Vengeful (Page 48)

“Not at all.”

“Then why?”

“I thought,” she said airily, “perhaps we could get a drink.”

That, at last, caught Stell off guard. “To what end?” he demanded. “So you can try to kill me?”

“That would be pointless. If I wanted you dead, you would be. You think this number is the only thing I know? I have to say, your choice of decor is tragically bland.”

Stell’s head snapped up.

“Of course,” she went on, “you’re really not home much, are you?”

Stell said nothing, but shifted so his back was to the wall, his eyes on the windows.

“Only a few photos,” she went on, “—two sisters, I presume, by the way they look at you—”

“You’ve made your point,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Well, in that case, I’ll be at Canica Bar around seven. Don’t make me drink alone.”

Before he could answer, she hung up.

Stell slumped back against the wall, head spinning. He couldn’t go. He shouldn’t go. Marcella was a target, an enemy, someone to be dispatched, not negotiated with.

But he had to do something.

He looked from the steel briefcase to the cell phone in his hand.

Stell swore under his breath, and grabbed his coat.

XVI

TWO WEEKS AGO

DOWNTOWN MERIT

SOME women spent years planning their wedding.

Marcella had spent the last decade planning a hostile takeover.

Of course, she’d always assumed Marcus would be the face of it, but this was far more satisfying.

With the four heads of the Merit mob so cleanly dispatched, and the factions thrown into chaos—a chaos bolstered by rumor and eyewitness testimony—the bulk were already scrambling for solid ground. So many, so willing to serve.

There would be scuffles, of course, and Marcella was prepared for those, ready to subdue the ones who would invariably vie for control, ready to pay off the officials who might get in her way.

There was still the matter of EON, but Marcella had a play for that, too.

She put her back to the window, surveying the room, Jonathan polishing his saxophone in a chair, June perched on the spine of the sofa, playing on her phone. With Hutch’s suite at the National ruined, they’d taken up residence in an uptown penthouse at First and White. One with windows made of reflective glass.

Fool me once, thought Marcella, as someone knocked.

Jonathan answered the door, stepping aside to reveal a trim man in a silk suit.

“Oliver!” Marcella smiled at the sight of him—smiled wider at the rack of clothes filling the foyer. Between the house fire and the incident at the Heights, Marcella was in dire need of a new wardrobe.

“S**t, Marce,” said Oliver, “you’ve got some heavy security downstairs. Felt me up, down, and in between.”

“Sorry,” she said. “It’s been a busy week.”

“Excuse me for being a bit wary at the moment,” said June. “But who the f**k is this?”

“This is Oliver,” said Marcella cheerfully. “My personal shopper.”

June burst into raucous laughter. “People are trying to kill you—kill us—and you’ve got time for a f*****g wardrobe change?”

Oliver smirked. “Spoken like someone who doesn’t understand the power of appearance.”

“That so?” June hopped down from the back of the sofa. She moved toward Oliver, taking on and shedding a different appearance with every step. “Maybe you should explain it to me?”

Oliver went very still.

“And that,” said Marcella dryly, “would be June.”

His gaze shifted unsteadily back to her. “I, uh, heard . . . about Marcus. Hell, I heard about you. Lots of strange talk.”

“Whatever you’ve heard,” said June, “it’s probably true.”

Marcella gestured at Jonathan, standing in his worn-out suit. “Ollie, did you bring what I asked for?”

In reply, Oliver pulled a garment bag from the rack and unzipped it far enough to reveal a sharp black suit. Marcella plucked it from Oliver’s hand.

“A gift,” she said, offering the bag to Jonathan.

“Nothing for me?” inquired June.

“You already have a full closet,” said Marcella. She turned toward the bedroom. “Come on. Let’s see what you’ve brought.”

By the time he started unzipping dress bags, Oliver had regained his usual color. “Gotta say, I was a little surprised to get your call,” he said, adding hurriedly, “and glad, of course. You always were my favorite mannequin.”

She plucked a few blouses from the rack as Oliver began to lay out dresses on the bed. For a moment the image overlaid with another in her mind, the garments left waiting atop tousled sheets.

Marcella let go of the blouse in her hand before she ruined it.

“You have outdone yourself,” she said, eyes traveling over the array. A lace halter, trimmed in black leather. A crimson blazer with sharp shoulders and tapered wrists. A black gown with a dipping collar and a silk obi tie. A line of perfect, steel-heeled shoes.

She lifted one. The polish was so high, Marcella could almost see herself in the shine. Red lips and black hair painted themselves on the metal finish, her reflection warping, as if she were on fire.

Oliver turned his back while Marcella stripped and donned a short red dress that drew a clean line across her shoulder blades. She considered herself in the bedroom’s full-length mirror, let her eyes travel appraisingly over the burns that traced along her left collarbone, the inside of her right forearm, the top of one pale thigh.

They were healing, the skin slipping from pink to silver.

“That one’s stunning on you,” said Oliver at Marcella’s back. Her eyes slid past her own reflection just in time to see him draw a slim switchblade from his bag. Marcella didn’t flinch.

“Zip me up?” she said lightly.

“Of course.” Oliver started toward her, and Marcella waited until he was almost an arm’s length away before turning suddenly. He slashed, and she caught the knife in her hand, her palm already glowing red. Before the weapon could so much as scratch her skin, it had crumbled.

“What a pity,” she said, wrapping her other hand around Oliver’s throat. “You had such good taste.”

He managed the beginnings of a scream before the skin and muscle gave way to bone, and then ash, and then nothing.

“Christ,” said June, appearing in the doorway. She took in the scene. “Well, that’s what you get for having a personal shopper.” She nodded at Oliver’s remains. “Is there anyone who doesn’t want to kill you?”

“Occupational hazard, it seems,” said Marcella.

“So it seems,” said June. “And how long do you think before our friends at EON try their luck again?”

Marcella turned back to the mirror, flicking a stray bit of ash from the hem of her dress. She met her reflection, and smiled.

“Let me worry about them.”

XVII

TWO WEEKS AGO

CANICA BAR

A long chandelier rippled across the ceiling, spilling soft light over crystal and marble and clean linen.

Stell adjusted his tie, grateful he was still dressed from the meeting at Capstone.

“You have a reservation, sir?” asked the maître d’.

“I’m meeting someone,” said Stell, cautiously. “I’m early but—”

“You can wait at the bar,” said the maître d’, nodding to a curve of glass and oak.

Stell ordered a whiskey several shelves higher than his usual brand and scanned the guests—some of the most powerful and prominent people in Merit. The district attorney. The mayor’s wife. Corporate heads, and politicians, and more than one star athlete.

He saw her as soon as she arrived.

It was impossible not to see her, even in Canica’s low light.

She was dressed in red—not exactly subtle, but nothing about her would have ever merited that word. Her black hair curled in loose waves around her face. Her lips were the same shade as the dress, her eyes a striking blue.

Stell had seen photos, of course.

None of them did Marcella Riggins justice.

Stell could sense other heads turning as she made her way to a table in the center of the restaurant. He took up his glass from the bar and followed.

When she saw him, a smile broke the sharp line of her red lips.

“Joseph,” she said, wielding his first name like a weapon. “So glad you decided to come.”

Her voice was warm, tinged with smoke.

“Ms. Riggins,” said Stell, sinking into the chair opposite.

“Morgan,” she corrected as a glass of red wine was laid at her elbow. “Given all that’s happened, I no longer feel inclined to use my husband’s name. But please, call me Marcella.”

She spoke with an airy confidence, one gold nail toying with the rim of her glass, and Stell realized that it wasn’t Marcella’s beauty that had failed to translate in any of the photos he’d seen. It was something else.

Something he’d seen before.

In Victor Vale. In Eli Ever.

A rare kind of strength. A dangerous will.

Someone this powerful belongs in the ground.

Suddenly he understood Eli’s stance, the stubborn resolve behind his declaration. Stell’s hand drifted toward his holstered gun.

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