Game of Cages
I had no idea where Well-Spoken was going, but I knew how to follow voices. I picked up the silver tray and left the kitchen.
The halls had dark paneling and were hung with landscapes of sunny places thousands of miles away. The floor was hardwood with a strip of burgundy carpet down the center. The carpet had been plush once but had been worn thin down the middle and dotted with faint brown stains.
I walked quietly but not sneakily. I still had the too-small servant’s jacket on. It would probably fool anyone who didn’t actually live or work here, and I hoped that was good enough. I held the tray in front of me to hide my shirttails.
Well-Spoken Woman and the Russian had talked about attracting the wrong kind of attention, and I knew they were talking about me. They wanted a predator; the Twenty Palace Society kills people who have predators.
And while I’d killed people, I’d always known who I was killing and why they deserved it. I tried to picture myself kicking open the pantry door and shotgunning those strangers, but I couldn’t. That wasn’t me.
The corridor ended at a T intersection, and as I approached, a small group of people walked by. The man in front was the tall man with the stork neck who’d carried the nurse by the legs. Behind him was a blond woman of about fifty with salon hair and makeup. Two more men walked at the rear. Both were balding, one short and skinny, the other short and fat. Both had big square glasses and prn-star mustaches.
The men were dressed like Horace–they had ugly winter coats and cheap boots. Stork Neck was wearing rubber galoshes, and between the three of them, their haircuts couldn’t have cost more than fifteen bucks.
The woman was different. She wore a stylish brown leather coat that reached to mid-thigh. Her boots were also leather and trimmed with fur. In the seconds I had to look at her, she gave the impression of being very carefully put together, very exacting and self-aware. She drew my attention the way the men with her did not.
Was this Well-Spoken Woman? The three men were obviously Fellows, but–
The woman and the two mustache guys glanced at me. They saw my servant’s jacket and looked away. I was invisible. I was help.
When I reached the intersection, I had the choice of turning right and following them or turning left toward the direction they’d come from. To the left was a pair of heavy doors, both shut tight. I didn’t know what was behind them. I turned right.
Ahead of me, Stork Neck’s party turned left. I hustled after them and peeked around the corner just in time to see them file into a room.
I walked to the door. The woman was speaking, and her voice was deeper than the one I’d eavesdropped on from behind the pantry door. She wasn’t Well-Spoken Woman after all. “It’s a surprisingly small library,” she said. She had an accent like a Kennedy.
A man’s thin, nasal voice answered: “But the quality is excellent, if you are interested in road building, Bigfoot, or Ayn Rand. Otherwise–”
“Now,” the woman said.
I heard the rustle of clothing and peeked around the edge of the door. The woman stepped backward, allowing the Mustaches to pull sawed-off double-barreled shotguns from under their puffy coats. They pointed them at two men seated in the corner. One was a pudgy young guy with Larry Fine hair, and the other was a huge-bellied biker in riding leathers.
The biker looked startled, then let his hand creep toward the waistband of his pants. Something he saw in the expressions of the Mustaches changed his mind. Stork Neck came up behind him and patted him down.
From my position, I couldn’t see Larry Fine’s expression. “What the hell are you doing?” he said.
Fat Mustache answered him: “The other bidders here have asked us to kill you both.” He was the Russian-speaker. I’d followed the wrong party.
“You can’t do that!” Larry Fine blurted out.
“Of course I can,” the woman answered. Her voice was mild. Stork Neck removed a little revolver from the biker’s belt. “However, I’m tempted to let you live, if you cooperate.”
I crossed the doorway to have a better view. No one saw me. They were all paying very close attention to one another. Larry Fine had a look of blustering outrage, as though he had been told he couldn’t have nutmeg in his latte. “This doesn’t even make sense–”
“Don’t be dense, Mr. Kripke. You did not come here to purchase this creature. You don’t have the cash to bid or the resources to hold it.”
“I didn’t expect the price to start so—”
“Shut up,” she said. Her tone wasn’t harsh or angry, but he did it. “You came here to gather information for your little electronic circle of friends. You plan to put our names and descriptions into your database. Don’t bother to deny it.”
His mouth worked while he decided whether to take her advice. “You’re wrong and you’re right. I would have bought the creature if the price hadn’t been so high, just like you. I’m also planning to make a record of everything I’ve seen, Professor Solorov, also just like you.” Kripke had an edge of contempt in his voice, as though he didn’t think they had the guts to kill him.
