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Mary Stone - Beneath the Surface (A Villain’s Story FBI Mystery Series Book 9)

A Taste of… Beneath the Surface

Chapter One

Lily’s eyelids fluttered open, and she groaned as a powerful throb pulsed through her forehead. Remnants of a dream floated through her mind, gray and quiet, doomed to vanish from her memory forever.

Where am I?

Orange light pooled on red-and-yellow-swirled carpet. Drawn blinds covered large windows, and a TV sat atop a dark dresser. She shifted and glanced over at the queen-size bed, the sheets tucked in, the corners perfectly squared.

A motel.

As her groggy brain started asking how she’d gotten here, she flashed back to the last moment she could remember.

Andy, aka Mr. Wonderful, the man she’d met online. For over a month, she’d been talking to him—fantasizing about him—and they were finally going to meet that night, on the Fourth of July. Lily had never been so nervous yet so excited for a date. She must’ve spent two hours trying on every article of clothing in her closet, finally landing on a satin tank, no bra, and tight mom jeans that accentuated her hips.

Her sexy five-inch heels stole the show. At five-ten, she didn’t usually wear them on dates—but this man was different. He was six-four, no lie. And gorgeous.

Breaking out the stilettos was mandatory.

She was still wearing those jeans and that top. But the waistband of her jeans was pulled down to her mid-thigh, exposing her hips and satin underwear. It seemed like her clothing had just been moved, though. There was no pain anywhere, so she didn’t think she’d been assaulted.

Those strappy high heels she herself designed and sold in her boutique, even though they hurt her feet, gripped tight around her toes. Every part of her body felt swollen and drowsy.

With arms like jelly, she tugged against zip ties around her wrists, a feeble attempt to break free of the binds securing her to the wooden arms of an office chair.

Lily tried to struggle, but she could hardly lift her head. Even if she mustered the strength to stand, the tight bonds kept her fingers plump and dark red, filling with blood that wasn’t pumping back to her heart. She called out for someone, anyone to help, but a cloth muffled her cries.

Again, his name echoed through her mind. Andy.

Fucking Andy.

Lily hadn’t told anyone his name…if Andy was even his real name, which seemed unlikely. This was some sick stuff.

When she gushed about him to Heather at yoga on Saturday—what day is it now? Still Monday? Surely, I haven’t been here a whole night—she’d only referred to him as “Mr. Wonderful.”

Calling him Mr. Wonderful had been Lily’s attempt to avoid being too real too soon. She’d also wanted to keep the first tingles of romance private. Now she cursed herself for her naivety.

This is what happens when you keep secrets. You’re all alone, and no one knows where to find you.

But it was difficult not to hope for a magical new relationship. Loneliness ate away at a person like cancer.

She’d never known a time when her family was whole. But happiness had to exist, right? All those romance novels and movies she consumed—they couldn’t all be lying.

This one had seemed right out of the fairy tales. She remembered how hard it was not to chew on her fingernails as she paced in front of her building, waiting for him to come pick her up. He had insisted. Somehow, she’d convinced herself that meant he was a gentleman.

Right?

Andy was one minute early—the perfect timing—pulling up in his shiny black SUV. He parked and slipped out of the vehicle, enveloping her in a friendly hug. He was exactly as tall as he said he would be, a rarity in the world of online dating. He was even more handsome than his pictures, even rarer. He’d opened the door for her before reclaiming his spot behind the wheel.

She remembered thinking he looked a little different than his photos, but since he was still hot, and still so tall, she let it slide.

Idiot.

“I hope you like surprises.” He flashed her a dazzling smile.

That was the last thing Lily remembered.

She wasn’t a stupid person. She was an entrepreneur, a designer who’d started her own business from the ground up, for crying out loud. The dregs of society were not a surprise to her. Horror stories abounded. And she knew those terrible stories were the exceptions in society. Often, she’d had to remind herself most people were kind and decent, keeping things in perspective.

But no matter what she told herself, sometimes the horrors were real.

