Man, for a guidebook, this thing sure doesn’t tell you much.
Lena flipped through the pages again, her gaze darting between them and the window. Their two-bedroom apartment was in a new complex on the edge of town, less than a mile from the ferry that had brought them to the tiny island. The book she’d managed to sneak past Kara gave her plenty of history, sure, but there didn’t appear to be much about the town currently. Still, she had to admit it was better than going in blind.
‘White Island sits thirty miles off the coast of northern California.’, she read for probably the fiftieth time. ‘It is so named for the limestone bluffs that protected the original settlement from rough weather. One local legend also claims that-’
She snapped the book shut, turning back to the window. Lush, towering trees dominated the landscape, the only marks of civilization being a narrow two-lane road and the large sign that stood beside it. Made from planks and painted a cheery white and blue, it welcomed all who passed it to the little town of Blackwood Cove, established in 1803.
The sun was beginning to set, the bright colors of day fading into the ambers and violets of twilight. As usual, the sight of her new home brought out mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was excited for the chance to start a new life, to be in a place where no one knew her. On the other, she longed for the life she knew no longer existed, one that hadn’t for years.
Life hadn't exactly been perfect before that day, when everything she’d known had erupted in blood-tinged flames. The few officers she’d gotten the chance to ask had all claimed the same thing, that there hadn’t been enough evidence to confirm a culprit. That everything had been the horrible result of unforeseen circumstances. Even then, back when she’d understood even less than she did now, she’d known they had all been lying. She’d wanted to scream at them, telling them everything could have been avoided if they had just paid attention. But they hadn’t, and now she was the one forced to pay the price.
Why did that have to happen, she pulled her knees to her chest, burying her face in her hands. What did I do to deserve all this?!
Her eyes burned, but the tears refused to come. She’d buried them too deep for too long. She wiped her dry cheek, pushing the guidebook from its spot on the back of the couch. It fell open, showing yet another passage she’d read a hundred times.
‘A thick forest of pine, birch and oak still covers the majority of the island, a web of underground rivers feeding its many ponds and streams.’
She skipped to the next page, scanning the story of how the island’s first settlers had stumbled upon the silver, two merchant families taking charge of the mine and the town that bloomed around it. The name was a result of another discovery on that same journey, a ring of scorched trees surrounding a small inlet. The only clear path in the rocky waters surrounding the island.
Lena set the book aside again, stretching out on the couch. She thought back to the chain of events that had dragged them there, recalling what she had done not long before. Miranda had assured her the chest was still there, that she’d remember the promise to send it once Lena told her it was safe. It held all that remained of her old life, one of few things Kara didn’t know about. And she wasn’t about to let that woman take it. She turned on her side, taking the thin book and stuffing it between the cushions.
But maybe it won’t be so bad here, she thought. Miranda and Ty had loved telling her to look on the bright side, even if the sky seemed full of the darkest storm clouds. Who knows, I might actually-
She sat up at the jingle of keys, the faint smile on her lips fading when Kara walked through the front door. The aging beauty pushed the door shut with her heel, gazing at herself in her favorite blue compact. As usual, she barely glanced at her stepdaughter before walking swiftly past her.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said dismissively. Lena’s cool stare grew even colder.
“How’d it go?” she asked flatly. Kara set her purse on the small kitchen counter, blowing herself a kiss before snapping the compact shut and tucking it away.
“Everything’s moved in,” she answered off-handedly. “It’ll just take some time to unpack.”
Lena’s eyes narrowed.
Unpack what? Who did this woman think she was kidding?
“Oh, and before I forget, I got you something.”
Kara tossed her a white paper bag, Sweet Tooth spelled out on the side in pale pink letters. A chocolate donut topped with powdered sugar, a local specialty. Lena didn’t think twice before biting into it, too hungry to notice Kara smirking as she left the room.
She licked at the sugar that clung to her lips, her eyes widening when she tasted the tart sweetness of fresh raspberries. But her short spurt of happiness ended when she felt the heavy sensation begin to creep along her spine. Her vision began blurring, swirling colors mixing with black as she fell back, the half-eaten pastry soon tumbling from her limp hand.
Kara slipped into the room a short while later, smirking again when she saw the unconscious teen. It always made things so much easier. She stepped closer, unfolding the ratty blanket in her arms and draping it over the girl. She then reached between the cushions, pulling out the guidebook she’d caught her reading earlier.
“Poor thing,” she whispered through a bright smile. In a mockingly tender gesture, she brushed a lock of hair from her stepdaughter’s forehead, tracing the edge of an old bruise she found there. It had just been another of Lena’s many lessons. “Haven’t you learned not to hide things from me yet?”