Biker looked uncomfortable and edged away from Kripke. I could tell he took the threat seriously, and so did I.
The ghost knife was still in my pocket, but I couldn’t use it. Both Mustaches had their backs to me, and I couldn’t see their guns. My spell would pretty much hit what ever I wanted it to, but I couldn’t hit what I couldn’t see. I also expected them to have backup weapons. Horace did.
I could have targeted the men rather than the weapons, of course, but I couldn’t hit all of them together. Someone would have time to squeeze a trigger, and I wasn’t protected well enough to survive a shotgun blast.
“Perhaps we will,” Solorov answered. I wondered if she said we when her gunmen weren’t around. “But there are crucial differences. First, we know everyone we will share this information with personally. Second, we brought more guns. You.” She spoke to Biker for the first time. “You’re his friend, correct? He didn’t hire you as a bodyguard; he asked you to come along, right?”
“Right,” Biker answered. His voice was hoarse.
“We thought so,” she said. “We’re going to split you up, but we’re willing to spare your lives if you both cooperate.”
Kripke let out a dismissive puff of air. “I wouldn’t join your group if you—”
“I didn’t say you could join us,” Solorov said sharply. “You can work for us. I know someone has been feeding you information–recent information. If you share it with us–all of it–and if you report to your group in exactly the manner I indicate, you and your friend may survive.”
Kripke looked over at Biker. The look on his friend’s face drained all the insolence out of him. He nodded.
“You’re lucky, Mr. Kripke, although I doubt you have the wit to see it. If Mr. Yin had been asked to get rid of you, two of his men would have walked in here, shot you both, and left you dead on the floor. And that crotchety German bastard would have cut you open and eaten you. At least I–and the rest of the Fellows, of course–have given you a chance to live and be useful.”
Stork Neck and Skinny Mustache waved at Biker. He stood. They were leaving.
I slid away from the door as quietly as I could. There was one other door in the hall, but it was locked. The rattle of the latch sounded as loud as an alarm bell. I hustled away, holding the tray in my left hand.
The corridor ended at a door with a dead bolt. I didn’t bother to rattle the knob. To my right was another mudroom and a door into the backyard. To my left was a flight of stairs. I walked up the steps.
The library door clicked shut. At the top of the first landing, I heard Biker’s hoarse voice say: “You guys don’t have to kill me, you know.”
“We know.” I didn’t recognize that voice.
“You… you wouldn’t really do it, though, right?” I could hear the question in Biker’s voice: Are these guys really killers? “Have you ever done this before?”
“I wanted a monster,” a new voice said. It sounded high and thin, as though the speaker was under terrible strain. “I came here to get a monster, but we weren’t fucking rich enough. Do you know how long I…” He let that sentence trail off as though he was swallowing all his disappointment and resentment. I wouldn’t want to be on the ugly end of his gun.
“We won’t do anything we don’t have to do,” the first man said calmly.
They went outside. I climbed the second flight and came to a huge back window. Through the drapes, I saw Stork Neck and Skinny Mustache lead Biker toward the woods, away from the garage.
According to Horace, the guest house was where the predator had been kept. That was my next stop.
There was a muffled chunk of a slamming car door. I crossed toward the front of the house. The nearest door was unlocked and the room inside was filled with furniture covered with white sheets, just like in the movies. The musty smell made me wrinkle my nose.
More heavy drapes hung over the windows at the front of the house. Each window was taller than my apartment. I pulled the drape open a crack. The X6 backed up, trying to make its way through the crowded lot. When it was as close to the door as it was going to get, the guy in the furry Russian hat climbed out of the driver’s seat and hustled around the front. He opened the back door like a chauffeur.
A small woman slipped into the backseat. From above I didn’t have the best view of her, but I saw that her very dark hair was parted severely down the middle and curled into a librarian’s bun. She had a dark complexion and were a gray suit.
The chauffeur closed her door, got behind the wheel, and sped off. If she was leaving before the others, she worked for Mr. Yin, which meant she was the Well-Spoken Woman who was so casual about asking other people to kill for her. I hoped Catherine was in position to snap a photo.
