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The Mezzo by Eli Effinger-Weintraub

New York City came to its feet.

The ovation in the Metropolitan Opera House drowned the final notes of The Chemist’s Flute. The sulfur reek of the camera flashes choked the air; the purifiers surrendered in defeat and wheezed mechanically on the walls. The crowd showered renowned mezzo-soprano Honoria Fisher with mangled floral oddities that bathed her in chemicals as she took her seventh bow.

“Miss Fisher!” “A moment, Miss Fisher!” “Miss Fisher, over here!” The shouting began the instant the chestnut-haired diva stepped out of the wings and did not stop until she shut her dressing room door firmly behind her and dropped onto her dressing table chair.

“Alice,” she said, resting her forehead in the palm of her hand, “tell me when they’ve gone.”

“They are never gone, Mademoiselle.”

Smiling weary agreement, Honoria Fisher began the arduous process of undressing. She lit a cigarette and tracked the smoke up to the ceiling. “I have specifications for the Mark Seven.”

Alice collected stockings and chemise from the floor beside Honoria’s chair. “Are you considering trading me in?”

Honoria laughed and refrained from answering.

Alice shook out the legs of the stockings. “You asked me to tell you if he came again.”

Honoria whirled, showering ash around the room. “Of course! Opening night!”

“He left a note this time.” Alice hung the clothing in the armoire.

The envelope was wrinkled and smudged with mechanical grease, but the hand that had addressed it was neat and precise. Honoria tore open the envelope and scanned the note hastily. A photograph tumbled out and to the floor. She glanced at it—froze—gathered it up in a frenzied swoop.

Against the back of her chair, Honoria’s fingernails, famous across three continents, beat a sharp tattoo, leaving faint half-moons in the note. “Alice, I wonder if you couldn’t arrange a meeting with this Dr. Broom.”

With a dramatic eye roll, Alice flung open Honoria’s dressing room door. “With pleasure, Mademoiselle. You’ll find him in the alley. Looking, if I might add, entirely unsavory.”

Honoria smiled and picked up her plumed going-out hat and new blue dress. Alice closed the door, and, as Honoria began the arduous process of dressing, went back to collecting the thousand-dollar wardrobe before the costuming department could see it strewn about the floor.

#

The unhealthily thin man, shivering in his threadbare coat, stood alone in the alley. Beyond him, the theater-goers of New York spilled into the streets, a chaos of laughter and jabber as they tried not to think of the days when plays could make them quiet and introspective, when they could have tragic endings. But on a performance night, the alley behind the Metropolitan was cleared of the delivery trucks that would otherwise have clogged it. Now it contained only this peculiar devotee of the mezzo, attempting—unsuccessfully—to restart a horse-drawn-cum-steam-powered carryall like the myriad others that littered the city’s ditches and alleyways.

Honoria stepped forward from the foot of the stairs. Alice hovered at the top, waiting.

“Dr. Broom?” Honoria asked.

The man whirled. “It’s Broon, actually,” he said automatically. “Scots.” Once he beheld the vision in ostrich feathers and faux fur who had addressed him, further commentary on the noble lineage of the Broon name died quite abruptly. “Mademoiselle Fisher!”

“Scots Broon?” Honoria frowned. “What a singular name!”

“No, no; it’s Goddard. I only meant that Broon is a Scots name.” The ridiculousness of the conversation seemed to strike him suddenly. “Did Mademoiselle need something from me?”

Alice withdrew into the opera house. Broon watched her departure. Perhaps he thought the retiring of a maid a more believable happenstance, than for a beloved diva to be in the back alley of the opera house, speaking to him.

Honoria stepped forward with a dignity that Victoria herself would be hard-pressed to match. “She is here? With you?” Honoria asked.

A proud glow spread across Broon’s face. “In the carriage, Mademoiselle.”

“Will you show her to me?”

