About the Author
Rachel Caine is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of the Morganville Vampires series, the Weather Warden series, the Outcast Season series, and the new Revivalist series. Jennifer Estep is the New York Times bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin urban fantasy series for Pocket Books and also writes the Mythos Academy young adult series. Kevin Hearne is the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Druid series. Seanan McGuire is the New York Times bestselling author of the InCryptid series and the October Daye series, which earned her the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010. Feed, published under the pseudonym Mira Grant, earned her a Hugo Award nomination for Best Novel in 2011. Rob Thurman is the New York Times bestselling author of the supernatural thriller All Seeing Eye, the gritty urban fantasy Cal Leandros series, the Trickster Novels, and standalone thriller-suspense novels.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Love is a bitch.
There’s no getting around it.
But I’ll get to that later.
First . . . first came Bartholomew.
On any given day someone can be a hundred different people. I’m not talking Sybil here, and no voices in the head, but no one is singular within themselves. They’re good . . . help a little old lady with her groceries. They’re bad . . . steal a magazine from a newsstand. Sometimes they’re smart, sometimes stupid. Sometimes loving as they give their child a kiss on the cheek and murderous in the next minute when they jack a car and kill a man in the process. People are people. Hateful and peaceful. Content and miserable. Honest and deceitful. With all of that inside fighting for control every minute of the day, it’s a wonder everybody’s not banging their heads against the wall. And those around you—even you yourself—aren’t ever quite sure what they’re going to get from moment to moment.
I knew that just like I knew from watching him that Bartholomew was nothing like that—the exception that proved the rule. Bartholomew wasn’t at war with himself or his darker emotions. With Bartholomew it was all about Bartholomew. What he wanted and what he’d do to get it. Love wasn’t a bitch to him, because he loved himself inside and out.
All the best sociopaths do.
It wasn’t just my luck to hook up with one—it was an occupational hazard. I’d seen more of the world than most and it wasn’t by drifting. I always had a plan. I’d long found that the best way to travel was to find someone who was going somewhere you wanted to be, stick with them, and keep your mouth shut. You’d be surprised how little they minded, mostly because if you picked the right ones, they were entirely self-centered. They were generally puzzled to one day realize they’d picked up a buddy, wonder how you’d slithered in under their radar and become a fixture in their lives. But that’s another thing about people: they didn’t want to ask too many questions. Some people didn’t like to look stupid, some people didn’t like to make waves, and some people—the smartest people—generally didn’t want to know the answer.
And the ones like Bartholomew—they ultimately couldn’t bring themselves to believe someone had put one over on them. After all, that’s what they did, not what was done to them.
I was good at it, what I did. Maybe you could say I used people, but I did it out of harmless curiosity. My talent for hanging around by blending into the background was useful, but I didn’t put it to the same use Bartholomew did his. He worked at a carnival, which was what had interested me in the beginning. I’d seen a lot of things as I made my way around the world, and a carnival was more or less next on my list. I came across Bart on a week away, whoring and drinking mostly, heard his glib stories about where he worked, and there found my opportunity.
His ego was my ticket to ride.
When he returned to the carnival with me tagging along, I saw his work. I don’t mean him giving away stuffed prizes or running a few rides or ushering people into a mirrored maze, although he did do all those things. Nope, Bart’s true occupation was hurting people. Sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for profit, but always with the zeal you find in those who truly love their jobs.
Bart . . . he couldn’t get enough of his job.
Not that it was my problem. I wanted to see what the life in a carnival was like, and that’s what I would do. If Bart liked to play mind games with gullible people, it was their fault that they weren’t a little sharper, now, wasn’t it? Or at the very least it wasn’t my fault. I was just along for the ride. Speaking of . . .
His carnival was one helluva ride.
It had been settled for two weeks in one small scrubby field on long-bladed grass that cut like knives, and spectators’ feet had stomped its grounds down into dry, pitted dirt. There was a Ferris wheel that made the most god-awful sound as it creaked up and around. It was the groan and rattle of a dragon’s dying breath—the last dragon in the darkest of ages, its final breath heated by fire and coppery with sacrificial blood somehow caught and bottled to run some unimaginable, infernal machine. Only instead of all that, it ended up wheezing its way through a garishly lit wheel that, instead of grinding their bones to dust, spun screaming children along in paroxysms of delight. That dead dragon was probably embarrassed by it all.
I liked it.
