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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
A genuine laugh surprised me. “Bébé, in just a few moments, we’re going to pass by a dollmaker’s shop, a dressmaker, a stationer. You’ll see dancing schools and open-air painting studios and tiny daimons with swishing tails carrying books wrapped with leather belts. A few years of hard work in the cabaret can buy a lifetime of comfort for an entire family, if a girl is savvy. Outside of Mortmartre, real life gets lived in Paris, I promise you.”
I sniffled and wiped my nose on the handkerchief he handed me. “In a few moments?”
“You have several hours before tonight’s show. We’re going to go talk to Monsieur Charmant. See if we can’t learn more about that button. I want to know who tried to kidnap you. And if he has friends who have been stealing innocent girls, I want to find them.” His hand curled around mine, the limp handkerchief dangling between us. “And we will end this together, you and I.”
* * *
Since arriving via the sewers, I’d seen many different doors to my cabaret home. I’d hurried out the back door of Paradis. I’d been paraded out the front door with movie-star pomp. But I’d never hitched up my voluminous skirts and clambered out the window, as Vale did. Now that I knew there was a convenient ledge that led to an easily climbed drain spout appointed with handy gargoyles, I might take this route more often. In fact, it was so easy to climb into and out of my window into a dark, anonymous alley that I couldn’t help wondering if the building had been designed for just that purpose.
Vale shimmied down the drain spout first, and when he looked up, I was more glad than ever for my bloomers. Just because he’d seen me en déshabillé in a dark room didn’t mean I wanted to give him the usual cabaret girl’s view from the street. As soon as I’d stepped off the last gargoyle, he offered me his arm and led me down the streets of Paris at a quick pace.
And he was right about the charming shops and studios we passed. In between the cabarets, with their gaudy signs and lights, I saw a ballet class for little girl daimons, a toy shop of handmade puppets, and an atelier filled with paint-splattered artists arrayed in a circle around a live and angry bludmare stamping against the wooden floors to which it had been tethered with bell-covered ropes. Banners and pennants were strung between the tall buildings, and bright posters fluttered against brick walls. A red daimon who reminded me of Luc from the caravan strolled by playing a violin, and I checked to see if his tail was intact, which it was. Of course. It was the women who had to give up their limbs for art and sustenance.
We passed Enfer, the darker twin of Paradis, and I gaped at the lurid mouth carved around the deep-set door. A shiver ran over me. I didn’t want to see how horrible Mortmartre could be. Unless Cherie was involved. But surely, if she was in Enfer, we would know?
As if reading my mind, Vale said, “I checked. She’s not down there. It’s dark, but it is not that dark.”
Around the corner, I saw more doppelgänger cabarets from my art history books. Le Chat Noir and even Moulin Bleu, which was oddly small and cramped-looking. As we turned down another alley, I recognized the narrowing brick walls and increasing shadows that signaled every city’s Darkside. I’d only seen two such entrances, with Criminy’s red-gloved hand clamped firmly around my wrist. He had wanted me to see what horrors the cities held for our kind, and I had only entered the spiked gates of two pathetic little towns before I chose to sit out his errands to the Bludman’s district of magic shops and bloodsellers.
Vale hurried under the sign, but I had to stop and look up. This arch was stone and resembled the gates of a cemetery, with black-streaked gryphons flanking the sides of a rusted iron gate. All were designed to intimidate.
“You coming, bébé? Or are you scared?”
I tossed my hair. “Scared? This is what I am, Vale. I’m a creature of Darkside.”
He shook his head. “Not here. In Paris, things are different.”
This time, I reached for his hand, and his fingers curled reassuringly through mine. The buildings were narrow and thin, the alleys crooked and riddled with shadows. Bludrats roamed, big as cats and bristling with fur the color of dried blood, sometimes a lighter mauve. They ignored us, and we ignored them. When one skittered by with a child-size hand in its mouth, I kept my eyes up from then on.
