Clockwork Firefly {Chapter 26 to Chapter 28} Picture

Chapter Twenty-Six

She pulled her coat on, her card punched and her check in her pocket. She walked out of the hotel and down the street, aware she was being followed.

"Just where do you think you're going?" The sneering tone oozed across her nerves.

"I'm taking the streetcar, I found a nickel in the hallway."

Hard fingers curled around her arm as he fell into step with her. "Not your nickel though, is it?" He snapped his other hand's fingers and held his palm out. When she didn't comply, his grip on her arm steadily tightened until she relented and set the five cent piece in his palm and then walked compliantly when he turned her around and guided her back to the car.

He closed the door and moved to the driver's seat. "Don't think I forgot it's Friday either. You just sign the check over and I won't have to be so damn handsy all the time. " He leered faintly over his shoulder. "Unless you're one of those gals who likes it a little rough."

"I assure you, I would rather eat a live eel backward than spend time with you by choice." She closed the pen and held out the check. "Drive."

He growled, wanting to smack the imperious look right off of her face, but she was to come to no harm, the boss said so. He hated every second of the drive to her apartment after she'd commanded it as if it were him taking the orders. One of these days... that leash that the boss had him on was either going to be dropped, or he'd break it himself. Thankfully he'd be off this detail in a couple more weeks. He'd had it with this stuck-up tomato.

He pulled up at the curb and she climbed out without a look back. She gave a nod to Mrs. Jennings behind the desk. "Any mail for me?"

"Not today."

Mary nodded and began the climb up to her room. It was good. Unlike the dozens of other letters she'd sent to the Walters since she'd left, the one with money in it they'd not sent back unopened. She knew why they were angry with her. When she'd left, she'd stolen a dress, and stockings and underthings and a hairbrush... a dozen little things that weren't hers to take even if she could not see any of them getting any use from them. She'd pay them back and maybe they'd forgive her. Unlike every time before, she had sent the cash with no return address, and posted it with the mail at work instead of sending it from here. They wouldn't have known it was her until they opened it, and by then, they'd know she was trying to make amends.

The third floor reached, she turned toward her room and saw a wide-shouldered man blocking the hall. She did not need to wonder who it was. "Go home, Mr. Becile. I have already given my check to your lap dog. There is nothing for you here."

He looked wounded and tsk-tsked at her gently. "Now is that any way to talk to someone who just wants the best for you, Mary? I don't know why you insist on making me a villain. "

She shoved the key into the lock and turned it. "Because you're a murdering, lying, thieving bastard and you want to hurt the people I care about?" She frowned at him and stepped into her apartment, shutting the door on him, but he blocked it with his foot and pushed his way inside anyway. She left it wide open and, gritting her teeth, moved to hang up her coat.

"Such a vicious tongue, after all I've done for you. I ensured you got a good job, a nice safe place to live..." he gestured around the small room. "Why don't you try being a bit more hospitable." He sat down at her small table. "Why don't you make me a cup of tea, Mary."

His eyes followed her as she did it. He could see the tension in her back and jaw, the hardness in her eyes. He had eyes on the Walter Manor since the day he'd come back from Mexico. All his men dead, a botched kidnapping plot the police had said, but he knew better. He knew who had done it. He'd returned to San Diego, intent to discover some way to get his hands on those machines. Imagine his surprise to see Mary sneaking out at four in the morning. He thought about just snatching her right then, but instead followed her cab all the way to the Hotel del Coronado.

He made it a point to secure a meeting with the man in charge of hiring after she arrived for her appointment. Paid him well to ensure that she would be hired, and that the manager made certain she received the business card for this place. She'd been quite terrified when he appeared at her door and even more so when he explained that it was his benevolence that kept her from the streets. He could not trust her to not throw a wrench into his plans. Not yet. He knew that to truly have her in the palm of his hand, he needed to sever the ties of affection she held for the Walters. He'd had Mrs. Jennings collect every piece of mail she sent, as well as put the postman for the Walter's neighborhood into his pocket. No letter she wrote ever got through, they all came back 'return to sender' and eventually, she stopped writing altogether.

The cup set down before him, she glowered and stood with the table between them as though she feared he'd pounce on her. He sipped the tea, which was as good a cup as one could hope with a hot plate and a saucepan instead of a good flame and a kettle. "Very nice." He smiled as if they were merely friends having a nice evening. "Do you intend to just stand over there staring daggers at me all night?"

"No. Only as long as it takes you to finish your tea and leave. Come to think of it, you don't even have to finish the tea." She did not raise her voice, her tone calm and even, despite her fuming.

"You aren't feeling even a little bit grateful?" He asked, peering at her over the edge of his cup. "Not in the mood to eat this week?" He set down his cup and patted his knee with a sigh. "Come sit and be nice, Mary." When she merely lifted her chin and stayed where she was, he glanced toward the window.

"There's a lot of men on the street who'd be thrilled to see you thrown out in the middle of the night all alone." He patted his knee again. "You can't prefer that to just sitting here."

She was afraid to push him too far. She knew that she had nowhere else to go. No family, no friends. Swallowing the rising bile, she moved around the table and stood in front of him. She sat down, her back ramrod straight, her hands pressed to the tops of her thighs, her eyes facing forward. The only betrayal of her disgust was the faintest of flinches when his hand laid against the small of her back.

"Now was that so hard?" He smiled up at her. "Who bought you this dress, Mary?" his fingers brushing across the fabric between her shoulders.

"You know that you did." She swallowed and blinked slowly.

"I do have excellent taste, don't you agree?" He trailed a fingertip down her spine. "Do you like this dress I bought for you, Mary?" He asked quietly.

