Read an Excerpt
By A.M. Dellamonica, Stacy Hague-Hill, Marcos Chin
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 AM Dellamonica
All rights reserved.
The eerie thing about Paige Adolpha wasn't just that she turned up right when I was reading about her in the paper. It wasn't her fame as the star witness in the big local werewolf trial. What brought on the gooseflesh, first time I saw her, was that she was the spitting image of her murdered sister. Identical twins, you know?
I was at the Britannia branch of the public library, absorbing what passed for Vancouver news and wishing the local papers would come up to the standards of the Edmonton Journal — even the Globe & Mail — when one of the regulars caught sight of her.
"It's that lady from page three," he stage-whispered.
"Don't stare," I murmured, peeking despite myself.
I flipped back to the two shots of Paige's sister, Pamela. One showed them both, laughing together. The other was her corpse: long-limbed, blood-matted fur, all fang. Nobody was denying she'd been a lycanthrope.
Richard Deenie, her killer, was a brash American with one of those awful trophy necklaces of monster teeth. Fifteen years ago, he was barely getting by selling camping equipment. When humanity discovered monsterkind in 2002, he'd reinvented himself as a sleazoid Buffy type. Him and plenty of others. U.S. werewolves were getting thin on the ground, so he'd stalked Pamela to British Columbia and shot her with a silver bullet.
"Ya already read that page." The old-timer was fidgeting; I'd beaten him to the last copy of the Sun.
I swapped him for the Province. It had the same trial coverage, written at an even more dumbed-down level. Deenie, a born media whore, got arrested at a press conference he'd called especially so he could crow about saving us wussy Canadians from a lycanthrope menace.
I hoped he was surprised when the Crown found a few cops willing to arrest him before he slithered back over the border. He was claiming self-defence. Paige insisted her sister had never bitten, much less killed, anyone.
Here she was in the flesh, staring at the glassed-in art installation that separated the library's reading room from the chaos of the kids' section. She had a baby papoosed on her chest. She looked about nine, underfed, bruised by fatigue.
Before I could look away, she was crossing the reading room. "You're Jude?"
I nodded. She was brandishing a pair of home improvement books and a library receipt.
"The info woman says you're a general contractor."
I shot Lela — who's dating my ex and disapproves of my staying single — a dirty look.
"Shhh!" said the old-timer.
Steer clear, I thought. But ... "Come on, I'm done here."
I do go for elfin blondes. Lela knows my type. And I was getting an answering vibe — baby or not, Paige looked available and, potentially, into me. But I wasn't looking to be anyone's stepmom. She's vulnerable, I reminded myself. The pressure of a trial, plus grief ... her sister's been dead, what? Four months?
I set out on a path that winds between Britannia's low, unmistakably institutional buildings. The community center is big and battered looking; almost an architectural blight, and yet I love it. It's the backbone of my neighbourhood. The library's attached to a high school, and the complex includes a pool and ice rink, tennis courts, youth outreach and senior's center.
Britannia is where the working poor of the neighbourhood go to borrow books and recreate their kids, to take guitar lessons, study aikido and judo, to catch a yoga class that doesn't cost twenty bucks an hour. It's where they teach teen moms what they call life skills, like cooking something more nutritious than ramen; they bring me in to demonstrate how to unstop a toilet and install a baby gate. Now and then the Center will even bus people out to Golden Ears Park to hike or canoe or ride horses.
We came out behind the daycare into a green space known locally as Poverty Park. My house overlooks the park — I could see my front door — but instead of taking Paige home with me, I pointed at a bench under a double-flowering plum. The tree was thick with blooms, like it had been dipped in candy floss. Fifty feet over, near the tennis courts, three young guys with blond dreadlocks were beating on trashcan-sized drums.
I must have frowned, because she asked, "What is it?"
"You're curious about something."
"I suppose that happens all the time?"
"It's okay," Paige said, settling herself under the canopy of blooms. "You can ask me anything."
"I was just thinking it had been four months since ... They brought Deenie to trial pretty quick."
Ghost of a smile. "The prosecutor's a force of nature. And Deenie's representing himself. He didn't know the tricks they use to slow things down."
Or he didn't want to. "So, you want reno advice?"
Paige said, "I'm renting my basement out as a recording studio. I thought soundproofing, bars on the windows ..."
"You have a house — I mean, you own it?"
"Pamela had some insurance."
"You're not planning to grow pot down there, are you?"
"Or a dungeon?"
"I haven't got time for vanilla sex, let alone kink." The baby was watching the birds with bright-eyed intensity.
I steered my gaze back to Paige. "You want to do the work yourself?"
She flinched. "I need advice on the soundproofing. It's too complex. ... The books don't say anything."
