Now that she looked back on it, the past few weeks had certainly been a blur to poor Juliet. She had only come under Ester's tutelage within the last six months, and it had been quite the culture shock. Just yesterday, it seemed, she had been an urchin, lost amidst the soot-blackened streets and gore-slicked alleyways of Cowford's Industrial District. Ester had pulled her out of that mire, and moulded her into something new. As she stared down at the two doomed City Council Members, she couldn't help but smile at the plot she was now privy to. The old Juliet would have been too timid to even dream of such an event.
-Cowford, Florida; 5th May, 1890-
-Four Hours Earlier-
Slipping back into her room, now checking intently over her shoulder every few seconds, Juliette grabbed one of her tattered, slightly oversized coats, and slipped into it. From an ornately carved box on her dresser, Juliet retrieved the Annabelle Lee. In the dim, flickering lamplight of her room, the weapon's rosewood handle glinted with a silent, poetic beauty. The varnish was still fresh, and the bold, floral sweeps of gold filigree and inlaid sapphire strands flashed in brilliant opposition to the revolver's brushed gunmetal body. Releasing the cylinder, Juliette checked to be sure the weapon was loaded, the transparent window set into the grip revealing the clockwork mechanisms which allowed the gun to function. As she pulled the hammer back, and then gently released it, the gears whirred and clicked, activating a small music box hidden somewhere within. Ester claimed to have written the song for her, just as he had designed and crafted the handgun itself. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given her, she thought.
The jingle of the shop's door opening downstairs snapped her out of her almost reverent admiration. Holstering the Annabelle Lee in a concealed compartment fitted into her coat, Juliet took to the staircase, flying down it three steps at a time. She stepped out into the late morning sun just as the rest of the assembly were climbing into Conrad's horseless carriage. Such an odd mechanical device filled her with unease. How could they really know if it was safe or not? Ester motioned for her from the back seat, clad in a long tan overcoat which, Juliette could only imagine, would be housing a virtual armory of weapons and illegal substances. Climbing reluctantly into the vehicle, Juliet bumped up against Ester, eliciting a small series of clinks as glass struck metal, confirming her suspicions. Ester glanced down at her when she did this, his smirk revealing that he knew she'd done it on purpose, and that he admired her for bothering to check. His arm rolled casually up along the back of the seat, draping over her shoulder and pulling her a little closer. "Conrad, I do believe we're ready to get this show on the road. Try to avoid any violent bumps, considering our cargo." Ester patted his chest, creating a series of new clinks as concealed glass jars knocked lightly against each other. Nodding down to whisper in Juliet's ear, Ester glanced out of the window for a moment before speaking. "I hope you brought a gun love. This civil meeting we're headed to is going to get pretty heavy."
Juliet nodded at this, opening her coat just enough to reveal the revolver holstered within. Ester nodded, patting Juliet approvingly on the head. "Good girl." Turning his head forwards to regard Conrad, Ester brought his voice back to its normal level. "Alright, here's the deal. Conrad and I discussed it in detail and now it's time to fill you in. Two members of the City Council will be engaging in an 'honorable' duel today. As luck would have it, neither council member is apparently all that honorable. One hired Conrad to ensure his opponent died, and the other hired me for the same task. So we've got a double assassination to deal with. After consideration, it's safe to assume they have hired other assassins and body guards as well, so it's probably going to turn into a hellacious gunfight rather quickly. Conrad and Elizabeth have decided they will be going in with the crowd. Elizabeth is our close quarters support on the way out, and Conrad claims he just wants a good view for the match." At this, Conrad chuckled some, the noise just barely beating the clanking roar of the engine.
"I'm going to be long range support. Once our targets are dead and the shooting starts, I'll cover our escape from range. Jules, you're going to be my spotter. We've got a pretty solid escape plan, I think, but in the event we become separated, we'll meet down at City Hall once the commotion has died down. Any questions for me?" Ester finished his briefing to a series of nods from his associates. Only Juliet had a question, which she put forth rather timidly.
"Ah, uh, well Ester, I was just wondering if I could know more about the situation? Like, why the duel is happening? It may help me search the crowd better if I know what to look for, is all." Biting her bottom lip, nervous that she'd asked a stupid question, Juliet was relieved to see another grin of approval flit across Ester's lips as he started to fill her in.
It had all begun with a portrait, oddly enough. Council Member Reinsfeld - Juliet did not remember his first name - had commissioned a painting of his late father, which would ostensibly be hung in his recently acquired office. Even on the edge of town, within the confines of the Arsenic and Alchemy, news of Reinsfeld's victory over fellow Council Member Bludsworth, in what had been a hotly contested race for Chairman of Cowford's Port Authority Committee had at least been mentioned in passing by a customer or two. Through such rumors, Ester had, of course, also heard the news of the commemorative portrait, and been privy to the ensuing scandal.