She knew there was no answer that would not bring her misery of one sort or another. Say yes and she was forced to thank him for it. Say no, and he'd tell her to take it off and put on one she liked better and the question would be asked anew. "It fits well and I do not mind the color." She said quietly simmering. "Thank you, Mr. Becile, for your generosity."

He smiled, satisfied it seemed. "I like buying you pretty things, Mary. I'll buy you another if you ask. A truly nice one. Something pretty I can take you out dancing in. All you have to do is ask nicely and I'll give you anything you want."

"Truly?" She inquired with a raise of her brows. "So..." She turned and looked down at him from her perch on his knee. "Pretty please... may I have your head on a platter?" She didn't care if he threw her out. Didn't care if he cost her her job or even her life. She was sick of playing this game with him. Her palms pressed to his chest and she pushed herself away as she sought to stand, but he grabbed her around the waist and followed her up.

His furious look slid to a sharkish smile. "Oh, so bloodthirsty tonight. If you want a head, I'm sure I can find you one somewhere that will do far more good for you than mine would." He chucked under her chin with the side of his curved index finger. "You think that you are the only one I can touch? What about those pretty young girls who you work with? Who are always inviting you to come dancing and to attend parties with them. Such bad influences, it's a wonder nothing bad's happened to them already. "

"Leave them alone, Mr. Becile." She knew he was quite serious.

He stepped back and walked toward the door, closing it softly. His unhurried stride carried him back to the chair. He could feel her tension, her awareness she'd pushed him too far tonight, and that it was going to cost her. With a soft sigh, he sat down once more, leaning back a bit in the chair and looking up at her. "Persuade me to change my mind."

"Mr. Becile, I am not going to beg. If you hurt anyone it's you who did it, not me." She folded her hands in front of her waist. "That said, if you have a reasonable request, I will not argue with you over it."

The smile, again wholly reminiscent of circling predators, spread slowly. "Is that your way of saying you'll do whatever I ask?" He lifted a finger to stop her from interrupting. "So long as it is a reasonable request. Who decides what constitutes reasonable?"

"I won't hurt anyone, and I won't break any laws." She considered what she would consider unreasonable, knowing that if she pushed too hard on the defining lines, it would be refused and she'd risk more lives than her own. "Or help anyone else to do harm or break a law. I will not prostitute myself to you, or to any other. "

"Is that it?"

"Yes." She braced herself for what he might now ask. Doing her level best to show nothing of the panic she was feeling inside.

"Then I know what I will ask. You will grace my arm when I attend the All-Hallows Ball next Saturday. I will have you fitted for a costume that I promise, will not break any laws..." He rose as he spoke, his fingers lifting to turn at the curl just beneath her earlobe. "Although it's possible you might kill someone if they have a particularly weak heart. I cannot be held responsible for that. You will remain by my side all evening, accept what I offer as far as food and drink are concerned without throwing anything, dance when bidden, and only with me. Is that too strenuous a sacrifice for your friends?"

"I do not know that I won't have to work. Busy night after all." She dampened her suddenly dry lips. "But if I don't, I agree to go, yes."

"I can talk to your boss. Ensure you have that day off. All of them though, would be better. You don't need to work as I already provide everything you need." His fingers took her chin and lifted it to look into her eyes. "And I can give you so much more. But you bite the hand that feeds you, Mary and then I have no choice but to react poorly."

"I like my job and I enjoy keeping busy." She crossed her arms over her chest, a visual and physical barrier erected between them.

"And I can't be with you all day and attend to my own business ventures. So, it's agreed. I will allow you to keep your job for now, and you will be my bit of arm candy for the party. " There was always a deviousness in his look, as if he woke from his bed plotting, but at the moment it was vibrant in his demeanor that she had agreed to something he had not expected to get, and he was pleased with himself. "Walk me to the door, Mary." He waited for her to step around him, then moved in her wake, appreciative of her backside as she crossed the room. She opened the door wide and gestured him out. Already getting so rude. "Ah ah... don't let your pride ruin what has been, on most accounts, a good evening."

She grit her teeth and nodded, folding her hands in front of her waist. "Good evening, Mr. Becile."

"Good evening, Mary. " He leaned down and kissed the cheek she offered to him, heedless of the grimace. She'd tipped her head without his having to tell her to. It was a small step, but one in the correct direction. Slowly but surely, he'd have her trained. He stepped out and set his hat upon his head, whistling a jaunty tune as he walked out. This was less to do with a cheery mood and more a way to remind her, and those who were there, that she'd had a man in her room, alone. She must have the worst sort of reputation by now.

The hard shut of the door, the sound of the lock engaging, as if he didn't have his own key, it amused him. He had thought only to force her to go back to the Walters and leave a door unlocked for him, but she was too stubborn. She would not break. They were her friends, she cared for them. Well, he assured she believed they didn't care for her. That she was forgotten and alone. It had been enjoyable thus far, and he looked forward to the moment she caved. Of course, he'd have no use for her after that. What was the fun in riding a broken horse?

Inside her room, she listened to the whistling fade away. Her hand dropped to her breast, the swift heartbeat under her fingers as they moved along the edge of her brassiere, a small poke of pain and she patted the spot. It was still there and safe, the ten dollar bill folded and hidden from them. They didn't know about Mrs. O'Halloran. A rich widow in her mid seventies, she had stepped on her train on her way down to dinner one evening, and Mary had quickly whipped out her sewing kit and fixed the tear. The woman had taken a bit of a shine, and whenever she had a task too big for herself and too demanding of a lady's touch to ring for a bell boy, she paid Mary to do it. Attend her hair, help her dress, simply being present and paying her heed. For this, she'd given Mary ten dollars last week, and now, another. She would mail it tomorrow, enclosed inside one of Mrs. O'Halloran's note cards from her room. Mixed in with the other mail from the hotel patrons, no return address or hint of where it had come from. She did not know what she'd write inside, but since they seemed willing to accept her letters when there was money inside of them, she could at least be satisfied her debt was being paid off.

