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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“After her, bloodbags!” Tabitha shouted.
I heard violent retching in the hall as I slipped on the landing and pounded down the stairs. Looks like I owe Vil further thanks.
I shot out through the front door into the driving storm. The street was empty, and I turned left and ran as fast as I could without looking back, the visible locket floating in midair as my boots slipped on the rain-wet cobblestones. Criminy had warned me that only things touching me when the spell was cast would be invisible, and the locket was no exception.
I was soon panting but didn’t slow down. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew that I had to get out of Darkside and into a relatively safer area for humans. And then, of course, I had to avoid the bludrats. Judging by my glances at the caravan, that would be no mean feat.
Whenever I came to a bigger crossroad, I turned, angling ever upward with my eyes on Goodwill’s church. I soon found myself in a wealthy residential area of the Pinky part of the city, the fine homes locked up tight for the night. I read the store signs as I passed, hoping for inspiration but thinking on a very animal level. Escape. Run. Live.
Then a sign caught my eye: For Sale. The narrow town house from which it hung was dark and quiet. I stopped. The street was empty, the sky perilous, the lightning crashing. The rain bounced off me like vindictive gumdrops. I was soaked to the bone.
I looked up and down the street. Every single home had at least one light in a window and a lit gas lamp outside the front door. The For Sale house was utterly dark. I put my ear to the door and heard nothing within.
I held my wrist up to the keyhole and said, “Uro, unlock,” hoping it would work for me just as it had for Criminy in the lighthouse. I couldn’t see what the invisible snake was doing, but I heard a metallic clunk. When I tried the doorknob, it opened. I stole inside and locked the door behind me.
The garish colors were shrouded in darkness, the mosaic fountain empty. Furniture wrapped in white sheets lurked throughout. But it was dry and quiet, and I was alone. I took the grand staircase up to the second level and dripped into the master bedroom, where a heavy four-poster bed waited under a canopy of spiderwebs. I thought about unlacing my boots and getting undressed, but I was too exhausted. Plus, if someone showed up, I’d have to run again, and I didn’t want to run barefoot or naked in Sang.
I dragged myself onto the bed and lay down on the white sheet, feeling aches that I had never felt before. I had walked more in the last few days than in my entire previous life, and I had magically aged five years. Or maybe more. But it wasn’t only sleep I was after. Now that I had my locket around my neck, I wanted to go home.
I slipped Uro off my wrist and set him on a sheet-covered side table. I said, “Uro, guard,” and listened to the sound of my invisible bracelet contorting into a tripod. I was almost too excited to close my eyes as I curled on my side, holding the locket against my heart.
I stroked my thumb over the ruby and smiled. “I’ll come back, Criminy,” I said.
As I drifted off to sleep, I had a vision of Nana and me sitting at her table in the bright morning sunlight, eating waffles and laughing.
Like a kid at Christmas, I wasn’t ready to open my eyes yet. I could sense the darkness, but I wanted to savor it, enjoy the delicious comfort and joy of my own bed, or at least a hospital bed. But no—I had to be home. The bed was soft, and there was a weight on the mattress next to me. I stretched and reached a hand out to pat Mr. Surly.
But the thing under my hand wasn’t my silky-furred house cat.
It was hairy and prickly, and it hissed at me.
I screeched and smacked the bludrat off the bed, then heard the satisfying pop as it hit the wall.
I groped for Uro on the nightstand. When I finally found him, he was toppled over, broken, a tangle of jagged metal and wires. They’d killed my clockwork, the bastards.
Those bludrats were smarter than they looked.
A crack of lightning lit up a roomful of small eyes focused on me, red and hungry. Perched on the sheet-covered furniture, crouching on the dusty floor, writhing up the posts and canopy of the bed. They couldn’t see me, but they could smell me. They knew I was there, and they knew what they wanted to do with me. I guessed Criminy’s icky powder had finally worn off.
Another one scrambled onto the bed and chittered, and I kicked it with the heel of my boot. The others grew bolder and started to creep forward. I had to get out before they started swarming. I stood up and ran out the door and down the stairs. Behind me, dozens of sharp claws scrabbled on the mosaic floors as red, furry bodies thumped down the stairs.
