Authors: Jennifer Estep
Brutus shook his head. “You should know better than to ask me something like that, Gin.”
I did know better, but asking gave me the opportunity to move my left foot closer toward the crossbow.
“I’d love to keep chatting, but I have a schedule to keep.” Brutus’s grip tightened on the gun. “You’re a decent assassin, Gin. Almost as good as me. I really am sorry—”
I kicked out with my left foot, jiggling the trigger on the crossbow. The bolt shot out, catching Brutus above his right ankle. The other assassin grunted and fired a shot as I threw myself to the right. The bullet from his gun just clipped my shoulder, spinning me around. I hissed as a ribbon of hot fire erupted in my muscles. But that was better than the projectile piercing my heart.
I pushed the pain away, hit the ground rolling, grabbed my pseudo cello case, and got back up on my feet. I brought the case up over my chest. Two more bullets
into it. I shook my left arm, and a silverstone knife fell down my sleeve and into my hand. Another bullet slammed into the case, and I staggered back as though I’d been hit. Then I pivoted, slung the case to one side, and threw the knife at Brutus. The blade caught the assassin in his right shoulder. The gun slid from his twitching fingers and plopped onto the floor.
“You and those fucking knives,” Brutus muttered and yanked the blade out of his shoulder socket. “Get a real weapon. Get a gun.”
“Guns are for people who don’t have the guts or skill to use a blade.”
I threw down the bullet-laden cello case and palmed the knife hidden up my right sleeve. Brutus shifted his weapon to his right hand.
And then we danced.
We circled round and round on the narrow catwalk, kicking, punching, slashing with our knives. Brutus sliced my left bicep, adding to the hot fire on that side of my body. I slammed my elbow into his mouth. He punched me in the kidneys. I kneed him in the groin.
We were evenly matched professionals. Trained, skilled, efficient, deadly. But the bolt in Brutus’s ankle hindered him more than the bullet graze in my shoulder did me. He stepped back to get out of the way of my slashing dagger, and his ankle went out from under him. He stumbled to the floor. All the opening I needed.
Before Brutus could recover, I yanked the crossbow bolt out of his ankle and threw myself on top of him. This time, Brutus couldn’t stop the whimper of pain that escaped his lips. He tried to grapple with me, but I shoved my knife against his neck. The blade just cut through his skin. He froze.
“Now,” I said, raising the bolt up and pressing the bloody tip close to his left eye. “You’re going to tell me exactly who hired you and why he wants Gordon Giles dead so badly. Or I’m going to put this bolt through your fucking eye and into your brain.”
Brutus smiled, his teeth red with his own blood. “You’ve got two options, Gin. You can kill me or save yourself—or try to.”
I touched the top of the bolt against his eye. Brutus might be as cold as stone, but even he shuddered at that. “What do you mean?”
“I told my client you were good, that you might get away. So we devised a backup plan. Even if you kill me, you’re still going to get blamed for Giles’s murder. I’ve got another man standing by ready to take him out. The paper trail leading back to you has already been set up. Threatening letters and the like. It’s all in place—”
I raised my knife up and slammed it into Brutus’s heart. The first time, he gasped in surprise and pain. The second time, his brown eyes bulged, and more blood trickled out of his mouth. By the third time I stabbed him, he was dead.
“Arrogant prick,” I muttered, climbing to my feet. “You should have just shot me. Not talked yourself to death.”
Brutus’s body spasmed a final time in agreement.
I was already stepping over him and gathering up the weapons. Because Brutus was right about one thing. I had to save Gordon Giles’s life instead of taking it—if I had any hope of saving my own.
I stuffed the crossbow back into the cello case, sprinted down the catwalk stairs, and shoved through the exit door. My wounded shoulder hit the doorjamb, and I hissed. Being shot, even just grazed, always felt like someone had shoved a red-hot metal poker into my flesh. Like a Fire elemental had put her hands on me and let loose with her incendiary magic. But I ignored the discomfort. Compartmentalizing pain, learning how to block it out and keep going no matter what, had been one of the first things Fletcher had taught me.
Fletcher. My thoughts turned to him. He was in this, too. If Brutus’s client wanted me to take the fall for Gordon Giles’s death, killing Fletcher would be next on the to-do list. They couldn’t afford to leave him alive. Finnegan Lane either. I had to get to them. Soon.
I hurried through the executive floor, dropped the cello case by the unlocked balcony door, and went on into the stairwell. I pounded down the stairs to the second floor. Intermission was still several minutes away. No one crowded into the hallway yet, and I had a clear path to Gordon Giles’s VIP box. I didn’t need people to start screaming when they realized a woman dressed in black was holding a bloody knife in one hand and an even bloodier barbed bolt in the other.
Up ahead, a man pulled open the door to the box seats and stepped inside. Brutus’s backup. And I realized he wasn’t just going to kill Giles. A dead-end trail and no witnesses meant he’d have to take out Donovan Caine, too. Killing Giles and blaming me was one thing, but I didn’t need the heat of a dead cop on top of that. Especially an honest one like Caine, who was something of a folk hero in Ashland. The cops, even the crooked ones, would lean on everyone they knew to get Caine’s killer. The insatiable appetite of the press and public pressure would force them to. Donovan Caine and Gordon Giles definitely needed to keep breathing tonight.
I quickened my pace and charged through the door. Gordon Giles squatted half in, half out of his seat, his blue eyes wide with panic and fear. Donovan Caine stood tall and erect. He just looked furious.
