Web of Deceit
The girl was a natural-born assassin.
Cold, calm, centered. Confident in herself and her abilities. As she bloody well should be. I hadn’t spent the last three years training her to be a shrinking violet.
As an assassin myself, as the Tin Man, I’d killed my share of bad sorts—for money or revenge, mostly. Sometimes, because they’d simply needed killing. But the years and the injuries and the blood had started to wear on me, more so since a job of mine a few years back had gone so badly for everyone involved—and a couple of innocent folks had died as a result. Eventually, every assassin needed an apprentice, a fresh face and a clean set of hands to take over and do what needed to be done—and Gin Blanco was mine.
I’d dubbed her the Spider, partly because that’s what she’d reminded me of the first time that I’d seen her cowering in a small crack in the alley that ran behind the Pork Pit, my barbecue restaurant in downtown Ashland. Thin arms, long legs, gaunt face. To me, Gin was a granddaddy long legs spider come to life, full of poison but not strong enough to bite back at those who’d done her wrong—yet.
Mostly, though, I’d named Gin the Spider because of the scars that adorned her palms. A small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A spider rune. The symbol for patience. Gin had that all right—in spades. She’d had gotten the scars after a particularly nasty Fire elemental had tortured her by melting a silverstone medallion shaped like the rune into the poor girl’s hands. But Gin had lived to tell the tale, one of many ways in which the girl was a survivor, as well as an assassin.
Now, I stood in the coal-black shadows across the street from a row house, one of many that littered Southtown, the part of Ashland that was home to the downtrodden, down-on-their-luck, and just plain dangerous. With its peeling gray paint, plywood-covered door, and barred windows, the house had a forlorn, abandoned air. Everything about it suggested that no one lived there any more, and the steps leading up to the front porch sagged like the skin under an old crone’s neck. The outside was a disguise, though, a misleading façade like so many other things, so many other people, wore in the southern metropolis of Ashland.
Inside, I knew that the house boasted the finest things that money could buy. Expensive furniture. Bone china. Gilded mirrors. Beds made up with silk sheets. Even fucking mints placed on the pillows just so. The expensive fixings made it easier for a soul-sucking giant scumbag like Jimmy Fontaine to lure the rich folks who lived in the elegant confines of Northtown down here to his dressed up drug-and-kiddie whorehouse.
Jimmy Fontaine was something of an Ashland success story—a white trash gangbanger who’d put together enough cash to fix up a place, increase the quality of his drugs, and market his services to a richer clientele. Which, in turn, upped his own profits even more. Fontaine’s game was simple. He hooked runaway, teenage girls and boys on drugs, then made them turn tricks in his row house in order to get their next fix—or just enough fucking food to eat for the day. And when he ran low on volunteers, Fontaine snatched kids off the street to be the grist in his ever-grinding mill.
The giant’s most recent victim had been Violet Wong, a pretty, bright, happy, sixteen-year-old girl who’d left home one night to go to a party with some of her friends—a party that she’d never come home from. A week later, Violet had been found dumped in a Southtown alley, dead from a vicious beating. As if that hadn’t been bad enough, the autopsy had shown that the girl had been brutalized from a series of rapes and had enough drugs in her system to kill a cow.
Two days after Violet’s funeral, Victor Wong, the girl’s distraught father, had asked me to find out who was responsible and do something about him—permanently. Because that’s what I did—tracked down people who did bad things and made them pay with their very lives. Me. Fletcher Lane. The assassin known as the Tin Man.
People talked, the way that they always did in Ashland, and the rumor mill had quickly led me to Jimmy Fontaine and his gussied-up row house. I’d spent a week doing recon, then another prepping Gin for this, her first solo job as an assassin, as the Spider. Now, all that was left to do was wait for my apprentice to arrive and see how well she’d learned all the deadly skills that I’d taught her—
“Are you sure that she’s ready for this, Fletcher?” a light, sweet voice whispered in the darkness beside me.
I turned to look at Jolene “Jo-Jo” Deveraux, one of my oldest and dearest friends. Even though we were haunting this dangerous Southtown neighborhood just after midnight, the five-foot-tall dwarf wore a pink flowered dress trimmed with white lace and a pair of matching pink sandals. Her getup would have fit in perfectly at one of those swanky, Northtown garden parties that she was always going to. A set of pearls topped off Jo-Jo’s dress. The moonlight slanted down onto the stones, making them gleam like teeth strung together.
