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Beast of Wonder

Lilith Saintcrow

  Beast of Wonder

  Lilith Saintcrow

  Copyright © 2018 by Lilith Saintcrow

  Cover art © 2018 by Skyla Dawn Cameron

  * * *

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  For N. D., as always.

  Venenum in poculus aureum.


  I. Mundi Regnum

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  II. Mundi Æterna

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  III. Mundi Finis

  Chapter 21

  About the Author

  Part I

  Mundi Regnum

  Chapter 1

  A blonde stewardess, her hairspray-teased head cocked at an impossible, lolling angle, smiled with blood-threaded teeth as a pilot’s disembodied voice floated through an aluminum tube. Ladies and gentlemen…ladies and gentlemen… Outside small thick windows, hungry grey air screamed. Light and dark revolved, crunch-thumping as carryons, magazines, purses, and other daily objects became missiles tumbling through space, flickering through eyelid-flutter strobes. Right and left changed places, and a woman in the red skirt and brown coat held her seat arms with white knuckles, staring at the stewardess in the jumpseat. Trim, uniformed arms and legs flopped like a doll’s; the blond stewardess gazed with wide, horrified, glazed blue eyes and that crimson-laced, jolly rictus.

  One last terrific jolt raced through a winged tube that had been meant to carry three hundred people to Cincinnati. Then the windows cracked, and the roaring swallowed every soul on board.

  It was over.

  But that was just the beginning.

  Chapter 2

  Thump-clatter, clatter-thump. A silvermetal snake carried suitcases on its back, tags fluttering from greasy plastic and nylon handles.

  People heaved luggage from the snake’s back, banging corners and wheels on flat metal plate-scales. The crowd paid no attention to the black-haired woman in a red skirt, assuming she was a fellow passenger. Her brown canvas jacket was almost longer than her skirt; her sweater, underneath, was well-worn cashmere. Her knees were pale and taut, one marred by the white scar of a long-healed wound, and her low black heels had diamanté buckles. Long black hair, slightly mussed, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. She was pale, but everyone under airport fluorescents looks rumpled and slightly sick; frizzled or limp hair and cheese-colored cheeks are normal and ignorable.

  The last suitcase was a battered brown leather one without wheels, hefted by an elderly black man with a shock of tightly kinked grey hair. He glanced uneasily at the woman as he heaved his burden free. “Yours didn’t come?”

  Disembodied female voices floated above them, calling a garbled name to a courtesy phone, and another flight’s luggage was about to start on another carousel. The woman’s blue gaze filled with sudden consciousness, a wounded bird beating against the bars of a just-discovered cage.

  “It’s all right.” The man stood a decent distance away, practiced after a lifetime of carefully weighing space. “You just go on over there.” He pointed with one gnarled hand, the cuff of his corduroy suit jacket worn shiny. “See that window? They’ll take your name and get you yo’ stuff.”

  Her mouth opened a little, chapped lips cracking slightly. “Thanks,” she husked, like she hadn’t spoken for a long time. You got dried out on airplanes, with all the canned air blowing. She turned, lifting one limp hand to shade her eyes, and gazed at the window he’d pointed at.

  It was shut with a rolling metal screen, its bars glittering. A yellowed paper sign flapped from a tab of tape, probably back in five minutes. There was no use in protesting. The man was already shuffling away, listing under the weight rubbing at his right knee. The set of his thin shoulders said he knew where he was going and would get there in his own due time, thank you and good day.

  The blue-eyed woman wormed her hands into her pockets. Her fingertips explored the inner seams. Nothing, not even lint. No pocket in her skirt, no purse strap on her shoulder. Empty. Blank. Tabula rasa.

  A thought bubbled dimly up inside the cottonwool filling her skull.

  What happened?

  Her hands were normal, cupped palms and long tapering fingers, a ghost of dark cherry polish on short-bitten nails. No rings. No necklace, no earrings. No wallet. She studied her surroundings—concrete pillars with chipped paint stood sentinel between the baggage carousels, some of the metal snakes moving, others dead and empty. Escalators moved in the distance. Posters clung to the pillars, one tempting weary travelers with a trip to Bali and another exhorting caution with your luggage. Don’t let it out of your sight, tall yellow letters blared over a blond woman in a trim blue uniform pointing at a pile of brand-new suitcases.

  The uniformed woman’s blonde updo and white, even smile sent chills up her back, and she hurriedly looked away.

  Short-pile nylon carpet with a pattern of interlocking pipes tried to pull her toward glass doors, opening and closing with chewing regularity. She put her head down and hurried past, onto the up escalator simply because there was no downward one.

  The bar was a dim cave with a few slumped shadows on stools, television screens bleary alcoholic eyes full of bright dancing commercials. Instead, she found a deserted restroom. A long row of mirrors glowed over a counter pocked with metal sinks and littered with damp twists of used paper towels, and she avoided looking directly into any reflective glass, ducking into the first stall and closing the door. The toilet was clean enough, and even if she could have produced a slight trickle from her bladder the sound would have been lost in the hum of a big open building. An unnecessary wipe, flush, stand—no panties. Was that usual? She felt fine, except for the tightness in her calves from the low heels. Their buckles glittered even in the stall’s shadows.

