The breath accompanying those words exuded an aroma of red onion, spicy brown mustard and pastrami on rye, which somewhat diminished their menace.
“You tell me what I want to know…or she’s dead.”
Still, Ruslan thought the Glock 45 pressed against his lapel looked serviceable enough. And the woman whose image was reflected on the laptop across from him—a woman who’d been tied to a wooden chair with coarse, cheap rope—also had a 9mm SIG Sauer pointed at her head, so the threat, while rather pungent, was quite real.
“You hear me?”
The short, stocky bald man whose Glock was creasing Ruslan’s suit stood less than three inches away, so Ruslan assumed the answer was obvious. He was not, after all, deaf, something he also presumed the man would know.
Should know. If he was competent.
But competence was a rare and vanishing skill. The ability and willingness to pull a trigger had somehow eclipsed intelligence, ingenuity and dedicated expertise. No one took pride anymore.
“I mean it, man. Dead!”
A gloved hand shot out and backhanded the woman on the screen; her head snapped back, and the chair she sat on slid across the floor. Ruslan watched dispassionately, noting the blood that trickled from the corner of her mouth, the swelling that had begun to bloat the line of her cheekbone.
The murder that glinted in her eye.
Competence. Theirs was about to be tested.
“You tell me where the kid is,” the bald man snarled, “and we’ll let your girl go.”
An empty promise. In addition to the bald man, there were two others, men with faces of stone and weapons beneath their coats. Any talk of walking away was fantasy. But no matter. There would be no “telling.” No letting anyone go. The Firm had been hired to protect “the kid,” and that’s what Ruslan would do.
No matter the threat. Or the cost.
“You tell me.”
“You’re a frickin’ moron!” Butch heckled from where he sat beside Ruslan, his body slumped against the plastic ties that secured him to a metal chair. The scent of day-old vodka oozed from his pores. “Ash ain’t nobody’s girl!”
“Shut it,” ordered the bald man. “Worthless piece of drunk shit.”
Butch only chortled. He was not, Ruslan suspected, as drunk as he appeared. But in the few weeks he’d known Butch Masters, the man had been inebriated at least sixty percent of the time, so it was difficult to be certain. That Butch was part of this at all only highlighted the fact that the men they faced hadn’t done their homework.
“You need more incentive?” The bald man glared at Ruslan; Ruslan stared impassively back. “We can do that.”
A fist slammed into the woman’s face; this time the front legs of the chair lifted into the air before slamming back down. She shook her head; blood poured from her nose. She turned and spat at someone Ruslan couldn’t see.
“How many of those you think she can take?” The Glock dug into Ruslan’s suit. “Should we find out?”
The bald man was looking for a visceral response, but Ruslan was unable to oblige him. He rarely felt fear or anger; he rarely felt anything at all. And he never responded to threats. That he sat tied to a chair, watching his current employer get the hell beat out of her did not change that unalterable fact.
You are broken. He knew; he’d been told. The emotion that contaminated the world around him left him wholly untouched. A slab of stone without fault; no pores, no cracks, no crevices. There had been nothing in his life to fracture the stone—not torture, not death, not even the gore and devastation of war. And so this—while unexpected and tiresome—had little chance of doing anything more than throwing a monkey wrench into his day.
They had chosen Butch, who wasn’t trusted. And they’d chosen him, who was capable of anything.
They deserved what they were going to get.
“You’re a cold bastard,” the bald man muttered, eyeing him with the same dawning frustration people inevitably fell into when they realized he wasn’t human. At least, not human like they were. “You don’t give a shit about her, do you?”
Another ignorant assumption, that because he didn’t feel, he didn’t care. Most days, Ruslan was glad he wasn’t like the rest of them.
“You’re just gonna sit there and watch them beat her to death, aren’t you?”
Butch was side-eyeing him, as if wondering the same thing, but Ruslan only arched a brow. “What makes you think I know where the child is?”
The bald man shot a look at Butch, who shifted in his seat, his cheeks filling with color.
“Ah,” Ruslan said. “I see.”
When he’d swum to consciousness and found himself tied to a chair in a vacant warehouse, his head throbbing, he wondered how he’d been so easily retrieved. He was a very careful man.
Apparently Butch wasn’t as ineffectual as he appeared. At least, not when it came to saving his own skin.
“You know exactly where she is,” the bald man insisted. “And you’re gonna tell us—or your girl can die one blow at a time.”
An ugly death, and one Ruslan didn’t care to witness. Contrary to the ignorance of the man before him—and the one beside him—he did happen to care whether Ashling Kyndal lived or died. Very much.
