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By Darren Shan
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 5, 2011. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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In the City, The Cardinal rules, and Al Jeery is a loyal member of his personal guard. But when Al is pulled from his duties at Party Central to investigate a murder, an unexpected discovery leads him in a new direction, where his loyalties and beliefs will be severely tested.
Soon he is involved in a terrifying mystery that draws in the dead, the City’s Incan forefathers, the imposing figure of The Cardinal, and the near-mythical assassin Paucar Wami.
Wami is a law unto himself, a shadowy, enigmatic figure who can apparently kill anyone he chooses without fear of punishment or retribution. And Al is about to find out that he has a lot more in common with Wami than he could ever have imagined…
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of City of the Snakes
"she's my girlfriend"
Bill reeled in his line and switched hooks. We'd been fishing since Friday and all we had to show for our efforts was an undernourished trout we'd have thrown back any other time.
"Reckon that'll change our luck?" I asked.
"Probably not," Bill sighed, tugging at the collar of his jacket. He wasn't enjoying himself. I was happy to sit and chill, but Bill was a demanding angler and grew impatient when things weren't going his way. "I told you it was the wrong time of year."
"Quit moaning," I retorted. "What else would you be doing? Reading or fiddling with fireworks in your cellar. At least here we can enjoy the fresh air."
"Long way to come for that," Bill grumbled.
"There's the view too," I noted, nodding downstream at the trees and fields. In the distance we could see the hump of the city's skyline, but it didn't distract too much from the beauty of the open countryside.
Bill's expression softened. "Know what we should do? Build a shack and move out. Fish from dusk till dawn."
"Sounds good to me, Huck Finn."
Bill smiled and jiggled his line. "We should do it."
"I'm with you all the way."
He sighed. "But we won't, will we?"
"Nope." He looked so miserable, I had to laugh. "We're city boys. We wouldn't last pissing time living wild."
"Speak for yourself," he snorted, but he knew I was right. Bill thrived on city life. Take him away from the metropolitan buzz and he'd shrivel up and die.
We were silent awhile, thinking about the lure of the simple country life. Then Bill spoiled it all. "How's The Cardinal?"
"You know I don't see much of him," I muttered.
"It's not too late to get out," he said. "There's plenty of security jobs going. A man with your experience could make a—"
He cocked an eyebrow at me. "Conscience pricking you, Al?"
"We've been through this before. I like what I do. I'm not gonna quit."
"What if you're asked to kill a man one day?"
I sighed and stared into the cool night water.
"Maybe you've already been asked," Bill said softly.
I maintained my silence.
"Have you killed for that monster, Al?"
I looked over at him. "You really want to know?"
Bill chewed his lower lip, studied my face and shook his head. "No. Guess I don't."
Bill was a cop. I worked for a gangster. Our friendship eased along nicely so long as we didn't discuss work. He'd only raised the subject now because it had been a long weekend and he was irritable.
I checked my watch. "Monday morning beckons. We'll have to be on our way soon if you want to beat the rush."
"I should have taken the day off like you." Bill sounded regretful. He reeled in his line and began dismantling his rod. Stood and gazed off at the city, then said, "Fog's up."
I squinted and saw banks of thick green fog billowing over the roofs of the city like a dome. The city was famous for its mysterious green fog, which blew up at random and made a mockery of meteorology.
"Great," I groaned. "That adds a couple of hours to our journey."
"Roads are fairly quiet this time," Bill said. "Shouldn't delay us too long. Want me to drive?"
"You drove coming. My turn going back."
"I know, but it's my car—I don't want you wrapping it around a tree. I'll take the wheel if you'd prefer."
I shook my head. "I don't mind."
"In that case, I'll treat myself to another beer."
While Bill was cracking open a can, I began tidying everything away. It didn't take long. I asked if he wanted the trout but he said I could take it. I put it on ice and loaded it along with the gear.
I looked at the distant city again, which had all but disappeared under the fog. A stranger to these parts might have missed it altogether, mistaken it for a shrouded lake.
"Looks like it's down to stay," I noted.
"Yeah," Bill agreed, rolling up a sleeping bag and sticking it in the back of the car. "Could be a bad one."
