Heart of Venom 1
Digging up a grave was hard, dirty work.
Good thing that hard, dirty work was one of my specialties. Although this was a bit of a role reversal. As the assassin the Spider, I’m usually putting people into graves instead of uncovering them.
But here I was in Blue Ridge Cemetery, just after ten o’clock on this cold November night. Flurries drifted down from the clouds that blanketed the sky, the small flakes dancing on the gusty breeze like delicate, crystalline fairies. Every once in a while, the wind would whip up into a howling frenzy, pelting me in the back with swarms of snow and spattering the icy flakes against my chilled cheeks.
I ignored the latest wave of flurries stinging my face and continued digging, just like I’d been doing for the last hour. The only good thing about driving the shovel into the frozen earth was that the repetitive motions of scooping out the dirt and tossing it onto a pile kept me warm and limber, instead of cold and stiff like the tombstones surrounding me.
Despite the snow, I still had plenty of light to see by, thanks to the old-fashioned iron streetlamps spaced along the access roads throughout the cemetery. One of the lamps stood about twenty feet away from where I was digging, its golden glow highlighting the grave marker in front of me, making the carved name stand out like black blood against the gray stone.
The mother of my foster brother, Finnegan Lane. An Ice elemental. And a potentially dangerous enemy.
A week ago, I’d found a file that Fletcher Lane—Finn’s dad, and my assassin mentor—had hidden in his office. A file that claimed that Deirdre was powerful, deceitful, and treacherous—and not nearly as dead as everyone thought she was. So I’d come here tonight to find out whether she was truly six feet under. I was hoping she was dead and rotting in her grave, but I wasn’t willing to bet on it.
Too many things from my own past had come back to haunt me for me to leave something this important to chance.
My shovel hit something hard and metal. I stopped and breathed in, hoping to smell the stench of decades-old decay. But the cold, crisp scent of the snow mixed with the rich, dark earth, creating a pleasant perfume. No decay, no death, and most likely, no body.
I quickly cleared off the rest of the dirt, revealing the top of the casket. A rune had been carved into the lid—jagged icicles fitted together to form a heart. My stomach knotted up with tension. Fletcher had inked that same rune onto Deirdre Shaw’s file. This was definitely the right grave.
I was already standing in the pit that I’d dug, and I scraped away a few more chunks of earth so that I could crouch down beside the top half of the casket. The metal lid was locked, but that was easy enough to fix. I set down my shovel, pulled off my black gloves and held up my hands, and reached for my Ice magic. The matching scars embedded deep in my palms—each one a small circle surrounded by eight thin rays—pulsed with the cold, silver light of my power. My spider runes, the symbols for patience.
When I had generated enough magic, I reached down, wrapped my hands around the casket lid locks, and blasted them with my Ice power. After coating the locks with two inches of elemental Ice, I sent out another surge of power, cracking away the cold crystals. At the same time, I reached for my Stone magic, hardening my skin. Under my magical assault, the locks shattered, and my Stone-hardened skin kept the flying bits of metal from cutting my hands. I dusted away the remains of the locks and the elemental Ice, took hold of the casket lid, dug my feet into the dirt, and lifted it.
The lid was heavier than I’d thought it would be, and the metal didn’t want to open, not after all the years spent peacefully resting in the ground. It creaked and groaned in protest, but I managed to shove the lid up a couple of inches. I grabbed my shovel and slid it into the small opening I’d created, using it as a lever to lift up the lid the rest of the way.
Dirt rained down all around me, mixing with the snowflakes, and I wrinkled my nose to hold back a sneeze. I wedged the length of the shovel in between the lid and the edge of the casket, so that it would stay open. Then I wiped the sweat off my forehead, put my hands on my knees to catch my breath, and looked down.
Just as I expected, snow-white silk lined the inside of the casket, with a small square matching pillow positioned at the very top, where a person’s head would rest. But something decidedly unexpected was situated next to the pillow, nestled in the middle of the pristine fabric.
It was about the size of a small suitcase and made out of silverstone, a sturdy metal that also had the unique property of absorbing and storing magic. The box’s gray surface gleamed like a freshly minted coin, and it looked as clean and untouched as the rest of the white silk.
I frowned. I’d expected the casket to be completely empty. Or for there to be a decaying body inside; if I had been extremely lucky, Deirdre Shaw would have been in there, dead after all.
So why was there a box in it instead? And who had put it here?
I kept staring at the box, more and more knots forming in the pit of my stomach and then slowly tightening together. I’d recently gone up against Raymond Pike, a metal elemental who had enjoyed planting bombs before I’d helped plant him in some botanical gardens. Raymond had received a letter with Deirdre Shaw’s rune stamped on it, and had bragged that the two of them were business associates—and that she was the most coldhearted person he’d ever met. I wondered if he’d booby-trapped the box in Deirdre’s casket as some sort of favor to her, to blow up anyone who might come investigate whether she was truly dead.
So I reached out, using my Stone magic to listen to all the rocks in the ground around the casket. But the rocks only grumbled about the cold, the snow, and how I’d disturbed their final resting place. No other emotional vibrations resonated through them, which meant that no one had been near the casket in years.
I crouched down and brushed away the dirt that had fallen on top of the box when I opened the casket lid. No magic emanated from the silverstone box, although a rune had been carved into the top of it—the same small circle and eight thin rays that were branded into both of my palms.
My spider rune.
“Fletcher,” I whispered, my breath frosting the air.
The old man had planted the box here for me to find. No doubt about it. He was the only one who seemed to know that Deirdre Shaw wasn’t actually dead. More important, Fletcher had known me. He had realized that if Deirdre ever made an appearance back in Ashland, back in Finn’s life, I would find his file on her and come to her grave to determine whether she was dead and buried.
Once again the old man had left me with clues to find from beyond his own grave, which was located a hundred feet away. For whatever reason, he and Deirdre hadn’t been buried side by side. Something I hadn’t really thought too much about until just tonight. I wondered why Fletcher hadn’t buried the supposedly dead mother of his son next to his own cemetery plot. Something must have happened between him and Deirdre—something bad.
I opened up the bottom half of the casket and ran my fingers all around the silk, just in case something else had been left behind. But there was nothing else. So I hooked my hands under the box and lifted it out of its silken cocoon. It was surprisingly heavy, as though Fletcher had packed it full of information. The weight made me even more curious about what might be inside—
“Did you hear something, Don?”
I froze, hoping that I’d only imagined the high, feminine voice.
“Yep, I sure did, Ethel,” a deeper, masculine voice answered back.
No such luck.
Still holding the box, I stood on my tiptoes and peered over the lip of the grave. A man and a woman stood about forty feet away, both of them dwarves, given their five-foot heights and stocky, muscular frames. I hadn’t heard a car roll into the cemetery, so the two of them must have parked somewhere nearby and walked in like I had. They were both bundled up in black clothes and weren’t carrying flashlights, which meant that they didn’t want to be seen. Shovels were propped up on their shoulders, the metal scoops shimmering like liquid silver underneath the glow of the streetlamps. There was only one reason for the two of them to be skulking around the cemetery this late at night.
My mouth twisted with disgust. Grave robbers. One of the lowest forms of scum, even among the plethora of criminals who called Ashland home.
They must have sensed my stare, or perhaps noticed the massive pile of dirt that I’d dug up, because they both turned and looked right at me.
“Hey!” the woman, Ethel, called out. “Someone else is here!”
The two dwarves raced in my direction. I cursed, put the box on the ground next to the tombstone, dug my fingers into the grass, and scrambled up and out of the grave. I’d just staggered to my feet when the two dwarves stopped in front of me, their shovels now held out in front of them like lances.
Ethel glared at me, her blue eyes narrowing to slits. “What do you think you’re doing here? This here is our cemetery. Nobody else’s.”
“Aw, now, don’t be like that, Ethel,” her companion said. “Look on the bright side. At least she did the hard work of digging up this grave for us already. Looks like she found something good too.”
He stabbed his shovel at the silverstone box. My hands tightened into fists. No way were they getting their grubby hands on that. Not when it might hold more clues about Deirdre Shaw—where she might be, and why everyone thought that she was dead, including Finn, her own son.
Don grinned, his bright red nose and bushy white beard making him look like Santa Claus. With her rosy cheeks and short, curly white hair, Ethel was the perfect counterpart. If Santa and Mrs. Claus were low-down, no-good grave robbers.
“Why, we should thank her, Ethel,” Don drawled. “Before we kill her, of course.”
Ethel nodded. “You’re right, hon. You always are.”
The two dwarves tightened their grips on their shovels and stepped toward me, but I held my ground, my gray eyes as cold and hard as the snow-dusted tombstones.
“Before the two of you do something you won’t live to regret, you should know that that box is mine,” I said. “Walk away now, don’t come back, and I’ll forget that I ever saw you here tonight.”
“And who do you think you are, giving us orders?” Ethel snapped.
“Gin Blanco. That’s who.”
I didn’t say my name to brag. Not really. But I was the head of the Ashland underworld now, which meant that they should know exactly who I was—and especially what I was capable of doing to them.
Ethel rolled her eyes. “You must really be desperate to claim to be her. Then again, dead women will say anything to keep on breathing, won’t they, Don?”
The other dwarf nodded. “Yep.”
I ground my teeth together. For some reason, low-life criminals had no trouble tracking me down at the Pork Pit, my barbecue restaurant, and no qualms whatsoever about trying to kill me there. But whenever I was away from the restaurant, got into a bad situation, and tried to warn people about who I really was, nobody ever seemed to believe me. Irony’s way of screwing me over time and time again, and laughing at me all the while.
“Besides,” Don continued, “even if you really were Gin Blanco, it wouldn’t matter. Everyone knows that she’s the big boss in name only. It won’t be long until someone kills her and takes her place.”
I had to give it to him: he was right. The other bosses were still plotting against me, and many of the city’s criminals were waiting to see how my underworld reign played out—or how short-lived it might be—before they officially took sides. Still, it was kind of sad when even the local grave robbers didn’t respect you.
I opened my mouth to tell them what idiots they were being, but Don kept on talking.
“Enough chitchat. It’s freezing out here, and we need to get to work, which means that your time is up. But since you found that box for us, I’ll offer you a deal. Turn around, and I’ll whack you upside the back of the head.” Don swung his shovel in a vicious arc. “You won’t even know what hit you. I’ll even plant you in that grave, so you get some kind of proper burial.”
I palmed the silverstone knife hidden up my right sleeve and flashed it at them. “As charming as your offer is, I’m going to have to decline.”
Ethel glared at me. “So that’s how it is, then?”
“That’s how it always is with me.”
The two dwarves looked at each other, then raised their shovels and charged at me. I reached for my Stone magic, hardening my body again, then surged forward to meet them.
I sidestepped Ethel and got close enough to Don to slice my blade across his chest, but he was wearing so many puffy layers that it was like cutting into a marshmallow. I slashed through his down vest, and tiny white feathers exploded in my face, momentarily blinding me and making me sneeze. Don yelped in surprise and staggered back. I sneezed again and went after him—
A shovel slammed into my shoulder, spinning me around. But since I was still holding on to my Stone magic, the shovel bounced off my body instead of cracking all the bones in my arm.
I blinked away the last of the feathers to find Ethel glaring at me again.
“Look at that gray glow to her eyes,” she huffed. “She’s a Stone elemental. We’ll have to beat her to death to put her down for good.”
Don brightened, his blue eyes twinkling in his face and adding to the Santa Claus illusion. “Why, it’ll be just like our honeymoon all over again,” he crooned. “Remember robbing that cemetery up in Cloudburst Falls, honey?”
The couple smiled and stared dreamily into each other’s eyes for a moment before coming at me again. Well, at least they still did things together.
Instead of trying to saw through all their winter clothes and their tough muscles underneath, I reached for my magic, raised my hand, and sent a spray of Ice daggers shooting out at the two of them. Ethel threw herself down onto the ground, ducking out of the way of my chilly blast, but Don wasn’t so smart, and several long, sharp bits of Ice punched into his chest. Given how strong dwarves were, he grunted, more surprised than seriously injured, but he did lose his grip on his shovel, which tumbled to the ground.
I dropped my knife, darted forward, and snatched up his shovel, since it was the better weapon in this instance. Then I drew back my arms and slammed the shovel into his head as hard as I could, as though his skull was a baseball that I was trying to hit way out past center field.
Don stared at me, wobbling on his feet, his eyes spinning around and around in their sockets. His dwarven musculature might be exceptionally tough and thick, but a cold, metal shovel upside the head was more than enough to put a dent in that bowling ball of a skull. Still, it was just a dent, and he didn’t go down, so I hit him again.
And then again and again, until the bones in his skull and face cracked, and blood started gushing down his head, face, and neck. A glassy sheen coated Don’s eyes, and he toppled over, more and more of his blood soaking into the frozen ground.
“Don!” Ethel wailed, realizing that he wasn’t ever going to get back up. “Don!”
She tightened her grip on her shovel, scrambled back up onto her feet, and charged at me again. “You bitch!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you for this!”
Ethel stopped right in front of me and raised her shovel over her head, trying to build up enough momentum to smash through my Stone magic with one deathblow. But in doing so, she left herself completely open. It was easy enough for me to palm another knife, surge forward, and bury the blade in her throat.
Ethel’s eyes bulged wide, and blood bubbled up out of her lips. She coughed, the warm drops of her blood stinging my cheeks like the snowflakes had earlier. I yanked my knife out of her throat, doing even more damage, but Ethel wasn’t ready to give up just yet. She staggered forward and raised her shovel even higher, still trying to gather herself for that one deadly strike.
The shovel slipped from her hands, and her body sagged and pitched forward. She landed facedown in the mound of loose earth that I’d dug up, as though it were a giant pillow she was merely plopping down on. Well, I supposed that was one way to take a dirt nap.
While I caught my breath, I watched and waited. More and more blood poured out from the couple’s wounds, but Don and Ethel didn’t move or stir. They were as dead as the rest of the folks here were.
When I was sure that they were gone, I retrieved my first knife from the ground, wiped Ethel’s blood off the second one, and tucked both of my weapons back up my sleeves. I looked and listened, but the night was still and quiet again. No one was coming to investigate. The cemetery was located off by itself on one of the many mountain ridges that cut through Ashland, and I doubted that the sounds of our fight had been loud enough to attract any attention. Still, I needed to do something with the bodies. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had been here tonight, much less whose grave I had been digging up.
I looked at the dwarves’ bodies, then down at the open casket.
Don was right. I’d gone to all the trouble to unearth Deirdre Shaw’s grave. She wasn’t in her casket, so somebody might as well get some use out of it.
And it might as well be me.