Wisp arrived early in the morning to take Beryl and other letters from the Essex and deliver them. They would have used a City Messengers but Wisp insisted on helping in this small way. The only one in the pile from Beryl was addressed to a recent patient they had met in the hospital. A man named Russell, who had been the unfortunate soul thrown from the rooftops earlier this summer. He had only come into Beryl’s acquaintance while she tried to save his life, and had been released from the hospital recently. If anyone could assist her in this ruse, and truly be a stranger to her, it was him and he owed her his life.
His response through Wisp was quickly delivered after the lad finished his round. The man wanted to help and agreed to meet at the ‘Sanctuary’. The new pub across from the asylum more formally known as the ‘Sanctuary of the Holy Miscreant’. With that settled Beryl took to the long task of dressing her part.
When she emerged, the feline swayed down the steps with deliberate grace and found that Diamond and Crystal were already waiting for her in the park across the street. Nicholas apparently wanted his girls named after jewels ‘watching out’ for one another.
They were her obvious minders but at least one armed street tough followed them discreetly. Beryl greeted them and passed on the money ‘collected’, and giggled her responses as the girls asked unflattering questions about Hyde. Crystal was adamant that unless Nicholas told her to she couldn’t stand to do anything with someone as ‘odious’ as Jekyll’s assistant. She had to admit though that he tipped well.
They gossiped the entire journey to Nicholas’s ‘home’ for the girls. Today she would tour the establishment where she would be working and living for some time. The place was easily overlooked as it had no exterior signs or markings. It could have been mistaken for any other home pressed against the other buildings. In an area of town much like the Clockwork Close or Clockhaven the buildings fit like forced together jigsaw puzzles. This meant that the only exits or entrances were windows in the front and perhaps a back entrance if she was lucky.
The conditions inside the home were better than expected. Hardly a cramped hovel, but rather an extravagant interior with lovely red wallpaper, lush furniture, suggestive art, and it smelled heavily of intoxicating perfumes and incense. She was introduced to a few more girls in the front room who greeted her with varying degrees of warmth or professional detachment.
Beryl noticed some of the girls she was not directly introduced to were wearing makeup to hide bruises on their arms and face. She would soon learn that some men liked to strike and Nicholas charged an added fee which the women got a small cut.
This was only what Beryl had expected and she maintained her demeanor throughout the tour. The powder-room, washroom, kitchen, entertainment den, and lounge were found on the first floor. Above that were the girls rooms where they would meet with clients. Diamond informed her that she would be provided a room to herself she could use as she pleased. It would be a week before she learned this was not a usual practice for the girls to have a designated room. The only reason for this ‘privilege’ was to keep ‘shedding’ restricted to one bedroom.
Beryl nodded absently as she kept watch for exits and Nicholas’s office. With no sign it was located within this building, she noted a doorway at the edge of the house. It was placed where it could only lead into the house next door. Perhaps Nicholas’s office was in the building next door? If so that would complicate her investigation. The door was in a corner of the entertainment lounge making it difficult to get there unnoticed.
Beryl spent the morning and lunch with the girls sharing stories, which sounded as dubious as her own, before they set out to find their marks for the evening. Thankfully, Diamond and Crystal had no intention of picking the establishment she was supposed to try her luck. She led them back to the waterways of Wheatstone and the Sanctuary which was filling with patrons.
Two men in grease stained tweed sitting at the bar drinking and joking with one another. Wright also sat at the bar, but far removed of the two men as he enjoyed his drink alone. In the back of the pub three young men attempted to get started on National Drinking Month a week early. She almost missed Russell who sat alone in the corner next to the fireplace.
Crystal and Diamond subtly made her aware they were going for the two engineers at the bar. Those two were the easiest marks, and they knew Mr. Wright was a ‘former client’ so he was not a stranger. Tapping her chin the feline made a show of selecting her target before smiling and closing in on Russell. He looked rather gaunt and sullen from his weeks in the hospital and bore the appearance of a man wanting to drink alone.
She made a show of introducing herself to which Russell replied gentlemanly, but with the languid movements of a man under the influence of pain numbing opiates. With little fuss she had her invitation for her to join him and they could whisper quietly to one another. With the interference of the young drinkers and engineers it was unlikely they could be overheard.
“How am I supposed to play this?” Russell asked with some concern in his voice. Her letter had been clear but his mind was not.
