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The Hunter (Chapter 1)

Jenny glanced back over her shoulder. They were still behind her, on the other side of the street but definitely following. They matched their pace to hers; when she slowed to pretend to look in a store window, they slowed, too.

There were two of them, one dressed in a black T-shirt and leather vest, with a black bandanna on his head, the other in a long flannel shirt, black-and-blue plaid, unbuttoned. Also unwashed. They both looked like trouble.

The game store was a few blocks ahead. Jenny quickened her pace a little. This wasn't the best neighborhood in town, and she'd come here specifically because she didn't want any of her friends to see her. She hadn't realized, though, that Eastman Avenue had gotten quite so rough. After the last riots the police had cleared things up, but many of the vandalized stores still had boarded windows, which gave Jenny a creeping feeling between her shoulder blades. They were like bandaged eyes turned toward her.

Not at all the place to be at dusk-but it wasn't dusk yet, Jenny told herself fiercely. If only those two guys would turn off onto another street. Her heart was beating unpleasantly hard. Maybe they had turned….

She slowed again, her feet in their lace-up canvas Tretons making no sound on the dirty sidewalk. From behind and to the left she heard the flat smack of running shoes and the clack of bootheels. The footsteps slowed.

They were still there.

Don't look back, she told herself. Think. You have to cross over at Joshua Street to get to the store-but that means crossing left, to their side of the street. Bad idea, Jenny. While you're crossing they can catch up to you.

All right, then, she'd turn off before that, she'd go right on this next street up here-what was it? Montevideo. She'd go right on Montevideo, and then she'd find a store to duck into, a place to hide until the two guys had passed by.

The Tower Records on the corner of Eastman and Montevideo was no longer in business. Too bad. Back straight, stubbornly pretending she was perfectly calm, Jenny walked by the darkened windows. She caught a glimpse of herself in one of them: a slender girl with hair that Michael had once said was the color of honey in sunlight. Her eyebrows were straight, like two decisive brush strokes, and her forest-green eyes were dark as pine needles and even more serious than usual. She looked worried.

She turned right at the cross street. As soon as she was out of sight of Eastman Avenue, she stopped and stood as still as a deer, backpack swinging from her hand, eyes desperately scanning Montevideo for cover.

Directly opposite her was a vacant lot and beside that a Thai restaurant, closed. Behind her the looming bulk of the record store presented a blank wall to the street all the way down to the park. No cover. Nowhere to hide.

Jenny's neck prickled and her little fingers began to tingle.

She turned toward Eastman and hugged the wall, tossing back her hair to listen.

Were those footsteps or just the sick thudding of her own heart?

She wished that Tom were with her.

But of course that was the whole point. Tom couldn't be with her, since it was his party she was shopping for.

It was supposed to have been a pool party. Jenny Thornton was known for her pool parties, and here in southern California late April was a perfectly reasonable time to have one. The temperature often hovered in the mid-seventies at night, and the Thornton pool glowed like a huge blue-green jewel in the backyard, giving off little wisps of steam from its surface. The perfect setting for an outdoor barbecue.

Then three days ago the cold snap had come … and Jenny's plans were ruined. Nobody except polar bears swam in this kind of weather.

She'd meant to rethink things, to come up with some other brilliant idea, but it had been one of those weeks. Summer's fourteen-year-old schnauzer had finally had to be put to sleep, and Summer had needed Jenny for moral support. Dee had taken a kung fu exam, and Jenny had gone to cheer her on. Audrey and Michael had had a fight, and Zach had had the flu….

And then suddenly it had been Friday afternoon, with just hours to go before the party and everyone expecting something special-and nothing set up.

Fortunately an idea had come to her in the middle of computer applications class. A game. People gave murder mystery parties and Pictionary parties and things like that. Why not a game tonight? It would have to be a very special game, of course. Something chic enough for Audrey, sexy enough for Tom, and even scary, if possible, to keep Dee's interest. Something seven people could play at once.

Vague notions had run through Jenny's head of the only really exciting games she'd ever played as a child. Not the ones the adults arranged, but the kind you devised on your own once they were safely out of the house. Truth or dare and spin the bottle. Some combination of those two-only more sophisticated, of course, more suited to juniors in high school-would be ideal.

That was what had brought her to Eastman Avenue. She'd known perfectly well it wasn't the best neighborhood, but she'd figured that at least none of her friends would see her and find out about this last-minute scramble for entertainment. Jenny had gotten herself into this mess; she would get herself out of it.

Only now the mess was getting bigger than she'd bargained for.

She could definitely hear footsteps now. They sounded very close and were approaching quickly.

Jenny looked down Montevideo again, her mind taking in irrelevant details with obsessive precision. The record store wall was not truly blank after all. There was a mural on it, a mural of a street that looked much like Eastman Avenue before the riots. Strange-parts of the mural looked real. Like that storefront painted in the middle, the one with the sign Jenny couldn't quite make out. It had a door that looked real: The handle seemed three dimensional. In fact…

Startled, Jenny took a step toward it. The knob appeared to change shape as she moved, like any three-dimensional object. She looked more closely and found she could see the difference in texture between the wooden door and the painted concrete wall.

