Heists & Headstones
Co-written with J. R. Swiger, Heists & Headstones introduces the characters of Tanic (a professional thief) and Raiza (a female assassin). If you enjoy the story, please comment below. A continuation is in the works!
Reaching two fingers down inside my red leather bodice, I found the key tucked between my cinched breasts and pulled it out. I kept a nonchalant hand on the pommel at my hip as I glanced up and down the lantern-lit hallway. Peering through the strands of long burgandy hair falling over my face, my eyes lingered on the shadows. Breath steady, I waited and listened. But no footsteps hit the floorboards. No muffled voices filtered out of the dark. No unoiled hinge creaked in protest.
Satisfied I hadn’t been followed, I slid my key into the lock. With a twist and a push, the door opened. I entered my rented room, and my blue eyes narrowed at the glow within.
I thought I’d snuffed out the candle before I left.
Yet there it was: lit on the worn desk, casting the flickering shadow of a wine bottle on the walls.
A quick glance showed nothing else out of place. The room was dim and quiet.
Dismissing my concerns, I kicked the door closed behind me and crossed to the desk. I pulled the chair back and its wooden feet scraped the floor with a slow groan. As the sound echoed in my ear, I noticed a goblet on the table as well, sitting in the gloom beside the wine.
I was sure now: the candle had been dark.
And neither bottle nor cup had been there before I left.
Someone had left me a present.
Sliding out of my leather coat, I tossed it on the bed. Kicking my boots off into the corner, I left my sword belt on and bent down beside the hearth. I needed a better look than a single candle could provide.
Drawing flint to steel—once, twice, three times—the kindling sparked to life. I squatted for a moment then, warming my hands, stalling; aggravating my unseen visitor.
A wry smile twisting my lips, I returned to the desk. Taking up the bottle with a delicate hand, I popped out the cork. Aroma wafted, gliding pleasantly up into my slender nose. The contents were unmistakable. “Arbor Red.”
His favorite, I thought. It was also a favorite of his thieving brethren—and of mine; those in the business of death. The full body and pungent aftertaste was known to conceal certain ingredients very well.
My thought to check for poison had just become infinitely important.
Filling the goblet, I sniffed the concoction deeply before it reached my lips. Detecting nothing out of the ordinary, as I took a careful sip, my ass found the chair. I crossed my leather-clad legs, slow and ladylike. “You almost had me that time,” I teased aloud.
Not surprisingly, my words were chased by silence.
“Are you really going to make a lady drink alone?”
I sat the cup down. An unnerving feeling stretching across my shoulder blades, I scanned the room again. Noticing the closet door standing partially ajar, I mouthed a silent curse. Somehow I’d missed that discrepancy in my initial scan of the room. How very clumsy of me.
Standing, watching for the slightest movement from within, I approached the closet with a hand on my sword. Bare feet whispering on the cold planks, heart pounding anticipation fueling my senses, I drew my blade and pushed it into the narrow opening. After listening briefly to the stillness within, with a flick of the wrist, I pried the door open further.
Squeaking hinges broke the quiet. But the hooks on the closet wall were empty and nothing aside from my traveling bag graced the floor.
His voice came softly behind me. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you that monsters hide under the bed?”
I spun with a start. Sitting in my chair, drinking from my goblet, dark hair perfectly groomed, his tall, toned form dressed in sleek crimson and black (and looking more a prince than the thief he truly was); Tanic was the personification of roguish charm.
“I didn’t bother poisoning the wine,” he said with amusement, “but I’m flattered you would check.” Downing his drink in one pull, Tanic refilled the goblet and held it out to me. “I won’t make such promises with our second round.”
Walking over, I snatched the goblet from his grip and put it to my lips. Watching him over the rim, his haunting green eyes stared back with deadly anticipation. Expectance burned bright in his unflinching gaze. It turned to raw delight as I lowered the cup without drinking.
Slowly, I tipped the goblet; pouring its deep red contents out onto the floor.
As the wine pooled between us, Tanic’s laugh resounded off the walls. He clapped in a leisure dramatic show, as if the entire scenario had been performed on stage solely for his enjoyment.
