In the Victorian era, a teenage countess and her motley band encounter a plot to restore the Confederate States of America.
tags: Steve Dubois, action/adventure, fantasy, historical fiction
|Publication Date||May 04, 2017|
|BCRS ratings?Learn more|
by Steve Dubois
“The Confederacy?” The tall, flinty figure turned to his companion in surprise. “Really?” The thick Irish burr of his voice resounded across the deck of the HMS Dauntless, pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet. The verdant green of the tree line was plainly visible in the distance above the indigo waters of Florida’s Atlantic coast.
“So it seems, Sergeant Curragh,” replied the smaller man. He was older, perhaps sixty, with a short, well-groomed white beard, his head crowned by a distinctive red leather Marlow. If the Irishman’s voice was a harsh blast of North Channel sleet, his companion’s was a velvety London fog, subtle and insidious.
Curragh shook his head, a scowl crossing his craggy, scarred countenance. “Buncha slavers, that’s all they were. Got knocked flat fer it. Turned night riders, hidin’ under hoods and scarin’ the daylights outta innocent folk who just wanna make a livin’.” He spat over the railing. “An’ now, they’re thinkin’ o’ givin’ it another go? Right buncha gombeens, the lot of ‘em. An’ if y’ask me, Professor Runciter, the Empire’s well rid o’ the whole continent.”
Runciter gave a small smile. “Well, the Empire wants what it wants. Wiser heads than ours make those decisions. The head of our patroness, for one.”
“Lady Basingstoke? Aye, she’s a shrewd one, especially for such a wee slip of a girl. Pretty little head on ‘er too, if that’s not too familiar a remark.” His mouth puckered in concern. “Wish she were a bit less eager to risk that head, gallivantin’ about the world like she does, followin’ in our wake…”
The comment earned a short laugh from Runciter. “In our wake? Rather the converse, I think. One might as well wish for the sun to rise in the west as for the Countess to remain in Hampshire, hosting tea parties and cotillion balls. No, Curragh, it is she who leads, and we who trail behind her, as the tail behind the head of a comet. She our keeper, and we her ‘menagerie’, as she puts it. But I was, in any case, referring to our…other patroness.”
“Ah. Her Ladyship’s…friend.”
“The very same,” Runciter replied. “Her Majesty’s government enacts the popular will, and popular passions may at times be disordered.” The older man’s gaze turned again to the shore in the distance. “When Her Majesty’s own priorities do not match those of her ministers…well, then, it is time for Her Majesty to call upon her special friend, is it not?”
“Aye,” Curragh agreed. “And her friend’s friends.”
The conversation went no further, as a third man joined them at the rail. He was the youngest of them, but looked the oldest—sickly pale and stick-thin, with rheumy eyes and a neck as wattled as a turkey’s. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he wheezed. “Her Ladyship awaits you below.” He turned and ambled unsteadily across the deck to the trap door through which he had earlier ascended.
“Time t’ do some soldierin’, then.” Curragh sighed. “Ah, well. Round up that boy o’ yers, Professor, it’s time we earned our keep.”
Runciter smiled thinly. “Jack departed two days ago, sergeant. You probably don’t remember, as you were…indisposed.”
“Was I?” And, through a haze, the memory returned to him…a night of cards and carousing with some of the lesser lights among the crew, a purloined key, secret access to the ship’s store of grog. “Ah. Ah, yes. I was.” He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled explosively. “Was I ever! That stuff had a kick like a camel. Musta been brewed with a pincha gunpowder.” Even the recollection of the hangover was enough to provoke a wince. “So…where is Jack, exactly?”
The smell, rank and musty, ripe with decay. The moist, fragrant air bringing a thin sheen of sweat to his deeply bronzed skin. The chatter of insects in the undergrowth, and the odd rumble from the swamp’s larger creatures. Feels almost like home, thought Jack. It had been a full decade since New Orleans, since Professor Runciter’s men had chased down a young starveling in order to recover the Professor’s hat. Their eventual capture of him, following a six-hour pursuit, proved the luckiest event of Jack’s life, for the London sophisticate had taken an immediate shine to the mulatto orphan boy, had lifted him out of his wretched life and into his own peculiar, meandering orbit. Since then, Jack had circumnavigated the globe several times over, had acquired an education second to none, and had seen more different kinds of trouble than he’d dreamed existed as a small boy in the back streets of a city which was plenty big, but seldom easy.
This was not New Orleans, though. This was an even rougher neighborhood, as was evidenced by the burly, grey-uniformed men on each of his shoulders—Blondie on the left, Goatee on the right, hauling him up the mucky trail, down a short dirt track between fields of cultivated sugarcane, towards the limestone fortress that loomed suddenly before them. The iron manacles about his wrists and the accompanying leg irons were, in a way, another reminder of home. Jack had, in his wayward youth, been called before the local magistrate on numerous occasions, and had even spent a few nights behind bars. Often enough, he allowed himself to be caught for the sake of shelter and a free meal, for it was well-established that, even as a nine-year-old, no cell could hold him except by his consent.