Lily blinked hard, trying to focus her vision. Her heart picked up speed as the room blurred around her, then cleared. On a table beside her lay a copy of a red Gideon Bible, along with a small notepad and a mini-pencil. Her purse sat on its side on the bedspread, the contents dumped out. About six hundred dollars cash, a few credit cards, and her driver’s license.

A whoosh of water spouting from a faucet sent a shock through her. Across the room, she saw white light streaming from behind the bathroom door.

She wasn’t alone.

Her heart shot into her throat. What was going to happen when the faucet turned off and he wasn’t occupied anymore? What did he want?

A toilet flushed. Lily stiffened.

For a split second, she considered faking unconsciousness, but her brain was firing a couple seconds too slowly, and she stared dumbly as the door opened.

Andy stepped out, wiping his hands on his fitted gray slacks. The top few buttons of his linen shirt were open, exposing a sliver of his muscled chest. He was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome.

But the sight of him nauseated her now.

When his dark and deceptively sensitive gaze met hers, he smiled like a naughty schoolboy and clicked his tongue. “You’re an eager little minx, ain’t ya?”

His voice, both Cajun and sophisticated, had seemed so charming at first.

Lily pulled on her restraints, her wrists and ankles aching. She fought to get words out from behind her gag. “Let me go. Please. Let me go.” The words were muffled gobbledygook. Tears welled and slid down her cheeks—the mix of terror, frustration, anger, and disgust threatening to overwhelm her drugged senses.

“Shh, naw, don’t you fuss.” He sat on the edge of the bed, his knees a scant inch from hers. She felt his body heat. The scent of his Bleu De Chanel, which before had been nothing short of intoxicating, now made her stomach turn. “Don’t you fret your pretty little head. I ain’t gonna hurt you.” He flashed her another serpentine smile. His warm Louisiana accent wrapped around his words like honey, and he laid a hand on her knee. Nerves fired up and down her leg, but she couldn’t move. “Not so long as you do your part.”

Lily gritted her teeth around her gag. Sniffling through her tears, she struggled to catch a breath. What was he going to do to her? What had he already done?

A series of images flashed through her mind like the memory of a dream—climbing into the SUV, him leaning over, and a syringe sinking into her thigh moments before the world fell dark.

On the bed in front of her, Andy reached into his Louis Vuitton messenger bag and pulled out another needle. He retrieved a glass mason jar, opened the lid, and filled the syringe with the clear fluid inside.

“What the hell is that?” Her question only made sense in her head. The gag cut off any ability to communicate, yet Andy seemed to understand.

“This? I call it my special sauce.” He lifted the syringe, flicking it to get rid of the bubbles. The shadows cast thick lines on his face. “It’s a roughly equal mix of Xanax, Valium, Hydrocodone, and Klonopin, dissolved in saline. As a man without a medical license, proper sedatives are prohibitively expensive. This works just as well.”

Lily struggled harder and tried to pull away, but each of her limbs seemed to be weighed down by sandbags. She shook her head, which made the throbbing in her forehead explode. Her eyes rolled back.

Andy chuckled coldly. Syringe in hand, he rested an elbow on his knee. In another world, his tone might’ve been described as comforting. “I ain’t interested in your body, darlin’. Lord knows if I’d kept playing my cards right, you would’ve given me that for free. Truth be told, I find your personality so repugnant that despite your undeniable physical beauty, you are of no sexual interest to me whatsoever.”

She tried to talk, pushing at the gag with her tongue to get the words out. “Please don’t do this,” came out only as a jumble of sounds.

His face brightened with a Hollywood smile, showcasing his straight, paper-white teeth. “I do have other interests in you.”

But his words barely entered Lily’s consciousness because she was focusing all her effort in pulling away. But her body would not cooperate. The needle drew closer and closer to her exposed hip, in horrid slow motion.

He slid the edge of her underwear up ever so slightly. The tips of his fingers were icy cold, and she shivered.

For the briefest moment, he paused, and their eyes locked.

With a cruel smile, he pierced the needle into her hip and pressed down on the plunger, shooting the drug cocktail into her veins. The thick solution swelled inside of her painfully.

Lily screamed, but it wasn’t long before the drug cast her into a deep sepia fog. Her body lurched, falling forward in the chair, as she struggled to keep her eyes open. As black and gray dots filled her vision, rough fingers combed back strands of her long hair.