I cut his jubilation short with a sharp tongue. “Do you think I would trust you after last time?”
“I would be disappointed if you had.” Laughter made its way from his lips to his eyes, making them sparkle.
Now he’s dangerous.
Refusing to let him rile me, I turned my back and strode without care to the closet. Bending down, reaching into my bag, I pulled out another bottle—and a tiny blade. Pocketing the weapon with a slow covert move, I popped the bottle open and took it with me to the bed.
Perching on the end, I offered him the first drink, and Tanic seized the wine with a brazen grin. He drank without hesitation, straight from the bottle; a move clearly designed to show how unthreatening he considered me.
I watched his throat muscles pulling the liquid down.
I imagined drawing my knife across as he swallowed; the seam opening; the blood welling and draining out; the gurgling sounds that would escape his compromised throat.
For some reason, the notion was far less satisfying than it should be.
I cleared my own parched throat to ensure his attention. “It’s late, Tanic. What are you doing here?”
His gaze shifted to the growing bruise on my cheek. “Trouble?”
“Not anymore,” I boasted. “Do you want something?”
Lowering the bottle, he ran a careless wrist across his mouth to dry up the spill. His eyes lifted slowly, traveling the length of me and making me feel like I was wearing far less than I was.
Bold as always, his eyes flitted to the bed.
Remaining silent, letting the tension build, I brushed a lock of hair from my face with a casual hand. I leaned back, sliding my hands out behind me on the bed and crossing my legs. The posture stretched the leather bodice across my breasts, drawing his eyes. I held the position without shame. What kind of assassin would I be if I didn’t use every weapon in my arsenal?
He was still watching me, drinking, draining my bottle; his thoughts transparent.
Finally, I rolled my eyes, sat up, and rephrased my question. “Do you want something you have a chance of getting?”
My rebuke elicited a familiar, triumphant smile. I conceded to one as well, thinking: I’ve lost count how many times we’ve been here.
Not in this room, with this wine, or this bed. The settings varied. But the game never did. It was a ritualistic dance to which we both knew all the steps.
Tanic took his turn, pushing as always. “I believe you’re well aware. I make it a practice to obtain whatever it is I want. ”
“And I’ve never known you to want anything that doesn’t come with a reward.”
“Oh…I assure you. There would be a reward.”
“Minimal,” I shrugged.
Grinning, as if letting me think I’d won the first round, he tossed the empty bottle into my lap. “You’ve never been a poisoner, Raiza. Such subtleties that exist within our two professions have somehow…escaped you.” Sliding a stiletto from the folds of his fine cloak, Tanic locked his weighted gaze on mine. Eyes deadly in intent, I watched their focus change to amusement unnervingly quick.
I waited, but whatever he was thinking remained unspoken as Tanic calmly ran the blade beneath his fingernails. Cleaning them with meticulous, subtle movements, when his task was complete, he withdrew a long, hooked smoking pipe from his other pocket. The stem was slender and fancy, the bowl, already packed tight, was etched with some unknown design that likely meant nothing to him—seeing as it was almost certainly stolen.
“I have a proposition,” he said, gesturing at me with the pipe. “One you might find interesting,” he glanced at me, “and lucrative.”
Tanic slid to the edge of his chair. Anticipation in his eyes and a dagger in his hand, he leaned toward me with the pipe clenched between his teeth.
I picked up on his subtle hint.
Taking the offered dagger, I retrieved my flint stone from beside the hearth. Getting no closer than arm’s reach, I rake the dagger across the flint. It sparked to life, I lit his pipe, and the fragrance of dry tobacco filled the room.
“Excellent!” he praised.
I was about to make a droll comment about his excitement over my ability to light a pipe, when Tanic burst from the chair. On cat’s feet he sprung, flipping the blade from my grip and into his waiting hand.
Caught off guard, I hissed as I shot up. Knowing he’d expect my sword, I lunged past him, reached, and closed my hand around the candle. Pivoting, I threw the flaming end at his face. His swift dagger strike batted it way, and Tanic advanced; swiftly shouldering me back and pinning me to the wall beside the bed.