Jack’s captors ushered him to a wrought-iron portcullis, which rose slowly, then into a dim, illkept courtyard—where, sure enough, the Confederate banner flew. As he entered, he passed a column of chained black men, marching grim-faced out into the surrounding fields, accompanied by a riflearmed overseer. Jack was half-dragged over to a corner in which a tall, raw-boned figure stood idly picking his teeth.
“Brought ye another ‘un, Colonel,” Goatee said. “This’n was in chains when we found him. Might be an escapee from a work gang, we figger. Led us a hell of a chase afore we ran him down.” But not half the chase I would have, Jack thought, if I hadn’t wanted to be caught.
The tall man nodded. “Might be. Might be this one’s got a little cream in his coffee, too. Check out the green eyes on him. No matta; one droppa darkie blood’s enough.” He glared down at Jack. “Y’ got a name, boy?”
Jack gave his best impression of shuffling deference. “Jack, suh,” he muttered, staring at the ground in front of him. He hoped he’d managed the dialect; his travels had long since deprived him of the accent he’d grown up with.
It must have been good enough, because the tall man nodded. “And I’m Colonel Alvin Winslow, Confederate States Militia. That surprise ye, boy?” Jack feigned intimidation, shuddering under the man’s glare. “Reckoned it might. Make no mistake, boy, we’re back in business. Never left it, truth be told, though we’ve had to play things a mite bit quieter lately. Not to worry, though; the rebel yell’ll sound again, soon enough. Let’s see those hands…” Jack’s captors grabbed him roughly by the wrists, lifting his palms towards Winslow, who prodded at them as if testing a piece of produce in the market. “Hmmm…hard calluses on this ‘un. Wiry, but with good shoulders. Dressed in rags…field hand, no doubt. Y’ been sharecroppin’, boy?”
Jack figured silence was his best bet. Winslow’s fist, flashing across in a sudden, sweeping backhand, informed him that he’d figured wrong. He suddenly found himself on his knees, the taste of blood in his mouth. “You’ll answer when called on, boy!” shouted Blondie.
Jack stammered out an affirmative response, and Winslow nodded, inspecting his own knuckles. “Nothing personal, boy,” he muttered. “Just necessary to remind ye of yer place. Work hard, keep quiet, won’t be no need for no more of that.” He raised an eyebrow. “Now, mind ye, boy, you’re no slave. Wouldn’t dream of it. That’d be illegal, ye see.” Blondie and Goatee both gave a chuckle at the comment, but Winslow continued, straight-faced. “Any time ye feel like leavin’…” Winslow gestured broadly back at the portcullis. “…feel free to hop that wall an’ set out. Nothin’ but fifty miles o’ alligator-infested swamp between ye an’ civilization, an’ ye in irons acourse, cuz we wouldn’t dreama deprivin’ ye of the property ye came here with.” Another sycophantic laugh from Blondie and Goatee.
Winslow, however, wasn’t done. He reached into his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a single grey banknote. “And ye bein’ a free laborer an’ all, figure I might as well advance ye yer first month’s pay. One Confederate dollar. Don’t spend it all in one place.” He folded the bill carefully, then tucked it into Jack’s left palm. “Hang on to that, boy. Could be that soon enough, ye’ll find its value appreciatin’ sharply. Meantime…” Winslow raised his gaze to the men on Jack’s left and right, “… y’all introduce young Jack here to his quarters. He starts in the fields tomorrow.”
The Countess of Basingstoke and her companion occupied the largest cabin aboard the Dauntless; even so, it was a cramped fit for five occupants. Runciter and Curragh had to duck their heads to enter. Their eyes adjusted slowly to the light from the paraffin lantern. A tiny, shadowy figure addressed them in a melodious soprano: “Gentlemen! How good of you to come.”
Runciter executed an elaborate formal bow. “Lady Basingstoke,” he intoned. There she sat, resplendent in a tea gown of flowing blue silk, occupying a ship’s stool of splintered oak with all the regality one would expect of a queen on her throne. The room was sweltering, yet somehow there was not a single bead of perspiration on her fair skin. Her hair was honey-blonde, cut scandalously short. And given my own well-publicized inclinations, Runciter thought ruefully, I know a thing or two about scandal.
To Lady Basingstoke’s right stood Dr. Lepellimer, pencil-thin and turkey-necked, gazing intently at the flickering flame inside the lantern. To her left sat…well, sat was not really the word for what Fatima was doing. The giantess had been, in essence, folded up for storage. She squatted on the floorboards, her knees very nearly up around her ears, the only possible way her Brobdingnagian proportions could fit into the chamber. It must, Runciter thought, have been miserably uncomfortable, yet her face was perfectly impassive and she offered no word of complaint.
“Lady and gentlemen,” Lady Basingstoke began, “as you will have gathered, we are again called to Her Majesty’s service. The snake that is the Confederate States of America once again rears its head, this time in the person of a Colonel Alvin Winslow, operating from a former Spanish colonial fort in the Everglades. Her majesty has no fondness for the politics of that would-be nation-state, and wishes to see it quashed once and for all. Doctor Lepellimer can explain Winslow’s plot in greater detail than I. Doctor, you are over the worst of your seasickness, I hope?”
