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Home > The Cage (The Cage #1)(8)

The Cage (The Cage #1)(8)
Author: Megan Shepherd

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.

“What? It’s my favorite color.”

On the wall, the photographs reset themselves mechanically into a different set of images. Now they were famous sites of the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, along with outlines of various countries. Cora’s head was still foggy, but she touched the closest painting, the Eiffel Tower, and spun the one below it until she got to France.

Tokens rained out of the slot.

Rolf hurried over. “Ten tokens?” He blinked too fast. “That doesn’t make any sense. If anything, the game I solved was harder, but I only got one.” His blue-green eyes blinked in confusion.

Cora rubbed her eyes. “I don’t want them—you guys take them.”

“I’ve got all the nail polish I need, sweetheart,” Leon said.

Rolf ran his fingers over the tokens, comparing them to the one he had won. “It just doesn’t make any sense. It counters the philosophy behind conditioned responses. The most effective way to reinforce a lab rat’s behavior is through random rewards. For example, if a rat runs a maze ten times, you only reward it six out of the ten times. The uncertainty makes the rat focus harder.” Rolf frowned at Cora’s pile of tokens, versus his meager one. “But with a system of random rewards, you still have to be consistent from rat to rat. Even rats sense unfairness. It causes them to get extremely frustrated.”

“Maybe the people put us here aren’t scientists,” Lucky said. “They could just be twisted. This could be some sick kind of torture.”

Everyone was quiet. Cora eyed Lucky carefully, from the way he habitually popped his knuckles like they ached him, to the small scar on his chin. What had happened to him, to make his mind go to such a dark place?

“Don’t think like that,” she said. “At least not yet. Come on.”

The group filed back outside.

Cora shaded her eyes, looking down the row of buildings. “All the rest of the shops—”

“Hang on.” Nok cocked her head, pink streak of hair falling in her face. “Do you hear that?”

At first Cora heard nothing, but then faint notes reached her ears. A song. It sounded like recorded music, old-fashioned, that made her think of crooners dressed in tuxedos. Then the lyrics began.

A stranger in my own life . . .

It was coming from one of the shops. The diner. Lucky started toward it, but Cora clamped her hand onto his.

“Wait,” she whispered.

A ghost behind my smile . . .

A coldness started somewhere at the base of her skull and spread. The memory returned of riding in Charlie’s car, wanting so badly to reach that resort where their parents waited for them, her crumpled notebook in her lap, making up lyrics. Those lyrics. The same ones playing now. She whirled toward the source of the music with a feeling like the world was spinning just a little too fast.

Not at home in paradise . . .

Not at home in hell . . .

A sign flashed above the diner: THE GREASY FORK. It flashed again and again, beckoning them.

“Hey, you okay?” Lucky asked.

“This song.” Her voice came out hoarse. “These lyrics. They’re . . . mine.”

8

Cora

VERTIGO HIT CORA AS if the past and present were intertwining.

“You mean . . . you know this song?” Lucky asked.

She shook her head. “You don’t understand. I wrote these lyrics. It was the last thing I was doing before I woke up here. Someone must have stolen my notebook, hired a singer, and recorded the song. That’s so elaborate. Why would anyone do that?”

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