The Microscope, part 3

This is the third part of a short fiction work set in my unique world.  Updates should be coming every Wednesday.



“The fuck is wrong with you, Felix?” Victor leaned back in the folding canvas chair, picking at the tips of his white gloves as he carefully pulled them from his large hands.  His broad brow was wrinkled more than usual, a bitter frown forming a “v” between his eyes. Below that, broad pursed lips were pulled in, buried in his thick, curly black beard. Shera, a young yet well-worn woman, that Victor called his wife stood to his side collecting his costume pieces and placing them carefully into a trunk.  The baggy men’s clothes she always wore made her look leaner and more flat-chested than what was true.
“Presently? A knife wound, and possibly a broken ankle.” Felix held the dingy cloth, soaked in whiskey, up to the scratch near his elbow.  The bleeding had slowed and scabbing had begun, but he had willed himself to scrape them away and clean out the wound.  The whiskey burned horribly, and Felix tapped into an old reservoir of pain tolerance gained from harsher tortures to keep his face relaxed in front of Victor.
“You’re lucky you ain’t dead.  You should have just killed the bitch and be done with it. ‘Stead,” he spat, “we got a broken piece of merchandise, which is only half of what we’re being paid to get in the first place.”
“This was a no-kill contract, Vic.”
“No-kill for Bartolini or other civies. Competition is always free game. You know that.”  Victor stood up and Shera helped him take off his jacket.  Even in his costume Victor still kept a loaded pistol tucked into his belt in the small of his back.
“I didn’t know she was competition till I saw the knife,” Felix lied.  Victor gave him a harsh stare as he slipped off the suspenders that held up his baggy silk pants.  “Besides, what was I supposed to kill her with?”
“A pistol, or a knife, or your fucking fists?  Whatever you got.”
“I don’t usually bring killing implements to a no-kill cat burglary.”
“Well you better fucking start.  Thanks, love,” Victor said as he finished undressing and Shera placed the last of his costume into the trunk with his colorful plumed hat on top.  Victor began putting on his simpler clothes.
“Things could definitely be worse,” Felix said, almost to himself.
“Yeah?  How?” Victor sat back down and uncorked a wine bottle, then took a sip.
“I could have brought back nothing at all.”  Felix stood, still holding the scratch on his arm.  He put weight on his ankle and felt only a dull ache. Not a break after all, he thought. Lord of Luck. “We also do have one unexpected advantage, which is that Bartolini will know her as the thief and not me.”
“Yeah the sheriffs won’t be looking to any of us for a change,” Shera said.
“She was probably planning on being disappeared from the city by now, do you think she’ll stick around?” Victor handed the wine to Shera, who took a sip as well.
“If she was getting paid anything close to what we are she’ll certainly have a strong incentive,” Felix said, “but obviously she won’t be able to walk around very openly.”
“Good, we’ll have a chance at getting that journal and fixing the item,” Victor said.  “Fixing this whole bloody mess.”  He took another drink.  “Be honest with me, Felix.”
“I always am.” Felix pulled the whiskey soaked rag away and wrapped the scratch in a clean cloth that was laid over the back of his canvas chair.
“That’s a joke, right?” If it was a joke, Victor didn’t seem to find it funny. “Tell me, do you think she knows your cover?”
“I recognized her from the crowd.  She was here. So yes.”
“Shit.”  Victor drank again.
“Also, she said something about it, I think.” Felix tried to remember.
“You don’t remember?”
“I was hanging falling out of a window.”  Felix began to tie the cloth into a make-shift bandage.
“You think she’ll come round looking for you?” Shera said. “You should go talk to Jeffrey.”
“This is my bloody business,” Victor said, glaring at his wife over his shoulder. “Need to keep your place.”
“Sorry,” Shera said insincerely. 
Victor turned back toward Felix.  “Go talk to Jeffrey, yeah? See what he has in mind for keeping us tight up in here, or maybe setting a bit of a trap. We need that Journal.”
“Will do,” Felix said. He started walking for the exit of the large tent.
“And Felix,” Victor called as Felix reached the exit. “Keep a damn pistol handy, yeah?”
*
“You put your foot in it, that’s for sure.”  Jeffrey, the troupe strongman, moved to the rear end of the boxy caravan wagon he called home and opened a trunk.  Inside was an assortment chemicals in glass bottles, powder horns, and small wooden boxes. He bent over to rummage in it, his massive shoulders filling up all the space between his bed and the table opposite it. He pulled out a small jar filled with a clear liquid and handed it to Felix.  “That’ll nock her out if you can manage to get the drop.”
