Marked by Sin Chapter Four & Five
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I made it onto the street and took a right, ducking into a clothing department store I knew had a rear exit. The bright lights, the soothing music, and the happy shoppers all worked to alleviate the panic that had seized me. Heat seeped out of my limbs. What the fuck was wrong with me? I was usually a stand-my-ground-and-fight kinda girl, but this guy brought out something primal inside me, something that screamed run.
I hung out at the store for a few minutes, hiding behind a fifty-percent-off rack piled with winter coats and sweaters, which would soon be out of season.
The minutes stretched by, and my pulse slowed. Finally satisfied I hadn’t been followed, I made my way to the rear exit and back onto the streets. The walk home would take half an hour. Still on guard, I picked up the pace down the main street past the shops, people, and cars.
Out in the open.
My scalp prickled a split second before an arm snaked around my waist. With no time to react, I was spun into an alley and shoved against the wall. My body went into fight mode, my knee coming up only to be blocked.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
Yeah, right. I needed to get away, but my muscles were on lockdown.
“Look at me.”
Gray and green and everything in between, his irises were a shifting miasma of color, like the rainbow skin on a puddle. I was an assassin, dammit. I should be doing something, but my body refused to obey the commands my brain was firing, and my lungs were tight and breathless.
His beautiful lips curled in an assured smile. “This’ll only take a moment.”
He dipped his head to the base of my collarbone and inhaled, running the tip of his nose up the column of my neck to linger behind my ear.
I wanted to move—needed to move—but I was completely in his power.
What the fuck was he? Not a vamp or a yaksha for sure. The human and Shaitan genetic mix had produced too many variations to count, and new ones were being born every day. He could be something we hadn’t come across before, but even so, what the heck did he want from me? He was sniffing me. Oh, God, what if he was a new kind of predator, one who liked the taste of human flesh? A scream bubbled up my throat, battering at my paralyzed vocal cords.
He raised his head and scanned my face.
“What are you?”
That fucking voice. A siren call to every hidden goose bump on my skin.
Words formed in my mind, but they never made it to my lips. Forcing back the fear, I subjected him to my best glare.
He sighed. “Crap, yeah, one sec.”
The band on my vocal cords loosened.
“Let me go.”
“I can’t do that, not yet. Not until I can be certain.”
“Certain of what?”
He unbuttoned my coat and moved to my shirt. My belly quivered in strange anticipation, even as my gut twisted in terror.
“You sick wanker.”
The guy chuckled. “Relax. If it was your body I was interested in, I wouldn’t have to incapacitate you to get to it. You’d give it to me willingly.”
He pulled open my shirt, exposing my pretty pink bra, and buried his nose in my cleavage.
Crap. That was . . . No! I wanted to feel nothing, except my body was telling me something different—wanting to melt against him, wanting to push up into him.
He lifted his head, his stormy gaze falling to my parted lips.
This was crazy. He was a fucking stalker. Some kind of supernatural freak who liked to paralyze his prey and then sniff it.
I didn’t want this, but my body screamed otherwise, heating under the pressure of his fingers, tingling under the breath that fell from his lips to brush mine. His scent spiked—strong, sharp, and citrusy. My breath quivered as I closed my eyes against the assault on my senses. Flee or submit.
He raised his head. “What the fuck . . .”
Giggles cut through the air, shattering the moment.
The mountain pinning me to the wall tensed. His head whipped around to take in a group of teenagers passing by the mouth of the alley—two girls and two guys. One girl had her phone out, and a guy stepped forward.
“Hey, you okay, Miss?”
Whatever spell he’d had on me evaporated, and my body was my own. I tried to knee him in the crotch, but he stepped out of the way, giving me the split second I needed to make a break for it.
I sprinted toward the mouth of the alley.
“Hey, you okay?” the guy asked in a louder voice.
“Where’d he go?” the girl said.
But I wasn’t waiting to find out, because there was no doubt in my mind that my hot stalker was a supernatural, and it wasn’t the last I’d be seeing of him.
“He just sniffed you?” Carmella said.
“Yeah. It must be someone related to an old kill.”
“Some kind of retribution?”
“It has to be.”
“But he didn’t hurt you.”
“No . . . but if those kids hadn’t come along, who knows what would have happened. I was frozen in place, Carmella, and he could have done anything.”
“Yeah, so he decided to inhale you . . .”
I turned onto my street, boots clipping against the pavement. There was a definite chill in the air, enough to make my breath fog in front of my face.
“Now you’re just making fun of the situation.”