I mentally ran through the list of bidders Horace had given us: Yin’s people were all out on the hillside hunting for the predator. I hadn’t seen Yin himself, only his gunman and Well-Spoken Woman, who was his representative. Kripke and his biker bodyguard were accounted for and not doing very well. I’d seen Professor Solorov and about half of her mismatched, badly dressed Fellows; on their own, they didn’t impress, but their guns were dangerous enough.
And there was Tattoo, who had to be the German with the harsh voice. I didn’t like the look of him, especially since Horace had said he was one of the “old man’s” people. The professor had said the old man would have eaten Kripke, and based on previous experience, I knew there was a good chance she meant it literally. I didn’t want to meet that old man.
That meant I’d had at least a glimpse of each of the four groups of bidders. Hopefully, what I’d learned would be useful to the society.
I went back into the hall and heard the faint jabbering of a radio. I peered into the darkness and noticed a tiny sliver of light shining from under a door. I had a hunch I knew who was behind that door, and if I was right, the guest house could wait.
“I can hear you out there!” Regina shouted. “You can’t fool these old ears.”
Fair enough. I opened the door and went inside.
The bright light hit half a second before the smell. Who ever brought Regina up here hadn’t expected her to sleep. Maybe they didn’t care. Three halogen lamps filled the room with an acid-yellow light–there was no way to nod off in here without a blindfold.
The room also stank of unwashed bedpans, sweat, and neglect. My initial impulse was to flee back into the musty shadows of the hall.
“I know,” Regina said. I guess I wouldn’t have made much of a poker player in that moment. She switched off a small transistor radio on the bed beside her. Her niece had buckled her left wrist to a bolt in the frame. She was still wearing the dirty nightgown, and I wished she would pull it down over the black-and-blue patches on her legs. They gave me goose bumps. “It sickens me, too. Just be glad you don’t have to live this way.”
“I am. My name is Ray.”
“I’m Regina Wilbur. When I was a girl, my father would have had you thrown out of this house for introducing yourself to me. You’d have left with a muddy boot print on your derrière.”
“Things have changed,” I said, for lack of anything more profound to offer.
She rattled the short chain on her restraint. “So they have. What have you done with Armand?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who that is,” I said, hoping it would prompt her to explain.
Instead, she sighed bitterly and looked around the room. “This house was mine once. My father built it with timber money. My husband built four more just like it all over the country, and one in the Italian Alps, too. He took my father’s fortune and doubled it five times. Trucking lines, at the beginning, then tires and road building. He was a bastard, but most are. At least he had the decency to die young.
“But now Stephanie has taken it all, and the little bitch didn’t even have the good manners to wait until I had dirt over my face. She’s going to sell it, just like the ones in Carolina and Maine, so she can live in California.” She said that word with special distaste. “All auctioned off! All the history here. All the gifts from politicians and people desperate to do business. Even from enemies who wanted my blessing…”
Her voice trailed off and she stared across the room. Her eyes were like dark river stones. The whole situation made me uneasy.
She seemed to have forgotten me. To prompt her, I said: “Was Armand one of those gifts?”
“Yes,” she said, savoring the word like it was candy. “He was a gift from one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the world, Nelson Taber Stroud. Dead now, of course. He and I clashed over all sorts of garbage over the years, especially mining rights, but that changed once Armand arrived. Nothing else mattered after that. Armand was everything.”
What is he? I wanted to ask. That seemed too direct. Regina may have been in a bad spot, but she was still sharp. And she hadn’t asked for my help, hadn’t even hinted that she wanted it. She was either tough as hell or completely crazy.
“It sounds like you loved him very much.”
“You bet I did. I made sure Ursula kept his cage clean and stayed with him in his house. He was loved, and I made sure he knew it.”
She looked at a nightstand loaded with pictures in silver frames. I circled the bed toward it. I had to move in front of a window, but the glass was so dirty that I wasn’t worried about being spotted. The closest picture, though still out of her reach, was of a much younger Regina holding a Scottish terrier to her face. The dog wore a diamond necklace. “Is this Armand?”
She twisted her mouth in disgust. “That’s the first Armand. Give me that.”
I handed the picture to her. She snatched it with her free hand and flung it across the room. It smashed against a radiator with a noise I thought the whole house could hear.
Damn. Now I understood why it had been out of her reach. I slid my hand into my pocket next to my ghost knife, just in case someone came to investigate.
“That’s what I think of that,” she said with finality. She turned back to the other pictures.