  Maybe the attempt at a bodily function had jolted something loose, because now she was thinking. The world came back into focus, and she stood with one hand spread against the stall’s cold metal door.

  First things first, she decided. Her name. What was her name?

  She could dredge up no name, no occupation, no status. Nothing but a crimson smile and a deep, patchwork, welling terror before the slow chugging of a silver snake-beast. She stood in the stall for a long time, trying to remember.

  And completely, utterly failing.

  * * *

  A bright crisp day on the edge of fall shaded into early evening, stretching shadows a little too purple for afternoon. The bus to downtown was free, so she climbed aboard, smiling nervously at a heavyset driver in an orange vest. He ignored her, banging the door closed with a quick efficient motion, a blue cap pulled low over his eyes and a grizzling of iron-colored stubble on his thick, reddened cheeks. She found an orange plastic seat near a window halfway back, hideously exposed to incurious glances from the few passengers. All of them had suitcases, purses, pockets bulging with identification and detritus. Receipts. Markers of their place in the world.

  One, a lean corn-haired young man in a leather jacket, kept glancing at her. She shook her hair down on that side, curtaining her face, and gazed out th
e dust-filmed window. The bus heaved and chugged onto a clogged freeway. Billboards flashed past—one had a woman with long dark hair, pale beringed hands folded near her throat where a diamond necklace flashed. Cara Jewelers, it whispered in heavy calligraphy. Beauty Everlasting.

  Beauty everlasting had a nice sound to it. She hunched her shoulders, interlacing her own naked fingers and squeezing hard enough to turn the knuckles pale.

  “Hey.” It was the young man in the leather jacket, its buckles and rivets gleaming. He’d left his seat and slid into the empty one just behind her. “You okay?”

  She nodded, her hair swinging as the bus braked. “Fine.” The word was husky, unused, sandpaper in her dry throat.

  “You sure? You look a little upset.” He had a nice voice, but his elbows were on the back of the seat, and it bothered her. An invasion of her little bubble—the irritation was familiar, and so was the sharp metallic edge of…what? Fear?

  Men who put even a fingertip into your space would soon try to claw further in. She remembered that, at least.

  “I’m fine,” she repeated, keeping her chin pointed at the window. “Thanks.”

  Maybe he believed her. In any case, he settled back as the silver bus jerked away from the stop. It lurched, guzzled, snorted, and crawled along. Concrete towers mounted on either side, rose into spires. More billboards—auto repair, collision lawyers, elect a new mayor.

  None of them held any clue. The corn-haired man’s gaze rested heavily on the back of her head. If that weight would have jarred her memory, she would have welcomed it. An itch grew under her skin. She longed to be walking, striding purposefully along, somewhere, anywhere. Maybe if she could move for a little while, she’d remember something. Maybe she could go to the police?

  The very thought triggered a hot, nasty wave of nausea, turning meat and gristle behind her breastbone into a knot. No, better to just try and figure it out on her own. Breathe deeply and let the acid roiling settle.

  Funny, she didn’t feel hungry. Just…sickened.

  A half-hour later, the bus jolted up a slight rise and nosed into a berth at a redone transit center full of saplings in concrete boxes. Painted lines and corners were already showing wear, despite the refurbishment. Slim short bushes, their leaves brushed with red and gold, would grow stunted by exhaust and lopped cruelly as soon as their roots tried to crack confinement. The bus’s engine died and the driver glared over his shoulder as a half-dozen or so passengers stirred from the lethargy of poverty travel.

  She waited until the yellow-haired young man reluctantly slid past her before moving.

  Outside, a cool breeze laden with ghost-dry fallen leaves fingered her bare knees and fluttered the hem of her red skirt. She set off for the biggest cluster of strangers, since the young man in the leather jacket had lit a cigarette and was loitering against one side of an orange and white shelter. The driver banged out of his bus and snarled, “No smoking! Cantcha see the sign?”

  “Bite me,” was Corn-Hair’s reply. The young man inhaled quickly, puffed a small cloud of carcinogens.

  Her steps quickened. She joined the milling around the schedule board and stared at a map of the city, multicolored arteries and veins spreading, clotting, spreading again. The itching under her skin mounted, demanded movement, so she turned and set off.

  The transit center blended into a park full of late-afternoon crowding, gloved and jacketed couples strolling, street musicians strumming or wailing, teenagers loitering, homeless people alert at the prospect of something, anything useful dropped onto pavement. She moved, an anonymous fish in a large pond, as the sun dipped itself in scarlet clouds and slid-sank behind hungrytooth skyscrapers. The park’s fountains were dead and dry, turned off for the winter and possibly to discourage the homeless. Oak trees spread painted branches, scattering colorful but dying leaves as the wind freshened. No rain yet meant each falling scrap of leaf was crisp instead of sludge, pounded into powder on the walkways.

