Authors: Jennifer Estep
My gray eyes focused on the cash register perched on the right side of the counter. A lone man sat next to it, reading a tattered paperback copy of
Where the Red Fern Grows
and sipping a cup of chicory coffee. An old man, late seventies, with a wispy thatch of white hair that covered his mottled, brown scalp. A grease-stained apron hung off his thin neck and trailed down his blue work shirt and pants.
The bell over the door chimed when I entered, but the man didn’t look up from his paperback.
“You’re late, Gin,” he said.
“Sorry. I was busy talking about my feelings and killing people.”
“You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”
“Why, Fletcher, it almost sounds like you were worried about me.”
Fletcher glanced up from his book. His rheumy eyes resembled the dull green glass of a soda pop bottle. “Me? Worry? Don’t be silly.”
Fletcher Lane was my go-between. The cutout who made the appointments with potential clients, took the money, and set up my assignments. The middleman who got his hands dirty—for a substantial fee. He’d taken me in off the streets seventeen years ago and had taught me everything I knew about being an assassin. The good, the bad, the ugly. He was also one of only a few people I trusted—another being his son, Finnegan, who was just as greedy as the old man was and not afraid to show it.
Fletcher set his book aside. “Hungry?”
“I’ve been pushing peas around a plastic plate for the better part of a week. What do you think?”
I settled myself at the counter, while Fletcher went to work behind it. The old man clunked down a glass of tart lemonade filled with blackberries in front of me.
I tasted it and grimaced. “It’s lukewarm.”
“All the ice is in the freezer for the night. Cool it yourself.”
In addition to being a Stone elemental, I also had the rare gift of being able to control another element—Ice, though my magic in that area was far weaker. I put my hand on the glass and concentrated, reaching for the cool power that lay deep inside me. Snowflake-shaped Ice crystals spread out from my palm and fingertips. They frosted up the side of the glass, arced over the lip, and ran down into the beverage below. I held my hand palm up over the glass and reached for my magic again. A cold, silver light flickered there, centered in the spider rune scar. I concentrated, and the light coalesced into a square Ice cube. I tipped it into the yellow liquid, then formed a few more and dropped them in as well.
I tasted the lemonade again. “Much better.”
The next thing Fletcher set on the counter was a half pound hamburger dripping with mayonnaise and piled high with smoked Swiss cheese, sweet butter-leaf lettuce, a juicy tomato slice, and a thick slab of red onion. A bowl of spicy baked beans followed, along with a saucer of carrot-laced coleslaw.
I dug into the food, relishing the play of sweet and spice, salt and vinegar, on my tongue. I swallowed a spoonful of the warm beans and focused on the sauce that coated them, trying to isolate the many flavors.
The Pork Pit was famous for its barbecue sauce, which Fletcher whipped up in secret in the back of the restaurant. People bought gallons of it at a time. Over the years, I’d tried to discover Fletcher’s secret recipe. But no matter what I attempted, no matter how many batches of the stuff I made, my sauce just never tasted the same as his. Fletcher claimed there was one secret ingredient that gave the sauce its spicy kick. But the gruff old man wouldn’t tell me what it was or how much of it he used.
“Are you ever going to tell me what’s in the barbecue sauce?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Are you ever going to quit trying to find out?”
“Then I guess we’re locked in a stalemate.”
“I could fix that,” I muttered.
An amused grin flashed across Fletcher’s face. “Then you’d never get the recipe.”
I shook my head and concentrated on my food. While I ate, Fletcher picked up his book and read a few more pages. He didn’t ask me about the job. Didn’t have to. He knew I wouldn’t have come back unless it was done.
I always missed the Pit’s food when I was working. Missed the smell of spices and grease tickling my nose. Missed the loud clatter of plates and the cheerful scrape of silverware. Missed cooking in the kitchen and bitching about demanding customers and lousy tips. But mostly, I missed shooting the breeze with Fletcher late at night, when the front door was locked and everything was quiet, except for the two of us. The Pork Pit was more than just a restaurant to me. It was home—or at least the closest to one I’d had the last seventeen years. The only one I was likely to ever have again. The life of an assassin wasn’t exactly conducive to puppies and picket fences.
