Authors: Jennifer Estep
“Not bad? It’s twice your going rate.” A mixture of pride and anticipation colored Fletcher’s rough voice. “The client’s already made the fifty percent deposit. Do this job, and you can retire.”
Retirement. Something that had been on Fletcher’s mind ever since I’d come back with a broken arm and a bruised spleen from a botched job six months ago in St. Augustine. The old man kept talking about me retiring in a dreamy tone, as if there were a world of options that would magically open up to me the second I put down my knives. Instead of the dull boredom of reality.
“I’m thirty, Fletcher. A highly effective, well-paid, sought-after professional in my area of expertise. I’m good at my job, the blood doesn’t bother me, and the people I kill have it coming. Why would I want to retire?”
More importantly, what would I do with myself? I had a very particular skill set, one that didn’t lend itself to a lot of options.
“Because there’s more to life than killing people and counting money, no matter how much one might enjoy them.” His green eyes locked with mine. “Because you shouldn’t have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. Don’t you want to live in the daylight a little, kid?”
Live in the daylight
. Fletcher’s catchphrase for having a normal life. Seventeen years ago, I’d wanted nothing more. I’d prayed for the world to right itself, for time to rewind so I could go back to the safe, sheltered existence I’d once had. But I’d given up that fairy tale long ago. Nothing but wistful pain would ever come of wanting something I couldn’t have. That gilded dream, that soft hope, that sentimental part of me was dead, burned away and crumbled to ash—just like my family had been.
People like me didn’t retire. They just kept going until they got dead—which was usually sooner, rather than later. But I was going to roll the dice as long as I could. Even if it was a sucker’s bet in the end.
But I didn’t want to fight with the old man. Not tonight. Like it or not, he was one of the few people left in this world that I loved. So I distracted him by waving the folder in the air. “You really think this is a good idea? This assignment?”
“For five million dollars, I do.”
“But there’s no time to do prep work with this job,” I protested. “No time to plan, to go over exit points, nothing.”
“Come on, Gin,” Fletcher wheedled. “It’s an easy job. You can do something like this in your sleep. The client even suggested a place for you to do the hit.”
I read some more. “The opera house?”
“The opera house,” Fletcher repeated. “There’s going to be a big shindig tomorrow night. They’re dedicating a new wing to Mab Monroe.”
“Another one?” I asked. “Aren’t enough buildings in this city named after her already?”
“Apparently not. My point is there will be lots of people there. Lots of press. Lots of opportunity to get lost in the crowd. It should be easy enough for you to slip in, do Giles, and slip out. You are the Spider after all, known far and wide for your skill and prowess.”
I grimaced at his grandiose tone. Sometimes Fletcher reminded me of a circus ringmaster making the sad elephants, browbeaten horses, and two-bit acts seem more thrilling than they actually were.
“The Spider was your idea, not mine. You’re the one who thought you could charge more for my services if I had a catchy name, Tin Man,” I said, referring to the old man by his assumed assassin name.
Fletcher grinned. “I was right, too. Every assassin has a name. Yours just happens to have a better ring than most, thanks to me.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him.
“C’mon, Gin. It’s easy money. Pop the accountant tomorrow night, and then you can take a vacation,” Fletcher promised. “A real vacation. Somewhere warm, with oily cabana boys and boat drinks.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And what would you know about oily cabana boys?”
“Finnegan might have pointed them out when he took me to Key West last year,” Fletcher said. “Although our attention quickly wandered to the lovely ladies sunning topless by the pool.”
Of course it had.
“Fine,” I said, closing the folder. “I’ll do it. But only because I love you, even if you are a greedy bastard who works me too hard.”
Fletcher raised his coffee mug. “I’ll drink to that.”
I finished my lemonade, took the folder, said good night to Fletcher, and went home.
My apartment was located in the building across the street, five stories up on the top floor, but I never went straight home from the restaurant—or anywhere else. I circled around three blocks and cut through two alleys, making sure I wasn’t being followed, before coming back and slipping into the building. Everything was quiet, given the late hour, except the squeak of my shoes on the granite floor in the lobby.
I rode the elevator up to my floor. Before I slid my key in the lock, I pressed my hand against the stone around the door frame. Nothing of note. Just the stone’s usual low, muted voice. I wasn’t home enough for my presence to sink into the gray-colored brick. Or perhaps I just didn’t care to listen to my own innate vibrations.
I’d chosen this particular apartment because it was the one closest to the stairwell, with access to the roof and a sturdy drainpipe that ran down the outside of the building. My escape routes, along with a few others. I tested them at least once a month, played possible scenarios of capture and evasion in my mind. My own mantra for survival. You could never be too careful, especially in my line of work, when even a small fuckup could mean death. My death.
I flipped on the lights. The front room was an oversize kitchen and den, with the master bedroom and bathroom off to the left, and a spare set of matching rooms off to the right. A couch, a love seat, a couple of recliners, appliances. A plasma-screen TV, with DVDs and CDs piled around it. Piles and piles of well-worn books stacked three feet high in some places. A nice set of copper pots and pans hanging from a rack in the kitchen. A butcher block full of high-end, silverstone knives sitting on the counter.
There was nothing in here I couldn’t walk away from on a moment’s notice. Always a possibility in my profession. I was careful on my jobs, and Fletcher was extremely selective when choosing clients. But there was always a chance of discovery, exposure, torture, death. More reasons Fletcher wanted me to give up the business.