“Really?” Broon blinked. “That is—of course! I would be honored.” The frantic sheen of his face said that while “honored” was not, perhaps, the most accurate word, it was the only one suitable for public utterance. He opened the carryall door and pulled down a tarpaulin covering the seats.

Honoria gasped. She reached out her hand, then snatched it back. “Truly, Dr. Broon, you have created a masterpiece.”

Blushing as he replaced the tarpaulin, he muttered, “It was a labor of pure joy, Mademoiselle. My research was . . . extensive.”

She studied him under the approved lumens shed by the gas lamp. “I imagine it was. Might we walk a ways together, Doctor?”

“The weather—that is, my carriage—” Obligingly, the carryall chrrred, sputtered, and then died with a tiny puff of steam.

Honoria smiled. “The night air is so refreshing.”

“I suppose.” Although, with the purifiers whirring diligently on every lamppost, finding true refreshment in New York City air was difficult at any time of day. Honoria cleared her throat.

“Oh!” Broon exclaimed. He bent his arm and held it out; she slipped her black-gloved hand through it. “Does Mademoiselle have a destination in mind?”

“Walk me to Arthur’s.”

“I would gladly walk you to the ends of the Earth. Alas, I do not know where Arthur’s is.”

Laughing, Honoria started up the alley. They ignored the sound of indigent feet scrambling toward darker shadows. “Fear not, Doctor. I only require your company, not your navigational skills.”

People they dodged on the street stopped to boggle at the mismatched pair, yet somehow Honoria passed unrecognized. Perhaps no one could believe that so great a star would be on the arm of so shabby a man. The streets had been cleared of beggars, the New York constabulary being quite cozy with the Society for Purity, Health, and Happiness, but from time to time a hand reached out and dropped a coin, as if by sheer clumsiness, into the nearest alley. No coin ever reached the ground.

Honoria took a deep, satisfied breath. On the exhale, it plumed out in ornate swirls. “I find a cup of tea soothing after a performance, don’t you agree?”

“I—well, I cannot say as I am any manner of expert in the needs of the performer, Mademoiselle Fisher.” Around them, the crowds were thinning. Broon’s breath puffed prosaically ahead of him.

“No? No, I don’t imagine she has needs. Will she be safe, unguarded in your carriage?” Honoria asked.

Broon hesitated. “She should be. I did endeavor to bring her inside the opera house. Your door boys are quite ferocious. Even after my liberal distribution of dreadfuls, I consider myself fortunate to have convinced them to deliver my note.”

That I quite understand.” Honoria gave a silvery laugh. “Here we are!”

Theaters and shops and restaurants had given way to residences, and they stood before an unremarkable gabled brown house. Honoria ignored the tasseled bellpull and rapped sharply on the door. A panel slid open, and a pair of black eyes squinted out.

“Tragedy to all who enter here,” Honoria said. The panel closed. Honoria giggled. “Isn’t that the most divine code?”

The door opened. A burly automaton of the Tranquility line stood aside while they entered, then slammed the door behind them.

Honoria was a world-class singer. A performance of The Chemist’s Flute put considerable strain on her voice. So Broon might, perhaps, be forgiven for assuming that by “a cup of tea,” she meant “a cup of tea.” But he would have been hard-pressed to find a single leaf of Camellia sinensis on Arthur’s premises.

There were no purifiers here. From his pocket Broon produced a glass rod with brass dials around the handle. He twiddled and turned and frowned a great deal. “These smells—who is their Chemist?” he demanded.

Honoria laughed. “All the scents in Arthur’s are real.”

Broon’s hand went slack on the rod, dipping it toward the ground. He stared at Honoria with undisguised shock, commixed with disgust and fear.

A debonair Chinese man with a well-oiled mustache glided over, so graceful he more resembled the automata working around the room than the customers sitting in it. He bowed. “Mademoiselle Fisher. Seeing you is always such misery.”

Honoria inclined her head. “And being here depresses me so. Is the Blue Table available, Arthur?”

“Of course, Mademoiselle,” he said, leading the way. “A suitably mediocre choice.”

