Light bounced off alley walls in odd places amid the swirling tendrils of fog. Cassandra’s heels clicked on cobblestone, the only sound in this junkie’s paradise. She knew her quarry heard her footsteps, but imagined his mind tried to fit the sound into his fevered dream as something he created. She smiled. He was in for a nasty surprise.
The only smell in this jumbled place was the man’s essence—a mixture of onion/cold/mold that made Cassandra’s sinuses ache. Doorways hung at odd angles on either side of her but she ignored them. The man she came for sat against the wall at the end of the alley, a pool of light cast over him like a damn spotlight.
Bloodshot eyes studied her without enthusiasm; she wasn’t the pre-pubescent type that got his rocks off.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Death.” A blaster appeared in her hand. His eyes widened in understanding just before she shot him.
The alley disappeared, replaced by a gray nothingness that swept his stink away as well. Cassandra smiled in grim satisfaction before stepping out of the dead man’s head. Another pedophile off the streets, dead from an apparent heart attack.
She awakened back in her own body, superstition driving her to a mirror to make sure she came back unchanged. Angle-cut auburn hair and startling blue eyes gazed back at her, allowing Cassandra to let go of the tension in her body.
Relaxing on the black leather sofa, Cassandra took in the high ceilinged room with its white walls and carpet, letting the minimalist effect wash over her. She stared out the floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing at the city lights far below her perch on the cliff. Peace stole over her with surroundings so unlike the jumbled constructions of other people’s dreams.
One of the hazards of being a Dream Assassin, she thought, having to poke around in the sewers of someone else’s creations. She climbed off the sofa and stretched. There was still much to do before the sun rose. She left the house to continue her search.
Cassandra headed to the underbelly of the city. She wanted to experience the heartbeat of the metropolis, not shiny metal and glass buildings full of tourists ogling the sights. The Dream Merchants didn’t work up top. They plied their trade down below among the desperate. One of them would make a suitable partner, although she hadn’t found one yet in two months of searching.
The nondescript bar Cassandra walked into seemed like dozens of others—smells of booze and sweat, her senses reeling from unsavory essences only a Dream Merchant could read. She blocked them out and wove her way through the tables in the dim light, sitting in a corner where she could watch the customers.
There. In the opposite corner. Another Dream Merchant, weaving dreams for sale as she once had. Cassandra studied the good-looking man as he dealt with a steady stream of customers. He must be an excellent weaver, with a clientele who raced over to him the moment they hit the door.
She let down her barrier for just a moment and watched his head pop up, scanning the crowd as he sensed her. Good. He’s quick-witted.
During a lull in his work, Cassandra walked over to the dark-haired man. “Can I buy you a drink?”
He looked up at her with jade-green eyes and a sardonic smile on his face. “Sorry, lady. I don’t swing that way.”
She smiled back and dropped her mental barrier, watched his eyes first widen then narrow as he recognized what she was.
“I’m not asking for a date. I might have a business proposition for you though.” She walked back to her table and let him think it over. His essence was the first one she’d found that Cassandra thought she could work with. He was cinnamon/warm/lemon with a bitter tinge to it. She wondered what had happened in his life to put the bitter there.
Menace rolled off a heavy-set man as he walked in the door, his pug-face scowl deepened further as he walked by the Merchant’s table before disappearing into the back room. The man Cassandra waited for raised his glass at the bartender and strode over to her table, flipping a chair backwards before sitting on it.
“The name’s Nathan Wilder. And yours?”
“Cassandra Dade.” She watched his expression—cool smile but alert for any trouble. “What’s the story on Mr. Big, Bad and Ugly?”
Nathan laughed and relaxed a fraction. “The owner thinks I should give him a cut of my profits for using his bar.”
Cassandra chuckled and twirled ice in her glass, taking in the faded red wallpaper and burned-out lights above the liquor display.
“You probably bring in more customers than he would ever see without you.”
“He knows that, but he doesn’t believe in Dream Merchants. He thinks I’m dealing in illicits and complains that Enforcement will find out.”
“Did you ever weave a dream for him?”
“Sure, I did. He called it the power of suggestion, although he did admit it was unlike any dream he’d ever had.” Nathan shrugged and downed his drink. “I haven’t seen you around and I know most of the Merchants. What’s your specialty?”
Cassandra observed him while he studied her with greater interest than he would care to admit. That told her he was bored with his present circumstances and looking to put his talent to something new. Otherwise, he would have defended his territory against her.
“I’m looking for a partner. If you’re interested, meet me Topside tomorrow in the Golem Café at noon.” She stood to leave, meeting his puzzled expression with a smile. “As for my specialty, I don’t weave dreams anymore—I enter them.”