Authors: Jennifer Estep
But I couldn’t think about them right now. I had to reach Fletcher. Even though Brutus was dead, news of the botched assassination attempt would start leaking out—along with the fact Giles was still alive. Whoever had hired Brutus would start cleaning house, killing everyone who might be able to point the finger of guilt at him, including Fletcher.
I turned my head and swam for shore.
It took me twenty minutes to reach the opposite side of the river. By the time I plodded up the sloping, muddy bank, I’d drifted half a mile downstream from the opera house. Blue and red police lights flashed in the distance, and a bloodhound bayed at the moon. His brothers and sisters joined him in a low, throaty chorus. The sound echoed across the river to me, then bounced back. They weren’t assuming I’d drowned. Too bad.
Despite the Ice magic in my veins, the frigid water had taken its toll. My teeth chattered, and my short fingernails had blued out from the cold. The groove in my shoulder where the bullet had grazed me felt tight and numb, and my kidneys ached from Brutus’s blows. So did my left arm where he’d sliced it with the knife. And worst of all, I smelled rotten, like catfish.
But I forced myself to keep moving, to put one foot in front of the other. I increased my puttering pace to a swift walk, then a jog. I had to move. Had to keep warm until I could get some dry clothes.
While I jogged, I unzipped a pocket on my vest and fished out my cell phone. Thanks to my waterproof case, I still had a signal. I dialed the number for the Pork Pit. The phone rang and rang and rang. Fletcher should have been there. He always waited for me at the barbecue restaurant after a job. He should have answered.
I tried Finnegan’s number. No answer. Dread flooded my body, adding to my misery, making my chest hurt, weighing me down. But I pushed it aside and forced my feet to move. Faster. I had to go faster. Water squished out of my boots with every quick step.
I ran two miles in the dark, stumbling most of the way. I stayed just inside the dense row of shrubbery and fir trees that lined the highway. Cars whizzed by on the four-lane, but I didn’t dare try to stop one of them or hail a cab. A wet possum looked more appealing than me right now. Smelled better too.
Up ahead, I spotted a sign for one of the Sell-Everything superstores that dotted the city like cavernous zits on a teenager’s face. One of Mab Monroe’s many business interests. For once, I was grateful to see such a blatant symbol of southern corporate America. Because all of my knives had gotten ripped away from me when I’d hit the river, and I’d need new weapons to save Fletcher and Finn. Dry clothes and shoes too, or I ran the risk of hypothermia. Despite my jog, my teeth still chattered and my hands shook from the cold water. Hard to cut somebody if your fingers were too numb to wrap around the hilt of your knife. As much as I hated a second’s delay in getting to Fletcher and Finn, I needed some supplies before I went after them.
Or we’d all be dead.
I trudged into the parking lot and headed for the fall garden section, deserted except for the day’s fading pansies and bags of mulch that hadn’t sold. I slipped past the low wall of cinder blocks that separated the flowers from the parking lot. Rows of rakes and leaf blowers hung on the makeshift peg-board walls, and the whole area reeked of fertilizer. The door to the store itself was still open, and I headed inside. All around me, the cheap concrete of the building beeped and chimed like a cash register.
An empty cart, abandoned by some wayward shopper, stood by the entrance. I pushed the squeaking metal contraption to the women’s section and grabbed the first clothes that looked like they might fit. Jeans. A bra. Panties. Long-sleeved black T-shirt. Matching fleece jacket. Socks. Boots. A black baseball cap with a red primrose rune stitched on it. The symbol for beauty. Because baseball caps were so beautiful in and of themselves.
My next stop was the pharmacy, where I grabbed antibiotic ointment, gauze, superstrength aspirin, and more medical supplies. I did a drive-by in the beauty section, picking up deodorant and body freshener to try to smother my catfish perfume. Then I went to the outdoors aisle and dumped several packs of chemical hand warmers into the cart. My final stop was the kitchen section. Several large knives went on top of my pile of goods.
I pushed the full cart to the self-checkout lane in the front of the store. I fished a credit card with a fake name out of my soggy vest and paid for the items. A clerk stationed by the registers gave me a bored look, then went back to her magazine. Since I was merely wet and cold, and not strung out and jonesing for blood like the vampire hookers who shopped late at night, I didn’t merit her attention.