First, she was the niece of a man who’d once done him a life-altering kindness, the kind of favor one couldn’t possibly repay; a man Ruslan had crossed three continents to help, only to arrive too late. That regrettable fact only served to make walking away from her—and his unpaid debt—an impossibility. Which meant that Ashling was, for the present time, Ruslan’s responsibility. And Ruslan took his responsibilities very seriously.
Second, quite inexplicably, he’d grown to like her. She was…unique. Not like he was unique, but her differences intrigued him. Which was rare enough, and extraordinary enough, that he would do whatever necessary to protect it.
To protect her.
So he flexed his hands, which were banded together behind his back with thick plastic ties, and dislocated both of his thumbs.
“Fuck you!” Butch made a sad show of struggling against his restraints. “Asshole!”
“I can make them stop,” the bald man offered in a reasonable tone. “All you gotta do is tell me where the kid is. Simple. Otherwise…”
“I do not know where the girl is being kept,” Ruslan told him. “But I can convince Ashling to disclose the child’s location.”
His hands were almost free, and anticipation licked through him, a finite thread of adrenaline that wove through his nerve endings like the finest of live wires. A small thing; one of the few he ever felt.
Hungry. For blood, for violence. And only partially because a woman he’d come to know and appreciate was battered and bleeding and beyond his immediate reach. The darkness that lived within him needed little to whet its appetite. It was a feral, self-serving and pitiless thing. Always yearning for more.
Keeping it leashed took constant vigilance. But sometimes, Ruslan set it free. Sometimes he let it feed.
Today would be such a day.
It was fortunate that the large, empty warehouse they sat in appeared to be abandoned. Graffiti covered the walls; broken pallets lay scattered atop a badly crackled and crumbling concrete floor. The windows were cloudy. Most were broken, revealing slender beams of sunlight that speared higher as the sun began to sink into the western sky. Occasionally the sound of sirens serenaded them.
Somewhere that was nowhere, and death would go unnoticed.
“Why would you do that?” the bald man wanted to know, clearly skeptical.
“I value my life,” Ruslan replied flatly. “It is worth more to me than a child I do not know.”
Butch made a sound of protest, but the bald man narrowed his gaze in consideration. “What makes you think she’ll listen?”
“She trusts me.”
Which was not entirely true. But the man he faced didn’t know that. Butch, however, eyed him again. Dubiously.
“You’re making this harder than it has to be.” The Glock tapped his shoulder. “Just give up the kid, and this all ends.”
Ruslan only waited. People, as a rule, lacked patience; he, however, had an infinite supply. It took approximately seven seconds for the bald man to swear, pull a smart phone from his pocket, and dial.
“It’s me,” he snarled into the expensive technology. He engaged the speakerphone and thrust it toward Ruslan. “Put her on.”
The laptop reflected a gloved hand shoving a matching smart phone beneath Ash’s nose. She bared her teeth and looked into the camera of the laptop, meeting Ruslan’s gaze.
“You are being difficult,” he said before she could speak.
“It’s a special skill,” she retorted. “What about you?”
“Indeed,” he confirmed.
“Good.” Her gaze touched Butch, who squirmed and blushed and fought his plastic ties. “And him?”
“I didn’t tell them shit!” he yelled.
Ruslan only arched a brow.
“Do you have this?” Ash asked him.
Her tone was calm, but where her hands were tied to the chair, they gripped the seat with knuckles pressed white against her skin. She wore only a thin black tank top and boy shorts; her white-blond hair hung in choppy waves just past her chin and was streaked crimson with blood. She wasn’t in the warehouse that he and Butch occupied. A white couch sat behind her, a small wooden end table and lamp on one end, a tall, blooming begonia on the other. Behind her, a large framed print hung against a pale blue wall, and in its reflection Ruslan could see three distinct shapes.
“Yes,” he said.
“You’re sure?” she pressed, and he watched as she tensed, which delineated the long, slender rope of muscle that lined her shoulders and arms. Her feet were planted against the floor, her thighs sleek and still. She was strong, he suddenly realized. Physically. Mentally. More so than he’d understood.
And she was preparing to act.
Another lash of adrenaline whipped through him. Her eyes were a startling, brilliant shade of bright blue-green, reminiscent of the Caribbean Sea; they held his, unwavering and hard.
“Yes,” he repeated. “You?”
“What the hell is this?” the bald man interjected furiously. “You said—”
“I’m fucking furious,” she replied.