She thought often of that day in the park with Peter, walking beside him and how it felt warm and contented. She could have done that every day for the remainder of her life and not found herself disappointed when her allotted years had passed. As she sat in the dark, she wrapped her arms around herself and curled up in the center of her bed, her hand sneaking under the pillow to assure her knife was there still before she closed her eyes and let herself sink into a world where she could tell him all she felt inside and he would say he felt the same.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"Come on, Peter!" Rabbit groaned, keeping his voice low, but the inflection proved his patience was wearing thin. Halloween season was one of Rabbit's favorites for many reasons. The main one was the most natural. It was the one time of the year he could go out and not have to hide himself. Some of his best memories were of walking with the boys when they were young, trick-or-treating, and having everyone come up and tell him how wonderful his costume was. He also loved spooky stories and decorating the mansion with bats and carved pumpkins and ghosts made of gauze and wire... it was just about the most fun time of year he could imagine.

Peter came down a few moments later and slid into the front seat beside his brother. This was the big night. They had, over the last few days, made quiet inquiries at the Hotel and found out a good deal about Mary. She was a maid, she worked in the main hotel, she kept to herself and never went out to clubs or parties with the other girls. Even so, the general consensus seemed to be that she was frugal and bookish rather than stuck up. She was a hard worker and several of the older ladies who frequented the hotel requested she alone attend their rooms. The most troubling news came from a young maid named Sophie over a soda during her lunchtime break.

"Well, I like her." Sophie had said with the straw poised before her painted lips. "She's the monkey's eyebrows, but I think she's got daddy problems." She chuckled. "He's a real mustard plaster and I'm sure she'd much rather leg it, but nothing doing. Grummy all the time whenever she thinks nobody's peeping it." She dampened her tongue with a long sip of the soda.

Peter's look of confusion brought a grin. "Too fast for you, Father Time?" She sat up with a wriggle, her chin thrust up, her nose held high, a generally aloof sort expression like a spinster librarian might wear. "Our Miss Mary has a man problem. I don't think she likes him at all, but he won't leave her alone. She's sad, but she does a very good job of hiding it when people are looking. Cheerful mask and all. " She wriggled again, as if she were settling into a cushion, her bleached bobbed hair twitching about her ears.

It hadn't thrilled him to think of her with another man of course, but it was harder to hear she was not happy. That this man, whoever he might be, was unwanted and yet continued his pursuit made his hackles rise. He pulled himself back to the here and now, his mood twisted and tangled. Excitement, concern, frustration, anticipation rushing around like socks in a washing machine. He pressed his fingertips into his leg just to give expression to the tension and frustration he felt as they sped across the city.

The evening sun was hanging over the glittering ocean as they crossed toward the Hotel del Coronado, the bright red of the roof catching the light and drawing the eye as they pulled into the parking lot. The four of them walked toward the gaily decorated entrance to the ballroom, the band already in full swing within. Pete presented the invitation to the ladies at the door. They looked at him with wide smiles, thinking that he looked quite the part in his voluminous black robes and hood, admiring aloud the skull mask of paper maché. Peter's bi-corner hat was set firmly upon his head, his unshaven scruff replaced with a dark mustache and small pointed beard on his chin, the poofy shirt left untucked, a crimson sash wound around his slender waist, wide-bladed swords made of tin foil covered wood tucked into it, catching the light from the electric lanterns. The wind rose and sent the black and red striped loose trousers tucked into the knee-high boots to flutter against his legs, making him shiver a bit as he waited to follow Pete in. The Spine, his tall, lanky frame covered by his costume, denim trousers and fuzzy sheepskin chaps, a red bib shirt and white leather gloves with wide cuffs and fringe, a bandanna drawn up over the lower portion of his face, a ten gallon hat pulled low so only a hint of his silvery skin showed.

Humming a merry song in a bright high tone, Rabbit drifted along behind them, the empire waist gown, heavily beaded and multi-layer, glimmering in the light. It had been Iris's most fancy dress, a deep blue with wispy hints of green and black accented in gold. Long black opera gloves covered his arms and his bald head was covered by a wig of soft wheat brown curls accented by a large fascinator of peacock feathers, ribbons and paste gems. His face hidden above by a domino mask of black velvet and beneath by the large peacock feathered fan. Pointing out to Rabbit that he was not a girl had only met with the immediate rebuff that Peter was not a pirate and Spine was not a cowboy either. Such logic could not be denied, and he looked quite smashing. He was simply warned that while it was a good bet no one would call out The Spine to a gunfight, it was very possible that men might think Rabbit was a real lady and react in ways he might not like. If they found out, for example, with a drunken pinch to the backside, that Rabbit not only not a woman, but not a human, it would be a very difficult thing to explain at best. So Rabbit had sworn to keep very close to the rest of the company and not go off on his own no matter how tempted.

The beach-front ballroom was half filled already, but there was no sign of Mary, who their investigation had revealed was attending with a friend. "We should split up." Pete spoke to the closely knotted group around him. "Peter, you should go watch from the bar." He looked up to the high walkway lined in chairs that circled closer to the roof and overlooked the whole room. "Rabbit, The Spine, you go up there and... stand close to one another. If we're lucky people will assume you're together and not ask either of you to dance." The multitude of humorous situations that the whole idea brought to mind was enough to make the Grim Reaper let slip a very out-of-character chortle and Rabbit gave an indignant look before fluttering his fan before his face. "Just don't think you're getting a goodnight kiss, cowboy." A grin peeking through the feathers as he slid his arm through The Spines and fluttered his eyes. The Spine gave a 'please, just kill me now' look to the two humans then touched the brim of his hat and escorted his 'date' up to the second floor promenade to keep watch.

