Airs and Heiresses
New York, 1938
St. Regis Hotel
"So there I was, staring down a barrel INCHES from death...and I told the man, 'darling REALLY, if you simply must shoot me do allow me to remove my earrings. They are Cartier, you know." Molly Maltese paused to take a sip of her Red Snapper, popping the olive neatly between her cherub lips before gnashing it to a pulp. "And the man was quite flummoxed, he said- I say, is that Riza Hawkeye?"
She rose, the group of rapt men in tuxedos and women in glittering dresses and furs murmuring their protests as she wended through their knees. But the apparition she was quite sure had been Riza Hawkeye had vanished in the crowd of New York socialites populating the exclusive terrace.
"Well, this place is a bit ritzy for Riza." she murmured, fairly certain her old acquaintance didn't make a habit of populating social-climbing fetes. And she reasoned, any time Riza had appeared before it was hardly ever for a pleasant cause. Well, maybe that was unfair. It just seemed she was more the swirl-of-furs-and-stiletto-daggers type than a frothy socializer like Molly herself.
Peering around, Molly saw nothing but the shadowed faces of revelers partially cloaked in the smoky haze. She had just been about to give up and go back to her companions when the most shocking hubbub began. Over on the north part of the terrace, she could distinctly hear the shouts of men and panicked screeching of females. Moving forward, she could just make out..
"Did you see... The Ambassador... who could have... murder! Someone has pushed the Ambassador off the building!" Molly picked up speed, expertly weaving through the crowd of panicked voices. Sirens already began to sound twenty stories below. Just as she grasped the ledge and looked over, an all too familiar voice sounded in her left ear.
"Oh hello there, old friend. Lovely breeze out today."
Before her stood Riza Hawkeye herself, looking utterly unruffled as several ladies fainted behind her.
Marc's anger, at times, could get the best of him. Edward put everyone's lives at risk. Never mind him not realizing the British Royal Guards being Sphinx in disguise, but using Ann Kerr as live bait, was as dangerous as it sounded.
Archibald Kerr had been wounded, but thankfully he wasn't near as bad as Ambassador Johnson. Vulkie was gone. Either picked up by someone and taken to the hospital or kidnapped. Vulkie was tough enough and didn't seem to be a stranger to sticky situations, and would be able to get out if that was the case.
Marc surveyed the room. Those that he called friends were now piled in the hospital waiting room. And then there was Ed and Jasper. Jasper seemed like a decent guy but Ed's drinking was out of control. Something needed to be said.
"Ed," Marc called out as he approached,"a quick word?"
He motioned for Ed to follow outside and walked out. When Edward appeared Marc walked up behind him and grabbed him, dragging him out of view from anyone inside the building. He slammed Edward hard against the brick wall. He shoved his arm into Ed's throat, pinning him against the wall, applying just enough pressure that Ed could not scream.
"When I let go, I want you to take a look around that waiting room. Those are people in there that I call friends." Marc snarled.
Edward stared back, his face now turning red with anger.
"They are the closest people to a family that I have left," Marc continued. "If you ever put their lives at risk again, I will kill you myself."
Marc let go and backed away.
"Assaulting a federal agent," Edward said. "I can have you arrested for that."
"You wanna try?"
"I should have you arrested and charged with murder. Your friend Silas and Leo would like to see justice served, I'm sure."
Marc smiled. "You've got nothing." He turned around and walked back into the building.
The Great World was filled to the rim with anticipation. The integrated entertainment complex, topped by an eclectic four-storey spire, featured amusement arcades, parlour games, traditional Chinese theatre and a great music hall. Tonight, this piece of Shanghai landmark was pleased to present a rising star at the pinnacle of her soaring career.
Zhou Zuan had the most coquettish qibao on tonight for her big concert. High collared but sleeveless, contoured to show off her feminine form, the qibao was slit all the way up to reveal her hips. It would've made the bevy of girls for sale on the third floor blush, but Zhou Zuan didn't care. She was in a foul mood, and this qibao matched her disposition tonight.
