Cory inhaled the heavy air and coughed, the smoke from the fire and the steam from the calliope mixing with the smells of fried food and strange spices. His eyes burned, and he pushed under his glasses to rub at them. He fished his phone out of his pocket. With a sinking feeling, he watched the display die with the last of his battery’s charge. He should have plugged it in during his drive.
“See the wonders.
Experience the thrills under cover of darkness.
Fun for children of all ages.
Fri & Sat night only.
Visit Kindle Bay’s Moonlight Market.
Have an adventure.”
The flyer had stated that the Market would begin Friday night and close at Saturday’s sunrise before opening again at sundown. He’d only been here a few hours, but the crutch of the digital clock on his phone had been a comfort. Now how would he know how long he had?
Poe’s face stared up at him from the photo, her sad expression tugging at him. He would find her. He had to find her. Cory returned the picture to his shirt pocket and shoved the useless phone into his jeans. He was startled when the raucous calliope music died midnote.
“Ladies and gentlemen.”
A commanding voice trumpeted over the noise of the crowd. Steam billowed from the muted calliope, and Cory’s gaze was drawn to the hazy shape of a tall figure obscured within the dense, swirling cloud. After a moment, the coalescing form emerged, revealing itself as a young barker who sprang to perch atop a crate in front of a green-patterned performance tent. His top hat brushed the silver tassels hanging from the tent, and he doffed it, bowing low to the audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen, don’t let hotheaded women turn your heads. Step this way to see the real wonders of the human body.”
The barker’s close-cropped blond hair glinted with perspiration. It glowed in the bright lights that burned away the shadows along the Moonlight Market. His long-tailed jacket, wrinkled by the steam, covered his bare, muscled chest and matched his silvery pants. His dimpled smile promised mischief as he gestured with his top hat, arms flung wide to embrace the crowd.
Cory’s breath caught, trapped in his throat.
It was Sanderson.
It was Sanderson, but not the nice, sexy guy from college.
This creature was something preternatural and beautiful.
The fire-eaters flounced off-stage and into their red tent, disheartened by the loss of attention, or more likely because their set had finished. The crowd deserted their stage to cluster around the barker’s crate, and Cory followed them, pulled in by Sanderson’s charm and commanding voice.
Sanderson beckoned everyone closer and leaned down to speak as if he had a secret.
“Come and be amazed by Lila the contortionist, as nimble as the serpent she charms.”
Alarmed murmurs exploded from the crowd at the mention of a snake, but Sanderson smiled his charming smile, quieting their fears with a sly wink.
“Marvel at the gaping jaws of Parry as he swallows swords, knives, and fear.”
The crowd around Cory surged, pressing toward the open curtain door of the tent. The mob was ready to follow Sanderson’s seductive commands.
“Don’t push. Five dollars to see the show and witness the balance and strength of the Atlas Brothers as they defy gravity with their limbs and their luck. This way, everyone. The show is about to begin.”
Sanderson bounced his top hat up his arm and then ducked under it. The hat landed atop his head at a jaunty angle. A smattering of laughter and applause burst from the people around Cory. In a surging wave, the crowd streamed toward the tent, carrying Cory along with it. He fought the flow of people until an arm reached out and plucked him free of them.
He looked up to spy Sanderson grinning at him. The tiny silver hoops in Sanderson’s ears sparkled in the lantern light. A dapple of metallic makeup glittered on his cheeks, creasing at his eyes.
“Cory, you found me.”
Sanderson followed up his words with a sultry wink that tied Cory’s tongue. He wanted to step back into the anonymity of the crowd, to escape the direct appraisal and focused attention of this handsome man who didn’t seem at all familiar now. But Cory wasn’t here for himself.
“I forgot your number, and then my phone died.”
Sanderson waited a beat and then nodded. “But you found me anyway. You must not be having as much trouble navigating the Market as I feared.”
Cory pulled Poe’s photograph from his shirt pocket.
“I’ve got this picture, but everyone I’ve asked hasn’t seen her.” Cory winced hearing his husky, leaden voice broken by the long night and the repeated question. He wanted to rant about his disappointment. No one had seen Poe, and no one could tell him where to find Sanderson. But Sanderson was here now. Things would get better.
Sanderson’s eyes softened, and he took the photograph with gentle fingers. He looked up once to scrutinize Cory’s features before glancing back down.
A flicker of something chased across his face.
“I don’t recognize her.” Sanderson smiled, but there was something colder and more calculating in his eyes. “But you know what? We’re about to do our last show of the night. Come inside. It’s just a fifteen-minute set.”
Cory shook his head. “I don’t have the time to spare. I need to—”
“Look, my family has been here since the Market went up earlier this week. They know a lot of people here.” Sanderson passed the picture back. “It’s only fifteen minutes, and then I’ll be able to help you out.” He fretted with the brim of his top hat. “Unless you don’t want my help now.”
And that was it, the reason Cory’d come—the reason he’d searched for Sanderson’s performance tent, cursed his lack of foresight, and been so relieved to find him. Because Cory knew he wouldn’t have to continue searching for his sister alone. He was tired of being alone in everything. Alone in worrying about Poe. Alone in running the household and keeping up with his schoolwork. Alone. Alone. Alone. The only time he’d felt less alone had been the few moments he’d stolen with Sanderson at the library and the encounter in Sanderson’s dorm. Cory tucked his photo away. He was willing to barter a few more minutes to have Sanderson search with him.
