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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Antidote,” he hissed. “Antidote!”
But Vale was by my side, taking my cold hand, rubbing it between his own. “Still in there, bébé?” he asked, his pinprick pupils telling the truth of his concern.
For all his jaunty swaggering, the boy was so scared I could smell the fear rolling off him in waves, although, strangely, I couldn’t smell him. I took a shuddering breath and felt my fangs dig into my lips. A few seconds more, and I was able to nod my head, just a bit. My eyes blinked and reopened on a vision of myself, a work of ultimate beauty, aflame and dripping paint and belching smoke. He must have turned the easel to face me so I could watch it burn. Vale touched my face, stroked my hair, flexed each of my hands, and ran thumbs down the soles of my feet until they feebly kicked. The ice that had run in my veins ebbed, leaving me warm, as if I’d been breathing in the cold and was finally indoors again.
I sat up straight and stared down at Lenoir. Vale nodded once and turned to him with the antidote, but I finally found my words.
“Don’t give it to him yet.”
All eyes locked on me.
“Demi?” Vale asked gently.
“Tell us where the Malediction Club meets.”
Lenoir was foaming at the mouth now, red bubbles leaking from his dry white lips. He laughed, his head spasming and his eyes going mad and glittery. “Wasn’t. The deal.” He wheezed a laugh. “Antidote!”
Vale sighed and kneeled. “I did promise him.”
I was too tired to protest and leaned on the chair’s arm, too drained to hold myself upright. Surely there would be some way to compel Lenoir, if we kept him alive. Vale unstoppered the vial carefully and used the dropper to squeeze a stream of golden liquid into Lenoir’s mouth. The once-handsome painter lapped at it like a starving dog but quickly spit it back out, coughing up red foam.
“You said. There was an antidote.”
Vale grinned. “Oh, there is one. That’s just not it.” He licked the stopper and scrunched up his face. “Oh, la. It would seem that’s my aunt Merle’s famous hot-pepper sauce. We consider it the antidote to poor cooking. Spicy, n’est-ce pas?”
Lenoir uncurled and straightened in a creepy rictus dance that resembled an exorcism. His trembling hand went for his pocket, but Vale stomped on it, grinding it into the floor.
“None of your blud magic, monsieur.”
After clenching his teeth and trembling for a moment as he fought to get his hand from under Vale’s boot, Lenoir pinned him with his indigo eyes, the veins bloody and wet and starting to seep into the white. “Going to curse you. For lying to me.”
“Think back carefully, monsieur. I did not lie.”
Lenoir breathed out, spewing bloody froth. His eyes went lucid and crafty then, and he began speaking in Sanguine, slurry and slow. Before he could get out more than a couple of words, Vale kicked him in the throat, and he choked and fell onto his back.
“Of course, if you’ll tell us how to find the Malediction Club, I have the real antidote right here.”
A twist of paper appeared in Vale’s fingers, but Lenoir was past caring. With the last of his energy, he pointed at the smoldering painting, then at me, then drew his trembling finger across his own throat. His hand fell on his crushed neck as his head lolled sideways on the carpet, blood spilling from mouth and eyes and bubbling from the holes in his stomach, which would have healed themselves quickly if not for Vale’s half-Abyssinian blood.
“But—how will we find it now? If he’s dead?” I shuddered and sobbed. “How will we find Cherie?”
With an angry growl, Vale rushed to a heavy desk in the corner, flicking on the green banker’s light and shuffling through the drawers and papers, throwing everything he found onto the ground. “There must be something here, somewhere. An invitation. A bill. A card. Something.”
I tried to stand, to hurry to his side, but I could barely move. As it was, I was able to pull myself up holding the back of the chair, then collapse against the windowsill and shuffle along the wall, grabbing each warm sconce like Tarzan reaching for vines. Vale had pulled all the drawers out of the desk by the time I got there, and I fell gratefully to the ground in a puddle of skirts to paw through the spilled papers.