“Heck no! I would never do that. I’m just trying to make sense of . . . shit! The brooch, did you have it on you? Of course you did.”
The brooch! I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled it out. Could it have been the artifact that had made the man act so strange? I turned it over in my hand. It wouldn’t explain his behavior at Loki’s or the fact that he had some kind of paralyzing ability, but still, at least I hadn’t been in real danger.
“Makes sense. Thanks, hun.” My lovely block of flats was in view. A group of teens was hanging out on the steps outside, smoking cigarettes. “I gotta dash, babe, got some prep to do before the big kill.”
“Thanks.” I pocketed my phone.
“Hey, Malina, looking smoking.”
“Thanks, Dennis. Like I said to you before, those things will kill you.”
The kid was fifteen going on sixteen, a nice lad who liked to act tough but had been ultimately brought up too well to be overtly rude to anyone. The cigarettes were a recent development, and his little group of friends looked just as out of place holding their glowing butts as he did.
He raised the cigarette to his mouth and took a drag, blowing it out way too quickly to have inhaled much.
“You know, I contemplated smoking once, but then I realized if I saved my money, I could spend it on shoes instead.” I raised a booted foot. These particular ones were suede Stuart Weitzman. An absolute bargain at four hundred. I got them on sale at Harrods for a huge chunk out of my meager savings, but oh so worth it. “Gorgeous, right?”
Dennis wrinkled his nose.
“Fine, maybe it won’t be boots for you, maybe a car, a motorbike, or something cool you’ve been coveting for a while.”
I climbed the steps to the fire doors, having made my point. “See you laters.”
“Hey! Malina? When did you get the dog? He really needs a bath.”
“Cute little terrier?”
“Yeah. Saw him sitting outside your door about half an hour ago.”
So, Toto was back. “Thanks.”
I let myself in and took the stairs two at a time. There he was with his matted fur, curled up on my mat just as Dennis had said.
“How the heck did you get out of the flat last night?” Without missing a step, he slipped in as I unlocked the door, and then settled on the spot I’d allocated the other night.
I shut the door and stared at him. “Go on. Show me how you got out.”
He cocked his head.
“This is ridiculous. I’m talking to a dog.” Shaking my head, I strode off toward the bathroom. “Well, if you’re gonna be staying here, you need a bath because you stink.”
Okay, it was a bad idea. I had no time for a pet, especially a dog. Dogs needed walking and companionship, and they got all clingy. I was an assassin who kept irregular hours and lived off fast food. How the heck was I gonna take care of a dog?
But he was even cuter now that he was clean and dry, curled up by the electric fire, his tiny body rising and falling as he made little snuffling sounds in his sleep.
I couldn’t keep him . . .
He raised his head and pinned me with his button eyes.
Yeah, I needed to pick up some dog food later.
He dropped his head onto his paws as if sensing my thoughts.
Maybe I was getting mellow in my old age, or maybe the microwavable macaroni and cheese I’d just consumed was filling me with unnecessary goodwill. I turned my attention back to my laptop and scanned the information on the exhibit my target would be viewing.
The brooch sat on the coffee table next to the package of vials. I’d decided against using the trinket because if the over-the-top reaction my recent stalker had exhibited was anything to go by, it would attract too much attention. Instead, I was gonna have to go old school, relying on my wit, charm, and catlike reflexes. The vial was a before-bed job because it always made me sleepy. If I left the box where I would see it, I wouldn’t forget to take one.
Two hours later—bag packed with the essentials for the job, contacts in, and hair done—I headed for the door. Toto whined as I pulled it open.
“You want to go out? I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I can let you in then if you like?”
He cocked his head as if contemplating the idea before lowering it to his paws and closing his eyes.
“Right, ’kay, see you later.”
I hoisted my pack onto my back and slipped out of the flat.
Mayfair, here I come.
The art gallery was tucked away behind Berkeley Street, a popular hotspot for restaurants. I’d eaten in a couple of the restaurants there on the odd occasion when I’d had a date but hadn’t explored the streets branching off it until earlier today. Wrapped in black—slacks, boots, and my favorite deep-hooded top—I cut down Stratton Street, delving into the quieter part of Mayfair. There were fewer bodies on the streets here. Tall townhouses, black railings, neat pavements, and unused red phone boxes.
The gallery itself was an unassuming building with tinted glass doors and an intercom. I walked straight past it and ducked into the alleyway around the side of the building. The front door wasn’t my access point, but neither was the back. I’d be going in through an upper-floor window. The alley was neat and clean—just a side door and a dumpster. Above me were the windows. No balconies, only the black grating that covered the lower half of most of the townhouse windows in this area. Checking that the coast was clear, I retrieved my grapple-hook gun from my pack—it was a compact, lightweight state-of-the-art machine. The rope was made of a metal fiber, ten times stronger than steel, and light as a feather. Its hook was made of a similar material. My glass cutter was next—slim as a pen, with a laser blade. I popped it horizontally in my mouth, gripping it with my teeth. With a final scan of the area, I took aim and fired. The hook whizzed through the air, attaching to the grate above with a soft chink. Depressing the button on the gun, I held tight as the winding mechanism went into action, pulling me up into the air with ease.
Being fit and strong was a must in this job, especially when I spent most of my time balancing on roofs, climbing down drain pipes, or hanging off buildings while I cut holes in glass. Using one hand to hold on to the grate, I used the other to retrieve the glass cutter from my mouth and got to work.
Ten seconds later, I was inside the building in a storage room filled with old furniture and crates.
I set my bag on the floor, yanked it open, and pulled out my dress—a little black number with modest cleavage and a decent length. The fabric was mostly Lycra, so it wasn’t creased, thank goodness. After a quick change, I rummaged through my clutch for my weapon of choice. The rest of my equipment slipped back inside my bag and out the window into the dumpster below.
I wouldn’t be using that as an exit.
Smoothing back my hair and blinking to moisten my contacts—hazel tonight—I headed for the door.
Of course it was. But I did this shit for a living, and preparation was my middle name. The lipstick in my bag doubled as a lock pick. I was out into the corridor in less than a minute.
The hum of genteel conversation drifted up toward me. My weapon, a signet ring containing a slim needle coated with a paralytic, venom and toxin free, fit neatly on my finger. I made my way down into the gallery.
It was showtime.
I sauntered in as if I was meant to be there, as if I’d just popped to the ladies’ room and was coming back for a full sweep of the amazing art on the walls. Art wasn’t my thing, especially not the abstract stuff that was on display here by a new artist named Harish Vinay. The prints were strange combination patterns of vivid colors, reds and blues, yellows and greens.
Swiping a flute of champagne from a nearby tray, I searched casually for my target. Three huge whitewashed rooms waited to be scoped, all filled with the same kind of art. The artist must have worked his arse off to get so many pieces done. Thick carpeted floor, in a fiber that didn’t stain or absorb water, sucked up the sound of the heels that clipped across it, leaving only the gentle hum of voices.
I spotted Vinod Palmer a second later. He was tall and broad, with a wickedly handsome profile. I wondered what he’d done to deserve death by assassin, but then stifled the thought. Why wasn’t my problem.
He stood, hands in pockets, head tilted slightly to the side, studying a five-foot canvas splattered with paint. It was as if someone had picked up pot after pot of color and thrown it at an easel. But I’d done my homework, and this was the piece that was expected to fetch the most money. Hidden in the spatter were multiple intricate, interconnecting patterns. If someone looked long and close enough, they would find them.
I casually approached and stood next to him. His body tensed, but he didn’t turn to look at me. He was aware of me, though, which was a start.
“Horrific, isn’t it?” I said, putting on a low, sultry voice.
“And why is that?” He kept his eyes on the painting.
“Because all it does is inspire the urge to wipe away the top layer to get to the one underneath. A perfect depiction of humanity—under the mess lies complexity we can only hope to fathom.”
His gaze was a hot brand on the side of my face. I took my time turning to face him. When I did, I found him staring at me with a look of confused wonder.
Okay, I was good, but not that good.
I offered him a smile and held out my hand. “Hi, I’m Serena.”
He blinked and shook his head slightly. “I’m sorry, for a moment there . . . you remind me of someone I used to know.”
My hand was still out, my weapon exposed. Come on, don’t leave me hanging. I tilted my head to the side and glanced down at my hand.
He chuckled, reached out, and clasped it.
I squeezed it a fraction, barely enough for the thread-like needle embedded in my ring to break his skin. He pulled back his hand sharply. Shit, there was no way he should have felt that.
“Are you okay? Did I hurt you? I guess I’m stronger than I look,” I said teasingly.
He tucked his hand into his pocket. “I’m fine. Just a twinge. Artist’s cramp.”
“Goodness, no. I write, or I’m trying to.”
A writer? What was his secret crime? Who had he hurt? Who had he murdered? That face was much too kind. But then, none of my kills looked like murderers, because murderer didn’t have a stereotypical face.
“So you enjoy art?” he said.
“I go to a lot of exhibitions. Forgive me, but I’ve never come across you at a gallery before.”
“A gross oversight on your part, obviously.”
He chuckled, but this time it morphed into a dry cough. “Excuse me.”
The paralytic was starting to work, making its way to his heart, working to stop it from beating. My gut twisted. No. Feeling sorry for him was not an option. He’d been marked for a reason. He was one of the charismatic individuals who appeared to the world as a philanthropist, healer, activist, or environmentalist. He used that persona to kill, or to run a pedophile or human-trafficking operation. It didn’t matter which crime he was responsible for; the fact remained there was a crime to be accounted for.
He coughed again, his brows furrowing.
His scent hit me. It was something indescribably familiar, like a sought-after word hovering on the tip of my tongue.
My pulse jumped. I needed to get away.
He pulled his hand from his pocket and stared at his palm. “What did you do?”
My phone went off in my clutch on cue. “Excuse me, I need to get that.”
Another cough racked his body, and I backed away.
He reached for me. “Wha—”
I turned and walked away.
The door exit loomed near. I was almost out, away from the strange, overpowering sense of awareness.
His hand closed around my arm.
“Wait.” He pulled me toward him.
Shit, he should have been down for the count by now. I must have miscalculated the dose, the potency. Fuck. Why give me a naga when they knew so little about them?
I tried to shake him off, but he was too strong, dragging me out the door and around the side of the building.
“Let go of me. You’re sick. You need a doctor. Let me go get one.” I tried to yank my arm from his grip.
He pressed me against the brick wall, his fingers too strong for a dying man . . . because he was dying. It was in the pallor of his skin, in the whites of his eyes, which bloomed with burst capillaries, and in his labored breathing.
“You. Why . . .”
I’d never had to answer this question directly to a target. I didn’t have to now. But I wanted to look into my victim’s face, see the dawning comprehension, the remorse, as he took his final desperate gasp of air.
I grabbed his shoulders, ready to push him away. “You know exactly why. For all the crimes you’ve committed. For every innocent you’ve hurt.”
He shook his head. “I . . . wrong . . .”
“Yeah, you were wrong. And now you get to pay for it.” A hard shove had him stumbling back.
He fell to his knees, his torso swaying.
“You . . . wrong . . .”
I watched him topple onto his side, his body hitting the ground with a soft thud as he took his final breath.
His words haunted me all the way home.
What had he meant? And why the fuck did it matter? The guy was a target. A dead one. No way was I gonna let him haunt me. If I let every kill get to me, I’d be a blubbering mess, useless and unable to complete assignments. Assassins didn’t question. We followed orders.
I let myself into the flat, shucked off my shoes, peeled off my dress, and padded to my bedroom to slip into my pajamas. I’d just nailed my fiftieth kill. This time next week, I could be moving into my new flat in Soho, close to the guild and my friends.
Come on joy, where the heck are you? A shudder had me rubbing gooseflesh off my arms. My skin was hot, almost feverish.
As if I was coming down with something . . .
I strode back into the sitting room and froze.
The package was gone. No, scratch that, it wasn’t gone—it was on the carpet, crushed to a pulp.
“What the actual fuck?”
Toto emerged from under the coffee table.
“Shit, Toto, what did you do?”
He whined softly.
“Yeah, you’re sorry now.”
I picked up the package and peeled open the seal. There were four vials inside—my monthly supply—and they were all broken. The contents seeped into the cardboard packaging.
Okay, this was bad, but not unsalvageable. I’d get sick, but not tonight. I had a couple of days, maybe more. Running hot and cold were the first signs. I’d speak to Constance tomorrow, explain what had happened, and get her to rush me another package. No one aside from Barrett and Constance knew about my condition, and I preferred to keep it that way.
I’d been dealing with this shit since puberty. The fever would be followed by aches and pains, vision problems, and then, if left unchecked, my body would go into a coma. There’d been a ton of tests—blood, saliva, and more blood—at some facility on the edge of town run by one of Barrett’s Brahma Corp contacts, a guy named Narada. My genetic disease was unique, causing red blood cells to break down and white blood cells to overpopulate. No one said what it would mean to leave the condition untreated, but it was obvious.
No treatment meant death.
Toto whined again.
I plonked my arse on the sofa and beckoned him close. He slunk over and subjected himself to an ear rub. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. I should have been more careful.”
He jumped onto the sofa and laid his head on my lap. I leaned back, fingers ruffling his fur.
Thank goodness for witch mail. I just had to hope someone had a batch of meds ready to ship, because if not, I was fucked.
Tune in next week for Chapter 6…and don't forget to pre-order your copy on Amazon!