Lepellimer grinned amiably. “Yes, Ladyship! I am pleased to report that my vomitus no longer contains any individually recognizable foodstuffs, which suggests that I am indeed deriving nutrition from my meals before spewing them back up again!” There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “Ah. I trust that this was one of those things which Your Ladyship mentioned earlier, that I would be wiser not to say aloud?” She gave him a small, sad smile. “In any case,” he continued, “this Winslow is not a military leader by trade, but a chemist, and a formidable one. And the samples we have procured suggest that his war upon the Union will be not military, but chemical and economic in nature.” He fumbled through a pile of bric-a-brac on a small table in the corner of the cabin, and at length emerged with a small silver flask. “Rum, or in any case a derivative of sugarcane. But fortified with an additive of Winslow’s own devising. Delectable, or so they tell me. But highly addictive.”
This, it seemed, had aroused Curragh’s interest. “Delectable, ye say?” he inquired, eyebrow raised.
“But highly addictive, sergeant. In any case, Winslow’s scheme seems to be to bring the product to market as widely as possible throughout the United States. Then, with the population in his thrall, to extract political concessions from them in exchange for continuing the supply. Independence through dependence, one might say. Oh, and there is one other thing. The substance is, in addition to being highly addictive, also highly explosive.”
“And don’t you just love that, Doctor,” said Runciter.
He didn’t deny it. In fact, there was a strange light in his eyes as he spoke. “I’ll admit, it does present certain…possibilities.” He could not quite keep the grin from breaking through. Rodentish teeth between thin lips; the man looked almost feral.
“Be that as it may,” Lady Basingstoke interrupted, “our mission is to infiltrate Winslow’s operation, put it out of business, and if possible, take the man himself into custody. This we shall achieve through a scheme of our senior adviser’s design.” She nodded at Runciter, who inclined his head in response. “We shall take advantage of Winslow’s need of capital to expand his operations. He has already been contacted, it seems, by…” Her voice suddenly changed tone, retaining a veneer of sophistication but adopting a drawl thick as molasses. “…a most well-connected Southern belle, a young lady of means, eager to invest in the cause.” She turned to Runciter, her original accent restored. “Is the voice satisfactory, professor?”
It was Runciter’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Uncanny, in fact, my lady. Though my ward Jack is, of course, the true expert in the dialects of the southern states. I trust you obtained his approval prior to his departure?”
At the mention of Jack, Runciter thought he saw her mask of composure slip for a moment—an expression of worry flitted across her face, then was gone. Interesting. Her composure restored, she spoke soothingly. “Indeed I did. As for Jack, he is…already occupied in this endeavor, having sought to infiltrate the facility in a very different role than our own. For the rest of us—well, time to familiarize ourselves with our tools. Doctor?”
Lepellimer nodded. “Lady Basingstoke will carry the usual item in a hollow portion of her corset. Runciter, you will be posing as her butler, and will carry with you the concealed blade in your walking cane. I myself will be playing the role of the lady’s footman, and will be bringing several sticks of the ingenious explosive recently invented by Doctor Nobel, which I shall secret away at a designated location inside the fortress for Jack to make use of following our departure. Combined with the explosive power of Winslow’s own chemical additive, the result should be extraordinary!” There was the ratlike grin again; to Runciter, he seemed practically giddy with anticipation. This is why, for all his brilliance, the man was expelled from Cambridge. We will be fortunate to survive this adventure unsinged. For once, I won’t be the only one who’s flaming...
There was a rumble from the corner. For one of the world’s largest women—one of the world’s largest people—Fatima had a knack for going unnoticed. “Do I take it,” she intoned, her voice a resonant bass, “that I will not be joining you?”
Lady Basingstoke smiled sadly at her. “Not at first, Fatima,” she said. “I fear there is no adequate cover story to explain your presence. I’m sure you will understand.” A glance suggested that she did, but that she was not happy about it.
“However,” Lepellimer interjected, “for you, madam, one of my most prized inventions yet.” He handed her a small black box, perhaps four inches square, with a carbon-arc bulb in the center. In her massive palm, it looked minuscule. “Wireless telegraphy!” he announced. “A product of my experimentation with electromagnetic waves. Your ladyship, if you’d be so kind as to press the button.”
In her own dainty hand, Lady Basingstoke held the twin to the device, but with a large red button where Fatima’s held a bulb. She pressed it, and across the room, the bulb on Fatima’s lit up. “I take great comfort,” Lady Basingstoke intoned, “that I may summon my beloved protector whenever I may need her.” She favored Fatima with a smile, which the giantess returned, displaying blackened teeth in a prognathic lower jaw, beneath a heavy brow and bulbous nose. Every bit as formidable in her strength, and in her Muslim faith, Runciter thought, as she is unfortunate in her appearance.
Curragh clapped his hands together. “So, that’s that, then,” he said. “What’s my role in the play? Manservant, I expect? Got to hold the door of the coach for ye? Fine use o’ my talents.”
Lady Basingstoke favored him with a smile. “In fact, sergeant, your talents will be needed elsewhere. I shall require you to wait nearby with Fatima.”