“Rest now.” Andy patted her lolling head. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Chapter Two

Detective Justice Hall arrived at Lily Cummings’s apartment a little after ten thirty at night. After the week he’d spent fighting his old demons, all he wanted was to lie down and sleep for about six and a half years. Too bad that wasn’t in the cards.

Heather Lenoir first let him know she needed his help a full day ago, on Wednesday morning, when he was in the middle of an intense case. Then, an hour ago, she’d again asked him to look into her friend, Lily’s, sudden disappearance. Seeing as he’d cleared the investigation, he had no choice but to oblige, especially after the way he’d treated her.

The night they slept together—the first, last, and thus far only time—had been one of the happiest times of his life. He’d proven to himself and to her that, despite everything he’d been through, he wasn’t defective.

Far from it.

He was a man capable of making a woman feel like a woman. Justice would’ve given anything to stay by her side that night, wrapped in her arms, feeling every positive emotion he’d denied himself for so long.

But paradise didn’t last more than a few hours.

Reality came crashing down when a maniac had sent out the first of two snuff films, both of which were intended to lure Justice out of hiding, so that he could eventually kill him. Just shy of eighteen years old, the young man turned out to be the biological son of Justin Black, the man who’d tortured and molested Justice when he was a child.

For his entire life, the teen had been groomed by his mother—a serial killer groupie obsessed with Justin, no matter how often he beat her or how savagely he raped her—to hate Justice.

To make him jealous of the “special” relationship Justice had with Justin.

The young man’s vile videos were deeply inspired by similar clips Black had released at the height of his murder spree. The online simps and press had dubbed him “The Pupil.”

The Pupil began his official assault on Justice’s life the very same night he connected so deeply with Heather. It wouldn’t have surprised Justice if the asshole had planned it that way, waiting until the exact moment when Justice had every one of his guards down before striking. The young man seemed to know everything about Justice and his past.

Nothing had been the same since that night when the message came in, a video of a previous live feed in which he’d unceremoniously beheaded an innocent single mother and her teenage son.

In his short reign of terror, The Pupil had also killed a family of three in the Texas panhandle, a couple of college students in Euless near Dallas, and a young woman he caught leaving a sports bar in Bowe City. There were probably more victims who had yet to be connected. But he was behind bars now. The notion would’ve made anybody else on the force feel better about the whole situation, but all Justice could focus on was the regret.

He’d blown his chance to take The Pupil out once and for all. To bury him and all the secrets he’d uncovered. Death was nothing less than he deserved. But Justice was caught in the act, interrupted by Winter Black moments before he plunged Justin Black’s knife into the young psychopath’s jugular. And that left him with a choice. To kill The Pupil meant killing Winter—Justin Black’s sister, the woman who eventually captured him.

She was also the one who killed Justice’s family, albeit on Justin’s orders. If she hadn’t followed through, it would’ve meant Justice’s own demise.

If Justice wanted one dead, he had to bury them both. And he couldn’t do that, because she was an innocent. And Justice didn’t kill innocents.

Justice was a monster hunter. Nothing more, nothing less. He knew enough about his own business to safeguard against a monster himself. That meant that—as much as he wanted to, and for all the problems it might solve—he couldn’t kill Winter.

He had a horrible inkling that decision would be the death of him, though he wasn’t sure how yet. Like a song, it went round and round in his head. You should’ve killed her. You never could have.

This is the beginning of the end.

For now, he had a slight reprieve. A moment to focus on the woman he loved.

When he pulled up to the complex where Lily Cummings lived, Heather was waiting for him out front. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, as usual. As he threw his truck in park and hopped out, she smiled, though there was no joy behind it. Why should there be? The last time he’d seen her, he’d left her high and dry. And now one of her best friends was missing.

He tried to take comfort in the fact that she had asked for his help in finding her missing friend. As a D.A., she had plenty of other resources. It was a good sign for him. A sign that she was willing to forgive.

Justice reached out and pulled her into a tight hug. When she pressed her cheek to his chest, a modicum of tension released from his shoulders. Was there any better feeling? He’d never known one.