So he had children. More than one, by different women!!! "I'll make babies alright," thought the songstress, "but not with you Joseph Zeo!" Zhou Zuan powdered on more foundation to cover those rare dark circles around her eyes. With hands of a proficient Chinese calligrapher, she redefined her brows into uplifting arches with a fine brush.
"Ms. Zhou Zuan," A knock at the dressing room door, "it's Yan Hua. May I come in?" With the Stars permission, the songwriter entered. "Here's the music to the opening song."
"Thank you Yan Hua, you really didn't have to come yourself." Zhou Zuan thanked the talented musician, who wrote many of her hits. The two conversed in fluent Shanghaiese. "I have memorized the new song already, but it'd be good to review it one last time before the performance." Just then, she spotted a shadow by the doorway. Joseph.
"Why don't you hold onto the music for now." Zhou Zuan signaled to the songwriter and he closed the door behind them after Joseph entered the dressing room. Zhou Zuan returned to putting on her makeup, as if Joseph wasn't in the room.
"I am boarding the train tomorrow."
"…. To Karachi?" Zhou Zuan questioned accusingly.
"Um, no. Um, to Delhi." The man stuttered in his denial. He wanted to limit the damage on the girl, "It's for work," but that was not exactly the truth. Silence hung uncomfortable in the air. "I'm sor--"
Her heart was dead, and heavy as lead. Zhou Zuan picked up her lipsticks and walked out of her dressing room. Joseph followed.
Walking towards the stage Zhou Zuan passed Yan Hua. He proceeded to passing Zhou Zuan the lyrics for review one last time. Zhou Zuan grabbed his head and kissed him passionately on the lips. Sheets of music flew in the air. Joseph studied the electric cables on the floor with new found interest.
After she was done, Zhou Zuan reapplied her lipstick by the mirror next to the entrance to the stage. Red and luscious. Putting her tube of lipstick down she turned around and slapped Joseph hard on the cheek. The loud smack was then drowned out by the thunderous applause by her fan as she strode into the limelight.
"What an insufferable prick." Molly snapped as the door snapped shut behind Joseph. Blearily she looked at Arielle's newly scrubbed face. "All my handiwork ruined."
Clucking, she ran her fingers over the high necked silk collar of the dress, now stained with water and traces of dark makeup. "I will take the cost of this beautiful silk straight out of his hide. You just wait until that -hic- disgusting little -hic- womanizer comes back. I'm sure you weren't as provocatively dressed as half of his-hic- conquests...sorry Riza."
"Well, she is only 14." Riza said calmly, hiding a small smile at Molly's drunken state. The woman had whisked off her hat in a fury, leaving her curls somewhat disheveled. Her eyes glowed with rage between racoon-like circles of smudged mascara and eyeliner.
"Only 14... PAH. What a selfish man. Look at that poor girl, she's -hic- distressed and wound up and taken on much too much responsibility and fighting and anger- hic- and warring for her age. Look at her, she seems older than 14, with half of what she's seen and had to do. Without a father no less, hiding in -hic- Shanghai with a songbird whore somewhere as per usual- hic- sorry Riza."
She ran her hands through her hair slowly. "Would it kill him to let her feel young and pretty and rare like a girl should tonight? No, look at it, he's ruined it, drenched her with water and shamed her when he should be ashamed. Look at what he's taken away from her with his stupidity. MEN, I swear." Molly gestured angrily.
Suddenly her fingers stopped as they slid through her auburn curls, feeling the shorn hair. Suddenly Molly's eyes welled up with tears as she fingered the blunt ends of the too-short strands.
"I'ts RUINED. And he left my HATBOXES. WHY DOES JOSEPH ZEO DESTROY EVERY FEMALE HE TOUCHES?" Molly wailed at the top of her lungs, tears sliding down her face. "hic- S-s-s-sorry Riza!"
The sting was gone by now but the shame remained, and Joseph knew he deserved both. The torrent of regrets and anguish swirled at the pit of his stomach, for he dared not to wonder if he had just ruined a noble soul - a young lady who in the midst of a deprived life fought to stay untainted…. until now. As he returned to his car Joseph spotted the shirt he changed out of, the one stained with Sphinx blood during the failed ambush earlier in the day. The pigment has eaten into the fabric for too long now. He knew the shirt would never be white again no matter how much dye he uses. He tried not to think about Zhou Zuan.
Joseph returned to the hospital quickly, and noticed no one was in the hallway. He heard a person talking from inside a ward with the door opened. Everyone seemed to be there. Joseph approached Marc, who was standing closest to the entrance.
“What’s this all about?” Joseph lowered his voice.
“You wouldn’t believe this.” Marc replied quietly.
Joseph looked inside and saw a cloaked figure seated on a hope chest, who seemed to be mesmerized by his own story. To his surprise the patient lying in bed behind the speaker was Vulkie, but no one seemed to approach her as the figure spoke. Just as Joseph was able to go check on Vulkie, the man reached up and lowered his hood, revealing the face underneath. Tears streamed down his face as he choked out, “I have missed you all terribly.” It was Heimlich VonVictor.
The detectives were glad an old friend returned, but Joseph was more concerned with the one lying in bed. How could no one be checking on her by now? Apparently Heimlich rescued Vulkie at the embassy and took her to the hospital. Vulkie seemed to be out of danger for now but she needed her rest. It was getting late and the nurse shooed everyone out of the ward. It was time for the detectives to return to the safe house. Marc volunteered to stay at the hospital in case Vulkie wake up disoriented.
Arielle need to be in bed as well, and probably grounded for the rest of her life…. if it was up to Joseph and if Anais was not in danger.
The team quickly returned to the safe house and too tired to speak. Molly stared daggers at Joseph but he did not notice. Before Arielle head into her bedroom Joseph made a quick remark, “We will leave for Karachi tomorrow. My task here is done.” Arielle’s eyes flashed.
Molly rubbed her bleary eyes, pouting to herself in the confines of her room. Her drunken stupor had worn off, and she was left with a vague headache and lots of irritation. Namely, that damned bossy Joseph Zeo sniffing through his rather large nose and pronouncing "we leave for Karachi tomorrow" as though he were some kind of king.
And her hair was ruined, it really was too much if one were to ask.
"My hats." Molly's lip wobbled dangerously and she sat on the edge of her bed, feeling weepy again. Suddenly a soft knock came at the door, and Ed Carlyle poked his head through.
"Molly I just- oh. Uh, are you alright?" he asked uncomfortably, with the uneasy expression of a deer caught in headlights. Molly gave a sniff and opened her wide green eyes, brimming with sorrowful tears.
"Oh Ed, I just don't understand why he's so MEAN. I bought all those lovely things-- and now- now I'm sure the homeless of Shanghai are walking around with fourteen fabulous creations and I'll- I'll- I won't have a thing--- and I just don't understand why he's so MEAN!" she said, tears spilling down her ivory cheeks as she turned down the corners of her mouth petulantly.
Ed wended his way slowly through her words, trying to figure out what she was referring to when a lightbulb slowly clicked on. He smiled in relief, confident that while he was a very capable agent he was not the worlds foremost expeert on womans tears...but in this situation he knew just what to do.
"Ms. Maltese, I wouldn't cry." He moved forward to stand before her and swiped a thumb over one cheek, capturing a warm tear. "I overheard Marc mention loading fourteen hatboxes into his trunk and I'm sure they couldn't belong to anyone else."
Molly's eyes grew huge and she sprang to her feet, clutching the front of his shirt and bringing her face just inches from his. Hope radiated from the limpid green pools, still glassy with tears.
"You mean... he saved them?" she breathed, ruby lips parted breathlessly.
Ed stared down at her lips a moment, thinking he could just close the distance-- but no. "Er, yes. I'll get them for you now if you promise to please stop crying." he said, swiping at her other cheek as he gently disengaged her hands. He threw over his shoulder as he left, "you're too pretty to cry."