A brief pause, then an explosion that might have done even Lepellimer proud. “Are ye mad?” Curragh roared. “How’m I supposed to keep cover wit’ this great, stupid cow? She’s always prostrating ‘erself an hollerin’ at God! Every day! Five times!”
Simultaneously, from Fatima: “Allah help me! Work alongside this drunken sot? His sins are a stench in the nose of the Almighty! He will turn His face from our enterprise! Amelia, please, you must think again…”
Between them a small palm was raised—and the tumult stilled. “Please,” she said. “For my sake. I will be in great danger. I cannot take you with me into the lion’s den, but I will have need of both of my protectors.” She fixed each of them in her gaze, first Curragh, then Fatima. “Declan…Fatima… please. This one time. Please try to see in one another what I have always seen in each of you.”
A long, tense silence descended. The two of them shot sidelong glances at one another. Then, slowly, each nodded.
“Aye, Lady Basingstoke,” said Curragh. “This one time.”
“At your command, Lady,” Fatima replied. “But only by your command.”
Runciter stood speechless. Two of the most stubborn souls I’ve ever met, he thought, and she turned them to putty with a soft word. “Menagerie” is the right word for us. We’re a bunch of big, dumb animals. Freaks, degenerates, and washouts to a man. Yet somehow, under the command of a nineteen-year-old girl, we’re something more.
Lady Basingstoke beamed at Curragh and Fatima. “Wonderful,” she exclaimed. “All of my fears are quite dispelled. I could not possibly be in safer hands.” She spread her arms to encompass the whole room. “To the success of our enterprise, then. God save the Queen!”
Jack lay back on his pallet and groaned. He hurt in places where he hadn’t known he had places. Snores filled the dormitory as his fellow field hands, packed three to a bunk on cheap straw, collapsed into the sweet relief of oblivion. Jack yearned to join them, but that would have to wait. As he fought for consciousness, his thoughts drifted back to their usual unsafe harbor.
Amelia. Lady Basingstoke. That perfect, porcelain figurine of a woman. Beautiful, of course, but so much more than that. Always dignified, equally at home in a royal court or in a smugglers’ den. Whipsmart, always a step ahead, always thinking long term where he could barely see beyond the next obstacle. And forever beyond his reach. Yes, Jack, he scolded himself. Certainly. The most desirable member of the British peerage is going to ditch her dozens of suitors in favor of a half-negro of unknown parentage, without even a surname to call his own.
His heart ached, but it had ached before. His body hurt, but it had hurt before. Put it all aside, he told himself. There’s work to be done.
They had stripped him bare, burned his clothes. There was nothing left of his possessions save the irons that bound him. Which is just as the Professor planned, he thought, with a wry grin. He squatted on the edge of his bunk and reached down to where the leg iron bound his right ankle, and worked his fingers inside the cuff. Sure enough, there it was—a steel rod, thin as a needle. Pulling it free, he inserted it into the almost imperceptible pinhole in the cuff that bound his left wrist—and with a soft clank, the iron sprang open. Some of Doctor Lepellimer’s best work, he thought. He repeated the process with all four limbs, then massaged the raw flesh he’d exposed, grimacing at the pain.
Picking up the leg irons, he worked the inside of the right cuff with the rod. A hidden compartment sprang open, and there they were—torsion wrench, snake rake, double round, and all their loyal brothers. His lockpick set. He’d learned much from Runciter, but he’d been a wizard with these before the two of them had ever met.
Slow and steady, he thought, moving silently off of the bunk and over to the dormitory’s locked door. For once my skin is an advantage. I am a shadow. He went to work on the door lock. Out of the dormitory, and get the lay of the land. I’ll need to examine it all, learn the location of every key area of the fortress, and be back in bed, back in irons, by morning. In particular, I’ll need to find the brewery. Soon, Lepellimer will be leaving a present for me there.
His mangled wrists and ankles oozed blood, but he never noticed. Silently, he worried away at the door. I’ve got to get this right. Soon, she’ll have need of me…
Doctor Lepellimer wasn’t much for social cues, but so far as he could tell, the initial introductions went smoothly. Lady Basingstoke—aka Miss Sophia Forrest of Memphis, Tennessee—descended the steps of her carriage in chiffon and splendor, assisted by her two servants. She was greeted in the fort’s courtyard by Winslow. The party toured the grounds, and “Sophia” fussed and cooed over the grandeur of the surrounding fields, the enterprise it had taken to clear and drain the land, and the general perseverance of Confederate manhood. It wasn’t until the bunch of them adjourned to dine that things went sideways.
“I must ‘pologize, ma’am, fer the low quality of the vict’ls,” Winslow remarked. “We live rough here, and, well…” He cleared his throat. “Money’s a bit short at the moment.” Seated well below the salt, Lepellimer found himself compelled to agree; the beets in particular had an odd taste to them. Undercooked, perhaps, he thought. Someone should set them on fire.
“Why, Colonel, not at all!” Lady Basingstoke cooed. “The ability to make do with what one has is the noblest characteristic of the southern gentry. And, I must admit, I’m rather looking forward to the entrée. I’ve never actually eaten alligator before.”
