To my mom, my grandma, and Andre—for everything
To my papaw—you will be missed
Once again, my heartfelt thanks go to all the folks who help turn my words into a book.
Thanks go to my agent, Annelise Robey, and editors, Adam Wilson and Lauren McKenna, for all their helpful advice, support, and encouragement. Thanks also to Julia Fincher.
Thanks to Tony Mauro for designing another terrific cover, and thanks to Louise Burke, Lisa Litwack, and everyone else at Pocket and Simon & Schuster for their work on the step-back cover, the book, and the series.
And finally, a big thanks to all the readers. Knowing that folks read and enjoy my books is truly humbling, and I’m glad that you are all enjoying Gin and her adventures.
I appreciate you all more than you will ever know.
Breaking into the building was easy.
Too easy for an assassin like me.
Hell, I didn’t even really have to break in—I could have walked right through the front door, waved at the guard stationed behind the reception desk in the lobby, and taken the elevator up to the appropriate floor. Stroll into an office building holding a vase of flowers, an oversize teddy bear, or a couple of pizza boxes smelling of grease, pepperoni, and melted mozzarella, and no one looks too closely at you. Except to wish they were the ones who’d thought to order pizza.
The delivery ruse was one I’d used countless times before, and I would have done it again today—except my target knew that I was coming for him. He was on his guard, and everyone entering the building was being checked and double-checked for weapons and to see if they even had the right to be there in the first place.
Besides, I preferred to be subtle about these things—to creep around in the shadows, leap out, take down my target when he least expected it, and then vanish back into the darkness once more. As the assassin the Spider, I had a reputation to uphold—that I could get to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Something I planned on proving once again this evening—no matter how tight the security was.
It had taken me the better part of a week to scout out locations where the hit might go down. Home, office, the route in between, restaurants he liked to frequent, even Northern Aggression, Ashland’s most decadent nightclub, where he spent some time after hours. I’d eventually decided to do the job in his office, which was housed in one of the city’s downtown skyscrapers. He probably thought he was safe there, but he was going to learn exactly how wrong he was.
It had taken another week, and been a bit more difficult than I’d expected, getting my hands on the building’s blueprints and figuring out a way to get close to him, but I’d managed. I always managed. I wouldn’t have been the Spider otherwise. Besides, I always enjoyed a challenge.
Now I was into the third week of the operation, and it was finally time to put my plan into action, since the job had to be done before the end of the month. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but the target knew about the looming deadline and that I was gunning for him. Every day that passed meant that security got that much tighter and my job that much more difficult.
I strolled into a downtown parking garage, wearing a black pantsuit and matching heels. I’d pulled my dark, chocolate-brown hair up into a high, sleek ponytail, while black glasses with clear lenses covered my cold gray eyes. I looked like just another corporate office drone, right down to the enormous black handbag I carried.
This particular garage lay on the opposite side of the block from the front entrance to the skyscraper I wanted, but thanks to the blueprints I’d looked at, I’d discovered the two were connected by a series of maintenance corridors, which meant I didn’t have to go anywhere near the skyscraper lobby to actually get inside the building.
Always take the most unexpected route. That was something my late mentor, Fletcher Lane, had told me more than once, and I expected it to work just as well this evening as it had so many other times.
Still, I’d thought that my target might have a few guards stationed in the garage, hence my business attire, but I didn’t see anyone as I walked down the ramp from the street to the basement level. A few security cameras swiveled around in slow loops on the walls, their red lights blinking like malevolent eyes, but it was easy enough for me to walk through their blind spots. Sloppy, sloppy of him not to make sure the entire garage was covered, even if it was on the other side of the block. This was Ashland, after all, the city that showcased greed, violence, corruption, and depravity in all their deep-fried, Southern glory.
My heels cracked against the concrete as I headed toward the elevator, the harsh sound bouncing around like a Ping-Pong ball someone had tossed into the garage. Despite the fact I was in the business district, muggings weren’t unheard of here, and my eyes scanned the shadows, just in case there was anyone lurking around who shouldn’t be. Assassin or not, I had no desire to get blood on my clothes before I’d gotten close to my target. I was the only one getting away with any violence tonight.
