south coast of Ireland
Mary McCarthy sat in a Cork, Blackwater, and Passage Railway passenger car as it rocked and rumbled east on the south side of the Lee River in Cork City. At just past noon on the first Saturday in July in 1858, the day was dark, the clouds above almost black, and the south coast of Ireland was being slashed by cold rain.
Inside the car the kerosene lamps mounted about the interior cast a warm glow that made the darkness outside seem even darker. Beside her Jane Willison shivered and pulled her coat more closely around her, breaking in on Mary’s reverie.
Roused, Mary noticed that one pane of window glass did not seal properly within its frame. It was this crack that was letting in a bit of cold air. She had not felt the cold because her body had automatically adjusted her skin to protect her.
Mary leaned across Jane and pressed the glass tightly against its frame with the physical part of one hand and let the esoteric part of the hand expand into the frame. With this hand she dissolved a thin layer of the wooden frame that touched the glass and a thin layer of the glass that touched the frame. Then she turned off the dissolution effect, letting the commingled glass and wood relax into hardness again. The glass and its frame were thus welded into one piece at that point. There was no more draft.
“Thanks, Maggie,” said Jane. Mary/Maggie nodded. She was in her disguise as Margaret, a lieutenant of the supposedly supernatural cat lady who ruled a large stable of prostitutes, grown to over 500 in the last eight months. She had migrated fat into her face to make it a bit plump and to alter various contours and she wore Margaret’s trademark lime-green dress under the heavy grey coat. She had also adjusted her voice box and the inside of her throat to give her voice Margaret’s distinctive husky sound.
Jane said, “Think this do we’re putting on in West Passage is going to work?”
“Maggie” nodded again and turned to look out the window. She was pondering her current big problem — her criminal gang was growing, and rapidly, when what she wanted to do was be rid of it.
She had begun her life of crime with good intentions — protect a prostitute named Caroline and the nine other prostitutes ruled by an especially vicious pimp known as Big Billy. In her cat lady persona she had killed him, in view of the other prostitutes and his two henchmen, in a suitably dramatic manner. Then she had offered them a deal. She would take the women under her protection and do what she could to help them get out of their profession.
One of them had made an effort to get out — Jane — but most had not. As Mary had enquired into why she discovered that there several reasons, beside laziness or stupidity. Some of the reasons were complicated, some surprising.
Some prostitutes actually liked their job, for various reasons. Some liked the sex (at least with a few of their customers), for reasons ranging from simple physical pleasure to psychological reasons that completely baffled Mary. Also, the hours were flexible, especially important for those who had children. The pay was better, at least for many, than almost any other profession open to women. And whoring might be unpleasant, but many other professions open to women were even more unpleasant, such as daylong stints of cleaning up public toilets and animal excrement in the streets.
One surprising discovery for Mary was that middle- and upper-class women actually had much less freedom in training for and choosing professions than lower-class women. The latter were held in such complete contempt that they were almost literally invisible to the “better” classes. No one important cared if they lived or died, but neither did the “Quality” care if they worked for a living or what that work was. Rich people did not care if poor people were married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, had any bizarre religion short of Satanism. Nothing could make them more contemptible, so almost anything was possible to them.
A woman of the Quality, however, had only one profession open to her — mother. This meant wife if married and that shameful mother-substitute, governess, if not. Whatever she owned before marriage became her husband’s the instant they married, never to be returned even if he immediately died or abandoned, divorced, or ignored her. Leaving a husband or divorcing him (almost impossible to do) changed the situation not at all. And once without property or income her formerly “loving” family all too often completely abandoned her, not even hiding her away in some shameful shadow-place.
Then, without training in self-reliance or any useful skill, she could literally starve to death almost in plain sight, only shuffled out of sight by authorities to keep up appearances.
There were, of course, all sorts of governmental and charitable institutions, but even the best were poorly funded and short-handed and the worst even worse than life on the streets.
Screeching brakes and a gradual lessening of speed signaled the train’s approach to the Blackrock terminal. Mary got up and walked down the aisle toward the front of the passenger car. On each side women and a couple of men looked up from their books to see what was going on, but relaxed at the calm shown by “Maggie.”
Some actually looked back down at their books again. Except for a few random citizens everyone in this first-class passenger car was an elite member of Mary’s gang. They were working either to get out of it (which they were completely free to do) or get promoted to an ever-wider range of jobs. And not only were they highly ambitious, but they also knew that she was either the cat lady or one of the cat lady’s top lieutenants. Or they believed she was the cat lady temporarily taking over someone’s body. They wanted to impress her with their diligence.
As the train slid to a halt Mary opened the door at the front. It swung inward, letting in cold wet air but no rain. The platform of the station was only a foot away and a few inches down, and the roof hung over the platform enough that the slanting rain was blocked off.
Mary stepped out onto the Blackrock platform as the train rolled to a stop and looked around. A few people left the dozen passengers cars and a few more got on. There was also some on- and off-loading of small boxes and other cargo in the caboose at the very end of the train, reserved for railway personnel. The caboose also carried incidental goods small or important enough to receive special treatment, rather than travel on the bulk-goods trains which carried few if any passengers.
The train sat while a few men came and went at the locomotive just in front of Mary’s car. Mary strolled forward to the end of the platform and looked at the loco.
It was an impressive machine, all black and metal and huffing-puffing noise, quietened down for the moment like a lounging dragon. The biggest part of the locomotive was its middle, a long steel box mounted on spoked iron wheels as tall as a man. There was a big metal dome atop it near the back, with what she thought was the steam whistle atop it.
Emerging from the front of the box was a rounded complicated boiler/engine device surmounted at its front by a man-tall smokestack which flared out at the top into a large soup-bowl shape.
Attached to the rear of the long box was the cab where the driver and his assistant stood, and from which the engine was fed from the coal car behind them. The cab was completely open to the elements, except for a tent-like covering obviously jury-rigged to shut out the rain. Mary wondered what kind of idiot designed a device that did not provide well for the workers needed to work the device.
Maybe there was a clue there for one of the reasons for her mushrooming-gang problem, Mary thought as she walked back the way she had come. Peripherally she was aware of a second train coming up the track behind her on the opposite track, with much whistle tooting and hissing release of steam.
She wandered through the station to its other side where the incoming train was sliding into place by the passenger platform there, stared unseeing at the few passengers on- and off-loading from the second train. It had only one passenger car. The rest were open-topped bulk-goods cars with tarpaulins tightly roped over the goods to protect them from the rain.
No one seemed to realize that the people who tended and ran machines were, in a sense, as much part of the machine as the metal and wood that made it up. Machines had two parts: the hard, mechanical part and the soft, people part.
Come to think of it, businesses were like that too. She remembered the Cuvierian Society lecture she had attended a few years ago, when Sir Robert Kane gave a talk on efficiency of manufacturing enterprises. “We fatten our cattle for the market; we must fatten our workers for their jobs. Take care of your people and they will take care of your machines.”
He had been trying to change business owners’ shortsighted treatment of workers, despite his callous phrasing.
Her train was giving some complicated shrill steam whistles and a station attendant was calling to her, asking if that was her train that was about to leave. She gave him a sweet absent-minded smile and hurried to board her first-class car — which as far as she could see was different from lower-class cars only by a better paint job and hard pads on the hard wooden seats.
There was a big, well-dressed man with awesome mutton-chop whiskers in her seat, leaning over an annoyed-looking Jane and talking to her. When Mary loomed over him he gave her a quick startled glance and quickly removed himself to a seat at the rear of the car.
“What was that about?” she said to Jane as she re-seated herself.
Jane was amused. “I told him I had a girl-friend who hated men and carried a revolver.” The girl-friend phrase could mean a lover rather than just a sister-like friend.
