She lay in the crumpled remains of the bed looking at the dark skin of the young watchman’s bare firm back and broad shoulders, marked by the red stripes of their recent exploits. He sat on the bottom edge of the bed, rubbing his hands through his short, wiry hair. The sounds of the wind whipping the window with the lash of rain lulled her into a waking dream. The smell of the overused bed, the seediness of the red-hooded lantern and the mechanical transaction of their recently completed coitus faded into her fantasy. He, her husband, a young, firm, practical watchman with a steady job and a gentle, loving manner. She, his dutiful wife, servicing him gladly and keeping their home. It was not always like this with her. But with certain clients…
They always came here to relieve their needs – the watchmen. The Gilded Lilly had a good reputation and was as clean as they come. It was a tough job being a watchman and often, when the adrenaline of their occupation overwhelmed them, they needed somewhere to expend their energies and forget their frustrations and angst. The girls did not mind. Watchmen were generally good men. Their lovemaking, whilst not gentle, rarely stepped over the mark where the bruises would show and treatment may be needed. She particularly liked this young watchman. Clay, that was his name, and she believed that he could be soft and malleable like his namesake. Soft and malleable, that is, until hardened in the fires of this city’s cesspit furnace of violence and despair. She did not think that he had been hardened yet. She hoped that he had not been hardened yet.
A knock at the door – three taps, pause, one tap. It was madam. Surely it was not time yet. Did she not have more moments to lay in this silent fantasy?
Clay reached over to gather up his pants and shirt as the door opened. The smiling yet hard face of Dolly, surrounded by the brazen curls of red and gold, peeped around the door. She felt a moment of jealous possession as Dolly appraised the young body of Clay. With a smirk, Dolly spoke, “Nice, sweety, nice. If I were twenty year younger I’d let you in me f’ free.” Her jovial tone changed, became businesslike. “But there’s a street brat here for y’. Been sent for a watchman to check out a body in a’ alley off Horsetether street. You been here the longest. Well, auld Trappy’s been here longer ’n you, but I’m not sending an old geezer like him out of my warm house on a night like this. And seein’ as ’ow the others probably haven’t finished yet, you’re up.”
Clay nodded. He was almost fully dressed now. Having fastened his wide belt, upon which hung his watch-issue short sword, he retrieved his regulation white cloak which he would need to protect him from the icy blasts of this filthy night. After fastening the clasp at his neck, he reached into his purse and pulled out three large coins. He only had to pay two, but Clay always tipped generously. He left them on the bedside cabinet without acknowledging her broad, thankful smile.
She was quick. After all, time was money and there would be another client waiting. She scraped her fingernails, then sifted through the bed, bedding and her own clothes and hair. She had done well. About a dozen hairs, at least half of them bearing the little white globules she had been told to get, and a decent scraping of flesh from his back. She had been deliberately rough for this, but he had seemed to like it. She carefully collected her hoard into one of the small, stoppered glass phials that madam had given her. She wondered, not for the first time, what madam needed these scraps of people for, but quickly moved her thoughts to something else. What madam did was none of her business, and the extra four coppers per client was more than enough for her to be happy to leave it that way.
It was morning, but the sun wouldn’t rise for a while yet, especially with sky as thunderously heavy as it was. Madam Dolly was sat in the kitchen of her large house – the only room that was ever private. Her red and gold curls sat on the table beside her as she sucked noisily on her cow-bone pipe, trying to spark some life into the slightly damp tobacco. After a few attempts there was a satisfying crackle, and acrid smoke filled her lungs. She let out one great cough, then went back to the pipe, taking in a controlled draw. She sat back contentedly, allowing the blue smoke to filter out through her nostrils.
Her contentedness was quickly disturbed by a knock at the door. Three taps, pause, one tap. It was him. She did not bother to rise or to call out, after a second he let himself in.
An old man stood before Dolly – although a bitter part of her considered that he was probably no older than she was herself. His dark cloak, impossibly slick and smooth even when it was dry, was pulled about him to protect him from the cold, wet night. He pulled back his hood to reveal his face, lined and pock-marked, yet somehow vibrant. He had a living colour to his cheeks that was shared by few in this desperate city. His face was surrounded by a wrap of grey hair and beard. Though not grey, she realised, but somehow silver. Almost shining. He smiled at her and, not for the first time, she found herself transfixed by the straight whiteness of his perfect teeth. She glanced to her right, where her own, yellowing, false teeth – a huge investment, crafted from the reclaimed teeth of dead soldiers – sat beside her bright wig.
He spoke. “Well, Mistress Dolly, what do we have from tonight’s enterprise?” His voice was deep, resonant, captivating – much like hers had been back when men paid to hear her sing and not to use her body.
From beneath the table she produced a wooden rack. It had spaces for twelve small, glass phials. Four of the spaces were empty.
“Only eight? It must have been a quiet night.”
She nodded. Another quick draw on the pipe before she said through the smoke, “Yes. Too many other houses opening that undercut us.” The course accent that she had used in the presence of the watchman was gone. Her tone was refined now, despite the slight lisp caused by the removed teeth. “They use unclean girls and have less rules. I am not willing to stoop so low in an attempt to undercut them.”
The man nodded. His pale, blue eyes showed compassion. “I know. That’s why you need me, and this.” He pulled a purse from beneath his shimmering cloak of darkness. He opened the purse, which chinked gently as he took out about a dozen small, silver coins which he tucked back inside his cloak. The purse was still acceptably full as he dropped it onto the table. In the same movement he reached for the rack of phials. Dolly pulled them back towards her, just a fraction. His compassionate eyes changed, narrowing to a questioning frustration.
Dolly drew another calming breath of smoke from the pipe and breathed it out deliberately, slowly. Their eyes were locked together: hers, dark brown and red-rimmed; his, pale blue and shining. She asked him the question again, the one that she had asked on six previous occasions since he had come into her life with a seemingly indeclinable offer. “So are you going to tell me what you do with all of this?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“But you guarantee that nobody comes to harm because of it?”
His nod was emphatic. “Absolutely. You have my word on it.”
“How can I trust you?”
He shrugged. “Have any of your clients come to harm?”
She did not shake her head, but held his gaze. “Not yet.”
He shrugged again. “Well, there you are then.” She still held the rack of phials, so he continued. “I give my absolute word that nobody has, or will ever, come to harm because of what we do here. Quite the opposite, in fact. I wish I could tell you more, but I cannot.”
Dolly gave a little nod of acceptance then pushed the rack of phials towards him across the table. He gathered them up quickly and stashed them beneath his cloak. He hesitated as he turned to leave and asked over his shoulder, “Speaking of clean girls, do you need any more of the ointment yet?”
She shook her head, then turned her face away. Nothing more was said and he silently left, retreating out into the last remnants of the filthy night.
The sun was struggling to break through the grey clouds of morning as Albert Forlanze trekked through the small, dripping wood. He was glad of his waterproof, black oilskin coat, padded with the latest technology in heat-regulating thermal fibres. TrekaTech really was the company to go to for high-quality outdoor wear. The fibres of this particular coat actually drove cold out into the surrounding atmosphere in order to maintain a constant temperature by the skin of the wearer. His boots were made of the same material and he had expended a sizeable portion of his monthly credit on them. They were worth it.
There, ahead, Albert saw what he was looking for: a small, seemingly random shape of stones that would have been easily ignored by any usual passer-by. It was the D-gate. One quick calculation on his D-hopper mobile and he would be back to vX1 – the prime dimension. He quickly checked inside his coat to ensure that the phials of purchased samples were intact. They were.
Back on his home dimension, in his government-sponsored and fully equipped laboratory, Albert would be able to run the DNA of these samples through the usual, rigorous range of tests. Eight samples. From his experience, that would give him four workable DNA strands. With a one in eighty-two thousand chance of finding what he needed, Albert was not brimming with confidence. But, he would return again to gather more samples.
Ever since dimension-hopping had been prevalent in his world, Albert had been tasked by the government to complete his current assignment. He had to find the cures for the diseases from the other dimensions for which they had no immunity on vX1. He had always managed it and even been ahead of the game. But this new strain was proving difficult, beyond difficult. But he kept at it. Eventually, surely, he would get what he needed.