Learn the rules of the game . . . and then play better than anyone else.
Through a Faustian bargain, Edie Kramer has been pulled into the dangerous world of the Immortal Game, where belief makes your nightmares real. Hungry for sport, fears-made-flesh are always raising the stakes. To them, human lives are less than nothing, just pieces on a board.
Because of her boyfriend Kian’s sacrifice, she’s operating under the mysterious Harbinger’s aegis, but his patronage could prove as fatal as the opposition. Raw from deepest loss, she’s terrified over the deal Kian made for her. Though her very public enemies keep sending foot soldiersmercenary monsters committed to her destructionshe’s not the one playing under a doom clock. Kian has six months, unless Edie can save him. And this is a game she can’t bear to lose.
"Should particularly appeal to fans of Ilsa Bick's "The Dark Passages" series and Mary Weber's "The Storm Siren" trilogy. . . . This engaging nightmare will make even mature horror readers check under the bed at night." -School Library Journal
"The world-building that creates the dark and suspenseful atmosphere for this story is in full swing, and readers will enjoy the larger glimpses into the underworld. The romance between Edie and Kian is also heating up, and Edie gets the opportunity to act as his guardian. . . . The plot is fast paced and leads to a suspenseful ending." -VOYA
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By Ann Aguirre
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2015 Ann Aguirre
All rights reserved.
DARKNESS IN PARADISE
Six days before Christmas, two thugs snatched me off the sidewalk and shoved me into a black panel van.
I would've been terrified if I hadn't been expecting ... something. Not necessarily a kidnapping, but I'd known there would be a countermove at some point. My main question came from wondering if this was Wedderburn showing me who was boss, the opposition, which meant either Dwyer or Fell, or more mysterious yet — the Harbinger. As I speculated in silence, the iron-faced, concrete-jawed goons gave no sign who'd sent them.
Boston sped by with me pressing a cheek to the window, leaving an imprint on the foggy glass. My heart hammered despite my best efforts to stay calm and my breath came in tiny gulps. I'm so in over my head. This time, my boyfriend couldn't rescue me; there would be no more of Kian popping in when I needed him because he was no longer bound to the immortal game — no more access to cool powers — and I'd burned my last favor in cutting him loose.
Eventually, the van parked in a questionable neighborhood not far from the docks. I glanced between the two men up front. One African-American, the other Nordic looking, they were of similar size and shape, roughly six four, with shoulders that seemed five feet wide. Their demeanor and military haircuts made me think they had law enforcement or Special Forces backgrounds, and the coldness in their eyes assured me there was no point in asking for either answers or mercy.
"Get out of the vehicle, miss." The gravelly command came from the driver. As he glanced over his shoulder to face me in the shadowy interior, his dark eyes seemed, at first, to have no pupils, just like the creepy children that followed the bag man around. I couldn't think about that thing without a shudder of revulsion — and the horrifying certainty that it had my mother's head. A chill swept over me.
"Not until you tell me who I'm visiting."
"I could make you," the other one said quietly. "But that would be ... unpleasant." A faint accent made me think he was German.
The driver shrugged as he climbed out and opened the back doors, secured from the outside. "Eh. She'll find out soon enough, no?" To me, he added, "The Harbinger requests the pleasure of your company." His faux-courtesy didn't escape me, but since I'd gotten the information I asked for, I hopped down under my own steam.
Could be worse. But I was supposed to meet Kian ten minutes ago.
It wouldn't take long for him to realize something had gone hideously wrong. I just hoped he had more sense than to alarm my dad. This wasn't something he could help with, so it was better for him to stay in the lab as he had since my mom's passing, oblivious to the world.
And to me, I thought.
The pang as the driver slammed the van door behind me felt more like a chest quake. My cardiac cavity echoed, just a bone cage holding my heart hostage. Intellectually, I knew I couldn't have predicted all possible outcomes ... and I only ever had three favors. Most of the Teflon crew was dead, and I still didn't know if it had been Wedderburn or the opposition. While I'd managed to protect my best friend, Vi, I didn't realize my mom might be targeted until it was too late. Her death still haunted me. Emotionally, I was all raw meat and rivers of remorse.