As a final precaution, I reached out with my magic and listened to the stone around me.
People leave behind emotional vibrations in their surroundings, in the places where they spend their time, in the houses, apartments, and offices where they live, love, laugh, work, and die. All those feelings, all those emotions, especially, sink into stone, whether it’s a concrete foundation of a house, the gravel that constantly crunches under the tires of a convertible, or even an expensive marble sculpture prettily perched in a living room.
As a Stone elemental, I can pick up on those vibrations as clearly as if the person who had put them there was standing beside me, telling me all about how he’d used that marble sculpture to bash in his wife’s brains for the life insurance payout.
I reached out with my magic, and the usual sharp, worried murmurs echoed back to me. Nobody much cares for parking garages, and the low mutters told me just how many folks had fearfully clutched their bags and briefcases to their chests as they hurried to unlock their cars—and how many hadn’t made it before they’d been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Par for the course in this garage and so many others like it.
Still, there were no recent disturbances in the stone, and no indication that someone had set his sights on me. Satisfied, I shut the murmurs out of my mind, rounded the corner, and reached the elevator that led from the garage up into the office building on this side of the block.
A man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase waited in front of the elevator, watching the numbers light up as it descended to our level. I gave him a polite nod, then pulled my cell phone out of my bag and started tapping the buttons on it, sending a message to no one.
The elevator arrived, and the man stepped inside, holding the door open for me.
“Going up?” he asked.
I waved him off. “I need to finish this text first. My reception always gets cut off in there.”
He nodded and let the doors slide shut. I hit a few more buttons on my phone, just in case there was anyone else behind me heading toward the elevator, but no one appeared. When I was certain I was alone, I put the phone away and headed to the far end of the corridor and a door marked Maintenance Only.
I looped my bag across my shoulder so my hands would be free, held my palm up, and again reached for my magic. Most elementals are only gifted in one area—Air, Fire, Ice, or Stone—but I had the rare ability to tap into two areas. So now, instead of using my Stone magic, I grabbed hold of my Ice power and used it to form a specific, familiar shape—one that would help me get through this locked door.
A cold, silver light flickered in my palm, centered on the scar there, one that was shaped like a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays. A matching scar was embedded in my other palm. Spider runes—symbols for patience. My assassin name, and so many other things to me.
A second later, the light faded, and I clutched two slender Ice picks in my fingers. Still keeping an eye and ear out for anyone else in the garage, I went to work on the door. I wasn’t as good at jimmying locks as my sometimes partner, Finn, was, but I got the job done in under a minute. I threw the Ice picks down on the concrete, where they would soon melt away. Then I slid through the opening and let the door close behind me.
In the long, narrow hallway, flickering bulbs gave everything an ugly, sallow tint. I paused, listening for the footsteps of the maintenance workers who used these corridors. But I didn’t hear any scuffles or whispers of movement, so I started walking. Even if I ran into someone, I’d just claim to be a lost worker bee, desperately trying to find my way back to the hive.
For once, my luck held, and I didn’t see anyone as I hurried through the hallways. Eventually, I wound up in the basement of the skyscraper housing my target’s office. After that, it was just a matter of picking another door lock and taking the service elevator up to the second floor, above the guards in the lobby. Then I leisurely walked the rest of the way up the emergency stairs until I reached the top floor.
Cracking open the stairway door, I looked out over a sea of cubicles divided by clear, plastic walls. I’d gotten here right at quitting time, and everyone was trying to wrap up their work for the day so they could be out the door by five sharp, get their kids, get dinner, and get home. Everyone was hunched over their phones and computers, sending out a few last messages, so no one noticed me slip out of the stairway, softly pull the door shut behind me, and stroll into their midst.