"What about you, Pete?" Peter asked.

"I'll watch from the dance floor." He did not sound thrilled by the option, but strategically it put him in a position to move about the room fairly easily. He drifted off into the fray toward a group of girls who seemed devoid of other company. The wallflowers would find a fine dancer in Pete, but a very absent one conversationally.

Peter took his brother's advice, taking up a spot near the bar, sipping at soda water and nothing stronger, wishing to be clear-headed when Mary arrived. Two hours passed with no sight of her, the room filling up quickly. Now and again, Pete moved from one area to the other, checking in and passing on information from Peter to the robots and back. The clock's hands were sneaking closer to ten PM when the girl behind him gave a sharp sound of surprise and he turned to look at her, then twisted about to see where she was looking. His own jaw went slack. The whole of the sight was overwhelming. It was Mary, but he'd never seen her looking like that.

Her hair was woven with tiny beads of gold and silver so each turn of her head sent sparkling gleams to frame her face in a halo of light. The gown she wore was of a slinky silk its caress brushing the figure of the woman beneath with shameless familiarity. The hem was a deep green, bleeding upward to greater paleness, as if the earth itself was growing around her feet. Her lily skin smooth and pale, was bared at her arms and shoulders, only thin beaded straps holding it up. Her hand was captured in the black-nailed hand of her escort. He was wide shouldered and dark haired, his brow fitted with a golden crown of sharp spikes that looked at once regal and evil. He wore a long toga of carmine that turned black near the hem and at the ends of each sleeve, his waist marked by a girdle of black leather embroidered with flames in red and gold.

"Ooh, it's Persephone and Hades." The girl whispered behind him to her date.

"Who?" her date muttered distractedly.

"From the ancient Roman mythology. She was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Hades saw her plucking flowers one day and he kidnapped her to the underworld...”

Peter stopped listening as knew the story well. Even if he had not, his brain could hold only one thought. Ignatius Becile was dancing with his girl!

She walked with her head held aloft, determined that he would not make her cower. She heard the murmurs as she passed, aware the dress was scandalously slinky, her skin prickling with goosebumps from the exposure. She hadn't even been allowed a coat to keep the chill away. Thankfully the dressmaker had pasted down bits of fabric over her breasts to keep her from being indecent completely. She attempted to take her hand back, but his grip tightened and she grimaced faintly. He was lapping up this chance to humiliate her. Lead to the dance floor, he set his palm against her back, her hand still ensnared, and began to lead her in a waltz about the floor.

"I know I have said so already tonight, Mary, but you do look ravishing. I knew you would of course." He looked around them, then down at his partner. "Smile. There. Good girl. Now, I cannot say how thrilling it is to know that every man in this room is just waiting for me to let you out of my arms so they can attempt to take my place, if only for a single dance. " He lowered his head and his voice to speak into her ear. "Of course, every woman here wants to tear out your hair and claw your face to shreds for outshining them."

"That would have to be the reason. It cannot be envy of my partner." Her own eyes fixed to her hand upon his shoulder and stayed there. She had no wish to catch anyone's eye. The warmth of his hand against her lower back, the press of his palm seeking to pull her against him and her own pressure in reverse ensured that tension crackled between them. He had, she was forced to admit, chosen their costumes well. Any dislike that showed in her face, any reticence or attempts to escape him would seem to be only a continuation of character. He was the bestial devil of the underworld, and she was his prisoner. The only difference was the reason. Hades took Persephone for lust or perhaps love. Ignatius had taken her for spite and no other reason.

They danced to the song's end and she was quick to pull her hands from him and applaud softly as it was not the band's fault she was having so terrible a time. The next song was a bit more sprightly and she turned to go only to have him pull her back and swing her into a fast foxtrot. She frowned, knowing that such an enthusiastic dance would hardly be flattering as she was barely wearing anything under the silk. She lifted her chin and grit her teeth, clenching her muscles as much as possible to lessen the jiggling. The effort brought a slight glint of sweat to her brow by the time the quickly-stepped dance ended, and Becile relented, leading her toward the open doors which lead down to the beach in hopes to catch a breeze.

The moment they had entered the floor, Pete gave a curt adieu to his partner and wove through the crowd to snatch hold of Peter before he did something stupid. This seriously put a huge kink in the plans. Dragging him by the arm, he walked him to the stairs and up to the second floor where, while the dancers swirled below, the robots and their human brethren watched from above. The first words out of Peter's mouth weren't words at all but the angry, staccato, syllables of stillborn questions over how and when and what the hell? Eventually they faded and he just seethed silently.

"She's miserable, Peter, just look at her. She looks ready to slug him." Pete pointed out hoping it would help.

"Then why doesn't she just walk away then? Why'd she even come here in the first place? Why, out of all the men in San Diego would she step out with ... with him?"

"Not to mention that dress she's wearing. She's so curvy..." Rabbit looked down at his own flat chest. "I could never pull off anything like that." A pouty tone and flutter of the fan.

"Rabbit, stop looking at Mary's chest." Peter hissed, though as he watched them move across the floor, it proved a difficult task to do himself, but he tore his eyes away and grit his teeth. "Obviously we now have to deal with him as well." The couple began to drift away from the dance floor and walked under them and out. Peter made a move to bolt but felt the restraining grip of his brother on one arm and the gloved hand of The Spine on the other.

"Not without a plan. We need to get him off of her first and the way he was holding her on the dance floor, I don't think it'll be easy." Pete sighed. "But I know something we could try. You'd have to be ready though, Peter.

