In honor of winning CampNaNoWriMo for the month of August, here’s the opening scene for tell me no lies, the steampunk romance/thriller I worked on. It will, of course, probably end up getting edited and tweaked again somewhere down the line, so feedback and gentle critique is most welcome.
Tempest Dumont was no lady.
The art of feminine sweetness was lost on her, and the thought of pursuing the refined arts that were deemed appropriate for young women of quality made her want to retch. Luckily, she had been born on the streets of Stockton to a penniless washer-woman, rather than in some gleaming Nob Hill mansion where she certainly would have been imprisoned by the trappings of propriety and respectability.
As a result, she knew enough about machinery to fix her secondhand cleaning-bot, Mrs. Three-in-One, with little more than a well-placed hat pin and the flick of a wrist, and she could beat out even the best poker players down at Roarke’s Tavern. Better yet, she could swill cheap liquor down her throat without incurring too terrible a hangover, throw darts with the accuracy of a sharpshooter, and talk her way out of an arrest, no matter what the offense.
Of all her prodigious talents, it was her skill in flirtation and self-defense that she treasured most. As the star singer of The Belladonna, the glittering saloon where San Francisco’s wealthy playboys gathered to sample the delights of the Barbary Coast, such strengths came in handy. She was the Siren of the Coast, luring men to her side with the entrancing power of her voice. They flocked to her shows, eager for an invitation back to her dressing room, where they waited like gallant swains paying homage to a fickle goddess.
At least once a month, however, one of those eager devotees made the mistake of breaking The Belladonna’s iron-clad rule: look, but don’t touch. When they did, Tempest was always ready to put them in their place.
Exhibit A: Leander Ward, one of the wealthiest bachelors in the city and the latest in a string of fools to press himself upon the hot-headed chanteuse without permission. Bleary-eyed and intoxicated, he accomplished little beyond tangling his fingers in the laces of her heavily-boned corset. Pathetic, really. Had it not been his third offense Tempest would have let things slide, but rules were rules.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Her voice was pleasant, but her eyes were as hard and cold as stone. Before Leander could pull away, Tempest had him in a stranglehold, the sash that had been around her waist now wrapped tightly about his neck.
The shock etched on his face was almost comical: eyes bulging wildly, mouth gaping, face as pink as a salmon’s belly.
“I — I’m sorry.”
“No harm done.” With a sweet smile, she released him and he tumbled back against the sofa, coughing hoarsely. “Still, I think it’s time that you went home.”
She didn’t need to ask twice. The man scrambled to his feet, top hat in one hand and ostentatious walking stick in the other.
“Oh, and Leander? Don’t bother coming back.”
He bobbed his head in an approximation of a nod before dashing out the door, narrowly colliding with the tall, willowy woman waiting outside.
“What in the world’s wrong with him?”
Tempest rolled her eyes, unruffled. “Tried to break the golden rule, the idiot. It really is a shame, Serafina. He was one of our wealthiest patrons.”
The older woman stiffened, lips pressed together in a thin line of disapproval. It came as little surprise — as the owner of The Belladonna, Serafina Kwan was militant when it came to her girls’ safety.
“I’ll not have anyone trying to take advantage of my girls, money or not.” She turned to the imposing automaton in the corner, all brass and sharp edges, its ray-gun gleaming in the flickering aetherlight. ”Did the Nanny stop him?”
“No need.” Tempest snapped the sash, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. “I took care of things.”
But Serafina didn’t laugh, and when Tempest peered closer, she noticed the dark smudges beneath the woman’s almond-shaped eyes. “Is everything all right?”
“There’s been another disappearance.” The woman sat down reluctantly, her shoulders rigid. “One of the girls from Rick’s place, down by the airship hangars. She’s been missing since Tuesday.”
At that unexpected bit of news, the smirk faded from Tempest’s face.
“The girl — Rosie was her name — was one of Rick’s best dancers. Lived with a sister who swears that she was happy, grateful for the job, with no reason to leave.”
Dread settled like a cold weight in the pit of Tempest’s stomach. She’d done her best to ignore the rumors that had been swirling around town over the past few months, tales of women mysteriously vanishing from view. Women came to San Francisco like moths to drawn to the flame, eager for a taste of freedom and the glamour of city life. Success on the stage was rare, and so women on the Barbary Coast came and went like the changing seasons. They moved from one saloon to the next, doing their best to appeal to audiences, but the work was grueling and the pay piddling. Most burned out after a few short months, leaving town to try their luck elsewhere.
“Maybe she fell in love, ran off with some man,” Tempest suggested. “She wouldn’t be the first.”
Serafina shrugged, plainly unconvinced. “I hope so. But I want you to be careful, understand? No needless jaunts after dark, not unless someone’s with you.”
Such restrictions smarted, but the worry in her voice was enough to make Tempest agree. “Very well.”
“And if you’re going to Roarke’s tonight,” she added, “take Ezra with you. I overheard him saying that he wanted to stop in for a drink or two.”
