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Curse of the Red Dagger (Feast of Shadows Part 1)
We tracked the kidnapper to a swanky private club on the Upper East Side. The old stone building looked like any other row mansion on the street—walled and immaculate and seemingly impenetrable. The only hint of a difference was the dark metal plaque next to the front gate, half-covered in ivy.
“And you’re sure this is it?” I asked.
Occasional shadows moving across the upper floor curtains suggested someone was inside, but other than that, everything was quiet. I hadn’t seen a single person come or go through the front door, which we could just make out through the locked wrought iron gate.
“That’s the word,” he said in his odd accent. Similar to British but not quite the same. I could never place it. “The little skint went into that building couple hours ago.”
“There must be a private entrance, then. Maybe at the back. Let’s take a look.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” He held out a dark hand to stop me. “Hold up. I ain’t goin in there.”
“Come on, Silkie. I need your help.”
I was pretty sure Silkie wasn’t his real name, but it was what everyone called him on the street. He was casually dressed in the only clothes I had ever seen him wear: a wine-colored Adidas track suit made of loose fitting velour. White stripes ran down both arms and legs. He kept the top partly unzipped, revealing a pristine T-shirt. His eyes were magnified by extremely thick glasses and he had a mess of short dreads on his head.
“You asked if he was seen,” he explained, “and here it is. That’s where favors end. You know what they do in there?”
“No. Interrogate terrorists or something?”
It was a very strange place for anything dangerous to be happening. The street lamps clicked on overhead as a white-sided seafood delivery van drove by and parked at the curb three doors down. The driver hopped out and trotted up the steps to the stoop of a neighboring mansion, where the owner waited in a striped cardigan and house slippers.
“You don’t even wanna know.”
“Then why did you ask? Come on, Silk. You’ve been in a lot more dangerous places than this.”
I didn’t actually know that, but it seemed like it might be true.
“Not for free, I haven’t.”
He watched me take off my floral-print Keds.
“You really goin in?” he asked. “No joke?”
I felt even shorter in socks. “Why do you think I schlepped all the way out here?”
“I dunno. To call the cops?”
“And say what? Can you please get a warrant and raid the home of some rich people based entirely on the word of a transvestite and a bunch of crack heads?”
“Who said anything about crack heads?”
“If we don’t get him now, they’ll move him again, or worse, and we’re screwed.” I paused. “You know what, though? That was a good idea.”
“As soon as you see me get inside, call the cops and report a break-in. In this neighborhood, they’ll respond.”
“Call them with what?” he scoffed.
He really wasn’t going to take any risk. I scowled and handed him my phone. He examined it close to his glasses like he thought it might be fake.
“I want that back,” I said.
He grunted skeptically. “How you gonna pull this off?”
“You gotta sell it, man. You can’t just half-ass the report. You gotta act all—”
“Naw, I mean how you gonna get in there? Lookit that wall.”
We turned to the mansion-club. The wrought iron gate was built into an ivy-covered block-stone barrier at least ten feet high. A camera perched at an angle over it kept watch on the street. Past the wall was a small gravel courtyard, elegantly rimmed in potted flowers and exotic shrubs. The ground floor windows were closed and dark, as was the unusually high front door, pitch black with a silver knocker.
“It’s not about walls. It’s about people. Just make sure you call the police. Got it?”
“I’m counting on you.”
“I said I got it.”
I trotted in my colorful striped socks across the street and stuck my shoes under the hedgerow just below the angled camera. Then I found a long stick and slid it behind the bushes toward the door before reaching around and buzzing the intercom, making sure to stay just out of view of the camera.
“Maleficium,” said the sultry voice on the other end.
“Yeah, where do you want these prawns?” I called in a Bronx accent.
“Prawns. You know: giant shrimps. We got four hundred in the truck.”
“You must have the wrong address.”