Mary laughed, turned to look out the front windows. In fact it was Jane who carried the gun, plus two small but very sharp knives. Mary rarely needed any other weapon than her body. She could rip someone into pieces with her physical hands, cut them into pieces with a single slice of her invisible esoteric hands, or commit any other sort of trauma with her fists, feet, or knees.
When she needed a distance weapon — her esoteric hands extended only about a foot and a half beyond her physical hands — she sometimes used any convenient hand missile. Once she had used an orange. Thrown at speeds well over 200 miles per hour, even an orange could be fatal. And with the machine-like precision of Mary’s mind and body — when she chose them to be — Mary never missed.
The rain was letting up and the sky was lightening a bit now. That relieved Mary’s dark mood somewhat. She had been afraid the weather would sharply cut down on attendance tonight.
In a rented mansion outside the town of West Passage her gang was putting on what she hoped would be the first of many hugely moneymaking events. It was a very private and elaborate orgy, with music and dancing and funny skits, open only to the richest and most-influential men in the area. Which would also provide Mary’s gang with useful blackmail information to prevent any crackdown on her organization.
The train was turning more to the south than the east now, and several hundred yards off to her left and east she could actually see the Lee River as it widened out to become Lough — Lake — Mahon.
She squinted a bit and adjusted her eyes to act as binoculars. There were actually some idiots out in the Lake, in sailboats no less, despite the wind and rain. She could understand running a steamboat out there, but sails?!
What had she been thinking just now? Ah, precision.
Machine-like precision, Mary had found after a short while being inhumanly precise, had only limited usefulness for a human. Which was part of the problem with a lot of manufacturing moguls. They tried to turn people into machines, coming to work on time, repeating the same tasks over and over in identical ways, working long hours in unsafe conditions.
Mary understood the importance of standard interchangeable parts and well-thought out procedures. She had heard Samuel Colt talk to the Cuvierian Society about his gun-making plants, just a few weeks after Sir Robert Kane’s talk. Colt had been steaming back to America from England, where one of his plants made weapons for the British army that was fighting the Russian Empire in the Crimea.
And she understood that the body politic and business enterprises had to use people in some ways as if they were machines. But a good manager matched the tool to the task, and people had different abilities and limits than mechanical devices.
She noticed that the CLACK-clack CLACK-clack sound of the wheels had changed in pitch. Out the window she could see that the rails were passing over a bridge crossing a finger of Lake Mahon that intruded into the land. And just ahead the track turned sharply left to go east. She could see the locomotive well and the huge puffs of black smoke streaming out and back from the high chimney at the front of the engine.
That meant that West Passage was near, where they would disembark to prepare for the orgy tonight. She was sure that, weather permitting, it would be a success.
And that, she realized, was a big part of her problem. Her gang was just too damned efficient and — homey. It attracted whores as honey did bees — and the men and women who preyed on them. The worst of the users Mary killed or otherwise rejected and silenced. Or her subordinates, knowing Mary’s standards, did it for her. The rest she trained to be shepherds to their sheep.
A lot of how her organization came into being was actually done by the gang members themselves. Little groups of women, one to three dozen strong, banded together. They took care of each other, and of those who “managed” them. These pimps and one or two strong-armed men — or increasingly, women — made appointments and disciplined any errant whore or customer.
Only rarely did a whore or customer need more than the managers’ attentions. Then Mary as the cat lady was notified. She tracked humans better than any bloodhound and more than once literally scared the shit out of a malefactor merely by dropping in on them — sometimes literally from a ceiling or rooftop.
The personnel of the Organization — a name given it by some anonymous gang member, not Mary — were also very healthy. Mary could diagnose and cure almost any disease short of death in a few minutes’ time, usually by boosting a person’s immune system and instructing it to fix problems. The systems of all but a few people could then handle almost any illness, including venereal diseases.
A loose, informal referral system of doctors and midwives and so on grew up to take care of Organization members and their families. Mary had a direct esoteric view inside people’s bodies of how disease spread and worked. So she ordered through her subordinates all medicos to sterilize hands and instruments before and after treating anyone, using soap and water or boiling water or alcohol — fiery harsh Irish poteen was especially effective. The practice was slowly spreading throughout Cork City from these medicos, who saw their patients get well — and able to pay medical bills — more often than before.
The Organization acquired brothels, out of which the better whores had always operated. Only the first three brothels had been Mary’s idea and needed the cat lady’s attention. The rest had been nudged or forced into the Organization by Organization members — and in several cases had voluntarily or even eagerly come into the Org. Which it soon came to be called, the shorter term coming more trippingly off the tongue.
Org streetwalkers and their managers — completely without Mary’s involvement or even permission — also improved the lot of the lower-grade and part-time whores who had no brothel. They designated some of the alleys of the entertainment and the red-light district as Org alleys. These were places for streetwalkers to give a quick blowjob or stand-up confident that they were protected.
No thugs or constables interfered in this new practice — not more than once — and the message soon got around.
The train began to turn right and south to follow a new curve of the coast. They would soon be coming to the end of the line at the town of West Passage.
The latest manifestation of the Org’s spontaneous growth had left Mary not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
“Maggie” had casually mentioned attending the lectures of Kane and Colt and the lessons they had taught her about organizing. Now Organization whores and their managers all over Cork City had been infected with an addiction to reading.
And attending lectures. Increasingly it had become not unusual to go to a meeting of the Cuvierian, or other learned society, and see in the back a demurely dressed and coifed and well-scrubbed whore or burly pimp. Who were very polite and apologetic and biddable if asked to leave. Though only till the next meeting, when they were ignored by the limping or bandaged sergeant-at-arms or constable who had ejected them from the meeting before.
Mary was increasingly feeling like that man in the story who had the misfortune to get atop a tiger and been forced to ride it lest he be eaten.
Damn it, she couldn’t back up the Organization forever! She wanted to visit Dublin, and London, and Paris, and Rome. And Africa and America and Jerusalem and Japan!
Laugh or cry?
She decided laughing was a better response. And, damn it, the image of the legendary cat lady, surly and puzzling over such a choice, WAS funny.
She chuckled, roused herself and looked about her. Beside her Jane looked up from her book. “Got over it?” she said.
Mary nodded. On the other side of Mary across the aisle a grey-haired whore — the oldest Mary knew of — looked up from her own book. Edith was Mary’s height and had a similar build and no-nonsense attitude. “About time,” she said, eyeing Mary speculatively before immersing herself in her book again.
Mary marked down such disrespect for an appropriate punishment, probably more work and responsibility. Though knowing Jane and “Dame” Edith they would more likely regard this “punishment” as a reward.
At 2:00 o’clock they left the train at its terminal in the town of West Passage, which was right on the River Lee where it narrowed down again from Lake Mahon before widening out into Cove Harbor and exiting into the ocean. West Passage was where many if not most ships in the Harbor came to exchange cargo, and there had been a motley group of sailing ships and steamships doing just that.
Carriages were waiting for Mary’s group of two dozen people, the front runners of the more than a hundred Org people or people special-hired by the Org who would show up later. Perhaps fifty people had already preceded Mary, including a cleaning crew and a master chef and his assistants.
Mary double-checked the arrangements that Jane and Edith and several other Org people had made, including the provision of some constables to discreetly keep order among the arriving guests and Organization personnel. The town had its own constabulary independent of Cork City, and they were perfectly happy to take a substantial donation to their Benevolence and Retirement Fund for doing a little more diligently and politely what they would have done anyway.
By the time Mary and her group were in carriages rattling up into the hills west of West Passage the sky was promising to clear up. Pale gold light illuminated the green hillsides and sandy, rocky road not too badly damaged by the recent rain. The air was also warming up slightly.
