The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 5)
He must have caught her staring at his knees, for he said, “Edinburgh, in case you’re curious. Took to the sea as soon as I could and never looked back. Especially not when a wee cockerel like this one tries to turn me away from an obligation. Speaking of which.” He snapped open an odd, fur-covered bag around his waist, and a parakeet flew out in a tizzy to screech at him from the rafters.
Frannie could only stare at the little yellow and green bird. “How in Sang did you manage to catch a parakeet in London?”
A grin lit up his face. “Told you I was good at catching things. Shall we go out and find some more of your wee pets?”
She stared at Casper, noting that he was fully dressed and clean, at least, his hair brushed and tied back and his boots pulled on. Did she trust him alone at the shop? No. But there was something mighty fetching about the fireman and his strange ways. And the earlier she went out to search for the lost pets, the better the chance of finding them in one piece. Frannie bit her lip and considered. What if someone came in for a kitten or a puppy? Casper didn’t know when they’d been whelped, what their bloodlines were, or what they liked best to eat. She needed every copper she could get from their sale.
“I’m afraid I can’t this morning,” she said sadly. “I can’t close shop, you know. Especially now that there’s things to replace.”
His brow creased, and he handed her the calico kitten that perched on his shoulder.
“There wasn’t much damage, aye? The window and a bit of the bed? Can your lodger not take care of such things?”
Frannie shook her head, and Thom gave Casper a withering look. The musician had his back turned as he sipped from a flask and missed the entire exchange.
“I’ll bring the necessary materials,” Thom said. “Will tomorrow morning at dawn suit?”
He raised one eyebrow, affronted. “A home-cooked meal would be a fair trade. Nothing but wrappies down at the station, and bad ones at that.”
She cocked her head at him, but he seemed so earnest. “If I might ask, why are you being so kind to me?”
Thom gave her a look that seared her down to her toes, a spark lighting unexpected tinder. Looking down and clearing his throat, he extracted a kitten from his boot. “Ye seem like a good-hearted woman, is all.”
“That might be true. And I could use the help, to be sure. But only if you let me reimburse you.” She plucked the kitten from his hands and stroked its tiny back until a purr started up. “And only if it’s not too much bother. Fighting fires all night must be rather exhausting. And surely you have a family.”
Thom’s face went dark. “Not anymore. I do a bit of handyman work when I can. Keeps me from brooding.”
“We mustn’t get too broody,” Frannie said, the corner of her mouth quirking up. “Dawn it is.”
“An ungodly hour,” Casper tossed over his shoulder.
Thom snorted. “Ye strike me as an ungodly man, lad. Best buck up and grow a pair.”
With a last nod at Frannie, Thom left.
“What’s with that guy?” Casper asked. “Barging in here like he can fix everything?”
“What’s wrong with you?” She advanced on him, waving a gloved finger in his face. “Sleeping through a near tragedy, useless to help clean up the mess. Call yourself a man?”
Casper’s lips pulled back, and he let out a warning hiss that drove her blood cold. “You don’t know a goddamn thing about me,” he said, low and deadly. “Where I came from or what I am. Don’t you dare compare me to some beefcake sailor who pretends he’s a gentleman so he can slip under your skirts. Here’s my week’s rent, by the way. If that agreement still stands?”
He held out a paper tube of coins, and she took it numbly. Of all the things she’d expected of Bertram’s doppelgänger, rage and riches weren’t on the list.
“This is too much.”
“Keep it. Money is one thing I don’t lack.”
“Then why were you kicked out by your last landlord?”
The rage fell from his face, and he simply looked like a lost little boy. One hand went unconsciously to the pocket where she knew he kept his flask. He recovered quickly and flashed his dimples. The practiced grin didn’t reach his eyes.
“Let’s just say my illness took me poorly. I had a fit. But I’m better now.”
“Are you sure?”
“I will be.”
The coins filled Frannie’s fist, far more than what she’d asked. She couldn’t toss him out now. Perhaps having a lodger wouldn’t be so bad, if he made a habit of actually paying extra. So long as he didn’t discover the hidden door in her closet, and so long as he kept to himself and didn’t have any fits, it might work out.
“You must be very talented,” she murmured.