I took my items to the bathroom in the back of the store. I locked the door behind me and stripped off my wet clothes, shivering all the while. Using the supplies I’d just bought, I cleaned the wound in my shoulder and the one on my bicep, glued them together with liquid skin, and covered both with gauze bandages. The injuries still throbbed and pulsed with heat, but they weren’t deep enough to need stitches. The bullet had just grazed my shoulder, instead of punching through it.
Of course, I could have gone to Jo-Jo’s and had her take care of me. A few minutes with the Air elemental healer, and I would have felt like I’d spent a week being pampered at a ritzy spa. But I didn’t have that kind of time.
Not if I wanted to get to Fletcher and Finn before they got dead.
I tried calling the father and son again as I hosed myself down with the deodorant and body freshener, changed into the dry clothes, and cracked aspirin between my teeth. No answer.
I ripped open the hand warmers and stuffed them into the pockets of the jacket and jeans, and down into the space between my boots and socks. The bloody clothes got tossed into the trash. No point in hiding them. They were generic clothes you could find in any store. It wasn’t like I’d stitched my name inside them: Property of Gin Blanco.
Besides, if Donovan Caine was smart, he’d check every store, gas station, and cab company in a five-mile radius of the opera house. Sooner or later, he’d get the surveillance footage from Sell-Everything. He would know I’d come in here to get cleaned up.
But that was all he’d know.
I ripped open the plastic covering the knives and tested one with my thumb. Not as sharp as I liked; the balance was off, and the wooden handle was slick as hot shit in the summertime, but it would do the job. Just about anything would, if you put enough force behind it. I tucked two knives up my jacket sleeves. One went against the small of my back, and two more slid into my boots, nestled next to the hand warmers.
Brutus had already paid for double-crossing me. Now it was his mysterious employer’s turn and anyone else who got between me and Fletcher and Finnegan. I hoped Donovan Caine and the rest of the police force were stocked up on coffee and doughnuts and approved for overtime. Because the body count in Ashland was about to go up tonight—way up.
Hidden in the shadows, I stared at the front door of the Pork Pit. The neon pig glowed in the dark night, its pink lights taking on a blood-red tinge. Or perhaps that was just my thoughts darkening at what I might find inside the innocent-looking storefront.
I checked my watch. After ten. More than two hours since the botched assassination attempt at the opera house. I’d been crouching here three minutes, hoping for a sign of life inside. Nothing. Using my cell phone, I’d called the restaurant again, but Fletcher still hadn’t answered. I’d tried Finn again, too. No response.
They were both probably dead already.
Brutus’s employer would want to know about me—where I’d go, what I’d do, who I’d talk to. Fletcher and Finnegan could give him that information. Two hours was a long time to be in the hands of the enemy. Two minutes was enough to break most people. Even without magic.
The smart thing to do would have been to walk away. To melt into the shadows. To disappear the way Fletcher had taught me. The way we’d always planned if something went wrong. I had enough fake IDs and credit cards in my vest to get me started, and more than enough cash hidden in various overseas accounts to live a life of anonymous luxury. It would have been easier than eating peach pie.
But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t push Fletcher and Finn out of my mind. Couldn’t turn my back on them. Couldn’t disregard them and walk away like they would have wanted me to. Not when there might be a chance of saving one or both of them. I owed them that. They’d taken me in off the streets when I’d had nowhere else to go. I owed them everything. And they would have done the same for me. The father and son would have come for me as soon as they could, despite their own vows to the contrary. No, I wasn’t walking away from them. Not now, not ever.
Besides, I’d never been one to take the easy path in life. Easy was for people too weak to suck it up and do what needed to be done.
And I wasn’t weak. Not anymore.
I approached the Pork Pit from the back, slipping into the alley that ran behind the building. My eyes caught on a black crack across from the back of the restaurant, a narrow space just big enough for a child to squeeze into.
A hard smile curved my lips. An old hiding spot of mine, back when I’d been living on the streets. Empty and much too small for me now. Besides, I didn’t need to hide. I’d become what I was so I’d never have to run and hide again.
But that didn’t mean I still shouldn’t be cautious. So I hunkered down beside one of the metal Dumpsters. Looking. Listening. Waiting.
