The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 1)
There was nothing unusual about finding a dead man facedown in the London gutter. The odd part was that this particular man still had all of his clothes and skin. Even more bizarre, he was an almost exact copy of Frannie’s brother Bertram. From his cascading coppery-golden hair to his long slender fingers to the foppish cut of his expensive boots, Frannie was half-terrified to roll him over and find Bertram’s face as she had last seen it: proud, shocked, and marred by a sword slash across his silently screaming throat.
Sprawled in the alley as he was, he should have been stripped to bones by the bludrats. But he was perfect—and still breathing. After glancing up to make sure the Copper was still at his post across the square should she need him, Frannie nudged the figure with a toe, curious to see if she was rousing a lost Bludman instead of considering a human corpse. The color and cut of his flashy clothes were all wrong for a London Bludman, but Frannie’s neighborhood was getting closer and closer to Darkside and the expanding Daimon District, so who knew? She nudged him again. Much to her surprise, the man leaped into a crouch and spun to face her, teeth bared and beautiful hands curled into claws. He looked less like Bertram from the front, and she exhaled in relief. As he growled, a strange look of confusion came over his beautiful blue eyes. Frannie stepped away just in time to avoid the splatter of vomit that painted his waistcoat.
Holding back her skirts, she considered him. The stranger was terribly handsome outside of the sick, which smelled strongly of red wine. From hair to dimples, they could have been twins, except for the eyes. Hers were a dark shade of green, while his were almost the same bright sapphire blue Bertram’s had been. Her heart twisted. She couldn’t walk away.
“Had a nice night, did you, duck?” she asked.
He wiped his mouth with a fine handkerchief and stood. His posture went from dangerous to resigned and a little sheepish as he knocked the filth off a rich man’s boots. When he looked up at her again, his eyes were wry, and his smile was dimpled.
“The night was fine, darlin’. It was the morning that caused all the problems.”
He looked past her into the darkness of the alley, then across the open square, where brisk business was happening under the watchful eye of a Copper and a splutter of watery sun. “We anywhere near the Vauxhall?”
She chuckled. “Nowhere close.”
“That’s damned inconvenient.”
Frannie watched as the man thrashed around the alley, kicking the trash and bins aside and growing angrier by the moment. He was no born Londoner and no gentleman, even if he wore the clothes of a grander man. And yet something about him made her stay, curious, as if he were some new animal whose habits she had yet to learn by heart.
He kicked the wall. “Hellfire! Have you seen a suitcase?”
“A what now?”
“Valise. Portmanteau. Whatever you people call it. About this big, filled with my clothes and bottles? All my worldly possessions? And my last week’s pay, which I was going to give my innkeeper, right before he kicked me out?”
Frannie sucked in a chuckle and gestured to the narrow alley and filthy bricks, careful not to upset the basket over her arm. “If there was anything worth having, it’s long gone. Welcome to London, lad.”
“Long gone? Bloody thieves. Isn’t anything in this stupid world easy?”
“Losing what you’ve got’s a good bit easier if you’ve been drinking.”
“I may have had a bit to drink, but I think something more sinister was at hand.” The man rubbed his head and winced. “There’s a lump on the back of my skull the size of an apple. And this isn’t my usual side of town.”
A hiss cut the air from deeper down the alley. They both turned as a pair of bright red eyes emerged from the shadows, higher up than they should have been. Another pair appeared behind it, and the hiss grew louder. The basket over Frannie’s arm wiggled and jerked, and she unhooked the parasol from her belt and pointed the tip at the advancing red-furred monsters.
“A nice cudgel to the head makes you easier to rob, my lad. You must be new to London, to have fallen for that. But whatever magic kept the bludrats from eating you alive, your luck’s run out. I suspect in more ways than one. However you got here, it’s time to leave.”
She backed out of the alley with a confident smile, holding the parasol with easy familiarity and humming gently to her basket. The man stared at her in confusion before shaking his head and following. He looked lost, the poor creature. Just like Bertram. As if the little boy inside was constantly amazed that he was expected to buck up and get to work like a man. And yet there was something gallant about him, too. There was a good heart hidden under the yark and the gold-stitched waistcoat—she just knew it.
“Do you need me to escort you somewhere?” he said, confirming her suspicions. “I think this part of town might be dangerous.”
She snorted and rolled her eyes. “I know these streets better than you do, duck. I should probably be escorting you. Now, come along. You need a safe place to sleep off that headache. Five coppers a day for lodging, but you do your own washing.”
