“Discouraged?” I said. “Then what’s murder? Frowned upon?”
“I believe murder is ‘tolerated with reservations.’ ”
“Is anything illegal here?” Addison asked.
“Library late fines are stiff. Ten lashes a day, and that’s just for paperbacks.”
“There’s a library?”
“Two. Though one won’t lend because all the books are bound in human skin and quite valuable.”
We shuffled out from behind the wall and cast a somewhat baffled look around. In no man’s land I’d anticipated death at every turn, but Louche Lane, from all appearances, was a haven of civic order. The street was lined with neat little shops, and the shops had signs and display windows and apartments on the upper floors. There was not a caved roof or a broken pane of glass in sight. There were people on the street, too, and they lingered, ambling along in singles and pairs, pausing now and then to duck into a shop or look in a window. Their clothes weren’t rags. Their faces were clean. Maybe everything here wasn’t new and sparkling, but the weathered surfaces and patched paint gave it all a handmade, worn-around-the-edges look that was quaint, even charming. My mother, if she’d seen Louche Lane in one of those thumbed-through-but-never-read travel magazines that papered our coffee table at home, would’ve crooned about its cuteness and complained that she and my dad had never taken a real European vacation—Oh, Frank, let’s go.
Emma seemed palpably disappointed. “I was expecting something more sinister.”
“Me too,” I said. “Where are all the murder dens and blood-sport arenas?”
“I don’t know what sort of business you think people get up to around here,” Sharon said, “but I’ve never heard of a murder den. As for bloodsport arenas, there’s only the one—Derek’s, down Oozing Street. Good chap, Derek. Owes me a fiver …”
“And the wights?” said Emma. “What about our kidnapped friends?”
“Keep your voice down,” Sharon hissed. “As soon as I take care of my own business, we’ll find someone who can help you. Until then, don’t repeat that to anyone.”
Emma got in Sharon’s face. “Then don’t make me repeat this. While we appreciate your help and expertise, our friends’ lives have been given an expiration date. I won’t stall and dawdle about simply to avoid ruffling some feathers.”
Sharon looked down at her, quiet for a moment. Then he said, “We all have an expiration date. If I were you, I wouldn’t be in such a hurry to find out what it is.”
* * *
We set off to find Sharon’s lawyer. He quickly became frustrated. “I could’ve sworn his office was along this street,” he said, turning on his heel. “Though it’s been years since I’ve been to see him. Perhaps he’s moved.”
Sharon decided to go looking on his own and told us to stay put. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Don’t speak to anyone.”
He strode away, leaving us alone. We clustered awkwardly on the sidewalk, unsure what to do with ourselves. People stared as they passed by.
“He really had us going, didn’t he?” said Emma. “He made this place sound like a hotbed of criminality, but it looks like any other loop to me. In fact, the people here look more normal than any peculiars I’ve ever seen. It’s as if they’ve had every distinguishing characteristic vacuumed out of them. It’s downright boring.”
“You must be joking,” said Addison. “I’ve never seen anyplace so vile or disgusting.”
We both looked at him in surprise.
“How’s that?” said Emma. “All that’s here are little shops.”
“Yes, but look what they’re selling.”
We hadn’t until now. Just behind us was a display window, and in it stood a well-dressed man with mournful eyes and a cascading beard. When he saw that he had our attention, he nodded slightly, held up a pocketwatch, and touched a button on its side. The moment he pressed it he froze, and his image seemed to blur. A few seconds later, he moved without moving—disappearing and then reappearing instantaneously in the opposite corner of the window.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s quite a trick!”
He did it a second time, teleporting back to the other corner. While I stood mesmerized, Emma and Addison moved on to the next shop’s window. I joined them and found a similar display, only standing behind the glass here was a woman in a black dress, a long string of beads dangling from one hand.
When she saw that we were looking, she closed her eyes and stretched her arms like a sleepwalker. She began to pass the beads slowly through her fingers, turning each one. My eyes were so locked on the beads that it took me a few seconds to realize something was happening to her face: it was changing, subtly, with each bead she turned. At the turn of one bead, I watched the pallor of her skin lighten. At the next, her lips thinned. Then her hair reddened ever so slightly. The cumulative effect, over the course of several dozen beads, was that her face became entirely different, morphing from that of a dark, round-featured grandmother to a young, sharp-nosed redhead. It was both enthralling and unsettling.
When the show was over, I turned to Addison. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What are they selling?”
Before he could answer, a preteen boy came hustling up to us and forced a pair of cards into my hand. “Two for one, today only!” he crowed. “No reasonable offer refused!”
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