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White Cat

(Part of The Curse Workers)
By Holly Black

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

I WAKE UP BAREFOOT, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.

Above me are stars. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.

I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.

Teetering, I will myself to be as still as possible. Not to inhale too sharply. To grip the slate with my toes.

The night is quiet, the kind of hushed middle-of-the-night quiet that makes every shuffle or nervous panting breath echo. When the black outlines of trees overhead rustle, I jerk in surprise. My foot slides on something slick. Moss.

I try to steady myself, but my legs go out from under me.

I scrabble for something to hold on to as my bare chest slams down on the slate. My palm comes down hard on a sharp bit of copper flashing, but I hardly feel the pain. Kicking out, my foot finds a snow guard, and I press my toes against it, steadying myself. I laugh with relief, even though I am shaking so badly that climbing is out of the question.

Cold makes my fingers numb. The adrenaline rush makes my brain sing.

“Help,” I say softly, and feel crazy nervous laughter bubble up my throat. I bite the inside of my cheek to tamp it down.

I can’t ask for help. I can’t call anyone. If I do, then my carefully maintained pretense that I’m just a regular guy is going to fade forever. Sleepwalking is kid’s stuff, weird and embarrassing.

Looking across the roof in the dim light, I try to make out the pattern of snow guards, tiny triangular pieces of clear plastic that keep ice from falling in a sheet, tiny triangular pieces that were never meant to hold my weight. If I can get closer to a window, maybe I can climb down.

I edge my foot out, shifting as slowly as I can and worming toward the nearest snow guard. My stomach scrapes against the slate, some of the tiles chipped and uneven beneath me. I step onto the first guard, then down to another and across to one at the edge of the roof. There, panting, with the windows too far beneath me and with nowhere left to go, I decide I am not willing to die from embarrassment.

I suck in three deep breaths of cold air and yell.

“Hey! Hey! Help!” The night absorbs my voice. I hear the distant swell of engines along the highway, but nothing from the windows below me.

“HEY!” I scream it this time, guttural, as loudly as I can, loud enough that the words scrape my throat raw. “Help!”

A light flickers on in one of the rooms and I see the press of palms against a glass pane. A moment later the window slides open. “Hello?” someone calls sleepily from below. For a moment her voice reminds me of another girl. A dead girl.

I hang my head off the side and try to give my most chagrined smile. Like she shouldn’t freak out. “Up here,” I say. “On the roof.”

“Oh, my God,” Justine Moore gasps.

Willow Davis comes to the window. “I’m getting the hall master.”

I press my cheek against the cold tile and try to convince myself that everything’s okay, that it’s not a curse, that if I just hang on a little longer, things are going to be fine.

A crowd gathers below me, spilling out of the dorms.

“Jump,” some jerk shouts. “Do it!”

“Mr. Sharpe?” Dean Wharton calls. “Come down from there at once, Mr. Sharpe!” His silver hair sticks up like he’s been electrocuted, and his robe is inside out and badly tied. The whole school can see his tighty-whities.

I realize abruptly that I’m wearing only boxers. If he looks ridiculous, I look worse.

“Cassel!” Ms. Noyes yells. “Cassel, don’t jump! I know things have been hard . . .” She stops there, like she isn’t quite sure what to say next. She’s probably trying to remember what’s so hard. I have good grades. Play well with others.

I look down again. Camera phones flash. Freshmen hang out of windows next door in Strong House, and juniors and seniors stand around on the grass in their pajamas and nightgowns, even though teachers are desperately trying to herd them back inside.

I give my best grin. “Cheese,” I say softly.

“Get down, Mr. Sharpe,” yells Dean Wharton. “I’m warning you!”

“I’m okay, Ms. Noyes,” I call. “I don’t know how I got up here. I think I was sleepwalking.”

I’d dreamed of a white cat. It leaned over me, inhaling sharply, as if it was going to suck the breath from my lungs, but then it bit out my tongue instead. There was no pain, only a sense of overwhelming, suffocating panic. In the dream my tongue was a wriggling red thing, mouse-size and wet, that the cat carried in her mouth. I wanted it back. I sprang up out of the bed and grabbed for her, but she was too lean and too quick. I chased her. The next thing I knew, I was teetering on a slate roof.