The conversation was confusing to Lepellimer; Winslow and “Sophia” were playing a game the rules of which were alien to him. He had always been aware that most people possessed subtle ways of understanding one another and of concealing uncomfortable truths, but he, who had relentlessly sought truth all his life, had never developed the knack. It was frustrating, as was the chafing from the six sticks of nitroglycerin he had bound to his torso with a length of fuse. He found himself staring absently at the candelabra in the table’s center. At the wick on one of the candles. At the flame that flickered there. Exothermic, he thought. Oxidation of hydrocarbons. Vaporization of the paraffin under the heat, creating a sustained reaction. A golden maiden, dancing. Art and science, united as one. So very beautiful.
The discussion between Winslow and Lady Basingstoke was taking an odd turn. “Sophia” had an uncharacteristically slack expression on her face as she spoke. “…an organization, as I’m sure you’re aware, headed up by my beloved Uncle, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and numbering many thousands of men sympathetic to your aims.” Lepellimer found himself drifting off, and had to bite his tongue to remain alert; surely, he thought, the conversation wasn’t that tedious?
“So, as you see, Colonel, I am well-disposed to be of help to you.” There was little doubt of it now. The Lady was even paler than usual, and there were clouds in her cornflower blue eyes. Something was amiss. She pressed on, regardless. “If you could see clear to showing myself and those with me to the chamber in which you compose your quite remarkable spirits, I’m sure I could…” Her accent was slipping noticeably. “I could…” She paused in confusion.
The door opened behind Winslow, and a cohort of soldiers trooped in behind him. He picked up the abandoned thread of the conversation. “Gotta admit, Miss Sophia, I thought right highly of yer offer. All th’ money we’d need to get off the ground. Was so impressed by it that I was kinda amazed t’ get another letter, just a week back.” He reached into his coat pocket, and withdrew a sheet of stationary. “This ‘un from none other than General Forrest hisself. Your ‘uncle’. Makin’ us, as it happens, th’ same offer you did.” He looked up at her, sharply. “Makes no mentiona you, though.
Lepellimer’s head weighed a thousand pounds; he couldn’t keep it upright on his neck. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Runciter trying to push his seat back from the table, reaching for his cane, and failing to grasp it. Lady Basingstoke herself seemed to be moving in slow motion, poking repeatedly at a spot near the waist of her gown. “So happ’ns chemical additives work right well in food, too, not just in liquor. As the threea ye could probably say, if y’all could open up yer mouths at the moment.” He smiled grimly. “Reckon we’ll keep ye three on ice for a coupla days, until th’ General gets here. Let him straighten ye out.”
What a disgrace, Lepellimer thought, to be outsmarted by a ruffian of this quality. Someone should set him on fire. Blackness closed in.
In learning English, Fatima had often been fascinated by the way similar-sounding words often seemed to carry similar meanings. In this case, the pairing that sprung to her mind was infidel and imbecile. It hadn’t been ten minutes since the bulb on Fatima’s wireless telegraph had lit up, and Curragh had already gone all to pieces, racing around the outer wall of the fortress like a decapitated chicken.
“Bloody hell!” the Irishman jabbered. “How can there be no handholds? It’s a two hundred year old fortress, how can the walls be smooth? And why didn’t I think to bring a grapple?” The guardians who’d once roamed the outer wall were nowhere to be seen, perhaps drawn inwards by whatever disturbance had sparked the Countess’s signal for aid.
“Quiet, you fool!” she hissed. “Be calm. There must be a way in.”
Curragh plowed up his brow. “Sewage,” he declared. “Sewage, an’ water. One comes outta a fort, the other goes into it. Gotta be a pipe, a passage o’ some sort. Near the base o’ the wall.” He raced off in search of his quarry.
Good, Fatima thought. Now that he is gone, I can think. ONE of us has to. Her eyes drifted to the massive iron portcullis that barred the way to the main entrance. Through the bars, on the inner wall, she could see the lever which operated it. She placed her hands on the bars and squeezed. Old iron, but well-maintained, and free of rust. Above all, heavy. She glanced down at her feet. There was, perhaps, an inch of clearance between the lowest horizontal bar and the grooves into which the portcullis’s spikes were inserted.
Allah, she thought. In your mercy, you saw fit to deliver Amelia to me, to use her as your instrument to free me from bondage. Great is your generosity, O Allah! Show it to me again. Allow me to be your instrument, to return to her the boon she once granted me.
Fatima turned her back to the gate and squatted low on her haunches. Her fingers found the gap below the lattice. She tightened her grip. My strength is not my own, Allah. All strength is yours. Grant me, I pray, the gift of your strength, that I may perform righteous deeds in your name.
She drew in a deep breath, then exploded upwards, every sinew straining. In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful. Her teeth gritted, beads of sweat upon her brow. All praise is for Allah, Lord of the Worlds. The most gracious, the most merciful. A trembling groan from between her teeth—and, was there, perhaps, an answering groan from the metal behind her? The only owner, and the only ruling judge, of the Day of Judgment. And now, just the slightest shift in the ironwork, but she wedged all of her will into the space it made, and heaved. It is You we worship, and You we ask for help. An inch of space, now two. Guide us to the straight way, the way of those upon whom You have bestowed grace, not those upon whom there is wrath, nor those astray. A river of might flowed through her, sprung of the divine and meant to make the world bloom, and when she opened her eyes again she was standing erect, trembling yes, but standing erect, the gate in her hands behind her, the weight of mountains in her fingers and all along her back.