I kept to the edge of the cubicle area and walked down a hallway until I came to a corner office that, thanks to a scouting trip I’d made here earlier this week, I knew was being used to store supplies. The door was open, and I stepped inside like I had every right to be there. I looked over my shoulder through the inner window, but no one so much as glanced in my direction, so I went into the attached private bathroom and closed the door behind me.
I stood behind the door, counted off the seconds in my head, and waited, just waited, to see if anyone had spotted me and alerted security. Ten . . . twenty . . . thirty . . . forty-five . . . After the three-minute mark, I felt safe enough to move on to the next part of my plan. Now that I was on the appropriate floor, all that was left to do was get to my target’s office.
I removed a small, electric screwdriver from my bag, climbed up onto the bathroom counter, and used the tool to open one of the grates on an air duct high up on the wall. Of course, I could have gotten into the air ducts down in the maintenance corridor. The only problem was that those grates were all wired into the security system. The second I popped one open, an alarm would have sounded, and lobby guards would have come running with their guns drawn and plugged me full of bullets.
But my target hadn’t bothered with alarms on the grates up here in the rarefied corporate air. Few people thought to properly secure the doors, windows, and air ducts on the upper levels of their homes or offices, figuring that preventing someone from getting inside on the ground floor was good enough.
Not when it came to the Spider.
Once the grate was open, I climbed back down, stripped off my suit and glasses, reached into my bag, and put on my real clothes for the evening—cargo pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a vest, and boots. All in black, of course. Yeah, wearing head-to-toe black might be a little cliché for an assassin, but you went with what worked—and best hid the bloodstains.
I put the suit, glasses, and heels into the bag, looped it around my chest, climbed onto the counter, and hoisted myself up and into the air duct, making sure to reach back and close up the grate behind me. Like many buildings in Ashland, the ducts here were made slightly oversize, just in case a giant maintenance worker ever had to squeeze inside, so I didn’t have any problems moving through them. I slowly, carefully, quietly, crawled through the air ducts until I reached the office I wanted. Then I eased up to the grate there and peered down through the slats.
My target certainly had an impressive office. A large desk made out of polished ebony stood in the back of the room. Pens, papers, a monitor, two phones. The usual office detritus covered the surface, while two black leather chairs crouched in front of the desk. Matching furniture in varying shades of black and gray filled the rest of the room, along with metal sculptures, while a fully stocked wet bar took up the better part of one wall. Behind the desk, floor-to-ceiling windows offered a sweeping view of downtown Ashland and the green-gray smudges of the Appalachian Mountains that ringed the city.
The office was empty, just like I’d anticipated, so I didn’t have to be quite so quiet as I used my screwdriver to undo the grate on this duct and put the loose screws into a pocket on my vest. I practiced removing the grate from its frame until I was sure I could do it without making any noise, then I slid it back into place. I also reached into my bag and drew out my weapon for the evening—a small gun made out of plastic.
Normally, I carried five silverstone knives on me—one up either sleeve, one against the small of my back, and two tucked into the sides of my boots. I liked my knives, and they were the weapons I used on the majority of my jobs. But my target had an elemental talent for metal, which meant he could sense whenever the element was near, just like I could the stone around me. In fact, metal was an offshoot of Stone.
Since I didn’t want to give my target advance notice that I was here, I’d decided to leave my knives at home tonight. I wasn’t as good with a gun as I was with a blade, but the one I’d brought along would get the job done in the office’s confined space.
As a final touch, I reached into my bag and pulled on a pair of black gloves, making sure the thin leather covered the spider rune scars embedded in my palms. The scars were really silverstone that had been melted into my skin years ago by a particularly vicious Fire elemental. I didn’t think my target would be able to sense the metal in my palms—not through the ductwork—but the gloves offered another small bit of protection, and I wasn’t going to take any chances.
With the grate and my gun in position, all that was left to do was settle down and wait.
I’d been inside the air duct for almost an hour when the office door opened and two men carrying briefcases stepped inside. Both wore expensive tailored suits and shiny wing tips, marking them as the movers and shakers they were. My target was having an after-hours meeting with his moneyman to go over company financials and other sundry things.