Kansas City, Missouri, April 3
Calliope Stanhope held her loaded paintbrush and waited for the canvas to speak to her. All it had to say today was a snide, Good luck with that.
The forest landscape scene stared at her, bland and lifeless. The trees were as still as statues. The rocks held no warmth of the dying day. Not even the deeply saturated cobalt of the twilight sky offered any appeal.
She was losing her gift as fast as she’d found it.
Someone knocked on her apartment door, sucking her out of her work. Not that the interruption was much of a loss. She’d made little progress in days.
Calliope’s assistant, Tammy Lathrop, stood in the hall, gripping a brown paper sack. Her black hair was cut in trendy angles that softened the square line of her jaw. Dressed in a simple black sheath and sapphire blue heels that perfectly matched her jewelry, she looked more like an exec at a fashion magazine than she did an artist’s personal assistant.
Calliope eyed the paper bag with suspicion and said, “I hope that’s your lunch.”
Tammy gripped the rumpled paper sack tighter and hid it behind her back. Her tone was upbeat, but the look of disappointment on her face was unmistakable. “Nothing to see here. What you really want is in my purse.”
Calliope stifled a sigh. That bag was a harbinger of suck, no doubt about it. Tammy was going to give her the talk again.
A heavy sense of fatigue settled over Calliope, along with a sickening dose of fear. The talk would lead to persuasion, which would lead to begging, which would lead to Calliope having to defend her decision to stand her ground and turn down lots of cash.
But what could she say? No one would believe her if she told the truth. Hell, even she wasn’t sure she was completely sane for believing it, and no amount of the talk—from Tammy or anyone else—would change that.
Tammy swept into Calliope’s sparsely decorated apartment and settled in her kitchen. The whole unit was done in soothing grays and whites with lots of clean, blank planes—white cabinets and counters, warm gray walls and floors, simple, streamlined furniture with a few touches of natural wood tones to warm the space. There were minimal photos and decorations to give her home character, but she didn’t need character. She needed visual peace so she wasn’t distracted from her work.
The aesthetic ended up being stark and modern, but for her it was more about function than it was some kind of statement of her personal style.
Bright morning sunlight flooded the kitchen, which was open to what had been intended as a breakfast nook. Instead, Calliope had converted that area into her art studio, because it boasted the best natural light in the whole apartment. Her place was small—bought before she’d been able to afford much—but she liked it that way. She didn’t need a lot of room to work, just a lot of light to ward away the terror that lurked in the stroke of her brush.
The only safe place to paint was in broad daylight.
Tammy set her purse on the counter and began pulling things from it, like some kind of magician making a string of scarves appear from an empty hand.
“Coffee,” stated Tammy as she set a tall paper cup on the counter. “Still hot.”
Calliope nearly groaned in need as every caffeine-starved brain cell she had perked up in interest. “Bless you. I started working and forgot to make any this morning.”
Tammy grinned. “You say that every morning, but I’m sure it will never happen again.” She went back to her magic bag and lifted out a brightly colored box carrying the logo from Calliope’s favorite café and bakery down the street. “Donuts.”
This time Calliope’s groan couldn’t be stopped. “You are so getting a raise for this.”
“You gave me one last week, remember?” asked Tammy.
Calliope nodded. Her words were distorted around a mouthful of divine chocolate covered cake donut. “The strawberry cream filled. I remember.”
Tammy retrieved a plastic bag of groceries from her purse and began stacking yogurt cups neatly in the refrigerator. “There wasn’t much on your list this week. And there’s an echo in your fridge. How about I make another run to the grocery store for a few staples? Maybe something resembling a vegetable?”
“I ate a salad yesterday.”
“The one I brought you?”
“That wasn’t yesterday, honey. That was last week.”
Calliope waved a hand gripping the last two bites of her donut to dismiss her friend’s comment. “Close enough. This is all I really need.”
Tammy shook her head with a grin and started flipping through the stack of mail on the counter, sorting out what was trash and what needed attention. The latter she stuck in her purse to take home and do whatever it was she did to make the nuisance go away. “Drink your coffee. We have to talk, and I won’t assault you before you’re caffeinated.”
There it was. The talk.
Calliope knew this was coming. The donuts were simply a means of lulling her into a false sense of happiness before the grenade of suck went off. “Just tell me. I’m not going to enjoy the rest of my donuts now, anyway.”