"What's the plan?" He leaned closer as Pete lowered his voice and explained his idea. It was not without flaws, that was for certain. Grow up the son of a man like Peter Walter the first, you learned quick what a mistake too many moving parts could be. Simplicity was preferred, but in this case, it was something that could not be avoided. More time would likely have given them a better plan than a glorified game of Telephone, but time was something they could not be certain of. Also, a good portion of the plan hinged on Rabbit and trusting him to stay on track was not as big a gamble as it might be with Upgrade or The Jon, but certainly it was risky. In the end, there was little choice. A deep breath taken and the quartet split up, each heading to their own portion of the plan.


"No really... I heard Mr. Smith talking about him." Rabbit drawled as he held his brother's arm, walking slowly behind the row of tables where the girls that Pete had been dancing with earlier were still gathered, powdering their noses and throwing looks around the room in hopes of catching someone's eye. They paused though at the possible good gossip drifting along behind them.

"Making another one of those moving pictures here at the hotel. Like when they made Pearl of Paradise."

"Is that so." Her cowboy beau spoke with a low rumbling voice behind his bandanna. "Who's going to star in it?"

"Oh, they have the male lead, that Fairbanks chap, but I hear they're still looking for the lady." Behind his fan, Rabbit could see the group spring up in their seats like a group of prairie dogs. "That's why they sent the talent scout."

Those two words seemed to tip the balance and Rabbit and Spine moved on, taking a seat with their back to the girls. "Are they coming?" Rabbit murmured and The Spine nodded faintly, as the girls had risen and were, seemingly random in their stroll, moving to seats where they could listen in. Rabbit started again "... brazen little hussy really, did you see that dress?" He lowered his voice to a whisper that still carried. "Nothing under it either I wager... " He gave a very feminine huff and stilled the fan, still using it though to obscure his face. "Still she'll get the part and why? " A sneering sort of condemnation. "Because she won't let him even see another girl here. Why, if I were a few years younger, I'd certainly do something about it myself but ... "

Rabbit sighed and fluttered the fan, letting it fall to silence so he could hear the scooting of chairs as the girls all, knowing exactly who they were talking about, headed out to be the first to catch his eye and drag him away from Mary.

"They're all gone." The Spine chuckled and rose, offering his hand. "May I escort you to your car, Mademoiselle." His shoulders shaking with laughter.

Rabbit stood and ran his gloved hands over his skirt, then set his fingers on The Spine's arm. "Just shut up and get me to the car. We've got to be ready to go when the boys arrive." Rabbit rather liked the tickle feeling of the skirt instead of his usual trousers, but he knew he'd face nothing but ribbing from everyone involved if he did it again. Well, maybe someday it would come into fashion and he would get another chance. As for now, their part of the plan was done. All they could do was wait and hope that the Walter brothers' portion of the plan went off equally hitch-free.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

From his side of the room, Peter watched both the figures of Becile and Mary and that of his brother, who was across the room from him. Becile and Mary stood in the doorway overlooking the beach and the ocean beyond. The tension in Mary's frame was obvious, her hands clenched at her sides in small fists as he spoke in her ear. She looked ready to slap him, and he wondered why she didn't. Why hadn't she contacted them except to send that single payment toward a perceived debt? It was something she'd have to tell them herself, he supposed. This was not the time for questions, it was the time to act.

The flock of girls, each one wanting to be the first one there without running outright, were moving undeniably toward the couple as they turned to move back into the ballroom. The bevy of pretty girls with stars in their eyes broke against the stony impediment of Becile's presence, and just as Pete had supposed, he ate it up with spoons in both hands. He kept Mary at his side by a grip of iron around her wrist, unrelenting as he walked, the group moving with him in a knot of flirting femininity. He reached a table and gave Mary a little nudge to sit, then stood beside her chair.

"Ladies... please. I'm only one man." He smiled that bright predator smile. He knew no matter how charming he might be, there was no way he was going to have the sort of end to an evening that he preferred with his current date, but he might find one or two willing in the group before him. They somehow had gotten the idea he was a casting director of some kind, and he could easily play that up. He lifted a finger to stem the girls' chatter as he leaned down to speak near Mary's ear. Her face went pale and she nodded softly. He then offered his hand to the nearest girl a bright-eyed blonde in a dress of white with black spiders and webs embroidered all over it. He lead her to the floor and the other girls moved to find spaces where they could keep an eye on him so to be the first to catch his eye when the next dance came.

Peter was so angry he could have bitten a railroad spike in half. He waited until Becile was embroiled in his dancing to offer a nod to his brother who made his way out to the car to keep the engine running in preparation for their departure. With one eye on Becile and the other on the beautiful woman he had missed so much, he crossed the room with as casual a stroll as he could manage, dropping down into the chair behind her. "Mary!" he hissed softly. "Don't turn, just answer quietly if you hear me. Are you alright?"

She heard his voice, and her instinct was to turn, but he stopped her with his words and she merely shook her head to hide the begun motion of turning, then quietly answered. "I am." She wanted to tell him she wasn't. That he needed to get her out of here, but she could only hear the last words Becile had said to her before he left to dance with another girl. 'If you're not here when I return, your little friends are dead.' and she knew he meant it. There was no pity, no humanity in him.

"What are you doing here? With him? I thought I warned you to keep away from that guy." He couldn't help himself. He wanted to understand why she'd come to a party with a man who had tried to kill his whole family. "No, never mind. Just tell me when he's not looking and I'll get you out of here before he notices."

Shaking her head faintly, she bit back a sharp pang of tearfulness. "I can't. He'll hurt people and it would be all my fault." She faked a yawn, covering her mouth as she did. "Saint Anne's. Where we took the jelly. Tomorrow morning." She leaned forward and set her chin upon her hand, her every fiber wanting to turn and look at him, but she didn't. She felt less like Persephone and more like Orpheus at the moment, several minutes passed with no clue that he was there, and eventually she surmised he must have gone already. A few minutes after she'd allowed herself to accept he was gone, a slightly portly harlequin stepped up and offered his hand. She smiled and shook her head, offering apology and the seat beside her. Becile had said she couldn't dance with anyone else, not that she couldn't talk to them.

