The crowd rumbles its disapproval as Connolly says, “The necklace is a fake. Look at the gem.”
“Speaking of drama,” someone murmurs.
Connolly wheels on the unseen speaker. “This is not the correct necklace. It’s a forgery. They got the carving wrong. The technique is modern, and the loom isn’t quite right.”
“Isn’t quite right?” someone else says.
“I’ve studied every photograph ever taken of this necklace,” Connolly says. “This isn’t it.”
“That’s it, boy,” Hector says from the bar. “I can tell from here.”
“No, it’s not.” Connolly turns to him. “It’s a very good forgery, but it isn’t the Necklace of Harmonia.”
“Go have a closer look, Hector,” Marius says. “You can clear this up. You are, after all, the expert.”
The crowd shifts, all eyes on the pair. Hector lifts his glass.
“Get off your ass,” Marius says, advancing on him, “and check the damned necklace.”
Hector turns in his chair. Then he rises, and murmurs ripple through the crowd. The man looked big sitting down, but when he stands, it’s like watching a giant unfold itself.
Hector towers over Marius, who isn’t a small man. Menace crackles from both men, raising the hairs on my neck.
“Aiden’s right,” I interject, finally finding my voice. “This isn’t the right necklace. The curse is wrong. That’s why I was taking so long. Confirming what I was hearing and trying to figure out why it wasn’t right. Because it’s a forgery. I don’t know enough to recognize the craftsmanship, but I definitely recognize a modern curse.”
Heads turn to follow the voice. The bald man who hired Lesley-Ann strides forward.
“It’s a trick,” he says. “They’re working together. They’ve already admitted that. He says it’s a fake necklace. She says it’s a fake curse. And we all bow to their superior wisdom and let them take the ‘forgery’ away.” He fixes us with a look. “You’re children, playing children’s games, which work very well, I’m sure, with other children. I don’t know how you got an invitation—”
“Vanessa,” someone says.
“Who conveniently isn’t here to witness her guests misbehaving.”
“Hector?” Marius says. “Resolve this for us. Please. Just check the damned necklace and confirm it’s Harmonia’s.” When the big man stays rooted to the spot, Marius throws up his hands. “Pretend someone else is asking. Better yet, let’s go with self-interest. You want this necklace, like everyone else here. You’d like to be sure it’s the right one, don’t you?”
As the two men face off, the bald man waves at Lesley-Ann. “You get in there and check then. Tell us this girl is full of shit.”
Lesley-Ann walks up to the necklace and reaches for it with bare fingers. I jump. I may also squeak. I yank off my gloves and thrust them out, but she only gives me an eye roll, brimming with distain.
“Malice,” I blurt. “It’s a misanthrope’s malice.”
That makes her stop.
I exhale. “Take the gloves. Go slow.”
She takes the gloves. Then, gaze locked with mine, she holds them out . . . and drops them. When I lunge to stop her, Connolly yanks me back. I glare at him, but he shakes his head, wordlessly telling me that if she insists on doing this, I can’t take the risk along with her.
It’s not a risk, though. It’s a certainty. This is a misanthrope’s malice. It will latch onto anyone who touches it.
“Don’t,” I say. “Please—”
She lifts the amulet and turns a sneer on me. “Whoops.”
“Don’t lie,” I say. “Whatever you do, don’t tell a lie.”
Her brows knit. “What are you prattling on about, girl?”
“You hear it, don’t you? Or see it? However you interpret curses, you can read this one. And you know Greek, right?”
“Of course I know Greek,” she snaps . . . and the hem of her dress bursts into flame.
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
Lesley-Ann shrieks. Connolly moves, as if to help her, but instead he shoves me farther away.
“Everyone get back!” he shouts. Then to her. “Drop and roll!”
She’s batting the flames with her hands. They’re small, but they won’t stay extinguished.
“Don’t touch her,” I say. “It’s a misanthrope’s malice. You’ll catch it if you touch her.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Lesley-Ann snaps. “Someone help me. You won’t catch it.”
“Stop lying,” I say. “That’s only making it—”
Her mouth opens, as if to snap at me again. Instead, her eyes bug and her throat starts to spasm. Someone leaps in to help her as she begins to choke, and I want to warn them back, but she’s choking. She needs help.
