The Forbidden Game: The Kill (Page 1)

The flight attendant started toward them, and the back of Jenny's neck began to prickle. Her little fingers tingled.

Be casual, she told herself. Be calm.

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But her heart began to pound as the flight attendant reached their row. She was dressed in navy blue with cream accents and looked rather military. Her face was pleasant but authoritative, like an alert teacher.

Don't look at her. Look out the window.

Jenny wedged her fingernails into the bottom of the plastic trim around the oval window and stared at the darkness outside. She could feel Michael beside her, his teddy-bear-shaped body rigid with tension. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Audrey in the aisle seat, her burnished copper head bent over the in-flight magazine. The flight attendant was blocking the view of Dee across the aisle.

Please let her go away, Jenny thought. Please, anything, why is she standing there so long?

Any minute now Michael was going to break into hysterical giggles-or, worse, a hysterical confession. Without moving a muscle, Jenny silently willed him to stay quiet. The flight attendant had to go away. She couldn't just keep standing there.

She did. It became clear that she wasn't just stopping casually, a little rest on the route from the galley. She was looking at them, looking at each of them in turn. A grave, searching look.

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We're debate club students, flying to the finals. Our chaperon got sick, but we're meeting a new one in Pittsburgh. We're debate club students, flying to the finals. Our chaperon got sick, but…

The flight attendant leaned toward Jenny.

Oh, my God, I'm going to be sick.

Audrey stayed frozen over her magazine, spiky lashes motionless on her camellia-pale cheek. Michael stopped breathing.

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Calm, calm, calm, calm …

“Is it you,” the flight attendant said, “who ordered the fruit plate?”

Jenny's mind swooped into a nosedive and stalled. For a terrible second she thought she was going to go ahead and babble out the excuse she'd been practicing. Then she licked the dry roof of her mouth and whispered, “No. It's her-across the aisle there.”

The flight attendant backed up and turned. Dee, with one long leg folded so she could tuck her toe into the little pouch on the back of the seat in front of her, lifted her eyes from her Gameboy and smiled.

Except for the Gameboy and the army fatigue jacket she was wearing, she looked exactly like Nefertiti. Even her smile was regal.

“Fruit plate,” the flight attendant said. “Seat eighteen-D. Lovely, got it.” The next moment she was gone.

“You and your damned, damned fruit plates,” Jenny hissed across the aisle. And to Michael: “For God's sake, Michael, breathe!”

Michael let out his breath with a whoosh.

“What could they do to us, anyway?” Audrey said. She was still looking at her magazine, and she spoke without moving her lips, her voice barely audible above the deep roar of the 757's engines. “Throw us off? We're six miles up.”

“Don't remind me,” Jenny said to the window as Michael began to describe to Audrey, in hushed detail, exactly what he imagined they could do with four runaways in Pittsburgh.

Runaways. I'm a runaway, Jenny thought wonderingly. It was such an unlikely thing for her, Jenny Thornton, to be.

In the darkened window she could see her own face-or part of it. A girl with forest-green eyes, dark as pine needles, and eyebrows that were straight, like two decisive brush strokes. Hair the color of honey in sunlight.

Jenny looked past the ghostly reflection to the black clouds outside the plane. Now that the stewardess danger had passed, all she had to worry about was dying.

She really hated heights.

What was strange was that even though she was scared, she was also excited. The way people get excited when an emergency, a natural disaster, happens. When all normal rules are suspended, and ordinary things that used to be important suddenly become meaningless.

Like school. Like her parents' approval. Like being a good girl.

All blown when she ran away. And her parents wouldn't even understand why, because the note Jenny had left them had said almost nothing. I'm going somewhere and I hope I'll come back. I love you. This is something I have to do.

I'm sorry. IOU $600.00.

Not very informative. But what was she supposed to say? Dear Mom and Dad, A terrible thing happened at Tom's birthday party last month. You see, we built this paper house and it became real. And suddenly we were all inside it, and this guy called Julian made us play a game there with him. We had to face our worst nightmares and win, or he would have kept us with him in the Shadow World forever. And we all made it out except Summer-poor Summer, you know she was never the brightest-and that's why Summer's been missing for weeks. She died in her nightmare.

But the thing is, Mom and Dad, that Julian followed us out of the Shadow World. He came into our world and he was after one thing-me. Me. He made us play another game, and this one turned out bad. It ended with him taking Tom and Zach back to the Shadow World. That's where they are now-they didn't run away like everybody thinks. And the last thing Julian said to me after taking them was: If you want them, come on a treasure hunt.

