An American Beauty
Kensington Books (April 25, 2023)
ISBN: 978-1-4967-3943-8 (ebook)
CITYWIDE SALOON RAID YIELDS MIXED RESULTS
—special cable to The Daily Crier
August 21, 1867
Last night at around two o-clock, in an extraordinary demonstration of both skill and stealth, the Police Force of our good city conducted a series of unexpected raids upon the illegal gambling saloons plaguing Richmond. The Mayor himself authorized the raids and subsequent detention of the Dealers, Cappers, and Proprietors. In addition, there were several arrests of Notable Citizens discovered at the tables therein. [SEE THE LIST OF NAMES, PAGE 2]
Sources claim that all Criminal Parties were dismayed at the sudden onslaught of the law, which they had not anticipated. Games were disrupted mid-play. Fine food and wine were left abandoned in haste. Bottles were found toppled, with cards and chips left scattered along the floors.
It must be noted, however, that a good many of the parlors’ Clientele avoided detention by fleeing out of windows or along the rooftops before escaping into alleyways. These Brave Personages thus eluded justice under the cloak of night.
The many new faro houses, keno parlors and houses of ill-repute in Richmond are a shameful blight upon our city. We must remain vigilant in our defense of their corrosive influence. The Respectable Citizens of our good home, and any and all Guardians of our Honor, demand nothing less.
The looking glass hanging in the dressing chamber was old and badly foxed, centered in an elaborate, tarnished frame that resembled a sunburst of knives. Johnny told everyone he’d imported it straight from Venice but that might easily have been a lie, as Johnny Worsham lied about as effortlessly as a shark sliced through the ocean. Wherever it was from, the mirror was only large enough that three of the Fancy Girls could fit before it at the same time, and even then only if one of them crouched.
As there were never fewer than eleven girls on duty at a time, in those last few minutes before the saloon opened for business, the dressing chamber was crowded. Swirls of powder hung in the air, cheaply perfumed and faintly glistening, fairy dust brushed with lamplight. Pots of cream rouge, peach and rose and coral, were passed from hand to hand, and the line of girls waiting their turn before the mirror smoothed and straightened their moiré gowns with delicate fingers.
Belle, kneeling at the base of that silvery spotted glass, was adjusting the last few hairpins in her curls when Johnny walked in.
He did not knock. He never knocked; it was, as he was fond of pointing out, his house, not theirs.
“Arabella? Are you in here? Has anyone seen—”
“Johnny,” she called without rising, still concentrating on the pins.
“There you are.” He crossed to her side, careful to avoid the frothy purple heap of her skirts, and stood looking down at her, frowning.
Johnny Worsham was what any sane woman would call beautiful. Black-haired and whip-lean, he had the brightest green eyes Belle had ever seen and a smile that could melt frost. He spoke like a gentleman and dressed like a dandy, always vivid brocades and silks and stickpins of solid gold. For the briefest week of her life, back when they’d first met, she’d fancied herself in love him.
But that was what all the girls thought in the beginning. It was one of Johnny’s greatest gifts, in fact: the ability not just to charm hearts but to dazzle them. To capture some tender young thing in that emerald gaze and tell her how lovely she was, how unexpectedly lovely, and wouldn’t it be a fine world if they might have the opportunity to get to know each other a little better? An opportunity that would, indeed, enrich them both for the better?
And the tender young things nearly always agreed that yes, it surely would be, because these days everyone needed enrichment, didn’t they?
Of course, none of them realized that they were merely bedazzled. Not at first.
“Franny’s taken ill,” Johnny said, still frowning at her.
Belle paused with both hands in her hair, met his eyes in the glass. “Oh? What’s wrong with her?”
“Female troubles. I need you to fill in for her tonight at the piano.”
“All right, I—”
“I’ll need you to fill in for her for the next few weeks, actually.”
“Fine, but I—”
He turned to leave. Belle scrambled to her feet, catching up her hoops so she wouldn’t trip.
“Johnny. Do you have a moment, please?”
He glanced back at her, impatient, then waved her over to the doorway. Esther, one of the Dealers, turned sideways to edge by them, headed in a staccato clip to the main parlor. Belle waited until she was out of earshot to speak.
“I wonder if I might ask a favor.”
“Ask,” he said.
“I need an advance,” she said bluntly; there was never any use in trying to dance around the truth with Johnny. “Mother’s in debt to the butcher and the greengrocer, but the boarders still have to eat.”
