A Deal with a Devil Novel
Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.
But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.
Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
Read an Excerpt
The Circus of the Damned
Deal with a Devil Series
By Cornelia Grey, Danielle Poiesz
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2014 Cornelia Grey
All rights reserved.
For the best part of three days, Gilbert Blake sat inside the dark, dank pub. The thin, dirty rain that drenched the dark brick walls of the city, its bowels of iron pipes and cramped alleys, and the pub's wooden sign hadn't stopped in all that time. The sign was purple—or it looked like it had been once upon a time—and missing so many letters it was impossible to guess what the pub's name had been. Gilbert hadn't cared; he'd just entered and stuck around.
The pub was a crammed underground hole without a single window, the atmosphere rank and suffocating. A narrow wooden door opened on steep iron stairs, encrusted with years' worth of mud and grease. Drunken patrons yelled and drank and lay passed out in corners, after wasting entire paychecks on dice and cards. In the sawdust-covered pit, bloodstained by a hundred fistfights, a fellow was turning the handle of a potbellied instrument that sounded like a choir of skinned cats.
"So, ready to pick a card, mate? My balls are shriveling up over here," Gilbert scoffed.
His blond hair and beard were a wild mess, and a tumbler of savage homemade vodka sat by his elbow. He was beyond drunk and about to land the hit that would keep him and Emilia fed for a month. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept or eaten, or even gotten up to take a piss, but he was sprawled like a king on his chair, cards in hand and a smirk firmly planted on his lips. A small crowd surrounded him, watching his every move. His opponent was sweating in a ripped shirt and vest, combing his fingers over and over through his long, brown beard.
Gilbert couldn't remember exactly when they had started that particular game. Could have been a couple of glasses ago, could have been five bottles. Emilia was asleep, nestled in his scarf, dead to the world, her little body curled in a warm, furry ball against his neck, and there was a considerable pile of cash stacked in the middle of the table. Bills and coins, a golden ring, some brightly colored currency from some country he didn't know, a lone ruby earring, and what looked suspiciously like a gold tooth that had been ripped out of somebody's jaw.
Gilbert waved a deck of fanned-out cards under the man's nose. He'd forgotten the fellow's name, or maybe hadn't even bothered to ask it. He chugged back the last of his vodka and decided to call him Bristlesprout.
With a suspicious glance and a grunt, Bristlesprout carefully selected a card and yanked it out, slapped it against the table, and covered it with a ham-sized hand while shooting threatening looks all around, as if daring the others to steal it from him.
"Anyone tries to help this wanker, I'm gonna break your fingers," he warned, looking at the ragtag crowd through bloodshot eyes. The faint of heart took a step back. Everyone else pushed even closer. "I know somebody's working with him."
Gilbert smiled and waved his hand over his glass, which swiftly filled back up. Everyone's eyes were on the glittering pile of coins, though, so only a skinny drunkard rubbed his eyes in disbelief, then went in search of a stiffer drink. He knew better than to call out the tall, muscular man with the seemingly magic powers.
Bristle had his reasons to be suspicious. Gilbert had already materialized in his own hand the cards that the man had hidden in his pocket, his beard, and most notably, the crack of his ass. Oh, he'd given the fellow some breathing room too. No gambler would bet against someone who always won. Winning every time wasn't the goal, and neither was impressing the bystanders. The goal was coaxing more and more cash out of the pockets of his adversaries, letting them win occasionally to push them to raise the stakes, then making them slowly drop out one by one with swift moves, apparently strokes of blind luck—until he was left with one poor bastard drunk enough and gullible enough to empty his pockets on the table. In this case, his new friend Bristlesprout.
Gilbert had purposefully botched the last two tricks, failing to guess the card that Bristle had creatively hidden in his underpants—it had been the three of spades, and Gilbert would do without that card from now on, thank you very much—and spectacularly embarrassing himself when trying to make a coin disappear in his palm and instead causing a deluge of quarters to fall from his cuff. That one had brought a roar of laughter from the crowd, convincing everyone that the failed magician was by now too drunk for his own good and was just about ready to be plucked like a chicken.
Bristlesprout had fallen for it like a charm. Seeing his chance, he'd pushed all his winnings forward, even producing that golden tooth to add to the considerable pile. Gilbert had made a big scene of rummaging in the pockets of his black leather jacket, sighing and complaining and commiserating his bad luck, looking like he could barely scrape together the amount.
Oh, he could look like a miserable loser when he wanted to. It was a remarkable talent.
"Now, take this." Gilbert snapped his fingers under the table, and a black crayon materialized out of thin air. Then he handed it to Bristlesprout. "Write something on the card. Or draw, I don't care. You can turn it over, 'tis not a guessing game this time."