Arthur’s was part exclusive club, part low crystal den, part Chinese circus. Between the long crimson dresses and gold tunics of the serving automata, the aquaria of exotic fish lining every wall, and the lacquered black fainting benches, escaping into one’s fantasies was clearly the order of the day.

“What is your poison?” Honoria asked.

Broon started. “Beg pardon?” Honoria pointed at the tables, where thick crystal tumblers concealed smoky liquids. Broon’s eyes widened. “That’s illegal!” Honoria glared at him; he dropped his gaze. “Sherry, please,” he stammered.

Honoria nodded as she slid into the booth of the appropriately-named Blue Table. In her blue dress she all but disappeared into it, only her pale hands and face marring the illusion. “Nothing ever changes with me, Arthur,” she said mournfully. “But my friend was inquiring after the health of your daughter-in-law.”

“She is quite unwell, I fear,” Arthur said. He bowed and disappeared.

“His daughter-in-law?” Broon squinted upward. “Do I know her? Is she in the opera?”

Honoria rolled her eyes. “Did you expect me to just say it?” She cleared the goldware from in front of her and upended her wine glass on the hors d’œuvre plate. “This is the third Arthur’s,” she said. “PH&H infiltrated the first two and made such a nuisance of themselves that he had to shut down.”

A gold-tunicked male model from the Domestic Harmony line slid up to them and set before Broon an exquisitely ridiculous thimbleful of sherry. In front of Honoria he placed a small ebony box with a snowflake embossed in the lid. Beside her elbow he set a small package of grease-blotched parchment. “Can I bring you anything else?” he asked. Arthur might clothe his servers in New York City’s finest apparel, but he could not conceal the vocal buzzing that marked the model as at least six years old.

Honoria raised her eyebrow at Broon; he shook his head. “That will be all,” she said. The server slid away. Honoria raised the lid of the black box and removed the bundle of cream linen within. She unrolled it and tipped it toward her overturned wine glass. A shower of tiny crystals rained down—blue, black, white, and transparent. “An excellent mix tonight!” She held one up between her long, tapered fingernails. “The clear ones are my favorites.” She studied his face. “You disapprove.”

“It’s hardly my place.”

“Hmm.” Honoria lifted a resin rod from the box, heated one end in the candle’s flame, and slipped it beneath the inverted bowl of the wine glass. Instantly the crystals began to bubble and hiss. “You prefer the PH&H set?”

“I prefer a path between extremes.” He gulped his sherry and blurted, “Mademoiselle Fisher, it is incumbent upon me to express my fathomless adoration of your work. I have seen every opera in which you have performed since your arrival in New York. I was at Lady Faustus the night PH&H picketed. I came to Tales of Hoffmann the night of the Hudson River fire. I saw Steammaster’s Bride three times. Paris and Venice can keep their sopranos; New York is loyal only to you. My own devotion—well . . .” He swigged the rest of the sherry and found his glass already empty.

“Devotion, indeed,” she said dryly. Leaning over the steaming, melting crystals, she inhaled deeply. Her green eyes went as dark as that river whose flaming waters Broon had braved to see her. She lifted her head and stared at him. “She is a Mark Seven?”

“Of course!” Broon said indignantly.

Honoria nodded. “I have studied the specification documents. The improvements make the Six look like a child’s toy on Boxing Day.”

Broon looked slowly from the diva to the package at her elbow and back. “What’s in the package?”

“Antipasto. The loyalty of New York is suffocating enough as it is. Imagine how unbearable it would be if I didn’t stay fat and unattractive.” The drug had saturated her blood very quickly tonight.

“Then why aren’t you eating it?” His breath was coming faster.

“It’s delicious. I can hardly enjoy this—” She waved her hand at the crystals—“if I’m tasting something exquisite. I’ve told Arthur he ought to serve slop like other dens, but the man’s an idiot intent on running himself into the ground. I’ll eat it when the faint wears off.”