Maybe I should have brought Jo-Jo’s sister, Sophia, along tonight instead of my middle-aged dwarven friend. With her black clothes, black lipstick, and even blacker soul, the Goth dwarf would have blended perfectly into the shadows with me. But Sophia didn’t have the same sort of healing Air elemental magic that Jo-Jo did—magic that Gin might need before the night was through. This might be the Spider’s first solo job, but the Tin Man was going to look after his apprentice tonight.
Especially since I hadn’t managed to do that before, when Gin had really needed me.
“She’s ready,” I said. “She’s been helping me on my hits for more than a year now. Hell, she practically did the last two herself. That girl can wield a knife like no one I’ve ever seen before. And the blood doesn’t bother her at all. That’s important, you know.”
“Maybe,” Jo-Jo murmured. “But you know as well as I do, Fletcher, that deep down, Gin is still just a little girl who’s missing her family, even though it’s been three years now since they were murdered.”
The dwarf stared back at me, her pupils looking like dots of black ink in her clear, almost colorless eyes. There was no judgment in her gaze, no accusation for what I’d failed to do, and I knew that there never would be. Still, I shifted in the shadows, although the movement didn’t do anything to lighten the guilt on my soul. The truth was that Gin was one of the many heavy weights that swung back and forth there, like the slow arc of a clock hand circling my heart. Turning, turning, turning, and never stopping, not even for a second’s respite.
A long, white Cadillac coasted down the street, stopping in front of the row house, and a boy of about twenty hopped out of the driver’s seat. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Clear skin. Nice smile. A tall, thick, six-foot-six frame that marked him as being a half-giant. The kid looked like a fucking star quarterback, right down to the puffy letterman’s jacket that he wore over his white T-shirt, blue jeans, and expensive sneakers. Jackson Fontaine, Jimmy’s younger brother, who was responsible for trolling local football games, parties, and high schools in search of young, fresh meat for the older giant’s operation.
Jackson hurried around to open the door on the other side of the Cadillac. He held out his hand and helped the girl inside up and out onto her feet—Gin Blanco.
My green eyes fixed on my apprentice. At sixteen, Gin was still lean and thin, with curves that hadn’t quite filled out yet, but you could still see the stunner that she was going to turn out to be in a few more years. She wore a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers just like Jackson did, although she’d topped her outfit off with a navy fleece jacket. All the better to hide the silverstone knives that she had tucked up her sleeves—and the blood that would splatter on her after she used them. Gin had pulled her chocolate brown hair back into a high ponytail tonight, which made her look younger, softer, innocent, even. Although I knew that her innocence had been burned away the night that her mother and older sister had been murdered by a Fire elemental.
Jackson said something and laughed, making a joke of some sort. Gin laughed as well, although her smile did little to thaw the ice that coated her gray eyes. Jackson didn’t notice, though. Targets never did, until it was too late.
Jackson opened the back door of the car and reached inside for something. Gin turned away from him and started scanning the house in front of her. We’d gone over the photos and blueprints a dozen times, and I knew that Gin was comparing the physical house with the mental image that she’d formed in her mind. Marking all the entrances and exits, just in case things didn’t go as planned.
The plan itself was simple. Gin would attract Jackson’s interest when he made his usual round of the weekend parties, tell him that she was a runaway, and get him to take her back to his older brother Jimmy’s row house. Once inside, Gin would kill Jimmy, leave the house, and walk the several blocks over to the Pork Pit, where I’d be waiting for her.
I just hadn’t told my apprentice that I’d be watching from the shadows to make sure that everything went smoothly tonight. No reason to hurt the girl’s pride just because I worried about her like I was her real father. Just because I didn’t want to admit that she was growing up and coming into her own as an assassin, as the Spider. She was already better than I’d been at her age. Colder. Calmer. More focused. One day soon, she’d be better than I’d ever dreamed of being.
I just hoped that my training her would be enough to make up for how I’d failed her so miserably before. For my part in her mother and older sister’s deaths. For how I’d failed to protect Gin and the rest of her family from the fiery wrath of Mab Monroe.