“This is Ma- . . . Malay- . . . Mala-Whatever-The-Fuck right? Look, I got 400 fresh tiger prawns and eight more deliveries to do before 9:00. You don’t wan’em? We’ll stack ’em here by the gate. I’m sure your ritzy neighbors won’t mind the smell.”
The speaker clicked off and I quickly tied my hair behind my head and ducked low behind the square brick post at the end of the wall. Sometimes it pays to be small.
I heard the front door unlock and footsteps on the gravel. The iron gate swung open and a man in a suit stepped out. His jacket bulged from his chest.
“Hey!” he called toward the truck driver down the street, who was just returning. “Hey, buddy! We didn’t order any prawns. Get that thing outta here.”
After he passed, I slid the stick forward to catch the closing gate. Once the two men started to argue, I slipped inside.
There were no cameras in the courtyard, which was strange. There were cameras on the roof, two of them, but they were fake. No wires. The club clearly wanted to discourage unwanted visitors—the cameras they used were bulky white boxes, meant to be noticed—but it seemed they didn’t want a photographic record of anyone actually inside the compound, which suited me just fine. Glancing back to the gate to make sure I wasn’t seen, I grabbed a garden light, a solar-powered job pushed on a spike into the dirt, and quick-stepped up the stairs to the unusually tall front door. If I could seal it behind me, the guard would have to run all the way around the block to reach the other side of the row house, by which time I intended to be gone—assuming I could find what I was looking for.
I shut the door and rammed the spike into the gap of the frame at the back. I pushed hard with both hands and my whole body until it wedged. I turned and froze at the sight of the opulent decor. I almost whistled. The oval foyer was stunningly elegant—more even than I expected. Everything was perfectly maintained. There were no scuff marks on the white walls nor on the marble floor, which was polished to a high shine. The built-in bookshelves on the far side were lined in rows of matching tomes, like a legal library. Enormous bouquets of fresh flowers filled impossibly huge antique vases on the side tables and in a pair of nooks over the flanking curved staircases. There were so many flowers, in fact, that their aroma filled the air and there was no need for potpourri or artificial scent. I looked up at a chandelier made of Bulgari crystal.
There was a party, it seemed. I heard the faint rumble of chatter broken by the occasional laugh. While listening, I heard someone approach on the second floor. The soft carpet had muffled their footsteps until they were already too close. I ducked under the foyer’s center table as a young woman in fancy French maid lingerie, complete with stocking and high heels, stepped to a side door at the top of the stairs carrying a silver platter of drinks. She knocked and the door opened. I could hear men’s voices, and I caught a glimpse of another woman in bare-breasted lingerie. Her nipples were clamped in fuzzy tongs. I slapped my hand over my mouth to avoid an audible exclamation.
What kind of club was this?
The door handle jiggled behind me. The guard was returning from his encounter with the delivery driver. He pushed the door but it was jammed. I heard the sound of keys jingling. I needed to hurry. Glancing toward the party, I got an idea. I stripped quickly to my underwear. I tossed my clothes behind a polished walnut hutch. An ornate mirror hung over it, and I could see myself: pale athletic bra, red-and-white Spider-man boy shorts, colorful striped socks. I pulled off the socks and tossed them with the rest. I untied my hair and pulled it out and shook it. I looked ridiculous. But it would have to do.
“God, I hate this.”
In nothing but my undies, I strode the steps to the second floor. The carpet felt like it was giving me a foot massage. At the top was a plush hallway with a cross junction halfway to the back. I heard giggling and crouched behind another hutch as a couple passed. As soon as they were gone, I tiptoed through the junction to the rear of the mansion, where curved double staircases rose in a helix to connect each floor to the ones above and below. I saw what looked like a butler walking up the right-hand steps from the first floor, and I scurried up the left to the third. There, some of the doors were open, and I passed more splendor than I had ever seen: candelabras and gilding and plush-upholstered antique furniture. But no two rooms were the same, or even similar. Each had a completely different style, color, and decor. There was a white room and a scarlet room and a blue room. And all of it was immaculate.
