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Mary Stone Publishing

A Taste of… Blood on the Badge

Chapter One

Loree West’s palm sweated around the rolled-up wad of cash. It wasn’t much, less than two thousand dollars, but it was hers. She’d earned it not only with her mind but with her hands, which were now tanned to a rich bronze instead of her natural milky pale.

Six days a week, twelve hours a day. That had been her schedule all spring long. Every day spent sweating out in the East Texas fields, a huge wicker basket strung over her back. And on the rare occasion when she wasn’t in the fields, she was in the barn with the clones, trimming the leaves from the buds. The work was grueling, and the pay was worse, but that wasn’t the point.

These had been the best three months of her life.

But all good things must come to an end. With her unofficial apprenticeship in the cannabis business complete, Loree was headed back home to New Orleans. Her plan was to enroll in art school, which after saving for so long, she could now afford. The money she’d made at the farm had finally put her over the top.

Wearing a macramé top, faded blue jean shorts, a hand-braided choker, and work boots, Loree grinned as she turned her freckled face toward the Texas sun hanging low in the sky over the fields. Her long brown ponytail slipped over her shoulder.

With a sense of profound satisfaction, Loree shoved the money into her pocket and took out a half-gallon plastic bag stuffed with marijuana. Covered in little orange and white hairs, this was the premium weed grown at the farm. She’d been keeping this particular perk of the job for a special occasion, and this certainly counted as one.

Loree walked across the dusty parking lot and sat on a boulder not far from where some other farmhands loaded up a truck. As she folded the rolling paper and licked the joint closed, she watched one particularly sweaty, shirtless man as he stacked huge bundles of raw hemp on the back of a rusty pickup.

She didn’t know his name. He only spoke Spanish, like so many of the regulars at Eastwind Farm. Loree had taken Spanish for four years in high school, but whenever she looked at him, she couldn’t remember a single word.

Loree rolled the joint between her fingers to even out the mix before popping the end between her lips. She patted down the pockets of her dirty, ripped jean shorts.

“Dammit.” She cast her gaze across the lot. “Yo, KK? You got a light?”

Loree’s closest friend on the farm did a little skip-hop as she came closer. Twenty-three-year-old Karen Stephens had beautiful olive-toned skin that soaked up the sun like a paper towel absorbed water. Her long brown hair was done up in dozens of tiny braids—Loree’s own handiwork—and her dark eyes were hidden behind reflective aviators.

She plopped down beside Loree with a grunt, fished a lighter out of her pocket, and held it out.

Loree sparked the joint and sucked the skunky smoke into her lungs, holding it in until they burned. There was something so satisfying about smoking weed she’d picked herself. She imagined this was how most gardeners felt when they made salads or whatever.

“Your bus is at ten, right?” Karen shoved her own wad of money into the front pocket of her jean shorts before taking the joint Loree held out to her.

Loree nodded. “I can’t really believe it.”

Karen took a hit and held her breath. “Still need a ride to Bowe City?”

“KK, we talked about this like three hours ago.”

“Dope. I gotta buy some supplies before I hit the highway. I was thinking we could get some dinner.”

Loree smiled brightly. “You mean, like, at a restaurant? Like, with napkins and silverware and shit?”

Karen coughed out a laugh. “Do people still do that?”

Loree chuckled and shook her head. She was going to miss this place. More than anything, she was going to miss the people she worked with. Flower-Power Alison, Keep-Cool Karl, and especially Karen. Well, not all of them. If she never saw Lester Reynolds again, it would be too soon. The same went for those creepy bikers her asshole boss always had hanging around.

Even though she’d learned a lot, the last three months had felt like an escape from the real world. Long nights sitting around the fire playing guitars and bullshitting. Spending every workday stoned out of her mind. Loree hadn’t found a lot of time to paint since she’d been at the farm, but she’d gotten more inspiration there than anywhere else she’d ever been.

She couldn’t deny that it would be great to have decent cell reception again. Loree had barely been able to speak to her mom at all. It was like they were having a three-month-long game of phone tag.

Loree grinned. I’m pretty sure she knows I’ll be home tomorrow.