Then there was the carousel. If you’ve ever read any book, seen any movie, heard any carnie tale, you know carousels are where the very best and worst things happen. Depending on which way you spin, depending on what animal you choose to ride, Fate either kisses you on the lips or slits your throat. I loved those stories, because they got it right. That’s exactly how fate was: capricious as fuck. She would ignore the biggest decision in a person’s life yet gleefully wipe your slate in a fatal do-over on something as innocent and simple as a merry-go-round.
Perched proudly upon it was one particularly shifty-looking red-and-black-striped tiger with faceted red glass eyes that glittered like bloody tears. I wondered where he’d take you if you climbed in his saddle. I doubted it was Disneyland.
The maze of mirrors: now, that was creepy, flat-out. If you looked just the right way, took the fastest glimpse over your shoulder, you could see your reflections turn to shadowed doppelgängers with sharp teeth, hungry smiles, shadowed holes for eyes, and taloned hands pushing against the glass that locked them away. Hardly anyone did, though, look just right. But I did, each time grinning and giving a friendly wave to my predatory images across a hundred gleaming surfaces. The clawed hands waved back and, blinking in curiosity, the eyes of soot and silver would give me a wink. You caught us. Point to you.
I wasn’t superstitious and, no, not crazy. I’d traveled the world. I kept my eyes open and I’d seen things. Boring things, astounding ones, and everything in between. What I saw in the carnival was nothing unbelievable. It was more of a pitcher plant where careless flies were caught in the sticky nectar and slowly slid down to be devoured by digestive juices. If you weren’t careless, you’d be fine. If you were careless . . . hey, carnivals weren’t the only thing in the world that would eat you. In fact, after several days of following Bart through the maze of booths and rides, I’d come to the conclusion that carnivals weren’t built. They grew. They accumulated, like a feast of flies on a hidden carcass. One day there was an empty field, the next the carnival bloomed like an ebony poppy. Eventually people—and things—came, populated it, and there you go.
A slow-moving predator came to life.
Some people were carnival people. They knew the carnival and the carnival knew them. They belonged. They were black poppies, too, only on a smaller scale.
Others were just people: good, bad, and indifferent, but all of them blind. They did the work, though, and the carnival needed them. They weren’t the careless type, living the nomadic life, and they survived. I wondered what it was like to be blind like them. I’d seen a good deal of the world, but even with my first step, I’d always been able to see.
“Bart, do you have change for a fifty? Oh, look at your new friend. He’s cute.” The girl smiled at me. Becca? Yeah, Becca was her name. I’d heard it in passing the day before. She worked the psychic booth with her sister, and if she was older than fourteen, I’d need to see a birth certificate as proof.
I tried hard not to smirk back at her smile. Hey, I was cute. I worked on being cute. People, even self-centered, oblivious, or gullible people, didn’t want someone with serial killer vibes following them around.
Bart smiled back at her, so friendly and affable that manufactured goodwill oozed out of his pores. “Doodle? He’s all right. He hitched up with me on vacation. I thought I’d show him the sights.”
It was a joke to him. Bart’s kind didn’t do anything for anybody, but Becca liked me, and Bart . . . Bart liked underage girls. And underage boys. Vulnerable women. People humiliated and naked, bound in chains. And that was only the top layer of porn stuffed in his footlocker. I didn’t want to know what the second, third, or fourth layer showed.
“Change for a fifty, yeah? Anything for you, sweetheart.”
Becca was young, with long waves of hair dyed cotton candy lavender, round blue eyes, small white teeth that showed when she laughed, and exactly five freckles spread across her nose like a spray of cinnamon chips on a Christmas cookie. Wearing a long, filmy green dress, all the better to look psychic and ethereal, she reminded me of a mermaid curled happily on a rock counting flying fish. She looked innocent and sweet and oh-so-gullible.
A combination Bart absolutely could not pass up.
Of course, sociopaths with questionable taste in porn weren’t always as smart as they thought they were. There was a gleam in Becca’s blue eyes that said she wasn’t nearly as gullible as Bart thought. And if it hadn’t been for me, his new pal, I doubt he’d have seen even a smile from her.
I hadn’t run into the problem of being too cute before. Cute was harmless, cute was safe, and cute let me hang around as long as I liked. Unfortunately, this time it was helping out a predatory dick, and that annoyed me. As I’d thought before, whatever games Bart played weren’t my problem. I was a traveler. I couldn’t get bogged down by people’s troubles. There were always going to be problems, and there were always going to be Barts in the world. I couldn’t change that.
But I didn’t like being used as bait in a trap. That’s all. I just didn’t like it.
