Lordship, Connecticut, October 18, 1836
A blast of sunlight punched through the persistent blackness, backlighting my eyelids in a hazy wash of red. I took a deep, steadying breath as the vague sense of weightlessness abated. Following protocol, I didn’t open my eyes until there was ground beneath my feet.
Sand. A cool gust of wind sucked the air out of me as I took in my surroundings with a practiced eye.
The beach was deserted, and it seemed as if we’d ended up exactly where we intended. Fabulous. But the real mark of success was whether we’d made it to when we intended. I looked down at the time-travel mechanism in my palm and waited as the wildly spinning hands slowed to a halt.
“Well, shit,” I muttered under my breath, prying my hand from Bacon’s too-tight grasp.
“When is it?” he shouted. The whipping wind plucked the words from his mouth and sent them sailing down the stretch of beach, but I’d gotten the gist through lip-reading.
“Saturday the eighteenth,” I yelled in reply.
Yep, bollocks about covered it. The whole trip had the makings of a major cluster-fuck. One that Bacon was directly responsible for. Already cranky at having to make the journey in the first place, being rushed on an important mission made me want to really lay into him.
To be fair, our arrival date wasn’t his fault. It’s a tricky proposition, time travel. Once in a while you nail it, balls on, and get where you want, when you want. Most times, it’s a little more hit and miss than that, and we were lucky we’d done as well as we had. The reason for the trip itself, however, was all his fault.
See, a few months prior, Bacon had lost his time-travel mechanism to the Loony Duke of Leister in a drunken game of whist. Needless to say, it had been priority number one to get it back from him as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, by the time we’d located his residence and come up with a viable plan, the bastard had left the country. We had finally tracked him down in the United States. And, after weeks of planning, we had come to get it back.
We’d intended to arrive three days before the harvest fair began. Early enough to set my plan into motion and take care of some details, but not so early that we’d have stay in the nineteenth century for very long. Ostensibly, because the longer one stays away, the trickier it becomes to find one’s way back. But, if I’m being honest, I have an unholy obsession with hot showers and Starbucks coffee that keeps me motivated to limit the duration of my trips.
My career has taught me to be a roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, so despite the setback and my mood, I got down to work. I methodically disassembled my handheld time-travel mechanism and stored the various pieces into different compartments of my ever-present carpetbag.
Time travel rule number one: always immediately disassemble one’s TTM. This holds true even for an experienced time pirate such as myself. One might think that, given the nature of my occupation, being prepared for a quick getaway would take precedence over all other concerns. I’ve found, however, that it’s much better to be stuck somewhere reassembling for a few extra minutes than to be caught unawares when the village idiot steals your intact TTM and winds up in 1929 Siberia. Been there, done that, and spent almost a week chasing him through time to get it back. Talk about a time suck.
For this particular recovery mission, I’d chosen to travel light (aside from being saddled with Bacon, who was necessary in order for me to secure lodgings during this sexist time period). The only thing I carried with me was my carpetbag stuffed with a change of clothes needed to execute my plan. For the trip in, I’d opted for an unfortunate mutton-sleeved blue dress over a suffocating corset, and a wickedly starched petticoat. I am a jeans girl through and through so the look was out of character for me, to say the least, but I had long since accepted the costumes as one of the necessary evils of the job. The only concession I allowed myself was comfortable shoes, as being fleet of foot was a requirement. To that end, I had added a pair of supple, low-heeled calfskin boots to complete the ensemble.
Once our gear was packed away and we’d slogged through the sand to reach the road, we hotfooted it to Mariner’s Inn about a mile from the beach. Bacon spoke to the proprietress and a short while later we were secure in our quarters.
With Bacon’s back to me, I shucked the “proper lady” costume as fast as possible, pulling off the hideous gown and undergarments. I replaced them with a full cotton black skirt adorned with brightly colored hand-stitched poppies, and an off-the-shoulder black blouse that knotted at my waist. Then I adjusted “the girls” so that they were displayed to their best advantage—because, regardless of what the magazines may say, breasts never go out of fashion.
