Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor, Page 2Ally Carter
With every step it was like she went farther and farther back in time, until she was looking at a sign that said THE WINTERBORNE FAMILY JEWELS. Then all April could do was stand there . . . hypnotized. Mesmerized. Staring at necklaces and rings and strings of pearls so long they could have wrapped April up like a mummy.
And that was when she saw the box.
It was about the size and shape of a shoebox, but like no shoebox that April had ever seen. This box was covered in gold and pearls, diamonds and rubies, but the most interesting thing in April’s opinion was the lock that sat in the center of the ornate crest.
An ornate crest that looked exactly like the one on the key that April had worn around her neck every day since she was three years old.
An ornate crest that April had traced with her fingertips, over and over and over again—the only gift from a mother who had left her at a fire station with nothing but that key and a note that read This is my baby, April. Keep her safe. I’ll be back soon.
That’s how April knew that her mother would come back for her. That’s how she knew that all the Taylors and C/Kaitlins in the world were wrong. They had to be!
Ten years in the system had taught April that parents abandon kids, sure. But they don’t abandon keys to treasure chests. And April had been looking for her mom ever since.
But as April inched closer and closer to the small ornate box, she couldn’t shake the feeling that, all this time, she’d been looking for the wrong thing.
A Night at the Museum
April had many talents. At least five. Maybe six, depending on how you counted them.
For starters, she was the best climber at any of the houses she had ever lived. She was the best at freeze tag and the least afraid of spiders. No one ever found her when they played hide-and-seek, and she was the most likely to remember things like what the combination was to the lock they kept on the refrigerator, even if she only saw her foster mother punch it in one time in the dark.
That night, April was grateful for all of her talents.
They were what let her sneak, light as a feather, through the living room and collect a pack of matches, a black hoodie, and a banana (because you should never do a heist on an empty stomach).
She’d paid careful attention at the museum and remembered exactly where the service entrance was and what code the guards had used to go in and out. She’d noticed the gap in the fence—too small for someone who wasn’t completely desperate to even think about crawling through.
But, most of all, April was completely desperate.
She was little and she was strong and she had absolutely nothing to lose.
The parking lot was empty when she got there. There were security cameras, of course, but they were the kind that moved, and that only happens if the cameras have blind spots, so April stood perfectly still for a long time, watching the cameras sweep across the dark lot. Really, it was just like dodgeball, and April was excellent at finding the place on the court where no one had an easy shot. Then she slid through the fence and across the parking lot and to the door that opened with a tiny click.
Inside, there wasn’t even a laser grid. No iron grates. Not even a single German shepherd roaming around, growling up at her as soon as she inched quietly inside.
It was dark, though, so April was glad she’d brought the matches and remembered the silver candelabra that was sitting with the Winterborne family dishes.
It only took a moment for her to light all the candles and then ease through the big, deserted room. Moonlight shone through the windows. The old gowns practically glowed, and April felt her heart beat a little faster. Her hands started to tingle, like her fingers didn’t want to work with the rest of her body. Like they knew they were getting ready to touch whatever it was her mother wanted her to find.
The room seemed different in the darkness. Maybe it was all in April’s mind, but it smelled different too. Almost like . . . the Hulk’s farts. And a gas station parking lot. (Which, really, is kind of the same thing.)
But she moved on until she was standing in front of the little jewel-covered chest. For a moment she just stood in the candles’ flickering light, breathing. Watching. She didn’t see any sensors. There weren’t any cameras on the walls.
There was a giant mirror, though, and when April saw a man behind her, she jumped. But it was just the statue of the Sentinel, standing in the atrium, keeping watch, and she realized that the only other person in the building was either a ghost or a legend, and neither one would be strong enough to keep her from finding out what was in that chest.
April stopped breathing, and her hands started shaking, and the key bit into her palm as she held it. Waiting. Wondering. Hoping and praying just a little.
Was it a letter? A map? Maybe the number for a Swiss bank account or a book at the public library—one that would have a code written on the back page in invisible ink and she’d have to use lemon juice and a hair dryer just to read it?
It was quite possible that this was just the first step. She might just be beginning her quest tonight, but that was okay. At least she’d be on her way.
So she put the key in the lock.
And took a deep breath.
And absolutely nothing happened.
“It’s stuck,” April said, even though no one was there to hear her. She wiggled. She jiggled. She even spat on the lock, hoping it was just old and rusty and figuring spit had to be good for something.
But the key didn’t turn.
Which had to be a mistake.
She looked behind her, searching the room for some kind of solution. The Sentinel still stood in the atrium. A knife in his belt.
She could pry the lid open, April realized, whirling back around. But she’d put the candelabra on the case and hadn’t noticed the wobble. She certainly wasn’t expecting it to tip.
April absolutely did not intend for all five candles to go tumbling off the side of the case, falling to the floor.