After three miles or so they came to their destination. In a valley between several low hills stood the three-story mansion that a rich family had built more than a hundred years ago. The family’s fortunes had not flourished in recent years though the mansion was still in fair condition. The Organization’s hired crews had been cleaning it up in the last week or so, and when Mary alighted and went through the big double-doors she found the place inside in festive clothing.
The big two-story main room that Mary and company entered was fixed up like an Arab potentate’s harem, with cushions on the floor and low tables as well as straight-backed chairs and more conventional tables. There was a special-built stage against the wall opposite the entrance where musicians and a joke-telling master of ceremonies would stand. It would also provide a taking-off place for a few ribald playlets that would move off the stage into the audience to tease the watchers and incorporate them into the plays.
Opening off the main room were several smaller rooms where individual guests and groups could have privacy for intimate acts. There was a dressing room with a selection of costumes for attendees who did not bring their own. This included a selection of masks to disguise the customers who did not bring their own masks.
The last part of the inspection was the kitchen. By now only Jane and Edith accompanied Mary, the others having peeled off to go to their assigned duties.
As they came in the chef, dressed and mustachioed like a French chef (which he was), turned around tearfully and angrily. He rushed up to Edith, who with her manner and grey hair played the Grande Dame better than Jane or “Maggie.” He began to scream and literally pull his hair over some inadequate arrangements.
Mary guessed that he was acting as a great chef should rather than having a major problem. A quick esoteric probe of his emotional state confirmed this. She left him with the capable Edith alternately scolding and soothing him.
“So,” said Jane. “Are we ready yet?”
Jane had been impatiently waiting through all the inspections. Mary nodded. It was time to let Jane Willison show Mary the deadly toys that she had gotten permission to demonstrate to Mary’s top-level Organization personnel.
Jane led her through the house, collecting all the women who had come with them on the train, starting with Edith. Jane told two of the Org people already working in the house to pass the word on to the rest of the house and to the stables not to be alarmed when they heard pistol shots from the old nursery.
The group exited the house and walked down a grassed-over gravel path that lead off to one side. Some ramshackle poles and fluttering rags showed that a canvas cover for the walkway had once existed.
At the end of the walk was a long narrow building that was completely open inside. The floor, which had been swept but not well, was a sturdy wood of some kind that had not been harmed by the years. Mary guessed that this had been some rainy-weather or winter recreation house, maybe a place to get noisy and overly energetic kids out of sight and hearing.
Inside waited several men and a couple of women. Jane introduced them as “Monsieur” and “Mademoiselle” this and that, and asked them to please forgive her for attending to other business first.
The first piece of business came from a large wooden box by the door. Jane took a rifle, several knives, and a variety of small tools and boxes and placed them on a table in the middle of the room.
Jane also brought out a pistol from the large box, saying “You’ve agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to standardize on the same pistol for all of our managers and enforcers.” Manager was Organization jargon for pimp and an enforcer was his — or sometimes her — aide.
Mary took the revolver from Jane. Jane spoke to Mary and the rest.
“This is the Colt Model 1851 Navy Edition. As far as I can tell the label and some decoration is the only difference from the Army Edition. The people I bought these from say the Navy is chambered for .36 caliber bullets and the Army for .44 caliber.”
Mary looked at the gun. It had a handle curved like a plow’s which widened at the butt end. The handle merged into the rest of the gun which tapered toward the front, a cylinder occupied the space above the enclosed trigger, and a hammer at the back top curved back and up to offer an easy grasp to a cocking thumb. The smooth curves of the weapon as a whole had a graceful beauty totally at odds with its murderous purpose.
Mary found the latch that opened the revolver and tilted the barrel down. Open, the cylinder of bullets could be quickly switched. This cylinder was empty but Jane handed her a full one.
“Want to try it?” her lieutenant said. She pointed down the length of the long room at a round piece of paper tacked to a door at that end. The target had a small black circle in the center and two concentric rings drawn around the dot.
Mary nodded to Jane and turned to one of the group. “Run out back and make sure no one is out that way.” She pointed toward the target. The young woman raced out and came back a couple of minutes later, reporting that no one was around, especially off in the direction where bullets would go. Mary was pleased that the young woman had been smart enough to look all around and not just where Mary had told her.
Meanwhile Jane had been giving Mary instructions on how to shoot, the other manager candidates in an interested cluster around them. When the lookout returned Mary turned toward the target and lifted the gun as instructed.
“Just a minute!” said Jane. “Everyone put your hands over your ears.” She offered two pieces of cork to Mary to stuff into her ears, but she shrugged them off.
She cocked the hammer and lined up the sights on the gun as instructed. She squeezed the trigger and the revolver kicked back into her hand as the shot cracked out. A huge puff of white smoke shot out the barrel toward the target.
The sound of the shot in the enclosed room hurt Mary’s ears. A ringing began in them. She quickly adjusted her extrahuman body and her insulted ears recovered.
Mary smiled at Jane, “I like it.” Jane smiled back.
Mary turned to the rest of the women; she had talked over weapons training with Jane and they had agreed on some rules.
“You can’t always have me or a manager or enforcer around to protect you,” Mary said. “I expect everyone who works for the Organization to learn to shoot a pistol. You won’t be expected to become experts, but you will be expected to meet a minimum skill level. Or two, one with aimed fire like that one, one with pointer fire like this.”
The one shot that Mary had fired had given her extrahuman body and brain all she needed to be expert. Turning toward the target she pointed the gun at the target and fired the remaining five bullets, cocking and squeezing the trigger so fast that the shots came out in a single drum roll.
“Get the target for me,” Jane said, looking to the young woman who Mary had used before as a lookout. The woman trotted down the room and brought it back. Jane took it and showed the target all around.
Mary’s first shot had hit the black round mark not quite in its middle. The other five made a five-tipped star around the center hole, every shot an equal distance and angle from the other.
The lead Frenchman, Monsieur Lecour, came over also and looked at the target. He showed it to his people and they all looked at her with eyes both curious and cautious. They knew something extraordinary had happening here, but they did not know what.
The Org members thought they knew, that Maggie was the cat lady, a supernatural being who legend said was Princess Sharpclaws, daughter of the Cat King.
Mary handed the emptied gun back to Jane, who took it from her and held it butt up so that everyone could see it. The wooden handles attached to each side of the butt were a pale yellow wood with brown stripes. They approximated the orange skin with chocolate stripes that Mary gave herself when she was pretending to be the cat lady.
Jane said, “Every Organization weapon will have handles like this. That way we’ll know each other even if we have no other way to identify ourselves. And if you see anyone with an Org gun who is NOT a member, you’ll know they probably stole it.”
Mary added, “Be sure to warn everyone that, if they see someone with an Organization gun who they don’t know, to take whatever action seems needed. Be cautious about killing anyone, however. Jane or I could have given them the gun, and they might just be new members you haven’t met yet.”
Jane continued. “Some women won’t be able to handle a revolver. Or be able to conceal it. For them we have this. It’s called a Derringer.”
She held up for everyone to see a small handgun with two barrels, one over the other.
“You can also carry it as a backup gun.”
A woman with dramatic dark eyebrows and eyelashes, highlighted by her pale skin, spoke up.
“All this is a major expenditure.”
Edith said, with a grin, “Congratulations. You have just been selected to solve this problem.”
The woman, Sandrine, looked annoyed, then interested. The every-other-Sunday meetings of Mary and her most ambitious Whores had established the practice of giving objectors the task of answering their own objections.
Mary said, “Arming and training everyone can’t be done in a day. It will have to be a phased process. And Edith will be solving that problem.”
Everyone laughed at that. Edith smiled. She had been expecting to do so.
Jane took up the rifle that had been lying on the table, lifting it high to show it to everyone. It had a revolver cylinder to make it multishot weapon.
“This is made by Colt, too. It will be our standard rifle. We won’t get many of these because most of us usually will need concealed weapons. But notice its stock.” The wood had the same tiger pattern as the pistols.
