Dirty Martini (J.J. Graves Mystery #10) by Liliana Hart



Prologue





He’d been born for this.

Kevin Schwartzman heard the muffled roar of the crowd from inside the tiny dressing room, and shivers of anticipation went down his spine.

A light sheen of sweat covered his hairless chest, and his hands shook as he dipped his fingers in white stage makeup. He smeared it across his cheeks and forehead, repeating the motion until his entire face was covered.

He wiped the makeup off his fingers with a towel and then picked up the next color—coal-black this time—and he drew black diamonds around his eyes, trailing a fingertip down his cheek so it looked like black tears.

His reddish-blond hair was thick and he was in need of a haircut, but it didn’t matter how often he got one, it always looked like he needed a haircut. The cowlick at the top of his skull made his hair stick up every which way. But it didn’t matter.

When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see the scrawny chest or the blond whiskers that threatened to sprout on his upper lip. He didn’t see the face that hadn’t quite filled out or the acne at his hairline. He wasn’t Kevin Schwartzman, college student and loser in love. Today, he was Kaal Dracarian, a prince and warrior who would save his people from evil.

There was a roar from the crowd again and he looked at the clock, his heart pounding faster as the seconds ticked by swiftly. His armor was carefully laid out. He’d checked and rechecked every piece to make sure nothing was missing. He’d been chosen for this honor. He wouldn’t disappoint his people.

The black tights chafed around his waist, and he snapped the elastic at the waist, hoping to stretch it out some. He picked up the loose linen tunic with the wide sleeves and slipped it over his head, careful not to smear his face paint. Then came the metal chain mail, specially made and delicate, but true protection against his foes. Then came the leather cuirass, the Dracarian family crest at the center of his chest—a silver dragon clutching an olive branch and a battle-axe in his sharp talons.

There was a rap at the door and a dark-haired woman with glasses stuck her head in, her eyes widening at the sight of his face.

“Hey, dragon boy,” she said. “You’re on in five.” Then she shut the door.

He breathed in deeply, annoyed she’d taken him out of character. He couldn’t just pretend to be Kaal Dracarian. He had to truly become Kaal Dracarian. He closed his eyes and exhaled, putting himself back in his battle preparations.

The last piece was intricately made—an heirloom sewn painstakingly by his wife before she’d been slaughtered by the Keoghs—and he touched the silver velvet between his thumb and forefinger, bringing his love’s image to mind.

In reality, it had been his mother that had sewn his outer garment and given it to him for his birthday, but that didn’t have the same pizazz as the story he’d made up about his nonexistent wife. He’d even found a picture on the internet of what he imagined her to look like and printed out her picture to tape to the wall in his dorm room. Her name was Vida, may she rest in peace.

He brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them, and then pulled on the outer garment. It was trimmed with burgundy and silver thread, and it fit snugly around his torso with all the armor beneath. In lieu of sleeves there were metal shoulder plates, matching the metal studs that completed the intricate design of the outer garment. Flowing to his waist was a cape that hung from one shoulder, the back side the shimmering silver with his family crest and the inside burgundy.

Kevin looked at the clock again, and a rivulet of sweat snaked down his temple and to the corner of his eye, causing his makeup to run. He blinked rapidly and then grabbed his leather fingerless gloves and pulled them on. And then he reached to the nape of his neck and unfurled the chain mail hood, bringing it up over his head. It was the pièce de résistance. His crowning glory. It’s what made him Kaal Dracarian.

He flexed his fingers and then picked up the two battle-axes that were propped against the wall. They’d been modified. He’d wanted to use authentic axes, but he hadn’t been able to lift them. He’d used almost three years of birthday money on replacing the axe-heads with a lightweight steel. The unfortunate thing was that he had to keep the blade covers on per tournament rules.

Not that he was worried about losing. It was only the first round of the tournament, and he’d drawn Lord Uridak—the evil elvish leader of the Sheol Realm—and though his energy sword was powerful, it was no match for his axes.