This week I’m giving you the first chapter of THIS WICKED GAME, in honor of the gorgeous cover, revealed just yesterday.
I’m super excited about this book, which features a moody setting (New Orleans), creepy subject matter (voodoo!), and an awesome, multicultural cast. It’ll be out this November form Penguin/Dial.
Stay tuned for more details!
Claire was at the front of the store, uploading a new batch of photographs while a pot of wax melted behind her, when the woman entered through the unmarked door.
Claire pulled her eyes away from the pictures flashing across the computer screen. It wasn’t unusual for customers to use the private entrance. Other than the staircase leading to the house, the door was the only way in, and there were plenty of people in New Orleans who had a key.
But Claire had never seen the woman before, and that was unusual, especially since she had been working in the store since before she was tall enough to see over the counter without a step stool.
Still, rules were rules. The fact that the woman had a key meant she was authorized to make purchases, no questions asked.
Claire turned down the temperature on the wax and closed her laptop as the woman approached the counter. She was startlingly beautiful, her milky skin contrasting with the red lipstick that shaped her full mouth. Her clothes were expertly tailored, the white button down nipped in at the waist, the hem of her navy trousers just grazing the floor as she walked.
Claire wiped her hands on a towel as the woman stopped at the counter. “Hello. What can I do for you?”
“Good afternoon.” The woman’s voice was low and gravelly. Claire figured her for a heavy smoker. Either that or a time-traveling 1940s film star. “I have some things I’d like to purchase.”
“Sure.” Claire pulled out the yellow notepad they used for orders.
The woman opened her slim black handbag, pulling from it a folded piece paper. She pushed it across the counter with her neatly manicured hands.
Claire opened it, glancing at the long list of items. It was a big order, and Claire immediately started transferring the woman’s list to the notepad.
“This is your family’s establishment?” The woman asked the question with the certainty of someone who already knew the answer.
“Uh-huh.” Claire had to resist the urge to add “unfortunately” at the end of the sentence.
Frankincense, black cat oil, anise seed, aloeswood powder…
“It’s quite a store. It seems you have everything.”
“Just about,” Claire said. A strand of her long blond hair fell forward. She tucked it behind one ear and continued transcribing the woman’s list to the notepad.
“And how long does it usually take to fill an order?” the woman asked.
“It depends on what you need. Let’s see…” Claire scanned the list. Everything on the front page was in stock. She turned the paper over to the back. “We should be able to do this while you…”
The words stopped coming out of Claire’s mouth as she came to the last item on the list.
Two (2) vials Black Panthera Pardus Plasma.
She felt her face flush as she searched her memory, wanting to be sure.
“Is there a problem?” the woman asked.
Claire didn’t know if it was paranoia or something else, but she thought there was something new in the woman’s voice. An undercurrent of acceptance, as if she’d known the Kincaid’s wouldn’t have the plasma all along.
Claire shook her head, resisting the urge to call out for her mother. Pilar Kincaid had little patience for Claire’s “lack of commitment” to the family business. Calling her would only highlight Claire’s inability to handle the store on her own. Besides, her knowledge of the craft wasn’t exactly encyclopedic. Maybe she was wrong.
“Um… not a problem. But one of these items might take us a while to get in. I think it’s a special order.”
“And which item would that be?” the woman asked, her voice frosty.
“The black panther plasma. We don’t keep it in stock.”
No one keeps it, Claire thought. As far as the Guild was concerned, there were some things you just didn’t mess around with, even if you were an experienced practitioner.
The woman tapped her manicured nails on the wood counter. “How long do you expect it will take to get it?”
“I’m not sure.” Claire didn’t have time to really think about it. “Maybe a week?”
The woman didn’t hesitate. “Fine. I’ll take the rest of the items now.”
Claire nodded, turning to fill the order. Everything else on the list was in stock, and Claire busied herself filling vials with the powder and herbs and wrapping roots in brown paper. She could feel the woman’s eyes on her back while she worked. It made the tiny hairs at the back of her neck stand on end and caused a prickling sensation behind her eyes. She felt vulnerable, exposed.
Once the order was filled, she turned around, half expecting the woman to have transformed into some kind of monster.
But she was just the same, her gaze unflinching, her eyes so dark they were almost black.
“Here you go,” Claire said, pushing the package toward the woman and turning to the calculator. She consulted the notepad, her fingers flying over the keys. “That’ll be $357. 42, without the panther plasma.”
She had a hard time even saying it. Questions were drumming through her mind. She needed to get upstairs to her mother. She would know what to do.
The woman nodded slowly, pulling a wallet from her handbag and removing four hundred dollar bills.
Claire took the money and made change from the lockbox they kept under the counter. “Would you like us to call you when we find out about the special order?”
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll see you one week from today.” She took her change and picked up the package, her unsettling gaze resting on Claire. “Goodbye, Claire.”
She turned and left through the private entrance. Claire watched the door shut behind her, listening for the click of the automatic lock. For a minute, she was rooted to the floor, wondering if she’d imagined the whole thing. Then she looked down at the list of items.
Two (2) vials Black Panthera Pardus Plasma.
She took the stairs two at a time.
* * *
The Kincaid’s living quarters were separated from the store by one floor and a two level staircase. Just a few months ago, the door between the two spaces hadn’t even had a lock, but after a rash of break-ins, the Guild families who had stores on-site had taken measures to protect their private quarters from the customers who had access to the supply houses.
The world was changing, Claire’s mother had said as the locksmith installed a heavy deadbolt on the door that separated the store from the two floors above it. Once a secret society of old-school voodoo suppliers and their clients, the Guild of High Priests and Priestesses had become too large to allow for intimate knowledge of each and every member. Now, it was up to the regional leaders to vet and approve new members based on lineage and practice.
