“I really want to stab someone right now.”
Silvio Sanchez, my personal assistant, glanced at me. “I would advise against that,” he murmured. “It might send the wrong message.”
“Yeah,” Phillip Kincaid chimed in. “Namely that you’ve reverted back to your deadly assassin ways and are going to start killing people again instead of hearing them out like you’re supposed to.”
“I never really left those ways behind,” I replied. “Considering that I could kill everyone here and sleep like a baby tonight.”
Phillip snickered, while Silvio rolled his eyes.
The three of us were sitting at a conference table that had been dragged out onto the deck of the Delta Queen, the luxe riverboat casino that Phillip owned. Normally, slot machines, poker tables, and roulette wheels would have been set up on the deck in preparation for the night’s gambling,
but today the riverboat was serving as a meeting spot for some of Ashland’s many underworld bosses.
Supposedly, this meeting was to be a peaceful mediation of a dispute between Dimitri Barkov and Luiz Ramos, two of the city’s crime lords, who were disagreeing about who had the right to buy a series of coin laundries to, well, launder the money that they made from their gambling operations. Not that there was anything peaceful about the way Dimitri and Luiz had been standing nose-to-nose and screaming at each other for the last five minutes. Their respective guards stood behind them, fists clenched tightly and shooting dirty looks at each other, as though they would all love nothing more than to start brawling in the middle of the deck.
Now, that would be entertaining. I grinned. Maybe I should let them have at each other, gladiator-style. Winner take all. That would be one way to settle things.
Silvio nudged me with his elbow, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. “Pay attention. You’re supposed to be listening to the facts so you can be fair and impartial, remember?”
“I could be fair and impartial in stabbing them both.”
He gave me a chiding look.
I sighed. “You always ruin my fun.”
“That’s my job,” the vampire replied.
I palmed the silverstone knife hidden up my sleeve—the only weapon I’d brought on board—and flashed it at my friends under the table, out of sight of the bosses and their men.
“C’mon,” I whispered. “Just let me stab one of them. Surely that will shut the other one up too.”
Phillip snickered again, while Silvio let out a small, sad sigh. He wasn’t crazy about my managerial style. Couldn’t imagine why.
“I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t bring any knives on board,” Silvio murmured again. “So as not to send the wrong message.”
“I left the other four in the car. So I’m only a fifth as deadly today. That’s progress, right?” I waggled my eyebrows.
Silvio narrowed his gray eyes and held out his hand below the table. I reluctantly passed over the weapon, and he tucked it up his sleeve. I pouted a little, but he ignored me. He was getting good at that.
My friends turned their attention back to Dimitri and Luiz, who were still yelling and pointing their fingers at each other, each man trying to shout the other one down. But instead of listening to them, I glanced at the third boss who had shown up: Lorelei Parker.
Unlike Dimitri and Luiz, who were both dressed in business suits, Lorelei was sporting black stiletto boots, dark jeans, and a long-sleeved T-shirt, just like I was. The only real difference between us was that her leather jacket was a bright royal blue, and mine was a subdued midnight black. Her black hair was pulled back into a French braid, and her blue eyes were focused on her phone, since she was busy texting. The quick motions of her fingers made a silverstone rune ring glitter on her right hand—a rose wrapped in thorns dripping blood, all of it outlined in impressive diamonds.
Of the three bosses, Lorelei was the most intriguing, since she was a smuggler known far and wide for her ability
to get anything for anyone at any time. Cash, guns, precious jewels, and pricey antiques were just a few of the things she was rumored to dabble in.
Only a single guard stood off to her side. Jack Corbin, her right-hand man. He too was dressed in boots, jeans, and a black leather jacket, but his blue eyes continuously scanned the deck and everyone and everything on it.
Corbin realized that I was watching him and tipped his head at me, before smoothing back his dark brown hair. Then he sidled a little closer to his boss, ready to protect her from everyone on deck, including me. I nodded back at him. My deceased mentor, Fletcher Lane, had a thick file on Corbin in his office, so I knew that he was far more dangerous than he appeared to be.