Don't volunteer, I told myself. You can't fix someone else's life, and Lela's opinions notwithstanding, I didn't need this. A baby meant Paige was maybe no more than a year out of a relationship with some guy. "You want to DIY, even though you have money. You need to rent out your basement, but you're a nurse, aren't you? You have a kid, you're the public face of a homicide trial, and now you want to get into futzing with soundproofing and —"
"What are you saying?"
"Look, maybe I don't talk like a Rhodes Scholar, but I know when I'm being lied to."
"Forget I said anything." She scooped up her kid and stormed off, so mad she almost walked over two women who were hawking handmade jewellery over by the sidewalk.
I watched her go, relieved. Then I took her abandoned library books inside so I could tell Lela to lay off the matchmaking.
Know what she said? "Oh, so you did like her?"
The thing about going for broken women is it doesn't make you feel good about yourself. So I kept busy: installed cabinets in a local rehab center, redid a couple bathrooms, volunteered to replace some vandalized tiles in Mosaic Creek Park. I let myself get talked into working a shift at the Italian Day festival, valet parking bicycles and chit-chatting with environmental activists as people from all the Drive's overlapping communities ambled by.
At one time, East Vancouver was the bad part of town, which seems laughable now house prices have shot up. Sleek, well-off mommies, new to the area, pay my bills: I renovate the kitchens in their circa-1920 houses while they slurp up frappuccinos at Starbucks and plan the next battle in their bitter fight for control of Poverty Park. The area is upscaling; they want to drive out the homeless, the veterans, the street vendors and heroin junkies who've occupied the park — peaceably, for the most part — for decades.
None of which is to say I had mommies or motherhood on the brain. I put Paige and her troubles out of my mind, skipping the trial coverage, walking by fast when I saw her doe-eyed face in the newspaper boxes.
But a month after we first met she was back at Britannia, even more harried, obviously looking for me. The kid was in her pouch, lolling like a sailor after three days ashore.
I kept my eyes off him. "You got the soundproofing up? Barred your windows?"
She hesitated. "They vandalized them."
"By 'they' you mean ..."
"And by 'them'?"
"The soundproofing pads."
She was clinging to the lie. I thought of calling her on it, again, but I'd had a month to feel guilty. Chivalry won out. "You ready to show me?"
A long sigh. "Should I make an appointment?"
"No, I'm between jobs. Lead on."
Paige's house was a few blocks south of mine. It was what we call a Vancouver Special — an ugly box clad in yellow aluminium siding and fake brick, square in shape, designed to max out the floor space ratio on its lot. Multifamily residences: idea being to shoehorn in a couple with three kids, both sets of in-laws, and maybe jam an unmarried sister in the basement. There'd been a toxic bloom of them in the eighties; nowadays, developers are knocking them down to build pretty, faux-heritage townhomes.
The place didn't look Paige's speed at all.
"Big basement," she said, by way of explanation. I got a bit of a jolt; perceptive women are sexy. We shared a weird, edgy grin.
Past the front door was a rabbit hutch and a couple bags — one packed with scrubs, another a suitcase I'd seen in trial photos. She dropped the diaper bag beside them.
The rabbits shifted nervously.
"You hate animals too?" she asked.
"The baby. You make a point of ignoring him."
"I keep fish." I didn't mention the cat; this was no time to sound like a nurturer.
"Downstairs." She indicated a door. "You can leave your shoes on."
I ducked under the overhang, heading into what had once been the in-law suite. Its interior walls were sledge-hammered away, the carpet torn up. All that remained was a vacant space with bare concrete floors.
"Why aren't you on maternity leave?" I asked, thinking of the bag of work stuff — scrubs, shoes, protein bars.
"I take the occasional fill-in shift to remind myself I have more on the brain than the next loaded diaper." She closed the door behind us.
Ever been somewhere where no sound gets in, none at all? Not the traffic outside, not the hum of the fridge, nothing but your own breath and heartbeat? It can be suffocating, almost claustrophobic; your ears ring and your brain insists there's something wrong.
You can muffle a garage studio on the cheap by padding the walls with second-hand mattresses, but Paige had gone high-end. Her panels looked like they had come from a mental hospital — they were surfaced in a white quilted fabric and had been fitted with care, floor to ceiling, even covering the windows. They snugged up against the ceiling panels perfectly.
The air stank of bleach.
A baby cam and one big light were mounted in a corner of the ceiling, cords snaking between the soundproof boards.
"I figured they'd behave if I kept an eye on them," she said, following my gaze to the camera.
'They' again, the fictional rock band. "This is good craftsmanship."
"Impressed." The nurses I know have decent mechanical skills, but this wouldn't have been an easy job.
"The damage is here —" The fabric of the wall was torn at knee height in two places, the foam scattered in bits.
Foam and ... I stirred the scraps, recognizing a tuft of animal fur.
She didn't meet my eyes. "I'll have to install something over the padding, won't I?"
"You could frame and drywall. ..."
"Drywall might be too fragile."
"Clad the walls in sheet metal?"
"Sounds ugly." She was close to weeping. "It has to be nice. It can't ... just be a big cage."
