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The Villains' Creed - Mary Stone

A Taste of… A Villains’ Creed

Chapter One

This can’t be real.

Katie Green had zoned out, stoned in front of the TV long enough that the room had gone dark. She opened an eye just to see that a bunch of people who had been there earlier were gone now. Only Wallace and Leticia remained—two people she hated.

People David had hated too.

A churning unease gnawed at her, telling her that being there was a mistake. But the pain, raw and overwhelming, had paralyzed her judgment.

Again.

Tears burned her eyes as she thought of her boyfriend. It seemed like a thousand years since she’d felt his arms around her. For a single desperate moment, she wondered when she would see him again…

And then she remembered.

David was gone.

The love of her life had been violently murdered under a madman’s hatchet. The laughter they’d shared, the gentle touch of his fingers—forever lost to her. Her chest tightened, and a soft cry caught in her throat. The cocktail of alcohol, ketamine, and weed twisted her thoughts further, fraying the edges of reality.

It was all she could do to keep from scraping her fingernails down her face just so she could feel something.

The dingy corduroy beanbag shifted as she sat up and snatched a pack of cigarettes from the table. She shoved one in her mouth and fished out a lighter from her sweaty cleavage. A flame flickered to life as she lit up, then she took a hearty drag.

Katie leaned back and squinted at the TV. Only then did she realize the Astros were leading the Red Sox by three. And she couldn’t have cared less.

“I want to go home.” The words barely manifested, her throat too dry to set them free. She grabbed her warm bottle of Coke from the table and drank it down.

In a daze, she stared across the room at the intertwined couple on the couch. Leticia’s shirt was off, her big, floppy breasts on full display as she dry-humped Wallace through his jeans.

“Can I get a ride?” Katie exhaled a cloud of smoke and waited for either of them to acknowledge her. “Yo, Wallace?”

“What?” He spoke through a mouthful of Leticia’s tongue as she ran her fingertips through his thick muttonchops.

“Can I get a ride, man?”

He made an obscene gesture with his tongue. “I’ll give you a mustache ride.”

Katie shuddered. Now that David was gone, she had nobody to stop Wallace or any of the others. Nobody to protect her.

“Forget about that skinny bitch.” Leticia nibbled Wallace’s ear, and her hand slid down her chest and toward his crotch.

He gave a contented sigh, his lustful brown eyes never leaving Katie. “You stay here, smoke my green, drink my Beam, pop my damn pills, and you think you ain’t got to contribute nothing?”

Katie’s bottom lip quivered. He’d never spoken to her that way. Not when David was around.

Without a word, she rushed from the room. Wallace burst out laughing, joined by Leticia. Comments about what a pathetic whore she was chased her out into the night.

Katie stomped out her cigarette, pretending it was Wallace’s face, and shoved her hands into her hoodie. She couldn’t stay here. But she had nowhere else to go…not even her mom’s. Not anymore. Ever since she moved in with David, they’d barely spoken.

Her cold, sweaty hands gripped the phone in her pocket. There was nothing safe about this neighborhood at night, or during the day, for that matter. Ever since Wallace and the East Side Boys started buying from the Renegade Militia and distributing on the streets, it seemed every twitchy meth head with two grand was now armed with a modified handheld machine gun.

No, she couldn’t stay here.

“David.” Katie clutched her chest, her heart throbbing so hard she worried she might pass out. She pulled out her phone and scrolled through her contacts, searching for the one person left in the world who really cared if she lived or died. Maybe she’d forgive her after all.

When she found the name, she closed her eyes and pressed call.

After a few rings, a deep and raspy voice answered. “This is Greta.”

“M-mom?”

“Katie? Is that you, baby?”

That word—baby—ripped at Katie’s soul. She choked back a sob as she tried to muster the words she hadn’t yet been able to utter out loud. “David’s gone.”

“He left you?”

“They killed him…”

Silence stretched over the line. Her mother had never liked David and blamed him for everything Katie had gotten mixed up in. But her mom didn’t understand. David never had a choice, and all he’d ever wanted was to get out of this godforsaken life and start over.

