Extract: ‘Deadly Curiosities’ by Gail Z. Martin

Today we get a sneak peek at one of the upcoming summer titles from Solaris Books: ‘Deadly Curiosities’ by Gail Z. Martin. You might know the author from ‘The Chronicles of the Necromancer’ , the ‘Fallen King’s Cycle’ and ‘Ascendant Kingdoms’. Her new book, ‘Deadly Curiosities’, the frist of a brand new Urban Fantasy series, will be published on the 25th of June in the US and Canada and on the 3rd of July in the UK.  Still some time ’till the book hits shelves, but you can read the first two chapters here today!

About the book:

Deadly CuriositiesCassidy Kincaide owns Trifles & Folly, an antique/curio store and high-end pawn shop in Charleston, South Carolina that is more than what it seems. Dangerous magical and supernatural items sometimes find their way into mortal hands or onto the market, and Cassidy is part of a shadowy Alliance of mortals and mages whose job it is to take those deadly curiosities out of circulation.

Welcome to Trifles & Folly, an antique and curio shop with a dark secret. Proprietor Cassidy Kincaide continues a family tradition begun in 1670—acquiring and neutralizing dangerous supernatural items. It’s the perfect job for Cassidy, whose psychic gift lets her touch an object and know its history. Together with her business partner Sorren, a 500 year-old vampire and former jewel thief, Cassidy makes it her business to get infernal objects off the market. When mundane antiques suddenly become magically malicious, it’s time for Cassidy and Sorren to get rid of these Deadly Curiosities before the bodies start piling up.

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Extract:

Chapter One

 

“Have you ever seen something you can’t explain?” The woman peered at me anxiously, looking to me for validation.

“Sure. Hasn’t everyone?” My answer was meant to put her at ease, but it was a dodge. If I answered her question directly, she definitely wouldn’t rest easy, now or maybe ever again.

I’m Cassidy Kincaide, owner of Trifles and Folly, an estate auction and antiques shop in historic – and haunted – Charleston, South Carolina. On the side, we’re also a high-end pawn shop. I inherited the shop, which has been in my family since 1670. Most people think we deal in antiques and valuable oddities, and we do. But our real job is getting dangerous supernatural objects off the market before anyone gets hurt. When we succeed, no one notices. When we don’t, the damage usually gets blamed on some sort of natural disaster.

It’s the perfect job for me since I’m not just a history geek, I’m also a psychometric. I read the strong emotions connected to objects, and often I get bits of memories, voices, and images. So when my customer asked if I’d ever seen anything I can’t explain, I was certain she didn’t really want to know the truth, because I had seen some very scary stuff.

“Maybe it’s the lenses,” the woman said, bringing me back to our conversation. “In the opera glasses. When I look through them at home, or in my yard, they seem to be fine. But when I take them to a show, there are… shadows… and the images get blurry.”

I was willing to bet that there was more to it, but it didn’t take a psychic to see that my customer was being careful with what she said, worried I would think she was imagining things, or worse.

“That can happen in old pieces like this,” I said, allowing her to save face. “Lenses are delicate things. Over the years, if they get bumped or jostled too much, they can get out of alignment.”

In front of me on the counter lay a beautiful set of opera glasses, the kind refined ladies of a bygone era took to the theater for a better view of the stage. They were finely crafted, with mother-of-pearl inlay and brass trim, and I could imagine them being tucked into the beaded handbag of a well-to-do patron of the arts. Without even touching them, I could also sense that they were not entirely what they seemed.

“Are you interested in purchasing them?” The woman seemed antsy, like she was ready to be rid of the item and be gone.

I smiled at her. “They’re lovely,” I said. “We’d be happy to purchase them.” I paused. “Can you tell me a little about their history? Buyers love pieces that have a story to go with them.”

Now that the opera glasses were no longer her problem, the woman seemed to relax a little. She was dressed casually, but I knew enough about clothing to know that her silk t-shirt, designer slacks, and tasteful-yet-expensive shoes probably cost more than the current balance of my bank account, and that was without adding the real gold earrings, Swarovski crystal bangle bracelet, and elegant (and large) diamond wedding set. Although she obviously took good care of herself, I saw a few tell-tale clues that made me guess that she was older than I had originally guessed, probably in her early seventies.

“They belonged to my great-grandmother,” she said, giving the opera glasses a wary look. “She came from a well-to-do family up North, and moved to Charleston when she married my great-grandfather around the turn of the last century,” she added. “According to family legend, she was quite a patron of the theater. She saw all the greats of the day, actresses like Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt, and actors like the Barrymores and Eddie Foy, Sr.”

I nodded, and although the names sounded vaguely familiar from a long-ago college theater history class, I couldn’t remember any details.

“So early 1900s?” I asked, but the opera glasses had already given me the answer. From their materials, finish, and workmanship, I knew they came from a time when craftsmen took their work seriously.

The woman nodded. “Of course, I never met her. But the opera glasses have been handed down through the family, and when my aunt died, she left them to me because I always loved going to plays.” She sounded wistful, and I followed her gaze to look at the beautiful glasses that had made her so wary. It was a shame that whatever supernatural qualities they possessed had made her unable to enjoy the gift.

