Enter the Cat Lady

(c) Copyright 2009

Spring, 1857

 

Cork City

south coast of Ireland

 

Oh, bother. She was in trouble again. Try not to lose your temper this time, she admonished herself. Even for a master laundress with extranatural powers, blood was hard to get out of silk taffeta. Resignedly she watched the tall strong-looking man approach her through the abandoned botanical garden.

All but every fifth gas light in the street lamps of downtown Cork City had been turned off at midnight, so he was a faceless hulk on this moonless night. The lonely streetlights reflected off the waters of the North Channel of the Lee River as they slid smoothly toward the sea.

 

The day had begun well and, as usual, before sunup, at least for her and Bridget. Barbara got to sleep later, because her work was here at the home of Elizabeth and her husband, retired English Army major Denis Leckie. It was in a middle-class residential area in tree-shrouded south Cork City. Elizabeth and Denis had recently had the youngest of their big family leave the roost. The addition of the three young women filled up the empty rooms and added a modest but welcome amount of money. Major Leckie’s pension was not large.

Unseasonable warmth had moved through the area in the night so that the light frost that usually laid delicate lace on the streets during February was missing. Spring had sprung early this year, 1857, on the south edge of Ireland.

In loose company with three or four neighbors, the two young women walked several blocks to Bandon Street, their breath puffing white in the cold air, arms around their bodies and hunched over to keep warm. Or at least that’s what Bridget did. Mary imitated her so as not to seem odd. In actuality Mary adjusted her skin so that it let only a little of the cold through it, just enough to remind her that ordinary humans would be uncomfortably cold and cue her to imitate them.

The “bus” that soon lumbered into view was a four-wheeled cargo wagon that had been filled with bench seats and a canvas cover. When she and Bridget had first begun riding the bus it had been a weathered grey, but recently the outside had been painted red.

Four big horses, each two-by-two, drew the vehicle. It rumbled northeast into the city, slowly enough so that the two young women and the people behind them could swing up and into it easily and proffer their few pence to the driver.

“Good morning, Mrs. Ahern,” Mary said. “How’s your back?”

“Just fine, dearie, those hands of yours are magic.” Mary’s smile at that was amused as well as friendly. The grey-haired woman was just using an expression, but had unknowingly spoken the truth.

The previous day Mary had massaged her sore back on the bus into downtown Cork and probed into the old woman’s body with her invisible extranatural hands. She had found the problem there — a bone sickness — and instructed Hester Ahern’s body to fight off the sickness. The woman’s body had echoed Mary’s command back to her strongly, so she knew that Mrs. Ahern’s body would do a good job.

Most people’s bodies could repair themselves, and better when Mary commanded them to. A very few could not; they did not echo Mary’s commands back to her. To cure illness in those people she had to intervene more directly.

Bridget was chattering away with a woman near her own age — nineteen — and was unusually animated. Normally she appeared serene and almost majestic, but since coming to Cork and becoming a successful businesswoman she seemed to be becoming younger, not older.

Over the rumble and clip-clop of the horses’ hooves the two chatted with other passengers who got onto and off of the bus. After ten months in their new home they had gotten to know quite a number of other people. It was a welcome difference from the years before when they had known only the other orphans in the Quaker mission-and-orphanage in faraway Kilrush.

 

They dropped off the bus, at Oliver Plunkett Street, while it trundled down Grand Parade near the very center of Cork City’s downtown. The sun was a half-hour or so into the sky but they could only see its red rays bathing the tiptop of the buildings on their left as they walked one block east on Plunkett, then turned left and north into Princes Street.

Their laundry was near a block further on, just off wide, busy Patrick Street. They had leased an entire building of four stories, though it was so narrow and jammed against its neighbors that all the buildings on the block looked like one long building. They had a good deal on it from a Unitarian businessman who had been recommended to them by the local Society of Friends church, of which they were nominal members.

Bridget unlocked the front door and flipped the warning bells into place so that they would jingle to announce anyone following her. Mary slipped in past her to open a box of matches on the countertop and strike one alight. It gave an initial orange flare and a sulfurous stench not quite blocked from Mary’s nose as she held her breath and moved to light the first gas lamp.

The stem of the match was very long. Before Mary had to shake it out she got all the lamps alight and moved into the back room and lit the gas burner in the little alcove that served as the laundry’s kitchen. She filled the tea kettle, put it over the burner, and set out cups and the tins of tea and sugar. She took out the cream jar, uncapped it, and sniffed inside.

It was still unsoured, long past its normal time. Good.

Mary had recently figured out a way to prevent milk from souring. The magical sense of see/taste/feel that accompanied her invisible extranatural hands had long told her that all air and water and earth were filled with invisible microlife. During her first year at the Kilrush orphanage she had come to understand that this microlife was what caused infections, bad colds and flu, made yeast rise, and soured wine and milk. She suspected that it caused cholera and ruined potatoes so badly that Ireland suffered periodic famines.

Mary could kill this microlife when she wished her magic hands to do so, with a very tiny burst of heat. But she was perhaps the only person alive who could do this, and she had been experimenting with ways so that anyone could kill microlife. Now she had found a way and she was sure she could make money off the process. Or processes; there were other ways once you understood about microlife.

The doorbell jingled and the woman they had hired to supervise the laundry bustled into the front door. A big rawboned woman with grey hair up in a bun, widow Eliza Dunworth was very good at her managing job though a tad too intimidating to the other women working under her.

“Good morning, Mistress McCarthy! Bless you!” She eagerly took up the task of making tea. After giving Bridget and Mary a cup of tea, seasoned the way they liked it, she fixed herself a cup. She took a sip of the hot drink, warmed her hands around the cup for a minute or so, and took it with her to continue getting the laundry ready for another day.

Soon the bell was ringing again as the other women who worked for Bridget and Mary showed up and the day was well begun. And one man, late as usual, apologizing as usual, a big, seemingly clumsy boy-man with surprising deft hands, a nephew of Mrs. Dunworth.

It was untraditional for a man to do laundry. However, there were some tasks for which a man’s greater upper-body strength was well suited, and Mary was a great believer in efficiency. It was the modern way, one which she had appreciated more after hearing a lecture on manufacturing and commerce from Sir Robert Kane, the president of the Queen’s College Cork on the western edge of Cork City.

It had been at a meeting of the Cuvierian Society. Mary had attended because she was a business owner (or one-quarter owner, anyway). The lecture had excited her and given her many ideas.

Soon the customers were arriving and Bridget and Mary became very busy at the front counter. These customers were mostly servants or flunkies of gentlemen, though it was not unusual for the great men to come in themselves. Mary knew that this was because she and Bridget were beautiful, but she had no shame about using one of the few advantages women had in a world run by men.

The morning rush died down and Mary and Bridget took turns from the counter to help out with the laundering. There was another rush of customers at noon and Mary detailed one of the laundresses to take her place. Mary was more blatantly sexy than the queenly Bridget and noon was when women customers began to show up. In midafternoon when the cream of the quality showed up Mary rarely set foot up front.

Part of this was diplomacy, partly because she usually had the afternoon off to pursue her education, which she needed to do if she ever decided to become a governess and tutor to children of the quality. She normally returned to work in the evening but today she worked a full day at the laundry. Tonight she was going to attend the Thursday night weekly session of the Cork Scientific and Literary Society.

Business was going very well now that the first lean startup months were over. They had seven people working for them, so her schedule lately had become much more flexible.

The laundry closed at 7:00 but began to shut down at 5:00 when Bridget left to get home before dark. That was when Mary had decreed that dinner would begin. Only one of the employees left before then; the rest stayed to share an evening meal, encouraged by Bridget because of compassion and by Mary for efficiency reasons.

For some of these people this was the only substantial meal they ate and Mary encouraged them to eat all they wanted. She encouraged partly with words and partly by example. She ate more even than Mrs. Dunworth’s nephew Maurice (who understandably preferred to be known as Morry). Her extrahuman strength and health made correspondingly extra demands on her diet.

Bridget had accidentally begun the informal employee-feeding program out of sympathy for one of the laundresses. Mary had gotten behind the idea after a lecture on efficiency by Sir Robert. He had emphasized that employees were as big a resource as machines and capital, and that it was shortsighted to endanger their health from overwork and dangerous work conditions.

Though his rhetoric was pitched toward the presumably uncompassionate prejudices of the rich.

“You fatten your cattle for the market. It is only sensible that you fatten your workers for your service. Tend to your workers and they will tend to your machines!”

Caring for their workers’ welfare seemed to work. Not one of Bridget’s and Mary’s employees ever missed a day, and not just because missing work cut into their wages. Partly this was because Mary had given them extraordinary health, and partly from loyalty to Bridget and Mary. If anything Mary found them embarrassingly loyal and sometimes she had to shoo them out of the laundry.

 

At 7:00, alone in the shop, Mary opened the closet where she had stored overnight a bright blue dress. For a moment she stood looking at and fingering the cloth.

She had bought it just the day before in a shop on South Mall just two blocks south. It was silk taffeta with a subtle ribbing that made the blue cloth shimmer when its wearer moved or the light changed around it. This was the first time in her life that she had ever been able to afford something so fashionable and expensive.

