The Vindictive Vaudeville Villainess
Chapter 9: Steam City
Location: Vaudeville Theatre, Kanesville
Shanen leaned back in the leather chair of the corner booth and let out a small sigh. The sailor looked to the empty stage, devoid of any life, lit by a candle filled chandelier. This was supposed to be the Intermission period, problem was the Intermission was dragging past upwards of half an hour. He sipped his water, no alcohol, he needed his mind to be clear, just in case.
He checked the chunky and expensive gold watch on his left wrist with slight irritation. The Captain had asked him to come here tonight but she was light on the specifics other than to keep an eye out for other crewmembers who might need a hand, or a fist. So far the task had proven to be a bust, two hours in and he had seen no sign of anyone from the Steamhawke. He took in his surroundings for the umpteenth time, he had been in Kanseville for a few months but until tonight had never graced the Vaudeville Theatre. With his experience so far he wasn't surprised, the place had serious delusions of grandeur and spectacularly failed to meet such aspirations.
Another glance at his watch. It was coming up to midnight, by his reckoning he could be there for another two hours before the final act performed and the last orders were called from the bar.
Ana sighed out of boredom. She hated being bored more than anything. She glanced around the seating area, it wasn't an overly busy night.She saw something gleam out of the corner of her eye as she scanned the room. Looking closely at the booth in the far corner she saw what it was, a gold watch, clasped firmly to the wrist of a lone patron. It had been a while since she stole something, she mused silently with a smirk on her lips. A slight shiver ran up her spine, nothing give her the same kind of kicks as a little bit of thievery.
Shanen looked up from his drink as a figure approached his table. A young woman, short dark hair and eyes that hid something behind them. 'Mischief, most likely' Shanen mused to himself. Just as the stranger opened her mouth to speak the sounds of scurrying around the backstage area interrupted her.
The curtain stage lifted, revealing a man in a top hat. Mr. Fotis, the Master of Ceremony barked from the side of the stage with an annoyed look on his face, "Now presenting Peter the Magician!"
Giving Peter an obvious glare, the dark haired woman turned back to Shanen, "What is a man like you doing here so late? You aren't the type of customer we usually get at this hour."
Shanen smiled at the question. She was a pretty enough girl, perhaps a little too much make-up but otherwise easy on the eyes. "Oh? And what kind of customer do you normally get at this time?" The handsome blonde asked with a smile, content to play the same game she was with him.
Ana plunked down in the chair next to Shanen, taking his smile as an invitation. Bracing her elbows on the table, she set her chin in her hands and tipped her head towards him conspiratorially. "Old men," she intoned. Her eyes danced, inviting him to share in the joke. "Stuffy old men who sneak out with their friends after their wives have gone to bed because they want to feel young again. Meanwhile all the young men have already seen their show and moved to the saloons. Well," one of her hands flicked out to gesture to Shanen. "Almost all of the young men. Or," she squinted at him, "Are you just an old man in disguise?" she teased.
She didn't lack for confidence, that was for sure but that only heightened his interest in the smiling young woman. "Maybe I like standing out." He replied with his own air of confidence. "If my only competition in here is boring old men, the girls might come running." He smiled as he took another swig of his drink, finishing it off.
"Is that why you came over? The rare sight of a young man this close to midnight and all alone?" His own eyes twinkled with a hint of fun. "Name's Shanen by the way." He added by way of introduction.
"Annamaria." She waved at him and sighed, letting the air puff out of her cheeks. "In Seaport, the clubs stay busy all night," she said, smiling wistfully. "Women come too, and drink just like the men, and everyone laughs and sings. I miss it so. There's so little fun here." She looked at Shanen. "Have you ever been to Seaport, Old Man?"
"Can't say I have." Shanen lied. "I hear it's choc-full of pirates and brigands and all sorts of other deviants." He said in mock horror. His mind wandered back to the many wild nights he had spent on the island. "How does a pretty young thing like you go from there to a place like Kanseville and all its excitement." The sailor asked flatly, casting his hand over the half empty theatre and the terrible magic act no-one was paying attention to. "Perhaps you know of some other excitement in town? Something only the young people know about, am I right?" Another smile as he continued to play the game.
