“Hey,” his low, sexy voice rumbled in my ear. “Done with your catering job already?”
I stared at Antonio’s still-wet wing tip peeking out from underneath the tablecloth. “You might say that.”
“Where did you say it was again?”
I hesitated. Eva wasn’t the only one who’d keeping secrets. I hadn’t told my lover that I was catering an event for Kincaid. I hadn’t been sure what game Kincaid had been playing, and I hadn’t wanted him to worry. Besides, Owen and I hadn’t seen much of each other these past few days, except for when he’d come to the Pork Pit for a quick lunch.
We’d both been busy with work, but that wasn’t really the problem. Ever since our dinner at Underwood’s, there had been this distance between us. I kept waiting for him to open up about what was bothering him, to tell me about Salina and all the ghosts she’d brought back to Ashland with her, but Owen hadn’t said a word about her. Now, that awkward talk had morphed into a necessity—for all sorts of reasons.
“Gin? Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here.” I drew in a breath. “I’m on the Delta Queen, and Eva’s here with me. She’s fine, but there was an . . . incident. Someone tried to kill Phillip Kincaid.”
“I’ll be there just as quick as I can,” Owen said, his voice as cold, dark, and furious as I’d ever heard it. “Whatever you do, you keep Eva away from Phillip. The man is dangerous—more dangerous than you know. Promise me that you’ll keep her safe from him—and keep yourself safe, too.”
“Of course, I’ll protect Eva. You don’t have to worry about that, but what—”
I didn’t get a chance to ask my question. My lover had already hung up on me.
While I waited for Owen to arrive, I made a few other calls. I dialed Finn and let him know what had happened, and I also phoned Jo-Jo Deveraux as well. I wasn’t injured, so I wouldn’t need the dwarf’s Air magic to heal me, but I still wanted her in the loop. Because whatever was going on with Kincaid and the water elemental, I was smack-dab in the middle of it now—and I had a suspicion that Owen was too.
I’d just hung up with Jo-Jo when Kincaid led Eva over to where I was standing with Violet and Sophia. Violet hugged her friend, and the two girls started whispering. Kincaid turned his gaze to me.
“We need to talk,” he said. “In private.”
“Why, I thought you’d never ask, sugar,” I drawled. “Sophia, would you please stay here and make sure Eva and Violet are okay?”
The dwarf grunted, letting me know she was there for me.
Kincaid jerked his head. “My office is this way.”
I followed him through the doors and into the ballroom. The crimson curtains were drawn across the stage, and the lights on the balconies above our heads were dim, since there weren’t any shows scheduled for tonight. Kincaid strode down the center aisle of the ballroom, then went over to a side door and punched in a code on a keypad. The door opened, and we walked down a flight of narrow stairs. The lower two decks of the riverboat were enclosed and housed the cages where the money and chips were counted on an hourly basis.
I let Kincaid go first and put my feet down exactly where he did, just in case there were any trip-wires or magical runes hidden on or underneath the stairs. I certainly would have rigged up a few, given how much cash came through this place every day.
We made it down to the second deck without any problems, and Kincaid led me to a thick wooden door at the end of a long hallway. I eyed the wide silverstone strips that crisscrossed the wood and surrounding walls. Not nearly as sturdy as the granite and silverstone door on Fletcher’s house, but it would still be tough to try and pound your way through, even for a giant or a dwarf.
Kincaid punched in another code on the keypad on the wall, opened the door, and stepped inside. I followed him and shut the door behind me. No sense in leaving it open and my back exposed. Besides, Kincaid had said he wanted to talk in private, and so did I—because depending on what he said, the casino boss might not be leaving the room alive.
The office was exactly what I expected it to be—the inner sanctum of an underworld figure with a lot of money, power, and influence. The antique desk in the back of the room was expensive, but functional, while the laptops, monitors, and phones atop it were the best money could buy. Dark blue cushioned chairs crouched in front of a high-end flat-screen TV mounted on one wall, while a wet bar off to one side held every kind of pricey booze you could ever want to drink.
Yes, Kincaid’s office was exactly what I expected—except for the toys.
