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Web of death, p.1
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       Web of Death, p.1

           Jennifer Estep
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Web of Death

  Web of Death

  So far, my retire­ment was turn­ing out to be a fuck­ing bore.

  I sup­posed that I should have expected it to go this way. Mainly because my day job, well, my night job, had been a lit­tle more inter­est­ing that most folks’ had. No push­ing papers around a desk for me. Instead, I’d moon­lighted as the assas­sin the Spi­der for the last sev­en­teen years.

  That’s right. An assas­sin. Some­one who killed other peo­ple for money. And I’d been damn good at my job too—some would even say the best.

  Which is prob­a­bly why mak­ing the adjust­ment to just being myself, Gin Blanco, owner of the Pork Pit bar­be­cue restau­rant, had been a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult than I’d thought it would be.

  And a lot more fuck­ing boring.

  So bor­ing, so mun­dane in fact, that I now found myself stand­ing out­side on a chilly Octo­ber evening, peer­ing into the trunk of my Mer­cedes Benz, regard­ing the card­board boxes inside that held all of my worldly pos­ses­sions. Books mostly, along with some high-end cook­ware and knives—lots of knives. Some of which were used for slic­ing and dic­ing more than just vegetables.

  As the Spi­der, I’d never gone any­where with­out my sil­ver­stone knives. One trait that I saw no rea­son to change just because I was Gin Blanco now, a sup­pos­edly respectable cit­i­zen. Even tonight, alone in the twi­light, I still had five knives on me—one tucked up either sleeve, one in the small of my back, and two more hid­den in my boots.

  Know­ing that I had my knives com­forted me the way that it always did. But still, I sighed. Because even mov­ing was boring.

  My men­tor, Fletcher Lane, had died a few weeks ago—had been hor­ri­bly tor­tured and mur­dered in the Pork Pit, the restau­rant that he’d founded in down­town Ash­land. I’d killed the Air ele­men­tal bitch who was respon­si­ble for his death, of course. But that didn’t keep me from miss­ing the old man who’d taken me in off the streets when I was just thir­teen. Which is one of the rea­sons that I’d decided to move into Fletcher’s house—the one that he’d left me in his will, along with the Pork Pit. I sup­posed it was my way of stay­ing close to the old man, even though he was cold and alone in his grave now.

  The three-story clap­board struc­ture stood behind me, look­ing like some sort of hulk­ing ghost in the approach­ing dark­ness. The build­ing had been stand­ing since before the Civil War, and lots of improve­ments and sec­tions had been added on to it over the years, all in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent, clash­ing styles, includ­ing gray stone, red clay, and brown brick. The var­i­ous mate­ri­als made the house look like some sort of patch­work quilt, stitched together with a tin roof, black shut­ters, and blue eaves. Still, it had been Fletcher’s home, and now, it was mine.

  I sighed again, this time with long­ing. I wished that the old man was here, that I’d got­ten to him in time that night. That I’d been able to save him the way that he’d saved me all those years ago—

  The scream sur­prised me.

  I turned toward the sound, a sil­ver­stone knife already slid­ing into my right hand. Another scream ripped through the air, a lit­tle closer than before. A woman, from the high pitch of her voice. I peered around the open trunk, my gray eyes scan­ning the woods that flanked the house on three sides, won­der­ing who the hell was out there in the trees and why she was mak­ing enough noise to wake the dead.

  A way­ward hiker per­haps? Some­one who’d stum­bled across a black bear deep in the woods? The crea­tures were com­mon in the area, espe­cially since Ash­land was sit­u­ated in the cor­ner of the Appalachian Moun­tains where Ten­nessee, Vir­ginia, and North Car­olina met. High ridges and dense stands of woods cov­ered the region like so much gray and green car­pet, espe­cially here at Fletcher’s house, which was sit­u­ated on top of a par­tic­u­larly remote, rocky mountainside.

  Bears didn’t frighten me, though. Not much did. Because in addi­tion to being the assas­sin the Spi­der, I was also an ele­men­tal, some­one who could cre­ate, con­trol, and manip­u­late one of the four ele­ments. Well, actu­ally two in my case—Stone and Ice. My Ice magic was fairly weak, and all I could really do with it was make small shapes, like cubes and crys­tals and what­not. But my Stone magic was strong, so strong that it would let me harden my skin into an impen­e­tra­ble shell—one that even a bear’s claws wouldn’t be able to rip through.