“How’s Finn?” I asked after I’d eaten enough to take the edge off.
Fletcher shrugged. “He’s fine. Making his deals. Taking control of other people’s money. My son, the investment banker and computer genius. He should have taken up an honest job, like thieving.”
I hid my grin behind my glass of lemonade. Finnegan Lane’s gloss of legitimate civility never failed to amuse his father. Or me.
I’d just popped the last bite of the heart-stoppingly good hamburger into my mouth when Fletcher reached below the counter. He came up with a manila folder and placed it beside my empty plate. His speckled brown hands rested on the folder a moment before sliding away.
“What’s this?” I asked. “I told you I was taking a vacation after the shrink.”
“You’ve been on vacation for days now.” Fletcher took a long slurp of his cooling coffee.
“Spending six days locked away in an insane asylum isn’t my idea of a good time.”
Fletcher didn’t respond. The folder lay between us, a silent question. I couldn’t help but wonder what secrets it contained. And who had pissed someone off enough to wind up in my line of sight. My expertise didn’t come cheap. Especially when you added Fletcher’s handling fee on top of it.
“Who’s the target?” I asked, giving in to the inevitable.
Damn curiosity. One emotion I couldn’t quite squash, no matter how hard I tried. Something I’d picked up from the old man over the years. He was even more inquisitive than me.
Fletcher grinned and flipped open the folder. “Target’s name is Gordon Giles.”
He pushed the file over to me, and I skimmed the contents. Gordon Giles. Fifty-four. The chief financial officer of Halo Industries. A glorified accountant and paper pusher, in other words. Divorced. No kids. Enjoys fly fishing. Likes to visit hookers at least twice a week. An Air elemental.
That last piece of information was unfortunate. Elementals were folks who could create, control, and manipulate the four elements—Ice, Stone, Air, and Fire. Some people also had talents for using offshoots of those, like water, metal, and electricity. But you weren’t considered a true elemental unless you could tap into one of the big four.
My Stone magic was strong and let me do just about anything I wanted to with the element, from crumbling bricks to cracking concrete to making my own skin as hard as marble. I couldn’t do as much with my weaker Ice magic, other than create cubes, icicles, the occasional knife, and other small shapes. The miniature animal Ice sculptures made me popular at parties, though.
Since Gordon Giles was an Air elemental, he could control currents, sense the wind, feel vibrations in the air the same way I could in stone. And he could manipulate them too, just like me. Depending on what sort of innate talents he had and how strong his power was, Giles could use his Air magic to try to suffocate me before I killed him. Force oxygen bubbles into my veins. Pummel me with the wind. Or a hundred other nasty things.
I studied the photo clipped on top of the information. Gordon Giles’s salt-and-pepper hair flopped over his forehead, just brushing the tops of his gold glasses. His eyes were like puddles of powder-blue ink behind the lenses. His face reminded me of a ferret’s—long and thin. Pinched lips. Pointed chin. A sharp triangle of a nose.
Gordon’s eyes held a look of nervous anticipation. The gaze of a man who knew monsters walked the streets and expected them to leap out and grab him any second. Twitchy men were far more difficult to kill than oblivious ones. I’d have to be careful with him.
“And what’s Giles done to merit my particular brand of attention?”
“Seems the chief financial officer has been cooking the books at Halo Industries,” Fletcher said. “Somebody found out and wants to address the situation.”
“Protection?” I asked.
Fletcher shrugged. “None that I know of, but the rumor is Giles is getting nervous and thinking about turning himself over to the cops, as if they would even bother to keep him safe.”
Cops. I snorted. What a joke. Most of Ashland’s finest were more crooked than the mountain roads that crisscrossed the city. If you went to the po-po for protection, you might as well hang yourself and save your cellmate the trouble of tearing up his perfectly good bed sheets.
“Halo Industries,” I murmured. “Isn’t that one of Mab Monroe’s companies?”
“She’s the major stockholder,” Fletcher said. “But one of her flunkies, Haley James, and James’s sister, Alexis, actually front the business. Halo Industries was started by their father, Lawrence. Him and the sisters kept it in the family for years, until Mab decided she wanted a piece of the action and muscled in on them. The father died of a heart attack two weeks after Mab took over. At least, that’s what the official word was.”