I hit bed as soon as I got back. Since I'd booked the day off to make a long weekend of it, I left the alarm off and slept in late, a luxury I rarely enjoyed. I woke about twelve and spent the next hour propped up on the pillows, listening to the sounds of the street outside. It wasn't as busy as normal—the fog kept a lot of people inside.
I turned on the radio. A DJ was talking to a woman with piles. She was sick of the attached stigma. She wanted to build a society where people could discuss such matters openly, without fear of embarrassment. The DJ was on her side and invited listeners to call in with their own—as he elegantly put it—piles files.
I surfed the airwaves. Found a couple of politicians arguing about the fog. One wanted to know why more wasn't being done to make life easier for the citizens during times of siege. He wanted extra-strong streetlights, emergency buses and trains, home delivery services for the elderly and single mothers.
I didn't stick around for the counterargument. I'd heard it all before. You got these idiots on the radio every time the fog rolled in. If I kept on searching, I'd find a thin-voiced professor of whatever explaining how the fog formed, how long we could expect it to last, what the authorities should be doing to prevent future upsets.
I switched off and went to the bathroom. Drank some water, dug out a good book, switched on my reading lamp and sat down for a couple of hours of glamorous molls and steel-eyed heroes.
Early afternoon, I rang Ellen.
"What's up?" she asked.
"Just checking if tonight's still on." We'd made arrangements to go for dinner together. The Golden Moon—I'd blow most of the week's wages there, but Ellen was worth it.
"Why wouldn't it be?" she snapped.
"You've been busy lately. I thought you might want to beg off."
"I have been busy but I'm no slave. I'll make it. Meet you there at nine?"
"Nine," I agreed and she hung up.
I called Nic next. She'd wanted to come on the fishing trip. Got in a huff when I told her it was guys only. I wanted to make things right but there was no answer. I let it ring till her voice mail cut in, then severed the connection—I hate leaving messages.
I took the trout out of the fridge, stared at it and sighed. It seemed a waste of time, going to all the effort of cleaning and cooking a pissant fish like this. But I didn't want to throw it away—I wasn't raised to dump good food. So I set to work.
As I was cutting off its head, I realized there was something in the trout's mouth. Prying its jaws apart, I discovered a black ball. I dug it out, wiped it clean and held it up to the light. It was a pure black marble, with two golden worm-like squiggles down the sides. Puzzled—how had the trout taken the bait when its mouth was stuffed?—I laid it on a shelf over the bread bin and got on with the cooking.
A few hours later, in the smart-casual clothes I kept at the back of my tiny wardrobe for special occasions, I hailed a cab and went to meet Ellen, my recently decreed ex-wife.
The fog had started to clear, sooner than expected, so the cab made good time and I arrived early. I waited for Ellen in the lobby of the Golden Moon, which was a favorite restaurant of ours. The prices had escalated sharply since our courting days, but little else had changed. It was one of the few physical links we had to our happier past.
Ellen arrived promptly at nine, looking her elegant best. She kissed my cheeks and gave me a hug. The eyes of the other men in the lobby were tinged with green. That was the great thing about dining with her in places like this—I might be shabby as a sheep in the run-up to shearing, but I still had the most beautiful woman in the city clinging to my arm.
"You could have worn a suit," she said critically as she let go of me.
"If I wore a suit, next thing I'd have to start shaving regularly, washing daily and changing my underwear once a week."
"Horror of horrors." She smiled, straightening my tie. "Did I buy you that shirt?"
"Probably." It was a dark purple satin number. Of course she'd bought it—I despised the damn thing and wouldn't have worn it otherwise.
"Suits you," she murmured, then we headed up. A curt waiter directed us to our table. We ordered before sitting, without looking at the menu. In the old days there'd have been two or three bottles of wine to accompany the meal, but tonight we shared a bottle of mineral water instead.
"Any luck with the fishing?" she asked.
"Don't ask," I groaned.
We discussed work—mostly Ellen's, since she never enjoyed hearing about the Troops—and old friends. Not a word about my alcoholic past or all the times I'd let her down. Ellen wasn't bitter or vindictive that way.
