Read Only a Monster Online

Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (20 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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“Tom, do you remember me?” Joan said. “You offered to buy my necklace.”

Tom peered at her through cracked eyelids. He saw her bare neck. “You sold it to someone else?”

“Not exactly,” Joan said. “Do you know where I can get another one?”

Aaron returned from somewhere with a paper cup of water. Tom took it eagerly and gulped. Then he wrinkled his nose. “Oh, what's this?” he complained. He offered his dog the rest of the water. It huffed, and then struggled to its feet. Tom tilted the cup so that it could lap inside.

“That necklace—” Joan started again.

“Look,” Tom interrupted. “You want to buy a phone?”

Joan blinked. “No.”

“You want to sell a phone?”

“No.”

“Then fuck off.”

“But the necklace—”

“I know what it was,” Tom said. “Saw one once at the Court. But you're not going to find one in any bloody market.”

Joan deflated. She'd hoped he'd recognized the necklace because he'd seen ones like it here. But it seemed he'd only recognized it from his past life at the Court itself.

Aaron realized it too. “He's just an opportunist,” he said to
Joan. Tom's expression was blearily blank in response. Aaron clarified, sneering: “You took a chance when you saw it. You offered to buy it and hoped she didn't know what it was.”

Tom shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Let's go,” Aaron said to Joan. He'd been surveying Tom and the dog, hand in his pocket like a landlord inspecting substandard property. Now he turned to leave.

Joan put a hand on Aaron's arm. “Wait,” she said. “Wait.” They couldn't just walk away. Their families'
lives
were at stake. Every monster's life was at stake, their own included. They
had
to get into the Court. “My cousin tells me that you were a Court Guard,” she said to Tom.

“So?” Aaron said to Joan. “She also said he was fired.” He looked disdainfully down at Tom, at the empty beer bottles clinking under his table. “Can't imagine why.”

“We need to get in,” Joan said to Tom.

From Ruth's gasp and Aaron's alarmed look, Joan realized she shouldn't have said it so bluntly. But she kept picturing Nick already at the Court. They couldn't let him get to that device.

Tom's face was still bleary. Ruth and Aaron's alarm hadn't touched him. “You want me to get you into the Monster Court?” he said.

“Can you do it?” Joan said. Her body felt tight with tension.

“Why do you want to get in?”

“None of your business,” Aaron interjected.

Tom regarded Aaron. “You're an Oliver, aren't you?”

Aaron didn't reply.

Tom scratched at the crook of his jaw. “Could spot one of you anywhere. Nose in the air like you can't stand the smell of the rest of us.”

“Can you get us in or not?” Joan said.

Tom closed his eyes deliberately. “No,” he said, flat and final.

“Excellent find,” Aaron said to Joan. He didn't bother to keep his voice down. “Really. Top-shelf.”

But Joan wasn't ready to give up yet. She thought she was starting to get a read on Tom. “You haven't even heard what's in it for
you
,” she said to him.

“Joan,” Aaron said. “Let's just go.”

Joan ignored him. She waited for Tom's eyes to crack open. “We're going to steal from the Court.”


Joan
,” Ruth said, and Aaron swore.

“You are so fucking reckless,” Aaron said.

But Tom's eyes were open properly now, a flicker of interest kindled. Joan was relieved. She'd read him right. And so had Aaron. Tom was an opportunist.

“You want in?” Joan said.

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Aaron said.


You're
not an Oliver,” Tom said slowly to Joan.

“We're Hunts,” Ruth said.

“Hunts.” Tom rested his head against the wall, visibly relaxing. He looked intrigued. It was the opposite of how most people in the monster world had reacted to the name Hunt. Tom retrieved a half-eaten sandwich from under the table that the
dog had somehow missed. To Aaron's obvious disgust, Tom took a big bite. “What're thieves doing with an Oliver?” he asked with his mouth full.

“He owes her,” Ruth said. “She saved his life.”

Tom took another bite. “And she's making him steal from the Court?” His bleary eyes brightened. “Making an Oliver break his vows to the King. . . . Guess it's true what they say, huh?” he said to Aaron, mouth still full. “Never get into debt to a Hunt. They'll screw you sore.”