In the blue room, a woman with long highlighted hair straddled a man in a high-backed chair, like something from a Bram Stoker novel. His pants were around his ankles. His hands were on her waist and he guided her up and down as she clutched her hair and moaned ridiculously. I stepped past and stopped again at a cracked-open door from which grunts and slapping emerged. It was a padded leather dungeon decked floor-to-ceiling in black and maroon. A balding, middle-aged man squatted on all fours. He wore a chain collar and nothing else. A Lycra-clad woman in stiletto heels stroked his hairy back with a riding crop.
“And how many people did we evict this week?” she asked suggestively.
“Thirty,” he grunted, as if his balls—which I thankfully couldn’t see—were gripped in a vise.
“Thirty?” she asked disappointedly. She whipped him with a slap. “Thirty!”
She whipped him again and again and again and he yelled. I saw strips of pink flesh raise on his back. Then she bent to his ear.
“You like doing it, don’t you?”
“Y-yes,” he whimpered.
“Does it make you feel powerful?”
The woman raked her impressive nails across the welts in his back.
“Ah-ah-haaa . . .”
“You sick fuck,” she growled, parting her leather dress to reveal her full, unshaven muff.
She grabbed the man’s head by the ears and pulled it to her groin, and he moaned orgasmically. Almost immediately though, she raked her nails down his neck and he screamed.
“Well, hello there.”
An older man wrapped his arm around me from behind and I shrunk away in shivers.
“Who are you?” he said coyly, leaning in to kiss my neck.
My skin crawled. I’m pretty sure I shook in revulsion.
“They didn’t tell me there was anyone new,” he said as I tried to gently pull away.
He looked like someone’s grandfather. He had a whiskey highball in his free hand, and he held it out, trying not to spill it on the expensive carpet as he fondled me.
“I just started,” I said. “In fact, I’m not even supposed to be down here.” I chuckled in fake embarrassment.
“It’s alright,” he said moving in closer. “I won’t tell.”
He spoke in a high pitch, like he was talking to a little girl. Then he rubbed the tip of his nose against mine and a wave of nausea exploded from my stomach. He thought I was role-playing.
I pushed away and his drink sloshed. I’m pretty sure he was sloshed as well.
“Now, now,” I said, backing away. “I don’t want to get into trouble my first day. But I’ll be sure to find you later.”
“You better. My name’s Randy,” he said, emphasizing the word. He jiggled his hips and chuckled at the double entendre.
I scurried up the front steps to the fourth floor, which looked more like a hotel than a club or parlor. The white doors were evenly-spaced and identical, and there were plaques next to each bearing a family name. I guessed they were rented rooms, similar to how smoking and athletic clubs will charge for permanent lockers. Soft moaning, obviously fake, emanated from the first, labeled Barker.
The club was bigger than I thought, and even though I’d only been inside a couple minutes, I was running out of time. I bent over and whistled in short spurts, like I was calling a pet.
“Frankie!” I called in a stout whisper, hoping he could hear me. “Frankie!” I whistled again.
It wasn’t until I got to the middle of the hall that I heard faint whining followed by a single high-pitched bark. The name on the plaque said Hardaway. That was it.
I opened the door confidently, expecting to find a couple inside. I was going to pretend to be lost and say I was new and that I was supposed to meet Randy there. But the opulent bedroom was empty, save for the canine carrier near the unlit fireplace.
Frankie the toy terrier positively vibrated at the sight of me. He wiggled his short tail and barked twice. I shut the door.
“Shhhh . . .” I said, bending with a smile to release him from his portable prison. “Hi, little guy. How are you doing? Did he hurt you?”
I lifted him and his tiny tongue frantically licked my face.
“Ohhh, who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? What happened to your collar?”
It had been removed. And judging from the smell, no one had let him out in hours. He’d been forced to relieve himself inside the carrier.
“You poor baby,” I said, rubbing his head. “Was the bad man mean to you?”