I burst through the front door into the cool, damp world of early morning. Slamming the door behind me, I heard their bodies strike the wood. Their claws scritched against it, and then I heard one start to gnaw. I shuddered and kicked the door.
I jogged uphill toward the church, my wet skirts dragging through the puddles. I needed to get off the streets before the early risers noticed a floating locket. A useless floating locket that was either damaged or a clever forgery. As I walked, I pressed the stone to pop the locket open. Inside, where Criminy’s face should have been, there was a carefully folded piece of parchment.
Magistrate Jonah Goodwill of Eden House looks forward to seeing you again, said the elegant script.
Well, fabulous. So much for sneaking in.
He probably had Criminy, and now I knew that he had the real locket.
Soon he would have me, too.
The church towered over me in the queasy green light of the storm’s aftermath. It was both beautiful and hideous, which seemed to suit whatever gods claimed to rule Sang. And maybe they were watching over me, as I hadn’t encountered a Copper or another bludrat since hitting the streets. At least I’d gotten some sleep before the monsters had shown up to claim my dreaming body.
I stood in the same niche where Gerren the Copper had once urinated on me. I was on my own and unsure of the next step, but at least I had found something familiar. Should I attempt some sort of clever subterfuge or just walk right up and ring the old bastard’s doorbell? Either way, he knew I was coming.
The choice was made for me when a huge dog barreled around the corner and knocked me over. Joff the Copper waddled after him, shouting, “Oi, Rudy! There’s nothing there, you mangy cur!”
Rudy growled and lunged for my legs, grasping a mouthful of taffeta in his slavering jaws. I tugged backward, but the teeth didn’t budge.
I was caught.
The animals of Sang had it in for me.
Joff screeched, “Gerren! Gerren! I see the locket. I’ve got her! Rudy got her!”
I did my best to break free from Rudy’s vicious hold, trying to rip my skirt and run. Joff’s eyes followed the movement of Rudy’s head, and he saw what I was trying to do. He whipped out his billy club and swung it, and I ducked my face and threw up an arm.
But it wasn’t enough. The solid wood club thwacked off the side of my head, and I crumpled to the ground in an invisible heap. The last thing I saw as I went unconscious was Rudy’s drool-covered teeth.
He seemed to be laughing.
It was a bad wake-up. My head was pounding, pain radiating from a tender spot just above my left ear. I blinked, and dull light stabbed my brain. I tried to lift a hand to my head, but my arm was pinned to my side. I looked down, and there was my body again, lumpy and stained in wet orange taffeta. It was a relief, being visible again, even if I looked awful. I was on a narrow bed, and leather straps held me at armpit, waist, thigh, and calf. My soggy gray stockings showed through a rip in my skirt, which was extra-wet with Rudy’s tooth marks.
I looked around the room, but I was alone. It was a guest room, a place where a maiden aunt would expect to stay for a long visit. Rocking chair, dresser, mirror, a ewer and basin like the one in my wagon, embroidered throw pillows, doilies sprouting everywhere like unwanted mushrooms. Several horrible oil paintings of flowers hung on the wall, along with a portrait of a much younger Jonah Goodwill. In it, he was about forty and looked hopeful and bright, with just the beginnings of his trademark mustache. He almost looked likable. A gold chain hung around his neck, an engagement ring resting over his heart.
I heard voices in the hallway and closed my eyes as the door swung open.
“Don’t pretend to be asleep, dullard,” Tabitha said. “You’re not a good actress.”
She flounced into the room wearing my locket—probably the real one this time. Behind her was Jonah Goodwill himself.
He walked over to me with the same kindly smile and stroked my head, saying, “You’ve given us quite the chase, Miss Paisley. And then you got yourself a head wound and stubbornly refused to wake up for quite some time. I do hope you won’t cause me further problems.”
“Where’s Criminy?” I growled.
“He’s right here, of course,” Mr. Goodwill said. Something about his friendly, understanding manner repulsed me, like that of a preacher with very bad intentions. Which was kind of what he was.
