy to receive my father on the Sabbath. It just might prevent me from killing him.”
# # #
“Where are the horses?” Luciana asks after I have her climb into the poderabile.
“Sorry, I’m so used to it now that I don’t even think about how anyone else might see it,” I say. “This is a horseless carriage. It doesn’t need horses to move.” My cousin looks dubious. “Seriously. Climb in and I’ll show you.”
I get in and wrap the safety belt around my chest and turn on the air valve all as part of my standard procedure now. It has lost its magic. Checking on all sides of me, I pull back on the levers. Lady Justice, the name I’ve given to Henry Helms’s invention, eases backward with a chuff of high-pressure air.
“It’s like magick!” Lucy says.
“Oh, cousin of mine, it gets much better.” As I push forward on the driving levers, the poderabile leaps forward like a yearling colt at his first taste of the crop.
“Wow! Why haven’t I ever heard of these powderbeels before?”
“Because, as far as I know, this is the only one. It was invented by my good friend Viscount Henry Helms. He gave it to me as a gift when I helped him unravel a serious issue involving demons.”
“That’s right. I remember reading about it in the papers.”
“You must have been quite bored to have found my exploits in the news,” I offer back with some volume to cut through the wind.
“Not at all. You are quite the heroine, Mrs. Ochoa.”
“Please don’t go all formal on me. I’m just Stella.”
“Seriously, I read all about it and am glad your mother is having you help me.”
“Not helping yet. Only looking into it.”
“I’m sure you will come up with a solution,” she says as if it is a forgone conclusion. I wish I had her convictions. She looks over the side at the wheels going around. “What makes it go?”
“What? How can air move something like this on the ground? You don’t have any sails.”
“Let me give you an example. Close your lips and keep them tight. Now blow into your mouth until your cheeks puff out. Blow hard. Put your hand out in front of your face. Now let it all out. Feel the power? Now imagine you could make that power turn the wheels around. The tanks behind us hold all that pressure inside them, like you did with your mouth, and let it out a little at a time depending on how I use my levers.”
“That is ingenious. How fast will it go?”
“It’ll race the devil. I don’t take the speed too high because it is bloody dangerous cruising around three times faster than a horse could gallop.”
Lucy finally falls silent as she looks over Lady Justice. It gives me time to finally think about everything that has transpired this morning—a cousin, and after all these years, getting to meet my father. Boy, am I going to have some choice words for him. And few of them will be printable in a newspaper. But along with that, I have questions—many, many questions.
Why did you leave Mother? Why did you leave me? Where were you all my life, especially when I needed someone to cry on, someone to hold me, someone to care for me in the way my mother didn’t? How many other mystery relatives do I have that I don’t know about? Are you going to be in my life from now on? What is your preferred way to die for leaving me alone all of these years? Can I hug you?
It should be quite a lively discussion, especially with my contradictory feelings.
I pull up to my lemon-colored brick warehouse. With all of the young girls living beneath my roof, I’ve gotten quite a lot of beautification done to my home. I have every kind of reclaimed vessel supporting plants around the outside. Even after only six months, I have most of one corner of the factory covered in climbing ivy.
“That’s lovely!” my cousin exclaims.
The young women we’ve housed have taken it upon themselves to make sure the Lemon Brickhouse is clean and pretty. They are ingenious about recycling materials in the most attractive ways. Sixty-eleven girls are milling around, playing games, or just lounging.
After building my dream home and boardinghouse out of an old brick-making factory, I’d given over the rest of it as something of a flophouse for the urchin girls who lived in fear on the streets. My right-hand gal, Mikey Byrne, bounces up to the Lady Justice as I come to a stop. She administers the girls with an iron fist inside a velvet glove. At maybe fourteen, she’s about as physically dangerous as a goose feather, but her spirit is tough as nails. There is a group of larger girls who help her keep the peace.
“Mikey, will you please put the poderabile away for me? I won’t be needing it the rest of the night.”
“Yes, Stella.” A bunch of the other girls look excited as well. From what I know, they have some sort of lottery system whereby they get to ride while Mikey stables Lady Justice.
Lucy and I climb down. I’ve added running boards to make getting out much easier than trying to hike my skirt up and showing my ankles. As we approach the door, I hear the piano playing—a halting rendition of “The Song That Reached My Heart.” Susan, one of my lodgers, must be teaching the keyboard again.
