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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“There’s got to be a clue here somewhere,” I said between sniffles. “There’s got to be something else we can do.”
“We can eat and sleep,” he said. “Because wherever he’s gone, we’re not going to catch him today. Might as well get dried out and well rested.” He chucked me under the chin. “And let your bum rest after that horse ride, eh?”
But I wasn’t done. I saw one more building on the other side of the landing strip, and I squelched through the sand, leaving wet bootprints behind me. Criminy caught up with me, holding his harpoon at the ready.
The last building looked like a storage shed, a simple windowless hut with the same smooth white walls and orange tile roof. In my world, it would have held a couple of rusty, nonworking lawn mowers and the neighbor’s long-forgotten weed eater.
As we got close, I felt Criminy tense, and he aimed his harpoon at the door.
“What is it?” I whispered, whipping my own harpoon into place against my shoulder much less gracefully and almost smacking myself in the nose.
“There’s someone inside,” he said. “A Bludwoman. I can smell her.”
The island was silent as we crept toward the hut. Well, except for the random mooing and bleating and occasional horn clashing of the animals, but those noises were normal and comforting. No sound came from within the outbuilding.
When we were right outside the door, Criminy barked, “Who’s in there?” in his most fearsome voice.
There was a small noise inside, a scraping. Then a cough. Then a word, barely a ragged whisper.
“We’re coming in!” Criminy shouted, and he kicked in the door.
It was pitch black inside, except for the perfect rectangle of sunshine radiating through the door frame. Tiny motes of dust and sand danced in the air, and we waited.
The cough came again, followed by scraping and rattling. Chains.
“Criminy?” she whispered from the darkness.
“Tab?” he said, rushing into the room. “What have they done to you, lass?”
I stood just outside the door, wishing I could see what was happening within but afraid to get too close. I heard a loud clang and a whooping gasp, and I leaned in through the doorway.
From the darkness, something flew at me too fast to see. I tried to scream, but the sound was choked off as I crashed to the sand with a body driving me into the ground. Claws settled around my throat, pressing down on my windpipe.
So I did what any sensible person would do.
I passed out.
“Letitia, love, come back to me.”
Criminy’s desperate voice buzzed from far away, annoying.
Then I heard a stranger whisper, “What do you see in that thing? It’s unnatural.”
I heard gulping and a wistful sigh.
I didn’t know the voice, but the tone was all too familiar, calling me back to consciousness. There was something to fear there. I kept my breathing even, my eyes closed.
“There’s nothing unnatural about loving someone,” Criminy said. “You just think it’s unnatural that I don’t love you.”
“It should have been me,” she said. “Thirty years ago, when Merissa left you, I was there. And you taught me parlor tricks, chucked me under the chin. I’ve been here all along, waiting. And then she showed up and started hovering over that stupid glass ball, and you insisted on acting like a lovesick child. It’s disgusting.”
“You’re a sweet girl, Tab, but it’s just not to be,” Criminy said, then made a slurping noise and cleared his throat. I was touched by his devotion, but it occurred to me that there was only one thing that he ate, and he had left his blood vials in the lost satchel.
What on earth were they slurping?
“It’s not too late, you know,” the female said, her voice taking on a sprightly but seductive air.
Oh, please, I thought, inwardly rolling my eyes.
“It was too late the day she arrived,” Criminy said. “Look, Tab, you’re beautiful and lovely and clever and all, but there’s never been a spark here. You’re going to make some Bludman very happy one day, but it’s never going to be me. You’ve got to get over it, girl. You’ve got to move on.”
“Oh, like you moved on?” she purred. “I remember you, in the days after Merissa left. I remember those nights on the moors. Just you and me on the blud altar under the moon. Those were good times, Crim.”
“Yeah, that was fun,” Criminy said, and I could hear annoyance creeping into his voice. “But it was nothing more than that.”
“It could be. I could end it now. We can both take her.”
Quick as a snake, there was the odd slap of a scale-covered hand on a hard face.
“Never speak it,” he growled. “Or I’ll end you.”
