Authors: Jennifer Estep
The great thing about using silverstone knives was the fact that the magical metal was almost unbreakable, and the only jamming a blade ever did was when I shoved it too far into someone’s chest and had trouble yanking it out again. By that time, well, it didn’t much matter.
I grabbed the crossbow and placed it on the edge of the balcony wall. It was dark up here, and no one looked in my direction, but I’d still chosen to launch my attack from the deepest shadow. Same reason I’d ditched the white shirt. I didn’t want some bored kid staring up and asking Mommy what the black figure with the scary weapon was doing way, way up in the rafters. I might be here to kill somebody, but there was no need to frighten the other people in attendance and ruin their evening out. And one scream could shatter my moment of opportunity. Given Gordon Giles’s jumpy nature, I doubted I’d get another shot at him anytime soon. I was surprised he’d appeared at such a public function. If I’d been an accountant stealing millions from Mab Monroe, I would have been having my face lifted on a deserted island. Not taking in a performance at the local opera house.
The scope’s magnification gave me an eagle-eyed view into the box. Which is why I was able to see a sliver of light as the door in the back cracked open. My gray eye widened in the scope, trying to determine the identity of the newcomer—and how much he was going to fuck up my plans.
Donovan Caine stepped into the box.
I knew Caine by sight—and reputation. Donovan Caine was one of the few honest cops in the city, raised to be so by his dearly departed detective daddy. According to Fletcher, Caine was the sort of man who didn’t look the other way, no matter who was putting on the pressure. Didn’t take bribes. Didn’t do drugs. Hell, he didn’t even smoke, according to Fletcher.
The detective had been assigned to investigate some of my previous Ashland jobs, although with little success. Unlike some of my fellow assassins, I wasn’t stupid enough to sign my work. Some contract guys, especially the magic users, actually took the time to carve their own personal runes into the flesh of their victims or on the surrounding walls or floor. I’d even heard rumors of a certain vampire who liked to draw the rune with his victim’s blood—after mixing it with his own. Idiots. Leaving a rune behind was as bad as leaving a fingerprint. Showing off with them was a one-way ticket to the electric chair. Folks in the South weren’t shy about executing people, especially when such demonstrations were sanctioned by the government.
But Caine knew I existed, mainly because of my last assignment in the city a couple months ago—when I’d killed his partner.
Cliff Ingles hadn’t been a bad cop—except for his off-duty tendency to beat up and rape hookers. In Ashland, that wasn’t even enough to get him thrown off the force, much less warrant my particular brand of attention. Until Ingles had turned his forcible ways to the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the hookers. The vampire knew enough to send a message asking for help in Fletcher’s general direction. The old man didn’t like rapists, especially those who targeted kids. I didn’t either, so I’d done the job pro bono. Another public service. The mayor should give me a medal.
Caine had known his partner wasn’t the cleanest guy around, but evidently he didn’t realize the extent of Ingles’s depravity. Because after I’d put a knife in Ingles’s oversize gut and sliced off his balls, Donovan Caine had publicly vowed to bring his partner’s killer to justice. Swore up one side and down the other to find the assassin responsible for his partner’s painful, untimely demise and make her pay every which way he could. The investigation had stalled, but Caine hadn’t given up. Every week or so, he sent out a new public service announcement to the local media outlets, pleading for info on the Ingles murder.
Oh, Caine didn’t know it was specifically me, Gin Blanco, the Spider, who had killed his partner. All the detective knew was that an assassin had hit Cliff Ingles. If it had been a gangbanger or some other lowlife, he might have been stupid enough to brag about it, somebody would have snitched, and Caine probably would have found him by now. Either way, the detective wanted to hit back at whomever had murdered Ingles and get revenge for his dead partner.
Since then I’d taken an interest in the detective. His dogged determination amused me, however fruitless and misguided it was, and I had Fletcher compile a file on him.
I tracked Caine through the scope as he approached Giles. Thirty-two. Six foot one. Cropped black hair. Hazel eyes. Strong chin. Square jaw. Bumpy, crooked nose. Lean body. Bronze skin that showed his Hispanic heritage.
He was handsome enough, although not as pretty as some of the other men I’d seen in the lobby. But Caine moved with the loose, easy confidence of a man who knows what he’s doing—and knows he can handle anything that comes his way.
Was there anything sexier than confidence and the skill to back it up? I didn’t think so. A hot awareness coursed through my body. My breasts tightened, and a small, pleasant ache settled between my thighs. I wondered if Donovan Caine would be that smooth and sure in bed. Bet he would.
For a moment, I let myself fantasize about the detective. Naked. Writhing under me. His mouth teasing my pebbled nipple. His calloused fingers kneading my breasts. I pictured myself sinking onto his throbbing length. Riding him with quickening strokes until he screamed out my name. Draining every ounce of pleasure I could out of his lean body, until we were both spent and sweaty and satiated. Mmm.
Too bad he played for the opposition and wanted to put a bullet in my head. My daydream would remain just that.
Fletcher had said Gordon Giles might go to the police for protection. That must be why Caine was here. To meet with Giles. Placate him with the usual assurances of safety, immunity, whatever.
A smile tugged at my lips. I wondered what Donovan Caine would do when I put an arrow in Gordon Giles’s heart. Would he try to administer some sort of medical attention, even though it was already too late? Would he call for help? Or would he race out of the box, gun drawn, determined to find the assassin?