My heart raced, loud in the silence. "Bamboo panels."
"Bamboo wall panels. Natural-looking, eco-friendly, and very hard. We frame over your soundproofing, clad the whole thing in bamboo panels. Even if one or two of them do get roughed up, we just replace. No harm, no foul, okay?"
We. Damn, I said "we."
"Seriously?" She pretended to scan the room, mastering her emotions.
"It'll be easy, Paige."
That's when the drunken sailor baby opened his little mug and belched a river of chewed industrial foam, blood-laced baby formula, and a sticky hunk of bunny leather onto my steel-toed work boots.
I looked from the mess to Paige's chalky face.
"Maybe we can find the bamboo in sort of a crimson lacquer," I added.
* * *
"It's not what you think," she said, twenty minutes later in the backyard. The baby was on a blanket under a tree, and she'd pulled out two beers. "Pamela didn't bite him."
"No?" She couldn't afford to have me — or anybody — thinking otherwise. If Deenie could prove Pamela had ever been a danger to others, he'd walk on the murder charge.
"She's his mother. Was." She rolled the beer bottle between her hands. "Lycanthropy's been in my family since the Civil War. You can transmit it through the placenta."
"You were in the womb together. Same placenta."
"I'm not a werewolf," she said. "Best guess is sometimes it takes, sometimes it doesn't. Twins were a first for my family."
"Papers don't say he's her baby."
"We drove out to the middle of the province, switched IDs. At the hospital in Trail, nobody knew us."
"Twins, right. Didn't anyone notice that you —"
"I wore a padded belly to work for a few months."
"You and Pamela must have been close."
"I wasn't so sure until she was gone. It was my job to take care of her, to cover, to cover up —"
"The good kid."
She wiped her eyes.
"Me too. Eldest, right? Perfect attendance, good grades, come home and watch the little kids. ..."
Again with that scalpel-sharp look of comprehension: "Your family's not around anymore?"
"They're alive. They're pretty sure I'm going to hell."
I wasn't about to get into that. "So, you pulled a switcheroo with his birth certificate. But why?"
"To protect him. Deenie was already hunting Pammy."
"And her boyfriend — he's the father?"
"He doesn't know. She left when she realized she was pregnant."
The boyfriend had just testified. Deenie broke his fingers and pulled out one of his front teeth to get him to give up Pamela's location. Poor guy damn near had a mental breakdown on the stand; since he was representing himself, Deenie got to cross-examine the man he'd tortured. He'd had a lot of fun with it.
"Deenie caught up with Pammy a couple weeks after the birth. She was weak, postpartum. Slow."
"But you'd fixed things so the kid's yours on paper."
"It wasn't that risky. We'd pass a DNA test ... identical twins, remember?"
"Except Chase'd test positive for werewolf?"
The baby was waving at the tree, entranced by the moving shadows. Not that I was watching.
"The first three months were okay; I kept him in his playpen."
"See that pile of playpen scraps over by the trash bin?"
"So you cage him in the basement every month until ..." How long would he be a puppy? Sixteen years?
"Until he's five. There's a pack, in Surrey; they'll take him in during the moon, teach him to hunt, to avoid people. It's how Pammy was socialized. But he has to go to them good-tempered. He has to enjoy his ... wild nights, they call them. If his temperament sours ..."
"Then the pack won't take him?"
"They'll do worse than not take him." She was tearing up again. "And all this depends on their being around when he's five, which depends on Richard Deenie being convicted so he and his thug sidekick and all their sick monster-hunting pals know it's serious, it's illegal, that it's not open season up here."
I put my hand on hers. "Okay. So. Dog-proofing the basement."
How hard could it be? He weighed, what, fifteen pounds?
Four weeks ran by in a blur.
By the time the full moon rolled around, we had the walls of her basement panelled. The rabbit hutch had spent a couple weeks downstairs, killing the bleach fumes with a dog-friendly aroma of barn. We'd left construction sawdust on the floor.
That evening, Paige took all but two of the bunnies upstairs. She threw toys, rawhide chew sticks, and pepperoni down on the concrete floor, along with an old moccasin. She dropped in a few two-dollar ivy plants from the garden store, without their plastic starter pots. So there'd be dirt?
Fifteen minutes before moonrise, she gave Chase a bottle, burped him, stripped off his footie pyjamas and diaper and lay him, nude, on the concrete basement floor.
"He'd eat it." We stared at him, pale and small on the floor. He was playing with his toes. If he was cold, it didn't show.
Then he was seizing.
Paige threw out an arm; I guess I'd taken an involuntary step into the room. She backed me out, closed the door, cutting off the sound of him strangling. Then she led me upstairs. "We can watch on the monitor."
Excerpted from The Cage by A.M. Dellamonica, Stacy Hague-Hill, Marcos Chin. Copyright © 2010 AM Dellamonica. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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