An unidentified agent, most definitely in the employ of the defeated Council Member Bludsworth, had either bribed the artist beforehand, or had intercepted the painting in transit and altered it. The papers refused to state in what exact manner the painting had been defiled, though Ester reported that the underworld was practically buzzing with different theories and bits of gossip related to the deed. The very next day, a strongly worded letter to the editor of one of Cowford's more reputable papers, penned by Council Member Reinsfeld, culminated with a rather direct, and one could have even said libelous, challenge to a duel, directed of course at Council Member Bludsworth.
Conrad and Ester had begun to gear up for war then, it seemed. The duo spent many nights out in the city's darker corners, dredging up old favors and, even though it was not readily apparent at the time, had begun ingratiating themselves to one of the two offended parties each. Each had a reputation which preceded them, and within a scant few days both Ester and Conrad had been hired to assassinate the other's client. Thus, the planning had truly begun.
Satisfied with the information she had been given, Juliet glanced out of the dirty window of the cab as Conrad pulled the vehicle to a halt next to an abandoned paper mill. Ester opened his door and began climbing out. "This is our stop Juliet. We'll be setting up on the silo there, since it'll afford us the best cover and view. We've got about three hours before the duel proper begins. Good luck guys." Ester nodded to Conrad and Elizabeth as they pulled away in the auto, leaving him and Juliet at the foot of the warehouse. "Three hours isn't a lot of time, we have much to prepare. Let's get to work."
Ester and Juliet had been working for nigh on two hours by the time they finally reached the top of the silo. There had been a lot of intense preparatory work to get done before the duel, and the sheer amount of planning gave Juliet valuable insight into why Ester was considered one of the more formidable opponents in town. No matter how dangerous the situation became, she knew they would be getting out of it relatively unscathed. Sitting atop the silo, his jacket the same color as the painted wood, something Juliet guessed wasn't a coincidence, Ester had assembled an exotic rifle. Making idle talk about how a rifled barrel made slugs more accurate as he set the weapon on a small stack of wooden blocks which had been conveniently placed on the silo roof, he passed to Juliet a spare scope similar to the one mounted on his rifle. "Your job is going to be fairly easy love. Watch the crowd for Conrad and Elizabeth for now. When the duel is finished and we've launched our attack, it'll be up to you to scan for threats. There are possibly other snipers out there, and soldiers have almost certainly been mixed in with the crowd. You call them out and I'll take them down, got it?" Ester glanced sideways at his prone companion, smiling as she nodded. There was something about the calm way he lectured her, even during such times as these, that excited Juliet. Turning her eye down the spotter's scope as he looked down his, Juliet spotted, well over three quarters of a mile away, two men walking out onto the field, clad in regal attire. One was portly, sporting a red sash around his waistline, and appeared beginning to gray around the edges of his generous sideburns. The other seemed quite a bit younger, thin and rakish in a not altogether unappealing way. A crisp blue sash had been hung over one shoulder, across his chest. In spite of herself, Juliet jumped a little as Ester spoke. "There's our boy. Thin one with the blue sash. Keep scanning the crowd for now, we should have a few minutes before it all goes to hell."
Juliet peered through the lens, easily picking out Conrad and Elizabeth in the third row to the back, keeping a low profile and blending in admirably considering the brazen plan they were about to enact. A few people in the crowd seemed far less at ease, several visibly shifting and turning their heads almost constantly, as if watching for some unknown threat. Juliet did her best to memorize where each of these people were, and then took a moment to map them out in her head in relation to Conrad and Elizabeth's location, so that she could point out the ones nearest to their escape route first. Pulling back from the scope for a second to check on Ester, she blinked and almost recoiled for a second as she saw the look on his face. Instead of his usual, almost immature aura of perpetual amusement, he displayed no emotion at all, and something dark and unfamiliar glimmered in his eye. His breaths were long and slow, somehow spaced out enough that they made Juliet feel like she was suffocating. Without bothering to look out of his crosshairs again, Ester spoke, his voice a flat monotone.
"The signal for Conrad's assault is the same as the signal for my shot. When the dueling parties go back to back, and march out to their ten pace distance is when we strike. Right as they reach the limit, and just before they spin and fire. The confusion will give us the vital few seconds we'll each need; Conrad and Elizabeth to switch over to the offensive and try to work out of the crowd, and myself to acquire new targets. As soon as I fire, don't look out of the scope again. Sweep the crowd, call out threats, and acquire a new target as soon as you give me a description."
