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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“If I do what you want, what do I get in return?” I asked. My eyes flicked to Criminy, hoping that he could trust me. After our run-in with the witch, he probably didn’t.
“Your Bludman lives, and you can run off with your heathen caravan and do whatever the hell you want. And you can keep your locket, too.”
“That’s not going to do me a lot of good if I’ve got a disease,” I said carefully.
“I don’t care if you get it yourself. Bring me a Styrofoam cup of blood or a chopped-off drug addict’s finger. Just bring me something that’ll spread through blood and kill ’em all. This world’s got no diseases. The flu would probably destroy half the population. But it’s worth the risk.”
There were at least three illogical statements in there, but I let it go and played along.
“I won’t let you hurt him,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Across the room, Criminy closed his eyes and shook his head.
Jonah Goodwill smiled, his bright white teeth showing his good American brushing habits.
“Then let’s shake on it and get you all fixed up before bedtime, sugar.”
He reached down to grasp my hand where it lay, bloodless and still at my side. I did my best to smile and wiggle my fingers enthusiastically.
We had a deal.
True to his word, the old man had me fixed up. My bonds were released, and a bevy of scared Pinky servant girls helped me undress and wash in a copper tub of hot, perfumed water. Despite my reeling mind, it felt wonderful to be warm and dry and clean again. They fixed my hair and dressed me in an overly modest, blousy gray gown that resembled a sailor suit. It was hideous and bland compared with the shimmering things I’d grown accustomed to, and I wouldn’t have been caught dead in it, given the choice. The floppy boater hat with long ribbons added insult to injury.
Next, they ushered me into the dining room, where I was forced to sit at the foot of the table and sip soup across from Magistrate Goodwill. I didn’t have much of an appetite, although I’d barely eaten in days. The dead, bloodthirsty stares of the stags and antelopes and moose on the wall seemed to accuse me of treachery with every spoonful.
I was thankful that the old man chose not to converse. From time to time, he spoke kindly to the servants or complimented the food with his cultured Sangish accent. I minded my manners and kept my mouth shut, hoping to appear stupid, or at least dull and uncreative. I had to wonder if Criminy and I were the only people to hear his real accent since his early days in Sang, before he learned to conceal it.
As the servants bustled around and removed my dainty dish of uneaten cherry pie, I fidgeted and looked down, saying, “Master Goodwill, may I please see Criminy?”
“Oh, no, my dear,” he intoned. “I do believe that’s a terrible idea. That vicious killer is a very bad influence on you. And he might even try to hurt you. I could never allow that to happen.”
The maid clearing Mr. Goodwill’s dishes wiped a tear from her eye and gazed at him with adoration. I tried not to barf.
“However, I will allow you to sit quietly in the garden for an hour or so before bedtime. The fresh air will be quite invigorating. I do believe a good night’s sleep can cure any ill, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” I mumbled, feeling the eyes of the servants judging me. No allies there.
After dinner, a silent and surly Copper escorted me out the French doors into a beautiful garden. Everything but his sharp nose and scowling mouth was hidden by goggles and leather, but I could tell that my guard disapproved of such vibrant frivolity. Or maybe he just disapproved of a bludhoney like me.
Irises and lilies and roses danced against the dull gray sky, and I leaned down to inhale their perfume. I walked the brick paths toward the orchard trees, apples and tangerines and plums planted in neat rows within the high stone walls of the old monastery. Very few people in Manchester knew what wealth lurked in Mr. Goodwill’s little Eden, I was willing to bet. He didn’t seem like the sort who enjoyed sharing with his inferiors.
A swaybacked cow dozed placidly across the yard, and she lowed at me as I approached. I expected her to hiss and bare teeth, but then I saw her messy pile of hay and remembered what Joff and Gerren had said about a bludless cow. I patted her bony brown flank and said, “Good luck, Bossy.”
Under my Copper’s watchful goggles, I settled on a wooden bench among the roses and pulled up my knees to watch the spectacular sunset. Clouds so low and thick that I could almost touch them were painted inch by inch with the bright red and orange of the heavy sun. I imagined the sullen city below us, the labyrinthine streets unfolding in their dirty glory beyond the high walls of the garden.
