Chapter XI

Mewsy shimmies down the back row of seats to where Gams sits with both hands down Big Piercey’s shorts. Ginger-Ann is leaning over the back of the next row down for a gab.

“Sure have dredged the place, haven’t they?” Mewsy deadpans, casting an eye round for Tybalt. The dusky hall is littered with Cherries from all departments, murmuring, smoking, and looking expectantly toward the stage.

“What happened?” asks Ginger. “Something happen with Finchy?”

“Not to speak of,” says Mewsy. “Say, either you gals know a Lazy Baker?”

“What’s this, a setup?” says Ginger.

“Lazy Baker — oh sure,” says Gams, “but only by reputation.” She gives an exploratory rummage and Piercey grunts.

“Why do you ask?” says Ginger, tugging at the hem of her lycra mini and shifting fussily.

“No reason particular. Baker was lurking at Finch’s and talking a stream of blue nonsense. We’re going Electric, for one.”

Gamsy mutters an Eastern curse and rolls her eyes.

“They always say that,” says Ginger, turning to face the front, “but the Old Cheroot, she be what she be.”

“Why’d Finchy call you?” asks Gams.

Mewsy shrugs cagily. “I was once considered a confidante.”

The room rustles to attention as Lazy Baker and Finch-Marie emerge onto stage from the bowels of the theatre.

“Is that Baker?” whispers Ginger. “Tellement chic.”

Next to Lazy, Finch-Marie looks a proper dowd.

“Oh good,” she says, “here you all are. Please do press in; I shan’t shout.” She comes to the lip and her face and dark wig are garishly caught by the footlights.

Heriodonclitus is on, we’ve come to say. Lazephine Joe Baker of the Sugar Mill Fire Collective is here to take us forward. Please attend.”

Lazy steps up.

“Hello. I’m a stranger here. And I’ll not presume to instruct you on the meaning or the import of this historic affair. Think of me instead as ‘electric lubricant’, here to enliven and ease your machinery’s operations.”

With a scoff Gamsy plunges herself yet more deeply into the task at hand. Ginger-Ann leans forward. Mewsy crosses her legs and lets her eyes wander sideways o’er the glistening manscape of the barkeep’s ivory flank. He huffs and sputters like a furious horse.

“I’m an outsider. It’s the only gift I bring. You know, of course, no similar establishment has ever set its gaze so lofty. Not being outsiders you may not see, indeed, that no one has at all. You — I daren’t say we — are hacking into jungles of the Strange.”

Gams clears her throat with deepest irony just as her handiwork achieves pearlescence. Piercey, normally taciturn to a fault, gives a sigh.

“We’ve secured the service of Barebones Cordial’s own great golden seed, La Maria Toilette, as Vigorella. Ms Toilette comes fresh from exclusive posts aboard the Ethiope, the Fracas, and the Ancient Star of Helen. It marks her first appearance here since her starmaking turn as Little Mary Misfit.”

Ginger-Ann gasps. Gams groans as she wipes down her fingers on the sateen seat-back.

“As to who will play the titular wanderer, Heriodonclitus — we feel we must draw from our own well. The Work’s connection to this land is just too vital. By tomorrow morning one of you will have been chosen for the assignment. The eminent Otto da Fay, who originated the rôle at its premiere, is on hand emeritus to prepare the selected performer. Fresh is our watchword. Clean, simple and fresh.”

A whisper blows through the assembled Cherries.

“Finally,” says Lazy, “You heard it here first: The Old Cheroot begins today her transition into Barebone’s Cordial’s Electric Cigarette. But fear not, I beg you. Nothing else will change.”