“Tell me what you know about the Spider.”
Harriet Montgomery popped another pretzel into her mouth. She took her sweet time chewing the salty snack, then knocked back a long swallow of her cheap beer. Harriet smacked her lips to get rid of the foam that speckled them and reached for another pretzel, like she hadn’t even heard my question.
I grabbed the plastic bowl of week-old pretzels and pulled them away from her. “Now. I want to know what you know about the assassin the Spider right now.”
Harriet looked at me through bleary, bloodshot brown eyes. Her dull red hair hung in flat, limp strands around her face and just brushed the collar of her cheap, black pleather jacket.
We were in a dive bar called Last Call, not too far away from Southtown, the part of Ashland that was home to bums, hookers, gangbangers, and other violent, desperate, dangerous folks. Harriet was the one who’d suggested we meet here, and the bar was exactly what I’d expected it to be—small, cramped, and seedy.
Even though it was just after three in the afternoon, the dingy plastic blinds on the windows were closed, shutting out the December sun and making it seem much darker and later in the day than it really was. Country music alternately wailed and sputtered from a battered, flickering jukebox in the back corner. Most of the men and women huddled over the scarred tables wore leather pants and jackets that marked them as bikers, although a few sported cowboy hats and boots instead. Almost everyone had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and smoke hung in thick blue clouds over the wooden bar than ran down one wall.
Once I was sure that no one was more interested in our conversation than they should be, I turned back to Harriet. “You didn’t answer my question.”
She shifted on her barstool and took another swig of her beer. Harriet Montgomery was an informant, a small-time petty crook who occasionally snitched on others when the price was right. A couple days ago, she’d come to me saying that she had information on the Spider. Everyone in Ashland was talking about the Spider these days, since the assassin had declared war on Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who was the head of the city’s underworld.
As a detective with the Ashland Police Department, it was my sworn duty to find the Spider and bring her to justice for all the murders she’d committed—no matter what.
What I didn’t know was what to do about the fact that the Spider also happened to be my older sister Genevieve Snow. The girl I’d seen Mab torture the night the Fire elemental had murdered our mother, Eira, and oldest sister, Annabella. The girl I’d thought Mab had killed that night, just like the Fire elemental had wanted to kill me.
Guilt churned in my stomach the way it always did whenever I thought of that awful night—and the cowardly thing I’d done to live through it.
“Just relax, will ya, Detective Coolidge?” Harriet finally mumbled. “I told you that I don’t know anything but that my friend does. She’ll be here soon—and she’ll be expecting that cash you’ve been promising for the info.”
Her eyes glittered with cold interest, and I bit back a tired sigh. In other words, the woman expected to be paid, probably for false information, and Harriet no doubt expected a cut as well. But it was my own fault, really. I wanted to find the Spider, wanted to find Genevieve, so badly that I’d started offering cash for information about her. My own money, taken from the trust fund that my foster parents had set up for me before their deaths.
So far, I’d gotten exactly nothing for my time, trouble, and money. No leads on who the Spider was, where she might strike next, or why she’d decided to go after Mab Monroe. Of course, I imagined that Genevieve wanted to kill Mab for murdering our family, as that was the most logical conclusion, but I wasn’t sharing that information with the crooked cops on the force. Knowing that my sister was the Spider and that we both had a grudge against Mab would make me more of a target with the other members of the police department than I was already. Good, honest cops like me were a rarity in Ashland. From the lowliest rookies to the most seasoned officers, most everybody on the force preferred to take money to look the other way and ignore all the criminals who crossed their paths.
But my most pressing problem was that I didn’t know what Genevieve looked like now, what name she might be using, or where she might be living in Ashland. It was like she was a ghost who just magically appeared, killed Mab’s men, and vanished into thin air. Genevieve had always been smart, but she’d taken it to a new level as the Spider.
I didn’t know whether that was good or bad.
Harriet must have sensed my frustration because she grinned, showing me the gap between her front teeth. “Don’t worry, detective. My friend will be here soon, and then, she’ll answer all your questions about the Spider.”
Behind my back out of Harriet’s sight, I clenched my fingers into fists so I wouldn’t be tempted to jerk forward and shake the information out of her right now—if she or her friend even had any to start with.