“Cousin, I forgot to warn you that my home is a bit chaotic,” I say before opening the door. Over the last months, the Brick Factory has turned into something of a big family, with the ladies, who are my paying boarders, taking a number of the indigent girls under their wings like mother hens guarding their chicks. My boarders seem to prefer this homey atmosphere. If pressed, I’d admit that I do as well, but it is somewhat like having too many cats underfoot.
“Chaotic?” Lucy asks.
I shrug and open Pandora’s box. The living room is all but full of girls from the ages of eight to fifteen. All are sitting on the spotless floor because they understand that the furniture is for the women. Their clothes may not be more than rags, but they are all clean, something my housekeeper, Yolanda Simmons, and Mikey Byrne both insist upon. Susan Montrose sits on the piano bench instructing an earnest nine-year-old Hilda.
“Stella!” cries out more than one of the girls as I come in. Two of the younger girls jump up and wrap their arms around me.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” I exclaim with the two leeches attached to me. There are so many girls who stay at our place that I can’t possibly keep all their names straight. “Audrey and …”
“Penny, Miss Stella.”
“Tha’s alright, Miss Stella. We knows you tries to ‘member us all.”
“Well, Penny and Audrey, let me introduce Miss Lucy Riley. She’ll be staying with us for a couple of days.”
“Qué demonios?” growls a thin crone coming in from another room. Yolanda Simmons, our charwoman, cook, and general keeper, waves her cooking spoon in my direction. Hilda stops playing the upright at the curse. “Are youse addin’ yet another guest fer me to cook fer? What do youse think I am? A witch, that I can conjure food out of thin air?”
“Not at all, Mrs. Simmons.” Yolanda, a widow like myself, is the only person at the Brick Factory who insists on her last name and honorific. Despite her bark, she is a marshmallow in the middle. “You always have so much food left over that I assumed we could sneak one more in.”
“G’damned selfish zorra …” The rest of her grumble is lost as she turns her worn, leathery face away and leaves the room. Even the youngest roll their eyes at the woman’s antics.
“Hello, Miss Lucy,” Penny says. “It is a pleasure to meet you.” She performs a moderately acceptable curtsy.
The rest of the room echoes her with, “Welcome, Miss Lucy.”
My cousin’s eyes widen at this universal show of respect to someone they’ve just met. “Thank you all!”
Hilda begins her lessons again. “It may be crazy,” but we teach them all to at least emulate ladies,” I say to Lucy, patting Audrey on her bright blond hair. “Come with me, and I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”
“Stella, what be meaning em-you-late?” Audrey asks. Lucy laughs.
“It means you try to look like something even if you aren’t there yet.”
“So, like Mrs. Simmons emulates being a bear with a thorn in her paw.”
“You got it right the first time.”
I take my relation down the hall before I can get pulled into any more questions or discussions. Two more girls are scrubbing the floor. “Hello, Miss Stella!” they say.
“That’s a good job there, girls. Glad to have you.”
“Thank you, Miss Stella.”
As I lead Lucy up the stairs toward my room, she asks, “Are you in The Salvation Army?”
“Heavens, no! What gives you that idea?”
“Well, you’ve taken in all of these orphans and abandoned girls.”
“Pshaw,” I spit out. “The girls pay their own way. I mean, yes, I lose just a little bit of money, two bits or maybe four a week, but that’s nothing. Effectively, my other boarders are helping pay for the youngsters. I mean, I won’t let any girl sleep rough and at the mercy of any male’s illicit attentions if she is willing to work. I’m lucky that as a witch I am a weapon and can defend myself. Many of these girls have no recourse other than to submit and hope they can live another day.”
“So they all pay?”
“Mikey and I charge three ha’pennies for a cot to sleep in and a satisfying meal. Even if a girl doesn’t have a penny to pay for a night’s sleep, for two hours of work, she will be given a cot to sleep on. For another hour, Yolanda will give her something warm and filling for her belly. This is another reason I wasn’t worried about my housekeeper’s quejumbrosa—complaining about having another guest. She always has a huge pot of stew, or the equivalent, on the hearth.
“If I’m honest before God, for want of anything else to do, much of the work these young ladies end up doing is repeating what someone else did just hours before. But if make-work is all there is, at least it is value for value, and it keeps our house spotless, our clothes freshly laundered, and a cheerful visage on our building.”
“You are amazing,” Luciana says. “I can barely keep my three kids under control, food on the table, and my little home clean. You seem to do so much more.”
I open the door to my room and usher her inside. As I close the door behind me, the cacophony of cooking, piano, talking, and just general moving around is completely shut off. “I can’t take full credit. I have good help, and most of the rest of it just happened. ‘Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?'”