She and Karen loaded their things into Karen’s busted-up orange hatchback, which sported a bumper sticker of a coat hanger. There wasn’t even a logo on the back, so Loree had no idea what make or model the car was, just something the nineties had chewed up and spit out.

Karen got behind the wheel as Loree settled into the passenger seat. She rested her elbow out the window, the metal warm from the setting sun.

“Goodbye, farm.” Loree took one last deep breath, trying to file away all the smells of the place.

Karen gave a loud hoot. “Good riddance!”

As they pulled up to the edge of the driveway, Flower-Power Alison waved from the field. The girls pulled over as Alison rushed to the driver’s side window. She was all blue eyes and glitter and sunshine, like a Disney princess come to life.

“You guys headed out?”

Karen nodded. “It’s time.”

Alison smiled, as guileless as a puppy. “Be careful out there carrying around so much cash.”

Loree pressed her hand over the stash in her pocket. “Tell me about it. I wish Lester did direct deposit.”

“No way. Then he’d have to pay taxes.”

They laughed and said their goodbyes. Not knowing when she’d see her friend again, tears welled in Loree’s eyes. She wiped them away as Karen eased out onto the dirt road that would take them to the highway and back to civilization. Loree watched the sunset as Zach Bryan’s “Crooked Teeth” blasted through the open windows.

About an hour later, they arrived in Bowe City and pulled into a diner near the highway exit. Loree and Karen agreed they were both dying for some red meat. Alison had done almost all the cooking for the seasonal pickers at the farm, and she was vegan, which meant everybody else was too.

They stepped into the diner and were hit with an icy blast. Ahh, air-conditioning. Loree missed that almost as much as good cell reception. It was only as she glanced around at the other patrons that she realized how tanned, dusty, and generally disheveled she and Karen looked.

A server in a green dress told them to sit wherever they liked. They picked a booth near the front window and were treated to two tall glasses of ice water.

Loree downed half the glass in one go and let out a satisfied gasp. “So when’s your tour gonna start again?”

“I gotta get back to Kansas.” Karen unfolded the menu. “I think we’ll take a month or so to rehearse the new songs I wrote. We’ll probably hit the road in July.”

“Heck yes. All hail Truth Cannon.” Loree stuck out her tongue and made a devil symbol with her hand while Karen laughed.

“Slay.”

“You looking for backup singers?”

Karen choked on her water, sputtering liquid across the table. “What?”

“You should see your face.”

Karen coughed and pounded her chest. “Oh, you’re joking. Thank god.”

“What are you talking about? I have a beautiful voice.” Loree sang a few incredibly out-of-tune bars of “Pink Moon,” a favorite around the campfire. She knew her voice was awful, which made it fun to torment musicians with it. “Don’t you want to listen to me all—”

A blaring car horn drew their attention to the parking lot.

Screech!

Loree gasped as a gray van nearly bashed into a white truck as it backed out of its spot. She couldn’t see the face of the driver of the gray van—who, it seemed to Loree, was clearly at fault—but the guy in the truck was yelling something vicious and shaking his fist out the window.

The truck’s door swung open. A mixture of thrill and dread raced down Loree’s spine.

There’s gonna be a fight!

But the gray van sped out of the lot so fast, its back bumper scraped a speed bump on the way out.

“Whoa.” Loree’s heart raced as she watched the van drive away. “What a jerk.”

“What can I get you two?”

Loree turned away from the window and returned the server’s smile. At the thought of a hot meal, the accident in the parking lot was almost immediately forgotten.

“I’ll take the chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans. Extra gravy, please.”

“You got it, honey. And for you?”

Karen closed her menu. “I think I’ll just get a steak, medium rare, and fries. And a Coke.”

“What’s your drink, hon?”

“An Arnold Palmer.” For Loree, there was no better beverage on the planet.

The server took their menus, and the two friends fell into a comfortable silence. Karen turned and stretched her legs across the booth, leaned her head against the window, and shut her eyes while Loree fished a pen from her pocket and began sketching on a napkin. She had nearly finished a drawing of the diner when the food arrived.

Though they didn’t say a word, they made plenty of noise shoveling the hot food into their mouths. When she was finished, Karen dropped her fork and knife on her plate with a clatter and groaned. Then she checked her phone.

“Oh dang, it’s getting late. We gotta get you to the bus stop.”