Impatient, I plopped down on a stool at the corner of the bar not too far from where Harriet was sitting and signaled for the bartender to bring me a beer. I had no intention of drinking anything, but it was better to blend in—as much as I could, anyway, what with all the leather and cowboy hats. The bartender put a dirty glass in front of me, his sharp movements making beer slosh over the side and fill in the jagged grooves in the wood. I put a five-dollar bill next to the spilled beer. The bartender swiped my money and headed on down the line to his next customer.
He moved away, and my reflection stared back at me from the cracked mirror behind the bar. Blond hair, blue eyes, a long black coat worn over my sweater and jeans. Maybe it was the dim light or clouds of choking smoke, but I looked tired tonight. Hell, I felt tired. I had for days now, but I was determined to see this thing through to the end, even if this meeting with Harriet and her mysterious friend was probably another waste of my time and money.
I made sure that my back was to the wall and that I had a clear view of the room and everyone in it. Once that was done, there was nothing else to do but sit here and ignore the curious looks coming my way until Harriet’s friend showed up.
Damn. I hated waiting.
It had all started with a plain brown envelope a few weeks ago.
Someone had scrawled Detective Bria Coolidge across the envelope. Nothing unusual about that—except the fact that it had been delivered to my home and not the police station where I worked near Savannah, Georgia. I kept my home address private, for obvious reasons, so I looked closely at the spindly, spider-like handwriting. For some reason, I thought I should recognize it. I could have sworn that I’d seen that same handwriting somewhere before, but the memory just wouldn’t come to me.
Curious, I closed the front door of my house, stood there in the hallway, and carefully examined the envelope, wondering if someone had sent me a nasty surprise since there was no return address. It had happened before. More than one criminal genius had thought he could scare me off a case by sending me photos of myself with a red bull’s-eye painted on my forehead or by stuffing a dead rat in a box and wrapping it up to look like a present.
I ran my hands up and down the envelope. There wasn’t much in it. A couple of sheets of paper, at most. No dead rats today.
I went into the kitchen and pulled on the pair of rubber gloves that I kept by the sink, so I wouldn’t contaminate whatever was inside with my fingerprints. Then, I grabbed a knife out of one of the drawers and used it to slice open the end of the envelope. Inside was a single photo. I pulled it out the wrong way and found myself looking at the back of the photo. More handwriting was scribbled there, a short note that read This was taken in August in Ashland. She needs you, Bria, and you need her. It’s time to come home.
It wasn’t the most ominous note that I’d ever gotten. In fact, there was nothing threatening about it at all. But it made my heart pound and my palms sweat all the same, and I didn’t know why.
I flipped over the photo, and everything just—stopped.
A woman’s hand stretched out in the photo, her fingers wide, like she’d been trying to block the camera, like she hadn’t wanted to have her picture taken for whatever reason. But the angle of the shot gave me a crystal-clear view of the scar in the center of her palm. A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. The symbol for patience.
A spider rune—my older sister Genevieve’s rune.
All the air whooshed out of my lungs, and my knees buckled. I sagged against the kitchen counter, then slid to the floor. The dirty dishes in the sink rattled at the sharp, sudden movements.
For the last seventeen years, I’d thought that Genevieve was dead, that Mab Monroe had killed her just like the Fire elemental had murdered our mother and oldest sister. I’d seen what Mab had done to her that night, how the Fire elemental had made Genevieve hold onto her own rune while Mab superheated the silverstone and burned it into my sister’s palms. I’d heard Genevieve’s screams, and I’d smelled the stench of her burning flesh. I’d thought no one could survive that much pain, not to mention the collapse of our house, but this photo proved otherwise. I would have known Genevieve’s spider rune anywhere—anywhere.
Metal dug into my palm, snapping me out of my memories, and I realized that I was clutching my own rune, a delicate primrose, the symbol for beauty. I wore the rune on a chain around my neck, just like the rest of my family had. My mother, Eira’s, rune had been a snowflake, representing icy calm, while Annabella’s curving ivy vine had symbolized elegance.
I forced myself to let go of the cold metal and looked down at my hand. Three silverstone rings glinted on my left index finger. Snowflakes ringed one band, while ivy vines curled through another. The third ring had a small spider rune stamped into the middle of it. I wore the rings every day, just like I did my own primrose rune necklace. It was my way of remembering my murdered family.
Except now I knew that Genevieve was alive—my sister was alive.
