sixty-four             

            Mother Moss examines the calling card in her hand, its printing ornate, almost outlandish with elaborate curls and flourishes:

JAKE EBERSOLE

Purveyor of Fine Merchandise

Entrepreneur

She then reads the cryptic message scrawled upon the back:

Mother,

Two lovely lilies for your collection—a matching pair!

Yours, Jake

            (An interesting proposition, to say the least—but no doubt costly. Said "twins" could be grotesque and Jake would still demand a fortune. Strategy is called for, a game of Bet & Bluff.)

            "Ginger?"

            "Yes, Mutter?"

            "Wait two minutes, then admit Mister Ebersole, making certain to tell him Mother join him direc'ly."

            "Yes, Mutter."

            "Ginger?"

            "Hm?"

            "Did you get a look? Are the two girls really twins?"

            "Couldn' tell; him gots 'em veiled."

            "Veiled?"

            "Yes, ma'am."

            "Veiled; ain't that just like Jake? Veiled. I swear, Mister Ebersole is a character, a character indeed. Draw back them curtains befo'e you go, Ginger, both sides please."

            The girl obeys. A flood of natural light transforms the sumptuous drawing room, mildewed furnishings coated with a patina of dust. Ginger exits. Mother Moss conceals herself behind a bookcase cum partition, one eye pressed to a peephole, awaiting the girl's return.

            "Please step dis way. Mutter be wit' yo'all in a minute; make yo'se'ves comf'able. Is dere an'thing I can fetch you? Some refreshment? Some lemonade?"

            "I'd love to have me a tall cool glass o'..."

            "Nothing, thank you."

            "Yes, suh."

            Ginger leaves.

            "Jake, yo' so mean. Hows come yo' so mean; don' order us a drink? Don' us please you? Didn't us do ever'thing yo'all tol' us: wash an' preen an' powder an' put on dese pinchy-ass clothes? Cinch my wais' so tight my bust an' butt gwon pop. Jake? Jake, yo'all listenin'? Don' see why yo'all wants to sell us in de fust place, Nannabelle an' me. Don' us make yo'all happy? Jake?"

            Jake has repaired to the window where he stands aloof, lace cuffs dangling, watch fob sparkling, frock coat freshly pressed, vest and pants and boots affectedly impeccable, idly toying with the rings on his manicured fingers, then looking beyond them to the alleyway where a girl (whose splendid features he cannot quite place) appears then disappears... appears then disappears again as if trying to hide. She is hiding, Jake confirms—thus adding to the tug of her allure.

            "What yo'all lookin' at, Jake, make you ignore me an' Nannabelle?"

            Annabelle elbows her way in front of him and looks out for herself.

            "Nuthin' dere."

            She turns and lifts her veil to plant a mushy kiss on Jake's mouthaverted.

            "Sit down."

            "But..."

            "Over there. One more peep out o' you, I'll sew your lips together."

            Annabelle crosses to the couch and joins her alleged twin. Dressed identically in Broderie Anglaise, the two resemble a pair of frilly antimacassars. Jake returns his attention to the alley as Mother Moss enters (through a side door once removed from the bookcase whence she spied).

            "Why, Mister Ebersole, how good it is to lay these weary ol' eyes on you again. It must be nigh on a year since yo' last call."

            Jake strides toward Mother gallantly to accept her proffered hand, presses it politely, and holds it while escorting her to an ostentatious chairbehind which he now stands while Mother primly settles.

            "Indeed it has been a while, Mother Moss, but I have come to make amends. With your permission, might I present these two lovely ladies? Ladies? Stand, please. Mother Moss, this here is Nannabelle."

            "Please' to meet you, Ma'am."

            Nannabelle curtsies.

            "And her twin sister Annabelle—who appears to have lost her manners."

            Annabelle, nose upturned, regards her hostess with disdain. Jake, voice lowered, addresses his wayward charge with a menacing reprimand.

            "Have you nothing to say for yourself by way of greeting, Annabelle?"

            "My Massah say not 'uppose' to make no peep."

            "Quite right; simply curtsy."

            "Won' be catchin' me curtsyin' to no overdress' nigger." Jakes takes a threatening step.  "'Cep' Massah say I gots to, so I do."

            Annabelle curtsies.

            "My apologies, Mother Moss. Annabelle is spirited, but the girl will mind."

            Mother Moss looks on with seeming magnanimity, as Jake manoeuvres the girls, front and centre, to perform their unveiling.