“I can’t move.” Loree massaged her belly with a groan. “I’m about to explode.”

“C’mon.”

“No way can I squeeze out of this booth. You’re gonna have to use the Jaws of Life to pry me out.”

Karen rolled her eyes and stood. Loree followed suit. They both left cash on the table for the bill and tip and made their way out into the Texas night.

It was dark now. As they strolled arm in arm beneath the diner’s flickering neon sign and a parking-lot streetlamp toward Karen’s car, Loree’s phone chirped. She glanced at the display and smiled. “Hi, Mom.”

Karen gave her arm a little squeeze. “Cell service. Praise the lord.”

“Hold on a minute, Mom.” She held her phone to her chest and turned to Karen. “I think I’ll just walk to the station.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’s only a couple blocks away. It’ll give me a chance to catch up with Mom, and I’ll be able to walk off some of that dinner.”

“Okay.” Karen popped the trunk so Loree could fetch her oversize gym bag.

“I’m going to miss you so much.” Loree placed the bag on the ground and gave Karen a tight hug. “Promise you’ll call me, okay? And make time for a gig in New Orleans. You can all crash at my mom’s.”

“Yes. That is happening…” Karen’s tears dripped onto Loree’s bare shoulder. “Dang, I’m gonna miss you.”

“Gonna miss you too.”

Karen peeled herself away and got behind the wheel. She waved out the window as she pulled onto the street.

As Loree watched her go, she knew her time in East Texas was truly over. The last page had turned.

Time to focus on the next chapter.

She placed the phone against her ear as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “Sorry about that, Mom. I was just saying goodbye to Karen.”

Silence.

“Hello? Mom?” Loree looked down at her phone, but the screen was black. She clicked the button on the side and the No Battery symbol popped up. She hadn’t realized it was so low.

Well, dang.

It would be okay, though. She’d charge it at the station and call her back, or at least shoot her a text to let her know she was okay and that she’d be home in the morning. As much as she was going to miss her friends at the farm, she missed her mom and sister even more.

Even though she’d just eaten a heavy, grease-soaked meal, her stomach felt light and fluttery thinking about seeing them again.

Loree adjusted her bag and started down the dark street. Even if they hadn’t passed the bus station as they drove in, she’d know exactly where she was heading. For the most part, the workers at Eastwind Farm—Loree included—preferred to blow off steam in Bowe City rather than in nearby Houston. The bars were cheaper. Less bougie too.

The diner and the bus station were on the industrial outskirts of town. This late on a Thursday night, the street was deserted. Loree took out her earbuds and was about to put them in when she remembered her phone was dead. She shoved them back into the front pocket of her jean shorts.

She’d have to make do with whistling while she walked down the uneven, cracked sidewalk. But she didn’t have far to go. She could already see the lights of the bus station down the road on the other side of the street.

A gray van passed her, traveling in the same direction, then, slowing, it pulled a U-turn in the middle of the empty road. As it turned, Loree realized it was the same one she’d seen nearly T-bone the truck in the diner’s parking lot. The van stopped in the middle of the street, its headlights pointed right at her.

The light was blinding.

A chill raced through her.

“Excuse me, miss.” Loree couldn’t see the owner of the reedy voice. “Do you know the way to Temple Street?”

Loree shielded her eyes from the glare. “Yeah. Just keep down this road the way you were going for six or seven blocks. You’ll cross it.”

“I can’t hear you.” The man sounded older. She supposed if the driver were a senior citizen, the way he drove would make sense. Her own grandma wasn’t much better.

She cupped her mouth. “I said to keep going the way you were. You gotta turn back around, sir. It’s just another few blocks down.”

“Could you show me on my map?”

A map? This dude must be ancient.

Loree sighed and crossed the street. When she stepped up beside the van and out of the assault of the garish headlights, she blinked in the darkness to get her bearings.

A gloved hand smothered her mouth.

In the space of a heartbeat, a surge of panic shot through Loree, momentarily freezing her in place. She tried to scream, but her voice was stifled by the formidable grip.

When she was six years old, she’d been separated from her mom in the mall in Metairie. Terrified, she’d screamed and screamed, and the only way the security guard could get her to stop was by covering her mouth with his big, rough hand.