So that's what I'm doing. Only there's just a slight problem about getting into the Shadow World-I don't have any idea how to do it. So I'm flying to Pennsylvania, to Grandpa Evenson's house. He opened a door to the Shadow World a long time ago, and maybe he left some clues behind.

Say that? God, no, Jenny thought. The first part her parents had already heard, and didn't believe. The second part would just let them know where Jenny was going-and give them a chance to stop her. Excuse me, Doctor, but my daughter has flipped. She thinks some demon prince has taken her boyfriend and her cousin. We've got to lock her up and keep her safe. Oh, yes, get that biiiiig hypodermic over there.

No, Jenny couldn't tell anyone. She and Audrey and Dee and Michael had spent three days planning this trip. It had taken them that long to get enough money for plane tickets, each collecting two hundred dollars a day using their parents' ATM cards. Now they were on the red-eye from LAX to Pittsburgh, alone and vulnerable, six miles off the ground. Their parents thought they were asleep in their beds.

And Jenny was excited. Do or die. It was do or die, now, literally. There wasn't such a thing as safety anymore. She was going to a place where nightmares came true-and killed you. She would never forget Summer's blond head disappearing in that pile of garbage.

When she got there, all she'd have to rely on were her own wits-and her friends.

She glanced at them. Michael Cohen, with his rumpled dark hair and soulful eyes, wearing clothes that were clean, wrinkled, and bore no resemblance to any fashion trend that had ever existed. Audrey Myers, cool and elegant in a black-and-white Italian pantsuit, keeping any turmoil she might be feeling hidden under a perfectly polished exterior. And Dee Eliade, a night princess with a skewed sense of humor and a black belt in kung fu. They were all sixteen, juniors in high school, and they were on their way to fight the devil.

The flight attendants served dinner. Dee ate her fruit plate brazenly. Once the trays were cleared, lights began to go out all over the plane. One by one they winked off.

Funeral parlor lighting, Jenny thought, looking at the dim, diffused ceiling-glow that was left. It reminded her of the visitation room where she'd last seen her great-aunt Sheila. She felt too keyed-up to sleep, but she had to try.

Think of anything but him, she ordered herself, leaning her head against the cool, vibrating wall of the plane. Oh, who cares, think of him if you want to. He's lost his power over you. The part of you that rushed up to meet his darkness is gone. This time you can beat him-because you don't feel anything for him.

To prove it, she let images drift through her mind. Julian laughing at her, his face beautiful in the most exotic, uncanny way imaginable-more beautiful than any human's could ever be. Julian's hair, as white as frost, as tendrils of mist. No, whiter than that, an impossible icy color. His eyes just as impossible. A blue that she couldn't describe because there was nothing to compare it to.

As long as she was proving a point, she could remember other things, too. His body, slim but powerfully built, hard-muscled when he held her close. His touch all the more shockingly soft. His long, slow kisses-so slow, so confident, because he was absolutely certain of what he was doing. He might look like a boy Jenny's age, he might be the youngest of his kind, but he was older than Jenny could imagine. He was expert far beyond her experience. He'd had girls through the centuries, any he wanted, all helpless to resist his touch in the darkness.

Jenny's lips parted, her tongue against her teeth. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. Julian had no power over her, but it was stupid to tempt fate by thinking about him.

She would think of Tom instead, of little Tommy kissing her behind the ficus bushes in second grade, of Tom Locke, star of the athletic field. Of his hazel eyes with their flecks of green, his neat dark hair, his devil-may-care smile. Of the way he looked at her when he whispered, “Oh, Thorny, I love you”-as if the words themselves hurt him.

He was only human-not some eerily beautiful prince of shadows. He was real, and human, and her equal… and he needed her. Especially now.

Jenny wasn't going to betray his trust. She was going to find him and bring him back from the hellish place Julian had taken him. And once she got him safe, she wasn't going to let him go again.

She relaxed. Just the thought of Tom brought her comfort. In a few minutes her thoughts unwound, and then …

She was in an elevator. A silver mask covered the little man's entire face. He was so small she wondered if he was a dwarf.

“Will you go with us? Can we take you?” Jenny realized he'd been asking the same question for quite some time.

“We can carry you,” he said. Jenny was frightened.

“No,” she said. “Who are you?”

He kept asking it. “Can we take you?” On the elevator wall behind him was a large poster of Joyland Park, an amusement park that Jenny had loved as a kid. “Can we take you?”

Finally she said, “Yes …” and he leaned forward eagerly, his eyes flashing in the mask's eyeholes.

“We can?”

“Yes … if you tell me who you really are,” she said.

The little man fell back, disappointed.

“Tell me who you really are,” Jenny demanded. She was holding a bottle over his head, ready to brain him. She knew somehow that he wasn't actually there; it was only his image. But she thought he might materialize briefly to show her what he really was.

He didn't. Jenny kept hitting the image, but the bottle just swung through it. Then the image disappeared.

Jenny was pleased. She'd proved he wasn't real and that she was in control.

The elevator stopped. Jenny walked through the open doors-into another elevator.

“Can we take you? We can carry you.”

The little man in the silver mask was laughing.

Jenny's head jerked up and she sat staring. A plane. She was in a plane, not an elevator. A plane which, at the moment, seemed crammed to its dim corners with menace. She was alone, because everyone else was asleep. The other passengers could all have been wax museum figures. Beside her Michael was completely motionless, his head on Audrey's shoulder.

As she watched, his eyes flew open and he made a terrible sound. He sat bolt upright, hands at his throat. He looked like someone who couldn't get air.

“What is it?” Audrey had jerked awake. There were times when Audrey acted as if she didn't care about Michael at all, but this wasn't one of them.

Michael went on staring, looking absolutely terrified. Jenny's skin was rippling with fear.

“Michael, can you breathe? Are you all right?” Audrey said.

He did breathe, then, a long shaky intake of air. He let it out and slumped back against the seat. His dark brown eyes, normally heavy-lidded, were still wide.

“I had a dream.”

“You, too?” Jenny said. Dee was leaning over the armrest of her seat across the aisle. Other people were looking at them, disturbed from sleep. Jenny avoided their eyes.

“What about?” she said, keeping her voice low. “Was it-it wasn't about an elevator, was it?” She had no idea what her own dream meant, but she felt sure it was bad.

“What? No. It was about Summer,” he said, licking his lips as if to get rid of a bad taste.

“Oh …”

“But it wasn't all of Summer. It was her head. It was on a table, and it was talking to me.”

A sensation of unspeakable horror washed over Jenny. That was when the plane plummeted.

Jenny screamed. It didn't matter, everyone was screaming. Dee, who had unbuckled her seat belt to lean toward Michael, was bounced upward so hard her head almost hit the ceiling.

They were falling, and the sensation was worse than a thousand elevators. There was nothing beneath Jenny because the seat was falling away.

What do people think about when they're going to die? What should I be thinking?

Tom. She should think about Tom and how she loved him. But it was impossible, there was no room inside her for anything but astonishment and fear.

Then the plane lurched up. Instead of falling, her seat was pressing against her. The whole thing had taken only a second or so.

The pilot's voice came on over the intercom, smooth and rich as cream soda. “Ah, sorry about that, folks-we hit a little turbulence. We're going to try to get above this weather; in the meantime please keep your seat belts fastened.”

Just turbulence. Ordinary stuff. They weren't going to die.

Jenny looked out the window again. She couldn't see much; they were in the middle of clouds. Mist and darkness –

Just like the mist and darkness the Shadow Men bring, her mind raced on irresistibly. Any minute now you'll see the eyes, the hungry, hungry eyes …

But she didn't see anything.

“Hey, listen,” Michael was saying huskily. “About my dream-“

“It was just a dream,” Audrey said, ever practical. Jenny was grateful for the little edge in Audrey's voice, the sharp edge of reason. Like a wake-up slap.

“Just a dream. Didn't mean anything,” Jenny echoed-unfairly, because she didn't for a moment believe that. But she had no idea what it did mean, and ganging up on Michael was the only comfort available. Was Julian behind it? Torturing them with images of Summer? Nightmares were the Shadow Man's specialty.

The Shadow Man. Like the Sandman, only he brings nightmares. And by now he knows us all, knows our weak points. He can bring our worst fears to life, and they may not be real, but we won't be able to tell the difference.

What are we getting into?

She spent the rest of the flight staring out the oval window, her hands clutching the cold metal ends of her armrests.

Pittsburgh at 6:56 a.m. was cool. Breezy. The sky a blue that early morning skies in southern California seldom aspired to. In Vista Grande, where Jenny lived, May skies were usually the color of wet concrete until it got hot enough to break the clouds up.

