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Chapter One: Tempest in a Teakettle

The ambush occurred at the corner of 57th Street and Eighth Avenue. The hoard descended like locusts, blocking out what little of the December sun that had managed to filter through the city’s imposing architecture. Bodies pressed close, transferring the odors of soot, smoke, and sweat onto the embroidered surface of my French-imported skirt and tailored waistcoat. Then the hollering began.

“Extra! Extra!”

“Creatures of the night walk Gotham’s streets.”

“Attacks on young women.”

“Read all about it!”

Newsboys. No escaping them.

“Let a girl breath, would you?” I put my hands on my waist and twisted my torso, letting my elbows fly, gaining a foot of distance between myself and the throng. “Now, what’s this?” I snatched a paper from under the arm of the nearest and smallest of the newsies. Scanned the headlines. “Vampires?” I rolled my eyes at him. “Surely the Daily can do better on a Friday morning, don’t you think, Red?”

“That’s Big Red to the likes of you,” the boy said, a fierce expression on his gamin features as he puffed on a cigarette balanced between thin, chapped lips.

He held a hand out for payment.

I raised a brow at his bravado, then withdrew a coin from the pocket sewn into the folds of my skirt. Sensing they’d lost the game, the rest of the newsies moved on to other targets, passerbys attempting to weave between their masses.

Big Red?” I dropped the coin onto his palm. “I thought we’d dispensed with such formalities.”

He shrugged, glancing over his shoulder at his competition. “I gotta keep up appearances, Strangeways. You know how it is.”

Indeed, I did. At approximately nine years of age, orphaned, and small for his size, only two things stood between Red and daily beatings from the other boys: his tough demeanor and the ability to hide in obvious places without being observed.

The latter of which, a skill of particular interest to the Hunter Council. Only a handful of chameleons remained in existence worldwide. Not so much shapeshifters, but humans with the power to alter the surface of their skin to mirror their environment. Of Red’s parents or other kin, I knew only that they were dead and he had the lonely distinction of being near to the last of his kind.

Upon orders, I’d been attempting to wrangle him into Council service for weeks, but the boy had gumption and declined my numerous invitations. Even those sweetened with the promise of his own room, three square meals a day, and a generous allowance. Secretly, I applauded his every refusal. Living and breathing under the command and scrutiny of the Hunter Council was not how a boy should spend his days.

Did his current situation prove any better?

I assessed his threadbare suit – no coat to keep him warm when true winter hit. His dog-eared shoes offered little protection against frostbite. Then there were the hollows beneath his prominent cheekbones. An uncomfortable weight settled between my shoulders and I rolled them uneasily. I couldn’t afford to reach out to this child – I was barely keeping my own neck above water.

“Good day, Red.” I dropped another coin into his hand. “Perhaps tomorrow’s headlines will be worth reading.” My skirt swirled around my polished black leather boots as I strode forward, my mind already fixed with dread upon my intended location.

“Here’s the real extra, Strangeways.” Red grabbed my forearm with surprising strength. “Vampires. Demons. Whatever they are,” his urchin eyes narrowed, “watch your back.” He released my arm, retreating. “Frightful things wait in the shadows.”

“What things?” I asked with a start. But the boy had already joined the others, blending into their collective backdrop of faded suits and slanted hats.