The hand gripping her now felt like the guard’s hand. But much less friendly.

A needle pierced the side of her neck.

Loree kicked and struggled but soon felt the fight drain from her body as the drugs fogged her brain. For a moment, the feeling was almost pleasant, like the first hit of a joint after a long day’s work.

Her body relaxed even while her mind shrieked at her. Wake the fuck up, Loree! Run! Go! Now!

She tried to listen. She really did. The moment she moved a foot, though, her knees buckled. She slumped into powerful arms.

If she could just scream, someone would come help her. Loree dug deep, trying to find her voice, but her swollen tongue blocked her throat. When she opened her mouth, all that came out was a thin strand of drool.

The man dragged her to the back of the van, picked her up like a rag doll, and threw her inside. The doors of the van slammed shut. She was trapped in a nightmare, and there was nothing she could do to wake herself up.

Loree remembered her mother’s red, splotchy face and her teary, puffy eyes when she reunited with her in the mall in Metairie. That time, her mom had found her.

That time.

Now Loree’s panic was overwhelming, filling every crevice of her being. She tried to claw for the door and freedom but could barely lift her hands. Even still, as she groped in the darkness, her fingers brushed against a cool aluminum surface.

It was so familiar.

Loree dragged her face toward the object and sniffed deeply. It was an odor she loved.

Oil paint.

Her specialty.

A feeling of calm came over her, like the feeling of sinking into a perfectly heated bath. The scent coming from the tub of paint was so pleasant. She rolled on her back as the movement of the speeding van rocked her to sleep.

Chapter Two

Detective Justice Hall closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nostrils just as his therapist had taught him to do so long ago. For the twenty-six-year-old rookie detective, there were few times he felt more at ease than during his early morning rides on the land he’d bought outright just over a year ago.

When a man has no roots, he has to grow his own.

In the crisp dawn light, Justice cut an impressive figure on top of his five-year-old bay mare, Nicki. A silver ring hung from a thin silver chain bounced against the red plaid button-up he wore. Underneath were his usual sleeveless tank, his tattoos, and the scars he’d earned out in the field.

It had rained the night before, a warm late-spring rain. The best kind of rain. Going into the hot, dry summer months, they needed it. It was enough to let morning dew form on the wildflowers and fill the air with the smell of clean earth.

Enough to scrub all the ugliness from the backs of his eyelids so sunlight could shine through.

On this land, he felt safe. For the first time since he was eight years old—back when he was known by his given name, Timothy Stewart, before his life turned wrong—he felt the possibility of peace.

Max barked as he ran alongside the horse. The dog’s gimpy leg was getting worse, but he was keeping up. In his day, the pit bull had been a sort of Mr. Universe among canines. Now one of his muscled shoulders was larger than the other, bulging from his back like a hump. What sucked was there was nothing he or the best vet on the planet could do about it.

Three weeks ago, Justice had made Max a cake for his eleventh birthday from last year’s frozen elk meat and a tub of peanut butter. Max’d chowed that down with relish, but there was nothing the dog loved better than joining Justice on his morning ride and barking his head off at every passing squirrel or twittering bird. Rolling in mud and shoving his head in every stinky thing he could find were also pleasant pastimes.

So many wonderful, smelly things on a ranch.

Justice tilted his once-white Stetson up on his forehead to take in the morning sun. He grinned as he watched Max dart back and forth across the trail, forcing Nicki to walk with a delicate shuffle to keep from smashing him into the dirt. Justice could tell she wanted to.

Purchased from the previous owner, the bay had been raised on the ranch ever since she was old enough to leave her mother. Despite his advanced years, Max was like an annoying little brother to her. And like all big sisters, she both loved him and wished he were dead.

Like the real Nicki, Justice’s big sister, the one he named her after. At the thought of her, warmth filled his heart. It’d taken a long time—and many hours of therapy—for him to remember her as she was. Before his life became a waking nightmare.

Don’t think about it.

As they passed by the old apple tree, Max stopped barking. His nose twitched, and his whole body wagged along with his tail. He turned toward his heavy shoulder and went bounding.

A quick rush of panic tightened Justice’s lungs. “Max. Here, boy.”

Max could still smell the body. Of course, he could. Even though Justice had done everything right. It hadn’t been easy, but he had dug the hole six feet deep.

