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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Miss?” said the next customer. “Can we make this quick?”
I looked up into the anxious face of a Copper. I recognized the spade beard and mustache. It was Ferling, the nicer of the two I’d seen on my first morning in Sang while I was invisible.
I discreetly tucked the monkeygram into my sleeve.
His nervous fidgeting told me that whatever Coppers were allowed to do at the carnival, fortune-telling wasn’t on the list. With shifting eyes, he yanked off his leather glove, which had already been unbuttoned. He was ready. And he was worried.
“I need to know if my wife is true,” he said quietly. “Quick.”
I grasped his hand, and the jolt was powerful.
Oh, gracious. This wasn’t good at all.
“Your wife is true, but she is being forced,” I said. “Proof lies in the spice chest. The baby is yours. Stay faithful, and all will be well. The bones can knit. Seek vengeance, and all will be lost in blood. When the time comes to choose, remember this.”
His face was stricken, his hand trembling in mine.
“I’m sorry,” I said in my regular voice.
“Thank you, lady,” he said, tossing a vial of blood onto the table and disappearing into the crowd.
It was a tough fortune, and I felt sorry for the man. What I hadn’t told him was that his wife was being blackmailed by his partner, Rodvey. It was a fast, confusing jumble of visions, but I could see that if he confronted Rodvey, the resulting duel would leave them both dead. In the bottom of the spice chest, he would find the documents that his wife was winning from Rodvey with her body one page at a time, a fake declamation of Ferling’s supposed illegal dealings with the Bludman’s Guild. She was doing it to protect him from a false accusation and certain execution.
As I had first deduced, Rodvey was a very bad man.
I had seen something else when I touched Ferling’s hand, though, something even scarier that I was absolutely positive not to mention. It was a secret meeting of hooded figures, all in copper-colored velvet robes and surrounded by candles in a stone chamber. In the center of their circle lay a Bludman, whiter than white, his blud draining into strange channels carved into the floor. The faces of the cloaked men were in shadow, and I didn’t recognize the voice that spoke.
“Another demon drained. But he has many brothers, and we will bring a plague on their kind, sent from the gods to purge the wickedness of Sang,” the voice boomed. “We will destroy all the creatures of blud once and for all. The Stranger will come to make our world pure again.”
“Amen,” came the answering chant.
The Coppers were planning a secret genocide, and I had no clue how to stop it.
My mind was elsewhere, which made the glancing even easier. Everything seemed so petty after Ferling’s revelation, and I didn’t have any problem seeming mysterious and far away.
It was amazing how many people needed to be told not to go out alone in the dark of night. It just seemed so obvious, like telling people not to jump out in front of cars. But being cooped up in their clothes and their homes seemed to lull the Pinkies into a false sense of safety. It wasn’t even Bludmen they had to worry about, swooping in like dark angels to drain them in the shadows. No, it was the stupid bludrats.
Faces blurred together, and glances streamed into glances. I forgot most of them almost immediately, like passing faces on a busy sidewalk. I’d only been glancing for a few hours, but I was starting to get sleepy. It must have been time to wake up, in my other world.
“Good evening, madam,” came a deep, fatherly voice with a cultivated English accent.
I had been drifting off. Oops.
With my head still hanging low, I looked up through my eyelashes. A kind-looking old man with a big, gray walrus mustache smiled at me and held out his hand.
“I’ve heard a great deal about your talent,” he said. “I’d like to know my future.”
“As you wish,” I said, and grasped his hand.
Despite myself, I gasped. His glance was just as jumbled and fast and confusing as Ferling’s, but the secret went even deeper.
First, I saw this man in the city, in an office, speaking to a roomful of Coppers. He was wealthy and powerful, something like a mayor. Outside his window, I saw a soaring white church with broken windows and a strange spire shaped like an X.
Next, I saw him throw back the hood of his copper-colored robe in the empty ritual chamber and kick the drained Bludman’s body.
“One down, a million to go,” he said to himself.