And there was that fool of an Irishman, of course, staring at her, his coat filled to bursting with weapons of every kind, a bristling pufferfish of a man. “No,” he was saying, his eyes wide, his jaw slack. “Can’t be.”
Somehow, she found the additional strength to hiss four words at him. “GET…UNDER…THE… GATE.” And then, two more. “YOU…JACKASS.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed; he scrambled to comply. She stood straining for additional moments that weighed like years, until her burden was lifted from her, the gate rising of its own accord. And she collapsed, prostrating herself in the dust.
All glory is yours, Allah.
The fort was a small place. News of the new arrivals, and of their subsequent imprisonment, reached the field hands within hours. Jack took out his frustration on the sugarcane, hacking with blistered fingers. And brooded. And above all, Jack planned.
He and the other field hands were spooning gruel into their mouths that night when a sudden commotion arrested his attention. Distant shouts, a faint whiff of smoke—the sound of gunshots? Ah, good, he thought. It’s started. I was getting tired of this.
He took stock of his surroundings. Only a single overseer, strolling the aisle between the two tables, gun at the ready. Jack waited until he had passed and his back was turned; subtly, his hand wandered to his right leg cuff, withdrawing the pin. He quickly worked the ankle locks free, but left the chains loose upon his legs. As the guard turned back around at the end of the aisle, Jack returned his gaze to his bowl. The guard advanced. Ten steps away, now five.
At two strides away, Jack made his move. He grabbed the bowl, surged to his feet, and flung it full in the guard’s face. The guard gave an outraged shout and his hands flew up involuntarily to clear his vision; Jack seized the moment, kicked free of the loose cuffs on his legs, spun on his heel, and kicked the rifle from the man’s grip, sending it spinning across the room. In a flash, Jack was behind his opponent, his arms up over his head, then outwards and down, securing his chains around the man’s neck. Jack arched his back, crossed his arms, and twisted. The guard thrashed, went purple in the face —and suddenly, the other laborers were on their feet, surging to Jack’s support, pummeling at the overseer, first with their fists, then with the butt of the rifle. What Jack eventually let drop to the floor was barely recognizable as a man.
The field hands broke into a ragged cheer, but Jack quickly raised his chained hands to silence them. Bringing his wrists together, he worked deftly at the pinhole, and his chains dropped to the ground. This earned him a murmur of appreciation.
“We’ve all got that ahead of us, gentlemen,” he announced, “A rendezvous point nearby has been established. We can get each and every one of you out of the swamp safely. And you can pay back your tormenters, gentlemen. You can have payback and to spare.” He quickly explained what he had in mind.
Five minutes later, Jack was out in the hallway, making his way downstairs toward the holding cells. From the courtyard, the din of combat was intensifying. He slipped quietly into an alcove, letting three soldiers in grey rush past, then descended a flight of stairs.
He was waiting at the bottom, burly and cruel, a perpetual sneer upon his face. “You again, boy? How’dye get those chains off ye?” Blondie. The broad-shouldered figure held a cavalry sabre, and the scar across his cheek and down his jawline suggested he’d had hard experience of blades. “No matter. Knew you were trouble first time I laid eyes on ye. Shoulda taken the lesson the first time, boy. Shoulda known yer place…”
Jack took stock. He had the high ground on the stairs, but the passage was too narrow for effective defense against a sword. No matter what his advantages in terms of elusiveness, he’d be cut to ribbons. He glanced about him and saw the opportunity he needed. As Blondie advanced slowly up the stairs, Jack retreated towards the landing above him, just out of reach of the sword. As he felt the ground level out under his heels, he reached back towards the wall and yanked a lantern free of the wall mount. He hurled it overhand, and as Blondie brought up the sword to deflect it aside, Jack hurled himself forward in a dive to the man’s right. His hands caught the second stair and he brought his hips around above them in a handspring, catapulting down the stairs and into the vacant room below.
Above him, Blondie cursed. Jack, however, was on familiar ground; he’d mentally mapped the facility during his nocturnal tour. Rather than keep running, he darted left, pressing his back to the wall just inside the staircase opening. Blondie rushed the room, snarling and waving his sword. Finding nothing but empty space in front of him, he turned; Jack set his left leg and launched his right foot in a crescent kick. His momentum met that of Blondie’s spin, his foot meeting Blondie’s jaw with a sickening crack.
The big man collapsed jelly-legged to the floor. Jack was astraddle him at once, fists at the ready, but it was instantly apparent that his opponent was out cold. I’ll have to remember to thank Sensei Itosu next time we’re back in Okinawa, he thought.
In the meantime, the cells—and Amelia—awaited.
It was red work, no doubt about it, but Curragh had to smile. It was for this sort of thing that he’d been made.