Shooting him a dark glance, Bristle turned the card over—it was the queen of hearts—and snatched the crayon from Gilbert's hand. "The fuck you playing at, crook?" He grunted. "I wanna know exactly what stupid trick you're gonna botch this time. I don't want no fucking cheating at my table, understand?"
A loud screech came from the pit, attracting everyone's attention. The disheveled musician was being carried away by the neck by an impressively large man wearing an expensive-looking black suit with a bright-purple band around one arm. The musician's wooden instrument lay abandoned on the ground. As everyone watched in silence, four other giant men crossed the room, shooting threatening glances at the patrons while surrounding a much shorter, older fellow. This one wore a bright-purple suit and top hat that were rather insulting to the eye.
God damn it. Gilbert followed the man with his gaze, a heavy feeling sinking in his stomach. This was the last thing he needed: Count Reuben himself, owner of the dump and pretty much every other shithole in town. The man controlled a good half of Shadowsea's less-than-legal activities and was never seen without his personal guard, a cohort of murderers and henchmen whose favorite activity was stomping people to a pulp and tossing them in the river.
Gilbert examined them in mild apprehension as the pub's staff stumbled over themselves, running around to set out a fancy dining table for Reuben in the bloodstained pit. His guards' expensive suits were ill fit to their bodies, bulging with muscles, and telltale lumps revealed a knife here, a baton there. Their purple armbands and hatbands now dotted the room.
Gilbert downed his vodka. Damn. He hadn't planned on having to deal with so many guards. They were already gravitating toward the table—the amount of money strewn over it wouldn't escape them even in the dark. Hell, they could probably smell it. Oh, Reuben would be pissed that someone was gambling in his den without giving him a cut.
But Gilbert couldn't leave; he couldn't give up now. Not after he'd worked so hard, not when he was this close ...
No. He had to finish this and then just get out. Fast.
He straightened his broad, muscular shoulders and leaned back into the chair with a sharp smile. "Where were we? Oh, right, my friend, our pleasant game. Now, you're going to mark that card. Anything you want. Then you're going to hide it, destroy it, dispatch it overseas via carrier pigeon, I don't fucking care. And I—" He brought his hand to his chest in a theatrical gesture. "—I, the great Gilbert Blake, will bring it back and materialize it in front of your very eyes."
The crowd murmured with comments and a few derisive snorts here and there. Gilbert had discovered that his boasting speeches made folks see him as an even bigger loser, rather than impressing them. That was fine by him. He wasn't there to preserve dignity or gain respect; it was cold, hard cash he was after.
Bristlesprout thought it over for a moment. "All right. But on one condition," he finally said, his eyes gleaming with glee. "I want your hands flat on the table the entire time. For everyone to see. Just wanna make sure you're not copying my stuff on another of your shitty cards."
Gilbert swallowed a mocking grin and carefully schooled his features to give off a hint of fear and nervousness, as if his trick had been spoiled. "But—"
"I'm not finished," Bristle interrupted. "I want everyone on your side of the table to take a step back. Or three. I don't want anyone near you, nobody who can slip you a card or write on it for you or some shit. I want the fucking desert around you, you got it?"
"B-but I ..." Gilbert stammered, looking around to gather sympathy from the spectators, eyes skimming over a dozen purple spots at least. Really, he thought smugly, I should have taken to the stage, wooed crowds in theaters all over the country. It was sheer talent, that's what it was. "I didn't say that. Surely, a magician can't be asked to ..."
"Well, if you want to back out ..." Bristlesprout spread his arms to embrace the pile of bills and coins on the table. "Of course, that means the jackpot goes to me. But if that's what you want ... I'm going to have to take all this money, then."
Oh, hell yes. He'd fallen for it so hard that Gilbert could have gotten him to bet his fucking balls, too. Time to make his final move and crush him.
Gilbert swallowed, then looked longingly at the money. Emilia stirred against his neck, sniffling, and her long whiskers tickled his skin. "I guess that's fine." Reluctantly, he brought his hands down on the table. "The hands thing, I mean. And the people. Looks like I don't have a choice, do I?"
Under Bristlesprout's severe gaze, everyone on Gilbert's side shuffled back, whispering and pushing and elbowing each other. Only the men in purple didn't budge, but they didn't come closer, either. Bristle smiled then, like a cat that'd found an unattended bird's nest and was sharpening his claws for the buffet of the year. He didn't deign to respond, and he bent his head and started drawing something on the card with great care, the tip of his tongue poking out from his mouth. When he was done, he proudly lifted the card and turned it left and right to show everyone a crude rendition of a cock and a pair of oversized balls pointed at the mouth of the poor queen of hearts.
"That's ... quite the piece of art." Gilbert was about to slap his own forehead in utter despair for the human race, then remembered himself and left his hands lying on the table. "Now make the card disappear."
"Oh, I intend to," Bristlesprout assured him, smug smile still firmly in place.
