Red Berta’s House

Deleted Scene from UNHOLY MAGIC

I was so sad to have to cut this one. I loved being able to take a closer look at Red Berta and the particularly tight-knit and secret world of the Downside hookers. I loved the idea of them being almost a secret society, with their own magic and talismans and rituals: I’d already set some of this up with the purses, and when Terrible told Chess that they had secrets they don’t let men into.

Anyway. I really liked this scene, for the most part, but when I was editing and rewriting—which tightened the book up considerably—I realized that since I’d added the “Prison Ten” scene, and put Vanita into the Crematorium scene, I didn’t really need any further background; the Remington stuff was superfluous. And Chess was able to figure out what was happening to the men at the end, anyway.

So I had to let it go. But it sucked. :smile:

The Nips had just started to kick in when Red Berta opened the door of the old mansion where she apparently made her home. At any other time Chess would have found the place fascinating; the neighborhood, in the heart of Downside, had been the wealthiest area in the city a hundred and fifty years or so BT, the sorts of homes with kitchens in the basements—which of course no longer existed—and servant’s quarters in the attic.

But this wasn’t any other time. Even the airy lift of speed in her blood didn’t take the edge off her depression, and the minute her foot hit the threadbare carpet of the foyer sex energy crept over her skin. Fuck. Nothing pissed her off more than sex magic; it made her feel trapped, a sort of mental and metaphysical rape. Most people—most men, since the spell was obviously aimed at separating men from their money—would feel nothing more than heightened anticipation, so subtle they’d never know what it was. But to Chess it was like invisible fingers on her skin, like an irritating child who wouldn’t stop poking her no matter how many times she asked.

Berta’s thin-plucked eyebrows rose into arrow points over her eyes like a contemptuous Haunted Week pumpkin carving, but when she spoke it was with more respect than rudeness. “I hope you have news for me.”

Chess dipped her head. “I don’t think you’re going to like the news, but yeah, I have some.”

Berta sighed and edged her way around Terrible to close the door. The dim lights flickered; candles, not bulbs. A surprise, that. Chess would have thought Berta could afford electricity throughout her house. She’d never asked what kind of money Terrible brought in but assumed it was considerably more than herself; she’d assumed the same about Berta. A cut from all of Bump’s hookers wasn’t bad, and that didn’t include whatever Berta might make on her own. Even with the wreck of her once-beautiful face, having sex with the Madame was a privilege, and an expensive one. Even Chess knew that.

“Might as well come back.” Berta motioned Chess and Terrible to follow her, through the dim cave of the living room, past the chairs filled with anticipatory men. Chess only saw their shapes, didn’t pay attention to faces. Not when she could feel their gazes, some hostile, some lustful, most a mix of both.

To her right coals glowed in the deep fireplace, adding to the sticky heat of the room. Combined with the sex-magic itch and her speed-pounding heart it made Chess’s breath come short. She ignored that, too.

With her coat on, covering her tattoos, none of the men could see she wasn’t a prospective employee. So it wasn’t a surprise that one of them made a grab for her as she walked past, a bony hand like twigs digging into her thigh.

“Gimme she,” he grunted.

Chess reached for her knife. She was too late; Terrible yanked the hand off her, twisted it back and down. Its owner crashed to the floor, his arm at an awkward angle from the rest of his body, his demand turning into a yowl.

“She ain’t working here, dig?”

The man’s mouth opened, his eyes stretching wide in his skinny face. His chin jerked; close enough to a nod. It satisfied Terrible, anyway. He let go and wiped his palm on his jeans.

Berta sighed. “Come on. My man gets home soon, I want to have this done by then if we can.”

She swept through another door, into a cool, empty dark space. Chess paused for a second, unsure where to go, when a rectangle of light appeared at the opposite end. Yet another door, another room.

A kitchen. Berta motioned toward the table, where six wooden chairs rested in a circle around it like sorcerers preparing for ritual. The seats were covered in black velvet, threadbare at the edges but still nicer than anything Chess owned.

Glass doors fronted the upper cabinets, giving Chess a view of jars of herbs, a bag of flour, a cat’s-head talisman. Heavy sex magic; she could feel it from where she sat.

“Fucking bullshit,” Berta muttered, setting a shiny black teapot on the cast-iron stovetop. “Terrible, when’s Bump going to find a real house for these girls? I can’t have them here like this. Those men spit on my floors, they piss on the staircase, they puke in the hall and pass out in the doorway. This is my home. I don’t want any fucking tricks here, keeping my man up all hours.”

“You gave the aye.” Terrible turned one of the chairs around and sat, resting his arms on the straight back.

“What the fuck was I supposed to do, let them die on the streets? Bump said it was temporary, right?”

“Only been a day, Berta.”

“That’s a day too long. My man needs his sleep.”

Terrible shrugged. “Workin on it. Keep your patience on.”

