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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (21 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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The bartender lifted his head and saw Joan. “Out,” he said. “No kids in here.”

“I just want to talk,” Joan said. “To her. I just want to talk to Do—Dorothy.” She stumbled over Gran's name, unused to saying it.

“I'm not selling you anything,” the bartender said.

“I'm not buying,” Joan said. “Five minutes. Please.”

The bartender looked over at Gran, and Gran nodded slightly.

“Five minutes,” the bartender said. “I'm setting a timer.”

Joan took a deep breath and sat on the bar stool next to Gran's. She didn't know where to start. Gran lifted her glass, and Joan saw that her ring finger was bare. Joan had never seen her without her ruby wedding ring.

“I don't know you,” Gran said, with her usual gruff impatience. “What do you want?”

“I'm your granddaughter,” Joan blurted.

“Granddaughter?” Gran said. But her sharp gaze flicked over to Joan and then stayed.

“I look more like my dad.”

“What's your name?”

“Joan. Joan Chang-Hunt.”

“Chang. That's not a monster name.” Gran gulped down her drink. “So Maureen's been messing around with humans. Christ.”

Joan was shocked. Gran had never said anything like that to her before. Gran had always gotten along with Dad.

“You have something to tell me,” Gran said. “That's why you're here. Just say it.” And that was where Gran's harshness
was coming from, Joan realized. Gran had known the moment that Joan had said “granddaughter” that something bad was coming.

The memory of Gran's agonized breaths returned to Joan in a rush. The slow, pained rise and fall of her chest under Joan's hands.

“Just say it,” Gran said.

“You . . . Two days ago. Thirty years from now. You—you died. You were killed.” Joan's voice shook. “The human hero isn't just a myth, Gran. He's real. He came and killed our family. He killed—God, he killed
many people.”

Some of the harshness left Gran's face as Joan talked. Joan kept expecting the timeline to unravel as she told Gran the place and the time. But, just like with the post office, Joan could feel the timeline resisting. “Do you believe me?” she said to Gran.
Please believe me.

“I believe you,” Gran said, and Joan felt her chest loosen. She'd been tenser than she'd known. Gran called over the bartender to refill her glass.

Joan waited for him to leave again, and then lowered her voice. “Just before you died, you gave me a necklace,” she said. “A key to the Monster Court. I think you wanted me to find a device that the King once used to change the timeline. To stop the massacre and save our family. But I don't know how to find it, Gran.”

?” Gran said. “That's a myth.”

“A lot of myths seem to be proving true lately,” Joan said.

Gran's mouth turned downward. She always looked like that when she was thinking. When she was angry, she tended to look amused. When she was looking at a mark, her expression went blank.

“I always heard that the King keeps his treasures in the Royal Archive,” Gran said. She tilted her head, and a trick of the light made her familiar green eyes seem cool—almost cold.

Joan hadn't expected Gran to be so forthcoming. The older version of her was much cagier. She'd have asked Joan a lot more questions before telling her anything at all. Perhaps that wariness had come to her in older age.

“Did I tell you anything else?” Gran said. “Joan, wasn't it?”

Joan started to shake her head and then realized there
something else. She hadn't been deliberately withholding it. She'd archived it, hardly let herself think about it.

Keeping an eye on the bartender, Joan whispered to Gran what Gran had whispered to her. “Just before you died, you told me that someday soon I'd come into a power. Not the Hunt power, but another. It was the last thing you said. You told me not to trust anyone with the knowledge of it. And I haven't, I swear. You're the only one I've told.”

Gran's expression went blank. “A power?” She glanced up, and Joan realized, startled, that the bartender was standing a few paces away. He hadn't been there a second ago. He'd been drying glasses at the other end of the bar. “What kind of power?” Gran said.

“I—I don't know,” Joan whispered. “I haven't seen any sign of it yet.”

“Hmm,” Gran said. Her expression was still blank. She made two scratching motions with her forefinger. It was one of their family signals—the signal to fetch someone. But fetch who? It was usually accompanied by a name signal. Three fingers up for Ruth. Thumb and forefinger crossed for Aunt Ada. Forefinger and thumb in a
for Joan.

Who did she want Joan to fetch?

Gran made the name signal with her left hand, but not one Joan had ever seen before. Her hand was curled, thumb at an angle.

It wasn't until the bartender put down his cloth and said “Excuse me” that Joan realized the signal hadn't been intended for her at all. Gran didn't realize Joan had understood it. She didn't seem to know that one day she'd teach it to Joan.