The dog turned to him with a sloppy grin and gave a happy bark as if to say follow me. Then he bounded toward the tree again.

Maybe I ought to invest in a miniature backhoe or a skid steer.

As Justice considered the costs and how much the interest on a loan for one of those things might be, he stopped himself.

How many six-foot-deep holes am I planning on digging?

None. The one he’d dug just eight days ago was the first, last, and only time. It didn’t matter how easy it’d been or how satisfying it’d felt. Or how his heart had beat faster than it ever had. How he’d felt in control of his life for once.

Justice’s friend, Elroy Walters, had been murdered by a thug, beaten to death in a bar fight. The man who killed him, Darrel Daulton, was only charged with a drunk and disorderly.

Daulton’s official punishment barely qualified as a slap on the wrist.

But then Justice found out why.

Darrel was the delinquent son of East Texas’s favorite maverick state senator, who also happened to be a beloved resident of Elmaeder County. The moment he’d learned that Aleister Daulton was a local legend and oil zillionaire, Justice had known there would be no justice for Elroy.

At least, not the kind delivered by the long arm of the law.

Justice sighed and urged Nicki into a trot, knowing Max would follow. His curiosity to uncover the smell would always be trumped by his need to not be left behind.

He pulled Nicki to a slow stop. Max ran up to him and bounced around the horse’s legs, begging for a ball, a stick, or just a bit of attention. Justice grabbed a tennis ball out of Nicki’s saddlebag and tossed it across the field. Max took off like a shot, despite his gimpy leg.

Justice looked over his shoulder at the old apple tree. He’d flattened the dirt underneath it, so nothing about it looked out of the ordinary. But it wasn’t the same. It would never be the same again.

The last of the blossoms were dropping off, and fruit would soon be growing in their place. The tree hadn’t produced much last season—his first on his land—and the apples were tiny. Maybe they would grow bigger from now on. Sweeter.

“You could hardly ask for more organic fertilizer.” Justice liked the tree better now than he ever had.

His hands twitched, remembering the feeling of Daulton’s throat. The way the bastard’s eyes had bulged before closing forever flitted through his memory.

A smile tugged at the corner of Justice’s lips, but he forced it away. The day before yesterday, everything had seemed so simple. Darrel Daulton was dead, Elroy was at peace, and nobody was the wiser.

And then, yesterday morning, all that had changed.

Senator Aleister Daulton had burst into the sheriff’s office and ripped Sheriff Eliza Galvez a new one, demanding she devote more resources to finding his missing son.

The same son buried under Justice’s apple tree nearly a week ago.

Took him long enough to miss his damn son.

An image of the girl with her face carved up like a jack-o’-lantern they’d found in Lonestar Cemetery two weeks ago flashed through his mind. Luiza Ruiz. Thinking about Al Daulton’s demand that the department drop everything and find his boy, Justice spat in disgust.

Never mind that Elmaeder County has a face-cutting killer on the loose.

Maybe it was reasonable for a distraught father, who had just lost his wife of thirty years to a brain hemorrhage only two months ago, to make such a wasteful demand on the department’s resources. But it pissed Justice off that Al Daulton couldn’t see the bigger picture.

And that he has the clout to make sure his demands are followed.

After the senator left, Justice’s partner, Henry Carlson, had told him that Daulton controlled the budget that flowed toward the Elmaeder County Sheriff’s Department. Because of this, it seemed like now the sheriff’s department would have to devote precious resources to finding Darrel—that drugged-out, drunken, violent, poor excuse for a human—instead of focusing on helping decent people.

Because his father had money, influence, and a line of people rushing up to his backside with their lips puckered.

Justice wasn’t completely surprised to see that his boss, Sheriff Galvez, seemed to be among them. He couldn’t understand why she’d let Darrel off so easily. Why she hadn’t demanded Darrel catch a stricter charge for manslaughter than friggin’ drunk and disorderly. She seemed so honest and upright otherwise.

He didn’t get it.

Justice rarely paid much attention to politics, so he didn’t have any preconceived notions about Al Daulton. And maybe this Daulton was a good man.
Everyone else seemed to think so. And if he were in Daulton’s position, he might do the same.