They had to take a taxi from the airport because Hertz wouldn't rent a car to anyone under twenty-five. Dee thought this was outrageous and wanted to argue, but Jenny dragged her away.

“We're trying to be inconspicuous,” she said.

On the way to Monessen they saw a river with large, flat, ugly ships on it. “The Monongahela and coal barges,” Jenny said, remembering. They saw delicate trees with slender trunks and airy little pink buds. “Redbud trees,” Jenny said. “And those over there with the white flowers are dogwoods.” They saw one steel mill with white smoke turning to gray as it rose. “There used to be blast furnaces all over here,” Jenny said. “When they were going, it looked like hell. Really. All these chimneys with fire and black smoke coming out of them. When I was a kid, I thought that was what hell must look like.”

By the time they got to the little town of Monessen, Michael was eyeing the taxi meter with deep concern. Everyone else, though, was staring out the windows.

“Cobblestone streets,” Dee said. “D'you believe that?”

“C'est drdle ca,” Audrey said. “How quaint.”

“They're not all cobblestone,” Jenny said.

“They're all steep,” Dee said.

Because the town was built on hills-seven hills,

Jenny remembered. When she and Zach had been kids here, that had seemed a magical fact, like a seventh son of a seventh son being psychic.

Don't think about Zach now. And especially don't think about Tom. But, as always, Tom's name alone started an aching in her chest. Like a bruise just slightly to the left of her breastbone.

“We're here,” she said aloud, forcibly distracting herself.

“Three Center Drive,” the taxi driver said and got out to unload their duffel bags from the trunk.

Audrey, whose father was with the diplomatic corps and who had grown up all over the world, paid the man. She knew how to do things like that, and carried it off with cosmopolitan flair, adding an extravagant tip.

“Money-” Michael began in an anguished whisper. Audrey ignored him. The taxi drove off.

Jenny held her breath as she looked around. All the way from Pittsburgh she'd had flashes of familiarity. But here, in front of her grandfather's house, the familiarity came in a great, sweeping rush, engulfing her.

I know this! I know this place! I remember!

Of course she remembered. She'd grown up here. The broad green lawn that grew all the way to the street with no sidewalk in between-she and Zach had played there. This low brick house with the little white porch-she couldn't tell how many times she'd gone running up to it.

It was a strange sort of remembering, though. The house seemed smaller, and not exactly the way she'd pictured it. Old and new at the same time.

Maybe because it's been empty for ten years, Jenny thought. Or maybe it's changed –

No. It hadn't changed-she had. The last time she'd stood here she'd been five years old.

And the memory of that was like a light splash of icy water. It reminded her of what she'd come here to do.

Am I brave enough? Am I really brave enough to go back down to that room and face everything that happened there?

A slender arm, hard as a boy's, went around her shoulders. Jenny blinked back wetness and saw that everyone was looking at her. Audrey was standing silently, her glossy auburn hair shining like copper in the early morning light. Her chestnut eyes were quietly sympathetic. Michael's round face was solemn.

Dee, with her arm still around Jenny, gave a barbaric grin.

“Come on, Tiger. Let's do it,” she said.

Jenny let out her breath and tried to grin the same way herself. “Around back. There should be, um, stone steps down to the basement and a back door. If memory serves.”

Memory did. On the back porch Dee pulled a crowbar out of her duffel bag.

They'd come prepared. In the duffel bags there were also towels to lay over the frames of any windows they might have to break, and a hammer, and a screwdriver.

“It's a good thing the house is empty. If it weren't, we couldn't do this,” Dee said, placing the crowbar judiciously.

“If it weren't, there wouldn't be any point in doing it,” Jenny said. “Whoever moved in would have cleared out the basement. For that matter, we can't be sure somebody hasn't-“

“Wait!” Audrey yelled.

Everyone froze.

“Look at that.” Audrey pointed to something beside the door. A black-and-silver sticker with curling edges. When Michael wiped the dirt off with his fingers, Jenny could make out lettering.

THIS PROPERTY PROTECTED BY MONONGAHELA VALLEY SECURITY. ARMED RESPONSE.

“A security alarm,” Michael said. “Oh, terrific.”

Audrey looked at Jenny. “Do you think it's still working?”

Dee was still holding the crowbar at the door. “We can try and see,” she said, grinning.

“No, we can't,” Jenny said. “That's just exactly what we can't do. If it is working, we won't be able to come back today, because they'll be all over the place.”

“I think we're in fairly serious trouble here,” Michael said.

Jenny shut her eyes.

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