The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 3)
With a determined nod, she marched into the pet shop to a chorus of creature greetings, plucked her favorite kitten from the abandoned litter, and carried the little ball of white and gray fluff back into her parlor. Her parents had warned her from a very young age never to get attached to the animals. They were things to be bought and sold, not kept and cosseted. Love them and let them go. But she had been drawn from the start to the wide green eyes and folded-over ears of the runty orphan.
“Your name is Filbert,” she said. “And your job is to keep me from crying.”
Filbert batted at a loose string in her skirt and set to purring, and she ate her cheese, determined to kick Casper out the next morning. She’d given him a key earlier, which she now regretted. Despite what she’d said to Maisie, she was starting to take Reve’s warning to heart.
Casper Sterling was definitely trouble.
Frannie’s dreams were unsettled and muddled, punctuated by the rumbling purr of her first actual pet. But when Filbert’s tiny claws dug into her neck, she woke up in a sweat. Bolting upright, she knew something was deeply wrong. The wee cat was terrified, and it was easy enough to see why. The curtains were on fire and belching smoke.
The ruckus from downstairs was deafening, and fear choked her when she realized how frantic the trapped animals must be. She lurched out of bed and tossed the contents of her ewer at the flames, then a vase of flowers, but the water wasn’t nearly enough. She next yanked the curtains to the floor and tossed her thick blanket on top of them, trying to stanch the flames. But the blasted fire leaped to the carpet and licked at her stockinged feet, and she cast about for some other way to stanch the blaze before it ate up her entire life and legacy. Although the outside of the building was stone and brick, there was plenty of wood inside. Most of the things she valued were flammable, and she was only one person, a small woman clutching a blanket riddled with smoking holes.
The kitten mewed hysterically on the bed as Frannie’s eyes began to tear up from the smoke. One sleeve over her nose, she threw open the closet door. She put one hand on the back wall, considering, but she wasn’t enough of a coward to give up and take the easy way out. No, she would have to fight. The breath stopped in her chest when she realized there was nothing in the closet that didn’t have deep sentimental attachment, that anything she chose would be a beloved memory lost forever. Damn it all. She yanked out her mother’s winter coat, a thick wool thing that looked like a bear’s carcass, and threw it over the rug, grinding her foot over it. Stubborn and quick, as if it had a mind of its own, the fire danced out from under the coat and caught her shawl where it hung from the bed. She grabbed Filbert, stuffed him into her nightshirt’s pocket, and slammed the door on her way to the landing.
“Casper? Wake up!” she yelled, banging a fist against his locked door, but all she heard within was a tired mumble and the creak of bedsprings as he rolled over.
“There’s a fire, you dolt! Get up or die in your damned bed!”
Frannie heard his feet hit the floor, and that was enough. She ran down the stairs, grateful that smoke wasn’t barreling up the narrow staircase. But why would the fire have started in her room, of all places? It didn’t matter now. If it spread, she would have to set the animals free. They wouldn’t have much of a chance on the London streets, but maybe some of them would fly over the walls or escape the bludrats long enough to find a home. Anything was better than hearing their screams of death in a smoky inferno.
The shop was a raging storm of feathers and screeches and cawing. Wide wings flapped, small birds fluttered, and the pups barked like mad. She spun in the middle of her domain, her brain a snarl of smoke and flame and horrible possibilities, trying to figure out which creatures would have the best chance on the streets.
With a deep breath, she flung open the front door of the shop and ran to the birdcages, opening the doors for the parakeets, canaries, and finches. The tiny, stupid birds would fly fast and high, none of them loyal enough to look back. A few of them flitted past, while most were too silly to find the door.
“Idjits,” she muttered, moving on to the larger birds.
She opened the doors to the larger cages of the mynah birds and a few pet crows she’d raised from eggs. It hurt her heart to watch them hop on top of their cages as they were accustomed to at mealtime and stare at her with intelligent eyes, but she shooed them out the door one by one, hoping their natural instincts would kick in and keep them from harm’s way.
“Good morning!” one called as it flapped into the night, and she stared at the parrot cages with growing anxiety. The poor things were too brightly colored to blend in with their surroundings, and while the mynahs and crows were just a few generations from the wild, the parrots hadn’t seen true jungles in decades.
