It was his breathing that she noticed first: the hoarse, ragged wheezing of someone who has been running hard. Which was odd, as the crowd hadn't moved more than five paces in the last ten minutes. Two escalators were down at the Piccadilly Circus tube station, and at half past nine on a Friday night, the station was at a rowdy, jostling standstill.
"Oi, mate, shoving won't get you nowhere, all right?" said a woman ahead as they moved another inch toward the foot of the motionless escalator. The man slid his eyes toward Cat, as if in appeal, but she had her London face ready--blank and impenetrable. He was just a nondescript middle-aged guy in a suit, but that didn't mean anything. You met all sorts of nut jobs on the Tube. "Please," he wheezed to no one in particular. "Please." He closed his eyes and she caught the scent of his sweat. Must be claustrophobic, she decided.
At last they shuffled onto the escalator, their pace gaining momentum as people spilled off it toward the ticket barriers. With a whimper of relief, Heavy Breather pushed past her and was gone. She would have soon forgotten him if it hadn't been for a snatch of conversation she overheard a few minutes later. Two men and a woman, in dark clothes, lean and purposeful, had come out of the east exit. "He must have gone this way," said the woman. "It won't take long," said one of her companions. They set off up Regent Street, weaving through the crowds with practiced ease.
They're after that man, Cat thought, and though it was just a hunch, somehow she knew it was true. Perhaps he was a criminal, or perhaps his pursuers were.
It had nothing to do with her.
Cat went down Shaftesbury Avenue, turning left at Great Windmill Street and into Soho. Five minutes later she was letting herself into the flat. It was, as usual, dark and empty, although Bel had left a note on the kitchen table. Bel worked as a croupier at the local casino, which sounded a lot more glamorous than it was. From the kitchen window, Cat could look across the street to the windows of the gaming floor, blacked out so that gamblers would lose track of time. A neon sign fizzed below: Palais Luxe, it said, in acid pink. Palace de Crud, said Bel.
Bel was Cat's mum's sister, though she had never called her Auntie, and certainly not Aunt. She was always just Bel, like the owner of a saloon bar in some corny old Western. She looked the part, too, with her big red mouth and big red hair and a confident swagger. She'd only been nineteen when her elder sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car crash, leaving behind a child of three, but Bel hadn't hesitated. Cat was fifteen now and more Bel's than ever. Theirs was a partnership against the world.
"Mind--you'll always be an orphan," she'd say, squinting at Cat shrewdly, "and don't you forget it. People like a bit of tragedy. Adds color." When Cat was younger, Bel wasn't above improving on this "color." Her eyes would moisten, bosom heave, and she'd be off: "Struck dumb for a whole year afterward, poor mite. Even now, she'll wake screaming in the night--doctors say she'll never get over it. . . ." This was Cat's cue to look frail and interesting. All sorts of useful things followed, from hefty discounts to extra helpings.
Bel wasn't truly feckless, though, just footloose. They'd moved three times in the last five years, much more before that, keeping to small to middling-sized places, where it was possible for Bel to make the most of herself, and for Cat to stay in the background as she preferred. Then Bel met Greg. Greg, who told her he worked in a big London club and had a loft they could rent in the West End. "A third-rate casino, more like," she reported the night she got back from checking it out, "and a tiny Soho flat. But I tell you what, puss-cat, London's a town where anything could happen." Three weeks later they were there.
So perhaps Bel was a romantic; perhaps London was the destination she'd been rehearsing all those other arrivals for. Her big adventure. It might have been the same for Cat. Her eyes were as cool and watchful as Bel's, her mouth just as stubborn. But in London, Cat's self-sufficiency had deserted her. There was just too much, of everything, always shifting and changing, everything for sale or rent or served hot. Even being invisible here was exhausting.
As autumn turned to winter, she headed for the Underground, where she sat tight on the Circle line, going round and round. There was no need to think or move in the endless looping tunnels. It felt like she was keeping the city at bay at last. Tonight it had taken three circuits before she changed lines for home, and that was only because she needed to pee.
Cat scowled at her reflection in the window above the sink. Thin, pale face; ragged black hair. "Nothing but a poor orphan child!" she mocked aloud, using Bel's voice. A poor, starving orphan, she amended. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Game of Triumphs by Laura Powell. Copyright © 2011 by Laura Powell. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.