Regina was much older in these. Every picture showed her crouching beside an empty Plexiglas cage similar to the one in the wrecked truck, only much larger. Flood lamps lit the interior, and the cage was spiderwebbed with electrical wiring.
But all I could see inside the cage was a blurry blue smear. What ever it was, I couldn’t make it out.
I looked at the other pictures. There were at least a dozen, all showing Regina posing with the empty cage. Her hair was longer in some pictures than in others, but she had the same creepy, ecstatic smile in each. Something about them bothered me, though. The smile was the same, but the expression was not. It seemed that the longer her hair was, the more ferocious her eyes became.
I studied the background of the images. They had been taken indoors; there was a couch, a ski jacket, and skis against the wall in one photo, a tiny stove in another. The space looked pretty cramped, and I guessed it was the guest house out back.
One picture showed a different woman who didn’t smile at all, but her face glowed with smug contentment. She was younger than Regina–maybe in her early fifties–with a pale, stolid look about her. Her eyes had the same fierce glint as Regina’s.
“I can’t see Armand. Was he in the cage when this was taken?”
“We didn’t cage him,” she snapped, forgetting that she’d already told me she kept his cage clean. “We kept him safe. But yes, he was there when we took those. He doesn’t turn up on film. He isn’t a regular animal, you know. He’s special.”
Now we were getting to it. “How is he special?”
“He is beautiful!” she cried. “He’s the most beautiful thing on God’s green earth. His eyes are like the stars of the Milky Way, and he’s as delicate as thistledown. He’s the only dog of his kind in the world. A sapphire dog, Stroud called him. He’s as beautiful as a dream at twilight. Like holding the sky in your arms.”
I wondered how she could hold the sky in her arms while it was inside a plastic cage, but it didn’t seem polite to argue. “That’s a pretty way to describe him.”
She waved my comment away. “I didn’t write it. Some college professor did. I held a poetry contest years back to find someone to capture Armand’s essence, if you know what I mean. The winner had retired up here from some southern university to start a winery, and he won the cash prize hands down. Then I invited him to the house.
“He didn’t think much of writing a poem about some rich broad’s dog until he met Armand, of course. Then he fell in love, just like anyone would. He spent six months here, sleeping on a cot, watching Armand–staring at him. What I said before is all I remember of the poem he wrote. You’d think it was sap if you’d never seen.”
Her tone had changed. Something told me I should probe further. “What happened?”
“He refused to leave,” she answered, her mouth twisting with anger. “He even told me that he loved Armand more than I did. That I wasn’t ‘sensitive’ enough to appreciate him. Ursula had to taser him to keep him from breaching the cage. Hah! I appreciated Armand enough to take care of that old fool.”
The way she said that gave me a chill. “What did you do?”
She bared her teeth. “I…” Then she stopped. It was pretty clear that she’d been about to confess to a crime. “Well, I paid him off,” she said, in the least convincing way possible. “Also, I had the sheriff run him out of town. Out of the country, actually. He’d committed a crime against me, stolen books out of my library, if you have to pry. I warned him that I was going to call the police the next day, and he was gone before morning. To Canada, maybe. Or Fiji. That’s all and nothing more.”
She lifted her nose and looked away from me. Most people are terrible liars, but she was the worst I’d ever met. She could contradict herself all in one breath. “I’m not a cop,” I said. “I’m not going to arrest you. You killed him, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling at me with open contempt. “Yes, of course I did. I knifed him and pulled him out into the woods on a big old sled all by myself.” She looked at me as if she might like to cut me open and gulp down my heart. “And I’ll do the same to anyone who tries to come between me and my Armand.”
“Is that right?”
“It is. It’s very right. And don’t lie to me–I’m not fooled by that big silver tray and that tiny jacket. I know you’re one of the people that bitch brought here to buy him. Stephanie doesn’t understand. She’s never been close enough to really see, to really feel it. But if I thought you had my Armand, I’d cut your pathetic little johnny off and stuff it down your throat until you choked on it!”
I nodded. I had gotten the message. Of course, if she found out what I really wanted to do to her pet, she’d come apart at the seams. The bidders only wanted to buy him.
The urge to throttle the miserable life out of her made my hands shake. I went into the hall, closed the door, and walked away. It wasn’t my place to put people out of their misery or dish out punishment for old crimes. I wasn’t pure as snow myself. Besides, no matter what she’d done, I didn’t want to see the expression she’d made when the nurse had pinched her.