Perhaps it was my dark thoughts or the intense focus of my gaze on her, but Gin sensed that not all was as it should be. She turned away from the house and scanned the rest of the block, her gray eyes peering into the shadows. Maybe the cracked pavement under my feet had given me away. As a Stone elemental, Gin could sense vibrations in whatever form the element took around her, from a brick house to a concrete sidewalk to a weathered granite tombstone. People’s feelings and emotions sank into the stone around them over time, and Gin could listen to and interpret those impressions. Perhaps she could sense my mixed feelings of worry and pride even now, rippling through the pavement toward her.
Jackson fished something out of the back of the car, and I spotted a glint of metal before he stuck the gun in his coat pocket. I frowned. The kid brother packing a pistol had not been part of my calculations tonight, but I wasn’t too worried. Jackson wasn’t the only one here with a gun tonight or the know-how to use it.
Jackson moved to take Gin’s arm and started leading her toward the row house. After a moment, Gin let him take her the direction that she wanted to go anyway. Jackson escorted her up the sagging steps and opened the door. Golden light from inside the house slanted across Gin’s face, emphasizing the hard set of her features. Whatever she might be feeling on the inside, no emotions flickered in her eyes. No doubt about what she was here to do, and certainly no fear. My heart swelled with pride. She was my girl, all right.
“I can’t wait to introduce you to my brother,” Jackson’s voice drifted across the street to where Jo-Jo and I stood. “He’s going to love you, Gin.”
“Of course he will,” she replied. “He’s going to love me to death.”
With those ominous words, my apprentice stepped inside the house.
The door had barely closed behind Gin when Jo-Jo poked me in the shoulder.
“Well? What are you waiting for?” the dwarf said. “Go around to the back of the house and keep an eye on her in case she gets into trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Jo-Jo’s pale eyes narrowed, but her lips curved up into a smile, showing the laugh lines on her face. “Don’t you tease me, Fletcher Lane. I’ve got a hundred-plus years on you. Didn’t your mama ever teach you to respect your elders?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I repeated and ducked out of the way before Jo-Jo could jab me with her finger again.
I left the dwarf behind, crossed the street, and slipped into the alley that ran beside the row house. Garbage carpeted the pavement, and the steady, cool, October breeze sent more than one soda can skittering into the wall. The air reeked of sour beer and stale cigarettes. These sorts of places always smelled the same, as the sweat and desperation so prevalent in Southtown soaked into the landscape. I wondered if Gin could sense those same feelings with her elemental Stone magic. She probably could. Sometimes, I thought it was better to be a simple human and largely ignorant of such foul things.
It took me less than two minutes to work my way around to the back side of the house and crawl up onto the top of a metal Dumpster. From there, I was able to grab hold of the fire escape and scale the rickety iron ladder up to the third story of the house, something that I was able to do with ease, despite my sixty-some years. An old man, Gin often called me, which was her own term of endearment for me. Maybe I was with my wispy, whitening hair and wrinkled face, but I was still as spry as the devil himself.
My position on the fire escape gave me a clear view through a window and into Jimmy Fontaine’s office. If there was one thing that I’d learned from all my years of being an assassin, of being the Tin Man, it was that nobody ever bothered to close their curtains above the first floor. Fontaine was no exception, which is why I was able to spot him sitting at his chrome-and-glass desk.
Jimmy Fontaine was a giant, which meant that he topped out at around seven feet, with the strong, thick body to match his large frame. He had blond hair and blue eyes just like his kid brother Jackson did, but the sheer meanness in his gaze twisted his good looks into something hard and ugly. He sported a sharp black suit, as though he were a real businessman instead of a sick, greedy bastard who made his money off the backs of teenagers coked up on drugs and forced into prostitution.
Fontaine shuffled a few papers around on his desk. A minute later, a knock sounded on the door, and Gin stepped inside, followed by Jackson. The younger giant closed the door behind the two of them—then discreetly locked it.
Gin’s gray eyes cut to the side, and I knew that she’d heard the lock click home. Her hand twitched, like she wanted to palm the silverstone knife that she had hidden up her sleeve, but she restrained herself. Good girl. Move too early, and she ran the risk of missing Jimmy Fontaine. Gin knew as well as I did that the giant would beat her to death with his fists if he thought that she was any kind of threat to him. That’s how he’d gotten to where he was in the first place—by beating down any opposition and competition that came his way.
