Vermilion, page 1
Also by Molly Tanzer
Titles Available from Word Horde
About the Author
Also by Molly Tanzer:
A Pretty Mouth
Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations
The Pleasure Merchant (forthcoming)
The Adventures of
Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp
Vermilion © 2015 by Molly Tanzer
This edition of Vermilion
© 2015 by Word Horde
Cover Illustration by Dalton Rose
Cover design by Osiel Gómez
All rights reserved
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart
A Word Horde Book
for my father
An owl hooted as the final sliver of orange sun disappeared below a range of jagged mountain peaks deep within the Colorado Rockies. Several stars were already shining sharply in the moonless sky, and as azure twilight darkened to ultramarine night, their fainter, silver-white cousins also winked awake. Starlight shimmered over black, snow-crusted pine branches and pale aspen boughs as a gust of wind shook the forest.
The owl was not the only creature in the pinewood that evening. After silently diving to clasp her talons around a thin marten bounding across a clearing, she winged her way over a handful of clapboard structures that squatted in the lee of the mountainside on a wide rock shelf just below the treeline. The accumulated snow on the rooftops and windowsills of the small sanatorium might have seemed cozy at yuletide, but it was late into February and thus it merely looked cold, especially when the shutters and doors shuddered in their frames and the torches illuminating the decks and walkways guttered in the wuthering wind.
Shuddering, as well, were a cluster of men and women dressed in white woolen hats, scarves, gloves, and matching uniforms as they attempted a sequence of deep knee-bends and toe-touches in something approximating unison.
“Briskly, briskly!” Undaunted by the elements, a woman with large eyes and larger teeth encouraged her class by demonstrating what she wanted to see. “Down, hold, up! Down, hold, up! You can go a bit lower, Mr. Rutherford, can’t you?”
A yes, Miss Foxglove was followed by a low groan as Mr. Rutherford redoubled his efforts.
“Better!” cried Miss Foxglove. “Yes, much better! I say, Mr. Gillis, that cough doesn’t sound good. Rest yourself, but hurry back!”
Mr. Gillis was not the only one having difficulties. The air was so bitter that everyone panted in ragged, choking gasps; the exercise so vigorous that each sweaty face gleamed in the flickering torchlight. No one seemed to be enjoying the calisthenics, nor did they display much enthusiasm when Miss Foxglove clapped twice and announced cheerily that it was time for jumping jacks. After showing them the correct form, her white riding-skirt flapping as she leaped up and down, she bid her class imitate her, and began counting off sets of ten.
“This is terrible,” whispered a pretty, auburn-haired girl to her neighbors. The older of the two only nodded his agreement, too winded to speak; the younger and leaner made a noise halfway between a laugh and a cough.
“I hate this shit,” he muttered as they paused between sets. He wiped his dark brow with an almost skeletally-thin hand. “Feel like I’ll have a heart attack any minute.”
“Oh, Mr. Wong!” The young woman was extremely concerned. “If you’re not feeling well…”
She trailed off, wincing when another volley of phlegmatic hacking emanated from the darkness several yards outside the exercise area.
“Poor Mr. Gillis,” she murmured before noticing Miss Foxglove looking daggers at her.
“Miss Gorey, are you quite ready to continue?” Her tone made it clear there was only one correct answer.
Mr. Rutherford smiled briefly to himself as the young woman bowed her head in contrition, pleased that for once a rebuke was not aimed at him. He quickly sobered as they began another set, and his heavy gut began bouncing and rippling. His wife, also puffing from the effort, pushed a perspiration-soaked lock of greying hair from her damp forehead. When Miss Foxglove allowed everyone a longer break so she could check on the still-coughing Mr. Gillis, Mrs. Rutherford sighed in relief.
“I wish evening calisthenics wasn’t required,” she said faintly. “Just once I’d like to go to dinner without feeling as though my bowels had been jolted out of my body.”
“Given the fare, that’s what they’re after.” Mr. Rutherford mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. “I asked the cook about supper. Salad, of course, and cabbage stew over baked beans.”
This intelligence drew mutinous grumbles from the group. Hearing the ruckus as she returned, Miss Foxglove chirped that if they had breath enough for complaining, they had breath enough for more jumping jacks.
As they began another set, a round, yellow door set into the mountainside swung open, then shut quietly. Behind the group, a slender figure in a black frock coat and trousers seemed to glide through the night as he strolled along the smooth planks of the boardwalk, his white hands clasped behind his back. He carried no lantern to light his way, but did not stumble.
Miss Foxglove announced it was time for “limberness-enhancement.” Busy with retrieving and unfurling their straw mats, none noticed they were observed. The man watched them from the shadows of a juniper thicket. A smile brightened his handsome face when the group sat down, extended their legs perpendicularly, attempting to fold at the waist and grab their toes. When Miss Foxglove reprimanded a nervous-looking woman with a large chest for wearing her corset under her exercise attire, a low chuckle escaped his throat.