Jane laid the rifle down. “These are all made at the factory that Colt has in England. They’ve already made and delivered most of the guns they were contracted for to our troops in the Crimea and in India. In the next few years they’ll close the plant. But meanwhile we can get guns from them very cheaply.”
She turned to Mary. Mary said, “Go on.”
Jane put the rifle back on the table and picked up two knives. She held up one. It was perhaps nine inches long and narrow bladed with a rounded handle flattened to fit well in the palm of a hand. Its handles had the tiger stripes too.
“This is our standard knife. It’s mostly for the whores. We’ll have lessons in its use. And this one.”
She held up the second knife. It was several inches shorter than the first, had a broad leaf blade, and its handle was leather wrapped around the flat of the blade.
“You can see that it’s flat and small. That way you can hide it easier. If they find the first knife they may think you don’t have another. And this one has an extra use.”
Jane twisted and threw the knife at the nearest wall. It made one complete revolution in the air and stuck blade first in the wall, vibrating for a few seconds.
Mary nodded at the young woman who she had elected runner and retriever. The woman needed two tries to get the knife out of the wall.
Jane turned to Mary. “You still want to do this?”
Mary nodded and went to stand further from the group, motioning them to get further away from her. Jane took a half-dozen throwing knives by the blades, fanned the handles out so that she could grab them easily, and walked off in the other directions. Suddenly she turned and began to throw the knives one after the other in Mary’s direction, as fast as she could.
With her superhuman reflexes Mary would not have needed any warning. Knowing what was coming, with her perception turned up to its most efficient, the knives seemed to float in the air toward her.
Arms whirling in circular motions she swatted each knife aside and, as the last came spinning lazily through the air, grabbed it out of the air by its handle.
The onlookers were silent as she held it up so that they could see what she had done. Except for Jane and Edith their eyes were wide. It was one thing to guess that Maggie was the cat lady. It was quite another to be certain.
The knife and pistol demonstrations seemed to have served their purpose: to remind these people who and what she was — an unbeatable extranatural force.
Not that she really was. But these were the top-level managers of her Organization, or were being groomed to be. They were all able and not a little arrogant. She wanted none of them to think they could take over the Org, in whole or in part.
Mary turned to Jane. “Thank you, Jane. Good job. Now, what was the last thing you wanted to show us?”
“Monsieur Lecour and his people are experts in a French way of fighting called savate.” She pronounced it suh-VOT. “They mostly use their feet. They are traveling around educating people in it, first by giving a demonstration. Sometimes they do it to music, which is what they’ll do tonight.”
This would be early in the evening, before the really sexy stuff began, and they would leave before the orgy part of the evening. The two women were not prostitutes but athletes.
“We are all going to learn to fight this way,” said Jane. “Men’s arms and shoulders are a lot stronger than women’s. But our legs are pretty much equal. Every one of the Org’s women is going to learn how to fight this way.”
“Of course,” Mary said, smiling, “The best way to fight with your feet is to use them to run away. Or better yet, to sneak away.” There was a bit of laughter at that.
“But if you have to, ladies,” Mary continued. “I want you to be able to fight.”
Jane took over. “Monsieur Lecour will first teach you the easiest and best ways to make a man leave you alone.”
Someone spoke up, “Kick ‘im in the nuts!”
The two Org men smiled ruefully and nodded.
Lecour stepped forward. Expert showman and teacher that he was, he could recognize a cue even if it was accidental.
“Actually –” His accent was pleasantly exotic but his English was good. “The best way is to SQUEEZE his ‘nuts.’ After all, your feet are way down there.” He pointed at them, then made a grabbing motion with his pointing hand. “And your hand is right up here.”
“If you want to use your feet,” he nodded to one of the young women in his company, who came forward. He moved toward her, hands raised menacingly. She cringed, then stepped on one of his feet with both hers, trapping it, then pushed on his body with her hands. Lecour unbalanced comically and fell with a great look of dismay on his face.
He rolled onto the floor then up onto his feet.
The young woman laid herself down on the floor on her side, grimacing a little at the dust on the none-too-well swept floor. Lecour walked toward her, hands menacing as before. Slowing down to an exaggeratedly swimming walk he pointed at his feet.
The woman on the floor just as slowly hooked one of her feet behind one of his ankles, crooking the top of that foot to wrap it around his heel. Then she used her other foot to push on the front of his knee. Again Lecour fell comically.
“These are called, in English, ‘captures.’ But there are also ‘strikes.'”
He nodded at the second young woman, who came forward to be menaced by him. This woman kicked him in the knee hard — or so it looked. Actually, they must have practiced this a lot to make it look authentic but not be authentic.
He fell, holding onto his knee while he mimed saying Oww! Oww! Oww!
“THEN you can ‘kick ‘im in the nuts’,” he said from the floor. The woman who had kicked him in the knee ran to stand near his crotch, then started to comically jump up and down as if doing it on his crotch.
The French savate master stood up in front of them, motioning the two women to stand on each side of him. Then all three together gave a deep bow.
Jane came forward as everyone’s clapping died down. “That’s all for now. Thank you very much.”
Mary nodded and everyone filed out of the recreation house, leaving the box of guns and other material behind for one of the enforcers to gather up and store for transportation later.
A bit after dark everything was ready except for a few minor items which had a few people still scrambling to complete. Including the two doormen who were scrambling into their harem guard outfits, cursing the sizes of their curled-toe shoes until they realized that they had accidentally swapped them.
Then the first of the guests showed up, three men in a carriage with a very young woman with them, all four in masks. Apparently the men were bringing some entertainment of their own. Or so Mary thought, until she recognized the absurdly rich French comtesse in exile and remembered her voracious and somewhat twisted tastes. One of her managers had brought in two male prostitutes for the comtesse. Apparently they would not be needed.
For a quarter of an hour the comtesse and her men were the only guests. This did not bother the young woman. She was quite able to amuse herself.
Then three carriages arrived together, filled with a baker’s dozen of young men. They got wine and a couple of them made the acquaintance of the comtesse. Mary duly made (mental) note of who they were, though her staff was doing the same just as capably.
Another carriage came in. It carried a high government official in Cork, allowed in for 250 pounds, an Anglican cleric for 100 pounds, and a viscount for 1000 pounds. All had prepaid a fourth of their entrance fee and now paid the rest in a small bag or large envelope.
Mary had decreed that the fees would be as secret as possible, thereby allowing the Organization to charge what the traffic would bear. She was not worried, however, if secrecy was not perfect. Her theory was that if anyone found out what someone else had paid that they would either be too elated at getting a bargain or too ashamed at paying too much to tell what their own fee was.
Soon there were enough guests for the programs to begin. It included singing, dancing (include Lecour and his savate group), and jokes by the master of ceremonies. He was dressed in a very colorful and majestic Arabian major-domo outfit which included a long feather in his turban that kept falling off to great hilarity.
Drinks had been available early and small snacks. At 9:00 the feast began, served at tables low to guests on cushions by scantily clad servants, mostly female but with a few males, and on normal tables to guests on normal chairs. The courses lasted well past an hour.
Two and a half hours after beginning the party was officially over and three-fourths of the guests urged to go home. Slowly they began to do so. Some of them had to be helped along (or carried unconscious) to the waiting carriages where they would end up with their own transportation waiting in West Passage. Or to pre-arranged transport put on by the Organization, including an unprecedented midnight passenger train back to Cork City from West Passage. In later years rumors would still be passed around about the ghost train of 1858.
So far none of the guests had had sex with anyone, except for a few in private rooms. The party had been scandalous enough so that most of the guests would keep their participation secret, but innocuous enough to tempt them to slyly pass on delicious rumors. The rumors would be many, few believed, but passed around the way children circulate their favorite stories.
Now the real orgy began, for which those who remained had paid a whopping fifty percent surcharge.