It was an ugly place but not without small beauties, not without things I would miss.
I swiveled my gaze back to the house, the bricks painted stark white like that of a plantation house from my own country. He’d turned the refectory into his own little Tara. The sunset writhed over the bricks, casting orange shadows like fire on the peaceful scene. Cheerful lamps shone from every window, and I tried to imagine Criminy behind one of them, tied to the rocking chair. Hungry, hurt, confused. Not knowing what choice I would make once the locket was in my hands. Stay with him? Kill his people? Disappear forever? And I had to wonder—did he have any faith in me at all?
Had I given him any reason to?
The wind sighed through the trees, and I thought I caught a whisper of berries on the breeze, a breath released in resignation.
I was glad that I had told him I loved him before we went through the gate.
I hoped he believed it.
After the sun had set, we all returned to our places in the guest room, except that I wasn’t bound to the bed this time. Criminy was still tied to the chair, and he seemed even more miserable and sick than before. Mr. Goodwill smiled, smug and righteous, like a cat that had eaten the canary and spit out the wings. The Coppers stood, masked by their uniforms, inhuman as blank walls. At least Tabitha wasn’t there to gloat.
I lay back, and Mr. Goodwill draped the locket over my neck. I sighed as it fell over my heart and cupped it with my hands. Relief coursed through me, and it was all I could do to prevent a smile of joy from transforming my face. I was supposed to appear worried and trapped.
Criminy leaned forward in his chair, straining against the rope, his muffled voice choking behind the gag.
“Shall I swat him, sir?” one of the Coppers offered, holding up his billy club.
“No, thank you,” Goodwill said. “Let him watch. Let him suffer.”
I snuggled down in the bed, and the old man pushed a button to turn off the lamp. We were bathed in near darkness, and the room felt small and pressing and airless. Only the candle at Goodwill’s side remained lit, casting a ghostly glow over his hungry eyes.
“I love you, Criminy,” I whispered.
And I turned my head away.
My eyes flew open as I hit the floor. Something loud clattered beside me and splashed warm liquid over my face.
I saw the side of a bed and a great deal of shag carpet. There was my hand in a latex glove and, a few feet away, a metal bedpan. A yellow puddle spread out around me, soaking into the carpet, and I coughed.
“Tish!” an old man called. “Miss Everett! Are you OK?”
I pushed myself up to sitting and smiled at Mr. Rathbin. “I must have tripped. How silly of me. Let me clean this up.”
As quickly as I could, I soaked up the urine with paper towels and sprayed the carpet as if nothing unusual had happened. Inside, though, I was ecstatic.
Of course, I knew exactly where I was and exactly what had happened. I stroked the tarnished locket, putting the puzzle together finally. The whole time I’d been in Sang since Goodwill had stolen the locket, not a single second had passed in my world. It had to be the locket’s spell that made time there run differently for me. Time passed for Casper and Jonah Goodwill and everyone else who was brain-dead or under anesthesia or dreaming. But not me. When the locket was off, I didn’t lose a single second of my life on Earth. If not for Madam Burial stealing my years in Sang, if not for the locket aging me faster there, it would have been a perfect arrangement.
I wasn’t brain-dead. Nana wasn’t killing herself with worry. And now I knew exactly how the locket worked. If I fell asleep wearing it, I would magically wake up in the other world, whichever one I wasn’t currently in. If I took it off in either world, no time passed in the other world. But every second I spent in Sang as a human with the locket intact meant that I aged faster and faster in both worlds, my time stolen by the witch.
I could almost have it all, just by taking off the necklace at the right time. I could have Nana and Mr. Surly and hamburgers and pet harmless little bunnies on Earth. And then I could be a part-time fortune-telling gypsy queen in a traveling show with Criminy. I could still be human, be myself. At least for a little while. It all depended on how fast Madam Burial stole my years, how much faster I aged thanks to the locket.
Criminy had said I would always be beautiful to him, but I was guessing neither one of us wanted me to get too old and wrinkly. Still, there was time.
Now all I had to do was save him and his entire race before bedtime.