She sniffed at the dress to see if it had absorbed the delicate odor from the sachet she had hung in the closet to take off the new-cloth smell. Satisfied, she freshened up and donned her new dress, then strode briskly down Patrick Street toward Corn Market Street where the weekly meeting would be held in Gillman’s Civic Library.

It was a little past sundown. The day’s light lingered and combined with the gas streetlights to give the artificial canyons of the city a glow that seemed suspended in the air itself.

The speed of her walk plus a mild breeze made her curly red hair stream back behind her in a bouncing fiery mane. It was an immodest display, but lately she had let herself to want men to notice her.

She had been gradually altering her face, coaxing her eyelashes to grow and darken and her eyelids to change shape so that her eyes seemed bigger. She had been migrating fat into her lips, changing their shape, and reddening them so that they were lusciously kissable. Her tall, slender body had needed no extranatural attention to form the curves appropriate to her physical age of seventeen years. She had no doubt that every man she passed was conscious of her.

Her heels clicking on the stone of the street, Mary enjoyed the attention and the certainty that some time in the not-too-distant future she would acquire a lover. When she had died the first time three years ago her body had been 53 and she had been long past both sexual desire and a way to satisfy it.

But there was more than just the pleasure of being desired, and the satisfaction of her own desires, to the changes she was making in herself. Cork City and its surroundings contained almost 100,000 people, a veritable ocean of humanity, and she was determined to shine in the public eye. Not because she cared for fame, but because it was a way to move herself onto the stages of the influential. From there she was determined to begin influencing rather than merely being influenced. She had been given a second chance at life and she was not going to waste it.

Though, actually, now that she thought of it, it was really a third chance. She had died a second time ten months before.

As she turned the last corner she saw the library ahead on the right, the only red-fronted building of the row of four-story office buildings built so shoulder-to-shoulder that they appeared one long building stretching the length of the block.

Besides a smattering of pedestrians there were a few wagons with two big sturdy wheels under a flat bed. These shared the street with other two-wheeled wagons more daintily built and roofed over: hansom cabs. There was also one four-wheeled Royal Post stagecoach moving briskly.

A bright yellow-white light visible through the open door illumined the inside of the library and streamed out and down the short flight of steps. People were entering the library in ones and threes, past the large, exquisitely calligraphed sign.

 

SCIENTIFIC AND LITERARY SOCIETY

Some Evidence for a Theory of Vision

 

Mary imprisoned her hair in a modest blue cap and entered the door, eyes cast down, and hung back from the other people — not because she was shy but because she wanted to be thought shy and un-forward. The forces behind learned societies like this one were older upper-class women. To them she wanted to excite maternal feelings rather than jealousy.

“Mistress McCarthy! So good to see you again.” This came from a lean lady of middle age who sat at the table just inside the entrance collecting signatures and handing out the one-page folded programs.

“Lady Granville! Thank you. Oh, what a beautiful fabric. And cut so well.”

Lady Grantville knew she was a laundress, so Mary’s next words were only to be expected.

“It’s an English twill wool, isn’t it? That satin gabardine. I so admire the texture, so delicate, and that silver sheen. It’s a lightweight, isn’t it? Does it keep you warm enough?”

“Warm as warm can be, without being too much.” She handed Mary a program. “I hope you enjoy the lecture.”

Mary went into the room and pretended to pretend to study the paintings on the walls to keep from pushing herself on people. She was greeted graciously by several women and one very tall but stooped man of about seventy, all habitués of the Society.

Three young men near the front of the meeting hall stood out. They were all dressed nicely and expensively but discreetly so, with dress coats, black string or foulard bow ties, and vests with gold or silver chains across their middles. Two had black top hats and their suits were a matching black. One wore a creamy white bowler and his suit was cream-colored. Their mustaches were all small, which itself spoke of gentry. Only quality could afford to shave cleanly and neatly every day.

They spoke to no one but each other and she guessed that they — or one of them — were the speakers. To her increasingly man-hungry eyes they were quite handsome.

 

It was some little time later when Lady Granville called the meeting to order and presided over some bits of S&L Society business. Then she introduced one of the young men as Dr. William Penrose. He was the one in the cream-colored outfit.

The young man stood up from the front row and placed his hat on the seat behind him. He thanked the audience and made a small joke, not expecting or getting more than a mild laugh. He seemed quite self-assured.

He was also well prepared, placing several large white cards, perhaps a foot wide and a foot-and-a-half high, on a wooden easel beside the speaker’s podium. There was large text on the front, a few short phrases.

“Now it would be a pity if in a lecture on vision not everyone could see my cards. So everyone move a little closer and, if you have a problem still, please come to the front and we will make a place for you.”

There was a little good-natured laughter and the two- or three-dozen people shuffled themselves around, filling the front row of seats almost full. Mary stayed in her place in the back. She had perfect eyesight and could change her eyes into binoculars to bring his cards closer.

“Recently,” Dr. Penrose said, “there has been advancement in our understanding of vision, brought about with much assistance from the German Hermann von Helmholtz. He is a physicist and surgeon and the inventor of the ophthalmoscope.”

He turned to a diagram of that device on the first card on the easel. Pointing, he described briefly how it shined a light into a lens into a patient’s eye so that a doctor could look inside and see a magnified view of the interior of the eye. He spoke well, just as Mary did when she was reading a story to children, speaking sometimes louder or softer, slower or faster, pausing occasionally. There was nothing monotonous about him, nothing to put an audience to sleep.

She watched his technique as he continued, recognizing some of her own. In an odd way it was like watching herself.

Part of it, she concluded, was his body language. He strode about the podium, not in a nervous way, but as if unable to contain his excitement about what he said. Occasionally he would point dramatically, or stop and look at the audience.

He was like an actor on a stage yet also unlike, never over-dramatic or self-important. In fact, he occasionally made little self-deprecating jokes.

Mary liked that. It was a sign of strength to be able to laugh at oneself. Strength. And he had brains. Oh, my. Two qualities that made her wet between her legs. And they had. And she had this sudden image of him below her, of straddling his body with his manhood deep inside her.

Laughing silently at herself, she switched off her sexual response to him and focused her esoteric power on the wetness, evaporating it, leaving her thighs and dress dry. She, an old woman of 56, panting after a man like a virgin!

Though, come to think of it, she was a virgin again. Three years ago her body had not only cured itself of death and old age but also returned her maidenhead to her.

Dr. Penrose had spoken briefly of where vision began: the light with which the sun or fire flooded the world. Then he removed the first card on the easel to the back of the stack of cards. The new one revealed a drawing of a flattened oval which Mary instantly recognized as a diagram of an eye viewed from the side.

“Here is the marvelous camera that God perfected long before man ever conceived its poor imitation. Its working is familiar to many of you here. Lady Granville, for instance, is so proficient with a camera that she has been asked more than once to loan her pictures to public exhibits.”

How interesting. The Countess had never mentioned that in her several — brief — conversations with Mary or which Mary had overheard. She thought it revealed a woman with a self-assurance that required no bragging to bolster. And more accomplishments than merely being born into quality.

Or maybe she just didn’t consider Mary important enough to impress!

The doctor pointed out the lens in the eye that focused light, and the muscles attached to the eyeball and the lens. These he said pulled or relaxed to focus the lens on different parts of the world.

As he spoke Mary focused her extrahuman senses inside herself, as she had many times before, on one of her own eyes.

Once she would have had to close her physical eyes to view what her magical eye/tongue/fingers perceived. She was long past that now, swapping instantly between one perception of the world to the other without effort.

She noticed something that he did not mention. Nor did the diagram show it — the nerves that connected the lens muscles to the rest of a body. Simple logic should have told him that they had to be there, to control the flexing of the lens muscles.

At this point Penrose switched to the back of the eye.

“Here is where the natural photo-emulsion resides. It is a very thin film of skin that contains the cells that are sensitive to light. These cells are like the grains of silver chloride in a photograph that become darker or lighter when light strikes it. These grains are then exposed to a chemical developer in a photographer’s darkroom, making the image stronger and making it permanent.”

Here he reminded the audience of what modern biologists had discovered, that all life is made up of living “cells,” even those hard parts of the body, bones.

“These vision cells are marvelous inventions of God, much tinier than the grains of photographic emulsion. They are so small that there are about 25 thousand of them inside a circle the size of a pence.”

He held up one such coin over his head, roughly a half-inch in diameter, and paused to let them take in what he had said.

“Imagine this coin curved to fit the back of your eye and reduced to a thin film.”

Mary focused her magical sight on the back of one of her eyes and expanded the view so that it was if she was looking through an extranatural microscope. Just out of the grave she had been able to view grains of dirt as if they were fist-sized stones. After three years of experiment and use she could now view individual cells as if they were that size.

The only problem was, though she could see these vision cells clearly in her magic sight, she had nothing to compare them with. There was no way to tell exactly what their size was.

She chewed her lip for a few seconds, till a way suggested itself. She pulled out a pencil and a scrap of paper from the little purse she carried as a substitute for a reticule, and made a miniscule little checkerboard pattern on it.