Gran's green eyes were narrow and speculative now. She was looking at Joan like she was valuable. But not like a person was valuable. Like something that could be sold for a very high price.
You can't trust anyone with the knowledge of it
, Gran had said. Joan's chest felt painfully tight.

“Is there a toilet down there?” Joan pointed in the wrong direction, deeper into the bar, hoping that would be less suspicious. She knew that the bathroom was near the front door. She'd passed it on the way in.

“Back the way you came,” Gran said.

If you need to run, always imply that you'll return.
Gran had taught Joan that. “You won't go, will you?” Joan said. “You'll be here when I get back?”

“Haven't finished my drink, have I?” Gran said.

Joan made herself linger, even though all she wanted to do was to get out of this room—get away from this version of Gran who wasn't her gran. Who'd looked at Joan like she didn't mean anything to her. Who'd told the bartender to fetch someone.

Joan turned slowly. Putting her back to this Gran made her skin crawl. She walked to the corridor and turned the corner. She walked past the toilets, and then pushed open the door out onto the street. And then she ran.

She looked back, once, at the end of the laneway. The bartender was standing in the doorway, staring after her. Joan ran harder. She didn't look back again.

Gran had warned Joan not to trust anyone. It just hadn't occurred to Joan that she'd been including herself.

As Joan ran, she started to sob as she hadn't since Gran had died. Some part of her had believed that everything would be okay when she found Gran again. She'd believed that Gran would take over and stop Nick herself.

But the woman back there hadn't been Gran.

Joan's gran was dead. She was really dead. She'd died two days ago, and Joan hadn't been able to stop it.

Aaron was awake when Joan got back. He was sitting outside the flat, looking out onto the empty market below. It was very late now. The tables were tarped, the food stalls shuttered.

“Where did you go?” he whispered to Joan.

“I found out what we needed to know,” Joan said. “The King's treasures are kept in a place called the Royal Archive.
The device is called the
. We need to include that in our research—find out if there are any physical descriptions in the myths.”

Joan waited for Aaron to push back.
It's still too dangerous. Even if we get into the Court, how are we going to get into the archive?

But there was a different kind of frown on his face now. “Where did you go?” he said again, softer. “Joan, are you all right?”

“Course I'm all right.” Joan was glad it was too dark for him to see her face. “Come on,” she said. She held out her hand to help him up. “There's a lot to do.”

And in two nights' time, they'd save their families. They'd save everyone.


Two nights later, Joan paced the market flat, waiting for Aaron and Ruth to finish getting ready. Aaron had styled them all. He'd found Ruth a sparkling platinum dress and Joan a forest-green gown with a plunging back. The heavy drape of it brushed Joan's legs as she paced.

Aaron emerged first from behind the bookshelf partition, hand in his pocket. A young James Bond. His suit was the same pale gray as his eyes. Joan tried not to stare. He always turned strangers' heads, but this sophisticated look had made him mesmerizing. It was hard to look away.
He doesn't fit here
, Joan thought, not for the first time. He belonged at a glamorous estate, not in this little studio flat above a market.

“Nervous?” he said, and Joan realized with a strange feeling that he'd been watching her too, that his gaze had sought her as he'd entered the living area.

She made an effort to stop pacing. The gold light of sunset had tinted the stained-glass windows, making the whole room glow: a low-burning hearth. She
nervous. “Yes,” she admitted, and then wondered when she'd started to trust Aaron
enough to be that open with him. “Feels so close,” she explained. “Like maybe we'll have our families back tonight.”

“Maybe.” Aaron's gaze hadn't left hers. For a moment, Joan thought he was going to say something more, but he seemed to change his mind. He scooped up two shopping bags that had been resting by the bookshelf and brought them over to her.

“More clothes?” Joan said.

“Finishing touches,” Aaron said. He took out a midnight-blue velvet box. Inside, there was a long string of pearls, knotted at the center with diamonds. Joan stared at him. “Verisimilitude,” he said. “May I?”

Were the pearls real? Were the diamonds? Surely not. Verisimilitude.

Joan turned. She felt rather than heard him step closer—a change in temperature. She bunched her hair, tucked it over one shoulder, and ducked her head.

To her surprise, he draped the long heavy line of the necklace down her back rather than her front. She shivered as each pearl hit her skin, a splash of icy water. The pearls warmed quickly, though. She turned to find Aaron standing closer than she'd expected.

She thought he'd step back, but he stayed there in her space. His eyes seemed darker than they had a few moments ago. Joan's heart stuttered strangely.

“So what do you think?” she said. She tried to make it light, but they were so close that her voice came out unexpectedly intimate. “Will we pass for important people?”