That’s when I remember the second part of the curse.
Open your mouth,
See what transpires.
Lesley-Ann doubles over and retches, and something tumbles out of her mouth. Things tumble out of her mouth. Tiny, wriggling things.
A man yelps. A woman screams. She’s spewed up the tiny things, and they’re on the floor, writhing—
Snakes. It’s baby snakes.
Connolly shoves me with both hands, propelling me across the room. A man shrieks, and I glance back to see his trousers aflame. It’s the guy who tried to help Lesley-Ann. Then another man bellows. He’s waving an arm, snakes hanging from his fingers, tiny fangs sunk in.
“Are they poisonous?” someone screeches. “Tell me they aren’t poisonous.”
I skid to a halt. Connolly tries to push me onward, but I shrug him off and run back, ignoring his shouts. When I’m close enough to see a snake in the dim lighting, I can make out the hour-glass-shaped marks on its back and the yellow tip on its tail.
“Copperheads,” I shout. “They’re baby copperheads.”
Someone screams. “Poison! They’re poisonous!”
“No!” I shout. “Well, yes, they’re venomous, but they won’t kill you. These are baby—”
Hands grab me. I catch a flash of red-gold hair and turn to shove Connolly off again, but it’s Marius, with Connolly right beside him.
“I need to—” I begin.
His chuckle cuts me off. “I’m sure everyone appreciates the herpetology lesson, Kennedy, but how about we get you two out of here, now that we’ve established no one is going to die in horrible agony.”
“They still need medical attention,” I say. “I should—”
“No,” both Marius and Connolly say in unison.
“You should not,” Marius says as he strong-arms me toward the back door.
“Agreed,” Connolly says. “You tried to warn Lesley-Ann. You tried to warn everyone. If the situation isn’t lethal, we need to get out of here. They’re going to blame us.”
“What?” I squawk. “We’re the ones who warned them. They can’t blame us.”
“Can,” Marius says. “Will. That’s a curse, and you’re a curse weaver.”
I wrench from his grip. Both men grab for me, but I duck their hands and twist to look back at the chaos. Snakes writhe over the floor. Fire sparks everywhere. Screams fill the air as people bang on the locked main door.
I want to rush back in and do something. Connolly and Marius are right, though. There’s nothing I can do except try to keep people calm, and that isn’t ever going to work. They’re panicked. That’s the real “curse” here. Not the snakes or the fire, but the panic they induce, the fear and terror of people trapped in a room with venomous snakes and flaring fire.
Connolly takes my arm. “You can’t help, Kennedy. They’ll be fine.”
Marius pushes me toward the back entrance. He shoves it open, and we stumble into the hall.
I turn to Marius. “Where’s Vanessa?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out. Do you guys have this?”
We say that we do, and he disappears back into the main room. We make it three running steps down the hall before two guards leap from a side room.
“Stop!” one says. “No one’s allowed to leave.”
“Screaming?” I say. “You do hear that, right? The screams of terror?”
He pauses, and I want to smack him. Then I realize I can barely hear the screams myself. They’re drifting through the open door, but that’s all. The room must be soundproofed for parties.
“Snakes,” I say. “There are snakes.”
The guard’s face screws up. “What?”
“So many snakes. Baby copperheads. There must have been a nest. Which is weird, because copperheads aren’t native—”
Connolly’s elbow to my ribs suggests this may not be essential information. “There are snakes. Poisonous—”
“Venomous.” I correct, and then catch his look. “Sorry.” I look at the guards. “There are snakes. Also fire.”
One guard frowns. The other shakes his head. “Look, Miss, maybe there’s a snake—one snake—but if there was a fire, we’d hear the alarm.”
“They’re tiny fires. Tiny snakes. Big chaos.” I wave toward the room. “You really need to do something about that.”
“Hey!” a voice bellows, echoing down the hall. “Where do you two think you’re going?”
We turn to see Hector, his huge form nearly filling the hall as he stomps toward us. One foot drags slightly, as if he’s been injured in the melee.
“There!” I say, pointing at Hector. “Talk to him. He’s in charge.”
I grab Connolly, and we take off down the hall, both the guards and Hector shouting after us.
“Those guards didn’t have guns, right?” Connolly says.
“It’s a museum.”
Ahead, a door marked Exit calls to us. As footfalls thunder behind us, we burst into a sprint. I make it there first. I hit the push bar, expecting to trigger an alarm. The door swings open . . . and smacks a guy in a tux.
“This is not an exit,” I hiss as I grab Connolly, dragging him behind me through yet another hall, this one crowded with partygoers. “False advertising.”
“You can sue them later.”
“Oh, I will.”
Apparently, we’ve looped back to the restroom hall, and people have ingested enough champagne to be lining up. Laughter and chatter sounds to my left, so I run right. Ahead, another Exit sign blinks.
I’m halfway there when Connolly steers me into a side hall. Just at that moment, a voice says, “Did a young couple just come through here?”
Connolly nudges me along the short hall to another Exit. I push this one open . . .
Darkness. Not the darkness of a parking lot, though. It’s an exhibit, dimly illuminated with floor lighting.
“Also not an emergency exit,” I whisper as we go through.
“More fodder for your lawsuit.”
“I’m not suing. I am sending a very strongly worded letter, as a long-term patron of this establishment. This is a clear safety violation.”
As I talk, he’s prodding me along. Then he stops, lets out a yelp and stumbles, staggering as he smacks at his trousers.
“Fire?” I say. “Did you catch—?”
Something slithers from his pant leg. I dive and grab the little guy, gripping him carefully.
“Lose something?” I say, holding it out to Connolly.
Connolly’s arms windmill as he flails away. That’s when I remember the “dream” from the night before. The one where he’d told me a secret. The one he claimed was my dream alone.
“You aren’t afraid of snakes, are you?” I say, eyes widening in mock innocence.
I purse my lips. “Wait. Do I recall something about a childhood incident?”
When he doesn’t reply, I hold out the baby snake, and it hisses on cue, showing off its adorable tiny fangs. Connolly tries to retreat, only to smack into the wall.
“Answer the question, Connolly,” I say. “Or I swear, it goes back in your pants.”
“Yes,” he says quickly. “Yes, we were on a family trip to India and there was a cobra incident in my bedroom.”
“Huh. Weird how I knew that.”
I hold out the snake again.
“We really don’t have time for this, Kennedy,” he says.
“Three words. Keeps it simple. I was there.”
He hesitates. The snake hisses.
“I was there,” he says. “It was a shared dream.”
“And you lied.”
“The lying liar lied.”
“No time for explanations.” I tip the snake into a nearby vase. “Come on, lying liar. We’ve got about five seconds before—”
The door opens, light flooding the exhibit. We both drop. We crouch there, shoulder to shoulder, gazes trained toward the door, which is hidden behind an exhibit display.
The door stays open. Voices drift in.
“Someone said they went in here,” one says.
“Who? That guy so wasted he can barely stand?” Hector’s voice reverberates through the room, thick with scorn. “Failed the IQ test for the NYPD, didn’t you?”
The other man responds, his voice crackling with outrage. “I chose to be a security guard, sir.”
“Good call. Now, how about you take the word of the sober woman who said they went out the next door, instead of the idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”
I exhale as the door closes, the men retreating. Then I settle in on the floor and whisper, “We’ll give it a few minutes and then take the other way out.”
Connolly doesn’t seem to answer, but when I squint over in the darkness, he’s shaking his head. “We need to move now.”
“Hector just saved our asses.”
Silence. Real silence now, heavy with words unsaid.
My cheeks heat. “He didn’t, did he? I’m being naive.”
“Not naive. Trusting. Which I find refreshing.”
I manage a weak smile. “Thank you. Right now, though, I need a little jaded paranoia.”
“That’s what you have me for. Now, the problem will be finding the actual exit.”
“This exhibit connects to the main hall and the temporary exhibition room. I’m going to suggest we get to that, which should take us to the back hall. That definitely has an exit door.”
“Ah, right, you know your way around. I forgot that.”
“Easy to forget when I can’t find a damn exit. In my defense, I’ve never tried leaving through an emergency exit. That would be wrong. Sneaking into a locked exhibit? Acceptable. Setting off alarms? No.”
A soft chuckle. “All right then. Let’s proceed to the temporary exhibition room. You can lead.”