They chatted about the party and interests and as she was listening to him go on about his job at the tuna cannery, she spied a girl sitting by herself across the way who looked to be as in need of a dance partner as the gentleman was. She was jut in the process of encouraging him to go and ask her to dance when Ignatius returned. "Ah, Mr. Becile, this is Mr. Gagliardi. He works at the tuna factory. Mr. Gagliardi, this is Mr. Becile. He's the devil's envoy." Ignatius gave a curl of his lip and she supposed she'd suffer somehow for it later, but hope had been sparked in her breast and she could not help herself.

Ignatius turned to the man and offered his black-nailed hand. "Not the devil, per se. Hades, ancient ruler of the Underworld and so I suppose it's an easy mistake to make." He shook the man's hand with a grip that was far too strong to be polite. "It was kind of you to keep her company while I was away." The implication that now that he'd returned, such company was no longer desired was clear. Gagliardi nodded nervously, rubbing at his hand. A muttered goodbye and last look of concern flashed toward Mary before he moved across the room.

"What do you think you were doing?" He spoke without sitting, looming over her with his hands linked in front of his waist.

"I agreed to come with you, to eat and drink without throwing it in your face, to dance with you, and only you, when asked." She looked up with elevated brows. "He asked me to dance, I said no. You never said anything about being civil."

He narrowed his eyes, nostrils flaring faintly before he suddenly smiled and gave a little bow of his head, his hands moving out to the side. "True. Nothing was said about being civil." He looked around then back down at her with that smile that never touched his eyes. "I noticed you yawning earlier. If you are tired, I can take you home. Perhaps have a cup of tea and... talk."

Again, she noted the calculation in his face, a frisson of cold running down her backbone as she realized there were no good options. "I am weary, yes. However you have acquired a full dance card. I do not wish to keep you from it, perhaps you will meet someone nice." She looked past him. "Ah, Mr. Gagliardi took my advice." Noting the man approaching the girl she'd pointed out to him earlier, her hand taken and the pair moved to the dance floor.

He didn't turn away from looking down at her, not when she mentioned the other girls, not when she mentioned Gagliardi. "No, I think that you need to be taken home now. Get you out of that costume." He held out his hand, and she took it, though not instantly. He could see the gears in her mind twisting in attempt to find a way to defy him, but wisely chose to do what was best. He drew her close and wrapped an arm around her shoulders as he steered her toward the exit. "You're so cold. I must have misjudged how warm it would be tonight. We'll see you warmed up soon enough."

Her head kept erect, her form stiff under his arm, she walked with him out of the ballroom and to the car. He opened the door for her, never losing that calculating smile. A few moments later they were pulling away from the party. She remained silent, and he did not attempt to draw her out. The drive across the bridge, for once, didn't inspire a fluttery urge in her stomach to throw open the door and jump off of it. She forced her thoughts away from Peter's voice, knowing she might smile despite herself and invite questions. She could indulge when she was finally alone.

He insisted on walking her up to her room, his footsteps dogging her all the way. She had no place for a key, so she'd not locked the room. What did she have that she cared about if it got stolen? Opening the door, she noted all seemed to be where it belonged. Turning in the doorway, she set her palms on either side of it, blocking the passage. "Good evening, Mr. Becile. I trust we will not be ruining the night by fighting." She nodded and stepped back, closing the door in his face, expecting the whole time for him to stop her, but he didn't. She twisted the lock and stepped back, the sound of whistling fading down the hall.

She moved to the window, looking down through the iron grate of the fire escape until he slithered back into his car and drove away. She could not shake the feeling that he had given up far too easily.

She undressed quickly, hanging the gown up. She winced as the glued down scraps of fabric were peeled off, the comfort of proper underthings quickly donned, as was a real dress. It was hardly a suit of armor, but it made her feel far more protected and safe. All the while she kept listening for the sound of Becile's footsteps on the stairs outside. The silence was worse than noise, she'd just thought when she heard a growing commotion, heavy footsteps thumping up toward the first floor landing and Mrs. Jennings' voice screeching in protest.

"It's simply not done, Sir! Gentlemen are not allowed any further than the lobby! If you do not go this instant, I will call the police!"

“Then call them you old biddy!”

Peter?! Her mind began to race. He must have tailed her home. Opening the door a crack as the heads of her landlady and Peter Walter the second popped into view, the former being backed up as she squawked and pushed at the much taller and stronger figure. She closed her door quickly and tried to make her brain work. If he heard that Peter had been here or if she left, her friends would likely suffer. He wasn't the kind of person who dropped things or took losing well. The knock to her door was accompanied by the sharp voice of the nigh-hysterical woman.

“I'll not warn you again, Sir! I'll have the police down on you before you can spit!”

She hadn't planned the whole thing out, but she had the start of an idea and with no time to run it out and weigh the options, she simply opened the door and looked at Peter with a mildly surprised face. "Mr. Walter... What are you doing here?"

"You know this man?" Mrs. Jennings asked before Peter could speak, her eyes narrowed suspiciously

"Yes, I used to cook for his family, Mrs. Jennings, but I do not know why he is here." She turned her attention back to him with lifted brows, hoping he saw the look she shot him ever so briefly, not wanting it to be seen by the other woman. "How may I help you, Mr. Walter?" Keeping her voice bored and mildly annoyed sounding.

Peter was ecstatic to see her, wanted to pluck her up and carry her out of this place, but her reaction struck him dumb. He could not be sure but that she'd looked, for a moment, happy to see him. Then she was cold as a fish. "I have ... I want..." he swallowed, suddenly unsure what to say. "You're the best cook we ever had. I .. I mean we, the family, would like you to come back and cook for us again." He tried not to make it sound as if he were really trying to imply she was no more than a cook to them.