He kissed her hair and inhaled her citrus scent. “Are you okay?”

Heather stepped back and shook her head, lowering her gaze. “Everybody keeps saying I shouldn’t be worried. ‘Lily is an adult. She’ll get back to you when she can.’ But it’s all such bullshit.” She fiddled with the top button of his shirt. At last, she looked into his eyes. “Are you okay?”

A loaded question if ever there was one.

He’d told her what had been going on with him. A bare-bones version anyway. That The Pupil was copycatting the very same infamous killer who had murdered Justice’s family and made his childhood a living hell. That in pursuit of the truth, he’d had no choice but to go back and face that demon from his past.

Justin Black. Not a day passed when Justice didn’t think of him. The man who destroyed him and tried to remake him in his own image. The same man who had unknowingly fathered The Pupil, inadvertently setting the young man on the path that should’ve ended with Justice shoving a knife into his neck.

They would both spend the rest of their lives in prison. Like father, like son. And Justice was nothing like either of them.

He wasn’t sure how he was feeling. Good, in a way. Relieved to have finally been given the opportunity to show Justin who he was and who he wasn’t—not that Justin would know, locked up at ADX Valdez, a supermax prison in Nowhere, New Mexico.

At the same time, Justice was teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Talking about it would only push him over the edge.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. “I think first we need to focus on locating your friend, okay?”

She squeezed his hand and nodded. “Thank you for meeting me here.”

“What are boyfriends for?” He swallowed the lump in his throat, waiting for her to correct him.

“I guess we’re gonna see, aren’t we?”

Sweet relief rushed over him. She hadn’t objected. It was official. He had a girlfriend. Now all he had to do was not screw it up.

Threading his fingers through hers, they walked to the elevator and rode up to the third floor.

Heather reached into a pocket. “I have her key. She goes out of town sometimes for work, and I take care of her plants.”

“All the more reason to think she would’ve told you before leaving.”

“We do hot yoga together early on Wednesday mornings before work and then usually go out for breakfast.” Heather twisted her long ponytail over one shoulder. “She’s never stood me up before. At least, not without a text.”

Stepping aside, Justice waited as Heather slipped the key into the lock and turned the knob. Pushing open the door, she flicked on the lights to reveal a gorgeous apartment with beautiful white carpets. The expense that had to go into maintaining that color alone hinted at what Lily might’ve been paying to rent this place. He felt guilty for showing up in his work boots. “How do you two know each other?”

“We met at a book club when I was still in Virginia. What, about five years ago?” Heather set the key on the kitchen counter as she searched the space. “She moved out here way before me. It’s part of the reason I applied for the job.”

“When we find Lily, I owe her a thank-you.” Justice placed his hand on the small of her back in a gesture of reassurance. The hour was late, just after ten thirty p.m. Sheer curtains on massive windows reflected warm pools of yellow light from the overhead chandelier, which cast tiny rainbows all around the room.

Justice settled his gaze on an oversize coffee table set between two beautiful blue leather couches. It appeared to be made of natural wood, with all the attendant curves and imperfections. The top had been filled with swirling blue and gold resin and polished to a mirror-like shine. Though he was no Property Brother, he was confident that such a table was one-of-a-kind and would go for no less than three grand, possibly much more.

Combined with the sheepskin rugs and professionally cleaned perfection, the place gave off a wealthy Manhattan feel, not something one came by often in working-class Bowe City. The last time he remembered being in such a posh place was when he’d hunted down serial killer Senator Al Daulton, aka Da Vinci.

“Nice place.” Justice whistled. “What does your friend do for a living?”

“She owns a boutique downtown.”

“Designer?”

Heather nodded. “It’s a very posh place. She told me business had been good lately.”

Feeling dirty, Justice took off his boots before continuing through the apartment. He didn’t have a warrant, as an official missing persons report had yet to be filed, so he didn’t want to open any drawers or turn over any stones yet. He was here for a quick once-over, just to be sure the place really was empty and to check if there were any obvious signs of bags being packed.

Basically, he wanted to confirm Heather’s story was true, since she’d already been there—not that he planned on telling her as much.