"I'm on tour," Ana replied. She sat up primly and recited "The Lovely Annamaria Rosita, Pearl of Seaport, Flower of the Isles, A Tropical Nightengale." Her face cracked into a grin and she held up a hand to cover it. "Kanesville is a dangerous town. My manager wouldn't like it if I left the theatre, so he keeps me busy with rehearsals." She shrugged. "Its no so bad though. There's more to the theatre than you might think."
"Sounds like an offer of a tour." Shanen said, seizing an opportunity. The reason why he was here in the first place was playing on his mind, it was clear that none of the crew was in the auditorium. If Ana Maria was willing to voluntarily take him behind the scenes he might pick up an idea as to what he should be looking for.
Ana appeared to hesitate. From on stage, the voice of the fat magician drifted up to them. "...and for my next trick...." The music began to crescendo. "We have nearly an hour before I must go on stage again..." She stood, offering her arm to Shanen. "All right, Sir Old Man, come see what the theater has to offer."
Wrapping an arm around the iron girder that supported the narrow aisle above the stage, Azzo dropped the the sandbag over the edge. The rope attached to it snapped taught, and slowly, the curtain above the magician began to rise, just on cue with the rising music. He sat back and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping his brow and the back of his neck. The magician's show was easily the most demanding for the stage hands, requiring constant trips up and down into the rafters to heave sandbags, yank pulleys, and generally keep the smoke and mirrors in smooth working orders. The palms of his hands still smarted from the rope climb he'd had to make to drop the sandbag in time, and he rubbed at them absently as he scanned the audience for the woman responsible for every ache, pain and bruise he'd put into his body since coming to Vaudeville.
Watching Ana had become second nature. The rest of the crew joked that placid, quiet Yvo was smitten with her, and for his part, Azzo didn't try to dissuade them. It made it easy to keep an eye on her. She smiled at him now and then, a bland, cool smile that passed right through him, but otherwise ignored him. To her, he might as well not have existed. With practice, he'd learned to pick her out of the hustle and bustle of the vaudeville crowd in moments, watching for the flash of her short dark hair and the shimmery fabrics of her dress.
A shimmer caught his eye. He watched as she rose from the table, all grace and easy movement, and tugged on the hand of a young man. Azzo raised his eyebrows as they headed for the back stairwell. A tryst? Below him, he heard the pattering of feet as many stage hands pushed at the tank that would contain the magician's next stupendous undertaking. There were two marks he'd need to hit in the space of several minutes. Azzo hesitated; following Ana now would send the show grinding to a halt, not the mention possibly killing the poor fool in the top hat below. Ana would have to wait.
The quiet, still air of the storage rooms below the theater softened the noise from above and muffled Ana's giggles as she coaxed Shanen down the ladder. "Hurry up, Old Man!" Ana chided breathlessly as she nearly set her slippered foot on his fingers. Shanen followed close behind, enjoying Ana's energy and enthusiasm. He kept on the look-out for any Steamhawke crew members but none were to be seen.
They'd made their way up into the rafters and back down again, walking along narrow catwalks and ducking under struts and buttresses, now to swim their way through an ocean of old sets and costumes. Plenty of places where a watch clasp might catch momentarily and be lost unnoticed, and no way to find them again either, once it'd tumbled down into the dark. Ana stole a momentary glance below her. The watch glinted up to her from it's owner's wrist. Just another moment now...
Shanen had reached the bottom of the ladder. "Catch me!" she cried, abandoning the ladder before she reached the last rung, and holding her arms out to Shanen.
"Wow!" He managed to yell in surprise as Ana fell on top of him. He managed to get his arms up in time to guide her to the ground and that's when she made her move. One arm curled around him pulling her close. Her other hand brushed against his for a moment, then pressed against his shoulder for balance. It was so subtle Shanen barely noticed, only the slight release of pressure on his left wrist alerted him to what was going on. Had he been giddy with cheap drink and infatuation, he never would have noticed it, too preoccupied with the woman in his arms.
He spread the fingers on his left hand, managing to stop the expensive timepiece from slipping away from him entirely. In the same movement he used his free hand to push Ana away from him. She was too well trained to stumble, and she caught herself instantly, stepping back from him in a smooth movement."So, that was the trick was it?" He asked angrily as he stood up straight. "A fancy pick-pocket and nothing more."