Then again, so was I.
Lorelei was here because she owned the coin laundries in question and was more than willing to sell them—to the highest bidder, of course. I didn’t know if she’d approached Dimitri and Luiz about buying the front businesses or if they’d come to her, and I hadn’t had the chance to ask any questions, since the gangsters had been screaming at each other the entire six minutes I’d been on the riverboat. Either way, the men just couldn’t agree on who was getting what, and things had escalated to the point where Dimitri and Luiz were about to declare war on each other. That would mean shootings, stabbings, kneecappings, and lots of other messy crimes.
Don’t get me wrong. As the Spider, I’d made plenty of bloody messes in my time. It was sort of my specialty.
But a few weeks ago, I’d taken down Madeline Magda Monroe, an acid elemental who’d declared herself the new
queen of the Ashland underworld, following in the footsteps of her mother, Mab.
Just as I had killed her mother several months earlier, I took out Madeline with my Ice and Stone magic, and with no more Monroes left to grapple for control of the underworld, the other bosses had made me their de facto leader. At least until they started plotting how they could murder me and one of them could seize the throne they all coveted so very much.
I almost wished that one of them would succeed in putting me out of my misery.
Contrary to popular belief, being the head of the Ashland underworld was not a bed of roses. It wasn’t even a bed of thorns. It was just a giant headache—like the one throbbing in my temples right now.
I’d thought I’d been a popular target over the summer, but now the bosses sought me out more than ever before. And they actually wanted to talk to me. Incessantly. About business deals and treaties and who was letting their gang members spray-paint rune graffiti in someone else’s territory. As if I actually cared about any of those things. But as the big boss, it was apparently my job to listen. At least according to Silvio.
Lorelei was the one who’d requested this meeting, although she’d actually approached Phillip about settling the dispute instead of me. Apparently, Lorelei didn’t want to acknowledge my new authority or involve me in her affairs. That, or she just hated me for some reason. Didn’t much matter either way, since I cared as little about her as she did about me.
But Phillip was my friend, and he’d told me about the get-together.
So here I was, about to mediate my first big dispute as Gin Blanco, the Spider, new queen of the Ashland underworld. Yeah, me.
Still, I would have been perfectly happy to skip the polite nonsense of the meeting and let Dimitri and Luiz duke it out until one of them killed the other, but Silvio had pointed out that if I resolved their feud today, they wouldn’t show up at my restaurant, the Pork Pit, tomorrow. Since I didn’t want the criminals scaring my customers, I’d decided to be a good boss and put in an appearance.
Everyone had been sitting at the conference table when I walked on board with Silvio. But at the sight of me, Dimitri and Luiz had shot to their feet and started shouting accusations at each other, as if they thought that I would side with whoever yelled the loudest and the longest.
Now Dimitri was cursing at Luiz in Russian, and Luiz was returning the favor in Spanish. Since it didn’t look like they were going to stop anytime soon, not even to take a breath, I tuned them out as best I could and stared out over the brass railing.
The Aneirin River flowed by the white riverboat, the swift current causing the vessel to sway ever so slightly. The November sun glinted off the surface of the blue-gray water, making it sparkle like a sheet of diamonds, while a faint breeze brought the smell of fish along with it. My nose wrinkled at the wet stench. A few crimson and burnt-orange leaves clung to the trees that lined the far side of the river, although the breeze would soon send them spiraling down to the ground—
Something flashed in the trees directly across from me.
I frowned, leaned to the side, and focused on that spot. Sure enough, a second later, a small gleam of light caught my eye, the sun reflecting off something hidden back in the trees—
Silvio nudged me with his elbow again, and I realized that Dimitri and Luiz had stopped shouting and were staring at me with expectant faces, their arms crossed over their chests. Behind them, their guards wore similarly hostile expressions.
“Well, Blanco?” Dimitri demanded in a low, gravelly voice. “What’s your decision?”