A siren wails in the distance, drawing closer. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

Eventually a fireman climbs a ladder to get me down. They put a blanket around me, but by then my teeth are chattering so hard that I can’t answer any of their questions. It’s like the cat bit out my tongue after all.

The last time I was in the headmistress’s office, my grandfather was there with me to enroll me at the school. I remember watching him empty a crystal dish of peppermints into the pocket of his coat while Dean Wharton talked about what a fine young man I would be turned into. The crystal dish went into the opposite pocket.

Wrapped in a blanket, I sit in the same green leather chair and pick at the gauze covering my palm. A fine young man indeed.

“Sleepwalking?” Dean Wharton says. He’s dressed in a brown tweed suit, but his hair is still wild. He stands near a shelf of outdated encyclopedias and strokes a gloved finger over their crumbling leather spines.

I notice there’s a new cheap glass dish of mints on the desk. My head is pounding. I wish the mints were aspirin.

“I used to sleepwalk,” I say. “I haven’t done it in a long time.”

Somnambulism isn’t all that uncommon in kids, boys especially. I looked it up online after waking in the driveway when I was thirteen, my lips blue with cold, unable to shake the eerie feeling that I’d just returned from somewhere I couldn’t quite recall.

Outside the leaded glass windows the rising sun limns the trees with gold. The headmistress, Ms. Northcutt, looks puffy and red-eyed. She’s drinking coffee out of a mug with the Wallingford logo on it and gripping it so tightly the leather of her gloves over her knuckles is pulled taut.

“I heard you’ve been having some problems with your girlfriend,” Headmistress Northcutt says.

“No,” I say. “Not at all.” Audrey broke up with me after the winter holiday, exhausted by my moodiness. It’s impossible to have problems with a girlfriend who’s no longer mine.

The headmistress clears her throat. “Some students think you are running a betting pool. Are you in some kind of trouble? Owe someone money?”

I look down and try not to smile at the mention of my tiny criminal empire. It’s just a little forgery and some bookmaking. I’m not running a single con; I haven’t even taken up my brother Philip’s suggestion that we could be the school’s main supplier for underage booze. I’m pretty sure the headmistress doesn’t care about betting, but I’m glad she doesn’t know that the most popular odds are on which teachers are hooking up. Northcutt and Wharton are a long shot, but that doesn’t stop people laying cash on them. I shake my head.

“Have you experienced mood swings lately?” Dean Wharton asks.

“No,” I say.

“What about changes in appetite or sleep patterns?” He sounds like he’s reciting the words from a book.

“The problem is my sleep patterns,” I say.

“What do you mean?” asks Headmistress Northcutt, suddenly intent.

“Nothing! Just that I was sleepwalking, not trying to kill myself. And if I wanted to kill myself, I wouldn’t throw myself off a roof. And if I was going to throw myself off a roof, I would put on some pants before I did it.”

The headmistress takes a sip from her cup. She’s relaxed her grip. “Our lawyer advised me that until a doctor can assure us that nothing like this will happen again, we can’t allow you to stay in the dorms. You’re too much of an insurance liability.”

I thought that people would give me a lot of crap, but I never thought there would be any real consequences. I thought I was going to get a scolding. Maybe even a couple of demerits. I’m too stunned to say anything for a long moment. “But I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Which is stupid, of course. Things don’t happen to people because they deserve them. Besides, I’ve done plenty wrong.

“Your brother Philip is coming to pick you up,” Dean Wharton says. He and the headmistress exchange looks, and Wharton’s hand goes unconsciously to his neck, where I see the colored cord and the outline of the amulet under his white shirt.

I get it. They’re wondering if I’ve been worked. Cursed. It’s not that big a secret that my grandfather was a death worker for the Zacharov family. He’s got the blackened stubs where his fingers used to be to prove it. And if they read the paper, they know about my mother. It’s not a big leap for Wharton and Northcutt to blame any and all strangeness concerning me on curse work.

“You can’t kick me out for sleepwalking,” I say, getting to my feet. “That can’t be legal. Some kind of discrimination against—” I stop speaking as cold dread settles in my stomach, because for a moment I wonder if I could have been cursed. I try to think back to whether someone brushed me with a hand, but I can’t recall anyone touching me who wasn’t clearly gloved.

“We haven’t come to any determination about your future here at Wallingford yet.” The headmistress leafs through some of the papers on her desk. The dean pours himself a coffee.