And he really made an effort. He ripped the card in two, then four. He dug in his pockets and produced a gnarled box of matches and lit one after a couple of attempts. As the stench of sulfur hovered over the table, Bristle carefully selected two card pieces and held them over the flame, watching as they blackened and curled up and finally turned to ash, slowly consumed by the fire. He let the border go with a muffled curse as the flame brushed his fingertips, and the final bits turned to ash on the table. Once that was done, he brushed away the ashes, satisfied, and turned his attention to the other two pieces.
Gilbert saw the moment the idea struck the man. Looking, if possible, even smugger than before, Bristlesprout ripped what was left of the card to minute shreds, then shoved the pieces in his mouth. He grabbed his glass, an inch of cheap rum at the bottom, and tossed it all back, swallowing in one gulp. He made a big show of smacking his lips, then burped loudly and settled back in his chair.
"Can't wait to see how you're gonna get that back, magician." He curled his lips to tongue at his not-very-clean teeth. He dug a thick, dirty knife out of his belt and picked his teeth with it, removing one single shred of spit-soaked card. "There, I'm gonna help you out. You can have this," he said, flicking the sodden piece at Gilbert.
The wet bit of card stuck to his cheek. People laughed, Bristlesprout louder than anyone.
Something went dark in Gilbert's mind, as though a shutter was abruptly slammed down. Oh, he was a jolly fellow for the most part, but his temper was a little ... volatile. People who had known him for a while learned that soon enough, learned to recognize when the thunderstorm was rumbling in and flee. But it had been a long, long time since he'd stuck around long enough for someone to get to know him.
So nobody noticed the dark clouds gathering behind his brow, nobody saw how his shoulders stiffened and his strong arms tensed, how his hands turned to claws where they rested on the table. Only Emilia stirred against his neck, not quite waking up, but her light mouse sleep disturbed nonetheless. That little brown mouse had been his only faithful companion for years and had saved his life more than a few times. She knew him. Even asleep, she could tell he was getting worked up.
"You seem determined to make my life difficult," Gilbert said, not quite able to contain the cruel curl of his lip. Bristle didn't even notice. He was already celebrating, busy trying to calculate how much he'd just won and eyeing ladies in the crowd that might have been impressed by his wit. "You had a couple of pretty good ideas there."
And they really had been good ideas. Any third-rate illusionist would be utterly screwed. Without an accomplice to slip him a card with a copy of the dick Bristlesprout had so artistically drawn, no sleight of hand would bring back the original card, so utterly and disgustingly destroyed.
Of course, things were a hell of a lot different when you were playing against an actual magician.
Very slowly, Gilbert lifted his hand, turning it left and right to show everyone it was empty, fingers spread and sleeve pulled back to reveal his wrist, his forearm. Then he slapped the hand down on the tabletop.
He stared at it and focused. His palm grew warm and, under it, he started to feel a hard, smooth surface, very different from the rough, splintery wooden table. Gilbert felt the surface grow and stretch and, as his eyes bore into the back of his hand, he could almost see it—the queen of hearts growing under his palm, just as he pictured it in his mind, down to the last detail, to the hastily scrawled penis.
Then he abruptly lifted his hand, and everyone around the table shouted.
He leaned peacefully back into his chair, letting the smug grin return to his lips, and nonchalantly lifted his hand to pick away the bit of chewed card stuck to his cheek. With his fingertip, he placed it on the lower-right corner of the newly formed card, where he'd left a tiny bit missing. He liked things done well.
People were leaning close and squabbling over the card, ripping it from one another's hands, talking and yelling. A toothless man tried to gnaw on the card with his bare gums. The men in purple were exchanging meaningful glances across the room, and Gilbert knew his time was running out. He had to wrap things up and take his leave.
"How'd he do it? Man, how the fuck did he do it?"
"No, I can't believe it. Lemme touch it. Hey, stop hogging—"
"The fucking devil's helping him. No other way. The devil himself, I tell you ..."
The only person perfectly quiet in the midst of all the excitement was Bristlesprout himself. He had gone very pale and was sitting very still, hands limp on the table, looking at the smears of ash with a somewhat-dazed air. He lifted his gaze to the card and, as a tattooed lady waved it around, snatched it from her hand and peered at it closely.
Gilbert leaned forward and sunk both hands into the pile of money. He'd been waiting long enough to tuck in. Let Bristle think about it all he pleased.
Oh, that felt good, holding the cold coins and crumpled bills between his fingers. It would keep them fed for a while, him and Emilia. Might even be enough to splurge and buy passage on one of the underground trains toward the coast, to someplace warmer. He would travel in style for once instead of screwing up his spine hobbling along on a goat cart. And it was time to blow this dump of a town. It was burned, now, anyway. Rumors spread fast, and no one else would play against him after tonight.
Excerpted from The Circus of the Damned by Cornelia Grey, Danielle Poiesz. Copyright © 2014 Cornelia Grey. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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