Snared – Jennifer Estep

Being an assassin meant knowing when to kill—and when not to kill. Unfortunately. I stood in a pool of midnight shadows, my boots, jeans, turtleneck, and fleece jacket as black as the night around me. My dark brown hair was stuffed up underneath a black toboggan that matched the rest of my clothes, and I’d swiped some black greasepaint under my eyes to reduce the paleness of my face. The only bit of color on my body was the silverstone knife that glinted in my right hand. I even inhaled and exhaled through my nose, so that my breath wouldn’t frost too much in the chilly January air and give away my position. Not that anyone was actually looking for me. Oh, a dwarf on guard duty was patrolling the vast estate. Supposedly, he was here to keep an eye out and make sure that no one snuck out of the woods, sprinted across the lawn, and broke into the mansion off in the distance. But he was doing a piss-poor job of it. I’d been watching him amble around for more than three minutes now, making an exceptionally slow circuit of this part of the landscaped grounds. Every once in a while, the dwarf would raise his head and look around, scanning the twisted shadows cast by the trees and ornamental bushes that dotted the rolling lawn. But most of the time, he was far more interested in playing a game on his phone, judging from the beeps and chimes that continually emanated from it. He didn’t even have the sound muted—or his gun drawn. I shook my head.

It was so hard to find good help these days. Still, I tensed as the guard wandered closer to my position. I was standing at the corner of a gray stone house, set in the very back corner of the yard, several hundred feet from the main building. Trees were clustered all around the house, their branches arching over the black slate roof and making the shadows here particularly dark, giving me the perfect hiding spot to watch and wait out the guard. No doubt the man who lived in the mansion charitably referred to this house as a caretaker’s cottage or something else equally dismissive, even if it was almost large enough to be its own separate manor. Even Finnegan Lane, my foster brother, would have been impressed by the spacious rooms and expensive antique furniture that I’d glimpsed through the windows when I was sneaking around the cottage and getting into position— “So are you actually going to break into the mansion, or are we just going to stand around out here all night in the dark?” a snide voice murmured in my ear. Speak of the devil, and he will annoy you. I looked to my right. Fifty feet away, a tall man-shaped shadow hovered at the edge of the tree line. Like me, Finn was dressed all in black, although I could just make out the glimmer of his eyes, like a cat’s in the darkness.

“I’m waiting for the guard to turn around and go back in the other direction,” I hissed. “As you can bloody well see for yourself.” The transmitter in my ear crackled from the force of Finn’s snort. “Mr. Cell-Phone Video Game?” He snorted again. “Please. You could do naked cartwheels across the lawn right in front of him, and he still wouldn’t notice.” Finn was probably right, but with the guard only about thirty feet from me now, I couldn’t risk responding. Instead, I slid back a little deeper into the shadows, pressing myself up against the side of the cottage. My body touched the wall, and I reached out with my elemental Stone magic, listening to the gray rocks that made up the structure.

Dark, malicious whispers echoed back to me, punctuated by high, shrill, screaming notes of fear and agony, as the stone muttered about all the blood and violence it had witnessed over the years and all the people who had died within its walls. The mutterings didn’t surprise me, considering where I was, but their deep, harsh intensity made me frown. I wouldn’t have thought that the caretaker’s cottage would have been this affected by the man in the mansion, given the distance between the two structures. Then again, anything was possible when dealing with the Circle. I shut the stone’s mutterings out of my mind and focused on the guard. Like most dwarves, he was short and stocky, with bulging biceps that threatened to pop through the sleeves of his suit jacket. Your typical enforcer, save for the thin, scraggly wisps of black hair that lined his upper lip. Someone was trying to grow a mustache with little success. Stopping about ten feet away from me, the guard raised his gaze from his phone and glanced at the front of the house. He tilted his head to the side, listening to the whistle of the winter wind as it made the tree branches above the cottage scrape together like dry, brittle bones.

