An introduction via a peculiar encounter. A gathering of colleagues for a meeting. Hostile observers with nefarious intent.
“I need you Mr. Bloodson,” pleaded a soft feminine voice.
Caern jumped, startled from watching the dancers before him more by the warm breath in his ear than the voice. He turned away from the couples moving on the polished oak floor in an intricate Schottische-style dance. The precision of the movements along with the gentle rocking of the riverboat had almost hypnotized him.
He looked around for the person who had spoken to him.
“I need you to tie me up,” whispered the same voice off to his right.
He jerked back a step and turned to face the speaker.
The speaker was a woman wearing a stunning eggplant cheongsam with tantalizing hints of astrological symbols and patterns picked out in delicate silver threads cunningly woven into the garment. Copper buttons fashioned in the likenesses of the Eight Immortals traced a line from her neck to just below her left shoulder. A Celtic cross cutout displayed a scandalizing amount of her light caramel bosom.
“Pardon?” asked Caern, pulling his eyes up to the woman’s face.
Loose curls of midnight hair formed an intricate crown atop her head, held in place by five ornate hairpins carved to represent each of the elements. Eyes the color of her dress looked into his ochre brown ones with a twinkle of mischief. Full red lips parted slightly in a seductive smile, the tip of a pink tongue peeking out between them for just an instant.
“I need you to tie me up,” begged the woman softly, sidling close to him to be heard over the orchestra and buzz of nearby conversations. She held her hands up to him, wrists together. Long lengths of black ribbon were draped across them.
A rush of blood surged up from the starched wing collar of Caern’s shirt as he backed up, trying to keep a polite distance between himself and the woman. She continued her slow advance matching his retreat. Caern stopped when the back of his legs hit one of the refreshment tables. His pursuer closed in on him.
She raised a beautiful, stylized fox mask trailing lengths of black ribbon up to her face, occluding the right side. She stopped, almost touching Caern’s chest.
“I’m afraid my mask came undone when I stepped out to freshen up,” she explained. Turning and looking back coyly at Caern over her shoulder she continued, “I can’t quite manage to tie it back on and was hoping I could get you to help me. If it is not too much trouble.”
“Of course,” replied Caern in a rush, relieved.
“I knew I could depend on you,” she said flashing him a brilliant smile as she took a step away from him. She positioned the mask over her face, holding it in place for him to secure.
Taking the mask’s ribbons in his hands, Caern had to bend down to secure the mask properly since the woman was about a head shorter than his six-foot-two self. He maneuvered the ribbon behind her left ear, noting the baroque jade ear cuff in the shape of a scarab perched atop it. An inverted brass ankh dangled from her right lobe. Pulling the ribbons snug, he quickly tied a simple doubly slipped reef knot. Taking a moment, he adjusted the loops so they were the same size.
“There you go,” said Caern satisfied. He straightened up.
“Thank you, Mr. Bloodson,” said the woman gratefully, turning back to face him. “It wouldn’t do to show up to the masquerade naked.”
Caern blinked several times behind his domino mask before responding. “Indeed. However, you have the advantage of me, Miss…?”
“Would that the situation was reversed,” replied the woman wistfully with an impish grin. She moved closer to him once more, stopping just shy of having their chests touch. Again a crimson tide started to work its way up Caern’s neck. “However,” she continued, rescuing Caern from having to respond, “my apologies for having no one to conduct a proper introduction, but then I am not really noted for my propriety. Please allow me to give you my card.”
“I am afraid my skills on the dance floor would leave you disappointed,” responded Caern politely. “That, and I have a business appointment that requires my imminent departure.”
The woman let out a musical laugh, lightly touching his arm. “I think you underestimate your abilities,” she said, taking a deep breath and closing the gap between them. “However, I was not referring to my dance card, but to my business card.”
The woman reluctantly stepped backward and brushed aside the front of her cheongsam with her left hand, revealing a black stocking clad leg. The weave of the stocking had cuneiform symbols running through it in ultramarine threads. A small deep maroon leather pouch was buckled to her thigh. Next to it was a smaller dried blood colored pouch. She reached into the smaller pouch and slid out a slender alabaster card. Holding the card by the edges, she moved it into Caern’s line of sight, interrupting his staring at her in either an attempt to decipher the script woven into her stocking or admiring her well-turned leg.
Caern took the offered card and examined it. A tiny dragon’s eye was embossed in the upper right corner with the remainder of the card blank. Turning it over, he found the back to be completely blank. He checked the card again, but it was empty of writing.
“If you would be kind enough to hold out your hand, palm up?” requested the woman, sliding the card gently from Caern’s fingertips.
Caern hesitated, wondering what this woman was up to. Deciding there was no harm in complying, he held out his hand. The woman gently lowered his arm so that it was even with her throat. She carefully placed the card in his palm, sliding her fingers over his as she removed her hand.
“Now close your eyes for a moment and think of me,” she instructed.
