Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman present the third and final book in a trilogy that stars a spunky teen who must escape assassins, stalkers and solve murder cases -- all while dealing with boyfriend troubles.
Read an excerpt of "Cathy's Ring" below and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.
Pot of Poison (Hour of My Evil Twin)
Mom was at the hospital working the graveyard shift, and I was alone in the sweltering house. I turned off the air-conditioning as soon as she left for work, trying to save money. On hot nights like this, going to bed felt like I was pitching a tent in a toaster oven. But, in view of my spectacular failure to pay my share of the mortgage, it seemed like the least I could do. Summer was getting on, and it had been months since the dust had tasted rain. Wildfire season had started: a twenty thousand acre blaze in the Sierra foothills, and closer to home big grass fires were burning near Gilroy and Vacaville and Palo Alto. Dozens of smaller fires had left patches of blackened grass along the freeways all the way into San Francisco.
I changed into my lightest PJs, but after a second I decided not to take off the good luck charm my boyfriend, Victor, had given me—a Chinese coin threaded on a slim silver chain. He said he'd picked it up at the hospital gift shop earlier in the day. The unfamiliar weight swung and bumped against my collar bone as I trudged into the bathroom to splash my face with cold water. The eyes looking back at me from the mirror were bloodshot and exhausted. I shambled back into my bedroom and opened the window wide. There was no breeze, just the smell of burning, as if someone in the distance was holding a match to the darkness and waiting for it to catch. I shoved the blankets off my bed and lay down on top of the sheets to wait for sleep. It had only been ten hours since I'd seen a man shot. Every time I closed my eyes I saw him looking at his bloody chest in surprise: the red blood soaking into the carpet and spattered on the wallpaper behind him. In the darkness the scorched air smelled like gunpowder.
The dead man's name was Tsao. The last thing he said before he died was, "Cathy, I will love you forever."
They say love warms the soul, but it burns it sometimes, too.
It was after midnight when I gave up trying to sleep. I crawled out of bed, turned on the bedroom light and closed my window. I dug a perfume bottle out of my purse and sat on the end of my bed to examine it. The bottle was almost round, shaped like a piece of crystal fruit, an apple or a peach. The heavy stopper had been fashioned into a stem with one leaf still clinging to it. The liquid inside was the color of sunlight with a teaspoon of blood mixed in.
I brought the bottle of perfume up close to my face and took out the stopper. I used to smell things by leaning in and sorta sucking air through my nose, like most people do, but when I was being trained as a perfume demonstrator at the mall they told me you actually get more fragrance if you breathe normally with your mouth a little open and waft the air toward you with your hand. I let the scent curl around me, a sweet odor like peaches with an ugly little undertone of formaldehyde and smoke. It smelled like desire without hope. Like angels burning.
My phone rang, and I picked it up instantly, thinking it would be someone in trouble, Emma or Victor. I was half right.
"You stole my perfume," said an angry voice with a sharp Texas twang. "Hey, it's my Evil Twin, Jewel." The last time we were in a room together, ten hours ago, she was the one who killed Tsao. Then she took the money out of his wallet and forced me to give her my driver's license at gunpoint. I had been hoping I would never hear from her again. This is known as wishful thinking. "Gee, it's great to hear your voice," I said. In the background I could hear drunk people talking, bottles clinking, and the steady thud-thud of loud obnoxious dance music. "Where are you calling from?"
"Payphone at the Baptist church," Jewel said. "Listen, you took that perfume out of my purse this afternoon."
"No way," I said, turning the crystal bottle in my hands. "That would be stealing." Strictly speaking, the liquid in the bottle wasn't really perfume, it was a very special sort of poison—a complex chemical agent that took away the gift of immortality. My life had suffered a sudden and surprising infestation of immortals—my father, my boyfriend, and my boyfriend's angry ex-boss, Ancestor Lu, to name but a few—so to tell you the truth, there was something very comforting about holding that little pot of poison. In a small, mean way it felt good to think that with one well-timed spritz those godlike beings with eternal lives, lightning reflexes, and supernatural healing abilities could be reduced to ordinary human status again, at the mercy of pain and time and death like the rest of us. "Maybe you just forgot where you put it," I said. "For example, I can't find my driver's license." "Very funny." I could hear Jewel stop to take a drink of something. "Have the cops showed up yet?"
"Not yet." Ever since I got home I had been wondering if I was about to get a visit from the Flat Feet of the Law. Because of an incident a few months back, the police had my fingerprints on file. If they got a good print from the hotel room, it was only a matter of time until their computers would identify me as a person of interest in Tsao's murder. Technically speaking I was innocent, but lying to the police is always dangerous, and telling them the truth—that my boyfriend's immortal father had a crush on me but was shot to death by my evil twin after having been dosed with a secret mortality serum—that was obviously a non-starter.
Jewel turned her mouth away from the phone. "Barkeep," she said. "Hey, Numb Nuts—yeah, you. Gimme another beer. Okay, I'm back. No cops, huh? Well, that might be good, or it might be bad." She chugged thoughtfully on her beer. "Good version, maybe you just didn't leave a lot of prints."
"What's the bad version?"
"Well, Tsao told me Ancestor Lu has some real spooky computer guys who can make things like police records just disappear. They might have wiped out your old fingerprint files."
"Why would Ancestor Lu do me a favor?"
"He wouldn't," Jewel said dryly. "The bad version is that Lu wants to take you out himself, and you're easier to whack if you aren't locked up in a nice secure jail cell."