It was my fault the marriage didn't work. I was an asshole. Got too involved with work. Spent endless nights out drinking with the boys. Slept around. Treated Ellen like a cheap accessory. She didn't need that shit. She was a beautiful, intelligent, career-minded woman who could have had her pick of men. She chose me when I was young and passionate, prepared to listen to what she was saying and be there for her. When I hit the bottle and acted like a prick, she dumped me, the way any sane woman would.
The food arrived and we tucked in. We'd always shared a healthy appetite, so neither of us said much till the plates had been cleared.
I glanced around the restaurant, noting how few of my own race were present. The city opens its doors to people of all colors and creeds, but if you don't think there's a wide dividing line between whites and blacks, you're living in a dream world. In the Golden Moon—a place of money and style—I stood out like a drag queen in a church choir.
"What's the special occasion?" Ellen asked, burping lightly.
"Nothing. Just fancied a night out with the woman of my dreams."
"Don't bullshit me, Jeery," she snorted. "I know how that mind of yours works—you don't do nothing without a reason." The double negative was an old joke between us. "Last time you invited me out on a date was the day our divorce went through. Need money? Representation?" She worked for a law firm, one of the best in the city.
"You know I wouldn't come to you for that," I said, upset that she'd think such a thing.
"I was joking," she said, covering my big black knuckles with her small white fingers. "Don't go getting precious on me, Al."
I smiled, turned my hands around and tickled her palms the way she liked. "Know what day it is?"
"Six months since the divorce was finalized."
She frowned and calculated. "That was a Friday, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, but the date's the same."
She shrugged. "If you say so. That makes this… what… a semi-anniversary?"
"Yeah. I tried not to dwell on it, but the date got stuck in my mind and I felt we should commemorate it."
"You're a strange guy, Jeery."
"Only figured that out now?"
"This isn't a ploy to win your way back into my good books, is it?" she asked suspiciously.
"You mean get you drunk, harp on about the good old days and hope it leads to your place and a roll in the hay?" She nodded. "Absolutely." I raised my glass of mineral water and clinked it against hers. "Drink up—a couple more of these and we'll be flying."
"To flying," she smirked.
We lingered over dessert, reviewing the past six months. We'd been separated nearly two years by the time of the divorce, so it wasn't as if we were raw from the rift. I'd straightened myself out and Ellen had forgiven me long before one of her colleagues drew the final legal line between us.
"Find a woman yet?" Ellen asked as the meal drew to a close.
"No one could replace you," I said, giving her the doe-eyed treatment. She tossed her napkin at me.
I thought of Nic and smiled. "I've been getting some action. Nothing meaningful. You?"
She sighed. "The only men who chase me these days are married, middle-aged lawyers who think I'm easy because I'm a divorcée. It's becoming a struggle just to get laid."
The waiter brought the bill and I settled up, trying not to stare at the figure at the bottom. Ellen offered to go halves but I waved her money away. I hadn't treated her much the last few years of our marriage. I owed her a meal or two.
"Where are you off to now?" she asked.
"Back to the apartment."
"Ali still working downstairs?" I nodded. "Tell him I'll be by one of these days for a bagel." As newlyweds we'd lived in the apartment block that I'd returned to following the dissolution of our marriage. We'd shared some good times there, poor as we'd been.
"I'll pay for the cab," Ellen said as one pulled up in answer to her hail.
"That's OK," I told her. "I'm walking."
"You sure? The fog's still pretty strong in places. You might get mowed down."
"I'll take my chances." I kissed her cheeks. "See you, Ellen."
"Soon," she said. "You don't need to wait for special occasions to call. Get it?"
We smiled, then parted. I watched the cab disappear into the fog, then went for a walk. Back home I collected the marble from the kitchen and took it to bed. I studied it for ages, running my fingers along the streaks of gold. I fell asleep with it in the palm of my left hand, but when I woke in the morning it was gone, and although I searched all over, I couldn't find it anywhere. It seemed as if it had been lost to the shades of the night.
Tuesday morning. Back to work.
I cycled to Shankar's for breakfast. One of the perks of working for The Cardinal—free meals at Shankar's. I wasn't a regular—most mornings I grabbed a bagel from Ali or a sandwich at work—but I liked to pop by a few times a week.