Fontaine also had another four giants stationed throughout the lower two floors of the house, all making sure that things ran smoothly and that none of the teens tried to bolt. The iron bars on the windows helped with that too. But I wasn’t worried about Fontaine screaming for help, since the giant had had his office soundproofed long ago. He just hadn’t realized that one day it might be the death of him.
“Jimmy, this is Gin,” Jackson said, leading Gin forward and making the introductions. “Gin, this is Jimmy.”
Jimmy Fontaine got to his feet, buttoned his suit jacket, and extended a hand to my apprentice. “Gin, it’s so nice to meet you. Jimmy’s told me so much about you.”
Gin shook the giant’s hand, although she let out a little snort of disbelief as she did so. “Really? I find that kind of hard to believe, since I only met him like an hour ago.”
Jimmy’s blue eyes narrowed at her disbelieving tone, and he gave Jackson a dark look. Fontaine wasn’t stupid. Like most predators, he could sense when others were near, and I could tell that his radar was already pinging when it came to Gin. He dropped her hand and stared at her with suspicion, but my girl just gave him a winsome smile and started exploring the room the way that any curious kid might.
“Gin’s a runaway,” Jackson explained, trying to smooth things over.
“Is that true?” Jimmy asked, his blue eyes locked on Gin.
Gin shrugged and picked up what looked like a real Ming vase. “Not really. But my family’s all dead and burned to ash, so what the hell does it matter?”
Jimmy frowned at her words, but Gin put the vase down and moved over to a painting hanging on the far wall. To a casual observer, she was doing nothing more than wandering aimlessly through the room, but I knew that she was doing exactly what I’d trained her to do—scanning the area for hidden weapons, hidden guards, or anything else that might be a threat to her.
Jimmy Fontaine watched Gin for another minute, but when she didn’t do anything else suspicious or threatening, his unease faded away, and his eyes latched onto her ass. In addition to pimping out young girls and boys, Fontaine also liked to sample the merchandise himself.
Fontaine stepped out from behind his desk, moved over, and sat down on a wide white couch that took up the better part of the right wall. He patted the cushion beside him. “Why don’t you come over here? I’d like to get to know you better. Jackson’s told you what we do here right? How we run a sort of halfway house for teens who don’t fit in anywhere else.”
That was the bullshit line that Jackson fed to other teens to get them into the row house in the first place. After that, Jimmy, his men, and his drugs made sure that they didn’t leave until they were all used up—or dead.
“Sure,” Gin chirped in a bright voice, but once again, her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
She moved over and plopped down onto the sofa next to Jimmy. Jackson sat in a chair across from them. Neither man noticed Gin’s arm fall down to her side—or the bit of metal that suddenly glinted in her right hand.
“So,” Gin chirped in that light tone again. “Is this where you rape all the girls that you bring up here? Or do you get them high first so they don’t fight back as hard? Is this were you raped Violet Wong before you beat her to death? Or did one of your filthy customers do it for you?”
For a moment, Fontaine’s mouth gaped open, and Jackson wore a similarly stunned look. Big brother was a little quicker on the draw, though, because his mouth snapped shut, and his eyes narrowed.
“How the hell do you know that name?” Jimmy growled, dark rage filling his face.
Gin just smiled at him. “Because I went to her funeral a few weeks ago. And her father wanted me to come here tonight and say hello for him.”
“What the hell—” Jackson sputtered.
Gin chose that moment to lean forward, snap up her hand, and drive the silverstone knife that she held there deep into Jimmy Fontaine’s chest. The giant’s eyes bulged in pain and surprise, and he opened his mouth to scream, even though it wouldn’t do him a damn bit of good in the soundproofed office. But Gin didn’t give him the chance. She leaped on top of the giant, even as she yanked the knife out of his chest.
And then, she cut his throat with it.
She turned her head, and blood spattered onto the side of her face, coating her pretty features like thick, sticky paint. Gin’s lips tightened at the sensation, but she kept her eyes open and focused on Jackson the whole time, already thinking about how to take out her next target.