I could do that.
But first I had to take care of my next patient, Mrs. Henderson. With distinct thoughts of Criminy, I slyly pocketed a bottle from her medicine cabinet. She was sleeping, she was forgetful, and her son would happily run to the pharmacy for her tomorrow when her meds turned up missing for the umpteenth time. No problem.
Then I called in sick, claiming to have a fever. Another nurse would cover my next three patients, including Mr. Sterling. I would have to be transferred off his case. Seeing him like that, knowing that it was within my power to bring him back and that I had chosen my own happiness instead … it was just too depressing.
He would have to find his own future without me. My first glance of him had shown me that loss would be his salvation, and I hoped it came to pass. I had seen pain, but I had also seen adventure and joy and a destiny not unlike my own, far away in Sang. He would be changed, but for the better. The second glance had been a new possibility, a fork in the road, and part of me would always regret not taking it. But I was committed to my path, and there was no time to lose.
When I got to Nana’s house, I was in a hurry. It was almost six, and I still had a long way to go.
She caught me glancing at the clock and said, “Sugar, did someone light a fire under your tail?” Her mouth turned down at the corners, but I grinned. Part of me just loved it when she got her dander up—it meant that she was still fighting.
“No, Nana,” I said. “I’ve got a date tonight, and I don’t want to be late.”
“Ooh, honey,” she said, clapping her hands. “Tell me all about him.”
“He’s really handsome,” I said with a coy smile. “He’s an entrepreneur and a magician. And he’s pretty much the complete opposite of Jeff.”
“When do I get to meet him?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “He’s really busy. And I need to make sure he’s ‘The One’ before I go introducing him to your cooking.”
“Just make sure he takes care of you,” she said. “A true gentleman is so rare these days.”
“He does,” I said, but it weighed heavily on my mind that right now, I needed to be taking care of him, back in his world.
I tucked her into bed and wrapped my arms around her. My heart tugged, as it always did, when I felt how frail she was getting, how narrow her shoulders seemed. She had always been solid, a rock of comfort and warmth who had eclipsed my distant mother and overly busy father in my heart. But I couldn’t escape the fact that she was losing her battle, and nothing in the world could help her.
After I walked out her door, I was all business. I drove to the library and waited my turn for a free computer. I typed “helping hands homecare” into the search engine, and on the second page, I found it. The same logo from the van in my glance of Jonah Goodwill, two hands forming a heart. Luckily, they weren’t far enough away to get me on a plane, but the two-hundred-mile drive to Greenville was going to take much longer than I would have liked. I scribbled down the number.
Alone in my car, I made the call. The night nurse said, “Helping Hands Homecare, we bring the care to you. This is Terry Ann.” She sounded bored. I could almost hear her doing a crossword with her TV on low volume in the background.
“Hi there, Terry Ann,” I said with the kind of smile that travels through phone lines. “I’m so sorry to bother you tonight, but I’m a nurse at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, and I’ve got a patient named Louise Shepherd who’s on her last legs, and she’s trying to find a Mr. Grove somewhere near Greenville. She said that he’s on home care after a head injury, and he’s one of your clients. Is there any way you could help me find him?”
“Ma’am, we don’t release the personal information of our patients,” she droned.
“I understand that, and I’m so sorry to ask, but I promised her I’d try. I’ve been taking care of her for a few weeks, and her mind comes and goes, and Mr. Grove is all she ever talks about. She can’t even remember his first name, and she doesn’t seem to understand that he’s unresponsive. But she wanted to give him a keepsake, her husband’s Purple Heart from the war. Maybe I could mail it to you, and you could give it to him?”
There was a pause, and I could hear her reserve crumbling. That sounded like a lot of work, and she’d like to get rid of me, but as a nurse, I understood how these things worked. Nurses work in nursing because they like helping people, after all.
“Honey, I ain’t supposed to do this,” she said, her voice low. “But my grandfather had a Purple Heart, too, and I know what a big deal that is to old folks. I believe you’re talking about Mr. Jonathan Grove of 1655 Sycamore Lane in Anderson. But you didn’t hear that from me.”