Vale took his search to a series of deep shelves that held rolls of canvas. As he pulled them out and threw them onto the floor, I untied the leather thongs to let the fabric unfurl. I saw fruit, dogs, creepy dolls, cathedrals, haystacks, dead rabbits, piles of bones, people on trains. It was as if he’d plundered an art history book and copied every painting ever, trying out styles from van Gogh, Monet, and even Picasso. They had irregular sides, as if maybe he’d sliced them out of frames. None was signed; hell, maybe they were originals of Sang versions of the artists I revered. With Lenoir dead, there was no way to know.
As Vale moved through the shelves from left to right, the paintings got better and more nuanced. Finally, the figures began to appear, graceful daimon bodies caught in repose or ballerinas holding their legs aloft. There were nudes sprinkled in, too. The first few daimon girls had tails, but after that, the tails disappeared, and the paintings graciously neglected that part of the daimons’ anatomy, perhaps to avoid the inconvenient scars that must have remained after removing so large a limb.
“Oh, mon dieu.” Vale held an uncurled canvas in front of him so that all I could see was the blank, khaki-colored back.
“Did you find something?” I asked, trying to stand and barely making it to my knees.
“Not something. Someone.”
He turned the painting around to show me, and the breath caught in my throat.
It was Bea.
* * *
The painting had never been finished. The background was washed in red with hastily sketched-in details, and it was a more intimate portrait than I was familiar with, based on his work. His name in Sang was Lenoir, so close to Renoir. But most of his famous paintings were based on those by Toulouse Lautrec, bright and messy visions of cabarets and dancing girls and ballerinas. This one showed Bea dancing in a feathery ivory ballgown, her hair coiled up and one arm raised. The look on her face was more dreamy and relaxed than I’d ever seen her, not at all guarded and jumpy. In fact, now that I considered it, many of Lenoir’s paintings shared the same unfocused gaze.
It had to be the drink.
For me, it was blood and absinthe. For the daimons, perhaps he mixed his powders into one of their fiery brews. But I understood instantly that Bea had once stood before Lenoir, just as I had, and fallen under his spell. The only difference was that her painting had never been finished, while mine now smoldered on a stand. What I didn’t understand was why she’d never said more about him than her vague, general warnings. Her fear had been real, but she should have told me the truth. I glanced at my portrait; I’d totally forgotten that a fire burned across the room. It was merry and crackling, just about to reach his bottles of turps and tubes of paint lined up along the easel’s edge. The painter himself lay on the floor, huddled up like a smushed bug, his hair fallen to a pile on the floor around his head and his black lips drawn back over ivory fangs set in shriveled gums.
Vale rerolled Bea’s painting, stuffed it down the back of his collar, and reached down to collect me.
“Fire’s working fast. Time to go, bébé.”
I waved him away. “I know. Get his pin first. We might need it.”
Vale gave me a determined nod and snatched away the damning bit of gold from the painter’s jacket. I half expected Lenoir to bolt upright like Lestat and try to strangle the brigand to death, but there was nothing left in the shell of his body. When I held out my arms, Vale gently gathered me to his chest and hurried away from the growing fire. As he rushed down the stairs trailing my chocolate dress, I caught a last glimpse of the Siamese cats on the landing, curled together like parentheses, dead. Their downy white fur had fallen to the floor, their black lips twisted back over fangs, just like their master.
Instead of heading for the front door where I had always entered, Vale plunged into the darkness of a spare kitchen, nearly banging his head on hanging copper pots.
“Where are we going?”
“Into the alleys, the same way I came in. Trust a brigand, bébé, you don’t want to be seen stepping out a rich dead man’s front door.”
The courtyard out back was far less fancy than the sidewalk in front, and Vale neatly sidestepped rubbish bins that rankled of turpentine and neatsfoot oil. He navigated the back alleys like a streetwise cat, keeping us entirely away from gaslights and gendarmes and conveyances, carrying me as if I weighed nothing. I tried to speak once, but he quieted me with a quick peck on the lips and a wink.
“Brigand rule two: if you don’t wish to get caught, be silent,” he whispered against my ear.
I didn’t recognize the route he took to Paradis, not until we entered the elephant’s empty courtyard.
“Vale, I can’t go in. I ran away from the prince after he’d . . .”
“Paid for you?” He gave me a dark look as he scooted sideways down a narrow alley. “I know. I watched. You were magnificent.”