I parked out back. My bike was my only means of transport. I cycled everywhere, unless on a job with the Troops. I started using it when I got busted for drunk driving some years ago. Enjoyed it so much, I stuck with it even when I got my license back.
Shankar's was a huge, open-plan, two-story structure (the upper floor was made out of glass) but barrenly decorated. Leonora Shankar was a famed minimalist.
I spotted a flock of Troops gathered by a table near the door and slotted in. Jerry and Mike were the only ones from my shift but I knew the rest of them. Most members of The Cardinal's personal army got to know each other over the years. There weren't that many of us, and we were all bound to the city, so we were a close-knit group.
"Back from vacation," Jerry noted, welcoming me with a raise of his mug. That led to questions about where I'd been, and I spent a pleasant quarter of an hour describing my fishing trip.
"Wish I could get up there," a sad-eyed guy called Oisin remarked. "I've been working weekends since New Year's. Going up midweek ain't the same."
"Switch shifts," somebody told him.
"No point. The wife works weekends too. If I took a weekend off without her, she'd think I was doing the dirty."
"Women don't understand fishing," Mike agreed. "I went when I was younger. Every time I came back, my girl went through my stuff, looking for evidence. Got sick of it in the end, gave up the fishing. Should have given up her."
We all muttered and spent a few silent seconds reflecting on the ways of women. My coffee and toast arrived and I tucked in. I always started the day on a light meal.
"Anything happen while I was away?" I asked.
"A couple of new boys started," Jerry informed me. "Been showing them the ropes."
"Tasso and Weld are at it again," Mike added. Ford Tasso was The Cardinal's right-hand man. Used to be commanding officer of the Troops. Frank Weld replaced him several years ago but Tasso continued to think of the Troops as "his men" and was constantly criticizing Frank's handling of them. I had sympathy for Frank but I liked Tasso and had to admit that life had been more interesting when he was head honcho.
"What's it this time?" I asked.
"Some broad was killed in the Skylight last Friday," Jerry told me. "Wasn't authorized. The Cardinal's furious. He chewed out Tasso, and Tasso chewed out Frank. The two have been screaming at each other all weekend. Tasso's saying nobody would have gotten past the Troops when he was in charge. Frank's going on again about the security arrangements at the Skylight."
Frank had been looking to upgrade security at the Skylight since he took over from Tasso. It was one of The Cardinal's key establishments, where many of his staff and clients stayed when in town. But unlike Party Central—which was pretty much impregnable—it was poorly guarded. The Cardinal liked it that way—it made his guests feel more relaxed—but Frank, who took the flak whenever anything went wrong, hated the setup.
"Guess he'll be bitching at us all week," I sighed.
"We've already had a day of it," Jerry said. "Yesterday will go down as one of the biggest pain-in-the-ass Mondays in history. You were lucky you missed it."
"Yeah," Mike said, checking his watch and drinking up, "but it'll be even worse if we're late today. Slightest excuse, he'll be on our case. Let's split."
"But we've half an hour yet," I protested.
"You think Frank will give a shit?" Mike replied. "I was ten minutes early yesterday and almost got my marching orders."
"Great to be back," I grumbled, finished my coffee and grabbed the last slice of toast. "OK if I stick my bike in the back of the van and come with you guys?"
Jerry's got a soft spot for his van and normally vetoes such requests. But he took pity on me this once and helped me load it in, making sure I didn't scratch the paint.
Frank spotted us entering and made a production of checking the clock in the downstairs locker room of Party Central. We were a good eighteen minutes ahead of schedule.
"Come in this time again," he growled, "and it'll be to pick up your personals."
While Frank stormed out to berate latecomers, we got into uniform. Dark blue pants and jacket, light blue shirt (a similarly shaded sweater for cooler seasons). Green-blue beret. Black shin-length boots. No tie, thank God. I had three uniforms, which I kept spotlessly clean. Ford Tasso hadn't paid much attention but Frank was big on presentation. Rightfully so. It was different in the old days, when the Troops were an illegal band of thugs. The Cardinal had grown in stature and we were a city-approved force now, with all the trappings of respectability. We even got the occasional tourist stopping by Party Central to check us out. We worked for a gangster, sure, but we were one of the public faces of his organization, and as such we had to present a smart, professional front.