I looked over to the other counter where the register sat. “Teag will take care of you,” I said, catching the eye of Teag Logan, my assistant manager. I knew Teag read my look for what it really meant, and that he would be certain to get the name, address, and phone number of our visitor in case the object turned out to be more of a problem than it appeared.

I waited until Teag paid the woman and she had left the store before I ran my hand just above the opera glasses. Teag came over for a closer look. “Do we have a ‘spooky’ or a ‘sparkler’? He asked.

That was our short-hand way of describing the items that came into the store that had a supernatural element to them. ‘Mundanes’ were regular items that didn’t require special handling. ‘Sparklers’ had a little something extra about them, but nothing dangerous. ‘Spookies’ had a darker edge, maybe even a malevolence. They go into the back room until my silent partner, Sorren, can safely get rid of them.

“It’s got some kind of juju,” I said, “but I’m not sure what just yet.” I gave Teag a sidelong look. “I thought I’d wait until the customer left before I pick it up, just in case I put on a show.” I tucked a stray strand of strawberry-blonde hair behind my ear. Late spring in Charleston meant it was already hot and humid, and although I was twenty-six and possibly ready for a more ‘grown up’ hairstyle, most of the time I wrestled my hair into a ponytail and hoped for the best. With my green eyes and pale skin, I often felt light-headed from the Southern heat, even when I didn’t handle an item with a questionable supernatural past.

Teag chuckled, but it sounded forced. Sometimes, when I handle an object, the emotions and memories are overwhelming and I get pulled in to its energy. When that happens, I can end up flat on my back – or unconscious. Teag isn’t just my assistant store manager. He’s also my assistant auctioneer, archivist, and occasional bodyguard, with his own powerful magical gift.

“What do you make of it?” I asked Teag. I was stalling before touching the opera glasses, and both of us knew it.

“Without looking them up, I’d say mid- to late nineteenth century, possibly imported, definitely expensive,” Teag replied.

Once upon a time, Teag had been studying for his doctorate in history at the University of Charleston before Sorren and I recruited him to work at Trifles and Folly. The history and the mystery of what we do got him hooked, and now he’s ABD (All But Dissertation) and in no particular hurry to finish his degree. He’s good looking, tall, and slender, with a skater boy mop of dark hair, and a wicked sense of humor. And right now, he looked worried.

“Let’s see what I see,” I said, working up my nerve to pick up the glasses. Teag moved a little closer, the better to keep me from falling to the floor if things went wrong.

My fingers tingled when I picked up the opera glasses; a sure sign there was some supernatural juice flowing through them. I picked up a jumble of feelings: confusion, fear, sadness. Then I took a deep breath and held the glasses up to my eyes. It was like looking through a miniature pair of very ornate binoculars. I could see the other side of the store very clearly, and when I turned toward Teag, I could see the pores in his skin and the stubble from his morning shave.

“Well?”

I set the glasses down and sighed. “Nothing unusual. But that’s what she said – strange things only happened when she took the glasses to the theater.”

“There’s a production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the Academy Theater,” Teag said, naming one of Charleston’s many wonderful refurbished old theaters. “Are you doing anything tomorrow night?”

Since my love life at the moment was also ABD (All But Defunct), the chances of me having big plans on a Saturday night were slim. And since Maggie, our part-time helper, had called off sick, I’d be spending the weekend working at the shop anyway. I checked the calendar on my phone, just to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I hadn’t.

“Sure,” I said. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the City Players, and I’d love to go.” I frowned. “Don’t you and Anthony have anything planned? I don’t want to mess up date night.”

Anthony was Teag’s other diversion from finishing his Ph.D. With his blond hair, blue eyed boy-next-door good looks, and his Battery Row charm, I could definitely see the attraction. Anthony had just finished law school and taken a position with the family law firm. He and Teag had been a couple now for over a year, and the three of us often went out together, or double dated when I was seeing someone.

“He’s got a couple of big cases going right now,” Teag said, shaking his head. “I’ve barely seen him all week, and he warned me that he’d be working late all weekend. So I was resigned to spending the night alone with a movie.”

“In that case, let’s see the show,” I said. I don’t mind a quiet evening at home, but the idea of an impromptu night out was sounding better and better.

“How about if I slip over and see if I can get tickets?” Teag suggested. “I’ll be right back.”

“Sounds good,” I agreed. “Did you get a name for our seller?”

Teag nodded. “Trinket Ellison. Of the Battery Park Ellisons. Don’t you ever read the social page? Her family has been in Charleston as long as yours has; in other words, practically since the first ships dropped anchor.”

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to that kind of thing,” I said, and it was true, although in Charleston, the old families all knew each other socially. “The real mystery is, how did a woman from up north – no matter how wealthy – end up marrying into an old Charleston family like the Ellisons back in the day?” I shook my head. “Some folks in these parts hadn’t gotten over The War by then.”

