Authors: Jennifer Estep
No, I examined the wounds as an assassin, as the Spider. Cold. Clinical. Detached. Determined to learn what I could from them.
And I found something. The elemental who’d burned Fletcher was a woman, someone with slender, delicate hands, judging from the dainty size of the fist over Fletcher’s heart. I balled up my own hand in comparison. Hers was smaller.
The fact that a woman had tortured Fletcher didn’t surprise me. I’d learned long ago the fairer sex was much more vicious than men—and much more patient. This one, this sadistic bitch … she’d reveled in torturing Fletcher. In using her magic to hurt him. In slowly flaying him alive. In hearing him scream for mercy until his throat was as red as his raw skin.
And she was going to pay for it. More than she’d ever fucking imagined.
Whatever else happened tonight, whether Finn was dead or alive, I wasn’t running. Not from this. Not from her. I wasn’t skipping town and lying low in some foreign country for a while. Ashland might not be the most pleasant place, but it was home. More importantly, the Pork Pit was home, as crazy as that sounded. I wasn’t leaving it behind. Not like this. Not with Fletcher’s blood covering the floor like a fresh coat of wax.
I held my breath, waiting for Fletcher to turn his head, open his dull green eyes, and grouse at me for keeping him waiting. But he didn’t do that. And he never would again.
The bitch who’d done this was going to pay for that.
I needed to go. Needed to move. Needed to get to Finn, if it wasn’t already too late. But I couldn’t tear myself away from Fletcher’s body.
He was the one who’d taken me in off the streets when I’d had nowhere else to go. Who’d rescued me from fighting the rats for garbage to eat. Saved me from selling my body to the vampire pimps. Taught me how to be strong. Showed me how to survive—and live with what I had to do to stay that way.
As I crouched there over Fletcher’s bloody body, a faint scuffle sounded. A slight, scraping noise that intruded upon my grief. More than enough to snap my cold, calm control back into place. A shadow fell over the pools of Fletcher’s drying blood, turning the crimson puddles an inky black.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
My fingers tightened around the knife in my hand. I turned and whirled it at the man behind me. The metal flashed through the air and sank into his right arm. He howled in pain and lunged at me, slashing with a switchblade. I sidestepped his clumsy, awkward blow. Using his own momentum, I shoved the man forward. He crashed into the counter and fell to the floor. I leaped on him and knocked the blade out of his hand. I straddled the man, crushing his ribs between my knees.
I didn’t care about the wound throbbing in my shoulder or the burning nick on my arm. Didn’t think about the cold that just wouldn’t leave my body or the exhaustion slowing my movements. I just hit him—over and over and over, smashing my tight knuckles into his face until the skin on my hands broke and bled.
It felt good to hurt him. So fucking
The man moaned and mumbled with pain. I forced myself to stop before I killed him. Not yet. I drew in a ragged breath. The metallic scent of his blood pooled in my mouth like saliva, making me hunger for more. I yanked my knife out of the man’s arm. He snarled. I leaned forward and pressed my forearm against his throat, cutting off his oxygen.
I brought the bloody tip up where he could see it. “You will tell me everything that happened in this room tonight. You will tell me who you’re working for, what her plans are. You will tell me anything I want to know and be glad to do it.”
“And why … is that … bitch?” the man spat out.
I leaned forward until my gray eyes were directly over his.
“Because the first cut won’t kill you,” I said in a calm, dead voice. “Nor the second, nor the third, nor even the tenth. But you will wish to all the spirits you pray to that they had.”
I didn’t get a specific name or much useful information out of him. I was too angry and in too much of a hurry to use the finesse needed for those sorts of things. Besides, he was just the help, dispatched to do one final check to see if I’d show up at the restaurant. He’d seen the open back door and followed me inside. But the man confirmed my suspicion—Finnegan was next. Which meant I had to move if I had any hope of saving him.
As much as it hurt, I left Fletcher’s body where it was behind the counter. Sophia Deveraux, the dwarven cook who came in early every morning to bake the sourdough bread for the day’s sandwiches, would find Fletcher. She’d call the cops. Given the debris and overturned cash register, the police would think it was a robbery gone wrong. That’s what they thought every crime was in Ashland. Fletcher would be just another statistic, another case file, another unsolved murder among hundreds every year.
Before I left the restaurant, I washed the blood off my hands and face, along with my tears. I also dragged the dead man’s body to the cold storage room and dumped him in one of the empty freezers. I taped a pink sticky note to the top of the appliance to catch Sophia’s eye. She’d know what to do with the body. The dwarf was Fletcher’s go-to gal for disposal work.
I reached behind a different freezer and pulled out a black duffel bag, one of several I had stashed in various spots throughout the city. Money, cell phones, credit cards, weapons, fake IDs, makeup, a few clothes. Everything I needed to make a quick getaway, change my appearance, or do an unexpected, dirty job.
I stepped back into the front of the restaurant and crouched beside Fletcher. A few more tears gathered in my eyes as I looked at his still, brutalized form. I let the stinging, salty wetness trickle down my face. There wasn’t time to properly mourn Fletcher, to let myself grieve. The time to do that would come later—when the bitch who’d killed him was as dead as he was.
Cold comfort. Because no matter what I did to her, no matter how much I tortured her, no matter how slowly I killed her, it wouldn’t bring Fletcher back. Nothing would do that.
“Good-bye, Fletcher.” My voice cracked on the words.