So far Mary had been wandering around mostly inside, keeping tabs on the guests only incidentally, because that was the job of her managers. Instead she was keeping tabs on the tab-keepers, judging what they could and could not do and how she could use them in the future.
Eventually she wanted to be able to leave matters to her people to handle everything without her help. Maybe someday soon she could make a few short trips to London or Paris or Rome.
Finally certain that her people could competently put on an orgy without supervision, Mary got a ewer of water from the kitchen and retired to an empty room on the top floor of the mansion. There she undressed completely, including shoes. She wetted the hair on her head and her pubic hair. This turned her flame-bright hair dark auburn and straightened it. Hair was dead except at the roots so her esoteric body control did not work on it. She bound her mane of hair into a loose ponytail with cords around the ponytail’s tip and middle and very close to her skull.
Finally she willed her skin to take on an orange color. Then she added the tiger-stripe pattern she had chosen for her cat lady persona, very narrow stripes beginning around her eyes and widening as they swept away from her eyes and down her body.
She went through the door and padded down the hallway to a stair that led to the rooftop. Outside she walked to the edge of the roof and leaned on the rail there, looking at the land spread all around her.
At first the landscape was all dark, the cloudy sky only a bit lighter. The lights at the front of the house and the stable off to the side lit the packed-earth roadway and the approach to the stable with a dim orange light. Then she adjusted her retinas to boost color vision and widened her pupils to take in more light. The landscape took on the eerie faery sight of half-day half-night just at the point where day vision gave way to night vision.
The air was frigid and wet and stirred by a slight breeze. To her it felt refreshingly cool and she liked the way it caressed her body. Her ears, when she made them supersensitive, caught the sounds of horses stamping, owls in the forest, foxes muttering to themselves. She pulled in deep lungs-full of after-midnight air, catching the odors of grass and trees and animals: horses in the barn, guards stationed around and just inside the house, rabbits in the forest, birds.
And she smelled blood. Human blood. Down below.
Mary paused a moment, calling up her memory of the front of the house, where the windows and other projections were. She glanced over the edge of the roof to be sure her memory was correct, climbed over the railing and turned to face the house. She stepped off the roof, pushing away from the house just enough to clear the edge of the roof.
Her time sense speeded up and she seemed to fall slowly. She caught the ledge of the first windowsill with her toes and flexed her legs to absorb momentum and slow herself down, stepped off the ledge, caught it with her hands as she fell past it and used her arms to slow herself again.
Twice more she did this, thankful that the wood in the windows of the old house was still sound.
Mary landed on the ground in a cat-like crouch, listening, looking, and sniffing the air. She smelled a guard named Mathew and a strong odor of blood and crap and urine. Yes, there he was, crumpled beside one of the doors into the house. His throat had been cut, it appeared, and no one else was around. She bounded to him, touched the side of his head, probed his brain.
She sat back on her haunches. Shit! He had been dead too long for her to revive. He was permanently dead.
She leaned down nose near the ground and scampered around sniffing. No one had gone into the house recently, and she smelled a recent track of a new guard, Josiah, leading away from the house. He must have killed Mathew. She guessed that Mathew had caught Josiah in some serious indiscretion and Josiah had killed him to keep him quiet.
She ran around the house, calling out to the guard ahead of her. “Have you seen Josiah? The new guard back there?”
“No, boss! What’s the matter?”
“I think Josiah killed Mathew and deserted. Maybe to bring a gang back with him. Get inside and bar the door. Go warn the other managers and enforcers and come back to guard the door. Tell them to arm any of the girls who know how to use a gun. But keep it quiet. If we do it right our guests will never know.”
Then she was gone to warn the other guards, running back toward the door guarded only by a corpse and shutting it. She extended an esoteric hand inside the lock. It was well-built and -oiled but had a few rusted spots that kept her weak esoteric fingers from turning it. She dissolved the rust and then was able to tease the lock shut.
She paused to scan the countryside to ensure there was no one there, then raced toward the next two sides of the house and the guarded doors in them.
Minutes later all the managers and enforcers were alerted. All not occupied with the entertainment were in a vacant room close to the front of the house that was being used as a coatroom.
“Jane? What have you done about arming the whores? The ones not working right now.”
“I’ve got the word spread and the ones with weapons training are being armed. A couple of others are loading all the extra revolver cylinders. Knives are spread around where they’ll do the most good.”
Mary looked around at the men. She saw three faces she did not know. She pointed them out. “Come here.”
With them standing in front of her where she could cut them down if needed she said, “I don’t know you. Who here knows these men?”
They were all known and trusted, but Mary made sure. She extended an esoteric hand into them so that she could read their bodies and said, “Tell me the truth. If you’re in on this with Josiah, tell me now and I’ll let you live and let you go. Lie to me and I’ll slice you into cutlets.”
All three of them, though rightly frightened, truthfully denied any betrayal.
“Good. You are brave men. Welcome to the Organization.”
Looking around at everyone she said, “Our first job is to protect our guests. If we let any of these important men get killed we might as well slit our own throats. In a last resort throw all the money we pulled in outside the door and tell whoever’s coming to take it.
“Also, some of the guests are fighters. If you can’t keep our problem secret, enlist them.
“If you have to fight inside the house, find a good spot to do it. I’m going to leave you six of the enforcers.
“I’m going to take five of you and try to intercept whoever is coming up the road.
“Enrico, you stay here and command the forces.” The big black-bearded Italian, a former soldier and pirate, was a fierce fighter but not light on his feet. He understood that she would have to take men who could run fast.
“Jane, what shoes are you wearing?”
Jane kicked a foot free of her dress and showed that she was wearing the comfortable half boots that she favored.
“Good. Got your guns and knives?” Jane replied with a grin and a pat of the jacket she was wearing in this cold unheated part of the house.
“You’re one of my five then. Cut your dress off at the knee.” Jane nodded, eyes shining, and began slicing away at her dress. This went quickly as Jane’s knives were always sharp.
Mary pointed out the four men she wanted to come with her. “I want each of you to carry four loaded cylinders beside the one in your guns.” She glanced at Edith, who had been supervising that loading even as Mary was talking. The grey-haired woman nodded.
“Jane, where is the rifle you showed us this afternoon?”
The woman said nothing and dashed out the door, returning within a minute carrying it. Mary took it, checked to make sure it was loaded, and tucked it under an arm. She took an extra loaded cylinder for the rifle, holding it in her other hand.
Pockets. From now on the cat lady was going to wear something with pockets.
“Now, I’m going outside and look around. If I want you to come out I’ll scream twice. Once means they’re too close and to stay in. Don’t worry, remember I’ll be outside and hunting them while you’re inside here.” She showed her teeth in a smile that was not a smile.
She looked around. Had she forgotten anything? She let her mind go free for a few moments to see what it would throw up to her from its depths.
“Edith, you are in charge of all the whores. Enrico, all the soldiers. Each of you appoint a second-in-command.
“If you get hurt bad, hide as best you can. I’ll come find you. I can’t bring you back from the dead, but I can bring you back from unconsciousness and almost any wound. So don’t despair if you find yourself losing consciousness before I come back.”
She paused. “Now we’re going out there and we’re going to kill every one of those ass-holes. I’m going to find their boss and kill him. And then we’re going to put the word out. Nobody fucks with the Cork City whores.” She grinned. “Unless they pay for it.”
There was laughter all around. Mary went to a room with a side door and turned off its lamp. Then she opened the outside door, listened and sniffed with her senses turned high, then peered around the jamb.
There was no one near. She slid into the night.
Five minutes later she had made three spiraling circuits of the mansion, each one further than out than before. Finding no one, she screamed twice and loped to the road into West Passage to wait for her fighters.
Once all together Mary said, “I’m going to make your night-sight better. This effect will last most of the night. Get used to it while we get into position.”
