Bitter Bite(Elemental Assassin #14)(67) by Jennifer Estep
I stopped on the side of the road, remembering my last trip to the cemetery. It had been more than a week now, but I wondered if the van was still there. Not likely, but it was the best option I had right now.
So I picked up my pace, jogging around a sharp curve, and there it was, an old, battered white van sitting on the side of the road, right where the grave-robbing Don and Ethel had left it. The vehicle looked untouched, and even that white plastic trash bag was still stuck in the driver’s-side window, fluttering like a trapped butterfly. I supposed the van had looked too much like a junker for anyone to bother messing with it.
I grinned. “No good deed.”
* * *
The van had a full tank of gas, but it was still after ten by the time I reached Briartop.
It looked like every cop in Ashland was at the museum. Blue and white lights flashed on more than a dozen patrol cars on this side of the covered bridge, with even more cars over on the island and clustered around the museum itself. Uniformed officers and suited detectives swarmed over everything, talking and texting on their phones or calling out to one another through their walkie-talkies.
I parked the van behind one of the patrol cars. My black clothes hid most of the blood that had soaked into them from the warehouse fight, but my face was a bruised, blood-caked mess. I couldn’t exactly waltz over to the museum looking like this, so I started rustling around in the van, looking for supplies.
The grave robbers had stuffed a variety of junk into the door pockets, including a bottle of water, which I poured over an old white undershirt. It wasn’t much of a washcloth, but it scrubbed the blood off my face. I couldn’t do anything about the goose egg, but this was as respectable as I was going to look, so I got out of the van and headed for the covered bridge.
A cop who barely looked old enough to shave stepped in front of me. “Sorry, ma’am, but you can’t be here. This is an active crime scene.”
I had opened my mouth to make up some excuse to try to get past him when heavy footsteps sounded, and Xavier stepped out of the bridge opening.
“She’s with me,” he called out. “Let her through, Larry.”
Larry gave me a suspicious look, but I just smiled sweetly at him, and he reluctantly stepped aside. It was good to have friends.
“Here,” Xavier said, passing me a pair of black crime-scene gloves. “Put these on, and try to look official. Bria’s up at the museum. She asked me to come down here and keep an eye out for you.”
I did as he asked, and the giant led me through the covered bridge, up the hill, and into the museum. Cops looked at us, wondering why I was here, but Xavier nodded at them, and no one stopped us from entering the main exhibit space.
The rotunda was a disaster. It looked like a bomb had exploded, blowing blood, glass, bullets, and bodies everywhere. Men dressed in khakis and cheap gray suit jackets were sprawled across the marble floor, guns lying next to them and blood pooled underneath their bodies from where they had been shot so many times. Bullets had smashed through and shattered the glass cases housing the jewelry, and the resulting shards glinted like diamonds underfoot, mixed in with the brass bullet casings. More holes blackened the walls, and I could hear the marble whimpering about all the violence that had occurred here today.
Bria broke away from a cluster of cops and came over to Xavier and me. She hugged me tight before pulling back and giving me a quick once-over, eyeing the knot on my head.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Just a little banged up. What happened?”
Bria pointed at the dead men on the floor. “These guys walked in here as soon as the museum opened at nine o’clock this morning, pulled out guns, and started shooting. But given the amount of jewels, the museum’s guards and the cops on duty were already on high alert. They took cover and returned fire. All the robbers were killed, and only one of our guys was hit in return. Shoulder wound. He’s with an Air elemental healer, and he’s going to be fine.”
I frowned. From the way Deirdre had talked and the obvious planning that Santos had put into this, I would have thought the robbery would have been successful. Or at least not such a total, epic failure.
“I don’t know what these guys were thinking.” Xavier shook his head. “They never had a chance.”
He was right. All the robbers’ bodies were clustered at the front of the rotunda. They hadn’t gotten twenty feet into the room before they were all killed. Maybe Deirdre and Santos hadn’t been as smart as I’d thought.
One of the cops called out to Bria and Xavier, and they went over to see what she wanted. I looked over the dead men on the floor, expecting to see Santos’s mug somewhere in the mess of bodies, his face frozen in pain and death.
But he wasn’t here.
I frowned and walked closer to the bodies, going around the pile of them and staring at each robber’s face in turn, but none of them was Santos. I hadn’t expected Deirdre to be here, to do the dirty work of actually robbing the museum herself, but this was Santos’s gig, his crew, his plan. He should have been here, leading the charge. So where was he? Had he managed to escape from the museum?
No. The cops would have checked the security footage to make sure that none of the robbers had escaped. Even if Santos had gotten away, they would have been combing the surrounding area for him, not camped out here at the museum collecting evidence.
And then I noticed something else missing: the jewelry.
Many of the exhibit cases had been shattered by the flying bullets, but no jewelry littered the rotunda, and I didn’t see so much as a single diamond knocked loose from its setting, glittering on the floor. And all the cases that were still intact were also empty. No rings, no bracelets, no necklaces. All the jewelry was gone. The cops must have removed it and taken it to the museum’s shiny new vault for safekeeping.
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