Sanderson grinned the full wattage this time and bestowed on Cory a red ticket covered with cramped writing. Cory took it, the calluses on Sanderson’s palm leaving a tingle of awareness on his fingertips.
Sanderson gave an elaborate bow, directing Cory to the tent door that the rest of the crowd had entered. Cory ducked into the curtained entry to present his ticket to the smiling teenager seated at a table inside.
SANDERSON TRACKED CORY until he disappeared inside the performance tent. Then Sanderson tied off the entrance with the PERFORMANCE IN PROGRESS sign and bolted around to the packed ground backstage. But as he grasped the curtain to slip inside, a shimmer in the darkness halted him.
He almost ignored it.
Tiny bells tinkled nearby.
They sounded closer.
His skin tightened with goose bumps.
Niari glided into the pool of light cast by the lantern hanging on the back of the tent. Her long, inky dress brushed the bells on her ankles and pulled the shadows forward with her.
“Your debt is coming due.” Her trilling, accented voice floated over the noise from the fairway beyond. In front of the tent children giggled and laughed, the calliope blared out its joyous concert, and the lanterns burned away the darkness. But Sanderson stood in the shadows behind…with her.
Sweat coated his palm, and it slipped from the curtain. He swiped at the bead of perspiration on his upper lip, the pit of his stomach icing into a lump.
“I found someone.” He blurted out the words. “A lost soul. Someone who’s lost something.”
Panic bloomed in Sanderson’s chest. Was he actually going to offer Cory to the Weaver? Cory who just wanted to find his missing sister. Cory of the soft hair, bitable nipples, and beautiful, slim cock. Who made Sanderson feel normal. Like a regular guy.
“Good.” Her smile widened, filled with too many tiny teeth that gleamed bright in the lantern light. “Are they tasty and ripe?”
“Madame?” Sanderson’s gut twisted at the hard glitter in her eyes. A chill crept down his spine. She looked…hungry.
He blinked. Niari stood before him, still and silent, waiting, just a woman again. The malevolent flash must have been a trick of the dim light. He shrugged off the unease and shook the numbness from his fingers.
“If I bring him to you…you’ll delay calling in the debt until I’m out of college, right?”
The Weaver smoothed down the thin fabric of her long dress that covered all but her ankles strapped with tiny bells. She had to let him finish his degree. That was the bargain. A new life. He needed those three years to establish that new life. His family would never believe him if he just ran away to the normal world and joined the workforce. Sanderson needed to be settled, staid, if they were to stop calling him at every little setback. He’d told them this was the last time, and maybe they believed him. They’d seen he had other obligations, other people who needed him. But if he came back now, he’d never escape.
“Such a good boy.”
The Weaver touched his cheek and smiled her toothy smile, the predatory gleam in her eyes making him want to run like a gazelle on the savanna.
“Sanderson, are you— Madame.” Lila halted as she pulled back the rear flap of the performance tent. She inclined her head in a show of respect, but when her eyes lifted back to the Weaver, there was pure hatred in them.
Niari turned from Sanderson with a smile, ignoring Lila’s scathing glare. “Lila.” She pronounced the syllables of the name in a singsong. “How is your little girl tonight? She grows longer every day.”
“She is well.” Lila frowned, like the idle chitchat tasted bitter as it left her mouth.
“Such a sweet girl. I’m so glad I could weave her a new skin. And her humanity is particularly delicious at this age.”
“Yes, Madame.” Lila’s eyes fell when confronted with the Weaver’s steady penetrating gaze.
Niari spun back to Sanderson, biting down on her lip in a coquettish gesture. A drop of blood welled against the unnatural white of her teeth. “I must return to my loom. It grows ravenous. I will see you tonight.” And with that threat, the Weaver of Dreams melted into the shadows. He searched the inky blackness for movement, strained his hearing to listen for the tinkling of bells, but she’d vanished.
“Come on, the audience is in the dark.” Lila touched his arm and drew Sanderson inside.
In the red glare of the backstage light, he threw off his top hat and flung the ringmaster’s jacket aside. Lila took off the silk robe that covered her scaled yellow and white leotard that matched the fat, somnolent snake sprawled in the reptile tank beside the dressing table.
She reached inside and gathered up the snake to place it around her shoulders. It hissed a tongue against her cheek in a tickling kiss. She smiled and patted the snake’s sleek head. “Be a good girl now.”
Sanderson caressed the snake’s back in a fond gesture.
Lila lifted her gaze to look him in the eye. “You need to stay away from Niari. She preys on people when their fate is thin and insubstantial.”
Sanderson ignored his sister’s scrutiny. He remembered that night six years ago when she was round and pregnant…and red with blood.
Parry had been despondent, cradling his dying wife and child. Sanderson, Dmitri, John, their parents, they’d feared losing her and the baby before they could get them to the hospital. Then the Weaver had appeared.
“She helped you.”
And she had. Alexandra’s birth had begun with fear but ended normally, almost like magic. He and Parry had driven Lila to the hospital in time. The baby had been pink and innocent and whole. They had each counted Alexandra’s fingers and toes to be sure. It was not until the next year that the Weaver’s debt had come due and his niece had begun her double life.
“She didn’t help Alexandra.” Lila soothed the snake a last time before stepping onto the darkened stage.