The man with the gun turned at the sound of the door opening. I stepped forward and sucker-punched him. His nose crunched under my tight fist, and blood spattered onto the curtain-covered walls. The man cursed and stumbled back. I used his own momentum to spin him around, pull him toward me, and hook my right arm around his shoulder. My knife pressed into his throat.
“Nobody moves or he dies!” I hissed.
He was going to die anyway, but they didn’t need to know that. Gordon Giles didn’t move. Donovan Caine’s hand fluttered over the gun in the holster on his hip. Cowboy.
The would-be assassin jerked against me, trying to break my hold. More hot pain blossomed in my shoulder, but I ground my teeth together and shut it out. I jabbed the knife tip into his throat to dissuade him from further movement.
“Who are you working for?” I snarled in his ear.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, mixing with my own. He stank of garlic.
“Bullshit. You were assigned to kill Giles if I didn’t.”
Giles gasped, and his ferretlike face paled. Donovan Caine’s hazel eyes narrowed, and his mouth flattened into a hard line.
“Tell me who you’re working for, or I am going to cut your throat right here, right now. Brutus isn’t coming to help you.”
The man stiffened at the mention of the other assassin’s name. For a moment, I thought he might tell me, might give me the information I needed, but he arched his back, and I knew he’d made the wrong decision.
“Go to hell, bitch,” he spat out the words, along with a mouthful of blood.
I cut his throat. Hot, sticky blood spurted out onto my hands. The man gurgled and clutched at the open wound. Gordon Giles screamed once, a high-pitched, girlish sound better suited for an enthusiastic cheerleader than a middle-aged man. He swayed back and forth. His eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and the accountant toppled over in a dead faint. Donovan Caine had a stronger stomach. The detective went for his gun.
Before Caine could get his weapon free of his holster, I shoved the dying man forward, sending him into the detective. Then I turned and sprinted out of the box.
I ran back the way I’d come, pounding up the stairs to the executive floor, grabbing the cello case, bursting through the doors, and running out on the balcony. As soon as I stepped onto the stone patio, I hurled the cello case over the side into the river and rushed toward the hidden rope.
I’d heard Donovan Caine’s heavy footsteps in the stairwell below me. No time to be cautious, to be safe. I’d have to climb down the side of the cliffs and hope Caine was a lousy shot or didn’t cut the rope before I reached the bottom—
“Stop right there!” a male voice boomed.
I froze and looked over my shoulder. Donovan Caine advanced on me, his gun leveled at my chest with the steadiness of a man who knows he’s an excellent shot. I turned and raised my hands, even as I took a step back toward the balcony.
“Who are you?” he snarled. “Who are you working for?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said in an even voice. “Things have gotten a little complicated this evening.”
His eyes glinted like smoky topaz. “Complicated how?”
He wasn’t shooting me on the spot. Good for me, sloppy on his part.
“Somebody set me up,” I said. “I was supposed to kill Giles and walk away, but somebody had other ideas. They wanted to kill me before I did the job, then blame me for his murder. If you check up on the catwalk, you’ll find a dead man. His name is Brutus. He’s an assassin. Goes by the nickname Viper.”
Caine took another step forward. “I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t care what you believe. The point is Gordon Giles is still in danger. I’d be more worried about him than me.”
The detective thought about it, his black jacket struggling to contain the strength of his coiled muscles. His features were rough and rugged in the shadows. Patches of darkness painted his cheekbones, but the moonlight frosted his dark hair and outlined his thick lips.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, I thought about those lips against mine. His heavy tongue stroking my own, then moving down my body one sweet, slow inch at a time, before plunging into the curls at the junction of my thighs. Mmm.
“You’re coming with me,” he said.
With his free hand, Caine reached inside his jacket pocket and drew out a pair of silverstone handcuffs. He tossed them on the balcony between us. The metal clinked to a stop at my booted feet.
“Put those on.”
“Handcuffs. Kinky. But I prefer to have a bit more freedom during sex. Don’t you?”
Caine jerked as though I’d yanked the gun out of his hands and shot him. His eyes flicked down my body, going to my breasts and thighs, before coming back to my face. Yeah, he was thinking about it. All the distraction I needed.
“There’s no need to bother with those because you aren’t taking me in, detective.”
“Where are you going to go?” Caine asked. “You’re trapped up here.”
I smiled. “Me? Trapped? Never.”
Using my legs, I turned, leaped up onto the balcony wall, and launched myself over the side into the darkness below.
I managed to propel myself far enough out from the balcony so that I missed the sharp, jagged rocks of the cliffs below. The wind screeched in my ears before my body plunged into the murky depths of the Aneirin River.
I flipped over during my descent and hit the water feetfirst. The force of my fall ripped the weapons from my hands and knifed me down to the rocky riverbed, fifty feet below the surface. The black water was so cold I felt like I’d been flash-frozen. The icy, cruel shock of it stole precious air from my lungs. But I didn’t flail or try to struggle to the surface. Instead I let the current catch me in its rough embrace and drag me downriver. I started counting the seconds in my head. Ten, twenty, thirty …
When I reached forty-five, I kicked up. My waterlogged clothes and boots weighed me down, but I broke free of the water. I gasped in a breath and sank back under the surface. Ten, twenty, thirty …
When I reached forty-five, I kicked up again. This time, I stayed up. I treaded water and looked back at the opera house. Lights blazed on the balcony, from which I’d jumped. Figures moved back and forth on the ledge, but I was too far away to see who they were. I wondered if Donovan Caine was still on the balcony. Or if he’d gone back to Gordon Giles to hustle the accountant to safety.