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Authors: Teri Brown

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BOOK: Born of Corruption
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Two

I
stare at the paper in the gutter and bite my lip. Glancing around, I retrieve the flyer from the street and smooth it out as best I can with my hands. Then I fold it up and slip it into the bottom of my basket, where Mother won’t see it.

Why am I so shocked?
I wonder as I head toward home. Though he tours most of the year, New York is his home. I should have known our paths would cross at some point.

I shake my head as I reach the steps to my building, resolving not to give Houdini another thought. At least until my mother catches wind of his arrival.

Taking a deep breath to clear my mind, I stare up at my new home. Once a private residence, it was recently remodeled into two apartments. Our new talent manager was courteous enough to find the apartment for us and make all the arrangements. I’m still waiting to find out what price this “courtesy” will entail. I trust managers almost as much as I trust lawmen, perhaps less. At least with lawmen you know where you stand. But managers say one thing and do another. Every one we’ve ever had has either cheated us out of money or used the contract to take advantage of my mother’s obvious charms.

But I do love this home. The sandy-colored exterior and wrought-iron railings gleam in the sun, and the wide stoop welcomes me. It doesn’t matter that there are a dozen other identical buildings lining my street; this one is special, the first real house I’ve ever lived in. I used to dream of living in a house like this instead of traveling all the time.

Though living on the top floor of this beautiful old home instead of in a shoddy hotel thrills me to no end, I’m also left with a nagging sense of unworthiness. This house is all sedate respectability. As the friend of pickpockets and circus freaks, the same cannot be said of me. My only hope is that with our first steady job, I can put the past behind me and be worthy of such a home. My face heats with shame remembering the street performance I just gave. Respectable girls don’t do magic on the street. Normal girls also don’t have horrifying visions of the future. My stomach clenches as an image of my mother’s face swims before my eyes.

I have a sudden need to see for myself that she is fine. I rush up the stone steps two at a time and fling the door open.

“Oof!”

Just inside, a young man dressed in a black suit and derby hat clutches his arm.

“I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” He’s so tall I have to crane my neck to see his face, and his shoulders seem to fill the room. His brows rise over eyes so rich and dark they’re almost black, like the innermost heart of a licorice drop. My breath catches and my cheeks heat when I recognize who it is. The young man from the street.

To my surprise, his cheeks redden as well, showing his discomfort. “I should be asking if you’re all right. You ran inside as if the hounds of hell were chasing you.”

I cock my head at the odd words, as well as at the crisp way he said them. It’s not an accent, exactly. More like he relishes the English language and takes care to pronounce each word fully.

I shake my head, unsettled. “I’m fine. You’re the one I slammed into.” I glance behind him at the empty hallway. “Were you looking for me?” If possible, my face burns even brighter. “I mean, were you looking for someone?”

The stranger shakes his head. His dark eyes regard me steadily for a moment but then slide away as if embarrassed before returning to meet mine once again.

I’m used to being stared at, but the men at the theater leer at me in a knowing way that makes my skin crawl. The appreciative gaze of this young man, with his straight mouth and intelligent features, sends a pleasing tingle across my skin. Embarrassed, I look away.

The door next to us opens, causing us both to jump. Mr. Darby, our crotchety neighbor, sticks his head out. “What’s the ruckus about?” He sees me and his mouth creases downward, but then he spots the young man and his face softens. He steps into the hall, his arms crossed. “I might have known you’d find a way to meet the pretty young lady upstairs. In my day, we didn’t even speak to a girl without a proper introduction.”

The young man pushes the derby back on his head and a dark curl escapes. My fingers suddenly itch to nudge it back into place.

“Then please introduce us,” he says, and I notice how young he actually is. Maybe seventeen or eighteen—just a bit older than I am. He’s clean shaven and doesn’t yet sport a mustache, as most men these days do. I like it. Men with mustaches always look like they’re hiding a harelip.

