Marked by Sin Chapter Three
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The guild was situated in Soho, about a five-minute walk from the Square gardens. Tottenham Court, the nearest stop, was one of the many tube stations that had been closed off seventeen years ago after some major gas leaks had resulted in explosions and fire. The council—chosen representatives of human, god, and supernatural races—had never reopened them, opting instead to pour money into building aerial tramways above the city. Luckily for me, there was a station outside Hackney Central, which was a ten-minute walk from the leisure center. Today, the swim had left me energized and ready for anything. I made the walk in half the time. Swiping my Payall card at the entrance, I stepped into the elevator that would take me to the platform.
It was barely seven o’clock, and the platform was pretty dead. I grabbed a cheese and bacon croissant from a nearby vendor and leaned against the railing before chowing down. Below me, the streets were truly waking up, the serene silence of the morning interrupted by the buzz of motors, the clatter of feet, and the hum of life. A gust of air swept loose tendrils of my hair into my face and alerted me to the arrival of the car. Buzzing from the electrical cables that ran the cars drowned out the street noise below. The car came to a smooth standstill suspended in the air beside the platform.
The doors slid open. Brushing croissant crumbs off my jacket, I boarded.
Soho Square garden was a hive of activity. People rushed about, seemingly eager to get to work and start their day. The smells were overwhelming—body odor, cologne, and rotting flesh. Vampires had become bolder, venturing out in the day more frequently since the council passed a law making blood donation compulsory for humans. Sixty percent of the donations went straight to the vault—a blood bank where only vampires made withdrawals. They could feed more often and counter the decaying effects of the sun on their mortal dead bodies.
My stomach churned. Our society was catering to the entities because they weren’t going anywhere. As long as they played by the rules, we had to treat them as citizens. They had, after all, descended from human bloodlines.
Ducking my head, I powered through the fray, exhaling only when the crowd thinned. I cut across the grass, hopped a low fence, crossed the road, and turned onto the street that would lead me to the dojo, which acted as a front for guild operations.
It was a long brick building with huge tinted windows and a swivel door. Jenna looked up from her desk at reception as I strode past. The place was all minimalistic decor, highlighted by cool, calm colors and the vapor of incense. Bypassing the training room, I beelined for the lift. The doors closed, and I pressed my thumb to the panel that displayed the floor numbers. It flashed green, and the lift began to move down. Not all staff members at the dojo were guild assassins, and as far as they were concerned, there was no basement level to the building. Guild operatives knew better because the basement was where our domain began.
The lift stopped, and the doors slid open into a small square room. Furniture was piled up to one side—a couple of tables and two chairs. A pile of crash mats was set up against the opposite wall—a façade for anyone who shouldn’t be down here. After walking across the room, I reached up and planted my palm on the wall directly opposite the lift. The hidden scanner registered my prints, and the concealed door slid open with a click. I sauntered into the guild headquarters.
HQ spread out beneath Soho like a secret stain. The basement area, under the dojo, was simply the tip of the iceberg. The office area was where we picked up assignments, signed out equipment, and socialized. Beyond the basement, spread out under the rest of Soho, were the accommodations where most assassins in training opted to live, moving out into the world only when they had the funds. The guild’s recruitment process was clandestine—star students from the dojo whose families were asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The rest were born into the life. I was neither born into the service nor recruited. I was adopted into it. No regrets. This place had made me who I was. It gave me purpose and a family. Killing wasn’t an issue because the targets were all supernaturals intent on disrupting the peace—cult leaders, murderers, and those breaking the pact by feeding off humans. Plus, I got to use my special brand of pain on the scum—my clever poisons. Despite guild efforts, The Pit was overflowing with lawbreakers. The world was going to shit, and my gut told me it was only a matter of time before some bright spark decided to reenact the apocalypse.
“Malina!” Constance, the head of correspondence, waved me over from her workstation.
Constance was the first to get her hands on kill orders. My heart sank. Had Barrett asked her to pass the order to me? I cut across the smooth hardwood floor to her work area—a neat square comprised of a huge desk, a high-back leather chair, and a wall of cubby holes all neatly labeled.