All I had to do was pull the trigger and I’d find out.
But instead of finishing the job, I watched the detective. Caine took a seat to Giles’s right. The two of them bent their heads together and started whispering. Well, Caine did most of the whispering. Gordon just shook his ferretlike face in a definite
pattern. Whatever Caine wanted him to do, Gordon wasn’t giving in just yet.
I was so preoccupied with Donovan Caine that the telltale
didn’t register until it was too late. But the cold gun pressed against the back of my neck definitely got my attention.
“Drop the weapon,” a voice hissed in my ear.
“Drop the weapon,” the voice hissed again.
The barrel pressed against my spine at the base of my skull. If he shot me there, I’d be dead before I hit the floor, especially if he was using silverstone bullets.
For a moment, I thought about reaching for my Stone magic, using it to harden my skin to an impenetrable shell. But if the bastard was faster than me, just half a second, he might be able to pull the trigger before I brought enough magic to bear. Besides, using that much power would zap my strength. Judging from my current situation, I was going to need every bit of my energy this evening. Better to save that trick for when I was really desperate. This was only a mild annoyance so far.
“Drop it right fucking
“Sure,” I replied in a calm, easy voice. “I’ll drop it. But you’re going to have to give me some room. I can’t pull back with you right on top of me.”
A blatant lie, of course. But he’d gotten the drop on me, and right now I was in no position to outmaneuver him—or the gun on my spine.
“Fine. But don’t try anything stupid.”
The gun lifted from my neck, and I felt him take five steps back. Perfect. I let go of the bow’s trigger, eased the weapon off the balcony wall, and set it down, with the bolt pointing back at him.
“Now, stand up and turn around—slowly. Hands up where I can see them.”
I did as he asked and turned to face him. A short, stocky, Asian man with thick, powerful muscles stood behind me. He wore his black hair in a low ponytail, and a white scar slashed across his right cheek, going from the corner of his brown eye down past his jaw line. Like me, he was dressed in black. Assassins didn’t really wear any other color when they were working.
He tipped his head. “Gin.”
Every assassin had a name, a code word that identified him or her, and perhaps gave a hint about his specialty. If you wanted someone poisoned, you were probably going to reach out to Hemlock. Death by fire? Look up Phoenix. Gutted entrails? Hooke was your girl. Fletcher Lane had been known as the Tin Man because he never let emotion get in the way of a job.
Brutus’s moniker was Viper, and a rune tattoo of the fanged snake curled up the side of his neck. Brutus called himself Viper because he was the kind of guy who crept around in the underbrush. The one you didn’t see until you stepped on him or he decided to strike. Like now.
Since there are a limited number of people who specialize in our profession, at least at our level, we’d run into each other more than once over the years. Three times now, our respective clients hired us to kill the other person. I’d put a knife in Brutus’s back in Savannah the last time we’d met. He’d returned the favor by shooting me in the stomach. All six of our clients had died.
I might have been stone-cold efficient when it came to my assignments, but Brutus was a machine. He never showed any sort of emotion. Not pleasure, not pain, not even a glimmer of satisfaction at a job well done, nothing. He showed up, killed his target, and moved on.
I stood there with my hands up. A silencer capped the gun in his hand. The weapon was level with my heart. Brutus wouldn’t miss. Unless I made him.
“You know, I’m actually sorry about this, Gin.” Despite his apology, Brutus’s voice was flat. Emotionless. “But the money was just too good to pass up.”
My eyes flicked to the box seats. Donovan Caine and Gordon Giles whispered to each other, oblivious to the drama taking place above their heads. Caine seemed to be demanding something from Giles, who was still shaking his head
no no no
. My mind spun, trying to make sense of the situation.
“What is this?” I asked. “A setup? I kill Giles, then you kill me?”
“That was the plan, but since you were taking your sweet time, I decided to do you first.”
My gray eyes narrowed. “Why? I was going to finish the job. Going to kill Giles. I’m a pro. I don’t take jobs unless I plan to follow through with them.”
Brutus shrugged. “The accountant’s death will raise some tricky questions, so my employer decided it would be better if his assassin was caught. Immediately.”
“So you’re going to make me the fall guy to protect your client.” My voice was as flat as his.
Brutus nodded. “This way, there’s no manhunt, no drawn-out trial, no awkward questions. But there will be a shootout with one of the opera house’s security guards. When the smoke clears, you’ll be the only one not breathing. The trail starts and ends with you.”
“So you’ve got someone on the inside then. Someone helping you.”
Brutus didn’t say anything, but I didn’t need him to confirm my suspicion. My gaze went back to the box, but no one had joined Donovan Caine and Gordon Giles. Brutus must have someone stationed outside the door, standing by in case Giles got jumpy and tried to leave.
“What’s my motivation?” I asked, shifting my weight onto my right foot.
“Nothing too elaborate. Just a poor, no-class hooker pissed at Giles for promising to marry her and make her an honest woman. A deranged woman enraged by love and jealousy who decided to take matters into her own hands.”
“A hooker killing for love? In this city?” I sneered. “You couldn’t come up with something more creative than that?”
Brutus shrugged. “Not my call.”
I nodded. “Of course not. Well, I have to admit it’s a solid plan, Brutus. Your client should give you a bonus. By the way, who is your client?”