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Rosemary's Choice

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Rosemary hated the mirror on her dresser. It was a gaudy thing, immovable and unforgiving as it framed her face with gold and cherubs. It cost more than any of the mine workers made in a year. The urge to crush it, crack the glass, was a burning in the pit of her stomach, an ache behind her eyes.

"What did that mirror ever do to you?"

There was no gasp from Rosemary, no startled shriek or widening of eyes. She turned in her seat with the poise and control of a queen whose castle had been invaded.

There was a man sitting on her windowsill. He was smiling at her, the expression half hidden by his neatly trimmed beard. The pose he'd struck - one leg bent, the other dangling out the window, swinging in time with the light summer breeze - created the perfect picture of relaxation. The clothes he wore, those of a cowherder, aided that impression. His skin color and dark hair marked him as a native of some kind.

Like her.

"It sure didn't break into my private room," Rosemary said, fighting to sound detached. Would anyone come if she screamed? "So imagine how much on my bad side you could end up."

The man held up his hands in a gesture of 'no harm' - or was it 'slow down'? "Mrs Ca-"

"Rosemary," she cut him short. The Mrs was an acid burn at the back of her throat. "Only fitting you call me by my name since you're already in my bedroom. What do you want?"

"Then you can call me Jack," the man said, putting his hands down in the slow manner one would use to not startled a spooked horse. His name was as ill-fitting as hers.

Rosemary frowned at that and at his name. He seemed content to stay on her windowsill though. That was something at least. "So, Jack… I do so hate to repeat myself, but why did you make the climb here to my window? Breaking and entering? You do know who my-, who 'Big Jim' is, don't you?"

"Oh I know," came the honeyed answer from Jack. "Which is why I have a proposal for you."

The cabaret had that air of a would-be-brawl over it as Jack entered. He paused in the doorway and took in the spares furniture and the handful of heads that turned to look at him.

A pin being dropped might not have been heard as the shuffling of chairs, clinking of glasses and occasional coughs that accompanied human beings to all such venues kept one's ears busy. The drilling was no pin though. Jack could hear it clear as day and he had to fight not to turn his head and look at the wall it was coming from. No one else seemed to notice though.

Jack took a step inside, letting the tension of the room wash over him. There were mirrors on every wall - a bold move for any owner of an establishment where drinks were served. Big Jim sure had good faith in the terror of his own reputation. There wasn't a crack to be seen in any of them.

Halfway across the room, Jack locked eyes with the automaton tending the bar. "Set it up for everyone," he said, melting suspicious glares into smiles. Gin and whiskey was soon passed about the room, to the sound of subdued cheers.

He set aim for the closest man whose face he didn't recognize. Grinning in the carefree manner that had taken months to get perfect, he asked: "Could you kindly tell me, friend, what time the show begins?"

"Give me three new cards," Lily said, eying the two queens in her hand.

"I fold," Becky said, dropping her cards to the table with little care.

Anne-Marie rolled her eyes. "You're hopeless," she said and the other dancers nodded their heads in agreement.

Lily let her attention drift as the other dancers began to quibble over the etiquettes of this particular kind of poker. The sun hung low in the sky outside, peaking in through the window as it approached setting. In the streets outside the locals were elbowing each other, hoping to get the best seats in the house. They didn't have to elbow as much as they'd had to last week, which put a smile on Lily's lips. The smart ones had already gotten out of town.

"I'll raise three dollars," she said, cutting through the snide remarks and teasing smirks. "Another card, please."

Her heart skipped a beat as she drew up the Jack of Hearts.

It was impossible to avoid noticing Big Jim's entrance. Jack doubted he'd been able to stay hidden even if there had been an actual crowd to get lost in. Five bodyguards and a cane tipped with silver; not something you saw everyday in the young streets of the plains' cities. Jack had been in enough of them to know that much.

Wonder how much more I'd know if only- He derailed his own train of thought before it could reach a station he wished to avoid. There was no time for distractions now. Two jobs at once was daring, even for him.

Big Jim took the best seat in the house, of course. Square center before the stage, one table to himself and two of his bodyguards. The other three spread out in the room, as inconspicuous as elephants armed with pistols.

Jack pulled his hat further down to shadow his face and leaned back in his chair as he watched them watch everyone else. Halfway through the show, he decided. That should give her enough time.