Not that he ever planned to get married and start a family. Years ago, one of his therapists had explicitly told him that he shouldn’t. And Justice agreed.

He couldn’t let himself get that close.

The trio of man, horse, and dog trotted down an easy hill before turning toward the bed of a dried-up creek.

A red, yellow, and black snake slithered out of the grass across Nicki’s path. The horse reared, neighing anxiously.

“Whoa, Nicki.” Justice held on tight with his thighs, snatching the reins. As he fought to calm the horse and get his bearings, Max barked and lunged at the snake.

“No! Bad Max!” Justice jumped down from Nicki’s back and landed with a bounce on his toes. He pressed his Stetson into his hair and released the reins.

Justice knelt into a crouch and was about to snatch the snake and throw it away when he noticed the arrangement of the colorful rings running down its body. Yellow touched red.

He got harmless king snakes on his property so often, he usually didn’t bother to wonder what they were. But the old rhyme about king snakes and their much deadlier cousin, the coral snake, ran through his head. Red touches black, safe for Jack. Yellow touches red, soon you’ll be dead.

Gingerly, still in a crouch, Justice crept toward the snake and his barking dog. He was just four feet away now.

Justice reached out to snatch Max by the collar so he could yank him to safety, but he couldn’t get a good grip. He turned away from the predator and took hold of the leather band around the pit bull’s neck.

When he turned back, the snake was suddenly a foot away from him, drawing itself up, its fangs bared. Justice yanked Max away so hard the dog yelped.

The snake snapped at Justice’s ankle.

Deadly fangs missed by half an inch.

Holding Max’s collar, Justice backed away. Nicki had already wandered off. She was now calmly grazing.

“Come on, boy.”

He marched to the horse and yanked Max’s leash from the saddlebag, then tied the barking dog to Nicki’s saddle.

“Stay!”

Justice found the snake where he’d left it. He crouched again, not three feet from the creature, and took his time examining its beautiful coloring.

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” He crept closer, deepening his squat. “How easy it is for something so deadly to appear harmless.”

Justice knew most ranchers would’ve killed that snake to be sure it didn’t bite their dog or horse, but the creature had done no wrong other than being a snake. And who was he to punish a snake for that?

“I suppose snakes ought to be judged by a jury of their peers just like everyone else.” In that moment, the predator looked sort of sweet with its head cocked, staring right at him. Justice wanted to reach out and pet the smooth scales so badly his hand trembled. “Then again, a jury of snakes would probably convict and execute every damn time.”

Very slowly, Justice moved his arm away from his body. The coral snake’s eyes were still locked on his. It hadn’t seemed to notice.

Summoning his courage, Justice darted his hand out.

He snatched the tail and yanked it closer. The snake hissed and bit at the air. Justice grabbed its neck so he could look into its cold eyes and watch its long, skinny tongue flick.

“We’ve got a lot in common, you and me. You see, I’m the closest thing to a trial by a peer someone like Darrel Daulton could ever get.” The thought made him feel both sick and powerful.

The tongue flicked again, and Justice wondered what it was thinking. Come closer? Be afraid? More likely, the reptile was simply thinking, Let me go.

“You’ve got no reason to be afraid, little buddy.” Justice ran his tongue over his lower lip, mirroring the snake before lowering it to the ground. It raced away. “It’s the two-legged snakes that ought to be scared.”

Meditating on this, he rode back to the house, showered, and finished the rest of his morning routine.

When he picked up his phone on the way out the door, he was astonished to find he had three new voice mails and seven texts. All from his partner, Detective Henry Carlson.

You’d better get in here. ASAP. Senator Daulton’s going nuts.

Justice’s heart dropped into his stomach. Two visits in two days couldn’t be good.

***

Justice’s mind was consumed with thoughts he was better off not thinking. As he got behind the wheel of his truck to go to work, he plugged his phone into the aux jack in his dashboard and turned his playlist to random. He needed the distraction.

“No. No. No. Hell, no.” He browsed through tracks until he found a song he could stomach. “One Lone Night” by The White Buffalo.

He turned the volume up and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, muttering to himself. “They don’t know. Nobody knows.”

