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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
While I showered and got ready for work, I thought about the way I looked in the mirror after Mrs. Cleavers’s ministrations, with the paint and the hair and the heavy layers of clothing. Only the locket remained, and it no longer shone. But I could open it whenever I wanted and study Criminy’s face and think of his scent, red wine and vines. I sniffed my usual perfume, but it seemed rank and fake, so I didn’t wear it.
While I dressed, I felt exposed in my T-shirt and scrubs. I was amazed to realize that I missed my corset, which molded my least favorite body part into a pleasing shape. I felt downright frumpy, actually.
As I stared at a cabinet full of cereal trying to decide between Wheaty-O’s and Oatey-Squares, I got stuck. What was the difference? It was all packaged crap, none of it real. My life felt idle, easy, bland, safe, a neutral-colored apartment crying to be beautiful and interesting. And that brought to mind the estate sale where I had found the necklace. I had to go back to Mrs. Stein’s house and see what was in that bloodred book.
When I showed up at 8:30, Nana was her usual sprightly self, her early-morning nightmare and subsequent phone call forgotten. I didn’t bring it up. I always took good care of her, but today I took super-extra-great care of her, making sure that she was in the best health possible.
“Sugar, you seem sweeter than usual. Is there something you’re not telling me?” she asked in her most innocent Southern-belle voice.
“No, Nana,” I said just as sweetly. “Just doing my job for the grandma I love.” And I planned on giving her an extra half an Ambien that night, hoping to keep those nightmares away.
When she was all squared away for the day, I backtracked to the estate sale. No signs, no cars in the driveway, no lights on in the house. The sale was clearly over. But I had to get that book and see if it had the answers to my double life in Sang.
I tiptoed up to the house and peeked through the window beside the front door. Lots of the stuff inside was gone. The table where people had paid for their purchases was still there, but the cash box and notebook were missing. I wondered what happened to all the things that hadn’t been sold, if they had been trashed or given to Mrs. Stein’s greedy kids or sold to the junk man. Surely no one would miss a grungy old book, if it was still there.
Wait, I thought. You already stole one necklace. Now you’re trying to justify breaking into the house and stealing the book. What are you becoming?
I’m not a thief, I told myself sternly in answer.
You already are a thief. What’s one more thing that no one wants?
Stop talking to yourself, I thought, trying to shake the voices out of my head.
I walked around the side of the house, hoping to look inconspicuous. When I glanced up and down the street, I couldn’t see a single neighbor. Mrs. Stein’s neighborhood was always quiet. I felt as if I was alone in a huge world. And I felt as if the house was waiting for me.
Unfortunately, I had already turned in my key. I ran around back and tried the door, which had an old-fashioned keyhole. I jiggled the knob, but the lock held. Beneath the old welcome mat, I found a key. I couldn’t believe that a suspicious old biddy like Mrs. Stein had actually kept a key in such an obvious place.
The house was silent, except for the boards creaking under my nursing clogs and my heart pounding in my ears.
I ran past her closed bedroom door and up the stairs, checking every window I passed for movement outside. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body, and I could hear every gasp of dust and tiny groan in the ancient house. As I pounded up the dark, rickety stairs to the attic, I realized that I would be cornered up there if anyone showed up. And I’d never been a very good liar.
The bright red book was easy to spot. I didn’t even stop to open it, just ran back down the stairs and out the back door, twisting the lock and slamming it shut. Once I was standing in the grass, I allowed myself to breathe again.
Just then, I heard tires crunching on gravel, and I tossed the book behind some big hydrangea bushes fighting for space against the back of the house. I walked around the corner, pretending to inspect the grass.
“Excuse me, young lady,” came an annoyed Southern drawl. “Can I help you?” She was built like a ship, in a lavender power suit and black hose. Judging by her makeup, she spent her days lawyering and her weekends pushing Avon.
“Oh, I hope so,” I said, my voice steadier than I expected. “I was at the estate sale yesterday, and I think I dropped my wallet outside.”
