The way he wolfed down his meal reminded me of myself when I’d been living on the streets as a kid. Back then, I’d crammed food into my mouth as rapidly as Kincaid was doing now. Most curious indeed.
We didn’t speak as he ate, and I moved back and forth behind the counter, fixing drinks, dishing up food, and helping Sophia and the waitresses with whatever the other customers needed. But through it all, I kept an eye on Kincaid.
All the while, I kept waiting for some of his giant bodyguards to show up, for someone to try and take a shot at me through the bulletproof storefront windows . . . hell, for something, anything, dangerous to happen—but nothing did. For all intents and purposes, Phillip Kincaid had just come here for lunch.
The problem was, I didn’t believe that any more than I believed the moon was made of green fucking cheese.
Several minutes later, as I was whacking my way through another head of lettuce and still indulging in my murderous daydreams, Kincaid finished his meal and let out what sounded like a satisfied sigh, as though he’d truly enjoyed the food. He removed the napkin from the collar of his shirt, dropped it on the counter, and pushed his plates to the side.
I finished with the lettuce and moved on to the next vegetable on my list, potatoes that needed to be peeled and cubed so I could make another batch of potato salad.
“That was a mighty fine meal,” Kincaid said, sounding quite sincere. “Best one I’ve had in a long time. In fact, that’s why I came here today.”
“Oh?” I said, putting as much withering disbelief as I could into that one word.
“I’m holding a little get-together on the Delta Queen in a few days’ time. And I want you to cater the event.”
This time, my eyebrows were the ones that shot up. “You want me to cater a party? On your riverboat?”
“I do. Everyone says you make the best barbecue in Ashland, so I decided to see for myself. You’ve sold me on your little place. Consider me a loyal customer from now on.”
He gave me another winning smile, as if that seemingly innocent expression could somehow lure me into swallowing the absolute bullshit he was spouting. He rather reminded me of Finn in that moment. The difference was, I trusted my foster brother.
“Don’t you have your own chefs?” I asked. “From what I hear, the food on your little boat is some of the best in the city, close to rivaling Underwood’s. Surely your own staff could cater.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps. But I think the patrons of this particular event will enjoy something a little more . . . down-home and relaxed than champagne and caviar. I’m prepared to pay you quite generously for your time and culinary expertise, of course.”
I looked over at Sophia, who was stirring the barbecue sauce I’d put on the stove earlier. The Goth dwarf was standing close enough to hear Kincaid’s catering offer. She glanced at me and shrugged, telling me she didn’t know what he was up to any more than I did, but that she’d go along with whatever I wanted to do. She was a good friend that way.
I concentrated on my potatoes, giving myself a few seconds to think. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine what Kincaid was plotting. He’d never made any problems for either Gin Blanco or the Spider before. Just about every other crime boss in Ashland had sent some goons after me, trying to eliminate me, but Kincaid was one of the few who hadn’t. I’d thought it had just been common sense on his part, but now I was wondering if it was something else—if he had some other kind of trap in mind for me. Either way, it made me curious enough to want to find out—and to upset whatever apple cart Kincaid had so thoughtfully arranged. I rather enjoyed being petty that way.
“When is this little shindig of yours?” I finally asked.
His eyes gleamed with sly triumph. “Thursday, three days from now.”
“And how much food do you think you’ll need?”
He quoted me some figures about expected guests, what he wanted to see on the menu, and when he wanted the food to be served. We also hammered out the payment, which was far more generous than it should have been for a job like this one. Then again, nothing about this was what it seemed to be—except rotten.
“Excellent,” Kincaid said when we’d finished our discussion. “Let’s take care of the money right now.”
He reached into his jacket, and my hand tightened around the knife I was using to cube the potatoes. Just in case he was going for something other than his checkbook.
But that was exactly what Kincaid drew out of his jacket, along with a silverstone pen, and he wrote me a check for the catering gig and his lunch. He even added an obscenely generous tip on top of everything. Oh yes, he was definitely up to something, but that didn’t keep me from taking the slip of paper from him, folding it, and sliding it into the back pocket of my jeans. Finn would never let me hear the end of it if I passed up all that money.
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Gin,” Kincaid said, putting away his checkbook and pen, getting to his feet, and buttoning his suit jacket once more.