The door was real.

It couldn't be-but it was. There was a door stuck in the middle of the mural.

Why, Jenny didn't know. There wasn't time to wonder about it. Jenny needed to get off the street, and if this door was unlocked …

Impulsively she took hold of the knob.

It was cool as china and it turned in her hand. The door swung inward. Jenny could see a dimly lit room.

One instant of hesitation, then she stepped inside.

Just as she did, she consciously took in the sign above the door. It read: "More Games."

I here was a push-button lock on the inside doorknob, and Jenny depressed it. There were no windows looking out on Montevideo, of course, so she couldn't see whether the two guys had followed her. Still, she had a tremendous feeling of relief. No one was going to find her in here.

Then she thought, More Games? She had often seen signs reading "More Books" in the arty, shabby used bookstores around here, signs with an arrow pointing up a narrow staircase to another floor. But how could there be More Games when there hadn't been any games at all yet?

Just the fact that it happened to be a game store she'd stumbled onto was strange, but very convenient. She could do her shopping while she waited for the tough guys to go away. The owner would probably be glad to have her; with that mural camouflaging the door they couldn't do much business here.

As she looked around she saw just how strange the store really was. Even stranger than the usual odd shops around Eastman Avenue.

The room was lit by one small window and several old-fashioned lamps with stained-glass shades. There were shelves and tables and racks like any other store, but the objects on them were so exotic that Jenny felt as if she'd stepped into another world. Were they all games? They couldn't be. Jenny's mind filled suddenly with wild images from The Arabian Nights, images of foreign bazaars where anything-anything-might be sold. She stared around at the shelves in amazement.

God, what a weird chessboard. Triangular. Could anybody really play on a board like that? And there was another one, with strange, squat chessmen carved of rock crystal. It looked more than antique -it looked positively ancient.

So did a metalwork box covered with arabesques and inscriptions. It was made of brass or maybe bronze, decorated with gold and silver and Arabic writing. Whatever was in that box, Jenny knew she couldn't afford it.

Some of the games she could identify, like the mahogany mah-jongg table with ivory tiles spilled carelessly on the green felt top. Others, like a narrow enameled case crawling with hieroglyphics, and a red box embossed with a gold Star of David in a circle, she had never seen before. There were dice of every size and description: some twelve-sided, some shaped like pyramids, and some ordinary cubical ones made of odd materials. There were card decks fantastically colored like illuminated manuscripts.

Strangest of all, the weird antique things were intermixed with weird ultramodern things. A cork bulletin board on the back wall sported signs reading: "Flame." "Rant." "Rave." "Surf the Edge." "Cheap Thrills." Cyberpunk, Jenny thought, vaguely recognizing the terms. Maybe they sold computer games here, too. From a boom box on the counter came 120-beat-a-minute acid house music.

This, thought Jenny, is a very peculiar place.

It felt so-cut off-from everything outside. As if time didn't exist here, or ran differently somehow. Even the dusty sunlight slanting in that one window seemed wrong. Jenny would have sworn the light should have been coming from the other direction. A chill went through her.

You're mixed up, she told herself. Disoriented. And no wonder, after the day you've had-after the week you've had. Just concentrate on finding a game, if there's anything here that you can actually play.

There was another sign on the board, a sort of square:

W E L C

O M E T

O M Y W

O R L D

Jenny tilted her head, examining it. What did the letters say? Oh, of course, she had it now. Welcome…

"Can I help you?"

The voice spoke from right behind her. Jenny turned-and lost her breath.

Eyes. Blue eyes. Except that they weren't just blue, they were a shade Jenny couldn't describe. The only place she'd seen a blue like that was once when she'd happened to wake up at the precise instant of dawn. Then, between the window curtains, she'd glimpsed an unbelievable, luminous color, which had lasted only a second before fading to the ordinary blue of the sky.

No boy should have eyes as blue as that, and especially not surrounded by lashes so heavy they seemed to weigh his eyelids down. This boy had the most startling coloring she'd ever seen. His eyelashes were black, but his hair was white-true white, the color of frost or tendrils of mist. He was … well, beautiful. But in the most exotic, uncanny way imaginable, as if he'd just stepped in from another world. Jenny's reaction was instant, total, and absolutely terrifying. She forgot Tom's existence.

I didn't know people could look like that. Real people, I mean. Maybe he's not real. God, I've got to stop staring –

But she couldn't. She couldn't help herself. Those eyes were like the blue at the core of a flame. No-like a mile-deep lake set in a glacier. No …

The guy turned and went to the counter. The boom box clicked off. Silence roared in Jenny's ears.

"Can I help you?" he repeated, politely and indifferently.

Heat rose to Jenny's cheeks.

Ohmigod, what he must think of me.

The moment those eyes had turned away from her, she had come out of it, and now that he was farther away, she could look at him objectively. Not something from another world. Just a guy about her own age: lean, elegant, and with an unmistakable air of danger about him. His hair was white-blond, cropped close at the sides, long in back and so long over the forehead that it fell into his eyes. He was dressed all in black in a weird combination of cyberpunk and Byronic poet.

