When I was younger, I fell in love with magic. I learned every card trick there was from library books and unmasking magic TV specials. I used to put on shows for Gabby that included escaping from complicated knots and trick handcuffs. But what’s magic besides a sleight of hand?
It’s a lie.
And lying is what I’m damn good at.
My ability to spin a tall tale or two lead to stealing wallets and conning people into taking stray pets for the thrill of it. Now, I’m using it to earn for Marco. The thrill is there, but it’s muted, hindered, lost under his pile of mounting threats.
The inside of the casino smells like stale cigarettes, spilled beer, and burnt coffee. We’re not supposed to be in here. It’s Bedlam territory. But that’s also why it’s perfect.
It isn’t like anyone would recognize us here.
We’ve made friends with a few of the cocktail waitresses by giving them a small cut, and they don’t ask questions or ring any alarms when they see us working. I’ve also been straightening my hair over the last few years since my crazy curls stand out like a reflector on a dark highway. I’ve dyed it a few shades darker than my normal honey blonde to help blend in.
Tonight is starting off well. Gabby and I are working a con we’ve run a few times before.
Gabby walks away, her long dark hair swooshing behind her. She gives me a nod as she passes me by on the slot machine I’m pretending to play. She’s just faked losing an expensive engagement ring at another slot machine. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she frantically looked around for it, then loudly announced a thousand-dollar reward would be waiting at the casino cage for whoever returned it.
She is flawless. She should be an actress. And in another life, she would be.
But we don’t live in another life.
We live in Lacking and belong to Los Muertos.
Our lives are not our own.
A few people casually look around the area, then return to their machines when they don’t find the ring Gabby was ranting about. They won’t either. Because it’s not there.
It's go time.
I strut over to the area Gabby just left and put a dollar in the machine. While the wheels spin, I pretend to pick up the dime store ring I already have in my hand. By the time the machine dings to tell me I’ve lost my dollar, I’m turning the ring over, inspecting it like I don’t have half a dozen more just like it in my drawer back at the apartment.
“Would you look at that?” I mutter to myself loud enough so others around me can hear.
A man in an Adidas jumpsuit with a potbelly taps me on the shoulder. “I’ll take that. I saw the woman who dropped it. I’ll go return it to her.”
Liar. You just want the reward.
“That’s so nice of you,” I say. I hold it out, about to drop it into his hand when I pull it back. “I bet there’s a reward for something this valuable.” I start to walk around the man. “I’ll take it up to management. Maybe, they know…”
“Here,” the man says, holding up a hundred-dollar bill. “Take this. I’ll take it to her. I just…you know, as I said, I want to make sure it gets back to the right person.”
You’re not even a good liar.
Sometimes, it’s just too freaking easy. And this scam wasn’t even an Emma Jean and Gabby original. We saw it a long time ago in a movie starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. Doesn’t anyone else watch movies?
I shrug and pass him the ring. Plucking the bill from his hand, I tuck it into my bra. “Thanks,” I say before quickly making my way toward the large glass front doors. It’s Thursday. Marco’s money is due in two days, and we’re short this week.
I walk slowly and wave goodbye to the valets with a smile on my face. “Any luck, tonight?” One asks me.
“I think so,” I answer with a smile. Once I’m down the sidewalk and out of view, I scramble to the side of the casino where I kick off my heels and change from the sequined dress I’d stolen from a dry-cleaner into a pair of cut-off shorts and my yellow Keds.
Now, all I have to do is wait for Gabby.
I don’t have to wait long.
“Run!” Gabby yells, darting from the doors of the casino with two large men wearing tight black security t-shirts close behind. Running from security is terrifying enough, knowing that we’re running from members of the Bedlam Brotherhood kicks it up a notch.
I grab my backpack and sling it across my shoulders. I move as fast as I can until I’m running right alongside her. We race through the gates, cross the street, narrowly avoiding being hit by two cars. We duck into a hole in a fence and run through one backyard after the other.
“One of those cunt waitresses must have tipped them off!” Gabby says, through shallow breaths. She’s barefoot in a black mini-dress hiked up to her ass to give her long legs room to run. Her long thick hair is wrapped around her face, sticking to her mouth.
We hit the sixth backyard. Without another word, we separate behind a clothesline. We’ve mapped out this escape plan a thousand times, but this is the first time we’ve ever had to use it.
When I make it into the central part of town, to the Los Muertos/Bedlam border, I can no longer hear the shouts of the security guards. I lost them.
Hopefully, Gabby did, too.
I use a tower of stacked-up wooden pallets on the sidewalk like a ladder to scale a concrete wall, then drop down into the alley.
I grow more panic-stricken the longer I wait for Gabby. I bite the inside of my lip, pacing back and forth along the high wall. The Bedlam Brotherhood runs the security at the casino. If they catch her and find out who she is? Or worse? Who her brother is? They'll... I shake the thought from my mind. She’ll be fine.
She HAS to be fine.
Please be okay, Gabby. Please.
I’m trying to catch my breath and pull myself together when I hear a clink echo through the alley as if someone dropped some spare change, followed by the sound of something heavy dropping to the asphalt.
“Gabby?” I ask into the darkness. Thinking it’s her, relief washes over me like rain on a barren desert.
My only answer is the flickering of a fluorescent light mounted high on the roof’s edge of the adjoining building. And the hiss of what sounds like a cat behind a dumpster.
I walk over and peer around it. “Gabby? Are you hurt? Say something!” I whisper-shout.
Someone moves from within the shadow. “Get out here, Gabby. We’ve got to go before Mar…”
The light flickers again, for just a second. That second is all I need to see that the someone slowly stalking toward me is not Gabby.
It’s a man…twice my size.
“Who are you?” I ask, shuffling backward as the man cloaked in a black leather hood emerges from the shadows. The front of his jacket is open. Underneath, he's shirtless, covered in a sheen of sweat, and more tattoos than visible skin all the way up the front of his throat. His muscled chest and abs flex with each step he takes. The hood shadows most of his face, but when the lights flicker again, yellow eyes glow from within.
And they’re locked on me.
My ‘save your ass’ mode kicks in.
The man is blocking the only exit. My only other chance of escape is to scale the same wall I used to drop into the alley.
I keep moving backward as he approaches until my back hits the wall. I look left and right for something to use to climb on.
There’s nothing but emptiness.
My stomach sinks, but surrender is not an option.
I swallow hard as the alarm bells scream in my head for me to run. Somewhere. Anywhere.
There’s nowhere to go!
My legs tremble. Fear crawls like a million spiders along the backs of my legs. I push myself further against the wall as if I can squish the feeling away, but it’s useless.
Fear consumes me. Swallows me whole.
He continues toward me. As he gets closer, I realize it’s not just sweat glistening on his skin. There’s something else splattered across the tattoos on his chest and on his stubbled jaw.
It almost looks like wet paint.
My breathing stops when he’s close enough that I can make out the tattoo on the front of his throat.
A bleeding black rose.
The symbol of the Bedlam Brotherhood.
I’ve heard stories about Grim. The man in the hood. The executioner for Bedlam. They were all terrifying, but not nearly as terrifying as the reality of coming face to face with the man himself.
“We didn’t do anything,” I blurt. “I mean, we did, but it wasn’t a big deal. I’ll…I’ll give the money back. Just tell your men not to hurt my friend. It was all my idea. Let her go, and you can take me.”
“Who the fuck are you?” he asks. His voice is so thick and deep I feel it more than hear it. Shivers erupt all over my body.
He raises his arm, revealing a long curved blade.
For the first time in my life, I can’t seem to be able to hide my fear with my wit or sarcasm. My throat tightens. I can’t swallow, never mind speak. I’ve lost my words completely, along with my nerve.
The man’s blade drips red onto the pavement from the serrated tip.
Every fear response I didn’t even know I had runs rampant. I’m holding my breath. My muscles tense as if running was still an option. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck prickle my skin as they stand on end. I raise up to my tip-toes and push back, trying to make myself disappear into the wall.
I glance from the knife back to his chest, then back again. The splatters across his skin?
It’s not fucking paint.
Before I can process what the hell is happening, he switches from slow-stalking mode into hyper-speed, pinning my wrists above my head. His hard, bloodied chest pushes against me, smearing blood across my white tank top, forcing the back of my head to connect roughly with the wall.
“I’ll only ask you this one more time. Who the fuck are you?” His low guttural growl rattles my bones.
His unblinking, angry, golden eyes lock onto mine. Without the fluorescent light, they’re more golden brown than a glowing yellow. As much as I want to, I can’t look away. He could be the last person I ever see.
The thought is just the spike of adrenaline I need.
“Let me go,” I say, finally finding my words. I try and jerk my wrists from his grip with no luck. I’m trapped. My fear and anger rise to the surface, but I shove it back down. Fear won’t get me out of this situation, so it will have to wait for its damned turn.
He digs his rough fingers into my skin. “Answer me. Who the fuck are you?”
The bite of pain only makes me angrier. I throw his question back at him. “Who the fuck are you?”
He glances down at my rapidly rising and falling chest before pinning me with his stare. The corner of his mouth tugs up in a half-smirk.
“So much confidence for someone who's trembling,” he says with an amused glint shining in his demonic eyes.
I shrug. “Maybe, I’m just not a fan of enclosed spaces,” I say through gritted teeth.
“You didn’t answer me,” he says.
“Why do you have blood all over you?” I answer him with yet another question. “You know, if you were committing some kind of crime back there, you should be more careful. I recommend a bleach bath and death by fire for your clothes the first chance you get. If it’s self-harm, I’m sure there’s a helpline you can call.”
He cocks his head to the side. His nostrils flare. His face is only inches away. I can feel the heat from his body against mine. His cool breath flutters against my neck.
I’ve never been this close to a man before. My trembling grows. My inner thighs shake sending a rippling wave of something very unfamiliar coursing through the center my body. I try and press my legs together to stop it from happening again, but when he uses his knee to wedge my legs apart, caging me in even further, it only grows, uncoiling from within like a slinky being pulled apart at the ends.
I swallow hard as the stubble of his jaw presses against my neck.
“Name,” he demands, his voice raspier than before.
I shut my eyes tight for a beat, trying to gain composure, control, something that will help me as I try and reason my way out of this. “Listen, I didn’t see anything,” I blurt. “That is if you did anything. I’m not going to call the police if that’s what you're worried about. I wouldn’t anyway, even if I saw something, which I didn’t.”
His brows knit together in a harsh line. “Why?”
His question confuses me.
“Why wouldn’t you tell the police?”
Because Marco owns them.
“Let’s just say that I haven’t exactly been a model citizen myself tonight. Let’s face it. If the police around here weren’t being paid not to do their jobs, half this town would be locked up.” I take a deep, shaky breath. “Especially people like us.”
He stills. There’s no more talking. Only heavy breathing and a battle of wills. He releases one of my hands. I think he’s reaching for his knife. My blood turns cold. I can feel my face pale as my heart starts beating as faster and faster as if it wants to get in as many as possible before the end.
I’m surprised when he doesn’t go for his knife. Instead, his hand travels slowly down my chest into my cleavage.
“No, don’t!” I say, but it’s too late, he’s already yanked on my locket.
“Please just give it back, and let me go,” I plead. Feeling like it’s my real heart he's torn from my chest. “It’s the only thing in this world that means anything to me. Besides my best friend, it’s all I have.”
I hate the desperation in my voice, but it’s the truth.
He’s silent for a moment. He raises his arms. I flinch, raising my arms over my face defensively. But when nothing happens, I lower them, just in time to see him push back his hood, revealing his face.
“Why?” I ask, closing my eyes knowing full well that the only time a criminal reveals himself to a witness is right before they take them out.
“Look at me,” he demands, holding my face in his hand.
“No!” I say, shutting my eyes tighter.
“Look at me!” he bellows. He’s on me again. This time, he holds my head in his large rough hands. “Open your fucking eyes so you can see me.”
With no other choice than to get my head squished like a turtle under a car tire, I do as he demands. Opening my eyes, I blink through the haze, and when it clears, I’m met with tousled, medium-length, light brown hair, slicked back on the top, shorn close to head on the sides. His nose is slightly crooked like it’s been broken a few times before. The stubble on his square, defined jaw is a few days over needing a shave. A jagged scar runs through his chin like an angry white lightning bolt.
He’s the most fucking beautifully terrifying man I’ve ever seen.
He’s searching my eyes for something, but I don’t know what.
“Why?” I ask in a whisper.
His hands release mine, but he doesn’t step back. He leans in closer, speaking against my cheek in a rumble of a whisper. The strange feeling from earlier comes back as a zap of electricity bouncing around my insides looking for somewhere to ground.
I’m breathing heavy. Our lips are so close, almost touching. He slides one hand off my face, snaking it around my neck, pulling me closer. He starts to answer in a rumble of a whisper, causing goosebumps to rise on my already prickled skin. “Because I want you to see the face of the man who’s just—”
“Where the fuck are you?” calls Gabby from the other side of the wall. “I lost them!”
The moment, whatever it is, is now broken. The man releases me so suddenly I brace myself against the wall to keep from falling. I turn my head toward her voice.
“Gabby!” I shout back.
My heart is beating out of control. Out of habit, I raise my hand to my chest, seeking familiar comfort.
I look up. The man in the hood is gone.
And so is my locket.