They left the alley and stepped onto the square, but Frannie didn’t put down her parasol. She knew well enough that bludrats were fearless. City lines and sunshine meant nothing to them. But she didn’t hate them the way most people did. Like any animal, they had their place, and she had solid walls at home to keep them there. The ferocious maroon monsters were fascinating in their own way, mainly when viewed from a distance while holding a sturdy, blade-tipped parasol.
Once she was far enough into the morning tumult of the square, she retracted her parasol’s tip, hooked it back onto her belt, and strode briskly down the sidewalk. She was almost a block away before the man caught up with her, dancing around the street muck in his fancy boots.
“Did you . . . should I be following you?” he asked. “Is five coppers enough?”
She didn’t break stride. “I’ve a damnably soft heart for lost creatures, and you’re the most lost thing I’ve found in ages. Five coppers is London standard for lodging. At the very least, we can get you some breakfast that’s actually made of food.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
She stopped and spun, drawing herself up tall and squinting at him. He even had Bertram’s hairline. The only difference she could see was that this fellow had darker eyes than her brother’s, but otherwise, they might have been twins. It was sealed then, right there. If she could save him, she would.
“Because you remind me of someone I loved.”
He looked her up and down, wary. “That’s a kind offer. I don’t have the coppers right now, but I promise I’m good for it. My name is Casper Sterling.” He held out his hand.
Instead of shaking, she gave him a handkerchief. “No offense, Master Sterling, but you’re spattered in yark. I’m Frannie Pleasance, and I run a pet shop called Needful Creatures, so I hope you don’t mind a bit of noise and fluff downstairs. Now, hurry up. I’ve cages to clean, and we open at ten on the dot.”
With a firm nod, she dove into the foot traffic without looking back. When she heard a small mewling, she sneaked a glove into the basket to calm the muddle of kittens wrapped in a warm blanket. Their mother had died when the last kitten had gotten stuck, and that meant that until they were grown, she would keep them with her at all times.
“There, duckies. Almost home,” she crooned.
Casper appeared at her side, struggling to keep up with her brisk pace. “You’re quick” was all he said.
She grinned. “Everything is, in London.”
The first day was easy. Robbed of his cash, Casper insisted on helping with chores. Her new lodger took quickly to the animals and was efficient and quiet at his work. Part of that might have been the headache one would expect from a night wandering the town incoherent and yarking. Or it might have been the knot she felt under his long hair, almost big enough to break the skin. He had definitely been hit and dumped, and judging by the smell of his shirt, he’d been drinking something heavier than he could handle.
At the very least, he didn’t bother the creatures, which was a mercy. In addition to supplies and feed, Needful Creatures currently offered parrots, mynahs, crows, small owls, budgies, finches, canaries, kittens, random reptiles, and a very rowdy litter of corgis, all for sale at the right price to customers whom Frannie herself approved. As she tidied up yet another pile of puppy shavings, she couldn’t help admitting that there was some advantage to the clockwork pets that were all the rage. They weren’t much to cuddle, but the cleanup was vastly more pleasant.
Casper had gone green at mention of breakfast and even tea, and that’s when she began to suspect that there was something rather wrong with him beyond overindulgence. She knew enough about men to know they never turned down food, and yet there was an odd desperation about him. She watched him when he wasn’t looking, just as she felt his eyes on her whenever her back was turned. Finally, she couldn’t take the strained silence anymore.
“I’m taking tea. You can join me or scoop up after the iguana.”
With one glance at the slimy pile behind the monumental lizard, he nodded and followed her through the curtained door to the parlor beside the kitchen, where buyers were introduced to the more expensive pets before buying. She went about the calming ritual of making tea, one ear always cocked for the bell over the door.
“It’s a lovely shop,” Casper said, his arm draped casually over the back of the sofa.
And it was a lovely shop, the bricks and boards painted individually in pastel hues, a brilliant mosaic to fight the dreariness outside. Frannie had always loved the curving birdcages of metal and wood shaped like minarets, castles, and turrets, each one a different color and all housing merry, bright birds. The lively parrots and sleepy owls and clever, sleek crows sat on brightly painted perches, ringing bells and chattering. Her father had built the bins for puppies and kittens in the shapes of ornate carriages, and the display of lizards, turtles, and snakes resembled an array of penny candy at a general store.