When Aaron spoke, it was just as intimately, with no sign of his usual snide tone. “You're important,” he said, his gray eyes very serious. “I know you want your family back, but your life matters too.” Joan opened her mouth to protest, and he shook his head slightly. “Just . . .
be careful tonight. The Court is a dangerous place.”

Joan felt a stab of guilt then. She'd dragged Aaron to this point. From the beginning, all he'd wanted was to lie low, to be safe. “You don't have do this,” she said, just as serious as he was. “You keep saying you owe me. But you don't. We both know that debt has been paid.” Was there some special monster wording for this? “You're released,” she tried. “I release you.”

“Joan . . .” There was something complicated in his expression, something Joan couldn't decipher. He sighed and took a shoebox from another of the bags. He passed it to her. Inside, there was a pair of soft black flats. “In case we have to run,” he said.

They got a cab to Victoria Embankment. Tom had told them that the gate would open at midnight, near Whitehall Palace.

Joan had been confused. Whitehall Palace had burned down three hundred years ago.

“It's just the physical location,” Aaron had explained. “It's hard to keep track of what buildings are around when. If monsters say ‘Newgate Prison,' we just mean where it once stood.”

Now, as they walked up Horse Guards Avenue, Joan's chest felt tight. Even in daylight, there was something skeletal about
Whitehall's bleached buildings. Tonight, it felt like walking into the streets of the dead.

“I hate mires,” Aaron said as they walked. “They give me the creeps.”

“Mires are places where you can't travel,” Ruth explained to Joan. “This one stretches from Westminster Abbey to Leicester Square. You can't travel anywhere, in or out, while you're here.”

They'd scouted earlier to find a building recess with a view of the Banqueting House—the only part of Whitehall Palace still standing. The spot wasn't perfect—they were only shielded from the street by a railing. But as Joan settled into place beside Aaron, the darkness enveloped them. Down the road, clumps of tourists milled around the mounted sentries of the Horse Guards building, but the street was otherwise quiet.

Joan kept track of the time by counting Big Ben's strikes.

Ten o'clock went by. Then eleven o'clock. The temperature dropped.

Long after eleven, there was still no sign of a gate or of guests for the Court gala. The only warm part of Joan's body was her arm where it was pressed against Aaron's. She couldn't stop shivering. He must have been cold too. There was some room between him and the rail, but he hadn't moved from Joan's side.

“Maybe Tom got the time wrong,” Joan whispered.

“Maybe he's a drunken fool who hasn't been a guard in years,” Aaron whispered back.

Joan opened her mouth to answer, and then stopped.

Someone was emerging from the direction of Charing Cross. She nudged Aaron. Ruth was already looking.

The moon was gibbous, but offered little light. Only the person's silhouette was visible. Their gait as they passed was eerie—slow and gliding. Joan found herself holding her breath.

New footsteps made them all turn again, toward Parliament. Two more people were approaching. Men in Victorian top hats. And still more people from Horse Guards Avenue.

Big Ben began to sound. It was midnight.

The arrivals were all on foot. Some silhouettes were familiar, some alien—clothes from the distant past, or the future. Monsters.

Aaron's breath was coming shorter now. He sounded as nervous as Joan felt. She could just see his face, pale gray in the dark.

On Big Ben's last strike, the world seemed to still. The sounds of London ceased. No cars, no rush of water from the Thames. No insects in the air. Joan craned to look at the horse guards. They were sitting on their horses, still as ever. Terrified? Or had they been frozen in time?

“Look,” Aaron breathed. He nodded at the junction between Horse Guards Avenue and Whitehall.

At first Joan wasn't sure if she was making patterns out of nothing, like seeing shapes in clouds. But something seemed to be changing in the junction. Shadows were shifting like smoke.

“What is it?” Ruth whispered.

Joan had seen it before—in paintings of old London. “It's
the gate,” she said. “It's the Whitehall Palace gate.”

The shadows solidified into a huge arch straddling Horse Guards Avenue. It was the arch alone, without the palace walls—the bare brick bones of it. Joan stared. Inside the arch, the stars were unaligned with the sky outside. Inside, the moon was full. And framed like a picture was Whitehall Palace, beautiful and whole, before the fire.

A lone figure came into view—on the wrong side of the gate. The figure stepped through, and a male voice rang out, theatrical and baritone. “Welcome to the Monster Court.”

A murmur of excitement ran through the crowd. The road in front of the arch was full of people now, and more were arriving. The atmosphere was giddy in pockets, solemn in others. But above all, a strange tension hung over everything. Joan could feel why. Some sixth sense inside her—the monster sense—could feel the timeline straining fruitlessly against this unnatural beast. Whitehall Palace out of its time.