The building in front of me seemed like a warehouse, pretty run-down too. Red brick had faded to a rusty orange and at least half the windows were broken or boarded up. Inhaling deeply, I marked the smell of salt water, damp, rotting wood, and a hint of old fish. A newspaper blew across the alley, only to get bogged down in a puddle formed by the broken pavement. It seemed like a major independent player in the immortal game could afford a better hideout, but maybe that was the whole point — misdirection or something. The driver beckoned while the German dude unchained heavy-duty steel doors. They were the newest part of the building, kind of odd.
"Anyone could crawl through one of those broken windows," I pointed out.
Blond Giant offered a scary smile. "That's the whole point."
I thought that was all I'd get, but the driver explained, "The doors are a warning. If people choose not to heed it, then they are, of course, welcome to come inside and play."
"With the Harbinger." I didn't imagine that ended well for random vandals and trespassers but I had problems of my own. "Why does he want to see me?"
The doors banged open as the chains fell away. "Go and find out."
Inside, it was dark in contrast to the relative brightness of a winter day. Shivering, I pulled up the collar of my red coat and took a single step into the overwhelming gloom. The doors slammed shut behind me, and as I heard the men fastening the chains, it was all I could do to keep from screaming for help like a damsel tied to the train tracks. There was no stopping the tremors that worked over me, leaving my legs unsteady.
"Edie Kramer." The whisper echoed all around me, making my skin crawl.
The shadows were so deep and dark, it couldn't be natural. Some ambient light should've filtered in, however dirty the windows, but this cold, damp space felt like an open grave, as if in the next step, I'd tumble six feet down and someone would begin shoveling loose dirt onto my terrified, upturned face. My breathing became audible, the frightened rasp of a child finding that the light switch doesn't work and there is most definitely someone else in the room.
"Yes," I managed to say.
I slowed to near immobility, feeling my way forward with outstretched fingertips. This was every haunted house I ever went in, only without the surety that nobody would hurt me and that whatever ghastly thing I touched wouldn't be real. My hearing sharpened, overcompensating for lack of vision. Something skittered on the floor. I froze as tiny feet ran over my Converse.
Just one. A rat, probably.
"I can see you perfectly." It was a light voice, teasing even, and the smile I heard in it made this predicament feel even worse. "Can't you find me?"
"Possibly," I said. "If you keep talking."
"I could guide you. If you trust me."
A startled laugh escaped me. "No. But thanks."
"You'd deny me a spot of entertainment?"
"Unless you find this to be the most fun ever, then yeah. Definitely."
The flare of light made me squint, bringing the room into stinging focus. I shaded my eyes because the sudden shift didn't make it any easier for another minute or two. But soon, I could make out the premises, such as they were. The warehouse looked like a rave was held in 1999 and then nobody cleaned afterward. For all I knew, that might be true, as there was a judicious mix of filth, litter, animal scat, and dangling cobwebs. This is pretty much the perfect place to dispose of a body. Briefly I considered going out one of those broken windows, but I suspected if the Harbinger was this scary in a playful mood, I didn't want to test him.
Speaking of which, I still didn't see my host. "Where are you?"
Maybe he's invisible like the Cheshire Cat.
"Chin up, dearling."
In reflex, I tilted my head back and spotted a dark figure perched like a bird of prey on the catwalk above. Something in the angles of his knees and elbows reminded me that this creature wasn't human. The Harbinger hammered the point home by taking a running leap and he didn't plummet so much as dance downward, as if stepping on unseen stones that broke his fall. He landed lightly and swept a theatrical bow, garbed in half a thrift shop, including tailcoat, top hat, black feathered vest, satin trousers, and antique gun boots, to say nothing of the gloriously ornate watch chain affixed not to a timepiece, but a long-necked ceramic cat. Black hair tumbled to his waist, silver strands worked through like starlight.
For some reason, I found it difficult to focus on his face, and it left an afterburn in my mind's eye — a chaotic impression of unearthly beauty married to harrowing despair — scars in the earth full of uncut rubies and holocaust pits with wildflowers rioting along the edges. His eyes twinkled like summer lightning, but I couldn't hold his gaze. Being this close to him made me want to take a step back, as if breathing too close to him might electrocute me.
Damn. And Kian sought this creature out, bargained with it. For me. I have to be brave.
Feeling like Alice in Horrorland, I produced an unsteady curtsy, though I really needed a pinafore to pull it off. "Nice to meet you." I suspected the Harbinger knew I felt exactly the opposite, but there was no etiquette guide for an occasion like this one.
"So you're worth dying for, hm?" He circled me in slow, stalking steps, leaning in to sniff at me as if I possessed some exotic aroma.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," I answered, before I could think better of it.
He stilled, head cocking like a bird. "You don't want my protection? And here I've done such a thorough job of keeping nasty things away. Or did you think you'd defeated the mirror creatures on your own ... through the magnificent advent of a towel?"
Shit. I had wondered if that was really enough, but when they didn't come after me again, I thought I must've stumbled on the solution.
"Thank you for keeping me safe," I said around a fear-flavored lump in my throat. "It's not that I don't appreciate it."
"But ...? I can taste the question and I'm in a good mood. Because of you, I shall most certainly feast. And soon."
What does that even mean?
"Does Kian have to die?" It was the stuff of fairy tales. He'd bargained away his last chip, his very life, to protect me. In doing so, he'd offered a gift I didn't want, couldn't exchange, and could never repay.
"You could take his place in the compact." The Harbinger made a smacking noise, uncomfortably between an air kiss and you look delicious. "Or you could trick someone else, I suppose. But I suspect your very prickly scruples wouldn't permit that."
Pain flickered to life, a constant heat in my stomach. "No."
"I find that fascinating."
"Most creatures feel nothing so strongly as the need for self-preservation. Yet humanity occasionally produces bright sparks, capable of sacrifice."
"Is that why you wanted to see me?" I hadn't moved, and the Harbinger wasn't done circling. He put me in mind of a shark. I'd heard that if a shark ever stopped swimming, it would die. This being radiated the same hungry intensity, the same predatory drive.
"Partly. I wonder ... if you would beg for your beloved's life."
"Would it do any good?" I asked.
"Dearling, no. I have to eat, don't I?"
Revulsion flooded upward, nearly choking me. "You mean —"
"I won't be charbroiling him, but life is energy, and there's no one to light candles or whisper my name in supplication. So what else am I to do?" Though his tone was blithe, I had the sense that he minded the latter more than he let on.
"They used to?"
"Once. But I was never popular," he admitted. "And this suits me. The trickster is better as a broker, I think."
"You don't play the game?" I thought I recalled Kian telling me that much.
"Only when I make the rules, which change according to my whim. The others take it all so seriously. Too much competition can be as tedious as too little, you know. Far more amusing to frolic on the fringes, ruining other people's schemes for the pure pleasure of it."
"I'd like you a hundred percent more if you told me you've made Wedderburn's life worse."
A laugh rang out, dizzying me, for it echoed in the warehouse, carrying with it a mad music and the flutter of a thousand beating wings. When I spun about, the Harbinger and I were alone, standing in a spotlight; I couldn't remember if the brightness fell that way before, but now I had the sense of standing on a stage before an invisible audience.
"All the time, pretty one. I complicate his plots and abet the sun god, then turn about as soon as the wind changes."
"I'm starting to understand why Kian approached you."
The Harbinger's tone turned serious like the ringing of a bell. "The only rule I respect comes from such agreements. So I've brought you here to suggest you enjoy the time you've got left with your darling. Don't waste energy seeking after a crack in the wall."
"Don't people usually do that when they're worried about someone finding a loophole?"
"People," he said gently. "Little one, this is me being kind. Your beloved will not attempt to renege but I fear for your prospects if you interfere."
"But aren't you supposed to protect me, no matter what?"
The mad laughter came again, starting an avalanche of pain in my head. A trickle came from my nose, and I tasted copper in my throat. My vision flickered with black spots, the lights brightening until it felt as if my retinas were melting.
"Even from yourself? You do hold me in high esteem. I think ... I like you, Edie Kramer. In the end, such a small thing may be enough to save you." His tone turned musing. "Or perhaps it'll ruin you entirely."
Entirely echoed inside my skull as I passed out. When I woke, the two henchmen were depositing me on the curb near my apartment building. You'd think two giants manhandling a girl in broad daylight would alarm somebody, but no one seemed overly concerned. I'd learned the hard way, however, that monsters could put on a normal face, making the horrific appear ordinary. So possibly to passersby, I looked like a rolled-up rug.
