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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I could almost see her tucking away that bit of gossip for later, but she knew she didn’t have a choice. She daintily removed the glove and held out a hand with fingernails chewed to the quick. She huffed and stared into the air over my head.
I grasped her hand and waited for the jolt.
“The answer lies in the city of Bixby. There is a chirurgeon there.” I stumbled over the odd word on the sign from my glance. “He’s a pioneer. But the price will be very high. Think carefully before striking a deal.”
“How much?” she said in a shocked whisper.
I pinned her with my eyes. “High,” I said. “The spirits will not allow me to say more.”
“Thank you, lady.” She absentmindedly set a coin on the table and wandered away, patting her huge hat. The poor girl had mule’s ears hidden under there, and every spell she’d attempted to remove them had backfired. The chirurgeon was apparently a sort of magical surgeon and could fix her. But she was poor, and it was costly. In the end, she’d have to agree to marry him, and he was old and ugly. It was fascinating, my little window into the lives of these bizarre people.
“You’re doing marvelously, love,” Criminy said.
“How many more are there?” I asked. “It’s a little tiring.”
“I’ve required every carnivallero to come,” he said. “There will be even more glancing tonight, so you’d better get used to the strain. Relax more. Have some wine. I can see the worry in the lines of your shoulders.”
He massaged my pinched shoulders for a moment. I focused on relaxing and took a sip of wine from the flask hidden under my little table. The glancing wasn’t as hard as I was making it. Then I felt Criminy’s hands slip from my shoulders down my arms, and his chin settled possessively on my shoulder. When I looked up, I saw Casper waiting, even more gorgeous than yesterday, his eyes guarded but hopeful. Was he as glad to see me as I was to see him?
“How does this work, exactly?” he asked with a polite smile.
“You touch her hand,” Criminy snapped. “Only her hand. She tells your fortune. You pay her.”
Casper held out his hand. I was drawn to his eyes, but he was having a staring match with Criminy over my shoulder.
“I can’t really work with you perching on me,” I said in a playful tone.
He released me, but not before his black-gloved hand caressed my face. I could feel him in the shadows of my tent, tense and lurking behind me. “Get on with it, love,” he whispered.
I focused on Casper. His poet’s blouse was open, revealing a tanned chest with some sparse golden hairs. His hair was brushed to a wavy sheen and pulled back, and he had silver rings in one of his ears, like a pirate. Those long, beautiful fingers were held out to me as if we were going to go on a picnic in a magical meadow. For just a moment, I forgot all about the possessive Bludman behind me. I took Casper’s outstretched hand.
There. The jolt, like sunrise piercing the clouds.
Interesting. Such a secret he had, this boy. And now I had one, too.
I had to keep control. I struggled to keep my voice even. I fought to smile, wondering if it came out as more of a grimace.
“You’ve found what you were looking for,” I said. “Your future is long and filled with greatness. You’ll find one heart’s desire and lose another. Loss will be your salvation. Happiness lies over the rainbow.”
“Interesting,” he said.
“A mystic, baffling wonder,” I answered softly.
“All truths wait in all things, and you like Whitman. Tell me more,” he said, leaning closer, blue eyes bright. His other hand grasped our already clasped hands, bare skin wrapped around my fingers, and it felt so intimate an embrace that I blushed and dropped my eyes.
“Pay her and get on,” Criminy growled. “Your fortune’s been told, boy.”
Casper laughed softly, his fingers subtly stroking mine as he released me. “So it has, Master Stain,” he said as he stood and dropped a coin onto the table. “But things can always change.”
“Not glances, lad,” Criminy said from the darkness.
“I hope we can talk more soon. When we’re alone,” Casper said with a pointed look and a disarming smile before ducking out of the tent.
I watched him walk away, back proud and hair blowing softly in the breeze. I’d keep his secret, and he’d never know mine. I picked up his coin, a simple copper, rubbing it between my bare fingers before tucking it into my blouse. It was the same one I’d seen dancing over his knuckles. This one I wanted to keep for myself.
