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By Julie Reece
Month9BooksCopyright © 2015 Julie Reece
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* * *
Sweat drips from my temple as I push a needle through my friend's torn flesh. Years of sewing custom clothing enable me to make tiny sutures in his skin, close the three-inch gash in his shoulder. I hope it won't leave another scar.
Dane sits on the closed toilet seat in my bathroom. The space is too tight, the air between us close and cloying. I toss my head, shaking damp hair away from my eyes. Blood trickles down his bicep as I pierce him again. Today makes the third time I've sewn him up. He doesn't complain about the pain. I don't ask what pissed his father off this time.
Dane Adams introduced himself in my English Literature class a year ago when he first moved to Sales Hollow from Nashville. He missed the drama concerning the Coffee brothers, my mother's corpse, and Ben's trial. After Ben got out of the psyche ward, my name became synonymous with social pariah. People don't look me in the eye anymore. Pity, guilt, fear ... whatever the reason, I make them uncomfortable.
Dane doesn't treat me that way.
Angry and incessant buzzing breaks my concentration. I scowl at the window where a fly is trapped between the screen and the world outside. I can't set him free. The windows are painted shut. Refocusing on my task, I complete two more stitches, tie them off, and cut the thread. Not bad. I tape gauze loosely over the angry wound and straighten. He grabs my fingers, giving them a tender squeeze.
Sorrow mixed with gratitude shines from his dark brown eyes. I clear the knot from my throat. "All fixed up, bro."
I take a step back allowing Dane to stand. The guy dwarfs the little space. He leans around me, lifting a white cotton tee from its place on the sink countertop.
"Wait, you'll tear your stitches." I help him stretch the fabric over his head and cover his impressive torso.
When he showed up earlier, he was wearing the new, camel-colored leather jacket I made him. Double lapel over a red button up paired with dark stonewashed jeans and boots. Sharp. He can't afford to pay me for the clothes I make him. I wouldn't take his money if he could. The dumb guy spent ten minutes hanging out, bleeding, until finally admitting he needed stitching up.
I glance at my wrist for the hundredth time. The watch is my own design, fashioned from discarded parts into a silver, steampunk beetle. The wings slide to reveal a clock face. Two forty-five AM.
"How long has he been gone?"
The 'he' referred to is my stepfather Ben. I raise my eyes to find Dane studying me. He lifts an eyebrow, waiting. My shrug is my only answer.
A heavy breath leaks out as my friend leans against the wall. "You should have called me when he went missing."
Hoping to avoid an interrogation, I head out of the bathroom and into the storage area of our leather repair shop. The lease doesn't cover our living here, of course, but since we lost our apartment two months ago, we had no place else to go.
Dane follows and I face him. "It's not your job to protect us all the time. You've got your own problems. I can handle this."
"As if." He snorts. "Don't I always find him? You need me. Besides, I'm scary as hell."
I can't help my smile. He is scary as hell. Severe facial bone structure makes him look perpetually pissed off. He's tall and skinny but in a wiry, muscular sort of way. The boy can bend metal pipes with his bare hands. I've seen him.
Our rent is overdue. I glance at the fabric piled on the work counter. Resentment sprouts like weeds in my chest. "I have a clothing order to finish ..."
"I know you're broke, but can you sew while you're worried about him?" Dane tosses his long, rust-colored dreads over his shoulder revealing the fresh bruise on his neck.
Anger burns a hole in my gut, but there's nothing I can do to help him. Or anyone else it seems. "I can't always drop everything and go looking for Ben!" I slink to my sleeping bag on the floor. I don't know why I'm yelling. The people I'm angry at aren't in the room to hear. "Sorry. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry, Rae. I get it." He scratches his chin. "Leave him be for one night. He'll turn up."
What I haven't told him is that I've already been looking.
All night long, I searched Ben's usual haunts — the liquor stores, card games, and bars he frequents — with no sign. Jacob, who owns the pawnshop Ben visits, said the hot game in town was one held near the docks at Maddox Industries, a textile warehouse district turned seedy clubs and bars. The name Maddox is like a shadow over our town, drawing a collective shudder. Everyone has heard the rumors: money, crime ... bodies in the river.
Surely Ben knows better.
I meet Dane's gaze. "I'm lucky to have you looking out for me."
He grins. "Yes you are. Should we go find Ben?"
"Do you mind if we just chill here for a while first?" The truth is, between school, work, my earlier search, and treating Dane's wound, I'm exhausted.
"Whatever you need."
Gratitude pours out in the form of a sigh. I lean my head back against the concrete block wall to rest. Edgar, my twenty-five pound Maine Coon, climbs around in my lap and lies down. He's too big to fit, but that doesn't stop him from trying.
Shirt and shoes discarded, Dane flops on top of Ben's sleeping bag a few feet away. His long dreads spill across his brown, tatted shoulders. From this angle, he looks like the monster from the movie Predator. The thought makes me smile.
