Here it is - the prologue of The Hypnotic City! Enjoy this sneak peek and let me know what you think in the comments. :)
THE HYPNOTIC CITY
By Andrea Berthot
Somewhere north of the Hudson Pier, 1903
“Look out, Miss Blackwell!”
Philomena stumbled as Jennie’s arm shot out and thrust her back up on the sidewalk.
“Jennie!” she scolded, her already pounding heart skipping a beat.
“I’m sorry, miss, but the carriage—”
“No, that’s not it – I’m glad you stopped me.”
Philomena had been so caught up in the loud, bright city spinning around them, she probably would have walked right out in front of the horse if not for Jennie. She began to continue her explanation, but then she squinted after the carriage.
“Does that say Ice For Sale?” she asked. Jennie followed her gaze.
“Yes,” she confirmed, tilting her head. “But who would want to buy ice? And how do they keep it from melting inside that wagon? In this heat?”
She wiped her brow with the back of the hand that wasn’t gripping her trunk. Like Jennie, Philomena had never experienced such scorching heat.
“I’m not sure,” she replied, a smile spreading across her face, “but so far it seems that anything is possible in this city.”
They’d only been in New York for an hour, but Philomena was already certain it was where she belonged. The city was just like the brilliant sunshine spilling between its buildings – fresh, alive, and pulsing with a fierce, incessant fever. All around her, people looked each other straight in the eye and charged toward their destinations with proud determination. This was a place where no one was afraid to go out, and take chances. A place where talent and drive were all one needed to succeed.
And no one possessed more talent or drive than Philomena did.
“I didn’t snap at you because you stopped me from getting trampled,” she said. “It’s because you called me—”
“I know,” Jennie murmured. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Back in London, Jennie had been Philomena’s chambermaid. Now they were friends, and, as Philomena kept insisting, absolute equals, but Jennie still had trouble reversing those years of subordinate training.
“Don’t be sorry,” Philomena insisted. “Just break the habit. Repeat after me: Philomena.”
Jennie lowered her gaze, her heat-flushed face burning even more deeply.
“You know,” Philomena said, touching her shoulder. “I like that better. Go ahead and call me Phil. It’s modern, and short. Like me.”
Jennie laughed and looked down at Philomena, who – though fifteen years old and only one year younger – was much shorter. Her waiflike size was the only thing she detested about herself, and she never would have emphasized it if not to comfort Jennie. It was nothing less than a cruel trick of God for her feel so big on the inside, but only be five feet tall in heels.
“Do you think we’re far enough north now?” Jennie asked. “To find a place?”
Philomena sat her trunk on the sidewalk and glanced at the street signs. One of the porters said they should go “uptown” to find a hotel, but they weren’t sure how far north “uptown” was from the Hudson Pier. The salt and fish scent of the Hudson had faded, replaced by sweat, horses, and the pungent aromas of new foods. The people around them were shouting in a symphony of languages and accents she’d never heard, indicating that most, like she and Jennie, were immigrants. However, none of them were likely to have a background much like hers.
The daughter of an earl, Philomena had been born into wealth and privilege and raised a lady, growing up in the splendor and refinement of Buckingham Palace. If any of the people around her knew what kind of life she’d lived, they would think her mad for choosing to throw it all away. They didn’t know what it was to be a prisoner in one’s own home, or to be viewed as a chess piece, treated like a horse in need of breaking, or to burn with a fire the world was set on stamping out. Her parents had made good on their promise to cut her off if she ran, but not until after she’d managed to steal a decent amount of their money. She and Jennie had sailed first-class on a beautiful ocean liner and bypassed the hot and complicated chaos of Ellis Island. The rest of the money would last until they were settled, which Philomena was certain they would be as soon as a Broadway producer laid eyes on her and her talent.
“We might need to go a bit farther,” she said, picking up her trunk, “but let’s stop and eat first. I want to try my first American food.”
“I don’t know,” Jennie said. “We ought to find—”
“Come on, aren’t you hungry? Look at that place across the street that says Coffee and Pie. That sounds lovely.”
“Oh, all right,” Jennie said. After glancing both ways down the street, they dashed across and walked to the door. Once they stepped inside, Philomena took a deep breath; the restaurant was shaded and cool, with whirring fans humming overhead. There were nine or ten people inside, seated at small, round tables, so she and Jennie hurried toward the nearest empty one, plopped their trunks on the floor, and sat down.
“What’ll you have?” a girl about their age asked, approaching the table. When she glanced up from her pen and pad, her gaze sharpened on their dresses. Philomena shifted in her chair. She and Jennie were wearing custom-made clothing from back in London, but the fine material wasn’t all the server girl found strange. From the moment she’d left London – even before she’d boarded the boat to the States – Philomena had noticed fashions were different beyond the city.
Because London had been cut off from the outside world for thirteen years.
“Pie and coffee, please,” Philomena answered, meeting her gaze.
“What kind do you have?”
The girl sighed. “Peach, cherry, apple—”
“Apple!” Philomena exclaimed, grinning at Jennie. “That would be perfect for our first meal in America.”
The girl, neither enthused nor impressed by the news of their recent travels, turned to Jennie.