Lastly, and most chillingly, I saw the old man asleep.
But in the vision, he wasn’t wearing this tall top hat, buttoned down his throat. He wasn’t wearing gloves or boots or a copper-colored, bloodstained robe.
No, he was reclining in an expensive bed, tucked into rich, fluffy blankets. On his right was a small table with a telephone and a clock radio. On his left was an IV stand. An older woman in nursing scrubs changed out his IV bag, saying, “Well, then, Mr. Grove. That’s better, ain’t it? Y’all missin’ a beautiful spring day, you know.”
She looked out the window at a magnificent magnolia tree in full bloom within a high brick wall. In the fancy driveway was a minivan with Helping Hands Homecare on the side next to two purple hands forming a heart.
I startled as the old man asked, “Can you see anything?” in a playful, patronizing tone.
The British accent sounded fake to me, and I wondered what his real one was like. I knew that I had to lie, but I had only a split second to decide whether to seem genuine or ham it up. I went with fake and threw in several of the trite phrases Criminy had taught me.
“Oh, sir. You are a very powerful man, a great leader. You will live a long and fulfilling life. Your destiny is cloudy. The spirits watch over you. Beware a dark-haired stranger.”
I focused on his mustache as I finished, and it twitched. His eyes narrowed. He was suspicious. Whether he believed me or not, I couldn’t say. Most people aren’t prepared for a true fortune-teller who speaks lies.
“I see,” he said. “I see.” Then his eyes traveled over my face and down to my chest. I drew back.
“That’s a lovely chain,” he said. “You’re brave, my dear, to wear so little clothing around these monsters.”
Criminy and Mrs. Cleavers had decided to dress me in a Bludman’s blouse for the actual crowd, since they would all be Pinkies. It upped the exotic factor and would help draw their attention away from my occasional blunder. The top of the locket barely peeked out from my cleavage, the ruby glinting in the flickering light.
I wrapped my hand around the locket defensively. “Thank you, sir.”
His eyes roved over me. I shifted and drew the shawl over my skin, clearing my throat and looking at the ground. At that signal, Pemberly stopped her cavorting and ran up to tug on the man’s coat.
“Our time appears to be up,” he said in the same kindly voice. “Thank you so much for sharing your talents, my dear.”
He dropped a gold coin onto the table and strode purposefully back into the crowd. My next customer stepped up, a middle-aged woman with desperate eyes.
“One moment, madam,” I said.
Fortunately, there was a feather quill on my table, along with the crystal ball, skull, and other props. I scrawled on the back of Criminy’s earlier note, Old man big mustache head of Coppers wants to kill Bludmen is really Stranger!!! I crumpled it up and gave it to Pemberly.
“Take it to Criminy,” I told her.
Her eyes clicked closed and open again in acknowledgment, and she scampered into the crowd. I put on a professional smile for the waiting customer and held out my hand.
Then I went unconscious.
Even before my eyes opened, I was overwhelmed. The cacophony was dizzying. My alarm was buzzing, my cell phone was jingling, and my cat was meowing.
First the alarm. Slept in for more than two hours. Oops.
Then the cell phone.
“Nana, I’m so, so sorry,” I began.
“Well, sugar, you’re the one who has to clean up if I wet myself,” she said in her most peevish tone, “Although breakfast would be nice, too.”
“I’m on my way, and I’m bringing doughnuts,”I said.
“I might forgive you, then,” she said.
I was so exhausted that I could barely stand up. I made a beeline for the coffeemaker.
My morning was blurry and heavy, like being drunk without the fun. I showed up at Nana’s just in time to prevent a laundry crisis and mutual mortification, served her hot doughnuts and hotter coffee, and sleepwalked through my chores there, barely able to focus on what she said. I was so tired that I was scared to drive to my next patient.
I ran a red light and nearly got T-boned on the way to Mr. Rathbin’s. When I parked in the driveway, I barely registered that two tires were in his grass. I didn’t bother to repark.