He looked on her with disdain and she watched him warily. "I wonder how the manager would react to find he has a thief on staff?" Shanen asked as he turned his attention away from Ana and to the heavy gold watch. With a small click it was clasped into place once more. As the clasped clicked shut, she struck. It was expertly placed blow, a perfectly timed karate chop, and delivered with no small amount of force. With a sigh Shanen slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Ana stood over him, heart in her throat. It had been years since she'd had to knock a man senseless like that. Years since she'd been sloppy enough to find herself in such close quarters unprepared. Stooping down, she quickly unclasped the heavy watch from his limp wrist and shoved it into her pocket. Her hand throbbed and she rubbed at the aching bones methodically. There was still work to be done in Kanesville. Wild Bill would be furious if he had to bail her out for something as silly as a piece of jewellry as nice as it was. Her heart lept at the thought of his anger. She looked at the prone form at her feet. The dolly next to the stack of crated costumes behind her. The tracks behind the stage. An empty bottle of whiskey round out the story. She set her mouth in a grim line, reached down and picked up the unconscious man's wrist, and began to pull.
"Great practice girls! You're all set for tomorrow." Melisande walked out of the practice room tried and sweaty. She held the bridge of her nose noting the glue was losing its grip, feeling relief that the day was done.
"That was Peter the Magician! Next up is the fabulous Madam Jayashri with her spinning plates!"
Peter's act was the shortest and was only on late at night because he just wasn't very good. Melisande wondered when Mr. Fotis was just going to fire him, son of his brother in law or not. She sighed and laughed slightly imagining how that would play out.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Azzo quickly tie one of the ropes. A look of determination and worry appeared on his brow as he rushed to a dark area backstage. Melisande raised an eyebrow as she slowly followed, mumbling under her breath, "I wonder what you will show me, Yvo."
Deep in the recesses of the cavernous storage rooms, Azzo's stomach rumbled, reminding him that he should be wolfing down a sandwich on his break, not clambering after some starlet backstage. He ignored his body's complain, annoyed. His stomach was right. Ana did nothing but flirt from act to act and lock herself into her rented rooms at night. If she chose to have a tryst, why should Azzo stick his nose in it? Kytreth was insane. The woman was a lovely voice, a shrewd actress, and nothing more. This was madness and it was making him miss dinner.
The sound of footsteps hurried towards him and Azzo shrank back into the shadows of a towering piece of scenery. Safe in the refuge of a plasterboard castle, he watched as Ana hurried past, one hand smoothing her hair, the other plucking at the wrinkles in her dress. He waited until she was gone, then hesitated. If he continued the way she came, he'd likely only find the young toff, similarly disheveled. If he started back now, he might have a few minutes before the next act.
Life was always easier for a man who didn't follow orders. Unfortunately, Azzo wasn't such a one. Kytreth had told him to watch her. To so the minimum without seeing it through simply wasn't in his blood. He sighed, ducked out of the shadows, and continued down the path Ana had come from.
It led him through a wide aisle of clothing, past a heap of paper mache masonry, and finally to the back exit to the theater which hung ajar in the light breeze of the evening. Azzo stopped, puzzled, and frowned. He'd seen neither hide nor hair of the man Ana had pulled backstage. The idea of a tryst in the sooty alleyway where the trains ran behind the theatre sounded deeply unpleasant. Curious, he put a hand to the door and pushed.
Outside the door, the ground tipped sharply down in a jagged slope down to the tracks. Refuse and scrap could be dumped here as the trains moved past out of Kanesville, and there were skiffs and hoists for bringing up raw materials farther down the tracks. The wind lifted his hair as Azzo peered into the darkness. There, at the bottom of the alley, a crumpled figure lay across the tracks. Azzo spotted it just as a mournful whistle echoed low and long from across the city.