He and Fatima had made it as far as the courtyard before the alarm had sounded and all grey hell had come rushing down upon them. Now they were ensconced behind a pillar opposite the central building, and there were nineteen men arrayed in the cover opposite them. Yes, exactly nineteen—a single glance at the terrain had seared their deployment into his memory. Five on the balcony overlooking, one behind each of the three pillars opposite, two behind the abandoned coach and one back of the farrier’s forge. And eight dead, scattered hither and yon with neat little holes between their eyes, courtesy of Curragh’s sharpshooting. He was under fire, which meant he was in his element, and woe betide the man who stood between him and the lady he served.
Curragh worked the lever on his Martini-Henry, loaded a cartridge into the breech, held his breath, spun around the pillar and squeezed off a shot. As he twisted back into cover, he saw one of the men on the balcony drop. Ten, he thought. He tossed the rifle and a handful of cartridges in Fatima’s direction. “Reload!” He reached into his coat, withdrawing one of several revolvers, spun again around the pillar, and fired off several shots in the direction of the pillars opposite. He just did manage to get back into cover, heard the zip of a cartridge past his ear as he did so. Nine. He tossed the pistol aside, drew another. “Reload!”
As he ducked around the opposite side of the pillar for another shot, a grim sight confronted him. The man behind the left column had been replaced, and there were two new additions on the balcony. If this keeps up, he thought, I’ll run out of ammunition. Or, worse, they’ll realize their advantage, pin us down with covering fire, flank us. We’re sitting ducks here.
He turned to toss the revolver to Fatima and saw that she was still holding the first pistol awkwardly, a quizzical expression on her face. The cartridges remained scattered on the stones in front of her. “Oh, for blast’s sake, woman!” he shouted. “Don’tcha know how to use a pistol?”
She glanced up at him for a moment, then stood, back to the pillar. She darted into the open and hurled the weapon. As she ducked back into cover, he heard a meaty thump in the distance, and a cry of dismay. Their glances met, and she shrugged. Eleven, he thought.
There was a vast roar from the direction of the main building, a pounding and a clashing of metal. Curragh chanced a look, then stopped and stared. The courtyard was alive with the ragged figures of chained black men, more of them pouring out of the doors on the balcony and ground floor with each passing second. The men in grey had been caught completely by surprise and were being overwhelmed, pounded to a bloody pulp under harsh iron and unforgiving fists.
“Well,” he said. “That’s that, then.” Fatima, he noticed, was gone; turning his attention back to the battle, he saw her sprinting across the courtyard toward the building’s entrance. He drew yet another pistol—only four left, I’ll need to come properly equipped next time—and raced to her aid.
The hammering on the cast-iron door to the cell block was incessant, almost drowning out the cacophony from outside. Their guard, an ill-groomed young man in a scraggly goatee, seemed less than eager to answer it. “Who is it?” He called. “Ye know damn well we’re on lockdown ‘til General
Forrest gets here!”
“Open up, ya idjit!” The voice certainly carried a southern tone. “It’s Piper! The field hands done got loose somehow! We gotta get th’ prisoners moved afore this whole place comes down ‘round our heads.”
Piper, thought Runciter. Lady Basingstoke hadn’t missed the signal either. Her corset, thankfully, had been the one item that had remained undisturbed when they’d been searched, and she was reaching into the neckline now, as the guard turned his back on them and proceeded towards the door. She withdrew a thin reed pipe and raised it to her lips. As the guard reached the door and peered through the visor, she gave a quick, sharp puff. The guard staggered back, hand to the back of his neck, and turned to them in rage. In a matter of moments, however, the color in his cheeks faded; his expression slackened as first his face, then his whole body went limp. He collapsed to the floor.
“Oh, well done, my lady!” Runciter exclaimed. There was a rattling on the other side of the door, which ended in a click, and it burst open, revealing Jack. He leaped over the threshold in a fighting stance, but upon seeing his only potential opponent comatose on the floor, exhaled sharply and looked up. “I take it my Lady has been working on her marksmanship?”
“Jack!” she cried. “Oh, Jack, your wrist!” The sleeve of his tattered garment had slipped down his arm, revealing flesh still raw from his manacles.
Jack merely replaced the sleeve. “A trifle, my Lady. Think nothing of it.” He glanced at the lock on the cell door, drew another lockpick and wrench, and went to work. “It will heal, and I’ll have an interesting scar and an excuse to tell the story.” He flashed her a wry grin. “Scars impress girls.”
“Oh, I dunno about that, lad,” said a voice from the doorway. Curragh was slouching amiably over the threshold and favoring them with a grin. He gestured broadly to his own face, which might once have served duty as a chopping block. “Never worked so well for me. Too mucha a good thing, I suppose.”
“Welcome to the party, old friend,” said Runciter, grinning back.
“A party requires candles.” Lepellimer stared between the bars at his explosive sticks and fuse, which were sitting in plain sight on a desk near the door. “The key, Jack, is right in the belt of the…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence before the lock in the cell door clicked open. “Ah. Never mind.”
“Sergeant,” Lady Basingstoke interjected, “I am delighted to see you of course, but Fatima…she hasn’t come to harm, has she?”