“How do you expect to get a full range of motion wearing that thing?” Miss Foxglove shook her head in disbelief, her mouth puckered with prim disapproval. “Mrs. Grosvenor, as I have told you time and again, it is unacceptable to come to class wearing anything that constricts the breath. It may be the fashion outside this sanatorium to mold women’s bodies so tightly they faint at the slightest exertion, but we are a modern facility, and as such, believe in healthy living for both sexes. It is 1870, after all, not 1770.”
Mrs. Grosvenor opened her mouth, but at the sight of Miss Foxglove’s unforgiving frown, she shut it.
“The notion that corsets are healthy for women is as harmful as it is outdated! Women can and should support themselves. It promotes self-confidence, and keeps the spine
The group drew their knees up into their chests and rolled gently from right to left. Miss Foxglove walked among them, praising excellent efforts and correcting when necessary. Unfortunately, the action sent Mr. Gillis into another coughing fit, and he excused himself, staggering away towards the door in the mountain. Though he passed the figure cloaked by the shadows of the juniper, he did not appear to see him.
Still beaming, the man watched Mr. Gillis until the door shut behind him, but when his eyes tracked back to the class his smile wavered. He counted the participants—one, two, three, four, five, six, and Miss Foxglove. Mr. Gillis would have made seven, had he stayed for the entire class, but there should have been an eighth. Concerned, the man shimmered over to where the group was now attempting to arrange their lower bodies into a cross-legged pose Miss Foxglove insisted was much-lauded by Oriental physicians for the purpose of “opening the hips.”
“Oh! Good evening, Dr. Panacea!” Miss Foxglove finally noticed the visitor. “Everyone, look who’s come!”
“Good evening—good evening to all of you,” he replied in a pleasant voice with just a hint of southern drawl. “Ah, how I envy you! If there is anything more salubrious than taking exercise in the brisk air under the starlight I have not discovered it! But I see our class is a bit small tonight. Where is Mr. Woodworth?”
“Mr. Woodworth is unwell,” said Miss Foxglove. “I checked on him before we came out, and he said his lungs felt too weak to bear the night air.”
“This is the third time this week he’s missed calisthenics,” said Dr. Panacea, his worried frown every bit as charming as his smile. “I’ll go check on him before we all assemble for dinner.” He turned, and addressed the rest with such warmth they almost ceased to shiver. “Please, friends, do not allow Mr. Woodworth’s indisposition to worry you! My patent medicine, when used in conjunction with cold- and hot-air treatments, is, as you know, the most modern, scientific solution for treating every complaint of body or mind.” Dr. Panacea looked around at his acolytes. “It seems as though you have gotten enough cold air for the night… Miss Foxglove, what would you think of dismissing class a little early?”
“Certainly,” she said. “Let’s clean up, everyone, shall we?”
Stiff and sore, the class rose and began to tidy the exercise area. As they did so, Miss Foxglove stepped off to the side, leaning in for a private word with Dr. Panacea.
“Mr. Woodworth—will he be all right?”
“I fear his condition has continued to decline despite my best efforts.” He patted Miss Foxglove on the shoulder. “Sometimes our best is not enough. Yet, lest I miss an opportunity to do some good…”
“Of course,” she said.
Dr. Panacea bowed his farewells and retreated. Mrs. Grosvenor watched him go, admiring his figure as he strode purposefully back toward the mountain.
“For all the roughage and the nonsensical jumping about, I’m glad I came,” she whispered to Mrs. Rutherford. “Aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes,” giggled Mrs. Rutherford, her eyes also on the doctor’s slender waist and long legs. “He’s such a… nice man.”
“Nice?” barked Mr. Rutherford, his spirits improved enough that he gallantly took both his wife’s mat and Mrs. Grosvenor’s and set them in the crate. “Who cares about nice? Dr. P’s a tremendous physician!”
“He’s the best,” said Miss Foxglove, noting the little bounce in Dr. Panacea’s step as he ducked back inside the mountain. “There’s no doctor in the world like him.”
Lou Merriwether glanced up at the row of fancy, interchangeable townhouses half-shrouded by swirling clouds of chill San Francisco fog. A brass 5 glinted dully from above a doorway, and she was looking for 15. Just the next block up, should be, and thank goodness for that. She was eager to get in out of the rain, shed her wet things, and get warm.
