Episode 6: Tall Dark Stranger
To start from the beginning of the story, click HERE.
Annie dressed as quickly as she could. She put on her navy blue dress with her glossy teal boots. She opened mama’s jewelry box and found the pair of turquoise and silver earrings under a little fluff of cotton. She pinned them through her ear lobes and then twisted a few more curls into her dark brown hair. She tucked her pendant into her neckline, blew a kiss to Buffalo, and then she was ready to go.
Everyone else waited for her at the door. Dhabi had his sitar case in his hand. He and Cody were all shined up as well.
“Mr. Bartholomew is sure gonna be impressed.” Annie took Cody’s elbow. “I’m glad we’re all going.”
Ingrid smiled and nodded. “Break a leg tonight. I’m staying here to keep watch over the horses.”
In another half an hour Annie stood on the massive stage at Bart’s. Cody sat on the front row with Bartholomew, and Dhabi sat at Annie’s feet with his instrument. She sang a few songs and even shuffled in time with the music when it was appropriate. The Quail’s platform had been small and cozy for the two of them. Bart’s stage seemed to swallow her in its enormity.
“You’re quite charming, my dear. You do have the sound of angels.” Bartholomew stood and poised his hands on his hips. “I just think it needs more. The whole thing needs to be bigger.” He turned around and shrugged toward a dark corner. “Ideas, Mr. Stewart?”
Annie squinted to see who Bartholomew was addressing. After a second, a tall, slim man with square shoulders and a long gait stepped into the dim light of the auditorium.
“More movement, more people on stage, more music. All of it.” The man took his time walking up to the stage.
The word ambling popped into Annie’s mind. And then she saw Mr. Stewart’s face. His skin was tanned, and his nose was just a little bit crooked at the bridge. His jaw had a fringe of a beard that crept up over his lip. His eyes were a dark steel blue that never seemed to wane in their attentiveness. His voice carried a lilting accent that Annie hadn’t heard before.
“’Ave you got anything else?” he asked.
Annie’s mind went blank. She looked to Cody, and then Dhabi, Batholomew, and back to Mr. Stewart. “What do you mean?”
The man scoffed and rolled his eyes. “I am speaking English. What else can you do? This little jig isn’t enough to call dancing. Do you have a partner with whom you can really dance?”
“There’s my brother.” She pointed to Cody, and he shook his head.
Stewart climbed the steps and stood face to face with her. “I can’t see folks scrambling to watch a brother and sister dance pair.” He snapped his fingers at Dhabi. “Play something with a quick tempo.”
Dhabi obeyed, and before Annie realized what was happening, she found herself in Stewart’s arms spinning and skipping around the stage. A few seconds later she was back in her place. Both Batholomew and Cody were on their feet, wearing broad grins and clapping.
Annie looked up into Mr. Stewart’s eyes. “I see what you mean.”
Bartholomew waved them all down the steps. He took Annie’s hand. “I adore you, dear. You will be my star tomorrow night. In the meantime, I’m sending Mr. Stewart back to your ship. He’s the most gifted director I’ve ever known. He will get your show in tip-top shape.” He turned to the other men. “I trust this is acceptable to you all?” He didn’t wait for a response.
Annie walked back to the ship still feeling Mr. Stewarts fingers pressing into her lower back. She couldn’t remember anything about the music or the dance or the stage. She blinked hard, trying to banish the steel blue from her vision.
“Bart wants the biggest show ‘e can get. I want to see everything you’ve got.” Annie heard Stewart’s voice but didn’t pay any attention to his words.
“Cody, do you play an instrument?” she heard Dhabi ask. More talking behind her. She kept walking. Her stomach felt woozy. Mr. Stewart was walking right beside her and talking to the others. She liked the sound of his voice. She could listen to it all day, though, after a minute of considering that thought, it occurred to her that she wasn’t listening to him at all. She had no idea what he was saying or had said for the last several minutes. For all she knew, the man had been speaking directly to her, and she’d been ignoring him. Annie thought she might throw up. She picked up the pace, anxious to get back to her berth.
Dhabi opened the hatch and followed the others inside. Ingrid greeted them and gestured to the common area. “I have dinner ready for you.” She regarded Stewart. “There’s plenty for all.”
“Ingrid, this is Mr. Stewart.” Dhabi stood between the two of them during the introduction.
“Welcome. Are you joining the crew, Mr. Stewart?” Ingrid smiled at the man as she nodded toward Annie and ignored Cody.
“Call me Jake, and, no. I am merely here for the evening as a production consultant for the young performer.” He reached out to Annie’s elbow, and she shifted away from his touch. She was sure that if his hand made contact with her skin, it would indeed leave a burn mark.
Jake Stewart froze in place as the others continued toward the dining hall. Annie turned to see a puzzled expression on his face and his hand extending outward like a scarecrow’s. “Are those ‘orses?” he asked.
Annie nodded. The others continued through the hall, and she stepped back to his side. “Of course, what did you think?”
“I’ve never seen ‘orses. In pictures, of course, but not live. Not in the same room. Why are there ‘orses ‘ere?” Jake put his hand down but didn’t move his feet at all.
“They belong to Cody and me. Do you want to meet them?” Annie stepped toward Nero, and Jake backed away from the animals.