Legs trembling, I got to my feet and rummaged through one of the junk drawers in the kitchen until I found a magnifying glass. Using the glass, I peered at the photo from every angle, trying to see every detail that I could, trying to get every clue that I could from the color pixels.
But there wasn’t much to see. All I could make out in the background was the blurry curve of a smile. None of Genevieve’s other features were visible. Not her hair, not her clothes, nothing. Whoever had taken the photo had been very careful to only show the scar on her palm and nothing else.
Frustration filled me, burning like acid in my stomach. Was my sister happy? Was she safe and warm? Did she have a place to live, enough food to eat? Did she even remember me and what had happened to our family?
Did she miss me like I missed her?
The questions filled my mind, more and more of them until they crowded out everything else. But of course, I didn’t have answers to any of them—not a single one. Hell, I didn’t even know who had sent me the photo or why. Why now, after seventeen years? What did this mysterious person want? What was I supposed to do now that I knew that Genevieve was still alive?
I looked at the scrawled message on the back of the photo again. She needs you, Bria, and you need her. It’s time to come home.
Home. Such a small word, but it meant so many things—and not all of them were good. I’d once had a home and a family who’d loved me, until Mab had destroyed them with her Fire magic. But most of all, I’d had Genevieve. The two of us had been a team. Annabella had been older and more interested in boys than anything else, while Mother had always seemed busy and distracted. But Genevieve had always had time for me—always.
So many memories flooded my mind then. The two of us playing hide and seek or having pretend tea parties with my dolls and stuffed animals. Genevieve helping me shake the snow globes that my mother collected, as we tried to make the snow inside them swirl up at the same time. Genevieve fixing me hot chocolate with marshmallows just the way I liked it. Genevieve letting me crawl into bed with her late at night whenever I had a bad dream.
My heart squeezed in on itself with every memory, with every bittersweet reminder of what I’d lost when Mab had decided to destroy the Snow family.
I reached down and twisted one of the rings around on my index finger. The one with the spider rune stamped into the middle of it. Genevieve’s ring. The rune set into the middle of the silverstone gleamed with the motion, and suddenly, I knew exactly what I was going to do—what I had to do.
I was going back to Ashland. I was going home to find my sister and make Mab pay for what she’d done to us—no matter what.
I got lucky. A spot had just opened up in the Ashland Police Department, since a detective named Donovan Caine was looking to leave the city. I contacted Caine, and we arranged a simple swap—he’d take my job, and I’d take his. No muss, no fuss, not too much bitching from our supervisors.
Caine sounded tired on the phone when I called him to make the final arrangements. “Are you really sure that you want to come to Ashland, Bria?” he asked me for the fifth time. “It’s not like what you’re used to down there.”
“What do you mean?”
He was silent for a moment. “I mean it’s a tough place to try to enforce the law. Sometimes, it seems like there are more criminals than decent, honest people.” Caine hesitated again. “And most of the cops aren’t much better than the criminals they occasionally arrest. My partner was one of those. Actually, he was worse.”
“I grew up in Ashland, Donovan,” I said. “I know how violent the city is and how Mab Monroe has her fingers in everything.”
Maybe I hadn’t been exactly aware of it when I was a kid, at least not until Mab had paid her late-night visit to my house, but everyone knew that Ashland wasn’t exactly the safest city in the South. Most of the cops I knew down in Georgia thanked their lucky stars that they didn’t work in Ashland, and no one could understand why I wanted to move there. I hadn’t told anyone about getting Genevieve’s photo in the mail. My friends on the force would just try to convince me that someone was playing a sick game with me. Maybe this person was, but I had to find out for myself. If there was even the slightest chance that Genevieve was still alive, then I was going to find her—no matter what.
“So why would you want come here?” Donovan asked.
This time, I was silent. “It’s a family matter. I’m coming back home to track down a relative that I haven’t seen in years. Now, here’s my question for you. Why do you want to leave so badly? Other than the sky-high crime rate and dirty cops?”
“There’s a woman I need to get away from.”
I frowned. “What woman? And why do you need to get away from her?”
Donovan let out a bitter laugh. “I hope you never find out. Good luck to you, Bria. You’re going to need it.”
He hung up on me.