Nobody knew he’d been friends with Elroy Walters, the man Darrel had killed. He hadn’t offered the information, and it hadn’t come up. But the longer they went without finding the senator’s son, the deeper Henry and Galvez were going to dig. Eventually, they might find out that Justice and Elroy served in the same squad in Afghanistan.

In the twenty-first century, it was harder and harder to hide.

Well, Wes Tolliver knew. He’d been in the same platoon. Justice could trust that his buddy wouldn’t say anything. With Elroy, Wes was the third and final member of Justice’s old crew, the makeshift family he’d found in the Army.

Not that anyone, including Justice, knew where Wes was. He might be off base jumping in Japan or backpacking solo in the Alps. For someone so good with technology, Wes did everything to avoid it.

Unlike Justice, Wes had the technical skills to change his identity, to become invisible.

But he was always there for a friend in need.

Justice pushed the pedal to the floor in his bloodred Ram 1500 as he pulled onto the highway. His mind was racing, as if to keep pace with the rapidly spinning wheels.

No one had seen him. He had been careful. And he’d worn neoprene gloves, so he hadn’t left any fingerprints.

Hairs, shoe prints, or fibers might be a different story. Usually, a missing persons case didn’t warrant the same in-depth use of forensics as a murder case, but this was Senator Al Daulton’s son.

But they wouldn’t find a body. In the old days, no body meant no murder investigation, but that hadn’t been the case in a long time. All the same, there was no blood, no bone, no murder weapon. They couldn’t declare the investigation a homicide if they didn’t have some compelling physical evidence…

“Unless they find physical evidence…” A strange voice filled the cab.

Justice jolted so hard he swerved into the next lane. Horns blared around him. He pulled on the wheel to get back into his own lane. Meanwhile, his heart thrummed like a hummingbird’s wings, his chest heaving as he gasped.

He knew that voice. Darrel’s voice. The same voice that had cried out moments before Justice strangled him.

“I killed him. I did it.”

“Why?”

“Because that punk had it coming.”

Justice looked up at the rearview mirror to find Darrel’s bloated body filling up the back seat. He looked like he’d put on twenty pounds since he died, his pink, blotchy skin stretched like a balloon.

“You left evidence behind.” His voice was raspy, as if someone had injured his voice box. “You know they’ll find something.”

“Shut up. You’re not real. You’re dead.” Justice slapped himself across the face to wake up. But no, this wasn’t a dream.

First Elroy and now Darrel. I’m going crazy.

“Yes, I’m dead. I’m dead because you killed me. And they’re going to find you out. Henry is going to find you out. And Sheriff Galvez. You’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars, just like Justin Black.”

Justin Black. The name of the man who’d murdered his family and destroyed his life set every nerve in Justice’s body on fire.

A dark thought crossed his mind.

This is a trick. Justin Black has found a way to trick me. Even from the hole they locked him in.

Justice slammed his fist against the steering wheel. “Shut up!”

Darrel barked out a laugh. “You’re just like Justin Black.”

“Shut up!” He tried to strike the ghost, who was still cackling in the back seat, but his fist met nothing but air.

“Did you even clean the scene?”

“You’re not real.” Justice sucked in a breath and looked in the rearview again, praying the patchy, bloated face would be gone.

The ghost was closer now. Its face filled the mirror, just like Elroy’s had.

Warm, phantom breath touched Justice’s neck. He slapped at it like he would a mosquito.

Darrel cocked his head, and Justice could see the bruises of his own fingerprints on his neck. “Did you remember to put away the shovel you dug my grave with?”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Justice turned the music all the way up. The truck shook as he hit eighty, then ninety.

Rum, rum, rum.

Justice swerved back into his lane, away from the rumble strip vibrating the truck, and eased up on the gas. He looked up into the rearview.

Darrel was gone. Sweet relief.

Time to arrange his face.

Every villain has a story. Every hero, a dark past.

Justice Hall has secrets. His name is just the beginning.

Born as Timothy Stewart, this twenty-six-year-old rookie detective’s life took an unexpected turn when Justin Black, the serial killer known as The Disciple, brutally murdered his family and groomed him as a child. Out of the wreckage, little Tim reinvented himself, adopting a new identity that eerily echoes his malefactor’s name. A mere coincidence, or an indelible imprint of the past?… Read More