Claire reached the top of the stairs and fumbled through her keys for the one that fit the new lock. When she found it, silver and strangely shiny compared to the old ones that went to the house and store, she unlocked the door and spilled out into the main hall of the house. She locked the door behind her and moved down the first floor hall.
“Mom? Where are you?”
She checked the drawing room first. The floor to ceiling windows were open to the terrace, the sheer draperies moving slightly in the barely-there July breeze. But her mother wasn’t there.
There was only one other place her mother would be if she wasn’t in the drawing room going over the accounts for the store or writing notecards to Guild members who lived outside the city, and that was upstairs. Claire headed for the main staircase.
When she reached the second-floor landing, she continued down the hall past her bedroom, her parent’s room, two guest rooms, and an extra bathroom.
She stopped at a closed door at the end of the hall and listened.
She heard the gentle murmur of her mother’s voice a second later, smelled the incense she burned when practicing the craft.
Claire hesitated. It wasn’t that she was afraid to interrupt her mother. She just didn’t like the ritual room. She never had.
She’d been about four-years-old when she’d first come upon her mother in the room. She had been wearing a white floor-length garment that Claire would later learn was standard ritual garb. The simple cotton tunic made her mother look taller and younger than she did in her everyday clothes. Her hair was long and loose around her shoulders as she kneeled in front of the alter, covered with burning white candles, wax figures, and dried herbs.
Her mother hadn’t looked like herself at all. Not to Claire.
She had waved Claire forward without speaking, silently inviting her to join in the ritual.
Claire had been afraid. The strange words that came from her mother’s mouth frightened her, however softly they were spoken, and the flickering candles cast unfamiliar shadows.
Claire had shaken her head and retreated. She’d avoided the room ever since.
But she couldn’t avoid it now, and she wrapped softly on the door, turning the knob without waiting for an answer and pushing the door open quietly, so as not to disturb her mother.
She was there, in the same position Claire had found her all those years ago, kneeling in front of the tea table that served as an alter. This time she was in her regular clothes. The alter was alight with purple candles that meant her mother was either working a spirituality rite or trying to channel her power more effectively. Two sticks of incense burned on either side of a bible, their smoke rising into the air in abstract swirls.
Her mother didn’t look up or in any way acknowledge Claire’s presence. Claire waited for a few seconds before she finally gave up and started talking.
“You know I won’t speak to you until you come in properly, Claire.” Her mother didn’t look away from the alter. Her hair, still long and black as a raven’s wing, tumbled down over one of her shoulders. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to be working the counter?”
Claire stepped into the room, but just barely. “I am working the counter, but-”
Now her mother looked over at her. “Then what are you doing up here, for heaven’s sake? You know you’re not supposed to leave the store unattended.”
Claire crossed the room, her throat closing against the heavy scent of sandalwood. She held out the piece of paper with the list of ingredients the woman had ordered.
Turning toward her with a sigh, her mother took it, her gray eyes traveling the front page.
“These are all basic ingredients, Claire.” She turned it over. “Surely you know how to…” Her voice trailed off. She shook her head, her face two shades paler than it had been when Claire entered the room. “Where did you get this?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Claire said. “A woman just came in. She gave me this order to fill.”
Her mother rose to her feet, pacing to the fireplace. “Which client was it?”
“That’s the thing,” Claire said. “I’ve never seen her before.”
Her mother turned to face her. “Then how did she get in?”
“She had a key,” Claire said simply.
“Are you sure the door was latching? That it was locked when she came in?”
Claire sighed. She didn’t blame her mother for doubting her. She wasn’t exactly attentive on the job. But still.
“Yes, Miss Julie was the last person to place an order, and the door locked behind her, just like always.”
“Did this woman give you a name?”
No, Claire almost said, but she knew mine.
She didn’t say it. The woman had probably been told about the Kincaid’s by whoever referred her to the store.
Claire shook her head. “And I didn’t ask. You’ve always told me not to. That if they have a key, I honor the policy, fill the orders, and that’s it.”
Her mother consulted the list again before looking up to meet Claire’s eyes. “But this is… this is impossible. We’ll have to call a meeting.”
She was still standing there, a look of shock on her face, when the phone rang from the hall.
“I’ll get it.” Claire left the room and picked up the phone that sat on a table in the hall. “Kincaid residence. How may I help you?”
“Hello, Claire.” She immediately recognized the voice on the other end of the line. “May I speak to your mother or father, please? It’s urgent.”
“One moment.” Claire covered the mouthpiece and went back to the ritual room, holding out the phone to her mother. “It’s Aunt Estelle,” she said quietly. “She says it’s urgent.”
Estelle Toussaint wasn’t a blood relative to the Kincaid’s, but all the women in the Guild were Claire’s “aunts” just as her mother was “Aunt Pilar” to the other Guild members’ children.
Pilar smoothed her skirt, as though Estelle could see her through the phone. “Hello, Estelle.” Her mother paused, turning her back on Claire. “Well, I… When?” Another long pause. “Today?”
She didn’t say anything else for a couple of minutes. Claire was beginning to wonder if her mother was still on the phone when she murmured a few quiet words. Then she turned around, avoiding Claire’s eyes as she finished the call.
“Yes, I understand. We’ll see you then.” She hung up the phone, staring at it like it was something she’d never seen before.
“Mom?” Claire finally said. “What’s going on?”
Her mother looked up like she’d just realized Claire was still there. “We weren’t the only ones who received an order for black panther plasma today.”
“What do you mean?” Claire asked.
But Pilar was already rushing from the room. “An emergency meeting has been called. Be ready to leave at six.”