Releasing my dark hair from the elaborate chignon, I turned my head upside down and shook it out. When I’d righted myself, a mass of curls hung loose down my back. After lining my navy blue eyes in black, I added my twenty-first-century MAC lip gloss in Rockin’ Red. I’d finally begun to resemble a Gypsy fortune-teller. I inserted large gold hoop earrings into my lobes and slid a gold ring on every finger, including my thumbs, for good measure. With a last quick look in the mirror, I was satisfied to see that Stormy Gale was nowhere to be found, and “Madame Baptiste” was ready for action.
Missions accomplished, I stuffed the Victorian Miss uniform back in my bag and called to Bacon. “Okay, ready.”
He turned to face me and grinned. “You look great.”
His broad smile drooped at my clipped tone. I looked away, a little ashamed, but still not ready to forgive him for getting us into this mess. “We’ve got one hour. Let’s rock and roll.”
By the time we got to the fairgrounds, evening had stolen over the little town, and the night had that witchy aura exclusive to Octobers in New England. A swollen harvest moon hung heavy in the sky, its light casting a golden hue over the field. “Lots of people already,” Bacon said, scanning the crowd as we walked.
“Wow. Keen observation. You should be a private detective,” I replied.
He shot me a hangdog look, then turned his face away and mumbled, “I said I was sorry. I don’t know what else I can do.”
I sighed. “It’ll be fine once we get it back. Until then, I’m going to be a little on edge. You can’t blame me for that. It’s really serious this time, bro.”
He nodded grimly and that made me feel even worse. Bacon always owned up to his mistakes. It was one of his finest qualities. I just wished he didn’t make them quite so often. At nineteen, he was trusting and optimistic to a fault. Although, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. We’d been filthy little urchins living on the streets of London eating garbage and begging for money until Professor Gilbert Green came and took us away with him thirteen years ago. Life was peachy after that, but those early years had leeched the optimism right out of me. The things we saw… Well, you can’t unsee them, and I honestly don’t know how Bacon managed to hang on to his innocence through it all. Needless to say, the big, nasty world took pleasure in trying to strip him of it, chewing him up and spitting him out on a pretty regular basis. But damned if he didn’t always dust himself off and keep smiling.
This time he’d really stepped in it, though. And despite the fact that his starry-eyed innocence often confounded me, the thought of him losing it made my stomach pitch.
The smell of roasted meats, toffee apples and yeasty bread interrupted my thoughts. It was so tantalizing, we stopped and purchased two fat loaves stuffed with sausage bits.
We nibbled on the crusty loaves as we scouted the fairgrounds for a good location to set up shop. After some deliberation, I chose a spot toward the middle. As much as I liked the idea of being on the fringe for a quick getaway, it was imperative that I set up in the thick of things so that the duke wouldn’t pass me by.
“I’m going to try to get that space over there,” I said to Bacon. “Wander around and see if you can find me a few candles and a couple jugs of wine. Keep an eye out for the duke. And make sure you leave your hat on and wear it low over your eyes. He won’t be looking for you, but we don’t want to risk a run in and him recognizing you. Meet me back here when you’re done.”
“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” he said with a salute, then headed off.
Unfortunately, as I approached the chosen spot, I saw that an old woman had beaten me to it. She was setting down a rickety cart filled with baskets of apples, pears and corn to sell. When she saw me coming, she scowled.
“Hello there!” I called and then flashed my teeth in hopes of dazzling her with my smile.
“Move along, witch. Tart! Strumpet!” she snarled, flashing her tooth in a grimace, which was far from dazzling.
I leveled her with a menacing glare and wiggled spell-casting fingers in her direction. A childish satisfaction warmed me as her face paled and she backed away.