“No one turned in a wallet,” she said, her shifty little eyes roving over me suspiciously. “Can you describe it?”
“Sure. It’s light blue with flowers and a zipper.”
My wallet was actually tan leather. I didn’t even know why I lied to her, where the mental image of the nonexistent wallet had come from. It came to me so easily. The lies were just blooming, one after the other.
“Did you buy anything with your credit card? I might have the records,” she said with a cloying sweetness that told me I was being hustled. “What’s your name, sugar?”
“Valerie Taylor,” I said. “But I didn’t actually buy anything.”
She flipped through her pink leather notebook anyway, muttering “Valerie Taylor, Valerie Taylor” under her breath. As if it might actually be there somewhere.
“No, no record of anything. Sorry I couldn’t help you. Perhaps you should take this matter to the police?” She held out her arm toward our cars and put on her best hostess smile. I didn’t budge.
“I’d like to keep hunting around the grass, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I’m sure it’s out here somewhere.”
“I’m not sure if that’s appropriate. Private property and all.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said with a warm smile. “But I promise not to bother anyone. The house is empty, right?”
She spluttered and turned red right down to the pearls looped around her neck. “Yes, well, um, but yes, well, you see … property rights and all … transition of ownership … deeds …”
“Great. Don’t let me get in your way. I’m just going to be poking around in the bushes. Thanks so much for your help, ma’am.”
I turned my back on her. She turned to the door, still blustering, and opened it with her own key. She had to turn sideways to get through the narrow door, and the second she disappeared, I dove for the book and dropped it into the waistband of my scrubs. I poked around in the bushes for a minute before calmly walking back to my car and driving away with Mrs. Stein’s spare key still in my pocket.
That was so easy, I thought. I put my hand on the book and grinned from ear to ear.
But then my brief high of smugness was replaced with horror.
I was a thief now, and a liar, too.
Lying had been so … natural. And so completely not like me. The normal Tish would have been terrified of the pushy old battle-ax and run back to her car, and she would have worried for the rest of the day, expecting trouble.
Letitia, on the other hand, was a born actress.
It bothered me the whole drive to Mr. Rathbin’s house. I was early, so I parked my car in a shady spot down the street and picked up the book. It was very old but in good repair, with gold-edged pages and a bloodred leather cover shiny from years of handling. There was no title on the spine, and a gold compass rose surrounded by vines was embossed on the front, just like on the locket.
I opened it to a random page, and saw … nothing.
The book was empty. Just hundreds of age-stained pages with nothing on them.
I flipped to the inside of the front cover. There was a long list of names written in faded ink the color of dried blood. Which it probably was, actually. Names and dates and notations. Every few entries, the handwriting changed, although all of the letters were cramped and ornate, with lots of flourishes.
The first entry read Vetivern Stain m. Isly Tatters, 1281. Next came Crumm Stain, b. 1283. Births, marriages, and deaths, all down the line. Strange names, all seeming one-offs from anything in my world. And they lived a lot longer than anyone in my world, too. Jerebiah Stain had apparently lasted 343 years before d. by draining.
But the last entry caught my attention. Criminy Stain, b. 1793.
His parents’ names were just above it, Angero Stain m. Frey Pallor, 1793.
Same year. Interesting.
I reached out to touch the old words, and the moment my hand connected with the page, I felt the familiar electric jolt and saw new words written there in wet, bright red.
Criminy Stain m. Letitia Paisley, 1905.
I jerked my hand back, and the words were gone.
I would have expected such a thing in Sang, but to glance in my world, in my car, in my scrubs, was really scary. What if it happened every time I touched a patient? Would gloves prevent it, as they did in Sang? Thank goodness I never went anywhere without a big box of latex gloves.
Out of curiosity, I put my palm on another page, but nothing happened. I slammed the book shut and slid it under my seat.
I knocked on Mr. Rathbin’s door and walked in with a smiling face. Thus began the usual six-hour shift of work that I could do with my eyes closed, familiar rituals of cleanliness and healing. But today all I could think about was Sang and Criminy and Casper. In every room, I checked the clock. Time passed more slowly than usual.