“Having a good day, Mr. Rathbin?” I asked with a yawn.
He was pretty jolly for a terminal patient—unless I was late. Luckily, I had brought him one of Nana’s extra doughnuts, so he was in a great mood. I set up his meds and helped him brush his teeth. Then, as I was carrying his used bedpan to the toilet, I passed out and hit the floor in a puddle of Mr. Rathbin’s urine.
As I slowly rose to consciousness, I had the marvelous, achy, breathless feeling that I only got from several hours of uninterrupted sleep. It was completely delicious. I wiggled my toes and stretched my arms and legs and yawned. It was good to feel rested again. I opened my eyes to complete darkness.
I knew immediately that something wasn’t right.
I felt around blindly until I found a side table with a button. I pushed it, and orange light filled the room. It was my wagon.
“Criminy?” I called. There was an answering rustle in the other part of the wagon, and the door opened. He looked confused. And sleepy.
“Are you all right, love?” he said, rubbing his eyes. “It’s barely morning.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was at work, and then I woke up here. What happened?”
He came in and sat down on the bed, his hand warm on my cheek. I was still in the blouse and skirt from my costume, with my corset laces mercifully loosened. And I was scared.
“You fell after nine,” he said. “In the middle of glancing. It was very dramatic, and I suspect your line will be doubly long tonight. I carried you here and put you to bed. But you shouldn’t be awake now, I don’t think. Unless you fell asleep in your dinner.”
“It was just after lunch,” I said. “I was helping a patient, and …”
“I don’t know. I just opened my eyes, and I was here. But I feel rested. How is that possible?”
I tried to look into Criminy’s eyes, but they were focused on my exposed cleavage.
“Up here, mister,” I said with a playful grin.
“My locket,” he said simply. “It’s gone.”
I reached down, and he was right. Both locket and chain were gone.
“Where? How?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he answered, angry. “I was right outside. I only fell asleep for a moment. No one came near the door. Pemberly’s been on guard. There hasn’t been a sound. It’s impossible.”
“Does it mean I’m stuck here? Is that why I’m not exhausted—because I was actually asleep? In Sang?”
“That could be possible,” he said slowly.
“So what am I doing in my other world? Am I asleep there? Am I dead?” I said, voice trembling, fearful. “Who’s going to take care of my grandmother? Am I on Mr. Rathbin’s floor? Oh, my God. What’s happening to me?”
Tears coursed hot down my cheeks. Criminy wrapped his arms around me and stroked my head.
“I don’t know, love,” he said. “I just don’t know.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked. My nose was buried in his neck, and the scent was calming and powerful. I somehow hadn’t imagined him being this warm and comforting.
“I don’t know that, either,” he said. “But we’re going to find out how it happened.”
He stood up and whistled, and Pemberly capered in through the door.
“Pem, someone got into this room. Search it. Find a hole, a trapdoor, anything.”
The little monkey began to skitter along the walls. Red beams flickered from her eyes, scanning. Criminy watched her, and I couldn’t read him. He should have seemed more worried, more angry. But he wasn’t. He almost seemed relaxed. I was missing something.
Then I realized why. If the loss of the locket meant that I was trapped here, then he didn’t have to share me.
It meant that I was stuck here. I couldn’t leave him.
“Criminy,” I said, low and flat.
“Yes, love?” he asked calmly.
“Did you take the locket?”
“Of course not. Why do you ask?”
“I know what it means, if you don’t find it,” I said. “Don’t think I can’t see. And I’m not playing along. If you don’t find the locket, I’m not just going to give up and live here as your personal plaything. It’s all or nothing. If I’m trapped here, I’m leaving. I’ll never love you. I’ll go live in the city. You can’t keep me here against my will. I get both worlds, or I get none.”
“So that’s how it is,” he said softly.
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
“I suppose I should have expected that,” he said. “If you weren’t a wild sort of creature, I wouldn’t love you. It would be easy if you just gave in, but easy isn’t worth anything, is it?”