He's snoring in minutes. I've lost count how many nights he's slept over. Though his father owns a physical house, the fact he prefers our storeroom floor says everything about his home life. The unforgiving linoleum digs into my tailbone through my thin sleeping bag, and I shift, exacting a complaint from Edgar, whose weight puts my legs to sleep.
My cat purrs, his whiskers vibrating with the contented sound as I stroke his black fur. I wish I were as unconcerned, but honestly, I'm too keyed up over Ben's prolonged absence to think of much else. Anytime he's missing longer than forty-eight hours, bad things happen. A grueling night of searching turned up nothing, so we wait here. School starts in a few hours, but I won't sleep.
Pounding on the back door sends Edgar scrambling for the corner. Dane's up in seconds, chest heaving, my baseball bat clenched in his hand. I hold up a palm and slowly step to the back door. The one leading to the alley reserved for loading and deliveries. "Who's there?" I ask.
"Jacob. Let me in!"
Fingers tangle as I unbolt the lock and push the door wide. Jacob stands in the sickly orange glow of a buzzing street lamp in a rumpled trench coat. His green Cutlass idles in the background. Hanging limp at his side is Ben. "Come inside," I whisper.
Dane drops the bat and rushes forward. His stitches might rip, but there's no use trying to stop him. He lifts my unconscious stepfather like he's a small child and lays him on the other sleeping bag. His body is too thin, wasting from addiction and despair. His clothes are covered in black smears. A purple bruise blooms like an inkblot across his forehead. His nose and lip are busted.
"Is he okay?" Dane asks what I can't. I rub my forehead where an ache starts, weary of this scene.
Jacob hitches his broad shoulders, stretching his fleshy neck to one side. I feel for him. As my stepfather's oldest friend, I've lost count of the times he's brought Ben home. "Took a beating, but yeah, he'll be okay."
I stare at Ben's listless form on the floor. He stinks of cheap booze and body odor. It's hard to get really clean in the little sink in our half bath, not that he tries.
My head snaps up. I have no idea how long Jacob has been calling my name. "Sorry, what?"
"There's more." He rubs his neck and stretches again. "I hate to tell you this kiddo, but Ben hawked your mother's wedding ring last night." My chin drops. "Well, you don't think I'd let him pawn it in my shop, do you? Don't you look at me like that!"
"Sorry, I just —"
"I know, sweetie. Lost every dime in a poker game." He shakes his head, stroking a hand down his ample belly. "I never thought he'd give up your momma's ring, never that." My heart cramps with every word. "He left the casino but showed up again an hour later, begging for a chance to win his money back. When they told him to get out, he went wild, tore the place up. He was so drunk, he ... started a fire. It was an accident, but the place went up like a match. Thousands in damage. I can't see any way out for him this time."
An arm comes around my shoulder, and I lean into it. The next thing I know I'm sitting Indian-style on the floor, staring at Ben. How did I get here? My cheeks are wet. My chest tightens in a vise grip of fear, and I release a sob. I'm so tired. All I want is to curl up and sleep. Forget.
"It's okay, Jacob, I'll stay with her."
Dane? His voice is distorted, as if he's floating somewhere above me. Wouldn't that be nice? All of us floating away together, like puffy clouds on a summer's day.
"Will they arrest him now?" Dane asks.
"These people don't arrest you, boy. They make you disappear, you know that. Best to get him out of town. Oh, Ben had a letter with him ..."
I glance up at Jacob. Our old friend pulls a thin, white envelope from his coat pocket. "Give it to me," I say.
He hesitates, gaze darting from Dane to me and back.
"It's all right, guys. I need to know." Dane nods to Jacob, and the letter finds its way into my hand. I'm not sure how long I sit there. Shoes scuff the dull linoleum. I'm vaguely aware when the door clicks shut behind Jacob as he leaves. Outside, his motor revs, and then fades as he drives away. The letter still waits in my shaking hand.
"Give it here, little Rae." Dane pries the envelope from my tightly clenched fingers. "We'll read it together, want to?" Edgar curls up next to Ben still crumpled on the floor. I don't speak. I can't.
Mr. Benjamin Edward Weathersby,
This letter is an attempt to collect a debt. Please meet me in my office at 11:00 AM Friday morning on September 21st to discuss my terms for your restitution. The judgment has been recorded and documented in my ledger and needs to be paid.
Come alone. Do not contact the authorities, do not sign the payment arrangement attached to this letter, and do not respond to this communication in any way other than to meet me in person. If you fail to appear, I will take whatever action necessary to collect the debt owed me.
Sincerely, G. N. Maddox
Blood turns to slush in my veins, thick, barely moving, slowing my ability to hear, or breathe, or think. The Mr. G. N. Maddox. Are the rumors true? Crime boss, ruthless killer, an evil beast incapable of compassion or mercy. Of all the people Ben could owe ... I stare at my hands. My fingers quake, but I can't feel them. Everything's gone numb.
Ben. I can't lose him.
"What is today?" I ask. My voice is quiet but hard as an ice pick. Every sacrifice I've made to hold on to what's left of my family seems in vain.