Forced to abandon my intention of making a deal with the hag directly, I took my leave. After a few minutes of searching, I located the groundskeeper. He agreed to move the woman down a row and to give me her spot in exchange for the ruby ring I wore on my left index finger and a gander at my tatas. Not thrilled about the latter part of the deal, I stood before the fat, greasy tosser as he licked his fleshy lips in anticipation. Eyes closed, I took a deep breath, calling upon my steely time-pirate resolve. Then, cursing Bacon roundly, I gave the pig a quick flash of the goods. Upon his leering promise to have a tent erected for me in short order, I stifled a gag and fled the scene, eager to forget the incident.
Not one to cry over spilled milk—or in this case, bared breasts—I threw myself headlong into preparing for the evening’s activities. Making the rounds of the other tents, I was able to purchase some brightly colored cloth, herbs, a rickety little table and a decorative orb made of delicate green blown glass. By the time I was through, I’d made some friends, gained some admirers and doled out quite a few bribes. In return, some of the merchants agreed to try to get a message to me should they notice the Loony Duke of Leister had arrived.
And when he did? Well, “Madame Baptiste” was going to con him out of the TTM he had stolen from Bacon, take the rest of his valuables and get the hell out of Dodge.
An hour later, the tent was draped in gauze and smelled of beeswax candles. Complete with “crystal” ball, it looked appropriate for the purpose.
The general public had started trickling in, so I sent Bacon back to the inn to wait for me rather than risk him blowing my cover. But as concerned as I was that the duke might recognize him, I was even more concerned about how I was going to recognize the duke.
Bacon had been very vague on details as far as the duke’s appearance was concerned. He’d estimated Leister was in his thirties and recalled that he had dark hair and had worn a dapper suit. Beyond that, Bacon remembered very little else about him or that drunken night. The only other thing we knew for sure was that he was a Brit and a recent transplant to the States.
Despite my recon earlier that evening, I had learned little else. None of the merchants I had chatted with had met him as of yet. The only additional information they could offer was that he’d just arrived in the area a month ago and purchased a large estate on the outskirts of town.
Well, that, and the fact that he was bat-shit crazy.
Apparently the “Loony Duke” title had been with him since he was a young man in London, and it had followed him to America. During the short time he had been in Lordship, the working-class folk of the town had built Leister up into some pre-Mary Shelley type of mad scientist. Everyone expected that the fair would be his debut of sorts, and gossip was rampant.
No matter how cracked his Liberty Bell might be, I still had to get the job done. I decided my best bet was to focus on his mode of dress and his accent to help me identify him in the crowd of Americans. With that in mind, I stood out front with my eyes peeled, eavesdropping as people streamed by.
In an effort to seem authentic, I halfheartedly called to passersby, offering fortune telling and good luck charms. Inevitably, there were some takers, and I did my best to put on a good show.
My first customers were a charming ginger-haired young man and his sweetheart. They entered the tent, sharing nervous smiles with each other as they sat down. He didn’t even glance at my cleavage, and she hung on his every word. They were adorable together. After consulting the spirits I quickly assured them that they would have a long and happy life together. They grinned at each other, and some of the tension knotting the back of my neck dissipated.
As the evening wore on, people trickled in and out, their merriment rubbing off on me. I actually started to have a good time hamming it up as Madame Baptiste, ad-libbing a Romanian-ish accent and all. I would be the first to say it wasn’t exactly spot on. Growing up on the streets of London in the 1800s, moving to America in the late twentieth century when I was thirteen and spending my life flitting through time, it’s been difficult to settle into one mode of speech. That said, who was going to question my Romanian? So I went with it.
I’d just handed a bundle of herbs to a lovely woman hoping for a grandchild when I noticed a tall man, half a head above the rest, looking at me from a distance. I found my gaze drawn to him as well, not because of his size, but because of the intensity of his stare. Holding my gaze with his own, he walked toward me until he stood only a few feet away. He shook his head briefly but didn’t speak.
