Authors: Terry Kroenung
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy
I stood up and stretched, looking around. Mad Molly crouched over down the alley a piece, hunting for who-knew-what in a trash heap. She’d lost her husband in the last war, the one where Washington had been burned by the Britannic army. Everybody said she’d lost her mind from grief back then, too. Walked about town living on handouts, babbling. Eddie and me gave her a dime now and then, but mostly avoided her. There were lots of poor old widows in town, left with no one to care for them. Now the new war minted fresh ones faster than anybody could count.
We finished up the water jug and shuffled back inside, muscles creaking from over an hour of stage combat. When I planned the fights Verity the Valiant triumphed, a spunky unbeatable righter-of-wrongs with a heart of gold and an arm of iron. The Fell Knight had no chance against her. But whenever Eddie designed the routines poor Verity fell, a rube from the countryside who scarcely knew which end of the sword to grab. A helpless pawn caught in the ruthless designs of her social superior. Today I’d won the coin toss.
“Battle of Agincourt?” blurted Eddie in a snooty Britannic voice.
Aha. Time for Round Two.
“1415,” I answered, returning his serve with a Gaullic tone. “Fall of Constantinople?”
“Which one?” he asked with a grin, batting his huge chocolate-brown eyes. I noticed that his lashes were short, even for a boy.
“1204, sacked by Christian knights during the 4th Crusade. Then the Turks took it for good in 1453. Shakespeare’s birthday?”
I made a
sound with my lips. Too easy. “April 23, 1564. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
He hesitated for just a second. “Straight pin or safety pin?”
We had a good laugh at that. I punched him on the arm a couple of times. He made-believe that it hurt. Like I said, Eddie could act. Sometimes he’d sham weakness. It helped him keep the rowdies away every now and then, since they couldn’t look very tough picking on a “sissy”. Fooled them, too. They’d saunter off to find bigger game and the next thing they knew, a rock would ping them between their shoulders, fired from around a corner or up on a balcony. Eddie worked on proper marksmanship, along with everything else he did.
While he rubbed his arm he peered at me like he wanted to draw my face. I twisted up my nose and mouth, and then stuck out my tongue. “Whatcha doin’?” I asked.
“Your eyes look bad. Are you sleeping okay?”
I looked away. “Sure.”
“None of those dreams?”
I rubbed the dark circles under my eyes. “Uh-uh.”
He pulled me back around and gave me his ‘you can’t lie to me’ face. “Verity.”
Sighing, I gave in. “Oh, all right! Just a couple o’ times this week is all.”
“Maybe you need to see a doctor.”
“What for? He’ll just say I need to quit eatin’ raspberries before bed or some other fool thing. Doctors don’t know beans.”
“Maybe not, but you need to do something. You tell your ma?”
“Not after the first time. She gave me a look like I’d just confessed to murder. Don’t want to see that again.”
Eddie frowned. “Same exact dream? Every time?”
I nodded, pulling glue and paint out of the tool cupboard. “Never changes.”
“The man with the gold skin? The big black dog?”
“Yep, all of it.”
Fallin’ down a dark hole. Weird letters that move around like ants. The grandma with sharpened teeth. And blonde kids with long scary hands, reaching out for you.
I got spooked just thinking about it and wanted to talk about something else. “I’ll be okay. They come in bunches for a couple o’ weeks, then they go away. Should about be done.” I held up the glue jar. “And we should be about done fixin’ the floor, if you’d quit yer jawin’.”
I made a deal with Eddie to trade chores for the day. He’d wash costumes for me and I’d beat the lobby rugs for him, plus fix the floor. His funeral, I figured. Washin’ is ever so much more work, to my mind. So while he went out with our hired freedman Romulus to fetch water for the tub, I patched the nick in Mr. Ford’s apron floor. When I’d finished you’d never have known it’d been there. That’s what I’ve always been good at, hiding mischief.
Just as I put the paint away in the stage right cupboard Mr. Ford strolled in through the upstage entrance, dapper and handsome as always. One of the lead actors came with him. They didn’t see me because I snuck behind the cupboard door. They talked about the dress rehearsal that night, picking their way through papier-mâché Scottish rocks.
always pleased the crowds and no mistake.Mr. Ford seemed to think that his witches weren’t scary enough.