Finally, I found myself at my next-to-last stop. The beautiful historic town home of former concert pianist Jason Sterling. I knocked and was let in by his cousin, a quiet music student who was paid to live in his apartment. He went back to his room, and as soon as I heard his keyboard, I walked softly over the bare wood floors to take the hand of the empty husk of the man I now knew as Casper. It hung limp and pale in my glove, the long fingers topped with nails that needed trimming. His various machines beeped softly in the background, overlying a CD of his own concertos.
Although I’d never done so before, I gently unwound the gauze around his eyes and lifted one eyelid. Bright blue, unfocused, dead. But so beautiful, like a butterfly preserved under glass. I shut the eye and replaced the wrapping, briefly running my hand through the inch-long light brown hair and wondering what it would feel like if it were long and loose. As I changed his IV, I studied the tattoo for the first time, a black circle containing a raven holding a key on a ribbon. It was a little raised, almost like a brand. I’d have to ask him about it in Sang. That is, if Criminy let me get near him again.
His town home was clean and airy. There were photographs of his family, one of him on a black Harley, one of him in a black tuxedo, smiling by a baby grand piano at Carnegie Hall. In each one, he was gorgeous, full of life, exactly the kind of man I would love to bring home to Nana. His bookshelves held loads of books—a respectable collection of classics, music theory, poetry, and some science fiction. In a little glass locking case, he had what looked to be a first-run edition of Leaves of Grass, faded green with gold edges. I nearly swooned.
If he were conscious and I had come here after a first date, I would most likely have consented to making out on the couch for a while based strictly on his good taste.
Once my tasks were done, I reluctantly left this version of Mr. Sterling to his comfortable, slow death. He could last thirty years, if he didn’t catch an infection. And I hadn’t seen a bedsore yet. But I couldn’t help but suffer a little shiver, thinking about his body, just lying there in the quiet house, dying slowly as his cousin practiced scales down the hall.
“Where are you, sugar?” Nana asked me as I washed her dishes that evening. I was daydreaming of Sang as I scrubbed her already squeaky-clean plate.
“I’m here,” I said. “Just thinking.”
“Did you find yourself a beau?” she asked. “I can spot the look of a pining woman, you know.”
“Maybe,” I said. I could lie to estate-sale clerks, but I wasn’t about to try lying to Nana.
“Well, if he’s good enough for you, you be sure to bring him by,” she said, shaking her old feather duster at me. “A good boy always visits the kinfolk. That’s manners.”
“I don’t know if it’s going to work out,” I said thoughtfully. “It’s long-distance.”
And it was true. Both of them were.
“I’ll buy the boy a plane ticket, if he’s worth your time,” she said. “You know how it was with your grandpa and me. Hit me like a truck of watermelons, the first time I saw him. Fifty years of marriage, and we were still in love when I lost him.” She sighed wistfully and stared at the picture on the mantel of Grandpa in his judge’s robes. “You listen to me, sugar. You go with your gut.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said automatically, and she nodded sagely. She had no idea what was going on in my gut, and neither did I.
All of my choices were actually pretty hard to digest.
That night, I went to bed early. Just in case it mattered, I brushed out my hair, washed my face, and flossed my teeth. Then I crawled into bed, curled my hand around the locket, and closed my eyes. I was nervous and excited, and if I had been anyone else, I probably would have had trouble getting to sleep.
But I’m me, so I was asleep immediately. I blinked and found myself in total darkness. I gasped in fear. Nothing was familiar. And I was exhausted.
Then a seam of orange light appeared, and a soft voice called, “Letitia, is that you, love?”
“Criminy?” I said, rubbing my eyes and sitting up.
The door opened, and I was bathed in the warm glow of the something-like-electric lamps from the main room. A Criminy-shaped shadow blocked the glare, and as my eyes adjusted, I saw concern and relief on his face. He sat on the side of the bed and held out a gloved hand as if to touch me, but then he stopped at the last moment.