I went back to the stairs. Voices echoed up from the bottom floor, so I went farther down the hall to a narrow set of steps at the end. I paused at the top, but the only sound I could hear was a TV announcer droning away. I crept down.
There was a short hallway at the bottom of the stairs that led to an exterior door. There were also three interior doors, one of which was open. The announcer’s voice and a flickering TV light came from there.
I looked around, wondering how I was going to pass that open door without alerting whoever was inside.
An old woman in a maid’s uniform stepped into the doorway and stared at me. She glanced at my white jacket with contempt; she wasn’t fooled for a second.
While I considered what I should do, she rolled her eyes and shut the door. Apparently, she wasn’t being paid to be security.
I walked to the exterior door. There was a dead-bolt key on a hook by the door, but I left it. As long as I had my ghost knife, I didn’t need keys. I set the tray against the wall and went outside. After the musty warmth of the house, the cold made my skin feel tight on my face and hands.
The cottage sat at the top of the bare slope. When I crossed to it, I would be in full view of anyone looking out of a back window. I wished I had some cloud cover to darken the lawn; the thick black power line that ran from the house to the guest house cast a moon shadow on the lawn.
I jogged across the damp crabgrass. He’s the only dog of his kind in the world, Regina had said. A sapphire dog. I wondered if she was being literal or if that was more rotten poetry. I still imagined something with wings.
Maybe it was a bad idea to imagine anything. Whether it had wings, was shaped like a dog, or was just a blue smear of light, I was going to have to destroy it. If I could. Better to keep an open mind.
A stairway of mortared stone led up the muddy slope. I jogged up. The cottage faced away from the main house, and all but one of the ground-floor windows were shuttered. I peeked inside. A desk lamp shone onto scattered papers and a closed laptop, but the room beyond was dark. I circled around.
There was a huge metal tank and a generator against the building. I rapped on the tank. It was nearly full. Regina had enough fuel to run that generator for weeks.
The front of the cottage was pretty much what illustrated fairy-tale books had taught me to expect. There was a heavy wooden door with an even heavier lintel. On either side was a window split into four panes with a window box underneath. At the far side of the building, I saw the front of a parked ATV.
By the floodlight above the door, I saw muddy footprints smeared on the stone walkway leading to the door. I knocked, then knocked again. No answer.
The door was locked. I slid the ghost knife between the door and the jamb, then put it into my back pocket. The door creaked open.
“Hello?” I called. The room was silent. I reached for a light switch, then stopped myself.
A ceramic tile hung on the wall just above the switch. It was about the size of my palm, and it was painted white with an emerald-green squiggle on it.
Out of habit, I glanced down at my hand. The squiggle didn’t look exactly like the marks on me, but it was similar enough to make me nervous. I took out my ghost knife again and sliced through the tile.
It split in two, but even before it fell, the broken squiggle released a jet of black steam and iron-gray sparks. I jumped out of the doorway to avoid the spray.
A magic sigil can throw off a lot of energy when it’s been destroyed.
After it died down, I stepped back into the room. What ever that spell had been created to do, it was just a mess on the floor now. I flicked on the light.
The cottage was a single room with very little furniture. A narrow bed was set into the back corner with a small dresser beside it. Next to that was a narrow desk with a lamp still burning, and beside that was the tiny stove from Regina’s photo. The shelf above the stove was filled with can after can of Dinty Moore beef stew.
I saw no TV, no stereo, no bookshelves, and no Charlie Brown Christmas tree strung with lights. There was one thing in here to occupy a person’s attention.
A large Plexiglas cage was set into a recess in the floor. It was larger than the one in the truck, maybe five feet on each side. It, too, had powerful floodlights at four corners, all aimed inward. Tiny electric fans were set on opposite sides of the cage, one to blow in, I guessed, and one to blow out. The black electrical wires powering them were strung all around the Plexi and held in place with peeling yellowed tape. There was also a plastic hatch along one side with an additional light shining through it.
Hanging from the ceiling was a smaller Plexiglas cube that could be fitted to the hatch. I guessed it was a holding tank so the main cage could be cleaned.
But there was nothing in the cage that needed cleaning–no bowls, blankets, litter boxes, or squeak toys. There hadn’t been any of that packed in the truck, either.