“Speaking of which, Tab, I’m curious. How’d you get here?”
“You didn’t even know I was missing, did you?” she cried. “You self-centered bastard! Some gypsy king you are, not even knowing when one of your own is gone!”
“Emerlie said you had a difficult case of ladies’ troubles,” he said, sounding oddly prissy.
“And you didn’t know she was lying? She’s always lying!”
“What happens between your legs is none of my damned business,” he snapped. “I had other concerns.”
“I ran away, if you must know.” She sniffed. “Right after I heard she was to glance on the carnivalleros. I didn’t want her to touch me, vile thing.”
Criminy chuckled. “Didn’t want her to see your true feelings for me, eh? That’s understandable. But I’m sure you didn’t run away to this charming island on your own.”
“I took my carpetbag and followed the tracks back toward Wolvenhampton. I figured I could scratch by for a few decades, wait for your doxy to die off or get old and ugly. But the Coppers found me, just outside the caravan. Two of them and the old man.”
She went quiet. Criminy waited. I almost opened my eyes and told her to get on with it, already.
“He’s a nasty character, that Jonah Goodwill. Almost drained me, as you can see. Seemed awfully interested in you and your lady.” She paused, and I heard something snap. It sounded like a bone. “Didn’t mean to tell ’em everything, but I did.”
“Torture and draining not your bag, kitten?” Criminy asked, and I imagined the quirk in his lips, the humor in his eyes.
“Not unless I’m on the other side of the whip,” she whispered, a seductive purr in her voice. I’d had just about enough of the minx, and I’d never even seen her.
I sat up. But when I opened my eyes, I realized that I had seen her before, although she had looked very different then. It was Sirena, the mermaid from the caravan, but she had legs. Quite a lot of leg, poking out from her dress in ripped fishnet stockings and sky-high heels. And, of course, she was sprawled in the sand, giving Criminy quite an eyeful.
Even more disturbing, though, were the dead things strewn around in front of the shack. Cows, goats, sheep, a giraffe with an awkwardly bent neck. Not a drop of blood could be seen, and the deflated bodies were all placed calmly, side by side. It was like a grisly slumber party at the San Diego Zoo. I cringed.
“Letitia, love, how are you?” Criminy asked, reaching to stroke my face.
The recently tortured but gorgeous blond Bludwoman smirked at me from Criminy’s side. Reading my face, she grinned, showing me all of her sharp little white teeth colored with animal blood. She reminded me of an ermine, something small and sleek that would curl quietly around your neck for years and then one day rip out your eyeball for no good reason.
“Not so good, actually,” I said, pulling myself to standing and backing away from them toward the shade cast by the shack. I felt my neck, which had one of Criminy’s scarves tied snugly around it. “Did she bite me?”
“No, pet, or she’d be dead. She bruised you, and I added the handkerchief so she wouldn’t try it again.” He glowered at her, and she giggled.
“First of all, I heard your entire conversation. Second of all, how is the mermaid walking?” It seemed a ridiculous question, but it was going to bug me until I knew.
“She’s not really a mermaid,” Criminy said, avoiding both of our gazes. “But little Tabitha Scowl didn’t have an aptitude for anything else at the caravan. She had no place else to go, so I gave her a fake tail and a breathing spell and threw her into a tank of pond water to fool the Pinkies.”
“I had an aptitude, but you still wouldn’t take me as apprentice,” she said fiercely, curling her lavender-gloved hands into claws.
“Yes,” Criminy said, grinning. “Somehow I felt I couldn’t trust you.”
“Imagine that,” I said, backing away. I tripped over the leg of a dead gazelle. Criminy caught me and drew me down to the sand, tucking me into his side and putting his arm around me.
Across from us, Tabitha stood and dusted the sand off the plum taffeta of her ragged dress. It was ripped at the thigh and burned in places, and the effect was quite alluring. I felt plain and silly in my men’s clothes, and I missed my burgundy dress more than ever.
She stomped into the shack, kicking up sand. She was dwarfed by the doorway, tiny, probably not even five feet tall.