I heard the door open behind me and I turned. A hook-nosed old woman in a floor-length black satin dress, like something from the 19th century, stood glowering at me like a wicked stepmother. She wore red lipstick too bright for her complexion and had her hair pinned to her scalp.
“Find what you were looking for?” she asked sternly.
There were two guards behind her, including the burly-chested man I had seen out front. He looked pissed.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, standing tall with Frankie, “I did.” He licked my face repeatedly.
“That’s my dog!” a boy called from down the hall. He was dressed like he’d just returned from the club, with a silk button-down left untucked over designer jeans. Some bimbo was on his arm.
I call him a boy, but he was probably a couple years older than me. His name was Jay Hardaway and he was the sort-of-ex-boyfriend of a friend and a total douche.
“He’s not yours,” I countered calmly. “He’s Shanna’s.”
Some of the other club members appeared at the top of the stairs then, drawn by the commotion.
“But I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding,” I said in my best snooty voice. “I’d be more than happy to call the police and resolve this.”
The red-lipped woman stepped back. “Take the dog,” she ordered the guards.
The big man moved to grab me. I’m sure he expected I’d be easy to handle. After all, he was easily three times my size. What could I do?
His eyes bulged in surprised when I tossed Frankie to him. As far as he knew, the dog belonged to a member. He couldn’t let it fall. He caught the dog just as I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. When he doubled over, I pushed him into the others, grabbed Frankie, and ran.
“Stop her!” the woman yelled.
The members at the top of the double staircase, incensed by the intrusion, moved to block my way. Two of them spread their arms to catch me. But I didn’t head for either staircase. I planted a foot on the railing between and jumped over.
In any other house, I wouldn’t have trusted the light fixtures to bear my weight, but everything in that mansion was superb. I grabbed the hooked arm of a chandelier, swung, and dropped onto a side table on the floor below, totally destroying a vase of flowers in the process. I landed hard, slipped on the slick, polished surface, and jammed my thigh on my way to the plush carpet.
“Ow . . .”
Frankie took off, barking, and I chased him. I pushed past two of the lingerie-clad girls and scooped him up from where he had stopped to scratch at a brass vent near the floor. I ran right for the front.
But I was blocked. Two more suited guards waited for me.
“Jeez, how many of you are there?” I asked loudly, banking down a hall to the right.
It was a mistake. A pair of double doors capped a dead end. I pushed through and shut them behind me.
“You gotta be kidding.”
Six-foot gold candelabras flanked the entry, which was recessed in a kind of nouveau arch. Barring the door was entirely too easy. All I had to do was pull the arm of one of the heavy metal candelabras, which fell and lodged itself diagonally against the double doors. The men pushed, but the metal held easily. I ran to the windows, but they were barred. Not that I would have anywhere to go if they weren’t. A short, spiked metal fence ran atop the wall separating the adjacent mansions and prevent anyone from doing exactly what I wanted to.
“There’s gotta be a way . . .” I looked out the adjacent window, but it was the same.
I set Frankie down, and he barked and ran under the piano to the other side of the room, where he scratched the hardwood at the base of the built-in bookshelves.
“Not now,” I said, trying to judge the angle of a leap. It was slightly possible that if I got the windows open, I might be able to squeeze between the bars.
Frankie barked again, insistently this time, and sniffed back and forth along the row of shelving. He scratched at the molding like he was trying to get under it. I was going to shush him again, but it was odd. He was so intent—sniffing and scratching as if there was an animal underneath. But there couldn’t be anything under there. I walked over as the people outside began to shout. They were arguing about how to get the doors down.
I wouldn’t have noticed anything if not for the fresh flowers that filled the mansion, including those in a vase on the shelves. A garnish of Queen Anne’s lace moved slightly, as if from a change in air pressure.
“No way . . .”
I leaned to examined the wall as a drill whined against the double doors. They were taking them off their hinges.
