Del Rey included a teaser for Game of Cages in the back of Child of Fire, but it was just a few pages, not the whole first chapter. Behind the cut, for those who are interested, is the full deal: the complete chapter one of my upcoming novel.
GAME OF CAGES
It was three days before Christmas, and I was not in prison. I couldn’t understand why I was free. I hadn’t hidden my face during the job in Hammer Bay. I hadn’t used a fake name. I honestly hadn’t expected to survive.
I had, though. The list of crimes I’d committed there included breaking and entering, arson, assault, and murder. And what could I have said in my defense? That the people I’d killed really deserved it?
Washington State executes criminals by lethal injection, and for that first night in my own bed, I imagined I was lying on a prison cot in a room with a glass wall, a needle in my arm.
That hadn’t happened. Instead, I’d met with an attorney the society hired, kept my mouth shut, stood in at least a dozen lineups, and waited for the fingerprint and DNA analysis to come back. When it did, they let me go. Maybe I’d only dreamed about the people I’d killed.
So, months later, I was wearing my white supermarket polo shirt, stocking an endcap with gift cards for other stores. It was nearly nine at night, and I had just started my shift. I liked the late shift. It gave me something to do when the restlessness became hard to take.
At the front of the store, a woman was questioning the manager, Harvey. He gestured toward me. At first I figured her for another detective. Even though the last press release about me stated I’d been the victim of identity theft and the police were searching for other suspects, detectives still dropped by my work and home at random times to take another run at me. They weren’t fooled. They knew.
But she didn’t have a cop’s body language. She wore casual gray office clothes and sensible work shoes, an outfit so ordinary I barely noticed it. She walked briskly toward me, clutching a huge bag. Harvey followed.
She was tall and broad in the hips, and had long, delicate hands, large eyes, and a pointed chin. Her skin color showed that she had both black and white parentage, which in this country made her black. “You’re Ray Lilly, aren’t you?” she asked.
“My name is Catherine Little. I’m a friend of your mother’s.”
That hit me like a punch in the gut. The last time I saw my mother, I was fourteen years old and headed into juvie. She was not someone I thought about. Ever. “Who are you again?”
“I’m Catherine. I work with your mother. I’m a friend of hers. She asked me to contact you.”
“Where is she?” I peered through the glass doors into the parking lot, but it was pitch-dark outside.
“Okay. This is the hard part. Your mom’s in the hospital. She’s had some… issues the last few days. She asked for you.” I laid my hand on the gift cards on the cart beside me. They toppled over, ruining the neat little stacks I’d been working with. I began to tidy them absentmindedly. “When?”
Catherine laid her hand on my elbow. “Right now,” she said. “It has to be right now.”
Something about the way she said that was off. I looked at her again. There was a look of urgency on her face, but there was something else there, too. Something calculated.
This woman didn’t know my mother. I knew it then as clearly as if she was wearing a sandwich-board sign that read I AM LYING TO YOU.
Her expression changed. My face must have given me away, because she didn’t look quite so sympathetic now, but her expression was still urgent. “We have to hurry,” she said.
Harvey laid his hand on my shoulder like a friendly uncle. “Ray, go get your coat. I’ll clock you out.”
I told Catherine I’d meet her out front and went into the break room. She had to be with the Twenty Palace Society; there was no one else who would want me. I had been dreading the day they would contact me again. Dreading it and wishing for it.
I grabbed my flannel jacket and hurried outside without speaking to or looking at anyone. I could feel my co-workers watching me. Just the thought of talking to Harvey–or anyone else–about my mom, even if it was a bullshit cover story, made me want to quit on the spot.
Catherine waited behind the wheel of an Acura sedan, one of the most stolen cars in the country. I sat in the passenger seat and buckled up. She had a sweet GPS setup and some electronic equipment I didn’t recognize. I squinted at a narrow slot with a number pad on the side–I could have sworn it was a tiny fax machine. While I had been living the straight life, cars had moved on and left me behind. She pulled into the street.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That really hit you hard, didn’t it? They told me to contact you that way. I didn’t realize… Sorry.” She seemed sincere if a little standoffish.
“Who’s ‘they’?” I asked, just to be sure. “Who are you?”