She went to each of them and esoterically probed their eyes and boosted the color receptors in their eyes. She left their black-white receptors alone because they already worked at the greatest efficiency possible. Then she led them at a trot up the road to the place where the road was squeezed between two hills.
It was a good spot for an ambush. She placed three of her force on one side and two on the other, staying with those two. From here they would be shooting down, not at each other, and would catch the enemy in a crossfire.
Jane was on Mary’s side. Finally she said in a low voice, “They should be here by now if they’re coming.”
Mary nodded. With Jane’s eyesight boosted she should be able to see the nod.
Mary reviewed her estimate of the time of the murder and the time elapsed, and compared it with the time needed for Josiah to travel to West Passage at a trot and tell the enemy that they had to attack the mansion early, then for the enemy to get here. Jane was right; they should have been here at least a quarter-hour before.
They might have been delayed for several reasons. They had not been ready, they had spent time arguing what to do, they had given up entirely knowing that the dead guard would eventually be found and thus warning those at the mansion, who would put up a fight.
No. They were coming. No group of thieves could ignore more than a hundred thousand pounds of money.
But might they wait and ambush the Organization’s people when they returned to Cork City?
Not likely. The money was in one, lonely spot tonight. Wait till daybreak and the Org might take another road back to Cork, even go across hills. The Org might split the money up into several groups. Tonight had to be the time to strike.
Another road. “Jane. You suggested this mansion. Did you look at the roads in this area? Is there another way to the mansion?”
“Yes! They can go south to Monkstown, then come in the back way. I remember seeing the start of the back road; it’s old and in bad condition, but looked passable.”
Mary leapt the thirty feet down to the road and ran a half-mile east on the road toward West Passage. Stood listening. Regretted that the prevailing winds were from the west, behind her. Otherwise she could have scented as well as listened for the enemy.
She raced back, waving her fighters down to the road. With them clustered around she said, “I think the ass-holes are coming in the back road. If they were coming this way they should be here by now.
“Jane, I want you to stay here and keep watch. Find yourself a spot where you can get away quickly. If they show up, make note of how many there are and so on. Empty this rifle into them where it will do the most good, then sneak back to the mansion and pass on what you know.” Mary handed the revolving Colt rifle to Jane and took one of the pistols from Jane. With the extra loaded cylinder she had twelve bullets.
“Remember, only this rifle, then drop it and get away. The information you bring back to us about the enemy is more important than trying to shoot more of them.
“And, the sound of your shots will tell us they’re coming this way after all.”
Mary looked down the hill to the mansion, scanned the area with her weak binocular vision. The enemy had not arrived yet, unless it was a very stealthy scout.
“They haven’t gotten to the mansion yet. Rendezvous with me at the stables. I’m going to run up into the back road and find them, then I’ll come back and we’ll arrange a reception for them.
“Now. Trot, not run. Keep together.”
Mary began to run all out at full superhuman speed.
At the house she told them about the change in plans. Then she raced around the house and toward the back road. The land was flat until about a half mile away, when it began to tilt up for the next quarter mile.
That’s where the enemy was, perhaps twenty men afoot coming down the road at a trot. Cantering along behind were three horsemen. Further behind was a four-wheeled buggy with two men in it.
Mary stopped to assess the situation. It was not good. There was no land behind her where her forces could ambush the enemy, even if they were with her.
She needed to delay the enemy and notify her troops where they were. There was an easy way to do both.
She studied the targets and extrapolated the effects of several attacks, chose the most productive one.
She lined up the pistol sights on the heart-point of the front horseman, and squeezed the trigger. The shot was a flat spatting sound out in the open like this, no danger to the ears. But the flashing stab of light was one to the eyes, at least to their dark adaptation. And even more so to her super-dark adaptation.
Damn! She should have foreseen that. So much for the idea that a super-mind would make no mistakes!
Mary shook her head and blinked her eyes, then used her extrahuman body control to wash away the after-images in her eyes. She looked over her pistol sight again, seeing that what she had hoped had happened. The reeling and now falling body of the horseman, to her speeded-up time-sense not yet hitting the ground, had caused his horse to veer into the path of another. The collision felled the second rider and one of the horses. Meanwhile she was lining up her second shot, on one of the front men in the two rough lines of jogging men.
This time when she squeezed the trigger she closed her eyes. Her muscle memory was so good that her pistol remained well on target till the pistol fired. Allowing a half-second for the flash to disappear she kept her eyes closed while she skipped a half-dozen feet to the right. By now the enemy would have seen where the second flash came from and be targeting her. Too bad there was a half-moon in the sky; a completely dark night would have hidden her better.
In her new spot Mary knelt on one knee and used the other knee as a rest for her elbow. Cradling the pistol in the supporting hand she sought another target.
The buggy at the rear, that was a good target. It was still coming on and had two men. This time she shot the horse in the carriage.
She was only peripherally aware of the buggy crashing and throwing the two men when she opened her eyes this time. She sought another target. The third horseman — no, he was racing away back toward Monkstown. He could be dealt with later, whether he went all the way or doubled back.
The jogging men were scattering. She picked off one. Two more bullets in her cylinder. She moved a second time to the right, knelt again, searched for a target.
The men were now dropping to the ground. With her time-sense slowed she was able to line up on one man while he was still falling, tracking his body until he struck ground. Then she fired.
And missed because he was still moving, rolling over and over. This time she waited until he stopped and brought up his gun, a pistol. This time she did not miss.
The pistol was empty and she swapped in the loaded cylinder. Definitely she was going to wear pockets the next time she was the cat lady!
Even as she thought that she was herself rolling on the ground, moving to the left this time. The last two times she had moved had been to the right. Some of the enemy would be anticipating that she would continue that way and be aiming to that side.
She fired six more times, taking out three of the enemy, one maybe just to a wound. Then her pistol was empty. Still, it could be used as a missile. She threw it whistling through the air but missed. The irregular geometry of the pistol made it difficult even for her to aim it well and predict its flight. That was not true of the empty cylinder; it struck one kneeling man in the upper chest and, if it did not kill him, at least put him out of the fight.
She was in a fix now. She had no more weapons that would strike from a distance. And they did.
As she rolled over a stone she gave a chuckle and stopped. Of course she had some distance weapons.
She raised her head a bit to look for stones and heard a bullet whip by. If she had not had her fear responses turned off it would have scared the crap out of her. It had a nasty little moan amidst the flat cracking sound.
There! She scrabbled on hands and knees, hardened to leather armor to protect from them from the rough stone beneath, to a little group of stones. None of them were rounded, unfortunately, so they would not fly in a nice straight path, but they would do.
She fisted two in one hand and the best of the lot in the other. Twisting on the ground to look at the men she saw most of them lying on the ground shooting at her. The flashes were bright in her dark-enhanced vision. If only she could block out the flashes somehow…
Even as she thought it her brain was coming up with a solution without her conscious direction. It filtered out the flashes as it processed the images coming into it. Light still desensitized the dark adaptation of the light receptors in her eyes, but this effect was not great. The flashes were fairly small and dim at this distance, and dark adaptation was an averaging over several seconds: the color receptors over about a second and nighttime receptors over about five seconds.
Mary neither knew nor cared how her biological computer was doing its job. She just knew that she could suddenly see everything much better, the flashes washed out to ghosts of themselves.
The whipcrack-moan of passing bullets was also being filtered to near-silence also. Mary had wished the sounds to be less distracting and her brain had granted her wish.
Mary heaved her body up and whipped over her head the hand holding the one stone. It shot away at almost three hundred miles per hour, to be quickly followed by the two stones in her other hand. Then Mary was falling and rolling over and over to avoid being targeted.
