Kincaid’s eyes met mine. I could see the pain in his gaze—and the hope that I could somehow save him.
Part of me knew the smart play was to let the elemental finish the job—to let Kincaid die. With him dead, there’d be one less bad guy in Ashland, one less person to come after me. If it had been Jonah McAllister, I wouldn’t have hesitated. I would have gotten myself a drink, leaned against the railing, pulled out my cell phone, and recorded the whole thing for repeat viewing. But to my knowledge, Kincaid had never made any moves against me or mine, except for luring me here tonight, and I was starting to get a glimmer of an idea why he’d really done that.
Maybe it was Eva’s screams, or maybe it was the hope in the bastard’s eyes—the one emotion I could never quite disregard or turn away from. Either way, I knew I had to help him.
I bent down closer to Kincaid, looking at the noose around his neck. Both his and Eva’s fingers dipped into the water time and time again, but they weren’t having any luck grabbing onto the stream and yanking it away. All they were really doing was getting their hands wet, and the water was slipping through their fingers and snapping right back into place like a rubber band. It almost seemed like the elemental was playing with them, solidifying the water just enough for them to think they had a chance to rip it away, then letting it dissolve and run through their hands only to re-form the deadly noose again. No doubt the elemental was enjoying every second of this sick game.
I couldn’t rip the thing off with my hands, any more than Kincaid and Eva could, and my knives wouldn’t be any help either. That left only one option.
“Eva, stop! Stop! Kincaid, quit fighting, and hold still,” I said.
Eva reached for him again, but I shouldered her back and out of the way. Despite the fact that he was the one being strangled, Kincaid was calmer than she was. He managed to nod, although his face was tinged with blue by this point.
I put my hand down on the noose, feeling the water writhe like a snake against my fingers. Then I reached for my Ice magic, letting the power rise up out of the deepest part of me. A silver light flared in my palm. The other elemental would sense me using my magic and probably realize what I intended to do with it, but there was nothing to be done about that right now. I just hoped our assailant didn’t have enough magic left to try to suck the moisture out of anyone else on deck. Probably not, since it took a lot of power to do that sort of thing, and the elemental hadn’t tried the same trick on Kincaid already.
It only took me half a second to completely freeze the noose around Kincaid’s neck and turn all that shifting, sloshing water into a solid ring of elemental Ice. I sent out another burst of magic, shattering the Ice around his throat, and Kincaid quickly sucked down breath after breath.
He looked at me, his blue eyes cold and furious. “Find her,” he rasped. “Kill her . . . now . . . before she . . . gets away. . . .”
Her? So the other elemental was a woman. Good to know. I didn’t need to be asked twice. My head snapped up, and I scanned the deck once more. Off to my right, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slender figure sneaking onto the walkway that lined the rear of the boat.
Sneaky people were always up to no good. I knew from years of being that way myself.
“Stay here!” I yelled at Eva.
Then I palmed another knife, got to my feet, and raced after the fleeing figure.
Rounding the corner, I sprinted onto the back walkway. It was darker on this side of the boat, with only the moon above and a few globes wrapped around the brass rails to light the way, but a woman pounded down the narrow strip about a hundred feet ahead of me. Just like Kincaid had said. She opened a door that led into a glassed-in sitting area, ran through that, and then shoved through the door on the other side.
I chased after her. I didn’t bother shouting at her to stop. Waste of breath, and we both knew it.
But she was fast. She sprinted down the walkway like she knew her life depended on it, which it did.
She reached the far end of the walkway and rounded the corner, stepping out onto the back deck and disappearing from sight. I put on another burst of speed and ran after her. There was nowhere for her to go, unless she decided to take a header into the Aneirin River. And even if she did that, I could always jump in after her. One way or another, I was getting some answers about Eva, Kincaid, and why he’d really asked me here tonight, and I was willing to bet the elemental knew a lot more about all that than I did.
I drew in a breath, left the walkway behind, and rushed onto the back deck, my knives up and ready to injure, at the very least, or kill, if absolutely necessary.
But she was gone.