“My name is Catherine. Really. ‘They’ are the Twenty Palace Society. We have an emergency and I need help. You’re the only other member in this part of the country at the moment.”
My scalp tingled. It was true.
Part of me was furious that they’d dangled my mother in front of me like bait, but at the same time I wanted to lunge across the hand brake and hug her.
Finally. Finally! The society had come for me. It was like a jolt to the base of my spine. Finally, something worth living for.
“Are you okay?” she asked warily.
“I’m okay.” I did my best to keep my voice neutral, but I didn’t succeed all that well. Christ, she’d even said I was a member of the society. I belonged. “We need to go by my place.”
There were no tattoos peeking from the cuffs of her sleeves and the collar of her shirt. She had no sigils on her clothes or the interior of the car. No visible magic. She might have had something hidden, of course. I was tempted to rummage through her pockets to search for spells.
She drove to my place without asking for my address. My hand was trembling and I gripped my leg to hide the adrenaline rush. I’d thought about the society often over the last seven months. Aside from a visit from an old guy with a brush mustache who’d debriefed me about Hammer Bay, I’d heard nothing from them. I hadn’t even gotten a call from Annalise letting me know how she was. I had been telling myself I wanted to be cut loose. I had been telling myself I wanted to be forgotten.
But now they had come for me again and every traffic light and Christmas decoration seemed saturated with color. In fact, all my senses seemed to have been turned up to ten. I felt alive again, and I was grateful for it.
At my aunt’s house, I had Catherine drive around to the back. I climbed the stairs to my mother-in-law apartment above the garage and let myself in. I went to the bookshelf and pulled a slip of paper from between two yard-sale hardcovers. It had been covered on both sides with mailing tape and had laminate over that. A sigil had been drawn on one side.
My ghost knife. It was the only spell I had, except for the protective tattoos on my chest and forearms. They didn’t count, though; the ghost knife was a spell I’d created myself, and I could feel it as if it was a part of me.
I slipped it into my jacket pocket and looked around. What else did I need? I had my wallet and keys and even, for the first time in my life, a credit card. Should I pack clean underwear and a change of clothes?
Catherine honked. No time for that, I guess. I rushed into the bathroom and grabbed my toothbrush. Then I wrote a quick note to my aunt to tell her I’d be gone for a while and please don’t worry. Catherine honked again before I was done. I carried the note down the stairs and annoyed Catherine further by running toward the back door of the house. I stuck the note on the backside of the wreath on the screen door, rattling it in the frame.
The inner door suddenly swung inward. Aunt Theresa was there, looking up at me. “Ray?” She wore a knit cap over her wispy gray hair and a bright red-and-green scarf around her neck. Cold, she was always cold. It was one of the many things about her that made me worry.
“Oh! I thought this was movie night. I was leaving you a note.” She must have come to see who was honking.
She popped open the screen door and took the note with fingers bent sideways from arthritis. “Movie night is tomorrow, dear.” She opened the note and read it. The note didn’t mention my mother–it was Catherine’s cover story, not mine, and I wasn’t going to lie to my aunt about her little sister.
I glanced at the room behind her, expecting to see Uncle Karl in his badge and blue uniform, scowling at me. He wasn’t there.
Aunt Theresa looked up me. “Will you be back for Christmas?”
The way she said it startled me. Of course I had gifts to give her and Karl, but I hadn’t expected her to care if I… I felt like an idiot.
“I hope so,” I said, and meant it.
She shuffled forward and hugged me. I hugged her back. She knew a little about what I did. Not about the society itself, and not enough to get into trouble, but enough to worry. “Be careful.”
We let go. I backed down the stairs and hurried to Catherine’s car. I should have said something reassuring to her, but it was too late now. Time to go.
I climbed into the Acura and belted up. My adrenaline was high, and I couldn’t help but smile. Catherine didn’t like that smile. “Do you have everything now?”
The ghost knife in my pocket felt like a live wire. “Yep.”
She rumbled through the alley and pulled into the street. I thought it would be best to let her tell me what was going on when she was ready, but after driving in silence for four blocks, I couldn’t hold back.
“What’s the emergency?”
“Well…” she said, then fell silent while she negotiated a busy intersection. Her body language had changed again–she was irritated. I wasn’t sure why; didn’t it make sense for me to stop at home before I went on a job?
