By a Thread

Page 1

Chapter 1

"You need a vacation."

I looked up from the tomato I was slicing and stared across the counter at Finnegan Lane, my foster brother and partner in so many murderous schemes over the years.

"Vacation? I hardly ever take vacations," I said. "I have a barbecue restaurant to run, in case you've forgotten."

I gestured with the knife at the rest of the Pork Pit. Most people wouldn't consider the restaurant much to look at with its blue and pink vinyl booths and matching, peeling pig tracks on the floor that led to the men's and women's restrooms. The long counter that ran along the back wall was older than I was, as were most of the cups, dishes, plates, silverware, and stainless-steel appliances. But everything was neat, clean, and polished to a high gloss, from the tables and chairs to the framed, slightly bloody copy of Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls that hung on the wall close to the battered, old-fashioned cash register. The Pork Pit might not be some fancy, highfalutin place, but it was my gin joint, my home, and I was damned proud of it. Always had been, always would be.

"A vacation," Finn repeated, as if I hadn't said a word. He was rather persistent that way. "Somewhere warm, somewhere sandy, somewhere where nobody knows your name, either as Gin Blanco or most especially as the Spider."

Finn's voice wasn't that loud, but when he said the Spider, the words echoed like gunshots through the storefront. The folks sitting at the tables behind Finn immediately froze, their thick, juicy barbecue beef and pork sandwiches halfway between their plates and lips. Conversation dried up like a shallow puddle in the desert, and everyone's eyes cut to me, wondering how I would react to the sound of that particular name.

My assassin name. The one I'd gone by for the last seventeen years, when I was out late at night killing people for money and eventually other, nobler reasons.

My hand tightened around the long, serrated tomato knife. Not for the first time, I wished I could use it to cut out Finn's tongue - or at least get him to think before he opened his mouth.

An elderly woman sitting two stools down from Finn noticed my death grip on the blade. Her face paled, and her hand clutched at the collar of her white silk blouse like she was about three seconds away from having a heart attack.

Sighing, I made myself relax and put the blade down on the counter. Fuck. I hated being notorious.

After a lifetime of being invisible, I was suddenly the most well-known person in Ashland. Several weeks ago, I'd done the unthinkable - I'd killed Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who'd been the head of the city's underworld for years. Mab had murdered my mother and older sister when I was thirteen, and her death had been a long time coming, as far as I was concerned. I didn't know anyone who'd shed any real tears over the Fire elemental's messy demise.

But now, everyone wanted their pound of flesh - from me.

Mab's death had left a vacuum among Ashland's legit and not-so-legit power players, and they were all scrambling to stake their various claims, solidify their shady operations, and position themselves as the city's next top dog.

Some of them thought the best way to accomplish that last feat was by killing me.

Idiot after idiot had come to the Pork Pit in the last few weeks, either singly or in small groups, all with one thing on their minds - taking out the Spider. Most of the elementals came at me straight on, challenging me to duels and wanting to test their magic against my own Ice and Stone power. Everyone else, well, they were content to try to get the drop on me when I was either opening up or closing down the restaurant.

Whatever their method, it always ended the same way - with the challengers dead and me asking Sophia Deveraux to dispose of their bodies. I'd killed more people in the last month than I had in a year as the Spider. Even I was getting a little sick of the constant, not-so-surprise attacks and blood spatters on my hands, clothes, and shoes, but the stream of suicidal lowlifes showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

The old lady next to Finn sucked in a breath. I looked down and realized that I'd picked up the tomato knife again and was rubbing my thumb over the smooth, polished hilt. It wasn't as strong or sharp as the five silverstone knives that I had secreted on my body, but the serrated blade would do plenty of damage. Most things would, if you put enough force behind them, and being forceful was one of the many things I excelled at.

"What are you looking at?" I snapped.

The old lady's eyes widened. With a trembling hand, she reached into her purse, threw a twenty-dollar bill onto the counter, slid off her stool, and hightailed it out of the restaurant as fast as her square white heels would carry her.

"Another one bites the dust," Finn murmured, his green eyes bright and merry in his handsome face. He always loved my discomfort, even when he wasn't the cause of it.

I frowned and made a slashing gesture with the knife, but Finn just ignored my cold glare and threats of violence. Instead, he raised his coffee mug and gestured to a dwarf who was chopping long green ribs of celery to add to the macaroni salad she was mixing up.

"Sophia?" he asked. "Pretty please?"

Sophia Deveraux turned to stare at Finn. She was the head cook at the Pit, in addition to her side job of getting rid of any bodies I left in my wake as the Spider. I'd inherited the dwarf's dual services when I'd taken over the assassination business from Finn's father, Fletcher Lane. The old man had been an assassin known as the Tin Man, and he'd taught me everything he knew about how to help people quit breathing.

Sophia grunted and grabbed the pot of coffee that she always kept on for Finn, who usually dropped by the restaurant at least once a day. She topped off his cup, and the warm chicory fumes filled my nose, momentarily overpowering the cumin, red pepper, and other spices that flavored the air. The rich caffeine smell always reminded me of Fletcher, who'd drunk the same chicory brew. I breathed in, hoping that the comforting scent would help relax me, but it didn't - not tonight. Not for weeks now.

The Pork Pit might not be much to look at, but folks couldn't help but stare at Sophia. One by one, their eyes drifted from me over to her. It wasn't that she was a dwarf that drew people's gazes; it was because she was Goth - seriously Goth. Sophia wore heavy black boots and jeans, topped by a white T-shirt that featured a black scythe slashing across her chest. Grim Reaper, indeed. Her hair and eyes were black too, making her skin seem that much paler, despite the bright fuchsia lipstick she wore. The lipstick was the same color as the spiked silverstone collar that ringed her neck.

The good thing about standing next to Sophia was that it made everyone forget about me. After a few more seconds, the customers went back to their sandwiches, along with the baked beans, fried onion rings, and other hearty side dishes.

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