A few days later, we made the swap, and I was back in Ashland. I immediately set out to find Genevieve, but I had nothing to go on. I’d had forensics take a look at the photo before I’d left Georgia, but there hadn’t been any fingerprints on the photo or envelope, and there was nothing special about the paper or ink that had been used. So I started digging through the police records, but there were no reports of a woman with spider runes branded into her palms ever having come through Ashland as either a victim or a criminal. I expanded my search to orphanages and foster homes, thinking that perhaps Genevieve had been adopted like I had, but I came up empty again. It was like Genevieve had just ceased to exist, and nothing that I did gave me any clue as to where she might have gone or where she might be now. The truth was that I was at a dead end before I even got started.
Oh, the other cops told me plenty of outlandish stories—rumors, really—about some assassin who went around Ashland calling herself the Spider. Supposedly, she was the best in the business and could get to anyone, anywhere, anytime. For the most part, I ignored the stories since that couldn’t possibly be Genevieve. She could never kill anyone, much less be a notorious assassin who murdered people for money. Not my big sister.
Donovan Caine had been right about the other cops, though. My partner, a giant named Xavier, seemed to be a good guy, but most everyone else on the force was more interested in taking bribes and padding their already fat wallets than putting criminals behind bars where they belonged. Still, I did the best job that I could, although my honesty quickly got me labeled as a cold-hearted bitch who just wasn’t a team player. Like I cared. I wasn’t in Ashland to be popular—I was here to make a difference and help those who needed it. That’s the oath I’d sworn when I’d graduated from the police academy, and that’s what I was determined to do.
Since I couldn’t find Genevieve, I focused on my other reason for coming back to Ashland—taking down Mab Monroe. I dug through old reports, questioned witnesses, and started building my case against the Fire elemental. I didn’t know if I could get Mab for the murder of my family, but I was sure as hell going to try. Really, I’d nail the bitch for whatever I could, even if it was just a traffic violation. It was a place to start, at least. The other cops tried to warn me off in a variety of friendly and no-so-friendly ways, but I let it be known that nothing was going to make be back down. The word suicidal quickly got tagged onto cold-hearted bitch.
Then came the night that Elliot Slater broke into my house. The giant worked for Mab as her top enforcer, the guy who permanently, quietly disposed of anyone who made too many problems for Mab—like me. I’d been expecting Mab to send someone after me since I was digging up all her dirty laundry, but Slater and his men had stormed into my house and got the upper hand. I’d been gut-shot, and they’d been about to kill me when a strange woman wearing a ski mask had appeared in my living room and taken them out instead—with silverstone knives no less.
At first, I thought she was crazy. Who the hell could kill a roomful of giants with just a couple of knives? But one by one, she cut them down, and I started to think that maybe those rumors about an assassin named the Spider weren’t so far-fetched after all, especially when she sent Slater running for his life. I’d thought she might kill me too, but instead, she’d actually wanted to talk to me—almost like she knew me. That should have been my first clue as to who she really was, but I’d been in so much pain at the time that it had taken everything I’d had just to keep standing.
“What are you then?” I’d asked her at one point. “Some sort of guardian angel?”
“The angel of death, maybe,” she’d replied in a light tone. “People who have guardian angels generally don’t need my services.”
I passed out after that, and when I woke up, I was completely healed, and all the blood and bodies had vanished from my house like they’d never even been there to start with. Someone had used Air elemental magic to put me back together and clean my house—I could feel the faintest remnants of the magic crackling in the air like static electricity. It put me on edge, especially since the power felt so different from my own Ice magic.
But I didn’t have time to wonder about the assassin and why she’d saved my life because Elliot Slater had another target—Roslyn Phillips, a beautiful vampire that Slater was obsessed with. Xavier, my partner, was in love with Roslyn, which complicated matters, as did the fact that Roslyn refused my help and pretended like nothing was wrong—even after an ugly scene with Slater on board the Delta Queen riverboat casino. One in which Roslyn told everyone on board about how Slater was making her pretend to be his girlfriend and how much he disgusted her.
Roslyn disappeared after that. I wanted to help the vampire press charges again Slater for stalking, so I did my best to find her, but I didn’t have a single lead—until someone called in an anonymous tip about a bunch of bodies at Slater’s rustic mansion in the mountains above Ashland.
Xavier and I rushed up there to find a bloody, bruised Roslyn and several bodies not only in the mansion but in the surrounding woods as well. Roslyn told a story that was eerily similar to mine. Slater had abducted Roslyn and was going to beat her to death—but a masked woman had intervened, killing the giant and the rest of his men instead.