“You bitch!” Jackson screamed, scrambling to his feet. “This was a setup!”
Gin pushed herself up off the sofa and leapt at Jackson, but the younger giant was too quick for her. He stepped back, knocking over his chair. She landed at his feet, and the giant drew back his foot and kicked her in the ribs. Gin grunted at the brutal contact and rolled back, back, back, away from the enraged giant. She came up in a low crouch, her knife still clutched in her hand.
Jackson stared at his brother a moment, and the blood soaking into the white coach. “You killed him! You killed Jimmy, you bitch!”
With a roar, the giant went after Gin. She tried to defend herself, but he slapped her knife away. Jackson grabbed Gin’s jacket, lifted her up off the floor, and punched her repeatedly in the stomach.
I didn’t remember standing outside on the fire escape, but suddenly, I was, with the gun that I’d had tucked into the small of my back clenched in my right hand. Worry burned through my veins like a wildfire roaring out of control. The girl’s pride be damned. I wasn’t going to let her die, not like I had her mother and older sister—
Gin groaned, but she reached up and clawed at Jackson’s eyes. The giant jerked back in surprise, and Gin managed to spin around and out of her jacket. She stumbled across the room and fell on top of the desk, gasping for air. Her eyes landed on something on top of the smooth glass, and I saw her hand snake forward.
Behind her, Jackson drew the gun out of the pocket of his letterman jacket. Through the window, I took careful aim at him with my own weapon. If he made a move to pull the trigger, the boy was going to get a bullet through the back of his head.
But Jackson just looked down at his gun, then over at his brother with his cut throat. Rage twisted his handsome face, and he threw down the gun and took off his jacket. Fool.
Jackson cracked the knuckles on both of his hands. “Time to die, bitch,” he snarled, grabbing Gin’s shoulder and turning her back around toward him.
And that’s when she stabbed him in the throat.
The object that I’d seen Gin palm off the desk had been a long, slender letter opener with a shiny pearl handle. It wasn’t as sharp as one of her silverstone knives, but it did the job, especially since she buried it up to the hilt on Jackson’s throat.
Jackson tried to scream, but all that came out was a series of strangled gasps and gurgles. Gin pulled the makeshift weapon out of his throat and shoved him away. The young half-giant stumbled over his fallen chair and went down onto the floor on his back. Gin didn’t make the same mistake that Jackson had—she didn’t hesitate. She raised the letter opener again and used the force of her entire body to drive it down deep into his chest.
Jackson Fontaine didn’t get up after that.
When it was over, and Jackson was as dead as his older brother, Gin slowly pushed herself up to her feet. She stood there in the middle of the office, swaying back and forth, eyes wide, fear and a touch of disgust filling her face at what had just happened. At what she’d just done.
“Come on, girl,” I whispered. “Pull yourself together. You can do it. This is what you were born to do, what I’ve been training you for.”
After a moment, Gin closed her eyes and shuddered out a breath. When she opened them again, her gray gaze was sharp and bright as steel once more. Now, she was the Gin that I knew—the little girl with an iron will and a heart of stone that had let her survive so many terrible things already. The death of her mother and older sister, being tortured by Mab Monroe, living on the streets, being trained by an assassin like me.
Gin sucked in a breath and stared at the two bodies. For a moment, I wondered if she’d be able to go through with the final part of the assignment. But her face hardened, and her lips flattened out into a thin line. Gin tiptoed over to Jackson Fontaine, leaned down, and checked the pulse—or lack thereof—in his neck. Just because someone looked dead didn’t mean that he was actually that way. You always had to check and make sure.
I nodded in satisfaction. Smart girl. She’d done everything that I’d told her to—and then some. She’d made this old man prouder than I’d thought possible. I’d been right when I’d told Jo-Jo that Gin was ready for this. The girl was more than capable of doing jobs on her own. And soon, in a few more years, she’d be the equal of any assassin working today. And someday, maybe one day sooner than I realized, she’d be ready for what I was really training her for—to kill Mab Monroe.
When Gin was satisfied that the gaints were gone, she wiped her bloody knives off on the edge of the white couch and tucked them back up her sleeves. Then, she went over, unlocked the door, and left Jimmy Fontaine and his younger brother Jackson dead and cooling on the floor. She didn’t look back.
