Lara Tanaka had been nursing her drink for about a half hour on a corner stool at the Drink ‘Em Up Saloon before her mark made his move. The Drink ‘Em Up lived up to its name—or down to it, if you asked Lara. The dingy interior was festooned with cheap Western hats and cowboy paintings with a bad sense of physical proportions framed in rope. Tinny country music tried unsuccessfully to cut over the noise of heavy afternoon drinking and poorly played games of pool. Smoke hung in the air with such thick determination that breathing took effort. The haze also made flirting difficult, but Lara was a certified expert.
As always, she’d chosen her look with care. Not that it mattered once she took her shot, but she took pride in thoroughness. When she claimed her man, no one would suspect a thing untoward. No one would suspect she was a bounty hunter and the man pawing at her desperately was her mark. Subtle extraction was a hallmark of her business, and she intended to keep it that way.
Most of the time, Lara worked in higher class establishments than the Drink ‘Em Up Saloon. She didn’t come cheap, and her clients were some of the richest people in the world. But sometimes, runners tried to hide in the slums, thinking that no one would ever look for them there. Vinnie Delvecchio was one such man. He hadn’t even bothered to leave town after he took the lead on what Lara knew was a mob hit. Normally, she didn’t mind if mobsters killed each other, but Delvecchio had been sloppy. He’d killed the rival mobster, plus his wife and two kids, plus a college student that just happened to get a little bit too close. And he hadn’t done it quickly either.
Lara had a strict no mob policy, but she’d loosened it for this particular job. Delvecchio was a monster, and the sooner he was off the street, the better.
She had him, too. One glance from underneath slightly lowered lids, and a suck on the cherry from her drink, and he was practically falling off his bar stool in an effort to get to her. She watched with just the right amount of coy demureness. Too much, and he’d be turned off by her aggressiveness. Too little and he wouldn’t think she was worth the effort. She was like Baby Bear; just right.
His cheeks were flushed with alcohol as he made his way to her corner of the bar, but he wasn’t drunk. No stumbling or staggering. He’d downed quite a few beers while she watched, but he was a big man. Maybe 6’2” if she had to make a guess, with the beefy 250 pound frame of a former linebacker. His shoulders had swallowed his neck long ago, although he tried to balance out his lack of neck by leaving the top couple of buttons undone on his shiny green shirt. Lara wasn’t a fan of the sartorial choice. If you asked her, it just made him look like a disco leprechaun.
But a killer disco leprechaun. It wouldn’t do to underestimate him.
She uncrossed her legs as he closed in on her, watching him stare raptly at the smooth skin exposed by her short denim skirt. The fingers of his right hand twitched as if he was resisting the urge to reach right out and grab her. She had him alright. He was eager and willing, and she mentally adjusted her approach. There was no need to draw him in any further, and she’d be happy to get this job over with so she could take a long, hot shower and hopefully wash off the psychic stink of being in the same room with this murderer.
But she had to shove that thought away as soon as it crossed her mind. It was dangerous to think of her marks as anything but targets. If any hint of her true thoughts and feelings crossed her face, the situation could go bad fast. A guy like Vinnie Delvecchio wouldn’t just let her go, and although she had tricks up her sleeve, she still had to be cautious.
“Hey, babe,” he said, looking her over with his heavy lidded eyes. “Buy you a drink?”
“You could,” she purred, standing up and running a long, lacquered nail down the row of buttons on his shirt. “Or we could just skip to the part where you ask if you can take me home. That’s the fun part anyway.”
He gave her another once over, appraisingly, and seemed to like what he saw. He gestured to her with two fingers, summoning her as if she was a dog. She stood up and fished a couple of bucks out of her bra before tossing them on the bar next to her half-finished beer, not breaking eye contact. His face broke out in a grin that wouldn’t have been entirely revolting if she hadn’t known what he was capable of.
She pushed that thought away too. This case had gotten under her skin. She shouldn’t have looked at the picture of those kids after he’d finished with them. Big mistake.