Tammy lifted the paper coffee cup, judging how much was left. Apparently, she was satisfied with how many ounces of caffeine Calliope had consumed.
Tammy put on her stern, motherly face, even though at twenty-six, she was two years younger. “The gallery isn’t happy with your new work. It’s not selling as well as the old.”
Even though Calliope knew it was true, that didn’t make it sting any less. “It’s just as good. The technique is exactly the same. I only changed that one little thing.”
“Little? You call that little?”
The donut Calliope had eaten started fighting with the coffee, until they were both sloshing around in a queasy cage match in her gut. “I can’t go back to the old way, Tammy. I won’t.”
She took Calliope’s shoulders and pushed her onto a stool, as if sitting would somehow make any of this easier to handle. Then she picked up that rumpled paper sack she’d carried in and set it on the counter, right in plain sight.
Tammy’s tone was kind, but firm. “You have to. If you don’t, your career is over.”
Normally, people treated Calliope gently, presuming that her artistic tendencies meant she had a constitution made of cracked glass. But one of the things she’d always loved about Tammy was that she didn’t sugar coat things. She might serve up bad news with a side of highly processed carbs, but she had always respected Calliope enough to treat her like a fully functioning adult.
Still, hearing the truth laid out in black and white was hard. It hit her in the center of her chest and knocked the wind right out of her. It hollowed out a little spot custom built for self-doubt and insecurity to thrive, and then invited them in to make themselves at home and stay a while. And they had brought a whole lot of baggage.
“The situation isn’t really that bad, is it?” asked Calliope, a faint wisp of hope wavering in her tone.
Tammy pushed the rumpled paper sack closer. “It is. You know it is. And you know what you have to do.”
Calliope didn’t need to look in the brown paper sack to know what was in there. Still, her hands shook as she reached for it, intent on pushing it away.
Instead, her fingers opened the crinkled paper, reached in and curled around three cool tubes of red paint, embracing them like long, lost treasure.
“You don’t know what you’re asking of me,” said Calliope.
“It’s just paint. Like all the other colors you use. It can’t hurt you.”
She glanced over at the work on her easel, staring at the bland landscape so unlike her previous pieces. The shapes were all right. The play of light was perfect. The perspective exquisite. The use of contrast was painstakingly exacting.
And yet it had no life. No heart.
“I know it won’t hurt me,” she told Tammy, though that was only a shallow truth. “But you don’t understand.”
“Then explain it. At least tell me something so I can try to sell it to Mr. Himes. Maybe he can play it up as some kind of artistic statement—your attempt to bring attention to violent crimes or something.”
Calliope kept her lips clamped shut. Tammy had only been in her life for a year, but in that time, they’d become best friends. Still, Calliope couldn’t tell her.
She couldn’t tell anyone.
To speak the works aloud would be the same thing as making them true. And they couldn’t be true. She couldn’t live with herself if they were.
She cleared her throat and dropped the paint back in the sack. She rolled it up and tossed it into Tammy’s open purse to get it out of sight. “If Mr. Himes would prefer not to renew my contract, then I understand. That’s his choice. But there are still two months left on the current contract. He’ll have to suck it up and display my new work until it expires—whether or not he likes it.”
Tammy’s voice went quiet, almost gentle, but the concern in her tone was unmistakable. “If you can’t sell your art, how will you live? Eat? Pay your rent?”
“I used to be a waitress. There are lots of great restaurants in the Crossroads District. I’ll get a job at one of them.”
“And give up your art? You’ll be miserable, and you know it.”
“I can do both.”
Tammy shook her dark head. “No, you can’t. Your work is your life. It’s the blood that runs through your veins. You know what it’s like now to have it be the focus of your world. If you think you can ever go back to painting part-time, and doing so after you’re spent and exhausted at the end of a long shift, you’re lying to yourself.” Her voice dipped to a gentle tone. “I love you too much to let you do that.”
“Maybe another gallery will like my new work more.”
Tammy pulled in a deep breath as if preparing for battle. “They all liked the paintings you did of him.”
Calliope didn’t have to ask who Tammy meant. She knew.
“Do you think you could sell them yet?” asked Tammy, her tone one of hope.
Instantly, Calliope saw the face of the man she’d spent months trying to get out of her head. Two years ago, she’d started painting him over and over again. The work possessed such gritty, dark detail that everyone who saw the portraits wanted them. Wanted him. She couldn’t bear to part with him before, but maybe he wouldn’t compel her now the way he once had. Maybe she could have his image in her home without feeling the need to spend all day staring at it.
A lot in her life had changed since she’d last laid her brush against his face. Perhaps her feelings of possessiveness toward the art—toward him—had changed.
“Maybe,” was as much of a commitment as she could offer.
Tammy beamed and looped her purse strap over her shoulder. “I’ll pull them out of storage today so you can sort through them. If you can let one or two of them go, then I’m sure Mr. Himes will be less pissy about the red thing.”
“We’ll see. No promises,” Calliope hedged.
“I’ll drop them off tonight.”
“You’ll have to use your key to get in. I have a date tonight.”
“The sexy banker?” asked Tammy with more than a bit of excitement brightening her voice.
“He has a name, Tammy.”
She waved her hand. “Don’t care. Fantasies are way better without names.”
“Are you fantasizing about my boyfriend?”
Tammy laughed. “Two dates does not a boyfriend make. As soon as he’s officially your boyfriend, I’ll quit fantasizing. Sure, my new fantasy man will look like him, but on the inside, it will really be the guy who runs the bakery.”
Calliope laughed, picturing the rotund grandpa who always had flour on his forehead. “I’m sure it will be.”
Tammy’s grin faded. She pulled the paper sack out of her purse and laid the red paint on the counter. “I’ll leave this here, just in case.”
“There’s no need. I’m not going to use it,” promised Calliope.
Tammy shrugged. “Then don’t use it. It’s not going to hurt anyone just sitting on your counter.”
Calliope wasn’t so sure. She could already feel the color calling to her, tempting her to make use of it.
Her fingers twitched toward the bag before she could stop herself. She had to clench her fists to keep her wayward fingers under control.
She wouldn’t touch it. Not now. Not ever.
Because every time Calliope painted in red, someone was about to die. Badly.
Knox Hardin had finally found his target. After over a year of searching for the reclusive Thane Morel, he was right here in plain sight, playing the role of a decent human being.
And everyone but Knox was buying the act.
He leaned forward in the driver’s seat and adjusted his binoculars into better focus, watching Morel behind the glass of his plush corner office. Knox had no idea what the man was up to now, but whatever it was, it was going to end with a body count.
With Morel, it always did.
The sun was bright overhead, warming the car’s interior to an uncomfortable level. Knox rolled down the windows to let the sweet spring breeze swirl in. Birds chirped from their perches in a tree lining the downtown parking lot. Pedestrians walked by, enjoying the break in the rain.
A young woman pushed a stroller next to a man who couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her. She smiled at whatever he was saying—a slow, secret smile filled with intimacy and warmth.
There had been a time when Knox believed he’d have a life like that—a wife, a family, a career he loved—but things had changed. His dreams were no longer filled with hope and excitement.
All he dreamed about now was blood.
The scent of French fries and grilling meat wafted from a nearby burger joint, reminding Knox that he hadn’t eaten in far too long.
No time for food now. He was on the hunt.
His phone rang, distracting him from his prey. Garrick Andor’s face appeared on the screen, complete with a jet-black widow’s peak, amber eyes set deep under dark brows, and a sharp nose.
While Knox had no desire to focus on anything but his prey, he answered the call—not because Garrick held the unfortunate position of being the Man in Charge, or because putting off the call would make Garrick mad. It had nothing to do with that. The simple truth was, if the man was in trouble, Knox owed him too much to ignore a call for help.
Knox hadn’t been a member of the bizarre group called the Riven for long, but he knew without a doubt that if he was in trouble, even the freakiest of that group of freaks would be there for him. No hesitation, no questions asked.
He set the binoculars down and answered the call. “I’m kinda busy here.”
“Aren’t we all,” said Garrick.
“Where are you?” asked Garrick.
“Good. You’re still close. We have a lead on a vessel in the area. We believe Starry is already on the scent, and I need you to get to this man before she does.”
“Is this a rescue mission for a vessel, or for Starry?” asked Knox.
Silence reigned for a few seconds before Garrick spoke. “Both, if we’re lucky. But if you have to pick one, pick Starry. We need her back.”
Knox suffered through a moment of grief before steeling himself against it. Starry had been a good woman, but she’d made a bad choice, and they’d lost her. All grief did was slow a man down and make his life a more dangerous place. In the world of the Riven, no extra danger was needed to keep things interesting.
Knox tried to make his voice gentle, but that wasn’t exactly his strong suit. “The Starry Mandrake you knew is gone. Dead. You have to let her go.”
“I won’t give up on her. Neither should you. You said she was like a sister to you.”
“And now she’s like a dead sister.” Saying those words aloud hurt more than he would have expected. He knew all too well what it was like to lose a sibling, and even two years hadn’t done much to dull his grief over his brother’s murder. The only thing that helped was knowing that he was going to feel Morel’s life blood seep out over his hands as he killed him. Soon.
“There’s not a damn thing any of us can do to bring her back, Garrick—not with the toxic level of bad mojo she’s absorbed over the years.”
“I refuse to write her off. She saved a lot of lives, and for that, we owe her a chance.”
“Then send someone who believes she can be saved.”
“You’re the only one who’s nearby.”
“I told you I’m busy.”
Knox picked up the binoculars to track Morel. He was still in his corner office on the sixteenth floor. What the hell he was doing there was a total mystery. It’s not like the man worked some kind of day job—not unless it was part of a scam.
Whoever he was fooling was in for one hell of a rude awakening as soon as they figured out the kind of evil snake they were dealing with. Even if he was a handsome, charming, wealthy snake in an expensive designer suit.
“I don’t care how busy you are.”
“I just need a few days,” said Knox.
“You can’t have them. This is time-sensitive.”
“Then put someone else on it.”
“There is no one else. We’re already spread too thin. What the hell is so important that it can’t wait a few days?”
“I found Morel.”
The line went silent again as Garrick absorbed that news.
“We thought he might be dead. He’s been off the grid for months.”
“How did you find him?”
“Persistence. And more than a little luck. That’s why I’m not budging from my position until he’s good and dead.”
“You can’t kill him.”
“This isn’t a discussion, Garrick. He killed my brother.” And in doing so, turned Knox into what he now was—cold, hard, deadly.
He could remember a time when the idea of killing a man would have turned his stomach, but those days were long gone. The inheritance his brother had left him made sure of that.
“This isn’t about what I want,” said Garrick. “It’s about the math. I won’t lose you the way I lost Starry, and if you kill Morel, that’s exactly what will happen. He has no younger siblings to inherit his shards. You’ll absorb them all.”
Knox did a quick check of his internal balance of good and evil. His shards were all staying nice and quiet and had been ever since he’d started tracking down his brother’s killer. As long as he kept giving them what they wanted, they’d leave him alone. “I’m solid.”
“That’s not for you to judge and you know it. You haven’t been a host long enough to even know what signs to look for. Until you go to Eden and get the all-clear, you will stand down.”
“Not going to happen, Garrick. My brother always spoke highly of you, and I respect that you’re in charge of the asylum, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. If you want to put me in the time-out chair afterwards, feel free to try.”
“You’re kind of an asshole, Knox.”
“Sometimes,” he agreed. “But I’m an effective one. When I’m done killing Morel, I’ll go after Starry.”
“Take him captive. Bring him in. We’ll do this the right way.”
Every bit of rage and grief over his brother’s death rose up inside of him, screaming in denial. Morel was his to kill. “No promises.”
“I need you to listen to what I’m going to say very carefully, Knox.”
Anger laced through Garrick’s words, pulling them tight. “I’ve only known you for a couple of years. I don’t even really like you all that much. If things go south with Morel and you can’t handle his shards, I won’t fight to get you back the way I am with Starry. I’ll let you burn. Understand?”
“Thanks for the pep talk. I’ll be in touch.” Knox hung up.
For some reason, the idea of losing the strange, makeshift family filled with freaks and misfits bothered him. He’d tried hard not to get sucked into their lives, but when he wasn’t tracking Morel or on some other mission to recover a vessel, he was surrounded by them. He shared meals with them, trained with them, lived with them.
Like it or not, they were his family.
Your real family is dead. The freaks will all die, too.
Knox couldn’t tell if that was his own internal pessimist talking, or one of his shards trying to sway him. He thought he could recognize all the voices now, but maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe there was a new player in town warning him not to get too attached.
Then again, he’d always had good survival instincts. Maybe that was just him reminding himself of reality.
Once Morel was rotting in the ground, he’d take the time to stop and figure it out.
Knox spent the rest of the day tracking Morel’s movements.
He left the office around noon and went to a high-end hotel. Knox followed him inside and watched as Morel let himself into the presidential suite.
Rather than lurk in the hall and draw the attention of whatever security team watched this place, Knox went back out to his sedan and watched from outside.
Around seven, his brother’s killer left the hotel and valet-parked his Beemer at a trendy Italian restaurant in the art district. His dark hair was perfectly in place, his suit was both fashionable and pristine, and every woman who saw him stopped and stared. As he walked up to the restaurant, his eyes scanned the street as if he knew he was being watched.
Maybe he did. There was no way of knowing exactly how the bits of ancient souls Morel carried around would manifest. Knox wouldn’t put it past the man to have eyes in the back of his head under all of that perfect, thick hair.
Knox briefly considered following his prey inside the restaurant, but he’d already pushed his luck enough today. His resemblance to his brother was too strong take the risk that Morel would see and recognize him. Right now, Knox’s main advantage was the element of surprise, and if he let Morel know he was being hunted too soon, the man might pull another disappearing act and be out of reach for months again.
Knox couldn’t let that happen. Both he and his shards were too hungry for justice.
He found an empty spot a few blocks away and parked his innocuous Honda so he could watch the front of the restaurant for Morel to leave. Knox would follow him to wherever he was staying and take him by surprise. After that, it was just a question of how long he would make him suffer before he got revenge for Derek’s death.
A few minutes later, the snake was seated at one of the tables on the patio. There were two menus, two wine glasses, two place settings.
Morel was meeting someone.
In the past year, Knox had seen Morel meet with more than one person like this, using his charm and powers of persuasion to get them to do whatever it was he wanted. Sometimes they were men, but more often, women. Young and old alike. From a variety of ethnic backgrounds and social circles. But without fail, they all had one thing in common.
Morel always murdered them once he was done using them.
He spoke briefly with the waiter. His back was to Knox, but the waiter showed no sign of shock or horror—Morel was just another customer.
A flash of copper and scarlet caught Knox’s attention, distracting him from his prey.
A woman with fiery red curls hurried down the sidewalk as if she was late. He tried to dismiss her and return to his hunt, but she was far too striking to ignore. He couldn’t pull his eyes away.
Long, pale legs peeked out from beneath the hem of her red dress. Even from this distance he could tell her cheeks were sprinkled liberally with freckles. She had a lovely face, but it wasn’t a common kind of beauty, like in magazines. She was far more interesting than that, with a deep dimple in her cheek, a long nose, and a wide, full mouth. He found himself wishing he were closer so he could see the color of her eyes.
Wind whipped her mane of coppery curls around her face and shoulders, making the strands stick to the bright red gloss on her lips. She tugged at the wayward locks until they were pinned behind one ear.
She wore no jewelry, making Knox wonder if she’d rushed to get ready, or if it had been an oversight. He found himself wishing that she’d at least put on a pair of earrings, because now he could read nothing into the naked ring finger on her left hand.
Not that it mattered. He wasn’t in the market for women—married or otherwise. His sole and complete focus was on killing the man who murdered his brother.
The dark thoughts crept in, but as Knox lifted his eyes back to her face and saw her dimpled smile, the ache in his chest seemed to lighten. The souls inside him all clamoring for revenge seemed to quiet.
For a brief moment, he felt like his old self—like the man he’d been before Derek’s death—filled with hope and excitement for the future.
Knox pulled in a deep breath and simply stared as she hurried inside the restaurant. He knew it was foolish to take his eyes off Morel, but watching her was like taking a tropical vacation in the middle of winter. He so needed her warmth.
With slender fingers, she gripped a wide, red scarf around her bare shoulders to ward off the cool night breeze.
Summer would be here soon, but not tonight, and the shiver of tiny, pale green leaves sprouting from the trees proved the wind had kicked up with another Midwestern spring surprise.
There was something blue smudged across the back of her left calf, too vivid and bright to be a bruise. He was still trying to figure out what it was when she appeared again on the restaurant’s patio and embraced Morel in greeting.
No. Not him.
Of all the people she could have been meeting, why did it have to be Morel?
Denial swept through Knox, and on its heels was the realization that only one of two things could be true.
Either this fiery beauty was working with Morel and was a waste of human skin, or she was his next victim.