Done, she folded it into a little tent shape and placed it on the floor in front of her chair — being the last in the row meant no one could see her being inattentive to the speaker. The tent shape let her look at the checkerboard pattern almost flat on, and she’d guessed its distance properly. The dots on the paper blurred together.

Hmm. She did an instant calculation based on the size of the dots and the distance of the paper…. Yes. That meant the back of the eye held 100 thousand to 150 thousand vision cells.

If the cells were, pretty much, evenly distributed.

While she had been thinking about this Doctor Penrose had put up another diagram and was talking about color.

“As early as 1802 physician Thomas Young proposed that there were three kinds of vision cells. One that saw only red light, one that saw green, and one blue. Helmholtz shares that idea.”

He went on talking about this subject, then finally switched to a last diagram. It showed a smaller oval with a line passing out of it to pass into a larger oval, like a lopsided barbell.

The three geometric figures were labeled. The small oval was the eye, the line the optic nerve, and the larger oval the brain, where the impulses traveling over the optic nerve were converted into knowledge about the world.

He smiled. “And there at the brain the subject becomes mysterious, a puzzle we will have to leave to future generations of scientists to discover more of the wonders of what God hath wrought.” He made a tiny little bow to the audience to indicate that their humble servant was finished, and accepted the audience’s applause with a small, pleased smile.

Lady Granville waited till the polite applause died down and announced a short break before a question-and-answer session to get refreshments. The snacks and drinks were Graciously Donated by So-and-So. While everyone else got up and milled around, Mary sat back in her chair and thought.

That was the fourth or fifth time that he had brought up God. Was he just wrapping himself in protection from anti-intellectual church officials? Or was he that pious? And if so what did that mean if she decided to seduce him?

Mary, Mary, she chided herself, smiling. Get your mind from between your legs.

 

It was nearing 10:00 pm. Most of the S&L Society had departed when she walked up to the speaker and his two friends. Dr. Penrose shook the hand of one last Society member and turned to her. She introduced herself and he gave her a slight bow.

“Honored,” he said just as if she were quality.

“I much admired your talk, Doctor. And your preparation. It was inspiring.”

“Hardly that,” but he smiled.

“Well, exemplary, then. So much clearer and less boring than most.”

“But still boring,” he said.

She ignored the mild flirtation and an impulse to plant her fingers in his light chocolate curls and pull him to her for a kiss.

“But I couldn’t help notice three problems.”

His smile disappeared, but it was not replaced by a frown. More — considering.

Yes. That was what she wanted, or it might be.

Mary knew that being female, young, and obviously Irish gave everyone three reasons to ignore her, or dismiss whatever she said as nonsense. She had to be brash without being — very — obnoxious, challenging but not insulting his intellect, and appreciative of him as a man without seeming interested enough to encourage him to pursue her.

It was a very delicate balancing act. Mary tuned her mind to its peak performance, which was high indeed, and moved to engage his.

“First, you left off the nerve paths between the lens muscles and the brain. They obviously have to be there to control on what objects to focus.”

“Yes. I deliberately left them off. In popular talks one has to select the absolute minimum of crucial detail and leave the rest off.”

She nodded in understanding and the four of them turned to look at the S&L Society official who was coming up to them in preparation for closing up the library. They allowed the tall, stooped old gentleman to steer them out the door. Dr. Penrose accepted the old gentleman’s thanks for the lecture, and the gentleman’s goodnight to them all.

The four of them walked down the street, no destination in mind but instinctively gravitating toward the entertainment district and its open pubs and cafes.

Dr. Penrose took off his jacket and settled it around Mary’s shoulders, with a murmured apology for his forwardness. With her extranatural control of her body she did not need it, of course, but she accepted his gallant gesture.

“And objection number two?” Mary looked at the questioner. He was the tallest of the three, a man of dark but handsome aspect, his black top hat placed at an assured angle on his straight black hair. He had a sardonically amused look on his face.

She looked him up and down for a moment. “You’re an attorney, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” He gave her a small bow. “Enoch Crowley at your service. So. How did you know?”

She shrugged. “It was obvious.”

“And objection number two was obvious too, as I recall. Pray tell us what it is?” He seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.

“The number of vision cells. It’s more like 125 thousand than 25 thousand.”

Enoch looked as if an opposing attorney had jumped to his feet in court with an unexpected objection.

“And you know this, how?”

Mary handed the dotted piece of paper to Penrose and went through her reasoning. “You can get a more precise number by placing a checker board on a wall and walking backward till it appears grey. You would want to use several people, and ensure each of them have perfect eyesight. Otherwise their view of the board will blur for reasons other than the one you’re measuring.”

Penrose frowned in thought, all thought of her as a woman forgotten.

The third man spoke up. “All this is fascinating.” His expression, of polite but minimal attention, said otherwise. “But where are we going? Oh, and Bertrand Lord Cunningham at your service.”

Mary gave a polite curtsey, “Pleased, milord.” She wondered if that was the right form of address.

She looked around. They were nearing the Cork Opera House, which sat on the quay on the south side the North Channel of the Lee River. The River gleamed darkly in the gaslights on the poles along both sides of the channel. Beyond the Opera House lay the open cafes and pubs and other establishments open only in daytime. At the far end of the line of businesses she could just make out the looming Le Roche Theater.

Enoch waved to Cunningham, “You decide, Bertie.”

“Quillan and Dougherty,” Bertrand said and marched off, the others following close behind.

Penrose said, “Say, Bertie, isn’t that rather crowded? They’ve got that new singer. We’ll never be able to talk.”

Bertrand did not reply. The two men shrugged. Enoch said, “When he gets this way there’s nothing for it but to follow along or he’ll go off and get in trouble.”

Q&D was the pub where Barbara was working. They should be able to get a table there and Mary would not minding seeing Barbara perform again. She had only done it twice at the pub when Barbara first started there a month ago. Barbara was doing quite well there and was very enthusiastic.

As they approached the front of the pub, however, they could see a dozen or two people waiting in a line outside the front door. Joining it at the tail Enoch asked the man and woman in front of them why there was a line.

“It’s the Kilrush Thrush. She’s singing tonight.”

“Who?” said Lord Cunningham.

The couple looked at them as if they were rubes from out of town. “It’s this new singer. Everyone wants to hear her. She’s from Kilrush.”

The couple turned back to look along the line and talk privately.

Enoch looked along the line, which was not moving, and said to Bertrand, “Any chance of you exerting your viscountship and getting us jumped to the head of the line?”

Bertrand looked stubborn. Tall dark Enoch sighed, said to Mary, “His lordship is a liberal when it suits him, usually when it doesn’t suit us.”

“They why do you stick with him?” she smiled at Enoch.

William Penrose said, “Because he needs us. Quite unworldly, you know. It’s what happens when you’re raised in an ivory tower, suckling on silver spoons.”

Bertrand warned Penrose, “If you call me Bertie I’ll call you Willy.” He looked at Mary, “So what was the third way our Doctor Penrose was obviously wrong?”

Aha! So he wasn’t as bored as he’d seemed.

“I would question why the color cells were red, blue, and green when any three colors would suffice to encode all colors in the spectrum. But that’s a trivial consideration. There just have to be three color receptors. It doesn’t matter if they’re red-blue-green or…” She waved her hands in the air as if riffling through fabric color swatches. “Or, cyan, vermilion, and orange.”

She turned toward the viscount.

“Oh, I’m bored with that. Tell me how you got mixed up with these two, your lordship — is that address correct?”

“Titles bore me. Call me Bertrand. We all went to Queen’s College here in Cork. We shared a boarding house and, I don’t know, it just sort of happened.”

“I know Enoch is an attorney, William is a doctor. What do you do?”

“I write stories, and literary criticism, and articles on farming and animal husbandry.”

Enoch spoke up. “Actually, he’s a farmer. That’s what his degree is in. It’s really quite nauseating to see him up to his knees in … stuff.” He looked faintly embarrassed. Mary, who had grown up on a farm and been a farmer’s wife, knew exactly what word he was avoiding.

William craned his neck to peer in the door of the pub. They were only the one couple away from the entrance now. “There’s no waiting inside. We’ve almost got a table.”

Dr. Penrose looked at her and continued, “Ber…trand is quite good at it actually. He grew up groomed by his father to take over when the Earl can’t handle the estates anymore. I think he even likes some of it, though he’ll never admit it.”

“I so like to be talked about as if I weren’t here.” Bertrand said to the air, then focused on Mary. “Father says — and I agree — that being a lord is more than livestock and crops. It’s also people and responsibility. And if the head is ignorant, or the heart is empty, the body of the estate will be sickly.”

He looked embarrassed, looked away down the street.

Mary thought everyone was getting awfully friendly awfully quickly. It smacked of magic, of some mysterious working of her esoteric powers. Yet she always knew when they were working, even if she did not understand how they worked or what they were doing. And she did not feel anything going on.

Now the couple ahead of them were being led away to a table and one of the owners of the pub, Quillan, was hurrying toward them.

“Mistress Mary! Why didn’t you tell anyone you were waiting? Come in! Come in!”

He led them inside and through what seemed like an acre of tables. The interior was large and had high rafters, darkened by an apparent century or two of smoke. There were two bars, one on each side of the room, and scurrying servitors male and female in white shirts or blouses over dark pants or dresses.