He frowned a little, picking up on her mental turmoil. To distract them both, she looped a finger into the top of his jeans and pulled him closer. He came willingly.
“So are you going to take me out of here and show me a good time, or what?” she asked.
“You don’t waste any time, do you?” he asked, any suspicions he may have had vanishing in the wake of her blatant interest.
“I came to Vegas hoping for a good time. So why don’t you show me one?”
The serial murderer led the bounty hunter toward the door of the saloon. No one took notice, and if they had, they would have seen an unremarkable couple. No one would have expected that, a few steps outside of the door, Vinnie Delvecchio would decide that he wasn’t willing to wait. And no one in their right mind would expect that, moments after he dragged Lara into the alleyway and roughly hiked up her skirt, that she would have drawn her hands back as if pulling on an invisible bow, and then shot him square between the eyes.
He immediately stopped pawing at her, gazing at her with adoring, doe like eyes.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Lara. Why don’t you come with me now? I have something to show you.”
She offered her hand, and he took it, as docile as you please. He was one of those people who turned into mush in the throes of true love. Lara knew full well what that was like. As a Cupid, she’d seen all kinds of reactions to her arrows. Tears. Blind obedience. And on rare occasions, a blind and jealous rage. But most of her marks were just like Vinnie. Once she shot them with an arrow of love, they’d do anything for her. Like get into a car and drive to the warehouse where the family of his victims would make sure he never hurt anyone again.
She’d hunted down a monster and pulled him off the streets, and made a pretty penny in the process. But she kept seeing the picture of those kids in her mind, and it made her feel sick. Vinnie picked up on her displeasure as she settled into the seat of his bullet-like sports car. His eyes searched her face with desperate worry.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his hand worrying over the gearshift.
“Nothing. Just drive.” But he didn’t. He just sat there, trying desperately to figure out what he could do to make her happy. She forced herself to smile at him and hated it. “Just drive, baby. I’ll give you the directions.”
He drove himself to his doom without even realizing it. She couldn’t make herself feel bad for him, though. She didn’t bother trying.
After it was over, she took herself to her Vegas sublease and let herself in. The water was scalding and the takeout came quickly. She enjoyed a nice dinner of lo mein in front of the television and took herself to bed. She always crashed after a job, and this time was no different. She awoke—groggy and disoriented at noon to a ringing phone. As much as she wanted to ignore it, she couldn’t. That ringtone was reserved for Annamarie from dispatch, and she couldn’t be ignored.
Lara sat up and tried to collect her wits before she answered. Sometimes their conversations were short and to the point, but other times, they got to talking. She liked Annamarie, even though they’d never met face to face. But after eight years of working together, they’d established a strange kind of distant friendship. It helped to alleviate the loneliness of moving from city to city and never quite putting down ties anywhere.
“It’s about time you called,” she said, answering the phone. It wasn’t a dig. The phrase was one of a few that let Annamarie know she was free to talk. If Lara had answered the phone differently, the cavalry would be mobilized before she could so much as shoot an arrow. And Lara was a quick shot.
“The Delvecchio clients are happy,” said Annamarie warmly. “They already called and wanted me to convey their compliments.”
“I shouldn’t have made an exception. This one wasn’t easy. I kept struggling to maintain my distance. Do me a favor and if you get any other hunts for kid killers, offer them to someone else, or don’t show me the pictures.”
“I’ll make a note.”
Annamarie’s voice wasn’t judgmental at all. The firm encouraged this kind of debrief. With a number of operatives on the move throughout the continental United States—and the world, although Lara stuck to the US—they put a high priority on selecting the right person for each job. Any time she struggled, she reported that to Annamarie honestly. It insured that she got the best cases for her personality type and her particular skill set. She liked that part of the arrangement. It felt less like admitting faults and more like zeroing in on her sweet spot. Vinnie Delvecchio had been nowhere near her sweet spot, in every sense of the word.
“Done,” said Annamarie after a few moments with rapid fire typing in the background. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten any kid killer cases in the past. It seems like this should have come up before.”