Truth be told, even now, some folks hereabouts still weren’t over The War. That would be what folks up north called the Civil War and what Charlestonians were more likely to call the War Between the States if they were being polite and the War of Northern Aggression if they weren’t.

Teag shrugged. “Beats me. I’ll ask Anthony. He usually knows everything about everybody.”

Trust a lawyer from an old established family to know all the dirt, I thought.

While Teag went out for tickets, I went through my email. One of the messages caught my eye. The sender was ‘Rebecca@GardeniaLandingB&B.com’ and I was almost ready to hit ‘delete’ expecting a sales pitch before I read the message.

 

We’re having some problems with several antique décor pieces we recently acquired. Maggie told me that you’re good with this kind of thing and I was hoping you could please stop by. She says you have a knack for dealing with haunted items. I’ll be happy to comp your stay for a night or two if you would come. I don’t know who else to ask, and I can’t put up with things the way they are.

 

I sat back and stared at the screen. At first, I thought maybe she had purchased some items to decorate her bed and breakfast and changed her mind about them. It happens. Several local interior decorators shop at our store on a regular basis (of course, we only show them the mundanes or the tame sparklers).

But it didn’t sound like the problem had to do with a decorator’s style. Maggie didn’t know the full story about what we do at Trifles and Folly, but she did know I had a gift for recognizing haunted things. She was discreet enough to only mention that if the client raised the issue first. Rebecca’s last line sounded desperate, and scared. I frowned. If Rebecca was correct, how on earth had she gotten her hands on a sparkler without my knowing about it?

I thought for a moment, then hit reply. I’ll be glad to help, I wrote, but can you please tell me more about the problem? I hit send and went back to my email, deleting a few spammy messages. I figured Rebecca probably wouldn’t get back to me until tomorrow, but just as I was getting ready to step away from the computer, a new message popped into my inbox.

You really need to see for yourself, Rebecca had written. Please, please come – soon.

Well, that was interesting. The desperation was unmistakable. Although it was Friday, I wasn’t quite spontaneous enough to consider packing up and heading out to her B&B.

But come to think of it, I was due to have some work done on my house next week. I live in the house my parents inherited from my great-uncle Evanston, the same one who left me Trifles and Folly. It’s what folks in Charleston call a ‘single house’, a two-story brick house from the 1880s that’s only one room wide, with a porch (called a piazza) that runs along one side. It’s a lovely house, but its age means there’s a lot of upkeep. My parents happily sold the house to me for a token payment when they moved to Charlotte, leaving me the proud owner of a home I absolutely loved and couldn’t possibly afford otherwise.

I was getting the hardwood floors refinished, and between the mess and the smell, that meant that that Baxter, my little Maltese, and I were going to have to find another place to stay for a few days. I’d already booked Baxter into the local puppy spa, and I’d made reservations for myself at a chain hotel, but Rebecca’s invitation could turn necessity into a mini-vacation – depending on just how much of a problem Rebecca was having, and how easy it was to fix.

How about next Tuesday and Wednesday? I emailed back.

THANK YOU!!! Rebecca replied, and I figured from the all caps and the extra punctuation that she was very happy.

 

*     *     *

Teag wasn’t back yet, so I plugged Gardenia Landing into Google and did a little online sleuthing. A tasteful web page popped up, with images of an idyllic old home that looked both restful and expensive. The bed and breakfast looked charming.

I read through the home’s history. The house dated from the 1850s, practically qualifying it as new construction in a city as old as Charleston. That meant it had seen a lot of history, and stood a good chance of having a few resident ghosts, like many of the older homes in Charleston.

Heck, if you believed the guides on the nightly ghost tour carriage rides, every house, garage, and alleyway was haunted. Some of that made for good fun for the tourists, but there was an uncomfortable undercurrent of truth. Charleston was a beautiful city, but it had been built on the blood, toil, and misery of African slaves. Pirates had been tried and hanged here, duels were once common, and the plagues, earthquakes, and hurricanes that claimed thousands of lives over the years left restless spirits aplenty. In nearly four hundred years, Charleston also had more than a few sensational murders. Stories of the taverns and brothels of long ago – and the inevitable fights they spawned – still made good gossip. Charleston might prefer its nickname of ‘the Holy City’ for its many churches, but it was one of the most haunted places in the country, for good reason.

So Gardenia Landing might have a few resident ghosts, I mused. I’d have to do some digging into its history. Beneath many a charming façade lay tawdry tales of mayhem and murder. Some places played up their checkered history, while others tried all the harder for respectability. Gardenia Landing wasn’t hawking ghost tours, so I guessed that its owner wasn’t viewing supernatural activity as being good for business.

“Got them!” Teag sang out as he burst into the shop, sending the strip of sleigh bells on the front door jangling. “Two tickets, Grand Tier. So we’re in the first balcony, but up against the railing with a good view of the stage.” He was grinning ear to ear.

“Technically, the show is sold out, but the theater manager is a friend of mine, and I wheedled a favor out of him, for old times’ sake,” Teag added with a conspiratorial wink.

“What’s it going to cost us?” I asked with a smile. Teag could work social connections – real or online – better than anyone I know, but there was usually some quid pro quo involved.