“You won’t.” Broon shook his head. “It’s for Alice.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Honoria flipped her knife over and over. “What use has an automaton for antipasto?”

“None at all,” Broon agreed. “But Alice isn’t an automaton.” He looked at Honoria; Honoria looked away, face flushed. “I knew it!”

“Would you kindly lower your voice?” Honoria hissed. “I’m not going to dignify this rubbish with a response.”

“Why else would a diva study the specs of a Mark Seven?”

Steammaster’s Bride—”

“Alice needs to know what each model can do so she knows how to act. And another thing: she left us tonight. Without a word from you, she left and closed the door behind her.”

Honoria waved her knife airily. “I gave her her orders beforehand.”

“She decided for herself.” Broon leaned back.

Honoria slammed the knife down on the table. “And if any of that blithering is true?” she demanded.

“A human in servitude! The number of laws you’ve broken, Mademoiselle—”

“Laws! Hah!” She took another deep inhalation of fumes. “If you saw Steammaster’s Bride three times, Doctor, then you know that I know the Mark Seven’s capabilities—especially one designed to exactly resemble a woman for whom you proclaim ‘fathomless adoration.’ ”

They stared at each other, breathing fast. “We seem to have arrived at some manner of impasse,” Broon said.

“Not in the least.” Honoria trailed her pinkie through the pool of melted low crystals. “I don’t care two figs about my reputation, or about the sanctimonious prigs in the Society of Purity, Health, and Happiness.” She gave her voice the superior air that most PH&H members adopted when speaking of their institution. “But you give considerably more than two figs about me. I have confidence that I can use my advantage to extract a small favor from you.” She slid the crystal-coated finger into her mouth.

Anyone watching Dr. Broon shudder would have shared that confidence.

#

New York City fell out of love with her mezzo. Honoria Fisher’s performances were, from a technical standpoint, even more perfect than ever. But where was the passion that had brought them to their feet after her premiere performance in Tales of Hoffmann? Where was the sly seduction that had brought scores of Purity, Health, and Happiness officers and supporters to picket Lady Faustus?

A negative review of The Alchemy of Love in the Times was less scathing than puzzled, less dismissive than disappointed. For the first time in nearly three years, chairs at the Metropolitan sat empty.

In the wings, Alice, indispensable assistant to the diva, watched with arms crossed and lips pursed.

#

Thin hands reaching down from above to grasp one’s arm are always terrifying, but even more so when the individual being grabbed is in the throes of a low crystal faint. Honoria startled up and flailed her legs, scraping one against the edge of the fainting bench. “What do you want?” she snarled. Then her eyes widened.

Arthur wrung his hands. “My sincerest apologies, Mademoiselle Fisher. I could not stop her.”

“No,” Honoria said, staring beyond him at Alice. “I don’t imagine you could. Do you have a table free?”

“Yes, Mademoiselle. The Blue Table is empty.”

With a grimace, Honoria said, “How apropos.

The air was chilly with silence as they crossed the room. Arthur’s never closed, but at this hour its only customers were unconscious, tossing fitfully on the fainting benches.

Once more Honoria slid into the booth, although, in her torn cream overdress and wrinkled blouse, she was a far cry from the queenly being who had sat there with Goddard Broon. “Black coffee, Arthur,” she said. “The strongest you have.” After a quick glance at Alice she added, “And some for my friend, too, I should think.” Arthur bowed and vanished. “You’ll forgive me taking the liberty.” Honoria did not look at Alice as she spoke. “You look as though you could use it.”

“I could, indeed.” Alice removed her gloves and folded them neatly beside her. “I’d no idea how many low crystal dens were in New York. Nor how many Chinamen named Arthur run them.”

For a moment, Honoria looked into Alice’s eyes. Then she looked away. “When did you know?”

“Oh, I knew the instant you asked me to introduce you to Dr. Broon.”

“What do you intend to do? Turn me in? You’d be in far more trouble than I.”

Alice shook her head. “No, Honoria, I intend to ask for what I should have long ago—my freedom.”