Caern quirked an eyebrow. Again, it was an unusual request, but he saw no harm in it. He closed his eyes and brought up an image of the unknown woman who had managed to confound him so completely in such a short period of time. He recalled how she looked, what she was wearing and the musical lilt to her voice. The subtle scent of her perfume. He remembered the tingle of her fingers as they brushed over his. Before his thoughts took an improper turn, he opened his eyes.
The woman indicated with a nod that he should look at his hand.
Caern looked down.
Writing slowly began to materialize in the center of the card. Ornate Gothic lettering in a pale-yellow ink bloomed on the card. As he continued to watch, the letters changed from yellow to orange and on into red. The words darkened until they finally settled on a deep purple hue to match the woman’s dress. The card read simply: Miyu Itsuki, Spiritualist & Psychic.
“Well met Miss …” began Caern, looking up before trailing off. He was alone.
He looked around the ballroom trying to locate her. A colorful crowd of partygoers surrounded the gleaming oak dance floor. The small orchestra filled one corner of the large ballroom. The far wall was lined with floor to ceiling expansive cathedral French doors with delicate floral frosting about the edges of the glass inserts. The doors were open to the night and a gentle breeze caused the rust-colored drapes between them to rustle slightly. Long mahogany tables laden with a dazzling variety of hors d’oeuvres stretched across the wall opposite the orchestra. The wall to Caern’s back had more tables and a few closed doors leading into the interior of the riverboat.
Caern could detect no sign of the woman either on the dance floor or in the crowd surrounding it. Sighing, he looked at the card once more. He smiled faintly and tucked it inside his jacket. As the music stopped, he worked his way around the perimeter of the dance floor. He needed to get the others or the four of them would be late.
Gunn and Abigail joined in the polite applause before making their way off of the dance floor. Gunn pulled a worn steel pocket watch from his harlequin green vest. It was almost time for their meeting. He returned the watch to his vest and spotted a few pastry crumbs on the cuff of his hunter green frock coat. Brushing them off, he addressed his companion.
“We had best join the others,” he said. “We’re expected in ten minutes.”
“Of course, Mr. McAhearn,” replied Abigail, giving Josephine’s head a rub. The small flying ferret perched on her shoulders nuzzled her ear before settling down.
Flying ferrets were just one of the numerous bio-engineered species created through sophisticated genetic manipulation. The first species, the spike-tailed bear, had appeared in the waning days of the Martian Conflict. Decades later there was a sudden influx of new species. Since then, the number of genetically manufactured lifeforms discovered had tapered off to only a few per year.
The initial discoveries were attributed to the Martians. However, the subsequent introduction of new species could not be credited to these vanquished enemies of humanity. Instead, they were blamed on the mad genius biologist known as Mr. Sparkles.
The majority of his creations were twisted perversions of life like the aggressive and highly venomous dragonfly wasps, the infamous barbed tentacle raptor or the soporific stranglevine. Rare exceptions like the flying ferrets were beautiful, gentle creatures.
Josephine was a typical example of her species. She appeared to be a normal ferret except for the presence of a pair of downy wings that gave her the capability of limited flight. The wings extended from her shoulders and stretched to twice her body length. When at rest, they folded compactly against her spine and sides.
“I believe our leader has finished with his acquaintance,” continued Abigail conversationally, placing her hand lightly on Gunn’s proffered arm.
The two friends entered the bank of watchers on the edge of the dance floor as the orchestra struck up a lively waltz. They maneuvered their way slowly through the crowd toward Caern.
“That’s a relief,” said Gunn with a chuckle. “I thought the lad’s head was going to burst into flames a couple of times.”
“He does have a surprising capacity to become discomforted.”
“Only when he’s talking to a pretty woman.”
“Speaking of which, have you seen Danielle recently?” asked Abigail.
“No, I haven’t,” replied Gunn, stopping to survey the ballroom. Abigail joined him in his search, raising an exquisite silver, copper and gold Venetian mask fashioned in the shape of a stylized great horned owl on an ivory stick up before her cerulean blue eyes. Rotating a recessed thumbwheel in the handle caused hidden lenses in the mask to swivel into place over the eye holes, allowing Abigail to magnify her surroundings.
There was no sign of the last member of their group.
“No need to worry,” said Gunn after a moment, starting off once more. “She’ll turn up. She always does. Let’s gather up the boss and be on our way.”
“Yes,” agreed Abigail, reflexively reaching up to pet Josephine again. The small mammal gave a soft trill of delight before returning to her snooze.
The two friends finally made their way over to where Caern was heading toward them.
“Who was your lady friend?” asked Gunn casually.
“I don’t know,” replied Caern. “She needed some help securing her mask. I helped her. After that, she gave me her business card. Then she just disappeared.” He reached inside his black tailcoat and removed the alabaster card. He handed it to Gunn.
“I know her,” said Abigail as Gunn passed the card to her.
“You do?” said Caern in surprise, taking back the card and replacing it in his coat.
“I was introduced to her at a meeting of the Mandlebrot’s Folly’s Ladies Civic Improvement League two months ago. We only spoke very briefly. She seemed quite nice. I even got one of those fascinating cards of hers.”