Nothing. Not even a rat digging in the container beside me. Something very, very bad must have happened to scare the rats away.
I put my hand on the building, listening to the stone. The clogged contentment of yesterday had taken on a harsh, strident note. Something had upset the brick, intruded on its usual peace. Something sudden. Unexpected. Bloody. Violent. The low, sharp, vibrating rasp pounded in my skull like a dirge for the dead.
My hand reached for the back door of the restaurant. I stopped. The door stood ajar just a tiny crack, hardly enough to be noticeable, but I’d spent the last seventeen years noticing everything and everyone around me. The kitchen knives slid into my hands. I backed away from the door and peered at it. A thin, black wire wrapped around the doorknob and led inside, hence the crack. Using one of the knives, I sliced the wire, careful not to jiggle it. Then I stood to one side of the door and pulled it open.
A shotgun had been erected inside the back room, rigged to fire when the door was opened. Turn the knob, step inside, and get two barrels to the chest. A crude but effective trap.
I waited and listened. Silence. Cold, cold silence.
Fletcher should have been puttering about the kitchen or doing inventory in the stockroom. Should have been brewing his chicory coffee and reading his latest book. The quiet chilled me far more than the river had, soaking into my bones like an icy rain, despite the chemical hand warmers in my pockets.
I eased into the restaurant, checking the floor and ceiling around the door for more traps. Nothing. I paused after every step. Waiting, looking, searching. Nothing moved, not even the granddaddy long-leg spiders in their cubbyholes in the corners.
Finally, in front of the counter in the storefront, I found him.
Fletcher Lane sprawled across a crimson pool of blood on the floor. Several jagged stab wounds and spatters of blood marred his ripped, torn, blue work apron, almost like a bottle of ketchup had exploded on him. His clothes lay in tatters around him, defensive cuts blackened his hands, and his knuckles were swollen and bruised, as though he’d hit someone repeatedly. Money spilled out of the busted cash register, sticking to the tacky, bloody floor, along with the battered copy of
Where the Red Fern Grows
he’d been reading. Pieces of a broken cup dotted the floor beside him, along with the dregs of his chicory coffee. Caffeine fumes lingered in the air. The faint aroma made my heart twist.
Fletcher had also been tortured—by an Air elemental.
Long pieces of skin were missing from his face, arms, hands. The stomach-turning stench of raw meat overpowered the pancake pools of copper-scented blood on the floor. The Air elemental had used his fingers like they were fucking sandblasters, forcing oxygen under Fletcher’s skin. Making it blister and burn and bubble up before he ripped it off, muscles, tendons, and all. A small strip here, a thumbprint-size indentation there, a fist-shaped mark right over his heart. None of the wounds immediately lethal, but all of them excruciatingly painful. The wounds were so deep I could see Fletcher’s bones in places. Sticks of dirty ivory floating in a red, soupy mess of ripped flesh.
Fletcher had been flayed alive by magic.
And the Air elemental had kept right on torturing Fletcher, even after he was dead. That was the only way to explain all the missing skin. All the gruesome blisters and horrid bubbles of flesh. There were so, so many of them. All causing more pain than most folks experienced in a lifetime.
It turned my stomach.
I might have killed people, but I usually ended their lives quickly. A single wound. Two at the most. Quick, sure, accurate. This … somebody had taken extreme pleasure in this. Glee. Joy, even.
My vision blurred. Something burned in my eyes. Crying. I was crying. Something I hadn’t done in seventeen years. I drew in a breath and exhaled a sob. My body shook. My lips trembled. A curious lightness filled my head. I couldn’t look at Fletcher. Not now. Not when I was so close to losing control. To giving in to this emotional weakness.
I hunkered down on my ankles and forced myself to take deep breaths. To focus on drawing the air deep into my lungs and down into the pit of my roiling stomach. As though that was the most important thing in the world. As though Fletcher wasn’t lying a foot in front of me. Dead.
When I’d come back to myself, I opened my gray eyes and stared at the repulsive wounds. Not as a person who’d just discovered a horrific murder. Not as the woman who’d just lost her mentor, the old man she’d loved. And definitely not as Gin, whose shredded heart had just been sliced up and dumped onto a plate like shoestring french fries.