“I give you more freedom than you’ll find elsewhere.”

Alice studied her. “How easy it is for you to say that,” she said, voice tinged with awe. “To believe it, even. I believed it myself, once.” She sighed and then paused while the coffee was delivered. “Oh, Honoria, what fools the young are. You were devoted to your music, and that made me want to be devoted to you. And I thought that devotion would be my stand. But the more of a legend you become, the less of me there is. There’s only the mezzo. And to what is she devoted now? I didn’t surrender my dreams so you could surrender to low crystal.”

Honoria’s eyes fell to the tools of addiction laid out before her. She blushed. “You have no proof.”

Alice pulled a small mesh bag from her handbag. It cradled a single strand of chestnut hair. “Such a remarkably useful tool, the hairbrush.”

“Surely she doesn’t brush her hair!” Honoria exclaimed, wide-eyed.

“No indeed,” Alice said patiently. “But the heroine of The Alchemy of Love does.”

“So,” Honoria said, “a single strand of hair will prove my perfidy?”

“It does the most startling thing when one sets a flame to it. Would you care to see?” She held the hair over the candle. The flame jumped up and formed a droplet of fire around the hair, but it did not spread or move, and the hair was not consumed. “The Mark Seven may well be the pinnacle of human automata,” she said softly, staring at the flame. “It can do practically everything a human can.” She looked at Honoria. “Except say ‘no’ to the mezzo.”

“No one can say no to the mezzo,” Honoria said, equally softly. “You won’t leave, you know.”

“I already have.” When Honoria’s eyes narrowed, Alice said, “When you return to the Met, you will find my possessions gone. And you will not be able to ascertain to where I have moved them.”

“But—but you can’t,” Honoria whispered. “Automata don’t choose. If you leave, how will I explain it?”

Smiling as a mother might at a frightened child, Alice handed Honoria a calling card: Doctor Goddard Broon, Wonders Mechanical and Automatonical. “The likeness is . . . uncanny.” She laughed incredulously and closed her handbag. “Good-bye, Honoria. Watch the papers for my exploits. I am certain they will cause commotion.” She slid across the bench.

“I’ll tell!” Honoria’s voice went shrill and harsh. “I’ll tell everyone what you are!”

Alice paused, studying Honoria. “You’re welcome to,” she said evenly. “A surly gentleman from PH&H has been skulking about the stage door all month. Invite him to explore your dressing room. Or you could just stay . . . here, doing . . .” Alice looked around, and her upper lip curled, “. . . whatever it is you do. I’d be fascinated to see what would happen were one enslaved creation put in charge of another.”

Honoria shuddered. “I can’t have an automatonic assistant. Who will make me laugh, and keep overzealous admirers at bay? How can a machine save me from myself? Alice, couldn’t you please just—just stay? For me?”

Alice shook her head. “What do you think I’ve been doing?” She stood and looked down with a fond smile. “Farewell, Honoria. You have a great gift.” She walked through Arthur’s doors and out into the sterile, whitewashed reality of a New York City beholden to PH&H, leaving Honoria unheeded and alone in a gritty, unvarnished fantasy.

END

Eli Effinger-Weintraub writes plays, creative nonfiction, and short speculative fiction, often inspired by the visual art of her wife, Leora Effinger-Weintraub. Eli’s words have been performed by Theatre Unbound; anthologized by Alyson Books and Seal Press; published in Steampunk Tales and Witches & Pagans Magazine; and posted at Humanistic Paganism, I’m from Driftwood, and the Clarion Foundation blog. Find her at Back Booth; at the Pagan Newswire Collective blog No Unsacred Place; on Twitter as @AwflyWeeEli; or on her bicycle.

Story Notes:

The seed for “The Mezzo” was planted in a conversation about corporate influence in U.S. politics, wherein I contemplated world in which the Walt Disney Company was the nation’s strongest corporate power. That seed is barely recognizable in the finished product, but I like the flower that grew from it.

 

 

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