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 n