My whole family still has to eat, but she left that unsaid.
Johnny sighed theatrically, scraped a manicured fingernail along the line of his jaw. She knew that sigh, that elegant long stroke of his finger, so taunting, so calculated, and made certain that her expression gave him nothing in return: not the hard lump in her throat; not her sweaty palms, hidden behind her back; not her clenched stomach. She was a doll, she was empty. She was not desperate. She was only asking.
“This is the second time in three weeks, Belle.”
“I know. But I told her I’d have something by the end of the night, and if you put me at the piano I won’t get the tips I would otherwise. So I don’t know what else to do.”
He dropped his hand, staring past her at the wall, and Belle braced herself for what would come next.
“A loan,” he said at last. “Half your next wages, at five percent interest, to be paid back within the month. Deal?”
“Come find me at the end of your shift. And take off that pince-nez before anyone sees you.”
Belle returned to the dusty glimmer of the dressing chamber, picked up the coral rouge from the vanity. The little pot was porcelain, cool and smooth, heavy as a river stone in her palm.
“What’s wrong with Franny?” she asked the rouge.
“Miscarriage,” answered one of the girls, the one who’d taken her place on the floor before the mirror. “Last night.”
“Bless her heart,” said another, still in her chemise and corset, rubbing a halved lemon under her arms. “But no doubt for the best.”
“Yes,” Belle murmured, and put down the pot. “No doubt.”
She remembered to remove her spectacles, tucking them into her bodice before leaving the room.
Johnny’s taste in music tended toward anything romantic or bright. Schumann and Mozart were acceptable; Beethoven was not. Hymns were, of course, out of the question. Belle had been playing Johnny’s selection for over a year now, so moving from piece to piece was almost relaxing. She did not have to consider it too carefully; her fingers knew the notes, the slick surface of the keys, which ones would stick if not struck with just the right force. After the first hour or so, Belle would enter a sort of a trance, a place of inner quiet to absorb the external ruckus. Without seeing anything, without having to even open her eyes, if she wished, she could read the mood of the room and adjust her list of music accordingly. Cheerful pieces for when the conversation lulled, or when someone had lost an especially deep wager. Slower, softer, for when the girls were laughing or the men toasting. Something complicated for the beginning of her shift, or the end, when she needed to remind Johnny that he had hired her for more reasons than one, for her expertise and not just her face.
She was two-thirds through Schumann’s Arabeske in C Major when her ensnared gentleman approached.
“You play divinely, Miss Lenore.”
Belle offered a smile, her fingers never faltering.
“Mr. Huntington, lovely to encounter you again.” She worked through another measure before adding, “Are you thirsty?”
“I have been warned not to trust the cistern, I’m afraid.”
“Just so. Which is why I have a pitcher of lemonade for you right there, on the little table to your left. I made certain they boiled the water first.”
There was a pause, and then he laughed, a deep laugh, not quite booming but not soft either, and not enough to break her inner quiet but it did prompt her to shift a little on the bench, to better see him. Well, to see him as best she could.
He was helping himself to the lemonade—alas, ice was impossible to procure these days, even for Johnny, so it would be lukewarm—his back to her. He wore a frock coat of dark brown and in that moment resembled nothing so much as an enormous bear. A bear in a china shop, maybe, moving with careful restraint, lifting the crystal tumbler of lemonade in his great paw of a hand, trying a swallow.
“I do apologize for the lack of ice,” Belle said, facing the keyboard again. “We had two icehouses in town, but they were both destroyed during the retreat of ’65. No one seems inclined to rebuild them yet.”
“It’s most satisfying, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. How is your luck tonight, Mr. Huntington?”
“Better and better.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Another pause; perhaps he was savoring the drink.
“Are you from here, Miss Lenore?”
“Oh, no. But not far. I was born in Alabama. On a tempestuous night, I’m told.”
“We lived by a river, you see, so when the storms would come, those violent summer storms, my whole family had to retreat into the woods, away from the flooding. I was born on a bower of leaves and moss. Blessed by the rain and the wind, beneath a crown of crying birds. So I’m told.”
The arabesque concluded. She shifted into “La Belle Catherine.”
“To this day,” she said, “birds like to follow me, singing and singing.”
“I believe you are shining me on, Miss Lenore.”