Teag shrugged. “I might have said we would consider loaning a few pieces for one of their upcoming plays – with proper credit in the program book, of course, so it’s almost like free advertising.”

I chuckled. In my opinion, Teag had been wasting his talent on a Ph.D. in history. He had the instincts of an impresario coupled with the social finesse of a master fundraiser. Turns out it wasn’t just his magnetic personality: some of it was magic. Fairly recently, Teag discovered he had a supernatural gift as a ‘Weaver’, someone who could work spells into woven goods – and into the ‘web’ of the Internet. Teag had an uncanny talent for following information strands, either offline or online, to find and piece together bits of data and weave it into valuable intel. Now we knew it wasn’t all luck.

“We’ll need the insurance paperwork and receipts, but that’s easily done,” I said. “I’m excited about the play.”

“You need to get out more, Cassidy,” Teag said, sounding like a big brother.

I shrugged, afraid to answer because it was true, and switched subjects. “Have you ever heard of Gardenia Landing?”

Teag frowned, thinking. “Bed and breakfast?”

I nodded. “I just got a rather desperate email from the owner begging me to come stay – for free – and help her with a problem with an item she got here.”

Teag scratched his head. “I don’t remember selling anything to a B&B owner.”

“She may have gone through a decorator.”

“Okay. I can go through our list of regulars and see which designers have made purchases lately.”

“Please. I’d like to have a clue about what I’m walking into before I go out there.”

Teag raised an eyebrow. “You’re going? Just like that?”

“Baxter and I need to get out of the house for a couple of days while the hardwoods get done over – remember?”

“What about the owner’s ‘problem’?”

I shrugged. “If she bought something here, it couldn’t be more than a sparkler. Maybe the B&B has its own ghosts, and they amped up the new piece so it’s acting out. At best, I find it and figure out how to neutralize it. At worst, I offer her store credit and a replacement and bring it back for Sorren to deal with.”

Teag fixed me with the kind of stare my grandmother used to use if she caught me in a fib. “You know, and I know, that ‘at worst’ can be a whole lot worse than that. Be careful, Cassidy. Sorren’s not going to like you going out there by yourself when we don’t know what you’re up against.”

I grimaced. “I’ll figure something out,” I muttered.

What Teag said was true. Sorren was the mastermind behind Trifles and Folly, from its beginning nearly four hundred years ago. He had been the silent partner with the shop’s owner – always a relative of mine – down through the centuries. Sorren was also one of the early members of the Alliance, the group that got rid of dangerous magical items.

“Maybe you should let Sorren know about this before you go,” Teag said, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s probably nothing,” I said. “I don’t want to bother Sorren until we know for certain.” When I inherited the store from my great-Uncle Evan, I inherited the ‘real’ family business: protecting Charleston against supernatural danger. Sorren was part of that package. The Alliance was the other piece.

Sorren’s maker had brought him into the Alliance in the 1500s when Sorren was a century old. The Alliance has been busy since then. When we make a mistake, lots of people die. Plagues, floods, earthquakes – fewer of them are natural than people think. Often, there are supernatural or magical fingerprints all over them, because someone very powerful made them happen. I didn’t want that on my conscience. On the other hand, the Alliance included some very powerful magic users and immortals. They didn’t get involved in routine hauntings.

“Speaking of Sorren,” Teag said, “This came for you.” He held out an overnight mail sleeve and I ripped it open to find a letter in Sorren’s distinctive handwriting. “Hasn’t he heard of email?”

I chuckled. Sorren used email just fine, and we both knew it. But with my gift, a letter carried far more information than what it actually said, information that couldn’t fall into the wrong hands if it were intercepted.

“Let’s see what he has to say,” I said, and sat down before I touched the envelope. But as soon as my fingers touched the crisp paper, I knew we were in for trouble.

“He’s worried about something,” I said. In a nod to the old ways, Sorren still used a drop of sealing wax embossed with the imprint of his signet ring to seal the envelope. It wasn’t an artistic flourish: there was magic in the wax that kept the letter eyes-only for the recipient.

I broke the seal and pulled out the short note. “On my way,” I read aloud. “Be careful. Something’s up – not sure what. Big players involved. Details soon – Sorren.”

But the paper told me much more. Death and danger had gotten the Alliance’s attention, and Sorren was worried. His warning was clear. Something very bad was heading our way.

Sorren took his commitment to my family – and to me – very seriously. And if I thought Teag was overprotective, he couldn’t compete with a six hundred year-old vampire.

 

Chapter Two

 

I felt rushed and flustered as I bustled to answer the front door. It was Saturday evening, and I’d spent the day rushing around. Baxter scampered back and forth underfoot, and barked up a storm when he knew we had a visitor.

“Ready to go?” Teag asked, stepping inside. He looked good in a sport coat and slacks. His dark eyes held a hint of mischief, and he was wearing his trendy glasses instead of contacts, which added to the dashing young professor look. For once, his hair was tamed enough to stay out of his eyes. Since Teag tended to favor jeans and t-shirts, I suspected Anthony might have had a hand in selecting his wardrobe for the evening. He was more dressed up than I’d ever seen him, and I grinned. He bent down to scoop Baxter into his arms and tousled Bax’s ears.