“Yeah,” Luiz chimed in, his tone much higher. “Who gets the laundries?”
I looked back and forth between the two of them. “Um . . .”
Dimitri frowned, and anger sparked in his dark brown eyes. “You weren’t even listening to us!”
“Well, it was kind of hard to follow,” I admitted. “Especially since I don’t speak Russian, and my Spanish is rudimentary, at best.”
Dimitri threw his hands up in the air and spewed out more Russian words, all of which sounded like curses.
Phillip leaned over. “I think he just insulted your mother.”
I groaned, but I held my hands up, trying to placate the mobster. “Okay, okay. That’s enough. Stop. Please.”
Dimitri finished his cursing, but he still gave me a disgusted look. “I knew this would be a waste of time. I should have just killed Lorelei and taken the laundries. Just like I should have put a bullet in your head the night of Madeline’s party and taken control of the underworld myself. Just like I should do right now.”
Silence descended over the deck, and the only sound was the steady rush of the river flowing by the boat.
I laid my hands flat on the table, then slowly got to my feet. The scraping of my chair against the wood was as loud as a machine gun.
I stared at Dimitri. “That was exactly the wrong thing to say.”
Everyone could hear the chill in my words and see the ice in my wintry-gray eyes.
Dimitri swallowed, knowing he’d made a mistake, but he wasn’t about to back down in front of everyone, so he raised his chin and squared his shoulders. “I don’t think so. There’s only one of you. I have three men with me.”
I smiled, but there was no warmth in my expression. “That’s because you need guards. I don’t. I never have. So if I were you, I’d start apologizing to me. Pronto.”
Dimitri wet his lips. “Or else?”
I shrugged. “Or else your men will be dragging what’s left of you off this boat, and Phillip will be sending me the cleaning bill.”
Dimitri sucked in a breath, but anger stained his cheeks a bloody red. “Nobody threatens me.”
“Oh, sugar,” I drawled. “It’s not a threat.”
Dimitri kept staring at me, his breath puffing out of his open mouth like a bull about to charge. Beside me, Phillip and Silvio got to their feet and moved out of my way.
“Try to show a little restraint,” Silvio whispered as he passed.
Restraint wasn’t a popular word in my vocabulary, but I nodded, acknowledging his point. If I killed Dimitri and
Luiz, it would just convince the other bosses that I wanted them all dead, and they would probably start trying to murder me again. I’d fought hard for my relative peace and quiet, and I wasn’t going to throw it away on a couple of minor mobsters.
Even if I did feel like stabbing both of them. Violently. Viciously. Repeatedly.
Phillip and Silvio stepped over to where Lorelei Parker was still sitting at the far end of the table. Lorelei had quit texting and was staring at me, but she remained in her seat, with Jack Corbin standing by her side. The two of them weren’t dumb enough to take me on, at least not face-to-face, but the same couldn’t be said for the other bosses.
He wasn’t brave enough to fight me on his own, so he turned to Luiz. “You help me with Blanco, and I’ll let you have the coin laundries. All of them.”
Luiz scoffed. “I want the laundries and that deli you own on Carver Street.”
He sighed and nodded.
I rolled my eyes. A minute ago, they would have been happy to murder each other, and now they were going to work together to try to kill me. Well, at least Luiz had the good sense to try to squeeze everything he could out of the other gangster. Had to admire him for that. Even if he’d picked the wrong side.
Dimitri and Luiz shook hands, sealing their hasty deal, and then they both faced me, with their guards standing behind them, cracking their knuckles in anticipation of the beat-down they thought they were going to give me. Fools.
“Now what are you going to do?” Dimitri sneered. “Against all of us?”
“Me? I’m finally going to have some fun. I certainly deserve it, after listening to you two whine like a couple of kids fighting over the same ice-cream cone.”
My insult was the last straw. Dimitri’s cheeks burned even hotter, and he stabbed his finger at me.
“Get her!” he roared.
“Kill Blanco!” Luiz yelled.