Apparently, Kincaid was something of a movie buff. Lots of posters of classic and popular films decorated the walls, everything from Casablanca to Casino Royale. A couple of glass curio cabinets held action figures, both plastic ones and more costly stone molds of superheroes and other fantasy characters. Stacks of DVDs filled a bookcase, while popcorn and cotton-candy machines stood guard on either side of it.
Underworld figure. Casino boss. Geek.
Kincaid walked over to the bar and poured himself a shot of whiskey, which he threw back. I moved so that I was standing at the other end of the bar, close to him but still able to see the door at the same time.
“Care for a drink?” he asked, pouring himself another shot. “Because I plan on having several.”
“Need a little liquid courage after Antonio?”
Kincaid shrugged. “Don’t you?”
This time, I shrugged. He downed another shot, then grabbed a bottle of gin, along with some ice and a lime. His movements were quick and efficient, and a minute later, he plunked a gin and tonic down on the bar.
“Gin for Gin, right?” Kincaid said. “My sources tell me it’s your drink of choice and that you even introduce yourself to people by comparing yourself to it. What is it you say? Gin, like the liquor. A bit cliché, don’t you think?”
“Mmm.” I made a noncommittal sound. “And what else do your sources say about me?”
He started working on his own gin and tonic. “Lots of things. Everyone in Ashland knows you as Gin Blanco, owner of the Pork Pit barbecue restaurant, but your real name is Genevieve Snow. Quite a tragic backstory you have. Mab Monroe murdered your mother, Eira, and your older sister, Annabella, when you were thirteen. Apparently, Mab and your mother had been enemies for years, which is one of the reasons why she decided to kill your whole family. Or tried to, anyway, since you somehow miraculously survived. Reports are sketchy as to exactly how you managed that, much less got your younger sister, Bria, away from Mab before she burned your family’s mansion to the ground.”
He didn’t have all the details exactly right, but the broad strokes were correct. Looked like Kincaid had the same sort of sources Finn did. Worrisome, to say the least. I had enough people coming after me without Kincaid throwing his hat into the ring.
He finished mixing his drink, but instead of slugging it down like he had the others, he cradled it in his hands and stared at me. “Of course, we both know you’re more than just a simple restaurant owner. Everyone in the underworld knows—or at least strongly suspects—that you’re really the assassin the Spider, the woman who killed the mighty Mab. Why, you’re a legend now. Everyone’s still whispering about how you killed Mab with . . . what was it, exactly? Ice magic? Or did you use your Stone power as well?”
I palmed one of my silverstone knives and started flipping it end over end in my hand. “Actually, I shoved my knife into the bitch’s black heart. It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.”
He watched me turn the knife over and over again. “I bet it was.”
After a moment, he drew in a breath and continued with his dossier. “Everyone knows about your supposed . . . skills, but what’s really interesting, at least to me, is that you’ve been seen out and about on the town with Owen Grayson these last few months. I wouldn’t think an assassin like you would indulge in such a relationship—any relationship, really. But the two of you seem quite taken with each other.”
Kincaid’s voice was smooth, but his tone darkened when he said Owen’s name, as though it left a bitter taste in his mouth. A small tell, but a tell nonetheless in this verbal game we were playing.
“That’s it?” I asked when he didn’t say anything else. “That’s all you know? You’re not going to stand there and tell me what my favorite color is or how I always wanted a puppy when I was a kid?”
Kincaid gave me a thin smile, but he didn’t respond to my taunts.
“Well, I have to hand it to you, Philly. It looks like you know everything there is to know about me. But you’re not the only one who’s been doing his homework.”
He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Please. Enlighten me.”
“Phillip Kincaid, owner of the Delta Queen riverboat casino and one of the richest and most powerful men in Ashland. To most folks, you’re a self-made man, a guy with nothing who came from out of nowhere and built a massive fortune. In addition to the Delta Queen, you also have riverboats in several other cities, including Memphis and New Orleans, and there are rumors you’re starting a new project down in Blue Marsh.”
Kincaid grinned. “I suppose I have you to thank for that last one, don’t I, Gin? Now that Randall Dekes is no longer an issue down there. It seems the Spider never takes a vacation. At least not without killing someone.”
I ignored his words. “But there’s a lot more to you than just your portfolio and the official rags-to-riches story on your corporate website, isn’t there, Philly?”