“Anthony’s going to wish he’d joined us,” I said. “You clean up well.”

Teag laughed. “So do you.”

I was wearing a sundress and heels, a tribute to the spring weather. A light wrap was slung across my shoulders, in case the theater was cold. Given Charleston’s hot and humid weather, odds were good that the difference between the outside air and the A/C on the inside would be enough to fog my sunglasses.

“Here’s hoping that the opera glasses don’t pack much of a psychic wallop, so we can both enjoy the show,” Teag said.

The small binoculars were tucked in my purse. I had handled them several times, and even tried using them to view a television show, thinking that might activate whatever our client had seen. Nothing happened. That meant that either the opera glasses only did their thing for live theater, or perhaps our client had an overly active imagination.

Although technically our outing was work-related, I was excited. Maybe that said something about my social life, but the truth was, when I wasn’t working late at the store, I socialized with a small group of friends, or savored a quiet evening with a good book, a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and my little Maltese. Charleston offered one soiree after another, many for charitable causes, but the constant social swirl seemed more obligation than recreation. So I had to admit my excitement included looking forward to the play itself, not just figuring out what was going on with the opera glasses.

“Did you know this play was originally produced in 1939?” Teag asked as we headed to the theater. He became a theater-geek fountain of information, keeping me entertained until we reached our destination.

“I’ve got to admit, I’m as interested in the theater itself as the play,” I said, pausing on the other side of the street to take in the grand marquis that jutted out, retro-style, over the sidewalk and rose like a tower along the front of the building. We had to walk a few blocks since parking tonight was at a premium. “The theater’s a drama queen in its own way.”

Teag chuckled. “The Academy has been a Southern belle, a movie star, a spurned lover, a bag lady, and a dowager queen. This was the biggest vaudeville theater in the South back in the day. Even after movies came out and many of the old theaters were converted to show motion pictures, the Academy remained the place to see a live performance in Charleston.”

I felt a rush of excitement as we walked into the Academy. The theater lobby had been painstakingly refurbished to its glory days. From the big, retro lit-up marquis outside to the old-style concession stand, plush red carpets, and velvet-upholstered seats, the Academy Theater was quite a showplace. It had taken a major effort from the community and the city’s theater lovers to pull off the fundraising and renovation, but the results were stunning. Everything screamed Victorian abundance, from the lush burgundy velvet curtains and the plush carpet to the crystal chandeliers, gilded decorations, and huge mirrors.

“But the movies won out, didn’t they,” I said.

“For a while,” Teag replied. “It closed in the 1970s, and it was empty for a long time. The local arts community managed to keep it from being torn down. Some well-heeled investors finally put the Academy back in business.”

Those investors must have had pretty high heels and deep pockets, I thought, looking around at the opulent decor. Every detail had been lovingly restored, a nod to an era that believed too much was never enough.

“We’re in the Grand Tier,” Teag reminded me as we climbed the sweeping marble steps. Even the railing was an ornate masterpiece, and each step seemed to bring us closer to the huge, sparkling crystal chandelier that was the centerpiece of the lobby. “So we should have a great view of the stage as well as the theater itself.”

We found our seats. The view was amazing. Once we were settled, I pulled the opera glasses from my purse. The mother-of-pearl inlay glistened in the lights. The opera glasses consisted of a petite set of adjustable magnifying lenses on a single inlaid vertical handle. I could hold the lenses up to my eyes with the handle like a carnival mask, without having to take a two-handed grip like a crazed bird-watcher. It all felt very glamorous in an old-fashioned movie-star kind of way.

Yet as I touched the opera glasses, I felt something that had not been present in the store; I felt uneasy, as if something were about to happen.

“Are you getting any vibes from this place?” I asked.

Teag was trying to eavesdrop on the couple sitting in the row ahead of us. My comment startled him. “Vibes? Just awe in the presence of this much bling,” he replied.

I had to agree, the Academy reminded me of a wealthy woman who had decided to wear her entire diamond collection – and perhaps all of Tiffany’s – at the same time. But I didn’t think the feeling I was getting from the opera glasses was a fashion statement.

I lifted the glasses to my eyes, and looked around the theater. No one was on stage yet, but with the lenses, I felt as if I were right in the footlights. Something moved off to the side, but when I turned my head, I saw no one. I continued to pan the theater, spying on the people in the box seats, admiring the outfits and jewelry of other theater-goers. From somewhere, I heard a child crying. I froze. It wasn’t the sound of a baby fussing or a testy toddler. The sound was faint, but it was a howl of fear and anguish that made my blood run cold.

“Cassidy, are you okay?” Teag looked at me anxiously.

“Did you hear that?” I struggled to keep my voice down.

“Hear what?” Teag’s expression was sincerely confused.

“I swear I just heard a child screaming for his life, and before that, I thought I saw a black shadow to the side of the stage.”