I drew back, which was hard, considering he was carrying me and I was still nearly numb. “You were eavesdropping?”
He shook his head. “I was coming to your room to visit, but then I saw you dressed in that . . . scrap, pacing around like a bludrat in an oven. When he arrived, I watched to make sure he didn’t hurt you.”
“But I went out the window and didn’t see you.”
“I can be rather quick when I need to be.”
Placing me gently to lean against the alley’s bricks, he tapped a broken edge, and to my great surprise, a knee-high door swung open on a crawlspace. I breathed in, always distrustful of small places, but all I caught was the scent of cold stone, old wood, and, oddly enough, hard liquor.
“Can you crawl?”
I flexed my arms and knees. “I think so. Blood would help.”
“Crawl to the end of the tunnel, and you can have all the blood you want.”
My mouth watered, and I dropped to my knees and wiggled into the hole with Vale’s face pressed against my bustle.
“It’s a straight shot, bébé. There is one turn-off that goes to the main hall of Paradis, but that hatch is probably sealed. Just keep going.” I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see it, and focused on forcing my sluggish limbs to move. “Best view on Sang, and I can’t see a damn thing,” he muttered behind me.
My muscles limbered up with movement, although my knees and skirts were suffering against the rough boards. When Vale murmured, “You should be able to stand up now,” I pulled myself up the wall and leaned for a moment, catching my breath.
“You’d better not be lying about that blood.”
“I never lie about going to the bar, bébé.”
A dim light appeared up ahead, and then I realized we were in part of the tunnel Bea had taken me through that first morning at Paradis when they had neglected to feed me. I almost drooled, thinking about the supply of blood they’d brought in once I’d proven myself a star. When I found the familiar door, I unhooked the latch and peeked into the bar and the empty theater beyond. My keen Bludman’s senses came in handy; there was no one there at all, but I could feel the warmth just beyond, the girls snoring in their beds upstairs. But one thing still bothered me.
“Why can’t I smell you?”
Vale chuckled. “Magic, bébé. A brigand’s secret among telling noses. Now, drink.”
So I finally knew how he’d managed to sneak up on me. But considering it had just saved my life, I wasn’t about to pick a fight.
Breathing deeply, I went straight to the low hum of a brand-new, still shiny blood warmer. Dozens of vials waited inside, each labeled with a fancy parchment tag showing the vintage. I couldn’t have cared less about quality and grabbed the first two, popping their corks with both thumbs and guzzling them like a baby with a bottle. It was gourmet stuff, probably taken off virgin blue bloods, and it washed away the spicy funk of magic and anise from Lenoir’s potion. I tossed the empty vials onto the counter and grabbed two more while Vale watched, bemused. I eyed the bowl of oranges I’d noticed on my first trip back here.
“Those aren’t blood oranges, are they? I could use something sweet as a chaser.”
His grin deepened. “They aren’t oranges at all.”
I dropped the vials and stared at him.
He plucked an orange and held it up. When he rapped on it with his fist, the sound was hollow. He held it out to me, stem first, and I noticed a circular etching in the peel. When I pulled the stem, it revealed the orange as hollow.
“If a gentleman wishes to spend the night with a lady, he comes to the bar and buys an orange. If he offers it to a girl and she accepts it, that means she has agreed. When the deed is done, she keeps the orange and brings it back here to get paid.”
“But I’ve never seen a girl carrying an orange . . .”
He chuckled. “Would you keep a symbol like that where anyone could see it? Or steal it? No, they mostly hide them until they cash them in in the morning. Most likely, you are still asleep when that happens.”
“How much do they cost?”
His eyebrows rose significantly. “I wouldn’t know. I have never paid.” He jerked his chin at the pile of vials on the bar. “You have had enough?”
I stretched, cracked my neck, and gave him a wicked grin. “I could always use a little more.”
“And I would be glad to take you up on that soon. But for now, I think we must wake Bea and discover what she knows. As soon as the world understands that Lenoir is dead and his studio burned, the Malediction Club might move headquarters. Because after what Lenoir said, you agree that Cherie is there, yes?”