“They should move in an inhuman way,” he said, inspecting his theatre as he spoke. Yanking on a rope to see that it stayed secure, he continued while the other man followed. “Perhaps like spiders at times, or slithering snakes. Their heads might jerk as birds of prey do, eyes never blinking. I want the audience to be disturbed.”
“If you truly desire to upset your patrons, double your prices,” said his companion, as good-looking and well-dressed as they come, even for a star actor. Dark curling hair and moustache set off his square jaw and pale skin. His eyes matched his voice. Both struck me as deep and restless, with half-contained fire. After chuckling at his own joke he went on in a different tone, one that made my skin crawl. “Or you can re-cast them with the prettiest blonde children in town, all with black eyes and long fingers.”
What did he say?
I tilted my head and crouched close to the floor where I could see and hear them without being noticed.
Mr. Ford froze and glanced around. He seemed scared to be overheard, even alone in his own theatre. “Not funny, Booth.”
John Wilkes Booth gave him the same smile boys made when stepping on bugs. I’d have bet his Thane of Glamis would give you more chills than any witch he shared the stage with. “Jumpy, aren’t we? Next you’ll be intoning, ‘The very walls have ears!’”
“It’s not the walls that I’m worried about. It’s the cat by the fire, or the rat that raids the pantry, or my housekeeper’s canary.”
Are they talkin’ in some kind of code?
“Relax. As long as you don’t rock the Merchantry’s boat they won’t try to sink yours.”
Merchantry? What’s that?
He’d pronounced it like a Gaullic word…mer-SHAN-tree.
Mr. Ford frowned and stared at the precise spot that I’d just patched, even though he stood twenty feet upstage of it. “My boat is not my chief concern. I’d just prefer not to wake up one day as a dung beetle.”
“Well, let’s just work to put on a good show and the rest will take care of itself.” Booth glanced at an expensive-looking watch plucked from his brocade vest. “I’m off to the Willard for a brandy, and perhaps some socializing with a couple of the Army bigwigs. See if I can find out what’s going on in the Peninsula. No one seems to have a clue about this Lee, the Rebels’ new commander. Coming?”
“Lee doesn’t matter. As long as he’s fighting McClellan, that bragging idiot---”
“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!” Booth boomed into the empty house. I had to admit, he sounded darn good.
Ford laughed and slapped his star on the back. Booth stiffened for a second, but Mr. Ford didn’t notice. “If you deliver all of your lines like that one, it’ll signify fat profits for us both!”
“Stay awhile, I will be faithful.” Booth shook Ford’s hand. “Adieu.”
The actor bounded off through the wings, humming. Mr. Ford moved downstage. Now he could see me in the paint cupboard, the picture of innocence. “So,” he purred, “was it your sword or Eddie’s?”
I blushed. Nothing ever got past him. Of course, the pile of weapons near the prompt box sort of gave it away. “Eddie gets too enthusiastic sometimes.”
“Which is why we all love him.” He stood right above my floor patch. “Good work. If I hadn’t seen it from the upstage side, angled in the light, I never would have noticed. I presume that this is your work and not Eddie’s?”
“Yes, sir. He’s out back scrubbin’ costumes for Ma. She’s in the Greenroom gettin’ things ready for tonight’s rehearsal. I’m gonna beat the lobby rugs for you.”
“Good girl.” He squinted. “Where’s your necklace? I thought you never took it off.”
I gasped and dug a hand into the back of my overalls. “Forgot! Didn’t want to have a sword catch it.” A smooth red stone glowed in the afternoon light. The gift Pa had put around my neck the day of my birth. I had nothing else of him. No pictures, no letters, nothing but a flat speckled rock on a black silk cord. Shaped like a long blunt-nosed arrowhead with a vertical oblong slit in its center. Ma called it my Legacy Stone, a piece of jasper Pa’d claimed that he’d had since he’d been a boy. I slipped it over my head and tucked it inside my shirt.
“Still doing well in school? I’ve been bragging to everyone about how sharp you are.” As proud of me and Eddie’s school work as if he’d been our own daddy, Mr. Ford kept close watch on our learning. Since he paid for us both to go out of his own pocket, he had the right, I guess. Sometimes I wished he had been my real pa. I had no memory of my father at all. Ma said she’d lost him two days after my birth. Never would tell me more. Must’ve been real hard on her.