“You’re gonna tell us where that goddamn kid is right now!” the bald man gritted. “Or we’re gonna—”
He didn’t get the chance to finish.
Ash leapt straight up, flipped sideways, and slammed into the floor, smashing the chair she’d been tied to into pieces.
She rolled, swept out her legs, and a large form crashed to the floor next to her. Then she jack-knifed to her feet and kicked the man squarely in the solar plexus; the sound of bone cracking over the speakerphone was like a bat knocking one out of the park.
Another dark shape swarmed toward her, and she slid out of reach, the movement so fluid, she almost blurred. Her heel shot out and connected with the side of his knee. He screamed and fell. A third man closed in, gun in hand.
Instead of running, she grinned, a gruesome, bloody slash, and rushed toward him. Ruslan absorbed her ferocity, impressed. And oddly aroused.
“Bitch!” the man swore, but before he could fire his weapon, she leapt nimbly up his leg and smashed her forehead into his face. He stumbled back and hit the table that held the laptop, which tumbled sideways to the floor. Ruslan craned his head, but he couldn’t see, and there was another shout and then—boom!—the gun firing—and then—
He stared at the screen; adrenaline fountained in his veins.
“Shit,” Butch cried. “Shit!”
“Goddamn it,” hissed the bald man.
And Ruslan erupted from his seat.
The sound was like a cannon shot.
Having been raised by one of the world’s foremost sharpshooters—and having grown up firing weapons and having them fired at her—had never seemed a particular boon to Ash Kyndal.
Until today. Today, it was going to save her ass.
Because guns were Ash’s friend. There had been a time—a long time—when they’d been her only friend. And the sound of them firing was almost comforting.
Like coming home.
So there was no panic. No startling, no crying out, no losing of her shit. There was only reaction: grabbing the large, gloved hand that held the sleek black 9mm and slamming it into the floor, once, twice, three times.
It was unfortunate that the murderous bastard who held the weapon wouldn’t let go. He rolled over on top of her, and the air in her lungs wheezed out. His knee thrust between her legs, and his other hand found her throat and squeezed. Hard.
“Bitch,” he growled again.
“I hate that goddamn word,” she hissed and shoved her thumbs into his eye sockets.
He squealed and reared up, releasing her; she tore the gun from his grip, and before he could react, turned it on him and fired twice: one bullet for each shoulder. He jerked beneath the impact and fell back to the hard wooden floor. Blood bloomed beneath him in a thick, dark pool.
Ash wiggled out from beneath him and scrambled to her feet, gun in hand. Her face throbbed. Blood filled her mouth and dripped from her nose; her entire right side ached from its impact with the floor. But she was standing.
And the three men who’d broken into her home, tied her to a chair and threatened to beat the hell out of her were down. A cracked sternum, a dislocated knee, a broken nose, and two non-fatal gunshot wounds.
You’re welcome, dicks.
Because she wanted carnage.
She turned and looked at the laptop. It lay on its side, the screen shattered, and she wondered if Ruslan and Butch were still alive. Because Butch was half in the bag—Butch was always half in the bag—and she didn’t know Ruslan from a hole in the ground.
The Russian with one name; like a cheesy spy novel, the sum total of his known parts. And although he was hard as granite and cold as ice, Ash had never seen him in action. Which made her worry. Even though there was nothing soft or the least bit untried about the man, nothing that anyone would ever mistake as benign.
Ash knew an apex predator when she saw one. Ruslan watched everything and everyone; he observed and absorbed, as motionless and still as any wild creature. Her primal hindbrain—primitive, visceral, exquisitely attuned to potential threats due to a childhood spent with a sociopathic father—screeched like an air horn whenever he was near.
Ruuuuuuun! Something she’d moved instinctively to do, more than once.
No, Ruslan would be fine…
“Shit,” she said.
Because she didn’t know. The man had appeared out of nowhere in the wake of her Uncle Charlie’s sudden death, like an apparition solidifying from mist. A friend of Charlie’s, he’d said. I owe him, he’d said, and planted himself in her life like a tree.
But that didn’t change the fact that he was a stranger. That his motives were murky as hell, and she didn’t trust him any further than she could throw him. He was taciturn and intractable and even more socially inept than she was; she’d never met anyone like him. And Ash had met a lot of people. The only thing she knew for sure about Ruslan was that he was Russian, dangerous, and…other.
Other. Like her.
She’d grown up on the periphery of society; carnival midways and circus tents and endless miles of pavement. Her existence had only occasionally crossed paths with the “civilized” world, and faking her way through its twisted realities and conforming to its rigid definitions did not come naturally or easily. The necessity of bending made her angry, and as some part of her always seemed to be angry—courtesy of that aforementioned sociopathic father—she knew and understood how inherently difficult it was to be a part of the world.
So she didn’t hold Ruslan’s otherness against him. But that commonality didn’t connect them. Nor did his purported connection to Charlie. No, Ruslan was an unknown. Unpredictable and untested. A wild card, at best. And one she wasn’t certain could be counted upon.
Just another massive pain in the ass to go along with inheriting Charlie’s PI business, the Firm. A business she didn’t want and didn’t need and didn’t know what the hell to do with. Goddamn it!
“They’re fine,” she told herself. “Ruslan’s a survivor.”
Something else she recognized. Takes one to know one.
But these men…they were heavily armed. They’d come in numbers, with unflinching violence. And Butch wouldn’t have been any help at all.
“Shit on a stick,” she muttered.
They have to be okay.
Because Charlie would roll over in his grave if she managed to kill the one person he’d left behind who didn’t need saving. Not to mention—
“Get me outta this chair!”
Ruslan’s fingers tightened around the neck of the man he held; muscle shivered and veins compressed beneath his grip. The man struggled like a hooked fish; his hands clawed at Ruslan’s arm. But resistance was futile.
Ruslan was everything his prey was not: disciplined, experienced, and very, very strong.
“Who hired you?” he asked.
The man shook his head and gasped. He kicked and bucked and struggled desperately for freedom; Ruslan merely lifted him higher into the air.
“Tell me,” Ruslan told him patiently, “and you won’t end up like your colleague.”
The man looked down at his counterpart, who lay at Ruslan’s feet, arms and legs broken, his face bloated and bleeding. A rib stuck out from his chest like an errant tree branch.
“Ruslan!” Butch snarled, still fighting the ties that held him to the metal chair. “Goddamn it!”
Ruslan ignored him and shook the man, a sharp jerk that nearly snapped the fragile bones in hand. “Decide.”
“I hope they fuck her before they kill her,” the man hissed.
Ruslan’s hand tightened involuntarily; the dark, hungry entity that lived within him licked its lips. Feed.
But killing this man was not an option. They needed answers.
There are two more. Feed.
“You would die for this?” he asked, ignoring that feral voice.
“Gladly,” the man choked. He bared his teeth and snapped them together. A heartbeat later, convulsions shook him. His eyes rolled back into his head. White foam bubbled from his lips and slid down his chin.
Movement ceased, and he died there, hanging from Ruslan’s hand.
The darkness snarled.
Ruslan dropped the man and turned to look at the figure lying at his feet. Before he could move, seizures gripped the man; a scream escaped him as his broken limbs shook. White foam burst from his mouth, and he went still.
Eyes open, mouth gaping.
Ruslan stared down at him, disturbed.
“Jesus Christ, they’re going Kamikaze,” Butch cried, “get me the hell out of here!”
Ruslan looked over at the bald man. He lay slumped and dazed against the concrete wall where Ruslan had kicked him, blood an ugly river down the side of his face. Ruslan turned and strode toward him.
“Ruslan!” Butch again. “Fuck!”
“In a moment,” Ruslan told him.
“Son of a bitch!”
Perhaps. Ruslan didn’t know. He’d never met his mother.
The bald man was trying to stand, but something had broken when he hit the wall. He groaned and rolled onto his back as Ruslan halted above him.
“Will you die for your cause today as well?” Ruslan lifted his foot and placed it on the man’s chest.
“Bastard,” the man choked out. “More will come for her. We’re just the beginning.”
Ruslan pressed his foot down and something crunched. “Why?”
A harsh gurgle escaped the man. He moaned. Ruslan leaned down and gripped his jaw hard. Squeezed. Tears welled in the man’s eyes. He whimpered.
“Not today,” Ruslan said.
Not without answers.
He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out the small, all-in-one tool he carried. He flipped it open, and the man whimpered again.
“What the hell are you doing?” Butch demanded.
Ruslan didn’t bother to explain. He merely thrust his tool into the bald man’s mouth and began to remove teeth. The molars would likely be the location of any cyanide capsule, so he started with those. It wasn’t hard; he’d done it before. But he had to be careful not to break the cyanide capsule, which would be embedded within—
“Good God, man. That’s…you’re…” Butch fell abruptly silent.
The bald man wept openly. Blood and spittle streamed down his chin. His fingers dug into Ruslan’s forearm; he clawed and pulled and punched. Desperate sounds escaped him.
“It did not have to come to this,” Ruslan told him.
“Christ,” Butch muttered.
The bald man shrieked, a loud, piercing, agonized cry, like a rabbit caught in a trap. Before Ruslan could stop him, he lifted his head and slammed it back into the concrete, hard. Hard enough to crack his skull like an egg, which Ruslan felt a moment before a flood of blood washed across the concrete. Death followed instantly.
He pushed to his feet and stared down at the man.
“Kamikaze,” Butch said again. “Shit.”
“Ashling,” Ruslan murmured, and the darkness swelled within him.
“Is tougher than she looks,” Butch retorted. “Now get me the hell out of this chair so we can save her.”
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The asshole whose knee she’d shattered was shooting at her.
Ash dropped to a crouch, turned and fired. Blood sprayed like a cloud burst as she shot the gun from his hand.
Another bullet plowed past her and shattered the lamp; she dove behind the small bar that separated her kitchen and living room.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Bullets thunked into the plywood; one passed straight through and shattered her oven door. She shimmied to the edge of the bar, pulled open the cabinet door underneath and grabbed the lid to her biggest stew pot—nice, shiny stainless steel—and held it carefully out, using the reflective surface to try and get a lock on her next target.
There you are, you ungrateful dick.
The one she’d kicked, staggering toward the bar—
She sent the lid flying toward him like a giant silver Frisbee and then fired twice—one for each knee. The lid clanged as it smacked him in the forehead; the bullets tore into his knees and he did a brutal face-plant into the oak floor.
“Fucker,” she told him and moved out from behind the bar to kick both his SIG Sauer and the mangled Glock down the hallway.
Her heart beat like a jackhammer; her blood roared in her ears as she surveyed them. She’d never shot anyone before—well, except her father, and he hardly counted—but any regret she might have felt was drowned out by the rage licking through her like the hottest flame.
They’d come into her home. Threatened her. Hurt her.
And they were still breathing. Lucky them.
The man whose hand was now less a thumb and forefinger was bleeding profusely. They all wore black suits—much like Ruslan—but these were flat black, not like his tailored and elegant apparel; narrow ties and shiny shoes. Shaved heads and expensive weapons. Hard faces, familiar with violence and death.
Not your average assholes.
Men who’d threatened torture to get answers. Who’d grabbed Ruslan—something she was mildly astounded was even possible—and Butch, who a blindfolded bunny rabbit could have taken down.
Had they gotten to Wylie? What about Wanda and Eva? Were they still safe in the Vault?
What the hell was going on?
She marched over and climbed on top of the man whose knees she’d blown apart and sat down hard on his chest, wedging his shoulders beneath her thighs. Then she bared her teeth at him.
“Let’s talk,” she told him, and shoved the 9mm into the hollow just beneath his chin. Blood dripped from her nose and slapped his chest. “I want to know who you are, who you work for, and what the hell you want with Eva Pierce.”
Because none of this made any sense. The kid who the Firm had been hired less than four hours ago to protect—Eva Pierce—was only twelve, the daughter of a man on the run from a local loan shark, and said loan shark, while dangerous and persistent, was just a little fish, and these men…these men were sharks. This—whatever it was—went far beyond the collection of a marker.
“You should have given her up,” the man snarled. His gaze was wild. “You should have let us have her.”
Ash shifted her weight, pressing hard against his cracked sternum. “She’s just a kid!”
“She’s a goddamn abomination! You have no idea what she is. You protect her, you’ll kill us all.”
Ash stared at him, both furious and confused. “What the hell are you talking about?”
A harsh, ugly laugh rasped from him. “You’ll see. When it’s too late, then you’ll see.”
He lifted his head and snapped at her like an angry dog; his body arched violently beneath her, and she almost fell off. He began to shake uncontrollably; his eyes rolled back into his skull. White foam spilled from his mouth, bubbled past his lips, and slid down the barrel of the 9mm.
Then he went still. Fatally still.
“Goddamn it,” she whispered, her heart beating with painful force.
Because he couldn’t be dead. He hadn’t lost enough blood; she knew where to shoot to inflict maximum damage without causing a bleed out. And she hadn’t hit him hard enough in the chest to perforate an artery. He couldn’t be dead.
She made herself reach out and check his pulse.
She scrambled off him, turned and found the rest of his team in varying degrees of the same state. Twitching uncontrollably, eyes rolled back, white foam trickling from the corners of their mouths. And then—
Dead. All of them.
What fresh hell—
A fist slammed against her front door like a battering ram. “Las Vegas PD! Put your weapons down, and come out with your hands up!”