The old man harrumphs. “Miss Van Housen, Colin Emerson Archer the third.” He shakes his head as if perplexed by such a fancy name. “Colin is a friend of my second cousin and came to stay with me just after you and your mother moved in upstairs. No doubt a spy sent by meddling relatives worried about an old man living by himself. Colin, this is Miss Van Housen. She and her mother live in the apartment above us.”

Colin Emerson Archer
the third
whisks off his hat and bows with excessive courtesy. “Miss Van Housen.”

I incline my head. “Mr. Archer.”

He clears his throat. “Please, call me Cole.”

There’s an awkward moment of silence as they wait for me to offer my first name. I don’t. In our business, all strangers are to be regarded with suspicion.

Mr. Darby clears his throat. “Next time you go out, missy, you might want to stop and ask if I need anything. A cup of that tea would be good in the morning.”

He nods toward my basket, which is still full in spite of the collision. My mouth drops open. Is this the same neighbor who has done little more than grunt at me these past few weeks? He’s a strange old bird. I hear all sorts of odd banging noises coming out of his apartment day and night, but I have no idea what they could be. He stares back at me fiercely.

Cole gives an unexpected laugh that fills the hallway and breaks the tension. He may look like an English school-master, but his laugh is wonderful.

“And you just reproached me for my etiquette!” he says to Mr. Darby.

“I’m an old man. I can get away with it.”

“I’ll bring you a package the very next time I go out,” I promise, moving toward the stairs. It suddenly dawns on me that respectable girls probably don’t hang about in hallways with strange young men. Of course, because of my work, there have been many strange men in my life, but my new neighbors don’t need to know that.

“It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Van Housen.” Cole holds out his hand.

I swallow. I usually try to avoid touching people—it’s the easiest way to avoid being bombarded with someone else’s emotions. And unlike my visions, this is a “gift” I can actually control, though occasionally, like now, it’s unavoidable. “Likewise,” I say in my most proper voice.

The moment our fingers meet, a spark flashes between us, so powerful I feel my heart stutter. We stand frozen as the first shock subsides into frothy, electrical pulses that travel between our palms and tickle my flesh like effervescent bubbles. I yank my hand from his.

Surprise widens his eyes, but he recovers quickly and nods his head in that same overly polite way.

Mr. Darby looks at us, puzzlement written across his wrinkled features.

I nod back. Usually when I touch someone, I just get a sense of how they’re feeling, not an electrical shock, but if he can pretend nothing happened, then I can too. Still trembling, I make my way up the stairs to my apartment.

I sneak a quick sideways glance as I open our door. Cole’s staring up at me, the light from the still-open front door casting an incandescent glow around him. He gives me another nod and I enter the apartment, my pulse thudding wildly. I huff, leaning my back against the door.

An unusual vision, Harry Houdini in town, and a strange young man moving in downstairs. And it’s not even noon yet. Perhaps living a quiet, respectable life is going to be more of a challenge than I thought.

The first thing I do upon entering the apartment is to listen for my mother. The memory of the vision and my mother’s terrified face is still swirling in my mind. I hear voices coming from the sitting room, and my relief at the sound of her voice is quickly replaced with annoyance when I also recognize our new manager’s French accent.

I give myself a shake and put away the groceries and wipe down the counters, hoping the domestic routine I’ve established since I moved here will calm my nerves. I’ve never had my own kitchen before, and even though it’s more like a galley than a room, it’s sunny and bright, and I love the normalcy of it.

But in spite of my busy hands, my mind can’t help going back to our new neighbor. Surely that wasn’t a normal interaction with a young man? Then again, what do I know about normal social interactions?

But things are different now. My mother and I are supposed to be entering polite society. By being somewhat respectable, we can expand our after-hours business to include the cream of New York society and, as such, charge an ever-increasing amount of money.

Frowning, I place the teapot and cups on a tray and take it down the hall.

“Good morning, darling,” Mother says as I enter the room, unsure of how my presence will be received. But last night’s tension is nowhere in evidence as she thanks me for her tea.

Jacques rises and relieves me of the tray. He sets it on the table, then helps himself to my cup.

“Good morning, Anna. I trust you slept well,
oui
?”

The words ring with chilly civility and I answer in kind. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Please, Anna. Call me Jacques.”