Then the bearded lady appeared, blocking my view. I pasted my smile back on and reached for her hand. In the hazy distance, I heard someone playing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” tenderly on a harpsichord.
An hour later, I was almost through the line. I’d seen secrets, hopes, dreams, crises, tragedies, and a few strange comedies. Most people seemed to want the same things—love, sex, power, riches, beauty. I supposed it was the same in any world.
The next person in line was Veruca, the Abyssinian. Most people had approached me with either fear or disdain, but she seemed completely ambiguous. I couldn’t read her. I hoped a real glance would come, because otherwise, the only thing I would know to say was that she was fearless and unique, which I was betting she already knew.
She wasn’t wearing gloves, and it was hard not to stare at the dark, oiled skin of her exposed body. She held out her hand without a word. I took it.
That was odd.
“You have everything you wish,” I said quietly. “But still you will have more. You will always find what you seek, and you will perform a great service. But your end will be a grisly one.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she demanded. Her voice was high and guttural, and her tongue was pierced.
“There will be a tall, dark stranger,” I said. “And something involving a bee.”
She chuckled. “That’s cryptic,” she said. Then she looked over my shoulder at Criminy and said, “I like her.”
She tossed a coin onto the table and left.
As I considered the strange and colorful future I had glanced for Veruca, I felt Criminy tense behind me. A small, stiff man hesitated before my tent. His face was scrunched up in disgust under a green velvet bowler hat that extended in faded leather down his throat and buckled under his chin with shiny brass. It was too tight, and his chin bulged with fat wrinkles underneath.
Although every Pinky I’d seen other than Casper kept his skin covered, this man took it to the extreme, with straps, buckles, and flaps crisscrossing his body. I imagined that if he were chopped open, he would have concentric rings of old leather, like a tree.
“I fail to understand why this unholy foolishness is necessary,” the man said.
“Because I say it is,” Criminy said darkly. “Lose the glove.”
“No offense, lady,” he said, failing entirely to meet my eyes. “But I was raised to believe that glancing was irreligious tomfoolery. I think you’re a charlatan and a bride of the devil. I do not wish to participate.”
“You owe me a debt, Elvis,” Criminy growled. “And I don’t care if you believe her or not, but you’ll play along, just like everyone else.”
The man fumed, and I could hear his teeth grinding. With jerky, angry movements, he removed a thin cloth glove. Underneath it was a leather glove, and when he finally managed to yank it off his hand, I could smell his skin. I really didn’t want to touch that foul, sweaty hand.
But if he had to, I had to.
As I reached out, he drew back and looked away as if I were going to slap him across the face. The second our skin touched, I felt the jolt.
Oh, this was going to be bad.
Now I remembered where I had heard his name before.
Instead of letting the glance speak through me this time, I fought it. Now my own teeth were grinding, and my hand clutched his in a death grip.
“Say it, love,” Criminy whispered. “Don’t fight the glance.”
“You killed her,” I said softly. “While she was dancing in the woods. But she couldn’t help what she was. You think it’s your holy mission, but you’re just a small-minded coward. You want to kill Criminy, too. There will be a reckoning.”
“You’re a lying bitch!” he screamed, spit flying from his dry lips.
“You’re a murderer,” I said.
Criminy flashed past me. His hand settled around the man’s throat, his arm rigid and his face feral as he lifted the leather-wrapped body from the ground with more strength than I would have imagined. My hand ripped free of his grasp, and I wiped it off on my skirt.
I hadn’t glanced this part, just the aftermath.
“Say her name,” he growled.
“Who, me?” I squeaked.
“No. Him. I want him to say her name.”
“Never,” Elvis said. “She was unclean. She deserved worse than anything I could have done.”
The hand squeezed tighter. “Say it.”
