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Love and Theft

NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.


     As she stepped out from under the bright Jakkard sun into Diamond Jane’s cabaret, Jackie DeCoeur didn’t remove either her broad-brimmed hat or her dark-tinted glasses. Instead, she stood in the open doorway, leaning against its weathered wooden frame as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the music hall’s darkened interior.

     The crowd inside was sparse. Scattered chairs and tables in front of the low wooden stage all sat empty, and the heavy velvet curtain was down. Off to each side of the main floor, the gambling tables were topped with ratty dustcovers. The only audible noises were the off-key plinking of an old, spring-wound hurdy-gurdy in an alcove by the stage, and a low, incessant humming which seemed to come from nowhere in particular.

     As Jackie gazed across the cabaret’s mirrored walls, she saw a few heads swivel warily in her direction. A trio of foxes in waistcoats and spats sat huddled around a corner booth, their heads bowed together in whispered conversation, their eyes darting occasionally away from each other to stare at the new arrival. On the other side of the room, a scraggly-bearded human prospector, his eyes heavy-lidded with exhaustion, or drink, or some combination of the two, lifted his head off the bar and looked blearily in Jackie’s direction.

     Jackie flashed a wide grin at the room, and kept smiling as she tried to meet the eyes of each of the scattered patrons in turn. To a man, they each looked away as her gaze threatened to catch theirs. All the while, the hurdy-gurdy tinkled away in the background, grinding out the notes to some old tune which Jackie couldn’t quite recognize, though she would have sworn that its name was on the tip of her tongue. “Something, something, and something something,” or something like that anyway, she thought.

     She saw an older-looking fox in a white apron standing behind the bar. A stack of dirty tankards was piled on the counter next to him, and Jackie watched as he wiped one lackadaisically with a washrag which looked dirtier than the tankard itself.

     “If you came to Zymmer for the Stampede, I’m afraid you just missed it,” the fox said. “Wrapped-up yesterday. The stockmen and punchers have already left town.”

     “You’re not kidding,” Jackie said. She walked over to the bar and eased herself onto one of the wooden stools, leaning forward and resting her elbows on the polished wood surface. “Are things always this dead around here? I thought Zymmer was supposed to be a boomtown?”

     The fox shrugged his shoulders a little. “Zymmer’s a prospecting town, and there are two sorts of prospectors. There are those who haven’t struck anything, and they’re out in the wastes, trying to get rich.” He nodded in the direction of the door. “And then there are those who do make a lucky strike, and they come back to town at night to blow the load on drinks, entertainment, and companionship.” He nodded at the human who was face-down on the bar, and who now appeared to be faintly snoring. “And those ones’ll be of no use to anyone for some time yet,” the fox said.

     “So when do things liven up around here?” Jackie asked.

     “Well, tomorrow’s hanging day,” the fox said. “That draws a real crowd. Folks’ll be in here tonight for the show as well.”

     “What time does the show begin?”

     “The musical revue goes on at sundown,” the fox said. “Are you staying for the entertainment?”

     “Might be,” Jackie said. “Does the management usually make an appearance?”

     The fox stopped polishing the tankard he held, and looked up from his work to stare at Jackie. A few moments passed in silence, save for the plinking of the hurdy-gurdy and the low humming which came from nowhere in particular. Jackie could feel herself being appraised, and she made no effort to hurry the fox in his assessment.

     She thought about what he would see, and what he would make of it: Human, female, youngish but not too young. Taller than most, good-looking enough in a rough, unpolished sort of way. Raven hair, cut short. Not too much face visible between the pulled-down brim of her black gambler’s hat and her tinted glasses, save for a wry smile. Not too much of her figure discernable either beneath her black, knee-length serape, save for strong hands with clean-cut nails. Worn leather trousers, worn leather boots.

     She waited for the fox to finish sizing her up. Waited to see how he would fill-in the missing pieces, and what the verdict would be.

     Finally, his hands started moving again, and his eyes went back down to the washcloth, which had resumed its circular path over the tin surface of the tankard.

     “You don’t strike me as the prospecting type,” he said.

     “Let’s just say I’m a third type of prospector.”

     “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your business here in Zymmer?”

     Jackie leaned over the bar so that the brim of her hat almost brushed against the fox’s muzzle. He stopped working again and looked back up at her.

     “Can you keep a secret?” she asked.

     After a moment’s hesitation, the fox nodded his head. “Of course,” he said.

     “So can I,” Jackie said. Her smile widened just enough for the fox to catch a quick glimpse of a gold tooth.

     “Wasn’t my intention to pry,” the fox said, looking away.

     Jackie’s wooden barstool scraped across the floor as she stood up. “Upon reflection, I believe I will stay for the evening’s entertainment. So, I’m going to go have a seat over there,” she said, pointing to an empty booth tucked into a corner near the foot of the stage, “and, while I’m over there, you can do two things for me.”

     “How’s that?”

     “First, you can keep me set up with something better than whatever you served him,” she said, pointing to the passed-out prospector. “Second, you can make sure the music keeps playing.” She motioned to the hurdy-gurdy which was grinding away, looking for all the world like it had seen not just better days, but better years as well.

     The fox raised an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”

     One of Jackie’s hands vanished beneath the edge of her serape, from whence it returned holding a small stack of coins, which she placed on the bar.

     “Forget I asked,” the fox said. He pocketed the coins, then stepped out from behind the bar and walked off to re-wind the hurdy-gurdy.

     Jackie picked her way across the floor to the corner booth, where she slid onto the bench, put her boots up on the table, eased her hat further down her forehead, and settled in to wait for the show.

 

* * *

 

     Trotter was sitting downstairs in the makeup chair while Silversides – the old centaur who, in addition to doing makeup and hair for all the performers, also managed the props and stitched the costumes – gingerly removed still-hot curlers from the glossy white fur atop the young fox’s head. Trotter always got bored while Silversides worked, and he had lapsed into a daydream when he heard the warning bell sound from upstairs.

     That got Trotter’s attention.

     “Five minutes to curtain!” the fox said as he shot suddenly upright, jogging Silversides’s arm in the process so that the old centaur dropped the last curler on the floor, where it rolled away under the vanity. As the centaur bent down to try to retrieve the wayward curler, Trotter was already on his feet, tugging off his makeup-smeared smock at the same time as he tried to pull on the straps for his angel wings. “How did I miss the first bell? Silversides, you’ve got to warn me about these things!”

     From halfway underneath the vanity, Silversides tried to say: “That is the first bell, Trotter.”

     Even if his words had been clearly audible, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because, even as the centaur spoke, Trotter had already jammed his feet into his platform sandals and was bolting out the door in a panicked rush of fur and feathers, with the loose, gauzy fabric of his costume trailing out behind him.

     The fox ascended the nearby staircase as quickly as he could without battering his delicate wings against the narrow walls, only to burst into the backstage area and discover, as the centaur had tried to warn him, that it was still a half hour before curtain.

     “Silversides,” he muttered under his breath, “you could have told me.”

     Trotter thought about going back downstairs to wait in his dressing room until the next bell, but the idea of having to traverse the stairs twice more while fully-costumed didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he noticed another group of performers playing cards on a small table over by the ropes and sandbags, and he walked over in their direction.

     One of the card players, a human made-up to look like a demon, looked up at Trotter and made a show of pretending to rub his eyes.

     “These contacts must be messing with my vision,” he said to the other players, “because I’d swear I see Trotter. But it can’t be Trotter, because he’s on-time.”

     “Very funny,” Trotter said. “Silversides told me that was the second bell.”

     “Well, I guess your reputation as a diva is intact for now,” the card player said. “Now, do we deal you in, or are you just going to watch?”

     “I’ll play,” Trotter said, “but I have to play standing-up. I can’t sit in a chair with these wings on, and I’m not taking them off and putting them back on again.”

     “Suit yourself,” the human said. “How much are you in for?”

     “Night’s wages.”

     The human counted out a stack of chips and slid them over to an empty spot on the table. Trotter walked around to stand above the chip stack, and anted-up as the human dealt out the next hand of Fox’s Run.

     “What does the crowd look like tonight?” Trotter asked as he studied his cards.

     “All of Zymmer’s finest gentlefolk have turned out to see you strut, Trotter,” the human said. “Which is to say, the usual lot of grubby prospectors and grubbier miners.”

     Trotter made a face. “You mean no one stayed behind after the Stampede?”

     “Why do you care?”

     “Out-of-towners send better gifts down after the show.”

     The pretend-demon harrumphed. “Must be nice, Trotter.”

     “It is.”

     “There was one strange face,” another of the card players said. “Human woman sitting alone in the corner booth, wearing a hat and dark glasses – dark glasses, inside here, if you’ll believe it? She’s clearly not from these parts.”

     “She’s the only smart one out there. When the lights come on and hit Trotter’s fur, she’ll be the only one who isn’t struck blind,” the pretend-demon said. After laughing at his own joke, he turned to elbow Trotter in the haunch. “Hey, angel, are you going to bet or what?”

     Trotter, who had been staring past his cards with a distracted look on his face, blinked and shook his head. “Oh, no, I fold,” he said, and haphazardly dropped his cards back down onto the table. “Cash me out, okay?”

     “Cash you out? You only played half a hand.”

     “Just do it,” Trotter said. “I have to go see something.”

     As the pretend-demon raked Trotter’s chips back into the main pile, Trotter walked over to the edge of the stage, where he gently peeled back one end of the heavy velvet curtain and looked out into the crowd.

 

* * *

 

     The sun was just beginning to set when Diamond Jane Vaanderly made her customary grand entrance.

     A mean-looking rattler with large pistols dangling conspicuously from each hip came through the door first and made a brief show of scanning the room before sliding off to one side so that Jane could enter. As she came in, the fox herself made a grand sight, and Jane didn’t try to hide her pleasure at knowing that every pair of eyes in the music hall was fixed on her. Her black linen trousers were smartly-pressed, with creases sharp enough to crack eggs on, and her suede pumps – hand-made to her specifications by a little boutique in Verkell and couriered back to Zymmer – had probably cost her more than most of the prospectors in her cabaret could hope to earn in a lifetime. Her gold blouse with silver pinstripes had been expertly tailored to flatter a figure which required little flattering to begin with. And, lest anyone forget how Diamond Jane came by her appellation, the two massive diamonds which dangled from her earrings caught the light of the setting sun behind her and danced with fire. Every single hair of her silky, sable-colored fur was neatly in place. She rested one hand on the butt of the pearl-handled revolver which hung from her belt; in the other hand, she carried an ornate silver cane with a third massive diamond set into the handle.

     As Diamond Jane stood at the front of her establishment and enjoyed basking in the attention of her patrons, a second, equally-mean-looking, equally-well-armed rattler slid in behind her. Jane’s two bodyguards took their designated places, one on each side of her, and the trio made its way down towards the stage, moving as a practiced unit, pausing only when Jane stopped to exchange pleasantries with the more prominent figures among her guests.

     As evening had fallen and a crowd had gathered inside the cabaret, the tables on the floor in front of the stage had largely filled with patrons. But one large round table at the front of the audience had remained conspicuously vacant, with four empty chairs facing towards the stage. As Jane and her entourage approached, one of the rattlers slithered slightly ahead and pulled one of the middle chairs out for Jane, who lowered herself into it and placed her silver cane down on top of the table. After Jane was comfortably seated, the rattlers settled-in to the two outer chairs, leaving one empty seat next to the proprietress.

     Diamond Jane raised a hand above her head and snapped her fingers. Barely an instant later, the old fox from behind the bar was standing next to her table. He put a silver tankard down in front of Jane and started to turn away, but Jane motioned for him to step closer, which he did.

     Diamond Jane fixed her floor manager with a withering stare as she said: “Where in blazes is my husband?”

 

* * *

 

     Saxifrage Vaanderly paused with his hand on the knob of the cabaret’s side door. He stared at the neatly-manicured fingers which gripped the doorknob and saw that they were shaking.

     With a single, practiced motion, he reached into the inner pocket of his dinner jacket, fished out his silver flask, flipped the top open with his thumb, and took a long pull of the strong liquid inside. He grimaced slightly as the liquor burned its way down his throat, but he began to feel a familiar, pleasant warmth as the alcohol hit his stomach, and he noticed that his hands started to feel a little steadier as well.

     Silently, he acknowledged the death of his latest stab at sobriety. Total lifespan: seven hours. Not a personal best, but not a personal worst, either.

     He looked down at the flask, and studied his reflection in its polished surface. He was still handsome, but he knew the drink would soon see to that, if he kept up his current pace. Already he could pick out a few silver hairs scattered among the rest of his neat auburn coif, and the skin around the corners of his cool, blue eyes was just beginning to crinkle. Yes, he was still handsome, but it was the kind of handsome which made him look at least a half-decade older than he was.

     He shook his head at his reflection. It was the booze that did it. It aged him.

     Then he turned the flask over, and read the inscription engraved on its other side:

     “To Sax, from Jane – Just a reminder that you’re mine forever.”

     Suddenly, he felt his hand start to twitch again, a sensation which he quickly drowned with another long pull from the flask.

     It wasn’t just the booze that aged him. It was Jane. Knowing that she both loved and hated him, and that he both loved and hated her, and that, no matter what indignities she might inflict upon him, no matter how cruel she might be, he would never, ever be free of her.

     Because Diamond Jane knew his past, and that meant she owned his future.

     She owned him, body and soul, until death did them part.

     “Race you to it,” he thought, and drained the flask. Then he tucked it back into his pocket, straightened the lapels on his jacket, and let himself in through the side door.

     Once inside, he saw that Jane and her snakes were seated in their usual places, so he walked over to their table and stood behind Jane, where he bent down to lightly kiss the fur on the back of her neck. Leaning over, he whispered into her ear, “Sorry, darling, that I’m late,” and he steeled himself for the explosion, only to be surprised when it didn’t come.

     In fact, Jane barely seemed to have heard him at all. Not one to question providential favors on those rare occasions when they came his way, Saxifrage seated himself upon the empty chair next to his wife, and turned to face her, doing his best to look unfazed by the whole situation.

     If Jane had even noticed his arrival, she gave no sign of it. She was staring across the room with unusual intensity, her eyes fixed on a single spot. He followed her line of sight to a corner booth by the edge of the stage, where a human woman sat by herself. Saxifrage squinted his eyes and tried hard to get a better look at the stranger seated at the booth, who was dressed all in black, but there was little light to speak of, and, between the broad-brimmed hat which was pulled low over the woman’s face, and the tinted glasses which she wore, it was hard to make out much.

     He put his hand on top of Jane’s. “Darling, are you alright?” he asked. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

     Jane finally seemed to realize that her husband had joined the scene. Without taking her eyes off the woman in the corner booth, she swatted his hand away.

     Saxifrage winced. He looked down at his hand and saw blood bubbling up from where one of Jane’s claws had raked his skin. Smarting, he put his hand up to his mouth and sucked on the cut.

     “I don’t have a pelt, Jane,” he said softly. “You can’t just claw me like that.”

     Again, if his wife heard him, she gave no indication.

     Finally, Jane turned to look at her husband.

     “That woman, over there,” she said.

     “Yes?”

     “I know I’ve seen her face somewhere.”

     “Where?”

     “I don’t know,” Jane snapped. “Somewhere. Maybe back in Verkell. Maybe somewhere else. I don’t know.”

     “Does it matter?” Saxifrage asked.

     “I don’t know, do I?” Jane said, sounding irritated.

     “Would you like me to have her thrown out?” Saxifrage asked. He turned around to look behind him and signaled for the floor manager, ostensibly to arrange to have this woman-in-black bounced, more importantly to order himself a double, which he did when the old fox arrived at the table.

     Jane shook her head. “No. Not yet, anyway.”

     “Whatever you say, darling.”

     Jane looked at the woman again, then back at her husband, who couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her so lost for words.

     “If I didn’t know better,” Jane started to say. But, before she could complete her thought, the few remaining houselights were extinguished, and a drumroll sounded from behind the stage’s velvet curtain, which began to rise. All at once, dozens upon dozens of patrons, both seated and standing, began to stomp their feet in time with the band which had started to play from up in the wings, and a single spotlight lit the center of the empty stage.

     “Ladies and gentlemen!” an announcer’s voice called out. “Foxes and humans, centaurs and snakes, noggles and minotaurs, Diamond Jane’s is proud to present to you, for your entertainment, a show of singularly sinful seduction, the blessed and the cursed, our Heaven and Hell musical revue!”

     Saxifrage felt a swelling of bitterness and self-loathing as he saw that his wife had lost all interest in whatever she had been about to say to him, and that the entirety of her attention was now focused on the stage, where a young, white-haired fox in a diaphanous gown with angel wings was leaping gracefully to stand beneath the spotlight.

     Saxifrage refused to watch. Instead, he stared down into the bottom of the double whiskey which had recently appeared on the table in front of him.

     “Race you to it,” he said underneath his breath before throwing back the drink and motioning for another.

 

* * *

 

     Jackie found that she was smiling in spite of herself as she watched Trotter twirl his way around the stage. He leapt and spun so gracefully, and his fur really was fabulous, the way it caught and reflected the light. There really was no one else quite like him. It was that little flash of his canines when he smiled, the innocent, almost childlike delight he seemed to project as he performed. Even though there was nothing innocent about Trotter – nothing at all – and even though Jackie knew that better than most, it was still hard not to like him as he danced past her up there on the stage. Impossible, really.

     As the revue continued, a waitress appeared at Jackie’s booth. “Can I get you anything?” she asked. “A drink? Some food? Or maybe something else to nibble on?”

     Jackie looked over at the waitress, a human woman dolled-up in demon horns and a comically skimpy outfit, who would have been attractive if she didn’t also look so exhausted.

     “I take it you’re on the menu, too?” Jackie asked.

     “And very reasonably priced,” the waitress said. “If you’d like, I can show you to someplace more private, and we can discuss it further?”

     “What’s your name?”

     The waitress-who-was-not-actually-a-waitress hesitated. “Call me Ruby,” she said.

     “Tell me, Ruby, what’s your normal rate?”

     “Two for an hour, five for the night.”

     Jackie reached underneath her serape and extracted another stack of coins.

     “Here’s what we’re going to do, Ruby,” she said. She put two coins together on top of the table, then another three off to the side of those, and then another five off to the side of those. “You’re going to sit down next to me, and we’re going to act like we’re having a good time in each other’s company, for the benefit of whoever it was sent you over here. For that, I’ll pay you two. Then, you’re going to answer some questions for me, and for that I’ll pay you three more. Then, you’re going to forget all about what we discussed, and for that I’ll pay you this last five. It will be like you worked two whole nights.”

     Ruby looked down at the gold, then back up at Jackie, then shot a nervous glance back over her shoulder. Finally, she reached down and picked up the two coins closest to the edge of the table and tucked them away inside her costume. Then she shimmied onto the bench next to Jackie, where she leaned up against the other woman, draping her legs over Jackie’s lap and wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

     “Is this good enough?” she asked.

     “That will do fine,” Jackie said. “Just remember to smile. We’re having a good time, right?”

     Through a forced smile, Ruby asked, “What did you want to know?”

     Jackie looked hard into Ruby’s eyes. “Who told you to come over here? Diamond Jane?”

     Ruby shook her head. “Her husband, Sax.” She cocked her head in the direction of Jane’s table, where Jackie could see Saxifrage knocking back a drink and doing a bad job of acting like he wasn’t watching the corner booth instead of the action on the stage. “He asked me to try to get you backstage.”

     “And what was supposed to happen to me back there? Was he going to kill me? Or was someone else going to do it?”

     Ruby looked genuinely shocked. “He didn’t tell me about anything like that,” she said. “He just said that I should try to find out who you were and why you were in Zymmer, and why his wife seemed to recognize you.”

     “Uh-huh. And how far do you think he would go to protect his wife?”

     “Protect her? He hates her. We all hate her,” Ruby said. She put her hand over her mouth to cover a giggle, then looked up at Jackie with a slightly dopey expression, her pupils strangely dilated. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” she said. “Jane would kill me if she knew.”

     “You don’t have to worry about that,” Jackie said, her eyes still locked on Ruby’s. “Tell me more about Diamond Jane. What do you know about her?”

     “Jane? She’s the richest fox in this whole section of the Waste,” Ruby said. “She owns the cabaret, she owns the bunkhouse next door, and the bank next door to that. She basically owns the whole town. She owns everyone here in one way or another. She owns the mine, where they struck diamonds and gold and mana crystals to boot. What she doesn’t own, she doesn’t want.”

     “Know where she came from?”

     Ruby shook her head. “Verkell, I guess? I don’t know. No one ever talks about it. One day, she was just here.”

     “And you’re scared of her?”

     “Everyone is. People who cross Diamond Jane get dead in a hurry. See that bull at the table next to hers?” Ruby tilted her head in the direction of a big minotaur in a duster who was tossing back drinks even faster than Saxifrage. “They call him Judge – it’s a sick kind of joke. He’s what passes for the law around these parts, and he does what Jane says, and that includes stringing-up anyone who Jane wants taken care of. Anyway, that’s what happens to the lucky ones.”

     “And the unlucky ones? What happens to them?”

     Ruby shuddered. “You really get Jane mad, she has them break your legs and dump you out in the Waste.”

     Jackie looked over at Diamond Jane and shook her head. “Nice to know Jane hasn’t changed,” she said.

     Just then the performers burst into song. Jackie looked back up at the stage, where she saw that Trotter was now flanked by costume demons on both sides to form a bizarre sort of chorus line, which he was leading in a particularly bawdy rendition of an old trail song while they all high-kicked in unison.

     She really had to hand it to that fox. He could sing as well, in a kind of beautiful, lilting tenor. His kicks weren’t bad, either. Maybe he had found his calling.

     He was also doing a fairly convincing job of not staring straight at her. She had caught his eyes once or twice since he’d come on-stage, but his gaze had never lingered on hers for long enough to draw attention. He was much slyer than the Jane’s human husband, who had been shooting her so many glances that she marveled he hadn’t needed to stop and reload.

     Diamond Jane, meanwhile, hadn’t taken her eyes off of Trotter since he had leapt onto the stage.

     Jackie felt Ruby stirring beside her, and she looked down to see the costumed woman with a confused look on her face. “What was I just talking about?” she asked, sounding slightly groggy, as though she’d had one drink too many.

     Jackie fixed her eyes back onto Ruby’s, and watched as the other woman’s pupils dilated slightly again, and her face seemed to relax.

     “Never mind,” Jackie said. “What about the white fox? What do you know about him?”

     “Trotter?” Ruby giggled a little. “He’s as thin-skinned as Jane is, but my goodness is he is gorgeous, and the crowds love him.” The woman sighed.

     “Anyone know where he came from?”

     Ruby shrugged. “He showed up a couple years ago, maybe, and Jane snapped him up and put him in the revue basically as soon as she saw him. He tells all these wild stories about what he used to do before that. He grew up on the streets of Verkell, you know, and he didn’t always make his living as a dancer, if you know what I mean?”

     “I know what you mean,” Jackie said.

     “Anyway, you should hear him talk about all the affairs he’s had, all across the Waste. I’d swear that half of them must be made up. To hear him tell it, he’s been with no fewer than four sheriffs, both the President of the Land Bureau and his wife, a woman with blood-red eyes who led a gang of train robbers, and a renegade angel – I don’t know if that last one is even possible, do you?”

     Jackie grinned wide enough for Ruby to catch a glimpse of her gold tooth. “Sounds like he must be fun,” she said.

     Ruby’s face screwed up a little. “Listen,” she said, “if you’re thinking about making a move on Trotter, then you can just forget it, unless you’ve got a death wish or something. See what’s hanging around his neck?”

     Jackie didn’t have to look – she had already noticed it: beneath the gauzy folds of Trotter’s costume, a diamond ring was looped around his neck on a plain, waxed black cord, where it bounced up and down as he danced and kicked.

     “I’ve seen it.”

     “Well, who do you think gave it to him? He belongs to Diamond Jane, and nobody comes between Diamond Jane and her property. No one with any sense, anyway.”

     Jackie’s eyes flitted between Trotter and Jane and the man seated next to Jane, who Ruby had called Sax. “Trotter does seem more like Jane’s type than that sad-sack human she’s with,” she said.

     “I don’t think Jane has a type. Or, if she does, it’s dependent, and both Sax and Trotter have that in spades. They just show it in different ways.”

     “Tell me – does she love him?”

     “Who, her husband?”

     “No. Trotter.”

     Ruby laughed. “Hell, everyone loves Trotter. Everyone except Sax, anyway.”

 

* * *

 

     Saxifrage put away another double, which didn’t seem to make so much as a glancing blow on the way down. He’d stopped counting drinks several songs ago, and the world had congealed into the sort of muddy, undifferentiated haze which he associated with the wrong kind of drunkenness. Not the giddy kind he used to be able to vanish into, but the depressive kind which had claimed him of late, where the world was shut out and he was left alone inside himself to wallow in his own shortcomings.

     He decided he needed to slow down, and considered switching to centaur wine. But, when the waiter passed by the table again, Saxifrage ordered himself one more double.

     Maybe, he thought, just a few more might finish him off. He could die right there at the table, just fall over into Jane’s lap, right as the curtain fell. The idea wasn’t totally unappealing.

     But, after a few more seconds spent mentally wandering down that particular morbid path, he shook his head.

     “Not yet,” he thought to himself. “Let me do just one good deed before I die.”

     By marshalling what willpower he had left, and by squinting through one eye, he was able to clear enough of the fog from his vision to be able to get a fairly good look at something if he stared straight at it for long enough. He swiveled his head to look over at the corner booth, where he’d sent Ruby to find out about the strange woman in the dark glasses who had somehow spooked Jane. He moved a little too fast as he did, though, and he came close to falling out of his chair.

     Once he was properly oriented, he was surprised to discover that the corner booth was now empty. Both Ruby and the unknown woman had disappeared.

     Maybe Ruby had persuaded the woman to step backstage after all? If so, it had taken some time.

     He looked back down at the table to find his drink – one more, he reasoned, couldn’t possibly matter much at this point – and instead his eyes came to rest on the silver table knife from Jane’s place setting. The knife’s surface was clean and polished – Jane hadn’t so much as touched the dinner he’d ordered for her. She hadn’t even looked at it, hadn’t even noticed it was there.

     She wouldn’t have, of course. She never noticed anything when the fox was on stage.

     Saxifrage reached over and picked up the knife – Jane didn’t notice that, either – and held it up in front of his face. He tilted it from side to side, studying his own reflection as is shrunk and stretched along the flat of the blade.

     The drink must have been getting to him, because, for one horrible second, he thought he saw that the knife was covered with blood, thought he saw blood on his hands. He remembered Jane’s face like it had been yesterday, the look on her face when she’d caught him, caught him with the knife still in his hands. The day when he’d stopped being whatever it was he’d been before and had become Jane’s plaything.

     He remembered that Jane’s look had been one more of satisfaction than of shock or surprise. She didn’t disapprove. She hadn’t exploded. She had just smiled, and crossed her arms, like a businesswoman acquiring a coveted asset at a knock-down price.

     But then he blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw that the knife was clean, with only his own reflection visible in its surface.

     He also saw that one of his shirt cuffs had come loose, and that the thin line of a scar was visible through the gap in the fabric. With fingers that were both slowed and steadied by drink, he fixed his cufflink and tidied-up both the shirtsleeve and the jacket sleeve over it.

     Saxifrage wasn’t really sure why he did what he did next, but he slipped the knife inside his dinner jacket, tucking it into the breast pocket next to his flask.

     But, before he had time to probe deeper into his own drink-addled motivations, the revue’s first act wound to a close, and the audience all around him burst out of their seats and erupted into cheers. Next to him, Jane was on her feet, clapping enthusiastically. Saxifrage didn’t bother to stand, decided he didn’t really care whether Jane noticed or not.

     As Trotter and the other performers departed the stage amid cries for more, Saxifrage felt a finger tap him on the shoulder. He turned around to see Ruby standing behind him. He motioned for her to lean in close, like she was taking an order.

     He had to speak slowly so as not to slur, but he was able to ask: “Who was she?”

     Ruby shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t say.”

     “Then what did you talk about that whole time?”

     “I wasn’t really focused on talking, Mr. Vaanderly. Talking’s not really what I do.”

     Saxifrage kneaded his forehead and blinked. “Then where did she go?”

     “I really don’t know. She said she had someone she needed to see.”

     “See someone? Where?”

     “Backstage, I guess.”

 

* * *

 

     Trotter practically floated down the stairs to his dressing room. He always felt this way after a performance, a kind of vibrant aliveness which he had never known in his life before Diamond Jane had plucked him out of a line at the railroad station and put him to work in her cabaret. His muscles were sore, and his fur was matted with sweat, but, in that moment, he felt like he could fly to the sun if he wanted to, or fight a minotaur hand-to-hand and win.

     He blew past Silversides in the downstairs hallway. The centaur tried to say something to him as he went past, but Trotter just called out, “Later, Silversides! Later!” and kept on going until he reached his dressing room, opened the door with a flourish, and vanished inside, slamming the door behind him.

     Inside, he did a little pirouette before kicking off his sandals and slipping out of his angel wings, which he dropped in a heap on the floor. Next he took off his costume and buried it away beneath the others in his dresser. Then he went over to the wash basin in front of the mirror, and started to rinse off his face.

     “You really were wonderful tonight, you know?” someone said from behind him. Trotter would have jumped up onto the counter if he hadn’t recognized the voice.

     “Jackie, as I live and breathe!” he said, spinning around to face the woman who stood leaning against the wall in the corner behind his dressing screen. He crossed the room with a few fleet steps and threw himself into her arms, which she wrapped around him. She was taller than he was; even though she held him a few inches off the ground, his muzzle came up just to the base of her neck. She smelled like he remembered.

     “I always worried that your luck would run out one of these days,” he said. “I watch the papers for your obituary, you know?”

     Jackie set Trotter back down, not trying to suppress her smile as she reached up and readjusted her hat, which had been knocked askew by the fox when he jumped into her.

     “I’m glad to see you’re still alive, too,” she said, as she looked him up and down. “You’re looking like a saint, as always.”

     Trotter laughed. “They have me playing an angel, of all things. But you know better than that.”

     “That I do. Although, ending up with Diamond Jane’s claws in you? Even for you, I’m surprised.”

     The fox sighed and sat down on his dressing stool. “I got tired, Jackie. Tired of always moving from one place to the next, always being on the make, never knowing where I would wake up the next morning, or who I’d find there. It used to be fun, it used to give me a thrill, but it wears you out, Jackie. It wears you out.”

     “You could have stayed with me, you know.”

     Trotter gave her a knowing glance. “You and I both know how that would have ended. It didn’t work out the first time, or the second. You’ll have to forgive me for not sticking around for it to not work out a third time. We just don’t work together, Jackie. Not in the long run, anyway.”

     Nodding her head, Jackie sighed. “I know,” she said. “You’re what I want. But you’re not what I need. Or vice versa. But, you have to admit, in little bursts, we can really be something.”

     “That we can.”

     “Still, Diamond Jane?”

     Trotter shuddered. “She makes my skin crawl, Jackie. And you know how much it takes to do that. But she pulled me off the street and put me on the stage, and I love it up there. It’s what I was meant to do, Jackie. I didn’t know it before, but I know it now. I’m alive on stage.”

     “And off the stage?”

     “It’s not so bad. I have everything I could possibly need, and plenty that I don’t. Not that I’ll give it back, mind you.”

     “And Jane?”

     “Why do you care?”

     Jackie shrugged. “A couple of reasons. I care about you, for starters. That, plus Jane and I have some unfinished business.”

     Trotter stood back up. The look on his face turned pouty. “That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it? You came for Jane, not me.”

     Jackie hesitated for a second before answering. “At first, yes, my coming to Zymmer was all about Jane. But I didn’t know you were here at first. When I found out, I changed the plan, and that’s why I’m here now. And I am here, now.”

     “That you are,” Trotter said. He walked over to Jackie, reached up, and put his hands on the frames of her dark-tinted glasses. “Do you mind?” he asked.

     Jackie shook her head. Trotter slid her glasses off, and looked into Jackie’s eyes, with their irises the color of blood.

     “I always did like your eyes,” Trotter said.

 

* * *

 

     In the downstairs hallway, Silversides found his state of mind was gradually evolving from confused to concerned. He was pacing back and forth, which in and of itself was a bad sign, because he only paced when he was nervous.

     He wasn’t totally sure what he had to be nervous about that night, but the fact that something deep down inside his mind was telling him to be so was disturbing.

     Something funny was going on. He could just feel it. It was in the air.

     He walked over to the door to Trotter’s dressing room. He had tried to warn the fox about the strange woman who he’d seen slipping inside just before Trotter himself had arrived, but of course Trotter hadn’t listened, because Trotter never listened. He wondered who the woman was, and why she was there. He could think of a couple different possibilities, none of which were any good. The only question which concerned him was whether it would be better for him to raise his concerns with someone else, or whether the smarter move was just to act like he hadn’t noticed anything.

     Silversides put his head against the dressing room door, intending to see if he could hear what was being said inside. What immediately struck him was not anything he heard, but what he felt.

     The door was vibrating. A slow, steady, humming vibration.

     He moved a few paces away and put the tips of his fingers on the wall on the other side of the hallway. He felt it there, too. A low, rhythmic vibration running through the structure itself, just below the tips of his fingers.

     That was what he’d been sensing all night, he realized. That was what was in the air. A low, barely-audible hum, which seemed to come from nowhere in particular.

     It had been easy not to notice it before the show, with all the work he’d had to attend to, or during the show, with all the noise and commotion going on upstairs.

     But now, during the relative calm of the intermission, he noticed it. And it helped Silversides to make a decision. It was a decision which he wasn’t happy about, but it seemed like the safest course of action.

     He started to walk to the stairs when an actor dressed as a monk came bounding down them. Silversides put a hand out to stop him from getting past.

     “I don’t want you to make a scene,” the centaur said, “but I need you to go upstairs and get the Judge and bring him down here.”

     “What do you want the Judge for? That old bull’s drunk-as-a-skunk and then some.”

     Silversides thought for a moment. Then he said something else which he was even less happy about.

     “Then go get Jane,” he said.

 

* * *

 

     Trotter was still holding Jackie’s glasses in his hands when the door to his dressing room burst open with a crash and an explosion of wood splinters. Almost faster than Trotter could blink, he saw that Jackie had taken a step to one side so that he was no longer between her and the door, and that a revolver had appeared in her hand, which she cocked with a cold, metallic click.

     Blazes, but she was fast. He’d seen her do it before, but it never ceased to amaze.

     His time for reflection was cut short by Diamond Jane, who stepped in through the door, her own pearl-handled pistol held at the ready. Jane appeared to take a moment to register the scene inside before her face contorted with anger, and she took another step into the room, training her pistol on Jackie as she did.

     “Now I know why I couldn’t quite place you,” Jane said. “You’ve changed.”

     “Whereas you haven’t changed at all,” Jackie said, her voice cool and level. “Granted, the last time I saw you, you were just a plain Jane. That was before this diamond business, before you got rich and tried to get respectable. You may have acquired a new coat of paint since then, but underneath, you’re still the same rotten crook I knew back in Verkell.”

     Jane laughed. “You’re one to talk. You were just a small-time grifter until I met you, until I took you under my wing and turned you into a real thief. And how did you repay me? You tried to hustle me out of my own racket.”

     “I may be a thief, Jane, but you’re a crook. Those’re two different things.”

     “Whatever. Semantics. I should have killed you myself when I had the chance.”

     “But you didn’t, did you? You had me ambushed from behind, then you figured you’d let the Waste take care of me. Well, it didn’t, and now I’m here.”

     “And what? You’re going to talk me to death?”

     “No. This is going to be a short conversation, Jane. And if I only wanted to kill you, I could have just done it upstairs. I could have walked right up behind you a dozen times tonight, and put my gun up to your head, and you wouldn’t have noticed a thing, you were so busy watching my friend here get your kicks for you,” Jackie said, nodding in the direction of Trotter, who had been standing stone still since the start of the confrontation. “But I don’t shoot people from behind, unlike some people I know. If I shoot you, you’re going to be looking at me when I do it.”

     At Jackie’s mention of Trotter, Jane suddenly seemed to remember that her lover was in the room. While keeping her gun pointed at the red-eyed woman, Jane turned her head to face the white fox, her lips curling back to show her teeth.

     “And you,” she said, almost snarling. “You set me up, didn’t you?”

     Trotter started to protest, when Saxifrage suddenly appeared in the open doorway, and all three people inside the dressing room turned to look at him. Jane’s husband looked a little unsteady on his feet, and as he walked into the room, he closed the cracked door behind him, and kept leaning on it with one hand, as though to maintain his balance. But he seemed steady in his eyes as he swept them over the room. They paused for a second on Jackie, whose pistol was still at the ready and pointing at Jane, then on Trotter, who had started to edge slowly over towards his dressing table while Jane’s head was turned, before Saxifrage’s eyes finally stopped on his wife, who now stared at him with an unveiled look of contempt.

     “Jane, what’s going on?” he asked, as he took a step into the room.

     “Sax, shut up and get out,” Jane said. “This is none of your business.”

     “It seems like it might be,” Sax said. “After all, there’s a red-eyed woman over there pointing a gun at you, and you were just accusing your lover over there of betraying you. Although the hypocrisy of such does seem to have been lost in the moment.” And, with that, he took another step towards Jane.

     “I told you to shut up!” Jane said again. As she did, she lashed out with her empty hand and slapped her husband sharply across the cheek.

     Trotter winced at the sound of the impact, and Saxifrage reached mutely up to put a hand over his face. Blood trickled from a trio of neat claw marks across the length of his cheek. He looked at his hand, holding his fingertips up in front of his face, and rubbed his fingers together, looking at the blood which now stained them red.

     “Jane, no one has to,” Trotter started to say. He had managed to move almost behind her during the distraction surrounding Saxifrage’s entrance, and he had one hand curled around something which he had picked up from the dressing table.

     “I gave you everything!” Jane snarled, as she spun around to face Trotter. “You were nothing when I found you! You were nothing, and I made you into something! You belong to me!”

     Then, whiskers shaking, teeth bared, Jane looked back at Jackie again. “You hear that? He’s mine,” she said. “And nobody steals from Diamond Jane!”

 

* * *

 

     From just outside the dressing room, where he had been listening to the confrontation taking place behind the closed remnants of the broken door, Silversides started as the sound of a single gunshot cracked out, followed almost at once by a high-pitched scream and a sort of gasping moan. A few seconds later, he heard the sound of something heavy hitting the floor.

     Then, silence.

     He stood paralyzed for what felt like a minute or more, trying to decide what he should do, whether he should look inside, or send for Jane’s guards, or just make a break for it.

     Then, just as he was getting up the courage to peek through the crack in the door, it swung open, and Saxifrage Vaanderly stepped out. He was bleeding from the cheek, and his hands were covered in blood.

     Silversides also noticed that Saxifrage was holding something in his hand. It was a small, silver penknife, itself stained red.

     “Mr. Vaanderly, is everything okay?” Silversides asked.

     “Everything’s fine, Silversides,” Saxifrage said. “But, if it’s not too much trouble, would you be so good as to go upstairs and bring the Judge down here? I’m afraid you may have to splash some water on his face, but I do need him down here.”

     Saxifrage looked calm, the old centaur noted. As calm as he’d ever seen him.

     “What do I tell the Judge I need him for?” the centaur asked.

     “You can tell him that I killed Jane,” Saxifrage said.

 

* * *

 

     Just as all hell began to break loose at the cabaret next door, Jackie’s gang finally finished drilling through the wall of the Zymmer Mercantile Bank & Trust.

     As he powered-down his massive digging machine, Jackie’s artificer peeled back his goggles and wiped powdered stone and sweat from his forehead.

     “That thing rattles and rumbles so much, I thought you were going to shake the whole town down,” another of the men joked.

     The artificer frowned. “It worked, didn’t it? Jackie said she’d take care of it, and she took care of it.” He turned to the lookout: “Any sign of the law?”

     “Plenty,” she called back, “but they appear to be otherwise occupied at the moment.”

     “Okay,” the artificer said. “Let’s do some business. You all remember the rules: Everything belonging to Diamond Jane is fair game. Hands-off the rest.”

     The other men and women nodded their silent assent. One by one, they hunched over and climbed through the hole which ran through the bunkhouse wall and into the bank vault. And, one by one, as they got inside the vault and their eyes adjusted to the darkness, their mouths dropped open.

 

* * *

 

     The letter caught up with Jackie DeCoeur a few weeks later. It was addressed simply to “Red,” care of the baggage claim counter at the Verkell Main Depot.

     It had been years since Jackie had used that particular message drop. But, given who had once corresponded to her at that address, she had been stopping by the Depot every couple days to enquire at the claim counter ever since she and her crew had returned to the city to make contact with her fences.

     And, sure enough, on her fourth or fifth visit, when she again gave her name as Red and asked for her messages, the fox behind the counter had consulted his book, then disappeared back into the trunk room, from which he returned with a plain brown envelope. The address was printed in simple, block lettering, and the flap was sealed with wax.

     “Any reply?” the fox asked.

     “No reply,” Jackie said.

     The fox shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter anyway. No return address.”

     Jackie had given the fox an oversized tip, then taken the envelope back to her hotel room, where she broke the seal, unfolded the paper inside, and began to read:

Dear Jackie,

     I’m sorry to say that your little withdrawal didn’t make the front pages here in Zymmer, although the papers did say that you made off with quite a haul. I would have saved the clipping, except the lithograph of you which they ran with the article just didn’t do you justice. They didn’t get your eyes right.

     Then again, they never do.

     Anyway, I hope you won’t hold it against Sax that he pushed you off the front page. I know you couldn’t exactly stick around for the show, but you would have been impressed by his performance on the gallows. They hanged him the very next day, and I swear I’ve never seen such a crowd in my life. Forget Zymmer – the whole of the southern Waste must have been there to see the man who killed Diamond Jane swing. 

     That’s a tough crowd to play your first show in front of – even I would have been nervous. But Sax? He didn’t even blink. The Judge reads out the charges, declares him guilty, and then he asks him, does he have any last words? Sax just shakes his head, and leans down so they can slip the noose over nice and easy. I’d swear he was smiling when he took the drop.

     He’d have convinced me, Jackie. He should have been an actor.

     Well, with Jane and Sax both dead and buried, the cabaret is closed, pending a change in ownership. Which is actually fine by me, because I don’t think I’ll be staying in Zymmer anyway. I know a centaur who works the circuit up north, and he says there’s good money to be made playing the gambling halls, and he thinks he can book me a gig.

     If we ever find ourselves in the same town someday, maybe you can take an hour off from knocking over the casino, and you can swing backstage to visit me. I’ll be your diversion any day. 

     I got your package, by the way, and while the thought is appreciated, you didn’t have to. I can take care of myself, and, in the confusion which broke out after Jane got hers, well, let’s just say I didn’t walk out empty-handed. The earrings were a little gaudy even by my standards, so I sold one, but I’m holding on to the other for now. Call it a reminder of my own mortality, if you like.

     Or call it a reminder of you.

     You’ll always be near to my heart, Jackie. Sometimes I wish that you weren’t so good at leading a gang, and that I wasn’t so good at putting on a show. Sometimes I wish we were both just better people. Of course, I think that’s what Sax was wishing for, too, and while I’m not sorry that he got his wish, look where his wish got him.

     What was it you said to me that day? In little bursts, the two of us were really something? I’ll drink a toast to little bursts whenever I think about you.

     I hope this letter finds you well. I still check the papers each day for your obituary. I hope you keep disappointing me. 

Yours Always,
-Trotter

     Jackie smiled as she finished reading the letter. It was a big enough smile that, if Trotter had been there, he would have caught a glimpse of her gold tooth.


"Love and Theft" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

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Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

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