“Well,” she said again, “earlier today we found out there’s going to be an auction. Tonight. In fact, it might be taking place right now, although I hope not. I went an hour out of my way to pick you up, so you better be worth it.”
This was a sudden change in tone. I wondered where it had come from. “I’ll do my best,” I said, but that made her scowl and blow air out of her nose. “What’s being auctioned?”
That was the answer I didn’t want to hear. Predators were weird supernatural creatures out of the Empty Spaces. I’d seen two so far, along with the pile of corpses they left behind. “Do you know what kind?”
“What kind?” She seemed to think this was an idiotic question, but I had no idea why. “No. I don’t know what kind.”
“Okay.” I was careful not to snap at her.
“Who are you?” she asked. She looked me up and down. I didn’t feel a lot of friendliness coming from her.
“I’m Ray Lilly,” I answered, keeping my tone neutral. “Remember? You just pulled me out of work.”
“I know your name,” she said, leaving out the word dumbass but implying it anyway. “What were you doing at that supermarket? What are you doing in that apartment?”
“That’s not cover for a mission? Okay. What I want to know is who you are in the society. Because you are definitely not a peer. Are you an apprentice? An ally?”
“I’m not any of those things,” I said. “I’m Annalise Powliss’s wooden man.”
She exhaled sharply, then laughed to herself a little. “For God’s sake,” she said, then fell silent. After a few seconds more, she pulled into a Pizza Hut parking lot. She didn’t turn off the engine. “All right,” she said, and I could tell by her tone that I wouldn’t like what she was about to say. “Somebody fucked up. You shouldn’t be here, not with me, and I shouldn’t have been sent a fucking hour out of my way to pick up a fucking wooden man, not on a supposedly emergency job. What’s the point in having you along? I don’t need you and I don’t want you. Hell, I don’t even like looking at you, knowing what you are.
“So here’s the deal: you keep quiet and do what I say, or you get out right now. I have a long night’s work ahead of me, and I don’t need you getting in my way. So, which is it going to be? Because if following orders is going to be too much for you, you need to be out of my car and have yourself a nice day.”
She stared at me, waiting for a response. It had been a while since anyone had spoken to me like that. If Catherine had been a guy…
Not that using my fists had ever turned out well for me. Old habits don’t just die hard, they make living hard, too. “You must be part of the diplomatic wing of the society.”
She sat back, rolled her eyes, and sighed. “What the hell did I do to deserve this?”
“I’ll tell you what you did,” I answered. “You talked to me like I ran over your dog. What ever your problem is, it has nothing to do with me.”
“Oh no?” She turned the key, shutting off the engine. “Bad enough to have a peer or an ally along. Then I would spend all my time praying the collateral damage doesn’t hit me. But every wooden man I’ve ever met was either a stone-skulled thug, terminally ill, or a terminally ill stone-skulled thug.” She made sure to look me straight in the eye as she said it. She had guts. I would have liked her if she wasn’t so obnoxious. “Which are you?”
“Well, I’m not terminally ill.”
She frowned. I’d lived down to her expectations. “Well, that’s just dandy.”
“If you order me to get out of your car,” I said, “I’ll hop out right here. I’m not going to ride with someone who doesn’t want me. But that’s the only way I’m getting out. When the friendly guy from the society turns up to debrief me, I’m not going to tell him I chose not to go. Understand?”
She turned away from me. The society had kept me out of jail, somehow. I had no idea what would happen if I refused to take a job. Would they kill me? Would they lift whatever spell kept the cops off my front door? I had exactly one person handy who I could ask, and she was trying to kick me out of her car.
Pizza delivery guys carried red cases across the lot. They didn’t seem happy about the way we were parked. I wondered how much they made a month.
“All right then,” Catherine said. “We go on the job, and you take your orders from me.”
“That ain’t going to happen, either,” I told her. As Annalise’s wooden man, I went when she said go and I did when she said do, but that didn’t mean I was going to take orders from everyone in the society. Not unless Annalise told me to. “If you have a good idea, I’ll be happy to go along with it. If not, then not. That’s the only deal you’re going to get. If that’s not good enough, you can explain why you gave the boot to the guy the society sent you an hour out of your way to pick up.”