  She could go back to the airport and sleep there, perhaps. Dusk gathered and deepened in every corner, streetlights began to spark. She paused at the far end of the park, staring at a crosswalk. On the other side a bodega, a tiny pharmacy, and a parking garage took up most of the block, and a neon sign glowed in the bodega’s windows. WIRE TRANSFERS HERE, it called into the gloaming, and the stream of walkers dammed itself up underneath, waiting obediently for the signal.

  Among them stood a man in a dark suit and hip-length jacket, the end of a wine-red tie fluttering a little as he stared at her. He had short black hair and the high prow of an aggressive nose, and a small, rumpled paper bag hung from his left hand. The itching under her skin crested. A painful thrill ran from scalp to her compressed toes under glittering buckles.

  She almost, almost turned away.

  The light changed; the black-haired man thrust himself forward, swimming across a dry autumn street with long angry strides. Frozen, she watched his progress, her hands lying limp and useless at the ends of her arms.

  He planted his thick-soled leather shoes just inside her personal space, and thrust the paper lunchbag at her. “You’re late.”

  Chapter 3

  The bag was wadded around a yellow apple with a blush of crimson on one cheek. “You’re late,” he repeated. A heavy ring glinted on his left middle finger, gold and a blue stone. Later, she would see Protect and Serve carved around that deep blue glitter, running her fingertips across sharp etching and hard edges.

  At that moment, however, she simply backed up, a nervous half-step familiar to women accosted on evening streets. “I’m sorry?” The apology was familiar too, said daily, hourly, whether you meant it or not.

  At least she could remember that.

  “Come on.” His shoulders turned, subtly, inviting her along.

  Her throat was still dry. “Do you know me?” The breeze freshened, tugging at her clothes and the fringes of her hair.

  “Sent to get you. Black hair, blue eyes, red skirt, long…” Here he paused, eyebrows up, “brown jacket, south end of Vanley Park. Right?”

  “You could have been watching me.” Her caution was entirely reasonable. How reasonable was it to wake up with empty pockets, staring at a baggage carousel, remembering nothing?

  “Your pockets are empty.” His lips stretched with the ghost of a real smile at her visible start. “All right? Come on, we’re late.”

  Now it was we’re late. The buzzing in her middle tugged her forward. She clutched the apple in its crackling brown paper to her chest, abruptly aware of her calves and thighs aching a bit from walking. It would be nice to sit down.

  He didn’t wait for anything else, just set off down the sidewalk, obviously expecting her to follow. She did, hurrying until she caught up and he slowed down, shortening his strides. After half a block he glanced at her again. “You got a name?”

  Oh, God. A question she couldn’t answer. Was lying acceptable? Was it a test? The billboards from the bus trip flashed through her head. “Cara,” she said, finally. Beauty everlasting.

  It would do.

  “I’m Evan. Nice to meet you.” He didn’t offer his hand. Instead, he dug in his jacket pocket and produced a folded-up red bandanna. A series of coughs shook him as he walked, deep, chesty, sick-sounding chuffs. When they finished, he folded the bandanna again and returned it to its home. “How do you know the old woman?”

  Old woman? Maybe it was another test. “I don’t think I do,” she said, slowly.

  “Yeah, well, she said you’d be here, so whatever. You gonna eat? Figured you’d be hungry.”

  She was still holding the apple. I’m not hungry. But it was…impolite, maybe, to refuse? So she took a bite. Cara. I’m Cara. The world dropped into sharp focus with a jolt. Maybe it was her name, maybe it wasn’t, but it felt right.

  Crisp, cool, and only half sweet, the apple resisted her teeth. It felt good to chew, and good to have a name and a destination. Someone expected her, at least. She could piece together the rest of it
, bit by bit.

  Their destination was a wide brown boat of an ancient gas-guzzling Chevy parked half in an alley, in defiance of the NO PARKING sign under a tangle of graffiti. She had to turn sideways to wriggle in on the passenger side, and the interior smelled of stale cigarette smoke and old aftershave. The man, running a hand over his rasping black buzzcut, dropped into the driver’s seat; a plastic tag with a number and barcode on it swung from the rearview. LE PARKING PERMIT, it shouted.

  It confused her for a moment. Law Enforcement. Now his short hair and thick-soled shoes made sense. The sudden quiet of an enclosed space made her conscious of how chilled her bare legs were, and her cheeks. And just how loud it had been on the sidewalk, between traffic and people surging by in waves. “Are you a cop?”

  “Why, you looking to do something illegal?” One side of his mouth curled up, not quite a smile. “Retired.”

  “You’re young.” The apple was a core, now. She bit it in half, chewed. The small seeds, bitter and poison-skinned. Wasn’t there arsenic in them? How could she remember that and not her own name, or where she came from?

  Turbulence. Her stomach turned over, and bile crawled up into her throat. Evan laughed.

  “Yeah, well, thanks.” He twisted the key viciously, and the car rocked, startled, a big engine waking inside its mounts. He dropped the Chevy into gear and pavement moved away smoothly under the wheels, bearing Cara along as she chewed the seeds and wondered what she should do with the apple’s short, wormlike stem.