“Criminy, is she—”
“A child?” he asked, guessing my question. “She’s more than a hundred years old. But she was only fourteen when she was turned. Apparently, she didn’t have a glancer to tell her to stay out of dark alleys at night.”
She stomped right back out, holding a little beaded bag and a dramatic, floppy hat covered in black plumes. Dropping to the ground, she pulled a compact out of the bag and started doing her makeup.
“Goodwill and his men left to deal with the burning at Brighton,” she said without looking up. “So when are we leaving?”
The raft was awfully crowded on the ride back to the sub. For a tiny creature, Tabitha Scowl took up a lot of room.
Before setting off, we looted the house and found some expensive silver and trinkets to steal but, unfortunately, no secret diary outlining Jonah Goodwill’s evil plans. We didn’t even find a secret door, and, of course, a shallow island couldn’t have a basement. My glance of the cabal in the cellar had definitely been in a city.
Criminy opened the hatch on the sub, and Tabitha was the first one down the ladder. Personally, I had half a mind to lock her in and take the raft back to civilization.
“When we get to Brighton,” Criminy said to her, “you’re on your own.”
“Fine,” she said. “I’ve had it with being a talking fish, anyway.” Then she smiled slyly and said, “And who knows? You might change your mind. I can be useful.”
Then she flounced back into the bedroom and slammed the door shut as loudly as possible, which wasn’t loudly at all. Criminy and I both sighed in relief and slid to the floor. The hallway was so narrow that we sat on opposite sides, knees meeting in the middle. I pinned him with my glare, and he rolled his eyes dramatically.
“Can I help it if all the young fillies fall for me?” he said. “It’s probably the accent.”
“Everyone here has the accent,” I grumbled. “It’s probably the hair.”
He moved to my wall and put his arm around my shoulders. “Honestly, love, I’ve been fending off that little minx for years. Had no idea she was so diabolical. If I had, I might have liked her more. Or snapped her neck. Could have gone either way.”
“Don’t even start,” I said, nudging him. “She told Goodwill everything. She betrayed us.”
“Actually, she betrayed you because she loves me,” he teased. “It’s a bit endearing.”
“She stays in Brighton,” I said. “Or I’m throwing you off at the lighthouse, and you can hang out with that ghost for a while.”
“But she could prove helpful,” he said.
“She. Stays. In. Brighton.”
“Fine, fine. She stays in Brighton,” he said, kissing my forehead before standing and moving to the instrument panel. “So let’s get there and dump her off on the poor, unsuspecting fools.”
The trip back was uneventful, especially compared with our previous hours in the submarine. I felt a bit anxious about what had passed between us, and as much as I disliked our new passenger, I was glad to avoid idle hours in the conspicuously useful bedroom. My feelings about him were even more complicated after giving in to his magnetic pull and my own lust. I felt closer to him, but I also felt less like myself. I didn’t know what I needed most: time to think, time to sleep, or time to explore my feelings. Or Criminy’s heart. Or his body.
Criminy was unusually quiet. I didn’t know if it was because he was worried about me, about finding Goodwill, about dealing with Tabitha, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
I knew that Criminy had explored the ship, but the only door I’d opened had been the bedroom. It occurred to me that I had eaten nothing but cookies in the past twenty-four hours. No wonder I was so wobbly and emotionally spent. I went straight to the galley.
A little enameled cube like the one at Antonin’s flat was bolted to the wall. The air within was cold, though, not blood-warm. Inside were chilled tins of strange, thick milk and some shriveled fruit. Behind the sliding doors of the cabinets, I found cans of soup and several packages of ship’s biscuit, which were apparently an ancient form of Pop-Tart constructed entirely of cement.
I ended up with a bowl of cold, filmy soup, a glass of heavy cream, and tepid fruit salad. The apple was pink inside, and the tangerine was mostly dry. I wasn’t going to try the rock biscuits. I sat down on the stool bolted to the floor and stared at my lunch. My main thought was ick. Probably the same thing Criminy thought when he and Tabitha had feasted on Goodwill’s menagerie. It tasted like crap, but you could live on it.