She chewed on that for a while, then pulled into the street and drove onto the ramp to the highway. We weren’t talking, apparently, but I could bear it. At least she didn’t want to kill me.
We drove to 520 and headed east toward the Cascades. Two hours and several increasingly narrow roads later, we turned off just before we came to a pass. We drove north for a short while, following a winding two-lane highway through the mountains.
It occurred to me that Catherine might have a report or a file about the job we were on. I asked, but she shook her head. Either she didn’t have one, or she wasn’t sharing. They came to the same thing for me.
We changed roads a couple of more times, weaving and winding through the Cascade foothills. We didn’t play music. Catherine was a very good driver, although I doubted most people would recognize it; she had complete control of the car, held the same steady speed, and had excellent lane discipline. Nothing flashy, but she knew what she was doing. I wondered how much time she spent behind the wheel every day.
We skirted a small town, passing along a road in the hillside above it. It was late, but Christmas lights still burned in the town below. It felt strange to be traveling several hundred feet above a star, but I was probably just tired.
I didn’t see the name of the town and realized I had no idea where we were. It didn’t matter. By my watch, it was just past eleven. The road and rain forest looked fake in the headlights, like a TV show. I felt adrift in the darkness.
We curved south and quickly came upon a high black iron fence on one side of the road. Catherine pulled to the shoulder and checked her GPS against a slip of paper in her pocket. “This is it. The gate should be up ahead.”
“I can cut through the fence,” I told her. The long drive had eased tensions between us. “We could hide the car and sneak onto the property.”
“That would take too long. The driveway from the gate to the house stretches three miles, and the terrain would be difficult. There’s also a second road off the grounds that heads east-northeast toward town and a whole twisty mess of access roads and horse trails, otherwise I’d suggest we hide outside the gate and snap photos of drivers and license plates of everyone who leaves. We’re going to have to risk driving it.”
I nodded and kept quiet. After a few minutes we came to the gate. Catherine drove by, slowing slightly to allow us to look up the driveway. I didn’t see any cars or guards, but a heavy chain held the two halves of the gate together.
She drove down the road a ways, turned off her headlights, then did a quick three-point turn. We approached the gate from the other side and stopped at the entrance. “I have a bolt cutter in the back,” she said, reaching for the door.
“We don’t need it,” I said. I opened the passenger door and closed it as quietly as I could. The chunk sound it made was loud in the thin mountain air.
If there was an alarm system on the gate, it was hidden. There were no wires, electric trips, or warning signs. I took the ghost knife from my pocket. Holding it felt like holding my own hand.
I approached the chain snaked through the gate and laid the laminated edge of the ghost knife against it. It cuts ghosts, magic, and dead things. With a quick flick of my wrist, I slid the sheet of paper through the steel, slicing it in half.
Metal rods extended through the bottom of the gate into a hole in the asphalt. I cut those as well.
The chain came off in two pieces. They had been wrapped around the gate but not locked together. I hadn’t needed the ghost knife at all.
I pushed the left gate open, making enough room for the Acura. No klaxons went off, no lights flashed, no Dobermans charged out of the darkness at me.
We drove up the driveway with our lights off. It was a winding road, dipping and curving around gullies and rock faces. I was glad Catherine had shot down my idea of crossing the estate on foot–it would have taken hours.
It occurred to me that, if the society wanted to get rid of me, this was the way to do it. Send a woman to pick me up. Dress her in bland, nondescript clothes. Drive all the way into the mountains. If this estate belonged to Annalise or one of the other peers, no one would ever find me.
I shook that off. A peer could just as easily throttle me in my bed and burn down my apartment. Or pull my head off with their bare hands. They didn’t need to be clever.
Catherine and I gasped at the same time as a curve in the road revealed a pair of headlights shining from around the next bend. She braked gently. I laid my hand on the door handle in case I needed to bolt from the car.
“Don’t,” Catherine said. The headlights were not moving toward us. In fact, they weren’t moving at all. We backed up a few yards and turned down an access road I hadn’t noticed. The tires crunched on downed branches and muddy gravel. She drove twenty yards, then shut off the engine. Once the sun rose, anyone on the drive above would be able to spot the car, but I hoped we would be gone by then.
