Spider's Trap(Elemental Assassin,book 13)(46) by Jennifer Estep
This might have been the first formal garden soiree I’d ever attended, but I was well acquainted with all the winding paths, since I’d killed more than a couple of folks here. The botanical gardens were a popular party spot, especially in the spring and summer, and I’d skulked through the trees and hunkered down in the bushes more than once, waiting for someone to get within knife’s reach, so I could clamp my hand over his mouth, drag him back into the greenery, and cut his throat. Good times. Simpler times.
As I walked, I peered into the dancing, dappled shadows, remembering how easy it had been to slip from one section of the gardens to the next without anyone ever suspecting that I was watching them. It would be the perfect place for Pike to take out Lorelei.
My steps slowed, my eyes cutting left and right as I considered all the ways Pike could get close to his sister. Oh, he couldn’t enter the Rose Garden itself, not without attracting attention during the ladies-only fund-raiser, but there were plenty of spots where he could spy on the event and then raise his gun and put a bullet through Lorelei’s heart when the moment was right. Or, worse, watch while the bomb he’d planted earlier finally exploded . . .
My nose twitched, and I realized that another strong scent had intruded on all the heavy floral perfumes: smoke.
I stopped and drew in another breath, wondering if I’d just imagined the scent. One breath, two breaths, three breaths, four . . . I drew air deep down into my lungs again and again, turning in a slow circle, but all I could smell was the roses, lilies, and other blooms fighting for olfactory dominance. No smoke. I shook my head and started walking again. Sometimes my overly developed sense of paranoia surprised even me—
A gray spiral of smoke wafted up into the air off to my right.
I squinted in that direction, wondering if both my eyes and my nose were playing tricks on me. Another spiral of smoke curled up, and the scent swirled through my nose again, stronger than before. I picked up my skirt and hurried over, searching for the source of the smoke.
A cigar butt smoldered in the grass.
My stomach clenched, but I forced myself to scan the area and think things through. He must have taken one final drag off the cigar before tossing the butt aside and stepping off the path. I spotted a narrow trail of broken branches and fallen leaves a few feet away, where someone must have carelessly plowed through the row of bushes. A bit of silver also shimmered in the grass there, so I went over, crouched down, and brushed the leaves off the object.
A single nail gleamed in the black earth, confirming what I’d suspected and bringing another, more chilling thought with it.
Raymond Pike was here—and Jo-Jo and Roslyn were still at the garden party.
* * *
I surged to my feet, whipped around, and ran back the way I’d come. I could have followed Pike’s trail through the bushes, but there was no telling where he might have ended up, and I wanted to get back to the garden—and my friends—as fast as possible.
My stilettos click-click-clicked on the flagstones, making far too much noise, so I hopped on first one foot, then the other, until I could yank them off and toss them into the bushes. I lifted up the ridiculous, billowing skirt of my dress and grabbed one of the silverstone knives strapped to my thighs. Unlike Jo-Jo and Roslyn, I hadn’t brought a purse, and I was cursing that decision now. If I’d brought my phone, I could have called my friends to warn them.
The main entrance to the Rose Garden loomed up ahead, another white trellis with blood-red roses twining through the arch. As much as I wanted to barge into the middle of the party and tell everyone to run, I forced myself to slow down and scan my surroundings.
Waitresses moved in and out through the arch, leaving with empty trays and returning with fresh ones, and the murmur of conversation and faint trills of laughter floated over to me. Everyone else was still enjoying themselves at the party, which meant that Pike hadn’t struck.
I had started to leave the path so I could hunt him down when a low tree branch snagged on the brim of my floppy black hat, yanking me backward. I cursed, reached up, ripped off the stupid hat, and tossed it aside. The wind picked it up, whipping the hat up into the air before neatly dropping it onto an arrow-shaped bronze trail marker that pointed in the direction of the rock garden. I couldn’t have done that if I’d tried a million times. I huffed, stepped off the flagstone path, and wiggled my way through the thick clusters of rhododendron bushes that ringed the garden.
Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem for me to move quickly and quietly through the dense foliage. But every single branch seemed determined to snag my oversize skirt, while broken twigs scraped and stabbed into the bottoms of my bare feet. I was going nowhere fast and sounding like a rampaging bull doing it. So I lifted my skirt again and used my knife to hack away the crinoline underneath. Once the stiffer, poofier fabric was gone, the skirt fell flat against my legs, allowing me to slip between the branches without getting caught. I also peeled off my black satin gloves and tossed them into the bushes so I could have a better grip on my knife. Twigs still stabbed my bare feet every third step or so, but I pushed the discomfort to the back of my mind. I’d be hurting a lot worse—we all would—if Pike went through with his latest devious plan.
Knife in hand, I skulked through the shadows, searching for him. Every few feet, I stopped and sniffed the air, but between the Southern belles and the flowers, there were too many floral perfumes for me to detect any cigar smoke that might be clinging to him.
Finally, I reached a break in the rhododendron bushes that let me peer into the Rose Garden. The party was still going strong, and everyone was drinking, gossiping, and moving from one clique to the next. Jo-Jo and Roslyn were talking to some women I didn’t recognize, while Lorelei was schmoozing with another group.
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