He picked up speed moving down the hallway, mentally kicking himself. You're too pretty to cry? he askd himself, unaware that his words had left a shy smile playing around Molly's lips. He sounded like a grade school child encountering a girl for the first time. She probably thought of him as a complete joke.
"Marc." he said stiffly, and Marc's eyes slid to him with a cold expression. "I need your keys."
"Like hell you do." Marc snarled. Ed stepped forward with a warning glare.
"That lady is crying over hatboxes and you have fourteen to spare last I checked. Give me your keys."
Marcs eyes assumed the glaze of uncertainty that most men gain when confronted by maelstroms of womanly emotion. "She's crying over her hatboxes- did she not know I had... here, take them!" and tossed the keyring to Ed as though they were on fire.
Gallantly Ed took two trips to deposit the stacks of hatboxes in Molly's room as she clapped with glee. As he unloaded the last set, she nipped in close and planted a kiss on his left cheek.
"Thank you!" she whispered quietly, the slight five o clock shadow rubbing against her lips. "You've made my night considerably better." So releasing him, she surveyed the scene of clothes, makeup and hatboxes strewn all about. "Now, to pack all of this for the train tomorrow. I do hope you packed light, I'm sure I'll require help for all this."
Ed nodded goodnight to her and went back out to join the others, blushing slightly as many sets of eyes in the room zeroed in on the ruby lip markings on his cheek and titters were heard.
Arielle could not believe her ears. As much as she wished to go save her mother, she had no desire to face her mother's wrath if they left a task undone.
"No, we will not, Father," Arielle's voice was cold, controlled and cut through the exhausted silence in the room.
"What did you say?" Joseph's thunderstruck expression was comical enough to make Riza smile, she did not have the energy to laugh.
"Do you not know my mum at all? If we return to her now, with your tasks unfinished, and people in danger, she will never forgive you," Arielle said matter-of-factly, turning to the group gathered, tiredly listening.
"She is right, Joseph," Riza commented, running her finger along her dagger's sheath. "Anais will not be happy if she finds out that we left a task unfinished to save her, even if we consider her to be more important."
"My part is done!" Joseph exploded, "I only agreed to watch out for and help him," he pointed an accusatory finger at Ed, "and only while they were here in Shanghai! They are leaving for Delhi any day now, they have to!"
"Oh, yes, Mum will love your technicalities, Father dearest," scorn dripped from Arielle's words.
Joseph winced, but did not look deterred.
"Do you know how I looked for you both? And now you just appear out of nowhere? Poof! And you don't want me to go find Anais. Who the hell are you? You are not my Josèe," the impassioned speech ended with the accusation hanging in the air.
"Yes, you looked until you gave up. And you gave up spectacularly. You lost yourself in drugs and shot at your friends because you needed your fix. You gave up before the year was out," Arielle shook as she spoke to her father, unleashing feelings she had bottled up and stored away fro years. "Mum cried herself to sleep every night for two years. I was eight when we ran. I knew it was because of how you and mother lived your lives. I had been kidnapped. Almost killed. She had wanted you to come with us. I don't know what happened to that, just that it didn't happen. She left clues. Clues meant for you!" her voice rose as she stepped toward Joseph. "She didn't tell me about what had happened to you. I found out. I snuck in and read her diary. I figured out how to sneak around and be unnoticed when the grown ups talked. I wanted to know why you weren't with us, why you didn't love us. Love Mum. Love me!" tears steamed down her cheeks, but she continued. "And you say that I'm not your Josèe. I'm not. I'm Josèe all grown up. Look in a mirror," the girl took a deep breath, "As for not wanting you to find my mother, that is not true. More than anything, I want to save her. But we have time to do so. I wasn't expecting to find you for another month or two, at least. You hide well, but not as well as us. This case you are all working on, it needs your attention now. Your memory must be going, because Mum in a temper is a sight to behold. I am not going to disregard her wishes to follow yours. We'll go to Delhi with the rest of these people. It's not like Delhi is out of the way, either," so saying, Arielle turned on her heel, and went upstairs, leaving Joseph spluttering behind her.
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