Azzo let loose several words usually reserved for broken fingers and muttered commentary on Prussian winters. The slope down to the tracks was loose stone, all sharp edges and shifting planes under Azzo's boots. He half clambered, half slid down the slow, managing to mostly keep upright and finally coming to rest against the iron rails. The man sprawled next to him, body draped over the ties of the tracks. He was bruised, but breathing. "This is a bad place for a nap, friend," Azzo muttered. He tried and failed to imagine dragging a dead weight up the slope he'd come from. He leaned over the unconscious man, feeling the vibrations from the faraway train travel up through the bones of his hands, growing stronger as the seconds passed. "Please wake up."
In the darkness, Melisande crept behind Azzo. She glared and thought to herself, "How did he have time? Coming to check up on a kill perhaps?"
Getting right behind him, she saw the man on the tracks. She blurted out in horror, "Shanen?!"
Azzo stood up and stared at her in shock for a split second. A split second was all she needed. In a panic, she rushed him, making fists like she was going to punch him. As he made a defensive stance, she made a swift sweeping kick from behind, hitting his knees, causing him to fall onto the track. She quickly got on top of him only for him to start to roll, both of them grabbing at pieces of clothing and positioning for superior position, all the way rolling down the track.
Once on top again, Melisande slammed Azzo's head against the track. As he shook his head stunned, she reached to his arm, pulling up his sleeve only to find his tattoo of honorable service, "This cannot be."
In her stunned confusion, she felt her nose slide off her face and land onto his chest. It was then she felt the shaking of the track underneath them. Chago's cross necklace dangled out of her shirt as she felt her body shake slightly. The man under her stared.
He wasn't a fool. The young chorus girl hadn't escaped his noticed, despite his focus on Ana. She had a dancer's grace, but a fighter's canny eyes and quick reflexes. More than once, he'd seen her drop into a crouch when a piece of scenery dropped noisily, only to rise a moment later, playing it off as the exaggerated flinching of the rest of the girls. He'd looked past her though, focusing on Ana instead, and now he regretted it.
Another like her? Members of the same band? Her small hand ground his jaw into the cold metal of the train tracks. It was of secondary importance now that she had him in a hold he couldn't break. Her legs were braced against the tracks and leveraged as she was, she was surprisingly strong. Something fell against his chest as he felt her wrench away the fabric over forearm and he heard her noise of surprise. If she'd fooled him, it appeared at least he'd done the same to her. He twisted his neck enough to free himself from the press of her hand and looked up at her. She was open mouthed, the light from the warehouse behind her making a halo around her head and catching on the necklace hanging from her throat.
His breath caught in his own throat. He'd seen that necklace before, illuminated by firelight against the chest of a mercenary long ago. Chago had taken the crucifix in the palm of his hand and told Azzo the story as they waited for the long desert night to pass and the trail to make itself known again. They'd both watched it, half hypnotized by the play of light on metal and bored out of their minds. The image had seared itself into his mind, and he'd seen it again, hanging like a talisman from the condemned man's neck as he waited for execution.
But Chago wasn't dead. And the necklace should still be like him, unless the mercenary himself had decided otherwise. "Pax," Azzo choked against the weight of the woman on his chest, calling for a truce. "Mary, pax."
She glared down at the man hesitating. Feeling the vibrations intensify, she pulled herself off of him, taking the nose with her. As she did, she felt another ting of pain from her right side and grumbled. With all of her work, being undercover at the vaudeville hall, working on that canary, and repairing any weapons presented to her, she simply had no time to tend to her injury. It seemed to be rehealing, but she hadn't drank enough alchemy solutions and certainly didn't want or expect to be tended by someone being held hostage like Yorvlad. The rumors of him were enough to send chills down her spin.
"Who are you and what do you want with this man? I will let you live if you leave him alone and speak nothing of my identity. He is an associate of mine." Her face showed a stern icy coldness Azzo hadn't seen from the woman before.
"I want him not to get his head smashed by a train!" Azzo yelled at her. "And I don't want to get mine smashed either." Her weight eased off of him and he scooted back out from under her. The train whistle wailed again, closer this time. "I'm not going to leave him alone. I'm going to get him off the tracks." Whatever this strange woman's association with Chago, he wasn't going to allow her to shoo him off, leaving an unconscious man to die.