Elvis’s face was turning purple. I felt detached from the violence, as far away and uninvolved as someone watching a lion killing an antelope on TV. I had seen what would happen, and I calmly accepted it as fact. He deserved it, and the only justice to be had in Sang was of the vigilante sort.
“Belleen,” Elvis whispered.
Criminy dropped him, and the man choked and gurgled as he struggled back to his feet, reaching frantically for his glove. As he shoved his hand back into the safety of leather, the words tumbled from his mouth, staccato and cruel.
“Belleen the immoral temptress, the evil demoness. She preyed on men’s souls, flaunted her vile body in depraved gyrations. And then she drank their blood. And they liked it, paid her for the privilege. I caught her in the woods, dancing naked for the moon, and I cut out her heart and burned it. I threw her body in the swamp, watched the crocagators nudge her foul flesh until it sank below the surface.”
Criminy watched the confession, silent, his expression unreadable.
Since Criminy made no move against him, Elvis began to shout, his voice filled with an ugly, prideful righteousness. “The gods speak through me. I am their instrument. The Coppers are taking too long. The Bludmen must be destroyed, the earth scoured of their pestilence. Only man is pure, only man can return Sang to the glory of eternity.”
“Are you done yet?” Criminy asked.
Everyone nearby had stopped to stare, crowding around my wagon. I could hear whispers and chittering, but I couldn’t tell if the crowd was hungry for blood or just entertainment.
“I will never be finished,” Elvis said, his voice rising and gaining force like that of a preacher on a roll. “For my path is righteous, and I am protected by a greater power than your vile spirits of blood. And you can’t kill me because there are witnesses.”
“Fine. You’re righteous and special and on a mission,” Criminy said, a wicked and sweet smile spreading across his face. He pulled Pemberly from his shoulder and whispered into the monkey’s shiny ear. She darted down to the ground and loped along the line of wagons.
Elvis didn’t know how to respond to that. He just nodded once as if accepting fealty.
Criminy crossed his arms and rocked back on his boots, humming to himself. “Oh, it’ll just be a moment,” he said. “But please believe that I’m entirely understanding. Your feelings have been taken into account, and your path is perfectly reasonable.”
The crowd twittered. There were a few giggles. Elvis deflated a little and began to cast around for support.
There was a flash of copper, and Pemberly was again on Criminy’s shoulder, her tail wrapped around his arm. Criminy took something from her little black hand.
It was the jar of powder from Mrs. Cleavers’s trailer, wrapped in his handkerchief. The poison.
“Here’s the thing, though, Elvis,” Criminy said. “I’ve been thinking that you deserve a promotion in the caravan. You’ve been dusting off the clockworks and running the locomotive for years, and it’s your turn to take center stage.”
“I don’t believe—”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Criminy said, cutting off Elvis. “But you will. You see, I’ve been thinking we need a clown. A good, old-fashioned Pierrot. And you’re going to do your makeup all by yourself. We’ll start with pure white, just like your soul.”
Elvis took a step back, and the color drained from his face. His mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out.
Criminy unscrewed the top of the glass jar and held it out to Elvis. The terrified man turned to run, but Catarrh and Quincy appeared and held him by the arms. They were stronger than they looked. The crowd stepped in closer, a solid wall of bodies. Half of them were angry, half were curious, but none showed even a hint of sympathy.
“You can’t do this!” Elvis shouted. “It’s murder! It’s against the laws! You’ll lose your license! My human brethren will see you punished!”
“Murder?” Criminy said, drawing back in feigned confusion. “My dear sir, I’m giving you a promotion. It’s just powder. A simple bit of makeup. Mrs. Cleavers uses it on everyone. Why on earth would you be frightened of powder?”
The crowd had made a tight circle around them by now, and I had a front-row seat from behind my crystal ball. Mrs. Cleavers pinned Elvis with her darkest glare and bared her teeth.
“I use it myself, you silly man,” she said. “There’s nothing to fear from powder.”
Elvis struggled, but there was no escape.