“Oh, yes, sir. Perfect marks in History and Literature last term. My grammar and cipherin’ still need work, though. You won’t want me countin’ your receipts, that’s for sure. Can’t wait fer summer to be over so we can go back.” I didn’t lie. Believe it or not, I loved school, except for having to wear shoes. You can call it girlie, I don’t care. Guess I had a knack for it, especially for Shakespeare and other storytellers. I reckoned I knew just about any book you could name then, backwards and forwards. Me and Eddie would have competitions in history, too, trying to stump one another. It amazed our teacher, Miz Finch, that we could be that sharp. Me in particular, because I didn’t appear the studious type. ‘Tweren’t natural, she’d say. High praise from someone who looked unnatural herself. Never saw such a backside on a woman. Broader than a hay wagon.
Reaching into his coat pocket, Mr. Ford drew out a peppermint stick and handed it to me with manicured fingers. “Here. Make sure you give him half.” When I reached for it he withdrew the candy. “After you put the swords back in the property closet.”
I smiled and stared at my big booted feet. Just like at school, I wasn’t allowed to be barefoot in the theatre. “Yes, sir.” I collected my treat and scampered off with the rapiers, their daggers stowed inside the caged hilts. Mr. Ford in a good mood, sweets in my hand, and Eddie doing my chores…all was right with the world.
As right as that twisted war-torn world of 1862 could be, on the last happy day of my childhood. Before I became the most magick-hunted person on Earth.
I punched his boy-bits with all of my might.
My ma folded shirts in the Greenroom, on account of it being cooler than in the costume shop. Sweat soaked her calico dress. Some crazy person built Washington City in a swamp, so summers always sweltered. Until last year’s attack on Fort Sumter had filled the city with troops and government workers, most people had always left town come June. It felt that miserable. Most years Mr. Ford booked little or nothing into the Athenaeum for June, July, and August, there being no audience to speak of. But now he had a chance to pack the house full of free-spending Army officers and War Department workers. That’s why the popular Booth had brought his company, to perform for folk starved for entertainment as well as thirsting for good news of the war.
Giving me that look she always used when I’d disappointed her, Ma said, “You switched chores with Eddie? What did I tell you about---?”
“I didn’t take advantage of him,” I protested.
Well, maybe a little
. “He asked me to help him out of a fix.”
She smoothed her damp dark hair out of her gray eyes. Short and round, she wore spectacles on the end of her sharp nose. They made her look like Ben Franklin’s sister. The glasses usually sat atop her head, except for when she sewed or when she wanted to glare at me about something I’d done. I don’t look much like her. Guess I got Pa’s face. At least that’s what she tells me. I don’t recall him.
Sure wish I could, though.
“You could have said no.”
“And then he’d be onstage right now, in a world of trouble with Mr. Ford. I did him a favor.”
“And since you’re so considerate for your best friend, you’ll do him another. Go help with the wash…now. Then you’ll both beat those rugs.”
I started to argue, but knew it would be useless. Jamming the peppermint stick in my mouth, I clumped out.
“Don’t forget to give him half of that candy,” she called after me.
Oh, a big one for honesty and fairness, my ma. She based everything she did or said on those ideas. Whether portions at dinner, kids’ games, or national affairs, she considered
more important than
. Even though Eddie didn’t really count as my real brother—Mr. Ford had found him on the street and let him live at the theatre—he got treated as such by us. And Ma had hired Romulus to help with odd jobs, paying him the same as a white man. Him being somewhat simple didn’t matter to her. As soon as Mr. Lincoln had freed all of Washington City’s slaves in April she’d made it a point to give a job to the first colored person who’d asked her. Didn’t care who knew it or who objected, neither. Of course, she expected the same from me, too.
Me and Eddie spent a miserable hour wrestling with two dozen pair of pants. Boiling water, boiling lye, and boiling sun, combined with stirring what seemed like eleven tons of waterlogged trousers, made us woozy and weak. The sultry air could have almost drowned you trying to breathe it. Romulus helped out a bit, truth be told, or we’d likely have fainted. He had the kind of ‘strong’ you read about in fairy tales.
Big old loyal Romulus. He’d come to Ford’s asking for a job, any job, the day he’d got his freedom papers in April. Ma hadn’t needed any help, but she told me that something about him made her feel safe, somehow. Faithful and brawny, he looked after us like a kindly uncle. Though sometimes he watched over me so careful that he resembled a sheepdog guarding his flock from wolves.