She moved closer to him so that her hip was pressed against his, and placed a paw on his good leg precariously. Watching him stiffen she raised a paw to her lips as she got closer to his ears, “As long as you look happy as I whisper sweet nothings it won’t matter if they never hear us. Eventually just buy us both a drink.”
Russell smiled slowly as he looked into her eyes and put his arm around her. He pulled them close pressing their hips together while Beryl rested her head on his chest. She purred as a comfort to herself as Russell petted her furry head. As she enjoyed the false attention she remembered that she was supposed to be wooing him. It didn’t matter what she said though, “How long has it been since the fall?”
“A few weeks,” He said, knowing she should remember it fairly better than him. He spoke with some quiet bravado as he continued, “The doctors wanted me to stay longer but I couldn’t. Adventure called and I answered.”
“You consider yourself an Adventurer, Mr. Russell?” Beryl giggled softly as she wondered if he was being coy. “And here I thought you were a pirate.”
“What gave you that idea?” He breathed back as he scratched by her ears. Much more quietly he asked, “Am I doing this right?”
She nodded while her purr changed tone and became more genuine, no longer meant to comfort herself. “Your connection to Domino and the other pirates.”
Russell paused his actions leaving his hand resting on the back of her head. He waited in silence before he asked, “Want to know how we met?”
Beryl sat up for a moment and then rested her head against his arm still wrapped around her. “Well, we need to look like we’re having a good time. A story like that promises to be entertaining. Did she smash you with a chair and then love at first fight?”
Russell chuckled and regaled her with an embellished story of how it started with a bar fight, and he tried to rescue her but was mistaken for an attacker. How she defeated him and would later come to steal his heart…and his airship.
She laughed through the tale and when he was finished she responded quietly, “Well you are in Cupid’s fierce grasp, Mr. Russell.”
“Well at the time yes, but not so much anymore. I was caught up like a fire-whirl, but came back down when I got to know her better.” He looked at her quietly, “Did you know that she escaped from the hospital?”
Beryl knew but was trying not to think about it. She realized that their voices had risen slightly during his story and had them bring it back down as she asked, “So what do you think of her escape?”
He sighed bitterly. “I don’t know who helped her escape or how, but I’m glad she did. She was being attacked every night. I think she didn’t have to hurt Kasa in order to get away though.”
Beryl silently lamented the events they had to miss while they were undercover. Still Russell’s sour look would ruin the image. She brushed his hair out of his face and smiled up at him. “But she’ll be back yes?”
“Yes.” He responded quietly his face still sour and depressed, “She doesn’t respond well to being a prisoner. Kasa is lucky she wasn’t worse off.”
“Then let us discuss more pleasant things. Like those drinks.” Beryl said and Russell slowly smiled remembering what he was doing.
“Yes, of course, what could I get for you?”
“Ravilian Red Wine if they have it.” She doubted that the proprietress had any in stock, but she was trying to present a certain front. “One has to keep their wits about them.”
Russell hobbled to the bar, his leg still hurting and made their order before Diamond and Crystal. They had been preoccupied with their own marks and only caught hints of his story, enough to think he was pining over another woman.
The task was now half-done, but this meant they had to start paying attention to Beryl to see if she completed the second part. Russell returned with a red wine and carrying a large tankard of ale with him which he downed greedily. Mixing the alcohol with his medications was not healthy, but Beryl was not a nurse here and kept her silence. She would encourage worse behaviors before too long.
She took care to sip her wine like a Lady, but Russell seemed to find her soft approach amusing. Had he thought she would drink it like a cat? Or was he amused at how differently they drank? He did not provide an answer when she asked. “Well, I don’t suppose it matters. So long as you are having a good time.” She moved closer to him on the couch again, pressing herself against him. “Perhaps…you would not mind meeting more often?”
Russell smiled and put his arm around her, “I would like that. Are you available…tonight?”
Beryl considered the question. Nicholas said the mark had to want to meet in the future, but this was going a step beyond. She hoped Russell understood that nothing would happen once they were behind closed doors as she agreed, “I know a place we can go not far from here, if you would care to follow.”
She happily learned that he knew that nothing would actually happen as he took the floor that evening. The curtains were drawn and the street tough had followed them, so to Nicholas’s stooges it should appear she had upheld her end of the deal and more. She hoped the next task would be as simple, but knew that it would not be.