“And unofficially?” I asked.
Fletcher shrugged. “Rumor has it the father was making lots of problems. Wouldn’t surprise me if his heart attack was more of an unfortunate accident arranged by Mab herself.”
“A heart attack? That’s not really her style,” I said. “Usually, she just incinerates people with her magic, burns their house to the ground, that sort of thing.”
“True,” Fletcher agreed. “Which meant she probably passed the job on to one of her boys and asked them to make it look like natural causes. Either way, Lawrence James ended up dead.”
Ashland might have a working police force and government, but the city was really run by one woman. Mab Monroe. Mab was a Fire elemental—strong, powerful, deadly. All that was bad enough, but she wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill elemental. Mab Monroe had more magic, more raw power, than any elemental had had in five hundred years. At least, that’s what the rumor mill churned out. Given the fact that anyone who went up against her got dead sooner rather than later, I tended to believe the hype.
A respectable, multitiered business front hid Mab’s moblike empire. Intimidation. Bribes. Drugs. Kidnappings. Murder. None of it bothered Mab. She reveled in the blood like a hog in slop. She had her spies everywhere. Police department. City council. Mayor’s office. Cops, district attorneys, judges, and other assorted good guys didn’t last long in this city, unless they went over to the dark side—and into Mab’s hip pocket.
Like all savvy businesswomen, Mab Monroe hid her true nature behind a veneer of cultured sophistication. Donating money to charity. Spearheading fund-raisers. Giving back to the community. All of it designed to distance her from the ugly things she ordered done on a daily basis. Mab kept her eye on the big picture, which is why she had two lieutenants, for lack of a better word, who ran the day-to-day operations. Her lawyer, Jonah McAllister, and Elliot Slater.
McAllister handled the people who challenged Mab through legal means. The slick lawyer buried the poor folks in so much paperwork and red tape that most of them went bankrupt just trying to pay their own attorneys. Slater claimed to be a security consultant, but the giant was really nothing more than an enforcer in a nice suit. He handled Mab’s minions and dealt with those who crossed the Fire elemental in a swift, brutal, permanent manner—when Mab didn’t deign to do it herself.
To most folks, Mab Monroe was a paragon of elemental virtue, a perfect marriage of money and magic. But those of us who dealt in the shady side of life knew Mab for what she really was—ruthless. The Fire elemental had a stranglehold on Ashland, her fingers in every worthwhile, lucrative, or helpful operation in the city, but it just didn’t seem to be enough for her. Mab just kept reaching for, and accumulating, more and more and more, as though money, power, and influence were the vital oxygen she needed to fuel herself. Simply put, she was a bully, albeit one with enough magic to back up any claim she made and get her anything she wanted.
I’d never liked bullies.
But Mab’s magic didn’t keep folks from quietly plotting against her. Several times a year, Fletcher got inquiries about hiring me to take out Mab Monroe. We’d done some recon on her over the years and had decided it was too close to being a suicide mission to bother with. Even if I could get through her layers of security and giant bodyguards, Mab could always kill me herself. She wasn’t afraid to use her own Fire elemental magic. That’s how she’d clawed her way to the top in the first place—by killing anyone who challenged her meteoric rise through the ranks of Ashland’s underworld.
Still, Fletcher kept an open file on the Fire elemental, tracking her security, her movements, looking for any signs of weakness. For some reason, the old man wanted Mab dead. He just hadn’t found a way to get it done yet. At least, not one that didn’t involve him going out in a blaze of glory with her.
“You’re telling me Gordon Giles was stupid enough to embezzle money from one of Mab Monroe’s companies?” I asked.
Fletcher shrugged. “It appears that way. Client didn’t give any more details, and I didn’t ask. If you’ll flip to the back page, you’ll see there’s a time limit on this one.”
I turned to the appropriate sheet and read the info. “They want the job done by tomorrow night? You want me to do a job on less than twenty-four hours’ notice? That’s not like you, Fletcher.”
“Read the payment.”
My eyes skimmed farther down the paper. Five million. Question asked and answered. Fletcher might have loved me like a daughter, but he also loved getting his fifteen percent. I wasn’t adverse to my cut, either.
“It’s not a bad chunk of change,” I admitted.