“No!” she shouted, but it was too late. The long white gown had a train of delicate lace that swept all the way to April’s feet. She saw the candles land. Immediately, she leapt to kick them out, but the antique lace was like a fuse, and the fire was soon blazing down the train of the wedding dress and up the hem of every garment it passed—jumping from the clothes to the curtains. From the curtains to the wall.
April wasn’t sure when the alarms started blaring or the lights started swirling. Really, she wasn’t hearing too well. Or seeing too well. Or breathing too well, come to think of it.
She was thinking just well enough to turn back to the little chest and pull out her mother’s key.
It was far too late to stop the fire. The room was filling with smoke, and April felt herself stumbling. She had to get to an exit. She had to get outside. She had to get away, but—
And the key tumbled from her hand, disappearing among the flames and the smoke and the terror that was stronger than anything that April had ever felt in her life.
There was a little more air down there, of course, and April was mad at herself for forgetting that smoke rises. She started scrambling and clawing, fighting against the smoke and fire and time itself as she ran her fingers along the floor, searching. Desperate.
The smoke was swirling now. The shadows were moving. It was almost like the Sentinel was alive. Like he was with her. Like she didn’t have to die alone. She could feel him sweeping closer and closer.
And as her vision filled with stars and she drifted off to sleep, one thought filled her mind: I thought he’d be taller.
How to Trust a Person with No Stains on Their White Pants
April had always been really good at waking up. She never tossed. She never turned. But maybe that’s because she never really slept either. A part of her brain was always right there on the edge, teetering. Like she knew that, at any moment, she might have
to get up.
So it was more than a little unusual that she rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. She’d been having a dream where she was flying, swooping through the clouds, weightless above the city.
But something wasn’t right, the part of her brain that never really slept tried to tell her.
First of all, the sheets beneath her fingers were too clean. They smelled like bleach and were rough against her fingers. The room was too quiet. Only a steady, rhythmic beeping filled the air—no snoring roommates or barking dogs.
But the biggest thing that kept April from returning to sleep was the pain.
Everything hurt. Her head pounded, and her throat burned. Her hands and arms and legs felt like they’d been put through a meat grinder, and a part of April wanted to go back to sleep just to forget about how much everything ached and itched. Maybe she could have the dream again. It was a good dream, about—
“The Sentinel!” The realization hit, and April jerked upright in the bed. Which was a mistake. Because sitting up so quickly made her head feel like it was a rubber ball that had been dropped from the very top of the bleachers. She actually thought she might feel her brain bounce.
But that wasn’t the weirdest part.
The weirdest part was that she wasn’t alone.
She should have known it—sensed it. Survival meant always knowing when someone was behind you, whether it was a robber or, worse, a Johnson twin. But April was surprised to see a face staring back at her from the chair beside the bed.
“Not quite, no,” the woman said. And April couldn’t disagree. This woman didn’t look like an urban legend. She looked like a . . . ghost. She had black hair and blue eyes and pale skin. Red lips. Really, she looked like something from an old Disney movie—like maybe she was a princess. Or a witch.
But the thing that caught April’s attention the most was that she was dressed, head to toe, entirely in white.
She had on white pants and a fluffy white sweater and a long coat the color of brand-new snow.
Maybe she’s an angel, April thought.
Maybe I’m dead?
Could I be dead?
Yeah, April thought, remembering the fire. I could totally be dead.
But if wearing white was a requirement, April was in trouble because she’d never owned anything white in her life. April got everything dirty.
“Who are you?” she asked, then looked around the room. It was obviously a hospital, but the last thing she remembered was the museum and the smoke and the fire. “How’d I get here? Am I in trouble? Is there anything to eat? Where . . .” But the words were suddenly too thick and scratchy, and when she started coughing, she didn’t think she’d ever stop.
The woman eased a little closer to April’s bed and held out a plastic cup with a bendy straw. “Drink.”
“What is it?” April asked, but the words came out like a croak.
“It’s water. Your throat has to hurt.”
April’s throat did hurt, so she did as she was told.
The woman crossed one leg over the other and said, “You were brought here in an ambulance after the firefighters found you last night. Don’t you remember?”
April shook her head, then grabbed a container of Jell-O off the tray on her bedside table. She ripped off the top but didn’t even look for a spoon. She just brought the plastic cup to her mouth and sucked. It made a slurping sound, and the Woman in White winced. She wanted to tell April to stop, April could tell. So April slurped harder.
“How do you feel, April? I know this must be scary for you.”
April slurped again. “You don’t know me.”
“I know enough.” Something in the way the woman said it made April think that maybe she did. That maybe she knew more than even April. After all, she knew how to walk around in white pants without getting even a speck of mud on them. She knew how to keep stains off of her white sweater. Clearly, on some level, this woman was a genius, and April wanted to apprentice in her ways. But, more than anything, April wanted to take care of April. After all, no one else was going to.
