The Microscope, part 2
Felix forced his breathing to slow in an effort to control his anxiety and stop his shakes. Laying prone, he pushed his face into the soft fabric covering his shoulder to mask the sounds of his breathing as footfalls from the stairwell amplified in their approach. He pushed his bag, containing the microscope, hard into his ribs and said a silent prayer to Prometheus.
“Of course my lord, tell me more,” a demure voice said. Felix could see two sets of feet from the gap beneath the bed skirt. One set was clad in delicate shoes with a satin bow upon them, and a straight sock revealing a thin ankle and lower leg. The other wore fancy men’s shoes with a bright gold buckle and the legs were clad in red hose, which covered a calfand ankle of exceeding fatty girth. Suddenly, the fat legs disappeared and Felix felt the mattress above him condense down on top of him, pressing against the tense muscles of his back. The ropes under the mattress creaked and he slipped a foot closer to the edge to avoid the possible death that would result from their failure. He looked up and saw the little dog continuing to stare at him from just beyond the edge of the bed.
“Now show me some of that famous northern hospitality!” The manon the mattress said with a deep laugh. Two shoes could be heard flopping down on the floor.
“Of course. Would my lord care for a drink?” The woman asked. Felix was now aware of the stench of the man’s feet. This hooker sure is earning her pay. He buried his face deeper into the cloth of his shirt as the aroma assaulted him.
“I’d rather have some coca. Do a line with me!”
“It’s not something my handler would approve of, my lord.”
“Bollocks to your handler! You know how hard it is to get this stuff? And this isn’t some raw, shit-colored coca either.This is a rare treat I’m offering you here. I insist.” The man cackled and after a few seconds it turned subtly into a cough.
“Very well, my lord, but why don’t we have some wine first, while our heads are clear? The Duke of Fastia sent this himself as part of the gift. It would be a pity to insult him by not enjoying it.”
“You were hired to keep tabs on me then? Bah! I should have known it. Very well, pour me a glass, and I shall drink to your beauty.” The woman hurried the small dog out of the room (which seemed to gaze intently at Felix the entire time it backed out the door), then returned a moment later. Felix could hear a wine bottle being uncorked and the wine bubbling as itflowed into a glass.
“A fine gift indeed,” the man said, slurping the wine, “I’ll shall be sure to thank the kind duke on the morrow. Now, I’d preferto end the night with the finest treat, ha!”
A feeling of dread sank into Felix’s stomach at the thought of having to hide under the bed while the fat man actually tried to plow the prostitute. His fear(for that action at least) went unfulfilled as the man began to laugh uproariously, then slowly gasp, then snore.
“That’s right, go to sleep you fat bastard,” the woman said, her voice transforming suddenly from cultured and articulate to angry and cockneyed. “You’re lucky I’m being paid not to slit your throat. Good gods, do you ever wash your feet?” Something rattled on the wall, then Felix saw the back of a painting come down and obscure the woman’s feet. A familiar sound of falling tumblers and turning keys filled his ears. “Here it is,” she said to (as she assumed) herself.
A thief hiding from another thief. This will be a scrumptious anecdote, Felix thought. He watched the woman’s feet move swiftly around the room. Felix could hear the sliding of drawers and shuffling of papers and books. He knew right away that the sweet-turned edgy woman wasn’t any sort of escort, but was a contract agent of some kind. Perhaps she’s not an expert in infiltration. Perhaps rather it is personal…deception? He wondered what she was there to acquire, and if it might be the same thing for which he was hired. It was more than possible that the fat (and now loudly snoring) man had a few items worth paying a professional to steal. He also wondered whether the messy floor, littered with books and items, would give him away. Let’s hope she just thinks the mark is as bad at organization as he is with personal hygiene.
Felix’s anxiety began to lessen a bit when the woman opened the bedroom door and walked down the hall. He had only managed to find half of what he was employed to gather, but he was fixing up his mind to leave with that. Even though the delicate feet belonged to a woman, she represented the unknown, and that meant risk. The question picking at his mind was whether the greater risk was this small woman or returning to Victor with less than what the contract asked. There were varying degrees of reward for success and punishment for failure, and depending on the nature of the assignment it could be early retirement. If such a retirement would be to a villa beside a canal or to an oblong boxwould depend on the customer beyond Victor.