She did not totally succeed. A bullet plowed into one breast and turned it into a ragged tatter. Her body blocked off the shock and repaired the wound, her flesh flowing like water till the wound was gone. So was the breast; her body had sucked all the remaining fat in it into her body. It did the same to her other breast.
Mary did not notice nor would she have cared that she had been turned into a double Amazon. She was working on two problems: where were some more stones, and what to do about wounds. She found the solution to both and willed her skin to turn to leather armor. It did so as she scooped up more stones and looked for targets.
Two men were running away, two were running toward her — a nice symmetry, a remote amused part of her thought.
She did not know it but the two men running away were the survivors of her first three missiles. The first missile had crushed one man’s lower jaw and throat, dropping him in his tracks. The second had struck a rifle stock and turned it into splinters. It had blinded one of the escaping men in one eye. The third missile had taken an ear off the second running man, panicking him into literally shitting his pants and racing away from whoever was shooting at him with such deadly and silent accuracy.
The two men running toward Mary were instantly targeted and killed, the first with a stone missile striking him midbreast and shattering both breast bone and the heart behind it, the other with a missile between the eyes that was aimed at his heart.
A third man was on his knees and aiming at Mary. She dropped to grab for more missiles. She was struck twice in the torso before she hit the dirt. These were rifle bullets with massive hydrostatic shock that paralyzed her entire system for a good part of a second before her body began to handle the damage.
Two men were now standing, shooting at her with pistols. Few shots struck her, some of them were far wide of the target. But it only took one to clip the slick hard leather skin protecting her skull and the rest of her body. The bullet glanced off, leaving behind a gouge and a concussion that threw Mary into unconsciousness.
The standing men continued to fire until the screaming of another man penetrated.
“Stop! Stop! You idiots! Save your ammo for them down there!” He was pointing down at the mansion.
The firing stopped. The men looked at each other and down the hill. One man looked at the two retreating men, yelled “Hey, Charley! Come back! We got him!”
The two escaping men paid him no heed, except that the blinded man knelt then fell to the ground. The earless man continued to run all out.
The men walked quickly up to Mary’s body. One shot twice into it before being shouted down. One of the shots clipped her heart and it began to bleed. Her repair system patched the ripped blood vessel and slowed the heart to reduce its load. Repairs began to reshape the heart.
“You idiot! Can’t you see she’s dead?”
The half-moon gave them just enough light to see that it was indeed a woman on the ground.
“I was just making sure he was dead.”
“She! She! Don’t you have eyes?”
“Holy shit! You’re right. Do you think this is that cat thing?”
One man kicked her body and jumped back as it rolled lifelessly over.
“Nah, that’s just a myth. See, she’s just some chit in a costume.”
Another man knelt, fingered Mary’s cool flesh. Her repair system had pulled all blood from the exterior of her body into the interior. She certainly felt dead to him.
“It doesn’t look like a costume,” the kneeling man said. “See, it’s all over her body. And it’s hard. But you’re right. The body’s already starting to cool.” He stood up.
“Maybe we should shoot her some more. They say you can’t kill a were cat.”
“Look at those wounds. What could live through that? And anyway, see they’re not bleeding. That means her heart has stopped. Man, nobody comes back when that happens.” What had actually happened is that her skin had scabbed over the wounds as soon as they were made.
“What if there’s more than one? I don’t want to meet anymore like this.”
“Idiot! They’ve got millions of pounds in there. And jewels. One of the guys is wearing a turban with an emerald as big as your fist.”
“Where’s the boss? What does he say?”
“Sullivan’s gone. Probably funked out. That makes more for the rest of us.”
One man kicked the body on the ground a couple of times and followed the rest of the men jogging down the road.
Mary came back to consciousness. She remained still, ears tuned as sensitively as they could be. She heard no one nearby moving, breathing. She heard all sorts of night noises, grass whispering as it bent before the wind, insects chirping, a distant owl hooting. A horse was crunching grass perhaps a hundred feet away. Another lay on the ground not too far away, making a little snuffling sound that Mary identified as pain.
She heard no human heart beating within hearing range, and she would have. The distinctive sound could penetrate even densely loud sounds, much less those of a normal night.
She slitted her eyes open despite this, then opened them fully. She twisted her head to look all around, then sat up. She could see several bodies on the ground up the road, and at the very crest of the hill a man still running, whose heart would give out before he stopped.
She saw the two horses, one grazing, the other rocking on the ground and shivering. Further up the hill lay a third horse, dead.
Down the hill … There were the remaining men, moving rapidly.
Mary took stock of herself. She was repaired minimally, and her body was refining some of the repairs. Her heart and a knee had been damaged. The heart was functioning, the knee not. Her repair system had fused it into a whole.
Mary willed the ongoing repairs to wait for a better time and got to her feet. Limping over to the hurt horse, she reached down and slit its throat. Normally she would have fixed it, but she did not have the time and bodily resources now. A lot of her body fat had been used up protecting and repairing her.
She looked down the hill again. The sight of the men still jogging toward the mansion galvanized her. Her children, her whores, were in danger.
She picked up several stones and began a hobbling trot downhill, after the men who were now walking rather than jogging. She grinned and began to hobble faster. The cat lady’s hobble was as fast as a normal man’s jog.
As she neared the men she could see that they had stopped to catch their breath. She lifted one of the stones and paused, cursing herself. She had left several dead men at the battlefield behind her — probably with loaded guns. She was worse off than she thought.
Her “worse off” was still good enough to whip a stone across the thirty or forty feet into the back of one man’s head. He jerked and fell to the ground.
The remaining men — six now she saw — jerked around. One screamed and cried out, “She’s dead! She’s dead!” He whirled and began running toward the mansion.
The — now five — remaining men might feel the same supernatural dread at seeing a dead body coming toward them, but that did not keep them from starting to shoot at her. Her second and third stone was on their way before the first trigger was pulled, and then they were three.
She dropped the remaining stones and was falling and rolling toward them, extrahuman hands extended in invisible blades, bullets mostly missing her but some hitting at this close distance.
Anger came that usually she kept at a distance when fighting. They were trying to hurt her babies, her children, her poor women who were only trying to survive in the only way they knew how!
Rolling, her mouth gaped and she hissed. She willed her esoteric claws to be ultimately sharp, so she could rend them and destroy them completely!
Her claws became so thin and sharp that they literally cut air. The air molecules touching the esoteric claws sundered into their component free radicals. These instantly recombined furiously with their free-radical counterparts and combined with other air molecules.
The invisible blades flashed into visibility, five triangular daggers on each hand glowing with a harsh blue light.
One blade cut a bullet in two. The parts wind milled into Mary’s body with horrible effect, ripping open one entire side and spilling ropes of intestines.
This did not keep Mary from crashing into the feet of the three men, her horrible blades slashing up into their bodies, cutting them into dozens of slices where ever they struck, bone and flesh parting like water.
The men were firing into her body in a frenzy of fear even as they died. One shot went into Mary’s heart and she rolled exhausted onto her back and consciousness faded and she thought, “Oh, shit. Not again.” And her life went away.
… dying, she found, was easy…. She relaxed, fell away into darkness, with no down, only away….
In that infinite comforting sea floated a ghostly cloud, lit within by an invisible moon. Seeing better as her vision adjusted to the dark, she saw fuzzy cloud-shape resolve into delicate misty leaves and evanescent branches leading down to a ghostly trunk.
As the view brightened more she saw that the tree was a construct of darting fireflies. Fairy-glass threads floated out from the tree, one of them pointing toward her.
Brighter still — and she saw that at the end of every thread was an infinitesimal eye. Her viewpoint was in one of those eyes, turned back toward herself. She was her own mirror.
She wanted another view — instantly her viewpoint switched to another eye, in another instant its focus switched back toward herself. From this viewpoint the trunk was pointing not down but away and down. She was above herself — if directions meant anything in this infinite ocean.