Maybe Bart would behave himself and in a few weeks I’d be gone. Off to someplace new with someone hopefully somewhat less problematically evil than good old Bart.
“Good-bye, Doodle.” Becca smiled at me again. The two front teeth were separated by a tiny gap and her smile was all the more perfect for it. She thought my name was funny, I could tell. But I didn’t mind. I liked it. That was me. Humble Doodle, nothing less, nothing more.
“He’s the quiet sort,” Bart laughed. His laugh was perfect, too, but completely false. Becca’s smile was a warm summer rain. Bart’s laugh was a snow globe—cold glass and fake plastic whirling around, trying to fill the void beneath the hard shell. “Doesn’t say a word. But come back and visit him anytime. I do enough talking for the both of us, Miss Becca.”
Becca tilted her head. “Maybe.” Then she smiled again, this time at Bart, and headed back to the psychic booth.
Just like that, I saw the gleam of good sense sputter and go out of her eyes. It wasn’t her fault, not really. She was fourteen and Bart was a good-looking twenty-one-year-old in a carnival where her working age group was limited and dental hygiene was not the word of the day among most. Bart was blind, the most interesting parts of the carnival a mystery to him, but he was a black poppy, too—a different sort, but he’d eat you all the same.
I sighed. This had every sign of fucking up my good time here.
Bart frowned at me. “At least you’re good for something.”
That would be Bart, only noticing me when I did something for him—whether I’d meant to or not. The Bartholomews of the world . . . Bigger assholes could not be found.
While Bart continued to sucker people into trying to win teddy bears in a game so rigged Vegas would’ve been proud, I did my best to forget about little girls with lavender hair and concentrate on my sightseeing. I perked up as the Poodle Lady passed by us. She was a grandmotherly type with hair as short and curly as that of her dogs, pink cheeked and plump and with a thousand fake diamond rings, bracelets, necklaces, even a tiara. When the sun hit her, she glittered wildly, a star about to go supernova. She was a sight, but that wasn’t what interested me.
It was the poodles.
I loved the poodles.
I whistled low and soft as they trotted by, bedecked in ruffled collars. All white, they were tiny dandelion drifts blowing across the ground, yipping and excited from their last round of acrobatic tricks. As one, each furry face turned my way at the whistle too soft for the Poodle Lady to hear. Each mouth opened and each pink tongue twisted to change into a tentacle with pulsing suckers and fully as long as each dog’s entire body. Each eye turned the blind silver-white of fish that lived so deep underwater that sight wasn’t necessary.
It tickled me. Cthulhu slept, but his goddamn poodles roamed the earth.
Then they were only ordinary poodles once again and they scampered on, one stopping to lift a leg on Bart’s booth.
“Hey, you little shit!” he snapped, tossing a teddy bear at it with malicious force. In a fraction of a second the stuffed animal was nothing but shreds and stuffing and, after pissing on that as well, the poodle was gone.
A few minutes later five clowns wandered by, following the Poodle Lady to the lunch tent. I didn’t bother with them. Clowns were the biggest disappointment in the carnival. They were supposed to be cannibalistic, murderous, child-stealing monsters with jagged metal teeth and makeup mixed of blood and ashes. But no. They weren’t. They were just ordinary people who liked to make people laugh. Which, don’t get me wrong, is nice in theory and all. Still . . .
That’s what happens when you buy into a stereotype. You think nightmares using intestines to make balloon animals and you get slightly dumpy, sort of sad, average people who had determined that if they couldn’t laugh themselves, they would do their best to make others laugh. Noble, but a little bit boring. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Bart, the porno-loving sociopath, end up as a balloon animal, as he seemed set on ruining my playing tourist.
Finally, Bart closed up the booth a few hours later to grab a meal himself. I went along, too, not that he would notice if I ate or not. Luckily, I could get by on little. Roaming the world will teach you that. Refrigerators and microwaves were rare in my life. I had eaten goat once in India. . . . I still felt rather bad about that.
Bart loaded up a paper plate with barbecue and long, slinky fries dripping with grease. Sitting down at a picnic table, he dug in, and I rethought the goat issue. The food here looked as if that long-digested goat had vomited on a plate and then handed you a fork. Bart obviously didn’t mind, as he plowed through the mess. I reflected on how he had a grin and a wave for everyone who walked by except the Poodle Lady, and I wasn’t surprised. The clowns had their masks of greasepaint and Bart had this mask. The friendly guy who was enough of a flirt for the women and a bit of the roguish con man for the men—it was a good disguise. It said, “I’m good, but not too good.” Too good can’t be real, and Bart was sma...
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