Word had quickly leaked to the media, and I’d been standing outside with the reporters and other cops when someone had triggered an explosive device, and a rune had appeared, burning in the stone of Elliot Slater’s mansion.
A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. The symbol for patience. A spider rune—Genevieve’s rune.
So many things came together in my mind then. Why the assassin had saved me, why she’d saved Roslyn, why she’d killed Elliot Slater, why she was announcing her presence with everyone watching, including Mab Monroe.
I stood there and stared at the spider rune until it burned out, and its silvery light finally faded, but I couldn’t deny the truth any longer.
My big sister Genevieve was indeed alive—and she was the notorious assassin the Spider.
I redoubled my efforts to find Genevieve, but I didn’t have any more luck this time around. I still had no leads, other than the photo, and no idea where to find any. So I’d put the word out on the street that I was offering cash for information that led me to the Spider. If I couldn’t find Genevieve, I figured that I’d track down her alter-ego instead.
But there was even less information on the Spider. No one knew who she was, what she looked like, or where her home base might be. Hell, no one even seemed to know how you went about hiring her. She just seemed to kill whomever she wanted, whenever she wanted. And now, she had her sights set on Mab Monroe.
The harder I looked and the more money I paid out for useless information, the angrier I got—at Genevieve. My sister had saved me from Elliot Slater, so she knew that I was back in Ashland. Hadn’t she recognized me? Why didn’t she contact me? I could understand not wanting a face-to-face meeting, since I was a cop, but she could have called me at the very least. Didn’t she want to see me? Did she even remember me? Or had Mab burned all of the memories of our family out of her heart that night so long ago?
I didn’t know the answers to any of my questions, and it was driving me crazy.
A finger poked me in the shoulder, snapping me out of my memories. I looked over at Harriet, who had drained two more beers and emptied the bowl of pretzels while we’d been sitting here.
“What?” I growled.
She held up a cell phone. “I said my friend just called me. Didn’t you hear my phone ring?”
I shrugged, not bothering to tell her what I’d really been thinking about.
“Anyway, my friend’s waiting outside for us,” Harriet said.
My eyes narrowed. “And why doesn’t she come in here? Into the bar?”
Harriet shrugged. “She doesn’t like crowds, especially this kind of crowd.”
I looked out at the rough types that huddled over their drinks. The bikers and cowboys eyed each other with open hostility, and the tension between the two groups was as thick as the blue smoke over the bar.
“Fair enough,” I said.
Harriet slapped some money down on the bar to cover her watery beers and stale pretzels and headed for the door. I followed her.
Harriet led me outside, down the street, and into the alley at the end of the block. A woman leaned against the alley wall, smoking a clove cigarette. She wore a fitted, Fiona Fine pantsuit that cost more than everything I had on put together. The expensive fabric was a rich amber color that matched her skin and hair, which was pulled back into an elegant twist. She was quite beautiful, with high cheekbones, perfect skin, and eyes that were an amazing shade of green. A delicate gold chain ringed her neck, and I caught sight of a matching watch on her left wrist.
The nice clothes, the jewelry, the striking face. The woman wasn’t what I’d expected, which made me even more uneasy. What would someone who looked so put together have to do with Harriet, who was the very definition of small-time?
The woman must have sensed my wariness because she smiled at me, revealing two small fangs. A vampire then.
“This is Selene,” Harriet said. “My friend.”
She didn’t introduce me. There was no need to. I opened my coat and pushed it back so Selene could see the gold detective’s badge clipped to my belt—along with the gun there.
“Harriet says you have information about the Spider,” I said, wanting to get this over with. “Here’s how it works. You tell me what you have, and I’ll decide how much it’s worth. If I like what I hear, you get a few bucks.”
Selene took another drag off her cigarette then flicked it away. It sparked a moment before flaring out. The vampire pushed away from the wall and walked over to me. Instead of stopping in front of me, she circled around, looking at me from all angles. When her inspection was done, she gave an approving nod and looked at Harriet.
“You did good finding this one,” Selene said in a husky voice. “She’ll fit in nicely with the other girls.”
My eyebrows shot up. Fit in nicely where? And with what other girls?
Selene saw my questioning look. She let out a low chuckle and smiled at me again. “Poor cop, you don’t know what’s going on, do you? Let me explain it to you, honey. I’m what you cops refer to as a madam. I have my own place right in the heart of Southtown, with several girls who work for me. But my clients, well sometimes, they want fresh meat. A good-looking girl just like you with all that pretty blond hair and those big blue eyes.”