“I can still be a day student.” I don’t want to sleep in an empty house or crash with either of my brothers, but I will. I’ll do whatever lets me keep my life the way it is.

“Go to your dorm and pack some things. Consider yourself on medical leave.”

“Just until I get a doctor’s note,” I say.

Neither of them replies, and after a few moments of standing awkwardly, I head for the door.

Don’t be too sympathetic. Here’s the essential truth about me: I killed a girl when I was fourteen. Her name was Lila, she was my best friend, and I loved her. I killed her anyway. There’s a lot of the murder that seems like a blur, but my brothers found me standing over her body with blood on my hands and a weird smile tugging at my mouth. What I remember most is the feeling I had looking down at Lila—the giddy glee of having gotten away with something.

No one knows I’m a murderer except my family. And me, of course.

I don’t want to be that person, so I spend most of my time at school faking and lying. It takes a lot of effort to pretend you’re something you’re not. I don’t think about what music I like; I think about what music I should like. When I had a girlfriend, I tried to convince her I was the guy she wanted me to be. When I’m in a crowd, I hang back until I can figure out how to make them laugh. Luckily, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s faking and lying.

I told you I’d done plenty wrong.

I pad, still barefoot, still wrapped in the scratchy fireman’s blanket, across the sunlit quad and up to my dorm room. Sam Yu, my roommate, is looping a skinny tie around the collar of a wrinkled dress shirt when I walk through the door. He looks up, startled.

“I’m fine,” I say wearily. “In case you were going to ask.”

Sam’s a horror film enthusiast and hard-core science geek who has covered our dorm room with bug-eyed alien masks and gore-spattered posters. His parents want him to go to MIT and from there to some profitable pharmaceuticals gig. He wants to do special effects for movies. Despite the facts that he’s built like a bear and is obsessed with fake blood, he has so far failed to stand up to them to the degree that they don’t even know there’s a disagreement. I like to think we’re sort of friends.

We don’t hang out with many of the same people, which makes being sort of friends easier.

“I wasn’t doing . . . whatever you think I was doing,” I tell him. “I don’t want to die or anything.”

Sam smiles and pulls on his Wallingford gloves. “I was just going to say that it’s a good thing you don’t sleep commando.”

I snort and drop onto my cot. The frame squeaks in protest. On the pillow next to my head rests a new envelope, marked with a code telling me a freshman wants to put fifty dollars on Victoria Quaroni to win the talent show. The odds are astronomical, but the money reminds me that someone’s going to have to keep the books and pay out while I’m away.

Sam kicks the base of the footboard lightly. “You sure you’re okay?”

I nod. I know I should tell him that I’m going home, that he’s about to become one of those lucky guys with a single, but I don’t want to disturb my own fragile sense of normalcy. “Just tired.”

Sam picks up his backpack. “See you in class, crazy-man.”

I raise my bandaged hand in farewell, then stop myself. “Hey, wait a sec.”

Hand on the doorknob, he turns.

“I was just thinking . . . if I’m gone. Do you think you could let people keep dropping off the money here?” It bothers me to ask, simultaneously putting me in his debt and making the whole kicked-out thing real, but I’m not ready to give up the one thing I’ve got going for me at Wallingford.

He hesitates.

“Forget it,” I say. “Pretend I never—”

He interrupts me. “Do I get a percentage?”

“Twenty-five,” I say. “Twenty-five percent. But you’re going to have to do more than just collect the money for that.”

He nods slowly. “Yeah, okay.”

I grin. “You’re the most trustworthy guy I know.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Sam says. “Except, apparently, off a roof.”

“Nice,” I say with a groan. I push myself off the bed and take a clean pair of itchy black uniform pants out of the dresser.

“So why would you be gone? They’re not kicking you out, right?”

Pulling on the pants, I turn my face away, but I can’t keep the unease out of my voice. “No. I don’t know. Let me set you up.”

He nods. “Okay. What do I do?”

“I’ll give you my notebook on point spreads, tallies, everything, and you just fill in whatever bets you get.” I stand, pulling my desk chair over to the closet and hopping up on the seat. “Here.” My fingers close on the notebook I taped above the door. I rip it down. Another one from sophomore year is still up there, from when business got big enough I could no longer rely on my pretty-good-but-not-photographic memory.