I gave him a thin smile. “I doubt I’ll say the same before this is all said and done.”
For a moment, worry filled his eyes before he was able to mask it, although the pleasant expression never dropped from his lips—not even for a second. Oh, yes. Phillip Kincaid could definitely give Finn a run for his money in the suave department.
Kincaid nodded at me, did the same to Sophia as well, then turned and headed out of the Pork Pit. He stopped and held the door open for someone coming in, and I realized it was Finn. The two men stood in the doorway and stared at each other, before Kincaid moved past Finn and stepped outside, letting the door swing shut behind him.
Finn frowned, walked over to the counter, and slid onto the stool the other man had just vacated. “What the hell was he doing here?”
“I don’t rightly know,” I said, watching Kincaid stroll down the sidewalk and out of sight of the storefront windows. “But I’m going to find out.”
That Thursday I found myself staring up at the Delta Queen riverboat casino.
The riverboat was a massive structure, with six decks of gleaming, whitewashed wood, red- and blue-painted trim, and polished brass rails. At the rear of the boat, a giant paddle wheel rose up from the water and loomed over the topmost deck like a white whale about to crash down and sink the whole ship. Globe-shaped lights wrapped around all the rails and dropped from one level to the next, swinging back and forth in the warm spring breeze.
The Delta Queen was docked in the downtown district in front of a wooden boardwalk lined with old-fashioned iron street lamps and benches. Several uppity art galleries, overpriced antique stores, and cutesy cafés could also be found along the walkway, their windows and outdoor seats offering views of the boat and the Aneirin River that it slowly bobbed up and down upon.
The boardwalk and shops were an attempt by the city planners to gentrify the area, despite how close it was to Southtown, the dangerous part of Ashland that was home to the city’s down-on-their-luck bums, deadly gang-bangers, vampire hookers, and their violent pimps. So far, the upscale stores and pristine landscaping had stuck, thanks in part to the security force Kincaid paid to watch over the Delta Queen and surrounding parking lots. After all, it just wouldn’t do for someone to get mugged before he could board the riverboat and lose his money in the casino.
“Pretty lights,” Sophia rasped beside me.
“Yes,” I murmured. “The lights on the riverboat are certainly pretty.”
I just wondered what darkness waited for me on board.
I’d asked Finn to find out everything he could about Kincaid and what was going down on his riverboat tonight. My foster brother had an impressive network of spies, snitches, and folks who owed him favors in Ashland and beyond, and Finn loved digging up dirt on people more than a gardener enjoyed planting his prize roses.
Still, despite all his sources, Finn hadn’t been able to find out much. Kincaid had appeared on the underworld scene as a teenager, doing whatever dirty job he was asked to and ruthlessly working his way up through the ranks of various criminal organizations until he’d struck out on his own. Today, he controlled the market for all the gambling operations—legal and otherwise—in Ashland.
Kincaid was rumored to be as dangerous as they came, despite the fact that he wasn’t an elemental. Then again, you didn’t need elemental magic to kill—just an intense desire to make someone quit breathing and the will to make it a reality. Kincaid wouldn’t have gotten where he was and stayed there all these years without having both of those in spades.
Good thing I did, too. I’d be more than ready for whatever trap the casino boss had in store for me tonight.
“Well,” I said to Sophia, “let’s go make some barbecue.”
Sophia and I spent the next fifteen minutes unloading our supplies from her classic convertible and the Cadillac Escalade I’d borrowed from Finn’s fleet of cars. Together, the Goth dwarf and I carried everything we needed up the gangplank and on board the riverboat . . .
And right into the middle of a frat party.
Guys and girls in their late teens and early twenties filled the riverboat’s third deck, which formed an open U shape that jutted out past all the other decks and curved into the bow of the boat. Everyone had on flip-flops and sandals, along with the tightest T-shirts and the shortest shorts they could get away with. A banner hanging down from the fourth deck read Charity Rocks! Give ’Til It Hurts!
That was the other strange thing about tonight. I’d expected Kincaid to be throwing some fancy gala, but instead here was a fund-raiser for an animal shelter being put on by some sororities and fraternities at Ashland Community College. Well, perhaps fund-raiser was too generous a term. Kegger with a cause would have been more appropriate, given the students who had brought along their own beer and were already stumbling around like the boat was actually moving instead of being secured to the dock.