Juliet nodded, processing the information quickly. "And how should I describe them for you?"
Ester exhaled slowly again, his finger resting on the trigger of the rifle as he continued to zone in on his target. His voice again replied, lacking any of its usual character; "Hair color, clothing, general position, gender, weaponry, anything that sticks out to you. You'll know what to do when the time comes, but don't choke. Conrad and Elizabeth's chances of survival are directly related to our ability to efficiently take down enemies before they even realize something's wrong. Have you been sweeping the crowd?" Ester did not look, and thus didn't notice when she nodded.
Realizing he needed a verbal cue, she replied. "Yes, there are a few out there that I can see; two are in the way of Conrad's escape path, three are scattered randomly throughout, and I think there are several undercover policemen by the main gate."
Ester nodded imperceptibly at this. "Predictable. The assassins and bodyguards our respective targets must have hired will wait until after the shots have been fired. They won't risk themselves if their client manages to kill their target before they have to reveal their ruse. That's why we'll win here. Many people down there are expecting an attack, but they won't be expecting quite so early, nor so suddenly." Ester inhaled suddenly, and Juliet immediately glanced through the spotter's scope, watching as the two council members lined up back to back. Turning her attention fully to the crowd, Juliet zeroed in on Conrad and Elizabeth again, watching as Conrad casually produced a bag of pipe tobacco, and began to reach slowly into his coat for what the people around him would most likely assume was his pipe.
As Juliet watched Conrad's arm retract slowly from his coat, she kept track of how many paces had most likely been taken. As the first paces went off, Ester's breathing virtually stopped, and for a second she was tempted to break her focus on the crowd below to check on him, but as the second pace hit, a long, disciplined breath met her ears, telling her he was just doing whatever it was he needed to be doing. By the fourth pace, Conrad's arm was just on its way back from picking up the "pipe" in his jacket. By the seventh, the faintest glimmer of something metallic under Conrad's coat became apparent from her vantage point. At the ninth, Ester stopped breathing again, and the gun parted completely from its holster inside Conrad's suit. Juliet herself stopped breathing for a second, trying not to grin as she saw all of the people around Conrad begin to recoil in absolute terror. The muzzle of his gun flashed a brilliant orange, but its rapport never reached her ears, as at that very same moment, Ester exhaled, and his rifle coughed its own slug out; the lightning-crack temporarily deafening her.
The next few seconds passed in slow motion. Drawing back from the scope as the rapport of the rifle made her flinch, she watched Ester fluidly jerk the bolt of the rifle up and back, ejecting the brass shell casing, which tumbled through the air, performing its own private ballet as fingers of smoke trailed off of its hollow frame. Ester slammed the bolt back into place, already sweeping the crowd as Juliet's eyes returned to her scope. The brief moment of levity brought on by her deafness disappeared all at once as her eyes sent her down into the warzone below. Even from their moderate distance, the sounds of gunfire and the screams of those who hadn't been expecting such widespread violence were audible. Conrad and Elizabeth were already on the move, but the crowd slowed them down considerably. The guards were trying to bar the gates to deny escape to anyone in the assembly, but the crowd wouldn't have it. Juliet watched as one of the guards trying to hold the mob back began running the chain around the two main wrought iron gate segments. His head snapped sharply back as the thunderclap of Ester's rifle rolled over her body again. He fell to the wayside, totally forgotten as the crowd gained more ground. There were a few hushed clicks to her left as Ester chambered another shell.
Trying to find Conrad and Elizabeth again, she acquired them near the rear of the crowd. For some reason they appeared to be taking their time escaping. One of the shifty fellows she had spotted in the crowd earlier had apparently noticed Conrad's part in the assassination, and Juliet watched, helplessly, as he made his way up towards Conrad, drawing an intricately tooled dagger from his boot as he swept forwards. He proceeded to draw up from behind, completely unnoticed in the press of the mob. All at once, Juliet found her voice again. "Short, brown hair, uh, maroon coat, behind Conrad by the benches!" Ester's response was immediate, and Juliet watched with something that she suspected must have been grim satisfaction as the man's head produced a small pink geyser of mist before he collapsed in a heap. The stream of bodies rolled over him, already so bent on survival that the death of one more person in the crowd did nothing to slow them down. Juliet began to call out another of the targets when Elizabeth intercepted him, grabbing his wrist and rotating her arm so fast along one of its articulated joints that Juliet had to look away as the bones popped out of the would-be assassin's arm. She watched as his bearded face, coated in grime, twisted into a cry of absolute pain before Elizabeth's elegant, mechanical motions brought her palm around into his chest. The man lifted up off the ground, knocking several civilians down onto the ground to be trampled as he slammed violently into the nearest wall, embedded in its splintered surface. Juliet couldn't tell if he was dead or simply in an extreme amount of pain, but he'd been neutralized, and so she swept for a new target.