Berta rolled her eyes in response and practically threw dark coffee granules into three smudgy black cups. The entire room was smudgy, and it smelled like rodents. Chess lifted her feet off the floor, rested them on one of the cross-pieces under her chair. Just in case.

From the other room drifted the sound of high-pitched giggling, the practiced squeals of girls who knew how to pretend they were having fun. Someone put on a record, something that sounded like violins. The type of music Chess had only heard a few times in her life.

“They act like it’s some kind of damn party.” Berta set the cups on the table and lowered herself into the chair next to Chess.

It was the first time since they walked into the house that Chess had a chance to look at her. Tonight she wore sparkly green platform heels, yellow neon tights, and a skintight purple minidress with batwing sleeves. To Chess’s speedblown eyes the outfit seemed to shrink and expand, shrink and expand, vibrating painfully in the back of her head. She had to look away.

“So what. Is it Remington, doing it? Can you stop him?”

Chess glanced at Terrible. How much exactly should she say? He shrugged. Okay, lots of help there.

“I can’t say it’s Remington for sure, but…it looks like it’s a ghost, yeah. Probably with an accomplice, a Bindmate or sorcerer who’s summoning him.”

“Shit.” Berta stared at her jiggling foot, watching the murky light glitter off her shoes. Ugh. Just the sight of it made Chess’s head hurt, made her stomach twist a little.

“I was wondering…” Chess glanced at Terrible. He was watching her from beneath lowered lids, like he wasn’t paying attention. She knew he was, though. “Terrible said you might have some information about the other girls? The ones Remington killed BT?”

Berta’s eyebrows sailed into points again. “And why would he think we have that?”

“C’mon, Berta. You got the knowledge. Share it up, you want them killers caught.”

“We don’t share that with outsiders. It’s ours.”

“An you want it stayin yours, fine. Just ain’t expect Chess solve the trouble, dig, iffen you ain’t give her what she’s needing.”

“She’s not one of us.”

Terrible cocked an eyebrow. “Iffen she were, she ain’t be much help, aye?”

Chess busied herself blowing into her cup. The coffee was scalding hot and smelled a little like vinegar; anything made with Downside water usually did. Whatever mental struggle Red Berta and Terrible were having didn’t interest her, at least not in more than a clinical way. Best not to show even that. She kept her gaze down, watching her own reflection in the inky surface. Her eyes looked huge, black holes in her face. Like empty sockets. She shuddered and choked the burning liquid down.

Berta sighed. “Fine. Come with me. Terrible, you wait here. No, not here. Go in the other room and see if you can’t make those damn tricks behave, huh?”

Her hand, surprisingly soft, gripped Chess’s, tugged her out of her chair. “I’m going to show you something, Churchwitch. Something you better not tell anyone about, right? We don’t share our secrets.”

“I can keep a secret.”

“I hope so.”

She whirled away. Chess marveled at the way her fire-engine red beehive stayed in place. Even the ratty curls hanging down her skinny back didn’t move.

They left the kitchen, Berta dragging Chess behind her, and headed into another dark room. Enough light came through the dingy window to show Chess patterned tiles on the floor; they echoed underfoot.

At the end of that room rose a staircase, which they ascended, before heading down another hall—past closed doors which didn’t mask the sound of girls plying their trade—and up another flight of stairs.

From somewhere on her person Berta produced a heavy, old-fashioned key. She fitted it into the door, turned it once to the right, once to the left. Magic slid over Chess’s skin, insinuated itself beneath her clothing. Not sex magic. Something darker, sadder. It gonged in her heart. She knew that feeling, the despair, the loneliness. It felt like mourning. Instinctively she reached into her bag for her pillbox, only to stop when the door opened and the glow from dozens of candles stung her eyes.

It was a shrine, hidden from the eyes of Downside by thick curtains. Their shiny backs were black mirrors, reflecting the candles back again, so the whole room glittered and sparkled, shadows dancing on the walls and the ten pictures lined on a shelf on the far wall.

Mortuary photographs of Charles Remington’s victims. Or perhaps more correctly, his first victims.

The entire set-up, with its suggestion of Old Religion beliefs and rituals, was highly illegal; Chess suspected this might have been part of the reason Red Berta was reluctant to let her see it. The other reason… It was so personal, so private. The memories of those women, their faces grainy and sepia-tinted, blurred around the edges. They meant something to Berta, to all the girls who came to this room, and that they came Chess had no doubt. Scattered, multi-sized footprints marked the dusty floor like calling cards.

“Ten of them,” Berta said, closing the door behind her. Chess’s hands tightened into fists; even being trapped with the suggestion of the dead set her grinding teeth further on edge.

