PART ONE – JO-JO
The knock on my front door came just before midnight.
Most folks would have already been tucked in their beds fast asleep by this time, but I’d had a dream that she’d run into trouble tonight, so I’d waited up for her. I glanced at the cloud-shaped clock on the wall. Gin was late—an hour later than I’d expected her to arrive.
Then again, no psychic was perfect—not even me.
The knock sounded again, a little harder and sharper this time. Gin was the most patient person I’d ever met, but she hadn’t even given me time to get to the door. She must be hurt bad.
I put down the Southern Living that I was reading and left the kitchen. It was a cold, snowy night, and all three stories of my old plantation home creaked, cracked, and moaned as the December wind howled around them. The sounds matched the snap, crackle, and pop of my bones as I shuffled toward the front of the house. Two hundred fifty-seven years of living would take its toll on anybody, even an Air elemental dwarf like me.
I opened the front door without bothering to peer through the peephole. I knew exactly who was out there and what she wanted—what she always needed, whenever she came calling in the darkest hours of the night.
Sure enough, Gin Blanco slumped against the side of the house, blood slipping off the fingers of her left hand. Drip-drip-drip. A small scarlet puddle had already formed on the white boards next to her booted feet. Sometimes, it seemed like I spent more time painting over the blood that Gin left on the front porch than I did doing nails in my beauty salon in the back of the house, but I didn’t mind the extra work. I loved the girl like she was my own. In a way, Gin was the daughter that I’d never had—the dark, dangerous daughter of my dreams.
The one who was always surrounded by so much blood and death and so many bodies as the assassin the Spider.
I’d left the porch light on, and I stepped outside so I could get a better look at her. Despite the vision that I’d had of Gin being injured, she was in worse shape than I’d expected. Blood and bruises coated her face like makeup covered mine, and one of her eyes had already puffed up like a proud purple peacock. I couldn’t see what other injuries she had beneath her jeans and fleece jacket, but I was willing to bet she had a few busted ribs, given the fact that she had her right arm wrapped around her waist. Maybe a knife wound too, with all that copper-scented blood dripping off her fingers. Either way, I needed to start healing her—now.
Some of my concern must have flashed in my eyes because Gin smiled. Even her teeth were crimson-coated tonight, showing me just how bad of a beating she’d taken.
“Aw, don’t look so worried, Jo-Jo,” Gin drawled. “This is nothing. You should see the other guys.”
With those light words, Gin’s gray eyes rolled up into the back of her head, and she fainted.
I managed to jerk forward and catch Gin before her head slammed into the porch. She didn’t need a concussion on top of everything else. I put my arm under Gin’s shoulder, hefted her up, and pulled her into the house. She would have felt like dead weight to most folks, but my dwarven strength made it easy for me to maneuver her around. She was as light as the rag dolls I used to play with as a girl.
A last gust of wind and snow slid in through the door before I was able to shut it, and the cold snapped Gin out of her fainting spell. She opened her eyes and sighed.
“Sorry about the blood on the porch,” she murmured. “I know you just repainted it—again.”
I’d repainted it twice, actually. The first time after Gin came in one night after Elliot Slater almost beat her to death at Ashland Community College, and the second when she’d returned a few days later after killing Slater and taking a few licks herself in the process.
“That’s all right, darling,” I said. “Let’s get you into the salon so I can take a look at you.”
I picked up Gin and carried her down a long hallway that opened up into a room that took up the back half of the house. As Jolene “Jo-Jo” Deveraux, I was known in Ashland and beyond for being a drama mama, which was a fancy way of saying that I ran a good old-fashioned beauty salon. Air elemental magic like mine was great for soothing out wrinkles and fighting the ravages of sun, time, and genetics that took their toll on a person’s appearance.
Padded, cherry-red swivel chairs filled my salon, along with a variety of hair dryers, combs, scissors, and curling irons. Stacks of beauty magazines littered the tables and counters, along with tubs of makeup and bottles of nail polish, most of which were some shade of pink, my favorite color. The air smelled like the coconut body oil that some of my customers slathered on before they baked themselves in the tanning beds in the next room over.
I put Gin down on one of the salon chairs and helped her lean back and make herself comfortable. Then, I went over to one of the sinks that lined the wall and washed my hands. Of course, I wouldn’t be touching Gin to heal her—not exactly—but I still soaped up my fingers as thoroughly as a surgeon would. It was a quirk that my mama had instilled in me more than two hundred years ago—a lady always has clean hands.
At the sound of running water, Rosco, my beloved basset hound, cracked an eye open from his basket in the corner of the room. When he realized that I didn’t have a treat for him, he shut his liquid brown eye and went back to his dream of chasing rabbits. Most folks thought that Rosco was just plain lazy, but really, the dog knew what the important things in life were—food, sleep, and getting his tummy rubbed. Not necessarily in that order. If there wasn’t a chance of one of those things happening, then Rosco decided to conserve his energy until they came around. Smartest dog I’d ever had.
I shut off the water and dried my hands. Then, I dragged a free-standing light over to Gin, turned it on, and took a seat next to her, peering at her battered face.
“So, you want to tell me what happened?” I asked. “Did you run into some of Mab Monroe’s men?”
Mab was the Fire elemental who’d murdered Gin’s family, and Gin had vowed to kill Mab—or die trying. Of course, Gin didn’t think that I knew about the die trying part. Then again, Gin didn’t think I knew about a lot of things.
She shrugged, and then winced as a new wave of pain flooded her body at the motion. “No, I didn’t run into Mab’s men. It was a fluke, really. I was taking out the last bag of trash for the day and stepped out into the alley behind the Pork Pit. I heard screams, so naturally, I went to investigate.”
Gin was just as curious as Fletcher Lane, her mentor and my old friend, had been before his murder a few months ago. Fletcher had been an assassin himself—the Tin Man—and he’d taught Gin everything she knew about killing people. Which was probably the reason she was still breathing tonight. More than anything else, Fletcher had taught Gin how to be a survivor—something she needed in a city as violent and corrupt as Ashland.
“Anyway,” Gin said. “I walked down the alley real quiet-like and followed the sound of the screams around the corner. I saw six bastards trying to carjack a mom and her little girl on one of the side streets. They knocked the mom unconscious, and the girl couldn’t have been more than two, three tops. Black-hearted sons of bitches. So I decided to do the cops a favor and take them out, just like I did the restaurant’s trash.”
“Then what happened?” I asked, gesturing for Gin to sit up so I could peel off her bloody jacket.
When I finished, she fell back against the chair, panting from the movement. It took her a few seconds to get her breath back.
“Then, I jumped them,” Gin said. “Only they were a mix of dwarves and vampires, and a little tougher than I’d thought they’d be. Still, I was holding my own, until one of them got in a lucky shot on my face with a tire iron. I went down, and they piled on, punching and kicking me. One of them even sliced my arm with this cheap-ass switchblade he had. But he got too close, and I was able to take him out with one of my silverstone knives. After that, the rest were easy pickings. Well, except for the last guy. He turned and ran before I could finish him off with the rest of his buddies. Bastard. I should have killed him too. I would have, if I’d been able to run after him.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about the one who got away.” I had a good idea where the sixth man was going to be in a few minutes. I’d seen that in my dream, too.
Gin looked at me, a suspicious light flaring in her gray eyes. “Why do you say it like that? Did you have one of your visions?”
Gin knew that I was something of a psychic. Most Air elementals like me had a bit of precognition. In addition to tapping into and controlling all the natural gases in the atmosphere, Air elementals could also hear all the whispers of what might be in the wind around us. What Gin didn’t know was that I had dreams, too—vivid, vivid dreams. About her, about Mab Monroe, about their final, inevitable confrontation. Among other things.
I’d never told Gin about the depth and clarity of my visions, though. The girl was better off not knowing some things. Besides, she had enough to worry about right now, since she’d used her alter-ego the Spider to declare war on Mab and the Fire elemental’s men. Also on Gin’s mind was her younger sister, Bria, who was finally back in Ashland and a detective on the police force to boot—one who wanted to bring both Mab and the Spider to justice.
“Jo-Jo?” Gin asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Did you see something about the guy I didn’t kill?”
“Not really,” I fibbed. “I just got a feeling, is all. Don’t worry. I don’t think your missing carjacker will get far.”
“Well, he shouldn’t,” Gin said. “Finn was eating a late dinner at the Pork Pit and came out into the alley to see what was taking me so long. He called Xavier and got the giant to come over and take the mom and the little girl to the hospital. Finn wanted to drive me over here, but I told him I could make it myself and sent him out to look for the last carjacker instead. And of course Sophia was there, working her usual shift at the restaurant. She was cleaning up the blood and bodies when I left.”
Finnegan Lane was Fletcher Lane’s son and Gin’s foster brother, while Xavier was one of Gin’s friends who worked as both a bouncer and a cop. Sophia Deveraux was my younger sister, who disposed of all the bodies Gin left behind as the Spider. We might not all be related by blood, but we were a family—and we always looked out for and took care of each other. Which is what I needed to do for Gin right now.
I raised my hand up and reached for my Air elemental magic. I didn’t know what other elementals’ magic felt like to them, but mine was as cool and sweet and refreshing as an autumn breeze kissing my face. My palm began to glow an opaque, buttermilk white, and I didn’t have to look in the mirrors in the salon to know that the same magical light filled my eyes.
“Now, hold still, darling,” I said.
I leaned toward Gin and held my glowing palm over her battered face. Back and forth, I moved my hand over her features, grabbing hold of the natural, healing oxygen in the air and forcing it into her body, making the gas circulate through her wounds, clean out the cuts and draw the ragged edges of her skin back together again. Once the bruises and swelling had faded, and her face looked the way it was supposed to again, I moved on to her cracked ribs, the knife wound on her left arm, and the rest of her injuries.
Gin hissed the whole time I used my magic on her. She always did. Low and steady, like a tea kettle that was almost ready to let out a final, high piercing whistle. My Air magic was the opposite of her own Ice and Stone magic, and Gin had told me more than once that it always felt like I was stabbing her with red-hot needles whenever I healed her.
I’d never told her that I could feel her magic, too.
To me, Gin’s Ice and Stone magic was a cold, concrete shell that coated her from the inside out. More than once, I’d reached out with my own Air power, testing it against hers and trying to break through her protective shell.
I’d failed every single time.
The girl simply had no idea how strong she was as an elemental—or how much stronger she was going to become as she aged and her magic kept growing and growing. It would have scared her if she knew. Gin had seen her mother, Eira, vanish into a ball of Mab’s elemental Fire and come out extra-crispy on the other side. As a result, Gin just didn’t trust her own magic, didn’t think it would be strong enough to help her defeat Mab. But she was going to find that out soon enough on her own. That, and a lot of other things—all the things I’d dreamed about over the years.
“There,” I finally said, dropping my hand and letting go of my magic when I’d healed the last of her wounds. “All better.”
Gin let out a long, shuddering sigh, unclenched her bloody fingers from the arms of the salon chair, and closed her eyes. All the tension went out of her then, like water swirling down a drain. I knew it was because I’d quit using my magic, and she didn’t have to feel it anymore, instead of the pain of her injuries finally being gone.
“Sleep now, darling,” I murmured, smoothing a bloody strand of her chocolate brown hair back from her sweaty face.
Being healed by an Air elemental always drained a person, as the brain struggled to catch up and realize that the body wasn’t on death’s door anymore. Given the severity of her injuries and the amount of magic I’d used to heal them, I knew Gin would sleep for at least several hours, maybe more—as long as nothing else happened tonight to disturb her.
“Okay,” she said in a tired voice, finally giving in to the inevitable. “I’ll do that.”
The girl was fast asleep before I got up from my chair.
I covered Gin with a soft, fleece blanket, then went back over to the sink and washed my hands again. I dried my hands off, then paused a moment, staring at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were clear, almost colorless really, except for the tiny pinprick of black in the center of my irises. My white-blond hair was rolled up in pink sponge curlers for the night, and I wore one of my many pink housecoats, topped off by a string of pearls that hung from my neck.
I reached up and stroked the large, white beads. My mama, Joanna, had never had a string of pearls, though she’d often wished for them. But we’d been far too poor for that. Hell, even things like shoes and socks had been a luxury at times, and I’d gone barefoot through more than one winter. I looked down at my bare toes. Something I continued to do today, though by choice, since I’d long ago amassed more money than I could ever spend, thanks to the success of my salon. I’d just never been much for socks. They always seemed to fall down around my ankles, and I got tired of constantly yanking them back up. So these days, I just went without. Besides, I was a tough old dwarf. Cold feet were the least of my worries.
While Gin slept on in the salon, I headed into the kitchen and put on a fresh pot of chicory coffee for Finn. He’d be here sooner or later to check on Gin. So would Sophia, after she got rid of the bodies of the carjackers that Gin had killed tonight.
I flipped the switch on the fancy coffeemaker Finn had bought me for Christmas last year, then pulled a heavy, cast iron skillet out of the cabinet. Even though it was late, I felt like making a fresh pan of cornbread. I still had a jar of sourwood honey I’d gotten from Warren T. Fox, which would add the perfect touch of sweetness to the bread when it came out of the oven. Gin might be the best cook in the family, but I could hold my own—at least when it came to cornbread.
I’d just reached back into the cabinet for the cornmeal when footsteps scuffed on the floor, and a menacing shadow appeared in the doorway. I turned to look at the intruder in my house and smiled.
“Why, hello there, darling,” I said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The shadow stepped forward, melting into the shape of a man. A bloody tire iron dangled from his right hand, which was no doubt what he’d used to force his way through one of the doors and get inside my house. He was short, right at five feet tall, which meant that he was a dwarf, just like me. With thick, powerful muscles, just like me. I eyed his arms, which looked like they were about to pop out of the black jacket he wore. No wonder Gin had had problems taking him out. Dwarves were always hard to kill, even for an assassin like her. Our heavy musculature made it tough to do much damage with traditional weapons like guns and knives. Dwarves could even take a couple of blasts of elemental magic to the chest and keep on going.
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re here for the girl, right? The one who killed all your friends?”
In my dream last night, I’d not only seen Gin beaten and bloody, but I’d also seen the dwarf breaking into my house, hoping to finish what he’d started and beat her to death. Of course, I wasn’t about to let that happen. I closed the cabinet door and put my hand down on the counter, right next to my cornbread skillet.
“You got it, lady,” the dwarf snarled. “I followed her all the way from that damn barbecue restaurant downtown. Tell me where the little bitch is, and I might spare your life.”
His black eyes fell to my pink housecoat, trying to suss out my breasts beneath the bulky fabric. After a moment, he grinned at me, revealing a row of crooked teeth. “After we have a little fun, of course.”
So he was a rapist in addition to a carjacker. In Ashland, those two things went together like butter and biscuits. It was a good thing Gin had come along when she had. Otherwise that poor little girl would have probably grown up without a mama, if the dwarf had gotten his hands on the woman for any length of time.
Still, I felt vaguely sorry for him. Poor bastard. He had no idea who he was dealing with. I might not be as deadly as Gin Blanco was as the Spider, but Jo-Jo Deveraux could take care of herself—and then some. I’d lived through the Civil War, the Great Depression, and a host of other bad things over the years. An armed intruder in my house was nothing compared to all that.
“I don’t think so,” I said in a mild voice. “You have two choices. You can turn around, walk out that door, and leave Ashland forever right now. If you do that, well, I can’t promise that you’ll have a long and happy life, but you’ll at least have a few more years left to terrorize folks.”
His eyes narrowed. “And what would my second choice be?”
I fixed him with a hard stare. “Or you can die right here in my kitchen. The choice is yours.”
The dwarf stared at me for a moment. Then, he smiled, showing me his crooked teeth again. He sauntered toward me, casually swinging the bloody tire iron back and forth. When he was right in front of me, he stopped and leered at me once more.
“You know what? I think I’ll have my fun with you first before I track down that other little bitch.”
I nodded. “Have it your way, then.”
“Oh,” he practically purred. “Don’t worry. I will.”
He reached for the front of my housecoat to rip it open—and that’s when I snatched up my cast iron skillet and slammed it into the side of his head.
The blow surprised the dwarf, and he staggered back. But it didn’t put him down. Not even close. He was a tough old dwarf—just like I was.
“Bitch,” he muttered, rubbing the red welt that had risen up on his left cheek. “You’re going to pay for that.”
He let out an angry growl and lashed out at me with his tire iron. His weapon clanged against my skillet, shooting white sparks everywhere. I ignored the flickers of light, grabbed the pot from Finn’s fancy coffeemaker off the counter, and smashed that into the dwarf’s head as well. Glass rained down on both of us and tinkled across the floor like we were stepping on piano keys.
The dwarf finally realized that I wasn’t just going to lie down and die for him, and he got serious about attacking me. Back and forth, we moved across the kitchen, him trying to hit me with his tire iron and me blocking his attacks with my skillet. I got in a couple more good whacks with my skillet before the dwarf managed to knock it out of my hands.
A triumphant smile curved his lips. “Now, what are you gonna do, huh, little lady?”
“Nothing much,” I drawled back. “Just this.”
I lifted my hand, reached for my Air elemental magic, and used it to suck all the oxygen out of his lungs.
I hadn’t used my magic to start with for fear of the sudden influx of power waking Gin. The noise of my fight with the dwarf probably wouldn’t penetrate her deep, dark sleep, but the feel of my magic surging through the house was one of the few things that would snap her awake. My girl needed her rest, but if she heard me and the dwarf struggling, Gin would charge in here trying to help me and probably get hurt all over again. I didn’t want that to happen, but I couldn’t beat the dwarf any other way. Not with my skillet, at least.
The dwarf’s eyes bulged, and it took him a few seconds to realize what was happening. He clawed at his throat, as if that would somehow put the precious oxygen back into his lungs. When that didn’t work, he raised his tire iron and staggered forward, trying to get to me, trying to club me to death and get me to release my Air elemental magic.
It didn’t work.
He fell to the floor at my feet—unconscious—and the tire iron tumbled end over end to the other side of the kitchen. As tough as we were, as much of a physical beating as we could take, even dwarves needed oxygen. Take that away, and we weren’t nearly as strong—or as difficult to kill.
But the job wasn’t quite finished, as Gin would say. Now, I could have held onto my Air magic until the dwarf was completely suffocated, but every second I used my power increased the risk that Gin would feel my magic, wake up, and stumble into the kitchen to investigate why I was using it in the first place. So I let go of my magic. Then, I got down on my knees beside the man, careful of the debris that littered the floor, grabbed my skillet, and went to work. It took me several solid whacks with the cast iron, but his skull finally cracked and caved in. I only stopped hitting him when there was more blood on the floor than left in his body.
I put the skillet on the floor and pushed myself up to my feet, bones popping and cracking once more. I stood there over the body, breathing a little harder than I would have liked. No doubt about it, I was getting older. I looked down at the dead dwarf. But I was still tough enough to take care of my family, and that was all that really mattered.
“Jo-Jo?” Gin’s sleep-filled voice called out from the salon. “Is everything okay in there? I thought I heard a noise.”
“Everything’s fine, darling,” I called back in a light, cheery tone. “I just dropped my cornbread skillet on the floor. You go back to sleep now, you hear?”
“Okay, if you’re sure …” Gin’s voice trailed off, and I knew she was sinking back down into the restful darkness. Good. She needed her sleep.
I looked around at the mess in the kitchen. During our struggle, the dwarf and I had knocked over everything from the supper dishes and beauty supply catalogues that had been on the table to the dish towels embroidered with my personal cloud rune that had been piled next to the sink. I shifted my weight, and something crunched under my bare feet—glass from Finn’s fancy coffeepot. The shining shards littered the floor like splintered flakes of snow. The boy would be more upset that I’d broken his gadget than anything else, including the blood that had spattered everywhere. Finn would be here soon, though, and so would Sophia. They’d help me clean up the mess I’d made before Gin woke up again and realized what had happened.
There was nothing to do but wait for them, so I went over to the sink and washed the dwarf’s blood off my hands, making sure that I scrubbed every single speck of it away. I dried off my hands with a clean dish towel and righted one of the overturned chairs. Then, I picked up my Southern Living from where it had fallen to the floor, settled myself at the table, and started to read once more.
A lady always has clean hands—even when there’s a dead body cooling on her kitchen floor.
PART TWO – SOPHIA
“I’m sorry I made such a mess,” my older sister Jo-Jo said in a sweet, apologetic tone. “I tried to reason with him, but of course, he wouldn’t listen, so it had to be done.”
“I think mess is a bit of an understatement, don’t you, Sophia?” Finn turned to look at me with his bright green eyes.
“Big mess,” I agreed in my low, raspy voice.
And it was. Jo-Jo had pretty much demolished the kitchen in her struggle with the dwarf who’d broken into our house and come looking for Gin, after Gin had killed the rest of his carjacker buddies earlier tonight.
Trampled catalogues, broken dishes, and tattered dish towels littered the floor, while Jo-Jo’s bloody, cast iron skillet rested in the pool of bloody that had oozed out from underneath the dwarf’s head. I sighed. No fresh, hot cornbread for us tonight.
“I can’t believe you broke my espresso machine,” Finn said in a sad, woeful tone, bending over and picking up something from the mess on the floor. A bit of jagged glass jutted out from the curved black handle in his hand. “How am I supposed to make my chicory coffee now?”
“You’ll live, darling,” Jo-Jo said. “First thing in the morning, we’ll go and get you a brand-spanking-new coffeepot.”
Finn sniffed. “It’s not a mere coffeepot—it’s a state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line espresso machine that makes every coffee drink you could imagine. It’s part of Bella Bulluci’s new housewares line.”
Jo-Jo shook her head and looked at me, but I just grinned at her. We all knew that Finn couldn’t function without his coffee—and that he’d pout about the broken espresso machine the rest of the night.
“Well,” Jo-Jo said. “I guess we’d better start cleaning up before Gin wakes up and wonders what happened. Sophia, do you mind? I know you’ve had a long night already, taking care of the bodies of those other carjackers.”
Jo-Jo and I might have the same Air elemental magic that ran in the Deveraux family, but we used our power very differently. Jo-Jo used her magic to heal, to sew ripped skin and knit broken bones back together again.
I used my magic to tear things apart, to grind them into dust and scatter the pieces on the wind. Blood, skin, tendons, bone. Air magic could disintegrate all those things and more just as easily as it could be used to glue them back together again.
And our magic wasn’t the only way in which my sister and I were opposites. Jo-Jo was more than a century older than my one hundred thirteen years and had already slipped into middle age, at least for a dwarf. Jo-Jo was also a girly girl, who loved soft, feminine things, like her pearls and pink-flowered dresses. I was happiest when wearing one of my Goth outfits—heavy boots, thick jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather collar around my neck, all usually in black. The look matched the darkness in my heart, along with all the pain and all the sorrow that dwelt there—
“Sophia?” Jo-Jo asked in a soft voice, pulling me out of my musings.
I shrugged. “One more body in the trunk won’t hurt.”
It was the longest sentence I’d spoken all day, and the harsh syllables grated against my ears the way they always did. Every word I uttered strained my vocal cords, which had been ruined long ago—not to mention the awful noise of me actually speaking. My voice sounded like a rusty engine that whined and whined and just wouldn’t start, no matter how hard you turned the key in the ignition. And that was on a good day.
The old, familiar sadness sparked in Jo-Jo’s eyes as she listened to me. My sister had offered many times to use her Air elemental magic to fix my raspy voice, but I always refused. My ruined vocal cords were my mark of survival, just like the spider rune scars on Gin’s palms were hers. They might not be pretty, but they were reminders of what we’d been through—of what we’d suffered and come out the other side stronger from.
“Get to work,” I rasped.
Jo-Jo gave me a grim smile, as if she knew exactly what I was thinking about. My sister nodded. “Yes, it’s time for all of us to get to work.”
Jo-Jo and Finn concentrated on cleaning up the glass and other debris, while I got down on my hands and knees and tackled the smears and splashes of blood on the floor. I still had on the heavy black coveralls that I’d put on at the Pork Pit before I’d gone out to load up the bodies of the carjackers that Gin had killed, so a little more blood on them wouldn’t hurt. I had dozens of pairs of coveralls just like this one—and all of them had had someone’s blood on them at one point or another. Usually, more than one person’s at a time, thanks to Gin’s prowess as the Spider.
While Jo-Jo and Finn swept, straightened, and talked in low voices, I stretched out my right hand and reached for my Air magic. I’d always thought of my power as a heavy black cloud, one that could be used to swallow all the ugliness I saw and replace it with something fresh, clean, and good. Like a March wind blowing in a fierce thunderstorm and just as quickly pushing it on out, leaving behind the beginnings of a beautiful spring day.
Back and forth, I moved my right index finger over every bit of blood that coated the kitchen floor. Slowly, the crimson puddles dried up, as though they’d been on the floor for days instead of just a few hours. The stains turned a rusty-brown, then got darker and brittle-looking as I used all the natural gases in the air to break down the blood into miniscule molecules and sweep them away. It didn’t take long. Like Jo-Jo, I was strong in my magic.
When the floor was spic and span once more, I moved on to the counters and the cabinets, giving them the same attention until the whole kitchen looked like it had been spit-shined. Now, there was only one thing left to do—get rid of the dwarf’s body, along with those of his carjacker friends.
“Dump,” I told Jo-Jo.
My sister nodded. “I’ll rustle up some breakfast for when you get back.”
I walked through the house and stepped out onto the front porch, where I’d put the dwarf’s body so it wouldn’t be in the way while we cleaned the kitchen. Finn followed me. I tossed him my car keys, then bent down and hefted the dead dwarf over my shoulder. Finn opened the trunk on my black convertible and wrinkled his nose at the five bodies already inside.
“Good thing some of them were dwarves,” he murmured. “Otherwise, they might not have all fit in there tonight.”
“Um-mmm,” I agreed with him.
I threw the dead dwarf on top of the other carjackers, then arranged his arms and legs in a snarl with the others so I could close the trunk lid. When that was done, I went around to the driver’s seat and slid inside the car.
“Do you need some help?” Finn asked, handing me the car keys. My skull and crossbones key chain glinted a ghostly silver in the moonlight. “Want me to drive you or something?”
I shook my head. I always preferred to do this part alone.
“Okay, then,” he said, stepping back and shutting the car door. “Happy body dumping.”
I grinned at him, then cranked the engine and drove away.
I drove my convertible with its trunkful of dead men out to the old Ashland Rock Quarry. The abandoned quarry was a popular place to dump bodies, not just with me, but with a lot of folks in Ashland, since it was full of rocky outcroppings and hidden caves. You could slide a body in some of them, and it wouldn’t be found for years—if ever. Plus, you could always drive up to the top of the quarry and heave someone over the side. The fall and resulting splatter made it tougher for the coroners to determine how someone died—and who he was to start with, if you wanted to obscure the identity of your victim.
The quarry might be one of the best places to get rid of the lowlifes that Gin killed as the Spider, but I didn’t use it exclusively. That was the beauty of living in Ashland—there were hundreds and hundreds of hidden hollers, secret trails, and other little quiet spots that made perfect shallow graves. And I knew them all.
I parked my convertible about a mile out from the quarry, under a stand of maple trees, and then spent the next two hours hauling the bodies out to the spot that I wanted—a deep crack in the rocky ground that would hide the dead men from sight. A few scraggly pines had stubbornly staked out their claims on the rim of the rocky crevice, and their sad, drooping branches would further camouflage the bodies. The moon was full, so I didn’t need to risk using a flashlight to see what I was doing. It was cold, too, and even the animals were quiet tonight, safe and warm in their dens. Gin had picked a good night to do some killing.
When I’d gotten the bodies to where I wanted them, I climbed down into the crack, stripped off the dead men’s clothes and shoes, and put them into a garbage bag I’d brought along for the purpose. The cotton, leather, and rubber would all get burned in our old woodstove when I got back to the house. I also took the cash out of their wallets and slid it into an envelope, which I tucked into a pocket inside my coveralls. I’d anonymously donate the money to one of the local homeless shelters just like I always did. There were lots of down-on-their-luck folks in Ashland, and the men couldn’t spend the money wherever they were going.
I climbed up out of the crack and peered down at the men, making sure I hadn’t left anything behind. Some folks might have taken the time to throw some dirt over the bodies, but I figured the animals deserved to eat, too. I’d come back in a few weeks when the bones were stripped bare and use my Air magic to dissolve them into powder that the wind would whisk away, just like I did to all the other bodies I’d gotten rid of over the years, first for Fletcher Lane, and now for Gin Blanco.
I figured it was the least I could do after everything that Fletcher had done for me—after he’d rescued me from the awful thing that had happened to me, after he’d risked himself to save me. Jo-Jo and I had both been so grateful to him that we’d pledged our Air magic to him for life, Jo-Jo to heal him, and me to clean up after the fact when he assassinated someone as the Tin Man. It was a pact, a promise, that I’d never regretted.
When Gin had taken over the assassination business from Fletcher, we’d switched our services over to her. She wasn’t quite on the same path that Fletcher had been, doing the same good that he’d done, but she’d get there soon. Jo-Jo had told me that she’d seen it in her dreams.
I didn’t really have dreams of the future like my sister did. Not exactly. Instead, I got flashes off people, the living and most especially the dead—of who and what they’d been in their lives, of the things they’d done, of the things they would have done if they’d still been breathing.
As I looked down at the men, a tangle of images filled my mind. The men laughing, their hands curled into tight fists, the sharp sounds of glass breaking and women screaming—so much screaming. And I knew that the dead men would have raped that woman and her young daughter, too, if Gin hadn’t come along tonight—just the way they’d done to all the other women they’d carjacked in recent months.
The images faded, but I stayed where I was, listening to the echo of the women’s screams in my head. Or maybe they were my own memories of my own screams, back before my voice had been ruined. It was hard to tell sometimes.
Either way, the men were dead, and they’d never hurt anyone again. A smile curved my lips at the thought.
“Good riddance,” I rasped and walked back to my car.
By the time I drove from the rock quarry back to the house, the sun was cresting over the eastern ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. I parked the car in the cobblestone driveway, got out, and stopped a moment to admire the pleasing purples and graceful grays that streaked the winter sky like fingers slowly brushing aside the darkness.
The dawn always gave me hope that someday the darkness in me would lighten, too.
I stepped inside the house. The sizzle of bacon filled the air, along with the clank and clatter of dishes.