“What charming advice,” Aaron said.

Tom leaned back against the wall, chewing. He seemed to be enjoying watching Aaron squirm. “I've heard that Hunts can steal anything from anyone.”

Joan nodded. “Bet there were things at the Court that you wanted when you worked there.” He was probably pretty annoyed that he'd been fired too.

Tom took his time finishing the sandwich. “I might be interested,” he said finally.

“Really?” Joan said. She breathed out, relieved.

Tom seemed to come to a decision. He held out a big hand for Joan to shake. “Yeah.”

“Okay.” Joan took his hand. It was nearly double the size of her own. “Okay.”

“Why are you shaking his hand as if you've made a bargain?” Aaron said to Joan incredulously. “You haven't made a bargain! You haven't even agreed on a price!”

“Oh, don't worry, sunshine,” Tom said to him. “I'll open the
big door. As long as your little thieves open the other doors, we'll be square.”

“Ah, I see,” Aaron said a little faintly. “The Hunts will steal what they want. You'll steal what you want. And I'll just continue to live my best life.”

“Be ready in two nights' time,” Tom added.

“Two nights?” Joan said. She'd been barreling through the conversation, her only concern to get into the Court before Nick. Now, though, she felt a wave of unease.

“That's when the gate opens,” Tom said.

“The gate?” Joan said.

Tom nodded. “There's going to be a gala at the Court. Lucky you, huh? Last time the gate opened was centuries ago. And it won't open again for another century. It's like it's opening just for you.”

“Lucky us,” Joan heard herself say. But all she could think about was how she and Aaron weren't even supposed to be in this time—they'd overshot.
Lucky.
It didn't feel like luck.

With that new monster sense in the back of her head, Joan could feel the timeline stirring—as it had when she'd watched those envelopes fall.

And she couldn't have said why, but the unease bloomed into foreboding.

Back at the flat, Aaron was furious. “We're not doing this,” he said. They'd left Tom at the market, already half-asleep again. “This is ridiculous. This is
not
a plan!”

“Well, not yet,” Ruth said. “But I think he could get us in. He
was
a Court Guard. And if we have a way in, then we have the
start
of a plan.”

“Were we looking at the same man? He could barely hold his head up!” Aaron's voice was shaking. “Do you have any idea what the Court will do to us if they catch us? And they
will
if we have to rely on that fool.”

“We'll be careful,” Joan said.

“Look,” Ruth said to Aaron. “If we're wrong about Tom—if we're caught at the gate—then we'll get arrested. So what? We'll just make up some lie about gate-crashing the party.”

“Arrested?” Aaron said. “Have you ever actually met a member of the Monster Court? Have you come face-to-face with one of the
Curia Monstrorum
?”

“No,” Ruth admitted. “I've seen Court Guards.”

Aaron looked at her with a bleak expression Joan had never seen on his face before. “One of them came for my cousin once,” he said.

“You actually saw a member of the Monster Court?” Ruth sounded disbelieving. “One of the
Curia Monstrorum
? Which one?”

“Conrad,” Aaron said. He answered the question in Joan's expression. “We call him the King's Reach. He's the King's authority in this time. He's responsible for enforcing the law two centuries into the future and three centuries behind.”

“Kind of like a policeman?” Joan said.

Aaron's face went pinched. “Not really like that, no.”

“Conrad came. In person?” Ruth asked. She still sounded disbelieving.

For a moment it seemed like Aaron was going to leave it at that, but then he set his jaw. “I was there. I was at school with my cousin Kit when Conrad came.”

Joan glanced at Ruth. Her posture was still skeptical, but Joan could tell she wanted to know more.

“They say that Conrad was a Nightingale once,” Aaron said. “When he ascended to the Court, he revoked all ties to his family. His loyalty is only to the King now. But he still has the Nightingale power. He can steal life from monsters.” His tone was becoming more subdued. “And . . . they say he can do other things. They say he can force people to travel with him.”

“He forced your cousin to travel with him?” Joan asked Aaron.

Aaron didn't seem to hear her. His attention was on something inside his own head. “Kit and I were walking back to our dorm room. When we turned the corner, Conrad was waiting for us.”