My eyes cut left and right as I scanned every shadow, peered into every dark nook and cranny, but the deck was deserted. I craned my neck up and looked at the three levels above my head, but she wasn’t climbing up the side of the boat. I even darted over to the paddle wheel and peered at the wide slats, thinking that she might have somehow lowered herself down.
But she wasn’t there—she wasn’t anywhere on board.
Whoever the mystery woman was, she wasn’t on deck anymore. So where had she gone? I hadn’t heard a splash that would indicate she’d leaped into the water—
Water. Of course.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move out in the river. I rushed over to the railing, thinking that the elemental had done a very quiet swan dive after all and was now swimming across the dark river.
I was right, and I was wrong.
She’d gone over the side, but she wasn’t swimming in the water—she was walking on top of it.
The elemental was at an angle to me, and I leaned over the railing and stared at her, wondering if she was really doing what I thought she was. But the woman casually strolled across the rippling surface of the Aneirin River like it was as sturdy as the wooden boardwalk Sophia and I had trudged across earlier. Every time she put her foot down, the water in front of her solidified into a square just big enough to keep her from sinking, allowing her to cross the river as easily as I could the street outside the Pork Pit.
Hell, she wasn’t even getting her flip-flops wet.
You had to be gifted in one of the four main areas—Air, Fire, Ice, and Stone—to be considered a true elemental, but lots of folks could tap subsets of those areas. I’d once fought an assassin named Elektra LaFleur who’d had a talent for electricity, which was an offshoot of Air.
And now, I’d crossed paths with someone with water power, which was a subset of my own Ice magic. That was why the elemental’s power had felt cool and wet when I’d sensed it on the main deck earlier. That was why it hadn’t made me grind my teeth together like I would have if she’d had some sort of Air or Fire magic—because her power was similar to my own.
And she’d wielded it with deadly efficiency. Disgusting, given what she’d done to Antonio, but definitely effective.
The water elemental reached the far bank of the river. The translucent, watery walkway underneath her feet vanished the second she stepped back onto dry land. She hurried forward, heading for the woods, not stopping for a second, not even to glance over her shoulder to see if I was watching her. Her plan had gone to hell, and she was running away, distancing herself from the scene of the crime as fast as she could. Five seconds later, she was in the trees and out of my line of sight, vanished like she’d never even been there at all.
I hadn’t gotten a good look at the water elemental, had only seen that she seemed to be wearing white shorts and a dark T-shirt, the better to help her blend into the college crowd. Normally, that would have frustrated me, but not tonight.
Because I had a suspicion that I already knew exactly who she was.
In a way, magic was just like a fingerprint, in that everyone’s power had a slightly different feel. Sure, the magic emanating from Fire elementals would usually feel hot and be able to burn you, but there would still be subtle differences in strength, skill, and how the elementals chose to wield their power. Besides, water magic wasn’t as common as Fire power was, and I was willing to bet that I’d been in close proximity to this elemental before. If I was right about her identity, well, things had just gotten a whole lot more complicated for me.
Since I had no hope of catching her, I tucked my knives up my sleeves and hurried back to the main deck. It looked like a tornado had swept through the area. The gaming tables, the chairs, even the cooking station Sophia and I had manned. Everything was turned over on its side and had been trampled into a splintered, broken mess. All those precious chips the students had been vying for earlier now littered the deck like forgotten bits of confetti. Oh yes. The party was definitely over.
By this point, most of the college students had left the riverboat, although I could see them milling around on the boardwalk below, still stunned by what they’d seen. Many of the giants who made up the riverboat’s security force were down there with them, although most of the giants looked just as shell-shocked as the kids did. Shootings, stabbings, and beatings were as common as the sunrise in Ashland, but this—this display of magic and malice had just been downright vicious. Probably more vicious than anything Kinkaid’s men had ever seen, much less done themselves. No, Antonio’s death had been particularly cruel, and would have impressed even Mab.
I walked over to where Sophia and Violet hovered next to the doors that led inside. Someone had thrown a white tablecloth patterned with small gold imprints of the casino rune over Antonio’s corpse, something the few students and giants still on board were trying very hard not to look at.
And then there was Phillip Kincaid.
The casino owner stood a few feet away from the sheet covering what was left of Antonio. He has his arms wrapped around Eva, who was sobbing into his shoulder. But the most surprising thing was that Kincaid was actually . . . comforting her.