We shut the doors as quietly as we could. Catherine changed from her office shoes into hiking boots and slung a pack over her shoulder, then followed me back to the driveway. My own black leather low-tops slipped in the mud.
Once back at the driveway, Catherine laid a long pine branch across the shoulder. She then placed a pine cone in the center of the asphalt.
With the access road to the car marked, we crept along the shoulder, staying just inside the line of trees. I heard the wind blowing above me, but I was sheltered down in the hills. Unfortunately, we were heading up. My jacket was too thin for December in the mountains, but I’d be okay if I kept dry.
I reached the edge of the curve. A BMW sat on the shoulder of the road, grille facing me, but the headlights were off. The lights actually came from a second vehicle: a panel truck on its side, the windshield cracked and the low beams shining into the trees across the road. The truck was lit by the headlights of a third car that I couldn’t see from where I stood. I watched for a minute or so, waiting for the drivers to show up. They didn’t.
Catherine crept up beside me and peered around the trunk of a tree. I wished I knew the hand signals TV commandos use. I leaned close to her and whispered: “Let me check it out. If no one shoots me, you follow.”
The reflected headlights illuminated Catherine’s face clearly. I saw her nod gratefully.
I rubbed the tattoos Annalise had put on my chest and forearms, but I couldn’t feel anything. That was how they worked: where the marks covered my skin I was numb, but those marks could bounce bullets.
It wasn’t much. My neck, my face and head, my back, my legs, and a couple of other places I didn’t like to think about were not bulletproof, but it was more than most people had.
I darted from one tree to the next. The headlights lit the accident scene pretty well, but anyone who might be standing guard was well hidden. Or there was nothing to guard. To hell with this. I climbed down the embankment and walked along the shoulder.
The BMW was an xDrive 50i in a lovely burgundy. An X6. It was also empty. The license plate holder showed it belonged to a “luxury” rental agency. Out of habit, I checked the ignition. No keys. The driver’s door was un-locked, though. I had always liked stealing BMWs. They were fun to drive and valuable enough to ship out of the country. That wasn’t my life anymore, of course.
I jogged toward the toppled panel truck. I was too close to creep around in shadows, and it would have looked suspicious if I’d tried. Instead, I strode directly through the headlights, trying to make my body language say I am a Good Samaritan.
The truck was lying on the passenger side, with the cab partly blocking the driveway. The mud beside it was smeared with footprints.
Standing by the roof, I pulled myself up and peered into the open driver’s window. There was blood on the steering wheel and a bloody handprint on the side of the door.
Then I noticed the front driver’s-side tire. It was dead flat, and there was a finger-poke hole in the metal rim.
A skid mark stretched from the middle of the road to just a few feet away. Uphill was a long, gentle slope, very unlike the terrain we’d passed on the estate so far. The trees were scant on that part of the hill, and at the far top I could see the lights of a house.
I walked around the front. There were no dents in the grille, so it was clear there’d been no collision. At the bottom of the truck, I could feel the drive train still giving off heat. Gas dripped out of a small rupture in the plastic gas tank.
Catherine jogged up beside me. “This accident just happened,” I said.
“Did you notice the color on the roof?” she asked.
I followed her around the truck. Now that she’d told me it was there, I saw it immediately–there was a dark circle just under two feet in diameter on the part of the roof next to the ground. I knelt close to it. The blue paint of the truck was nearly black there, although it was difficult to judge color accurately in the moonlight.
Was this circle fresh paint? I picked up a stick and poked it.
“Don’t-” Catherine said, but she was too late. One tap against the circle caused the whole area to crumble to dust, leaving a hole in the roof.
I jumped back, careful not to get any dust on me. “Holy shit,” Catherine said. “What did that?”
“I was going to ask you,” I said.
She took a flashlight from her bag and shined it down onto the pile of dust. It looked like fine metal filings. She turned the beam of light into the truck. “I can’t tell what I’m seeing in there.”
I walked to the back. The third car parked behind it wasn’t a BMW. Something about it caught my attention, but the headlights were bright and I was too focused on the truck to think about it. The truck’s double doors were unlatched. One door hung across the opening. Half of a bakery logo was visible on it. The other door lay open on the uneven ground. It would have been convenient if the headlights of the third car lit the interior of the truck, but it had been parked at the wrong angle for that.
