Venom, p.1
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       Venom, p.1

           Jennifer Estep
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Venom


  GIN BLANCO HAS CRITICS SNARED IN HER WEB!

  More praise for Jennifer Estep’s thrilling Elemental Assassin series SPIDER’S BITE

  “Bodies litter the pages of this first entry in Estep’s engrossing Elemental Assassin series.… Urban Fantasy fans will love it.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “When it comes to work, Estep’s newest heroine is brutally efficient and very pragmatic, which gives the new Elemental Assassin series plenty of bite. Shades of gray rule in this world where magic and murder are all too commonplace. The gritty tone of this series gives Estep a chance to walk on the darker side. Kudos to her for the knife-edged suspense!”

  —Romantic Times

  “The fast pace, clever dialogue, and intriguing heroine help make this new series launch by the author of the Bigtime paranormal romance series one to watch.”

  —Library Journal

  “Loaded with action and intrigue, the story is strong and exciting.… With a knock-out, climactic ending and a surprising twist that I didn’t see coming, I was definitely impressed. This dark, urban fantasy series has a promising start.”

  —SciFiChick.com

  “Electrifying! Jennifer Estep really knows how to weave a fantasy tale that will keep you reading way past your bedtime.”

  —ReadingwithMonie.com

  The Elemental Assassin titles are also available as eBooks

  “Spider’s Bite is a raw, gritty, and compelling walk on the wild side, one that had me hooked from the first page. Jennifer Estep has created a fascinating heroine in the morally ambiguous Gin Blanco—I can’t wait to read the next chapter of Gin’s story.”

  —Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author of Archangel’s Kiss

  “Watch out world, here comes Gin Blanco. Funny, smart, and dead sexy.”

  —Lilith Saintcrow, author of Flesh Circus

  “I love rooting for the bad guy—especially when she’s also the heroine. Spider’s Bite is a sizzling combination of mystery, magic, and murder. Kudos to Jennifer Estep!”

  —Jackie Kessler, author of Shades of Gray

  “Jennifer Estep is a dark, lyrical, and fresh voice in urban fantasy. Brimming with high-octane–fueled action, labyrinthine conspiracies, and characters who will steal your heart, Spider’s Bite is an original, fast-paced, tense, and sexy read. Gin is an assassin to die for.”

  —Adrian Phoenix, author of Black Dust Mambo

  “A sexy and edgy thriller that keeps you turning the pages. In Spider’s Bite, Jennifer Estep turns up the heat and suspense with Gin Blanco, an assassin whose wit is as sharp as her silverstone knives.… She’ll leave no stone unturned and no enemy breathing in her quest for revenge. Spider’s Bite leaves you dying for more.”

  —Lisa Shearin, national bestselling author of Bewitched and Betrayed

  KARMA GIRL

  “Chick lit meets comics lit in Estep’s fresh debut.… A zippy prose style helps lift this zany caper far above the usual run of paranormal romances.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Secret identities and superpowers take on a delightful and humorous twist in Estep’s exciting debut. Fun and sexy.… Here’s hoping for more Bigtime adventures from this impressive talent.”

  —Romantic Times

  “Hilarious and, an even better trick, real.… Who among us can say we’d seize our destiny the way brokenhearted Carmen does? Karma Girl kicks ass!”

  —MaryJanice Davidson, New York Times bestselling author of Undead and Unfinished

  “Outrageously entertaining. Jennifer Estep’s exciting new voice will leap into readers’ hearts in a single bound.”

  —Rachel Gibson, New York Times bestselling author of Nothing But Trouble

  HOT MAMA

  “Snappy and diverting.”

  —Entertainment Weekly

  “Smokin’.… Feverishly clever plotting fuels Estep’s over-the-top romance.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “It’s back to Bigtime, NY, for more sexy, sizzling and offbeat adventures with those zany superheroes. Estep’s twist on the world of superheroes is kick-ass fun!”

  —Romantic Times

  PREVIOUS BOOKS IN

  THE ELEMENTAL ASSASSIN SERIES

  BY JENNIFER ESTEP

  Spider’s Bite

  Web of Lies

  The sale of this book without its cover is unauthorized. If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that it was reported to the publisher as “unsold and destroyed.” Neither the author nor the publisher has received payment for the sale of this “stripped book.”

  Pocket Books

  A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  1230 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10020

  www.SimonandSchuster.com

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Estep

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  First Pocket Books paperback edition October 2010

  POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or business@simonandschuster.com.

  The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event. For more information or to book an event contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau at 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website at www.simonspeakers.com.

  Cover design and illustration by Tony Mauro

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  ISBN 978-1-4391-4801-3

  ISBN 978-1-4391-5545-5 (ebook)

  As always, this book is dedicated to my mom, grandma,

  and Andre. Your love and support make me a better person.

  Acknowledgments

  Once again, my heartfelt thanks go out to all the folks who help turn my crazy words into a real book.

  Thanks to my super agent, Annelise Robey, and to my equally super editors, Megan McKeever and Lauren McKenna, for all their editorial advice, input, and encouragement. Writing about Gin wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without your support.

  Thanks to everyone who read the rough draft of Venom and helped me with a plot point. Your comments were insightful and greatly appreciated.

  And finally, to all the readers out there. It’s been a pleasure sharing Gin and her adventures with you.

  Happy reading!

  1

  The bastards never even would have gotten close to me if I hadn’t had the flu.

  Coughing, sneezing, aching, wheezing. That was me. Gin Blanco. Restaurant owner. Stone and Ice elemental. Former assassin. And all-around badass. Laid low by a microbe.

  It had started as a small, ominous tickle in my throat three days ago. And now, well, it wasn’t pretty. Watery eyes. Pale face. And a nose so red and bright even Rudolph would have been jealous. Ugh.

  The only reason I’d even crawled out of bed this evening was to come down to Ashland Community College and take the final for the classic literature class I was auditing. I’d finished my essay on symbolism in The Odyssey ten minutes ago. Now I plodded across one of the grassy campus quads and feverishly dreamed of sinking back into my bed and not getting out of it for a week.

  Just after seven on a cold, clear December night. This was the last day of finals for the semester, and the campus was largely deserted. Only a
few lights burned in the windows of the kudzu-covered brick buildings that rose above my head. The stones whispered of formulas, theories, and knowledge. An old, sonorous, slightly pretentious sound that was decidedly at odds with the sinister shadows that blackened most of the quad. No one else was within sight. Which is probably why they decided to jump me here. Well, that and the fact that kidnapping me would be such a bother.

  One second I had my face buried in a tissue blowing my sore, drippy nose for the hundredth time today. The next, I looked up to find myself surrounded by three giants.

  Oh, fuck.

  I stopped, and they immediately closed ranks, forming a loose triangle of trouble around me. The giants were all around seven feet tall, with oversize, buglike eyes and fists almost as big as my head. One of them grinned at me and cracked his knuckles. Someone was anxious to get down to the business of beating me.

  My gray eyes flicked to the leader of the group, who had taken up a position in front of me—Elliot Slater. Slater was the tallest of the three giants, his enormous figure making even his flunkies seem small in comparison. He was almost as wide as he was tall, with a solid, muscled frame. Granite would be easier to break than his ribs. Slater’s complexion was pale, bordering on albino, and almost seemed to glow in the faint light. His hazel eyes provided a bit of color in his chalky skin, although his thin, tousled thatch of blond hair did little to cover his large skull. A diamond in his pinkie ring sparkled like a star in the dark night.

  Up until my retirement a few months ago, I’d moonlighted as an assassin known as the Spider. Over the years, I’d had plenty of dealings in the shady side of life, so I knew Slater by sight and reputation. On paper, Elliot Slater was a highly respected security consultant with his own platoon of giant bodyguards. In reality, Slater was the number-one enforcer for Mab Monroe, the Fire elemental who ran the Southern metropolis of Ashland like it was her own personal fiefdom. Slater stepped in and either cut off, took care of, or permanently disposed of any pesky problems Mab didn’t feel like dealing with herself.

  And tonight it looked like that problem was me.

  Not surprising. A couple of weeks ago, I’d stiffed someone during a party at Mab Monroe’s mansion. Needless to say, the Fire elemental hadn’t been too thrilled about one of her guests being murdered in her own home when she’d been entertaining a few hundred of her closest business associates. I’d gotten away with it so far, but I knew Mab was doing everything in her power to find the killer. To find me.

  I sniffled into my tissue. I wondered if Mab had figured out who I really was. If that was why Slater was here tonight—

  Elliot Slater looked over his broad shoulder. “Is this her?”

  Slater slid to one side so another man, a much shorter human, could join the circle of giants surrounding me. Underneath his classic trench coat, the man wore a perfect black suit, and his polished wingtips gleamed like wet ink in the semidarkness. His thick mane of gunmetal gray hair resembled a heavy mantle of silver that had somehow been swirled and sculpted around his head. Too bad hate made his brown eyes look like congealed lumps of blood in his smooth, tight face.

  I recognized him too. Jonah McAllister. On paper, McAllister was the city’s premiere attorney, a charming, bellicose defense lawyer capable of getting the most vicious killer off scot-free—for the right price. In reality, the slick attorney was another one of Mab Monroe’s top goons, just like Elliot Slater was. Jonah McAllister was Mab’s personal lawyer, responsible for burying her enemies in legal red tape instead of in the ground like Slater did.

  McAllister’s son, Jake, was the one I’d murdered at Mab’s party. The twentysomething, beefy frat boy had threatened to rape and murder me, among other things. I’d considered killing him pest extermination more than anything else.

  Elliot Slater and Jonah McAllister tag-teaming me. This night just kept getting better and better. I sniffled again. Really should have stayed home in bed.

  Jonah McAllister regarded me with cold eyes. “Oh, yes. That’s her. The lovely Ms. Gin Blanco. The bitch who was giving my boy a hard time.”

  A hard time? I supposed so, if you thought turning him in to the cops for attempted robbery, breaking a plate full of food in his face, and ultimately stabbing Jake McAllister to death was a hard time. But I noticed that Jonah McAllister didn’t say anything about me actually killing his son. Hmm. Looked like this was some sort of fishing expedition. I decided to play along—for now.

