Suzie Cain has more problems than she can count—the least of which is the fact that, if she touches a person, that person’s going to die within the week.
That, at least, she can work with. If people want to give her money to hang out with terrible people, well—it isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, but it’s a living.
She has bigger problems. For starters, she doesn’t know who she is. Oh, she knows she’s Suzie, orphan and foster kid. She knows she’s dangerous. But why? Where did she come from? Her only clue is an old photo of a very angry woman with some sort of…shadow hovering behind her and a strange poem—or is it a curse?—written on the back.
And now she’s picked up a new problem, a biker named Ace who seems to be tracking her across state lines. He’s operating under the assumption that Suzie is a mercenary for hire, just like he is—and he doesn’t like the competition. But when she’s got the chance, she doesn’t touch him and she doesn’t know why.
If Suzie can break her curse, she can change her luck.
But life is never that simple. Because of course not.
CW: Sexual assault, curses, morally gray heroines, ice cream in egregious quantities.
Ebook ISBN: 9781094425351
Print ISBN: 9798357458520
I hate this job.
A vintage white Camaro pull up outside an absolute shithole of a bar in St. Louis. Good God—is that what six-feet, four hundred seventy-five pounds actually looks like? Linda, the woman who hired me, said Padecki was a big guy, but damn. As Padecki levers himself out of the driver’s seat, it’s like watching the moon emerge from behind the clouds. Really. Not only is Padecki huge but he’s wearing all white. It takes a lot of confidence to pull of that look.
That is my target tonight. That is why I’m here.
The voice whispers through the back of my mind, dry and raspy and old. Which is ridiculous, to think of that voice as somehow separate. I’m basically talking to myself.
Which I do. A lot. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” It’s time to get to work. Damn it.
I don’t have a choice. I never did.
My life would be so much easier if I could just bump into a guy and boom he drops dead, but that’s not how things works. I’ll touch my target and in three, maybe five days, that person is irrevocably dead.
Which is great in giving me plenty of time to leave the scene but not always helpful in making sure I don’t get hurt. And a guy Padecki’s size could hurt me plenty.
But this is fine. I’ve been doing this for fourteen years, give or take a few ‘accidents’ from my childhood. Padecki isn’t the first big guy I’ve agreed to touch and he won’t be the last. Just another day at the office, trying not to get assaulted while I spread a little fatality around.
Still, it’s times like this that I wish there were another way. Snipers have it easy. They get to snipe from a distance. They don’t have to look their targets in the eyes and see the soul they’re taking.
I have to be close enough to count pores and gauge halitosis. I’m going to have to get awfully close to Padecki.
A prickle races down my back. I don’t get nervous anymore. At least, not much. In fact, I’m real proud of how little I feel these days when I get a target in my sights. Sure, the nightmares can be brutal and yeah, I’d rather be doing anything else besides killing people for a living, but it’s not like I have second thoughts. Because I don’t.
So this isn’t anxiety. It’s almost like someone dumping shards of ice down the back of my shirt. The sensation coils around the base of my spine. What the heck? I close my eyes and focus on the feeling. Spiky, cold…dangerous. It feels like awareness. Like someone’s watching, waiting. For me.
Which isn’t possible. No one’s waiting for me. No one knows where I am. If I do my job right, they won’t even remember I was here.
But better safe than sorry. I adjust the mirrors to check my surroundings, but no one’s hanging out, pretending to look at their phones while they lie in wait. Heck, I don’t see anyone now that Padecki has made it into this crappy bar. Which is good.
I am nobody. I have no record. Except for car insurance and my driver’s license, I’m off the grid. All my bank accounts, passports and prepaid credit cards are under false names. I have no permanent address, no next of kin. I’m an orphan, for God’s sake. I have no past and I barely exist in the present. There’s nothing to connect me to anything or anyone. Nothing but the picture and a mostly blank birth certificate, anyway. I am untraceable, one step removed from a ghost.
Still alive, though. Pretty sure about that.
Focus, Suzie. The sooner the job is done, the sooner I can get back to the safety of my trailer and a pint of ice cream. Which is selfish. I should be focused on the fact that, the sooner I touch Padecki, the sooner a girl will be safe, but ice cream is what it takes to keep me going.
That Camaro would fetch a pretty penny. Linda doesn’t have much money but that car will settle her debt. I hate to sell it because then I’ll have to talk to an actual human, which never goes well, but it can’t be helped. Can’t haul an Airstream trailer with a muscle car.
If I’m lucky, it’s worth twenty, thirty thousand. Which isn’t enough to retire on, sadly.
Ha, retirement. How could anyone retire if they’re cursed to kill every single person they touch? The best I could hope for would be having enough money in the bank that I could disappear into some forgotten back country and only risk interacting with another living being on a once-monthly grocery run.