The edge of his dagger resting far too comfortably against my throat, he whispered, “You really are making this far too easy.”
The grin faded from his tone as I pressed my insurance plan—the tiny blade I’d palmed earlier—firmly against his crotch.
“Am I?” I whispered.
“Well…” he chuckled, rethinking his last statement. “It appears we have reached a stalemate. Still,” Tanic’s eyes darted down and back up, “you should have brought a bigger knife.”
“I’d say it’s the perfect size.” I pressed the blade in tighter. “A small blade…for a small job.”
Grinning, Tanic pushed closer, almost daring me to cut him. His wine breath hit my face. “Oh, I do so enjoy these little trysts of ours, Raiza.”
Resisting the urge to struggle, I slowed my breathing and stilled my anger. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “I believe you and I have a different definition of the word tryst.”
“Is that so?” His devilish grin spread slowly across his unshaven face. “Because I’m fairly certain you’re enjoying this foreplay as much as I am.”
“Is that what you think this is?” I laughed openly.
His blade dug into the tender skin of my throat.
My taunt not having the effect I’d hoped for, I narrowed my eyes in defiance. “Kill me then. I’m tired of playing your games, Tanic.”
Leisurely, he lowered the knife to the neckline of my bodice. He let the tip linger, sliding it into the laces. He tugged slightly, threatening to break the cord. “If you like, I could give you some pointers on the finer art of deception.”
“Why would I ever need you to teach me anything?”
“Because, lady, you are a terrible liar. And, to not only accomplish, but survive what I have in mind, will require the utmost verbal finesse.”
He let me go. I watched him walk back to the chair. His swagger was impossible to dismiss. Still, his bravado irritated me to no end. “Then perhaps you have the wrong woman.”
He glanced back. “Oh, most definitely not.”
I crossed my arms in a knowing display of frustration “Fine, Tanic. If you’ve come to ask me something, then ask. You have ten minutes,” I said, though we both knew I’d give him more. In a perfect world, as different people, I would have given him much, much more. “Time is ticking…” I reminded him.
“Very well…” His jaw tightened as the conversation turned to business. “I require the services of someone with, shall we say, your ‘less than elegant’ touch.”
“You just said it required finesse.”
“Some parts yes, other parts…” he drifted off cryptically. “We’ll be dealing with a rather exclusive branch of society, with rather exclusive taste in the finest guards—which are in the unfortunately habit of giving out rather less exclusive plots in the ground to unscrupulous fellows such as myself.” He paused to smile. “Luckily, as always, I have a plan.”
“A plan that includes me? You must be desperate.”
His hand darted down my shirt, extracting the scroll I had stored there for safekeeping. Adding insult to the previous insult, he announced the scroll’s purpose without even reading it. “It appears you’ve already been invited to attend the Tewkesbury wake.”
“How long have you been following me?”
“Long enough to know we share a common goal.” Unfurling the rolled parchment, he read aloud. “His Excellency, the Late Baron Tewkesbury, survived by son Mortimer and Eldest Son Adler…” Tanic’s smooth voice trailed off as he scanned the invitation. Then louder, “…requests the attendance of all Lords, Ladies, and Nobles, King to Viscount, to be present at their father’s wake. Please meet at Ivory Hall between the hours of seven and the witching hour. Pedigree paperwork to be taken at the door. No admittance to be provided to those unable to provide proof of lineage.” He glanced up from the scroll. “How are you planning on getting in?”
My brows lifted. “Who says I am?”
“Then this scroll was just tucked in there to keep you warm?” Tanic bent down. He reached for his pipe, lost in our impromptu knife dance.
I stomped, crushing its fragile stem beneath my bare foot. “Who’s your target, Tanic?”
He stood, back straight, and looked down sternly into my eyes. “Who is yours?”
“I asked first.”
“So you did.”
I tried not to let it show, how much his caginess pricked at me. But the shameless grin hovering on the edge of his lips said he already knew. “What are you here to steal?” I asked.