"September 21st. That meeting's four hours away." Dane drops down on my sleeping bag. "There's no way Ben can make it, Raven. Look at him."
"It doesn't matter, bro. Can you check on him after school today? I'm going to skip."
"Why?" He props himself up on his elbows. "I'm almost afraid to ask what you're planning in that stupid, stubborn head of yours."
"Ben's not going to make the meeting at Mr. Maddox's house this morning."
Dane scowls as if he knows what's coming, and I think he does.
"I am."CHAPTER 2
When I pull up to the curb at number seven Wormwood Road, my insides curl up. Who knows why it's numbered seven; it's the only house for miles around. Nothing could prepare me for the Victorian monstrosity that looms beyond a heavy wrought iron gate. Who are they hiding back there, King Kong?
I put my vintage red Beetle in park and step onto the street. The only reason I still own this car is that I hide the title from Ben. Dane keeps it for me at his house.
Built in brick and cream sandstone, more than a dozen grouped chimneys rise like spires over a slate roof. I know because my ninth-grade history teacher had us build scale models of European castles for midterm exams. My preoccupation with Edgar Allen Poe doesn't hurt my knowledge of all things Goth, either. Mother knew what she was doing when she named me Raven.
The windows range in shape from pointy arches to clover-shaped, the third story encasing colorful leaded glass with decorative tracery. Battlements, parapets, and Oriel balconies set this joint off as your basic vampirism party house — deluxe.
Whatever. Determination (and maybe a solid dose of desperation) spurs me on toward the sidewalk. My three-inch heels click across the concrete. A knife is tucked just inside the knee-high laces of my right boot, just in case.
My fingers run over the ornate leaves, gargoyles, and iron scrollwork that make up the front gate. The entrance seems more suited to a creepy old graveyard than bayside southern mansion, but I think the artwork is beautiful in a disturbing, retro sort of way. The scene calls to the dark poet in me.
Warm winds blow off the salt water, filling my nose with the scent of brine, and marsh, and forest. The breeze sends my long, razor-cut hair across my eyes. I shake the dark strands back, pulling the gate open with a clank. Above me, the word Maddox stands out in arched relief over the door — the name of my nemesis.
My vision clouds as I stare. Eyes watering, I rub them as the letters on the gate appear to stretch and bend in front of me. The font drips iron like black wax melting off a candle. I shudder as the metal morphs into something cryptic and sinister. Unsure of what I'm seeing, I squint at the newly forming word Vigilis. I stumble back. When I blink, the odd lettering is gone. Everything is as it was.
Vigilis. What the hell?
Body racing with adrenaline, I draw a deep breath. I can't afford to freak out. Ben has no one else, so I slough off the strange vision as nerves, square my shoulders, and march toward the double-arched front door. If the bell chimes the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, I'm coming back with a cross and some Holy water.
I don't find out what the doorbell sounds like because some old guy in a black coat opens the door. "May I help you?"
Plastering a big smile on my face, there's little need to fake my out-of-breath speech. "Hi! Oh, am I late? I'm so sorry. Half the time those GPS instructions are wrong, you know?" I hold my breath, hoping he'll fall for my act as I blow past Maddox's gatekeeper into the foyer.
Mr. Butler Guy, or whoever he is, spins to follow me. "Excuse me ... just a moment ... Miss!"
Okay, so he's no dummy. Too bad, but no one is stopping this meeting. "I apologize again," I say with my best, faux perky voice. I'm making myself gag here with my imitation of a ditzy schoolgirl, but oh well. "I'm aware Mr. Maddox doesn't like to be kept waiting." I glance at my wrist for the time. "Oops. Watch stopped. Silly me, no wonder I'm late. Ha, ha, ha. Could you tell the gentleman his eleven o'clock appointment is here? I'd be so grateful, thanks bunches."
Apparently, batting your eyelashes only works in the movies, because Mr. Butler Guy straightens himself to his full height — which is shorter than my five-foot-seven. He's got to be seventy. Thin, frail, the man is nearly bald, and his scalp is covered in dark liver spots. Black spectacles slide down an impressive nose stuffed with white hairs. They match his eyebrows, as though all the hair on this guy's body migrated to those two areas. Attractive.
He glares at me, but I pretend not to notice.
"Nice place. Very ..." Ominous, spooky, chilling. "Imposing," I finally manage. The interior of the house matches every expectation based on its shell. Asymmetrical floor plan, the massive mahogany staircase curves left with a thinner stair breaking off and winding right to what must be the third floor. Everything is dark wood, red carpeting, crusty, dusty, and haunted looking. You gotta be kidding me. All the place lacks is a suit of armor and The Addams Family.
"Young woman, you are not expected. Now if you will be so kind as to leave the prem —"
"Jamis? It's all right. I will see her." A disembodied voice floats down the hall. It's a nice voice, young, low, and well, hot.
Excerpted from The Artisans by Julie Reece. Copyright © 2015 Julie Reece. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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