I smile but don’t say anything.
Monsieur
Mauvais and I have been circling each other warily since we first met in Chicago several months ago. He’s doing wonders for our career, but that doesn’t make me like him any more. As far as I’m concerned, he’s just one more in a long line of smarmy, cheating managers who have taken advantage of us. I raise an eyebrow at my mother.

She knows I’m curious about what he’s doing here but refuses to tell me. Cigarette smoke encircles her dark head like a halo. Gone are the flowing tresses I once played with as a child. Fashion now dictates that women cut their hair as short as possible, though few women pull it off as successfully as she does. I miss her long hair. It made her seem more motherly.

“Yes, Anna, how did you sleep? You seemed a bit overwrought when you went to bed.”

Uneasiness flutters in my stomach. So she hasn’t forgotten last night. “I said I slept fine!”

Thankfully, Jacques interrupts. “I almost forgot the reason I came over. I want to add two more acts before yours to increase your headline value in the eyes of the public. It would give you a certain prestige.”

Grateful for the interruption, I settle into the deep leather club chair across from them, my mind going back to our argument.

It started when I’d asked her why she wouldn’t let me expand my magical repertoire to include more complicated tricks. I stood in the hallway, watching her get ready for bed. She was sitting at her vanity table, rubbing Pond’s Cold Cream on her face.

Her mouth tightened. “Because it’s unnecessary. Your magic just leads up to the main event, which is
my
performance. Really, darling, we’ve been over this before. Why do we have to revisit it?”

Because just once, I would like her to admit that I’m very, very good and my magic is an important part of the show. But she wouldn’t grant me that, so I changed tactics. “If we expand my magic, the show would appeal to more people and would become so successful we wouldn’t have to do séances anymore.”

“Your resistance to the séances is becoming a bore. Jacques and I have a business strategy, and the séances are an important part of that. Honestly, I don’t know why it bothers you so much.”

Maybe because I’m tired of her being hauled off to jail for breaking the fortune-telling laws? Because I finally have a real home, and a scandal could cost us our regular show? Because I have a shot at a normal life and I don’t want her thirst for fame to ruin it? All thoughts I don’t dare articulate to my mother, so I just lapse into resentful silence. As usual.

Mother claps her hands, startling me back into the present.

“Adding more opening acts is a fabulous idea!” she says.

It
is
a good idea, but I’m not about to tell Jacques that. “Isn’t this a bit last minute?” I goad. “We’ve spent the past month doing teaser shows all over the city in preparation for our debut tomorrow night. Shouldn’t this have been set ages ago?”

I hide a smile as Jacques flushes. His dark eyes are expressive but give nothing away, and his black hair is slicked back and curling over the collar of his well-tailored suit. He moved to the United States several years ago to better promote his French acts and get a toehold in the burgeoning American entertainment industry.

“Don’t be difficult, darling.” Mother dismisses me with a wave of her hand, turning her attention back to Jacques. “Now, what kind of act should we add? Hmm?”

I settle back and fume, watching him sip my tea. My fingers twitch and I reach for the deck of cards on the table. Shuffling them calms me.

“We don’t want another medium or mentalist,” she continues, not waiting for an answer. “Perhaps a magician? Or no, why don’t we go with something completely different?” She’s wearing her red, embroidered kimono robe and house slippers regally, as if she were already dressed for the day. I note that her makeup is flawless. She must have known Jacques was coming by this morning.

Jacques nods his approval. “Brilliant. I don’t want a magician either. We don’t want anyone to compete with Anna, though I’ve seen few magicians who can.” My mother frowns, but Jacques doesn’t notice. He should have said he doesn’t want anyone to compete with
her
. My mother jealously guards her headliner status, and I can tell by the sudden furrows on her forehead that Jacques just made my part in the show more valuable than she’s comfortable with. 

“Perhaps we should have a young singer come in?” he continues, oblivious to his faux pas. “And then follow it up with some dancers? Give the society people a little thrill. But not for too long. We don’t want them restless.”

BOOK: Born of Corruption
3.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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