Ignoring my second question, he relented to the first. “I have several targets.”
“Several? It’s not like you to stretch yourself so thin.”
“I assure you, lady, I am quite dexterous.”
I met his insinuation with a silent scowl.
“There is one…” he relented. “One who is more, shall we say….interesting than the rest.” He paused, making me wait. “Baron Tewkesbury.”
I laughed at him. “Did you not just read it yourself from the scroll you so rudely appropriated? The Baron is dead.”
“Rude?” His eyes fixed on my leather-wrapped breasts like he had a right to them. “I actually thought my seizure of your goods was quite enjoyable. If you have anything else in there that needs removing, I’d be happy to offer my assistance.”
My teeth clenched at his gall. I said it again. “Baron Tewkesbury is dead.”
“I know. I killed him.”
His admission turned my stomach. I looked for the usual amusement in his eyes. For once, I couldn’t find a shred of it. “No.”
I shook my head. “You deal in heists, Tanic, not headstones.”
“I’ve been known to deal in both.”
“Yes, but the way he was killed, it’s…unlike you.”
“The moment required more than my usual style. But I assumed you would approve. You’ve always tried to make me hands as dirty as yours.”
I stared at him. He was lying about something. He was always lying.
But what the hell is he lying about this time?
“Well,” I said skeptically, “if you did kill the Baron, you didn’t do a very good job.”
“Oh, lady, I always do a good job.” His eyes darted past mine. “Now, please, do look under the bed.”
My heart skipped; a single pulse of concern. “Why?”
“Oh, Raiza,” he clucked, chiding me, “if anything untoward were to happen to you in this room right now, it would be on the bed, not under it.”
I considered leaning down for a look. Realizing that would limit my line of sight, I walked away from him, to the far side of the bed, and squatted
“It won’t bite,” he teased.
Not trusting him in the least, and knowing how quickly he could move, I kept my eyes on him as I lifted the covers. I reached a hand into the darkness. My fingers brushed something solid. I slid it out into the dim light before risking a look.
My eyes lowered. I glanced at him, and then back down. “A box?” It was slender and rectangular, with a red silk ribbon tied around its width. The soft ends of the trimming draped down to curl off the sides. I picked up the box and tossed it on the bed as I stood. “Tanic, you shouldn’t have.”
I eyed the ribbon a moment. Deciding it too harmless to be a trap, I grabbed the box.
“Tread carefully,” he cautioned with a laugh. “It’s a dress, not a mark.”
I took a step back. “A what?”
“A dress.” He smiled. “You do know what those are?”
My cheeks grew hot. I tried to think of something smart to say, but I was too busy imagining how good it would feel to punch his smug face. “Why the hell are you buying me a dress?”
“To go to the wake, of course. That’s not to say I’m not fond of your typical attire.” His eyes raked up and down the front of me. “The way that leather hugs your curves, dear Raiza, is not for the faint of heart. But I can’t have you on my arm looking like you’re ready to slit the throat of every man that walks by.”
I said nothing.
His eyes moved to the box. “Aren’t you going to try it on?”
“Why not,” I shrugged. Pretending his presence had no impact whatsoever, I made no show at modesty as I loosened the laces of my bodice. Back arched provocatively, I stretched my long, lean hourglass figure into an almost statuesque pose as I stripped slowly and shamelessly in front of him.
Not surprisingly, Tanic studied my every move.
“That’s one mystery solved,” he muttered to himself.
I looked at him, knowing he wanted me to ask. “Oh?”
“Your natural hair color,” he said, his gaze unwavering; watching to see if I would cringe. “I’ve always wondered what it would be. Seeing as, every time our paths cross, the hue of your luscious mane never seems to be the same.”
“Well, now you can die in peace,” I said, delivering my barefaced threat with a smirk. Still, his cavalier wit irked me like a thorn in my shoe, and I couldn’t help hurrying as I stepped into the midnight blue and ivory dress.