It was only as she began searching for someone to call out that she noticed Ester had been firing almost non-stop. The roof of the silo was littered with shell casings by this point, and it was only when Juliet looked down nearer to the ground that she saw what was drawing so much of Ester's fire. Two different groups of armed soldiers were advancing on the silo, moving through whatever cover they could find to reach him. The stretch of open field that lay between the soldiers and the silo was rapidly shrinking. A long line of dead soldiers remained scattered in the fields as evidence of their advance, but the two squads below were still too large to engage at close range. There had to be at least twenty men approaching, with half that number laying dead on the ground at random intervals behind them. Juliet felt nervous for the slightest of seconds as Ester fired, and didn't chamber a new round. Drawing back from her scope after confirming the kill, Juliet looked at him expectantly.
Ester rose from his prone position on the silo roof, and began disasssembling the rifle. "There's what, eighteen of them down there still? Maybe twenty three?" Ester looked at Juliet as he asked the question, his hands flying up and down the body of the rifle in swift, familiar motions, breaking it down into portable components faster than he had assembled it. Juliet began packing the spotter's scope into its case as Ester attached the rifle components to their concealed holsters on the inside of his coat, giving Ester a shrug as she tried to consider which figure was more likely, and came up empty. Making sure to keep a low profile as the soldiers below let out a continuous stream of suppressing cartridge fire, growing braveer now that the sniper fire had let up, Ester and Juliet finished packing away their weapons. The silo vibrated beneath them, shuddering with each new shot. It was only a matter of time now before their assailants broke into the warehouse below and tried to storm the silo.
Such, it turned out, was exactly what was happening. Even from their relatively safe position atop the silo, Juliet could hear the soldiers busting out windows and tossing about furniture as they crossed the last stretch of no man's land and rampaged through the cluttered, dilapidated warehouse below. She couldn't help but feel trapped, exposed. Even with all of the hours of preparation. Ester's most effective weapon had just been broken down and stored inside his jacket, and their primary support was currently in the middle of a riot three quarters of a mile away. In spite of her growing anxiety, Juliet noticed that Ester seemed to still have full faith in their original plan. This calmed her, somewhat. Scanning the horizon, Juliet's eyes fell upon the rapidly approaching image of Conrad's sorry excuse of an automobile, more visible due to the massive cloud of smoke and dust it kicked out behind itself as it sped over the country roads towards the warehouse. With the nervous giggle of someone not entirely sure in their current course of action, Juliet managed a grin. "Conrad and Elizabeth are on the way. We'd best get down there."
Ester hooked his hand around Juliet's petit waist, pulling her in tight against his moderately larger chest. No longer focused on steady, long-distance kills, the vitality and impish charm had returned to his voice. "Before we do this, dear, I feel it's only fair of me to tell you that I didn't have the proper height and distance to really test this method of egress out, back at the shop, so I'm relying on some very theoretical mathematics." Juliet felt sudden, stabbing concern at the emphasis he had placed on the word 'very', and then all at once pieced together exactly what he had meant. She began to object, and immediately realized that Ester had already vaulted off the side of the silo. For the duration of the experience, Juliet recalled, she did not once stop screaming. Not even to catch her breath. Dazed, soaring backwards through the air, clutched tightly to Ester's chest, her eyes stared up at the fluttering network of fabric sheets that her master had recklessly chosen to ride down. From below, the sharp crack of rifle fire reminded her that there were more immediate threats present. In spite of that, she continued to scream.
The hysterical Juliet in his right arm, Ester released the cobbled together parachute a couple of feet off the ground, slamming into the corroded roof of the warehouse with a considerably more survivable sort of impact than the one his apprentice had expected. He had landed them just above the loading floor of the sparsely decorated warehouse, above the long since cleared out loading dock. Juliet found her footing, going red in the face both from oxygen deprivation, and her complete fury at Ester's decision. She had half a mind to start screaming at him then and there, but decided it was more prudent to catch her breath first. Ester could clearly see her frustration, but seemed more focused on trying to cross the hole-ridden roof without being shot, or falling through. Juliet stomped her foot in frustration. It was Ester's turn to scream.