Rosemary got out of the carriage outside the cabaret, mindful that no mud splash on her shoes. Music was streaming out through the door and walls, speaking of an approaching intermission. She waited by the door until one of the two men Jim had assigned her opened it for her. The smile she plastered on her face would have ached if the conflict inside her hadn't demanded all her attention.

Hair combed to perfection, false eyelashes glued on just so and in a dress decked out with fine embroidery she knew she cut a striking figure. More than one pair of eyes followed her as she swept through the room, making halt at Big Jim's right-hand side. She leaned forward and did her best to at least look like she was flirting when she whispered in his ear: "Sorry, darlin', that I'm late."

No response, but that was no surprise. The man hadn't done more than look at her since their wedding day and that had been a rare occasion in itself. He gave a grunt and gestured at the chair next to him, his eyes fixed on something in the corner of the room. Rosemary had more than once wondered if they actually counted as married in the eyes of any god since they'd never even come close to sharing a bed for any reason. Then again, what did that matter?

Quite a lot, tonight, she reminded herself, taking her seat next to Big Jim without losing her smile.

A distraction from that thought presented itself right away. The crowd had begun to stamp their feet and despite their low numbers the noise quickly became deafening. The steam engine that powered the electric lights coughed and shut down, leaving the room only lit by a few candles here and there. The curtains were pulled aside and the second act of the show began.

There on stage stood Lily, fire-haired Lily, Lily with the flashing smile and lovely voice. Lily who had just draw the Jack of Hearts from a bundle offered by a man in a very tall hat and was showing it off to the applauding audience with a theatrical smile. Lily who had been Big Jim's mistress for the past two months.

Rosemary felt no resentment towards her. How could she? The woman was smart; she'd gotten money and jewelry out of the deal and as far as Rosemary knew she'd not had to give Big Jim as much as a kiss in exchange yet. If there was anything Rosemary felt for Lily it was admiration.

Big Jim seemed to share her feelings, if in a more carnal manner. The moment the curtains had been pulled aside his eyes had tore themselves from wherever they had wandered off to and glued themselves to Lily like metal to an electromagnet.

It didn't take her many seconds to make out whose face Jim had been studying so carefully. Oh dear.

Lily waved at the crowd as she hurried down from the stage, holding the card up for everyone to see. There was a table right next to the stage set up for her and the other actors and dancers, for when they weren't needed on or behind the stage. She noticed one pair of eyes burning into her more than the rest.

The poor fool, she thought, giving Big Jim a wink she pretended to try and hide from his wife. If he wasn't rotten to the core I'd almost feel sorry for him.

She fidgeted with the ring she wore on the index finger of her left hand. It was an expensive looking thing, though she knew it for the fake it was. Such a rich man and he couldn't be bothered to buy his mistress a ring of actual silver. Said a lot of his character.

Rosemary's here, that's a good sign, she thought, taking in the smiling yet distant figure of Big Jim's wife. Let's just hope this goes smoothly then. She stroked a thumb against the false skin of her right leg, feeling the metal and gears underneath. Let's really hope that.

The knife was a far better mirror than the one in her bedroom, meager size aside. Rosemary met her own eyes in the narrow blade before she folded it back into the hilt it was attached to and unlocked the door. The ladies room wasn't as clean as the one at Big Jim's house, but it was a place to take a breather none the less.

She picked up the glass of wine she'd left on a table nearby and swallowed its contents down in one gulp. It was her third glass for the evening, but as usual it did nothing. With what she knew now, what Jack had told her, that shouldn't have been a surprise. Still she couldn't help but give the automatons in the room a hollow-eyed look as she passed them by. She had no idea how to feel about this mess of a situation - mess of a life.

As she made her way back to Big Jim's table she looked at him, really looked at him for the first time in years. How many miners had been lost to collapsed tunnels because Jim hadn't bothered to spend money on keeping up repairs? How many children were starving while Jim and his house ate like royalty? How many men and women had he quietly done away with because they inconvenienced him? If he'd been anyone else, anyone with less money or influence, he'd have been strung up from the nearest tree years ago.

Fine thing to grow a conscience now, she thought, taking her seat next to the hateful man. I've eaten food he pays for with his blood money and I've worn all the clothes he's brought me. Might not be as bad as him, but that not much to brag about.

When her eyes passed over the spot Jack had occupied she noticed he'd disappeared. Seemed the cogs were set in motion. She hoped she could find the courage to help out in any way she could when it all went down.