A rocking chair was set at the edge of the recessed section of floor. I imagined Regina sitting and staring into the cage.
The door banged open behind me. I spun. A woman was silhouetted by the floodlight. She was almost six feet tall, broad in the shoulders and hips and dressed head to toe in white ski gear. Her plump face was pale and puffy. It was Ursula.
I felt the edge of the ghost knife in my pocket. “Don’t move!” she shouted with an accent I couldn’t place. She extended her arm, and I realized she was holding a gun.
It was a Colt .45, very old, very intimidating, and very aimed at my head. Someone who knew more about guns would have aimed it at my chest, where I had protective tattoos. I didn’t have any protection on my face.
“Put that away,” I said, sounding much more calm than I felt. “I’ve come to offer you a job.”
“Hands up!” she barked. “Take your hand out of your pocket slowly. It should be empty, or I will shoot. Yes?” Her accent was northern European–Swedish maybe. I left my ghost knife in my pocket and showed her my empty hands.
“How did you get in here without…?” She glanced back at the wall and saw that the tile was gone. She didn’t think to look on the floor. “Who are you?”
“You should hear me out, and quickly. I’m not kidding about that job.”
“I think you are kidding. Even if you were not, I would never work for a man dressed as kitchen help. Besides, I already have a job. I will be traveling with Armand early tomorrow, and I do not have time to waste.”
I smiled. “Armand isn’t going to Hong Kong with Yin.”
She smirked at me. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“Everyone knows something you don’t. Why don’t you close that door? This jacket isn’t worth a damn.”
I held open the servant’s jacket so she could see I was unarmed, then stripped it off and tossed it onto the top of the plastic cage. She stared at me in shock. Apparently, touching the cage was Just Not Done.
She entered and pulled the door shut. The latch didn’t engage because I had cut it off. “This is my home,” she said.
I felt a twinge of guilt at that. I had done a lot of rotten things and I’d broken my share of laws, but I didn’t like scaring women. Not that she looked scared.
Too late now. “I’m sorry for barging in, Ursula,” I said, trying to keep any genuine regret out of my voice. I didn’t think she’d trust a sympathetic face. “I had to see this setup for myself. It’s not much, is it?”
“What is it that you know that I do not?”
“That Asian fellow offered you a job, correct? To keep caring for Armand?”
She nodded. “Of course. I have cared for him for years. I am the expert.”
“Well, he doesn’t have Armand anymore.”
Her expression didn’t change. “What do you mean? Who has him, you?”
“No one has him, as of an hour ago. He’s running loose on the mountainside.”
Her expression still hadn’t changed. I didn’t like the way she was looking at me. It reminded me too much of Regina’s flinty stare. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because I’m here.” I sat in the rocking chair and didn’t let my smile fade. “I wanted to see whether he came back here. This is his home, isn’t it?”
“It has been for twenty-two years.” Both of us stared into the empty cage.
“Do you think he will come back here eventually? His home doesn’t look very comfortable.”
“He does not need comfort. He is not like other kinds of dog. At first, we gave him chew toys and soft blankets, but he never bothered with them. He never ate, either. Never drank water. I’m not even sure he ever breathed…” Her voice trailed off. I wanted to keep her going.
“Never ate?” I prompted. “What kind of dog is he?”
“He is not a dog, of course. Not a real one. He is a spirit. We fed him with our love. That was all he needed.”
We heard a pair of gunshots. They were far away, faintly echoing off the mountainsides. Maybe Biker wasn’t going home after all.
“My God!” Ursula said. “Are they hunting him?”
“No one is going to shoot him, not when he is worth so much,” I said. “It was probably—”
She turned toward me and raised the Colt. I threw myself and the rocking chair to the side as the gun went off. I rolled onto the floor, wondering if she’d hit me.
The ghost knife was already in my hand. I threw it.
The gun went off again, splintering the wooden floor. A moment later, the ghost knife sliced through the Colt’s barrel and hammer. Then the spell passed through Ursula’s shoulder.
Her ski jacket split open, but I knew the flesh beneath would be unmarked. The top of the pistol fell to the side, and the spring in the magazine flung the remaining rounds into the air. I reached for the ghost knife, and it returned to me, passing through Ursula’s stomach.
She stared in amazement at the weapon in her hand. I relaxed a bit and checked myself for bullet wounds–I’d heard people could be shot but not feel it. I didn’t find any blood. She’d missed. A little shiver ran through me; I’d been lucky.