The two bosses and their guards surged toward me, with Dimitri leaning over the table and reaching out with his hands, as though he wanted to strangle me to death.
I kicked my foot into the table leg, making the whole thing slam forward, right into the Russian’s potbelly. He gasped and bent over double, causing his very bad, very obvious, very shaggy black toupee to almost slide off his head.
But I was already moving on to the next threat. Since I didn’t have any knives, I leaned down, snatched up the chair I’d been sitting in, and slammed it into the head of the closest guard. He yelped and staggered away, clasping his hands over his bloody broken nose. He lurched past Silvio, who stuck out his foot and tripped him. The giant’s head hit the top part of the railing, and the brass let out a loud, pealing note, ringing like a bell. The giant slumped to the deck unconscious. Ding. Down for the count already.
Silvio flashed me a thumbs-up. I grinned back, then turned to fight the next guard.
Phillip had made sure that no one boarded the riverboat armed, so I wasn’t worried about getting shot. Even if
someone had managed to sneak in a gun or a knife, I could always use my Stone magic to harden my skin and protect myself from any bullets or blades.
Using the same chair, I took out two more guards, opening up cuts and bruises on their faces, necks, and arms. By the time I got done with those giants, the plastic seat had cracked apart, so I ripped two of the metal legs off the chair and swung them around like batons.
I slammed the metal poles into every guard I could reach, cracking the chair legs into knees and throats and temples and groins. Moans and groans blasted out like foghorns across the deck, and more than a little blood arced through the air and spattered onto the glossy white wood and gleaming brass rails.
“Restraint!” Silvio called out after I jabbed the end of one of the poles into the face of the closest giant. “Restraint, please, Gin!”
“What?” I yelled back. “I’m not killing them . . . yet!”
At my words, the giant I’d been fighting froze, his fists drawn back to punch me. But he took my warning seriously; instead of hitting me, he whirled around and made a beeline for the gangplank on the other side of the boat. I let him go, since he was the last guard standing. The others were huddled on the deck, trying to find the strength to hoist themselves upright and will their eyes to stop spinning around in their heads.
“You!” Dimitri bellowed, having finally recovered his breath. He shoved his toupee back where it belonged. “I’m going to kill you if it’s the last thing I do!”
With a loud roar, he charged at me. I dropped the
chair legs that I had used against the guards and simply squatted down. Then, when he was right on top of me, I surged up and tossed him back and over the side of the railing.
“Ahhh!” Dimitri screamed on the way down.
Footsteps pounded on the deck, and I spotted Luiz rushing at me. So I squatted down again quickly, and then, when he was right on top of me, I pulled the same move and sent him overboard too.
Another loud scream, another satisfying splash!
I scanned the deck, but there were no more enemies to fight. So I looked at Lorelei Parker and Jack Corbin, who were in the same positions as before.
“You two don’t want to join in the fun?” I drawled, picking up the metal chair legs and twirling them around in my hands. “I was just getting warmed up.”
Lorelei let out a disgusted snort, while Corbin held up his hands and stepped back.
Faint cries sounded—“Help! Help! Help!”—and I strode over to the railing. Phillip and Silvio followed and stood on either side of me, and we all looked down.
Dimitri and Luiz were clinging to each other in the river, both of them thrashing around and trying to stay afloat by drowning each other. Dimitri had somehow held on to to his toupee, which he was now beating against Luiz’s face. They both looked like the wet, slimy rats they were.
I grinned at Phillip. “You were absolutely right. Throwing people overboard is tons of fun. I feel better already.”
“Told you so,” Phillip said in a smug voice, his blue eyes bright with mischief and merriment.
Silvio sighed. “Don’t encourage her.”
More moans and groans came from the fallen giants on the deck. I tossed my metal poles aside, turned around, and leaned back against the railing. All the guards stopped and looked at me, wondering what I was going to do next.
“So,” I called out, jerking my thumb over my shoulder. “Anyone else want to go for a swim?”
Strangely enough, no one took me up on my offer.