Jane leaned against the marble mantel, gazing up at the elaborate portrait of Miss Rebecca Talbot. Pale brown hair framed a heart shaped face. Eyes, a darker brown, gazed down demurely at a lace fan, held half open at her waist.
The picture of innocence.
White ruffles spilled down the young lady’s front, framed by a sapphire blue overdress, cut slim around her fine figure.
She was perfection, Miss Talbot was. Cream of the Chicago, new-money gentry. Railroads. Just the thing to take Jane’s mind off sweet Alessandra, left behind in a convent in Rome.
Miss Talbot was as rich as the blue and green flowered rugs under her feet. As rich as the damask chairs and sofas in varying shades of linden and cream. Money shone in the gleaming mahogany side tables, the porcelain vases, and the pianoforte impressive in its corner.
But even better? Miss Talbot was young and firm, just turned eighteen, and yes again…perfect.
Perfect for the likes of Miss Jane Bannon, dandy extraordinaire.
Some women called Jane a masher, a rake, but her preferred soubriquet was “handsome devil.”
Jane had prepared carefully for tonight. Shoes shined to a high polish. White shirt front starched just so. Collar pointed and erect. Dark hair slicked back from her sharp white face, and into a tight bun. Perfectly cut tuxedo, tracing the slight swell of her breasts and nipping in at her trim, athletic waist before cutting away in a swoop of tails. Burgundy ascot at the column of her throat, stuck through with a silver pin.
Just the thing to take the mind off an absent fiancé.
Jane should have been on assignment tonight, listening to trade unionist speeches to ascertain if there any of the upstart leaders were in the employ of Mr. Talbot’s company and could be made examples of.
Last night’s row with the police had left some workers dead. The old wound in Jane’s side still ached from being shoved about. The only “sedition” Jane had found was that the workers were tired of ten-hour days, six days a week, and wages that should have embarrassed the man doling them out.
In other words, Jane couldn’t blame the strikers. Especially as men like Talbot and Pullman left their homes at nine or ten and were home, bathed, and in spotless dinner clothes in time for seven-thirty sherry.
The working men and women were lucky if they saw their families much at all. That said, Jane should also have been out tonight simply to ensure that she got paid. But her best man was on the job in her stead.
She really was weary, still recovering from a knife slash at her best waistcoat in Italia. The muscles of her stomach survived to take ten careful stitches and a wash of iodine. The waistcoat was deceased.
So, she was taking one evening off to play the dandy under the nose of her clandestine employer, scion of one of the “good families” of Chicago.
Eyes raking the large portrait, Jane ignored the real Miss Talbot who sat delicately glowering, golden skirts spread across the damask-covered settee, sipping at a coupe of champagne held between cream satin-covered fingers.
At least she had been, last time Jane had looked.
It wouldn’t do to let Miss Talbot know Jane noticed. Not just yet. Jane rocked, heel to toe, biding her time.
Jane was going to seduce Miss Talbot tonight, the way Miss Talbot wanted Jane to do. But Jane couldn’t let Miss Talbot think it was her own idea. Not just yet.
Not that Jane minded forward girls, loved them in fact, but Miss Talbot had not been trained by life or disposition to make the first move.
Convenient, then, that Jane had time in the young woman’s own home to ease the way.
Recently disembarked from a harrowing adventure in Italy, Jane had returned to her own apartments, fashionably located just three blocks from Prairie Avenue, where the Talbot family lived, of course. And the Pullman’s. And any other family that mattered. The redecoration that had been promised to be finished well in time, was, in fact, not done.
Mr. Reginald Talbot, being in business with Jane’s Uncle William, had been persuaded to offer Jane a suite until such time as her rooms were done. He would be out of town, he said, but Jane was welcome to the family manse. He was certain she would find his daughter congenial, and Rebecca, he said, could use the company, until Mr. Talbot and Miss Talbot’s fiancé, Mr. Burke, returned.
Jane installed herself post haste, and had been at the Talbot mansion for three days.
Miss Talbot was congenial indeed.
The ormolu clock on the mantle on the mantle ticked out the time, punctuated with an impatient sigh from Miss Talbot. Jane pretended not to hear.