He grunted, feeling the warmth of blood soak the dirty scrap of cloth he’d plastered to a fresh wound. The foul temper glittering in his storming eyes grew darker as he revved the engine. Beneath it all, the growling vibrations of his motorcycle, the slowly fading adrenaline buzzing in his veins, was the faint, all-too-familiar throb of fractured bone. The latest chase they had sent him on hadn’t ended entirely as he had planned.
Of course, it had started out perfectly, his target readily agreeing to meet him in the woods on the edge of town. It had been to easy, now that he looked back on it. Even so, he had expected the aging, ill-trained man to go down quickly, the explosion of movement from the damp undergrowth coming as a complete surprise.
He could just imagine the cops as they struggled to make sense of the scene; the wannabe fighters beaten, piled in a mess of bloody pulp. The sole greyed figure lying apart, a star-tipped bullet lodged in his brain. That had been the best part, being able to glare into that bastard’s eyes, mocking him one last time before ending his disgusting life with an inch of lead. He heard himself laugh, certain no one would ever catch on to their twisted game.
He looked up when a slim sliver of moon cleared the clouds, the shadow of a squat building looming in the darkness ahead.He eased the bike to a stop in the overgrown parking lot, shaking his hand to help ease the burn of the knife slash across his knuckles.
Coming closer, he saw the faded red paint was cracked and flaking, the windows either boarded or smashed. The door had been ripped off its hinges, lying in pieces at his feet. Inside, the shredded striped wallpaper was peeling, chunks of plaster missing from the graffiti-covered walls. A blanket of dust lay over every surface, the softly-creaking floor dotted with footprints. The only working light flickered weakly above him, swinging slightly on a rotting wire. He sneezed, silently wondering why they insisted on using such musty old ruins.
“You certainly took your time.”
The harshly-accented voice was deep, its empty tone chilling. He turned, glaring at a corner bathed in deep shadow.
“He brought friends,” he answered carelessly. He gave a slight shrug. “But I took care of them.”
Slowly, the source of the voice stepped forward. A stocky man with thinning dark hair frosty, colorless eyes that glowed eerily when the low light hit them. He reached in the bag at his side, taking out a large envelope.
“I’ve got your money,” he said, tossing it. “Along with your next assignment.”
“Who is it?” he caught it without breaking eye contact. No way was he going to look away from another of his boss’s ‘messengers’; he’d barely escaped with his head last time.
“You have everything you need,” the old man sank seamlessly back into the gloom. “It should prove…interesting.”
He rolled his eyes before turning away, pulling up his hood to help block out the growing chill. Dramatic as always.
The wind had picked up, that and the moon his only companions as he sped toward his sleeping neighborhood. He stowed his bike in the garage, slipping into the house and lying down on the couch in the living room.
Let’s see what scum it is this time.
He brought the knife from his pocket, slicing the envelope open. He set the thick rolls of cash aside; money had never been important to him. He then turned his attention to the slim packet that accompanied it. A single page of info about his new target, the photos that would help locate them. Instead of a corrupt businessman or backstabbing blackmailer, however, he was surprised to see it was a mere teenage girl.
He scanned the page even more quickly than usual, laughing when he saw she held a mere red belt in karate. Taking her out was going to be even easier than he had thought. She loved the outdoors, sewing and had modeled for several magazines and catalogues, but why had they bothered to include all that?
He shrugged, flipping to the first photo. It showed her with who he assumed was an older brother, the pair of them smiling, standing in front of a small coffee shop. The second had her back to the camera, her calf muscles faintly visible as she prepared to shoot a basket. He rolled his eyes, skipping to the last one. That same instant, his mouth went dry, his jaw dropping. This job had just gotten ten times more complicated.
The image showed her from the waist up, clad in a beaded teal bikini; the color looked incredible next to her perfect copper skin. She was lying on her side, one arm resting in front of her. Her left hand was gliding through her long, luscious chocolate hair. He suddenly ached to lose himself in her deep emerald eyes, the gorgeous shade amplified further by glamorous black lashes and dark eye shadow. Her full lips were red, glossy, perfectly poised in a sweet, seductive smile. He swallowed thickly, turning back to the first page of the packet.
’Name: Sione, Lena A
DOB: July, 13, 1997
Last known location: Grosse Point, MI’
Last known, meaning it would be difficult to track her now. He wondered, once he found her, would he be able to go through with it? He swallowed again, hating the blood that was pounding loudly through his ears. He shook his head, forcing the thoughts from his mind. All that mattered was getting the job done, no matter how dazzling the girl was. What the hell was wrong with him?
I-I probably just need some sleep, he thought. Y-Yeah, that’s it…
And yet he couldn’t stop himself from going back to that picture, from imagining how it would feel to run his hands through her hair. The ecstasy that would come from having her lips, her body pressed against his. The breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding came out in a low shudder.