Big Jim made a comment to one of his bodyguards that Rosemary didn't bother fully hearing. In that moment it burned to sit next to such a despicable man, to sit there as his wife, his property. He made her skin crawl, or would have had her skin been able to do such things.

She could picture herself riding Big Jim's prize stallion Jack of Hearts off into the sunset. It was a lovely picture. She very much hoped it'd come true.

The dress ended up at the bottom of the drawer with only two pushes and one curse. Lily shut it with a push of her hip and whirled around to face the man - dressed as a monk - standing in her doorway. She smiled at him and her shoulders sagged as relief flooded through her.

"Has your luck run out?" she laughed at him, "Well, I guess you must have known it would someday."

"I said I'd come back when that happened, didn't I?" Jack answered her, stepping fully into her dressing room and shutting the door behind him. "I don't make empty promises. And with the mine being rebuilt we finally have a chance to do this properly."

"Mind that wall please," she said and pointed at the wall to his right, "it's got a brand new coat of paint. Your boys do work fast - I'm barely keeping up with them."

Jack took another hesitant step closer and Lily pulled him into a hug.

"The backstage manager is suspicious," he said, voice low and full of tension. "But the hanging judge is too drunk to stand, so we'll have another few hours."

"Perfect," she said, allowing herself a deep sigh of relief. She pulled back from the embrace, but didn't let go of him completely, and said: "You make a good saint, my friend. Ever thought of going into theater, once your robbing days are behind you?"

That brought a weak smile to his face. "The thought had crossed my mind." His beard was growing back as they spoke and his skin color was returning to normal. There were unspoken words behind his eyes and in the gentle yet frozen grip he had on her shoulders.

"I've missed you so," she said, putting all the months of loneliness into her words. "I couldn't stand being here alone another day. I'm so glad we're finally doing this."

That was when the door burst open. Without thinking, Lily pushed Jack towards the window and shouted: "Run!"

The click of a colt revolver shouldn't be a familiar noise. Rosemary had heard it and sounds like it far too many times in her life already.

Lily looked up at Big Jim the way a ranger looks up at a wayward and enraged bull. She shut the window behind Jack without taking her eyes off Jim, then crossed her arms over her chest and held her chin high.

"I knew I'd seen that man before," Big Jim said, though he made no move to shoot the fleeing silhouette outside. "Jack of Hearts he calls himself from what I've heard. Criminal scum who fancies himself some sort of Robin Hood, skipping from town to town with a merry band of robbers."

"That why you named your favorite horse after him?" Lily asked and Rosemary's heart leapt into her throat.

"What can I say, I'm a man of irony." Rosemary doubted he knew the true meaning of the word. "I'll have my men deal with him once I'm done with you, whoever you are, you filthy whore." There was no power behind the insult, as if it had been more an afterthought, put there to fit the conversation. Big Jim's icy demeanor had always been unsettling, but here, with Lily and Rosemary as only audience, it felt alien and deadly.

"Lily is actually my real name," said the woman who had a gun aimed at her forehead, giving Big Jim a smile far too confident to be facing a loaded weapon. "You might be a man of irony, but you sure aren't a man who'd put to mind the name of children you've ordered dead."

Big Jim's shoulders squared and stiffened, as if he'd been caught unawares by a cold gale. Rosemary found the courage to turn the key in the door's lock, praying no one would hear the click. "…who are you?"

"As I said, my name is Lily," he got in reply. "Though I think you know my father's name better. William Hartlow ring a bell?"

"The inventor?" Big Jim's revolver didn't waver from its aim, but there was an edge to his tone of voice now, fraying its calm edges. Rosemary wished she knew what that meant.

"Your men did poor work of me," Lily said. "You'd think people with such experience killing should have been able to do away with a twelve-year-old, but then again I was always very clever, even as a child." She pulled up her skirt, showing off her legs in a manner that would have looked scandalous in any other situation. "Lost a leg, but I healed well enough and was able to build myself a replacement once I got out of the hospital three towns over. You'd be surprise how few questions the doctors over there ask. It's almost as if they were used to tending to mutilated workers back then already."

"So this is what?" Big Jim asked, tone unsteady, gun beginning to wobble in his grip. "An attempt at revenge? Are you mad enough to risk your life for such a petty thing? Do you really think you and a gang of bank robbers can do away with me? Me?!"

Holding her breath had always been one of Rosemary's talents. Up until last night she'd never known why, but now she used her talent to its full potential. She pulled the key from the lock with utmost care, careful to not scrape mental against metal.

