As a wealthy few gather to bid on a predator capable of destroying all life on earth, the sorcerers of the Twenty Palace Society mobilize to stop them. Caught up in the scramble is Ray Lilly, the lowest of the low in the society—an ex–car thief and the expendable assistant of a powerful sorcerer. Ray possesses exactly one spell to his name, along with a strong left hook. But when he arrives in the small town in the North Cascades where the bidding is to take place, the predator has escaped and the society’s most powerful enemies are desperate to recapture it. All Ray has to do is survive until help arrives. But it may already be too late.
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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.