Two Coppers dragged Criminy into the room, his arms bound behind him. The Rafael Fester illusion was gone, and Criminy’s own face was pale and drawn. His eyes met mine, and they were frantic and scared and defiant and loving, all at once. He wasn’t wearing his coat of magical pockets, and there were patches of blood on his rumpled shirt. I ached for the comfort of touching him and strained against my bonds.
“Letitia,” he rasped. “Whatever he wants, don’t do it.”
“That’s enough out of you,” Goodwill said lightly. He pulled a white handkerchief out of his waistcoat and stuffed it into Criminy’s mouth. Criminy gagged.
“Now, let’s have a little talk, shall we?” the old man said. “Mr. Stain, won’t you join us?”
He gestured to the rocking chair, and the Coppers tossed Criminy into it and tied a rope around his chest. He struggled weakly, as if there was something wrong with him that I couldn’t see.
“Miss Scowl, I’ll need that locket now,” Mr. Goodwill said, and she reluctantly pulled the chain over her head and dropped it into the old man’s glove. He reached to the table beside me and tossed the fake locket to her. She caught it with a smirk and wiped it off on her sleeve.
“A ruby’s a ruby, and fair is fair,” she said with a curtsy. “And don’t forget that her body’s mine, after.”
“I would never forget our arrangement, Miss Scowl.” He chuckled. “Now, go outside and play. You, too, boys. We have business.”
Tabitha swished out of the room with a jolly “Tata, lover!” and a blown kiss to Criminy. The Coppers followed her, one looking disgusted and the other intrigued by her back view. The door closed, and any evidence of goodwill left the face of Mr. Goodwill. “Now that we’re all cozy, I’m gonna drop that Sangish tone and speak in a language you understand,” he said with a deep Southern drawl. “I know your secret, missy. And now you know mine.”
“You don’t know anything,” I said, keeping my voice level and snotty.
“I know that you’re from America, and I know that you love that bloodsucking bastard over there,” he said. “Tabitha told me what she smelled in the submarine. If you want him alive, you’re going to do exactly what I say.”
Criminy tried to talk around the cloth. All I heard was whimpering.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” he growled. “That locket won’t work for me. I can’t get back home. Your pet vamp’s magic must be tuned just to you. So here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna put on that locket and go to sleep. And you’re gonna go back to wherever you came from. And you’re gonna bring me back something I’ve been looking for for a long time.”
He leaned close to my face, and his old-man breath washed over me as spit flicked past his gray mustache and onto my cheeks.
“You’re gonna bring me back a disease.”
“You know that’s crazy, right?” I said. “You seriously think I’m just going to go infect myself with a disease and slap on the locket and come back here? Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I think you love this monster,” he said with disgust. “And I think you think you’re a good person. I got no such illusions about who I am, little lady. That locket was my last chance. I can’t get out of here, and I’ve tried every kind of religion, white magic, and dark magic. You don’t do as I say, and I’ll torture and drain him. Then I’ll go back to that filthy caravan and torture and kill all those people, too.”
I could see the lunatic lurking behind his eyes, the one he hid from most of the world, along with that country drawl. Criminy looked horrified. And murderous.
I just stared at the old man, my jaw dropping. “Why?” was all I could muster.
“Because I want more than a handful of dead folks. Because if I’m stuck here, I want the Bludmen gone. I’m on a mission, girly. I can’t build Manchester into a wealthy, God-fearing city with these blasphemous monsters running around, infecting everyone. If I can rid Sang of the vampires, I’ll be king of everything, forever. A hundred years from now, little kids will sit in church and look at stained-glass pictures of Jonah Goodwill.”
“That’s sick,” I said.
“You’re the sick one,” he said. “Cavorting with bloodsuckers and freaks. My daddy was a preacher, and he would have had some choice words for a harlot like you. God sent me to this godforsaken place for a reason, and you’re going to help me, or I’ll destroy everything you care about.”
There were some definite flaws in his reasoning, which was one of the benefits of dealing with a crazy person. I mean, if he was going to kill all of the Bludmen, that included Criminy, too, right? So where was my motivation? And how did he even know if a disease could exist here or affect Bludmen at all? But I wasn’t about to argue with him about his diabolical plan. I wanted the locket, and I wanted Criminy alive.