“Flora McCarthy. Polly Smith. Caroline Tanner. Mary Grace Walker. Dainty Lou. Arnetta Boyle. Mary Jane Clemens. Sylvia Howe.” The ghoulish stares of the empty-eyed women seemed to follow Berta’s red-tipped finger as it skipped over each photograph—or were they tintypes? Chess wasn’t sure—in turn, bestowing their names on their slack faces. “And this last one is Vanita Tailor.”

“Was there something—”

“She was the first of us.” Red Berta turned around. Her left eye shone milky in the golden light. The ghost who attacked her must have damaged her cornea. “The first in charge, I mean. She organized them, made them strong together.”

Chess studied the heart-shaped face, the only one taken while the subject was still alive. A pretty face, open and friendly, with a knowing, flirty smile. Sad. The whole thing suddenly struck her as unutterably, impossibly sad; she bit her lip and looked away.

“They were women who stood up for each other,” Berta said, quietly enough that Chess knew her display of semi-emotion had been noted. “They died for us, you know.”

Chess glanced back at her.

“Remington wasn’t just a murderer,” Berta said. “He was a property owner, a man of importance, and he hated us. Hated prostitutes. He made it his crusade to get us off the streets, and he had some support, until people discovered what he was doing to us.”

“Killing you,” Chess said, falling into Berta’s habit of speaking as if she and the murdered girls were the same.

“Killing us. But the murders showed people how we lived, that we were valuable too, and the streets got a little safer. For a while. Vanita armed us. Found us places to sleep. Opened a house, like this one, to keep us safe.”

“But she died.”

“Yes, she did. But not before passing on some of her knowledge, and that passed to Charlotte West, who passed it to Mary Clark, who passed it to…well. It ended up with me, her knowledge and her memories—that’s why this is here, to remind us, to keep us sharp. And now these girls are mine to—”

The walls shook beneath them, angry male voices rising up the stairs, through the floor. Berta practically shoved Chess back into the dark hall, knocking her out the way with one bony hip so she could quickly lock the door behind them.

This time Chess didn’t need Berta’s hand in hers; the route was a simple one even if she didn’t have the noise to follow. Glass smashed; Berta cursed and moved faster on her stiletto heels, until they were both running, clattering down the stairs and back through the kitchen to the stifling sex-buzzed cave of the front room.

Terrible had a man up against the wall. At least Chess thought it was a man; the face was little more than ginblossomed skin stretched over bones, the bare arms and legs sinewy sticks, paper-white and hairless. Its fat whitish tongue lolled in the sticky-looking cavern of its mouth.

The other men were out of their seats, their backs as close to the fire as they dared go, either avoiding the man or avoiding Terrible, Chess didn’t know which. Fear colored the air now, fear and anger. She caught herself holding her breath, trying not to breathe it in.

“What the hell is going on in here?” Berta strode across the room, her batwing sleeves catching air and poufing behind her. “Terrible, who the hell is this?”

In response the man gave a great, ululating wail; the hair on the back of Chess’s neck stood on end. She took a step back, along with Berta, felt the men shrinking further away. Everyone but Terrible, in fact, who looked as though he would have liked nothing more than to drop that horrible, screeching sack of bones and wash his hands.

But he hung on, thick, rough-knuckled fingers gripping the man’s neck, the other arm jammed into his back.

“Just ran himself on in,” Terrible muttered, glancing at Chess and Berta both. “Screechin about sex and ghosts. Now looking like he ain’t can say aught, but you wanna give he an ask?”

The man didn’t seem to like this idea; his shrieks grew louder, more intense. Chess fought not to cover her ears. The sound drove itself into her brain like a fucking nail, forcing all her coherent thoughts out until she wanted to shove a wad of fabric into his mouth to shut him up.

She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Terrible produced just such a wad from the back of the couch; a grimy crocheted square. This he rammed none too gently into the man’s gaping mouth before pulling him off the wall and forcing him down, both wrists captured in one hand.

“’S Wooly Pete,” someone muttered. “From the docks, aye?”

Terrible looked up. “You know he?”

“Aye. Know him, aye. Works down the docks, scrapes the fish. Wooly Pete. Wears a hat sometimes.”

“He always this way?”

“Nay, oh nay. He quiet, Wooly Pete. Never say boo or nothing. Ain’t seen him a twodays, ain’t know what—”


At first Chess didn’t know what was happened, just that Terrible’s teeth gritted and his expression changed. Then she say Wooly Pete convulsing, saw his skin turn from paper-white to ash-gray.

Terrible dropped him with a thud and yanked the dirty cloth from his mouth. Wooly Pete gasped once, twice, looked up and caught Chess’s gaze.

His eyes, milky, fading, seemed to look right through her. That he was dying she didn’t doubt for a second. His skin seemed to shrink even more, leaving his face skeletal, unrecognizable.

“Them whores,” he said. “Them death…the feeding. The feeding…”

His last breath drew forever, while Chess looked at Terrible and wondered what the fuck that was supposed to mean.