“What are you talking about? Who killed him?”

Katie wiped her nose along her forearm. “I don’t know. The Toy Soldiers. The Renegade Militia. Some axe-happy vigilante. Nobody’s taking credit for it.”

“I’m sorry.” Her mother sounded like she was sniffling now too. “I’m so sorry.”

“Mom, I want to come home.”

“Oh, baby. Yes. Of course.”

“I don’t want to be in this life anymore. David was the only reason—”

“I know.”

“I loved him.”

“I know…” Her mother’s gentle tone comforted Katie like a warm hug. No matter how far wrong she’d gone, deep down, Katie never wanted to disappoint her mom.

Katie shielded her face, hiding her tears out of habit. “Can you come get me?”

“Of course.” The answer was immediate. “Where are you?”

“I’m…” Katie looked up at the busted streetlight. She couldn’t let her mother come to this place and see the way she’d been living. It would break her heart. “I was just over at a friend’s house. I’m at the 7-Eleven on Fourth and Central now.”

“Over on the east side?” The horror in her mom’s voice was palpable. Katie could imagine what she was thinking. Nice white girls like her weren’t supposed to hang around in that neighborhood. Despite their estrangement, her mother still thought she was so innocent. If she’d known the truth, her hair would’ve fallen out.

A defeated sigh escaped her lips. “Yes, Mom…”

“Okay. No problem.” Her mother recomposed herself quickly. “Stay where you are. And don’t talk to anybody.”

Katie couldn’t help but smile at that. She hung up and shoved her nearly dead phone into her pocket. Then she stepped out into the street, determined to make the mile walk to the 7-Eleven in record time to arrive before her mother did.

An old blue Chevy pickup barreled around a corner. Katie jumped back, giving the driver plenty of space to get by her, but the truck’s headlights seemed to chase her, blinding and disorienting.

By the time she realized it was swerving to try to hit her, it was too late.

As the bumper struck her torso, she folded over onto the hood. Brakes screeched as the truck came to a violent halt, throwing Katie to the ground. The sheer force knocked the wind out of her as she skidded along the asphalt, scraping her arms and legs.

She cried out as searing pain spread through her body like ink in water. Her vision blurred. When she blinked through tears and disorientation, a looming silhouette of a man emerged from the haze.

Pure dread consumed Katie as she tried to scramble away, her movements slow and desperate. But before she could get far, the brutal force of his boot met her face, and she was out.

***

Light pooled in her vision, stirring Katie from a merciful oblivion and yanking her back to reality. Every inch of her pulsed with an agony she’d never known before. She gasped for breath, choking and coughing through the sharp spasm in her ribs. No doubt a couple of them were broken.

Katie sat upright with a wild scream and clapped a hand over her mouth.

Her voice echoed in the darkness.

David. Please. Where are you? I need you.

Tears stung her eyes again. He was never coming back.

Another terrifying thought hit her with the force of lightning.

No one is coming to save me.

Katie folded in on herself, drawing her legs to her chest. She winced and instantly uncoiled. Her head pounded, making it nearly impossible to focus on anything but the pain. Where am I? She remembered leaving the house, calling her mother, and then…

The blue pickup truck. The man.

Trees surrounded her on all sides. To her right, the forest went on forever. And to her left was a steep hill. At the top was a green-and-silver guardrail.

The highway.

“Was wondering when your big mouth was gonna wake up.” The voice was deep and smooth, a Southern accent. It sounded local, like one of the rednecks out in the country. But Katie couldn’t tell for sure, too delirious from the pain.

A man stood silhouetted against the starlit sky—tall and thin with long arms and large hands. He held a hand cannon, a .45, .50, or even larger caliber. With an especially long grip and a magazine that hung halfway down to his knee, it was unlike any gun Katie had ever seen.

“No! Please!” She wrapped her arms tightly around her shoulders, her bones rattling like they’d shake out of place.