A police report popped into my head, something that had crossed my desk a few days ago right before Slater and his men had been murdered by the Spider. Someone was going around Southtown kidnapping women, grabbing them right off the streets on their way home from work or overpowering them in the parking garages in the area. Most of the women were found in alleys just like this one a few weeks later. The ones who weren’t beaten to death or didn’t die from exposure had been raped, tortured, and pumped full of so many drugs that they could barely remember their own names, much less what had happened to them.
“So you’re the person who’s been kidnapping women and giving them to strangers to be raped,” I said. “You picked the wrong cop to mess with, honey. I don’t take bribes—ever.”
Her smile grew a little wider, and her fangs gleamed like razors in her mouth. “Oh, honey, I don’t want to bribe you. I can make enough off you to live in fine style. For a month or two, anyway, given my rather expensive tastes.”
For the first time, I realized that I was only talking to Selene. Where the hell was Harriet—
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the other woman creeping up on me. She raised her hand up, and something flashed silver in the afternoon sun. I whirled around and caught Harriet’s wrist just before she was able to jab a dirty syringe into the side of my neck. Harriet must have had some dwarven blood in her family tree, because even though was shorter than me, she was much stronger. Not as strong as a dwarf would be, but she wasn’t a pushover either.
We seesawed back and forth for a few seconds before I finally managed to drive my boot into Harriet’s knee. She howled with pain and doubled over, and I shoved her away. Harriet stumbled back into the alley wall, and the syringe fell from her hand and skittered across the concrete. I’d just started to reach for my gun when arms wrapped around me from behind, pinning my hands to my sides.
“Just hold still, honey,” Selene murmured in my ear. Her breath reeked of the clove cigarette she’d been smoking. “You won’t feel a thing. Harriet, get that damn syringe over here right now!”
My eyes narrowed. Like hell I would. Bria Coolidge didn’t lay down for anyone—ever.
I couldn’t reach my gun to put a couple of bullets in the bitch’s chest like I wanted to, but I was far from helpless, even against a vampire who was stronger than me. Because in addition to our silverstone runes, the women in the Snow family had another thing in common—we all had elemental Ice magic.
I reached for my magic, relishing the feel of the cool power rippling through my veins. As an elemental, I could create, control, and manipulate Ice any way that I wanted to. Maybe it was because I’d been thinking about Genevieve so much lately, about the Spider and all the men she’d killed, but right now, I was in the mood to create a very specific shape with my magic.
It only took a second for me to form a jagged Ice knife in my right hand. When that was done, I raised my foot up and smashed it down into Selene’s instep, right on top of one of the fancy Bella Bulluci pumps that she was wearing. The vampire snarled, but she didn’t let go. I didn’t really expect her to, but her grip on my arms loosened just enough for me to do what I really wanted, which was bring my hand up.
Then, I rammed the Ice knife into her leg as deep as it would go.
The vampire screamed, high and loud enough to make me wince. Selene lurched back, and the knife pulled free from her leg. I whirled around and slashed out with it. The cold shard caught the vampire across the chest, tearing through her jacket and drawing blood. It wasn’t a deep wound, but it would sting like hell.
“Bitch!” she screamed. “You ruined my suit!”
Like I cared. Instead of responding, I tightened my fingers around the Ice shard and used it like a pair of brass knuckles as I drove my fist into her face. Selene’s head snapped back against the alley wall, and she slumped to the ground.
A scuffle sounded, and I looked over my shoulder. Harriet crouched on the alley floor, her mouth open in surprise. When she saw that I was still standing and that her friend Selene wasn’t, Harriet scrambled to her feet.
I switched the Ice knife to my left hand, then used my right one to pulled the gun out of the holster on my belt and level it with her face. Harriet froze.
“I think I’ve got enough blood on me already,” I said in a quiet, furious voice. “But I’d be happy to add yours to the mix. I’d stand still, if I were you.”
Harriet decided to stand still.
I might not be as deadly as Genevieve had apparently become as the Spider, but I could take care of myself when push came to shove—even in Ashland.
I used my cell phone to call the situation into the station. They took their sweet fucking time getting here, but eventually, several other cops showed up, and Harriet and Selene were carted away. I went back to the station to fill out the necessary paperwork and clean up. I was just getting ready to leave for the day when Xavier stopped by my desk.