“Like the fact that you’re an orphan. Supposedly, your father was a dwarf and your mother was a giant, which means you’re probably quite strong, at least stronger than a regular human would be. You certainly have the solid physique and thick muscles for it. But who your parents were doesn’t much matter since you never knew either one of them, does it? You got anonymously dropped off at a church when you were about two years old. From then on, you bounced around from foster home to foster home, going from one bad situation to the next. Tell me, did those cigarette burns on your arms ever heal up?”
Kincaid blinked in surprise. Apparently, he hadn’t thought I’d be able to find all the skeletons in his closet as easily as he had the ones in mine, but I had, thanks to Finn. Sometimes I thought my foster brother must be part bloodhound, the way he could track down leads and run them to ground with only a whiff of information to go on.
“You got those burns when you were thirteen, right?” I said. “And a whole lot of other injuries. Cuts, bruises, a few broken bones. At that foster home where the man of the house drank like a fish and liked to smack around his wife and the kids in his care when he’d had a few too many. Funny thing about that guy. Shortly after child services noted the burns on your arms, a robber broke into the house and almost beat that man to death with a metal pipe. That’s what the wife claimed in the police report, anyway. But you know what I think, Philly? That thirteen wasn’t an important year for just me.”
His blue eyes glittered with a cold light, but he didn’t respond.
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I think the bastard got exactly what he deserved. Actually, I’d say he got off easy. I would have stabbed him to death.”
Kincaid snorted, but he didn’t say anything, so I continued.
“Maybe you were scared the cops would put you in juvie for what you did to that guy, maybe you were scared of him beating on you again when he got out of the hospital, or maybe you just decided you’d rather fend for yourself. Either way, there’s no record of you in any foster home after that. In fact, you dropped off the map entirely for a few years there, which leads me to believe you were living on the Southtown streets and scrounging for whatever food, clothes, and money you could find, cheat, beg, borrow, or steal. Eventually, you joined some of the lower-level crews in Ashland, working your way up through the ranks until you decided to branch out on your own. Somewhere along the way, you dreamed up the idea for the Delta Queen and made it a reality. Even more impressive is the fact that you’ve managed to hang on to it all these years despite Mab and other folks trying to wrestle it away from you. So bravo to you.”
I stopped twirling my knife long enough to walk over and pick up the gin and tonic from the bar. I toasted him with the drink, then used the glass to gesture at all the action figures and movie posters. “Now, seeing your office, I assume you growing up as poor and shitty as you did is the reason for all of this. The posters, the movies, the popcorn machine. That you’re indulging yourself now with all the things you didn’t have as a kid. I also assume that’s the reason you gulped down your food at the Pork Pit the other day like you were afraid I was going to take it away from you. Because you have had your food taken away in the past. Because you’ve gone to sleep hungry more times than you’d care to remember.”
Kincaid looked around the office as if he was seeing all the things inside it for the very first time—and, more important, what they revealed about him. His mouth twisted with disgust, but I couldn’t tell if it was with himself for being so easy to read or with me for dredging up so many bad memories. Then his gaze dropped to the drink still in his hand, and he tossed it back as easily as he had the whiskey before. He put the empty glass down on the bar.
“Well, it seems like you’ve got me all figured out, Gin. Want to tell me what my favorite color is? Although, for the record, I wanted a kitten, not a puppy, when I was a kid.”
“Not quite,” I said. “As interesting as our life stories are, they don’t explain what happened to Antonio tonight. So why don’t we save the reminiscing and one-upmanship for some other time, and get down to business, with me asking the questions and you giving me the answers just as quick as you can.”
“And if I don’t want to answer your questions?”
I put my gin down on the bar and bared my teeth at him in a predatory smile. “Then I hope you enjoyed that drink, because it’s the last fucking one you’ll ever have.”
Kincaid eyed the knife I’d started flipping over and over in my hand again. “You’d kill me just for not answering your questions?”
I shook my head. “No. Like you said, everyone in the underworld knows who I am, or at least who they think I am. I expected you to come after me sooner or later, just like everyone else has. Targeting me is one thing, but you put my friends, my family, in danger tonight—Eva, Violet, and Sophia. And that is what is unacceptable to me. That’s what I’d kill you for and not think twice about it.”