At the far end of the room there was a performance area. Instruments were already set up there though no one was about. One or two shows had already been performed by this time of night. Quillan led them to the low stage and a table right in front of it to one side. It had room enough for eight people but chairs for only half that number. Seated at the table were Elizabeth and Major Denis Leckie, the landlady and landlord of the three Kilrush expatriates.

The couple stood up and Mary introduced everyone around. At Bertrand’s honorific the Major made motions to give up the couple’s seats at the tableside closest to the stage.

Bertrand said, “Nonsense! Nonsense! Sit down, please! I prefer to have the table in front of me.” At which he sat down and leaned his elbows on the table, obviously not about to budge an inch. Servitors hurried up with extra chairs and everyone was seated. After a round of pleasantries Elizabeth Leckie said, “She’s about to come on! Please excuse us, will you?”

The Major and his wife turned to look at the stage and Enoch spoke in a low voice to Mary. “How do you rate this treatment? Are you a princess in disguise who’s going to make our Ber … trand toe the line in all his lordly glory?” He pointedly ignored Bertrand’s dirty look and William’s evident annoyance at Enoch’s shoulder-to-shoulder questioning.

Mary laughed. “No! The performer tonight, who’s apparently a star attraction now, is … sort of my sister. I live with her and my business partner in Major Leckie’s house.”

The musicians began to file on stage. They took up a hand harp, a fiddle, a spring-green button accordion, a pipe, and a bodhran drum. The audience applauded politely and the musician began to tune or whatever they did to make ready.

Then Barbara came out and the applause was deafening.

In the last few months Barbara’s gawky quick-growing frame had settled down and the rest of her had begun to catch up. She was still very slender but her womanly aspect was no longer just a promise. Her skin, which never grew a pimple because Mary had beefed up her resistance to illness, was creamy white and without a flaw except for a beauty mark beside her mouth. Her long curly hair was an impossibly golden hue and shown with a luster as if it were the precious metal itself. Her face was cute and girlish except for bee-stung red lips.

She was wearing a white pleated dress with faint vertical rose ribbing that started narrow at her waist and flared out below it. She wore no jewelry. It would have been superfluous.

Barbara surveyed the audience with an apparently casual glance that Mary knew was comprehensive. Her eye caught Mary’s and she widened her eyes in welcome. Mary tugged at the collar of her own dress and mouthed Great dress!

Barbara’s miniscule smile widened. Then she bowed her head to gaze at the edge of the stage and raised her hands just above shoulder height. There was complete silence except for a child being hush-hush-hushed.

In the audience perhaps only Mary saw the slight signal that Barbara gave. Then Barbara stamped one of her feet hard three times in exact unison with the bodhran drum — WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

And every instrument in the band exploded into a reel played as fast and loud as humanly possible — or so it seemed. And Barbara was singing right along with it, in Gaelic, so fast that native speaker Mary could barely understand it, about a rooster who chased a hen until the hen turned around and chased the rooster until he ran into a cat who chased the rooster until the rooster turned around and chased the cat until he ran into a dog who chased the cat and so on through a nonsensical barnyard of animals.

Until the band suddenly stopped and there was complete silence in the pub. Until the audience started laughing and clapping.

After that the band played a simple conventional reel. Then a jig, and another. People got up to dance. Barbara sang a humorous courting song, then a sad song about a mother losing a child. And so on through not quite a dozen songs. Most of them were done conventionally if unusually well. But occasionally she mixed in a song where she broke a convention or invented a new one.

Finally she sang a slow sad song and was done.

There was no clapping or stamping or whistling as she jumped down from the little stage, no one approaching her for congratulations or comments or questions. Instead her audience was leaving the pub, satisfied, going home to sleep and then work the next day, their lives a tiny bit better for having spent most of an hour with genius.

Mary contemplated the fact that off the stage this genius was a spoiled, self-centered child slowly maturing into a grownup under her own and Bridget’s influence, and now that of the Major and his wife. Who just now were hugging and congratulating the singer as if she was one of their own daughters.

Then Barbara rounded the table and hugged Mary with force that would have brought a protest from an ordinary human. “You made it! You made it! I thought you weren’t going to. Wasn’t I great?”

Mary hugged her back. “Yes you were, brat. You were terrific. Here, I want you to meet the man who made me come tonight.”

Mary turned to the blond young viscount and introduced him simply as Bertrand Cunningham. Bertie did not correct her, either because he was still stunned — he had been watching Barbara from the first moment she came on stage as if whacked half senseless — or because he wanted her to like him without the help of his title.

“Mistress –” Bertie paused. Barbara said, “Just Barbara.” He continued, “Mistress Barbara, I have heard singers aplenty and orchestras in Dublin and London. Never have I heard anything like what I heard tonight.”

Apparently Bertie recovered quickly from being whacked half-senseless.

Barbara grinned at him. “That’s the kind of thing my friend Bridget says when she wants to be nice about a bad job. ‘I’ve never seen anything like that.'”

Bertie laughed. “I never heard anything as good as what I heard tonight. But here, let me present my friends.” He turned and introduced the two other men. Everyone sat back down again, the three young men waiting till Barbara had seated herself.

Bertie said. “I’m a fan of opera. Have you ever thought of doing it?”

“Oh, yes. I’m studying right now. Elizabeth –” She gestured at Mrs. Leckie’s wife. “She used to perform and she teaches music. I’m learning a lot from her.”

The Major’s wife spoke up. “She’s learning so quickly that soon I’m going to have to find someone who can offer her more.”

Bertie said, “I know some people who know everyone in opera around here. I’ll talk to them and see if they can’t suggest someone.”

Mary said, “Barbara and I can’t afford a lot of money, Bertrand.”

He shrugged, “Well, there are scholarships you know for really talented students. It certainly can’t hurt to just ask. Would you two like me to do that?”

Barbara looked at Mary, who nodded her head. Barbara said, “It’s worth looking into, anyway. If it doesn’t work out, we’ve not lost anything. Thank you Bertrand.”

Mary dug into her hand-purse and located a business card. “Here’s where I can be reached.”

William spoke up, “Can I have one, too? I’d like to continue our conversation.”

Mary handed him a card. “I have a long lunch break Saturday, and I’m off Sunday afternoon.”

She stood up. “I hate to break up the evening, but Barbara and I need to get to bed soon.”

Everyone stood up and made their goodbyes. The three men paid their bill and walked out the front door.

Barbara looked after them. “That Bertrand. He’s not married, is he?”

“I don’t think so. But he’s ten years older than you.”

Barbara looked dreamy for a moment, then sighed. “Yes. But even if he was right in every way, rich, my age, and so on, I still couldn’t marry him. I have to make music, Mary. I have to. I’ll die if I don’t.”

Mary put her arms around Barbara. “I know, honey. And I’ll make sure you do.”

“It’s a deal.” She released Mary. “You’re still going to sleep in the shop tonight?”

“That’s right.” Mary did this once, sometimes twice, a week. She needed half the sleep of an ordinary human being, and at the laundry she could study late without bothering anyone or being bothered. More importantly, she could also perform experiments in ways to protect milk and wine from spoiling.

Mary and her little party said goodnight to Mr. Quillan who, with his employees, was cleaning up. They walked out back where the Major’s horse was nibbling hay in the small stable attached to the tavern. The pony was soon hitched up to a light buggy and Barbara, Elizabeth, and the Major were clip clopping off.

Travel at night in a big city was dangerous, but she had no fear for their safety. When she had first met the Major she had known the old man was dangerous even before she shook hands with him and probed him with her extrahuman senses. Tonight, from the gunpowder and gun-oil smell, she knew he carried a freshly loaded revolver in a holster under his coat, the butt pointing forward for quick access. No one would hurt his girls without getting badly hurt in the process.

When the buggy turned a corner Mary walked slowly away. She had much to think about.

 

The former arboretum was a favorite of hers. It was now a graveyard but the easier-managed plants still survived under the cursory care of the graveyard’s caretakers.

For much of the last four months ago she had avoided it. A pimp had followed her here one night and tried to forcibly recruit Mary, being nasty enough about it that he triggered her temper. She had slashed off his head before she thought about the consequences. She had slaughtered pigs in her previous life and killed men in this one, so she should have anticipated the gush of blood. That thought did not make her feel better while she cleaned the blood off the dress she had been wearing.

So this time she was determined to be less drastic in her discouragement. Though as the big man neared her she began to wonder if she would need discouragement at all.

“Caroline? Caroline? It’s me. Why did you take off again? You’re sick.”

Mary had been viewing the night with her normal eyesight. She found the darkness restful and the patterns that the dim gaslights made on the water beautiful. But now she needed her extranatural eyesight and turned it on.

The world around her quickly brightened as her pupils expanded to take up most of her exposed eyes. The night-sensing cells in the retina at the back of her eyes were already as sensitive as they could be but the color-sensing cells could work much more efficiently. Her esoteric body control made the changes needed to do that.

It was as if time turned backward, to that time when day-vision and night-vision ruled equally and made the twilight eerily eye twisting. The world became a place in the land of faery, beautiful but unsettling to inhabit.

