Sweet Clara is what they called her.
Up above the maze of crooked streets that made up the frankly rather small and insignificant city of Errister, the clouds were threatening like chained dogs. The air had grown humid, and everything felt filthy. It was not yet hot – along the northern coast of Retrein, it rarely got truly hot – but the snows had melted and everything that had been caught up in them over the winter was now unleashed, forming a miasma of putridity.
It wasn’t that Sweet Clara had ever had an easy life. Father got killed by the Barrow Gang, and mother threw her out when she was fourteen. But there was a time when she made do well enough, plying her trade. When she was seventeen she went to work in Madam Harlan’s place. It was not a proper street-temple – the old buggers in parliament outlawed that decades ago – but Harlan kept it safe, and he didn’t take more than he needed. He had been a street-priest himself, which Clara figured gave him a degree of humanity that others in his line might not have. Madam Harlan, they called him, which he seemed to prefer over “Monsieur.” He was a strange kind of dragger that kept his masculine name. He was actually quite manly, and did not attempt any sort of impersonation, other than the clothes, but he did have a motherly instinct toward his “flock,” as he called them. Things worked out, and the enforcers turned a blind eye – probably happy that Harlan ran things clean: no drugs, no violence.
But when the fog rolled in five years back, things dried up. People did not have the money to spend on luxuries, and for most, that meant they had given up a good weekly hook. Some of the regulars kept up, and some of the out-of-towners, but business pretty much ground to a halt.
Harlan had gotten old, and took a bullet when a couple bloody robbers tried to take his Cold Iron safe. He survived, bless the gods, but the business didn’t.
Sweet Clara had stayed with Esmi for a spell after that. Esmi wanted to give up the trade. She wanted to clean her life up a bit, but she didn’t mind Clara bringing clients in. Clara wished she had minded, because on a slow, boring day in the late winter, a man who’d had too much to drink and was a proper bastard to boot decided he’d get more than what he paid for. The enforcers had to be called, and they dragged the man off in chains, but Esmi was in no shape to live there anymore. The social services people took her away, kept her safe, Clara hoped, but the flat was gone after that.
And now Clara was on the street. She had thought about going back into the trade, maybe seeing if things had picked up in Ravenfort or Wolfsmouth – the big cities might have recovered a bit quicker after the fog – but she had no way to get there. In Errister, even after the fog was gone, the shelters were overflowing. Clara had heard the stories – the fights that broke out, the crowding. There were stories of abuse, like a woman who was running one of them getting her thrills from beating up the residents. She didn’t want that – figured she’d do better on her own.
She slept in the day. The nights weren’t a good time to be unaware. She was on the sidewalk, looking down the crooked alleyway that passed for a street here. There had been stories floating around about some sort of demon haunting the city, preying on the beggars, but she suspected it was just the usual sort of spooked rumor that seemed to spread through the city like a plague. Some poor sot must have read a book of myths about Ripper Jack or Whispering Jim and started imagining things. Still, demon or no, you kept your eyes open when the sun went down.
The night was growing colder, and now there were tiny, timid droplets of rain falling – just barely too thick to be considered a mist. Sweet Clara tried to keep her eyes open. The sun would rise in just five hours, and then she would be free to let them close, but for now, she huddled under her blanket, her knife held tight.
And suddenly there was blinding light. Clara squinted at it, shielding her eyes. When she could finally bear to look at the light’s source, she saw that it was a limousine.
The limousine had pulled right up in front of her, though with such a long car, she could not be sure how its driver had managed to get it down the twisting street. The vehicle was black, and appeared strangely matte from the condensation that had collected on it.
The strangest thing about the limousine was that there was a pipe sticking out of the back of it. Some sort of foul smoke was puffing from the pipe, cascading up into the air. And on the side, behind the passenger cab’s door, instead of a cable-plug, there was a small square door. As the limousine sat in front of her, there was a low rumbling from the engine.
The front door opened, and the driver hopped out. He was a slightly chubby man, with a bizarrely cheerful smile on his face, which was red around the cheeks and forehead and especially the nose.
“Ms. Clara? Sweet Clara?” said the driver with a Canwick accent. Then he grinned again. “Of course it is. Wouldn’t be here if it was anyone else. Ms. Clara, would you be so kind as to step inside?”
The driver opened the door and stood there, waiting. Clara did not move.
“He’s got a business proposal for you,” said the driver. “And he says he’ll buy you dinner.”
She had not eaten that day. She knew it was the last thing you’d do, getting in a vehicle with a client, but with no food today and nothing she expected tomorrow… And there was something inviting about the limousine, even if she could not be sure what it was.
“At least let us get you out of the rain, Ms. Clara,” said the driver. At that moment, the rain truly began to fall. Sheets of water seemed to be splashing down over everything, and the filth on the streets was quickly being swept up in a rising tide.
She stood and entered the limousine. As she did, she transformed herself, the way she had learned to do with a client. Posture, movement, and expression could mean a world of difference in how men saw a woman.
The seats were cool, smooth leather, and the windows were tinted so that they seemed entirely cut off from the foul city around them. She could hardly see outside.
Across the cavern of a space inside the vehicle sat a strange young man.
He looked to be around twenty, a man who was only just beginning to look like an adult. He was dressed very well – an immaculate black suit and shoes polished to a mirror sheen.
He was very pale – so pale he seemed to be truly white, and his hair was similarly bleached of all color. Even his eyes were steely grey. The only point of color on him was an emerald on a ring he wore on the left hand.
“Sweet Clara,” said the man. “I am in need of certain services, and I believe you can provide them.”
Clara nodded, taking care not to display her apprehension at touching this ghostly young man. “I understand.” She looked around. It had been months, but she had not forgotten how to get into character. She hadn’t bathed in three days, though, since an old Narcian priest had let her use his tiny temple’s bath. But she had learned long ago that there were men and women of every taste, and her current state could be what this one was interested in. Besides, if this meant a hot meal and a few coins to rub together, she would do what she could. “Would you like me to begin in here?”
The man smiled knowingly. “No, Clara, I don’t think you do understand. I do not want a prostitute. I don’t need that sort of service.” The man crossed his legs and pulled out a pocket watch. She could not be sure – she only saw the watch’s face for a moment – but she thought it had only one hand and no numbers. “I will pay you a discretionary salary of forty-thousand tolls. You will be provided with housing, a cook, a maid, and clothing. You will be representing me, you understand, and I want you to act the part. I don’t think we’ll need to see a speech coach about your accent, but I would like to impress upon you that you will no longer be living on the streets, and I do not want your voice to give the impression that you still do.”
Clara could not pick a word to respond with.
“You’re overwhelmed,” said the man. “Let me explain what the job will entail, and you can decide if it would suit you better than your current lifestyle.” The man began to wind the watch. “You will be my voice among those to whom I do not wish to speak. You will be my ears among those to whom I do not wish to listen. You will be my eyes among those whom I do not wish to see.”
The man leaned forward. “I will be a rumor that resides in your shadow. Your actions will, in fact, be my actions. You will be the face I show in the mortal world. I require complete obedience. If I receive that, you will want for nothing. If I do not, I will return you exactly here, to live out this facsimile of a life you have now.”
“I don’t know who you are,” said Clara.
“I am a man with great influence and power,” said the man.
“Why have you chosen me? I mean, I can use the work, I don’ t mind saying, but what makes you think I can do this?”
The man nodded, though he seemed somehow frustrated with her all of a sudden. “You are an actress. You’ve never been on stage or film, but I know of some of your best performances. Men loyal to my cause have auditioned you for years at Madam Harlan’s. Had it not been for recent events, I imagine we might be having this conversation there instead. I need someone who can portray an extension of my will – to show neither fear nor doubt, even though I know you will be filled with both. Does that answer your question?”
Feigning confidence, she said “Yes, it does.”
“Do I have your answer?” he asked.
“I don’t rightly think I can refuse,” she said.
He smiled. “Good. I knew you were a sensible woman.” He leaned forward, opening a mini-bar in the car’s wall. From there he retrieved a thermos. Slowly, he unscrewed the lid and poured a cup.
“Sweet Clara,” he said. “My business will require you to know certain things about the world that most people do not. Before we can begin, I’d ask that you drink some of this.”
He handed the cup to her. Inside, there was a black liquid that splashed up with only the slightest movement of her hand. The smell of it was awful – it reminded her of the smoke coming from that odd pipe at the back of the limousine.
The man smiled. “It’s not poison. I know what you are thinking. It is unfair that prostitutes are so often targeted by the deranged. Their lives are rarely happy to begin with. But rest assured, I am no Ripper Jack. I see no reason that a woman of your professional experience is any more deserving of cruelty than another.”
Clara looked back down at the beverage. “I can’t.”
He frowned. “That is most unfortunate. I will be unable to employ you if you do not drink.”
Clara inhaled some of the fumes. There was an underlying scent that was strangely pleasant – like some kind of coffee. Yet it was twisted, as if all of the flavor had been squeezed out of it and only the bitterness remained.
She thought about that sad patch of pavement she’d made her home, thought about Esmi, who had only been given a proper home after a brute had broken half her bones.
So what if it is poison?
She downed the cup. The drinking was just as unpleasant as she had feared, and for a moment she thought that it really had been poison, and that her insides were about to be torn up, and the pain would end her life.
But that moment did not come. After a few seconds, the flavor of the foul liquid evaporated away. Yet this was followed by a thudding headache. What few lights there were in the limousine grew blindingly bright, but this, too, passed.
And then Sweet Clara realized that she and the strange man were not alone in the limousine’s cab. On either side of him were two other men, staring at her without faces.
She screamed in shock, but quickly quieted herself. Henry smiled.
“Sweet Clara, allow me to introduce you to our clients. We will be working very closely with them.”
She stared at the one that sat to his left. Even as she saw the strange being before her, she felt as if she was looking through it.
“Do they frighten you?” asked the man.
“I don’t know what to make of them.”
“You cannot make anything of them. I suggest you do not attempt to do so.”
Sweet Clara swallowed. She narrowed her vision, focusing only on the odd man and trying to act as if the faceless beings were not there. “Tell me what to do.”
The man leaned on his elbow. “Once we’ve taken you to your home, gotten you cleaned up and dressed, and I daresay once you’ve had a decent night’s sleep, I would like you to travel to Ravenfort to speak with an old school friend of mine. His name is Richard Airbright, and I wanted to give him notice that I’ll be coming to town myself shortly and that he should be prepared.”
“Sir,” Clara began. One of the faceless men had somehow gotten closer to her, such that he was nearly seated next to her, even though she had not seen him make the move. She took a breath, remembering the part that this man had assigned her. “What name should I give this Mr. Airbright?”
“The name is Henry Thall.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)