Games had been set up on deck, everything from poker to roulette to craps. A twenty-dollar cover charge got you on board the riverboat, all the food you could eat, and a stack of chips. They didn’t have any monetary value tonight, but if you won enough chips playing the games, you could redeem them for prizes. Raffles of donated items were also being held, and screams of delight rippled through the crowd every time someone won something, rising above the loud, constant, ringing ching-ching-ching of the slot machines.
The kids who weren’t drinking or gambling were amusing themselves by hooking up, as though standing by the railing meant that no one could see them sticking their tongues down each other’s throats or would notice all the wandering hands disappearing beneath skimpy outfits.
It all looked so real, so legit, so damn convincing, that I would have almost believed this was a bona fide catering job—except for the fact Kincaid had personally come into the Pork Pit to hire me. Men like him didn’t do things like that—that’s what underlings were for. The casino boss was definitely up to something; I just didn’t know what it was yet.
“Gin! There you are!”
Speak of the devil. Kincaid pushed through a door that led into the riverboat’s interior and headed in my direction. From my past explorations here, I knew the inside of the boat was hollow and ringed with a series of balconies, so folks on the upper decks could see the stage here on the third floor and watch the elaborate shows put on there. Kincaid offered a full, Vegas-style experience, right down to the leggy showgirls Finn always lusted after whenever he watched a performance here.
Kincaid walked toward me, followed by a giant with pecan-brown hair, matching eyes, and olive skin. Both men wore light, summer-weight suits, and each had a large pin in the middle of his silk tie. Kincaid’s pin was made of silverstone, while the giant’s was gold, but both were shaped like a dollar sign superimposed over an outline of the riverboat—Kincaid’s rune for his casino and the buckets of money it netted him. A little garish and too in-your-face for my tastes, but it didn’t surprise me that the casino boss liked to flaunt his wealth. He’d earned it, clawing his way up through the underworld.
More giants circulated through the crowd, all wearing suits and the same gold tiepin. They closely monitored the students and games. Despite the fact that he’d opened up his riverboat to the college crowd, Kincaid wasn’t letting any of the kids cheat or swipe chips from their fellow gamblers. How noble of him.
Kincaid stopped in front of Sophia and me, his blue eyes flicking over our boots, jeans, and long-sleeved T-shirts. Once again, I got the sense he was highly amused about something whenever he looked at me, although I had no idea what that could possibly be. There wasn’t anything amusing about me—or the knives I’d brought along.
“This is Antonio Mendez, my second-in-command,” Kincaid said, gesturing to the giant beside him. “If you need anything tonight, just let him know.”
Antonio nodded his head at Sophia, then turned to stare at me, sizing me up. Despite the neutral expression, I could sense the coiled strength in his seven-foot body. Finn had actually been able to find out more about Kincaid’s men than about Kincaid himself, so I knew Antonio could be ruthless when need be. The giant wasn’t someone you wanted to fuck with.
Then again, neither was I.
I returned Antonio’s searching stare with a cold, hard one of my own. After a moment, the giant nodded his head again, indicating I’d passed his little mental pissing contest. As if I cared. I didn’t have anything to prove to the giant or anyone else, but I’d have been happy to show him exactly who he was messing with if he got an inch out of line or threatened either Sophia or myself in the slightest way.
Antonio turned his attention to the Goth dwarf, and his eyes widened at her black lipstick and the purple streaks she’d put in her hair. “Here. Let me help you with those,” he said, reaching for the stack of boxes in her arms.
Sophia let out a low, threatening growl. With her ruined, raspy voice, she sounded like a mythological Fenrir wolf about to sink its teeth into a hunk of fresh meat. Antonio froze. Sophia let out another growl, and the giant dropped his hands to his sides and stepped away from her. Smart man.
Kincaid stayed silent throughout their exchange, then made a sweeping motion with his hand. “This way.”
He led us over to the far side of the deck, the one facing out toward the Aneirin River. A large cooking station had been set up there, complete with pots, pans, utensils, a couple of burners, coolers filled with ice, and everything else we would need. Kincaid had been thorough, if nothing else. His accommodating nature only made me that much more suspicious about what he really wanted—and how many people I might have to kill to make it through the night.