  “What is this meeting all about?” My voice came out somewhere between a whiny wheeze and a phlegmy rasp. “Are you taking up Jake’s bad habit of assaulting innocent people?”

  Jonah McAllister’s face hardened at my insult. As much as it could, anyway. Despite his sixty-some years, McAllister’s features were as smooth as polished marble, thanks to a vigorous regimen of expensive Air elemental facial treatments. “I would hardly consider you innocent, Ms. Blanco. And you’re the one who assaulted my precious boy first.”

  “Your precious boy came into my restaurant, tried to rob me, and almost killed two of my customers with his Fire elemental magic.” I spat out the words, along with some phlegm. “All I did was defend myself. What does it matter now anyway? Your boy is dead because of some weird heart condition. At least, that’s what was in the newspaper.”

  Jonah McAllister stared at me, trying to see if I knew more than I was letting on about his son’s untimely demise. I used the lull to blow my nose—again. Fucking microbes.

  McAllister’s mouth twisted with disgust at the sight and sound of my sniffles. Admittedly, it wasn’t my most attractive moment. He jerked his head at Elliot Slater, who nodded back.

  “Now, Ms. Blanco,” Slater drawled. “The reason for this meeting is that Mr. McAllister thought you might have some information about his son’s death. Jake did have a bit of a heart condition, but there were also some suspicious circumstances surrounding his passing. Happened a couple of weeks ago.”

  Suspicious circumstances? I assumed that was polite talk for a sucking stab wound to the chest. But I kept my face blank and ignorant.

  “Why would I know anything about Jake’s death?” I asked. “The last time I saw the little punk was the day he brought his old man there down to the Pork Pit to threaten me into dropping the charges against him.”

  Lies, of course. I’d run into Jake McAllister one more time after that—at Mab Monroe’s party. Even though I’d been gussied up as a hooker, he’d still recognized me. Since I’d been there to kill someone else, I’d lured sweet little Jakie into a bathroom, stabbed him to death, left his body in the bathtub, and washed the blood off my dress before going back out to the party. Nothing I hadn’t done a hundred times before as the assassin the Spider. I certainly hadn’t lost any sleep over it.

  But right now, it looked like I might lose a whole lot more.

  “See, that’s the problem. My good friend Jonah doesn’t believe you. So he asked me and some of my boys to come down here and see if perhaps we could jog something free from your memory.” Slater smiled. His lips drew back, giving me a glimpse of his pale pink gums. The giant’s grin reminded me of a jack-o’-lantern’s gaping maw—completely hollow. “We’re going to pay these sorts of visits to anyone Jake might have had a problem with. And your name was at the top of the list.”

  Of course it was. I was probably the only person in Ashland who’d ever dared to stand up to Jake McAllister. Now his daddy was going to make me pay for it.

  Slater took off his suit jacket, handed it to Jonah McAllister, and started rolling up his shirtsleeves.

  I sniffled, blew my nose again, and considered the situation. Four-on-one odds were never terrific, especially since three of the four men were giants. The oversize goons could be hard to bring down, even for a former assassin like me. None of the giants showed any obvious elemental abilities, like letting flames flicker on their clenched fists or forming Ice daggers with their bare hands. But that didn’t mean they didn’t have magic. Which would make them doubly hard
to get rid of.

  Still, if I hadn’t had the flu, I might have considered killing them—or at least cutting down a couple so I could run away. Although I’d dragged myself out of bed this evening, I’d grabbed my silverstone knives on the way out the door. Five of them. Two tucked up my sleeves. One nestled in the small of my back. Two more in the sides of my boots. Never left home without them.

  Of course, being an elemental myself I didn’t really need my knives to kill. I could just use my magic to take down the giants. My Stone power was so strong that I could do practically anything I wanted to with the element. Like make bricks fly out of the wall of one of the surrounding buildings and use them to brain the giants in their melon-size heads. Splat, splat, splat. It’d be easier than using an Uzi. Hell, if I really wanted to show off, I could just crumble all four of the buildings that ringed the quad down on top of them.

  I was also one of the rare elementals who could control more than one element. Stone and Ice, in my case. Until recently, my Ice magic had been far weaker than my Stone power. But thanks to a series of traumatic events, I could do much more with it now. Like create a wall of Ice knives to fling at the men. I’d sliced through a dwarf’s skin doing just that. Giants weren’t quite as tough as dwarves, at least when it came to cutting into them. Even if they did have more blood to spare than their shorter compatriots.

  But the odds or how to go about killing the giants wasn’t what was holding me back. Not really. It was the consequences; what would happen afterward when their boss, Mab Monroe, got involved.

  Seventeen years ago, Mab Monroe had used her elemental Fire magic to kill my mother and older sister, a fact I’d only recently learned. She’d also tortured me, using her magic to superheat and burn a spider rune medallion into my palms. I was planning to deal with Mab myself after I figured out a few things, like why she’d murdered my family in the first place and where my long-lost baby sister, Bria, was now.

 

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