I swallowed. "Ah."
"How's Denny?" Jewel asked. "Did you get him to a doctor?" Denny was Jewel's brother. Tsao had broken his arm earlier in the day. The last thing Jewel said before she killed Tsao was, "Nobody hits my brother but me." "He's in the hospital. I was there until a couple of hours ago. He won't be playing the piano anytime soon, but he'll live."
"Listen, Cathy, you got to get him to head back to Texas. If he don't get back, the you-know-what's gonna hit the fan with his probation officer." "Loyalty's a big thing with your brother, Jewel. He's not going to leave you here."
"I know it. That's why you're going to tell him you talked to me and I was already back home." Rap music pounded and thumped from Jewel's end of the phone.
"So, you're calling from a church," I said.
"He can tell when I'm lying but he's sweet on you. He doesn't know any better."
"Hey," she said sharply. "You drug my brother into this mess, Cathy. You get him out. Do it first thing tomorrow," she added. "I want to make sure he gets the message before Ancestor Lu's people take you out." Then she hung up.
It took me quite a while to get to sleep.
Scissors (Hour of Someone Coming to Kill Me)
I woke up with a gasp, terrified, staring into the darkness of my bedroom. My heart was pounding and I was listening for something, awake and electric, as if my whole skin was waiting for a sound. The clock on my bedside table said 4:13 AM.
I heard it again, something gnawing at my bedroom window. Someone was working around the frame with pliers or a screwdriver. Trying to get in. Someone was coming for me, just like Jewel had said they would. I needed help. I was alone in the darkness, and nobody would hear me scream. Ever since my dad "died" there had only been two of us in the house, my mom and me, and my mom was at the hospital working the graveyard shift. My cell phone was still lying on the dresser where I left it after Jewel hung up on me. If I grabbed it and called 9-1-1 I figured the cops would show up in time to find my dead body. If everything went well, they'd even catch my killer and put him in jail, where he would come to see the error of his ways and take up crosswords or knitting, and be featured years later in a documentary about cons who had rediscovered their humanity in prison, and finally be released on parole and start a modestly successful store selling fashionable knitwear with a jailhouse swagger—but that would be cold comfort to me, wouldn't it? Because I'd be dead. I would be dead and my mom would come out to the cemetery every six months and stare bitterly at two graves instead of one.
Scritch, scratch. Scritch-scritch, scratch. The soft complaining creak of the metal window frame being quietly pried open. Then:
• soft thumping footsteps outside, someone running up, and • muffled sounds of a struggle, and
• the damp smack of something hard clubbing into flesh • a gasp, and
• people grappling outside my window in murderous silence, and • a snap of bone breaking
• the faint ring and slash of metal, and
• a spatter, like raindrops hitting my window.
I threw myself out of bed and scrambled across the floor on my hands and knees, waiting for the window behind me to explode in a fountain of glass—waiting for bullet holes to open in my back. I scuttled around the corner into the hallway.
• A heavy grunting thump, and
• bodies thudding into the side of the house.
Once out of the line of fire from the bedroom window, I got to my feet, a clumsy low crouch. I started to slap on the hallway light switch but stopped because turning on the light would just make me easier to shoot. The fact that I knew the house in the dark was the only edge I had over whoever was trying to get in.
I ran to the bathroom and yanked open the makeup drawer, pawing through it in the dark: combs, my mother's hairbrush, hair ties, compact, lipsticks, and eyebrow pencils rattling around—crap I never wore anymore. Finally my hand found the little pair of scissors my mom used to use to trim my dad's eyebrows. I shut the bathroom door, locked it, and crept into the bathtub, quietly, quietly. I pulled the shower curtain closed, steel rings whispering and clinking along the rail as I crouched with my back under the shower head. I imagined a killer forcing the door—I would have to stab down with the scissors as hard as I could because I would only get one chance. I stood there in the bathtub, my whole body shaking with fear, the little scissors like a toy in my hand. Waiting behind the locked door like Anne Frank in her attic, wondering if I was going to die.
Another thump, hard against the side of the house. A short bubbling shriek. Silence.
What the hell was going on out there?
Waiting, barely breathing, no sound, no sound except my heart banging in my chest.
* I stayed in the shower for what felt like forever, listening and listening, but after that last shriek there was nothing to hear. Finally, still clutching my scissors, I got out of the shower. I crept into the kitchen and let myself out the back door. Outside it was not yet dawn, but the night sky had begun to fade, the blackness thinning from oil paint to watercolor. The air had finally started to cool, but it still tasted like ashes in my mouth. I could hear the thin endless snarl of traffic from the freeway a couple of blocks away. With a stuttering hiss the Johnson's sprinklers came on next door. 5:00 am. No sounds of struggle anymore. No sound of anyone trying to get into my room.
I edged to the corner of the house and peeked around. The huddled shapes of three bodies lay on the ground outside my window. They were quite still, limbs stiff and awkwardly placed, like dolls suddenly dropped by kids called home for dinner. They were all dead—obviously dead. In a couple of places I could see pale blurs of exposed bone. I turned away and threw up.
Somewhere in the darkness a mockingbird started to sing. Dawn was coming.
Reset Okay, I know: gruesome. Sorry about that. All I can say is, imagine how I felt.
For those of you—like me—whose attention tends to wander in class, I better stop for a quick refresher on how a perfectly ordinary girl whose worst problems were usually somewhere between Troubled Hair and Sarcastic Co- Workers came to be finding dead bodies underneath her bedroom window.