"I have other employment, Mr. Walter and if you thought I would return for you... " She stepped closer to him, an act that forced him to step back, and put her between him and her landlady. She gave him a swift 'please, go with this' look. "... you are sadly mistaken. You're a weak, sad, pathetic man. I need a man like... Valentino." She had seen his face fall a bit at the insults, but the moment the name was spoken, she gave a quick, faint flick of her head toward the still open door and then back to his face, lifting her brows expectantly.

He cottoned on swiftly, grabbing hold of her upper arms and she lifted her palms to push at his chest. He wrapped his arm around her and pinned her hands between them, his other hand tangling in her hair, dragging her head back and kissing her, hard, as he pushed her against the wall. Mr. Jenning cried out and he felt her striking his back, but he didn't care. He felt the hands at his chest tighten and grab hold of his shirt, tugging softly as she leaned back in his arms, and he stepped forward, the hand dropped from her hair to feel for the door. He broke the kiss and pushed her to stumble back through it. He followed and slammed it behind him, turning to twist the lock as Mrs. Jennings ran down the hall, no doubt making good on her promise to call the police.

It was déjà vu to see that face coming at her so fast, and the squeal of fright that passed her lips was not feigned but fear fled in the next instant. The feel of his arms, the warmth of his kiss was worlds away from those of his brother. She did not feel ashamed or shocked, she felt perfectly wonderfully thrilled. When he turned to lock the door, she grinned and ran away, moving to the drawer to pull it open and lift out a pad and pencil. She wrote quickly and held it up as she spoke. "Get out!" The page though read

Thanks. Read don't listen.

Before she began writing again, her hand lifted and held fingers pressed together and worked like a crab claw or a puppet mouth working, indicating he should talk while she wrote.

He nodded and looked around as she began to write. "Is this how you would rather live? I offer you a fine house, beautiful clothes, anything you'd want and you leave me to live in a flophouse?" She'd stopped writing and he smiled toward her, still feeling her lips against his own, his heart racing.

She's calling the police. I am in trouble. We'll need their help.

"Where I go, and what I do is not your concern, Sir. I will pay back my debt on my own two feet, thank you very much." She watched his mouth form the words 'what's wrong?' and she began writing.

"Debt?!" he scoffed. "What debt? You have repaid us a hundred times over. You were generous with things that money cannot come close to touching." Forced to speak, he chose to express the truth. "Your presence made that place feel more like home to me than it has since my mother died. Not... not that you made me feel like my mother, far from it." He was babbling but she was still writing and he went on. "I found your father's letter." She looked up then and he motioned her to keep writing. "Not until after you'd already gone though. I had reconciled myself to the idea I would have to give you up. That you would go home, meet some nice farmer and be happy. Then to find you just left me. Abandoned all of us in the middle of the night, it broke my heart!" he took the pad she held out to him, half listening as she began to answer to what he had said.

Becile's owns apartment, takes pay. Will hurt people if I try to leave.

I have a plan. Will write it when you talk.

"I do not like being anyone's kept woman, Mr. Walter. I cannot abide it. No money of my own. Knowing that if I displease you in any way, I'm thrown out with nothing, not even the clothes on my back are mine. Living by your whims? Oh, you were gentleman enough, never touching me outright, but always, always the threat. That I could turn a corner and you would be there, leering at me. You're the one who told my father I had run off with you as if it had been my choice. Hurting those I care about just so I would have to live the rest of my life knowing if I had just done what you said ... I wouldn't have their pain and suffering on my conscience. My fault. Well, I won't have it!"

She gave a tap with her index to the pad in his hand, indicating she was trying to further explain what was going on with Becile. "Then you ask me to betray the only people in this whole portion of the world who ever showed me any true kindness? Oh, all I had to do was go to them and just leave a door unlocked for you to come in and steal their life's work?! You're mad!" She noted the look of shock and she nodded softly as he handed back the pad.

I will get you out of this.

He nodded to underline his written words, his jaw tense with anger. She flipped up the page and began writing. She could hear the siren growing closer. She knew her time was short. She signaled him to speak and wrote as fast as she could.

"Kept woman? And what are you now? Some maid? Cleaning up after your betters in a hotel you couldn't even step in otherwise. I saw you there tonight. Sneaking in with your lover. Dressed like that." He saw it hanging on the hanger and felt a pain in his stomach. Disgust at how she'd been forced to live like this, dress like that, even if the recollection of it made his blood thicken and his body ache in the desire to feel that silk moving over her skin beneath. "It was shameless. Every eye in the place on you, silk over every part. You wanted to be seen, to be touched and now I intend to oblige you." He mouthed 'sorry' as he grabbed the chair by the back and tossed it to the floor with a loud clatter.

"You keep away from me!" She cried out as she continued to write. The page torn away, she began a new one, the first laid with her left hand onto the table and pushed over toward him as the sound of the siren proved the police had arrived.

When they arrive, they will take us away. You to be arrested, me to be questioned. I will straighten out everything then. Soon as you hear them on the stairs, you'll have to molest me.

"Don't you touch me!" The next note was wadded up and dropped to the floor. She picked up the tea canister and dropped it with a loud crash so shards of crockery and black tea spilled over it, not obscuring, but hiding it a bit. The other pages torn off the book and folded up. She hiked up her skirt and shoved the papers into the top of her stocking beside the ten dollar bill. The hammering of footsteps was racing up the stairs and she grabbed hold of her dress's collar, wincing as she pulled, hard. Buttons scattered and the seam along her shoulder rent, leaving it hanging off as she threw herself at him, knowing he'd catch her.

