The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 8)

She had assumed that after what happened with Charles, she would never want to be within two feet of another man who wasn’t in the shop simply to buy a crow. But Thom was so very, very different. There was a bluff honesty about him that reminded her of a particularly loyal dog, and yet the way he looked at her, the way his breath sometimes caught around her—well, she felt it, too. There seemed nothing underhanded about him at all, as if everything to be seen was on the surface, all of it genuine. And she knew, deep down in her bones, that Casper was nothing but trouble. But she wasn’t ready to throw him out yet, not when he was putting such effort into getting his act together. And not when he was paying so very well. Every time she saw him, she saw Bertram, so filled with hope and promise. And yet always failing, despite his good intentions.

Looking down at the street below, she tried to imagine who had stood there, aiming an incendiary device at her window. A Copper strolled by, swinging his billy club, and although she didn’t approve of Coppers, she assumed his presence was at Thom’s request. A flash of color farther down the walk caught her eye, and she noticed two daimons glance at the Copper and scuttle nervously into an alley. Despite what she had told Thom, the daimons were spreading, and not all of them were as kind and harmless as Reve.

As much as Frannie hated to admit it, her daimon friend had been right about Casper being trouble, that was for sure now. And yet things had been good since he’d arrived, mostly because it had coincided with Thom. The tube of coins didn’t hurt, either, and she would have to write some letters and see about getting some more exotic beasts into the shop; the bigger or stranger the creature, the bigger her profit. Overall, despite the nagging irritation of Casper and the fire, she felt hopeful and giddy, a lightness of spirit she hadn’t known since Bertram’s passing.

With a smile, she snapped one of the flowers out of the vase on the table and tucked it behind her ear. As she turned her head back and forth, admiring the small white rose, there was a knock on the pet-shop door. It was too early for customers, and she hurried downstairs, riddled with curiosity.

Casper had beaten her to the door and was holding a plain brown box tied with twine and punched at intervals with air holes. It was unmarked aside from the shop’s name and address, but there was nothing unusual in that. Several of her sources were a bit underground, and many of the creatures she carried weren’t commonly available—or, technically speaking, legal.

“What is it?” he asked, and she decided to indulge him. Bertram had always loved opening the boxes and seeing which strange new pets had arrived mysteriously from foreign climes.

She returned his grin. “Open it and see.”

Casper set the box on the counter. Quick as a child at a birthday party, he untied the twine, crumpled up the paper, and flipped open the lid. She almost laughed at his confusion.

“A lumpy pillowcase?” He poked a finger into the box and jerked it back quickly with a shudder when the cloth writhed. Frannie knew well enough what it was and chuckled at his inborn fear. Many Londoners had never seen a single live snake before they visited Needful Creatures.

She leaned past him and plucked the bag out of the box, unwinding the string to dump the contents gently onto the scarred wooden counter that she’d played behind as a child. She snatched back her hand right before the coiled green serpent struck.

“Jesus Christ, what is that thing?” Casper stumbled back, too.

“A viper of some sort.” Frannie kept a fair distance as she admired the smooth green scales, slender face, and vicious fangs of the prettiest and deadliest snake she’d ever seen.

“What do we do about it?”

Frannie fetched one of the big, empty glass cylinders that housed her reptiles. She always had a few ready in back, and she also kept a forked stick to help get the more reluctant snakes into their new homes. The lazy pythons and boas never gave her much trouble, but this fellow . . .

“Stand back. This could be messy.”

She placed the cylinder in just the right spot and swept the little snake into it with one smooth, confident swoop of her stick. It plunked angrily against the mossy bottom of the terrarium and struck the glass wall. Frannie set the snug-fitting mesh into the top of the cylinder and placed it on the counter. Venom dribbled down the glass, reminding her that the jewel-pretty creature within was more than a bracelet-sized treasure.

“Dang, girl. You’re fearless.”

“Animals can smell fear, you know. Just as women can smell desperation.”

With one raised eyebrow, she turned her attention to the snake’s packaging. There was no card within, which was unusual. No bill, no label, no indication whatsoever of the creature’s place of origin. Frannie’s boots clipped across the striped boards on the way to the door. When she opened it to peer up and down the street, she was surprised to see Thom headed for her at a determined pace, in trousers, suspenders, and work shirt, streaked all over with soot. His hair was sweaty and falling down from its tail, his cheeks red and his gloves singed around the edges. A bludrat darted for his leg, and he punted it back into the alley without slowing down.