Teag shook his head. “I’ve been staring at the stage for the last several minutes, and I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anyone screaming, either.” I must have looked unconvinced. “Look around, Cassidy. If a child were screaming bloody murder, don’t you think people would be restless, trying to figure out what was going on?”

The other patrons were engrossed in conversation or studying their programs. I eyed the opera glasses with suspicion and a little trepidation. “I’m beginning to get an idea of what Trinket saw,” I murmured.

The orchestra was just warming up. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts float free. Now, as I sat in my comfortable velvet seat, I began to get snippets of images that seemed utterly out of place.

A pirate. Dancing girls. The old woman who lived in a shoe. I shook my head, wondering where the images were coming from, but more flickered in my mind. I saw a building that looked like a Greek temple on the outside, and a lavish Victorian palace on the inside. On a busy street, snow lay banked along the sidewalk, and I shivered as if a gust of winter wind had suddenly swept past me.

“It’s starting,” Teag murmured, jostling me out of my vision. Shaken by what I had seen, I was glad to be brought back to the present. I opened my eyes, and for an instant, the Academy Theater I had entered was gone. I saw a stage set with scenery like a castle, and heard the faint strains of a waltz played by an orchestra. In front of me were a row of women in fancy velvet and silk shawls and men in dark coats with stiff white collars. I glanced down at my lap and saw the opera glasses as well as the long satin sleeves and full skirt of my dress, my high-button shoes just peaking their toes from beneath the hem.

I blinked my eyes and everything was as it should be. Gone were the castle sets, the old-fashioned clothing and winter wraps, and the waltz. My pastel cotton sundress was as cheery as ever, my arms were bare and my hem ended above my knees. I resisted the urge to bolt from my seat, and tried to stop shaking by taking several deep breaths.

“Cassidy?” Teag’s voice was a low stage whisper. “What’s going on?”

I swallowed hard. “I don’t know yet, but I have the feeling I’m going to find out.”

I tried to regain my composure. The opera glasses remained on top of my evening purse, not touching my skin. On stage, the classic play unfolded just as I remembered from high school. The audience loved it, but I couldn’t shake a growing sense of doom.

The brightly lit exit signs caught my attention. They suddenly seemed far away. Panic tightened in my chest. How long would it take to reach the doors? I wondered. Could I climb over the seats if I had to? What about all the children in the aisles?

Children in the aisles? I thought, shaking myself out of my reverie. The aisles were empty.

Teag was watching me with a worried expression. The woman on the other side of me glanced away quickly when I looked in her direction. She was probably wondering if I had forgotten to take my medication.

I let out a long sigh and got up the courage to lift the opera glasses once more. At first, the binoculars gave me a bird’s eye view of the play we’d come to see. But the longer I watched, the more often I caught glimpses of shadows crossing the stage. I was about to put the opera glasses down when a spark of light near the catwalk caught my eye.

I peered through the glasses, scanning the rigging that moved the scenery. A light flared, then disappeared. A few seconds later, I saw it again. Was that a flame? Before I could grab for Teag’s arm, a new onslaught of images overwhelmed me.

Fire billowed above the stage. Voices began to shout and the people around me pointed toward the curtain, which had now burst into flames. A man on stage shouted for us to remain calm and begged the orchestra to keep on playing, but people were already climbing out of their seats, running toward the doors. Doors? Where were the doors? I grabbed my son’s hand, dragging him over the seat in front of us, as he cried and whimpered, knowing we had just a few moments before the smoke made escape impossible.

Smoke filled the theater. The lights went out. Nothing but darkness and flame. I held tight to my son’s hand, and pushed toward where I had seen a door. I’d never felt a press of bodies like this, and I gathered my son into my arms, knowing that if we fell we would be trampled. An elbow caught me in the ribs, but I kept on, maneuvering into the places between people where there was a little space. I could hear shrieks behind us, and it felt as if an ocean wave was building, set to carry us out or roll us under. The doors gave way and cold winter air hit us. We stumbled out into the snow, pushed from behind. I was gulping in great lungfuls of cold winter air but everything still smelled like smoke…

“Cassidy? Cassidy!” I could hear Teag’s voice from a distance, but I couldn’t stop shaking long enough to answer. I was shaking from remembered cold, from a long-dead woman’s mortal terror, and from grief, because I knew in my heart that so many of those in the vision had not made it out alive.

“Does she have seizures like this often?” A stranger’s voice was matter-of-fact.

“Sometimes she forgets her pills,” Teag replied in a confidential tone. “It’s not as bad as it looks. I’m sorry for the disruption.”

“Maybe we’d better take her to the hospital, check her over,” the stranger, a security guard, said. I was coming back to myself, and embarrassment replaced terror. I had a vague idea of what must have happened, and if I was right, I’d probably never be able to show my face in this theater again.

“Really, she’ll be fine,” Teag protested. “Just let me get her home, let her get some rest, and she’ll be better by morning.”

“I’m fine,” I managed groggily. “Really.”

Teag and the guard helped me to my feet, one man under each arm. The patrons next to me had already vacated their seats, giving me one more reason to want to sink into the earth and disappear.