She sipped more of the excellent champagne.
So far, Jane had found plenty to implicate the workers. They were indeed ready to strike, and seemed as though they would stop at almost nothing. That Mary “Mother” Jones they all so admired? An amble-bosomed firebrand in gold spectacles. Jane found that she admired her, too.
Not that she included that in any reports.
But something felt very, very wrong with this job.
Swirling the golden champagne in its specially designed coupe glass, Jane took a sip, letting the bubbles chase themselves over her tongue before swallowing.
Good thing old Reggie was off making another million. It meant that Jane was more likely to get paid, even if Mr. Talbot proved unhappy with her news.
His absence also meant that Jane didn’t have to hide away in long skirts, but could be truly as she was. Mr. Talbot was willing to admit that a female investigator, though unorthodox, might be handily overlooked by the very people he wanted her to spy upon. But a Miss Bannon in trousers might be more than he could take. How exactly he thought Jane would infiltrate unobtrusively, she wasn’t sure. Pose as a factory woman? A doxie?
The few women of the movement were highly visible, like that slim, dark skinned Lucy Parsons and the matronly Mother Jones. If Jane wanted to retain her straight-backed stance and still blend well enough, skirts just would not do.
Trousers and a good hat were much easier. A bit of soot or dirt on her cheeks and Jane’s twenty-four-year-old face looked like a teenage boy’s.
Miss Talbot did not seem to mind Jane’s trousers. In fact, she seemed rather charmed.
“Miss Bannon, whatever are you doing?”
Ah. The lady sounded cross. The slightest bit peevish.
Rebecca Talbot was one lure closer to being caught.
Jane glanced over her shoulder, and easy grin playing across her lips. What she really wanted to do was take Miss Talbot in her arms and press the petals of her embroidered gown against Jane’s own starched-front chest.
“I’m just admiring this portrait of you.” Jane turned, champagne glass dangling between two fingers. “It’s quite lovely, really.”
Miss Talbot flushed, a rosy glow starting at the pale rise of her bosom, just above the gold cloth of her gown. The embroidered roses down the front were almost the exact shade of the blush making its way toward Miss Talbot’s slender neck.
“But the woman in the flesh is far lovelier still,” Jane said.
The rosy hue crept up to stain Miss Talbot’s cheeks. The top arcs of her bosom rose and fell with quickening breath.
“Miss Talbot?” Jane asked.
“Yes, Miss Bannon?” The dulcet voice quivered but a little. Brave girl.
Jane crossed the carpet toward the young woman waiting upon the settee, chin upturned and mouth a pink bud, moist with the champagne.
“May I sit with you?”
“I don’t know that I should let you. It wouldn’t be proper.” Ah. There. The thing Jane had been waiting for. A slightly wicked gleam had entered Miss Talbot’s eyes.
The girl was finally flirting.
“What could be more proper than two ladies sharing a settee?”
Gaze locked on Miss Talbot’s big brown eyes, Jane sat, not touching the girl, but scant inches away.
Lowering her voice, Jane spoke again. “What exactly is improper about my sitting next to you, Miss Talbot? Will you share that confidence?”
As Miss Talbot leaned toward Jane, the sweet bud of her lips slightly parted.
The big, mahogany parlor door opened, and the butler cleared his phlegmatic throat.
“I’m sorry to disturb, miss, but there is a gentleman at the door that says he must see Miss Bannon.”
The butler sniffed a bit, standing ramrod straight.
“Who is it, Martin?” asked Miss Talbot.
“I am sure I do not know, miss. But he was wearing tweeds at night. In May.”
Well, if that didn’t damn a man. Jane grinned. It must be Johnson.
“I’d best go look into this, Miss Talbot. My apologies.”
Jane rose, handing her champagne glass to Martin as she exited the room. The poor man almost dropped it trying not to touch her hand.
“Thank you, my good man,” she said, and strode toward the front door.
“Johnson!” It was indeed her friend, and he was, indeed, wearing a natty tweed suit. The horror.
“Bannon. You’re missing the speeches in Haymarket!”
“I thought you were covering tonight’s events. I’m a bit tied up at the moment.”
Johnson’s face about split in two with a grin. “I can just bet you are. She’s a right treat, the young lady of the house.”
“Really Johnson. You’re such a cad.”
Johnson raised his eyebrows under his tweed cap at that.
“I’ve been out already, listening to the speeches. Come on, Bannon. You can hunt birds any night of the week. How often do trade unionists gather in the square?”
“Too often these past weeks. Has anyone come to blows? Anymore gunfire from the police?”
Jane thought of Miss Talbot, and the pink glow to her skin. She thought of sliding the long satin gloves off those pretty arms and placing a kiss on the soft skin at the crook of her elbow. Jane thought of many things, in fact.
“Is that all you care about, Bannon? Violence?” Johnson’s tone grew more serious, and he lowered his voice. “Something ain’t right tonight, boss, or I wouldn’t have come.”
Jane wrinkled her smooth, white brow, then raised her own voice, in case the butler was around.
“Very well. If you promise things look interesting, I’ll come. It’s boring in this mausoleum anyway.” Jane turned to the foyer. No butler to be seen.
“Just let me offer my regrets to the young lady.”
Jane changed into a gray wool suit, grabbed a soft cap to cover her hair, and a walking stick in case of emergency. One never knew when self-defense would become necessary.
Johnson had a hired coach waiting, so they quickly left behind the black wrought iron gates and brick mansions of Prairie Avenue, heading off toward the rail yards, tenements, and saloons near Haymarket Square.
Miss Talbot had not been pleased. Not in the least. She had let Jane go only after extracting her word that Jane would return, “No matter how late.”
That was promising. The surprise of the matter was that the girl had actually wanted to go with them! She “longed to see the people,” was how she had put it.
She longed to see Jane’s head in a noose if Miss Talbot’s father returned from his trip and found out where his daughter had been, was more like. Jane loved adventure, but a girl such as Miss Talbot, all rosy and refined…the trade unionists and anarchists would likely rip a girl like that apart.
But clearly Miss Talbot’s sympathies had been stirred by someone. Jane wondered whom.
Perhaps she wasn’t just Daddy’s Little Girl. There may be a spine hidden beneath that soft, rosy flesh.
Jane could hear the crowd, though they were still blocks away. German. English. All shouting. Chanting.
“Eight hours a day, no cut in pay! Eight hours a day, no cut in pay!”
Johnson turned to Jane. “I guess the speeches are over, boss.”
Then two gunshots cracked. With a whoomf, a blast shook the very air. The horses bucked and whinnied, ready to bolt. More shots came from up ahead. The carriage driver yelled as the carriage rocked and heaved.
Slamming her shoulder against the carriage door, Jane tumbled into the night, landing on her feet. The stitches strained against her side. Johnson lumbered into her, almost knocking her to the ground. Jane hissed through her teeth as she caught herself.
Without a word, walking stick in hand, Jane ran toward the fire, Johnson huffing at her heels.
It was bedlam. Police truncheons swung in the firelight. The sickly-sweet smell of fresh blood mingled with scorched wood and cordite. Jane and Johnson scrambled up a wall, headed to the rooftops to improve their view and get out of the scrum.
Breathing in smoke, nostrils singed, the taste of it acrid on the back of her tongue, Jane half wished she was still sipping champagne with the delectable Miss Rebecca Talbot.
The light wool of her fine gray suit did its best to keep stray cinders from her flesh, but the occasional spark still stung her face and hands. The suit itself would be ruined, she knew, pock marked with tiny holes.
Jane had sacrificed many a suit to danger. She only wished it hadn’t been her new one from the clever tailor off one of the winding side streets of Rome.
She would just have to break into the convent to visit tender Alessandra again, while waiting for a new suit to be made.
Meanwhile, there were traces to collect before the fires and confusion swept everything away.
And a woman to get back to. Though the chance of Jane staggering to Talbot’s manse before dawn were looking slim.
Wasn’t that Miss Talbot’s fiancé, Mr. Burke, exiting the square? The man moved with haste and purpose. His broad shoulders were encased in a stunningly cut suit, but he appeared to have lost his hat in the crush somewhere. His blond hair gleamed red and orange in the leaping flames.
That was Burke, alright.
It looked as though he wasn’t on that business trip after all.
Jane set Johnson on Burke’s tail and scrambled over the rooftops to a three-story brick structure with the flames leaping in front. Clearly that was where the bomb had gone off.
Body parts were scattered about the square, just visible around the edges. In the center, trade unionists and police did battle, limned with fire, shadows moving in the night.
Jane caught the occasional glimpse of an angry face. Jane hoped if Mother Jones was among the throng, that she was well prepared to keep herself safe.
Jane could feel the flames even from the rooftops, and the smell was terrible. Acrid and rotten, with the scent of overripe banana. Dynamite, perhaps? A bit crude, but effective. Or for all she knew, the bomb had taken out one of the rickety fruit and vegetable carts that sometimes plied their wares in the square.
This must be the building. The tar paper roof stuck to the soles of her boots. Now. How could she get in?
Aha! There was a downspout at the far edge of the roof. Jane ran toward it, stick still clutched in hand. Looking over the roof’s tapered edge, she saw that there was indeed a ledge.
“This is going to hurt again,” she muttered.
Not large enough to hold the average man, but well large and wide enough for an uncommon woman.
Jane tucked her walking stick beneath one arm and grasped the downspout with the other, taking care to wrap her legs about the thick metal pipe.
A quick slide and she was down, palms a bit worse for the wear, side aching like a demon’s smile.
Inching along the wall, fingertips gripping the interstices between the bricks, Jane found a window. There was no time to finesse it open.
With a swing of her walking stick, she smashed the glass, carefully tucked a hand inside, and released the latch. Thankfully, the windows opened in.
Dropping into the room, she paused a moment letting her eyes adjust. A roll-top desk hulked against one wall, swivel chair in place in front of it. There was a long table in the center of the room, with what looked like rolls of paper stacked on top.
Maps. But what she needed was proof of the suspicions she hadn’t even yet voiced out loud to Johnson, and had barely admitted to herself.
The violence must have started from the top.
Talbot’s hints had been too precise, too casual. His questions and suppositions too pat. And then Burke…
“I’ve heard they’ll stoop to nothing, those Germans,” Talbot would say. “They weren’t wanted in their own countries, why should we trust them here?”
Jane had heard it all in Talbot’s secret office on the wrong side of the tracks, far from his usual place of operations, and further still from the neat sidewalks lining Prairie Street.
“You come well recommended,” Talbot said. “I trust you to do what you must. Just find me the proof I need to take them down.”
Proof like a bomb that killed policemen in a square where a self-proclaimed “peaceful gathering” turned wrong.
Jane wouldn’t put it past the anarchists to throw a bomb. Trouble was, she wouldn’t put it past Talbot, either. Not that he would soil his own hands. But a convenient future son-in-law perhaps?
She crept through the room, navigating by the light of the fires outside the shattered window. Nothing here. If she had time, she’d come back and look through the maps.
Creeping into the hallway, she felt her way along the wall, stick at the ready, until she found the second office. The door was open.
Poking her head around the frame, she saw a rectangular table surrounded by six chairs. Some filing cabinets flanked the windows. Those might prove fruitful.
She entered the room, scanning as she went. There was something on the table. A spool of copper wire.
The room smelled strange, including that faint whiff of banana. It must have been coming in from the window she had smashed.
Turning, she saw something more curious. Tucked against the wall near the door was a small wooden crate, its lid ajar. Moving swiftly toward the crate, Jane was stuck from behind. A sharp blow wrenched her shoulder blade, knocking her into the crate, splintering the lid. She caught a flash of cardboard tubes before turning low, swinging her stick at the attacker.
A man with blond hair and bespoke suit.
She slashed her cane up. He blocked the blow with a short stick of his own before striking her again, this time on her stitches.
Jane’s vision went white with pain, but she continued, striking blindly forward, following the sense of mass before her.
Something yielded. Burke’s belly.
Spots fragmenting before her eyes, she saw him strike toward her pate. Jane parried, shoving Burke’s short stick back toward him, sliding her walking stick down the shaft, then spinning it upward.
The stick cracked against Burke’s temple and he fell.
Breath heaving, stick hand half numb from the blows, side screaming, Jane touched Burke with one foot. He didn’t move. She staggered to the table for the spool of copper wire, and sliding to the floor, bound Burke’s hands behind him.
Then she scooted down and wrapped the wire around his ankles.
Burke stirred and shook his head.
“Who are you?” he groaned.
“You know me, my man. I’m Bannon. Jane Bannon.” Then she coshed him once again upside the head.
Once Burke was well and truly out, Jane touched a hand to her side.
It came away wet with blood.
“Blast,” she said. Bartitsu was handy in a pinch, but it played hell with a woman’s stitches.
“I don’t know how I lost him,” Johnson said. “He must have doubled back…”
“And entered through the ground floor before I entered the window,” Jane replied. “Likely wanting to get some of these maps and papers to safety and use the remainder of the dynamite to blow this building to the ground.”
They were sitting at the table, lit by a small constable’s lamp Johnson found next to one of the filing cabinets. Fires still flickered outside, but the shouting had died down. An ambulance wagon had come and gone, tending to the wounded and the dead.
Johnson had stuffed a handkerchief in Burke’s mouth, but the man hadn’t stirred yet.
“These papers show that Talbot and Pullman both agreed to ‘special measures’ to undermine the power of the strike.” Jane said.
“And look here.” Johnson held out a printed handbill. In English and German, it read “Attention Workingmen! Mass Meeting To-Night 7:30 O’Clock! Haymarket Square!” The line beneath that read, “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!”
Jane took the paper in her hand. “It is not exact proof, we’d need the plates for that, but this is rather damning, don’t you think?”
She’d heard rumor of these handbills. Apparantly August Spies––one of the loudest organizers––had seen them and had as many as possible destroyed. He and his men replaced these handbills with their own that called for a peaceful gathering.
How had it gotten in the filing cabinet in this office, with Burke lying in wait? Along with copper wire and dynamite?
That “something very wrong” with the job was confirmed well enough for Jane. Perhaps someday opportunity would arise for rough justice to be had for the striking workers, but for now, it was enough that no proof existed that the anarchists had thrown that bomb.
Jane would make certain of it.
Enough evidence to the contrary existed in this room, and she would tell Mr. Talbot so. Then she would tell him where to place his walking stick, payment or no.
Groaning, Jane slowly stood, bracing her battered body on a chair.
“Johnson, would you be so kind as to take care of Burke? He’s clearly been Chicagoed.”
Jane had one more thing to take care of herself, before the night was fled.
Shoes in hand, Jane crept down the upper hallway to the room at the end and tapped softly on the door.
She supposed she should have cleaned the blood and smoke from her person, but had a premonition that had she paused in her own rooms, her body would have fallen into peaceful oblivion.
A rustling. Feet padding across carpeted floors. The door latch snicked.
Miss Rebecca Talbot was a vision. Brown hair cascaded down her back, and a silk peignoir was loosely tied above a matching peach nightgown. Brown eyes blinked at her own, reflecting the flame of the candle she held in one hand.
“Miss Bannon, give me one good reason why I should let you into my rooms in such a state.”
Jane reached out a hand and cupped Miss Talbot’s neck, hair soft under her fingers. Drawing the sweet face closer, Jane leaned in for a kiss. Miss Talbot’s lips parted and, closing the distance, she pressed her mouth against Jane’s own.
Miss Talbot smelled of roses.
“Is that reason enough?” Jane said.
The light of the single candle showed a blush rise on Miss Talbot’s cheeks.
The young woman took one step back and opened the door wide.
“I believe it is satisfactory.”
Jane stepped inside.
“But next time,” Miss Talbot said, “take me with you.”
Jane barely heard Miss Talbot’s words, her gaze riveted as the blush crept down the pale neck, heading toward the loosely-tied, peach silk peignoir.
Jane loved roses. And peaches. And the removal of peignoirs.
She turned and shut the door.
This began life as a Patreon story. I’m reprising it in honor of May Day.