But that’s not good enough, frankly. What I wouldn’t give to break this damned curse completely. It’s not like I signed up for this and there’s absolutely nothing to go on besides a photo with the name Angel of Vengeance and what seems a heck of a lot like a curse written on the back. No named demon that turns up in Google searches. No text that matches the photo’s inscription anywhere online.
Everything I’ve tried—voodoo curse-reversing spells, Wiccan invocations to cast out demons and even just simply trying to destroy the photograph—has been exactly as productive as thoughts and prayers after a tragedy.
Nothing changes. It just is. The sky is blue. Water is wet. I am the Angel of Vengeance.
But it’s fine. I made peace with this a long time ago. If I’m going to be lethal, I’m going to at least be lethal for a good reason.
And Padecki is an awfully good reason. Three weeks ago, Linda wrote Padecki had taken her daughter “out to dinner” a few months prior and, when he brought the girl home, she was screaming in agony, torn and bleeding. When Linda tried to take the girl to the hospital, Padecki had locked her and the girl in the basement, basically holding them hostage except when he took the girl somewhere—where she was clearly being violated. Padecki’s brother was a cop so she couldn’t go there, either. There was no place he wouldn’t find them.
She included a link to a video of two men raping a child. Even with the sound off, it was horrifying. Like all the others.
She’s only nine, her mother says. No one else will protect her, not like I can. I never wanted to be the Angel of Vengeance but by God, I can use this damned curse to save that child. To save as many of them as I can. That doesn’t make me the monster here. That makes me the hero.
All I have to do is touch her abuser. It’s not like I’ve got to pull the trigger and watch his brain matter splatter on the wall. Just a simple bit of incidental contact and one girl will be saved. She’ll get to have a normal life. Because of me.
One day, I hope I’ll be able to leave my horror-show life behind. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could break the damn curse entirely? I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life walking the fine line between life and death. I could go to Jonathan. We could be together. I could hug the man without signing his death warrant. Kiss him? Dare I dream, make love?
I’d be so good for him, too. A devoted wife who’d help him run his ice-cream stand because ice cream makes people happy. He already has a dog—Skipper, who’s in all his Instagram posts. But we’d get another one or two or four soft, cuddly puppies that’ll love me no matter what. And maybe…
My eyes burn and I have to blink back tears. Maybe children. Not that I know anything about kids beyond, you know, being willing to kill for them. But I’ve never had a family before. If only there was a way from this—sitting outside a crappy bar, gearing up to kill a violent, abusive man—to a life with Jonathan, one filled with love and happiness instead of pain and suffering. Jonathan and I would grow old together and fall asleep at night holding hands.
Other people dream of winning the lottery. I dream of normalcy.
One day soon. Before I lose what’s left of my soul, I pray. There’s been so many…
What’s one more? I glance at the time. My twenty minutes are up. The icy, prickly feeling hasn’t gone away, but I don’t see anyone lying in wait. Fine. I’ll deal with the paranoia later.
One day, my dreams will come true.
Today, however, is not that day.
My stomach lurches dangerously as push open the door to the bar. It takes a moment for my eyes adjust to the dim light. There’s hip-hop music blaring and two TV screens—old tube TVs, not flat screens—mounted to the wall behind the bar. It smells, too. Body odor and stale beer and weed and something else that I choose not to think too closely about. I have a weak gag reflex.
In the movies, a hush would fall over the bar as someone so wildly out of place as myself walked in. But the TVs keep blaring and hip-hop keeps hopping, so there’s no discernible drop in volume. What does happen, however, is that everyone looks at me.
And I mean everyone. To a man—there aren’t any women here—they physically recoil as waves of revulsion pass over them. A few look ill. Most just look scared. I doubt any of them realize they’re reacting at all. Which is normal.
Guys like Padecki never see the danger. They come to me. They dance with my brand of death in the pale moonlight. All I have to do is give them a little…encouragement.
But when it comes to everyone else, it’s a different story. Decent folks instinctively stay away from me—which is a nice way of saying they are actively repulsed by my mere presence. Which is fine. I don’t want to mess with them any more than they want to mess with me.
After all, I’m just a five-foot-five, hundred-and-thirty pound woman of ambiguous ethnic origins with curly hair that defies all known laws of physics and John Frieda, wearing steel-toed boots and blue jeans because it’s hard to be the Angel of Vengeance in yoga pants. I look harmless. I want them to believe I’m harmless.
A memory of Jonathan, sprawled on the concrete, his legs bent at wrong angles because I’m not harmless floats in my mind, but I push it away. Now is not the time, dammit.
That feeling that something’s wrong here only gets stronger as multiple pairs of eyes follow me as I take another step inside. They outnumber me and by any reasonable metric, I’m easy pickings. But almost to a man, they act as if the Devil himself just walked into the room to collect his due. Maybe they’re not wrong about that.