“I've never seen anything like this,” Ruth whispered. “I always heard that the King had power, but seeing it . . .”

Joan scanned the crowd. Aaron seemed to know who she was looking for. “Those guards aren't moving,” he whispered. “If the hero is here, he's frozen like the other humans. There's some kind of suspension over everything but monsters. I've never seen power like this either.”

“This is the advantage that we need,” Joan whispered back. “If Nick can't get in—even with that key—
get the device,
not him. Then we'll just have to figure out how to use it.”

“One thing at a time,” Aaron said. “We're not in yet.” He nodded at the gate, where guards were verifying people's identities before allowing them through.

Tom had explained how the gate identification would work.

“There'll be a guest list at the door,” he'd said.

“And you can get us on the guest list?” Joan had asked.

“No,” Tom had said, as if that were a ridiculous thought. “The guards have a book of personal marks. That's the guest list. Guests find their mark in the list and then stamp their chop next to it to prove their identity. But I know for a fact that the guard who checks the marks gets lazy late in the night. So just get into the line late, and then find a mark that's a near match to yours.”

“And if we can't find a near match?” Aaron said.

“Then you'll get found out,” Tom said. “He's lazy, not an idiot.”

That had presented a problem. Joan didn't have a chop, and the other two couldn't leave a record of their real marks at the gate.

Tom had taken them down to a marina where narrowboats and barges with peeling paint bobbed up and down on brown water. His little bulldog, Frankie, had toddled behind him. When her stubby legs had struggled with the wharf steps, Tom had leaned down and bundled her under one arm.

“The Hathaways live on the canals and the river,” Ruth had
whispered to Joan. “This is their territory.”

Muscular men and women had eyed them from boat decks and from chairs set up along the wharf. There'd been a homespun quality to the boats; most had obvious repairs. They'd all had the same symbol, painted on the cabin or as the weather vane: a two-headed hound, growling and black.

Real animals had been everywhere too—lounging on decks and running underfoot: dogs, birds, cats.

Tom had climbed down into a boat at the end of the wharf, Frankie still under his arm. He'd returned with a tray full of chops, the figurines dull and dirty.

“Tell me you're not a grave robber,” Aaron had said.

“Don't be daft,” Tom had said. “They came out of the river. Everything washes up on the foreshore. Even monster chops.” He held out the tray. “Go on. Pick.”

Aaron had gone first. He'd sorted through all the chops, dismissive until he'd finally found a bronze mermaid figurine.

“Not much of a disguise,” Ruth had said.

“I'm clearly an Oliver,” Aaron had said. “No one would believe anything less.”

Ruth had gone next. She'd chosen a Patel family chop: a white horse, its chipped enamel showing glimpses of the bronze beneath.

Joan had picked out a figurine that reminded her of the sea serpent images beside monster doors. “A dragonara serpent,” Ruth had said. Joan had turned it over. The underside had been etched with a name—
Lia Portelli

Joan gripped her figurine now as she waited in the queue. The gate arched behind the guards, creating a dark passage between this world and the next. Through the gap, Whitehall Palace gleamed, bone white as the Banqueting House.

Aaron stepped up to the guard. “Henry Oliver,” he said.

The book of marks sat open on a pedestal like a guest book at a wedding.

The guard turned the pages with a white-gloved hand. Joan glimpsed caged-bird stamps for pages and pages, and then the Oliver mermaids.

Aaron ran a finger down the page, one hand in his pocket as if he were bored by the ritual. Then he reached for the golden ink pad and stamped his seal beside one of the marks.

The guard glanced down at the book. Joan held her breath. Now, at the crucial moment, the whole plan seemed stupid. It relied too much on one man's poor judgment, and on luck—the stamps would have to look reasonably similar.

“Pleasant evening,” Aaron commented to the guard.

“The dates on both sides were chosen for the occasion,” the guard said. He nodded at Aaron. “Welcome to the Monster Court.” He waved Aaron through. Joan breathed out in relief.

Ruth was waved through next.

And then it was Joan's turn. She took her place in front of the guard. He was wearing a dark blue uniform with gold braid. This close, she could see that his gold buttons were etched with winged lions. She'd seen the same creature on monster
currency. And again on the guards' pins at the market. The symbol of the Monster Court.

The guard himself was just as Tom had described him: curly blond hair under the braided guard's hat, and heavy-lidded eyes already dull with boredom.

BOOK: Only a Monster
6.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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