Pulling the snug garment up over my hips, I quickly tucked my arms and breasts inside. His gift was clearly meant as bait. But at the moment, I didn’t care. The dress fit like it was tailored for me, emphasizing my slender lines and curves. The material was soft and shimmery.
I’d never worn anything so delicate and fine.
Running my hands down the front of the dress, smoothing away imaginary wrinkles, the groan of approval came out before I could stop it. “Oh, Tanic, it’s…absolutely stunning.”
“I’m pleased you like it,” he said, amused by the delight in my eyes. “My tailor does excellent work. You should really try a taste of the high life more often, Raiza. It suits you quite well.”
My anger returned at his slur. “I don’t need—”
Tanic opened his hand. Two sapphire earrings the size of cat’s eyes rested in his palm. A ring of glittering diamonds encircled the blue.
My hand darted toward the jewels.
He snatched them away. “The entire Tewkesbury line has to die. Tonight. In the same manner as the Baron. My theft—artful as always—will serve as a distraction. You…”
With an abrupt exhale of air, I collapsed on the edge of the bed.
“Is something wrong?” he said.
“All of them?”
“Uncles, brothers, cousins…children. My benefactor desires them all deceased.” He
opened his palm slowly and pushed it toward me. Hearth-light twinkled off the jewels. “By accepting my proposal you will be agreeing to kill every man, woman, and child with ties to the Tewkesbury name. Do you understand?”
Wordlessly, I extended my hand, fingers curling around the devil’s offering.
Tanic’s hand closed over mine. “One question. What brought you here? I advise you to answer truthfully.”
“Of course. I was hired to find and assassinate the person who murdered the late Baron Tewkesbury and stole his wife’s chest of jewels. I believe they were…” my eyes dropped to the jewels trapped in my hand, “diamond and sapphire?”
His grip over mine tensed.
Satisfaction darkened my grin at his stunned expression. “I admit, Tanic, I didn’t want to believe it was you. Still, I’m grateful you made the job an easy one. I never expected the Baron’s killer to simply walk in the door and confess.”
Shock turning to rage, Tanic forced my hand open and seized the earrings.
Glaring at him, I stood. I stomped three times in rapid succession, alerting the Kings guard in the room below.
As heavy boots struck the stairs a moment later, Tanic whispered in a dry rasp. “I’ve been set up.” The irony too much for his anger then, he cracked a smile. “Bravo.”
“Give yourself up, Tanic. King Lubelle doesn’t want you. Give me the name of your employer. I’ll make sure you walk out of here alive.”
“How kind of you, dear Raiza. But as I said, the Baron is alive. So as yet, I’ve killed not a single Tewkesbury.”
I smirked at his reasoning. “And the jewels? I suppose you didn’t steal them either?”
“Oh, I stole the jewels. In the same nimble and clever fashion as always,” he smiled. “But stealing them is one thing. Being caught with…that’s quite another.” Removing a small cloth pouch from his cloak, as the door burst open, Tanic tossed the pouch into the hearth. In the same breath, the flames roared high, then extinguished.
A hard push shoved me to the floor.
Chaotic screams and the sound of metal accompanied the sudden dark.
Puzzled, and a little shaken, I knelt in the blackness and ran my empty hand over the floor. Finding the unlit candle by the wall at the end of the bed, I felt my way to the fallen dagger and flint.
I relit the candle. The wick flared. The glow brightened, widening to reveal all six of the King’s soldiers sprawled dead on the floor. Blood drained from their slit throats, staining the wood a deep cherry.
Pushing to my feet, I checked the shadows, the closet, and under the bed. I examined the wide-eyed corpses more closely, making sure.
Tanic was not among their number.
Suddenly aware of an odd feeling of weight at my throat, I reached up. My hand locked around a necklace with a large bauble at the end. Quickly, I pulled the piece off and held it under the candlelight. “Silver and sapphire,” I whispered.
Looking over at the open window, I watched the curtains drift in the night breeze. I felt the earrings then, inside the tight bodice of my dress, trapped between my breasts. “Clever and nimble,” I sighed, slipping the earrings out. “As always.”