“Oh, I have. But this one was bad enough that I think it turned me off them for good.”
“I’ve seen that before,” said Annamarie. “So where are you?”
“Safe house. I was maybe going to get together with my friend Audra later on. She’s that elementalist who lives in Vegas, remember?”
“That sounds lovely. I hate to interrupt it, but we’ve got another job. In Vegas, and you’re my only asset there at the moment.”
“What’s the situation?” asked Lara.
She didn’t need to be more specific, because of course Annamarie knew the policy. She’d written it. After a completed job, operatives were entitled to a 24 hour rest period. More than entitled, in fact. They were required to take it, except under special circumstances. So far, this didn’t sound very special, but Lara knew that if Annamarie was asking, she had good reason.
“The client is Tanith Q,” said Annamarie in a hushed, reverent tone that Lara had never heard from her.
Tanith Q was a huge pop star famous for her crazy outfits and unique musical arrangements. Lara personally thought that most of her songs tried too hard to be avant garde, but then again, she didn’t care much for pop. She had a secret weakness for rap music that she’d picked up at her favorite boxing gym. At first, the constant blasting bass had annoyed her, but she’d slowly fallen in love with it.
Lara didn’t know much about the singer. She knew a few of the songs because they were played on endless radio rotation, often on multiple stations at once. She knew that Tanith favored giant platform shoes that made the most of her already considerable height, and once made all of the animal rights groups angry because she wore a pair of platforms with live goldfish in them, and one of the fish had died from being sloshed about. The singer had recently taken up residency at one of the casinos for a month. Lara knew that too because it seemed like everywhere she turned, there was another billboard announcing the show, featuring Tanith’s angular, colorless face, with a forked tongue protruding from her mouth.
The show was called “Serpentine.” Lara had no desire to see it. But based on the tone of her voice, Annamarie was a super fan.
“Okay, so we’re making an excuse for her why?” she asked, trying not to sound snippy. She’d been looking forward to the day off. That last job had been a tough one. Vinnie had smiled at her adoringly as she handed him off to the stony faced man at the door of the warehouse. She hadn’t stayed to see what happened next, but her mind kept trying to fill in all the details.
Normally these things didn’t bother her, and of course she was happy to help take Vinnie out of commission. But sometimes jobs hit her hard, and this was one of them. A little time off would do her good, but it looked like she wasn’t going to have it.
Annamarie’s voice turned contrite. “I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have obligated you without asking first, but I promised her. She was on the phone with me, Lara. Like, her. Not even an assistant. I lost my shit. If you want, I can call her back…”
But that offer was made with extreme reluctance. Annamarie didn’t want to call her idol and say that she’d made a mistake, and Lara couldn’t blame her. If one of the stars of Supernatural had called her to ask for a favor, Lara wouldn’t want to renege on it either.
“I’ll do it, but you owe me. Double time off after this one,” she said firmly. It wasn’t too much to ask. In fact, she was tempted to ask for triple, except that she was saving up to take a month off in Hawaii, and she didn’t want to pass on the paycheck.
The relief in Annamarie’s voice was palpable. “I’ll triple it if you want,” she said, almost like a mind-reader. But Annamarie wasn’t psychic. She was sleepless—able to function 24 hours a day without a single wink of sleep, but otherwise without a single supernatural thing about her. It was weird, but at least she’d found a job that could make use of it. Annamarie was always available, no matter the time, and that fact had hauled Lara’s buns out of the over more than a few times.
“We’ll see,” said Lara noncommittally. “So what’s the job?”
“I’ll upload the files for you. Short version is that her personal assistant absconded with a bunch of money and her new demos. If he decides to post them on the internet, it could cost her record label millions.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” said Lara, reaching for her laptop. “Send me what you have, and I’ll see if I can find her runaway personal assistant.”
“His name is Ignazio. He’d be cute, if he weren’t such a creep.”
“I don’t know what to say to that, so I’m just going to hang up now.”
“Thanks, Lara. I owe you one.”