“Ether?” Felix said.  He absent-mindedly picked at the make-shift bandage on his arm. “She’s a lively one, and a professional, I’d wager. I don’t think I could keep her sniffing long enough.”
“This is new stuff.  Chloroform.  Works in just a few seconds.  Don’t try to get yourself high with it either, it’ll give you hard knock like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“I made it.”  Jeffrey laughed, his bulk heaving. “You plucked a formula for it awhile back, and I managed to get ahold of the papers before Vic sent ‘em off.”
“Nice to have, but I still doubt I’ll get the drop on her.”
“Keep it just in case.  We gonna have to spend all night on the watch, or what?”
“We?”
“You think I’m gonna let you have all the fun?”  Jeffrey slapped Felix hard on the back. “Let’s see what other kinds of goodies we can dig up just in case, eh?”
They both turned as the door to the little wagon opened up and Marta stepped in. Her hair was down, falling to her shoulders in heaps of curly black locks.  Her makeup as also washed away, revealing a round and youthful face, perverted by a current tension.  “There you are,” she said. “I was worried when you didn’t make the final bow.”  She pulled him into a tight hug.
“I’m fine, just still working out some details,” Felix said.  He patted her back awkwardly.
“What happened to your arm?” Marta said as she pulled away from the hug and saw his sleeve cut away and a white cloth wrapped around his elbow, dotted with blood.
“Ran into some competition.”
“Did you get him?”
“Her, actually. And no, but we’re working on it.”
A momentary frown flashed across her smooth face. “Good. I’m glad you’re alright. Stop by my trailer before bed, would you?” She turned toward the door, gave Felix a fleeting smile, then stepped back out.
“You’re a lucky man, my friend,” Jeffrey said, and slapped Felix hard on the back again. “What I wouldn’t give to plow a woman like that every night.”
“Our relationship is strictly professional.”
“Aw, come on.”  A wide smile spread across Jeffrey’s stubbled face. “You really mean to tell me you’ve never taken the act to the old mattress?”
“Never.”
“Well it seems like that’ll change tonight.”  He laughed deeply again.  “You’re a lucky bastard.”
“Doubt I’ll be able to tonight,” Felix said. “I’ve gotta keep watch for our competition, like you said.”
“Hell, Felix,” Jeffrey said as he placed a few more odds and ends from the trunk onto the little table. “I’ll stay up by myself if you promise to take that girl to bed.”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“Because I’m an excellent friend, and friends don’t complain when other friends get laid.  Now, where did I put that salt peter…”
*
Felix pushed inward the door to the little wagon, a near duplicate of Jeffrey’s, except that instead of having a small table opposite the bed it had a mirrored vanity.  It was here that Marta sat, dressed in a simple robe of pale blue.  An oil lamp sat near the mirror, reflecting its dull flickering light down onto a book that was splayed open.  As Felix entered, Marta’s head pulled up from it and she smiled.
“Glad you came, come here,” She said, and stood up.  She directed Felix toward  the stool in front of the mirror.
“What did you want to see me about?”
“Hold still.” Marta untied Felix’s simple bandage and pulled the cloth away as gently as she could. Felix made no effort to hide a flinch as the cloth stuck to the cut and pulled open fresh bloody areas.
“It’s just a scratch,” Felix said.
“It’s a lot more than that,” Marta said leaning in close to inspect the wound. “Let me get my needle.”
“I should’t need stitches,” Felix said.
“You’ll need a few,” Marta said.  She pulled open a nearby drawer and produced a sewing kit. “This is going to hurt, I can get some ether from Jeffrey if you like.”
“I have this. It’s supposed to be more potent.” Felix produced the bottle of chloroform and set it on the top of the dressing table.
“Let’s try it out then.”  Marta picked up the bottle and uncorked it.  She made a sour face at the odor as she held it up to her nose.  She poured some of the colorless liquid on a rag.
“You know what? It’s fine, really. I’m not going to need the-” When Marta held the cloth up to his face he immediately swooned, even before the reflex of breath took over, and the world became a blur of color: The faded blue of Marta’s robe under a streak of black that was her hair, the blood-red of her sheets as he collapsed into her bed.
Marta, using the strength of her compact body, was able to guide Felix into her bed while holding the rag to his face. After he sleepily let himself go limp, she pushed his legs in.  His arm she set on the stool to stabilize it, and after hanging the lamp above her bed, she kneeled down to the floor beside him to work.
“This is good stuff,” she said as she held the needle up to the flame of the lamp. She pierced his skin, and he grunted softly in his stupor.  When she finished, she reached under the bed and produced a bottle of liquor, and doused the wound with it, then dabbed it clean.  “That ought to do it.  You’ll thank me later,” She said and patted Felix’s forehead. 
“Marta,” Felix said with his eyes closed, seemingly in sleep.
She kissed his forehead and smiled, then ruffled his dark hair.  A sly look came over her face as she bent over and felt around his chest and pockets. “What do we have here?”  She rolled the anesthetized man over and found tucked in his belt, pressed against his back, a small leather-bound book.  She removed it and cracked it open.  “This is a diary,” she said, and sat on the stool under the lamp, letting it’s light shine on the unevenly cut pages. “Felix, my darling, why do you have the diary of another girl hidden on your person?  This just won’t do.”
Felix groaned beside her and rolled onto his back. “Marta,” He croaked again.
“I’m right here,” She said, but she was focused on the text of the book.  “I should burn this.  But I won’t.”  She smiled and read on.
*
Felix awoke with a headache to darkness.  He blinked hard.  Even the canvas covered windows of the wagon were black as pitch.  Everyone must be in bed. He thought about that for a second.HeHe th  I’m in bed.  He looked over and the darkness could perceive the edge of a soft round face.  He felt a small hand on his chest and curly hair on his neck, and realized that Marta lay against him, as if his shoulder was a pillow, and she was sleeping.  He reached out with his right hand into emptiness at the edge of the bed.  His left was underneath the sleeping woman.  Carefully, he hugged her with his right arm and removed his left.  He placed a pillow softly under her head and slipped out of the sheets.
He couldn’t see her well enough in the dim light to tell if she had in fact been awakened by his movement, but she didn’t seem to move.  He felt himself: his pants and shirt were both on, but not his shoes. I probably didn’t have sex with her. He shrugged. He felt the stitches in his arm.  They ached slightly. He frowned.  He was missing the journal from his belt.  He felt around blindly for it, then hit his head on the lamp hanging near the bed and toppled a stool than banged around loudly before coming to rest.
“Felix?” Marta said to the darkness.
“Sorry.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“I wasn’t supposed to fall asleep at all.  Jeffrey’s been up all night by himself.  Actually, what time is it?”
“I don’t know.  Listen, I wanted to talk to you.”
“If you wanted to talk to me you probably wouldn’t have drugged me, now I’ve got to go.”
“I had to sew up  your arm, stupid.” She bit her lip.  “I mean, sweetie.”
Felix shook his head again, wondering about the seemingly sudden shift in his relationship with his dark-haired performance partner.  “Hey, I had a little book- a journal, do you know where it is?”
“Why? do you need it?”
“I got it off the girl who tried to kill me last night. I think it’s her diary.”
“Oh, that,” she said with a flat tone.  “It’s in the top-left drawer of my dressing table.”
“Thanks.” Felix felt his way to the vanity and opened the drawer.  He felt the leather cover of the journal and tucked it back into his belt, up under his shirt. 
“Come back and talk to me before you do anything, alright?”
“Okay,” Felix said, not fully understanding her meaning. He found his moccasins and slipped them on, then stepped gingerly out the door, the pain in his ankle returning to match the pain in his head.  She’s acting awful strange, he thought as he crept across the central yard of the circus’s camping circle.  Soft moonlight in the western sky lit his way. 
Maybe it is like Jeffrey said.  Maybe she does really want me. He started thinking of the curves of the woman’s hips and buttocks, and the way she felt in his hands during performances, firm and supple.  He thought of her breast hanging out of her costume earlier, like so many other nights, but in his mind it became suddenly an erotic thing, and he flushed in thinking what more the costume might hide.  Damn.  I should have stayed.
“Hey there, mister lucky,” a voice whispered.  Felix looked up to see Jeffrey’s large frame atop an enclosed trailer that he knew housed the lion.
“What are you doing up there?”
“Trying to stay awake and watch for your mysterious agent-girl.”
“How did you manage to get up there?”
“You ain’t the only climber in the bunch, mate.” Jeffrey laughed quietly. 
Felix grabbed a hold of the bars in the small window slots of the trailer and pulled himself up till he had a hand-hold on the roof. He felt the wound in his arm.  Actually glad I got those stitches now, he thought as he pulled himself the rest of the way up onto the trailer.
Jeffrey picked up a nearby tea cup and took a sip. “So, was she all you hoped?”
“Who?”
“Come on, you can tell you’re old pall Jeff.”
“Oh Marta.  We didn’t, uh… do the deed so to speak.”
“Well, why not?” Jeffrey said.
“At least I don’t think we did.”
“What do you mean you don’t think?  Did she turn off the lights and put your dowsing rod in some other well?”
Felix laughed. “That’s a good one.  Let’s just say that I got a first-hand lesson in the potency of that chloroform.”
“You used it on yourself?”
“No, she used it on me.  She stitched up my cut, see?”  Felix held his arm out to Jeffrey.  “Packs quite a wallop.”  He knocked against the temple of his head.
“Headache?  I got something for that.” Jeffrey twisted away and began poking through a leather bag to his side.
“Of course you do.”
“I understand the ‘don’t think’ part now.  But you don’t need to worry about it.  You didn’t miss any fun; stuff makes your willy as wiggly as an earthworm.”
“Good to know, I guess.” Felix craned his neck over to see Jeffrey emptying something into a cup and filling it with tea from a nearby iron kettle. “I’m starting to think she actually cares about me. As in not in the professional sense. Though I don’t know where the affection came from.”
“Here,” Jeffrey said and handed him a tea cup. “Not gonna taste that great, but it’ll get rid of the hard-knock in a few minutes. As for Marta-”
“God this tastes awful, what is it?” Felix said as he tried to chug down the bitter tea.
“It’s called aspirin.  Now like I was saying-”
“Foul is what I’d call it.”
“Shut up, would ya?  I’m trying to give you some encouraging advice, friend to friend, okay?  Now s let me talk, you overbearing bastard.”
“Okay, go on,” Felix said and downed the rest of the tea.
“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘shut up,’ do you?”
“It’s two words actually.”
“Shut up!”  There was a pause as both men chuckled. “Listen, Marta’s probably had a thing for you for a while, and after she heard from Vic that you ran into trouble, she got worried about those feelings. That’s why it’s so sudden.  Well sudden to you, I’ve seen it for months.”
“Months huh?”
“You’re a fool, you know that?”
Felix shrugged. “Near death experiences can do that do you, but usually it’s in the one dying. Wonder why she never said anything before.”
“You want your feelings to be reciprocated, simple as that.”  Jeffrey put his palms behind himself and leaned back. “You get faced with death, the prospect of never saying your peace seems a little worse than not having those feeling returned.”
“What should I do?”
“I told you what to do.  Now, I’m going to bed.  You’ve had enough sleep for the night, so you can watch the sunrise. Mind that front gap there,” Jeffrey pointed to a separation in the wagon circle. “I put a mine there.”
“A mine? Are you crazy?”
“It’s not like that, just a pop to scare ‘em, that’s all. Still, I’d pull it up before the others are out and about. Also, take this,” He picked up a musket that was laying nearby and handed it to Felix.
“I’ll keep it primed.”
“See that you do,” Jeffrey said.  He stood up and put his hands in his pockets absent-mindedly as he looked west at the moon. “Hello, what’s this?”  He withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket.
“What is it?”
“It’s a message. I’ll be damned.”  He handed the paper to Felix.
“I knew I should have skipped Marta’s,” he said as he unfolded the paper and strained to read it in the moon light.  “You have a candle, or a match?”
“Both. And you won’t ever say that to Marta if you know what’s good for ya.”  Soon light emerged in the form of a small candle.  Felix read the message, written in blue ink in long, fine lines:
Let’s discuss terms, one professional to another. Noon. Fountain square north of the church. Shop in the east end of the square. Under the west window. Bring the item. Come alone.
-K
            Below the message was written in hasty charcoal:
P.S. After seeing you at the house, I was hoping for a challenge. Slipping this note into the pocket of this fat mouth-breather sure wasn’t one.
“Hey, I’m not fat,” Jeffrey said.  “This is all muscle.”
“All muscle?”
“Mostly muscle.”  Jeffrey smiled.  “Listen, dieting saps your strength, and this circus is my sole source of income.”
“Soul source?”
Jeffrey laughed. 
“We might as well both hit the sack now, yeah?” Felix said and pushed himself up.
“Which one you hitting, mate?”
“I’m taking your advice, for once.”
“That’s a good boy.”  He cackled again as he collected his tea cups and carefully set them into his leather bag. Side by side, they lowered themselves off the top of the lion’s wagon-cage, the beast inside seeming not to care that his home was rocking back in forth under the weight of the two men.  They each went their separate ways.
Felix was surprised to find his heart beating as he approached Marta’s wagon.  Maybe I like her a little more than I thought.  He pushed on the door. Inside was a field of darkness. He stepped in, trying to let his eyes adjust, but he saw little more than black shadows against the very pale canvas cover of a window backlit by the setting moon. He softly stepped toward the bed and slipped himself back in. Marta’s hair tickled his neck. She adjusted slightly and put her arm back around him, but her breathing remained the deep, slow, steady rhythm of sleep.
Felix stared up, content to let sleep take him, trying to ignore the ache in his head, arm, and ankle as he tried to relax.
I wonder what K stands for.

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