I kicked the rocking chair away and felt it wobble. The gun or the fall had broken it. I rolled onto my knees.
The floorboards shifted. On impulse, I raised my arm just as Ursula body-slammed into me. I heard an electric crackle, then felt a sharp, burning pain on my biceps.
My whole body jolted as an electric current ran through me, making all my muscles fire at once. We hit the floor together, and the impact broke the connection. I twisted, reached up with my other arm, and caught her wrist.
She’d burned me with a stun gun, and if I hadn’t raised my arm, she would have zapped me in the eyes.
Her face was close. Her teeth bared, her eyes wide with a killing urge. Damn. The ghost knife had passed through her. Twice. Why hadn’t it worked?
I tried to push her off me, but she was too big and too strong. She raised herself up and put her whole weight behind the stun gun, forcing it toward my face.
I didn’t have the strength to hold her off with just my left hand, and my right was numb and weak from the shock. She grinned at me, and I could see triumph in that smile.
I forced the stun gun to the side and heard it crack against the floor by my head. Ursula cried out and dropped it. I twisted against her, letting her body weight roll over me. She fell onto the broken rocking chair and hissed in pain.
I tried to get out from under her, but she lunged toward me, mouth gaping. I leaned away as she snapped at me, her teeth clamping down on my collar inches from my throat.
To hell with this. I put my knees against her hip and kicked. She fell back and I rolled away onto my feet.
Ursula grabbed the stun gun and lunged at me, arm extended. She was a big woman, but she was slow. I caught her wrist and pulled her toward me, knocking her flat on her stomach. I pinned her elbow and quickly knelt on her shoulder. Now she was the one without leverage.
“Damn,” I said. “You’re a pain in the ass.” I wrenched the stun gun out of her hand. One of the metal leads was broken. I doubted it still worked. “Hold still, or I’ll use this on you.”
She didn’t. The thick ski jacket made it tough to control her. If she didn’t settle down, I was going to have to either let her go or hurt her. I laid the stun gun against the back of her neck and shouted at her to be still.
She answered in her native language, what ever it was. I couldn’t understand, but I knew she wasn’t asking how I take my tea. I tossed the broken stun gun away.
The ghost knife was nearby. I could feel it. I reached for it and it flew into my hand.
Ursula grunted from the effort of trying to throw me off. In a few moments she would have her knees under her and I’d have another fight on my hands.
I slid the ghost knife through the back of her head. She didn’t react at all. The spell was supposed to “cut ghosts, magic, and dead things”; it could destroy the glyphs that sustained spells, cut through inanimate objects, and damage people’s “ghosts.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but everyone else I had cut with it had stopped trying to kill me. Why didn’t it work on Ursula? Did she not have a “ghost,” what ever that was?
Ursula nearly bucked me off. She was still cursing at me, and I had no way to control her except by throwing punches.
I wasn’t going to do that. I had fought in the street for the Twenty Palace Society. I had broken into homes and burned them to the ground. I had shot men in cold blood. But I wasn’t ready to punch this woman.
She kept thrashing. “Let me go,” she said, her voice vicious with rage. “I have to check on Armand.”
“No one is going to hurt Armand, not if he’s worth so much.”
She kept fighting me. I wasn’t getting through.
I was going about this all wrong. I leaned close to her and spoke quietly. “This isn’t his home, is it? If it was, he’d have come back here as soon as he was free.” She stopped struggling, although her breathing was still harsh. “I came here to see if he’d return to the people who loved him. But he won’t, will he?”
A low moan escaped her throat. I kept talking. “You love him, I know you do. But now that he has his freedom, he’s never coming back. He doesn’t want to be your prisoner anymore. All these years you’ve kept him trapped in this little room, giving him your love, and now you know what he’s always wanted.”
She made a terrible, heartrending sound. It was the sound a mother might make over a dying child. I let her buck me off.
We both scrambled to our feet. She looked at me, her eyes brimming with tears. Then she looked at the Plexiglas cage, turned, and ran out the door.
I looked around one more time. The place made my skin crawl. I’d spent time in prison, but this disturbed me in ways I wasn’t ready to think about.
I heard Ursula shouting outside. I hurried to the window. She was lumbering toward the house, screaming and pointing back to the cottage. Back to me.
END of CHAPTER THREE
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