Hello, tall, dark and handsome. I cleared my throat. “Hello there, sir. I haf come all the vay from Romania to bring the secrets of the Romany to the Americas. Vould you like to see vhat your future holds?” I said in what I hoped was an enticing, spooky voice. I’d laid it on a little thick and grimaced inwardly.
“Why, yes,” he replied, sounding surprised at his answer. “Yes, I believe I would.”
A Londoner, I surmised, although the crisp accent had flattened somewhat, sort of like that of a person who’d lived in the States for a long time. Even so, I wondered for a moment if this might be the duke. I dismissed the thought as soon as it occurred to me as I took in his workman’s clothes with a sweep of my eyes.
His lips kicked up at the corners as I completed my inspection, and so I headed into the tent, making sure to keep my face turned away until some of the color had faded. Presented with this stunning batch of man candy, I was feeling a bit unnerved and uncharacteristically shy.
I grabbed the jug of wine and poured myself a small cup, hoping to quell my nerves. After chugging half of it down in one huge gulp, I took a deep breath and turned around to face my handsome patron. I started in surprise as our bodies bumped. The sneaky fellow had rolled up right behind me.
“Oh, I bek your pardon! Von’t you seet down?” I backed away while motioning toward a crate that was acting as a chair. I took a seat on the opposite side of the rickety little table and waited for him to join me.
He sat and continued to look at me intently. I was starting to wonder if this guy ever blinked. A trickle of unrest snaked up my spine. Had my libido gotten the better of me? Sure, he looked great, but if he planned to cut my head off with some old-fashioned lopping shears or make a dress out of my skin, it was so not worth it.
An irrational panic had started to build, its insidious fingers brushing up the sides of my neck. What with the music and noise from the festivities, if I screamed, would anyone even hear me? I looked to see the tent flap still laying wide open as it had been all evening, and was about three seconds from lobbing a beeswax candle at him and running out screaming, when he spoke again.
“I’m sorry, I just… You remind me of someone. I don’t mean to stare, but it’s quite uncanny.”
Okay, so I looked like someone he knew. The panic began to subside.
“I promise you, sir,” I replied with a purr, on solid ground again now that I felt reasonably reassured that he wasn’t serial killer, “I vould remember you if ve’d met.”
He didn’t smile at my flirtatious tone as I’d expected. Instead he pinned me with another heated gaze. My heart beat faster at the stark sensuality in his face. His dark eyes slid away from mine, down to my mouth. My breath fell short and my lips parted of their own accord. Suddenly it became very warm.
Gathering my wits, I pasted a smile on my face. “So what…er, vhat do you vant to know, handsome? About money, maybe? Or a voman? Just ask it, and Madame Baptiste vill give you answer.” I tried for a faux cheery tone that, to my chagrin, came out sounding rather shrill,
“All right, Madame Baptiste,” he replied, his eyes never leaving mine. “Sǎ dansezi cu mine?”
My stomach dropped at his response, for two reasons. Mostly, because the man’s knowledge of what I assumed was Romanian did not bode well for me. It felt like a bad omen. Of all the gypsy joints in the world, the guy who speaks Romanian walks into mine. Some fortune-teller I was—I never saw that coming. But rounding out a close second was the effect that husky voice coming out of that sensuous mouth seemed to have on me.
A little shaken, I realized he was watching me, waiting for a response. For a brief moment, I debated brazening it out in hopes that this was some one-off Romanian phrase he’d learned, but dismissed the idea. The comfortable way the words just poured out of his mouth along with the smooth way he rolled the r led me to believe that he was fluent.
Fluent in Romanian! What are the frigging odds? “Uh, vhat language is thees you speak?” I asked, feeling like a huge idiot but not quite ready to concede, on the off chance that he was speaking Greek or something and I might be able to salvage my image.
