Glass Half-Empty (Part 3)
by T.S. Bazelli
The Duke radiated his beauty like a benevolent sun god, and a crowd had gathered to bask in the glow. At his side stood a golden young woman. The daily gossip sheets did not do justice to Lady Annabelle Franz. Her face was heart shaped, capped by overstuffed lips that formed a slight pout, and she had curves, oh what glorious curves. Claude could have followed the lines of her body for days, but Lady Anabelle’s beauty was only an echo of Elroy’s perfection and she knew it. The lines of her face were screwed up a smidgen too tight.
“A present for her future husband.” The words were telegraphed to the rear of the room in murmurs from the crowd, as a velvet draped frame was wheeled onto a platform in the center of the deck.
“Out of my bloody way!” Claude yelled, but dull eyes looked back, quizzical, confused, annoyed, as he pressed his way through the crowd.
Elroy tugged at a golden cord and the velvet slipped into a soft puddle of on the floor, revealing a portrait of the Duke and the Lady sitting side by side, capturing the prime of youth and beauty. The Duke covered his mouth in astonishment. Elroy reached his hands out towards the face mirrored in oil.
“Beautiful!” Someone shouted. “Glorious!” There was a thunderous chorus of applause. “Bravo!” Claude could feel the beginnings of a headache. He pulled his revolver from his pocket, placed a finger in one ear, and pulled the trigger.
For a moment there was blessed silence as the shot reverberated against metal. The bullet ricocheted off the ceiling onto a table laden with a champagne fountain. What a waste. Claude thought, as glass smashed, and golden liquid began to pool on the floor. There was no time to mourn. He’d started a stampede.
Claude dodged an errant elbow to the face, as a peacock scrambled off towards the ramp, and Elroy’s guards began to press forward. They swatted rich men and women out of the way like flies. Ordinarily, Claude would have cheered on the proceedings, but his mind was fixated on the spilled champagne. It had been an expensive vintage.
“Get out! Everyone!” He yelled, as he tossed a stunned swan woman, clad in a white satin gown, between him and his pursuers. She squawked and crumpled into a dead faint as a fist came swinging towards her temple.
Claude sprung over her limp body, but as he dodged a blue-suited peacock, a fist connected with his stomach. The force knocked him off his feet. His coat ripped as it snagged on a bolt in the floor, and he came tumbling towards another thick bodied guard. Glass smashed. Guests screamed. People ran.
Claude waved his revolver high above his head. “Don’t move or I will pull the trigger.” He pointed the barrel at the painting. It was the only thing between the guards and the duke. “Tell these people to leave.”
“Stop!” The duke’s voice rang out over the crowd. “Get out! Do as the man says.” Long slender fingers gripped the frame of the painting, as the people moved away, murmuring, frightened, drunk.
“Who are you and what do you want from me?” Elroy’s eyes met Claude’s for the first time. Claude fought hard not to get lost in those blue eyes. How could someone so beautiful…
“Ladies, it’s safe to come out now.” Claude shouted, wrenching his eyes away. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the prostitutes file out of the corridor into the main hall. The last three of Elroy’s closest admirers, abandoned him, horrified, but to her credit, Lady Anabelle kept a tight grip on her future husband’s hand.
“Where’s my sister?” Claude hoped he wasn’t sweating too much.
“What sister?” The duke’s voice rattled. The color had drained from cheeks that had once been such a lovely shade of pink.
“Collette, one of your hired courtesans.”
“I don’t know anyone by that name.” Elroy’s hands were shaking.
“What you’ve done to these women, it’s appalling, barbearish – barbarbic”
“Barbaric?” Lady Anabelle spat.
“Yes, that.” Claude smiled back, pleased at the attention.
“What do you want from me?” Elroy asked.
“Only that you give back what you’ve taken from these ladies.”
“It will take some time.” The duke’s blue eyes fell to the floor.
“I’ll supervise.” Claude suddenly wanted to be sick again as he waved his revolver at the painting. Gunpowder was expensive. If the Duke knew he’d used his only bullet…
But the duke bought his bluff. They returned to the electrical room with the Lady Anabelle silently in tow. The Duke barked for a mirror, and began to amputate living tissue away, revealing the husk of a man beneath. The lopsided depiction Claude had uncovered had been too flattering. Beneath the mask of skin, Elroy was a scarred mess of muscle and sinew. He almost forgot that Lady Anabelle had been present until she disappeared as quietly as she came, marked only by a slamming door and a whimper.
When the Duke was done with himself, he started the task of returning the amputated parts to their original owners. Bursts of blue light fused together skin and flesh and muscle and bone. The Duke operated his machines with the nimbleness of a surgeon, and took upon delicate operations with his own two hands. His stitches were so small that the women hardly cried out. One-by-one he traded ear-for-ear, eye-for-eye, cheek-for-cheek. One-by-one the women vanished out the door until only Claude was left alone with husk of the duke.
“You’re still rich. Why cry?”
“But I would have traded it all for youth and beauty!” Elroy moaned, searching Claude’s eyes for compassion, but Claude had none. The Duke cried out for his beautiful painting, but even his servants had abandoned him. Claude shut the door and staggered off the ship.
He wondered if Colette had simply not suited any of Elroy’s needs, or if her amputation had gone horribly wrong. Perhaps her body had been discarded, or she’d escaped without time to send word. Claude wouldn’t sleep easy. He shivered as a whisper of cold wind tickled the back of his neck. For some reason he didn’t feel at all like drinking.
For two weeks the gossip sheets were filled with nothing but news of the Duke. They speculated about where he had come from, and where he disappeared to. Some said he was a brilliant scientist, others that he had dealt deals with the devil. None of it would ever be confirmed. 99% of it was complete hearsay. Elroy had floated his ship away a days after the party, but not before claiming a large loss with the insurance company. In the chaos, not only had his property been destroyed, but he’d been robbed. His jewelry collection had gone missing. More than a million dollars worth of glittering baubles, had simply vanished.
Claude slammed the papers down on the desk. Two weeks and there had only one mention of him in the papers. To add to the insult, his name had been spelled wrong.
A knock at the door, startled him to attention. Pants? He checked before clearing his throat. “Come in.” He lowered his voice to a low husk.
A man in a courier’s uniform deposited a box on Claude’s desk and left promptly. Claude’s heart sunk. He’d always held a small kernel of hope that Lady Anabelle might call to thank him for saving her from scandal, or perhaps that one of the courtesans he had saved would insist on repaying his bravery with kisses.
Claude stared at the box in suspicion. The bourbon was still boxed from shipment, tied up prettily with a red silken ribbon. The postmarks told him it had shipped from New York and it came with a hastily scribbled note.
“I thought you might be in need of a night cap, hero. You played your part perfectly. The ultimate distraction. Cheers big brother! Enjoy.” Tucked into the envelope, was a diamond studded earring the size of a thumb nail. It was the kind of earring that a Duke might spend his money on. Claude started to laugh. The little thief! Colette had always indeed been the quick one.
What the hell, he thought as he cracked open the box, and wet his lips. He would sleep well indeed.