Catherine joined me but kept well back from the open door. She knelt and shined her flashlight into the darkness of the truck. Right beside the opening was a car battery. Beyond that, I couldn’t see much detail.
I didn’t see or hear anything moving inside. I stepped onto the open door. It groaned and bent under my weight. I knelt below the other door, not wanting to touch it in case it made more noise, and I crawled inside.
Catherine followed. Her flashlight illuminated the contents well enough. Beside me was the car battery. Only one lead was still attached.
At the far end of the truck bed was a Plexiglas cube, three feet on each side. It was still bolted to the door, which meant it was now midway up the side of the tipped-over truck. There was a broken battery mount on it, and each corner of the cube had a floodlight aimed toward its center. With the battery broken off, presumably by the accident, the lights had gone out.
“What the hell is this?” Catherine asked. Her voice echoed off the metal panels.
“A cage,” I said. I remembered something Annalise had once told me: Predators like to be summoned, but they hate to be held in place. I moved closer to it. There was a discolored hole on the “roof” of the cage.
“Don’t touch that, please,” Catherine said. “I have to breathe the air in here, and I don’t want a lot of plastic dust floating around.”
“It looks like we’re too late,” she added. “It looks like the owner of this truck won the auction, then had an accident while they were driving away. The battery mount broke, the lights went off, and what ever was inside escaped. Seem right to you?”
“Sure, except about the accident. That left front tire was shot out. You can see the bullet hole on the metal rim.”
She nodded. I had the impression I’d passed the first IQ test. “Okay. If the gunfire has already started, then we should gather up what information we have and get out of here. But what do you think about these discolored holes?”
“I think I don’t want to get in this predator’s way.”
She handed me the flashlight, then stepped outside. I could hear her texting someone, probably reporting to the society.
I shone the light around the enclosure. There were small stones at the front of the truck bed. I got down close and saw they weren’t stones at all. I picked one up. It was half a dog biscuit.
I climbed out of the truck just as Catherine shut off her phone. “Well?”
“They’ll be on their way as quickly as they can. It’ll take hours, though. Probably not until tomorrow night or later. Did you find anything?”
“Just this.” I held up the biscuit. She frowned at it.
“Weird. Do you think they fed a dog to the predator?”
“What are the odds that this predator eats doggy treats?”
She gave me a look that told me I’d failed my second test. She held out her hand and I gave her the flashlight.
As she stooped below the hanging door to enter the truck again, she said: “No offense, but I’m going to check your work. I’m the investigator here.”
She was? That was useful information. I’d never met a society investigator before, but I knew they were supposed to look into suspicious situations, file a report, and get out. It was up to the peers–and their wooden men–to do the fighting.
She was inside the truck for just a minute or two, but it seemed much longer. Someone was going to catch us here if we didn’t move on soon.
I looked at the third vehicle and stopped short. No wonder it had caught my attention: it was a Maybach Landaulet, roof closed, naturally. Christ. Someone was rolling in the cash.
Finally, Catherine climbed out of the truck. “I have an idea,” she said. She walked around the truck to the hole in the roof, then began searching the muddy slope. “Look.”
She pointed to an indentation in the mud. It was perfectly round and flat, as if someone had tamped down the earth with a big soup can. There was another nearby farther up the slope, then another and another. They were spaced out like footprints, and there seemed to be a lot of them.
“Are there two predators?” I asked.
“Either that, or it had more than two legs. And look at this.” She shone the flashlight onto a separate set of tracks, this time made by men’s dress shoes. They headed up the small rise and over it, the men chasing the escaped predator.
“Which way do we go?” I asked. “Do we follow the tracks or continue toward the house?” I nodded up the slope at the house lights.
“Can the spell you used to cut the chain out front kill a predator?” she asked, her tone making it clear she didn’t have that sort of weapon.
“It has in the past,” I admitted. To push away the memories that statement churned up, I kept talking. “Whether it will work on this one or not, I don’t know. I don’t even know what we’re facing.”
“Neither do I,” she said.
We trudged through the mud after the footprints. At the top of the rise we saw a long, even, tree-lined slope headed downward. And four bodies.
END of CHAPTER ONE
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