“Why, Romanian, of course. Don’t you speak, Madame Baptiste? O singurǎ limbǎ nu este suficient. Wouldn’t you agree?” he asked, a nefarious dimple flashing on his right cheek.
I almost rolled my eyes then. Of course he had a dimple. Like he wasn’t distracting enough without it.
Deciding that something resembling honesty was in order, I let out a long but ladylike snort and slammed a hand on the table. “All right, you got me. I don’t speak Romanian. Happy? It’s just, no one takes me seriously if I tell them that I’m a gypsy from Pratt’s Bottom.” Rallying, I pressed forward. “So what did you ask me? I can still tell your fortune, you know.”
“I asked you if you wanted to dance with me,” he replied, his expression solemn once again.
“And what else?” My throat felt a little tight.
“I said, ‘One language isn’t enough.’ Don’t you agree?” His gaze swept down the column of my neck, skimming along my shoulders, then lower. He ran his tongue over his lips before he met my eyes again. “One language to tell a woman like yourself just how beautiful she is would be a hindrance. Vos yeux sont beaux comme la mer,” he murmured.
Ah, French. This one I knew. But what’s a girl supposed to say when a gorgeous stranger tells her that her eyes are more beautiful than the sea? “Merci, Je suis flatté.” It was true, I was flattered. Worse than that, I was crushing on this fellow hard. It had been a long, long time since I felt this way about a man. But I couldn’t allow myself to be sucked in by his charm, no matter how droolworthy he was. I needed to tell his fortune and send him packing so I could get my focus back.
Find the duke. Retrieve the TTM.
In truth, I was probably being overly cautious in my efforts to recover it. Neither Gilly nor I had ever let Bacon walk around with all the pieces to his TTM anyway. It had always been our habit to remove the mercury pin upon arriving at our destination without his knowledge. We didn’t want to demoralize him, but at nineteen he was easily distracted, and anything from a pretty girl to a juicy steak could make him lose focus. The responsibility of keeping the technology a secret was a heavy one, so it was really best for everyone if he didn’t have to bear it.
Without the mercury pin in it, from the duke’s perspective, what he had on his hands was probably just some sort of elaborate timepiece. A curiosity to be sure, but certainly not a time machine. If I left well enough alone, things would probably turn out all right. And it would give me some free time to spend with the hunk before me.
Still, if by some miracle the TTM should get into the hands of a real scientist or bright young inventor, and he or she got lucky… Well, I couldn’t take that chance.
Time travel is inherently fraught with risk. The technology is so volatile that in the wrong hands, it could destroy the world as we know it. In order to maintain balance and harmony, it needs to be regarded with reverence, if not a little fear. Every time we travel forward or back, something changes. Even with the risk index module we use to measure how much impact each trip could potentially have, nothing is guaranteed. And still, governments would kill for it, hoping to undermine other governments. Grief-stricken people would riot for it, hoping to undo tragedy and awaken the dead. None of them would care or understand the ramifications of their actions.
Nothing is more important than protecting our secret. Nothing.
Flirting with this sexy man was a pointless endeavor in any case. There was no room for a relationship in my life. Once again resolute, I sat up straight, steeled myself against his diabolical dimples and the intimacy of the candlelit space and pressed forward.
“All right, then, sirrah, what would you like to know about your future?” I asked him, hoping he would pick up on my newly brisk tone.
His sharp eyes took in my countenance and he cocked his head. Not willing to let me off the hook so easily, he asked, “Might I know your real name first, chéri? Surely it would be silly for me to continue calling you ‘Madame Baptiste’ now that we have peeled away that guise?”
With his head at that angle, for a split second, he did look oddly familiar. And for some inexplicable reason, with his eyes locked on mine, suddenly I wanted him to know my real name…wanted to hear him say it. I licked my lips and croaked, “Dorothy. But my friends and family call me Stormy,” wondering, even as the words spilled from my mouth, why I was telling him the truth. Well, half the truth, anyway.
