By Kelly Meding
Killing was easy if you had the stomach for it. Killing quickly and efficiently, with only minor cleanup required, took effort and training. Judging by the sixteen countable pieces of goblin strewn around the row home’s dilapidated living room, as well as the congealing puddle of fuchsia blood and effluvia, the effort had not been made and training had gone sorely to waste. The Rookie was trouble, she thought. Trouble, plain and simple.
Ash Bedford surveyed the gruesome scene, clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she contemplated the mess. Goblins were small, never taller than five feet and always gangly-thin, making their bodies somewhat simple to dispose of–as long as they remained intact. But if Ash hadn’t been certain of their destroyer, she’d have thought several wild dogs had done the damage.
Triad Rookie. Wild dog. She was beginning to lose sight of the difference between the two.
Evangeline Stone had been assigned to their Triad almost two months ago, and she had yet to earn any title other than Rookie. She continued to fight with her heart and her anger instead of her brain, and it was going to get her killed. In the four years she’d Hunted, Ash had seen it happen time and again in other Triads–hot-headed Rookies who succumbed to their own stupidity and lack of self-control.
Ash had just lost a friend of many years. He’d been reliable and steadfast and impossible to replace. She had no interest in attaching herself to a tempestuous blond waif who had yet to master the finer points of Dreg execution. The trio of goblins had been Stone’s first solo assignment. She’d killed them, yes, but Ash still considered it a botched job.
“What the fuck do you mean, I botched it?” Stone asked the moment Ash voiced her thoughts. Ash was not intimidated by the younger, taller girl’s snarled query. “They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“They’re also in pieces,” Ash replied, perfectly calm. It took more than cussing and posturing to raise her pique, and she didn’t think Stone was up to the task. Too many years of playing doormat to her step-mother’s abuse had taught her that steady resolve trumped in-your-face aggression. “Sixteen pieces to be–no, wait.” She spotted a detached hand, clawed fingers fisted tight, peeking out from behind an overturned recliner that had seen better days a few decades ago. “Seventeen pieces, not to mention the massive quantities of blood and entrails.”
“No one lives in this dump.”
“That’s hardly the point.”
Stone puffed air through clenched teeth. “Then what is the point?”
“We gotta burn it, that’s the point,” Jesse Morales said. He stepped out of the hall doorway where he’d lurked since they came inside, allowing Ash, as Team Senior, to critique their junior partner’s work. Though only twenty, Jesse was built like a professional linebacker and dwarfed both women with his bulk; he was also the reason for the term “gentle giant,” as kind and cuddly as he was deadly. With his preferred weapon of a double-bladed ax, Ash had once called him Mexico’s Paul Bunyan.
He then called her Babe the Korean Ox, and that was the end of that bit of banter.
“Burn it?” Stone repeated. Her cold blue gaze shifted between them, as though waiting for one of them to crack and reveal the punch line. “No one lives here. Why burn it?”
Ash heaved a deliberately heavy sigh, then said, “Because we can’t put the pieces outside in Hefty bags, and the sheer volume of bleach it would take to disguise all this blood would be enough to ignite if someone so much as lit a match on the front stoop.”
Stone bit down hard on her lower lip, eyebrows scrunching together. Some of the flush and euphoria of the fight had gone out of her, and the consequences of her rampage were sinking in. She eyed the pile of body parts, then the bloody, serrated knife still clenched in her right hand. When she met Ash’s gaze, uncertainty had taken root. “What about the people who live next door? The whole block could go up, these houses are so old.”
“It’s possible, yes.” Ash was proud of the nonchalance in her tone. She hated what had to happen, but Stone needed to learn. Sometimes, given her brash and hasty nature, Ash wondered how the teenager had ever managed to leave Triad Boot Camp. Half of the recruited teens who went in came never back out–except as cremated ash.