Xavier was a giant. At around seven feet tall, he was an imposing figure with a strong body, but his black eyes were kind, and he almost always had a smile for me. His bald head gleamed like polished ebony underneath the station’s harsh lights.
“I just heard about the bust. Nice work, Bria,” Xavier said, grinning at me. “Lots of folks in Southtown will sleep a little easier tonight knowing that Selene’s off the street.”
The grin dropped from his face. “But you should have called me for backup.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I’m a big girl, Xavier. I can take care of myself—and Selene has the stab wounds to prove it.”
“I know,” he said. “But Southtown is still dangerous, no matter if you’re a dwarf, a giant, a vampire, or an elemental. You need to remember that. What were you doing over there anyway? You weren’t scheduled to work today.”
“I was following up a lead on the Spider.”
Some emotion flickered in Xavier’s eyes. “Is that right?” He hesitated. “And did you find out anything?”
I let out a frustrated sigh. “Of course not. Harriet and Selene didn’t know anything about her. They just lured me over there so Selene could use me like she did those other women that she kidnapped. The Spider’s still a ghost.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but something that looked a lot like relief flashed across Xavier’s face before he covered it with a grin. Xavier seemed like a good guy, but sometimes, I wondered whose side he was really on—because I didn’t think that it was mine.
“So does that mean you’re headed home now?” he asked.
“Actually, I’m starved,” I said. “I thought I’d swing by the Pork Pit and get something to eat first. You want to come? I’ll buy.”
That weird emotion filled Xavier’s eyes again. “No, that’s okay. You go on ahead. I’ve got to go check on Roslyn anyway.”
I nodded. I didn’t know how long Xavier had been in love with Roslyn, but the giant had barely left Roslyn’s side since Elliot Slater had kidnapped and beaten her. I admired Xavier’s devotion. Maybe if I was lucky, someday I’d find a guy to love me the way that Xavier loved Roslyn.
For a moment, Finnegan Lane’s face popped into my mind, but I pushed the image away. Finnegan Lane might be sexy in a cocky, smarmy kind of way, but the sleazy investment banker was about as far from honest, loyal, and devoted as you could get. I’d heard plenty of rumors at the station about all the women that Lane slept with—and I had no desire to be just another notch on his belt.
“Bria?” Xavier asked. “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to ignore the faint longing I always felt when I thought about exactly how green Finnegan Lane’s eyes were. “Nothing at all.”
Xavier walked me outside, and we said our goodbyes. Twenty minutes later, I slid into a booth in the back of the Pork Pit.
The barbecue restaurant was just a few blocks over from Last Call where I’d spent the afternoon with Harriet and Selene, but the Pork Pit was a world apart from the seedy, rundown dive bar. Sure, the restaurant’s blue and pink vinyl booths might have a few years on them, and the blue and pink pig tracks on the floor that led to the men’s and women’s bathrooms could use a fresh coat of paint. But no matter how worn it was, everything was clean and polished, from the tables to the dishes to the long counter than ran down the back wall. And the smell was just heavenly—sugar and spices mingled in the air until I could almost taste the sweet, smoky barbecue sauce that the restaurant was famous for.
It was just before six, and the dinner rush was still going strong. The wait staff bustled through the restaurant carrying plates piled high with steaming barbecue beef and pork sandwiches, while a dwarf wearing a black leather collar around her neck dished up bowls of baked beans behind the counter. Sophia, I think the dwarf’s name was. My stomach rumbled, and I stared out the storefront windows and waited for a waitress to notice me.
“Rough day, detective?” a sympathetic voice murmured a minute later.
I looked up to find Gin Blanco standing next to my booth. Gin was the owner of the Pork Pit, a slender, but strong-looking woman with dark brown hair and eyes that seemed more gray than blue to me. She wore a blue work apron over a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt.
I didn’t know quite how I felt about Gin, especially since we hadn’t gotten off to a good start. Someone had almost beaten Gin to death while she was leaving class one night at Ashland Community College. I’d caught the case, but Gin had refused to tell me who had attacked her. Word on the street was that it had been Elliot Slater for some slight that Gin had committed against Jonah McAllister, a lawyer who worked for Mab Monroe. I was interested in anyone who was mixed up with Mab and her crew, and I’d set my sights on Gin, hoping to get her to press charges against Slater or whomever had beaten her.