Still, to placate the old man, I tried to lead a somewhat normal life, except for my nighttime activities. My main cover ID was as Gin Blanco, a part-time cook and waitress at the Pork Pit and perpetual student at Ashland Community College. Architecture, sculpture, the role of women in fantasy fiction. I took any class that appealed to me, no matter how eclectic.
But the literature and cooking classes were my favorites, and I signed up for at least one every semester. Cooking was a passion of mine—the only real one I had besides reading. I enjoyed the smell of sugar and spices. The endless combinations of sweet and salty. The simple and complex formulas that let you turn separate ingredients into cohesive, edible works of art. Plus, cooking gave me an excuse to have plenty of knives lying around. Another necessity in my line of work.
Seeing everything was in order, I moved farther into the apartment. I should have gone on into the bathroom, taken a shower, then curled up in bed, studying the Gordon Giles file. Planning the hit. Writing down the supplies I’d need. Visualizing my escape. And dreaming about the oily cabana boys Fletcher had promised were waiting for me in Key West.
But I lingered in the den, staring at a series of framed drawings on the mantel over the television. An art class I’d just finished. For our final project, the instructor had asked us to do a series. Three drawings in all, each one different, but with a connected theme.
I’d drawn the runes of my dead family.
Instead of a crest or coat of arms, magic users identified themselves through runes. Vampires, giants, dwarves, elementals. Runes were everywhere you looked. Tattoos, necklaces, rings, T-shirts. Even some humans used them, especially for business logos.
Some of the magic users sniffed at that, claiming that runes should only be used by those with power. Most of those same folks also harbored crackpot dreams of a magic-controlled society run by elementals and the like, instead of the current balance of power between all the races. The reason no one race had taken over was simple: guns were great equalizers. So were knives, baseball bats, chain saws, and wood chippers. And most folks in Ashland had at least one of each. Magic was great, but three bullets in the back of the head was enough to put almost anyone’s lights out for good. So the humans used runes, the magic users scoffed at them, and the city kept on turning.
But the humans using runes had no real impact on anything. Only elementals could imbue runes with magic; make the symbols come to life and perform some specific function. And really, a Fire elemental tracing a sunburst rune into a wooden log to start a campfire was just a flashy way of showing off. Especially when he could just snap his fingers and do it outright. But magical runes were good for some things—trip wires, alarms, timed or delayed bursts of magic. That last one had obvious appeal to certain assassins. Trace an explosive Fire rune on a package, mail it to your mark, and you could be sipping margaritas in the Caribbean when the poor idiot opened the box and it went
Most runes had no power in and of themselves, but were simply ways to announce your lineage, show your alliances, and say something about your temperament, business, occupation, or hobbies. The rune of my family, the Snow family, had been a snowflake—the symbol for icy calm. My mother, Eira, had the rune fashioned into a silverstone medallion she’d worn on a chain around her neck. My mother had taken the tradition a step further and had a rune necklace created for each of us, with the symbol revealing something about our personalities.
The snowflake rune was the first piece on the mantel, followed by a curling ivy vine—representing elegance—my older sister, Annabella’s, rune and necklace. And finally, there was a primrose, symbolizing beauty, which had been given to my younger sister, Bria.
There wasn’t a picture of my rune—the spider rune—on the mantel. The small circle surrounded by eight equidistant lines hadn’t been intricate or interesting enough to merit a drawing for my class. Of course, I didn’t actually have the spider rune medallion anymore, but if I wanted to see the damn thing, all I had to do was look at the scars on my palms.
I shook myself out of my trance. The memories were always worse during the fall. That’s when my mother and Annabella had been killed by the Fire elemental, their bodies reduced to ash. Bria had escaped that fate, only to be buried alive by the crumbling remains of our house. All I’d found of my baby sister had been a splash of blood on the stone foundation.
The clear, crisp tang in the air. The bright, cerulean blue of the sky. The rich, damp smell of the earth turning. The way the approaching winter chill slowed the murmur of the stones underfoot. It all reminded me of them, even now, seventeen years later.
But the runes on my mantel weren’t going to bring my family back. Nothing could do that. I didn’t know why I’d done the damn drawings in the first place. I really did need a vacation. Or perhaps Fletcher’s talk of retirement had unsettled me more than I’d realized.
My fingers tightened around the folder in my hand. I pulled my eyes away from the drawings, went into the bedroom, and closed the door, cutting off my view of the runes.
Out of sight, almost out of mind.
At eight o’clock the next evening, I stood outside on the topmost balcony of the Ashland Opera House, a massive building constructed of gray granite and glistening white marble. An old-fashioned architectural gem, the opera house spread over three downtown blocks. A slender turret marked each one of the building’s three wings, which always made it seem like an elaborate dollhouse to me. Black flags embossed with silver music notes—the opera’s rune—fluttered on top of each turret in the listless September breeze.
Twenty minutes ago, I’d walked through the front door of the opera house. With my white shirt, black pants, low-heeled boots, and cello case, I looked like any one of the dozens of musicians here for tonight’s performance. No one had glanced twice at me as I’d strolled through the lobby, walked up the grand staircase, and climbed up several more flights. I’d used my Ice magic to create a pair of long, slender lock picks, which I’d used to jimmy the door that led out to the balcony. I might have come in through the front, but after the job was done, I was making my escape out the back. So to speak.