I can feel something’s not right, like a cold fog condensing on my skin. Great. My instincts are usually right and at this exact moment in time, they’re screaming for me to walk right back out of this bar. It’s not safe. And I’m not talking about Padecki. He’s just the regular kind of dangerous. This…this is different.
I almost gasp when it hits me. Whatever this is, it feels familiar.
Shit, shit, shit.
But it’s too late. I’m committed. There’s a kid who’s depending on me. I just need ten minutes—five, even—to do my thing. Then I can run far and fast.
Calm. I’m calm. I’m an instrument of justice and instruments of justice don’t have panic attacks on the job or blow cover. I’m a professional, dammit, and I’m going to act like it.
I’m still just a girl. In a bar. Looking for a man to kill.
A man I don’t see.
Where is Padecki?
I know from my research that through the doorway in the back, there’s a narrow hall that leads to a one-hole toilet and a storage room. The storage room has a door that leads out to the alley. Padecki better be in the john, by God. I’m not chasing him down.
Always know where the exits are. Just a good rule for life, airplane flights, movie theater showings and dangerous situations you willingly put yourself in for the sake of justice. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way.
If anything, the prickly feeling gets worse, tightening around the base of my spine until my butt clenches. It’s like a dream, one you can almost remember in the morning even as it slips through your fingers. I take another covert glance around but I don’t recognize anyone. Mostly black men, mostly older, a few bikers—nothing that rings any bells. This is not a party crowd. These men are here to drink and forget. With a little luck, none of them will remember me.
But someone is watching me. I can feel it. He or they or whoever has noticed I don’t belong. No panicking. Panic gets a girl noticed or—worse—killed. Stick to the plan, which is to get a drink. I ignore the way men are wrinkling their brows as I head to the bar, like I’m the one who smells bad. I refuse to let the opinions of bunch of guys who’d willingly surround themselves with this odor make me feel like I’m lacking. I’m not here for them, anyway.
The bartender backs up. He’s a black guy, probably in his fifties with a real hangdog look about him. Maybe he cheats on his wife or fudges his taxes—but the fact that he finds me unsettling is a real reliable indicator that he’s not a monster. Believe it or not, most people aren’t. They can be a little bit bad or even total assholes but the fact is, most people aren’t intentionally evil. Thank God for that. The knowledge that most people are fundamentally decent gives me just a little bit of hope.
“Help you?” he finally says after tense moment.
I’m in St. Louis so… “Bud Light,” I say in an intentionally small voice.
Beer is terrible. I understand its purpose is a social lubricant in society, but it tastes like dirty sweat socks to me. Fermented dirty sweat socks. Besides, no one wants me to get blitzed and accidentally cause an earthquake to rattle a major urban area or something. I have, on occasion, tolerated a hard cider because it’s just like apple juice only worse.
This is not a hard cider kind of establishment. The bartender looks at me like I’ve lost my ever-loving mind. “You want a beer?” he says as if I’d asked for a pink elephant.
I give him a calculated weak smile. “Please.”
Someone shifts in my peripheral vision and the hairs on my arms stand straight up. That post-nightmare-waking foggy feeling—it’s suddenly stronger. I am not imagining this. I better not be.
I don’t look. I don’t react at all because a reaction is confirmation. I will not cower, by God. I’m one of the deadliest women in the world. I’ve killed more people than I can count. I will not be afraid of anyone living. Hell, I won’t be afraid of anyone dead, for that matter.
The bartender’s gaze cuts to my side. “Your funeral,” he says with a shrug, filling up a grimy-looking glass and setting it in front of me. He manages to keep a solid two feet between us at all times.
“Thanks.” I pull a crumpled ten out of my pocket and leave it on the bar so there’s no risk of bumping his hand. “Keep the change.”
He frowns and, without picking up the cash, moves away. Much farther away.
Who’s next to me? It’s not Padecki—his blinding whiteness would reflect in my peripheral vision. Looking without looking, all I can make out is whoever it is, he’s dressed in all black.
Don’t make me kill you, I think while taking a sip of the beer. It’s awful and it takes everything I’ve got not to cough.
Jonathan has never been as far away as he is right now.
But that’s fine. I don’t want him anywhere near me when I’m working. There’s a hard line between this life and the one I’ll have with him—for both our sakes. He healed once. I can’t risk him a second time.
What I need to do now is figure out who the asshole next to me is and why I’m having this extreme reaction to him or if there’s something else in play here or what. I’ve seen some weird shit in my time and hello—waiting to kill a guy with a deadly, cursed touch. I’m not ruling out something otherworldly here.
Moving carefully, I glance up at the cracked mirror behind the bar. Padecki is nowhere to be seen. Instead…
A biker is staring at me.