Excerpt: Fool For You

Wagered and Won by Helena Maeve

Beneath the hazy lights of the Sapphire, shadows scurrying from table to table became harder to see and easier to ignore. Black-clad servers delivered cocktails and retrieved empty glasses, virtually invisible as they wove between patrons with the dexterity of dancers. If not for the thick shadows, Kathra would’ve stood out among them like a sore thumb.

She moved furtively through the betting house, empty tray in hand, stopping here and there to peer over shoulders.

A handful of games—mostly those that involved cards and deception—seemed familiar, but most were foreign to her untrained eyes, their rules opaque and hard to decipher. She could discern no rhyme or reason in the excited gasps and polite cheers around her. A spinning wheel with its shiny white marble left her stumped. She would’ve liked to see what happened once the dial stopped turning, but a passing waiter pointedly cleared his throat and she understood she’d lingered too long in one place.

The trick was to keep moving. Motion suggested purpose. Kathra chased laughter and merriment around clusters of men in dinner jackets and women in backless, shimmering gowns, their necks adorned with strings of pearls or glittering diamonds. She dodged canes propped perilously against chairs and sidestepped pointy-toed dancing shoes.

She didn’t actually refill glasses, but then that wasn’t her aim.

Twenty minutes after she’d walked into the casino, she slipped out again and briefly rested her trench coat-covered back against the building’s outer wall. The damp, icy brick cooled her down. Her heart thudded as she dipped both hands into the pockets.

The trench coat was as much hers as its contents. Three pearl necklaces, two rings and twice that many billfolds.

Not bad for an evening’s work.

From inside the Sapphire rose a cacophony of angry voices.

Respite over, Kathra hastily tucked the loot back into her pockets and pushed away from the wall. The gullet of the back alley opened onto a busy roadway. Not ideal, but it would have to do.

Behind her, the staff entrance burst open and a man stumbled out. His breath was a cloud of mist. Before it dissipated, he was already shouting: “Thief!”

Halfway down the alley, Kathra flicked up two fingers in a vulgar gesture.

“Stop her!”

She took that as her cue to pick up the pace.

Only a fool would slither into a cage without an escape planned. Hers was the narrow gap between the hat shop and café across the street. Both were shuttered for the night. Both backed onto a canal. The sewers beyond were Kathra’s domain, so close she could almost smell their pungent stench.

She was nearly through when two men—well-dressed, thick-set and visibly incensed—rounded the front of the casino.

Kathra skidded on cobblestones slick with runoff. The alley was a narrow ravine between brick-edged ridges. High walls hemmed her in even as momentum propelled her forward.

She feinted left and dodged a massive hand as it reached for her shoulder. Its owner staggered into the wall, fist missing her by an inch. His companion was faster. He seized Kathra’s braid before she could duck past him and yanked.

Fire ignited in Kathra’s scalp. Her right foot twisted under her and would’ve impeded her movement altogether if not for a rush of movement to her right.

Eyes stinging with the sodium glow of nearby streetlights, Kathra felt more than saw a walking stick swing down. Polished wood met flesh with a dull thud. A sharp, male cry echoed. The pressure on her scalp released, but the pain lingered.

“Get in!” a voice gritted out.

Adrenaline throttling her breaths, Kathra threw herself into the back of a horseless carriage, nearly slamming her forehead against the padded seat. The carriage shook as her saviour jumped in after her.

A shouted order stirred the automaton in the front seat into motion. The engine roared as the carriage leaped into high gear, the hiss of pistons all but drowning out the invective of the men left behind.

 

 

Kneadful Things by Laurin Kelly

Adam squinted at the Craigslist ad. It didn’t have the usual red flags that screamed he’d likely be stiffed or lowballed for payment at the end of the job, but the no calls or emails thing was definitely weird. During his slow time in the winter, jobs were scarce, though, and it was hard to be picky when his landlord insisted on being paid year-round. He added the appointment to the calendar on his phone and continued to scroll, making note of a few other ads to follow up on. After leaving messages on a couple of voicemails and sending emails out to the rest of his prospects, Adam headed out to his usual neighborhood bar for a few beers, hoping he could win some additional cash at the pool tables.

Two days later, he drove his beat-up truck to the address listed in the ad. His GPS led him downtown; it was an area that had thrived with mom and pop stores back when his parents had been growing up, but was now comprised of empty commercial spaces and aged For Sale signs. A few miles away, an assortment of strip malls and national discount department store chains had sprung up beginning in the 80s, effectively driving all the local stores out of business. He turned off the deserted main drag onto Water Street, parked, and walked over to the building numbered with a tarnished 4752 over the door. Although the interior was dim, there was a cardboard sign on the window that read Open, and above it, the worn gold vinyl stencil of the store’s name: Kneadful Things.

Rolling his eyes at the painful pun, Adam tried the door, which opened with the soft ring of a bell. The lights were on, but they weren’t very bright, and they cast a yellowish glow over the dusty furnishings. Without a single person in sight, Adam was starting to think he either had the wrong place or had been lured there under false pretenses.

“Hello? Anyone there?” he called. “I’m here about the handyman job.” When there was no answer, Adam sighed and shook his head. “God damn waste of time.” Just as he turned and started to reach for the door handle, a voice came from behind him.

“My apologies, I was otherwise engaged.”

Adam whipped around, startled. A man stood a few feet in front of the counter on the other side of the room. How had he gotten there without Adam hearing his footsteps? “Who are you?”

“I am Jin,” replied the man, drawing closer.

Jin was of medium height, with long, curling black hair that spilled over his shoulders. As he approached, Adam was able to notice more detail: his bronzed complexion, dark brown eyes, and broad nose. He didn’t look like anyone Adam usually saw in his small Pennsylvania town, both due to his ethnicity and extreme good looks. It normally wasn’t like Adam to even register the attractiveness of prospective clients, as mixing business with pleasure was a recipe for nothing but trouble in his book. But Jin was… well, gorgeous. There was no other word to describe him more accurately.

“Hey,” said Adam, swallowing. “I’m Adam Sutter. I’m here about the handyman job.”

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