He glanced up at her, mouth open in surprise. “You’ve honestly never heard my music? I thought everyone in London went to musicales and balls and shows. I assumed that was why you rescued me that day. Because you recognized me.” She shook her head, and he muttered, “Of course. The resemblance to your brother.”
“I don’t go out,” she said. “My parents didn’t approve of public displays.”
He smiled his charming smile, but with feeling this time.
“Would you go out for a good reason? I’m playing the Vauxhall this Friday night, and it’s kind of a big deal. I’ve been challenged by an upstart little twerp who thinks he invented the harpsichord. We’re going to have a duel.”
“A duel?” Her hand went to her throat, her heart dropping to her feet and her entire body going numb.
“Of course. Dueling pianos. One stage, two instruments, two master musicians.” He must have noted her going nearly rigid. “Oh, honey. You didn’t think I meant a duel—with swords? No way. I’m a lover, not a fighter. Most of the time.”
Frannie took a long, deep breath, feeling the blood rush back into her extremities. That’s all it took—a single word—to send her right back to that day in the park. To the red blood against sooty snow, to a cruel laugh, a sneer, and a dark, twirly mustache that had made her forever hateful of facial hair. She hadn’t been back there since. Hadn’t been much of anywhere, other than her usual errands, all of them to unthreatening shopkeepers and along walkways safe from the city’s dandies and devils.
“You really should come. My contract stipulates a box for my use, and I’ll put your name on it. You can bring your friends.”
Frannie snorted. “What friends? Maisie next door? A basket of kittens?”
“It’s a box, darlin’. Bring the entire shop, if you can keep the parrots quiet.”
“I’ll think about it,” she finally said.
But she knew the sort of person who lurked around Casper’s innocent little musicales, and she didn’t ever want to see that mustache again. Was it better to seem a coward or come face-to-face with the man who’d ruined her life?
Her coin had more than done its work. Three more street urchins arrived that day bearing lost and confused birds. One brought half of a dead parakeet and a hopeful smile, but Frannie sent him away with her secondary order: they only counted if they were whole and alive.
The kittens were brightening up, so she settled them into a bin, glad to be relieved of the basket for the first time in a week. On a whim, she gave them a bit of mushed-up fish and milk to see if they were ready for real food, and they fell to it like thieves. One less thing to worry about. All in all, business was going well, and by the end of the day, she’d paired city folks with animals they considered magical, pocketing a decent bit of coin in the process.
Crows and owls were quite popular with magicians, scholars, and daimons, while the rich families lined up for kittens and puppies. The middle class had to settle for creatures small and bright—parakeets, dragon lizards, canaries, and the occasional tortoise. She would take almost any unbludded animal her vendors could deliver still breathing. Over the years, she’d seen dozens of the expected creatures, not to mention rare and exotic pets such as spotted mice, dodo birds, living monkeys, snakes, and, once, a patchy leopard cub she’d spruced up and taken to the zoo for an enormous profit. After coaxing her new charges into excellent health with her father’s secret lore, she sold them fairly quickly. That was one reason she never got too attached to her creatures: they never stayed.
Except Filbert. He rode in her pocket all day, even for the morning’s errands. She’d held herself aloof for so long that it felt odd to have someone constantly around, even if it was just a kitten.
After closing shop for the night, she went up to the attic and brought down the ancient dress form and sewing kit. The old dress from the back of her closet felt strange in her hands, the shimmering indigo fabric light and fresh and crisp compared with her mother’s old tweeds. She’d thrown out all her bright dresses right after Bertram’s funeral, except for this one. Considering carefully the fashions she saw daily on her customers, she made a few changes to the design, moving the ruffles and ribbons around and including a pocket for Filbert. She had spent far too much on this dress, back when Bertram had been alive and the shop had still been in the good part of town and they had barely been able to keep the cages full, so quickly were the animals sold. And although she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t tossed it out with all the others, she was glad to have at least one thing in the closet that wasn’t brown. No one wore brown to the theater.
Once she heard the back door close behind Casper, she set the dress aside and crept downstairs for her final check that all was in place. The pet shop was warm and rustling, comfortable. She lived in fear that a bludrat would find its way in and massacre her world, despite the tight-as-a-drum design of the room. She couldn’t have traps, of course, since a curious kitten could fall victim all too easily to one of the huge, crude affairs meant to crush bludrats in one snap.