Chapter One

Anya drove out to the desert to see the stars on a moonless night because it reminded her of when she was a young girl living in the middle of nowhere, sneaking out on her bike--not to get in trouble because she saw how the girls who got in trouble ended up never leaving town--but to see the galaxy illuminated over her head and the blinking lights of airplanes bringing people to exciting lives far away.

Now she lived nowhere, or everywhere, depending on how you looked at it. She traveled where the next job was and that meant she was frequently one of those blinking lights flying over her old home. But she occasionally missed those nights riding her bike out into the field and momentarily escaping her life under the bright, murky Milky Way that seemed close enough to run her fingers through.

Bbbzzzz. Bbbzzzzzzz.

Her phone vibrated again. It had been going off every ten minutes but she didn't drive out here to answer phone calls.

Anya inhaled the cool desert air then exhaled while pressing the button on her car key to pop the trunk. The door lifted in a way that always seemed like magic and she watched from a distance, waiting. A man with his hands bound in plastic zip ties and a burlap bag over his head cautiously felt his way out of the trunk before slipping to the ground and landing with a dusty thud.

He scrambled to his feet and looked around furtively, trying to see through holes in the burlap. He was only wearing black argyle socks and white briefs, which Anya was impressed he hadn't soiled yet.

The man's fingers ripped a hole in the burlap large enough to see through. Once he could see, he started to make a run for it, disappearing into the darkness. This was primal flight instinct but with fifty miles of nothing in every direction, it wouldn't work out the way he hoped.

Anya looked back up at the stars, trying to find Mars. What was the trick, stars flickered but planets stayed solid? She looked for the reddish glow of the planet named after the god of war, which was also her astrological sign.

Mars Airships was sending a crew to Mars right now. They were up there somewhere, too far and small to be a blinking light but they were definitely out there, hurtling through space at over 10,000 miles an hour to become the first humans on a new planet. If Mars ever needed assassins, maybe she'd get to go there someday.

Anya remembered where she was and what she needed to do. This was her last kill for a while. After this, she planned to take a vacation. Maybe rock climbing in Moab or surfing in Australia.

Anya got in her car with the trunk still open and sped away in the direction of the messy shuffling tracks. She put her high beams on and saw him stumbling along. Definitely not a marathon runner. He'd removed the canvas bag from his head but was still essentially running blindly. Fight or flight.

He picked up the pace hearing the engine and the headlights coming up fast. There was nowhere to hide, nothing to duck behind. She could probably run him to death just by revving her engine behind him until he collapsed from a heart attack. She could probably just leave him out here knowing he'd be sunburned and dehydrated by noon tomorrow. But that left too much up to chance and people didn't hire Anya to get ambiguous results.

Anya sped past him, then slammed on the emergency brake and spun the wheel, fishtailing the car to a complete stop so the headlights blinded him as the sand drifted past. By the time he opened his eyes, Anya was marching toward him with a red plastic tank of gasoline. He dropped to his knees and put his thumb in his mouth, which was a new one for Anya. She'd seen the sad and desperate behavior of people the moment they realized she was their angel of death, but no one had ever gone thumb sucker on her.

"The people who want you dead don't want any trace," she said, sloshing the gas can. "They were very clear. No body, no hair, no teeth, no DNA. Lucky for you, I don't burn people to death so I'll make it a quick, clean kill before enjoying a bonfire in the desert."

The man was on his knees, contorted in pain. He wasn't sucking his thumb. Was it a seizure? He gave out a painful scream through clenched teeth and Anya soon understood why.

The man spit something out of his mouth that landed near her feet. It took a moment for her to recognize it for what it was because what it was made no sense. He'd bitten all the way through his thumb at the second joint. His jaw was covered in blood and he held up his hands, minus one digit, pleading.

Pleading she was familiar with.

"I know you're going to kill me," he said. "I know you'll burn my body until there's nothing left as they instructed. But save my thumb."

Clearly this guy was a lunatic.

"Fingerprints, blood, DNA," said Anya. "I can't, sorry."

"Do you even know why you're killing me?" he asked. "I don't know how much you're being paid, but if you take my thumb to Parker, you'll get paid twice what you're getting to kill me."

Anya smiled, "Nice try, but collecting ransom and pissing off clients isn't my thing."

"I don't care if you kill me," said the man. "Find Parker. Tell Parker who hired you and--"

Anya fired a shot at the man's head that knocked him back like a punch to the face. Three more torso shots to be safe. She didn't like people who tried to over complicate her life and this guy was trying to do exactly that.

Anya emptied most of the gas can onto the corpse. The guy was definitely crazy. Who bites off their own thumb? Maybe people cut off limbs in situations where it's either that or certain death. But he knew he was getting killed and biting his thumb off wasn't going to save his life. Lunatic.

Inhaling the fumes put her at ease. Gasoline smelled clean. It burned everything then disappeared, just like she was going to do. She looked up at the stars again. Surfing or mountain climbing sounded dull compared to riding in a private airship to Mars.

Anya heard something move and instinctively whipped around aiming a gun. Probably a snake or some other desert creature moving away from the gas fumes. Maybe she'd inhaled too many gas fumes?

Then, another thing happened that was a first for her.

The man was moving. Not much, but somehow still alive. His movements were too deliberate to be reflexes. He was pushing off the ground to straighten himself out so he could stand up. Impossible.

Anya remembered the instructions. Bring him to the desert. Kill him there then burn the body immediately. No body, no blood, no DNA.

Burn the body immediately. What the hell was going on?

The man was on one knee now, standing up.

Anya reached for the matches in her pocket. The pocket wasn't there because it was sewn to a jacket that was in the car. She hadn't anticipated needing the matches on a moment's notice because she thought her target would be dead and not coming back to life in slow motion.

She fired three more rounds into him, hoping the gunfire would ignite the fumes but all it ended up doing was sitting him back down on the desert floor.

Anya went to the car and grabbed the matches.

He was already standing up.

Anya struck a wooden match and tossed it at him but he didn't ignite instantly like she imagined. The match had blown itself out. She struck another, then another. He kept slowly coming at her, stepping on extinguished matches. "Screw it," thought Anya, lighting the entire box on fire, which began a chain reaction of matches lighting matches. She threw the hissing box of fire at her single-thumbed zombie, engulfing him in flames. He didn't scream or wail in pain. He dropped to one knee, then fell forward, then all Anya could see was fire consuming him.

Anya watched the corpse burn, smoke reaching its tendrils up to the Milky Way.

Her phone vibrated. This time she answered.

"Is it done?"

"It's done."

"Any... problems?"

"Just one," Anya said reaching down to pick up the amputated thumb out of the sand. "I forgot to bring marshmallows to roast."

"I've got another job for you."

"It'll have to wait until I get back," Anya said. "I need to take care of a few things first."

Anya hung up and examined the thumb under the starlight. The night hadn't gone as planned, but things worked out for her. Anya realized she'd only made one mistake. She should have gotten a last name for Parker.