“Very good. 58:7 actually. So you can sleep on the couch,” I say, pointing at the area I have set up as a sitting room. “We can make up a pallet for you on the floor, or you can sleep on the bed with me.”
“This room is all yours? It’s bigger than our whole home.”
“Yes, Lucy, all mine. This is my retreat when things get too crazy.”
“And look at that bed!” Her excitement is palpable as she sees things I’ve begun to take for granted. “A whole herd of cows could sleep there.”
“What’s funny, cousin?” she asks.
“If I took offense easily, I’d be angry. You just compared me with a herd of cows.”
Luciana’s face drops as if she’s been kicked. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …” She sees the big smile on my face and bursts out laughing herself. “That is the first time I’ve laughed since the accident. Are you a healer too?”
While I do have crude white witch powers, it isn’t something I advertise. Witches with multiple talents are about as rare as snakes with legs, at least the nonhuman kind. “No. I’m just a garden-variety earth witch.”
“Hardly, Stella. But in any case, thank you.”
“I promise that the bed is plenty big enough for two if you want to risk being considered a bovine.”
“I’ll risk it,” she says with another laugh. “Stella, could I use your water basin? I haven’t been out of this dress in three days, and I certainly smell.”
“That door over there is my own private water closet.”
“A water closet?”
“Think of it as an indoor privy. This one comes with a bathtub.”
“Yes. We have running water indoors here, both hot and cold.”
“Really? I haven’t had a real bath in … We have to boil water all day to get everyone clean.” She looks through the door into the water closet. “Good God! You must be rich.”
“No, I just have a good friend who knows how to advise me. It allows me to get a few of the nicer things in life.”
There is a knock at the door. From the rap, I assume it is Mikey. Sure enough, when I open the portal, she says, “Stella, can we talk? I had to throw out Marcella again.”
“Hold on a second, Mikey. Lucy, go on and enjoy a soak. But don’t stay in there too long if you want dinner. Those late to the table get what the hogs won’t eat. Dinner at seven, sharp.”
“And there are a lot of hogs,” Mikey chimes in.
# # #
The smell of roasted flesh has me simultaneously anticipating and on guard. “Stella, duck!” calls out Donny O’Sullivan, one of the Dos Campanas, my demon-fighting team. The projectile sails just over my pulled-down head.
“Now inch forward,” someone hisses from behind me. There is the quick and the eaten. I move. I feel someone pass behind me.
“Maxwell, get with it. And don’t let it bunch up so much!” Carlos de Aldana, our fearless leader, bellows from the far end.
“Sorry,” Max Parker says, his voice breaking in the middle from the vocal cords the pox damaged when he was young. Chaos reigns even more than normal at the Brick Factory. I wonder who will take permanent injury today.
Bea Media uses her ice witch talent to cool the pitchers of buttermilk and lemonade on the table.
A possum pokes its questing nose out from underneath Raquel’s seemingly unkempt hair. She offers the furry critter a tidbit from her hand.
“Oh no. There are limits. Not here, Menaj,” I snap, using the shortened form of her nickname, Menagerie, for the animals she always seems to have on or near her. She prefers it to her real name, Raquel Ruiz. I’ve never found out why.
“Have a heart, Stella,” she says.
“Not in my home you won’t! Take scraps to it later, but not during the meal.” I’m now firmly regretting my decision to invite the entire team to dinner at once. “And what happened to giving thanks before eating?” Their lack of manners would make my mother go pale and leave the table.
Carlos stops with half a biscuit in his mouth. He at least clears his mouth before answering, “Sorry.”
“Max, if you please.” My team—all eight of my boarders, my cousin Lucy, two of the orphan girls, Mikey, and Yolanda Simmons—all link hands around the dinner table.
“Lord, we thank you for the bounty of your love and the provender that you have cast upon us. We praise you in the comradery of new friends, old friends, and those who are family. May we use this abundance to put forward your words and works. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.”
“Amen,” echoes through my dining room.
“Mrs. Simmons, you have done yourself proud this evening,” I say, pinching a slice of medium-rare roast as I pass the platter on to Felicia Wolfe. “I think I’ve gained at least an inch around my middle in the last six months you have been cooking for me.”
“That’s ’cause that cow you done lived with ‘fore ain’t never cooked good enough to even feed the hogs.” Chapman’s Boardinghouse, my address before I earned the relative riches to purchase my own home, kept many a woman just above the line of respectability. Its cuisine barely could have been considered acceptable.