He lumbered closer, his heavy boots squishing in the mud. She glimpsed his clean-shaven jaw—heavy and square. “I guess you think you’re pretty clever, hmm?”

“No! I don’t. I—”

“You think you can just run around behind everybody’s backs and tell your sob story to the damn pigs?” He pointed the weapon at her chest and pulled back something at the top that clicked into place.

Katie froze. She had spilled her guts to a cop. Detective Hall. He’d left his card behind when he and another detective—the tall woman wearing a fedora—had come by Wallace’s place to ask about David. But she’d been so careful, calling him out to an isolated place. Had he told someone else that she’d spoken to him? Or had somebody followed her?

“I didn’t do—”

“Sure you did, dummy.” The man’s cruel laugh scraped like nails in her ears. “Nothing worse in this world than a pretty woman with no brain. Meemaw says the only reason your type hasn’t been weeded out is because men are stupid. Most men, that is.”

His eyes shined bright yellow as they caught the moonlight, and he lowered his voice to a guttural growl. “I hope you know I ain’t one of ’em.”

A wave of confusion rolled over Katie, amplifying her panic. “I swear, I didn’t say anything about anything.” She sobbed, holding her aching gut. “I just wanted to find out what happened to David.”

“Ask him yourself.”

With that, the man open fire. Katie screamed and tried to turn away as bullets rained through her, shredding her body like tissue paper.

Chapter Two

No rest for the wicked, indeed.

Detective Justice Hall inhaled a gasp of air so deep it was like breaking through the surface of an iced-over lake—invigorating precisely because it signaled imminent death.

He couldn’t believe it. Katie Green was dead.

Dropping his phone away from his ear, his attention was snared by the early morning rays filtering through the shifting purple blooms of the butterfly bush he’d fallen asleep under. Above that, apple blossoms had turned to fruits on the branches, still tiny and green. The earth had been his pillow, the air his blanket.

Olivia’s grave his bed.

“Justice…Justice…?” Detective Marissa Spero’s voice rose in sharp concern. “Are you there?”

Justice glanced down at his body, naked except for his trusty Ariat boots. His skin had recently taken on a golden glow from hours napping in the sun.

The next person to see him in his birthday suit might have a few legitimate questions.

As he shifted, his muscles protested in pain. He’d taken several beatings over the last two weeks, all the bruises and gashes making him appear more monster than human.

How much longer until you’re completely unrecognizable?

Justice smacked his lips and grimaced. His mouth tasted like ass.

He’d fallen asleep only a few hours before sunrise. The sky was still pink, so he’d slept three or four hours at most. But it was the best he’d slept in a week.

What kind of monster had he become to be capable of sleeping so well after burying a hatchet between Olivia Johnson’s beautiful, soul-sucking blue eyes?

He lifted the phone back to his ear. “Sorry…dropped the phone. Can you run all that by me again?”

Marissa sighed. “Katie Green is dead.” She said the words slowly, like she was speaking to a child. “She was shot, and her body was found in a ravine out by Lafayette Falls.”

First David? Now this?

The image of David Brose bathed in golden light flashed through his mind like a curse. Katie Green was a sweet, normal girl whose only sin was falling head over heels for a lovable gangster rogue, one who had been dragged into the life by the sins of his brother. She even claimed David had promised to run away with her—they planned to start a new life in Mobile, Alabama, where David was going to be a fisherman.

That giant pile of overly romantic BS still left a nasty taste on Justice’s tongue, and not only because it had turned out to be true.

Then Olivia had split David’s skull open with a hatchet in her insane quest to become the apocryphal nemesis of all evil. She had to prove to herself, and to Justice, that they were the same. That she could be a killer just like him.

In a way, that was Justice’s fault. Until meeting him, Olivia hadn’t been a killer, just a stalker. When she became obsessed and started following him around, she inadvertently uncovered his dirtiest secret.

Instead of reacting with horror or fear, Olivia had aspired to become just like him. On top of that, she convinced herself they were destined to be together. That she was the Bonnie to his Clyde—and, in a way, she was right. No other woman had ever come close to understanding who he really was.

Justice gritted his teeth to keep the pain from seeping into his voice. “Any suspects?”

In a weird way, Katie and David were responsible for Olivia’s death. Because they were in love. Because David was innocent. And Olivia brutally murdered him for dealing drugs, which was not a good enough reason to murder a person, according to Justice’s code.

He thought about the body six feet under him. I always have a good reason.

That was the difference between the two of them. Olivia killed random criminals because she thought she was exacting justice on the world. Justice carefully researched his victims, cataloging their crimes, confirming them beyond any reasonable doubt, and only killing those who might’ve been executed by the State of Texas anyway.

At least, that was what he told himself in the light of day.

That’s why I choose murderers, but that’s not why I kill.” He pulled her tighter against him, relishing the warm scent of cinnamon in her hair. “I kill because I enjoy it.

He shuddered at the memory of what he’d said to her the night before.

Marissa was talking, something about modified guns. He needed to pay attention.

Justice wiped a hand over his face. A tiny voice inside him was happy Katie was dead. She had forced him to kill Olivia, so why should she be allowed to keep living?

But that was all wrong. Katie was innocent. Whatever his twisted logic, he couldn’t blame the outcome on her. And the more he thought about it, the more guilty he felt.

Katie had been scared to talk to him in private, worried about the consequences if someone found out. Was that the reason she’d been killed?

If he had never been born, Katie wouldn’t have had to die. And if he’d never been born, Olivia might’ve had a shot at a normal life.

Clearing his throat, Justice dragged himself to his feet, refusing to think like that. He’d recently sworn off existential vacuums, and he wasn’t about to break that oath now. He needed to focus on his job. It was all he had.

“Justice?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you get my text with directions?”

He glanced down at his phone. “Yeah. I’ll meet you there.”

“Be prepared. It’s not pretty.”

He pressed the heel of his hand into his eye. “What do you mean?”

“The body was shredded by hundreds of bullets. You’ve never seen such a mess.”

Justice’s spine tingled. “Thanks for the heads-up.”

He ended the call and jogged back toward his house. If someone killed Katie because she’d talked to him, then it was his responsibility to set it right and put an end to the manufacture of those untraceable guns—nicknamed “frankenguns” by the media—that caused chaos all over his city.

A part of him wanted to rush straight to the scene, but he needed to get his head on straight first.

Days had passed since he’d last engaged in his morning rituals. Not since a heart-shaped blackmail threat arrived on his doorstep, making him feel unsafe in his own home.

But Olivia was dead now.

And he wasn’t going to think about her.

Eager for a distraction, Justice checked the unread messages on his phone.

The first was from his best friend, Detective Henry Carlson. You good, dude? Why’d you run off like that?

Justice groaned as he took stock of the loose ends he’d have to weave into his tapestry of lies. Yesterday, in the middle of painting Henry’s fence—as a favor since Henry was still on sick leave—Justice had left abruptly, giving no explanation as to where he was going.

The next message was from his boss, Sheriff Eliza Galvez. We need to have a conversation when you get into the office.

He nearly laughed, remembering how he’d yelled at her for calling him on his day off. Then he’d hung up on her. In his defense, he’d been busy. Olivia had just sent him a picture of Annie—the woman he was seeing—sleeping peacefully in her bed with a hatchet stroking her face. Though he couldn’t exactly explain that to Galvez.

My day off…

He frowned as he recalled another loose end to tie up. When he went into the office last night to retrieve his laptop, he’d run into Detective Will Graves. If for some reason Galvez learned he’d gone to the office—after Justice had berated her for bothering him on his day off—she’d have every reason to be suspicious of him.

Plus, his face hadn’t been so battered when he saw Graves last night. If they investigated him, they could identify a general time when he had received his new injuries.