Jerry studied the shine of his boots, shook his head and started working up a mouthful of spit. Mine were OK so I headed up a flight of stairs to one of the building's many conference rooms, where my duties for the day would be posted.
The room was half-full of soldiers, some coming on watch like me, some going off, some on their break. I found my name on the bulletin board and scanned to the right. Front door till lunch, yard patrol in the afternoon. That meant a rifle. Damn. I hated any weapon that required more than a single hand to operate.
I signed for the Kalashnikov—a throwback to Tasso's time—and a pretty young girl called Anra handed it over.
"Missed you yesterday," she said.
"Vacation," I explained.
"You on for some overtime this week?" she asked.
"What suits you?"
"Tonight and tomorrow. I'll see after that."
Overtime was never a problem in the Troops. I'd been putting in a lot of extra hours the last year or so. Nothing better to do with my time. Besides, keeping busy made it easier to stay off the bottle. Back when Ellen and I split, I hit it hard. Almost got drummed out of the Troops. Sunk about as low as you can get without going under, before Bill pulled me out of the slump.
I spent the early part of the day out front of Party Central with nine other Troops and a couple of red-suited doormen. We were the first line of defense. We looked pretty lifeless to the hordes of people passing in and out, as if we were only there for show, but we were on constant alert, observing all who entered, ready to open fire at the first sniff of a threat. We weren't on the lookout for weapons—the X-ray machines would pinpoint those—but telltale facial expressions and tics. Our job was to spot people who didn't belong.
Each of us had spent years studying the art of body language. You didn't simply join the Troops and go on watch at Party Central. There was a six-month induction period, followed by five years in various branches and posts. Only then, if deemed worthy, were you introduced to the Party Central setup. A couple of months patroling the middle floors of the building, where you couldn't do too much harm, then a gradual drift toward ground level. Several months pounding the beat in the rear yard, eventually moving out to guard the fences, and finally the front of the building and the lobby, where only the best were placed.
An unofficial extra requirement for front-line Troops was that they'd drawn blood during their tenure. All of the ten guards on duty had killed at least once in the name of The Cardinal.
I'd killed three times. The first was a butcher, after a mere eleven months in the service. He hadn't been scheduled for execution. I'd gone around to his shop with a couple of more experienced Troops to squeeze protection money out of him. He was a stubborn, foolish old man. Lost his head. Let swing with a thigh-length blade. My colleagues ducked. That left me with a clear shot. I drew, took aim and—as he raised the knife high and roared like a bull—put four bullets through the center of his forehead, neat as you please.
It was a month before they let me back into uniform. A month of psychiatric analysis. I didn't think that was necessary—as I kept telling them, I didn't enjoy killing but wasn't afraid of it—but this was back when The Cardinal was fighting to have the Troops legalized. We were in the public eye, a topic of hot debate, and a lot of people claimed we were no better than hired assassins. Tasso and his administrators had to play things cautiously. Hence the kid-glove treatment.
It was four years until I killed again, in a free-for-all shoot-'em-up with Russian mafia muscling in on The Cardinal's territory. A hundred of us against thirty Ivans. The fighting raged through an apartment block they'd annexed. I was part of the third phalanx of Troops sent in. Ran up against a teenager in a dark, smoky hallway. He had a sock filled with coins and stones. I had a dagger that could have slit a bear's chest open.
I started at Party Central a couple of weeks after that.
The third was three years ago. A crooked cop. It was the first time I'd been specifically sent to kill. I broke into his home while he was out. Gagged and tied up his wife and kid. Stood behind his bedroom door when I heard him entering downstairs. When he came in, I stepped out and put the lips of my gun to the back of his head.
I nearly quit the Troops after that. It wasn't the killing that got to me, but his status. He could just as easily have been a straight cop. Could have been Bill. You don't make choices when you're in the Troops—you go where told, shoot when ordered. I'd always known I might one day cross swords with Bill, but I only seriously contemplated the possibility after my run-in with the cop.
I came close to packing it in. Life would have been so different if I had. I might have patched things up with Ellen. I won't say the job's what came between us, but it didn't help. If I'd found legitimate employment and spent more time working on my marriage than polishing my guns…
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2011
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing