Web of Death
So far, my retirement was turning out to be a fucking bore.
I supposed that I should have expected it to go this way. Mainly because my day job, well, my night job, had been a little more interesting that most folks’ had. No pushing papers around a desk for me. Instead, I’d moonlighted as the assassin the Spider for the last seventeen years.
That’s right. An assassin. Someone who killed other people for money. And I’d been damn good at my job too—some would even say the best.
Which is probably why making the adjustment to just being myself, Gin Blanco, owner of the Pork Pit barbecue restaurant, had been a little more difficult than I’d thought it would be.
And a lot more fucking boring.
So boring, so mundane in fact, that I now found myself standing outside on a chilly October evening, peering into the trunk of my Mercedes Benz, regarding the cardboard boxes inside that held all of my worldly possessions. Books mostly, along with some high-end cookware and knives—lots of knives. Some of which were used for slicing and dicing more than just vegetables.
As the Spider, I’d never gone anywhere without my silverstone knives. One trait that I saw no reason to change just because I was Gin Blanco now, a supposedly respectable citizen. Even tonight, alone in the twilight, I still had five knives on me—one tucked up either sleeve, one in the small of my back, and two more hidden in my boots.
Knowing that I had my knives comforted me the way that it always did. But still, I sighed. Because even moving was boring.
My mentor, Fletcher Lane, had died a few weeks ago—had been horribly tortured and murdered in the Pork Pit, the restaurant that he’d founded in downtown Ashland. I’d killed the Air elemental bitch who was responsible for his death, of course. But that didn’t keep me from missing the old man who’d taken me in off the streets when I was just thirteen. Which is one of the reasons that I’d decided to move into Fletcher’s house—the one that he’d left me in his will, along with the Pork Pit. I supposed it was my way of staying close to the old man, even though he was cold and alone in his grave now.
The three-story clapboard structure stood behind me, looking like some sort of hulking ghost in the approaching darkness. The building had been standing since before the Civil War, and lots of improvements and sections had been added on to it over the years, all in a variety of different, clashing styles, including gray stone, red clay, and brown brick. The various materials made the house look like some sort of patchwork quilt, stitched together with a tin roof, black shutters, and blue eaves. Still, it had been Fletcher’s home, and now, it was mine.
I sighed again, this time with longing. I wished that the old man was here, that I’d gotten to him in time that night. That I’d been able to save him the way that he’d saved me all those years ago—
The scream surprised me.
I turned toward the sound, a silverstone knife already sliding into my right hand. Another scream ripped through the air, a little closer than before. A woman, from the high pitch of her voice. I peered around the open trunk, my gray eyes scanning the woods that flanked the house on three sides, wondering who the hell was out there in the trees and why she was making enough noise to wake the dead.
A wayward hiker perhaps? Someone who’d stumbled across a black bear deep in the woods? The creatures were common in the area, especially since Ashland was situated in the corner of the Appalachian Mountains where Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina met. High ridges and dense stands of woods covered the region like so much gray and green carpet, especially here at Fletcher’s house, which was situated on top of a particularly remote, rocky mountainside.
Bears didn’t frighten me, though. Not much did. Because in addition to being the assassin the Spider, I was also an elemental, someone who could create, control, and manipulate one of the four elements. Well, actually two in my case—Stone and Ice. My Ice magic was fairly weak, and all I could really do with it was make small shapes, like cubes and crystals and whatnot. But my Stone magic was strong, so strong that it would let me harden my skin into an impenetrable shell—one that even a bear’s claws wouldn’t be able to rip through.
Another scream echoed through the mountain air, before abruptly being cut off. Whatever had been chasing the screamer had just caught up with her.
Hmm. I had two choices now. Go investigate what the fuss was all about and amuse myself for maybe an hour, or stay here and haul boxes of books into Fletcher Lane’s ramshackle house. Along with teaching me everything that he knew about being an assassin, the old man had also instilled a healthy dose of curiosity in me. Something that always seemed to get the best of me, no matter how hard I tried.
Which is why I palmed another knife and headed for the woods.
Despite the falling twilight that painted the landscape in increasingly dark shades of gloomy gray, it was easy enough for me to make my way through the thick woods—I just followed the screams.
Only they weren’t so much screams now as choked sobs, stutters and whimpers of sound that told me that the woman making them was in serious trouble.
The new sounds echoed faintly through the dense pine trees, followed by another choked sob. My gray eyes narrowed. I knew what that sound was too—the screaming woman getting the shit beat out of her. Well, well, well. Looked like there was a different kind of bear in the woods tonight.
I moved more carefully now, quieter, making sure that my boots didn’t scuff and smash and crackle through the piles of ruby- and citrine-colored autumn leaves that covered the forest floor like jewels that were slowly losing their sparkle. Slowly, the half-swallowed sobs and thwacks of fists hitting flesh grew louder, sharper. A low hiss of a laugh curled through the air like a copperhead getting ready to strike. Someone was enjoying the show.
I stopped behind the knotty trunk of a particularly gnarled pine tree. Its sharp, tangy scent tickled my nose. Then, I slowly eased to one side, my face hidden in the shadows from the overhanging branches, and stared at the scene before me.
The pine tree that I was standing behind was one of several that bordered a small clearing here in the cold, remote heart of the woods, a mile or so from Fletcher Lane’s house. A few rocks bubbled up like blisters here and there on the surface of the forest floor, but for the most part, the ground was smooth and clear, with the rich black earth peeping up through the shallow scattering of disintegrating leaves.
In the middle of the open space, a man towered over a woman. A giant, given his almost seven-foot-tall frame and oversize, bug-like eyes. One of his ham-sized hands was twisted in the woman’s long, curly red hair, further tangling it. He used his other hand to punch her in the stomach.
He hit her three times before a second, much shorter man, stepped forward and put a restraining arm on the giant’s bulging bicep. The woman choked back another moan of pain.
“Geez, Billy,” the second man said. “Don’t kill her. We haven’t had nearly enough fun with her yet.”
His lips drew back, revealing a set of white fangs. A vampire, then.
Well, things had just gotten that much more interesting. Because in addition to their enormous strength, giants’ thick musculature made them tough to bring down. And vamps were no pushovers either. They weren’t nearly as strong as giants were, but those sharp canines of theirs could rip out a person’s throat in a second.
Both men were dressed in outdoor clothes—thick jeans, hiking boots, and flannel shirts partially covered up by fleece jackets. The vampire also had a small backpack slung over his shoulder. All of which told me that they’d planned to be out here in the middle of nowhere tonight—probably so no one could hear the woman scream.
“You’re right, Tommy,” Billy, the giant, rumbled. “Fucking them isn’t nearly as much fun after they’re dead.”
Tommy nodded in a sage way, as though Billy had just revealed one of the great secrets of the universe to him. “And we need to teach this bitch a lesson, remember? One that she and my other girls won’t ever forget.”
Tommy walked around the woman, who swallowed another low moan. Her lips drew back in a pain-filled grimace, and I spotted a set of fangs in her mouth as well, marking her as another vampire.
She would have been a pretty thing, with her red hair and wide hazel eyes, if not for the thin, crimson scratches and violet bruises that covered her face and bare arms. It looked like Tommy and Billy had brought her out here, turned her loose, and then chased after her, like a sick sort of hide and seek.
Unlike the two men, the woman was not dressed for the rugged terrain. Instead of jeans, she wore a slinky, satin, plum-colored dress that barely stretched up to cover her breasts and just skimmed down to the tops of her toned thighs. The silver sequins on the dress caught the dwindling light and flashed it back, like hundreds of fireflies winking on and off. The woman was also wearing a pair of fuck-me stilettos, although I could see that the heels had broken off during her run through the forest.
“I never thought you were all that smart, Jasmine,” Tommy, the vampire, said. “But you got real stupid, thinking you could leave me. Thinking you could just quit being one of my whores because you got a better offer from Roslyn Phillips.”
My brows arched up in the darkness. Oh yes, things got more interesting by the second. Because Roslyn Phillips was the vampire madam that ran Northern Aggression, Ashland’s most decadent nightclub. Roslyn provided everything that a body could want at her club, including men and women to see to her paying customers’ more pressing, lusty needs.
Tommy’s conversation with Jasmine told me that he was most likely a pimp and that Jasmine was one of his working girls. Not unusual. The vamps pretty much owned the sex trade in Ashland. All vamps needed blood to live, of course, just like humans needed food and vitamins. But lots of vamps also got the same kind of healthy high from sex, which is why so many of them worked in the world’s oldest profession. For the vamps, it was win-win. Money and a power boost, all at the same time.
“Stupid bitch,” Tommy muttered.
The vampire pimp suddenly stopped his pacing and lashed out, kicking Jasmine in the back with his hiking boot. She let out another moan of pain and would have pitched forward face-first into the dirt if Billy hadn’t still been holding her by her hair. The two men laughed, but Jasmine didn’t hear them. That final kick had pushed her over the edge. I could tell by the way her limp body dangled from the giant’s hand that she was finally unconscious. Probably better that way for her.
“Hold her still,” Tommy said. “While I get things set up.”
Tommy dropped to his knees in the leaves and started rooting around in his backpack, coming up with a hammer and four metal spikes with leather loops on the ends of them. A minute later, he was pounding the stakes into the soft soil with his hammer. All four of them, in the shape of a woman-sized rectangle.
I stared at the loops and the dried, rusty stains that had soaked into the leather. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that those were bloodstains and that Tommy and Billy had done this sort of thing before. And I knew exactly what they were going to do to the woman, Jasmine. Bringing her out here in the woods and chasing and beating her weren’t enough. No, now they were going to tie her down and rape her before they finally killed her. Sick bastards.
Of course, some folks would have thought that I was sick, for killing so many people for money over the years. But I had a code that I followed, rules that I lived by. No killing kids or pets. No framing someone for my murders. And most especially, no torture. I might have killed people as the Spider, but I did it quickly, efficiently, with my silverstone knives. I’d certainly never tied anyone down spread-eagle with the dark, twisted intentions that Tommy and Billy had in mind for Jasmine.
But now, I had a decision to make. Because Tommy and Billy hadn’t seen me hiding in the shadows. Nobody ever did, until it was too fucking late. So I could easily slip away, leave Jasmine to her gruesome fate, and walk back to Fletcher Lane’s house without anyone being the wiser—except me.
I’d recently learned that Fletcher had had a bit of an altruistic streak in him. That sometimes, back when he was the assassin Tin Man, that Fletcher had actually helped people from time to time. Pro fucking bono, as it were. And Jasmine certainly needed my help right now.
Maybe it was the soft sentiment that I felt for the old man, how much my heart still ached from his loss, but I found myself actually wanting to help the other woman. Actually wanting to use my knives and deadly skills for something a little more worthwhile than money.
Besides, I thought, smiling a little. It sure as hell beat unpacking boxes tonight.
So I tightened my grip on my silverstone knives and stepped out from the shadows, walking forward into the clearing, whistling all the while. Both men’s heads snapped around to me at the harsh, unexpected sound.
I stopped about ten feet away from them, my knives tucked up into my palms. The hilts of the weapons rested on the scars embedded in my palms. A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. One on either hand. A spider rune. The symbol for patience. My assassin moniker and so much more.
“I hope you boys brought some shovels with you tonight,” I said in a pleasant voice.
Tommy and Billy stared at each other, then back at me.
“And why is that?” Tommy asked in a guarded tone, clearly wondering who the hell I was and what the fuck I was doing out here in the woods.
I grinned. “Because otherwise, I’ll just have to leave your bodies out here for the animals to gnaw on instead of burying you all proper-like. Ah, hell. Forget the shovels. The animals have to eat too. If they could even stomach the likes of two sick bastards like you, that is.”
“Billy,” Tommy said in a low voice. “I think we need to teach this bitch the same lesson that Jasmine just learned. See to it, please.”
Billy nodded and dropped his grip on Jasmine’s hair. The woman crumpled to the forest floor, still unconscious. Good. I didn’t need an audience for this.
Billy let out a roar and charged in my direction, his hands reaching out to grab me and pull me into a bone-crushing bear hug. The poor bastard never even noticed my palmed knives.
This time, instead of the sound of fists hitting flesh, the smack of my silverstone knives punching into Billy’s chest and tearing through his organs filled the air. The giant screamed, much like Jasmine had done earlier, and stumbled back. His sharp movement jerked my knives out of my hands, but that was okay, because they were still stuck in his body—one in his stomach and the other in his heart. More than enough damage to kill him. Sure enough, Billy stumbled around the clearing for about ten seconds before his legs gave out and he thumped to the ground, well on his way to being dead.
I spotted a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye and ducked. Tommy’s hammer whistled by my head. The vamp was quicker than I’d thought he’d be because even as his first blow missed me, he was pivoting and bringing the hammer back up for a second strike.
But I was anticipating his move, and I stepped into his body and grabbed his arm. I used the vamp’s own momentum to flip him up and over my shoulder. Tommy slammed onto the ground. The hammer slipped from his fingers, and I grabbed it. Before the vamp could recover, I dropped to my knees beside him, brought the hammer up, and slammed the weapon into his windpipe, crushing it.
Tommy’s eyes bulged so wide that I thought they might pop right out of his head. He made a series of choked, gurgling sounds, not unlike the ones that Jasmine had earlier when Billy was hitting her.
“You really should have found somewhere else to play your little game,” I murmured. “Because this land belongs to Fletcher Lane. And now me, I suppose. And believe me when I tell you that I’m the only fucking predator allowed around here.”
All Tommy could do was look at me and gasp for air.
I stayed where I was and watched him suffocate.
When Tommy was dead, I went over to Jasmine and crouched down beside her. The vampire prostitute was still unconscious, and I quickly ran my hands over her body, checking her for injuries. Her face was a mess, and she probably had some broken ribs and internal bleeding from where Billy had hit her. But she’d be okay until help arrived, and I knew just who to call about that.
I went back over to Tommy and rifled through the dead vampire’s pockets until I found his cell phone. I dialed information and had them give me the number that I wanted. Four rings later, she picked up the phone.
“This is Roslyn,” Roslyn Phillips’ sultry voice filled my ear.
“Hello, Roslyn,” I said. “One of your girls is out here in the woods. She and a couple of her friends had a nasty run-in with a black bear. At least, that’s what you can tell the cops.”
I told her what had happened and where to find Jasmine.
“Who the hell is this?” Roslyn asked when I finished.
“I think you know exactly who this is,” I said. “And you owe me, remember? So quit asking questions and get your ass out here.”
I hung up without answering her. Because I knew that Roslyn Phillips had gotten the message and that the vampire would come and bring help for Jasmine. Roslyn did owe me—bigtime. Because she knew exactly what I’d done before I’d retired. She knew that I was an assassin. Hell, I’d even killed her brother-in-law, who’d been abusing her sister and young niece. Roslyn talking about such things was partly the reason that Fletcher Lane had been murdered in the first place—because the wrong person had learned about the old man and the fact that he was my handler.
I’d confronted Roslyn about all that at Fletcher’s funeral a few weeks ago. I’d told the vamp in no uncertain terms that she would do whatever the hell I wanted her to until she’d worked off her debt to me—or else. And as much as I’d loved the old man, that would be a bloody long while indeed.
But I pushed Roslyn Phillips out of my mind and went about erasing any trace that I’d been here in the clearing tonight—including retrieving my silverstone knives from Billy’s cooling body. Because while I might officially be retired from being the assassin the Spider, that didn’t mean that I was going to be stupid or sloppy enough to leave any evidence behind.
As I worked, every once in a while, I looked over to check on Jasmine.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” I murmured even though she couldn’t hear me. “The cavalry’s on the way.”
Sure enough, thirty minutes later, I heard the sharp crackle of heavy footsteps on the fallen leaves, and I knew that Roslyn had arrived with help for Jasmine, who was still unconscious. From my hiding place on the far edge of the clearing, I saw the bob of flashlights through the trees and heard the hoarse shout of voices.
“Over here!” a man rumbled. “I see them!”
“Where?” Roslyn Phillips’ concerned voice drifted over to me. “Jasmine! Jasmine, are you okay?”
After that, things went pretty much as I’d expected them to. Cops arrived on the scene to try to figure out what the hell had happened. Not that they would work too hard at that though, since the majority of the members of the Ashland Police Department were known for their rampant laziness, avarice, and love of bribes.
Men and women moved through the clearing, collecting evidence. Jasmine was packed up and carted off to the closest Air elemental healer to get patched up. The coroner was called to come out and collect Tommy and Billy. And so on and so forth.
Once Jasmine had been stabilized, I saw no need to hang around any longer. Because I just killed people, after all. I didn’t patch them up after the fact. I figured that I’d done my part by keeping Jasmine from getting dead in the first place.
So still softly whistling, I headed back through the woods to Fletcher Lane’s house to start unpacking my boxes, feeling more cheerful than I had in weeks.