Aaron swiped a hand over his mouth. “He told us to follow him outside. He took us to the pond down by the football field. Well, they called it a pond, but it's more like a lake. I didn't go down there much. People used to say it was haunted.” Aaron's mouth twisted. “Conrad just stood there, looking at us. Then he said: ‘Do you know why I'm here?' He was so casual. He said: ‘Someone's been taking time at this school. Students who attend are eighteen percent more likely to die before the age of
seventy-five than the general population.' He said that one day that anomaly would draw the attention of human authorities. He said that the King didn't tolerate mistakes like that.”

“What did he do?” Joan asked, hushed.

“He just . . .” Aaron's hands curled into fists. “He told me to go to my room. I went. I stayed up all night, but Kit didn't come back. The police dredged the pond for him in the end. Because, see—” His voice cracked, finally. “See, back in the sixties, they'd found a boy's body in that pond. They thought maybe something like that had happened again.”

“Oh,” Ruth said, soft.

Aaron's hands uncurled and curled again. “We must have heard those stupid ghost stories a hundred times.”

“You just walked back to your room?” Joan blurted. “You didn't try to help your cousin or anything?”

Anger flashed over Aaron's face. “What do
you
know about going up against the Court?” There was a horrible rawness in his voice. A tone that Joan didn't fully understand.

“Okay,” Ruth said placatingly. “Okay.”

“Shit.” Aaron thumbed the corner of his eye. “We can't do this. We don't have a plan. We're not trained to fight. We have nothing.”

“We're going to plan this,” Joan said.

“We don't even know what we're looking for! We have no idea what this device looks like! We don't know where it will be! We wouldn't even know if we saw it!”

“You're right,” Joan said. “Okay, you're right. You're right.”
And he was right. They couldn't plan this knowing as little as they did. They needed more information.

Joan knew what she had to do.

The innkeeper was alone when Joan arrived at the inn. It was very late. Joan had left Aaron and Ruth asleep at the flat. Only the lights of the main dining room were still on. The wall of stained glass was dull without the backdrop of daylight. The cauldron of stew bubbled softly over the low-burning hearth.

“Was wondering when you'd come back,” the innkeeper said. He was sitting by the hearth, reading a book. As Joan got closer, she saw that it was in a language with a non-Roman alphabet.

“Have you found her?” she said.

The innkeeper dug into his pocket and retrieved a folded piece of paper. But he didn't give it to her. “Dorothy Hunt is not a good person,” he said. “I don't know what your business is with her, but you want my advice? Put this in the fire.”

Joan held out her hand for it.

Without her phone, Joan had to ask for directions and then more directions just to get to Soho. By the time she got to the address, the night was cold and black.

She stood outside the door, feeling a wave of déjà vu. Aaron wasn't with her this time, but there was a plaque beside the black door: a sea serpent engulfing a sailing ship. This was a monster place.

The door opened onto a short dark corridor with soft lights along the floor; it reminded Joan of walking up the aisle of an airplane. At the end, there was a room just a little wider than the corridor, lit with golden chandeliers the color of candlelight. A gleaming wooden bar ran the length of the room.

Joan stood there, frozen. There she was. Gran. Sitting alone at the bar, drinking. She couldn't have been more than twenty-five years old, dressed for the nineties in black ankle boots and a black gauzy dress with a Peter Pan collar.

Joan had expected her to be young, but not quite this young. Joan was reminded again that monsters were time travelers. She imagined them, suddenly, living a few months in this year; a few months in that one. Skipping back and forth between decades at whim. She wondered if she'd ever get her head around all this.

Gran was beautiful young—a different beautiful from her older self. Her cheekbones were still sharp. She had Ruth's hair: lustrous, dark curls. Her eyes were the same luminous green as in Joan's time.

And she was alive. She was alive and she was here.

“I fucking hate this song,” Gran said to the bartender conversationally. It was “Wind Beneath my Wings.” Gran and Aunt Ada had argued about it once. They'd all been at a funeral for a distant cousin of Gran's.
You don't even know this song
, Aunt Ada had hissed to Gran.
I know bullshit when I hear it
, Gran had hissed back.

BOOK: Only a Monster
10.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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