She chose the biggest, meanest one first, but the olive macaw wouldn’t be coaxed out. Clicking its beak, it muttered, “It looks like rain,” and stepped back into the corner of its cage. She left the door open and moved to the next one as she heard a thump and a howl behind her. One of the corgi pups had managed to leap from the deep bin in which they slept and had landed badly. She scooped it up and dumped it back in with its littermates, hoping the little fool hadn’t broken a leg. The puppies wouldn’t last five minutes in London, and therefore, they would be going with her in a grain sack. Along with her kittens, of course, which would all fit in one basket. No matter how bad the fire got, even if it devoured the entire shop, she would save the pups and kittens.
Frannie had gathered the giant iguana in her arms and was hefting it toward the door when a siren pierced the night outside. Instead of dropping the nasty beast on the cobblestones, she stuffed it back in its terrarium and took a deep breath, waiting. If the Metropolitan Fire Brigade made it in time, perhaps there was hope. The elite but underpaid gentlemen of the Brigade were known all over London as heroes, saving the mostly wooden buildings from igniting the entire city when they inevitably caught fire. Although electricity was becoming more popular, there were still plenty of gaslights and even old women taking candles upstairs in their shaky hands. But her father had wired the house himself, and there was no way her curtains could have caught fire from her own folly. Still, she tried to calm her heart and be patient, putting a hand in her pocket to check on Filbert. The little scamp had gone back to sleep.
A huge machine rumbled to a stop beyond her open door. Men in uniforms and tall helmets dropped to the cobblestones and burst into action. Frannie was rooted in place as she watched the firemen unroll their heavy hoses and begin manually pumping water that slammed into the house and splattered around the open door. She heard the upstairs window shatter as murky water seeped onto the carefully swept wooden floors of the shop. A confused parakeet fluttered back in, cocking its striped head at her. It had the good sense to scuttle under a seed bin after a rubber boot nearly squashed it.
Frannie was struck by the strangeness of the fellow attached to the battered footwear. A Copper’s uniform clashed with a plumed helmet, dusty goggles, and the newfangled breathing apparatus that kept London’s firemen from dying of smoke inhalation. Her heart stuttered in her chest for several reasons.
“May we go upstairs?” he asked, and Frannie nodded dumbly at the impersonal, mechanical sound of his voice through the mask. He clomped past her and up the stairs. Two more identical men followed, and she couldn’t imagine how they managed to carry the huge cylindrical tanks that held a mixture of water and the secret fire-suppressant chemical for which they were famous. While she waited, Frannie bundled the kittens into a basket and stroked the yipping puppies, preparing for the worst. From the top of his tank, the iguana stared at her like some strange, alien god who knew the time of judgment was nigh.
It was both moments and eons later that the three men tromped heavily back downstairs, their uniforms streaked in soot. Two of them went outside to the truck, but the biggest one, the leader, stopped before Frannie. After withdrawing his thick, rubberized gloves, he unlatched his breathing mask with broad, sweaty hands and shoved the goggles back onto his head.
“It’s out, miss,” the man said, his voice deep but soft and carrying a slight burr, infinitely more human without the helmet.
Frannie didn’t realize she was holding out a handkerchief until he took it gently from her to mop off his grime- and sweat-streaked face. He was a sturdy-looking man, with bluff hazel eyes and a determined jaw speckled with stubble that matched the sun-bleached hair pulled back in a rough tail. He looked as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors, gazing at the horizon, and she wondered for a moment if he had once been a sailor.
“Mask gets a bit mucky,” he admitted. “Thank you.”
When he held the limp, grimy fabric out to her, she shook her head. “Keep it, please. It’s the least I can do. I can’t thank you enough, Mr. . . . ?”
“Maccallan. Thom Maccallan.” He glanced down at her, flushed, and looked uneasily around the pet shop instead. Frannie realized she was wearing only her night shift, with no shawl close at hand, and she swung the basket of kittens around to cover her bosom as much as possible. He cleared his throat. “Not much damage upstairs. Curtains, rug, bit of the bed. Some sort of bearskin.”
“I’m Frannie Pleasance. And that was my mother’s coat.”
“Sorry about that. Do you know if anyone has a grudge against you, Miss Pleasance?”
He dragged a finger down the glass of his goggles and held it out to her. A smattering of glittering grains sparkled among the soot.
“Some sort of magic about the fire. Came through the window. Are ye harmed?”
Frannie shook her head. The shock was finally getting to her, and her teeth were glued together. She felt as if she would fly apart if she tried to open her mouth. Thom nodded in understanding.
“It takes ye like that sometimes, the fire. Too big to handle, aye?”
She nodded again.
He held out a hand as if to pat her shoulder, then realized how grimy he was and withdrew it. Instead, he jerked his head at the vacated birdcages.