The man was close now and was quite ordinary if taller than usual. He was dressed well but his body retained the muscularity of time spent laboring manually.

“I’m not Caroline.”

He jerked to a halt and peered at her. He came closer and stopped, discouragement showing in his stance as he saw the truth of what she said.

“Have you seen a woman about here tonight? She’s very sick, but she wanders sometimes.”

“I’m sorry, no.”

He paused, looked at her more closely, frowned. “Forgive me for saying so, but you shouldn’t be here this late. Bad people sometimes come here.”

“Yes, you’re right. I know it was thoughtless, but I had much to think about and habit brought me here. I’ll go.”

“No, wait,” he said as she turned to leave. He looked around the park, as if hope could let his eyesight pierce the darkness.

He sighed. “I’ll escort you home. Anywhere out at night is unsafe for a woman.”

Mary protested but he would have none of it. They walked for a time in silence, he obviously still worried about “Caroline.”

As they left the arboretum/graveyard Mary said, “Who’s Caroline?”

“What? Oh, a cousin.”

“Yes?”

“I’m the only relative she has in the city. I look in on her occasionally. Damn it! I can’t take care of her! I have my business to take care of!”

As they walked through the now-deserted entertainment district she coaxed some details about himself from him. Connor Ambrose had been a stonemason’s assistant, then a carpenter, now was a builder with his own company.

They were most of the way through the entertainment district when Mary heard a sound from a side street. She stopped. Yes, there it was again.

“Just a minute, Mr. Ambrose. Pardon me.” She entered the side street and saw a figure curled against a wall, a young woman. She broke into a run, knelt beside her.

She was pretty and painted like a streetwalker. Opening up her sense of smell, Mary scented the body odors of a man and semen and blood. She damped her sense of smell down to a normal level as she reached to examine the woman.

“Caroline!” It was Connor Ambrose. He knelt down, made to grab the woman. Mary batted his hand aside.

“Don’t touch her until I’ve had a chance to find out what’s wrong. You might hurt her worse.”

He jerked back, crossed his arms, and tucked his hands under his arms as if to capture them and prevent them from flying away.

Mary laid her cool hand on the woman’s brow and put her to sleep. Under her invisible esoteric hands it became clear that the woman had been raped, beaten, and stabbed. The knifeman had missed the heart. The wound was also not as deep as it might be. Had he been interrupted, scared off?

One rib had been broken where it attached to the spine. Mary felt it with her magical fingers/tentacles/whatever they were. With her flesh hands she straightened the woman’s body on the ground so that the end of the rib eased back into place.

Then she let the tip of one esoteric hand form into a pad between the broken parts and “wash” the jagged ends, partially dissolving them. When she withdrew her invisible hand the bone returned to its solid form, like mud hardening as it dried out, and made a solid bond.

Good. The seal was a little lumpy, but it was solid and the join was rounded with no edges that would damage the woman’s insides as they moved against the bone.

Mary turned to Ambrose. “I don’t think there’re any broken bones, but she has been beaten and her face cut up, maybe by a ring. She has also been stabbed, but the wound doesn’t seem very deep.”

“My God. If I find out who did this– We need to get her to a hospital!” He looked wildly around. There was no one about at perhaps 1:30 in the morning, no transportation.

“Let’s get her to my place; it’s five blocks over. Do you think you can carry her that far?”

“Of course I can. But a hospital–“

“Do you really want her in their care? The garda will have to do something about her if we take her to one.” She gestured at the woman’s made-up face and skimpy clothing, just barely visible to him in the dim light from the street.

“Oh, God. They’ll put her away.”

“She needs treatment now, and my place is near. How long do you think it would take to get her to a hospital?” The answer was obvious — hours, at this time of night.

She let Ambrose gingerly gather up Caroline. He was very strong and lifted her without effort.

By the time they reached the laundry he was showing the effects of the walk, however. At Mary’s urging he gently laid Caroline down just inside the door and leaned over to catch his breath.

“Put your coat over her and wait here. I’ll be back in a few minutes. I need to fix up a place where I can take care of her wounds and clean her up.”

Mary went into the back room where, among other things, the people in the laundry ate their evening meal. She lit a couple of gas lamps and the burner in the makeshift stove, put water in the teakettle to boil. She laid out a few things that she would need, then went looking for scrap cloth. There was plenty of such in a laundry and she gathered what she needed.

Two sheets went onto the table. After they were spread Mary laid a hand on them and extended one of her extranatural hands into them. In air, water, and earth her “hand” could not project more than about a foot from the tips of her fingers. However, extended into something alive or once alive, it had a greater reach, letting her dissolve all the microlife in the sheet.

“Bring her in here,” she said to the recumbent Ambrose. He jerked and sat up. He had been asleep or close to it. Poor man.

She helped him get his cousin to the table and they undressed the woman. He tried to avert his eyes but had only limited success. It was easier for him once Caroline was lying on the flat of her back on the table with the top sheet over her.

Mary turned off the heat under the now-boiling water and used some of it to make tea. She gave him a cup and ordered him to sit in one of the chairs.

“I’ll be back. You just sit there. Caroline will be fine. Don’t bother her.”

Mary went up to the third floor where she had made a little room for herself to sleep and study. She quickly exchanged the blue dress for an old one she wore while working and went back downstairs.

Ambrose had pulled his chair close to the table and finished his tea. He was leaning his head on the table a couple of feet from Caroline’s and was almost asleep.

“I’m going to need all the space near the table,” Mary said.

He jerked his head up, confused, but moved the chair. “Can I help?”

“I’ll tell you if I need it. You just sit there.”

Mary took up a towel-size rag and sterilized it with her hands, then peeled the top sheet down to uncover the hurt woman’s torso. She draped the rag over the woman’s throat and upper shoulders and breasts. This left the stab wound exposed. Mary cleaned it with hot water and rags, then placed her fleshly hands on Caroline’s belly and extended her esoteric hands inside the woman’s body.

She used her esoteric hands to clean and sterilize the wound and commanded the woman’s body to encyst and eject foreign matter. This was dirt that had been on the blade or pushed into it when the woman had been stabbed, plus fragments of cloth. Next she cleaned the woman’s vagina in a similar way, and commanded the woman’s — Caroline’s — body to kill any sperm that had migrated into the tubes that led to where eggs were released. There would be no pregnancy from this rape.

Cleaning the various abrasions went quickly since Connor Ambrose was more than half asleep. She could do everything with her invisible esoteric hands rather than camouflaging her actions with swabs.

Lastly she placed her hands in the woman’s hair and extended her extranatural hands into the hair, cleaning and sterilizing the hair and the woman’s scalp. Then she swept her “hands” downward, cleaning and sterilizing Caroline’s entire body and the top and bottom sheets.

She cleaned up the rest of the area and made herself a cup of tea. Sipping it she walked to Ambrose and put a hand on his shoulder, melded her esoteric hand with the cloth and then his skin, and did a quick diagnostic check of him. He was generally healthy, had a small cancer that his body could handle but which she killed anyway, beefed up his immune system, and squeezed his shoulder with her physical hand.

“Wake up. It’s done.”

He came groggily awake, shook his head, yawned. He creakily stood up and walked over to the table. He stood looking at her for a minute of two, looked at Mary.

“She looks a lot better. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Mary shrugged. “It was the Christian thing to do.

“Now, I’ve got a bed upstairs. I’ll need your help getting her up there.”

He was able to carry his cousin up the two flights of stairs without any problem, though he had to take it slow, feeling the invisible stair-steps with his feet before each step. They settled Caroline into Mary’s bed and straightened up, looking down at her, then at each other.

“I’ll keep Caroline here for two or three days. She’ll be fine; once I got the blood and dirt off I could tell that she wasn’t hurt as bad as she looked.

“I’d like you to come by here tomorrow night, say 8:00 o’clock?”

He nodded.

“You can see your cousin, she should be awake by then. And we can all talk about what to do next.”

He nodded again, still half-asleep.

“I think you should sleep the rest of the night here….”

He interrupted her. “I have to get to work tomorrow….” He grimaced, “I mean today.”

“If I make sure you don’t oversleep, could you sleep here? I mean, I don’t know where you live. By the time you get there you might not have time to sleep.”

It took little persuasion to make him accept a pallet on the first floor at the front of the building where the sunlight through the windows would wake him. She supplied him with a slop jar and a glass of water. He would wake and let himself out through the back door.

She made similar arrangements by the bed occupied by Caroline and, undressing, laid herself down to sleep.

 

She heard Connor Ambrose get up, use the slop jar, dress, and sneak out. By the time she heard the distant jolt of the back door closing she was up, refreshed, and had checked Caroline.

She told Bridget first thing about Caroline being upstairs, but did not go into details, beyond saying that Caroline had been a bit sick and that Mary was taking care of her. Bridget had wanted to go up and see the woman, but Mary persuaded her not to, for fear (Mary said) of waking the sick woman.

Bridget did not need much persuasion, given all the work that needed doing to get the laundry opened and working. She did go up at noontime to check on Caroline, but came back with the news that the sick woman was still sleeping.

