Bitter Bite(Elemental Assassin #14)(13) by Jennifer Estep
A giant dressed in a gray guard’s uniform with the words First Trust stitched on the breast pocket hustled over and opened my door, while a second giant acting as a valet took Owen’s keys. Still two more giant guards, also in gray uniforms, manned the double doors. Both wore bulletproof vests under their jackets, making them seem even larger and bulkier than they really were.
One guard was taking invitations from people and checking names off on a clipboard. The other guard rested his hand on the gun strapped to his waist, staring at a blond woman a few feet away, suspicious about why she was loitering outside on this cold November evening.
The woman turned toward the street, and I realized that it was Bria. My sister looked lovely in a royal-blue dress with three-quarter sleeves, a scoop neckline, and a short flared skirt. Her hair was pulled back into a loose, pretty braid, and her primrose rune pendant glinted in the hollow of her throat.
Bria caught sight of me, smiled, and waved. I took Owen’s arm again, and we walked up the steps. I handed the guard my invitation, and he checked off our names. Once that was done, we strolled over to Bria. I hugged my sister, and Owen and I told her how beautiful she looked.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked. “Why didn’t you go on inside where it’s warm?”
Bria shook her head. “I wanted to wait for you guys. Because of, well, you know.”
She gave Owen a tight smile, not sure if I had told him anything yet. He looked back and forth between the two of us, but he didn’t comment on how strange we were acting. Instead, he offered Bria his other arm, and together, the three of us walked inside.
First Trust’s decor definitely matched its highfalutin reputation. Tonight’s schmooze fest was meant to show off the bank’s recent remodeling and upgrades. Wispy patches of white swirled through the gray marble floor, making it seem as though we were standing on a bed of clouds. The same motif continued up through the walls and spread out onto the ceiling, which soared a hundred feet overhead. Chandeliers shaped like starbursts dropped down from the ceiling, the sparkling clusters of crystals stretching ten feet wide in places.
The lobby was a wide, open space, with antique desks and chairs set up throughout the room, each set of furniture several feet away from the others, so people could talk about their finances in private. A long marble counter took up the back wall. During normal business hours, tellers would have been working at each station along the counter, but tonight bartenders in white shirts and black tuxedo vests held court there, mixing drinks and pouring glasses of champagne. They then handed everything off to the waiters, who dispensed alcohol and hors d’oeuvres to the crowd.
Behind the counter, three cash cages were set equidistantly into the wall, each one covered with a grate of silverstone bars to protect the shrink-wrapped bricks of money stored inside. Of course, the cages were locked up tight for the night, and so was the steel door in the back left corner of the lobby. Behind that door, a staircase led down to the basement, where many of the bankers’ offices—including Finn’s—were located, along with another, much larger vault.
First Trust had several secure areas, but the basement vault—jokingly dubbed Big Bertha by Finn—was reserved for the bank’s most important and wealthiest clients. That’s where the real money, power, and secrets were hidden, carefully stowed away in silverstone boxes not unlike the one I’d found in Deirdre’s casket.
“Do you see Finn?” Bria asked, peering out over the crowd.
This might have ostensibly been an informal cocktail party, but everyone was dressed to impress, with coiffed hair, perfect makeup, and sparkling gems, each rock bigger and flashier than the last. All around the room, the gemstones proudly whispered of their own beauty, their light, trilling chorus blending in perfectly with the classical music playing in the background.
Owen pointed across the lobby. “There he is.”
Finn was perched on a stool at a wooden bar that had been set up along the left wall. He wore a different suit from the one he’d had on at lunch, this one a polished pewter that gleamed under the chandeliers. He clutched a glass of Scotch, his gaze fixed on the woman sitting next to him, a wide smile on his face, as though he found their conversation exceptionally entertaining. The woman must have said something truly funny, because Finn threw back his head and laughed, a loud, hearty laugh and not the small, polite chuckle he used with clients who thought they were more amusing than they really were.
The woman had her back to me, so all I could really see was her blond hair. Maybe that was why Finn was laughing so long and hard. He might be involved with Bria, but he was also a shameless flirt who wasn’t above using his manly wiles to charm a female client, no matter her age, occupation, or marital status.
Finn must have sensed our stares, because he turned, caught sight of Bria, Owen, and me, and waved us over. Whispers sprang up in our wake, most of them having to do with me, since more than a few underworld bosses were here tonight. Even criminals had to store their ill-gotten gains somewhere, and First Trust didn’t discriminate. Rumor had it that the bank even offered a money-laundering service—literally, to get all those pesky bloodstains off stacks of Benjamins that had been rather violently acquired.
Actually, it wasn’t a rumor at all. Back when Finn was a lowly junior clerk, he had spent many hours in the bank’s lab, spritzing money with a special cleaning solution and then carefully scrubbing stains off the bills. Once Finn had even enlisted Sophia Deveraux, Jo-Jo’s sister and my body disposer, to use her Air magic to help clean some particularly blood-soaked bricks. With Sophia’s help, he’d salvaged more than a million dollars for the bank—and got his first promotion.
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