Within the tree she saw a darker twin tree perfectly contiguous with its brighter self except for the threads and their eyes. The bright tree had grown from the darker like vines through and over a trellis….
… she remembered this dream. It meant she had died again.
She took stock. She could feel a cool bed sheet over her and a warm mattress under her. She seemed to be wearing a flannel nightgown. She could hear sounds of a nearly vacant house plus someone breathing and, judging from the faint rasp of a turning page, reading.
Not a threatening place then. She opened her eyes.
From her angle she could see a window opening onto a bright day and someone reading in the light pouring over her shoulder from the outside. It was Jane.
Jane jumped up and came to look down at her.
“You’re alive! Ah, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, breathing, heart beating, all the usual.”
“How do you feel?”
“Terrific but hungry as Hell. And thirsty. Ah, do you have some water?”
Jane rushed over to her vacated chair and took a glass off the windowsill. She rushed back.
Meanwhile Mary had sat up and slung her legs over the side of the bed. She took the proferred glass and drank it all, slowly, savoring the water. Without intending it she boosted the sensitivity of her tongue. Here was limestone, here was leaf.
She stood up, handing the glass back.
“Thanks,” Mary said, and strolled over to the window. She saw the countryside where the orgy mansion stood. Mild summer rain was falling from grey skies.
She opened the window and chill wet air whipped in. She closed it on the wind and turned to look at Jane.
“Get me some food, please. Lots of it. More than lots of it.”
Jane grinned and ran to the door, crashed it open and went through, leaving the door wide. Within a minute Edith came through it, smiling, followed by the black bearded Enrico, just as happy.
By the time they had gotten through greeting each other Jane was back. She had a tray with milk, oatmeal, sugar, and butter with all the appropriate tableware.
Jane said, “This is what we could get right away. Eggs and bacon and such are in the works.”
Mary thanked her and sat down cross legged on her bed to eat. After a few mouthfuls to rid herself of hunger pangs she paused just long enough to say, “Fill me in.”
Jane had pulled her chair near the bed to face Mary and was sitting. Edith stood beside her but Enrico had left.
“In brief, everything’s OK. In detail…”
Mary nodded. Enrico returned with two chairs, waited till Edith was seated before copying her.
Mary glanced at Enrico but did not tell him to leave. She looked back at Jane.
Jane said, “First, you started the party without me. I was not happy.”
Mary laughed but, knowing Jane, knew the woman had not been telling a joke.
“It was not a fun party. Go on.”
Jane nodded to Enrico, who took over. “We were even more alert after you warned us that the malefactors were likely coming by the back road. We heard your shots — or so we guessed they were. The men you took with you up the new road came in about that time and heard them too. They ran off to help you.”
Jane said, “Actually they walked fast, not ran. They didn’t want to rush into the enemy unready. Then the gunfire started up a second time and this man ran at them screaming about a demon after him. They guessed he meant you, so they didn’t kill him. They knocked him down instead.
“About then gunfire ended. They were close enough to see blue lights flashing while the bad guys were shooting. Was that you?”
Mary nodded. “When I get really pissed my claws burn.”
“I’ll say,” Jane said. “While a couple of our guys were bandaging you the others were checking the men around you. The clothes of one of them were still burning. And one of their guns was cut in pieces that had melted edges.
“When I heard the first shots I figured I wasn’t needed on the main road any more. I got here when they were bringing you in.”
She paused, said, “Were you really dead?”
“As a doornail. But before I left my body I decided I could fix it up and stuck around.” Her memory of the in-between time was fading, dreamlike. She had said what she did on impulse to give them an explanation and to burnish her reputation of invincibility, but she wondered if she had indeed spoken the truth.
About this time a young woman brought in another tray of food. Her eyes were as wide as they could be when she looked at Mary but she still deftly swapped Mary’s empty tray with one containing the bacon and eggs and tea and so on. Mary settled down to put away this food. Her body had used up all its fat and burned some of her muscle to keep itself alive while being shot, then more to bring her back from death.
Edith spoke up. “About then the party started to break up. We had to be careful not to let any of the guests see you or the other bodies we were bringing back. After the last of them were gone, we sent people to look at the battleground further up the hill. We cleaned that up too. We buried all the bodies where they won’t be found, including the two horses. The third horse is in the stable here.”
“There wasn’t fourth horse? Or a light carriage?”
“None,” said Enrico. “When we looked over the scene in daylight one of our men said he saw fresh wagon tracks leading away.”
Mary told them about shooting the horse pulling the buggy, and its occupants.
Enrico said, “That matches what I know about some of the dead men. They worked for the Sullivan brothers. The horse you shot must have only been hurt, if they drove away in the buggy.”
“So they got away,” mused Mary. “What about Josiah? Did we get him?”
“Yes,” he said. “”But he fought and we had to kill him. There’s a family resemblance between him and the Sullivans. He might have been a son, or nephew.”
“I want to have a little talk with the Sullivans.”
He said, “I guessed that would be so. I sent out a message to everyone to find out everything we can about them, especially where they are.”
Jane said, “We should review everyone who came into the Org since Josiah joined. Or leaves in the next few days.”
Mary had finished everything on her plate. She belched and everyone laughed.
Edith said, “While they were cleaning up the battle grounds I looked after getting our money safely away. I sent it in several bunches and it’s in the banks we planned for it. Our total haul was a little over 110,000 pounds. Our expenses were about a third that. I’ll give you the details when you want them.”
“And our files on the guests?”
Jane said, “We’ve got blackmail info for the government, the military, the Catholic and the Anglican churches, the police … We could take over this fucking city.”
Mary laughed. “Not hardly. If we tried we’d have massive retaliation, and massive cover-ups. But we can resist any pressure anyone puts on us, short of them all collaborating against us. But I want oversight of any use we make of this material. Nobody uses it without my OK. I will be really pissed at anyone who does.”
Edith spoke up. “I’ve been thinking. This information has more uses than self-protection. We can use it to improve our service.”
Mary laughed loudly. All that food was really being put to use. Her body was undergoing massive internal changes. And she found Edith’s enthusiasm for efficiency funny.
She needed sleep. “Good. Now let me sleep. But first ….”
They looked back alertly.
“I’m going to make some changes to the Organization. For one, I’m spending too much time on it. I’m going to re-organize it so I can leave for weeks at a time. That means you are going to have to take on more responsibilities. And not just you — all the higher ups.
“So I want you to start thinking what you can do toward this end. And what you want to do. As I’ve said from the beginning, no one will ever be forced to stay in the Organization. If you want out, now’s the time to start thinking about it. And how I can help you get started in whatever you want to do.”
She lay herself down, said, “You know, we could make this crappy world a little better place if we not just let people go, but encourage them to go do something better with their lives….”
She turned on her side, her eyes closed. After moments she opened them again, looked at them. “All our girls are OK?”
“Yes, Mother,” Jane said with some sarcasm. “Now go to sleep.”
Mary sighed and relaxed into sleep.
Enrico said, “She can be so terrible. And then …” He blinked rapidly and walked from the room.
Edith pulled the cover up over Mary’s shoulders, touched a freckled cheek, tucked the cat lady’s flaming red hair away from her face. While recovering from her death she had reverted to her Mary McCarthy identity. “She looks so young, just sixteen, seventeen. Do you think this is what she really looks like?”
“Hmm,” said Jane. She had moved her chair back into the better light near the window and retrieved her book from where she had dropped it. She sat down but looked at Mary’s sleeping face rather than at her book.
Edith glanced at Jane, gathered up the eating trays, and made to go. “You’re not coming?” she said from the door.
“No. I think I’ll just read for a while.” Jane turned to her book.
The world turned toward and past noon. The rain trailed off and air warmed as the wind came ever more from the south. And Mary voyaged happily in her sleep.