“What, her?” Curragh replied. “Yer ladyship… should harm be so foolish as t’ cross that woman’s path, she’ll pick it up, shake it by the neck, then break it over her knee like kindlin’.” He shook his head. “Runciter, yer not gonna believe what I saw her do…”
Lepellimer took no notice; he was steeled in his pyromaniacal purpose, already assembling his accoutrements from the desk. “Now, er, if I can only find the chamber in which the chemicals are stored…”
“Just down the hall and around the corner,” Jack replied. “Follow me, Doctor.” He pranced out of the room, a wild-eyed Lepellimer in eager pursuit.
“The full length of fuse, please, Lepellimer!” Runciter called after them.
Curragh shook his head. “No knowin’ with that one. Best we make our getaway quickly. With me, lads an’ lasses.”
The three of them rushed the doorway and turned the corner to the stairs, only to find them blocked by the hulking mass of Fatima, descending. Over her left shoulder, she bore a limp, grey-clad man. Seeing Lady Basingstoke, a wide smile creased her face. “Amelia!”
“Fatima!” Lady Basingstoke didn’t bother with formalities; she ran to the huge woman and wrapped her arms around her as far as she could. Fatima bellowed a laugh, easily picking her up off the ground one handed and swinging her freely through the air as though she were a toddler. “I might have known they couldn’t put a dent in you…”
“No dents, my Lady,” Fatima replied, setting her patron back down on the floor. “More than a few dents in them, though, courtesy of this one.” She gestured at Curragh. “A sot, perhaps. A shot, certainly. Never have I witnessed the like.”
“All well and good, of course,” Runciter interjected. “But, er…what is it that you’re carrying, exactly?”
Fatima stared blankly for a moment, as if only then remembering that she was toting a full-grown man over her shoulder. “Oh, this one? He attempted to accost me.” She wagged a finger at them. “The Qur’an strictly forbids a man to lay his hands on a woman outside of marriage. However, the prophet does not speak to the question of a woman laying hands on a man, so I gave him a brief lesson in theology. As you see, he has found the peace that comes only with submission to Allah.” She hoisted up her burden and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor. “He wears much gilt and braid upon his uniform, so I figured he’d be a pretty present for my Lady.”
Runciter gave a low whistle. “I think she’ll be keeping this one, in fact.”
“Indeed she shall,” Lady Basinstoke agreed, staring down at the unconscious body of Colonel Alvin Winslow.
There were sights aplenty to warm the heart of Amelia Owen, Countess of Basingstoke, as the sun set over the swamp. The glow of the firelight from the blazing fortress reflected in Lepellimer’s eyes, and the rapt expression on his face. The American magistrates gathering in the grey-uniformed rebels, and striking the chains from the black laborers. The firm, respectful handshake between Fatima and Curragh, and Runciter’s warm embrace of his ward and protégé.
And Jack himself, of course. Always Jack, with his devious smirk and his flashing green eyes. With his knack for the moment, his tactical mind and his instant adaptation to circumstances. His skill in all things! There he was, embracing each and every one of the newly freed Negroes as he would a brother, and they gripping him back with equal fondness. What did he care for breeding? And why should he? He himself was the ultimate disproof of the idea that a man’s birth was evidence of his character. Or, she thought guiltily, a woman’s.
What had she to offer a man like that? She, a little girl playing at statecraft. He, a man of action and of the world. It was preposterous. It didn’t bear thinking about. And yet, she never seemed to be able to stop thinking about it.
She did not deserve him, could never have him. But what she could give him was a forum for his talents. Tasks worthy of him, and gallant causes to serve. So that even if he would never be hers, he would be always before her eyes.
You would never take what I want to give you. So instead, I shall give you the world entire.
She clapped her hands for their attention, and instantly they assembled before her—the five truest friends a lady could ever wish for. “Ah, my menagerie,” she intoned. She was trying to look stern, and failing utterly; the fond smile kept breaking through. “My magnificent beasts. An awkward venture, but a successful one.” She paused. “No rest for us, though, it seems. I have received correspondence from our mutual friend and benefactress. It seems an unfortunate incident has arisen involving the fabled Golden Stool of the Ashanti, an incident which must be handled with our customary delicacy. We ship out at daybreak.”
Jack cleared his throat. “If I may, your Ladyship,” he said, “I’ve a brief bit of business to conclude first.”
Winslow kneeled, his face a mass of bruises, as the police bound his hands behind him. Glancing up, he found Jack looking back down at him. “Well, I’ll be. Bit o’ a role reversal, eh? Well, don’t wait fer it, boy. Take yer shot. Put me in my place! Y’already took everything from me, stole m’ future an’ m’ fortune from me.”
Jack shook his head. “As it happens, sir, your fortune isn’t entirely depleted.”
Winslow stared up at him. “Howd’ya figger?”
Jack smiled down at him. “Well, sir, you are owed the balance on the month of labor I failed to complete.” Jack reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a single grey banknote. “One Confederate dollar. A wise man once told me to hold onto it, as it is likely to appreciate in value.”
Jack stepped behind Winslow, and gently placed the bill into one of his close-bound hands.
“Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“Menagerie” is copyright © Steve DuBois