I tightened my grip on my knife, the symbol stamped into the hilt pressing into the larger, matching scar embedded in my palm, both of them a circle surrounded by eight thin rays, a spider rune, the symbol for patience. Something that the guard had little of. Five seconds later, he turned his attention back to his phone and resumed his slow, ambling walk, taking him right past my hiding spot. I could easily have reached out of the shadows, sunk my hand into the dwarf’s hair, yanked his head back, and cut his throat. He would have been dead before he’d even realized what was happening. But I couldn’t kill him—or anyone else here—tonight. Unfortunately. Once I started dropping bodies, the members of the Circle, a secret society responsible for much of the crime and corruption in Ashland, would realize that I was onto them. They would close ranks, increase their security, and come after me. Or worse: target my friends.

Something that I wasn’t ready for. So as easy as it would have been for me to kill the guard, I let him wander away, never knowing how close he’d come to playing his last video game. Once the guard had moved far enough away, I relaxed and looked over at Finn, who flashed me a thumbs-up, then raised the gun in his other hand and saluted me with it. His voice crackled in my ear again. “I’ll be here waiting but with gun drawn instead of bells on. Just in case you need the cavalry to ride to your rescue.” I rolled my eyes. “Please. I’m Gin Blanco, fearsome assassin and underworld queen, remember? The only thing I need rescuing from is you and your bad puns.” Finn grinned, his white teeth flashing in the darkness.

“You know you love me and my bad puns.” “Oh, yeah. Like a toothache that I can’t get rid of.” “That’s me, baby. Finnegan Lane, rotten as they come.” He saluted me with his gun a second time, proud that he’d gotten the last word in. I rolled my eyes again. But I was smiling as I turned away from him, left the shadows behind, and hurried toward the mansion. • • • Being early January, the holidays were officially over, but someone was a little slow about putting away the decorations. White twinkle lights were still wrapped around the thick columns that supported the sprawling, two-story, gray stone mansion, along with strands of illuminated snowflakes that glowed a pale blue.

Still more lights and snowflakes curved over the stone archways and outlined all of the windows, which also had white velvet bows hanging in them. New year, new targets for the Spider. I crossed the wide lawn, stepped onto a stone patio, and hunkered down behind some lounge chairs that ringed the heated pool, staying as far away from the cheery glow of the holiday lights as I could get. Then I peered around the chairs and over at the mansion. It was after ten o’clock, and lights burned in every room on the first floor. I spotted several servants moving back and forth, tidying up and doing their final chores for the night. Through the windows closest to me, I saw two women plucking red and green glass balls off a massive Christmas tree that took up most of that room. I watched the women and some other servants work for a little while longer, but no one moved toward the windows and looked outside. No one had seen me approach, so I raised my gaze to a particular window on the second floor. Lights burned in that room too, but I didn’t spot anyone moving around inside.

Excellent. I glanced over my shoulder, but the guard was at the very back of the lawn now, several hundred feet from me, still playing his game. I wouldn’t get a better chance than this. I slid my knife up my sleeve so as to have both hands free. Then I surged to my feet, got a running start, leaped up, and grabbed hold of a trellis that was attached to the side of the building. The wood creaked and groaned under my weight, more accustomed to holding up pretty roses than a deadly assassin, but the slats didn’t crack, and I felt safe enough to keep climbing. It took me only about ten seconds to scale the trellis, hook my leg onto the first-story roof, and pull myself up. I lay flat on my stomach for several seconds, listening, but no surprised shouts or alarms sounded. I also glanced at the guard again, but he was a murky, indistinct shape in the night. No one had seen my quick spider climb.

Even though lying on the cold roof chilled my body from head to toe, I held my position, once again reaching out with my magic. Just like the ones at the caretaker’s cottage, the stones of the mansion whispered of dark, malicious intent, along with blood, violence, pain, and death. The mutterings were much fainter here, more sloppy slurs than clear, distinct notes, as though the stones themselves had been thoroughly soaked in all the alcohol that their owner so famously imbibed. Still, I could pick out the lingering emotional vibrations from all the evil deeds that had been committed here over the years. Exactly what I would expect to find in the home of a member of the Circle. Sadly, though, the stones’ mutterings weren’t as disturbing as those of many of the other places I’d been, and the noise certainly wasn’t going to stop me from completing my mission. So I got to my feet and hurried over to the window that I wanted, the same one I’d looked at earlier. After a quick glance through the glass to make sure the room was still empty, I reached out and tried the window, which slid up easily. I waited a few seconds, but no alarms blared. I shook my head.

You’d think that someone who was part of a decades-old criminal conspiracy would have enough common sense to lock the windows of his fancy mansion or at least order his staff to do it for him. But the mansion’s owner thought that he was well protected, anonymous, and untouchable, just like the rest of the Circle. Well, they weren’t. Not anymore. Not from me. I pushed aside the dangling white velvet bow, ducked down, and shimmied in through the open window, making sure to close it behind me. Then I turned and looked over the room. The office was the inner sanctum of Damian Rivera, the first member of the Circle on my hit list. Several generations ago, the ancestors of Maria Rivera, Damian’s mother, had made a fortune in coal before selling off their mines and branching out into other areas. Maria herself had been big into real estate, buying and selling property all over Ashland and renovating crumbling old homes that she decked out with antique furniture and family heirlooms that she got for a song at estate sales.

Damian had definitely inherited his mother’s flair for both decorating and dramatic spaces. The office was enormous, taking up this entire side of the mansion. Dark brown leather chairs and couches filled the decidedly masculine area, along with tables covered with all sorts of expensive knickknacks. Porcelain vases, crystal figurines, wooden carvings, stone statues. All perfectly in place and all perfectly highlighted by the three gold-plated chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. But the centerpiece of the office was an elaborate bar that took up one entire wall, complete with several red padded barstools lined up in front of it. A wide assortment of liquor bottles perched prettily on the wooden shelves behind the brass-railed bar, along with rows of gleaming glassware. I eyed the bottles, recognizing them all as being well out of my price range but fitting right in with the rest of the luxe furnishings. The air reeked of expensive floral cologne and even more expensive cigar smoke, adding to the feel of a gentlemen’s club. I had to wrinkle my nose to hold back a sneeze.

But I wasn’t here to gawk at the expensive furnishings, so I moved over to the desk in the back of the room near the window that I’d just slithered through. To my disappointment, the golden wood was spotless, as though it had never been touched, much less actually used, and not so much as a pen or a paper clip littered the smooth, shiny surface. Then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Damian Rivera didn’t have to do something as common as work. From what I knew of him, his favorite hobbies were drinking, smoking, shopping for antiques, and flitting from one woman to the next. Not necessarily in that order. Still, I’d come here to search for information about the Circle, so I opened all the drawers and tapped all around the desk, looking for hidden compartments. But the drawers were empty, except for some stacks of cocktail napkins and paper coasters, and no secret hidey-holes were carved into the wood. Strike one. Since nothing was in the desk, I moved over to the bar, perusing the shelves underneath it and the wooden ones behind it.

But all I found were more napkins and coasters, along with several sterlingsilver martini shakers and other old-fashioned drink-making accoutrements. Strike two. Frustration surged through me, but I forced myself to stay calm and search the rest of the office. I ran my hands over all of the furniture, looking for any secret compartments. Examined all of the vases, carvings, and statues for false bottoms. Tapped on the walls, searching for hidden panels. I even rolled back the thick rugs and used my magic to listen to the flagstones, just in case a safe was hidden in the floor. But there was nothing. No secret compartments, no hidden panels, no floor safes. Strike three, and I was out.

My frustration mixed with disappointment, both burning through my veins like bitter acid. A couple of weeks ago, I’d found several safety-deposit boxes full of information on the Circle that Fletcher Lane, my mentor, had compiled. For some reason that I didn’t understand, Fletcher had only photos of the group’s members, but it had been simple enough for me to get their names, especially since many of them were such wealthy, prominent Ashland citizens. I’d scouted several of the Circle members, and Damian Rivera proved to be the easiest target with the least amount of security. So I’d broken in here tonight in hopes of learning more about the group, especially the identity of the mystery man who headed the organization, the bastard who’d ordered my mother’s murder. But maybe there was a reason Rivera’s security was so lax. Maybe he wasn’t as important or as involved as I’d thought. Still frustrated, I turned to the fireplace, which took up most of the wall across from the bar. Since any little bit of information could be important, I pulled out my phone and snapped shots of all the framed photos propped on the mantel, hoping that one of them might hold some small clue. Not only did Damian Rivera love the finer things in life, but he also loved himself, since most of the photos were softly lit glamour shots showing off his wavy black hair, dark brown eyes, bronze skin, and startlingly white teeth.

Rivera was in his prime, in his early thirties, and he was an exceptionally handsome man—and a thoroughly disgusting individual, even by Ashland’s admittedly low, low standards. Not only was he a trust-fund baby, living off his family’s wealth, never having worked a day in his life, but he’d also never faced any consequences for any of the despicable things he’d done. And he had done plenty. Silvio Sanchez, my personal assistant, had been looking into Rivera for only a few days, but he’d already found several arrests, mostly for DUIs, stretching all the way back to when Damian was a teenager. Rivera also had a violent temper and some serious anger-management issues. He’d beaten more than one girlfriend over the years, servants too, and had even put a couple of them in the hospital with broken bones and other serious injuries. But all of that was nothing compared with the woman he’d killed. One night during his college years, Rivera had gotten into his SUV and decided to see how fast he could drunkenly navigate Ashland’s mountain roads. He’d come around one curve, crossed the center line, and plowed head-on into a sedan being driven by a single mother of two. She died instantly, but Rivera walked away from the crash with only minor injuries.

He never was charged in the woman’s death, thanks to his own mother, who pulled all the right strings and paid off all the right people to cover the whole thing up. But Damian hadn’t learned his lesson. He hadn’t learned anything, since he’d been arrested for several more DUIs over the years, including his most recent offense on New Year’s Eve just a few days ago. Not that he would face any consequences for that one either. His mama was long dead, but Damian still had someone to clean up his messes: Bruce Porter, a dwarf who’d been the Rivera family’s head of security for years. I stopped in front of a picture of Maria Rivera, a beautiful woman with long golden hair, brown eyes, and red lips. In the photo, she was smiling and standing between Damian and his father, Richard Rivera, with a dour-looking Bruce Porter hovering behind them in the distance. I raised my phone and snapped a shot of them— “You’ve been in there a while now.” Finn’s voice sounded in my ear. “Does that mean you’ve finally found something good?” “No,” I muttered.

“Just a lot of liquor, antiques, and photos.” “What kind of liquor?” Finn chirped with obvious interest. “Anything I would drink?” I slid my phone into my jacket pocket and took a closer look at the rows of gleaming bottles behind the bar. “Oh, I think that you would drink them all, especially since Rivera’s tastes are even more expensive than yours. Why, you would cackle with glee if you could see all the spirits he has in here.” “Well, why don’t you bring me a bottle or two so I can cackle in person?” Finn chirped again. “I might as well get something for standing out here in the cold.” Even though he was in the woods outside and couldn’t see me, I still rolled my eyes. “I came here for information on the Circle. Not to pilfer Daddy’s booze like some naughty teenager.

” “You say potato, I say opportunity.” I had started to respond when a faint creak sounded in the hallway outside, as though someone had stepped on a floorboard. I froze. The creak came again, louder and closer this time, and it was followed by something far, far worse: the distinctive snick of a key sliding in a lock. “Let’s have a drink,” a faint, muffled voice said on the other side of the door.

.

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