Nothing obvious stood out. A large azalea in one corner of the living room was all slumped, as if it needed water. Azaleas were finicky, though. Known to slump very quickly and perk back up just as fast. In the kitchen, however, a vase of orchids sat beside her perfectly clean sink. As a bit of a plant guy himself, Justice deduced that she cared about them a great deal. Orchids were difficult to keep alive, and hers were thriving.

“Justice?” Heather leaned against the center island, which was a Kardashian-inspired all-white kind of deal. At her fingertips was an open laptop, the device unlocked.

He stepped closer. “You said you guessed her password?”

“It was easy.” Heather shrugged. “It’s her birthday.”

“That’s a bad idea.”

“We bonded over our shared hatred of long, convoluted passwords.”

Justice narrowed his gaze. “Don’t tell me you use your birthday.”

“Of course not.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I just use password.”

He growled.

“I’m messing with you! One-two-three-four-five-six, obviously.”

He shook his head before turning his attention to the screen. An open internet browser showed a dating site, with a DM thread already pulled up.

“Andy34…” He read the screen name of the person Lily had been messaging. Setting his finger on the touch pad, he scrolled through the interaction.

Heather leaned in next to him. “When I chatted with her on the phone Sunday, she told me she was going out with some guy the next day. I remember thinking that it was a weird day for a date, it being the holiday. But she’s British…” She shrugged. “Anyway, we were supposed to have a debrief breakfast after our hot yoga sesh, but she never showed. I’m guessing this was the guy.”

Lily had hundreds of matches, but it seemed like she’d been focused on Andy34 almost exclusively for nearly a month. Without reading anything but dates, Justice scrolled further back. They’d been communicating nearly every day—from meaningless small talk to heavier subjects to little sexy chitchats that made him feel like all of this was really none of his business.

Their last few messages were all about arranging a meeting.

I’ll be in Bowe City for the next week or so, wrote Andy34. You ready to take this thing IRL?

Sure J. Lily followed up her reply with her phone number. The chat ended there, presumably because they’d moved their interaction to texting.

The fact that it took her a month of near daily interaction before she shared her phone number gave him the impression that Lily was a cautious type. He wondered if she’d maybe taken the sound advice of sharing details with a friend—where she would be going on the date, when she expected to get back, and the first and last name of her online suitor.

“Did she tell you anything about the date? Like where they were meeting up or what the guy’s name was?”

“She didn’t. She just kept referring to him as ‘Mr. Wonderful.’”

“Would she have told anyone else?”

“I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I’m her best friend in Bowe City.”

Sensing that this might be a delicate subject, Justice backed off. It certainly wasn’t conclusive that Lily hadn’t told anyone her whereabouts.

Justice scrolled all the way to the beginning. He knew his way around dating sites well enough to know that essential information—location, profession, hobbies—was often shared early on, if it wasn’t on the person’s profile itself. Lily had not been shy in asking such questions.

So what kind of car do you drive?

I currently own a Mercedes S500. 2022 model.

Fancy!

The S-class is the most luxurious, natch. I cannot drive an automatic. And American muscle is too gauche.

A man like you deserves the best 😉

Lily’s focus on material wealth irked Justice. He’d never been wealthy. His focus had always been on hard work for its own sake rather than monetary gain.

I know it… And I like to spoil whoever’s lucky enough to be my partner.

I like to hear that. How much do you make? Just curious. LOL.

Justice rolled his eyes.

Pulled in 72k this week in commissions… Pretty slow, TBH.

“Dang,” Justice muttered under his breath. Their conversation went on and on in this vein.

“What?” Heather leaned over his shoulder and read the exchange. She straightened and crossed her arms, now privy to what he was grousing about.

“This friend of yours…is, uh…well, she’s pretty materialistic, isn’t she?”

“How dare you? Just because a woman knows what she wants—”

“I love a woman who knows what she wants. You know that.” At least, Heather should’ve known that, given the way he begged her to dominate him in bed. “But if you’d talked to me like that before we even had one date, just quizzing me on my net worth, I would’ve told you to take a long walk off a short pier.”