A tear dripped off my cheek and mixed with the blood and burns on his face. I straightened and wiped the rest of the moisture away, composing myself once more. Then I smashed the glass and lock on the front door, stepped outside, and walked away.
It took me twenty minutes to reach Finnegan Lane’s place. Like me, Finn lived in an apartment building near the restaurant. Except his place made mine look like a hobo’s wet cardboard box. The metal behemoth towered twelve stories into the air, topped by an elegant spire, like it was a real skyscraper instead of a piss-poor southern substitute.
I headed around to the side entrance for the tenants, tastefully hidden behind two tall magnolia trees. A minute and two Ice picks later, the door opened, and I slid inside. Despite the late hour, folks still prowled the halls, as the businesspeople who lived in the building brought their nightly conquests back for a few more drinks and some alcohol-fueled fumbling and fucking in the dark.
I got into one of the elevators on its way up. A man in his eighties wearing a rumpled tux and a shaggy toupee slobbered on the ear of a blond hooker, while another rubbed his burgeoning crotch. A third girl, a brunette, stood off to the side, not involved or not caring to become so in the ménage à trois. Four really was a crowd.
The two hookers gave me a hard stare. Their red lips drew back, and they flashed their fangs at me. Vampires. Upscale ones, from the pearl white color of their pointed teeth. But when they realized I wasn’t horning in on their action, they went back to telling the old guy how much they were going to enjoy getting screwed by him. My lips twitched. Funniest damn thing I’d heard all night.
The man got off on the sixth floor with his two friends for the evening, leaving me alone with the third woman. I stared at her outfit. Bright color, flashy enough, not too tight, around a size six. It would work.
I hit the stop button in the elevator and turned to the other woman. Her hand drifted down to her purse, and she eyed me with the wary look of a high-priced call girl who knows strangers can be dangerous, especially in the nice part of town. Her fangs poked through her lips. Another vampire.
“I’ll give you two thousand dollars for your clothes, shoes, and that purse,” I said.
“The clothes?” she asked, her brown gaze even more uncertain now. “That’s it? Nothing weird? Nothing extra?”
I flashed her a wad of bills. “Nothing weird
Five minutes later, the hooker got off on the ninth floor wearing my cheap jacket, jeans, and boots. A minute after that, I stepped out onto the eleventh floor. I went into the emergency stairwell and opened my duffel bag. Hairbrush, lipstick, compact. It didn’t take long for me to paint my face, tease out my bleached hair, and otherwise transform myself into Gin, the ditsy call girl. I also grabbed three silverstone knives out of the bag, sticking the first against the small of my back and palming the second in my right hand. The third got stuffed inside the hooker’s minuscule purse.
Girded for battle, I left the bag in the stairwell, got back in the elevator, and rode up to the twelfth floor—Finn’s floor.
Investment banker, computer expert, and all-around shady character Finnegan Lane had done well for himself, which is why his apartment took up the entire floor instead of several thousand spacious feet, like the building’s other housing units. Finn didn’t believe in hiding one’s wealth, and he didn’t care that his gauche, nouveau riche ways upset his older, more genteel clients. Those folks, especially the vampires who’d been around since before the Civil War, despised his flashy ways, but Finn made them enough money to get them to choke on their antiquated southern standards.
Still, I was always extra cautious when I visited Finn’s place. He might not be as deep into the assassin business as I was, but he still made plenty of enemies with his banking and stockbroker schemes—legal and otherwise. People were more vicious about money than any other thing, even sex. Add Finn’s rampant womanizing to the mix, and it was a wonder somebody hadn’t hired me to kill him years ago.
The elevator opened, and I stepped out into the glossy antechamber that fronted Finn’s apartment. Low walnut table. Two chairs. Gilded mirror on the wall. A couple of fake pecan trees planted on either side of the front door. Southern decor at its finest.
A guard stationed outside jerked his head in my direction at the sound of the elevator opening. A big man, tall and wide with a beefy neck that would have been a perfect fit on an NFL linebacker. Probably some giant blood in his family tree. Still, he was only one guy. I would have had at least three men out here. Maybe more, since I knew exactly what I was capable of—and how very determined I was to get to Finnegan before he quit breathing.
The guard frowned, but he didn’t go for his gun or knock on the door behind him to alert whoever might be inside. Mistake number one. I ambled toward him, swinging my hips and letting my short, zebra-striped skirt ride up and show off my long, toned, fishnet-clad legs. I’d already undone most of the buttons on my scarlet silk blouse to let my five-dollar black bra peep through.
The floor of the antechamber was made of fine marble, and the stone’s delicate murmur rang in time to my heels tapping across it. For the first time tonight, my spirits crept up. The vibrations would have been different if Finn had been dead already. Darker, lower, somber. Like the stones at the Pork Pit. A sound I’d never, ever forget.
I pushed all thought of my mentor, all weak, devastating emotion aside, and focused on the man in front of me. On what I was here to do. I stopped about three feet away from the guard, struck a model pose, dropped my head, batted my lashes, and gave him my most flirtatious look. If there was one thing all southern women instinctively know how to do, it’s flirt. It’s encoded in our DNA, along with a fondness for grease, sugar, and oversize hats.
“Hi there, handsome,” I said in a soft, breathy voice. “I’m Candy. I’m here to see Finny.”
“Mr. Lane is otherwise engaged this evening. Important meeting.” The guard’s tone was gruff, but his pale eyes scorched a path from my breasts down my legs and back up.