My boarders, all but one of them former renters at Chapman’s Boardinghouse, nod in agreement around the food. “And if you’d get off your lazy backside, you might just keep your precious figure.”
I admit to not getting enough exercise. The hellfighting team of the Dos Campanas, Two Bells, have had little to do but drink and make merry, with Mark Carlton and Heinrick Meier having both been thrown in prison, along with a few other members of the NPP. That alone relieves me of much of my worry. The rest of their ilk have gone deep underground. This effectively ended the mass of demon escapes all up and down the East Coast.
Because of his cooperation, Mark Carlton is serving only twenty years of hard labor. Due in no small part to my own testimony, Heinrick Meier didn’t fare as well. He will get the noose next week. I’ve been torn if I want to see his ignominious end or not.
I decide not to interrupt everyone’s enjoyment, so I don’t rise to Yolanda’s goad. Instead, I tuck in as well. I am not kidding about the danger the meal presents to my waistline—with garlic roast beef, creamy potatoes au gratin, biscuits that I swear will float away, honey-candied Brussels sprouts, and a big plate of fried squash and onions. If that weren’t enough, I smell the apple pies cooling in the kitchen. I don’t know how she manages on the household allowance I give her.
Oh, I’m not stingy. I want my renters to have good meals, not the crap that old hag Chapman handed out. But every night seems like a feast to outdo the last.
For the next forty minutes or so, the table is silent except for the occasional request to pass a bowl of food and scrapes of utensils on the stoneware. Many minutes later, Carlos, a barrel-shaped man, announces the end of the meal with a belch that would rock the palace itself.
“Good grief, man. Are you trying to deafen us?” Donny O’Sullivan says. His name is confirmed by his orange-red hair.
“Nope. Only making room for some of that pie.”
“Wait for the rest of us to let this fabulous meal settle,” I order as hostess.
“Sure. So, Stella, what is this secret you’ve been hinting at all night?” Maxwell says with his voice breaking in the middle of the sentence.
“Well, I introduced you to my cousin, Luciana. Her husband is one of the poor miners trapped in the Centralia Coal Mine collapse.”
Exclamations of concern and sympathy erupt around the table.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Is he alright?”
“Are they digging them out?”
“Can we help?”
Menaj and one of the girls get up and hug Lucy. This isn’t the false empathy she might receive at a court function or dinner party. My cousin leaks tears in response.
“Well, that is the secret,” I say. “I’m going to investigate and see what can be done. Can I count on you to help out if I need it?”
“You can count on us.”
“In a heartbeat.”
“Just tell us when and where.”
Even people not members of Dos Campanas and those not even witches are calling out in the affirmative. I feel an overwhelming sense of belonging. From my cousin’s sobbing, I can tell that she does as well. My family surrounds her, comforting her. Mrs. Simmons is in the kitchen making tea because according to her worldview, it solves all ills.
It takes a good hour and several cups of tea to get settled. Luciana finally arrives in a place where she can talk without tears. Over Dutch apple pie and whipped cream, we continue our discussion.
“My husband and as many as two hundred other miners are trapped down at the three-thousand-foot level.”
Donny whistles low. “That’s deep.”
“And Luciana has untrained white witch powers,” I say. “When she left, she knew that her husband and at least some of his coworkers were still alive. What I want to know is if any of you have any brilliant ideas about how we might get them out.”
Menaj says, “That deep, there aren’t any plants or creatures. Not even moles. I could bring some animals with us who are used to earthen homes, but I don’t know that I’d have any ability to help. I mean, I’d love to, ’cause without any demon escapes, my finances are weak at best. I’ve actually considered joining the army because of their extravagant claims for witches who sign up.” Several in the group nod.
If it has gotten that bad, I’m surprised that the group as a whole hasn’t turned their displeasure on me long before this. My work against the NPP and its puppets put the kibosh on demon escapes and the raison d’être of the Dos Campanas’s existence.
“As powerful as Lord our God is, I don’t see how the skills he’s given me would help those poor miners.” Maxwell gets out in a rare full sentence without his voice breaking. As a group, we nod.
“Well, water jets can erode and cut through earth, but it isn’t fast,” Donny offers from his own specialty.
“I agree,” I say. “But I need you to cover my job of emptying the naval refit dry docks while I’m gone. They are doing three shifts, and we can’t let them down.”
The Boston Naval Yard is where I make my living. Once a new ship is in dry dock for refit, I empty the water out of the dock so the vessel can be worked on. I perform the job in a fraction of the time that it takes steam pumps. I imagine Donny is the only one of our group other than myself who has a regular income, since I got him working there as well. It not only pays quite well but it is also patriotic. The threat of war with England and France looms like a sword of Damocles over the whole civilized world.
“Got that handled, Stella,” Donny says.
“Other than the skills of our fearless leader, do you know of any other witches in the area who might have the powers to help?” I ask.
“The reconstituted Canons have an earth witch,” Carlos offers in his low, rumbly voice.
“I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t trust one of the Canons as far as I can throw him. It may be unfair of me, but after dealing with Baron Cardiff, our resident murderer and demon releaser, I’m not sure I could work with someone from his coven.”
“I don’t blame you,” Menaj says with a wink to me. “Once burned, twice shy.” My friend knows how sensitive I am about the burns down the side of my body. She is making a joke at my expense. I stick out my tongue at her.
“Any other good ideas?” I ask. “Come on, friends. Think as if a demon were on our tail.”
“Well, if they can be retrieved, I can help any injured if they don’t have a white witch in Centralia,” Max offers.
Lucy speaks up. “We do have an herbalist, but I’m the closest we have to a witch doctor. The Coal Syndicate won’t pay for one despite all the injuries.”
“That’s not good,” Max says unnecessarily.
Menaj adds, “If Stella can dig a hole, I can stabilize the sides with kudzu or blackberry, or both. It will reduce the need for shoring.”
“And a water witch will help make the hole and eliminate the influx of water into the mine,” Donny offers. “But I’m staying here.”
“Ah, but I might know of a water witch who may help. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself,” I interject.
“What about our fearless leader?” Raquel asks.
I look over at our pockmarked jefe. His face looks like the surface of the moon. “Carlos, I’m assuming that anything we do, we’ll need you,” I say. “If not for just leadership, then for your ability to bring good air underground.”
I have never before seen Carlos hesitate as he does at the table. He tries to hide it by taking a bite of dessert. “W’ar did you ‘ay it wa’?” he asks around the apple and cinnamon pie.
“Pennsylvania. An overnight trip by dirigible,” Lucy offers.
“No way in by train?” Carlos asks her with his mouth clear.
“No. The trains only run when there is coal to deliver. With no one mining, they are sitting waiting to be loaded.”
“There isn’t a decent road into the valley. It would take a week or more to get in even on horseback,” my cousin confirms.
“I’m out,” Carlos professes, standing up from the table. “Thanks for the meal, Stella.” He walks out the door, leaving behind a roomful of gaping mouths and people looking at one another in confusion.
I jump up and run out after the man I’ve looked up to for a good portion of my life. “Carlos?” He ignores me and stalks out the front door. “Carlos, wait.” He is halfway down the block before I get to my front door.
I have a special bond with the earth of my home. It is something that develops over time. I don’t need to touch it or even taste it to urge its assistance. I lift up a clay wall in my mentor’s path. “Carlos, wait!”
The squat man turns back and glares at me. In his gray-green eyes, I see something that has remained hidden until now. His complexion couldn’t be whiter if he’d been emptied of blood. “I just want to talk,” I urge as I hurry toward him before he goes around my semi-circular barrier.
“Stella, don’t,” he pleads as I get close. “Just let it go.” His hands shake as he puts them out as if to hold me at bay.
“What’s wrong, Carlos?” I whisper to him as I get close. A crowd of people have gathered at the doorway of my house, but none are coming closer. A quiet conversation can be kept between the two of us.
“I can’t. Just leave it at that.”
“Carlos, we’ve been through hell and back together. I’ve never known you to back down from anything. I’ve never met a braver or more solid person. What’s wrong?”
Carlos mumbles something too low for me to catch.
“What was that?”
His head falls forward as he whispers, “I’m afraid of heights. Now you know! Are you happy?” He sounds like a rather petulant seven-year-old.
My eyes go wide. An air witch, someone who can call the winds to his side and fly, can’t for fear. What a crime! “My friend, I will take your secret to the grave if you wish. To prove it, I’ll tell you about my two greatest fears—that I might somehow be left destitute, and that my mother might somehow get control of me again.”
“Stella, no one likes their mother, and everyone fears being broke.”
“Not like me. I have nightmares of waking up old, alone, and in a debtor’s prison with bugs crawling all over my skin through my tattered and torn shift.” I shiver in revulsion as I remember my old schoolteacher in just such an end. “And then my mother comes to pay me out, and I end up her slave. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure I don’t wind up in that place. I’d whore myself out a hundred times a day to prevent it if necessary.”
“OK, so we are both damaged. What now?”
A spark of inspiration hits as I see a stumblebum down the street, probably from the Good Time Saloon around the corner. “Would you go if you didn’t have to fly? Or maybe better said, if you weren’t aware you were above the ground?”
Carlos looks at me suspiciously. “What are you thinking about?”
“Well, what say we get you so drunk that you pass out, or we get an herbalist to put together a sleeping draught? Then we tote you on board the airship like freight.”
“That could work if you make sure I’m out for the whole flight and that I don’t know when it is going to happen. I don’t think I could stand the strain of anticipation.”
“OK, I’ll assume your cooperation and me pickling you in enough booze for a dozen men. And to protect your reputation, why don’t you just walk away? I’ll tell them that you are afraid of dirigibles—too many of them catch fire.”
“Yeah, that will work,” he says without much enthusiasm.
“There is nothing bad about being afraid.”
“You don’t know what it’s like, Stella. I have always wanted to fly, to soar through the air like a bird, but if I even think of myself more than about ten feet off the ground, I throw up. Imagine being able to use only a small fraction of the power you have, Stella. Really think about that.”
I do, and it makes my stomach sour. “I’m sorry, Carlos. Just never forget that you are the one of us we look up to, fears or not.”
“But would they if they knew what a coward I am?”
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I have, I do, and I will follow you into nearly anything you can name. They would be idiots if they saw you as anything but what you are and have been—the rock that holds us together.” I can see some color coming back to his face. “Now go home and collect yourself. I’m going to need you.”
“Yes, your highness.”
Turning to the assembled throng, over my shoulder I offer him a teasing “Pendejo.”
# # #
As the clock strikes eleven, Luciana and I lie on my bed looking up at the ceiling mural of a stylized lily painted in enormous size by one of our girls, Anna Taylor. At eleven, her art already provokes strong feelings. The flower wavering in the candlelight reminds me of a woman’s anatomy, usually making me horny. But it has been months since I’ve done anything but masturbated, and even that, infrequently. I’ve even spurned the advances of my best friend and sometimes lover, Daring Karie.
So, Viscountess Adrianna Helms stole my heart half a year ago. She remains the only person other than my husband who has had my love. The Church and even my own priest have forbidden our relationship. It isn’t because we are two women, but because she is already married.
Please don’t think of me as a home-wrecker. Her husband, Viscount Henry Helms, is one of my best friends. His marriage to Adrianna is one of power and doesn’t include carnal relations, as Adrianna prefers her loving in the arms of a woman. But that doesn’t matter to the Catholic Church. She is married, and that is all that counts.
“That’s a pretty flower,” Lucy says, lying there in the flannel nightdress I loaned her. She erupts with an enormous yawn. As they are contagious, I find myself following suit. “Sorry,” she offers.
“Nothing to be sorry about. If you can’t yawn in bed, then when can you?”
“True,” my cousin says, falling silent for the first time in hours. “Thank you again for coming to save my Adam.”
“Lucy, we don’t even have a plan.”
“That doesn’t matter. Hellfighters think on their feet. That’s what Donny told me.”
Blast that idiot, I think. “We do. We have to when dealing with demons. But that doesn’t matter when you face something impossible. It may be no easier for me to reach Adam than for you.”
“But you can make earth move for you.”
“Yes, but we are talking the depth of ten football pitches. Over half a mile. Even I have limits.”
Yawn. “You’ll find a way, cousin. The white powers and my faith in the Lord let me know you and Carlos will succeed.” Yawn.
“With all of my capabilities, I may accidentally cause the cave to collapse upon him. Lucy, I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but we don’t know that we will be able to get anywhere near him.”
Lady-like snores answer me. She sleeps the sleep of the righteous and ignorant. While I’m tired, her slumber eludes me. My mind spirals into the chaos of too many things going all at once. My mental kaleidoscope jumbles together—war, death, love, longing, questions, flight, and excitement. I ponder on Carlos’s fear of heights, the lives of two hundred miners, meeting my father for the first time, my unfulfilled love with Viscountess Helms, my first trip in a dirigible, and even the possibility of hostilities against France and England.
Sometimes I just want to be a normal, mundane housewife with one partner to love and problems primarily around getting the laundry clean and dinner on the table before my spouse comes home from work. My mind grabs ahold of this and fantasizes about being Adrianna’s partner until it becomes a dream.