"Right. We can discuss things later." She quickly crawled off the tracks, heading to Shanen. Melisande was confused, but it was obvious to her that this strange man in front of her hadn't done this to her teammate. Suddenly the ground began to shake more intensely and she noticed a bright light. The whistle of the train let out a deafening screech. Looking up, the train seemed to be almost over them. She turned to the man across from her, her voice filled with anxiety, "Yvo, pull and I'll push!"
"Get his feet," Azzo urged as the vibration in the tracks intensified, pushing the man's shoulder's up. He could see the light around the corner now, and the smell of steam and smoke filled the air. He hooked his hands under the man's arms. They had six feet to cover before the train covered the last of track between it and them. "Go! Go!" Working together, they heaved the man off the tracks and up the embankment. The train roared past a second later, buffeting them with hot, sooty air. Azzo planted his heels in the loose sand and stone of the steep grade and held on to Shanen for dear life, keeping the limp man from sliding back down towards the wheels of the train. The sound was deafening.
And then, abruptly, it was gone. The train passed, turning the gentle corner towards the outskirts of town and leaving behind it only dust and soot to settle. Azzo eased down his burden with a sigh, then coughed and spat, clearing the soot from his lungs. "You're a lucky man, friend," he muttered to the unconscious man.
Melisande crouched holding her right side and coughed. She let out a small hiss as she felt a sudden sharp pain. Standing up straight, she began to dust herself off in a formal fashion. She smiled down at Shanen, then looked up at Azzo, "So how did you find my teammate?"
Azzo shrugged. "Just lucky, I guess," he said levelly. He watched at the women gingerly brushed the dust from her dress. "He's your teammate then?" he asked warily.
"Yes. If you are willing, I will keep him in an abandoned shack. I have my things there. I cannot carry him myself." she glared at him. It seemed he didn't want to answer any questions so she wasn't willing to part with any more answers than she had to. She decided it would be best for her to keep an eye on Shanen away from the dormitories the Steamhawke crew were staying at. It would be potentially disastrous otherwise, besides she would have her swords in case this stranger decided to do something.
Shanen heard the voices in the distance, slowly he felt himself emerge from the blackness that was engulfing him. His vision swam as he blinked, trying to clear the cobwebs. He saw two figures, a male and a female as far as he could tell, crouched above him. He looked to one and then the other, recognizing neither. He looked to to the woman. "Who are you?" Came the groggy question. Before anyone could answer, Shanen gave a small sigh and passed out.
She quickly went down to her knees and tapping his face with her hands. That was when she registered the question and dread spilled into her. Of course, between his foggy vision, her wig, make up, and different form of dress he didn't recognize her.
"I...but---but..." Melisande looked up to see Azzo entering a defensive posture. She began to take off her dark brown wig, revealing her red brown locks in hopes Shanen would recognize her once he woke again, "I suppose I should be the one answering questions for now. What would you like to know first?"
"Let's start with his," Azzo nodded to the man at their feet. "Did you toss him here, then? Or were you just meant to make sure he stayed where he was put." The man was groggy, confused, likely concussed, but his inability to so much as recognize his 'teammate' had set Azzo's suspicions even more firmly on edge. "And how did that necklace come to you," he added, gesturing at Chago's pendant.
"His name is Shanen. He works with me on an airship crew. We are an archaeology team headed to the jungle region. I went undercover after a fellow crew member was accused of murder. He was freed and gave me this necklace as he left. I have reason to believe the true murderer is also using the vaudeville hall as cover. I found you immediately suspicious and followed you here. It seems you are not the one I am looking for. I thought you were the one who did this to Shanen." Melisande sighed slightly as she gave her partially rehearsed answer. If this mysterious man was militia, she certainly couldn't tell him they were sky pirates. She suspected that he didn't believe her anyway. One of his questions nagged her and caused her to raise her eyebrow, "Why are you so interested in this necklace?"
"You fight very well for an archaeologist," Azzo complimented in a polite deadpan. Kanesville was not the sort of town where you bandied about that you were a member of a pirate crew. "A friend of El Moreno is a friend of mine." He held out his hand for Melisande to shake. "I'm not the one who gave this poor fellow his bump on the head, but I'd be more than interested to see what he saw. What say we see if we can get him somewhere more comfortable before he comes around, and mayhap he'll have something to tell us."