“It was interesting how the words appeared on the card. I wonder how she managed that.”
“As she explained it to us,” said Abigail airily as the three headed for an exit, “the lettering appears based on a combination of an individual’s body heat and their aura.
“The specific color of the lettering depends on the person’s reaction to her. The warmer the reaction, the darker the color on the card. Most of us had yellow or orange lettering which is apparently quite normal. She said occasionally a card would have red lettering, but that it was rare.
“What color was the lettering on your card?”
“I believe it was a deep purple shade,” commented Gunn dryly.
“I am certain that whatever arcane alchemical process is involved is unreliable and inexact,” stated Caern flatly.
“Of course,” agreed Gunn neutrally, nodding his head sagely.
“You know,” said Caern, looking at the bronze paisa mask covering Gunn’s head. “I don’t have to see your face to know you are mocking me.”
“Me?” asked Gunn innocently. “Was I mocking our beloved leader, Mrs. Schlosse?”
“I thought you were being quite supportive,” replied Abigail brightly.
“Well thank you. That was my sole intention.”
Caern narrowed his eyes and looked at his two companions. Abigail returned his look with a sweet smile. Gunn trembled with barely suppressed laughter.
“You are not funny,” stated Caern.
“Well,” said Gunn, reaching up to the right antler jutting from his mask’s forehead. “How about now?”
With nimble fingers belied by their thickness, Gunn depressed a hidden catch, releasing a small lever. He twisted the lever and then pressed it back into place. The mask he wore made a low grumbling sound as concealed gears were released. The formerly static mask started moving as the hidden clockwork mechanism within came to life. Thick eyebrows rose and fell with a faint clacking sound. Plates on the cheekbones rose and pivoted as the outlandishly whiskered chin waggled up and down. The beaklike nose rocked back and forth. All of this was accompanied by the ratcheting of precision gear work.
The three friends shared a laugh.
“Danielle?” asked Caern, looking about the ballroom once more.
“Knowing her, she is already there waiting for us,” said Gunn.
“True,” agreed Caern. “Shall we?”
— o —
A pair of men on one of the balconies overlooking the dance floor watched the three friends depart.
“That’s them, huh?” said the smaller of the two.
“Not much to look at,” commented the bigger man in a bored tone.
“You got that right,” agreed his companion. “Not like that chippy talking to the milquetoast. I wouldn’t mind getting a closer look at her.”
“If you like that sort.”
“She’d do to keep a soul warm at night,” chuckled the smaller man nastily. “Of course the other woman isn’t bad for an older bird. Probably a right tigress once you get her out of those fine petticoats.”
“Where is the fourth?” asked the big man scanning the swirling dancers and milling mob at the dance floor’s edge.
“Probably tucked away in a corner with some midshipman, ankles in the air.”
“The tall man was not so impressive. Even you could take him. Not the leader though. But then, I can handle him easily.”
“Har har. I’d rather take the leader’s lady friend. Show her what a real man is like. Of course, I’d get rid of the rodent first. Unnatural thing that.” The man made a warding sign and spat on the floor.
“I agree. I’d like to hear it cry as I took off its wings.”
“There you are,” said another man, stepping onto the balcony. “The boss wants us. The meeting is about to start.”
“Okay,” said the big man.
“We’re done here anyway,” said the smaller man.
“What were you doing?” asked the newcomer.
“Checking out the other team,” answered the small man.
“No threat,” said the big man casually. “The leader looks like he might be able to handle himself, but the others are nothing to worry about. A woman and a tall scarecrow that would probably faint at the first sign of trouble.”
“The last is supposed to be a woman as well,” sneered the small man, shaking his head in disgust. “I doubt they’ll even make it to the target.”
— o —
Caern, Gunn, and Abigail headed down a teak-lined passageway. They turned left and took the short hallway to the central stairway between decks. Ascending, they turned right and traveled down a mahogany-lined passageway interspersed with doors. At the end of the passageway, they turned left and started toward their destination: stateroom 308. Standing outside the door, patiently waiting for them was the last member of their group.
Danielle wore a ruby satin floor length ball gown with a décolleté neckline. She had on matching court shoes with stiletto heels. The snowy egret Zen style tattoo on her right shoulder blade was partially obscured by a ruby shawl draped across her back and over her arms. Her mask was a unique reflective ruby ovoid encasing her entire head.
“Hello dear,” said Abigail brightly in greeting.
“I see the boss’s face no longer matches my dress,” replied Danielle, her voice echoing slightly from inside her mask.
“If it’s not too much to ask,” requested Caern, “can we focus on the meeting before us and save the observations of my behavior from earlier until a later time?”
“Okay,” agreed Danielle. “But just this once.”
The group faced the closed door. A brass plate indicated that it was suite 308 in fancy black lettering. Under the number was an iron door knocker shaped like a Kraken pulling under a schooner. Not something you would expect to find on a ship given the superstitious nature of most seamen.
Caern grabbed the knocker and gave it three sharp raps.