“Am I? I suppose you’d have to meet me in daylight to find out, Mr. Huntington.”
“You do spin a pretty tale. Thank you for that.”
She leaned back a little, tipped her head toward him. “That was only my beginning, sir. I have many more tales to tell.”
He took a step closer. “Perhaps you might—” he began, but Belle would never learn what he would have said next, where that might would have led them, because in that moment four sharp clangs rang out from the brass bell positioned above the fireplace, the one connected by wire to the front door.
In a heartbeat, the room erupted. While some of the parlor’s clients only stood or sat in place, confused, every single Fancy Girl and steward leapt into action.
Belle shoved back from the piano, yanked her spectacles from her bodice and snapped them in place.
“Raid!” She seized his hand, the one without the lemonade. “Come on!”
She didn’t wait for him to answer; the chamber was already emptying as even the first-timers realized what was about to happen, everyone running, stampeding toward the windows or doors. She pulled her admirer firmly toward not the doorways—crammed with bodies—or the windows, which wouldn’t open anyway. She pulled him instead toward the staircase that led to the second story, and after the first few steps she didn’t have to pull any longer. He was springing up the carpeted stairs alongside her, surprisingly nimble, only halting when they reached the landing.
“Which way?” he asked calmly.
“Here.” She found the third room to the right, darting inside. It was empty, thank goodness, all the lamps unlit, cool and silent and smothered in shadow. She left the door cracked so she could see, crossed to the iron-framed bed against the far wall and tugged it sideways, just enough to reveal the outline of the trapdoor beneath it.
Belle knelt, found the hidden crack that would open it and jammed her fingers in. The planks lifted free of the floor, wood squeaking in protest.
She glanced at him from over her shoulder. Mr. Huntington only stood there in the middle of the room with his arms folded over his chest, his expression dubious. With his dark hair and beard and the coat, the hall light spilling in from behind him, he was more bearlike than ever.
“Do come,” she whispered, urgent. There were already new voices filtering up from the story below, angry men’s voices, whistles blowing. “Quickly!”
He did not budge.
Belle lifted her open palm to him, fingers stiff, more a demand than a plea. “You will fit. I’ve tested it myself. Just get in and lie flat.”
He looked back at the doorway, that damningly cracked door, then went to his knees beside her, lowering himself gracefully into the hole. She padded to the door, closed it, and crept back to the bed.
It was pitch dark now, brutally dark. Good thing she was used to finding her way blind.
Her hands discovered the opening, then her feet, and she was dropping into the narrow confines of the crawlspace, pushing her skirts and hoops down to her ankles as best she could. She leaned out again to drag the bed back into place (the iron frame was hollow, deliberately light), found the handle on the underside of the trapdoor and scooted down flat to close it. The wood squealed again, horrifically loud, but then it was shut.
They did fit, but it was a tight space. Dusty. The stink of dank lumber and mice burned in her nose, briefly overwhelming; she began breathing through her mouth and it became more tolerable. She pushed at her hoops once more, her expensive silk dress bunched into a mess up by her knees, but the rustling and crunching of her crinoline seemed deafening. She gave it up.
Mr. Huntington said quietly, “I could have simply paid the fine.”
Belle tested her fingertips against the trapdoor; it held firm. “A fine,” she whispered, “imprisonment, and your name in the papers. Thirty-nine lashes for Johnny, which, I assure you, he would not appreciate.”
“Ah.” He released a sigh, and the mouse smell briefly mingled with that of lemons and cigar. “These quaint Southern ways. It seems you have done me more of a service than I thought, Miss Lenore.”
Above them, footfalls shook the hallway beyond the room. More male voices, still angry.
“Stop talking,” she breathed.
“Are you afraid?”
Mr. Huntington sounded untroubled and genuinely curious, as though their circumstances were no more unusual than taking tea after church on Sunday.
Belle removed her pince-nez, tucked it back into her dress. She rolled to her side and without asking he lifted his arm, just enough so that she could inch closer, resting her head upon his shoulder. The wool lapel of his coat felt scratchy against her cheek.
The doorknob above them gave a quick, telltale rattle. The door to the room slammed open.
As the policemen stomped above them, opening the wardrobe, wrenching apart the curtains, Belle put her lips to his ear.
“I am never afraid.”
Excerpted from An American Beauty by Shana Abé. Copyright © 2023 by Five Rabbits, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Books, a division of Kensington Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.