There was absolutely nothing about the shelves that indicated a mechanism, and there was no way I could try all of the books. But then, there was nothing that said it had to be a book. I started pulling on everything: a fluted light fixture, the knobs on the mantelpiece, the bust on the piano, which fell to the hardwood and cracked.
“Oops . . .”
I pushed a clock on a shelf and tipped a painting. Nothing. I heard the drill again. They just about had one door off, which would be enough to dislodge the candelabra. I grabbed a shelf and shook the wall in frustration—
It swung open. I grabbed Frankie and went down the wide stone steps beyond, which turned left at a landing, and descended further, dropping to a basement under the adjacent property. It was cool and musty, and I thought it was maybe a secret passage to the street, a holdover from prohibition, or some robber baron’s way of sneaking out to see his mistress.
At the bottom of the stairs was an old mosaic-tiled family crypt that now seemed to be a kind of display room for several museum-quality antiquities—a good way to keep them away from thieves. But it was creepy. The stonework of the walls was dark and intricately carved in shrouded skeletons and fanged knights whose shadows danced in candlelight. At the very center was an altar.
On top was a carved stone coffin, but it was tiny, like something a king would use to bury his infant princess.
“Rich people are weird,” I breathed.
I heard them coming then. There were heavy feet on the stairs. Frankie barked, and I shushed him. But there was nowhere for us to go, and I turned to face the clik-clak of dress shoes on stone and caught a speck of color reflected in the dim light. It was reddish brown and trapped in a groove in the floor. It was tiny, less than half a millimeter. I reached out to touch it and Frankie barked. I looked up into the eyes of the burly-chested guard, who grabbed me and threw me over the altar, still holding Frankie. I landed hard on my back and lost the breath from my lungs.
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. This was not the reaction I expected over a stolen dog.
Frankie had fallen free but was so small he was completely unhurt. He wiggled his tiny tail and barked at the man, whose partner blocked the stairs. I grabbed my tiny charge as we were lifted into the air and dragged back to the main hallway, which was now all but empty. Either they were confining the members to their rooms or, more likely, had asked everyone to leave out of an abundance of caution. The mansion was eerily quiet. There was only me, the guards, and the wicked stepmother, who held a long syringe in her hand.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s that for?”
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“Why do you have that?”
Frankie barked, and one of the guards tried to grab him.
“No!” I remembered the woman in Lycra and scratched the guard’s eyes with my free hand.
He screamed and I twisted free. I sprinted in bare feet, but I only got as far as the balustrade over the oval foyer before I was gripped from behind and spun round. The burly-chested guard held me as the wicked stepmother approached methodically in her long dress. She was in no hurry. But it seemed I had been wrong about the object in her hand. It wasn’t a syringe. It was a wand, like something a conductor might wave before a symphony.
“Whew,” I joked. “For a second there, I thought you all were trying to kill me.”
She wasn’t amused.
Then she stopped. She looked up. Red-and-blue flashers reflected off the immaculate walls. The police were outside. I heard them arguing with someone at the door. I opened my mouth to scream, but it was covered at the last second. I braced my feet and tried to get leverage to kick the burly-chested man in the balls again, but he didn’t budge.
I saw his eyes then. He wanted to push me over the edge. Easy enough to call it an accident. I was trespassing, after all.
Frankie snarled at him, and it gave me an idea. The man had fat fingers, and I could just reach one of them with the tips of my teeth. I bit down hard and he yanked his hand free, more out of surprise than pain. But in that moment, I screamed.
The raised voices at the front turned to shouting. The door popped opened and I heard a police officer speaking sternly just on the other side of the threshold.
“. . . and we had report of a gunshot.”
Silkie had apparently embellished his anonymous report to include gunfire.
“I’m sorry,” said the man at the door, doing his best to block them. “This is private property, and unless you have a—”
“I don’t need one,” the officer said. “We found these out front.” The officer raised my flower-print Keds.
Which was totally why I had left them there.
The cops pushed into the foyer and saw me bent backwards over the railing.