As he thought of returning with merely the strange invention, he considered that this assignment, though certainly not a success, was not a total failure either. He had been told not to kill the target, which he preferred as a general rule, although clients rarely spelled it out for him as such. He had also been informed beforehand of the quantity of pay he might expect, and though he was always eager for a large stipend (and 500 argents was substantial, even for an agent as well–traveled as Felix), he wasn’t greedy. Partial payment may have not be enough to hope for, but all things considered, he thought this wasn’t the type of job, failing to complete, he might receive death.
He craned his head out to take another listen, and flinched from the smell of the fat man sleeping soundly above him. The faint sounds of hurried rummaging echoed from down the stairs. He pushed himself forward along his belly, inching himself out from underneath the sagging rope-strung mattress. He twisted around, his heart leaping suddenly as something touched his back. Behind him he saw the little dog, sniffing at his waist. He sighed.
Shit.Felix heard footsteps coming back up the stairs. He took one last look at the bed, weighing his chances. The dog barked again and looked at him with a smile and upturned ears. Cute. Felix maid his choice and pushed himself the rest of the way out of the bed and stood up. He quickly strapped the leather bag containing the strange device back onto his back. He took one last look around the room, hoping to see the journal, then dashed for the window as footsteps approached. He no longer made an attempt at stealth, letting his footfalls patter on the hardwood floor. He grabbed a hold of the top of the window and swung his feet out the narrow opening and let himself drop.
He had expected to smoothly slip down to the narrow ledge below the window, but instead, he found his feet dangling over air as his torso, widened by the sack containing the hefty brass instrument, stuck in the narrow rotating window. He squirmed in panic as the footsteps approached. Finally he could feel the window creaking and giving way, and he was wiggling out.
An inch. Then another half. He looked up to see a young blonde woman, whose pristine white face and green eyes he recognized from the circus crowd. He wiggled some more as she ran toward the window.
“Gimme that!” she cried as Felix finally felt himself go free of the window. He didn’t have time to put his feet on the ledge, and considered how he would twist himself into a proper tumble as he hit the ground. He turned himself around, then felt a powerful tug as his momentum stopped again, this time just outside the window. He looked back over his shoulder to see the girl holding tight to the strap of his bag, her feet planted against the wall on either side of the window, straining to pull Felix’s hefty weight back inside.
“I don’t think you have it in you,” Felix said as turned around and gripped her slender arms in his own large hands. He placed his toes on the ledge, pulling as hard on the girl as she was on him. He began tugging at her fingers, pulling them off the strap.
She grunted. “You’ll regret this.”
“No new feelings there.” One of her hands fell off the strap and her shoulder and torso jerked toward the window opening as she cried out. Felix began working on her other hand. A flash of silver drew his eye as the girls arm darted out the window. Felix felt a rush of heat and pain as her knife cut through the cloth on his left forearm. Warm blood began to flow down under the shirt, soaking it.
The fright returned. He pulled up on the girl’s arm before she could attack again and bit her fingers. She screamed and let go. The suddenness of the release caused Felix to fall away from the ledge and window. He bent forward and flailed his arms for some kind of hold, but inertia was unforgiving; he tumbled away from the stone face of the house.
Spinning about, his left arm groped instinctively at a nearby tree limb. His fingers found a hold and an his body, now out of balance with the heavy microscope strapped to his back, jerked and twisted with the sudden stop of motion. He winced as the cut in his arm opened under the pressure. The tree limb sagged, then snapped. He fell toward the darkness.
His relaxed feet hit turf and he tumbled to stop some of the momentum, feeling a sharp pain in his left ankle as he did so. He rolled onto his side in an attempt to protect the delicate artifact on his back, but cringed as he hear it hit the ground through his bag. No time to worry about that now, he thought.
“Fucking wanker of an acrobat!” Felix turned to see the pretty blonde face staring down at him from the window high above. He paused to think a moment, then realized his hood and face covering were gone, torn off in the struggle at the window. He looked back up to see the barrel of an old arcbus emerge from the window, then heard the distinctive hiss of a matchlock.
Felix bolted for the wall. A second later, the gun fired. A burst of dirt to his right let him know that the young woman had missed, and he silently thanked his god once again. He jumped forward and pushed off of the wall with his left foot, suddenly shooting needles of pain under the pressure, and caught onto a tree limb. He turned toward the outer wall and swung himself backward and forward. Once he had enough momentum, he let go and flew against the stone wall. The tips of his fingers were only just able to grab hold of the iron bars leaning back out toward the street, but it was all he needed to painfully pull himself up onto the narrow row of iron rimed stones. He contemplated jumping, but thinking of the pain in his ankle decided instead for a controlled fall. The clang of iron interrupted his train of thought as he saw a shiny bit of metal glitter in the moonlight just to his right.
“The next one won’t miss!” A voice from below said. He looked down to see the blonde girl, a throwing knife held in her hand. She maintained a proper stance as she held the knife by the edge, out to her side.
Maybe I should take her word for it, he thought. “Then I’d better say my farewell,” he said with a smile. He flipped over the iron bars just as another throwing knife darted past his head. He hung from them as he had when he had entered the estate, his feet dangling toward the street below. He let go and tumbled again upon impact with the ground, doing his best to roll sideways and save the object in his bag. He winced as he rolled along his left arm, the fresh cut given to him by his pursuer stinging under his sleeve, now hanging loosely from his arm.
He stopped and checked the wound. The cut was deep enough to draw sufficient blood to soak the cloth around it, but not so deep as to cut through the dermis. He might not even have to stitch it up. He thought again of the object strapped to his back. He wanted desperately to check it and see if he had damaged it; to see if all the effort was would be in vain after all, yet he knew he had not the time. He came back to himself hearing the loud footfalls of plated boot-guards down the street, and quickly moved into the shadows of a nearby alley.
He peered around the corner of the building to see a pair of sheriffs, armored in dull plate breastplates and chausses with plane brimmed helmets, each topped with a yellow feather. In typical fashion they carried torches, and one carried a long bladed pike and the other a brass blunderbuss. From where Felix stood, some forty yards away, he couldn’t tell the firing mechanism on the gun, but hoped the authorities of Minalay took the church’s prescriptions for firearm locks as seriously as the owner of the microscope.
Felix took a deep breath. He stood on the opposite side of the house from where he had entered. He hadn’t thought of an exit route in that particular direction, nor of any clever methods for evading the law. He hoped he could circle around to the north, where his intended escape route was. The girl knows who I am now, he thought. He watched the sheriffs wander around the front of the gated complex. At least they’re between her and me. I should really bring along more than a set of lock picks to these jobs.
He saw the two men disappear around the corner of the high wall, the light from their torch faintly casting ghostly shadows into the street beyond. Tensing his claves and getting back into his mindset for stealth, Felix crept down the street on the balls of his feet, staying close to the buildings on his left and moving quickly between alleys. He ducked into an alley when he saw the light of the men’s torch grow brighter around the corner. He perked his ears and strained to hear bits of conversation over the wind.
“Telling you, Mudd, it was Bartolini’s house or I’m blind.”
“Sure it weren’t just a candle or somthin’?”
“Well we can’t just walk in.”
“Of course not, the gate’s locked.”
“You know what I mean. Legal-like. Robby, you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Felix could barely see the pair on the corner, looking back toward the entrance gate of the estate.
“The gate.” They trotted off in the direction of the mansion’s front gate, and Felix took the opportunity to cross over the corner and into the shadows of an alleyway facing the front of the estate. Soon after entering the shadows he realized it wasn’t an alley at all; by a trick of the light of the moon and the torches it had looked deep and dark, but the entire space was filled up by one of the narrow residences that clung into the free spaces in Minalay. It was scarcely eight feet wide, with a door in one corner and a window in the other. Felix shrank against the narrow wall near the window as the two sheriffs walked back toward him.
“What do we do?” said the shorter man with the blunderbuss that Felix recognized as Mudd. The pair were right past the edge of the house.
“We head back to postings, that’s what,” Robby said. Felix’s heart quickened. He looked around. Above him was another window. He pushed off the wall in another jump, hoping that the sill was deep enough for him to grapple.
“What if someone got shot?”
“Then they’re dead. Either way, nobody’s home.” Felix hung from the open window some twelve feet off the ground. He turned his head to see the two guards walk past the gap in the buildings. Mudd cast a quick glance toward the door of the narrow alley-house, and Felix released his breath as they passed by. He looked in the house to see a mustached man sleeping soundly in a bed pushed up next to the window. Felix could hear him snore.
He looked back over his shoulder to see the torches flicker and separate past the opening of the house. He lowered himself down, till he was hanging by his fingertips, Then let himself drop to the ground. He silenced a wince of pain at the pressure in his left ankle. Doing his best not to favor the injured foot, he stepped back out into the street and hurried with as much stealth as he could muster toward his planned exit route.
He glanced at the front gate on his right as he passed, and paused a moment at a detail he checked out of habit. The gate was closed, but in the gap between the bar and the iron frame a faint white line of moon light ran where the shadow of the lock’s bolt should have been. He reached into his pocket and felt for a familiar friend and a trusted tool which took the shape of a fist-sized plastered paper ball of irregular shape. Despite all the tumbles and falls it had survived, and he said once more a silent prayer of thanks.
They call you the god of darkness, deceit, and the forbidden, but today I name you Lord of Luck. Felix rushed on. Surely she knows where I’m going by now. It’ll be a foot race to the finish. He turned the last corner and made for an alleyway. A barrel lay sideways near its entrance, his subtle mark, placed in the daylight.
“Drop it, theif.” A shock of blonde hair, shining white in the moonlight and falling down on an ornate dress turned black in the gloom, emerged from the darkened well of a door, standing between him and the alley. In the woman’s hand was a flintlock pistol, trained on Felix. He froze.
“How is that worth my while?” He said with a smirk. Her eyes glowed softly with the moon to her side, which illuminated the gentle curve of her jaw and the soft lines around her mouth hinting at a darkened smirk. Felix pondered the image only long enough to look on her person for the book he was supposed to deliver with the device.
“I won’t kill you.” She pulled back the hammer.
Felix began pulled the bag off his shoulder. “I suppose you would anyway if it weren’t for the sheriff in the next street over.” He set it on the ground.
“Astute. Hands up.” He complied. She inched forward, her eyes staying locked with his, till she stood directly over the bag. She kept the stare even as she reached down to the bag and with her left hand plied open the top.
“You’re a beautiful woman, you know.” In the dim light her brow creased and her head tilted. It was all the distraction Felix needed. He threw the paper ball hard onto the ground at the woman’s feet. It burst into orange flame and quickly became a mass of expanding smoke.
Felix closed his eyes and mouth and rushed in, just as the woman began to choke on the fumes. He slammed into her, sending her splaying on the ground. The pistol clanked on the ground as it fell away. He bent down and grabbed for where he had memorized the position of the bag, found it with luck, and slung it over his shoulder. While the woman was still lying on the pavement gagging at the tear gas from his hidden explosive, he reached up under her skirts. He found what he sought, which was not the what most men aim to find in similar searches. Tied against her thigh was a small leather-wrapped flat item, like a journal.
“I meant it!” he called out behind himself as he ran down the alley on his pre-determined escape path. He heard the woman gasping and trying to call out after him, but he was already too far down into the dank echoes of the alley to comprehend what she said.
His ankle was an explosion of pain by the time he reached the circus, and dried blood caked his arm and sleeve. The other performers were taking their final bow as he limped into the circle of tents and trailers, but he was too shaken and in too much pain to care much about taking in the prestige. He ducked into the dressing room. The lamps were still burning dimly as he slumped down into a folding chair in a bloody and dirty huff.
He took a deep breath. He plied open the cinch-top of his leather back and pulled forth his prize. The microscope looked strange and alien to him as he turned it around and inspected it. He sighed as he saw the damage to it. The top brass barrel was dented, and the lens there was shattered. A small shelf below the lens apparatus was bent.
Might have to find an engineer to fix some this before we hand it off, he thought. Luckily I have some notes on how it’s made. He smiled. He untied the string that held the leather-bound journal closed. Inside was a poorly cut set of pages. He sighed again as he read the first page, a diary entry. He flipped through all the pages, most of them blank, but saw only more of the same.
This isn’t the book I needed. This is that girl’s diary. He chuckled to himself. Lord of Luck indeed. Thanks all the same. He turned to the outside leaf. It was blank. I wonder what her name is.