Moisture dribbled down the back of her duster as she reached under the brim of her Stetson to scratch at her shaggy mop of short black hair. She squirmed and grumbled as the icy trickle soaked through her coat and shirt. It sure had turned into one hell of a shitty day. Lou had lived her whole life in the city, so February’s fickleness didn’t usually trick her… but that morning the weather had looked fine as cream gravy, so she’d walked, eager to stretch her legs after a long winter spent cooped up due to the constant freezing drizzle.
Fate always did enjoy laughing at Lou. Just before tackling her sixth, and final, and most remote assignment for the day, the puffy clouds had thickened and frigid showers began to piss down upon her. The drizzle had since turned to mist, but that wasn’t much of an improvement.
Now thoroughly uncomfortable Lou quickened her pace, but before she stepped out into the cobblestoned cross street the first cab she’d seen in half an hour appeared to speed past her through a puddle, soiling her with a knee-high crashing wave of filth. Lou used her coat-sleeve to wipe the worst of the muck from the russet leather physician’s bag gripped in her left hand, swearing quietly but creatively to herself.
By the time she arrived at Number 15 the wet had soaked through the edges of her boots, meaning her freezing feet were now also chapped; she wanted so badly to be home and taking a bath that she could almost smell hot soapy water. Lou pushed the thought away. A bath, she told herself sternly, would be her reward for a job well done—and to do her job well, she needed her mind anchored here, in the present.
She rapped her knuckles on the door, which flew open to reveal narrowed eyes in a florid, thickly mustached face. So fractious was the man’s expression that Lou took a step back, her hand instinctively moving to grab either the contract in her inside breast pocket—or, should that prove an insufficient explanation for her presence, the LeMat revolver nestled snugly in her shoulder holster.
“Afternoon,” she said. “I’m—”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know I’m—”
“You’re late.” A great keg of a man, he filled the doorway, exuding self-importance and the lingering aroma of his lunch. Liver and onions, smelled like.
Lou took an instant dislike to him. “Sorry,” she said, though she wasn’t, not really. “It started to rain, and—”
“Started to rain?” he parroted. “Rain didn’t stop us at the Battle of New Market! After the Grey Backs were sighted, we were ordered to be the skirmish line west of town. We got there by marching—through the driving rain! And we got there on time.”
Lou canted her head to the left. “Didn’t the Union lose at New Market?”
The man glowered at Lou for a long moment—and broke into a hearty peal of laughter.
“Knew I liked you!” he boomed, and stood aside for her to enter.
The warmth of the foyer was such a pleasant change from the dreary chill that Lou’s mood lifted immediately. Shedding her sodden overcoat she handed it over to the man. After hanging it and her hat on the rack by the door, he turned and extended his hand.
“Lieutenant Cyrus Siegert. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Mr. Tisza said we’d get along just…”
He trailed off, peering at Lou in consternation. She knew he was taking in her round-cheeked face, thin lips, and narrow eyes. Hoping to forestall what she knew from experience could easily turn into a tense situation, she smiled at him wanly and grabbed his now-limp palm.
“I’m sure we’ll get on fine, thanks,” she reass
He took back his hand, looking as though he’d like to wipe it on his pants. “No problem—no problem at all.”
“As long as you can do what your partner said you could, Mr. Merriwether, everything’ll be fine. Just fine.”
Lou always let her clients assign her whatever sex they preferred, but she knew it wasn’t her gender that bothered him.
“My, uh, people, we got a… special knack for this line of work,” she said, hoping the lie would put him at ease. For good measure, she added, “Mystical mysteries of the Orient and all that. Always gotta be prepared, in China… you know… just in case some ghost tries to steal the Buddha off your family’s shrine.”
The worry-lines creasing Lt. Siegert’s forehead relaxed, and Lou knew she’d said the right thing. But eager as she was to move the conversation away from asinine fabrications about her ancestry and toward the job she was there to do, the lieutenant’s brows drew back together, heralding what Lou sensed would be another inane question.
“How would a ghost steal a Buddha?” he asked.
“Well now, the dead do have their weird ways, don’t they?” she said, sidestepping the matter entirely. Regardless, the statement seemed to comfort the lieutenant. It was due to those “weird ways” that he’d hired Lou Merriwether in the first place.
“All right,” he said. “Say, would you like a drink before you get started?”
“Yes, thanks.” This gesture of hospitality considerably improved Lou’s opinion of the man.
He led her into the ugliest parlor Lou had ever beheld. The edges of the plaid-upholstered armchairs looked like they’d been aligned to sit perfectly along the bands of the ugly tartan rug, and the war paraphernalia and china knick-knacks were set so deliberately on the mantelpiece Lou wondered if he’d arranged them using a chalk line. Despite the heat emanating from the pot-bellied stove in the corner, the room felt cold. Lou licked her chapped lips, eager for the warmth of whiskey sliding down her throat.
by Molly Tanzer have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes