enough, a multihooked blade as long and thin as a fencer’s sword glinted in the candlelight, winking at me. He lowered the lapel. All around us hushed chatter continued, an incongruous contrast to the stillness that had slowed every cell of my body. I lifted my eyes, and this time I didn’t have to blink. The monster was there. Even if I was the only one who could see him.

“Now get up,” he said, “and slowly walk to the door.”

“Fuck you.”

No way was I going to let this crackerjack near my back…even if every instinct in my body was crying out for me to bolt, and quick. I might be able to outrun him; he certainly didn’t look fast, but then he hadn’t looked psychotic either.

“Get up,” he repeated, louder, “or I will kill every person in this dining room, starting with the woman behind me.”

My eyes flicked to the woman in question, a petite blonde with hair piled fashionably atop her head to reveal a creamy white nape. Her back was to us, her head momentarily tilted back in a soundless laugh. With that thin barbed blade, Ajax could rend the tendons from her neck before she’d even caught her next breath.

Her companion, a handsome man with sparkling eyes, caught me looking and smiled. I looked away. It was the smile of a person untouched by violence, a look I’d never worn in my adult life. I doubted my dinner partner ever had either.

“I don’t care,” I lied, returning Ajax’s stare.

He laughed as if we were also enjoying a pleasant evening in each other’s company. “Of course you do. See, that’s why you’re the good guy and I’m the bad guy.” The humor dropped from his face, along with his voice. “Now get your ass out of that chair.”

I remained seated.

The smooth white bones beneath his cheeks flashed. Then there was the slight rustle of fabric, the unmistakable chink of a weapon being unsheathed beneath the table, and Ajax’s shoulder rotated in a motion that would end in a killing blow. My stomach clenched but still I didn’t move. He growled, and it was an expectant, warning sound.

“Wait!” I said as his muscles tensed. He stared back at me with those soulless eyes, and I knew he’d have done it. He’d have killed that woman without blinking, and the man across from her would never smile again.

“See?” Ajax said quietly. “I told you you’re one of the good guys.”

I didn’t answer, just pushed away from the table and rose, my eyes never leaving his. But then I did something even I couldn’t have anticipated. I picked up my wineglass, swirled, and put it to my lips.

Perhaps it was the intensity of the moment, or maybe Ajax’s lesson in odorous acuity really had hit home, but the flavors I inhaled from that glass were the most complex, the most vibrant, and the richest I’d ever tasted. I could scent the clay of the plateau vineyard in France where the fruit had been harvested, and somehow I knew the grapes had been picked on a windless, rainy day. The juice had been aged in French oak, and the winemaker had regularly tested the barrel with a steel ladle, his artist’s palate telling him when, exactly, to go to bottle. Inhaling all these things—things I had no right to sense or see—they became a part of me, their knowledge burrowing into my bones.

I drank deeply, almost ecstatically, like the saints you see on the ceilings of cathedrals, martyrs looking expectantly toward heaven in their final, lingering moments on earth. All the while Ajax watched me with those glassy death-eyes, like he could tell exactly what I was doing and feeling and tasting. I lowered the glass, then blew in his direction.

He froze, alarm furrowing his brow. I don’t know what he scented of me just then, but it wasn’t the fear he so clearly expected. Still, he regained his composure quickly and jerked his head toward the exit. Unwilling to let go of the wine that still held so much life and passion and vitality in it, I turned with it still in my hand. Then, fingering the stem like a nun with her favorite rosary beads, I slowly made my way out the door.

The Valhalla Hotel and Casino was like any other jewel in the crown of a corporate gaming giant. It boasted live entertainment, fine dining, and slavish customer service to those wagering amid the garish lights of clanging machines and crowded pits. It clung doggedly to its Viking theme; as long, that was, as it didn’t interfere with the more important one: making it easy for people to give away their money. The fact that my father owned Valhalla changed none of this.

It did, however, mean that I was recognized, deferred to, and often approached by those who worked there, and that’s what I was hoping for as I reached the restaurant’s foyer and stepped out onto the main casino floor. Perhaps somebody would become suspicious at the possessive grip Ajax had on my left arm. Or maybe I could somehow signal security via the Eye in the Sky, an in-house surveillance system so advanced it could catch even the most nimble-fingered gambler switching dice. It wasn’t advanced enough, however, to stop a barbed poker from sawing through my spine, so while I held onto the hope for help, my gut told me I was on my own.

“Parking garage,” Ajax ordered, standing so close I could feel his body heat radiating through his jacket. I followed his instructions, as anxious to get him away from the other guests as I was to ensure that all my vitals remained intact.

We wove around glassy-eyed tourists and dodged cocktail waitresses dressed as Valkyries delivering drinks to both the fallen, and not yet fallen, heroes of the replicate Great Hall. All the while Ajax kept close, his stewed breath a constant reminder of the evil lurking beneath the ill-fitting dinner jacket.

The crowd thinned as we passed the tower elevators, and when we turned into a corridor leading to the convention area, I felt him relax, which was good. I wanted him relaxed. And I wanted him confident. Add a little distraction, which I’d have to improvise, and by God, I might just get out of this alive.

“What did you mean earlier?” I asked, hoping my voice revealed only frightened curiosity. “You told ‘them’ you knew it was me?”

“We’ve been hunting you a long time, Joanna. You wouldn’t believe the manpower or the means we’ve employed in trying to locate and unmask your identity.”

“What identity? And who are ‘we’?” I asked, catching our reflection as we passed a gilded mirror. We looked like any other couple out for a night in Vegas; in a rush, a little strained perhaps, but positively determined to have fun. I was wearing black pants, a matching cowl-necked sweater, and heels. My wrap and bag were slung over my right arm, and I held my half-full wineglass in my left. It wasn’t exactly combat clothing, but I could move well enough if—oh, say—a serrated poker were being held at my back.

Ajax shot a condescending look my way. “Does it matter?”

I didn’t suppose so. I moved on to something that did. “And how did you find me?”

“Let’s put it this way: you bear a striking resemblance to another of our enemies.” And he chuckled, clearly intent on being vague.

As we rounded another corner, my steps only a fraction ahead of his, I noted pockets of people lounging along the perimeter of the wide carpeted hallway, some reading papers and sipping tiny cups of espresso, others conversing quietly in groups of threes and fours. Most, I saw, wore badges, stragglers from whatever that day’s convention was. Unfortunately, none of them looked like they could stop the bus, much less a maniac with a blade.

“Turn here,” Ajax said, indicating the marble alcove housing the garage elevators. He placed his right hand, his killing hand, on my shoulder, ensuring that I did so.

I know it may not have seemed like it, but this was what I wanted. I’d trained in contact combat for so long that such openings were glaring and instinctive. This was my chance, and I’d get only one.

Yanking my shoulder easily from beneath his grasp, I half turned, half stumbled, and pointed my wineglass at him. Slurring my words, I yelled, “Pervert! Don’t ever touch me again!”

Papers were lowered, eyes raised, heads turned. Visitors to Vegas were always ready for a show, and public domestic disputes were a popular spectator sport. I played up my Jerry Springer moment for all it was worth.

“By the way, I lied when I said your brain stick wasn’t that small!” Sloshing what remained of my wine on Ajax’s suit, I met his murderous look with a contemptuous one of my own. Then I reeled away, slammed into the corner of the wall, tripped, and sprawled inelegantly across the marble floor.

Everything happened fast after that. An elevator door chimed. Ajax growled. A woman screamed. And I rose to my knees, the stem of my shattered wineglass clenched firmly in my fist. Grabbing me by the shoulder again, Ajax whirled me around, and as he did, I buried the crystal shard deep into his neck.

His growl scuttled off into a strangled gurgle, and his eyes went round with shock and pain. He still had the

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