Mulling all that over, he opened the door right as his dogs rushed him like a stampede. Max—the big doofus with his long, floppy tongue and giant pit bull smile—jumped up and scratched Justice’s exposed ball sack.

Justice screeched like a griffin before cupping his prized possessions and darting to the bathroom, dodging Laika, the nine-month-old golden retriever. He slammed the door and set the temperature of the shower water to scalding. Beneath the warm cascade, he watched the blood covering him run down the drain alongside his memory of Olivia and everything she represented.

When the pink ran clear, Justice snapped out of his reveries and focused on devising a solid plan. He’d need an excuse for his colleagues as to why his face resembled something an amateur butcher carved up.

After stepping out of the shower and toweling off, Justice scrubbed the nasty flavor from his teeth, shaved his stubble, and bandaged his wounds. Feeling sort of human again, he shrugged on a white linen button-down, black jeans, and a different pair of Ariat boots that wouldn’t glow under a black light. The off-white Stetson and leather shoulder holster completed his work look.

He threw his old boots into a plastic sack and set them aside to burn later. It was about time to treat himself to a new pair anyway.

Only when he zipped up his fly did he swing the door open to let the boys in.

His dogs rushed him like the slobbering, happy, not-especially-well trained creatures they were.

Laika was starting to get sick of his wheelchair. A psychopath with a scorpion fixation had broken both his legs, but he grew stronger each day. Soon he’d be ready to start trying to walk again. Puppies were mutants when it came to healing.

Justice sprawled onto his couch and pulled his dogs over him so he could drown in their love. Tears wetted his eyelashes, brushed away by happy licks and furry snuggles. He wrapped his arms around Max’s muscular shoulders and held him tight, like he’d done when he was a teenager and Max was a puppy and all he’d wanted in the world was someone he could trust.

Dogs were the only creatures on the planet capable of loyalty and unconditional love.

In the years before he met Max, Justice had forgotten what love was supposed to feel like. Max reminded him what it meant to love someone else—and that feeling extended naturally to Laika, the most recent addition to his growing family.

He wished his uncle hadn’t had Max fixed so he could stud him out and get back a couple of puppies.

“Ain’t nothing better than puppies.” Justice rubbed his babies’ heads before hopping to his feet to make everyone breakfast.

The fridge looked bare, but he found a few cans of corned beef hash in the pantry. He heated them up with spices and carrots, then fried up six eggs to go on top.

As the dogs dug into their gourmet repast, Justice gazed out the window at the butterfly bush, where he’d dug a fresh grave in the soft soil last night.

But he refused to think about that.

He needed to get moving, to get to the crime scene. To shake his ass as Justin used to order him to do when Justice got caught up or lost in his own brain.

Katie Green was dead, and it was probably his fault.

If any of the East Side Boys had found out she’d been talking to the police—to him—they might’ve made an example of her. Or perhaps it was a member of the Renegade Militia. In any event, she most likely died because she had loved her boyfriend and found the bravery to come forward.

“It’s always the brave ones who get made examples of.” Justice glanced at Max, looking for a subtle nod of agreement. “Better to be a coward and ignored.”

He felt responsible. And if anything could take his mind off all the things he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about, it was work.

The killer wasn’t merely preventing Katie from speaking to the police or testifying in court. They’d punished her, made a sick example of her. Hundreds of bullets in a single body were the very definition of overkill, and overkill came from anger more than fear.

Galvez was already up his ass about the increase in gun violence in Bowe City and the modified, military grade, compact submachine guns they’d been picking up on the streets. The mayor called every day, demanding answers. But Justice, distracted by other things, had failed to deliver.

He hoped Marissa had made headway on her own. Now that he’d finally escaped from his heart-shaped box of horrors, it was time to get his head back in the game.

There’s no rest for the wicked.

When Justice Hall’s sleep is shattered by an early morning call from a fellow Elmaeder County detective, he braces himself for a conversation about their latest unsolved case. He must be careful what he says, though, because he’s hiding a grim truth…the killer they’re looking for is him.

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