He was too stunned by her actions to do more than react. He reached up to try and put the fabric back to cover her skin, but the touch of the warm flesh under his fingers made him groan and his mouth was too easily finding her own. The hammering of his heart was so loud in his ears, the pounding on the door only a faint thing as he held her tight, her hands against his chest spread her fingers curved to press her nails into his skin gently, only fueling his need to have her as his own. The crack of wood breaking, her weight leaned back, the table beneath her as he pressed over her, the softness of her molding to him, melting together until he was rudely pulled back with a cry of frustration. Her eyes blazing as he looked at her, hoping what he saw was what he hoped for. It lasted only a split-second before she turned and sank to the floor, sobbing weakly as he was drug back across the room, the policeman's fist catching him in the breadbasket, the wind driven out of him as he was dropped.

As he lay, gasping, across the room, he had to admit he was amazed by her. Weeping and trembling, acting as if a torn dress and a kiss had shamed her beyond redemption when he had seen her stand, furious and unflinchingly brave when she'd faced so much worse. He was pushed to his stomach, handcuffed and drug to his feet by the rough hands of the policeman. He could hear him promising him jail, calling him all manner of names for hurting a lady like her as he drug him out of the apartment, but it didn't matter. "I love you! I will not let anyone else have you!" He felt so amazed and insane, shouting out at the top of his lungs what he had never even been able to admit in a murmur. "You're mine, Mary Mickleson and I will never ever let you out of my hands again!"

It had taken great effort not to cry out when Peter was hit and knocked down, her head shaking as she looked up at the young patrolman who was stripping off his coat to wrap around her shoulders. He was speaking to her like one might to a cornered animal, and she played it up. She kept her face bowed and only when he guided her to her feet did she rise, nodding at his words that she would have to come down to the precinct and file a complaint, answer questions and so forth. She sobbed quietly as she was lead to the police car and set in the front seat, the officer who had taken Peter behind the wheel. The young one slid in back with Peter and she waited until they pulled away to sniffle and lift her eyes. She wiped them and thought about the only note she'd left behind. Wadded up, beneath the tea, a single sentence had been scrawled on the paper.

Saint Anne's Confession 9:00am Sunday.

Four and a half hours later Peter was lead into the interrogation room. He was mildly surprised to see Mary sitting across from a slightly portly police sergeant.

“Have a seat, Mr. Walter. Miss Mickleson here has been telling me quite the story. I've read the report from the officer who interviewed you and it seems that most of the details are identical.” He turned his attention back to Mary once Peter had sat beside her, looking disheveled and a little roughed up but otherwise only happiness shone from his face as he took her hand between his own, lifting her fingers to his lips. She blushed a bit and bit her lip, her eyes filled with apology and sympathy.

"So what you're telling me..." the sergeant spoke up to get their attention as he looked to the pair across the desk from him. "Is that this man ..." he looked at his notes. "Ignatius Becile, has been keeping you prisoner?"

"In a manner of speaking. He is a very large man, very strong. He made his fortunes in Africa I think. Well, he is a friend of my boss, and he told me he would see me fired with a very scandalous story attached to my name so I couldn't get work anywhere else. He owns the building I live in, and he said he'd have me thrown out if I didn't do what he said. He demanded I give him my check each week, I haven't the bruises anymore from the first few times when I fought him over it. He bought all my clothes and promised if I was thrown out, I wouldn't get to take any of them." She shuddered. "He has friends of his watching me all the time it seems. They take me to work, they pick me up after and bring me back to the apartment. I'm not even allowed a nickle for the streetcar. I didn't know anyone by the Walter family here in California..."

"Your father had disowned you, you couldn't go home... " he nodded as he consulted his notes.

"And all my letters to the Walters came back unopened and unread. I ... I thought they had turned their backs on me as well and I felt I had no one left to turn to."

"No, we didn't..." Peter interjected

"Yes, it says in the report here that you didn't receive any letters, Mr. Walter. Not until the middle of this month." The sergeant interrupted, then nodded to Mary. "Please go on, Miss Mickleson."

"Well, he kept the threat over my head. Said if I didn't do what he wanted, he would hurt other people. He brags about what he's done, and Sir, I do not think he is lying when he says he has killed before and has no qualms over doing it again. If I do not go back, he will hurt people and I will have to live with the knowledge it is all my fault."

"No, no, Miss. It isn't your fault. If this Mr. Becile is as dangerous as you both say, you need to get away from him right away. Mr. Walter, you say she can return to your father's home for now?

"Yes, Sir. We would be happy to offer her a place. She's very dear to us all."

"I advise you to take Mr. Walter's offer, Miss Mickleson. I have great sympathy for your situation, and I only wish there were more we could do. Both you and Mr. Walter here paint a rather vicious picture of this man, but...” he closed the file and tapped it idly with his index. “Accusations aren't proof, and without proof of this Mr. Becile's crimes, it's your word against his. You did sign over the checks yourself, Miss Mickleson. You told no one at your work, nor the police, you lived in this situation for two months, a situation where you yourself admit he was alone with you in your apartment.” He let the insinuation that anyone else might put on that sentence sink in a moment before he continued. “So all he would have to say is that you're a spurred lover trying to get revenge by making up crazy stories."

"My word against his." She nodded softly. "I understand." She bit at her lip and looked toward Peter. "Then I can't leave with you tonight, Mr. Walter. He won't be dissuaded and I can't be responsible for his hurting anyone. Though he said it to be kind, the sergeant is right. It's just like Mr. Becile has said all along. No one would ever believe a woman's word."

"Mary, no. Please. You can't go back."

"Oh, I'm not going back. I'm going to church." She smiled softly and looked between them. “I'll need your help, Sargent.”

Peter narrowed his eyes, wondering just what was brewing in that mind of hers this time.

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Clockwork Firefly {Chapter 26 to Chapter 28}
Hellenic Mythology - Eris, Goddess of Discord