            "Bought them from a tiny little estate in Mississippi, Mother. Good luck charms, they were considered by their ninety year-old Master. Claimed he was given them as a gift on his seventy-seventh birthday. For the next thirteen years, he credited, 'twas the twins kept him alive. Influenza finally carried the old man off this bitter winter past. Annabelle and Nannabelle were body servants, and, except for some harmless diddling, come virtually intact—nonetheless willing, I vouchsafe. A pair of near-virgin buds on the very verge of blossoming. Plus, as you shall see..." Jake reaches for the veils and removes them simultaneously. "...bound to be great beauties when bloom they finally do."

            There is a striking similarity in the girls, not all cosmetic (though clothing, hair-do, and make-up conspire to enhance the deception). Mother is impressed, which is not to say bamboozled. Still, the resemblance is close enough to fool (horny clients in particular). Mother motions for the pair to pirouetteJake nudging their compliance. Height and body-build also appear to be exact.

            "May Mother know yo' askin' price?"

            Jake has it pre-written on another of his cards. He steps to Mother's side and discreetly lays it, face-down, on her chair arm. She flips it over, notes the figure, flips it back, regards once more the commodities, then shifts her scrutiny to Jake... at whom she subtly nods. Jake removes the card and nonchalantly strolls to his former post by the window. The girl below is visible again, as are the reasons for her behavioursix or seven of them, in fact, surrounding her, exultant in their game of hide-and-seek.

            "Yo'all gots a sof' spot fo' chillun, Mister Ebersole?"

            Cash in hand, Mother Moss has crossed the room to stand beside her guest.

            "Who's the girl?"

            "Oh, I see. Name 's Jewel. Come to us recent-like. Most comely, fo' a blue-black; don't you agree?"

            She studies Jake to assess if his is a keen or casual interest? More importantly, might it warrant an attempt to renegotiate?

            Jake's recollection clicks; his interest duly warms—which Mother Moss detects (if misinterprets rashly).

            "Strike yo' fancy, do she, Mister Ebersole? Surely there be somethin' Mother could arrange."

            "Has she got papers?"

            "Papers? What have papers got to do with first-sight love? Course she do."

            Mother re-evaluates. For the moment (until which time a proper forgery can be made) telling a harmless fib will doubtless serve—if Jake intends to purchase (an aim that would suggest the girl has unseen worth).

            Jake turns, confronting Mother eye to eye.

            "May I see them?"

            "They's right... wait. Come to think of it, I don't believe Jewel's papers on the premises."

            "In that case."

            Jake lays claim to the wad of bills in Mother's hand.

            "But o' course they can be made available. Meanin' soon. An' Mother guarantee their authentic'ty. At my expense, Mister Ebersole; will cost yo'all nothin' extra; I give my solemn word."

            So the situation fits what Jake now conjectures. Recalling the original transaction (especially with respect to Mister Zachary Squire's fervour), a prize so dearly bought was unlikely sold. Therefore Jewel was stolenor ran awaythe Madam's "guarantee" making that much self-evident.

            "May I be so bold as to enquire what sum you would require?"

            Mother does not like the speed at which this business is being conducted. However, two-for-the-price-of-one has an advantageous ring.

            "Shall we say half?"

            The price is dear—too dear, without confirmation.

            "I must think about that offer, Mother Moss."

            "Don't think too long."

            Tables seem to have turned—hesitation a signal calling for analysis (perhaps the girl's true value is less than presupposed); Mother re-evaluates; Jake decides to gamble.

            "On second thought, Mother Moss, consider the bargain struck."

            Mother smiles; Jake peels off bills. She reaches; he delays before her price is met.

            "With one proviso."

            "And what would that be, Mister Ebersole?"

            "Keep her here for a fortnightno more than a month—until my return."

            "Room an' board paid by you, o' course."

            "You'll pay room and board. Or she will; employ her as you please. My sole concern is custody; first yours; then, in due course, mine. Otherwise, no deal."

            A reasonable arrangement if ever Mother heard one; she glances out the window, at the children, at the dark-skinned girlwhose fate (unbeknownst to Jewel) is again foreordained.

            "Agreed."

            Mother Moss restores the salvaged cash to her desk, proceeds to where the twins—ignored and boredare standing disconsolately, and with a mighty, vengeful SMACK, slaps Annabelle's face.

            "Don't ever, never call yo' Mother a nigger! My meanin' clear?"