"Do you ever get used to him?" I asked them hoarsely.
The German ignored me, but the driver's dark eyes flickered toward me. Then he gave a minute shake of his head before hopping into the van and merging into traffic. Belatedly I checked my belongings: backpack, cell phone, yes, everything, check. As expected, I had five messages from Kian, wondering why I wasn't at the mall, since we'd planned to meet for some last-minute Christmas shopping.
Sorry, I texted. I'm on the way. Something came up.
Are you okay? Kian's response was immediate. He worried so much now that he couldn't get to me instantly if shit went down. But to my mind, it made things a little more ... normal between us, when my life was so many shades of colossally screwed up. There was no way for me to be sure if I was still a catalyst or if I'd end up indentured in a few months, come graduation day. But that didn't scare me as much as the prospect of losing Kian.
He's terminal, my brain pointed out. Four months to live.
Fighting back a wave of anticipated grief, I ran for the subway. It was too early for the train to be full of commuters, but there were always students and people who defied description. I sat next to a railing to minimize contact and got off at the stop nearest the shopping center. Running kept me fit, so I wasn't too out of breath when I raced to meet Kian, who was still waiting outside, though I was over an hour late. His hands were icy, his cheeks red with cold, and his beautiful lips had taken on a distinctly blue tinge.
"Why didn't you dodge into a coffee shop?"
"I was afraid I'd miss you."
"Like I wouldn't text you if I didn't find you right away."
"I was concerned about you," he admitted, pulling me into his arms. "And they frown on nervous pacing in most cafés."
"Yeah, true. Are you ready to go in?"
"Not until you tell me why you were so late. I can tell something happened." He cupped my arms through my coat, staring down into my face with a laser-focused concern I'd never talk my way around.
"Don't I get a hello kiss first?" I tried.
His smile could've powered a nearby electrical substation. "Sure. But don't think I'll forget the question."
So much for that plan.
Yet I still wrapped my arms around his neck. He pulled me close, letting me snuggle into the open front of his down jacket. Each time Kian lowered his head, each time his lashes drifted shut, I tried to memorize everything about it — how he felt, how he tasted — because time wasn't on our side. Cupping his slightly raspy cheek in my palm, I stroked his jaw as he touched his lips to mine, so cool I shivered, but quickly warming with contact. Without waiting for him, I deepened the kiss, wanting to imprint on him, so that he'd never forget me, not even in a thousand lifetimes, timelines, what-the-hell-ever. For us the odds absolutely sucked. High school relationships usually crashed and burned anyway — without all of the supernatural death cards stacked against us.
"Wow," he breathed, countless moments later. "So. What happened?"
I stifled a sigh. There was no remedy but the truth, though I didn't imagine finding out would make him feel better. He had less power than ever before. "Promise me you won't freak."
"Conversations that start this way are more likely to agitate me, Edie."
"Okay, well." I led him toward the mall entrance, reckoning he was less likely to overreact with lots of people around. Inside, water burbled, tinted by changing lights, blue, yellow, red, back again. "Earlier, two guys shanghaied me, and ... took me to the Harbinger."
Excerpted from Public Enemies by Ann Aguirre. Copyright © 2015 Ann Aguirre. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Darkness in Paradise,
Ghost of Christmas Past,
Death Matches Are Not Party Games,
These Boots Were Made for Running,
I Confess, I Do Not Trust You,
Messages from Beyond,
Funeral of the Heart,
Badass in Training,
It Can Always Get Worse,
An Alien, Impossible Thing,
This Pit of Despair Needs Carpeting,
Dead Boys Do Not Make Good Pets,
Blaming Cthulhu Never Helps,
Righteous Anger is Kind of Hot,
Dimensional X-Ray Specs are Totally a Thing,
Heart in a Box,
In an Emergency, Call the Killer Clown,
Cue the Road Trip Music,
A Gem Cannot Be Polished without Friction,
The Age of Cats & Heroes,
Saving the Day Isn't Enough,
Something So Amazing,
Nevermore That Melancholy Burden,
The Girl Who Hunted Death,
Destined to be Broken,
An Offer She Can't Refuse,
The Boy Who Loved Too Much,
A State of Imaginary Grace,
Nothing Else Matters,
No One Left to Torture,
This is Where I Leave You,
About the Author,