An hour later, Gin pulled open the front door of the Pork Pit, making the bell chime. She stepped inside, and her eyes swept over the interior, skimming over the blue and pink vinyl booths, the matching pig tracks on the floor, and finally back to the counter where I sat reading an old, battered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. It seemed like an appropriate choice, given what had happened tonight. Besides, you just couldn’t go wrong with the Southern classics.
“Is the job done?” I asked, using one of the day’s checks to mark my place in the book.
“You shouldn’t ask me that,” she said, a slightly hurt tone in her voice. “You know that I wouldn’t have come back unless it was done.”
I nodded. “You’re right. Forgive me.”
Gin nodded back. The girl came over and hopped up on one of the stools in front of the counter. My green eyes flicked down her body, but her dark jacket did a good job of hiding the blood that she’d gotten on her when she’d killed the Fontaine brothers. She’d taken the extra step of zipping up her jacket too, to cover whatever stains might be on her T-shirt. And somewhere along the way, she’d stopped long enough to wipe the blood off her face. Overall, she’d covered her tracks well.
“Are you hurt?” I asked, thinking of the punches that I’d seen her take in the office. “Do you need to go see Jo-Jo tonight and get her to heal you?”
I’d sent the dwarf home after Gin had walked out of Jimmy Fontaine’s office, but I’d told Jo-Jo that we might be over at her salon later, depending on how Gin felt about things.
Gin shrugged. “I think my ribs are bruised that’s all. It’s nothing that can’t wait until morning. What I’d really like now is some food. I’m starving, Fletcher.”
I nodded. “I’m one step ahead of you there.”
I turned around and retrieved the plate of food that I’d warmed for her. A thick, juicy hamburger with all the fixings, a pile of macaroni salad, and a heaping helping of baked beans smothered in the Pork Pit’s famous barbecue sauce. All of Gin’s favorites.
I pushed the food across the counter to her, and she immediately dug in. I knew that she was hungry. I hadn’t let her eat supper before she’d gone to meet Jackson Fontaine, for fear that she might throw up before or even during the job. It was always better to do a job on an empty stomach—especially the first time you went solo.
I let her get halfway through her food before I asked the inevitable question. “So how was it?”
I watched her face carefully, looking for any sign of guilt or fear or disgust. By now, the girl had had time to really think about what she’d done, and I didn’t want her emotions to start gnawing at her. But no guilt flashed in her eyes and no self-loathing twisted her fair features. Instead, she sat there and the counter, chewed her food, and thought about my question.
“It went okay,” Gin finally said. “I don’t think that I did very well at convincing them that I was a runaway. I was too angry about what they were doing to really play the part like you told me to.”
Her self-analysis was spot-on. Her acting could have used some work, but she’d gotten the job done in the end. And next time, I knew that she’d make an effort to correct her mistake tonight. I only had to tell Gin something once, and she did it, without hesitating and without asking questions.
“Well, it doesn’t much matter now, does it?” I asked. “The Fontaine brothers are dead, and you’re not. I’d say that makes the evening a grand success.”
I hesitated, not quite sure how to say what I really wanted to—or how it might sound to a sixteen-year-old girl who’d just killed two men. In the end, I decided on the direct approach. I’d never been one for smooth words, not like my son, Finnegan. That boy could charm the wings off a butterfly.
“I’m proud of you, Gin.”
“Really?” she asked in a soft, shy voice. “Really and truly, Fletcher? I did good tonight?”
I nodded. “Really and truly. You did real good tonight, Gin. What you did will at least give Victor Wong some peace. That’s all the poor man can hope for at this point.”
She smiled then, and it was as if the moon had suddenly burst into the Pork Pit, bathing everything in its soft, silver light. Still smiling, Gin turned her attention back to her food.
I decided to let her eat the rest of her meal in peace, so I picked up my book once more. But I couldn’t quite focus on the words—or hide the proud grin that quirked my lips.
Oh, yes. The girl was a natural-born assassin.
And I was going to make her the very best there was. So she could do what needed to be done—for herself and for her sister Bria.
One day, Gin Blanco was going to grow up and kill Mab Monroe. And I, Fletcher Lane, the Tin Man, was going to help her every step of the way.