Gin had refused, but I’d run into her again after Roslyn’s confrontation with Slater on the Delta Queen. I’d had a hunch that Gin might know where Roslyn was hiding from Slater, so I’d come to the Pork Pit. I’d tried everything that I could think of, up to intimidation, to get Gin to tell me where Roslyn was, but Gin had put me in my place and claimed that she didn’t know a thing—a claim that Roslyn had later backed up.
I’d apologized to Gin, of course, and she’d said she’d forgiven me. On the surface, Gin seemed nice enough now, but I always got the feeling that she tread carefully around me—like she was hiding something from me, although I had no idea what it might be.
“Detective?” Gin asked again. “Rough day?”
I gave her a tired smile. “You might say that.”
“Well, some good hot barbecue will fix you right up. So what’ll it be?”
I ordered a ham sandwich with all the fixings, along with baked beans, fries, and a blackberry iced tea. Gin scribbled down my order on her pad, then went back behind the counter to start fixing my food.
I watched her work through the crowd of customers and waitresses moving between us. Gin’s movements were smooth and fluid, whether she was dumping fries on a plate or handing a customer his change. She had an easy grace that I admired, moving more like a ballet dancer than a cook. Just looking at her made me feel clumsy.
Gin also reminded me of Genevieve.
It had taken me awhile to figure it out. At first, I’d thought Gin reminded me of my college roommate, but lately, I’d realized that I was really thinking about Genevieve instead. Gin had the same coloring that I remembered Genevieve having—the same dark brown hair and light eyes—and she was the same age my sister would be now. Then again, so were thousands of women in the city, and I checked out every single one who crossed my path.
Of course, I knew that Gin wasn’t my sister. She couldn’t be. I’d dug into Gin’s background when I was investigating who might have beaten her, so I knew that Gin had been orphaned as a kid and that a distant cousin, Fletcher Lane, had eventually taken her in. She’d inherited the Pork Pit from Fletcher after he was murdered a few months ago. In an interesting quirk of fate, Gin also happened to be Finnegan Lane’s foster sister.
Still, I couldn’t help the small pang that pierced my heart at knowing that Gin wasn’t Genevieve. It would be … nice to belong to a place like the Pork Pit—someplace so warm and inviting. Maybe that’s why I ate at the restaurant all the time, because it had that homey feel that my own house didn’t, ever since Elliot Slater and his men had stormed inside and tried to kill me.
“Here you go.”
Gin put my food on the table, along with a large slice of cherry pie topped with vanilla bean ice cream that was just started to melt. That was another weird thing about Gin—she was always bringing me extra food. A piece of cake, cookies, a square of homemade fudge. I didn’t know why she gave me more than what I ordered. Unlike the other cops in Ashland, I didn’t expect freebies everywhere I went.
“I didn’t order the pie—” I started.
Gin waved her hand, cutting me off. “I know, but we had extra today, and you looked like you could use something sweet. Enjoy, detective.”
She winked at me and headed over to the counter to ring up some more customers. When she finished with them, Gin eased down on a stool behind the cash register and picked up the book she was reading. I couldn’t see the title from here, although I knew there was a framed copy of Where the Red Fern Grows up on the wall near the cash register. She saw me watching her and gave me a little wave before she started reading.
I stared at Gin another second before turning my attention to the food in front of me. Instead of picking up my sandwich, I grabbed my fork instead and dug into the cherry pie. I couldn’t help myself; I’d always had a weakness for sweets. I took a bite and sighed with happiness. The warm fruit was the perfect blend of sweet and sour, and the ice cream was a cool ribbon of flavor mixed in with the warm, flaky, buttery crust.
I noticed Gin watching me, and I gave her a thumbs up. She grinned and went back to her book.
I took another bite of pie. Despite the shitty day that I had, I felt a little better about things. I might not have learned anything new about the Spider, but I’d taken Selene and Harriet off the streets. That was a small victory. Now, I was eating a good meal in a restaurant that I liked. I was better off than a lot of folks out there.
All that was left to do was find Genevieve, the Spider, or whatever she was calling herself these days. What I was going to do with her then, whether or not I was going to turn her in for being the Spider, well, I hadn’t quite decided about that. But I was going to find my sister—soon. I could feel it in my bones.
No matter what.