By Gary Cuba
Helen Quimby needed to attract a man in the worst sort of way. Not just any man, but a very specific one; that she did not yet know his name, or his visual appearance, or his exact whereabouts remained mysteries to be solved. Nevertheless, she would know him when she met him as the one–the only one–that could fulfill her quest.
But time was running out for Helen and her plans. It was the years, the damnable years! Rather than bestowing her with that special glow of mature, majestic beauty that evolves late in some women, they had treated her rather less kindly. Hitting the hard wall of thirty years had damaged her too severely to ever be cured by the use of simple cosmetics–no matter how generously they might have been applied. And it did not help that her untamed, frizzy blonde hair shot in every direction but the one in which the prey pranced.
It was now or never.
Subtle inquiries brought her to Mrs. Winifred M————, an elderly widow who was well-regarded in all the proper social circles. Winifred kept up religiously with the shifting social statuses of the gentry. This was not merely an idle avocation, but a needful one. In Mrs. M————'s case, she applied such intelligence to support her role as a Matchmaker par excellence–for which she received a small recompense from the interested parties.
She was in a perfect position to help Helen reach her goal. So Helen convinced Mrs. M———— to arrange a private soiree at the lady's London townhouse for the express purpose of introducing her to one of Winifred's recent "clients," a Mr. Jack Jeffries, a wealthy bachelor who possessed a rather swarthy, vigorous way about him that, according to Winifred, made him quite attractive.
* * *
Mr. Jeffries arrived on schedule, and Winifred led him to the parlor. There, she introduced him to Helen, who sat on a short, slightly threadbare settee. The gas lamps were turned quite low; Helen suspected that was not done to set a romantic atmosphere, but simply to save money. She knew for a fact that Winifred's onetime wealth had eroded severely over the years, a casualty of steady inflation, poor investment advice, and universal entropy.
"Most pleased to meet you, Miss Quimby–Helen," Mr. Jeffries said. He took her upraised hand in his and brought his nose and lips to within a quarter-inch of her skin, close enough for initial social introductions. "Most pleased, indeed."
"As am I, Mr. Jeffries. Come sit." Helen patted the cushion beside her.
Jeffries descended to the settee, leaving several inches of space between his hip and hers.
"Very fine," Winifred said. "Now let me be off to see about some refreshments. I fear my house servant may have nodded off in the kitchen, poor dear. She's getting quite on in years. . ."
Ms. M———— left the parlor.
"Where did you meet Winifred?" Helen asked Jeffries.
"Ah! Honestly, I can't quite remember. At some social function or another. A very interesting lady."
"Yes, indeed she is! I first met her at a large party at Lord Weatherby's manor. Truth to tell, I felt like a fish out of water there. But Mrs. M———— took me under her wing, and. . ." Helen paused and raised her hand to her mouth to muffle a titter. "Oh dear! Forgive me my egregious mixture of metaphors, Mr. Jeffries. I'm afraid my nervousness betrays me. But I'm sure you will overlook my faux pas, and discover your own path to my intended point."
"Of course, my dear, of course," Jeffries said. He patted her hand and smiled.
"Winifred tells me you are in the export business. Pray, with whom do you 'ply your trade,' as it were?"
Mr. Jeffries stiffened and clutched his top hat tighter to his lap. "Wealthy men living in the Orient, for the most part."
"And might I ask what sorts of commodities define your trade, sir?"
The man paused, turned his head and looked directly at Helen. "Women, Miss Quimby. Young white women of good upbringing. They are in great demand by my clients. Satisfying it has proven to be a very lucrative occupation."
"I see. I would describe your candor to be somewhat impetuous, yet also somehow refreshing. Am I to assume your definition of 'young' includes me? If so, I should be flattered, indeed."
"Yes. As well you should be, Miss Quimby. Not my finest snatch, to be sure, but you're marginally adequate for the purpose. It would appear that Mrs. M———— has come through for me once again."
Helen sighed. "And so let me try to predict what is to come: that bulge in your pants pocket is not a sign of your ardour, Mr. Jeffries, but rather a small bottle of chloroform. What you disguise inside your top hat is neither a rabbit nor a white dove, but likely a black hood to slip over my head, and perhaps a set of wrist cuffs. Your manservant awaits within your hansom cab in the rear alley, wherein I will be ensconced until the transfer is made to your agents. Do I have the basic logistics of your nefarious scheme correct?"
"You're upstaging me, Miss Quimby. I must remind you, this is my script, not yours!"
"Then fear not, Mr. Jeffries. I have no intention of circumventing your dark play. Indeed, I fancy that I shall abet it. An exotic life in a palatial concubine in the Far East seems to me to be much more exciting than anything this town and its abhorrent social restrictions can offer me. You may forgo the chloroform and the hood and the cuffs, sir. I shall go with you willingly and quietly."
"Very well! Let us be off, then."
* * *
They exited the rear door of the townhouse, where two constables immediately took Jeffries into custody. He looked over at Helen, his eyebrows raised.
"Very sorry, Mr. Jeffries. I'm afraid I've misled you. I don't really need a husband, much less a life in a squalid overseas prostitution mill. You see, I'm already gainfully employed as a special undercover detective with Scotland Yard."
Jeffries' countenance sank. "And what of Mrs. M————? Will she swing beside me?" he asked. "That would be the only thing that can mitigate the disappointment I feel right now."
"No, no, Mr. Jeffries. We've already admonished Winifred for dabbling in the seamier aspects of her trade, and she is dutifully ashamed and remorseful. In truth, her lack of judgment in this matter was driven by her dire economic situation. Fortunately, the reward for your capture will assuage that quite nicely. She will retain her freedom–due in great part to her assistance in setting this trap."
"Hardly seems fair."
"Sometimes societal needs dictate forgiveness, especially in her case. Otherwise, who would take care of her elderly housekeeper? And who would take over her role as a highly skilled upper-class Matchmaker?" Helen chuckled. "Why, without her–and women like her–the gentry would surely go extinct!"
Mr. Jeffries gave out a grunt before he was hustled off into the waiting police van, his prospects for the future having faded so far as to become completely invisible.
Gary Cuba’s short fiction has appeared in more than a hundred magazines and anthologies, spanning many different genres. Visit http://thefoggiestnotion.com to learn more about him and to find links to some of his other published fiction.
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