Authors: Jennifer Estep
While the front of the opera house faced one of Ashland’s busy downtown streets, the back side of the building squatted on top of a series of jagged cliffs, which fell away to the Aneirin River. Cliffs I was going to rappel down in another hour or so.
Staying in the shadows, I opened my cello case and pulled out the plastic shell that resembled the classical instrument. Hidden beneath was a secret compartment with my supplies for the evening, including two hundred feet of climbing rope. I anchored the rope to a brass flagpole planted in the low balcony wall and threw the length of it down the side of the cliffs. The gray rope blended into the uneven stones below, and you wouldn’t spot it unless you knew it was there. Still, I grabbed a few crumpled brown leaves from the balcony floor and spread them over the base of the flagpole, obscuring the rope. It was unlikely anyone would venture out here, given the activity and excitement inside the building, but you never knew who might wander this way for a quick cigarette or a quicker fuck. Better not to take unnecessary chances.
As I worked, my hands brushed the stone of the building. The granite sang under my fingertips. The music from the orchestra’s performances had long ago permeated the rock and now ran through it like a vein of ore. I closed my eyes and flattened both hands against the rough stone. The sound was so rich, so pure, so beautiful, after the insane discord of the asylum, that I reached for my magic.
I sent a trickle of my power through the stone, giving it a subtle command. The separate seams of the granite dipped and rose in a small wave, one after another, as though I were running my fingers up and down a piano keyboard. The seams settled back into place, and I allowed myself a small smile. Elemental magic could be amusing as well as deadly.
My work here done, I grabbed my cello case, opened the balcony door, and slid back inside.
The balcony was an extension of the topmost floor of the opera house, a gray, featureless space where the executive and administrative offices were located. The area was deserted, with only the low house lights on for illumination. I slipped into the emergency stairwell and walked down several flights of stairs, before emerging onto the second floor of the building.
It was like stepping into another world. The second floor was circular, with a large entrance room several thousand feet wide. A grand staircase led down to the ground floor, topped by a dazzling crystal chandelier that resembled an elegant cluster of icicles. The carpet was a warm burgundy, swirled throughout with a delicate gold paisley pattern. The walls featured heavy, matching soundproof drapes, along with an occasional mirror and glossy painting. White marble set with squares of black and burgundy gleamed in the lobby below.
A couple of blocks over, a vampire hooker would do you in your car for fifty bucks, while the homeless guys dug through trash cans looking for enough garbage to eat for the night. But here, the darkest, dirtiest things were the lipstick stains on the champagne glasses—and the souls of the people indulging in the bubbly.
People milled around the entrance room, with some trailing down either side of the wide staircase. As befitting any elite arts function in Ashland, the attendees wore designer gowns in jewel tones, resplendent black tuxedos, and other appropriate finery that was just as sophisticated as the furnishings. Gems small, medium, and large flashed, winked, and glittered on throats, wrists, and fingers. The stones whispered proudly of their own beauty and elegance. Some people sipped champagne and mixed drinks, while others took chicken skewers, spring rolls, and other dainty, bite-size hors d’oeuvres from passing waiters. Conversation trilled through the air, punctuated with bass rumbles of laughter and sudden, sharp guffaws.
Since I looked like all the other musicians, the glitterati paid me about as much attention as they did the carpet, and I moved through the crush of people with ease, looking for my quarry.
Gasps surged through the crowd, and I searched for the source of the sudden disturbance. My gaze locked onto Mab Monroe. The Fire elemental swept through the lobby and walked up the grand staircase. Every eye turned to her, and conversation stopped, like a song cut off in mid-chorus. Mab had that effect on most people. Her softly curled red hair gleamed like a new penny, and she wore a gown of the darkest scarlet imaginable, cut low in the front to show off her creamy décolletage. Her eyes were black pools in her face. Fire and brimstone. That’s what I thought about every time I saw Mab.
A flat gold necklace ringed the Fire elemental’s delicate neck. My eyes caught on the centerpiece of the design: a circular ruby surrounded by several dozen wavy rays. The intricate diamond cutting on the gold made it seem as though the rays actually flickered. A sunburst. The symbol for fire. Mab’s personal rune, used by her and her alone. Even across the room, I could hear the gemstone’s vibrations. Instead of beauty and elegance, it whispered of raw, fiery power. The sound made my stomach clench.
Mab Monroe strolled through the crowd, laughing, talking, smiling, shaking hands. I eyed the elemental, once again thinking about how much money I’d turned down over the years to kill her. A shame, really. I didn’t consider myself to be any sort of hero, but I wouldn’t have minded giving the good citizens of Ashland a fighting chance by removing Mab’s fist from around their throats. Bullies always made me eager to see how tough they really were—and knock them down a few pegs.
My gaze skipped over to her entourage. A burly man wearing a tuxedo stayed close to Mab, while two more circulated through the room at large. Elliot Slater wasn’t among them tonight, but they were all giants like him, with thick necks, oversize fists, and big, buglike eyes. Perfect meat shields. Not that Mab really needed them. Her Fire elemental magic was more than enough to deal with any threat. The giants were for show, more than anything else.
Mab Monroe’s current path was going to take her close to me, and I melted back into the shadows. But she and her guards swept by without a glance in my direction, and I continued searching for my prey for the evening—and any other players who might impact the drama about to unfold.