Sam half-smiles. I can tell he’s amazed that he never noticed my hiding spot. “I think I can manage that.”

The pages he’s flipping through are records of all the bets made since the beginning of our junior year at Wallingford, and the odds on each. Bets on whether the mouse loose in Stanton Hall will be killed by Kevin Brown with his mallet, or by Dr. Milton with his bacon-baited traps, or be caught by Chaiyawat Terweil with his lettuce-filled and totally humane trap. (The odds favor the mallet.) On whether Amanda, Sharone, or Courtney would be cast as the female lead in Pippin and whether the lead would be taken down by her understudy. (Courtney got it; they’re still in rehearsals.) On how many times a week “nut brownies with no nuts” will be served in the cafeteria.

Real bookies take a percentage, relying on a balanced book to guarantee a profit. Like, if someone puts down five bucks on a fight, they’re really putting down four fifty, and the other fifty cents is going to the bookie. The bookie doesn’t care who wins; he only cares that the odds work so he can use the money from the losers to pay the winners. I’m not a real bookie. Kids at Wallingford want to bet on silly stuff, stuff that might never come true. They have money to burn. So some of the time I calculate the odds the right way—the real bookie way—and some of the time I calculate the odds my way and just hope I get to pocket everything instead of paying out what I can’t afford. You could say that I’m gambling too. You’d be right.

“Remember,” I say, “cash only. No credit cards; no watches.”

He rolls his eyes. “Are you seriously telling me someone thinks you have a credit card machine up in here?”

“No,” I say. “They want you to take their card and buy something that costs what they owe. Don’t do it; it looks like you stole their card, and believe me, that’s what they’ll tell their parents.”

Sam hesitates. “Yeah,” he says finally.

“Okay,” I say. “There’s a new envelope on the desk. Don’t forget to mark down everything.” I know I’m nagging, but I can’t tell him that I need the money I make. It’s not easy to go to a school like this without money. I’m the only seventeen-year-old at Wallingford without a car.

I motion to him to hand me the book.

Just as I’m taping it into place, someone raps loudly on the door, causing me to nearly topple over. Before I can say anything, it opens, and our hall master walks in. He looks at me like he’s half-expecting to find me threading a noose.

I hop down from the chair. “I was just—”

“Thanks for getting down my bag,” Sam says.

“Samuel Yu,” says Mr. Valerio. “I’m fairly sure that breakfast is over and classes have started.”

“I bet you’re right,” Sam says, with a smirk in my direction.

I could con Sam if I wanted to. I’d do it just this way, asking for his help, offering him a little profit at the same time. Take him for a chunk of his parents’ cash. I could con Sam, but I won’t.

Really, I won’t.

As the door clicks shut behind Sam, Valerio turns to me. “Your brother can’t come until tomorrow morning, so you’re going to have to attend classes with the rest of the students. We’re still discussing where you’ll be spending the night.”

“You can always tie me to the bedposts,” I say, but Valerio doesn’t find that very funny.

My mother explained the basics of the con around the same time she explained about curse work. For her the curse was how she got what she wanted and the con was how she got away with it. I can’t make people love or hate instantly, like she can, turn their bodies against them like Philip can, or take their luck away like my other brother, Barron, but you don’t need to be a worker to be a con artist.

For me the curse is a crutch, but the con is everything.

It was my mother who taught me that if you’re going to screw someone over—with magic and wit, or wit alone—you have to know the mark better than he knows himself.

The first thing you have to do is gain his confidence. Charm him. Just be sure he thinks he’s smarter than you are. Then you—or, ideally, your partner—suggest the score.

Let your mark get something right up front the first time. In the business that’s called the “convincer.” When he knows he’s already got money in his pocket and can walk away, that’s when he relaxes his guard.

The second go is when you introduce bigger stakes. The big score. This is the part my mother never has to worry about. As an emotion worker, she can make anyone trust her. But she still needs to go through the steps, so that later, when they think back on it, they don’t figure out she worked them.

After that there’s only the blow-off and the getaway.

Being a con artist means thinking that you’re smarter than everyone else and that you’ve thought of everything. That you can get away with anything. That you can con anyone.

I wish I could say that I don’t think about the con when I deal with people, but the difference between me and my mother is that I don’t con myself.

© 2010 Katy Grant

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