“No. That isn’t necessary. They’re quite large.”
Annie laughed. “They’re exactly the size of horses. C’mon and meet them. They won’t hurt you.” Without thinking, Annie grabbed Jake’s hand and dragged him closer to her animals. She had realized her boldness before Jake did, and released his hand once he was near her buckskin. “This is Liza Jane.” She regarded the others in turn. “And this is Stubbs, and Jefferson, and Nero. Nero is Cody’s horse.”
Annie saw the worry on Jake’s brow. He pushed his hands into his pockets and looked toward the hall and then back to her. “What are they for?”
She shrugged. “Well, what are people for? Horses just are. In the old days, they had jobs on farms and ranches and such. Nowadays it’s a bit tougher for ‘em. People want to eat them. They’re getting’ pretty rare.”
Jake squinted and moved toward the hall. “So why do you have them? What do you do with them?”
Annie walked beside him across the hold and down the hall to the mess. “We take care of them. If we hadn’t moved them off Earth, they’d be dead now. Authority is slaughtering them for no good reason.”
“But what do you do with them? I don’t understand.”
“Right now it’s hard ’cause they’re on a ship. But back home I’d ride ‘em and teach ‘em tricks. Jefferson is fast as lightnin’. Liza and Stubbs can both jump and count and even prance a little. I’m still workin’ with Nero. He mostly just likes to rear up and look tough.” Annie watched Jake’s expression grow more excited with each word.
“Are you making this up?” Jake took an empty seat at the end of the table next to Annie. “Your ‘orses can do tricks?”
Cody laughed. “My sister has taught them all sorts of things. Once we get them outside where they can run and jump, they’ll be happy and free again.”
Dhabi nodded. “And perhaps then we can add them to her act.”
“Why not now? This would be just what Bart wants. This would be the biggest show anyone’s every ‘ad on a ferry, and Bart would love that distinction.” Jake raised his brows which emphasized his eyes again, causing Annie to lose her train of thought.
Cody shook his head. “Naw, I don’t see how to make it work on board. We couldn’t even get them to the theater without a scene.”
“Yes, a scene.” Jake sat forward in his chair and grinned. Annie finally forced herself to pay attention. “’Ave you ever ‘eard the story of the Pied Piper? Me mum used to tell it over and over. You’d be like that. People would see the ‘orses, and they would follow them. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. The crowds would be fantastic.”
Annie leaned back and studied the reactions. Ingrid just smiled. Dhabi nodded with an air of satisfaction. Cody chewed on his lip.
Dhabi spoke up. “We talked about adding animals. Why not now if Mr. Stewart says so?”
Cody shot a glance to Annie and then Dhabi. “Our animals are not… sanctioned by Authority. I’m not sure we want to draw too much attention.”
Jake laughed. “You ‘aven’t been out ‘ere before, ‘ave you? People out this way don’t care what laws you break. They actually look for opportunities to snub their noses at Authority. Your show would be a brilliant rebellion, and the people would absolutely clamor for it.” He took Annie’s hand again, and she almost swallowed her tongue. “Convince him, Love.” He tapped on the table with his free hand. “And another thing. All of your animals have names. Bart pays scale to each performer with a name. Adding the four ‘orses will increase your pay three times over.”
Annie was still recovering from being called Love while holding Jake’s hand. She shrugged and carefully withdrew her hand from his. “If you think it would be all right.”
“Listen to me, Annie. When we’re finished eating this delightful dinner, we’ll all go back to the ‘old and you can show me what tricks you’ve taught the horses. We can work out a full-fledged program that will knock your beautiful boots off.” Then he asked her a question that hit her like a hammer. “Do you trust me?”
Annie swallowed hard and forced a laugh. She reached for her glass and took a long sip of water. When she finished, Annie straightened her spine and, ignoring the gymnastics of her stomach, looked him straight in the eye. “It’s not a matter of trust, Mr. Stewart.”
“Jake,” he corrected.
“It’s not a matter of trust, Jake,”
“I beg your pardon, but it is just that.” He shifted his chair toward her a fraction of an inch and turned his whole body her way. He reached his arms out for her. “When you taught your animals their tricks, did they learn to do them the first time?”
“No, of course not.” Annie kept her hands just beyond his touch.
“And could I teach them a trick? I mean, right now. Could I go in there and ‘ave ‘em prancing for me through an ‘oop in say—fifteen minutes?”
“And why not, pray tell?”
Everyone else around the table watched their exchange as if they were seeing a stage play.
“Because they don’t know you.” Annie realized what he was telling her. She tried to decide her best response while studying his I-told-you-so expression. “And I don’t know you, either.”
A curve formed on his lips, and he leaned forward. “Then that is my sole purpose for the rest of the night. I want you to know me. You learn everything you need to know about me until you trust me. And while we’re working on our trust, you show me all the wonderful things you can do with your magnificent beasts.”
He reached out his hand to shake Annie’s. She hesitated, afraid of her body’s reaction to his touch. She relented and shook his hand. A warm sensation tracked up her arm and into her throat, and she almost laughed. “I hope you know what you’re in for.”
A full smile parted Jake’s lips. “I believe I do, Love.”