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I climbed the stairs to the second floor, opened the antique armoire near the door, grabbed the change of clothes waiting for me. I yanked the dress over my head, wincing as the fabric touched the scrapes on my arm, kicked off my shoes, pulled on the jeans and black T-shirt I’d set aside, and stuffed my feet into low boots. I shoved the discarded clothes into the back of the armoire. Containment might find it, might wonder. But it wouldn’t matter, because I’d be gone.
Next to the waiting pile of clothes was the black leather valise I’d cleaned and outfitted with a cross-body strap. It was packed with necessities: a perfect copy of my identification papers, a few changes of clothes, money. My hands shaking with need, I pulled it out, unfastened it.
Step Three: Fuel.
I grabbed one of the energy bars I’d packed inside, tore at the wrapper like a fiend. I wouldn’t be able to think or run if I was still dizzy from post-magic hunger. I ate the entire thing in two bites, mouth full and chewing as I fought to ease the screaming need in my belly. I swallowed, paused to breathe and suck in air. And when my vision wasn’t shaky, I closed the bag again, rose, and pulled the strap over my body.
I’d gotten to my stash, gotten nutrition. There was only one step left.
Step Four: Say good-bye.
I looked around the room, blinking back tears. Hatboxes, tins, suitcases, books piled in columns around the room that stretched to the rafters. Vintage clothing hung from racks, vintage oil and gas signs—including that damn star—leaned against a brick wall. There was a labyrinth of French secretaries, chests, and armoires brought to New Orleans once upon a very different time to outfit majestic homes.
My chest ached with the heavy sense of failure. I hadn’t managed to hold on to the stuff, to the store—to my family—for nearly long enough. Not enough to keep my family’s memories alive, to safeguard the treasures they’d found. Maybe someday, when Containment wasn’t looking for me, I could return. Maybe—if they didn’t take the shop.
I shook my head, fighting back tears. It couldn’t be helped now. It couldn’t be changed. War had taught me enough about that.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the ghost of my father, and walked out of the room. It was time for Step Five.
I crept down the stairs, ears straining for the sound of sirens that would signal Containment’s arrival, and the official end of the life I’d known. But the world was quiet, the only sound from the first floor the steady tick of antique clocks. War Night must have kept them busy tonight.
I rounded the stairwell, stepped into the store’s first floor, decided the back door and alley were a better bet than the front. I stopped short when I realized a large body filled the doorway.
My heart hammered against my chest like a frightened bird, which wasn’t much different from my own emotional state.
“Going somewhere?” he asked.
The man was backlit by the bright shard of moon, so I couldn’t see his face. But he was a big one. Broad-shouldered, easily six foot two or three. Larger and probably stronger than I was. I wouldn’t be able to best him physically, and I’d have to wait to recharge before I could move something again. That meant I’d have to talk my way out of this. Fortunately, I had eight months of fibbing under my belt.
I schooled my expression into nonchalance and walked toward the counter. My gaze was on him¸ but I was thinking about escape, about making it to the back door, then the alley, then Royal, where I’d run until my legs couldn’t carry me anymore.
“The store’s closed.”
“Be that as it may, the door wasn’t locked.” His voice was deep, strong, and just a little accented. Cajun, I guessed.