“I know you’ve been in twelve homes in ten years.”
April laughed a little at that, then used her pinkie finger to dig some Jell-O out of the bottom of the cup.
“I’ve been in twelve houses,” April corrected. She didn’t bother to explain the rest of it: that she’d never had a home. “Are you a social worker or something?”
“Not exactly. But your case agent and I have spoken. She was quite curious about how you ended up where you did. When you did.”
“I left something,” April blurted. “At the museum. I got locked in.”
“Did you leave something, or did you get locked in?” the woman challenged.
April looked her right in the eye and said, “Both.”
“So that’s why you were on the sidewalk last night during the fire?”
April replayed the words in her mind. They sounded like a question. But they weren’t, she realized. They were a hint. A clue. This whole thing was a test, and the Woman in White was trying to slip her the right answers.
“Yeah. That’s why I was on the sidewalk,” April repeated, and the woman nodded slowly. Her blue eyes were like steel. It wasn’t an answer. It was a warning.
“The firefighters found you. And an ambulance brought you here.”
The moment stretched out between them. There was nothing but the sound of the beeping machine and the pounding of April’s heart until April couldn’t take anymore and blurted, “Who are you?”
“I’m sorry.” The woman laughed. “My name is Isabella Nelson. I run a charity.”
“I’m not a charity case.” April suddenly felt defensive and sad and so, so sleepy.
She expected an argument. Not for the woman to pick a speck of lint off of her white coat and say, “That’s a pity. We would have liked having you. And I think you would have enjoyed it as well. In fact, your case agent is finalizing the paperwork right now, but if you’d rather stay here and answer questions from the police . . .” She trailed off as she started to stand.
“The police?” When April’s voice squeaked, she tried to blame it on the smoke damage, but she knew in her heart it was something else.
“Yes. They’re most curious to know how the fire started, considering the extent of the damage.”
April swallowed hard and tried not to think about the candelabra. And the way the wedding dress had burst into flames. And the little pack of matches that may or may not have been stuck in her jeans pocket right at that moment, waiting for some surly detective to find it.
“It seems the fire protection mechanisms malfunctioned, and everything in that wing of the museum is gone.”
Gone. The little box was gone—probably just a pile of smoke and ash. She tried to tell herself it didn’t matter—that the key hadn’t fit that particular lock anyway. The lock April was looking for was still out there! She just had to find it! She just had to . . .
Then April remembered falling. She closed her eyes and watched the key skid across the floor, disappearing into the flames. And then April wanted to cry. She wanted that woman to leave so she could be alone with her tears and the pain in her lungs and her throat and her hand and . . .
April looked down at her hand.
She felt the sharp, familiar pinch that came every time she gripped her key too tightly. And there it was—a little bit blackened, but back on its chain and around her neck exactly where it was supposed to be. Except it wasn’t supposed to be there. It should have been a melted pile of goo, but it wasn’t, and suddenly it was all too much.
“Where are my clothes?” April didn’t know what was happening—or why—but she knew she didn’t like it, didn’t trust it.
The woman pointed to a bundle on the end of the bed.
“Those aren’t mine,” April said.
“Your things smelled like smoke. Plus, they were falling apart and too small already. I think these will be
a little more comfortable.”
They aren’t white, at least, April thought. They had that going for them.
She stumbled out of the bed, but her legs felt a tittle wobbly and she had to hold on to the mattress to keep from falling.
“Easy, dear,” the woman said, but April wasn’t anyone’s dear. Ever. And she didn’t let herself think that the Woman in White might mean it. After all, April’s mom would be back soon. She’d be somebody’s dear then. But in the meantime, it was way more important that April be smart.
“I gotta go,” April said, but to where she didn’t know. She just knew that nothing good ever came from waiting, so she pulled the new jeans on under her hospital gown. They were too stiff and the denim was too blue. April had no idea how to wear clothes that had never been worn before, but she buttoned them up anyway because what choice did she have?
“Your case agent will be back soon,” the woman said. “The doctor said you’re well enough to be discharged, but you must realize you can’t go back to the group home?”
“Why?” April asked even though she already knew the answer.
“You were found on the street at midnight, a dozen yards away from a museum that was totally engulfed in flames. People have questions, April.”
“So I go to a new house. Whatever. It’ll be just like all the others.”
“Not all homes are the same.”
“What do you know about it?” April didn’t mean to snap. She certainly didn’t want to yell. But there was a little piece of paper poking her in the back of her neck and she didn’t want to just rip it out and risk tearing the only new shirt she’d ever owned.
The woman eased around to April’s side of the bed then sat down on the rumpled sheets. “You’re right, April. I don’t know how it is at other homes. I only know how things are at Winterborne House.”
The woman deftly ripped the tag from April’s shirt, but April’s mind was back in the museum, looking down on a small chest with a tiny crest. And then April was looking up at the Woman in White, asking, “Winterborne?”