“Keep your head down and lean on us,” Teag whispered. “That way fewer people can see your face and people will feel sorry for you because you’re sick.”

I groaned, but kept my face averted and let my rescuers half-carry me to the lobby.

“If you change your mind about the ambulance –” the guard said.

“She’s going to be fine,” Teag said, with his friendliest puppy-dog grin. “Her color is coming back already. I can get her out to the car from here. Thank you so much.”

The guard grunted something I didn’t quite catch, then retreated. Teag scooped an arm under my shoulders and helped me stand, then steered me toward the ladies room.

There was a lounge area in the rest room, and I sat for a few minutes to catch my breath, then went to the sink and splashed cold water on my face. I stood up straight and squared my shoulders as I walked out to the lobby. Teag was waiting by the door.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, leading me toward the side entrance, into the alley. “I’ll tell you all about it in the car.” By the time we reached the outside, I had my wits about me once more. We walked the few blocks to his car in silence.

I waited until we had paid the attendant and Teag had pulled out onto the street before I spoke. “Did I –”

“Yes.”

“You don’t even know what I was going to ask,” I said defensively.

Teag rolled his eyes. “You had a full-blown vision, right during the second act. You started shaking, and you pointed toward the top of the stage. If I hadn’t clapped my hand over your mouth, I’m betting you would have yelled ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, which would have gotten you – and probably me – thrown into jail.” He shook his left hand. “As it was, you bit me.”

“Really?”

He turned his palm so I could see it and sure enough, teeth marks were already causing a vivid bruise. I felt my cheeks get hot. “I’m so sorry.”

“It beat spending the night in lock-up,” Teag replied. I could tell from his voice that he was more concerned than angry.

I told him about the vision. Teag had seen enough of my talent to know that I didn’t make this stuff up. At the moment, I was seriously re-thinking my chosen line of work.

“You saw the theater catch on fire,” Teag repeated. “Somewhere it snowed, so it was winter.”

“It was around the holidays,” I said, then stopped. “I’m not sure how I know that, but it’s true. Just before or after Christmas.” I searched my memories. “Some of the performers were in holiday outfits.”

“Did you see anything else?”

I recounted the images I had glimpsed before the vision overwhelmed me. Teag frowned. “A pirate? At a holiday play?”

I shrugged. “It didn’t make sense to me, either. And I kept hearing a waltz.” I shook my head. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Trinket said the opera glasses came from her great-grandmother, who came from the North, right?”

“Right,” I replied.

“Okay, so if Trinket is seventy, her great-grandparents might have been born around 1880 or so, give or take a few years,” Teag said.

“Sounds about right.” I thought for a moment. “The woman in the vision had a small child with her, and I had the distinct feeling that I was seeing her thoughts, not the boy’s,” I said, trying to focus on my memory of the images. “I’m guessing from the clothing that whatever it was happened right around 1900.” I looked over at Teag. “Where are the opera glasses?”

“They’re in my pocket,” he said. “And no, I’m not giving them back to you today.”

“Fine with me.”

We pulled up in front of my house, and Teag parked by the curb. I was recovered enough to walk up to the piazza by myself and let us in. As with most Charleston single houses, side of the house faces the street and so the door opens into the piazza, not the main house. The real front door looks out onto a little private garden enclosed by a brick wall with a wrought-iron gate.

We walked into the house, letting the air conditioning revive us, and Baxter skittered up to greet us, dancing on his hind feet until I picked him up to nuzzle him. Once I had said hello, Baxter insisted on being handed off to Teag for acknowledgement, and then wiggled to be put down.

“Would you like a soda?” I asked, resolved to be polite although I was beginning to feel the aftereffects of the visions.

Teag rolled his eyes and sighed. “I can find the fridge. Go sit down. I’ll get something for both of us.”

Relieved, I collapsed onto the couch, and Baxter pranced beside me until I picked him up. He settled on my lap, and I leaned back against the cushions and closed my eyes. A few moments later, Teag returned with two sodas.

“Mind if I switch on your laptop?” he asked.

“Go ahead. You’re just lucky I brought it back from the store.”

Teag powered up the computer. “All right, let’s see what we can find,” he said. He actually sounded excited about tracking down what I had seen. “Let’s start with famous theater fires,” he mused, typing the information into the search bar.

I stroked Baxter’s silky fur and tried to relax, but every time I closed my eyes, I saw flashes of the vision. Although I knew it was only my imagination, the smell of smoke lingered, not the pleasant smell of a campfire, but the acrid smoke of burning fabric, and a faint scent of burning meat. I tried hard not to think about that. My stomach twisted.

“Anything?” I asked to get my mind off the memories.

“There’s a pretty long list,” Teag replied, “but if you’re right about the time period, that narrows it down some.”

“Just because it was snowing doesn’t mean it was in the United States,” I said. “It could have been somewhere else, like London, Toronto –”

“Chicago,” Teag supplied. “How about Chicago?”

I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t see past him to the computer screen. “Maybe. They get snow in Chicago. What did you find?”