Tempest found the man in question downstairs in the storage room, surrounded by a pile of odds and ends. Stage manager and tinker, Ezra was responsible for building the automatons found throughout The Belladonna, from the Nannies that stood guard in the dressing rooms to the Sentinels positioned by the saloon’s front door.
“Working on something new?”
“We need a new cleaning-bot for the dining room.” He had a voice like molasses, deep and just as slow, and Tempest was bristling with impatience before he had even finished his sentence. “Old one’s busted.” He started to say more but she interrupted hastily.
“I was thinking about heading to Roarke’s. You in?”
He considered this for a moment. “I reckon I should,” he said concluded, standing and dusting off his faded trousers. “Can’t have you walking out alone.”
Ezra moved as slowly as he spoke, and so a quarter of an hour passed before he and Tempest stepped out into the chilly night. There were a few knots of people gathered in the streets: garishly dressed prostitutes, faces brightly painted; rough-clad men, grubby and grimy and vaguely menacing; one or two rich fools wandering down from the Theater District in elegant tailcoats and top hats. They would be lucky if they survived the night with body and coin intact, for bandits were merciless in this part of town.
Roarke’s was a few blocks away, a crude, ramshackle building that looked as if a strong breeze might blow it down. In spite of its outward deficiencies, the place had been one of the area’s most popular bars for the past fifteen years. Strangers were served the bitter swill that Micah Roarke had the nerve to call beer, but for faithful regulars, he could be moved to pull out a few bottles from his special stash.
A bell clanged as they pushed their way inside, Ezra holding the door open before following Tempest in. The thunderous noise that greeted her was like a wave of warmth, welcoming her into the arms of debauchery. Friday nights at Roarke’s were a thing of legend: raucous voices rising exponentially with each round of beer, some fool pounding a piano with another drunkenly sawing at a fiddle, ladies cackling like mad, fistfights brewing like gathering storm clouds. Tonight was no exception, and Tempest had to fight her way past a press of bodies to make her way to the bar.
Micah Roarke was standing like a sentinel behind the counter, burly arms folded over his chest. He was a formidable figure, with a bristling grey mustache that hung past heavy jowls like the tusks of some great old walrus. He had eyebrows to match, thick and untamed, sprouting wildly above deep-set eyes.
His voice was two rusty chains grating together, harsh and coarse. “What’ll it be, sweetheart?”
“The usual.” She settled herself onto a rickety stool and glanced around. “Busy night.”
He slid a shot-glass in front of her, produced a dusty bottle from behind the bar, and poured out a splash of clear liquid. The reek of cheap gin tickled her nose, but she greeted it gladly. After her conversation with Serafina, she was in need of something strong.
“It’s payday. Everybody wants to drink away their hard-earned cash.” He snorted expansively, the closest he ever came to a laugh, and moved away to bark at his next patron.
With a contented sigh, Tempest sat back and looked around. A few men called out to her for a song but she begged off with a wave. She needed a break from entertaining for the night.
She was on her second shot when a stray voice rose above the din and caught her attention.
“Heard tell that Jack Tarly, that sonofabitch smuggler from Stockton, finally got out of San Quentin.”
She sat up a little straighter at that, bile rising in her throat. She hadn’t heard that name for the better part of three years. Tilting her head discreetly in the direction of the drunken gossipmonger she listened hard, straining to pick out his words from the burble of cackles and crowing.
“That so?” his friend asked. He was leaning back precariously on his stool, two legs lifted from the floor, and the beer in his hand was sloshing over the rim of the glass.
“Yep. Bastard was released day before yesterday. There was a blurb about it in the Call.” He snickered in twisted amusement. “Folks say that he’s headed down to Los Angeles, but I know better. A friend of mine knew Tarly in the slammer, and told me that he’s coming to San Francisco.” He took a swig of his beer. “If that’s the case, there’re gonna be plenty of folks who’ll wanna stay out of his way when he comes calling — especially those men who double-crossed him.”
Unbidden, a face rose in her vision and Tempest swayed a little on the stool, clinging onto the sticky counter to maintain her balance. Narrow green eyes, rumpled russet hair, and a devil-may-care grin stared mockingly in her mind’s eye, and for a moment she thought she might be ill.
Jack Tarly, coming to San Francisco. It was just a rumor, she reminded herself, but rumors almost always concealed a nugget of truth. If so, she knew precisely where the airship pirate would head first: her doorstep. After all, she was the one who sold him out to the cops.
Slamming down the empty shot-glass, Tempest stood, adrenaline coursing though her veins. She felt restless, dangerous, and when these black moods overcame her, trouble followed in its wake. Ezra must’ve seen the savage gleam in her violet eyes, for he placed a restraining hand on her arm.
“Maybe I ought to take you home.” He sounded uneasy. “It’s getting mighty late, don’t you think?”
“Not so late as all that,” she purred, fingers burning a teasing trail over the hand clasping her arm. He released her like she was a hot ember and she laughed, leaving him to gape after her as she moved into the crowd.
Smarter than he looks, she thought to herself. Run far away, boy. I’m just getting started.