“Breakfast in twenty minutes,” Jo-Jo called out.
She’d timed things just perfect, the way she always did thanks to her Air magic. I went upstairs to one of the bathrooms, stripped off my boots and bloody coveralls, and took a hot shower. I pulled my wet, black hair back into a ponytail and threw on a fresh pair of black socks, boots, and jeans.
But this morning, I topped off my outfit with a pink T-shirt covered with white puckered lips and a pink leather collar studded with silverstone hearts. I also covered my lids with a glittery, pearl-pink shadow that brightened up my black eyes and put a similar color gloss on my lips. Maybe it was knowing that Gin had saved that woman and little girl form being raped and murdered by the carjackers, but I felt strangely light this morning—as light and bright as the cracks of sun slicing in through the windows.
I headed down to the kitchen. Finn was already sitting at the butcher’s block table, sipping a steamy cup of chicory coffee. I arched an eyebrow at the sight.
“While you were out dumping the bodies, I took the liberty of going to one of the Sell-Everything stores that are open all night and buying a new coffeepot,” he said, grinning. “It’s not as good as the one that Jo-Jo broke, but it will do.”
“Mmm.” I gave him a noncommittal grunt, although I leaned over and rumpled his walnut-colored hair.
Finn just grinned a little wider and went back to his coffee.
I sat down next to him, and Jo-Jo slid a plate piled high with scrambled eggs, bacon, and blackberry pancakes in front of me, along with a glass of fresh-squeezed apple juice. I breathed in, enjoying the sweet and salty smells mixing with the caffeine warmth of Finn’s coffee.
“Any problems with the bodies?” Jo-Jo asked, fixing her own plate and taking a seat across from me.
“Nuh-uh.” My version of no.
I’d just picked up my fork when footsteps sounded, and Gin stepped into the kitchen. She’d taken a shower as well, washing off all the blood from last night, and was dressed in a clean set of sneakers, jeans, and a long-sleeved T-shirt that featured the Pork Pit logo on the front of it.
“Mmm. Something smells good,” Gin said.
“Help yourself, darling,” Jo-Jo said. “I thought I’d do you a favor and fix breakfast this morning.”
Gin dished out some pancakes, eggs, and bacon, then joined Finn, Jo-Jo, and me at the table. We all focused on our food, but once the first helpings had been gulped down, Gin turned to me.
“Any problems with the bodies?” Gin echoed Jo-Jo’s question from a few minutes before.
I gave her a small smile. I’d been getting rid of bodies far longer than she’d been killing people as the Spider. I knew what I was doing by this point.
“I’m guessing no then,” she murmured. “What about the last guy? The sixth carjacker that ran away? Was there any sign of him?”
Finn and Jo-Jo exchanged a guarded glance, but my lips twitched with amusement. Nope, no signs of him. Not now, after I’d sandblasted the kitchen clean with my Air magic and dumped his body somewhere it would never be found. I had no doubt that the crows and other critters out in the rock quarry were taking care of the rest and having just as fine a breakfast as we were. All in all, it had been a good night’s work.
“Don’t worry,” Finn piped up, a shit-eating grin on his handsome face. “It’s been taken care of.”
“Taken care of?” Gin asked, a suspicious note creeping into her voice. “How?”
“Oh, Sophia and I found his body a few streets over from the Pork Pit,” Finn lied in an easy tone. “You must have done more damage to him than you’d thought because he’d already bled out by the time we got there. He left a blood trail even the cops could follow.”
Gin frowned. “But I don’t remember so much as nicking him with one of my silverstone knives.”
Finn shrugged. “Well, you must have because he was dead. Looked like you caught him in the left leg and severed his artery there. Sophia loaded him into the trunk of her car with the other carjackers, drove them all off to parts unknown, and did her thing. Problem solved.”
Gin’s eyes narrowed, and I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind. Finn just kept grinning at her, though, completely unconcerned by her cold, suspicious stare. Sometimes, I thought the boy could smile through anything—even his own death. Jo-Jo kept cutting her pancakes up into small, dainty bites, as though she didn’t have a care in the world either. I followed my big sister’s example and crunched down on another piece of bacon.
“Well, problem solved, I suppose,” Gin finally agreed and turned back to her own food.
When she finally got up and went over to the stove for seconds, Jo-Jo, Finn, and I all shared a conspiratorial grin, the secret of what had really happened tangling up in the threads of all the others we shared and binding us that much closer together.
As friends and as a family, too.