The Cage(11)

“If it is a psychological experiment,” Rolf said, “then they won’t tell us their purpose. It would skew whatever data they’re trying to collect. But there’s something else we need to think about. Every experiment has a control. A test subject who isn’t being manipulated, so they can ensure accurate results. Someone on the inside. A mole. Which means the more pressing question is . . . how can we trust each other?”

Everyone went silent. Both Cora and Leon rubbed their heads like their headaches were only getting worse. Rolf realized his mistake too late. He hadn’t meant to sow seeds of doubt; it had been a perfectly reasonable line of thought. But now he could practically hear the sound of their shifting eyes evaluating each other. He glanced at Nok—a girl who needed him. And Lucky—who had defended him. Had he already ruined his chances for some friends?


Next time he’d just study the Calendula officinalis and keep his mouth shut.


HarperCollins Publishers




“A SNITCH?” CORA’S VOICE cut through the silence.

Nok was clutching her scalp, sobbing again. Even Leon, who acted so tough, paced over the peppermints, crushing them into a sticky mess. Cora could feel their panic—it beat in time with her own. But panic wouldn’t help this situation.

She looked at her reflection the black window, forcing the tight muscles in her face to ease—her clenched jaw, her wrinkled forehead—until she looked calm on the outside. It was something she’d had plenty of practice with.

At a political rally for her father outside of Virginia Beach, long before the divorce, someone had called in a bomb threat. The security guards had whisked her away to a tent. Her father had come an hour later, unharmed, and wiped the tears from her eyes. “A Mason never lets the world see her cry,” he had said. “No matter how scared she is, she smiles.”

Cora couldn’t quite bring herself to smile now, but she at least kept her voice steady. “None of us are snitches,” she said.

“Oh, yeah?” Leon asked. “How many run-ins has a pretty girl like you had with snitches?”

Cora turned away from her reflection. “I’m just saying that we shouldn’t turn against each other five minutes after we’ve met. We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t even know what’s in the other shops.”

Lucky pushed off from the counter. “You’re right. But we should find out.”

Cora met his eyes. Stay in one place, the voice of her father’s guard whispered—but it didn’t look like help was coming.

She gave a nod.

One by one, they filed into the arcade, which was nearly identical in layout to the toy store: a glass counter to one side, a black window, and arcade games lining the opposite wall. It was dark inside, with flashing lights that Cora had to squint into, and sounds that took her back to the arcade in Richmond that she’d loved as a girl. After school, her mother would drop her off at the mall with a few girlfriends, and while they shopped for cheap earrings, she’d play the claw game with the bored mall cop.

She reached for her necklace, forgetting it wasn’t there.

“Looks like you were right, Rolf,” Lucky said, motioning to the glass counter, which had a copper slot for tokens and contained a circulating ring of brightly colored prizes: a guitar, a boomerang, a small red radio that Cora wondered if they could rewire to send a distress signal. “All the video games are puzzles. Must be testing our hand-eye coordination or something.”

They went to the beauty salon next, which was styled in gaudy French decor. Nok collapsed in one of the chairs, rubbing the velvet cushions. “Swanky.”

Cora eyed her sidelong. For a famous model, she had awful taste.

Lucky scratched his neck. “So where’s the puzzle?”

Rolf’s fingers were twitching against his legs, his gaze going from the photographs on the wall to the floor. Cora leaned in. “You know, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I was . . . going to give you all the opportunity to figure it out. Look at the photographs on the wall. They’re pairs. It’s a matching game.” He flipped the photographs to matching pairs, and a token rolled down a metal trough built into the counter, identical to the one in all the other shops. He stuck the token into an identical slot in the countertop, and a jar of red nail polish tumbled onto the floor. Nok poked the bottle with her toe like it might bite. When it didn’t, she slipped it into her pocket, despite the odd looks from the others.

Megan Shepherd's Books