When Ms. Isringhausen opened the door to the brothel, she immediately decided that she’d expected more.
The sharply enunciated word echoed through the dimly lit front parlor of the brothel. Muted light filtered in through the gauzy red curtains painting the inside of the Chez Amie with a rusty, bloody gloom. It was almost disconcerting enough to make her abandon her purpose entirely and retrace the steps she’d ever so gingerly taken down the muddy and shit-filled thoroughfare to get there. As it was, she hesitated a moment before taking another step forward. Her boot scratched loudly against the wooden floor; it was a small movement, but enough to feel as if the dead, airless room had sucked her in without chance of escape.
It wasn’t often that she visited brothels, particularly when not in her professional capacity as a fixer of problems, but she had heard that this one accommodated only the most select of clientele. As it was, Silas had abandoned her, his unease over the obliqueness of her purpose there eventually overcoming the pressing pull of the hardness of his cock, so until she heard word from Swearingen on his decision regarding her proposition she was stuck with no amusements or diversions on the horizon. In a camp town like Deadwood, there was only so much she could manage to get away with before she found herself attacked, abused or suffering from some other unfathomable indignity, but that didn’t quell the listlessness and boredom that seemed to chase their way around on the underside of her skin like a parasitic infection moving at high speed. When the itching and crawling became too much (and how they had built up during the long hours she’d been forced to sit and listen to Alma Garrett whine and prevaricate… to such an extent that even her brief spate of fun with Silas hadn’t been enough to put them down for more than the short term) she found it easier than usual to give into the seductive notion of behaving badly.
Besides, behaving badly was a secret pleasure of hers. It was what had drawn her to her current assignment initially, the chance afforded her to slip in and out of personalities as if they were finely woven, silken robes to be flaunted and flashed. Each one was a design of her own crafting, this one stitched with affronted sensibilities and puritan dismay, this one embroidered with wide-eyed fear and the needy weakness men seemed to find so attractive in a woman. She wasn’t modest enough to demur and blush – unless the role called for it, of course. She was a chameleon of the highest order, a player on a stage that she set and directed with the precision of the finest Swiss timepiece; she was so good at what she did that returning to her true form felt more alien than the parts she played.
But, forced back in it, or at least as close to it as she could remember, she’d found herself restless and in need of distraction. It hadn’t taken more than a quick survey of the great unwashed that made up the inhabitants of the camp to convince her that it was a situation that called for a proactive move, one destined to separate her from a little of the well-earned pittance so kindly provided by Mrs. Garrett as severance pay.
Determined persistance creeping in to join the unrest as she found herself unwilling to abandon her efforts at misbehavior without first exerting due diligence, she tried another curt, curious, “Hello?”
The voice that answered was oddly calm and disturbingly close, and Ms. Isringhausen found herself with her hand pressed to her chest to calm the racing of a heart so rarely startled.
The sound drew her attention to the room’s only other occupant who, from what she could see in the shadows, was seated primly, skirt spread around her feet and hair down.
“I was under the impression this was a brothel,” Ms. Isringhausen noted sharply, unable to hide her irritation.
The figure laughed, a throaty and cynical sound. It resonated within Ms. Isringhausen - she recognized that kind of weariness with the world.
“And indeed it is,” the shadowy figure said, voice rife with rueful bemusement. “Won’t you please forgive my manners and have a seat? Would you care for a drink? We have Basil Hayden’s bourbon hidden beneath the floorboards.”
Something about the darkness put Ms. Isringhausen on edge, the tendril of fear that came with anticipation quickening through her blood. She wasn’t self-deluding enough to deny she liked it. “I’ll have a glass, please. Thank you.”
When the figure moved, Ms. Isringhausen noted that she cut a small, fine figure through the darkness. She caught a hint of the cascading tumble of curls and the tight pinch of a slim waist. Her carriage was erect, with a slow and deliberate cadence to each move. Ms. Isringhausen enjoyed the anonymous beauty of the silhouette. Perhaps, she thought, her real self was like this woman - hidden in the shadows and capable of emerging as anything when brought to the light.
When a glass appeared in her hand, it was half full. The liquid in it looked like the gold that ran rampant in the hills around Deadwood, a faint hint of light catching and reflecting off of its surface to give it an unnatural sheen as compelling as the teasing glint men searched for so diligently in the streams. She wondered which had destroyed more lives – liquor or gold – and decided that race had to be a tight one.
Her eyes had begun to adjust to the strange tint to the darkness and she could see, slightly better than before, the features of her hostess. Full lips gave no indication of the other woman’s mood, flattened into a thin and neutral line. Her brows were delicately arched over eyes as pale as moonlight in the darkness and her features gave the impression of beauty that was more often than not in full and unflinching view. She had the look of a woman who had to work hard at hiding her feelings but who could do so with a great deal of success when possessed of the requisite energy.
Tonight, she fell just shy of that mark.
“Don’t you care to ask after my purpose?” she finally asked, slightly unnerved by the way the other woman was watching her, gaze unblinking and hypnotic.
The figure shrugged, her elegant velvet gown rustling softly. “Maybe you’ve come to inquire after employment.”
Ms. Isringhausen took a sip of the bourbon, the burn of it a soothing comfort. “On the contrary, I’ve come to request the services of a whore.”
She had expected surprise to meet her pronouncement.
Instead, again, as before, the woman's laugh was bitter and harsh. “As I’m the only whore here at the moment, I suppose you’ll have to make your request of me.”
Something about the assessing way the woman was watching her made the prospect more appealing than Ms. Isringhausen had anticipated when she’d ventured forth into the filth of the thoroughfare that evening. In her boredom, she’d been anticipating quite a bit.
“Then name your price.”
She watched as those ever so enticing lips lost the rigor of a frown and curled up into a smile, bringing out dimples that appeared only as darker shadows in an already darkened face, and felt a little shiver run down her spine. It was easy to see that she wasn’t in the presence of an ingénue. Something about the stillness of the other woman spoke of knowledge and strength of will. Ms. Isringhausen had, before leaving her stifling hotel room, entertained fanciful notions of despoiling a fresh-faced young girl who could still, at the very least, playact at innocence. Now the idea seemed foolish. She didn’t need the illusion of faux naiveté. The indefinable thing she could see looking back at her from unblinking eyes was what she needed.
“You’re in luck,” the other woman drawled, fingers lazily finding the buttons on the front of her dress and flicking them open with careless ease. “We’re running a special tonight. Anything you want to pay gets you anything you want. You can be our exclusive client.”
Each purposeful pop of a button fanned the warmth engendered by the bourbon in her belly like sparks from a wood fire, and soon Ms. Isringhausen felt the beginnings of a well contained blaze on the verge of threatening to flash over into something more. She watched as the shadowed curve of a breast appeared, delicate and enticing, the skin edged in the fine lawn of a nearly transparent chemise – a perfect tease.
Daintily snapping open the small purse she’d brought with her, Ms. Isringhausen drew free a folded wad of money, crisply pulling off five freshly minted $10 bills. “Will this be sufficient?”
The other woman took the money without even glancing down, fingers snagging and holding the hand which had extended it. “For that kind of money, you’ll want to come upstairs, honey.”
The sway and dip of the woman’s hips was an entrancing dance performed solely for her as they climbed the stairs. The room they entered was even darker than the downstairs had been, and when Ms. Isringhausen spoke, she found her voice raspy and low.
“Light a lamp and tell me your name.”
The drag and scratch of a match was followed by the burst of flame, and soon the woman was walking toward her, oil lamp in hand. In the luminous, flickering light, she could see that features that had hinted at beauty in darkness held up to their promise, and she smiled.
“I’m Joanie,” the whore said with a faint smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“And I’m Alice. You’ll call me Alice.”
At that, Alice frowned. “I won’t have that. I’m not a man for you to easily please and comfort with your false wiles. You neednt coddle me. You simply need do as I say.”
“I can arrange for that, too,” Joanie said, smile turning wry as she eased the lamp into place on a nearby table. Turning to face Alice, she stood with her hands at her side, posture open and inviting. “So, have your say.”
“Finish what you started downstairs.”
Joanie didn’t like thinking of downstairs. In her mind’s eye, she took in the missing rug, the smell of blood still coppery and thick in the air. She figured that the not knowing was worse than the seeing would have been. Cy had said their throats had been cut, but without having seen it herself, Joanie could only imagine what the scene must have looked like. She could only imagine the look on Maddie’s face, on the other girls’ faces. Shocked surprise, maybe, or acceptance, regret, peace, or fear.
She was left alone in the brothel that was supposed to have given her back a piece of her own life with only the not knowing to keep her company.
But this rarity, this woman who had ventured alone into a whorehouse looking not to spread her legs for money but instead to pay someone else spread theirs for her, was looking at her expectantly and Joanie decided to take advantage of something she’d been looking for earlier – the comfort of returning to familiar terrain, to something at which she excelled. Being a madam might not have started out the way she would have liked, but she’d always been good at being a whore.
“This, you mean?” she teased, sliding the tightly fitted jacket back over her shoulders and fingering the thin material of her undergarment. “Or maybe this?”
She stepped out of the skirt first, leaving only the chemise and the corset, the black stockings and white breaches, and the porcelain stiletto boots that stopped just above her ankles. She lifted her hair free of her neck, arching her back to let it fall again as she pushed her breasts forward. It made Alice breathe deeply and slowly, a futile attempt at control, and Joanie couldn't hide her smirk. Gliding across the room, putting to full use her many years of training, Joanie planted a foot on the bed inches away from where Alice was standing - so close that she could feel the slightest tinge of the other woman’s body heat - and slowly unlaced each boot in turn.
“Perhaps you’d like to assist me?” she prompted with a teasing smile, flicking open the clasp of her garters and beginning to roll the hose down the leg still propped inches from Alice.
“Not just yet.”
The other woman’s voice was low and forced, as if it had taken all of the effort she possessed to be able to speak the words. It filled a little something of the place left empty inside of Joanie, however fleetingly, and so she finished her disrobing with a teasing slowness designed to return the favor.
Despite the need to remain somehow detached, Alice found that she was unable to tear her eyes away. Cloth gave way to soft skin – the delicately etched curve of supple breasts, the gentle slope of a smooth belly, the high roundness of perfect buttocks.
“Well worth the money,” she said softly, unaware the words had even been spoken until the other woman laughed.
“This is just the prelude, Alice. We’re nowhere near the night’s climax.”
Alice’s fingers slipped on the suddenly too slick buttons of her own severe black dress, a curse on the tip of her tongue when they were brushed away. The fingers that replaced her own deftly snapped open the buttons of the simple garment she wore, and within moments it was a crumpled heap on the floor. Her underthings were dispatched with the same skill and grace, and soon she was bare.
“I assume this was what you intended,” Joanie said softly, fingers brushing lightly over the curve of Alice’s hip. The other woman was more striking than beautiful, with eyes so dark they were nearly black and hair just a scant few shades away from russet. She had creamy skin, full, expressive lips and a straight nose that ended in a slight upturn that hinted at mischief. Had the woman not already paid her, Joanie would have had no problem offering her services for free. “In my experience, with women it’s best this way. Not that you can’t have just as much pleasure as you could want with petticoats still intact, but with skin this soft, why would you shy away from touching it?”
“So you’ve done this before?”
Joanie's eyes flashed with unexpected amusement. “It was my assumption that you came looking for experience.”
“I see. This town is overrun with women looking to be serviced by the comfort of whores while the menfolk toil away at the mines and streams all day?”
“No.” Joanie's smile softened. “My experience in these matters is mostly for personal satisfaction, not professional reward. Entertaining a woman exclusively is a rarity. Pleasing one while a client watches a little less so.”
“And is this experience vast?”
“That depends on what you want to hear.”
“In that case, I’m certainly not a novice.”
Alice raised a single, expressive brow, reaching out to twist a silky strawberry blonde curl around her finger. “That’s excellent news, Joanie. I expect I’ll benefit from the expertise you’ve collected over the years.”
Joanie’s smile slid into a smirk. She dipped her head slowly and placed a soft kiss on the slim column of Alice’s neck. It'd been longer than she'd realized; without even noticing, she'd been missing the feel and smell of a woman’s skin. Now, there was time to indulge herself. She took time to reacquaint herself, drawing her lips up and down Alice's flesh in a featherlight stroke that drew forth a shiver and a whimper. “Any place in particular you’d like me to start?”
Alice’s fingers were long and slim, elegant in a way that matched her graceful ease. They were also cool where they rested along Joanie’s cheeks, bringing their faces even.
“If this will be a problem,” she said softly, the flickering light of the lamp dancing across her irises like the far-off reflections of a bonfire as her face drew nearer, “then you will charge me what you will to make it not one.”
As a general rule, Joanie tried to keep private fucking and professional fucking separate. That distinction left her with a few things that were sacrosanct - kisses that pantomimed a relationship between people who cared for one another being one of those things - but she felt no desire to protest as Alice's lips met her own. Her life had become a shambles in less time than it had taken for her to unwittingly play host to her own ruin, and in the face of that, the comfort of pretending at love for just a little while wasn’t something she was prepared to turn down. Instead, she surrendered to it, arms winding around Alice’s neck as she stepped into her and brought their bodies together in a meeting of bare skin that made her want to moan.
Alice’s hair was pulled back in a severe bun, though tendrils had escaped to hint at barely controlled unruliness. Pins clattered to the floor as Joanie pulled them loose, freeing it to cascade down her back in a riot of curls that tumbled over her hands like silk.
“You’ll have to help me put it back up,” Alice chided lightly, eyes dark with passion.
Joanie pulled back far enough to inspect Alice closely. “I prefer it down,” she murmured, eyes catching on swollen, dark red lips and the flush in pale cheeks. It was just payment for her allowance of kisses usually denied, taking from Alice the severity that had guarded her features and replacing it with a promising and feminine sensuality that made Joanie burn in a way that stripped away professional perspective.
The cover on the bed had been pulled back, a remnant of the left-over hopefulness of a promising new operation. A soft shove sent Alice flying back onto the mattress, and she pushed up on her elbows, body tensed in anticipation. The sheets, she discovered, were soft against her skin and certainly of better quality than she’d been subject to at E.B. Farnum’s hotel.
Half on the bed, Alice's legs were sprawled over the side, bent at the knee and spread wide enough to accommodate Joanie's trim figure. Joanie stepped between them easily, hands running up the silk of Alice’s thighs, pushing them open wider as she went. Poised there at the edge of the bed, hands tracing paths that left Alice fighting back whimpers, Joanie looked down at her with an unreadable expression in her eyes.
“I find I’m not as good at reading people as I thought,” she said, voice tinged with sadness. Her nails dug into Alice’s thighs unconsciously, drawing forth a hiss. “I know what I’d like to do, but I can’t seem to divine if that’s what you’d like too.”
“We’ve got all night,” Alice husked. “Why don’t you try everything you want? I plan to do the same.”
Joanie needed no further invitation.
Alice didn’t protest as her wrists were pressed into the mattress above her head or as her lips were claimed in a kiss that bordered just shy of vicious. Instead, she arched her hips up toward the hand snaking its way down her belly and gasped at the twin tease of the sharp nip of teeth on her bottom lip and the first glide of fingers through her wetness.
Joanie’s mouth left hers, lips finding the tender shell of an ear and then the puckered beg of a nipple. They traced a path of fire down her neck and brushed soft kisses against her chin while the hand between her legs drew forth choked cries and whimpers. Joanie teased and taunted, bringing her to the edge of something she wanted more than life itself before pulling away, letting her heartbeat recede to something closer to normal before working their magic again until she was sweating and writhing and begging for release.
When it finally arrived, release came on the echoes of a scream and eyes that opened wide but saw nothing. And then she felt a soft tongue replace those magical fingers, and Alice wound her hands into soft, silky curls. In the back of her mind, where she still held on to a corner of conscious thought, she made a vow to repay the favor.
Later, as Alice fought back sleep, resting comfortably against the body cradling her from behind and secure in the knowledge that she’d upheld her silent mental vow, she chuckled, the sound slurred with fatigue.
“It’s a tough thing, being a woman in a man’s world,” she murmured, feeling Joanie’s unspoken question in the tensing of her body.
Joanie’s answering chuckle was just as tired. “That’s what you’re thinking about right now?”
“You’re the only whore in this whorehouse,” Alice noted almost clinically. “Whatever happened to you and your enterprise, I imagine you can lay the blame at a man’s door. I wait here in this dirty little town, pawn in the brokering of a deal between men designed to injure one of my own, but we do what we must. I do it eagerly, even, so well trained in the way of the man’s world that I find myself deriving enjoyment from the games and machinations one must use to get ahead. But, we have to be smarter, don’t we, Joanie? We have to be sly. We have to beat them at their own game before they even know one is being played.”
Joanie thought about Cy, about the rage that she could see coursing through him the day he realized that she’d fleeced her freedom out of him. She’d gotten her own place without his willing help and made a go of it without his yoke strangling her for the first time since her daddy had sold her to him for six dollars and some change when she was fourteen. She’d known he would be furious – Cy fancied himself in love with her, as much as a sociopath could love. She knew better. Cy didn’t love her. Cy wanted to control her, wanted to hold his power over her and watch her beg for every little thing.
Cy had also been cozy with the murderous bastard Wolcott. She didn’t know the particulars of the scam they’d been running, but she’d observed the flow of miners moving in and out of the Bella Union, for once leaving with fatter pockets than they’d had when they entered. She’d seen the notice posted outside of Merrick’s newspaper office, carefully worded to incite panic that the US government was on its way to annex Deadwood and nullify everyone's claims. She knew what it felt like to have everything taken away without your consent and could sympathize with the men who sold out to Cy, for pennies on the dollar, the land that had nursed their dreams of wealth. But with Hearst’s chief geologist Wolcott on the scene, she knew that bigger things were afoot. This camp was no more going to be invalidated by the federal government than Wu’s pigs were like to fly.
And with Wolcott on hand and the whore Doris on loan from the Bella Union to spy on the happenings at the Chez Amie, she had no doubt that Cy had been right in the middle of the ugliness that had happened. It had taken the perspective of a few days to figure it out, the sight of Wolcott sitting calmly at a table in the Bella Union giving the germinating idea credence, but it hit her with a certainty she couldn’t deny. Cy hadn’t taken the knife to her girls’ throats but he’d done nothing short of putting the blade in Wolcott’s hand. He could no more stop trying to control her life than he could stop breathing and didn’t spare a blink for murder as a mechanism. She didn’t know if it was punishment or an attempt to bring her back into the fold. Either way, she was on her own two feet, away from him, and determined to stay that way.
“Tonight we’re women in a woman’s world,” Joanie said roughly, pushing back the dark thoughts. “I think it’s the better of the two.”
Alice rolled over with a soft smile, pressing a lingering kiss against the spot covering Joanie’s heart and sliding a hand down to cup her sex. She wasn’t one to waste opportunities.
“Then let me fuck you again, before we have to leave it.”