Read The Mask: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel Online
Authors: Taylor Stevens
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thriller & Suspense, #Women's Adventure, #United States, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Thriller
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Taylor Stevens
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The mask / Taylor Stevens.—First edition.
pages ; cm
eBook ISBN 9780385348973
Series cover design by Eric White
Cover photograph by Kazunori Nagashima/Getty Images
for Anne, Christine, and Sarah
knowing you has made my life infinitely richer
The attack, when it came, opened the floodgates of rage. Sound compressed. Time slowed to a water drip plonking into a puddle, echoing a musical note off concrete walls and floors; tires whooshing against the drizzle on the street outside as a car passed the parking garage exit; laughter pealing from the playground down the block. And footsteps, three sets of footsteps, moving in cautiously behind her back.
Vanessa Michael Munroe waited beside the motorcycle, one knee to the pavement, focused on the reflection in the bike’s red fairing. Behind her head, shadows against the evening’s light dropped hints of metal pipes protruding from raised hands, elongating and stretching as they drew nearer.
She counted heartbeats and felt the rhythm.
The muscles in her legs tensed and the chemical surge of adrenaline and anger loosed its addictive calm.
The metal bars came down hard into the empty space where she’d been a half-heartbeat before: metal against concrete ringing loud in the enclosed space, symphonic in the thunder of war.
She came up swinging, helmet chin-guard in hand, all her weight, her full momentum thrown into that backward strike. The man on the right ducked too slowly, moved too late.
The swing smashed helmet into head.
He stumbled. Munroe grabbed the pipe and tore it from his hand. She whipped up and downward, to the back of his knees. He hit the ground and became a barrier between her and the two other men. Boot to his shoulder, she shoved him prostrate and then boosted over him, swinging hard.
The attackers swung, too, and hit for hit she countered, connecting the pipe with their bodies in solid beats because speed was her ally and speed was her friend, in and out and around, until they separated, becoming not one target but two. They were cautious now, angry and, perhaps for the first time, fully aware of the strength of their enemy.
Movement from behind told her that the man on the concrete had pushed to his knees. Munroe rotated back, struck hard, and he collapsed.
She faced the other two again, predicting move against move, guarding the rate of her breathing, conserving strength for a battle that had only begun.
The men shifted, foot to foot, and tensed for the attack and parry. They gripped their weapons, fingers rising and falling along the pipes in slow motion like spiders’ legs along the ground.
She waited for them to come at her again.
Instead, they exchanged glances: nervous with the uncertainty of foot soldiers marching to someone else’s beat in an evening that had gone off script.
The pounding inside her chest groaned in understanding.
The drive for release, for pain, pushed her at them.
She pointed the metal bar at one, marking territory, intended pocket for the eight ball, then strode toward him in misdirection and distraction.
He took several steps in retreat.
A shadow moved in her peripheral vision: his partner flanking and closing in. Munroe pivoted, swung, and connected the metal bar to his shoulder: small pain, a half second of diversion. He retaliated and opened himself up like a fool. She dodged and dropped, then drove the metal bar across his shin: crippling pain, unbearable pain, she knew.
In the beat between his shock and agony, she wrenched the bar from his hand and with two pipes to his none struck his rib cage. He doubled over. She knocked him flat and rotated toward his companion, who, in those same seconds, had backed away another few steps.
She feinted toward him. His eyes darted from her to his partners, and then he turned and ran. The crippled one dragged himself backward, out of immediate reach. He put up a hand, shielding his face in a show of defeat, and Munroe stood in place, rocklike and solid, eyes tracking him, breathing past the urges that drove her to strike again, to move in for the kill and finish what he’d started.
He grimaced and struggled up. Never turning his back to her, arms wrapped protectively around his torso, he hobbled toward the garage opening and then, moving around the corner, he was gone.
The condensation dripped another
into the puddle, another musical note echoed along concrete walls; another set of tires whooshed against the pavement beyond the garage exit; laughter in the distance morphed into the squeals of multiple children; and, with long, slow breaths, the violence of the moment ebbed and faded.
Munroe hefted the pipes and checked her hands, and then her clothes and boots. No blood. That was progress. She walked toward the unconscious man and stood over him, then put a boot to his torso and shoved the body over so that his face turned upward.
He was in his very early twenties, maybe five foot seven, all bone and sinew and stylish hair. She stared out toward the daylight where the other two had gone. Boys like this, full of bravado and without a lot of skill, had no business coming after her. They were a piece of the puzzle that didn’t fit. She couldn’t guess who had sent them, and that raised questions she hadn’t begun to ask. This wasn’t the beginning.
Sometimes it was impossible to start at the beginning.
When the story was complicated and the origin far back in a seemingly mundane pattern of daily life, the only way to make sense of it was to go back to before the beginning, to before the first hint of trouble.
Munroe wiped down the pipes for prints.
In the echo of the garage, footsteps shuffled and clothing rustled: movements small and cautious.
Munroe knelt and placed the pipes beside the body and, without turning, said, “You can come out now.”