Mid-afternoon Mary made some soup and took it upstairs. She brought washing water and rags with her and cleaned the place where the stab wound had been and Caroline’s crotch. The woman’s body, as Mary had commanded the night before, had encysted and expelled any foreign matter. Most of it had dried and smeared the woman’s body with an ugly yellow crust.

Mary also scrubbed the sheets where any of the stuff had dripped. It was not much. Most of it had been stuck to Caroline’s skin.

When she was done Mary used one of her extrahuman hands to dry the sheets, then woke Caroline. The woman came to groggily and looked up at Mary.

“Caroline? I’m Mary. I’m a friend of Connor’s. You were hurt and we took care of you.”

The woman gasped and sat up, clutching the bedclothes to her naked body. She looked wildly around, calmed down as she saw the ordinary surroundings. She looked back at Mary.

“What was your name again?”

“Mary. Connor and I took care of you. You’re going to stay here until you’re well.”

Caroline lifted the sheet away from her body and looked down at the front of her body, where she had been stabbed. Mary had commanded her body to heal itself and only a scar showed. Caroline’s echo of Mary’s commands had been very strong, meaning that Caroline’s body wisdom was also very strong and competent.

“I was …”

“Yes. You were stabbed. But I have a doctor friend who’s very good.”

Caroline’s laugh was half sob. “He must be, to fix this.” She dropped the sheet entirely and looked at the black curly hair at her groin. Tentatively she felt between her legs. Then she wrapped the sheet around herself again.

“I don’t hurt down there. I don’t hurt anywhere.”

“Yes. And you won’t have his baby, either. My doctor friend fixed that too.”

Caroline stared at Mary, but seemed to believe her.

“In fact, Caroline, you will never get sick again.”

“Never?”

“Not ever. My friend said your body was very strong, and she made it stronger.”

“Even cholera?” Cholera epidemics had more than once in living memory in Ireland decimated the country, and the threat of it inspired great fear.

“Even cholera. Look, I know it’s hard to believe. So don’t think about it. Meanwhile, I want you to eat this soup. Do it as slowly as you have to, but eat all of it. Then I want you to sleep.”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

Mary helped her stand and use the slop jar. Placing the top back on it, she set it within easy reach of the bed and left Caroline sitting in bed spooning up the soup.

At 5:00 Bridget left for home, not wanting to be out after dark. Mary supervised the laundry till it closed at 7:00 and everyone went home. Then she remained downstairs doing some important cleaning jobs till Connor Ambrose came knocking on the door.

The cousins had a tearful reunion and Mary left them to it.

It was maybe a half hour when Connor came back downstairs. He seemed troubled.

“I don’t know what to do with her. I’ve told her time and again she can come live with me. She won’t hear of it. She has her pride. But she has no skills! I’ve told her I’ll send her to some kind of school. She won’t hear of that either.”

Mary said something noncommittal and stupid, but she didn’t know the solution to his problem either — or Caroline’s problem.

“She can stay here for a few days. So don’t worry about it now. Go home, get some rest. I can see you need it.” And this was true, she could see, even without using her invisible esoteric hands to probe his body.

He thanked her again and left. Mary went upstairs. Caroline seemed strong enough to climb the stairs, so Mary had her come down to the first floor. Then, since she had not eaten dinner as usual, she fixed her usual huge meal and something for Caroline.

“So, how did you get in this fix, Caroline?”

Mary had to coax the story from the woman but it wasn’t too difficult, for Mary gave the woman’s body an instruction to relax and not feel anxious.

The woman’s family had died in a boating accident several years ago. She had lived with distant relatives till about a year ago, passed from family to family, unwanted, especially after one of the men raped her.

She had saved up a bit of money and come to Cork. Connor had put her up for a time but the situation chafed her. She had set out on her own, taking up the only profession open to her — prostitution.

After working independently for a short time a pimp had recruited her, sweet-talking her until she gave in. It had not been too bad a life until he started sending her to customers who wanted her to do things that were painful.

“They’d tie me up, and I never knew if I’d live through whatever they did to me. I complained. Lots. That was my big mistake.” He had beaten her, more than once.

Sometimes she had pretended to be sick, but that only worked for short times before her pimp forced her to return to the street.

The day before yesterday she had packed up her few belongings and taken the little money she had been able to keep from him and left her — she grimaced — home. One of her frequent customers had seemed sympathetic to her, and she thought she could move in with him. Instead he had betrayed her and her pimp had met her at the rendezvous.

While Caroline talked Mary worked at an intricate cleaning task, her hands on automatic. However, she found herself getting so sick and angry that she stopped what she was doing before she ruined the dress.

When the story was done Mary walked over to where Caroline was sitting. Mary took her hands between her own and looked her in the eyes. She was so young! Younger than Mary’s youngest daughter.

Mary whispered, “I swear to you. He will never hurt you again.”

Caroline stared back, her eyes wide with fear at Mary’s intensity. But slowly the fright drained away, aided by Mary’s esoteric calming command, and she began to believe Mary meant it.

“He’s big, and fast, and mean, and he carries guns and knives,” Caroline said.

“I have a friend who is faster and meaner than anyone. Now tell me all about –“

Caroline stared at her still more. Her jaw tightened.

” Billy. His name is Billy Lunham. Big Bill, they call him.”

“Tell me how to find him.”

Caroline obliged and Mary soaked up the information.

 

Saturday afternoon Mary had planned on taking a long lunch in William Penrose’s company. But she was still so full of anger that she knew it would be a disaster. She could turn off this anger — or any emotion — the way she turned off a lamp. But then she would be like that thing they called a golem in one of the scary stories she had heard, something shaped like a man that was actually a machine. She had not returned from the dead to become something less than human.

She told Bridget to tell Penrose that she was sick and left the laundry before he arrived. All afternoon she walked downtown Cork, sometimes sitting on the quayside watching the water, thinking.

What if she had been in Caroline’s place? Or the thousands of other women who were in the same situation. True, she had in a sense been an orphan, too. But she had been 53 years old inside when she returned from the dead despite her 13-year-old exterior, and she had extranatural powers to help her and protect her. Would she have really done any better than Caroline? Than the other women in Caroline’s fix? Mightn’t she have wound up in the same place?

A cold wind circulated harder around the stone bench on which she sat, staring into the smoothly flowing water of the Lee River. Dark clouds came up and the wind grew gusty. A February rain, cold and slashing, poured down, striking the river water in a million jumping silver drops.

Before the rain reached her Mary put her little hand purse on the bench and sat on it to keep it dry. As the frigid drops struck her she lifted her face and thrust her hands over her head, turning her skin to a hard shield. The water struck her like a benediction and when the lightning flashed she laughed.

It felt as if she had called up this storm, though she knew with her esoteric self-knowledge that the feeling was not true. But the fierce illusion of union with the suddenly violent storm felt good.

She reveled in the water rushing down her body and a sudden bizarre solution struck her.

She rejected the solution and when the rain stopped abruptly, with her power she exploded the water soaking her body and dress into a sudden white mist. The wind instantly whipped it away.

She got up and began to walk again. She stopped at a café in the French Quarter and ate a huge meal, amazing the waiter. At her scowl his face went blank and he scurried away, peering attentively at her from his station to make sure she had no further cause for anger.

The bizarre idea came back. She would take over Billy’s stable of prostitutes and run them, helping each of them leave the whore’s life where she could and protecting those who would not or could not leave. Until she found someone to whom she could entrust them.

She rejected the idea again. This would interfere with all her plans. But would it? It would take very little work on her part.

Another objection rose up and she rejected the idea again. But then a solution to the objection occurred to her.

She finished her food, paid the bill, and began to walk again.

Objections continued to rise and she continued to deal with each. Until finally there were no more objections, and she knew — deep down — that the decision had been made at that moment in the rain when she had gotten the idea.

She began to walk faster. There were details to take care of.

 

Saturday night had fallen under clear skies. An hour after dark Mary found Billy Lunham. She had changed herself to look older, fatter, used, and the lime-green dress she wore was much too tight. Her red hair, frizzy from a wash and flash-dry with out benefit of comb, spilled out over the dress. It made a garish contrast.

Big Billy was in a bar at the cheap end of downtown Cork City. He was sitting at the counter, looking out into the room with his feet sprawled in the path of anyone passing down the front of the bar. Everyone went around him, or not at all. A woman sat on a stool to either side, their faces painted and wearing tight, bright clothes.

Billy himself was indeed big: tall and his shoulders were large. He was dressed in a red-and-black checked jacket, had shiny boots over gray pants, and a blue shirt. His cheeks and chin were scraped clean and he wore a big handlebar mustache. Greasy black hair, too long, covered his head. His nose had been broken.

He was smiling benignly and his smile grew wider when Mary came up to him.

“Well, hello, Sugar.”

“Are you Big Billy Lunham?” Mary had reshaped her throat and voice box so that her voice came out breathy, girlish, but a bit hoarse.

“Who wants to know?”

“There’s going to be a party. We need nine girls. Can you supply them?”

“I might.”

“I can give you five pounds now. But only if you can do it.”

He straightened and pulled her to him. She let herself wilt against him and stared up into his eyes, her own wide. He put his hand inside her dress, popping a button loose, and fondled a breast. She held herself back from killing him on the spot. It would not fit into her plans.

“I’ll take the five now.” He let her go and she lurched back, resisting her body’s catlike reflexes.

“Can you do it? There’s a hundred pounds in it.”

“Sure, but it will take a while to get my girls together. When and where?”

“At 10:00 o’clock tonight in the Tuckey Warehouse.” She took the five coins from her reticule and handed them to him, letting her arm tremble. When he lazily took them she jumped back and started to tell him where the warehouse was.

He waved the instructions away. “I know where it is.”

When she exited the door she looked back. Big Billy was giving instructions to the two women beside him and throwing money on the countertop.

Apparently he was going to go through with the deal. But she could not be sure of that. She walked to the side of the bar where the lights did not shine. There she bound her hair into a long pony tail and took off her dress, folding it and stuffing it into a backpack. She also put her shoes in the pack and slipped into the straps so that the pack hung over her back.

She began to climb the side of the wooden building.

 

For the next hour and a half she shadowed him, from rooftops when possible, from street level when she must. Once, when landing after leaping far from one roof top to the next, her landing spot splintered, shattered, and nearly fell in. But she was in full superhuman mode now and was falling and rolling away across the rooftop even as the first board began to give way, losing her backpack in the process.

Rolling to a stop she listened. Billy had paused but then continued on his way.

She retrieved and re-slung the backpack and followed.

Billy was gathering his girls into two wagons, so apparently he was holding up his part of the deal. But the two wagon drivers both had pistols, as did he. And he arrived at the warehouse almost thirty minutes early, so either he was being cautious or he was planning robbery if the opportunity offered itself.

Everyone sat in front of the warehouse for a few minutes, silent. Then Billy got down, gun drawn, and gave whispered instructions to the two drivers. They got down, tethered the wagons to a post, and pulled guns out too. They split up and crept around the warehouse, one to each side.

Billy turned back to the wagon he had been in and pulled down one of the whores. When she protested he pulled out a knife and pressed it against one of her breasts, lightly pricking it. She froze, silent. He handed something to her from the wagon.

Pushing her ahead of him he went to the two big doors of the warehouse. Mary had unlocked them, easy enough with her extrahuman hands and senses, and they swung outward when he hauled on them. He stood at one side of the door and pushed the woman inside.

She gave a little scream and stumbled but did not fall. In Mary’s twilight view of the world the woman could be clearly seen but only from the waist down. Mary was looking down at her at an angle from atop a rooftop across the street.

After a whispered instruction from Billy the woman struck a match, dropped it from a trembling hand, struck another, and lit a candle. She held it up. She could not have seen much, but could see enough to know the warehouse was empty of people, at least to the edge of her light.

Billy motioned to the women in the wagon. They pretended not to be able to see him, so he had to call out a low but furious instruction. They slowly got out of the wagon and entered the warehouse, each taking a candle and lighting it or having it lit. They searched the inside of the empty warehouse, visible now to everyone’s dark-adapted eyes.

The two drivers came back and reported no one behind the warehouse. Billy sent them back to the rear of the warehouse.

Mary climbed down from the building across the road from where she had been observing and walked in a quick flowing stride toward the back of the Tuckey warehouse.

She was nude and carried two short pieces of rope, one knotted several times at one end to make the handle of a makeshift whip, the other end knotted once to give it some extra heft. Since climbing the first building almost two hours ago she had made some changes to her appearance.

Hair being dead except at the roots, Mary’s extrahuman body control did not work on it, so she had to use ordinary means to change her hair. She had made a little detour to the nearest channel of the Lee River and had soaked her rusty pubic hair with water to darken it. She had also wet the hair on her head, which not only darkened it but also temporarily straightened it. She had tied three cords around it, the first near her scalp, the other two in the middle and at the end of her ponytail. It now hung down her back like a thick black rope.

She had turned strips of her skin chocolate brown in narrow stripes running from both eyes outward and back and down her body, widening as they ran. The effect was as if she wore tiger stripes. The skin between them she had turned orange. Her hands and feet were solid brown. Anyone seeing them might swear they were paws.

The cat lady was legend no more.

 

She paused at the corner to the back of the warehouse and looked around it. The two men stood there at the back, not doing a very good job of watching. They were facing each other and talking in low tones. Mary could hear them clearly, long enough to identify one as Ricky and the other as Henry.

Mary crouched and placed the “whip” on the ground. She began moving forward slowly, her feet touching the ground lightly before putting all their weight down. When the “guards” still did not notice her in the dark she began moving more quickly, then more quickly still. She was almost on them before one of them noticed something and began to turn toward her.

She dropped the other rope and leaped the remaining distance and struck him sharply but carefully on one temple with one fist and then his companion with her other fist. Their limbs collapsed under them and they fell down, senseless. Quickly she retrieved the rope and sliced it into quarter-lengths. Then she tied their hands behind them and bound their legs at the ankles, pulling the knots too tight to be picked loose if they woke before she returned for them.

Not a perfect job, but good enough. She would not need much time for what she intended to do.

She ran quickly but silently back toward the entrance, retrieving the rope whip along the way. Just outside the door she peeped around the corner, taking stock.

All nine prostitutes were inside, as was Billy. A few of the women were sitting, most standing. Billy was near the door. Good. If he had not been, she would have made some sound outside in the hopes of luring him closer.

She stepped inside, the whip coiled in one hand. Billy began to turn but Mary was already slashing out with the whip. The heavy knotted tip struck his hand and he screamed and dropped the gun. It hit the floor and skidded away.

She stopped a few feet away from him.

“Hello, Billy.” She had altered her vocal cords and throat and the words came out husky and with a growly undertone, though still feminine.

There had been screams from some of the women. They fell silent. Billy stared at her, shock on his face, one hand cradling the other hurt one.

“Caroline didn’t die.” She stalked around him.

One of the women dashed toward the door. In a mighty leap that cleared at least twenty feet Mary was there ahead of her.

She raised her voice and said very loudly, “No one leave! Here you’re safe. Out there … I might hunt you down.”

The would-be escapee quickly scampered back to the other women. They all huddled together, some with arms around each other.

Billy had made a dash himself, toward the gun on the floor. Mary leaped back toward him, batted the gun out of his hand. It skidded away and Mary was after it like a cat after a mouse. She scooped it up and turned back toward Billy. He was cradling his hand once again.

“These toys can only sting me,” she said, the growl more evident under her words. “That would annoy me. Here’s what I do to annoyances.” She snapped the gun into two pieces and threw them crashing into the wall.

The feat had not been that great. The pistol was a top-break revolver, where the barrel tilted down on a hinge for loading. The hinge was not strong. A mere human could break it, and Mary was much stronger than any ordinary human.

She returned to stalking Billy, moving around him in a spiral, closing in on him. He backed away, turning to keep her in sight.

“Caroline is alive. She is healed of the hurt you gave her. You stabbed her. You tried to kill her.”

Mary was speaking loudly at Billy, but it was the women to whom she spoke.

“Caroline works for me now. I’m going to get her a house. She will work out of it. No more streetwalking for Caroline. And no more customers she hates. No one will ever hurt Caroline again. If they try I will do this to them.”

She dropped the whip, leaped forward, and sliced open one of his forearms with the claws of one hand.

Billy screamed and tried to run, blood streaming from his arm. The bean chaitt leaped and was in front of him. Another slashing stroke and he was bleeding from the other arm. He reeled away and she slipped behind him, slashing his back from shoulder to buttock once, then again with her other hand. He fell, writhing and screaming.

She was enjoying this. That was not in her plan, to become a cat lady for real. She reached down and sliced open his throat.

As he gurgled and jerked out his life at her feet, all sphincters voiding urine and feces, Mary looked at the women. They were utterly terrified.

She reached down and took a knife from Billy’s belt. She walked closer to the women. They backed up slowly, eyes intent on her face. She flipped the knife to hold it by the blade. Choosing the woman who seemed least fearful, she stepped forward and handed it to her.

The woman, slender with large brown eyes and gleaming chocolate hair, took the knife.

“I was going to kill him myself,” the woman said. “I wish you had made him suffer longer.”

Mary said, “Go through the back door; it’s unlocked. Cut the ropes around the legs of the two men outside. Then drag them inside, in here. Take someone to hold a candle.”

The woman nodded, motioned another woman to come with her. Mary raised her voice. “Don’t run away. You are safe in here with me. Out there you are not.”

The woman with the chocolate hair said, “I’ll be back. I like the idea of a house.” The other woman, a short blond, nodded her head emphatically.

Mary selected another woman who seemed unfearful, or better able to hide fear. “Go through Billy’s clothes and take anything valuable, especially keys. Bring it all back here.”

Mary began to question the remaining women, keeping an eye on the woman going through the dead pimp’s clothes. She started by kicking the corpse in the crotch a few times, so Mary guessed she was not unhappy about Billy’s death either.

She had gotten names and where they lived from most of the woman when she heard the two women she had dispatched to get the men coming back. One of the two men, Henry, was conscious; he was half-dragging, half-carrying the other man. Catching sight of the cat lady he screamed, dropped Ricky, and turned to run. The chocolate-haired woman stood before him, holding the knife up where he could see it. He came to an abrupt halt.

Mary said, “You cannot get away from me, Henry. Put Ricky there.” She pointed at the floor in front of her.

He obeyed, casting fearful glances her way. Mary leaned down and put a hand atop the unconscious one’s head. She probed quickly inside, healed a concussion, and woke the reclining man. As he blinked around at the sights and began to sit up, Mary spoke to the other man.

“Come here. You have a headache. I’m going to take that away.” She had muted the growl to a bass undertone that merely added resonance to her voice. This sound would intimidate less but still mark her as nonhuman.

He approached slowly. Mary put a hand on his head and healed his concussion and took away his headache.

She also noticed something else. He had cancer in his abdomen that was killing him. She kept silent about it and did nothing.

A woman came up to her, the one detailed to search Billy. She held out her hands. There was a wallet, some keys, and a couple of rings. The woman had pulled the rings off Billy’s fingers.

Mary waved them away. “Put them on the floor. As you can see I don’t have pockets.”

There was some surprised laughter. The women were losing their fear.

“Everyone sit down. Not you two.” She pointed at the men, motioned them to the side.

The women sat down on the dusty warehouse floor, some with expressions of distaste. The chocolate-haired woman and the woman with Billy’s things sat in the very front of the semicircle around Mary.

She gestured at the two men. “Do these deserve to stay alive? What did they do?”

The two men jerked back, made protesting sounds. One glanced at the door, obviously decided he would never make it, to judge from the resigned expression on his face.

“Yeah! Kill ’em both!” was mixed with some objections.

Mary looked at the chocolate-haired woman. “What’s your name? And what do you say?”

“Jane Willison. No, they’re slime, but no worse than most men.”

“You?” Mary nodded at the woman who still held Billy’s things.

“Eliza Shea. Henry’s OK. Ricky took free samples without asking.”

“Yeah, but he’s got a lot of stamina!” This from a gray-haired woman with a childish face. Her name was Cathy. There was laughter.

“Sit down, Henry, Ricky. You’re going to live. Henry, lie on your back. You’re sick and I’m going to fix it.”

The two men sat, Henry lay on his back, not without some apprehension.

Mary went over to him. “Relax. This will not hurt.”

“Doctors always say that,” he mumbled.

“I’m not a doctor. Relax. I need you relaxed.”

She sat down cross-legged beside him. The floor was very dusty; Mary better understood the expressions of distaste she had seen on some women’s faces.

She put both hands on the man’s lower abdomen and bowed her head, closing her eyes. She did not need to do this, but it looked better.

She probed inside Henry, found the cancer, and killed it. She told his body to get rid of the dead cancer and gave his immune system a boost.

Mary said, “You were dying. Haven’t you felt pain here?” She prodded his abdomen with her finger.

“Yes. I was worried. I hoped it would go away. Sometimes it seemed to.”

“Am I OK?” That was Ricky, anxiety on his face.

Mary leaned over from her cross-legged position on the floor and touched his closest knee. She probed through it, gave his immune system a boost, and withdrew her hand.

“You’re fine. I’ve fixed it so you’ll be healthier now.”

Mary stood up and turned to the sitting women, most cross-legged, a couple lying on their sides. Not one seemed frightened now. They watched her with great interest.

Mary went around the semicircle, having the women stand up and give their names, even the ones she had gotten names from before. She put a hand on each of them and probed their bodies. Most were not too unhealthy. She gave each of them an immune-system boost. She also made sure they could not get pregnant for at least five years.

Two she had to work on. The venereal disease of one was easy. Much worse was the other’s bad heart. It took Mary several minutes to rebuild it.

At last they were sitting in a semicircle again, Mary the focus of it. The two men were now part of the semicircle, Ricky and the woman who appreciated his stamina sitting side by side.

“Here is the situation,” Mary said. “I now know each one of you and I can always find you, no matter where you go. Even the ends of the earth. So do not make me angry.”

She let them think about that a moment. It was not true. They could escape if they went far enough away or hid in a big enough crowd to mask their scent.

“On the other hand, I don’t want slaves. Slaves are useless to me. You can always disagree. I will not punish you for that. But when I decide something, after you’ve disagreed, you have to accept it. Or leave my service.”

She pointed at the door. “You can leave this minute. I will not kill you, hurt you, or harm you in any way. Unless…

“Unless you tell someone about me. You must never do that. I will kill you for that. If you go to confession, you must not talk about me. Or even hint. If anyone does believe you they will try to kill or capture or exorcise me. I will not stand for that. I hate to kill priests, but I will if I have to.”

They were looking at her, some shocked, one or two disbelieving.

“Loan me your knife,” Mary said to Jane. The chocolate-haired woman handed it to her.

“I cannot be killed,” she said and stabbed the knife into her forearm, then all the way through it. She released the knife handle and lifted the impaled arm high so that all could see it.

This feat was more impressive than it looked. She had blocked all pain from that extremity and struck through the muscle, the blade angled parallel with the fibers of the muscle. There was no artery in this part of the muscle though she had cut any number of smaller blood vessels.

She withdrew the knife, sterilizing, healing, and sealing the wound behind the knife. She handed the knife back to Jane.

“I cannot be exorcised, because I’m not a demon. Sylvia, hand me your cross.”

The woman did so and Mary kissed it. “A demon could not do that.” She handed it back.

“If you stay with me, you will first continue as you have before. Except you will be able to say no to a customer. If one of them threatens you or hurts you, tell Jane. She will have Henry or Ricky or both of them punish the customer.”

She looked at the men. “But don’t kill them. If anyone needs killing I will do it.”

She looked at the two men. “That’s if you are going to work for me. If not, tell me before you leave tonight so that I can hire someone else.”

The two men looked at each other, shrugged. “I’m in,” said Henry. Ricky just nodded his head.

Mary pointed at the keys in Eliza’s hands. “Are those keys to Billy’s home?”

Eliza nodded. Mary asked and got the address of the dead man. “Tomorrow at 2:00 everyone meet there who wants to stay with me. If you don’t come, I’ll know you’ve decided to leave my service.”

She stood up, waved down a couple who made to rise. “I can change shape. I can also take over someone’s body, for a while. So you will never know what I will look like. Tomorrow I will send someone in my place. She will say to you, ‘The cat lady sent me.’ You will obey her as you would me.”

She walked over to Billy’s body, leaned down, and extended her invisible hands, set to dissolve. In seconds the body was dust.

“Wait five minutes before you leave. Ricky, Henry, take the women whereever they want to go. Then you are free to leave my service. Ricky, no more freebies.”

There was some laughter at that, but the cat lady was gone.

 

Three months later Mary McCarthy sat drinking tea at an outdoor café on the southside quay just off Patrick’s Street, looking out over the North Channel of the River Lee. She was enjoying the breeze and the bright May weather which put a sparkle on the surface of the river.

To her right several hundred yards away she could see the masts of boats at the marina where the north and south branches of the Lee came together. Beyond that the Lee widened out before turning south toward the ocean.

The story of how Billy’s former prostitutes had gotten a new boss had been too good to keep secret. Dozens of prostitutes had become eager to make a similar swap, and the cat lady had reluctantly extended her protection to them. One former pimp had tried to shoot the cat lady. Mary had cut him to pieces and left the corpse to serve as a warning to others who might try to attack her.

Mary now owned three brothels. More than a hundred prostitutes worked for her, some in the brothels, some in the streets. About two dozen pimps — who were now called managers — also worked for her. Some of the “managers” were women. Each manager had an “aide” who was multitalented. Among the talents these assistants had was the ability to handle fists and weapons in a deft and restrained fashion. Sometimes customers and other pimps had to be reminded that prostitutes were valuable property.

A dozen or so prostitutes were starting new careers, mostly menial. One reformee was turning out to be a competent investor, partly because of the underground information flowing over the Cork City whore’s network, and Mary had given her some of the profits from the prostitution ring as capital. Men never believed that whores had ears or were intelligent.

Mary got up and began to walk, putting a bit more sway into her hips than she normally would. She wore the appearance of the somewhat-used woman she’d assumed when she contacted Billie. She called herself Maggie. Her dress was demure but not over-loose. She moistened her red lips.

Without seeming to “Maggie” kept in view a man walking toward her down the street. He did so with a slight swagger. He was good-looking in a rough way, though he did know how to dress well. He was a small-time crook who was almost as smart as he thought he was, and he read books and went to the opera now and again. Mary had been hearing other good things about him, among them useful facts about his lovemaking skills. And he had no current girl friend.

Yet.

#

Only Part One of Shapechanger’s Birth is on this Web site. You can get the entire downloadable book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $2.99.

Want to read more now? Then fight with Mary in the The Organization at War.

(c) Copyright 2009

3 Responses to Enter the Cat Lady

  1. Pingback: Mary becomes the Cat Lady | Shapechanger Tales

  2. Ed of Mesa says:

    Enjoyed this chapter which went in an interesting direction.

    Has Mary forgotten about the doctor. This is more like two chapters (or short stories) back to back.

  3. Laer Carroll says:

    No, she has not forgotten about the cute doctor who lectured about vision. She just had a more important task to take care of (killing Billy, etc.), and lost her chance at him. To Bridget, as it turns out in the next installment.

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