The only mail we ever received was from the council—kill orders and letters forwarded to us from the families of the assassins. It was all sent via what we liked to call witch mail because it simply materialized in Constance’s in-tray throughout the day.
Constance grabbed a package from a cubby behind her and handed it to me. Her brows shot up. “Did you forget?”
Shit! I smiled sweetly and plucked the package from her fingers. “Forget? Pfft. Why do you think I came in today?”
She crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “I know Barrett called you in, Malina.”
Of course she did. “Fine, I almost forgot. But I didn’t, because I have you to remind me.”
“Uh-huh. You need to start reminding yourself, girly. I won’t always be around to mother you.”
I leaned over the desk and planted a kiss on her cheek. “You’re not going anywhere, Constance. I won’t allow it.”
She pushed me playfully aside. “Get away with you.”
Barrett might be my adopted dad, but it was Constance who I’d gone to with the stuff I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with Barrett. She was my unofficial adopted mum, and Carmella’s aunt, and I loved her to bits. I shoved the package containing my meds into my coat pocket. If Constance knew I was late taking a vial, that I should have picked up the batch yesterday and taken one last night, she’d happily throttle me. I’d been distracted by Aaron and Carmella’s invite to Loki’s. Still, one day wouldn’t kill me. I’d down a vial as soon as I got home.
Leaving Constance to her admin duties, I strode through the office past cubicles containing assassins on administration duty. The guild building was paid for by the council. We received kill fees, but the rest of the funding came from the many small businesses the guild owned and operated under various names—businesses that seasoned assassins used as covers in normal society.
The guild and its operatives were the government’s best-kept secret.
I briefly greeted everyone along the way, my focus on getting to the head honcho’s office. He kept residence at the back, just before the exit that led to the accommodations.
Grunts and heavy breathing from hand-to-hand combat drills came from the training room on my way by. Outside the door of the gym, machines whirred, reminding me I owed my body a workout. Through the next door—my favorite place—the lab contained cabinets and shelves stocked with ingredients to make deadly poisons.
I’d spent most of my childhood in there, shadowing Devi, our resident doctor who had a specialty in toxicology and biochemistry. Devi hadn’t needed to patch me up yet—my victims never had a chance to fight back—but she was the go-to person for injuries. She was bent over a microscope, her brown hair secured in a neat twist at the base of her skull.
I tried to duck out, not wanting to disturb her, but she glanced up and caught me.
“Malina, come.” She waved me in.
“What are you working on?”
“A chili-pepper poison.”
“A what?” I moved over to the desk and gazed at her notes.
“Capsaicin is the active ingredient in hot chili peppers. If consumed in large enough of a quantity, it can cause seizures, convulsions, and even death.”
The poisons in my arsenal were undetectable, breaking down too quickly for the medical examiner to find any traces. They produced symptoms similar to that of natural deaths like heart attacks or brain aneurysms. This Capsaicin, if tailored right, would be perfect.
I leaned over her shoulder. “You gonna make some for me?”
Devi chuckled. “I’ve never known an assassin to love poisons so much.”
“I learned from the best.”
She ducked her head. “Well, your enthusiasm makes it all worthwhile.”
Most of the other assassins preferred orchestrating accidents or making the hit look like a robbery. A couple of them enjoyed the job a little too much. Killing wasn’t enjoyable; it was the challenge, the preparation, that got me off. Preparation like brushing up on engineering facts in order to impress a target enough for him to ask me out on a date. He’d had a heart attack in the restaurant just after I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room. Being an assassin was more than just turning up and doing a job. It was learning enough about a target to figure out the best way to get close enough to eliminate him or her. As assassins, the only information we weren’t given was their crimes.
Devi watched me carefully. “You look pale. Have you been eating properly?”
Shit. The vial. “I’m fine.” I slung an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “Let me know when you’ve perfected it.”
“You can pop in and help when you’re free.”
“Yeah, yeah. I think Barrett has a job for me, but after that, I’m all yours.”
Her mouth formed an O. “Won’t that be your—”
I left her fiddling with the microscope and slipped out, passing the armory and artifacts room. Resisting the urge to pop in and say hello to Carmella, I headed straight to Barrett’s office.
I knocked on the door and entered.
“What took you so long?” Barrett harrumphed from behind his desk.
I swallowed my disappointment at his reaction and plastered a neutral expression on my face. “Your message said as soon as possible. This is as soon as possible.”
“Don’t get smart with me. Sit down.”
I bit back my annoyance at his tone and took the seat opposite him.
The grumps were Barrett’s go-to mood. No matter what I did, or how hard I worked to be the best, it was never enough to break through the gray cloud surrounding him that kept me at bay. When was the last time he’d hugged me? He didn’t do warmth, but today . . . I’d hoped he’d make an exception. My eyes stung, but I cleared my throat and straightened my spine.
Barrett was a man of logic and action. He’d kept me safe. Fed and clothed me. Trained me and ensured I’d had a go-to person for every crisis in my life, but he’d never read me a bedtime story or sung me to sleep. I guess raising an assassin meant keeping a distance, forcing them to self-soothe or whatever. And here I was, about to pick up my fiftieth kill from the only father I knew—one who wouldn’t allow me to call him by anything but his name. It didn’t matter, though. To me, his name meant dad.
“So?” I raised my brows, held out my hands, and wiggled my fingers. “Gimme.”
He snorted, muttering to himself. Pulling out the top drawer, he retrieved the envelope and slid it across the desk.
I broke the seal, then drew out the card and photograph inside. Written in neat block letters was a name—Vinod Palmer. Naga. Art Collector. Immunity to venom and most toxins.
“What is it?”
“A naga? He has immunity to venom and toxins.”
“You don’t get many of those. Pretty rare, from what I’ve heard.” Barrett rubbed his chin, and I knew what he was thinking because I was thinking the same thing—what had a snake shifter done to be put on the council hit list?
We wondered every time . . . on every kill. It was a natural reaction. When someone ordered another to kill, that person would naturally ask why—except assassins didn’t get to ask. We never got to know. We just did what we were told.
I turned over the photograph and blinked at the young, handsome face staring back at me.
Such a waste.
Flipping the card over, I noted the time and address on the back—nine o’clock tonight. The address listed was of an exclusive art gallery in Mayfair. Excitement fizzed through my veins at the challenge. No venom or toxins, and I’d have to crash an exclusive event. Thank goodness I knew enough about art to get by, but I’d need to do some research on the pieces in this collection before going in.
Oh, the possibilities.
“Malina, you have that look on your face.”
I glanced up from the card. “What look?”
“The one the cat flashes when she’s devoured the cream.”
“Way to tease the lactose intolerant.”
Barrett’s lips twitched. “Go get out of here. I’ll see you tomorrow once you’re done.”
His confidence in me was inspiring, but my hundred-percent success rate probably had more than a little to do with that. I shoved the information back inside the envelope and held it out to him. I already had it memorized.
He plucked it from my fingers. “Be safe.”
As excited as I was to get started on my prep, I couldn’t leave without dropping in and saying hi to my bestie Carmella.
I found her at her reception window to the armory and artifacts library, elbow deep in a bucket of slime, an Oscar-winning grimace on her pretty face.
“What the heck is that?”
“A cleansing concoction for the boomerang dagger Aaron took out the other day.”
“Did that thing work?”
She nodded. “But now I need to cleanse it of the target’s DNA.”
“So that’s why he asked to borrow Vindra last week.”
Carmella lifted the slender silver dagger from the bucket and gagged. “I wish you’d let him borrow her.”
I gasped, pressing my hand to my heart. “Take that back!”
As if I’d lend my baby to anyone. Vindra was a graduation present from Barrett, a weapon unlike any other, one that always returned to her sheath no matter where I left her.
Carmella wrinkled her nose.
“Seriously, Carmella, it doesn’t smell like anything.”
“Yeah, but it looks like it should.”
“Just think, if you could develop an iron constitution, you could be out there making kills.”
“Er, no thanks. I’ll stick to my artifacts. Stabby-stabby is so not my thing.”
True, she was better off here, where it was safe for a creature with her delicate make-up. As a witch blood, the armory and artifacts library was a perfect role for her.
Carmella knew her stuff, which gave me an idea. “Hey, got anything to lure a man?”
She looked me up and down. “Seriously? Have you seen you?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I’m hot, but I’m not every bloke’s type. I need something to make me any bloke’s type.”
Carmella gnawed on her bottom lip, and then her face lit up. “One sec.” After she dropped the slime-covered dagger into a tray, she wiped her hands with a small towel and then vanished out back.
I had no clue what it looked like back there. The armory and library were warded against everyone except select personnel, and Carmella’s attempts at description had been a bust. I waited impatiently, tapping my fingers against the polished wood of the counter.
Minutes ticked by. Just as I was beginning to think Carmella had lost her way in the sprawling maze of the library, she returned, out of breath and tousled.
“Here.” She pushed something across the ledge toward me.
I stared at the tiny rusty-looking adornment. “A brooch?”
She folded her arms, resting them on the ledge. “Not just any brooch. Cleopatra’s brooch, infused with an abundance of her charisma.”
Now I was all for magic and spells and stuff. I’d seen that shit work firsthand, but brooches infused with the charisma of a dead Egyptian queen? Not so much.
“Carmella, come on . . .”
“Trust me. I’ll owe you dinner if it’s a dud.”
Eek! “As long as you aren’t cooking.”
“You cheeky moo.”
She passed me the electronic clipboard. I signed and pressed my thumbprint into the allocated spot.
Popping the brooch into my pocket, I headed for the door. “I like Chinese food. Indian too.”
I glanced over my shoulder.
“So who is it? Who’s the unlucky fiftieth?”
I showed her my shark smile. “Honey, if I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
A quick trip to Mayfair to scope out the area around the art gallery, and I was back on the aerial tram headed home in time for lunch.
As I rode the car a hundred feet above the ground, my mind churned, planning the rest of the day. Hot water on for a bath, some research on the exhibit, and then doll up for the kill. The enhanced natural toxins and animal venoms I had in my repertoire were useless in this case. But over the years, I’d engineered some pretty nifty little killers that didn’t employ either venom or toxin. I had the perfect thing in mind. My stomach growled. As I moved on to visualizing what delights I had in the dark depths of my freezer, the telltale prickle of awareness skated across my scalp. I was being watched.
My body was pressed up against one of the exits, ready to spill out once the car stopped. Pizza, newspaper, perfume, and minty chewing gum created a cocktail of odors in the confined space. I pushed back, blocking out the scents as a sharp citrus tang eclipsed the others. My stomach quivered, and my muscles tensed. Where was it coming from? Shit. I locked eyes with the hot, snarly guy from Loki’s over the heads of the other passengers.
His lips curled into a seductive smile . . . a come-on. No threat here, it said. None aside from some seriously hot between-the-sheets action. He was kitted out in dark denim and a black leather jacket that lovingly draped across his shoulders. The jacket was open to reveal a blue polo shirt stretched tight over his pecs.
My nether regions tingled. It had been too long since they’d seen any action. They really could do with a dusting off, a night out. Instead, my gut pinched in warning.
Gut overrode vajayjay, and a closer look around explained why. This was one hot hunk of man standing in an enclosed space with several young women, and none of them paid him the least bit of attention.
The car began to slow down for the next stop.
Not my stop, but . . .
He took a step toward me. Heat flooded my body. The car ground to a halt. The door slid open, and I turned and legged it. Diving into the crowd at the platform, I pushed my way toward the exit. The stairs were up ahead, and I barreled down them, gripping the rail to prevent a tumble. Someone behind me let out a yell, and I looked back on reflex. He was too close, his face etched in stone, brows down low over his crazy blue eyes.
My breath caught and my throat squeezed my vocal cords.
Tune in next week for Chapter 4…and don't forget to pre-order your copy on Amazon!