She clenched her jaw. “Did you come here just to judge my friend, or are you actually going to help me find her?”

“Sorry, I just…” Quit while you’re still ahead, Justice. “Sorry.”

Justice clicked on Andy34’s profile, and a handsome man appeared on the screen. Brown eyes, dark hair, and bone structure to make a skeleton blush. He had one of those butt chins that women seemed to go gaga over. Justice had one, too, a little dimple at the tip that he personally thought made him look like a tool. It was at least part of the reason he kept a beard. That, and the beard helped him hide his micro-expressions easier.

“He looks like he could sell deodorant.” Heather sounded incredulous, but Justice supposed that was some kind of compliment.

Reading more of his profile, Justice noted that Andy had listed the LSU Tigers as his favorite sports team and shrimp étouffée as his favorite dish. Most likely, the guy was from Louisiana. Apparently, he was a real estate investor who claimed to travel all across the South for work, from Texas to Virginia. He was a self-proclaimed old-fashioned gentleman who wanted nothing more than to spoil his lady like a princess.

If that wasn’t baiting the hook…

Justice turned to Heather. “Do you know any of her other friends, or maybe family?”

Heather shook her head. “I don’t think she has any other friends in town. And I know she doesn’t have any family here.”

“Still in Virginia?”

“I don’t think so. She doesn’t talk about them much, and I don’t know a lot about her life before I met her a few years ago. She lived in the UK for a while when she was young. I thought her family might still be over there.”

He exhaled a slow sigh. “I’m not seeing any reason to be too worried about her just yet. If she and this guy hit it off, they might be on some impromptu romantic rendezvous. It was a holiday weekend, after all. She’ll probably come back tomorrow and tell you all about it.” He scrolled through Andy34’s profile a second time. “This guy makes a big deal about all the countries he’s been to, and we all know what that translates to in dating site lingo.”

“Do we?”

“He’s bragging about how much money he has. Shit, he even has a picture of him sitting in first class on a plane. He uses the word spoil, for crying out loud. It would make sense a guy like that might whisk a woman away for an impromptu vacation.”

“I guess.” Heather didn’t sound convinced. “Maybe we should search the apartment some more.”

“Right now, there’s no reason to think any type of crime has gone on.”

“Lily would totally gallivant off with some guy, but not without even shooting me a text. She just wouldn’t.”

Justice sighed again, riding a fine line between being a good boyfriend and a good detective. “She didn’t even tell you the guy’s name. Maybe she was swept off her feet and didn’t get a chance to contact you.”

“It still doesn’t sound right.”

“Let’s give her one more night. If she still hasn’t turned up by morning, I’ll file an official missing persons report. That’s the first step before I can investigate this any further.”

Normally, he would’ve gone along with what Heather wanted. Torn the apartment apart, rules and procedures be damned. But he needed to be careful. He’d only just gotten Galvez back on his side, abating some of her suspicions of him. As much as he hated it, Justice needed to keep walking on eggshells for a while.

“Come on.” He closed the laptop and wrestled his feet into his boots. Striding toward the front door, he pulled it open and waited for Heather.

She grabbed her spare key off the counter and crossed the threshold. Right as he was about to follow, Justice noticed a ring of three keys sitting in a bowl beside the door. A small bronze one on the chain looked exactly like the one Heather had used to get into the apartment.

Has to be a spare to the front door.

Glancing over his shoulder, he hesitated a moment as Heather stared at her phone. Making sure to be discreet, he scooped up the keys and slipped them into his pocket.

Maybe he wouldn’t need them. Maybe Lily really was off on a romantic adventure with a wealthy traveling businessman. Or maybe not. Either way, he felt better knowing he could come back and search the place all on his own.

You never know…

Every detective has his demons. Every demon has its day.

After fighting old demons and apprehending his nemesis’s copycat killer, all Detective Justice Hall wants to do is sleep in the arms of his new love. But that’s not an option when he learns that his girlfriend’s best friend is missing.

Or is she?

As he investigates the mysterious disappearance of the young woman, a woman whose hefty bank account is at odds with her barely solvent business, he’s not sure if she’s a victim or a con artist. Besides, he has bigger things to worry about. Read More