And he's still gorgeous, Jenny thought, but who cares? Honestly, you'd think I'd never seen a guy before. On Tom's birthday, too –

A flash of shame went through her. She'd better start her shopping or get out of here. The two alternatives seemed equally attractive-except that the tough guys might still be outside.

"I want to buy a game," she said, too loudly. "For a party-for my boyfriend."

He didn't even blink at the word boyfriend; in fact, he looked more laconic than ever. "Be my guest," he said. Then he seemed to rouse himself to make a sale. "Anything in particular?"

"Well…"

"How about Senet, the Egyptian Game of the Dead?" he said, nodding at the enameled case with the hieroglyphics. "Or the I-ching? Or maybe you'd like to cast the runes." He picked up a leather cup and shook it suggestively. There was a sound like rattling bones.

"No, nothing like that." Jenny was feeling distinctly unnerved. She couldn't put her finger on it, but something about this guy sent whispers of alarm through her blood. Maybe it was time to go.

"Well-there's always the ancient Tibetan game of goats and tigers." He gestured at a curiously carved bronze board with tiny figurines on it. "The fierce tigers, see, stalk the innocent little goats, and the innocent little goats try to run from the tigers. For two players."

"I-no." Was he making fun of her? There was something to the twist of his mouth that made Jenny think yes. With dignity she said, "I was looking for-just a game that a lot of people can play at once. Like Pictionary or Outburst," she added defiantly. "But since you don't seem to have anything like that in the store-"

"I see," he said. "That kind of game." Suddenly, looking at her sideways, he smiled. The smile unnerved Jenny more than anything yet.

Definitely time to go, she thought. She didn't care whether the tough guys were still outside. "Thank you," she said with automatic politeness, and she turned to the door.

"Mystery," he said. His voice caught Jenny halfway across the room. She hesitated in spite of herself. What on earth did he mean?

"Danger. Seduction. Fear." Jenny turned back to face him, staring. There was something almost mesmerizing about his voice-it was full of elemental music, like water running over rock. "Secrets revealed. Desires unveiled." He smiled at her and pronounced the last word distinctly: "Temptation."

"What are you talking about?" she said, tensed to hit him or run if he took one step toward her.

He didn't. His eyes were as innocently blue as Nordic fjords. "The Game, of course. That's what you want, isn't it? Something … very special."

Something very special.

Exactly what she'd thought herself.

"I think," she said slowly, "that I'd better-"

"We do have something like that in stock," he said.

Now's your chance, she told herself when he

disappeared through a door into the back room. You can just walk out of here. And she was going to leave, she was just about to go, when he appeared again.

"I think," he said, "that this is what you've been looking for."

She looked at what he was holding, then up at his face.

"You've got to be joking," she said.

The box was about the size and shape of a Monopoly game. It was white and glossy and there wasn't a single word, line, or figure printed on it.

A blank white box.

Jenny waited for the punch line.

There was something about it, though. The more she looked at that box, the more she felt…

"Could I see it?" she said. Touch it, was what she meant. For some reason she wanted to feel the weight of it in her hands, the sharpness of its corners in her palms. It was silly, but she did want to. She really wanted to.

The guy leaned back, tilting the box between his own hands, gazing at its glossy top. Jenny noticed that there wasn't a single fingerprint on the shiny finish, not so much as a smudge. She also noticed that his fingers were long and slender. And that he had a snake tattooed on his right wrist.

"Well…" he said. "I don't know. On second thought, I'm not sure I can sell it to you after all."

"Why not?"

"Because it really is special. Un-mundane. I can't let it go to just anybody, or for just any reason. Maybe if you explained what it was for… ."

Why, he's a tease, Jenny thought. Without in the least stopping being scared, or disturbed, or any of the other things she'd been since she'd come into this store, she started being amused as well. Wildly, inexplicably amused.

Maybe if I looked like him, was that gorgeous, I'd be a tease, too, she thought. She said seriously, "It's for a party tonight, for my boyfriend, Tom. He's seventeen today. Tomorrow night we'll have the big party-you know, with everybody invited, but tonight it's just our group. Our crowd."

He tilted his head to one side. Light flashed off the earring he was wearing-a dagger or a snake, Jenny couldn't tell which. "So?"

"So I need something for us to do. You can't just get seven people in a room, throw Doritos at them, and expect them to have a good time. I've screwed up massively by not getting organized until now-no real food, no decorations. And Tom-"

The guy tilted the box again. Jenny watched its surface turn milky, then bright, then milky again. It was almost hypnotic. "And Tom will care?" he said, as if not believing it.

Jenny felt defensive. "I don't know-he might be disappointed. He deserves better, you see," she added quickly. "He's-" Oh, how to explain Tom Locke? "He's-well, he's incredibly handsome, and by the end of this year he'll have lettered in three sports-"

"I get it."

"No, you don't," Jenny said, horrified. "He's not like that at all. Tom is wonderful. He's just-so wonderful that sometimes it takes a little keeping up with him. And we've been together forever, and I love him, and I have since second grade. Okay?" Anger gave her courage, and she advanced a step toward the guy. "He is absolutely the best boyfriend in the world, and anybody who says he isn't-"

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