“Yes, please,” Jennie said, and the girl walked back into the kitchen. “Isn’t it strange,” Jennie whispered once she was gone, “to be in a place where so many people talk like Iris?”
“Yes,” Philomena replied, but she didn’t completely agree. Their friend Iris was from Kansas, and while she spoke with the same broad, flat, American vowels, she didn’t sound exactly like the New Yorkers. There were slight but obvious differences Philomena could detect.
“Hey, there,” a smooth, male voice rang out, and she looked up to see a slender young man approaching. “New arrivals?”
He pulled up a chair with one hand, spun it around, and sat down backward, inviting himself to their table with such blatant, unflinching audacity that Philomena started. No man in her old life would ever have done such a thing.
It was thrilling.
“We are,” she replied. The man glanced over as if seeing her for the first time, and she realized he’d been focused on, and speaking only to, Jennie.
“Who’s this?” he said with a grin, turning to Jennie. “Your kid sister?”
Philomena’s mouth dropped open. “We’re only one year apart, we’re friends, and you’re rude,” she snapped, outraged.
The man raised his hands and laughed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He smiled at Jennie again. “That is the last thing I want to do.”
Philomena rolled her eyes, her rage giving way to annoyance. She should hardly have been surprised that this man, or any man, would be drawn to Jennie. Her golden hair, rosy cheeks, and sky blue eyes demanded attention. But then she remembered the curse that Jennie’s beauty had been back in London. The Lord Mayor, who’d ruled the quarantined city, committed unspeakable acts against its people, and especially his servants, like Jennie. She still flinched when men passed too closely or brushed her shoulder, and when Philomena saw her shifting away from the man, her rage rushed back.
“We’d like to be alone now,” she said. “Please leave.”
The man laughed again. “I was only being friendly, and curious, too. It’s not often I meet girls with accents like yours. Where are you from?”
Hoping he’d leave if she answered, Philomena spat, “We’re from London.”
The man’s eyes widened. “You’re joking,” he murmured.
“I’m not. Goodbye.”
The man didn’t budge. “You really lived in London?” he asked. “On the level?”
“Yes. Will you please go?”
“No way,” he said, leaning forward with a fascinated smile. “What did the monsters look like? Is it true they ate people’s hearts?” His widened eyes gleamed. “Did you see anyone get killed?”
For a moment, Philomena could no longer hear his questions, could no longer see his face, or even feel the chair beneath her. She wasn’t in the restaurant, but back in the Grand Hall of Buckingham Palace, watching her first and closest friend, Albert Cummings, bleed out on the floor. He’d rushed to her aid one night when the Lord Mayor slapped her across the face. In response, the Lord Mayor shot and killed him at point blank range. She turned away from the man, starting to sweat, her hands trembling. Then she saw another man was crouched on the floor behind her, his hands on her trunk.
“You mean it?” the second man whispered. “You’re from London?”
Without waiting for a response, he stood and started to back away, staring down at her trunk in horror, and wiping his hands on his trousers. Philomena gasped.
“Were you… were you trying to steal my trunk?”
He scoffed as if to say, Not now, I’m not. She leapt to her feet.
“You – you were working together!” she shrieked, spinning back to face the first man. “You were only distracting us so your friend could rob us blind!”
“What’s going on?” someone bellowed. She looked up to see a burly man in an apron burst out of the kitchen.
“These men,” she shouted. “They’re trying to rob—”
“Those girls just got here from London!”
The girl who had taken their order was pointing her finger in their direction, and Philomena realized the entire restaurant was staring.
“Get them out!” someone cried.
“Yes, get them out!”
“They could be infected!”
Philomena opened her mouth to argue, her blood on fire, but then a strong, clear voice soared out over the din.
“We’re not infected!”
Philomena turned to see Jennie suddenly standing beside her, her shoulders back, her chin held high, and her voice trembling with rage. “The Hyde drug never worked on women, but no one’s infected now,” she said. “And that’s because our friends risked their lives to cure and save the city.”
Philomena gaped at Jennie, her chest swelling with pride.
Then the burly man pointed his finger at them. “Get out of here – now!”
“Us?” Philomena demanded. “But these men were trying to steal—”
“No,” she hollered. “We’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Come on, Phil,” Jennie said, grabbing her trunk. “He isn’t worth it.”
Philomena looked at Jennie, gritted her teeth, and then glared at the man. Finally, with a violent curse, she seized her trunk from the floor. The two of them then marched out the door and into the crowded street.
“We should find a hotel,” Jennie said, glaring north, “and we shouldn’t tell them, or anyone else, where we’re from again.”
When Philomena didn’t respond, Jennie looked down at her.
“You,” Philomena said, beaming. “The way you stood up for us in there…and you called me Phil!”
Jennie blushed, but returned the smile. “Well, we’re in the New World now. Time for turning over new leaves.”
“Damn right,” Philomena said. “Come on. Let’s go and find a hotel.”
They gripped their trunks and started up the street.
“I hope they hear,” Jennie said. “Those people, when you’re a star. I hope they find out how successful you’ve become, and feel just awful.”
“Of course they’ll find out,” Philomena said, lifting her chin and breathing the fresh, free air. “By this time next year, everyone in this city will know my name.”