“December 30, 1903. The Iroquois Theater caught on fire. Over six hundred people died.”

I caught my breath. “What else does it say?”

“There are a lot of articles,” Teag mused, and I saw him clicking on links and scanning down through the information. “The theater had only been open for a few weeks. They did a special holiday performance on December 30, and had a standing room only crowd. It was so full, people were sitting in the aisles.”

“Children,” I murmured. “There were children in the aisles,” I said, remembering the vision.

“Here’s why you thought of a pirate,” Teag said grimly. “The play was called Mr. Bluebeard. It seems to have been a mish-mash of rather forgettable songs and scenery including a castle, and partway through, a spark from one of the spotlights caught the scenery and curtains on fire.”

“People couldn’t get out,” I said, reliving the horror of what the opera glasses had shown me.

“Says here that’s because some of the doors were locked to keep out gate-crashers, and other doors were hidden behind curtains,” Teag said, reading down through the articles. “They had even put locked gates at the bottom of the stairs to the upper levels, I guess to keep people from switching to more expensive seats than what they paid for.”

“They locked them in?”

Teag nodded. “The theater was supposed to be fire-proof –”

“Yeah, and the Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable,” I muttered.

“But apparently, the owners skimped on fire extinguishers, and some of the fire escapes weren’t even finished,” he said. He paused long enough that I looked at him, worried.

“What?”

“The fire broke out while the orchestra was playing a waltz,” Teag said quietly. “One of the actors, Eddie Foy, Sr., tried to keep the people from panicking so they could make an orderly exit, but it didn’t work.”

“Eddie Foy, Sr.” I repeated. “Trinket said her great-grandmother had seen most of the famous actors and actresses of her time. He was one of the names she mentioned. I’d never heard of him before.”

“He survived,” Teag said. “And everyone hailed him as a hero. They even made a movie about him, and it included the fire.” He drew a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, staring at the screen. “It says here that some of the cast were dressed in holiday costumes,” he added. “And here’s a picture of what the Iroquois Theater looked like before the fire.”

He scooted the chair aside so I could see. The grand facade of the doomed theater had pillars in front, a Victorian version of a Greek temple, just like I had seen in the vision.

“Wow,” I said. I took a sip of my soda. My heart was racing. Baxter seemed to sense that I was uneasy, because he gave me a curious look with those little black button eyes and snuggled closer.

“You’re good, Cassidy,” Teag said, shaking his head. “Sometimes a little too good.”

I stared at the old photo on the screen in silence for a moment. “What I want to know is why Trinket was able to see the images,” I said. “I didn’t get the feeling that she had any clairvoyant abilities. She seemed too freaked out for that.” I was quiet again, mulling things over.

“The fire was certainly horrific,” I said slowly, working it out as I went. “That kind of trauma can leave a residue that even people without a ‘gift’ can sense – that’s why normal people see ghosts.”

“The opera glasses have been passed down for several generations,” Teag said, turning his chair to look at me. “You’d think if they were so blatantly haunted, someone would have gotten rid of them by now.”

I nodded, having had the same thought. “I think we need to talk to Trinket again. Maybe she’s heard stories about her ancestor and the fire. She might not have mentioned that the glasses had a tragic past if she thought that would hurt the sale. She really wanted to get rid of them.”

Teag leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “Which makes me wonder – if they freaked out the people who owned them, why hang onto them?”

“And if they didn’t cause a problem before, what changed?” I said, my thoughts racing. “Did something… activate them… somehow?”

Teag met my gaze. “We’d better find out. It’s bad enough if the glasses were always that powerful. That makes them definite spookies and something Sorren will want to deal with.”

“But if something charged up their hauntedness, then we’re dealing with more than just the opera glasses,” I said. “Because whatever – or whoever – it was could juice up something else.”

“And in this city, with all its haunts, that would be a real problem.”

About the author:

gailGail Z. Martin is the author of the new epic fantasy Reign of Ash (Orbit Books 2014) and Deadly Curiosities, a new urban fantasy novel (July 2014 Solaris Books), set in Charleston, SC. She is also author of Ice Forged in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, War of Shadows (Orbit Books, 2015), and Iron and Blood, a Steampunk novel (2015, Solaris Books) which will be co-authored with her husband, Larry N. Martin.  She is the author of The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn  and The Dread) from Orbit Books.  She writes two series of ebook short stories:The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures.

Gail’s work will appear in at several new anthologies in 2014: Clockwork Universe Steampunk vs. AliensAthena’s DaughtersDreams of Steel 5The Big Bad 2Dance Like a Monkey, plus an illustrated story in Icarus: A Graphic NovelHeroes (stretch goal author) the British Fantasy Society’s Unexpected Journeys and With Great Power, a superhero anthology. Other US/UK anthologies include Magic (Solaris), The Bitten Word, Rum & Runestones, Spells & Swashbucklers, and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women.

Find her at http://www.ChroniclesOfTheNecromancer.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com. She leads monthly conversations on Goodreads and posts free excerpts of her work on Wattpad.

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Posted on May 8, 2014, in Excerpt and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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