I turned the cards over in my hand. One had the stopwatch man’s photo on it, and on the back it read J. Edwin Bragg, bilocationalist. The other was a photo of the bead lady in a trance, and it read G. Fünke, woman of a thousand faces.
“Shoo, we’re not buying,” Emma said, and the boy scowled at her and scurried off.
“Now do you see what they’re selling?” said Addison.
I cast my eyes down the street. There were people like the stopwatch man and bead lady in almost every shop window along Louche Lane—peculiars, ready to put on a show if you so much as glanced in their direction.
I hazarded a guess. “They’re selling … themselves?”
“Like a dim bulb flickering to life,” said Addison.
“And that’s bad?” I said, guessing again.
“Yes,” Addison said sharply. “It’s outlawed throughout peculiardom, and for good reason.”
“One’s peculiarity is a sacred gift,” Emma said. “To sell it cheapens what is most special about us.”
It sounded like she was parroting a platitude that had been drilled into her from an early age.
“Huh,” I said. “Okay.”
“You aren’t convinced,” said Addison.
“I guess I don’t see what the harm would be. If I need the services of an invisible person, and that invisible person needs money, why shouldn’t we trade?”
“But you have strong morals, and that sets you apart from ninety-nine percent of humanity,” said Emma. “What if a bad person—or even a below-averagely-moraled person—wanted to buy the services of the invisible peculiar?”
“The invisible peculiar should say no.”
“But it isn’t always so black and white,” Emma said, “and selling yourself erodes your moral compass. Pretty soon you’re dipping into the wrong side of that gray area without knowing it, doing things you’d never do if you weren’t being paid to do them. And if someone were desperate enough, they might sell themselves to anyone, no matter what the other’s intentions.”
“To a wight, for instance,” Addison added pointedly.
“Okay, yeah, that would be bad,” I said. “But do you really think a peculiar would do that?”
“Don’t be daft!” said Addison. “Just look at the state of this place. Probably the only loop in Europe that hasn’t been laid waste to by the wights! And why do you think that is? Because it’s been extremely useful, I am sure, to have an entire population of perfectly willing turncoats and informants waiting to do your bidding.”
“Maybe you should keep your voice down,” I said.
“It makes sense,” Emma said. “They must have infiltrated our loops with peculiar informants. How else could they have known so much? Loop entrances, defenses, weak spots … only with help from people like this.” She cast a venomous look around, her expression that of someone who’d just drunk curdled milk.
“No reasonable offer refused, indeed,” Addison snarled. “Traitors, every one of them. Ought to be hanged!”
“What’s the matter, hon? Having a bad day?”
We turned to find a woman standing behind us. (How long had she been there? What had she heard?) She was dressed in sharp and businesslike 1950s style—knee-length skirt and short black pumps—and puffed lazily at a cigarette. Her hair was teased up in a beehive and her accent was as flat and American as the Midwestern plains.
“I’m Lorraine,” she said, “and you’re new in town.”
“We’re waiting for someone,” said Emma. “We’re … on holiday.”
“Say no more!” said Lorraine. “I’m on vacation myself. Have been for the last fifty years.” She laughed, showing lipstick-stained teeth. “You just let me know if I can help you with anything. Lorraine’s got the best selection on Louche Lane, and that’s an actual fact.”
“No, thanks,” I said.
“Don’t worry, hon. They won’t bite.”
“We’re not interested.”
Lorraine shrugged. “I was just being friendly. You looked a little lost, is all.”
She started to leave, but something she’d said had piqued Emma’s interest.
“Selection of what?”
Lorraine turned back and flashed a greasy smile. “Old ones, young ones. All sorts of talents. Some of my customers just want a show, and that’s fine, but others have specific needs. We make sure everyone leaves satisfied.”
“The boy said no thank you,” Addison said gruffly, and he seemed about to tell the woman off when Emma stepped in front of him and said, “I’d like to see.”
“You what?” I said.
“I want to see,” Emma said, an edge creeping into her voice. “Show me.”
“Serious inquiries only,” said Lorraine.
“Oh, I’m very serious.”
I didn’t know what Emma was up to, but I trusted her enough to go with it.
“What about them?” Lorraine said, casting an uncertain gaze at Addison and me. “They always so rude?”
“Yes. But they’re all right.”
Lorraine squinted at us as if imagining what it might take to forcibly eject us from her place, should the need arise.
“What can you do?” she said to me. “Anything?”
Emma cleared her throat, then bugged her eyes at me. I knew right away what she was telegraphing: Lie!