Frannie’s heart nearly leaped out of her jacket. At first because Thom looked so competent and avid and focused on her. But then because she saw the badge gleaming on his chest. Surely he couldn’t be a Copper. And he had been inches away from her closet, alone in her room! Had he opened the door, and then the secret door? Was that why he was striding toward her, eyes snapping?

But no. That couldn’t be it. He was smiling.

She found her tongue and shouted, “Good heavens, Thom. Has something happened?”

His eyes crinkled up, and she realized his agitation was of the positive sort. “Are ye free, lass? I’ve found one of your wee corbies, but he willna come to me.”

Her last crow! The creatures were altogether too clever, and she had despaired of finding the last of her big birds gone loose. When she turned back to face the shop, Casper was doing his best to look responsible, almost like a small boy hoping to please.

“Go on,” he said. “I can handle it here.”

“But you don’t know anything—”

He held up a small leather book. Modern Practices in Animal Husbandry was picked out in gold leaf on the cover. “I’ve been studying,” he said.

“Aren’t you supposed to be playing harpsichord for loose women?”

He grinned. “No until after dark, darlin’.”

She sighed and tried to hide her answering grin. “Fine. But don’t try to sell the kittens or puppies without me here. They go to approved homes only.”

He nodded solemnly. “Aye-aye, sir.”

“We have to hurry,” Thom urged, and she flipped the sign to “Open” and closed the door behind her.

It was a strange feeling, being out and about with the door unlocked and her not behind it. Such a thing hadn’t happened in years, and it made her feel both nervous and somehow liberated. She hadn’t seen the streets of London at this time of morning since Saint Ermenegilda’s Day, and she wished she had worn heavier boots. It had been drizzling recently, but then, it drizzled nearly constantly. Her long-dead great grandfather had told her stories when she was a little girl about how London had once been a bright, clean place with white walls and sparkling cobblestones and good-natured horses pulling jewel-toned carriages. Gazing at the gray pervading every surface and mirrored by the low, thick clouds, stepping in puddles of filth, it was a hard thing for Frannie to imagine.

Thom led her into a darker section of the city, and she hurried to keep up. She mostly kept to the well-lit, working-class areas, avoiding High Street and Darkside and the heart of the Daimon District. She got along with them fine and had never had a problem with any of Maisie’s lodgers, but the scent of magic made her more than a bit queasy. Frannie preferred her stolid London life and the creatures of the natural world, and although a baby dragon or roc chick or unicorn braid might pass through her hands, she never kept anything like that for any longer than she had to. The wee charm on the roof was the only magic she didn’t mind, and that was because it had been there for longer than she’d been alive.

There were plenty of areas of town she avoided, and it wasn’t long before she realized that Thom was leading her toward one of them, albeit using a circuitous route.

Hyde Park.

More specifically, Dueler’s Green.

Frannie froze, and Thom stopped to stare at her curiously.

“Goose stepped on your grave? Ye look as if ye’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t go . . . there. To Hyde Park.”

“It’s a goodly chunk of London, lass. And the crow is over just a bit, on a monument. I can see it from here, all puffed up and full of itself, aye?”

Frannie gulped for breath and wrung her hands, only then realizing that she’d worn her thick leather shop gloves onto the street, a great faux pas. She could indeed see the crow perched atop a low stone fence, preening for some children walking with their nanny and a great wolfhound that looked mildly familiar and had probably been kept in one of her bins as a pup. The exceedingly rich would pay a mint for the giant, short-lived creatures to guard their children from bludrats on the streets and bludbunnies along the seemingly idyllic greens of London’s only natural park.

She wanted that crow back. But more than that, she wanted to go home and have a good cry, now that she’d seen the green where Bertram had died.

Thom looked from her to the bird, concern and kindness written in the lines around his eyes. “If ye can’t get any closer, I’ll try to shoo it over to ye. It’ll come once it sees you, aye?”

She sniffled and nodded. “Most likely.”

“Stay here, then. We’ll get it somehow. If you’re all right?”

She nodded again but had run out of words.

He was clearly uncomfortable leaving her alone, but he was good enough to believe her. Walking a wide circle, he disappeared into the wild undergrowth that was, Frannie had heard, far less wild than elsewhere in the world. Not much grew in London unless one knew just the right secrets—which Frannie, luckily, did.