"Petty revenge? Oh, how little you know," Lily said, her eyes growing dark. "You didn't just steal my leg from me nor is this just because you're a right stain of a human being. No, you stole my life's work from me and turned them into your slave! Parading them around and not even as themself, but as a poorly made connection to the locals! I'd ask why you couldn't just find a real native woman to marry, but I think I know the answer already."

That tore a laugh from Big Jim. "Your life's work?"

"You didn't think my father built them, did you?" Lily asked, head cocked to the side in a mockery of confusion. "He's a clever person too, but it was no secret the fully self aware automaton was my invention." Her eyes sought out Rosemary's and while Rosemary wasn't quite sure what she was trying to convey with that look she could tell guilt played a fair part in it. "It took me years to build another and then more still to sniff out who'd ordered the theft and the attack on me. Jack came back with news of your whereabouts only three months ago. I'm so, so very sorry."

"Enough!" Big Jim shouted, moving to stand so he blocked Rosemary's view of Lily. "I've had it with you! Your plan ends here!"

Rosemary made her decision.

Hanging day. Lily tasted the words, turned them upside-down inside her head and watched as the locals begun to make their way to the tree where it all would end.

The robbery hadn't been discovered yet. Lily wondered who would open the great safe first, who'd be the one to discover Big Jim had no inheritance left to send off to that cousin down south. A cousin who, frankly, wasn't in need of any more money. Jack's boys would find better use for them, for better people.

The dye took an hour or two to get out of her hair. Red gave way to mousy brown and it felt like a stone had fallen from her shoulders. As she brushed her hair her mind wandered to her father of all people. She hadn't seen much of William Hartlow since she'd set out on her self-made mission. She found herself missing him, now that her other affairs were in order. Maybe she'd visit him. Maybe for Christmas.

Rosemary would be at the tree soon. Lily tried to not think about it, which of course had the usual effect of making her think about what she was ignoring even more. But it would all work out well in the end - Jack was proof of that. And he'd be there for her come nightfall.

Big Jim was laid up in the morgue two houses over. They hadn't been able to pull Rosemary's penknife out of his back, or so she'd heard. Fitting, in some way. Lily was a little disappointed she'd never get to find out why he'd done such a mad thing as to marry an automaton instead of trying to make more of them - you couldn't get everything though and the answer was probably simple and disappointing. He'd probably just not known how to build more and not found a buyer rich enough who wanted to take the automaton off his hands. Probably been too suspicious of everyone to trust another inventor to have a look at Rosemary, even back then.

How silly.

Another disappointment was that Rosemary had been forced by circumstances to do the bloody deed Lily had set out to. Though you couldn't plan for everything. Who could have known Big Jim was so interesting in 'famous' criminals?

Outside the sky was overcast and black. Lily pictured herself watching the sun rise, burning away the stars in a blaze of orange and red. It seemed to beckon her, calling her towards it.

"We'll go east then," she said to the walls. "We'll find a nice town to settle down in for a while, maybe join a theater company. We'll help Rosemary pick a new name, maybe a new face or a new voice. Then we'll just have to see what happens next."

She felt lighter for each word she spoke. Before midday she was packed and on her way down Main Street.

Cutting down an unmoving body is strangely hard work, especially when you're doing it at night and trying to go at it unnoticed. It didn't help that his namesake had taken to fidgeting. Jack had to give the horse both one and three nudges with the toes of his boot as he tried to keep his balance, sawing at the rope with a dagger he should have had sharpened in the town he'd passed before this one.

Rosemary fell to the ground with a thud and a metallic echo.

"You can stop playing dead now," Jack said. "Also, for your next performance, should there ever be one, I'd suggest more choking sounds and kicking your legs about. You scared the audience half to death just going limp and quiet right away - I'm sure they think you'll haunt their town until the end of time now."

There was a soft clicking noise as Rosemary's eyelids fluttered open. It died away as she sat up and made the first pretense of taking a deep breath. "I shall keep that in mind, thank you," she answered curtly, as prim and proper as ever before.

Jack grinned and offered her a hand up. "Ready to meet your maker?"

"It's about time," Rosemary answered, letting him pull her up into the saddle behind him. "Most people who get hung usually get to see them right away, from what I've heard."

"Most people who get hung die."

Rosemary shrugged. "Fair point. And I did get to meet her before the hanging too, so I guess it evens out."

Jack chuckled. "I guess it does."

They road off toward the east, heading for the faint traces of a beginning sunrise.