Haley James entered the lobby a few minutes later and headed for the stairs. Her skin was the color of fresh cream, and her strawberry-blonde hair was curled into ringlets piled on top of her head. She wore a short cocktail sheath dress done in sage green, which showed off her lush, curvy body. The emeralds in her chandelier earrings sparked and flashed like smoldering embers. The gems matched the blue-green of her eyes.
Alexis James followed her sister inside. Alexis was several inches taller, with the same light coloring, although her hair was cropped short. She wore a simple black cocktail dress. A string of pearls ringed her throat, while black gloves crawled up to her elbows. A pearl bracelet hung off her right wrist. Understated class, compared to Haley’s emerald flash.
Haley James called out to Mab, and the two women paused to exchange meaningless pleasantries. Alexis stood off to one side, her face expressionless.
According to Fletcher’s file, Haley James was the chief executive officer of Halo Industries, with Alexis serving as the head of marketing and public relations. The company had been in their family for years and dealt in a variety of areas, but the main focus was magical speculation, specifically harnessing Air elemental magic for a variety of medical and cosmetic products. The James sisters employed a whole staff of the elementals, but they weren’t known to be magic types themselves.
I wondered if Haley James was the one who’d discovered Gordon Giles cooking the books. If she’d put the contract out on him to cover it up. To make an example of him. Or to keep Mab Monroe from finding out she was getting bilked out of millions and avoid the Fire elemental’s wrath. If Mab discovered Giles’s embezzlement, she’d not only take her ire out on the accountant, but on the James sisters as well for letting themselves get bamboozled. There were any number of reasons Haley James could have decided to eliminate Giles.
But I put the conjecture out of my mind. It didn’t matter to me who had put the hit out on Giles, as long as the rest of the money appeared in a timely fashion after the fact. If it didn’t, well, then I’d get interested in who wanted Gordon Giles dead. But not before.
Speaking of Mr. Giles, he’d finally arrived. He shuffled through the lobby and up the grand staircase, just as Mab Monroe had done, although with far less fanfare.
Gordon Giles wore a tuxedo that was just a bit too large for his small frame. He was so thin, his shoulder bones poked up through the fabric of his suit. His face was tight and pinched, as though the very act of breathing pained him. He continually dry-washed his hands, and his eyes flicked back and forth over the lobby, moving from Haley James to Alexis to Mab Monroe, through their sea of onlookers, and back again. Trying to see which direction the danger would come from. What shadow the bullet would whiz out of. But he wouldn’t see it, wouldn’t see me, until it was too late.
But really, it had been too late as soon as the client had contacted Fletcher. Because I was the Spider. I always followed through.
And I never, ever missed.
People started drifting into their boxes to watch the performance. Gordon Giles slipped into a box marked A3, the one I’d been told was his.
I climbed back up to the top floor, created another pair of lock picks with my Ice magic, then used them to open the door to the stairs that led to the catwalk. I paused inside the door and stripped off my thick white shirt, revealing a long-sleeved black T-shirt underneath. The white garment got stuffed inside the cello case, and I pulled out a snug-fitting, black vest filled with my usual supplies: cash, disposable cell phone, credit cards, a couple of fake IDs. A black toboggan I’d had folded in my pocket went on my head, hiding my bleached blond hair.
I made my way up the steps and strode out onto the catwalk. It wasn’t a true metal catwalk but a carpeted balcony, a narrow, walled strip ringing the entire opera house in a giant circle, just as the floors below did. The houselights had already gone down, and several spotlights focused on the stage, highlighting the gleaming instruments of the orchestra. The musicians sat silent on the wide, semicircular stage, waiting for the cue from the maestro.
I crept down the catwalk. From this high vantage point, I could look down over the entire complex—and straight into the second-floor VIP boxes, including the one that belonged to Gordon Giles.
Giles was already seated. He must not have found the program for the evening very interesting, because he’d rolled it up. Giles shook his hand, and the paper baton slapped against his knee in a rapid, staccato pattern. The nervous twitch of a man who knows he’s in trouble.
The maestro cleared his throat and tapped his baton. The crowd sputtered, stilled, and hushed. The metal baton came down again, and the orchestra burst into song. Energy. Emotion. Joy. I closed my eyes, listening to the swell of the orchestra, the perfect harmony the instruments created as they enunciated their complex patterns of notes and chords. All blending and melting together into a cacophony of supreme beauty.
I listened a few seconds more, reveling in the harmony. Then I tuned out the music and got to work. According to the timetable in Fletcher’s file, the job had to be done before intermission. The client wanted to make a spectacle of Gordon Giles’s untimely demise by having his body discovered then.
I opened my cello case and pulled out the plastic shell once more. Hidden in the compartment underneath was my weapon of choice for the evening—a crossbow.
The weapon looked like your typical crossbow, except for the powerful rifle scope mounted above the trigger and the barbed metal bolt already in firing position. The bow was the perfect weapon for mid-range jobs like this one. Since I didn’t want to take a chance on Gordon Giles using his elemental Air magic against me, I’d decided to do this one from a distance. Pull the trigger and walk away. No muss, no fuss, no blood spattered on my clothes, for a change. The only real downside of my job.
I could have used a rifle, of course. Easier to get, cheaper to buy, same result in the end. But guns jammed too much for my liking. With a bow, you didn’t run that risk. The same reason I used silverstone knives on most of my jobs. Along with the crossbow, I had several knives secreted on my person tonight. Two tucked up my sleeves. One against the small of my back. Two stuffed inside my boots. My usual five-point arsenal. Just in case things didn’t go exactly as planned, and I had to get up close and personal with someone.