The sheer, pitched groaning of the support strut beneath her giving out warned Juliet of the impending collapse, giving her precious few seconds to vault over to a more stable platform. Ester, however, had been moving already, and was too far away to throw himself clear. Thinking on her feet, Juliet drew the Annabelle Lee and tossed it towards her stranded partner. Ester caught it just as the floor gave out from under him. Yelling, both out of frustration and concern for the thirty foot drop, Ester swung his free hand wildly out, desperately searching for a handhold. However, instead of catching some outcropping, Ester found that a pile of soggy, rotten crates had caught him. The landing sent white lances of pain up and down his back, and forced his vision to blur out to darkness for a few blissful seconds. No stranger to a come-down, Ester groaned as he involuntarily made his way back into consciousness. Rising from the moldy pile, Ester dusted his coat off with disgust, hoping his indignance would help distract him from the severe pain he was currently in.
The first soldier started to break cover across the way, revealing himself to Ester, courtesy of his gaudy ceremonial uniform. Ester immediately set his pain to the side and lunged sideways into the pile he had just removed himself from. Rolling across in some odd sort of adrenaline-fueled sideways somersault, Ester's hand closed around the grip of the Annabelle Lee, dragging it up from where it had fallen beside him and placing its front sight square on the charging soldier's chest. The weapon was a work of art, and by God it should have been. Ester and Conrad had worked for well over a month crafting the revolver, at Ester's behest, as a gift for Juliet. She had fallen in love with the weapon more than anything else in the city. The soldier, however, undoubtedly appreciated the weapon to a much lesser degree. As a second soldier rose from behind a crate and shouldered his musket, the first, and a third, were already soaring backwards in midair, rendered into geysers of crimson that might once have been men.
Ester broke all at once for the nearest of the warehouse's many grime coated windows, which had all been designated 'secondary escape routes' that morning. The second soldier's shot went wide, but his companions were spilling into the room like ants responding to an invasion, and Ester knew that even if they were all terrible shots, the sheer number of guns would guarantee his demise. Leaping forwards, towards the window, Ester spun, clearly struggling with the display of acrobatics. Drifting through the air, in that moment, Ester finally spotted one of the many jars he and Juliet had spent the afternoon installing in the structure. Annabelle Lee drifted over it, almost unbidden, and Ester poured out her cylinder's four remaining shots in its direction.
The third bullet struck the edge of the mysterious, faintly glowing jar. Ester's shoulders struck the flat, dreary grey-yellow surface of the window. There was the sound of shattering glass.
-Ten Minutes Later-
Ester shouted out in excitement as they sped down the road, laughing violently at the destruction he had wrought. Coated in ash and dirt, cut in a hundred places and still impaled by shards of wood and glass in at least three more, he remained utterly, irrevocably jubilant. "That was brilliant! Utter genius! I kept track, I did. That was twenty five kills. In an hour!" Conrad and Elizabeth sat silent in the front seat, content to let Ester celebrate on his own, though Juliet was fairly certain she could see a smile on Conrad's face. The adrenaline was still pumping through her body, and Juliet felt pretty excited that they had not only successfully performed both assassinations, but that her and Ester's work that morning had not only been successful, but had resulted in a modest crater.
Utterly content, she shifted a little in her seat, leaning over against Ester, who had taken a short pause from his ranting to catch his breath. Draping an arm around her shoulder, Ester began to fiddle with her hair, straightening out a few of the tangles that the detonation of the warehouse had caused. Even though she had been several good paces away when the alchemical charges had detonated, she matched Ester in terms of dust, and Juliet couldn't wait to get home and wash the grime off. The bumps in the road sent her tumbling around in the seat, and sent Juliet's recently reacquired pistol bouncing along the floorboard. The small drop and an inconveniently sharp jolt released the hammer catch, discharging a round within the confines of the car. The ball whizzed off and through the rear passenger window. To Conrad's credit, he didn't immediately stop the car, far too focused on escaping to bother with an accidental discharge in his back seat, apparently. Ester, however, shouted out immediately; "Jesus Christ, Jules!" Ester set about shaking his ears vigorously, and Juliet sympathetically did the same, hoping to banish the ringing in her own ears.
Picking the still smoking pistol up off of the floorboard, Ester set it on the seat next to him. "I'll give it back to you at the shop." Although muffled by tinnitus and thus garbled, there seemed, to Juliet, to be a slight chuckle in Ester's voice which gave away the fact that he wasn't angry at all. Juliet had to deal with a new burst of adrenaline as the smoke gradually cleared out of the back seat; sucked out of the hole she'd put through the rear window. She didn't miss the old Juliet at all.