  Another scream echoed through the moun­tain air, before abruptly being cut off. What­ever had been chas­ing the screamer had just caught up with her.

  Hmm. I had two choices now. Go inves­ti­gate what the fuss was all about and amuse myself for maybe an hour, or stay here and haul boxes of books into Fletcher Lane’s ram­shackle house. Along with teach­ing me every­thing that he knew about being an assas­sin, the old man had also instilled a healthy dose of curios­ity in me. Some­thing that always seemed to get the best of me, no mat­ter how hard I tried.

  Which is why I palmed another knife and headed for the woods.


  Despite the falling twi­light that painted the land­scape in increas­ingly dark shades of gloomy gray, it was easy enough for me to make my way through the thick woods—I just fol­lowed the screams.

  Only they weren’t so much screams now as choked sobs, stut­ters and whim­pers of sound that told me that the woman mak­ing them was in seri­ous trouble.


  The new sounds echoed faintly through the dense pine trees, fol­lowed by another choked sob. My gray eyes nar­rowed. I knew what that sound was too—the scream­ing woman get­ting the shit beat out of her. Well, well, well. Looked like there was a dif­fer­ent kind of bear in the woods tonight.

  I moved more care­fully now, qui­eter, mak­ing sure that my boots didn’t scuff and smash and crackle through the piles of ruby– and citrine-colored autumn leaves that cov­ered the for­est floor like jew­els that were slowly los­ing their sparkle. Slowly, the half-swallowed sobs and thwacks of fists hit­ting flesh grew louder, sharper. A low hiss of a laugh curled through the air like a cop­per­head get­ting ready to strike. Some­one was enjoy­ing the show.

  I stopped behind the knotty trunk of a par­tic­u­larly gnarled pine tree. Its sharp, tangy scent tick­led my nose. Then, I slowly eased to one side, my face hid­den in the shad­ows from the over­hang­ing branches, and stared at the scene before me.

  The pine tree that I was stand­ing behind was one of sev­eral that bor­dered a small clear­ing here in the cold, remote heart of the woods, a mile or so from Fletcher Lane’s house. A few rocks bub­bled up like blis­ters here and there on the sur­face of the for­est floor, but for the most part, the ground was smooth and clear, with the rich black earth peep­ing up through the shal­low scat­ter­ing of dis­in­te­grat­ing leaves.

  In the mid­dle of the open space, a man tow­ered over a woman. A giant, given his almost seven-foot-tall frame and over­size, bug-like eyes. One of his ham-sized hands was twisted in the woman’s long, curly red hair, fur­ther tan­gling it. He used his other hand to punch her in the stomach.


  He hit her three times before a sec­ond, much shorter man, stepped for­ward and put a restrain­ing arm on the giant’s bulging bicep. The woman choked back another moan of pain.

  “Geez, Billy,” the sec­ond man said. “Don’t kill her. We haven’t had nearly enough fun with her yet.”

  His lips drew back, reveal­ing a set of white fangs. A vam­pire, then.

  Well, things had just got­ten that much more inter­est­ing. Because in addi­tion to their enor­mous strength, giants’ thick mus­cu­la­ture made them tough to bring down. And vamps were no pushovers either. They weren’t nearly as strong as gia
nts were, but those sharp canines of theirs could rip out a person’s throat in a second.

  Both men were dressed in out­door clothes—thick jeans, hik­ing boots, and flan­nel shirts par­tially cov­ered up by fleece jack­ets. The vam­pire also had a small back­pack slung over his shoul­der. All of which told me that they’d planned to be out here in the mid­dle of nowhere tonight—probably so no one could hear the woman scream.

  “You’re right, Tommy,” Billy, the giant, rum­bled. “Fuck­ing them isn’t nearly as much fun after they’re dead.”

  Tommy nod­ded in a sage way, as though Billy had just revealed one of the great secrets of the uni­verse to him. “And we need to teach this bitch a les­son, remem­ber? One that she and my other girls won’t ever forget.”