The shops we passed were typical for Darkside and yet decidedly . . . well, darker. In London and Manchester, Crim had told me, there was a malevolent area of Darkside that no one but villains visited. Deep Darkside, they called it. In most cities and smaller towns, though, Darkside was composed of compulsory ghettos and shops specifically catering to Bludmen. Here, it was like an evil version of Main Street in Disney World. The shop fronts were elegant and intricate, with wood carvings and stone gargoyles and gleaming windows, but the things behind the windows were twisted and strange. When Vale stopped before the only shop with windows blocked by black velvet curtains, a shiver ran up my spine.
“Maybe it’s closed,” I said hopefully. “No sign.”
The look Vale gave me was grim and somewhat pitying. “He does not need one.”
Instead of pushing the door open or knocking, Vale pressed his thumb to the sinister fang of the bludbunny-shaped door knocker. When he smeared a drop of blood against the peeling black paint, the red sank magically into the wood. The door swung open on silent hinges, revealing a crowded room shot through with smoky beams of light piercing the black curtains. The walls were redder than red, cracked in the corners, and lit with buzzing carnival lights around the edges.
Vale stepped in first and pulled me through. I hesitated for just a moment on the threshold, and the door slammed shut, almost smacking my hip. I spun away and nearly stumbled into the carved white fangs of a herd of screaming, carousel-horse heads arrayed on spikes. Stumbling back, claws outstretched, I bumped into a stuffed owl swinging from the ceiling by a hook. Off-balance, I sought Vale’s side, sighing in relief as his hand curled around my waist.
Across the room, a counter sat unmanned, the greasy glass obscuring glittering objects within. Big jars of peculiar items sat in rows on shelves, and I noted powders, the twisted pink petals of dried bludrat ears, ivory-yellow teeth of all sizes, and one jar filled with liquid and what appeared to be sheep eyeballs. A dusty dentist’s chair of metal and ripped fabric lurked in the corner under a cone light, making me shiver when I saw the rust-flecked instruments hung on the wall behind it.
“Touch nothing,” Vale whispered.
“Didn’t wanna,” I whispered back.
A cacophony started up, somewhere in the building. Mad barking that reminded me of reading Cujo as a little girl, far before I was old enough to handle it. There were no doors that I could see, no curtains to other rooms, and Vale pulled me behind him and turned to face a gaping hole that had appeared in the floor, roughly hewn from the wide wooden boards. I was sure it hadn’t been there only moments ago. Nails clicked on stone far below, and the barking intensified. I hadn’t noticed him move, but there was suddenly a strange and evil weapon in Vale’s hand, like an intricately cast version of Wolverine’s claws. I plucked a parasol from an umbrella stand made of a polar bear’s head and open jaw and prepared to face whatever nasty thing was growling and slobbering up the steps.
“Monsieur Charmant!” Vale barked. “We wish to parley!”
There was no answer but a sudden silence as the first dog’s head came up over the stairs, its lips pulling back to growl so low and deep that it vibrated my ribs. Slow claws clicked, more growls joined it, and the thing appeared in the scant light.
“Are you shitting me?” I shouted, letting my parasol drop. “French poodles?”
“Franchian wolfhounds,” Vale muttered, “Bludhounds, for short.”
I stifled a giggle. Because they were totally French poodles, cut into the usual balloon-dog shape, with poofs on their heads and butts and around their ankles.
Then I looked closer and saw the fucking fangs. Like a saber-toothed tiger’s, they curved down over the jaw until the things opened their mouths and howled, which was even worse.
Six of them crawled up from hell and took the floor, spreading out around us. They were nearly as tall as I was, their heads canted downward and their shoulders hunched like hyenas.
“You think those are . . . wolfhounds?”
He nodded, weaving back and forth and limbering up for a fight. “They bred some local type of dog to bludwolves, long ago. The gendarmes keep them for tracking and chasing down daimons. And they trim them like that so they won’t get too much blood in their fur while feeding but will still run hot.”
“How the hell do you trim one of those things?”
One feinted experimentally at Vale’s leg, and he swiped at it with his claw-knife.
“Very, very carefully.” He cracked his neck. “Lots of chains. Put your back against mine, bébé. They’re behind us, too. Get ready to fight, and don’t hesitate to kill.”
I spun around and found three more monster dogs quietly hunting us, materializing from behind counters and trunks on the floor, silent but for their clicking toenails. I couldn’t think of them as anything but bludpoodles, which made them only a fraction less terrifying.