“It’s okay, Eva, it’s okay,” he said, patting and rubbing her back the way one might soothe an upset child. “She’s gone now. She can’t hurt you anymore.”
And on and on it went, with Eva crying and Kincaid murmuring platitudes into her ear. Not at all what I’d expected to find. Then again, nothing about tonight was turning out like I’d thought it would.
“What is that about?” I asked Sophia in a low voice, jerking my head at Kincaid and Eva.
The dwarf shrugged. So I turned to someone who might be able to give me some answers.
“Violet,” I said in a dark tone, making sure she heard all my questions loud and clear in that one word.
She sighed and ran a hand through her blond hair, making it frizz out a little more. “I’m not supposed to say anything.”
“I know this is going to make me sound like somebody’s mom, but right now, I don’t fucking care. You either tell me what you know, Violet, or I’m going to call your grandfather and tell him that you’ve been keeping company with one of Ashland’s most notorious crime lords. Somehow, I don’t think Warren will like that.”
I might have been the Spider, might have been one of the scariest folks in Ashland, but even I couldn’t hold a candle to the force of nature that was Warren T. Fox. The old coot was just as tough as I was, and he wouldn’t hesitate to give Violet a severe tongue-lashing for hanging out with Kincaid. Maybe it was judgmental of me, thinking the casino boss was such a bad guy when I was an assassin myself, but I would never hurt Violet. I’d do everything in my power to protect her, just like I had in the past when she’d been threatened. And I’d do the same for Eva. I wondered what Owen was going to make of his sister’s friendship with Kincaid—and the fact she’d witnessed such a brutal murder because of that association.
Violet sighed again, knowing she was beaten. “It was a fluke, really. Eva and I were out shopping a couple of weeks ago over in Northtown, and we ran into Phillip.”
Northtown was the uppity part of Ashland, where the yuppies and all the other folks with money, power, influence, and magic to spare lived. The area was full of themed shopping developments and exclusive, trendy restaurants designed to cater to folks with expensive tastes and help them spend as much of their money as quickly as possible.
Violet drew in a breath. “Anyway, we’d finished shopping, and we’d decided to get coffee and dessert in this café. Eva saw Phillip sitting by himself having an espresso and insisted that we go over to him. I thought she was out of her mind, wanting to talk to someone like him, but he actually smiled at her, like she was a friend he hadn’t seen in a long, long time. The two of them started talking, and one thing just sort of led to another—”
“Until we all wound up on the riverboat tonight,” I finished.
I looked at Kincaid, who was still murmuring to Eva. Whatever he was saying was working, because her sobs had died down to faint sniffles.
“How does Kincaid even know Eva to start with?”
“Eva’s been sort of . . . vague on the details. She just said that she knew him from when she and Owen were living on the streets.”
Well, well, well, the surprises just kept coming and coming tonight, and my eyebrows shot up once again. If they kept doing that, there were going to get permanently stuck there.
Violet’s words made me once again think about Mab’s funeral back in early March. The whole underworld had turned out for the service, and everyone had been looking at and speculating about me and my role in the Fire elemental’s death. Kincaid had gone so far as to smile at me that day, which had been strange enough, but I’d also seen him talking to Owen after the service was over. I’d been distracted by other things—namely, the dwarves who’d tried to kill me at Mab’s coffin—and I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. Owen had brushed off my questions, saying that the two of them had just been exchanging idle chitchat, but it was clear there was more between them than I’d ever suspected.
“And let me guess,” I said, looking at Violet again. “Eva told you not to mention Kincaid to me. And, I’m guessing, especially not to Owen.”
A guilty look filled her dark brown eyes, which was all the confirmation I needed.
Kincaid drew back from Eva and whispered something into her ear. She wiped the tears off her cheeks and nodded. I scanned the rest of the deck, taking in the kids, the giants, the ruined remains of the fund-raiser, and the body sprawled in the middle of it all.
What a fucking mess. But there was nothing to do now but deal with it—starting with Eva.
I pulled my cell phone out of my jeans pocket and called Owen. He answered on the third ring.