  Tommy walked around the woman, who swal­lowed another low moan. Her lips drew back in a pain-filled gri­mace, and I spot­ted a set of fangs in her mouth as well, mark­ing her as another vampire.

  She would have been a pretty thing, with her red hair and wide hazel eyes, if not for the thin, crim­son scratches and vio­let bruises that cov­ered her face and bare arms. It looked like Tommy and Billy had brought her out here, turned her loose, and then chased after her, like a sick sort of hide and seek.

  Unlike the two men, the woman was not dressed for the rugged ter­rain. Instead of jeans, she wore a slinky, satin, plum-colored dress that barely stretched up to cover her breasts and just skimmed down to the tops of her toned thighs. The sil­ver sequins on the dress caught the dwin­dling light and flashed it back, like hun­dreds of fire­flies wink­ing on and off. The woman was also wear­ing a pair of fuck-me stilet­tos, although I could see that the heels had bro­ken off dur­ing her run through the forest.

  “I never thought you were all that smart, Jas­mine,” Tommy, the vam­pire, said. “But you got real stu­pid, think­ing you could leave me. Think­ing you could just quit being one of my whores because you got a bet­ter offer from Roslyn Phillips.”

  My brows arched up in the dark­ness. Oh yes, things got more inter­est­ing by the sec­ond. Because Roslyn Phillips was the vam­pire madam that ran North­ern Aggres­sion, Ashland’s most deca­dent night­club. Roslyn pro­vided every­thing that a body could want at her club, includ­ing men and women to see to her pay­ing cus­tomers’ more press­ing, lusty needs.

  Tommy’s con­ver­sa­tion with Jas­mine told me that he was most likely a pimp and that Jas­mine was one of his work­ing girls. Not unusual. The vamps pretty much owned the sex trade in Ash­land. All vamps needed blood to live, of course, just like humans needed food and vit­a­mins. But lots of vamps also got the same kind of healthy high from sex, which is why so many of them worked in the world’s old­est pro­fes­sion. For the vamps, it was win-win. Money and a power boost, all at the same time.

  “Stu­pid bitch,” Tommy muttered.

  The vam­pire pimp sud­denly stopped his pac­ing and lashed out, kick­ing Jas­mine in the back with his hik­ing boot. She let out another moan of pain and would have pitched for­ward face-first into the dirt if Billy hadn’t still been hold­ing her by her hair. The two men laughed, but Jas­mine didn’t hear them. That final kick had pushed her over the edge. I could tell by the way her limp body dan­gled from the giant’s hand that she was finally uncon­scious. Prob­a­bly bet­ter that way for her.

  “Hold her still,” Tommy said. “While I get things set up.”

  Tommy dropped to his knees in the leaves and started root­ing around in his back­pack, com­ing up with a ham­mer and four metal spikes with leather loops on the ends of them. A minute later, he was pound­ing the stakes into the soft soil with his ham­mer. All four of them, in the shape of a woman-sized rectangle.

  I stared at the loops and the dried, rusty stains that had soaked into the leather. It didn’t take a genius to fig­ure out that those were blood­stains and that Tommy and Billy had done this sort of thing before. And I knew exactly what they were going to do to the woman, Jas­mine. Bring­ing her out here in the woods and chas­ing and beat­ing her weren’t enough. No, now they were going to tie her down and rape her before they finally killed her. Sick bastards.

  Of course, some folks would have thought that I was sick, for killing so many peo­ple for money over the years. But I had a code that I fol­lowed, rules that I lived by. No killing kids or pets. No fram­ing some­one for my mur­ders. And most espe­cially, no tor­ture. I might have killed peo­ple as the Spi­der, but I did it quickly, effi­ciently, with my sil­ver­stone knives. I’d cer­tainly never tied any­one down spread-eagle with the dark, twisted inten­tions that Tommy and Billy had in mind for Jasmine.

  But now, I had a deci­sion to make. Because Tommy and Billy hadn’t seen me hid­ing in the shad­ows. Nobody ever did, until it was too fuck­ing late. So I could eas­ily slip away, leave Jas­mine to her grue­some fate, and walk back to Fletcher Lane’s house with­out any­one being the wiser—except me.

  I’d recently learned that Fletcher had had a bit of an altru­is­tic streak in him. That some­times, back when he was the assas­sin Tin Man, that Fletcher had actu­ally helped peo­ple from time to time. Pro fuck­ing bono, as it were. And Jas­mine cer­tainly needed my help right now.

  Maybe it was the soft sen­ti­ment that I felt for the old man, how much my heart still ached from his loss, but I found myself actu­ally want­ing to help the other woman. Actu­ally want­ing to use my knives and deadly skills for some­thing a lit­tle more worth­while than money.

  Besides, I thought, smil­ing a lit­tle. It sure as hell beat unpack­ing boxes tonight.

  So I tight­ened my grip on my sil­ver­stone knives and stepped out from the shad­ows, walk­ing for­ward into the clear­ing, whistling all the while. Both men’s heads snapped around to me at the harsh, unex­pected sound.

  I stopped about ten feet away from them, my knives tucked up into my palms. The hilts of the weapons rested on the scars embed­ded in my palms. A small cir­cle sur­rounded by eight thin rays. One on either hand. A spi­der rune. The sym­bol for patience. My assas­sin moniker and so much more.

  “I hope you boys brought some shov­els with you tonight,” I said in a pleas­ant voice.

  Tommy and Billy stared at each other, then back at me.

  “And why is that?” Tommy asked in a guarded tone, clearly won­der­ing who the hell I was and what the fuck I was doing out here in the woods.

  I grinned. “Because oth­er­wise, I’ll just have to leave your bod­ies out here for the ani­mals to gnaw on instead of bury­ing you all proper-like. Ah, hell. For­get the shov­els. The ani­mals have to eat too. If they could even stom­ach the likes of two sick bas­tards like you, that is.”

  “Billy,” Tommy said in a low voice. “I think we need to teach this bitch the same les­son that Jas­mine just learned. See to it, please.”

  Billy nod­ded and dropped his grip on Jasmine’s hair. The woman crum­pled to the for­est floor, still uncon­scious. Good. I didn’t need an audi­ence for this.

  Billy let out a roar and charged in my direc­tion, his hands reach­ing out to grab me and pull me into a bone-crushing bear hug. The poor bas­tard never even noticed my palmed knives.


  This time, instead of the sound of fists hit­ting flesh, the smack of my sil­ver­stone knives punch­ing into Billy’s chest and tear­ing through his organs filled the air. The giant screamed, much like Jas­mine had done ear­lier, and stum­bled back. His sharp move­ment jerked my knives out of my hands, but that was okay, because they were still stuck in his body—one in his stom­ach and the other in his heart. More than enough dam­age to kill him. Sure enough, Billy stum­bled around the clear­ing for about ten sec­onds before his legs gave out and he thumped to the ground, well on his way to being dead.

  I spot­ted a flash of move­ment out of the cor­ner of my eye and ducked. Tommy’s ham­mer whis­tled by my head. The vamp was quicker than I’d thought he’d be because even as his first blow missed me
, he was piv­ot­ing and bring­ing the ham­mer back up for a sec­ond strike.

  But I was antic­i­pat­ing his move, and I stepped into his body and grabbed his arm. I used the vamp’s own momen­tum to flip him up and over my shoul­der. Tommy slammed onto the ground. The ham­mer slipped from his fin­gers, and I grabbed it. Before the vamp could recover, I dropped to my knees beside him, brought the ham­mer up, and slammed the weapon into his wind­pipe, crush­ing it.

  Tommy’s eyes bulged so wide that I thought they might pop right out of his head. He made a series of choked, gur­gling sounds, not unlike the ones that Jas­mine had ear­lier when Billy was hit­ting her.

  “You really should have found some­where else to play your lit­tle game,” I mur­mured. “Because this land belongs to Fletcher Lane. And now me, I sup­pose. And believe me when I tell you that I’m the only fuck­ing preda­tor allowed around here.”

  All Tommy could do was look at me and gasp for air.

  I stayed where I was and watched him suffocate.

  When Tommy was dead, I went over to Jas­mine and crouched down beside her. The vam­pire pros­ti­tute was still uncon­scious, and I quickly ran my hands over her body, check­ing her for injuries. Her face was a mess, and she prob­a­bly had some bro­ken ribs and inter­nal bleed­ing from where Billy had hit her. But she’d be okay until help arrived, and I knew just who to call about that.

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