And then I remembered, or my body remembered for me: I was a monster, too.
I hunched over and ripped off my gloves, fingers curling into claws, glad I hadn’t let Blue trim my talons all the way down just to placate the clients of Paradis. An answering growl buzzed up from my belly, my teeth bared and my vision going over red. One of the bludpoodles facing me hunched down as if it was going to leap, and I pounced on its back before it could spring.
I forgot everything but the kill. My claws latched into shaved skin, piercing the hide and veering off ribs. On instinct, I slammed a foot on the ground and fell onto my back, pulling the thing over in a bear hug. With its legs pawing overhead, it whimpered and raked the air with useless toenails, and I bit deeply into its neck to drink. The thing went limp in my arms, and I’d sucked down one deep draught of blood before the next one slammed into me.
As I rolled to the floor, howling in fury, I caught a quick glance at Vale. He moved like a dancer, the giant claw-knife in one hand and a wicked dagger in the other. One bludpoodle lay near the counter, its head at an unnatural angle. Four-inch saber teeth snapped inches away from my nose, red-tinged slobber flecking my face. With an irritable grunt, I punched it in the face and felt the crunch of bone.
I counted six wolfhounds: three dead on the ground, two circling Vale, one trying to sneak up on me. But I could smell it, and I pounced before it could and sank teeth into its throat. I’d never used my teeth and talons like this, not since becoming a Bludman six years ago. I’d never been reduced to a fighting machine, a predator, a monster that lusted for the enemy’s blood, no matter what species it was. I sat on the floor, my legs and fluffy skirts poofing around my legs as I dragged the dying wolf-monster into my lap to take what was rightfully mine. Hot blood spiced with fury and madness slid down my throat as I watched Vale dispatch the last hound and straighten, wiping blood off his face and rubbing it on his black trousers, where it disappeared as smoothly as the thumbprint he’d pressed to the door.
I grunted, and he spun around to stare at me.
“Mon dieu, bébé. You look like a child with an ice cream cone.”
I shrugged but didn’t stop drinking. He looked half disgusted and half proud. When footsteps sounded on the stairs, I dropped the fuzzy carcass and got back into fighting stance, but Vale merely straightened and held the blood-spattered claw at his side.
“Quite a welcome, Charmant.”
The daimon who rose from the floor like a devil born from hell looked as if he belonged in a barbershop quartet, but evil rolled off him in waves. He tipped a straw boater at us, mouth twitching under a spectacular mustache and skin the color of Mountain Dew.
“Oh, customers? Tut. I was just letting my pets out for a little walky.” He glanced around, noting the carnage of pony-sized vampire poodles with one raised eyebrow. “They don’t breed bludhounds like they used to, you know.” He turned back to the hole in the floor and shouted, “Coco! Bring the broom and dustpan. Again.”
After the bludhounds, I wouldn’t trust anything spit forth from that dark rectangle. A heavy clanking from deep below got louder until a copper orangutan emerged, hobbling on long arms like crutches. It clambered over to me with red eyes blinking impatiently and held out fingers that clicked open and shut in annoyance. With a last pull at the sluggish blud, I placed the drained body in its grasp, and it swung down the stairs, enveloped in the darkness. A series of meaty rips and grinding noises made me glance away.
“I should charge you for that, you know,” Charmant said with a fussy and exaggerated sigh, and Vale laughed.
“For what? Destroying illegally bred bludhounds? The gendarmes would pay us in gold for that.”
“Gendarmes are more easily bought than bludhounds. Why are you here, brigand? Come to buy more teeth for your collection?”
I stood and shot Vale a measuring look. He had neglected to mention he had come here to pay this devil with cash. He shrugged unapologetically.
“I’m here to inquire about a gold pin seen around town. The crest is a raven’s skull with a top hat and bat wings.”
Charmant rubbed filed black nails against the sharp lapels of his red-and-white-striped jacket. “Pish-posh. Sounds enigmatic.”
“You know what it is, and you’re going to tell us.”
Charmant’s mustache curled with his smile. “Am I, now?”