My family does call me Stormy, but I don’t really have any friends. It’s hard to have relationships, or keep them at any rate, due to my lifestyle. At a certain point, people always start to ask questions. And the odd thing about me is that, even though my profession often requires me to lie or pretend to be someone I’m not, I actually don’t like lying to people. I justify it by reminding myself that what I do is for the greater good. I take from the rich and give to the poor. I rob the undeserving and redistribute their wealth to those who deserve it more. I travel through time trying to right wrongs without disrupting the fragile balance between what is and what can never be. It’s important work, my life’s work, and if I have to deceive people to do it, so be it. But I draw the line at lying to those I care about. If someone trusts me, it’s my responsibility to be worthy of that trust. So, I’ve found it easier to just have casual acquaintances rather than best buds, a rare tryst rather than a boyfriend. Always making sure they know from the start that I’m not going to play house with them or marry them or have their babies. That kind of life just isn’t in the cards for me.
“And do you have a surname, Stormy?”
I purposely ignored his use of my nickname, knowing full well he was trying to bait me and answered, “Gale. My name is Dorothy Gale.” Again, it was the truth. Since he wasn’t familiar with The Wizard of Oz or moving pictures at all, I was saved from having to answer the questions that typically follow that pronouncement—a bonus, since answering truthfully there was not an option.
“Dorothy Gale” had been my own choice. My adopted father, Gilly, had been a Scotsman, a scientist, an inventor and the creator of the time-travel mechanism. On one of his earliest journeys, he found himself in London, circa 1823. Bacon and I attempted to pull a pickpocketing scam on him. Rather than turning us in to the constables, he bought us bread and cheese. He spent a few days in London taking care of some business but made sure to see us each day and give us food. Upon preparing to go back to his twentieth-century life in America, he found he could not just walk away, so appalled was he by the conditions in which we lived. When he offered to take us with him, we didn’t think twice, and we never looked back. Life before Gilly was… Well, I don’t like to think about that. My life began at the age of thirteen when he found me.
Gilly was an indulgent sort, as if it was his job to make up for all the misery we had endured in our young lives. So when I told him we wanted to forget our past, to start fresh, he suggested that we come up with new names for ourselves. I pondered for weeks, tossing around this name and that, until I saw The Wizard of Oz on television. Breathless with exhilaration and flushed with excitement from the spectacle, I told Gilly from that point on, he should call me Dorothy Gale. He later nicknamed me Stormy because of the color of my eyes—at least, that’s what I tell myself.
I often wonder if Bacon wishes he had taken a little longer in picking his name. He’d only been six at the time and still awed at the prospect of eating three meals a day, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that food came into play for part of it. Gilly had gotten down on one knee and said, “Well, little master, what do you think? You can be called anything, whatever pleases you most.” At this direction, Bacon chose the things that made him happiest, and there you have it: Bacon Frogs.
I shook off the memory, trying not to smile, because I was still really pissed at Bacon. He’d allowed himself to be suckered out of his TTM during a drunken game of cards. Once again, his trusting nature made him an easy target for a charlatan. The bastard Leister had chosen his victim well. And sometime tonight, justice would finally be served.
“Dorothy Gale,” my luscious patron murmured thoughtfully, dragging me from my reverie. “Hmm, I think Stormy might be a better fit.”
“Probably so, sir,” I said, trying to ignore the tingle that ran through me as he said my name. I busied my hands, popping a lemon drop into my suddenly dry mouth, offering him one as well, which he declined.
“Now you know all about me. Let’s find out about you. For starters, what shall I call you?” I prompted, pulling my seat closer to the table and holding both hands over the green glass ball in an effort to get things back on track and moving along. It seemed long past time to end this dalliance so I could get outside to find out if my intended victim had arrived.
“Well,” he replied with a sardonic twist of his heavenly mouth, “The name’s Leister, but to be honest, most people just call me the Loony Duke.”